Dara stood before the open window, almost invisible in the dark. She held the paintbrush in her hand, brushing the sable bristles against the sharp angle of her jaw. Down her throat. The air was heavy with salt, the sea a black canvas flecked with gold. She watched as waves dipped and rolled. The moon looked ready to fall into the ocean, fat and succulent. She imagined it beckoning beneath the sea.
Her father always said she had seawater in her veins. He was right, Dara thought. Two years ago she was sure she would never return to the beach. Now she was back. She still wasn't sure it was a good idea, but she felt she didn't have a choice. This was her place, this island. She was tied to it now in ways that would never change.
She glanced at the painting resting on the easel. She was painting the shoreline during a storm. Cold, gray surf churning, grabbing at the sand. The color of ash. Sharp rocks of the jetty. Driftwood smashing on shore. She looked at the painting again. Studied it. She couldn't seem to get it right. The colors were good, and the light, but something was missing. She wondered why it refused to come.
She couldn't make out the jetty in the dark. Once she had loved the haphazard sculpture of it. A monument of misplaced stone. She sank to the floor. Imagined stepping slowly into the ocean wearing a pocketful of stones. Shells. Step by step, one after the other. The thought of it took her breath away.
She felt a change in the air and started to turn. She hadn't heard his steps. "Dara. It's late. Come back to bed." He placed his hand lightly on her shoulder.
She tried not to pull away. Nonetheless something showed in his face. His eyes, almost black in the moonlight. She wondered why she had let him come back.
"The painting looks good," Jack said.
"The swirling sand. Almost a wall. Nice touch."
She turned away, preferring to look at the gold path on the sea. "Something's missing."
"Maybe. You'll find it. You always do."
She looked at him, startled. "Not always," she said. "
Sun streamed through the sliding glass doors to the deck. A golden retriever chased the foaming surf, barking each time it washed back on shore. Abruptly the dog changed course to try to snag a sandpiper. The bird hopped away on one spindly foot.
Sounds came from the kitchen downstairs. Pots and pans. Music. Van Morrison. The smell of coffee brewing. She wondered again why Jack was here. He said he still loved her. She knew that was true. In his way. He said he was sorry for what he had done and for what he had left undone. She knew that was true, too. At times it hurt to look at his face, though she did that rarely now. It wasn't the same face she saw in her mind when he was away. It wasn't even the face that was etched in her memory from that night. Now the face she saw in her mind was blank, like an untouched canvas.
He said it wasn't her fault. He said it, but she knew he meant just the opposite. But she was getting the two things confused again. That night and the next morning, two years ago. If only she hadn't been so distracted that morning, so distraught. If only they hadn't gone to that party. If only Sammie hadn't wandered onto the jetty. The jetty washed by the sea. One minute her daughter was there, and the next . . . one unforgivable moment when Dara's thoughts were obsessing on the night before.
Dara had known the party was a mistake. They'd been fighting on and off all day. Said unspeakable things. Things even more unspeakable because they were true. She'd told Jack he was becoming too full of himself, with his growing success. He told her she was jealous because he was becoming famous and she was not. They were still not speaking when they walked up to the oceanfront house that looked more like a Victorian beach resort than a private home. Like a wedding cake. From across the huge room Dara saw the woman stare at Jack over the top of her cocktail glass, her eyes wide and fixed. Then the woman looked around the room until she caught Dara's eye. Her smile had a hard edge. But then Dara thought maybe she was being unkind. The woman was younger, after all, and beautiful in an edgy kind of way. The woman smiled again and moved away, into the crowd around the bar.
Dara had been ready to leave about fifteen minutes after they'd arrived, but every time she tried to catch Jack's eye he seemed to be the center of a laughing gaggle of admirers. She kept looking at her watch. A half-hour later she realized she hadn't seen him for awhile. She started to feel nauseous, and almost ran up the stairs to one of the second floor bathrooms. It was the woman's face she saw first, even though the woman was bent over, her long dark hair brushing the tile floor. She had turned at the sound of the door, and on her face was a look that made Dara take a step back, almost falling. Jack was bent over the woman from behind, his pants around his ankles, the woman's silver dress discarded on the floor, like a snakeskin with crystal scales. Jack's face was blank.
"Shut the fucking door," he had said, before turning back.
Dara threw on shorts and a t-shirt, brushed her teeth, ran the brush through her hair and pulled it back in a ponytail. The sun was already hot when she stepped onto the deck. The lifeguards were setting up for the day. That meant she was likely to run across an army of mothers with young kids. A woman with an infant strapped to her chest in a blue corduroy baby carrier was struggling to set up her beach umbrella beside the lifeguard stand. A small boy, maybe three, was shoveling sand into a red plastic bucket at her feet, a box of apple juice in his other hand. Every other shovelful missed the bucket and sprayed over the juice box, but the little boy didn't seem to notice. Dara wanted to grab his hand and dust off the box, but instead looked away. The sand was hot beneath her bare feet. She waved to the guards as she walked by. Stopping a few feet away, she shaded her eyes with her hand and pretended to watch the line of porpoises dancing offshore. Instead she watched the woman and her child.
The woman wore a look Dara had noticed before, on women alone at the beach, just their kids in tow, while their husbands toiled over their desks, or over martinis, or perhaps over their secretaries, in the city. It was a look they might have worn while undergoing hypnosis—slack-jawed, unseeing, as though they had suspended involvement in the world beyond their sandy blanket, their umbrella's square of shade. This woman wore a two-piece white bathing suit, her breasts like big white pillows hanging from her chest. The baby was snuggled comfortably between them. She should not have worn that suit, Dara thought. The loose flesh of her stomach resembled a dead fish. Perhaps the woman suspected that no one actually saw her. That she didn't exist at all, beyond her children. Dara wondered if she and the woman were ghosts, passing in their separate planes.
At the top of the next dune, just below the saw grass line, three sleeping bodies lay wrapped in beach towels. They were lined up in a row, like ducks in a boardwalk arcade. The middle body had a fine-boned face, at least from the side, and long, stringy blonde hair; the two flanking her wore surfer haircuts, orange-and black spiky hair. Three surfboards formed a teepee over their heads. Two empty six packs lay at their feet, along with a pile of cigarette butts. Dara figured it was time to head back home.
She was dreaming of Sammie. She knew it was Sammie although she couldn't make out her daughter's face. Sammie was flying, soaring through the bluest sky Dara had ever seen, a cloudless sky rippled like corduroy. She was waving at Dara and smiling, asking, no, demanding that Dara join her. Dara could see that Sammie really wanted her to come, and she desperately wanted to go. She wanted to unweight herself and let go, to fly to Sammie and with her, but something was pressing her down, freezing her feet to the earth. She could feel the cold, and her name, someone was calling her name, calling to her.
She woke abruptly, startled out of her dream, but she still felt the cold on her feet. Rain was beating on the roof, rapping against the sliding glass doors. She looked at the clock. Three a.m. She realized the doors were open. Wind and rain were blowing in and in the faint light from the street she could see a little girl standing just inside the sliding glass doors. She looked a lot like Sammie but was older than Sammie had been, maybe seven or eight. She was pointing at Dara or perhaps at something over Dara's head. Dara looked to see what the girl was pointing at but the only thing there was one of Dara's paintings hanging on the wall—a watercolor of the lighthouse on a snowy day. The girl wore a long white dress, edged in lace. It was dripping wet. Dara's heart raced and she felt faint, but she managed to ask the girl if she needed help. The girl didn't respond.
Dara started to get up and go to the little girl, who had begun to whimper. But Jack was making noises and moving around. Dara turned to tell him to look at the girl. Instead he pulled the pillow over his head. When she turned back the little girl was disappearing through the sliding glass doors. Dara ran onto the deck but saw no trace of her. It was as though the girl had dissolved in the rain, disappeared into the mist. Dara wondered whether she had been there at all. But as she turned to go back into the room she noticed a piece of white cloth with lace trim caught on the metal strip of the sliding door. She picked it up, but it was yellowed with age and disintegrated in her hand. She looked out toward the ocean, through the mist and the rain, and saw the little girl, her dress torn up the back, walk into the ocean and disappear.
Dara called to the girl to come back, but her voice was weak. Her words flew into the wind and, like the girl, disappeared. Dara thought about waking Jack, but even now she doubted what she had seen.
Dara awoke late the next morning, her head still logy from the rain, and her dreams. Jack was drinking coffee and reading the morning paper on the upper deck when she walked out, both hands wrapped around a cup of steaming coffee.
"I like what you did with the painting," he said. "I didn't notice it last night. Just the right touch."
The rain had washed the beach clean. The sea sparkled in the bright light. Despite the warmth of the sun, Dara shivered. "What are you talking about? I haven't touched the painting in two days."
The painting still sat on the easel in the living room. The daubs of color on the palette on her worktable were dry and hard, crusted over. The painting was the same as before, with one exception. There was the shoreline during a storm. Cold, gray surf churning. Sand the color of ash. Sharp rocks of the jetty. Driftwood smashing on shore.
But now a little girl stood at the shoreline, her back showing, her dress torn. The carpet in front of the easel was still damp. The tangy smell of the sea filled the air.
Outside the sharp cry of a gull.