Special Issue

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Excerpt from

PAST GRAVITY Nicholas Johnson Art: “The Basic Steps” Megan Feichtel

It only took a week for me to realize that Page wasn’t interested in George, and I felt bad for the kid. He was just a little awkward, a little too quiet. George’s infatuation with my daughter didn’t bother me; I had long ago realized that it was a rite of passage for boys to constantly readjust the folds of their pants for the girls they had grown up with. I had flirted on the beach and gone on a date with his aunt once. Seeing how closely to Page’s towel George had set his own on the beach that day, I knew I had been before where George unwittingly lay. As Page’s father, I couldn’t intercede. I knew I had better not do anything. But that Friday afternoon on the beach I practically had to sit on my hands as Page silently intimidated George into applying sunscreen to her back, then challenged him to race out to the buoys thirty yards from the shore. All he wanted to do was read that novel he had brought to the beach for the past three days. It lay opened and face down on his beach towel, where I had seen George glance at it every once in a while. I stared at the paperback and felt equally helpless in this predicament. I curled my fingers when George sprang after Page into the calmly flowing surf. Berk looked at me: a warning against empathizing with George. I shrugged, unable to help myself. Even at three o’clock in the afternoon, the July sun boiled the white grit I burrowed my toes into. The seagulls’ floating on outstretched wings and the waves’ rhythmic caressing of the beach seemed the calm that opposed the brutal disillusionment that I knew awaited George when Page finally stopped toying with him. I looked to the small boulders beyond the quarter-mile of hazy sand populated in dense clumps. I hoisted myself out of the low beach chair. A walk across the familiar beach had enticed me. “Berk, do you wanna go for a stroll?” She raised one single index finger as she finished the sentence of her magazine article, dog-eared the page, and placed the glossy pages into her oversized beach bag. I offered my hand, and she burst upward to meet me. She hugged my whole arm as we walked away from our son Jared and his friends, who were loafing around cracking jokes in the sand. Berk must have been losing her patience with their raucous noise in this heat. She, like Page, did not have the complexion to tolerate heat as bad as it was that afternoon. As we descended the gentle slope of the beach towards the dark-

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LIBERTAS, Vol. 23, No. 1

er, cooler sand, I looked for Page’s familiar sunburst of hair between the waves. It bobbed as she swam, a flash of sandy blond skipping eagerly across the surf behind her. The elderly Mr. & Mrs. Ross passed us at the water’s edge. The heat didn’t even slow them down. Berk smiled and waved. I inquired about their nine grandchildren. Mr. Ross smiled while Mrs. Ross replied, “They’re busy doing all sorts of things with their young lives. Speaking of young lives, is that your Page swimming out there with George McIntyre? How funny that scene looks to my old eyes. Certainly familiar, isn’t it?” Berk laughed politely, but I could only manage a crooked smile, so familiar I wish it weren’t happening. We kept walking across the beach towards the rocks. We passed folks we knew from our years of coming to the beach, and young couples I had never seen before. The muddy sand eased the tension between my toes, under my knees, and even on either side of my neck. I peered at my wife, and she smiled back at me, “Penny for your thoughts, Max.” “That would require me to think,” I joked tonelessly. Berk grinned, tilting her head back to catch the sunlight overhead, “What do you think of George?” Last Saturday flashed in my mind. George had appeared at our house to take Page out on the date that started all of this. His jacket was the light brown color of semi-dry sand, and it made his neatly coiffed hair look blonder. His gentle smile glowed in the glittering sunset over the water. I welcomed him into the living room before calling up the stairs to Page. “So what are you two going to do tonight?” I gestured to the couch. The young man hemmed and hawed before forming a coherent sentence. “We’ll do dinner at the restaurant, and then see if we can grab Topper’s on the way to the movie theater.” Had I known then, perhaps I might have warned him not to get attached, despite Page, but instead, “You’ve got it all planned out.” George had shrugged, checking his wristwatch, “We may miss the movie if dinner takes too long, but I wanted to start with a plan and improvise later.” I raised my eyebrows at that, “I wish I had thought of that mantra

years ago.” Berk’s admonishing look brought me back to the present, “Don’t worry about Page and George. It’s better that they figure out their plan on their own.” “Their plan?” the tide dribbled over our feet. I tensed up to my calves as the crisp chill rushed over the tops of my feet. Berk sighed almost to herself, “This little romance of theirs has to have some kind of plan once we leave, you know.” I stopped to look out at the two bobbing heads as they crested a wave. George had caught up to Pagey, and they were swimming abreast now out to the buoy. The styrofoam marker jaunted on top of the water about five meters away from them. “I didn’t think Page was interested in him. It seemed like she was just humoring him.” “Max,” Berk looked at me straight on. “She wouldn’t want to go swimming with him every day if she didn’t like him. She wouldn’t want him to touch her body if she wasn’t comfortable with him. What gave you the idea Page wasn’t interested in George?” I drifted back to the night of their date. I enjoyed my chat with George before they left. Pagey surprised me when she came home with very little to say about the young man who had grown up alongside her on the beach. “He’s really quiet, you know. We talked over dinner, but then he didn’t say anything during the movie.” “From what Pagey told me after their night out together, I thought George bored her.” “Right: Page is going to tell her father all the fun she had with the wonderful boy she’s practically grown up with on their first date.” I stopped speechless in my tracks for a second, “This whole situation reminds me of the summer when I dated his aunt, Caitlin. We went swimming near the end of the summer, and she told me at the buoy that we weren’t going anywhere. I hate talking about this, but I don’t want Pagey to do that to George, not that she reminds me of Caitlin. He’s just doesn’t deserve that.” “You need to stay out of it, or Page won’t know what to think,” Berk calmly turned away and started down the beach. Is there something

that the two of them don’t want to tell me? I walked calmly after her. I caught up to Berk as we reached the point where the flat surfaces of the dark rocks protruded, forming shallow pools of briny water. In these pools, a few toe-headed children shrieked in their search for small crabs to put in their yellow plastic bucket. I recognized Page’s friend, Catie Tremaine, as she watched the children from the dry sand that rose at a sharp incline out of the shallows. I waved to Catie, who pleasantly greeted Berk and me. We stopped just beyond the little crabbers. My feet sank into the cool, muddy sand at the edge of another pool. Berk smiled as if I were testing her patience. The white rocks littered the incline of the island beyond my wife, and the sun’s glare reflected harshly off of them. I rose a hand to shield my eyes, “Berk, what doesn’t Page want me to know?” Berk lay a hand on my chest, “I’m not saying I know any more than you do. All I know is that there are plenty of things that I hid from my father about my relationships. Even when I started seeing you, what, at the age of twenty-five, I didn’t tell my father everything! We’ll know what we’re meant to know when Page wants us to know, and you can’t get involved before then.” The beach typically cleared up by four-thirty, with the mothers of young children going home to shower and feed their kids before going to a cocktail party. The undisrupted calls of seagulls on the whistling sea breeze with the undulating waves underneath it filled the absence of the usual crowd on the beach. I stared at the same page of my book for a halfhour and strained not to bother Berk, Pagey, or George as they dozed intermittently between reading their own books. Jared was off at the rocks now with his friends, scrambling on the large white rocks above the shoreline, the only moving objects on a still landscape of late afternoon. I tried to doze, but every time I closed my eyes, they peeked suspiciously at Page and George. Pagey lay there on her towel, right next to George. In the small gap separating them danced an invisible gravity. This old force pulled on me as well. I felt drawn into the allure of my daughter’s relationship, because the gravity revived my past. Berk had warned me not to get involved; she knew it would evoke the summer I had devoted myself to Caitlin, and I had no defenses against it.

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