Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
Kristine Somerville works at The Missouri Review as marketing coordinator and teaches at Stephens College and the University of Missouri—Columbia. Her short stories and prose poems have appeared in a various magazines, including The North American Review, Hayden’s Ferry, River City, Passages North, and Quarterly West. Her essay "Katie Suber" received notable mention in Best American Essays 2000.
Morning fog creates of the horizon a fuzzy blend of colors: blue sea, yellow sun, and a gray zone where water and sky meet. Shadows of seagulls whip overhead. A few break through the scrim of haze, scream, and wheel away, losing shape.
Closer in, El Medano beach is quiet. Lounge chairs are empty; rowboats sit idly on shore. I take in the view from the guest-bedroom balcony of a mansion that clings to the mountaintop. Two hundred feet below, high breakers roll in from the open sea and crash loudly against black rock. Foam snarls. Whitecaps look melodramatic, mean.
Two weeks before we arrived, Charles showed me pictures of his brother’s vacation house in Mexico. From the foot of the mountain, looking up, the mansions resembled large white boxes stacked in a warehouse. I said, "One removed from the middle would send them all tumbling." But now, on the other side of a sheer curtain and the sliding glass door, he sleeps, curled up tightly like a shell fossilized in rock.
The mansion facing ours is floor to ceiling windows; the drapes are pulled open on the main floor, revealing a man half dressed in patterned boxers. A raised shoulder holds a cordless phone to his ear as he stands in front of the picture window looking toward rough water. His lips move, and he gestures wildly with his freed hands.
In the distance: a crying baby, a barking dog, and a couple fighting in a foreign language. In our room, silence; the air is cold, there’s an aura of potpourri. I stroke Charles’s hair. "Katie? Kate?" he says. There’s a shift of blanket and sheet before he’s pulled back into sleep.
Slow clouds. Smokey-green water. An orange sun is rising above the water. A month from today, we will be married at the city courthouse, and while the addled but, I hoped, wise judge says, "Take care of the dislikes, and the likes will take care of themselves," I will remember this morning, and later that day at the beach: Charles’s face was brilliant with sunlight as he studied a lavender jelly fish, a translucent sack we found washed up on shore along with clumps of seaweed that had dried black in the sun.
It’s my fortieth birthday party and I am in a hotel bathroom with my girlfriends from college, comparing the firmness of our upper arms.
"A real friend tells you when it’s time to put away the tank tops and sleeveless sweaters," Becky says. She pinches the back of her arm and finds more flesh than she would like.
"Time to get philosophical," Pam says, looking closely at her face in the mirror.
"Philosophical?" Tamera questions. "Philosophical is for eighty, not forty. I say keep up the fight." She cocks her arm, flexing her baby-carrying muscle. She had her third and final last year, though tonight her husband is lobbying for a fourth. He always said he wanted a big brood.
"What about the neck?" I ask, sitting down on the lip of the bathtub; bottles of beer are nested in ice. I tell them the ass is okay. The stomach’s flat. Legs still long and lean. The neck, the neck is my weakness. Lately, the tendons look sinewy and weird, the leg of a retired racehorse or perhaps gnarled vines.
"Nothing you can do about that," Becky says. "You can lift the face, but the neck gives away a woman’s age."
"Your neck. Becky’s arms. The fine lines of my upper lip. Share in the misery," Pam says. She opens a bottle of beer and takes a big swig.
Having had enough of comparing aging body parts, we each grab another beer from the tub and return to the bedroom, to our husbands who over the years have also gotten soft, womanish. They stand with their backs against the wall and talk about something in the business section of the paper this morning. And then Pam’s husband says the Palmer House used to be the height of elegance in Chicago, but now it’s obsolete. Small rooms. There are newer, better functioning hotels right down the street.
"If you look closely, everything looks frayed, worn at the edges."
He’s right. The thick brocade bedspreads are a little faded, so are the matching drapes, and the mahogany wood and brass fixtures have the patina of age and decay.
"Yet sweet," Pam says. Her husband shrugs; he’s not sure that he would agree.
"So much elegance, so much wear," I say.
There is a quick exchange of amused glances.
My husband curves his arm around my waist and pulls me in close. He says he would like to propose a toast and raises his plastic champagne glass.
Inspired by the exchange of vows, music, dancing, and eight glasses of champagne, Pam climbed the stage in the dark high school gym decorated with crepe paper, white Christmas lights, and a jungle of potted ferns. She waved her arms for the swing band to stop playing. "Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy,’" she said to them and squared up to the microphone illuminated by a single spotlight shining up from the floor. The saxophone player, a bearded man in a tie-dyed T-shirt, a black bow tie around his bare neck, played the slow, low opening notes.
Eyes squinty, face flushed, hair damp from dancing, she croaked the first word of the song, her voice hoarse and flat. Startled by what she heard, she stopped, looked over her shoulder at the horn players, their trumpets raised to their lips ready to join in. Her face flushed. Her eyes widened. She had expected a perfect, spontaneous voice to come out of her.
From center court, Becky, a life-long mimic and college theater major, recognized her friend’s panic. She took to the stage, bumped a paralyzed Pam out of the way, and sang the rest of the song in the deep, mournful voice of someone who had suffered. She bowed for her applause and requested another. She spit out Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" to her own Warren Beatty, a man on whom she had had a crush in college. He had come to the wedding with his new second wife; a pert blond socialite-type who stayed hooked to the crook of his arm.
Hours later, after the cornucopia of elaborately wrapped gifts were carted away, the wine glasses and empty bottles put back into the honeycomb of cardboard boxes, and the top tier of the wedding cake was wrapped and readied for the freezer, we got in Becky’s car and drove the narrow, winding back roads of the small German Catholic town where our friend who had married had grown up. The road was endless. No cars in sight.
In the back window, the church spire faded to a single speck and the moon was hidden behind clouds.
Pam said, "What was I thinking?"
I knew what had happened. I had many moments like it myself. At thirty, I returned to dance class. I was older, wiser, and my new teacher would read in my limbs, my posture, my demeanor that I was meant for ballet; it wasn’t too late. In class while doing barre work, the picture in my mind was always the same: I am leaping across the floor, my toes pointed prettily in the air. Instead, when it came time to soar, I was heavy, earth bound, out of step with the hippie drummer who kept beat on his bongos in the corner of the studio. I would soon quit in humiliation for a second time.
I swigged from the bottle of wine I’d smuggled out of the gym under the folds of my pink gossamer bride’s maid dress and passed it to Pam.
"I thought if I just opened my mouth something beautiful would come out." She lit a cigarette, took a long deep drag and let the smoke out slowly. "Thanks, Beck. For bailing me out." She passed the cigarette up front to her. "The champagne," she said as if a reason were needed.
Becky gave a shrug of amusement. She blew out a plume of smoke, throwing her head back to get her bangs out of her eyes. Quietly, she started singing, "Crazy. Pam’s crazy for thinking she can sing." She pressed her foot on the accelerator. We shot over a hill. For a moment we took flight before rounding the next sharp curve.