Annie picked her way through the pebbles and broken shells until she reached the rippled sand of the clam bed. She should have worn her water shoes. She had once gashed her heel on a razor clam shell, but she loved the feeling of wet sand beneath her bare feet. It was one of the few risks she was still willing to take.
It was beastly hot weather for clamming, but it was the end of the season, and she didn’t want to miss her last chance. She dragged the clamming rake through the heavy sand until she felt the satisfying clunk of the tines hitting a shell. The clam was good-sized and tightly closed, just as it should be. Definitely a keeper. She tossed it into her wire basket and looked out at the ocean beyond the inlet, ready to reclaim the shellfish bed with the turning of the tide.
Cobalt, cerulean, ultramarine. The ocean’s shifting colors were Paul’s favorite hues, but he had never painted the sea. He was inspired by cities, crowds and models, everything that was busy and frenetic. Paul would have hated clamming. If he were on the Cape, he would want to be in Wellfleet or Provincetown among the other artists and fancy galleries, not mucking in wet sand for something he could buy at the grocery store.
Annie pulled off one of her thick gloves to wipe her forehead, willing away the memories of Paul. All she wanted was a quiet morning and a bucket of clams. She dug the rake back in the sand with unnecessary force.
A short-lived breeze cut through the heavy heat, tugging at her wide-brimmed sunhat. She reached up a little too late to hold it in place. It skipped off across the water, coming to rest near a tall man in swim trunks. A tourist, given the relative pallor of his skin.
“I’ll get it. It’s too deep for you over here.” He trapped the hat with one hand and brought it to her, rivulets of water running down his body.
“Thanks.” She expected him to leave once he handed it to her, but he remained in front of her. She paused and looked up into clear blue eyes, a startling contrast to his dark hair. Eyes she had never expected to see again, at least outside her fantasies.
She almost spoke his name, then stopped herself. The last she had heard, Jeremy was in Singapore, and that had been years ago. What would he be doing on the tidal flats of West Falmouth? No, it was just someone who looked like him, someone with eyes as penetrating as his.
“Any time,” he said.
It was him. Although they had met only a few times, she had never forgotten his voice. That was what she remembered best about him, looking into his eyes and listening to him talk for hours.
He began to turn away, then hesitated. “Do I know you?”
She wanted to say yes, but it was safer to let him go. No one here on Cape Cod knew about her past, and that was the way she wanted it. She had lived without Jeremy for ten years; she didn’t need him now.
“No, I don’t think so.” She leaned down to hang the wet hat over the edge of the clam bucket. There was a time she would have given almost anything for another chance to talk to him.
“Sorry. For a second you looked like someone I once knew.” He paused as if he wanted to say something more, then he turned toward the horizon, splashing through the shallow water to the edge of the inlet where the bottom dropped off. He began to swim parallel to the beach with a strong freestyle stroke.
Why should it bother her that he didn’t recognize her? In her New York days she would never have worn anything as disreputable as her old clamming clothes, and her hair was longer and pulled back. Besides, they were nothing but acquaintances, though she had once dreamed of more. He was Paul’s friend, not hers. The old litany. How many times had she told herself that?
Forcing herself to look away, she started to dig again. Clamming no longer held any appeal, but she refused to quit halfway. Mechanically she began filling her bucket, trying to ignore the ache inside her.
Shouts of laughter came from the other side of the clam bed. Two young children splashed in the water while their mother playfully tried to engage them in clamming. They would all be completely soaked soon, but it looked as if they didn’t mind.
Annie would never have that experience, not unless she borrowed some children from a friend for the day. She would never have anyone but herself to cook her clams for, either. She had made that decision long ago.
She thought of Jeremy, and tears pricked at her eyes. She wanted to hear his voice again, to see his face clearly for just one minute. But it wasn’t going to happen. When he returned, she would be long gone.
The sun glinted on her wedding band as she reached to pick up her basket of clams. It was time to go.
* * *
Annie wrapped the delicate sculpted glass dolphin in tissue paper and placed it in a gift box with ‘Cape Light Gallery’ emblazoned across the top. “Would you like a bag?”
“No, I’ll take it as is.”
“Thanks, and come again.” Annie handed her the package with a smile.
Annie carefully rearranged the remaining glass pieces in the case to cover the empty space left on the mirrored shelf, keeping an eye on the two remaining customers. A steady stream of business today kept her from wondering where Jeremy was and what he might be doing. Seeing him had revived her old, inexplicable longings. He would be shocked if he knew how often she had thought about him over the years. Probably he barely remembered her.
Once he had been attracted to her. No doubt he had felt the same about many other women. Most likely he was married now. Perhaps those had even been his children playing in the clam bed with their mother. Annie firmly closed the case and locked it.
Another customer asked for a pair of silver earrings. Annie was writing up the receipt when she heard the bells on the front door jangle, announcing another shopper. She looked over with a professional smile. Every sale counted if she was going to make the gallery a success.
It was too much of a coincidence. Her breath caught at the sight of Jeremy, wearing a casual t-shirt and shorts, the standard Woods Hole summer uniform. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.
He gave her only a quick impersonal glance before inspecting the artwork along the wall. So he still didn’t recognize her, even out of her clamming gear. She wasn’t going to let it hurt. She finished the sale, relieved when her customer left.
Jeremy was coming her way, pausing occasionally by a picture for a closer look. In a minute he would be directly in front of her.
Perhaps it would be better for her to take the initiative and get it over with. No, that was an excuse. She couldn’t bear to watch him walk away again. The temptation to steal a few minutes with him was too great.
She waited until he was next to her, about to reach her lighthouse painting. “Jeremy? Is that you?”
He turned his well-remembered eyes on her. “Are you talking to me?”
“Jeremy Matthiesen, isn’t it?” She watched for any sign of recognition in his expression.
His eyes widened. “Annie? Annie … Wright?”
“That’s right.” She flushed with pleasure. “How are you? It’s been a long time.”
“What are you doing here? I thought you were still in New York.”
“That was years ago. I live here now. Are you vacationing?”
“Yes, just for the week. I can’t believe you’re here. How’s Paul?”
Her smile disappeared as if it had never existed. “You haven’t heard?”
“Paul died two years ago.” She hated telling people, and she braced herself for the next question, which was even worse.
His face registered shock, then concern. “I’m sorry.” He came to stand across the counter from her. “I had no idea. I’ve been out of touch for years. I’m so very sorry.”
“Thank you.” It had been hard to learn to accept people’s sympathy gracefully. “It was a long time ago.”
“All the same, how awful for you….” his voice trailed off. He looked down, as if he were interested in the sculpted silver jewelry in the case, but she could tell he was shaken.
So he hadn’t known. She always assumed he must have heard. They had friends in common, and Paul’s death was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. She had thought he never contacted her because it wasn’t important to him, or perhaps because there was another woman in his life.
“Would you like to come back here and sit for a minute?” She gestured at the extra stool beside her.
“Thanks, I’d like that.” He came around the counter and lowered himself onto the stool. He closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry, this is really a shock. Paul always had twice as much life as the rest of us. I can’t believe it.”
“Sometimes he could shine very brightly.” Her voice was a little too even.
He reached over and took her hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I’m sorry. I’m being incredibly thoughtless, as if this isn’t far worse for you than me.”
She looked down at his hand wrapped around hers. Not many people touched her these days. “It’s all right. I’ve had time to get used to it, and I’m well past the worst. It’s taken you by surprise. And you’ve apologized to me at least three times. That’s enough.”
A fraction of the smile she remembered appeared on his lips. “It’s tempting to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I’ll try to restrain myself.”
His teasing struck a chord, and she felt something of the connection they had once shared. “I appreciate it.”
“That was you on the beach yesterday, wasn’t it? The woman who lost her hat?”
She nodded. “I didn’t realize who you were until you were already gone.” She couldn’t tell him the truth.
“I’m glad I ran into you again. What have you been up to all this time?”
“I came back here after Paul died. This is where I grew up, till I was twelve. I opened the gallery last year, and it’s been doing well for a new venture.”
“This is yours? I’m impressed.” Jeremy looked around the well-lit space full of artworks and handicrafts.
“Thank you.” She was, in fact, inordinately proud of the gallery and the relationships she had developed with the Cape artists whose works she displayed. It was something she had always dreamed of. “What about you? Are you still working for the bank? I heard they posted you to Singapore.”
“I left them last year. They kept sending me overseas—Hong Kong, Munich, Rome—and I was ready to come home. I’m working for a non-profit in DC now. I’ve had enough of the corporate world.”
“Sounds exciting. I’ve never had the opportunity to travel much.”
“Maybe some day you will. I still have the picture you gave me hanging in my apartment. It’s been all around the world.”
“I’m glad you like it.” She didn’t want to think about the night she gave it to him.
“Do you still paint?”
“When the spirit moves me, which isn’t often any more. I mostly work in watercolors now. That one with the lighthouse is mine.”
“I’m impressed again. It’s beautiful.”
If only real life could be as beautiful. “There’s one of Paul’s paintings in the front. Not his best work—that’s all in New York.”
“Can I see it?”
“If you like.” She was surprised he didn’t release her hand as they walked together, and wondered what it meant to him. Probably just comfort. She was more aware of his touch than she liked to admit.
She stopped in front of a life study highlighted in reds and blues. “He did this one about five years ago. He painted a whole series of them in just a few weeks.”
Jeremy studied it closely, his expression somber. “It must be hard to sell his work.”
“Not really. He would want them sold, and I have more.” She didn’t need reminders of those times.
“I remember how amazed I was at his talent and his energy when we met, and he was only nineteen then. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like Paul.”
“No, he was definitely unique.” Their eyes met, and somehow she couldn’t look away.
Another customer came in. Annie left Jeremy’s side to answer her questions about a sculpted collage of seashells and driftwood. She could sense Jeremy in the background, moving slowly around the gallery, but it was fifteen minutes before she completed the sale and could turn back to him.
His face was serious, but she could see the warmth behind it. “I suppose I shouldn’t bother you while you’re working, but it would be nice to catch up with you. I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner tonight.” He paused. “If you have a partner, he’d be welcome too, of course.”
“I’m footloose and fancy free, and I’d love to have dinner with you.” She hoped he couldn’t see her embarrassment.
His smile grew. “Good.”
* * *
Dinner was like a return to the first night they met, ten years earlier. They conversed easily, as if they had hundreds of things to tell each other. Annie was a rapt audience for Jeremy’s stories, and it seemed as if he couldn’t get enough of hearing about her.
There was one topic they avoided by tacit agreement. Neither mentioned Paul nor Annie’s life with him. Annie found it extraordinarily freeing, pretending she had gone straight from their first meeting to living on Cape Cod, without all those painful intervening years. It had been a long time since she felt this alive.
“Would you like to come back to my house for coffee?” she asked as they walked to his car. “It’s my great indulgence, coffee in all its forms. I love my cappuccino maker.”
“I’d be happy to help you indulge.” He opened the car door for her.
They drove in a companionable silence. Annie wasn’t used to having this amount of attention. She would have expected it to make her uncomfortable, but instead it gave her a warm feeling inside. There was just enough tension in the air to be enjoyable, yet not enough to worry her. He had never asked for more than she could give in the past, and she wasn’t getting any signals he planned to now.
He stopped the car in front of her modest grey-shingled house and followed her in. She wondered if he expected better than a front door that opened straight into the small living room. Even small houses on the Cape were expensive. But she liked the coziness of the room, with two of her landscapes and an abstract quilt hanging on the walls. She was pleased to see he paused to look at her paintings as she went into the kitchen to start the coffee.
He followed her a few minutes later, passing a large dog crate in the corner with a blanket in the bottom and a variety of chew toys. “What kind of dog do you have?”
“Dog? Oh, that. I don’t have a dog at all. I foster dogs for the local dog rescue group, taking care of them until they find homes. I don’t usually have one in the summer unless there’s a real crisis, since I’m not home enough this time of year to give a rescue dog the attention it needs.” She smiled at him as she foamed the milk.
“How long do you keep them?”
“Sometimes just a few days, or sometimes it can be weeks. It all depends on how hard they are to place.”
“It must be hard to give them up at the end.”
“Sometimes,” she acknowledged. She handed him a mug of cappuccino.
He took a sip, then wandered over to look at the crate again. “Do you ever think of getting your own dog?”
“I suppose if the right one came along I might, but it would be hard for me to have a dog of my own right now.” Dogs that came and went before she became too attached to them suited her just fine. “Do you like dogs?”
He glanced over at her. “Yes, I do.”
He walked around the living room, looking a little too large for the small space. Pausing by the fireplace, he inspected the photographs on the mantel. She knew what he must be looking for. There wasn’t a picture of Paul.
Jeremy turned to her and said, “This is an awful question to ask, so feel free to tell me it’s none of my business. What happened to Paul? Was he in an accident?”
She attempted a small smile. “You’re more restrained than most people. That’s usually the first question they ask.” She picked up her mug and stirred the cappuccino.
“I don’t want to upset you. Look, forget I asked.”
“No, it’s all right.” She put the spoon down carefully. “He killed himself.” She braced herself for the inevitable outflow of sympathy and masked curiosity.
“Jesus!” Jeremy said explosively. “You’re joking, right? No, of course you’re not joking. I just can’t believe it.” He paused, rubbing his hand across his forehead. “What a horrible thing to do to you.”
She maintained her composure until his last words, then a few silent tears gathered in her eyes. He had immediately grasped what so many others had missed, that Paul had hurt her. From habit she tried to minimize her distress. “It wasn’t the first time he tried it, so it wasn’t completely unexpected,” she said, as if that made any difference.
He came over to sit beside her on the couch. When she didn’t look up at him, he put his arms around her.
Compassion was the hardest thing for Annie to take. The tears started to pour down her face despite her best efforts. He turned her head into his shoulder, but instead of calming her, it made her cry harder.
She managed to stop after a few minutes, but accepted the comfort he offered for a little longer. How often had she wished for this in the last two years? Finally she freed herself from his arms and went across the room for a box of tissues. She dried her eyes slowly, then said with ironic humor, “You certainly didn’t know what you were getting yourself into when you walked into my gallery today.”
“I’m glad I did. I don’t want to push, but if you ever want to talk about what happened, I’m happy to listen.”
She straightened the pile of magazines on the end table. “That’s very kind of you.”
He exhaled sharply. “No, it isn’t. I’ve got a hell of a nerve,
showing up two years too late and suggesting anything I could do would help.”
Her hands stilled and she looked up at him, puzzled by his odd tone. “I really do appreciate the offer.”
He stood, and for a moment she thought he would approach her, but instead he turned to look out the window into the darkness. She wondered what he was thinking. He had again not asked the usual question, why Paul had done it, as if there were ever a simple answer to a question like that. Certainly there was no answer she wanted to give.
She wished this conversation had never started, that they could have continued the warmth and closeness they shared over dinner. But that would have been dangerous in its own way, so perhaps it was just as well. She didn’t know what Jeremy wanted from her, and she had nothing to give him. Men had no place in her life anymore.
The thought left a bitter constriction in her chest, but it was true. Paul had hurt her too badly. The trusting, light-hearted girl who had met Jeremy ten years earlier no longer existed. There was no use pretending otherwise. Paul had taken more than his own life.
Once upon a time pain like this would have made her cry, or perhaps even made her reach out to him, but she had studied in a harsh school since then. Silently she turned toward the kitchen. She started to clean the cappuccino machine, rinsing the nozzle more thoroughly than necessary. When she turned off the water, she heard footsteps behind her.
He was leaning against the doorframe, his hands jammed in his pockets. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“I thought we’d agreed on no more apologies.”
He shook his head. “This is a different kind. This is ‘I’m sorry I walked out of your lives and wasn’t there when I should have been, for either of you.’”
“Please. You couldn’t have known, and you didn’t walk out of Paul’s life. You just went on with your own, and it took you in a different direction. There’s no crime in that.”
“No. I walked out of Paul’s life, and I did it deliberately.”
So there was a reason they had never heard from Jeremy again, why he never responded to their Christmas cards or emails. It shouldn’t hurt so much. After all, he was Paul’s friend, not hers.
But his statement seemed to demand a response, so she asked, “Was there a problem, then?” She carefully dried the nozzle and reattached it to the machine.
He was silent for a minute. “You know there was,” he said.
“Actually, Paul didn’t talk about you much, and I’m sure I’d remember something like that.”
“It wasn’t about Paul.”
His words seemed to echo in the silence. Annie’s hands stilled on the cappuccino machine. She and Jeremy never had any problems. If anything, they got along too well for comfort. She couldn’t miss his implication, especially when she was guilty of the same crime he was confessing to. Finally she looked up at him.
He shrugged when she met his eyes, a faint smile of complicit guilt on his face. She could see he didn’t intend to press the issue, but she found her pulses racing anyway. She thought about his hand on hers in the shop, and his arms around her as she cried.
“I’m sorry you felt you needed to stay away,” she said at last.
“It seemed wisest at the time.”
“Sometimes tincture of time is the best remedy.” It was something she told herself regularly.
“In hindsight, it seems remarkably selfish.” He brought his cup to the sink. “It’s getting late. I should probably be going. Thanks for the cappuccino.”
She could hear the question in his voice, and knew she was being offered a graceful out. There was nothing to say, though. Ten years ago she might have been able to offer him something, but that was a long time ago. “Thank you for dinner. It was good to have a chance to catch up with you. It’s been too long.”
“Yes, it has.” His words had a finality to them.
She followed him as he turned toward the door. She switched on the outside light and opened the door, trying to chase away the tight feeling of sadness inside her. It was harder than she expected to let him walk away. Without considering what it meant, she said, “Well, you know where to find me now.”
He paused on the stoop and turned with a surprised look. “Yes, I do.” The darkness behind him drew her eyes to him and the increasing intensity of his gaze. He touched her cheek lightly, then bent his head to brush her lips with his.
She closed her eyes as long buried feelings surged through her. He took her silence for consent and continued his gentle exploration, nibbling and caressing her lips. He slid his hand back into her hair, cradling her head.
It had been so long, and he was the man she had never forgotten. Despite her resolve, her lips parted on a sigh. He took advantage of the opportunity for the briefest of explorations, then drew back to look at her, his fingers still entangled in her hair.
“I’ve wanted to do that for ten years,” he said. He withdrew his hand and stepped away. “Can I see you again while I’m here?”
“If you like,” she said breathlessly, still awash in her reaction to his kiss. It was hard to resist him when he asked for so little.
“I’d like to. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She nodded wordlessly, and he touched his lips to hers once more for a lingering moment. “Goodnight,” she said.
She watched him get into his car, her body tingling with feelings she had almost forgotten existed. She had lived like a nun these last two years, and it had been a long, lonely time before that. She knew better than to allow even this much, but it was sweet to want and be wanted again. She would need to put the brakes on tomorrow and tell him how little she had to give. But for now she allowed herself the memory of his lips on hers. There would be plenty of time for regrets later.