A Separate Life


I met her on the beach late in the summer, a stranger who would lead the way to my separate life. From the shade of a rented umbrella, I had watched her walk the pathway along the higher dunes. She paused at the top of the steps to survey the glare of sun and water, shading her sunglasses with her hand. Even from that distance she cut a distinctive figure, lean and smart and self-composed. I didn’t even think race at first, just lean and smart. And that she’d come to the beach alone, like me.

In a few moments she looked in my direction and held her gaze, then started down the stairs. The timing left me with an odd feeling that she had caught me watching her and had something to say about it. A spurious thought, instantly dismissed.

I went back to my vacation reading, another page of legal briefs pertaining to a case that only days before had been reassigned to me for salvage. Vacations are for relaxing by getting ahead. It’s essential at this stage of my career that I anchor my reputation as the firm’s premier troubleshooter, rescuer of cases gone awry.

When I glanced up, the woman had already reached the bottom of the stairs and was walking toward me. Does she wants to share the umbrella?

Just about my size and shape. A lovely caramel complexion. Kicked very little sand as she walked.

I put the brief aside. We said, “Hello,” simultaneously.

“I thought it was you,” she said.

I had to shade my eyes to see her.

“Have we met?”

“We’re neighbors for the week. I saw you pull up this morning.”

“Oh — “

“Mind if I join you?”

“Please,” I said, reaching up to shake her hand. “Liz Elder,” I told her, “Beth, when I’m away from things.”

Her grip was as firm as my own. “Friends call me Cyd,” she said.

I shifted my things to make room. She kicked off her sandals and spread her blanket.

“I noticed you at the top of the dunes, Cyd.”

“I noticed you noticed.”

“You have a sharp eye,” I said.

“I’m the only black woman for half a mile up and down this beach, and I do have a sharp eye.

She propped herself on her elbows and stretched her long legs, as relaxed as a cat. She lifted her face to catch a momentary breeze, then looked down at my reading and then pointedly up at me.

“Where’s your husband?” she asked.

“The place we rent’s got a theater-size HD in the master bedroom. He’s watching a game,” I said. “I should sue the realtor.”

She studied me for a moment, which gave me a chance to study her. She had an overbite. And the strong legs and lean top of a runner. Even her feet were well kept, pedicured, long and slender.

I asked her if she ran to keep in shape.

“I train in multiple ways,” she said. “You’re an attorney?”

“Corporate trust … You?”


“Oh, physical, spiritual or emotional?”

“I don’t believe we can separate the three.”

“Holistic,” I said.

“Most definitely holistic. You haven’t asked me about my husband.”

“HD plus?”

“Oh, worse than that. One of those surrounding light and sound things. Brings all the unreality closer to home.”

“It’s gotten as poisonous as air travel.”

“We are sports widows … on this beautiful beach.” She glanced at the brief. “Only you’re workin’.”

I shrugged. “No pain, no gain.”

She put her hand up, shading her eyes again, as if to look at me more keenly.

“Need that little pain?” she said. “Makes it real for you?”

The question threw me. Her tone invited a frank response. ‘Need that little pain?’ Only for my work and physical training, things like that, only to keep the edge.

“If there’s gain,” I said.

“Physical, spiritual, or emotional?”

“I don’t believe we can separate the three.”

Cyd laughed, stretched a leg and tapped me on the side of my leg with her foot. “Oh, holistic pain, I like that. Verrry good.”

Normally I wouldn’t tolerate the touch of a stranger. Cyd’s tap was girlish, intimate and friendly. Her touch thrilled me. We were instant friends.

We talked, read, even napped, until the sun traveled behind the houses on the far side of the dunes and the sand turned cool. As we climbed the steps and followed the boardwalk back to the residential street, we made plans to have lunch the following day. We crossed the paved road and walked to the asphalt circle rimmed by five rentals, all oversized and set on massive pylons, transparently new but finished to look weather-seasoned. Cyd and her husband were renting the one facing ours. We touched hands goodbye.

I rinsed off in the shower under the house. Under the warm spray, I daydreamed without warning of Cyd. She was striding toward me on the beach as she had earlier, kicking puffs of sand. She was topless, wearing a strip of animal skin around her hips and carrying a fishing net draped over her arm. Topless … but her nipples were iron cones, weapons. She stood over me, framed in the glare of the sun. When I put my reading aside, she pressed the sole of her foot to my chest and bursa yabancı escort pushed me recumbent on the sand. Then, standing astride my shoulders and looking down with cold amusement, she dropped the net over my view.

I jumped out of the daydream with a shock and sat on the bench, unnerved and nearly dizzy, with an urge to masturbate. Her stride … her stance above me and the mean twist in her smile … the heat in the sole of her foot on my chest … the iron nipples … I felt the pull of arousal, as painful as a cramp.

The shower water ran cold before I regained enough composure to leave the stall.

I climbed the outdoor stairs, my nerves still jumpy. Before going into the house, I took a moment to look for Cyd across the way and had to shield my eyes from the glare of burnished gold, all of her windows reflecting the blaze of sundown.

We met for a late lunch the next day at a little cafe with outdoor seating on the boardwalk. It was unusually early for drinks, but I ordered a gin and tonic along with Cyd, wanting to feel loose and expansive. We sat down hungry and talked easily — careers, husbands again, ambitions, satisfactions and fears for the state of the world.

Our food was numbingly slow in coming, although more than half the tables were empty. When I made mention of this to the waitress — a passing mention, nothing offensive — she answered to the effect that it wasn’t her fault so I should take it or leave it. Then, walking away, she said, “Have another drink, already,” like an exasperated teenager. She pretended not to hear when I called her back.

“The little shit,” I said to Cyd.

“She doesn’t like us. Can you imagine why?”

For the moment I couldn’t. I was suddenly distracted by an unnerving tingle. Twice before as we were talking, Cyd had stretched her legs under the table and rested them against me, obliviously, letting the contact linger. This time she rested her feet atop my insteps, having shed her sandals. I believed she thought she was resting her arches on the table stand.

I finally flexed my feet enough to alert her. Cyd’s expression changed and she glanced under the cloth toward the floor. She shifted her feet and then looked at me as if I had done something silly.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Our food arrived and interrupted the moment. The waitress served in haste, all but dropping our plates in front of us.

“Anything else?”

She seemed desperate to get away.

Cyd took the waitress’s hand in a friendly grip, but kept hold when she tried to pull free.

“Excuse me?” the waitress said.

“I will excuse you, darling, the moment you offer an apology.”

“Apology for what? Let go!”

“For your rudeness, your evident irritation with us, although we’ve been quite undemanding of you. What don’t you like about us?”

The waitress looked around uneasily.

“Please,” she said.

“Tell me, what is it?”

“Nothing, no. I — “

“Are you afraid we’re lesbians?”

The waitress’ eyes flickered with panic. Cyd kept her grip a moment more and then released her. The waitress held up both hands and backed off.

“This is too weird,” she said, eyes averted. “All right, I’m sorry. It’s been a really bad day, okay?”

“We all have bad days, honey, but the civilized among us don’t take it out on paying customers.”

The girl looked as if she was about to cry. “I said I’m sorry.”

“Why are you afraid?”

The girl couldn’t answer.

Finally Cyd told her, “Those who don’t worship something, aren’t human.” She turned to me. “That satisfy you, Beth?”

“What a statement.”

Cyd turned to the waitress and said, “You’ll be happier when you finally come out.”

The girl’s jaw dropped and she fled, hands flapping, a frantic bird set free. Cyd smiled privately.

“That was wonderfully done,” I said.

She dabbed her fork in her salad, glanced up at me, stuck the tip of her tongue between her teeth with a girlish shrug, and tapped her bare foot against me. We dug in, flush with victory and famished.

At Cyd’s suggestion we took a short ride before returning home. (I had parked in the shade across the street. She had had her husband drop her off earlier.) It seemed a perfect way to extend the afternoon. We hadn’t gone half a mile before she pointed out a quiet miniature golf course and had me pull into the lot.

“We got time for nine,” she said, jumping out. “It’s all grass.”

Why not? I was a competent golfer as an undergrad. We went inside the sport hut and Cyd paid the fees.

After the warm-up green we moved to the first tee. The little course was surprisingly well laid out and maintained.

“Stakes?” Cyd offered.

“Dinner,” I said.

“No, something more daring.”

“A money wager?”

“Something personal. Something you can’t write a check for.”

“I’m open,” I said.

Cyd took her first putt and placed the ball for an easy par.

“Let’s name the stake after the match,” bursa sınırsız escort she said.

“How competitive should I be?”

“You better do your absolute best.”

We were unevenly matched. I bogeyed 2, 3, and 4, then made par until 7. Twice, just before the second and forth bogey, Cyd slid her foot from the sandal and languidly flexed and pointed, brushing her toes over the grass, making a little show. My concentration slipped altogether when she started talking trash, little things that made us both giggle. Cyd birdied 6 through 9 and was candidly pleased to win.

“That was humbling,” I said, as we returned the clubs. “You cheated and didn’t even have to.”

“Trash talk is not cheating.”

We were back in the car and on the road when Cyd said, “You didn’t want to win.”

My guard went up. “I wasn’t focused,” I said.

“What distracted you?”

“Nothing,” I said, “no, I, it’s … “

“I think it’s interesting that you didn’t know the stake and still didn’t want to win.”

“What have I lost?”

“You haven’t lost,” Cyd said, “I’ve won.”

She must have seen my face go flush. “What have you won?” I said.

“A personal service.”

“A favor?”

“A foot massage. I want you to massage my aching size 9s.”

“While, while we’re driving?” The words sounded tight in my throat.

“As soon as we park. Turn left up ahead,” she said.

I drove in a daze. Her directions took us to an isolated lot, going to seed, incongruously located with only woods and unmowed fields nearby. A wide shade tree grew near the center and we parked under its branches. No one was likely to disturb us.

“What now, Cyd?”

She slipped off one of her sandals and wiped a bare sole with her palm. My tummy gave a little lurch.

“You haven’t told me much about your husband,” she said.

“Rick? Yes, I have.”

“Not near the full truth.”

She ran a finger between each toe, primping.

“Maybe I just don’t have a whole lot of good to say about him right now.”

“Do you get along?”

“Well enough, usually.”

Cyd flicked off her other sandal, then sat in a half-lotus as she turned to face me.

“Beth,” she sighed, “you are so, fucked-up unhappy. Please tell me you don’t really lie to yourself like that.”

“I don’t lie to myself.”

“Tell me, look at me and tell me. Do you truly know who you are?”

“Professionally, I sure as hell do.”

“Yes, but as a married woman?”

I spoke honestly then. Rick was not all that imaginative a lover and I had long grown bored. Sex for him had become a regular and straightforward practice, more of a habit than an act of love.

“Elaborate, Beth.”

It had become routine, I told her, a predictable progression from one familiar act (Rick, out-of-the-blue, copping a feel) to the next (he likes me to jack him up), on to coitus — him on top, all urgency, in as fast and as deep as he can — a ten minute march from the copped feel to orgasm (his) and sleep (ours).

“Why do you let him get away with it?”

“I feel worn down to it.”

She asked what I wanted.

“A little variation,” I told her, “a little spice, who knows, a little role play now and then, maybe. I don’t know, maybe even a little kink.”

“What kind of role-play, what kind of kink?”

“I don’t really know, Cyd.”

“Do you know why that waitress was so thrown by us, Beth? I think by now you’ve got an idea.”

“As you said, she thought we were lovers.”

“She’s terrified of coming out herself, but she can’t help it. It’s happening to her, like a molt. She put herself exactly where she wanted to be, on the brink of a public humiliation with even her job at stake. And yet she won’t take the real step.”

Cyd unfolded her legs and extended a foot, resting it in my lap. She flexed her toes to urge me to start the massage. First contact in my hands brought a zero-gravity giddiness — that weightless lift when a roller coaster plunges. My thumbs pressed along her arch, a forward-gliding pressure, the pale sole soft, papery smooth and pliable. As discretely as possible, I inhaled a scent like cinnamon and smoke.

“You’re good,” she said, watching me. “Mmmm, oh yeah … you’ve got the touch. Girlfriend, you should think on your kink.”

She settled back against the door with her eyes closed and sighed with relaxation as I chastely massaged first one long, slender foot, then the other.

After we parted, I searched the house for Rick and found him on the roof deck, moaning as I called. He had fallen asleep on his stomach and burned a good portion of his back to a saturated red. My hand, pressed gently to his shoulder, left a momentary shape of white. His skin felt hot to the touch.

“Hurts,” he muttered. “Time’s it?”

“Twilight. The sky’s very pretty.”

The breeze turned chilly the moment the sun set. Rick started to shiver and his face suddenly took on a droopy look of sickness. I walked him down to the living room and from görükle escort there to our bedroom with the unreality screen. He moved like an old man in pain as he crawled onto the bed, one limb at a time. I spread aloe on his broiled skin and brought water, a cooling compress and an antihistamine to the bedside. He complained of nausea and his skin was still feverishly hot.

“You’re poisoned,” I said, “you’re sun sick.”

I set a plastic bucket by the bed, in case he had to vomit, and a towel on the bed stand so he could wipe his mouth afterward.

He asked for the remote. I flung it onto the bed and went to the kitchen.

Resentment set in all at once. The son of a bitch. This was exactly why I had started to disdain him, this streak of adolescent stupidity. I sat at the table with a salad and a glass of cold Chardonnay, feeling as horny as hell for the first time in months and facing a dull night alone. The visceral thrill of massaging Cyd was still with me. My hands still tingled with the feel of her soles.

Half an hour later, I opened my company laptop, thinking I could end my distraction by forcing myself to work. I meant to draft an outline of recommendations as to how to restructure my salvage case. A private babble poured out instead.

These two week excursions to the beach offer my only opportunity of the year to relax my professional demeanor. For the remaining fifty, my sense of eroticism remains on guard and controlled, with fantasy lying dormant and locked away. I feel that I simply can’t afford to indulge any illicit impulse that could lead to vulnerability in my position in the firm. Had I met Cyd at any other time, under any other set of conditions, a reverie of the kind that I had yesterday afternoon in the shower would never have occurred.

I would not have massaged her feet and the thought of her would not have become this pull, this physical need. Here, for a precious few days, I can allow myself to pretend that I might lead another kind of life, a separate life, protected from home and the firm. Right now, with Rick groaning in front of his trance screen (miserable with his imbecile sunburn) I feel removed enough from the real world to allow my imagination free rein — and on its own it runs to a perverse heat. At such times as now, I privately acknowledge a certain bisexual curiosity. I also indulge in a shameful proclivity to look at attractive female feet. At my worst, I foster the hope of some secret assignation that would allow me to fulfill all the nasty thoughts that I could never let see the light of a natural day. Slut nasty thoughts. Lesbian submissive thoughts of falling under the control of another woman, of being rendered helpless and of being spanked and fingered by her until I am made to come. She then punishes me for coming — a ruse to make me come again.

I read it back, felt horror, and erased it entirely, saving the file empty and then trashing it. I decided to try to read.

By 10 PM or so I felt ready to give up and turn in. I went to check on Rick, but heard a muffled laugh track beyond the door. It seemed the most pathetic sound in the world and I turned around, dismayed, without knocking.

The clock in the kitchen ticked noisily against the rhythm of the surf. I pulled a bed sheet, a blanket and a spare pillow from the linen closet to set myself up on the living room couch. The other bedrooms seemed too depressing. Drawing the drapes so the morning sun wouldn’t blind me, I looked across the court and saw Cyd on the driveway with her husband. He carried a duffel bag and the car was idling with the driver door open. They were arguing.

He tossed the duffel bag into the passenger seat, climbed behind the wheel and backed sharply out of the drive. Cyd followed him into the court and watched until the taillights turned the corner.

I slid the door open, stepped out on the narrow balcony and called her name. She whirled around, looking up.

“Can you believe it?” she said. “A client called. He’s gone overnight.”

“Come up,” I said.

We met on the landing outside the front door. I told her Rick was useless for the evening, and invited her to share the wine and maybe watch a movie. If we wanted, we could fire up the jacuzzi.

“Mine’s already bubbling,” she said.

I grabbed the Chardonnay and skipped down the stairs to where Cyd waited in the clear moonlight. She took the wine and put her arm around my shoulder as we crossed the court. I slid my freed hand to her waist, ready to hold on. She bumped me at the hip and broke away.

In the foyer she slipped her sandals off, and indicated I should do the same, before leading me upstairs. The house was lit by candles and the brightness of the moon, warm and enfolding, smoky with earth tones and incense. From the shadows came soft music — ethnic drums that underscored the roll of the surf. I watched her calves, her bare ankles and heels on the stairs … her firm behind … then the momentary brightness of her eyes and the flash of her overbite as we stood eye to eye at the top. I looked around.

“Beautiful,” I said. “Where’s the jacuzzi?”

“I lied to get you over here.”

“You know you didn’t have to.”

“We have a fire … backgammon … the big screen of course, movies, if you like. I don’t know what Alvie brought along but some of it you don’t want to see.”

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