The wind caught in her hair as she threw her head back and inhaled the fresh fall air through the car window. It was a glorious late afternoon, a crisp October day, and she was twenty-six years old. The leaves had begun to cascade in their annual pilgrimage toward the ground, to be absorbed back into the earth. Red Maples, Birches with flaming yellow leaves, and ancient white Oaks peppered the scenic road as Elise and Leon made their way north to Saugatuck to escape for a lazy weekend. There really was nothing quite as beautiful to Elise as Michigan in October.
So much had been going on that autumn, their restaurant finally taking off after a slow, oppressive summer had prevented its success. Chicagoans were fickle about their culinary experiences, and it seemed that Leon’s vision for the restaurant was not the hip and refreshing place people could eat outside and sip a beer in the languid summer air. His was for a more refined, indoor palate, which was now proving itself a success with the introduction of colder weather. Elise looked across the car at her husband, who was busy fiddling with the radio.
“Leave it. I want to enjoy the silence.” She said with a raised voice, smirking at him.
“All I hear is wind!” He said as he rolled the window down even more, letting it swirl all around them, catching them up in the overwhelming feeling of changing air. Elise sighed and reached her hand up, stroking his neck and the curls at the base of his head. He tried to focus on driving but found himself looking in her direction more and more. A fleeting thought crossed her mind that made her ponder, and as her expression changed, Leon asked her, “what?”
“Nothing. I was just thinking—”
“Yeah?” He asked curiously.
“Ah, come on. Spit it out!” Leon could not resist her when she was being coy.
“I just realized I’ve never taken you to my favorite place here.”
“I thought you hated it here?”
“I hate my mom’s house. I had to find an escape somewhere.” Leon knew how much private space meant to Elise, knew that she needed places to hide her heart away.
“Show me.” He said with gentle affection.
“It’s a little ways out of town, we’ll be late.”
“So let’s be late. Your mom never pays attention to the time anyway.” Elise laughed because she knew how true that was.
“Alright, turn off the highway at 123rd Avenue, then turn left onto Adams street.” Leon veered the car toward the destination. He drove until he got to the end of a road with only an unnamed cross street ahead of him.
“Is this Adams? There’s no sign.”
“Turn left.” She said with a bit of dreaminess in her eyes. Leon was beginning to feel the weight of the place when he looked back at her. This was lush backcountry, a place only a few locals would know of, a private oasis for generations of Michiganders to pass on. “It’s here on the right.” She slipped her seat belt off before he could even pull over to park. There were three slots for cars to park along the road, with trees lining either side and a short fence with a posted sign, “Pier Cove Park.” Elise was already down the stairs and presumably on the beach before Leon could even get his bearings. He shut the door, locked the car, and followed in her direction.
He heard a creek babbling and looked over the side of the stairwell to see a little stream of water meandering toward the lakefront. He continued down the stairs, taking off his shoes before he got to the sand. Elise’s shoes were already neatly placed on the last step and she was walking down the sandbar out toward the water. This place certainly was private, and very peaceful. Leon let the scenery wash over him, exhaling with his eyes fixed on the pending sunset.
Elise found a spot on the horizon and fixed herself there, closing her eyes periodically and humming sounds of satisfaction. Leon came up behind her, holding her around the waist, breathing her in. “This was my sanctuary.” She said quietly. The sun had begun to set and was creating a perfect line of orange two inches above the water line, spanning across their entire peripheral. The sky was a crystalline blue, so stark is seemed like a fresh painting.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been around much.” Leon said, almost flinching. They both knew that his absence in the last few months had created a lot of tension between them. His late night drinking festivities, his schmoozing of critics and food writers, hadn’t helped either. They seemed like strangers who shared a house—shared things—but not each other. This weekend was meant to rekindle some of the spark they had lost. Staying at her mother’s was not Elise’s idea of restful, but being in Michigan was too good to pass up, so they compromised. Leon and Elise would come to visit, but stay at a Bed and Breakfast in town.
Elise sighed and turned to face him. “I miss you. I miss us.”
“I know.” He stroked her face and ran his hand through her wind-swept hair, catching in some of the tangles and gently weaving out of them.
“Do you think you’re doing too much?” She implored, looking for assurance in his eyes that he knew exactly what he was doing. He laughed and turned to look down the beach.
“I’m fine.” He was evading her. She did not know how to reach him. She poked him to get his attention back on her eyes, attempting to get into his soul, penetrate his heart.
“I’m serious. You worry me sometimes with all that partying and pandering to the media. Is it really necessary for the restaurant to be successful?” Something struck deep inside him then.
“You really want to do this right now?” He said with an edge, getting defensive.
“Stop it.” She let go of him and began to walk back toward the stairs, not willing to fight. He grabbed her arm and tried to spin her, but she yanked free. “Leon!” she yelled. “You’re killing us, killing me! I can’t take much more of this!” She began to shake with frustration and fear.
“You can’t expect me to be successful and not appreciate basking in the light for two lousy seconds, can you?! What if I like to ‘pander’ as you call it? What if I love the attention that being really damn good at something has brought me?! Hmm?! Don’t punish me for pursuing what you told me to! You! Of all people!” Elise kept walking as quickly as she could back to the car, leaving Leon standing on the beach, exasperated. “Damnit!” He yelled at the water. “Is this what I get?” He kept yelling at the water, throwing stones out as far as he could. The sun sank below the horizon and the air quickly got colder as darkness descended upon the beach.
Elise sat in the car for what seemed like years, but was probably only fifteen minutes, fuming. She knew it was wrong of her to punish her husband for being one of the best chefs in Chicago, for “basking in the light.” It was wrong of her to condemn him for his late night drinking and his flippant remarks. But it still hurt. She had felt neglected lately. She had been his whole life and now the restaurant seemed to take up that special place in his heart, sending her to the sidelines. She knew it was selfish to feel this way, but she couldn’t seem to turn it off. There was a nagging feeling deep inside of her that made her believe that without his love, she was worthless.
Pretty soon, her mother would begin to wonder where they were. Elise could not face seeing her mother after having just fought with Leon, so she got out of the car and went to find him to apologize.
He was sitting at the bottom of the stairs staring out at the dark, opalescent water. It was peaceful tonight, sloshing gently back and forth, kissing the shore. Elise walked down the stairs and stood in front of him so he would have to look at her and nothing else. He turned his head away and looked down the beach. She tipped his head back toward her and sheepishly whispered, “I’m sorry. Sometimes I just can’t stand being second place. Forgive me?”
Leon looked up at her, but could only see a shadow of her now that the sun was down. No matter. He knew that look, had seen it a hundred times before. She would be pursing her lips in penitence, her luminescent green eyes a more subdued grey, begging him for forgiveness. He couldn’t help but smile a little. She was such a child when she apologized, almost pouting in her need to be forgiven. Still, it was always genuine and it always got to him. He pulled her toward him, sitting her on his lap, facing him. He pushed her hair aside from her face and got within inches of her mouth.
“I’ll always forgive you, E. And you are never second place. Ever.” He kissed her lips fervently, passionately. He realized that he hadn’t been intimate with her in quite some time, and the urge to prove his love right here and now was strong. She felt it too and reached for him more aggressively. It would be cumbersome making love on these stairs, but there seemed to be no other way for them to prove to each other that they were sorry, that they missed one another, and that there was this primal urge pulsating through them. Elise reached for his belt, then stopped abruptly.
She searched his eyes, needing to know if he was truly with her or just caught up in the moment. It seemed important to her this time to know that his whole heart was in this.
“You okay?” He said.
“I love you.” She said, stroking his face and gently kissing his lips. He had managed to slip his hands under her dress and was getting comfortable.
“Is this still your favorite place?” He said, stupidly grinning.
She nodded, saying, “even more so.” She kissed him with all her being, setting aside any doubts that had kept her away the last few months, and allowed herself to be consumed by their passion.