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The Summer Wives


I returned to Winthrop Island on an unseasonably cold day in early May, one week after my tenth wedding anniversary. I missed the last ferry from New London—the schedule, not surprisingly, had changed in the eighteen years since I last climbed aboard—and hired an old tub of a fishing boat to carry me across from Stonington. I don’t think the fellow recognized me, but I can’t be sure. Fishermen are a stoic lot, you know. They don’t emote. I paid him twenty dollars cash, and in return he. Didn’t ask me any awkward questions, like my name and my business on the Island, though I wonder if it would have made any difference. What was he going to do, call the newspapers? Probably he’d never heard of me. Lots of people had never heard of me.

Because it was May, the sky was still light as we bumped across the few miles of Long Island Sound that separate the Island from Connecticut. I wore my sunglasses, which were black and extremely large, giving me the appearance of an exotic bug, and the spray soon coated the lenses with a film of salt. When I couldn’t properly see any longer, I took them off, and the strength of the draft on my face surprised me, and the smell. I’d forgotten about the scent of the Sound, which had its own particular tang, different from anywhere else in the world, the English Channel or the Mediterranean or the South Pacific—or maybe it didn’t, and that was all in my imagination. Still, it seemed to me as I stood near the bow of the fishing boat, leaning against the deckhouse, that the brine on that wind reached deep inside the wrinkles of my brain, penetrating the furthest regions of the hippocampus to lay its fingertip on certain tender memories therein. Bending over the stern of a lobster boat, hauling cages from a buoy line. Sitting next to a girl at the end of a midnight dock, sharing a bottle of cold champagne. Lying on a beach while the rain coursed upon me and a boy, kissing each other for the last time.

Ahead of me, the Island made a dark, flattened parabola, growing larger by the second until it dominated the horizon and the specks on its surface took on the character of houses. I saw the cluster of buildings around the harbor, the scattering of estates along the shore. I couldn’t see Greyfriars from here—perched as it was on the southeastern corner

of the Island—but I knew it still existed, overlooking Fleet Rock and its famous lighthouse. I knew this because of the letter in my pocketbook, which was written on Greyfriars notepaper and signed, in old-fashioned, reproachful copperplate, Your Mother. There was no mention of Isobel, but I knew she existed, too. There could be no Greyfriars without Isobel, could there?

Without thinking, I turned to address the fisherman, and his face went rigid with shock at the sight of me, now unhidden by sunglasses. “An accident,” I said, touching the bruised flesh around my left eye and my cheekbone. “An automobile accident,” remembering to use the American term—accident—instead of the British one, smash. A car smash, which is an interesting difference, you know. To call it an accident implies an

absence of intent, nobody’s fault, a tragic mistake. A smash is just that. Makes no judgment on how the thing happened, or why.

“I’m sorry, ma’am.” He returned his attention to the direction of the boat. (Like I said, a stoic lot.)

“These things happen,” I said. “I was going to ask you a question, if you don’t mind.”

“Fire away.”

“Do you happen to know who keeps the Fleet Rock lighthouse, these days? I used to

summer on the Island, many years ago, and I was just wondering.”

“The Fleet Rock lighthouse? Why, that would be old Mrs. Vargas,”

said the fisherman, without changing expression, without turning his attention from the water before us.

“What about Mr. Vargas?”

“I’m afraid he’s passed on, ma’am. Just a few months ago. One winter too many, I guess.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“He was a good man. A good lobsterman.”

I laughed politely. “Isn’t that the same thing?”

He laughed too. “I guess it is, ma’am. I guess it is.”

We said nothing more, all the way into the harbor, and I gave him another five dollars to keep quiet about the woman with the black eye and the sunglasses who was asking questions about Fleet Rock lighthouse. He put the Lincoln in his pocket and asked if he could help me with my suitcase. I said no, I was just heading into the general store across the street from the marina. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, though, so I let him carry the suitcase anyway. Men sometimes like to make themselves useful that way, I’ve found, and you might as well humor them.

Inside the store, I absorbed the familiar, particular odor of dust and spices, and the scent gave me another jolt of exquisite pain to the solar plexus. There’s something about the smells of your childhood, isn’t there? Even when that childhood was short and flavored by bitterness and ended in catastrophe, in a disaster of devastating proportions, you

still remember those small, sublime joys with an ache of longing. Because there’s no getting it back, is there? You can’t return to a state of innocence. So I waited patiently for the old woman behind the soda fountain to hustle and bustle her way around her shelves, her cabinets, her rows of merchandise, until at last she noticed my presence and apologized.

“It’s no trouble at all,” I said.

At the sound of my voice, her face changed, in much the same way as the fisherman’s had. Her mouth made a perfect hole of surprise. “Deus meu! Miranda Schuyler?” she said in wonder.

“The prodigal returns.” I removed my sunglasses.

“Oh dear! What is this thing that has happened to your face?”

“There was an accident. A car accident. I thought I might find someplace quiet to lick my wounds. I hope you don’t mind.”

Her voice was soft with pity. “No, of course. Of course not.” She paused delicately. “Do they know you are coming? At Greyfriars? Your mother, she was here yesterday, and she said nothing to me.”

“I thought I might surprise them. I don’t suppose your husband still drives his delivery van, does he?”

“Ah, poor Manuelo, he is gone now.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry. I didn’t think.”

“But I can drive you this far. My daughter Laura will keep the store for me. Laura! You remember Laura, don’t you?”

“Naturally I remember Laura. I remember everybody and everything. How could I forget?”

We exchanged a look of deep, futile understanding that lasted as long as it took for Mrs. Medeiro’s daughter, Miss Laura, scatter-haired and dumpy in a floral housedress, to emerge from some back room, clasp her hands, and express her absolute astonishment that the great Miranda Schuyler had returned to the Island at last, that she stood right here in the middle of their humble store.

“Or must we call you Miranda Thomas?” she asked, pretending not to

eye the shiner that disfigured the left side of my face.

“Just Miranda will do. I’m here unofficially, you understand.”

“Ah, I see.” She smoothed her hair with one hand and looked at her mother, and some communication passed between them, to which Mrs. Medeiro replied with a small shrug. Miss Laura picked up a dishcloth and put it down again. I was opening my mouth to speak when she burst out, “What was it like to kiss Roger Moore?”

“Laura!” snapped her mother.

I slipped the sunglasses back over my eyes. “Just exactly as you might

think,” I said.


We were halfway to Greyfriars before I asked Mrs. Medeiro about her

grandson, and she took her time to answer me.

“He’s well,” she said, “the last I heard.”

“He never did answer any of my letters. I wrote and wrote.”

“He thought this was best. There was no hope, you see.”

I set my elbow on the edge of the window, which was rolled down

all the way to allow the May breeze inside the fish-smelling

cab. I might have looked out toward the sea, which was darkening into a purple twilight, but I didn’t. I knew what was out there, the cliffs dropping away into the water, and Fleet Rock like a dream against the horizon.

Mrs. Medeiro changed gears to thrust the old van up the slope. “You have heard the news, yes?”

“That he escaped from prison? Yes, I heard.”

“Is that—” She bit herself off and rattled her thumbs against the steering


“Is that why I’ve come back, you mean? Because of Joseph escaping from prison?”

“I’m sorry. It’s your business, why you’re here.”

“It’s a logical question. I don’t blame you for asking. I mean, he’s bolted from his prison, and now I’ve—well, here I am, fresh from London.”

“So you are here for him?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Oh.” Mrs. Medeiro glanced at me. “I just—well, the police already came, the detectives, the marshals. I mean, they searched everywhere. They could not find him.”

“I don’t suppose you happen to know where he went?”

She shrugged. “Who really knows about Joseph? He always keeps his

own mind.”

“That’s not an answer, Mrs. Medeiro,” I said.

“No, I guess not.”

I took off the sunglasses and folded them into my pocketbook. We had nearly reached the Greyfriars drive, and my fingers were shaking, shaking, my heart was thundering. I had thought, after so many years, I should approach the house like an old friend with whom you had quarreled long ago and since forgiven so far as to forget what the quarrel was about. But now I glimpsed the stone wall, crumbling to bits, and the gap through which I had walked so often, and the mighty, unkempt rhododendrons, and I was eighteen again—exactly half as old as my current age, now there’s symmetry for you—and knew nothing about keeping your emotions in check, your spirit under exquisite control. I gripped the handles of my pocketbook and counted the pulse of my breathing, as my husband had once trained me to do, yet still the flutter remained and worsened into dizziness.

“Is everything okay, Miranda?” asked Mrs. Medeiro quietly. “Should I stop the car?”

“No, thank you. Drive right on up to the door, if you don’t mind.”

            We turned down the drive and the tires crunched on the gravel, bounced over the ruts, dove into the potholes. In earlier days, the Greyfriars drive was an impeccable thing, almost as smooth as asphalt, and Mrs. Medeiro, after one particularly bone-crunching jolt, was moved to apologize for the fall in standards, almost as if she had some responsibility for them.

“Things aren’t the same at Greyfriars, you know,” she said.

“I don’t imagine they are.”

“I think there is not much money now. You know they take in boarders.”

“Do they? I didn’t know that. Mother never mentioned it in her letters.”

“She is proud. They don’t call them boarders. It is—oh, what is itcalled? An artist colony.”

“Oh, of course. How lovely. Artists. Shame they aren’t gardeners, as well.”

We passed the last, the largest rhododendron of all, from which I kept

my eyes carefully averted. The sun was gone now anyway, and everything had disappeared into shadow. Even Greyfriars, as it slid into view, was an anticlimax: just a long, dark shape containing a few specks of light. I found I was able to breathe again. Mrs. Medeiro pulled around thesemicircle and brought the van to a rusty stop.

“Should I wait?” she asked.

“There’s no need.” I plucked my suitcase from the back and waved her away. She must have understood me, because she obeyed, and I waited until the headlights had disappeared around the corner of the rhododendron before I turned to stand before the front step. The light was off, or else the bulb was gone, and I couldn’t see much, just that the paint seemed to be peeling from that large front door, and I could no longer tell if it was black or green.

Then it swung open.

“My goodness! Who—”

Because of the light from the doorway, I couldn’t see the face of the woman who stood before me. But I knew who it was. There could be no Greyfriars without her, after all.

“Isobel,” I said. “It’s Miranda.”

The Summer Wives
by by Beatriz Williams