Herb looked at me in his brittle, self-effacing way and said, didn’t I love him?
The soap had begun in the shape of a pink mollusk shell. He had given it to me on Valentine’s Day five weeks before, and it had taken me all that time to wear it down to a nub at its center.
Herb said if I didn’t love him just to tell him right then and there so we could be done with it.
I told him of course I loved him, but if he could wait five weeks for me to find the ring, he could wait a little longer for me to say yes.
Herb stood there, blinking his eyes underneath his glasses. After a minute or two he said yes, yes, he supposed it had to be done.
By then I was thirty-one, and there were only two things after all that time I still regretted: the shovel and the rose. Twenty-four years before, I had left the rose in a classroom and the shovel under the dock, and I wanted them back.
I told my aunt Lanette that Herb had proposed, but I was leaving to find the rose first. She was running the hose in the garden at the time. She promised to make my wedding dress while I was gone. I told her to remember the lace, and to start with the sleeves short and make them longer from there, in case it took me a while to come back.
Danny and I took art lessons together in grade school. Sometimes he would sort pieces of confetti into patterns and give them to me on oaktag. That was when I fell in love with him. He had a sacred, choir-boy’s voice, and when he said in that soft way of his, did I love him, I told him yes, I thought I did.
But when he had given me the red rose I was frightened, and I had given it back. I said I was too young. I said he would have to wait a little while. Danny said, how long? and I told him I didn’t know. He waited three months but then one day he was gone, to South America with his father. Someone said he’d moved to Ecuador, but I wasn’t sure where that was.
I got in my car and drove to the last place I could remember. The school was still there, but it had older walls and more children. In the art room there were eight students; they sat at high counters, instead of the folding tables we had used. They were painting with watercolors kept in little white pots. I didn’t know what had happened to the markers, the ones that smelled like chocolate and watermelon.
Danny was sitting at the far counter with the rose, its petals fanned out to one side so that it looked top-heavy. It had died a long time ago. He stood when I came in and said, Hello Jolaine, it’s been a long time. He was taller, and I couldn’t tell if I was in love with him or not anymore. But then I saw he had a ring on his finger and a gilded little boy next to him. I had made him wait too long.
I told him, I shouldn’t have given you back the rose, Danny. I’ve thought about it all this time.
Well, that is the way of things, isn’t it, he said. But I could hear it in his voice; I had been forgiven.
I took the rose. We shook hands, and he said, I’ll be seeing you then, although we both knew it wasn’t true.
The lake had gotten old while I was gone, and the water had turned black. It was September, and the beach was all slanted shadows and emptiness. My heels stuck in the sand like taffy. It was slow going, but I made it to the shore. The dock was far away. I had to cup my hand above my eyes to see it, because the sun was very bright.
My sister and I had played a game near the dock in August, many years before. One of us would hide a little plastic shovel in the water, and the other would dive down to find it. The idea was that eventually if it was not found the shovel would rise to the surface, and then the game would be lost.
There had been stories that once—long before we had gotten there—a man had drowned below the dock, while tying the buoys with yellow rope. When it had been my turn to find the shovel, I had thought of this story and was frightened. I couldn’t see the shovel; the water made yellow and green freckles in my eyes. I was very far down, and I could feel the seaweed putting spells on the bottoms of my feet.
I was almost out of air when I saw the glass face, deep below me in the water. I swallowed the lake in gulps. The bubbles caught inside my throat. The lifeguards blew their whistles and paddled out to get me on yellow boards with red crosses.
Afterwards I thought: it was probably a fish. But we had left the shovel underneath the water, and we never went back for it.
I had learned how to swim the crawl stroke at age eleven, and I still remembered it after all this time. My fingers split the lake into five parts in front of me.
My sister had gone back once too. She had walked dripping into my house, smelling of the lake, and she said, Jolaine, you’ll have to go back, I couldn’t find it. That was the day I told Herb about the shovel.
I saw the glass face too. But it smiled at me, and I waved as I kicked back to the surface, the water falling into blossoms below me.
When I got back Herb was sitting in a chair reading the stock quotes. My white dress was on the table. The sleeves were at three-quarters with lace around the cuffs. He looked up at me only a little surprised and said, So that’s it then?
I said yes, yes, that’s it.
I went to go try on my dress.
About The Author
A 2006 U.S. Mitchell Scholar to Ireland, Victoria is currently enrolled in the M.Phil. program in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin. She received her B.A. from Harvard.