May 19, 2018
Benjamin Gold hadn’t seen the island for more than a decade.
Or really — he saw the island everyday driving back and forth along the coast (basically everyone commuting that way did), but he hadn’t actually been on it since he was in high school. No one really went to Witch Island after they turned 18 and could rent a cheap motel room. Ben hadn’t seen it since he was even younger because.. well.
“Y’know, you two are a little.. older than the kids I normally take out here. Usually it’s teenagers I take back and forth. They’re the worst.”
Ben looked over at Tamara Jacobs and then back at the guy who owned the boat ferrying the three of them across the brackish creek between Capeside and the island. The guy was right, most adults — teachers especially — avoided visiting, but Tamara had just moved to Capeside and so quickly became a close friend that Ben wanted to show her the island she had overheard so much about from her students.
“I’ve heard a lot happens on this island, Benjie,” Tamara said, glancing back at Ben with a smirk. “Witches, churches fires. A blasphemous amount of sex.”
“That last one, both then and now,” Ben replied, stifling some laughter. The pair looked back at their guide.
“The way the kids talk about it, you figure this place would be gruesome, but it’s honestly quite nice,” Tamara said as she and Ben followed their tour guide down a freshly cut path through the not-quite-dense forest floor.
Witch Island had changed a lot since the last time Ben was there. In the past year, Capeside County had made a pivot to historical preservation and pumped an ever-growing amount of money into restoring the burnt-out church, cleaning up and preserving the formerly overgrown graveyard — the final resting place for the poor 12 or 13 misunderstood girls, depending on who you asked — and building a visitor center, staffed, for some reason, around the clock, mostly by the junior ranger leading Ben and Tamara.
Her name was Wendy. She was young — probably just one or two years out of college, Ben thought — and she was honestly kind of strange. She had worked for the historical society for most of her adult life, Ben had gathered.
“They cleaned up most of the overgrowth,” Wendy said, nearly bouncing down the path. “It’s great. A lot harder to get lost now. A lot easier to give directions. And a lot simpler to spot people who try to stay after hours.”
The three of them reached the graveyard, which was maybe a five-minute “hike” from the dock their ferryman had dropped them off on. There were 12 headstones nearly grown over (on purpose) with moss.
“Didn’t you say there were 13 witches here, Benjie?” Tamara asked.
Wendy grinned. “Not everyone notices there’s a headstone missing. That’s part of the legend of this island.”
Ben could see that Wendy had rehearsed the next part. Breathlessly, she recounted the history of the island and the area. “Naturally, Capeside was one of the first places in the New World colonized by the Puritans,” Wendy said. “Everyone make a big deal about Plymouth rock, but if you think about it, settlers would see the cape much earlier than they could spot the main shore. Why would they keep sailing across the bay if they could just stop here?”
“This isn’t the most.. interesting part of the story,” Ben said, assuring Tamara and criticizing Wendy (constructively, he hoped).
Wendy scrunched her nose. “What everyone wants to hear about, for some reason,” she continued, “is the sex. In the late 17th century, some of the town girls — 13 of them — discovered their bodies, so to say.”
“Town society decided they were witches,” Ben said.
“Which is why we’re here now,” Tamara replied.
Wendy continued with her island history — how the town had built a church for the girls, how untoward men would make their own trips, how the girls were basically abandoned, and how one night, riled up by who-knows-what, the townspeople rounded up the girls in the church and set it aflame.
“Any way, some people say the youngest girl, Mary, was saved that day,” Wendy said.
“By love,” Ben added drly. “They say Mary’s lover William came by boat to save her and they just disappeared.”
“That’s a sweet story,” Tamara said. “In a garrish way. Do you two believe it?”
“There’s never been evidence of a 13th body,” Wendy said matter of factly. “But records definitely state 13 girls. Mary had to go somewhere.”
“It’s a nice story,” Ben shrugged.
“I knew it. I knew it. Why can’t anything good ever happen to me?” Pacey Witter asked his best friend, Dawson Leery, (really, he was just ranting out loud). Pacey handed his friend the binoculars that he had “borrowed” from his older brother so that Dawson could watch Mr. Gold, Ms. Jacobs, and some random boat guy putter over to Witch Island.
“Just when I thought it was finally my time,” Pacey said. “Just when things were breaking my way.”
“You don’t even know what’s going on,” Dawson said. “It’s probably nothing — they’re just having a picnic. And besides, you’re probably imagining everything going on with Ms. Jacobs anyway.”
“I knew one day, theoretically, I could lose out on a girl because a guy took her ‘for a picnic’ on Witch Island, but I didn’t think it’d be now!” he continued. “And I sure as hell didn’t think it was going to be some 30-something-year-old film teacher. And she didn’t even tell me. You figure she would have at least the decency to tell me.”
It was after Wendy left and Ben had set up the picnic he packed that he had told Tamara that he was gay. She had asked if cheese, a bottle of wine, and Witch Island was how Ben had wooed girls in high school.
“Actually, it was how I figured out I liked guys,” Ben said on a whim.
“Oh,” Tamara said.
Ben held his breath. He had felt so at ease with Tamara that it just felt right to tell her; he had let it out without thinking. Maybe it was a mistake? Would she be offended? Ben realized then that his Sunday picnic to the island where all their students made out could be misread. He normally didn’t have to worry about that kind of thing that he realized he had just.. stopped being careful about it. Ben swallowed.
“Oh,” Tamara said again, this time taking a sip of merlot and smiling. “I didn’t realize.”
Ben smiled. The two ate, mostly in silence.
The trip back from the island was nice. Ben had told Tamara about how after college, he and a guy had moved together to LA: Ben to try his hand at being a screenwriter; the guy to try to make it as an actor.
It worked well, for a bit, but after eight years in the city, Ben’s career wasn’t going anywhere and his guy’s acting career had begun to take off.
He panicked and moved back to his hometown. It had been three years, and he missed the guy (who hadn’t seriously dated anyone new, Ben knew, because his old friends had told him. They said he was miserable for a bit. And then he just started working more).
“Benjie,” Tamara said. “He probably misses you, too.”
“It’s been so long,” Ben said. “Really, we should’ve both moved on. But there’s not really any type of scene here, and I haven’t gone out of my way to meet anyone. Things are just alright for now.”
“But things could be better than alright,” Tamara said. She reminded Ben that she and ex-husband had been alright for years and years and years until they weren’t. You can get comfortable, she told him, with just being okay. And then when you realize you’re not, you realize how much time has actually passed.
“I don’t want that for you.”
Ben’s eyes lingered on Witch Island the next day as he drove into school.
He had been teaching his film classes about the French New Wave and their weekend assignment was to watch “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a sung-through musical that he expected most of his students to dislike.
“I just don’t get it,” Dawson Leery said. He had not enjoyed this unit.
“What’s the artistic value?” Dawson asked incredulously. “There’s so many jumps and cuts, you can’t even get you bearings. And then sometimes, the camera just lingers. And the colors are just all over the place.”
Ben had only let Dawson spend his study halls in his class because he said he wouldn’t participate. (Though Dawson did have some raw, very raw talent, Ben admitted.)
Ben’s major problem with Dawson, though, was how young he was and how, for some reason, he thought he knew everything.
“You have to consider the filmmaker’s intent,” Ben said. “This was one of the first French films shot in color. The film and process they used were very expensive, very fragile, and not at all the norm at the time. Look at how colorful the film is at the beginning of the love story. But then the last scene, after Guy and Genevieve had disappeared from each others’ lives and married the people? Almost all black, grey, and white.”
“You can tell they still love each other, and that they’re full of regrets for the way their lives have gone. But they’re trapped now,” Ben continued, slightly raising his voice and speeding up to match Dawson’s pace. “The melody of the last song is the same melody of the song that played when they were courting. They even name their children Francois and Francoise. If they could go back to their youth and change minds they would, but they can’t now.”
“Oh,” the Leery boy said.
“Yeah. Oh,” Ben replied.
Ben walked briskly toward his and Tamara’s favorite cafe. He had spent the past week thinking a lot.
He wasn’t stuck. He could turn back time, at least, a bit.
Sometimes, when you leave things well enough alone for a little bit, you might grow up a little, Ben realized. And wasn’t it worth it just to try?
He had made one long-distance call to a friend, and then another to some guy. Then yesterday, he had called his travel agent.
Ben sat down at their table. Tamara looked.
“I have some news,” Ben said, almost flustered. “I’m flying to LA on Monday. Just for a little bit.”
Tamara smiled, and she gripped his hand.