eorge, on his knees, watched as Taryn slid down into the water, legs bent, to rinse her long blonde hair. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her face was scrunched up, layered over with a veil of bubbles.
She stayed underwater so long he nearly reached down to rescue her, but then suddenly she bolted upright, water cascading off her hair and down her lovely back.
“You’ve still got shampoo in it,” he said, running a hand over her sleek, soapy head.
“Can you wash it again?” she said, twisting around to look at him, beads of water suspended like dew from her eyelashes. “Like in the beauty parlor.”
He laughed. Beth, who had been playing with her plastic horses on the floor, scrambled to her feet and rushed over to them.
“I want to play beauty parlor,” she said, stationing herself behind Taryn’s back. “Please, Mommy.”
“Okay, baby,” said Taryn. “You can do my hair and Daddy will do my back.”
Taryn leaned forward against her bent knees in the old white porcelain tub, deeper than it was long, rescued from one of the bath houses that was being torn down. The tub was perfect for the houseboat, where space was at a premium. George had built this place himself one long summer, when he and Taryn were first together. She had lain on the dock in the sun in a bikini, reading magazines, while he hammered and sawed and drove nails into the log siding, the cedar-shingled roof. He wanted to create a fairy tale cottage, floating like a magical place on the enchanted lake. At the end of the afternoon, Taryn would join him on a blanket under a tall yellowwood, where they drank beers icy from the cooler. Then, if there was no one in sight, they made love, after which they ran laughing and naked down the dock and jumped into the lake.
George took up the long handled brush now that he used to wash his own back and prepared to scrub Taryn’s.
“No,” she said, pushing it away. “With your hands.”
He hesitated a moment — Beth, breathing noisily through her mouth, was absorbed in arranging the new mound of lather atop Taryn’s head — before taking up the soap and moving it across the milkiness of Taryn’s back.
“No,” she said. “Just rub. Here, near my wing. It’s so sore.”
He massaged her there, her bones jutting so close to the skin, and she moved her shoulders forward and back under his fingers.
“God, that hurts,” she said. “Ow, that’s not helping.”
“Sometimes it hurts worse while you’re working the knots out. Did you do something to it?”
“I fell,” she said. “I wrenched it. No matter what I do, it’s killing me. I can hardly sleep any more, with the pain.”
“You were sleeping pretty good last night.”
“That’s because I was here,” she said, taking his hand and bringing it, where Beth couldn’t see, to just graze the tip of her nipple. “With you.”
“I was glad to find you here.”
“I want to stay, George. I want to come back.” She had his hand gripped between both her own. “Can I do that? Will you have me back?”
“Yay!” Beth cried, jumping up and down. “Mommy’s back! Mommy’s back!”
Oh, God. All George wanted to do was take her in his arms, enfold both of them in his embrace, and say of course, he wanted nothing more than to have her back, he was overwhelmed with happiness. But he couldn’t let himself give in so completely to that impulse, not after all he’d been through.
“Taryn, I have to ask you something. Was someone here with you last night?”
She looked at him, eyes wide, the picture of innocence.
“Not that I know of. Why?”
He’d jumped up after he’d heard the footsteps, moved to the open door, run outside. But it was cold, and he was naked, and barefoot, and he hadn’t seen or heard anyone, and if there was someone out there, didn’t want to leave Beth and Taryn in the house alone. It might have been anyone: a burglar, someone looking for drugs, someone who didn’t even realize that Taryn had been sleeping there.
He shook his head. “How did you get here last night?”
She furrowed her brow, shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, her wide green eyes meeting his own, but then turning away. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember. Someone must have driven me but….”
She was frowning, her gaze inward now. She shook her head again, more firmly, as if refusing something.
“But why did you come here?” George said, extracting his hand and sitting back on his heels. Beth, God bless her, was absorbed again in styling her mother’s hair, humming a soft tune. “That’s what I don’t understand. You call me asking for money, you scream at me and hang up, and then I find you asleep in my bed, wanting to make love, wanting to come back. I don’t know what to think.”
Last night, seeing Cora, even in the disaster that was her father’s house and her family, he’d had a small window into what it might feel like to have a partner who was pulling along side him in trying to make things better, and who was not yet another person, another being because he had to include all the horses in this equation, demanding his care and attention. But he didn’t even know Cora anymore, had never really known her, and here was Taryn right before him, his wife, the mother of his child, the woman who, against all reason, he still loved.
“Don’t think,” said Taryn, reaching for his hand again. “Just say yes.”
“Mommy!” said Beth. “Can we go for a bike ride today? I want to show you how I can ride a two-wheeler.”
“I wish I could, baby,” said Taryn, looking at George. “But Mommy’s back hurts too much.”
“Daddy,” said Beth. “Fix Mommy’s back so we can play together!”
“Yes, Daddy,” said Taryn, smiling at George. “Please fix Mommy’s back.”