They met underwater, snorkelling. They were watching a grey-brown nurse shark resting on the ocean floor. They had spotted him from above and decided independently to dive down to get a closer look. He was not flamboyant, did not have interesting colours. Yet, here they were, like kids in a candy store, with that peculiar excitement that comes from seeing something alien and beautiful. The rest of the group had moved on, after a selfie or two. It was relaxing to watch him munch on a coral reef, sometimes catching a fish or a shellfish. The strong jaws crunched rock-hard shells. The pair did not stay long, could not breathe under water. When they surfaced again, eyes gleaming, they looked at each other curiously.
After the activity, the group was herded back to shore and given choices for the rest of the day. They did not exchange anything more than that glance as they were shedding their equipment. He was not so much tanned as weathered. She was bleached by the sun and the wind. They both wore wedding bands but had come alone to the activity. They met again a few days later, early afternoon, each by themselves again, wearing their wedding bands. She was watching a beached jellyfish with sorrowful eyes. He spoke like the rough seas, his words cresting white on the fringes. “Those things sting,” he said uneasily. She replied, abruptly, “They’re not things.” His shadow fell on the jellyfish. “Dead or alive, they still sting,” he said in a gravelly voice. She did not answer. He started walking away. She followed in his footsteps. He was taller than her, his stride longer. He shortened it so she would not need to hurry so much. He could hear her panting. He stopped. “Maybe you could walk in my shadow? The sun is harsh.”
She moved to his side and looked at him. She was using his shadow to shield her eyes and get a better look at him. His face was craggy, distinctive. He wasn’t young, either. She offered, “My girlfriends told me to wear a wedding band so I wouldn’t get hounded at the bar.” He smiled. “And, did it work?” She smiled back, “I don’t hang out at the bar.” They had been walking in an easy silence, trying to adapt their differing strides, passing seashells without giving them a look. They weren’t good at small talk, decided not to try, were grateful for the quiet company. They parted after over an hour, sated.
The next day, she joined him as he was watching the sun rise on the sea. It wasn’t that early, she couldn’t sleep and had decided to go for a walk on the beach. He had found a spot and was watching expectantly. She stayed a few steps back. He motioned her closer. He was wearing a plain white cotton shirt and khaki shorts, holding his sandals in his hand. She was dressed the same but her white blouse covered a blue bikini top. She looked at his wedding ring finger which was bare and tanned. She raised an eyebrow. The sun was rising, an event that filled her with joy every day. She exhaled, suddenly realizing she had been holding her breath. They let the beauty of the moment fill the space between them, the morning light bathing their surroundings. She took off her clothes and went swimming. He followed.
It took some doing after the vacation. They exchanged emails, spoke at length on the phone. It was funny that they had spoken so little when together, and so much while apart. They enjoyed those leisurely conversations. They shared the minutia of their lives, they made each other laugh and cry. It was frustrating, all this technology between them when they longed to be together. He lived near the water, she in the city. He spoke of the sea like you would a mistress. He abhorred labels, did not consider himself a surfer but rather someone who enjoyed surfing. The sea brought him much joy, in all her moods, though he knew enough to ride her only when safe. He had an app on his phone that indicated where sharks were hanging out. He was still intrigued by them, kept a respectable distance from them.
She had a sister that needed looking after, with whom she shared a condo. He was as free as a bird, having little contact with his brother, and being estranged from his parents. Over time, he had dealt with the important relationships in his life and made up his mind about the time he was going to spend on them. He wanted to be with Stella, that much he was sure of. Uprooting himself to a faraway city, that he was not prepared to do. Luckily, Stella was as eager to be with him as he was to be with her. She came for a short visit, a long week-end to which she tacked a few more days. He introduced him to his surroundings, and to a lone friend. They met him at the pier, Diego a carbon copy of Charles, except darker. Charles had a catamaran and moored her there. His lodgings were sparse, Spartan even, except for the books. He had curbed that habit, as much as he could, being a regular at the town library. He surfed, beachcombed, sailed lived simply and fully. Was there room for her? For a future together? They both thought so and resolved to make it so.
She asked for a transfer at work and got it. Her sister kept the condo, but Stella kept paying her share of the condo fees until her sister’s boyfriend moved in. The transfer went well. She had worked remotely with the colleagues at this branch and they got along. She had a place to crash, furnished, boyfriend and all. The honeymoon phase lasted until she found herself unexpectedly pregnant. She wasn’t sure about having a baby, but he was thrilled. He confessed to having amassed enough to last them a lifetime from his previous incarnation in high tech. He proposed by the sea, on his knees, with the sun rising on the horizon. Instead of a diamond, the ring held a black pearl. Her heart said yes, her mind held her back because she was much younger. Her heart won.
They named their boy Christopher, for Christopher Columbus said one, for the boy Christopher in Winnie-the-Pooh, said the other. Christopher was home-schooled and curious. The three of them sailed together with Diego on the catamaran. Christopher loved the sea. He loved music. His loves combined into a career in marine biology. He thought of becoming a sound studio engineer, after hearing whale sounds. Pragmatism took over. He wanted future generations to experience the beauty of these behemoths first-hand, not just through music. He became their champion, pure of heart and of tongue. He begat two girls, a replica of her mom’s family. He got custody of his daughters, and she felt lucky to babysit them.
They had grown old together, united by their love of the sea. She told Christopher that she had been attracted by his father’s voice, a mermaid’s call that had enticed her to run aground in his arms. Charles confided that he had been charmed by her quiet company. His temper would sometimes flare, like a stormy sea, but she navigated expertly around the reefs, until the calm returned. There was a buried treasure in his words, a lost childhood of gold and ducats that she was privy to. She always saw it shining, even when he lost sight of it.
Appropriately, Charles was lost at sea, on his precious catamaran. Only the catamaran was found, drifting, with no sign of him. He would have been happy to have gone that way, embraced one last time by his mistress. Stella’s eyes grew dim, her face lined, her hair lost their shine. He had been her beacon, and losing him she had lost her way. She remembered the salty taste of his sweat, the curls of his hair, his sweet tattoo. For their 10-year anniversary, he had gotten a nurse shark, she an oyster. She had joked, “You crack me up!” Now the shell hardened, the pearl hiding deep within, with no intention of being seen. She dreamt of sharks all the time. They were tender and shy, in turn unassuming and voracious. They cracked shells and spit out their contents or swallowed them whole. Once, instead of a pearl, a green fog had filled the shark’s mouth. She woke up uneasy, wondering if his soul was at peace, what message he was trying to deliver.
She found solace in her grandchildren, especially Sandy, who looked a lot like her grandfather. They spent time together, and she was happy to reminisce because the child did not interrupt, playing intently at her feet, looking up if she stopped. She was like a sponge, absorbing all this information, asking questions days later to clarify a point she could not make sense of. They grew close, the child her old age stick. Stella seemed to regain a bit of her youth, in the child’s presence. Sandy never tired of hearing the story of the twin tattoos. For the child’s birthday, Stella had showed her another tattoo. It was a pearl, hidden behind her ear, under her hair. “Four people know of its existence: the tattoo artist, me, your grandfather and now you. Happy birthday, Sandy.”
Nobody could beat that present. Sandy kept pirates at bay, protecting the loot fiercely. She confided in her granny when she decided to become a geologist and study fossils. She would regale Stella with her field work and her discoveries. Without Sandy, Stella would have sunk, become a bottom-dwelling being. It was not a surprise when Sandy inherited the house and its contents. It was hers from the get-go, a house where both grandparents were kept alive, finally able to end their lives together.