Infidelity was inevitable. Husbands and wives sat – together – on the beach all day, his own wife spluttered inanities on the beach all day. Was there some competition? Everyone saying the same old nonsense each day – there is a limit as to how much can be said about cheeky children, incompetent contractors, and Obama. But Jason’s wife deftly managed to maintain the white noise, bouncing between profoundly obvious advice “Be sure to bring an ID. I mean a photo ID,” and observations “Oh, Donnie’s going swimming,” and non-sequiturs “You know, I cooked with portobellos before all the island restaurants started serving them.” She herself never went in the water, so she only turned off when she became engrossed in one of her awful books. Name-dropping pseudo-lit mysteries like The Donatello Manuscript and Rembrandt’s Marmot, or self-empowering, and self-involved trash like The Soviet Housewives’ Flensing Society that led her to believe she was all things to all people. The mandated, unisexual proximity drove established couples apart as much as it revealed potentialities.
Melinda was a savant in her silence – knowing all and saying nothing. Her placid expression told Kerrie that she was listening appreciatively to her bon mots, envious of her nerve to speak the plain truth, plainly obvious once uttered, though she never would have come to such truths on her own. The barely suppressed corners of her smile told Jason she tolerated his wife’s bland insights, she inwardly scoffed at his wife’s holy judgements, she pitied her self-delusion, her myopia, her sexual reservations. Her smile betrayed to him her awareness of everyone’s self-made shackles, shackles to which she chose to be unbound. Melinda said it was too nice out not to try the water (it was too nice out…not to try the water), put down her Cosmopolitan, and stood up.
It was mid-week at the shore; the beach was not crowded with weekend daytrippers. However, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, these were the days the summer help, the waitresses and store clerks and amusement park workers, came to the beach. So there was high number of college girls, and more excitingly, young women from Eastern Europe, hired mostly to be restaurant hostesses, hired entirely for their looks, sunbathing. At first, discretion was key. Each thieving seagull, whining child, shrieking teenager, an excuse to look up, look in a particular direction, flyover and reconnoiter. Ages clarified, features defined. Sunglasses allowed an additional second to focus.
Then magically, if someone were to walk to and from the water, it became acceptable to stare. An atavistic fear of the sea, you must make sure this person survives her journey to the unpredictable blue? A token gesture of seeing someone off and welcoming their return? He stared at Melinda, as did all, men and women and children, as she walked to the water. She never changed paced, never flinched from aching cold when the water touched her toes, then calves, then knees, until the July waves slapped her thighs and she dove under the next estimable height. He made acceptable glances as she swam, floated on her back, ducked under the larger waves. And he stared hard at her as she walked, shivering and shining, back to her towel. Desperate to be the first that asked, How’s the water?, totally innocuous but daring to share with her in front of everyone, in front of his wife.
As children, friends freely came and went. They bothered to knock and get permission only if they could see a parent on the porch or through the screen door or bay window. As adults, they continued this system. The houses all had open kitchens, open living rooms, open porches, which guests made their own. He could remember coming through his front door and finding four people drinking beers in his kitchen, plastic grocery bags toppling over the counter and something spinning in the microwave, not a single resident among them. But the disregard for privacy only applied to these front rooms. Bedrooms were avoided. Tracking sand through the linoleumed kitchen was accepted, but onto the carpets, sometimes owned but more often rented, was not. Despite, as a boy, having slept over at friends’, always in a living room or loft, he remembered going into his best friend’s bedroom just two or three times. The hamfisted hook-ups of teenagers always happened on the dunes, midway between beach entrances, where the streetlights couldn’t reach. So dark, it was easy to pretend that nothing, or rather, much more had happened. But now, the not uncommon moral bounds-breakers met midday, in bright bedrooms with walls painted white, the crunch of yard stones and the slam of a screen door warning them to stop fucking in their damp, twisted bathing suits.