That Friday before my thirty-sixth birthday, I flee to my father’s old beach house in Maine. The town is barely four blocks long and ringed by an old factory that sits along the water. It’s far enough north that the shoreline is jagged with harsh rocks and pine trees, bitten sharp by winds like those of the Bay of Fundy.
I arrive early and open up the house. It’s three stories—a basement, a main floor, and the second floor where all the bedrooms are. No one’s used the upstairs bedrooms in at least three years, since my dad died. I cleaned them up like a good daughter after he passed, brooming the sand from the old wood floors, the tiles curved with time and the suck of the salt air.
After opening all the windows, I make my way out onto the front porch where the sea spreads, blue and wide. The breeze shifts sand into the air, dancing in spirals below me.
My favorite part about this place is how grainy it gets. It’s like the beach can’t stand to stay away. I love feeling it under my feet, in my mouth as I breathe. There’s something about salt and sand and sun that’s always gotten to the core of me.
Seven years ago, I walked the beach in Florida, just miles from where I rented a one-bedroom apartment in Cape Coral. I’d just finished graduate school for criminology in Orlando and didn’t know anyone there. I spent most nights flirting with women who didn’t want me, and on Fridays, I drove down for dinners at the Mexican place on Sanibel Island and drank three-dollar margaritas. That’s where I met Ashley.
The first night I sat down next to her, she was working on a small laptop, the chord winding across her leg. She wore jeans and an Anne Taylor shirt, and I could see the black D-cup bra she wore beneath it. Her engagement ring sparkled in the light, right next to a fat banded wedding ring.
“Tequila on the rocks,” I ordered.
She paused. Her eyes remained on the laptop. “Straight shooter?”
I chanced a glance in her direction. Her hair was golden blonde. A little brassy, like it was naturally dark. “I like tequila,” I said. “You?”
“Beer. I have to drive home.”
She wasn’t plainly beautiful, but the kind of pretty that could sneak up on you. I felt exposed sitting next to her, vulnerable in a way that made me both uncomfortable and excited. “That’s too bad.”
“You don’t have to drive?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes I sleep on the beach.”
She turned to me, her eyes glittering, green and with a faint gloss from the alcohol. “What beach? Here?”
“You’re an adventurer, then. I’m too old for fun.”
I smiled. “You can’t be much older than me.”
“Try me,” she said.
I allowed myself to eye her from head to toe, hoping it might make her blush, but it didn’t. Her posture was perfect. She sat on the stool all regal with her back straight, like I was a fly flitting around her. “You’re thirty-three.”
My knee brushed hers as I twirled on the stool and a rush of electricity shot up my leg. I fought the blush that crept up my neck. “Oh, I guess you are too old for fun.”
Her eyes met mine and she laughed.
I wake up to the sound of the ocean lapping against the shore and the window shutters creaking in the wind. Otherwise, the inlet is quiet this morning. The sun rises pink, burning a thin line across the blue sea.
As the sun comes up, I head downstairs. I check my phone but there are no texts or calls. That’s how it usually is. My job is remote, and I go days without speaking to anyone except the baristas at the coffee shop where I sometimes do my work.
I’m not sure how things got this way. In school, I was always surrounded by friends. I flounced from group to group. I had this innate confidence that things were going to be okay, that I was going to grow up and have everything I wanted.
After cleaning the kitchen, I turn on Pandora and start painting out on the porch. It’s still chilly this early, and my skin breaks out into goosebumps as I set up the square canvas.
I missed cold mornings when I lived in Florida. There, it was always hot. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, the heat lingered. It was in the air I breathed, on my skin, wet and heavy, every time I woke up.
The second time I saw Ashley at the Mexican bar was a month later, and when I sat down next to her, her eyes were red like she’d been crying. Her hair was slightly disheveled. Her curls were looser, limp, and shining in the light. Some strands ran straight. I liked this look on her better. She seemed more real.
“Where are your jeans?” I asked.
She wore a tight, cream colored pencil skirt with a belt around the waist. “I drove in from work.”
She drank wine this time, and her heels were on the floor of the bar. I couldn’t see her feet. Her legs were sheathed in nylons. It was the first time I’d seen a woman wear them since I was a little girl. “Nylons,” I said.
She looked down. “What about them?”
“I haven’t seen a pair in a long time.”
Her mouth tightened, and for a second, I thought I’d offended her. She sipped her wine, then waved at the bartender for another. “You like them?”
“I like them on you.”
Ashley laughed. I loved her laugh. It was long and loud. Careless. “Watch my drink,” she said.
She slipped into heels, then headed towards the bathroom. The walls of the restaurant were covered in Cinco de Mayo decorations—sombreros, bright colored floral arrangements—even though the holiday wasn’t for another month. The ceiling held scattered glow stars, the stick-on kind like I had as a kid.
When Ashley came back out, her chest flushed. Her freckles stood out. She maneuvered onto the barstool next to me and the smell of her, lavender, flooded my senses. “You didn’t do anything weird to my drink?”
I pushed it towards her. “I’m a women’s advocate down at the jail. It would go against my nature.”
She craned her neck to look at me. “Really?”
A burgeoning heat took over my chest. I swallowed. “What do you do for a living?”
Her eyes met mine, glazed and beautiful. They were darker than I remembered, and her face was dotted with freckles, the kind that were so small and so blended with her skin that you could barely even tell they were there. She took another sip of her drink. “Put your hand out,” she said.
I hesitated for a moment, then lay my hand palm up on the bar.
“Not there.” She grabbed my hand and placed it palm up on my thigh, the one resting next to hers. A bead of sweat formed just over her upper lip. She slipped her hand over my hand, then released something into my palm. It was soft but coarse at the same time. I squeezed. Her hand moved away.
I opened my hand to find her nylons. A blush flamed my face.
“A gift.” She smirked. “I’m a state representative. District 28.”
I saw her every Friday after that. Always wearing nylons. Always drinking wine. Ashley was the kind of woman that liked attention; I could tell by the way she ordered, and how she made eye contact with every single person who sat down next to her, smiling at them like she was vying for their vote.
She bought my beers when I wasn’t paying attention and flipped her hair at me when I told her she was pretty, her eyes flashing, her lips stretching into a smile. I tried to picture her in her other life—the one where she analyzed bills, listened to expert testimony, and went home at night to a husband. I just couldn’t buy it. There was a rawness in her when she was with me that seemed to defy a life like that.
After a while, I started to think she might fall for me. I thought she might leave her husband and come live with me in my small one-bedroom along the river. We’d find our own space eventually, maybe get a dog. It would be hard at first—I’d have to adjust to her working all the time, but we’d make it through.
I saw our future stretched out along the sand, in the heat of the steam that rose from the back of the restaurant, in the gloss of the wine she brought to her lips.
It’s mid-May, early in the season for beach-going in Maine, but I really don’t care. I set myself up with a beach chair, a small blanket, and some books. The chill of the morning has burned away with the sun, and now the weather hovers in the sixties with a cold ocean breeze. It smells like the sea—salt, fish, and sand. Same smell as it was two thousand miles away at the beach in Sanibel.
Unlike Florida, the water here is clear. It pulls away, clean, then froths over rounded, multi-colored stones. Crabs and snails wash ashore with the tide. Most of the shells here are brown, tan, or white, not the pinks and reds I always found further south. There’s a crisp beauty to this place, but somehow it feels duller than Florida did.
After about an hour, a family of four sets up a dozen feet away from me. They have two children, a boy and a girl, who are maybe seven and eight. The little girl wears a bathing suit with a long t-shirt over it, seemingly unfazed by the cold breeze. She plucks shells from the sand and drops them with a plink into a red bucket. Her hair is tied back. Blonde.
Eventually, she meanders over to me. “I’m trying to find crabs,” she says.
“Did you look by the big boulders there?”
She squints at me. She’s a pretty child, with a dusting of freckles under her eyes. It reminds me of Ashley. “Where?” she asks.
“Over by the rock wall.”
I point. She follows my outstretched finger.
I used to think that someday I’d have a little girl. Not give birth, but I figured I’d find a partner and either she’d have kids, or we’d adopt together. Before I met Ashley, I had this clear vision of my life—I was going to be a renowned criminology professor. I was going to have a family. We’d live in a cabin like the one here, and travel frequently.
“They wash up with the tide and get stuck by the boulders,” I explain. “Check there.”
“Will you show me?”
I hesitate. Above us, seagulls crow. This type of weather never used to bother me, but the chill penetrates me easier now that I’m older. I wrap a shawl around my neck, rise to my feet, and take her hand. Her palm is wet, rough with grits of sand. She squeezes as we walk, hand in hand, over to the boulders where the sea fans the air as it hits the rocks.
The Friday after Cinco de Mayo, I arrived at the bar to find Ashley tanked. Her shoes were off, and she wasn’t wearing nylons. She sat face forward, spinning her wedding ring like a penny between her index finger and the bar. A floral sundress hugged her curves. It was the first time I’d see her in a dress.
I sat down. The air smelled like cooked fish. I ordered a shot of tequila and set my phone face down on the counter. “What’s wrong, beautiful?”
“Don’t.” She pointed a finger at me. “Just don’t.”
The bartender set my tequila on the bar in front of me, spilling some over the side of the shot glass. I wiped it up with my fingertip and sucked the liquid off. “You sad?”
“I can drive you home.”
She shook her head and her curls bounced. She looked beautiful in a way I hadn’t seen before. She seemed, for once, like someone who could understand what it was like to be let down, and how it felt to constantly need more. “I don’t want to go home,” she said.
I checked her drink tab. Paid it. Fifteen minutes later, we sped up Captiva Drive, past the fancy beach houses and gated neighborhoods until we found the North End beach access. It was dark by the time I parked.
Ashley lingered in the passenger’s seat after I turned the car off, so I got out and went around to let her out. As she stood, her eyes found the water and focused. The beach was shaded by night. No lamp posts. We made our way onto the sand by the light of the moon and the faint glow of the town behind us.
I stuck my feet in first.
“Sharks feed in the shallows at night, you know,” she said.
The waters glowed as we waded into it. Phosphorescent. I learned in undergrad that the water at Captiva was some of the only in the continental US to have the plankton that causes bioluminescence. That’s why I moved there—I had some beautiful idea of splashing in the water with a girlfriend, completely in love, settled, and happy.
“They’re probably swimming around right now.”
I laughed. “Nurse sharks. They won’t bother us.”
We stood knee deep in the water and I stared down at it, watching the bioluminescence dance. It wasn’t how I pictured it all those years ago in undergrad. We weren’t giggling or splashing each other with water. We just stood and let the ocean move around us. The air was warm but not enough for a swim, and when we got back to the car, Ashley was trembling.
Just as I was settling in the driver’s seat, she shifted. Her fingers found the hem of her dress, and she shoved her hips up, pulling the dress over her head and tossing it in the back. Beneath it, she wore a beige slip. My hand froze on the ignition.
“I want you to make love to me,” she said.
The car keys slipped from my hand. My mouth opened, and suddenly I was terrified by how much I wanted her.
“Right now,” she clarified.
She reached under the seat and leaned it back, then sat there looking at me with one arm behind her head. It took a moment for my brain to react, and then I pushed back my seat. As I climbed across the gear shift to reach her, my foot hit the horn. It bellowed in the silence.
I settled between her legs, kneeling on the passenger’s seat floor. She smelled like salt and faint lotion. When I pushed her knees up, she let out a breath. The slip bunched around her waist. She wasn’t wearing underwear.
My mouth found the inside of her thigh and I tasted the ocean on her skin.
After shell hunting with the little girl, I lie down on the couch at home and don’t get up for hours. The living room looks out onto the Owl’s Head inlet unobscured by a wall of glass. As night falls, I watch the birds disappear and darkness swallow the water.
When the sun’s gone, I climb off the couch, wrap a blanket around my shoulders, and head outside. The air stings, chilled, as I descend the wood steps onto the dirt driveway. My feet are bare, and tiny pebbles prick at them. I take another set of stairs, these ones halved into the side of the sandy hill, and then I’m at the shore with Ashley again, except this time no one’s around, and I can only see in shadows.
Freezing cold water brushes my toes. For a moment, I consider wading further out. I picture myself submerged up to my waist. My chest. The undercurrent dragging me into the quiet darkness of the tide.
If it was Florida, I’d get taken by a shark before I could drown, but sharks don’t venture this far north. There’s not much of anything in the water, really. If you get lucky, you might catch a seal diving near the lighthouse. A whale further out where the ocean opens up. Otherwise, everything is just still and calm.
When I first returned from Florida, I loved the stillness. I needed it. But now, after so many years alone, it feels redundant.
I was with Ashley for four months. We texted through the days, met at local Applebee’s, and stayed at Doubletree Suites at night so none of her colleagues would accidentally see her. These places were safe from the higher ups. They were throwaways. Her crew never went there.
During our meetings, Ashley never talked about her husband, and sometimes she didn’t wear her ring.
One time, we went up to Tampa and spent the afternoon walking along the Riverwalk. It was cool for a summer day with the ocean breathing in around the city, and Ashley took my hand as we passed the art museum. Palm trees draped over the cement. Along the river next to us, boats cut the water with their bows full of tourists.
“Let’s get a pizza,” she said. “I feel like having a beer.”
I turned to look at her. The wind swept her hair to the side, and large sunglasses hid her eyes. She wore a yellow checkered dress that popped at the collar. She blended well with the city, better than she did with Fort Myers. I could see us moving here and living in a condo downtown, several floors up. I could see her switching districts for work. Coffee in the morning. Watching the sunrise from a chair on the deck.
On a Friday at the height of August, we met in the Doubletree in Fort Myers. The heat was everywhere by then. It settled, dense and wet, on the windshield of my car as I parked and headed inside. Ashley always got the same room number—605. It was on the top floor of the hotel, and from the corner room, we could see all the way to the coast.
She let me in wearing a terrycloth robe, and settled sideways on the bed, her head resting on one hand as I placed my suitcase on a chair. The legislative session was long over now, and Ashley was back at her other job full-time, consulting with mid to large businesses across the coast. Some days she made a thousand dollars for six hours of work. I could see it in her eyes and mouth—the perk she got after a big payday like that.
“You’re frowning,” she said. “Bad day?”
I slipped my shirt over my head, then settled on the bed next to her, on my back so I was looking up at her. The room was painted a baby blue. It looked like the sky, backdropping her blonde curls. “One of my clients hung herself in jail,” I said.
A well of emotion flooded Ashley’s face. She pressed her palm to my chest. Her hand was warm. The look in her eyes was like the world had dropped out from beneath her. “Are you okay?”
I sat up, then pressed her onto her back and untied her robe. Her breasts hung low and heavy, and a pouch of small fat gathered along her lower belly. I loved her body. Her skin was smooth, dotted with freckles. I ran my hands over her. “I missed you,” I said.
“I missed you, too.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
I was almost to the crux of her thighs when she touched my wrist. “This has to be the last time,” she said.
My face heated. I glanced down. She was wearing her wedding ring. It pressed into the flesh of my wrist. She’d been wearing it the last couple of times we were together. “What?”
“We can’t keep doing this.”
“Because,” she said.
I waited, but she didn’t elaborate and when I tried to pull back, she held me there. I wanted to cry but I didn’t. Even when things were really bad at my job—when a woman punched out my back molar, when a teenager overdosed in the bathroom—I never cried in front of her. I couldn’t let myself. I thought somehow it would protect me.
Ashley shifted, and her hair fanned across the bed. Golden curls against a white sheet. She brought her knees up so her legs were bent, her feet resting on the bed, and the robe fell completely open. Then she placed my hand on the heat of her, her palm pressing my fingers flat.
I wanted to rage and cry and scream, but I couldn’t. Not now, at least. I was just an Applebee’s to her, a throwaway. I was temporary, and even if she did care, there was no space for me in her life anymore.
I let my fingers slip inside of her. She felt like she always felt—hot and wet and perfect.
Her other hand cradled my neck, and then she brought me to her lips for a kiss.
I doze on the couch until the Maine morning rises in streaks of orange over the water. This was my father’s favorite place. Before he died, I could barely get him to leave. He’d sit here on this couch and sip his coffee, read his newspaper, and watch the light bloom over the horizon, alone and perfectly content.
It’s Sunday. My birthday.
Eventually, I force myself to make coffee and head upstairs to the shower. It has a long strip of window that looks out onto the beach and neighboring houses. As a teenager, I played games with it—leaving the curtain open to see if anyone might chance a look up. Now, I keep the curtain pulled tight.
There’s no food in the house, so I dress and head downtown to one of the bagel shops. It’s early and quiet, the mist of the morning still layering the town with coolness. I order my usual and sit down at one of the back tables with a newspaper. The smell of onion and freshly baked bread wafts through. It smells good and I’m hungry, but I don’t have the energy to eat.
It’s become normal. I keep telling myself that everything is alright—the job is better than it ever has been. I’m old enough now that I know my field well enough. I have the two houses. Friends here and there. It’s not a bad life. But at the same time, there are days when I’m slicing up an apple for breakfast and I look down at the knife and hesitate.
One of the waitresses brushes by and places my plate in front of me. I’ve gotten an everything bagel with ham and veggie cream cheese for years. It sits steaming on my plate. I push it away and turn the page of the newspaper.
After that last night at the Doubletree, Ashley and I didn’t see each other again. I caught her name and picture in the paper a few times and ran into her campaigning the following year before I decided to move back north. For a little while I tried dating, but none of the girls stuck around. I kept searching for her in different people. I still sometimes look into a crowd and hope I’ll find her face there.
“Miss,” a voice says.
I turn to find the little girl from the beach yesterday standing next to my table. She’s wearing a mismatched outfit—multicolored leggings and a shirt that sits crookedly on her skinny frame. She’s the kind of kid that seems thrown together last minute, and it makes me feel tender for her in a way I didn’t expect. “Hi,” I say.
“What are you doing here?”
I nod at the bagel. “Eating breakfast.”
“Me, too,” she says, and puts her hand on the table, resting a perfect queen Conch shell on the dirty glass. “Look what I found.”
I pick up the shell and hold it close to my face, admiring the perfect spiral, the bleached clean whiteness of the shell. “I rarely ever see any of these up here.” I hand it back to her. “You must be super good at finding things.”
She quirks her head. She has old soul eyes. I felt it in her when we were searching the beach yesterday. At moments, she’d stare off into the water, her hand gripped around the bucket handle, mouth pinched. She pushes the shell back at me. “You keep it.”
My throat tightens suddenly. I take a sip of my coffee and clearing my throat. “No, silly. You worked so hard to find it.”
“It’s a gift.”
She’s looking at me in this way that makes me want to cry—her eyes all open and curious. I take the shell, squeeze it in my hand. “Are you going back to the beach today?”
Her face perks. She clasps her hands together. “Mom says after lunch.”
“I’ll see you then.”
She stares at me for a moment, kind of like how she stared at the water. Then she reaches out and pats the side of my face. Her hands smell like crayons. “Don’t worry. We’ll find some more good shells. Okay?”
My eyes tear up, and by the time I’ve wiped them clean, she’s gone. I find her sitting down at the table with her family. Her mom pushes a napkin in her direction. Her bagel has been sliced into four evenly spaced pieces. Her parents are at least five or ten years older than me, which means they probably met later in life. I wonder how much time they spent alone before they met. If they ever got close to giving up.
Chelsea Catherine is a PEN Short Story Prize nominee, winner of the Raymond Carver Fiction contest in 2016, a Sterling Watson fellow, and an Ann McKee Grant recipient. During high school, she worked in Central and South America, where she taught sign language and learned how to make chocolate. After graduating from the University of Tampa with her MFA, she moved to the Keys for two years, where she served as secretary of the Key West Writers Guild. Her short story collection ISABEL was a finalist for the 2018 Katherine Anne Porter Prize. Her novella Blindsided won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize and was published in September 2018.