Fiction • Deirdre McNamer
One shiny October day, I left my husband and home and moved to Oregon where I took a room in the house of an aerobics instructor named Lizette. I’d found the ad on Craigslist and arrived the next day at a flat-topped bungalow beneath looming black pines. The rooms inside were spare in a way that seemed deliberate and Japanese. Tall, curtainless windows looked out upon tree trunks and head-high ferns. The furniture was minimal and rigorous, the floors polished bamboo. All the spaces opened into each other except the miniature bedrooms and the bath. The walls, because of all the trees, held a pale-green light.
Lizette left the next morning on a week’s trip to the Maldives. She had seemed pleasant but opaque, so I took the chance to case the house a bit, looking for clues to the sort of person I would be living with. A folded sweater on the clothes dryer smelled only of wool. The cupboard beneath the bathroom sink contained off-brand apricot lotion and a stack of toilet paper rolls. The refrigerator, perfectly clean, held fruit, yogurt, peanut butter, Diet Coke, and miso paste. The deck was chairless and swept, the hot tub cover stretched tight. This was all fine with me. The less personality, the less proximate energy, the better.
The only tousled place was behind a divider in the living room, where bills and travel brochures and clippings were piled on a narrow desk. Behind the piles were two photos. One was of Lizette on a mountain road on a mountain bike, hoisting a water bottle and smiling into the sun. She looked the way she did in person: small, trim, white toothed, reserved. The other was of a stocky old couple in heavy overcoats. They were very wide and very grim, and looked as if they’d been placed in the picture frame—it was shaped like a starfish—as some kind of joke.
Lizette had told me she worked part-time at a health club and part-time for an arts organization that had lost a big federal grant and was warning her that her days there might be numbered. She needed a renter to make sure she could make her house payments. At that point in the conversation, a tanned and lanky man had walked in from the deck, to be introduced as her boyfriend, Martin, who lived at another house where Lizette spent much of her time.
I would come to know that they were both in their late forties, a few years older than I, though they looked a decade younger. They had flecks of white in their hair, but their eyes were bright and oxygenated, and their bodies were beautiful with tidy muscles. They’d chosen jobs with flexible schedules and chunks of free time—Martin worked part-time for the university’s program in recreation management—so that they could devote themselves to pursuits like sea kayaking and mountain biking in Asia. They spent a lot of their time together planning excursions, making equipment and logistics lists, going on these expeditions, and showing photos of them to the rec majors or their own friends. They ran five- to-ten miles a day.
I visited the library and checked out a pile of fat books, biographies of famous renegades mostly, and stacked them at the foot of my narrow bed. Every day, I drove home from my new job at the newspaper—I sold classified ads over the phone—and greeted Lizette, or Lizette and Martin, if they both happened to be there, then poured myself a tumbler of wine and went to my room to read about someone’s long and checkered life.
Sometime later, it would be time to eat something. If I was lucky, they were at Martin’s for dinner and the night, and then I would make myself a single-person meal: tuna from a can, some crackers, a tomato, maybe some clam chowder, which I would heat on low for quite a while so I had time for a little more wine. After dinner, I smoked two cigarettes on the deck and scanned the night sky for star patterns, if it was clear, then said a faithless little prayer that I would sleep, and went to my room to try.
My husband, when we got the news that our only child would die, bent double in the motel chair and he wept.
My son, with the ventilator gone, lay naked with the sheet across his hips, beautiful, twenty, head flung and gone.
And then those dreams, again and again, in which I had to break the news to him, the one-time swimmer inside me. It’s bad. You are going down. His face: purely aghast. There were those. And, worse, the trickster dreams: We thought it was bad. We thought you were going to die. But it isn’t true, and now, here you are! And then the waking, the sweet relief, the giddy, treacherous moment before the slow tap-tap of disaster.
A spouse’s sleeping back becomes nothing then; nothing to move toward. The days become like drawings, and the edges curl. Everything you do is a parody of your old unknowing self.
When I was a teenager, I visited my cousin and his new wife in California. She was a sexy, freckled redhead who worked as an assistant to an executive at Universal Studios. On the day she showed me around the lot, she wore a white pantsuit with a deeply scooped neckline. She called to this one, she air-kissed that one. Her hair tossed in the sun; her lip gloss flashed. I was Montana pale and had brought clothes—oxford shirts, sober slacks—that made me feel like someone on parole. That’s sometimes how I felt around Lizette and Martin: punished, invisible, and very unyoung.
One evening they came laughing into the house with grocery sacks, crowing over the amazing airfares they’d scored for their spring kayaking trip to Chile. Martin was going to make dinner to celebrate. He had cut loose and bought a six-pack of ale, and he offered me one. He urged me to eat with them and, insistently casual, set me to chopping peppers and onions.
We were concocting some kind of vegetarian burritos, his specialty. They seemed to take a very long time to make, but we eventually sat down to wan little mishmashes of olives, limp vegetables, smashed beans and fake no-fat cheese. Lizette and I praised the food, I’m very sorry to say.
As Martin was reaching into one of the taller cupboards for salad plates, he winced hard, lowered his arm carefully, and shook it as if he were trying to dislodge a large bug. He looked pale. “That shoulder,” Lizette said mournfully.
Martin was glum and brooding for the rest of the meal, but as we gathered up the dishes he seemed to jerk himself to life. “This shoulder needs that hot tub,” he said robustly, pointing through the glass doors to the blue circle of plastic. It had stopped raining. Lizette scurried out to remove the cover and turn up the heater. I began to move toward my room.
“You look as if you could use some hot water yourself,” Martin said. “You look a little stiff, a little creaky.” His smile was bright.
By this time, what I’d seen of Martin had made me wary around him. To begin with, he had the kind of reverence for physical exertion that sets me on edge because it so quickly crowds out anything more interesting, like humor or self-forgiveness or curiosity.
“It’s just middle age,” I said. “I mean, I’m almost as old as you are.”
“You need to loosen up,” he said.
“I’m loose as a goose,” I said.
I should say at this point that surprising, sometimes peculiar, comments had been leaping from my mouth recently, and I never really knew when it would happen and whether they’d be offensive or not. I had decided not to worry about it. It seemed a small development in the larger scheme of things.
I went to my room, shut the door, and came out with my swimsuit on. I felt myself to be in some kind of contest. Lizette now wore one, too. We got into the frothing tub. Martin came out of the bathroom, shirtless and shoeless. He stood on the wet deck, smiling indulgently at us. There were little lights in the water that made our legs wavery. Spent rain tapped the needles of the big trees. A neighbor’s shape moved slowly across a glowing window blind.
“Anyone mind?” Martin said, and he took off his pants and his underwear and climbed in.
He tipped his head back and sighed the sigh of the insistently uninhibited. I studied his ropey torso and the lines that ran down his face. I watched him offer his troublesome shoulder to the jets. Lizette had her eyes closed, pretending to be enjoying oblivion. He settled back against the wall of the tub and stretched his arms wide. His foot moved sideways and slid very slowly across mine. I met his eyes.
“You know what really irritates me?” I said, as if I’d just thought of it. Lizette’s eyes popped open. Martin examined his sore shoulder.
“The way caged gerbils jump up on those squeaky wheels and just keep going round and round and round,” I said, stepping out of the pool. I didn’t look back to see whatever passed between them; just felt it like a wingbeat.
I had begun to see a counselor named Heather Friend. That’s the kind of name you’ll find in Eugene. I went there to be furious, basically; to fill her ferny room with my poison, my howls. I told her I didn’t know if I could live in a world that seemed to me now like the essence of shark. That vicious unlit eye. She listened as if she knew what I was talking about. In faint and steady ways, she began to calm me.
Martin went away for a week, biking in Utah, and so I made Lizette and me a real dinner one night, lemon shrimp linguine. Since the night in the hot tub, she had seemed rather ruminative, as if she was reading fine print on a warranty. I’d had a long call from my husband that morning. We’d both cried, and when I hung up, I threw my phone across the room, as if it was the patient animal that is longtime love.
At dinner, Lizette told me, in an uncustomary burst of candor, that Martin was going to visit a former girlfriend on his biking trip. This woman, Sheila, had left him five years earlier to get an MBA and was now a hedge-fund consultant in Boulder. Martin felt that Sheila had come to think of him as an unserious person; that he had chosen his adventures, his expeditions, over an actual adult life. This really got to him, Lizette said, especially now that he felt his body was beginning to fall apart. The body goes, and then you’re just Peter Pan in a doctor’s waiting room, yes?
Of course, what all this added up to, given Martin’s temperament, was that he would make sure he slept with Sheila. Lizette knew it would happen, and she knew that if she made any insinuations beforehand, he would accuse her of insecurity, of an adolescent possessiveness.
Yes, I do think Lizette and Martin had their sadnesses: I think now of the quietness of her voice, the absolute control in it. And I think of a photo Martin once showed me of himself and four friends with their mountain bikes somewhere in the Himalayas. One of the bikers is handing a wild-haired little boy a packet of bubble gum. Martin looks straight at the camera, and the face under the mushroom of his helmet is spectral.
He told me once that it was terrible, every time they stopped in a village, because of the begging—the way those little kids swarmed around them, hit them up. He spoke as if the population of Tibet sat around devising strategies to wreck his adventures.
“Why did he say anything at all about visiting this Sheila person?” I asked Lizette.
“So that he can ward me off with his candor,” she said. That’s when I decided I liked her.
“I think,” I said, “that you are going to have to kill him.” She looked up sharply. “Seriously. I think your only option is murder.”
“Really?” she said brightly.
“The sooner the better,” I said. “Something slow and painful. Give it time to sink in.”
In a few weeks, it was winter. The rain washed down and the hempy rug in my bedroom felt slightly damp underfoot. Lizette was beginning to look a little waterlogged. Martin, the few times I saw him, seemed agitated, short tempered. He’d reinjured his bad shoulder teaching a rock climbing class, and he was popping ibuprofen like candy. He was also scouring the web for information on the country’s best shoulder surgeons. He thought he might have to get it rebuilt.
Lizette never told me what transpired, or didn’t, with Martin and the former girlfriend. All I knew was that a decision had been made to be more autonomous, as she put it. She began to teach another aerobics class, a low-impact workout for seniors.
My husband and I were just coasting separately at that point. We had agreed to do nothing until spring, and we sometimes exchanged polite, even affectionate emails, but couldn’t seem to take any steps beyond that. We were purely stymied.
One evening when Martin was away again, snorkeling in Cabo, I asked Lizette about the photo of the old couple on her desk. I said I’d noticed it when I was looking for a pencil sharpener and hadn’t meant to snoop. What I didn’t say to her was that there was something as immutable as marble about them, and I wanted to know what it was.
She said they were her parents, which I should have known, I suppose. But they looked so bulky and Old World that it was difficult to imagine the genetic transfer to this slim, lycra-clad woman. “My mom and dad back in the woods of Michigan,” she said. She retrieved the photo and sat down with it at the kitchen table. “They’re both way overweight, and they smoke,” she said. “I don’t think they’ve read a food label in their lives.”
“It’s sad,” she added. “They should have been dead twenty years ago.”
What, exactly, do people mean when they say something like that?
“My mother once left my father for an entire year,” she said. “They were both in their forties and had been married twenty-six years. She had never left their town before, not even overnight.
“One day she saw an ad on the church bulletin board for a housekeeper for some people in Los Angeles. Former church members who had struck it rich, in real estate I think. I was still at home in high school; the baby. She had copied the ad and showed it to me, so I thought that it was her suggestion that I leave for the summer. Expand my horizons.
“But my mother was the one who packed and left. Just like that. I didn’t think there was real obvious trouble between my parents, except that my dad had a cruel mouth. ‘Get me a beer. You’re fat as a house.’ That sort of thing. But that’s the way it was with a lot of people they knew.
“Then, on a Saturday morning, she was gone. She wrote once and told us she was in Los Angeles indefinitely. She gave us an address but said she didn’t want to hear a word unless someone died. I made meals for my father and me and waited. He pretended as if she’d gone to the store for milk. For a year, he did that.” Lizette stopped and peered hard at the photo.
“After something like that, you expect the person to come back changed, if they come back at all,” she said. “But she just walked in one morning and hung up her coat and went into the kitchen to wash her hands and start peeling some potatoes.” She shook her head, as if she still had trouble believing it.
After that, he never said anything really nasty to her mother again. He watched his mouth more. Otherwise, everything seemed exactly the same, and the mother’s trip was never mentioned.
Delores and Virgil. Those were their names. Delores and Virgil in their big woolen overcoats, squinting crankily at the camera.
Lizette said there was an earlier part to the story, which she had learned just a few years ago when her mother was in the hospital for a foot operation and was expansive with the drugs. She wouldn’t tell her daughter what she did in California, that long year, but did tell her this: That when she was first married, she worked in a five-and-dime in their little town in the Upper Peninsula. One day, a boy she had liked a little bit in high school, a faint crush, came into the store and said he was leaving for the West Coast, or maybe Las Vegas. Somewhere a long way away. As he went out the door, he called over his shoulder: “You better come along!”
She wanted to be married, wanted to be in their little town, had absolutely no thought of wanting to go anywhere else. But she couldn’t get the boy’s comment out of her head. It wasn’t the boy she thought about. It was his comment.
She started thinking that if she had gone to Las Vegas with him, she would have wanted to take some of those new long bobby pins, the kind that make a longer, more attractive wave. And so she stole some. And then she saw herself pinning up her hair in Las Vegas with the new bobby pins, and noticed that her nightgown was too thin, too old and frayed. She would have to have a new one. So on her lunch hour she went next door to the dry goods store to look at nightgowns, and found one on sale, and bought it.
The nightgown would be a little too crisp the first time she wore it, a little stiff against her skin. Bath powder would help. So she walked up and down the long aisles of the five-and-dime, thinking. And she sniffed every powder they had, and she decided on the one she must have. Lily of the valley. And when she went home, it was in her purse.
And on it went, one acquisition leading to another, until she had decided on every detail of the kind of home-leaving she wouldn’t undertake for years.
“I still have them,” she told Lizette. “Those things. I keep them in a hidden place. They are the most important items I own.”
In June, I went to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival with Lizette and three of her kayaking friends, all women.
Martin was back from a snorkeling trip to Martinique and had gone to climb Mount Rainier with the partners of the three women. He and Lizette seemed to be getting along fine. In fact, I had barely seen her since he had returned from this latest adventure. She looked very athletic and glowy.
We saw As You Like It, a matinee, and ate dinner afterward in a little bistro that specialized in locally grown produce and the kinds of desserts that are supposed to make you feel wicked when you don’t have anything else in your life that will. One of the women, the youngest, confided that she was pregnant, and we all toasted her—they with their decaf lattes, I with my wine. The guy at the table next to us was very tan and wore a crewneck sweater the color of butter. He gallantly ordered for his pretty wife or girlfriend, then spent an interminable amount of time requesting descriptions of the microbrews, until he finally settled on his one for the night. The room was full of low light and handsome burnished people. There were no children, no old people, no one with bad skin or a slump.
So when the door opened and the peculiar couple walked in, the whole room seemed to flinch.
He was tall and broad shouldered with a silver brush cut. He wore rings on several fingers of each hand, and a checkered jacket over what looked like a sweat suit. His face had a fake tan. His shoes were old-looking flip-flops. She was white haired, too, and so wide that her elbows rested on the slopes of her body. Her hair was very curly, very excited looking, and she had tried to fasten it down a bit with a broad pink bow. The exercise-ravaged waiter reached them, and spread his arms in a way that could have been hospitality, but looked more as if he were shielding the rest of the diners from this pair. The man who had ordered the microbrew gave an audible snort of disgust, and his companion smiled with sorrow at her plate.
The waiter seated the pair at a table for four, well to the back of the room. No one else in the room would look at them. It was as if they sat on the other side of one of those sonic dog fences. Cross the barrier, and a soundless shriek will knock you flat.
The pregnant woman in our group, Meredith was her name, had unaccountably flushed deeply. She looked mortified or enraged, and her eyes kept darting to the couple. She took a series of deep breaths, laced her fingers and placed them on her abdomen, as if she were trying to shield her baby from a fate she hadn’t thought to imagine before. The enemy couple, over there by the wall, were laughing darkly and talking too loudly.
“Meredith,” I found myself saying. “What are you thinking? Are you thinking you can protect him? Protect her? From everything?”
I was completely out of line, of course, but I knew I probably wasn’t going to stop.
Lizette saw to it that I did. She stood up and said she was going to walk off her dessert before we headed back to Eugene, and did everyone want to join her? We paid the bill and got ourselves together and headed for the door. I waved them on and said I’d meet them pretty soon at the car. I gestured vaguely at the restroom.
When they were out the door, I walked over to the table where the couple sat and introduced myself and told them I thought I knew them from somewhere. The woman asked me to sit down. Her breath was labored but her face was radiant. I wondered if they had, that day, received some kind of wonderful news.
They had finished their salads, but the waiter didn’t seem to be coming around anymore. We chatted a little about Shakespeare and Ashland and the weather. I felt relaxed for the first time in months. We determined that we’d never met. Then the man asked me what was next, as if I’d given them an extended history of my life and times. I shrugged and thought about it.
First, I said, I’d have to go back to Eugene with the people who had driven me here. Then I would call a person named Heather Friend and tell her I was grateful and that I would probably never see her again. The man and woman nodded ruefully. And then, I said, I would quit my job and make another call or two, and, before long, I would be driving quite a long way to get to my home.
“Those drives,” the woman said, shaking her head. “They can take a lot of planning.” The man leaned back in his chair and took her plump and manicured hand in his.
“You have to imagine everything you might need,” I agreed. They nodded. They lifted their glasses to me.
The waiter finally arrived. The restaurant was out of the fish they’d ordered, he declared, his whole face rigid. The man studied the waiter. Then he opened his hand and moved it in a slow circle around our table.
“If we were you,” he said to him gently. “If we were you, we’d recommend something else.”
Deirdre McNamer is the author of four novels, most recently Red Rover (Viking). She has chaired the fiction panel of the National Book Awards and served as a judge for the PEN/Faulkner awards. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Montana.
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