The violence of water, the driver thought as he negotiated the road into Sussex. Many roads encircled the town with one entering proper on its way northward to Maine. The route ran parallel to one that leviathan whalers might have once taken centuries ago. He had learned this in school and wondered if bleached bones rested underneath the cliffs of this inlet-hugging road. The rain formed sulcate on the windshield. He traced with his eyes raindrops that streaked horizontal across the glass. After impact, a drop stretches, perhaps coalesces with others, then follows a straight line to the edge of the windshield. As rain, water is countable. Not many people realize that. He wrested a lever to adjust the wipers but they still squeaked.
The man drove alone. It was his fourth time back, the frequency coincidental with that of the storms, and would be his last. He was thirty-two with fine hair thinning even more, such that shocks of it floated with the breeze. A careful, melancholy man with a restless mind that often dwelled on joy.
Hurricane was to come again to Sussex. The storms were a season in their own right, and though the returning man had moved away for a great many years, he remembered their recurrences and their violence. In 1976, winds of fifty eight miles per hour at adjacent Dover; none dead. In 1979, eight point four two million dollars in damages; three dead in an accident. In 1985, rainfall of nine point zero two inches; sixteen point one nine million in damages; one dead. He found solace in these facts that he had studied over the years, as he retraced the matter with Teresa in 1985. To him she was always Tess.
He turned his attention to the shoebox on the passenger seat. It contained three things:
- Tess’s frock with flowers, yellowed by age instead of dyes, an unadmitted favorite of his and hers;
- A small rock that used to be sharp, from the side of a road that was once flooded and that had once drawn blood;
- A torn page from a yearbook laminated to guard against the damp, showing an array of girls, Tess included, sussex unified school, during her last year there, 1985, when she drowned.
The man adjusted the radio to listen for weather forecasts and warnings of flash floods. The roads were slick, and he became briefly fearful of losing traction. He had killed the heat to reduce the condensation when he noticed the familiar juncture and its side-gabled houses with steep-pitched roofs to break hurricane winds. When he lived here as a boy, he wondered if these were transplanted homesteads, plucked from the countryside by some furtive machine, bunched all too close like they were, and deposited wholesale in this memory of a whaling town. He knew by heart the count of turns and minutes it would take to reach the motel and its neighboring diner.
Sussex spirals outward from its founding docks a sluggard, tendrils reaching for dryer, higher southern plains. The motel sat on the end of a heartseeker road, bisecting Sussex’s arabesque spiral to its core. The building stood as a series of connected rectangles and did not have steep-pitched roofs. The driver parked the car in the sparse lot. He took the shoebox and a raincoat from the backseat. He tugged the collars stiff, walked into the clerk’s office, and rented a room for one night.
The renter walked briskly to his room on the second floor just behind a corner, unlocked the door, and set down the box on the lone armchair in front of the window, the edges of it aligning parallel with the edges of the armchair. Afterwards, he half-jogged back through the rain, downstairs, across the street, then into the diner, all the while listening to the violence of water against tin awning and wondering how such loudness did not pierce those thin tin sheets.
It was when the man had just finished his coffee that a woman from the booth diagonally across from his own recognized him.
“Look at you, don’t you look practically the same,” she said.
He looked up at the woman and, in his fatigue, was reminded of Tess. To think Tess as a woman and to place her thin, bare shoulders elsewhere in time, he thought, is a remarkable thing.
“It’s Mary! Christ, you know, Mary? Sussex Unified? Sat near the front with the other Irish girls. I’d recognize you anywhere, but I guess we’re all a little worse for wear after all these years,” she said of herself, but it made the man self-conscious. She sat down in his booth, to the whispering of her friends she had left behind.
“Mary, yes. Sorry, I wasn’t expecting something like this. Didn’t recognize you immediately. Still here?”
“I haven’t seen you for, what, twenty some years and you ask if I still live here? I don’t remember you being boring.”
“Well, I moved away.”
“And I tried,” she said this with lonesome courage indigenous to Sussex. Upon leaving after the accident, he would feel sadness from not having known more of it.
“Did you?” he asked.
“Christ, I don’t know, maybe not hard enough. This town still feels like it just swallows you right up with all its history and not enough people. But our seaside cliffs are pretty, and I know how to make myself happy. That’s what I tell myself anyways,” she said and leaned in with a smile for herself. “What’d you move away for?”
“I went to study—” he rubbed his eyes, “I’m sorry, it’s great to see you, but I just drove for eight hours.”
“Well, isn’t it a good thing you just had coffee then. So, why’re you back? Folk don’t come back,” she half-whispered, leaning in further. “Not the good-looking ones anyways.”
“For the storm, in a way, I guess.”
“Just when everyone else is getting away from the damn thing. But not us, huh? We grew up in this town.”
Mary’s friends walked over and and told her to come to Lou’s to keep drinking, that she needed to celebrate the occasion. She said she was almost done catching up, that the man was a childhood friend of hers. One of them held the man’s gaze for a second too long, then gave Mary a look. She told them five minutes, and they walked out in file.
“There was a charm here. But a lot comes with charm. The streets used to flood,” the man said.
“Yeah, and we used to swim at night whenever it did. God, remember that? Weren’t them summer nights just perfect. That poor girl from that year, though, bad luck.”
The man sat up to attention. For Sussex children, the watery escapades were joyous rebellions against adults who had seen the violence of water. Mary looked at his empty cup of coffee, and he noticed she was still smiling, just barely. It occurred to him that Mary has known the joy of looking at the same rain and swimming in the same waters as Tess.
“I’m only in town until tomorrow. Why don’t you stop by the motel after Lou’s? If reminiscing’s not too boring. I do remember those summer nights,” he replied and tried to return her smile in kind. She paused. He became nervous and brooded on the agony of spontaneity, on the gap between his front teeth when he was a boy, and on the money he had spent to correct it.
“Yeah, good-looking, maybe,” Mary said, stood up, and left the diner.
The man returned to the front of his motel room door in haste. He fumbled the fob and pushed the door with uncharacteristic force. Once the door had closed he found himself calmer with the loudness of rain subdued. In swipes of the hand he wiped the raincoat, folded the heavy fabric twice-over, first lengthwise, then crosswise, and hung it on the door. Calmness threatened to leave him as he wondered why he had propositioned Mary. After pacing between the armchair next to the bed and the bathroom door in repetition, he sat down on the bed’s edge facing the box on the armchair by the window. He unlidded the box and cradled it.
One early afternoon in the summer of 1985, a hurricane made landfall near Sussex. After school, a boy walked back to a small house on a grassy incline that overlooked a bend in the street. Beside him was a girl who smiled and looked at him when she spoke. Under her translucent raincoat, a floral dress was visible but blurred. The rain had not started in earnest, and the day was bright. She ran in polka-dotted rainboots into the neighboring house, yelling back at the boy that she will be there soon. He ran into the house on the incline, threw his bookbag on the linoleum of the foyer, and plodded down on the living room carpet. He turned on the television in the corner to the weather service.
“Is school cancelled tomorrow or what?” asked the girl as she came in without her raincoat, short of breath and her dress damp.
“Look at this huge swirl coming right over to us,” the boy crawled next to the television and pointed, “Might be even cancelled for a couple of days.”
She changed the channel, and they watched a show with a laugh track in the growing loudness of the outside rain.
When the show ended, she laid down prone on the carpet and rolled over to her back.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Not a truck driver for the cannery like my dad was. Maybe a poet, an honest one.”
“Yeah right, you couldn’t even finish your summer readings and had to cheat off me for the book reports.”
The boy scoffed.
“Me, my mom never talked about dad much, but when I’m older I’m going to be a mother and have a boy and a girl, two dogs, and a big house in California,” the girl continued.
“Eww, and who’s going to make babies with you? That guy behind you in English class?”
“Shut up! I bet you would!” she yelled and punched his arm.
The boy scrambled on all fours to where she was lying. As neighbors and as children whose single mothers bonded during their travails, they have played together for years. He knew how to pull his punches. She looked at him with indignant eyes. He knew the slight smile on her lips was an invitation. Their dance-tussle took them round the small living room in circles among whorling zebra-stripe shadows cast by the mounting storm.
As the boy noticed the sudden darkness of rain, the phone rang in the kitchen. His mother told him that streets out of the office building were flooded. She told him she would not be able to make it home, that there were bologna and bread, and to not stay up too late. The boy told her yes with a glint in his eyes.
He ran back to the living room. “My mom won’t make it home tonight,” he told her.
“That means mine won’t either,” she said. Then they smiled at each other.
Kneeling on the couch in front of the window, they counted passing cars fleeing from the rain bare shoulder to bare shoulder. They ate pudding pops and felt sick. They found and chewed disclosing tablets, making contorted faces at the taste. With gapped, dyed teeth bared they pretended to be ravenous animals, chasing each other from room to room in the incadescence of the house. Then they went back to the television and watched another show for another hour, until the power went out.
“Look at the street,” the girl said to the boy as she stood up in the now dark parlor.
“It’s totally flooded. The rain’s died down a bit, too.”
“I hope it drains soon.”
“No way. Let’s go swimming.”
“Are you kidding? It’s filthy in there. You’re going to be in so much trouble if someone sees you.”
“Nobody’s going to see us. Even the traffic lights’re off. Come on,” he said and grabbed her hand. They walked out onto the porch.
“You want me to swim wearing this?” she asked and tugged at her dress.
“So take it off,” the boy said as he took off his t-shirt and jeans. He sprinted down the incline in front of the house, hopping over the culvert, and into the water. Stepping on a small, sharp rock concealed by mud, he yelped in pain. In anger he threw it towards the house. At its deepest, the water came to the boy’s neck, where he dove in and swam a few, quick circles in front of the house. Right arm, head turn, left arm, repeat. He motioned for the girl to join him, but she shook her head.
He swam back to the edge of the incline, climbed out, and ran back towards the girl standing on the porch.
“Tess, come on.”
“I don’t know. I bet you just want to see my bra!”
“Like I want to see something like that! You’re just chicken.”
“I am not! You better turn around until I’m in the water.”
“Close your eyes, too!”
“Fine, not like I can see much.” The boy turned his back to the porch and closed his eyes. He listened to the rain keeping in sync with his own heartbeat. When he heard wet footsteps on grass he opened his eyelids slightly with measured precision. He saw thin, bare shoulders held triumphant against the shivered paper moon reflected in lapping floodwater.
“Okay,” she said from the water, “who’s chicken now? You going to make me wait?”
The boy dashed back into the water.
“Let’s go down to the bend,” he said and pointed to the corner where the road turned left. “First one there and back has to do what the other one says!” he said, and with large, fluid strokes swam ahead of her. He heard her kicking water behind him.
He swam with purpose, counting his strokes. The cut in his foot stung now and again but did not deter him. Grateless culverts on either side of the road siphoned the water with violent currents, which he knew to avoid by keeping to the center of the road. He reached the bend and doubled back, head down, focused on one stroke then the next. The boy reached the grassy incline of his house first, victorious. He ran back up to the porch and saw the crumpled dress next to his clothes, florals in the pale light. Without getting dressed himself, he picked up the dress, ran inside into his room, and stuffed it under his bed, grinning. She’ll be very angry, but he’ll make it up to her, he thought.
The boy waited on the porch for a great while, until a leviathan strangled him stilly from deeper, more violent waters.
A knock came at the hotel door; in panic, the man left the box on the bathroom sink counter on his way to answer the door, its edges unaligned. He opened the door to Mary.
“Thought you’d gone to Lou’s,” the man said.
“Yeah, well, Lou’s isn’t going anywhere. My friends neither.”
“I have nothing here to drink, you came earlier than I thought.”
“Oh, is that why I came over? So, you going to make me stand outside?”
“Come in, you’re soaked.”
The man brought out a towel and shut the bathroom door. As he veiled her with the white towel, she leaned in and kissed him, perfumed rum vapor in tow. As her lips rested on his and his hands rested on the white towel, he felt a happy confidence not unlike a happiness of childhood. When she pulled her mouth from his, he shrank back.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I wanted to do this, really. I find you very attractive.”
“Then come here.”
“Maybe I’m one of those men who can only make love to someone he knows completely,” he explained and looked beyond her at the door, thinking of a crumpled dress.
“Make love? No. No, you were about to get laid.”
“What do you think the difference is?” he asked as it struck him that she looked tired.
“Let me show you,” she said with a lowered voice and leaned in again. He resisted.
“Mary, it’s not you. I thought I was ready.”
“I don’t believe this. Why did you ask me back here then?”
“I only mean to be honest. You are very beautiful.”
“Usually honest men don’t need to explain. You know what? Whatever, fine. I get it. I’ll just leave,” she said and did not leave. She looked at him. He looked away. She looked at him. He looked at her. She looked at him. She shook her head and turned to the door.
“Wait! Back in the diner, you said you remember the girl who died?” he asked.
“What? A little. No, why bring that up?”
“I need to know if you remember—”
“Actually, I don’t want to know,” she said.
“Do you remember Tess?”
“Jesus. What is wrong with you?” she half-turned back to him, then turned away again, more hurried.
The man regretted being hasty. He grabbed her shoulder and pleaded, “I didn’t mean anything bad.”
“Don’t,” Mary said and opened the door. Once outside the threshold, she turned to face him and continued, “I got plenty of men right here who’re so wrapped up in themselves that they’re lonely even with a woman.”
The man said nothing and thought so ceaselessly of floodwaters that he only half-listened to her thanking him for the towel and her saying, in a lower voice, that she was going to Lou’s, as she should have done in the first place, to celebrate with her friends her long overdue divorce with another self-absorbed man.
After Mary left, the man grew restless. He smelled the kiss in the white towel and could not reconcile the promise of intimacy with Sussex and what came with it. He swung open the bathroom door to retrieve his box.
The frock he laid on the hotel bed flat. He caressed its seams with his hands gently, ant trails among tulips and petunias. From the hem to the waist, upward to the bust, left shoulder first, around the neckline, and repeat for the right side. He found comfort in the dress during the first months after Tess’s drowning, when he had nightmares of an incruent corpse. Tess’s body was never found, and he never revealed that he had hidden her dress. In the hotel room the man traced the seams with increasing speed and frustration.
The small rock he held briefly, fingers moving from mortise to mortise. He wanted to throw it at Mary, who was no longer there.
Unable to reorient himself, he exited the room a wraith, holding the laminated page and the dress wrapped around the rock. He headed to his car and tossed his relics onto the back seat. The car turned and sped off, deeper into Sussex. He drove unseated on roads more serpentine than he remembered, trying to calm himself with higher speeds. The rain fell now more intensely; his eyes darting to the trail of raindrops on windshield, more numerous and more desperate. Speeding past the side-gabled houses, he cursed and accelerated.
The car careened off road near the center of Sussex’s spiral. The wheels slid frictionless on the thin film of water and carried the car straight, into the shoulders, where roadside rocks flayed the steel of the car in a high-pitched whine. The car overturned twice and sloughed off its skin of water in exhale. The violence of water is a curious thing, he thought.
A passerby called for the ambulance. The paramedics informed him of a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a concussion. He asked the paramedics where his car had been taken. His voice was croupy. He told them he had valuables in the car.
“Don’t talk. It wasn’t your fault. It’s all right. It’s okay.”
He was unsure if it was their place to say.
In the following days at the hospital, the man drifted in and out of sleep. In his waking moments, he was calm like spent men often were, after they realized they no longer had to fight. With his relics destroyed, he knew he would eventually forget the particulars of that night and even Tess’s likeness. The hurricane was now diminished, and periodic showers pattered on the window of his room. Doing her rounds, the shift nurse came in and asked if he wanted anything. He looked at the lines of rain on the window and told her that no, he wanted for nothing, then drifted back to sleep.
On the carpet in the parlor of his small house he and she laid prone playing. Bruised knees dug into the carpet with raised feet swaying. The sun pierced roiling clouds crepuscular. The rain only whispered now but the streets were already flooded. The boy and the girl wrapped in moving shadows and kissed by damp breeze played heads down, oblivious. But then the boy noticed the ordinary miracle of water. He stood and saw a deluged world inexhaustible and wondrous. Beckoned, he opened the porch door. The girl raised bobbing flaxen ringlets cascading on carpet to peer through and with the boy. Past the threshold they saw the water gently afire with half-set sun. The boy looked back gaptoothed grinning to the girl and extended his hand. The girl climbed to her feet and reached forward to take his hand in smiling communion. A great searing pierced the boy, an inchoate sensation he mistook as pain. Hands clasped they stood on the porch, coiled springs, beholding the flooded street. He helped her unzip that flowery frock and they discarded their clothes. In unison they sprinted to the water’s edge, paused slightly in the coolness, and waded in waist-height. Small, sharp rocks coaxed no blood from the boy’s feet. He fashioned her hands a cruet, cupped water, then guided her arms skyward fluid and swift. Droplets fell out of her hands and rippled across the flooded street in placid calm of summer evening unbowed by her laughter. The boy looked at the girl. They leaped into the water hands raised as one and swam with a joy invincible.