A light dusting of snow had fallen the night before but the morning dawned clear and cold. As Alice made her way across the bridge, she glanced at the bay, sparkling in the sun below.
She came to a stop on the other side, where traffic always backed up in August. There wasn’t a single car in sight.
A few blocks south, Alice turned off Ocean Avenue onto Gull. The odd-numbered houses were on the left-hand side.
Blue-gray siding faded from the sun covered the modest cottage. The small front yard was bare and brown.
Alice pulled the car parallel with the sidewalk and stopped. She stepped out and looked around. There wasn’t another soul but her outside.
Leaving her bags locked in the car, she followed the gravel path to the front porch. The door was stuck, so she gave it a shove. The scent of mildew grew strong when she stepped inside.
* * *
Was it Shakespeare, Alice wondered, who wrote the cruelest month? A week after arriving on the island, she heard the phrase run through her mind. Wind powered over the waves, stinging her face, as she plowed through the deep soft sand. March had roared in, slamming the dune grass horizontal and pelting rain. Alice might have considered spending several months of the off-season at the beach romantic, if she hadn’t been wet, shivering and lonely.
She continued walking, her gaze frozen on the seemingly endless beach. The wind was barreling in hard from the ocean, causing the dunes to shed sand.
After ten more minutes, the cold became unbearable. She turned and faced the waves. Instead of the aquamarine she had imagined on her way here in the car, the ocean churned muddy and brown.
Before she turned to retrace her steps, she silently acknowledged that she wouldn’t get any work done today. What would she paint, even if she could stay out in this weather? Gray horizon blended with muddy gray waves?
It might as well pour, she thought, jogging up the gravel path to the sidewalk. At least the air would smell clean. And she could sit inside with a hot cup of coffee and listen to the drops batter the pane.
* * *
Three months had passed since the evening Alice arrived home from work to find Alan waiting for her in the living room. As soon as she saw him, Alice wondered if he was going to speak or give her the silent treatment she’d been getting on and off all week.
“I want a divorce,” Alan announced.
Alice had just locked the front door and was preparing to walk into the kitchen.
“I see,” Alice said. This was not the first time Alan had said those words but the only occasion he’d uttered them calmly.
Alice took a deep breath and held it for a moment, unconsciously hunching up her shoulders. She didn’t want to start another fight.
“I found an apartment today,” Alan carefully explained. “I’ll move my things out tomorrow.”
Alice’s stomach started to ache.
She clung to the handles of two paper bags. Her briefcase strap slipped down off her right shoulder. Standing perfectly still, she let her eyes dart around, as if seeing the living room furniture for the first time.
“Okay,” she said, after several minutes. “Is there anything else you want to say?”
Alan’s eyes stayed fixed straight ahead. His left ear faced Alice.
“No, I guess not,” he said.
He got up from the olive green chair and headed to the bedroom.
Alice exhaled slowly, a shopping bag in each hand, as if she was waiting for a bus.
After several minutes, she went into the kitchen and set the bags down. She lifted a carton of low-fat milk and a tub of margarine out and gently carried them to the refrigerator, as if fearing they might slip from her hands and crash to the floor.
Unsure what to do next, Alice picked up her black leather bag. Out of habit, she palmed her keys before slipping out the front door.
* * *
For years, Alan had threatened to leave her. He’d accused her of nagging and criticizing him, pointing to a word she’d said or look she’d given him weeks or months before, that Alice had long since forgotten. As she attempted to argue back, assuring Alan that tearing him down had not been her intention, Alan would raise his voice, then abruptly cut Alice off by stomping across the room, making sure to slam the door on his way out. A few minutes later, he’d fling the door open, step back into the room and shout, “I can’t take it anymore. I want a divorce.”
When the divorce was final, Alice sold the house and bought a wide, empty loft overlooking the river. On an overcast Sunday morning a few weeks after she’d moved in, she sat at the window, looking past the deck to the river. The water was a muddy gray-brown.
In the unaccustomed silence, Alice realized how different she would be feeling if Alan were there now. That’s when she remembered how much effort she’d expended, listening for the sharp sound at the edge of Alan’s words and watching for the inevitable downturn in the corners of his mouth.
* * *
The morning dawned clear, the first day dark clouds hadn’t erased the horizon. Alice stepped out of the cottage, a thick gray and black wool scarf burying her chin, her black wool beret pulled down tight.
She walked east toward the beach, but changed her mind and headed for the main road. A week and a half of solitude had taken a toll.
The diner was warm, the windows steamed. Alice stood at the door for a moment not sure where to go.
“Sit any place,” the waitress behind the counter shouted.
Several men at the counter twisted on their stools to check out who had come in the door. Normally, Alice would have hidden in a back booth. Today, she chose to sit at the counter.
* * *
Late on a Sunday morning, Alice had the Times spread across her bottom blue-flowered sheet. The top sheet and cream-colored blankets were tossed carelessly to the side. She hadn’t gotten out of her blue flannel pajamas and matching blue terrycloth robe yet. Leaning against the mahogany backrest, Alice perused the want ads.
At first it had been fun living alone, reading in bed until after midnight, watching sad movies and sobbing, eating raisin bran for dinner some nights or even pancakes. She’d had enough solitude by now. A gray-white sky was threatening snow. Her head felt numb. A dull depression had taken over.
She passed through job listings for construction workers and engineers. There were a handful of ads for teachers, but no one was looking for someone to teach art. The houses were high-priced, with few under a million dollars, and many at least ten million or more.
Taking the last lukewarm sips of coffee, she kept reading the ads, even after she’d finished with houses for sale and moved on to rentals. She rubbed her eyes, tired from staring at the small print. There had to be something that would take her out of this lonely life.
A headline brought her back to the ad she’d almost missed -- LIVE AT THE SHORE – OFF SEASON.
Ever wondered what it’s like when the crowds go home on Labor Day?
the ad began. Enjoy the off season in your own cozy cottage, not far from the sand. Two bedrooms, one bath. Big enough for a small family. Cozy enough for a couple or a single writer or artist.
Alice said the word artist
out loud as she got up, hugging the want ads to her chest. She waltzed across the bare wood floor and imagined standing in front of her easel on the sand, gazing at the sea.
She danced into the bathroom and stopped to consider her reflection in the mirror. The lines at the corners of her eyes had deepened. So had the ones around her mouth. If she stepped back, a person might have thought she was ten years younger. Close up, the years were all there.
* * *
“Morning,” the man seated on the stool to Alice’s right said.
“Good morning,” Alice responded, stepping into the space on the opposite side to sit down, since the neighboring stool was occupied.
“Nice day out there,” he said next. “Thought that rain might never let up.”
“Yes, I know,” Alice said.
She’d only glanced at him twice and briefly but Alice had nevertheless taken in his steady blue eyes. She wedged the plastic menu out of an aluminum holder and squinted to move the tiny letters into focus without having to slide her reading glasses on.
“I’d get the oatmeal if I were you,” he said, at the moment Alice understood that she wasn’t going to be able to order without her glasses.
“You would?” she said, and stole another glance.
His arms were crossed on the counter. The sleeves of his blue plaid flannel shirt were rolled up. His eyes were the blue of gouache squeezed onto a white palette. The pleasant demeanor of his face hadn’t been diminished, though it was lined. He had thick, silvery white hair, nicely cut. She suspected the hair had whitened prematurely.
“Yes. It’s Irish,” he said, as if this would make a difference.
“Oh, I see,” she said.
“You should get it with raisins and walnuts,” he suggested. She looked over at him again. “And maple syrup.”
“Maple syrup. I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
* * *
“So, what’ll it be?” the waitress asked, slipping a pencil out from above her ear.
“I think I’ll have the oatmeal,” Alice said. “With raisins and walnuts.”
“You want coffee?”
“Yes, please. Oh, and some maple syrup for the oatmeal.”
The waitress looked up from her pad and smiled.
* * *
For twenty-five years Alice had taught art at Jefferson High. The school sat at the top of a hill that swept gracefully down to the sidewalk. Red brick with white columns, the building had the appearance of a statehouse and framed a gleaming mahogany door.
Alice loved the school, in the old-fashioned town of Mountlake, even though she and Alan chose to live in the city, close to Alan’s university teaching job. Their brick-fronted row-house at the top of a set of steep concrete steps was only forty-five minutes away but it seemed a world apart from Mountlake’s manicured lawns and ancient trees, which formed an awning of red and gold leaves over the streets in autumn.
Afternoons on her way home from school, Alice would drive slowly past the elegant, solemn colonial houses that lined Main Street, watching leaves drift down. She had never wanted kids, and in her younger days found places like Mountlake dreary and dull. But as the relationship with Alan began to wrench apart, hobbling between harsh words and bitter accusations and silence, she spent hours daydreaming that she’d married a different guy and they had kids and lived in one of these lovely houses.
* * *
Ten years younger than Alice, the school’s principal, Anne Warner, had recently weathered her second divorce.
“You should take time off,” Warner suggested.
“I’m fine,” Alice said.
The job, she hadn’t wanted to admit, was all that got her up. At home, she felt numb.
Fall seemed sadder this year, now that she was alone. Instead of lingering drives through town, Alice walked after school, plowing through unraked red and yellow leaves, sometimes kicking them into the air, then stepping down and listening to the dry crunch.
Standing in front of her easel one Saturday afternoon, Alice tried sketching with charcoal and then with pastels. Her hand felt tentative. Even on paper, she’d grown afraid to make a move.
Finally, she lifted a clean stretched canvas up and rested it on the easel’s wooden base. She stepped over to the table where she kept her paints and picked up a wide-bristled brush, then grabbed a wooden palette and squeezed out a pool of black paint. Swaying her body back and forth, she pressed the brush against the canvas with all her weight.
An hour later, drained by the effort, she stepped back to take a look. From left to right, she saw that the black paint had robbed the canvas of all its light.
* * *
The waitress set a thick off-white mug on the counter and poured coffee into it from a glass pot. She pulled a handful of small cream packets out of her black apron pocket and set them down.
“Sugar’s over there, if you need it,” the waitress said. She leaned her head toward the man with the nice head of white hair.
“Thanks.” Alice turned in the direction the waitress indicated, wishing she liked her coffee sweeter.
“Oh, do you need this?” the man said, holding the glass container filled with sugar in his right hand.
“No, thanks. I just drink it with cream.”
“Just cream,” he said, setting the sugar container down. “That’s different. Most people do black or cream and sugar. I’m Howard, by the way.”
“Hi, Howard. I’m Alice.”
“Are you down looking at real estate?” he asked.
“Real estate? Oh, no.”
“Just taking in the sun?”
The waitress set the bowl of oatmeal down. Steam rose in lazy swirls toward Alice’s face.
“No,” Alice said and chuckled. “I’m on a sabbatical from work.”
* * *
“The beach?” her friend Sarah had said, when Alice broke the news. Sarah’s eyes opened wide, as if alert for something unexpected to cross her path. “That sounds so romantic. Like a novel.
“Who knows?” Sarah added, twirling her dyed red hair around an index finger, then picking at the ends. “You might meet someone.”
“Meet someone? Are you kidding? There’s no one at the beach this time of year. It’s about as off-season as you can get. I’m going to be alone. To paint. I’m perfectly happy alone, Sarah. I don’t have the slightest interest in finding a man.”
It was Sarah’s turn to chuckle then.
* * *
After blowing on the oatmeal to cool it down, Alice took her first bite.
“Me too,” Howard said.
Alice chewed impatiently as she held her right index finger up. She turned her head in his direction.
The flat, lumpy blandness of the cooked oats and warmed milk, combined with crunchy, slightly sour walnuts and chewy raisins moistened with sweet sticky syrup, tasted divine. Alice swallowed.
“You too, what?”
“I guess that wasn’t clear. I’m taking a sabbatical from work too.”
“What do you do that you’re taking a sabbatical from?”
“I am,” he said, then shook his head and looked straight ahead, to where a lemon meringue and chocolate cream pie sat on the glass shelf above one filled with fruit pies. “I guess I should say I was a newscaster. I got fired. Or as they say in the business, the station declined to renew my contract.”
* * *
Fifteen years into their marriage, Alice and Alan took a last trip. At an outdoor café the first night in Guadalajara, humid wind played with Alice’s hair and grazed her neck. Alan was stewing over a comment she’d made earlier about how he was dressed, in a white short-sleeved shirt that badly needed ironing. If she opened her mouth, it would set him off. She studied the purple and deep pink bougainvillea cascading down a nearby cracked stone wall and took a deep breath. The air was soaked with a sweet, flowery perfume.
Alice slept on the fold-out couch in the sitting room of their suite that night. Stubbornly apologizing the next morning, Alan barely spoke to Alice after that.
On their final afternoon in Oaxaca, Alice slipped out of the hotel room by herself. She liked the solid feel of the cobblestones under her sandals’ thin soles. Sunlight was firing the old red tile roofs a deep orange shade. Seeing it against the white stucco walls made her want to paint.
Turning the corner past the main square onto a narrow side street, she suddenly thought, “It’s over.” She was only thinking about the vacation then.
A few months later, on a bike ride to the tip of the island, Alice recalled the self-sufficient woman she’d been before she met Alan. Reaching the island’s northernmost tip, Alice got off her bike.
A solitary lighthouse, white with one thick black stripe, sat at the end of the point, surrounded by waving green beach grass. Morning fog hung low over the water.
Instead of enjoying the quiet beauty of the place that had always been one of Alice’s favorites, she felt lonely today. She wondered what her life would feel like if she was alone again. And then she realized that it wouldn’t be long before she was.
* * *
Alice ate more quickly now, trying not to let the oatmeal get lumpy and cold. She was thinking about what to say to this stranger in response. Before she had a chance, he spoke up.
“I used to come down here in the summers,” he said. “We had a cottage on the north end of the island, when I was boy. That was kind of like my second home.
“Something happened to me when we were here. Maybe it had to do with the fact that my parents let us run wild. But I felt free here. I guess that’s why I came back.”
Alice looked up from her bowl.
“Are you living here now?”
“I am. I can’t quite believe it. It’s sure a big change from Manhattan.”
“There’s one similarity,” she said and smiled. “They’re both islands.”
* * *
In the early days of their relationship, Alice and Alan spent hours walking on the beach, picking up shells and talking about their lives. Alan had straight, thick black hair and warm, dark brown eyes. He was slender and medium tall. Alice liked to walk behind him and admire the place where his hair grazed the base of his neck as it curved into his shoulders. She liked his boyish features and the smile that brightened his eyes.
Alan taught Alice about plants, animals and stars. They were opposites – he, a biology professor, not adept at the arts, and Alice, the painter, who had toyed with dance, music and writing poetry.
He’d asked her to marry him as they sat on a windy cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The sun was hovering above the surface of the water. Even though it was still August, Alice had needed to pull her sweater on.
“Yes,” she said, watching the worried grimace on Alan’s face shift into a smile.
* * *
The oatmeal bowl was empty. Alice stared at it, then decided to ask the waitress for more coffee, even though she knew the caffeine would make her head buzz.
“So, how are you spending your sabbatical?”
Alice looked up. The innocent question had made her want to cry. She swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump that had formed in her throat.
In a voice suddenly shaky, she said, “I’ve come to paint.”
* * *
By the time Alan moved out, Alice had forgotten everything they had fought about. Over the years, she had been swept clean – first of the passion that caused her thoughts to turn liquid as Alan kissed her and led her over to the bed, and then the surprising anger that bubbled up, like a seething volcano she couldn’t control or quiet. From the upstairs attic window, she felt as if she were observing a stranger, as she watched Alan carry cardboard boxes to the car.
Later that morning, she inspected the house they had picked out together fifteen years before. Alan had taken little of the furniture. Her paintings still covered the walls.
She was surprised to find that his leaving had left so little visible impact.
* * *
Alice set the exact change down on top of the off-white bill and then added three dollars more. She slid off the stool, grabbing her black wool pea coat from the seat back at the same time. Facing the pie shelves and a stainless steel blender on the counter’s other side, she reached her right arm into her coat sleeve.
As she turned to slip her left arm into the sleeve that hung limp along the coat’s side, her gaze met Howard’s. She turned back to stare across the counter at the pies.
“Like to join me for a walk?”
Alice considered the words. Before answering, she made sure to fasten the top button of her coat.
* * *
Alice hadn’t gone for a walk with any man besides Alan for more than twenty years. Though divorced, she couldn’t help but feel that she was doing something wrong.
Howard was taller than Alan by at least half a foot.
“It’s strange,” he said, as they stepped off the gravel path onto the sand.
“Let’s go this way first,” Howard advised. If it had been Alan, Alice would have been the one to decide.
“What’s strange?” she asked.
“You go along year after year fighting for something you think you want,” he said.
Alice watched as he ran his fingers through the shiny silver-white strands that had fallen over his eye.
“Then you lose it. After a while, you see that you didn’t want it at all.”
The wind that had blown without letup the past seven days was gone. Waves rolled onto the sand, without water being tossed into the air. Sunlight played across the dunes, smooth as silk now. The morning was cold, but under her wool turtleneck, Alice felt her body warm.
“I always thought my work was so important,” Howard said. “Then they took it away. At first, I felt like I was nobody. Like someone had stolen my identity.”
Alice wasn’t sure what to say. She could have told Howard about Alan, and that somewhere along the way her life had become an exercise in holding on. She could have said that she’d come here to find herself, after twenty years of marriage that left her, in the end, feeling hollow. She might have mentioned that she’d forgotten how it felt to walk down the beach with a man and not be worried about every word, as she waited for a man to get sullen and angry.
Before she had a chance to say any of that, he turned and smiled.
“There’s something about this place,” he said. “I have a history here. Somehow, coming back seemed like the only thing to do.”
Alice turned to face the water. Sunlight was filtering through the waves now. As each wave crested, seconds before it curled and fell, the water took on the strong, shimmering look of old glass.
“I know what you mean,” Alice said, after several minutes had passed. “I think that’s what brought me back too.”
As Alice continued to stare at the water, she was struck by how lovely the light looked caught at the tip of the waves. Almost as if by magic, she felt herself grow lighter too.
Howard stopped talking and watched Alice as she studied the waves. Since his wife’s death two years ago, he had searched for Ellen in every woman he met. He looked at Alice, at her black beret pulled down tight and the lobe of her ear that was peeking out. He noticed the dark curled lashes and the pale blue eyes. And suddenly he realized that Alice didn’t remind him of Ellen in the least.
The waves made music as they retreated over the broken layers of scattered shells and rock. For the first time in months, Alice no longer felt dead or blocked.
She turned toward Howard. As she did, his eyes moved quickly away. Alice had an idea that he had been watching her this whole time.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Howard said.
Alice nodded and laughed.
“Yes. It’s exactly the way I remembered,” Alice said