The Contessa—everyone calls her the Contessa—goes upstairs after prep to change her blouse, a small ceremony before she opens the Sea Nymph for lunch. She brushes her teeth, washes her hands, ties on a fresh apron, and grins into the mirror at the crosshatched lines life has given her. She looks just like an old crocodile, she tells herself cheerfully.
Downstairs, she makes sure young Gino is ready to wash dishes in the back, then unlocks the front door and flips the sign to OPEN. In the decades since her adventures began here, Reverie Beach has survived popularity and decline. Now, with prosperity shining again, she’s returned, opened this tiny restaurant for the season, and invited her memories to visit.
Customers move in and out, some eating at the two-tops by the windows but most choosing to share the long farm table down the center, chatting over her omelettes, risottos, salads and cauliflower soup. After one-thirty, there’s a lull. The sun’s moved overhead, so she opens the east-facing blinds in time to see a tall old man step into the corner crosswalk, waving his hand at an oncoming SUV, making it brake for him. He strolls across with stately indignation.
She thinks: Here’s one who sees himself as a hero. And then, as he comes towards her, she knows him, despite his hair, now silver and cut short.
She resets tables. He passes, then returns. Beside the sign that says Lunch Only 11-3:30, he checks his watch. He studies the concrete statue of a Nereid with long locks and impossibly high little breasts, holding above her head some invisible gift that long ago broke off.
Then he comes in and says he’s meeting someone.
She says, “Anywhere you like.” She has withdrawn to the galley, behind the counter that displays her apple tart. A young woman sits at the long table’s south end, slowly eating salad and drinking iced coffee, with her laptop open. She’s here once or twice a week.
The man takes a chair in the middle, facing the door. She’s sure of him, now. Mark Irwin. He looks younger than she does, but that’s the unfair way of things. She brings water and the one-sheet menu.
“I used to live around here,” he says. “In the ‘60s. I don’t recall this building.”
He doesn’t recognize her. All the better. She says carefully, “This was a beauty parlor, before I got it. I kept the name and the statue.”
“I’m remembering an Italian place,” he says.
“That was next door. People mention it.” She points through the north window toward the canopied entrance of a condo. The remnants of old beach town—small stucco buildings like this, two-story motels, modest houses—are endangered, like the sea turtles whose hatching is protected by dimmed lighting between March and October.
He says, “It was cheap and good.”
A man of about forty, broad-chested in a striped shirt, comes in. Mark Irwin stands, and they shake hands.
“Dad, sorry to be late,” the newcomer says. “I had to drop Fran on Las Olas and then the traffic—”
By her clock, it’s exactly two. Mark Irwin has put him in the wrong by being early.
The son drops into his seat and gulps water. “I’m glad you had time to meet me. I read online the food’s great here. The Contessa makes just her specialties, top notch. What’ll you have?”
The Contessa comes around the counter, noticing Mark Irwin’s pale gray eyes aren’t really focused on the menu. Perhaps he is too vain for reading glasses. She waits with clasped hands.
“Anything you’d like, Dad,” says the son.
“Here at the beach, I want seafood. Maybe with rice?”
“Risotto’s a specialty,” she says patiently. The menu proclaims this. “I can make you shrimp risotto, if you’d like. With fresh peas.”
He smiles. “Exactly what I was thinking of.”
The son starts to order the lamb salad, then says, “You know, Dad, that sounds good, the shrimp risotto. I’ll have that too. And let’s get this white wine, the special.”
She says, “Risotto comes with a small green salad and bread,” and turns away.
Mark Irwin says, “When I got here, after the Navy, you can’t imagine how much fun it was, Jimmy. The beach, the boats, the girls. Especially the girls.”
She can feel his son’s embarrassed silence. She gets the heavy square glasses she uses for wine, brings bread and olive oil. Then she opens the Gavi, pours, and sets the bottle in a marble chiller.
Jimmy says, “How were your meetings?”
“I might invest. Don’t know yet.”
“Do you want to hear about Mom?”
“If I must.”
Behind the counter, she dresses two salads, catching mention of the mother’s breathing problems and a move to a place for seniors, “very high end, nothing depressing.”
They’re silent as she serves the salads and retreats.
She chops an onion and swirls oil and butter into a heavy-bottomed pot. She’d identified Mark by the way he held his chin crossing the street. His indignation. You have to have been in love to know someone that way, in love and then out, so the same things you’d believed in scraped your nerves.
You have to have been in love to know someone that way, in love and then out, so the same things you'd believed in scraped your nerves.
She measures Arborio for two and rinses it. Gino comes out and replenishes the wild mushroom broth, barely simmering in its pot.
Mark—perhaps he is a little deaf?—speaks loudly. “When I was young, there were so many beautiful babes here. It was after the pill and work was easy to pick up, so the gals had freedom. And they had fun. They’re all so serious now.”
The onion is translucent. She adds the rice and stirs, seeing the grains gleam. She pours in a cup of white wine, waits till it’s absorbed, then shaves in a bit of lemon peel. Gino has shrimp cleaned and ready, but for now she’ll just add broth, one ladleful at a time.
“The most beautiful,” she hears, “was a girl called Mary Anne. Tastes differ, but she was dazzling. And she had the most glorious tan.”
“Tanning is bad for you,” Jimmy says.
“They say that now. I’m not so sure. Burning is bad for you. But tanning, gradually, well, it’s natural, it protects you. That’s what we called it: a healthy tan.”
“Dad, you’ve had patches taken off your forehead.”
“That’s nothing,” he says. “I’m telling you about Mary Anne. She came down from someplace far north, Minnesota or Canada.”
“Maine,” she whispers into the risotto, and adds more broth.
“She was fair, with tawny hair, but she didn’t burn. She had the gift of tanning to a deep gold. And those long legs, in an orange bikini, whew.”
She smiles and stirs. The rice, after its dry hibernation, slowly absorbs the liquid, softening from the outside in and turning unctuous, leaving a toothsome core.
“So what happened?” Jimmy asks. “You didn’t marry her. Mom was your first wife.” She hears a faint question, as if he’s prepared to hear otherwise.
“I was kicking around, working on boats. She was the evening hostess at a restaurant, right next door to here. She was a big draw. I’d stop in before she got off and then we’d have fun. But it didn’t last.”
“You messed around with someone else,” says Jimmy. The Contessa can imagine what his mother has told him.
“True. A pale brunette. Diane? Diana?”
The Contessa scatters in the shrimp and comes around to clear the salad plates.
The young woman with the laptop—herself a pale brunette—is studying the boastful old man. “Pardon me, “ she says. “But everyone talks to everyone here. And I’m wondering, why cheat, if you had the most beautiful woman?”
He says, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Mark, and this is Jimmy. Well, Carly, it’s hard to explain, but Mary Anne was always somehow out of reach.”
The Contessa goes back to check on the shrimp, just turning pink.
“I remember one time, after we’d spent the night together. One moment she was all mine, the next she had to see the sunrise. She put on a lavender bathing suit. My God, the color of her back. I could touch her, yes, but her skin was like a coat of sheer silk. She simply slipped through my fingers.”
The Contessa adds the fresh peas. They cook in two minutes. Then she dishes out the risotto, shaves a bit of Parmigiano over the top, adds a drizzle of deep green olive oil, and carries the bowls to the table.
Mark leans over his and inhales deeply. “Just what I was thinking of,” he says. “You’re going to love this, Jimmy.”
Jimmy refills their wine glasses, and they eat with similar small noises of appreciation.
The Contessa asks Carly if she’d like apple tart. She tilts her head, then surrenders into a nod.
After she has eaten two bites, slowly, Carly asks, “So, what did happen with Mary Anne?”
The Contessa comes out to replenish Carly’s iced coffee and to listen.
“I wanted to rattle Mary Anne, get her mad. Anger means you care. Once I knew I mattered, I’d grovel, make it up, and take her home with me to Chicago. Although she’d said she wouldn’t ever again live where it was cold, I didn’t believe her. So I fooled around—”
“With Diane,” says Carly. “Or Diana.”
Mark smiles with immense charm. “Not at all discreetly. But Mary Anne just dropped me and vanished. The restaurant owner—he wanted her, too, used to give her cooking lessons in the afternoon—told me she was marrying a rich man whose yacht I’d worked on. Marshall Weeks. Midas, we called him, because his boat glittered with brass. I found her there and raged at her for selling herself to the old coot—”
“Anger means you care,” Carly observes.
“—but she just said he’d take her where she wanted to go.”
“Where was that?” Jimmy asks.
“The Riviera, Greece, Morocco, wherever the sun was. I went home, got to work. That was over forty-five years ago. Now I’m the old coot.”
“And rich enough,” Jimmy says.
“But there aren’t any more girls like Mary Anne.”
“There must be,” says Carly.
He shakes his head. “She glowed.” And he eats a shrimp.
Carly goes back to use the restroom, then pays at the counter, whispering, “What a throwback,” before she leaves.
When the men finish, the Contessa offers dessert, coffee, but Mark says, “No, no. This was perfect,” and hands her his credit card, waving away Jimmy’s.
Jimmy says, “So, Dad, next trip, stay longer, come out to our house. Just don’t talk to your granddaughters about hot babes, okay?”
Mark grins but, she notices, doesn’t promise anything.
“Excellent risotto,” he says, after he adds the tip, then signs. “Almost the best I’ve ever had.”
“Which was best?”
His pale gray eyes are gazing at the past. “At the old restaurant. It had a special richness.”
She says, “The olive oil can make a great difference.”
After 4:30, in her purple, old-lady bathing suit, the Contessa carries her towel to the beach. She has no vanity, nor do the others who bask here, frankly happy. She and Marshall Weeks returned for anniversaries and spoke of buying a place, but after eight years, when he died in Italy, it turned out he’d spent everything and more. She married a not-quite-Count who had a restaurant in Capo Corvo. Now, widowed again, she’s left their sons to run it, and brought along Gino, her oldest grandson, who dreams of conquering America.
She remembers how, when young, Mark could laze and then leap into action, proud and certain. She admired him, till he tested and freed her. She turns over and feels the light’s ancient buzz in her cells. She’s an old crocodile now. But still, he is faithful, the sun, her one true lover.
Lynne Barrett’s most recent book, Magpies, won the Florida Book Awards’ Gold Medal in Fiction. She teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University.