This was one of those stories that tried to write itself, but, I think, got lost along the way. A few weeks after posting I had second thoughts about the ending, even the very nature of the resolution, but somehow never got around to finishing a rewrite. Still, I’ve tinkered with it over the years, and recently hammered away at it. I think she’s pretty close to where I wanted her originally, but I’ll let you decide whether it’s better than the original.
Still Life In Shadow
or: The Order of the Universe, In a Smile
She presented herself as a simple woman, and it had been said of her – for as long as anyone on the island could remember – that she had been unassuming, almost plain – even when she was young. Before she left for Zurich.
But that was so long ago.
She had always been considered brilliant, even before the first day she first walked to the island school. She was different, and though not everyone understood her peculiar gift, that doesn’t really account for what happened in our time together.
Maria Louisa D’Alessandro was her name. She was Portuguese, but after finishing medical studies in Switzerland she had unaccountably returned to her family’s home near Horta, on the island of Faial in the Azores, and she had been practicing medicine there for almost thirty years – when I stumbled along and became a part of her story.
She was a surgeon at the only hospital on the island, and she ran an inter-island clinic for off-islanders as well, and she had come to be regarded as something of a saint by almost every inhabitant of the island chain. She was an oddity within the medical profession, too. She had trained in cardiovascular surgery but had simply picked up and left that high-pressure world – the bustle of Zurich, the certain promise of a celebrated career – and returned to this last outpost of the Portuguese empire, to this end of the line. Who can say, really, why. Did she return to get as far away from that fast-paced world as she could?
Again, no one knew her reasons, not really. Those who spend their lives worrying about such things often said a man was involved, but her return wasn’t really an open mystery anymore. The who and the why of it had, over the years, simply faded away. Gone too were the days, just after her return, when the young physician was looked on with lingering suspicion; she was brilliant, and she belonged to them – and so what if she returned? The men who once tried to win her heart stopped trying, left to make homes with other women, or they had gone to the sea, fishing perhaps – and on to their final rests.
Yes, that early part of her life was now little more than a memory; mysteries of uncertain unions, too, were now all of that untested past. Maria Louisa D’Alessandro watched all these mysteries play out in remotest seclusion, ignored the gossip as she watched the gossipers come and go, and she did so with kindness in her heart for everyone, for she possessed, in word and deed, a kind soul.
A Saint, if you really must know the truth of it.
Maria lived in her family’s house, a small whitewashed stone cottage on the south side of the island, in a little village outside of Horta known as Pasteleiro. Her house, like many others on the island, sat just back from a cliff that looked out over the Atlantic Ocean, yet it was in her south-facing garden – a world apart full of gardenia and azalea blossoms most of the year – that Maria found what real peace there was to be had in this life. When not seeing patients in her clinic, or at the hospital in it’s one operating room, Maria would inevitably be found on her knees, in her garden, slowly, perhaps even lovingly – working on the petals of her God’s creation.
Almost without exception, Maria would each day make dinner for herself at home. When the weather was stormy she would sit inside by the house’s old, stone fireplace. Max would be there with her – right by her side. Max, her soulfully faithful and very old Bernese Mountain Dog, a massive black mound of fur – with copper and white accents on his face and belly. They had, on their many stormy evenings together, looked out over mad, storm-tossed seas and wondered what furies danced in the heavens to create such majestic anarchy. Max would sit closely by her side on those nights, warm her feet and watch her with all the love and affection of any loving husband, and he was happy in this world, happy with his life, and happy with Maria – in the one and only way dogs know and understand our world.
In the normal, sun-drenched evenings of her island home, Maria would sit in her garden as the sun set and have a light salad, and perhaps some cheese with her wine, and invariably, no matter what the weather, she would sit in the afterglow of another day and read the works of Donne and Goethe and Yeats. She often read aloud to Max, and he would sit by the wall of her garden with the last of the day’s sun on his neck, and he looked at her with what surely must have been curiosity on his face, because he alone – of the all souls in this world – truly listened to her.
Some might read these words and think about such an existence, find the routines of her life mundane, perhaps even boring. Yet there are few people who know the meaning of peace, or the myriad ways the souls of men can be ripped asunder, not in the way Maria Louisa D’Alessandro understood these things. Maria was an expert at recognizing a soul’s dis-ease, you see, because hers had been dead for such a very long time.
At least she told me that was the truth of the matter, long after events relayed in this little tale passed into memory.
I assumed over time that she thought of her place in life, when she bothered to think of herself at all, as a vast emptiness, devoid of human love. She relied on Max the way the blind rely on their dogs; he helped her avoid the worst consequences of her own peculiar sightlessness. But was Max was old when I met him, already concerned more about the next life than he knew, and Maria Louisa D’Alessandro had yet to grasp what his failing eyesight really meant.
I first heard David Latham’s voice over the radio, and he sounded very stressed-out, very…I don’t know…maybe weak is the right word?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, let me take you back, back to a blustery May day a few months before we met, to an afternoon a few years ago, when I was en-route from the United States to the Mediterranean – via Bermuda and the Azores – and on an old friend’s new sailboat. I had done some sailing before but this was my first long ocean passage, yet I had been – and let’s keep this simple – hesitant to make the trip. But Harry Stinson, my oldest and most loyal friend, had begged and pleaded with me to make the trip with him, and in the end he simply hammered away at my resolve long enough – until I gave up and said something noxious and brave like: ‘Okay, let’s do it!’ Enthusiasm? I wouldn’t go that far…
Harry was bringing along his wife and twenty four year old daughter, and he said they wanted someone with a strong back for the Atlantic crossing, which they rightly considered the hardest part of their journey to Italy. My wife, bless her black little heart, simply refused to join us, as she refused to do anything not her own choosing – and that might crack a fingernail. Yes, my wife and I were at odds with one another, two fighters in the ring sitting warily in their respective corners, tending to our cuts bruises while friends huddled in front of us, urging us back into the ring for one more round. The fact she had turned into a bi-polar shrew had nothing to do with any of this, in fact, if anything, she had with age corrupted within the cask. She was vinegar now, bitter, sour, and only good on salads.
We, the Stinson’s and myself, departed Mystic, Connecticut and sprinted for Bermuda, arriving a leisurely five days later. I will always remember the first 48 hours of this first leg with uncertain fondness in my heart, the number of hours we spent on our knees – hurling the contents of our stomachs into the sea. When I think of those first few days at sea I could write volumes on the subtle forms human misery can take, yet when I think about the nausea that hit that first night at sea, and the avalanche that followed, words fail me. Despair comes to mind, but inadequately fails to convey the totality, the Gesamtkunstwerk that is ocean sailing at night, in a gale.
Suffice to say, as Bermuda appeared behind wind-driven veils of rain and her rocky reefs hove into view, I swore I’d jump ship and never set foot on another sailboat again – for as long as I lived.
That is, until I found out what a same-day purchase, one-way ticket back to Boston would cost.
I am at heart a frugal sort – my wife would say downright cheap – but what does she know? In the end, that’s why I – allegedly – remained onboard and agreed to finish the trip – at least as far as Gibraltar. The other reason I refuse to talk about publicly, but if it must be known, it was because I really enjoyed myself the last four days of that trip in so many ways I can’t even begin to relate them all to you. I had never known such peace, or had such fun. Let’s just say that Harry’s daughter had a lot to do with my decision to remain on board.
Could we just leave it at that?
We left Bermuda in the middle of May and began the 2100 mile slog across the Atlantic to the Azores. Ten days out and as the sun was rising, we saw a sailboat a few miles ahead of ours; not a few minutes later the young man on this boat hailed us on his VHF radio.
“Hello, sailing vessel near three-eight-zero-three North by three-eight-five-eight West, this is the Sailing Vessel Bolero, over. Sailing vessel near three-eight-zero-three North by three-eight-five-eight West, this is the Bolero, over.”
“Bolero, this is the Circe. What can we do for you?” Harry said.
“Uh, Circe, I think I’m sick, and I could sure use a hand over here.”
That’s when Harry sent his wife below to wake me, for you see, I too am a physician. That’s also when Harry’s wife found me seriously ensconced in their daughter. It was an ugly scene for a couple of minutes, but the exigencies of the moment prevailed.
“Circe, Circe, this is Bolero. You still with me?”
“Ten four, Bolero, stand by one, we have a doctor on board.”
“Oh thank God!” came the young man’s reply. “I’m going to drop sail; can you head towards my location?”
“Roger, Bolero, we’ll be with you in a half hour or so.”
Jennifer Stinson, Harry’s daughter, was banished to the forepeak while Harry and Trina ripped me apart back in the cockpit. I had violated a very basic trust, Trina yelled, and Harry looked at me with barely concealed contempt in his eyes. I’d earned that look and knew it; still, Jennifer was one in a million. After almost three weeks together I knew I was in love with her. I was willing to forgo everything I had to be with her, forever. I wanted to run away with her, journey to the far ends of the earth with her hand in mine, forever and ever.
I had, in short, completely lost my mind.
I’d been around to see her – what she was two days old. We’d all gone to Disney World – when she was in second grade. I’d helped her with her chemistry homework in high school, and when she chose a major in college I was right there, helping her make the choice.
Oh, it was philosophy, by the way. And let’s not talk about irony for a while yet, please.
So, I’d known her for almost twenty five years, but now she was anything but a little baby, and I was no longer prudently married. I was married to the untamed shrew, my life a charade. Miserable didn’t begin to paint the picture, and the thought of returning home filled me with dread.
So, no. I have no excuse. What I did was wrong, very wrong, yet I’d never been as happy as I was those few days at sea before our own little dangerous liaison was, well, uncovered.
With these facts firmly in mind, it was with no small amount of regret that, as we drew close to the Bolero, I realized my time on the Circe was coming to an end. An unhappy, unplanned for end. When we pulled alongside Bolero, I could see an emaciated young man almost wallowing in pain the cockpit, and I could see that he was indeed very, very ill.
Despite the fact Harry’s a lawyer, and a good one too, he still has a few bits of compassion left in his heart, and he immediately took over responsibility for the lad in Bolero. “Pete, get your medical bag up here, then jump across; we’ll stand by while you figure out what we need to do.”
A few minutes later and I was on Bolero’s deck; I thank God to this day that the water was calm enough to make the jump without incident. In rough seas we might never have made the transfer, and the closer we got to the Azores the more sharks we’d been seeing. In any event, Bolero was tiny in comparison to the Circe, and the little boat was rolling heavily with her sails down, so I hoisted the staysail and she steadied up a bit, and began tracking again to the east.
I remember looking at David Latham that first time. He was a sturdy looking fellow: sun-bleached hair, very tall, muscular and lean, and in his late twenties, but he was sweaty and obviously in a great deal of pain.
“What seems to be the problem,” I asked as I started in on his vitals.
“What kind of doctor are you,” he asked me. “Not a shrink, anything like that?”
“No, I’m an anesthesiologist. A gas-passer, I guess you’d say.”
“Oh? You fart for a living?” he joked. Always a good sign.
“So, what’s wrong, David?”
“My nuts hurt.”
“I suppose you’ve tried jacking off?”
“No, it’s not that. One of ‘em hurts real bad, and it’s as hard as a rock.”
“That been going on long?”
“Been a lot of pain down there for a couple of weeks; some shooting pains down there for a, well, several months.”
Step back with me here, will you? Imagine this conversation in your mind. Imagine a doctor’s office, clean walls, antiseptic smell, a nurse waiting in the hall to draw blood or set up an ultrasound. Everything seems nice and orderly in your mind when you think about the conversation David and I were having. Only problem was we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and I was standing in the cockpit of his 34 foot sailboat. I had no nurse with me, no tests to offer, and to make matters even more inconclusive, I wasn’t a urologist. What he was describing to me sounded just like testicular cancer, and if he’d been symptomatic for months – time was of the essence. Fact of the matter is, even then I remember thinking it could very well be too late for the kid.
I hated to do it, but asked if I could feel the offending nut. Often times a testis can get wrapped in it’s cord and swell up, causing immense pain; this usually results in loss of the testis but typically isn’t a fatal event. Some penetrating hernia can flair up and cause pain in the region, but typically these cases don’t present as an enlarged testis. In order to confirm my suspicions, I really needed to, well, get a handle on things.
Anyway, David dropped his drawers and I felt the offending nut. One was normal, soft and pliable, and it’s cord was soft, too. The other was larger than a golf ball and at least as hard. I could feel the cord – stiff and barely flexible as far up as I could feel – and I knew right then this kid was in deep shit. I took his temperature while I continued my history: he hadn’t been able to hold food down for two days and was febrile, so I took him below and made him comfortable, then got on the radio when I got back up in the cockpit.
“What is it, you son of a bitch?”
“This kid’s sick, Harry. I mean real sick. Cancer is my guess, and we need to get him to a hospital as soon as we can.”
The change in Harry’s voice was immediate, and I loved him again, he was my friend again. “OK, Pete,” he said gently. “What can we do to help on this end?”
“I’m going to need to start an IV and get some pain meds in him, so I’m going to need an extra set of hands over here for the ship, and to help out getting him secured. You might want to see if we can get a hold of someone in the Azores, alert them to the situation.”
“OK, buddy. I’ll send Trina over as soon as she gets the stuff together.”
I know I haven’t mentioned that Trina and I dated a long time ago. She’d been a nurse when I was an intern at Mass General, before she worked to put Harry through law school at Tufts. She knew the drill, anyway. Now it was just a matter of her not killing me when I wasn’t looking…
By mid-afternoon Harry had talked with Radio Azores on his single-side-band radio, and while we were out of helicopter range they advised that we call them the next day and relay David’s condition. If he was deteriorating, they would come pick him up; if not, they would have medical attention standing by for our arrival at Horta.
Trina and I got an IV working on David, and I slipped him a small dose of morphine when it was apparent to both of us that lesser medications weren’t doing the job. As the sun went down I could tell that the kid would have to be airlifted out of here as soon as possible; he was slipping into a deep fever and doubtless had some kind of septicemia working in the area of his groin or thighs, which were now hot and growing rigid. We ran a bolus of antibiotics and crossed our fingers.
Circe sailed alongside during the night, and at first light Harry called Azores Radio and apprised them of the situation. An hour and fifty minutes later we heard a helicopter approaching, and we made ready to transfer Latham to the aircraft.
When the chopper settled in overhead, I was surprised to see a man in orange coveralls descending on the rescue hoist. He discharged static electricity from the rotors while he dropped, than helped us put Latham in the gurney they lowered. The man, who spoke in thickly accented English, then told me he would sail the boat into Horta, and that I was to accompany Latham on the helicopter back to the island.
Conveying this to Harry by radio, we said our goodbyes to one another out there in the middle of nowhere, and he advised they would see me in Horta – most likely the day after tomorrow. I was then hooked up in the hoist and raised into the hovering helicopter. I sat by Latham while he writhed in pain during the ninety minute flight back to Horta.
He kept looking up at me during those tense minutes, thanking me with his eyes. I held his hands from time to time – when his eyes were open – then I saw the islands slip into view. It would be more than fair to say I was entranced by these islands timeless, volcanic beauty as we got closer, which might also explain some of what happened over the next few months.
The helicopter slipped over the northeast corner of the island and began it’s descent into Horta, and we touched down at a Coast Guard pad near the hospital. We loaded Latham into a waiting ambulance and drove the few short blocks to the Hospital da Horta.
A tall, dark eyed woman was standing there, waiting for us when we turned onto the hospital grounds, and that was my first memory of Maria Louisa D’Alessandro. A tall woman, dressed in a white lab coat over a long black dress; her huge black eyes standing in wild contrast to her alabaster skin, her expression almost unreadable at first. She stood in the quiet shadow of the hospital building, looking at us as we arrived that morning. I, of course, mistook her quiet, contemplative manner as a look of contempt.
I was wrong about so many things that summer, but I never saw her coming.
She spoke English, of course, and better than I did. She moved to Latham’s side as we pulled his gurney from the ambulance, and she quickly checked his vitals out there on the driveway while I filled her in on my observations?
“You are the physician?” she asked me as I spoke.
“Yes, doctor, I’m an anesthesiologist, at Brigham and Women’s in Boston, and I teach at Harvard.”
“Excellent. Our anesthetist is in Lisbon this week. We can put you to work!”
Nothing like a working vacation, I always say.
We walked inside and directly to a radiology room, and a nurse with ultrasound equipment in hand was waiting for us. Maria took the hand unit as the nurse doused the area over Latham’s groin and upper thighs with surgical jelly. When the machine was ready, Maria ran the wand over the area several times, looking at the screen as she did and nodding from time to time. When she was finished, she ordered an AFP test and called the operating room nurse to get the room ready. She told them that there was an anesthetist on the grounds now, and I heard her tell them that ‘she would ask.’
“Ask what?” I said.
“There are about ten cases in need right now, but they are on hold until Doctor Avilas returns. They have asked if you would consent to help out while you are here.”
“Well, whatever I can do to help. What about legalities, licensing and the like.”
“Ah, yes, You are an American. I forgot. Don’t worry about that. We practice medicine here to cure the sick, not to profit some corportate enterprise. And the lawyer on the other boat? He is a friend?”
I smiled, nodded understanding, but hated the implicit condemnation of America in her words.
We scrubbed and went into the operating room. Most of the equipment was, by current standards at least, somewhat antiquated, but the procedures used weren’t unfamiliar to me. I put Latham under, and after the nurse shaved away his pubic hair, Maria made a four inch long incision just above his penis on the wall of his belly. She retracted the skin and felt for the cord, then pulled the affected testis out of Latham’s groin and felt along the cord. She held the swollen gland in her hand and turned it over in the light; theoretically, if it wasn’t cancerous she could pop it back in and sow him up and after a few miserable days he would be free to resume a normal life. I looked at the white lesions that covered the orb and knew as well as she did: Latham had a vicious cancer…seminoma, teratoma, who could say?
“It is hard all the way up,” she said to the room. “I was afraid of this.” She snipped the cord and clamped it off, then put the shining pink orb into a shallow stainless steel bowl and walked it out of the operating room. It’s standard procedure to do this, by the by. She was carrying it to the lab, where a waiting pathologist would cold section the testis and the cord to identify the cell types and classify the cancer, and therefore determine how far up the cord it had spread. With that information, a post-op treatment plan could be formulated.
She returned a half hour later.
“All three. Seminoma, teratoma, and granuloma. I’m sure it has spread into the lymph, but without a CT scan there’s no way to measure the involvement. I suspect we should wake him and let him regain his strength for a few days. With more information we can decide how to proceed.” She nodded to her nurse, “Okay. Let’s close now.”
I brought Latham out of the ether a little later, when he’d been moved to the hospital’s little post-op ward, and I was there when he popped out of his fog.
“Howya doin’, shipmate?” I said to him when it was apparent he could talk.
“So. How’d it go?”
“Well, David, you’re alive. I’ll let the doc tell you what she found.”
“Not good, is it?’”
“No, not really, but I don’t know the extent of it. She can better fill you in on your options. Right now, you get some rest.”
“Am I gonna die, doc?”
“David, we’re all going to die. Right now, we’re all going to concentrate on getting you better. That’s all. That’s what you’ve got to concentrate on.”
I smiled at him as he drifted back to sleep…
“Doctor Patterson? Doctor Patterson?…”
I woke with a start, saw Maria was standing over me.
“Yo!” I felt like I resident again, pulling forty-eight hour shifts in the emergency room.
“We have a critical cardiac case flying in right now; can you look over the equipment and see if you have everything you need?”
“Do you have a nurse that speaks English?” I asked hopefully.
“Sister Magdalena is on her way.”
I shook myself awake and walked from the Doctor’s lounge to the operating room and found the Sister waiting for me. She walked me through the hospitals best equipment – it was surprisingly up to date – and we set about getting the room ready for the arrival of our next patient.
A few minutes later I heard the helicopter beating the air over the town, and our patient came in a few minutes later, followed by Maria Louisa.
“What’s the procedure? I asked. “And who’s doing it?”
“I am,” Maria said.
“Oh, come on! What kind of doc are you, anyway?” I asked incredulously.
“I was trained in Zurich, in cardiovascular surgery. I came to Horta afterwards.”
“Alrighty, then,” I said as I looked at her to see if she was serious. It wasn’t unheard of, really. A top gun who opted out of the bright lights and the big city to get away from – what? “So, what’s the story with this guy?”
“His mitral valve is failing. We’re going to replace it.”
“No kidding! Who’s going to assist?” I asked, knowing this was a grueling procedure for two well trained heart surgeons.
“You are, Doctor Patterson.”
You know the feeling, I know you do. It’s like when you were a kid and you knew better than to argue with your mother. You knew there was no way you were going to get out of whatever it was she wanted you to do.
I looked at Maria Louisa D’Alessandro and hoped to God this woman was the best heart surgeon in the world, because she sure as hell wasn’t my mother…
Well, four hours later and I was just about convinced Maria could walk on water. If the situation warranted, she could have given Jesus water-skiing lessons. And then, after finishing the heart we scrubbed again, then took out the appendix of a nine year old girl who was screaming in agony when her father carried her into the hospital in the middle of the afternoon. Exhausted, I went to the lounge to get some coffee and put my feet up for a minute, and was just dozing off when Maria came back in.
“We have a laryngeal growth to remove next. You are ready?” She was looking at me like I was the village idiot, and a lazy one, at that.
“Uh, listen doc, I was up all night sailing a boat and trying to take care of that kid,” I said, pointing to the little post-op ward down the hall. “I’m a little tired.”
“Alright, doctor. I’ll go explain to Mr Vasquez that we can’t operate on him today because you’re tired.” She turned to leave and I got up to follow. She walked right into the scrub room and started in on her hands, and I stood next to her while we scrubbed in. I think, but I’m not quite sure, she was smiling at me, measuring me – for a coffin, I think.
I might have slept in the Doctor’s lounge that night, but wouldn’t swear to it. I woke up curled up on a little vinyl covered sofa the next morning, but that’s all I can say with any degree of certainty. I had been wearing the same shorts and t-shirt now for four days, and I was pretty sure I reeked – like a pile of dead fish out in the sun. I sat up and took a tentative whiff of my armpits.
Time for a shower.
But all my clothes were still on Circe.
On the table in the middle of the lounge was a neat stack of green surgical scrubs and a couple of towels, along with a bar of nondescript soap. Wasn’t that cute? There was a little map pinned to the towel indicating where I could take a shower, and a reminder that there were about ten cases lined up for the day.
I stood in the shower and let the water beat down on the back of my neck; I thought about Harry and Trina, and of course, the problem with Jennifer that I’d created.
Was I just middle-aged-crazy, just another balding cliché living out his fantasies?
Granted, I was married to one of the world’s meanest women, and yes, granted, we’d been talking about divorce for more than a few years. The simple fact remained: I was married, and I had screwed my best friend’s daughter.
Let’s just ignore, for the moment, that I had really enjoyed the experience, and wanted to continue the relationship.
Circe and Bolero would arrive today, unless something untoward came of them, and with their arrival there would be a showdown. Another gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Harry was just too parochial to let this slip, and Trina was just too flaming mad to let me live another day without giving me a really nice piece of her mind.
Maybe what I needed was to bury myself in the O.R. and forget about all this crap for a few days.
Yeah, that was what I needed!
We finished the third case, a tonsillectomy on a six year old boy, right before lunch. Maria and I walked to the cafeteria and had a bowl of seafood soup that was simply wondrous. Not American hospital food, that much was certain. I could see the breakwater and the harbor down at the bottom of the hill, and tied up down there I could just make out the – Circe.
“What’s wrong?” Maria asked.
“Hmm? What makes you say that?”
“Your jaw is clenching, and your eyes hardened.”
“Ah! My friends arrived. The boat is tied up down there.”
“Oh? Which one is she?”
“There,” I said, pointing to a black-hulled ketch along the middle of the breakwater. “That big black monstrosity there, by the flag pole.”
“I can’t see anyone down there; do you?”
“So, why are you so tense.”
“Because it’s my best friends’ boat, and his wife and daughter are on-board. I, ah, was indiscreet, with his daughter.”
“Yes, I suppose that would make me tense, too. Do you need to go and clear the air before we begin our afternoon’s work?”
“No,” I sighed. “I suspect it’ll wait.”
“I suppose so. But might that not be inadvisable? You need a clear mind, do you not?”
“I haven’t had one of those in years, Maria.” I looked at her; she was looking me directly in the eye. She knew me, I could see it in her eyes. She knew exactly what I’d done, and why.
“You know, Pete, we each make our own prison, yet we alone hold the key to our release. It is such a simple thing to tell the truth, is it not?”
She reached out and put her hand on mine. “You told me the truth, Pete, just now. And the pain in your eyes left you for a moment.”
She squeezed my hand once, then stood and took her tray to the waste bin and left the room.
And I could still feel where her hand had rested on mine. My skin burned with electric impulses, as if I’d been touched by fire.
“So, what the hell was that all about?”
I looked down at the harbor, saw Harry and Trina sitting in the cockpit, and suddenly I knew. Knew what I had to do. I left the cafeteria and walked out the front door of the hospital and made my way down to the harbor. I saw Harry and Trina looking at me from a long way off.
They were ready for me. Ready and waiting by the time I arrived.
I walked up to Circe and looked at my friend, and he looked – tensely – at me.
“Well, come on if you’re comin’!” I hopped onto the deck and stepped into the cockpit.
“How was the sail in?” I asked, wanting to ease into this slowly.
“Oh, fine, fine. How’s the boy?”
“Cancer, a bad one.” They nodded their heads and looked sad for a moment, then Trina looked at me.
“You want to get your stuff off now?” she asked.
“I’ve been, ah, they’ve had me working round the clock since I got here. Done about ten surgeries since yesterday. Haven’t had time to get a place to stay yet.”
No reaction to that, but Harry began again:
“Well, we’ve got your stuff all packed up,” he said. “Why don’t you take it with you now.” He was having a hard time looking at me, acting like this wasn’t really his decision, but that didn’t matter now. Almost thirty years of friendship down the drain. It hurt, but I should have thought of that before I let my hormones run away with me like that. Yet I thought, somehow, our friendship had been stronger than that. Oh well, that was – as they say – too bad. Water beneath the bridge. I went below and got my bags and walked off the boat. I never looked back, never said goodbye. They remained silent as I walked away.
I have to admit the whole thing hurt. Badly. No one walked away unscathed.
I dumped my duffels in the lounge and went to scrub in for the next case. I was on automatic pilot now; when I hurt inside I usually just bury myself in work, do the next case, keep on keeping on ‘til I can’t.
Maria came in and started in on the next case, a hysterectomy, and she talked to the scrub nurse in Portuguese while I monitored the woman’s vitals.
“So, how did your visit go?” she asked me – out of the blue.
“Oh, it went.”
“Well, I’m sorry for you. Wish it would have worked out better.”
“I’m gonna need a place to stay, and need to find a way back to the States.”
“That’s not a problem,” she said. “We can take care of that after we finish up this afternoon.”
Later that afternoon she walked me up to a nice little hotel and I checked in – and Maria insisted they give me a hospital discount – and after dropping off my bags in the room she told them I would be working at the hospital for a few days. We walked out and down to a little travel agency, which was closed, and thence up hill to the town library, where I could check my e-mail.
Trina had, bless her heart, already communicated all my sins to Sara, my wife, and the message in my in-box from her indicated that she would be forthwith filing for our too-long postponed divorce. Another note from a colleague at work telling me that news of my affair was all over town, and there was talk of suspending my privileges at the hospital.
Oh, this was just too good to be true.
Maria came over and sat next to me at this point.
“Must be bad news,” she said. “I swear your face just turned scarlet.”
“Oh, let’s see. My wife, she’s filing for divorce, the people at the hospital are going to dump my privileges, and that’s just the first two emails.”
“Are you sure you want to go back?” she said with a chuckle.
“Not sure where else I could go.” I opened up the next email, from my bank. All my accounts were frozen. Well, I had some travelers checks with me, enough to get by for several months at these prices, but until I challenged this I was not liquid at all. I could see Maria reading my email over my shoulder, then saw her shaking her head out of the corner of my eye.
“Would you like me to see about getting you on staff here?” she asked. “The pay isn’t the best, but you’re a very talented physician, and we could use you. I see no issue getting around the legal obstacles.”
“Hmm,” I said, now very clearly distracted, “what did you say?”
“Stay here, Pete. Work here, work – where you’re needed. That’s why I returned; the world back there didn’t need one more high-priced chest surgeon, but I was needed here. So I stayed, I came back to my roots, but I came back because I was needed.”
“Okay, yeah. Might as well,” I said, but I was in a funk now, felt like I was drifting into clouds of unreality.
“Come on,” Maria said after she looked at me for a while. “Let’s go get some dinner.”
We walked away from the library up a long hill, winding through narrow winding streets as we climbed, then we took off down another long, narrow road that led to a small village in the distance. We walked for about a half hour, and I looked at the sun as it sped toward the western horizon. The sun even looked lonely to me. All alone up there, no one to talk to, no one to love.
She opened an old wooden gate and a dog about the size of the house came bounding up and stood on his hind legs and licked Maria once on the cheek, then noticed me and dropped back to the ground. He looked at me with his head cocked to one side, like he was taking my measure, and after a moment he came over to me and sat in front of me, blocking my way. He sniffed my legs, and I felt his cold nose on my hands as he sniffed there, too. He circled me, sniffed at my feet, then moved away as Maria led me into her house.
I sat where she told me and watched the sunset as she moved off to start a fire, then into the kitchen to prepare dinner. I sat quietly, and Max, her dog, sat between me and the kitchen. I was clearly an unknown to him, and he didn’t, apparently, like unknowns in his house.
“That’s okay, Max,” I said as I looked at him sitting there on the floor. “If I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t like me.”
I walked back to town after dinner, and I was pretty certain I could find my way back to the hotel on my own. It was very cool out, and the sky was clear. I looked up, could see Saturn overhead and the smoky band of the milky way rising out of the eastern sky. Huge volcanos rose into the sky, standing there, judging me.
What did I want? What punishment was just?
Did I want to go back, back to seething seas of innuendo and endless recriminations? Was money so important to me now? I looked around as I walked into the village, and darkness was complete as the sea came into view. From here I could look down to the harbor below; the lights of the village gave the scene a fairy-tale quality, almost of luminous expectancy, and I could still see a huge volcano across the water, on the next island. I could see the twinkling of lights of another small village, there, across the water.
This was a simple world. A simple life. A life for people like Maria and, perhaps, for people like me.
But did these people really need me? Someone like me? Could I really settle here, leave the complexities of that other world behind? I felt like I had damaged my world beyond repair, and felt totally helpless as I turned a corner and my tiny hotel came into view.
But someone was sitting on the front steps of the building, under the pale yellow glow of a streetlight near the doorway. I walked toward the building, toward the light, and saw a girl sitting there, quietly, almost lost in the shadows.
She looked like someone in a painting I had seen once, the painting of a sea witch on her throne. She looked like a still life in shadow, all fury pent up and lost.
As I walked closer, as the hotel grew steadily closer to me, I could see Jennifer sitting there in the cool night air. I could see her there, gently crying, and I could see a duffel bag by her side.
She heard my footsteps, I guess, because she looked up, then stood and ran to me.
“Oh, Pete, I love you. Don’t let them take me from you. I want to stay with you forever.”
I felt her tears on my chest.
Or were they mine?
A simple life, indeed.
She was in her outlook a simple woman, and it had been said of her for as long as anyone on the island could remember that she had never shown an interest in men. Perhaps if I’d known that I would have been surprised by the attentions I presumed Maria Louisa paid me that first night with her. Or perhaps I would have thrown off my depression and acted on those simple gestures. As I walked back to my new ‘home’ that night, as I walked along under the stars, I thought about Maria and her simple life, but I had – when I considered the notion – no context for these thoughts. Maria Louisa was a mystery to me, and, as I would soon learn, she remained so to most people on the island. I didn’t know that night she was regarded by everyone in the Azores as a Saint. She could just as easily have been – so little did I know her then – an alcoholic pedophile, or the proverbial axe murderer. I simply did not know her, understand her. She was a terrific surgeon; that I knew, that much was obvious. She was full of compassion for the sick, and people took comfort from her simple presence when she walked into their hospital room.
Of more relevance to me that night, I hadn’t thought of Jennifer Stinson in several days, and when I saw her on the steps outside my little hotel, I was suddenly, overwhelmingly, filled with hope.
Hope? Why hope? Wasn’t that an odd response to one who had been at the center of so much discord? But that wasn’t fair, was it? Kind of let me off the hook, you think?
When I look back on that moment now, I suspect when I saw Jennifer in the still night air, I saw her as a link to my immediate past, and that past had come unravelled in the cool light of day. I suppose I felt hopeful that she would somehow ground me to that past, shield me from the discontinuity I felt. When she ran to me, when she threw her arms around me, I felt an overwhelming release of tension inside, and I kissed her hard on the mouth and held her to my chest while she cried. I wasn’t aware of my own tears for quite a while.
So, how are the mighty fallen?
Portugal is a conservative nation, a Catholic nation, and the Azores are no different from their motherland. I suspect the Innkeeper had a hard time keeping her mouth shut when I walked into the hotel with a girl half my age crying on my shoulder. I could see an icy contempt replace the genial acceptance she had shown me earlier that day, and in an instant I could perceive the reality I would face if I did in fact decide to settle here. It was an unsettling reality, one I had never experienced, and it left me feeling hollow inside – very unsure of my footing.
I walked Jennifer up the stairs to my room, and let us in the room. It was a small space, but it looked out over the harbor, and of course I could see Circe down there moored to the breakwater. A tree was right outside the closed window, and I opened it and leaned out to pick a blossom from an offered limb and handed it to Jennifer, then I kissed her again. I couldn’t feel guilty about this attachment I had to her, despite all of the entangling barbs that surrounded us. She wasn’t an innocent; despite her years she’d had many meaningless affairs with men old and young by the time she graduated college I thought – used to think – that she was something of a slut. But that wasn’t true, and I knew it.
That was before I came to understand the competitive nature of the new world women faced today, trying to compete in a man’s world, in a manner of speaking. I saw that Jennifer had, like so many of her generation, become hyper-sexualized. Sex becomes a means of expressing competitiveness and, increasingly, insecurity within this milieu – and I was clueless. Our affair was, I thought glibly, an end in and of itself – not a means to an end. And hadn’t men been doing the very same thing for eons? As women moved into the workplace and competed with men for choice promotions, why couldn’t they stake out their turf in the very same way men did? It was unsettling, perhaps, to be pursued by a young woman, but in the end why was that so different from men my age chasing down young secretaries and nailing them in what was, apparently, little more than a rite of conquest, another means to an end.
But maybe I was wrong about what happened. Maybe we had forgotten what it means to really love someone.
In all fairness to Jennifer, I had in the beginning thought that perhaps she was just expressing independence from her parents. A little rebellion, perhaps. Hell, I’d seen ‘Blame It On Rio’ more than once and I thought I knew the score, but what had at first started as a little peccadillo rapidly blossomed into a full-fledged emotional experience of the most import to me. Let’s be adventurous and call it love. Sailing, I’ve heard, does that – the shared experience of the journey, the perils, the emotional highs – all of these contributed to the experience, I’m sure, but something more developed between us, something quite intense flowered in the belly of that sea witch.
So, let’s not mention that I’d been living with the ‘Ice Queen’ for the past twenty five years, and that it had been more than ten years since my loving wife expressed even a mild interest in me. And come to think of it, learning from friends that she wasn’t having any trouble making it with the tennis pro at the country club didn’t predispose me to heightened sexual discretion on this trip, did it? The thought took me back to an old Burt Lancaster movie called The Running Man. Life is full of so many painful ironies and all doctor’s wives aren’t simply clichés, but mine was.
How many middle-aged men start off an indiscretion with words to the effect of: “my wife just doesn’t understand me?” Yes, it’s a cliché, and a ponderously bad one at that. But how many indiscretions begin with the daughter of a best friend, with a young woman who has seen your marriage unfolding in all of it’s worthless glory? How many such affairs begin in an exultation of narcissistic rage, only to move forward as a sigh would accompany the inevitable hands of release? To people full of dull pain that have come to claim their rightful place in the world?
I don’t know why, but Jennifer and I didn’t make love that night.
How very strange it is to just talk – when lust has heretofore been your language of choice.
Harry and Trina had laid into her viciously after my departure, and Jennifer as much as told them that the entire affair had been her doing. I couldn’t believe she said that; it wasn’t even close to the truth, but I guess she wanted to protect me, protect my friendship with her father. We had, after all, been two of the three constants in her life – for all of her life.
As these trajectories came into conflict during the day, Jennifer finally exploded – at her mother, then gathered her belongings and left the boat. No one had followed her, her father and mother simply let her go, and in her confusion she had at one point in the afternoon felt like taking her own life. She eventually made her way to the hospital, found out where I was staying, and had been sitting outside the hotel ever since.
She was broken. Alone, lost, confused. And she said she loved me.
After an hour I went downstairs and got a separate room for Jennifer – which seemed to mollify the proprietress somewhat – and I helped Jennifer into her room and got her tucked in for the night. We looked at one another for a while in the dim light, and I knew I loved this girl, loved her in ways I never had my wife, and I thought I must take care of her until she was ready to break free of her past – and fly away.
I walked up the street to the hospital and scrubbed in at little after five the next morning; Maria was looking at CT scans of an aortic aneurysm with a general surgeon who flown in to assist her with the repair, and we got to it. The case lasted ‘til noon, then Maria and I walked to a nearby café for lunch. The afternoon was free, and after we finished she decided to take me on a walking tour of the town of Horta.
We walked down to the waterfront and out to the breakwater. I was alarmed to find that the Circe was nowhere to be seen; not tied up along the breakwater, not moored out in the harbor, and I explained to Maria that Jennifer had jumped ship and had come to the hotel last night.
Then I tried to explain, as best I could, my feelings for Jennifer.
“So, you feel responsible for this girl? Tell me. Did she seduce you?”
“Probably, but I’m sure I didn’t put up much of a fight.”
“So, what would you do? Marry her?”
“I, ah, I don’t think that would be in the cards. She’ll get over this, get over me in a few weeks and move on. She’s just now moving out into the world, and she has a lot to learn, a lot to experience for the first time.”
Maria was looking at me dubiously, like I was stupid, so stupid that I didn’t even know the limitless bounds of my own stupidity. “And what if she attaches herself to you? If she is to fall in with love you, then what? Would that be a problem?”
I looked at Maria, and I knew the answer.
“Then you owe it to the girl to tell her that. Today. Right now. Before this goes any further.”
“I think her parent’s are gone,” I said as I looked over the harbor one more time.
“They do not sound like good people to me.”
“Before today, Maria, I might have disagreed with you. I don’t know anymore.”
“Come. Let us find her. She can move out to my house, stay with me for a while, at least until this affair of yours is settled. No good can come of her living with you in town.”
We found Jennifer in her room at the hotel, and we told her of our plans to move her out to Maria’s house. She seemed hesitant at first, but the longer the three of us talked, the easier she became with the decision. I told her that the Circe was gone, and she said that she knew, said that her father had been by to see her earlier.
“What did he say, Jenn?” I asked, now full of dread.
“That he and Mom were moving on. He’d keep in touch by email and let me know where they were headed, and that I’d be welcome to rejoin them. He left me some money, too, so I guess I’ll be alright for a while.”
“Well, come on then,” Maria said. “Let’s get your things and move them up to my house. But first, I need to stop by the clinic and check on with Mr Latham.”
“Who?” Jennifer asked.
“You know, David Latham, from the Bolero,” I added. “He’s still here.”
We walked the few blocks to the hospital and Maria stopped by the lab. I waited in the hallway outside with Jennifer, and we small-talked about events at sea and the excitement of the helicopter rescue. Jenn had never met Latham; she had, perhaps at best seen him from a few dozen yards away. Yet now she seemed curious about him.
“Did he have cancer?” she asked.
“Well, you know, Jenn, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but that’s kinda private. Anyway,” I added, seeing the hurt expression hit her face like a cold slap, “it’s kinda between Maria and David now. I’m not in the loop anymore.”
Maria came out looking very grim indeed. “I need to go talk with David,” she said. “Pete, you’re welcome to tag along, you too, Jennifer, if you’d like.”
Jennifer looked at the two horns growing from my head with barely concealed glee. I think she was looking for my pitchfork as we marched off towards David’s room.
“David,” Maria began, “it looks like there are tumor markers all over the place. I would say the cancer has spread all over the lining of your gut, through the lymph too, most likely. There is one procedure, only one really, to contemplate, but I must tell you it is extreme and the recovery is long. It is called retroperitoneal dissection, and would be followed by chemotherapy, radiation – all of it. What this means, David, is that we would go in through your belly and remove all of the lymph nodes in your lower body cavity, perhaps up into your chest if involvement was found there. Most likely you would never be able to have sex again, at least in the normal way, and it is quite possible that you’d become incontinent.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?” he said as he looked back and forth from me to Maria in what I could only describe as wide-eyed horror.
“You’d need to wear diapers, sport,” I chimed in. “But you would be alive. You gotta look at both sides of the equation, you know.”
He smiled. “Yeah. I guess. Chemotherapy too? Is that what you said?”
“Yes, David. And radiation therapy, depending on what we find, and where. And there is another complication. You are an American citizen. This is the EU.”
“Uh, I don’t have insurance in the states, no medical insurance.”
“I see,” Maria said thoughtfully. “Well, if we can certify you as unable to be transported, you’ll have to stay and we can take care of you here. Let me look into this.” I tried to hide the shame I felt about the dismal state of medical care back in the States. People here just didn’t have to worry about such things. Maria walked from the ward and off towards an office down the hall; this was just one more problem to be solved by her.
The Saint, indeed.
I looked down at David; he looked shook up and disoriented. I could only imagine what was running through his head… One day you’re out sailing, having the time of your life, and the next day you’re in some weird Portuguese hospital with a couple of loopy doctors telling you they’re going to basically rip your guts out in order to save your life, and, oh yeah, you’ll never be able to screw again and you’re going to have to wear diapers whenever you go out, but hey, you know, no big deal, cause, you know, you’ll still be alive. Kinda. Maybe.
But life’s a one way ticket, baby, and you’ve got to dance with the one who brung ya…
Maria and Jennifer walked up the lane toward Maria’s house, yet I opted to remain with David that evening and shoot the shit with him. He seemed most interested in talking about what would happen if he refused treatment and just took off on his boat. Questions like ‘how long will I live?’ and ‘how much pain would there be?’ – those kinds of questions.
The kid didn’t have family except for an aunt somewhere in Oregon that he hadn’t spoken to in ten years, and he seemed adrift in life, content to blow where the winds took him. It was an odd career choice.
Or was it?
“So David, why’d you decide to take to the sea?”
“Hmm? Oh, I was just tired, Pete. Tired of selling my soul to write a few more lines of code. Stuck in a cubicle, watching life walk by out my window.”
“Where did you work?”
“Nice up there?”
“Yeah, but place doesn’t really matter, you know? It’s what you do. I think you can be happy anywhere, and there’s no place too far away for trouble. I just wanted to taste the world, you know? Not some Discovery Channel three week all-inclusive trip to paradise. I made enough money to buy Bolero and leave me with a comfortable nest-egg to live on for ten years, so I thought why not, why not do it while I’m young?” I could see the irony hit him, and he seemed to curl up inside and wither away from his words, but they chased him into this new private hell, wouldn’t let him be.
“So, you think you really might just bail out of here, not do the surgery?”
He came back when my words registered.
“Yeah. I can’t help but think no matter what you guys do, well, you won’t get it all and I’ll end up in here dying in pieces. You know, cut little pieces off one bit at a time; just linger away into meaninglessness…”
“Well, without the surgery you might make it six months, maybe a year if you got real lucky, but the pain would get surreal. Not the course I would choose, but then again, I’m sure we have different priorities.”
“Really? Why’s that? I mean, what is it about life that makes the end so hard to face? It seems to me like we’re all in this race to see who can live the longest, like the one who lives longest wins a blue ribbon. What happened to living those years out as we were supposed to, active and engaged with life, not just passive observers. That’s what I hated about writing code. I was, in a sense, enabling this brave new voyeurs world. People living vicariously through their computers, learning more, maybe, but not really experiencing the world as we’re supposed to. With our hands in the dirt, I guess I’m trying to say.”
“I’m not so sure there’s a way we’re supposed to live, David. Our technology is forcing us to accept new ways of experiencing life . . .”
“Forcing us? Did you say forcing us?”
“I guess that sounds bad, doesn’t it?”
“I think this cancer came from the life I led. It’s a symptom of that life. Maybe if I just go, maybe I’ll live, maybe I’ll die, but at least while I’m still here I’ll be living.”
I sat in my room in the hotel that night and thought about Latham and his choice. I looked down on the little harbor below my room, looked at the handful of voyaging sailboats down there, and wondered if that’s what all those souls were up to. Living life out there on the edge, trying to feel life not as a vicarious experience but as a living, breathing challenge to an insane existence. Was Latham on to something I’d missed. Had Harry and Trina stumbled onto something vital? Were they searching for something beyond suburbia and the comfortable routines of modern life.
Or maybe it was all a little like ‘A Clockwork Orange’; everyone was jumping out into the world trying to amp up their experience portfolio before they punched out at the end of the line.
I didn’t work the next day; I spent the day with Jennifer. We rented a couple of bicycles and pedaled off down a country lane with a picnic basket until we came to a little cliffside lookout, and we ate olives and cheese and bread under the warm sun while we looked out over the infinite blue of the sea around the island.
I’ve always marveled at the way a sea breeze feels when it lifts through the hair. There’s something about it that makes me feel so alive, and it worked it’s magic again on me that afternoon. I looked at Jennifer not as the little girl I had known all her life but as the young woman who had awakened me from a long, cold sleep. I thought about my conversation with Maria – about my feelings for Jennifer, about the denial of love in my heart I knew to be so true. I felt utterly confused until I felt the breeze rifling through my hair, and with this not so subtle reminder that nature always prevails, I had a sort of epiphany.
Nature’s music is given to us – we are born with it in our soul. The cadence of the surf below us that afternoon was not unlike the life sustaining rhythm of the heartbeat that surrounds us in our wombs. Life had, I felt, choked this music out of us, torn it from our outstretched arms just as surely as life – in time – rips the child from every mother’s arms. We ignore this music as we grow older, we ignore beauty all around us until our lives are diminished within our growing ignorance.
Of course Kant argued that one’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgments. What then, truly, had I lost in my middle age? Not unlike the simple breeze passing through my hair, had life stripped me of the ability to feel the beauty of Jennifer’s simple truth? Too many layers of technology, of politics, of impending doom from terrorists or global climate collapse – these elements force their tortured will on us all, and too soon our ability to appreciate beauty grows withered, subsumed by exigent forces intent on stripping us of our most basic humanity. I wondered if anyone could appreciate just what it is we’ve lost. Can we, in our blindness, no longer see even the outlines of moral problems?
Truth, beauty – where do they go when all is madness?
I looked across at Jennifer, at the wind playing through her auburn hair, at the way her nose wrinkled when the sun danced across her freckled brow, and I felt once again life in all of it’s infinite capacity to inspire. How could I let this go? What was I missing? What had I been blinded to? Blinded, blind, darkness.
Latham. David Latham.
Maybe the fact I was 55, and she would turn twenty five in just three weeks time. Maybe the fact that I had stood by her father at her christening, that I had cheered her on while she played soccer in middle school, or that I had watched as she graduated from high school not so many years ago. That perhaps my life would soon all be in the past, while so much of hers remained yet to unfold.
She was a friend, I wanted to say, and I wanted to ignore her past, my past, the past that said she was still a child in so many ways. I wanted to cling to the woman I saw before me, to love the life I had never known, perhaps never could know, without her.
She was so beautiful out there under the sun.
Was I really so blind?
Latham was sick, sicker than we knew. He had decided to leave, to return to the Bolero and return to the sea from which he had just come, to resume the journey he had decided to make years ago, back in Seattle. I couldn’t help but admire his choice, though I understood all too well the personal implications he faced.
Could I, I wondered, face the prospect of dying alone on a little boat at sea? In pain, with no one to help me, no one to console me?
Was that the only choice available to him?
I went to Maria, went to talk about David’s choice.
“I suspect most of us confront this choice,” she said, “though perhaps not in such extreme terms as this.”
“Well, I wonder about what happens when he gets out there, and the pain gets really bad. Then what? Does he call for help again? Do people run to his rescue, perhaps get hurt trying to get to him, or worse? I keep wondering if there isn’t an alternative.”
“Hell, he could stay here. Sail around here, visit the islands, come back here when he gets too weak to continue.”
Maria seemed to consider this for a while. “Well, as long as the boat is his residence, he can stay here for eighteen months without any problem. I don’t think time’s going to be an issue. Have you talked to him about this?”
“No, not really.”
“Do you want to, or would you think it better if we both talked to him?”
“Why don’t we talk to him tonight?”
And so we did.
David decided to remain in the Azores, and he decided to live on his boat down in the harbor. He seemed content with his choice, and managed to get by on the regimen of mild pain killers that Maria prescribed. He cleaned up his little boat, then started stripping the teak down to bare wood. He began to varnish the wood. Everyday I walked down to the harbor I found him hunched over the wood, babying it, coaxing all the beauty out of the wood he could find. At first Bolero looked simply gorgeous, but as the summer days grew shorter the boat began to glow. Visitors to Horta arriving by ferry walked by her and stopped and stared at the boat, and at David as he worked away on her. He could often be heard down below, an electric sander whining in the confined space, and occasionally he would pop up through the companionway, his face and hair covered with honey-colored dust before walking away for lunch or dinner. Soon it became apparent what he was doing.
He had no child to leave behind, no lasting works to bequeath to the world, save his little Bolero. He had decided to turn her into a work of art, into something so beautiful that all who came upon her would stop and marvel at her beauty, and perhaps, wonder about the man who had tendered such a gift with his passing.
As September came, I too decided to remain in the Azores. I didn’t contest my wife’s divorce, and I signed everything I owned over to her, left her all of my money. I simply wanted to be done with her, done with her evil intentions, done with the sickness she had given my soul. The hospital managed to take me on permanently, Jennifer continued to reside with Maria, and the inevitable happened.
I fell in love again. With life.
Perhaps it would have been a simple tale after all, had I told Jennifer that she would grow out of her love for me, that as she experienced the world – out from under the sheltering wings of her father and mother – she would soon take to the world again, begin a journey of her own.
It was not to be. This was not to be such a simple tale.
I came to Maria’s house one afternoon and saw them through an open window, in the bathroom. Maria was brushing Jennifer’s hair, and their was tenderness in her eyes. Perhaps affection would be a better word. They both looked at me in the mirror, and our eyes held on to the moment for an eternity. I shook inside at the thought, the thought that Maria and Jennifer were lovers, and that was when tall, staid Maria took Jennifer by the hand and led her to the nearby bed.
So that was why she had left Switzerland, why she had left the bright lights.
I watched as Maria lay my Jennifer down on her bed and parted her thighs. I watched as Maria’s face disappeared between Jennifer’s outstretched legs, and as Jennifer held Maria’s face to her need.
Had I truly been so blind to everything unfolding around me?
I was shaking. I wasn’t angry; I was simply overcome. The end of a marriage, coming to terms with my love for Jennifer, yet I had no words for the emotion that pulsed through me as I watched these two women making love before me. Jennifer, her auburn hair strewn across white sheets, her face rocking from side to side, her legs arcing magnificently in the charged air, her feet on Maria’s back. Lust. Lust filled the air, and I didn’t know how to respond. This was unknown territory to me.
My world, the world I had known all my life and taken for granted, was dissolving in the air above my eyes.
But I saw Jennifer smile, and I saw the order of the universe there. And I didn’t belong.
She was in her outlook a simple woman, and it had been said of her for as long as anyone on the island could remember that she had never shown an interest in love. And how could they have known, how could they have known that their Saint had chosen to live in the shadows, that her life had been stillborn so many years ago in Zurich’s staid halls of medicine. She had chosen the silence of a life in exile, in the shadows, and her fires had lain dormant, smoldering, waiting for the catalyst of release.
And now, Maria Louisa D’Alessandro was a raging inferno, a fire banked down far too long, and now, breathing in the first faint tendrils of release, she was intoxicated.
She’d found her oxygen, her fuel in Jennifer, and soon they were burning along the razor’s edge of desire, all fire beyond control. But now they waited. Waited to see my reaction. There’s was a Dance Macabre, their final act would be my immolation. Only then would the razor cut so deeply…
I don’t suppose I will ever forget seeing them that afternoon, the two of them, together. All of the uncertainty of the past few months was but fuel for my fire. All of the anger I felt towards my soon to be ex-wife was little more than fuel for this. Everywhere I looked, every bit of my past seemed to linger in the air around me, it became a volatile fuel, and in the flames released there was a transfiguration. There was a fusion. The three of us, me on the outside looking in, became one consummate ball of interwoven rejection. We caught fire, the three of us, and we burned oh so brightly.
I took to taking Max, Maria’s patiently faithful old Bernese Mountain Dog, on long walks. He came to love Saturdays, as did I, for on that day of the week, come rain or shine Max and I would take off on long, often excruciatingly long walks. Ten miles was a short walk, and we usually walked west along the coast roads, to Atalaia and Feteira, and more than once past Castelo Branco and all the way to western shore. Max became my faithful friend, his boundless love of life easily shouldered on his broad, black shoulders. We walked and I tossed sticks, we walked ever onward, across wet, rolling hills, through tall pines alive with whispering winds, and we would pause and listen to the shifting voices as they darted through the limbs overhead, our minds lost in ancient music that was as familiar as it was strange.
I always carried lunch for us. A sandwich for me, some pieces of chicken and cheese – and his favorite, slices of apple – for Max, and a flagon of cool water to share in the shade. These Saturdays were for Max and I, just as this day was for Jennifer and Maria, alone.
I knew what was going on, and I knew they knew, and still, I just let it be, then I’d look at him sitting there, looking at me with those big brown eyes, and I’d look at him like he was my best friend in all the world – because he was.
“Everything’s going to be okay, isn’t it, Max?” I would say to the passing wind, and he’d look up at the trees and smile.
“Yeah, I knew you’d say that.”
One Saturday Max and I walked into Horta, down to the breakwater, down to David Latham working on his Bolero. I could see his cancer taking a toll on him now, and it seemed to grow in direct proportion to the beauty that now claimed Bolero. Every piece of the boat seemed to glow from inside with some unknown form of energy. The exterior wood was a blisteringly bright honied-bronze, and all the topside metal was so meticulously polished that I could watch the reflections of passers-by and make out even the smallest detail.
On this Saturday as we approached Bolero I saw David half way up the fifty foot tall mast. He was lacing up the spreaders on the mast, adorning them with brilliant white twine to keep the sails from chafing when close-hauled. It was so odd watching him, knowing that imminent death stalked him every moment of every day, yet he seemed to be at peace with his future, at peace with the beauty he had promised the rest of his life to. I was taken for a moment back to Fahrenheit 451, to those lives dedicated to preserving one work of literature, and I could feel those same forces working in Latham. He was making the Bolero his life’s work, preserving her for the future.
Max sat on the breakwater looking up at David, his head cocked to one side and his tail brushing the concrete; I was sure Max must have been totally confused by most things we humans did, but seeing Latham dangling from the mast must have really gotten to him. Every now and then Max would whimper or moan as David pushed-off to lace-up the farthest reaches of the spreader, and after one of these outbursts David looked down and saw us on the breakwater.
“Come on aboard,” he called out. “I’ll be down in a minute. Go pour a couple of lemonades!”
“I don’t know, David. Max’s claws might tear up this varnish.”
“Screw that! Come aboard; I wanna hear about these rumors.”
I hopped on Bolero – it had been a long time since I’d been aboard – and she was transformed. The last time a helicopter had taken me off, but now this was a totally different boat. Max seemed to understand the dilemma his claws presented, and hopped gingerly aboard and launched himself across the cockpit, coming to a rest on a cushion. He curled up into a ball to ward off the chilly October air and watched David as he lowered himself down the mast. I could tell the old boy was relieved when David’s feet hit the deck – hell, so was I!
I poured a couple of drinks and returned to the cockpit. Now up close, I could see David’s skin was now turning pasty gray, and his eyes were a little sunken and rimmed with dark circles.
“How’s it going? You look in your element up there.”
He knew where this was going, I think, so jumped right in. “Oh, I’m doing good. Some days are better than others, but all in all, you know, it’s not as bad as I expected. Maybe it’s the meds, I don’t know.”
“You keeping up with the lab work?”
“No, not really. I mean, what’s the point?”
I nodded understanding, but I really couldn’t understand his attitude.
“How’s the boat coming along?” I knew I was going to have to come up with better questions soon, or I’d wear out my welcome.
“So,” Latham volleyed back at me, “what’s all this stuff I’m hearing about Maria and Jennifer.”
“What stuff?” I asked.
“Everyone’s talking about them up at the bar.”
“One of the old men, a gardener I think, saw some stuff. Lots of talk about it now. Pretty weird stuff, Pete.”
“So, what’s going on? Are they in love?”
“I don’t know? Maybe?”
“Sounds pretty heavy, dude. For a small place like this.”
“Could I give you some advice?”
“Sure, man. Fire away.”
“Get up to the clinic and get some blood-work done, would you?”
“Sure, Doc, sure.” He reached over and gave Max a scratch under his chin, and I could see the old boys eyes roll as he gave in. It’s so simple. Receive pleasure, relax, and all is right with the world. It was only when human morality enters the equation that things got sticky.
“So. You ever gonna take this tub out again?”
“Tub? Did you say tub?” He grinned – but looked ready to cover me in varnish…
“Hell yes, Dave. Tubs sit around in the water. Boats, you know, get out there, on the ocean. It’s what they’re for.”
“Shit, Pete, I didn’t know you was a philosopher. Gosh dawg! Ain’t that somethin’.”
“Shut up and answer the question?” I smiled at him, wanted to challenge him a little.
“Maybe next weekend. Want to go?”
“Shit yeah. Can Max come along?”
“Shit yeah. Why not. You think you can keep from getting sea-sick?”
“Fuck you, Latham,” I said as I laughed, counting one more story to live down…
“And the horse you rode in on, Pete.”
“See ya next week.” I started to walk off, leave David to his work, but Max went over and sat by him. He put his graying muzzle up in Latham’s lap and let out a long, contented sigh. This was a first as far as I knew, and David scratched the old boy behind his ears for a while. Max’s fluffy black tail swept the cockpit seat, and David looked down into Max’s eyes.
“You okay, buddy?” he said gently.
Max licked his hand then got up and walked off the boat, on down the seawall. I looked back at David. There was a little tear falling down his cheek.
Dogs are like that, you know. They’re smarter than we are about most things. All the important stuff, anyway.
I knew David was itching to get back to work on Bolero, but I also knew something extraordinary had just happened.
I turned to walk after Max. I didn’t know if the girls had had enough time alone yet, didn’t want to bust up there time together.
Pretty weird stuff, yes indeed.
When I got back to the house I could tell by the sounds I heard coming from inside that things were still pretty hot and heavy in the bedroom. I went to the faucet by the garden and filled Max’s bowl, then I drifted down to the bluff overlooking the rocky beach below.
And something about it all left me feeling hollow inside. I felt unclean, like I was part of a conspiracy of silence. Like my soul was hurting, and I didn’t want to be around this anymore.
I saw Max by my side, his tail wagging, his eyes warm with expectation. The two of us headed out again, and this time out we walked west along the bluff overlooking the sea.
We walked for a long time that day, and we had a nice talk.
I was, during these weeks and months, still living at the same little hotel, only now, more often than not, Max was my roommate. We returned to the hotel that night and I gave him a bowl of kibble, then I showered and went to bed. I found in short order that I couldn’t sleep. All I could see was Maria’s latent hostility all around the room.
I knew. I knew about her life in the shadows.
There was something profoundly wrong with everything happening here. Something that in my confusion I had ignored, something that had gone terribly amiss between Jennifer and myself. Their relationship wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t about my future, or Jennifer’s. It was Maria’s design, her plan, her needs working themselves free from bondage after so many years pent up in repressed angst. Jenn and I had happened along at just the right time, and I had provided cover for Maria’s design to take shape.
She had asked me about my future with Jennifer, but I’d been vague, hadn’t I? So, what was my role in all this? Had I inadvertently set her plans in motion?
And now, what about Jenn? Was she truly in love with this woman, or was she just lost in her newest infatuation, to the attention paid her by a Saint?
I think by then I instinctively knew the answer to that question.
I was no longer necessary to either of them. I had written myself out of their equation.
And it hurt. It hurt more than I could say as I stared at the dark walls of my little room.
Max slept with his head on my shoulder, looking up at me every now – and then moaning.
We all walked down to David’s boat next Saturday. All of us. The girls and Max walked ahead of me out the breakwater, yet I was conscious of people all over town looking at us. Who knows, maybe they were looking at Maria and Jennifer more than me; I couldn’t tell, but I could feel people’s eyes burning away in the back of my neck as I walked out there.
And Latham was ready and waiting. Bolero gleamed.
Once aboard, he cast off his lines pushed us free, and we drifted out into the little sheltered harbor inside the inner breakwater – then Latham hoisted the main. Bolero caught the breeze and slipped into the outer harbor and he raised the high-clewed yankee up front and the boat bit into the wind and heeled over, began dancing through the light chop within the little bay. As seagulls flitted along behind us, I felt wonder at how much like flying it feels to sail.
Latham tacked and Bolero came up on a northeast heading; we sailed past the light on the end of the outer mole and out into the straight between Faial and Pico. The distant volcano stood in stark relief that day, a clear reminder dancing under the sun, and I remembered thinking that we – Jenn, Maria and I – were all dancing on a volcano. There was no telling when it would blow, yet I knew we – one way or another – were all going to be burned.
Maria had packed a little picnic lunch and of course brought along some Sangria, and as Bolero settled into a groove and danced along the waves she brought out the food and we sat in the sun, lost in our thoughts as the boat sliced through the morning. We picked at our food as we watched the sea and the mountains, then…
…a bottle-nosed dolphin broached alongside; Max stood in the cockpit and looked at the gray form sliding through the water, and he jumped back – lost his footing – when the dolphin jumped high into the air off the right side of the boat. We all laughed as Max regained his composure, and within moments the single dolphin was joined by dozens more, and we were soon bouncing off the waves while this huge pod of dolphins danced and turned in the sea everywhere around Bolero. Max and I slid up to the bow and lay side by side along the rail, watching as dolphins came close and played in the bow wave, and Max eventually moaned in frustration. He wanted to join them, and I know he did because I did too. I reached down and slapped the side of the hull, and one of the dolphins came very close to me, and as I reached out for it…
…the thought of sliding into the deep blue below my hand and swimming quietly away was suddenly irresistibly appealing. Why was human life so complex, I thought, so full of complications? And why when had the desire to drift away from problems become so overwhelming? Were we really so out of our element now we couldn’t see what we were doing to ourselves?
We continued to sail away from Horta on a northeast heading, and the sun continued to pour down on us, even after the dolphins left. Max looked around at the water occasionally; it was soon apparent he had enjoyed the experience as much as we had, and he missed his new aquatic buddies.
Just after we squared away the remains of lunch, one of the dolphins reappeared, and this one jumped out of the water alongside us and began to chatter excitedly at us. And moments later the sun disappeared.
So intent had we been to work the wind, to carry our journey forward, we had simply not checked the horizon behind us. There behind Horta was a wall of black cloud, and two white snakes writhed in the air, uniting cloud and sea. David ducked below and turned on his VHF; there were now gale warnings being broadcast in Portuguese and English, and we all looked aft at the boiling gray clouds and the malicious waterspouts.
Max looked at the dolphin, and I swear as they looked at each other they were communicating. The dolphin was warning us, warning us of the coming danger. And Max was picking up on the things…he looked at the clouds and started barking – not at the clouds, rather, at David.
“Looks like we race the storm back to Horta, or we run for Pico. But Pico’s a lee shore; I’d rather not risk that,” Latham said as he looked around, measuring his surroundings – then he made his decision. He jibed Bolero smartly and we began to beat back toward the little harbor at Horta, now about seven miles away. We were sailing hard into the wind now, and as we hit the first big swell great waves arced off the bow as we smashed through, and as gusts hit Bolero she began to heel-over even more as she aggressively bit into the wind.
Of all the people out on Bolero that afternoon, Maria alone had absolutely no sailing experience, and I could clearly see that as she looked at the black wall of clouds – and the dancing waterspouts advancing toward us – she was growing terrified. Not scared…terrified.
Jenn, a more than experienced sailor, was busy working the jib-sheet, helping Latham squeeze every ounce of speed out of Bolero they could. I took Maria down below and hooked up a sea-berth in the forward cabin and wrapped her in the cabin with Max, and then, as a vicious gust tore into the boat, I ran up and helped Latham tie a deep reef in the main while Jenn steered. We slipped forward and doused the working jib, hoisting a little storm jib that was lashed up there – ready to deploy, then David and I worked our way back to the cockpit.
There were now four snakes dancing in the sky just ahead, with one not so far off our course towards Horta. Then, just as things looked as if they would get truly exciting, the radio came alive:
“All vessels approaching Faial, be advised the airport has recorded wind gusts over 75 knots. Please take cover immediately from this rapidly developing storm. Cyclonic winds approaching Monte de Guia. Take cover.”
Latham looked at the waterspouts, then back over his shoulder toward Pico, across the straights. Horta was now tantalizingly close, maybe three miles, perhaps a bit less, and I could see the gears turning over in his head. The knot meter claimed we were making almost seven knots through the water; that made it 25-30 minutes before we made the breakwater.
We were going to get slammed if we continued for Horta. If we turned and ran, we would probably get slammed out in the middle of the channel between Faial and Pico. I watched as Latham nodded to himself; he added a little west to his course, cheated to close the island just in case, and we all kept our eyes on the waterspouts, though they were still on the south side of the island.
One of the spouts hit the ridge on the west side of Monte de Guia and came down the gently sloping grassland toward the sea, and now it started to march across the water – towards us. The waterspout danced a little, made a zig-zag to the north, toward us, then back to the east, and so we pushed-on closer to the shore. We could just make out the tree-lined soccer field on the north side of town as we cleared the final point – and had just cut hard to starboard to make directly for the harbor entrance when the squall line hit.
A white wall of rain came between us and the town – now only a few hundred yards ahead – and the red-roofed white buildings behind the stone breakwater suddenly blinked out of view. Bolero heeled over drastically, the rail on the right side of the boat slipped under water, and Latham threw the helm hard over to help her claw her way back upright. I saw Jenn sliding off her seat toward the water and held out my hand to her; she grabbed it just as the cockpit reached an almost vertical orientation relative to the surface of the sea. I held on to the life-lines, now above my head, with my left hand, and Jenn with my right, as I looked down at her little bare feet flailing to gain footing. I could feel her fingernails digging into the flesh of my wrist, yet I knew I would never let go of her.
I would never let go of her. Never.
Bolero clawed her way through the deafening wind and rain, and precious moments later we could just see the outlines of the breakwater ahead, and the village of Horta all around us. Bolero stood back up and pushed into the howling gale.
Ten minutes later we were tied up at the dock. Moments later we heard rumbling down below, then Maria came up into the shimmering air and walked off the boat without saying a word. Max stayed with David and I. So too, did Jennifer.
Later that week I walked down to the docks to check in on David and Max.
Apparently something quite untoward had happened down below in the storm, and Max now resolutely refused to go back up the hill to Maria’s; in fact, he didn’t want to leave David’s side at all now. I walked to Bolero, above them now on a falling tide, and Max’s tail began to thump when he saw me. David turned at the sound and looked up at me after seeing the tail wiping the cockpit.
“She want her dog back yet?”
“She hasn’t said anything to me about it, David.”
“She’s been staying with me this week. She’s kind of confused.”
I’d never realized how many syllables are in the word ‘Ah’ – at least I’d never heard it rendered in such subtle shades of understanding. Or how so much meaning can be packed into one sound.
“So, what are you up to? See you got the boat put back together.” Actually, there hadn’t been much to do but check the rigging for unseen damage caused by the knockdown. Latham just shrugged his shoulders, took on a faraway look. “You doing okay?” I asked a moment later.
“No, not really. Got lab results back. White counts are haywire, the AFP is off the charts, and now the prostate has gotten in on the act.”
I nodded my head. He was reaching the terminal phase now. He might last a month, maybe, if the pain didn’t take him out first.
“Did you talk to Maria about things?”
Max whimpered and licked his front paw while I looked at David. This was it, and we all knew the score. Max walked over to David and licked his chin, then sat down with his face on David’s lap. His eyes were full of sadness, and he looked tired. Pure empathy, I thought as I looked at both of them. David scratched Max’s ears, knew where and how to comfort his friend, and Max knew what David needed, too.
“So, what’s the plan, David?”
“What have you done to settle your affairs? Have you thought about it?”
“And? Anything I can do?”
“I’ll let you know, Pete.” He rubbed Max’s belly for a while, then looked up at me. “Pete? There’s a lump in here. In Max’s gut.”
I hopped down onto deck and sat across from David and Max, then reached out to feel Max’s belly. He turned toward my hand and his upper lip quivered, and he let out a low growl.
I withdrew my hand.
David talked to Max in low, gentle tones, then asked me to check the area again. This time Max didn’t move, didn’t resist at all, and I palpated where David indicated.
It was a broad, hard mass, and I could feel nodes around the site that were already hard and distended. Max licked my hand now that his secret was blown, and he looked up at me with those soft brown eyes – while I started to cry.
“This just isn’t fair,” I said out loud. “I’ve got two friends in the world, and you’re both gonna die on me.”
“Hey, anything I can do to help, let me know.” Latham smiled again, now that I had to eat my own patronizing words.
Don’t you just hate smart-asses. Even the ironic ones are hard to take.
Maria and I took Max to the island’s only veterinarian, and he just shook his head when he examined Max.
“Nothing to do,” the old man said to me through his thickly accented English, and Maria just nodded her head.
They talked for a while in Portuguese, which I was still learning, and I could make out nice little phrases like ‘put him down’ and ‘keep him comfortable’, and I suddenly felt very sick to my stomach. I was used to people dying, but not dogs. Max would be my first.
I looked at Max and thought of a world without him in it and I felt really cold and lonely inside. Like a kid again, after the first time you grapple with the idea that mom or dad will one day not be there anymore, and suddenly the world feels like a very lonely place after all. Like all the toys and candy were there to hide a few plain facts mom and dad didn’t want to talk about. Maybe that’s why I went to med school. And why I had fallen in love with Jennifer.
Maybe after all was said and done I was simply running from death, trying to cheat death every chance I could, trying to pile experience into this empty vessel called life so that in the end I could say I had lived a ‘full’ life.
I looked at Max, and suddenly it felt like I had wasted a lot of time.
I think its safe to say that over the next few weeks Jennifer and I had a tough time.
She had gone to Maria’s in search of peace and solace from the upheaval we’d each just been through, and instead she found herself in the middle of one of the most confusing affairs of her life. She had never before, she told me later, once had any inclination to have a relationship with another woman, yet the ease with which she had slipped into the affair – when she looked back at it – shook her up. All of the assumptions she had taken for granted in her early life had been directly challenged, upended, and she didn’t have any answers.
And it was odd; she didn’t feel used or taken advantage of. In fact, when I asked her about her feelings for Maria she said bluntly that she loved her, that she was sure she always would love the woman. She felt like she had been split in two; one life she could acknowledge in the full light of day.
And the other, she said, would remain a still life in shadow.
So maybe we were all running from death, even a living death. The problem with doing that, I knew, was simple.
Sometimes when we run and run, we forget how to live any other way.
And sometimes all we can do is run, even if it’s into the shadows.
She was in her outlook a simple woman, and it had been said of her for as long as anyone could remember that she maintained a cool distance between herself and everyone else. Perhaps that’s why she had come undone. She’d lost that cool distance from another human being when she began her campaign to take Jennifer; perhaps it was her soul’s last great attempt to connect with another while she still could. Or perhaps she had just grown too hard inside to feel any but the most intense contact. Whatever it was, a profound change had come over Maria Louisa D’Alessandro, and no one was happy with the change. Especially not Max.
Something had happened on Bolero, during that brief storm when they had been below together. With Maria and Max tucked safely down below, I had thought they would weather the storm with no lasting effect, but I was wrong. I couldn’t get Maria to talk about it, and of course Max was, in his none too subtle way, also somewhat reticent to discuss the matter.
Dogs. Stubborn like nothing else in the world.
Max was, as I’ve mentioned, a Bernese Mountain Dog. If you’ve never seen one, think of a St Bernard, only black with a little splotches of copper here and there, his belly white – and his snout a narrow plain of brightest white, crested with copper eyebrows. Their stock is a mountain rescue breed as well, so coming to people’s aid was about as natural for Max as breathing is for lesser mortals. He wanted to help, he wanted to be involved. In fact, you couldn’t keep Max from getting involved. It was genetically impossible, and you could see it in his eyes.
And of course, dogs are true empaths, some more than others. They can look in someone’s eyes and read the contours of that person’s soul, they can see pain, feel melancholy, and share those brief moments of happiness that punctuate the human life like a shooting star. They can rest a chin on your thigh and suddenly you know, really know, that all will be right with the world – if you just give it a chance. And you can rest your soul in theirs – knowing that you will be a better person in the sharing.
Max had one of those souls.
Which made Maria’s apparent rejection all the more telling – and disturbing.
Max had seen something. He had discovered a real truth about Maria, and she knew it. When Max looked at her now, all his years of devotion to her came down like broken glass on cold stone, and for a while he seemed to give up as his cancer began to eat away at him. He took to spending a night every now and then with Jenn and myself in the hotel, but by and large he spent most most of his time down on the breakwater, with David – and their Bolero.
Those two had so much in common. Least of all their looming encounter with death.
While Bolero gleamed in the sun, it was fair to say that now David Latham, who was then in his early thirties, looked like an old man. His yellow-gray skin hung in loose folds over his tall, gaunt frame, and his blue-gray eyes shone like sapphires against dark circles around his eyes. Whenever he moved now he groaned at unseen spirits lurking just under his skin, waiting, waiting to remind him of their advance through his body. And yet Latham approached life each day not as a stoic; rather he greeted the world with a smile, grateful I suppose, that he had another day to tackle the unexpected, another problem to solve.
Grateful, I’m certain, for another day with Max.
Max and David lived on Bolero now, each in their way helping sustain the other, and it amazed not only Jenn and I but everyone in town how the two were struggling together, keeping each other’s spirits up. While each was positively heroic in their resolve to soldier on, together they came to represent something much greater. They came to represent hope to a town that often held that commodity in short supply.
After the storm, David resumed work on Bolero, resumed turning his home into a monument to his love for her. People in town noticed. On a Monday, perhaps, a new gallon of varnish would appear on the breakwater above Bolero. Maybe the next day some metal polish and a fresh bundle of new line would appear. Women carried down bowls of soup to Bolero when they heard David was having a rough day, and someone would come and take Max for a short walk along the breakwater so he could do his business.
In this way, the town united in their love and admiration for David and Max. I’d never seen anything quite like it before.
And perhaps it was just one more cruel irony that Maria Louisa D’Alessandro had once again been relegated to the shadowlands. Men looked at her as she walked to and from work with a subtle leer, while women in the village looked at her with unmitigated contempt.
Whatever it was that Maria had run from in Zurich, well, it had found her now. Whatever force it was that sustained love for David and Max with the townsfolk, it had found it’s antithesis in their feelings for Maria. And to an extent, Jennifer and I both shared in this oppressive realization, we both felt it’s scorn. In a very real sense, the town’s reaction to the affair made it very clear to all of us we couldn’t stay on the island. We were visitors, even Maria was now, and inevitably we had worn out our welcome.
If Maria was guilty of burying her anger and sorrow in work, I was guilty, too, of the same crime. I walked to the hospital before the sun came up, and walked home after sunset. We hardly ever talked; we had quickly grown so embittered with each other we couldn’t even make eye contact anymore. She became prickly in the operating room, and nurses began avoiding her. People talked behind her back incessantly, and the whole affair soon came to be an abject lesson in religious and social hypocrisy. When people came to the hospital, they wanted her to take care of their ills. When she saw the same people out on the streets, they shunned her.
One afternoon she asked me and Jenn to come out to her house after work. She needed, she said, to talk to us.
I told her that we would come as soon as I could drop by the hotel and pick Jennifer up.
That wasn’t an altogether bright thing to have done, but you can never tell about these things.
She met us at the door; the sun was just setting on her little garden, and I couldn’t help but reflect that this was apparent in more ways than one. She welcomed us, offered us drinks, but I could see a tiredness about her person that I’d never seen before, and she didn’t look familiar to me at all. I knew my feelings for this woman were complex; not long ago I’d felt something akin to love for her. She seemed to be, like Max, empathetic and compassionate, and I had felt comfortable around her. Now I didn’t trust her, at least not like I had, and Jenn seemed ill-at-ease too.
She’d already had dinner so offered us Port, and we each took a glass and sat in the living room and looked down at the sea as the last of the day’s sun drifted below the far horizon.
“I’m going to leave the island,” she said after a while. I could understand the impulse, but I thought her reaction too hasty.
“This will blow over, Maria. Give it time.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. It does not matter in the least. I miss Zurich, and intend to return there as soon as possible. I wanted to ask if either of you wanted to buy the house.”
I think I was a little shocked by that. “I don’t know, Maria. To tell you the truth, Jenn and I were thinking of moving on ourselves.” It seemed a somewhat territorial statement to make, but I wanted to delineate the recent past from any possible future Maria might have in mind. I was staking my claim, so to speak, and Maria bristled at the implications in my words.
“Pete, have I acted in any way less than honorable to you?” she stared at me while this question penetrated the air around us. It looked like she wanted to stir something up and hoped I would back down, that I would avoid a scene at any cost. Did she want to humiliate me here, on her turf, so to speak.
“I beg your pardon?” I tossed back at her. “Are you seriously asking me that?”
“Seducing my girlfriend. Wasn’t that enough, to, well – ah – strike you as something less than honorable?”
“Your girlfriend? But you had told me you weren’t interested in a long-term relationship with Jennifer. Isn’t that so?”
I could feel Jenn looking at me now, and I knew this was dangerous ground indeed.
“Not quite, Maria. I said I had no intention of marrying her right now. I said she needed time to get over the dispute with her parents, and to get her bearings. I never said I wanted to end our relationship. I think, perhaps, you heard what you wanted to hear. I think I understand your present difficulties. Why you came back, why you returned to Horta. And I think you understood only too well the difficulties Jenn and I faced when we first got here. And – and now maybe I’m off base here – but I think you took advantage of that.”
Yes. I actually said that, and…
Her eyes turned gray and lifeless before me, and I could see her anger and hatred falling away for a moment to reveal the tortured soul within. I didn’t want to feel sorry for the woman, yet I did. She had faced her demons long ago, mastered them in her way, but they had stalked her over the years just as certainly as any disease might, and when those demons struck they took her in a moment of weakness.
“Well,” she said to Jenn now, “I wish you the best. I love you, dear girl, and I always will.”
Jenn nodded her head, but I could tell she was trying to hold back tears of her own.
We stood to leave, but Maria remained seated. We let ourselves out, and I felt the lights in the room go out, and I turned to look at Maria as she sat in sudden shadow.
Jenn and I walked back to town, we walked under the stars. I held her hand now like I would never let it go again, and we listened to the gathering silence around us. The sound of the sea could just be felt through the hum of the town below us, and as we crested the hill we could look down on the harbor spread out below – like a black hole surrounded by amber-hued diamonds.
On the breakwater we could just make out the flashing lights of an ambulance.
Men were jumping on and off a boat moored there.
It was, we could see, the Bolero.
“Yeah? Hey, Pete,” came his faint voice through the growing fog.
“I sent Jenn down to the boat to check on Max. Is there anything I can do?”
“Get me out of here, Pete. I don’t want to die in here. Get me back to the boat, okay?”
“Alright, Dave. Hang in there; I’ll be back in a minute.”
Jenn filled me in on the details later: Someone had been walking along the breakwater and looked down at Max, who had seemed agitated, and they had seen Latham laying face down in the cockpit. They had called the Guardia, and the firemen had come for him. Now Jenn was down on the boat taking care of Max and straightening up the forepeak berth. We carried a bag of ice down to Bolero, and some fruit juice in case David felt like drinking something, then walked back up to the hospital and arranged to have him brought back down to the docks.
Some firemen and I loaded him up and rolled him out to their ambulance, and we drove down to the dock and got him moved back aboard. Jenn and I got him to the forward cabin, and she helped him into his bunk. I opened up the hatch over his head, and a sharp, early winter’s breeze filled the space. The breeze tussled our hair on it’s way through the boat, awakening memory in it’s passage.
“You want some juice, or some ice to chew on?”
“Maybe some ice. Got cottonmouth. Where’s Max?”
But Max was having his own troubles that night. He was moving slowly, and it was obvious to me that he too was in a lot of pain, but when her heard David say his name he ambled forward and sat down on the teak next to David’s berth. His tail thumping, he looked up at me expectantly; I leaned over and helped him up on the bunk and he scooted over and settled-in next to David, his chin resting on Latham’s shoulder. Those big brown eyes went from me to David and back again, over and over, like he didn’t know whether his allegiance belonged to the living or the dying, but after a few minutes of this he settled down and looked at David with a smile on his face. He seemed so full of love as he lay there.
“What’s that, David?”
“Up there, through the hatch. It’s Orion.” I craned my neck and looked up into the night sky. Almost directly overhead I could make out the Hunter’s stars: Betelgeuse, Rigel, the belt stars and the short dagger with the fuzzy patch around the middle star, the Orion nebula. “That’s my favorite night sight,” he said. “I wish I could’ve gone there.”
“Maybe you will.”
He smiled. “Fairy tales, Pete. All just fairy tales for scared children, afraid of the dark.”
“Could be. Here, open up.” I put some crushed ice in his mouth and he smiled. I little runner dripped down his chin and Max licked it off, and David smiled deeply as that familiar grace interrupted his journey through the stars.
“Pete? There’s an envelope in the chart table addressed to you. Instructions, you know, for later.”
“Sure thing, Dave. Don’t worry about that now.”
“If…I…ah, take care of Max…would you?”
“Count on it, my friend.” I watched as he swallowed hard, as he struggled to keep his eyes on Orion, but he gave up and looked down at Max, and he started to cry softly.
“Bye, buddy. Such a good friend…”
He tried to swallow again, but gave up. He breathed one last time as he reached up to rub Max’s ear, then he grew very still.
I put my hand on his, felt the last moments of life in him, then wished him a good journey.
I looked at Max, and he too seemed very still now. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be at peace with this world, but his tail was motionless now, and so it would forever remain.
After a few minutes I moved away from David and Max to sit with Jennifer, and though the world seemed suddenly a very cold and lonely place, I knew the love I held in my heart for those two souls would sustain me the rest of my life.
Life goes on. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?
Time to get on with it. Get your chin up. Get on with living.
Don’t you get it?
I read through Latham’s last wishes as I sat at Bolero’s chart table, and it was all I could do not to laugh. I looked around at the masterpiece he’d created, at the honey-warm teak and the soothing brass oil lamps giving the space it’s unnatural glow, and I just shook my head in wonder at his insight.
He’d thought of everything. He’d planned what he wanted done, sought approval from the necessary bureaucracies, and left me contact information for what needed to be done to settle his affairs back in the States.
Max was an unforeseen complication, but it turned out nobody cared what happened to his body.
But I cared. It mattered to me. And I knew it mattered to David, too. But most of all, I knew what Max would have wanted, knew what he would have wanted me to do, and in the end he was my friend, too. Maybe the best friend I ever had.
I just had to pull it off, somehow.
And everyone in the town looked at me expectantly that last evening, as we all walked out to Bolero one last time.
David was down below on his bunk, and Max was still nestled-up on his shoulder, though now they were wrapped up in one of Bolero’s working jibs. I was alone in the cockpit, sailing Bolero out past the light at the end of the breakwater, out to the open sea. I little patrol boat from the Coast Guard trolled along beside Bolero, and I looked back at the town as it receded into evening. Most everyone on the island had assembled on the breakwater, and the people there began to light candles. The town’s priest was talking to the people, and though I was too far away to hear anything, I think I knew what was said.
They were, I suppose, being told that David Latham was a kind soul, one who had come to their village in a time of great personal need, and that he had touched all of their lives in profound ways during his passage through their lives. Just as they had touched his.
It seemed that, in the end, Latham turned out to be one of those so-called Microsoft millionaires, and that he left this earth with a ton of money in the bank. His instructions were simple: upgrade the hospital; the town library, the church and the schools were to be repaired or modernized. He left detailed plans on how he wanted some of his money used for local public works projects, and he wanted a statue of Max commissioned and placed on one of the headlands north of town that looked out over the sea. When the townspeople learned of Latham’s gift, it was as though a miracle passed through the air all these people breathed. They knew their lives had been touched by Latham in small, personal ways, but they had never really understood what that meant, never got the bigger picture. Now they did, and now they stood on the breakwater, bathed in the glow of a thousand candles, and many of the people watching cried as he left the way he had come. By way of the sea…
I set up the self-steering wind-vane and balanced the helm, and Bolero bit into the wind and began to dance again in the waves once again. I fell into that trance again; that place I go when the wind streams through my hair and I feel so connected to life on this planet, and I felt the water as it hummed through the wheel, it’s vibration settling into my senses. I stood with the wind in my face now, the last of the days light falling off and the sky around me a deep purple streaked with orange, and I felt tears rolling down my face – only to be whisked away by the wind and carried back to the sea.
A dolphin broke the surface next to us, and I looked down into it’s black eye.
There might have been an infinity between us, but we were brothers in this instant of time, and I think even that dolphin knew what was coming…
The cabin below was awash in gasoline. I took Bolero’s flare pistol and cocked the hammer, then called for the little Coast Guard ship to come alongside. I moved forward, moved to look at David and Max one last time, then held the pistol out and pulled the trigger. The fire started slowly, but once the elements were united in combustion they began to dance with all the fury of creation long denied.
We saw a transfiguration, I suppose, dancing in those flames.
I jumped across to the waiting boat and we moved off, though I turned and watched Bolero as we headed back in.
Bolero continued to sail perfectly away to the northeast, her interior at first trailing black smoke. Then a fierce glow could be seen down below, followed by naked flames dancing in the air around her topsides. The fire grew, in hunger as yet unsated, waiting to absolve all sin with it’s passing, and Bolero gave way to this passage. Flames consumed the deck and jumped into the drawing sails and moved skyward, toward the heavens, and I wondered, as I guess we all do, what awaits us on the other side of the night.
I made it back to the hotel later after midnight, and I finished packing my bags. Jennifer’s bags were packed and stacked neatly in the corner of the room, and she was sitting in a chair – looking out the window at the sea – and beyond.
We talked about maybe staying, buying Maria Louisa’s little cottage, but no – there were too many memories bound up inside those walls. Still, we loved this island, we loved the life, the people. Maybe we could make it work. Maybe I had to, because of David. He wanted me to see his wishes carried out, and I needed to be here to make that happen.
But the first thing we had to do was find her parents, my friends, and we had to make that world right again. We talked through the night about what we might say, how we might repair all our burned bridges then, as the sun lightened the sky we went down for a last walk around town.
Maria Louisa D’Alessandro was walking along the road, on her way to the hospital for her first surgery of the day, and I looked at her as she approached us.
We stopped when we met, and she looked at me.
“You’ll be late for surgery if you’re not careful,” she said – and at first I thought she was joking. Then I saw the questions in her eyes, the longing for resolution.
An end to the running, they beseeched.
And I nodded my head, looked at my watch, then I looked at Jennifer. My Jennifer, our Jennifer, then they looked at me and sighed.
And Jennie nodded to the inevitable. Perhaps there was a cottage on the north side still on the market?
I looked down at the harbor, thought of David and Max and wondered where on their journey they might be just now. I could see Max’s big brown eyes, that huge pink tongue wagging as fast as his tail, and Latham hanging from the mast, working to make his home as beautiful as it could ever be. I could feel them with me as I stood there. I could feel Max’s hot breath on my thigh as we walked, and Latham’s contented laugh as he smiled and shook his hands at death.
Yes. We the living have our ghosts, but where would we be without them?
And the sun was so strong and warm. So full of hope. All I could do was smile at the absurdity of life, at our own gently beckoning mortality.
‘Everything’s going to be okay, isn’t it, Max?’ I said to the passing wind.
He was sitting there looking up at me again, his eyes all bright and alive, his love the one constant in an ever changing universe.
‘Yeah, I knew you’d say that.’
© 2007-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw