For the first decade of our marriage, Liam lives most of his life at sea, staring at sunsets and catching fish for cash. When he returns each season, we must start again. We curiously examine one another’s faces, against the wind and the lines, against the sinking and the sagging. We rush together, exhausted by loneliness and months of fear that love will never return, only to meet again, our bodies sighing in relief. We continue on.
The woods are still, and the nighttime temperatures dwindle, and the trees shed their leaves. There is a smell this time of year as everything starts to dry up, and sometimes we dry up, too. We are intertwined in our bed, and sometimes, one of us is slumped over, asleep in a chair, and the other reading on a couch. I often worry that he loves the time on the boat more than he loves me.
When his ship is late, I scan the horizon from the top of the lighthouse, with the roundness of binoculars suctioned to each eyeball, watching boats teetering into the harbor, all of them carrying everyone else’s husbands and not mine. Those storms, the ones that come to pass, make me feel as if the moment of pouring-down rain or insufferable wind will break the windows. Will break my heart. And I wait. I feed the dogs. Tommy needs help with his science-fair project, so Rook passes him to me, and she drinks wine and sits on the front porch. There is the putting of seeds in dirt and the waiting for them to grow into something that gives air. Then he arrives, his hands colder than before, and before he showers, he kisses my face and he says the things I want to hear: Oh, how I’ve missed you.
For a stretch of the season, he’s home, and we busy ourselves with our hands: We make food, pick and prune, run our fingers alongside the parts of our bodies that peek from our clothes. We make love, we sing with fake-microphone hands, and, sometimes, we cry with our faces pressed up against our palms.
Then we make the terrible kind of mistakes. We disobey our own rules.
“I’ll never do it again,” he says.
“But how could you tell me?” I say.
“It was just a mistake,” he says. “Only a few times,” he says.
But I’m not angry that he’s touched another woman with the same hands that rest upon my hip in the night, the hands that scrub my back in the shower. I’m angry that he’s told me and broken his vow to keep me away from that kind of hurt. We said, What happens to us while we are away does not belong to us. Because we never agreed to be faithful, but we did agree to keep each other from ruin.
And then, “Do you love her?”
He must have at least loved her at low tide, when he was off living life as another person. I, too, have lived many lives, and when he’s away, I am a full-time researcher for the Sea Institute, I am a part-time lecturer, I am a part-time mother to Rook’s child, a part-time daughter, friend, drinker, sinner, griever, and now, a woman with new hobbies.
When he goes, I can be whoever I want to be, and I have slept with others, too. But in his great returns, we have always learned to find ourselves together again. So when he tells me there’s a woman off the coast of San Francisco who has hair radiant like the sun and twin daughters and a husband who’d vanished at sea, I can’t piece it all together enough to understand why he’s betrayed me by sharing this other life. It hurts too much. Our life can be confined to this island, its happiness and sadness. Now, the disruption of betrayal.
“You are selfish to tell me this,” I say.
“I thought you’d want to know,” he says.
“What for?” I say. “Because you want me to divorce you?”
He tells me the things that have hurt him: He says I never really need him. That I don’t let him need me. That I’m harsh like the wind and I say things that make him think that I might never really love him, or perhaps it’s that I don’t say anything at all. Says he’s felt lonely, and we try to decipher the difference between lonely and alone. Sometimes, he wishes things were simple, he says, but I think what he means is that he wishes I was easier to love.
Except, I explain after we are drunk, that he is the one holding back, that he is the one who wants to be with a boat, and another woman, and another life. I tell him that he can’t deal with himself, with all of his past pain that has so slowly revealed itself over time until we are here and we are both lonely.
He’s not the kind of person to believe in a lifetime of grief, or that the loss of people and things makes him susceptible to ache. He is the kind of person who says he’s better now because of that past. Says things like: I have to keep moving. And I’m drunk, and I scream that I can’t fix his heart if he doesn’t believe his is beating.
I shut him out, spending my time in my research, making notes on answers I’ve promised to find:
The ocean is relatively shallow from a planetary perspective.
Can you have this perspective?
These months we’ve spent apart have led to years of new interests, like throwing pottery, dressage, baking. He’s missed the dreadful foggy summer mornings and hot windy afternoons. He’s missed the fires on the mainland that glow from faraway hills. He’s missed Tommy learning to love Rook again and calling us both Mom, and the man that Rook punched in the face after he’d cut Tommy from the basketball team, and then there was a red tide that washed up things we hadn’t found in years. He’s missed me flirting with a bald scientist, the a-little-more-than-a-kiss behind the lab. Missed it never meaning anything, just like I promised it wouldn’t. And we promised to keep these secrets. We are good at saying nothing and pretending.
I ask him if he has felt any pain or if he is only concerned with the mechanics of catching fish, and he says that keeping his hands busy helps him bury anything that hurts. I wonder if he’ll ever know how to be with himself. To be with me. It’s wild to tell him that I hope he’s burning when he returns again, to beg him to at least try to think of the sadness. Hoping he’ll need me to remind him of where to find the joy. Each time he returns, we say things like: I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you, and also, I’m not sure how we just keep doing this.
The first few days he’s back, we are infants, rolling around like lops with confused brains, finding ourselves and our way back to one another. Then with the silence, I feel tired of love. Sometimes, there’s raunchy sex, and sometimes, a nighttime full of tears.
There are the scheduled plans that have been on the calendar for months. The things we have been doing together for years: the Winter Island Lemon Festival, dinner with friends at Otto House, big waves from direct south swells, and, this year, Tommy’s 12th birthday party. There is surf fishing for dinner and cooking on top of an open fire, tending to Ferry Lands together. Once, building a treehouse, and once, training a new puppy. The years, though, with the weathering of things, get harder and longer, and Liam begs that we schedule fewer things and spend more time taking naps near one another and by the sea. Just being near. Sometimes, I think he’s come home burning, and sometimes I just don’t know. Still, it feels good when he is near, despite my anger.We say very little. There is the moon—it’s full—and our upcoming obligations. We agree that we are tired. Maybe always tired. But tonight, we say, we are full.
On the porch are pails of the shells that came with the red tide. We sift through them together. Liam says he wishes he could have seen it. He tells tales of the coast of California, the bitter cold that came too early. He says that the fish were farther south this year, because the waters are changing and moving. He says it’s warmer here, and that all sharks will come to feed in our harbor. He says we should keep a lookout from the lighthouse. He makes me watch Jaws, and we eat an entire gallon of store-brand ice cream, and we fuck all night by the fire, and he pretends his hand is a shark fin on top of his head. It’s that things are good with Liam; they are peaceful, and fine, and happy. And though there’s some sadness, the living of other lives, it’s that when he’s home, everything feels wonderful. Especially when I don’t think of betrayal.
We misjudge the distance to Rook’s place and get there sooner than we expect. We are distracted by the truth and can’t gauge how far away things really are. Liam is surprised at how close her new place is to ours. He pulls me close, in the eve of darkness, and asks if I think she’ll stay for Tommy this time, if Tommy is happy with her, if she’ll take him away again.
“I don’t know,” I say.
We are early enough to help her with the filling up of blue-and-white balloons, and she instructs Liam to tie the balloons to the backs of chairs. Rook makes guacamole in the kitchen, and when her parents arrive, there is a sigh of peace. Her house is big and empty, like her parents’ house was, and Tommy’s got his own room, and there’s a swimming pool. Her mother thanks me for looking after Tommy when Rook is away—all the times she’s been away—and Liam says we don’t mind. I know what it means to leave people.
Tommy acts cool at this age. He and his friends avoid the adults and hang out by the twinkling lights lining the pool. It’s too cold to swim, but one of the obnoxious friends jumps in wearing his clothes. Rook is frazzled, and her parents remind her about all the terrible things we’ve done in their hot tubs. A few other mothers join the adult table, and we snack on what Rook’s left out: cheese and vegetables and chips and guac. There is wine, and Tommy, who’s stayed dry, hugs me from behind, and he tells me he loves me. Liam squeezes my hand, and Rook, who has never been heartbroken about me and her son, tells me she loves me, too.
There are the conversations we have together as husband and wife, and then the outward conversations we have with strangers, and both, even after a party as intimate as Tommy and his shitty friends managing to survive junior high school, are equally hard. Tonight, we carry around a secret: Liam might love someone else, and now we know, and now we must pretend not to think of lips on lips, under the same moons, near the same ocean. I wonder what I would really tell him. And if I was capable of hurting him the way he’s hurt me.
“Can we pick a few avocados from your tree this week?” Rook asks.
Liam nods, his teeth wine-purple. Exhausted from playing nice in front of others. But we agree to take the longer way home, the one where we must walk the majority of Ferry Lands to get to the bungalow, where the dogs are howling at the sound of our feet rolling on rocks on our way up to the door.
We say very little. There is the moon—it’s full—and our upcoming obligations. We agree that we are tired. Maybe always tired. But tonight, we say, we are full. There is more to say, but after many years, we’ve learned that saying the things doesn’t always clean up a mess. So we say we still love each other, and maybe we mean it, and there are half smiles. I bury my face into his chest when he holds me. What if we’ve evolved into something entirely new?
Life forms from nothing.
Aristotle: Life arises out of nonliving organic material, miraculously.
A few weeks together, and Liam’s body is tired. He says it’s the years at sea. There’s pain in my back, too. Everything is not as it once was; my ass is rounder and falling to the earth, and I show him by lifting up the back of my robe. He laughs, and reaches for me. The years of sleeping quietly with our hair smashed onto the same pillow has caused neck pain. Liam says his urges are different now, that maybe in all the years, we have shed so much sunburned skin it’s all just flaked off into the air and the sea, and that now we are entirely new people. Yet for all our shedding, and all that’s left, I wonder if we can still find love.
“Is it strawberry lemonade this year?” he asks.
This year, I have not yet made the lemonade for the Winter Island Lemon Festival. There are baskets of strawberries and baskets of lemons. There are cutting boards and knives. And there’s nothing but lying in bed and wondering about the other woman, whether there have been more, whether I should have called Bunny on lonely nights, or my college boyfriend, whether I should have lingered in a bar, whether I should have never let Tommy go, whether I should have ever married Liam. Whether I’d ever really be able to let Liam go. Whether I’ve already let him go. The truth is that I stopped sleeping with other people years ago and I quietly committed to Liam. I wonder why I didn’t say it.
“I’m already so behind,” I say.
“Fuck it, let’s just skip it,” he says.
When he kisses my mouth, his tongue feels like someone else’s tongue. We could lie around Ferry Lands all day, and throw the ball for our dogs, and walk on the beach, and revel in our peace and in our unknowing, and there would be some kind of pleasure in it all. He unties my robe. But there is a sense of duty and responsibility that comes with being a part-time woman; I must make the strawberry lemonade and stand behind the booth and talk to old men about my father, while Liam plays catch with Tommy, and Rook is wiping down our table and taking cash donations for the Sea Institute. I swat his hand from my ass. He asks, So are we okay?
In the kitchen, Liam cuts the green off the strawberries and eats fleshy chunks as he goes. I squeeze lemons into a bowl and accidentally wipe sting into my eyes. He dares me to lick a lemon, and I dare him to squeeze one into the open cut on his arm. Sometimes, in the mundaneness of happiness and constant unknowing, I want to ask Liam about that other woman’s nose, her lips, her ass, but it’s only because I know how to break things. Sometimes, I wonder what we would be like if we were mainlanders, driving in traffic, too exhausted every night to talk or fuck, working the kind of backbreaking work that doesn’t ever require your back. We talk of this life sometimes, and there were years where we thought we could try it, because we think we can try it anywhere. But there was Tommy and Rook and my mother. Our lives have become uncomplicatedly complicated. Maybe we don’t really know what we want.
“What if you end up loving her more than me?” I say. He squeezes a drop of lemon juice into the air.
“Do we have to do this?” he says.
Sometimes, I want to do this. Sometimes, we do this.
What does it mean to love other people, each other, ourselves?
Is it possible to love everything at once, and sometimes love nothing, too?
The ocean is made of invisible layers of floating particles that move without intent, but they keep moving
There are papers and charts, with plotted points, with the trails of sea life, and dull-edged pencils and all the erasure shavings. I work at the drafting table most of the day.
When Liam appears, he has hot tea and he gently closes the window. The office window is a picture of the ocean, and when there’s the vastness of light peering inside, I must draw the blinds. Without Liam, there is routine and ritual, and when he’s home, there is all that light. Without Liam, work is easier, and I know I’ll find answers.
“What are you working on?” he says.
He sits in the comfortable chair, the one near the window, with the overgrown snake plants that press into the chair’s leather back.
“Migration, still,” I say.
There is something simple about migrating and then coming back. I’ve told him this before, and he says he knows it, too. And he says, We keep coming back.
“Are you still mad?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
He asks if he can stay anyway, to read in the chair by the end-of-day window light while I mark plot points on intertidal charts and tally last season’s whales to make predictions for next year.
I never answer, but he’s there, and we are soon forgetful of one another’s presence, at least by the sound of it. There’s something there, even in the deep-down fury and deep-down forgiveness that lingers. Eventually, I ask him to close the shade, and there is another distraction: dinner.
“Do you think we should take one of those couple’s cooking classes?” he said.
We have this conversation most often. More than our madness about who does the most laundry, or who walks the dogs longer, or who kisses other people. More than those, there’s this one, the one where he pushes me to piece together a broken thing, because as he says, I’m the one who can do it. There have been years of research I’ve collected for the Sea Institute, and while he’s away, lectures and advisees, trustee and funding parties that require tight dresses and high heels. Still, I have never actually looked into a couple’s anything for us. I wonder if that’s what’s holding us back. “I just get so busy,” I say.
Our bookshelves are littered with old photos of us: Tommy, our lives, our pets, our fathers, and our mothers. When we are drunk and sloppily eating bowls of cereal before bed on Friday nights, we laugh that we’ve kept all these memories so long. Sometimes, Liam says it’s a miracle that we found each other.
We feel a pull back to the sea, even before he must leave again on his next charter, because desire is always there and our walks expand to the longer paths. The days are shorter, and then there is our time together catching ferries to the mainland to visit Home Depot, and making dinner for Tommy while Rook is at work, the hikes to the volcano, the shower sex, the waterproof rain gear to slosh around in the low tide, the shouting, the middle-of-the-night crying, and all the other things that slowly take up the speeding up of time and the water that keeps moving.
I want new rules but can’t think of how to ask unless it’s a beg. He hates disruption, he says, and I say: So then what are we doing?
“I’ll miss you most,” he says.
At night, I wonder whether I should be angrier, whether I’m incapable of saying how I feel or, worse, whether I’m incapable of feeling how I feel. I roll him over when he’s snoring and hope he’ll wake, abandon his sleep, and talk with me and let me scream and fight. But this is my husband, a man who cannot read minds, a man who is every other man. I push my fingers into his back, so gently, to nudge him to turn on his side. This time, there is some unexplainable act of mind reading, nuisance, or holiness, and he says, I can’t get comfortable.
The nights are so long before he leaves, and we stay awake, waiting for the day to come, and we say everything until every word has lost its meaning. We talk and talk until we hate one another and then love one another again. He tells me his fears, for the first time in a decade: that he thinks we are wasting away, that he misses the ones he’s loved and lost, that if he cries once, will it ever stop? We say all the things we’ve wanted to say, like, I would never do this to you and But in your own way, you have done this to me. We promise we won’t shut it off, shut it out, exist like nothingness. We promise to feel the pain so we can feel ourselves again. We also promise to cherish the nothingness. We say we’ll just keep promising.
From Creatures by Crissy Van Meter. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2019 by Crissy Van Meter.