I had very little in life to claim as my own.
I’d never owned a home, a car, or new furniture. I rented, leased, and took old furniture my parents didn’t want. I never married; I had no children. I’d been living alone for sixteen years. The past ten were lonely, and at times, unbearable, but I moved and found new homes and new countries to keep busy — Japan, France, New York, Idaho, New Hampshire, Peru, and Baltimore. I lived with one boyfriend, in Peru during that span of time, but it didn’t last. It was as though the Atlantic ocean, two blocks from our crumbling apartment in Huanchaco, drowned his affections each morning and afternoon as he surfed, but it was really his first love who’d tracked him down, who stole his heart back, and whom he married not long after I left him. He didn’t love me, not in the way I needed. Even though I left, it felt as though I had been left. Each time. With him, and the next.
I taught literature at private schools, fiction writing at colleges, and tutored local kids in Baltimore. I had twenty thousand dollars of debt, a cat, folded boxes waiting to be packed. I had anxiety, grey hair dyed chestnut brown, and crow’s feet. I looked young, despite all of this, but I knew how old I was. I was at mid-life. Friends were dying from cancer, getting divorced, and raising teenagers; friends’ parents were having strokes and heart attacks. I wondered, often, What do I have to show for my life? What is the point of it all? What did I want?
I didn’t want to teach. I was tired. Fifteen years of helping others become better writers, while I was supposed to be the fiction writer. Fifteen years of other people’s children and of being reminded I didn’t have children of my own, and likely would not, which was a pain and regret so deep it had become a part of my body. I felt it every day. It circled around my heart; it was a kind of pulsing ache in my pelvis.
I was supposed to have been a wife, a mother, a home owner, and a writer with several published books by now. All this should have happened, according to me, according to my mother, according to my high school and college friends, my parents’ friends, according to the upper middle class upbringing in Connecticut and New Hampshire. I was a strong-willed girl, a pretty girl, an irreverent and funny girl, adventurous, sexy. So what went wrong? What, my mother wanted to know, did I do wrong? What led me to this fate? Your poor mother, Mrs. Adamic said when I saw her this summer at Eastman Lake, that neither of you girls married or had grandchildren.
I sifted the sand between my fingers and shrugged and willed myself not to cry. Do not cry. I nodded yes. My poor mother, I said.
I was tired of being reminded that I wasn’t what others expected, and worse, what I’d expected.
So I sold everything, except for one chair, and I bought a plane ticket to Marrakesh, Morocco. The chair had belonged to my grandmother, Josephine, and then to my mother, and then to me. Its wood was so smooth, so polished. It was a deep brown mahogany with a carved, shiny pretzel back that twisted and curved. It was exotic. Its turns were surprising and beautiful, and I used to trace the lines with my fingers as a child. They seemed like a road. I wanted to take it.
Sand as far as I can see on either side of the Pan-American Highway. The Sechura desert stretches 1,242 miles along the coast of Peru. It is arid; it is barren. We go north, eight hours on a double-decker bus from Lima to Huanchaco. This is a moonscape: the tan gold sand dunes like waves on either side of us, nothing but sand, no signs of life, and far into the distance, there is the rise of dry brown mountains like giant’s feet. Twice, there’s a bend in the road toward coast and the blue of the Pacific Ocean opens up. It feels like hope and it is beautiful. I glimpse sun glittering on water, water pooled in alcoves like something Mediterranean, almost someplace I’d like to be, and then it disappears, and the road straightens and is long and feels like the road to death. We are driving to nowhere. We are driving into nothingness.
The Sechura is a fog desert; any living thing here relies on fog as precipitation. The desert is bound on the east by the Andes and on the west by the Pacific Ocean, where the little precipitation that enters as fog originates. There is fog almost every morning when I walk along the beach – the hills beyond in fog, the beach ahead and behind me in fog, the Pacific Ocean waves roll in through fog, my own head, my heart, fogged. I know something is not right, but I have no proof. Where are we headed? What comes next? Trevor, my boyfriend of two years, says everything is fine, that there’s no reason to worry or talk about the future. Just relax, live in the now, he says. Let’s not make promises we can’t keep. We have been in Huanchaco, Peru for four months now. It is November. We are far away from home. The fog is hiding the things, he is hiding things, this whole place is hiding something. I knew the moment I arrived I should not have come. I knew I’d made a mistake.
Huanchaco is a coastal town in the La Libertad region of Peru. La Libertad, Spanish for “freedom” or “liberty”, yet I feel stuck. We live in an apartment at 540 Los Ficus, two blocks from the ocean for $400 a month. He is here to surf and write fiction. I am here to be with him and write fiction. We are here to avoid taking jobs in the United States. We are here for an adventure. Peru! Oceans, mountains, desert, the Inca Trail, Macchu Picchu, Cajamarca, Iquitos and the Amazon, surfing and ceviche. He is here to put off making decisions, and I am here hoping he will make a decision. One year, we said. We’ll spend one year in Peru and then see what happens.
He speaks Spanish fluently. I speak French, understand most Spanish, but can’t string a sentence together. In Idaho, he left behind a small room with a bed in it that he rented from a friend; I left an apartment full of family antique furniture now in storage, I quite my teaching job, and dropped my cat off with my sister in Los Angeles. I followed him to Peru because I wanted him to want to marry me, and make a family with me, and I knew if I stayed in Boise he would be off and gone. I love him more than I’ve ever loved anyone, so immediately and easily I loved him, his love of books, his hunger for travel, his tan and muscled forearms, his broken collarbone, his blond curly hair, his almond shaped hazel eyes, his openness. Sweetheart, let’s go live in Peru. He asked and so I went. Of course I did.
Huanchaco is a surfing town, a fishing town. Every morning local fisherman paddle their tortola boats to throw nets for fish. British, Australians and Americans, mostly surfers, lounge about for six months or six years waiting for something or nothing, running from something or toward an unknown. We see the ex-patriots in the morning while checking the waves, we see them at the three course $3 lunch of soup or salad, lomo saltado, and cherry jello at the My Friend hostel, or dinners at the chicken place where we get a quarter of roasted chicken, fries, and Trujillo beers for $5. Beneath the pacific water are rocks. Beyond the town is desert and flat brown hills. Homes are half-built with cinder blocks, metal rods stand exposed, dirt for floors, and windows with no glass. Everything is unfinished.
The bus pushes on. We pass the ancient ruins of Chan Chan. At its peak 600 years ago, Chan Chan was the largest city in the Americas and the largest adobe city on earth. From A.D. 850 to 1470, it was the capitol of the Chimu civilization. Life so long ago in these elements. Ten thousand structures, some with walls 30 feet high and 100 feet long, weave a maze of passageways, its palaces and temples decorated with elaborate friezes in geometrical and animal shapes. 60,000 people lived here. They built irrigation canals, but water was a challenge and after hundreds of years, they gave up. Then the Inca conquered the city and stole people to Cusco, and later Pizarro and his Spaniards came and mined for silver and gold. The Chimu believed not all men were equal, so maybe it was karma. And then there was heat and wind and sometimes rain, and there was this dry, barren desert, and this city of sand abandoned. But it is still standing, it is recognizable, and it has survived.
We arrive in Huanchaco and climb twenty slatted stairs; it is midnight and dark. Sweetheart, we’re home. There is sand in the bed. Thursday and there is thumping below from the baker making bread. The mourning dove coos outside our window. There is the distant hush of waves and the fog settles over us.
Nathan lifted the boat onto shore. He dragged it over sand, scratching the bottom. It was heavy for a rowboat. The boat had been his grandfather’s in Maine. Now Nathan had it in New Hampshire, on the lake where he’d spent summers as a boy, Eastman Lake. He knew Caroline lost consciousness when he hit her head with the paddle. There was blood on the boat’s white floor. Mixed with lake water, it looked like marinara sauce. It didn’t look like blood at all.
Nathan had known Caroline for twenty years. She was his first girlfriend, and then his wife, but she was not the love of his life. Not even close. It was easy to hurt her and push her into the dark black-blue water in the middle of the lake, where it was 100 feet deep, murky, and a good place to get lost forever.
He tipped the boat to the side, emptying out the water and blood. The fog was white and thick as cotton. Autumn was coming. Nathan felt calm, relieved. He had to pick up their son, Tanner, from pre-season soccer practice. The son she’d turned against him. Now she was gone and he had what he wanted. He could get his boy back and teach him to hunt deer, fish, and not talk if he didn’t feel like it. He’d teach Tanner how to be a man.
He parked in the field lot and waited. Tanner jogged over and got in the passenger seat. His was hair reddish-brown and floppy like an Irish Setter. First thing they’d do was go to the barber and get a haircut. No more pansy hair.
“Could we get pizza?” Tanner asked. “Where’s mom?”
“You’re mother’s always somewhere.”
Tanner was fifteen and had his mother’s mud brown eyes. He was alive. His mother was not. Nathan didn’t know what he’d tell him. Where did she go? Somewhere. Here and there. In the deep black-blue lake lying with fish, seaweed, pebbles, strained light, darkness, no more. Never again. Dead and gone. He’d thrown chairs, hit, screamed, but nothing stopped her. He did the right thing; she would have sucked the life out of him. She wanted so much and made him feel like a failure. She ruined everything.
Caroline’s body sailed through the water lilting like a feather, down through deep black-blue lake toward darkness, fish, seaweed, and pebbles. There was the sound of thick nothing pushing from all sides. Her eyes opened. Air bubbles pushed out from her nose and mouth. The water grew colder and darker as she sank; there was a halo of sky light above. Her white cotton blouse billowed and her red hair waved in all directions like a flame atop her head. Slowly, she righted herself, kicked her legs and fluttered her feet, and rose toward the surface. Her lungs burned; she needed air.
She’d been in the boat, facing Nathan. The oar sliced through air fast and hard to her head, and cracked at her temple; there was a sharp, deep pain in her skull. As he wound up for another hit, she shut her eyes, fell to the floor of the boat and stayed there, as limp and breathless as possible. She did not want to die.
“Bitch,” Nathan said. “You fucking cunt.” His shoe nudged her head. He put his hand under her nose and she held her breath. He scuffled, stood, and tried to find his balance. The boat rocked from side to side. “You’ve ruined my life for long enough.” He slapped her cheek. “No comeback?” He slapped her again. “I finally got you to shut the fuck up.” He grabbed her by the hair, spit on her face, and pulled her up under her arms from behind. She made herself deadweight. Her head hung down and she opened her eyes a slit – there was blood mixed with water in the white bottom of the boat, the black-blue lake, the tip of his leather shoe, and his calloused hands around her waist. Nathan grunted, hoisted her up, and threw her overboard.
She knew the boat ride wasn’t going to be romantic; she didn’t want to fix their marriage, but she stayed with him for Tanner and the same reasons so many unhappily married people stayed together – because it was easier than not staying together, and because being alone after not being alone for so long felt overwhelming, and like a failure. But here she was, hit and dumped into the lake because she had stayed with him. This was how bad love could kill you. Murder or her insides slowly rotting from hate, resentment, and the deepest sadness she’d ever known for faking love for so long.
Twenty years ago, Caroline thought their marriage would work. For a time, it was good and she was happy, but five years in he changed, became secretive, quick tempered, and mean. Everything wrong in his life was her fault, and so he yelled, ignored, drank himself drunk, gambled, threw chairs, and fucked her without consent.
She surfaced slowly, only raising her nose and mouth above the water for breath. She gasped in the air and kept her body submerged. She was alive in the dark black-blue water in the middle of the lake. She was alive.
Above water was nothing but thick, low-hanging, ash-grey fog. All she could see were the tops of pine trees poking through the haze like black tips of arrows, and they led her to shore. She couldn’t go home or to the police. What proof did she have? She had a cut on her head and was wet with lake water. If she hadn’t seen this coming, who would have? No one, that’s who. She sat on the cold, hard sand. She had nothing: no purse, phone, money or car. Condos and houses surrounded the lake, invisible in the fog, save their inside lights beginning to glow through the mist like gauzy floating orbs.
When a bomb falls, it takes all the air out of a room and seals the doors. I felt it first and then heard it. It was as though a wind had pushed through my middle and the loudest, deepest drum was inside me. People ran in the streets but we hid, my husband, daughter and I. We moved a pine board slat in the floor in the kitchen of our old colonial, and went underneath and stayed there. After eight days when we didn’t hear or see anyone on the street, we packed up and went westward from small town Pennsylvania to the middle of nowhere Ohio. We left our cat, chickens, goat and horse behind. We took our car, layers of clothes, dried foods, canned foods, and jugs full of water; we took headlamps, a storm radio, sleeping bags, rain coats, hats, garbage bags, one brush and one toothbrush. I brought books so our ten-year-old Lily would remember how to read: My Antonia by Willa Cather and poems by Mary Oliver. Dean insisted on each of us having a Leatherman and he brought his handgun. We found an abandoned house in Knox County that was surrounded by cornfields, that was near a river with a rusted trellis bridge and next to a lake, and we slept there. I foraged for food at night. I found eggs and shriveled onions, potatoes and corn.
There was a view of a lake from where we slept. Through the thick old lead glass windows things looked blurred. In the mornings the light washed over the green grass in gold, and the lake water was a still mirror reflecting the blue sky; everything looked beautiful and warm and safe – all blurred lines and soft shapes. All I wanted was to go outside into that lake to float and feel clean again, but all of the birds that landed on the water the day before washed ashore. All of them were dead.
“Never touch that water,” Dean said to Lily.
The thing was, we had both already touched it. While Lily slept the first night, five days before the dead birds, we snuck out and put our swollen feet in the cold water and it felt good. It was early June and the water was cold enough to numb my feet. It felt amazing to not feel pain or anything for a little while. Once we saw the dead birds we checked our feet for rot or worse. At night, I dreamed my feet disintegrated and disappeared.
We knew trouble was coming. We’d been preparing for something as a town, state, and country for six months. Some people heeded the government’s warning, and others did not. Dean was a Marine. He’d gone to the Naval Academy and served two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan after 9-11. He didn’t meet Lily until she was one. He knew how to prepare for and survive in combat, but we weren’t sure who our enemy was, which as Dean said, would make it difficult to know how to plan ahead and protect ourselves.
“Like life,” I said. “You think you know what’s ahead, but you don’t.”
“It’s good to have a plan,” Dean said. “Always be prepared.”
This was how we were different. He planned for the unknown. I knew the unknown would unravel most plans.
As to whom our enemy might be, there were many possibilities: ISIL and Boko Haram, Iran, Russia, North Korea.We did not know. We stocked up on provisions. Dean made our makeshift bomb shelter under the kitchen floor. We kept our bathtubs and sinks full of water, and covered our windows and doors with two-by-fours. We planned and prepared for the unknown. This wasn’t planning for what we hoped for: a new Volvo, a promotion at work, another baby, or a trip to Provence. This was about planning for needs: water, food, shelter, life. We prepared for something we had never known during our lifetime in our country– a state of war and an invasion by foreigners on our own soil.
“I thought it was ISIS?” Lily asked.
Dean told her the correct term was ISIL for The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which included modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Levant was a French phrase meaning “Lands of the rising sun”.
“The lands of hate and death,” Lily said. She was so young. Her skin was pure white and smooth and unmarred. What would become of her?
My grandfather-in-law, Philip, was a holocaust survivor who lived to be ninety-eight. He died in 2015, two years before America lost its ability to protect itself and keep out the enemy. He knew this was coming, and I remember his words more clearly than anyone else’s. Everybody suffers. There are so many things that don’t make sense in this life, but hating is the worst feeling one can have toward another human being. Welcome the stranger amongst you. You must. It is the only way to lift yourself up.
I thought of his words as we hid under our kitchen floor, as we drove in the dark away from the east toward the middle of the country, and as we squatted in the abandoned farmhouse in Ohio. Welcome the stranger amongst you. I sometimes felt like that stranger to myself. If you had asked me where I’d be at forty twenty years ago, I would never have predicted this. Back then, I made plans and this was not a part of those plans.
It was morning on our seventh day in Ohio. I lay on my side watching the blurry golden light stretch over the grass, the lake, and the dead grey birds bloated on the beach when I thought I heard a shot go off. It was in the near distance. I sat straight up, my heart beating like a running motor, and Dean grabbed my wrist and pulled me back down. “It’s not what you think,” he said.
I shut my eyes and pretended to sleep, while waiting for the barred doors to burst open. My feet ached. My mouth felt dry. All the possibilities of what was to come ran through my mind again and again.
IT WAS JANUARY. The winter inversion settled in and clouds hung low and trapped chimney smoke. The sky wrapped around McCall like a gray wool blanket. After Christmas, Luke grew distant. I loved him, he loved me, we had sex, we saw each other every day, except I wanted him to change –dial back on booze, quit gambling, be straight up. Instead, he drank and gambled more and kept secrets. It made me insane. The more he withheld, the more I needed to know. I came undone. I wanted information. Any normal person would have walked away and never looked back. But I started spying and I couldn’t stop.
I drove past Luke’s house late at night and early in the morning. I sneaked and watched. I parked in dark places and waited. I became a person of the night lurking behind fences and standing near windows. Luke told me he still loved me, that there was no one but me, but deep in my gut, I knew he was a liar. The only way I could leave was to catch him with my own eyes. So I walked over snow and ice at night and in the powder-blue dawn of morning, my breath a freezing cloud in front of me, to find the truth.
Some nights the stars were blue and green in the sky. Some nights there were jet trails in bright full moonlight, like clouds pulled thin. Most nights it was cold and I wore a black coat, gloves and a hat and chain smoked on my walk. I knew what a sad, strange state I was in, but something in me clicked away; I couldn’t sit still. I was not at peace. Thoughts about Luke circled my head like a small toy plane on a loop that never went somewhere new or better. My brain was stuck and I couldn’t turn it off. It made me sick with fear and sadness.
At ten o’clock on Friday night I needed to find him. My heart raced, my chest was tight, and adrenaline coursed through my veins. I was a night prowler.
I drove past his house on the lake. His car wasn’t in the driveway, so I drove downtown. I drove past the Capital, his office, bars, out to the edge of town and back again. I was tired. I wound myself up and wore myself out. I went home and set my alarm for 5am to drive by his house to see if he’d come home at all.
Before sunrise, there were enough shadows to hide. His car was in the back driveway. I went to the side of the house and stood under his bedroom window. It was a tall window and I couldn’t see in. When I spent the night at his house two nights before, he still had a photo of me propped against the window but it was gone. I stood and faced the dirty white stucco of the house. It was a crappy house. I didn’t want to live with a drunk gambler. Didn’t I have enough to walk away without regret? Wasn’t standing under Luke’s window at 5am in 32 degree weather regretful enough? Downright desperate and shameful? But how could I give up on love?
A light clicked on in the neighbor’s kitchen a hundred feet away. Mrs. Yealing came closer to the glass and squinted, tilted her head to the side, raised her eyebrows, and waved hello. Next thing I knew she was walking toward me in her puffy winter coat.
“Honey, are you locked out?”
I held a finger over my lips. “No,” I said quietly. “I’m not locked out.”
“It’s freezing and too early to be awake.”
“Why don’t you go inside?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I’m spying,” I said. “To see if Luke’s with other women.”
“Oh.” She rubbed her hands together, then brought them to her mouth and blew. “Come over to my warm house. Spy on him with a cup of coffee.”
She turned and I followed.
“I was married to a cheater for twenty years,” she said. “I know how you feel.”
“I’m torturing myself.”
She pulled a chair out for me at the kitchen table and I sat.
“You need proof so you can move on.” She touched my arm. “I know.”
She placed a cup of coffee in front of me and sat at the table.
“Thank you for not thinking I’m crazy.”
“He’s the crazy one. Love is crazy. After Bill I knew I’d said goodbye to love for good. I’d had enough for a lifetime.”
We had a direct view to Luke’s bedroom window and he never put down the blinds. It occurred to me she must have seen a lot of things over the years. By 6am, the sun began to rise. A rim of faint blue light trailed the tops of the mountains behind the lake. And finally, Luke’s bedroom light came on. My heart raced.
“Showtime,” Carol said.
He stood out of bed and stretched.
“Luke is a good looking man,” Carol said.
“Don’t I know it.”
“That makes it harder.”
Then he leaned down and up with him came a blonde woman.
“There it is,” said Carol. “Goddamnit.”
“There it is,” I said. I flipped him the bird as he and the woman kissed. “I hate your guts. Shit.”
“She looks slutty,” Carol said.
“I saw her last week while I was eating dinner out with Luke. Now I know why she kept looking at us.”
“A man who lies and cheats is no good. Burn this in your memory and call it up to stay away from him.”
As they kissed, Luke faced us and opened his eyes. I flipped him the bird again, and he turned off the lights and pulled down the blinds. The show was over and I got what I came for.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Carol said.
I walked outside to Luke’s house and stood on his front lawn. Everything was dark blue: the sky, the mountains, the sliver of moon over the mountains, the lake water, the pebbles on the lake. It was a monochrome night. There was the moon and we were on this small planet, and what was the point? I did not want to die, but that night felt I could walk into that blue-grey lake in the blue-grey morning and never come out. Say goodbye to love.