Hey guys! I don’t have much time to blog these days, but I wanted to share something with y’all in honor of reaching 900 followers. As the weather is cooling off, I thought it was a nice time to revisit this short story that I wrote two winters ago. Enjoy.
The Cygnus olor, commonly known as the Mute Swan, has captured the sentiments of romantics for millennia with her pure-white plumage and reticent nature. In ancient Greece, the Athenians believed that the Mute Swan was utterly silent during her lifetime. According to tradition, only upon the brink of death would she sing a single haunting melody. The great poet Aeschylus ingeniously crafted one of literature’s classic metaphors when he compared the dying Cassandra’s final lament to a swan’s last call. Over 2000 years later, weaving its way from German to English, the phrase emerged as we know it today: the swan song.
On days like this, I can’t shake the agonizing thought that the winter of ’96 was my swan song. I was freshly 20, still straddling the fence between girlhood and womanhood, and completely unaware that I was about to plummet into the latter territory.
“Emily,” my mother states, as if announcing the menu for dinner. She pauses for effect and twists around to make sure she has the attention of the backseat passenger—namely, moi. “Emily has news for us.”
As this is news to me too, it takes a few moments to find my thoughts, which have been floating somewhere between the rabbit-shaped cloud and the tallest pine tree out my window. We make eye contact. This always makes me feel like my darkest secrets are brazenly tattooed across my forehead and she’s reading them in sadistic pleasure. For a moment, I sense that she knows. As if goaded by her presence in my mind, I briefly recall the last night I spent in Eric’s dormitory room, tracing the curves of his spine and memorizing the lines of his laughter. Emily Fein, he vowed in his sexy French accent, I’m going to marry you and I won’t let you refuse. Je te promets, ma chérie. And I laughed and opened up my heart, my body, for him to fill. The thought of his touch heats my cheeks.
Realizing at last what my mother prompted me for, I clear my throat and collect myself. “Yeah, Dad, I don’t know if Mom mentioned it yet, but I was accepted for an internship at the University of Michigan hospital this summer.”
Through the rearview mirror, I watch my father’s eyebrows rise. “Wow, Em, that’s fantastic. What are you studying again?”
There’s the usual sting—that I’m not important enough for him to remember my concentration whereas he knows the resumes of his law firm’s partners by heart. I swallow the disappointment and reply without missing a beat, “Archeology.”
This time, I don’t want to see the expression of false admiration on his face and I predict the next words out of his mouth before he even vocalizes them. “Are you sure that’s going to get you into med school? Aren’t you supposed to be studying biology or something like that?”
Before I can defend myself, my mother snaps up the conversation like a pit bull with a bone. “Emily’s only a sophomore. She has plenty of time to change her major, especially since she’s already taken all the core pre-med classes…”
As she winds up to lecture full-throttle, I’m not sure who tunes out her voice first, my father or me. Like a croissant tucking into itself in preparation for baking, I fold into the tranquility of my innermost thoughts. The prospect of the new year is both exciting and terrifying. 1997. It feels so novel and abundant with possibility, that much closer to the turn of the millennium. I’m looking forward to both the internship and the milestones in my relationship with Eric—he’s hinted at plans for our six-month anniversary in March. I’m worried about the summer, though. Eric plans to work at his father’s real-estate company in Paris, a great opportunity for him to gain leverage with his fellow business students. My concern is that we’ve never been apart for more than a few weeks and now we’re going to be an Atlantic away for four months. At the moment, though, nothing feels impossible to overcome for our steadfast relationship.
By the time I return from my interlude, my mother has given up and resumed her position gazing out the front passenger window. In the driver’s seat, my father sighs and stretches his left leg across the dashboard. Before our trusty GMC Yukon, only acres of green rolling hills and forests of red pine trees lay ahead. Like we have done every other Christmas of my 20 years, we cross the border into Maine.
We’ve had our seaside cottage in York since my grandparents bought it in the 50s and we kept it even when they moved south to Boca Raton a decade ago. Tucked away on the north end of the popular tourist beach, the two-story edifice overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the famed Nubble Lighthouse in the distance. Grandpa nicknamed the cottage “the Blue Jay” after its baby-blue wooden panels and the unusual number of blue jays that flock to Maine in the winter months.
As I tiptoe down the hallway, the hardwood floor chills my bare feet and I hug my cotton nightgown closer to my skin. I know it’s early and I’m not quite sure why I’m awake, but as soon as the sun began its ascent I leapt out of bed like a grasshopper. Everything is just as I remembered it—the wedding photo of Grandpa and Grandma at the end of the hall, the family Christmas card from my sophomore year of high school, my framed watercolor catastrophe that only my grandparents would call art. I scurry by the master bedroom to the sound of my parents’ snoring and feel a tinge of melancholy. This was the first year Grandpa and Grandma hadn’t been able to join us at the Blue Jay. They usually occupied the master bedroom while my parents and I shared the room I had to myself now. I guess it never made much sense for them to fly up to Maine from Florida in December, but I always thought of the Blue Jay as their house and now it’s disconcerting to be here without them. It almost feels like we’re renting out the cottage from its usual owners, like we’re the intruders.
Shaking off the thought, I gradually make my way down the spiral staircase, running my hand along the handrail that used to give me dreadful splinters. I cross the living room and head to the kitchen for a glass of water. I’m about to pick up the phone to dial Eric back in Ann Arbor, but then I realize the hour and think better of it. Instead, I sling a coat across my shoulders, slip on rain boots, and let myself out the front door.
The cool air is refreshing, the humidity hitting my face like a misty cloud. I gauge the temperature to be in the high 30s, and the overhead clouds forecast rain later in the day. At first, I start to walk down the beach to the more populous area, where elderly couples take an early-morning stroll and other vacationers jog with their dogs. Then, as if drawn by an invisible hand, I retrace the path to the water my dad used to take me down when I was a little girl. Cautiously, I climb down the rocks and finally reach sand. The wind carries the salty scent of the ocean to my nose and whips my shoulder-length hair across my face. I take a seat just short of the crashing waves and kick off my boots, savoring the cold, damp sand around my toes. Taking in the beauty of the great Atlantic before me, I don’t notice him until he’s nearly beside me.
He clears his throat, prompting me to leap to my feet from my serene, yoga-like pose. The first thing that I notice are his eyes and I am staring so intently into them that I couldn’t describe anything else about him. They are a soft brown, but tinged with the hardness of someone who has witnessed indescribable sorrows. The wrinkles around his eyes hint at tales of laughter and date his age in the mid-30s. His curly, dark hair falls just above his eyes like the strings of a mop. He could really use a haircut. He’s dressed like I am—someone who didn’t expect to be seen—and as if on cue, we both pull at our jacket sleeves self-consciously.
“I’m so sorry,” he says with a sheepish smile, which confirms those laugh lines and makes his eyes twinkle. “I thought it’d be more suspicious if I sneaked around you without saying hello.”
As if the wind had stolen my breath, it takes me a moment to respond. “Oh, it’s no problem. It’s just that I didn’t think anybody would be up at this time and…well, not many people come down to this end of the beach anyway.”
“Yeah, I, uh, couldn’t sleep in.” He runs a hand through his hair and I follow the movement like a raccoon chases silver, my stomach aflutter. His gaze lifts from my general direction to the sunrise behind me, whistling appreciation. “That’s beautiful.”
I look out into the horizon with him, wondering if he’ll keep walking down the beach. I can’t just let him go—there’s something about those eyes that makes me feel like I have to know him. Awkwardly, I turn and stick out my right hand. “Oh, I’m Emily, by the way. I live right up there, in the blue cottage. I mean, it’s my grandparents’ house.”
“Hello, Emily,” he says, with that same unintelligible grin. “Nice to meet you. My name is Robert. Robert Harrison. I’m actually renting out the place two doors down.”
“Oh?” I chirp a little too eagerly. “I didn’t realize anyone lived there. I did notice that it was fixed up a bit since last year.”
He nods and continues to admire the scenery, which apparently doesn’t include me. Before I can think of something further to say, he picks up again. “Well, Emily, I’ll see you around.”
With a dip of his head that makes me think that he would have tipped his hat had he been wearing one, he is gone. As he strolls away from me without glancing back, I sink back down to the sand. When I close my eyes, the only thing I see is the way he looked at me when he said my name for the last time. As if he could read me, and he liked what he saw.
Feeling guilty for a reason I can’t pinpoint, I last a few more minutes at the beach and dash back home. Since I figure my parents are still sleeping, I quietly slip back into the house. Surprised to hear a hushed conversation, I follow the sound of my parents’ voices to the back porch. They’re probably sipping cups of coffee, debating my career options, waiting for the house to awaken. As I approach, though, the tension in my father’s tone stops me dead in my tracks.
“Elizabeth,” he hisses, clearly restraining himself. “I can’t fucking do this anymore. I’m done.”
“John, please,” my mother whispers, her voice breaking. “You’re never here. You leave me in the house all day and now that Emily is gone…”
I know that I’m eavesdropping, trespassing, but I can’t help myself. I can’t seem to shift my feet, either forward or backward.
There is a loud bang, as if Dad pounded his fist against the wall. “I have to work! How do you think we can afford Emily’s tuition and your painting or whatever the hell it is you do?”
“This isn’t what I wanted!” Mom is sobbing now.
“Fuck.” He draws in a breath sharply. When he speaks again, his voice is softer but resolute. “I want a divor—.”
Before he utters the last syllable, I hear someone emit a sound that is on the spectrum between a gasp and a choke. Thinking that another intruder stumbled upon this private exchange, I search the room for him. Only when I look up and see that both of my parents are standing in front of me with stricken faces do I realize that the noise came from me. My father shakes his head. “Emily, I’m so…”
What? Sorry? I tremble, “What the hell is going on?”
“Why don’t you ask your mother?” he says bitterly, and brushes past me on his way out the Blue Jay.
Mom’s slouched shoulders and hand on her forehead signal that she expects me to comfort her, but I stay rooted to the ground. I pin her down with accusing eyes. “Mother?”
“Emily,” she croaks. “I don’t expect you to understand or to forgive me.”
Suddenly, the dam breaks and I’m inundated with violent desires. “Oh, please. Stop making excuses for yourself and tell the goddamned truth for once.”
She winces, but continues as if I said nothing. “I’ve fallen in love. I love a man who isn’t your father.”
“Splendid,” I seethe. “Did you fuck him, Mom?”
My mother sniffles, appearing to shrink before me. “Yes, I slept with him.”
“I hope you rot in hell with him,” I spit. “Because god knows you won’t see any of us again. Daddy is right to leave you.”
At this, I am ready to run as far as I can away from that self-righteous, sick woman, but the words keep ejecting from my mouth. “How could you have lectured me every fucking day on having dignity, not compromising myself with Eric? I know why you hate him now, mother. Because you will never have what I have with him!”
Now, I race outside and am met with a sheet of penetrating water pellets. Without my coat, I’m soaked to the bone within seconds and the cold is painful, but I don’t care. It’s raining so hard I can barely see where I’m going. I hear my father call my name from somewhere, probably the car, but I don’t stop. I keep running until I’m at the door of the only person I know in this town.
I knock thrice on the door of Robert Harrison.
Before I know it, I’m face to face with him and I have no idea what to say. Thankfully, he takes one look at me and lets me in without a word. He leads me into the kitchen and tells me to sit at the counter. After a few minutes, he comes back with a towel, which he drapes gently over my shoulders. It’s still damp and smells of him—clean and crisp with a woody undertone. Comprehending that I’m still not able to speak, he fumbles through a few cabinets and finds a teapot, which he fills with water and sets on the stove.
After it boils, he fills a cracked mug and presents it to me. “Sorry, I don’t think there’s any tea or coffee in here that’s not prehistoric.”
I take a sip. “It’s okay.”
He pours himself a cup and pulls up a stool next to mine, just far enough so that our knees aren’t touching. I warm my hands along the ceramic of the mug and the chattering of my teeth eases.
We sit together in silence until I ask, “Do you think I could use your phone?”
He motions towards the wall near the pantry. “Help yourself.”
I slide down from the stool and drip my way over to the phone. With a slight hesitation, I pick up the receiver and dial. The first call goes to voicemail. Embarrassed, I glance over at Robert, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I dial again, praying for a response. Finally, he picks up.
“Allô?” he answers groggily. I have to smile—you know he’s tired when he forgets to use English.
“Eric? It’s me.”
“Babe? What is the hour?” I hear him rolling in bed and reaching for his glasses. “Mon dieu, why are you up so early? I was planning to sleep late. Got the worst headache, merde.”
“You went out last night?” I try to keep the concern and anger out of my voice, noting Robert’s presence a few feet away. As if reading my mind, he gets up and retreats to the living room. I prompt more harshly, “How much did you have to drink?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Em. I only had one or two beers at the bar. I’m fine. I have a headache just because I slept too late last night.” He sounds convincing. Then again, he’s always been that.
“Okay,” I concede. “Eric, I need to talk. Something horrible has happened.”
“What?” More rustles. “What is the matter?”
“My parents…” I begin, and then dissolve into tears. Step by step, I explain to him what I overheard this morning and what I ended up saying to my mother.
“Shit.” He sighs. “Emily, you can’t say those things to your mom. You don’t know everything. There are two sides to every story.”
I can’t be hearing things right. “What did you just say? Did you understand anything I told you? My mother’s a fucking cheater! She’s a fucking piece of shit.”
“Emily, be calm. Okay? Think about this. Think with ration.” He is struggling to find the right words.
I’m really losing it. The image of my mother, all holier-than-thou, on top of another man sears my memory. “Stop! Stop it. How can you defend her? Do you think it’s okay what she did? You would do that to me?”
“Baby, chérie, come on. I’m only trying to help. I do my best. Look, everything will be okay. You cannot do anything, so just think rationally. You’re at home now, no?”
“Um, not really.” I don’t know how I’m going to explain this.
“Oh? Then where are you?” He sounds worried. “Are you safe?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I went over to a neighbor’s house,” I murmur uncomfortably.
He pauses. “I didn’t realize you knew anyone there. A girlfriend?”
“No,” I say. I’m so sick of lying I don’t even try to make this sound better. “I’m at Robert’s place. I met him on the beach this morning.”
I know I’ve hurt him, or at least surprised him. He recoils. “What? You met this man and now you’re at his home? Wow, you are trying to be your mother now?”
His words are a slap in the face and it stings even more because of the previous guilt I felt. He’s not entirely wrong, and that’s what hurts the most. And so I do what I always do when I feel pain—I flee.
“Fuck you,” I say through my teeth and hang up.
Sliding down to the tile floor, I hug my knees to my chest and begin to cry. I don’t notice him beside me until he places a firm hand on my shoulder. Subconsciously, I lean in towards him and allow him to take me into his arms. I breathe him in and notice that it’s familiar—not familiar because I smelled it on his towel before, but familiar like I always knew his scent. As my heaves decrease in intensity, he takes a finger and brushes the hair out of my eyes. With his palm, he wipes the tears from my cheeks and ends up using the sleeves of his shirt too. I tip my chin up to meet his gaze and notice that his eyes are also wet. Once again, I am shocked and chilled to the bone by the implicit understanding the passes through our mutual stare. Never before, with anyone have I felt so completely known. We lean in closer to each other, eventually closing our eyes as our lips meet and the sensation burns through our skin.
We kiss passionately and hungrily like we could never have enough, as if we were mutes speaking for the first time. By the time we break away, we are both gasping for air and he has my back pinned against a cupboard. Realizing what he’s done, he drops his hands from my face and draws back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.”
To this, I reply, “You’ve said sorry to me before. I’m so sick of people apologizing to me.”
And I find his lips with mine again, running my hands through his coarse hair and letting him search the contours of my body with his. With a powerful grasp, he lifts me and carries me in his arms up the stairs and to his bedroom. We fall onto the mattress together, clawing at each other’s clothes. His come off more easily than mine, as my nightgown and undergarments are still wet. He doesn’t mind, though, and takes the time to undo the buttons of my gown. Lifting it over my head, he then sets it over the back of a chair to dry. He does the same with my bra and panties. Both of us now stark naked, I lie down on my back and wait for him to come to me. Even in the dim lighting, I can see the outline of his abdominal muscles, the broadness of his shoulders, the calluses of his hands.
He arches over me and caresses the right side of my face. “God, you’re beautiful. Anyone ever tell you that?”
When I try to answer him, he places a finger over my lips to hush me. Then he shifts his hand down to the curve of my breast. As his hand slides further down, he kisses me full on the mouth and lights a flame within me. I moan in anticipation, but he makes me wait, choosing to cover my collarbone and stomach with his kisses. At long last, he pulls me close to him and enters me. As he makes love to me, I am in awe and wonder that he can make me feel so absolutely whole, so completely right. All I know is that no matter what happens after this moment, this stolen time belonging solely to me and him, this will have been worth it because I will never again know such bliss.
In the 16 years since then, I’ve never again seen or heard from Robert Harrison. In a way, I’m glad because sometimes I feel like that day was unique, magical, the stars had aligned, whichever cliché and overused term one can conjure. And all other days, if I ran into Robert Harrison again, it wouldn’t be the same. After all, there is nothing more heartbreaking than attempting to board a ship that has sailed.
Sometimes, what happened that morning feels like a dream. It couldn’t possibly have happened, could it? Every now and then, when prompted by a certain cologne, I can remember his smell and his taste. Most days, I can barely recall Robert’s face as I saw it then. I’m married to Eric now, with three beautiful children whom I wouldn’t trade for anything. Although I’ve never told my husband about Robert, I have been faithful to Eric since, barely tempted to wander from his loving arms.
On days like today, though, when I put the kids to bed and then make love to my husband, I am filled with an emptiness so raw and painful I am sick to my stomach. It is the emptiness of someone who has seen light only to live in darkness evermore.
Tonight, I am convinced that the winter of ’96 was my swan song, the zenith of my life, of which heights my later years will always fall short. Tonight, I believe that after Robert, the part of me that sang for him ceased to exist. Like the Mute Swan who gave the most beautiful part of herself upon death, I gave the most essential cornerstone of my being to one Robert Harrison. If what’s left of me is worth the label of alive, that is not for me to decide.
© 2013 Rebecca Cao. All rights reserved.