tagRomanceBessie's Island Pt. 01: Martin

Bessie's Island Pt. 01: Martin


Pt. 1 - Martin's Story

Christie and I had been seeing each other for almost two years. We'd both been through difficult divorces. Hers' far worse than mine, though mine was no picnic.

My ex developed paranoid schizophrenia early during our second year of marriage, while were seniors in college. I tried hard to help her, to save our marriage but to no avail. One night, while I slept, she attacked me with a broomstick. She hit me several times. So hard she broke my arm and several ribs. She ran out of our apartment and disappeared into the night while neighbors called an ambulance for me. When the police found her, she was dirty, irrational, experiencing hallucinations and suffering from exposure. It broke my heart to divorce her. But she wouldn't stay on her meds and I wanted to long enough to graduate from college. Even when she did take them, they weren't entirely effective at controlling her hallucinations. She now lived with family, three states away. They did their best to keep her on her meds. I had nothing but sympathy for them. I knew how difficult taking care of her was. I was certain she'd eventually have to be hospitalized permanently.

Christie's ex had been the worst kind of nightmare for a wife - an outwardly charming, likable deputy sheriff with a penchant for beating his women. He no longer posed a physical threat. The next woman had defended herself with his pistol. The one he wasn't supposed to possess as a convicted felon.

This was the first time Christie and I were taking a vacation together. To say our relationship was progressing glacially would be an understatement.

Christie picked me up before dawn. She drove her beloved 1959 Ford Country Squire wagon several hours, up into Maine. We got off the highway and stopped at a storage unit to retrieve some coolers and gas cans. After stopping at a supermarket to stock up for our stay on the island and a gas station, we made our way to a marina in Christie's home town.

Christie had contacted the captain of a sixty-foot barge to arrange transport to the island. The captain was a primarily a lobster fisherman, but he also provided freight and transport services to the islands along this part of the Maine coast. He would take us to our destination.

I couldn't tell how old Enos was. He could have been fifty, or even eighty, but he moved like he was twenty. As he prepared to leave the dock, everything he did and said had purpose. Every task seemingly completed effortlessly. It was apparent that he and Christie had known each other for years. I was a little annoyed that she was more comfortable, more affectionate, with the grizzled sea dog than with me. Once we left the dock, he and Christie chatted easily, joked, and laughed as he navigated from the harbor to the bay. I couldn't really hear their conversation over the roar of the diesel engine. Our destination was more than two hours away across open water, once we left the bay. I was nervous as hell.

I had no idea what I was in for until we cleared the breakwater and turned north at the end of the bay. Once we were on open water, things got interesting. The trip out to the island was miserable. At least, I thought it was. A steady wind blew out of the north. The sky was clear, and the temperature was in the mid-seventies. The white-capped ocean was gray-green. I estimated the swells to be about four feet. The barge rose and fell rhythmically as Enos navigated toward our destination.

I wasn't used to being out on the ocean. In fact, this was my first time on a boat. Hell, I'd never even been to a beach except at the lake where my parents now lived in retirement. The steady rise and fall messed with my equilibrium. I was glad Christie suggested we postpone lunch until we got to our destination. My stomach constantly threatened to disgorge its contents. I found a place to sit and held on tight. Christie and Enos looked in my direction every so often. Christie tried to hide her amusement. Enos made no such effort.

We were headed to Bessie's Island. It wasn't called that on any map, but that was what Christie called it. And that was what Enos called it. It had been in Christie's family since the days of King James I. The original land grant had been tens of thousands of acres on the mainland and included numerous islands. The family still owned many of those islands, all with cabins rented out to wealthy vacationers at exorbitant rates, many taking a cabin for the summer. Much of the mainland holdings had been sold off over the centuries. Christie managed the family trust, which controlled the islands, numerous commercial waterfront properties, apparently including the marina Enos leased, and several large tracts of timberland. Bessie's Island wasn't part of the trust holdings. For reasons apparently lost to history, it belonged to Christie outright since high school, after her mother passed away.

Bessie's Island was one of the larger islands in the area, almost four hundred acres. Christie told me her forebears had once lived there. For more than two hundred years, they eked out a living fishing and subsistence farming. The original house was long gone. The replacement house, built on the original foundation in the mid-1800s and expanded several times, burned down in the late sixties after being struck by lightning. Her father built the current cabin. Christie expanded and modernized it a few years after he passed away.

It was a typical springtime Monday morning in Boston when I got on the elevator to go to my office on the twenty-second floor. I was standing in the back when I saw her get on the elevator. She was a little thing, maybe five-three. Thick, dark, collar-length hair was parted in the center and swept back in a stylishly conservative hairdo. She had a pretty face. I couldn't see much else that first morning. There were too many people between us. I saw she got off on the ninth floor.

She was on the elevator again the next day and many other mornings after that. We never interacted until we each stopped for lunch at a hot dog cart in the park across from our office building one late September day. It wasn't much of a meeting. I had already paid for my lunch and was headed for a nearby bench when she strode past me. I sat at one end of a nearby bench to eat. She sat at the other end.

'We both work in the same building,' I said to her, pointing at our office building across the street.

She responded impassively. 'Yes,' she said. 'I've seen you on the elevator.' She was polite, responding when I spoke, but aloof. She did nothing to encourage conversation but always responded.

We exchanged few words that day. Mostly banalities about the pleasant stretch of weather. And how good Jorge's spicy hot dog relish was. We did exchange first names. When I got up to return to work, she remained seated. I wished her a nice afternoon. She responded in kind. I continued to see her on the elevator. Occasionally we'd be standing close enough to acknowledge each other with a nod or a word.

I returned to my office one windy, bitterly cold afternoon the following January and followed a heavily bundled woman onto an empty elevator. It was Christie. She flinched when she realized she wasn't alone.

'Hello, Christie,' I said politely.

'Hi, Martin,' she responded haltingly.

She stayed as far away from me as she could in the otherwise empty elevator. It was obvious she was tense and uncomfortable. By the time the elevator got to the third floor, she was visibly shaking. I wondered what was wrong.

'Are you okay?' I asked. She shook her head, but she didn't say anything. 'Do you need help?' I asked. 'Is there someone I can call for you?'

'No,' she said, her voice shaking as much as the rest of her. 'I'll be alright.' She bolted out the door like the elevator was on fire when it opened at her floor.

I didn't see her again until a few days later, when I was eating lunch alone at a table in the basement food court. I looked up from my tray to find Christie standing across from me. Her lunch was a chef salad and a bottle of iced tea.

'I want to apologize for my behavior on the elevator earlier this week,' she said timidly.

'No need to apologize,' I responded. 'I'm glad to see you're doing better.' When she turned to walk away, I asked, 'Why don't you join me? I promise not to eat your lunch and I don't bite. It would be nice to have someone to talk to.'

Christie hesitated, but opted to sit. We had a brief, pleasant conversation over lunch. Unlike our first talk, she readily participated. I didn't ask, and she didn't explain why she was so shaken on the elevator. Over the next few months, we had lunch together when we ran into each other. Just a few times over the next month. Eventually, we began arranging to meet several times a week. After about six months, when I thought she felt comfortable with me, I asked her to dinner and she accepted.

When the barge rounded the southern point of the island, the wind died. But now the surface of the water was choppy. The barge bounced around instead of rising and falling like it did as we made our way across open water. Though still queasy, I felt my stomach begin to settle.

The water level was just a bit below the high-water marks on the large rocks along the islands' coast. It was near high tide. Enos maneuvered into a small, well-sheltered cove and guided the barge to a dock jutting out from a rocky beach, built parallel to a bluff along the shore of the cove. Enos and Christie tied up to the dock, while I fought to regain my wits. Christie and I unloaded our dry bags, several bags of groceries, two coolers loaded with ice and perishables, and thirty gallons of gasoline. Enos and I muscled a two-hundred pound-propane tank onto the dock. I wondered how Christie and I would move it from the dock.

Enos took a moment to say a few words to me when he knew Christie wouldn't hear. His Maine accent, with its unusual phrasing, required close attention. 'She ain't nevah taken a man ott he-ah befaw. Not even huh ex. Ya betta be gud to huh, ya he-ah? Folk 'rown he-ah ah mahty fond-a Christie.'

With a stern nod in my direction and a wave to Christie, Enos left to return to the mainland. He would be back in two weeks, weather-permitting.

The cabin wasn't visible from the dock. Christie led the way up a steep hill and behind a bluff that hid the cabin from view. It sat at the top of a hill, about two hundred yards away and well above the water. The well-maintained cabin was much larger than I expected. The south-facing roof was covered with a bank of solar panels, as was the roof of an adjacent out-building. An enclosed porch ran the length of the cabin.

When we got to the cabin, we dropped our bags on the porch. I turned to go back to the dock but took a moment to admire the scenery. The view from the porch stretched from the southeast to the southwest. Several other islands were barely visible in the distance. A dense stand of pines sheltered the cabin from the worst of the nor'easter storms that winter often brought. Though the water was rough and white-capped, the view and the isolation still imparted a kind of serenity. It was easy to imagine a much different view during a storm.

'I'll be right back,' Christie told me as she disappeared around the side of the house. A moment later, I heard an engine start and Christie came around the corner driving an ATV. We rode down the hill together and loaded up. We made a second trip for the gas and a third for the propane.

After helping Christie unload the gas and propane, I spent the next hour figuring out and stocking the modern kitchen which was equipped with high-end appliances. I loaded the fridge and put the dry goods in the cabinets. I took the cooler that had been used to keep our meats cold and dumped the ice and water.

The cabin was quite luxurious. We weren't going to be roughing it. Before we left Boston, Christie had made clear that, though we were sharing the cabin, we would be in separate rooms. I put her small dry bag in the master bedroom. Christie had clothes here already. I chose one of the smaller rooms, though it was hardly spartan, and unpacked.

Meanwhile, Christie got the cabin systems operating. She checked to make sure the solar system was working, and the batteries were fully charged. She turned on the well pump and started the hot water heater. She filled the fuel tank for the generator, fired it up and tested it, then shut it down again. She connected the propane tank that supplied the kitchen stove.

Once we had been seeing each other for a while, Christie and I became essentially inseparable. We ate dinner together most nights, sometimes at my apartment, other times at hers. We went to movies, concerts, museums. She liked country, which I find intolerable. We both liked rock and classical but were ambivalent about jazz. We took day trips together. We went to parties together.

Christie had a quick, dry, sometimes biting wit. Most everyone liked her. She didn't suffer fools well and sometimes just couldn't hold her tongue. She was usually upbeat and in a good mood. She was generous in the gifts she gave me, picking thoughtful, personal gifts a woman would give to a husband or lover. We did all the things couples did together. Our friends thought of us as a couple. What they didn't know was there was no sexual relationship.

My sister stayed with me for a few days when she was in town on business. Christie ate dinner with us each night during my sisters' visit and stayed part of the evening. The two women quickly liked each other. And as always, Christie went home for the night.

After Christie left on the third night, my sister looked at me curiously. 'Christie didn't have to go home just because I'm here,' Amy said. 'We're all adults.'

'She never stays the night. I never stay the night at her place,' I shrugged. 'We don't sleep together. It's a long story.' Amy didn't have to say it. Her face told me she thought I was nuts.

Despite Christie's unwillingness to become intimate, I enjoyed her company immensely. But more than four years after her divorce, she was still fragile. I tried to initiate intimacy occasionally but was always told 'Not now' or 'I'm not ready.' I didn't push the matter because I knew it risked the end of our relationship. I didn't want to give up on her. At least not yet.

The invitation to spend two weeks with her on an isolated island was a surprise. And very much out of character. I was hopeful, but also a little uneasy about it.

It was past time to eat when we finished getting settled in. I was feeling much better now that I was on solid ground. Having skipped lunch, we were both hungry. After dinner, we sat together on a wicker couch on the porch and talked until we watched the last of the days' light fade. We went to bed just after dark. I was exhausted. We had left Boston early. And the trip out to the island exacted a toll.

The next morning, Christie showed me part of the island after breakfast. Much of the islands' coast was made up of jagged rocks and low bluffs. The terrain was rugged. The islands' high point was probably eighty feet above sea level. There were a couple of areas where the land gradually fell to the water. Christie told me these areas were mud flats, good clamming at low tide, good fishing at high tide.

There was a large pond fed by a spring just a stones' throw from the original house foundation, more or less in the center of the island. A small rivulet carried water east, down to the shore through a gap between two low bluffs. Christie said the pond was the water source for her ancestors. Now, it was a place to swim. The ocean was too cold, the tides too powerful, and the beaches too rocky. There was a field of tall grass a short walk from the old foundation. Christy said it was originally the garden for the house. A nearly rusted away plow testified to the food grown there for several generations.

The first few days were peaceful. Almost completely isolated from the outside world, it wasn't long before we were both relaxed. The island had no cell phone reception. There was a television but no satellite or antenna, only a selection of DVDs. There was no internet. There was a radio if we felt the need to hear the news or get the weather forecast. A rarely-used shortwave radio provided communication with the outside world in an emergency.

The weather was sunny and warm with a light breeze those first few days. Christie and I spent time exploring the island or sometimes reading in the library. We spent a day cutting up an ash tree that had fallen the previous winter for firewood. Tiny Christie handled a chain saw like a lumberjack. One day there was no wind. It was oppressively hot and humid. We kicked back and tried to stay cool that day.

The first hot day, we went swimming in the pond. I couldn't imagine the ocean being any colder, but Christie assured me it was. We went clamming, an exhausting task, especially considering how few we collected. We fished the mud flats around high tide, catching flounder, fluke, and scup. Christie taught me how to fish and how to clean the catch.

The morning of the fifth day began warm and humid with no wind. A bank of dark clouds could be seen above the mainland. We ate a leisurely breakfast then walked to a part of the island I hadn't been to. The wide trail led northeast, through a heavily wooded part of the island. Most of the trees I'd seen were pines. But a mix of ashes, maples, oaks, and a few paper birches lined the trail until we got closer to shore, where the pines dominated again.

At the end of the trail, there was a large flat ledge overlooking the water. We sat on a bench that had been fashioned out of a couple of logs. The bench was about twenty feet back from a cliff that fell off to the water about thirty feet below. I sat next to her. Uncharacteristically, she leaned against me. The view was directly east. There was nothing but water all the way to the horizon.

'I used to come sit here whenever I wanted to be alone,' she told me. She pointed a little to the north. 'My grandfather's fishing boat sank out that way in 1943. It was only about two miles from the island when it went down during a September squall. He and two members of the crew drowned but two others somehow managed to get to the island.'

Not knowing what else to say, I said, 'I'm sorry,' feeling a bit silly expressing sympathy for events that occurred long before either of us were born.

'My uncles were in England. My father was much younger than his brothers. He lived on the mainland during the school year. My great-grandmother lived here during the war. My grandmother stayed out here with her because she didn't want her mother to be alone. The rest of the family wanted them to move to the mainland until the men came home. But they stayed out here. They bought another boat and hired a crew to work it. They managed to get by.'

'Tough, resourceful women.' I said.

'You had to be to live out here year-round. It was during the war that this became known locally as Bessie's Island,' she told me.

'Why is that?' I asked.

'Bessie was my great-grandmother's name. Early one morning she was out for a walk when she heard voices down by the shore at one of the mud flats. No one else should have been on the island. She couldn't quite hear what they were saying. Her fishing crew was on the mainland and wasn't due back for a few days, not that they'd be at one of the mud flats. She went back to the house to get a shotgun and went to investigate. When she got closer, she realized they were speaking German.'

Christie continued, 'They were repairing an inflatable raft and had no idea anyone else was on the island. The way the story goes, when Bessie confronted them, they responded in perfect English. But she knew what she had heard. She kept the gun ready and asked what they were doing on her island. When they realized she wasn't buying their story, one of them reached inside his jacket. She shot him in the chest and pumped another round. The second guy had moved closer to her and tried to rush her. She blew his legs out from under him. Then she told him to think carefully about what might happen next if he reached inside his coat.'

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