Her throat is dry, too dry to swallow, and she has to pee, but the lure of the still warm pillow is powerful. Her heart rate is slow and dull. She breathes slowly, counting her breaths: in-two-three-four, out-two-three-four. It’s early Sunday morning and she wants to go back to sleep. But no, she has a date. Not a date, really. But an outing. That’s better, she thinks, rubbing her eyes with her fingers. It’s an outing.
She steps into a swimsuit and pulls it over her skinny torso. The idea of spending a day with a man who is not Kurt is almost painful. No, it is painful. The long bones of her thighs ache with missing him. But he’s gone. Gone gone gone. The Speedo snaps against her skin, settling into place. The swimsuit belongs to her friend Melanie who thinks exercise is important. She will not look in the mirror. She knows she is too thin, and too pale. She needs no evidence to prove she is diminished.
She should cancel this date. It wasn’t her idea in the first place. “Just have a drink with him.” Melanie had pushed. “He’s nice, he’s handsome. And we know him, his family. I’ve worked with him at the marina bar every summer for almost twenty years. We know his family. He’s not an axe murderer so what could it hurt?” Instead of a drink, Mark invited her to come out on his boat.
When she was a girl, her father owned a twenty-eight foot Oday sailboat and a center-console Grady White. From the youngest age, Maryann learned how to maintain an engine, how to repair broken lines and blown fuses. Her ability to navigate in foul weather earned her a bit of notoriety among sailors and power boaters who sometimes misread the weather maps and ignored Small Craft Advisories. In this part of the country, fast moving storms frequently race up the coast and pelt the lake with gale winds and flash floods. It was not unusual for a sunny day to turn violent in a matter of minutes. Maryann worked summers at the marina and she knew how to handle most any boat on the lake including the skiff that Kurt had rented. Caught in a sudden downpour and with no visibility whatsoever, Kurt had beached the rented boat in the shallows at the far end of the lake. The emergency call came through just as Maryann was finishing a repair on a pontoon boat that sported a 150 horse-power engine with a blown fuse. She’d donned her foul weather slicker and sped out in her father’s Grady and towed the small skiff and its three inebriated passengers back into the marina without so much as a word of rebuke. She’d tied up the skiff at the end of the dock and escorted the soaked boaters to the office where Kurt paid a fine for keeping the boat out too long and a charge for the tow, and she’d noticed how Kurt’s wet hair glistened like the hide of a seal, how his eyes danced when he looked her over while he paid the marina fees. She remembered his ease, and the way he stood with his long legs far apart as if fighting for balance. They’d walked out of the marina’s office together as if they were already a couple. Now, she walks quickly past the office and follows Mark out onto the dock. The same dock where she’d tied up Kurt’s rented boat.
Maryann sits on the side of Mark’s boat and dips her foot into the dark blue lake. The water is numbing cold. Mark is handsome. He has dark lashes and thick brows that shadow his bright eyes. His complexion insinuates the presence of a beard, but the date will be done long before she has to worry about that. Kurt had never allowed whiskers to accumulate on his face. He said a clean face presented an aura of dependability and reliability, traits important to a man in business. Kurt used to say it signified trustworthiness. Kurt used to say a lot of things.
With her toe, she draws little figure-eights in the still water, watching the insignificant ripples disappear almost immediately.
“Here,” Mark hands her a beer, wet with condensation. “This will help.”
“Everything,” he smiles. He holds his can aloft in an open toast. “To a hot summer day.”
Maryann follows his gesture and raises the can to her lips. The beer is ice-cold and absolutely delicious. The mixture of bitter hops and salt from the sweat on her lips reminds her of childhood, of long hot summer days that lasted forever, of nights under the stars with Kurt lying on their backs on the dock with water clapping underneath like ghosts. Kurt loved beer. Maryann still kept a case of Beck’s in the free-standing refrigerator out in the garage.
“So. Melanie said you are divorced,” Mark starts. He wipes his lips on the back of his hand.
“Me too. It sucks, right?”
Divorced? Maryann startles. She is not divorced. She is married. Married to Kurt. So what if he left her for another woman. So what if he hasn’t been home in seven months, and then only to get his snow tires left hanging in the garage. She’s married! I’m married, she wants to say. I’m married.
She fills her throat with beer, swallowing in great and noisy gulps. Mark laughs. “Jeeze, I guess you were thirsty,” he says, handing her another can. “Hydrate,” he says with a pleasing smile.
Flecks of alcohol begin to etch at her, nudging at the anger that glues her together. She needs anger, her one last survival mechanism. She’s been angry for weeks. Months. How long has it been since she learned Kurt was leaving? She tries to envision the calendar, but the beer and the heat are working against her. Her mind is unclear. Her thoughts dart about like schools of nervous minnows.
“What are you thinking?” Mark asks. “You have a funny expression.”
She shrugs a fragile shoulder, sets the beer can on the fiberglass transom and slides into the darkened water without so much as a sound. The cold thickens in her blood, her limbs are rigid. Water encircles Maryann’s neck and scours at the sweat and tension there. Salt dissolves, disappears. Her body acclimates, moving freely now, relaxing. She floats, untethered, in the cold lake water. She is unremarkable, invisible. Her bones are spindly and without heft. She pedals her legs and is immediately exhausted. She sinks into the silent shroud.
But water is not silent. There are chirps and groans and tinkling sounds like pops of electricity. Her own heartbeat is a hollow pulse, warning away curious minnows and surface insects who jerk and turn in tiny gestures as if summoned by an unheard gong. Her arms stretch long and she hears the water coursing between her fingers and following the angles of her wrists and elbows and reaching into her armpits, lifting her, caressing her. She can hear the satisfied groaning of her tendons as she spreads her toes; she hears the delicate tickling of water fingering the curves of her skeletal feet, pulling at each toe and then releasing it, rebirthing each digit into the viscera of water. She pulls her knees to her chest and hears the gentle clicking of vertebrae relinquishing tension along her spine, yielding to the sinuous pressure around her fetal form.
Maryann realizes something. She feels wonderful. What an odd and unfamiliar sensation! As the water undulates around her, she feels warm and safe and, what is that feeling? Whole. She feels whole. Not like her old self, the fractured old shadow who silently stumbled around like a cobbled old mare. How odd, to be submerged in a cold substrate and feel the sensation of warmth. Angst begins to seep like poison out of her pores. Kurt has a baby with the other woman. Her head rolls light on her neck, swiveling without resistance. Kurt lives with this other woman, with her other children, and with their love child who is already five years old. She puffs her abdomen like a blow fish, feeling the striations in her muscles glide as if lathered in oil. Kurt will not be coming home to her. Denial loosens its hold, it releases its thorny grip on her lungs and sets free her spirit. Her skin feels new and fresh and stimulated by the cold. Her hair swirls like tentacles, caressing her shoulders and her neck. She is free. Free of anger and pain, free of the relentless sunshine of each breaking morning. Her forehead smoothes, her lids are soft over her eyes.
A big hand plunges past her face.
“What the hell is wrong with you? I thought you said you were a strong swimmer.” Mark is yelling at her, holding her above the splashing water, one hand gripped tightly around her upper arm. Around her paltry bicep muscle. He draws her over the side of the boat and deposits her onto the fiberglass deck, his arm still holding onto her arm.
Her shoulder threatens to give way. “You’re hurting me,” she says.
He lets go of her arm but his eyes stay fixed to her face. “What were you thinking? You just sank. Straight under. You didn’t even swim! What the fuck?” He stamps his feet on the fiberglass hull, shifting his weight, light on his feet. Like a boxer, she thinks.
Her arm is throbbing where his hand held her too tightly. There will be a bruise there tomorrow, she thinks. Lately she bruises easily, as if her skin is pulled too tight around her skeleton. He moves away from her, wiping his eyes with wet hands. He restarts the engine, and reaches for a towel, throwing it to her.
The boat lurches forward. “Fuck,” Mark says into the wind.
Maryann sits with the towel knotted at her chest, waiting for Mark to finish tying up the boat. He makes perfect hitch knots. She remembers most of the knots, even though she hasn’t practiced them for at least twenty years. There is something appealing about his hitch. The line is thick and twisted, not something usually employed on the lake. There is little current, and no fierce tides. A simple thin cable line would suffice. Fibers of the heavy weave are frayed, Maryann sees several cuts and breaks in the line, penetrating only a few centimeters into the hemp. This line was from another place, it had another life somewhere, a harder life. Mark is finished tying up. He stands, straightens and passes a hand through his hair. He is beautiful. But Maryann has already had beautiful. She does not want him.
Later that night, she lies in her king sized bed with the sheets and blankets and quilt pulled up under her chin, and she sips room-temperature white wine that she’s poured into a coffee cup marked with the words World’s Best Wife in blood red enamel across the side, and she thinks about floating alone in the non-silence of the lake without a thought to her own physical existence, just floating and thrumming and being and then, just then, she realizes that her marriage has become a weight lashed around her neck and secured with an anchor bend, a hitch knot. She closes her eyes and unties the knot in her mind, and lets the nylon rope loosen from around her neck and slide away.
Lisa K Friedman lives and writes in Washington DC. Her work appears in The NY Times and in the Huffington Post where she maintained a humor column for several years. She is the author of Nothing to Lose, Cruise to Retribution and Capital Baby.