I used to think a fall from grace was most likely the result of a stupendous error or an unfortunate accident. I didn’t know it could happen so gradually that you don’t even get queasy or break a bone in the landing.
I am alone now. I have moved back into the cottage of my childhood. It smells stale to me, each breath gathering itself dryly to the roof of my mouth, and I am forever opening the windows to air it out. My mother died in the cottage when I was in junior high, but I don’t feel her presence here anymore. She left in a long, black hearse with dusty curtains, and once it turned the corner, I didn’t hear her slurred words or picture her rheumy eyes again. It is only now—thirty years later—that I miss her and long to talk to her.
I don’t think of myself as reclusive; I’m out almost every day, biking to work, attending talks at the library, volunteering at the hospital. My neighbors wave, and I wave back, and I have a silent flirtation with a large, bald man I see in the window of the coffeehouse when I walk to the grocery store. It’s a small life I lead, small in geography, anyway. Everything I need is within a few miles: stores, activities, the beach.
Often I go to the beach, preferring the little rocky one at the end of my lane that disappears at high tide. Sometimes at mid-tide I can see a limpet’s slime trail, indicating its forage of a few inches. I know it will return to its same depression before the tide washes over its nearly flat shell. It’s so well camouflaged that I can make out its trail even when I can’t see the limpet. At high tide, I sometimes bike to Mansfield Beach; it’s not far, but it’s not easy for me to go there, back to the neighborhood where I lived before my divorce, before selling the house that overlooks the marsh and the seashore.
It’s odd how hard it is to change some habits. I see Ned at Mansfield Beach sometimes, just as our paths cross once in a while at Dr. Folder’s. I guess divorce isn’t enough of a jolt to make us change some of our routines or our dentist. It’s not that it’s uncomfortable being together, but we don’t seek each other out. He’s never with Helene when I see him. She’s probably home with the baby. We usually talk for a while, like two old friends. And why shouldn’t we, when we once had so much in common?
Ned is a marine biologist at the Institute. His specialty is eelgrass. The fishermen respect him since he fiercely defends the eelgrass beds where the algae, snails, and worms live, food for young herring and flounder that become their cash crop. And I work at the bank just three days a week. It’s enough to pay my bills. Once in a while someone comes in and calls me Mrs. Hayes. It happens less and less often, but this is a small town with a small town’s memory for detail. “Just call me Sally,” I usually reply.
Helene used to work for me at the bank. She was a summer teller during her college years. We got to be friends the way colleagues in a workplace do. We’d have lunch together whenever we could, usually going to the park with take-out soup or a sandwich. She was majoring in business, as I had, and was casting about for a plan for her future. I remembered those days of my own, when I understood accounting and market research but didn’t understand yet how a business really ran or what my place in it would possibly be. Ned and I were married then, but he was often gone for long parts of the summer on the Institute’s research vessel, tracking schools of fish on the Stelwagen or all the way out to the Grand Banks. Sometimes I got together with friends while he was away, and sometimes Helene would come over for dinner or we’d take a bike ride together. She had other friends, of course—boyfriends, too—but I was glad for her friendship.
I saw Ned down at the beach yesterday. I was collecting mussels from the rocks in a galvanized bucket. I’d cut the back of my hand on a broken shell and was sitting on a rock sucking on my knuckle, watching the barnacles in a tiny tide pool filter the water with their feelers and taking nourishment where none could be seen. Ned came over and sat with me. He showed me a photo of his son, and I made suitable remarks while he talked about sleepless nights, as though downplaying his obvious happiness. My knuckle had stopped bleeding and the tide was lapping at our feet. I said good-bye to Ned and walked home.
Ned and I planned to have a family—three or more kids, we thought—but I had a scare with cancer early in our marriage and lost that plan to a hysterectomy. It was okay, we assured each other, after the initial shock; we still had options. We gave up quickly on adoption and foster parenting when the waiting period for one and the stress of the other seemed more than we wanted to bear. Still, we had each other and that would be enough. We took Thai cooking classes, joined the Appalachian Mountain Club, and bought a bicycle-built-for-two. One early spring, giggling about something, we did a 2-person conga line all the way down Beach Lane and around the corner to our house.
We reassured each other often, with a word or a gesture. I lit candles on our dining table every night. We held hands walking to Buck’s Market, and once danced in the parking lot to our own imagined tune. I left Ned little notes in his wallet, the pocket of his bathrobe, and once in his attaché case. We reclaimed an attitude usually reserved for mid-flirtation 20-year olds, and promised our love would always be fresh, unencumbered by any needs but our own. We watched the couple next door with their 3-year old. They were his slaves. “Get my ball, Mommy,” he’d demand, his usual pout forming before he even heard her reply. “What’s the magic word, Sugar Plum,” she’d croon.“Get my ball,” he’d wail louder. And she would. I’d roll my eyes at Ned, and he’d make the universal throw-up gesture back at me.
When Barb, my college roommate, came for a visit to show off her baby, we both oohed and cooed appropriately, taking turns dandling her on our knees. Barb seemed to have lost the ability to converse on an adult level, and, when we went to bed that night, we whispered that we knew more about breast feeding and harsh detergents than we ever wanted to know. But in the morning, I found Ned in the rocking chair, disheveled, with the baby asleep on his shoulder, drool and spit-up pooled on his bathrobe. His eyes shied from mine, and I turned on the radio and went to make coffee.
I think about that scene a lot: my cheerful morning routine continuing in the background as Ned stared into the distance, feeling the little heartbeat near to his own. We continued our picture-perfect life after Barb left with the baby, and we never talked about that little one or the other babies we’d see. Was that morning the beginning of my fall?
One Christmas I gave Ned a wok and a pair of Meindl hiking boots, and, by coincidence, he gave me exactly the same. We invited Helene, who was home for the holidays and stoically boyfriend-less at that moment, along with some other friends for New Year’s Eve. The invitation promised dueling woks, and we danced around each other in the kitchen in a perfect minuet of vegetables and châteaubriand, our friends drinking Côtes du Rhône and laughing along with us. Ned drank too much that night, for the first time in the 12 years that we’d been together, and I noticed his stiff stance and the guardedness in his eyes, like a grounded teenager. After everyone left, he tried to help me clean up, but I shooed him off to bed
Where are those friends today? They’re still here. I see one or the other in the bank or around town. “Let’s get together,” we call out to each other. “I’ll phone you.” But they have soccer with their kids on Saturdays, or a birthday party to go to, or a camping trip with the whole family. I understand. Really, I do.
For years Ned and I took an evening walk. It was a habit, almost a ritual. Just before going upstairs at night, we’d turn off the lights, set the thermostat down, and walk to our old ocean, as we called the beach. It was never a time for exercise, more for slowing down together. We’d sit on the fading green bench overlooking Mansfield Beach and our old ocean and listen to the waves shaping the beach and eroding the land. Each tide sounded different, smelled different. Each season, when the moon was full, the beach looked different, too, as summer’s ripples or winter’s storms agitated the quartz and feldspar. In warm weather, we’d kick off our shoes and walk along the upper beach where the sand was dry and rumpled by the breeze off the water.
We would talk about our day and about our plans for the next day, the next weekend. We were like the large black skimmers we sometimes saw feeding in the bay, gliding over the surface with mandibles cutting through the water in blind hope of snaring a fish. We caught a subject, trapped an idea, commented on our daily activities. Although we were interested in each other’s emotions, we never probed. I never asked,Why? I never asked Ned why he seemed to be preoccupied, or why he smiled less often. I asked him why the laughing gulls were quiet at night and where the piping plovers went when it was dark, but I never asked him if he were happy. I should have.
That’s why I wish my mother were alive now; I’d ask her if she and Daddy were happy and how did they know.
Once, when I was laid up with the flu, Ned went by himself every night for an evening walk to our old ocean. After that, we never seemed to start up our ritual together again. He’d go alone sometimes, and I’d already be in bed reading when he came back, a distracted look on his face.
When he told me he was leaving, I didn’t understand. I thought he meant he was going for a walk. “No, Sal. I’m leaving. I’ve rented an apartment. I’m not happy. Are you?”
Yes, I was happy. I was perfectly happy. But I was too stunned to say anything more than, When? It should have been obvious since he had carried his backpack and duffel bag into the kitchen where I was cleaning up after dinner.
He told me that he didn’t know what he was looking for, but in less than six months, our divorce was final, and he had moved in with Helene. Soon after, they were married. Why, though? That’s the word I’m left with in the end. Why did things get like this? Why did I think one thing and he think another? I didn’t know he was looking for something else; I’m not sure he knew.
Now he knows and I do, too. He has a son to reflect his smile, to enfold his heart, and to walk with to our old ocean. Someday Ned, Helene, and their child will be a 3-person conga line, dancing down to the wrack line and back up to the waving dune grasses, and I will be alone in the cottage of my childhood, as I am today, remembering my mother, nostalgic for my marriage, and still stunned that my bruises don’t show.