By Margo McCall -
By the time his turn to shuffle arrives, my husband James is already slurring his words and dropping his cards. Our friends Aurelia and Rory watch as he pushes the deck into a sloppy pile.
When he finally shuffles, the cards fly in our faces like birds. A few whish by my head, and some bounce off Rory’s glasses, but when all has settled, the queen of hearts floats in Aurelia’s red hair. James plucks it out with two fingers.
He smokes a bowl, making no move to clean up his mess. It’s Rory who has to dive under the oak table, looking for cards in the tangle of Aurelia’s long flowered skirt.
Our fourth day in the cabin, and we’re all getting edgy. The water over the road keeps rising, fed by rain that won’t stop. Drops pound against the roof, letting up some, then raging in fury. It’s a concerto of raindrops, only the pounding has gotten inside me, echoing in my head.
At least there are four of us—James and I, Aurelia and Rory—a stable combination, or so I think. If it were three, we’d have torn at each other’s throats by now. With two, boredom would have set in. And one—well one’s just not enough.
We should have listened to Rory and driven his SUV down the dirt road before it flooded. But we listened to James, who wanted to stay and play rummy. By the time he was ready to leave, it was too late.
I’m beginning to think of Noah’s Ark and the end of the world. But I’m hanging on. It seems worse for Aurelia. She fidgets with her purple nails, picks her lip, winds hair around a finger. “Do you think it will ever end?” she sighs.
James sinks merrily into his wine. He pinches me on the side and winks. “How about a real game now?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Twenty one,” he slurs. “Let’s play.” He deals the cards, sips wine, flicks his lighter, takes a hit. Smoke circles our heads as cards fall.
I’m out on the first deal, with a king on top of a queen and five of hearts. I slide my chair back from the table so I can lean on the couch, and then Rory’s out, and it’s just James and Aurelia.
“Hit me,” demands Aurelia, lips quivering. James slaps down a card, grinning when she flinches.
We’re in the family cabin where Aurelia spent her childhood summers. There are remnants from that time—drapes with sun-faded roses, brass floor lamp with fringed shade, and a cabinet full of games.
The four of us were here right after Rory and Aurelia got married, but it was sunny, and we spent all our time on the beach. These last few days have been nothing like that. Afternoons stretch into nights and rain-filled mornings all the same.
Aurelia shows her hand. “Twenty-one,” she exclaims.
James grabs her cards and tosses them, watching as they fall amid the flimsy folds of her blouse. “Cheater,” he says.
Rory and James teach at St. John’s, Rory biology and James English. For a long time, James and I had Rory to ourselves. He was at our house constantly—helping James fix things, talking to me while I fixed dinner. After Rory eloped to Las Vegas, we made room for his bride in our circle.
“Aurelia’s an artist too,” Rory whispered the first time he brought her over. “You two should have lots in common.”
The common ground is mostly an appreciation of colors and aesthetics. We went for lunch, shopped, talked—mostly about Rory—but never quite clicked.
She is something to look at. The vivid color starts in her face—mulberry lips and mauve eye shadow, triangles of deep rose on her cheeks—and by the time it gets down to the brightly-patterned skirts swishing around her ankles, she’s a river of swirling purples. All but her skin, which is pale and adorned with the jangling jewelry she sells at craft shows.
She used to be a dancer, and when she stretches a leg it shows. She only putters with the jewelry. She’s not the type of woman who cares about doing much at all. Rory’s the doer. Aurelia thinks up things for him to do, and he does them.
Rory’s nothing like Aurelia. Tall, with sinewy muscles from his outdoor activities, he wears khaki pants the color of sand, white t-shirts, tennis shoes without socks: watercolors.
James is a work in oils. Charcoal-gray corduroys, argyle socks and black loafers, green wool sweater: colors of overbearing richness. I can imagine painting him, though I never have, taking a finger and smudging his ruddy cheek, putting a spot of pink in the place where his wiry black hair meets his graying beard. I would have him radiating into the background, sitting in a velvet armchair with a book. But his eyes, pinpoints of blue, would be quite clear and filled with purpose, as they are even now.
And I shouldn’t forget about myself, although I frequently do. I imagine myself in poster paint: turquoise, pink, a hint of brown for contrast. My hair is short and honey colored, which brings out my brown eyes. I dress in baggy pants, loose-fitting t-shirts, no makeup, bare feet. Because I’m a runner, I can eat what I want.
People probably consider James and me as strange a pair as Rory and Aurelia. But we’ve been together forever, have endured love, hate, indifference. We know too much about each other to part ways now.
For instance: I know that James’ eyes wander over his female students. High school girls have called at night in nervous, squeaky voices, asking “Is Mr. Woodson there?” Last year I found a packet of envelopes addressed to “My Favorite Teacher.” At parties, other teachers cast me “poor Suzanne” looks. They don’t realize he’s having a midlife crisis, worried about getting older. As long as nothing serious develops, I don’t mind what he does.
I like to think of myself as open-minded, tolerant, practical. When friends ask, “Doesn’t it bother you?” I answer no. “This is the 21st century. There are new boundaries for relationships.”
For instance: Henri, the French guy in my Surrealistic Technique class, has a way of standing too close, letting me inhale the scent of his body. We went or coffee a few times, but that’s as far as I let it go. Even now, curled up in the window seat watching the rain, I still remember his scent—warm, with a hint of vanilla.
Bored, my finger follows drops of water sliding down the glass. Rory sits on the overstuffed sofa, watching Aurelia and James. “Want to take a walk?” I ask Rory.
Aurelia lifts her shadowed eyes, and smiles, earrings jangling softly against her neck. “You two go ahead. We’ll be fine.”
Outside, the wind’s blowing sheets of rain from dark storm clouds. The cedar shingles on the cottage are deep brown, the chipped ocher deck glistening. The air smells fresh and wet.
We walk toward the lake, yellow mackintoshes flapping in the breeze, rubber boots sinking into wet sand. I’m wearing Aurelia’s raincoat. Her scent—a mix of soap and spicy perfume — is all over it, mixed with the burnt smell of old rubber. A few of her long, red hairs are caught in the clasp.
It’s comfortable walking with Rory. There’s something pure about a walk in the rain, rustling along in our rubber shells, not caring that we look like a couple of school crossing guards. It’s a relief to get out of the warm cabin, away from James and his games, and Aurelia’s need for admiration.
I walk head down, hands in pockets, concentrating on shiny stones, rivulets of water running like veins through saturated sand. From the corner of my eye, I see Rory’s upturned face. His tongue is out catching raindrops, his glasses fogged with steam. “How can you see like that?” I ask.
“I can’t,” he says, laughing.
We arrive at the breakwater that keeps the lake from drowning Aurelia’s family cottage. With a fluid movement that feels choreographed, we pull ourselves atop the breakwater, banging our rubber boots against the wall.
The churning lake is lashing the shore. Rory stares out to where the cloudbank joins the rough water. “Aurelia’s mentioned a monster lives in this lake. I think her parents made that up so she wouldn’t swim out too far,” he says.
I shrug. “Every lake’s got to have one.”
I wonder what James and Aurelia are up to now, whether they’ve turned on each other or joined forces. I know one thing: They shouldn’t be left alone too long.
Rory slips a hand from his pocket and traces a shape in the raindrops on my rubber coat, then erases it with a finger. I wonder what being with him would be like. I think he may be wondering the same thing about me, then he shoves both hands in his coat pockets and slides off the breakwater. “We’d better get back,” he says.
“Yes, those two could burn the place down. All we’ll find is a pile of hot ash.”
He holds out his hand to help me down, and as I tumble forward, my face comes close to his. His light-flecked eyes hold as much restless movement as the lake. I used to be able to look at them without flinching, but now I can’t.
“Why do you put up with it?” he asks, squeezing my hand.
I shrug. “Why do you?”
By the time we get back, James and Aurelia have chugged down most of the sangria, and are dancing to some old jazz record on the hi-fi. They’ve started a roaring fire, just as I suspected. Flames shoot from the stone fireplace, flicking out hot embers that leave melted spots on the rag rug. The room is sweltering hot. Aurelia and James are sweating. The hair curling around their faces looks damp.
Rory shakes off the rain like a dog and hangs up the mackintosh, then hurries to pick up the poker to get the flames under control.
“Did you have a nice walk in the rain?” James asks, causing Aurelia to erupt into laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Rory asks. I wish for a moment that he’d jab James with the fire poker. Instead, he goes back to rearranging the logs.
I test the charged air, trying to figure out what went on. James and Aurelia stare with calculated blankness as water drips from my mackintosh and pools by my feet.
At dinner, as we eat chicken with wild rice and a dusty can of asparagus that might give us botulism, I see Aurelia’s blouse is buttoned wrong. It’s a small thing, but enough to tell me the rules of the game have changed.
She still swings her head attentively at Rory, although more languidly now that the sangria has worn off, but I can see it’s only out of habit. She looks at James over a forkful of rice, licking her lips.
James’ barrel chest is thrust out. There’s no trace of the man standing nervously in front of the mirror, asking, “Do I look like an overfed pigeon in this jacket?”
Several times, as I’m cutting my chicken, I feel his corduroy pants scuttle past my leg, seeking Aurelia’s stockinged ankle. Rory eats silently, eyes on his plate.
Later, while Rory and I wash dishes, Aurelia digs out a 50s waltz collection and lights candles. I look up from scraping the roasting pan and see James nuzzling her neck. I expect him to strip her as though peeling a banana, arrange her thighs around his hips, do all the things to her he’s done to me, although not in a long time. Rory’s lips are a tight line. His eyes betray no reaction as I hand him clean dishes to dry.
I used to think the four of us were interchangeable; that it didn’t matter which one ended up with which. But I can’t picture James with Aurelia anymore. Who would do the dishes? And Rory and I would be like brother and sister. Everything would get done, but there would be no balance, no chemistry.
I want to take Rory aside and tell him, “They’re just messing around. Don’t confuse what they’re doing with love.”
The rain beats loudly through the night, competing with the rumble of thunder and roar of the lake. I try to sleep but lay awake, alert for signs of movement. Eventually, I feel James’ body ease away from mine.
“Where are you going?” I whisper.
“Bathroom,” he says.
I wait for the creak of floorboards signaling his return. The rain has stopped. All is silent, then I hear a muffled moan and realize there will be no return. A burning humiliation settles in. Flirting with a student is one thing, but now he’s passed the point of no return.
Sleep eludes me as my mind divides our belongings, figures out if I want to stay in the house, makes mental lists of friends who could recommend divorce attorneys. I finally drift off around dawn, and when I wake, laughter floats from the living room, along with the aroma of coffee and fried eggs.
Sunshine peeks through the gauze curtains, golden rays radiating from the departing storm clouds. Aurelia brushes her hair in the window seat. Rory’s looking at her quizzically. James is reading a book. When he sees me, he smiles anxiously.
“There you are,” he exclaims. “I was wondering how long you’d sleep.” He motions to the chair beside him, then rises to fetch coffee. As he pours dark liquid in the cup, his hand lingers on my shoulder.
“The stream’s ebbed,” I hear Rory say. “We should be able to make it