When they play tennis she lets him win. Not all the time; not so bluntly
that he feels babied. She’ll let him get up two-oh, slicing her forehand so
it slaps the net and falls back flat, choking up on her backhand— Damn it, Karl—as the blood collects sour around her
knuckles. She’ll charge the net and let him smack a lob, slow and lazy over
her like a rainbow; she’ll angle her racket-face skyward and put power
behind it, rocketing the bright little ball over the fence, where it lands
in the duck-green pond beyond. Then she magically finds her footing, gets
her game back for one, or two if she’s feeling reckless. Makes him run,
makes him sweat, so that he has to gasp his remonstrances from a
thin-walled voicebox: Erin, you’re killing me!
But once they’re even she stops, begins again the fumbling and the flimsy
strokes, the squint against the remorseless sun. She calls for water breaks
and prolonged stretches, throbbing knuckles warm against her oiled brown
shin, giving him the rearview, arcing up slowly in her fluted white skirt.
Beyond them the lunchers smuggle pills with their iced tea or call for
sweaty vodkas at noon. Beyond them a golden retriever roams the terraced
hillside, waiting for errant balls to be thwacked into his gasping soil.
They play until sunset purples the terracotta court, lengthening their
shadows into giants. She keeps deodorant in the glove compartment, applies
it in quick swipes while he’s slowly lowering himself into the driver’s
seat, shuts it back in before he’s twisted the ignition.
In bed it’s the same. She lets him think he’s making her come, except the one or two times a month she traps her porno moans at the bottom of her throat, stilling her features, radiating in a way she hopes he can feel. Patience, or this too shall pass. He’ll stiffen atop her and crumble, his forehead agleam. He’ll fall to her side, and breathe like a marathon finisher, and sometimes take her small hand in his and place it on his hairy chest, warm like an animal’s. Feel that? He’ll flop his arm across her new breasts, whose heft and hardness she can’t understand why he likes. She’ll barely feel it, her nipples like rubber erasers stuck on someone else’s body. Are you okay? It felt like you were far away. She’ll trace obscenities on his underarm with the tip of her nail, turn to him, wet-lipped: Absolutely. White-capped pill bottles on the bedside table; books arranged by color on the recessed shelves, shit he’ll never read, green-spined French hardbacks, robin’s egg theological treatises. She’ll lift herself from him with a sideways kiss and step into the en-suite to pee, bare feet sharp on the blue custom tile. When she returns he’ll be hunched over on his phone, fleece blankets pooling around his thighs, and she’ll envision him in the tar pits, his arms stretched upwards to her, his mouth agape, and she’s on the little wooden footbridge with a hand cupped against her ear, leaning over, saying sorry —I can’t hear you, what was that?
Sometimes she imagines, with a letting-go laugh, telling him the truth. It wouldn’t go well.
So I’ve never made you come?
So all those afternoons on the court, you were letting me win?
Yes, ninety-five percent of the time, with the other five percent occupied by dumb luck, or times I had blisters from breaking in new boots, or those red-shadowed two weeks after I got the IUD when I could hardly stand up.
And even if she did tell him—straight-faced, full eye contact and all—she’s sure he’d care more about the tennis than the sex. Because other people, people he wants to impress, watch them playing tennis. Two types, flickering through various iterations. The first: hairline receding or shaved bald to compensate, tell-tale shadow struggling through. He wears a tight white polo, his tan upper arms toned like those of a younger man. Something in navy blue embroidered on the breast, crocodile, anchor, Mr. Peanut, pentagram, whatever. This type of guy runs on the beach without sunscreen to tan, trusting the sun not to leather him too badly, could be thirty-six or sixty. When he brings somebody, she wonders— is that his daughter?—and then, pretty quick, she sees his hand dancing around under the table, and her cheekbones lighting up with blush.
The second type: hair fluffed and tufted, more often white than gray, like a founding father in a portrait made handsomer by virtue of being the one paying the painter. Letting his skin groove naturally, each wrinkle boasting I came from BASE jumping in the Alps over splintering bright snow or I came from lying outside the cabana in the Maldives, where I own a spindly-legged hut with WiFi and a private masseuse . This guy wears the polo too, but sometimes an alma mater T-shirt, usually Ivy. He brings his wife—sometimes, miraculously, his first wife—someone elegant in pastel Chanel, sharp-lined, Botoxed, “kept well,” a phrase that makes Erin think of the jarred buffalo fetus she saw at some museum when she was a kid, curled in green brine.
And then there’s her favorite type. The alcoholic actors, whose sets start with the everywhere energy of an A-bomb but disintegrate rapidly into sweaty-palmed fumbling, balls dropping limp on their side of the net. These guys end up yelling at the sun or the nonexistent wind, their t-shirts briny at the armpits, sweat marbling their hems to the bottom of swollen guts they can’t exercise away. The mute model or tender-muscled investor across the net looks away demurely, as though trying to remember a line. He or she comes around to the far side of the court, where the actor is about to bang his racket on the hard ground, and offers a hand in the small of the back, guiding the guy off the court as the three shots he took before the set start shifting into hangover, speaking in low tones in the reddening ear about the mystical cure of bourbon on the rocks. The actor slams the door of the locker room and comes out twenty minutes later, hair slapped back and gleaming like the wave in a Japanese woodcut, new white t-shirt on, black jeans tightened safely over the brimming belly, black boots. His girl or boy leads him to a table in the shade, where two glasses sit, ice melting, sun streaming through their beveled crystal edges.
Erin often wishes she could join them, sidle her way into that orbit of electricity: the dizzy chiseling of the actor’s face, blurred slightly by booze, the hard-drawn lines of the beauty across the table, taking his hand in hers, whatever she’s saying—a pointed joke or a benediction—making him laugh until his shoulders cave in. Her favorite type. Why does she like this type? Because, she thinks, given a six-pack and a long hot afternoon, they could have a good time.
Then there are some who come because someone else has paid for them to come. Karl doesn’t care about impressing them. Erin can tell them from the others. Not because they look too different from the babyfaces or founding fathers. But when these guys are sitting at the circular tables with their mimosas and middle-aged wives—brassy hair, hot pink sports bras cradling their upper-arm flab—Karl doesn’t bother to curse theatrically when she kicks his ass.
There are weeks when they play every day and weeks when he begs off, blaming back problems in a low shameful hiss, although he doesn’t seem too laid-low to try to fuck her daily. And she’s sure, as she sits there doing the things he likes, which at this point have become a sad type of muscle memory, that the only thing preventing him from lying back with his hands behind his head and an eyes-closed smile is the fact that he still thinks she’s getting something out of it—still sees himself, somehow, as a stud. He’ll try to lace his fingers through hers, or cradle her ass in his cold hands, whispering yeah baby and oh god right there. Meanwhile she’s anywhere else, like on a sled-dog mission in Antarctica, or leaning off the balcony of a steamer, watching the whitecaps crest. Nowhere near the graceless fulcrum of their bodies. She figures she ought to let him off the hook, here, at least—here in the cold white bedroom, where nobody can sit at a glass-topped table and watch him fail over a gin and tonic.
It’s one of the weeks when they don’t go to the tennis courts, and on this fog-brimmed Thursday she finds herself needing it, the elation of endorphins, the sharp twang the ball sends through her arm when she hits it right in the center of her racket. She has been up since six, too much Malbec and TV the night before so she’s irritable and exhausted but unable to sleep for more than twenty minutes. So far she’s taken her medication, had a cappuccino, looked unsuccessfully at online erotica, waved the maid away with her offer of egg whites and then had second thoughts and burned herself a terrible goat cheese omelet. She watches SVU, then CNN, then the last half of Saving Private Ryan. She wants white lines on a red court, the sun coming out eventually, like a lover after sleeping in. But Karl has an appointment with his hot physical therapist, a girl named Emi with straight black bangs and blue eyes so round and wide she looks like a cartoon. They are in another wing of the house, doing things Emi claims will help his back. It’s a gray-blue day, the fog from the ocean settling low and tight over everything street-level, prickling her arms, and Erin leaves the house without locking the door behind her, letting its thick black wood swing open in the stilted air, a little rebellion no one but her will notice.
When she gets to the court, unzipping her racket from its bag, she remembers she doesn’t have anyone to play with, and the idea fills her with fury—it feels like being a little kid again. Although actually it doesn’t, because even as a kid she’d been pretty, and had a lot of friends. Although God knew where they’d gone. Thirty years has stolen their names, their faces. Not a great loss, but a loss. She thinks of asking someone to rally with her—the caterpillar-eyebrowed thirty-something stepping out of the locker room, the too-skinny girl who wears padded sports bras, the jock behind the smoothie counter. But the first two are together and the last one is working. Everyone has a partner. Of course. So she goes out to the patio, and puts on a Dodgers cap and big sunglasses like she’s trying to go incognito although no one knows her here, and orders an old fashioned. If she can’t play alone she’s going to drink alone. One becomes two as she watches the shifting figures on the courts below, who begin to look like video game characters, their outlines brightening, their stances tight. The air settles around her as she gets loose and languid—big sun coming out, right on schedule, spilling over the dry brown hills in the distance, the ocean flat and bright beyond like a sheet of tinfoil. A small faraway island in her registers satisfaction as she sees the sun.
One of the actors sits at the table next to her. Although she recognizes him—from his Hot Scientist cable show, but also from seeing him here all the time, always with another person, although the person is always different—today, he’s alone like her. And she thinks—as she hears him order a large water and then, pretending like it’s an afterthought, an IPA—that she could ask him to play. They could finish their drinks, and take to the court, and rally until the courtside lights flick on, and then accidentally kiss instead of high-fiving.
But she doesn’t do it, and she never will. She’s not the type of woman who steps outside her marriage. She’s not the type who steps outside herself. She finishes her drink and gathers her racket and drives home, meager sun-sweat drying on her forehead. Nausea gallops in her stomach from anxiety, the type that’s always around, the type that gets bigger when it has nowhere to go. When she pulls up to the house the physical therapist’s car is gone. The awareness of another wasted day starts to crinkle the edges of her bourbon-fog; with effort, she ushers it back, somewhere faraway but always with her, where it’ll ferment and resurface later with double the strength. Erin sits in the Rover for a little longer, turning the cool air towards her face, even though the back-again fog outside is pushing at the windows.
As soon as the door’s swung wide she notices the difference, a stillness in the air different from the regular stillness. True, the house has an empty, echoey flavor at the best of times, its cold geometry designed to arrest sound: in the kitchen, the white-noising of the waves sinks into the marble countertops, and the buzz of the laundry-room stops at the heavy mahogany door. But this silence has a different taste. As Erin shuts the door behind her, she is strangely aware of its solid glass panes, thick as a finger but suddenly seeming prone to shattering, and she is slow and deliberate as she clicks the deadbolt tight. She wants to call out hello like in a movie, but the wrongness of the feeling increases, until she thinks she might choke on it. It’s doubly weird because she’s never experienced intuition before—except the really obvious kind, the kind where you have an intuition your husband is cheating on you because you find receipts in the bathroom trash can for lingerie that never showed up in your bedside drawer—but that’s exactly what this feels like, something heavy and incomprehensible, a doom-sense, smothering, total.
The television is off in the kitchen. By itself, that’s not a cause for alarm. Maybe Emi or Manuela or Carmine switched it off unthinkingly while heading out the door or wiping invisible crumbs from the countertop or hauling towels from the laundry to the guest bathroom. Erin opens the sliding glass doors at the far end of the kitchen, absently registering the streaky white sunset, sun sliding into the horizon like a cracked egg, fog tipping the brims of the imperturbable waves. She inhales with a yogic desperation. The wet air centers her briefly, puts a pause on the dread tightening around her core, but it’s not enough.
The silence, she realizes, is so complete because for once there’s absolutely nothing to disrupt it. Not the calm perpetual mechanisms of Manuela rinsing plates or chopping scallions; not the gentle clicking of Carmine’s impractical kitten heels as she moves on a loop from laundry room to bedrooms—heading upstairs under an unceasing burden of clean sheets, clean duvets, clean towels, and then stumbling back down with billowing armfuls of dirty ones. Tiny white face-towels stained orange with foundation like a smudgy print of Erin’s face; topsheets sticky with the memory of sex; towels bristling with little curly hairs. It’s disgusting, actually, thinks Erin with a hot zap of shame, what they make Carmine pick up so they don’t have to look at it.
She’s supposed to be working today, like every Thursday. So’s Manuela; who else would make dinner? Erin thinks, hilariously, of calling for a pizza—meat-laden, greasy, crust stuffed with some horrible bottom-shelf mozzarella. The menu stuck with a humpback magnet to the fridge says, in Manuela’s tiny neat script, THURSDAY: PORK BELLY. Erin opens the fridge. The air around her is loosening its grip, the sliding doors to the sea still wide open, the cold salt breeze settling on her skin. In the wine holder is a bottle of screw-top chardonnay, cheap stuff, hopefully for cooking. Regardless, she unscrews it and takes a long burning belt. Notes of Yellowstone geysers and rancid lemon. She drinks some more anyway and puts it back. The pork belly is there, wrapped in butcher’s paper, labeled with a fat black permanent marker, next to the sushi tray left over from Karl’s party last night—creamy slabs of albacore, bright seaweed salad, the golden-red scales of unagi wrapped around little beds of rice. On an empty stomach, the cheap wine purrs warmly through Erin’s body, and she reaches for the sushi platter automatically, bringing it to the clean marble counter, where she eats without tasting.
The red light on the answering machine fails to blink. Her phone screen is likewise blank: no texts, no missed calls. The big screen that displays the security feed shows what it always shows: the front drive, the pool, the guesthouse, the beachfront, the foyer, the master bedroom, each in its neat little square. Five of the squares hold scenes so empty of movement they might be still shots, photorealistic paintings. On the sixth, the waves do their thing: the rearing up, the collapse, the disappearance. From the inner pocket of her purse she slides the bottle, plucks one of the pale blue ovals from its fellows, swallows it dry. A momentary blink of relief; she knows what to expect now, the stealing over of calmness, like a shutter being pulled over a window open to the apocalypse. But it doesn’t come immediately, and the urge returns: to throw up, to carve her name into her forehead, to hide under something solid, like she learned in earthquake drills in school.
Because she knows she shouldn’t, Erin pulls up Karl’s name on her phone and calls him. His contact picture fills her screen: one he texted her, years ago, back when they’d just started dating—back when a call from him lighting up her phone flicked an endorphin-like switch in her, and she answered with a big dumb smile across her face, which he said (ha!) he could hear in her voice. It’s a selfie of him on deck of the Candelaria, holding up a huge pink rockfish, dopey wraparound sunglasses obscuring his eyes, his shit-eating grin reflecting the wild sun splintering off the waves. It’s a big goddamn fish.
They’d met at a rooftop bar downtown, one of the first to stake its questionable hold in that area. It wasn’t actually called Interlopers but it may as well have been. She’d been drinking, bored, hoping someone else would call the Uber soon, back to their unremarkable apartment with the downstairs neighbors who called the landlord anytime someone dropped a cigarette butt on their property, anytime someone spoke with a loud inflection after ten at night. The bar was aimless, trendy. Top-shelf botanicals and desperate bottom-feeders in latex corsets. Their meeting itself had occurred in circumstances so unremarkable she can’t now recollect them very well. What she does remember: the girl who caught her arm at the bar, blurred face, concerned beneath exquisite eyebrows, who’d asked a gin-drunk Erin, Is that guy bothering you? He hadn’t been, but she’d hugged the girl for asking. Gone back to the man with the expressive hair, who had the advantage in years, in height, in money. It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
Now, years later, she doubts he actually caught the rockfish. Probably his assistant, Carmen, did, or the guy driving the boat, and then he’d taken credit. They’d eaten what he said was that rockfish for dinner when he’d gotten back from Monterey. He’d had a special seafood chef come over and everything, telling an indignant Manuela to take a break. They’d had it on the patio, sprinkled with dill and lemon, a bottle of sparkly Riesling sliding around their blood like electricity, a single candle flickering between them in a bath of itself.
Three calls and he doesn’t pick up.
Perfect, she thinks, and the urge inside her grows.
The robin’s-egg pill, forever her trusty workhorse, has tamped down the customary anxiety, but even with the chemicals smoothing her out—which she pictures cinematically, like a bedsheet floating gracefully over a mattress—a sharp nudge of dread has carved itself out a little home in the bottom of her throat, something primal and untouchable. The feeling expands. It skitters to the back of its cave when she tries to look at it, laughing with a lit torch in the face of her modern pharmaceuticals. It’s not that she needs to know where he is at all times—hell, she barely knows where he is all day every day—but there’s something strange and chaotic in this new silence, like a wrong-struck piano key waiting, drawn-out in the air, and she needs to know, as insane as it sounds when she looks at it full-on, that everyone has not suddenly been wicked out of existence, that she is not the absolute last woman on earth. The room has become altogether too cold, a clammy mist stealing in with nightfall. As she slides closed the glass patio doors, she looks out: the ocean is a flat black carpet, the moon shrouded behind a wall of fog, the lights of Santa Monica glittering faintly, miles away, thin as music through someone else’s headphones. She has nothing to do.
Erin knows about how invisible things can screw with your mind. Carbon monoxide can cause hallucinations; the smell of decay, no matter how faint, can prickle your spine and keep you away from that backwoods bathroom, that ice-rink locker room, that dilapidated beach hut. It’s self-preservation: you’re supposed to listen to the weird feeling as it seeps through you, take note that perhaps what we call intuition is just, like everything else (love, despair, hope) a chemical response. She checks: green light on the carbon monoxide detector. And if anything’s dead, in this big house, it’s not a person—possibly a seagull, a rat, a bloated purple seal out on the wet sand—and it won’t be findable. Besides, there’s the anxiety, her constant companion, which gives her this feeling every so often, and she has to sink into it. There’s nothing else to do, despite how it feels like every inch of her skin is a poorly-sewn suit holding in a manic, rabid heart, one whose beats, unchecked, will eventually swell the stitches to their breaking points.
Talking Heads on the Bluetooth as loud as it can go to break the silence. Another bottle of wine at the back of the fridge, the frosted-glass bottle wound delicately with a filigree of copper wire, the cork pulled from the mouth with a pop that sears through the music. It’s the last of the whites from their Napa trip, in January, which she remembers with a mix of fondness and an ache like pushing her tongue against a loosening tooth. It had rained for four days and then stopped; they had gotten deeply drunk on tasting menu wine and bought a bottle at each vineyard to remember it by, since they couldn’t remember much else; they’d arrived home, after a ten-hour mostly silent drive with separate hangovers spangling their heads, to a banged-in back gate and looted exercise room. The angled television above the treadmill was gone. The treadmill, too.
When she saw Erin felt exposed in a way she hadn’t felt since her early modeling days; she’d drawn her cardigan tight around herself, feeling the slight swell of her stomach. Rubbed her hands together, feeling the dry skin on her knuckles. Waited with numb dread for the explosion. Karl had just said “Perfect,” with a dry little laugh, given her a kiss on the top of the head, and called the insurance company. That night the gun safe in the bedroom closet was unlocked and empty, and the gun was somewhere else, and Erin showered maximum-hot for almost an hour despite the admonitions of the anthropomorphic water-drop that urged them to consider the encroaching drought. Folded her red and tender body into a bed whose sheets felt liquid in the wrong way, like quicksand.
“Perfect,” Karl had said, because it was the opposite of perfect. Because he believed in perfection, and when things failed to live up to it, he knew the only adequate response was a joke. Because he believed in perfection for himself, he also believed in it for her. At the beginning this had seemed a worthy goal, even flattering. It was as though she had been chosen because she was already brushing against the bottom edge of perfection, that with a few more running jumps she would land herself firmly in its golden throne. Yet time had passed. And she had found herself, at first slowly and then with a sick inevitable dread, pulling away from the ideal he seemed to have of her; all her stretches towards it were now falling short, her fine-filed fingernails scratching faintly at it, then, on the next jump, merely clutching at air.
Lines showed up on her face; she got rid of them in twenty-minute sessions at the doctor down Montana. A roll began to develop at her waist from all the wine; she restricted calories until her stomach rested tight as a stretch canvas over the subtle scaffolding of her abdomen. One day one of the whiteblonde hairs at her temple was more colorless than blonde. Gray, to be candid. She got touched up at the salon every two weeks; she supposed it could be weekly. But all her outward maintenance did not compensate for the hollowness that was growing inside her as she stepped on scales, plucked eyebrow hairs until her eyes watered too hard to see the mirror, rubbed pumice stones on flaky heels, shopped for finicky lingerie in shades like chartreuse and magenta that made her feel like a sexy cartoon character, a technicolor whore from the late-night Seventies sexploitation cartoons she had watched in college as part of a long-forgotten film course.
One day, she’d managed to say to Karl, I don’t believe perfection is attainable, and he was quiet for a minute. He didn’t look mad or confused. He looked strangely peaceful. Then he smiled at her.
“With an attitude like that,” he said.
Perfect , she thinks, now, as she drains a third of the bottle in a collegiate chug and swallows back down the hot threat of vomit. Vague images flicker through her mind. That volcano that’s been erupting for weeks up on the coast of Oregon, the drone video she’d seen on the internet. Slow, tricky flow of black lava with an impossible heat at its heart, swallowing an F150 and a cheerful painted mailbox.
She tries Manuela; she tries Carmine. She marshals her boozy voice into submission, sticking extra edges on her consonants to combat the certain slur. No answer from Manuela. Carmine says: “He said to leave early today, he said to take the weekend early,” and stays on the line way too long trying to talk to Erin about the fragility of certain thread counts. Finally she calls Emi, half waiting for Karl to pick up. No answer.
Sometimes, when the pills aren’t helping, Erin plays a game with herself. Her ex Marcus, psychology student and failed poet, used to call it “Loosening the Moment,” a phrase she found so inanely accurate she kept it when he left her. Loosening the moment means convincing herself, through corny fantasizing, that the moment currently holding her in a muscly headlock is not the only one she will ever inhabit. Sometimes it seems that way—like she’s a rat on a treadmill in a computer simulation and the code is malfunctioning, like she’ll be trapped in a nightmare loop forever. To loosen the moment, she tells it to herself like a story, like it’s happening to someone else. To another woman, one whose life is an empty calendar of endless days—each month splayed out under a picture of a different place, somewhere vast and faraway and perfect; each box ready to be filled in by her and her alone.
What happens next in Erin ’ s life is anyone ’ s guess , she tells herself, flopping on the couch. Maybe she remodels the bedroom. Maybe she puts a big sleek mirror on the wall so she can watch herself getting fucked from behind by a new lover — Hot Scientist guy from the racket club, sure, why not. Maybe she installs a red lightbulb in the floor lamp. Maybe she envisions the red light smoothing her choppy skin to magazine-soft as she watches herself getting fucked from behind, like a ruddy scalpel that glistens her lips, too, and sucks away the mild swell of her belly. Maybe she has a lot of her own money, all of a sudden, to go to the bar and order Negronis in her best dress, the one in which she could be looked at sideways and mistaken for a high-class escort but never propositioned, due to the hard bright force-field around her that says look but don’t touch . Maybe nobody bellies up to the bar beside her to lean over on confident bespoke-suited elbows and ask if she comes here often. Maybe she goes back to her red bedroom alone, reaches behind herself to unzip her black lace sheath, and tears something vital in the lining. Maybe she sinks to the silk sheets defeated, hands running absently over the red lines in her skin where her lingerie stuck, massaging out the temporary wrinkles till her stomach and her thighs remember their juddery promise, fill out again with blood.
When the phone vibrates so hard it shudders right off the table and onto the floor, spiderwebbing its screen, Erin wakes up. A gradual lightening of the sky beyond the wide glass doors promises a foggy sunrise. Her mouth is rinsed in lemon-soaked cotton, her head awash in the ancestral ache, and none of this seems worth it anymore.
“Karl,” she says into the phone, and he says, “Hi Erin.” He sounds like a
fast car, traveling away from her, on a highway with no speed limits. “When
I tell you I’m going north for the night, I need you to remember, and not
call everyone and ask them, okay?”
“North?” she asks, straining to remember. North? It sounds like a half-myth: Karl Kennebec goes North, standing at the helm of the steel-fortified icebreaker, to adopt a polar bear cub for his stupid girlfriend who is also his physical therapist.
“North,” he says, “to Ojai, to pick up Beretta.” Who she thinks for an embarrassing half-second and then remembers. His niece. “I forgot my charger at the house yesterday and drained the battery on the drive. That audiobook.” The Truman biography. The recording was something like forty hours long. He’d been listening to it in spurts for a year. “I took Beretta out to dinner last night and we just got back to her school. I borrowed her charger. Manuela says you called. And Carmine. And Emi.”
“You weren’t here,” she says, knowing as she says it how the words will land. Pathetic, the only business of the wheedling needy, the sadness-stained left-behind, the whiny codependent begging for an unbought embrace.
“But I told you where I was going, Erin, remember? I can’t do this. You need to do your own thing. Do it without me. I have to go. Back later.”
Do it without me. But do what? And for how long?
When Erin returns from the tennis court, where she’d shared a silent beer with the Hot Scientist Actor (at separate tables) and watched other people sweat their way to victory, Karl’s Porsche is cooling in the driveway. She finds him in their bedroom, shirtless, knees tenting the fleece blanket as he skims through Instagram on his iPad. Those “models,” no doubt, their bodies like a joke about New Year’s resolutions, hawking their fake fitness teas, bending over in crotchless lingerie, sleeping with their boyish photographers in exchange for good lighting and hours-long shoots where every picture is the same except for the one that’s marginally better. She’s seen his feed: it’s full of these girls, all of them under thirty, most of them well under; the type of interchangeable beauties Patrick Bateman would call hardbodies before he sliced their jugulars. And, because he’s sensitive, here and there, sprinkled among the softcore, a nature shot—icy road leading up the mountain, rainbow blanket of Dutch tulips. Or, because he’s business-savvy, a red-carpet lothario beaming with his arm around a starlet. All of it, Karl calls research.
In the dim light, curtains drawn, the iPad illuminates his face from below, and the wrinkles in his forehead—he won’t wear glasses—are so deep-shadowed they look gouged. He looks up when she’s at the foot of the bed, lifts a careless arm to her. She folds herself in beside him. On the screen is a Wall Street Journal article about Burberry’s new business model. Apparently, they’re using street photography to reach the millennial consumer. He puts the iPad down on the bedside table, as carefully as lowering himself into a hot bath. He turns to her less carefully. “Hey,” he says, and puts his arm around her, worming it under her tense shoulders and curving her upper body towards him. His kiss is flat but not entirely unwelcome, and her body stirs despite herself.
Afterwards, Karl lying spent and she wanting to spend more, always more, she flexes her toes, the balls of her feet, every muscle in her body, in an upwards sequence. She peels herself out from the sweat-damp sheets, planning on a swim, as far out as the buoys—as far out as she can go before turning, nervous and shark-heavy, back towards shore. Karl doesn’t move when she leaves the bed; he’s engrossed, headphones in, incredulous grin crouching on his face.
“Remember when you caught that rockfish?” she says, loud enough to needle through his bubble, as she heads to the door—still lingering, impatient but with a loud sadness gaining traction in her head, one she can silence temporarily if he gives her just this thing, this little memory, if a smile breaks across his face as he thinks of that warm wine-slippery night. He looks up from the glow of his tablet, meets her eyes.
“A rockfish?” he says, and then, as though he didn’t even have to think about it, “I’ve never caught a rockfish, Erin. I don’t think you can even eat them; they have venom in their fins. Can you shut off the light?”
The sadness balloon in her head pops with a majestic rush, and anger floods out from the explosion site, thrilling her with its poisonous bite, but all she says back, as she trails her fingers over the light switch and leaves it in the on position, slamming the door behind her, is “You’re right, that must have been somebody else.”
Perfect, she thinks, moments later, as the water closes over her head with the coldness she can never get used to, as her limbs regain their strength to fight against its current, as she closes her eyes and remembers her body. Her cardigan and phone on the shoreline; her sun knocking its lazy way down against the horizon. Perfect.