Tracy driving her classic '66 Caddie convertible, the sky-blue “land yacht,” on a beautiful Friday afternoon through the country. Her blond hair, long and straight, whips in the wind while the stereo coos out some oldies.
Her strong, long legs in mule wedges astride the pedals. One hand on the blue wheel, skinny and sparkling. The noon sun coming fast through the trees and splashing toward the shining hood of the beast, up and over us.
I ride shotgun in a floral print over sticky, overstuffed vinyl. Me and my camera invited along for a cruise up to the old family cabin on the water.
It is September and we are thrilled with the orange flame of Indian summer days. No call for rain. If it did rain, it would take her alone ten minutes to up the top—and she's good at it.
She's singing with the stereo and I’m composing a snap here and there as we ramble along.
She doesn't like being the subject of my pictures, but tolerates the occasional shot.
After an hour and a half, almost to the cabin, we stop at the graveyard where Tracy's mother had been for a few years. Cicadas and crickets sing in the midday heat, which grows intense on my shoulders without the breeze. We meander intently back thru grasses that are getting quite high. I brake from her to examine an old section as she gets close to her mother.
She would plop down beside the stone. Leaning over with her shoulders and tucking her bare legs under her above the tall grass. She would place the daffodils by the stone and pull at clover and her own split ends while having a chat.
With my zoom lens I managed to capture some doe on the far wooded edge. Past the clearing- a compact field not yet filled with graves.
Suddenly my impatient stomach growls and I stroll to the car to cool heels until she comes back. I can hardly wait to get to the cabin.
We pulled up the gravel drive and Tracy switched off the radio and honked the horn as we hollered. There was Karen's Merc and another vehicle I didn't recognize with a rig on the roof.
Karen was at the screen door as we ascended the front porch. One hand on her ample hip, the other propped high in the doorway with a cigarette at her smiling generous mouth.
"Welcome, ladies." She exhaled and leaned away. Tracy entering and I following.
"Sandwiches are on." She called back. Thank heaven, I was starving.
The perfect summer food: Turkey on wheat with lettuce tomato and mayo. Greasy little pile of thin sliced potato chips besides. The bag of them still wide open on the long table.
Tracy chimed "Caty and Alden are here?" Karen nodded, smoking.
"Yay!" She clapped and tore herself down to her swimsuit, pulling a few chips out of the bag and scooting out the sliding patio doors which formed part of the long wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, in from which the most exquisite northwestern light was now coming. Karen looked beautiful in it, standing at the counter's edge in her summer sherbet triangle top and long diaphanous pants that rode her hips and nearly hid her toes in wedged cork sandals.
Leaning against the counter top, she shook her head and rolled her eyes wryly at Tracy.
I couldn't help myself. With a mouthful of sandwich I brought up the lens. Karen was a better model. She would move gently and look right at me- compliant and wistful.
"I'm so glad you don't mind." I confessed bashfully and started back in on the sandwich for being so starved.
In a quiet moment, she put out her butt and went into the bathroom. When she came out her hair was down. She pulled up a stool next to me and lit another.
Her fresh plume of exhale matching my sounds of chip-crunching.
"Stop at the graveyard?" she asked. I nodded.
Sometimes being laconic was infectious. I drank some water and burped. Thinking I ought to slow down from swallowing, I piped up: "Ride was beautiful. Got some OK snaps. That car always reminds me of the time you were passed out in the backseat with the mechanical bubble blower." Karen's sudden laugh lead to coughing, then back again. "You remember that? Oh! Embarrassing ancient history." She shrugged as I grinned.
Karen is a party planner in the city. One very late evening after an extremely long day wherein nothing had gone right with regard to a wedding reception, Karen passed out drunk in Tracy's yacht with a bubble machine which had been on the fritz the whole time, sending a careen of silver blue soapy orbs up, and a coagulated mess of foam down the upholstery, all into her thick dark curls and low-cut cleavage.
Tracy called me immediately. I stole over the fence with my camera before we woke her into the world of our giggles while carrying her inside to sleep it off.
Karen was rarely "messy.” But when she was it managed to be this really perfect mess. So free.
I love this about her. Even more perfect is that she doesn't notice this phenomena at all.
"You've been to the beach?" I changed the subject. She nodded. "We all got here yesterday around this time."
"Who are Caty and Alden?" I couldn't resist any longer asking after strangers.
"Friends from school."
I felt a pang of jealousy that surprised me. These people have known each other so much longer than I've known any of them. I felt like an interloper at times. Self-inflicted, of course. Nevertheless I admired their ability to keep in touch and for their post-college relationships to have evolved enough to stay relevant.
I expected Caty and Alden to be as cool as I'd found Karen and Tracy to have been, even having just known them as city neighbors for a year and change.
The cabin sat along a precipice where wooded treeline gave way to sand- a long plateau of dune that dropped to a steep grade forty yards out, becoming the shore.
The water body was a lake that stretched like an ocean, with its own horizon, and this made it coveted and fascinating.
Tracy's mother had left her both cabin and car, and Tracy became them. They were perfect gestures of some final mother-daughter understanding. Filial and feminine.
Tracy took great care to fully appreciate these gifts by sharing them.
From the stool and table, Karen rose and stretched. I was absently looking through my camera cropping and deleting a few things. So far the shots of Karen were my favorites. She liked them too.
Looking out the window she said softly "They brought a sailboat."
"Alden and Caty. Brought their sailboat."
Of course. I felt my mouth pull up a broad smile. "Very cool." Was all I could say.
I watched her wrap Tracy's sandwich thoughtfully for the icebox and drift toward her room for a catnap as I moved outside into the 2:45 p.m. heat.
The sand almost burned the spaces in between my toes, but felt delicious. Little stubs of thick and thin palm shoots would poke up into your feet if you didn't walk carefully.
When the plateau melted the blue water came into view. Sure enough there it was: three figures on a mid-sized daysailer. No chop, but close, and the mainsail was full. Two orange stripes and the serial D-850 standing out near its apex.
Light check. Testing the apertures and depth of field outdoors. I worried for a moment about sand blowing in—grinding across the fragile inner glasses of the camera body. Then I remembered how technically speaking, this camera was pretty old. I had other lenses. I shouldn't be so anal-retentive.
Moving down the grade wherein fine sands grew more pale and brighter still, I heard dogs and turned. A lady in white far down was throwing a stick which the big black hounds would fetch and fight for.
It occurred to me, in a general sense just then, that all felt right with the world when we were at play.
I swam for awhile in the easy depth. Soon they hauled in right next to me, beaching the hull. Each one smiling and active with Tracy in top form—squealing.
"Oh, girl, you gotta get out and try this!"
Often refreshingly child-like, Tracy always assumed her first time doing anything meant that anyone who wasn't in her presence at the time must also be inexperienced.
She was dry. The couple, like me, were soaking wet.
Caty. With a close glance I decided she could be Karen's sister. A little older or a little younger depending on the light and the clothes. Younger here, in a swimsuit.
The photographer in me smiling at this and at the fantastic lighting conditions a beach generously affords, even in heavy mid-afternoon.
Alden was quite tall and lanky. Sunburned and with freckles dancing loudly over his shoulders and nose. Strawberry blond hair cut very smartly, even windswept. He as handsome as Caty pretty, and fitting that they should be a couple.
The boat all battened down, Tracy made introductions. She inquired after Karen.
"Resting," I said. My voice sounding like it hadn't come from me.
"I'm thinking I'd like to take all these beautiful women out to dinner tonight." Alden stated happily. His smile was imbedded across the eyes, like Jack Kennedy.
"Ah! Really? Lovely! Can we try the Marina Rayale?" Tracy had not yet been to this certain seafood place across the lake. She'd had it in her for awhile to go, ideally with a large group.
"Whatever you please." He replied. Caty tucked neatly under his arm.
We began our trek up the beach. I lagged behind just long enough to frame a good shot of Tracy's wild palomino mane. Of Alden's shoulder against Caty's profile. Of three friends walking under a cloudless sky.
Karen had showered, put on a powder blue full length skirt of unpleated cotton and a silk gardenia print sleeveless blouse with a high collar. She lounged on the patio with a cocktail and the massive biography of Tennessee Williams she'd been steadily reading.
Tracy kissed her cheek. "You're already dressed for dinner!" She exclaimed, darting for the door. "Alden's offered to take us to Marina Rayale!"
Tracy's enthusiasm about everything usually caused others around her to giggle and titter, mostly out of embarrassment. Caty and I turned out to be no exception.
"Splendid," said Karen. Rolling her eyes and smiling back into her book as we filed past to get cleaned up.
Tracy and I shared the spacious uppermost room on this visit. I could hear the water already going in the shower as I ascended the curving narrow staircase. The steps here padded close with a kind of terry cloth carpeting hued to an inviting deep beige. Like sand.
Among the close walls, before the room burst forth with its two full double beds, a small plein aire in oil of a lone fisherman at dawn was hung to the left. Ideal for soundproofed contemplation.
I did not know if Tracy had been a child in this place, with this portrait of a moment, exact and seemly. But I paused, wishing on her behalf that she might have. It was the sort of hidden-in-the-open place that one did a lot of one's growing up.
The Marina Rayale had chandeliers. I adore chandeliers. An exceptional fabrication gives light a kind of omnipotence. They may be the closest we ever get to harnessing stars.
Tracy's eye for style had managed to spot the diamond in the rough from afar. It was class without spectacle. Drinking flutes shown in the candlelight. A fourtet played muted and gentle in a wide corner on a miniature stage.
I was happy to take it all in and let my eyes be the camera tonight.
The dress I'd dusted up out of my closet and packed for perhaps just this sort of occasion was perfect. Sanguine sequins across the bust, red satin down the sides. The sort of thing that was sporty enough for cocktails and could hold its own at the awards ceremony. Though rarely did the two meet, I was delighted to feel its reliable fit.
Tracy was used to seeing me casual. She loved it. She was donning her finest, stunning Givenchy with jewels that cost twice as much as the dress, and we'd sat each other down at the vanity to do hair before we left.
She was currently into it with Alden over the financial viability of round-the-world sailing excursions while Caty and Karen chatted softly about pets. Cats specifically. Relaxing my ear enough to juxtapose the two conversations kept my smile pert.
I was glad for a moment to be silent and listen as well as observe.
Beauty in every corner. Myself feeling very included in the beauty.
The second round of oysters came, as did our second bottle of Pino Grigio. I excused myself for a nose powdering and Tracy accompanied.
I entered and held the door for her. She took a second to enter until our eyes had met- the cue to make her anxious/pouty face.
"What is it?" The question you can't help but ask at a face like that.
"Great..." she huffed cryptically. I watched as she moved down the carpeted well-lit row and entered a stall.
In the long mirror over the sink I touched up my lips.
"Brett!" She called nastily as she flushed.
"Excuse me?" I stopped. She washed her hands and reached for a towel.
"Brett Collins is here." Her eyes set and stormy.
She tossed the towel in the hamper and placed hand on hip with an exasperated flourish. Bracelets tinkling. I smiled, I couldn't help it. Sometimes drama and flusterings simply followed Tracy about, occasionally catching on the scent of her histrionics.
"Is your evening ruined?" I jested humbly.
"Just about." She caught sight of herself and leaned in, checking pleasantly smudged eyes.
"Mister Collins," she ahemed "is a bad man who was once my lover and confidant. After earning my trust he then tried to cast me into a silly little pyramid scheme and is generally bad news. I'm staying away from him and you should too."
"Je comprende!" I exclaimed.
The city was a small world, and the world outside of it at times seemed to be even smaller.
No sooner had we returned to the table, the roast duck on the cusp of too cool, Mr. Collins arrived to introduce himself and ask if Tracy would like to dance. She dismissed him rather gracefully, (for the sake of present company, I'm sure) and tore into her food like someone who'd been lost in the woods for three days.
The poor girl. Sometimes stress caused her to overeat.
"We've got all night, my dear." Karen reminded gently, cutlery expertly poised in her grip. I grew a goodwill smirk as she and Alden and Caty smiled at one another, then at me.
Back at the beach the stars sparkled high and bright on a night sans moon.
In our finery and carrying our shoes we walked the dim strand. Passing another bottle of white back and forth between us. Laughing, chatting, laughing some more. I almost had the hiccups from a fit started by a joke Karen had told me.
It was the kind of night you hope never ends, or that you remember vividly for a long time to come.
The wind tussles our hair and the water speaks.
It speaks very loudly in particular to Tracy, who gets in way beyond her toes.
I swoon in the sounds and the darkness and the little wine buzz. Moments pass and I have lagged behind again. I look up and Karen is drifting off with Caty. They have each other by the waist and go leisurely as lesser goddesses after Tracy, who has decided to run wild back to the cabin. She's not so smashed she won't make it unharmed, but the girls follow lazily anyway.
When I look over my shoulder, there's Alden: the picture of plaintive male beauty. Hands in pockets and eyes wet with tears.
I stand confused for a moment as I watch him turn toward the water and the moonlessness and sit right down on the soft white sand.
Not knowing what else to do, suddenly feeling quite tired with this near-empty wine bottle clutched in my hand, I swig down the last and go to sit beside him.
No joke. His head goes slack and his torso shudders. He really is crying.
"Alden?" I ask. Soft, but with a concern more than mild. It gets worse. Then he composes himself.
His face is soaked but I've nothing to dry it. He is receptive when I put a hand to his shoulder.
"Caty is sick," he confesses quickly. Like he can't hold it anymore. Like he knows I'll find out and he wants to be the one to say it.
I wait for him to say more, but he doesn't. I get the sense too that he's trying to understand it all himself.
I keep opening my mouth and nothing comes out. Finally I manage: "Treatments?"
He shakes his head. "Transplants."
Those same blue eyes once squinting with happiness are now sad and direct. He takes a hard swipe at the tears.
"She's got a few months.”
Back up the beach go my eyes to glimpse where they’ve gone. It seems impossible. She looks so healthy.
"Do Karen and Tracy know?" I find myself whispering for no good reason.
He nods. "Karen does. And you.“
His composure lost again. Back into tears. There was nothing else we could say.
Waves kept on crashing and moving and then night was as black as it would ever get.
Alden, frustrated by crying, took a long snort across his sleeve to clear his nose. He stood and brushed off and held his hand out to me.
After he helped me up he didn't let me go. We walked back to the cabin with his arm over my shoulder and I was very grateful for that.
It would be a long week. But to really get to know new friends, one needs all the time one has.