They leave the hotel ballroom soon after midnight, last out into the night except for the band. Two couples in their best clothes, elderly, exhausted but content, drunk with laughter; the men, James and Charlie, wearing tuxedos that have traipsed a few too many good turns but which remain, more by luck than judgement, still the fair side of presentable; and the women, April and Isabelle, in dresses fresh off a peg, sapphire silk to below the knee, ruby suede and long-sleeved satin.
Streetlights burn a shade that fits the late silent hour like a snug vest, a calm nostalgic phosphorescence nearly yellow, nearly white, hiding just enough for time to lose its usual strict delineations.
“That was some night,” April says, and venting a deep, happy sigh, slips her arm inside of Isabelle’s. Their heels clacking slow flamenco beats against the asphalt, the women skip ahead of the men, though April turns and tosses a smile back over one bare shoulder, to keep them involved or at least biting. “I haven’t danced such a night in years. Decades.”
“Centuries,” Isabelle adds, and laughs.
Charlie raises his right hand and with thumb and fingertips begins to knead his left collarbone. “I’ll probably sleep for a week and a half after this. And I’ll bet golden eggs that I wake up sore.”
“There’s a cure for that,” says April. “Stay up. Sleep is for the young. At your age, why take a chance?”
“At my age? In case it’s slipped your lovely senile little mind, my darling, I’m just two months older than you. Once you’ve turned past eighty, two months is a handful of sand snatched from a mile of beach.”
“Actually, you’re two months and nine days older. If you want to get technical about it.”
“I could eat a hamburger,” James says, to no one in particular.
“No, you couldn’t,” Isabelle says.
“With hot mustard, fried onions and extra pickle.”
“No, you definitely couldn’t.”
“And a finger-thick slice of cheddar melted just enough so that the corners turn to rubber.”
“Like the nine days make such a difference.”
“Nine days can be practically eternal if you spend them wisely. If God had taken nine days to make the world instead of cutting corners in typically slack-assed fashion, just think what He might have achieved.”
“Maybe, if He could have kept the unions from getting involved.”
“These are still my own teeth, don’t forget,” James says, snapping his jaw shut a few times in demonstration, compensating by jutting his chin a tad in order to correct the slight overbite. “And I’m still better at eating than dancing.”
“Conceded.” Isabelle twists her mouth in a way that should make a mess of her beauty. “But that pickle could spell trouble. And I won’t even go there with the cheese.”
The four friends cross the empty street and start off down the promenade toward the train station. They walk without hurry, knowing that even if they miss one train there’ll be another to catch, and free of such troubles they allow their thoughts the freedom of better directions. They have a lit night, companionship, hearts still alive from a recent chasing, and a nearly overwhelming need for talk, teasing, and laughter.
On the station platform, the men find a bench and sit. The women prefer to stand, the elevated advantage affording them something they can’t quite define. They are careful, though, to keep out of the direct light. Shadows help to blur the lines.
“It’s warm tonight.”
James looks up at Isabelle. “July. Midsummer. Of course it’s warm.”
She shrugs. “Even for July. Even for midsummer. Remember when we were sixteen?”
“Who doesn’t remember?” says Charlie. “We close our eyes for five minutes, that’s where we want to be. All we do anymore is remember.”
“Young and full of the world.” April laughs and starts to hum an old tune. After a few bars, Charlie joins in and then begins to sing. The words and melody, unturned by him in three quarters of a lifetime, feel fresh as a longed-for breeze. Someday, you’ll want me to want you…
“I meant, sixteen on a night like this.”
James meets her gaze, and smiles. “Ah. You mean swimming.”
She nods. “Swimming.”
Charlie breaks the song and they all exchange slow glances. “Well,” he says, eventually. “Why the hell not?”
“You know why not.” Isabelle straightens the skirt of her dress down over her thighs and knees, then folds her arms across her narrow chest. “We all know.”
“Well, you were always a good brick shy of a shed.”
“True enough. But in this country, dumbness never disqualified a man from exercising his constitutional rights. So I say, let’s put it to a vote.” He looks around. “How about it? Who’s with me and who’s chick-chick-chickadee? A show of hands, please, ladies and cads.”
James takes his keys from his jacket pocket, unfolds a thin file from a nail clippers and sets to poking at the cuticle of his right index finger. April drifts away to the brink of the platform and peers back along the line, willing a train to appear and straining to penetrate the gloom of distance.
Charlie slaps his knees. “What’s the matter with us?”
“Nothing. Except that it’s late and we’re old. And it’s probably still against the law.”
“Swimming is against the law?”
“It is when you’re wrapped in nothing but skin.”
“We didn’t let that stop us when we were sixteen.”
“That was our reason for doing it then. Because we were sixteen and looked it.”
“I did it to cool down,” says Isabelle, her tone playfully haughty.
“Liar.” April turns back from the track. “You did it because you wanted to see if these two were even half the men they thought themselves to be.”
“And were we?” James asks, smirking.
“Of course not. What boy ever is?”
Isabelle turns on her. “Well, what about you, Little Miss A-plus? Why did you do it?”
“Because I was sixteen, and in love with everything and everyone. And because I was just then coming to life.”
“And now?” says Charlie.
“Now,” she thinks about it, and shrugs. “Now I’ve rusted shut.” A certain sadness descends, the way fog can suddenly roll in ahead of a hot day, and for an instant, Charlie regrets pushing. Yet he can’t bring himself to stop. He needs what this night is holding.
“Come on, sweetheart. There’s life in the old cat yet. I saw you tonight. A smile the span of the Golden Gate Bridge and Jazz hands to beat the band.”
A giggle floats through Isabelle.
They all turn and stare.
“Spill it,” says Charlie, unable to resist his own grin.
She bows her head, but the joy of the thought is evident.
“I was just remembering what happened when you saw me coming out of the water. I’ll bet that wouldn’t happen now.”
“Save it. You’d lose your money in seven seconds flat. Guaranteed. I’m old, not dead.”
“Your tongue was nearly to your knees. April thought you were wearing a necktie.”
“What can I say? I was smitten. Must have been all that starlight. The poet in me, I suppose.”
“The horndog, you mean.”
“Well, that’s a kind of poetry, too, isn’t it? At least, it used to be.”
A train rocks into view, its noise repressed to mere vibrations. Empty, half-lit carriages fill the station, doors shudder pneumatically open and gape in wait. Above each, a placename fills the destination window: Greenway. The name awakens memories, of school, friends, family, childhood. Late autumn Carnivals, spring picnics, and those long burning nights of summer, insinuations of transistor radio, porch swings, the smell of cut grass and, huddled in some dark place down by the creek, joyous utterings and the sugary taste of a lover’s skin. They sit and stand, waiting for a different train, but their minds are already back there, or already on their way.
“When you’re sixteen,” James says, softly, “you think you’ll live forever. But you don’t really believe it. And it’s not something you even want. Because who would? Having to go on day after day while the good stuff turns to dust all around you. So when it happens, you don’t know how to cope. You try as best you can to be happy, but there’s no way of sustaining that, not when you’ve been to your third funeral of the month and it’s still only the fifteenth, or when your hips ache a week in advance of the first November sleet, or when you lie in the dark counting heartbeats and wondering if the next knock will be the last.”
April draws back from the edge of the tracks.
“Or when,” she says, “after spending five terrible minutes peering at that brittle reflection in a mirror, you dig out the photographs that prove what a beauty you once were, the pictures from school that catch you smiling just right, slightly embarrassed over something someone just whispered but curious, too, and hungry, still able to get excited at the prospect of a ride in a new car or a slow dance with the boy you want to marry.”
“Forever is too long,” James says, and sighs. “I say let’s just do it, damn it. Let’s go swimming.”
No one speaks on the ride out. Thirty-five elastic minutes. Suburbs pass, then towns, lampposts glow-worming the darkness. And the dreams linger, the time committed in so much detail to memory. Isabelle is right about the heat. James pulls open his bowtie and lets it hang loosely in place, then as the women watch undoes the throat and second buttons of his shirt. A tuft of hair bristles into view, the colour so white that it seems to dull the pure clean boast of his shirt.
They remain seated when the train finally slows. Their station is an open one, a platform, a couple of benches and a long narrow single story clapboard building with two bathrooms, some vending machines and a ticket kiosk. When everything is still again, they rise, step out into the night, and walk westward, to where the ocean waits. The beach is empty, the dark water curling in and away against sand the colour of exposed bone.
“How do we do this?” April asks, laughter quivering her breath.
“The way we did before,” says Charlie. He slips off his coat. “Except,” he adds, “with one difference. We’re old as mummified pharaohs and trying, at least for a little while, to feel like kids again. This is an illusion, with all the delicacy of cobweb. We should agree not to look at one another.”
April kicks off her shoes. “Agreed.”
Isabelle hesitates, then starts to work open the buttons at the hip of her dress. “Me, too,” she sighs. “If that’s what it’ll take.”
They all turn then to James, who has dropped down onto the sand and begun to untie the laces of his shoes. He looks up. “Oh,” he says. “Fine with me. I can’t see anything anyway. Not without my glasses.”
Tonight, the dark is a kindness. They peel off their clothes to the soft lapping of the surf and the occasional distant rumble of a train coming or pulling out. Each stands apart from the rest, gazing only downward or out over the ocean. The sky above is empty, the stars for now hidden. When they are naked, James again starts to sing, his voice held small, his breath driving the melody. “I know that someday you’ll want me to want you…”
“Are we ready?” he asks, the words a part of the music, and an arm’s length or more apart, they march forward as one, down the strand, into the breaking tide.
The water feels cold, as cold as it ever did and ever will. Charlie begins to laugh.
“Cut it out!” Isabelle squeals, feigning anger. “You can’t break your own rules!”
Featured illustration by Orla Kennedy.