Light on the Water
"What went wrong with us, Mary?"
Separated for nine months, I had always been buoyed by hope.
She pulls up, lays the paddle across the kayak and stares toward the Chuckanut shore, then turns her eyes toward the San Juan Islands, that archipelago of beauty, wildness, and grace.
"I don't know," she says. "I felt stifled." She then turns toward me. "Oh! Maybe I didn't want to be a professor's wife..."
My fight for tenure the last two-and-a-half years meant less time together. Evenings and weekends were squandered solving problems, computer programming, or finishing papers for publication.
". . . the rest of my life. We didn't do anything together anymore, did we? At least nothing exciting in my book."
I imagine her eyes behind the sunglasses, cool, detached, without the spark of love in them anymore. At least not for me.
"What do you really want?"
"I want to make a name for myself. Call it middle-age angst. I want to be able to make a living off my writing."
"Most women would be satisfied with being a professor's wife. It offers some prestige, some security." I hang my head, paddle a couple of strokes. "It afforded us a pretty good house."
"I'm not most women, Tom. You never once encouraged me to write. Never once gave me an honest criticism, only `Uh, it's okay.'"
She waits for a reply. I shrug. She paddles off, a frown turning down her lips.
I sit for a few seconds, digesting her statement. She is different. Her writing is good. Maybe good enough for her to stand alone, independent of me.
The wind has picked up, chopping the water into six inch waves as we push toward Bird Island. I paddle faster, catching up with her.
"Mary, what's the chances of us getting back together?" My paddle and breath are held in synchronous anticipation. Small waves bobble the kayak.
She frowns, looks away, then looks back. "I met someone."
She nods. "I'm in love with him. He wants me to go to California." She looks away for a moment, then back to me. "Tom, I want a divorce."
It is like a sledge hammer has slammed into my gut. So, it's final, I think. No more hope, that slenderest of life's threads. I say nothing, dip my paddle and start to round the south end of the island.
I turn my eyes to the shore and the green islands, all rising like battlements at the water's edge. I think of these green hills and wonder how she can give them up. Often, going into work, I would look to them in the distance. One foggy day, I saw the sun rise over a foothill about two miles away. It was a perfect orb softened by the fog, and captured within, the silhouettes of three Douglas firs, branches outstretched in supplication.
The birds greet us with loud, raucous cries as we draw close to the small island. They are mainly seagulls, some guillemots, dark and middle-sized, and a brown smaller one I don't recognize. Guano splatters the rocks of the island like white paint.
"You'd leave all this?" I ask, shouting above the din.
"Oh, how I'd miss it!" she says, chuckling. "But if I'm to make a name for myself, California is the place to be. I've got a great idea for a script. About an Asian-American man and his wife, cultural differences, love, and all that." She looks at me, waiting for a response.
"Only superficially. It's not entirely about us, you know. I have to dramatize it, make it flow, sing, be vibrant, and all that."
All of the things I am not, I think. I am the keel in our relationship, providing a straight, even ride--one-track, one direction. Too smooth, perhaps. Too boring. "That means L.A., then. You mean you'd give up all this for L.A.?" I am incredulous.
"You don't understand, do you, Tom?" She turns her kayak toward shore and I follow.
I shake my head, still paddling. "No! I don't sacrifice lifestyle for work! You can still write scripts here and sell them to producers in L.A."
"Harry says I'd have a better chance if I were in L.A."
"That your new boyfriend? Is he an agent?" I smile sarcastically.
"Well, he used to live around L.A., even wrote some scripts himself. He says you have to do the story pitches in person."
"Well, did he ever sell any scripts?" But she refuses to answer and paddles faster.
"What about earthquakes?" I shout after her. "And wildfires, and mudslides, and smog, and crime, and too many people!" I fire off the litany of woes, muttering to myself and shaking my head. But she just shrugs and continues paddling.
The sun warms our backs as we pull into Teddy Bear Cove, where all the local nudists hang out. It is a small indentation in the shoreline covered by gray, soft sand and on which sit long, smooth logs burnished by smooth buttocks. No one is there. The sun starts to dip behind Lummi Mountain on the island of the same name. The mountain, at sixteen hundred feet high and over three miles long, is like a great whale rising from the water.
We sit on one of the logs. I take off my shoes and wriggle my toes in the soft sand. It is cool and fine, like sugar, but with the sweetless aroma of the sea.
We have perhaps forty minutes of twilight left. There are not many clouds this evening, so I don't expect much of a sunset. Other times I have been out on the water when the clouds have been so thick they looked like piles of gray down laid on a bed. Stealing from beneath the cover was a gleam, a striated reflection of light on the water. It wasn't bright orange like a shouting sunset. It was subtle light, rare and evocative. I didn't seek it, but I recognized it. It was like light through crystal, breaking free from the flat, gray background. Like light refracting through a diamond. But, I could see the rays, caught in the mist and focused to a spot on the gray-green waters. At such times, it was like I realized life, and that other part of me--work, mortgage, car payments, marriage--was but a distant memory. Time was suspended and the essence of me was defined by the light and water. I felt the richness of life then and Death seemed only a small point on some distant horizon, on a far, far shore that I would approach slowly through limpid waters with the languid paddle strokes of old age.
I recall that moment now because suddenly I am seeing with more clarity than before the extent of our relationship. Just before our separation, there were several times we had lain in bed after lovemaking, I on my half, she on hers. We were spent, but we didn't have the joy we used to have, and I wondered what had caused the light to go out of our lives. There was no intertwining of limbs, no whispers of love, only that hard silence that foreshadows the death of love. Only now do I recognize that even then she was starting to chase her dream and that I was chasing the dream chaser, trying to hold together the vision of eternal wedded bliss.
I listen to the sound of the wind driving the waves to lap the smooth, sandy shore. Suddenly, a train whistle breaks the silence, echoing off the hills behind like a forlorn wolf. Probably a Burlington Northern train heading to the paper mill in town. I imagine its whistle, strong as a wolf's howl, is but a canary's last lament for this still semi-wild shore.
We continue staring at the water, which sits like a flat plain, broken only by the emerald islands that are slowly shading into purple.
"You've got to learn to let go, Tom. I'm sure that I'm not the only woman you'll ever love in your life." She has put on her stern face, like the mother to the child.
"Yes," I say, turning to look at her. "You're probably right." And I know suddenly, looking at the waters and islands, though she doesn't realize it yet, that if I could salvage this relationship only by going to L.A. with her, it would be a choice I could not make. Not that she had asked, or would ask. But, to me, she has not only exorcised me from her soul, she has also exorcised nature in her search for personal fame and recognition, turning her back on the natural for the artificial, to steep herself in the artifice and bombast of the LaLa land down south. She has forgotten the healing salve, the wonder, fulfillment, and catharsis of the natural world; it was and is for me a refuge from a crowded world that daily is growing more and more mad. For I could never leave this place, these trees, these foothills, these mountains, these waters. Not for her, not for anybody. This environment of land and water then has become my surrogate lover. If I could not have the warm body and spirit of a woman for myself just yet--and I certainly will, I thought, for there are kindred spirits out here--at least I could have this landscape to salvage my soul. To act as a temporary salve for my loneliness.
"What about Susan at work? Last time we talked it seemed that there was some interest there." She leans forward, a quizzical look.
"I'll be all right, Mary. I'll miss you, but I'll get over you. There will be someone else."
"Oh!" She turns away, stung. Stung by the truth or perhaps a little bit of jealousy, I do not know.
We sit in silence for a while, watching the colors fade to gray. "We'd better get going," I say. I put on my shoes.
We paddle back toward Clark's inlet, the only sounds the dipping of paddles into water and the droplets falling back to splash the surface. The light has grown diffuse, and everything takes on a softened patina.
"Listen, Mary, I only want the best for you." She does not reply. "Maybe one of these days I'll see this fantastic movie and it'll have your name on it."
"Really!" I can just barely see her looking at me. I can feel her smile.
"It's true," I say, chuckling. I will miss her, but somehow the sharp, painful edge of my loneliness has been dulled. You learn to ride with the waves.
We race the fading light, slowing beneath the railway trestle, feeling our way beside the logs. On the other side, in the inlet, the water is like flat black paint, the immediate shore purplish and amorphous. On the high shore, some lights from the half-million dollar homes serve as beacons. I paddle fast, cutting through the smooth, dark water, like a bat flying in darkness. I close my eyes and feel the glide.
I land first, sliding into the soft sand. I lay my paddle down. Still sitting, I turn and look for her.
She is five yards behind me. A shadow closing rapidly. A movement in
darkness, coming and going.