Before we moved up north, my memories of summers past were mid-Atlantic: sugared candied orange and lime, and ice pop grape; softly rounded and coconut lotion-infused. We bought our roasted nuts in white paper bags; we stained our sneakers a winey burgundy from picking mulberries in the lane. Now once again up north, out on the porch this bright New England summer morning, it was all black kelpy stench and saline breezes. As happens when you’re unmoored from your foundation and set adrift, sensations are heightened and become everything. Jay was back from Europe and we were spending a long weekend at my mother’s summer rental on the Connecticut coastline. You could travel the extremes simply by opening the screen door and sticking your head back in the cool restfulness of the shadowed house, the smell of browned butter from the earlier pancakes, eaten with cherry jam and powdered sugar while half-naked from just getting out of bed, still permeating the premises. Outside, the sand and salt could scrub you raw.
“Do you want more coffee? We should start thinking about heading out in an hour or so.”
“Okay,” Jay said, staring out to sea.
I reflected on the unfamiliar maleness of him sitting there: the large foot up on the railing, flat and broad, so different from the curvy arch and polished seashell toes of mine; the bare chest, the loose boxers with their white folds and gaps. The pistons driving to succeed or crash. I was chagrined at having gotten used to the proximity of it after being so long unaccustomed only to lose it again. This was the furthest point we would go in our relationship. Now we would turn and go our separate ways.
Why had we come together yet again, this time, I wondered. How many women had he had by now, as his fame grew? How many groupies, how many models/actresses, by definition the seemingly inevitable choice to showcase achievement; beauties who floated like oil above the mere waters of ordinary womanhood. But my irritation was not with them, or Jay, only with me. The gap in question here was not quantitative. He had taken the wheel of the race car, driving with skill through reality; I was still playacting in my uncle’s barn. What must he think of me? The time for the van had passed. ‘Get going,’ I’d say to myself with conviction. But I never did. The strangeness I felt with him was a measure of the distance between us in strength of will. And the distance I had traveled away from the realm of my senses.
Did I have all the time left in the world? Were we still talking about forever? So many sailors—pirates, pilgrims—had left these local ports seeking profit or redemption, I thought as I squinted out at the water, the wind whipping my hair about my face. There were always ships at sea, some vessel to be spied on the horizon. My mother had had enough of me, and I of her. I felt unable to move in her presence. I was eager to set sail.
* * *
Back in New York, I found a box of old stuff my mother had set aside in anticipation of my eventual departure. It contained the usual assortment of memorabilia: concert ticket and baseball game stubs, a playbill from my high school production of Camelot with my role as “Second Lady-in-Waiting” duly noted. Another thing in there was an old datebook, and as I flipped through the pages, I stopped on September 18. “Aunt Jean” was inked diagonally across the page. Her birthday. Images of my aunt, reserved and meticulous, sent me into a reverie. Her practicality would cut through the sloppy thinking that shrouded and thickened my mind. A clue might be provided, perhaps a key. ‘That’s what I need,’ I said to myself, ‘more Aunt Jean and less Uncle Henry.’ I hunted around for pen and paper and sat down to write to her.
I wrote asking for advice, and we struck up a long-distance correspondence, as much as was possible with someone a world away, in more ways than one. A stealth campaign was mounted to bypass Mom and coordinate with Jean. There was work to do if I was serious, otherwise I was not to waste her time. Mom caught wind of the shift in loyalties, and chided me every time I went to the Post Office.
“You always go overboard on things. You’re more comfortable with these sad sacks than with people who are actually good at what they do. You string along Jay . . .”
“I don’t string along Jay.”
“Your cats, your shelter dogs, your ragtag—and my sister loves it. She loves it!” Mom threw up her hands at me. “She eggs you on.”
“No she doesn’t.”
“Like hell she doesn’t. You two are like the Bremen musicians! The second coming! All you need is the donkey.”
There were four Bremen musicians, Mom. Four damn musicians. I had to get out. At one time, my mother surely was capable of higher feelings; I’m not sure what caused her to lock them away. Disappointment is a rougher pill to swallow than most will acknowledge. They say we have a vestigial tail in our bodies; I could only hope she had vestigial grace in her soul.
Months passed, and just after I had given up and was beginning to take these jabs to heart, my endurance all but gone, an aerogramme arrived from Croatia from my aunt with the name of a small organization that was working there, ostensibly with the UN humanitarian relief mission, skirting its association with Medicine Nonsectarian. Its mission was to find and rescue the Lipizzaner horses that had been kidnapped from the Lipik stables. She could not meet me, but could make the necessary referrals, and could arrange to have someone pick me up at the Zagreb airport and take me to where I needed to go. She said to think long and hard about this; although there were numerous organizations and press on the ground, it was dangerous—she knew of at least one fatal shooting of an aid worker. Once there, returning was not an easy given, and this was not a solution to boredom or an alternative to shopping. She couldn’t stop herself from including that dig. Must be in the DNA. I refolded her letter and sat with head down in silence, slapping the flimsy paper again and again against my palm before whispering to no one in particular, “Full sail.”