originally published in New Pop Lit
It was where movies stars used to go and rest up, be pampered, and consider the next script their agents had just sent over. A series of modest bungalows set around a beautiful turquoise pool. A pleasant young man in a white jacket ferrying trays of drinks — cocktails, since wine wasn’t so popular back then. Maybe some canapés.
Here she stopped him by holding up her hand — slim, smooth, dripping with rings, all from him, the most recent an African ruby she wore on her index finger. He joked that it was like the Pope’s, given the size, the heft. He’d taken her hand and kissed it reverentially.
Canapés were essentially hors d’oeuvres, he explained.
She knew what they were. She also knew how to pretend she didn’t know things.
Did she like the idea of staying in a place like that?
Then they’d go!
Since he’d made it big, they could do that, just take off whenever they wanted. Whenever he wanted. She was okay staying home. Their house was lovely, on the shore of a lake in western Massachusetts. Back when his books didn’t sell or sold only modestly, they lived in a much smaller home where their two children had been raised. He taught high school language arts. His writing on the side gave him an air of burning ambition blended with the constant agony of rejection. He was a romantic character. Women outnumbered men at his book-signings, and when he went on tour, trips she couldn’t take with him, because of the children. His mystery novels were considered clever, good psychological studies of the criminal mind, the rationalization people engage in when they’ve done wrong.
She had worked in a book store part-time, then full-time after the children went off to college. When the New England winters became too much for the owner, prompting him to buy a condo in Arizona, her offered to sell it to her. The first mystery novel had just been published, and wasn’t selling all that well, so she’d had to walk away. A young tech couple fleeing the rat race of Boston bought it, changed the name, invited her to stay on as their manager. She didn’t have the heart.
The next book sold well, the one after that sold spectacularly well, and she started writing poems again, something she’d done in high school and college, and was heavily invested in when they met decades before at the café on campus. He said she was the best-looking lady poet he’d ever seen. “Lady-poet” stuck with her.
They rented the nicest bungalow, the only one with a fireplace. It wasn’t superfluous. The spring nights could still get cold there in the desert. They could sit out, gazing at the black vault of night all thrown with stars, then go inside, light the fire, and make love. He was urgent about that. Their sex life needed restoring.
His sex life had been fine without her. A pair of panties not her own came back in his suitcase. Also a lace bra. She wondered if he stole these as tokens of his prowess, his knack of getting strange women into bed, but then she thought he’d probably just packed in a hurry the next day, leaving his hapless partner to go on her way bra-less, panty-less, or without whatever else had slid under the bed or been kicked far down in the sheets. There were unidentified numbers in the call log of his cell phone, which she checked when he was in the shower. He left it in plain view on the dresser, almost as a challenge. Then one number was named. Eileen. There were many calls from her, some text messages, too.
When will I see you again?
Not for a while.
I love you.
I told you we weren’t going there.
She wanted to call Eileen’s number and tell her she could have him. Then she’d see what living was a quasi-celebrity was like, though in fairness, his eye had always wandered, even before the best-seller list. His call log had been lean for the last six months. Maybe now he was trying to turn the page.
On their first day at the resort, he wanted an hour in the bungalow with his laptop. He brought his laptop with him everywhere, and tapped out a thousand words a day, twice Hemmingway’s output, he often bragged.
She could lounge under the shade of a huge canvas umbrella, and scribble some of her poems. She’d resurrected a tattered notebook from somewhere in the back of her closet, and thrown it in her carry-on bag at the last minute.
So he sat, and she sat, separated by no more than ten feet and a hedge that bordered the pool and lent the guest patios some privacy.
The blue of the pool was a jewel. She considered her collection. She had neither blue topaz, or aquamarine.
Once, all she had was a thin gold band.
His face, when he slipped it on her finger.
After the money came in, she lusted. She chose the pieces, he paid for them, then referred to them all as his gifts to her. She thought it was funny that a man who made his living off of words could sometimes use them so poorly.
It was early, and she was alone, watched over by palm trees, and gazing at them then, she dropped back to several years before, after the fourth book had been optioned for a film. Though it had never been made, the generous check gave them two glorious weeks on Maui, in a house steps from the ocean.
The palm trees in Hawaii were different from those in Southern California, but they bent just as elegantly in the breeze.
She thought about that trip, and then about this one, and how past and present are always together, how a heart holds them together. What did Faulkner say? The past is not dead. It’s not even past.
With a ball point pen, she traced her hand on a blank page of her notebook. She often did this when conceiving the next poem. She supposed the habit was due to her lifelong fascination with ancient cave paintings, and the idea that someone had done the same thing, only using a stone rubbed with ash, or the tip of a burned stick. I am here. I exist.
The soft tapping of her husband’s keyboard reached her. He was a roll, clearly. He might be at it for hours.
On the other side of the hedge, the neighbor’s patio door opened. The two lounge chairs were repositioned; something was put down on the glass table between the chairs; someone let out a long sigh.
“Leave that damn thing inside,” she said.
“I might have to take an important call,” he said.
“She won’t be up this time of day.”
“Cut it out, please?”
The breeze gusted, rippling the surface of the pool. She felt a brief chill.
A young man from the poolside bar went past with a bottle of white wine and two glasses. He didn’t wear a white jacket, but a blue button-down shirt and khaki slacks. He turned and took the path past the hedge, comprised of large white stones separated by emerald green grass, to the common access point shared by all the bungalows. To reach their neighbor’s patio, he would have to pass in front of their own.
He asked the couple if he could open the bottle and pour them each a glass.
“That’s why we called you, for Christ’s sake,” he said.
“You’ll have to excuse my husband. He left his manners at home,” she said.
The cork came loose first with a squeak, then a soft popping sound. Liquid rushed into one glass, then the next. The glass bottle met the glass tabletop with a cheerful clink.
The waiter said he hoped they’d enjoy the wine, and to let him know if there were anything else he could do. He returned the way he came, and took up his station at the bar where another guest was sitting on one of the stools in a pale pink cover-up, reading a newspaper. They began a conversation, but were too far away to be heard clearly.
“You never let me off the hook,” he said.
“Because you never change. You don’t want to,” she said.
The tapping of her husband’s keyboard stopped. Maybe he was in the bathroom, or on his way out to join her by the pool. The tapping resumed.
Palm trees sway in the breeze, she wrote in her notebook.
“I told you nothing happened between us,” he said.
“Maybe I should ask her about that,” she said.
Hearts flatten against the gale of deceit.
How she’d wept when she knew, for certain, that he was cheating on her. She stayed because of the children. He stopped cheating, the children grew up, the cheating resumed, became more frequent, stopped again.
“You never believe me,” he said.
“You never tell the truth,” she said.
Why expect truth?
Truth is relative.
There is my truth.
Then there is your truth.
It was really flowing now.
More wine was poured into the glasses. If she stood up and turned around, pretended to look for her husband, she could give them the once over. They sounded middle-aged, but perhaps weren’t. Maybe the wife was fat and ugly, but probably wasn’t. Maybe the man had a sinister cast, but probably didn’t. They were most likely ordinary people, caught up in an ordinary struggle, where pain had become a relative thing.
Edges turn soft
Like the line of my jaw.
She didn’t mind the idea of getting on in years. He told her once she would be a beautiful old woman. And he? He had always been too handsome for his own good. That would never change.
Another gust of wind nudged her umbrella. The woman at the bar laughed, and put one hand on the brim of her wide straw hat. A cocktail glass was on the counter at her elbow.
“It’s too cold out here,” he said.
“I suppose you want to go in,” she said.
They stood up, each huffing a bit with the effort. Their patio door closed. Angry muffled voices leaked out from inside their bungalow. Her husband must be hearing them, assuming he wasn’t completely absorbed in his work, which he probably was.
She used to wonder how much she could take. Though it never got easier, she discovered she could take a great deal.
Her husband’s cell phone rang. He answered it.
“I asked you not to call me,” he said. Their own patio door closed. She couldn’t hear his voice within. The fighting couple had quieted, too.
The wafered trunk is a miracle of strength
She put down her pen, and closed her notebook. She descended the three shallow stairs into the warm blue water. She swam to the middle of the pool and went onto her back. The sky overhead was clear; the mountains were rocky and jagged. The water filled her ears, and whatever few sounds had been audible were silenced. She closed her eyes and drifted, feeling only the water on her skin, finding the words she’d add to the page when she got out:
It can bear any cruelty, any blow, any offense, any slight
You once could, too
But no more