Cold Comfort by Trisha Ricketts

When your senses defy you

Susan’s hands hovered over the piano keys, she’d forgotten the notes. Just as quickly as they’d come into her head, filling her fingers with the flurry of where to go, they were gone. Such an odd feeling. The piano had always provided such solace with its safety in measure and surety of time.

The grandfather clock in the hallway struck nine. Susan took a deep breath and placed her hands in her lap examining her fingers. Where did they go? Cautiously, she allowed her mind to settle on him again. His etched face. His smoky voice. His Denver Broncos baseball cap. A guarded pleasure. She switched off the light next to the piano and sat in the encroaching darkness listening as cars whizzed by on Clifton Road. Slowly, the whizzing took on a soft cadence and became a pulse. Deep. Even. Like breathing.

Daniel’s breathing.

That’s how she willed him back. He stood leaning against the kitchen door in early morning sunlight as she made herself a pot of tea. He sat smiling at her from the green Adirondack chair as she weeded through the rudbeckia and all the while whistling lonesome tunes like “Danny Boy” or “Stardust.” Sometimes he stood right outside the bathroom door as she showered, but all the willing in the world couldn’t get him to strip down and get wet with her. When she turned off the water, his whistling would stop fast as a finger snap leaving her cold, wet, and shaking.

She found herself talking to him, “Daniel…Come back. Please, come back…” Or pleading with God. Bring him back. Please bring him back. Like God was some short-order cook who would wrestle up whatever she wanted at a moment’s  notice.

With the memory of Daniel’s breathing moving through her memories, she could see his crooked smile again and smell his Aveda shampoo. And she warmed to the comfort of the memory. “Susie, Aveda is my one concession to vanity. Why spend more on shampoo?” he would say.

Susan knew that sitting in the dark—notes gone, examining her fingers, listening to his breathing—was crazy. But when she heard him breathe, she could feel him growing into something mystical: his mouse-brown hair became sable, the pale blue of his eyes started to shine like aquamarines. And she would feel safe again, if only for a moment.  

“Ridiculous,” She shook her head the way her mother would if she saw her sitting there. “Get up,” she whispered. “Get up.” She let his breathing turn back into the cars zipping by on Clifton and walked through the kitchen looking around for his presence, but he was gone.

She stood out on the back stoop staring into the August night. Tiny pearls of sweat beaded on her upper lip. Susan listened to the locusts whining overhead in the elms. He left when the elms had just started to leaf out. She watched the leaves for a moment. Not a flutter. Not a single breeze. She longed for relief.

Shouts came across the chain link fence. The neighbor kids were playing in their yard. “Nine o’clock, ten o’clock….” She listened to the laughter, liked hearing their squawkingsquawky voices. Then the laughter changed.

“Loser!” Jerry taunted his little sister. “Can’t you even throw?”

Susan frowned. She watched Jerry finger-thump his sister’s chicken-bone chest. Can’t you cook? Don’t you even know how to fry an egg, for Christ sake?

“Watch out, Jerry!” Susan yelled, unexpected anger filling her.

The snarl of kids turned toward her.

“Someday Sandra’s gonna punch you back before you…” Her voice got stuck in her throat as she felt their eyes watching her. They waited for her to continue, but she was done.

“Sorry…” she whispered.

One of the kids tried to start back to the game. “One o’clock, two o’clock…” But the fun was gone. Susan had killed it. Slowly they began to drift away from each other.

She let her gaze float back across the fence to her yard—a paradise of ornamental grasses, herbs, and flowering trees. Daniel had planted it for her just last summer. In the garden’s center, he had built a white gazebo. She could see his hands—muscled, riddled with ropey veins—wiring it for an overhead fan, stringing it with Italian lights. How it twinkled and whirred when she sat inside it.

Thoughts of the fan’s whirring brought Daniel’s breathing.

“Not again…” she muttered.

Quickly, she turned around and grabbed her green mountain bike where it leaned against the side of the house. She threw a leg over the seat and began pedaling hard, her legs circling faster and faster, ridding herself of his hands and breath. Soon she was part ofof the street noise She kept riding, past Cecile’s Quik Trip, Mike’s Trek House, Oliverii’s Pizza, and WalgreensStorefronts gave way to bungalows and two-story houses as grander homes with double-door entryways and subdued color schemes came into view. With this last neighborhood came a hush. No children called out, but they were evident in discarded toys lying about manicured lawns and baby strollers parked up near balustrade porches.

Babies. She felt a flush as she pumped. Her babies. Three second-trimester miscarriages so many years before. The last one with such loss of blood, the tilted gurney, the difficulty in breathing, the shock, the floating sensation. Next one could kill you, Susan.

She began to tire.

The temperature dropped ten degrees as the breeze picked up. The crashing sound of breaking waves overtook all other sounds. High-branching elms created a cathedral above her and she pedaled beneath them. She reached a narrow asphalt road that gave way to the sandy beach, its entry lay behind the yellow-and-black Dead End sign, hidden from most. She got off her bike and leaned it against the privet hedge that blocked the beach from view.

She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, aware of a new kind of wetness in the air—not the humidity in her neighborhood—but the fine misty spray from wind and waves. She kicked off her sandals and started for the water’s edge, walking through sand so fine it soothed her fragile, pedal-tired soles. She stopped halfway to the shore, looked at a lone table, and remembered daytime picnics and crazy one-on-one beach volleyball games.

She looked back at the lake. Out on the water’s horizon, small boats were cruising, their green and red lights signaling fore and aft. She watched them flashing. Flashing. Messages everywhere. When leaves turn white, get ready for flight. Sure, she had seen the steel of his back through that blue Oxford cloth shirt, but she had chosen to leave this message unread. A message with a consequence so powerful it could crowd out the notes.

Susan reached the shore and let the waves wash over her feet. She lowered herself to the sand and caught her breath as the water’s chill soaked through her shorts. For a moment, the sound and coolness and even the mildewy smell of the lake consumed her.

But then she began to listen for his breathing. Wanting its comfort. Needing to hear it. She knew it was more harm than guarded pleasure, but she let it happen anyway. Soon enough, the waves synchronized into his even rhythms—and there he was. Breathing—even, deep, keeping time with the water’s pulse.

Cautiously, she lay back in the sand and felt the wetness creep up through her red tee shirt. As she listened to his breathing she drank in the night sky. The stars danced above her—some clustered into tiny diamond brooches, some swirled together in cosmic vapor. With her index finger, Susan outlined the Big Dipper and sketched Cassiopeia’s W. She searched for the North Star, but couldn’t find it at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. She felt her stomach clench. Where is it? Isn’t it supposed to be there? She outlined The Little Dipper again with her index finger stalling on its handle. Where is it?

She stopped herself. She stopped the thought. “This is silly,” she said out loud. And as soon as she said that, her stomach relaxed. She spread her fingers wide and let them round as though over a bubble. Then calmly, systematically, she played the forgotten Bach, her fingers racing side-by-side in the air.

She felt the footsteps long before she heard them. Unhurried, they thumped in casual syncopation to her soundless melody. Her stomach tightened a bit. She let her hands drop, and sat up rearranging her wet clothes. Wearing a baseball cap, jeans and a tee shirt, a man sat down on the sand not thirty feet from her. In the darkness she couldn’t make out his face, but she could hear him breathe.

She knotted her forehead. “Daniel…?”

“You say something, ma’am?”  He turned her way.

“No, not really…I…” Susan’s mind scurried for words. Baffled by this intrusion, she sat up, wondered if she should be afraid of him, of this lone beach, of the water which lapped at her ankles. Looked like the tide was coming in.    

“I come here to...” But he turned his head towards the lake, so that the rest of his sentence streamed out with the departing waves.

He stayed on his piece of shore. She could hear him take in a deep breath then let it out slowly. He looked her way. “I come here every night. Keeps me in touch with myself somehow.” He chuckled lightly. “Don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

She watched him as he worked at the laces of his running shoes. She wondered again if she should be afraid, but from the quiet way he moved his hands, she felt safe.

“There’s healing in this lake, you know.” His voice was soft as angel’s breath, husky with warmth, or whiskey.

“Yes, I know….” she murmured.

“You’ll pardon me…”

She watched him undo his belt buckle and listened to it thud as it hit the ground. He unzipped his jean shorts then wrestled them over his hips, past his darkened genitals, and past luminescent white thighs.

She stared.

“Come here often?” he asked, pronouncing the “t” just like Daniel.

“Beg your pardon?”

“This beach.” He nodded towards the rippling depths. “It’s off the beaten path, you know. Aren’t you afraid here all by yourself?”

Without waiting for her to reply, he stood up and stretched his arms up to the starry sky as though offering his naked body to the lake gods—rugged shoulders, softly rounded belly, massive thighs, bony feet. Then, just as suddenly as he’d stood up, he took five running steps and dove underneath the next cresting wave.

Susan blinked twice as if to clear her head. What just happened?

She waited. And she watched for the place he should emerge twenty feet beyond his dive. But he didn’t. And still he didn’t. She stood up quickly. “Hello…?” she called to the rising and falling lake. The wind rode up the front of her wet tee-shirt making her shiver, lifting the hair off her neck.

She walked into the surf until the water reached her calves. “Mister?” She cupped one hand to the side of her mouth, starting to feel panic wrench its way into her solar plexus. “Where are you?”

She slogged through the waves, glancing over her shoulder to where her green mountain bike leaned against the privet. Should I get help? She turned back to the lake.

“Hey!” Her heart began beating faster. “Mister!?” She pushed against the waves, water up to her knees, her thighs. Still he had not emerged. Keeping her arms above her waist for balance, she struggled with the jagged rocks that cut her tender soles.

Each new wave pushed the sharp cold higher. “Please answer!” She kept walking out. “You OK?”

Nothing.

Quickly, she dove under the next wave. The lake’s bitter cold bit into her forehead. She cringed at its iciness, but swam farther out. She imagined his body—limp and water-logged. It would be easy to pull him back to shore. She’d bump into him. She’d grab his outstretched arm. She, Susan O’Malley, would save this drowning man!

She came up for air, treading water in the cold, waves pushing her up and down. The moon was bright out there away from the suburban streetlights, its reflection forming ribbons of white midst the mottled, swirling black. She could hear the wind in the trees on shore, but couldn’t see any signs of the man. No rippling water, no ominous bubbling of the surface, no bobbing head. Only the undulating rush of the lake.

“Hello…?” she tried one last time.

She dove under again. This time, she went down deep, deeper than before—her hands reaching out trying to find him. Her index finger touched the sandy bottom and she crooked her head around, looked up. She needed air. As she started for the surface, she thought how bright the moon looked through the wavering water. How beautiful it all was under there. The swell of underwater waves became a symphony—a much wilder tempo than the linear counterpoint of her fugue.

Suddenly her head smacked hard into something sharp. From within, she could hear the sound of her own skull cracking and thought: Oh, God, can’t you even swim? Her arms went loose. Her neck felt limp. She heard her breath rush out of her.  And then, without willing it, she inhaled. Choking water both in and out, she became filled with the lake. Slowly she floated up remaining face down.

And then the cold became comfort. And the darkness became sable. And the water became aquamarine. And her fingers waggled inadvertently with the rising and falling of the waves playing notes she never knew she knew—all wild and savage at once. And the water claimed her, cleaning out the jut of his jaw and the steel of his back and the sound of his breathing, filling her with the twinkling stars and Italian lights and bloody births and nine o’clock, ten o’clock and breathing, breathing, pulsing slowly pulsing down to where it was sable soft and off the beaten path and such cold comfort.