The Winters – Lisa Gabriele

Last night Rebekah tried to murder me again. It had been a while since I’d had that dream, not since we left Asherley, a place I called home for one winter and the bitterest part of spring, the dream only ever recurring when Max was gone and I’d find myself alone with Dani. As always, the dream begins with Asherley in the distance, shining from afar in a bright clearing. There is no greenhouse, nor boathouse, just a stand of red canoes stabbed into the pebbly beach. In fact, the Asherley of my dream looks more like it might have back in its whaling days, when from the highest turret you could still spot tall ships dotting Gardiners Bay. Overpowered by the urge to be inside the house again, I pass easily through the thicket of forest that surrounds the property. I want so badly to wander its wood-paneled halls, to feel its plush red carpets beneath my bare feet, to move my fingers in the play of sun through the stained-glass windows, but an invisible force keeps me out. I’m relegated to the bay, where I float like a sad specter, made to watch those who still haunt Asherley act out the same strange pantomime. I can see Max, my Max, relaxing on an Adirondack, one in a line like white teeth dotting the silvery-green lawn. He’s reading a newspaper, framed by the majestic spread of Asherley behind him, its walls of gray stones, its crowd of terra-cotta peaks, its dentils studded with carved rosettes, anchored by the heavy brow of its deep stone porch. Every lamp in every room of the house is lit. A fire roars in every fireplace. The circle of windows at the top of the high turret burns like a sentinel over the bay, as though the house were about to put on a great show for me. I call for Max but he can’t hear me. I want to go to him, to touch his face, to smell his hair, to fit my shoulder under his arm, our sides pressed together.

My throat feels strangled with that longing. On cue, she strides out the back door, carefully balancing a tray of lemonade. She’s wearing a white lace dress with a red sash, her blond hair glinting in the sun, her face so eerily symmetrical she’d almost be odd-looking except for the singular perfection of each and every one of her features. Here is Rebekah making her way down to Max, changing her gait to accommodate the steep slope of the back lawn. Now Dani bolts from the house behind her, laughing, her chubby legs charging straight for the water and for me. She’s three, maybe four, her hair, far too long for a child, is the same white blond as her mother’s. I often wish I could have met Dani when she was this young and unformed. Things might have been very different between us. My body instinctively thrusts forward to catch the girl, to prevent her from running too far into the bay and drowning. Rebekah yells, “Be careful, sweetheart,” which Max repeats.

She puts the tray down. From behind, she wraps her arms around Max’s shoulders and warmly kisses his neck. He places a reassuring hand on her forearm. They both watch as Dani splashes in the shallow water, screaming and laughing, calling, “Look at me, I can swim.” Then, as she always does in the dream, Rebekah becomes the only one who spots me bobbing in the bay, too near her daughter for her liking. She straightens up and walks towards the water, stalking me like a lion not wanting to disturb its prey. Still in her dress, she wades into the water, moving past a frolicking, oblivious Dani, until we are finally face-to-face. Her eyes narrow, forming that familiar dimple over her left brow. I try to flee but my legs are useless. “Who are you?” she asks.

“You don’t belong here.” Rebekah’s mouth is close enough to kiss, a woman I’d seen in hundreds of photos, whose every contour I’d memorized, whose every expression I’d studied and sometimes unconsciously mimicked in my darker days, when my obsession was most acute and I had no idea how to live at Asherley, how to be a wife to Max, or a friend to Dani. “I do belong here. She needs me,” I say, pointing to Dani, my impudence surprising even me. I try to move but my feet are rooted in the sand below, arms floating beside me like weeds. “She doesn’t need you,” Rebekah says, placing her hands on my shoulders in a reassuring manner. “She needs her mother.” Then she rears back slightly. Using all of her weight, Rebekah shoves me under the waves with a sudden violence, flooding my vision with air bubbles. I fight for the surface, to scream for Max to help me, but she’s stronger than me, her hands a vise on my shoulders, her arms steely and rigid.

In my dream, she’s not angry. Rebekah kills me slowly and methodically, not with hate or fear. She’s being practical. I am channeling vital resources away from her, rerouting Dani’s feelings, altering Max’s fate. My murder is conducted with dispassion and efficiency. And though I don’t want to die, I can’t imagine going on like this either, careful of my every move, looking over my shoulder, afraid to touch anything, break anything, love anything, worried his past will surface again and ruin what I’ve worked so hard for, what we’ve worked so hard for. Her task complete, my body painlessly dissolves into the waves and I disappear. I am dead and made of nothing. I am gone. I woke up gasping for air, my hand at my throat.

I kept reminding myself that everything is okay, we are okay, that we are alive and she is dead, cursing the fact that the dream had followed us here, our last stop, I hoped, for a good long while. • • • My back ached when I stretched that morning, unfamiliar beds the only downside to our decision to travel for the rest of the year to shake loose the recent tragedies. We found it helped to establish a routine. I would get up first and make us breakfast, for we only stayed in places with kitchens, a homemade meal the best way to start our wide-open days. We tried not to think too much about the past, about Asherley. It was gone, along with all of its secrets. We were building new memories, creating new stories, ones we might find ourselves telling new friends one day, finishing each other’s sentences, saying, No, you go, you tell it. No, you—you tell it better. Mostly our days were languid; sometimes I’d plan a museum tour or we’d take a long drive past ruins. Our nights were spent reading rather than watching TV, sharing the couch even if armchairs were available, our toes gently touching.

There were few conflicts, though I was no longer naive enough to believe two people as different as we were, who’d spent as much time together as we had, would never bicker. But the truth was we were still getting to know each other. Waiting for the omelet to thicken, I poked my head into the bedroom, resisting the urge to caress that thatch of dark hair that I had come to love in a quiet, calm way, a marked difference from how I loved just a short while ago. Hard to believe it had been less than a year since I’d met Max Winter, a man whose love seized me by the shoulders and shook me out of a state of dormancy, and who ushered in another emotion I had yet to meet in my young life: jealousy, the kind that grows like kudzu, vining around the heart, squeezing all the air out, fusing with my thoughts and dreams, so that by the time I understood what was happening to me it was almost too late. I carefully closed the bedroom door, padded across the cool tile floors of the living area, with its dark armoires and overstuffed armchairs, and threw open the musty blackout curtains. I stepped barefoot onto the hot stone terrace, the sun so bright it hurt my eyes. In the distance, warm air steamed off the sea. From below, I could hear the Spanish-speaking shopkeepers already arguing over sidewalk space, and I was gutpunched by long-ago memories of a mother who sang to me in her mother’s language and a father with sunburned shoulders, pulling fish out of the sea, their silver bodies violently jackknifing on the scarred deck of the boat we once lived on, our sleeping quarters the size of the smallest pantry you could find at Asherley. I could have fainted from an old grief. Here they were again, coming at me from afar, watery mirages of the people who once loved me, and I them, their long shadows cast by a low morning sun.

TWO There wasn’t anything in my past to suggest that I was the type of woman who would fall in love with a man like Max Winter, not in the course of a year, let alone in just under a month, but fall in love I did—an incredible thing to happen to someone like me. I say this not to be modest or self-deprecating, but I truly was unremarkable. In the books that I grew up reading and in the movies I loved to watch, the young women who had had these whirlwind affairs were beautiful or had something odd about them that upended their perfection, making them more beautiful for it. A gap in their front teeth, perhaps, or strangely set eyes, fun and dangerous women in whose wake men collapsed like felled trees. Or they were entirely oblivious to their beauty, women who came into themselves after a powerful man bestowed upon them the financial security or sexual satisfaction that had so far eluded them. Though you might have mistaken me for this type of woman, I was not that either. I was and am still unremarkable. My features are even, my body trim, hair, eyes, and skin compatible with each other in ways that make sense. Even my character, self-sufficient and serious-minded, watchful and earnest, doesn’t draw attention to itself. Men do not clamor after me.

And before Max I had never been jealous of women like that. They made the men in those scenarios seem ridiculous. I’d watch them at the club’s poolside bar with their sunburned scalps, their cigar smoke and signet rings, their sunglasses barely camouflaging the direction of their gazes. They looked and behaved like toddlers in a grocery store, dazzled by abundance. Meanwhile, the wives of these rich men, watching their men watch other young women, vibrated with the nervous energy of animals that sensed a looming natural disaster. So when I was swept off my feet, as they say, by an older wealthy American who made me feel as though I’d never need to eat again, I thought, after initial reluctance, that I might as well surrender to the lark, as long as I knew not to get used to it. I had wanted what my parents had had, a calm and private union, unknowable to others. My parents were disillusioned Americans who chose to live and work on a small fishing trawler where there was no separation of tasks, just days spent quietly and diligently in each other’s company, taking turns tending to me. I was born on that boat in choppy water, and by luck of both latitude and longitude I was given American papers, too, mailed to us, since my parents never wanted to return to the States. My fiercest memory is of my mother bobbing me on her hip in shallow water, teaching me to swim.

The feel of my mother’s wet skin against mine formed a deep sense memory, often triggered when I’d see other mothers holding their babies on the beaches of Grand Cayman, where we moved when it was time for me to go to school. They chose it because it was quiet and small and under no threat of political tumult, its poverty, of which we were a part, mostly hidden amidst the prettily painted homes outside George Town. From kindergarten to the twelfth grade, I attended a strict Christian grammar school in George Town, cooled by straw fans and shuttered windows, where we were taught, British-style, by rote and a smack on the hand with a ruler. When I was six my mother died of cancer. She wasn’t sick for long, maybe three months, my father often skipping a day on the water to go to the hospital and hold her hand. I’d meet them there after school. If her pain was manageable, I could see her. Other times I’d have to wait in a small gray room down the hall that became, to me, the physical manifestation of sadness. Not long after she died, arthritis set into my father’s wrists, making it impossible for him to pull heavy nets. He didn’t complain.

He wrapped his wrists in tape and took a job at a local charter company ferrying rich people out on fishing excursions. He loved the work, but struggled to take orders from his boss, an imperious Australian named Laureen Ennis, one of the richest women in the Caribbean. She was entirely self-made, someone who should have been a role model to me, were her character not so repulsive, her manner so coarse. Stranger still, despite her considerable wealth, she spent almost no money to look rich. Her nails were chipped and dirty, her clothes rotating sets of stretched-out gym wear. She went too long between dye jobs so often sported inches of white roots. But it was her voice that was the most grating, so loud you couldn’t tell if she or the recipient of her braying lecture was going deaf. At supper, my father occasionally mimicked her, his deep voice lending it a guttural roughness that made me laugh. “Your fahtha is a lazy arse. Eets not moy fault he hezzint saved enough to retire propleh.

Oym an idiot for baying sore ginerous. Oy aughta foyer you both.” Almost immediately after high school, I went to work for Laureen, too, the option of a higher education less and less likely the older and more infirm my father became. Laureen had charter companies all over the Caribbean. My duties at first were secretarial, keeping track of boat schedules and who was captaining what vessel. I also recorded the catches, photographing the more spectacular ones for the walls of Laureen’s office at the end of the pier. My father knew exactly where to find the big fish, even if it sometimes meant spending the night on the water, an extra charge I had to press clients for when they docked. Those who returned with an ice-packed yellowfin tuna, or a four-foot blue marlin, didn’t mind paying. When these clients felt generous, I’d carry their fish to the kitchen myself, some still alive and as heavy as children, for the chefs to cut up, cook, and serve. They’d wrap the bones and guts in paper for me to dispose of in the sea.

Eventually I learned to drive the boats so my father didn’t have to steer and throw lines, exacerbating his arthritis. It galled Laureen to lose me in the office, galled her to pay me for a job she said my father should be able to do alone. Then five years ago, sixty miles off Gun Bay, my father had a massive heart attack while helping a client pull in a large wahoo tugging at a line. I scrambled down to the deck and held him for a moment, his eyes glassy, left foot kicking the shoe off the right. One of the men barked at me. “What are you doing down here? Get us to the goddamn hospital!” I’d piloted the boat, an eighty-two-foot Viking, only once before, so I prayed that the large cruise ships weren’t crowding the city docks. While one of the men (a doctor, I found out) worked frantically on my father, the rest hovered in a semicircle, blocking my view. The doctor only stopped resuscitating him long enough to help carry him to the waiting ambulance. I sat alone in that small gray room while a different stranger delivered to me the same news about another parent. Laureen paid the hospital bill, the ambulance bill, the emergency docking bill, the funeral bill, and she refunded the doctor’s bachelor party, a debt that became like weather between us, rarely mentioned, always felt.

She gave off airs of largesse as she moved me from our modest rental in Bodden Town to a staff townhouse near the marina, where pay was docked for a cramped room with a single bed, and where kitchen and bath facilities were shared with a rotating cast of young internationals who worked on the island, spoke at various decibels in various languages, and whose fucking and fighting would, every four to six weeks, cause a sudden reshuffling of the living arrangements. I felt like a nagging column on Laureen’s ever-expanding debt ledger, giving her greater license to limit my days off and schedule overnight trips that often left me operating the boats alone, in all-male company, ignoring those periodic knocks on my cabin door, tests to see how far my services might go. For months I grieved, tightly and privately, keeping my pain to myself until I could be alone. Then one day, I decided I could no longer be a grown woman weeping in a single bed. I buried the rest of my anguish and got on with my life, astonished that that was all it took, a simple decision, which I suppose, in retrospect, revealed something unsettling about my character. Despite what passed for shyness, I could be ruthless like that, make a decision and then act, filing and organizing emotions as efficiently as I did a boat schedule in high season. Emotions were things for which I did not have the time or the luxury. I was in the office one day trimming the edges of a nice write-up about Laureen to pin on the office wall when the brass bells signaled Max Winter’s entrance into the overly airconditioned hut. As automatically as breathing, Laureen stripped off her stained hoodie and stood to greet him, her ample, sun-spotted chest leading the way. Her wide arms assumed a hug, but Max instantly sliced through those intentions with a stiff extended arm, an awkward moment I pretended not to see.

“Well, if it isn’t Mr. Winter, or should I say Senator Winter? It’s been such a long, long time.” “I’m just a state senator, so no need for titles,” he said, looking over her shoulder to give me a perfunctory nod. I didn’t remember Max Winter from previous years, which wasn’t unusual. Laureen had a whole cache of clients she took personal care of: bankers, sports stars, celebrities and the like, people who didn’t like the obviousness of St. Barts or the sleepiness of St. Martin, people for whom banking was a full-time job and the Caymans was where they could both work and play. She hoarded them, bragging about the exorbitant tips she’d declined because they’d formed friendships, or so she said, trusting her enough to drop lascivious details about affairs and divorces, though I knew she’d merely overheard them talking from the bridge. “Anyway, it is so good to see you again, Mr. Winter.

The club didn’t alert me that you were returning. I would have been more than happy to handle your needs there so you wouldn’t have to come all the way down to my ratty old office. Get Mr. Winter a coffee,” she barked at me. “Oh no,” he said to me. “Please don’t go to any trouble.” “By the way,” Laureen added sotto voce, “my deepest condolences to you and your lovely daughter. I read about that awful business. Has it been a year already?” I pricked up my ears, eager to know more about this “awful business.” “Eighteen months,” he said.

“And thank you, I appreciate your kind words. But I am wondering about a boat. For tomorrow. Something manageable that I can handle alone.” “Oh, I wouldn’t hear of that. I’m more than happy to take you out tomor—” “No. Please. Though I do appreciate the offer. You must be busy this time of year.” “Nonsense.

January is between high seasons.” I spoke up. “The Commodore is available. One person can handle it easily. I just need to clean it out and put gas in it.” “Thank you. I know that boat,” Max said. “I’ll come by around eight. Does that give you enough time to prep it?” “Plenty.” His nose was slightly crooked, the only lived-in thing about his handsome face.

I imagined he’d played sports and had an accident with a baseball or football. Maybe an interesting story involving a fistfight at a private school. The thought instantly endeared him to me. “Mr. Winter, I’m telling you, that little boat won’t do. Let me take you out on the Lassie—” He gave me a steady look, which I held until my face burned. “I’d like to take the little one. I’ll come for her in the morning.” “At least let me bring her around to the club dock, Mr. Winter, all nice and gleaming.

” “I’d prefer to leave from here, if you don’t mind,” he said. There was an edge to his voice now. He intended to be alone on that boat, and this now worried me, given Laureen’s hushed condolences and his general air of sadness. “I don’t mind anything. Will you need snorkeling equipment? Will your daughter be with you?” “No. Dani’s with her aunt in Paris for the month. She’s at that age where she prefers her company, anyone’s company really, over mine,” he said, looking at me. “Let us pack a picnic for you, then. Call up the kitchen,” she commanded me, “and let them know Mr. Winter wants—” “I’ll grab some food from the takeaway.

I didn’t catch your name.” This time he was talking to me. I was about to respond when Laureen beat me to it, her accent mangling the emphasis so that it sounded less exotic than it was. “Pretty,” he said, studying my face as if to solve something about its relationship to my name. “Suits you. Are you new?” “I’ve been working here about eight years now.” “Why have I never seen you before?” He seemed genuinely bothered by this oversight on my, or Laureen’s, part. “Maybe because I’ve never seen you,” I said, a little impudently, my face warming. “This one’s not one of my more friendly staff, that’s for sure,” Laureen said. “If I didn’t shove her out the door she’d be content to sit in the air-conditioning all day checking her Facebook.

” I rolled my eyes at Max. She knew I had no interest in such things. “Yes, well, all right. I’ll see you both in the morning,” he said and thanked us each by name. The bells clanged behind him. “Now there’s a man who has suffered,” she said, a hand on her chest, eyes lingering on the door. “Poor man’s wife dies in a car accident just before he wins an election. Then he’s got to raise that kid on his own.” She shuddered. “I don’t like the idea of him alone on the water.

Did he seem depressed to you?” I wanted to say Of course he’s depressed, his wife’s dead, but she was already telling me the Winters were longtime members of the club, where they owned a few of the private bungalows, the biggest reserved for their personal use. “And they live on a private island that’s been in the family for hundreds of years. An old king gave it to them. And the house, it’s like a castle straight out of a Disney movie. Presidents have slept there. Republican ones, that is. He’s probably the only Republican I could hold my nose and vote for. He’s not one of those right-wing nutters. More of the old-school variety; high brows, low taxes, that sort of thing.” She turned to face me.

“Aren’t you a dark surprise? I’ve never seen you flirt before. You embarrassed yourself by a lot. He might be single now, but you do realize he’s the sort who will end up with a movie star. That’s about the only act that could follow the first Mrs. Winter. Rebekah was something else to look at, I’m telling you. You know, she once offered me a hundred-dollar bill to stay here because she was waiting for an important phone call and was worried she wouldn’t get a signal on the ocean. It never came, the call, but it was me she trusted to sit right where you’re sitting and wait for that call all day, and I did. Of course I didn’t want to accept the money but she insisted. She had a lot of class, that one.

The daughter, though? Total piece of work. The biggest snotnosed brat ever. D’you know a couple years back, that one had half the police on the island plus a helicopter looking for her? She thought she’d go partying with a group of athletes from some college in Florida. Not even thirteen years old, she was. Those poor boys, all in tears when they found that out, swearing up and down no one laid a hand on her, but not for lack of her trying, they said. She could have ruined their lives just like that,” she said with a snap of her fingers. “But at the last minute she said the boys were telling the truth. She’d just wanted to make them suffer a little. Girls like that, they don’t get happy endings.” She meandered to the back office holding her ledger to her chest, flip-flops slapping at her dirty, cracked heels.

“Nope. They end up dead or in jail, leaving everybody to wonder which fate they deserved more.”

.

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