Mr. Shawby Cynthia Mitchell
I can’t say it was because my mother was having a love affair that I flirted on the dance floor, kissing Mr. Shaw, who was handsome and more than twice my age. It may have been heat. I remember descending the metal steps from the plane into the thick island air. Palm trees lined the runway, their flat leaves glistening in the strong sun. At the water’s edge, people appeared as otherworldly figures slowly moving through shimmering waves of light. Yet, surely as I was dazed by the heat, a secret or perhaps a betrayal played a part.
Our hotel had apricot towels and apricot cushions on the beach chairs. Each morning my mother, Anna, would say, “Sylvie dear, wouldn’t you like to walk up the hill and get our beach towels before it gets too hot? Then go down to reserve an umbrella and three chairs?” Her way of asking, as if her wish were something I’d actually like to do, annoyed me but up the hill I went. When I returned with the towels, we’d eat fresh pineapple for breakfast before claiming our chairs by the water. Daddy swam out beyond the waves, his arms rising above the surface one after the other.
Anna would say, “Come walk with me.” She and I would stroll along the water’s edge and she’d introduce herself to the other guests. We’d return later to find Daddy, back from his swim, beneath his straw hat, staring out across the turquoise sea.
After I’d found the letters, I’d stopped thinking of her as my mother and started thinking of her as Anna. Anna was the person who had a private life that did not include me. Anna was the person who left me and my father alone on Wednesdays while she had dinner with her lover. Anna, her actual name, was my negation of her as a mother.
When we sat at the kitchen table, as we always had, chatting about school, my friends, what college would be like, we were mother and daughter again. Invited to join in speculations about the people she knew, their marriages, their disappointments, I felt close to her. When I didn’t think about her secret life, our conversations about love and poetry and the kind of man I might marry enthralled me. But when Anna quoted Anne Sexton, “…and you undid me and you placed me in gold light…,” her voice caught by emotion, it occurred to me that she was thinking about someone other than my father. I wanted to hear what she had to say at the same time that I feared what that might be.
It was on that day when she quoted Anne Sexton that I decided to show her my poems, poems I’d never shown to anyone, not even Molly. I suppose I wanted her praise; I felt giddy to see her rapt expression as she read them. Maybe, because they were about love and deception, I wanted her to realize that I’d discovered her secret, but this occurs to me only now. She asked to keep the poems to read them over. I made her promise not to show them to Daddy.
That night after seeing a movie with Molly, I came home to find my poems scattered on the cocktail table along with highball glasses, ice-cubes still melting. I gathered the pages, feeling furious and helpless.
In the morning I found Anna in the kitchen pouring her coffee.
“How could you show people my poems? You promised me.”
“Everyone thought they were excellent.”
“They were private. You made a promise. You don’t even take me seriously.”
“Of course, I do. The poems are beautiful. I’m very proud of you.”
“You read them over cocktails. You bragged about them. I told you they were private.”
“I’m sorry, dear,” she said, taking her cup of coffee and walking down the hall as if that were the end of it.
I tried to tell myself it wasn’t important. What she’d done was beyond hurtful, yet I put my feelings aside. Against all evidence, I had an enormous need to keep on loving her.
On the island, in the hotel bar, a man at the piano played Cole Porter. Anna pointed out another man with a tanned and weathered face who was drinking alone. As was her way, she leaned toward his table and asked whether he’d stayed at the hotel before. I had the vague feeling that my father and I were not enough for her, not enough excitement or not enough attention. Yes, he’d stayed at the hotel several times. At my father’s suggestion, the tanned man, whose name was Mr. Shaw, joined us at our table. He answered Anna’s questions in a slow, luxurious way. He was from Virginia, a lawyer like my father, and he had his own plane, something my father didn’t have.
Before discovering my mother’s secret life, her friendliness to strangers had seemed just that, friendly. Ever since I’d read Dr. Duffy’s sappy letters, I saw her differently. Watching her with Mr. Shaw, I hated the seductive slant of her head, the way she held his eyes with her own. I imagined Dr. Duffy was spending Christmas with his secretary, Carol Ann. And then, to spite my mother, I imagined that he sent love letters to lots of women and that my mother wasn’t special at all.
When Mr. Shaw asked what I was studying, I told him I’d applied to Berkeley to study art history.
“I declare,” he said, “I can’t think of a more useless subject to pursue.”
His daughter studied accounting. I said that after college I planned to study public health and to run for public office. Astonishment registered on his face.
“Where else have you traveled?” Anna asked, interrupting our exchange. Mr. Shaw said he’d recently traveled to India.
“Why, I couldn’t bear the poverty,” she declared and sighed deeply.
“Someday I’d like to bathe in the sacred river,” I said.
This surprised Mr. Shaw, and turning his attention from my mother to me, he described his month-long trek in the Himalayas. After Grandpa Bow died, Daddy had made a similar trek in Nepal, traveling solo with a backpack and a sleeping bag. At home with Mama, I’d worried that he was lonely in the mountains. Our house felt so different without him. Daddy and Mr. Shaw shared their awe of that magnificent part of the world, and I expressed my wish to go there. Mountains didn’t interest Anna. She lowered her voice as if to confide in Mr. Shaw.
“I want Tom to take me to Thailand, but Tom is not as keen on seeing those temples as I am. Have you ever been to Thailand, Mr. Shaw?”
It was true that my mother liked to travel and “see things” while my father preferred nature, but I’d never heard my mother mention Thailand and I doubt my father had. For a moment, I thought she was asking Mr. Shaw to take her away with him. Perhaps he heard this just as I had because, a few minutes later, he asked my father’s permission to invite Anna for a ride in his plane. He regretted he could not take us all, but the plane had only two seats. My father agreed and this annoyed me thoroughly. How could he let her go? And why hadn’t Mr. Shaw invited me instead of Anna?
The next morning after our pineapple breakfast, we met Mr. Shaw at a small airstrip, no more than a long dirt path in a field with five or six small planes at the periphery. Mr. Shaw’s white shirt showed off his tan. Unlike my father’s solid and sturdy form, he had a lanky body like a boy. Anna, in her navy shell, white pique skirt and high-heeled red sandals, had to step up on the wing of the small plane in order to get to her seat. The propellers began to spin, sending island heat in all directions. I watched as my mother took flight in a two-seater Cessna with Mr. Shaw, a lawyer from Virginia, and disappeared from view. What was she doing? Weren’t the letters from Dr. Duffy enough? The idea of Anna high about the earth with Mr. Shaw struck me as intimate and illicit, though my father took out his pipe and prepared to light it as if nothing unusual were happening. I suppose he knew Anna would do whatever she wanted and that he could not stop her.
Daddy and I drove to the middle of the island to see the rain forest. We didn’t say much as we hiked through the hot, lush green. A spider fell on my neck and I cried out. Daddy turned to look at me and then he kept on climbing.
“Do you think they have poisonous snakes here?” I asked, wiping the sweat from my face as we reached the summit.
“Look at the clouds against the mountains,” Daddy replied.
I imagined the Cessna circling above. We descended through the jungle without the energy that had propelled our ascent and returned to the airstrip in time to see the small plane land and bump along amidst clouds of dust until it came to a stop. Anna stepped elegantly from the wing.
“Mr. Shaw is an excellent pilot. We saw the rain forest and the turquoise sea from every direction. The bathers looked so small in the water. Distance,” Anna told us, her face flushed with adventure, “turned their beach umbrellas into small hats.”
My father shook Mr. Shaw’s hand. “I’m glad to have her back,” he said and invited Mr. Shaw to supper.
That night, feeling grown up and shiny, I vied with Anna for Mr. Shaw’s attention without exactly knowing why. I found him compelling even in his ridiculous madras pants and even when he donned old-man glasses to read the menu. I asked whether he’d ever been scared when flying.
“A bit apprehensive,” he said. “Never frightened.”
He described flying acrobatics, turning in large circles through the air with the plane at times completely upside-down. I felt alive and happy; my mother, in her lovely low-cut violet dress, wore her look of disapproval.
We moved from the dining room to the bar where my parents and Mr. Shaw drank brandy. Watching other guests playing bingo, I said it was worth two dollars to have someone win forty.
“Why you’d be perfect in Las Vegas,” Mr. Shaw drawled.
“No, I’d set a limit. I’d quit after I lost twenty dollars.”
“That’s a bad philosophy, that’s how they make their money, from people who go there agreeing to lose.”
We laughed about that. My mother brought up socialism, one of her favorite topics, and I knew that she was proud of the way I, her only daughter, argued, if not quite logically, for the human cause. Mr. Shaw, like my father believed in business and initiative. He talked with his arm against my leg as if he’d known us all a long time.
Anna pointed out an older man with a bleached blonde lady.
“They look like newlyweds, the way she listens to his every word.”
“They’re not married,” Mr. Shaw said.
“How do you know?”
“Do they approve of that here?”
“Why, Anna Bow, you’re showing your age. Hotels haven’t cared for twenty years. They’d lose too much business. Back then,” he turned to face to me, “hotels used to have a detective investigate every couple who checked in to make sure they were married. If not, they’d be thrown to the street.”
I thought he was kidding. I ordered a Piña Colada, and neither Anna nor Daddy seemed to mind. Anna asked Mr. Shaw what he’d been reading. He said he didn’t read much, and she frowned. He said he painted, and Anna said, “Oh, you have a soul.”
After my second Piña Colada, Mr. Shaw asked me to dance. My mother raised her eyebrows and I felt powerful and enchanted. On the dance floor, he placed his hand firmly on my back, claiming me with an authority that boys my age lacked. He taught me to swing out, saying, slower, nice and easy, slower. When we returned to the table, he talked to Daddy. Then he danced with Anna and I danced with my father, all the while watching, when I could, Mr. Shaw’s hand low on Anna’s back.
He didn’t ask me to dance again, he just said, Come on. Half the time we were dancing he laughed to himself. Maybe he couldn’t believe it either. I was younger than his daughter. My long, flowered dress had flowered straps that tied on my shoulders. I was acutely aware that they could be untied. At the same time I wondered if people thought he was my father. The melody from The Girl from Ipanema blurred into You’re My Thrill, and our bodies blurred together. Mr. Shaw smelled expensive, not sweaty and alive like Douglas English, but grown-up and rich. I was lulled, because I wanted to be, into some semi-conscious state until our lips touched. Quickly I took my mouth away and quickly he kissed me again. We were kissing on the dance floor -- where everyone could see. These weren’t the fierce and devouring kisses of boys my age; they were a new language, evocative, inviting, questioning. I believed I was compelled by the keen attraction between us, but now, years later, I think I’d wanted to take something from my mother. Or to show her that she wasn’t the only one who could be bad. I flaunted my power. I wanted her to see.
Back at the table, two separate people again, we all continued talking about travelling until Mr. Shaw excused himself to make a phone call, saying he’d be back for a nightcap. He didn’t return.
When I said goodnight to my parents at the door to their room, my father gave me a squeeze.
“You’re a luscious armful on the dance floor.”
My mother glared at me. “Bill Shaw is fifty years old,” she said. “Don’t do anything rash.”
“He’s not my type,” I retorted as if other fifty-year-old men were my type.
Did she know I was planning to return to the bar, hoping to find him and to see what would happen next? Somehow I let her comment spoil my fantasy and I didn’t follow my inclination.
In the morning, my parents wanted to see the other side of the island, and I drove the rental car over the mountain on trails the car could barely climb. Anna admonished me to go slower, to watch the road, to avoid the potholes though that was impossible. She discussed my hair, which she considered to be unruly. I tried to stop her, but she went on, predicting a lonely life for me unless I cut my hair.
Anna said, “Tom, did you like Bill Shaw? Shall we invite him and his wife to Atlanta?”
Just then, we came over the ridge to a breath-taking view – the descent so steep that it seemed the car might topple forward and dive into the color and sparkling sea below.
“Sylvie, be careful.” Anna sounded truly frightened.
“Funny that you could go up in that plane,” Daddy said, “and now you’re afraid.”
On the north side of the island, we discovered a marina and strolled around it, admiring the impressive sailboats. Their various names enchanted us -- Orphee, Dream Come True, Not At Home. Anna chose a restaurant by the water where she sat close to me, clutching my arm as if she wanted to devour me.
After we returned to our hotel and had dinner, my mother and I sat on lounge chairs by the sea. The heat had dissipated and Anna asked me to get her a sweater, the pink one. I went to her room and got her sweater and then to my room to get one for me.
She said, “Thank you, Sylvie. The view is lovely, isn’t it? Look at the lights reflected in the water. Would you like to come here again next year?”
“Not really. I want to come back from college to see my friends.” I knew that she’d book our rooms in the hotel no matter what I said.
We were quiet for a long while, listening to the waves gently meet the shore. In my reverie, Mr. Shaw was untying the straps of my dress and somehow he’d fused into Douglas English, the sexiest boy I’d ever kissed, when my mother took my hand.
“What do you think happens, Sylvie? What do you think happens when we die?”