ASSURANCES

by

Kathleen Glassburn

 

 

Several hours after the wedding, we took a late-night flight to St. George’s, Bermuda and checked into our suite at Molly Porter’s Pub & Inn. With the confusion of rushing from the reception and last-minute packing, Kate remembered her white silk goddess gown but forgot her birth control pills.

“I’ll have my prescription sent to a local pharmacy,” she said. “Don’t worry, Philip, I’m not going to get pregnant for just a few days.”

“Oh yeah?” In all her life it seemed like nothing had ever gone awry for

Katherine Anne Best — now Conlin.

By contrast, I had gone to special classes for my stammer through elementary school and carried a nebulizer in my backpack until eleventh grade.

We were living in one of her father’s condos, rent-free. As soon as possible, I wanted to buy our own house. A baby now would mess up that plan.

“What are we going to do? Abstain? It’s our honeymoon for God’s sake!” She rubbed up to me and cajoled me until I cast aside my concerns, feeling the steam rise between us under a fan that spun like a propeller, barely moving the room’s humid air.

Afterwards, several minutes into a doze, I awakened to burning, swelling, tingling, and Kate complained of the same things. I said, only half jokingly, “Maybe we’ve become allergic to each other.” Will I start to gasp as well as itch?

I’d never had sex with anyone else, even Peggy my only other serious girlfriend, and the daughter of my mother’s best friend back home in Chambers, Minnesota. Peggy and I fooled around plenty, but she had convinced me that being virgins was important as a pledge to God and the Catholic Church, as well as to our mothers. Still, we’d been close enough and neither of us ever broke out in hives the size of nickels.

Kate and I moved over to the French doors of our balcony, hoping for a breeze.

“Allergic?” She scrunched up her face before going on, “It’s the heat.”

Despite the early-morning hour, it was already eighty-five degrees.

“Come on, lots of other things to do besides fuck.” She threw both arms around my waist for a quick hug and kissed me hard – her naked, me robed up.

Usually her talk and lack of inhibitions amused me, but feeling tender and grumpy, I mumbled, “What do you want to do?”

Kate crawled back atop our canopied bed, not bothering to put on the white silk nightgown. Angry welts had sprung out where her tan ended. She picked up a tourist magazine and nonchalantly leafed through it. “There’s an aquarium…and hey, we could go swim with dolphins.” An animal lover, these activities would catch her attention.

Back at the condo in Minneapolis, one of the mailboys from Malcolm Best’s electrical engineering company cared for her Humane Society rescues – three yappy, mixed-breed terriers and a couple of scruffy cats. Since her father owned this building, as well as dozens of others, Kate didn’t need to comply with the one-small-pet-per-unit rule. Because she worked at the shelter, it was anyone’s guess how many more strays would join our newly-formed family.

“Don’t  you want some clothes?”

“No. I can’t stand anything on me right now. I’ll take a cold shower after yours.” She fanned herself with the magazine.

*

We walked to Water Street, Kate rushing along in front of me by several feet. There we caught a pink bus, scaled down for the island.

Wearing a loose yellow dress and “No underwear, to get as much healing air on these buggers as possible,” she’d told me.

In the 10:30 a.m. sparkling sunshine, we disembarked at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo in Flatts Village. Kate’s dress stuck to her body rather than blowing up.

One turtle the size of a manhole cover topped another equally large specimen in the corner of an outside pool by the ticket window. The bottom turtle’s brownish-green head (etched with geometric shapes like mosaic tiles) pressed between the turquoise wall and a white plastic filtration tube. The upper turtle, similarly marked, had a leg flopped over the bottom turtle’s back. Its nose nuzzled along the lower one’s neck while they rocked back and forth.

“Check them out,” Kate said.

Other visitors stopped to observe and snicker.

Little children said, “What’re they doing?”

“Let’s give them some privacy.” I grabbed Kate’s hand.

“Why? They’re the ones who chose this spot.” She gave me a sidelong glance from under lids that partially covered gingersnap-brown eyes. For the next few minutes, we watched the copulating reptiles, until their movements stopped and Kate said, “Time for a smoke.”

Can we go in?”

“Sure, silly…lighten up.” She gave me a playful nudge.

Ever since leaving our suite to explore this pastel-hued island, while she didn’t seem that bothered by her rash, my discomfort had worsened. Even the Green Turtles, an endangered species that the BAMZ made every effort to keep from extinction, with the obvious cooperation of this pair, seemed to have taunting looks on their satisfied faces.

Preserve and Conserve had been the motto at a Democratic fundraiser where Kate and I had met – she as an attendee from the environmental nonprofit where she worked, me as a journalist covering the event for the Minneapolis StarTribune. Proudly, I’d told her about my father’s newspaper that supported Al Gore, then basked in her enthusiasm.

An enormous water-filled, glass silolike structure attracted her attention as we entered the first room of the BAMZ. Hundreds of silver fish with rosy underbellies swam in synchronization, their combined bodies flickering like a disco ball. She watched them as I studied her through the glass. These glittering specimens did nothing to distract from the ballerina-like way Kate stood. Others deferentially stepped aside, careful not to disturb her reverie. Only I knew where that mind had been moments before.

Meandering down the hallway next to walls lined with at least thirty recessed tanks, I came upon one marked “Octopus.” Several seconds passed as I searched out the camouflaged  creature, and eventually found her – for some reason certain of the gender. She was curled up like a volleyball under a piece of driftwood. None of her body parts, with the exception of a bulging opaque eye, moved. It intermittently opened, as if on a timer, stared at me for a short time, then shut again.

My mother had studied me like this during Kate’s first visit to Chambers, a Minnesota town of 2,500 near the border with North Dakota. In the kitchen of an apartment where I grew

up – over The Chambers Press, the weekly newspaper owned and operated by my father, Lloyd

Conlin – my mother, Margaret, had stood as stiff as a pole, with her hands prayerfully folded over the front of a flower-printed everyday dress. As she contemplated us, Kate and I went in and out loading the Subaru for return to The Cities. I kept expecting Mom to grab me with her usual big hug, one that lasted too long. Instead, her gray eyes watched, blinked and looked away, looked again, as if waiting for the moment when I’d be transformed beyond recognition.

I could understand her warily eyeballing Kate. I’d been scrutinizing her family, too. But, Why me? This brought on speculation about how Mom would cover our visit in her contribution to the newspaper — a “Local Goings-On” column. And, what would she tell Peggy, her namesake, about my new love interest? She’d told me that after the break-up, other than teaching her kindergarten class, Peggy stayed in her apartment for at least a month.

In a museum section of the BAMZ that Kate rushed through, heading for the zoo, I discovered a display dedicated to the Gombey, one of Bermuda’s oldest traditions. Groups consisted of brightly costumed, all-male performers, accompanied by musicians with steel drums. Inspired by West African slaves, this type of dancing had been around since the 17th century.

As I read a placard, considering what it would be like to move with such abandon, Kate strode back through the door. “Come on out here. You’ve got to see this.”

Reluctantly leaving the Gombey exhibit, I shuffled into the courtyard, just in time to see a peacock lower his tail.

“You missed it.” Kate plopped down on a wooden bench, patting a place for me to join her. We waited until the magnificent fellow turned our way and raised his spectacular fan once more. He circled so all in the area could witness his beauty.

A man said, “She’s a show-off.”

Kate said, loud enough for the man’s benefit,” It’s a male.”

Male or not, I couldn’t help but think of Eva, Kate’s mother. At our simple, civic wedding, that bothered my mother no end since it wasn’t a Mass, I had watched Eva float through the group of fifty family friends, Republicans all, at their French Chateau-style house on Lake of the Isles. Wearing an iridescent blue-and-green gown, she mingled with a crystal champagne glass in an upraised left hand, spreading attention from person to person.

At the same time, Malcolm had smoked cigars with his cronies by the bar, and Kate’s older brother Douglas alongside his wife, Kippy, chatted with sailing chums by the long, linen-covered buffet table. From the flickering candlelight I could see my parents, the only two familiar faces, sitting in a corner next to a potted palm. They nibbled thumb-sized prawns, carefully stacking tails on the side of their plates as if planning to request doggie bags to take them home.

In Hamilton, after a quick lunch of Bermuda’s famous seafood chowder seasoned with Outerbridge’s Sherry Peppers Sauce, Kate and I climbed on another pink bus headed for the Royal Naval Dockyard and a swim with the dolphins.

Paging through her tourist magazine, I noted and said, “Of the nine thousand shipped-in English convicts who built this place, two thousand died from yellow fever.”

“That’s awfully grim.” She frowned, then returned to chuckling at the antics of several kids in safari hats.

Once at the pool, we walked up to a closet-size dressing room with a broken door lock.

I right away said, “You change first. I’ll stand guard in case somebody tries to come in.” Peggy would have wanted me to do this.

“Let’s hurry and change together. We need to get out there.”

Over the seven-foot-high walls, with clear-blue sky showing above, voices carried from nearby cubicles while I bumped into Kate and struggled into my usually comfortable, baggy trunks. Against sweaty limbs, the fabric chafed my hives.

I overheard a small voice say, “Will the dolphins bite?”

“No, Petey,” a woman said. “These are friendly animals who like to play with people.”

I was concerned about the same thing because somewhere I’d picked up that while swimming with sea creatures, one might nose up to a guy’s crotch, even wriggle between his legs like a dog sniffing “hello.”

“You’re a big, brave boy,” a man told Petey.

Four people, in addition to Kate and myself, formed our group – the other couple and Petey, who looked about five, and an older guy, probably fifty, with a big round belly that hung over his purple Speedo. It made him appear, from some angles, to be buck naked.

We all donned black life vests that Deanna, the trainer, told us to “cinch tight so they don’t float up around your chins.”

I did exactly that, wanting my hands free to ward off any curious creatures. The old guy could barely get his vest closed, causing me to hope that, seeing his drooping, pink paunch, they would head for him.

Next, we pulled on rubber-bottomed Aqua Socks so there’d be no skidding. Not finding any in size 12, I settled for 11 and pinched toes. Goggles that I tugged onto the top of my head pressed torturously against my ears. At least these pains distracted from the persistent feel of crawling ants in my pants.

Ancient-looking stones, like those used in the fort surrounding this pool, comprised the walls. A musty smell hung over the area, but everything had been scrubbed clean. Once we were submerged, Deanna lifted a silver pipe whistle. Several toots and “Baxter,” a six-year-old male dolphin, swam toward our group in a gallumping roll like a horse on a carousel.

“Everyone paddle in a row and when Baxter comes by give him a gentle

pet behind his head,” Deanna said. “Dolphins don’t like to have their heads touched.”

Would a misplaced hand make him bite or go scavenging?

From Petey’s tightly drawn lips, I figured he still felt scared, yet, being brave, didn’t say anything to his parents. I put on a beamer for Kate.

She gave Baxter several soft pets, and said, “He’s a sweetie.”

I reached out and gingerly slid a palm across his side. Shiny, gray skin felt like a full-to-the-max inner tube.

“Baxter likes you people,” Deanna said.

She instructed us to shift our goggles into place and peer underwater. When we came up the rest of the mammals, five in all, surfaced and did a lined-up dive, flapping their wide tails and splashing everyone in the face. Each person took a turn “dancing” with Baxter, holding his front flippers, bouncing up and down as he gave a gaping grin. A male employee shot photos from the pool’s side.

“The honeymooners get another turn with each other,” Deanna said.

Kate led Baxter and me in a ring-around-a-rosy routine, and said, “We can use this picture for our Christmas card.”

I summoned up another smile.

“What’s wrong with him?” Petey asked. “He’s different than those guys.” Baxter’s snout looked swollen and donut-shaped, like puffy lips.

“When he arrived here, Baxter became low man on the totem pole,” Deanna said. “You know, dating the girls. Another boy dolphin smacked him with his tail and broke his jaw. It had to be wired shut. This is how he looked when it healed.” Over Petey’s head she mouthed the word “sexy.”

I licked my own salty lips.

“He’s all right now?” Petey’s forehead crumpled in concern.

“More than all right. He’s our top dolphin. That’s the way it happens sometimes. He started out at the bottom but that didn’t mean he had to stay there.”

“I’m glad.” Petey gave Baxter another tentative pet behind his head.

Me, too. I gave a silent cheer for the underdog.

On our way back to St. George’s we took a pink bus, only this time in rush hour traffic, standing pressed against other sweaty passengers..

I couldn’t help but think, What am I doing here?

An unfazed Kate kept talking to different people, or bending to look out a window and point at a boat, a bridge, a pretty building for me to see.

While traipsing toward the inn, percussive rhythms got her skip-stepping to the beat. We followed the sounds to a street festival, where booths full of locally-made crafts surrounded a town square. Male dancers in rainbow-toned costumes with feathers and masks that made them look like giant exotic birds performed. These Gombey, leaping and high-kicking, invited onlookers to join in. Kate swayed her hips faster and faster, then hauled me out to the middle of the revelers. Before I knew it, she said, “C’mon, you can do it,” and coaxed me into a feeble shake and stomp with the crowd.

Starving after our long day roaming the island, we had an early dinner of yellowfin tuna at the inn’s pub.

Between mouthfuls, Kate said, “What a great time” and “What a fun place” and “Aren’t you glad Dad’s company did the underground wiring here so he could arrange this?”

I nodded in false agreement over each statement.

“Let’s go to the pink sand beach tomorrow,” she said.

“Do you know why the sand’s pink?”

“Not a clue.”

“Little animals live under the coral reef. Their red skeletons get mixed up with bigger crushed white shells.”

“Interesting…we can rent mopeds.”

Great! That’s going to feel real good! But, I realized, “My itching’s gone.”

“Mine, too. The saltwater in the dolphin pool must have soothed us.” With a gleam in those snappily eyes, she added, “Let’s test it again tonight.”

*

Once in our suite, I took my customary quick shower and waited for Kate.

After soaking for a long time in the tub, she drifted out, surrounded by a cloud of honeysuckle-scented lotion. I expected to see her in white silk. Instead, she wore a faded red

T-shirt that said:

“Hometown Boy – Chambers Centennial – 1995”

“What happened to your goddess gown?”

She wrinkled her lightly-freckled nose. “Really not me. Mother bought it, saying, ‘perfect for the honeymoon.’ Perfect for her idea of a honeymoon.” Kate ran her hands down the front of my T-shirt.

I could make out her breasts underneath.

“This suits me much better.” She hopped onto the bed beside me.

A while later we were lying under the spinning fan, her fingers fiddling with my chest hair.

“You feel okay?” I asked.

“Couldn’t be better.”

“No…the itching?”

“All gone.”

“I’m fine for the moment.” I held her hand still. “Do you think we could be allergic to each other?”

“Impossible!”

I thought about Baxter and his current expertise. I nuzzled into Kate’s sweet-smelling neck. I rubbed up to her leg. I momentarily forgot about everything else.

 

THE END