“I know the perfect place for you,” she tells me, phoning from the bath at her mother’s apartment in the city.
I am at the long, red-honey wooden bar at the only diner on the island, treating myself to fish and chips and a beer, pretending confidence; I haven’t grown accustomed to eating alone yet. The sign out front says “The Hardwood Store,” but you have to cross the street and go down the block to buy screwdrivers and light bulbs at a place called Island Lumber. That’s where we met.
I’d come in for chicken feed (always organic) and she, working the farm and garden counter, sold me an antibiotic to prevent worms in my flock. She had small hands that painted pictures in the air when she talked, hovering now and then over my arm without quite touching. I made my way to the register up front holding the medication, feeling like some other person had taken my place while we talked, the kind of person who might do any number of unpredictable things.
In line beside the bags of chips and jerky, my husband held up the bottle with its rows of fine print following the all caps WARNING.
“That’s an interesting choice,” he said, this man who had known me for thirteen years. The world around me snapped back into place and I was myself again. I tucked the bottle behind the beef jerky and bought my organic feed.
I hear the water rush away from her in the tub and I know she’s sitting up now, plotting my future.
“It’s not even on the market,” she says, “but I know the owner and I bet I can get you in for $500 a month.”
It’s after nine and the noise behind me of children who’ve just lost interest in their broken crayons and the photocopied pictures drowns her out for a moment.
“…beach…” is all I catch.
“A house on the beach for $500?” I imagine the crowd around me suddenly losing interest in their own conversations. My voice feels too loud, bouncing off the terracotta tiles underfoot.
The atmosphere in the diner begins to change quickly then, the noisy kids hustled out by their parents and the heavy door thumping shut behind them all. It’s quiet enough that I hear the water moving around her and against the tub as she changes positions.
“I could maybe talk her down to four if you do yard work.”
I crumble the greasy crust of fried fish, breathing in so deeply there’s no more room for anything.
She laughs at my silence and the sound of it is water-warm.
The armoire is red, Chinese antique; the couches are green leather and hard enough to bruise your backside when you sit down quick. One wall is all windows, forty rectangles lying sideways, each one holding a piece of water and sky. I can take in the whole house in the space of one quick breath, turn around, bare feet on cedar floors, and let the breath back out before I reach the rectangles again and count how many ways I’m lucky.
I still have a picture of her there, sitting on the end of the couch with her back to the view while she laughs at me and refuses to look at the camera. She’s wearing the shorts her last girlfriend didn’t like, and the white sneakers without laces I borrowed once that gave me blisters when I took her dog for a run. Her arm is extended across the top of the couch, and she looks bigger than she really is, in her tank top and summer haircut.
I can see the owner, Chinese and elegant with long hair and linen jacket, pacing with a phone call across the sharp blue rocks of the driveway, giving me time to decide, but I don’t need time.
The woman on the couch isn’t laughing anymore. She looks at me, smiling.
Please be mine.
It’s June when I move in; five hundred a month and no yard work, with a pair of kayaks included in the rent. We have one full month, a solstice, and a moon like the globe of a dandelion gone to seed, framed in the skylight. A month of firsts and morning-afters with late breakfasts eaten in the too-bright shine of sun on the water while we look at nothing but each other.
By late July the island is a jelly jar, and to breathe deeply is to paddle through the scent of blackberries and sunshine, every fruit full and hanging, trembling in the wind coming up off the water when the waves turn the color of parking lot oil-spill rainbows. But around certain corners, where the light has been too bright and the days too long, there’s a whiff of vinegar, and berries lay in flattened heaps beneath the vines.
Something has changed between us. She calls less often and when she does, silence begins to work its way into the conversation.
“When are you going to go kayaking with me?” I ask, unable to wait any longer for her next words.
“Soon,” she says, but it’s an apology, not a promise.
After she hangs up, I sit in my chair and watch the dark come across the water and the streetlights flash on the opposite shore: stop; go. Stop. I fall asleep with the window behind my bed open wide to the hill where the brambles sprawl, and I imagine I can hear them growing, stretching long arms to push against the screen and straight through. The pillow next to me still holds the shape of her head.
She’s gone before the leaves begin to change on the maple tree that hides my view of the mountain. I take the kayak out for the first time, alone, to get away from the memory of her on the couch, at the table in my bathrobe, asleep in my bed with only the top of her head showing from beneath the sheets.
When I stop paddling, the tide turns me around so that I face the shore and I see my little house, all of it, in a punch of rushing air, a joy that hurts. The sound of my laughter reaches across the water.