By the Water

By the Water

By the Water 1920 1440 Christine Alexander

I wanted someone to feel that trembling in my thighs. My flesh and the hard muscle flexing underneath. I felt it myself when I was walking up the stairs just now and it seemed to me like something that deserved an appreciative audience. That is what I thought about instead of the A.L.I.C.E drill we’d just had with the fifth graders. A.L.I.C.E stood for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate and was meant to save us from an active shooter. I was just an aide, and the main teacher was being evasive. The kids had been stuck on “Counter”- If we were in the library, we could push a bookshelf over and knock him out! What if we threw our water bottles at him? Mine is made of metal! It drove me crazy that the teacher wouldn’t outright tell them what the threat was. When her back was turned, I went over to one of the groups of desks pushed together and said, Look, I’m telling you because you are old enough to understand. We’re talking about someone coming into this school with a machine gun. You think water bottles are going to stop him? Think again.

I hated to scare them. They looked at me, blinking and blushing. I got choked up. I’d take a bullet for any one of these kids, I thought. Gavin, my special charge, was excited looking at the overhead projection of the escape route which wound around the playground and into the woods. He stomped over to the window in his untied high tops shouting, there are so many hiding places in the structure! We could bury ourselves underneath the structure! His consonants tumbled into his vowels. I thought of his speech as rounded. Someone must have once referred to the jungle gym as a “structure;” he hung on to certain words. Lately he had been telling me, I hate homeless bums. I told him if his daddy lost his job, he would be a homeless bum too.

I usually stayed in the classroom during my breaks. I’d sit in the papasan chair in the carpeted “Library Lounge” corner of the room pretending I was a fifth grader with my whole life ahead of me. Today the room felt too small or too stuffy. Something. I decided to leave and go downtown, if that’s what you’d call it. The little teacup town of seashells and wind chimes and saltwater taffy. I knew some of Robbie Hart’s paintings were hanging in the Sea Glass Gallery, and I thought why not? The A.L.I.C.E drill had me feeling brave and maternal which registered in my body as womanly. Maybe Robbie would be there or be nearby and I would see him, right there on the street, while my makeup looked nice and I was wearing a dress.

I had started thinking about him again since I’d started teaching. Something about being back in a school gave me a schoolgirl ache. I dreamed we were holding hands on a campus lush with trees, and so many hiding places. He lifted his shirt to show me four tiny half-moon cuts dug into his side. He told me they were scars but I could see they hadn’t healed yet. He said they were from me and didn’t I remember? I had to mark my territory, I told him. I liked it when people said if a person appears in your dream it means they are thinking of you.

I felt delinquent, sneaky going into the gallery but also important, like I was there to solve a mystery. The last time I saw Robbie it was close up, astride his lap, his hands pushing my see-through J. Crew tee shirt up and up, my pale thighs all aquiver. He was already engaged to Erica at the time and we were on their bed. You look like a fucking movie star he’d said. I’d felt especially wanton and wild. This was what we did best, maybe the only thing we could do right. You kill me, he’d said, with something like wonder in his eyes. But after that night he hadn’t said anything to me at all.

That was eighteen years ago, I couldn’t believe it. Thinking about it now made me feel girly and young, it was a sweet little feeling. I thought, is this so much to ask for? Maybe so, maybe life was obligation and rent and feeding yourself and real pleasure was rare. I’d hear women talking about their husbands and wonder did they have that thing Robbie and I used to have? If so, they seemed privileged and lucky and changed by their good luck. They’d complain or faux-complain about their husbands leaving dishes out or the bed unmade. If this were me and Robbie, I thought, he’d pin me down on the unmade bed and we could fuck each other back into agreement. To live like that was what I had expected of adulthood when I was a kid. Sex, supper on the living room floor, beatific, bittersweet.

There was nobody in the gallery except for a silver-haired lady behind the desk and a man around my age who looked maintenance-related. He said something about my shoes, I don’t know if it was meant to be a compliment. Some shoes you’ve got on! something like that. They were last summer’s espadrilles with thick linen ribbon tied up around my ankles like pointe shoes. The silver-haired lady seemed happy to see me. Maybe because I was alone she thought I’d buy something. Maybe she figured I was a tourist. I briefly considered doing a British accent but didn’t think I could keep it up. I walked all around the rooms with hardwood floors and high ceilings, morning light listing through the windows. The paintings were almost all of Cape Ann landmarks: the paint factory, the beaches, summer on Bearskin Neck. So many boats. This place where I lived was so full of itself, so conceited. Meanwhile, those very same boats were rocking softly, docked in the harbor a few blocks away. Tourists were such easy marks; at least I had a good reason to be here.

Robbie Hart had been my high school boyfriend. Back then he was a wayward athlete and future pro-skateboarder, that whhirrrr crack sound making my insides flip around. Flipping that board over curbs, coasting down handrails, landing it, always. My friends thought he was ugly and that’s how I understood chemistry. I couldn’t get enough of his face. He had a big mouth, green eyes, bad skin, a crooked grin. Cap pulled low, hands like a grown man, handling me. You should wear a skirt tomorrow, he’d say if I was going over his house after school the next day. I never played hard to get. Every song on the radio was about desperation or devotion. I didn’t know anything. What’s a hand job? The boys at school would taunt when we were little, kicking up sand near the flimsy, metal monkey bars. I was the type to roll my eyes and go: nice try but I’m not gonna say it out loud. I figured things out on my own, as I went along.

I wondered if Robbie’s paintings would be landscapes or portraits or what. I had tried to find him online so many times, but he was nowhere. I had found his wife Erica instead though she hadn’t wanted to be my friend. It’s not like we were strangers and I wondered what she knew about me. I never liked her at all. Erica used to date one of Robbie’s friends and I remembered watching her do back walkovers on his front lawn while we sat on the stoop. Babe, she was always braying at the boyfriend, babe look at me. I was leaning against Robbie, making sure our thighs were touching. Tommy’s girlfriend is mad annoying, he’d said. She wasn’t even pretty. She had buck teeth that were hard to ignore. Oh, you wouldn’t fuck her? I was just kidding, but he considered it as she flung her body over itself and landed a back handspring on the slippery grass. Maybe from behind, he’d said.

I didn’t know exactly what happened between then and now. Robbie had gone to Europe to skate and had broken his foot in such a catastrophic fashion as to prevent him from ever skating professionally again. We had broken up for what I didn’t expect to be the last time. I heard he had come home and the next thing everyone knew he was answering to babe, babe. I heard people saying Oh Erica is such a saint. All she’s done for him! She saved his life. I should have asked them to elaborate. You would have thought he’d returned home limbless, an invalid. You would have thought he had been fighting in some far away war zone instead of kick-flipping his board off some curb in Amsterdam.

I pushed it all out of my mind until the day Robbie called Valentino’s where I’d been waitressing, just called the restaurant and asked for me. I want to see you, was all he had said and that’s how we’d ended up on his and Erica’s bed. He’d pulled my panties off in one deft motion; everything he did impressed me. I had looked around the room at the furniture they shared and shrugged. It didn’t sink in that he was going to marry her. The phone had rung while I was inching my jeans back on. Hey babe, he’d said into the receiver, snaking the cord around the corner, into the kitchen, away from me.

Now they had two daughters and I liked to think he fucked her exactly twice, each time, of course, from behind (that stuck with me, a gift, a smirk for all occasions). I didn’t try to picture it at all, but I really let myself believe Robbie had never looked his wife in the face during sex. It was his duty, I guessed, to give her something since she had saved his life, whatever that meant. The older girl had Erica’s coloring, and a big, eager grin. She was homely, as my mother would say, tacking on a God forgive me, but as a courtesy. The younger looked nothing like her sister. She didn’t look like Robbie or Erica either. Her expression was placid, prescient, like she was biding her time. She looked like she’d become the kind of beautiful girl who got away with terrible things. I imagined having her as a student, how I would dote on her. Sifting her silky long hair through my fingers, saying Where did you get this pretty blonde hair? Must be from your mommy. She’d say no, and she’d notice how pretty and blonde my hair was too. I could send notes home with her addressed only to Robbie, have him come in for a conference, act like it was all a delightful coincidence. There were a lot of things I could do.

I still hadn’t found Robbie’s artwork. I kept going over to certain paintings, walking with a purpose, pretending to consider them. Hmm, interesting color palette, nice play of shadow and light. I didn’t want to look stupid. I only knew about Robbie’s art because his wife had posted a picture of a flyer advertising it online. I had never known him to so much as pick up a pencil and doodle. I didn’t like thinking that he’d changed.

It was churchlike in those rooms and I kept thinking, what if he comes in now? Or now? I was starting to get nervous. I felt adolescent. My heart was doing wild things and I realized I had no plan. I just wanted to see him, in the flesh, and I wanted him to see me too. There was a stairwell by the front door I noticed, and the silver-haired lady saw me noticing and said Oh, you have to go upstairs! I was acting like a tourist, confused and dazzled and I did as she said.

There was only one painting of Robbie’s and it was right at the top of the stairs, the middle of the wall in a raw wooden frame. A little white card hung next to it, “By the Water” Rob Hart, 2018. I approached it casually, in case anyone was watching. The paint still looked wet and maybe that was part of the appeal? Otherwise I don’t know that I found it so appealing. I recognized the marina near my apartment, but it was a crude rendering. At dusk the water shimmered and made you feel like you were part of something beautiful, but I didn’t see any of that in Robbie’s painting. This was all thick brushstrokes and a shade of blue that was vulgar in its blueness. I didn’t recognize any piece of Robbie in those wavy lines. I tried to conjure up an image of him painting this picture of the place so close to where I lived. I pretended this was a clue, him wanting to be near me but who was I kidding. I knew if he wanted to find me it would be so easy. He’d just call me up like he had that time at Valentino’s. He’d just call, and I’d come.

Something in me deflated, standing there like an idiot trying to find some electric connection to Robbie. What did I think, that he’d be there just standing guard at this one painting? Did I think he’d take one look at me and pull me into his arms, lace his fingers through mine, walk me out to the little garden with the dying summer flowers? Would we make out, would we find a hiding place to show each other our scars? I felt like I should do something, leave a mark. Like make a tiny hole in the canvas with my car key or carve my initials into the frame. I touched my face, plucked a mascara-slicked eyelash from my eye and placed it gently on top of the thick wood. Here’s a piece of me, I thought. Maybe it would do some magical thing.

I left, suddenly so glad I hadn’t seen him and that he hadn’t seen me in that dowdy dress with so much makeup on at 11 in the morning.

I was late coming back to school, but nobody noticed or cared. The kids were doing a worksheet on latitude and longitude and I weaved through their messy desk formations to say Awesome job! or Can I help you with something, honey? They seemed to have shaken themselves free of the morning’s vague terrors. Gavin was still red-faced from gym, turning around in his seat, shouting out nonsense, wandering around the room slapping the tops of desks hard with the palm of his hand. He kept it up no matter how many times I said his name in varying warning tones. The teacher looked at me like what can ya do? This kid was going to have it tough and there wasn’t much I could do at all. I took him by his wrist and led him to the papasan chair. He talked to me while I filled out his latitude and longitude worksheet, asking me his favorite question, Are you a grown-up or a kid? I always answered I’m a kid and he knew I was joking but pretended to be scandalized anyway. Today he wasn’t playing around. Maybe he’d figured out what the A.L.I.C.E. drill was for or maybe he was suddenly concerned about me. When are you going to grow up? he said. I didn’t answer him right away. I was sitting on the rug, knees hunched up, balancing a clipboard with the worksheet, using a ruler to pinpoint where we lived. On the map it looked just like we were out in the ocean, underwater, lost at sea.

Header photograph © Lannie Stabile.

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    Rochelle Jewel Shapiro 03/05/2019 at 11:39 am

    Stunning the way you took the ALICE drill and went with it into the past of the teacher and then brought us back, back to the teacher’s past loves, back to her as child/woman. Intrigued how you make these leaps with a smooth patter.

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