Margaret promised to give me dating advice because I was newly alone and shook like a frond every time I imagined starting from the beginning. For crying out loud, Margaret said, stop plucking your eyebrows off.
I shut the little compact shaped like a kitten. Sorry, I said, I just want my face to look more severe and memorable.
Margaret peered at me over the tops of her sunglasses, each lens large as a swan’s egg. That’s not your issue, she said. Your brows frame your eyes, and your eyes are the portals through which you’ll fall in love. Leave everything alone. God almighty, you know nothing.
I said, I know, I know. I do know nothing.
We lay there, tanning our fronts. Margaret called over the pool boy, snapping. Young man, she said. Could you make us two of those tall drinks that are cool and great smelling and full of gin?
He nodded and trotted off in tight black swim trunks.
Ah, will you look at this, Margaret said. She leaned back, stretching out her oiled legs. Bodies dotted the plane of the pool, the sun urged down, sand beyond the resort’s edge blew hot and crystal, and farther still, that stripe of sea tilted, infinite, to meet white unbroken sky. Here’s to living, said Margaret, and sloshed an imaginary glass toward me.
Hear, hear, I said.
Meanwhile, Matthew sat on his porch at the very center of our wide and tiresome country, assessing an expanse of wheat field, considering the state of his teeth, his rye toast, his morning push-ups. Matthew, that harmless milken lawyer. Matthew, the man for whom I boiled noodles, saltless, over and over, to sate a palate bland as straw. My Matthew who was now as much mine as he was anyone’s, and for this I blame no one but myself.
First things first, said Margaret, tipping the pool boy with a bill rolled between two fingers. We must re-evaluate your wardrobe.
I looked down at my swimsuit, its loose elastic feeble at my waist. Please, no, I said. Spare me the hassle.
So many delicious fabrics and cuts to choose from, Margaret began.
Fine, I said. Go on.
What shall you wear for your future in love? Loads of cashmere scarves? said Margaret, waving her hand about. Kid gloves and a heavy trench?
This all sounds very expensive, I said.
A dress with peaks like meringue, a cream silk cold to the touch?
Oh—no, no, I said. Too much.
And a crepe blouse pinned and tucked at the neck? Maybe a pair of chocolate slacks, a wool sweater with thick cabling down the front, a smoke gray sheath with a delicate belt?
Do you know me? I asked. You’re describing the wrong kind of woman.
The right kind of woman needs the right kind of skirt set, said Margaret, sipping her drink. A wedge of pineapple slipped down the glass’s rim and hit the side of her nose. Oh, she said into her drink.
I pulled the fruit from my glass and ate it. I said, I have a silk shirt already. That pink one with the bows at the wrists.
Are you a lamb? asked Margaret. Are you a baby?
I was told it’s feminine and darling, I said.
Patent stilettos with neat silhouettes, she said.
I said, Maybe I am a lamb. I can’t walk in those things. God, it’s so hot out. Aren’t you boiling? I looked over at Margaret, a supine languor dripping off of her. She draped her arms over her head.
Isn’t it wonderful? Margaret said to the sky. All these possibilities? She sighed.
I’m burning up, I said.
Nearby a girl, about eight, cannonballed into the pool, her tanned father looking on from his lounge chair. Wow, the girl said when she emerged, splashing. Daddy, swim, come in. He smiled, nodded, returned his eyes to a magazine.
That blue water, I longed for it.
Fathers, said Margaret. Forget about them. Once, she said, I dated a father. I made him a luscious pork cutlet, a pound of asparagus, four vodka tonics, two perfect little crème brûlées in flower ramekins, a sturdy pot of black coffee, and he gobbled it all up, ashed a cigarette into his empty mug, kissed me on the forehead, left in a rush to tend to his children, Sue and Michael or something, and I stood there like a statue draped in organza at the center of my living room, vases of orange flowers everywhere. Fathers, never again.
We learn, I said.
Where’s that boy with the drinks? she asked, looking around.
The girl clambered out of the pool, wet hair matted down the rounds of her cheeks. Brr! she shouted. Hello? Excuse me? It’s cold! She stamped in front of her father’s chair, dripping water that darkened the concrete below her tiny feet. Her father handed her a folded terry cloth towel.
No! the girl said. Do it for me! She stuck out her bottom lip, pushed the towel into his lap, and he shook the towel loose, flung it around her little body, crossed it snug in front of her neck like a cape, and she shrieked with delight.
Ta-da, he said, turning her around by the shoulders. All warm now.
She spun, bowed, dropped the towel to the ground, and leapt back into the pool, laughing.
Okay, said the father to no one.
We both know you’re not the best dancer, said Margaret, so maybe you ought to consider lessons.
There is no way, I said. Why?
The dreamiest dates are never still, she said. You should twirl and touch fingers, stumble out into the night with flushed faces to gawk up at the stars, walk shoeless through the grass. By the end of the evening his tie should hang from his collar unknotted. Is that not ideal? Does that make any bit of sense to you?
Should we go for a swim? I asked. The girl floated on her back at the center of the pool.
Roger—you remember Roger—he was a fantastic dancer, Margaret said. He took me out on weekends, led me around by the waistband, flicked me like a top across the dance floor, and I felt ecstatic, everyone clapping and whooping like we were the main event. Oh, I could have done that for ages.
And yet, I said.
He was divine, she said. We dazzled each other. She snapped her fingers at the pool boy for another pair of drinks.
I’d rather go to the movies than try to dance, I said.
Movies, said Margaret.
Matthew and I went to the movies sometimes, and I enjoyed them, I said.
Enjoyed, said Margaret.
Very much, I said. I love all kinds of movies.
All kinds? Margaret pushed at her temple with a thumb.
Everyone loves the movies! I said. I sat up, skin tight from the heat.
Oh, said Margaret. Is that so? Did Matthew buy you a cream soda and jot down notes in the dark about his favorite scenes?
Fine, I said. I suppose you’ll tell me that going to the movies is trite.
Incredibly! said Margaret. Very white bread. Bury me next to the man I love, and then we can hold hands and stare straight ahead unblinking for all eternity.
All right, all right, I said. Dancing.
The sun cut in sideways, shadows pulled thin and long across the deck and over the sand, sunbathers turned onto their stomachs, a flock of gulls circled above, wending, and down, by the pool, we toasted again to our futures.
Hear, hear, I said.
And at the end of the night, said Margaret, after the last song finishes, you should know, deep within yourself, that this is how you’ve always wanted to feel, that your billowy skirts flow around your legs like clouds, that your date will tip you back and kiss behind your ear, and you will think, Christ in heaven, I know what’s right.
Are you drunk? I asked. I ate another piece of cocktail fruit, checked my teeth in the little kitten mirror, and stood uneasily. The father sat at the edge of his lounge chair, watching his daughter wade around the shallow end of the pool with her arms fanning out across the surface. He’d rolled his magazine into a tube and every so often raised it to his eye like a telescope. The girl laughed and slapped the water.
Look again! she called out. Look! See!
Where are you going? asked Margaret.
I want to go for a swim, I said.
Suit yourself, she said. I’m going to try to marry the pool boy.
I’m rooting for you, I said.
Matthew, that gentle slow talker, ate his dinner early and was no doubt washing the dishes and whistling, pure and sweet, along to the afternoon radio. Later, he’d draw a little rabbit in the margin of his notebook, one ear straight and the other ear bent. My, my, he used to say to me. You look just how I pictured.
I made my way toward the pool, sat at the edge, and cooled my feet.
Hello, said the girl, swimming up to me.
Hi, I said. How’s the water?
Fine, she said. I love it.
So do I, I said. I don’t swim very much anymore.
Do you want to see something? the girl asked.
Very much, I said.
The girl sank beneath the surface, flipped herself into a wobbly handstand, skinny legs kicking and reaching, listed sideways, and finally dropped, the water swashing out. She re-emerged, eyes closed, grinning.
Perfect, I said. Incredible.
I can do it better, said the girl, but I’m also good at impressions.
Oh? I said, and she plunged to the pool floor, curled into a ball, and surfaced, panting, a few seconds later.
What happened? I asked.
That was me as a clam, she said.
Of course, I said. Heck of a clam.
I turned to watch Margaret unfold her body, walk up to the pool boy, and say something. They both laughed. Margaret leaned forward and then back.
Is that your sister? asked the girl. Is she on television?
That’s my friend Margaret, I said.
The girl said, Well, that’s my dad. She pointed.
Her father now lay prone on his lounge chair, magazine uncurled on the ground near his hand.
I stepped into the cold pool, staring down at the white of my legs rippling and shifting and winking under water, and I heard Margaret’s laughter echo from somewhere, distant, like she might be striding down to the shoreline, arms out to feel the wind.