When the song wafted from the radio, he almost had to stop the car. It was the one about growing old and children leaving and grasping at life. He knew it because she sang it to him several times, and the sound of her fragile voice still lingered.
He saw himself stumbling out of the bathroom in the chilly darkness. With his hands on his achy lumbar spine, he stretched backwards in front of the window. Assured that from the 10th floor facing a runway, no one of consequence could see his nakedness.
“Come back to bed. The sheets are getting cold.”
She had not moved from the spot he had left her moments before. How could he resist returning to that bliss?
“Is that all I am? A heater?”
Her throaty chuckle was a confirmation that he was more than a source of warmth. “Well, you ARE hot. Sometimes more than I can handle.”
“Did I hurt you?” His face creased with concern as he eased back under the sheets.
“No! It’s just that when we’re skin-to-skin, we generate a lot of heat. That’s why I can’t sleep next to you. I’m afraid I will combust. Flame up and catch the bed on fire. Now wouldn’t that be a great way to be found out?” She mimicked the call from police. “Hello, Mrs. Scott? We regret to inform you, your husband died in a hotel fire. However, we will confirm that he was quite happy at the time. From the state of his erection, quite happy.”
He fell unto his back with laughter, but ended in a sigh. She rolled towards him. “Is my dark humor too much?”
The childish play of this woman amused and amazed him. “No, your humor is just right. How do you make me laugh so much? Why do we have so much fun together?”
“Because we dropped all the walls. Because we grabbed what we wanted. Because we trust each other completely and have no pretense.’
“Because you make me feel young.”
“You are young.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, your body disagrees. And tell me this: were you having sex twice a day every day when you were twenty?
What a revelation! He might have had sex three times in one day, but it was not every day when he was twenty. When was the last time he had sex every day? On his honeymoon 25 years ago, perhaps?
She twined her fingers in his hair. “And look at your hair. You still have enough hair for me to wrap my fingers around.” She looked him deeply in the eyes and tugged his hair lightly. “We have to grab what we want before we DO get too old. Better yet, we have to stop thinking we will ever be too old to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s bodies. Now stop talking and make me orgasm again.”
She rolled to her back and gently used her fingers in his hair to pull his head toward her torso. She never told him what to do – he just seemed to know. And he was pulled by the smell and anticipation of the taste of her. “Did I tell you how much I love the taste of you?”
“Yes, every time. But I love to hear it, so show me again.”
He nestled into the light public hair that covered her labia. His tongue moved soft and slow to find her clitoris, that tiny replica of his phallus. A light touch with his tongue was an indication of the start of his gentle attention to her genitals. He settled in by wrapping his arms under her thighs and winding his hands around to rest on her hip bones. The changing tension of her buttocks resting on his forearms was a guide to her pleasure. The muscles of her cheeks became tight as he licked her softly like a cat with an upward strike of his tongue.
Her eyes were closed and she exhaled loudly, followed by a deep breath. She was concentrating on nothing but the sensations he produced between her legs.
He switched to delicately sucking on her clitoris, which made her raise her hips slightly. “Oh, my. Oh, my, you’re quite good at this,” she breathed. “Don’t stop.”
As she removed her hands from his hair, her fingers grasped the sheets and pulled the white cotton into her fists. When he looked up towards her face, he could see her nipples turning rosy and hard, which drove him on in his quest to make her cum. He could feel the wetness of her vagina increasing, so he knew it would be soon. To intensify her pleasure, he began to roll his tongue around her clitoris – starting underneath and swirling to the tip.
“Holy crap.” He knew she meant that in a good way.
Her buttocks tensed again and she began a slight motion, lifting towards his face. He grasped her more tightly – not to restrain her but to match his strokes to her pulsations. Her breath was coming quickly as his saliva mixed with her fluid. Then suddenly she grasped his hair and tugged his face away from her thighs.
“This is fabulous but you’re making me jealous of my own muff. What I really want is your dick in me. Please come up here and fuck me really hard.”
She did not have to ask twice. He was grasping the best part of life.
+ + +
In a state of conflict, I had agreed to a family vacation – mainly to put my son’s mind at ease about the amicable dismantling of his parent’s marriage. The timing was not the greatest for me, since it was coming up at the end of this project and I knew the timeline for project finalizations often changed. It might mean that I would take my work with me on vacation, as I had numerous times before. James had selected a favorite and familiar spot in Hilton Head, and also invited his divorced brother to join who had a son the same age as Raleigh.
He had been the center of my universe for all the years of his life, and suddenly the planets had shifted. I knew they would, I was told they would, and I could see they would – but the changes to our orbits was disorienting. I hate to think of it as a loss, yet what else could I call it? The loss of his childhood and sweetness and need for me. And I grieved for it. Not that I fought it, this maturation of my son, but it seemed like a part of me had died in order for new life to begin. And though I did not want him to know or feel hindered, I was sad.
Maybe James was also sad about the departure of his son, but he chose to manage it in a different way. Instead of us confronting the change together, the end of Raleigh’s high school years seemed to push us farther apart. As if we had been covertly competing for the affection of our son and in the end we realized neither of us won. When he left, there was nothing but silence and stillness. Thus by the end of his first year in college, it was easy to accept the position in Chicago because I would rather actually be alone than simply feel alone while being in the same house. And that’s how a separation quietly begins.
I still was uncertain what Raleigh thought or expected about our marriage. His life at college was all-consuming both academically and socially. I honestly wasn’t sure he even remembered that we were living separate lives. So I agreed to a family vacation because James and I knew a free trip to the beach would lure Raleigh to spend a week with us. And golfing with Uncle Mark and his son Luke would seal the deal.
Plus I was willing to add Mark and Luke to the mix for three self-serving reasons. If James and I really didn’t have anything to discuss, then Mark was there for entertainment. If there was something to discuss but I had work to address, Mark could entertain James to keep him from being frustrated. And unrelated to any discussions, it was nice to have Mark there to report back to the in-laws that I was not a heartless bitch.
I was the last to arrive, flying in from Chicago while they drove from Ohio. I took a shuttle from the airport so they would not have to make the trek to Savannah. It also gave me time to transition and try to clear my head from my delayed flight days before.
The change in temperature and scenery and pace was good for me. The low country held good memories for me: some memories of specific times in my life but some vague memories that seem to come from my heritage. My grandparents had lived near here, and my father moved to the low country for a time as a young adult. I knew I had family buried nearby in the time when records were sparse. The moss on the trees seemed to wave to me ‘Welcome home.’
As if any place felt like home, any more.
When the van emerged from the tall pines into the marsh, I felt I had really arrived. The thick marsh grass gave an illusion of permanence, but I knew it was constantly changing. Tide in, tide out – the scenery shifted from muck to briny water, from land to sea. Isn’t that life? An illusion of permanence on a constantly shifting current? The only thing we know for sure is that it will change.
The light on the waves sparkled like diamonds, although I knew the water as actually brown. Despite the lovely scenery in the part of the Atlantic, the water color was dismal due to the vibrant growth of sea life. Yes, the crystal blue of the Caribbean was much more attractive, but the Low Country was willing to make the trade to sustain the shrimp and crab and oysters that were abundant in the area. And to keep the marsh grasses lush.
We had rented a house on the toe of the island, and area where we rented before. Almost every rental was close to a golf course, so we made sure this was also walking distance to the beach and biking distance to the shopping areas. It was quiet, except for the intermittent laughter and fighting of families passing by. We had a pool and a brick grill, bicycles and beach chairs, coolers and wagon to drag it to the sand. There was no pre-set agenda but I did bring a basket of books.
Upon my arrival, I could hear the music flowing from the living room. Jimmy Buffet, so I expected a margarita to greet me. But I was even more delighted when Mark handed me a mojito.
“Welcome! Welcome! I remembered you prefer rum to tequila so I made this especially for you, Suzie Q!”
Mark was a sweetheart and one of the few people who could call me Suzie Q as an endearment. His taste in women was lousy, but he made a great brother-in-law.
“Where is the rest of the crew?” I asked as I counted my bags.
“Cleaning the pool. A few beer cans fell in.”
“It was unusually windy. What with the limes and the tequila shots.”
“Hmm. I hope you brought a hangover cure. Actually, several hangover cures.”
“I’m always experimenting.”
The sudden rise in humidity indicated the door had opened. “There you are! We got started without you, but I see my brother has greeted you with your own special island beverage. Hope you made it without any problems, Suzie.”
And there was James. Sunny James. Relaxed James. Good time James. The James I first met and fell in love with. The James it was harder and harder to find in our rambling house and diverse lives.
“Hi, honey.” I kiss him quickly on the cheek. “I’ll wait to hug you when you’re not so sweaty.”
“Or when you’re both sweaty!” winked Mark.
I drank my mojito in one big sip. “Oh, yummy. May I have another so I can catch up?”
Mark took my glass into the kitchen, giving me a chance to pick up my bag and ask James in a low voice, “Where am I sleeping?”
“Yes, sleeping arrangements. We have a suite on the third level. King-sized bed and sofa. The snoring, farting crowd is on the second level. I hope that works for you.”
“Sure, that works for me.” In truth, I didn’t know what worked for me. I had made myself avoid thinking about it. The old ostrich approach of putting my head in the sand. Or maybe it was more enlightened than that. In any case, I trudged up the stairs with one suitcase and James behind me with the other.
“What’s in here – bricks?”
“Ah, same difference.”
“With Luke. They set off to check how long it took to get to the beach. They’ll be back shortly.”
“How is he?”
“A young man. He looks and sounds more like a young man.” James looked absently at the window.
“Time marches on and we wouldn’t want him to stay a little boy. I look forward to knowing him as a young man. I know you do, too.”
“Yes, but I would worry less if he were 21 and legal to drink.”
“True, that makes things a little tricky. But as long as we confine his drinking to the house and to our presence …?”
“Then we will see how it goes.”
“Then we will see how it goes.”
I heard them before I saw them. Raleigh and Luke. Luke and Raleigh. Whooping as they jogged along the pathway from the beach, running backwards and then serpentine towards the house. Carefree. It was just a moment, but one I hoped that would last.
“Keep it down out there, you whipper-snappers” I yelled from the balcony and shook my fist.
It was my beautiful boy in the guise of a man. His bottle-green eyes were now beneath heavy brows and his gentle chin was set along a square jaw with a scrubby stubble. His Adam’s apple was more prominent than I remembered and his chest was full. The parts of him that always seemed long and gangly now had taken on the right proportions. I had a sudden memory of meeting a young man that looked like him, standing by a lake – and my heart leapt a little.
Down the stairs I went into the arms of my hot and sweaty son. “Let me look at you! Wow, an hour at the beach and you’re already tan!”
“Nah, that’s from working at the landscaper.”
“They don’t have you in the hot house with the flowering shrubs?”
“No, ma. They put me in the mulch pile with the Big Boys.”
“Oh, that explains the smell,” laughed Luke.
“Hey to you, too, Luke. Long time no see. What’s your excuse for looking so handsome?”
“You do have those Dixon genes to thank.”
“Yes, the Dixon men are known to be specimens,” chortled Mark as he appeared with cold beers. “We just don’t know specimens of what.”
“On that note, I think I need to change out of my travel clothes and get as comfortable as you all. Should I expect us to venture out for our usual Mexican restaurant this evening?”
“Si, senorita,” they said with exaggerated bows. I suspected I should probably be the driver.
+ + +
We talked about the last semester of college over fish tacos and beer. Raleigh was at Ohio State in horticulture and Luke was at University of Kentucky in business. They joked that they were going to start a marijuana facility together, but that would have to wait for legalization. In the meantime, they were trying to progress through their junior year without any major mishaps – either academically or legally.
I knew the week would go by quickly, and without being pushy, I wanted a semi-schedule. I figured the men would play golf at least three times, we would rent a catamaran one day, and the rest would be beach napping and pub crawling for the best hush puppies.
“I’ll warn you: I’m up against a deadline and I will probably have to work a day or two. I’ll try to make it correspond to your golf.” We agreed that sounded like a plan.
What I did not say: I also wanted to set aside time for a deep conversation with James and then with Raleigh. Just to understand their perspectives on our current “situation” and to share my own – whatever those perspectives were. I welcomed to time to examine my own thoughts away from distractions and routines.
I also wanted time to clear my head of the disturbing thought that had slithered into my mind upon departing Denver.
“So Suzie, I hear you are giving Pharmaceuticals a try as a departure from QSR. How is that going?” asked my semi-brother-in-law.
“Very interesting and challenging, obviously. And whole different world, although some of the same clientele. Just in different guise.”
“Do you think you’ll be leaving Chicago?” I couldn’t tell whether the question was simply invasive or fishing for an answer to the status of my marriage.
“Oh heavens, it’s way too soon to think about that. If this project goes belly up, the agency may never let a Pharma client see me again. I’m still the Quick Service Queen.”
“Hey Mom, would you have room for me and a few of my friends if we come up for baseball?” interrupted Raleigh.
“Is it baseball or State Street that’s drawing you to Chicago?” I ask with raised brows.
“They do still have baseball in Cincinnati,” added his father.
“Baseball that sucks.”
Mark laughed. “Like baseball in Chicago doesn’t suck?”
“Whatever the reason, I am honored that you would deign to stay with your mother. But remember: it’s a studio and ‘a few’ friends would mean one or two.”
Raleigh looked at me with suspicion. “Aw, come on. You could squeeze in a few more. I mean, you’ve seen it, Dad. How much room is there?”
And I suddenly realized that James had never seen my apartment in Chicago. Never visited. Never asked. Never been invited.
He side stepped the question expertly. “I think you will have to go with your mother’s assessment.”
Another round of drinks arrived and a welcome change of subject. I launched into questions about horse racing in Lexington, the charm of Keeneland, and the lure of Bourbon. All fitting subjects for men and boys. They drifted off into golf greens and wrapped up the evening with talk of tee times.
+ + +
The return to the house meant Raleigh and Luke headed to the beach in search of young women taking dreamy or drunken strolls in the dark. Their much wiser fathers had their minds on an early tee time that required eight-hours of sleep.
Which brought James and me to confronting our sleeping arrangements. We have a suite on the third level. King-sized bed and sofa. I honestly was not sure what that meant for us or what James intended the arrangement to mean for us. I took my toiletries to the bathroom and removed some items from my suitcase to the closet, but hesitated when it came to claiming a sleeping space. I felt like a schoolgirl waiting for him – anxious, uncertain, and a little shy. But also slightly annoyed, because James was fussing about little things downstairs instead of addressing the big question upstairs.
And there was one of our issues. The discomfort and distance between us was something he chose to avoid, as if it would resolve itself without effort. Which meant he remained a distant observer to something that was actually getting worse. The more he observed from afar, the more I felt I was drifting and the more I felt he was choosing to let me drift. Not that he wanted that, but that there was something else he wanted more. Something I wasn’t even sure how to name. I only knew that being in my presence, checking on my comfort, was not the most important thing on his mind – and that making sure there were the right number of coffee mugs was.
He entered the bedroom with half an apology. “I wanted to make sure we’re ready to go in the morning.”
“Ah, yes. Tee time. Don’t worry about waking me. I’m sure I’ll sleep through your alarm.”
“Yes, sorry about that. You know, we have to leave early to avoid playing in the hottest part of the day …”
“Not a problem. I understand. And it will give me some time to get my bearings and leave my feminine mark on the territory.”
“I suppose there is a lot of testosterone with four men.”
I laughed a little to myself. “Yes, Raleigh and Luke are definitely young men. They suddenly seem more self-assured. I’m a little wistful, but at the same time, it’s what we always wanted. To navigate our son to maturity.”
“They still have a little ways to go. But yes, it’s easier to see the men they will become.”
As we talked, James had begun to take off his watch and lay out his attire for the morning. At the threshold to the bathroom, he turned to me as I sat on the sofa. “I could help you make up the sofa, if you prefer to sleep there. Or we could save the effort and share the king?”
“I guess it doesn’t make sense to mess with the sofa when we have a bed the size of Delaware. I tend to hug the shoreline when I sleep, anyway.”
James smiled. “I remember.” And then he disappeared into the bathroom in search of a toothbrush.
Living alone, I had become used to sleeping naked. I never liked to get caught in the bedclothes – the roll of a pants leg or twist of a gown. Even a tee shirt could travel up my armpits and ruin a deep sleep. Plus sleeping naked saved on laundry. But tonight I searched for a sleepshirt and a sports bra.
When he finished brushing his teeth, I entered the bathroom with my own toothbrush. We fell into the same pattern of taking turns even when we had two sinks. It was a hold-over from the lean years when we had to share a small bathroom with one sink. The years we did not mind sharing a shower to save water but couldn’t bide spitting in the same basin.
When I completed removing my make-up and washing my face, I took a breath and entered the bedroom. He was laying on his usual side of the bed with his readers on his nose and a book in his hand. Taking his cue, I picked up my own book.
“Were you going to read?” he asked with a slight turn of his head.
“Oh, I thought you were reading so I would join you.”
“Just until you finished in the bathroom.” James was always polite.
“I’m pretty tired myself, but if I have trouble falling asleep I can pad downstairs to find some light. Turn it off because I know you have an early tee time.” I was also typically polite.
“I hope this isn’t awkward for you.” But I wasn’t sure what this he referred to.
“Awkward in what way?”
“Four men. Mark and Luke. No female companions. Us playing golf.”
“Oh, no. Not awkward. I’m used to being solitary but I also want to enjoy the time with my guys. I’ll enjoy the pool and the beach by myself, and then dine with the boys. The best of both worlds.”
“Good.” He seemed satisfied. For a moment. Then uncharacteristically, he veered into an uncomfortable subject. “And this? Sharing this bed?”
I gave an honest answer. “This is fine … Familiar. And it’s a Really Big Bed.”
“Remember when we shared a single in your dorm when you were working on your PhD?”
I laughed. “How could I forget. This bed is at least twice as wide.”
But the size of the bed didn’t matter then. We exhausted each other and slept intertwined. Even if the bed had been twice as wide, we still would have slept with no space between us. The thought of this distance in this bed made tears spring to my eyes, and I turned away.
“We were younger then. Didn’t need as much sleep or lumbar support. This seems like a quality mattress, just right for the old folks who clamber down here to enjoy the sea islands. I’m sure you’re tired from your travels, so I’ll let you sleep. I‘ll try not to wake you in the morning.”
Translation: James feels old and needs to sleep to be ready for his golf game tomorrow – more than he needs to have an uncomfortable conversation with the semi-wife he hasn’t seen in three months. But he will make it seem like I feel old and need to sleep so he can be chivalrous.
Now is the moment I have to decide. Do I let him use that excuse? Do I turn on my side and perform the role of the mute, sleeping wife? Or do I begin an uncomfortable conversion that will keep him awake and potentially ruin eighteen holes on an award-winning course with coveted tee times?
I struck somewhere in the middle. “Let’s sleep on it tonight, but promise me we’ll find time to catch-up tomorrow?”
“Absolutely. We’ll make time for the two of us when we’re rested tomorrow.” The compromise seemed to be agreeable.
Yet I knew a compromise was not the same as a promise, and a promise was not the same as following through. I wondered if I had accepted the role of the child who was told we’ll see – when the parent never intended to see and the child never saw. I fell asleep wondering when and if I would see what was happening to my marriage.