Greta March brought Evan up for one last tryst. Years had passed since they’d seen one another. Now everything was different. Each had to make determined efforts to arrange this time together. Greta’s husband was reluctant to let her go alone given how touch and go things had become with her health in the previous months. It wasn’t quite the end yet, but she was beginning to betray a deeper degree of illness—a general thinning of figure, feature, and voice. She wanted to see the lake house alone this last time, she told her husband, free of how his opinions might shape the experience. He had finally conceded.
With Evan, there needed to be a more oblique deception. He was a few months shy of forty and still healthy and trim as an athlete, so the prospect of death was not a playing card convincingly at hand. He had no wife, though there had been many women throughout the years, furtively and with no shortage of handwringing because the affairs conflicted with his commitment to the church. He was a minister, and he had been moved to different parishes twice in the previous decade. When Greta told him what she wanted, he approached the synod and claimed a medical emergency with his family, which was perhaps not that far from the truth. In any case, he had been released with the understanding that he be gone only a few days, a week at most. He managed a humble expression, one that he hoped might approximate grim-faced gratitude.
It was a Friday night when he arrived and the lights along the footpath were sharp as stars in the winter darkness. Excitement gripped his chest as his feet tested the loose stone that was just as he recalled it from years ago. Once he’d made it to the stoop, he paused for a moment at the entrance and glanced through the window. He saw Greta in the kitchen. She stood over the counter and handled the glasses idly while she waited, a half twist to each stem. He’d forgotten this old habit of hers. It charmed him to observe her and to recognize what he had once known but let lapse.
She was to the door almost as soon as he knocked. It was as simple as that, his hand in hers as though it had been melded there and the years since they had last been together suddenly gone.
“My fine old girl,” he said.
Her face always reminded him of a brilliant proscenium, but now it had become a theater without its star. He couldn’t think about things like this too much.
“Give me your coat. And pour the wine,” she said over her shoulder as she disappeared down the hall and into the bedroom to hang his pea jacket in the closet.
He went to the kitchen and turned the bottle in his hands. A white Bordeaux. No surprise that she insisted on a French. She had always wanted to live abroad and she had made him want the same thing when he was young and he had been here with her for the first time so long ago. Now, all those conversations they’d had, all the nostalgic desire since, led merely to here.
“How long will you be able to stay?” she asked as she took the glass he had just filled. “I hope for the weekend.”
“Definitely. I can stay a little longer than that. I have the week. As long as you can bear to have me.”
She brushed his shoulder and smiled.
“We’ll see,” she said.
Something in the way she spoke touched him with embarrassment, as though he had already made the old mistake of overstating his case. How had he managed to forget about that strange tendency she produced in him? She had often preferred his silences.
She led him to the unlit living room and together they sat on the couch. She rested her weight against him as they looked through the darkened glass front at the lake. The cold lay heavily over everything.
“I hate it, but now I have to be in the dim light with you,” she said. “I still want you to want me.”
“The light wouldn’t get in the way of that.”
He placed his arm around her shoulder and let her come as close to him as she would. It wasn’t long before he could feel her breathing deepen as she went over the warm edge of sleep. Hard not to be disappointed, but that was an unreasonable reaction. He knew what this was. She was sick now, after all, which meant he could never ask her certain questions. No answers then. Instead, what he had were mere impressions, quick cuts from his youth that he fought hard to find at the bottom of his visual recollection.
It was a pleasure to indulge the memory, the first time she had taken him. He had just turned fifteen that summer. His parents, friends with Greta and her husband for several years by that time, had agreed to loan him out for rehabilitative work on the lake house. He was left alone with instructions for most of the days he was there to make improvements. Even at that age, he was a good carpenter, an unaccountable talent given his father’s innocence to any expertise that didn’t involve routing expense reports from one account to another. At the end of each week, Greta’s husband inspected the work and paid him in cash. Late that July, Evan’s grandfather suffered a stroke that killed him after two days in intensive care. Because there was so much that needed to be settled in a short time, Evan’s parents went on alone and arranged for Evan to continue his summer project for Greta and her husband. It was decided that he would simply stay at the lake house to finish the work because he was too young to drive himself alone.
He enjoyed the empty days. Before it became too warm, he would brew a pot of coffee and take down a thermos to the boat dock at first light and row out toward the center of the lake so that he could drift there as the sun rose above the pines and the wind lifted so that the boat rocked and sidled. He liked the way his body felt detached from itself when he was on the water and liked too the way the light slatted between the long vertical trunks of the white pines, as though shadow and light were daily pieced together in wholly new configurations.
One morning she appeared standing at the edge of the dock.
“Good morning, Mrs. March.”
“You should call me Greta, Evan.”
He said that he would. She silently took the painter rope from him and secured it to the cleat.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
He told her that he did not.
She laughed and said, “My husband was afraid having you here by yourself would be an insurance liability. That tells you about all you need to know about him, doesn’t it? That’s not why I came though. I thought it might be nice to get to know you better. I think we’ll enjoy each other’s company. I hope you won’t mind?”
Later that day, after he replaced several boards along the side decking of the house, she brought him a sandwich and lemonade and made him agree that he would stop before it got very hot. She had dressed in a black bikini with a sheer wrap tied at her hip. Once he had taken the food, she went down to the dock and removed the wrap before lying down on her belly. He watched her as he ate.
He put the tools and lumber away and then went down to the far edge of the dock. Greta had not moved since she left him. He glanced at her. Her complexion was dark from sunbathing, and it looked good that way against her blackbird hair. She looked like something painted but never touched—still too wet to touch. She wore sunglasses, so he was unsure if she was sleeping. He stripped out of his shirt and quietly stepped down the metal ladder, pushed off from the corner post and swam. The chill enlivened him..
When he had tired himself after a few minutes and swam back toward the house, he could see that she had raised her head and was looking at him, her chin propped on doubled fists. She was smiling.
“Can I ask you to row me out on the boat a while, Evan? I love the way it feels to be out there on the lake. Don’t you?”
She lay back diagonally in the bow as he rowed toward the far shoreline. One leg was propped across the gunwale and the other extended over the center thwart. The slim black band of her briefs showed between her thighs. He fixed his eyes somewhere above her head and at the distant receding shoreline. He pulled hard at the oars to feel as much strain in his shoulders and back as he could. A sudden burst of air combed the surface of the water, created a momentary headwind. He was glad to have the extra resistance to bewilder him.
“That’s far enough,” she said. “Let’s drift here for a while.”
The jostle of the lake around them was the only sound for a while and Evan began to wonder if she had fallen asleep again.
“I hope I’m not making you nervous,” she said finally.
“I’m not nervous.”
“Good. Why don’t you lie back and relax then? It’s a nice thing to share with someone.”
He was unaccustomed to being spoken to in the way she did. Her words were impossible to disobey.
He rested the oars and slid forward into the bottom of the boat, his hands clasped behind his head as he looked up at the sky. His ankle briefly touched Greta’s on the center thwart, but she did not draw back. The place where the skin touched remained warm.
Later, without her asking him anything, he understood that she was ready to row back, and he gathered the oar handles and began to pull for the dock. The water passed each side of them like a tearing skin.
He took her hand to steady her as she stepped up onto the dry boards. While he secured everything, she stood there waiting for him.
She touched his shoulder and said, “I want you to know that you’re not the kind of boy women flirt with, Evan. You’re the kind of boy women fuck.”
She wakened but did not move. The change was a familiar current that passed between them, that old hot wire.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s the medicine. It makes me so drowsy. I really shouldn’t drink while I’m taking it, but I can’t imagine that very well, can you?”
“Don’t apologize. I was just thinking about a long time ago.”
Her painted nails slipped inside the front placket of his shirt. Her hand beneath the fabric created an irregularity over his chest.
“You’re flattering me. Would you mind getting the wine?”
“It won’t bother you?”
“I won’t let it.”
He finished his glass then brought the bottle back and set it on the coffee table where it remained untouched.
“Were there others?” he asked.
“Other younger men that you seduced.”
She smiled with a vague fondness.
“Yes, of course. But never any as young as you. You were so different. When I was with you, it was like coming out from under anesthesia. What about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Were there older women?”
He turned the pages of a catalogue in his mind.
“Oh God,” she laughed. “You’re not counting, are you?”
“Well, not exactly. Just trying to remember. Not many that were older, I don’t think. Maybe a few. And then by only a few years.”
She reached for the bottle, but before she could pour the wine, Evan did it for her.
“I always thought womanizer was such an ungenerous word,” she said. “An ugly thing to call someone who is easily adored.” She suddenly sat forward and glanced at him from under a splash of tossed hair. A girlish gesture, he thought. Likely deliberate. She was always so deliberate. “Can I ask you a question about it, though?”
“You know you can, Greta.”
“When you give the communion, what is it like to press the wafer against the lips of a beautiful woman, of a woman you desire?”
He shook his head.
“It’s not supposed to work like that.”
“Of course it’s not supposed to work like that. That’s not what I’m asking you. Have you ever given communion to some woman you’ve fucked?”
How could he explain it? Flashes of her that he carried in his mind and projected onto the bodies of ensuing lovers throughout the years. As though she were a transparency who could be shifted from skin to skin, applying her shape to whomever she touched.
“Why are we talking about this?”
“Because I want to know what I’ve done to you, Evan,” she said softly.
“I don’t understand.”
“I think you do. I think you must hate me.”
He placed his hand behind her head to pull her close to his chest. He felt her weight against him and how slight it had become.
“I get to decide what to think about my own past, don’t I?”
She withdrew her hand from his chest, flexed her fingers and looked at them as though they were newly discovered oddities.
“Will you give me a few minutes to get ready for bed?”
He said that he would and remained sitting in the dark overlooking the lake while she went to the bedroom. Once he could hear her running water in the bathroom, he walked to the French door that let onto the upper deck. He turned the knob noiselessly and stepped into the freezing night. The moon was out. If he had another glass of wine he would have been tempted to go down to the dock and dive into the water, see how his body met the lake in the deep end of winter. He wondered if he would adapt to the cold or if it might seize his heart. Without really understanding why, he began to weep. He indulged the gesture for a moment because it felt like a kind of pleasure to empty himself, but it soon got away from him and then it was a graceless wreck of emotion. Just undone. He didn’t know what to do with his hands until he pressed them flat to his eyes and lips. Someone blind reading the image of his own face.
When he went into the bedroom he was exhausted and for a moment he was relieved at the thought that Greta had fallen asleep again as she waited for him. It was much darker here in this part of the house than even the living room had been. He had to stand and wait for a minute for his eyes to adjust to have some general idea of the room’s dimensions.
“Come sit with me,” she said, startling him.
He crossed toward the sound of her voice until he bumped into the edge of the bed. He lowered himself onto the mattress. He moved his hands over her to know exactly where she was. She had undressed and the sheet was thrown back.
“Take me, Evan. Like you once did.”
As he cupped her breasts, she moaned. He worried that he was hurting her, but he didn’t think he could stop what he was doing now that he had started. He lowered his face to her ribcage and kissed her there. She continued to make those fearful sounds.
His eyelids had become so heavy that he could no longer keep them open. The darkness of the room was complete, and he could tell no difference when he felt his eyes shut. It made him feel young sitting there like that, like when he had been sick with a fever as a child and the room around him seemed enormous and unreliable. The house itself shaped by the weird geometry of his fever.
“Call me what you used to do, Evan. Do you remember?”
“Yes, I remember,” he said as he placed his hand above her navel.
“Say it then.”
“Yes, Mother, I’m here.”
“Tell me it was alright. Tell me that it’s okay.”
He kissed her to seal them together in silence.
Greta died much sooner than everyone expected. Not yet sixty-three. Only a few weeks after she had last seen Evan. A friend sent him a letter explaining how Greta disclosed what had happened when Evan was still a boy. Apparently, Greta had become addicted to confession when she faced the imminent approach of death, and she told this woman things that should have never been shared. She made the mistake of believing those you loved should know each of your flaws. Evan knew that it was no way to have someone remember you.