The Pit Stop
The overhead fluorescent buzzed, flickered, and then came on full. I looked into the rust spotted mirror, hoped it was the lighting that made my face look so drawn, pale like the blood had drained away. A moth flew from the windowsill, battered against the light, and then landed on it. No heat. The noise of insects filled the night air, louder even than the buzzing light. Sounds like a jungle, I thought, this swampland near the Chesapeake Bay. Just like a jungle.
I'd driven two hours; and with about ten miles to go I’d stopped at a gas station to check my appearance before meeting Rachel’s father. Retired Navy, her father demanded a pretty high standard of anyone who might date his “little girl”. Despite Rachel’s insistence that Daddy would “love me”, I wasn’t certain he could satisfy the old man’s expectations.
“He invited you to the cottage,” she’d said. “Daddy isn’t young anymore, Jake, and he wants to put the boat in at Mobjack Bay. You know mama and I can’t help him, Jake. He needs your help.”
I knew that couldn't be entirely true. Rachel's father often took his boat out so someone was always there to help the old man with the boat. I suspected this was probably the old man’s way of testing him, to see if I'm suitable for his daughter. But, I never could refuse Rachel, so ignoring my trepidation, I’d agreed to the weekend.
A new haircut, the stupid Polo shirt Rachel got for me to wear. I splashed cold water on my face, rinsed my mouth. The water smelled, tasted of brine. I crushed a mint in my mouth, savored the cool wintergreen freshness, and then tilted my head back and put in the eye-drops. Before walking back out into the dark, I took one last look in the mirror. I sure hope the lighting was better at the cottage.
Five years later…
I awaken to gray light, damp morning air, a cold wet shirt sticking to my back and it takes me a moment to recognize where I am. The cottage. Right. Rachel and I drove down last night, after work. Didn’t get here until almost midnight; Rachel went straight to bed. I stayed up, tried to tune in something on the black and white Motorola, but the storm must’ve interfered; the picture doubled, ghosted, then disintegrated into static so I turned it off. Never could get a clear picture down here.
I took the cooler from the car amidst a downpour, got soaked to the skin. I opened a beer and sat in the old armchair out on the screened porch, hoping the evaporation from my shirt would cool me. Lightning flashed over the bay, through the pines in front of the house, leaving afterimages in my eyes. I had another beer and killed half a joint I’d started on the drive down, then drifted into sleep, into dream. The lighthouse.
I was swimming to the lighthouse in the storm, a crashing gray chaos of foam and dark water. I lost my way. I looked all around but couldn’t see it, the light wasn’t on, wouldn’t come on for me. I floated, spinning in the waves, looking for a lighthouse that wouldn’t light.
God, every muscle in my body is stiff; that’s the last time I’ll sleep in wet clothes. At least the rain has stopped, but the clouds still hang sullen, low over the pines, the air so thick with humidity it makes my chest hurt. Like drowning in the air.
I get my overnight bag from the car, put on coffee, then stand under the shower until the water runs cold. Rachel’s in the kitchen when I come out, splashing coffee into mugs. She gives me a tired smile as she sets mine on the table.
“What happened to you last night?”
“I went out in the rain, to get the cooler,” I tell her. “Then I sat on the porch to let my clothes dry. Guess I fell asleep in the chair.” She nods and sips her coffee, says nothing; she isn’t fully awake, yet. After a second cup she goes for a shower.
“Hey, I think I used all the hot water.”
“Just what I need,” she says, “a cold shower,” and shuffles towards the bathroom, slippers scratching on the floor. It’s the sand that scratches. You can’t walk in this place without walking on sand. It gets blown in, tracked in, carried in on towels, and you can never get rid of it. No matter how often you sweep there’s always that one bit you missed, that one elusive grain wearing away at everything.
I take my coffee to the porch, sip at it while I stare out through the screened windows. I used to love this place. The cottage was on Beacon Island in the Chesapeake Bay and belonged to Rachel’s parents but they didn’t use it much anymore. So we’d come here every chance we had, for cookouts, steamed crabs, iced cold beer and swims in the bay; a weekend long party. Then, on one of those weekends the summer before last, Rachel told me that she was pregnant.
We were down at the point, the end of the island that faces the lighthouse, a picnic for two. She was shy when she told me, afraid, maybe of how I’d react. We’d never talked about children, I’d never really thought about it. Not seriously, at least. But I could tell that she was happy about it, and wanted me to be happy, too.
And I was. It still surprises me, but I was happy, ecstatic even, and I felt my face break into a smile when she told me, the silly, delighted grin of a child who can’t contain his excitement. We got married two weeks later, set up house in a little rented place. We’d been practically living together anyway, in my apartment, but we wanted something better, something of our own. We found a little two-bedroom bungalow, one bedroom for the nursery. We didn’t have a lot to spend, of course, none of this was expected, but Rachel decorated that room. Rachel amazed me with the difference new carpet, paint and wallpaper could make; she even got furniture on loan from friends who already had children.
And the books, my God, she must’ve cleaned out the bookstores. “How To Teach Your Baby To Read”, “How To Mother”, “How To Father” (she made me read, too), even a magazine subscription to “Modern Parenting”. She was going to be the best damn parent she could possibly be, I could see that. The best damn parent…
“More coffee?” Rachel comes out of the house behind me, sets a mug on the end table as I wipe my eyes. She looks at me strangely. “Hay fever,” I say, and she nods.
“I thought the rain would have cleaned some of that out of the air,” she says. She’s wearing her bathing suit and one of my shirts over, sits on the lounger opposite and watches me, silently. I hate it when she watches me like this, not saying anything; it makes me feel uncomfortable, like I should do something. But I don’t know what to do. I shift in my seat, look out the side windows at the pine forest. “You’re going swimming in the rain?” I ask.
“It isn’t raining.”
“But it will.”
“No,” she says, “it won’t. The forecast said this will clear out by noon. And I’m pale as a ghost, I need to get some sun.” She turns in her seat, hugs her knees to her chest and looks where I’m looking, towards the lighthouse. “I want to go to the point.” she says, almost too softly to hear.
“I want to go to the point. We can take a picnic lunch.”
I look at her, uncertain what those words mean. “Like we used to,” she says, but she doesn’t look at me, just stares through the window, hugging her knees and rocking slowly, like the pine trees in the wind.
I don’t say anything for a while, then “You won’t get any sun, you know. It’s too cloudy.”
She shakes her head, as though waking from a dream, and looks at me. “I don’t know,” she says. “I might.”
I carry the cooler, sandwiches and drinks, cold beer for me. She carries towels, the sunscreen and a thin, white blanket that the wind lifts from her shoulders like a veil. We walk at the edge of the water on packed sand, skirt hummocks of tangled brush eroding into the bay. The waves come in closer than I remember, threatening the line of low dunes that protect the island. A rivulet, a trickle of water, runs from the dunes into the bay. This is new since the last time we were here. A storm has breached the line, broken through the dunes and flooded the land beyond. It’s a tidal pool now, the pines already dying, their roots drowned. In another year it will be marsh, choked by the reeds that grow in shallow water. Every storm that comes through will take a little more land with it, deepen the channel, and make a new inlet. Eventually, it will break though to the calmer bay on the other side of the island, completely separate this piece of land, and make it an island unto itself. That’s how the island the lighthouse occupies was formed; it was originally part of this island. But gradual erosion, a slow wearing away of the land, and then a storm powerful enough to break through at the weakest pint separated the whole into two parts. Now the channel’s almost a quarter-mile wide.
We spread the blanket at the end of the beach, near where marshes choke the backside of the island, and weight it with the cooler. This is as far as we go, as close as we can get to the lighthouse.
Rachel lays face down on the blanket, sunbathing without the sun. The clouds have lifted a little, but are still dense enough to keep shadows from being cast, a dull, uniform gray. The beach is cleaner here than near the cottage; the winds come stronger and more often, scour the sand of the things that foul most beaches. The bottom of the channel is cleaner, too, swept smooth by a branch of the current from the mouth of North River. The water is clearer; you can stand on the beach and see the bottom twenty feet out, something unheard of in the bay. This beach is a place of passage, not a place to stay.
I crack open a beer, sit with my eyes closed, and listen to the cries of gulls, faint in the distance. I remember that maple, can still see it in my mind. It grew outside the kitchen window of that first house we’d rented. It blocked the entire view from that window, but blocked it majestically. The kitchen window faced west and everyday, from mid-afternoon on, the sun shone through the leaves, the softest, brightest green you’ve ever seen. We’d sit at the kitchen table, in the evenings after work, bathed in a deepening green light, and wonder what color of leaves autumn would bring. I guess we should’ve been sad when the first leaves began to change, sad for the tree, at least, because it meant the end of a season.
But we were too excited, too anxious to see what would come next. And we weren’t disappointed; the tree turned a fiery orange red, like the setting sun that inflamed it. The leaves seemed to absorb the light, to amplify and re-emit it in hues of red and gold like a stained glass window. Shafts of fading light made every leaf seem to glow from within, alive even while dying. Rachel and I reveled in the cathedral-like beauty of that tree.
Then came the day when I got home and found a message from Rachel’s mother. I called right away. Rachel had lost the baby, miscarried. She was fine, thank God; there’d been some bleeding, complications, but she was fine. I took down the hospital information and was about to hang up the phone when her mother spoke again.
“There’s more”, she said, her voice weak. “She’ll not be able to have children. The doctor said,” and her voice broke into a kind of sob. “There’ll be no children.”
I still stood at the window as she spoke, looking out at the tree that Rachel and I had come to think of as a sort of refuge of our very own, a place where light is soft and filtered, always beautiful.
I take a deep breath, open my eyes to the sudden brightness of gray, and look over at Rachel. “I want to swim to the lighthouse,” I say.
She raises her head slightly, turns to face me. “What?”
“I want to swim to the lighthouse.”
Rachel rolls over and raises herself on her elbows, assesses my profile. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” I say, “I want to swim to the lighthouse.” I look at her then and I’m startled for a moment. She’s changed so much in the past few years that sometimes I feel like I don’t even know her anymore.
“You said you would swim out to the lighthouse with me.”
“That was a long time ago,” she says, and I know she’s thinking, that we were young then, we didn’t know anything then.
I still don’t know anything.
I stand up, walk towards the water. “Well,” I say, “if you don’t think you can swim that far…” and she gets to her feet.
“I can out swim you any day,” she says, “and you know it.” That’s the Rachel I fell in love with, the Rachel I married.
I wade out waist deep, then turn and fall backwards into the water. When I stand again I’m chest deep and a slow, steady current tugs at my feet. Rachel’s waist deep now, playing her fingertips over the water’s surface. “There’s a current,” she says, and she looks towards the island, the stretch of water between here and there. “It looks a lot farther when you’re in the water, doesn’t it?”
I point to a spot on the opposite shore, two scrubby pine trees that can be seen from the water’s surface, and begin the swim. When I look back, Rachel’s following and I let her catch up and swim a few yards ahead of me, then I match my pace to hers. She’s a good swimmer, long, smooth strokes to my ungraceful splashing. The only advantage I’ve ever had over her is endurance; I lack in style, but I persevere.
The water grows colder as we swim and the current stronger. The tide must still be running out. I look back to check our progress; well over half way there, but off the planned course, carried by the current without noticing it. When I turn to Rachel again she’s even farther to my left, still swimming forward but being carried faster than ever towards the bay. I call her, but she doesn’t hear and I change my course to intersect hers. The third time I call out, she stops and turns to me, her face surprised as she realizes how far the current has pushed us. I point towards the island, indicate an angle across the current, and she nods her head and begins to swim again.
The current continues to grow stronger, the water colder. I lack Rachel’s grace in the water; I swim lower and have to fight to stay upstream from her. The smaller bay, the source of this current, is really the flooded mouth of the North River. Last night’s storm must’ve swollen the normal flow and with the outgoing tide it’s become an onslaught of water sweeping towards the open bay. Sandbars sweep out into the bay from the ends of both islands, breaking the waves, but between them is a smooth, dark stretch of water, and that’s where we’re being carried. When this cold, heavy water passes the sandbars it will follow the slope of the bottom, dropping fast to the floor of the bay. I look for the marker point, the two pines, but can’t see them; we’ve gone too far off course.
I’m close enough to Rachel to see her face, colorless with cold, or with fear. I want to call to her, ask her if she’s okay, if she can make it, but I don’t have the strength. It’s all I can do to slow my pace to match hers, to stay upstream to shield her from some of the current. She’s lost her stride, her movements are slow, labored, and when our eyes meet I see fear. She’s close to exhaustion. We’re closer to the island and the current weakens some. I know I can make it, but I can’t carry her, I don’t have the strength. I move closer to her, closer to land, but slower, then slower still. She’s barely staying afloat now, and I let the current carry me right to her side. I float, treading water with my back to the island, barely moving. I encourage her, urge her on.
“You’re okay Rachel,” I tell her. “You can do it, we’re almost there,” but she shakes her head, no. I wait for her and she reaches out for me, fingers touch my skin, a frantic grab for support. I let her pull herself close, her weight on me, I can’t carry her, I’m too weak, and I feel her hands slip from my shoulders as I sink into the current. My foot strikes something and reflex pulls it back just as I recognize sand, the bottom! Both feet touch bottom, sand sweeping from beneath them, I push hard and I’m in the air again, clutching at Rachel. Momentum pushes us a few feet closer to the shore and when I go under again I don’t fight it, let my feet find the bottom, closer this time, push us towards the shore again and now I can stand, I can stand! I hold Rachel, take timid steps, baby steps, so as not to lose my purchase to the current. Rachel can stand now, she doesn’t want to let go, but I push her down until she feels the sand beneath her feet and together we stand against the current, move towards shore. We splash onto the beach, collapse on the sand at the water’s edge.
We lay still for a long while, regaining our breath at the side of the channel. I could’ve lost her, I feel sick in the pit of my stomach. I could’ve lost her. After a while, she reaches for me, eyes still closed, touches my arm and then clutches my hand tight with hers. “We made it,” she says, still breathing hard, and then again, as if she can’t believe it, “We made it.”
The clouds are breaking up, I hadn’t noticed until now, and the last dark wisps sweep out over the bay. Without a word, we stand and look at the lighthouse on the other side of the island, move towards it. We cross the line of low dunes, then walk straight across the center of the island, between the scattered brush on brilliant sand, an easy passage. We reach the other side of the island, the windward side, climb the dunes that shelter the island and for the first time we see the base of the lighthouse.
And I’m not surprised, somehow; not surprised at all. The lighthouse isn’t even on this island. It rests on its own little spit of land, surrounded by blocks of granite to prevent further erosion, hundreds of yards offshore. The same process that pulled this island from the main one has pulled the lighthouse from this one, made three islands of one. But the water here is rough, exposed to the main force of the bay, and I know we’ll never swim it.
We sit in the sunshine on the side of the dune, and as the afternoon shadows shift, watch the gulls fly around the lighthouse, that place we’d so wanted to reach. We can see detail, this close, that was lost in the glare of distance. The walls of the structure are rough, whole sections of white mortar peeling away like bark from a tree, exposing the dark, weathered stone beneath. Where there should be glass at the top there’s only open space, and a few bricks of sandstone have fallen from the rim to the rocks below. The lighthouse that had once warned ships of the shoals at the mouth of Mobjack Bay now stood crumbling, abandoned on its own little island. That place will never be used again.
We walk back along the beach on the leeward side of the island. The water is calm here, less forceful. We skirt a thicket of driftwood, the thin trunks of trees that drowned and eventually fell over into the flooded mouth of the river, caught on the island and were pushed by storms into the dunes as others washed out to sea. Years of sun and salt spray had bleached the broken trunks, left them brilliant in the sun. The main island comes into sight, then the marshes that line the riverside. We find the two pines I’d chosen as a marker and look across the channel. The blanket, cooler, our picnic lunch waiting there. A heron perches in the shallows and the tips of its gray feathers lift in the breeze, flash blue in the sunlight. Orioles and Blackbirds cling to the reeds that gently sway under their weight. The wind has died. I find a piece of driftwood, throw it as far as I can out over the water. It goes under briefly, and then bobs to the surface and floats, gently spinning, but going neither in nor out. We’re on the crux of change, that perfect fleeting moment when the tide turns, neither coming in nor going out; the time when all forces balance in perfection. The water is calm now, almost smooth in its stillness, but neither of us is ready for the swim back.
I go back to the tangle of driftwood we had passed, pull loose the broken trunk of a tree long dead, drag it back from the sand dunes to the edge of the channel and push it out into the water. It floats straight, headed towards the other side. We wade out to our knees, waist, chest and still feel no current, no movement but our own. I dive, the water warm and still, resurface and splash drops that refract the sunlight, sparkling. I catch hold of that long dead tree trunk, turn to look at Rachel, a radiant smile on her face and she swims to me. I feel that grin on my face again and can’t help but laugh, the silly, delighted laugh of a child.