Still Water

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Nancy Bouchard


Wading PEI National Park
Photo Credit: Bobcatnorth

My daughter wades in knee-deep ocean water, afraid of being eaten by a shark even though I’ve told her the water is too warm, too shallow, that I’ve been swimming in this water for over forty years and I’ve yet to see one. I tell her that sharks like warmer places to swim even though I don’t know where I got that fact from but it seems like it could be true. She rolls her eyes. She doesn’t believe me because she watches the National Geographic channel and sees people losing limbs. We’ve been here a week and she hasn’t made it in yet. She’s been doing the old lady splash, throwing water onto her arms, wiping her neck with her painted 14-year-old fingernails, never taking her eye off the horizon, seeing fins in the feathers of seagulls.

As we walk back towards the towels she tells me about a dream she had last night. A shark walked into her bedroom on human feet and sat at the bottom of her bed. She screamed for her oldest brother and he came in and put a towel over it, told her it was safe. She didn’t believe him.

“I’m canceling cable,” I tell her. “No more When Nature Attacks before we go on vacation.

“It was Shark Week not When Nature Attacks,” she says.

We sit until the sun squats low in the sky, dipping behind the big mansion squeezed between two small, weather-worn cottages. We enter week two of our vacation in a different space than when we got here. Settled into the ebb and flow of the tide and its pace, the stress of our everyday lives carried out to sea, we watch the sun go down.

The night before, at this exact moment, I was on a second date with a man named Ken even though I didn’t much care for him on the first date. Determined to change my strategy about my habit of trusting men that shouldn’t be trusted, I decided to look at things logically. If all of my instincts about the men I was drawn to up to this point had been so horribly wrong I figured I should go against instinct. I texted him that I was at the beach soul-searching and I was sorry I never called him back. He texted back, Can I pick you up, take you to dinner, walk the beach with you and maybe you can tell me what you’ve discovered in your soul. I texted back, Yes, to the beach, yes, to the walk, no to the soul.

I’m getting better. I’ve pulled back the curtain for men who have wanted to look inside, only to find out they were in search of a weakness, my Achilles’ heel.

Ken was polite, funny, smart, financially successful, well-traveled, had decent table manners, and when he spoke, the tense of his subjects matched his verbs. It’s the little things. He also had good shoulders, wide caps that sat atop some decent biceps. We ate clams and steak at a restaurant that overlooked the marsh.

We walked the beach after dinner and of course, the conversation turned to past relationships. Before I was married and divorced, the golden rule of dating was that you don’t talk about your ex-whatevers. Every man I’ve dated or been in a relationship with since my divorce has wanted to know what happened, what went wrong. Wanted to know how many men I’ve been in relationships with; in other words, how many men I have slept with. As if.

I mentioned that I was hurt badly in my last attempt at love and I am guarded, that my heart seems sometimes to be in transition. I told him that I’ve had tenants, but no owners. I told him that Jack, the last man to rent out space, had a secret he kept from me. I kept it simple but the little I said was too much.

“An affair?” he asked me.

“No, not an affair.”

“Prison record?”

“No.”

“Oh,” he said, “a disease, he put you at risk for something.” And I noticed those broad shoulders that I had a second before admired, pulled back a little, the corners of his mouth and bottom lip went a little tighter.

“No.”

“Okay, don’t tell me, I want to guess.”

“I’m not telling you anyway,” I said and I knew the rest of the night he was thinking about it, trying to imagine what it could be. He thought he would find out something about me if he could uncover the tragic flaw of the last man I loved. I didn’t tell him that it’s not that simple. I didn’t tell him that I’m not that girl anymore so even if he knew it doesn’t matter. I didn’t tell him because there’s a part of me that agrees with the assumption that I am the sum of the men I’ve loved. That the act of choosing them in fact reveals my own tragic character flaw. I said goodbye to Ken and realized there was a reason I never called him back. Progress.

My aunt visits the next day and brings cannoli, pistachio muffins, and her own heartache like an anchor. She, too, has swum in unsafe waters. She says it’s because we are both Cancers, actually born on the same day in July, thirteen years apart. She says it’s because we are moon children and ruled by the changing tide. We both agree, sitting there on the beach, that there is no hope. That we are fatally flawed when it comes to finding love and that now at forty-something and fifty-something, we are simply no longer willing to take the risk.

Emma has been hovering enough feet away that she can’t hear our conversation but walks over and rips off her cover-up. “I’m ready,” she says.

“Really?” I ask.

“Will you come in with me?”

“Let’s go,” I say.

We make our down to the water’s edge as the last bits of sun are visible on the horizon. And the three of us, three generations, stand where the tide meets the sand. Emma grabs ahold of my hand.

“I don’t want you to come in,” she says.

I nod, afraid to say anything that will change her mind.

“You watch for sharks, okay?” she says.

“I will,” I tell her. And I watch as she pushes back the tide. I watch as she dives into a wave, surfacing right after it breaks, turns back around and smiles. And together we feel the sun.

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Nancy lives with her three children and their arthritic rottweiler. They all swim in the chilly New England water and have yet to fall victim to a shark attack. In those other months of the year, Nancy teaches English to high school students, eats dark chocolate, drinks too much coffee, and makes up excuses to skip the gym. Email: peacelovingchic[at]gmail.com

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