What it began with, I know finally, is my grim curiosity. It tunneled into my brain like a small, helpless animal when I was a child. In any perilous circumstance, I would wait for the outcome, regardless of how disastrous, instead of preventing it if I could. And with some shame, I admired myself for the discipline it took, for knowing that it was the not saving that would result in something extraordinary, something worth remembering. So, when I woke on the beach to a woman standing over me asking for a light, her skin and the early sun the same pale shade of yellow, I gave her what she asked for, and then watched her walk into the sea with a cigarette in one hand and a beer bottle in the other.
Out of a desire to soothe the community, the young pastor of Christ Church gave interviews to the local news station about the death of his wife, but on the day I wandered in and slid noiselessly into a back pew, it was clear they were not soothed. The church was bulging with suffering, and when the preacher climbed the steps to the pulpit and looked down at his congregation, he saw that they were afraid to look at him, as if he’d killed her himself. He tilted his head and sighed as he would each week thereafter, and it was always such a slight and confused gesture that a yearning to tell him what I’d seen at the beach welled up inside of me every time he did it, and then it was right in front of me: the gaunt woman pushing against the tide, the cigarette held elegantly above the water, the beer dripping into the sea, my hand shading my eyes as I watched her. I’d say something that would thin his confusion and suggest some goodness and gallantry on my part. Something to atone for sitting serenely under an untroubled sky as his wife dropped away from the sunlight. I would save us both.
So, on a stormy Sunday morning, I saw him in the sanctuary packing handbells into a box and said, “Your wife was drunk, you know. She didn’t mean to.” He had tried placing three large bells in the box at once, but they slipped from his hands and clanged loudly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he said. “She was what?”
He smelled faintly of wine, and had flecks of yellow cake on his shirt. His features were irregular, chaotic even, belying the fact that he was reliably constant. I started to repeat myself, but then he tilted his head in that pitiful way and the words wouldn’t come. I could see the longing in his face, I could see he wanted comfort, someone to help him pick through the pieces of his life and reconstruct it. I could see that he wanted it to be me, and it made me proud, but I had prepared nothing else to say. A lifetime of practiced watchfulness had left me all but mute; no uplifting quotes swimming in my head like white blood cells in marrow, waiting for a wound. The best I could do was, “Do you want to come home with me? I made sun tea.”
In the gauzy light of my bedroom, he looked gloomy and nearly shapeless, but still cast a sort of sanguine glow, like a thunder cloud filled with stars. I pulled my thoughts away from the push in my hips and considered him. He was unbearably shy. I forced him to sit up and face me, so he could see his fingers scratch at the sweat on my skin. He seemed a fiction, a long way from my considerations about other men. When I swayed on top of them, my thoughts stayed in my hips, but I saw his timidity fall away, and after we’d finished, he looked like he’d been filled with the breath of Christ. And I’d done that, put him on the road to resurrection where I needed to be, but then he said, “She’d left the house drunk so many times, I finally realized I was never relieved when she came back.” He moved out from under me and pulled the sheets around his waist. There was a kidney-shaped shadow cradling his neck.
“I thought you hadn’t heard me,” I said.
He glanced at me briefly before locking in on some spot in the far corner of the room. “That was you then, the woman on the beach?”
“I gave her a light,” I said.
“Well, I gave her a ride. She kept screaming about going to the beach. I didn’t want her killing anybody, so I drove her there.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“I watched from the car,” he said. “I was waiting to see what would happen next.” He lit the cigarette he’d taken from the nightstand and blew a column of smoke above our heads. “She had such long legs, like those insects, you know the ones that float on the water?”
“Yeah, those, water striders. I kept thinking maybe she wouldn’t go under. That I’d have to take her back home because she’d just float like one of those long-legged bugs.” He pulled hard on the cigarette. “But she didn’t.”
He fell asleep before I could ask him if he remembered how she dropped her head against the wind as it blew into her hair. Whether he thought the wind had blown out the tip of her cigarette. So, I just lay there for a long while, grim and curious, smoking, content. Seeing her slip under the water, and telling myself it was the fault of the ocean.