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Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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“It’s a little tricky to manage,” Gregory said. “You sit over on this end, don’t move around, and I’ll sit there.” Once she was settled, he nudged the boat from the dock and hopped on. It quivered beneath them for an instant.

“We don’t need this, do we?” She tossed the life jacket onto the dock. “It takes up space.”

They were off, too far to retrieve it. He glanced at the still lake. She was probably right. He would try to forget about it.

“If you like, I’ll show you how to sail.”

“Oh, good.” She started towards him to take the line.

“No, no—stay where you are. I’ll hand it to you. Pull on it like this.” He explained and demonstrated, then gave her the line and showed her how to use the tiller. “There’s nothing to it unless a wind comes up. Then you’d better give it back to me.”

“Oh, I’m not worried about the wind. I’ll manage. It’s great fun.”

“I’m not worried either,” he said tersely. “I’m only telling you all this because it’s a delicate craft and the wind can get a bit fierce without any warning.”

“Okay, okay!” She smiled. “Do you want it back?” She held out the line.

She seemed very young at that moment, and he was sorry he had spoken so sharply. “No, it’s all right. Tell me, what do you do?”

“Do? Oh, you mean work? I work as an editorial assistant.” And she named a mildly liberal political magazine.

Her answer surprised him. He had been sure she would be in show business in some small way. Impossible to imagine her shut up in an office, head bent over a desk, quietly pondering arrangements of sentences and paragraphs.

“And what do you do?” she asked.

He sensed the irony in her tone but didn’t know why it should be there. “I’m a securities analyst.”

She was silent.

He grinned. “I bet you don’t even know what that is.”

“Of course I do. You analyze securities.”

And they both laughed. She was nicer alone, quieter, more subdued. He didn’t feel overwhelmed by her as he had on the lawn. Maybe all that loud talk was an act; maybe she was really timid and covered it by a show of flamboyance. The notion gave him courage.

He cleared his throat. “Do you live alone? I mean, you’re not—uh—married to anyone?”

“Married?” She laughed broadly, throwing her head back so the tendons in her neck stretched taut. With the deep throaty laughter she seemed to expand and send out ripples. “No! How did you get that idea? Do I look married?”

“I was only asking. You did come up with someone. ...”

“Phil? No, he’s just a friend. Just a friend.”

She chuckled softly to herself. Gregory wasn’t sure he liked her at all anymore. The laughter was excessive.

“How about you, since we’re asking? Are you married?”

“No.”

“That’s nice.”

He had to smile at her quick response. Then he asked her to turn the Sunfish so they could head towards the far, secluded end of the lake. “Why is that nice?” he asked.

She was sitting cross-legged now, leaning towards him, interested. “Most men your age are married. It’s curious—reassuring, I guess—to find one who’s not, that’s all. Who’s perhaps taking some more original route. Though of course I don’t know a thing about you,” she amended. “I have no grounds for assuming anything at all. Maybe you’re a wastrel, a cad.” She grinned at him. “Can a man be that and a securities analyst at the same time?”

He had to concede to himself, then, that she might indeed do work that involved thought and spirit.

“What do you mean, my age? How old do you think I am?”

“Oh,” she said, frowning, “thirty? Thirty-one?”

“I’m twenty-eight.” He was often taken for older and was used to it. He knew he had a somber face, and it was a help in business, in fact. Yet coming from her, the judgment hurt.

“Don’t look so sad. I’m never very good at guessing ages. How old do you think I am? Here’s your chance to get even.”

“Well, to look at you, I’d say seventeen.” They laughed together once again. “But seriously, let’s see. Twenty-two?”

“Twenty-four.”

“I wasn’t so far off, then.”

She handed him the line and tiller. “Here—you sail for a while. I want to look around. Lord, but it’s hot, isn’t it?” She stretched her legs out in front of her, brushed the hair off the back of her neck with the familiar, intimate gesture, and leaned back on her elbows, facing the serene shore.

They drifted quietly for a while. Gregory was feeling very peaceful. This girl, this Deirdre, he was thinking, made him feel peaceful. True, she took up a lot of space; yet she managed to leave him plenty of his own. He could possess the whole lake; her presence didn’t limit or hinder him. She took what she needed and left the rest alone.

“Why do you love the Sunfish so?” Her question didn’t break the calm but was part of it.

“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. Maybe because it’s so compact and easy to manage. And so open, no secret parts. It’s almost the smallest thing it can be and still be a boat. Essence of boat.” He smiled, and then added impulsively, in a rare general statement, “Who knows why people love things? It can’t be analyzed.”

“We’re so different. If I got to love it, it would be because it’s so close to the water. You can practically feel the water under you, through it. In it and not in it at once. I love the water.” She dipped a hand in and let water run through her fingers.

“Do you?” He looked sharply into the aqua eyes. “I don’t trust water.”

She sat upright and shook out her hair again. Suddenly, with her gesture, the air between them was alive and turbulent. “I do. I’m really a mermaid. Didn’t they tell you?”

“Mermaids don’t have legs.” He glanced down at hers, shining, with sparse, light hairs; they stretched along the deck, her toes a mere few inches from his thigh.

“Oh, that’s a minor technicality. You know what, Gregory? I’m going to take a swim.” She swung her legs over the side and dangled them in the lake.

“Wait a minute. I mean, we’re all balanced here, and—”

“There’s no problem,” she said kindly. “You move closer to the center and I’ll ease off.”

He had a flash of hot anger. She spoke as if she understood the Sunfish better than he did, and it was her first time out. Before he could think of a proper answer, she slid down and dived beneath the surface. Rapidly, he edged to the center.

He watched her swim. She moved with long, competent, slow but strong strokes, and her hair, darkened by the lake, was truly like a mermaid’s, streaming on the glistening water. A beautiful swimmer. Gregory was in panic. They were all alone in the middle of the lake—if she got a cramp, what could he do? The Sunfish would drift away with no one holding it. And he couldn’t save anyone; he could barely ... It was exactly as he had first surmised. She was a dangerous girl and did dangerous, impetuous things. At last, ten yards from the boat, she stopped swimming and began to play, diving under, treading water, floating on her back in the dark lake striped by undulating beams of sunlight. His heart was pounding and he knew it would not stop until she came safely back. He desperately wanted her to come back but he wouldn’t call to her. And abruptly, summoned up by visceral memory, by the fierce rhythm in his chest, there appeared other sunlit scenes long gone, when his heart had pounded in just that way, and he had watched from a distance while others partook of the sun and the light. After his mother died, his brother, twelve years older and away at school, would come home to see him, mostly in summer, bringing him toys and playing ball. For all his trying it was an unsuccessful brotherhood. To Gregory his brother was always a remote, younger version of his father, both big fair-haired men with powerful shoulders and clear eyes, who negotiated their paths through the world with a sureness and ease he despaired of copying. He understood even then that it could not be copied, that copying its outward forms would belie its very nature. After he was sent to bed his brother and father would have long, man-to-man talks on the lawn in the warm, waning light. He looked on, trapped in his darkened window. Now, immobilized on the Sunfish as he saw Deirdre flip carelessly in the water, he recalled one sunny afternoon, hot like this one, with the same dry, exciting heat, and his father and brother standing close together on the lawn, their fair hair shining, their light summer clothes hanging gracefully on their muscled bodies. They were laughing in low tones and talking confidentially as Gregory approached. He was small and runty and a whiner, and though they would doubtless welcome him into their midst, he feared their welcome might not be genuine and he would be shattering a perfect, mysterious moment in the world and camaraderie of grown men. Ten yards from them he stopped, watched, and turned, downcast, to walk the other way. He hoped they might call him back, but there was no sound; he felt that he would never penetrate the circle of light that enclosed them.

“Hey!” Deirdre called, waving. “Can you leave the boat and come in?”

“I can’t. It would drift away,” he called back.

As she came swimming towards him the pounding in his chest eased. He was afraid, though, that she might grasp the edge too hard and tip the boat over. The Sunfish capsized very easily. Jean and Joe upset it all the time in reckless play and then struggled to right it. But Gregory hated the feeling of slipping off. He had tried it once with Joe and landed awkwardly on his stomach, gulping cold water.

He was relieved to see that she could be sensible. Treading to keep afloat, she placed one hand lightly on the edge, leaning no weight on it.

“Go on, Gregory. You take a swim now and I’ll mind the boat. It’s glorious.”

“No, I’ll swim later. There’s a wind coming up—we ought to go back.” He reached out and helped her aboard. He liked the feel of her upper arm; it was muscular and firm.

“You know,” he said as she settled herself on the deck, “I was a little worried about you out there. The lake is deceptive. It’s about a hundred feet deep in this part.”

“What’s the difference?” she said carelessly, intent on gathering the heavy hair in a coil and wringing it out. “Ten feet or a hundred. If you’re on top, it’s all the same. Oh, that felt marvelous.”

“You’re a good swimmer.”

“When I was a teen-ager I worked as a lifeguard.”

He blushed under his tan, feeling an utter fool for having worried and trembled over her. The girl was a lifeguard, while his orange life jacket had lain like a badge of dishonor on the deck of the Sunfish.

She stretched out flat to dry off in the sun. Her eyes were closed, so he could indulge himself, studying her as he would some wondrous natural terrain. The full curves of her breasts slipped down out of the sides of the scant bikini top; he could see where pale skin merged into suntan. Her stomach was flat and her hipbones jutted up sharply. Where her bathing suit cut across her thighs he could see a few curly hairs, but he looked away quickly, as if he were taking unfair advantage, looking there while her eyes were closed. Her body was ample, strong and large-boned, but not heavy. Five pounds more and there would be too much of her, but as she was, he found her perfect. Her wrists, an anomaly, were narrow and delicate; he could easily ring his thumb and forefinger around them. Drops of water were poised on the hairs on her knees. He wanted to run his hand over them and feel the damp, warm skin, but he didn’t dare.

They were silent till they reached the dock, where she sat up and said, “Thank you. That was a lovely sail.”

“My pleasure.” He smiled.

As they walked side by side towards the others on the lawn he thought they must make a striking couple. He with his coarse black hair, dark skin, and straight features looked like an Indian, he had been told. Sturdily built now, far from the runt he had once been, he diligently kept his body in shape by playing squash during his lunch hour with Joe and other men from the office. He shouldn’t feel surprised that she seemed to like him. Girls did like him. He went out a lot, dinners and concerts and theaters; they liked being seen with him. It was only Margaret, though, whom he was close to. He must remember to drop Margaret a line later on.

They all had another drink, and the Carsons and their friends swam, then said they had to be getting along; they had steaks marinating at home. Gregory wished he might have the chance to say goodbye to her alone, though what he wanted to say he didn’t know. It just felt clumsy this way, as if she were merely another stranger shaking hands, as if their shared sail were obliterated.

Surprising him, she took his hand and pulled him aside.

“Call me in the city, why don’t you?” She gave him her wide, frank look, straight into his eyes.

He blinked under the gaze. “But I don’t even know—”

“Deirdre, come on,” the others called.

She turned to go to the car. “Call the magazine,” she whispered over her shoulder, then got in, slammed the door, and was gone.

He told Joe and Jean he was going to rest for a while, and closed his door tightly behind him. He lay on the bed in the warm shaded room, intending to sleep, but he couldn’t get her out of his mind—her eyes, her wet hair, her outrageous nothing of a bathing suit, the fair hairs on her legs, the feeling of her long fingers on his arms when he pulled her onto the boat. She was exciting him even in her absence, and he resented her for it. He preferred to choose the times he was available for arousal. Her kind of excitement was certainly not for him; it was excessive. He had ordered his whole life to avoid excess. Now this feeling came along, invading him without invitation or permission.

What was she, after all? He didn’t know anything about her. He didn’t even know if she had been to college, if she had an original idea in her head. Editorial assistant. Most likely a glorified secretary like the ones in his office, plodding through dull tasks all week and craving excitement on the two days of release. Or maybe she was the radical, slovenly type, angry at the world for her own shortcomings. He couldn’t tell, hadn’t even seen her dressed, except for the blue work shirt everyone wore these days. For all he knew, she went around in tattered jeans or long patched denim skirts. He probably wouldn’t want to be seen in a decent restaurant with her.

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
6.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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