The first glimpse of the bay from the car is an excitement that cannot be explained.
Ahead, framed by the pines that line the beach road like a tunnel, the water and the sky are indistinguishable, cocked at an oblique angle to the narrow road like driving down the capital letter V into a sort of shimmering, aquamarine eternity.
The ocean, still a mile ahead, is the end of the world.
But by the time you start looking for parking the illusion has passed. The briquette smoke and screaming children restore the earth's perspective—flatten it again.
A malevolent stretch of arid, sun-baked weeks had left New England sticky and argumentative. The cumulous clouds floated, each day, rather insipidly in a blue sky that never darkened, never jostled the leaves that, this August, have started falling early.
No matter how low I get, I always attend the church picnic. And this hangover—still going strong at 1:00—defined low. In my wide-brimmed straw hat and chic sunglasses, I looked like Norma Desmond with distention. I am a bad person, and several people at this picnic know it pretty well.
I am here to swim.
The minister, with a scorecard of forgivenesses well concealed behind her eyes, hugged me genuinely. She approaches her profession like an instrumentalist, spending hours in detailed, technical practice but making the recital—this church picnic—appear effortless. No person went unspoken to, knowledgeable questions were asked, and a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries was offered to each pale set of arms and legs hobbled into its brightly colored folding chair sinking, as the small talk wore on, crookedly into the sand.
Already, Gary was gone, but the awkwardness of the situation—surrounded even in this tiny circle by a few people I've drunkenly maligned or inexplicably dropped—seemed to propel conversation, like survivors in a lifeboat. I'd been missing from this crowd long enough that my shenanigans were outdated, and the faint aroma of scandal I gave off worked in my favor, made me a sort of Nixon.
Nevertheless, I always come to the picnic.
And I am one of a handful of the same people, year after year, who brave the icy bay water, dipping under and screaming, young and very old, slender and fat. The salty baptism is perennial and deeply healing, and I come out of the water a hero for another year—cleansed, ready for another hot dog.
The capacity of humans for forgiveness seems a learned trait, and few attempt it. My immolations had been largely self-lit, having like an iceberg the larger circumference of its mass hidden from sight.
But I had never before hurt a child. And there, alone, seated on a towel in the sand, separate from her parents, picking at her cole slaw, willowy as a branch of lilac, frowningly intelligent and just on the younger side of heartbreaking beauty, was an 11-year-old girl who unwisely, wholeheartedly adored me for my status—in her mind an erudite and geeky glory—as the president of a tiny, fiscally hopeless local historical society.
Only two days ago I had resigned after a flurry of drunken emails aimed at the manipulative, narrow-minded former president—who had upstaged and frustrated me from the very beginning of my work—had alarmed and, finally, disgusted the Board of Directors. Maeve had spent over a year of Thursday afternoons with us at the museum going through World War I uniforms, old lumber mill ledgers, glass plate negatives, 19th century diaries and letters, and seaman's scrapbooks.
She loves horses and history.
I will never see her again.
I had walked past her toward the picnic table with the buns, salads, and condiments before I realized that she had seated herself in our little circle, with no possibility of entertaining conversation, probably to listen to me, to attempt to understand my decision—and I had failed to speak to her at all.
Frankly, I was testing the waters with everybody. Only as little as two weeks ago, Gary and I had reached some sort of cease fire.
I am on the edge of having no one, of drinking very, very much alone, like Lee Remick at that motel in the last scene of "Days of Wine and Roses." I balance myself in a permeable canoe, cutting the ropes that moor me to responsibility, to other people.
When I returned with my hamburger I was finally able to talk to her. I drew her in by telling the person seated next to me the story of how I cut my thumb and had to have 22 stitches—one of Maeve's favorites, as she was there that afternoon they held my arm high above my head, waiting for Gary to take me to the emergency room. She chimed in with little details, delivered with the mock exasperation I have, throughout my time with her, come to require no less than a dog needs his head scratched.
Forgiveness is a learned trait. Few attempt it. It is a promising trait.