The clumsy enormous leaves of banana trees rattled in the sea breeze on their hotel balcony.
“They look fake. Where are the bananas?” Rick asked. “Where are my sunglasses?” Their margaritas sat in absurdly large salted glasses sweating on a small plastic table, slowly warming like a shallow pond of scum. He squinted at Lisa.
“On your head, stupid,” Lisa said.
It was something old wealthy couples did when things frayed at the edges—they traveled to safe, exotic places. They put themselves out there together against the world as if they were teammates on a reality game show for the despondent and weary, even though some might think they’d already won all the prizes.
Lisa wore a new, incredibly white blouse—almost see-through. Why wear a sexy blouse if you’re going to wear that old-lady bra underneath it, Rick wanted to ask, but his baggy old-man underwear was pinching his crotch.
“Do we really have to renew our vows?” she asked. “Seems like it’s been the kiss of death for our friends.”
“C’mon,” he said, lowering his sunglasses back over his eyes, “I’ll give you the kiss of death. Try to get into the spirit of it, or we can just fuck the whole thing.”
“That’s what I’m asking,” she said. “Can’t we just fuck the whole thing?…It wouldn’t be the whole thing—we’re here, and that’s part of the thing.”
He sighed dramatically in the way that always annoyed her, like he was completely deflating the thin balloon of his patience. “You can’t get cold feet now. This is just a little foot warmer to remind us of”—he paused to try to catch up to his own metaphor—”hot times.”
“Terry and Rita, James and Teresa—even the Sues,” Lisa took a sip, holding the wide goblet with both hands like a hungover priest. “They thought the coast was clear. They got smug and careless. Everybody we know who renewed their vows split up. It’s like a deathbed conversion.”
Rick reached over and picked up his own drink and took a long swallow. “Eventually, deathbed, death. It’s the system. Don’t be a Debbie Downer.”
Lisa picked up her holy vessel and some of it sloshed over the edge onto the concrete balcony. “I feel like we’re on a situation comedy,” she said. “A comedy in search of a laugh track.”
“The idea of coming down here was to not have a situation.”
“Our kids still need us,” she said. “There’s that.”
“This is our vacation from them. I’m glad I talked you out of bringing them along.”
Their two children, Tim and Pam, both gay, and currently without partners, were living at home again. He wondered if he and Lisa had stayed together at least partially out of some stubborn need to assert the strength of traditional marriage. He knew it was wrong, but he half-believed it on bad days of parenting, or of marriage.
“I thought I talked you out of inviting them,” she said.
“We still need each other,” he added. “That’s the assumption. You still love me, right?” He asked the question so slanted that it only had one answer. She didn’t bother giving it.
He’d wanted them to write their own renewal vows, but she’d talked him out of that too. “That’s for kids—and old hippies,” she’d said. He’d laughed, and agreed, finally, to keep it simple. Pam and her ex-husband Dave had written their own vows and were married on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale, but Lisa suspected she was gay the whole time. Why didn’t she put that in her vows, an escape clause? Lisa and Rick paid for the whole thing. It was sweet, then bittersweet.
“We’re not that naive anymore,” he agreed. “We know the deal. We’re survivors. They can be a bunch of fairy-tale lies—no matter who writes them.”
True, many of their friends were divorced now. Some had died—the usual: cancer, heart attack. They’d been to a handful of second and third weddings. What kept them together? Survivor’s guilt? She took his hand and held it, their arms linked between them in the air between lounge chairs covered with soft, white pillows. Someone’s idea of heaven, sitting on clouds.
“Shouldn’t there be more waves out there?” Rick fidgeted among the cushions to keep from sinking. “It seems too calm.”
She laughed and swung his arm. “Do we look like that Viagra commercial?”
“Nah, that’s that other one. Cialis.” He himself took nothing. They only had sex once or twice a month. He didn’t need a drug for that. She wondered how he’d hold up this week. They had to calibrate their watches so they were both alert enough and interested. Not hungry. Not having to pee.
Jesús, the concierge, had found them a minister to do a little ceremony at the end of the week. Apparently, it was a common enough request at Las Olas. The resort of last resort, she thought. I still do, she said to herself, either practicing or willing it to be true.
He’d gone and written his own vows, squirreling them away in a pocket of his carry-on. He hadn’t decided if he’d say them to Lisa or not. Maybe they were more like promises to himself. Maybe he wasn’t sure, no matter how good they sounded, whether he’d keep them.
“What a view,” she said, with a misty sigh. The sea sparkled in the sun in front of them. The same view the rows of other small faux-castle structures had all down the coast, artfully separated from each other by tall hedges or bamboo fences. Or banana trees. She wasn’t even sure what they called the water—a gulf? An ocean? A sea? How could she renew her vows when she didn’t even know where she was?
Artfully separated. She wondered if they truly still needed each other. Forty years. She hated the round numbers with their weight of cement road markers. They could kill you if you suddenly swerved. Thirty-seven had been a good number. Indivisible. Their son graduated from college, their daughter married, however briefly. Milestones, celebrations, surges of love—days she wanted to photograph everything to save and remember.
They’d finally improved the process of color photography after selling everyone on the idea that color was better only to see those photos fade into a hazy pink blur, losing definition, while black and white stayed crisp, clear. They kept childhood perfect, sharply defined, the simple clarity and happiness of it. Were their devices cameras you could talk into, or phones you could take pictures with? Everything digital now—perfect, until the power shut down. You could edit out red eyes.
What happened after thirty-nine? Forty. It crushed her a little. Rick was making too much money, turning his sporting goods store into a franchise operation, traveling the country selling gold-plated golf clubs and jock straps. He was counting it too much, stuffing it in his pillow to stain his dreams with bad blood. Constantly on edge, thinking someone was going to steal it out from under him, while being dismissive of her own ambitions as a musician that cost them nothing and gave her a passion.
Would she ever be anything besides a piano teacher who sat in at jazz clubs around town now and then? She was tired of the clubs, the late nights. She’d quit drinking, then regretted it and started up again. Maybe she should have let it become more of a problem first. He used to apologize for her abstinence, as if it were a social fault. She was tired of smiling at children who did not really want to be learning piano, who looked out the window or at the clock, squirming on the hard bench, waiting to be judged.
Forty, and they could go anywhere in the world! And here they were, on Cozumel, surrounded by other sunburned Americans.
“You know the difference between buses and flying?”
She did not acknowledge him. She imagined herself as one of those trendy life-like sculptures she’d seen in the Carnegie International last month that he refused to go to—even to make fun of, as he once did.
“When you’re ready to go home, you can just hop on the next bus. They run every twenty minutes, and there’s always seats. Or, if there’s not, you just stand—you’re not going so far you can’t stand.”
“When’s the last time you took a bus?” she asked. She pointed one of the remote controls in his direction.
“But when you fly, you make reservations, you pick your seat, certain day, certain time, you’ve got to arrive hours early just to wait in line—and if you’re ready to go home sooner, well, tough luck, sailor, you gotta pay all this extra money to change your flight. There’s maybe one or two other flights a day, and they’re on different airlines, and they’re all full, so even if you get an earlier flight, it might not be early enough, it might be so close to when you’re scheduled to leave that you may as well just wait.”
“Are you ready to go home?” she asked. She turned to look at him straight on. “Have you looked into it?”
He picked up his margarita, sipped it and made a face. “They should put sugar around the rim, not salt. Have they ever tried that?”
“They’re complimentary,” she said. “Mine tastes like Fresca with salt around the edge.”
“I wouldn’t mind it, going home early. I’d still marry you again. It’s just that—everything seems so pressurized here. They’re not complimentary. It’s all-inclusive. We’ve paid for it all already. All except the tipping. The tipping will break us.” He pulled the stiff sheet from the welcome package. The laminated chart recommended how much to give each person on the staff.
“Do they think we’re idiots?” he demanded.
“What pressure? We’re looking at the ocean. Or the sea, or whatever. We don’t have to do anything.”
“Except have the time of our lives. We have to do that.”
Lisa sighed. She wanted to say she’d give him a big tip if he just shut up. She looked at her gold watch and squirmed on the lounge chair pressing into her back. “Maybe we need an interruption,” she said.
“An eruption?” he nearly shouted.
“Interruption,” she repeated, louder, into the wind.
“They don’t tell you about the wind,” he said.
“We’re on an island.”
“I’m going to make my own interruption,” she said, and got up to go to the bathroom, the sliding glass door crooked in its track.
Rick was reading a paperback mystery he’d picked up at the airport. The detective seemed to have incredible sexual prowess and durability, despite his prodigious drinking. He was supposed to be middle-aged.
Every few minutes, a banana leaf blew across his field of vision to startle him. Dusk was slowly fading to darkness, shadows blurring. The sea seemed rougher now, or just louder, since he could barely see it anymore. The huge leaves interrupted the hiss of the waves like the helicopter blades of an invading force.
Lisa was watching a Mexican soap opera on TV with the sound off. She didn’t know any Spanish besides sí and no, and no didn’t count. Dinner didn’t start till eight, but they were in for the night. Dinner at eight? They’d be half-asleep. Late dinners upset his stomach. They’d had a big lunch in town at a place recommended by Jesús. He’d made a joke about his name. God was not his father’s name, he said. He probably said that to all the guests. The restaurant was touristy and overpriced and probably gave Jesús a kickback, but their days of going native were long gone. Just getting out of the resort was enough of an accomplishment, even if it cost them.
The banana leaves were spooking him. He wanted to close the sliding glass door, but the air conditioning was too cold. He couldn’t figure out how to turn it down.
“Did you order room service?” Lisa asked. She was nostalgic for her old self. She’d packed some wedding pictures, but they sat in a side pocket of her suitcase. The years were settling into her ass and thighs, her belly sagging into a subtle roll. Rick kept his shirt on. So he wouldn’t get burned, he said, though she was grateful not to have to look at his own loose flab. She bought an old-lady bathing suit with a skirt that covered her thighs. She felt slightly ridiculous in it and was glad of the private balcony. They certainly wouldn’t be having sex out there, like he’d joked when they looked at the brochure. The heavy shellfish at lunch had bloated them into a slight stupor.
“Forty years,” he said.
“Forty years,” she said. “What’s that in dog years?”
“I vow to live forever,” he said. “With you,” he added.
“Did you order room service?” she repeated. “I might be getting hungry again.”
“Really?” he said. The thick banana leaves thumped against each other yet again. “Have you noticed that? It’s driving me crazy. I keep thinking—”
“Yes—that someone’s out there.”
They stared into the night, the sea in the distance, floodlights dimming stars, keeping everyone safe.
Mini-interview with Jim Daniels
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
JD: I had been part of a writer’s group many years ago (before the internet took over) where every month we all mailed one poem to one of us (we had a monthly schedule of who to send to). The “editor” would make a goofy cover and send a letter along with copies of everyone’s poem for that month. Though the “newsletter,” as we called it, petered out, after a good long run. One of our members, Marc Sheehan, organized an online reading-reunion of the group, along with new edition of the newsletter. Everyone participated, and it was a memorable evening. Though the group faded out over time, I still kept in touch with most of the members over the years—at least forty, I believe. We were all of the same generation and starting our careers at the same time, so we were always there for each other, to celebrate successes and to empathize with disappointments. These people have been my best, most honest critics over the years. They know what I’m trying to do in my writing (sometimes better than I do) and aren’t afraid of hurting my feelings with their feedback. What more could any writer ask for?
HFR: What are you reading?
JD: I am currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Crossroads. I also just finished Jennifer Haigh’s Mercy Street and Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House. These are all authors whose next books I eagerly anticipate, so having them all with new novels out in relatively close proximity to each other has been a real treat for me as a reader.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Dead Calm”?
JD: I think it started with this idea of people renewing their wedding vows—I have, in fact, known more than one couple who divorced shortly after renewing their vows, and I was struck by those drastic extremes and wanted to explore the contradictory nature of renewing commitment versus breaking that commitment. I was also interested in the cruise industry, and the idea of all-inclusive resorts that leave you with very little to think about.
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
JD: I am working on a new collection of short stories while also writing and revising some new poems for a possible chapbook. As we head into summer, I will be focusing on writing and taking a break from submitting work until the fall.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
JD: I’m kind of speechless at the moment. I guess one of the reasons I became a writer is that I was never very good at taking the floor ….
Gun/Shy, published by Wayne State University Press, is Jim Daniels’ eighteenth poetry book. Other recent books include his fiction collection, The Perp Walk, and his anthology, RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music, co-edited with M. L. Liebler, which was a Michigan Notable Book and received the Tillie Olsen Prize from the Working-Class Studies Association (both published by Michigan State University Press). A native of Detroit, he lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in the Alma College low-residency MFA program.