The type of erotic exchange she enjoyed the most was the kind that left her feeling open, inside-out. Where the difference between the mouth and the sexual organs blurred, and she pictured her insides like a hothouse flower, wet, warm petals unfurling, sucking more moisture from the air. Amphibious: in the moment of penetration she could become a creature that breathed through its skin.
It’s strange to think about this now. That there was a version of herself like that. That she used to be touched, handled in that way. At the time, when she was young, she didn’t think she was vulnerable. She took taxis across town to the homes of men she had only met once before. Strangers, strange beds, strange habits. A necessary disassociation. She wouldn’t wish youth on herself again, except maybe physically.
It is late august. Afternoon, the hottest part of the day. She lies on the dock with her knees folded over the edge, feet grazing the water. So hot out that the water’s surface is as warm as a bath. Her chest is sunburned from the day before, just slightly. She runs her hand over her stomach. She has been at the cottage by herself for a week now. She plans to stay until the end of August, at least. This is her favourite time of year to be here, even though it’s so hot. You can just go in the lake when you get too warm. By this time in the summer there are hardly any bugs left. Sometimes she feels so happy here, being alone, that she smiles to herself, or makes little comments out loud, phrases that come to her head, novel ways of expressing the pleasures of solitude.
A young man walks out onto the neighbouring dock and waves at her. She waves back. He has been there for a few days now. She remembers when he was a boy. He must have been about eight when his family bought the place. When he was a teenager he would come with big groups of friends, and they’d be noisy until late. Many times she thought about going outside and telling them to be quiet, that she was trying to sleep. But she never did. She would lie there and think, why do I need the quiet anyway? I’m not trying to put a baby to sleep, I have nothing to do tomorrow, nowhere to be early in the morning. It’s strange to see him here now, because she hasn’t seen him in a long time, years even, and it’s strange that he’s come alone. She knows he’s come alone because he’s walked out onto the dock and waved at her three mornings in a row, and she hasn’t seen his parents, who would have invited her over for barbeque or drinks by now if they were there. She liked his parents, Tom and Florence. They were sturdy, mild people who didn’t get flustered by anything. There was a comforting shallowness to them; a complete lack of duplicity. She always felt comfortable sitting with them. She also liked the way they spoke to each other, which wasn’t affectionate, but always respectful, friendly, something that had been lacking in the way she and her ex-husband interacted, especially towards the end of their marriage when every conversation felt like a desperate attempt to prove the other wrong, as if they were in a political debate, where even the most benign comment would be taken as a personal affront.
His name is Ed, next door. He dives off the dock. His body is long and muscular like a competitive swimmer’s. He swims towards her, efficiently, gliding across the mossy blue water, squinting through the sunlight. He must be coming to say hello. She doesn’t resent the interruption. She sits up and watches him with a smile on her face until he is treading the water in front of her, close enough to reach out and touch her ankle, her shin. He is beautiful in a very masculine, specifically North American way that makes her think of a character in a story by John Cheever.
Hi, he says. Just wanted to say hi.
Hello, she smiles at him indulgently, proudly as if he were her own son, all cooled off?
Not really, he says.
Do you want to come up and have a glass of wine?
He places his hands flat on the dock and pulls himself out of the water. He sits next to her and shakes the water from his hair like a dog. His sudden proximity makes her feel overwhelmed. He is not touching her, but is so close that she can feel the water’s chill on his skin. She becomes aware of the fact that she is wearing only a bikini, of the little bit of sagging skin around her stomach, and the dimpled cellulite on her thighs.
I’ll go get another glass, she says.
That’d be great, he says. It’s so hot out, wow.
She stands up. His eyes move along her whole body. She resists the urge to cross her arms across her stomach. She turns and walks back to the cottage. When she gets to the sliding door she turns and sees that he is still looking at her. Once inside she takes the white wine out of the fridge and the ice bucket out of the freezer. She wedges the bottle into the ice bucket and takes a glass from the cabinet. Her white beach wrap is hanging over one of the bar chairs and she picks it up and ties it around herself.
When she goes back out he is lying down with his head resting on his arms. It would be strange, she thinks as she walks back to the dock, to have a little baby, a child, and to watch them turn into a grown man. Do you feel farther away from them, she wonders, as they grow, like every day they are becoming less like the tiny thing that lived inside you, or do you feel closer to them, as if they are becoming more like you?
How’s your summer going? he asks when she sits back down. She hands him his glass and he holds it out for her to pour.
It was a bit busy to begin with, with work, but I’m planning to spend the rest of it here, so things are looking up. How about you?
He looks off across the lake. I don’t know, he says. I’m figuring things out.
At your age? she says, but then regrets it. She can remember when she was in her early twenties, when all the little things that happened meant so much to her.
Well, he says, I’ve just graduated, so we’ll see.
You’ve graduated? Time flies. She winces inwardly. Time flies. It’s as if everything that comes out of her mouth is exactly the kind of platitude he would expect from his parents’ friend. From an old person. What did you study? She asks him.
International development, he says, balefully.
Straight to the workforce for you then, she says.
What did you study when you were in university? he asks.
English literature, of course.
I wish I’d done that instead.
No, you don’t.
She is sweating, even though she is just sitting still. She feels herself burning. Do you want to go for a little swim? she says. He drains his glass and nods at her. He gets up to dive, and she watches him before slipping into the water. Without speaking they swim around, slowly, alongside each other. Occasionally her foot grazes part of his leg, or his hand grazes the side of her body. Once they are farther from the dock he stops and starts treading water. She hates treading water; it tires her out. He is looking right at her as if he wants to ask her something. She feels like this situation should feel awkward.
I’m going to get tired, Eddie, she says, I’m an old lady.
Yeah, right, he says. Here. He reaches out and hooks his arm around her waist, pulling her to him as he continues to tread with one arm. She swallows. She feels small and thin next to him. He had been such a slight boy; she remembers being shocked when one summer he turned up to the cottage having sprung up to over six feet tall.
He smells very clean, like soap, or linen.
Don’t be silly, she says, and pulls away from him, beginning to swim back to the dock. He follows her and they pull themselves back up.
I could use a bit more wine, he says, and she pours them both some. The ice that was in the bucket has turned into water, but the wine is still chilled.
Hey, he says, the top of his arm pressing against hers. Can I ask you something personal?
Sure, she says.
What happened to your husband? He was always here and then one summer he was just gone.
Nothing dramatic, she says. We split up is all. This cottage belonged to my family, so I got to keep it.
Oh, well that’s good. I mean, not good, but I thought maybe you know, something had happened to him. Like he had died or something.
Didn’t your parents tell you about it?
No. They never said anything. You know how they are. They hate gossiping. They probably thought they were doing something nice for you, but actually it would’ve been better if they had told me because I spent a whole summer wondering how he had died. I was just a little kid I guess. I had a morbid imagination.
Had you come to a conclusion?
I thought a heart attack maybe.
Well he seemed a lot older than you.
He was. And he did drink a lot. Still does, I’m sure. Smoked, though he thought he hid it from me. It was probably an accurate death for him.
Well. I’m sorry to hear you split up, even though it happened a long time ago.
She remembers just then that Harry, wishing for a son of his own, took a real liking to Eddie. He’d take him fishing, or out in the truck and let him drive around the back roads. They’d throw a baseball, or a football, around for hours. She remembers being worried that it would offend Tom somehow that his son was spending so much time with another man. She even asked Florence about it, furtively, and Florence laughed and said Tom was actually happy that Eddie spent so much time with Harry, that Tom preferred to read his books anyway, and he had a bad hip, and he and Eddie bonded in other ways and for her not to spend a minute worrying. So she didn’t worry about it, and she was so involved in her writing, her reading, her unhappiness, that it ceased to even be something she noticed. How insensitive, she thinks with growing shame, that she did not take Eddie aside that summer and told him that Harry wouldn’t be returning. That she didn’t even give it a thought.
Eddie, I’m so sorry, she says, reaching over to touch his forearm, I should have told you. I was so self-absorbed. I just assumed your parents would have said something. It was a really hard time for me, but that’s no excuse.
It’s okay, he shrugs, it was a long time ago.
She feels hollowed out at the thought of teenage Eddie, walking around the cottage, from room to room, wondering why no one would tell him what had happened to Harry, dreaming up likely deaths.
It’s not okay, she says, I’m really sorry.
He turns to look at her. He smiles, laughs. It’s really okay. I’m totally over it now.
You didn’t ask your parents what had happened?
No, he says, I guess I was scared to hear the answer.
They are quiet for a moment. Then she tells him that Harry just had a baby, actually, a little girl. I feel kind of sorry for him, she laughs, because I think he really wanted a son.
Are you okay with it? he asks.
Sure I am, she says, and she means it. Harry always knew I didn’t want kids. At the end of the day, I’m happy that we split up and he got what he wanted. Or, close to it.
You know, he says, pouring them more wine. I was really obsessed with the two of you when I was a kid.
Really? The two of us?
Sure. I thought Harry was great, because he liked doing stuff that my dad didn’t, you know, fishing, and chopping wood, and driving that big truck around. And then I just thought you were like, this angel.
She bursts out laughing. He does too, nervously.
No, he says, I really mean it. You were so different than, like, my mom, or other women I knew, you know? You were so mysterious. I’d be out in the morning and I’d see you swimming or sitting out here reading or whatever and you just seemed so unattainable. Like a movie star, or something. Like you lived in a different world. I don’t know. That’s stupid, I guess. I hope I’m not creeping you out.
He is looking at her with such intensity. She realizes this must be a serious moment for him. If he means what he says, which she doesn’t doubt, then this moment is the culmination of a teenage fantasy, the most unforgiving fantasy, something he must have thought about again and again. She tries to think of how it makes her feel. She knows she should feel uncomfortable, or at least a mix of flattered and embarrassed. But something about his sincerity, combined with the guilt over forgetting his relationship with Harry, genuinely moves her, in a way nothing has in a long time. There is a strange mingling of feeling within her, a convergence of the maternal and the erotic giving way to a painful tenderness.
Oh, Eddie, she says, because it is all she can think of to say. He takes her hand and presses it tight. She feels a great swell in her chest and realizes she is very close to tears. She thinks of things she could say to resolve the situation. I’m flattered, she could say, which is too condescending. Or, that’s so lovely to hear, which just makes her sound old.
He looks down, lets go of her hand. Sorry, he says, I’m being a real loser.
No, no you’re not, she says.
It never ceases to amaze her, the way you become a character in someone else’s story without realizing it. When Eddie was a boy, running around, or a teenager, drinking beers with his friends by the fire, always waving to her during his morning swim, she hardly spared more than a brief acknowledgement of his existence. The most thought she ever gave him must have been when she worried about Harry supplanting Tom. But, if he was telling the truth, and not just trying to flatter her, then to him she was something else entirely, someone who filled his mind, someone he thought of when he was alone. Something in that made her feel vulnerable, but it was also erotic, because it made her, momentarily, see herself through his eyes. Lying in the sun, rubbing tanning oil into her limbs, her chest. Pulling herself out of the water, her wet swimsuit low on her hips, standing and wringing her hair out. Her gold toasted legs.
What are you thinking about? he asks. Do you want me to leave?
No, no I don’t want you to leave, she says.
He places his palm flat on the top of her thigh, presses it against her skin. He has long fingers, wide hands. His other hand closes around the side of her waist, fingers kneading her. She is on the edge of something. She could still put an end to it. She could stand up, she could say in a measured voice, Eddie, this is really inappropriate. Eddie, I’m too old for you.
He kisses her. He is too eager, his tongue forcing its way between her lips. She places her hand flat against his chest and he pulls back.
I’m so sorry, he says.
You need to be a little more patient, she says. She bends her head to his chest and lets her mouth linger against his collarbone, then up against his neck, pressing her lips so lightly that she can almost pretend it’s not happening, that it isn’t her doing this. He takes his hands off her and places them flat on the dock.
I’ll do whatever you want me to, he says. She touches his rib cage, his chest. His skin is damp and warm.
They go inside and she turns the air conditioner on. He sits down on her bed and she undresses in front of him. She can hear his breathing, deep and slow. His eyes flicker over her body.
It has never been a fantasy of hers to be with someone so much younger than her. When she was young herself she slept with much older men. But now, she is unbelievably hungry for him, her need so sharp, so focused. He stands up and undresses and then turns her around. She falls onto the bed.
His youth is exciting to her because it is novel. He is very tactile. He strokes her as if she is a cat. He touches her calves, her ankles, the soles of her feet, her stomach, her knees. He seems excited by all of her, which in turn excites her. She has the feeling again of seeing herself through his eyes, and she is filled with his need which travels through her body, reaching every extremity. By the time he bends his head between her legs, kneeling on the floor in front of the bed, his hands pulling her thighs apart, she already feels like she will come.
When they have sex, he orgasms quickly—not comically quickly, but quick enough that he feels he needs to apologize afterwards. She laughs. It’s okay, she says, I enjoyed it. Even though the air conditioning is on they are both sweating. They lie next to each other, her on her back and him on his side. He plays with the ends of her hair. She finds it hard to look directly at his face, not because she is ashamed, but because up close he seems unimaginably beautiful. She doesn’t feel strange. The sex seems to have washed away their shared history, their age difference.
He kisses her shoulder. She wants to hold him in her arms. She doesn't.
What should we do? he asks. It’s still early.
Outside the window the sun is lowering in the sky. The water is a deep, untroubled blue. She has the desire to feel his skin against hers in that water, to let him hold her up as she floats. She feels sad then, though she doesn’t know why. The feeling enters her from somewhere outside her body.
Are you alright? She asks, turning her head to finally look at him.
Of course I am, he says, and he smiles at her. Of course. Do you want to go swimming? Should we go swimming and then come back inside and do that again?
Okay, she says. She has a feeling in her chest like she will cry, even though she has no reason to. He props himself up on his elbows, dips his face down to kiss her breasts. It makes her feel self-conscious. She can no longer see herself through his eyes. But she will, she will again.
Okay, she says. Let’s go.
Jessica Widner’s writing has appeared in Adelaide Magazine, Lamplight Magazine, and Potluck Mag. She lives in Edinburgh.