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Loons            May 1, 2000

New temptations to stray from commitment are inevitable -

by Jim Nichols


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I stop rowing and swing the little oars up to rest on the black swell of the rubber dinghy. Immediately, the light breeze begins pushing us gently toward the cabin where Kate is staying. There's a light over the door of her cabin and we float along the wrinkled line of its reflection. It's warm, the air damp: rain has fallen four of the five days we've been at this camp. Today, near dinner time, it finally stopped and now, though still overcast, it's mild and quiet on the lake. But the overcast makes it very dark.

Kate is facing me, knees together, hands between her thighs. My legs flank hers in the small craft and, leaning close, our faces are only inches apart.

'Isn't this nice?' I say.

'Mmmm.'

'I wonder where the loons went to?'

'Maybe they were waiting for you to stop rowing.'

In the lodge at the opposite end of the camp, where we were sitting around the rough-hewn table talking with the others, we were able to hear the loons calling to each other across the lake. Every few minutes, someone would say, 'Listen!' and the room would go still. But since we pushed off from the dock there have been none of the eerie cries. Now there's just the wind ruffling through the treetops on the shore and the water licking the rubber dinghy.

'They sounded so heartbroken,' Kate whispers now.

We're getting close to the rocks near the cabin, and I take the oars and row us back out into the lake. Then I put up the oars. The breeze starts nudging us shoreward again. We've gone back and forth several times in this way since rowing across the cove along which the camps are situated.

The cove cuts deeply into the wooded shoreline.

'I wonder why they sound so lonely,' Kate says.

We sit quietly, listening. But the loons aren't cooperating.

'Do loons mate for life?' I say then. 'Like geese?'

'I don't know.'

'That might explain it.'

She raises her eyebrows.

'Maybe the ones we hear don't have anyone yet,' I say with a little laugh.

She considers it. 'Maybe.'

'Sure. They wouldn't be out there calling if they had someone. They'd be sitting at home with their feet up.'

'Unless,' she says, 'they were unhappily married.'

'And out philandering,' I say.

'Right.' She laughs, aware that we're making fun of our hesitant new relationship, misquoting some of our increasingly intimate conversations. Then she's silent, and we listen for the cries, but for the moment there are no single or philandering loons in evidence on the lake.

'Aw,' I say, 'they probably just like making a noise.'

She turns to look at the cabin, to see how close we are, shifting her weight, rocking us a little. She turns back, gives me a wry half-smile, reaches for my hands. 'Is this all right?' she says. 'To hold hands?'

'I think so.' I feel her thumbs moving over mine.

'We don't want to be philandering loons.'

'No,' I say. 'We don't want that.'

'You're happily married.'

'Right,' I say. 'You, too.'

'Exactly.'

We smile at each other.

'I'm still glad I didn't row back alone,' she says.

I'm glad too, although at the lodge earlier, when she yawned and said it was time for her to go, it was my intention to let her do just that: it was the last night and she could go back to her cabin and I could stay where I was and there would be no harm done and no familial promises broken.

Obviously: the smart thing to do.

But then she looked back at me from the door and I was suddenly unable to let her just walk (or row) away. I was unable to dismiss our five-day intimacy so easily.

'You want some company?' I blurted.

One of the older ladies at the workshop smiled.

Kate looked down at her hand on the latch, then up at me.

'Sure,' she said.

We smiled at one another, tempting fate, giving ourselves a last opportunity to misbehave. Which didn't mean necessarily that we would misbehave. I planned on doing the grown-up thing. I just couldn't let her go without a proper goodbye.

I'd decided six months before, on my birthday, that I was going to grow up. This year I was forty, and by some good fortune still had a family, and I'd decided to have no more affairs. I let my wife in on it, too, telling her that I was going to treat this birthday as a benchmark, as the start of my grown-up existence. I was done playing around, I was going to stop acting like an adolescent every time a pretty girl came by, I was going to stop flirting before it got me into even worse trouble than I already was in. (I had to pretend, in order to talk this way, that the little unconsummated affair she'd discovered, the aforementioned trouble, was the worst thing I'd ever done.)

I was completely serious, too, aware of how close I'd come to ruining it all. It was pure good luck nothing had actually happened, that I could truthfully state I'd been only headed toward disaster. Because it was the truth (this time), I was able to convince my wife that I hadn't made love to the girl. Certain portions of her letter (I couldn't believe she'd written me at home, as if such girlish handwriting wouldn't be irresistible to my wife) that spoke of how nice it would be to finally, etc., while making it impossible to disguise my intentions, did prove that I hadn't yet carried them out.

Which allowed my wife to forgive me.

But it was a very close thing, and I promised both myself and my wife I was going to take our marriage more seriously. We had ten years in and two children, after all.

It was time.

'I'm a married man,' I said, taking my wife's hands. It was a little like declaring at an AA meeting, but never mind that, I meant what I said. And six months later, I headed out to this workshop full of resolve. This would be my first real test. If I could get through one of these, I could get through anything. I hedged a little by hoping all the women would be plain, or lesbians, but when it turned out that was asking too much, I thought: All right, we'll do it the hard way. I wanted to be good. And there was no reason I couldn't, even if the first woman I saw, this Kate, happened to look like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.

Kate's long hands come farther into mine, and our fingers move together, a quick dry sound against the soft noise of the lake. The breeze pushes us in toward the cabin. We sit still until I can hear the water splashing on the rocks and then I let go of her hands and take the oars and row us out again, farther this time, out past where the two points pinch the cove off from the rest of the lake.

She shifts her weight and I feel her feet under me, beneath the plastic bench seat. I ship the little oars, wondering if she knows what she's doing. Her feet send a signal through the plastic into my center, and then on up through my body.

We listen for the loons. But it's quiet.

'I loved the story you read today,' she says then.

'Did you?'

'It was funny,' she says, 'but kind of sad, too.'

'I like to touch all the bases.'

She breathes a little laughter, then says, 'Has your wife ever had an affair?'

'Not that I know of.'

'That was completely made up?'

I nod.

Kate sighs.

'How about you?' I say after a little while. 'Has your spouse ever...?' I speak in a slightly mocking way, as I can't help doing whenever I talk to a woman about another man.

'Oh, I don't think so.'

'Oh,' I say.

We sit drifting. The breeze moves us back into the cove, toward her cabin, scattering the reflected light on the water, and we talk about writing, praising each other's work, the stuff we read to the group over the course of the week. Then we talk about how nice it has been, getting to know one another, becoming friends, and how unlucky that we each have someone already.

'In a perfect world...' I say.

'Yes.' She knows the rest: we've said it often enough these past few days.

'It's too bad we're so honorable,' I say.

She smiles a little. 'I don't feel very honorable.'

Our faces are still close and when she says that I lean forward to kiss her.

But she whispers, 'Don't.'

I pull back, surprised, then grateful. I forgot myself there for a moment. She has such a pretty mouth, it's only natural to want to kiss her.

'I don't want to just start,' she says.

'Right,' I say, nodding. I understand. We have agreed that we should be rational about it. We don't want one kiss to lead to another and so on. If anything's going to happen, despite our good intentions, we want it to have been decided upon. We don't want it to be simply giving in. All this stuff is so damn complicated, but she is smart and articulate about it, as she is about everything we've discussed. I knew she would be the first time I saw her. You could see it in her eyes. Even more: you could see it in the way she carried herself. She stood out from the rest of them from day one, from the time I drove into the little camp, up to the cabin they'd assigned me.

My cabin was next to the lodge, and there was a group of them standing on the lodge's dock, looking out at the cove, admiring the setting of the workshop. (That first day was sunny and warm, the nicest day of the whole week.)

They all turned to peer at the new arrival.

I got out of the car and walked over, passing the log-cabin lodge, joining them on the dock, and she was the striking one, tall and with that lanky, casual stance and, as I got closer, that smart look in her eyes.

I smiled at her, then remembered about being good and turned away to introduce myself around: there were a couple of older ladies, their handshakes dry and perfunctory, and a blonde, very pretty girl (with whom I felt no kinship whatever), some younger and not so pretty ones, a rather frail-looking older man and another guy about my own age who was standing next to Kate and who'd been chatting her up as I approached.

He shook hands grudgingly, and stuck his chin up in the air.

I turned to Kate and took her hand.

She smiled into my eyes and the connection was made. I realized it at once. Of course, I told myself, there were always going to be connections and opportunities. The trick was to not act on them. It was the same thing I'd told my wife, when she'd wondered whether it was very smart to be going off alone to a workshop in the boonies. You couldn't isolate yourself from temptation, I told her. That's why going to this workshop was a good idea. It would allow me to prove to myself that I'd changed.

And so far it had all worked out. Nothing untoward had occurred. Oh, Kate and I were drawn to each other, there's no denying that. And we did start sitting together, during the readings, and eating together, and on the third and fourth days, it's true, we visited back and forth in the evening, lighted fires in the crumbling old fireplaces and started talking about friendship, and wondering how intimate one could be without betraying a trust. I admit that we had discussions in which we found ourselves wondering just how often you met someone whose spirit seemed kindred, and we did hug on one occasion when, quite late on the fourth night, after we'd finished off a bottle of wine, I got up to head back to my own cabin. (I figured a little hug wouldn't hurt anything, and she obviously thought the same, from the way she accompanied me to the door and put her hand on my arm.)

But that had been the extent of it, the week had passed without a major moral failure, and we were still uncorrupted when the last night came, the night when everyone walked or rowed to the lodge to drink and say goodbye, the night before we all went home, the night that found us alone eventually in the dinghy on the lake.

This time after I row us out past the points (listening for the loons, who still aren't calling; I wonder what in hell they are waiting for), we can see flashlights on the side of the cove by the lodge. Some of the lights bob off through the brush, and others come shining down to the lake. Voices carry across the water to the rubber raft. There is laughter, and the splashes and hollow sounds of people getting into boats.

'Looks like the party's over,' I say.

'It must be getting late.'

'Maybe we'd better go in, too?'

'I suppose.'

I turn the dinghy, begin rowing slowly in toward the dock, wondering if she will start something. That will be the last difficulty we might have. I don't think I'll initiate anything. That possibility has been postponed for so long, while we rowed back and forth, that I think I can be good now out of sheer inertia. I'm glad we've spent this time together, though, glad I didn't let her go off alone. It's much more pleasant to say goodbye this way.

I take my time rowing in. Neither of us says anything. The flashlights disappear one by one on the shore, and the other boats all make it in before we do.

I hold the dinghy against the wood while she steps out. Then I follow, and stand beside her, holding the painter. Little waves blow under the dock and onto the rocks. I walk the dinghy up the dock to the shore.

'Are you any good at tying knots?' I say.

'No.'

I loop the line around the curving trunk of a tree growing out of the bank next to the dock. I hitch it twice, let it fall. 'That'll have to do.'

We walk the little pine-needled path to her cabin, climb the three steps up to the porch.

I take her hands.

She catches her breath.

I give a little tug and she comes into my arms.

Overhead, as I hold her, there are tiny sounds, moths throwing themselves against the porch light. I feel her hair on my cheek. I don't say anything. It's hard to breathe, let alone speak. After another moment I put my knuckle under her chin and nudge her head back. She's waiting, eyes closed, and next to the reality of her body, her pretty mouth, my resolve vanishes.

Just as I lean to kiss her, the loons start in.

When the first one cries out, throwing its wild song over the lake, Kate and I both jump. Kate's eyes blink open and she looks up at me, her eyes moving.

A second long call rises, trills, descends.

The first answers.

Then they're singing together, louder than I've ever heard them. Their cries - echoing back and forth across the lake, rising and falling in turn, competing, deranged - send shivers through me.

'My God,' Kate says. 'I thought they were gone.'

'They were there all along.'

The birds keep it up. We listen for a long time. Then, finally, they start to subside. I turn to Kate and our lips come naturally together, and it's as sad and warm as I would have expected. After a time she reaches behind her for the door and pulls it open, and I hold onto her as we maneuver ourselves inside and over to the sofa by the fireplace. We sit entwined, looking at each other. The light from the porch filters in through cloth curtains over the windows. Her eyes shine.

I manage a smile, and she sighs a little laughter.

Outside, the loons call softly from the lake.

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