We were on the beach in Belize, the drowsy afternoon heat sweetening our limbs and our libidos. It had become our neverland, this stretch of sand out the front door of our rental cabana. For two blessed weeks, we were away from jobs, snow, deadlines and misbehaving faucets. We floated through each day and could, if we chose, reinvent our whole lives for the duration.
Belizean men and women trudged the shoreline to show us their wares: woven bags, coconut shell jewelry, beach hats. One of them was George, a garrulous guy from a nearby town who hawked hand-carved bracelets and marijuana. Making small talk, he bumbled into the Land of Big Mistakes.
What he said to Michael: “Are you and your mother enjoying Belize?”
The sweetness shriveled; his banal question shredded me like a handsaw. We were unmasked, the Older Woman and the Younger Man. I felt as though my husband (then 41) and I (58) had been ripped apart by all the waters of the deep: his generation on one shore and mine on the opposite.
What Michael said to George: “She’s my wife.”
I thought of that day yesterday while watching The Reader, the film starring Kate Winslet as 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz in post-war Germany who takes up with a 15-year-old named Michael. During a bike holiday in the countryside, a waitress at a roadside café inquires whether his “mother” has enjoyed her meal. Yes, he says. Then, while the scandalized waitress watches, he kisses Hanna. Yes, he tells the world, we are lovers.
You have to love a kid who would do that. It’s easier, though, for the teenaged movie Michael to proclaim his infatuation with a woman in her 30s — those ages and even the span between them are saucy, seductive, juicy.
In real life, my Michael never wavered. “She’s my wife,” he said, as though any fool could see that. With those three words the churning waters subside, the continents reunite, the lovers’ equilibrium recovers.
You have to love a man who can do that.