It’s hot, like the sun developed a sudden passion for the sea and sand. Unrelenting, it wraps around me like a scarf afire, covering me head to foot with blatant disregard. It has found me watching again, waiting for a moment when I will endure less speculation and gain more first-hand knowledge of something, anything better than what I know already. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, I reach for the sunblock and add protection to my long legs and freckled arms and face.
The guy I see daily runs or walks back and forth across the same stretch of sand with his two Irish Setters. I might guess he is either obsessive-compulsive or just unimaginative, even bored with his life despite the constancy of his dogs and an overall tendency to look better than anyone else around here. From the porch I can’t quite make out his features. It’s irrelevant, since he has not once looked my way and I’m not a photographer or artist yearning to immortalize him. Just passing time here, a would-be singer resting her voice until discovered. Or until I can book another lousy Thursday night gig.
This whole plan, spending time with my aunt and uncle while my mother again traipses around Europe with the string trio that has made her famous, with her small but devoted entourage, is an agreement I made with her. For her, not me, soon after she declared me unfit to stay alone one more day or night. I’d worked three nights in two months and my rent was overdue; she had to pay it again. Then she called her sister and brother-in-law.
Not that I don’t care about Jean and Albert, mind you. They’re my only living aunt and uncle and live a pleasant if more pedestrian life than my mother, and, luckily, reside at the beach. They cleaned an upstairs room for me and made it more than adequate, though it wasn’t necessary. All I need is a bed and lamp, a small table and perhaps a wooden chair. It is one of three rooms (a third is for Albert’s lawyer son when he visits, a grey and white room with framed maps on the wall, unchanged since he left) that was stacked with boxes of mementos of Mom and Jean, extra beading supplies and gemstones to create jewelry, innumerable books both read and unopened that they intend to some day donate, and the shoe and costume collection Jean has amassed over the decades she was a well-remunerated ballroom dancer. I have seen her pictures and awards all my life and could never understand why she gave it up at forty-eight, as she was still winning trophies, getting standing ovations. Her dancing is what a child like me believed was happiness incarnate, an entrancing perfection. I often tried on her shoes, spinning like a crazed top until I toppled.
“Best to bow out when you’re at your peak,” she’d said, tilting her head to one side, small teeth even and bright between full ruby lips. “And Albert had had enough.”
“It was me or the dancing, and that was doing her back and feet in, not good at her age,” he agreed, as if it was nothing to ask of his wife. He owned this rambling house, he had been lonely after many years of widowhood. Jean had found him at his jewelry shop when she was on a leave with foot troubles, buying more earrings. Everyone thought he was a bit old for her but she declared him her compadre, as if she handpicked him from a raft of flamenco back-up dancers, mutual need and want at first sight.
“He’ll be around for me forever, dancing will not. I’ve had a great run but I’m less than enamored of the sweat, pulled muscles, fickle audiences and unbearably arrogant judges.”
“Simply put, I loved her far more.”
Jean was nothing if not confident of herself and even life. That was a hallmark of her personality and of her sister’s, aka Mom’s, as well. Ambitious, charismatic, bold sisters from Syracuse, New York. Performers sprung from exceptional musical genes, the daughters of a music arranger and a musical theater actress, both of whom had enjoyed very good runs on Broadway.
“Speaking of which–when are you going to resume voice lessons, Gemma?”
This was the big question posed to me after dinner the night I arrived. I looked to the ocean, pulled by its rhythmic waves, light riding each foamy crest, and the sand left smooth, almost delicate as water receded once more. There is no sufficient hiding spot that protects me from this family inquisition, I thought, and the drive to succeed that infects it. My brother is also on the road with his band Ardent Revenge, making good money, gaining fans. I sang with him in early days, then found my own way. Well, found I loved jazz and also that there was limited need of one more girl singer in the teeming morass of hopefuls.
“She’s taking a break, no shop talk for a while, eh? Let the young lady enjoy restorative peace a couple of weeks, right?”
Albert has a way of understanding things that Jean does not, perhaps because he has no expectations, no need of control over me or anyone else. And he knows to keep suggestions gentle, open-ended, so she feels she has a final say. Even though I have only known him five years, I believe my aunt picked a keeper.
I turned my assertive self on her. “I’m resting and re-evaluating my next move. I’m generating musical ideas.” We held each other’s eyes, she contemplating delving deeper, me forbidding it. “I’m here because mom suggested it,” I added, “that’s all. Well, and I love you, too.”
“And we adore you, Gemma,”Albert tossed out as I excused myself, put on my sandals and left.
“Yes, you know I do, dear,'” Jean squeaked out as if he was twisting her arm. I knew she’d expected much more of me; it hindered her unfettered approval at times.
Beyond their walls the landscape was being overlaid with a deepening coral sheen, an elegant body of undulating water and still sand, tufts of grasses scattered about the edges. No one but a man with two rollicking dogs was visible. He held himself as if entirely alone despite his handsome pets, his gaze directed at the horizon as the sun was stowed away like an opulent fan folded for the night. I was riveted, too, until the dogs started to bark at seagulls and a venturesome cormorant. I headed the other direction, entering a softening darkness, seeking release from months of worry and work to survive. But each step underscored that my dilemma was a toss-up between what it would take to continue singing and make money from it and what had to happen if I was going to find joy in it again.
Time soon became a routine of sleeping, walking or running many sandy miles to keep my breathing and stamina in good shape, eating, playing cards or chess with my aunt and uncle, reading books from their staggering stacks. The water coalesced into that magnanimous being I wanted it to be, its urgent repetitions a reminder of nature’s sweet potency, the roaring voice a sacred healer. I fell asleep to its ancient lullaby, music that unfettered my sleep and took me on strange dream journeys. My mind became a bowl of silvery waves, my heart a drum that found its accompaniment in the sea’s breadth and depth. I awakened a bit stunned and more aware than I had been in a long while. But I remained silent more often than not. Singing longed for nothing from me yet.
The man with his dogs came and went on the same stretch of beach, yet we didn’t cross paths more than a couple of times. He seemed as engrossed by the elements as was I. We respected the mutual need of privacy. Dogs are rambunctious creatures not much restrained by human codes, so greeted me freely. I called them Red I and II.
No one spoke further of the future, and they were kind, even Jean was gentle, and Albert made me laugh with vignettes about his shop and the tourists. Jean and I tried on her old costumes. As we did when I was a kid, she took me in her arms and taught me dance steps. On the beach I tried the steps on hard sand, chasing waves out, leaping into them. The dancing produced a feeling lightness and freedom, and I began to see what drew her to it and not to making music. I wondered how she could be done with her passion. And I, possibly, mine, when only thirty-one. The thought pierced me.
Then, near the end of this third week I notice I am humming when I see the man with the Reds. It happens a couple more times. I have gotten so used to his presence that I barely see him, anymore, but when I hear the notes move in my chest and throat, I look up intentionally and locate him a yard away from me. He has stopped and is looking my way, hands locked on muscular shoulders as if in the act of massaging sore spots, his bare feet planted as tumultuous blue-green waves rush forward. With honeyed light falling over his flesh he looks nothing short of a statue, a paean to a bronzed Greek mini-god set upon on the beach. I stifle a yelp that is really a slip of nervous laughter.
I pivot and start walking the other way.
I think this is not purposely directed at me–perhaps he is thinking I am some other woman–so speed up. But when I hear the thudding of running feet behind me, I take off, too, I don’t know why, perhaps I am embarrassed he saw me watching him, maybe I want to be left alone, but it is possible I am up for a game of chase, want to be pursued. I run fast, I was built for it, and I want to see if he catches up. I give it another burst of effort but striding up beside me now are the dogs, Red I and Red II and they are emitting enthusiastic barks every few lopes. I rein in my speed, then stop. Bending down, I rough up their large, furry noggins, catch my breath. I am licked on knees and hands. The man is running now, late but with verve.
“Hey,” I offer as he nears, “your dogs are fast.”
“Not so fast as you, I suspect. I can’t seem to get your attention, while they find it easy.” He calls them.”Titan, Helly, down!” They sit as he steps forward, hand outstretched to me. “Harlan Wills.”
“Gemma. Gemma Everson.” I take his hand. It’s damp and a little gritty as if he has been digging out rocks and shells. The dogs are panting and looking at the sea, impatient. I rock a little from side to side, a habit I have when anxious. Why did he call me? Is he safe enough?
He swipes hands on his shorts as if reading my mind. “I noticed you have been around every day for a while. Like me. Vacationing?”
“Visiting.” I am thinking his voice is remarkable, one I could close my eyes to, and it strikes me as brazen to think it and even ridiculous. Maybe he’s a public speaker or radio deejay or a politician. I balk at the last so settle on the first, then second. “You come here often?”
He takes forward steps as do I. Red I and II–Titan and Helly, what absurd names–follow along as a casual pace now. “Yeah, I have a summer place not far from here. You, too, or staying at a hotel?”
I shake my head and start to answer but feel encumbered by his interest. The last thing I want here is a nosey stranger, someone who needs explanations. All good-looking men seem this way, I think, makers of easy talk that avoids best intentions. “Family,” I offer.
We walk quietly a few feet when the dogs are off chasing more birds and whatever else they hear and see that we cannot. He stops to observe them, then turns to me.
“You don’t want to be bothered, am I right?”
My mouth opens to affirm his insight, but the truth is I want to hear him talk more. “It’s not that. I am…busy resting my voice, you might say. Taking a break.”
“Oh, you’re a singer?” His even-features register greater curiosity and delight, eyebrows rising.
I’m involuntarily speechless now. How can he know this? I gulp, stutter. “W-Well, uh, okay then, yes.” My brow furrows as there is a tinge of distaste for his astuteness despite his melodious voice. Who does this guy think he is? I pull up the hood on my light sweatshirt and start walking again. I am not going to speak more of it.
Harlan falls in step. “I’m a composer. Well, lately more of a song writer which I also like.”
“A composer? Really, of what? Symphonies?” The sarcasm is obvious so I try again. “I mean, classical or pop or what?” I am nearly shouting because the wind has picked up and clouds are zooming in, spreading a cushiony layer along the northerly horizon.
He half-yells back. “I was working on a cycle of songs for chorus but cannot seem to finish up right. It’s commissioned work but that doesn’t motivate me, it annoys the heck out of me. So lately I’ve been writing more melodic stuff, working on lyrics. Just for me.” He comes to a halt. “I’m sorry, so all about me. I’ve been here for a month, alone, and I guess I…well. Just what is it you sing?”
I take in a chest full of salt sea air and feel it inhabit and soothe my lungs, then agitate my mind. What do I sing? Yes, what? Is it jazz or is it alternative? Has it most recently been pop or soul? What is it I am doing with my waning voice when I open my mouth on a crowded or dingy stage? Whatever is expedient, whatever pays the bills. What causes people to stop and listen, perhaps cheer me on. Lately, nothing at all.
“I’m flexible.” I smile at him because he is smiling at me, his face opening up, a golden shell with perhaps something more inside. I want to impress him, make him happy he knows found me. Why not? I’m lost at the beach, so is he. “Lately, very little. Nothing, in fact.”
We wait for Red I and II, then set off at a more brisk pace. The wind settles with a whisper and I let the hood fall away from my face.
“Why are they named Helly and Titan?”
“An opera I tried to write after graduate school. The main protagonists were Helvetia and Titan.” He sees me smirk. “I know, okay, pretentious. It failed. But I got the two puppies around then, after a bad relationship that coincided with my worthless masterpiece.”
He shrugs as if that is so ancient history his dogs don’t recall it and he would rather not. I inhale the ocean’s tangy freshness, and feel heady.
“I’m a jazz singer who can’t find a decent band so I’m reduced to singing on the ‘off’ nights, just opening sets in stinking little dives, while my diva mother is off in Europe with her string trio and moneyed friends. I got sent here to recoup with my dancing aunt and sweet uncle and I’m just trying to sort things out….do I give up? Do I go back to school and become an X-ray technician or legal assistant? Terrifying.” I turn to him and without thinking reach for his arm. “I mean, really, Harlan Wills, must I give it up?”
His large eyes widen as he finds my hands, and they are almost like mirrors, deeper set than mine, pewter and navy like the sea now, but they are sending out something real. Pain or tenderness or fear. Vulnerability. Two strangers, but of the same ilk.
He knows just what I mean. I hang onto his hands, feel the wind come up and whip my hair across my eyes. He moves the strands from my face and I step back, acutely aware of his touch, those long tanned fingers on my own sun-pinkened skin. We look at each other, then away. Separate, the moment hanging between us like a portent or a warning, something unexpected and unavoidable.
The dogs don’t care. They are wet now and charging us and Harlan takes their muzzles in his palms and talks to them and they talk back. We turn to trace a return route.
“Do you want to have a glass of wine? I might be able to dig up some cheese and bread or even yesterday’s spaghetti.”
“I don’t know.” I look at him but his eyes are turned to the incoming tide. I see we are walking in sync, our lanky steps easy but metered.”Do you have a piano?”
The sky is striated blue and silver, sunlight a thin bright band travelling across the far horizon. Rain is coming. I might have to sleep with my window partially opened so I can hear it ping against the window glass, locate its fine notes among the sea’s throaty intonations. Seek out its fine and freeing power, and make it somehow mine, as well.
“Yes, a beat up baby grand, a Steinway,” Harlan says.
“Well, let’s go, then.”
Helly and Titan lead the way, challenging a last time the tide’s magnetic pull, then come ’round to us. Waves release a resounding boom and we move faster as the summer sky releases glittering raindrops. Two rootless, uninspired musicians begin to fly across a sea-shaped land, to just where I don’t know but back to the music, to that mad, transcendent intersection of sound and soul, the only home we know.