Paul lay on the beach in a sun-baked half-doze. Lake Michigan could do that to him. His way to center himself and lose himself at the same time, if that made sense, in the purling waves pulsing toward him from beyond the horizon. For thirty-some years his wife and children had come, every summer weekend, to this place of theirs by the water, like pilgrims to a shrine, or rather more like a jail break, for him, from the windowless world of endless hospital corridors and recycled air. Going to the Lake on Saturday mornings was like the first breath of fresh air after a transatlantic flight. But, now that he was retired, he could stay every day, all week, for weeks on end if he wished. And when he wasn’t engrossed by the play of folding waves, he could watch the evolutionary cycle of the human species emerging from the teeming water of the public beach nearby, one specimen at a time.
That morning, vaguely focused on the mist shrouded horizon, he noticed a woman in a white cover-up, filmy and clingy, sloshing along the water line, bare feet splashing her hem. As he had found himself doing lately, his memory jogged back to a time in his early twenties, to another pair of bare feet, a dampened white robe, trailing along the waterline of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sister Margaret. He thought that was her name…it was hard to remember over the intervening fifty-some years. They might have been involved in a weekly Vatican II study group when he mentioned that his seminary classmates had arranged an outing to Nettuno. She had invited him to visit at her Order’s villa near that beach.
Sister Margaret was attractive in an open-face way. Blue eyes, generous, easily smiling mouth and an infectious, lilting Irish accent. Now that he thought about it, she was probably in her late thirties, early forties. Not that he was tuned to actuarial distinctions behind his celibacy fogged glasses. In any case, the starched coif that cropped her face like a choker close-up shot, allowed few cues to her age.
He had jogged to the seaside convent and was shown into a large room where he stroked bare feet over the cool marble floor waiting for his eyes to adjust to the semi-dark atrium. A sudden hush rang in his ears. He felt naked, wondering if he should have brought a shirt to wear over his swim suit.
“Well, hello,” she said from behind him.
He stared. Smiled appreciatively. Her face released from the starched coif she wore in Rome, drew his eye along jaw and cheek planes to the graceful spot just below her ear where her hair, the color of worn gold wedding bands, tucked under her short summer veil.
“I’m glad you could make it,” she said. Her cheeks colored slightly, aware of the impression she had made on him. “Could I get you some lemonade?”
“Yes. Sounds good,” He followed her into a simple dining room filled by a wide oak table and a four-foot crucifix looming from the wall.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
He stepped over the backless bench, sat slowly, and hunched onto crossed arms trying to minimize his nakedness.
“I was just looking at some old snaps,” she announced as she slid next to him, propping a photo album between them. “Let me show you my favorite.”
She pointed out a scallop-edged, black and white photo of herself on an open-decked ferry boat, chatting with three sailors. She raised an eyebrow. If she wanted a reaction, some remark on her saucy behavior, he wasn’t going to bite. He took a sip of lemonade.
“Where were you going?” he asked.
“Home, to Ireland, to visit my family. My companion had dared me to chat-up the sailors.” She smiled mischievously.
Later, as they walked the shoreline, she remarked, “I’m going to miss our discussion groups.”
“Too bad you have to go back to the States.”
“Yep,” he nodded. “Time is up. Time to get to work.” He watched her bare feet splash in the bubbly froth while the edge of her white robes dragged heavily, wicking salty wetness up to her knees.
“I guess we better stop here,” she said.
He nodded agreement. They faced each other. Haloed by the glowing white sky, like a parachute coming out of the sun, she took each of his hands in hers. “What a dramatic good-bye.”
“I’ll miss you too. So long,” he said, then turned and trotted back to his buddies.
“Hey, gramps!” Jesse jumped off the cut-grass bank in a spray of stinging sand and ran into the water before diving into a gentle two-foot wave. Shortly, the boy was back at Paul’s side, whipping drops of cold lake like a wet dog. “Hey, I know,” the child offered, as if his grandfather was anxiously considering other exciting things to do. “Why don’t you take me out on the paddle board past the sand bar to the blue water so I can snorkel and dive like I’m on a raft?”
A hundred yards out, he sat cross legged at the back end of the board watching the red tip of the snorkel tube meander like his soft-focus reverie. A half mile down the beach, he could make out the home of a doctor he knew from the hospital and more importantly, his wife. Roberta. They had worked together in cardiology. Roberta. Another woman slightly older than himself. Did he have a thing for older women? And she was Irish, too. Or was it Scottish? The first time he had walked into her office, she had been facing a mirror…an impenetrable fortress in white from immaculate shoes to nylons leading up and under layers of underpinnings sheathed by a form fitted dress zipped up the back to a closed-neck collar. And she was putting on a nursing cap. A stiff, starched nursing cap.
Paul laughed out loud. Jesse popped his head out of the water. “What?” he asked.
Paul waved dismissively, “Nothing. Your grampa just has a thing for women wearing white uniforms and starched linen on their heads.”
The boy momentarily scrunched his face at inscrutable grownup comments, then carried on. “Hey did you ever notice that the bottom of the lake looks like the roof of a cat’s mouth?”
“Uh-huh. Amazing, isn’t it?”
The boy ducked back under and Paul resumed his musing. Uniforms. Do uniforms make the man, he wondered. Or the woman. At first, maybe, the initial attraction. But Roberta was more than that. They became friends. Lunch on the mall. Family pictures. Long discussions beyond work hours about most everything except their marriages. They had an unspoken agreement not to be counselor/therapist, hairdresser/priest to each other. Boundaries. A good-bye kiss occasionally. Dancing one time. Paul recalled caressing Roberta’s cheek with the back of his hand once. She blushed and stepped back. Never so much as a heavy-breathing session over all the years. Safe borders to be observed. When he asked her about their self-imposed limits, she replied, “We’re like that old lady who asked her husband for a kiss then said, ‘What was that other thing we used to do?’ Only for us it would be ‘What was that other thing we never used to do?’” Paul smiled to himself. That was how well they communicated. Perhaps clear boundaries were the price of a prolonged and deep friendship. So, why was he so annoyed when he heard the news that she had divorced her husband and was seriously involved with Jake. He liked the guy. But she never breathed a word. Somehow, he felt betrayed.
“Here, gramps. Hold onto my snorkel mask,” Jesse ordered before he levered himself onto the board and took a running header off the far end.
A moment later Paul felt the board rise and roll. He was in the drink, chilled and pumping for the surface. His grandson had deliberately tipped the board. On the way to the surface he saw the kid’s legs dangling from the edge of the board, swam under, and yanked him in. Paul the first to get back on the board, reached a hand to the boy who surfaced gasping and coughing, wildly thrashing his arms. Once Jesse’s breathing returned to normal, Paul lowered his most disapproving look at the boy. “I take you out to our cottage for a week. Paddle you out here. And this is how you reward me?”
The boy stared back, unflinching. He liked that in his grandchild—not cowed, standing up for himself. “Geez, grampa, what do you expect? You go out on the water…you could get dumped.”