It is a clear night, a full moon. The beach is deserted.
Most of the cottages are unlit, quiet.
You follow the sidewalk around the bend abutting the old
ramshackle hotel. It’s like opening the door to a grandmother’s bedroom:
everything is just as she left it, a comb on the night table, dried flowers in a
Her cottage was the red one, across the beach road. The
paint has weathered and flaked, the grass is overgrown. Someone has parked a
boat on the lawn. The door to the shed behind the house is unhinged. By
moonlight you can see a torn beach chair resting against the wall.
Faint voices come from a second story window, then
disappear with the wind, the sound of your footsteps. Will you meet me by the
sea wall at the end of the day? Will you walk with me to the port to buy things?
A dream. That’s all. A shade, a hue of eventide.
Dawn brings gulls, the far-off bonging of bell buoys,
crabgrass dew. You jog along the road until it veers toward town, then go down
to the water, stamping the hard low-tide sand. Some of the cottages are
stirring, the aroma of coffee, transistor radios buzzing with the daily news
that always seemed irrelevant in this place.
You walk into the port for breakfast, a table overlooking
the river. Nearby a family is speaking in British accents.
“Fishcakes for the lot,” the father says.
“And Coca-Colas as well.”
You shade your eyes from the glare.
She had British cousins, you remember. They arrived one
weekend, a fat and merry woman with five kids, one of them stricken with an
incurable heart disease.
“We must carry Arthur to the beach. Arthur, do you wish
to put your feet in the wet sand? It’s luxurious.”
You agreed to take the children to a movie in the family
station wagon. They chattered in the back seat in their clear voices.
“Take us to McDonalds, please. Our mummy doesn’t permit
He was a pale boy with white hair, who wouldn’t live to
be ten. The other children held his hand.
“Do you want to see the movie?” she asked.
“No. Definitely not.”
“You want to go someplace?”
“Yes. Don’t you?”
The children were waiting on the sidewalk with faces
stained with chocolate when you returned.
“For bloody Christ’s sake, you’re late. We could have
been abducted,” said the eldest boy.
On the way home, you steered with one arm, the other around
her shoulders. “Riding the French way,” she said. They sang British rhymes.
Arthur was exhausted, but happy. Anyone passing might have thought the group
your children, your brown station wagon, your beautiful wife.
Are they dreams or memories?
Her family had European ways. Her father was Welsh, her
mother from Montreal. Dinner was absurdly late, and afterwards red wine, coffee,
talk of politics and art often in French.
Usually it was just you and the three sisters, their rich
odors, their long hair. Perfume. The warm breath of sleeping women. They were
half-dressed, always showering, accustomed to your presence.
This was the house where they were shaped, sleeping in
single beds under clean white sheets on summer nights. It was a part of them.
They imagined the cottage when it snowed, a fire burning, the windows iced, and
the strangers who rented it during winters, their greasy hair and thick voices.
The youngest sister dated a student from the boat-building
school. He brought you to bars in the woods where tourists were scarce, and he
usually got too drunk to drive back.
One place was called Forefathers, a dim, smoke-spoiled
barn. You went there only one time, to hear the blues band. The sisters passed
the line of drunken men, and the men’s faces turned bitter—men who took
orders from summer people for a living, building, servicing.
“Why are they staring?” she asked over the din.
“Because you’re lovely.”
Whistles. A rebel yell.
Two young men came to the table. One wanted to shake your
hand. When you did, he spat on the floor. “That’s a limp shake,” he said.
“You can’t handle women like them with a shake like that.” He laughed
meanly. Before you could respond the bartender took them around the shoulders
and led them away.
“The real Maine,” you said.
“Don’t get cranky,” she said. “Come dance with me.
Dance with me tight.”
“Because I only dance with you.”
The afternoon passes quickly.
You fall asleep on the beach with a paperback book on your
lap. The breaking of waves, the clatter of beachgoers.
Mothers load children and toys and empty containers into
strollers, heading home. A man paces the shore reading a book raised to eye
level. It is the last hour of light, the time of day you used to lie together on
the sand, wearing cotton sweaters.
She had so many sweaters but always borrowed yours.
Back at your room, the innkeeper brings you fresh towels
and soap. You tell him that you will be staying on a bit longer.
Like most beautiful women, she had no girlfriends. Her
world was, by her own making, small. She didn’t return phone calls, disliked
Americans as a rule. She had her family. Her mother, her father, her three
sisters, and that was enough.
The other boyfriend was older, born to wealth. He didn’t
“Why not?” you asked.
“He’s Middle Eastern. Dancing, drinking. He forbids it.”
“That doesn’t sound promising.”
“It’s different than you and me,” she explained. “At
his family home in Montreal, the tea settings and silverware are so intricate I’m
scared to touch them. We almost never go out. Sometimes very late the brothers
will go to a restaurant, where they spend money like a competition.”
“Is that supposed to impress me?”
“How much do you have?”
“About fifty dollars in my wallet. And a bill from grad
school for five thousand.”
“They have millions. Their father left it to them.”
“Millions that they didn’t work for.”
“It doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s better that way. It
“You should marry him. That would be the thing to do.”
“His mother objects. Western women, you see. He stays up
with his brothers till dawn, smoking, speaking in their language. I stay in a
You waited for her to finish, meeting her eyes.
“You see how it is,” she said.
You grasped for something to disprove her, the proper
grounds. “What about dignity?” you asked.
The word made her turn petulant. “Men have dignity. Women
“Yours seems commonplace.”
“So is love.”
A harmful silence. Muted rain struck the window sills.
There is nothing as sad as rain on a beach house.
Finally, she stepped forward. She took your hand and
brought it to her breasts. Your fingers were slack as she moved them. “Forgive
me,” she whispered.
Her stare was a dare, a seduction. Succumbing, you said
nothing, and for years the words you should have said resounded in empty rooms,
dark streets, other women’s beds.
Midnight. The inn is crowded with ghosts. They walk through
the halls, speaking loudly. They scatter popcorn boxes and rattle beer bottles
and scrawl meaningless words on scraps of paper, which fall to the floor.
For years after, you received letters with foreign
postmarks. I miss your smell. I miss your skin. Each night in bed I talk to
you, tell you things. You slip away just before I wake. I can’t remember your
You go out. The sky is hazy, you can’t see a single star.
There’s rain in the forecast.
You roam the sea road like a man with a metal detector in
search of unknown objects beneath the sand. No one knows you.
She used to tell stories of the people who lived in these
cottages. The crazy rich woman who bequeathed all her properties to her servants
and pets. The renowned professor of ethics who drank champagne on Hitler’s
She walked with her arms folded across her chest. She had
perfect posture, a lovely voice. Meet me by the sea wall at the end of the
day. I’ll wear my white dress and a yellow flower in my hair—
There is a screech of tires, a vehicle moving fast.
Headlights appear. As he passes, the driver cries out, “Fuck you!”
A bottle smashes on the sidewalk, and you hear drunken
laughter, the long lingering noise of the engine racing away.
The broken glass is like an indictment. You think, for some
reason, of Arthur, the doomed boy, his pale face. Somewhere, in some English
village, dried flowers rest upon his gravestone. Poor Arthur. He missed so much—foreign
shores, the dew of innumerable dawns—a whole life that never was.
It is a gray morning. An ineffectual rain pocks the heavy
green seas. September, the children have gone away.
In the driveway of the red cottage, a small, stooped man is
taking a grocery bag from the trunk of a car. He’s aged, a stranger.
“I used to know the people who lived in this cottage,”
you tell him.
He fumbles with the bag, almost dropping it. “What did
“Let me help you.”
He hands it over, then gestures with trembling fingers
toward the back porch entrance. You say, loudly, distinctly, “The people who
lived here—do you know what became of them?”
“The former owners,” you respond. He is so frail, and
you are nearly shouting. “They were divorced and sold the house. It was
fifteen years ago.”
“I’ve always lived here.”
“There were three sisters.”
“Her name was—”
“No. They told you something that wasn’t right.” He
takes the bag and goes up the steps.
“Does someone else live here? Someone I can talk to?”
“You should ask the town hall.”
He opens the door, releasing a musty odor.
The urge to enter the cottage, to wander its rooms and
corridors, is ardent, a physical compulsion. You want to inhale the ravenous
midmorning aroma, to watch her shift her hair behind her ear so that she can
flip pancakes in the skillet.
The wind begins to swirl, bringing a harder rain.
The old man closes the door.