The sea, memories, grief
| WITHOUT MARILYN
The beach house was cleaner than usual. When Edward and his late wife Marilyn came to the beach house it usually looked like it had been invaded by marauders. But this time, without Marilyn, it was clean and nothing was out of place. He realized his daughter Janet had either cleaned it herself or arranged for it to be cleaned. He didn't know where Janet's organizational abilities came from; she certainly didn't get them from him or her mother.
The view was still there. The house sat on a spit of land that looked directly out over the beach. The water began about a hundred yards from the back deck. The French doors in the living room opened onto the deck and he liked to tell Marilyn they were only a hundred yards from sailing around the world.
He used to tell Marilyn he'd like to get a sailboat, equip it well, and they'd set off. When he first met her she took the dream somewhat seriously. She was forever collecting information about sailing, about navigation, about far away places they could visit. Then they settled into jobs and children and when he talked about sailing she gave him only an indulgent smile and a pat on the hand.
What was sad, he thought, finally he had the means and the knowledge it took to sail anywhere he wanted to go. But now, without Marilyn, the desire to travel was gone. She had been dead a year and the only thing keeping him alive was work. He was only taking this vacation at Janet's insistence and his determination to talk to Marilyn's ghost because he knew his wife was here. He could feel her presence.
He didn't expect to see her in the daytime. But he could feel her and that was enough. There were plenty of photographs around the house to remind him of her, but the strongest reminder was a portrait hung in the master bedroom. He had commissioned the portrait as a birthday gift and Marilyn, who was never vain about her appearance, loved the portrait. She said it was an heirloom and it was important for families to leave heirlooms. She had come from a background of poverty and there had been little to pass along. One of her goals had been to leave her children
something they and her grandchildren could remember her by.
Edward learned only in the past week that Marilyn kept a journal. The journal had been discovered by Janet during the spring cleaning of the beach house. Janet felt some guilt but an irresistible curiosity about the journal. She read it, but refused to tell Edward its contents. She said Edward should read it for himself.
As he went through the house Edward was drawn to the journal. Janet told him it would be in the middle of the roll top desk in the study just off the master bedroom. Edward spent many vacations at the desk reading navigational charts and planning trips. Marilyn had written poetry there, but had never shown him any of her work.
He fingered the leather cover of the journal, letting his fingers trace the engravings on the binding. He could smell the leather and he imagined Marilyn took great pleasure in writing in the journal. Marilyn had simple tastes, but what she loved she loved exquisitely.
He didn't open the journal yet. He would wait until sundown. It seemed important to wait for the dark. Janet would be here for dinner and they would talk and Janet would go to bed early. Then he would read the journal and feel Marilyn's presence.
He went back into the kitchen to mix a drink. Strangely, he seldom drank anymore. A part of it was guilt . The police report said he wasn't legally drunk at the time. But he couldn't get past the feeling Marilyn would be alive now if he hadn't downed the extra whiskey and soda.
He drank rum and cola at the beach house. He'd told Marilyn rum and cola seemed nautical and he wanted to be nautical. Investment banking had been an acquired skill, if not an acquired taste, and for a few weeks a year he wanted to pretend he was a sailor.
He fixed the drink and went through the French doors onto the deck and then on down to the beach. The sand felt good under his boating shoes. A strong salt breeze blew into his face off the ocean and seagulls wheeled on the air currents. He was alone on the beach and he was grateful for the solitude. It was late in the summer season and there wouldn't be many tourists until spring.
He sipped the drink and liked the cold feel of the salt breeze. It was late afternoon and there would be a full moon tonight, he thought. He would spend some time on the beach before going back to the house. Janet would make dinner. He was bound for a rock that overlooked a tide pool. Marilyn's presence was strong there.
He found the rock and thought once again that the rock looked sculpted. He had no idea how long it had been here, standing like a sentinel against the tide. It had been here long enough to be smoothed all along its sides and in places it felt as smooth as glass. He leaned back against the rock and looked out over the horizon.
The water shimmered in shades of aquamarine and deep blue and off on the curve of the horizon he could see a cruise ship. Small white clouds looked like ships themselves as they slipped across the sky and he thought again of Marilyn.
After they first bought the beach house she led him out along this stretch of beach. She wore sandals and a white dress and they walked just at sundown. The seas had been calm that evening, ruffled only by a light breeze, and clouds the color of sailcloth moved silently overhead. The scent of Marilyn's perfume drifted on the wind back to him and he couldn't help thinking the close-fitting white dress she wore made her look angelic. He expected her to lift off the ground and ascend heavenward in a chorus of music and celestial light.
Instead, the wind pushed the dress up close against her body and pushed her golden blonde hair back out over her shoulders. She could have been a mermaid, he thought, temporarily ashore before slipping back into the ocean.
Night fell as they reached the rock and only the lights of a cruise ship competed with the constellations overhead. Marilyn was more uninhibited then and she quickly stripped off the dress, her bra and panties, and waded into the ocean.
"Come on in," she yelled back at him and without thinking of what he was doing he stripped too. The water felt like something chilled in the arctic and his teeth were soon chattering.
He scampered back out of the water and met her at the rock. "Hold me," she said. "I need your warmth."
Her hair was wet and plastered against her head and water shimmered off her body in tiny droplets. He ran his hands along her body, stripping away water, and he felt her nipples hard and erect under his fingertips. They made quick, passionate love, no longer aware of the cold.
"Dad," Janet's voice brought him back. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," he smiled at her, suddenly conscious he was still holding the rum and cola. "Just daydreaming."
They walked back to the beach house and he could smell Janet's dinner on the wind.
"It's going to be cold tonight," Janet said and hugged her arms against her chest. "But at least it's not stuffy like it is in the city."
"Yeah," Edward murmured. "I'd forgotten how different it feels out here. Your mother wanted to move here permanently. We were almost ready." He didn't finish the rest of the thought.
The house was too bright. Janet was fond of light. She had a house full of windows that she left open to allow the sun and wind to pass through. The windows of the beach house were open now and he felt the cold salt breeze. He was accustomed to the dark. He kept the light at home muted. Muted light seemed more appropriate for grief, for guilt, for penance perhaps. He was not religious, but he still felt the need for penance.
"I hope you like what I've cooked," Janet said somewhat shyly. "I've got seafood pasta and a fruit salad and new potatoes. I have a bottle of chardonnay. I couldn't find any other wine."
"That's fine," Edward said with genuine enthusiasm. He was hungry, but he waited patiently as Janet set the table. She brought out a loaf of fresh-baked bread and he buttered the bread and nibbled at it until Janet sat down.
The pasta was fettuccine with bits of crab and lobster and shrimp and he washed the pasta and bread down with the wine. He recognized this recipe. It was one of Marilyn's. She usually made seafood pasta on their first night back at the beach house.
"How's the pasta?" Janet asked. She sat down across from him and began filling her plate.
"Delicious," he said. "I've gotten too accustomed to opening cans. A homemade meal is special."
"It's been over a year now, Dad," Janet said. "When are you going to start living again?"
He put his half eaten slice of bread back on his plate. "No lectures, okay? I told you how hard it was for me to come back here. Now I'm here. So no lectures."
Janet sighed. "It isn't a lecture. You're still a young man, good-looking, successful. I don't think Mom would want you to quit living."
Edward was irritated by Janet's commentary, although not surprised. Other people always had the perfect prescription for happiness, he thought. Throw yourself back into the social whirl, don't work so hard, don't think so much. But the solitude and the thinking were things he had craved his whole life. It was ironic, he thought, that I didn't start living my life my way until Marilyn died.
I lived my whole life based around Marilyn, he thought then with some resentment. It was a thought that had stirred at the edge of his consciousness, but he had blocked it before. Now it came at him full force and it must have changed his facial expression.
"Something wrong, Dad?" Janet asked with concern.
"No. Nothing. The meal was delicious. Can I help you with the dishes?"
"I've got it," she said. She stood and began loading dishes into the sink. "Why don't you grab some coffee and I'll join you in a while."
He poured himself a cup of black coffee and pulled on a jacket before going out onto the deck. It was a perfect night. There were no clouds and the stars were like Fourth of July sparklers.
He didn't know how long it was before Janet came outside. He felt her touch on his shoulder.
"Nice night," he said. "I forget sometimes how dark it is out here."
"I've been thinking," Janet began cautiously. "Maybe you shouldn't read mom's journal."
Janet had misinterpreted his desire for solitude, he thought. She thought he was afraid of some revelations in the journal. Maybe she was right.
"I can take it," he said. "I knew your mom a long time. We went through a lot. I wasn't a saint and I don't have any illusions she was either. Are you sorry you read it?"
She waited a beat or two before answering. "In some ways I am. I did have some illusions. I wanted mom to be superhuman and now I know she wasn't. I love you, Dad, no matter what you read in the journal."
She told him she was going to bed and left him alone on the deck. He kept looking at the sky, not knowing what he was searching for. He remembered being with Marilyn and seeing meteors streak across the sky. At different times of his life he had taken the meteors as omens. He remembered seeing a meteor a few months before Marilyn died.
He didn't know how long he waited until he went back into the house. He found Janet had turned down all the lights except for the lamps. It was quiet except for the ticking of a clock in the living room. He thought briefly of watching television, but television was something he came here to escape. As he thought about Marilyn's journal, he wondered if the dread he felt was akin to a man about to go into combat or under the surgeon's knife.
He made his way to the roll top desk and picked up the journal and went into the master bedroom. He laid the journal on the bed and went back into the kitchen to mix a drink. Having a drink made him feel more confident and he didn't know if that was a good sign.
He set the drink on the night stand and lay back on the bed. He suddenly realized the scent of Marilyn's perfume still lingered in the room. He could almost see her there the way she used to dress for bed.
If she was feeling amorous, she would wear black. She always looked good in black, he thought, and her body was well-toned all the time he knew her. Marilyn had always been the most sensuous woman he knew and he didn't know exactly what compelled him to cheat. Cheating brought no satisfaction. He liked to console himself with the thought he was lonely and Marilyn had deserted him, but there were no rationalizations.
The light from the bedside lamp spilled over the journal and the leather still smelled fresh and new. He opened the journal to the first page, seeing only the well-rounded script and the black ink and not really comprehending the words. Then he began reading again.
It's the summer solstice and I'm not sure why that's significant anymore. Once upon a time the beginning of summer seemed to have meaning. It meant time with my husband and a time to have fun with the kids. It was comfortable clothes and long evenings and cooking out on the deck as twilight fell. It was fireworks out over the ocean and the feeling of falling in love with Edward all over again. Now all the summer solstice means is it's another season and the world still turns and I've forgotten what it feels like to be happy.
Edward remembered when he first fell in love with Marilyn. He had been attracted to her from the first time they met in college. Then they had gone to movies and dances and he felt happy to be with such an attractive woman. But the happiness then had been only superficial. He was happy being with Marilyn, but not really possessing any feelings about her. He wasn't sure when that began to change. He knew only that one night while they were walking that summer he looked over at her beautifully sculpted face in the moonlight and knew he was in love. The exhilaration of that love was not something he could maintain, he thought, but he wanted it to last. Then, almost as suddenly, the intensity was gone and he was certain now that Marilyn sensed when his love turned into something else.
It was a lot like erosion, he thought. When erosion went on long enough it could carve out canyons. When love eroded it was something just as gradual, just as subtle, but far more devastating. He knew his love for Marilyn had changed, perhaps even eroded, but until now he never thought about what Marilyn was feeling.
I like walking on the beach at sunset and sunrise. It feels as though the earth and sky converge. The coppery light of the sunrise sets the beach aglow and the water of the ocean looks like orangeade. I feel like if I walk long enough I can walk into the sky and stroll on out to the stars.
Edward is drinking too much. He drinks at home even when he's cooped up in his office. It's like alcohol is an anesthetic and I'm a source of pain. And try as I will I can't think of anything I've done to cause Edward pain.
Thinking about it now, Edward wasn't sure why he withdrew from Marilyn. Intimacy was claustrophobic and Marilyn was a woman who craved intimacy. Life had not turned out the way he wanted and he felt trapped. He wasn't sure he could live without Marilyn, but he was equally sure he couldn't live with her.
He set the journal down and rubbed his eyes and took another sip of his drink. The clock said 3:02 a. m. He remembered when he used to stay up all night and energy seemed boundless. In the past several years, he often stayed up all night with a scotch glass in his hand and there was never any energy. Marilyn had been right about one thing: alcohol was an anesthetic. But she had never been the source of his pain. The pain was something that came from within and it spilled out of him like a volcanic eruption. Marilyn had been caught in the explosion.
I heard a song on the radio called "Independence Day" and I kept thinking about today. I should be independent now. The kids are grown and can take care of themselves. Edward can survive without me. He has given me ample proof of that. I feel more like a colleague than a wife. I'm convinced that in his heart of hearts Edward feels I trapped him somehow. He's not living the life he wanted because of me. But I realize that the reverse is true. I've defined my life by being a wife. I haven't spread my wings and I'm thinking that now maybe it's time. There are many arguments for declaring my independence and not many for staying. Still, I feel reluctant.
Edward remembered that July the Fourth. It was the last Independence Day of Marilyn's life. It was the first Independence Day he could remember being alone at the beach house with Marilyn. It was scripted to be a second honeymoon, but Marilyn spent the day with friends and he with a scotch bottle.
He realized now that he wished Marilyn had made an issue of his drinking. Sometime, long before, she had decided he would drink no matter what she thought. She tried to be a kind and conscientious wife, seeing to his needs, but her apparent lack of concern wounded him and, ironically, spurred him to drink even more. Perhaps she consoled herself that Edward kept the drinking under control. He was successful at the things you expected: businessman, community leader, father. He was a shell of a husband, but even a shell was better than nothing, he thought.
The fireworks last night were spectacular. The bottle rockets were whizzing out over the surf and I could hear a sizzling sound when they went into the water. I wonder sometimes if nature has a mind and what nature thinks of the foibles of human beings. Would nature consider a sizzling bottle rocket to be as playful as a dolphin?
I didn't intend to kiss Bert last night. We broke off our affair months ago and I didn't feel comfortable seeing him again. But I was standing alone on the beach, clutching my arms up against my chest because it was cold, and Bert came and put his arms around me. I liked the way he felt, but it wasn't sexual. Bert and I had some of the best sex of my life, but somehow it seems I've grown out of sex. Sex is just set decoration for love.
Love, Edward thought. I loved Marilyn passionately when we married and I think I loved her all those years. But it wasn't an all-consuming love and I think that was what Marilyn wanted and needed. I wonder if she loved Bert.
Bert Custer had hung around Marilyn for years. He lived down the block from Edward, worked at a rather prestigious bank in a rather non-prestigious job, played a middling game of golf, dressed elegantly, and possessed a charm only women could discern. Edward didn't hate Bert Custer. He didn't have any particular emotion at all. Bert was just one of those people whose function in life was to take up space.
Edward had heard rumors of nasty things Bert had to say about him since Marilyn's death. Bert claimed that Marilyn was ready to leave Edward and marry him. Even before reading Marilyn's diary, Edward knew that was a lie. For all the differences between them, Edward and Marilyn had a chemistry that was as bonding as nuclear fusion. What Marilyn had with Bert was nuclear fission, a quick chain reaction and explosion and nothingness.
Edward is eager to get back to the city. He has already been prowling around the house like a caged lion, packing things he wants to take back, storing what he wants to leave here. He complains frequently of being bored and that he's going to lose his promotion at work.
I, on the other hand, don't want to return. I've heard of art classes in this area and I'd like to see if I have any talent. I made pottery years ago,unknown to Edward, and some of it was good enough to sell at shows. I like to find pieces of driftwood and do abstract paintings of what I find. And I know the main reason Edward wants to return is to be with his mistress, or perhaps I should say his most recent mistress.
That was only partially true, he thought. Mistresses had been like a hobby acquired late in life. You take up some hobbies because they give you pleasure or you find you had skills you weren't aware of. Mistresses had been flames in the wind, bright and shiny and temporarily warm. But he had tired of mistresses and game playing and deception. In fact, he had been ready to ask Marilyn for a whole new commitment. It was corny and hackneyed, but he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Marilyn.
We return tomorrow. I've already told Edward I don't want to stay in the city. I need to be apart from him for awhile and I want to come back here. I need to decide if Edward and I will remain together. I'm leaning toward asking for a divorce. I know people can change, but I fear any metamorphosis of Edward is toward a man I don't know and don't like. But I still keep seeing the Edward I knew. It's like a shadow that follows me around and I don't want to hurt that man. What to do?
Edward kept thinking about that passage as he spent the rest of the night reading Marilyn's journal. She wrote surprisingly explicit accounts of her encounters with Bert Custer, as though she knew he would read the journal one day and be hurt by it. And yet there were tender passages describing her love for him. When he read those passages he felt her presence in the room with him. For a moment he thought he actually saw her standing up near the window, but then he realized it was only the morning light.
"Daddy?" It was Janet's voice. "Are you awake?"
"Yes," his voice sounded unexpectedly loud to him.
"Did you read all of it?" she asked, concern in her voice.
"It's all right," he said. He placed the journal on the bed and embraced Janet.
"You know," Janet said into his shoulder, "I think mom loved you until the end."
It was true, he thought, and he suddenly realized he was being asked to carry on alone, dealing with all this history, without Marilyn.