By Nuala Reilly
The summer I was ten years old, my parents took us to Nova Scotia to see our Uncle. A confirmed bachelor, he was lamenting the passage of his adult life without children and wanted to spend a few weeks with my brother and I. We looked forward to it for weeks, bragging to our schoolmates that we were going on an airplane and going to swim in the ocean.
Our very first day there, we jumped in his beat up old pickup truck and drove the twenty-five minutes from his house to the ocean. The real live ocean. It was beautiful. I was mesmerized, captivated by the beauty and majesty of it. The ebb of the waves held my gaze like nothing I had ever experienced before.
Chuckling, my uncle and brother started to shed their clothes right there and, wearing only their jockey shorts, waded out into the surf. I eagerly followed suit, leaving on my underwear and t-shirt and charged in right after them.
As they splashed and laughed in the shallower water near the shore, I was overcome by a desire to immerse myself into the body of the ocean. I wanted to become a part of her. I had visions of gliding along with dolphins with tiny little minnows circling my toes and my fingers.
Nothing prepared me for the powerful pull of the undertow, a phenomenon that my ten year old self knew nothing about. At first it was exhilarating, feeling the underbelly of the waves tugging me in. Like the ocean was trying to embrace me. I laughed, waved at my Uncle, and relaxed into the sensations.
Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore. In just a few short bursts I was far, much farther out than I was comfortable with. The previously crystalline water now looked black and ominous. I couldn’t get a strong enough churn of my arms to propel myself back towards the shore. Another strong pull yanked my head under the waves. I coughed and spluttered, grasping to right myself on the sky side of the world and away from the mysterious monster trying to swallow me whole.
A panicked sensation gripped at me. It was a scarier feeling than anything ever before. Worse than the roller coasters at Wonderland, worse than the feeling in my stomach when the plane had lifted off the ground. Worse even than the time my brother David threw a snake at me and it hit me in the face.
I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think and I was truly terrified.
Strong arms grabbed me under my arm and around my neck. My Uncle had swum out to me and was pulling me back towards the shore. I turned my body and grabbed onto him so hard, in days to come red marks showed up around his neck where I had clawed him trying to ensure that we wouldn’t get separated.
He delivered me back to the safety of the shore where David stood with a shocked look on his face. Somewhere, from the depths of my fear soaked brain, I remembered hearing words of warning about the ocean, where it was safe for me to play, and where it wasn’t. David didn’t want to tell our mother, he was so sure part of the blame would fall on him as the older child, for not watching his sister properly.
As for me, once I was safely back on that shore and the pounding of my heart had settled into something more normal, I remember feeling more alive than I had ever felt before. Once again, the ocean seemed to call out to me, teasing me to come and try again to best her.
That summer we stayed for two whole weeks with my Uncle. That summer, I learned to swim better than I ever had before. That summer I went back to my ocean several times, always with the guise of staying within my boundaries. But my feet sought out that feeling of the tow, and although once or twice I thought I had caught it again, I never again allowed the ocean to win.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve grown to be a pretty tough girl. I don’t feel that shaking fear at all anymore, over anything. I’ve been my own person since that summer that I was ten, and I don’t make apologies for it to anyone. I take care of myself, and I respect people who can do the same. It’s one of my best strengths, but it’s probably also the reason why I left that restaurant in such a bad mood after my fight with Rick, and why I wound up nearly losing my life. That damn ocean undertow has followed me, angry that it didn’t claim me the first time around, furious that I had the audacity to flirt with it once out of its vile clutches, and dying for a chance to get me back. If you go looking for danger, it will always find you when you least expect it.
January; that time of resolutions and good intentions for the year ahead when we all plan how we will make our lives better or healthier or whatever we feel might be lacking already. For Jaye, it was the time of year when her business usually slowed down just a little. Well, her business and her best friend’s. Several years ago Jaye had loaned her best friend Moira some money when she decided to open up her bakery, and had joined her working in the kitchen of the warmly inviting shop. Together they had taken it from a business hardly anyone knew about, to the one of the most prosperous stores in the area.
All throughout the year Moira and Jaye made breads, cookies, squares, pie’s, almost anything you would expect to find in a bakery, but especially cakes. Indeed, the very name of the shop was The Cakery, and everyone who was anyone in the town of Fayette went to the girls for their weddings, their birthdays, anniversary’s and anything else worth celebrating.
While Moira herself lived in a quaint little apartment above the shop, Jaye lived across town with her boyfriend of four years, Rick Abbott. They shared a tiny and cozy little place just a few blocks over from the upper part of Fayette’s downtown.
Jaye was standing at the back door of her building, taking her time with putting her key in the lock. There was a light covering of snow on the ground and the air was alive and crackling with the kind of wintery anticipation of an impending snowfall.
It was a glorious winters evening. Jaye had finished her orders at the Cakery early and her business partner, Moira, had offered to close up the shop so that she could go home and start getting ready. As much as she loved the smell of fresh baked bread and goodies, it would be nice to take the time to stand under a hot shower and smell like a woman again instead of a bakery. Jaye’s mouth twitched in a sly smile. She had already planned out her outfit for tonight, and since Rick wouldn’t be home until very close to seven, she would have plenty of time to glamorize herself. She wanted to surprise him when he walked in. For a man so used to seeing her now in clothing dusted with flour or sugar, a polished, prettified version of her would be a treat.
Rick worked in a neighboring town mainly, but tended to travel a bit with his job. It was complicated. He was a biomechanical engineer who worked in prosthetics. Frequently he left his office/lab to go and personally fit high profile clients or children for their artificial limbs. He loved his job, and Jaye loved that he did something that he was passionate about, like her. It wasn’t hard to be passionate about a job that you had seen grow into something real right from the get-go. The store itself was almost like a child to her and to Moira. Finally, it was coming out of the awkward teenage-stage and growing into a real adult business. The girls had recently expanded to include more internet orders and sales, and had taken on Moira’s sister Sloane as counter help, since the two girls now needed to spend the bulk of their time in the spacious kitchen. For a short time they had taken on a couple of students, but found that they really wanted someone a little older, and Sloane was working out, for the moment, just fine.
Jaye didn’t mind Sloane, per se. At least, not as much now as she used to. Sloane had settled down a lot since getting married three months ago and was five months pregnant with her first child. Jaye was sure that the impending little one was doing more for their sales then the new technological implements. Sloane just loved to gently touch her belly with that wistful look of an impending mother while talking to the customers. Something about her beatific face made them think that they needed twice what they might have come in for, so as to keep this delicate blonde beauty from starving to death whilst incubating a baby.
Whatever it was, Jaye was not complaining. The business was nearly doubled now from what it was a year ago, and at this tempo, she had no doubts Moira would talk to her soon about taking on more permanent kitchen help.
Jaye let herself into the apartment and looked around. Sure, it was cozy and nice. But it was also small. It was a perfect place for them four years ago, when they were both starting out and making little money. Jaye knew, for herself, that she had saved enough now for a down payment on a small house. She knew that Rick was saving too, but money had always been one of those things that they kept separate. She had no idea what he had put aside. The only thing she did know is that in his particular line of work, he made a very decent income, which over the last several years had increased significantly.
She had felt for about a year now that the time was coming that they should begin to think seriously about moving. Rick usually shied away from this conversation. Jaye had a pretty distinctive feeling that had he known she was quickly becoming one of those women interested in marriage, he would have shied away from that conversation too. Thankfully, it was a topic that was not brought up often. Jaye didn’t think marriage was necessary, yet, but she did think about it, and she was sure that they needed a place with more than eight hundred and fifty square feet.
This ‘problem’ was a problem unto itself though; Jaye mused as she stood under the therapeutic steam of the hot shower. Recently, with the tough economic times, more and more homes had cropped up on the market around Fayette. Jaye drove by them with the same gleam in her eye that Sloane had when she saw other women with babies. The same look that older women had when they came into the shop and practically drooled over the strawberry mousse cakes or the chocolate truffles. It was the same look Jaye had given Rick the first time she saw him. Pure, unadulterated need is what it was.
Fayette was a town that was over a century old. Many of the residents had lived in their homes for twenty to thirty years or more. Now, as a lot of them retired, they wanted smaller places that were easier to manage. Indeed the new homes being built on the other side of the river near the industrial section of town were just that, tidy little bungalows, not terribly far from the hospice and the hospital.
Jaye got out of the shower and wrapped a towel around her hair. In the fall, she had been sporting a bright streak of cobalt blue. Now it was a cheerful pink which shone spectacularly against the darkness of the rest of her hair. She grabbed another towel and dabbed the beaded water from her body. Then she wiped the steam from the mirror and glanced at the small clock on the back of the toilet. It was already five forty five.
Back in the bedroom, Jaye dabbed perfume on behind her knees, on her wrists, neck and in between her breasts. She dug in the back of her underwear drawer for her fancy stuff, vivid purple lace panties and a matching bra. She pulled the stay up stockings onto her legs, the kind that drove Rick mad with desire and then slipped her feet into the shoes she usually saved for weddings.
In the back of her side of the closet was the piece de resistance, a soft skirt the colour of molten gold. The fabric was rich and thick and something about it made the colours reflect on her skin and change slightly depending on the light. Moira had lent her a black low cut blouse to pair it with. Even Jaye had to admit to herself that the result was stunning. She slipped back into the bathroom to begin putting on some makeup.
Jaye almost laughed to herself when she dug out the old cosmetics bag from under the sink. She rarely wore makeup anymore. She rarely wore skirts and heels anymore. She was more of a jeans and an old pair of combat boots kind of girl, clogs for work, since she was on her feet for so long. Her hair had long been her only accessory. She like old band t-shirts she had gotten while in high school or the years since then.
The eyeliner was dulled, and being that she never needed it for upkeep, Jaye didn’t have a pencil sharpener anywhere that she knew of. She wound up going into the kitchen and chipping at the sides of the thing with a knife.
Rick walked through the door just as she was finishing up with the makeup. Jaye stepped out of the bathroom just in time to see him come in and hang his keys on the hook near the door. He turned, and they looked at each other for a moment.
“Wow. I mean, just, wow. You look amazing” he told her, crossing the room and planting a kiss on her cheek.
“Thanks. You better hop in the shower. Our reservation is in half an hour.”
Rick disappeared into the bathroom and Jaye could hear the water coming on. She leaned on the edge of the counter in their tiny kitchen. Tonight was going to be a great night. She planned on bringing up the subject of moving again over dinner. If his reaction to the way she looked was anything to judge by, this would probably be a good night to bring it up.
The last time she had mentioned it, Rick had not been eager to talk. He didn’t care much for changes at the best of times.
Finally, after fifteen minutes, Rick emerged from the bedroom showered, shaved and dressed in crisp clean clothes. Jaye took a minute to admire her man. Still with the edgy good looks he had that first time they met. It was nice to see him dressed up and relaxed looking. Okay, maybe not totally relaxed. He had a busy job that was often a little stressful and more than a little depressing, especially when he was designing for a child. But the broody darkened look on his brows was one of the things that had attracted her to him in the first place. She just hoped that today had not been one of those hard days.
“All set, babe?” he asked her.
She nodded and headed for the door, enjoying a private grin to herself when he swatted her ass as she passed in front of him.
Oh yes, it was going to be a good night.
Jaye and Rick pulled up to the new French restaurant that had recently opened at the far end of the downtown sector. It was already bustling with customers and the only parking spot they could find was the one next to the alley way for the large post office. Jaye didn’t wait for the car to come to a complete stop before she was already unsnapping her seatbelt and grabbing for the door handle.
“Jeez, can you wait a damn minute?” Rick asked her impatiently.
Jaye shot a look at him that she hoped said ‘don’t mess with me’ and climbed out of the car as Rick turned off the ignition.
The great start to the evening back at their apartment had suffered a serious blow on the way over, which didn’t bode well for their romantic dinner plans. This was supposed to be a night out to celebrate four whole years together, and yet they had barely spoken to each other since they had driven by ‘the house’.
The house in question is the beautiful two story, white sided colonial house that was just a block and a half from Moira’s mothers’ house. Jaye had loved that house for years and now it was finally on the market. It was probably the most clichéd house in the whole town. It actually had a small white picket fence that encircled the lovely garden in the back which you could see from the road. There were dark blue shutters and a boldly painted door. There was even an old weather vane on the roof with a rooster to point out the wind direction. As unconventional as Jaye could sometimes be in her appearance and attitude, this house was the most normal looking thing she had ever fallen in love with.
She of course had mentioned this house to Rick numerous times over the course of their relationship. He in turn had seemed to agree that it was a lovely place, the kind of place that he would like to live. But tonight when they drove by it on their way to the restaurant, Jaye had sat up in glee when she saw the sign and, looking at Rick to gage his reaction, was completely deflated to see him roll his eyes.
The rest of the drive was spent in slightly frosty silence.
Now the two walked into the restaurant, not as a couple in love holding hands or nuzzling, but almost as cold strangers on a reluctant first date.
Jaye watched as Rick followed the maître D to their table and then sat down and folded his arms over his chest. She didn’t pay any attention to the wine list, and instead asked for vodka on the rocks. Rick took his cue from her and ordered beer.
They both stared at the waiter trying to tell them about the specials, probably making the poor man completely uncomfortable.
Jaye didn’t even bat an eye when Rick uncharacteristically ordered first, a steak, so she looked him straight in the eye and ordered the lobster. If he was going to be an ass, two could play at that game. At least she would get a great meal out of this evening.
Jaye nibbled on a breadstick as she waited for their food to come and watched Rick carefully. He was thinking about something, and not something that was making him happy. She could read his face so well now, she knew that the wheels of his brain were turning and that sooner than later whatever it was would come bubbling up to the surface.
Not wanting to wait for him, she decided enough was enough.
“What?” she demanded finally. “Why are you all of a sudden so grumpy?”
She watched him take a decent sized pull on his glass of beer and take a deep breath.
“I’m not grumpy,” he told her, “I’m just starting to wonder when all of this is going to wear off.”
“This? What are you talking about?” Jaye was confused by his statement.
“All this residual stuff from Moira’s sisters’ wedding. You’ve been dropping all these hints lately about buying houses and weddings and babies ever since that night and quite frankly, I’m getting sick of hearing about it!”
Jaye was in a bit of a stupor. She quickly ran through her mind the conversations that had been going on between them lately. Okay, so she might have mentioned what a great wedding it had been a couple of times. Perhaps she had dropped one or two hints more than usual lately about moving somewhere in town that had an actual yard to it. Maybe there had been an insinuation or two dropped about babies and how nice it might be to have one someday.
In all honesty, she didn’t think that she had been all that annoying about it. She thought she had been rather cute. Apparently not, judging by the sour look on Rick’s face.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize that I was bugging you,” she said, “I was under the impression that after so many years, you might naturally start thinking about these kinds of things too.”
She watched her man fiddle with the breadsticks and take another swallow of his beer.
“I might have thought about some of it, once or twice,’ he gruffly admitted, “but that doesn’t mean that I’m ready for anything to change.”
“What does that mean?” Jaye asked, albeit much more politely, as their waiter had just arrived with their entrees.
“I mean, I don’t see what’s so wrong with our life now.” He told her, and then dug into his plate of food without even blinking.
Jaye looked at her plate. Suddenly she didn’t much feel like eating, which was a shame since her lobster looked and smelled amazing. She grabbed the tongs and half heartedly began cracking the shell of the claws. It was satisfying to feel that hard red shell shatter between her fingers and by her hand. Jaye kept cracking harder and harder, piling the meat on the side of her plate and leaving the shattered remains of the crustaceans’ outer body on the side plate before her.
Rick eventually looked up from his steak to see what she was doing. By the time she had finished extracting anything edible from the poor creature, she looked up to find Rick staring at her from his seat.
“Now what?” he asked her.
“What? Don’t you like your food?” she asked him sarcastically.
“It’s just fine. Are you going to eat yours or just perform an autopsy on it?”
Jaye muttered under her breath. She was not in the mood for him to get all funny on her.
“Goddammit Jaye, just tell me what’s going on in that head of yours right now.” Rick demanded.
“Fine. I’m pissed at you, okay? There’s nothing wrong with our life right now…” she began.
“Good, then that’s settled.” Rick said, raising his fork for another bite.
“I’m not finished. There’s nothing wrong with our life right now, really. But nothing has changed, nothing is new, and it seems that there is nothing to look forward to.”
She grabbed a big piece of lobster from her plate and bit into it. Damn. Now she would actually have to work at staying mad. It tasted like heaven.
“Great, so I’m boring.” Rick said, grabbing his napkin and wiping off his mouth.
“That’s not what I said.” Jaye told him.
“Oh no, of course you wouldn’t actually come out and say that, you just said that there was nothing new going on with us and nothing to look forward to. Sounds like the definition of boring to me.”
“Well, you tell me different. We do the same things all the time, we’ve been together four years, lived together for three in that same small apartment….don’t you think we’re in a rut?”
“No, I don’t think we’re in a rut. I think that we have a nice place, that we’re pretty happy-happier than a lot of people. I think we both have decent jobs and make decent money and that we’re able to take off and enjoy a steak and lobster dinner whenever we want to. I thought shit was pretty good, actually.” Rick told her, and promptly took another large bite of meat.
Jaye was getting more than a little angry now. “Shit is pretty good, Rick? Shit? Well, you really know how to pour on the charm. Especially on our anniversary.” She looked down at her plate full of succulent lobster and aromatic rice. Using her fork, she pushed the food around a little. She was having a hard time figuring out why the evening had gone so wrong, so quickly. She stole a glance at Rick. He was still chewing his last large bite, but he had a bit of a sad look in his eyes. Perhaps he realized how harsh his comment had sounded, or how inappropriate it was to say something like that to her in this beautiful place and on their anniversary to boot.
Jaye shoved a forkful of lobster into her mouth and looked around at the other tables. All around her were happy couples. Young couples, like herself and Rick, holding hands across the table, gazing into each other’s eyes. There were older couples trading bites of each others’ food back and forth across the table. At one table, a group of girls sat cooing over a tiny little baby. The proud mother of the child beaming around her and barely concealing her joy. Jaye felt inexorably sad that there were so many people here enjoying this place for what it was meant to be, and here she was having a conversation about why her relationship didn’t need pressure put on it, because ‘shit was pretty good’. A tear started to form in her eye, and then another. She got up and mumbled out an excuse about the bathroom.
Once inside, she stared at the reflection in the mirror. What is wrong with me? She wondered. I used to be one tough bitch! I didn’t go in for all the mushy crap that I’ve been feeling lately. Rick is right, we do have a good thing going on. So why am I so fixated on houses and babies?
But she hardly needed to ask the question. It was simple. Jaye would be twenty nine this year and she had been feeling those pulls, those yearnings for at least a year now. It was what her mother used to refer to as the biological clock. Well, she didn’t much care for that term, but the sentiment was the same. She wanted stability and probably someday soon a family. All around her were the reminders of people moving on with their lives and….growing up. Okay, so she was a fairly significant share holder in her best friends’ business. That was pretty grown up. But the bad-ass Jaye of the past was rapidly fading away in favour of one who was starting to feel the need to put down some roots. She and Rick had met at a rock concert. They had ridden motorcycles together and gone rock climbing. They partied all weekend long sometimes in Toronto, taking off whenever the need for noise or the opportunity of a good band came up. Sure he would be a little surprised that she suddenly felt a yearning for white picket fences, but after so long together, the key question should be why isn’t he feeling it too?
Jaye went back to the table and sat down. Rick had evidently asked for the waiter to clear their plates, since there were now two of those Styrofoam packages sitting where their food had been just a few moments before.
“Gee, thanks. Couldn’t you have waited until I came back to decide that we were ready to leave? What if I wanted to finish?” she demanded.
“You didn’t seem to be eating, so I figured we’d just take it home” he shrugged.
“Yeah, ‘cause reheated lobster is just oh so delicious.”
“For fuck’s sake, Jaye, I can’t win with you tonight. You’re mad at me, you’re mooning over shit, and you think we’re in some kind of rut. What the hell do you even want me around for anymore then?”
“Maybe I should start asking myself that.” She spat out at him.
“Maybe you’re just getting your period.” He threw back.
“You’re an asshole.” She told him, and turned on her heel to leave.
Jaye stormed out of the restaurant feeling white hot with anger and frustration. How was it that a simple conversation these days seemed to erupt into arguments and accusations, she wondered.
She shivered a little as the crispness of the air bit into her arms and walked purposefully towards the car.
Grabbing the handle, she realized that Rick had the keys. She crossed her arms to try and warm them and waited, facing the restaurant door for him to appear.
Jaye gave a tight smile as Rick started crossing towards her. He dug the keys out of the pocket of his coat, and then patted his other pocket, looking perplexed.
“What now?” she asked him.
“Forgot my wallet. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Wait…” she barked at him.
“Give me the keys so I can get in. I’m cold.”
Rick gave a shrug and tossed the keys at her, which hit the ground just behind her. Jaye grunted and turned, bending down to pick them up. She scraped her nail along the pavement and swore slightly at the annoyance of having to re-do her polish.
From somewhere in the alley beside the car, there was a scuffling sound. Jaye shrugged it off as some nocturnal animal foraging in the garbage.
She stood up and straightened out the bottom of her skirt, clutching the keys and squinting at her nail in the scant glow from the streetlight. The noise got a little louder, and this time Jaye turned to look in its direction. She didn’t see anything, but she heard what sounded like whispers. Feeling ever so slightly frightened, she flipped through the keys to find the one to unlock the door of the car and hastily pushed it into the lock.
The smell of sour whiskey hit her first.
The piece of wood hit her second.
And then all was black.