Charlotte woke up alone. The sunlight diffused through the scrim of white floor length curtains, a slight breeze brushed aside one panel, sharing a glimpse of blue ocean beyond. Above her, the cottage’s peaked white wooden ceiling soared twenty feet, at least. A vast space opened up as if offering her the possibility of the day, stark contrast with home. She’d drifted to the left side of the bed while she slept, to her side, though she’d staked claim to the middle of the bed for the first time in eighteen years of marriage, her first night without Thom.
She covered her face with her hands and smelled another man.
Tit for tat, this betrayal.
She’d always resisted before, in particular their contractor three years ago, a man with a tool belt, blond hair, adept on a ladder outside her office window. Every morning he stood too close to her, consulting over the volume of architectural plans, choosing the intimate details of her home. She could see the outline of him through his pants.
Resisting rewarded Thom, her need for physical relief. Every morning, alone with the contractor, she skated the emotional edge, laughing, falling for him and he for her, and even now, years after their last conversation, she dreamt of that intimacy. Her secret.
Minimum expectation: resist temptation, she thought. Marriage vows meant loyalty. Thom’s decision to give up the resistance, to actively pursue the seductive high, gave her unconditional license. In one day, she’d loosened her grip on the moral high ground, a shocking turn of events, unplanned and unintended.
She loved him.
Charlotte unearthed her bathing suit and sundress from the unpacked overnight bag in the closet. On the patio of the little Yellow Cottage, utterly alone at the far end of the estate, she found her covered tray with coffee and fruit and yogurt. She stood under the umbrella and watched a gaggle of huge seabirds swing past over the ocean, their high-pitched cries in rhythm with the gentle lap of waves. The sand brushed over the edges of the stone patio; twenty or thirty steps down the winding path through knee-high sea grass and she could bathe in warm saltwater if she wanted. Her call. No consultations or compromises.
This solitude, this reclaiming of her minutes, hours, choices, this justified her flee from her family. His betrayal choked her when she was at home, expecting him, waiting for him, cooking and working, the relentless demands of schedule now blown to smithereens on her list of priorities. Here, the sadness quieted. A trickle through her bloodstream instead of a tsunami.
But she loved him.
The heat had slammed her when she emerged from Customs at the airport, her silk blouse and heavy skirt oppressive. The waiting taxis and ride shares were orderly, civilized, she scanned the row for the Yellow Cottage sign with her name, bag over her shoulder, lifting the hair from her neck. The tremor of uncertainty unnerved her. A foreign country by herself for fuck’s sake. What had she done?
“Sure about that ride?” Roy from the plane said, next to her. He’d changed into linen pants, a short sleeved shirt, somehow. In front of them, a driver held his door for him, a waft of cool air. “We can cancel yours if they’re not here.”
He smiled and a lock let loose in her. The driver took their bags, they settled in the vast backseat and she was free, she had freed herself.
Roy had to see about that yacht, but the seller was overeager, he should be made to wait, and so they circled the island, a St. Kitt’s mini-tour on the way to her Yellow Cottage, and she cooled and cooled in the a/c, wondering at the exquisite blue sea, returning the friendly waves from pedestrians. They stopped for island punch, barefoot in the sand, laughing. Roy told her about London and his boss, swearing her to discretion, and she promised. She grew accustomed to the heat, but escaped to the tiny restroom and emerged in an ankle length sleeveless cotton dress she’d bought a decade prior and not once had a chance to wear. Her sweaty underwear stuffed in the trash bin.
At the top of the island, past a restaurant he said made world class dishes, he gestured toward a stone wall, gate hidden under a broad-leafed vine, his employer’s compound. But they drove on, toward her Yellow Cottage, and she bit her lip against intense curiosity, a world beyond hers.
“I hope you try their food before you leave,” he said, “maybe tonight.” He held his sunglasses in his hand, leaning on the armrest between them, long legs crossed. His face uncertain, eyes focused on her.
“Maybe,” she said unable to turn from him.
“Maybe,” he whispered, “Seven o’clock.”