Maggie Schuyler's Walk in the Woods
It’s not all that wild up here in New Hampshire. We share some rugged territory with our adjacent states, but otherwise, we are mostly pretty well settled. In winter, the roads get cleared to enable the skiers to get here, which they do in numbers. That said, it is entirely possible for overly venturesome hikers to get lost and into trouble, which they predictably do.
My cousin Maggie and I grew up together near Hanover, NH. Her mom Helen and my mom were sisters. Maggie’s father Max Schuyler was descended from early Dutch settlers and ‘married out’, as they say, but that was entirely in accord with American principles. My own folk were a combination of early English and later Irish immigrants. It only mattered on St Patrick’s Day and in the occasional bar when some kind of allegiance needed to be declared. Regardless of the family history, we grew up good Americans, and Old Glory flew proudly over our homes on Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
I liked Uncle Max who was a fun guy and a good father figure to the family. His wife, Aunt Helen, died when Maggie was only five; a heart thing I believe. A couple of years older than my cousin, I remember the events well and not kindly. The grown-ups were making a brave attempt to shield us kids and failing. Mom and Max were in tears half the time and hugging each other and my Dad hovered around being strong and supportive and saying, ‘It’s OK kids, we’ll all be fine.’ I have the vague recollection that at some point Mom went to bed and the men drank a lot of liquor and sat side by side on the couch telling each other what a good guy they thought the other one was. Maggie and I went upstairs to my room and lay down in the bunk beds we had. I was on the top bunk and I hung my arm down so she could hold my hand, which she did.
Later on, we went to the same Junior High School and spent a deal of time in each other’s homes. My dad was OK but spent months abroad for his job as a security consultant. Mom and Uncle Max also had careers and worked in the same college town, so Maggie and I swapped parents and homes to suit the adults’ schedules. In its way, it was a relaxed and pleasant existence to which we were both habituated. I don’t recall either of us complaining. Maggie tucked her mom’s death in a special mental compartment; the family got used to a missing component and healed itself.
Max sent his daughter to a smart prep school and then she went on to Dartmouth College where he taught. I finished high school and, having flunked Harvard, took to sailing and had got my offshore licenses by the time I was twenty. I was taking a charter boat to the Mediterranean when my parents texted me to say they were divorcing. By the time I got back, mom had sold the house and moved in with Uncle Max. I wasn’t much bothered. Dad left me an affectionate note, and we stayed in touch.
Maggie and I had always maintained contact. Neither of us much liked social media but we had regular e-mail and Skype conversations. She hadn’t enjoyed high school or Dartmouth. Her main complaint was about the men or, previously, the boys. She said she found them offensive and oppressive in their treatment of girls. She wasn’t much more complimentary about the females in her sorority. But there were no heavy dramas in her journey to adulthood, at least not that she confessed to me; and in general, our discourse was about our activities and the news or issues of our chosen careers, and, on occasion, world things such as environment and political events. She graduated in environmental sciences and went to Woods Hole in pursuit of her oceanographic interests, and from there all over the place. We sometimes kidded about arranging her research trips and my charter bookings so we could meet up somewhere congenial.
We hadn’t met in six years. The last time had been at her graduation when I happened to be ashore and not too far from Hanover. Max and my mom were there, both looking older and now retired but in good shape, other than being somewhat vague, so we had a fine time. Maggie was as remembered: determinedly buttoned down in presentation and unavoidably in possession of her father’s nose – the former sort of hooked and eyes – dark and glittering with amusement. Max and my mom were still living together but had decided that ‘being married’ was not for them, despite raised eyebrows from some members of the local community.
Then Maggie e-mailed me to say she was planning to buy a home in New Hampshire, away in the boondocks northwest of Hanover. She wanted to know what I thought. By this time I was running my own marine charter business. The upshot was I agreed to meet her in Hanover and we’d drive up to the location together.
It was good to see her again. Family is family and we had a deal of shared history and, I guess, philosophical outlook through having kept in touch. Besides, I liked her a lot. The property she wanted was interesting. It was three thousand square feet on two floors, set in trees on the edge of a lake. The area had been the enterprise of a Boston developer who had over-extended himself. There were two or three well-designed homes, occupied during vacations, along with a half-completed ski-jump and a closed club-house. The whole thing felt great if you liked quiet, and not so good if you minded that everyone had apparently left the planet. We agreed that the clubhouse reminded us of The Shining, though not on so grand a scale.
The house was sound but needed some renovation. It also needed quite a deal of furnishing. We finished our tour and set out on a walk around the lake. The path was clear, if with constant bends, hillocks and declivities between the trees, but we had it to ourselves. The journey from Hanover had been full of catching up on the previous six years. The e-mails had gotten a little sporadic and, though affectionate, short on detail. Maggie suddenly took my hand and told me how happy she was that we had, as she put it, ‘been reunited’. I agreed.
She asked me questions about my business and whether I had anyone in my life. I told her and she seemed pleased. Then, still holding my hand, she turned in front of me and, looking hard into my eyes, said: ‘Charlie, would you like to come in on the property and share it with me?’ I asked what she meant by share. ‘I mean as our home,’ she replied. There was something bright and compelling in her eyes that told me any hesitation would be taken as more than a negative. ‘Yeah,’ I said, squeezing her hand. ‘I think I’d like to do that.’ Her reaction was of surprising intensity. She leapt at me, her arms around my neck, her legs straddling my hips, and began kissing my face with small pecks. I nearly fell over but held on to a tree.
We finished our circuit of the lake. Maggie couldn’t stop talking. She was full of her plans for the place and getting the details sorted with the realtor and the lawyers and how she couldn’t wait for us to move in. I was thinking about why I had agreed so easily to this takeover of my life. To be fair, permanent relationships had not been a feature. Sailors meet a lot of women, and in my business, they are mostly very agreeable. But unless you have great wealth – which I didn’t– there is no great demand for permanency. Good crew relations and congenial sex were really all that was necessary. By the time we reached the house again, I had concluded that I did, in fact, love Maggie as a person more than other women I had met and that the prospect of sharing a house with her felt timely.
We drove down to Hanover. Max and my mom went down to Florida for most of the year but left the New England place for Maggie. We ordered pizzas and shared some wine and a few confidences. Maggie was intrigued by my account of the sex lives of charter yacht skippers. Given we had drunk a little I was not surprised when she said: ‘You know how I hated high school and college, and the problems I had with men?’ I said that I did. She said: ‘I’m still a virgin, Charlie: nearly thirty and still no real sex.’ She was in a confessional mood so I allowed her to get on with it. Whatever her problem was, she had tried being a lesbian and didn’t like lesbians. She had the feeling she liked men but didn’t like the men she met. Some of the porn sites she looked at told her she wanted sex but the men, for the most part, put her off.
It turned out she was in love with me and always had been. This was a real test. ‘So what do you want to do?’ I asked. ‘Go to bed with you,’ she answered; ‘be with you.’ The weather changes and if you see it coming you adapt. I had already done some of that. So we looked, held hands, leaned in and truth be told the kiss was good. She was worried about being cousins, but I reminded her that it was commonplace, though there might be potential genetic risks in very restricted family circles. Luckily neither of us wanted children.
We took things slowly over the next couple of days, and, as things turned out, everything turned out to exceed our expectations. In the mornings we’d lie holding hands with a cosy feeling of having found our moorings. Then we got on with our professional lives. We met on weekends but otherwise, she was in Falmouth doing her research and I was in Kennebunk running my charters. I could do it from home but you need to stay close to the sea and its people.
One spring Friday I came back to Hanover, and as I drove up she appeared on the porch waving a bundle of papers. They turned out to be letters from my mom to Max that she had found. She looked freaked out. ‘Did you know this? Do you know who we are?’ I took her arm and begged her to calm down. ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘I had no idea, my father, how can we tell them both?’
There we were. A long time ago my mom and Maggie’s dad had an affair. It was probably my Dad’s fault for being away so much. I was the product. It kind of explained why Maggie and I shared similar features. We spent a long time talking about the situation. There seemed to be no overriding reason why social convention should overrule our personal choices. Telling our shared parents that as cousins we had got together was one thing. But if that connexion was saleable, being brother and sister not so easy. ‘It’s only half’, said Maggie hopefully. It was tempting to say, ‘Get over it, you are the people responsible’, but that seemed too hard on the old folk.
We decided for their benefit to avoid problems altogether and recast the home share as a joint business venture. The bedrooms and bathrooms would be unequivocally separate territories should visits make it necessary. If that took care of the parents, the outside world, insofar as it expressed an interest, was different. ‘If we think we’re cousins, we are,’ said Maggie decisively. ‘Kissing cousins,’ we agreed.