“I can’t believe you forgot the marshmallows,” my wife scolded me.
“And I can’t believe you forgot the friggin’ graham crackers,” I spat back at her. “How do you except us to make smores with only these stupid chocolate bars?”
“Well, you’re the friggin’ genus, Mr. Hot Shot, you figure it out.”
“Well…Well…” I couldn’t think of anything to say, except this, “Screw you, Shelia, I’m going for a walk.”
I left our campfire and headed off into the woods. This was our first night camping with our rented houseboat on Scalawag Bay on the south shore of Rainy Lake. We were on the Minnesota side of the Minnesota, Canadian border and were supposed to stay three nights, but the way it was going we’d be lucky to last until morning.
I was steaming mad and pissed off to boot. I pushed through the jack pine and underbrush and tripped over a rock, half submerged in the mossy forest floor. I fell, smashing my knee on another rock when I hit the ground. Shit. I got up, brushed myself off and kicked at the granite outcropping, stubbing my toe in the process. Not a good idea. Damn, it hurt. I made the wise decision to quit doing battle with an inanimate object and continued on. A few yards further, I pushed through more underbrush and a branch wiped back and smacked my face. It stung like hell. I put my hand to my cheek and came away with a little blood. Shit and damn.
I slowed down to get control of myself and hiked on, silently cursing my fate, my life, my wife and this idiotic trip to Rainy Lake, not necessarily in that order. In a few minutes I came out of the woods and onto the backside of the little bay where we’d landed the houseboat. Hoping to calm down, I sat on a flat bolder near the shoreline and looked across a much bigger bay. On the horizon to the west was a sunset turning the sky a soft orange and crimson brushed with gentle traces of magenta and plum. It was probably beautiful. To someone else, it might even have been a glorious and awe inspiring sight, but I hardly noticed. I was still fuming. The only color I saw was the angry red behind my eyes. I took out my phone and checked that I had a signal. Good, I did, so I called my girlfriend, Leslie.
“Hi there Big Fella’, how’s the trip going?” she asked, picking up on the first ring, almost like she was waiting for me. She probably was.
“Like shit,” I told her. “We’re already fighting.”
“Smores, if you can believe it.”
Leslie laughed so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear.
“God, Ben, that’s sounds so…so…”
I waited to hear what it sounded like to her. Now that I’d had a few minutes to think about it, our argument sounded ridiculous and pathetic. I guess I was on Leslie’s wavelength because what she said was, “Well, that just sounds sad.”
Which, all things considered, I guess it was. Shelia and I were both forty-five years old and had been married twenty-three years. Our marriage had definitely seen better days.
I shifted my butt on the rock, trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable spot. I was tall and thin and I didn’t have a lot extra body fat. Some people might think that was a good thing, being skinny. Right. Try sitting on a hunk of granite in the boundary waters for a few minutes and get back to me on that.
“So how are things going at work?” I asked, just to change the subject. Leslie worked with me in Human Resources for Heartland International, a worldwide electronic temperature control manufacturing company; she as a training instructor, me in software design. In answer to my question, she began rambling on and on until finally I began to listen with only half an ear. I mean, really, who cared anyway? Honestly, not me. I was on vacation, a time to forget about workplace dramas and office politics. But it was on me. I’d asked her about work, so I didn’t interrupt and let her talk while I tried to make sense of how I ended up like this.
Shelia and I usually vacationed on Rainy Lake with our longtime friends, Bob and Iris Lansbury. This year, however, Bob was recovering from hip pointer surgery, brought on by years of playing catcher in a recreational softball league. Earlier in the summer he’d told me, “Sorry, buddy, I’m under doctor’s orders to keep this bad boy rested.” He pointed to his right hip and laughed. I did, too, but only to humor him. I had no idea what he was talking about. I did, however, decide to take him at his word (why not?) But, every now and then I wondered, maybe the real reason they were avoiding us was that he and Iris just didn’t want to be around me and Shelia and our falling apart marriage shit anymore.
Honestly, who could blame them? My wife and I been drifting apart for the last ten years or so, but things had really started coming unraveled a few years back after our kids began moving out of the house, Jake to live in Montana two years ago, and Julie to live over by the University of Minnesota last year. Our fighting, which had been subversively passive aggressive while they lived at home, had become more out in the open, with yelling and verbal taunts becoming the norm. The more I thought about it, who would want to spend time with us?
“…and then good old Manager Randy, told me that I had to…”
I turned my attention to Leslie for a moment but had nothing to say except for the occasional, “Huh, huh,” to let her know I was still there. Leslie was a talker. When it came to her job, she could go on and on and I had to give her credit for that. She’d worked for Heartland for three years and still cared. I’d worked there for nineteen years and did not.
With Bob debilitated, Shelia and I had gone ahead on our own and rented a twenty-four foot houseboat from Northern Lights Houseboat Adventures, the company we’d used on the three previous trips to Rainy Lake with Bob and Iris. The first time was twelve years ago, one of those bucket list things that was Iris’ idea. None of us had any idea what we were getting into. Surprisingly, we’d all had a really good time, staying out in the middle of August for four nights and five days on the biggest houseboat the company owned, ‘King of the Lake,’ a forty-four foot giant that I drove and inconveniently got hung up on rocks six times (I counted. So did everyone else.) We went back three years later and rented a smaller, more manageable thirty-five foot boat, ‘The Queen of Rainy’ which worked out well, but the smaller living space made it awkward on occasion (especially at night, if you know what I mean.)
Four years ago we decided to each rent a small houseboat so we could have some privacy if we wanted. The smaller boats were easy to drive and the living space was fine. In short, it worked out so well that Shelia and I rented one for three nights and four days in August this year. But this time was different. Without our friends with us, the idea was use our vacation to spend one on one time together and try to patch up the rifts in our marriage. Yeah, right. Easier said than done. You know that old adage, Pissing into the wind? Well, that’s exactly what is was like from the moment we pointed our houseboat (called Looney Tunes, ironically enough) away from Northern Lights base of operations and rode the calm waters of Rainy Lake eighteen miles east to Scalawag Bay. Along the way I came up with another adage, You can’t put a bandage on a hurricane. In my mind, it was more than appropriate.
When a marriage implodes who’s to say where the fault lies? I’d like to say it was with Shelia, but, to be honest, probably not. She was a devoted mother to Jake and Julie. She carved out a career as an independent accountant, working from a home office she’d set up in a converted bedroom on the second floor of our 1920’s bungalow in Long Lake, a small town located twenty miles west of downtown Minneapolis. In addition to her job, she found time to work out and run marathons. She’d even competed in the City of Lakes Triathlon in Minneapolis a few times. Me? I just tried to do a good job at work, keep our gardens weeded at home, the lawn cut and the driveway shoveled.
So, on paper I guess I didn’t come out looking too good, kind of boring, to be frank. Well, fine. I’m not going to defend myself. Sometimes these things just happen. Sometimes a husband and wife drift apart and can’t figure out how to get themselves back together again. Sometimes they don’t want to get back together. I didn’t know about Shelia, but the question was, did I want to keep our marriage together? I didn’t have an answer. The more I thought about it, the more I came up empty. I just didn’t know.
Most people would argue that having a girlfriend in the mix certainly didn’t help things and at this stage, I’d have to agree. Leslie and I began our affair last winter with discrete, innocent flirtations in the break room and the occasional “working” lunch at the Black Forest Inn, a restaurant a few blocks from our office. She was twenty-seven years old. I found her attractive, intelligent and baggage free. I enjoyed her company. Do the math. She’s eighteen years younger than me. I’m not sure what my expectations were, but I’ll tell you this: I never planned on things going as far as they did, but, I guess, as these things happen, they did. Looking back, naive and stupid would be the first two words out of many that come to mind to describe what I had done.
It all escalated last spring on a office team building trip to the Riverview Conference Center outside of Monticello on the shore of the Mississippi River, an hour’s drive northwest of Minneapolis. After a day of activities like playing ‘Blind Person’ Bluff’, ‘Designing the Perfect Work Place,’ and competing in a two legged race, most everyone was ready for a night of blowing off steam. Me, I was looking forward to having a few drinks, dial it back, hit the hay and read the newest Cork O’Conner novel.
I was in the Riverview Bar, well on the way to becoming very relaxed when I bumped into Leslie. We started talking. One thing led to another and we ended up spent the night together in my room. It was the first time I’d ever cheated on my wife. I felt a little guilty, but not all that much. Leslie was a nice diversion then, and still is now. We have continued to see each other and have grown as close as two people can be, given the circumstances. But did I care enough for Leslie to leave Shelia for her? I wasn’t sure.
I brought the phone closer to my ear and listened, “That class I’m teaching is just crazy. Most of them are from out east…”
She was telling me about the sales training seminar she was currently instructing. I listened, trying to drum up some enthusiasm. It was her job, after all, a job she was committed to; a job she loved and was good at. The more I listened, though, the more I realized that I honestly didn’t care about what she was talking about. She was happy, young and single. She had her whole life ahead of her. She was excited about life. Me? I had my own problems to deal with.
Here’s the thing. I suppose you could say I got involved with Leslie to take a break from Shelia. My home life wasn’t fulfilling. Shelia and I rarely talked, we just went our separate ways. She had her friends and activities and I had mine. In addition to gardening and yard work, my hobby is collecting vintage tin toys made by Marx, mainly purchased in antique stores or off the internet. Not the most exciting life, I’ll grant you, but I enjoyed it for what it was: simple, stable and uncomplicated. I really had nothing to complain about. But when I got involved with Leslie she gave me something to look forward to. She was fun to be with. She seemed to enjoy being around me. What was there to not to like about the situation?
With Leslie’s voice droning on and on, I set the phone down and got up and stretched. The shoreline was made up of round, walnut sized pebbles that shifted under my hiking boots as I walked a few steps to the water’s edge. I was on a tiny point of land. Behind me a hundred yards away was Scalawag bay, Shelia and the houseboat. In front of me was one of the bigger bays on Rainy Lake, Beaver Dam Bay, stretching west to the far horizon, a least two miles away. Sixteen miles from there was Northern Lights base camp. Twenty miles from there was the biggest town around, International Falls. Right here, right where I sat, as far as the eye could see, there was no one around except for me and Shelia. We had the entire huge lake to our selves.
To my left was a high ridge that sloped down to the water and formed the shoreline of the bay. It was marked by granite outcroppings and pine and aspen trees, commonly found in the boundary waters. To the right, across the lake at least a mile, was the distant shore of Canada, now nearly lost to sight. Darkness was falling. The sun had set, and its orange afterglow of was fading. The air was still. The peace and quiet surrounding me was stunning. I looked down and searched for a minute until I found a thin, smooth stone. I reared back threw it out over the calm water. It skipped a couple of times and then sank. Dang. I used to be better than that. I picked up another one and threw it. Harder. This time it went out five skips. Better. I smiled. Then I looked up. Above me the sky was quickly turning to a deep purple ink well of darkness, the kind only found far away from the bright lights of civilization. Up here on the lake, we hardly ever saw anyone other than the occasional houseboat, fishing boat, canoe or kayaker out during the day. At night, there was no one around. I liked the peace and quiet. It helped me re-charge my batteries from work. From life, too, for that matter. It was one of the main reasons I liked coming to the boundary waters in general and Rainy Lake in particular.
A sudden splash to my right caught my attention. I looked, peering into the fast approaching darkness. More splashing. Then a sound, like a kitten purring. Something was in the water and it was coming right at me. Unsure what it was, I took a cautious step backward, tripped a little, but caught myself. Then I looked more closely and was able to see what was making the noise. It was the long, sleek body of an otter. I watched, mesmerized as it moved along the shoreline, diving and surfacing, diving and surfacing. It was coming right towards me, unafraid, only a few feet away.
I quickly squatted down so I wouldn’t scare it. I’d heard otters were in the area, but had never seen one before. Now, here one was, swimming and playing not ten feet away, so close I had to fight the urge to reach out and touch it. Pet it. I was speechless. The otter rolled in a complete circle, came up on its back and slowly moved its tail back and forth, propelling itself confidently along, making a little wake in the water’s smooth surface. I looked closer and could just barely make out something in its paws. Maybe a fish? Crawfish? I looked harder, but couldn’t see it clearly. Probably a fish. Transfixed, I watched as the beautiful, sleek, creature swam past right in front of me and then continued to my left, taking it’s time moving down the shoreline. Finally it disappeared into the darkness. I blinked once or twice to clear my vision, hoping to see it again, but I didn’t. It was gone. What a thrill! Seeing that otter was one of the coolest things I’d had the experience of seeing in quite a long time.
I stood up and stepped as close to the water line as I could, squatted down and put my hand in the lake. It was pleasantly warm, having soaked up heat of the day from the sun. I raised my gaze and looked out over the bay. There wasn’t a puff of a breeze and the surface was mirror glass smooth. Above me stars were starting to appear and, with them, some constellations I was somewhat familiar with. I could just make out Cassiopeia, the lazy W, low above the trees over the ridge to my left. Straight overhead was Ursa Major, The Big Dipper. I took a deep breath, savoring the pine scented aroma of nearby evergreen trees. The air was still, not a leaf or pine needle moved. Once my ears adapted to the silence I began to hear the sounds of the night: The calling of a loon out on the lake over toward the Canadian side, the hooting of an owl somewhere behind me, the splashing of the otter as it moved further way down the shore. The sounds of the north country.
“…and then this one guy, I think he’s from New Jersey, started in about…”
Geez. Leslie. The night was so still, I could suddenly hear her voice coming clearly from my phone. I reached for it and checked the time. She’d been talking non-stop for almost twelve minutes, and I hadn’t paid attention to a thing she said. In fact, the longer I was on the shore, supposedly listening to my girlfriend, it was becoming apparent I really didn’t care all that much about what she was saying or what she was talking about. She cared about her job, and I didn’t. It was a simple as that. Did that feeling extend to her as a person as well? Did I really not care all that much about her, even though I’d told myself (and her) time and time again that I did? Had I, in fact, being lying to myself, and to her, all along? Very good questions. I wondered what that meant for the future of our relationship. Probably very not much. In fact, was it even fair that I continued to see her as a boyfriend girlfriend kind of thing and lead her on given the realization of how I truly felt? Was I really that kind of a shitty person? Hmm. I’d like to think not. Damn, I had figure this out. On top of it all, I had Shelia back at the campfire to deal with.
I suddenly made a snap decision. “Hey, Leslie,” I said, interrupting her telling me another anecdote about her class, “Sorry, but I’ve got to go. Text me if you want.”
I disconnected the call without even waiting for her reply. Then I turned my phone off.
Did I feel bad about how I had just treated her? Not really. I mean, we really weren’t all that committed to each other, were we? We were just having a good time. Right? Damn, maybe I really was a shitty person.
I put aside my guilty thoughts of Leslie and looked out over the water. By now, night had completely fallen and it was nearly pitch black out. Above me the stars were beginning to blanket the sky with a wash of white that was stunning to behold, a million pin-pricks of light. I took a deep breath and exhaled, hoping to rid myself of work and Leslie. I’m not sure I was one-hundred percent successful, but I will say this: I was glad to have been on the shore of Beaver Bay in the middle of nowhere right then. The peace and quiet were a welcome balm. Even though it was hard to see, I could see well enough to know that there was no place in the world I’d rather be at that moment than right where I was.
With the sun down, the air was starting to turn cool. I was dressed in loose fitting hiking shorts, waffle soled hiking boots, a tee shirt and a flannel shirt, but I still felt an involuntary shiver run through me. I needed to get back to the campfire and Shelia and face whatever wrath she’d cooked up to dish out. What a great trip, I thought factiously, starting to feel a little sorry for myself for having to face the music. Well, my problems were my own making, and I had no one to blame but myself. I sighed again and tried to mentally prepare myself, but with little success. Anyway, there was one good thing. At least I’d been able to see the otter.
I stood up and started through the woods, happy I’d thought to put a flashlight app on my iphone. It took me about ten minutes to get within range of our campsite. When I could see it flickering through the trees, I turned the flashlight off, thinking for some reason it would be interesting to sneak up on Shelia and see what she was up to. I was cautiously making my way toward the light from the fire when I realized she wasn’t there. Perplexed, I snuck closer, stepping carefully through the pine needle duff on the forest floor, and keeping myself shielded by hiding behind tree trunks. At the edge of the tree line I stopped and looked up and down the shore. I didn’t see her anywhere.
I was just about to step into the open when I heard a voice. It was Shelia. I could tell she was somewhere in front of me, but where? I looked more closely but it was so dark the only thing I could see was the glow of the campfire and the chairs we’d been sitting on and she certainly wasn’t there. I couldn’t see her anywhere. I listened carefully before figuring it out. She wasn’t on land or near the campfire, where I’d expected her to be. She had used the ladder attached to the side of the cabin to climb up on top of the houseboat. She was standing with her back to me, her hand pressed to the side of her head, and, surprise, surprise, she was talking on her iphone just like I’d been doing. Who could she possibly be speaking with? I wanted to run out in the open and yell something at her but had no idea what to say, so I stayed put and listened. By now my ears were adjusted to the quiet stillness of the woods. Even though I’m sure she was trying to speak softly, her voice was loud and clear in the calm night air. I could hear every word.
“Yeah, Logan, you can’t believe the crap I put up with from him. He ran off into the woods somewhere. I hope he gets eaten by a bear. I mean…What? Oh, I know, not really, but my god, he’s such a world class jerk, and that’s putting it mildly. I really don’t know why I bother staying with him.”
Well, by now I was more than curious, I was perplexed. What was she doing, standing up there talking to someone, this Logan character. Who the hell was he? What was going on?
I almost broke from my hiding place in the trees right then and there but didn’t. I decided I wanted to find out more, maybe pick up a few clues and see if I could get a handle on this secret life my wife appeared to be leading. So I kept quiet, stayed hidden and listened. After a minute it became clear she was talking to someone one who was more than just a friend. Much, much more.
“Yes, I miss you, too, honey. So much. I miss being with you. I miss your arms around me. Right now I’m picturing us…”
Honey? Well, I didn’t need to hear that. And listen to her tell him what she was picturing? Well, I didn’t need to hear that either. But I made the unfortunate decision to keep listening. I shouldn’t have. Even though I couldn’t see them, my ears, I’m sure, were burning red when she was done describing what she was picturing.
It didn’t take long to figure out that my wife of twenty-three years was having an affair, sneaking around behind my back and spending time with this Logan bozo. Unbelievable. And, believe you me, the irony that I was doing basically the same thing with Leslie wasn’t escaping me. Not one little bit. What a mess our marriage had become.
After listening for maybe five minutes, I’d had enough. I stepped out of the shadows of the forest and yelled up at her, “Hey, up there. What’s going on? Who the hell are you talking to?”
Shelia quickly ended the call. The roof was flat and she walked toward the edge and called down, “Where’d you go? What were you doing?” I couldn’t help but notice that she was avoiding my question.
“I went for a walk,” I said, pointing behind me, as if it wasn’t obvious enough, “Back to the bay behind us. I was watching the sunset. I even saw an…” Wait a minute. Who cared where I went? There was something more important that needed discussing; this Logan guy and what Shelia was doing with him. I needed to get the conversation back on track. “Never mind where I went. I heard you on the phone just now. Who were you talking to?” I demanded.
Shelia started down the ladder and said, “Who, me? I was just talking to a friend.”
“Ha,” I laughed. “Sounded like more than a just friend to me,” I said, mimicking friend and using my fingers to make quotes in the air. I can be really dramatic if I need to be.
Shelia jumped off the ladder and laughed right back at me. She was on the deck and I was on shore. Maybe twenty feet separated us. In the faint glow of the campfire I could see daggers in her eyes, and they were directed right at me. I don’t think I’d ever seen her so mad. “Yeah, a friend. Probably like your little friend at work. What’s her name again? Leslie?”
There was a wooden gangplank leading from the front deck to the sandy beach the houseboat was parked on. She hurried down it, pushed past me and covered the twenty-five feet to the campfire in about a second. She was steaming. With her back to me, she stood watching the flames for a moment, her arms folded tight across her chest, quivering in anger. I thought maybe she was taking a few moment to try and calm down, but I was wrong, way wrong.
I stomped through the sand, wanting to get an explanation about who this Logan guy was, conveniently forgetting I had been doing essentially the same thing with Leslie less than fifteen minutes earlier. When I got behind her, she turned and got right in my face, spitting out, “Don’t deny it, Ben. I’ve known about her ever since that stupid team building thing you went to last spring.”
No way, I thought to myself. No friggin’ way could she have know about that. And right then and there I should have kept my mouth shut. But I didn’t. Instead, I asked, “Leslie? Her? How’d you know about…?”
Oops. Oh, shit.
Shelia laughed, “See? Got you.” She shook her head sadly at my incompetence and said, “God, you are such an idiot.”
I’d admitted to my affair with Leslie without Shelia having to do anything other than accuse me of it. She was right, I was an idiot.
Shelia turned away and walked to the other side of the fire where her folding lawn chair was. She sat down, reached into the front pocket of her jeans and took out a pack of cigarettes. She shook one out and lit up, inhaling deep and holding it before blowing a stream of smoke into the night. I watched it separate and fall apart as it drifted away. I felt kind of like the smoke, drifting and scattered. I wasn’t prepared to have to face telling Shelia about Leslie. For some reason I thought I’d be able to keep my affair hidden. Well, Shelia was a smart woman. Astute, as well. I should have known I was only living on borrowed time and she’d eventually figure it out, which she’d obviously done at some point. What was I going to do now? What was my next step going to be?
Shelia is five-five and very tan and fit from her work out regime. She was dressed in cutoff jeans, a yellow tank top and hiking boots. At some point since I’d stormed off earlier she’d put on a blue flannel shirt to ward off the chill. She wore it unbuttoned. She was wearing a red bandana as a head band to keep her long auburn hair pulling back. She had an oval face, gray-green eyes and high, prominent cheekbones. To me she’d always been pretty, and she still was. But right now she was angry and boiling mad. She stared at me, daring me to say something, anything. I knew a huge fight was brewing, but I wasn’t in the frame of mind just then to argue. I still had a little bit of a left over tranquil feeling from seeing the otter. Besides, I had to collect my thoughts.
I went over to the edge of the woods to the pile of logs I’d cut up earlier and picked up a few. I went back to the campfire and tossed them in, watching the red and orange sparks fly up into the night, marveling for a moment at their beauty. I walked to the shore, looked out over the still waters of the bay into the darkness, and breathed the scented air emanating from the pine forest. Behind me the fire crackled as the new logs caught. It was a calm night and a peaceful setting. I should have been captivated by the magical spell of the north woods and been in relaxed and mellow mood, but I wasn’t. Far from it. Deep down my heart was doing summersaults; my mind racing.
I was mad at Shelia about Logan, that was for sure, but I was also mad at myself. Shelia now knew about Leslie. It had been much easier to accept my affair with her when I felt like I was pulling the wool over Shelia’s eyes. But my wife was smart and I should have known better; most people would agree that Shelia was the brains of the operation when it came to our marriage, and I’d have to begrudgingly agree. Plus, truth be told, now that the truth was out about Leslie and me, I had to consider what my true feelings for her really were.
I liked Leslie, yes. A lot. But, like I said earlier, a pleasant diversion would be as apt a description as I could give. Could I picture being with her long term, her being eighteen years younger than me and in the prime of her life, only eight years older that my daughter? Leslie with me, a middle-aged guy who puttered around in his garden, collected tin toys and hated his job? I was already going gray, for Pete’s sake. Well, when I looked at it that way, honestly, no.
I walked back to the fire and sat down in my own lawn chair. Shelia and I had a lot to talk about. I glanced over to gauge her mood. We had both quit smoking years ago and it surprised me that she was smoking now, but, I guess given the circumstances, it was to be expected. She lit another cigarette and sat taping a foot in the sand, waiting, I was sure, for me to make the first move and to begin the conversation. Or, at least defend my actions with Leslie. Well, that made sense and I was all for it, but I was unsure where to begin. And, honestly, I wasn’t really ready to feel the wrath of her anger.
So guess what I did? I took a safe route. Of all the things we had to talk about (Shelia and Logan topping the list, with me and Leslie coming in a close second), and all of the things I could have brought up, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “I didn’t know you’d started smoking again.”
If looks could kill, hers would have done it. Ten times over. Shelia calmly put the cigarette to her mouth, took a long drag and blew the smoke right at me. Then she said, “What the hell do you care, anyway?”
I thought back to my one-sided conversation earlier with Leslie. It had centered on the only thing we had in common, work, something I really had no interest in. I’d much preferred standing on the shore of Beaver Bay at sunset, watching the otter swim by as the day drew to a close and the stars were beginning to appear, instead of listening as she droned on and on about her job and the class she was teaching. The dichotomy was too apparent. My job was a means to an end, income for me and my family. Any passion for my work I’d had in the beginning of my career was long gone. Leslie’s career was just being. She loved her job and that was good for her. I didn’t care about mine and really didn’t care all that much about the things she was interested in. Was it fair to stay with her given those kinds of feelings? When I got right down to it and was totally honest with myself, the answer was no. Not fair at all.
Take Leslie and our three or four month affair out of the picture and look at Shelia and me. We had a history. We’d been married for twenty-three years and had been together for two years prior to that. We had kids. We had a home. We had a life we’d built together. And…and here’s the crux of the matter…we had found away to stay together in spite of the fact that we’d drifted apart. We were still married. We were still with each other. Maybe I still did care about Shelia more than I thought I did. Maybe we could begin to do what we said we were going to do on this trip, start to patch our marriage together. It had definite possibilities.
But did I tell my wife any of that, any of the personal things I’d been thinking about? No, not at all. Instead I turned in my chair toward her and asked, “Say, can I have one of your smokes?”
Silently she tossed me the pack. Then she tossed me her lighter and gave me a resigned sigh, “Go for it.”
Looking back, I think she would have liked me to have asked a different question. But you know guys and our ability to express deep emotional feelings. Not our strong suit. So I didn’t.
Instead, I lit up and we sat quietly smoking, each lost in our own thoughts. I knew I should have asked about Logan. How long had they been together? How often did they see each other? Did she have strong feelings for him? Stuff like that. The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered, did I really want to know about the two of them and them being together? Frankly, the answer was no, not really. It’d be a painful discussion and hard to hear the details of, if not more than a little embarrassing. It was enough to come face to face with the fact that Shelia, in her own way, was as dissatisfied with our marriage as I was. She’d rebelled with Logan, me with Leslie. Point taken. What more was there to say?
As I smoked, I glanced over at Shelia. She was gazing into the fire, lost in her own world. I figured she’d want to know about me and Leslie. In fact, I was preparing myself to tell her everything she wanted to know and take my medicine, but she surprised me. She didn’t ask about her at all. Instead, she was quiet and contemplative. Maybe I should have asked about Logan, but I didn’t. I tried to tell myself, what’s done was done, but that would have been too simple of a statement. I mean, Shelia and Logan were obviously a couple. They had been sleeping together, just like Leslie and me. It was clear there was a lot to discuss, but we didn’t open up and start talking. We just sat and watched the fire while the north woods night deepened and closed in around us. In a way, the darkness was like a comforting blanket, which was strange because we were so far apart emotionally. The longer we remained silent, though, the more it became clear that each of us was taking the safe route by avoiding the inevitable fight with all its attendant yelling and screaming. Maybe being by the campfire, in the quiet of a Rainy Lake summer’s evening, with the occasional owl hooting nearby and loon calling over the open water, sounds we never heard back home, maybe that helped to set a different tone between us. Maybe it mellowed us. Whatever the fact, what we ended up doing was this: We avoided all of our issues and, instead, sat and smoked the occasional cigarette, looked at the fire, looked at the night and looked at the stars.
After a while Leslie said, “Pretty night out, isn’t it?”
Her words broke the angry spell that had settled over us. I made it a point of looking straight up into the sky. It looked like it had been spray painted with stars. There was no moon. I could see so clearly it almost hurt my eyes. I picked out a few more constellations and a couple of stars I knew the names of and pointed them out to Shelia. She cracked the barest of smiles and nodded. Behind me the owl hooted again. The pine scented air mingled with the aroma of the fire. The night was so still and peaceful, it almost brought a tear to my eye. It occurred to me that this might be the last time I would ever be on Rainy Lake, and it made me sad. My marriage was over. That much was clear. My wife was with some other guy. My girlfriend was soon to be a distant memory. I hated my job. My life was a mess.
After a few moments of silence, I answered, “Yeah, it really is a pretty night out.” In retrospect, my inability to express my feelings to her was so painfully evident that it was no wonder she’d become interested in someone else. I sounded like a fool. Or, as Shelia had put so succinctly, a little while earlier, an idiot. That’s what I had become in her eyes. Man, let me tell you this, it was certainly nothing to be proud of.
Interestingly, though, in the end, we never did fight. We hesitantly started speaking to each other, mostly about inane things like the stars and the sky. Safe things. In fact, we ended up staying up late talking about everything other than the two elephants on the shore: Leslie and Logan. Maybe we were too exhausted to get into anything that heavy. Maybe we had given up on salvaging our relationship. Maybe we’d each silently accepted that our marriage was over. Whatever the case, it appeared we had reached a sort mutually agreed upon truce where we knew arguing and fighting wasn’t going to solve any of the myriad of problems that had spread like a cancer during all the years we’d been together. Why bother talking about something that was dead, over, and done for? Why, indeed? Besides, how could I give Shelia shit about Logan when I’d been with Leslie. What a mess.
Anyway, it wasn’t as bad sitting there with Shelia as it could have been. Not by a long shot. At one point, I even went inside the cabin of the houseboat, got out some Hersey’s bars and brought them back to where sat. We each had a couple, our nod to a smores less campfire experience. We smoked a few more cigarettes, too. I checked my phone once when Shelia went onto the boat for a jacket. There was a text from Leslie, “Miss U!!” Geez. I deleted it and didn’t text her back. I had nothing to say.
We turned in around midnight, after the fire burned down to red hot coals. Shelia took the bed. I took the floor. We had decided to take the boat back to Northern Lights base camp the next morning and return it. Neither us were in the mood to work on a plan to patch up our marriage. We were both silently accepting of the fact that the rifts were too many and too big and our marriage was finished. It was a eighteen mile trip back to base. If the weather held, it’d only take about four hours. We’d be at Northern Lights by noon if we were slow. We didn’t intend to be. There was no reason to take our time. Our vacation on Rainy Lake, like our marriage, was over for good.
It was a loud ‘thud’ that woke me. Shelia, too. “What the hell was that?” she muttered. She sounded sleepy but was coming awake fast. I was, too. It sounded like something heavy had landed on the roof. The inside of the cabin was gray, early dawn, but it was light enough for me to see her eyes were wide open, the whites showing. The sound startled her. Me, too.
“I don’t know,” I told her. I was rattled and hadn’t a clue as to what was going on. Then I became aware of the houseboat groaning; shaking and bashing itself up on the shore. Something wasn’t right.
I scrambled to my feet and looked out the sliding glass door leading to the front deck. Oh, no. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A storm had come upon overnight, and the wind was blowing like hell. In our emotionally exhausted state, we’d slept right through it. Now, though, our exhaustion was immediately replaced by adrenaline. In a moment we were both wide awake and alert. The wind was a gale like I’d never seen before. Three foot waves were crashing on the beach. Rain was pouring down and the shoreline had been eaten away by gullies of rainwater flowing out of the forest. Twigs, branches and tree debris were falling down on us, and I made a guess (later proven correct) that a big branch must have landed on the roof and awakened us. The houseboat had been blown sideways on the shore and the waves were smashing up against it, banging it hard and threatening to damage it beyond repair. I’d heard about these sudden storms and how they could blow up without a moment’s notice and apparently that’s what had happened. All had been calm when we’d gone to bed, but that wasn’t the case now. I silently cursed myself for not having checked the weather forecast on either my phone or the boat’s short wave radio before we’d gone to bed. Too much on my mind, I guess.
I pulled on my boots and ran onto the deck to take a look around. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Everywhere I looked, the storm was wreaking havoc. I saw a number of pine trees that had been blown over, one leaning precariously on another which was all that was keeping it from falling onto the houseboat. If it did, we be trapped for who knew how long. The waves had destroyed the shoreline completely, leaving hardly any beach. The sideways houseboat was jammed up on what little sand there was, stuck solid. The wind was howling and the rain was pelting down so hard it hurt. I rushed back inside for protection.
“My god,” I told Shelia, “It’s like a monsoon and hurricane combined out there.” Then I filled her in on what I’d seen.
“What are we going to do?” she asked when I’d finished.
“Let’s call base.”
“I already tried. There’s no signal.”
“Shit.” I went to the sliding glass door and looked out again. Shelia joined me. The rain, which had been buffeting the boat in sheets, seemed to be letting up. The gray pre-dawn was turning a little lighter. I turned to her, “Any ideas?”
One thing I’ve always admired about Shelia was her ability to not let things get to her. She was a solutions orientated woman, a good person to have in a crisis, and that’s what this was. I’d never in my life seen a storm like I was seeing right now.
She took one more look outside as a branch fell hard on the deck. Then she turned to me and said, “We need a plan. Do you think you can get us off the shore? You could use the dingy to pull us. I’ll drive the houseboat. If we can get unstuck and get out on the lake, maybe we can get back to base.”
It was as good a plan as any, even though Northern Lights was eighteen miles away. First things first. We needed to get free of the beach. Besides, her idea was way better than what I’d come up with, which was nothing.
“Let’s do it,” I said. I put on my jean jacket and a Twins baseball hat and went out into the storm. My hat blew off in an instant. I never saw it again.
The Northern Lights had a rule that every houseboat had to have a rowboat for emergencies. Since we didn’t own such a boat, we rented one from them, a twelve foot aluminum Grumman with a ten horse power motor, and towed it behind us from base to Scalawag Bay. Yesterday, when we made camp, I’d untied the dingy, dragged it through the water down the shore about fifty feet from us. Then I pulled it up on the sand and secured it with a long rope to a pine tree. That’s where I headed now. I was wearing my hiking shorts and hiking boots. I had on a tee-shirt and a long sleeved cotton shirt under my jean jacket. It took about ten seconds before I was soaked to the skin.
Once I got to the dingy my spirits immediately faltered. The little boat was jammed up on the sand and filled to the gunnels with rain water. Fortunately, the plastic scoop bucket used for bailing was still tied to the engine and hadn’t blown away. I untied it and started franticly scooping and dumping. It seemed to take forever before the boat was finally empty enough to attempt to drive. Shelia told me later it’d really only taken about five minutes. She also told me she was impressed by how fast I worked. It was a little thing, maybe, but I took it for what it was, a compliment, not something either of us were freely giving out at that stage of our marriage.
With the boat empty, I made my way through the branches and twigs and other debris on what was left of the shore to the edge of the forest to untie the rope. On the way I got hit in the head with a branch about an inch in diameter and maybe six feet long. My adrenaline must have been really pumping because I didn’t feel a thing. In a moment, though, blood starting trickling into my eyes. I wiped it away with a quick swipe and took a look at my hand. It wasn’t too bad; not much blood. I figured the rain running down my face would clean the wound out and didn’t think about it again.
I untied the knot and hurried back to the dingy, coiling the rope with me as I ran. I threw it under the front seat when I got there. In just that short period of time the little boat had been blown sideways onto the beach, but it was easy enough to drag the back end out into the water. The problem was that the waves were working against me and kept beating the boat back toward shore. I was finally able to get the back end steady by staying in the water and holding on. I waited for a break in the waves. When one came, I jumped in, primed the gas tank, tilted the motor’s propeller into the water and pulled on the starter cord. It sputtered and died. It took three frantic tries to get the little motor going, but I finally did, just before a big wave hit and tried to throw the boat back on the beach. I jammed the motor into reverse and backed quickly away from the shore. With the waves pounding the shoreline controlling the boat was hard, but I when I was able to get it away from the beach, maneuvering was somewhat easier. When I felt I was under as control as I could be, I looked toward the houseboat. Shelia was outside on the deck under the overhang in front watching. I could tell she’d cleared the roof and the deck of all the branches that had fallen on it. Like I said, she was a great person to have in a crisis. When she saw I was free of the shore, she waved excitedly and gave me the ‘Thumbs up’ sign. I signaled back to her. I also took a deep breath and let it out. So far so good.
Next, I had to drive to the houseboat, tie on the rope and somehow drag it off the beach. In my mind I calculated my chances, figuring that maybe a ten percent probability of success was realistic. Better than nothing, I grimly told myself.
I gritted my teeth and worked my way over to the houseboat, the dingy taking in water along the way but not enough to worry about. At least not for right now, just a few inches sloshing in the bottom. I set the throttle on idle and carefully climbed to the front of my boat, got the rope, made my way back and tied it to one of the gunnels next to the motor. Then, as I tried to position the little dingy, Shelia stationed herself on the back corner of the houseboat, ready for the next step.
“Try to get as close as you can,” she yelled, “Then toss me the rope.”
Trying to maneuver a twelve foot aluminum boat rocking all over the place in two to three foot waves was not easy. The little dingy was bobbing like a cork in a hurricane, which in retrospect, it pretty much was. Doing it driving backwards was even harder. It took some getting used to, but I was eventually able to get close enough to Shelia to throw the rope. The first time I tossed it, the wind caught it like it was a piece of string and blew it way off course. I only missed by about ten feet. (I’m being facetious. I wasn’t even that close. The wind was really strong.) I pulled the rope in through the water, coiled it up and tried again. This time Shelia was able to grab it. Success. We both gave out weak cheers. It wasn’t much, but at least it was something. We were making headway and that’s all that mattered.
Shelia tied the rope to the back corner railing and yelled, “Ok. We’re all set. You try to pull us off the beach. Once we get into deeper water I’ll try and get this baby started.”
“Ok. Good luck.”
She gave me a determined smile and another thumbs up. I have to say, it felt good to be working as a team right then. It was something we used to do really well together, way back before the shit that became our marriage hit the fan.
I returned Shelia’s thumbs up with my own and also gave her my own version of a determined smile, which probably turned out to be more of a grimace than anything else. But I was committed to doing the best I could. In my head I prayed a silent prayer, and I’m not at all a religious person. Right now, though, any port in the storm, so to speak.
I positioned the dingy to pull straight back and then jammed the throttle forward to high and held on. The little motor whined and whined as it dug into the water, kicking up a deep wake. I watched the rope. It was a one-inch thick, braided utility rope, the kind you’d find on any serious water vessel (which our houseboat was.) If I thought it might break, I was soon proven wrong. It held fast.
Unfortunately, the heavy houseboat didn’t budge.
Shelia came out of the cabin to encourage me. “Run the dingy back and forth. Work it at different angles.”
I was out about twenty feet. The waves were throwing me all over the place, threatening to smash me into the back end of the houseboat. Not only that, there was the very real threat that I might get swamped by the big waves. But I was learning on the fly so to speak, and was able to keep the dingy from capsizing by judging when the waves would break and then riding the troughs between the crests up and down. I was also able to keep myself away from smashing into the houseboat. So that was good. Now, all I had to do was figure out a way to move it. Shelia’s advice made sense.
I waved back, and yelled, “I’ll try.” I gunned the motor and drove to the left. Then to the right. Back and forth, back and forth, the rope straining. Nothing happened. The houseboat didn’t budge.
After a few minutes of getting nowhere, I took a break to let the little motor rest and idle while I rocked on the waves. A couple of things had happened while I was struggling to free the houseboat. One, the rain had completely stopped. Two, the day was now less grey. I figured it must be around seven in the morning.
Shelia had been watching my progress, or lack of it, the entire time. She called out, giving me encouragement. “I think I feel it starting to give. Keep at it. I’m pretty sure this is going to work.”
I yelled back, “Ok, I’ll get to it.”
I positioned myself so the rope was taut and turned the throttle to full once again. The little motor responded and the dingy jumped forward. Back and forth, left and right, and back and forth, right and left, I went, fighting the waves, the rope straining. I was making no progress at all and starting to get discouraged. Were we going to stay stranded here in Scalawag Bay for who knew how long, getting beating by the waves and battered by the storm forever? It was not a pleasant thought.
I’d been driving back and forth for maybe ten minutes and beginning to give up hope that our plan was never going to succeed. Then, all of a sudden I felt the houseboat shift a little. A glimmer of hope rose in my chest. Could we do this? Maybe? I positioned myself so I was right off the corner where the rope was tied and pulled straight back, gunning the motor and saying another silent prayer. I felt the houseboat gave some more. Could it be? I leaned into the throttle and held my breath.
On the houseboat Shelia was elatedly jumping up and down, “I can feel it move, Ben. Gun it some more.”
I already was, but, what the hell. I yelled back, “Here goes.” I leaned into the throttle one more time.
And then, and then…the rope strained, and strained some more, and the corner of the houseboat moved a little bit, and then some more, little by little, until, all in an instant, the big houseboat broke free and the back end sung out away from shore. When it did, we both cheered, “Yea!” We’d done it.
Shelia yelled, “Hold it steady, if you can. I’ll try to get the motor started.”
She ran inside to the cabin where the controls were. I tried to hold the heavy houseboat steady, but it was hard. The wind and waves wanted to blow it right back on shore. I had all I could do to keep the back end just far enough out off the beach so that when Shelia got the engine running, it would be in deep enough water so the propeller wouldn’t smash on an underwater bolder and break. If that happened, we’d really be up shit creek.
After a minute, I heard the engine turn over. I held my breath as it ground away. The power came from a battery and I hoped it would hold its charge long enough to get us started. After maybe half a minute of grinding, instead of the battery dying, we lucked out; the engine coughed and then started. Shelia revved it once for good luck.
I yelled, into the wind, “Yea. Way to go, Shelia. Way to go.”
I knew she couldn’t hear me, but I didn’t care. It was a big moment. We might make it out of this yet. From inside the cabin the horn tooted. Shelia was ready to go. I drove the dingy close enough to untie the rope, freeing it from the houseboat. Then I backed up out of the way. Slowly but steadily she backed the away from shore out a hundred feet or so into the bay. Then she turned around and held the boat steady into the wind while I drove the dingy up next to it. I grabbed the side, killed the motor and scrambled onto the deck. Then I tied the dingy to the back railing and left twenty feet of slack in the rope so we could tow it behind us. When I was all set, I went inside through the back door and made my way to the cabin where Shelia sat at the captains chair, looking out the front window.
I was fired up with our newly won success and ready to congratulate her (and us) on our hard won victory. I took one look at Shelia, though, and stopped. Her expression was grim. She wasn’t happy at all.
She pointed, “My god, Ben, look…” Then words failed her.
I’d been so focused on getting the houseboat free from the shore, I hadn’t been paying any attention to what was going on out past the bay we were in; out on the big lake. Rainy. I followed her line of vision and I’m not sure, but I probably turned green or at least pale, when I saw what was waiting for us out there. I know one thing: If I thought the waves in our bay were big, I had another think coming. Out on Rainy Lake, they were much bigger. They were enormous.
Scalawag Bay was small, as bays went, maybe twenty or thirty acres total, shaped like a horseshoe. Where the ends of the horseshoe came together was the entrance. It was guarded by a small island maybe fifty feet across comprised of jagged granite boulders and wind bent jack pine trees. Once we navigated past the island we’d be on the main part of Rainy Lake, a big, narrow lake that ran east and west. The wind was blowing out of the west. Our bay was at the far east end. Northern Lights was at the far west end. We’d have to travel from where we were eighteen miles into the wind to get to base. That was one thing. The huge waves we had to contend with were another. I grabbed a pair of binoculars to get a better look. It was foreboding. The waves were gigantic, the biggest I’d ever seen, at least four or five feet high. The wind was pushing them in swells that left dangerous, deep troughs between the crests. I pictured our little houseboat out there and the image of a child’s toy boat being tossed around like a leaf on the ocean came to mind. It was not a comforting vision. Our boat was made of heavy duty aluminum, but was it strong enough to withstand the pounding of the waves out there? God, I didn’t know. I sure hoped so.
I handed the binoculars to Shelia. “Have look,” I told her, “What do you think?”
After a minute, she handed them back to me. “Let’s call base one more time. See what they want us to do.”
The shortwave radio was on the wall next to the steering wheel. I turned it on. There was power and that was a good thing. Unfortunately, there was nothing but static on the airwaves. I tried to call out to base a few times, but nothing went through. Like our phones, communication was impossible. We’d have to decide what to do on our own.
Shelia had set the boat idling in neutral while we deliberated our next move, and the waves were beginning to push us back toward shore. She put the engine in gear and we motored into the middle of our little bay where she cut the throttle and kept us pointed both toward the island and away from shore. Compared to the big lake, the waves in Scalawag, at two or three feet, were relatively small. But still, to inexperienced drivers like us, they were challenging. On second thought, even to experienced operators, manipulating the houseboat in these kinds waves would be hard. Then there was the big lake. I didn’t want to think about what it’d be like out on Rainy. If it was hard going on Scalawag Bay, it would be ten times worse out on Rainy. At least. Daunting was the word that came to mind and stuck. I started to lose what little confidence I’d had. How would we ever be able to make it back to base?
Shelia broke into my thoughts, “We’ve got to get across Rainy.” She pointed behind us. “We can’t go back on shore. The waves will just beat the boat to hell. We’ve got to figure out a plan.”
I looked back to where we’d set up camp the day before. The smooth sand beach was now littered with branches and tree debris. Rain water running out of the forest had carved out deep canyons while waves relentlessly pounded what little shoreline was left. There was no place to beach the boat even if we wanted to. We both turned and looked out toward the big lake. Like Shelia had said, we’d have to come up with a plan to get us across it. Good idea. I glanced at her and could see the wheels already turning as her mind worked through various scenarios. She was good with those kinds of things, figuring out plans and implementing them.
But, me? Maybe it was shock at our situation, but I’m afraid at that moment I started to cop out on figuring out what to do. Instead, I started envisioning us safely back home in Long Lake, the warm sun shining brightly on my face as I worked peacefully in the garden, planting marigolds and stopping occasionally to sip on a refreshing glass of ice tea. Not a very useful thought, given the situation we were in. Fortunately, Shelia was not like me. She had put her brain to good use. She grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me back to reality.
“We’d better make a run for it,” she said, “Let’s try to get out on the big lake, get this bad boy pointed into the wind and see if we can make it to base.” She took my face in both her hands and turned my head so I was looking directly at her. There was a hint of fear in her eyes, but that wasn’t the only thing I saw. There was determination present, as well. A lot of it. And courage. Her fearlessness helped get me focused and back on track.
“Do you think we can do it?” I asked.
“I don’t think we have a choice, do you?”
I picked up the binoculars and took another look at the waves raging on Rainy. I made myself choke down my fear. Her confidence was contagious. I turned and looked at my wife. She had more will and strength of character in her on a normal day than I had on my best day. Or a year of my best days, when it came right down to it. If she was willing to make the drive, so was I.
“Let’s do it,” I said, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt.
“Good man,” she clapped me on the shoulder in a show of solidarity. Then she took another long look at Rainy through the binoculars before turning to me, “Flip to see who drives?”
“Sure,” I said, gamely, “You’re on.”
She dug in her jeans and pulled out a quarter. “You flip or me?”
She flipped, caught the quarter and smacked it on her hand. “Call.”
“Heads,” I said.
She removed her hand. It was heads. “You drive,” she said. “Then she grinned, the first time all morning, “At least for a little while.”
I rubbed my hands on my together to get them warm and to keep them from shaking. Then I nervously took the wheel, sucked in a breath and exhaled, getting myself mentally prepared, but who was I kidding, I’d never be ready.
Shelia was standing next to me. Her presence calmed me. She said, “You can do it, Ben. Just take it slow and easy.”
I appreciated her vote of confidence, something I wouldn’t have cast a ballot on. But, we were a team, right? I turned to her and said, “I’ll do my best.”
She smiled at me, “I know you will.”
It was a pretty serious moment.
I made myself ease the throttle forward. The houseboat moved slowly ahead, waves pounding against it and occasionally breaking over the bow, causing water to splash up on the sliding glass door. I could see well enough to drive, though, and motored on. We carefully made our way across the rest of the bay, the houseboat rocking more and more on the swells as we came up to and then passed the little island. Shelia stood next to me, holding tightly to the side of my captains chair, a term I use only in the most basic sense of the word. A skilled houseboat driver I wasn’t, captain, never, but I was willing to do my best. In fact, after a few minutes of driving, I was starting to get used to the rolling motion of the boat and learing to read the water and ride the waves. In fact, I was even beginning to feel somewhat confident about my ability to navigate. That was a feeling that wasn’t going to last long.
The trees and rocks on the island offered minimal protection, but at least it was something. Once I guided us past the island, however, the full force of the wind caught us and threw the front end of the houseboat hard to the right. At that moment a huge wave hit the side with a booming crash, causing us to rock dangerously and the engine to lift out of the water, screaming in protest as it did. For one terrifying moment I thought we were going to capsize. I grabbed the wheel tightly and pulled us back so we were pointed into the wind and the oncoming swells. I fought to hold us steady as each incoming wave raised the bow up in the air where we hung suspended for a moment before slamming down, shaking us to our bones and the boat to the rivets that held it together. Every single wave that hit the front of the boat broke over the bow and deck and flooded into the cabin before streaming back out again. In a minute the indoor outdoor carpeting was saturated and squishing under our boots.
I looked at Shelia as I tried to hold the rocking boat steady, “Christ, do you think we can do this?”
She squeezed my shoulder and said, “We’d better. I don’t think we have any other choice.”
Talk about an understatement. But she was right. We had no alternative but to do our best to fight through the wind and the waves and navigate the eighteen miles across the lake to Northern Lights base camp.
“Okay, then,” I said, “Hold on.”
I pushed the throttle forward and we moved ahead out onto the big lake. Oh, man, let me tell you, it was a trip I’ll never forget.
Rainy Lake is fed from the Kettle River to the east. It’s part of the Hudson Bay water shed which includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildness, Superior National Forest in Minnesota and the Quetico Provencal Park in Canadian. To the west, the lake drains into the Rainy River near International Falls, Minnesota, a river which forms part of the border between the United States and Canada. From the Kettle Falls to International Falls is roughly forty miles, roughly half of that distance taken up by Rainy Lake. In other words, it’s a big friggin’ body of water.
In fact, it’s actually two lakes in one, the upper and the lower. We were toward the east end in the upper lake and had to fight our way across it to a narrow channel called the Brule Narrows that led to the lower lake. Normally the trip would take around thirty minutes. Today, getting to the channel took us until one in the afternoon. It was a bitch the whole way. I kept the throttle about half speed. We just couldn’t go any fast for fear that we’d do damage to the boat. Even though it was heavy gage aluminum, I could just picture what would happen if one of the big floats that supported the cabin suddenly gave way and broke free. I shuddered at the thought. I kept a firm grip on the wheel and fought every single wave that hit the boat as it tried to throw us off course. Or capsize us. It was exhausting.
Shelia stood by me the entire way to the Brule Narrows, offering encouragement. The cabin was enclosed and protected from the wind. That helped. We got used to the water from the waves crashing over the bow rushing into and out of the cabin. We more than once told each other that we were glad we were wearing our water proof hiking boots. She was also able to fixed us a small pot of coffee which we shared along with one or two cigarettes. She even cleaned the cut on my forehead. We were so focused on the task at hand, though, we didn’t talk much. What was there to say? But we were working together, that was the important thing. Plus, we weren’t fighting about Leslie and Logan. We seemed to have reached a détente of sorts, and were more focused on battling the waves and keeping the houseboat afloat than anything else. I was fine with that. I’d pretty much decided to end things with Leslie anyway. The more I thought about it, the more the different in our ages and life experiences seemed more than enough reason for me to grow, get my head out of my ass and call it quits.
By the time we’d crossed the upper lake my arms were so tired I could barely hold onto the steering wheel, but I had done my best. At least we’d made it. The entrance to the Brule Narrows was marked by large buoys. I worked the boat past them into the relatively calm waters of the channel and throttled back, letting the boat idle and bob on swells that were still prevalent, but were gentler than out on the big lake. We were also protected from the wind and that helped somewhat.
“Whew,” I said, standing up from the chair and straightening my, “We made it.” I made a motion to wipe my brow, trying to add a little levity to our situation. Was it dire? Maybe. But we’d made it almost half way to base camp. All we had to do was steer our way through the Narrows out onto the lower lake, and then cross another eight miles of open water on the way to Northern Lights base. Easy, right?
Ever the pragmatist, Shelia asked, “How are you holding up?”
“Fine. My arms are tired. My legs are kind of stiff.” In fact, my whole body felt like I’d tumbled down a long flight of stairs. Every bone ached.
“You did good, but I’m going to take over.”
“No. I won the bet. It’s my responsibility,” I said, making a vain attempt to argue, hoping my voice didn’t sound as feeble as I felt. Truth be told, my arms were nearly numb from fighting the wheel, the wind and the waves. My strength was pretty much gone.
Shelia held up her arm in my face, smiled and flexed a muscle, “I’ll take over. You rest a bit.” I felt her arm. Her muscle was like a rock. God, all that working out she’d done while I fooled around planting flowers in the garden. I guess it was about to pay off.
“If you insist,” I said, joking, trying to sound magnanimous.
She just laughed, “No sweat.”
We switched places. When she was settled in the captain’s chair, I squeezed her shoulder like she’d done mine earlier. She smiled at me and squeezed my hand in return. It felt good to me to have that contact with her. I wondered if she felt the same way.
But before I had a chance to ponder that thought any further, she jammed the throttle to high and yelled, “Off we go.” The boat lurched ahead. I stumbled and then caught myself on her chair and hung on. I glanced at my wife. Shelia’s eyes were glued out the front of the cabin, watching the water for whatever lay before us, intent on guiding us safely to base camp, our final destination.
The Brule Narrows wove serpentine through reeds, cattails and other water grasses that formed a barrier between the channel itself and the pine forests and granite rocks along the shore. Our houseboat was twelve feet wide. In most cases the channel was four times that width. It was tricky going, but Shelia confidently took us along the mile journey from the upper lake to the lower lake without a hitch. While she drove we both breathed a sigh of relief. Other times coming through the Narrows we’d had to deal with boats coming at us or coming up from behind, which made for some tricky navigating. Today, we’d been on the water for over six hours and seen no water craft whatsoever. No pleasure craft, no houseboats, no nothing. Everyone was taking their cue from Mother Nature and doing the smart thing, which was to stay put.
But, of course, not us. We had a job to do and Shelia guided us with the skill of a seasoned mariner. I was really proud of her, glad for her confidence and her level-headedness. If she was nervous, she didn’t show it, just kept the throttle at half speed and motored on. Her firm conviction that we were going to not only survive our journey, but also make it unscathed back to Northern Lights base helped me settle down. While she drove I fixed her a cheese sandwich and gave her some mixed nuts and raisins. That’s all she wanted. She was focused and intent on the task ahead, but at least she ate everything.
Once we cleared the channel she took us out onto the big lake and pointed us once again into the wind and the waves. We had hoped as the day wore on the storm might abate somewhat but it hadn’t. It was two in the afternoon and the wind was blowing just as hard as before and the waves were as big as they had been on the upper lake, if not bigger. We had another bitch of a ride ahead of us.
(We heard later that the winds were sustained at thirty miles an hour with gusts up to fifty. Even seasoned veterans of the lake stayed put and off the water that day. But not us. We were neophytes and didn’t know any better. In spite of the challenging conditions, though, there was one good thing: at least the rain stayed away.)
Before we left the relative sanctity of the Brule Narrows, I tried calling base once more but only heard static on the line. Our phones had no signals either, so we were on our own. We steeled ourselves for the crossing and started out. The sky was dull gray and thick with clouds. The temperature was maybe fifty degrees, and we were both wet and chilled from getting our boat unstuck back in Scalawag bay, hours earlier. I longed for sun, something to warm us up, lift our spirits and give us hope. Even seeing a loon would have been nice. But, no. The day stayed cloudy, the loons stayed hidden and we were the only living creatures out on the lake. We didn’t even see any gulls. Every bird, animal and human being was hunkered down, riding out the storm. But not us.
Shelia not only was a was a trooper, she was also a really good driver. She gamely took us across the lower lake, holding the boat steady into the wind, fighting the waves as they smashed into the front, broke over the bow and flooded into the cabin. She wrestled us out of the deep troughs that rolled us back and forth, side to side, and threatened to capsize us at any moment. She did it all with no complaint, just steely determination and strength of will. If I graded myself as a C+ on my navigational skills, getting us across the upper lake, I’d give Shelia an A+ on the channel and the lower lake. She was great. Me? I kept her company, fixed us coffee, gave her bites of chocolate and lit the occasional cigarette for her. It was good teamwork on both of our parts, if I do say so myself.
I also watched the shoreline. We kept to the middle of the lake, aiming ourselves between the red and green buoys put out by the park service to keep boats not only in the safe part of the middle of the lake, but also away from dangerous rocks hidden below the surface. There was maybe a half mile between us and the shoreline on both our right and left. In watching our progress as Shelia drove my main thought was this: I’d seen cold honey move faster. Talk about a slow moving boat. God, most of the time it seemed like weren’t progressing forward at all, and sometimes even going backwards.
When I mentioned this to Shelia she grinned and pointed out the window, “I know, but it’s just an illusion. Pick out something ahead of us on the shore. Watch that. Eventually we’ll get to it. When we do, look ahead and pick out something else and watch that.” She turned to me, hair falling out of the sides of her bandana and smiled, “We are moving, you know, Ben. Foreword. I guarantee it.” Just then the millionth wave of the day smashed into us, shaking the houseboat to its core, and she calmly went back to driving, keeping us on track.
I did as she suggested, picked out a tall pine tree up ahead and watched as we inched our toward it. We eventually got there. Like so many things in the course of our life and marriage together, she was right. We were moving.
I have to say that as the day wore on, we settled into a rather companionable routine. Our fighting and arguing the night before was replaced by the effort of working together to get us from Scalawag Bay to Northern Lights base. Shelia was by far a better driver, so she kept at the wheel. I used a push broom to keep as much water out of the cabin as I could (and I think I did a pretty good job. We never flooded.) I fixed us peanut butter and crackers to munch on and made more cheese sandwiches for us whenever we got hungry. I didn’t want to start the gas stove, but risked it a couple of times to make us both much needed cups of coffee. And I also kept the cigarettes coming.
By seven in the evening we’d cleared the big part of the lower lake. The wind had abated somewhat, but it was obvious we weren’t going to make it back to Northern Lights base. Daylight was fading rapidly and we still had two or three miles to go.
Shelia throttled back and we bobbed on the waves out of the wind behind a nearby island. She turned to me, “What do you want to do?”
“It’ll be dark pretty soon. I’m not confident driving the houseboat at night, are you?”
“No. Not at all.”
We both looked around. Since we were off the main part of the big lake the shoreline was closer to us, maybe a hundred yards away. There were lots of small islands, too.
I suddenly had an idea. I went to a storage cupboard and took out a three-ring binder provided by Northern Lights that showed shoreline camping sites. I brought it to Shelia, opened it up and balanced it on the steering wheel. “Maybe we can find someplace out of the wind and put up for the night.”
We paged through it until we found a map that included our location. We were in luck. A quarter mile ahead and to our left was a site on the lee-side of a small island. It’d be perfect for us.
“Let’s do it,” Shelia said.
“Want me to drive? You must be exhausted.”
“No. I’m good.” She pointed to the map. “You navigate and watch for buoy markers. Make sure we don’t miss it. Keep an eye out for submerged rocks, too.”
I gave her a mock salute, “Aye-aye, captain.”
She laughed. We hadn’t done much of that today, if at all. It was good to hear. It was also a ringing endorsement that we had survived a twelve hour journey covering nearly eighteen miles and that were going to make it safely back to base camp after all, even if it would be the next day. Better late than never, right?
Shelia eased the throttle forward and half an hour later had gently brought us in over some underwater rocks onto a sandy spit of a beach on tiny, rocky, jack pine covered island the map called Pelican Rock. I jumped off the deck in front with the rope and waded through shallow water to the shore. I had my eye on a strong looking aspen tree and soon had us tied to it, tight and secure. I came back to our boat where Shelia handed me the gangplank. I set it firmly in the sand and walked back up it to the deck, dripping water from my boots.
Shelia had gone into the cabin and was trying the radio.
“Anything?” I asked.
She shook her head, “No. Nothing.”
What little light left in the day was rapidly fading, and it would soon be dark. I looked back on the shore. Someone had at one time used rocks to build a fire ring. I pictured how nice it’d be to get a blazing campfire going, sit next to it, relax and warm our tired bones. Trouble was, with all the rain we’d had, I doubted I could find any dry wood. On the other hand, maybe it’d be nice to get off the boat for a while anyway, fire or no fire. My leg muscles were still tense from trying to keep my balance while riding five foot waves all day. I was sure Shelia’s were, too. In fact, I still could feel the rocking and rolling motion of the houseboat even just standing still. Yeah, getting on dry land would be good.
While I was staring at the fire ring, Shelia stepped next to me, “Thinking about building a fire?”
“Yeah. But the wood will be pretty wet, though. Hard to start.”
She went back into the cabin, rummaged around for a minute and then returned, carrying a bundle of dry firewood.
I laughed, “What have you got there?”
“I remembered that Northern Lights always supplies these boats with some firewood. You know, just to help out us rookies.” She laughed, “How about we use this to get a fire started. Then maybe you can find some more wood on shore and dry it out by the fire. Once we get it going, that is.”
“Great idea. You’re on.”
In the day’s last light, I got a fire going. Shelia brought out our lawn chairs. I was able to search for and find some wood that wasn’t too wet, and used my little portable hand saw to cut it up. We sat by the fire late into the night, long enough to see the sky clear and the stars come out. The wind even abated, a sure sign the storm was over. We didn’t argue, just talked, at first about the harrowing trip from Scalawag Bay to our little campsite on Pelican Rock. Then we got down to brass tacks and talked about Leslie and Logan. All in all it was a pretty good way to end the day.
The next day we broke camp early and flipped a coin to see who drove. I won (again) and was able to make an uneventful trip to base. In other words, I didn’t get hung up on any rocks. We arrived by ten in the morning . We unloaded our gear and were in Long Lake late that afternoon, exhausted but happy we’d made it home safely. I was back to work the next day, Monday. One of the first things I did was text Leslie, “Wed. Me & U, lunch BFI?” She texted back with a smiley face.
I won’t go into the details about that Wednesday lunch at Black Forest Inn except to say that she was less broken up about me ending things with her than I thought she’d be. After I told her that I just didn’t think things were going to work out, she’d responded with a shrug and, “Yeah, I can see that. I kind of feel the same way.”
There wasn’t much to be said after that. I drove home that afternoon, though, feeling strangely relieved. Happy, almost. After working together while fighting the storm on Rainy Lake, I realized I wasn’t ready to give up on Shelia and I and our marriage. Not by a long shot. I felt we still had something going for us. A lot, actually. Shelia, on the other hand saw things differently.
After we’d built the campfire on Pelican Rock that last night, we fixed a dinner of whatever we could find: a can of beans, four ears of corn on the cob, some saltines and Hersey’s bars. After the day we’d had, everything tasted like the best meal some fancy restaurant in New York City could have possibly served us. Probably better. Neither Leslie’s name, nor Logan’s had been mentioned all day; we’d had too much to do, getting our boat to safety and all. Finally, now, safely relaxing by the campfire and the talk of the day’s adventure having run its course, both elephants in the forest couldn’t be ignored.
Shelia took a sip of coffee and lit a cigarette, then asked, “So what about this Leslie, this girl friend of yours. What’s the deal with her?”
I wanted to tell her. I had thought off and on during the day of how to put it; there were such a variety of different ways. Finally, I settled on the most direct, “I’m going to end it when I get back home.”
I looked at her to judge her reaction. She blinked once, took a drag and said, “I didn’t expect that.”
“I know,” I said, “But it’s for the best.” Even though she didn’t ask, I told her why, “It has to do with us getting across the lake today. Me and you. I liked that we worked as a team, and I’d forgotten how much I appreciated that we could do that. Not everyone would be able to. Look at Bob and Iris; they can’t even cook dinner together without getting into a fight. We’ve never been like that. We could always start a project and each of us would naturally gravitate to one set of tasks while the other found their own niche. We worked great together, always did,” I paused, then said, “Even with the kids. Remember? We always talked over any issues we had with them and never let them drive us apart.” I stopped and looked at my wife. She was nodding her head, agreeing, I think with my assessment. I went on, “I think we drifted apart for other reasons.” I sighed, “And I’m sorry for that. Sorry that I hurt you. Sorry that I made you feel alone.” Then I added the name I wasn’t sure I wanted to add, but figured, what the hell, why not? “Sorry I drove you to Logan.”
After my little speech, I was silent. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spoken so freely, so from my heart. Or for so long. It felt good to unburden myself and come clean with my feelings.
Shelia tossed her cigarette in the fire and opened up a Hersey bar, broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. She sucked on it for a minute before saying, “I was so mad at you. After Jake and Julie left home and the house was empty I felt empty, too. When we got married I pictured our life together. We would raise our kids, go on vacations, celebrate birthdays and holidays, you know, just be a family. I figured any problems we had, we could work through them.” She shook her head and broke off another piece of chocolate, “I don’t know what went wrong.” She put the chocolate in her mouth and contemplated the fire.
I got up and threw another log on, hoping to break the mood. Out on the lake a loon started calling. When it stopped, another one started up. Soon they were calling back and forth. Perhaps they were a couple. Whatever the case, they were doing a lot better job breaking the mood than my pretending to fool around with the fire was doing. I sat down and said, “I think I do. Know what went wrong, I mean. At least from my standpoint.” Shelia looked at me, waiting for my answer. “I think I just got lazy,” I said, “I think I started taking our relationship and marriage for granted. I think I just forget to let you know how much you meant to me.”
I pulled a cigarette from the pack lying on the sand between us and rolled it back and forth in my figures, but didn’t light it. After a minute, I put it back in the pack.
“I guess I forgot how much I really loved you until today.”
I looked at her. She had a tear in her eye. Suddenly, so did I. It was an emotional moment, let me tell you. I was glad, though, that I had said what I had to say. In fact, I was naive enough to think that maybe this little talk, and me opening up my feelings, would be all we’d need to get back together. Maybe our marriage would survive. Maybe all the shit over the last few years would be forgotten.
Shows you what a fool I really was.
Shelia picked up the pack, shook out a cigarette and lit up, “Too bad you didn’t tell me all of this years ago,” she said, “Or even earlier this year, for that matter, before I met Logan.”
Well, that was a good point, a very good point.
We stayed up late. We didn’t argue or raise our voices. Instead, we kept talking reasonably, getting our feelings out in the open, and that was a good thing. However, the long and the short of it was this: Shelia cared deeply for this Logan guy. She’d met him while running Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth the past spring, just after she’d figured out about Leslie and me. He was a thirty-eight years old, an investment banker, single and, apparently, carrying no baggage, emotional or otherwise. She wasn’t ready to give him up.
Later that night, I gathered up my courage and asked the question I most wanted an answer to, yet was most afraid to hear the answer of, “Are you going to leave me for him?”
Shelia told me she wasn’t sure. In fact her very words were, “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll keep you posted.”
What a mess I’d made of things. I told myself I’d have to accept the situation for what it was and learn to live with where Shelia was at, but I knew it’d be hard. Here I was ready to dedicate myself to doing whatever I could to salvage our marriage, but she wasn’t ready to do that. It was clear that Logan was very much in the picture. We didn’t talk much after that.
I spent the night on the floor again, next to Shelia’s bed. In spite of our exhaustion, I know neither of us slept very well.
Once we were back home in Long lake, though, things didn’t go not too badly between us. Our détente’ continued, and I was happy for that. At least I hadn’t been kicked out of the house, which, in my mind had been a very real possibility. On Wednesday evening, when I told Shelia that I’d broken off my relationship with Leslie, she’d said, “If that’s what you want, good. I’m glad for you.” Not the most enthusiastic response in the world, but then again, what did I expect. I’d been the one to screw up in the first place. I had a lot of dues to pay.
When I asked Shelia later week about her and Logan all I got was a non-committal, “I’ll get back to you on that.”
When I tried to clarify, “What does that mean?” what I got back was, “Exactly what I said, I’ll get back to you.”
“Are you still going to see him?” I persisted.
The response? A long stare and, “I’ll. Get. Back. To. You.”
Okay. I finally was getting the point. Shelia had some thinking to do, and when she was done, she’d…Get back to me.
Our first weekend back home, we had Bob and Iris out to our place for a Saturday night backyard picnic. Iris had called Shelia earlier in the week to catch up and when Shelia told her the tale of our harrowing journey across Rainy Lake, Iris told Bob. They both were excited to hear more, so we invited them over to fill them in and show them pictures we’d each taken with our phones. That Saturday evening I fired up the grill and did corn on the cob (a nod to our campfire dinner on Pelican Rock), and black bean burgers. Shelia put together a fresh salad with greens and veggies from our garden and we ate outside at our picnic table on the back patio.
When we were finished, Bob and I were inside doing the dishes when he turned to me and said, “So what’s up with you and Shelia?”
I handed him a plate. I was washing, he was drying. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you both seem…” he paused, trying to frame his thought before saying, “You both seem different.”
“Okay,” I said, “Different like how?” I handed him another plate.
“I don’t know. Better? Less argumentative, maybe?” He took the plate and dried it before setting it aside. He wiped his hands on the towel, set it on the counter and turned to me, “Did something happen between you guys up there?”
“You mean like the wind storm and almost capsizing the houseboat a hundred times on Rainy?” I grinned at him.
Bob, laughed, “No. I mean with you and Shelia. You seem more comfortable together. Less tense, that’s for sure. Better with each other.” He paused again and then asked, “Are you?”
Bob was a good friend of mine, we’d known each other for over fifteen years, but I’d never told him about Leslie and I wasn’t going to now. Instead, I said, “Yeah, I think we are. Better with each other, I mean. We had a pretty good time up on Rainy.” I knew I was sounding vague, but too bad. If Shelia and I seemed good to Bob, fine. In a way we were. Deep down, though, I knew things between us were still tenuous, and they would stay that way until Shelia resolved her feelings about Logan.
I started washing a salad bowl and looked out the window into the backyard. Shelia and Iris were deep in conversation. About what, I had no idea. I turned to Bob and said, “So, yeah, I think we’re pretty good. I think we’re more than pretty good.” Even though Shelia’s jury was still out on Logan, between Shelia and I it sure seemed like things were better than they had been in a long time, years even. I sure hoped they were, anyway.
Bob slapped me on the back and said, “Well, that’s good news, buddy. I’m happy for you.”
If it was true, I was happy, too. Very happy. But, honestly, there was still the issue with Shelia and Logan. Until that was resolved, moving ahead with repairing our marriage was going to be difficult, if not impossible.
The next weekend was sunny and warm, the temperature in the low eighties. I was out in the garden on Saturday, weeding and deadheading in one of our five front yard flower beds, and trying to make sense of it all regarding my marriage. I was happy I broke things off with Leslie. The age difference was too great, our interests…well, honestly, there wasn’t much there. I’m glad I had done what I did, and, truth be told, I’m sure Leslie was, too. She had texted me the next day, “Thx Ben. U were fun! :)” Fun? Well, what can you say to that?
Did I want to stay with Shelia? Yes, absolutely I did. But, I was preparing myself for her to kick me out and move on to a life without me. I had let her down so many times over the years that I was surprised she hadn’t already told me to pack up and leave. Especially now that she had Logan in her life. How could I expect otherwise?
For my part? Well, over time, I had become vaguely unhappy with my marriage. I’d ended up using Leslie as a pleasant little diversion, an ill advised decision which I realized on Rainy Lake was something I didn’t need or want. But, of course, I had, and, in so doing, I may have damaged my relationship with my wife irrevocably.
Honestly? I still loved Shelia. I would give anything to have her back and to spend the rest of our life together, trying to make our marriage as good as it could possibly be. After all, when it came right down to it, not every couple could work together to fight their way across a huge, storm ravaged lake in a little houseboat, and live to tell the tail. Did that sound overly dramatic? Maybe, but from where I was coming from, it made perfect sense. There was something there between us worth fighting for.
My thoughts were interrupted by a sudden unexpected scent of spearmint in the air. I smiled. Shelia had taken up chewing gum ever since we’d gotten off the lake and she was favoring Wrigley’s Spearmint. She told me it was to help her quit smoking and apparently it’s been going well. She’s essentially stopped. I’m happy for her. Me? I was just smoking with her to share the moment. I hadn’t had one since we got in car at Northern Lights base camp and drove home.
I stood up, straightened my back and turned to greet her. Two weeks after the fact and I was still stiff from fighting the huge waves on Rainy. Shelia, in much better shape all the way around, recovered right away. In fact, she’d been running on a regular basis, training for the Twin City Marathon coming up in October. I tried not to think about if Logan was going to be running it, too.
“Hi,” I said, as she walked up, “How’s it going?”
We’d been getting along fine ever since we’d returned home. She knew I’d broken things off with Leslie. A few days ago when I asked her about Logan, she’d told me, “I’ve only texted him that I’ve got a lot on my mind. I haven’t seen him or talked to him since we’ve been back. I don’t really have anything to say to him.”
That was the last we’d talked about either of them. Other than having Bob and Iris over, mainly we’d just worked at our jobs, cooked our evening meal together, watched television and gone on a few walks in the neighborhood, stuff we’d pretty much always done. But…and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t just my imagination…I’m pretty sure we were more comfortable with each other than we’d been in years, like Bob had pointed out. We’d even laughed together a few times. It’d been nice.
“It’s going pretty good,” Shelia said, in response to my question. She moved in so she was standing close to me and asked, “How about with you?”
“Good. I’m almost done with the zinnias.” I looked around. The sun was low in the west over the roof of our home, shadows lengthening. Late afternoon. The sky was blue and cloudless and it was still warm out but not too hot, a perfect ending to a perfect summer day. “I’m going to start deadheading these babies next,” I pointed to some nearby bachelor buttons, waist high, blue and white annual flowers that self-seeded themselves every year. Butterflies loved them. I had a big clump in the middle of the garden and they needed some attention. Just then a movement caught my eye. I turned and watched an early Painted Lady land on one and start feeding. I smiled and looked at Leslie. She was smiling, too, but it wasn’t at the butterfly. She was smiling directly at me. Something was up.
“What?” I asked, curious.
“I’ve got something here. Thought you might like to see it.” She handed me an envelope.
The mail must have been dropped off earlier, and I’d been so lost in thought I hadn’t even noticed. I looked at the return address. It was from Northern Lights Houseboat Adventures. My first thought was that it was a bill. We’d paid for our houseboat before we’d taken it out that first day, but we’d lost the dingy on the way across the upper lake after we’d left Scalawag Bay. At some point that one-inch boat rope had snapped in the storm like a rubber band. We’d been so focused on looking ahead, watching the waves and judging the position of our boat, we never noticed it was gone until we were getting ready to enter the Brule Narrows. I opened the envelope expecting the bill for the dingy. It wasn’t a bill at all.
I looked over the one page letter. Then I read it more closely before turning to Shelia, “What’s this all about?” I asked, “What have you done?”
She broke into a big smile, “You like my surprise? I booked us in for next year. What do you think? Want to do it? Want to go back?”
What I held in my hand was a reservation. Guaranteed, for a week in the middle of August on our boat, Looney Tunes. Next year!
I was stunned and at a loss for words. Finally, I was able to ask, “You want to go back? With me?” It was the last thing I expected, and I was quick to answer, “Of course I do.” Absolutely, I wanted to go back with her. I began to envision us crossing Rainy Lake, in much calmer waters, of course, letting my imagination run away with me: Moonlit nights. Loons calling. A warm, crackling campfire. Smores. Then I put the brake on. “Wait a minute. What about…?”
I was going to say Logan’s name, but Shelia stopped me and put her finger on my lips. “Don’t worry about him. That’s over,” she said, leaning closer, “I ended it. No more fooling around for me. And no more fooling around for you, either, okay? From now on, it’s you and me, Ben, for better or worse, just like in the movies.”
I couldn’t believe I’d get another chance, but I was. Overjoyed, I said, “I promise. I swear to you, I’ll do everything I can to keep us together.”
“I’m counting on you. You know that, don’t you?”
“I do,” I said, looking into her eyes and holding her gaze, “But, you know, this isn’t a movie,” I added, stated the obvious.
“I know,” she said, “It’s better. It’s our life
To say I was overjoyed was putting it mildly. In fact, I think words will for always and all time be unable to do justice to the happiness I felt at that particular moment. But I will say this, I saw a vision of our future right then: Shelia and I, living our life together, growing old together, and that’s all I needed to see. It made me the happiest man on earth. I had ended things with Leslie and she had with Logan. Now, it was the two of us, as husband and wife, and we had another chance. Another opportunity to work on our marriage and forge ahead together into our future. It was something that didn’t always happen; the chance to start over. I was all for it.
They say a wound heals stronger when it mends and I have no reason to doubt that statement. Hopefully it will be the same with our marriage. I believe it will. But, over the years there were a lot of wounds inflicted, all caused by me, and there’s a lot of healing to be done. Will we be successful? We’ll find out. I will say this: I’m committed saving our relationship and moving ahead together. So is Shelia. What I know for sure is that something happened to both of us up on Rainy Lake. It’s like we each caught a glimpse into the depths of what we had built together over our twenty- three years of marriage, and we didn’t want to let it go. Somehow our love for each other had not only survived, but had also been rejuvenated. I have no answer exactly how it had happened. I only knew that it did.
Shelia stepped into my arms and I held her; the first time in years. Her closeness felt wonderful, just like I remembered, the best feeling in the whole wide world. “Yes, I want to go with you,” I said, “Rainy Lake, here we come.” Then I whispered in her ear, “I can’t wait.”
“Me either, “Shelia said, and we held each other tight. It was all she had to say. In fact, it was more than enough.