By Zoe Dubno - Oct 2, 2019
Paul dropped me off at the beach and said he’d meet me after going home to refrigerate some bait. When he said the “beach” I hadn’t expected a bed of sharp stones, but evidently I was ignorant of Mainer dialect. Dozens of people in swimsuits congregated on the craggy coast, their chairs and blankets oriented toward a glacial, waveless ocean. I tottered toward the shoreline in my penny loafers, sat on a rock in the sun, and stripped down.
Sprawled out, I read a copy of Jane Eyre I’d picked up off the free table at the town library. I skipped ahead to the end where Jane returns to her erstwhile fiancée, Mr. Rochester, after learning he was innocent of the deception that caused her to flee from their wedding. She now finds Rochester blind, wounded, and still in love with her.
Every few pages I’d glance at the ocean and consider going in, but would demur at the sight of bathers seizing up and shivering. When Paul arrived, I’d reached the part where Jane teases Rochester with her feigned indifference, impishly suggesting they resume their relationship as friends moments after her return had brought him to ecstatic tears. I giggled uncontrollably when I’d first read this exchange in high school, feeling so excited for Jane, an uppity feminist virgin I could relate to.
Paul was surprised I hadn’t gone swimming yet and commanded me to follow him to the water. We wet our feet at the shoreline but balked at submerging fully into the icy shallow water. Paul splashed some on my neck, he said, to lick off later.
“I have to get the taste of New York off you.”
I read the ending of Jane Eyre aloud as he lay on another large rock below mine.
“Am I hideous, Jane? asked Mr. Rochester,” I paused. “Very, sir. You always were, you know.”
I looked down at Paul and we smiled at each other. A crowd had gathered around while I was reading. A blonde woman in her thirties with a facial scar, an old man with a handsome face, two blonde children and their father, sat on large stones beneath mine. I became aware I was dressed only in a bra and underwear, the cotton of which felt somehow different than a swimsuit of the same shape, and I took pains to cover my nakedness with the book as I continued to read.
“Being read to is so lovely,” the old man said to Paul when I finished.
“It looks like you could start a service out here,” Paul said to me.
“I’d sign up,” the man said.
Paul got up and sat next to me on my rock.
We watched as the handsome old man waded into the sea.
“Don’t you just love Jane Eyre,” the woman with the facial scar announced.
“Twaddle,” Paul said, “complete twaddle.”
“You just heard the emotional payoff for three hundred pages of frustration,” I said, looking to the woman for support. “It’s allowed to be over the top.”
“It’s lovely twaddle babe,” he said, placing an arm around my waist. “Let’s go home.”
We shared a raspberry-flavored beer, had sex on the floor, took naps, showered, dressed, and went to dinner. We were early for our reservation, so when Paul saw movement in the water that looked like striped bass, he pulled over. We climbed over the guard rail on a bridge and clambered down steep rocks to a spot where he could cast his line. He didn’t catch anything.
The restaurant was a farm with picnic tables set up in gaps between the growing patches. They served pizza from a brick oven, salad from their garden, and soft serve ice cream in waffle cones. It looked like the kind of place that could be in Brooklyn or Los Angeles except everyone was middle-aged with children and poorly dressed.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I said.
He kissed my forehead.
Our waitress was the woman from the beach. When we ordered, she said “One pizza for Jane Eyre,” and I felt like she was making fun of me until she complimented my reading voice and said that she knew when someone was a good orator, she used to be a librarian.
“You know, I think she’s quite beautiful,” I said to Paul after she left.
“She got hit by a car. There’s gravel lodged into her face.”
“Oh, I thought those were freckles.”
“Plus,” he said, “men don’t usually like women with mustaches.”
After dinner a different, chubby waitress asked if we wanted ice cream. She rattled on enthusiastically about the pros and cons of ordering chocolate, vanilla, or swirl. When we selected swirl, she screamed that we’d made a great choice. Paul and I ate the ice cream as we walked along the highway to an empty soccer field. It was dusk and the fireflies had just begun to light up.
“What was that girl on speed or something?” Paul asked.
“She wasn’t on speed,” I said. “Too fat.”
Back at his apartment, Paul lay on the floor by the foot of the bed and told me to put some music on.
I went to my computer and opened the music streaming app. Never were the 24 years that separated us more stressful than when I was tasked with picking out music. Nineties indie bands that were always safe to play around my friends were songs of his youth. Contemporary stuff was impossible. Real oldies usually worked but that could feel corny.
“What should I play?”
“Be decisive babe.”
I put on some Nigerian psych-rock from the 70s and met him on the floor, where he lay on a tan sheepskin layered on a blue oriental rug, a juice glass of cold red wine balanced on his broad chest. I arranged his body into a restorative yoga pose, bringing his feet together, causing his thick legs to butterfly out. I propped his knees up with pillows from the couch, and mounted one of his thighs, leaning my chest on the other to deepen the stretch.
“I would stretch every day,” he said, “if there was a pretty young girl pressing her breasts on my legs.”
I got on my knees at the foot of the bed and he pulled off my white jeans. I asked him to turn off the music. When he kissed me, I could still taste the waffle cone. I told him not to come until I screamed and then after a while I let out a whimper and he asked if that was the scream and I said yes.
Resting my head on his chest, I told him I liked him.
“That’s nice babe,” he replied.
“Oh come on,” I said.
“What do you want me to say?”
He looked at his watch.
“The tide’s coming in. If you want to catch a squid we should go now.”
I exhaled audibly.
“You feel naked,” he said.
“I am naked.”
“Like, emotionally naked.”
“Well then don’t say stuff like that.”
“Fuck you,” I said.
“You’re not normally like this. You’re being such a girl. It seems like you’re on your period.”
“You know what,” I said, hesitating for a moment, “I am about to get it, it’s probably that.”
I withdrew from his arms and sulked to the closet where I put on my muddy track pants. He turned on the light while I thought about the things I could do to hurt his feelings.
We drove to the yacht club with a hard-to-pronounce Indian name and took turns casting off the pier. On one of my casts, the line snagged, working itself into a delicate ravel of useless translucent polyethylene. I handed the rod to Paul, who untangled it, nettled and sighing. I stared at him as he worked.
“What?” he said.
After a while without any bites he decided it was time to give up.
“No squid,” I said.
“There’s a reason they call it fishing, not catching” he said, reeling in the last of his line.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ZOE DUBNO