When she finally calls I have just had a new dishwasher installed, just shaken the Sears man’s thickened hand and shown him out the door. I am still watching him through the blinds as he gets inside his painted van when the phone rings and it’s her.
“Where have you been?” I say.
“Pacific Grove,” she says. “The Bide-A-Wee.”
“Pacific Grove,” I say. “Pacific Grove.”
“I’m still here,” she says. “Come meet me.”
“Come meet you,” I say. She stays silent on the line. “Don’t move.”
“Okay,” she says. “But hurry.”
The Bide-A-Wee, Pacific Grove: we stayed there once a few months after Jayce was born, a Christmas treat from Tracy’s sister, the hotel and the babysitting. I leave the boys with Tracy’s parents and have to fake excuses. I say it’s poker night with Rob and Chris, my friends, instead. Everyone’s too young or old to notice or to know that poker’s something I don’t ever do, and she’s not there this time to catch my lie. What’s wrong with me, this time, that I have to go hunt down my wife?
Pacific Grove is “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.,” a little place. You walk through a park the city calls its “butterfly sanctuary,” where the monarchs migrate for the winter months and where you’ll get fined a thousand bucks for bothering a bug. You have to be real quiet and look real close to see anything at all, but then they’re there, these big clusters of hibernating butterflies hanging in the branches, safe and still and all together now. I’ve been tracking Tracy’s every move on the Visa bill and wondering why there, but when I hear her say it it makes every idiot sense.
While I am reaching something of a tipping point, at least the boys get some relief. They like her parents’ house. It is still an adventure for them; has not yet become a chore. There is a big backyard lined with redwoods, real redwoods, and there is a gap between them and the fence that makes for a secret tunnel when you run around the perimeter. Each boy has picked his own tree as home base. Leo claimed the one that borders the front yard—a vantage point for big invasions. Jayce has the big corner with the pet graveyard underneath. Kenzie has taken the small tree by the garden. Here they war. They move swift from tree to tree, across the shaded yard and ground. They double-cross each other. They meet in no-man’s land and find frogs to put in boxes, wagons—later bathtubs, sinks; eventually our pipes. These are their kind of fights. Since Tracy left they have been worried, confused, up late crying at night. Not easy to assure but overall okay.
On the phone she had been trying to sound urgent but by this time I don’t bite. By this time I have worried everything in every way: another life, another lover, murdered, raped, a nervous breakdown, off a bridge, in front a train. But both of us know better. I pack a bag up for the boys and when we start the car it’s started to get dark.
Tracy’s mother hugs me so long and tight and hard that I feel years of mourning in the clenching of her arms. Her father’s hand upon my shoulder seems heavier each time. I wonder how much longer they could keep so quiet, or what they’re doing here behind my back, or on the side. All I could tell them from the get-go was that it’s okay, and when they said to me it wasn’t, that we’d better call the cops then I had to say it will be—it will be, and please don’t. She left a note. It’s only been eleven days.
They look at me, suspicious. Aside from a couple rowdy small-town high school weekends and our contrabanded Cancun wedding she’s never run off on them once. How do I know their daughter better than they do after all these years? How can I if she’s gone like this and I don’t even have a tennis shoe, a call, a clue?
I don’t want to talk about it with them, but the way I know is that I have been listening even if I have been acting like I haven’t. Even if the days have been too busy and the nights too short I have heard the desperation in her voice, the undertone of plea. In the way her sighs fell when she did the dishes I saw that she felt cornered into silence. In her sloppying footsteps up the stairs I could tell that she felt not herself somehow. In her goodnights to the boys and me I heard the way she needed something bigger.
In the bigger scheme of things Tracy was fine. I didn’t file missing person because I know this is between us, even though we never said it. I’ve never hurt her, rarely yell, hardly ever make a fuss over anything but when the Internet goes out on nights I need to work, or when the Warriors lose in overtime. Between the kids, their sports and school, the house, there is enough around here for everyone to deal with. Or maybe, I think—I think of women who want diamonds, cruise ships, everything. The kind of girls who want the world. I thought Tracy wasn’t like that but maybe I was wrong, or maybe somewhere while I was pretending not to hear she changed. Maybe this isn’t over what I’ve done but all the things I haven’t. Maybe this is about all the things I’m not.
Her parents say have fun at poker night, say I deserve to have some fun, tell Rob and Chris they say hello. I have left the boys there for five minutes and they are already at the backyard, even though it’s not quite night. I see the yellow-white spots of their flashlights fanning left and right across the trees, scanning for anything alive—raccoons, squirrels, the neighbor’s cat, any set of eyes reflecting back like little marble moons.
What is bigger than this? If it weren’t for her parents here I might be fuming. What is better than this yard, this family, these boys?
Maybe—I get in, start the car, and hope—it was just a need for space. I could understand that. Tracy is a good mother, one who does a lot. I do a lot too but it is always somehow the same lot, not all this growing-out-of-clothes and cutting-bruising-tear-repairing, adjusting face-to-face each day with changes. When I come home every day I find everybody’s stitches already in, all their wounds cleaned out and ready bodies resting. After I leave again is when she goes to take them out. My job is to say looks nice—encourage healing, help diminish fear, supply funds for restocking our supplies. I provide this woman with a room and she caulks up all the corners. She is in the business of sterile and airtight so I do not second-guess her need to breathe, though in the weeks since she’s been gone I see the leaks appearing, feel the cold air and the dust coming through the cracks of what we together built. So I am so relieved she called.
I pull the car off of my parents’ street-lit curb. Jayce has left his sweater in the front seat. I do not turn around. I take it with me as evidence for her to see, a page out of a scrapbook, a simple thing to think about in case she has begun to think of something else. I take it as a bribe. I take it as a covering, a dressing—when you air out a wound it heals, I get that. But if you leave it open for too long God knows what else gets in.
I drive over the bridge and think of the other day in the kitchen—before she left, I mean; it’s been more than a couple days but with her gone it feels like nothing, feels like time is standing still—when she was standing over the steaming stove, cooking something. Her waist was glowing, her shoulders shining in that kitchen light. Only my girl here could make fluorescent something pretty; only a woman like this could make a fake thing shine like sun. I couldn’t bear to watch her stirring long—gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “stir-crazy.” You can’t explain those moments, you know. I think that she was making stew but the entire kitchen smelled like us, like life. I came up and put my arms around her waist, only she twisted, jumped, was harsh instead of melted, hit hard into an open drawer and screamed.
I have big feet, a heavy step, a sort of presence in this house. I don’t know if she didn’t hear me coming up, if it was the salty water roiling or if she was just that gone already in her head, if she wished she were already gone.
“My God,” she said, and lifted back her apron hem. It was not a lot of blood but it was something deep, there on the tiny space her T-shirt wasn’t covering, her upper hip, her side.
I grip the wheel, stare out the streetlight-catching windshield, and squeeze. Let me repeat once more that taking space I understand, I do. The world is too fast and close today. But me? I have made myself smaller, held on to tiny places harder. What else do you do when waves beat hard and brash? Again—what good would bigger do?
As I drive over the bridge I think of how she would not have gone if she had not first made sure there was a way. This woman had it planned, goddamn—she had been making ways for quite a while. She had become a part of deeply entrenched carpool patterns with the neighbors to get the boys to school and back. She had signed them up for the school lunch program, had their schedules stuffed with after-school activities—hell, I was already in charge of picking up the older ones from baseball twice a week. Was this on purpose, for her plan? Was this me undermined for my demise? I’d thought it was responsibility, collaboration. I thought it was our plan.
I stop for gas and end up talking to a younger trucker for the better part of half an hour while he smokes a pack of cigarettes. He has too many things to say.
“Is she with someone else?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “No way.” I’ve thought of it enough. He looks at me like he knows better, like I am pitifully naïve, like I’m in for something rude and crude—but I look at the no-lines in his face and his dirty unringed finger and see the tobacco tint that’s soaked his skin, hear it scratch inside his throat, watch the gas go up and up and up and as he pumps I know I’m seeing what running is. He is going places, sure, he thinks, but I am in no rush. When she says hurry I know that she means take your time.
“How do you know she’ll be there?” he asks, and stomps a butt out with his booted foot. “How do you know it’s not a trick, she isn’t lying? That when you get there it won’t just be some note she left, an empty room?”
He lights another one and shakes his head. When his face glows, for a second, it reminds me of camping—orange fire, stubble, piney nights, and fresh, fresh air. When he looks up at me again and blows everything is concrete and fluorescent, gasoline and greasy once again, and the cars going past seem too fast for the road.
“How do you know it’s even really her that called?”
“I know her voice,” I say. I want him, this unheroic vagabond, to know the ingrained loyalty of stiller lives, the certainty that happens when you stay. But I can’t help imagining a scandal, scam, an empty six-pack; some broken glass, a gun; her thin wrists shredding under tightened ropes, another scrawny man in underwear with condom wrappers, empty needles all around. And worse: the dragon-tearing-through-your-gut sick flash of our good home gone black when I come back empty-handed and have to see the boys, explain. My heart has felt a lot of things this week, and for this first time it feels cold with fear.
I leave before the trucker sees my second guesses and I get to Tracy late at night. I pull into the parking lot and the water from the landscape sprinklers is hissing like a whole headful of Medusa’s hair. It is so wet and foggy outside anyways that I feel it is a waste of water but trust that someone ’round here knows what they are doing, that it’s someone’s job to set the timers and the pipes and see the plants stay green. I park right next to her van—our van—and get out into the stillest night.
The parking lot and sidewalk too are full of sand, I mean, the sand is sprinkled everywhere, carried in from towels and beach toys and in between so many peoples’ toes. Sand I can appreciate, I think, though I hate the way it’s hard to clean, avoid. I like that it is small enough to stay itself when crushed. There is one light on and it is on the second level. I see her peeking through the blinds as I trudge up, and she opens up the door before I even have to knock.
She has watched me make the climb, I know, but when I raise my eyes to see her she is already looking down and turned around and heading back inside. When I get inside I pull the heavy door shut carefully behind me; I do not let it slam. Her keys are on a table by the entrance. I pick them up and put them in my pocket. She is by the coffee maker tearing sugar packets, stirring with red straws. She turns to me, a small brown cup in each hand.
I take one from her and she sets the other on the table where her keys were. The Bide-A-Wee is cabin-like, is not as cookie-cutter-curtained as the other chain inns on this strip, but the ceiling is still low. Tracy is typically much more petite but she looks normal in the room. I wonder if I must look like a giant, feel my hairs’ tips only inches from the popcorn ceiling. I wonder why I don’t feel mad, but then I notice that my mug is trembling in my hand.
I have more questions than I realized—have you been here, in this room, the whole time? Watching TV, meditating, reading sitting still? Drank whiskey at some local bar at night? Prayed at the chapel down the hill? Looked over at the cliffs? Had any human contact, made any friends, have maybe even met your real self in these last eleven days? What and where and who and why and why and why?—but none of them come out. I know that she’s been using cash for some things but it hasn’t been that much, and her purchase listings from the corner store just tell me crackers, brie, a muffin, Advil, one bottle of chardonnay. It’s good, maybe, or sad. Like if you are going to get away and treat yourself then treat yourself I mean. If a cruise is what she needs then sail away and hard.
The paper cup is burning in my hand now but I grip it even tighter. It’s been a minute here and she still hasn’t said a word.
She sets her cup down on the table. She pulls her shirt up just a couple inches and shows me the red gash on her hip.
I put my cup down on the table next to hers and put my hand right on that hip, around the gash. I cannot believe how cold she feels, though the room has a gas fireplace that’s on and the thermostat must be set to at least 70 degrees. I press my hand into her skin and stroke with my thumb the skin beneath the gash. My wife is beautiful, has many friends, has made the right decision nine times out of ten. We have talked about this—she is a good mother, daughter, lover, worker, so why so sad sometimes and what is wrong? Like I said: I understand the need for space, but what kind of space, and why?
I bring my hand back in and cross my arms, let them hang Indian-style in each other on my chest. I can feel her search my face but I keep my eye on that fierce red mark. It does not look like it’s infected, but it is slightly scabbed along the sides and a section of the middle one still looks fresh and wet. It has been at least eleven days. Why hasn’t that thing healed? I lift my gaze and finally meet her eyes.
“You’ve been picking at it,” I say.
“No,” she says, and oddly. She lets her shirt drop and heads over to the bed. I follow to its edge but I will not lie down with her. She settles on her back, her bare feet dangling off the floor. I look at them instead. Her toenails are deep red.
“I have been very patient with this thing because I thought you needed time to get away, get whole, get space.”
“I know,” she says again. “I did.” I do not know this voice. This voice is not the one that hits my ears in the empty hallway before a parent-teacher conference, is not the one that’s yelling worried on a sideline of a soccer game, wondering if she brought enough Capri Suns for the players’ little sisters too. It’s not the one that whispers we just have to as she slides her hand down my pajamas when the TV’s flashing CBS and the kids are passed out on the floor and couch’s edge. It’s not even the one that says No, not tonight, and rolls over with her head under her pillow, stifling sobbing while I scratch her back instead. It’s not the voice that asks but why today in tears over the phone, when someone left his homework at a friends’ house or when some other parent called about an incident at recess or when some other last straw has been placed upon her tiny back. It’s not a voice I know. She runs a bare foot up my leg. I grab it and set it back down on the almost-ground.
“Trace,” I say, and look at her. Her eyes—not tears entirely, but something worse—and then I know I grabbed too hard.
She sits up on the bed edge, her feet flat on the ground now, and looks straight down. I sigh and look around. The room is not a mess, of course. Her suitcase is set neatly on the luggage rack near the closet, a few jackets taken out and hung but mostly things still folded neatly in the open case. The bathroom light is on.
“I needed to—” she starts. I am all ears. She shivers, fidgets. “Well first,” she says. “On the beach the other day I saved a baby.”
Oh, I think. At least some child’s gotten some attention out of this. The boys must be in bed by now, two in the guest room master and one tucked in the trundle. What questions have her parents had to answer about this woman who won’t even call to make sure they’re okay? What fine-spun stories did they have to tell to get them calm and off to sleep? I want to squeeze her neck. Instead I sit and listen.
“I was out past Lovers’ Point, down near those rocks, you know, where you can pull up in your car and watch the waves crash on the shore.”
I know the place. The coast curves round and rocky there, an intertidal mountain range, a series of big peaking rocks out in the distances and then smaller mussel-studded ones and tidepools making swirling, churning cities right before the shore. The waves break against the big rocks in the background and send big sprays of white to disappear into the silver air, and people come to watch, to see, to be.
“I’m watching this couple with their baby on a blanket on the shore. First off, it is not a warm day—all windy and gray, not a good day for a picnic—and then secondly, not a good place for a picnic ever, and then thirdly, the waves that day are huge.” She picks her feet up off the almost-floor and moves them underneath her, cross-legged on the bed edge, and keeps talking with her hands. “The couple is taking lots of pictures, a nice camera, a Nikon or something. They’re really into it, each other, looking at that little screen, something. They stop paying attention to the baby and I can see what’s coming.”
I lean back, shift my weight, look at my wife.
“The baby’s just a tiny baby, probably, I don’t know—four months? It’s wearing pink. The sun is sort of setting, not a great sunset since it’s cloudy, but they’re still trying to take a picture. Tourists. Both of them turn their back on the baby and at this point I get out of my car. And then,” she says, almost panting through the tale, “the wave comes up.”
Since she began this story by saying she saved a baby, I know it can’t end awful. But I raise my eyebrows ‘cause she’s right and all, the couples’ ignorance, how shocking, how just plain bad. I am not feeling what she feels, like lots of times, but I understand it isn’t good at all.
“The wave sweeps big, the baby disappears. Everyone on the beach must have had the same sick feeling watching it happen because we all ran down there. The whole entire crowd was gasps and screams and sprinting legs—I’m just the one who got there first. I plunge in waist-deep and grab this baby like you’ve seen a heron snatch a fish. I grab it tight in my wet arms, hold it drenching, shaking, cold and blubbery to my chest. There is saltwater everywhere on us and the windchill turns us instantly to ice. I hold the baby tighter, closer, and there is something warm to it besides the cold wet heft. You can bet that it was screaming.”
She pauses, puts her head in her hands, talks through the hole between her arms.
“When I got back to the parents—the dad was ankle-deep to meet me, the mom still standing on the shore—I just handed it back to them and turned around. Not a single word. They couldn’t even look me in the eye. They know what they did, or didn’t do. The crowd was right there, too, everybody dry, everyone with towels and blankets, ready to do more, put in their two cents or three. I was so cold and upset and in, I don’t know, adrenaline mode, that I just scrambled up the rocks and left.”
She drops her hands into her lap and looks at me.
“So somehow in that, I don’t remember if it was the way down or in the water or on the way back up or what, I must have tore this open again.”
She is telling me this why, I wonder. She leaves us for eleven days and this is the thing she wants to talk about, this is what she says has happened.
She pats the hip she has just shown me, the hip that I’ve just touched. I stare at it thinking. Is she explaining something, here? How does this answer anything? How does this fill in all the holes she left?
“So there’s another thing,” she says, holding her own hips, now.
“Wait,” I say. “Why did you leave?”
She puts a hand up and keeps going.
“In an art gallery,” she tells me, slowly, “I got somebody’s number.”
“Did you call?” I say. I choke on my own breath.
“No,” she says. She shakes her head, and hard. She looks at me. “Of course not.”
Of course she got somebody’s number. In an art gallery, in Monterey, alone and beautiful as ever. This is not hard to imagine. What is hard to imagine—especially when I’m angry, here, and tired—is that that’s all. I rub my eyes and see the truck driver at the gas stop, imagine him rubbing his cigarette out with his foot and smirking. I sit there next to her and don’t have anything to say. I could double, triple-ask on this, at volumes and forever. But I don’t. To find faith is a quiet thing.
I don’t know if we wait seconds, minutes, twenty, thirty. Our backs are to the clock and the artificial lights make everything seem shadowless and still, like this room could be a universe and our day could never end. I try thinking what she’s thinking and I have no idea. Maybe it is me, ignoring things, important sights and sounds. Maybe it’s the ceaseless business, the full and rowdy house and the endless crowds that never seem to help her in her rescue ways. Maybe it’s the possibility of easy loss, swift as a wave, if you take your eyes off for a second, turn your back for just a beat or two. Maybe it’s just hormones, maybe it’s a lot of things. I can only get so far, and what she means is that she’s here.
“Space,” she says, “is overrated.”
After a few more minutes there of sitting still, nothing noisy except for the fluorescent hum of hotel lighting and somewhere out beyond our walls the sea, we lie back on the bed and fall asleep so close our foreheads almost touch. I push her hair back from her face but her eyes are already closed, her nose already snoring softly. I am tired too.
In the morning she takes me to the butterflies. There is a sweater on the dashboard of the van, a smaller bundle, Leo’s, and Jayce’s water bottle in the side pocket, and Kenzie’s carseat in the back—the gang all here, just like we never left.
“Right here,” she says. Her voice is soft. She leans her head back on the bench. I relax my arms and neck and head and lean back, too. We look up at the trees. The butterflies above us don’t even look like butterflies. They look like floating piles of scrap fabric tied up on the branches, like dead leaves hanging out where living pines should be. They shiver, shudder, flap—are mottled cat fur bristling and resettling in the breeze, are fluid clumps of wings. I feel like they would weigh more but I know that if you tried to pick one up or take one off a branch, it would become brownish-orange dust inside your hands, would seep into your pores, would disappear under your human weight somehow. Everything that is small and flies knows—when the seasons hit, stay together and stay near. But these creatures hanging over us seem especially tiny, especially fragile, and especially together, and so so much more wise.
When we get back we take a shower, both of us at once. Her hair is so thick and dark and wet down her back that it reminds me of—of beavers’ tails, I think, of wet bark and of seaweed. There is nothing so strong and dense and soft and heavy and so lovely and good-smelling, and also so ungross I can compare it to. She has a new bruise on her thigh now from the baby save, and her hip gash is still there, raw and red and aching. She puts her hand around it and moves it in the shower’s stream. She grimaces.
“It stings,” she says.
I wish her hair was long enough to reach that gash. I know the gash would heal if I could wrap it with her hair. We try but it is still just shy of it, even when she bends back like a C. I hold it by my hand like a tentacle, an arm of all its own, and take her belly in my other. I pull her into me, onto me. She tries to bend her limbs backwards. She wants to wrap around me with every part of her. She wishes all of her were hair.
I call her parents from the hotel phone and tell them that I am with Tracy. They have a million questions but I only have time for two. Can they keep the boys another night, I ask; you can go home and get them another set of clothes. And can you not tell them anything just yet.
Why does it have to be a secret? they ask. We’ll say you’re both okay.