* * *
The next day the sun fell over Cape Cod like an eruption of gooey gold.
We looked at the map of beaches pinned on the kitchen wall. We decided, this time, to go to Skaket Beach on the bay side, protected by the curling arm of the Cape. There the water was gentle and tepid.
For a couple hours Daniel and I walked along a current that moseyed through the dune grass. The water was warm as a bath, and the sand was silty. The current nuzzled our legs and the sand massaged our feet. I looked at my friend. His button-down shirt was the color of tropical lagoon, and his shorts were crayon blue.
"You look just like a painting," I said. "Oh, I'd like to paint you like this. There are only three colors everywhere right now: white and green and blue. And you're all of them."
Fish nibbled our skin; hermit crabs tickled. Then the current widened to a salt-water river, and this became too cold on our knees. So we climbed up the bank, the sand giving-way to our feet like rotten fruit. We continued to walk, arm and arm. Our toes scraped away the gloppy gray sand, and revealed black sand underneath. Volcanic. Twinkling with mica. And sometimes a jolt of magenta, sultry and startling.
"Just look at those streaks of purple," I exclaimed. The wind caught up and battered my hair against my jawline. I was feeling happy, my heart as light as meringue.
But my levity was not entirely due to the sun -- or the marram grass -- or even to my Irish soulmate. My ex-boyfriend had recently texted me.
And he said he still wanted me.
"Hi Sarah," he wrote. "Save this to read when you have some time to think things through for yourself. I love you and for a million reasons I want to be with you for life. I've known it all along and I still get daily reminders. That being said, if we are going to stay together, you need. . ." and he listed his conditions.
At the end, he concluded with,
"Nothing is ever black and white, and of course there is a storm of emotions around the two of us right now. I'm trying to sift through all of the murkiness to lay out a clear set of circumstances for you. I am crazy about you and I want us to work, now and forever. I hope you have clarity and peace of mind. Xoxo"
I texted that I would think about it, and I would respond to him after our Cape trip. In reality I did not want to engage his conditions just yet, because they were sources of conflict for us. I needed to live in the lightness of him wanting me. I wanted to be wanted by him. That was my only desire, and to rest briefly in it, even tentatively, made me feel alive and secure. And it was the sole way to enjoy Daniel's presence. I needed to prolong the relief.
"Daniel -- look!" I suddenly exclaimed.
I shook my finger at the bank in front of us, at a phenomenon. It seemed as though the sand was bubbling. Along the smooth bank, the surface rounded into multiple small shells, and then the sand stood up. And began to scuttle.
The bank was rife with fiddler crabs. There were hundreds of them, tapping their way to safe-holes farther up in the beach grass.
"They must have felt the vibrations of our steps," I said, as they ran from us. "Look at them! It's an exodus."
The fiddler crabs were straw-colored, stiff as cats, with knobby knees. They moved on legs like elevated needles, rapidly. They shielded their eyes with one big pearlescent claw. Those claws were cocked across their faces, like a lady with a fan, with a downward thumb, frozen and expressive.
"They're little flamenco dancers," I crowed, "covering their faces!"
Then the crabs dropped into their holes. When the last one slipped in, there was no more movement. Occasionally I saw two eyes peeping over their holes: irate and violet. But the wind was beginning to hiss through the beach grass. And the bank was still.
A soft lilting swish. That ocean wind.
"You know," mused Daniel. "I should have been a pair of ragged claws. . ."
He was quoting T. S. Eliot, again.
I slipped my arm through his.
"Shall I part my hair behind?" I asked. "Do I dare to eat a peach?"
Daniel answered, "I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach."
* * *
When Daniel and I returned to the cottage and got out of the car, I was disgruntled to see that his skin had tanned. Already. Like a toasted marshmallow.
"That's not fair. It took me weeks of sun to get my color," I blubbered. "And you became tan in two hours."
"It will fade," he shrugged. "Easy come."
In the bedroom, I saw a novel sitting on top of his suitcase -- The Secret Life of Bees. I loved the paperback cover: it was an oil painting of a honey jar, painted in loose swashes. Luminous. The honey jar was labeled with an illustration of the Black Virgin. She wore a halo and held the infant Jesus.
I asked if I could borrow the book, and then took it outside. The backyard was enclosed with a picket fence.
The breeze was warm, perfumed with cinnamon roses. Cape birds fluttered through the flaky oaks. I flopped onto a hammock, rocking myself with one toe on the ground. I tend to read books sloppily and haphazardly, with the commitment level of a philanderer. I opened it in the middle and began reading. I was drawn in with a whoosh, through the author's tasty physicality: the powder-glass of corn grits, the amber-colored honeycombs. I kept Daniel's bookmark in its place.
As I read, bits of fluff were floating down from the sky, queerly, touching down like snow. I could not figure out what the white fluff was: maybe tufts from trees. Seedlings without seeds. Woolly aphids without legs. The silky fluff landed on my shins, my throat, my nose, the pages of my book. They clung to the white picket fence.
I blew one off my upper lip.
Daniel's bookmark was a folded piece of paper, and when I reached it, I pulled it out and unfolded it. He had penciled a sentence -- a thought, a quote, I didn't know. The lettering was slanting, frail, but the concept was strong. The meat of it captured his spirit.
"Nature, art, and kindness are the only two things to inspire people to be better and to love life."
I meandered inside and found Daniel listening to music on the bed. I asked if he had written or quoted the sentence.
"Oh, I wrote that. It was just a thought I had on the airplane."
"It's profoundly beautiful," I said, "and I agree. But --" Then something bubbled up in my belly, the color of pink cotton candy. "You listed three things, not two." My mouth quirked up.
"Why? Did I say there were two?"
"Nark," he zapped.
I laughed. "Sorry. My inner grammar Nazi just took over. I couldn't help it." I stood in the doorway, rubbing my hand along the book's spine. "Daniel, I want you to know. . . how necessary these past eleven days have been for me. Being with you has been a feast."
"It has been for me, too," he said, looking over at me. "I needed this time with you. Desperately, Quink."
I bounded over to him. "Maybe I will nap with you. Or is this a solo venture?"
"This is a companion venture." He lifted the sheet.
"What do you have playing?" I asked, climbing under the sheet next to him. "Mm. It's beautiful."
"It's Beethoven's Opus 110."
"I just love how you say Beethoven as if there's a 'th' in it."
Daniel dropped his phone on his chest. "Oh, aren't we on a roll!"
"But it's so cute, Dan."
"Sarah," Daniel said, "there is a 'th'" -- each word an iron clank -- "in Beethoven."
"It's just so adorable," I sustained. "And you do it with the name Thomas, too."
"Eejit!" he said, exasperated. "There is a 'th' in Thomas."
"Yeah," snuggling down smugly, "but you're not supposed to say it."
I hesitated. "Phonetic books in school."
This set him off. "Americans," he spat. "Corrupting English! I would scorn," with scathing syllables, "anyone who came and told me they put 'time' on their steak."
"Well -- well," I flubbered. "The Irish are all stuck in Renaissance pronunciation and Shakespearean words. You still say 'gammy' and 'ye'. But we are modern." I had lost the root of the repartee. But, finding myself on a side, I dug my verbal sword in as far as it could go. "We Americans have refined the English language."
Daniel lay dangerously still. "You yourself said Thighland the other day."
"No," pulling the blankets over me. "Never. There is no way that I did."
"But you did," quietly.
"I wouldn't have. There is no absolute way."
"I know I said Tieland. Your narkology hears want it wants to hear."
"You pronounced it Thighland," Daniel swore, "like a broad-tongued green-blooded wan."
I raised my hand to the ceiling. "I will stake my life on the fact that I said Tieland."
"Give it up," Daniel said. "Sarah, you are Irish at heart."
He noticed this and thrust again, twisting his words under my mental rib. "There. Deny it, and you'll have to say you're not Irish."
I was still silent.
Daniel secured his rapier. "Insist you said Tieland, and you're nothing more than an American. Admit you said it correctly, and then you're Irish to the core of your soul."
"You stalemated me," I wailed. "No. I have to go to my grave with this: I did not say Thighland. Can't sacrifice my honor. But you! -- thinking you're so correct with your English." I turned to him and advanced aggressively. "You drop your 'th's when they're actually supposed to be there. You say tree when you mean the number three. Cun oy have tree digestive biscuits? Oy be wanting tree. For me, me mammy, and me da."
Now he did not answer.
"There!" I shrieked. "Or dere, I should say. So are there any poodles you want to go jump in? You and your pristine pronunciation."
His only response was to splat his hand in my face and paw my arms and try to push me off the bed until I roared.
* * *
A couple hours later, I was still reading The Secret Life of Bees, in the kitchen. Leaning my elbows on the polyester tablecloth: it was the color of faded sunflowers. The kitchen slider door was open, drawing in the freshness of bird-calls and salt, through the sieve of the screen.
I turned a page. Daniel tip-toed down the hall and swiveled his head around the corner.
"Sazarella dear," he said in his gentlest voice, and I knew he was about to propose something, suavely. "I'm after having an idea."
"Tell me, bae." I closed my book.
"Well, I still want my steak. And it's just occurred to me how to make that happen."
"And you're not allowed to say no."
"Further oh dear."
"No, c'mere," -- an Irishism meaning "listen". "Only because if you do, you'll be denying me my desire. So I propose that we be self-indulgent tonight and go to the restaurant you thought was too expensive. And I will treat you."
"No," instantly, "thank you."
"Sarah, come here!" he insisted again urgently. "You would be treating me. Because I can't go without you. And you know how I am about my food. It's my top life priority, besides you and the piano. So be gracious, pet, and accept. I want to pay for you, because it's the only way to get my steak. And you can't make me budge."
He was looking at me, with his eyes like bubbling blue pools. He looked somber, but I could see the twinkle that was barely visible under the depth.
"All right," I laughed. "Let's do it."
"Thank you," he breathed.
"Daniel Thomas," I tossed my hands into the air, and defined him: "Making me feel like I'm doing him a favor when he's doing me one, since 2012. Your graciousness is on a cosmic scale that is almost ludicrous."
That evening he slicked his hair back. Put on fitted tapered pants, ocean-blue. He also wore fancy shoes: leather, punctured with holes in a curling design, and scarab beetle blue. His button-down shirt was a paisley of bluebird and luscious peach.
"Oh, you look snazzy," I said. "Wait, I'll dress up for you, too."
Heels, trim jeans. Bracelet, earrings. A mist all over of perfume.
But once we were there, the restaurant was flooded with patrons. The harried maître d' told us it would be an hour's wait. And even then we would have to sit at the bar.
Daniel and I withdrew into the evening air to consult with each other. He regarded me with a strained brow. "You don't want to," he said. "I can tell you don't want to."
"Are you projecting on me?" I tried to smirk, gently. I shifted on my heels, feeling them pinch. "Do you not want to?"
I saw his eyes rove. They dipped through the parking lot. Cars. A lone seagull.
"No," he said finally. "You're right. I don't."
"Well, then there's our answer." Happily, I flipped my key chain around my finger. "Hey! You wanna just toss this all and go rent a movie, buy food from a grocery store, and cook dinner at home?"
He visibly exhaled. "That sounds like heaven."
So we zipped into a Quaker grocery store. The parking lot smelled like warm tar, and the air like the inside of a conch shell. The evening sky was becoming dove-heart gray, silver and holy. Inside, the store was stocked with almond flour, kombucha, kimchi. We cavorted around, garnering treats for Daniel. His raw steak swam in blood.
"Now you have to indulge yourself, too," he begged. "What are you having, Betty?"
"Oh, I will," I promised. "Don't you worry. I am going to get a fat tray of fish and chips, back at that take-out place."
Once home, we threw on our pajamas, and within twenty minutes Daniel hallooed from the kitchen (over the hissing of frying oil) that this steak was everything he dreamed about and more. I splashed a bottle of lemonade into two glasses, and he sprinkled salt on his steak, and then we curled up on the couch. I ate my French fries until I felt that familiar starchy haze edge into my brain. We had put on a terrible romantic comedy.
"Now this," Daniel sighed, "is life. Deep-fried sluggery at its finest. Sarah."
"You are my sapphire among thorns."
I leaned my head on his shoulder, and his shoulder felt sharp. Like a rock against my temple bones. The couch felt scratchy, too, even through my silky pajama bottoms. I didn't want to drink, but I got up to pour an inch of pink wine into my glass. I wanted to want to. I almost wished to recreate that scene at the castle -- sweet and swaying, drowning into the aseptic stars. I wished that I wanted it -- like back at the castle. But I did not.
I poured him a glass of rosé, too. When I returned with our drinks, we sat side by side. He was chewing on his steak. These past eleven days, I had wondered if we would kiss again on this trip; now, in this musty-smelling house, I knew we would not. We were sitting with our pointy knees up. A breeze thudded against the screen of an open window, as if it couldn't enter. The room still felt stuffy, and I couldn't smell the spice of the roses outside.
"Well. This movie should be relegated to the gutter," Daniel chewed.
"I know it," I chuckled. "It's actually really bad."
And I didn't even want it. I didn't want us to kiss. I picked through my greasy tray of French fries, and reflected on this revelation.
Since the time Daniel and I had been at the castle together, I had discovered what real, corporeal, romantic love was -- and I recognized that my spiritual romantic love with Daniel was something very different.
But I leaned my head once more against his shoulder, and was content with what we had.
* * *
Do I need to clarify that the debate was about the word 'Thailand', or no? ....Also: WAIT WAIT WAIT! I went to the comments section, and suddenly saw the link for the "unofficial and independent forum built by apricotpie members". THIS STILL EXISTS?!?!!! I looked for it years ago and couldn't find it. That forum was built fourteen years ago, at the very least!!! It was my second home in my teenage years!!!! WHATTTTTTTT AND OH WOW MY PASSWORD STILL WORKS. AHHHHHHHHHHHH Sarah Bethany's total posts: 3,270. I had no life, hahaha.