CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Still Life with Nixon on the Beach
The boat came close to the shore, its sails silent, but we could hear the hissing of water against its fiberglass hull. I told Nixon I want to be away from here. No more following the season, island to island. He may have heard me, I’m not sure. My Nixon: no sense of the irony everyone else challenged in his parent’s choice of name having gone on a man so honest. His eyes followed the sloop’s steady advance, his hand revealing the singularity of his thoughts, matching the boat’s path in a line up the inside of my calf.
I felt the tines of the palm fronds a hundred feet behind us as if they were scratching the back of my neck, their woody hard coconuts strewn across the edge of the beach as if pressing into my back in sleep. I had an uncle once, until my aunt divorced him, who pressed his hard groin against the back of my head as the family sat around the dinner table in a circle of light playing a game of marbles on the wooden board that had been handmade for my grandfather by a stable man at a dude ranch in Arizona. It was a hard roundness like a small cue-ball, its location verified when the square edge of his belt buckle grazed my scalp. I wonder if the uncle thought no one could see him (no one seemed to notice), I wonder if he thought I would just let him do it (I didn’t say anything), I wonder if he thought I would take him up on some offer (the adult in me now yells angry insults, as if the one adult in the green-white-brown shadows of that room to stand up and protest, ‘What kind of asshole is this guy!?’). At the edge of the circle of light, I leaned my head away from his pressure, away from any possibility of future contact—a gesture buried with a child’s seamless effortlessness, as if it were the most natural thing to do: leaning forward to roll the dice and move my marbles one, two, three, four, five … I had rolled double sixes, could you believe! ‘You have all the luck’, someone protested, ‘You’re bringing them all home!’ The game was over, only the first, but I stood and walked out of the circle of light over the table and into the shadows of the rest of the house, knowing I was not the same, angry I would never be the same, even after my aunt announced she was divorced and alone in Toronto. She had divorced him for different reasons than I would have—something about a raincoat he didn’t like.
The boat flashes like hot fire, a blazing fang’s tear in the perfect seam of the horizon, and the boat turns. Things always turn. And then we can’t remember what we were thinking or doing the moment before, and I can’t remember what I said or if Nixon heard, or if it matters.
At a bar in Crooked Moon Bay, making small talk with a friend who was days away from being married, I watched a woman with long, titian hair lean over a burning candle as she bent close to talk to a friend. She didn’t know, but her hair fell into the flames. The friend gestured desperately, trying to stop the girl’s emphatic story. She finally noticed, her hands rising pragmatically to put out the flaming twists of her hair, squeezing out fire as if wringing out water. Shampoo, rinse, repeat. Her face turned upward, alight with joy, her laugh fluttering through the bar amid the smell of her burned hair, a smell as personal as catching a glimpse of someone’s panties. Not embarrassed—she was charmed. From that moment, her delighted face was etched in my memory like one of Titian’s own beauties.
I try to explain this once to Nixon.
He smiles as if he’s eaten something tasty. “I always knew every woman had a closet fantasy about being with another woman.”
Nixon has eyes I think I could climb inside if I wanted to, somewhere deep and private and safe. He is an easy man to like, an easy man to trust, to believe in. It is my turn to toy with the irony of his name: vivid image of Tricky Dick holding his “V-for victory” fingers high, his dark-haired, dark-suited silhouette against his last boarding of Air Force One; my mind slipping back to his history before: that Nixon had been easy to like, too; easy to trust, easy to believe in.
Now, I know only that I needn’t bother denying Nixon’s theory. It doesn’t matter. I begin to think he is not the one who would understand if I were to tell him: “Don’t you see? I want to be that woman.” But I am broken a little, having thought he would.
At work last month, a new girl asked, “Have you ever had repetitive nightmares?”
I told her, “No, I don’t have nightmares,” but listened, fascinated, as she told me how after a childhood spent practicing tornado drills in the Midwest she developed a fixation on them. It began to happen every few months: she’d be in the middle of a dream and suddenly a tornado would be coming. “It felt real,” she said. “My body would feel the actual shift in atmospheric pressure, smell the kicked-up earth and trees, feel bits of everything flying past, pulverized. I’d hear the roar. At first they were far away—slim cones, you know? Like you see in pictures on the news where they barely got the shot. Then each time it would get closer until the last time I had to jump out of my car and lie in a ditch as it passed overhead.” She posed, tickled with herself as if waiting for me to rate her story. (I’d give it at least an eight.)
I wished she was there later, because I was alone when it dawned on me: Yeah, I did have a repetitive nightmare. In college, I rented a house in the city with windows too old to meet their locks. I had a friend who thought it funny, drunk some nights, to climb a neighboring fire escape then jump roof to roof until dropping himself in through my bathroom window. The last time it happened, I met him with a knife from the kitchen hidden against my forearm.
After that or maybe even before, I had dreams of being afraid, alone in a house at night. One night in the dream, someone was threatening me from outside and I dashed with adrenaline to lock each door. When I thought myself locked safe inside, I hid in shadow just inside an open window and taunted out into the night, “Ha, ha! I locked all the doors and you can’t get in!”
A voice came back to me, kind and quiet from just beyond the bushes: “You don’t understand: he’s in there with you.”
Even repeating it now I get the chills.
The same dream woke me terrified, again and again. I knew exactly where the man was in the house—in a closet in the back room. When I heard he was inside, I would turn and see him coming in through the door behind me, a faceless silhouette.
I told my mom, who is no therapist but has seen every episode of Oprah, subscribes to O magazine, and has even been to Oprah’s favorite spa to cleanse her inner demons. She told me (I paraphrase): Nightmares are good things. It means your conscious mind is trying to tackle something it can’t understand while you’re awake. Keep reminding yourself, ‘It’s only a dream, it can’t really hurt me,’ and face it head on. My mom told me several things over the years that I later thought to write down in case anyone ever asked me for advice. That might be one of them.
The night the tornado passed over in my dream, as the man came toward me I screamed, “Who are you?!” He stepped into a shaft of light and I watched the face of every man I’d ever known flash across him. With a sophomore’s quick rejection of anything obvious, I thought, Come on, that’s too easy.
What on earth is a person thinking when something comes over them and they touch a child? I don’t mean the true rapists and molesters, I mean ordinary men, the ones who touched almost every single one of us who was never really violated. What loose wire short circuits and tells them, It’s just a little touch, it’s harmless. Not just the uncle, but the babysitter who said, ‘Your parents know. They told me to do this if you were bad.’
What other rib needs to be removed to keep them from knowing she won’t tell anyone—at least not now, not until decades from now when she can’t remember your name but suddenly thinks, He did what? And by then, what’s it matter? Chances are she couldn’t even find your address.
The woman with the titian hair clasped the flames crawling up her tendrils, pressing a cool palm against the side of her neck where she’d been singed. And she tilted her head back and laughed at the absolute unbelievability that she’d been on fire, her eyes sparkling with joy that inspired the bar’s band to stop playing and write an impromptu song, “To the Lovely Lady with Her Hair on Fire.”
There is a voice, sometimes, that tells me over and over, “I love you”. I have checked but a psychiatrist said, “It’s only schizophrenia if you really believe you hear a voice, and if you think it’s someone other than yourself, and if you don’t recognize who it is—especially if it’s telling you that you’re the Messiah or Joan of Arc or the President.” During a hurricane last season, she said they had Napoleon, George Bush and three Virgin Marys on the ward at the same time. The Virgin Mary is awfully popular. (I shared this with my priest and she said, “Isn’t it funny no one ever hallucinates that they are someone ordinary like The Janitor?”)
I found it all fascinating and knew I was okay. I know who my voice is. It is The One Who Is in Love with Me. I need only to find him. Disappointing thing is, I thought it was Nixon. I offered him the burning woman story like showing him a drawing of a hat and hoping he’d see in it an elephant swallowed by a python, but he saw only a fantasy of two women writhing for his sheer pleasure.
Why do they always assume you’d let them watch? I don’t think I would. That’s definitely something I’d do for me, you know? Enough of the rest of it is for him.
But that wasn’t the point.
When I was a girl, my Dad could get me to believe anything. He convinced me once that I was watching a water skier behind a tanker on the ocean. More than anything, I always wanted to see animals in the wild and at the beach he could get me to sit still for hours, believing every breaking wave could be the arching back of a dolphin or the sudden leap of a manta ray. Can you imagine what that would be, to see one leap right in front of you, all that wild animalness, right there?
I remember that faith, a belief as wide and open as a full blue sky. I want to be that woman, that girl. I want to be someone who still believes.
What do you think when you first hear The Man Who Loves You? You’re crazy, you’re hallucinating, you’re tired, stressed, imagining things. But you try to think of something; he’s there. You go to fantasize; he’s there. You go to pray; he’s there. When you kneel in church, trying to fill your heart with who’s sick, who’s in need, what you’re grateful for, guidance you need ... you feel him wake and roll over, his sheets warm, his thoughts of you. He loves you. He loves you.
You push him away. You stop fantasizing, you stop daydreaming, you stop praying. You work a lot. You forget about romance, you forget about belief. You go numb. Because no one wants to be crazy and, don’t you know, he drove you nuts after a while.
‘Who are you?’ you’d ask back, trusting in how true that voice felt, trusting him to answer truthfully. The Man Who Loves You wouldn’t steer you wrong, you must believe. ‘Is it so-and-so? … Is it so-and-so? … If it’s so-and-so, have him call right now! Right now! … Okay, right now!’ (Once he even answered back, ‘I’m not going to call!’ so it’s not like he can’t hear you.)
You hadn’t met Nixon yet at the time, and thought maybe it was this other guy. A girl has to trust, to let her heart lead, does she not? You went with him when he invited you to have dinner on the boat he captained. He told you he had a tiny grey parrot that was so loyal it slept on his shoulder nights. You took that to be a good sign. He kissed you on deck in the moonlight, pressing himself against your thigh. The dinghy had come untied, he told you; there was no way to get to shore until the water taxi in the morning—you’d have to spend the night. By then you knew: it wasn’t him. “I have to work,” you said. It pissed him off when you dove over the rail, into the ocean to swim the two hundred yards back to the docks. Lights from shore lit the giant shadow that swam beneath you. Two nights later, a friend told you about the fishing group he’d taken out who’d hooked a twenty-two foot tiger shark along that shore.
You give it up, the thought of trusting intuition. You push The Man Who Loves You away. Go away, now.
I thought it might have been Nixon, and that hurts. It is unsettling to have been wrong. At first, with him, I was breathless and nervous, and felt the entire universe flash through my soul whenever we were near. I found myself doing things that came from somewhere beyond myself, as if the Me from heaven, who looked back on my whole life, brushed against the Me here in the now and said, He’s the one, don’t blow it! Don’t let him slip away!
For months, I was sure it was him. The Cooley family intuition, my aunt told me I have; I know things I could not know. I’d feel him wake, know when he was sleeping, be able to tell when he was at work or on the water or all his height cramped on an airplane. At Easter, I saw him back home in his family’s kitchen, snow outside, watching his mother wash dishes. More than once he made love to me.
I willed him to tell me over the phone it was him; but each time, I would fend him off, begging in my thoughts, No, wait—tell me in person! Before there was the chance, he met Amber—just by chance—and she was there and I was here. It woke me the night she knelt in front of him in the dark hall of his apartment—which I recognized, although I’d never been there—and he fell back against the wall, gasping, waking me with his thought, ‘I feel unfaithful, but God I needed this!’ I felt his feelings pass from loving me, to passing time with her, to falling for her.
Then another voice came in—one of The Man Who Loves Me’s buddies, maybe?—saying, ‘You were meant to be, just not now.’ I told him to go to hell.
When I was ten, my father took us to the only places he could go in his new life without my mother. At a cabin by Lake Michigan, the wind was cool as stone, and damp, damp like the soil under the fallen trees in the woods where I went with a boy who was older than I was. I lifted pieces of rot, trusting his knowledge that here there would be salamanders. Quick wiggly, olive green, or black with patchy red or yellow or white spots, one with toes as feathered as twigs in silhouette. I hunted them eagerly, disappointed if they slipped through my fingers into cracks in a log and got away, in those peaty woods, tall wind slicing between the dark green brown shadows. Away in the distance, oblongs of silver shone through the trees where we could see the lake: my father drinking beer and considering his fraternity brother’s boat—the lines, the fishing rods, the rough waves casting fierce shards of light. I caught a salamander, tickling slippery in my fingers, shining black body, shining black toes, shining black eyes, and carried it safe in my palms all the way back to the cabin where the boy opened the huge beer cooler as somewhere safe for it to stay. I let it go, trusting its jet black presence could not be lost against the cooler’s bright liner.
On the dock, it was sunlit stark and dry, the fraternity brother’s boat not as welcoming as my grandfather’s boat, the pitching cold waves foreign and violent compared to the artesian, spring-fed lake I’d grown up on. These are people we stay with now my parents are divorced, this cold red cabin against dangerous waters. I chased and caught salamanders desperately, faithful these were some wonderful creature I had simply not previously discovered. Faithful in their charm, not bothering to look back at the older boy, tough like a bear. Later, I would open the Encyclopaedia Britannica my father had ordered in a week when there were no groceries (thirty-three gilt-edged, leather-bound volumes in their own cherry bookcase), and I would look up “salamanders,” a new fan, studying the variety of size, and pattern, and geographic location. And toxicity, and likeliness to bite, and uses for fringed toes that look like twigs in silhouette. The silver bright lake beyond the trees, straight high to the sky between us and the house, us and my father—suddenly a stranger in a bathing suit I don’t remember him ever having, a car that smelled new, boxes in the back because he didn’t believe he should live in an apartment when the house he had bought—and the wife and the children—were still across town, so finally mom had to move to another state to convince him, Yes, it’s over. It’s over. It’s over.
In the cooler, there was the most delicate feathering wiggle when the salamander discovered the closed dark was not like that under a tree. A feathering wiggle, then a struggle to be free! The shiny black bit of life was still there when the boat was abandoned—wet lines dripping on the dock, the dry sun turning to dark filled with mosquitoes and my suddenly terrified belief, We must go home! , that we could not sleep here—and the boy peered inside the cooler to the dark dead shape like a smashed twig at the bottom when his father lowered in a fresh case of beer.
Maybe I’m wrong about the whole Man Who Loves Me thing. After all, I was wrong when I thought Nixon and Amber would break up by October. I was wrong when I thought my aunt would survive another two years. I’ve come to doubt the whole intuition thing, actually.
Sure, there was the time when I watched Nixon in a store filled with wood and wax and leather, buying me a brown leather journal in Florence—I was home at the time—and was redeemed when it arrived, wrapped in worn brown paper and waxed twine two months later, my initial stamped in the front cover. There was the time he was on vacation and I watched him celebrating his last night in a bar with friends and imagined he dropped his camera, and later heard him tell that exact same story. It was red, the bar, with dark wood and an older woman dancing bawdily and a silver payphone where he’d considered dialing me despite the hour and cost. And there was the time, preparing for my aunt’s funeral, that I asked her to show me where to find pictures of her college friends in the basement of her little house. She led me through the boxes of holiday decorations and outgrown toys to the exact box, hidden in a storage closet behind a pile of suitcases and horse magazines from the 80s—then insisted I keep looking until I’d found a letter I’d written her in orange crayon when I was six and she was in college, that she’d saved all this time.
But, overall, it’s certainly been unreliable.
I leave the islands and go home to the mainland. I meet my father for dinner at the Severed Wreck. He introduces me to the owner as if we need to meet, but I wait for what he is seeking: the moment the man calls my dad by the nickname they have given him (“Motorboat!”) and his smile spreads in validation.
My father spins stories, sentimental in my presence but oblivious to the irony of illuminating the wide gaps of where he was while we were children home with our mother. In response to my months in Tortola, he asks if I remember that one restaurant on the cliff above Charlotte Amalie, forgetting it was his second wife he’d taken there while she was still a mistress.
His mention of Charlotte Amalie reminds me of the captain trapping me on the sailboat. I tell my father how I swam to shore. I tell him about the shark.
His brows rise, appreciating a good story. He knows the man, he says, without putting into words his familiarity with the dinghy trick, or even his thought that I should’ve been a better sport. “Boat’s a Benetteau, right? Not fast, but good for charters,” he says.
Then he giggles with sudden memory—his mind leaping from talk of the sailboat to the famous sailing restaurateur he worked for when I was a girl, and a trip he’d taken with the man to Boca, attempting to acquire a mansion on the Intracoastal to convert to a club. They hopped club to club long into the night. “Jack tells me he’s hungry and gets the valet to bring his car so we can go to Denny’s.” He struggles to keep his voice level to reach his kicker. “The hostess came up and asked, ‘How can I help you?’ Jack was so drunk he couldn’t stand straight and argued with her, surly as all hell, ‘What … makes … you … think … we … need … help?!’ The hostess pointed at the post he was using to hold his weight upright and said, ‘You’re leaning on the Wait here to be seated sign.’”
My father’s laugh starts and stops with the glugging sound of an outboard starting, gasping between air, water, and fuel before rumbling into a hearty, even thrum.
I love his stories, even drunken. The world closes dark and mysterious yet full of optimism, like looking out from inside a spinning crystal dome.
But I am inside that dome, now. A girl in the ocean, half-eaten by a shark, a man behind her angry for having been left unsated, and her father at Pier 51, dashing and drunken and jolly, forming in his head what a good story it would make.
Did you know? I want to ask him. What the babysitter did to me? About the uncle?
I say it once, not this night at the bar.
“No,” he says first, “I didn’t know.”
A little later he corrects, “Your mother had mentioned it.”
I could tell him about the guy who broke into my house nights. Or the one who continued after I said no. Or the one—only one—who pushed me so hard I slammed into a wall and fell to the floor.
My father’s lips tighten, eyes to the horizon as if I’d lifted aside some sheet one does not look beneath. No shotgun is loaded.
“I didn’t think you’d remember it.”
The sheet drops again. Earth continues its rotation, winds again rustling. Nothing more is said.
The restaurateur my father worked for had been a famous sailor. Long after they’d fallen out of contact, the man was in the news, having disappeared without a trace trying to outrace a horrific storm, sailing back from the islands across shipping channels in the middle of the night.
One of my father’s greater stories is that the night they were kicked out of Denny’s for being drunk and disorderly, the man had asked him, “Have you ever had a mortal fear? Have you ever had a fear as if you knew how you would die?”
My father would tell you he is terrified of propellers. He would bodily cringe repeating stories of having to jump overboard and swim beneath, to cut loose fishing line or nets that had fouled a prop.
That night, the restaurateur might have nodded.
They would have been somewhere where they could see out into the night-darkened ocean to the nearly invisible, pitch black outline of cargo ships heading for the horizon, as The Man Who Later Disappeared Without a Trace told my father: “I have a fear of being run down by a freighter in the shipping channels in the middle of the night. They’d never see you until they’re on top of you, and then there’s no way to stop. There’d be no trace left.”
I tell my father about the girl who had repetitive nightmares. I try to tell him about the girl on fire, try to tell him about The Man Who Loves Me, about believing it might be Nixon. I can’t help thinking he would understand.
“Nixon?!” he spits out in disbelief. “Who the fuck would name their kid Nixon? And he goes by that?”
I am startled to laughter, but there is no calming his agitation.
“No,” he insists. “This isn’t funny. That shows a serious lack of character. You really need to think about that.”
I drive to the edge of the ocean and stand on the steps over the dune and stare out into the waves as I have so many times, scanning shadows and ripples and reflections. I pray for God to show me a dolphin. I really need that right now. But I’m angry with God and I’ve lost patience.
The sun is setting, the ocean and sky passing through the moment of twilight when they seem one and the same. I walk back up the steps over the dune, crying. It hurts to lose faith, even if you’ve worried it might have been insanity.
At the point when I would have left, when there is no reason not to, I turn back and then I see it: a single slow grey fin cutting thickly through a wave. Is it my imagination, a mere undulation? I’ve been tricked too many times by shadows. Then the repeating grey arch, the round rolling fin. I am alone, no one to point them out to, as an entire pod of dolphins rolls in patient, hungry dives following a school of fish close in to shore.
“You really need to think about that,” he said. Nothing about the sitter, the uncle, the shark. But he’d impeach Nixon for me, if only on principle.
My friend Jane is my priest, and I’ve heard her explain uncertainties of faith by telling the story of her brother and sister-in-law living in Kiev on a business assignment. When they would ask their Russian tutor to teach them advanced conjugations, the woman would look at them, smiling serenely, and say, “You are not ready to know that yet.”
Jane smiles when she tells that story; she understands what it means. I am beginning to nod myself, now. The Man Who Loves Me. In due time. For now, I can wait.
Elissa Field is a fiction writer and teacher living in South Florida, with roots in Virginia, Connecticut and Michigan, where she learned to sail and spin stories. She is currently at work on two novels and a story collection. This is her first published story. She can be reached by visiting her website.