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The Crabby Old Lady and the Affair by the Sea

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Author's note: Ultimately, the "omniscient" narrator only knows what Nate has told her; keep this in mind while...  Show full author's note »
Author's note: Ultimately, the "omniscient" narrator only knows what Nate has told her; keep this in mind while you are reading the story.  « Hide author's note
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Preface

Nate’s on my bed again. It has been long enough that I don’t remember the feel of him. He’s fully clothed for once—wearing an ill-fitting suit over bones that used to wear muscle and skin.
He doesn’t know how wrong he feels; he has numbed himself to the creativity that flows through his veins like blood. He is not a creature of light and shadow anymore. He has diluted himself with the bread and breath of mortals. With their earthly concerns and cares.
Some men find their muse and with the muse comes art. Nate found a muse and lost his art. Now she’s just an unattainable goal, more light and shadow than he ever was, nothing but the dregs at the bottom of his mug of beer.
Most men go to college to create themselves. I would say that Nate went to destroy himself. It would be fitting; he always made fun of college as the place people go when they want their dreams to die.

I have always wanted to be a writer, and I have always known that Nate would be my subject.
I waited as long as I had to wait, because Nate was the purest and the most brilliant diamond I’d ever seen, and he would do noteworthy things and I would chronicle him and he’d read my devotion in my words and fall in love with me and be mine alone.
But Nate never believed in exclusivity.
I didn’t realize, when we were young, that the story he would give me would be the story of the woman who’d destroyed him. An innocuous suburban girl living with her grandma for the summer. I always thought that his story would be our story, not their story. But then, in taking his story I am making it inherently mine, and through their story I am developing my own separate us. He, me, she.
After all, I decided long ago that I would rather share him than lose him forever. When we have nothing left, we cling to our flawed convictions.
“Seventy-four days,” he says now, finally breaking the silence that he’s kept since he rang my doorbell and came into my room and sat down on my bed.
It was the first time he ever used the front door, I think. Before, he would always go for the window.
“I woke up in her bed alone and there was the calendar on the wall,” he groans, like the calendar was kryptonite and he was Superman and someone baked kryptonite into brownies and he ate the whole damn batch.
“She’d written it all out, day one, day two, day three, to count how long she would be with her grandma. But she stopped marking after day twenty-nine. I remember that day. The first time we made love.”
Nate says “making love,” but he doesn’t say it in a corny way. Only Nate could ever get away with saying “making love” and meaning it. Nate inspires love, Nate breathes love; Nate’s exhalations bring a heady sense of love and I have to rock back on my heels to avoid being sucked into the vortex that is the feeling of loving him. I have been in that vortex before, and only our separation allowed me to finally claw my way out. I shove my hands into my pockets so I don’t reach out and touch him.
He’s going over every moment, every kiss, every laugh and word and smile. His eyes are far away—four summers away. He is replaying his moments with her and turning her whispers into professions of love, their fights into wisps of air and half-laughter. I know now that he will destroy himself completely with longing.
I know because I have done the same thing.
We live in a run-down beach town. Our only source of revenue comes from the end of June to the end of August, when our homes and shore and hotels come alive with tourists looking for a “quiet summer” with the rest of their upper-middle-class, landlocked town.
Most of us kids accepted the tourists like an infestation of roaches—distasteful and unkillable. But Nate never did. He frothed at the sham that life was, at the condescension of the loud, lobster-red summer wonders toward us “locals,” at hypocrisy…
Nate was many things, but never a hypocrite.
I guess he was so good that he had to be ruined, like maybe God realized that Nate was making sense of it all—and Nate never identified with one god—and maybe God thought Nate would try to replace Him.
Nate wouldn’t have tried; he hated sniveling worshippers.
Nate was going to be an artist, a genius, when we were young. A king living off of the works of his hands, and living in the beds of the beautiful women who threw themselves at him.
Right now, he’s four days away from law school.
I have waited twenty years for my story. Ever since I met Nate when we were three. And now that he’s finally confessed what happened to him that summer, I almost don’t have the heart to write it.
Nate used to help a grumpy old woman named Martha keep her home, and in exchange she let him use her art studio. They got on well, I suppose. And that way, his dad couldn’t get drunk and destroy everything Nate created.
Martha’s granddaughter came to live at the shore for two months, the summer Nate and I graduated high school.
Her name was Emma, a girl a grade younger than us, with high expectations for her life, an adoring boyfriend, and 100% averages in every class.
She didn’t deserve any of it; she didn’t appreciate any of it. And then when Nate taught her how to appreciate life, she appreciated his lesson enough to run off and leave him heartbroken.
The night Nate told me Emma was coming, I remember saying, “Nate, she won’t be smart like you. She’ll just be book smart. She knows how to get A’s, that’s all. She won’t have soul.”
Nate always went on about soul. At that point, I was desperately trying to show him that I had soul, more soul than anyone else. After all, how could I love him as much as I did, if I didn’t have soul? And why wasn’t my soul enough for him?
We were in the ocean, the little sand particles in the chill water swirling around our waists like mini cyclones. His face glistened in the moonlight, water droplets highlighting the length of his strong cheek. Salt water streamed from his hair, dampening it into a brown color.
Nate’s eyes always matched the ocean, and they were more gray than blue or green that night.
“Don’t be jealous,” he laughed, and dove under a wave just before it crashed. His shriveled foot flicked up and disappeared into the foaming wall of water, and the water hit me with enough force to knock me over. The wave engulfed me, and the world devolved into a blur of twisting sand particles and the dim silver moon filtering through the Atlantic Ocean.
“Anyway, I’m not jealous,” I said, shoving myself up and trying to discreetly expel the saltwater from my mouth. He laughed; we both knew I was lying. I blinked the water out of my eyes.
“I’ll make love to you if you want,” he offered, reaching out to me. I wrapped my legs around his waist and nestled my head into the space between his shoulder and neck. We sank into the water together, until it was around our necks and my hair floated in long tendrils around us like our heads together were the sun and my hair was little rays of light.
“I love you,” I mumbled, meaning it with all my heart.
His arms tightened around me. “And I love you.”
But that didn’t mean anything; Nate loved everyone.
He loved very well, too, but the pleasure wasn’t worth the hours and days of mental agony afterwards.
I don’t think Nate ever spent a night in his own bed.
I lay in bed with him that night, after we had swum ourselves into exhaustion. We curled up around each other for warmth, and I lulled myself to sleep pretending I had him to myself.
I should have woken him spontaneously in the night and fucked him until he couldn’t breathe. I should have clawed his back or bitten his lip or something… Anything.
I should have been someone else for him, because I never would have hurt him the way the other girl hurt him.
After that night, Emma came. She came and she found his heart and she left, and she left his heart in more pieces than the masterpiece he destroyed when he woke up on the seventy-fourth morning and found her gone.
Now Nate is sitting on my bed in an ill-fitting suit, his blond tangles tamed, trimmed, and slicked back. His eyes don’t match the sea anymore; the sea sparkles with light but his eyes are a dull, blank gray. “After all,” he muses, and I know that these words are not for my ears, “After all, one falls in love with the artist, but really one is falling in love with the artist’s dream.”
We are both quiet for a moment, staring at each others’ knees.
“I always knew you’d get it out of me,” he says, nursing a coffee cup under a day of blond stubble. “The story. I’m sick of hiding it anyway.”
He looks so lost. I don’t move any closer to him; it’s taken me long enough to get over Nate.
“And she came back, a few weeks later,” Nate says. He’s torturing himself, the way I used to torture myself over him. Counting kisses, replaying caresses. Knowing they meant nothing to him, knowing they meant the world to me.
“I’d let you write it,” he says.
I can’t meet his eyes.
“My story.” The words are soft.
“I used to think I would be famous.”
I can barely hear him now.
“Just make it up. You know basically what happened. But I want to be remembered somehow, for something. Not for the mediocre lawyer I’m going to be. For the artist I might have been.”
And I see that college and the girl haven’t crushed Nate’s dreams entirely. They’re still there, trembling, broken-winged birds. But they live on. And he’s giving them to me.
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