That night after the opera in Barcelona, I think that was when. I suppose I’ll never really know. I was there with Rob, our last night before he went to Paris on the train. Walking out of the opera at the Liceu, my heart was bursting, too wild and too big for the crowded streets pouring into La Rambla. I still ached with Aida’s torn loyalty. The voice of the enslaved Nubian princess trembled near the back of my throat. I still wanted to understand why people fall in love and lose all reason.
As we walked along the beach near Port Olimpic, stars crossed like ropes in the sky, gathered in a circle and whispered, contemplating intervention.
“I cannot come with you to Paris,” I said. My voice was strong now, recovered from absorbing the sorrowful tones of “La Fatal Pietra” in my ears and in my heart. It seemed the swell of the aria had drained out of me, but I wanted to test my voice again, be sure. So I added, “You know why.”
That night was several years ago. You asked me when, and I think that must be it. Every time I search my mind for when, my memory returns here to Barcelona, my mind still throbbing like those yachts moored on the water. We stood there on the beach a long time, watching the midnight tide rock the vacant boats.
Many times, Rob and I had met, on rainy streets filled with Christmas shoppers, by marinas tinged with salty air. This would be the last time, I told him.
I looked at the stars again. My chest ached when I said it. Stars above me, light years apart. There aren’t enough light years to give us the time and illumination and distance we need. There aren’t enough years. There isn’t enough light. I can’t see.
“I can’t see how this will change,” I said.
But the stars said differently when they whispered above. I heard that.
He and the stars, they argued with me.
It is the longing, that is what you desire, I said. Not me. You want to long for me. But you don’t want to know me. Be with me.
“If you knew me,” I said, “then you’d long for what I long for.”
I knew he couldn’t do that.
It’s the leaving that you desire, he told me.
The pain of leaving him each time had become integral to who I was. I don’t know which I knew better. Him, or leaving him.
The pain of yearning for me this way had become integral to who he was. He didn’t know me. He knew yearning for me.
The not knowing is the being, he said.
You make no sense to me, I said.
And that is what we were, still unknowable to each other.
He walked the beach alone that night with his hands in his pockets. I lay on my back in the damp, cool sand as the moon glinted off the fin of the Obras Hotel. I kept my eyes on the sky out over the sea. I waited for starlight to affix itself to the sky. I waited for something to be clearer. Then I realized I was waiting for him to come back. I made no sense to myself.
So Gretchen cut short our gig in Spain. Gigs—that’s what I call my Performance Quest workshops, because they are shows. I put my whole self into it when I speak in front of a crowd. I give them every dream, every desire I ever had and never fulfilled, Gretchen being number one among those. People come away believing in themselves again. And I do, too.
Each city was a quest. Gretchen was part of it. She loved the nobility of it all. She was so determined, the most self-motivated person I have ever known. Before she came along, I had been doing this so long I had stopped believing people could really change. She really believed these people in these corporations could be anything they wanted to be. Fortune favors the brave was her talk—her life motto. Every time Gretchen spoke to an audience, I fell in love with her again. Years ago, I saw her brilliance before any of the other workshop leaders did. They wanted authority, a certain patriarchal mold. She broke it. She was triumphant and tender. She brought love into the conversation without ever saying the word. I saw it before she did. She was luminous. The audience stirred when she spoke. She was a natural. In truth, she was better than I was as a speaker. With ease and precision, she could strike an emotional chord that I could only grope for.
I wonder, did I ever let her know that?
After a gig, we would walk the empty streets in these exotic cities, recounting the workshop through the wee hours and into dawn. We were so high on bravery, on fortune.
For several years, we have met in Dallas, San Diego, Vienna, London, between boyfriends (hers), soccer matches (my son’s), band practice (my daughter’s), nights at the opera (my idea), spiritual quests to the mountains (hers) and bouts of depression (my wife’s).
I don’t know what the right answer is, because I have been married all this time. I couldn’t see leaving the kids, though I could see leaving Helen. I felt an obligation to finish raising the children with her. It was a promise I had made. So sue me, I’m loyal.
I think I always harbored hope that Gretchen would … I can’t believe I’m saying this … that she would wait. Crazy, isn’t it?
So Barcelona, that was three months before her wedding. Yeah. That’s right. She was getting married. For years I had hoped, didn’t even know myself that I hoped. The jig was up.
The first time Rob asked me to be his mistress, we were at a marina. Now I’m going back, way back. It was dusk, and I went walking along the dock with my earbuds: George Winston, warm, sunlit waters, undulating, a pipe of cool current collecting in tidepool pebbles, my ears bathed in sound. That was the music I always took with me when I traveled for these workshops, a quiet stream of sound to calm my mind. By chance, or not by chance, Rob met me there at the dock—we had walked there before, two nights in a row, talking about how the workshops went. Yachts swayed on slow rippling waves. Seagulls sailed in from the ocean to listen, perched on pylons. Rob called it an arrangement, an augmentation. He said he could not leave his marriage physically or legally. I said I would not let him leave it sexually or emotionally. I would not let him live two lives. Or, really, half a life.
So at first, yes, it was about sex. I admit that. A need saw an opportunity. Simple as that. Can’t blame me for asking.
You see, all these years on our speaking team, and she was my anchor. She was the only one in my life who ever asked me how I had been sleeping or whether I was eating right. She was tender. She challenged me. It was the mix that I found intoxicating. She was a vegetarian, too tender-hearted to eat a dead animal; I was a carnivore, through and through. Steak and potatoes, hamburger and French fries for me. With Gretchen, the more exotic, the better: quinoa, tempeh, Wehani rice. I didn’t know what garam masala was. Salt, yes; garam masala, no.
The morning after the second time I asked her, I agreed to meet her in the lobby at the crack of dawn, before the heat and humidity set the city throbbing. So there she was, stretching against a mahogany leather chair in a lime-green jogging bra, shorts and terrycloth headband. She was lean and tan with a flat belly beneath breasts the size of mangoes. I wanted to place my head there on that taut belly with my hands cupping her breasts, feel the hard and soft of her. “Rob,” she had said the night before. “Exercise is what you need. Sublimate.” By sublimate, she meant, “Don’t think about sex.” By “don’t think about sex,” she had meant, “I’m not doing it, so you might as well forget about it.”
The first time Rob and I walked a city, it was just like this: I had gotten up at dawn to go jogging. He was just returning from walking the streets all night, listening to Aida on his headphones. Opera. Music in another language. Oh, we are so opposite of each other, he a night person and a carnivore, me a morning person and a little bit of a health nut. But I was intrigued, intrigued enough to go out to the Camellia City Diner with him the next night, then walk St. Charles Avenue. I wanted to know the story of Aida, her love for the Egyptian soldier Ramades and her loyalty to father, country, homeland. A part of me wanted to know this lovely music that carried a pure weight—the responsibility of honor, the blossoming of forbidden love. It gave me a peculiar shiver when we shared earbuds to listen together. It was 3 o’clock in the morning. Rob and I talked all night. In its sleep, the city whispered, whispered something I could not hear.
Gretchen says I let the veil drop in the wee hours—she tells me that is why I walk a city. Helen just thinks I’m wacky, so I have stopped telling her about it. But that is just me. I cannot quiet myself until I know the whole city is sleeping. I can watch the city while it can’t watch me. So maybe the truth is I never let the veil drop, and Gretchen sees something in me that is only a possibility, something that I only tell her, and I suppose, you. I was obsessed with her, for sure. I have never met anyone like her. And I would never have her.
I asked again in Boston, then in Kennebunkport, Maine, where we met with the president of a group of companies that wanted to sign us up for an ongoing three-year gig, half a million dollars like that. I said our arrangement wouldn’t change anything; she said it would change everything. That night we ate lobster at the Arundel Wharf on a yacht. Still, she said no. “Men,” she said. “You think you can separate this, sex from love, that it’s so simple, just business.”
Rob always says I am a woman who knows what I want. But the truth is, I was tempted. I already cared too much. I knew he did, too. That alone is why I said no.
I am an orphan. My mother died when I was fourteen. The rest of high school, my father and I lived on a houseboat in Puget Sound. Then when I was two weeks from graduating college, I got a call that my father was dying. It was sudden. I didn’t get back in time. I was not yet twenty-one.
Since then, I have lived my life untethered, almost unknowable to myself. But there was something submerged there, some shipwrecked part of myself that Rob breathed life into.
That night in Kennebunkport a fog rolled in, surrounding our inn. I sat in the reading room, my finger tucked into a book, remembering that phone call from my father’s physician, calling me back home. I watched a glassy raindrop slide down a midnight black windowpane, and I realized I was still waiting for a call. A call to what and where, I did not know. Both of my parents were dead. There was nowhere to be summoned.
Rob and I were as different as night and day. He was East Coast traditional, I was West Coast, not quite conquered territory, looking another direction. I was fond of reminding him that one hundred years ago, my side of the country didn’t belong to his, and was still not quite haveable, mail-order bride to a colonial groom. This was Rob: opera, a roaring rush of sound, thick and throbbing, something that soared out over the open ocean. This was me: poetry and piano, glass beads of sound, dropping into a stream, a source water yet undiscovered. Deep in the forest, the sound of water gliding over stones, a breathing thing that you hear before you see. That was me, The Narrows, a hike through the rushing snowmelt of the Virgin River deep in Zion National Park. It was the hike my mother and my father led me on years ago, after she knew the cancer had traversed across both breasts and wrapped her lungs and heart in a tight current of death, the end. We walked deeper into the canyon through the apple green waters of the Virgin River, one thousand-feet cliff walls towering above us, as ferns and wildflowers formed a hanging garden of grace far above our heads. As we pressed on, the cliff walls deepened from apricot to eggplant, blood red iron seeping out from the surety of stone, suggesting nothing that was sure. We stopped at Mystery Falls, and I saw their faces as they marveled at the nourishing water emitting from fierce and sheer cliff walls. I left my parents at the entrance to Orderville Canyon and hiked on to Big Springs. She waited for me, my mother, my father at her side, until I returned, presenting her the gift of having gone just beyond her, where she could not ever go.
Since then, I have lived my life noticing all of its ripples and small reverberations, looking for what is not sure. Rob was flying high above the clouds. He was air.
So I asked my wife to meet me in Buenos Aires for a week. I took Gretchen’s advice, and I decided to try one more time. Helen and I had not had sex for more than two years.
At the time, Gretchen was seeing a new man and was full of hope for all relationships. She said, “It’s not meant for you and me to be together, not in the way you hope.”
There was no hope—not for Helen and me. I knew that. Know it still. But Gretchen believed, so I listened.
She said, “I’ve often wondered why we have such a bond, and what it’s supposed to mean.” That was Gretchen, always searching for what it all meant. “I mean, I feel it. Our bond is powerful. I knew it the moment I met you. It was like I already knew you. There are times when I know what you’re going to say next, or I know just exactly what you will order in a restaurant. … well, steak, of course … Or when we walk up to a street corner, and we wait for the light to change, and I see you in the lamplight, I know the way your eyes will look when you turn to me.”
None of this was making me think of Helen.
But I asked, because I was supposed to, “So what do you think it means, Gretchen?”
“Perhaps I’m supposed to help you fall in love with your wife again. Perhaps,” and her voice dropped to a whisper, “it begins with speaking about the yearning, and this is how you remember. What you had before.”
This woman I was so enraptured with honestly believed that all the conversations we could not keep ourselves from having were about how I was to be a better husband to the woman I was already stuck with. The whole time, she thought she was talking about how she would offer herself as a better wife to someone else. That was not what I was hearing. Not at all.
Gretchen announced she would delay her arrival for the Buenos Aires workshop so that I could fly Helen down and have a week alone with her before the gig. For the sake of Gretchen’s hope, for the sake of my lonely aching self, for God’s sake, I allowed myself to hope that an exotic week in Buenos Aires would rekindle marital passion.
I didn’t take into account the jet lag. That knocked Helen out for two days, then two more with a migraine. But the fifth night, on the way back from dinner, I was full of anticipation. Helen had even felt well enough to try a glass of Malbec. I had fantasies during dinner of our first night of lovemaking in two years. I imagined slipping off her panties, spreading her thighs with my hands and pressing my tongue into her … I wanted to bury my face into the Holy Grail waters of the woman who gave birth to our children. Then I would remember.
But as we stepped out into the street toward the white limo, Helen’s purse was snatched. We spent the next three hours in a police station, speaking through an interpreter.
Back at the hotel, Helen retreated straight to the bathroom. I said through the door, “Money, it’s only paper.” But there was only silence, and for an hour, she didn’t come out.
The weekend after the workshop, the company president invited Rob, myself and the other speakers out to his beach house. I couldn’t even tell you where it was. We rode in the back of a white limo his driver sent for us. I remember going through an underpass. This part of the city was lemon-white and clean, sparkling in the sun.
Though he knew better than to try, Rob slipped his hand beneath my skirt. It was February, summer there. I was not wearing hose. It was hot; my legs were tan. He rested his hand there on my inner thigh, waiting for the signal to stop. In the heat, I forgot to make it. His fingers were hot, feverishly hot, pressing against my skin. It felt good. I was wet. He slid his forefinger underneath my panties. His light touch tickled, titillated. He pressed my clitoris. Though I knew should not, I spread my legs a little wider.
Soon we were out of the city, on a highway. We drove for a long time like that, with the shield up between us and the driver, this small unspoken thing between us. I came quietly. He watched my face. I watched his.
The reception was in a condo near the beach. By then it was dusk. When I stepped out of the car, it was hard to put my legs together, I was so engorged. My linen skirt was wrinkled.
It seemed Rob and I always found ourselves near water. While we stood on the balcony watching a persimmon sun slide into the bay, Rob and I sipped our sparkling water, letting the silence of the thing that had passed between us slip beneath the rippling waves.
When the company president arrived, he wanted to talk all night. His people were very inspired by our talk, he said. “What must I do next?” he asked. This was usually the part of the workshop that really counted. We had to leave knowing we had made the leader of the company a true believer. In this respect, there was no better team than Rob and me.
I saw Rob’s glass was empty. “Agua con gas o agua sin gas?” I said in Spanish. He said sparkling water. I made my way to the ice bucket. As I returned with the plastic glass, cool and sweating against my hand, I felt like I was his wife.
Leaving Buenos Aires
The thing in the limo was a mistake, she told me. Gretchen explained her current personal growth assignment was to admit her mistakes and love herself despite them. Clearing the air, that’s what we were doing the next morning at the marina, waiting for my plane.
Fine, I thought.
It’s not sex unless there’s penetration, she said.
Now, I ask you, which one of us is thinking like a man?
I was weak, she said. A moment of weakness, that’s all.
It wouldn’t happen again, she said.
Great, I thought. This really clears things up.
On the plane now, tipping toward the ocean, Tosca on the headphones. It is dusk, a smoky orange mantle over the city. I look down, look for the bay, the place we were last night, look for the certainty of where it was. I see a road winding up the coast, where something happened that shouldn’t have happened, a line on a map, the hemisphere of Gretchen, the hemisphere of me.
Gretchen, sitting in the marina café, wearing fire-rimmed wraparound sunglasses that caught the glare of the lunchtime sun, tapping sugar into her coffee cup. And she says, get this, she’s been in a relationship for six months and this one might get serious. When I thought it was new, just another man hoping like me.
On the plane now, listening to Tosca, about to toss herself off the roof. Dusk, the water lighting up with tiny orange lanterns. Night starting again.
I wanted something permanent, that’s what I said. I was clear about that. Someone who would catch my fall. You see, he doesn’t hear me. He only hears what he wants to hear. You see that, don’t you?
What I did in the limo was something I might have done before, I admit, when it didn’t matter, when I could do to people and do to myself, and it didn’t count, no points against me.
But now I want something that’s worth every page of the deal – soul mate, lover, husband and father of my children, all in one body.
New York City, dawn
What she didn’t realize is I was permanent. My love for her wasn’t going to change.
Dipping down now, I see the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. Pink glassy waves halve the horizon, sky and water, air and sea, blue and blue.
But neither was my situation going to change. I toyed with the idea, believe me. I imagined what I would say to Helen, rehearsed a million times, never got the voice. Was it the surprise, something like despair, I saw in her eyes? In my mind’s eye, I saw her whirling away from me in horror. There was something too tender in Helen. I didn’t want to see that, what my betrayal would cost to that young girl, just seventeen, who had been my friend since college, the constant in a life that was too much flow. I felt what Helen felt. My life ripped apart, and no life at all.
Was it merely courage I lacked? Or just the inconvenience or unknown of it, not able to start anew, fresh and free, and not knowing where to start. How do you start the song, what key? How do you know it won’t go to the same place? Was it just too late in life for believing in that?
I had done it once before, before I met Gretchen. As Helen watched at the rim of the kitchen I had taken two saucepans and a skillet, the small television and one set of sheets. I’d set up at an apartment. For five months, I returned to our house every morning to pick up the children and drive them to school, an exile from my own life, my only life.
This time, I knew there would be no starting anew, two saucepans and a skillet, nothing airy and untainted and capacious. There was no returning to the tender person I must have been, too, with Helen.
You see, the very thing I loved about him was the very thing that was fatal to us: He really would not break his promise. He would not undo his life. He was that loyal. For him, it was so untangled. I mean, he just loved me; that was how he felt, and so he said it. He adored his children, still respected his wife. It was that crystal clear for him. How could the two thoughts exist so purely side by side and one not taint the other, taint the channel of the heart that held them? How does that even work?
From the plane, I watch ferries chug across Puget Sound. I am landing now, ashore.
Here now, on the corner, a block away, by the storefront window, alone on a foreign street, I pull a trench coat to my chin. I catch the eyes of ghostly mannequins as moonlight washes over the windowpane. What city? Miami, San Francisco, London, Rome? I don’t remember. All I know is I’m older now. The chance is gone.
I walk again, turn up a sidewalk lacquered with the night’s rain.
I stop again, in front of a coffee shop. The pastry case is empty. A light in the case casts a spotlight on a pink crepe liner. It is 4 a.m. Is it Paris?
Here, under the streetlight halo, I say goodbye to him. It’s a rainy night, 3 a.m., in another city, Tampa, Chicago, Boston, Barcelona. I’m marrying someone else, I said firmly. I shouldn’t have to say it. This is what I’ve told him would happen all along. He has always known the truth, but he keeps pushing it back to the shadows.
The truth is unwieldy, a huge throbbing lumpy mass, not carried easily from city to city in a suitcase. The truth stays home.
I arrive at an empty street. It is not sinful for me to love Gretchen more than my wife, I say out loud. My words echo on the naked concrete canyon walls.
Here now, back in my room, bleach-white hotel washcloth damp on my forehead, I lie on the board of bed.
Sin was not the problem. I would have still sinned with him.
From the street below rainwater spins from the wheels of a passing car.
I wanted it all. That was the problem. I smooth my palm over the cool sheets. What city? New Orleans, Chicago, Portland, Barcelona? Certainly there was rain. I turn to the pillow, bury my wet cheeks there.
After Barcelona, I wanted to get to a city where the stars didn’t change and there were no more possibilities, only a final unshakeable truth. I wanted to be left with only one, and I almost didn’t care which one. I wanted something I could put my signature to.
I was fond of saying to my friend Colleen there were no irreversible decisions. Nothing couldn’t be undone with a few phone calls, I told her as we stood at the canal near the Bridge of Sighs. This theory once gave me comfort, a sense of liberation, the vast open sea. Buying a house. Taking a job. Marriage. All difficult to undo, requiring carefully scripted phone calls, but undoable nonetheless. The only irreversible act was having children, I told her. I wanted that.
To undo my wedding, it would take more than a few. But I tallied it up: the caterer, the photographer, the tent rental, the priest, one hundred guests. The groom…
“You can’t blame him,” Colleen said of Rob’s inability to grasp the truth. “He’s just so in love with you.”
The bells chimed in Piazza de San Marco. Love. Had we spoken words about love? We’d only talked about longing, the language of lust, not love.
“I’ve given him my answer,” I said, though I told myself that I could still change it.
Zion National Park, Utah
I found her in Zion. I knew her penchant for solitude just before a gig, and three days before the Vegas gig, I tracked her down. It was ballsy of me. She was getting married in three weeks.
“Why are you here?” she said.
“I’m looking for something,” I said. I took a step toward her.
“For what?” She trained her eyes on me. Was someone listening? We had an audience of red sandstone cliffs. They had stored so much sunlight they hummed. The sky was a perfect azure blue.
“Certainty,” I said.
Mine or hers, you and the rocks and the sky could debate that. I told myself I had to know her feelings for me. She was like the moon, a white shell sometimes seen in the day sky. I told her this. I saw through her. I couldn’t let her marry if she had any feelings for me.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” I said, nearly whispering. “You must be certain.”
Emerald Pools, Zion
Rocks glistened in the warm sun. It was almost three o’clock. The afternoon was slipping away, and inside me, disappointment sank like a mossy stone, a dark hollow collecting icy swirling current.
He said it was about need.
It wasn’t about need.
Need, he said, simple as that. I need you. I breathe you.
“We need to tell the truth,” I said, rising to my feet.
Water trickled from a small crack in the rock, unseen, high above us, its source still eluding us, yielding only the verdant pools at our feet.
But there were two questions that should never be asked: two shadows in the water, two round sleeping stones. One: Did he love me? Yes, he did, I knew that. It wasn’t about need anymore. Need had become love. And love was something different, something that would require him to act. And two: Did I love him? I didn’t give him my answer right away. For a long time, I stared into the pool of water at our feet. I watched the dappled shadows of sun and leaf, light and life, jackhammering at the water. I watched until the wind let down and the shadows grew still, smooth as glass, light fused with dark, flowing. From here on, we would be required to act. Phone calls, apologies. I felt a shadow of myself being sucked into the crevices of stone beneath the water. A breeze nudged the treetops high above us..
The thought flashed in my mind like the turn of a knife blade, nicking too close to my heart, “Why not?” His heart was wide open and flowing like spring snowmelt. But the knife-thought stabbed at something quick and serpentine, slipping between the rocks. I could have taken it, the piece of his heart that was completely available to me, but it would have drowned a part of me that could never be resuscitated.
The answer I gave him was no. No, I don’t love you, I said. I love you. But not like that.
I saw in the water the shadow of a body that had so little to do with me and who I was – who I really was – that I wanted to claw it from the rippling surface, snatch it up like a bolt of felt and rip it from my skin.
Zion National Park, Utah
When I awoke the next morning, all the possibilities were still possible. Had this become a habit of the mind, to search and yearn and believe still we might come together? I stood in the courtyard with a denim jacket looped around my waist and sipped coffee from a tall mug. I turned, and through the window I saw Rob shaving at the oval mirror.
The yellow gingham comforter was turned back on the bed. It could be smoothed over the mattress, tugged to the wicker headboard and tucked under the pillow. Or it could be pulled back from the cool sheets and we could make love this one glorious time. It could not be morning, and I could not be listening to the coffee brewing in the kitchen or the swallows in the tamarisk trees. It could still be last night, with the full moon spinning over the shadow of the red cliff wall. And I could have said yes.
I thought I had chosen.
But today all the possibilities broke over the ridge, and among them was that nothing had changed. I could say yes, and it could mean yes for tonight, or it could mean yes forever. He could say yes, and it could mean he was changing his life. Or just augmenting it. I could say yes, just for the certainty, then I would know him, know if I had made the right decision.
I could hike alone. I could hike nearly to the top of Angel’s Landing. Or we could meet by chance at the Emerald Pools. We could make love there. It could always be by chance. First no, then maybe, then yes.
Or, it could be by choice. By fierce free will. Something irrevocable. Something that spoke of bravery and fortune. Something that later, we would understand, favored us.
But which one of us would make the first choice? I wanted to lead him through the icy pools of the Virgin River, deep into the canyon, look for the headwaters, the source of this current that carried us. Maybe then we would know why. We could stand beneath a sheet of water falling over a rock, letting the cool water paste our clothes to our skin. And we could just stay that way, wet skin and dripping hair, to remind us of how it felt. He could not go back to his wife. I could not get married to someone else. We could stay in the caves beneath the carnelian rocks in shade, barefoot, live this way and never leave. Or, maybe all we had, would ever have, was this moment, and deep from the cave of my new life, sometimes, I would wear the moonstone pendant he gave me, cool against my skin, a current flowing just past my heart.
Or: The possibility we could not speak of, the next city, a third city, anchored somewhere in the deep waters between us, something not yet known, somewhere halfway to home.
Angel’s Landing trailhead, Zion
Had Gretchen lied to me? That is what I wanted to know.
“So, do you love him?” I said.
The breeze in the live oak trees whispered, breathed life into the forest. Then, it waited.
“I haven’t heard you say you love him,” I said.
She turned back to me on the trail.
“You haven’t chosen,” she said. “You must choose.”
“You haven’t either, then,” I said.
Angel’s Landing, Zion
That morning I was ready to do it. Ready to leave my life, that is. OK, I had this figured out now. She did love me, but she would never ask me to leave my marriage. I thought I was sure of her, more sure of her than Helen. I watched a hawk soar, high above the buff-colored sandstone, spinning in updraft against the blue sky.
Together, we hiked up to Angel’s Landing. We pressed upward through the switchbacks until the trail dwindled to a narrow ledge, then a foothold. From the guidebook I knew that as we neared the summit, the trail would get even more challenging—twenty-eight inches wide, 800-foot drop to the right, 1,200-foot drop to the left. As we neared the top, we clutched chains drilled into the sandstone. Gretchen turned around a cliff jutting out above the canyon, calling out she would check out the trail ahead. Problem was, I looked down.
Across the canyon, I saw a cliff wall hollowed out in the smooth shape of an angel, wings sculpted into apricot-colored sandstone. Looked to me like an angel had smacked into the rock, leaving only the impression of robe and wings. Air meets surface. Splat. The other angel. The unlucky one.
Don’t think about it, I told myself.
Don’t even think about it, I heard.
Just then— don’t know what happened—but one bolt of the chain must have broken free of the rock, and there I was, swinging out from the cliff. I hung there like a bungee jumper, spinning in the azure sky like a fish on a hook. God, I couldn’t breathe. It was like my lungs were flooded with it, drinking in sky like hearty ale. Three gulps, three flashes, like that: My daughter, a baby, swaddled in a yellow blanket, cooing and snuggling into the crook of my arm. My son, grinning and bobbling his glasses on his ears just to make me laugh. And Helen, with her slender neck and long fingers, touching my cheekbones with her fingertips, whispering words I could not hear. I just wanted to be touched.
Then, loud, pounding the canyon walls, Gretchen’s voice: No, I don’t love you. Not like that. That’s when I crashed into the cliff, and the sky flashed black and shattered into yellow pieces. On impact, my arm was crushed against the rock. Then I must have let go. I caught the chain with my other hand and swung myself onto a foothold. Above me, I saw Gretchen. “I’m coming,” she said, a cry in her voice.
She disappeared. I heard her swiftly climbing down the rock, stones tumbling from the path, cascading off the cliff edge. “Just stay there,” I heard.
“Don’t worry,” I said, mostly to myself. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Then she was touching me, her fingertips on my arm, my shoulder, my neck, saying my name, so tender, my name again and again. “Rob, Rob…” She was whispering, whispering something I could not hear.
I wanted to be another kind of person, someone who could say what I meant and mean what I said, but then it would mean betraying the very thing she loved about me and I loved about her, so the next morning, there would be no rock, no moss, no stream, no shadow. We would be in Vegas, our last city, and we would sit at the blackjack table, waiting for the turn of the next card. At the table, under the flashing dots of light, dark and light, dark and bright, hearts and diamonds, clubs and spades, too many probabilities to count, and all the cards cupped in the palm of a stranger’s hand, someone I never knew.
Las Vegas airport
At the slot machines, with each swing of the arm, a new combination. We were like those old people with rolls of quarters, who play with cigarettes dangling from their lips, hooked up to oxygen tanks, hoping hoping hoping as they suck in their last breaths that the next ding-ding-ding of the bell will bring up three of the same, presenting a consensus. The truth we each sought was somewhere in between, oscillating only by the varying degrees with which we wanted to confront it. The truth was unchanging; only the light we shed on it changed. It was this and always had been: He would not leave his wife and children. He would always love me. That was his; this was mine: I would not accept half his heart. And this: I was going on with my life. I was going home.
Friday Harbor, Washington
Home tonight. Just past the full moon, beginning to wane. My wedding in two days. I am on a boat just off the shore. My vessel is anchored at the confluence of the warm cove currents and swift cool ocean. I dip my hand into the midnight waters on the starboard side. I let the coolness seep into me, swim into my veins. It races through me like a jug of cider on a summer day in the mountains. I’m a child again, stopping at a roadside stand, holding my father’s hand, holding the certainty of being cared for. I switch sides, dipping my cupped hand on the port side. It is warm like a hot spring, soda water fizzing in my palm. In the moonlight, two shelves of clouds glow in the southern sky. Toward the ocean, the sky is blank.
I dream I am with my father. I sleep under the sky this way. I dream of all the decisions I have made in my life. My college boyfriend and I are at Aces Pizza Parlor with all our friends on a game day, claiming our order with an eight of hearts or the king of diamonds. We sit at long wooden tables with pitchers of beer, sprinkling crushed red pepper on cheese still hot and bubbling from the oven. How these scenes changed over the years. We—they—graduated, married, had children. Now our friends held their toddlers up to the window to watch the man with the paper hat twirl pizza dough on one finger. My boyfriend’s friends wanted me to marry him, have children for their children to play with, say vows with the neighborhood priest, let my babies be sprinkled with their holy water. Years ticked by. The town built a new mall, a new freeway. Aces sold out to a chain. That card, the ace of clubs, friends and fidelity, something that lasts, a constancy never dealt to me. Not me, not there. I had not spoken to those people for years, could hardly remember their names.
Lying in the boat, I feel the anchor slipping in the silty floor of the bay, searching for something to grasp. Once, out fishing with my father, when we were just about to turn home, the anchor caught on something, something dense and dark and shapeless. Relentlessly, it pulled our boat, roaring out to the blank sea. It was pulling us down, deep. The rope was taut and definite. My father shouted out orders. I could not hear him over the crush of rain. The rain, needles beating on my father’s face, in his slicker, shouting, the fear, I heard the fear in him. I wanted to tell my father. I wanted to tell him what I wanted, what would make me happy. I wanted to tell my mother, tell her what it was like to live without her. “The knife,” my father said. Our boat listed starboard with this thing that was pulling us, pulling us faster now. A glossy wall of black sea towered around us. With the knife blade, I severed the rope.
Now, here tonight, I look out at the ocean, the unknown, blank sky and endless waters. I think I will always be tossed about this way. I accepted it years ago, slipping into a bobbing sleep that was the rhythm of my life. This is the life I have chosen. As I sleep, ropes of stars above me cross and uncross, two spines of two animals. But when I awaken before dawn, I am in calmer waters, near the shore, and there are no stars.
When I remember her now, it is always instrumental. Piano. No words. Random tones, droplets of rain nudged by a breeze. I pass the café. From the umbrella, remnants of the rain mist my face. A rain already forgotten but still my heart soaked through, edges dry but still damp in the center.
I hear the melody between the raindrops, and I wonder what I could have done differently. I sensed there was a window of opportunity. When did it open, and why didn’t I know it at the time? Miami? San Francisco? New Orleans? Buenos Aires? Barcelona? I think about Barcelona a lot. I am on the train, headed to Paris, rain on the window. She is by the window of her hotel, looking down at the station, or so I imagined, watching my train slip out of the city. Standing behind the curtain, speaking lines I cannot hear. I wait and wait and wait for my cue.
When I remember him now, the song in my head swells at full volume. It is an aria that fills the hollowed-out cathedrals and midnight plazas. When I look out the window from a hotel in a new city, my eyes search for these spaces in between, squares ringed in the glow of streetlamp globes, temples that rise from the street like crypts. I watch the rhythm of the new place and yet I look for the old places. I stand at the curtain and settle into the rumble of the trains rolling out of the station, like Barcelona, or the patter of the ocean tap-touching yachts at the marina, like Buenos Aires. A new city to be explored, swelling with sound. The song is always fortissimo.
When I hear the song, I can’t resist. Like Aida, I want to crawl into the crypt with him, and sing together. He was my last molecule of air.