By now I imagine you’ve heard the gossip. God knows between Jenny at the salon and Martha Crenshaw at the Bible Study; it’s already all over town. It was clear as day when I went into the bank this morning to make a deposit. I usually say a quick hello to Frank at the door, and he always returns a nice polite, “Good morning, Mrs. Stack,” but today, he had a look on his face. You know that look. It’s the look that says, “I heard something about you, and I’m both shocked and intrigued.” Oh, come on, you know that look, and don’t tell me that I’m imagining it. I know people.
Let me just say at the onset that yes, the rumors are true and yes, we were both completely naked. It’s not what you think. I know how that sounds. It’s what all the guiltiest people say when they’re caught, so to speak. They say, “you don’t understand!” or “I was framed!” but we all know that’s code for “I did it.” So, I admit I did it, or at least part of “it.” We were both there, and yes, as I said, we were both completely naked.
What you don’t know, and maybe cannot possibly understand, is that it’s not what you think. It’s not a tawdry, dirty affair, and not even remotely romantic. I mean, at my age, it’s preposterous. And though I maintain that it’s a difficult thing to explain, and something I am not even going to bother to explain to the rest of the gossipmongers, I will at least endeavor to do so with you. It’s important that you know just exactly what happened and what didn’t happen.
Well, I suppose I have already told you what didn’t happen, but what did happen was, in a word, remarkable. Do you know those experiences in which you are forever changed, but you cannot quite lay hands on how or why? For example, when John was born, and the moment he arrived, it was as if a great hand reached into my chest and pulled my heart from it to show me how it would now beat also there in my son. All right. I’m sorry. I’m off into the ether.
Let me start here, with the facts of the thing. I was in the library reading the latest Harper’s Bazaar. I gave up my subscription. I don’t know if I told you that. I’ve stopped all my subscriptions now. I’m considering giving up my telephone now too. That’s another story maybe, but suffice it to say that I’ve been feeling this for a while. I need some separation, let us say. I have been feeling a bit poorly lately.
I turned off the television a few weeks ago and the radio too. The house is quiet most days, and I like it that way. Some people will say that they get lonely but not me, I like the quiet, you know that. I’m used to being alone by now. So, I was in the library reading the Harper’s Bazaar because, to be honest, I did miss the colors of it. Truth be told, I stopped all the subscriptions, too, because of the money. Let’s just call it what it is. I’m cutting things down as best as I can. I didn’t think it was any problem until I noticed how dull my coffee table had become. I missed the colors of the magazine and here’s the strange thing, I became too used to the covers of the old issues. I needed something more.
I know you think I’m terribly shallow now. I’m sure I would agree except for the facts of what happened at the lake. I was reading the magazine at the library when Cleve came in. He sat down right away at my table, just across from me. He looked, I don’t know, bright. That white hair of his was all whipped up like the wind had taken hold of him. I whispered to him, “What happened to you, Cleve?” and he said, “I am reborn, Edna” and then he smiled. He has always had that grand, beautiful smile. We giggled about it when we were young, you and I. Remember that?
He reached across the table then. He took my hands from the magazine and just held them there. I was surprised, of course. And what kind of an answer was that? Reborn? I asked him what on earth that meant, but he didn’t answer me. He leaned in close to me; his eyes were on fire. “Come and see,” he said. Well, I wanted to no part of that. It sounded like some kind of scheme. He always was a little dodgy, you know, ever since the war. But the look in his eyes, the fire. I felt compelled, Bernice. Compelled.
And so, I agreed. I know, it’s not like me at all. Not at all.
He pulled me out of the library before I even knew what was happening. I had to tell him twice to slow down. I was so afraid I’d fall and break my neck. I was wearing my Easy Walkers, though, which was a good thing because Cleve was at a near run the whole time. At any rate, we hustled non-stop through town until we got to the lakefront. I was out of breath but Cleve didn’t even break a sweat, and he was wearing that blue and white seersucker suit. I don’t know how he does it in this heat.
When we got to the boardwalk he turned to look at me, that white hair all crazy and his eyes still on fire. I was just about to ask him if he was on a new medication because he was acting strange, even for Cleve, but before I had a chance to do so he asked me, “Have you ever felt the water on your body?” and I don’t know why, Bernice, but it took me aback.
The look in his eyes, the smile on his face, us running through downtown to the lakefront and then this. And instead of turning and walking away I answered him as though it were the most reasonable question. I gave him a reasonable answer, “Well, of course I have” is what I said because who hasn’t? I mean, really.
Then he shook his head, “not like that,” he said. It was late afternoon. The sun was bright; the sky was so blue, Bernice, so blue. He pointed to water, and he said, “It’s stunning, like diamonds.” I looked at the water and do you know, he was right. I cannot explain precisely why I did what I did next and perhaps I should not even try.
I will tell you that he began to disrobe, first his tie, then the buttons of his shirt. He shed his jacket and then the shirt. He wasn’t wearing an undershirt, and that struck me as odd. It’s something I didn’t expect because you know, Paul always liked undershirts. He stood there, bare from the waist up and then he went for his pants, first his belt, then the zipper. He stopped for a moment, looked at me with those burning eyes, and he said, “Come with me,” and you know, I did.
I slipped out of my shoes, then unbuttoned my sweater. I always wear a sweater in the library because they keep it so cold in there. My yellow pansy dress buttons in the front and so I undid those and then I let it slide from my shoulders, over my hips and to the boardwalk at my feet. By the time I got my underclothes off, he was already walking to the lake. I wasn’t self-conscious at all, I just, well, I just took it all off. I didn’t even think about it.
We waded together into the water. He held out his hand to me, and I took it. His hands were soft, but I could feel his arthritis, which seems like a strange thing to say but there it is. His knobby knuckles rubbed against mine, and I thought, “Our age is showing in our hands.” And all I could think was about what I felt, his hands, the sand under my feet, the water on my ankles and then my calves, my knees, my thighs.
I was aware of him looking at me, but I kept my eyes on the horizon of the lake. It was late afternoon, as you know from the stories, I’m sure. The sun was making its way down down, down, as I watched. When we got in about shoulder-height, he took my other hand, and we stood there in the lake facing one another. He closed his eyes, and I closed mine, and we stood like that for what felt like hours, Bernice.
There is no way to explain what I felt apart from the sensations of the water moving over all of me. There’s nothing like the feeling of all the old, worn-out places being surrounded by the cool water of the lake; wrapped up in a water blanket, immersed, held, cleansed. There are no good words for it. I shiver now just even thinking about it.
And when I closed my eyes it was as though all the colors of the world burst back into being, like a great unseen hand reached down and pulled my heart from my chest to show me how it still was beating. I am alive, Bernice. I’d nearly forgotten.
Then we made our way back to shore. I put on my dress without even bothering to try the underclothes. I balled those up and put them in my shoes and folded my sweater over my arm. Cleve put on his shorts and pants, picked up his shoes and the rest of his clothes, and we walked back to town hand in hand. He walked me to the front gate, tipped an imaginary hat, smiled and walked on.
And that is the whole story, Bernice. I regret nothing.
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist, whose work has been published or is forthcoming in publications both online and offline, such as Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith, Saint Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, Bird’s Thumb, Ruminate Magazine, and Art House America.
Her memoir, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition (Ancient Faith Publishers) was released in July 2014. Her latest book is Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body (Ancient Faith Publishers, 2016).
Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL, with her husband, David, and her four outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.