“You must be the TENANT” I sharply said, as I walked down the rickety steps that lead to the beach. I was wearing a baseball cap with a pony tail, no makeup and cut off shorts. Not my best look. I was looking for my best friend, but she wasn’t there. And then, without missing a beat, he looked up from his book, and said dryly, “You must be the FRIEND.” I noticed that he was very handsome and tan like the creamy color of calf leather. He mimicked my tone perfectly, I guess to put us on even ground. I think he was letting me know that two can play at this game. I quickly measured him up before I reached the bottom of the stairs. He sat crossed legged, in the warm afternoon sun with his chair unevenly dug into the sand. He was relaxed with slightly slacked shoulders and resting arms. His thick black hair had small ridges, that looked like he had just ran his fingers through it. His good looks and quick wit piqued my interest.
I stepped onto the beach as I asked where the “SS Minow” was, and he told me they went out about a half hour ago. I grabbed the closest chair and set it down nearby, but not too close. I quickly yanked my denim shorts up before I sat, hoping he didn’t see. Then I covertly adjusted my bra strap that was falling down my arm, a little sticky with sweat. His toothy grin was warm and comforting, like he was an old friend. This lake beach was owned by my best friend. She had an above the garage apartment, or as he called it the compartment. He had recently separated from his wife and moved into the apartment, a tiny little paradise. He found it online and was very lucky to get it.
I had heard a little bit about him from my friend which wasn’t exactly glowing. She was leery of the tenant’s executive status, wondering why he would want a garage apartment. He could live anywhere. Little did he know, he had moved in above the party house, the place where everyone loudly gathered. She mentioned, before I met him that he would often keep his distance, reading in the sun with a gin and tonic in his hand. I assumed he was probably looking for a quiet life. The “regulars” who came there would try to include him with little success. He was friendly enough, but kept to himself. The typical raucous activities on the lake maybe intimidated him a little, which included a lot of drinking, partying and going out on drunk pontoon rides. Not exactly peaceful.
And so, the conversation began. He offered me a beer, as I stammered on about how I don’t drink beer, shifting back and forth. “I really, it’s not, well I typically, oh OK” I said. I’m a wine drinker, but for the sake of killing some time, I accepted the beer. Plus, he wasn’t tough to look at. But that wasn’t the whole story. I was beginning to be drawn more to the banter than his looks. When the light shifted, we moved to the picnic table. I pointed to his book, and said, “Buck a Book?” As he lifted the beers out of a soft sided cooler, he looked at me with a blank look, and said, “Yeah” with a grunt that resembled a laugh. I could tell he didn’t know what I was talking about but answered me anyway. He had a beat-up copy of “Trinity”, with a torn cover and yellowing pages. He didn’t know I was referring to the chain store that used to sell dusty old books for a dollar. It was kind of a slam, but he just kept the conversation going.
The pontoon boat was out for the better part of an hour. The sun slowly moved making soft skewed shadows behind us. Their absence gave us more time to talk. We chatted excitedly about everything, almost talking over each other. There was electricity between us. And about hour into it, he declared, “you’re a good sparring partner.” Was this an insult? I had no idea what that meant. Did I say something wrong? I brushed it off, and continued to talk about myself, which I have a habit of doing. Eventually, I finished the warm, flat beer at the bottom of the bottle, and casually reached across the table for another, without asking. I was curious what “sparring partner” meant, expecting it to be negative. So, I asked him. He explained that it referred to a person who could “keep up”, a high complement. By this time I was determined to keep up.
The boat arrived back with a very rowdy crew. I could hear the clamor of laughter and booming voices before the boat was visible. By now the last rays of sun cast a dreamy filter over the lake like a watercolor painting. I selfishly wished they would have stayed out longer. “You’re finally here” my friend said angrily as she jumped off the parked boat onto the dock. She handed me a bottle of wine, even though I had messed up their plans. She was generous and loving below her sharp exterior. I was known to be late most of the time which pissed her off, and it had been weeks since I had been to the lake. They were sick of waiting for me that day and took the boat ride without me. I wasn’t bothered though. What a lucky break I thought. I had been asking, and the universe answered.
He made it clear in his somewhat silent and aloof manner, that he was a free agent. No commitments after a marriage that ended miserably, he confessed to my friend one day. I told my friend about a week later that, “I think I fancy your tenant.” She barked back at me, “You’re crazy. Stay away from him.” She knew his situation brought a lot baggage, making him an undesirable catch. But, I wasn’t looking for anything serious like marriage for God’s sake! My expectations were lower than that. I had an ex-husband who was verbally abusive and mean, so I had some scar tissue too.
Here I was padded up, wanting to spar. I couldn’t stop thinking about him after that day on the beach. Over the weeks ahead, we carved out a friendship though. It was through long marathon phone calls that we learned each other’s story. We mutually provided much needed therapy, while exposing our hopes and dreams as almost strangers. I could often hear the hard, cold ice clinking in his glass and long drags of his cigarette during our late-night confessions. We would talk until the soft golden glow of dawn seeped into my kitchen window and the birds started chirping. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t falling in love.
We took it a step further and started dating, already knowing so much about each other. The first date, I showed up with makeup, hair falling to my shoulders and a form fitting outfit. He stopped in his tracks. He always thought of me as the girl coming down the beach stairs with the cut off shorts and baseball cap, only that today I brought my “A” game. I suggested we go to Walden Pond. The afternoon sun bounced off the pond, and the narrow dirt path wound along the water’s edge, opening up to spectacular views of the tree lined shore. When I commented on how beautiful the trees were, all this Brooklyn boy said was, “I’ve seen a tree.” OK. Then we came across Thoreau’s cabin in the woods. I was impressed. He said, “It’s a pile of rocks.” Alright, it was a dusty scattered pile of gray rocks in a small pine knoll with a plaque next to it, which I thought made it look official. You had to use your imagination.
Thankfully, the date got better from there, and I could feel myself falling deeper. Something was shifting for me. We continued dating over the next several months, seeing each other every chance we could. However, it got weird for me because we weren’t exclusive, at least from his point. I didn’t want to date anyone else. He continued to have other relationships that I knew about, until I couldn’t take it any longer. I finally got up the nerve to demand, “I can’t be one of many. You have to choose them or me!”
We were at the end of his driveway at dusk, after a long day on the lake, standing rigidly after the words fired from my mouth. He slumped a little for a second, then shifted to the side. I could tell this bothered him. He had moved straight from his childhood home into a 24-year marriage, never exploring all of life’s possibilities. He perceived lost time in his life that he wanted to explore, as he had said as much to me before. I didn’t want to be difficult, but for my own sake, I had to draw the line. I’m usually an easy-going person, so it felt strange being in this stiff skin. An awkward silence followed, as I could feel my eyes start to burn with tears. I felt dizzy, and my mind raced. I had some self-doubt. Was I doing the right thing? Am I going to lose him? I silently wavered, momentarily wishing I could take it back, still half wanting to hear the answer. Then he looked down at his feet for a long moment and slowly looked up, staring directly into my teary eyes, and quietly said “OK” smiling as he reached out to hug me.
Twenty-five years later, we are still sparring and live together on this lake. We are exclusive and happily in love. We live in a cozy lake house at an inlet on the peninsula with our dog, surrounded by great friends and creating more warm memories.