Final Summer Swim
I’d thought it over, and I was ready. Baby or no baby. With Bo actually married to Celia, Eliza was Officially Available. And given that no one in the entire solar system is worthy of her, she might as well be stuck with me.
I put on my best jeans, scrounged some cookies and wine, and drove southward. I tried not to think about Meg, with her sweet smile and her knowledge of literature and her skill at fabric arts and her incredible grey eyes and her electric kisses and her love of nature and her wicked pranks and her deep and fascinating faith. It was Eliza Time.
When I reached the beach, Eliza was putting the finishing touches on her latest life-sized sculpture. It was a woman — naked, of course, strong, of course — with chiseled thighs and a powerful torso. But this time, the statue was holding a baby. A daughter. Mother and daughter were shaped from the same piece of clay, fused forever in eternal bond. The baby looked happy but tough; even shortly after birth, she wasn’t someone to mess with.
Eliza was wearing her trademark tight denim shorts and long-sleeved shirt, rolled and tied. No shoes, as usual. Not much of anything, really, except for the bit of cotton that made up the shirt and shorts. Almost as naked as a decent woman can be.
The clay was drying rapidly in the late-afternoon sun. Eliza, satisfied with the work, wiped her hands on her shorts and sat down on a rock. She took the bottle out of my hand, pulled out the cork, and gulped a large swig of wine.
“What do you think?” she asked, nodding toward the sculpture.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. She shot a glance at me that revealed, in a brief, unguarded flash, that she considered the comment shallow and uncomprehending.
“It’s supposed to be forceful,” she said.
“Forceful,” I agreed hastily. “Definitely forceful. Forceful and beautiful. Absolutely.”
Another look. Oh, well — the only guy who could truly understand her just dumped her for an unpregnant Ice Queen.
It was time for some gentle inquiry.
“So, where’s Bo?” I asked. It was a strategic question. If she didn’t know where Bo was — or didn’t care — that was the only confirmation I’d need.
“Back on the mainland,” she said, swallowing more wine. “He’s selling a sculpture so they can buy some stuff to make a house with. She’s with him.”
Eliza turned her head for a moment and stared out to sea, then she drank more wine without looking at me.
I shook my head. “He’s a fool,” I offered, by way of consolation.
“He’s a genius,” she said. “He’s brilliant. I couldn’t keep up with him.”
She couldn’t keep up with him? With me, she wouldn’t even have to try. I’d be by her side day and night, making sure she was happy and content.
“Um, listen,” I said. This was it. The Big Moment. The Ask. The Question. People always think that proposing marriage is the hardest question a guy ever has to ask a girl. Not so. By the time you propose, you’ve got a pretty good idea of the answer. It’s a foregone conclusion. If done properly, “Will you marry me?” isn’t any more suspenseful than “Do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband?” The ritual has already been thought through and worked out.
But asking a woman — especially a really sexy woman — for a first date is far tougher. It doesn’t matter if the date is dinner-and-a-movie, a walk along the beach, or just some meaningful time together, asking for it is murder on the guy. Spending time together as pals is one thing, but The Ask turns it into something else altogether. Hidden just barely behind the question is a whole host of other questions:
• Do you want to walk down the beach together?
• Do you like me?
• Do you find me attractive?
• Do you think we might enjoy each other’s company for a relatively long stretch of time?
• Do you want to get closer to me?
• Do you want to make love with me?
It’s all there, pressed up against the first question like kids on a candy-store window. A “no” — or worse yet, a laugh — answers all the questions in order, dominoes of humiliation falling one by one.
But it was time. Besides, I had already launched the time-honored “Um, listen” opener.
“Want to go for a walk or something?” I asked. “Just you and me?”
She turned those beautiful green eyes on me and held my soul in their gaze. She didn’t laugh, thank goodness. She didn’t say no. She just bit her lip and stared.
And then she smiled. A beautiful, gentle, sad smile.
“Sure,” she said. “I just want to do one thing first.”
She stood, brushed off her shorts, and picked up her sculpture in a bear hug. She carried it to the water’s edge. Then she slipped off her shorts and took off her shirt. Naked but for a wisp of white underwear, and breathtaking in the muted light of the setting sun, she smiled and blew me a kiss.
Then she picked up the sculpture again and carried it into the water. It floated, and Eliza rested against it as she kicked away from the shore.
It was the melting-sculpture thing again. I love this routine.
She swam farther, her stroke strong and sure. Forceful.
I waved to her, but she didn’t wave back.
She just kept on swimming. Farther and farther out to sea.
I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming. I’m the biggest jackass that God ever breathed life into.
She dwindled to a splashing speck in the east, where the sky and the sea were already dark. I started to jump up, to race toward the outrigger, but then I sat back down with a heavy thump. I wanted to go after her, but I didn’t think I could make it in time. Maybe I could have. I don’t know. But I knew she didn’t want me to. So I sat down.
I just sat. I wanted to feel the air knocked out of me, the flash of explosion against my face, the desperation of a struggle against insurmountable odds. But nothing came. Just empty time. Just sitting. Just me.
So I sat on the rocks all night long. Staring off toward the east until the rising sun splattered yellow light into my dark and unseeing eyes. Tired and thirsty and aching from sitting on the cold rocks. But I couldn’t move away. I just watched the point at which she vanished, knowing she wouldn’t return but also knowing I couldn’t go home.
The sun was almost overhead when Summer found me.
“Hey,” she said. “Got any beer?”
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — Gemstone: I’m sorry, Van. I really am.
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