It’s been several months since I gave my novel a blatant, full-post flogging, so I figured it was time; especially since summer is fast approaching in the United States and “Queen” is the perfect middlebrow beach read. (At least that’s what my press materials say.) Here is the complete first chapter, and if you like this, you’ll love the rest. If you don’t, then not so much. Okay, here we go:
Stephen and Helen Demetrius walked hand in hand along the sandy path toward the beach. The way was hot and airless and it followed the shore of a pond separated from the Atlantic by a high dune. Stephen and Helen couldn’t see the ocean, but they could hear the hush of the waves sometimes, and the cry of gulls, and the drone of insects in the brush. The trail climbed along the dune and Stephen and Helen followed, pausing at the top to consider the view. The sky was a transparent blue vaguely shimmering over the water. The pond stretched away to their left, while to their right the land rose and became the Marblehead Cliffs. In front of them was a length of white sand with the Atlantic falling softly against it. Sunbathers and swimmers were scattered sparsely up and down the beach.
“This is perfect,” Helen said, removing her wide-brimmed straw hat to kiss Stephen and then setting down her canvas bag and beach chair to hug him.
“Don’t you think?” Helen asked. She leaned back and stared at Stephen with amused disbelief. He kissed her back, doing his best to imitate her smile. “We’re in a beautiful place. We have two weeks vacation together. And forty-five minutes ago, you were making love to me. All that doesn’t add up to perfect?”
Stephen looked embarrassed. “Yes, it does.”
Helen examined her husband seriously, then scratched his cheek with her fingers. “Don’t be glum. You’ve just been working too hard for too long, is all, like I’ve been telling you. You’ll get a good rest here and you’ll be ready to go back to life just as we’ve always lived it. Trust me. I know you.”
“I’m not so sure,” Stephen told her, glancing away. He loved Helen to all appearances, and admired how certain she was about her life, but he didn’t necessarily want for himself everything Helen wanted for him, and Stephen wasn’t convinced his wife understood the difference. “I’m weary of Manhattan, Helen … and of spending all day thinking of clever ways to make people buy things they don’t need.” Stephen rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand, squeezing his brow into a frown as he did. “I want something else, someplace else. I wish I could tell you what.”
“Well,” Helen replied, “let’s see how it goes. We don’t have to figure it all out today.”
“No,” Stephen agreed, “we don’t.”
Helen picked up her bag and chair, and she and Stephen continued walking. Helen was right, Stephen considered. He was being stupid and ungrateful. They were together, and the day was beautiful, and they were about to meet old friends, at least two of whom Stephen was certain they would be glad to see. The third was more of a question. But regardless of that, and regardless of the problems waiting for them back in the city, he wanted to do nothing to ruin their first day on the island, for either Helen or himself.
“So what’s Tania like again?”
Stephen squinted, perplexed by the question, and made a clicking noise with
his tongue. “I really don’t know anymore. Lyle and Mia tell me she’s changed since college.”
“What was she like in college, then?” Helen continued.
“Well.” Stephen rubbed his chin for effect. “Sort of a pain in the ass, to tell you the truth.”
Helen laughed. “Oh, that sounds promising. And we’re staying at her house?”
“Only for a few days,” Stephen replied. He was smiling and gazing into the distance of the ocean. “I suppose I was too, back then, a pain in the ass, I mean – at least to Tania. She always seemed to inspire my more particular side.”
“The one that’s critical and relentless and unforgiving?” Helen interrupted, asking her question with a smug smile.
“Yes, that’s the one,” Stephen agreed. “Are you teasing?”
“In any case,” Stephen continued, “Lyle and Mia say she’s changed since then, and they are usually reliable on such matters. Mia is anyhow.”
“Yes, she is.”
They walked several steps and Stephen’s attention drifted away from the topic of conversation. The sun was warm, and he lost himself in the long slow breathing of the ocean and how the light danced like diamonds on its surface.
“And what is Tania to you?” Helen asked.
“To me?” Stephen echoed, making sure he’d heard the question right. “For my part, an old friend, of sorts.”
“Meaning…” Helen prompted. She was smiling, and her voice was cheerful, but Helen was determined to get her information.
“Meaning I never slept with her.”
“Good,” Helen said. She digested this fact with satisfaction and kissed her husband. Then an expression of sympathy and concern crossed her face. “So you had no lover, then, that summer you were here with Tania and Mia in the theater group.”
“No comment,” Stephen said. He knew that anonymous girlfriends, firmly fixed in the distant past, did not threaten Helen.
“Mia will tell me.”
“I pay Mia a tidy monthly sum to keep the secrets of my college years just that.”
“We’ll see!” Helen laughed. “The friendships between women are stronger than the friendships between men and women.”
The path led down to the beach. They turned left, expecting to find their companions in that direction based on Stephen’s old memories and a note from Mia, happy in its emotion but hazy in its directions, which he carried in his pocket. The first person they passed was a naked man with a deep tan and long shaggy hair, and the fact of his nudity jolted them momentarily, even though they were expecting it. The man walked with his shoulders hunched forward and his hands dangling by his sides, and this slack posture reflected the general condition of his body. He was a thin man who seemed to have gained a little weight around the middle entirely for the purpose of having it hang off him unbecomingly. His penis was small and pale and mostly lost in the black thicket of his pubic hair. He meandered down the sand with such a lack of intensity that Stephen considered he might wander off one of the cliffs and not take note of it for several minutes. Stephen wondered, too, if it was the normality of the man’s appearance that was unsettling. It wasn’t nakedness, but the lack of beauty, that offended American eyes. Then he considered how forlorn their race looked, mortal and graceless, unclothed. Helen commented to herself that if she looked like that, she would keep her pants and her shirt on. She would have been perfectly willing to give the man her hat, if he agreed to carry it in front of him until he got home.
“That reminds me,” Helen said, once the man was well past. “Are they really nudists? Lyle and Mia, and Tania?”
Stephen glanced at Helen and shrugged. “Yes, so I’m told. Although I doubt we’ll see Mia out of her suit. It isn’t her thing. But Tania will be.”
“I’ll bet you’ll like that, looking at naked women for days on end.”
“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” Stephen said. “Actually, the person I’m really looking forward to ogling is Lyle.”
“Ugh! I’ve prepared myself. I’ve braced myself. But I can’t say I’m looking forward. The Speedo he wore in Jamaica the other year was more than enough. Less than enough, rather.”
“Well, wait until you see the package unbound. He’s big as a sausage and uncircumcised. Quite a sight.”
Helen knocked the back of Stephen’s head with her fist. “I had a wax before we left New York, but don’t expect me to walk around without my bikini. The world doesn’t need to see my private parts, and the sun doesn’t need to burn them. Besides, I’m not keen on the idea of winding up on some creep’s masturbation website.”
“I’m sure everyone will respect your right to wear what you want.”
“I’m sure,” Helen said. “What about you?”
“Me? Today, no. I didn’t put suntan lotion on the proper places. But maybe later.”
“Did you last time?”
“What was it like?”
“Rather unnerving for the first hour or two, but then it didn’t seem all that much different. And – I know this is going to sound stupid – it really was relaxing.”
“Well, you were right about it sounding stupid.”
Stephen and Helen approached the more populated part of the beach and began looking for Tania or Lyle or Mia. Of the people there, approximately half were nude. Of these, men were more common than women, and those approaching or past middle age were more common than the young. Stephen saw two large deep-blue canvas umbrellas set close to each other, and walked toward them wondering if they were the ones mentioned in the note.
As he and Helen drew closer, they spotted Mia stretched out in a beach chair reading with a sun-burned man lying at her feet who Stephen assumed was Lyle. Mia looked up and recognized them nearly as quickly, and rose to her feet waving. Then Lyle rose and joined her, throwing an arm around Mia and grinning at his friends. Lyle was naked and Mia was topless. They watched Stephen and Helen cross the last fifty feet to the umbrellas.
The smile Mia gave Stephen and Helen was the same as ever, sunny and unaffected, although her posture seemed more forward and self-possessed than it had been in the past. Mia’s breasts surprised Helen as much as they surprised Stephen, but they made her much less uncomfortable. Helen was used to seeing other women, since she showered at the gym after her regular work-outs, and there had been two or three occasions, during some holiday or weekend visit, when she and Mia had changed in each other’s company. Stephen had the benefit of none of this experience, however, and more than the surprise, it was a stab of desire, as strong as it was unwelcome, that upset him. His life was complicated enough, and he didn’t like lusting after his friends, no matter how involuntarily. Stephen had enough time to replace the look of frozen astonishment on his face with a characteristic grin before he drew close, but most of his attention was still focused on not staring at Mia and this made his conversation odd and awkward. By contrast, Helen was not upset by Lyle’s penis, and she had expected to be.
“Mia, you look wonderful!” Helen said, putting down her chair and removing her hat to give Mia a long hug. As Helen did, she glanced over at Stephen and lifted her eyebrows.
“And you,” Mia replied. “I’m glad you’re here!”
“Helen,” Lyle said and opened his arms wide in greeting.
“I’m not hugging you until you put some pants on Lyle,” she announced, “but lean in and I’ll give you a kiss.” This he did, and Helen greeted Lyle quite nicely, then put her hat back on. “It’s nice to see you – almost all of you, that is. One or two things, depending on how you want to group them, I could do without.”
“Charmed. Dedalus!” Lyle mock roared, and threw his arm around Stephen’s shoulder. Stephen would have returned the gesture, but he was still carrying his chair and bag. “Look at you, fit as ever. I myself have gained a little weight.”
“I didn’t think you could take so much time away from the brokerage,” Mia said to Helen.
“You do look a little squashy around the middle,” Stephen remarked, putting down what he was carrying.
“The market isn’t exactly hot right now,” Helen said. “And I’ve earned it.”
“Mia, great to see you,” Stephen said and kissed her on the cheek, holding her shoulders lightly with his hands and hoping to forestall the embrace Mia gave him anyway. He was glad his t-shirt lay between them, at least, but the fabric offered no protection against the smile Mia turned on him afterwards. They were old friends, so it made sense that she would look at him fondly, but Mia had a way of crinkling her eyes at Stephen that seemed to hint at secret sympathies between them, at confidences and agreed feelings that no one else knew or suspected. This look was partially his fault. At times over the years, Stephen had bantered flirtatiously with Mia, and had been vain enough to enjoy the attraction mixed in with all the jokes; but now was another case and Mia’s look was different too.
“How long have you been here?” Stephen asked, too jauntily he realized, sounding forced when he should have sounded comfortable. He motioned over his shoulder with his thumb, then felt ridiculous because this gesture made no sense.
“About an hour, I think.” Mia said. “We came with Tania, who’s over there on those rocks meditating.” Mia pointed at a woman who was too far away to recognize as Tania or not. “No sense interrupting her; won’t do any good. She’ll come over when she’s done.”
“Right. Good enough,” Lyle said. “Come on, Dedalus. Let’s see if you can still throw the pigskin.”
“Okay,” Stephen said, relieved. “If that’s all right?” he asked the women.
“Sure,” Mia said.
“Yes, Stephen, go ahead,” Helen replied.
“Right.” He touched the brim of his Yankees cap. “We’ll be back then.”
The men trotted off and the women watched them go. Helen unfolded her own chair and lay back in it with a delicious sigh. “Ah, wonderful.”
“Is Stephen okay?” Mia asked, taking her chair again but still sitting up to watch his back recede toward the sea. “He’s acting goofy.”
“I believe your boobs scared him,” Helen said with a laugh.
“Did they?” Mia asked and looked down quizzically. They were full, pretty, and rested close to her chest, but none of these qualities struck her as frightening. “Why?”
“Oh, took him by surprise, I suspect. I admit I was a little surprised myself. We talked about it and figured you’d be dressed.”
“Should I put this back on?” Mia asked and held up her top.
“No, not a bit,” Helen said firmly. “It’s more fun to watch him sweat. Besides, I gave him something else to think about before we came down to the beach.”
“All right,” Mia said and lay back in her chair in a posture that imitated Helen’s. “I didn’t expect this would bother him. We’ve known each other for so many years.”
“He thinks it isn’t polite to look at his friends like that,” Helen said.
“But if the looking bothered me, I wouldn’t be like this.”
“Yes, I know. Doesn’t matter.” Helen was silent for a moment. “I am going to lie here for a minute, perfectly still, and then I want you to tell me all about how your semester went. And Lyle’s new coffeehouse.”
Helen did exactly that, then stood, took off her hat and shirt, rubbed the exposed skin of her shoulders, breasts, and stomach to be sure of her sunscreen, sat back down, and smiled at Mia. Helen’s sunglasses were like the ones Jackie O wore. “How were your kids this spring?”
“They were great, they really were,” Mia said, beaming. “We had a lot of fun.
A good group. There were things I decided to teach that I don’t always, but I knew they would get it. Really, there’s some stuff they are going to see in high school biology we already did. I’m really proud of them.”
“Never feel like doing something else and getting paid more?”
“Don’t underestimate the salary of a unionized public school teacher,” Mia told Helen. “And do something else? No. I found what I like.”
“I’m glad,” Helen said and reached over to pat her hand, “and you know I’m not criticizing, don’t you?”
“I love the game on the Street, but I can’t say I always love the job. Which is why there are the compensations.” This thought hung between them for a few moments.
“And how’s Lyle’s latest venture doing?” Helen asked, with an exaggerated sigh of resignation.
“The coffeehouse is really popular, actually.”
“Is it making money?”
“That’s another matter,” Mia said, raising a loose hand and dropping it again. With the gesture, she alluded to a string of other careers and schemes Lyle had passionately pursued, until his interest had faded or a problem more difficult than he anticipated had appeared. None had ever done much better than break even, and more often Mia and Lyle had ended up a few thousand dollars poorer for the experience. “It isn’t losing money, which is almost good enough. And it is an amazing scene right now. Musicians who started playing at the coffeehouse last fall are now playing all over Boston, and a couple are talking to record companies. A few local writers Lyle’s invited have packed the space, people literally standing outside the window to listen. Lyle seems to have this sense of what people want. This could be it. At long last, Lyle might have finally found his bliss.”
“Is that what you think?” Helen asked.
“I don’t know,” Mia said, sounding indifferent to the question. “I do love Lyle for his enthusiasm – he still thinks the perfect thing is out there and he can find it. But it gets a little tiring. And I sometimes wish I could just drop teaching and do whatever I took a notion to and let him worry about the mortgage for once.”
Helen made a sympathetic noise.
“How are you two doing?” Mia asked.
“Oh, fine. Wall Street is Wall Street, no more or less honest than usual, or I’m mistaken. Stephen has been busy, of course, since he was made vice president in March.”
“He was?” Mia said with surprise.
“Yes,” Helen replied. “He didn’t tell you?”
Mia shook her head.
“And Lyle doesn’t know either?”
“He probably would have mentioned it, if he’d known, but then again, you know Lyle.”
Helen shrugged at the mystery of her husband. “I know pride is a sin, but he could brag a little. Or not brag, but say as much as is true, at least. This is key. This job is the place where he can earn the choice of what do next, the whole business.”
“Maybe he’s not sure that’s what he wants,” Mia suggested.
“Oh no,” Helen said. “Advertising is a good industry for him. He knows it.”
Mia accepted this answer. The two women sat quietly watching the glittering sea. A naked older woman walked by, and Helen remembered the kind of beach at which she was.
In the meantime, the men had walked down to an open area of sand and were tossing Lyle’s football back and forth. Stephen was the more natural athlete of the two, but Lyle enjoyed playing more, so over time their skills had grown close to equal. Lyle certainly had the better arm. He threw tight spirals and could drop the ball right in Stephen’s hands no matter where he stood or in which direction he was running. By contrast, Stephen’s passes wobbled in the air and he used muscle to compensate for his lack of technique, which meant he sometimes lobbed the ball clean over Lyle’s head and sometimes zipped it past his outstretched hands.
“Ease up a bit, Dedalus. I’m banging around all over the place with all this running.”
“Sorry. I can’t get the motion right. It’s been a while since I played anything that didn’t involve a racket. Damned business.”
“Throw straight from your shoulder and roll the ball off your fingertips. Are you remembering to release your thumb first?”
“No I’m not.”
They continued and Stephen found a better touch on the ball and they settled into a rhythm. Lyle was surprisingly swift and agile for his size, and Stephen reflected that if his friend hadn’t continued to play soccer, he would probably be even heavier. He didn’t have a belly yet, but Lyle’s lower torso was slowly expanding in diameter and his jowls displayed the first signs of a fleshiness that was likely to consume the profile of his chin in middle age. Lyle’s nudity didn’t particularly bother Stephen. Lyle had been an enthusiastic streaker and skinny-dipper at school, enough so that most of the campus must have seen him naked at one point or another, and Stephen more times than he could count. Their first year, Lyle liked to wake himself up by playing Brian Eno on the stereo and marching around their room in the buff. Once it got cold, he did this with the windows open. Another time, toward the end of a party during their third year, Lyle passed out in a chair in their room. When Stephen went to check on him, he discovered that Lyle’s body wasn’t the only thing that was upright, so Stephen sensibly dropped one of his Lacrosse gloves over the offending member and left. When Stephen returned an hour later, Lyle was still wearing the glove. After this, it was easy enough for Stephen to ignore Lyle’s penis – certainly much easier than it was to ignore Mia’s breasts. Stephen played the entire time with his back to the two women. His throwing improved, but it still wasn’t perfect.
“So, how’s your girlfriend?” Lyle asked.
Stephen had the ball over his shoulder when Lyle offered this question. He threw hard at his friend.
“Whoa, there’s that spiral!”
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Stephen told Lyle, approaching him with a mingled look of anger and embarrassment on his face, “and I never did, not the way you’re thinking. She was a friend, and I admit I was stupid not to notice sooner that she was feeling something more, and maybe I was too, but I did notice before … our feelings went too far. And our feelings were the only thing that went too far, all right?”
“Okay, settle down, settle down, I believe you, I wasn’t trying to imply, really,” Lyle said, walking toward Stephen. “I was just asking – I was trying to ask and doing a piss-poor job of it, I mean – how you and Helen are doing now.”
“Oh, fine, just dandy,” Stephen said, rubbing his eyes with the tips of his fingers.
“Well, that sounds promising.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Lyle lifted his eyebrows high on his forehead and inclined his head toward Stephen. “Have you talked about it with Helen?”
“I’ve tried,” Stephen said. He took the football from Lyle and squeezed it along the seams. “You know how she can be, when something doesn’t match the picture of the world she’s painted for herself.”
“Umm,” Lyle grunted. “So what’s wrong?”
Stephen laughed. “I don’t know.”
“You mean to tell me,” Lyle asked, “that you’re acting like a miserable bollocks over a mystery problem?”
“Am I acting miserable?”
“Not exactly, for the most part,” Lyle told him. “Well?”
“Well,” Stephen agreed. “I suppose … I don’t know. I’m afraid I’m falling out of love with Helen, maybe.”
Lyle whistled soberly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t know either, could be, until just now,” Stephen said, “when you asked me and I had to think about the answer.”
This part of the conversation called for Lyle to stick his hands in his pockets, look down, and scuff the sand with the ball of his foot. But since Lyle wasn’t wearing pants, with or without pockets, he had to settle for running his fingers through his hair. “Is it you or her?”
“Well, you know,” Stephen told him. “Helen’s beautiful. And smart. And funny. And she loves me. So of course it follows that it has to be her.”
“Doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
“Look, never mind me, Lyle,” Stephen said and tossed him back the football. He waved a hand around one side of his head. “I’m just stuck too deep inside my own brain and have thought my way into a muddle. It’s nonsense. It’s a mood. It will pass. Helen’s great, and I’m acting like an idiot.”
“You sure?” Lyle asked.
Lyle wasn’t certain he believed Stephen, but he knew him too well to think he could argue against Stephen’s declaration with any success.
“Can we talk about something else?” Stephen asked.
“Sure,” Lyle said. His expression changed. “So, what do you think of Mia’s breasts? Pretty nice, huh? They’ve really popped out. I had figured she was going to be skinny and itty-bitty for ever. No sir. I may be getting heavier, but yes Jesus, so is she. I’d love her either way, you know, but I’m definitely not complaining about the supplemental hooterage.”
“I’m not looking at Mia’s breasts.”
“Sure you aren’t,” Lyle told him. “And I’m not looking at Helen’s ass. Which looks great, by the way.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. I can guarantee, with mathematical certainty that you have seen as much of Helen’s body today as you are ever going to.”
“We’ll see. The island has magical properties.” Lyle twirled one finger in the air. “Come on, I’m sweaty. Let’s go swimming.” Stephen took off his shirt and cap and joined him. The coldness of the ocean shocked his body as he entered, but it soon felt great. Stephen splashed about in the waves, then swam out and floated on his back. The noise of the world was reduced to a hushed gurgle, the salt taste of the ocean was in his mouth, and he rocked weightlessly on the surface of the water. Stephen cleared his mind and surrendered to these few simple sensations. He’d forgotten how uncomplicated the beach made life. The sky above him was vast and featureless, an endless blue he found both empty and comforting. He flexed his toes, which were peeking above the water, and closed his eyes. Eventually, Lyle swam over and tapped him, and Stephen followed his friend out of the ocean, and back across the sand to their women.
“How was it?” Helen asked Stephen.
“The water is nice if you’re hot.” Stephen grabbed his right shoulder with his left hand and rotated his throwing arm in a wide circle. “I’m stiff. Haven’t done that in a while.”
Mia stood and poked Lyle’s shoulders with one finger. “I think you should get out of the sun. Lyle dragged his chair under the shade of the umbrellas and stretched himself out. Stephen spread his towel on the sand and lay face down on it with his eyes closed.
“Did you boys catch up?” Helen asked him.
“Mmmmrph,” Stephen replied.
“Yes, we’re all set, thank you, Hel,” Lyle remarked. “We traded recipes and everything.”
Everyone was silent after this. Stephen and Helen shared some water, then Stephen took his book from the bag and sat in his chair to read. For a while, the soft scraping of the new pages in Stephen’s book and the hushed roar of the ocean were the only sounds. Eventually, Mia looked up from her own paperback and said, “Helen said you were promoted, Stephen. Congratulations.”
“To what?” Lyle asked, looking up. He’d been dozing.
“VP,” Stephen said.
“It’s no big deal.”
“Sounds like a big deal,” Lyle told him.
“See what I mean,” Helen remarked aside to Mia. “Modest.”
“It’s not modesty,” Stephen said and stood up. He squinted at the horizon. “It’s hard to turn down a promotion. Say ‘no’ in Manhattan and they think you’re holding out for more money or have lost your mind.”
Stephen tried to think up a new topic for conversation. He was saved from this by the distant approach of a figure that Stephen thought might be Tania. She was no longer seated on the rock Mia had pointed out earlier. “Well, am I right?” he announced. “Here comes Tania.”
Mia stood and rested a familiar hand on Stephen’s shoulder and shaded her eyes with the other. “Yes, you’re right.” Lyle remained seated, but Helen had a quick look at her face and hair in her compact and then rose to stand next to Stephen. Tania’s form shimmered in the heat, but Stephen recognized it. She still walked like the dancer she never really was, not seriously, pointing her toe before setting it down, and there was still a deliberate languor in her step, which had become more relaxed and refined over the years, but which continued to serve its intended function of drawing the attention of the people around her. So did her hair, which was permed into waves and riven with blond highlights and hung halfway down her back. Tania turned one side of her face and then the other into the breeze, so that her hair flowed out behind her better. She looked heavier to Stephen. The flesh of Tania’s hips creased as she walked, and her breasts seemed to have gained some volume and lost some shape, but there was an unmistakable air of fitness and good health about her, and she was much less tan than Stephen had expected, considering how dark she had become during the summer they had spent on the island. Stephen was interested in Tania’s body, but only with the idle and automatic attention most men pay to most women, and his looking was partially motivated by the desire to get it out of the way. He figured he’d be seeing a lot of Tania, and the sooner he’d grown used to her naked, the better. Stephen didn’t think this would be too hard to achieve. He had a hard time lusting after women he wasn’t sure he liked.
When Tania drew close enough to recognize Stephen, a smile of pleasure spread across her face and her step quickened. She held out her arms to him before she was closer than ten feet and called his name.
“Stephen!” she exclaimed and took his hands. “After all these years,” she said and hugged him. Stephen returned the embrace lightly, but not as awkwardly as he would have guessed. “Thank you for coming.”
“I’m happy to be here.”
“And you must be Helen,” Tania continued, releasing Stephen and turning to his wife. Tania held Helen’s hands and smiled at her. “Thank you for coming, too. I know it can be difficult, being surrounded by someone else’s friends. We’ll do our best to make you feel welcome.”
“I feel welcome already,” Helen replied.
“Good.” Tania kissed Helen on each cheek, then gave her hands an extra squeeze before releasing them. She smiled between the couple. “I’m sorry for the weather last night. To be stuck in a Providence hotel instead of here! Did you have trouble flying over this morning?”
“None at all,” Stephen told her.
“I’m glad,” Tania said. She stopped and stared at Stephen’s face, then took it in her hands and moved his head from side to side, as if she were examining a vase or porcelain bowl. “You look older, Stephen … and less sure of yourself.”
“Ha!” he laughed, as much in recognition of Tania’s former way of speaking as at the remark itself. “And you’re as dramatic as ever, Tania, although I like your lines better when someone else is writing them for you.”
“Am I still dramatic?” Tania asked. “I’m sorry for it then. I thought I had grown up a little, at least, since last we saw each other. You do look older, wiser, more serious. Less bright. The light inside you has dimmed a little since Oberlin. I hope I haven’t hurt you saying these things.”
“Not at all,” Stephen told her.
“The three of us should talk,” Tania said, looking at Stephen and Helen. “Get to know each other and catch up and not, I hope, discuss old times too much. There were some happy times, but more it might be better not to dwell on.” Tania seemed to consider these, then closed her eyes and dismissed them with a shake of her head. “But if you’ll let me, I’d like to talk in the evening. I’ve been in the sun enough today, I think, and I try to work every day in my studio in the afternoon.”
“Of course,” Helen told her. “The day, the beach, the ocean are beautiful. We are happy here.”
Tania nodded her head eagerly in agreement. “The beauty of Nature is a blessing. And no matter what troubles are bothering my heart, they never bother me when I’m here on a day like this. I’m glad to see you all! Come back when you are ready, and we’ll talk and eat this evening.”
Tania smiled at her friends once more, then walked away toward her house.
“Well, she’s a hoot,” Helen said once Tania was out of earshot, “but nicer than Stephen led me to think. Wonderfully warm and welcoming.”
“Yes,” Stephen agreed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had so much female flesh pressed against me at one time.”
“I told you she had changed,” Mia said to Stephen. “And much for the better.”
“Yes,” Stephen agreed again. “She does seem happier, and I’m glad for it. I didn’t think I would see the day when Tania was thoughtful, however. Unfair of me, I guess.”
“No,” Mia told him. “It would have been unfair only if you still judged her on the way she used to be.”
“Let’s have a snack,” Helen suggested. The four friends made a meal of the food they had, then sat reading and resting. Afterwards, they took a walk down the beach. Helen and Stephen swam after they returned to the umbrellas, while Mia and Lyle simply walked in and out of the water to cool off. Once Helen and Steven were dry, Helen put her long shirt and hat back on, and announced she was returning to the house.
“I’m sure I’ve had enough sun for one day,” she said. “I suppose I’ll walk. I don’t think all three of you will fit in one canoe with the chairs and umbrellas.”
Mia leaned over the armrest of her chair to poke Lyle, who was lying face up in the sun. The spot she chose blushed faintly and she poked him again. “Why don’t you go with Helen, Lyle,” she told him. “You’ve had enough sun for today, too, and it will save Helen a long hot trip.”
Lyle sat up, considered this suggestion, then shrugged in agreement. “Well, I suppose you’re right. I could ride my bike, too, get some more exercise. I’ll take the chairs and one umbrella, Hel, if you’ll carry my bag.”
“Sure. Are you going to put your pants on now?”
“Nah, the neighbors don’t care.”
“Right,” Helen said. She braced herself on the arms of Stephen’s chair and gave him a long kiss. “You’ll behave down here without me, won’t you?” she asked.
“All right, big boy, let’s go,” she told Lyle. They gathered their possessions and left. Stephen decided Helen and Mia’s advice about the sun was sensible, so he put his t-shirt and cap back on. He read his book and after a time, stopped to drink from one of the water bottles.
“Alone at last,” Mia commented.
“Yes,” Stephen agreed, nodding but not looking up from his book.
Mia gazed out at the ocean and absent-mindedly scratched her shoulder. The sun was hotter, and a fine sheen of sweat coated her body. “So, did you and Lyle have a good chat?”
“Yes, pretty good,” Stephen said.
“What did you talk about?”
“Nothing really,” Stephen replied. “How to throw a football.”
“You men!” Mia laughed. “That’s not a talk. You’re both impossible.”
“I’m sure we’ll get to it, Mia. There’s time. We’ll take some beers to the beach one night, and a list of topics you can write up for us, and we’ll go through the whole thing.”
“Helen and I talked for a while, Mia said.
“Mmm.” Stephen had returned to his book.
“From chatting with her, I wouldn’t know you two have been … well, having problems I guess. Helen didn’t mention it, certainly.” Stephen stopped reading and raised his head, but didn’t look at Mia. The waves were barely running up the sand. A retired couple walked by, wearing matching sun hats.
“I didn’t know you knew,” he said.
“Lyle told me,” Mia replied.
“How do you feel about that?”
“Mia …” Stephen began tersely. He sighed. “Do we need to talk about this?”
“We’re very old friends.”
“I know.” Stephen looked at Mia when he said this. He kept his eyes steadily on her eyes, but Mia’s breasts were in the same view and unavoidable. Stephen held her gaze for a while, to make his point. He looked away.
“You seem sadder than usual,” Mia said.
Stephen laughed. “I’m not sad!”
“You’re always sad, Stephen, that’s your great secret. Lyle doesn’t see it. Helen doesn’t see it. But I do. It’s there.”
“You think I’m sad. Tania thinks I’m uncertain,” Stephen remarked. “I’ve become quite an object of study to the subsidiary women in my life, it seems.”
“One of the ways you keep it secret – even from yourself – is to make jokes like that.”
“I’m not sad, Mia,” Stephen said.
“No. I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life, spending it selling diamonds and sports cars and coffee that costs fifty dollars a pound, particularly since one day, looking out the window of my office, I saw twenty-five hundred people die in Lower Manhattan; but just because I have doubts about my job doesn’t mean I’m suffering through a major crisis or depression.”
“And this woman-friend of yours?”
“Was just that, a friend,” Stephen told her evenly.
“I had thought, from what Lyle told me about your conversations, that it was a bit more complicated.”
Stephen considered this for a moment, then put down his book. There was no way to dismiss the subject without hurting Mia’s feelings, and Stephen wasn’t willing to hurt them. “Yes, I suppose it was a bit more complicated, but it wasn’t what you think.”
“How does Helen feel about her?”
“Helen doesn’t know about her, exactly.”
“Exactly,” Mia repeated, blinking. “What does ‘exactly’ mean?”
“It means that I found it easier to say I was working late because of my new job and Helen found it easier to believe me.”
“Do you think that was really a good idea?”
“I think it was a lousy idea, Mia,” Stephen replied, “but that’s how it is. Try to discuss certain topics with Helen and she bolts like a rabbit. So I ended up talking about them to a woman who wasn’t Helen, and lying to Helen about what I was doing, and creating two more problems I couldn’t discuss with my wife in the process.”
“But you didn’t sleep with this friend,” Mia said.
“No, I did not,” Stephen agreed. “But I thought about sleeping with her after a while, however, which is just as bad.”
“And what could be more like you!” Mia laughed.
“How so?” Stephen asked sharply.
“Because you are always so serious when it comes to sex,” Mia said. “More than most people.”
“No more than most people.”
“Yes, more than most!” Mia told him laughing. “I know you, remember. Since you were nineteen. Sex is always a serious business to Stephen Demetrius. All bound up with trust and integrity and loyalty.” Mia pronounced these last two sentences in a solemn tone, with a pretend frown on her face. “That’s why you stopped fooling around with me here, all those summers ago. Remember?”
“You mock me, madam,” Stephen said. They hadn’t discussed this subject in a long time and Stephen didn’t want to discuss it now.
“No, I don’t. I love you,” Mia said, with her crinkled-eyed smile. “I don’t mock anyone I love.”
“And it was right to stop,” Stephen continued. “That was after you started seeing Lyle.”
“Just after. No more than a few months.”
“We were young and we were here. It was no great fault. Lyle and I were just having fun. We didn’t know if we were serious or not. I’m sure he wouldn’t care now.”
Stephen stared hard at the sea. “I think you underestimate, Mia, how men feel about their women even for all the free talking they may do otherwise.”
“Grump, grump, grump,” Mia said. “In any case, I’ve kept your little secret. Lyle doesn’t know. Neither does Helen.”
“Secrets kept for so long are no longer little, regardless of their original size, Mia,” Stephen told her with a sigh. “It’s the keeping that ends up making them important. I owed Lyle better.”
“You never, before, during, or since, have done anything Lyle could blame you for.”
“That doesn’t get me off the hook, exactly, does it?”
“Yes, I know,” Mia agreed. “I know that’s how you think. You wouldn’t be you, and I wouldn’t love you half as much, if you felt otherwise. But I’m not sorry and I don’t feel guilty and I don’t think you are caught on any hook because of it. And I don’t think you’ve done much wrong now to Helen, either. You’re the only man I know who can feel guilty about not cheating on his wife. You have to be more gentle with yourself, Stephen. Everyone except you knows you deserve it.”
Stephen didn’t say anything. It was no use telling Stephen to be less hard on himself. He knew it. But there was this assassin voice, lurking in the back of his head, waiting to strike, and Stephen had never been able to silence it. Perhaps he never would.
Stephen didn’t want to talk about himself any more, and they had drifted far enough from Mia’s original question that Stephen thought he could change the subject without seeming to do so.
“And sex is serious business, or serious enough, anyway, Mia. It’s not like other pleasures. You know, I don’t understand the ‘arrangement’ you and Lyle have. He’s explained it, of course, but it’s all still very dim.”
“What’s to understand? Or do you mean, you don’t approve.” Mia smiled at Stephen when she said this. She was neither offended nor defensive.
“No, I don’t think it’s wrong,” Stephen said. “As long as you’re not hurting each other or someone else. It just seems to me … complicated.”
“It’s about trust and honesty,” Mia told Stephen. “Just like your sex is. We choose our other partners thoughtfully. They’re people we know and care about. We each have an absolute veto, too. It’s not promiscuous. For a while, we were involved with Peter and Blossom, the couple from Boston you’ll meet. And they, us. But that doesn’t seem quite right anymore, somehow, even though we’re still friends.”
Stephen shook his head, not in judgment, but wonder. “All strange to me.”
“Why strange?” Mia asked brightly. “When you married, you didn’t give up other friends and family. You didn’t expect Helen to satisfy all your needs for friendship and love – and she didn’t expect you to satisfy all her needs. She still talks to her sisters on the phone. You haven’t stopped going to Yankee games just because Helen is bored by baseball and goes shopping instead. We don’t say we can have only one music, one food, one book, one home, one job for our whole lives. Why do we demand, then, that one person satisfy all our sexual needs?”
“I don’t know,” Stephen admitted. “Those things don’t seem as intimate, as personal to me. I can’t explain it other than in old moral terms, which isn’t a justification but, a decree I guess. I do know in my gut it’s the right thing, for me.” Stephen’s scalp had grown damp with sweat under his ball cap, which he removed to scratch vigorously with the tips of his fingers.
“I think I should tell you now,” Mia said, frowning with hesitation for a moment, “that when I said we were involved with Peter and Blossom, I meant both Peter and Blossom.”
Stephen cocked his head, trying to understand what the difference in emphasis signified. “You mean,” he began. Stephen held up four fingers, which he crossed in various combinations. Mia nodded. “Oh,” Stephen said.
“Well, I didn’t know, rather,” Stephen said. “I don’t think such things are shocking. I have just thought of you and Lyle the whole time as, well, straight. And adjusting that idea now is causing me trouble, I admit. More with Lyle.”
“If it helps, Lyle and Peter have tried sleeping together just once. They were very drunk and gave up after two minutes, entirely unsuccessful. They wanted to rid themselves of the prejudice, the rotten old patrician taboo, so they said, but couldn’t.”
“That’s a relief,” Stephen said.
“And that prejudice runs deep, you see,” Mia said. “You old bigot.”
“I’ll try to reform myself. Every time I think I’ve drawn even with modern thought, somebody moves the mark on me.” Stephen dropped his book into the bag and stood up. “After all that news, and the sun, I think I need another swim.”
“I’ll join you.” Mia stood up and stripped off her bikini bottom. Stephen turned his head and saw that Mia’s pubic hair was shaved in a neat triangle of glossy black curls before he jerked his face away. “Oh, I’m sorry!” Mia said. “I forgot that would embarrass you more. It just feels funny to me to swim with it. It would be like you going into the ocean in slacks and a dress shirt.”
“I’ll be okay.” Stephen tossed his shirt on the beach chair and started down the sand. “Come along.”
Mia walked by his side. “You going to leave those on?” she asked, referring to his swim trunks.
“Today I am.”
“It’s a shame. The water feels better without them.”
Stephen didn’t answer. She reached out and squeezed his hand, then let it go. “Why does my body bother you?”
“Can’t you guess?” Stephen asked.
“Stephen,” Mia said, “you know me better than anyone else on this beach. You know my thoughts and feelings as well as any other friend I have, as well as Lyle. Maybe better because you listen better. So why should seeing my body matter?”
“Because knowing your thoughts and feelings doesn’t make me want to sleep with you, Mia,” Stephen said with sudden exasperation. “Helen and I don’t have the same arrangement you and Lyle have. This is a dangerous game, at a bad time, you’re playing with me, Mia. I wish you wouldn’t.”
“It’s not a game,” Mia told him quietly. “I don’t want to hurt you or Helen. But
I want to be honest. I want to be who I am and be seen as that person, without apologizing or being afraid. I don’t want to pretend I care for you less than I do because it might make something simpler. And I’m not going to be afraid of our sexual instincts. I’m not going to act as if we don’t have an attraction, but just because I acknowledge it doesn’t mean I’m going to seduce you. We can talk to each other honestly, and understand each other. We’ve always been able to do that. Isn’t not being able to talk the problem you and Helen have?”
“Seems like it,” Stephen said.
“Then let’s not make it a problem you and I have, too.”
Stephen stopped, but Mia kept walking down the beach. She turned to look at Stephen, and Stephen looked back, letting Mia see that he was studying her body. Her breasts and hips were fuller, Lyle was right, she wasn’t skinny any more. Her hair was long, wavy, and dark – as it had been in college – and her olive complexion didn’t burn as easily as Lyle’s pale skin. Stephen looked at her face. There he found her chocolate brown eyes, the elegant hump of her nose, her prominent chin, all as he remembered them, but her expression was different. It was bolder and more open than it had been at school. Mia’s face seemed to say that she was satisfied with the attention Stephen was paying her, and deserved to be seen as beautiful. He understood that. But Stephen couldn’t be the one to give her that attention. He’d made his promises to Helen and he meant to keep them, regardless of what his heart cried after one day or the next. The heart was an unreliable organ, a boat without a rudder, blown in any direction, or as often floundering in crosswinds and complicated seas. Stephen didn’t trust his. He certainly wasn’t going to listen to it.
“Come swimming with me, Stephen.”
“No, I think I’ll go back to the house. I’ll take the umbrella and leave you the canoe.”
Stephen regretted not getting a chance to swim again before returning to Tania’s house. He was hot even before he left the beach, and by the time he had carried the umbrella and his possessions back over the dunes and along the sandy trail, he was drenched in sweat and thirsty. Stephen lay his burdens on the deck, got a long drink of water from the kitchen, then walked straight to the outdoor shower behind the house. He took off his trunks and lay them across the waist-high wooden wall, and soaked himself thoroughly in the cold strong spray before adding warm water to the mix. Stephen used the soap and shampoo he found on the shower’s long bench, dried himself with one of the towels stacked there, and returned to his room. Helen was lying on the bed under the sheet. She opened her eyes when Stephen walked in.
“Did I wake you?” he asked.
“No, I was just enjoying doing nothing. Come join me.” Helen turned down the sheet. She was wearing black underwear with a matching bra. Stephen dropped his towel on the floor and lay down. They faced each other, with their heads propped on one hand.
“Will you enjoy yourself here?” Stephen asked Helen.
“Yes. I already am,” she told him with a smile. “It’s a beautiful spot. I’m glad to see Lyle and Mia, and I think I’m going to like Tania, too. I wish she weren’t so big breasted, though.”
“Too much competition.”
“Yours are perfect, just right.” Stephen leaned down to kiss her sternum.
“Tania’s gone to town, anyhow, to attend to some business at a gallery. She asked if you would help with the grill for dinner, and I said of course you would. You are the fire master, after all. Lyle’s taken his bicycle for a ride.”
Helen reached down and took Stephen’s penis in her hand. “Did you have fun with Mia?”
“Sure,” Stephen said, trying to sound off-hand. “I read my book. We chatted. Mia went for a swim when I decided to come back here.”
“She looks great, doesn’t she?” Helen asked Stephen. He looked carefully at Helen’s face, trying to decide if her question was a proxy for another she wanted to ask him or perhaps some kind of test or tease. He saw nothing. It was just conversation.
“She’s filled out, blossomed.”
“So you aren’t afraid of competition from Mia’s new breasts then?” Stephen asked.
“Mia is an old friend and perfectly safe!” Helen laughed. “She’s always been sweet, of course, and I mean that as the highest compliment. But there used to be something shy about her, tentative – as if she were apologizing for, I’m not sure what – and it’s not there now. That’s what I meant by blossomed, by the way, you bonehead. I think it’s great.”
“I think I see what you mean, now that you point it out,” Stephen said. His answer was evasive and distracted because his penis was rapidly stiffening in Helen’s hand.
“What’s this?” she asked, peering down. “Didn’t you have enough this morning?”
“No,” Stephen said.
“Who was it that set you on? Your stacked Tania?”
“That round, wrinkled old lady in the white canvas hat.”
“I don’t think so!”
“Just you, Helen,” Stephen told her, wanting the words to be true, wanting to make them true again, and make them true for good. “Just you.”
“Well, that’s good, because we are one flesh, remember? That’s what my father said when he married us, and he knows what he’s talking about most of the time.”
Stephen and Helen made love again. Afterwards, they lay together. Stephen dozed off and Helen held his body, listening to him breathe, and tingling with relief and happiness. “He loves me, he loves me, he loves me,” Helen whispered, “and all is well again.”
It was only now, when it was obvious that she had been wrong, that Helen could admit to herself she had been worried. She held Stephen more tightly, smiling, and then let him fall gently away. Helen raised herself on one elbow to look at her husband. “I thought you were falling out of love with me,” Helen told his sleeping face. “You acted awkward and uncomfortable when you were around me. You worked late. You stopped making love to me,” she whispered, dipping close to smell his skin, “although you let me make love to you. I was scared you would tell me I was right, so I stopped you from talking. I know I was a coward to do this, but I couldn’t help myself. But I know now you’ve forgiven me. And I’ll love you harder to make it up.”