Aimee looks back to how things were. Remembers a hot and dusty day at the park in which Joel felt quickly spent. She herself had skipped for joy; felt no lethargy. He said this was unsettling. But she had an energy in her legs and could not stop. She said it was an expression of happiness and she did not want to stop. Unsmilingly he wanted to know why she couldn’t just relax. He found it disquieting. Aimee was young. Joel was older. There was this vitality in her which he did not appreciate. This is the way it started. Their estrangement. He felt cut off. This was the beginning of a question mark on the page of them.
As she skipped round a corner she took a quick glance back at him. He was sweating. His face seemed bloated as a puffball; his eyes narrowed to slits. Altogether expressionless. When she ducked under a gate she’d lost sight of him, saw only leaves, strands of grass, the dash of a vole across scrub. In his absence she pictured him smiling. Though he was not. In reality he was not.
While she was under the gate, those few seconds, she thought of stories he'd told her about when he was married. How they'd gone for picnics at the beach. He and the first wife, Carrie, and the two babies they’d had so quickly. Aimee had worked the information into something like a movie. Putting in traditional coastal extras like gulls and ocean waves as backdrop. All appropriate to the setting. She saw him on the sand with this young wife. He was young then too. The wife liked to dance and once when they were on the beach she had done this gracefully by herself in the shallows. She had wanted him to dance, wanted the two of them to dance there together, the water tickling and linking their feet. But he would not, seeing himself as above all of that. And he resented the picnics on the beach. The sand that got into the sandwiches, the accoutrements of the family party, the wife who wanted to control him. In the stories he depicted Carrie as a molester, a potential robber of his treasured self. He swore he would not let such a thing happen. And he had not. He’d left the wife while the two kids were still tiny. He railed hotly because he saw; he said he saw, the weak folly of those who thought they could suck all the spunk out of him and leave him spent. And they, the wife and others, had not been able to. He said with pride that he would always be untouched by these needy users.
But Aimee calls to mind how just the once when he talked about the beach, his eyes had lit up. It was when he was telling her how to eat samphire. She had not tried samphire and he did not mind this. As he liked being the one in the know; the one to inform. Salty samphire.
He had stretched his arm down the side of a cliff. There the samphire grew, with the sea slooshing about further below. His eyes were glowing. When he said how he had leaned over the cliff and heard the waves and there the samphire had been and he had reached it with his hand while he clung to the cliff grass with his other hand, and he’d tugged at the plant until he had drawn it away from the sandy earth. Then he said how you had to cook the samphire for a few minutes only and to eat it you must suck the vivid green part from the stem. Suddenly, in his story, she had seen him differently. She had seen this one clear image of his heyday.
Then he’d gone on to say how the inedible part, the stiff samphire stem, was wiped clean by indifferent tongues. Tongues which were only after the flesh. The stem was discarded. Because it was not the essence even though the centre, supporting the edible part till that was sucked away. It was doing the best it was capable of. Was what it was. Finally it was discarded. And as he told her this she saw that already the shine in him had gone.
Later that park skipping day they were sitting in a bar. Aimee ordered a pastis and watched as the liquid turned to milky when she stirred in water from a square shaped jug. Joel swallowed down copious amounts of wine. Which had brought his smile back. Eventually.
Later, a long while later, when they were both married to other people and she hadn’t seen him for years she heard he’d had diabetes and lost both his legs. And she thought that it wouldn’t have hurt him to dance at the edge of the sea that time. He might as well have done it, while he’d still had the chance.