On the long bus journey out, she doesn’t cry or even have a single thought that she can name. She watches the dark impossibility of the road instead, the mostly empty seats ahead of her, the head of a woman a few rows up, listing forward and then jolting back. She does not sleep. She wants to be awake to make her declaration at the border. She will show her passport and when they ask, Where to? she will say without hesitation, The sea.
She does not have to leave. No one says: You must go. No clothes thrown out the window, no eviction notice. Her husband is already gone by then; she was the one to tell him that he had to go. She could say it was the baby – her brother’s and his wife’s. His sweet squawking through the open window in the apartment beneath hers. She could no longer live in this fixed way: their joy so firmly lodged beneath her grief. She could say that.
The motel advertises an ocean breeze but is nowhere near the beach. She waits in the small room, for something, for someone. She has turned her phone off, but she still feels it in her palm, waiting to bleat back to life. To deliver what message? I love you. I miss you. Come back. She left a note for her brother and his wife. No explanation or apology. I’ll be fine! That’s what she wrote. She asks at the reception desk about another motel, nearer the water this time. The woman behind the counter has eyebrows like tadpoles swimming lazily across her forehead. She says there is a town she might like, remote, for rich folks mostly, about thirty miles up the coast. There is a hostel there too. She puts her index finger on a map, her nail filed down to a tidy point. This one is canary yellow, the surrounding ones sky blue.
She gets a ride from a man who is delivering ice across the state. His eyes are blue and inflamed, his hands raw and meaty. The town sign reads: this road leads to rome, with an ugly drawing of the Colosseum, followed by the population, 2,353. When she gets out in the town’s central square, she touches the hard shell of the truck with gratitude and it is so cold, the hairs on her arm stand up.
There is no coliseum in this Rome. Instead, a supermarket, a Greek restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a seafood spot, an ice-cream shop, a wine store, a laundromat, a pub, an inn, a garden center, a health center, a hardware store, a library, a clothing store, a pharmacy, a marina and a dump.
The sea, in this new town, is surprisingly hard to get to. It is somehow everywhere and nowhere. She needs an invitation, a private viewing: through the stately homes, and onto the other side, where everything is vast and pristine. The other her, the one she left behind, would have easily slid between the giant piles, past the outdoor furniture, past the slim lounging bodies and their pure-bred dogs. Everything belonged to her then; that was back when she believed that nothing that could so easily be had wasn’t somehow already hers.
From her bedroom window in the hostel, she can see it best: the sea and its expanse, edging in and then pulling back. She doesn’t want to be in it yet. It is warm out, but she still feels frozen, blood-let, fleshless. She is content, for now, to watch the comings and goings from afar.
In the evenings, she walks along the town’s main drag. It is shaped like a horseshoe. She often sees the same faces twice, on the way to the ice-cream shop, and then on their way back. There are often tears on the return journey, mostly children’s, but on one occasion a grown woman’s and her wife’s. Once desire is met, she thinks, there is only turning back from it. There is not much to do or see in the town at night: just tourists dining al fresco, prodding swordfish slabs and slurping oysters. A busker nearby crooning, Oh, oh, Mexico, as if he might be in this town in error. The first nights, she stops and finds a place among the small crowd gathered before him. But one evening, mid-song, he looks up and greets her with a complicit nod. Now, when she hears the busker’s familiar sound, she passes by without so much as looking up.
She asks around at the hostel, and they tell her she is right: the prettiest beaches are cut off by the houses. It wasn’t always like this, they say, the coastline so private and all. Some of the richest families used to turn a blind eye, but not anymore. In a few weeks, once the season is over, then that’s a whole different story. For now there’s the public beach, of course, but that’s nothing to write home about. That’s good, because she’s not planning to write home about anything. They laugh, hearing her say this, and she thinks for a moment that nothing much has changed: she can say a few words in the right order and get people to love her for a moment.
She finds it, flanked by the supermarket and the garden center: a slip of public sand. There is an orange tent set up at the far end of the beach and two pairs of swollen, mangled feet sticking out. When she walks by, the screen is zipped halfway down, so that she can’t see any faces, she can only hear the syncopated sound of their snoring.
She wonders what she will do when the money runs out. The thought is sticky, the first one like this, insisting on its own importance. It seems absurd somehow, that she must think of it, make something of this thought. The beach ends and there is a large expanse of dark, jagged rocks. She walks across the fraught ground, canvas shoes sliding dangerously beneath her. She slips and catches herself then slips again and falls hard on the rock. Not pain, just the feeling of everything coming up from within. She sits there, looking around, for someone, a witness to her fall, a hand to grip as she steadies herself back up. But there is no one, just the dome of orange light tented in the distance.
She buys a large lemonade filled with crushed ice and drinks it until her teeth and brain are numb. She shuts her eyes hard and when she opens them again, she is surprised to find that everything is still there: the lemonade truck, a few waves quietly churning in the distance, the sand, dank and gray, waiting to be touched.
She wakes one morning, clutching her stomach. No time has passed; her husband is by her side. He touches her rounded stomach with his palm. Nearly there, he says, speaking into her belly button. She is awake now, her palm on her own skin, the fingers cold and thin. Her belly is nearly concave, more than empty. She has been gone for three days, maybe four, or maybe it is six, and since then she has eaten a sleeve of saltines, some peanut butter from a spoon, a few beers, a lemonade, some fries and some licorice. She is saving money; she doesn’t have much left. One thousand seven hundred and thirty-three. If she needs more, she’ll turn the phone on, write her brother a message. He has never said no to her before. His only sister. She’ll write to him and say something like this: I am changing. Or better yet: I have changed.
She sees children everywhere, in the flesh, but also in what they leave behind: striped swimsuits hanging over banisters and beach chairs, colorful pails discarded on the beach. When she sees them, children and their traces, she turns her head away. It is her head that does the turning. She speaks, as though defending herself before a jury: This is not about that.
At the town’s small marina, day trippers clump around the seafood spot, composing their seaside shots: plush pink lobster rolls, heaped French fries snapped from above. In the background, a row of handsome wooden yachts, sterns wagging; a fisherman, sun-creased and smoking, unloading his mid-August catch. She doesn’t stay long; the smell here makes her queasy. Fish entrails and sunscreen, cooking oil reused one time too many.
In a shop window along the main drag, she spots a letterpress sign: keep rome off the map. In this town, the patrician crowd don their modesty like a crown: beat-up station wagons, worn-in khakis, styles from thirty years past.
The diner here is famous for its 1950s memorabilia. She sits at the counter and orders the lumberjack special. She pictures a lumberjack laying her across his lap, breaking her, like a twig, in half. She eats a sausage link and one of three sunny-side-up eggs, a bit of the pancake just for the mouthful of syrup. This diner, with its defunct Coke machines and jukeboxes and old graphic lunchboxes, reminds her of her mother’s house, crammed with dangerous nostalgia. A woman and her toddler sit nearby. She spoons cereal into his wet little mouth. He dribbles and she wipes. He dribbles and she wipes. Easy as that. The woman is wearing all linen and a large-brimmed hat; she looks old to be a mother. But who is she to say who is old and who is not? She was thirty-five when she got pregnant, thirty-six when she lost her child. And now she feels one hundred, or maybe only seven years old. She looks a moment too long. Something passes between them, the mother and her, a warm current of it: pity, or maybe its cousin, contempt. When she asks for the bill the man at the counter, pointing to the table where the mother and son were sitting, says, They said to say good luck.
In the bathroom mirror, she lets herself look up. She sees what the woman must have seen: the gaunt face, the hair matted to one side, the lips chapped, the nails bitten to the quick. She splashes cold water on her face and pulls her hair back. She looks nearly dead. This is not that. She looks down at her clothes; they are dirty but intact.
It is hot. The hottest day yet. August, slinking into September. Still hot by the evening, when the sun is a red face dipping its chin into the water. The public beach is empty. Everyone is on their patios sipping Campari and eating pistachios, saying their farewells. She removes her canvas shoes, her jeans and shirt, and moves into the water – sharp and cold as a knife’s edge. She swims out until, when she turns her head, she can no longer make out her clothes bundled up on the sand, just a single line of darkness in the background. The water is bitter now, the moon just a sliver in the night, barely any comfort at all. She is that sliver, she thinks, drowning in the dark. She could die here, so slight and sinking. Nothing but her body to buoy her up. Whatever reserves she had, she has lost them now. She feels a rush of heat around her, her own urine, terror at her own thoughts. She thrashes around, trying to turn back, but even this turning, this changing course, seems impossible: the body has forgotten how to lead. It takes an eternity to move against the current, the arms and legs dumb with disuse and then too much exertion. She kicks hard, and then softer, it is easier this way, without trying at all; she is moving forward and back, lulled by the waves. She is like this forever, until she hits something, a rock, and then her knees hit it too, and she finds that she can crawl. Beneath her, the hard, wet certainty of the ground. She manages to get to her feet, finds her clothes in their pile, falls asleep in a damp heap.
She wakes before the sun and sits up, stiff and cold. She has always wanted this: to slip beneath the surface, to dispossess herself. Now that she has done it, it is hard to remember how her self could have become such a bottomless pit: feed me, fuck me, fill me, love me.
This is what it feels like to slip, she remembers telling her husband, when she was teaching him to ice skate on the Ottawa canal. You can’t teach someone how to slip. He was right: you slip and then you’ve slipped and so you know.
Sometimes, she pictures them: her brother and his wife, discussing her now that she is gone. Impossible, that’s what they would say. Or maybe, instead, beyond repair.
The management has moved her things. You were gone for two nights, they tell her. She can only remember one, but she doesn’t want to fight. Her things include: a toothbrush, a sweater, two T-shirts, one pair of jeans, the biography of a famous chef, all stuffed inside an old backpack with her brother’s initials embroidered on it: p.s.t. They have placed her in the large dormitory. She can tell from the work boots neatly lining the beds that the place is full of men. She buys a six-pack of beer and some cigarettes and brings them with her to the beach. She will wait until the men are sleeping before climbing back into her cot. She lies down. The beer and cigarettes are effective; she feels herself drifting pleasantly into the night. Today she has only eaten half a packet of tea cookies and a banana. The waves are loud, brimming over, coursing to their violent meter. Before she falls asleep, she thinks: This is what babies must hear when they are held inside the womb.
She wakes to a hand on her shoulder, a gruff one, a man’s hand, shaking her awake. A light so bright she can’t make a thing out, only voices, two of them, ordering her to stand up. She is on the beach, her hand clutching at wet sand. Her eyes adjust and she sees them: two men in uniform. Father figures, she thinks. She smiles up at them. They don’t smile back. Bad daddies. She says something out loud, but it sounds more garbled than what she had in her head. They grab her, one arm and then the other, not at the armpit, but by the wrists, as though she were just a kid. Swing me around and around and around and around. But it hurts, the joints are no longer loose; they are fixed in place. You’re hurting me, she says, this time clearly. I’m not doing anything wrong. They point to the empty beer cans, more of them than she can remember drinking. She tries to explain: there were men in the hostel, she was just waiting for them to fall asleep. She is sitting in the back seat of their car now, hands cuffed. They have forgotten to put her seat belt on. The metal beneath the seat hits her tailbone, a familiar, pummeling beat. She has never been this cold, this brittle, her entire body caught up in a single spasm. I’m still scared, she says, at the door of the hostel: a giant mouth, gaping open. She begs the fat officer to take her inside, sit with her until she falls asleep, but he tells her, Grow up, lady, and takes his leave. Inside, all the men are sleeping, quiet as babies. She falls asleep quickly. When she wakes, she looks around and all the men are already gone.
The men are here for the season: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. Three of them are working on a house. The house is so big, she hears one of them say in Spanish, you could fit my whole village inside of it.
They are kind, concerned for her. They say, Güera, qué pasó? pointing to her clothes, her shoes. She tells them, Nada, nothing has happened. They let her in on their talk. She likes being near them; she understands one in five words, this is enough.
She is like a ball being passed from one set of hands to another, none of them holding on for too long. In the communal kitchen, one offers her tortillas with beans, the other spaghetti from a can; another gives her cookies mortared with jam and vanilla cream. In the mornings, she wakes with them before dawn. They eat white bread slick with margarine, and make her Nescafé their special way: they heat the milk and let the granules dissolve, then add two heaping spoonfuls of sugar. The older one says: Mija, tienes que comer, and makes her eat a second piece of Wonder Bread sloppy with supermarket jelly.
One evening, she sees a few of the men huddled around the kitchen table, hunched over the cracked screen of a phone. In miniature, she makes out a penis sliding between two breasts as taut and playful as helium balloons. They turn the screen off as soon as they see her. They disperse, scatter back into the dormitory.
The young one asks her: Cómo te llamas? She tells him without much thought: Nada. She likes it as a name, Nada. The girls who work at the reception desk think it’s strange: how much time she spends with the men, sitting and biting her nails, not talking at all. One morning, she finds her few clothes at the foot of her bed, folded and washed.
Sometimes, in the evenings, they watch a movie on the small television hanging from the ceiling. They all have to crane their necks to see the tiny men on the screen dangling from helicopters and saving women from burning buildings. Sometimes when she gets bored by the action, she walks around and picks up their empty beer cans, rinses them, arranges them neatly by the bin.
For the first time in her life, she does not dream.
In the middle of the night, she hears the young one in his bed. His moans are so low and muffled, she feels as though they are coming from her, a rush of blood in her own veins, a throbbing at her own throat. Not so long ago, she might have slipped out of bed, slid her hand between his legs and told him: Let’s try this instead. The sound makes way for another, not sex but slow, withheld sobs, those of a much littler boy. Her body is stiff with remorse. She has no rounded edges anymore, no warmth to proffer him.
In the morning, she finds it hard to look at him. She pours him his cereal instead, his milk, dunks a spoon in it. Aquí tienes. He boasts about a girlfriend, a toddler back home. Two years, six months, three weeks and a day: this is how long it’s been since he’s seen them last. He is thick and strong and still growing, his front teeth too big for his mouth. She wants to touch the down on the upper lip and say, There, there.
She counts backward, tries to do her own dismal math. August, July, June, May, April, March. Five months since she saw her own child, eyes stuck shut, limp as an unclenched fist.
James Taylor is gone, but Joan Baez is there to replace him. She sings a song called ‘Colorado’, in which the only lyric is Colorado, repeated over and then over again. When she thinks the song is over, Joan begins again: Colorado . . . Colorado. In Canada, where she is from, no one ever sings songs about Alberta.
The season is nearly done. She lets the fact of it wash over her. The city folks have gone home, the hostel will close. She hears it but the words are water and she a gripless surface, a flat expanse. The day arrives and the men are all packed up. I miss you, she tells them in Spanish. She doesn’t know the future tense for missing. There is a van here to pick them up. She stands outside, nose running, waving, a single arm wrapped around her for warmth, a mother sending her boys off on the school bus.
The girls at the reception desk tell her she’s got one day to clear out. They feel sorry for her, but they are only teenagers. Senior year, they say to her like a question and an answer all rolled into one. She tries to turn her phone back on, but the screen stays dark, every crevice filled with sand.
They tell her that if she helps them clean the place, she can stay three more nights. She vacuums and mops the floors, cleans the toilets and the scum between the tiles. She covers the furniture with tarps. She cleans the kitchen, consolidates all the half-eaten boxes of spaghetti into a single Ziploc bag. In the lost and found, she finds three dresses and two sarongs, a hot plate and a nightlight, an elegant fountain pen with the two parts of the nib violently split apart. The three of them collect 168 dollars’ worth of coins, under the beds, inside the couches, in the laundry room under the machines. The girls whisper to one another and sheepishly offer her twenty dollars in dimes. She finds a lighter with a woman’s silhouette on it. When it is upright, the woman wears a pretty pink dress. When she flips it upside down, the woman bares her ample breasts, a tassel, mid-twirl, on each nipple. During their lunch break, she sits in the sun and flips the lighter up and then down, up and then down again. The girls place a paper plate at her feet, a hot dog adorned with two perfect stripes: one red, one gold.
Three hundred and twenty-three dollars. This is counting the twenty dollars in dimes.
The three days are up. Just one more night, she begs. The girls hesitate, convene privately. Fine, they say, but tomorrow morning you’re gone, or else we’re going to have to call the boss. The next afternoon, they find her, still asleep in the cavernous room. He’s coming now, they warn her. He knows about you and he is displeased. They use this word, displeased, as though it is a word she might not have heard before. They lay it on thick. They took a chance on her and now she’s going to have to pay. She was their age once, sharpening herself against her own blunt force. And so she tells them she’s very sorry, gives them fifty dollars, and buys them a six-pack each before taking her leave.
There are just hours left before sundown. Her backpack is heavy with hostel gleanings; the weight bears down on her shoulders, right down into her heels. Maybe she’ll sleep on the public beach; she thinks of the tent, the mangled feet. She buys an ice-cream cone, soft vanilla sprinkled with a messy hand. She walks along the main street, not thinking, every mouthful too sweet. She takes inventory of her skills. The list is short and so, easy to remember.
That evening in the pharmacy, she buys soap, razors, shampoo and a cheap bottle of perfume. Mascara in a bright pink tube, a plum-red lipstick, foundation one grade of beige too dark – every item the cheapest she can find. She pays twenty dollars for a day pass at the health club. She asks how much for just a shower. There’s no price for that, miss. She washes her hair, once, twice, three times, each strand stiffened with salt and grease. She looks down from time to time. She doesn’t recognize the body beneath: feral, bleak. She shaves everything off. She forgot to ask for a towel so she walks around naked, drying herself off. She clips her nails and plucks her eyebrows, brushes her teeth. Two women in their sixties walk past her, catch a glimpse; she is denuded, goosebumped, a chicken with her feathers just off. They stare down sheepishly at her feet. She slips on one of the dresses from the hostel’s lost and found. Floral, cheap. She is tall, and this spaghetti-strapped shift for someone shorter; it sits too high on her thighs. In the mirror, she sees what she will look like to others: she is not displeased. Only she knows what is amiss, like a loose tooth at the back of her mouth holding on by just a few threads. From time to time, she touches the fact of it with her tongue.
He is easy enough to spot. He orders a beer before the last one is halfway done. Rich boy, she thinks, hair smoothed back, gold pinky ring nestled in flesh. Prep school, financier, end-of-season loaf. She sits next to him. His teeth are small, his gums inflamed. He is already gone, left the building. She doesn’t want money, she tells him, just a house to hole up in, a bed for the night. She takes his hand; she feels the fat pooling at the knuckles. She wonders if he ever takes the ring off, if he can. No, she doesn’t do drugs, not that kind. It’s a real problem around here, he says, in his newscaster’s drone.
He is not a bad guy, she thinks, just a dummy, a clown. The ice clanks against his teeth, the cold sinks through her. She asks him to take his blazer off, to let her wear it. She is chilled to the bone, she tells him, dying of cold. He takes his wallet out the inside pocket, flips it open. Now, he’ll show her his sweetheart, she thinks. But he takes out his own college ID and points to the picture: I want you to see what I looked like when I was sober. In the photograph, he is good-looking, slim-faced, jaw pressed proudly out. Now there is one large fold of fat in which his face is propped up. She takes his hand and places it on her lap. She doesn’t mind. This is the easy stuff.
She was the one who taught herself to read. B and A makes BA. Everyone asked her, incredulous, How did you do that?
He lists back and falls off his stool, takes her with him. She is lying above him: flotation device, emergency raft. It takes a long time for the patrons to turn their heads, to witness the wreckage. She gets off him and pulls at his hand, but he is heavy, dead weight at the bottom of a slippery rope. He’s bleeding, she says, and three big men come to hoist him up.
Such a pretty house, she says, despite herself. It’s his parents’ house. Large enough so he can lumber up the back stairs without waking them up, a house designed around its blind spots. She remembers a talk she attended when she was in her early twenties. The architecture of estrangement. She had liked the title, but the talk itself had been garbled, a series of simple words at the mercy of impossible sentences.
She doesn’t know what she has in mind. One night, negotiated into two. She’ll lie down, open up, the nib of a fountain pen split neatly apart. He has regained some strength. He looks over at her on the landing, has forgotten how he got here, who she is. He tells her she ought to go. But then, he lays his hand on her breast and says: Fuck . . . well, fuck.
In the room, there are two twin beds, which he insists on pushing together. I’m a gentleman, he informs her. You had me fooled, she says. She lies down, closes her eyes, falls into shallow sleep: She is in a wading pool, filling a red plastic cup with water and pouring it back out. Happy as a clam. She likes to watch the water moving with her, draining out over the lip of the plastic tub. You taste so good, he tells her, his mouth wet, a dog lapping water up from its bowl. Salt and sand and sea urchins, she thinks, and the vanilla crap she spritzed at the waistband of her undies. How did she know to do that? B and A is BA. Just like that. He crouches over her; she opens her mouth just wide enough to let him in. This is what he tastes like: dirty dog, pickled organs, ashtray, grout.
She wakes up, throat dry, head in her mouth. The two beds have slid slowly apart, the man crucified on one, she clammed inward on the other. The last thing she remembers is his slim dick prying open her mouth. She rolls onto her side: one leg down and then another. She is jelly, the room a spinning top. She finds her backpack, rummages through it, puts on her pants, a shirt that is clean enough. His wallet is on the ground; a ten and three ones. She leaves the ten and takes the ones, then takes the ten and leaves the ones. She could wait for him to wake up, big boy in his tiny bed. She could stroke his head, beg him for a few more nights. But this cannot be that, she thinks. She returns to the wallet, takes the university ID and slides it into her pocket. He should know better: there is no way back to the past.
It is early in the town. Earlier than she thought. The stores are shut, the air still cool from the night. The gulls sway and swerve. They land on the lips of garbage cans, tipping beaks into wide-open mouths. She would not say: I am hungry. She might say: I feel like a trash can emptied out.
She used to say to her husband, if she can still call him that: Not feeling is a feeling too.
Photograph © Raymond Meeks