Bar Harbor, Maine

by Luke Black

A radiant heating element hummed over a plane of wet tile as the mothers feigned interest in their children’s cannonballs. How many feet had padded across the spearmint-colored tile since it had been laid in 1958? Thousands? Millions?

The Pine View Inn’s pool was well-insulated from the crisp, July evening hanging just beyond the steamy, glass door. An outdoor pool in the 62° evening would be nothing for a proper Downeast child, but these vacationers were accustomed to much warmer climates: Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Petras, Greece.

The 2 children were strangers, well, strange as children can be to one another. At 9 years old, they hadn’t yet mastered the arts of distrust or aloof trepidation. Up until a certain age—12, sometimes a bit older—it’s accepted that all children are in the same club, and the only requirement for full-blown friendship is a brief introduction. Sometimes, even less.

“Hey, you wanna play with me?” Kevin’s question carried across the rippling water as the girl met him with a coy smile.

“Yes, I play!” she said, white teeth gleaming in contrast with her golden skin. “My name is Selini.”

“Hi, Selini, my name’s Kevin,” the boy said, blushing when he noticed that Selini was sporting bikini bottoms and no top. Though it was strange, the slight deviation in familiarity held no more real estate in his brain than a passing bird. He examined it, considered it, and allowed it to fly away like a sparrow on the breeze. Sparkling in his innocence, Kevin hadn’t yet learned to criticize things that deviated from what he knew to be normal.

“I do Englise,” the girl said, brown eyes glistening like wet stones in the harsh light.

“Yeah, I do English too! You wanna take a turn diving for this?” Kevin held up a toy torpedo, rivulets glistening on the red rubber as he threw it into the pool like a paper airplane. The torpedo breached the surface without a splash, cutting through the water with exquisite hydrodynamics before veering left and settling on the rough, gunite bottom.

“I dive?” The girl looked to Kevin, then turned to her raven-haired mother who looked up from her paperback and nodded in approval.

“Like this!” Kevin’s yellow shark trunks breached the water as he dove into the deep. Of course, Selini couldn’t see it, but Kevin was smiling, chlorinated water passing through clenched teeth as he tried so desperately to impress the exotic creature waiting for him on the surface. When he emerged with the torpedo, Selini greeted him with thunderous applause.

“All right, Kevin, fifteen more minutes,” Susan said as she snapped her paperback closed and picked up a leather clamshell stuffed with Misty Slims.

“Come on mom, I just got in like two minutes ag—”

“I didn’t drive two thousand miles for you to swim in a motel pool,” Susan said as she opened the door to the parking lot and disappeared on the night. Though obfuscated by a blanket of condensation, Kevin could see her Bic sparking through the glass as she lit up her smoke. When he turned to the golden-skinned girl feeling embarrassed, he found no judgment in her eyes.

“Are you from Maine?” Kevin handed the torpedo to Selini, noticing the golden studs twinkling upon her wet lobes. He’d never met a kid with pierced ears before.

“No, no,” Selini said with a little laugh, “I live in Greece.”

“Woa, is that another country?”

“Yes,” Seleni nodded, “on the Sea of Crete.”

“Wow. I’ve never met anyone from another country before.” Maybe that’s why shes not wearing a top to her bathing suit, Kevin thought. That must be how they do it in Greece.

“You are—American?” Selini asked.

“Yes, I’m from Oklahoma.”

“Oka…?”

“Oke-luh-homa, it’s above Texas. My dad says that Texas is our pants and Kansas is our hat.” Kevin waited for a laugh, but Selini didn’t understand anything that he’d said. Though her mother was fluent in 4 languages, Selini had only been taking English classes for a year. She could communicate, so long it was slow and simple.

After a few half-hearted attempts at breaking through their language barrier, the children sat it aside and embraced the universal language of play. Kevin’s heart skipped a beat each time his outstretched fingers brushed the girl’s wet skin—eyes smashed to slits as he screamed out “Marco!” in the humid pool room.

At 9-years-old, Kevin knew nothing of love, girls, or even the concept of an innocent crush. Lightsabers and Super Mario Bros. were more his speed—exploring the woods and catching mountain boomers as they sunned lazily on sandstone slabs in the cool Oklahoma morning. And though he couldn’t articulate the feelings swirling within, Kevin loved the girl. The word hadn’t popped into his brain, but he felt it. And love is nothing if not a feeling.

The next morning, Kevin’s mother shuttled them to the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. Not only was it beautiful, but it was also the highest point on the Atlantic Seaboard and the first soil to be graced by sunlight each morning. The plan was to arrive before daybreak—to be the first of 250 million Americans to bask in Earth’s dawn—but Susan’s snooze button had foiled their plans. When the old Volvo squealed to a stop in the parking lot, the sun was hovering over the North Atlantic like a glowing, red basketball.

“Close enough,” Susan said as she touched a flame to the end of her Misty, filled her lungs, and tainted the briny sea breeze with the stink of burnt tobacco.

It was pretty, perhaps even beautiful with its panoramic views of wooded islands peeking up from the fiery-sea, but Kevin would rather be back at the Pine View Inn playing with his new European friend. Kevin considered floating the idea to his mom, but he already knew what she’d say: We didn’t drive across the country to [insert thing he wanted to do]. So, Kevin climbed atop the biggest boulder he could find and drank in the morning as it erupted all around him.

When Kevin exploded into the poolroom later that evening, Selini was waiting for him in the shallows. Maine’s ragged, salt-washed shoreline might have been an oily puddle when juxtaposed with her radiant smile.

“Selini!” Susan looked up as her son cannonballed through the air but turned back to her book before witnessing his impressive splash. It was like their trip up Cadillac Mountain, she’d given effort but fell short on the follow-through. Susan always fell short on the follow-through.

“Hallo.” Selini smiled birdishly as she leaned in to give the boy a small hug. This time, she was wearing the top to her bikini. Perhaps it was her mother’s attempt at bending to American conservatism, or maybe it was just because she felt like wearing it. “You have good day, Ka-veen?”

“Yeah! Wanna hear about it?” The wide-eyed girl nodded. “I had blueberry pancakes for breakfast. I wanted bacon and eggs, but mom made me get the pancakes on account of blueberries being the official food of Maine. Did you know that? I didn’t. The guy at the lobster place told us all about it yesterday. I didn’t even think that I liked blueberries, but I guess I do. The syrup was from Vermont, which is like one state that way,” Kevin said as he pointed toward the exit. “Or maybe it’s that way,” Kevin said, gazing at the hot tub. “I’m bad at directions. After pancakes, we went on a whale-watching tour out of Bar Harbor. Only here they call it Baaah Hahbaah. They gave us seasick bags in case we needed to throw up, but I didn’t,” Kevin rambled, wet hands looping in exaggerated arcs as he relayed each detail with boisterous enthusiasm. “For lunch, we ate lobster at a place called Mick’s Lobster Pound. That’s what they call lobster shacks on account of them selling them by the pound. Only here they call it lahb-stah. We don’t have lahb-stah in Oklahoma, do they have lahb-stah in Greece?” Selini only smiled, dazed by the strange boy’s informational onslaught. “They made mom pick out a lobster from this little swimming pool thing, then they threw it in a boiling pot. I asked the guy if I could pet it, but he said no. It tasted pretty good I guess. Mom made me eat the left claw, but I kinda felt sad about eating him. When she twisted the tail off, there was this sickening brown stuff that came out. Mom said it wasn’t number two, but I don’t believe her. I mean, what else could it be? Oh yeah, we also went to Cadillac Mountain! That was before the pancakes even. It’s the first place that sunlight—”

“Too mucha Englise!” Selini said as she waved her wet hands in front of Kevin’s face.

“Huh?”

“Too mucha Englise!” Selini squealed before diving into the water like a suntanned porpoise. Maxwell shelved his exhaustive blow-by-blow and followed suit, leaping into the European girl’s wake with a smile pure as a newborn’s purr.

Selini’s golden studs winked in the harsh light as she wrung water from her mahogany ponytail and retrieved a silver and gold coin from the spearmint tile. “Now, you find,” Selini said as she held the coin up to her eye like a monocle.

“Okay!” Kevin squealed.

“Ready, go!” Selini threw the coin into the deep end and Kevin swam toward the splash with exuberant, American resolve. When he emerged with the coin, Selini greeted him with white teeth and a barrage of wet claps which rang out like gunshots in the stark room.

“Wow,” Kevin said as he stared at the golden-rimmed coin boasting a whimsical owl. “Is this Greece money?”

“Yas, Greek,” Selini said with a proud nod.

“That’s so rad!” The coin pinged as Maxwell flicked it to the other side of the pool, watching as his friend disappeared into the shimmery-blue water.

The children swam for 2 hours that night, and it was the best night of their lives. Innocent love ping-ponged between the European and the American like ball lightning.

Kevin dreamed about Selini that night and awoke with a hollow void in his heart. Today was their last full day in Maine, which meant that tonight would be their last time to swim together.

In a child’s world of endless firsts, elusive lasts are all the more painful.

“What’s wrong with you today, Mr. Sad Sack?” Susan whole-mouthed the last bite of her lobster roll and stifled a briny belch. It should have been a two-bite bite, but a one-bite bite meant that she could slide a Misty Slim from the mauve mouth of her cig case that much sooner. And the only thing better than a Maine lobster roll was the cigarette that immediately followed it.

“Nothing.”

“You’re sad about leaving that little Greek girl, aren’t you?” Typical Kevin fashion would be vehement denial, but he only shrugged. Denial would be a betrayal to his friend.

“She’s a pretty girl, but if I’m being honest, Sarah Mullins is cuter. What?” Susan asked as Kevin leapt up from the table, cheeks glowing like coals as he disappeared in the tall grass skirting the salt marsh. His mother’s comment didn’t even warrant a response.

It’s not as if God had designed Kevin for Selini, and she for him, but in the mystical realm of cosmic pairing, they were a perfect match. If the children had been psychoanalyzed, given compatibility quizzes, or even been casually observed by professional matchmakers, they’d have proven to be a one-in-a-million match. The children’s personalities dovetailed with the seamlessness of old-world furniture—sanded birch pressed into oiled walnut—invisible seams smooth as a sheet of silk.

Kevin’s heart sank when he walked into the empty poolroom that night. The glass-smooth surface of the pool was the saddest sight he’d ever seen. “Don’t dilly-dally, mister man. You’ve only got thirty minutes,” Susan said as she looked to her watch. “We’re staying in Mystic, Connecticut tomorrow night. Supposed to have good pizza.”

Kevin circumnavigated the room and entered the water using the pool’s steps for the first time in his life. After 5 minutes of lackadaisically squeezing water through his palms, the door at the far end of the room creaked opened and a girl sporting only bikini bottoms rocketed across the puddled floor. “Ka-veen!” Selini squealed as she sailed across the pool with chaotic grace.

“I was afraid you weren’t coming!” Kevin said as the girl swam over and gave him a big hug. Her hair smelled of exotic oils that were vaguely floral, yet largely indecipherable to his naive senses. 

“I come!” Selini said, brown eyes twinkling like a crystal cup filled with Vermont’s finest grade A golden maple.

“What did you do today?” Kevin asked, taking care not to bombard the delicate creature with his truckload of high-balling English.

“Today, I eat blueberry cakes,” Selini said. Her big-eyed expression was that of a child seeking approval.

“Cool, I’ve never had a blueberry cake bef—oh—blueberry pancakes?”

“Yes, pancakes!” Selini said with a big smile.”

“Did you love them?”

“Yes, I love!”

“I told you they were great! What else did you do?”

“I went to shopping, we ate cherry stones, and the sunset cruise on Bar Harbor.”

“Awesome! What’s a cherry stone?”

Selini shrugged her shoulders as she looked to her mom, who wasn’t paying attention. “From the sea? Like…maybe clams?”

“Sickening, I’ve never had those before!”

“I think, you skip,” Selini said as she scrunched up her nose. With that, she produced her coin and tossed it into the water.

Whether it was compassion or a particularly riveting chapter, no one could say, but Susan permitted Kevin to swim for a full hour that night. And it was glorious. To Kevin, it was better than floating Pirates of the Caribbean’s dark tunnels at Disneyland, to Selini, sweeter than figs and fresh-pressed olive oil after a day of sailing with her father in Santorini. When the dreaded words were uttered in each language: time to get out, and Ώρα να βγούμε, the dejected children crawled out of the pool, each on the brink of tears. As their respective mothers held out towels like cotton muletas, Kevin and Selini stared at one another, sadness dripping onto the spearmint tile as each struggled to translate feelings into words—feelings to which there were no words.

“Ka-veen, I never forget you,” Selini whispered as she embraced the boy and laid her head on his shoulder.

Kevin slapped back roaring emotion as he swallowed hard and whispered into the girl’s wet hair, “Don’t worry, Selini, I’ll find you again.”

Kevin toweled off his wet body with methodical slowness, staring across the room as the Greek girl was patted dry and ushered out of the poolroom by her mother. Just before the door closed, Selini turned back and gave Kevin a sad little smile—the saddest smile the world had ever known.

Kevin’s heart was a molten slag.

“I don’t know what the big deal is,” Susan said as she stubbed a Misty into the aluminum ashtray gracing her bedside table. As Kevin stared up at the gray cloud hanging over his bed, the flickering TV gave it the illusion of a lightning-filled thunderhead—a physical manifestation of his melancholy. “You’ll make a new friend in Connecticut tomorrow. The place we’re staying has a pool overlooking the ocean. Probably be a hundred kids in there.” Kevin didn’t respond—not because he was throwing a fit or attempting to emphasize some kind of point—but because he was crying. The snagged comforter was rough on Kevin’s cheek as he rolled over and allowed cold gusts from the window unit to dry his tears.

Kevin opened the door to 212 the next morning and stared off into the parking lot, sure that he’d see Selini climbing into their blue rental car. But like his heart, the slot was empty, a graven slab of cracked asphalt. The Greek tourists had left at sunup—en route to Boston, where they’d spend 2 days exploring the Cradle of Liberty before catching a bird back across the pond.

Failing to appreciate the simplistic beauty of Maine’s morning, Kevin turned back to his room and noticed something glinting at his bare feet. The boy knelt to the rough concrete of Pine View Inn’s 2nd story and picked up the coin. The wide-eyed owl stared up at him from it’s golden, star-rimmed border. Kevin imagined the girl sneaking up to leave him the gift—a tangible representation forever reminding him that she’d been real. Had she left it in the morning, or crept up in the night? Had Selini peeked through the cracked curtain and watched as he slept? The cold coin comforted Kevin as he clutched it in his palm, smiling as he looked upon the morning with new, appreciative eyes.

Whether it was an adolescent disadvantage, or a parent’s failure to recognize something beautiful and pure, the children had been cheated. A parental intervention, something simple as a phone number or address might have changed the course of these children’s lives. Because well into adulthood, both Kevin and Selini thought about each other every single week.

If the children had grown up together in Maine, they’d have married at 18—wavelengths thrumming in an intertwined frequency of perpetual harmony. Kevin might have been a lobster fisherman, and Selini, a baker of blueberry pies at the corner of Oliver and Main. She’d sell pies whole, or by the slice, keeping an eye trained to the sea each evening, waiting for the captain of a modest lobster boat called Cherry Stone.

But in the real world, the world that rarely dealt optimal scenarios, Kevin was no sea captain, and Selini hadn’t eaten a blueberry since her summer in Maine. The Greek girl was divorced at the age of 30, and the Oklahoman, widowed at 29. Cancer.

“I still think we should have gone to Disneyland,” Peter said as he waived at a passing semi, then turned back to the cacophony of goblins and monsters sprawling from the margins of his tattered sketchbook.

“Why stare at a plaster mountain when you could see the real thing?”

“Because plaster mountains have roller coasters attached to them,” Kevin said with a wry smirk.

“Your grandma took me up here when I was your age and it was the best summer of my life. How many of your friends will be able to say that they ate blueberry pie and fresh-caught lobster in Maine?”

“Probably like twelve.”

“Yeah, right, twelve might have gone to Dallas for vacation, and that number’s probably more like two.”

“Does this place have a pool at least?”

“They did twenty years ago. And if it’s still there, I’ll let you swim for a full two hours every night.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

Though the Pine Village Inn’s name had been changed to The Downeaster, there was no mistaking the motel’s white, green-trimmed aesthetic. If anything, the motel looked to be in better shape than Kevin remembered it being 25 years ago. Kevin appreciated Mainers’ reverence for structural preservation—a British obligation to maintenance that never made it south of the Mason-Dixon. Old world traditions were deeper rooted in New England—anchored to the bedrock.

“I don’t see a pool,” Peter said as he slammed the door and slung a backpack over his shoulder.

“It’s an indoor pool,” Kevin said as he popped the hatch and yanked a suitcase out of the 4Runner’s caboose. “And don’t worry, it’s there,” Kevin said, glancing at the fogged-over glass on the far end of the building.

After settling into the room, the pair walked downtown for patty melts and root beers. It was a sin to eat beef while staring at the sea, but they’d get lobster tomorrow. At $20 per pound, it wasn’t in the budget for more than a single meal—maybe two.

The pungent, chlorinated aroma of the hot pool room hit Kevin like a stone wall of nostalgia. He thought of Selini as his son ran across the spearmint-colored tile and cannonballed into the deep. He’d hoped that his son might make a friend in the pool as he had so many years ago, but the room was empty, save a portly, heavy-jowled man in the hot tub.

“Nice splash Pete! I think you even got the ceiling wet!”

“Really?”

“Really! I’m gonna grab a Coke from the vending machine next to the front office, you want anything?” The overhead heating element broiled the top of Kevin’s head as he reached into his pocket and fingered through a palmful of coins.

“Yeah, I’ll take a Coke.”

“Okay, be right back.”

After acquiring the Cokes, Kevin meandered through the parking lot, drinking in the cool evening as he glanced up at the room he and his mom had stayed in once upon a time. He’d recently read a news article proclaiming cigarette butts to be the most littered item on Earth. Heaven knows his mother had contributed her fair share. If he were a betting man, he’d put $50 on the guarantee that a few of her 30-year-old butts were holding strong somewhere at the Pine View Inn—might even still have pink lipstick on them. The thought of it made him sad.

In the morning, he’d take his son to the top of Cadillac Mountain and they’d arrive well before dawn, drinking in first light before the rest of America had the pleasure. After that, they’d hit Acadia’s high points and wrap up the day with lobster rolls at whatever roadside pound had the best hand-painted sign.

A blast of dank humidity greeted Kevin as he pushed open the foggy door, pulled something from the watch pocket of his jeans, and flicked it into the air. “Hey Pete, dive down for this!” The coin chimed as it tumbled through the air, plunking into the deep end with a tiny splash. As Peter dove for the coin, a second splash erupted from the far side of the pool. Kevin smiled as he sat his Cokes on the table, watching as 2 kid-sized shapes moved beneath the turbulent waters. Perhaps his son had found a swimming buddy after all.

“Found it!” the girl squealed as her lithe arm shot up from the water with Kevin’s owl coin.

“You looked like a dolphin down there! Where’d you learn to swim so fast?” Peter asked as he dog-paddled toward the girl with a goofy smile.

“The sea.”

“Hey dad, this is Sib—umm—”

“Sybella,” the girl interrupted.

“Yeah, Sybella,” Peter parroted as the girl examined the coin with a raised brow.

“Nice to meet you Syb—” The table screeched across the tile as Kevin bumped it with his knee and the Cokes toppled over with a glassy clink. A waterfall of cola fell to the floor, foaming briefly before dispersing into caramel-colored estuaries tracing the thin grout-lines in-between the tiles. While most dads would have cursed, Kevin just laughed.

As Kevin mopped up Coke in the poolroom, silvery moonlight glittered on the harbor—bathing lobstermen as they prepped their boats for an early morning’s catch. Because one man’s vacationland is another man’s daily grind. As bait was cut and pots were mended, cigarettes glowed in dimly lit wheelhouses. Coffee-stained maps of dead grandfathers would be consulted and rolled, squirreled away into nooks as Marlboro smoke lofted onto the black night—swirling in the wake of night birds as a light gale whispered up from the South.

As Kevin scooped up the wet towel and turned to drop it in the laundry bin, the outside door opened, allowing a cool gust of Maine night into the humid room. 

“Ma-ma, I made a friend!” Chlorinated water shone upon Sybella’s sun-kissed skin as she clamored out of the pool and ran up to her mother, who’d just entered the room with a fresh towel. Sybella leaned into the curtain of her mother’s shiny hair as she whispered into her ear and showed her the boy’s coin.

“Hey dad, will you buy me another Coke since you spilled that one?” Kevin didn’t respond as he stared across the room, bones feeling like rubber as the rusty heater hummed like an iron sun. “Actually…I’ll take a Sprite this time,” Peter said, wondering why his dad had such a weird look on his face. As Sybella turned back toward the pool and tossed the coin into the deep end, Peter gasped. When she’d been in the water, he hadn’t even noticed. “Hey, Sybella?”

“Yes?” Sybella’s eyes were glittering as she stood at the edge of the pool with her hands on her hips—black whips of hair trailing down her back like wet leather.

“Why doesn’t your bathing suit have a top?”

The End

Luke Black had an essay published in the book Lost on Route 66: Tales From The Mother Road, and he is desperately hoping to catch a break in the enigmatic realm of printed fiction.

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