Cottage by the Sea

I knew it was her because she smelled like winter– like pine– and a little bit like the sea.

I drifted into a memory of us at her parent’s cottage in Maine, early winter — or was it early spring?– wrapped in blankets on the old porch telling stories. Old boyfriends, lost friends, dirty secrets once buried deep, shared over two glasses of cabernet.

I had trouble seeing her face– a blur of familiar pairs of eyes, lips, the gentle curve of a collarbone that could’ve belonged to her, or another, or anyone at all. But that smell, I would’ve recognized anywhere. No perfume, not even a dab of lotion, just the season, dry and dusty and bitterly cold, lingering on her skin. The season I left her in.

“I was seventeen when we met,” she said and my thoughts floated back in, settling above us like fog. “Do you remember that day at the airport when Margaret introduced us?”

I thought hard. Her pause was excruciating. All I could think of was that old crumbling porch of the cottage, cold and splintered under our curled toes. Birds dipping low then soaring high above our heads, like dancers at first, then perfect arcs in the distance. The ocean pulling in then out, sucking what it could with it. Our eyes fixed on the sea, in hopes of spotting the tail of a dolphin or a whale, the green flash of a sunset.

“Do you remember what I asked you?” Again, the long pause, then shuffling, the crumpling of a sheet of paper. I wondered what had happened to that old cottage, if her parents had sold it, and then wondered if it had ever existed at all.

“I asked you to take care of me,” she sighed. There was a long pause before she said, “and here we are.”

I wondered if I could’ve imagined her, a collage of all the women I’d been with, some of whom I’d loved, others who’d only stayed awhile, out of boredom perhaps, or out of fear of ending up alone. None of their names or faces came to me, but each time I drew a slow and steady breath, I smelled the sea. Handfuls of sand and sea glass, shells chosen for their beauty, then left behind, forgotten on the railing of the wooden porch.

I heard footsteps, the breeze from the opened door as someone came in– a doctor, a nurse?– and they exchanged a few words. There was silence as the door creaked shut.

I thought she was gone until she whispered it again. “And here we are.”

I felt something on my arm, realizing it was her hand, cold and soft. Have we met? I wanted to ask, but of course I couldn’t. All I wanted was to pick her out of the blur.

“I’m going to go now,” she said softly. “I’ll be back in the morning.”

I fell asleep to the sound of her voice, its echo, like a wave spreading out onto the shore.

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