The Cusp of Dreams/Chapter 3: Embers
Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets
Mer had tawny, shoulder-length, wavy hair with highlights that exploded to strawberry-blond. During business hours it was generally pulled away from her face, accentuating her finely shaped features and gray-green eyes. At night it was carelessly tousled, long and flowing. On elegant occasions, Mer’s mane was spiraled atop her head, underscoring her perfect features.
At twenty-seven, Mer was in full bloom. If her face drew attention to her natural beauty, her slouched posture, by contrast, minimized her lanky five-foot-eight-inch frame and stunning physique. With nonchalance bordering on indifference, Mer made her presence felt. Breasts, ample and alluring, were never accentuated. Her small waist and long limbs contrasted noticeably with her curvaceous hips.
Casual clothing defined Mer. Khakis or jeans were matched with cotton tees, topped by flannels, sweatshirts, or sweaters depending upon the occasion. Sandals and sneakers generally served for footgear. When required, sleek business suits alternated with flattering sheaths to replace Mer’s everyday attire, though there was a carelessness shown in her selection of accessories that heralded her style of elegant disarray.
Hers was a family of distinguished lineage. They traced their kin back to Mayflower days and beyond to the illegitimate offspring of the British royal family. Mer, shortened from Meredith Elizabeth Reynolds, counted one great-great-grandfather, who served as Vice President (father’s side); a great-uncle, who was appointed Secretary of State (Reynolds); and several relatives who were appointed as judges, the most notable of whom served as Massachusetts State Supreme Court Justice (mother Richards’ clan).
And what of my looks, my pedigree? By comparison I was a little short, at five-feet-five inches. I was in my mid-thirties, reasonably attractive and athletically slim. My auburn hair fell loosely about my face, complementing my hazel-green eyes. Still, what were these attributes compared with the splendor of Mer?
During the day, I wore conservative business suits, men’s dress, tailored for the workingwoman. Even my after-hour clothing was a uniform (strictly Gap). As for my ancestry, it was a melting pot of Dutch, northern Italian, as well as a bit of the Irish blended with eastern European Jew. While I might pass muster within Protestant ranks, there was no escaping my mongrel mix. Then there was my husband, Tom. With his mother’s Pale of Russian Semitic features, people would assume we were both Jewish. So it was decided. In contrast to Mer’s old-school, Wasp pedigree, Tom and I were “the other,” the ethnically blended, striving middle class.
Mer captured my heart from the moment we met. I was interviewing prospective employees for a number of positions. She soared above her competition. Her performance for two high-tech companies located on the Route 128 corridor revealed a litany of accomplishments. She exuded confidence. Here was a woman of style and grace, who clearly excelled in business. And given her manner, carriage, and expectation of closing major deals, what could she bring me except success?
If Mer’s credentials were impeccable, my hiring package was less than satisfactory. To sweeten the offer, I suggested she assume my former territory, which had the largest account base in metro New York. This assignment virtually assured her of substantial earnings her first year, provided she successfully managed the clientele. Even so, I searched for ways to enhance the position, convinced that she would never accept it.
But my fears proved mistaken. Mer’s fiancé, Edward, pressed her to say yes. He was eager for her to join him in his six-story walkup in Hoboken, so that they might begin their life together and finalize their wedding plans. I suspect my offer provided him with a means to an end—their union. Certainly, Mer was qualified to receive better positions, but I imagine Edward felt a job in hand outweighed a desk drawer full of promising maybes.
Whatever their reasoning, I was delighted with the outcome. In my quest to ensure that nothing dampened Mer’s enthusiasm, I offered to help her move from Brookline to Hoboken. My husband, Tom, objected to my involvement. Perhaps he was a little jealous, though his reasoning was flawlessly logical.
“You can’t pick favorites,” he argued. “It’s not a good business practice. Besides, the others will find out. They’ll get angry and use it against you. And what about Edward? Why isn’t he helping Mer move? If he’s so crazy to have her join him, then let him lift a finger or two.”
“Edward’s a lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions,” I replied. “Those hired guns don’t have a minute to breathe. Fourteen-hour days are standard for them. They work round-the-clock to close deals. I’m sure they’ll arrange to have some of Mer’s heavier stuff moved professionally, but Amtech has only an eight-hundred-dollar relocation allowance. My assistance will enable her to cut down substantially on moving costs.”
That was what I said. Logically, I made my case. In speaking with Tom I was careful to keep my emotions under wraps. No need to incur his suspicion. Naturally, he acceded to my wishes. I didn’t become a manager without developing great negotiating skills.
A week later, I drove up to Mer’s Brookline apartment to help her load up the rental van. That evening we feasted on pepperoni pizza and finished off a bottle of Chianti. Sure, the meal was nothing special. But that didn’t diminish the aura of that wondrous night. Even devoid of furniture, Mer’s place enticed. Our two sleeping bags nestled together on an area rug that covered an oak floor. A candelabrum substituted for a lamp, casting pinkish hues on beige-colored walls. Mellifluous voices flowed from the radio, melodious timbres that raised my spirit aloft. The fire blazed, its burning embers wafting smoky incense. Sleep was ethereal that night.
Early the next morning, we headed south to Hoboken. We arrived by half past one that afternoon. Within hours we emptied the van, filling the apartment with her furniture. The flat, though compact, was charming. While the two bedrooms were small, the bath strictly functional, and the kitchen barely had room barely for one, these drawbacks scarcely mattered. For it was the other rooms that captivated.
The front door of the apartment led into a tiny, arched foyer with a creamy, marble floor that flowed toward Mer’s parlor. With its hand-carved oak bookcase, its working fireplace, and its parquet floor, the parlor exuded grace. Its leaded-glass doors opened into an elegant dining room with an ornate, crystal chandelier. These three rooms transformed the apartment from a modest dwelling into an intimate abode. That afternoon amid the boxes, the books, the clothing, we sipped Earl Grey tea and snacked on biscuits in the parlor.
Later, with the place looking fairly settled, I said goodbye. We hugged and I headed home to Hastings on Hudson. I found myself humming during the drive back. Mer’s apartment brought back a flood of memories of my single days following college. My first pad, a Manhattan shoebox in the Village that was all charm and little practicality. I remembered the thrill of those first few years of glorious independence, having conveniently forgotten the anxieties of that age. Nothing could have dampened my spirits on the drive home. I was confident Mer would thrive in her new surroundings.
. . . . .
Soon after Mer relocated, we fell into a routine. After hours we often went for drinks. Occasionally, Tom and Edward joined us for dinner. Once or twice the four of us splurged on a Broadway show. That February, Mer and Edward joined Tom and me at our cabin near Stowe over a long holiday weekend. We were inseparable throughout those three snowy, cold days as we skied, tobogganed, skated, dined, and sipped cider around a roaring fire. When we finally parted company, the chill of Mer’s absence blew colder than even the fiercest, Canadian winds.
As consolation, I reminded myself that Tom and I had plans to join Mer and Edward that summer at her family retreat on the remote island of Matinicus in Maine. Although Mer said that the pictures she had showed me hardly did the place justice, nevertheless, they helped me imagine her summer compound. The camp comprised several cabins. The main lodge faced east toward the ocean swells. Even with just snapshots, I was enthralled by the island’s majesty. I asked Mer if I could keep the prints for a while in order to show Tom. In truth, I languished over them, enticed by the beauty of that remarkable island and by the opportunity it presented to spend a few days with Mer. I began marking my calendar, a daily countdown to our June adventure.
Despite Tom’s warnings about developing emotional attachments with employees, mixing business with pleasure proved a heady intoxicant. Of course, Mer and I were discreet. In any case, the sales team loved her. She was warm, candid, and giving. Her performance was good, consistently toward the top of my team. She was the first to help anyone needing assistance. Her generosity spread goodwill amongst the group, boosting their performance and camaraderie.
Although Mer outwardly demonstrated confidence, ease, and lightness of touch, she worried about her performance and worked hard to achieve her goals. Often she took the company’s financial objectives to heart and became frantic in her efforts to ensure that she made corporate benchmarks. Mer’s dedication and zeal put me in the unusual position of reassuring her that she was well on the way toward achieving her goals. In many respects, her anxieties were characteristic of many top performers. I understood her fears. I, too, had pulled out all the stops, put my personal life on hold, and worked late nights and weekends in order to achieve success.
And while Mer worried about her standings, her customers adored her. “Oh it’s you,” they’d say with cheerful disparagement when I appeared. “Where’s Mer?” And then she would bound in, all smiles with pumpkins on her ear lobes at Halloween, turkeys at Thanksgiving, and red, sequined balls at Christmas.
“Hey Galvin, hey George,” Mer responded, “what’s happening?” She was always up-to-date on the account, always abreast of the interests and issues of the top officers, always offering the latest proposals toward streamlining their production process. Sometimes, Mer brought with her a tin of homemade cookies she had baked. It was a warm gesture that worked wonders, opening even the most Midas of purse strings.
It was a joy working with her. Mer’s calls were meticulously prepared. Clients delighted in her warmth and professionalism. Our days of traveling together gave me a rare opportunity to sit back and occasionally help the dollars roll in. With Mer, there was no crisis management. I never scrambled to salvage her missed opportunities or recoup her lost sales, though these were activities that consumed most of my waking hours with her peers. I looked forward to day’s end when I might climb the steps to Mer’s place. There was the delightful prospect of her company. Oh, the treats she spread out in front of me: the sip of a good wine, the bite of some nicely aged cheese, the heel of some recently baked bread. Precious moments, intimate moments that sustained me until our next meeting.
. . . . .
That spring, Tom and I attended Mer and Edward’s wedding. Not surprisingly, it was lavish. The setting was The Church of the Advent, a beautiful Episcopal Church located at the foot of Beacon Hill between Charles Street and the river. The wedding party had four bridesmaids and four bridegrooms. The invitees included society matrons, church fathers, civic leaders, and social reformers. Nearly two hundred guests were in attendance. The wedding was exquisitely planned and executed to perfection. It was a late afternoon affair. The sonorous voices of an a cappella choir filled the air. There was Mer in her shimmering gown, a cathedral train flowing in her wake. Edward’s arm was securely fastened around her. Never did she look more beautiful.
Later, we retired to a reception held at the Ritz Carleton in Cambridge. Mer and Edward danced for hours, effortlessly covering the ballroom floor, jiving to the swing tunes of Johnny and the Blues Boys. Tom and I watched the newlyweds’ departure amid the tossing of rice and flower pedals.
For most people weddings, births, christenings, confirmations, and graduations serve as cultural beacons. They enable members of the community to appraise, judge, and celebrate their most cherished moments. By my way of thinking, however, these events are nothing but social conventions bound by elaborate rituals to commemorate special occasions. Even though it has been twelve years since Tom and I married, I still object to the public ceremony that sanctified our union. That’s not to say our gathering wasn’t special. There we were standing along the edge of an ocean bluff looking out to sea, our hands entwined. Only close friends and family were in attendance. Even today those memories evoke strong feelings in me. There I was, flowers in my hair, wearing an Indian-print, muslin dress, my feet shod in only the thinnest of leather-thong sandals. Tom stood next to me, wearing a wide labeled jacket and flared trousers. By today’s standards our fashion statement was a comic mix of counterculture spiced with disco.
No doubt, many would argue that my objections reflect my generation’s spirit of rebellion. Maybe so. Nevertheless, if I had it to do all over, and if our union necessitated a public gathering, then I would still choose the company of a few close friends and the tuneful strands of a flautist’s notes to celebrate our wedding. Certainly, I cherish memories of Tom’s faltering voice as he affirmed his vows. I recall my steadfast reply to his tear-choked words. What a contrast two weddings separated by a dozen years make. So while I have no great affection for these rituals, nevertheless, I appreciated the tasteful elegance that characterized Mer’s wedding.
I also delighted in the opportunity it afforded me to meet her family and learn more of her history. Her parents, Mildred and Richard Jay, though only in their sixties, were not robust. Both were heavy set and had trouble moving about. I shuddered for their future, sensing debilitating ailments that would constrain their movements and shorten their lives. Then there was her brother, Philip. Though twenty-five and accompanied by his lady of the moment, he was still apparently unspoken for as the evening later bore witness. For Philip danced and flirted with the entire cotillion of Mer’s girlfriends and bridesmaids. Given his youth and demand on the dance floor, I was flattered that he took the time to spend a few moments with me. And grateful that he chose to divulge some intimate, family stories.
So it was from Philip that I learned the salient details of Mer’s upbringing. The family money was inherited from the maternal side of Richard Jay’s family. He was a Bostonian born to riches, bred for power, but alas, neglected, despite the silver spoon. There were successions of nannies, cooks, and butlers. His parents, doctor and artist, were present in name only. “This lack of love,” Philip said, “incapacitated father.” Despite his Harvard law degree and the many job offers it conferred, Richard Jay was unable to work. It was Mildred, who became gainfully employed. As director of the local Family Service Agency, it was she who provided strength, purpose, moral fiber, and social commitment. It fell to her to make a plea to Richard Jay’s family for money to meet their daily requirements. She did this and more.
Richard Jay, by contrast, remained home, walled in his study, composing letters to the editor of the Harvard Law Review, the administrators at the Fogg Art Museum, and the trustees of the Boston Athenæum. Mildred was left to attend to the details of the children’s upbringing. It was she that laid the groundwork for Mer’s and Philip’s acceptance to Richard’s alma mater, Boston Latin. This selection was ideal. It affirmed democratic principles (public education) and exclusivity (one of the finest schools in the country), a combination perfectly suited for nurturing a governing elite. And in a setting conducive to fostering ties with Boston’s Brahman. Private college would fortify the twin pillars of elite sensibility: noblesse oblige and class entitlement. Of course, Philip had the added pressure of succeeding where his father had failed. Nevertheless, the nurturing bonds of family appeared to minimize any anxieties or potential handicaps he may have had.
As a woman committed to social justice, Mildred’s efforts outside the home focused on helping those less privileged. Naturally, she was distraught the day she learned the director of her church choir, Jason Gates, had been diagnosed with AIDS. His lover, George Hutchinson, was incapable of providing the necessary care for his partner. Jason’s parents intervened, insisting he return home with them. But their demand could be met only at a terrible cost: the banishment of George Hutchinson. Mildred could not imagine Jason, whose support she had sought and received for over twenty years, dying amid such rancor. So she invited him to live with the Reynolds. Jason was given Mer’s room. George was welcomed as a member of their extended family, free to come and go as he pleased. A private nurse was hired, though in fact Mildred assumed many of the responsibilities for Jason’s care.
Mer returned home that Thanksgiving from her freshman year at Goucher College to find Jason occupying her bedroom. Imagine her rage.
“Mother, how dare you! You’ve no right to give away my room. No right at all. What am I to do? Where am I to go? Just a few months away from home and now I’m tossed right onto the streets.”
She stomped away. She slammed doors. Her tears were bitter. Her accusations rang out, echoing throughout the house. Yet, before the holiday was over, there was Mer, helping Mildred with the bedpans, joking with Jason, greeting George with a hug. Mer buried her pain, banished it underground. By the time I came to know her, she had fully internalized her mother’s principles.
“How thankful I am,” she once said to me, “that I’m borne of a mother blessed with moral strength and godliness.”
I was astonished to discover that evening at Mer’s wedding that among Blue Chip families I might still find evidence of Christian virtue. In the Reynold’s household these values were fully intact, public responsibility frequently taking precedence over personal needs. I left Mer’s wedding chagrinned by my solipsistic credo.
Perhaps, it seems strange that I go on at such great length about Mer. Maybe, she doesn’t seem that remarkable to you. I’m not even sure that I will be able to properly explain my attraction to her. But since my relationship to Mer lies at the heart of this story, I feel compelled to try. Certainly, Tom was an exemplary husband, a great lover, and a devoted friend. Our marriage was good. Yes, we were happy. We shared a great life together. And yet . . . I wanted more.
Don’t misunderstand me. I loved Tom both physically and emotionally. He was attractively built with a muscular frame that accentuated his broad shoulders and slim hips. He was of medium height with curly hair, which I loved to run through my fingers. Semitic features, which I found attractive. As I said before, sex was great. As a partner he was thoughtful, loving, and caring. Best of all, Tom was imaginative, both in and out of bed. We enjoyed one another’s company. Despite similar values, our personalities contrasted dramatically. Tom was upbeat; I was pessimistic. He was sociable; I was mercurial. Tom displayed his emotions; mine lay buried. He was affectionate and devoted, melting my frosty exterior. No other man understood me with the completeness Tom did. He saw my rages; he witnessed my selfish whims. And yet, he loved me.
Perhaps you think of Tom as pure fantasy. Certainly, if he were contrasted with the shortcomings of other men, Tom’s quirks might be viewed as heavenly virtues. He wanted me with him always. He was protective and enveloping. He watched over me, trying to safeguard my future.
But I was a product of a large disheveled family that eschewed supervision. I found Tom’s solicitousness at times smothering, despite the supreme comfort I took in knowing the constancy of my lover’s devotion and the thrill I had in recognizing that his flashes of wit and insight still ignited passion in me after years of marriage. Did I fall for him yet again and again? Yes, always.
But perhaps a loving relationship is never quite enough. It seems only natural to always want more. And that “more” for me encompassed the companionship of both sexes. During my college days, I categorized friendships by gender. With men I engaged in sports. We camped, hiked, skied, and river rafted. If they were handsome and exciting, well, then there was the prospect of sex.
With women I sought the emotional. I yearned for long, intimate discussions. The intense ties with women were both jealous and possessive by their very nature. No relationship with a male involved these grasping, clutching, binding tentacles so characteristic of female interaction. True, there were only a few close friendships of the kind I am describing. And yes, these dissolved as the responsibilities of adulthood held sway.
Maybe my situation becomes clearer if I tell more of my story. Tom and I married three years after I finished college. I left Manhattan to join him in the burbs. I’ve lived in a succession of suburban communities throughout the tri-state region. And for me, they all spelled certain death. They were devoid of culture and from this followed an insistence on conformity and the need to have children. Certainly, Connecticut was the prettiest. It was a suburb disguised as country club. There your brain atrophied amidst country roads, horses, winding hills, and forests. Long Island was the worst.
That first year we lived in an apartment in Garden City. It was an affluent community composed of expensive homes and educated neighbors. But all I saw was big hair . . . shopping . . . malling . . . lawns . . . sidewalks . . . and parkways. Eleven months later, we bought a house. I still remember that awful day. And the realtor, Elaine, with her teased, platinum hair and her Cadillac (this was, after all, 1980).
One dreary day in May we joined her for lunch. Afterward, we were scheduled to look at a number of houses. During the meal, I excused myself and made my way to the ladies’ room. I cried in that stall, bawled my heart out. My future was forecast in graveyard hues captioned with tombstone script: suburban homeowner, platinum hair, wife, mother. I could foresee my career—surely that of a realtor. Women only seemed permitted to have jobs selling homes here. I would bear the obligatory two children. I would faithfully attend cocktail parties with Tom. Yes, even as late as 1980, cocktail parties were still de rigueur. I would entertain the corporate family. I would support my husband’s career with all the charm I could muster. Yet, it all seemed to ensure my painful demise. In that case, why not get it all over with quickly? Where the hell was my razor?
Despite these surging emotions, reality intervened. Here I was in a public bathroom, minus a razor. Tom and what’s-her-name were out there waiting for me to return to the table, sit down, and assume the responsibilities of suburban homeowner.
“Be an adult, be an adult, be an adult,” I whispered.
So with grave misgivings, I dried my eyes and returned to lunch. To their credit, they said nothing of my red eyes and swollen eyelids. As I forked my food, I visualized my coffin on my plate. It was a solid, oak casket lined in red satin. And there I was, lying right in it. I was almost resigned to my fate when in horror I realized my hair was now platinum and carefully coifed. Incredulous, I kept starring. I noticed a realtor’s badge pinned to, can you believe it, a paisley print dress? I even wore pumps. Close the casket, I couldn’t help thinking. Just get it over with. Suffocate me. Be done with it.
And so, I supported Tom’s decision to buy a house. Within seventy-two hours we had selected one. We had barged our way back into the dwelling in order to beat another couple in a bidding war. It was considered a real find back then at only $81,000. These days it would sell for at least a respectable $290,000. It was a lower-middle-class dwelling circa 1930 that, because of changing times, conferred affluence. Yet, at that time we could barely afford to make the monthly payments.
But I guess I wasn’t ready to die. Even with our new home, I managed to step out of my coffin, kicking it aside. I decided I wasn’t going to be a typical, suburban wife. Instead, I kept my job with one of the major ad agencies in New York. The city continued to be my lifeline, my salvation. As for my colleagues, they were interesting enough, but commuting a couple of hours each day and sustaining a marriage left little time to develop or maintain close friendships. Still, that didn’t stop me from occasionally frequenting the bars with my co-workers. As I said, the city was my lifeline. Anything to put some distance between the island and me.
Tom, eight years my senior, could afford to be supportive of me. He did all he could think of to ease my transition to our new married life. Over time the oppressive weight of suburbia lifted a bit. I “matured.” We left Long Island and found nicer communities. But we still had no children. We formed no social affiliations. We didn’t even join a church or synagogue.
By the mid-eighties, I had left advertising and was working in corporate sales where the money was good. I still had no close ties with women. In any case, there was no time outside the workplace to pursue these relationships, even if the possibility existed. Now the landscape was changing. Women were becoming players in the workforce. Cocktail parties had become passé because no one had time to spare. Leisure was relegated to the downsized. Corporations no longer served as social entities. You were hard pressed to find a company man, let alone a corporate culture. Business colleagues were all identical, cutthroat and brutal.
Does this explain my attraction for Mer? Lord knows I was parched from lack of female companionship. Yet, we were very different. She was far more conventional. There would be children in her future; she would without complaint follow Edward’s career wherever it took him. She was Christian in outlook, if not in actual practice. She identified with established communities and the need to belong. Despite our differences or perhaps because of them, I hungered for her warmth, her intimacy, her goodness. Can you understand my passion? Surely it was worth the risk?
. . . . .
So we agreed to join Mer and Edward that June in Maine at her summer place on Matinicus. The property had been in her family’s possession for well over a hundred years. From the pictures Mer had showed me and the passing comments she had made, I knew that several of the cabins were badly in need of repair. Extensive renovations were needed on the roofs and cabins, in addition to replacing rotting wood, failing plumbing, and faulty electrical fixtures. Then, there was maintenance—painting and staining and refinishing cabinets and floors, as well as the weekly efforts to combat dust and dirt and the threat of mildew. According to Mer, one of the more derelict buildings even had bats hanging under the eves. Goats roamed freely throughout much of the property, serving both as the source for milk and cheese and as a means of trimming grasses and shrubbery. Nevertheless, the grounds were far from manicured.
In many respects the camp seemed reminiscent of John Cheever’s stories. It was a Wasp stronghold with all the presumptions of social class, bearing, and entitlement, despite its disheveled condition. Mer was in the process of discussing with her cousins, with whom she and Edward held joint title, whether summer rentals to Off-Islanders were required to pay the bills.
Still, if the pictures were any guide, nothing could diminish the beauty of the camp’s surroundings. It offered a panoramic view that stretched toward a seemingly endless horizon. It wasn’t hard to imagine Europe floating three thousand miles to its east. From the family compound, Mer said you could view fishing boats and hardy sailing vessels headed out to sea. It was quite simply, another world. An isolated, desolate one at that. As the outermost island of Penobscot Bay occupied year round, it seemed nothing short of visiting Matinicus could convey its rugged, breathtaking vistas and its utter remoteness. One would feel truly alone on Matinicus with only the sound of breaking waves, bell buoys, and foghorns. Sheer bliss.
Getting there was another matter entirely. At Mer’s suggestion, I drove up with her on Thursday. We arrived at Rockland around six that evening, relieved to find clear skies and good visibility. Tom and Edward would join us by the seaplane shuttle the following evening. In theory, the state of Maine ran a ferry between Matinicus and Rockland three times a month during the summer and monthly in winter. Fog and tide, however, often conspired to delay. Since the ferry could only unload its cargo at mid-tide or higher, islanders complained they were forever waiting for advancing seas. Consequently, most residents opted to make the passage with their own private boats or by means of the local air-taxi service.
In the case of the Reynolds, their 1979 forty-two foot Grand Banks served as their primary mode for transporting parties to and from the mainland. Penob, with her two 120 horsepower Lehman engines, was fully equipped with all the latest navigational gear including autopilot, radar, GPS, depth, speed, and wind indicators. Given Maine’s propensity for fog and extreme weather, I must admit that I was relieved to see the arsenal of instruments and Mer’s steady hands at the helm.
Did I say Maine was cold? I was layered in wool long underwear and sweaters and still only the foul weather gear I retrieved from the storage locker below brought me back up on deck. There was Mer on the flying bridge. Her hands resting on the wheel, oblivious to the wind and cold. She was whistling and humming as we sped through the waters. It wasn’t long before we reached the island and tied up to a mooring by the muted light of the setting sun.
Barely had we secured Penob, when Kim, the property caretaker, motored out to meet us. She was driving a seventeen-foot Boston whaler that served as a launch. Kim had the look of a native islander. Her features were coarse. Lines had already begun to edge her sunburnt face, though she couldn’t have been much more than forty. Her brown hair was cropped short and bunched under a black wool hat. But it was her hands that fascinated. Strong, capable hands that appeared to make an honest living. She was dressed in foul weather boots, jeans, and a worn, dark, heavily used, hand-knit sweater. Though powerfully built, it was hard to determine Kim’s shape given the unisex, loose drape of her clothes. I imagined that she had another two outfits virtually identical to this one and, other than foul weather gear, that might be the sum total of her wardrobe.
“Hiya, Mer.” They embraced before Kim greeted me. “Susan, welcome to Matinicus.” Turning back to Mer, Kim commented, “Fog rolled in this mornin’. It left with the tide. Got the lodge set up for you both. I’ll be in Haley’s place. Let’s get you home before the chill settles in.”
“Thanks Kim,” Mer replied, “for setting things up and coming out to meet us.”
And that was pretty much the extent of their conversation. We drove in silence, first on paved and later on dirt roads, to Obscot, the Reynolds encampment. After depositing us at the main lodge, Kim excused herself and headed off to one of the nearest cabins. Mer and I entered the stone and log lodge to find Kim had prepared a fire in the stone hearth. A hot fish stew simmered on the stove. There was even fresh bread warming in the oven. Dinner, accompanied by blankets and a scotch-on-the-rocks, and I was there. Bliss.
Exhausted, but finally warm, we sat down on an old sofa positioned directly in front of the fire. The lodge was of post-and-beam construction. Behind us was a loft. Off in the wings to either side were two bedrooms with private baths. We never got there. Instead, we bathed in the warmth of the fire. We dozed, woke up, said a word or two before Mer threw a log on the embers, and we drifted back to asleep. Later, I awoke to find us at opposite ends of the sofa, our feet just touching. Mer’s breathing was soft and steady.
At daybreak, a bowl of hot oatmeal and coffee were thrust into my hands. “Sue, grab a few bites before I pull you from your warm comforts to see the rising sun.” I obliged. We trod out in hiking boots, sweaters, and jeans. The brilliant red and orange hues of sunrise were flaming at the ocean’s edge. We had a perfect view from our hilltop perch. Still not content with Nirvana, Mer grasped my hand and we walked across fields strewn with wildflowers, all the while watching the gods light the sky afire. I was deeply smitten. I was never going back. To hell with Tom! Who cared about sales. I didn’t give a damn about Edward. Let their plane crash. Anyway, what is the big deal about money? My future will be here with Mer. God, don’t let it end! Grant me this one wish and the millions necessary to sustain it. Could my twenty-four hours alone here with Mer be extended indefinitely? It seemed as if it might.
We walked what appeared to be the entire circumference of the island along footpaths, through meadows, and into the forests. Mer and I came to Markey’s Beach on the northeast end and eventually worked our way onto South Sand’s crescent beach. There we lunched on bread, cheeses, and mineral water that we procured from The Pirate’s Galley. We watched swells breaking and spraying spume on every ledge. The clear day even permitted a view to Matinicus Rock, its first lighthouse built in 1827 as a guide for mariners approaching the bay.
By late afternoon, we had returned to Obscot. I was heading for the door of the lodge when Mer motioned me to take a path that led down a slopped, grassy embankment. There I saw a pond shimmering in the late afternoon sun.
“Swim?” She asked.
A single word that teased and challenged, as if to say, “Dare you, Sue.”
Before I had time to respond, I glanced up to see Mer disrobing. Off came her outerwear: sweater, cotton turtleneck, boots, jeans, and socks. Standing inches from me clad only in underwear, she teased, “Not fair Sue!” And then Mer was tugging at my clothing, assisting me in pulling everything off. I was down to my bra and panties and still her fingers continued to undress. As she leaned forward to unhook my bra, her thighs touched against me. Her breasts, still in a push up bra, rubbed against my chest. My nipples were hard, my clit wet.
“Undress me,” Mer commanded, and I obeyed. Her bosom was full, her nipples erect. I glanced at her reddish-brown pubic hair. We were both naked now, fully exposed. We exchanged glances of frank curiosity. There was arousal, certainly on my part. And then a push.
Into the coldest water I ever imagined. I was gasping for air. Mer followed, her body grazing mine. I was swimming, not drowning as I feared. Minutes later we climbed onto dry land. We grabbed our clothes, laughing and shivering as we ran toward the lodge. Once inside, Mer tossed me a towel, and off we headed to shower in separate bathrooms. The water was hot; it warmed my flesh, but did nothing for my soul. How could I survive the next two days? With Mer so close and yet . . . .
Afterwards, we built a fire, preparing dinner for our men. There I was, setting the table. And there was Mer, putting the finishing touches on a salad. She whistled away, a show tune here, a pop song there. Not a word to me. We might as well have been on separate islands. There she was squandering away our time even though Tom and Edward were due in momentarily. Mer made no mention of the pond, the swim, our nakedness. Did it mean nothing to her?
Somehow I had to survive the weekend. But each moment seemed to worsen the pain. In came Tom and Edward, dropped off by Kim. No more time alone with Mer. The men laughed. They joked. They reveled in the smells and tastes of a sumptuously prepared meal made especially for them. Between us we drank three bottles of wine. Two couples, talking and laughing. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Mer. And with each look came another blow. Edward sat next to her. Edward brushed the hair out of her eyes. Edward put his arms around her waist. Now those arms of his slid up her body until they were wrapped snugly against her breasts. Breasts that only hours ago had been pressed against me. Breasts that were ample, breasts that should have been mine to touch, to hold, to kiss.
Naturally, I tried to look nonchalant. I took my cues from Mer. When she embraced Edward, I cuddled Tom. When she kissed Edward, I planted my lips on Tom’s shoulder. Sure, he responded. But whereas our interactions were sentimental, theirs were romantic. We snuggled; they intertwined. Later, when Mer and Edward headed off toward their bedroom, and Tom and I to ours, I temporarily quenched my lust, my flame-red desire for another women, through the seduction of my man. Tom and I made love passionately that night.
On Saturday, we were a foursome. We motored about in the Whaler, finally making our way to Ragged Island. It is the furthest seasonally inhabited outpost on the coast of Maine, lying approximately two miles due south of Matinicus. As we neared the shore, Edward lifted the engine and rowed the last fifty yards. According to Mer, the harbor settlement of Criehaven was populated by fewer than a dozen fishermen, who abandoned the island on weekends three seasons a year for the comfort of families and homes on the mainland. Summer brought perhaps only an additional dozen families. The place felt to me as if it were a hundred miles off shore, not the sixteen or so our chart suggested. It was peaceful, remote. We even spotted several puffins flying.
Suddenly, I was transported to the Falkland Islands, not so very far from Antarctica. So isolated did I feel here on Ragged Island it was easy to imagine myself in the Southern Hemisphere standing on one of the most remote outposts on the planet. I shivered, partly due to cold, mostly through imagination. I glanced up to see that Tom, Edward, and Mer were taking a footpath at the head of the harbor that forked to the right. I caught up and we made our way to an overgrown cemetery. There was the grave of Robert Crie, grandson to a British soldier, who retired to Matinicus. Robert settled on Ragged Island in 1848, establishing himself as its chief citizen and entrepreneur for over fifty years. When he eventually purchased the entire island, he was known locally as “King Crie.”
The rest of the day was uneventful. We made our way along narrow trails, through woods, into meadows brimming with wildflowers. Then, of course, there were the beaches. We lunched near Seal Cove looking out toward Matinicus Rock and its lighthouse.
Certainly, I survived the weekend. Even with my longing, my disappointment, some of the pain was washed away, numbed by the cold waters that swept the rocky shores of Matinicus and Ragged Island. The four of us parted amiably enough. Tom and I caught the seaplane back to the mainland late Monday evening. Mer and Edward remained at the camp another week. The emotional and physical intimacy Mer and I had shared receded, as if a dream. Perhaps it was. There was a fantasy these Maine islands conveyed that made everything both plausible and imaginary.
I returned to the reality of sales—business plans, quotas, and poorly performing reps—with the thud of a plane encountering a rough landing. Forty-eight hours later, it was as if I had never been away.
In January, management had finally come through for me. After two years of begging, pleading, and presenting case histories, they had finally approved a pilot “living wage” program for my region. For the first time, the base income for metro New York approached seventy percent of comparable pay figures in my area, rather than those of Dayton, Ohio where the cost of living averaged only one fourth that of the densely populated east and west coasts. Amtech’s failure to provide a living wage on both sides of the continent had resulted in the employment of marginal salespeople, individuals who could not sustain a job or a marriage, let alone abide by a moral compass.
The result of the old pay scale, understandably enough, was that both coasts averaged nearly one hundred percent turnover in sales personnel every few years. It seemed only a matter of time before management would decide to shut down its losing operations. By my estimates, I had another twenty-four months before the finance division eliminated my territory and asked me to leave. To forestall this shutdown, I had calculated that I needed forty-percent growth over the next two years. I had reasoned that higher pay would enable me to hire better, more qualified reps, thereby enabling me to minimize turnover in my new sales force while managing to retain my veteran staff. A boost in the pay scale was the lynch pin to achieving these ambitious goals.
But my pilot proposal had undergone substantial revisions by management that seriously threatened its effectiveness. Under the modified plan, only three employees in my region had qualified for the “living wage.” These individuals had had to be newly hired and, at least on paper, more experienced than my existing reps. All three had been placed in territories where we presently did little business. Their efforts were to be devoted to developing new business.
Let me spell out for you the implications of this uncomfortable scenario. For the company’s plan to work, my present team had to be kept in the dark. But in today’s business climate there can be no absolute assurance that employees won’t discuss with one another their base pay and commission structure. So while I had secured a commitment from three new team members that their income was not to be disclosed to their colleagues under threat of dismissal, I knew that this strategy posed great risks.
By my estimate, the two-tiered structure of employment was a time bomb. The best I could hope for was that the fallout would be sufficiently delayed so that I might be able to contain the damage. Despite the deficiencies such an inequitable pay scale imposed, I regarded this “wild card” scheme as my last best hope of survival. Like so many of my reps who gambled their futures on winner-take-all scenarios at the casinos, I now found myself putting all my chips on a high-stakes hand that had questionable odds at best. I had no other alternative.
It seemed my gamble paid off. I hired Caroline and Izzi and our sales figures shot up. Then in March, Frank Anthony joined the team. In the beginning, everyone got involved at the monthly meetings. There was excitement in the air as our numbers climbed thirty percent above plan. I was thrilled at the prospect of cashing in my winnings. Under these circumstances, I scarcely had time to think about Mer. Her numbers were good. She was enjoying the teams’ social interactions . . . Just keep your eyes focused on the goal, I told myself. These became my watchwords.
Just when I believed I had beaten the odds, the time bomb, in the person of Frank Anthony, exploded in my face. Although he was one of the new reps who got the living wage package, I never liked him. But he was qualified, and I was desperate to take full advantage of the pilot program before corporate shelved it. So I hired him.
At first, Frank appeared enthusiastic. He seemed to be developing contacts. Then he vanished. He never returned my calls. He was unavailable on our travel days together. He never even wrote a single order. Several more weeks passed, and still I heard nothing from Frank. I had no way of meeting with him to discuss his situation. Not that it would have made much difference. By now, it was clear to me that Frank was working another job. In the industry it’s called double dipping. Certainly, that was his game. He hadn’t bothered to respond to any of the thirteen messages I had left for him. I was angry. Did he think he could draw a paycheck from Amtech without doing anything? After returning from Matinicus, I notified him in writing that he was fired, taking care to send the letter certified.
That got his attention. Within hours, Frank was on the phone with the other reps. Soon, everyone knew he was dismissed. Unfairly, they believed. It wasn’t hard to imagine their response.
“What makes Sue think she has the right to fire him?”
“Just like that, without a word of warning.”
“She didn’t even meet with him.”
“Who does she think she is?”
“Now we know what to expect when she cans us.”
The bomb did some collateral damage. He pointed out to my seasoned sales people that his base income was seven thousand more than theirs. “And it’s not just me,” he told them. “Check out the salaries of the two other new reps.”
Frank’s parting blow left little doubt as to his motives.
“Bitch,” he said, “no one fucks with my income. You’re going down!”
Frank had cut me off at the knees, inciting mutiny from within my ranks. He nearly cost me my job. I was doing nothing but running damage control for the next six months. Morale dropped precipitously. The trust that I had built up over the last fifteen months was wiped out in an instant. And with it my hopes of double-digit growth. The threat of shutting down my region again appeared imminent. To say things were ugly said nothing. It was war, plain and simple. Blood spattered everywhere. Bodies were flying. Guns blazing. The consequences were predictable . . . almost.
What I hadn’t counted on, factored into the equation of acceptable loses and rising body counts, was that Frank’s vengeance would cost me Mer. She was outraged. Anger oozed through the telephone wires.
“Sue, how dare you do this to me. After all I’ve done for you. I feel violated. Is this your idea of friendship?”
“Mer, please,” I pleaded, “hear me out. I never meant to hurt you. I made sure your territory was the most lucrative. I worked your accounts; I protected your earnings.”
“You think I’m an idiot. I put myself on the line for you. I worked day and night. I was your cheerleader for the team. And what do you do? You double-cross me. You’re like all the rest. Anything for a buck.”
The words hit me with the force of a knockdown. I’d lose her. Nothing I could say would salvage our friendship. I couldn’t even keep her on the team.
Our friendship—just so many embers. No way to restore the flame. We were history. Nothing to be done. All gone. Vanquished.
Mer stayed through the first week of August. She made no pretense of working the job, nor did I insist. Her demeanor toward me was polite, but detached. Her overly formal letter of resignation gave as a reason for her departure her acceptance of employment as the Assistant Program Director of Children’s Global Resources, a nonprofit organization devoted to combating child abuse. It was a wonderful opportunity and well suited to her talents. Still, I was devastated.
In the end, it was Edward who dropped by to give me Mer’s files and papers. We were civil. We avoided eye contact. He told me that he was looking at a mergers and acquisition assignment in England for two years. He said the move would enable Mer to establish an overseas base for her charity. I congratulated him on his good fortune and asked him to relay my best wishes to Mer. Edward parted without shaking my hand. I had Mer’s new work number, but I knew I could never call her.
It had taken me years to find a woman who ignited my life. I feared that emotional intimacy with another woman was unlikely—ever. Certainly no one like Mer. While this void, this permanent emptiness hurt terribly, it was not the source of my pain. No, my wrenching agony lay in the realization that I was the cause of Mer’s departure. I had betrayed her trust. I had performed my job the best way I could to sustain the territory and my team, yet these actions cost me the dearest friend I ever had.
The bitter irony, of course, is that I pride myself on my integrity, my sense of perspective, my moral compass. Well, they failed me, and now there is nothing to be done. There is nothing I can fix. There is no corrective action I might take. There is no means by which I might rekindle Mer’s friendship. So the tears just keep coming.