tagMatureThe Finite Beating Heart

The Finite Beating Heart


I am at the wheel of my rusted, two-decades old Chevy pickup. We have pulled off the road since we're in sort of a rain white-out, a blinding storm with whipping winds that are beginning to rock the truck itself.

I shouldn't be surprised. Storms like this, coming in from the Atlantic, are not infrequent on Hatteras, part of the Outer Banks island chain along the North Carolina coast.

It is just after Labor Day. Summer tourists have departed and fall fishing has yet to begin. Which means the two-lane road running the length of the island is pretty much deserted -- except for us.

Me and Mrs. Anna Ainsworth. We've pulled into a parking lot. She's sitting on the passenger side by the door. I turn off the wipers and cut the engine. The rain is so hard we can no longer see out the windshield -- our world reduced to the door-to-door bench seat we are sitting on in the cab.

The otherwise deserted little parking lot -- only about 10 spaces -- is one of several up and down the island, meant for beachgoers. You park, take a wooden walkway up and over a sand ridge filled with waist-high sea oats, then you're in front of an endless beach -- and the deep blue sea.

And nothing nearby. No houses, stores, no civilization at all for another few miles ahead of and behind us. Mostly just sand and the road. We are alone. And we will have to wait it out in the truck.

"I'm sorry I dragged you out here, Benjamin," she says. "How long do these storms last?"

Not to worry, I tell her. We may see blue sky in 30 minutes. Though sometimes storms hover all afternoon and late into the night. I'm not going to bring that up.

That I'm frustrated is an understatement. If I'm going to be stranded, couldn't it be with a 19-year-old with flimsy shorts and eye-catching breasts? Maybe platinum blonde hair? I'm 18 and would relish that kind of company. Actually, just about any girl my age would do. I'm pretty desperate. Luck has not come my way much with dating.

And I'm having no luck this day, either. Mrs. Ainsworth has to be in her early 50s, though she in no way resembles my plumpish mother. Tall and slender, loose khaki shorts, black t-shirt and an old, worn baseball cap. Her hair, not quite shoulder-length, is an unusually bright gray that glistens in the sunlight. It is heavily wind-blown from our traipsing around. Quite striking, actually. Surprising to see that in a woman as old as her.

"So, I guess we just wait? Is that it?" she asks. She opens the glove box in front of her, just exploring. Finds a deck of cards. Pulls it out.

"Well, we could play a game. You up for strip poker?" she asks with an innocent smile.

I'm startled by that. She's middle-aged for God's sake. And I've known her for only two days.

"I guess not," she says, putting the cards back, looking away now and out the side door window at the rain.

"I can understand, Benjamin. Especially after seeing me naked this morning," she says, looking back at me.

Thankfully, she's still smiling, though this time not so innocently.

I was hoping we'd never have to have this conversation. She had not mentioned it all day. But here we were. So I begin my apologies.

"I'm sorry about this morning, Mrs. Ainsworth. I'm not perverted. I'm no peeping tom. It was an accident. I know I should have turned around and walked away."

"But you didn't."

She was right about that. I didn't.

* * *

Of course, you need to know the back story. My folks own a four-unit apartment building on Hatteras, fronting the beach. Simple, two-bedroom apartments for vacationers, each with a deck overlooking the ocean. Two upstairs units, two down. Nothing fancy. Now that the season is over, I've come down from college for a three-day weekend. I'm staying in one of the upstairs apartments to do some painting on the building. Mrs. Ainsworth showed up two days ago, renting the other upstairs unit. No one else is here. Just us.

She spent the first day driving herself around the island. When she pulled her car back into the apartments' driveway, I was cooking freshly caught flounder and deep-frying hush puppies. We chatted. I invited her to eat. She helped with the cooking. We drank cold beer on a warm night. Talked.

This morning, sunrise and low tide were both just before 7 a.m. For some reason, I woke up, couldn't go back to sleep. Grabbed my shorts, a cup of coffee and headed barefoot out on the wooden deck. No one was on the beach. Mrs. Ainsworth wasn't up either.

So I'm trying to explain this now to her, but I know she thinks the worst of me.

"You see, I just walked over to the railing to look over at your front door to see if you were up," I say. "The door and window were open. I had no idea you were sleeping on the sofa in the living room."

"It's okay, Benjamin," she says, a little gloom now on her face. "I'm quite sure young guys don't get their kinks looking at someone naked who's as old as their mother. Age spots aren't exactly erotic."

"I didn't see any age spots," I say, trying to repair the damage.

"That's because you saw my good side," she says, giving me a quiet laugh, but now a little forced. She's being polite, trying to make light of me having seen her nude. It makes me like her. She's letting me keep some dignity.

She had been lying face down on the sofa. Early morning sunlight filtering through the window and screen door. Her back was long and smooth, freckles across her shoulders, her back bone very pronounced all the way down. Slight rib indentions. Middle-aged or not, I have to admit my blood rose when my eyes moved down to her buttocks. No bubble butt like young girls on campus. Hers was slightly longish with a perfectly sculpted curve. The cleavage between them dark, forbidden. Her legs, crossed at her ankles, were long, slender, graceful.

I could see her hips moving slowly up and down, ever so slightly, lifting only an inch or so off the sofa, in a rhythm. Her right arm was down by her side, her hand up under her, right at her sex. She was masturbating.

"Anyway, I'm sorry," I say as we are sitting two feet apart in the truck. "I embarrassed you and myself. I wish it had never happened."

"Oh, so I wasn't even worth looking at?" Mrs. Ainsworth asks, teasingly.

"Now you're toying with me," I say, feeling my face turn warm. I'm guessing it's also bright red.

I wondered if she was also toying with me this morning when I saw her naked. After I had looked at her a few seconds, her eyes opened. She turned her head back slightly and saw me. Said nothing. Did nothing. No expression. Made no attempt to cover herself, even as I finally backed away, retreating to my apartment.

"You're right. I am teasing you, Benjamin. I'll quit," she says.

Of course, the question I want to pose is why she was lying naked in the living room with the windows and door open, especially if she was doing herself. I opted not to pursue it. Nor did I ask why she didn't try to cover up.

* * *

The rain is still pounding us hard, though the wind has died down. No more swaying the truck. Still, we can see less than 10 feet in front of us. Can barely make out the highway.

"Since we have all this time, tell me something about yourself," she says. "Are you dating anyone?"

I tell her no.

"OK, tell me about the last girl you dated."

So I bring up Ramona Babcock. "What did she look like? Come on. Out with it," says Mrs. Ainsworth.

"Well, long black hair. Blue eyes. A little shorter than me. More popular than me. It was my first semester at college. We didn't date very long, a few months. Not much else to say."

"And what attracted you to her?"

"Her looks. And we both liked movies, seeing them, talking about them."

"How did it end?"

I laugh, a sarcastic laugh.

"We were at this fraternity party off campus. Big house, big crowd. She goes off with a girlfriend. I head upstairs with a guy I know to see some friends. I come back down a half hour later and she's sitting on a couch, one guy on each side of her. They both have their hands up her skirt, all the way up. She sees me and just winks. Like it's all good fun."

"What did you do?"

"I stood by and watched. Got sick to my stomach. She got mad later, said I was a wallflower. She called me a boring little mouse."

"The 'mouse' part hurt," I tell Mrs. Ainsworth. "That pretty much ended it."

"Believe me, Benjamin. You're not boring at all. I've had a lot of fun today. Actually, one of the best days for me in a long while," she says.

It has been fun. You see, Mrs. Ainsworth is an amateur photographer. She drove down to Hatteras, by herself, to spend a few days capturing the wildlife and lifestyle of the island. I agreed to drive her around, show her the best places. That was last night while we were eating, before I saw her bare-assed. But I couldn't back out.

So this morning we took my rusty Chevy -- all trucks on the Outer Banks eventually rust out from the salt air -- and headed to what's called the Pea Island refuge. She trained her lens on the heron, Snowy Egrets and red throated loons, but as much as anything, was awed by the solitude and beauty of the place.

Afterward, we drove to isolated beaches, tromped around, photographing sand crabs at our feet and terns hovering in mid-air. I carried her gear, following along while she took photos. Even in those baggy shorts, I couldn't help but again notice her long legs. When she kneeled down to examine a colorful shell, I noticed the smoothness of her calves, the curve of her hip. Though fair-skinned, her legs had an ivory look, rather than a pastiness about them.

The morning sun was out in force, the sky a brilliant blue, the ocean pure turquoise, the wide beaches smooth as glass from the receding tide. A few pelicans were nose-diving into the waves, zeroing in on a late breakfast. A flock of 50 or so gray and white gulls strolled slowly, lazily down the beach on pencil-thin legs, as if they owned the place. Actually, they kinda do.

She was thrilled when we later stopped at an old bait shop, something out of the 1940s. Good photos there. If only for the old, weathered men who hang out, literally, around a pot-bellied stove. All of that, followed by long-lens views of the huge Hatteras Lighthouse in the distance and ferries churning back and forth farther south to Ocracoke, the southernmost island, the only one without a bridge to it.

That was just before the storm hit. Just before I pulled over into the parking area.

* * *

"Hey," I tell her. "I just remembered something." I reach into the narrow space behind my seat and pull out an unopened bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. It's a cheap bottle, grocery store variety. But at least it's red wine. I had bought it last week and left it in the truck. Forgot about it.

"Hot damn, Benjamin. It's a party," she says. She is mocking me with phony excitement. But at least she's smiling as she does.

"It's the little things in life, Mrs. Ainsworth," I tell her as a comeback. She likes that.

I decide I like her personality. Quiet but aggressive. Confident. Funny and nice. Not wanting to embarrass me.

"So just one thing. How do we open it?" she asks. I reach into my pocket. "All good islanders have a pocket knife handy." I whittle the cork out, pass the bottle between us.

"Is this too crass for you?" I ask, since we're both swigging the bottle.

"No. I would never pass up a chance to drink wine in the rain," she says. "I've always thought it romantic." We laugh at that, considering our circumstances.

We sit quietly, watching the storm all around us. She cranks down her door window just an inch. "I just want to smell the rain," she says.

It doesn't take long for the wine's buzz to hit me. Makes me more brazen than I am normally. I break the silence.

"Anyway," I tell her, "It wasn't much of a relationship with Ramona Babcock. Certainly nothing to brag about."

I know the buzz has gotten to her, too, because she asks: "Did you sleep with her?" Her voice more serious now. No laughter.

"Yeah, for awhile," I say. "It was pretty hot, that is until the night of that party."

"I shouldn't have asked, Benjamin. It is none of my business. It just started me thinking about my own life. I didn't sleep with a guy until I was 19, and that was with my husband. My boyfriend then, but we eventually married."

"Well, there's nothing wrong with waiting," I say. "I'll bet you two made up for all your lost years. I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to have a permanent girlfriend, or wife, all the time. Just roll over in bed and she's there."

"It is fabulous," she says. "To be so in love -- or at least in lust -- that you're unable to keep your hands off each other. We screwed like bunny rabbits."

"So, your husband was your first?" I ask.

"I suppose," she said. "But it depends on what you mean by 'first.' I made do before him. One of my girlfriends in high school, her name was Claire, would invite me to her home after school. We'd lock ourselves in her bedroom, tell her mom we were doing homework. But really, we would kiss and make out. It was practice for when we had real boyfriends. Then we both went to the same college. We'd sleep together in my dorm room on weekends and explore a little more."

"Sounds like sex to me, Mrs. Ainsworth."

"I guess you're right. Did I just admit that my first sexual experience was lesbian? Isn't that funny. But we didn't think of it that way. And we never, ever talked about it with anyone. I can't believe I just told you that Benjamin. I've never told anyone, not even my husband. We just did it and pretended it didn't happen."

"You know," she said. "There's a poet, Marie Howe, who once wrote a piece called "Practicing," about the same thing. Girls trying out sex with each other before they start dating. It's beautiful. It spoke to me. Told me that maybe I'm not so sick in the head."

* * *

We drink more wine, pass the bottle back and forth. She watches the rain. I begin watching her.

She takes off her baseball cap, I notice her hair, now even more windblown, seems wild. It really captures my attention. There are vivid streaks of dark grays, dark blacks, whites, even silver. Her hair looks rich, it practically glows. So different from the drab, gray-haired women who come to my mother's book club. Makes me think she's offbeat, a loner. I could be wrong. I like loners, probably because I am one. And her hair continues to fascinate me. As wild as it is, I see a certain seductiveness there. Which, I think, is so odd for a woman her age.

And now I'm drawn to her face. Narrow, high cheekbones, large eyes set apart, long neck, patrician nose. Why had I not seen those features in her earlier? She could have been a runway model in years past. Her breasts, under that black t-shirt, seem small. But they're very noticeable, weighty. They fit her slender frame. She has a fairly small waist but from there her hips have a nice, gentle flowing out.

And then I realize -- I'm checking her out. It's the first time I've paid attention to a woman over 30. Even worse. I have a full-blown erection in my shorts. Over Mrs. Ainsworth.

She picks up her camera. Leans back against the door on the passenger side and shoots several photos of me at the wheel in my white t-shirt and shorts. She props her feet up on the seat, facing me. Pulls her knees up. Trains the camera on me for more shots. I glance down and see halfway up the legs of her loose khaki shorts. I see the underside of her thighs. And I'm wondering if she's aware that I can. No attempt to cover up. She takes several pictures of me.

She drops her right leg down on the floorboard, keeps her left leg propped up on the seat. That causes the legs of her shorts to shift to the side a little. Now, I see even farther up her leg on the seat. A flash of white panties. She sees me look. I know she does. She must have. But she keeps shooting photos. Then lifts her butt up just slightly and moves it sideways about an inch. Maybe she's uncomfortable. But the shorts themselves remain where they are, stuck to the seat by sweat, I guess, which means an even greater view of her panties. I see dark pubic hair beneath the fabric, just a little of it.

Her panties are damp, maybe also from sweat, and that forms an indentation at her slit, which I can see quite clearly now. Even see a little puffiness on the edge of the slit. My God. They're the lips to her vagina. I lift my eyes up to her. She has moved the camera away from her face and is just holding it, looking at me. No smile. Just studying me. She knows I'm looking between her legs. There's no doubt now. Is she exposing herself on purpose? Does she want me to see? She's not calling me out. My erection is already aching. And now I'm the one sweating.

"With that white t-shirt, that tan and all that hair, Benjamin, you remind me of James Dean," she says with no mention at all of what I'm doing.

She grows quiet. I believe she still is trying to figure me out. I grow quiet too, trying to figure out why I'm liking her so much now. Trying to come to terms with the realization that she arouses me. I've never felt this way about girls my own age. It's not just the hot desire. It's something else. A weakness in my stomach, from sensations that this is so decadent, so taboo. Something terribly naughty.

To my surprise, she scoots over beside me, puts her left arm around my shoulder, holds the camera at length with her other arm and takes a few snapshots of the two of us against the backdrop of the now fogged-up windows. Our faces are close together.

"These are going to be great pictures, I can tell already," she says, putting her hand on my right thigh as she talks. "You are so photogenic," she says. She squeezes my leg a little, a sign of affection. We are becoming friends. She slides her hand up my thigh an inch or so, squeezes again. This time the finger tips are ever so slightly against my erection, throbbing from the underside of my shorts. She realizes it, pulls her hand away. All of this takes place in less than 10 seconds. Still, there is no way she can not have known that she was touching me. She scoots over to her side of the truck.

She doesn't look at me. Stares out the window. Have I totally alienated her?

Then her first words. "Such a fun day, isn't it. I wish we could have a dozen more like this." She speaks quietly. Hard to hear with all the rain, which now is picking up, getting hard again.

"Let's face it, we're just fun together," I say. It's my first attempt at flirtation. I think it falls flat. Instead, she smiles, and for a second or two nudges my hip with her foot that is still up on the seat. Tacitly agreeing with me.

Then, just as suddenly, she grows serious. Looks out at the torrent of rain. The smile gone. She's quiet, in her own thoughts. It's perplexing to me.

* * *

I decide to come clean.

"I lied to you, Mrs. Ainsworth." I give an audible sigh. "I never slept with Ramona Babcock. It never got that far. She let the two guys feel her up, but she wouldn't let me, her date, touch her."

"The truth is I've never slept with anyone. I'm probably the only 18 year old on the planet that hasn't had sex."

"You and me, Benjamin, we are quite a pair," Mrs. Ainsworth says.

"What do you mean?"

"You lied. And I've lied," she said slowly. "The only hot sex I've ever had was with my imagination. And maybe with my high school girlfriend. With my husband, it's always been laborious, absolutely unfulfilling. I dread when it happens."

"We both have our secrets, don't we, Benjamin."

We each give the other a weak smile. Long silence. I can see her eyes are watery. Then this:

"I don't know what I want to do with the rest of my life, Benjamin. A part of me just wants to run away."

It catches me by surprise. I know nothing of her life, other than she's been married 30 years, has two grown daughters, is an accountant. She told me that last night.

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