Nobody belongs to us, except in memory. —John Updike, “Grandparenting” from The Afterlife and Other Stories
He calls daily from the suburban mall, the gas station, the corner store. Sometimes he calls from home, while his wife bakes muffins, watches TV in the living room.
You can almost hear her in the background— water rushing into a sink, kettle set upon a stove.
Tinned laughter, a single gunshot.
He coughs, lowers his voice to a whisper. This renders everything he says seductive. Says he doesn’t love her, says he will leave her— at twenty-four, you are a believer.
He brings you flowers, short-lived irises blazing like blue fire in his hands. Bent crocuses, carnations. He kisses your closed eyelids, at first nothing more.
He’s shy, careful, his gaze slips to the side.
His hands nearly small as your own.
In the gilt mirror your twined bodies are skewed, obscene. You shiver and look away, but he continues to watch the reflection— the dip of your head, his spread legs. You grip his hands in bed, shut your eyes against the breaking light. 3.
He nibbles his lower lip, fidgets like a child in the principal’s office when you dare ask.
I can’t just kick her out onto the street. She needs time to move out, there’s the paperwork, legalities…
You drink until you believe, glass after slippery glass of wine. The gem-bright confidence washes over you, says yes. Mouse-grey hair at his pubis, mole on his back, familiar as home.
You tick back and forth like a metronome— one day he’s leaving, the next he’s not, he flicks the switch. I’m deceitful at the best of times! he boasts in bed, glinting with mischief. See, it’s not like he didn’t tell you. It’s not like you were a child, a captive, incapable of choice. You had a choice, damn you.
When he calls to say he’s left her, his voice cuts in and out. He’s calling as if from a distance— someplace in the sky, from a shuttle poised for a moon landing. Well, he hasn’t left her— he’s just asked to spend the winter alone, in his condo in the desert. She doesn’t know about you, you don’t exist. Your hand shakes, tips gleaming vodka over a glass of broken ice.
Not sure if this is winning or losing.
This is where you stay with him, in Palm Springs— a gated complex overlooking bougainvillea and a golf course, cradled by chocolate mountains. Outside the bedroom a sprinkler works back and forth, clicking, whooshing, painting the parched air. All night, by the base of a palm tree, a floodlight flashes off and on—like a disco ball through the slats of shutters, a blade slicing back and forth across the bed.
He takes you for dinner in restaurants with Tiffany lamps, timber ceilings, velvet armchairs. Reaches for your hand across the white tablecloth— waiters, diners stare. You flinch, bite the inside of your cheek, taste blood. He’s old enough to be your father—grandfather, maybe.
You walk in the direction of the mountains, dust blowing. The mountains seem an optical illusion— close, then far, close again. You pass old men and women wearing tennis shoes and tracksuits. Lutheran churches, health spas, rundown houses once belonging to fruit-pickers who worked on long-vanished orchards. The air smells of green jelly, cactus blooms.
Outside the pizza parlour, the drycleaner, the nail salon, sunlight glares on asphalt.
In ice-cold malls, elevators glide up and down.
The avenue is lined with palm trees, gold stars twinkle on the pavement. Bentleys and Rolls-royces slide down El Paseo Drive— the faces of men and women inside, white, well-preserved, seem full of hatred when they look out their windows at the surrounding desert.
He watches you enter the hot tub, he’s always watching you. Under the roiling water your thighs are round as loaves, you have never liked the way you look. He leans back, elbows on the rim of the tub. The sun slides towards the mountains, the fringe of palm trees. Yellow roses in their final bloom push through the chain-link fence. You walk dripping to the pool, swim back and forth across the deep end with your head above water, each lap a different emotion—
I am happy, I am scared, I’ve become a stranger to myself.
Veins of light spasm in blue water.
You climb out, follow your wet footprints back towards him. On a lawn chair, under an umbrella, another old man stares at you. He must be ninety, huge turquoise rings crusting each finger. Watching you, his head shakes back and forth in an endless, admonishing, No, no, no. 8.
One morning he takes you past the flock of windmills, stubbly green hills. Past strip malls, garment outlets, dozens of decrepit motels with ambitious names—aristocrat’s Motel, King’s Rest.
Two hours later, you are in LA, shrouded in smog.
The sky leaden, purple. You follow the boulevard to the beach, where sunburnt homeless men sleep. Diamond width of water, white band of surf. You walk hand in hand along the pier, he strokes your palm with his thumb.
You wander the boardwalk, where everything is for sale— T-shirts, tattoos, your fortunes. The drive home at rush hour takes twice as long, but he doesn’t complain. You touch the back of his neck, hot and creased under your fingers. Is it enough? In a minute, twilight slips into full night. The round red sun poised in the side mirror slips down and now he is driving in the dark.
Christmas day dawns sultry, blue. You spend the afternoon in bed together, eat turkey dinner in a restaurant decorated with holly, painted angels, silver stars. The waitress is in her forties, face lined with misery. You’re so happy you start to laugh and laugh— he leaves a good tip. You drive home holding hands, along a boulevard lined with palm trees wrapped in strings of light.
There are tears in your throat, behind your eyes like sand. In bed, the round bone at his shoulder seems tailored for your cupped palm. You can taste the grit in your throat, the hot, waterless air.
Your body waterless, a thing torched by his tongue.
After returning you to the pastel airport with its miniature golf course and open-air terminals, he will swim alone in the pool. Black, wet smell of tar from the new roof on the complex.
The caretaker hacks the yellow rose bushes with his garden shears— they won’t bloom for another year.
An ice cream truck passes, jangling its manic tune. Wrapped in a towel, dripping, he will read his wife’s letters, pleading with him to come home.
A week later, he follows you home.
In your bed he looks like a wicked angel fallen to earth. His shirts bright flags in your closet, his books crowding yours on the shelves. One afternoon, he calls his eldest daughter: How are you, honey?
I’m calling from New York…oh, I’ll just be here for a few days. Weather’s terrible, though. Anyway, just called to say hi. I love you too, sweetie.
But he’s not in New York, he’s in your apartment.
You watch tea bags seep into water, colour it sand. Carry two mugs into the living room, watch him sip and smile. By the way, about that phone call—
I could hardly tell her I was with you! Imagine the fireworks! He laughs, the peals of his laughter hurt you like blows.
Again, he waits in the pink airport.
It’s like slogging through mud, the distance it takes to reach him across the tarmac. He looks old, fragile—you feel the blaze of strangers’ eyes when he stumbles, squeezes you again and again.
I love you. The shadow of fear over your heart.
Then your luggage tumbles end over end down the conveyor, and you walk along the salmon carpet, past the car rental counter and the ticket agents, into the desert. The sun casts violet shadows under the movie-prop mountains, the air dry and light as talc. You breathe it in, it’s like arriving home.
Mornings cluttered with the noise of songbirds, neighbours’ radios jangling awake. Round leaves of eucalyptus brush the windows. In dreams, he returns again and again to his wife— yet when you wake, he’s there. Your clothes smell of bougainvillea, sprinkler-moistened lawns and chlorine. When you close your eyes and sniff your bare arm: palm trees, sunlight on a pool.
Sand blows through the cracks of his home, into your mouth and nose and eyes. Red sand drifts across the windowsill, the glass coffee table.
Your body is changing, syrup-coloured from the sun, bisected by the bathing suit straps.
He sits on the sofa, pretends to read the paper, watches you. There is such an expression of happy astonishment on his face that you think,
Together you walk the main avenue of galleries, clothing boutiques, restaurants and bookstores. Passing couples stare, it seems with anger. Slowly you slide your hand out of his, withdraw your fingers one by one until he is left holding your thumb. The bright street of tourists stretches far as purgatory. Now the light is apricot, nearly dusk. Passing a Mcdonald’s, he tugs you inside for a diet Coke, past two teenage girls who flick their eyes at him, you, whisper and giggle. The rest of the way home, sparkly black coldness in your mouths, a small distance between you.
Dinnertime, his wife calls. It’s great to hear from you, he says, turning down the TV. Holding your breath, you watch him, hands frozen in your lap. Outside, children chant their games in the early evening. He listens, laughs often, slaps his thigh. Well, not too much, I’ve been going to movies, soaking in the hot tub…
He makes no mention of you, it’s as if you’ve vanished into air. At last he says, Well, thank you for calling,
I’m so glad you did. He replaces the receiver, doesn’t look at you, goes into the kitchen to peer into a pot of simmering soup. The smell of burning fills your nostrils.
He pours a bowl for himself, sits on the opposite couch— round silver spoon clanks against enamel.
He sips, chews, swallows. You look down at your lap, nausea rising. He fetches a wedge of pie, an ice cream bar for dessert— fork scrapes against berries and pastry, chocolate shell crunches between his teeth.
He looks at the screen, thinks about the call. Says, half to himself, I hope she’ll move out soon. If she’s not gone by the time I’m back, I’ll have to move in with her, who knows what’ll happen then.
Outside the sky is remote, both Dippers in radiant place. A crescent moon lies on its back. You walk past a basketball court to a playground, lit and empty. Sit on a swing, rock back and forth, back and forth. Cry until you vomit in the grass.
He’s on the concrete path outside his building when you return, like a worried father looking for his missing child. Says no, no,
I’m not going back to her, is that what you thought?
Presses your face to his chest, into the earnest beating of his heart. I love you. Though you try, you can’t see anything but truth in his eyes.
He’s invited for a residency in Florida, sends you a ticket. All night trains rattle the windows of the A-frame on stilts.
In the drowsy mornings you eat oranges that drip down your wrists, watch spiderwebs flutter in the rafters from the air conditioning. The heat a thick silver blanket beating down from the sky, covering everything— flying cockroaches, palmetto fronds. He drives past time-share condos, beachfront shacks, houses with wraparound porches and clipped lawns. The sun burns hot-metal behind your eyelids, blazes through car windows, strips the skin on your arms. He continues over a causeway, past swamps where dead trees reach skyward, bleached branches frozen in supplication. Stops for meals in tiny pink restaurants nestled by the side of the highway, ceiling fans circling their cold arcs of air, samplers stitched with scripture framed on the walls.
He swings the car into parking lots big as baseball fields, American flags sweeping the sky. You buy ice cream, bottled water, postcards. He takes photos of you, hundreds of them— loves the way you look.
Nights in the A-frame you glance up from a book to find him watching you, eyes steady and full of thought in the lamplight. He’s about to say something important, presses his lips against your ear, but nothing happens. It’s silent but for the trains shunting beyond the moss-draped trees. On the warm air floats the salt of the swamp, honey, the sky broken up with stars. Daylight takes forever to come and then it’s there, spilling down his body, washing out to the corners of the room.
When you open your eyes you see he’s already awake, he’s been studying you for an hour.
He walks up the path swinging a bag of oranges fallen from the trees in radiant orbs. The road trip
continues— along overpasses and turnpikes, past stands selling hot, boiled peanuts,
Waffle Houses and Super 8s and then nothing for miles but groves of citrus trees. At a rest stop, looking at yourself in the sheet of metal that serves as mirror, you think you could be anyone— a runaway, an escaped convict, someone with nothing to lose.
Along the water, mansions with swimming pools, stained glass windows, cupolas. By the highway, Chinese restaurants with Budweiser signs in the windows, their owners in empty parking lots gazing wistfully at traffic passing. He noses the car down residential streets, past the Baptist church, the cemetery, the “Open House” signs on singed lawns. You imagine living together in a little house, stars and stripes flying from the attic window, a sagging porch where you drink iced tea in the mosquito-thick evenings. Maybe.
Halfway through the stay in the South, he walks up to the A-frame with a coffee stain in the shape of a heart on his shirt, a letter in his hands, Read this. The letterhead is crisp, legal— his wife’s lawyer, demanding two more years in his house, a lump sum, monthly support.
What am I supposed to do, he mutters.
Wanders into the kitchen, peels an orange.
Citrus mists the air. A tropical storm
is forecast for the weekend.
He is in a black mood, stays in bed all afternoon. The sky is low and muddy— the branches of the slash pines, the grey trails of dangling moss, drip with moisture. He wakes with a groan, his mouth out of shape with anger, twists away.
The storm breaks. A blaze of lightning surges across the sky, palmetto fronds thrash, drops of rain plopping onto the pavement turn to torrents.
There is nothing to do in the A-frame house but look at each other. Another letter from his wife:
I never wanted to send a lawyer after you, but friends tell me I have to look after myself.
I still love you, honey, I miss you so much… He holds the letter gently, like something of value. I don’t want to hurt her. She needs me…
He stares down at the page, and when you touch his shoulder he glances at you, confused, as if he doesn’t know who you are. Flicks the TV on, tugs a chair directly in front, stares deeply into the dull screen. The rain on the slanted roof, the twin skylights, is frighteningly loud— like bad fortune demanding entry.
You both pack your bags, leave the house on stilts, drive. Silence, country music, laughter. You cross a state line, and the billboards advertise papershell pecans, onions so sweet they can be eaten whole and raw, like apples, without tears. You pass hundreds of pink houses with porches in the oldest town in America. Choose inns with four-postered beds behind French doors that overlook courtyards where guests read newspapers, drink coffee in the moss-heavy mornings. In the afternoons, his face buried between your thighs, you cover your face with your hands, wait for the absence to overtake your body—
He pays for tours in carriages that ramble down streets built from ships’ ballast, cobblestones called calico for their patchy grey-and-gold resemblance to cat fur. Photographs you outside the iron gates of splendid homes where you will never live. He holds your hand, once grabs your arm on the sidewalk and shouts,
I can’t believe how happy I am! He has been lost for the last hour, unable to find the main street leading back to the hotel. You see, if it was my wife, she’d be stomping off yelling and cursing me…
But in another hour he will be the irritable one, as you turn down one wrong corner after another, notes of jazz spiralling out of crowded bars.
On the west coast, he closes up his condo in the desert for another year. Loads clothes and papers into the car, begins the long drive to the city where you, and his wife, are waiting. The mountains of the desert turn to sand, then the verdant belt. He calls you from a motel one night, watching rain crash onto the roof of his car in the lot.
We had some good times, didn’t we?
It sounds as though he’s saying goodbye.
He is driving home to his wife, her possessions in his car— frilled cushions, earrings in the shapes of sunflowers. It has rained here all winter and everything is washed blue.
You wait for him in your apartment, drink out of a glass shaped like a cactus.
Imagine his wife standing on the doorstep of their house, her suffering for him, making her freckles stand out like stars. He will see as clearly as a man who has woken from a long, fuddling dream: this was the one, all along.
At last he arrives, a weary smiling traveller, expecting a glad embrace— but your mind is clear and bitter as the alcohol you’ve been drinking for hours. He will not make you a fool. You sip steadily, offer him nothing. He has to go to the fridge, fetch a glass of water. What was it like, seeing her again?
He says nothing, shrugs. Silence in the room except for ice cubes cracking, firing off like pistol shots. He glances away, out the window at the perpetual rain. Gives you an exasperated look, his face dark.
Whole oceans wash back and forth between you.
It begins, the long nights when you lie awake listening to the rhythms of his nocturnal breathing, your eyes dry and hard as copper pennies.
His turned back blocks you out, a thick wall— he could be anyone, a stranger who snuck in during the night. When he reaches for you, his movements are automatic, your response the same. After, he watches the ceiling, blinking. I dreamt you didn’t love me anymore, you whisper.
That’s silly, he says, that’s only a dream.
The room is white, he is so close you cannot breathe. When you raise yourself on one elbow to look at him, he forces a smile to his face.
He spends afternoons at your apartment, feet in wet shoes propped on the sofa, eyes flickering with a deep, darkening light. You say nothing but there is a hot fist planted in the centre of your chest. Maybe he blames you for the turn his life has taken— his home occupied, chequing account empty.
All day he sits, stares out the window, sighs.
His forehead tight and lowered, face crumpled.
Sometimes he disappears for hours at a time— errands, visits with friends, movies— only later will you learn he’s with his wife.
Now when you ask about her, his eyes shift to the side. I haven’t seen her, I told you, it’s over between us.
You gulp gin out of the cactus glass, focus on the floor. He raids your fridge, complains about the toaster, talks with his mouth full. Your stomach churns—
Nights you feel as if someone drowning is holding you in his clutches, using your body as a ladder to the sunlight and oxygen wavering above the surface of water.
You try to breathe, refuse the urge to thrash and scream. At last he releases you, tumbles down into sleep, a place he can’t be reached. If only he would say something—
but it’s been a lifetime of failed relationships and he’s tired. A lifetime of women he once loved, that brief tumbling excitement— then the silences, the tears for no reason, no wound he could even see.
On the phone he laughs, nervous.
Swirls diet Coke in his glass, crunches ice.
Things are strange, aren’t they? See, you’re a young woman, I’m an old man. I think I’ve been good for you, but now
I’d be happy if you found someone closer to your own age. You say you don’t want children, but in your thirties…
The conversation is moving so fast, his sensible words piling one upon the other like stones around her.
For me, it’s simple. I’m deteriorating. In ten years
I could be a doddering fool who won’t even recognize you. Is that what you want? In five years, ten years, fifteen years—it could be a stroke, a heart attack, Alzheimer’s. You’ll need to put me in a home.
His voice turns tight, furious. Is that how you see your future? Look, we’ve enjoyed each other, but in my experience, nothing lasts. It’s a thrill at the beginning, but soon the boredom, the irritation, it eats away at what was there. You know, he says, I don’t even think I know what love is.
But he had told you.
Why hadn’t he told you it wouldn’t last?
If you had known, you would have recorded everything— the conversations, what you wore, what you ate, the drowning of your senses.
The earth that cracked under the white-gold sun.
Every vanishing moment of happiness. CODA
He returns to his wife. Over the years, you hear snatches of news— they buy a house in the country, live on an acre of fruit trees, rose bushes. Their lives are small, secluded, they belong to each other and no one else. Christmas Eve, after many failed treatments, she dies of cancer at home— he’s at her bedside with the home care aides.
Her loving husband, the obituary says.
Twenty years after the desert winter, you are middle-aged, and he is dead.