Thrice to Acadia

Enid Kassner

The summer that I was seven, I saw the ocean for the first time. To get there, my family drove more than 1,300 miles from Milwaukee to Maine.

I was a daddy’s girl, clearly the favorite, enraptured by the way he infused even mundane outings with adventure. I can still hear the cadence of his voice, thrilling us with the perils of our early morning, up-through-the-fog ascent of Cadillac Mountain, in hopes of catching the sunrise. As a child, I had yet to learn that the most exciting men also tended to be volatile, their passion unexpectedly surging into reckless anger, knocking you back, just like the ocean.

We climbed over rocky cliffs in Acadia National Park to gaze on sea anemones that mesmerized me with their contented undulations in the frigid waters. Muted yellows, pinks, blues, and lavenders danced with open tendrils waving about solid hearts that held firm amidst the ocean’s turbulence. In a photograph, I stand with my brother and my mom—all three of us turning away from the sea. The water is a deep Kodak blue, white foam slicing between rocky outcroppings. The black arch of the anemone cave mirrors the gentle curve of my young mother’s back. She squints into the sun. I’m dressed in the colors of the sea, blue skirt and white sleeveless blouse, my shining dark hair down along my shoulders, long bangs above baby-fat cheeks. Looking at the photo now, I can almost taste a crust of salt on my skin and feel how the damp air makes waves in my hair.

My father took the photo a decade before he left, never looking back. Our family had moved from Milwaukee to Madison when I was in ninth grade. By high school, my father was hardly around, ostensibly traveling for work. In fact, probably half his trips were to visit his secret lover who still lived in Milwaukee.

My parents divorced after my father chose his lover and her children over us. But his emotional abandonment was more subtle. His love had vanished over years in a quiet fade, like the distant line between sea and sky: two blue masses with borders too hazy to perceive their parting.

 

 

I moved to Washington, D.C. as soon as I graduated from college, anxious to leave my youth behind. Living on the East Coast, I had plenty of chances to see the ocean again. But I didn’t return to Maine until the summer of 1981—twenty-one years after my first visit. I’d had a rocky time with men, feeling needy and fearing abandonment in my short-lived romances. But I’d been with my boyfriend, Thierry, for two years—my longest relationship to date. Although he had just spent nine months away at graduate school, we were still attached to each other, and had managed visits every month or two. I looked forward to reconnecting more deeply over the summer, during which a camping trip to Acadia was to be the highlight.

Thierry was short and artistic, like my father. He was cute and sexy and, unlike my father, had a full head of thick dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard. But it was well into our relationship before I realized that Thierry harbored what I most feared: a wild temper. His anger emerged rarely, and when it did, he had turned it toward himself. Even so, it terrified me. I once had to drive him to the ER after he cracked a ceramic jug against his head and needed seven stitches. But I’d submerged my misgivings, choosing to focus on happier things, like his soft lips nuzzling mine, his creativity that could turn a few lines of black ink on paper into a whimsical drawing, and his mastery of Lebanese vegetarian cooking.

We drove to Acadia in Thierry’s VW Beetle, which was the color of a washed-out sky. He had a set of zip-together sleeping bags, into which we fit nicely—and long spells of rain gave us an excuse to linger in the tent, catching up on our lovemaking to the rhythmic patter of raindrops. Moist air and bodies, pine smell and campfire smoke, mingled with our musky scents, and the thin foam pad beneath us felt like the mossy tufts that spread green among the trees. When the rain broke, we hiked through Acadia, stopping often for Thierry to take photos.

 

 

For my October birthday, a large envelope arrived in the mail, and I itched to see what Thierry had sent me. An eight by ten inch photo captured me gazing into the camera, eyes deep in shadow, raccoon-like. Clouds filled the sky, thick as cotton-batting, and the ocean in the distance was the exact blue of my faded jeans, a thin white line of the crested wave separating the lighter blue in the distance from the darker blue at the shore. Weeks outdoors in Maine had ripened a field of freckles—making my face sort of smudgy-looking.

All I could see was ugly. I got a punched-in feeling and rage swelled through me like a rogue wave. Who would send his girlfriend a hideous picture of her for a birthday gift? Surely he was mocking me.

He was completely baffled by my reaction. Six months later, I broke up with him. Maybe the photo had nudged things along. Perhaps I thought I could do better.

 

 

Over the next five years, I dated a lot, but no relationship lasted more than a few months. My friends were all getting married, and I felt left behind.

I met Steve in 1986, and he pursued me avidly, sending flowers after our first date, calling me often to go out. He didn’t physically resemble my father, but Steve shared his boisterous excesses and, worse, his destructive rages. He yelled at me, which I tolerated, even though it evoked traumatic childhood memories, or perhaps because I had a compulsive, subconscious need to repeat them. But I knew he would never leave me. That certainty trumped any misgivings I harbored about his temperament or our long-term compatibility.

We got married, and for a while he was my best friend. But once we had a baby, I focused on the satisfaction I got from being a mom and tried to ignore the growing discontent that stormed through our marriage.

The last summer we spent together was in 2005. He knew I was inching my way out of the marriage and, in a last attempt to make me happy, he agreed to a vacation on Cape Breton Island—at the very tip of Nova Scotia. But it was too late. I finally saw that the marriage I was trying to save for our daughter’s sake was making her anxious. She had started blaming herself for his bad moods. When we returned I told him I wanted a divorce. It was heartbreaking for all of us, but necessary.

 

 

Eventually I met someone new. In 2012, after three years together, I went back to Acadia with Josh, my boyfriend. I reflected on my other visits to Maine, unearthing the old photo from Thierry that had so disturbed me. When I related the story to Josh, I admitted it was many years before I understood that Thierry’s gift hadn’t been a deliberate insult.

I now saw my hair was glossy and smooth as an otter, naturally dark. I marveled at my unlined face and wondrous body with its tiny waist, flat tummy, and thin arms. It struck me how my youth had faded slowly over decades, tiptoeing away in imperceptible increments.

Josh was soft spoken and serious—a classical musician with a sensitive touch on the piano, and a scientist who valued logical, yet original thinking. Even better, we shared decades-long yoga and meditation practices. He never yelled at me, a trauma I was finally no longer willing to tolerate.

I had reached Maine in high spirits, my first week a happy pattern of writing classes, bike riding, and a welcome escape from the heat. I looked forward to Josh’s joining me for the second week. But from the moment he arrived, I could tell it had been a mistake to invite him. He acted distant and seemed impatient, irritable, and sleepy. I tried to be cheerful, enjoying Acadia’s miles of carless carriage trails for cycling. But the beautiful surroundings didn’t seem to help us connect.

We hiked up an arduous rocky climb called the Precipice—a name that seemed to symbolize the state of our relationship. One night we argued in earnest. I tried to reconcile but he pushed me farther away.

The morning after our fight, I walked by myself to the stony beach near our cottage—my chosen spot for morning meditation. I’ve always loved to gather smooth beach stones. Perhaps there’s a comfort in seeing how even hard, rough edges become softer with time, a lesson: this too shall pass. I was disappointed in Josh for his tendency to be emotionally frozen and in myself for, once again, looking to a man for sustenance.

As I sat, my gaze fell on a perfectly heart-shaped stone. I picked it up, holding the heart in my hand, a small piece of granite speckled in the opposites of black and white. I turned it over, revealing a smudge of rust on its edge.

When I was a child, I thought I’d have my father’s love forever. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to compensate for its loss, yet no man—loud and angry or quiet and passive—has erased the hurt I suffered while young.

On one of the days Josh and I were getting along, he helped me look for the anemone cave that I remembered so fondly. I’d learned from an internet search that the site was no longer marked, as an excess of tourists had endangered the fragile sea creatures. We rode our bikes to the general location identified on the web and hiked around. But we couldn’t find the spot.

I’d had this crazy notion about returning to a place filled with magical youthful memories, accompanied by a man who loved me. I could imagine a spray of seawater baptizing me, washing away my loss and restoring the sense of security I had felt in my father’s love as a child. But I didn’t find the anemones, and I didn’t feel loved.

When I returned home, I thought about how the big losses in my life had crept away from me, like waves retreating invisibly under thick fog. The ties that had bound me to the men I’d loved had never burst suddenly, like a wave that crests and then crashes. Rather, loving connections had slowly shifted and vanished, like tide pools that come and go, impermanent and elusive. The same was true of my youth. Always feeling like the same me inside, time had stealthily altered my exterior. But only by looking at old photos did I understand that, as Joni Mitchell wrote, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” It made me sad that I hadn’t been able to appreciate my youthful beauty. These revelations made me wonder, what is vanishing right now, and when will I realize what I’ve lost?

I think about returning to idyllic Acadia, without a man, without waiting twenty or thirty years, just to soak in its splendor. I consider the stony speckled heart I brought home with me from the beach, with its indelible stain of rust, so like my own heart. I resolve to toss it back into the sea, giving it another chance to transform—however long it takes. I decide that, rather than looking to find the anemone in the cave, I will let it unfold from within my own heart. Colors magnificent yet assaulted by the certainty of change. Fragile, yet open, pulsing with life. Embracing, and releasing, whatever comes its way.

Author Portrait

Enid Kassner is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University writing program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Elephant Journal, 3QR: The Three Quarter Review, Rat’s Ass Review, Inscape, Switchgrass Review, and other publications. She was awarded first place in creative nonfiction by the Coastal Bend Wellness Foundation. Enid teaches yoga and writes in Arlington, Virginia.