by Katherine Jamieson
Dot drifted from room to room, listening to her footfalls echo against the Mexican tile, soften over the wooden decks, and disappear altogether on the plush shag rugs. Rosita had just been in for the weekly cleaning and everything was immaculate. Sunlight streamed in through the bay windows, illuminating the décor of solid, Easter egg colors. Her decorator, had pushed her to “go rainbow” with the place to match the beach setting and the dramatic sunsets. Together they had spent months searching for just the right rugs and couches, everything down to the fuschia flyswatter. A year later, the colors struck her as rather gaudy, but, of course, it was much too late.
The beach house was cavernous. It could easily hold sixteen, plus extra space for cribs and aero-beds, and children loved to sleep nestled in the giant bean bags in the TV room. Designed to accommodate a squadron of family and friends, a jumbling, jostling togetherness in the bright colors. From the moment she and Clark had found the lot, the house had taken shape around the buoyancy of this imagined crowd. And, of course, Clark was part of it, was there with her, always. Where else could he be?
Tonight she would have a glass of wine. No she wouldn’t. Yes, she would, why not? The mild tussling continued, tiresome. She did not have problems with alcohol, but she knew the drink would be the event of the evening. This drink was all she had to do in the world, and perhaps a little dinner afterward, though she was not hungry.
Walking into the basement, she saw the orange and yellow checked pullout couch. After some friends with teenage boys had visited last year, she’d found a copy of Penthouse between the cushions. The women’s bodies were smooth and spectral, like something of the moon. Moon women with their promising creases and folds, every-ready lust. In the camera’s eye they looked bold and unashamed, though she wondered.
Would Clark have liked these women? They’d never spoken of, much less looked at these kinds of images together. So much went unspoken between them as she went about busily decorating and furnishing their life that would soon be only her life. The affair had blindsided her, and now, more than a year after signing all the papers and divvying up their thirty-seven years of memory-charged things, she still waited to hear him tromping up the steps to their house at 6:30 every evening. Still woke in the night surprised to find his side of the bed vacant, the sheets pulled tight. When had he become so unhappy?
Joan was the name of his new happiness. Dot had always known of her vaguely, an old co-worker of Clark’s at some long ago law office. And because she was named, because she was an acquaintance, Dot had never suspected her as a threat. When Clark and Joan had first moved in together, not long after the separation was final, Dot had dropped some documents off when they were out. She was supposed to leave them in the foyer, but instead she walked the rooms, and saw their clothes hanging together, the bed hastily made up with sheets she herself had bought, dishes in the sink from a soft-boiled egg breakfast, Clark’s favorite. Photos were already framed and sitting on the mantelpiece: tall Clark, taller Joan, they smiled. Joan’s grey tabby followed her from room to room, watching. Dot catalogued their traces, piecing together the story of their morning, their days to come.
At sixty-three, she had no plan for this. She wasn’t jaunty or independent, and she’d never lived alone. Her first response had been resentment that he had broken their arrangement. People marry to get old together, don’t they? She had money, so she would be fine as far as that went. But what to do with her twenty, thirty some odd years left? Her life spread before her like an abandoned picnic blanket on a cool fall day.
If Clark had died a few years before, after the heart attack, this impulse for infidelity would have died with him. She would have been able to mourn purely, and then ensconce herself in widow status, with the honor of a marriage completed by death. As it was, friends were already encouraging her to “get out there” again. She had to fly in the face of Clark’s cheating and wrest back her confidence, or some other nonsense. But it was Joan, not Clark, who put a face to her misery. The visage of the shorthaired, tennis-fit woman in the frame was the one that floated before her when she could not sleep.
As she walked upstairs she thought she would have that drink after all. Why not? Every action had become a way to count time. Glass of wine, small sips: thirty minutes. Washing her own dishes: three minutes. A shower, maybe ten, fifteen if she could relax. Was she counting up to something, or down? As she poured the glass, she decided she couldn’t stand being in the house a second longer. Walking and drinking on the beach would soothe her, and when she returned night would have muted the colors, and she would be drowsy.
Clark had insisted on building the beach house as far from others as the island would allow. At this time of day, during the off-season, she could walk for miles and see no one. She had let him site the house not realizing this would mean ongoing battles with the zoning board and citizen’s environmental groups. Clark wanted to encroach on the piping plovers’ nesting grounds, and he had hired a lawyer to defy the ordinances. The birds lost the case, and were forced further up the shoreline. Dot now had the irrational feeling that the birds who winged by the sweeping bay windows knew she had taken their land, and the spectacular views she enjoyed came at the price of plover eggs, and plover babies.
This evening, instead of walking by the ocean, which was her custom, Dot went into the dunes. The waves of sand rolled out before her, and she moved slowly to avoid jostling the wine. Every few steps she paused to take a sip, but the wind had picked up now and the grains flew into her hair and ears, and settled into the glass. She poured the liquid out, and the burgundy flared back at her as it sunk into the white sand. Covering it with her foot, she kept walking. The monotony of the dunes lulled her, and she moved through the fading light as a boat navigates fog.
Dot heard a cat noise, somewhere between a meow and a purr, and turned toward the sound. In the low light, she could make out a young girl’s torso rising up against the sunset, her eyes closed, her nipples as pink and bright as the rays shooting from the dying sun. A boy was below her on the blanket, but she could only see his chin tipped up, his body straining against the girl’s. The two rose and fell as if she were the siren on the prow of a boat riding a swell. Mermaids rutting. They were just a few feet away. Dot dropped her wine glass, and it landed silently on the sand.
Watching them, Dot was certain that it was she—clothed, alone, standing—who did not belong in this place. She knew she should back away slowly, but she could not pull her eyes from the girl’s dirty blonde hair whipping in the wind, her narrow, muscled waist locked to the boy’s groin, the tiny smile nestled on her full lips. The girl arched again and gripped the boy’s shoulders as he bucked against her. Dot let out an involuntary sob, and the girl’s eyes flicked open.
Dot closed her eyes and stood frozen, mortified. She hadn’t even realized that she was crying. The sound had come straight from the sea, a strangled squawk of misery she didn’t know she was capable of making. When she opened her eyes, the girl stood in front of her.
She was still naked, and the insides of her thighs glistened with semen. A tiny, gold stud sparkled on her nostril, and the tattoo of a vine wound over her hipbone encircling her navel. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen. “Are you lost?” she asked.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Dot said, wiping at her nose, and dusting the sand from her hands. “I’m sorry, I never walk this way,” she said, looking down again. The girl nodded, completely unashamed. She was timeless, a flower-child reincarnate or New Age acolyte, it was all the same. The world of tattoos, drugs, and free love, which Dot had never caught onto when she was the girl’s age, much less now that she was old.
“Can we help you get home?” she asked. The boy beyond them had rolled his body flat on the sand, and he gazed out at the darkening ocean.
“No, really, I’ll be fine. I don’t live far,” Dot said. She started to move toward the dune, and faltered on the sand as she turned. The girl stepped forward to steady her, and Dot heard a splintering noise and shriek of pain. The girl fell backward, crying, the bright red spurt a shock of color on the sand. In a second, the boy was beside them, easing the girl back against his chest and stretching her leg out to examine it. Shards of glass jutted from the arch of her foot.
“My wine glass… I dropped it when I saw you, I’m so sorry,” said Dot. The girls’ face was wet and ridged with pain. Her nakedness made her wounds seem primal.
“We have our bikes,” said the boy. He looked younger and less confident than the girl, and she realized that he was using her body to shield his own nudity.
“We’ll go to my house,” Dot said. “I can drive you to the hospital. Do you live on the Island…or are your families visiting?” she asked.
“No, we work at the farm on MacAdam Road. Our supervisor will pick us up,” the boy said. “How far is your house?” Dot pointed to her mansion barely visible above the dunes about half a mile away. The boy lay the girl back down and ran to get their clothes. She could hear the slide of his legs into jeans, and the crack of the stretched cotton as he pulled on his shirt. Back at her side, he and Dot lifted the girl gingerly and slid a flowered shift over her head, threading her arms through the holes. Her flowered bra and panties poked from the boys’ back pocket.
They strung the girl between them and raised her up, moaning. Dot had to work to get her balance in the sand; the girl was heavier than she’d imagined. Her moist arm wrapped around Dot’s neck, and she could feel the girl’s fingertips pulling the flesh off her shoulder and pressing into her bone. Dot grasped the boy’s calloused hand underneath the girl to create a swing. The three moved as one body, chastened by the girl’s pain, pausing when she couldn’t stand the jostling any longer. Dot smelled the pungency of their sex, which seemed to float on sea air. Breathing heavily in the summer evening, they used the lights of the house to guide them back.
Dot led them in through the basement, and put the girl, whose name she had learned was Sarai, on the yellow and orange couch. The boy, Thomas, went upstairs to call the farm. Dot ran for towels and could only find bright pink ones with purple polka dots. She propped up Sarai’s leg, trying not to stare at the deep gashes in her foot.
Dot brought Tylenol with some mango juice. The girl’s face looked worn now, but she was able to give her a vague smile. “Thanks,” she said, grimacing as she settled into the couch.
“I’m so sorry about this,” Dot said. “If you hadn’t stepped out to help me…” Sarai shook her head before she could finish.
“Things happen for a reason, right?” she said. “Maybe we needed to meet you, to see the Plover House first hand,” she said glancing around.
“The what house?” Dot asked.
“The Plover House. Isn’t that what this place is called? They told us the name on the farm.” Dot flushed. The farmers must despise her, and probably the townspeople, too. The legacy of Clark’s bull-headed battles was now hers to live down. Blood was trickling from the girl’s foot again, leaving red dots next to the purple ones. Dot stood up and walked to the window.
“What’s your job on the farm?” Dot asked.
“Growing flowers,” Sarai said, shifting and wincing. “We make bouquets and sell them at the Wednesday Market. Have you ever been?” Dot recalled a cluster of wooden tables around the gazebo in the town common, dusty children running about, twangy banjo and fiddle in the background. The wafting scent of patchouli and the general bohemian revelry had kept her at bay.
“I haven’t,” she said.
“Oh, you have to come!” said Sarai. “I’m there through Columbus Day, and then I leave for the winter.”
“I’m off the Island for the season next Tuesday,” she lied.
“Oh, too bad. Next summer then,” the girl said.
This is youth, thought Dot: the optimism of reunions. The confidence that there will always be a next time, a second chance. Why ever say goodbye?
Thomas came down the stairs. “Russ is driving over in the truck,” he said, easing Sarai’s damp head onto his shoulder and stroking her forehead. The girl closed her eyes. Clark and she had been about their age when they’d met, and she’d gotten pregnant with Connor just a few years later. She knew from her sons and their ever-changing cast of girlfriends that young people did not settle down at this age any longer. This was probably a summer tryst before returning to lovers in Portland or Bali. Still, she could see the tenderness was real. She felt the quietness of the house bear down, as if the pair had already taken their love and their wounds and gone.
“I should put on the outside lights. Do you need anything else?” asked Dot.
As Thomas looked up at her, she noticed the smattering of freckles across his nose and the long eyelashes any girl would envy. With their tanned skin and sun-faded clothes, the two looked like muted wildflowers against the brash couch. “No, we’re fine. Thanks for everything,” he said.
“Of course, of course. It was my fault…”
“It’s all good, no worries,” the girl said.
“I hope your foot is Ok. You won’t be able to work on the farm for awhile, I suppose.”
“Hopefully they’ll find something for me. Maybe I can start making the wreaths for fall,” said the girl. “Come by and I’ll give you one.”
She was relieved to hear the sound of the truck on the gravel minutes later, and see the bearded man lift Sarai from the couch as if simply heaving a bushel of hay. Sarai embraced Dot from her perch in Russ’ arms, and planted a dry kiss on her cheek.
“Come by the farm anytime. You’re always welcome.” Dot watched them ease into the cab of the truck, and arrange Sarai’s leg carefully across the torn upholstery. Thomas jumped into the bed of the truck, and settled himself in amongst the loose carrots and potatoes. Soon she was left with just the empty juice glass and the bloodied towel, which she threw in the garbage.
Dot spent her last few weeks on the island packing and making arrangements to close the house down for the season. She would be back with the boys and her sister’s family on Thanksgiving, but in the meantime the place would be empty. On the day she was scheduled to take the ferry home, she stopped by the post office before heading to the dock. There was a postcard from her younger son, Martin, who’d just spent a week with Clark and Joan and her daughter from a previous marriage. Martin the peacemaker; he’d tried to keep them together, and now he was trying to make sure they all got along. In his small, exact print he’d innoncently written: It’s strange to say, but in some ways I think you’d like her, Mom.
Back in the car, Dot curled into a fetal position on the leather seat. She was in Cambodia again with Clark, their thirty-fifth anniversary trip. They were on the waterfall tour, just them and the guide from Phnom Penh, and she’d been she worrying about the contractor back home, and some outstanding paperwork for the beach house. When Clark asked her something— she couldn’t remember what now— she’d snapped at him. They’d walked in silence for a few miles, with the guide seemingly oblivious to their quarrel.
When they came to a fallen tree, Clark sat down, and she and the guide stopped too. But when they’d wanted to keep moving a few minutes later, they couldn’t get him to stand up. He wouldn’t make eye contact with them, and he wouldn’t budge. Dot could still see the maddening slump of his shoulders, how he just kept staring down at the jungle ground thick with vines. At the time, she’d felt embarrassed and outraged, but there was also a kind of rising panic in her chest. She was shrieking at him: What are you doing? What kind of game is this? The guide had kindly walked up the path a bit, but he had to keep an eye on them; there were vipers here, and leopards too.
Then, without saying anything, Clark stood up and started walking again, acting as if nothing had happened. It is that moment that torments her, that moment that she returns to again and again. Had things already started with Joan? Was this the exact moment— between sitting down on the mossy tree and standing up on the spongy ground 9000 miles from their home— that he decided to make his life with another person? Or was it simply when the seed of the possibility of someone else, someone not Dot, planted in his mind? She knew that a marriage was a series of these moments, these fights, these apologies, but this time had been different, final. Why?
The car was stuffy, and the seat was slick with tears. She was searching for some tissues in the glove compartment when she heard a knock on the window. A young, blond Island police officer smiled in at her as she brought the window down. “We need to clear this area, ma’am. Wednesday Market is starting up soon,” he said. She nodded, looking down, and fumbled with the keys. For a terrible moment she thought the car wouldn’t start and she’d be stuck in the lot when all the farm kids showed up. But the engine turned over reliably, and she gave the police officer a tight smile and nod as she pulled out. Hers was the only car left on the street and she felt like she was onstage as she maneuvered it out through the orange cones, past the tanned farmers already lined up with their brilliantly colorful produce.
It wasn’t until she stopped at the light that she saw the girl poised on a truck bed, bandaged foot wrapped in a turquoise batik-patterned scarf. Sarai was with some of the other young farm workers helping unload bushels of apples. The slant light of fall lit her hair golden as it whipped around in the ocean breeze. Then Thomas walked up smiling and tossed her a peach. She took a bite and, surprised by the rush of juice from the fruit, bent forward, laughing, dripping sweetness everywhere.
© Katherine Jamieson , 2019
Katherine Jamieson is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writer's Program, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. Her essays and articles have been published in The New York Times, Narrative, Meridian, Alimentum, Brevity and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2011 and 2013. Based in the woods of Western Massachusetts, Katherine leads a dual life as a reclusive writer and road manager of an internationally touring musician (her husband). You can read more of her writing at: katherinejamieson.com
Plover House was read by Cathie Boruch on June 5th, 2019 for Freedom & Restraint.