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The Beach in January
Susan’s husband didn’t know why she went to the beach in January of all times, but then he didn’t ask. Over the past year there had been mornings when he’d wake to a hushed house, one devoid of the light ringing of aluminum pots or the sizzling of eggs in a frying pan that characterized their daily pattern.
He would rise uncertainly, bare toes curling as he stepped out from their warm bed, and make his way to the kitchen where he’d find a note in Susan’s dainty script reading, "Need inspiration. At the beach. Love, Susan."
He held the thin yellow paper in his hand one morning, fingering the jagged edge where it was ripped from her notepad. Pursing his lips in curiosity, he settled down into a chair and slowly ate the buttered toast that had be left out for him. It was cold by then, and the dryness of it stuck in his throat.
Susan was an early riser. Mark would wake most mornings to find her sitting by their bedroom window with a notepad in hand and a thin blanket thrown across her shoulders. He’d watch her with half-opened eyelids until she noticed him, feeling a lazy contentment as she, unawares and freed of her usual self-consciousness, gazed through their darkened window and nibbled the end of her pen. When she noticed him, which was anywhere from seconds to minutes later, Susan’s face would brighten with a smile and she would rise to make breakfast for him.
Mornings without Susan made Mark unsettled. He’d eat in silence, the sound of his chewing ugly in his ears, then pull on his shoes and coat in the doorway with clumsy hesitation. It was as if with the absence of others, the house was watching his every move.
Mark was a man of order, such a disciple of habit that he saw things only if they fall along the lines of what he expected, though he would never admit it. From his job at the bank to the organized office supplies on the desk in his office, everything in his life fell into comfortable lines of routine and predictability. For the most part, that included Susan.
Susan was a writer, unrestrained by the deadlines he planned his life around, but yet most times he felt like she was the more careful and measured between them. Her writing seemed to be the one of the few aspects of her life where she insisted on asserting control, most other matters she allowed to fall to him (There was also her reluctance to have children, but Mark still hoped to change her mind.) Her speaking voice was quiet, almost melodic, and her emotions rarely broke through her composure. He thought he knew her well enough now, three years into their marriage, to say that he was one of the few people who could see through the careful veil that was Susan’s collected appearance.
Toast finished, Mark downed a glass of orange juice and brushed crumbs off of his front. He was surprised at how long he had taken to eat and glanced at the clock on their bed stand as he buttoned up his collared shirt and tied his tie. He hated to be late.
His first date with Susan, she was so late he’d been sure he’d been stood up. They’d spent a year attending the same university before she dropped out, but he’d never met her before the day in his third year when he ran into her at a bookstore. When Susan had finally rushed through those coffeehouse doors with a perfunctory apologetic smile, she claimed to have been caught up working on her novel. In his relief at her arrival he didn’t even remember to hold it against her.
A lucky thing too, he thought, because now he could not imagine a life without her.
- - -
Susan’s face was stinging from the cold wind that came off the ocean, and she grimaced repeatedly just to remove some of the stiffness from her cheeks. She exhaled through her mouth and watched her breath float up in front of her face as if she was smoking a cigarette.
It was crazy of her to come. She was shivering even in her warmest coat as she walked down to the water, her head tucked down into her scarf.
There was no one at the beach this time of year, and her car looked lonely sitting alone on the sparse grass that sprung up from the sand. Susan hated the cold, which had always made her feel stiff and unhappy. Cold was the feeling of being alone and exposed.
It was strange that she still chose to live here, in the same suburban town and same painful winters that she had grown up in. As a girl she’d been so sure that she would leave Long Island during college years for a warmer place, for a busy city or perhaps a small town with a history beyond rows and rows of identical developments.
Yet here she was, at the beach she had spent her girlhood summers at, now twenty-six and despite the gifts of age, feeling as lost as she had in her adolescence.
Susan had dreamed of a future as a nurse. She spent her high school years picturing herself in a pristine white uniform, saving the lives of the young soldiers returning from Vietnam. Her stories were to be late-night affairs, an entertaining diversion from her true fulfillment.
Now this was to be her second novel, one the critics hoped would match the, “Stunning first work from a remarkably mature and insightful young woman.” But it had been four years since those glowing reviews, and though Susan craved them, her words had long stopped coming.
There was half of a novel locked in the bottom drawer of her desk. She couldn’t remember the last time anything had made it from her notepads to the typewriter without being crossed out in frustration, but it must have been months ago. She was at a fork in the only road she would allow herself, caught at the point where events would turn to one path or another, unable to move forward until she made a decision.
Confused and suffocating in self-doubt, Susan found herself driving the twenty miles in the early morning to the north shore with increasing frequency. The beach in her old neighborhood was the site of events in both her story and her history, and one place she knew might push her to make the decision between fiction and truth. More than that, it was an escape from the suffocating walls of the house, where Mark’s presence made it so difficult to think at times.
Susan made her way to the edge of the water, moved to a familiar sight rising above the rocky sand. Uncovered by morning’s low tide, a huge edifice of stone stood before her, a remnant of an ancient glacier deposited on the beach thousands of years ago and slowly worn by the pattern of the tides.
It was an uneven sphere, a couple of feet taller than Susan and wide enough that it would have taken three of her to encircle it with her arms. By the afternoon it would be submerged and hidden from view until the tide next fled. Already, the occasional wave would bring water to lap at its base and threaten Susan’s sneakers.
She ignored it as she stared at the patterns on the stone, interweaving colors and symbols that crisscrossed the rough surface like the random scribbling of a child’s coloring book.
No one knew how or when the practice had begun, but the stone was covered with hundreds of initials and declarations, painted or etched by a generation of lovers and rebels. "E.L. was here" read large red letters. "MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR" had appeared in 1967, when Susan was 15, inspiring her to spend that summer carrying a bag with the same slogan written across the front in marker.
But what Susan looked for were four small letters enclosed in a heart. She rested her glove over them, feeling a constricting of her chest as she did so. From guilt or sadness, she didn’t know.
SW DC the letters read, but she whispered, “Susan Wilson and David Cole.”
- - -
The smell of roasting chicken met Mark at the door when he got home from work. He smiled. Susan only made this dish for him when she was in the best mood. Mark crept into the kitchen and threw his arms around his wife from behind as she reached up to open a cabinet.
“Have fun at the beach? There’s supposed to be great weather this time of year,” he joked, kissing her lightly on the cheek.
“It was beautiful, freezing, like winter is supposed to be,” she replied, smiling softly back at him. “Sometimes none of your options are pleasant, but one may be what you need to do.”
“The typewriter!” he gasped playfully when he spotted it on the kitchen counter. “Dare I ask if this is another false alarm?”
“I wrote a couple of pages today,” she admitted, looking pleased with herself. “I knew going to the beach would help, and I think I’m finally past the block.”
“Ah, my talented, beautiful, successful wife,” Mark sighed. “Soon I’ll be the one left roasting the chicken as you sign autographs and give interviews.”
“Of course not, dear. I wouldn’t do that to the poor bird,” she replied, turning away from him to wash a head of lettuce.
“Now…will I ever get to read it? After it’s published and released perhaps?” he asked, a little more serious than before.
“You can’t even tell me what it’s about? You know I’m dying of curiosity. I found out a couple of days ago that you lock that drawer.”
Susan spun around, shocked. “You tried to read it without my permission?”
“I know, I know,” he held up his hands with feigned chagrin. “I’m a man driven to desperation, that’s my only excuse.”
She eyed him for a minute, letting water drip off the lettuce in her hand and onto the floor. The decision she’d made was prodding her forward, letting her next words fall out of her mouth.
“I suppose I can tell you a bit of what happens,” she conceded, placing the lettuce on the counter and wiping her hands on her apron as she appraised her husband.
“Thank you, Susan. Really,” he said, kissing her on the cheek again.
“It’s a love story, at least at first. At the end of the sixties, two nineteen year olds are completely in love. Then the boy, David, gets drafted to fight in Vietnam.”
“He should’ve gone to college, that’s how I was lucky enough to evade it.”
“He should have, but he couldn’t afford it, so the two of them are separated, but with a promise to get married when he returns.”
“You’ll see. While David’s away, the girl realizes she’s pregnant with her child. She’s not quite sure what to do, since she knows that she wasn’t ready for a child, and is afraid of how her parents will react. She gets an abortion.”
“I thought that I might have David return, and the two of them would have to deal with both her emotional loss and his memories of the war. But it didn’t seem right, and I’ve been struggling with it for a year.”
“And you said you’ve broken past your writer’s block?”
“Well, soon after getting the abortion, she learns that David has been killed. She drops out of college and suffers a deep depression, both from that loss and the knowledge that she gave up David’s child. For the rest of her life, though marries a man who loves her and whom she cares about, she is never able to truly love again.”
“My god, Susan. It’s almost too tragic.”