Sylvia May ​

Chapter One

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Breathing Space

I am in a pocket of time that has nothing to do with my life. My feet slap the damp sand, my hair blows awry. Inhaling the moist, salty air, I move in rhythm with the surf. The crimson-clouded sky, its magnificence stopping me in my stride when I started out this morning, is now varying shades of blue and magenta. The deserted beach brightens in the rising sun. It goes on forever and I am conquering it. All I hear is the sound of my progress, waves hitting the shore, seagulls calling.

In ways more complex than distance, I am far from home and each step takes me farther. I revel in my temporary release from there, where demands dictate, expectations overshadow, responsibilities pull, and where simply living tightens my chest. Here on Hyde Island I can breathe. This calm is what I want. This freedom is what I need. If only I could stay here always.

“Lydia, wait!” Words fly to me in the wind.

I turn. My sister Tilly is running toward me, her T-shirt flapping and heavy breasts bouncing. She waves something. When she reaches me she leans over, hands on her knees, panting. “Why didn’t you wake me? If I’d known you were going for a walk, I’d have come with you.” 

“Sorry. I wanted to be alone for a while.” What I wanted was to have time away from Tilly. I love her, but even at the best of times her domineering personality can be overwhelming. After a week together, I have been rendered almost voiceless.

“Oh.” Tilly straightens. Her cheeks are flushed and her brown eyes glisten. Perspiration plasters the curly tendrils escaping from her ponytail. “Okay.”

I instantly feel remorse for my thoughts. “I didn’t mean we can’t walk together. Let’s go.” I link my arm into hers and hug the soft flesh of her upper arm, feeling her sticky sweat.

 “Actually.” She pulls her arm free. “I came looking for you because Dan phoned. I told him you’d call right back.” She holds out the cell phone. “You left it on the counter.”

 “Was it something urgent?”

She shakes her head.  “I don’t think so. He just misses you.”

I stick the phone in the pocket of my shorts. 

Tilly touches my arm. “Lydia, you haven’t talked to him all week. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I’ve been immersed in my painting. No brain space for Dan.” What I don’t say is that this hiatus from my husband has revealed to me some truths about my life with him. Truths that I’m not ready to face and, in all honesty, wish had not surfaced in my consciousness. Fingers of anxiety begin to clutch at me, squeezing away the serenity I’d achieved. My earlier calmness recedes with the outgoing tide. My chest tightens. I spin around. “Come on, let’s walk.”

We stride without talking for a while, pushing against the wind. Small puddles left by the early morning’s tide dot the beach and we weave ourselves around them. I slow my pace so Tilly can keep up. I sense she has something she wants to say but don’t encourage her. I’m trying to regain my mood, my solitary space in time.

Her voice prods at the peace I crave. “I think Dan called so early because he figured he’d be able to catch you before class.” 

“He’ll see me soon. Today’s our last day here.” I stop and stare at the horizon. “Isn’t this the most amazing place? I mean, look.” I sweep my arm, encompassing the sun reflecting on the water, now a shimmering ball peeking from behind clouds, the sand spanning miles of beach, the tide-wall of rocks. The dunes are covered in green scrub and yellow grasses. Behind them, the Live Oak giants swoop their branches. “It’s unreal. It has nothing to do with our lives back in Toronto, and for a little while I just want to experience being here. Not there.” I walk again, trying to shake Dan away from our conversation. 

Tilly steps quickly to catch up. “But you can’t ignore your husband just because you’re on a holiday.”

“I’m not ignoring him. I’m taking a break from him.”

“Okay.” She exhales in resignation. 

We walk on, not saying anything for a while. Then she says brightly, “Final class today. Your painting has really improved. I knew it would. Do you think you’ll finish your triptych in time for the exhibit tonight?”

We’ve come to Georgia, to this little piece of paradise, to take an “Abstract in Acrylics” class at the Hyde Island Art School. It’s the first such workshop I’ve ever attended, although Tilly has dragged me to a few art classes over the years. My sister, who is considerably more creative than me, painted three spectacular canvases this week. I am a reluctant artist, insecure about my abilities and still uncertain if this pursuit will become a passion. Over the past four days I’ve produced two paintings I’ve scraped off and obliterated, and have almost completed a somewhat better three-panelled one.

“I think I’ll finish it in time. Are you going to start something new today?” I step over a puddle.

“I don’t know. I think I’m abstracted out. Maybe I’ll just help set up the exhibit today. And we should start packing and cleaning the cottage. We need to get away early tomorrow.”

“You know what, Tilly? I don’t want to go back.” As soon as I say it, I realize the idea has been poking around my subconscious most of
the week.

“Me neither. I can’t believe school starts in eleven days. I woke up thinking about lesson plans. We’ve had a great week, though, haven’t we?” 

“Yes.” I swallow, hesitant to elaborate on the notion that is germinating in my mind. 

“I love this island.” She turns her head toward me. Two tiny suns are reflected in her eyes and they bounce as she walks. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a little art studio here, and a gallery? We could build a house with two wings, one for you and one for me, with a common living room and kitchen. We could paint all day, and people would come from all over the world to buy our paintings.” She smiles at the horizon. 

Impatient with her make-believe, I yank her back to reality. “Tilly, I’m not talking fantasy. I really don’t want to go home.” 

“Holidays are always too short.”

“No.” My mouth suddenly feels dry. “I mean I’m not going back.” As I say the words, something loosens inside of me, like a sash untying itself. 

She stops mid-stride and gapes at me. “What?”

I exhale loudly. A sliver of doubt edges into my thoughts.

“That’s crazy.” Tilly walks over to a group of rocks and plants herself on large flat one. “Come sit.” 

The rock beside her is on a slant and I shift around to get comfortable, tightening my muscles to stay erect. The wind has calmed and the sun is higher in the sky, heating the air and stoking the humidity. My shirt sticks to me and I blow hair out of my eyes. 

Tilly puts her arm around my shoulders, making me even hotter. “I knew something was going on. Did you and Dan have a fight?”

“No, it’s just that…” What is it exactly? I sidle out from under her arm and pace in short steps. Little sanderlings run along the
shore, their legs moving so fast it’s difficult to distinguish their tiny feet. I want to run with them. 

This week my time at the easel week was a journey of introspection. As I attempted to translate the shapes, shadows and colours of the island into some kind of abstract interpretation, my mind opened up to new possibilities where my current existence receded into the background. The ideas that blasted through my brain were vague, but the realization that my life needs to change was not. Now, here on the beach with Tilly, I am suddenly enlightened as to how I can bring about this change. Combing fingers through my hair, I attempt to articulate what I’m feeling. “This week has taken me out of myself. It’s like my life back home doesn’t exist, and—” 

“Vacations are always like that. That’s why people take them.”

“But this is different.” I sweep aside my doubts, heeding instead the inner voice that first brought the notion to the surface. “I like the idea that my life in Toronto doesn’t exist. I feel like I’m finished with it, ready for something new.”

“Finished with it? What on earth does that mean?” Her eyebrows knot in confusion. “Everybody wants to escape sometimes. I dream about
it too. But we don’t actually do it. We can’t just erase our lives and start new ones.”

“Why not? People move away all the time, and leave their families, divorce.”

“Is that what you want to do? Divorce Dan? After twenty-seven years?” Alarm leaps into her eyes. “Lydia, I know he can be a pain, but he loves you.”

Queasiness clenches my insides and I sit back down. “No. It’s just…I just want to stay here for a while.”

“You mean like Shirley Valentine?” Her tone is laced with incredulity.

I picture myself sitting alone at a table, wearing a sun hat, holding a glass of wine. Or on a shrimp boat, trying to look sexy as I help with the nets. I laugh half-heartedly. “And serve eggs and chips to tourists? Definitely not. Besides, we haven’t seen too many hunky fishermen
around here have we?”

Tilly chuckles, sounding relieved. “Nope. None better looking than Dan anyway.” 

I stare at her. “The spirit of her story appeals to me, though. She simply wanted to live her own life on her own terms. That’s what I
want too.” 

She sobers. “But you can do that in Toronto. You don’t need to cast everything aside for that. You have a good life, Lydia.” 

I shake my head.

“I think you need to call Dan.” She gestures toward my pocket that holds the phone. “When you hear his voice, you’ll feel grounded again. I’m sure when you talk to him, you’ll be eager to go back home.”

“You don’t understand. Dan is part of what I want to leave behind.” I push my shoe into the hard sand. “Our marriage is empty. Dan just isn’t involved in it. He hasn’t been for a long time.”

“You’ve told me that before, but I don’t get what the heck you mean by that. He’s a great husband A hard worker. A good father. You don’t appreciate what you’ve got.”

“Tilly, you see a different Dan than I do. You always have. How many times in the past have I tried to talk to you about this? You just don’t hear me.”

“I hear you complain about a good life. Lots of women would give anything to have what you do.”

I exhale loudly. “Marriage is about more than working at a business and staying in at night. Dan is an emotional void. He lives in his own world and barely acknowledges me. He’s not there for me.”

“He’s always there for you. For the family.”

“Only materially.” I bite my lip. “Dan does a good job of showing people that he’s a good guy. But at home, when he’s not on, he withdraws inside himself and I get nothing out of him. He makes me feel invisible in my own home.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

I glare at my sister. “You don’t get it. There’s no point in discussing this with you. You invariably take his side. I finally see a way to make my life better and I’m going to start by staying here on Hyde Island. This island calls to me. It has an effect on my psyche that I need to try to understand and I can only do that by staying here.”

She gazes at me a minute, then tries a different approach. “Okay, let’s say I leave you here. Where will you live? Agnes wants the cottage back today. And what about money? You think Dan’s just going to say, ‘Great, I’ll support you while you desert me?’ What will you do?”

Her questions jumble my thoughts and create noise in my head. “I don’t know, Tilly. I haven’t thought about all that.” 

“Well, you’d better think about all that.” She talks fast. Complications tumble. “You have a husband and daughter. A house. A store. Responsibilities. And what about me? Am I supposed to show up without you on Sunday, tell Dan you’ve decided to start a new life? Tell Carly her mother’s abandoned her?”

I interrupt her with a snort. “I wouldn’t be abandoning Carly. She’s an adult on her own, living her own life.” The echo of my words
gives me pause. “She doesn’t need parents any more. She barely includes us as it is.” My statement reflects the most recent encounter with my daughter a month ago, when I saw her leaving the family planning clinic as I passed by. She became flustered when I called her name and faced me with pale cheeks and despondent eyes. My maternal antennae quivered. I felt an overwhelming need to mother her, but she was determined to give me only the barest details in response to my questions, and not share any of what she had been through. “I’m an independent woman,” she declared. “I don’t run to Mommy every time I have a problem. Please leave me alone.” She made me swear not to tell anyone that I’d seen her there, especially Tilly and her father. I haven’t heard from her since, even though I’ve left phone messages and sent emails. 

I stare at the horizon. “My staying away won’t trouble her at all.”

“Oh, Lydia, you know she’s just establishing her independence. She still needs you.”

 “Right. She needs me.” My throat tightens. “You’ve always been a better mother for her than me.”

“Don’t start in with that again.” Her words shoot out like bullets. “I’m only her aunt.”

Despite her defensiveness, there is a flicker of pride in her eyes. I have no desire to rehash this thorny subject, knowing what the inevitable conclusion will be: Tilly is a saint and I am inadequate. “Never mind. The point is I’m not going back.”

She frowns. “But what about work? Dan can’t manage the store on his own.”

“He can manage it fine without me. He cares more for that store than he ever did for me.”

“That’s not true. I know he adores you--you’re like his other half.”

“Hardly.” But I barely whisper this.

She sighs and stares at the horizon, squinting in the bright new sun. “Well, what about me? I need you too.”

I’m suddenly very tired. “Why do we always have to live our lives for other people? I want to live for me for a change.”

She turns to me, shaking her head. We continue to spar back and forth. I don’t want to listen to her any more. Finally I tell her, “I’m not asking your permission, Tilly.” 

“Look.” She stands up and steps right in front of me, pointing her finger like a mother scolding her child. I’m briefly transported back to when we were motherless children, our father too busy for us, and Tilly taking charge. With a feeble smile she says, “I’m older than you so I can tell you what to do.” She delivers this line in jest all the time and usually we end up laughing. 

Not now, though. I stare at her and raise my eyebrows. She pulls in her finger and touches my arm. “Lydie, you can’t seriously be
thinking of doing this.” 

I break eye contact, shifting my gaze to the shimmering water. 

She takes her arm back. “You’d hurt the people you love. You’d regret it too, once the novelty wears off.” 

I find myself nodding, feeling chastened. “Maybe.” Tilly has a point. I can’t just run away from my life because of a random idea that popped into my head. My petty complaints and selfish desires don’t justify such rash behaviour. Do they?

“Come on,” Tilly says gently. “Let’s go back and have some coffee and breakfast. You need to get to class and finish your triptych. You’ll feel better when that’s done.” 

The hair bristles on the back of my neck. She never stops adopting a mothering role in our relationship. Even though I’m a forty-six year old woman, she can still make me feel like a chastised child. "Go ahead. I’ll be there soon.” Despite my hesitation a few minutes ago, the resolve for my idea grows stronger. 

“I know you’ll do the right thing.” Tilly gives me a little hug. Her tone tells me she thinks she’s chased this foolhardy idea out of my head. 

In the glare of the sun I shield my eyes and watch her plod slowly across the sand, becoming smaller the farther she gets. At the wooden steps that arch over the dunes she turns and waves at me. I wave back. 

Last Sunday, immediately after we arrived on the island, we explored the beach. Even though the tide was rising, we walked along the
incoming surf. The water rose above our ankles and we ran to the stairs. Our escape route, we called it. 

In the distance, Tilly climbs the steps and disappears behind the dunes. I sit back on Tilly’s straight flat rock and begin to devise my own escape route.