It’s one of those crisp days where everything is as it should be. The sky is a brilliant blue interspersed with cotton-white wisps of clouds. We’re at the turn of the season, so the plant life is robust with different shades of green and yellowed tips. There are dragonflies and beetles from the marsh at the shoreline buzzing over our heads. A bunch of us have taken the kids out on the lake in two motorboats. It is midmorning. The sun is growing warmer on the skin, slowly drying the moisture out of the ground. It smells of wet earth and new life.
The kids are teeming with excitement from seeing a mirage out on Crescent Island. Waita is sitting at the apex of our boat with his son securely between his knees. They’re pointing at a trio of Pelicans spreading their massive wings, preparing to take flight. There’s a beauty to him when he’s unguarded. I’ve always thought that you can see a person’s true essence when they don’t know that they’re being watched.
His face is like a bruise. I want to examine it keenly, explore it with a featherlike touch to understand its terrain. I want to feel the texture of his beard, that sprawling mane that is the picture of vitality. I want to know the softness of his lips and the way his jaw is set. I want to delight in that glimmer of mischief in his eyes that is reminiscent of more unencumbered times.
As I watch them – the father-son duo – a twinge of envy colours my vision. I am embarrassed by it, so I look away and hide my eyes behind sunglasses. I find children puzzling and frightening to be around. I think of them as anchors. Do you see how that can be both a good and a bad thing? Nonetheless, whenever I see Waita with his mini-self, pangs shoot through my belly. I feel deprived of something I have never had – one of many sensations the female body inflicts upon the female soul. It’s illogical yet too raw to not be real. I try to hide it behind the fog of nonchalance, the mist of forced cheer. Sometimes, with luck, I manage to deceive myself into thinking it’s not there. Most times though, it stalks me, reminding me of just how far removed I am from him. If I am honest, that’s the real reason I’ve stayed away.
The pelicans fly low, skimming their wings over the murky water. I have an urge to do the same, so I lean over the edge and let my fingers cut the waves. Behind me, the motorboat is leaving a frothy trail. One of the girls I’m watching wants to feel the water too but when her hand catches on a floating weed she shrieks and snatches her hand back. Then she narrates the whole thing back to me like I wasn’t just there watching her. I play the eager audience much to her delight. She will narrate it three more times before we get back to the campsite, and I’ll try to let the simplicity of her joy seep into me.
We stayed up talking well past daybreak until the rest unzipped their tents and staggered out. The light changes so splendidly at dawn. There’s something about that hour that just feels transcendent. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Men never want to just talk anymore. It’s become another feminine need I navigate with a lot of restraint lest my enthusiasm upsets my coolness factor. A woman must not be too open in displaying that she engages in deep thought on anything. It might give people the impression that she knows her mind and we can’t have that.
No. A woman must be able to hold a conversation without any of the fervour that shrivels men’s backs. Typically, that involves a lot of nodding, wide-eyed childlike innocence and the occasional naïve question. Then sit pretty. Watch and listen to the men deliver off beam, second-hand knowledge with the confidence of a maestro. Try not to think about your unmet needs for intellectual stimulation, your unsound choice of company and why you left the house, to begin with. Why you didn’t just snuggle up with your cat and finish that book on your nightstand.
There is a downside to such deep conversations. A spark of intimacy soon becomes a flame that wants to experience itself as a fire. Then before you know it you are both consumed in a raging inferno of emotions demanding to be felt. Waita says to give in. Surrender. Let it flow. He has this idea of me cutting fearlessly through the wilderness like a railway line, assured of the worlds and opportunities awaiting me on the other side of barren land. But I’m way more timid than he imagines.
I don’t thrive in uncertainty. I can’t bear not knowing whether I will get what I want. I am afraid of reflecting on this time in future and wanting to come back and change a decision I am making now.
He tells me, “Listen, we can’t structure every situation in life.”
I know. You can do everything right and still not get the outcome you hoped for. Some things are beyond us. That notwithstanding, I can’t wrap my head around the idea of surrender. I crave order. I need clarity. My thought life is chaotic enough as it is. My mind will not survive chaos within and without.
I want to say, “I think there is value in structure. Boundaries are important. They keep people from wounding each other unnecessarily.” But I don’t want to seem rigid, so I don’t. Instead, I tell him that that approach doesn’t work for me. He thinks I’m rigid anyway.
He’s going for a more formless construct. Blind trust. Another thing I am not only incapable of, but also have no desire to get mixed up in. Every human being is fallible. I know that all too well. A girl cannot live on good intentions alone. Show me the plan. Show me momentum, then I’ll get on board. He says my expectations are out of place. I feel rejected and misunderstood. We fight. That’s another thing I had forgotten. Our conversations must be punctuated by a fight or two. We are so similar that it’s gone past being a good thing and now it’s just tripping us up.
For a time we are mired in this great miscommunication. Silence ensues. We are good people. We like each other. Why can’t we figure it out?
“When I met Nora, I was in a hurry. I could feel time pressing into my back and I wanted to prove things,” he says. I’m not sure where he’s going with it. I’m not keen on hearing how he met his son’s mother but I have no words of my own to smooth things over. I look at the grass and let him speak.
“I’d worked it out in my head that being alone must mean that you are unwanted. Solitude is an awful, dreadful thing. A leprosy. And being unwanted must mean that you are faulty or unworthy in some way. You can understand where I got the idea. It’s a cultural thing. An identity thing. So to prove that I was both wanted and worthy, I could not be alone.”
“This was my state of mind when Nora came along. Long legs, narrow, huggable shoulders, impossibly beautiful smile.” Sigh. She does have a pretty smile. “She had a deceptive softness about her that led me to believe that I knew her. That I could predict what our life would be like.” He says. “But really, I think I wasn’t even trying to get to know her. I did not ask the right questions – not that I knew what they were. It wasn’t about her at all. It was about me. I was looking for validation. And what better validation than someone wanting me for life?”
I am surprised by his self-awareness. It is both new and unexpected. I did not think he’d put any thought into it. This time I know that no words are needed. He’s merely opened a window for me to peer into.
“The rest was just a natural progression,” he continues. “I knew what was expected of me so I never once stopped to introspect. Figure out whether I was choosing my life or life was happening to me. Do you see how structure can be misleading?” he asks. I nod. I see. Structure can be an adversary to conscious choice, or to put it simply, he wants to be sure he’s doing it for the right reasons before he commits.
“People often talk about the one who got away, as if there’s any chance or sense in keeping someone who doesn’t want to be kept,” he says. “Nobody ever talks about the one you should’ve waited for.”
“There is a case to be made that we meet people at precisely the right time,” I say.
He shrugs and takes my hand. “Jill, you are the one I should’ve waited for.”
Wouldn’t you know? It’s just what I needed to hear.13