Summer of Denialbysr71plt©
I was fairly chewing on the knuckles of one of my hands as I watched the team of men pull the Petrof baby grand piano out of the ferryboat at the landing and start to muscle it up to the beat-up old pickup truck. Most of the men looked as scruffy as both the ferryboat and the pickup looked, but this was as good as it was going to get on Daufuskie Island. At least they had the bed of the pickup well swathed with thick blankets. I could have hoped for a larger truck, but this was close to the only truck on the island.
Thank god that the young man who was heading the crew and giving it direction seemed to know what he was doing. I was quite glad that he'd appeared at the last minute when the men had stopped circling the piano case—its legs removed—laying in the bed of the boat and were about to start heaving it up. As I myself had observed, the young man of mixed race, who had introduced himself as Vandi LaRoche, had been deeply otherwise occupied up to the moment he had appeared. I couldn't help seeing them—him and Tish, Damien Peer's young wife, behind the trading post, which Vandi apparently managed. They had been kissing and groping, and, when I passed by on my way down from the house we'd rented for the summer at Haig Point to meet the ferryboat, I thought there was every reason to think they'd be fucking in the bushes soon.
The contrast in their much-exposed skin was startling, Tish being milky-white pale and the young man being berry brown. I was to learn the young man was a Gullah native of this isolated island, which lay by the Hilton Head resort island off the coast of South Carolina and at the mouth of the Savannah River. The Gullah were a mixed race of English, Scottish, and West African extraction who had settled and mixed on and near the South Carolina barrier islands centuries ago and who had become somewhat isolated and insular. LaRoche's mix relied heavily on the West African, but in a "best of all traits of each" sort of way.
I was surprised, yes, but not shocked to see Tish in action so quickly. An international model, Tish Angel had been as free as this with herself in New York. She was much too young for her husband, Damien, who was wildly and perpetually on the make himself, and he'd never shown an indication of being either willing or able to control her catting about.
The question, of course, was how Helena and I had come to be living with them for the summer on this island, accessible only by boat, and, other than a small Gullah community, populated mostly by absentee millionaires who raised the barricades to their neighbors even when they were in residence. I didn't remember how we had come to this arrangement—and at this location—any more than I could remember how I had agreed to have my baby, what Helena called my muse, my Petrof baby grand, delivered here under these primitive conditions. I was sure that it had been at Helena's insistence.
And I was equally sure that I couldn't have had any part of this—and other—decisions for this summer's retreat. This was quite unlike us. We usually summered either in the Hamptons, sponging off friends moving there en masse from Manhattan, or in Paris, where Helena had maintained a pied-à-terra since before we'd been married.
My heart leapt into my throat as I saw the piano case teeter to the right dangerously over the side of the truck bed, to be saved at the last instance by the sure and strong hands of Van LaRoche, his rippling chest muscles bulging and straining for the moment before others in the crew took hold.
I wondered if Tish Angel had found his hands just as steady and sure and his rippling muscles as sigh producing while he was pawing her behind his trading post near the dock. This clearing at the dock was the point of the island's connection with civilization, where each week three sets of tours from Hilton Head and two from Savannah arrived for a short tour of this famous, but isolated island. Daufuskie wasn't connected to any part of the mainland or any other island—by the choice of its largely well-heeled sometimes residents. There was one dirt road running up the spine of its five-mile length and only two across its two-and-a-half-mile width.
For sure this was the island that Pat Conroy had made famous in his novel Water Is Wide and Jimmy Buffett in his song "Prince of Tides," but it still obviously was one of those places where time stood still outside of the walls of the millionaires' frequently deserted compounds.
Come to think of it, was it the singer and artist John Mellencamp, a sometimes resident of the island, who had instigated this summer's destination? I couldn't remember. Both Damien and I knew Mellencamp, of course, from our separate disciplines, but I can't think that it was I who suggested coming here upon John's recommendation.
I do know I needed to go somewhere away from New York—and from my collaborator, Charlie. Well, my collaborator up to the time we fled New York. Who knew who I'd find for a lyricist when I returned to the city. I surely couldn't go back into that situation.
When we'd discussed coming here, Helena asked me if I was going into hiding. That had scared the shit out of me, I'll tell you. Helena seemed almost clairvoyant. But I don't think she knew how close to the mark she'd hit. At least she hadn't followed up on that tack. It didn't seem, however, that coming here was her idea. Of course Helena could—and did—work almost anywhere.
"Please drive slowly . . . and carefully," I heard myself call out to Vandi as he opened the driver's door of the pickup.
"Don't worry, Mon," the handsome—really almost obscenely handsome, and so well muscled—young Gullah called back. "We'll go with the snails. Do you want to ride in the cab? The men will walk with the truck. That's how slow we'll go."
"No, thank you. I have something I need to do here at the dock. I'll be up at the house later."
The young man gave me a look as if I'd been overtouched by the sun, but he said nothing and started the pickup toward the road to Haig's Point at the promised snail's pace. He had every reason to look at me that way, of course. No one had business he "had" to do on this island. Moving my Petrof baby grand from dock to the house probably would be the highlight of these men's year.
Nothing to do but maybe fuck my wife's step-brother's wife behind the trading post as I was sure Vandi was about to do—and probably still would do—when the piano floated in. And why not? Every other man she encountered probably had. Why not me? If I could manage it. I should at least give it a shot, I thought. The question needed to be answered.
But that reminded me why I was lingering here—other than the nerves of not wanting to know what was happening to the Petrof until it had been delivered and had been reunited with its legs, and until it was waiting, miraculously intact and in tune, for me in the house's lounge. I was lingering here because I didn't want to face Helena this morning.
* * * *
It was as if the house had been furnished just for our party. We were sitting in a circle on the screen porch overlooking the waterway leading to Hilton Head Island to the northeast. Five substantial rattan chairs around a circular cocktail table. Three men and two women chatting amicably, but saying nothing of any importance, which would have been considered a crime in our intellectual circles in New York. The undercurrents among us were stirring more than the faltering breeze filtering into the porch from the sea, promising an undertow at the first misspoken word. I looked at each of the other four as if they were strangers to me—and that included my wife of eight years. I'd say my trophy wife, as Damien Peer, who was sitting next to me in overpowering animation, sucking up all of the air in the circle with his "hey, look at me" presence, could say about his young model wife, Tish. But I was the trophy spouse for Helena, sitting across from me.
Was that on purpose? Was Helena sitting separated from me because of last night—because of what didn't happen? Was she punishing me? I had expected her to settle down on the other side of me from Damien, but she moved deliberately to a chair across from me, and Tish had slid in beside me and placed her hand on top of mine and was playing with the hair on the back of my hand. I wondered if I was the only one present to know that she expected me to fuck her this summer just like all of the other men she encountered and fancied.
I had avoided this inevitability in New York, but on small, isolated Daufuskie there was no place to hide. And now there was a reason for me to give it a go, as a test, just to be sure, if nothing else.
I looked over at Helena, who was giving me a benevolent look even though I was sure she could see the attention Tish was giving me. I decided to let Tish have her way—even to fuck her as opportunity and capability arose. Helena certainly seemed as relieved last night as I was after the embarrassment had passed. Helena was the "star" of our marriage. In many ways, she fulfilled the magnet role in any group the same way her appreciably older artist half brother, Damien, did. She had chosen me. Seven years my senior, she had proposed, suggesting that we both could benefit from the camouflage. I had no idea what she meant at the time. I can't say even now that I know what she meant in relationship to herself, and I certainly only recently had an inkling how it might relate to me. But I can't say it had not been a beneficial—or even amiable—marriage so far. She was witty and brilliant and preoccupied with the writing of her deep women's novels. That left me more than enough space to be preoccupied with composing my music.
Whereas most married New York couples met over breakfast and dinner and cocktails between, we met at art openings, concerts, and book signings. That's where we had frequently met with Damien and Tish earlier in the spring and when somehow someone had suggested a summer together somewhere "different," and the rest of us had agreed.
Surely I hadn't suggested that.
"I must say this was a sterling idea of yours that we summer in South Carolina," the fifth occupant of the circle fairly barked, shattering the surface, meaningless chatter of the rest of us.
I looked up sharply at Benjamin Wangle, middle-aged and perpetually untidy and out of style. The rest of us were at the height of style. Wangle could afford not to be in style in New York circles. He was a book agent, and a powerful one at that. He could be anything he damn well pleased, including completely open about his proclivities. Lucky man.
He was looking directly at me. Was he suggesting that this conclave—here—had been my idea? Surely not.
"Yes, everything is perfect now that Adrian has his Petrof here and set up," Helena spoke up, saving me from responding to Wangle. "Adrian's summer is all in order now. Is it in proper tune, darling?" She leaned the bulk of her chest over the coffee table, flicked the ashes from her cigarette into a tray, and picked up her martini.
"Yes, thank god, dear," I answered. "It's a miracle, but it seems to have weathered the trip."
"Good. I know it's your lucky piano, your muse. I know you'll knock out glorious tunes by the dozens. You'll see that I was right to insist that you have your piano and no other."
I felt myself flare up. She'd always thought of my work as effortlessly "knocking out tunes by the dozens," as if doing so were a piece of cake in contrast to knocking out novels with long paragraphs and five-syllable words by the dozens was. I knew I wouldn't be "knocking out" tunes here. I had the piano, but I didn't have Charlie, my collaborator, my lyricist. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to knock out a tune again, whether here or in New York.
But Helena was sailing on. "And you, D. Does the art studio suit?"
"It would if I planned on spending any time in it, H," Damien answered. "I'm delighted with the island. I think I'll go native with my painting here—out in the open, in the lush jungle. I'll call this my Rousseau and Gauguin period, perhaps—if I can chose between their styles. I'll have to experiment. It will be so much fun. I agree, this idea of yours quite likely is a winner, Adrian."
He had turned to me. He, like Wrangel, was suggesting that this summer was my idea.
I opened my mouth to speak, to question and contradict, but Wrangel mercifully filled the sliver of a void in sound.
"I hope you have started your new novel, Helena," he said, turning to my wife. "We're a bit off schedule, you know."
That was it, I realized. That was the catalyst that had brought us together here. Wrangel was a book agent. Each of us was working on a book for him—although Tish could hardly say she was working on her memoir of a top model. What she was supposed to do on this retreat was to read and try to absorb the glamorous, but forged-in-tragedy life a ghostwriter had written for her so that she could handle the book interviews running up to and after publication. Wrangel had gathered us all here in isolation to crack the whip over us. That must be what brought us here.
"Yes, I'm toying with the concept of relationship," Helena said, taking another drag of her cigarette and her martini, in turn.
"The concept of relationship?" Wrangel asked. "In a novel?"
"Yes. I'm going to separate and distinguish in a pure form sexual relationship and affection relationship. I won't moralize between them, but I will show how basically it's one or the other except in the rare instance where they intersect and merge."
"And you will show this in a novel? With tension and resolution? I'm not quite sure—" Wrangel was such a powerful agent in the business that he enjoyed the ability to be in on the ground floor decisions in forming the works of his clients.
"Yes, the tension will be that my protagonist will have more than one intersection of the two. She will hedonistically enjoy sexual relationships and she will easily slip into relationships of affection, but rather than the optimum one relationship that is satisfying on both the sexual and affection relationship levels, she will be forced to suffer two simultaneously of equal dual strength."
"Ah, so not a romance."
"No, not hardly a romance. Romances are insipid. They don't have legs. And one of the relationships will be with a man and the other with another woman."
"Ah, yes, I see," Wrangel said. "Quite possibly excellent, yes. And the resolution?"
"Oh, in the end she will realize that one of the relationships was of a fourth kind altogether—a completely sterile one."
"And which one would that—?"
"I haven't quite decided yet," Helena quickly answered, anticipating the question. She was speaking to Wrangel, but her eyes were boring into me.
"If you've quite finished making love to Adrian's hand," Damien said in a somewhat irritated voice, "I think it is time for you to start earning your keep." This was addressed to Tish, who was often a model of choice for Damien's highly profitable art. He specialized in nudes in unusual settings.
Although the dart was aimed at Tish, I instinctively knew that Damien was displeased that the center of attention in the room had shifted to his half sister. It was ever thus when the two of them were together. They were too much of a one—surely from the mother they shared rather than the fathers they didn't. They each needed to be the center of attention, and there wasn't enough light or air in a room for both of them simultaneously. It was, however, a civilized game. They played off of each other as much as against each other—and mercy be to anyone who attacked one of them when the other was nearby.
Tish giggled as she stood when Damien did. A sixth person was flitting around us, picking up empty glasses and exchanging Helena's filling ashtray with an empty one. Wrangel's Thai houseboy, Krit, who no one had had any objection to Wrangel bringing. No one else intended on doing any domestic work during the summer, and the prospect of hiring someone local wasn't welcomed by any of them. Besides, Wrangel tended to be very grumpy when Krit wasn't there to warm his bed.
The rest of us were standing now, as well, Wrangel to go look at the proofs of Tish's book before giving the manuscript to her to read for the first time about the fascinating life she had had to this volume one of X point, and Helena off to the library, which she had commandeered for her writing.
My wife didn't leave without a parting shot at me, however.
"I know how you like to sleep with the windows open to catch the breeze off the water, darling—and you know that I easily get a chill. I found last night nearly intolerable. There are plenty of bedrooms in the house, so I think you should stay in that room and I'll find another."
There it was then. Just like her books. One meaning on the surface—a solicitous regard for my needs—with deeper currents—of what?—underneath. We had both found last night nearly intolerable and "chill," as ambiguous as it was, was perhaps just the right word to use for it. But I didn't take umbrage at the barb. We slept in separate bedrooms in New York. Why not here too?
I probably shouldn't have . . . but with all I was going through. The need to leave New York . . .
"Your glass is empty, sir. Are you finished with it?"
"Yes, thanks, Krit," I said, as I pried it out of my hand with the other—not having been aware of how tightly I'd been gripping it. "Here, you may have it. Thank you." I watched the lithe little man of indeterminate age sway gracefully in his Thai silk sarong skirt and tight vest over a bare chest as he departed the room.
I drifted into the lounge, being careful to close the door behind me so as not to disturb Helena across the house in the library, and sat down at the piano. I ran my fingers along the keys and then tried some chords. The sound was sweet and true. Being cursed with perfect pitch, I couldn't work with any other sound. I wouldn't have the condition—or absence—of the piano as an excuse not to compose. But I well knew—when it wasn't blocked by denial—what the reason was that I wouldn't be able to compose, and it had nothing to do with the piano. It was thoughtful, though, I thought, of Helena to insist on the piano being sent here. She'd made all of the arrangements herself. In fact she'd made all of the arrangements on the travel and the house. So, perhaps this retreat into the wilderness was all her idea.
It was thoughtful about the piano. Relationships. There must have been a connection of affection, at least, for Helena to have done this for me. Affection at least.
I let my hands do whatever they wanted with the keys. I was making music. But it wasn't my music and there was nothing fresh involved. I usually had the lyrics to work to. That had always helped. Charlie's lyrics. Nothing was coming now, though. And I wasn't a bit surprised.
I rose from the piano and went to the French doors to the raised terraced, opened them, and walked out to the edge. I could see them below me and in the near distance. Tish, naked, was posed and Damien, half naked himself, powerful of body, was sitting at his easel. I recognized the pose in the bed of ferns by the banyan tree. It was "The King's Wife" tableau. So Damien had been serious about pursuing a Paul Gauguin period this summer. Legend had it that Gauguin always fucked his Tahitian models after a sitting like this. I had little doubt that Damien planned to do the same. He was a highly sexed—and a very sensual—man.
Apparently not fully satisfied with the pose, the sound of the name of Henri Rousseau and the pose of his "The Dream" drifted up to the balcony, and, with a beleaguered sigh, Tish changed her position. If there was something that Tish was an expert in, it was positions—and I wasn't wholly thinking of model poses.