I went to the island that summer, at Webb’s invitation, because he and the island were foreign to me, mysterious, not in dark or cunning ways, but with brilliance and light. The beach and his hair gleamed with gold, his eyes and the sea flecked fathomless blue, and the sun and his smile dizzied me with prodigious heat. I was not of the island in substance or form, was not glancing light on water or pearly shell. I hoped being with him might transform me.
Our last night together, we went to a restaurant. As usual, the women’s heads turned as we walked in, staring after his broad shoulders, into his large blue eyes. I saw them smile into their drink glasses, avert their eyes and turn back, casting one quick critical look at me before settling again on Webb.
“Everyone’s staring at you,” he said, leaning across the table to take my hand.
“I think they’re looking at you,” I said.
“At both of us, then,” he said, winking. His voice was loud. It seemed no one else was talking.
In the beginning of the summer, their stares would have thrilled me, would have made me blush with pride, but it was mid-July and I was restless. I had the feeling I’d been on vacation too long. Even the sun, with its ongoing radiance, can grow dull.
“I’m going to miss you,” he said. He tightened his grip on my fingers. “Mrs. Lawson can be a witch, but she’ll be nice to you because you’re my girlfriend. Anyway, it’s only a month. It should be bearable until I get back.”
I nodded. I was conscious of the place leaning into him, of ears cocked to hear, not his words, but the rich, confiding sound of his voice.
“It’s great you got the job at China Winds. It worked out perfectly.” Webb smiled, as though he had arranged it.
“Yeah, well, there aren’t many Asian women around,” I said, quietly.
“Not many Korean sex kittens,” he said, and reached across to stroke my upper arm.
After dinner we drove back to his parents’ house in the Jeep, our hair streaming behind us, our words lost in the noise of the engine. It was a contemporary house of blue-gray wood set back in Polpois Harbor. Webb’s parents were divorced, but both of them loved the island so much they shared the house, each coming different months of the year. When his mother arrived, the first thing she did was take his father’s paintings down and replace them with her own. And his father did the same. Her paintings were up now, vague pastels in greenish-blues, his seascapes of tugboats hidden in the closet.
“Let’s go out on the beach,” Webb said, coming up behind me and sliding a hand across my back.
The night was cool. I felt the wind rippling across my body, saw it move beyond me, rippling the grass. I could hear the slapping of the waves and the hollow creaking of the boats in the harbor as they rocked on their moorings.
“It’s a gorgeous night,” Webb said, pulling me by the hand. I followed his shadow. We lay down together on the sand and looked up at the sky. A star dropped like molten gold.
“Oh, Anne,” he said, pressing against me. His hands were hot. He raised himself above me, blocking the sky and stars. I felt the sand, individual grains, grinding into my back like bits of glass.
When he was gone, I moved in with the Lawsons, into a large Yankee saltbox in Siasconset on a bluff by the Sankaty Head lighthouse. In exchange for a damp basement room, I emptied the dishwasher, made the beds, vacuumed, did laundry. It was hard work for me because I’d never done it at home. My mother had done everything. But here, Mrs. Lawson, a businessman’s wife with an upturned nose and hooded eyes, followed after me with criticism.
“No, no, no, my girl, that’s no way to make a bed,” she cried, swooping down on me in one of the guest rooms. “Here, let me show you. You put the pillow ruff on like this and tuck like that.” Her red-painted fingernails moved precisely across the bed sheets.
After my chores, Mrs. Lawson sat in the kitchen and told me about her travels. In India there had been beggars at the airport pressed against the fence with their arms outstretched, asking for money, selling cheap trinkets. “They are animals,” Mrs. Lawson said, “not human at all. They urinate against the fence in full view.” She shuddered. Her red fingernails tapped absently against the side of her ice tea glass, riddling holes in the condensation.
At night I waitressed at the China Winds. I wasn’t particularly good at this either, but the Chinese waiter, Danny, covered for me, bringing out the dishes I forgot, reminding me about picking up orders. The kitchen was hot and full of smoke. The old Chinese cooks squatted on their haunches over large black woks in the back, telling singsong stories to one another, laughing and smoking cigarettes.
“That place you work,” Mrs. Lawson called it, wrinkling her nose. “It’s disgusting. You can smell the grease from the tennis club!”
This made Charlie, the owner of China Winds, laugh. He was short and fat, with permed hair and a jade ring on his little finger. “These rich snobs,” he said, “they hate Chinese smells. Fight like hell to keep us out.”
It was true that when I came home at night my hair was thick with the smell of grease, but I liked the food—all I could eat of shrimp lo mein and fried rice, or beef with broccoli when Chang, the number one cook, thought I looked tired—and I liked the disorderliness of the kitchen, the roaring blue gas flames that heated the woks, the shouting in Chinese, the running in and out of orders, the jokes I could not understand.
Late at night the loneliness came, sweeping through the dark like the beam from the Sankaty Head lighthouse. I went out to listen to the waves, sometimes descending the bluff to sit on the beach. I got letters from Webb, charming and full of endearments, which I kept in a 9 x 12 manila envelope by the bed.
One night when business was slow, Charlie took the toothpick out of his mouth and pointed to Danny, the waiter. “Nothing going on here,” he said. “Take her to Chanticleer for dinner tonight. On me. Take my car. “
Danny looked shyly at me from behind his wire-rimmed glasses. I stared at Charlie, who had taken a roll of money from his pocket and was stripping off twenties one by one, laying them in Danny’s hand.
“But it might get busy, Charlie,” I protested.
He shrugged. “Wednesday slow night,” he said. “Go. Have a good time.” He tossed Danny the car keys.
Danny drove me home to change. I took a quick shower and put on my one fancy black dress with a pearl necklace. He picked me up twenty minutes later wearing a tan suit that was too large for him. His hair was cut like a bowl, with bangs that hung in his eyes.
“You look nice,” Danny said, glancing at me and turning back to the road.
I realized we had never really said much to each other. It was always too hectic at work. He would bring me the dish of plum sauce I’d forgotten, and I would thank him, going out the swinging door. He would be crouched on a wooden crate, stringing beans for the cooks, and would look up at me and smile. He was a good waiter, in the restaurant sense, quick and agile, but in another sense, too, he seemed to wait, with something in his face of patience, of sharp-eyed watching.
At the Chanticleer, there were awkward silences. He seemed ill at ease; his hands went over the edge of the tablecloth, smoothing and re-smoothing it, as though he were ironing. I could see people looking at us curiously, at the Oriental couple out to dinner. I wished I were with Webb.
The wine steward came and Danny ordered a $50 bottle of champagne.
“Charlie is certainly generous,” I said.
“That’s his problem,” Danny said, nodding vigorously. “We work together at a restaurant in New York. Same thing. Can’t make money, he always giving it away. “
He put his elbows on the table. “Like he hired you,” he went on, “and I’m glad, but we had Hong and Lonnie and me already. You came and he said, ‘Boys, I’m going to hire her because she’s Oriental and she’s pretty and customers will like her.”‘
I laughed. “Well, I knew it couldn’t have been my waitressing credentials.”
Danny shook his head. “You the worst waitress I ever saw,” he said. “Terrible.” His dark eyes shone with delight.
“Your parents didn’t teach you Korean?” Danny asked as he drove me home.
He shook his head. “For Chinese,” he said, “such a thing would be impossible.”
“I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, ” I said. “I guess they thought I’d never need it.”
He turned into the Lawsons’ driveway and turned the motor off. “You ever been to Korea?”
“When I was six. For three weeks. All I remember is my uncle killing eels in the courtyard of my grandfather’s house, and later eating them for dinner. And being scared of my grandfather. He was dying of emphysema. He would yell at me and my cousins in this raspy voice and then have a coughing fit.
“And I remember going to bow at my grandmother’s grave,” I said, startled by my memory. “It was a huge grassy mound on top of a mountain reserved for my relatives. My father said there was a place for him and my mother there, and for me and my brother, too, but that we’d probably want to be buried in the U.S.”
“Really?” Danny frowned. “Not with your family?”
“I’m American,” I said.
He didn’t say anything. I stared out the windshield, waiting for the wedge of light from Sankaty Head to swing around again. Danny turned to look at me. Behind his glasses, his eyes were small and blinking. “You like only white guys?” he said.
I laughed. “Of course not,” I said.
Danny watched me. He nodded. “I see you with your boyfriend, ” he said. “California surfer boy. ” He gave me a mocking smile. “Where he go?”
“He’s looking for an apartment in Berkeley,” I said. “He’ll be back in a couple weeks.”
Danny started the engine. “I leave Sunday,” he said. “Business too slow here. I go back to restaurant in New York.”
I lay in bed remembering one of the last days before Webb left. We were on the beach at Nobadeer or Miacomet; it didn’t matter which, they were all the same: gentle dunes of sand leveling to a broad strip by the water, dotted with bodies, with fat paperback books and Frisbees, plastic buckets and inflatable water wings, hazy with heat waves, buzzing with music and shouting.
I was digging a trough in the sand with my feet. Webb was talking to a girl he’d known for years, with whom he’d spent summers on the island every year since he was small. They were reminiscing about the summer romance they’d had when they were fourteen. I could see his broad and golden back as he leaned away from me.
“…and when we went out in the Sunfish and the mast cracked and we had to haul it back,” she was saying, giggling, reaching out to touch his arm.
Her blue eyes were so much like his own, her straight blond hair only a shade darker than his. I tried to imagine what it had been like for them at fourteen, for these twins with the elemental coloring of the island, of summer itself, finding in each other a mirror reflection, a perfect and dazzling picture of themselves to fall in love with.
I hated Webb at that moment—for ignoring me, for flirting with this girl. Bitterness overran me; I was surprised by its force, for what I was not part of and could never share, and for how much it mattered to me.
I forced the sand between my toes, covered up my shins, my knees, burying myself, crumbling into sand. I was invisible. No one knew I existed on Earth. I watched the seagulls waft on gentle winds, above the breaking of the waves.
Saturday night Charlie told the staff there would be a farewell party for Danny after closing. The first drink was on the house, Chen, the bartender, announced. The restaurant was busy; we barely had time to clean and reset our tables between seatings. I had a group of twelve sunburned fishermen in from an all-day fishing party. Danny helped me serve them, bringing out the trays with military flourish. He stood by as I put the dishes on the table and helped me remember their names as I lifted the lids.
“Shrimp with lobster sauce,” I said, looking at Danny. He nodded. “Moo shu pork with twelve pancakes. Hunan beef in hot garlic sauce.”
“Hey, your English is pretty good,” a bearded man in a Yankees cap said to me, his thick eyebrows joined in surprise.
“Thank you very much,” I said. “Kung bo chicken. Five jewels fried rice.”
Later I sat at the bar drinking from a tall glass with a paper parasol in it. The lights were dim, candles flickered in red goblets covered with plastic fish net. Golden dragons hung from the garish red walls.
“So she say to me”—Charlie imitated a high-pitched American accent—”‘Why you don’t serve some rreaal Chinese food, Charlie? Like how about chop suey or chow mein?”‘ He laughed and scratched his belly.
“Stupid guay-lo,” said Chen, morosely. He gave the bar a halfhearted swab with a dish towel. His thick brows worked lower against the slight bridge of his nose.
“This guy tells Anne she speak English very well, ” said Danny, looking at me. “She speak better than him.
I smiled. He looked proud, as though I had done something extraordinary.
“Stupid foreigner,” Chen muttered again.
“Ha, who’s foreigner here?” said Charlie. Chen grunted. He scowled, then brought his palm down on the counter. The glasses jumped. “I try get her stay,” he said, “but she say she tired.” His face was flushed scarlet across both cheeks.
“Maybe she was,” Charlie said, shrugging.
“Naw,” Chen sneered. “She no like Chinese man,” he said. “Like only white meat. ” Chen mumbled something in Chinese and poured himself a glass of Scotch.
My Mai Tai tasted cloyingly sweet. I swirled the ice around in my glass with the purple parasol. “I’ve got to go,” I said, getting up from the bar stool. “I’m tired myself.”
Without a word, Charlie handed his car keys to Danny and patted me on the shoulder. The others said goodnight.
“Way to go, Danny,” said Chen, with a bitter smile, “get Anne try yellow meat. Peking duck! Ha ha!”
Danny was silent in the car. I studied his serious expression. He looked angry; his normally placid face was etched with lines. He gazed straight out the windshield.
We got to the Lawsons’. He pulled into the driveway and kept the engine running.
“Well goodbye,” I said, “thanks for the ride.” He didn’t look at me. “Hope business is better in New York. We’ll miss you.” I pulled the door latch and the overhead light went on. Danny grabbed my wrist.
“Anne,” he said, “please. I . . .” He blinked at me. “Why can’t you see? All summer you make me unhappy, until I have to leave!”
I stared at him. “What are you talking about, Danny? Why do you have to leave?”
“Because of you!” he said, letting go of my wrist. He turned to face the steering wheel. “The other night,” he went on, “after I drop you off, I drive up to the lighthouse and sit there until three in the morning thinking about you. I’m in love with you since first I saw you. “
“Oh, Danny,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, you sorry,” he hissed.
His face in profile was flat, his glasses perched on the almost nonexistent bridge of his nose. His coarse black hair tapered at the base of his neck, beneath the collar of a Hawaiian shirt. He looked miserable. I did feel sorry for him, but I wanted to feel more, so I pulled his face toward mine and kissed him. His glasses were knocked off-center. I could taste the alcohol on his lips, the sweetness of Mai Tai. I felt a dizziness like intoxication, a sense of time elongating, the moment stretching like taffy to filament, then flying apart. I drew back from him and saw my reflection in his eyes, small and isolate, glancing away with a hangdog shame.
I woke up the next day to the sound of a voice screaming from the top of the stairs. “Anne! When are you going to get up? It’s almost noon and the dishwasher needs emptying! Anne! Wake up! This is not a hotel I’m operating here!”
When I came up to the kitchen, Mrs. Lawson pointed a polished fingernail at me. “Where were you last night?” she asked. “I saw you with that boy, sitting in the driveway. Really, Anne, what would Webb say?” She shook her head, her thin brow uplifted. “It’s like you don’t realize, dear girl, you’ve caught the best prize on the island. Any of the summer girls would kill for Webb’s attentions. And you treat him like that!” Her eyes held all her anger, hard and gray like ball bearings.
“I just took you in as a favor to Webb,” Mrs. Lawson went on, holding both hands up. “And you take advantage of us both.” She left, shaking her head.
I started to unload the dishwasher, taking out the plates and stacking them on the cabinet shelf. I felt the anger slowly make its way to the surface until acid tears choked the back of my throat. I stopped then, fingering the plate in my hands. It was pastel yellow with a pink rim. It smashed against the floor.
I packed quickly and said goodbye, leaving Mrs. Lawson open-mouthed like a fish, words stuck in her throat like hooks. Then I was heading down the road with my thumb out, trying to hitch a ride to the ferry dock.
I walked slowly, my suitcase banging against my leg, trying to remember what Webb looked like. His image in my mind was flat, indistinct; obscured, like everything else on the island, in a harsh, assuming light. It was Danny I remembered, not even Danny, but the kiss. The kiss I remembered vividly, as if there had been a whole history behind it, a relationship to put it in.
By the side of the road, sun glinted off sand, tall sea grass bobbed and bowed in the wind. I felt the stickiness of salt like a varnish against my skin. The suitcase bumped awkwardly at my knee. I shifted its weight and kept on walking.
Danny was published in Ploughshares in Fall 1990.