Woman by the Water

The morning before the hurricane I cheated on my husband for the third time.

I suppose it had been a mistake for us to move here. “But, Dosy, sweetheart, I thought you loved the ocean!” my husband Jackson had spluttered. “You always said it was your favorite place growing up.” Actually, I had said that exactly once, on our honeymoon in Barbados right before I cheated on him for the first time with a floppy-haired BC college student who was on summer vacation with his lawyer parents and two little sisters. But the ocean where my father had moved us for no more than ten months while I was still a girl was off the coast of Maine—a quiet, lonesome place haunted by morning fog and the shrieks of gulls from outside my bedroom window. Sometimes, if you listened hard, you could even hear the slow, soft singing of whales in the distance. It was the saddest, most desperate sound I have ever heard, and yet I always ached to hear it once more. Everything there was colored a chill gray and smelled like wet fish and cold.

My husband moved us to a very different kind of ocean off the gulf of Southern Florida where he was accepted for the year as a high school music teacher. He is a jazz pianist though, and figured he could also find work in one of the myriad of pirate-themed crab shack bars strung out along the beach for Christmas-to-Memorial-Day snowbirds. “It’s either that or keep bummin’ around here,” he told me. “Not that there aren’t Ruby Tuesdays that need you to waitress down in Florida.” He popped the cork off a bottle of champagne that we usually saved for New Year’s and birthdays, his cheeks flushed, eyes bright behind rimmed rectangular glasses. “Can you believe it, baby? A job offer on the ocean!” He kept shaking his head, over and over again. I swear that man was almost going to cry. We lived in Kansas City at the time.

I’m not an ocean girl; that’s not my problem. I’m not a city girl or a country girl or a desert girl or a mountain girl either. And I didn’t cheat on my husband with three different men because I’m a barfly or a black heart or a lifelong fling. All I know is that every time it’s happened - first in Barbados, second in a cabin by Lake Huron when we were visiting his parents, and third here, today - I’ve been by the water. It does something to me. It gets under my skin through my veins into my bones and fills me with a restlessness I can’t explain.

That, and there was Chase the assistant marine biologist who worked bi-weekly at the local resort’s sea life exhibition.

I first met Chase when we moved down here in late August, back when the air seemed to crinkle it was so hot and the sand crusted over and burned the soft skin of your bare toes. I was waitressing five nights a week, my husband beginning his teaching job during the day. It seemed as though none of the pirate crab shack bars were in any dire need of a jazz pianist for now.

For those first few weeks I spent most of my days lying out on the shore, occasionally wading into the tide to splash my neck and arms with lukewarm saltwater, and trying to avoid getting sand kicked in my face by the bronzed, boozy vacationers playing Frisbee nearby. As evening set in I would then sneak into the local resort’s women’s locker room to shower and change before catching the bus to work. The fourth day into this routine I found myself halting before entering the locker room to wander around the little touristy marine life exhibit they had set up next to the tiki-inspired, conch shell-bedazzled seaside bar. A pinch-faced woman with lank blonde hair was standing behind the help desk counter, pointing out a brochure to a couple who looked as though they had just escaped from Pleasantville, USA. I deliberately avoided her gaze; I always afraid she was going to rat me out for using the locker room and not actually belonging to the resort.

With my hair damp and sand-ruffled down my arms and shoulder blades, a fraying towel wrapped around my dripping torso, and flip-flops smacking loudly against the puddled concrete floor, I skimmed the wall posters detailing the local seashells, mollusks, and water birds, ran my fingertips along the display coral, and slapped my way to the center of the arena to peer into the topless saltwater tank that seemed to be a watery cross-cut of everything squirming, swimming, and crawling in the entire Florida gulf. I leaned over on my tip-toes. There were fat, pale starfish suctioned to the tank’s sides, pulsating slowly; spindly-legged hermit crabs scuttling underneath rocks and across the sandy tank bottom; long, dark blobs that looked like slugs on steroids; some clam shells that were clamped shut at the bottom, others that looked like they were chattering away on barnacled rocks near the surface, and others still that zoomed backward underwater at the slightest touch. There were violet-colored spike-balls that I assumed were what sea urchins looked like when they were still alive; chunks of coral like yellow, wrinkled brains; and even what appeared to be a tiny, colorless octopus clinging to the glass side of the tank, its eight squiggly little legs splayed out as if it alone should be the sea star.

“You can touch them if you like, you know.” I glanced up to see this young guy in a vibrant turquoise polo, white visor, and glinting name plate grinning at me from across the tank with a kind of slanted smirk, almost as if he knew something I didn’t.


He made his way around to my side of the tank. “You can touch the stuff in there,” he repeated. “Nothing could possibly hurt you.” He dunked his hand into the tank and scooped up a scurrying hermit crab, which immediately zipped back inside its minuscule butterscotch-speckled conch shell. With his thumb and forefinger he delicately turned the shell upside down and slowly stroked the slimy crab-pad until once again a tiny leg emerged. His skin was sun-cooked in the way of lifeguards and beach volleyball players, the hair on his arms light blonde, nearly gold.

“I wasn’t so much worried about anything in there hurting me,” I said, reaching up and tracing the hermit crab’s shell with the curve of my fingernail. “I just didn’t want to hurt them.”

“Ah. I see.” He carefully set the crab back into the tank, flicked the water droplets off his fingertips and turned back to me, grinning now with his whole face, like a little boy. His eyes were green and his teeth were white, white. He even had dimples. “Want to see a trick?”

I didn’t mean to I swear, but at once I found myself twisting a wet-tangled lock of hair around one finger, bending slightly forward and doing that little pop thing with my shoulder that I’ve learned to finesse since high school when around men. The second guy I cheated with, the one from Lake Huron, had practically drooled over it. “Girl, that thing you do with your shoulder is breaking my heart,” he told me. “Breaking my heart.”


“All right then.” He dipped his hand into the tank again but this time pulled up one of the clam shells. “Watch this.” He held it towards me flat in his palm, and as I leaned forward it suddenly squirted a cold stream of saltwater directly into my face.

“Hey!” I squealed, burying my face into my towel. But I was laughing, and he was laughing, and in that moment there it was, and I knew.

He set the clam back into the tank, wiped his hand on his pant leg, and held it out for me to shake. “Chase.”

I shook it, hoisting up my towel underneath my arms. “Dosinda.” Little shoulder pop.

He raised his eyebrows. “Dosinda...that’s a pretty name. It sounds Spanish.”

I nodded. “My mom’s Mexican.” He raised his eyebrows even higher and tilted his head slightly. I get that a lot: my hair, red, my eyes, blue, my skin, freckled and rose-pale. Not a trace of a Hispanic trill in my voice. I don’t even like tacos. But that’s what happens when you grow up as an army brat with an Irish Catholic father from the Midwest with the last name of McGinty and a firm belief that English is the only language that should be spoken in the entire world, much less in central Illinois. You’re Dosinda Maria McGinty for the first twenty-three years of your life, and then you’re dropping out of community college to marry Jackson Hall, a music teacher from Missouri who you convince yourself that you love. And then you’re moving to Florida with him and flirting with a marine biologist until you realize with a start that here you are and you’re already late for tonight’s shift at Jolly Blackbeard’s Crab Shack Bar.

The second time I saw Chase was a week later on a day so hot it felt like I was trying to breathe through a sodden rag. I was walking along the shore, absentmindedly picking through sea shells, when I came across the most bizarre-looking, dried-up little thing I had ever seen. It was the same color and feel as a sand dollar and could almost be labeled as starfish except that, emerging from its tiny circular center, were five spindly limbs twisted into the curl of a pinwheel. I gently picked up the thing by its center between my thumb and forefinger and placed it flat in my palm. It almost looked as though five crusted-dried earthworms were smashed together by their ends, like an alien washed up on shore.

“Brittle star.” Chase bounced it lightly in his hand. Today he was wearing a sherbet orange polo and the same crisp white visor. “You’re right to think it’s some kind of starfish, though. Brittle stars are very rare. It’s the second class of starfish, called Ophiuridea. The first is Asteroidea, which includes your basic sea stars, you know, the Beaded, the Netted, the Spiny Beaded, the Sugar...” He grinned sheepishly and handed it back to me. “Sorry, that’s probably a little more than you needed to know.”

I laughed a little as I took back the brittle star. “That’s all right; I actually think it’s all fascinating.” I shifted in my flip-flops. “It was just so strange that I had to ask you.”

He grinned in that knowing way again. “I tend to come across a lot of strange things.” I felt myself coloring slightly, and although I couldn’t be entirely sure, I thought I saw him wink. “I like strange.”

My father, when he was home, yelled a lot. Not so much at me, or at least when I was still small, but mostly at my mother. When he was gone she was a real sass, a spitfire, out all night and lounging about the house by day, chain-smoking in only her long silk nightgown with cigarette burns and her flashy turquoise jewelry, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings. She said what she wanted. She did as she pleased. She told me stories of Mexico and of the wailing ghost-lady La llorona, an Indian peasant girl who slept with a rich man and drowned her two children when he left her for a noblewoman. She was doomed to roam the river banks and ocean shores of Mexico forever, shrouded in black, weeping and wailing for what she had done. My mother would tell me this story, take a long drag on her cigarette, and then grab me suddenly by the shoulders so that I would scream. “La llorona!” she would shriek with wild laughter. “She’s got you!”

But when my father was home my mother would shrink into her own black shroud, cowering behind the kitchen counter or beside the living room sofa or even at his feet, on the floor. He would call her names I didn’t understand but knew were barbed with meanness and hate. Barricaded behind my bedroom door by my mother in Springfield, Atlanta, Denver, Lexington, St. Louis, the wet-gray coast of Maine, I curled myself tight so that I was small and pressed my palms to my earlobes, screwing shut my eyes. I couldn’t figure out why my father was so angry and why he would call my mother a horse. Was he trying to say that she was horse-faced, as ugly as an animal? She wasn’t - she was beautiful: dark-skinned with eyes like liquid bright and a diamond collarbone and long black hair thick as a pony’s mane. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why my father was yelling.

The third time I saw Chase was several weeks after I had discovered my strange little brittle star, the morning before Hurricane Grace was supposed to hit the Florida gulf. I awoke that morning to the rustle of wind outside the window and an unnatural jostling coming from the kitchen. Sleep-tousled and yawning, I rose from the empty bed and padded into the kitchen to find Jackson, my husband, rummaging around in the kitchen drawers.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?” I asked blearily.

He stood upright and flashed a grin at me, a wide-bottomed candle in one hand and an industrial-strength flashlight in the other. “I just got up early to stock up on some stuff, you know, for tomorrow.” Since we lived a bus-ride away from the shore we weren’t really supposed to be in a lot of danger from the hurricane, but The Weather Channel did advise to keep some candles, flashlights, and jugs of water on hand just in case the power went out. He just looked so excited about it though, as if it were going to be this great adventure. As he put the things away, grabbed his satchel from the counter, and kissed my forehead goodbye, a part of me wanted to hit him hard and not stop. I wanted to yell in his face that life wasn’t Boy Scouts anymore and that I didn’t need saving or protection from anyone.

I took the Metro to the beach that morning, ignored the boarded-up windows from the shops all around, the clouded sky, the rushing wind, and the entirely deserted shore. Inside the marine life exhibition, the saltwater tank and all of its little sea creatures had been taken away, the walls stripped of its charts and posters, the display coral gone. But, in his lime green polo shirt, bright white visor, and khakis, Chase was there, stuffing a stack of brochures into a small cardboard box. He looked up at me when I entered, grinned.

I went back to his place with him that morning. Just this once, I told myself. That had been my rule for the other two times: only once with the college boy in Barbados and only once with the man at Lake Huron. Only at their place, and then we’d never see each other again. My husband would never have to know.

Afterwards, we lay quiet for a while, tangled in his bed sheets, listening to the sounds of the wind outside the window. The walls creaked and the branches tapped against the windowpane, showering petals of crepe myrtle every time. He rolled over.

“Did you know,” he said, tracing the curve behind my ear and down my neckline to the points of my collarbone, “that starfish are actually violent predators?”

I smiled, sighing at his touch. “Mhmm...I thought they just kind of floated around, actually, or sucked in algae or something.”

“Nope.” He leaned down and nibbled on my earlobe, pulling the skin almost enough for it to hurt. I gave a tiny squeal. “They eat mollusks and all kinds of other stuff. Vicious and beautiful.” He lifted my chin and kissed the delicate skin there. “Like you.”

I sat up on my elbows, my stomach twisting uncomfortably. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shrugged. “I mean, you’re a beautiful woman, but, damn...you’re married.”

My heart began to jack-hammer against my ribs. I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring, and I hadn’t told Chase that I was married. The other two had known, and it hadn’t mattered to them, but I didn’t want to tell Chase. In a moment of sheer panic, I decided to play innocent.


He cleared his throat. “Julie, that woman who works the help desk with me, you know? She knows your husband. Her kid is in his music class or something and I guess she met him at a parent’s conference. Told her all about his gorgeous little red-head Mexican wife Dosinda and that she goes to the beach nearly every day. Said she should look out for her.” He wouldn’t quite meet my eye. “She’s not an easy one to miss.”

I suddenly felt like a knife had just been thrust into my lungs. I couldn’t think of what to say. I just sat there on my elbows, in someone else’s bed, wearing nothing but a sheet, my mouth gaping like a stupid, hooked fish on a line. I thought of my husband popping the champagne bottle before our big move here, rummaging around our kitchen with fresh candles and flashlights, rambling on and on to this random woman about me. This morning when we lay in bed before we both awoke, his breath rising and falling against the nape of my neck, his hand resting on the curve of my side, so soft that I almost couldn’t feel it there. And I thought of how he could never, and would never, be able to make me happy.

We didn’t speak, the silence rising between us like a monsoon. I found that I also couldn’t meet his eye. Finally, I swallowed hard.

“I should go.”

I caught a Metro on his street corner; he hadn’t offered to drive me home. My husband wouldn’t be back from work for several hours, but instead of getting off at our stop I waited until the bus drove past the ocean. The wind was much stronger now, the clouds bunched and gathered like blanket rumples, and as I rolled up my jeans and walked along the shore, my sandals dangling from one hand, there was even a cold spattering of rain. The sea was a dark, brewing gray, the waves frothy and hurling, and above me seagulls careened and shrieked their calls. I longed to hear those childhood whales.

My foot clamped down on something hard but soft, something still alive. I quickly stepped back and glanced down: a sea star. Swiftly I bent to my haunches and scooped it up in my hand. Against my palm I could feel a twitch, its tiny feelers, searching. It didn’t look so vicious to me. In fact, it was probably dying, out of water, far from its home.

I didn’t care how wet I got my jeans. Wading into the gray, tumbling water up to my knees, I dunked my arm into the waves and let go. As I sloshed my way back to shore, my hair whipping around my face and my skin trembling with the chill of salt-spray, I knew that what I had just done was worthless and that the little sea star would probably just wash up to shore again within minutes. Actually, by the time the hurricane had blown through this beach would probably be littered with starfish, mollusks, crabs, and gaping fish, all either bone-dry or scale-slimy and long dead.

But still, I couldn’t bear not to do it. I just couldn’t let it be alone.