Paula said she was afraid to venture more than waist-deep into the water because she didn’t swim. She and Evan had driven off the main road and found the enclosed beach. If she were flying above it in a plane or if she were a bird, it would look like a turtle with its front legs pointed to the lake and its rear legs holding back the cliff that thrust up from the gravel and sand. The setting sun glittered on the water, but the lake chilled her toes when she stepped in it, and she returned to the strip of shore. They both dressed again in their shorts and t-shirts. Evan scooped sand and let it fall between his fingers.
“You look pale,” he said.
“You too.” She must have sounded a little sharp.
“I should’ve said ‘fair.’” Compliments did not come easily to him. “You seem to shine.”
Decades later, she would smile when she watched her friends chortle and preen over their grandchildren, and she would wonder if she should have accepted Evan’s proposal. That day, he had asked her to accompany him to Bosnia, where he intended to be a journalist. In 1979, she knew nothing of Bosnia except that Sarajevo was the capital and it was the start of World War I and Ovid died in Romania nearby. Everything was nearby in that region: Serbia, Constantinople, all the wars of the Middle East, all the danger. “All the beauty and wealth, too,” he insisted and brushed his hands clean of the sand.
He reached toward her; she touched his gritty fingertips and, as she moved away, she slipped on the gravel and cut her knee. He knelt in front of her, produced a band-aid from his wallet and taped it on her knee gently, as if she were an ailing child. “There, there,” he said. It had left a dark mark, like a tiny tattoo, that was still on her knee thirty years later, a half-star. She would have it to her last day.
“We can get married, if you want,” he said.
He didn’t realize what that sounded like. She chided him, “Miss Manners writes that the only proper marriage proposal is ‘I love you madly and can’t live without you.’”
“I would’ve thought you already knew that about me.” He threw a pebble into the lake. It arced over the waves before splashing into the purple water.
“I have my prelims to take.”
“You can join me afterwards.”
“And then there’s the dissertation.”
“You can write it there.”
“I don’t know.” She stared at the deep water.
“We can travel to Greece. You can see your Homer’s wine-dark sea.”
“He’s not my Homer. He’s everybody’s Homer. He’s as important as journalism. More. More important.” Her voice seemed loud and tight.
His voice became smaller. “But you say that the freshmen don’t care.”
She would have had to give up what became her life — the research, the friends, teaching about Homer and the wine-dark sea. The dread had felt like a sharp-clawed creature clinging to her chest.
Perhaps she could have made a life with him for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
They changed the subject to the next day’s tasks. He needed to mow his grandmother’s lawn; she planned to go to the library and, in the evening, to a friend’s engagement shower.
The dimming light blended the water and sky; the soft air felt damp.
When they walked back to the car, he noticed a turtle, smaller than his palm, scrambling toward the water. “Poor little guy,” he said. “It lost its tail. It keeps going on. Brave little critter.”
“Instinct. It’s just moving forward. What choice does it have?” She watched it struggle into the lake, push off, and swim smoothly. She put her hand on Evan’s forearm. “There’s only the one turtle?”
“He’ll be okay,” he said. “Turtles are solitary.”
The next day it rained; they would not have discovered the beach if it had been raining the evening he asked her to come with him.
She never got to see her own self age by seeing his features get lined. Like her, he never married. He became a respected journalist, covered the hot spots in eastern Europe and the Middle East, survived Bosnia and the war in Iraq. Paula heard from his sister that he died of cancer. Rapid and aggressive. It was diagnosed in April and he was dead in June.
So he survived the wars. But that day on the beach, when she looked at his face, she thought he looked vulnerable against the wine-dark sea.