Morning oozed in from the window. Rudy didn’t want it. He wanted to prolong the night.
“Why did your father want his ashes scattered there?” Kak asked, pressing her right temple against his shoulder. “God, that’s better. The pressure stops my headache.”
He didn’t want to think about his father or anything else. He wanted to feel her warm body against his. It had been against him, under him, on top of him, wrapped around him, all night. He wanted more.
“Why that spot?” she asked.
He knew she’d keep pressing. Not her temple against his shoulder. The question.
“He didn’t want to be there,” Rudy said. “And I’m sorry that sleeping with me gives you a headache.”
“I don’t get it. About the ashes, I mean. And don’t be a guy. I’m dehydrated or something.”
“He didn’t want his ashes there. I wanted them there.”
The mood was broken anyway. He got up and pulled the curtains closed, overlapping the edges as best he could to stop the advance of the day.
He could still make out the luxurious clump at the foot of the bed, the fur that slipped off and lay there in a pile while they slept. By the time he got back in bed she’d changed position, curled up on her side with a forearm under her temple to replace his shoulder.
“Why?” she repeated.
He stretched out on his stomach with his arms folded, his chin resting on them. Why? He’d known the why since he was sixteen. But to say it, to articulate it out loud? Nothing ever came out as clear as the collection of thoughts and emotions trapped in your head, fused together by what you knew, what you’d seen, and the things you told yourself to make them make sense.
“I’m going to sound crazy,” he said.
“I’ve sounded crazy for the last twelve months.”
“Alright. Every day from the time I was nine until I was sixteen my father asked me where my mother was. And every day I’d lie to him about it.”
“Your mother was gone?”
“And you knew where she was, but you father didn’t.” “Of course.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s because I started in the wrong place.”
“Well. I know all about that.”
“I’ll start closer to the beginning. I know how preoccupied you are with getting there.”
She gave him a playful slap.
“My father blamed me for my mother’s death,” he said. Having said it, he had no idea where to go from there.
“Maybe you should start at the very beginning,” she said.
Right. The very beginning.
“It was on that beach on Sanibel,” he said. “On a day a lot like the day we met. Calm in the morning but by mid-afternoon the wind came up and the waves were higher than usual. I was nine.
“My mother made me a bologna sandwich for lunch and told me I had to play on the beach for two hours after I ate so I wouldn’t get cramps. I told her I wasn’t going to get cramps but she smeared sunscreen on me and made me wait anyway. So I built a sand fort and lined the walls with shells I pretended were soldiers while she sat in a beach chair with her sketch pad and pencils.”
“Mmm,” she said. “I love pencils.”
“No one loves pencils. They’re tools.”
“I love them.”
“Do you want me to tell this or not?”
“Where was I? Oh, yeah. I drove her nuts, of course, constantly asking if it had been two hours yet. She’d check her watch. She had this beautiful gold bracelet watch my father had given her. I’d ask. She’d check it. The time finally passed and she told me I could swim but that my father had to go in the water with me.
“I found him sitting in our car listening to the Braves game on the radio. He was this big Atlanta fan. I called to him to go swimming with me. But the game was tied up in the ninth inning and he wanted to listen to the end. He said it would probably go to extra innings.”
“He got the Braves game all the way down on Sanibel?”
“They were playing the Florida Marlins. The local station carried it. The signal was still awful. He was hunched over the dash straining to hear through the static. Even with the windows down he was sweating like a pig. Anyway, I ran back to my mother and told her he was coming down to swim with me. Only I didn’t wait for him. I saw this spot about a hundred yards down the beach where the waves weren’t breaking and the water flattened out. I figured that would be okay so I slipped away to goof around in the shallow water until my father got there.”
Rudy saw the water in his mind, exactly as it had been that day. No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t go back to tell himself to stay on the beach.
“It was so shallow,” he went on. “Just knee deep. I didn’t see how anything could happen. I sat down in it and floated on my back looking at the sky. I didn’t know the water was moving. The area of flat water in the middle of all those breaking waves meant a riptide, where the water being piled up against the shore on both sides of it rushed back out and broke up the wave action.
“When I tried to stand up the water was already too deep for me to touch. I was twenty yards from the beach. I panicked and tried to swim back in but the tide was pulling me out fast.”
He felt it again. The beach, so close but so unreachable. The dawning on him that he could not save himself. Still, the impulse to swim toward shore overcame the certainty he would never make it. He thrashed hopelessly.
“Your mother saw you,” Kak said.
“Yes. She came running down the beach and into the water carrying this inflatable ring she bought for me. Just this tiny ring with turtles on it. I told her that morning I didn’t like it. That it was a baby toy and I didn’t want to use it. She ran out with it until she had to swim. I tried to swim toward her. The whole time the riptide was taking us both out. She wasn’t a strong swimmer but I was her baby, right? And she had that little ring.
“So by the time she got to me we were both tired. I tried to grab her but she pulled me in between her and the ring, facing away from her, so I could grab onto it. Her arms were around me, hanging onto it with me. But you could tell right away, it couldn’t support us both. Our combined weight was too much. We were pulling it under. About to pop it. Both starting to gulp water.”
He studied the headboard without seeing it. He could still feel her behind him. Her presence. Her terror at the thought of what was about to happen. Her arms encircling him. Those protective arms he’d known so often, now threatening to take him down with her.
“So she let go,” he said.
“I never saw her again.”
“How did you get to the beach?”
“I hung on to the ring. Without her—” It was still hard to think it. “Without her weight, it supported me. A few minutes later a couple of guys on boogie boards swam out from the beach and paddled me to shore. I told them she was still out there. But she was already gone.
“Next thing I knew my father was there. Asking ‘where’s your mother?’ He kept asking over and over. I couldn’t talk. One of the guys who brought me in told him what happened. Police divers found her body.”
“I’m so sorry,” Kak said.
“They gave my father her personal effects. Her bathing suit. And her watch. The salt water had stopped it at exactly 4:23 and nine seconds.”
It felt good to say it. He’d had it in his head so long.
“How do you tell that story without getting emotional?” she asked.
“It’s been twenty-five years. I never told it to before.”
“You didn’t have grief counseling?”
By her reaction, he must have seemed entertained by this.
“Why is that funny?” she asked.
“The only grief counseling you got back then was a Methodist minister telling you she was in a better place. Idiots murmuring too loud about her dying because you were a rambunctious child. And wasn’t it ironic for a person who drowned in the ocean to leave instructions for her ashes to be scattered there.”
“People can be thoughtless.”
“A better place. I looked at her urn when the minister said it. He seemed amused by my confusion. I think he saw it as a teaching opportunity. He told me how the ashes were only her body but that her soul was in heaven and everyone there was happy. I asked him why he didn’t go there. He didn’t talk to me after that.”
“It must have been hard for you and your father to scatter her ashes where she died.”
“He had her ashes buried. Against her wishes.”
“Maybe he couldn’t bear the thought of going back.”
“She was claustrophobic. He knew that. He had them put her down in that hole and cover her with dirt. That’s when I knew.”
“Later that night. After my father went to bed. I went out to the garage and got his garden shovel. I got on my bike and rode to the cemetery.”
“The dirt was still loose.”
“And I dug her up.”
“They don’t bury urns like coffins. She was only eighteen inches deep. The dirt was still loose. Hardest part was prying the lid off the urn vault.”
“Sort of a coffin for the urn. I had the urn out before it occurred to me I was too small to take her where she wanted to go. I couldn’t ride my bike to Sanibel.”
“What did you do?”
“I’d made a pretty big mess. I knew someone would see it in the morning. So I just left the shovel there. I put the urn in my bike basket and rode to the river. I figured I’d dump the ashes there and the river would eventually take her to the ocean.
“Except the river was down and the bank was so muddy that I sank up to my ankles. I couldn’t get to the water. But it gave me an idea. I opened the urn and took out the bag of ashes. Then I dropped the urn on the bank and crawled back to put the bag of ashes in my bike basket.”
“To let them think I scattered her ashes in the river. All the physical evidence, muddy sneakers, bicycle tires, the empty urn, it all pointed to it.”
“You kept her ashes?”
“To keep her out of that hole. To hide her until I figured out how to get her to the ocean.”
“You were only nine years old.”
“I was motivated. I rode home in the dark. There were no cars out that late but I figured if someone saw me I could drop the ashes and come back. I left everything in the garage, muddy clothes and all, like I was finished. Then I came in and put her ashes in the cookie jar.”
“On the kitchen counter. I took out all the cookies, put her bag of ashes in the jar, and dumped the cookies on top of her so you couldn’t see the bag. There were about a dozen that didn’t fit so I ate those. Then I went to my room, put on my pajamas and fell asleep.”
“And everyone believed you’d put her ashes in the river?”
“Everyone but my father. He was a cold man. But he wasn’t stupid.”
“How long did you keep her ashes in the jar?”
“Seven years. Until the day I got my driver’s license.”
“That’s not possible. Your father didn’t look in the jar for seven years?”
“Served him right for never making me cookies.”
“What happened when you got your license?”
“I rode my bike to my father’s office. He always put his keys above the visor. I drove home in his car, put the cookie jar in the passenger seat, fastened the seatbelt around it, and drove for nine hours. I only stopped for gas and water.
“I got to the beach at sunrise. Walked into the water and scattered the whole mess. The ashes. The cookies. All of it. Threw the jar as far as I could. Kept the lid.
“And I thought, now you’re in a better place. I sat down on the sand and cried harder than I ever cried in my life. Harder than when she died.”
“Makes perfect sense.”
“Funny thing is, I thought that would lift it. When I finally dozed off in the backseat of the car I thought the wrong would finally be right. But when I woke up I felt the same heaviness. That’s when I understood.”
“That I put the wrong person in the water.”
Kak sat up in bed. “You didn’t take your father’s ashes to that beach to reunite him with your mother.”
She saw it now.
“No,” he said.
“You took him there to drown him.”
“He should have been there that day. Not listening to some baseball game. Buy a fucking transistor radio, for godsake, and sit on the beach with your family. If he had, none of it would have happened.”
“That’s what you were about to do when I ran into you.”
“And I messed it up.”
“I thought that at first. Now I don’t know.”
“And when you got home?”
“My father watched me pull in the driveway from his lawn chair in the front yard. He was sitting there with a glass of iced tea. He’d just finished cutting the grass.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. He just swirled his glass. I can still hear the ice cubes clicking against each other. I went inside, hung the car keys on the hook and set the cookie jar lid on the counter. He always wanted to know where she really was. Question answered.”
“Why? It taught me self-reliance.”
“That’s a hard way to learn it. You never reconciled with him?”
“We rarely spoke after that. Not about anything that mattered.”
“I know something about that. Do you regret it?”
He allowed himself the luxury of drinking in the contour of her beautiful body. He had many regrets. Going into the water that day. Lili. Max. He saw now there had been a point to them. They’d all led him to this woman on this island. She was supposed to run into him on the beach and ruin his twenty-five-year plan. She was the correction to what had gone wrong in his equation. Whatever regrets he had, they were behind him. Whatever destiny was, it started now.