by Gosia Nealon
The Island Club on Lake Montauk had filled up with people dining, dancing, or gambling. The air was rich with the scents of seafood and cigarette smoke, while a buzz of voices and laughter mingled with clinks of champagne glasses. Rhythmic jazz tune circulated in my brain while we sat at a small table observing dancing couples. I knew no one would ask me to dance.
“This music is a terrible racket,” the gray-haired Mrs. Crane said, her forehead creased. She sighed. “My late husband, Albert, couldn’t bring himself enjoy it either.”
“It’s so different from the old tunes,” Mama said, the corner of her mouth quirked up as she glanced at me. “But young people seem to enjoy it.” She looked stunning in a peach silk gown with a scoop neckline. I had her honey-blond hair and sunny blue eyes. My navy-blue rayon gown matched my dull spirit.
Mrs. Crane glanced up at a group of three men in tuxedos and a tall redhead in a white cocktail dress. The woman hung on the arm of a broad-shouldered man who looked to be in his thirties. “Their tastes are rotten. Do you see the tall man next to the woman in white gown?” She didn’t wait for our response. “He is a multimillionaire industrialist following in his father’s footsteps, but his personal life stinks like a basket of rotten potatoes.” She curled her lip, and then lowered her voice. “He changes women as often as he changes his underwear.”
I laughed deep in my throat as my mother peeked at Mrs. Crane in obvious disbelief. I glanced at the man and was astonished to discover him watching me. I nervously caught my lip between my teeth and turned my eyes away from him. He is so good looking.
The older lady held my gaze. “Watch out for him.”
“No need to worry, Mrs. Crane. He is not going to pay me any attention,” I said, giving her a half smile.
“You are wrong, honey.” Her face had an all-knowing look. “This man is a beauty connoisseur.”
“That is so kind of you, Mrs. Crane,” I said. But you forget I’m defective. People liked to assume things about me at first glance, ignoring my personality as if immediately labeling me with a huge sign that read “Defective.”
“Hello, Mrs. Crane.” The tall man had approached her. “How are you?”
The lady didn’t seem to be taken off guard. “I’m fine, Jack. How about you?”
“I’m fine as well, thank you.”
She scrutinized him and then introduced us.
“Enjoy this wonderful evening, ladies,” he said and gazed at me. “May I have this dance?”
He didn’t stare at my missing left arm, so I agreed.
“I haven’t seen you here before.” His words came out as a whisper.
“We arrived only today,” I said. The woodsy scent of his cologne made me to be very aware of his physical presence.
He nodded and smiled. “First time in Montauk?”
I ignored his eyes dwelling on my lips. “Yes,” I said in a cold tone of voice.
When the song ended, he walked me back to my table. But the moment he returned to his friends, they were all laughing at something. They are making fun at my expense. Hot tears welled into my eyes. It always ended this way.
The next day, I walked along the rocky shoreline and inhaled the briny sea air. My ears were attuned to the sound of crashing waves, my skin enjoyed the kiss of warmth and gentle breeze. I found a sandy spot with a distant but gorgeous view of the cylindrical towering structure of the lighthouse with bushes and greenery near its base. Except for a fisherman in a green shirt far in the distance, I was pretty much alone. I drew the view of the lighthouse until it was completed.
I stood up and stretched. The fisherman was no longer in sight. As I inched toward the ocean, the touch of cold water made me shiver. I felt a pain from stepping on the sharp rock, but it subsided as quickly as it came. I wished it would be the same with the pain inside me, that it would just disappear. But it didn’t, and in that lonely moment, it was unbearable. I stepped forward, feeling the water reaching my belly, my chest. I held my breath and closed my eyes. My mind sank deeply into nothingness. The moment I felt no sand under my feet, someone grabbed me and carried to the shore. I opened my eyes and stared at the fisherman’s green shirt, the one that had disappeared.
“Alice,” he said, his voice familiar. Jack. “Are you okay?” His voice laced with concern.
I sat upright. “I’m fine. I think my foot slipped, and I can’t swim.”
“I thought you were trying to—” His voice throbbed. “I thought—” The look in his eyes was blank.
He knows. “Thank you,” I said, forcing a smile.
“You’re shaking. Let’s cover you with something.”
When we returned to my belongings, he snatched the blanket out my basket and wrapped it around me.
“Really, I’m fine,” I said in a choked voice and looked up at him. He knelt in front of me, his eyes widening as if to say, You are lying.
I braced myself to come up with more assurance, but suddenly something broke in me like an erupting volcano. Unable to control the outburst of tears, I covered my face with my hand. The emotion stored in me for so long refused to stay in its place, and for the first time since childhood, I truly cried. He pulled my hand off my face and laid my head on his shoulder. I had never cried for so long, and then there was this silence interrupted only by a crash and fizz of departing waves.
I raised my head and distanced myself from this stranger who had suddenly became so close to me. “I’m so sorry. I should explain some things to you, so you don’t think I’m completely insane,” I said.
He held my gaze, and the only thing I could see in there was compassion.
“It’s only since the last week that I’ve been feeling so lost.”
He picked up a stick and drew a heart with it in the sand.
“You see, even though I was born without one limb, I still grew up thinking of myself as fortunate. My parents taught me to accept myself and to believe that physical defects are unimportant. They taught me how to deal with people’s reactions toward me. They made me so strong inside that I always ended up fine.
“But last week I took a blow, and it’s still so fresh.” I looked at his drawing. Two hearts. “I was engaged, and our wedding was to be today. I’d known Arthur for two years, and I trusted him. He seemed to accept my physical imperfection.” I shrugged and gave a nervous laugh. “But I caught him cheating on me with my half-sister. . . .”
“He was so very caring that I believed we could have a happy, dignified marriage, that one day love would grow out of respect.”
“You are a beautiful woman, and one day you’ll find someone who truly deserves you,” he said with a sober expression on his face.
Every fiber of my body was taut with appreciation. “Thank you for your kind words. Maybe one day, indeed, but now I need a long break from romantic involvements.” I smiled. “You sure sound different from the way Mrs. Crane described you.”
“Mrs. Crane is not fond of me, but I’m sure I’m not as bad as she thinks.” He paused, amusement glinting in his eyes. “I like your drawing of the lighthouse.” He raised his hazel eyes and smiled at me. “You should shade Abigail the Ghost into it; it would make it much more interesting.”
“Abigail the Ghost?”
“A captain’s young wife, Abigail was the only survivor of a ship that wrecked here on Christmas day of 1811. She was washed ashore but died soon after, and since then her spirit has roamed the lighthouse.”
“Does the legend say what she looked like?”
“I don’t know, but I imagine her as a blonde beauty in a sapphire dress.”
“No. A sexy girl in a white dress with flames of red curls. That’s more your type.” I met his eyes and gave a nervous laugh.
The entire three weeks of our stay in Montauk I spent either with Jack learning to swim and fishing, or with Mama and Mrs. Crane exploring various attractions within the crowded resort.
On September 21st, after a sleepless night, I sneaked out of our suite around seven to take a walk. The crisp touch of a breeze on my cheeks revived me. I paused on a hill in the far back of the resort with a view on the fishing village on Fort Pond Bay. White fishermen’s houses, warehouses, docks, and three piers sprang up along the shore.
I knew Jack planned to join some local fishermen on their boat this morning, so by now he was far out on the ocean. I turned around, but bumped into Jack. His eyes burning with something I couldn’t quiet place. Desire. An internal alarm went off. “I thought you were to fish today?”
“Hi.” His voice seemed distracted. “I’m actually on my way now, but I’ll be back around noon, if you want to have a picnic at the lighthouse beach.” He smelled of a fresh soap.
“Mama insists I spend the last day entertaining Mrs. Crane.” I turned my eyes away from him, toward the bay.
He reached for my hand and curled his fingers around mine. My nerves tingled through my body. “Let me make myself clear.” His fingers tightened on mine. “I want to keep seeing you when we are back in the city, but not just as a friend.”
I looked him in the eye and forced a laugh. “I can’t believe you are proposing this.” I snapped my hand from his. “Friendship is the only thing you’ll get from me. I’m not going to be one of the many women you take to bed and then discard once you are bored.”
His expression hardened. “You are a spoiled little girl, Alice, who puts herself ahead of everyone else. You cry that people label you and they don’t care of who really you are, but then you do the same thing.” He paused, his hazel eyes blazing down at me. “You labeled me from day one, regardless of my behavior or my actions.”
“You are wrong,” I said, feeling cornered by his bluntness. “I’m just not ready for a new relationship, for new heartbreak. And it’s clear that you’re a philanderer.”
“People change, Alice.” He didn’t wait for my response but trotted down the steep path.
Do they? Do people change? While I liked him and was attracted to him without a doubt, I was also afraid of him. Deep inside, I knew that he would get bored with me the moment he saw someone prettier or more intriguing on the horizon. Hell no, there is no way I would entangle myself in such an arrangement.
“Are you sure, Alice?” At first, I thought I heard my own voice in my head, but then I realized it was my mother’s voice cutting across my thoughts.
“I’m sure, Mama. I don’t want to be hurt ever again.” My voice held a bitter note.
“And you are sure this man intends to hurt you.”
“He is just a ruthless millionaire. You should know firsthand how men like him treat innocent women.” The moment I said it, I regretted it. “I’m sorry, Mama. Please forgive me.”
She frowned but kept silent. She was nineteen when she came to Ellis Island on the steamship from Poland, and she was six months pregnant with me. It was too late when she learned that pregnant unmarried women weren’t welcome in this country. My biological father was from a Polish noble family, and she was just a peasant girl, so his family forbade him to marry her.
“Witold was young and weak,” she said in a quiet voice. “And what we had was just an enchantment.”
I couldn’t help staring at her. “Enchantment?” Just when my mother was labeled as an undesirable to be sent back to her old country, she met my stepfather. He was the doctor who examined her in the small room on Ellis Island. She spoke only Polish, but he had been born to a Polish mother, thanks to whom he spoke quiet good Polish.
“I found true love with your Papa.” He helped her to be admitted into this country. Once he told me that Mama took his breath away when he entered that small room on the Ellis Island.
“People change,” she said.
“Maybe they do, but not Jack.” I took a step back.
“I see the way he looks at you, like you are the only one in the room. And I see how your face lights up every time he is near you. She captured my face in her hands. “Let your heart speak this time. Whatever you have with Jack seems special.”
Around ten o’clock in the morning, black clouds arrived and the rain began its dance. Mrs. Crane complained of a headache and took to her bed while Mama dipped into James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. I was free to do whatever I wished. I already felt lonely without Jack.
By two o’clock, the wind strengthened, picking things up along its way and swaying trees, whimpering like a sick animal, while bursts of rain crashed against the windows. And then, something shook the earth so hard that for a moment I thought it was the end of the world.
My thumping heart caused pains in my chest, but I sprang to my feet and looked through a blurry window, focusing on the fishing village below along the shoreline. Huge waves were sweeping houses into the bay, shuffling boats, piers, trees.
I ran off to the next room to find Mama. She hovered near the window while Mrs. Crane clung to her chair. “Thank goodness we are on high ground, so the flooding can’t reach us,” Mrs. Crane said in a strangled voice, her face pale. “I heard pieces of roof falling down.”
“But what happened to the people from the fishing village?” I asked in a daze. What if Jack is still out on the ocean?
It turned out that people from the village walked over through high water and blowing wind to our hotel on the hill. The enormous lobby was crowded with villagers, hotel guests, and worried-looking employees. I reeled around trying to find Jack, but I had no luck. I went upstairs to his suite, but there was no answer to my knock. The desk clerk confirmed my worst fear. Jack had not been seen since very early this morning. Dizziness swept through me. I held onto the counter, waiting to regain my balance.
The next day, people rejoined their families after waiting out the storm elsewhere. Homeless families found temporary shelter in our hotel. But Jack was not one of them, so I kept asking around and waiting. Water had flooded the bay, and Montauk was now an island; we were isolated. Reports of bodies found in the water buzzed around like unwanted insects.
On the second day, I had less and less hope. I felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing. One immense nothing. And then the realization of my true feelings toward Jack hit me hard.
I cared for him more than just a friend. I begged for another chance for us, for his return. I wanted to leave the hotel in search of him, but Mama wouldn’t let me go. “If he is dead, there is nothing you can do, sweetheart.” She looked up at the wood ceiling beams. “But if he survived, with God’s help, there are crews out, and they will find him.”
By the third day, the roads were cleared enough that we could leave, but I begged Mama to stay longer, as I believed Jack would eventually get through to us. There was still no electricity, nor working telephones lines, and Mama didn’t want Papa to worry about us any longer, but she stayed with me, entrusting Mrs. Crane to pass the news to Papa, my two sisters, and three brothers.
The fact that there were no more corpses found outside kept my hopes up.
“He’s alive, Mama. I feel it in me,” I said on our way to the kitchen, to help prepare food for the people sheltered at the hotel. We stopped in the lobby to check for mail, even though we suspected there would be none.
“Alice.” The so familiar voice called from behind me. I froze, but then my heart leapt with joy. He stood just a few feet away from me, wearing clean clothes, and with no sign of filth or fatigue. But as he got closer, I saw his face was pale, and there were dark shadows under his eyes, like he hadn’t slept in days. His expression tore at my heart, he seemed so vulnerable.
“Alice,” he said again, his voice throbbing, “you are okay.”
I couldn’t take my eyes away from him, but I couldn’t speak.
He cleared his throat. “You know, that morning you rejected me, I canceled the fishing and drove back to the city. The last days were the hardest in my life because I had no way to protect you. Despite the fact you’ve known me for such a short time, please give me a chance.”
I didn’t fight back my tears. “Yes,” I whispered, my voice drained of emotion.
About the author
Gosia Nealon lives in Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, with her husband and two sons. Her work was recently awarded Fourth Place in the Genre Short Story category in the 89th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her previous work has appeared in the Polish former magazine, Eko Swiat and (mac)ro(mic).