Breakers

Fiction
Ralph Uttaro


Gulf Stream Park
Photo Credit: Lisa Jacobs

David Morrow stood alone on the beach. He stared out toward the horizon, an invisible point he knew existed somewhere off in the dark. He watched the faint white lines of foam at the crest of the waves, lines that widened and grew more luminous as the waves rolled closer. The breakers were relentless, pounding in his ears as they crashed against the shore. The beach was cool on his bare feet. He sat and tiny grains of sand filtered through the thin fabric of his seersucker shorts, collecting in gritty patches on his haunches.

He looked up at the red flags flapping in the wind, posted to warn that the water was closed to swimmers. The flags were attached to a white sign with tilted bold black letters on top that read: Break the Grip of the Rip. The sign gave simple, concise instructions on how to escape a rip tide. It meant nothing to David. He had never learned how to swim growing up in Manhattan.

David wasn’t an impulsive man but he had decided just the previous night to buy a ticket to West Palm Beach. He had flown in from LaGuardia that morning. His apartment had begun to feel empty and claustrophobic all at the same time. He was tired of the intrusions, the widows and divorcees in the building dropping off casseroles, pans of lasagna, pots of chicken soup. There was a naked hunger in their eyes.

He hadn’t told a soul he was leaving. Who was there to tell anyway? His son Steven lived in L.A. and communicated only sporadically, usually by text. David had a network of former business colleagues and casual acquaintances, but no one he was truly close to. Maureen had always been the constant in his life. He hadn’t really needed much else. He had been happy among his books, his classical music collection, his online chess matches.

*

David had been hungry when he checked in shortly after three. His room was on the concierge level and included a complimentary afternoon tea. It was September, the hotel was quiet, only one guest examining the finger sandwiches, cut vegetables, and cranberry scones arrayed on the round banquet table. She was a tall, frail woman, probably in her late seventies. She wore a powder blue pant suit with flat white loafers. A double strand of pearls was wrapped around her neck. Oversized Chanel sunglasses covered half her face.

“Everything they make here is spicy,” she said, closing one of the chafing dishes with disdain.

“Really?” David smiled.

She lifted a tumbler of scotch toward her lips, her two trembling hands steadying the glass as she sipped loudly.

“It might not be spicy to you but I have this problem with my esophagus, you see. Anything spicy affects me.”

“Oh.” David slowly circled the table, examining the offerings, trying to discourage the conversation without appearing rude.

“Just get in?”

“Yes.”

“You with a convention?”

“No, no. I came down alone. Just want to be by myself for a bit.”

She looked David up and down, screwing up her lips. “Well, we all have our idiosyncrasies.”

David could picture Maureen rolling her eyes. They would have had a good laugh about it later. The Breakers had been a special place for them. They had spent their honeymoon here, had come back often after that, usually in April near their anniversary. The last time had been two years earlier, to celebrate David’s retirement from his law partnership. Maureen had gotten sick three months later. It had been eleven weeks since he buried her.

A middle-aged couple entered the room. The old woman accosted them. “Forget about it. Everything they make is spicy. I have this problem with my esophagus, you see. I can’t eat spice.”

David took the opportunity to slip away. At least Maureen would be spared the indignity of old age.

David walked outside to the small tiki bar at the edge of the beach. He ordered a banana daiquiri from the pretty blonde bartender. Angela, read the silver nametag on her bright yellow polo shirt. She was tall and big-boned in a way that wasn’t unattractive, sturdy athletic calves extending down under her long khaki shorts. Her shoulder-length hair curled around her face in the wind, her teeth were big and a brilliant shade of white when she smiled at him. David found himself straightening his back, puffing out his chest a little. Then he realized how pathetic that was. David went to the gym at least four times a week—weight training, cardio, even some yoga. He still had a full head of hair that was not yet completely grey. But he was old enough to be the girl’s father, maybe even her grandfather.

Even if she were closer to his age, David was sure he wouldn’t know what to do. He had never been good at opening lines. It was Maureen who had made the first move back at Oberlin. He had watched her quietly from across the room during history class, inconspicuously he thought. She had flaming red hair, a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose, vibrant green eyes. Her voice had a slight Indiana twang but her comments in class were always thoughtful, well-reasoned. He admired that. She was witty too, relaxed and outgoing in a way that he could never be. One day she walked up to him after class and asked if he wanted to buy her a cup of coffee.

David had chosen Oberlin for its academic reputation and its beautiful campus but mostly because it was in Ohio, hundreds of miles from New York. Hundreds of miles from his parents. His father was a partner at Solomon Brothers, his mother sat on the boards of three art museums. They were formal, fastidious people. They had high expectations for David.

“I had lunch with Ed Sherman today,” David overheard his father say one night. “Randy was accepted at Princeton.”

David heard his mother gasp. “Are you sure we shouldn’t have steered David more toward one of the Ivies?”

“Oberlin’s a fine school. He’ll be ok. But it does make you wonder.”

“Isn’t Ed a Princeton alum?”

“Yes, he is.”

“Does he donate?”

“No doubt he does.”

“And Ed and Marge are coming to our party next Saturday. Marge will be insufferable.”

David’s parents threw lavish dinner parties in their Lexington Avenue apartment. His mother would review the guest list with his father, would carefully construct the menu, would agonize over the seating arrangements. Rosa, a domestic they retained part-time, would be brought in for the evening. When he was younger, David would be sent to spend the night with his maternal grandparents who lived a few blocks away. His mother would describe their stately brownstone on Seventy-Eighth Street to her friends as dark, threadbare, outdated. David thought of it as a safe haven.

David’s grandfather loved chess and had achieved the rank of master. He patiently taught David the basic moves when he was four or five. He had a long ruddy face and pale blue eyes that were perpetually bloodshot and smiling. By the time David was ten, his grandfather would let him tag along when he went down to the West Village to find a match in one of the storefront chess parlors that were prevalent at the time. Soon he began lining up matches for David, carefully picking opponents who would challenge but not overwhelm him. He would sit to the side and silently watch every move. They would stop for something to eat on the way home; their favorite spot was a diner on Sixth Avenue near West Seventh Street. David would order a milk shake and a BLT while his grandfather would sip coffee and recap the match. He would patiently point out alternative strategies that David might have pursued, opportunities he missed. He would use salt and pepper shakers as queens and bishops and forks and spoons as pawns and rooks to illustrate his points. David was sixteen when his grandfather died. He went down to the Village on his own a few times after that to find a match but it was never the same.

David’s grandfather would have liked Maureen. His parents told him pointedly that he could do much better. They first met Maureen during his junior year on their annual trip to Oberlin for parents’ weekend. It was a visit David dreaded and one his parents treated like a mandatory social obligation. Maureen had a tendency to talk fast when she was nervous, to try to fill in every gap in a conversation. Her Midwestern accent would get more pronounced. David found it charming but when Maureen used the phrase “y’all” he saw his father cringe. When Maureen dropped her fork at dinner, David’s mother looked away remorsefully as it clattered to the floor.

“Your parents don’t like me,” Maureen said the day after they left. There was no bitterness in her voice; she stated it as a simple fact.

“They don’t have to. I like you.” David hesitated. He always chose his words carefully. “In fact, I love you.” It was the first time he had expressed this sentiment to anyone.

Maureen’s eyes widened, filled with tears. Then she smiled. “I love you too, David.”

Maureen moved to New York after graduation and took a job teaching third grade at a public school in Hell’s Kitchen. David enrolled at NYU Law School. They decided to live together before getting married. It was the seventies and such arrangements were not yet accepted on the Upper East Side.

“You’re going to be an attorney,” David’s father said when they announced their intentions. He spoke directly to David, ignoring Maureen who was sitting beside him on the sofa. “You can’t go off and live like two beatniks. I find the whole arrangement scandalous. If you proceed, you do so without my blessing.”

They rented a tiny fourth floor walk-up on the edge of the East Village. Maureen was intimidated by the city at first: the pace, the noise, the sour stench of the trash piling up on the sidewalks, the aggressiveness of the people. She adapted. They married almost two years later in a simple City Hall ceremony. There were no guests.

David got his degree and was hired on at Sullivan and Cromwell. He was assigned to the tax department. He found the work satisfying. The tax code was dense, complex, its language thickly nuanced. It took patience and rigorous logic to find the most unlikely connection, the tiniest opening that could be cleverly exploited. In that way, it was a lot like chess.

David became a leading expert in off-shore tax shelters. His aggressive, meticulously-crafted strategies saved his clients millions. He spoke at legal conferences in San Francisco, Palm Springs, Denver, Honolulu, even London when the ABA held its annual Tax Section meeting there. He might have been in a conference room in his Midtown office for all he saw of those places. It was the same windowless hotel ballrooms with their bland floral wall coverings and dim yellow lighting, the same flavorless food, the same banal small talk. He would pack a briefcase with work to do on the plane and in his hotel room to get his quota of billable hours in. It was good for business, helping him draw in clients and referrals from other law firms, but he hated being taken away from Maureen and Steven. He missed his normal routine.

David cherished the law. As a student, he read with awe the writings of John Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas and the other great legal minds. He marveled at how a few men on the Warren Court could forever change the course of history with their courageous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But the practice of law changed dramatically over the years. What he once considered an honorable and learned profession had become nothing more than a business, its reputation tarnished by the shrill tasteless television ads placed by ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyers. He suffered through partnership meetings devoted to slick presentations by advertising firms about the best strategies for marketing legal services. There were endless debates about the proper way to allocate profits between the rainmakers and the transactional lawyers. The rainmakers increasingly held sway, cutting lucrative deals with rival firms that coveted their client lists or using the threat of a defection to extort a bigger cut of the pie. Loyalty became a quaint, outmoded concept. By the time David turned sixty, he had had enough.

Angela picked up David’s empty glass and wiped down the counter in front of him.

“Doin’ ok over here?” She cocked her head to one side. David understood it as a rhetorical question. People didn’t really care how you were doing.

“Fine,” he said. It was the answer she was looking for. She seemed like a nice kid. He wouldn’t burden her with his story. He wouldn’t tell her how desperately quiet his apartment felt, how his social life consisted mainly of casual banter with the doorman and brief pleasantries exchanged with his neighbors on the elevator, how he had senselessly renewed Maureen’s subscription to Psychology Today just a week ago.

“Want another?”

“Sure. One more,” David answered.

David looked out from his barstool toward the water. A young mother and her son were bobbing up and down in the surf. They were laughing. The boy’s arms were wrapped tightly around the woman’s neck. A wave rolled in and they jumped to clear it, the boy screaming with delight. David remembered Maureen playing in the water with Steven while he sat on the beach under an umbrella. He would have a book open in his lap but mostly he sat and watched the two of them, waving if they looked his way.

Maureen had encouraged David to take swimming lessons after Steven was born. He signed up for private lessons at the Y with a polite young college student. He quit after the third lesson.

“Why?” Maureen asked.

“I’m afraid of the water. I panic every time my head goes under.”

“That’s what the lessons are for. Give it time.”

“You don’t understand. You’ve always known how to swim. It’s hard when you’re an adult. You can’t overcome the fear. It’s hard to explain. It’s humiliating too, splashing around in the shallow end with the instructor’s arm around your waist so you don’t sink.”

“No one is watching you. And if they are, so what?”

“At least I learned the dead man’s float.”

“See! There’s hope for you yet.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t give up. Think how much you’ll miss if you do.”

The mother and the young boy were running up onto the beach now, red-faced and breathless, their teeth chattering as they dried themselves with their towels in the sun. Maureen was right, he had given up on the lessons too soon.

When Angela returned with his drink, David asked for the check. He took a long sip and the frozen liquid triggered a sudden headache. He walked back to his room to rest.

*

David woke up woozy and disoriented, surprised that the bedside clock told him it was past nine. That was when he had walked back down to the beach. The salty air was invigorating. He stood up and brushed the sand from his legs and off the seat of his shorts. Oddly, he felt drawn to the ocean. He walked down onto the spongy wet ribbon of beach closest to the water, letting the foam curl around his ankles. He had never liked the brackish clammy feel of the ocean, the way the pebbles and shells shifted under his feet and stabbed at the soles, the way the seaweed clung to his toes, but tonight the water felt almost medicinal.

David stepped out tentatively until the water reached his waist. His shorts became heavy. His boxers clung to his shriveling skin. The feeling was exhilarating. A wave crested and rolled up his back as he turned away. He went under for just an instant but didn’t feel the usual panic. He continued to move slowly away from shore, taking testing little bunny hops with his feet to pop himself out of the water. There was no one in sight.

David leaned his head back, extended his legs and began to float. He was surprised that he still remembered how. There was no moon and he was out beyond the reach of the lights from the hotel tower. There was a scattering of pulsing stars but the sky out there had an intense blackness, a gauzy depth that seemed to reach out to infinity. He wasn’t a religious man. The sympathy cards that arrived in his mailbox uniformly assured David that the sender’s “thoughts and prayers” were “with” him. He wondered how many of his friends actually prayed. Maureen was raised Catholic. She had believed in prayer, even attended Mass regularly at one time, but she, too, eventually became ambivalent.

David had no illusions that there was an afterlife where he and Maureen would be united. He was a man of logic. It just didn’t add up. Their forty-two years together, that was tangible, something he could hold on to. It was the little things he remembered the most. There were evenings at the opera where he would glance over at Maureen during a powerful aria and marvel at her rapt attention, her mouth slightly open, her hand pressed to her chest. There were the winter excursions to Wollman Rink in Central Park when Steven was young, each of them holding one of his hands as he struggled to stay upright on his ice skates, all of them sitting on a park bench afterward sipping hot chocolate and watching their breath float away like little puffs of smoke in the frigid air. There was their ritual of sleeping late on Sundays then walking to brunch at Sarabeth’s on Central Park South. Maureen would always order the lemon-and-ricotta pancakes. Then they would spend the afternoon reading The Times. Maureen would start with the Arts section, carefully ripping out notices about upcoming gallery exhibits or listings for off-Broadway plays. David would glance at the Sports page then plow into the Business and Real Estate sections. Sometimes they would work the crossword together.

Toward the end, David would spend long hours by Maureen’s bedside watching her sleep. Her thick red hair had lost its intensity and slowly grayed over the years. Now it had turned a wispy white. Her skin was pallid, almost translucent, hanging loosely from her cheekbones. One day she opened her eyes—still an intense green but fearful now—to find David staring at her.

“Will you miss me?” she asked softly.

“Of course I will.”

Even after the oncologist had coldly advised Maureen to “put her affairs in order,” the two of them had kept up the illusion that she would recover. She had that relentlessly positive spirit that made it seem possible. But the cards were all clearly on the table by then.

“I don’t want you to dwell on it, ok? Get on with your life.” She had given him this sermon before, he knew what the response should be.

“I will.”

She smiled sadly. They both knew better.

David really did try. He joined a support group, reached out to some of his old law partners to schedule lunch dates, signed up for adult education classes at The New School. Still, he would find his mind drifting. He would see something interesting on the street and make a mental note to tell Maureen about it when he got home, then he would remember that there was no one at home to tell. He worried what would happen if he got the flu. Maureen would always be there to bring him those first few sips of ginger ale after the nausea had subsided. She would pour some into a glass then leave it on the kitchen counter for a few minutes to let the carbonation settle, let it come to room temperature so it wouldn’t be too jarring on his stomach. His mouth would be so dry it would taste like champagne. Then she would go down to the Jewish deli to get him a bowl of chicken broth. He could call the deli to order in but it wouldn’t be the same. David wondered who would plan his funeral, whether anyone would even come.

The water went calm for a moment, splashing languidly around him, rocking him softly up and down. David never planned to come out this far, never intended to go into the water at all. He wasn’t sure he could even make it back to shore but he felt an odd sense of tranquility. He had lived a good life. He had mastered the complexities of the tax code, provided useful counsel to his clients. He had read history, had been a loyal and trusted husband, a reasonably good father. There was nothing more he wanted. There was nothing more he needed to do.

David waited calmly for the next wave to take him where it would.

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Ralph Uttaro lives and writes in Rochester, New York. His work has previously appeared in Toasted Cheese and in other publications such as Bartleby Snopes and Blue Fifth Review. Email: ruwriting[at]gmail.com

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