Baker takes this like a poison dart to the throat. No feelings? He is nothing but feelings.
“Let’s not not attach feelings,” he says. “Besides, I don’t know when I’m leaving. I might be here for a while yet.”
“I guess I don’t understand that,” Ayers says. “Do you not have a return ticket?”
“It’s open-ended,” he says.
“Why did you get an open-ended ticket? I mean, I realize you don’t have a traditional job, but you do have a child, right, and a life in… Austin?”
“Houston,” he says.
“We had a wonderful day,” Ayers says. “And it was exactly what I needed. But we barely know each other. And I also don’t understand why you don’t want me to come to your villa. It’s like you’re hiding something.”
“You’re hiding something,” Baker says. “You won’t tell me what you’re doing tonight.”
Ayers takes an audible breath. “My ex-boyfriend, Mick? He cheated on me. He told me he was working late “training” Brigid, and I went down to the Beach Bar at two in the morning and found them together. Very together. So I’m sorry, but I can’t handle a man who isn’t absolutely forthcoming and transparent. If you have secrets, that’s fine, that’s great, good for you, but I’m not interested.” She grins at him. “I’m dead serious. I will never let myself get hurt like that again.”
“I would never,” Baker says. “Will never.” He needs to keep himself in her present, in her future, but her words make him realize that he needs to tell her about his father. It will take just one sentence: My father was Russell Steele. Baker worries she will freak out, maybe even leave him on the side of the road and drive off. The time to have told her was right at the beginning, at the memorial service, when they were sitting on the branch. But the situation had been so raw then; they had been at Rosie’s funeral lunch. He had been right to keep quiet. He could have told her last night on the beach. That was a missed opportunity. He doesn’t want to tell her now because she hasn’t quite fallen for him yet. He’ll take her to Caneel Bay, he decides, he’ll consummate the relationship properly, he’ll make her fall in love with him, and then he’ll tell her. And she’ll have no choice but to process and accept the news. It might not even matter.
All right, he’s not naive, it will matter. But he still thinks it’s best to wait.
“I want to take you to Caneel Bay,” he says. “Take you to dinner, get a room, spend the night. Would you do that with me? When’s the next night you’re free?”
“Caneel?” she says. She drops the tough-girl attitude and lights up. Baker has stumbled across the magic words, apparently. “I’ve never stayed there, though I’ve always wanted to. And ZoZo’s, the restaurant, the osso buco is… wow, are you sure that’s what you want to do? It’s not exactly cheap.”
“Who cares?” Baker says. “It’s a splurge. You’re worth it. I would love to stay a night away from my mother and brother.”
“I would love a night with reliable air-conditioning,” Ayers says. “Can we turn it all the way up?”
“All the way up,” Baker says. “What night are you free?”
“Tomorrow night,” Ayers says. “I work on Treasure Island tomorrow, I’ll be back around four.”
“I’ll make a reservation,” Baker says. “And meet you there around five.”
“I probably shouldn’t go on such an extravagant date with a tourist,” Ayers says. “But it’s too tempting to resist. And I don’t have to be at La Tapa on Friday until four, so maybe we can sleep in, get a late checkout?”
“Anything you want,” Baker says. “Breakfast in bed, midnight swim, a marathon of Adam Sandler movies…”
Ayers grabs his hand. “I can’t believe it. Thank you. I’m…”
“Say no more. It’s happening. Caneel Bay, tomorrow night.”
At three o’clock, the traffic in town is at a standstill. A ferry has just unloaded, and some of the all-day charters have come in, and happy hour at Woody’s is beginning and… yeah. Cruz Bay is a blender.
“Is it okay if I just drop you here?” Ayers asks. They’re in front of a restaurant called the Dog House Pub. “That way I can avoid going all the way around the block. I really have to be somewhere.”
“No problem,” Baker says. “I’ll grab my backpack when I get out, so don’t drive away.” He leans over to kiss her good-bye and the kiss goes on and on until the taxi driver behind them honks his horn. Ayers pushes Baker away. “Go,” she says. “I’ll see you tomorrow at five.”
“Thank you for lunch,” he says. He doesn’t want to get out of the truck.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “Go!”
He hops out of the truck, grabs the backpack, blows Ayers a kiss, then blows a kiss to the disgruntled taxi driver. He is so happy that he floats around the corner and down to the ferry dock. Next to the dock is High Tide.
Caneel, he has to call Caneel. What if they’re fully booked? It’s high season, but at least it’s after the holidays. They’ll have a room. He’ll pay whatever it takes.
Baker strides into High Tide, half hoping that Cash is a little late—that way he can order a drink and regroup, maybe even take care of the hotel reservation right there at the bar. But no such luck, he sees Cash right away—that bushy blond hair is impossible to miss. Baker blinks. Next to Cash is a woman who looks a little like Anna. The woman has long, dark hair like Anna, but it’s loose and she’s wearing a lavender tank top, drinking what looks like a margarita.
But then Cash waves and the woman turns and a wave of nausea rolls over Baker. Run! he thinks. Hide! He hears a familiar voice and feels a pair of small arms wrap around his legs.
“Daddy Daddy Daddy, we’re here!” the voice says.
Instinctively, Baker bends down to pick up his son.
After Huck leaves—the door to Maia’s room closed and locked again for the time being—Irene does the dishes, takes an Ativan, takes a second Ativan, then goes to bed.
She wakes up early, very early; the sky is just beginning to turn pink. She slips from bed and heads down the eighty steps to the beach. She sits on one of the orange-cushioned chaises. Now at least, she understands why there are three chaises—one for Russ, one for Rosie, one for Maia.
Irene takes off her tank top and sleep shorts. She steps into the water. And then she starts to swim.
She learned to swim in Clark Lake, in Door County, Wisconsin, which is also where she learned to fish. The water of Clark Lake has little in common with the Caribbean, and yet the swimming clears Irene’s mind, just as it used to the summer she was sixteen. That was the summer she witnessed her family falling apart. Her grandmother, Olga, was dying of lung cancer in the gracious old lakefront cottage where Irene had spent every summer of her life. Irene had wanted to go to bonfires with her best summer friend, Caris, and listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and talk to Davey Longeran, who had just bought his first car, a Pontiac Firebird. She had wanted to ride through the back roads of Door County in Davey’s Firebird more than she wanted the sun to rise in the mornings. But she was stuck in the house with her mother, Mary, and her mother’s sister, Aunt Ruth. Mary and Aunt Ruth fought nonstop about who was doing more for Olga, and who Olga loved better. Irene was assigned the bottom-rung jobs: emptying the bedpans and the bucket Olga coughed into, washing the soiled sheets and hanging them on the line and riding her bike—two point nine miles each way in the hot sun—to the pharmacy, where Mr. Abernathy would occasionally ask Irene to “spin around” so he could see how big she’d gotten.
When Irene’s father showed up on the weekends, they went out on the boat to fish for smallmouth bass and walleye, and he took over Irene’s unpleasant tasks so that she could swim in the lake. She swam the crawl, arms pulling, legs like a propeller, breathing every third stroke, alternating sides.
The movement comes right back to Irene, even though it has been a while since she really swam. She spent nearly a hundred thousand dollars on the pool in her Iowa City backyard, forty feet long, but she only did what Russ called the “French dip”—into the water to her neck and then back out in a matter of seconds. She would hold her braid up so that it didn’t get wet; the chlorine gave her hair a greenish tint. There had been a time—in the mid-nineties, maybe—when she had gone to the community pool on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to do laps—thirty-six laps, half a mile, in the name of physical fitness. But that lasted only a couple of months, the way those things do.
Irene swims out at first, toward Jost Van Dyke. Then she finds a calm swath of water and starts to the east. When she catches sight of the neighboring bay, she turns around and heads back.
There isn’t time to think while she’s swimming except about her heart, her lungs, her eyes, which are stinging, and her arms and legs.