Be that way then, she said. And wished she hadn’t.
She touched the straps of her bikini and walked down to the sea. She preferred diving to wading, but had to wade. Then she bent her knees and tucked into the first swell. She pressed her eyes closed hard and promised herself not to marry him. His last words were coarse and it would have been better to leave him with his own unreasonable words than to say something sooky, like be that way then.
She swam past the three Spaniards who were in the water up to their necks, their hair dry. A man and two women, in their sixties, talking. Their heads sat on top of the water. They were the same distance apart as they would be on the street. He would be drawing them. Gus had sketched them while they stood on the sand. When they fought he often picked up his sketchbook and drew. It made her furious. That ability to switch off and rely on the surfaces around you. You are so yourself, Gus had said. As though you could be someone else.
Elsa was not a good swimmer, but the salt water was very buoyant. She enjoyed floating and doing the side stroke. She had a tattoo of a heart on her shoulder that she could now watch, ploughing through the sea. It was a milagro she’d had put on in Mexico City. It was after her first boyfriend had slept around on her. She changed her mind about cold things ever since that first boyfriend taught her to enjoy the wilderness. She plunged into cold water whenever she could now, as a point of being alive. She wondered what Colin White was doing now. She had last heard from him three years ago, when she was in Santa Fe for a wedding, and knew he lived there. She’d called him, and Colin White said, in his stoned, relaxed way, Hey Elsa. As if they were deep, close buddies.
She pretended the immersion was having sex with the sea. Something sensual. She did not have her contacts in, so she could not see far. She had decided, before taking out her lenses, that she would swim out to the rope that cordoned off the swimming area. Pleasure craft were moored beyond it, their empty masts tilting against the sky. Flanks of fibreglass shining in the sun. She would stay out there until he forgave her. If she saw Gus standing up, or waving her in. Now she realized she would not see him. Okay, she said, at least the time it takes for my fury to
She swam past all the swimmers and saw the rope ahead. It slapped an inch above the water, rimmed with a green mould that depressed her. Beyond the rope were moored the dozen yachts. They varied from thirty to maybe eighty feet. Near her was a bright pink buoy and two people were swimming beside it. She saw that they were friendly. She decided to dunk under and try for the buoy herself. The buoy seemed big enough.
He must have been seventy and the girl was in her twenties. At first perhaps strangers, but then she saw they were together. Elsa thought he was a long way out for an old man but then remembered it was she who was not a good swimmer. She often did that, Gus said, apply her own situation to others. He said it with such disdain, although he said he was just calling it as he saw it. Gus could squeeze down a lid and be cold and self-contained.
The man was bald with white sideburns; he looked military, but a European military. He had a wide mouth and his neck was strong. There was something of the powerful dog in him, a purebred. A dog used to being leashed.
They called out to her in English, and she responded in kind.
Your’e American, the man said.
Montreal, she said.
French would be easier for me, he said. However the girl…
The girl was from the south of Spain and this was her first trip to the top, the man said. They had spent the summer cruising from Barcelona to here. He made a little loop with his finger, around Spain.
It became evident that the girl was not, say, his granddaughter. They were being very flirtatious with each other. It looked like they may have been seeing each other for more than a year. Elsa could see the girl had no top on, the rim of her nipples.
We were watching you, he said. It was as if we drew you out here.
He spoke then in Spanish to the girl and the girl responded.
She says you are beautiful and she hopes she will not be embarrassed—I’m sorry, that you will not be.
He moved away from the buoy, to let Elsa rest there, and she realized he’d been standing on a platform below the buoy. As soon as she had her feet, he returned. The three of them, rocking in the water with their top-heavy weight, their arms brushed each other around the girth of the buoy. There appeared to be no one aboard the yacht.
You are in one of the hotels, he said.
She pointed at one. I am behind that one, she said. Near the church.
Ah yes, he said. And Elsa knew he was realizing she was not rich. She knew too that this was their yacht.
You she said.
We are not at these hotels at all.
He asked why San Sebástian.
My boyfriend, she said, he has a film in the festival.
He looked around. Your boyfriend is in the water
For a second it was possible that her boyfriend was a porpoise.
He doesn’t swim, she said.
He is from Canada; it is too cold to learn to swim. And he translated for the girl, who must not have been more than twenty-two. They were laughing at a country where you could not swim because of the water.
He chooses not to swim, Elsa said. He can swim very well.
When she’d first dated Gus he had told her about his sister. There had been an accident. They were teenagers on a three-day canoe trip in Wakefield. Gus was in charge. A paddle with no portages. The flat river took a turn and on the bank was a cottage with children on the screened-in veranda. For some reason Agnes stood up and they tipped over. To have water in your pockets and you think of your sketchbooks getting wet. The gear was tied in but not waterproof. They went under and there was the brief disorientation, but then he popped up and was disgusted with the shambles of their packing. He had to get his feet on the bottom. Bits of gear ahead. Where was Agnes. Agnes. He pushed through the water and tried flipping the canoe upright. Then he towed it ashore and found her, no more than four minutes later, impossibly dead, her leg twisted in a wayward rope under the canoe, children running down from the cottage to see what the yelling was all about.
In fact I do not swim either, he said.
The entire time the man had been perched on the buoy, leaning from it. Try it, he said.
The buoy was attached by forty feet of new rope to the teak railing of the yacht.
This is your boat, she said.
It is her boat, he said, putting his finger on the girl’s nose. Then the finger slipped down to her mouth and the girl took it and sucked it. Then she bit the fingernail. The man laughed and it was obvious, his age, her youth, that it was his boat. No, no, he said. I have lost the boat fair and square to this child.
Elsa saw him touch the girl. He flicked water droplets away from her cheekbones and put a hand on her shoulder. The full hand. The girl was resisting him a bit. Elsa thought of how Gus ate sandwiches, all ten fingers touching half a sandwich while he ate one of the corners. As if the sandwich might get away from him.
The man was all over her. The girl was sometimes having to grab hold of Elsa’s elbow. Then she saw that they were not wearing clothes at all, and that he had an erection. The water cleared enough to see that. They’d been having sex and Elsa had interrupted them and they were being very good about it all. In fact they might have been delighted in their being caught.
The girl swam under the platform and then popped up and swung her head so that her hair whipped across her face and caught in her mouth. Then the man went down as a seal submerges and he stayed down a long time. He exploded out of the water on the other side of the girl. He swam back, a bit in a panic, doing a dog paddle, which made him childish and lovable. He swam right to Elsa and held onto her rather aggressively. He stood with his legs around her on the wooden platform, gulping breath. It was such a surprise that she accepted it. The need of a man who cannot swim well for a purchase. She could feel his erection and she turned toward it and put her hand around it. Had she felt an erection in the water before. Elsa faced him and linked her arms around his neck as it seemed the easiest thing to do. His chest was hairy and wet and he had muscles in his chest that were old and ropy. She felt him move himself so that his erection was between her legs, the buoyancy of the barrel of it pressing against her bikini. A knee pried her apart. He said something to the girl in Spanish and the girl looked at Elsa as though she were about to speak in English for the first time.
We have been doing this all afternoon, he said. And you are the first to catch us out.
She felt warm and hungry. She wanted to burn Gus, but in a private act that she would never tell him about. She relaxed her legs and pushed up and hooked her heels around his calves. She looked up at the sky and she knew he was staring at her neck. She stayed like that, flexed back so that she could not see him or the water. He quickly moved aside the fabric of her bikini and pushed himself in. She let go of the buoy. She let go of him. She wanted to be anchored only by her heels and knees around his legs and what he had pushed in. He held her at her waist and jerked her. It was rough, but the release into the water made the roughness seem to be in the air around her, as though the water were laced with spice.
The way he pushed her made her fall away, she slipped off him and he was not coming to get her. She saw the deep blurry blue of the sky. She heard the girl say a harsh word. Then something knocked against her head: a floating scummy buoy on the rope cordon. She ducked under to avoid it. The man and girl were climbing along their blue-and-white mooring rope back to the yacht. It was very fine, he called out, and gave her a salute. She waited but that seemed the end of things. Would she have gotten aboard. She waited another second and then felt a little foolish waiting. So she raised her arm in greeting, though neither the man nor the girl saw her. She turned that gesture into swimming on her back. She could raise her head and watch them, as she slowly propelled herself closer to shore. Now she felt wronged and that she had wronged the girl. She saw the man lift himself up the metal ladder. And then bend to assist the girl. He was short, she realized. Truncated was the word, but she knew her head thought that because of the word trunk. He was boxy and bald but the yacht made him rich and she wondered if she would see him later at one of the gala openings of the film festival, dressed in a tuxedo and a gold wristwatch. He probably had only met the girl a week ago. The girl reached up for his hand and he pulled her out of the water as you would draw up a length of wet rope. They were concerned with each other.
She swam on her back until she heard the children and knew shallow water was ahead. She turned over and realized she could touch the bottom. She had a great need to see Gus. A wave surged in and thickened and pushed her through to a place where she bent her knees and stood up.
She could not see well without her lenses but she knew roughly where they had left their towels. She made her way to that space but some people had left and she looked up and down, trying to find the long shoulders of Gus, bent over paper. She could not see him. The three Spaniards who had been in the water were now all eating green ice creams on folding chairs. Then she noticed the hotel towel, pink, and on the towel her novel and the little plastic case for her lenses. She knelt on the towel and flattened out the edges and put her eyes in and blinked. She focused on the statue of Jesus on the hill near the yachts. Perhaps he had gone to one of the toilets under the street, but then why would he take his towel. Gus had left. He had taken his towel and gone. He was good at taking care of himself, he had good animal instincts. He rejigged his stance when she passed him a fried mushroom on her fork—food from her own plate. He was not wasteful.
She sat a few minutes longer letting the water on her back evaporate in the sun. She wondered if she had the resolve to make it work. Then she thought she’d try to find him. They had a coffee shop they liked and the old town was not very big. She climbed the stairs past the fortune teller with strings clamped to her table to hold the cards down in the wind. Then she saw the coin-operated telescope. It made her think to check on the yacht. Perhaps there was a bottle of champagne with a homemade sign: Canada Return. But she didn’t have a coin, she never had money on her, it was always Gus who provided the coins for things. Then she heard the telescope—it made a soft, grinding sound. She knew it was open. She peered through. She stared at the group of yachts but could not see the one they’d boarded. She looked for the pink buoy, but that too seemed gone. She realized the telescope was trained on the very spot on the sea where the boat had been, but now the boat was gone, and gone was Gus.
Michael Winter’s fourth novel, The Death of Donna Whalen, was published in 2010.