Beth Uznis Johnson
Sylvia Morris leaned against the counter and watched her husband Stanley strain to situate the bag of potato chips on top of the cooler full of ice and beer. His thighs pressed together and he groaned to stand up, his buttocks squeezing a line of his swim trunks between them.
“You ready?” he asked.
She lifted her drink to signal she hadn’t finished. The orange juice was warm and sweet on her lips, but the bite of the vodka thrilled her the most. Across the room, Diane’s picture smiled at her. She was glad that Diane and the kids had come and gone. She didn’t like having to sneak her drinks. She was sixty-four years old, for Christ’s sake, and it was her vacation.
“Let’s go,” she said, setting the glass in the sink. “Don’t want to lose our seats.”
The chill of the morning nipped the back of her neck when she stepped outside. Her face was tight and dry, at least until she could sit down and use the oil. She pulled a towel from the pile Stanley had balanced next to the chips and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“Need some meat on the bones,” Stanley said.
“Meat means no bikini,” she told him. She pulled the towel open and shimmied.
She let Stanley pass her on the walkway that led from their condominium to the pool. The neon glow of the sign on the nearby sundries fought the sun. Damn place was so expensive due to the tourists in the timeshares. Stanley stopped to fiddle with the gated door to the pool deck. Sylvia inspected her nails and waited until he flipped the latch and caught the bottom of the cooler. She swayed her hips as she crossed the line from shade to sun.
Stanley dragged the chairs to the proper angle and spread the towels. The cooler went between them. Sylvia straddled her lounge chair and lit a smoke. Stanley handed her the tanning oil. The oil made her thighs gleam, golden brown, and the age spots and wrinkles seemed practically invisible. She pulled deep on the cigarette, exhaling with a groan of pleasure.
“Gonna be a sunny one,” she said.
Stanley sat down in a chair with his legs spread to make room for his stomach. Nonetheless, he was golden, too, and, despite being a big man, he wasn’t flabby. Years ago his body was long and lean and she wondered what it would have looked like tanned. They had no time or money to go on vacation in those days. They were too busy working their jobs and taking care of Diane and Dale.
An icy spray hit the back of her shoulder as Stanley popped a beer.
“God damn it, Stanley.”
He laughed and patted her skin with his towel. “You’ll live. God damn, this is the life.”
“It’s not a question of living.” She turned back around. “Hand me one, too.” She waited until Stanley cracked open a second beer and reached back. It was almost ten thirty. The carbonation danced down her throat; it was freezing and she held her breath to keep from choking on it. She restored her equilibrium with another drag on the cigarette.
“So,” she said. “How do you think they’re doing?”
“Who? Diane and Steve?”
“All of them.”
“Fine. Great even.”
Sylvia took a long drink.
“What?” Stanley said. “You don’t think so?”
“She’s trying to prove something.”
“Like she can take her kids on vacation when they’re little. Like she’s happy without Dale around.”
“You kidding me, Syl? You been thinking all that?”
“Why on earth? They all had fun.”
“She was looking at me.”
“Looking how?” Stanley asked.
“Oh, forget it,” Sylvia said, staring ahead. A family walked through the gate: a mother, a father and two little boys, maybe four and six. The mother thought she was something special; petite, blond. The father, despite being tall and handsome, had a flabby stomach and chest. He was nothing like Stanley in the day. The boys were cute, but the little one started screaming about a toy shark. The last thing Sylvia felt like dealing with was a screamer, but so many families came to Orlando to do the parks it was inevitable.
She watched the mother arrange a regulation striped timeshare towel on a lounge chair. She sat down with headphones while the father jumped into the pool with the kids. In Sylvia’s day, that wouldn’t have happened. It would be Stanley on the chair while she tended to the children. Before the young mother closed her eyes, Sylvia watched her inspect her own legs, stomach and breasts before resting her head. She thought she was hot shit, she did. And she didn’t have one-tenth the color as Sylvia.
“Hand me another,” she said over her shoulder to Stanley.
“Really, Sylvia,” he said, resting the cold bottom of the can on her shoulder. “How was she looking at you? I want to know.”
“Like she’s mad at me, Stanley.”
“Hell if I know. Anything. I just feel it.”
Sylvia didn’t mention Dale again. It was Stanley’s vacation, too, and she didn’t want to spoil it. She wanted to say it, though. She wanted to scream that Diane thought she had ruined Dale by giving him money and a place to live. She had fueled the problem, had enabled him to keep it up. She slid her acrylic fingernail under the tab of the beer and popped it open without disturbing the red polish. Damn that girl, always so superior.
Sylvia pulled the can to her lips and admired the blue of the pool. She imagined the ocean to be the same blue; the sterile smell of chlorine mingled with tanning oil to fashion the vacation aroma she longed for all year.
The young wife had gotten up from her chair and was sitting on the pool’s edge with her feet in the water. When their eyes met, the wife looked right to her kids as if she’d never been looking at Sylvia in the first place. She’s judging me just like Diane, Sylvia thought as she glanced down to make sure the red bikini bottom wasn’t letting anything hang out. With the exception of the smallest roll of tanned flesh over the edge, everything was golden and firm and in its proper place. She lit another cigarette before getting up from her chair and dragging it back so she could look over and see Stanley. It made more sense that she was sitting next to her husband, not in front of him like some boss or bitch. She rested her hand on Stanley’s thigh and he patted her hand in appreciation.
“Love you, Syl,” he said. The reassuring gesture enraged her so much she jerked her hand away and pretended she had broken a fingernail.
Diane and Steve had two children. Jackson was four and Olivia was two. By the time they had arrived in Orlando, the kids were both a mess. Jackson wailed in his booster seat and Olivia rubbed her eyes and whined whenever Diane was out of sight. Neither would come to her or Stanley, and Sylvia wondered why Diane chose to be one of those over-attentive moms who let her kids cling to her. They hadn’t even had a chance to talk before Diane whisked the kids into the spare bedroom and put them to bed. She never came back. At least Steve was polite and finished his whiskey and water before retiring.
“Night, Sylvia. Stanley,” he had said. “They oughta be much happier tomorrow after a good night’s sleep.”
“I certainly hope so,” Sylvia said, ignoring Stanley’s look. “They should appreciate a nice vacation.”
After Steve left the room, she went to the kitchen for the bottle. “Want one?” she called to Stanley and waited for a moment until he replied.
She carried the drinks to the living room. “Why didn’t she want to talk with us?”
“It wasn’t that, Syl. They sat on the plane in Ohio for two hours waiting for the snow to let up.”
“They’re just kids. They’ll be fine. I’m her mother. She could have been more polite.”
“Everyone has their own way, Syl.”
She had sipped her whiskey and wondered exactly what Stanley meant by that. Was he talking about Diane’s behavior tonight? Or was he saying that Diane was rude because she would have handled things differently with Dale? She’d been too tired to ask and her thoughts were fading anyway so she leaned up against Stanley’s chest and closed her eyes. He had placed a warm hand on her bare stomach, which she decided to show off to her daughter by wearing a cropped t-shirt that said “Orlando is for lovers.”
The February breeze on the pool deck caught Sylvia’s breasts and stomach. Sometimes it took hours to warm up. The palm fronds on the surrounding trees rustled and swung back and forth like mop tops. The buildings of the complex, each a different pastel, encircled the swimming pool but sometimes the wind managed to find a pathway.
“I’m hitting the hot tub,” she told Stanley.
“I’ll come in a minute,” he said. “Just opened this.”
She sauntered around the edge of the swimming pool to the secluded area of the hot tub. It never hurt to show what you got, especially since she’d lose the tan in a week when she went back to Ohio. To her disappointment, the young wife and her sons were already in the hot tub. The kids splashed and swam around as if it were a big bathtub.
“Can’t believe it’s not too hot for them,” Sylvia said, dipping her foot onto the first step and waiting until the heat seared up her leg.
“I know,” the mother said. Her cheeks were flushed. “This is the hottest hot tub I’ve ever been in.” She directed her attention toward the boys. “Jason. Scott. Be polite and don’t splash the lady.”
The boys moved close to their mother and played around the silver handrail that divided the stairs.
“Why those names?” Sylvia said. “So many parents these days picking trendy names like…” she paused to think and only two names came to mind. “Olivia and Jackson.”
“Oh, I know,” the mother laughed. “We tried to pick strong boy names. Basic.”
She pulled herself from the steaming water and waved a damp hand in front of her face.
“I’m Kelly,” she said.
The introduction filled Sylvia with leaden apprehension. Now she really was hot shit, and friendly hot shit to boot. With polite children. Sylvia knew she should like her, but rage tightened in her throat until she wanted nothing more than to reach over and smack the girl across her freckled face.
It was impossible to force a smile.
“Can you guys say hello?”
“Hi,” Jason said. Scott looked at her, red-faced, and dunked his head.
“Do you live here?” Kelly asked.
“No. We come for three weeks every winter.”
“Oh.” Her eyebrows rose in surprise and she looked off at the yellow washed building in the distance. “You’ve got a great tan. You must live somewhere warm?”
“Ohio,” Sylvia said, managing a polite, closed-lipped wince.
Kelly didn’t answer as she leaned over and pulled Scott’s arms off her legs. Sylvia couldn’t help noticing the firm breasts that hung against the loose support of her navy bathing suit. Her biceps were toned, her shoulders narrow – the fit arms of a young mother. As she suspected, she spotted a soft roll around Kelly’s middle that constituted at least a modest handful of flesh. Sylvia smiled at her – for real this time – when she sat back up.
Stanley appeared holding two fresh beers. “Thirsty, hon?”
“Yes!” She waited while he opened the can. Her eyes watered as she swallowed and she found it impossible to look to see whether Stanley had noticed and appreciated all of Kelly’s firmness.
“Refreshing after all this hot water, eh?” he said, stepping down on the opposite side of the stairs as the boys retreated to the other end.
“Maybe we should run inside and consult our physician,” Sylvia said, pointing at the wooden sign painted with the pool rules.
Kelly laughed. She turned to Stanley and asked, “So, when do you go back home?”
“Four days,” he said sadly. “Back to the cold and snow.”
Sylvia took another drink of the beer and flooded with relief that her husband hadn’t bothered to make eye contact when he answered. She noticed Kelly watching her. Diane had watched her drinking poolside, too. Sylvia wasn’t sure if it was because it was before noon or because she had a general issue with poolside drinking. Or, perhaps she was thinking that sixty-four was too old for drinking. Or a bikini. Sylvia stared back.
“Want one?” she asked, wrapping her elbow around Stanley’s arm.
“Oh, no thank you,” Kelly said. She glanced down to her thighs and called out to Scott. “Don’t touch that, honey. That belongs to Miss Sylvia.”
Scott was making his way toward the silver can covered in beads of sweat.
“No way, buddy,” Kelly said. “Beer is for grownups only.”
“Why?” asked Jason.
“Because beer is alcohol and you have to be twenty-one. If Miss Sylvia and I let you drink alcohol, the police would take us to jail.”
Stanley snorted with laughter.
“And we’d get drunk, right?” Jason asked. “We’d walk around like this.”
He stood on the bottom pool step and wiggled his hips, then crashed face first into the water. Scott forgot about the can and fell into the water, too.
“Very funny,” Kelly said when they resurfaced.
“Are you drunk?” Jason asked, looking first at Stanley and then at Sylvia.
“Nah, hon, we’re just having a little cocktail,” Sylvia said. “It’s relaxing.”
“Jason, those are rude questions. Miss Sylvia can drink beer if she wants to. She’s a grown up.”
“If I see you falling down, I’ll know you’re drunk.”
He nodded to himself and let himself sink down to the bottom of the hot tub.
“Sorry,” Kelly said.
“That’s okay,” Stanley said. “Kids will be kids.”
“I hope I can sit around the pool and have cocktails when I’m retired,” Kelly said.
Sylvia didn’t believe this for a second. Those boys weren’t so polite after all. Dale would have known better than to ask adults such questions. What did Kelly know about anything? She probably came from some snobbish family that took trips to private resorts every year. Diane had almost done that, too. She’d told Sylvia they were considering Cancun before Stanley had talked sense into her. Why pay for a week in Cancun when she could have a week in Orlando for free? Someone like Kelly judging her, well, Sylvia could understand it. Kelly had no idea what she’d been through with Dale. But Diane, she knew. She was there when Dale stumbled into the house that first night and went face first into the bottom stair, which, thankfully, was carpeted so he ended up with rug burn instead of a broken nose. Diane was the one who confessed to Sylvia that it was more than just liquor; it was meth. Crystal meth. Some drug that Sylvia and Stanley had never heard of and didn’t even know was available to buy in a place like Akron.
Diane had lived there for two years while Dale settled into addiction. Sylvia could still picture Diane, twenty with coltish long legs and brown curls – even longer than Sylvia’s–down her back, rushing out of her bedroom wearing Steve’s Ohio State t-shirt.
“He stole it, Ma!” she screamed.
“Stole what? Stole what, Di?” Sylvia had been sitting at the kitchen table clipping coupons. She remembered the creak and smudge of her fingertips against the glossy insert.
“The money for my wedding. Steve and I are both saving.”
She clutched her face and Sylvia couldn’t help marveling at her daughter’s dainty fingernails that were painted purple that day. Diane was sobbing and Sylvia wasn’t sure what to address first: that Dale was stealing again or that Diane was saving for a wedding she and Stanley had heard nothing about. Nothing had ever made her as tired as that impasse; it seemed that she used every bit of energy to force her leg muscles to stand up. She put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders.
Diane looked up with her hazel eyes full of tears. She blinked and they dropped, running trails through her foundation.
“Nearly two thousand.”
Sylvia let her hands fall to her sides. Diane was a saver; she’d waited tables at Stooges since she was sixteen and barely bought a thing, but Sylvia never imagined she’d saved that much.
“Good Christ, Di.”
“I’ll never get it back, will I?”
Diane dropped to the carpet and folded over her knees. Sylvia saw her polka-dotted underpants beyond the edge of the long t-shirt. Also purple. Her daughter moaned. Sylvia sat down next to her. She clutched her own knees to her chest and picked at a sticky clump in the carpeting that had been there for years.
“It’s gone.” She rested a hand on her daughter’s back and felt the silky strands of her hair rolling between her fingers. Dale would spend every penny as fast as he could.
Diane sat up and stopped crying. She looked Sylvia straight in the eye.
“Then I’m gone, too.”
“Ma! For Christ’s sake. I can’t take it another day.”
“We’ll find a way to help him. I promise. We’ll really find a way this time.”
“If he doesn’t stop, I’m leaving. I’m grown now and I’m going to marry Steve, with or without the money.”
“I’ll talk to your father tonight. There are people who can help.”
Diane stared at the popcorn ceiling and wiped the half-moons of mascara from under her eyes. She stood and looked down at her mother, who imagined her daughter’s thoughts: you always say that, Ma, you never do anything, Ma, I hate you for not being able to fix this, Ma, it’s your fault, Ma.
“It’s me or him. And I can tell you one person who would never pawn your wedding china. I’d never pilfer your jewelry box. And I’d never, Ma, never treat you like a good-for-nothing piece of crap. Aren’t we better than that?” She stepped away and, as she walked away, Sylvia saw for the first time that her daughter’s hips had the exact same curve as her own.
A splash of hot water against her knees brought her back to the poolside. Stanley looked amused.
“Earth to Sylvia. Earth to Sylvia.”
Kelly and her little boys stood by a shaded lounge chair wrapped in blue and white towels. “Say goodbye, boys.”
“Goodbye,” Scott and Jason said in unison.
“Nice meeting you. Have a good trip back to Ohio if we don’t see you again,” Kelly said. Sylvia stared at them. They turned and walked away. The little boys’ footprints were so small next to their mother’s that Sylvia leaned to the side to inspect them before they faded and evaporated under the noontime sun.
“You weren’t listening to a damn word she said, were you?” Stanley asked, slapping his thigh and taking a cheerful slurp from his can. Sylvia lifted her own can and was surprised to find it empty.
“Snobbish kind of family,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t know. She wasn’t bad. Nice kids. Kind of reminds me of Diane, the way she handled those little ones.”
Sylvia didn’t answer, but extended her hand so that Stanley could pull her to standing. “I was thinking of making a couple sandwiches,” he said. “You want one?”
“No. Maybe I’ll just munch on some chips.”
He walked her back to her chaise and handed her a beer from the cooler. Freezing water dripped on her stomach and rolled into her belly button. She flicked it out. Stanley opened the bag of potato chips and set them within her reach on the table. “Be sure to eat something.”
“I will,” she said. Stanley knew to leave her alone when she got sucked into her own mind. Sylvia looked across the pool and saw the young father relaxing in a lounge chair. His legs were extended with one ankle crossed over the other. Sunglasses perched atop his head and held his damp hair away from his eyes. He licked a finger before turning the page of his magazine with a soft swish.
Sylvia reached into the bag of potato chips and squeezed a handful. She stood and walked to the garbage can against the fence, plunging her hand through the flapping door and clenching the chips to crumbs before releasing them. Upon inspection, her fingers shone with grease when she extracted them from the can. She wasn’t going to ruin her buzz by eating. Her head was numb to most everything but the warmth from the sun.
The young father turned another page of his magazine and Sylvia saw the small jolt of his chest as he laughed at something he read. He reminded her of Dale. It was easy to pretend that Dale was married to Kelly, the young mother, and that those were his sons. It made sense that Dale would bring his family to visit the week after Diane. The place was too small for all of them and Diane would have first pick because she was oldest. Dale’s kids would be polite. As a child, Dale had always used his manners, saying please and thank you to get anything he wanted. All he had to do was blink his big brown eyes and no one could say no. Sylvia stood and clasped the back of the chair to steady herself. Once balanced, she turned her chair to meet the angle of the sun. She sat back down and closed her eyes, imagining that Dale would walk around the pool at any minute and tell her that Kelly and Stanley were finished making lunch and it was time to eat. She waited for his tap on her warm shoulder. But as she faded, she conceded that it couldn’t be Dale. He was frozen in time, deep in the cold earth of Ohio, just bones inside a navy suit from Sears.
Dale had disappeared for three weeks after he stole Diane’s money. Despite her worry, Sylvia welcomed the quiet times when she and Stanley and Diane sat around the kitchen table eating pork roast and potatoes while Stanley lectured about the importance of finishing community college before getting married. And one night, all three of them stopped – forks hanging – when steps shuffled onto the front porch and the rusted door handle creaked. Diane dropped her fork onto her plate. She stood up and walked into the living room. From where she sat, Sylvia saw that her daughter stopped. She gaped at what she saw across the room, expressionless except for her open mouth. Sylvia hurried into the room.
“I’m in trouble,” Dale said. His beard had grown longer and was full of filthy dreadlocks. From the looks of it, he was wearing two or three layers of clothing.
In the kitchen, Sylvia heard Stanley’s chair scratch as he stood up, but he didn’t come. He couldn’t even look at his son anymore.
“What kind of trouble?” she said.
“I need help. I need money.”
Her daughter, tall and lean in the red pants and white blouse from Stooges, pulled her pink fingernails into fists. Her face grew red, but she said nothing. She just stood there looking at her little brother who was no longer little. He was a man whose body odor filled the room like a thick, sharp shock to the nostrils.
“What about Di’s money?” Sylvia whispered.
“Huh?” Dale said. “Oh. Yeah. I needed it, Ma, to pay some guys off. You didn’t want me dead, did you?”
“Of course not.”
Diane walked across the room and pushed out the front door. Through the picture window, Sylvia saw her cross the lawn and climb into her car. She gripped the steering wheel for a moment, looking out at the canopy of trees over the street. Then the car drove away. Sylvia looked back to Dale.
“Where’s Dad?” he asked.
“Going out to smoke,” Stanley choked from the kitchen. The slam of the kitchen door reverberated through the house and Sylvia knew it was all he could do to keep from dropping at his son’s feet and begging him to stop with the drugs, to come home, to get some rest.
“This is over, Dale,” Sylvia said. She tried to remember the words the counselor had said over the phone. “We won’t support your addiction anymore.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I am asking you to get help today. I will pay for it. But I won’t give you another dime if you continue to use drugs. You’re not welcome in our home anymore.”
She stood taller and wished someone had been there to hear her say the words. It had somehow become her responsibility to stop this chaos. Something flashed across Dale’s eyes – a look she recognized – but she couldn’t place it.
“I don’t need help. I need money. They’ll kill me.”
“You don’t need to pay anyone. You just need to buy more meth. I’m not stupid, you know.”
Her son moved toward her so quickly she hadn’t time to move. His hand was around her neck, pulling upward against the bones of her jaw. He drew her face close.
“Stupid would be not giving me money, Ma,” he said. His breath was rotten, a mixture of festering ham and peas and cigarette butts.
“Let go of me!” She tried to kick his shins, but he pulled up against her jaw with such force that she shrieked.
“Shut up, Ma. Shut up or I swear to God that I’ll kill you.”
“Dale!” He squeezed her neck and the words were trapped inside. He pushed her away; she crashed onto the hard square of tile in front of the fireplace. The side of her head pulsed and the room grew dim. Legs inside dirty jeans appeared and Dale dragged her by an arm – including a handful of her long hair – to the middle of the room. Sylvia opened her mouth to scream, but the only sound was a choked groan as she felt hair ripping away from her scalp.
“Open your purse.” He tossed it on the floor in front of Sylvia’s knees.
“Open your wallet if you’re so smart.”
She finally got a breath and gasped into the stale air. It was the first Friday of the month. There were eight hundred twenty-three dollars in her wallet. As the green edges of the bills came into view, she lifted her eyes to confirm that Dale already knew they’d be there. He reached into the wallet and stuffed the bills into his pocket. Then he reached out and touched her face, cupping the side of her cheek. His eyes clouded and he pushed her so hard she tumbled to the side.
“You give me what I want or you die next time. You do what I say or I’ll kill Di. I’ll kill Dad. You understand me?”
From where she was on the floor, Sylvia moaned, “I understand you.”
She heard the screen door slam and the pounding of feet down the steps. There was no car; she envisioned Dale running down the street in his dirty jeans breathing his rancid addiction into the air of suburbia. She pushed herself onto her knees and crawled up the narrow stairway to her bedroom. When Stanley looked in a few minutes later, she had turned toward the window and pretended to be asleep.
The phone rang late that night.
Sylvia was pulled from the depths of sleep to find Stanley snoring next to her. Her jaw pulsed with pain when she pressed the telephone to her ear. The top of her head burned as though it were on fire. And, just like that, it was over. The man said words like “beaten badly” and “conflicting reports” and “drove into oncoming traffic.” He mentioned a tox screen and an autopsy. She hung up the phone and managed to stay quiet for a few minutes until the wail pressed so hard against her throat she had no choice. Stanley pulled himself to sitting and looked at her, sitting there with her fist in her mouth.
“Oh dear God,” he moaned.
Sylvia drove to the hospital early the next morning, alone in the cool car that had never been so empty. A police detective pressed the button to the elevator and led her to the morgue. She waved away his offer of an old varsity jacket off the back of a chair; he’d seen her shiver. The detective pulled back the sheet to expose Dale’s face and walked to stand near the door.
Sylvia rested her palm against her son’s still neck. Then she clasped her fingers tighter and lifted until her knuckles dug into the underside of his bearded chin. Was it really Dale who had done that to her? She stepped closer and pressed her hands against either side of his ears. His hair felt like dust. He was dust, she realized, and she cupped his cheeks before they fell away. She leaned forward and kissed his cold lips, quickly wiping it away and tasting dirt though she tried not to lick her lips.
“My son was a meth addict,” she said, turning to the officer. “He stole my paycheck yesterday.”
“That’s hard stuff, ma’am. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I didn’t give it to him. He took it from me.” She stroked the underside of her jaw to prove it. She looked back to her son and pulled the sheet down to his navel. Unlike the dirty, calloused hands, and the coarse tangle of his hair and beard, the skin over his narrow chest seemed to shimmer like white silk. She let a hand fall to his breastbone and jerked her hand away from the baby-soft valley of flesh her fingers found. There, she thought, is Dale. Always pale, nearly translucent, and so smooth. She yanked the sheet up under his chin because those parts of Dale should remain hidden from what he’d become.
“Let’s head upstairs, ma’am. You okay to drive?”
“My husband is waiting.”
And Stanley was waiting, sitting in the recliner just as she’d left him. Diane sat on the floor next to the recliner, clutching her father’s calves. She unwrapped herself when Sylvia walked in and stood up.
“Is it true?” she asked.
“He said he needed money.”
“Did you give it to him? Tell me you didn’t give him money!”
Sylvia looked from her daughter to Stanley. He had turned to listen. She couldn’t think of what to say and, as her mind twisted, Diane spoke first.
“Oh. Oh no.”
And Sylvia didn’t correct her. Stanley couldn’t know Dale had put his hands on her. Sylvia turned and walked silently up the stairs. She went to the bathroom first to find the cutting shears; she held sections of hair and cut to her ears. She stuffed the hair into the wastepaper basket and went to bed. It took nearly three weeks for her scalp to fully heal, with each short stroke of her hairbrush threatening to expose the wound beneath the thick scab.
“Syl.” She felt a heavy hand on her shoulder and struggled to open her eyes against the sun. “Sylvia, wake up, will ya? You okay?”
She struggled to sit up on the lounge chair. Reaching for the silver can on the table, she knocked the bag of potato chips and the can fell over. “I was sleeping,” she tried to say.
“You’ve been out cold for hours,” Stanley said. “You need to eat something to soak up some of that beer.”
“I dreamed about Dale,” she said as Stanley pulled her to standing. He wrapped an arm around the back of her ribcage. He must have understood, at least the word Dale, because he stopped to look at her.
“I want my Diane. She hates me,” she wept softly into Stanley’s armpit.
“No one hates you,” he said, thrusting her forward with each step. “Diane’s just her own woman now.”
“I want to do it over. Be young like Di. Do it again and right.”
She raised her head and saw that the sun had dropped below the roofline of the baby blue building. The palm fronds blurred against the sky. The sun should be bright, high above like before.
“Maybe me and Di can talk when she comes,” she said. “Make things right.”
“Syl,” Stanley said, stooping to look at her. “Diane’s come and gone.”
“They were here last week. You remember.”
“Oh. Yeah. I know it.”
“Let’s get you in bed. Can you eat first?”
Stanley fiddled to swipe the keycard through the sensor. The wind through the breezeway cooled the back of her neck. His toes were as narrow and trim as when she’d first met him.
“You’re good to me, Stan.”
She looked up to see Kelly and her husband and the boys, showered and dressed for dinner, coming down the stairs.
“I know, Syl. I know.”
Sylvia reached out as Kelly scooted past them. She touched the girl’s hair, now clean and soft to her shoulders.
“You’re lucky, girlie, you know that?” Sylvia said. To Stanley, she said, “I could grow mine long again, if you want me to.”
He walked her across the cold tile into the bedroom. She lay down on the bed and looked at Stanley standing over her. He lifted her hips and pulled her bikini bottoms off, then reached behind her back and unclipped the bikini top. She raised her knees and spread her legs.
“You always look good.”
“Let’s start over. We’ll do it right this time.” She fingered her nipple.
“Oh Syl,” he chuckled. “We’re too old for that.”
“I want Dale.”
“I know you do.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled the sheet over her. She remembered how they tucked Di and Dale into their own king size bed because they were scared to sleep alone; she’d rub their soft backs. The sheets were cool silk over her hot skin. Of course Diane had already been there. They had taken Jackson and Olivia to Magic Kingdom.
Stanley caressed the side of her face with his rough palm. “You alright?”
She nodded as she began to fade.
“It’s gonna be another warm one tomorrow. Bright and sunny just like today.”
“That’s good. Few days left to work on the tan.”
“That’s right. You’re my beautiful lady. My beautiful, beautiful lady.”
“We got good tans this year.”
“That we did. Night, Syl.” He stood and went into the bathroom. From the bed, Sylvia heard the rustle and snap of elastic as Stanley shed his bathing suit. Then the water poured from the showerhead and splashed against the wall like she imagined the ocean would sound when the waves hit the sand.
“I’m going to call Diane tomorrow,” Sylvia said to the empty bedroom. “I’m going to pay her the money back that Dale took. She’ll be glad.”
She rolled onto her side and slid her legs underneath the smooth sheets until her warm knees were close enough to clasp. She pulled them even closer, letting the warmth from her suntanned skin pull her under.