“It isn’t really what it looks like,” Sophie says as she shuffles the photos. “We skinny dipped back then, no big deal. Off to the woods and lakes we went during college breaks.”
Her daughter holds it up close, wondering if it’s her dad, almost hoping it isn’t. She doesn’t want to know that much.
“But it’s you, right? And if it isn’t what it looks like, then what do you call it?”
Sophie takes the picture. Cradles it in her palms. Her face closes, then she puts it back in the square box. Nods.
“No mistaking my hair. And not your dad, no.”
She touches her hair now, as if reassuring herself it still holds a gingery glow. It is camouflaged a bit by a few strands of white.
“Well, he has a nice back, whoever he is. You were pretty.”
Sophie lets out a soft laugh. Mia slouches off to watch television. Saturday morning. Sophie has been up cleaning out her massive desk for hours, placing into teetering piles the things she wants and doesn’t want. What matters now, what doesn’t. Most of the paper memories are discarded. Even most of the pictures are less valuable as time goes by. There are tattered take out menus from the last city, matchbooks left over from smoking days. The race car sketches of Evan’s are kept. He left them five years ago, but still, for their daughter. And Mia’s report cards have been kept for her; they denote certain potential, despite her lackadaisical attitude.
They’re moving again. But this time to a house. Not impressive from the sidewalk, it got to her when they climbed the steps. The screened porch, a heavy wooden swing. It was what she had been circling back to her whole adult life.
The bulk of the sorting done, Sophie stands and pivots from the piles. Catches her face in the gilt-framed mirror. Something there brings her closer. Her hazel eyes are reddened by dust she stirred up. She smooths her freckled cheeks, her pale lower lip. That old photograph has invaded her oasis, returned her to that place where anguish and tenderness are bond together, captive.
What it looked like was what it was. Finding each other. Being astonished. Feeling safe, so also more free than ever before. Being in love had been like finding out she could speak another language without any effort, or had wings that were secretly hidden and waiting to share their power. It was the beginning of a small kingdom constructed with wonder.
It makes her wince, but she remembers it all.
Martin Robishe was the older brother of Cassie, a friend she’d met in social anthropology class. It was their family cottage into which a small horde of students crammed one June. Three small bedrooms with an open living area that soared above, skylights encouraging buttery light. They had sleeping bags. Two people had brought little tents. Sophie took the couch on the porch; it was her spot, Cassie informed the others, claimed last fall.
When she got there relief banished all tension like a kind drug, making her limbs looser, feet lighter. Mind cleared. She was a dancer with demanding goals, but here she forgot. Let herself revel in simple things, heat, tree mazes and dirt. Undulating, hundreds-of-blue waters. Feral cries in the night. Stealthy moths circling light, drawing her with their zigzag grace.
Martin disrupted her train of thought when his blue-black Silverado finally pulled in. The engine boomed. He loped over, finishing a pizza slice.
“Hey,” Martin said as he came up by her. She sat with arms wrapped around bent legs. “Sophie, right? Or Blaze like Cassie calls you? We met last fall for a minute or two.”
Sophie raised her eyebrows at the familiar, interesting face, then returned to the sputtering bonfire. Smiled a small smile. The others had gone off to bed. Cassie had said he’d be there a couple nights before heading back to his apartment in town. He ‘d fix torn screens, cut back the new weed growth for their parents, who arrived in July for a month.
“Quietness is preferred, I know–sorry,” he said, then poked at the fire gently, as though he was afraid to disturb it. It flared, then settled into a coral glow.
“Yes, as solitude is, as well.”
He laughed, a low rumble, not put off by her sarcasm.
She sat cross-legged. “I’m practicing being still in the center of the dark. If you want to join me you will have to conform.”
“Here on my land? And how do you know it’s the center?”
But he sat opposite her, fire between them, the night’s depth and breadth embracing them. Sophie listened, eyes closed to better hear waves advancing and leaving, the simmering of wood in flame. She expected him to jostle about and clear his throat, say something stupid. But nothing. Nature had many songs,and a fine hum vibrated in her core. Until he broke the spell.
“The sky is a map of places we have been before, I think.”
Sophie opened her eyes. He was leaning back on his hands, looking at the constellations and other tiny lights in the blackness.
“Where do you think you’ve been?”
“I don’t know. I just feel this isn’t the whole story. Look at the way the darkness dances up there. How much are we missing?”
“I second that feeling. Dancing heavens…” She let out a sigh that felt good.
Sophie observed at the fine shape of his head, dark hair falling forward, shoulders set against the gleaming midnight. The way he seemed to fit in the woods and this moment. The fire was nearly out but they stayed on, speaking only when it seemed necessary.
In the morning the weather wasn’t good. Wind rattled the screen door; the sky looked like a bruise above a swaying treeline. They played poker and chess, ate leftover spaghetti and too many brownies. By late afternoon someone suggested they sit on the dock. See how the storm swept in. They went down as felt the air crackle as thunder boomed, crescendos of sound through woods, across rough water. Lightning cut the sky into puzzle pieces. They waited until rain broke loose, first in splatters, then in a torrent that stung their skin. Cassie and the rest took refuge in the cottage. But Martin and Sophie found refuge in the boathouse, watching from an opened door.
“Ever sail?” he asked her, leaning against the boat.
“We had a sunfish. It was great, the challenge of it, and the way it sped and bounced along.” She leaned back, too, a few inches away, far enough to not give him false ideas.
“I always wanted to build a sailboat. My dad has this speedboat but I want another experience. That’s my goal this summer. I’m taking a class on week-ends. Have to work at our store long hours, but I can do it.”
“I like that. I’d try it out when its finished if you invited me.” She grinned at him. “I’ll be at an arts camp as a camp counselor for three weeks. I get to practice my dancing, too, which is why I’m going.”
The wind died down; thunder was a distant echo. The rain was pummeling less, was now a pleasant drone.
“You do ballet, I guess?”
“No, I ‘do’ modern.” She laughed and pushed his shoulder. “Have you ever seen a dance performance?”
“I saw two snowy egrets. They looked pretty good. Can you do that?”
She laughed, head to the side, eyes seeking his. He looked down at her, smirking, then was intent on memorizing her features. She saw a surprising glint of silver in a wave of his hair and wanted to put her fingers there. She felt warmth from the lean lines of his body. Or it was their combined energy, travelling through their cells and out to each other. Everything felt dense but elastic, as though time was fluid and they were moving far beyond it just by breathing. She had to move or she would combust, even disappear into thin air.
“Let’s swim in the rain!” she shouted and ran. At water’s edge, she tossed t-shirt, bra and shorts onto the shore, kicked off her sandals. Then stopped. What was she doing? But he was there, too, stripping off shirt, pants, shoes, wading into sterling grey waters. He sank, a beautiful, shining stone.
Under the surface and up again, under and up, she swam against the waves until she felt a luxurious weariness. Martin sliced through the water, then floated beside her. Waited as rain melded with lake water, their skin with the air.
She moved closer as he reached for her.
“Come here, Blaze, let’s hold each other while we can.”
They met like they were meant to, face to face, heart to mind and soul. It was that simple. Crucial. It was unavoidable–to be together, be happy all summer long and longer still.
Sophie returns to the photograph. She knows what to do with it. She’s going to frame it, place it in her new office in the little house. And some day she might tell Mia: “He was there for a summer and a fall, then he left our country. To fight for it. He did not return. He passed over to the places he showed me that first night. And I love him. Even now.”