Without Affection

Summer, 2006 / No. 16
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

Waves. They dominated the aural landscape, drowning out tiny conversations. The occasional shriek from a child or a crossing motorboat would compete for attention, but only briefly, like a solo violin over a steady backbeat. Waves were a dull wash of sound that never ran out of breath.

Like train whistles or sirens, Alan thought the breaking waves sounded lonely. At night, they reminded him that the beach was now deserted, the water cold, dark, and dangerous. Waves were reminders of too-short romances, lost loves, lost souls at sea. The final days of a summer vacation.

Right now, they splashed harmlessly just above his thigh. The water was still too cold for him to fully commit to immersing himself. He’d signed out a mask and snorkel, “free” with his all-inclusive package. Mandy lay beneath a shelter made from palm leaves, still recovering from the burn she’d received on their second day here. Out all day in the Caribbean sun, sans sunscreen, to get a tan that says, “I was at a sunny place.” Instead, she resembled a rotisserie hot dog and had spent a full day vomiting and moaning in their room.

The other guests at this resort were friendly, which posed only a minor problem. Though Mandy was eager to talk to anyone who’d give her an ear, Alan was confident that they wouldn’t make any friends. Mandy would drive all prospects away with her passive-aggressive insults about the person’s hairstyle, clothes, or weight. Like she should talk. She had gained a full twenty-five pounds since they were married, rendering her unpleasantly plump. Back home they were also without friends, which suited Alan fine. No one to make nice with, spend money on dinners with, or mentally beg to leave after inviting them into your home. No birthdays, kids’ names to remember. Yes, Mandy had alienated anyone who came into their orbit, keeping their galaxy population at two.

Alan dropped to his knees, flinching at the coolness of the water on his chest. He held his position for a moment to acclimatize himself, then secured the mask to his head. Biting down on the snorkel’s mouthpiece, he put his face into the water, then propelled himself forward with his legs. The sound of his breathing, now amplified, along with the gurgling of water as he moved through it, created a womb-like soundscape. The water was clear, but the sea’s bottom this close to the shore revealed little more than the same golden sand that composed the beach. He kicked, now wishing Mandy could swim in case he discovered anything interesting. Water was just one of her many phobias, making the choice of Cuba as a vacation destination somewhat curious—except that she could find something scary about anywhere they might choose to go.

Water filled his ears, creating a dull pressure. A small school of tiny fish lined up below him to his left. They were almost the same colour as the sand, and he might have missed them were there anything else to look at. They swam alongside him as though they were checking him out, then, out of either fear or disinterest, scurried away. The water suddenly felt cooler, and Alan guessed that he was now out a bit far. Turning, he made for the shore.

He trudged through the sand, his feet sinking into the wet shoreline until he hit dry land, itself also less-than-firm ground. Mandy’s lime green one-piece bathing suit beckoned in the distance. She was on her back, reading one of those three-inch-thick romance novels Alan was sure were rotting her brain.

“How are you feeling? Can I get you anything? ”

Mandy looked up from her book.

“Would you get me a drink? A pina colada? ” She reached into her bag for her lip balm. “I wish you didn’t always have to be doing something,” she said, mushing her lips together. “I wish you could just lie here with me for a minute.”

I wish, I wish. Most of her sentences began that way, always wondering why everyone didn’t do exactly what she wanted at all times. Like the world was a genie in a bottle. “I’ve got a wish for you,” he thought. “I wish you’d shut your fucking trap. How would that be? ”

“I’ll get you your drink and then I’ll sit with you a while.”

Fishing a dollar bill from his fanny pack, which lay beside Mandy, he made his way toward the beach bar, located about fifty yards from their spot.

The beach was liberally spotted with sunbathing tourists, but Mandy and Alan had managed to find a semi-secluded area to hang out. He squinted at a row of six or seven lounge chairs perched at the top of the beach. His eyes stopped on what he thought was a topless woman.

It was, in fact, a topless woman, still pale, her skin refusing the sun. Her breasts were small but breathtaking. She was resting at a forty-five-degree angle, her arms at her sides, her sunglasses resting on her nose. A dark-haired young man, also shirtless, was sitting at the bottom of her deck chair, talking to her. God, what a vision. Alan rarely noticed pretty girls anymore. Perhaps it was the oddity of seeing a semi-naked woman in public, or perhaps it was that she was just that beautiful. Either way, he was transfixed, his head turning as he slowed down almost to a stop. Then the guy she was talking to grabbed her wrist and they both looked over at him.

Fuck. Caught. Instead of casually looking away he jerked his head, guiltily. Great, now he was the pervert of the resort, the reason why women were afraid to go topless. He picked up his pace, as much as that was possible in the sand.

The bar was jammed. Scarlet-skinned fat guys in tight Speedos, dozens of bikini-clad women of varying shapes. A small group of faux surfer dudes, older women who were almost fully clothed. Everyone having a booze-and-sun-fueled party, like a Kahl˙a commercial. A four-piece band played in the far corner, loud enough to mask the sound of the waves.

The drinks here were sweet and had an artificial flavor. There wasn’t any decent Scotch, and the beer tasted off. He stuck to rum and Coke. When in Rome.

“A pina colada and a Cuba libre, por favor.” He didn’t know why he bothered with the Spanish. He must sound ridiculous. The bartender loaded the blender with white goop and sang along with the band against the roar of the mixer. Service was a bit slow, but this guy had recognized Alan as a tipper and made for him immediately. This was supposed to be an all-inclusive package, but one should factor in an extra couple hundred bucks for gratuities.

He exchanged a folded dollar bill for the cocktails.

Gracias, señor,” the waiter said, bowing. Alan wondered what the Cubans thought of the tourists. Probably a love-hate thing. They need us, but think we’re a bunch of rich, rude babies. He’d like to tell them that rich North Americans don’t travel to Cuba and resorts like this. The people here are mainly retired or working-class dogs who saved all year to afford this one luxury. Relatively speaking, not much different from them.

Alan delivered Mandy her pina colada and sat on the beach with her for half an hour until she asked to go back to the room. She took a shower and got into bed. He lay down beside her until she drifted off, then quietly slipped on his sandals and headed for the bar.

Ordering a cappuccino, he found a seat where he could watch the Animation Team give awkward white folks dance lessons. The Cubans were a good-looking people, especially the men. There was a masculine quality to their faces that Alan envied. The team moved fluidly to the salsa music while the tourists flopped about like retards.

Mandy liked this kind of music. She liked any music that didn’t require you to know the name of the song. As long as it was performed in the appropriate style, in this case, the style of the islands, it was good to her. She also liked abba and had dragged him to see that dreadful Mamma Mia! thing in Toronto. It was made worse by the two women who sat behind them, bathed in drugstore perfume, who talked through the entire performance. Women and their superior communication skills—couldn’t they suspend them for an hour and a half so that other people who’d spent a hundred dollars a ticket could “enjoy” the “play”?

The flick of a lighter distracted him. He turned to see the girl from the beach lighting a smoke. She was alone now, wearing the top that matched the bottom part of her bathing suit. She was also wearing a white, unbuttoned men’s shirt.

Her nose. It was long and straight, just like Mandy’s. She had the exact same nose as his wife. Mandy thought it was too big, but Alan thought it was her best feature.

This close he could see that the nails on her fingers and toes were painted a deep red. Her legs were long. Mandy’s legs were once almost that thin.

“You’re staring again.”

Alan banged his coffee cup down hard, hot foamy liquid splashing on the back of his hand.

“Oh, dear. I’m sorry. It’s just that…that…you remind me of someone.”

“Nice line,” she said sarcastically. “No, it didn’t hurt when I fell from heaven.”

“Uh, listen, I’m married. I’m not trying to pick you up. You really do look like someone. I’m very sorry I stared. I know it’s rude.” Alan rose to leave.

“Hey, don’t leave on my account. I’m pulling your leg.” She took a drag from her cigarette and blew half a lungful into the air.

“My name’s Kate,” she said through the rest of it.

“Alan,” he said.

“So, Alan, how are you enjoying your holiday? ”

“It’s fine. How about yourself? ”

“The beach is nice. The buffet sucks though. The à la carte restaurants are O.K. but they drown all of the seafood in butter and I’m beginning to get a bit nauseous. Other than that, it’s pretty cool.” She swung her leg back and forth in a slow rhythm.

“How long you and the Mrs. been together? ”

“Ten years.”

“You bored yet? ” she asked, without a hint of a smile.

“No,” he lied. “Marriage isn’t about being interested or bored,” he said, wondering if he’d be able to answer what he knew would be her next question.

“So? ” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“It’s about thinking about someone other than yourself. Having someone to look out for who will, in turn, look out for you.” Sounded good coming out, he thought.

“Doesn’t sound very romantic,” she said, now very serious. He was thrilling to the way she was looking at him, like he was someone worth speaking to. Her eyes were dark and he bet they had a unique and privileged view of the world.

“Romance is for young, beautiful people like yourself. Most people just want someone to love them.” God, this sounded good. He couldn’t believe he was coming up with this shit.

“Do you have any kids? ”

“No,” he said, hoping this wouldn’t go further. Three years into the marriage they’d discovered Mandy couldn’t have children. She’d wanted to adopt but Alan had talked her out of it. He told her that the way young people were these days, they’d only be taking on someone else’s problem. In hindsight, Mandy’s infertility was a blessing. With them as parents, the kids would be little psychos.

She uncrossed her legs, then recrossed them the other way. The breathtaking breasts he’d seen earlier were safely tucked into her bathing-suit top.

“So, who do I remind you of? ”

“Just someone I used to know.”

“A lost love? ”

“You could say that.” Suddenly he didn’t feel so great.

“But she doesn’t matter anymore, right? ”

“Right,” he lied, getting up. Nothing had ever mattered so much in his life. “I should be getting back. It was nice chatting with you, Kate.”

“You too, Alan.” She sat forward, placing the balls of her feet on the floor, her legs forming two perfect sevens. “And don’t worry about the staring. I love to be adored,” she said smiling.

Alan laughed weakly. He figured she got a whole lot of what she loved. Looking at her, he felt about seventy years old. So much had changed. He remembered how he had loved Mandy, as much as he could love anyone. When they first met, she had been quite pretty and he’d been proud to have her on his arm. She hadn’t always been how she was now—complaining, contrary, ignorant.

They used to sit on the sofa together watching television, her head in his lap. These days she sat alone on the sofa with Alan in his chair at the opposite corner of the room nursing a Scotch, her controlling the remote, a gin and tonic in her other hand. They hit the sheets tipsy but land on opposite ends of the king-size bed. If it weren’t for her occasional sigh, he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t in bed alone.

He offered her plenty of attention. He did everything she asked, gave her all she wanted. But he did it grudgingly, without affection, silently cursing her every request. No wonder she was so unsatisfied.

Back in the room she was laying on the bed in a T-shirt and panties, her legs crossed at the ankles, pointing the remote at the jabbering TV like it was a video game. Alan lowered himself onto the bed and kissed her hard on the lips. She surprised him by kissing back and letting him pry her legs open with his.

They hadn’t done it in ages, but fell quickly into their familiar fit. It felt good. He ran his fingers gently down her fleshly, sunburned leg, then back up, cupping her ass. He let go and put his hands on the bed, one on either side of her head. With every stroke her face softened, a line disappeared, a year vanished. He looked down at her peeling chest and noticed small drops gathering on it.

Now her eyes were full of fear.

“Honey, what’s the matter? ” she asked, breathless from the sex. He kept pumping, the tears flowing freely as he rose and fell.

“Come back, Mandy. Please come back.”

Moe Berg lives in Dovercourt Park. He was a member of the Pursuit of Happiness for eleven years. His first book of short stories, The Green Room, was published in 2000 by Gutter. Last updated summer, 2006.