After the Season
They had to say goodbye in front of security.
But because it was a small airport, all the check-in desks and the control points were in the same hall, so he could follow her with his eyes as she set her bag on the conveyor belt, walked through the metal detector, showed her boarding pass, and was led to the plane, which was standing on the runway right outside the glass door.
She kept on looking back at him and waving. On the steps up to the plane she turned one last time, laughing and crying, and laid her hand on her heart. When she’d disappeared into the plane, he waved at the little windows, but didn’t know if she could see him or not. Then the engines were started, the propellers turned, the plane began to roll, faster and faster, and took off.
His flight wasn’t leaving for another hour. He got himself a cup of coffee and a newspaper and sat down on a bench. Since they had met, he hadn’t read a newspaper anymore or sat alone over a cup of coffee. After a quarter of an hour, during which he still hadn’t read a single line or swallowed a single mouthful, he thought, I’ve forgotten how to be alone. It was a thought he liked.
He had arrived thirteen days before. The season was over, and with it the good weather. It was raining, and he spent the afternoon with a book on the covered porch of his bed-and-breakfast. When he made himself go out into the bad weather the next day to walk along the beach in the rain to the lighthouse, he first encountered the woman on the way there, and then again on the way back. They smiled at each other, with curiosity at first, and then a hint of familiarity the second time around. They were the only two people out for a walk in the entire area, companions in both misfortune and pleasure: each of them would have preferred a clear blue sky, but enjoyed the soft rain.
In the evening she was sitting alone on the large terrace of the popular seafood restaurant with its plastic roof and windows already installed for fall. She had a full glass in front of her and was reading a book—a sign, perhaps, that she hadn’t eaten yet and wasn’t waiting for her husband or lover? He hesitated in the doorway until she looked up and smiled at him companionably. Then he took his courage in both hands, walked over to her table, and asked if he might join her.
“Please,” she said, and laid her book aside.
He sat down, and because she had already ordered, she could make suggestions, and he chose the cod she had already picked out for herself. Then neither of them knew how to strike up a conversation. The book was no help; it was lying there in a way that made it impossible for him to read the title. Finally he said, “There’s something about taking a late vacation on the Cape.”
“Because the weather’s so good?” She laughed.
Was she making fun of him? He looked at her, not a pretty face, eyes too small, chin too pronounced, but her expression wasn’t mocking, it was cheerful, maybe even a little unsure. “Because you have the beach to yourself. Because you can get a table in restaurants that are impossible to get into during the season. Because you’re less alone with a few people than you are with a crowd.”
“Do you always come when the season’s over?”
“It’s my first time here. I should really be working. But my finger isn’t back in shape yet, and it can do its exercises just as well here as in New York.” He moved the little finger of his left hand up and down, curling it and stretching it out again.
She looked at the little finger, puzzled. “What is it exercising for?”
“For the flute. I play in an orchestra. And you?”
“I learned the piano but rarely ever play.” She blushed. “That’s not what you meant. I often came here with my parents when I was a child, and sometimes that makes me nostalgic. And after the season’s over, the Cape has that magic you described. Everything is emptier and more peaceful—I like it.”
He didn’t say that a vacation during the season would be more than he could afford, and assumed it must be true for her as well. She wore sneakers, jeans, and a sweatshirt, and there was a faded waxed jacket on the back of her chair. When they studied the wine list together, she suggested a cheap bottle of sauvignon blanc. She talked about Los Angeles, about her work at a foundation that supported theater programs for children from the ghetto, about life with no winter, about the sheer might of the Pacific, about the traffic. He talked about tripping over a cable laid in the wrong place and breaking his finger, about breaking his arm when he jumped out of the window aged nine and breaking his leg while skiing aged thirteen. At first they sat alone on the terrace, then other guests came, and then they sat alone again over another bottle of wine. When they looked through the window, the sea and the beach were enveloped in utter darkness. The rain pattered on the roof.
“What are your plans for tomorrow?”
“I know you get breakfast in a bed-and-breakfast. But would you like to come over and have it with me?”
He walked her home. She took his arm under the umbrella. Neither of them spoke. Her little house was on the street that led to his bed-and-breakfast a mile further on. The light went on automatically over the front door, and suddenly when they looked at each other everything was too bright. She gave him a quick hug and the faintest breath of a kiss. Before she closed the door he said, “My name’s Richard. What’s . . . ?”
Richard woke up early, folded his arms behind his head, and listened to the rain in the trees and on the gravel of the path outside. He liked the regular, soothing pattering sound, even if it didn’t bode well for the day. Would he and Susan walk on the beach after breakfast? Or in the woods surrounding the lake? Or take a bike ride? He hadn’t rented a car and guessed she hadn’t either. So the radius of any excursion they might undertake together was limited.
He curled and stretched his little finger so as not to have to exercise that much later. He was feeling a little anxious. If Susan and he were actually going to spend the day together after breakfast and also eat together or maybe even cook—what came after that?
Must he sleep with her? Show her that she was a desirable woman and he was aroused by her? Because if he didn’t he would upset her and embarrass himself? It was years since he’d slept with a woman. He didn’t feel he was someone who was easily aroused, and hadn’t found her very desirable on the previous evening. She had lots of things to tell, lots of questions to ask, she listened attentively, she was lively and witty. The way she always hesitated for a fraction of a second before she said something and squeezed her eyes when she was concentrating was charming. She aroused his interest. But his desire?
Breakfast had been set for him in the main room, and because he didn’t want to disappoint the elderly couple who’d squeezed orange juice, whipped up scrambled eggs, and made pancakes, he sat down and ate. The wife came out of the kitchen every couple of minutes to ask if he’d care for more coffee or more butter or a different kind of jam or maybe some fruit or yoghurt. Finally he realized she wanted to talk to him. He asked her how long she’d lived here, and she set down the coffeepot and stood by the table. Forty years ago her husband had inherited a little money and they’d bought the house on the Cape, where he wanted to write and she wanted to paint. But neither the writing nor the painting came to anything, and when the children were grown and the inheritance had run out, they turned the house into a bed-and-breakfast. “Whatever you want to know about the Cape, the most beautiful spots and the best places to eat, just ask me. And if you’re going out today—the beach is still the beach when it’s raining, the woods are just wet.”
In the woods, the mist hung in the trees. It also enveloped the houses that were set back from the road. The little house that Susan lived in was a porter’s lodge; next to it was a driveway leading to a large, mist-shrouded, mysterious house. He couldn’t find a bell, and so he knocked. “Coming,” she yelled, and her voice sounded a long way away. He heard her running up some stairs, banging a door shut, and running along a corridor. Then she was standing in front of him, out of breath, clutching a bottle of champagne. “I was in the cellar.”
The champagne made him anxious again. He saw himself sitting side by side with her on a sofa in front of a fire with their glasses. She slid closer to him. Had things gone that far already?
“Don’t stand there staring. Come in!”
In the big room next to the kitchen he actually saw a fireplace with logs next to it and a sofa in front. Susan had laid the table in the kitchen and once again he drank orange juice and ate scrambled eggs and afterward there was fruit salad with nuts in it. “It tasted wonderful. But now I need to get out and run or ride a bike or swim.” As she looked doubtfully at the rain, he explained about his double breakfast.
“You didn’t want to disappoint John and Linda? That was so sweet of you!” She looked at him admiringly, pleased. “Yes, why not go swimming! You don’t have bathing trunks? You want to . . .” She looked a bit doubtful, but acquiesced, packed towels into a large bag, and added an umbrella, the champagne, and two glasses. “We can walk across the property, it’s a prettier route and faster, too.”
They passed the big house with its tall pillars and closed shutters, as mysterious now as it had been at a distance. They climbed the broad steps, stood on the terrace between the columns, walked around the house, and found the stairway to the covered porch that circled the floor above. From here there was an overcast view across the dunes and the beach to the gray sea.
“It’s absolutely calm,” she whispered.
Could she see that at such a distance? Could she hear it?
It had stopped raining, and in the deep silence he too could do no more than whisper. “Where are the gulls?”
“Out on the waves. When the rain stops, the worms come out of the earth and the fish come up to the surface of the water.”
“I don’t believe it.”
She laughed. “Didn’t we want to have a swim?” She started to run, so fast and so sure of the way that he couldn’t manage the big bag and keep up with her. He lost sight of her in the dunes, and as he reached the beach she was already pulling off the last sock and running toward the water. When he reached the sea she was swimming far out.
The water was indeed absolutely calm, and felt cold only until he started to swim. Then it stroked his naked body. He swam out a long way and then allowed himself to be carried, floating on his back. Susan was further out still, doing the crawl. When the rain began again, he enjoyed the drops falling on his face.
The rain got heavier, and he could no longer see Susan. He called out. He swam in the direction he thought he’d seen her last, and called out again. When he was almost no longer able to see land, he turned back. He wasn’t a fast swimmer, and exerted himself to go faster but only made slow progress, and the slowness turned his anxiety into panic. How long would Susan hold out? Did he have his cell phone in the pocket of his pants? Would he be able to get a connection on the beach? Where was the nearest house? The anxiety was too much for him; he got slower and even more panicked.
Then he saw a pale figure climb out of the sea and stand on the beach. Anger gave him strength. How could she have inflicted such fear on him! When she waved, he didn’t wave back.
When he was standing in front of her, furious, she smiled at him. “What’s the matter?”
“What’s the matter? I was petrified when I could no longer see you. Why didn’t you swim close to me on your way back?”
“I didn’t see you.”
“You didn’t see me?”
She went red. “I’m rather shortsighted.”
His anger suddenly struck him as absurd. They were facing each other naked and wet, rain was dripping down both their faces, they both had goose bumps and were shivering and warming their chests with their arms. She looked at him with the vulnerable, searching look that he now knew -wasn’t uncertainty, just shortsightedness. He saw the blue veins in her thin white skin, her pubic hair, reddish blond although the hair on her head was pale blond, her flat stomach and narrow hips, her strong arms and legs. He was ashamed of his body, and pulled his stomach in. “I’m sorry I was so rough.”
“I understand. You were afraid.” She smiled again.
He was embarrassed. Then he gave himself a shake, jerked his head toward the place by the dunes where their things were lying, called “Go!,” and started running. She was faster than he was and could have overtaken him effortlessly. But she ran beside him, and it reminded him of his childhood and the joy of running together toward some common goal with his sisters or his friends. He saw her small breasts, which she’d shielded with her arms when they’d been standing on the beach, and her small behind.