He was the loneliest he’d ever been, as if not having rediscovered Nick would have been better.
One morning Hughes woke to find himself alone in their bed. Even though it was early, the air had no freshness to it and his pajamas clung to his damp skin. Out the window, he could see the sun tipping over the harbor, and the house was quiet as he made his way downstairs. He found Nick sitting in the dining room, a list dangling forgotten in one hand, a pile of invitations for the party in front of her. She was reading from a book of poetry, one he remembered from the early days of their marriage when she would read to him in bed. She had one elbow propped on the polished walnut of the table, and her lips were mouthing the lines, her hair falling in her eyes. The back of the house faced west and was darker at this time of day, but he could still see the sweat gathering around her neck and the damp edges of her nightgown. He stood in the doorway, wanting to go to her, but she seemed so perfctly complete that he felt like an intruder. He watched her for a while before going back upstairs to bathe.
He was the loneliest he’d ever been, as if not having rediscovered Nick would have been better. Whatever her own thoughts were, she hid them in a frenzy of party-planning. She sat at her desk, writing out menus she would end up discarding, making schedules and cataloguing things from some kind of master list, shaking out her hand every so often. He would offer his help, and she might send him on an errand, to the post office, say, for extra stamps, but it nonetheless left Hughes with an irrational animosity toward the party, or the post office, or the stamps, as if all these things were rivals devising obstacles to his wife’s affections. So, Hughes turned his attention to Star, spending his afternoons in front of the boathouse, sanding and repainting the hull a dark green and trying not to think of Nick.
The dinghy didn’t really need any work after everything he had done in June, but he found that the repetition soothed him; the chipping and sanding, the lost hours spent drenched in sweat, running his hand over the wood as he looked for any rough spots, the acrid smell of primer. It was hot work, but when it got too much, he could just jump off the end of the dock into the cool harbor, the shores of Chappy in front of him, his eyes watering from the sting of the salt and the sun.
Then one afternoon, as he was about to start on the second coat of paint, the sky opened up and it began to rain, big, heavy drops. Cursing, Hughes hurried to drag the dinghy into the boathouse, pulling the two saw-horses in after him. It was a flash storm, the kind that swept over the Island, only to clear almost as suddenly as it had begun. Hughes decided to wait it out. He took one of the beach towels hanging in the boathouse and began to dry the dinghy’s hull. He was anxious to see the results of his labors. The patter of the rain on the roof was broken by a tap on the side of the boathouse, and then Nick appeared wearing a red bathing suit and carrying a small hamper.
“Hello.” She smiled that wide smile of hers. “I thought you might want a break,” she said, gesturing to the rain that was falling on her. “I brought lunch.”
Hughes wiped the damp off his forehead with the edge of his shirt, trying to think of something to say. He didn’t know why he was so surprised to see her, but she had appeared like an idea that had emerged fully formed from his mind.
“Are you shocked that I walked all the way down here in only my bathing suit?”
It did have something to do with the bathing suit, but also with the wet hair curving around her ears, the long brown legs disappearing into red cotton and her bare feet with damp flecks of grass sticking to the delicate arches.
“No,” he said, stupidly. “Seems pretty sensible.”
“That’s what I thought,” Nick said, putting down the basket. “It reminded me of Florida, after the war, and that yellow one-piece I used to tease the neighbors with.”
Hughes had no idea what she was talking about. Florida was like a bad dream that he could no longer entirely remember, but her comment brought vague outlines of it back. He pushed the thoughts away; he didn’t want to think about Florida or his sadness or Eva right now. He wanted Nick to take off her bathing suit so he could see her naked.
Instead, she unpacked the basket and produced two cheese sandwiches with mustard, and a shaker of martinis. He watched as she pulled a boat cushion off the wall and sat down, tucking her legs neatly underneath her. Hughes sat next to her, but not too near. Nick poured the martinis into a couple of plastic cups and handed one to Hughes.
They sat in silence, Nick munching on her sandwich.
Hughes looked at her out of the corner of his eye, wondering what she was thinking, wondering what had brought her down here to the boathouse, with her picnic and her red bathing suit and her bright smile. He had a strange vision of cracking her open, like a nut or a crab, to find out what was going on inside.
“Do you think the rain will break the heat?” she asked.
“No,” Hughes said. “I don’t think it’s that kind of storm.”
The chilled vodka sent a shiver over him. It was a perfect martini and he sat there thinking about that and about Nick and about the smell of the paint.
The boat winked in the stormy light, catching shades of the water off the harbor. Nick rose, her cup in one hand, and walked over to the dinghy. Gently, she pressed an index finger against the hull, and, evidently finding it dry, ran her hand over it, as Hughes had done only minutes before. She sipped from her martini, her lower lip rising to meet the rim. Then she sat down again, resting her head against the wall. The rain had begun to ease, but the soft rap of the drops against the roof was still audible.
“It’s funny, isn’t it,” Nick said, after some time. “How much you hated being on that ship during the war, and how much you hated having to do all that work on it afterward. And here you are, spending all your afternoons working on a boat, all by yourself.”
Hughes looked at her, but she was staring out at the harbor. He wanted to tell her something, but the language escaped him. As he struggled for the words, she rose and brushed the crumbs off her brown legs.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it.” She picked up the basket and the cups and, without even a glance backward, walked out, the white soles of her feet flashing against the gray floorboards. And just like that, Hughes found himself sitting alone again in the boathouse, with nothing to say.