Everything was up in the air, and Jake wasn’t a very good juggler. College was over. His parents had moved to California, leaving him without a job or a place to live. So he rented a tiny, furnished apartment near the beach, with inadequate heating that kept him cold throughout the winter. He got his first real job writing for a near-bankrupt local newspaper. He worked long hours and ate lots of TV dinners. He wasn’t sure what else to do.
Sometime in the spring, he began seeing a girl he met at work. Donna was hired as a receptionist and Jack-of-all-trades. She was going to night school at Hofstra – getting her degree on the ten-year plan. The course of their relationship followed a simple routine. Work, followed by drinks and dinner. Then he and Donna would head back to his apartment. Soon Donna began leaving a change of clothes there, so they could go into work together when she spent the night. They tried to keep their relationship secret, but it was no use. Middle-aged Jewish women—their own grown children off to college—thought of Jake as their other son. They winked their approval, knowing these two kids were right for each other.
But for those who looked carefully, Donna had an air of inevitability about her. Her path was fixed like a meteor burning as it streaks across the night sky.
Until now no one had been looking too carefully. “They make a cute couple,” people kept saying. Watching them made everyone remember something, some special moment long forgotten, like the memory of a first kiss, irretrievable until now.
The path to inevitability often meanders, and for a time Donna would be allowed to stroll in a garden, protected from her fate. But it wasn’t long before the jungle intruded again. Donna turned cold, distant toward Jake. It was as if she had shut down. She cringed when he tried to touch her. And she barely spoke.
One Friday night, they left the paper about 6:30 and drove in silence to a little, Italian restaurant down by the beach. It was now late August, still hot and humid, but with the first hint of fall was in the air. Under a full moon, the Sound looked like a mirror, reflecting back the light without revealing what’s below its surface. A world away, across the Sound the dark outline of Connecticut was barely visible.
Tony’s was about as authentic as you could get: red and white-checkered table cloths and Chianti bottles lining the ceiling. The food was basic Italian, and the room smelled like sautéed garlic and onions. A waitress, dressed in black pants and a white shirt, greeted them at the door. She had her hair in a pony tail, chewed gum, and spoke with the Long Island version of a New York accent.
“Hi you guys,” she said snapping her gum as she directed them to a table in the corner. “Where ya been?”
“Too busy to eat,” Jake replied.
“No way. Let me tell you about our specials. We have swordfish sautéed with lemon, basil, and butter. We also have penne with roasted fennel and tomatoes…”
“What’s the soup tonight?” Donna asked.
“Can I get you something to drink while you decide?”
“Always.” Jake ordered a bottle of wine.
When the wine was poured, they clinked glasses.
“Cin Cin,” Jake said. Donna smiled.
“What can I get you kids?”
“I’ll take the veal parmesan with a side of spaghetti.”
“Just soup for me.”
“Are you sure that’s all you want? The manicotti is really good.”
“Just soup is fine.”
“Marsha, was on my ass all day about the airport story.”
“She only does it because she likes you.”
“She has a funny way of showing it. When she gave me the story, she said, ‘And don’t screw it up.’”
“She talks like that to everyone. I think she looks at you as a protégé.”
“I don’t look at her as a mentor.”
“The guys in Shipping are betting you’ll be gone before the year’s out.”
“I wouldn’t take that bet. Los Angeles is calling.”
“That would be good for you.”
“You sound like my mother… I was thinking it would be good for both of us.”
The dining room was filling up and it was noisy, the noise forming a barrier between Donna and Jake.
“Here ya go.” The waitress put the food on the table, and refilled their glasses.
Donna went through the motions of eating the steaming soup. In between bites, she absently stirred the bowl with her spoon. Jake ate quietly, twirling the spaghetti on his fork.
“You’re such a slob”, Donna said as she reached over with her napkin to dab a spot of sauce from Jake’s shirt.
“Maybe we should get away this weekend. Drive Upstate.”
Jake poured the last of the wine; Donna was quiet.
“I’m not a very happy person.”
“I wouldn’t have known it a couple of weeks ago.”
She finished the last of her wine. “It was seven years this month… ”Nervously, she lit a cigarette.
He took her hand. “Do you want to talk about it?”
There was a long pause.
“My father was abusive. When he was drunk, he beat my mother. And he was always drunk. He beat me, and my sister too. And…”
“He had sex with us.”
Jake looked everywhere but in Donna’s eyes.
“It started when I was 13. My mother and sister were out for the evening. He raped me.”
“And he told me not to tell. At first he said he was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing. Said it would kill my mother. The next time it happened he said he’d beat me to a pulp if I told anyone.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. I tried to keep away from him. But it was impossible to stay away all the time.”
“And is this what’s been bothering you?”
She looked right at Jake.
“I got pregnant. He took me for an abortion. I was only 16. I was so scared. And he was all drunk and everything.”
“Where is he now?”
“I moved out when I turned 18. I saw my mother, but never when my father was around. He died about a year ago.”
“Did you ever tell anyone?”
“No, I was too scared to tell anyone. Until now.”
“Have you thought about talking to a doctor, a shrink?”
“Don’t you understand? I’m all fucked up inside. Do you know how hard it is to talk to you? I feel like I’m falling, and I can never stop.”
“Aren’t you close to Father Sullivan? Maybe you should talk to him.”
“I can’t. I had an abortion.”
“It’s a mortal sin. I’d be excommunicated.”
“But you were raped!”
“That doesn’t matter. Nothing I do will help.”
Jake was playing with the empty wine bottle. Absentmindedly, he replaced the cork into the bottle. When the waitress came by, he asked for another.
“Don’t say things like that.”
“But that’s how I feel.”
“But we can work this out. It doesn’t have to affect us.”
“It changes everything.” She took a long drink of wine.
“I think about it everyday of my life. I can never forgive myself.” She was crying now.
He took her hand.
“You’re not to blame, for what that bastard did.”
At 11:00, there was no one left in Tony’s. When someone began vacuuming the floor and stacking chairs, it was time to go.
“Let’s go to the beach.”
At the beach, he tried to hold her, but she pulled away. They didn’t speak. Clouds rolled in over the moon, and it grew darker. The air was cool and salty. All that could be heard was the sound of the waves licking the sand.
“I can’t see you again.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t want to see you anymore.”
“Why are you throwing this away?”
“I have no choice.”
“That doesn’t make sense. You have cancer, then you have no choice. But this?”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“No, I don’t, because it’s crazy. Even sinners are forgiven. You don’t have to punish yourself forever.”
“I’m not asking to be forgiven.”
Donna quit her job the next day; she was gone before Jake arrived. He tried to call her a couple of times, but he didn’t try that hard. Time was his ally; he moved on with his life.
More than a year later, Jake got a call from Donna’s friend Susan.
“I had no idea. But do you think she’ll listen to me.”
“I don’t know who else can help. I’ve never seen her like this. I’m really worried.”
“All right I’ll talk to her.”
Jake called Donna. Reluctantly, she agreed to see him. It was fall now, and the beach where they met was deserted. The sky was empty, and the water was clear and green. The sound of the small waves was muffled in the fall air. Donna had lost weight. She was wearing all black, and it made her look even thinner. Her perfume had a musty scent. She smiled at him, but her eyes were lifeless. Jake found it hard to keep his expression calm.
They walked down the beach.
“You could come with me. It would be like before.”
“I don’t think it will ever be like before.”
“No, I guess not.”
They walked along the beach.
“I know I was no use to you before. I didn’t know what to do.” Jake looked at Donna. Something in his eyes had changed, making him look older.
“It doesn’t matter now.”
“I should never have let you go.”
“You didn’t have much choice.”
“Damn it Donna, you don’t deserve this. You’re one of the good ones. You’ve earned some happiness.”
“That’s what I told myself.”
“I wish I could take your pain away.”
“I know you do.”
Jake stopped, picked up a rock, and skipped it across the water.
“How often did we come here?”
“I haven’t been here since…” He never finished his sentence.
After a time they began walking back.
When they returned to their cars, Donna said, “I’d better go.”
“Are you going to be OK?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Why don’t you come back to my apartment tonight. You can have my room; I’ll take the couch.”
“I’ll be OK.”
“Don’t do anything…crazy. Promise me.”
“Promise me that you’ll call me tomorrow.”
“Let me try to talk to someone, then we’ll talk again, OK?”
“OK.” Jake turned to walk away. “Jake?” He stopped.
“It was good to see you. You look good.”
The next day Jake left a message for Father Sullivan – a message he should have left a lifetime ago.
An hour later the phone rang. It was Susan. Before she spoke, Jake knew he had run out of time.