Patrick felt the cold saltwater slide up to his ankle and then recede into the warm, moonlit night. Corrine curled against his arm for a few steps, and then separated, seeming to dance without splashing into the thin layer of merlot colored waves. She exposed her drunken smile and held a finger up to her lips, eyes engorged against the starry sky, softly backlit from the tiki torches in the distance. She didn’t have to say a word.
Younger people in the twenties danced at a cantina on the beach to their right, while people on a work trip traded business cards at a resort function 300 yards off to their left. And though it couldn’t have been much later than midnight, all the lights in their condominium resort had turned off for the night. Patrick could all but hear the snoring sound of fattened travelers, sleeping on top of the starchy comforters, as the gentile motion of the overhead fans purred from their ceilings.
Corrine cocked her head. “Well?”
Patrick looked at his wife. It still felt funny saying that at 35, even after he had spent the past seven years slowly getting used to the concept. She pulled the band of her g-string down along the outside edge of her hip, not quite low enough to reveal anything other than an implication of intimacy. She kicked the gentle tide along, splashing it up as though she could have sent it all the way to Patrick’s pant legs. And without a word she sauntered backwards, slowly letting the water rise over her knees and hips until she had to hold her arms out and brace herself against the calm current. He saw her reach behind her back and delicately pull apart the soft knot in her bikini top.
Patrick was a 17 year old boy, raised not on a farm but near the dairy pastures that always smelled of cow manure, sheltered from the Syracuse radio stations that played current music, having to make due with the songs his dad and uncles had listened to out of Utica. Though they were four hours away from New York City, they might have been hatched in a bio dome, completely isolated from anything that hadn’t resembled the features of their chronically stagnant village.
And then one day, something was different. He’d never met Celeste on the first day of school, not having many dealings with the foreign exchange program, but had caught her riding a bike up a long country hill to a house down a side road, off toward Jitterman Lake. He slowed his beige pickup truck and asked her if she wanted a ride. It was the way she said “A-lo?” confused and delighted at once, when he realized that she was something different.
He’d expected her to be Parisian; sophisticated and urbane. But she was from another quiet town called Saint-Véran with far fewer people than his own. She had expected this land to be an imposing metropolis, being in the state of New York. Patrick couldn’t help but stare into her curly brown hair and green eyes, and listen with wonder while words seemed to flick off her tongue in a breathy voice.
He gave her rides every day, driving up to the corner that led to her host parent’s lakehouse, and dropping her off so that she could pretend to have made the trip on her own. She hadn’t made friends quickly and the two of them used to talk for hours about the differences between here and there. Winter became Patrick’s favorite time of year, when it was too snowy for her to try to ride her bike down to school. Deep snow drifts made him feel so far removed from the summer day when he would have to say goodbye for good. Maybe he could convince her not to leave. Go to college in America.
He kissed her on a Christmas afternoon, when Jitterman Lake had completely frozen over and she’d shown him how she could dance on ice skates. They’d borrowed his uncle’s ice fishing house and pretended to teach her how to catch a perch, but neither could keep their hands off each other.
The winter slumbered along, and where others dreamed of warm August bonfires and tubing down the creek with a case full of beer, Patrick thought only of the end of his time with Celeste. He’d hustled to learn some French, stealing moments in the library without telling anybody. As spring thawed he could see that she had started to think about home, and noticed the vacant look in her eye.
His grades sank, and his mother threatened to confiscate his truck, their only means of connecting. He tried only hard enough to keep everything above a fatal C+ average, but couldn’t comprehend suffering through a senior year in this town without the strange and exotic girl who had entered his life.
The summer seemed to come out of nowhere. Patrick walked around in a daze while students wrapped up final exams, and the class above fought over dates to host their own graduation parties. Patrick had one last chance to drive Celeste home. Her family was coming up over the weekend, and planned to take her on a drive along the coast to North Carolina, before they flew back to France.
She talked about a few of the parties and asked if he wanted to meet her at the lake that night.”
“Ne rentre pas à la maison.”
She looked at him, trying to make sense of his poorly accented attempt. And she smiled in the way that broke his tension, and made him feel too silly to take seriously.
“Ne retourne pas.”
He nodded. “Ne retourne pas.”
Her green eyes stared deeply into his and she told him, “Let’s go for a drive.”
They filled up his truck and drove around the hills and gorges of Upstate New York, and Patrick realized that if summer meant she would have to leave, at least their last day would drag on so slowly. He considered asking her if she’d ride with him to Montreal, where she could speak French and feel at home, and he could be with her, doing one crazy thing in his life without regard for what made sense.
But in the end they wound up on the other side of Jitterman Pond, sitting on somebody else’s dock, drinking a smuggled bottle of red from her host family’s reserves. As they lay against the boards, tiny twinkling stars in the sky were briefly eclipsed by the fat glowing bulbs of fireflies. Celeste pulled off her t-shirt and started to slide her shorts off without standing.
“What are you doing?”
She cocked her head to the water and held a finger to her lips. Patrick stared at the black surface, knowing that lake wouldn’t warm until the fourth of July. And true to his instincts, he watched as Celeste dipped her long, slender body into the water and let out the briefest of shrieks that carried past the mostly abandoned collection of seasonal cabins.
“Do you have any regrets?”
Celeste shook her head. “Non.”
Patrick tore off his clothes, his still winterized pale skin glowing against the moon. He shivered, not from the cool breeze which actually felt nice, but from the anticipation of chills that would surge through his body in a moment.
He jumped feet first, and waited for the moment where everything would go black for a moment. Jumping in felt like death. A new reality, even from whatever he had expected. As he pulled his head above the surface he looked for Celeste’s shaking smile, the water having pulled her hair back tighter than he had ever seen.
They waded into each other’s arms and held each other upright, as they struggled to find a comfortable place to stand, riding each other’s chills.
Corrine smiled back at her husband. “Are you coming in or what?”
Patrick looked at the lights glowing to either side of the beach.
“Come on, honey. I’m not really feeling this.”
Corrine let out a groan. “Come on.” She dragged out the on so that it sounded more like a foghorn than a plea. “Don’t you ever want to do something adventurous?”
“Let’s go get some dessert. When we get back to our resort, I’ll run us a bubble bath.”
“Champagne. We’re picking up champagne, you old prude.”
Patrick wrapped his arm around his Corrine’s side, and walked back to their resort, doing his best to keep his eyes glued to to her, while she slowly kicked splashes of water off into the moonlit night.