Mount Desert Island, Maine, 1980
Sandy’s head pressed against the window of Jeff’s borrowed Subaru hatchback. Jeff opened the door at a Dunkin Donuts and cold air rolled in. She wished the heater worked. Back on the road a Welcome to Maine billboard flashed by and, half awake, she snuggled Jeff’s New England Patriots parka over her denim jacket. A Harvard Square café double shift had made her too tired to wonder why he refused to reveal their destination. An all-night road trip was the kind of weird fun stuff Jeff thought up.
Two hundred and fifty miles north of Boston, Jeff turned off Highway 95. A half hour later, the Subie’s headlights illuminated a white wooden fence. He parked and helped Sandy out of the car and whispered, “My mom brought me here when I was a kid. She said if I made a promise as the sun rose on Mount Desert Island, it would come true. That morning I promised I’d be an artist.”
In the frigid pre-dawn air, Sandy saw their breath but not much else. She snapped her denim jacket and zipped the parka closed. Jeff took off his Red Sox cap and scrunched it onto her head. Waves crashed on distant rocks and an offshore sea breeze tickled her icy cold nose. She hoped this would be worth it.
Jeff inhaled. “Smells salty and clean. Not like washed up dead things or diesel boats.”
Sandy’s teeth chattered. “Smells like hundreds of miles of open sea.”
Jeff sniffed. “Molecules from countries we’ve never seen.” He pulled two blankets out of the car and led Sandy along an uphill path.
Sandy heard people around them but couldn’t see a thing. “What’s this? A make-out spot?”
Hissing whispers shushed her.
As her eyes adjusted to the dark, Jeff led her close to the top and spread out one blanket and helped her settle next to a large rock. He sat and tugged the second blanket around them, leaving only their faces exposed. Hugging her shivering body close, Jeff whispered, “It’ll be worth it.”
She leaned into the familiar warmth of his body. She loved Jeff’s quirky sense of adventure and wished she possessed that whimsical spark.
Jeff pulled her close and kissed her. “Our love is like a sunrise. Like a desert sun shining on ocean waves.”
She giggled. “We’ve never even seen a desert.”
“We’ll go everywhere. Together. I feel in my heart we’ll always be together. Now, promise you’ll love me forever.”
“I promise.” She tried to sound as sober as Jeff.
“If I lose you, I swear I’ll find you.”
She laughed. “I’ll never leave you.” Sometimes he was so dramatic.
A glow lined the horizon. A speck of dark gold fuzz appeared, then broadened along the distant ocean. “There,” Jeff sighed. “Now, don’t blink.”
Slowly, then faster, the sun rose above the water, its orange-red glow spreading up against layered purple clouds. The panorama was divided by a white seam holding water and air together as the sky lit the ocean in hues painters jealously craved to replicate.
Watchers released their breaths and uttered a spontaneous, “Ahhh.” No artist could ever capture this sunrise or the feeling in her heart. Jeff insisted artists needed to experience everything, even if they didn’t have the skill to translate their feelings into art. She felt hesitant to even try. Her life felt like a still life oil compared to Jeff’s animated talent.
As the sun rose higher, a frisson of excitement traveled through her body. “That was really amazing. We were the first people on the whole continent to see the sun rise.”
The sun globe now hung over the horizon. Through morning haze, the entire sky glowed luminous and soft. Jeff made her see the wonder in the world. When she was with him dreams seemed real. “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”
They tumbled back on the blanket and rolled together while the other watchers hurried down hill. Pulling apart only far enough to unbutton and unzip, their bodies wiggled, squirmed, and adjusted. Sandy and Jeff moved under the blanket and joined with the easy intensity of two people meant to be one.
Despite napping all the way back from Maine, Sandy was so tired. As soon as they merged into morning rush hour traffic, the honking kept her awake.
Jeff parked the Subaru and pulled her to the stairs to their second floor apartment. She hoped to sleep for a few hours before her Renaissance History Art class and the late afternoon shift at Sam’s coffeehouse. Jeff bounded up the steps, then ran back down and pushed her up before him. “Come on. I’ve got this idea. It’ll be great.”
Inside the apartment Sandy put on a pot of coffee. When Jeff got in one of these moods there was no stopping him. He laid her largest blank canvas on the floor and began throwing tubes of paint down next to it. He took a knife from the kitchen counter, bent it until it looked like a trowel and began spreading layers of paint on the canvas. Sandy slumped onto the futon to watch. As her eyes fluttered and began to close, Jeff looked up. “You got to help. I see it. But I can’t make it real alone.”
“I can’t see what’s in your head. You have to do it yourself.” Jeff was such a nut sometimes.
He teasingly pulled her off the futon onto the floor. “No way.” He grabbed a slab of mouse-gray clay and pushed it into her hand. He started layering ochre, sienna, and crimson over the white-streaked ultramarine background. “Look, see the sunrise reflected in the ocean! You must see it. Now the ocean has to reach up to greet the dawn.”
As Jeff talked and waved his arms Sandy began to knead the clay between her palms. As her fingers poked and massaged the cool mass, the heat from her hands softened it and she felt it grow more pliable under her touch. “I see a water sprite rising out of the cold dark ocean to welcome the love of the sun.”
“Wicked cool! I knew you’d get it.” Jeff reached out to hug her and they both fell on top of the canvas. Getting up, clothes spotted with globs of paint, they stared down at the canvas.
The sunrise scene was perfect.
Boston Art Institute Commencement, June, 1980
All Jeff wanted was for this day to be finished. Over. Done. His father unconsciously mimicked the gesture, smoothing his own perfectly styled cut. “Well son, what next? Have you reconsidered going for an MBA? You couldn’t get into the Harvard B school with your,” he scowled, “art degree. But there are several strong programs in the Chicago area. You could live near me and Jennifer.”
“Dad, I’m an artist.” He really wished he’d skipped graduation and avoided listening to his father’s lectures on career choices. His head hurt. He wanted to escape to the pub for a beer.
“I won’t pay for you to paint and drink beer with your friends forever. Why do you think I divorced your mother?”
“I thought you divorced Mom because she was a lousy corporate wife.”
“She surely wasn’t presentable.” He looked at his ex-wife talking with Sandy. “Probably dying for a drink right now. Jennifer wanted to be here, but she’s closing another deal in London. You know, son, if you really want to be an artist, you could work for her. Corporate interior design is a fine career and you could get that MBA later.”
“Your son, the interior decorator?” Jeff hated the tone of voice his father used whenever he said the word artist, like Jeff’s talent was a personal affront to his identity and artist was a synonym for bum. His father was good at making money. Jeff didn’t care about that. When he was creating art he felt alive. His mind was on another plane. His heart thrummed with joy. No one was going to tell him how to live. If Standford Sanders thought he could convince his son to sell out, he was wrong. Dead wrong.
“Jennifer does very well with her hotel clients.”
“I don’t want to work for Trophy Wife Number Two.”
“Watch your mouth. You don’t want to wind up like your mother.”
“Mom’s happy.” Jeff saw his plump rumpled mother hug Sandy. That too-tight red dress made her look like an aging hippie. But he never doubted his mother loved him and was proud of him, no matter what he did. As a graduation gift she’d sent in his test scores and paid his Mensa membership. All his high IQ had ever done for him was to raise other people’s expectations. He wanted to create art and have a good time. Why couldn’t anyone understand. He couldn’t be creative if art was a job.
Sandy waved and walked toward him. The closer she got, the better he felt. He believed Sandy’s talent was greater than his. Sometimes he had to push her to try new things, but she was a great artist. Like their art teachers, he admitted her still lifes were only competent. But when she sculpted the human body, each piece came to life. One day in the studio he’d watched her place her hands on a block of red clay. Her face transformed into this amazing portrait of peace. And when her fingers dug into the moist mass, her whole body seemed to glow. She shaped the torso with strong gentle fingers, as if she were making love. As he watched, he’d felt a bit jealous, but then she turned to him and he saw the love in her eyes. She’d flung herself into his arms and wiped red slurry all over his best Red Sox t-shirt.
Sandy loved him for who he was. She encouraged him. She supported him. He couldn’t imagine not being with her.