We are here for the day. Had rather be with you.
I scrawl the message in haste and add the stamp to the card. I’ll post it with the hotel clerk when I return there tonight. There is much more to say, but not on a postcard. Ann will understand, assuming she can manage to read my handwriting.
The scene along the seaside boardwalk differs little from the one captured on the postcard: busy, crowded, overdressed. I do not understand why people put on their best to visit the beach. Sand belongs between toes and dusted around damp ankles. Folks in their suits and dresses and high laced shoes can’t possibly enjoy the beach the way it deserves. My aunt, much to my dismay (though not my surprise), is one of those folks.
A week ago, I came up from Boston to accompany Aunt Rita to Hampton Beach. It is her annual summer holiday. The one about which we receive a four-page letter at the close of the summer, detailing every morning, noon, and night of her two weeks there. My mother insists on reading the letter in its entirety to the family. I have the same thought every year: Lord, if I ever can manage to take an annual seaside holiday, please don’t let it be as a dreary as Aunt Rita’s.
Now, here I stand, staring at the crowds and motor cars on the boardwalk, waiting for Aunt Rita to finish perusing yet another shop in which she will buy nothing and critique everything. The breeze is light today; too light. The humidity and heat of the unobstructed sunshine make me wish for my swimming costume and a dip in the water. My straight, auburn hair slips repeatedly from its pins. Pieces stick to my damp neck and cheeks. I wipe my forehead with a handkerchief and shade my eyes against the sun. It can be lovely here, under the right conditions. These are not quite the right conditions.
When Aunt Rita exits the shop, I supply a bright smile. I know she doesn’t want me here, so the least I can do is be cheerful. She has openly loved her independence since her husband’s death sixteen years ago. (Amazing how the possession of money renders such independence an enviable blessing, whereas my own state in life evokes only pity.) When her children insisted that this year she allow someone to accompany her to the seaside, Aunt Rita reluctantly agreed. At twenty-six and unmarried, I was the naturally chosen companion.
This is why the terribly short note on the postcard to my lifelong, dearest friend Ann will speak volumes. She knows. I don’t need to explain.
“They need to dust their shelves every day,” Aunt Rita says when she rejoins me and we step back onto the boardwalk. “Everything in there was gray with dust.”
My eyes flit between the blue water to my left and the two men in front of us on the walkway. They stroll at a pace too leisurely for Aunt Rita. She supplies a series of supposedly inconspicuous huffs and sighs as we slow our own steps behind the men. I tune my ears to the foamy waves instead.
Within a few yards, her less than subtle hints must be heard by the men, for they step aside and tip their hats as we pass. Yet, once we take the lead and regain Aunt Rita’s standard march, the men do likewise. I turn my head enough to be sure it is them so close behind us. The man behind Aunt Rita winks before I face forward again, and I cringe, imagining the lecture on rudeness that Aunt Rita will likely deliver if she realizes these young men are amusing themselves in such a manner. I walk a tad faster.
She taps her walking cane against the boards. “Mary! Whatever is your hurry?”
“Yes, Mary,” says the winking man. “How can you enjoy the views at such a speed?”
There is a sparkle of fun in his brown eyes. His smile is wide and unashamed.
“Do we know you, gentlemen?” Aunt Rita demands.
A blush spreads over my already hot cheeks.
“We’re friends of Mary.” Another wink comes my way.
A thrill with which I’m unacquainted possesses me and I play along. “Of course,” I say with barely managed confidence. “This is Mister…” I let my voice fade and he jumps in.
“Gable. Michael Gable.” He bows toward Aunt Rita. “This here is Thomas Lafferty, my colleague.”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am. Lovely to see you again, Mary.” Thomas plays along too, though with less ease than Michael.
I nod. “Yes, it is lovely. It has been a long time since we last met. This is my aunt Rita.” There is no accounting for how widely I am smiling. I imagine describing it all for Ann in a proper letter.
The introductions complete, I am left wondering where we can possibly go from here. Michael continues the ruse without hesitation.
“Was it in New York that we last saw you?”
“No, no,” I say, aware that my aunt knows I haven’t been to New York in many years. “It was in Boston.”
“Christmastime, last year?”
“I believe you’re right.”
Michael frowns, though it is an expression in danger of reverting to a smile at any moment. “How is your mother?”
“She is well. It is kind of you to ask.” I mirror his seriousness.
Aunt Rita watches with her wrinkled mouth agape.
“How fortunate that we would see you here!” Michael says. “We must catch up properly. There is a soiree at the Coleman estate tonight. Will you ladies be attending?”
To this, I can make no reply, for Aunt Rita is the guardian of the daily schedule. When I chance a look at her though, it is clear Michael has peaked her interest. We all wait for her to speak, a collective suspense in the humid air.
“Coleman, you said?” Aunt Rita asks.
“The Grove Palace Colemans?”
“The same,” Michael confirms.
Aunt Rita smooths her skirt. “Yes, Mary and I plan to attend.”
“We do?” I ask.
“Yes, we do.”
“We do.” I repeat.
“That’s splendid.” Michael claps his hands together. “We will arrive by nine o’clock. I shall keep an eye out for you.”
I only nod, equal parts delighted and stunned by the exchange.
Michael lifts and kisses Aunt Rita’s hand. He takes mine next. His fingertips press into my palm while his thumb massages in a circle below my knuckles. He plants a soft kiss on the same spot. When he stands straight again, he tucks a loose piece of hair behind my ear. Aunt Rita clears hear throat.
“Until tonight, Mary.”
The men enter a shop after another tip of their hats.
Aunt Rita fires forward on the boardwalk, her cane tapping out her cadence. “Oh, we must hurry, Mary. There is much to be done.” I hear her whisper into the August heat, “A soiree at the Colemans. Surely, he’ll be there. Finally.”
To be continued.
Read Part Two here.