If people knew the truth about me, they would say a dark force found me and taught me how to silence a beating heart. They would hunt for me in the woods and my pale skin would betray me. They would say I was frightened, but by something they couldn’t name. I followed it, this thing with no name, and called out to it. It answered. For a long time, I was afraid to say it. I was afraid to claim it in my heart, to allow it to enter into my body, until an old woman in a mountain village said, “I know who you are.” I didn’t know her, but she told me the one thing about myself no one else could.
My mother, Annelise, told me to never talk about it. She told me to let it roll off my skin the way lake water rolls off a duck’s back, but I struggled to understand the purpose of what I saw. I wanted to believe I could put these visions to good use or make them stop.
“There are some people in this world who just know things, whether they want to or not,” Mother would say. “Mark Twain had a premonition just a few days before the explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania that killed his brother. And Lincoln foresaw his own death and funeral in a dream several weeks before he was murdered. Some people just know things,” she said.
It only happened to me a few times. When I was a sophomore in high school, three classmates went on a camping trip and I knew they would never come back. In the middle of the night, a strong storm gust blew their tent off the side of a cliff. They were too close to the edge and never saw it coming. The one who survived did not speak for a year.
Sometimes it was a stranger in a grocery store, and once it was a neighbor walking her dog. Several weeks later, her car slid on a patch of black ice and tossed her into a four lane highway. They said the salt truck failed. I’m not sure it mattered. And once, an image of a man drowning left me breathless.
I met Neil Foster and his fiancée, Charlotte, in October of 2012. It was a Thursday afternoon when they checked into my mother’s bed and breakfast in Searsport. My mother took care of everything at the Pointed Firs Inn – the decorating, cleaning, laundry, reservations – and hired me to be the breakfast cook when she discovered I had “a flair for flapjacks.” I spent my afternoons researching and developing new recipes, and tracking down the highest quality organic ingredients Maine had to offer. I had never planned to work with my mother, but I loved to cook, especially breakfast, so I stepped into the role telling myself that it would only be temporary. I raised my own chickens for eggs and grew herbs on the back porch, which my mother converted into a sunroom. On snowy days, I sat in the sunroom and watched the snow slowly accumulate on the wide limbs of an evergreen in our yard while deer passed through, with snowflakes dotting their backs. Cooking was my refuge, my creative outlet, and the only thing in the world that made me feel loved.
When I first saw Neil, he was walking with Charlotte down a narrow, tree-lined path that led to the rocky beaches of Penobscot Bay. The trees were white pines, and the path was layered soft with brown needles and sand. Neil was holding Charlotte’s hand, but when he raised his eyes from the path to look at me, he let go, and I, without willing my body to do so, stepped forward closer to him. I had to step back, to intervene in what appeared to be an involuntary and unconscious physical pull toward a perfect stranger. I felt as if my body had betrayed me, but Neil cleared his throat and introduced himself and Charlotte without a trace of awkwardness.
“We were just taking a walk to the bay,” Neil said. He looked into the distance as if maybe he could see it from the path, and he wasn’t far off. The beach was only a few hundred yards from where we were standing.
“I wish the weather would cooperate for you a little more,” I said. I wondered if it had just begun to rain, or if I was perspiring, or if I felt drops of rain falling from the trees from the drizzle earlier in the day.
“It’s okay,” Neil shrugged. “I’m used to walking on beaches in all kinds of weather.”
“Oh? Are you a sailor?” I was hoping to appear curious and interested rather than nosy.
“I work for the Coast Guard,” he said, looking directly into my eyes. Again, I felt my body pull forward toward him without my permission.
“What division?” I asked, wondering what brought him to Searsport.
“Environmental Protection.” He paused for a moment. “So, how about you? Are you from here or just visiting?” He took hold of Charlotte’s hand again.
“Actually, I work at the bed and breakfast where you are staying. I’ll be cooking your breakfast tomorrow morning.”
“Wonderful,” said Charlotte. “What’s on the menu?” I wasn’t sure if she was genuinely excited or just pretending.
“Smoked salmon and gruyere quiche,” I said. I felt concerned that they might not eat fish. I remembered a friend of my mother’s who is an environmental lawyer. She came to dinner one evening at the inn, and when I was thinking about what to cook for the occasion, my mother said that she was a strict vegan. “She won’t eat anything that once had a face,” Mom had said. This wasn’t the case with Neil and Charlotte. They both smiled when they heard what I was serving and harmoniously said, “Can’t wait,” in unison, as if they’d been best friends since birth.
Being a good cook has always made me popular with the guests, but after a few days, they go on with their lives, and except for the few who return like loyal migrating birds, I never see them again. I learned from my mother not to become too attached to the guests. She had an ability to find some kind of commonality with everyone she met. They loved her for it, and it was good for business, but for my mother, that’s all it was, business. I was often intrigued by our guests. I wondered where they came from, and where they were going, but I usually smiled and kept my distance. Neil was the only guest who captured my attention with intensity. He was that one astonishing color in a sunset sky that I never expected to see. I felt at once thrilled and embarrassed by my attraction to him—thrilled from the electricity that vibrated through my body when I looked at him, and embarrassed by the reality that I was drawn to a man who was already taken.
I didn’t spend much time at the inn that weekend of Neil’s stay. I could feel his presence through the walls of the old New England house. He and Charlotte were staying in the Hemingway Room, which meant he had a view of the bay from his window, and I wondered how many times a day he peered out that window. Maybe not at all, and I felt guilty thinking about him so much. Since I knew so very little about him, I was aware that everything I concocted in my brain was pure fiction, but I didn’t care. I allowed myself to be swept away in a dream of Neil that flushed my entire body in a wave of heat.
In that dream, there was no confusion, no ambiguity, and no fear. The two of us knew everything we needed to know about each other without ever speaking. There was no void between us that needed to be addressed and understood, and there were no wounds from the past that needed to be healed before we could love one another. There weren’t any judgments, conditions, or impatience. In this dream, no one had to give anything up and no one had to lie. We had the kind of love that anyone would want, but so few ever have. It was a love that made us feel free.
On the day he left the inn to return home, I served wild blueberry pancakes and turkey sausage for breakfast. He ordered grape juice instead of orange and drank his coffee black. He placed his napkin next to his plate instead of on his lap and looked out the window into the garden frequently. He and Charlotte barely said a word. I could feel his eyes on me as I served two cups of green tea to a couple sitting at the table next to him. I thought maybe I was imagining it because I hoped for it, because I wanted to watch him too, and I wanted him to feel my eyes touching him. From the kitchen, I overheard all the guests talking to one another, but Neil’s voice had a tone that reminded me of a favorite song that I wanted to play over and over again.
Only a few minutes after breakfast, Neil carried several bags out to his car while Charlotte stood by waiting to get into the passenger seat. Her long, straight hair blew over her shoulders, and her eyes darted up into the trees. Wherever he and Charlotte were going, they were not wasting much time, and when Neil came back into the house, I heard him walk to the entrance of the kitchen and lean on the doorway. I could sense his whereabouts without ever having to look for him.
“Yes?” I nearly dropped a dozen eggs on the floor.
“Thanks for the great breakfasts and your hospitality.” He reached out to shake my hand, which was covered with biscuit flour. “I hope to come back again sometime.”
“Please do. Did you like your room?” I managed to ask with a lump in my throat.
“I loved it,” he replied without hesitation or a blink. “We were very comfortable.”
“The Hemingway Room is the only room with a view of the bay.” It was all I could think of to say.
“I’ll remember that,” he replied.