Whitecaps were starting to form on the waves as the wind picked up. The colour of the water reminded me of my childhood and time spent at my grandfather’s fishing camp in South Louisiana. I missed the peace and quiet of it so much at times, those early mornings where the water was like glass, the only sound the occasional splash of mullet jumping.
He’d taught me how to fish for alligator gar, a voracious ambush predator with a snout like an alligator’s, complete with teeth. The fish hadn’t evolved much since its appearance in the Early Cretaceous over a hundred million years ago. I’d sit with him, listening intently as he explained how an alligator gar hunted, his words spoken with a thick Cajun accent.
He finished with a lesson I’d taken to heart. “Ya need ta know how sumtin’ hunts. How else ya gonna catch it, Adrienne? Ya try wit’out knowin’? C’est sa couillion.”
The last phrase, Cajun French, said sternly and rapidly with an emphasis on the last syllable, barely pronouncing the ’n’. Phonetically, ‘say sah coo-yawn’. Literally translated, the phrase meant, ‘It is a fool’. Figuratively, ‘You’re a fool’. It was the most damning statement my grandfather could make. He had not one iota of tolerance for fools or foolish behaviour.
He also taught me how to sit still when the gar grabbed the bait and ran, the line singing with a ‘zzzz’ as it flew off the spool. Adrenalin flooded my body, my mind screaming ‘move, move, move’. Every instinct demanded I grab the rod, flip the spool release and set the hook. But I couldn’t. Try to set it too soon and I’d lose the fish, the hook unable to penetrate the long, bony snout. I had to ignore my instincts and wait until the fish stopped and swallowed before I set the hook.
I knew how it hunted.
With all that adrenalin rushing through my body.
My nostrils flared just thinking about it.
The reward was at least a fifty pound fish most of the time, a battle to land. Once on the pier, I shot it in the head with a .32 to kill it before its thrashing hurt me or someone else. Even after I shot it, though, when I’d gut it, sometimes the heart was still beating. Crazy fucking prehistoric fish.
My mouth watered thinking of how good the gar tasted when my grandmother cooked it. Cut into thin strips then dipped in corn meal, the meat would curl when she fried it. She called it gar balls and my little brother, Nick, would laugh and laugh.
Nick. What a fucking dick. I hadn’t thought about him in a while. Hadn’t thought about any of them in a while.
“Where’d you go off to?”
I blinked and focused on my companion across the table. “The colour of the water today…it reminded me of something from my childhood.”
“Another story of our little predator growing up in south Louisiana? One I know?”
“No, not one you know.” Sometimes, I wish I’d never discussed my childhood with him. “Fishing, hunting, trapping…it’s what a lot of people there do. You live off the land. Nothing wrong with it.”
He held up his hands. “No offence intended.”
“I’d say none taken, but that’s not true. Sorry, Alistair,” I blew a breath out and ran my fingers through my hair to sort it. The wind was picking up even more.
“Care to share the story?”
“Not much to it. Just shooting prehistoric fish in the head.”
“You do that on purpose,” Alistair accused, his green eyes narrowing as he stared at me. “Say something so blunt to shock…to stop people from pursuing it further, from getting close.”
“It never works with you though, does it?” I said, picking up my glass and draining it.
“No, it doesn’t,” he smiled smugly. “I know your issues too well. Were I of a mind, you’d make a fascinating case study. Nature and nurture. Man’s predatory instinct, the cultural influences of both your father’s adopted family and your mother’s first-generation immigrant family, the family dysfunction, and how it’s all shaped your life. It’s fascinating.”
“Remind me again when I return why you’re one of my best friends, please,” I responded sarcastically as I pushed my chair back and stood, grabbing the empty pitcher. “We need another pitcher of Pimm’s.”
I worked my way through the crowd on the front terrace into the barroom, placing the empty pitcher on the bar. At least the area around the bar itself was less crowded. I ordered another pitcher when the bartender came over then leaned back against the bar and surveyed the crowd of mostly gay men.
The bar, with its terrace seating, was one of Alistair’s favourite Sunday afternoon haunts, weather permitting. When I visited for the occasional weekend, he’d drag me here for several pitchers of Pimm’s. He was a very attractive man, reminding me of Victoria Langtry, Jill’s best friend, another one with devastatingly good looks. Both had wavy light chestnut hair and green eyes. Smiles that lit up a room. Both were thin and tall, though Alistair was uncommonly tall for an Englishman at 6’ 5”. He was a bit older than I at forty-five, a touch of grey at his temples giving him a rather distinguished look.
Alistair and I met at Cambridge fourteen years ago, both getting our PhDs there. His was in Social Psychology, specifically around psychological operations in war. He was also a psychiatrist. He’d gone on to work for MI6. I’d returned to the States and the CIA. We’d both left our respective agencies, me almost three years ago and Alistair just last year. On occasion, Alistair did some consulting for my company.
I checked my watch. It was close to four p.m. We’d likely stay here for another hour or so, finishing the Pimm’s, then pick up take-away and return to his flat. Tomorrow morning, I’d wake early, have a run along the promenade then head back to London to start the work week. The bartender returned with my pitcher of Pimm’s and I paid then made my way back through the crowd to our table.
Alistair was speaking with someone when I returned. Not surprising, really, since he knew almost every gay man in a fifty mile radius of Brighton as well as half of those in London, and a lot of them showed up in Brighton for the weekend. I nodded at the man as I sat. Alistair didn’t bother introducing him which was fine by me. I wasn’t in the mood to chat.
I picked up my drink and took a sip, shifting in the chair and resumed my contemplation of the water. I loved being on the water — boating, skiing, fishing — though I hadn’t done any of it in quite a while except sailing. Alistair had a friend with a forty-one foot Hunter Legend we’d occasionally go out on.
I wasn’t that big a fan of actually being in the water. A sadistic fucker, the father of a girl in my childhood Girl Scout troop, had seen to that. During the summers, meetings were held at their house since they had a pool. Mr. Charlie’s idea of fun in the pool was to clamp one hand over your nose and mouth, using the other to hold you underwater while you thrashed about wondering if you were going to die. Then he’d pull you up, laugh and ask if you were having fun.
The near drownings started when I was seven years old. Happened until I was nine and managed to nail him in his balls. I’d asked him if he was having fun as he groaned in pain and struggled to get to the side of the pool. Very few things in life have given me as much satisfaction as that did.
Needless to say, I’m not much fun at swimming parties. I violently react if someone touches me when I’m in the water, lashing out blindly, intent on destroying whatever’s near me. I stopped going into the water a long time ago unless I was by myself.
“Sorry about the interruption,” Alistair returned his attention to me as the man walked off. “What are you thinking about this time? You look angry.”
“The long-lasting effects of sadism on children.”
“Dear god, Adrienne,” he said, alarmed. “Seriously?”
“You asked.” I picked up the pitcher and refilled his glass.
“Cheers,” he said, taking a sip. “Does this have anything to do with one of your current projects?”
“No. It’s personal.”
“Is it something you want to talk about?”
“Not particularly, no.”
He stared at me.
“It’s the water issue.”
He’d been with me in Spain when I’d nearly drowned myself once in the Mediterranean trying to conquer the fear. I shivered and inhaled deeply in pure reflex.
“Sorry…I hadn’t gotten to Spain yet.” I shook my head as I thought about Spain. I sometimes wondered how I was still alive. I’d have these massive lapses in judgment on occasion. It never turned out very well.
“You always think of your water issue when you’re feeling out of control. What has you feeling out of control?”
Alistair knew every single one of my issues as well as I did. His knowledge was gained by virtue of his education and time spent with me. Mine, I’d paid thousands to therapists for.
“Please don’t try to analyse me, Alistair. I’m not feeling out of control.” I picked up my drink and took a sip, shifting in the chair.
“Jill offered me a position on the board of the Science Education Foundation. I accepted. My first meeting’s Friday in Cheltenham.”
“You’re getting more involved with the science world. Are you enjoying it?”
“It’s good. Different but familiar in some ways. Science is Jill’s passion. If it was up to her, everyone would be a scientist,” I chuckled. “She really does believe the way to a better world is through science. You should hear her speak about it. It’s amazing. You want to get up and cheer when she’s done.”
“And what do you believe?”
“Well, I’m a bit cynical that’s all it’ll take.”
“I don’t think you’re cynical at all,” Alistair stated.
My eyebrows nearly crawled off my forehead. “How long have you been suffering from these delusions?”
“Very funny, Adrienne. You’re one of the most astute observers I’ve ever met. I don’t think it makes you cynical.”
“I pay attention and live in reality. That’s it. But I still think I’m cynical,” I sighed. “I have very little trust in the integrity and decency of humanity in general.”
“Yet you’re an optimist.”
“A small sliver of hope lurks somewhere in my being that integrity and decency will ultimately prevail.”
“To integrity and decency,” Alistair said as he raised his glass and tipped it my way. “How are things going with Jill?”
“There is no ‘thing’ going on with Jill,” I responded. “We’re…our…friendship…it’s good.”
“I think the fact it’s remained a friendship’s been very good for you. It’s pushed you to work on some aspects of yourself I don’t think you’ve really addressed in depth before. In my view, it’s critical to the long-term success of any relationship you pursue with Jill.”
“I won’t pursue anything. We’re just friends.”
He looked at me for a moment before speaking. “That’s still your position?”
“My position? She’s married and straight. Those are the facts, Alistair. Any other position would require me to ignore those facts,” I said adamantly.
“And the fact you’re in love with her?”
“Irrelevant. I won’t ponder the ‘what ifs’, manufacture some kind of fantasy land in my head,” I insisted.
To purposefully entertain thoughts about Jill as anything other than a friend would’ve driven me crazy. The dreams were bad enough. And I refused to say I was in love with her out loud. I’d spent months in denial until Alistair finally came out and said it a few months ago.
“You’re in love with her.”
I’d stared at him, dumbfounded, then started to object. He’d interrupted me, daring me to admit I wasn’t. My mind had hit Mach 30, surpassing atmospheric re-entry speed as I thought. Sorting and classifying all the data. Reviewing all the evidence. As much as I love a dare, I couldn’t deny it. He was right.
“How long will you let her dictate the terms?”
“Look, there are no ‘terms’. We’re friends. That’s it. Do you have terms for our friendship?”
“That’s not how I meant it, and you know it,” he admonished. “Have you considered the damage you may be causing to yourself?”
“I don’t care how you meant it. This is probably the least damaging thing I’ve ever done to myself. Besides, she’s certainly not in love with me.” At his look, I asked, “Do you think I’m wrong?”
“I’ve…,” he hesitated. “No opinion.”
“Cut the crap, Alistair. This isn’t some therapy session. I’m supposed to be your friend.”
“For what it’s worth, the time we ran into Jill and Victoria…all had dinner together…she cares about you, Adrienne. Very much.”