Published in Issue 9 of Two Cities Review
She could leave him if she wanted. It might be the right decision. It just might. That was what Carolyn told herself as she leaned up on her elbow, face turned toward the window, listening to the Big Bopper while Henry drove. It was the second day they had spent streaking through the desert. By the time they arrived in California, the Subaru would be wearing layers of caked on dirt across its blue metal, Colorado silt and Utah soil and dust from Arizona—residue of the vast landscapes through which Carolyn struggled to make up her mind.
It was something called the Coriolis Effect that made the Pacific’s water so cold, Henry told her as they carried the cooler and chairs down to the sand, the California sun hanging bright and soft behind them, beckoning them toward the beach.
They walked a sandy path, their shoes scraping the sidewalk, and Henry tried to keep things simple, to make his point about Coriolis, to explain. He told her how the Coriolis Effect could create illusions. Because of the Earth’s curvature, objects on the surface of the planet appeared to travel in a circle, when, if you did the math correctly, you’d find that they were really moving in a straight line. An object set on a course of unwavering motion, on and on like that forever.
Carolyn thought he had seemed so like a grown-up when she’d met him, or at least close to her idea of what a real adult might be. At the time, she’d was taking a fifth year in college, not sure that she would even finish her art degree. He was already a graduate student, already teaching, renting his own apartment and bringing home a paycheck, staking out a clean and tidy corner of the world.
At first, she’d liked the way he had of drawing into himself at exactly those moments when other people would have burst with emotion. In those days, with her father sick and her mother caring for a man who had betrayed her, Henry’s silences had kept her safe.
She unpacked the beach towels while he set up the chairs. Together, they jammed the metal arm of their blue umbrella into the sand.
She untied the knot on her black sarong and let the mesh fall in a heap to the sand. From behind his textbook, Henry watched her moving, studying the way her breasts sat in the cups of her red bikini, the way the string-tied bottoms lay just above her hips. At work, he could always find the answer, but with his wife, lately, he struggled to know what to say to, to find a way to tell her, without numbers, exactly what he meant.
He watched as she worked the rubber band from her ponytail with the tips of her fingers, and pretended not to mind when she said, “Hen, I’m going down to the water.”
Caleb would meet her on the pier at four o’clock, exactly. It was three thirty when she walked away from Henry. Three thirty five and she was alone on the shore. She carried her sandals in one hand and trekked into the breakers, watching two small boys chase each other, shrieking with delight whenever the foam tickled their knees.
Farther down the beach, the edge of the pier hung like a beckoning finger, curled into the brilliant water’s mouth. Below it, light gleamed from the waves’ tops like so many rows of teeth.
At four o’ clock she stepped onto the pier where families and couples ambled past her to the lookout at the pier’s end. Did they know what she was after? Did they see her face and understand what her presence on the pier meant? She stopped halfway to the end and leaned against the wooden railing. 4:03. 4:07. 4:09.
At 4:15, she considered walking back, but then she thought of Henry’s face concealed behind his book’s pages and she stopped walking and stood, feeling the hot sun on her shoulders, the salty, gritty air warm against her thighs.
“Excuse me,” a man, a teenager really said, brushing past her where she had stopped in the pier’s middle.
Then Caleb was moving toward her, saying, “Carolyn, Carolyn?” and staring at her with familiar green eyes. “Carolyn.” He rolled the sound of her name on his tongue like a marble, cracking it hard against his teeth.
It was a terrible plan, Caleb had told himself as he’d started toward her. He’d hung back at least ten minutes, unable to bring himself to step onto the pier. But then, he needed to do something, and this was something after all.
At twenty-eight she was still lovely, mouth still a little too sharp, nose still a little too small, but on the pier, with her hair cast around her shoulders, she gleamed like so much water and he thought, this just might work.
Past the pier, a seagull screeched and ducked fast toward the water.
Caleb said, “Look at you. Time hasn’t changed you one bit.”
“Really?” she said. She didn’t mention the wrinkles collecting at his eye corners or the precarious line of his receding hair.
“Listen,” he said. “There’s something I want to give you, something I think you might need.”
How long had it been? He tried to remember the last time he’d seen her. Ten years, eight at least.
“Can you tell me what it is?” Carolyn asked him.
“Not yet. The thing is, I don’t have it here right now. Meet me later? Someplace more private?”
The appointment made, Caleb walked back to where he’s left his Jeep parked at a meter. His wife was at home, watching their two children, tiny girls bursting with newness, each new day an exercise in how to approach the world.
He wondered if other men felt as he did, closer to his wife and children when he was away from them. It was though, at a distance, their complex minds flattened into something straightforward, something clean and easy that he could understand.
Business had been bad through the recession. Fewer films, fewer commercials, less work for everybody in the photography business. And there were things he wanted to buy for the girls, clothes and dresses, the lure of private elementary schools and nannies.
It wouldn’t have been so terrible if the Warner Brother’s job had come through earlier that summer, but when he had gone to see the man he’d hoped to work for, clutching the half-sized water bottle the receptionist gave him, he’d known, the way he always knew when the work wasn’t coming, the truth of it welling up inside him like water seeping through the sand.
“We’ll call you,” the man had told him. Caleb had waited, was still waiting, but there hadn’t been any calls.
He was the only person Carolyn had told about her father’s letters. They’d gone down to the beach, not far from where the pier edged into the water, a cooler full of beer in the trunk of his parents’ station wagon, packed in next to the logs for the fire pit and the moth-holed, plaid wool blanket.
No one was supposed to stay on the beach past ten p.m., and when they got there at eight, just as the sun was setting, people were already packing up, coolers and beach towels tossed together into sandy trunks. The cars departed, one after another, until only she and Caleb were left on the sand.
After the last car’s lights had faded, they’d peeled off their clothes and run screaming into the water, cold biting into her skin as she fell against the surf, the sting of the waves awakening her to a cut on her thigh she hadn’t know she’d had.
She hadn’t been looking for the letters when she found them. Her parents were out for the night and Carolyn, nearly sixteen but still without a driver’s license, had been left at home with the television and the knowledge that somewhere in her father’s sock drawer, a half-smoked pack of Lucky Strikes wouldn’t seem much changed if she only took a couple. She’d been looking for the pack when she’d found the bundle and, laying aside the red ribbon that bound it all together, she had leafed through the letters one at a time.
She had never heard her mother never address her father as “My Dearest Harry,” and the handwriting was oddly compressed, too compact to be her mother’s. The woman, a person called Kitty, wrote about the way her father’s blue eyes looked milky in the morning, the way, when he smiled, wrinkles formed at the corners of his mouth.
How the letters had gotten to her father’s hands, she’d wondered. Had they come to the house by mail, handled by the postman as if they were something as benign as the electric bill?
“My father is having an affair,” she’d said to Caleb after they had crawled, shivering and drenched, out of the ocean and back onto the sand. They’d spread themselves out on the blanket, two striped towels covering their shaking bodies, the high fingers of the waves pulling high against the moon.
Caleb had lit a cigarette and passed its gleam to her. This was the kind of complication he didn’t need. The kind of thing that made the lines of their love less sharp, less clean, less even. He was still at an age when he wanted to keep everything in pure, bright emotion. Nothing messy or difficult, nothing shaded or dark. That night, though, he’d made love to her on the blanket. He’d pulled her body into his, the smell of salt and fire smoke and the sound of the ocean, their sweaty bodies filmy in spite of the cool.
After her father died and the hospice people had carried out the body, she’d left Caleb in the kitchen with her mother and gone in to the bedroom to take the letters from the drawer. Only, when she opened it, there was nothing, twenty pairs of rolled black socks and a half-empty pack of her father’s smokes.
In the evening, after their day down by the water, Carolyn undressed in the spare bedroom while Henry walked around her mother’s the house, turning out the lights in all the hallways. Her mother was already downstairs, sleeping alone.
Three more hours, two more hours, one more hour, she’d thought all through dinner, counting down the time until she’d be with Caleb again. They’d eaten at an Italian place near the water where Henry had told her mother all about his research and Carolyn had drunk iced tea while her fettuccini got cold.
She waited until Henry asleep and then stood and slipped out of her cotton nightgown, shedding it silently, like the skin of a ghost. She pulled on jeans and a light windbreaker, slid her tennis shoes on, and straightened her hair before gliding out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and out of the front door.
Caleb was already there, beneath the street light, the meeting place they’d snuck out to as teenagers. Those were days when Carolyn had still believed that anything was possible, that she would grow up to become a singer, or a playwright, a person who took photographs for National Geographic, or a dancer in the company of American Ballet Theater. Those were the years when she had waited expectantly for summer, believing that, if she just concentrated, she would wake up one morning and find herself thrust into the great adventure of her life. She wanted to drink wine in Burgundy, to dance in Spanish Harlem, to jump out of an airplane and feel the air around her body, to moving toward the Earth with predetermined force.
Now, she wanted to drive to Mexico with Caleb, to smell the dirty air and drink cold beer out of long-necked bottles, to feel their bodies, pressed together, sweating in the southern heat. It was a feeling as dark and full as the smell of the soil in her mother’s backyard, and she had wanted to hold it always, to turn her life into what it should be, a constant, impossible feat.
In the lamplight, he looked older, as though he’d worried too much too often. She could see now that his frame, thin and lean as ever, already held the shape of the reedy old man he would someday be.
“I hope you don’t think it’s strange,” he said, “my asking you to meet here. It’s just that I wasn’t sure if I should bring this when we met before.”
She closed her eyes, thinking he was about to kiss her, thinking that if she concentrated hard enough, she could call back all the old emotions, but when she opened her eyes, he was still a few feet away from her, holding a wrinkled manila envelope. It was the kind of envelope she used for filing documents at the office, only this envelope had been folded. It wore its creases and wrinkles like a pattern of veins.
“I was at the house the day he died.” Caleb said and nodded. “You’d told me about the letters, the affair. It didn’t seem right to leave them for your mother. When you called the other day…I thought that they might be worth something to you.”
Carolyn closed her hand around the packet.
He said, “I hope I haven’t done the wrong thing asking you to meet me. I just thought you might think they were worth something. I hadn’t thought of it, until you called.”
“What do you mean, worth something?” She drew back from, stepping out of the streetlight’s glow.
Caleb shrugged. “I’m sorry, the recession. I’ve got two kids, you know.”
“You mean you want money? You want me to pay you to keep the letters secret?”
“No,” he said. “Just asking for whatever seems fair. Asking if you want to buy them. I thought you’d want to have them, even after all these years.”
It had been silly, embarrassing even, to think that Caleb still thought about her, to have believed that they might, in standing across from one other, have found themselves full of the thrill of the youth they had spent together, the sense of their own power and possibility.
He said, “If you need cash, I could take you to the ATM around the corner.”
Carolyn pressed her thumb into the envelope that hugged the packet of letters and felt as though the ocean were rising within her lungs. The envelope in her hands, she reached out for Caleb and pressed her thumbs hard against the backs of his palms. This man she’d once believed to be so strong, so solid, was nothing more than thousands of fragile bones.
“Keep the letters,” Carolyn said. “I’m don’t need them.”
In the bedroom, Carolyn felt her way through the darkness, tripped over a square object, and found Henry’s textbook under her nightgown. She held the book a moment and then set it carefully onto the top of the dresser. Between its covers lay Henry’s world, a reality of fixed shapes and numbers, sturdy but impossible to hold.
Once, when she was little, she had visited the tide pools with her father. They had waded in near the rocks and Carolyn had run her fingers over the grooved bodies of mussels, their shell mouths opening and closing in the splash that broke in from the sea. Her father had told her stories about how the beach had changed since he’d visited it as a young man, sitting in the back of a Ford station wagon full of boys with Beatles’ haircuts who didn’t yet know that they were bound for Vietnam. In those days, the suburbs had been mostly unsettled farmland, rows of strawberries and citrus trees. That had been before Desert Storm, before the Balkans, before the builders had developed all along the coastal ridge.
She had chosen Henry, chosen him in one of those moments when choices are made or permanently lost. All of her decisions, a string of choices, a string of moments, could be connected up to form a curve, the shape, the arc of a life. An arc carrying her away from the jagged coast of California to the shadow of the mountains, an arc that had carried through the West and through her marriage, through all of Henry’s silences, to exactly just this time and place.
As she got into bed, the mattress gave under the weight of her body. Henry felt the heat of her, her knees against the backs of his thighs as she pressed against him. He told himself it didn’t matter that she had been somewhere secret. She was there now, and that was the thing that mattered, the fact of her presence, then and always. Her steady pulse, her slowing breath, her soft heart beating, and beneath it all, he knew, the pure and mathematical precision of her pain.
None of it mattered, he told himself, not really—not California or the beach, or Carolyn’s mother downstairs, silent and alone. In a few days they’d drive back through the Western deserts, back to the country where entire landscapes could be quieted by flurrying drives of snow.
Corie Rosen’s stories have appeared in the Crab Creek Review, the Bangalore Review, and Konch Magazine, among other places. Her work has been recognized by Nimrod, Carve, and the Tucson Festival of Books, and has also been featured on public radio. She is a member of Denver’s Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.