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Beach Boy
May 27, 2003
by Elayne Clift

You can tell the seasonals from the weeklies. The seasonals are bronzed and freckled beyond which they can go no further. They walk along the water's edge in boating slippers that fit their feet like an extra layer of skin. The women wear tummy tuck bathing suits and sunshades; the men's bathing suits are faded over bulbous bellies. Snippets of conversation reveal the best buys at Publix, the most appealing Early Bird Dinner Specials, and when grandchildren will be arriving. The weeklies, on the other hand, pale by comparison, literally. White-skinned anemic patients on a rest cure, they slop suntan lotion on as if they will fry without it - which they will in this tropical sun. Their sons-in-law make attempts at carving beached whales and crocodiles, molded out of pure white sand and a dash of green Gulf waters, while their daughters, watchful of the kids, read paperback bestsellers, and moan about developing a good tan.

Leon is a seasonal. His chest is so dark the gray hairs that reside there positively shimmer in the sunlight. Without a hat, his bald dome reflects the day's heat as if it were "the top of the Chrysler building," as the famous Annie said. His teeth look so white you'd think he was an ad for Pepsodent. Leon is a long term seasonal; so long term, he started life as a beach boy here on this key. Later, he sold Cadillacs in Fort Myer until he retired here, but in his heart, he has always been a beach boy. Even now, he has that look -- tanned and muscular, hair (what's left of it) slicked back, pecs and abs perpetually on display.

And that's the problem. Sylvie, my mother, is a weekly and she is suspect about anyone who wants to idle away their time at the beach. She loves her six weeks here every year, don't get me wrong. But my mother believes there is more to life than a suntan and a sundowner. She thinks you need a purpose in life, a reason to wake up that goes beyond which way the clouds are moving. When my Uncle Mo said he wanted to introduce her to Leon, she balked, even though she says she is not beyond meeting "the right man."

"Mo," she said to her beloved baby brother. "What do I want with a man who thinks the most important thing in life is the weather report?"

"Syl," he said, "you don't have to marry the guy."

And so Leon and my mother went for the Early Bird at The Crab Deck on a Friday night.

"So how was it?" Uncle Mo and I asked pseudo-nonchalantly the next day.

"How was what?" she answered.

"You know!" we cried in unison.

"Oh, that," she said. "Fine."



"So, like.....are you going out with him again?" I ventured.

"We'll see." This was classic Sylvie. She'd been answering me with "we'll see" ever since I was three years old. It was her way of avoiding the matter.

As it happened, over the next few weeks, Sylvie and Leon did go out again. In fact, they spent a good deal of time together. And no more Early Bird Specials. He wined and dined her, and there's no doubt in my mind that she enjoyed dressing up in her linen pants suits for their soirees. Mo and I began to think that something might actually be developing.

Nothing would have made me happier. Leon is a nice man, and ever since my father died, I think my mother has been kind of sad. It was clear to Mo and me that Leon was crazy about her, and why not? Sylvie is a very attractive woman at 69. She has real class. She can take an ordinary black T-shirt and a pair of khaki pants, accessorize them with simple gold earrings, and make it look like Christian Dior designed the outfit especially for her.

Leon has a touch of the gauche about him, but it's nothing you'd be ashamed of. He gets his nails manicured, and wears a slightly ostentatious gold and diamond pinky ring on one hand, but his clothes are tasteful and he is a gentleman. He has a good retirement income which he doesn't mind spending. The plain fact is that in a clear reversal of roles, I just want my mother to be happy.

It's funny the way that happens. You watch your parents grow older and one day you realize you're looking out for them, worrying about their health and whether they're happy, wanting life to be good to them because it is too unbearable to think of it being otherwise. That's when you realize what it was like all the years of your own growing up, the waiting, the worrying, the agonizing about you. And no matter how you try not to do the things they did to aggravate you when you were young, not to emulate those irritating behaviors you swore never to repeat, you do them all the same. The compulsions of caring take over and you're in their face, all resolutions to the contrary dissolving like so much sugar in a cup of tea.

"So, Ma, you're staying longer?" Sylvie looked at me with her "Don't start!" eyes.

"Yes," she said simply.

"This wouldn't have anything to do with Leon, would it?" I asked, hating my adolescent inability to keep my mouth shut.

"Not your business. Don't worry about it."

"I'm not worried! I'll love having you around longer. You know how I hate Florida. I'd be only too happy to have you here. Maybe you could hang out until my assignment is finished and we could go back to New York together." I had another few weeks to go on a film shoot before I could escape back into my life.

"We'll see," she said.

"Uncle Mo would be thrilled too," I offered as added incentive.

"Just don't get any big ideas," she said, picking up her jacket and car keys and heading out the door.

For the next few weeks, things with Sylvie and Leon seemed intense. She went to his place mostly, although sometimes he came over to Mo's house for a bar-b-que or to watch TV. On those nights, they sat on the patio together, Leon attentive, Sylvie responsive, yet distant somehow. Like good, watchful parents Mo and I would excuse ourselves about ten, and Leon would leave about midnight. But mostly, Sylvie disappeared into the evening with Leon sometime around seven and she did not return until the early hours of the morning. I always woke when she got home, a sense of relief that all was well. One night I pretended I was on my way to the john when I heard her key in the door. It was three o'clock in the morning.

"God, Ma, it's late. Have a good time?"

"Yes, thank you."

"So.....what's with you and Leon, anyway?"

"Don't polish any wedding bells," she said, closing her bedroom door.

Finally, as the week of our departure drew near, I could hardly stand it. Mo was as bad as I was.

"What the hell is she doing stringing the guy out like that?" he asked me, his hand raised imploringly. "It's just not right!"

"What a minute, Uncle Mo," I said. "We don't even know if he's proposed or anything."

"Whadaya mean!" he said. "No guy spends that kind of time and money on a woman he doesn't care about."

"Besides, Mom seems so.....I don't know....so remote about the whole thing. I mean, she won't even talk about it. She seems happy to be with Leon, but not excited. Know what I mean?"

Mo swatted the air with his open hand, as if shooing away a fly. "Go figure," he murmured. "A woman her age doesn't get a chance like this too often in life. She always was fussy, my sister."

I wondered. Was she being fussy? Or was she somehow content with the way things were for her? Had she loved my dad so much that no one else passed muster? Wasn't she lonely? And why couldn't I leave it alone? My mother seemed perfectly capable of living her own life. Why was I so bent on having her marry this guy? Did Leon just not do it for her? What did that mean, anyway, at her age? If he didn't do something for her, why spend so much time with him?

As it turned out, I had my answer that night.

I'd been out with the crew to celebrate our wrapping up the shoot. We'd partied well and I was feeling expansive so I decided to drive by Leon's condo to see if Sylvie's car was still there. I had a bottle of champagne and no one to share it with. Why not them, I thought, marriage plans or not. Sure enough, Sylvie's blue rental car was parked in Leon's guest space. The lights in Leon's living room were dim, but the door was unlocked. I walked in. What greeted me nearly blew my socks off.

The first thing I saw was Leon's bare ass in the air above the coffee table. It took me a minute to figure out what it was; I didn't recognize any part of Leon that wasn't tan. Then I realized that Sylvie was lying on the rug, starkers. The sofa was strewn with boxer shorts, lace underwear, and assorted other clothing. Next to an open bottle of Chardonnay on the glass tabletop a gold earring lay on a cocktail napkin. Two nearly empty wineglasses were sweating in unison. Frank Sinatra crooned, oblivious, from a CD. I beat a retreat as fast as I could, but of course, they knew I'd seen.

Sylvie came home about two hours later. I was so thoroughly embarrassed, not only at what I'd seen, but at how stupid I'd been, I could hardly face her.


"You were the picture of discretion," she said. "I nearly had Leon convinced he'd imagined an intruder in a moment of ecstacy."

At this, we broke into simultaneous belly laughs that rapidly disintegrated into hysterics.

"Stop! I'm going to pee myself!" I screamed.

"I have peed myself!" Sylvie shrieked. "Or was that sex?"

At that point, Mo appeared. "What did I miss?" he insisted. For a moment I thought we would have to call 911. My stomach hurt from laughing and Sylvie gasped for breath.

Later, when things had quieted down and Mo had returned to bed, befuddled but content that his sister was happy, Sylvie and I sat on the sofa, the lights turned down, sipping the champagne I'd brought home.

"I can't believe how naive I've been," I started.

"No one ever thinks of older women as sexual," she said. "Least of all your mother."

"So he's good?" I teased.

"Very good," she smiled.

"Did you and Dad....."

"Your father and I had a great sex life. That's what I miss most. I like my independence, now that I've got used to it. It's touch I crave. Physical intimacy. Leon could never satisfy my other needs. He's not interested in the same things I am. We both know that. But we have an attraction to each other and he's a decent guy. We've had an understanding from the beginning."

I reached over and hugged my mother. "So you're not going to be a seasonal, after all."

"No," she said, stroking my hair. "That wouldn't do me. I'll just stick to my winter visits."

"Will you keep in touch with Leon?" I asked. "Until next year, I mean."

"We'll see," she said, planting a kiss on my head. "We'll just have to wait and see."

Elayne Clift is a writer in Saxtons River, VT. Her collection of short stories, Croning Tales, was published in 1996. This story is excerpted from her forthcoming collection, The Limits of Love (Xlibris 2003).

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