Rayne Ayers Debski
Harrison Smith was the only person in New Haven who was aware that I had known you. Several years ago, at the dean’s annual party for faculty and grad students, I overheard him mention your name. When I said I’d known you back in the day, he said you were living with your second wife Olivia in Brooklyn. You had a couple of kids, and you were on the faculty at NYU. He told me about your latest show at a gallery known for its avant-garde work and six-figure prices. I pretended not to know any of this. We lifted our glasses in an imaginary toast to you. By then you and I had been lovers for half a decade.
Now at this year’s party, when Harrison saw me among the sea of bodies, he signaled me with his hand, as if he had something urgent to tell me. Before I could make my way to him, the dean’s wife wrapped her arm through his and led him to the bar. I doubted we’d be able to say hello before it was time to say goodbye. That didn’t bother me. Harrison and I had little in common.
From across the room where he was the center of a group of attentive students, my husband Ben winked at me, his way of assuring me that sober he enjoyed the adoration of students and the contentiousness of his colleagues. The interdepartmental rivalries that marked his earlier days were gone with the alcohol that had fueled them. I smiled, as I always did when he singled me out, and swallowed the accompanying guilt. Light jazz, the kind you’d taught me to disdain, played in the background. People were mashed together in every room. Although I’m uncomfortable in crowds, I mingled with acquaintances and strangers. I tried to fit in, but a fifty-four-year old faculty wife, furloughed from her position as a researcher until another grant became available, didn’t attract much attention. Surreptitiously, I checked my phone to see if you’d called, and kept an eye on Ben to make sure he drank soda. I was certain it would be the usual boring event, and to assure his continued sobriety, Ben and I would leave early.
The competing odors of fruity wine and musky perfume made me lightheaded. I sought a nook in the foyer where I could sit and watch people. The young women were voluptuous and outfitted to emphasize expanded chests and rounded bottoms. The men dressed more conservatively. I could sense their heat, their eagerness to succeed at the university and with each other. No different from when we were young.
Harrison spotted me in my hiding place. He was stuffing his face with some type of pastry; the filling slid out the sides onto his cheeks. I handed him my napkin. “Terrible about Griffin Davis, isn’t it?” he said.
My back stiffened. “Griffin Davis?”
“You knew him, didn’t you?”
I fanned myself with my hand to subdue the flush that sprawled across my face. “Hot flash,” I said. “Did something happen to him?”
He grabbed a glass of wine from a passing tray. “His obit was in the Times last week? Heart attack. Heard it happened while he was reading the paper. Hope it wasn’t my op-ed. Are you okay? Those hot flashes must be murder. Here, drink some wine. You look like you’re going to pass out.”
I made my way to the bathroom. Across the room Ben was surrounded by a group of students sucking up to the great professor. I turned my head so he wouldn’t see my distress. The overcrowded room stank of body odor and stale drinks. I tripped over someone sprawled on the stairs. People were lined up for the bathroom. As soon as the door opened, I pushed by them. “Sorry. I’m sick. There’s another bathroom in the basement.”
I held onto the sink to steady myself. The room shifted around me as if I were on a sailboat listing wildly in a storm. Breathing hurt. Someone knocked on the door.
“Elisa, are you okay?” It was Ben. “Harrison said you were sick.”
I threw cold water on my face. “I’ll be right there,” I said. He jiggled the doorknob. I heard the dean. “What’s wrong? Is someone locked in the bathroom? Happens every party.”
My skin was blotchy, my eye makeup smeared. I opened the door. “A little too much to drink,” I said. If Ben could get away with being a drunk for years, maybe for a night I could too. Even if it wasn’t true.
On the drive home my head throbbed. I needed to talk to someone. I needed to say your name, Griffin, Griffin, Griffin. My sister, who lived in another state, would see right through me, and although Ben and I had lived here for several years, I had no close friends. Ben had the radio volume turned up, and the car hummed with Eric Clapton’s guitar. My husband’s head bobbed in time with the music, a gesture that usually made me smile but that night seemed absurd. I punched the radio off. His eyebrows jumped above his crooked black framed glasses.
He drove slowly down the dark tree-lined streets. “I can’t believe they serve the same crappy food every year,” he said.
My head felt like it was going to explode. “I had some bad news tonight,” I said.
“Greasy crab cakes. I’m not sure they’re real crab. Mushy pastries. No wonder you were sick.”
“I found out someone I knew died—”
“How were the drinks? Did they at least spring for some decent wine this year?”
“—someone I knew well.”
He maneuvered the car into the driveway of the house he had designed as a wedding present for me twenty years before. With its oddly shaped rooms and trapezoid windows it was, he said when he showed me the plans, like our marriage: a constellation of possibilities. That night it loomed in front of us like a mausoleum. He fiddled with the garage door opener. Nothing happened.
“A reminder of mortality,” he said.
With clenched teeth, I nodded my head and started to sob.
“It’s only batteries, Elisa. We can get new ones.”
I choked. And then I laughed. I laughed so hard tears streamed down my face and snot ran out my nose, and still I couldn’t stop even when my laughter turned to keening, even after Ben went into the house and turned on the lights.
What was I thinking? If Ben had heard what I’d said but chose to ignore it, or if my words only entered his brain subliminally, I couldn’t tell him about you, the first man I loved. I couldn’t tell him about a love affair that had begun thirty-five years ago, went on hiatus for several years, and resumed ten years ago. He would have been crushed. And our marriage would have been over.
The first time I saw you I was twenty-one and waif like thin. I wore bell bottom jeans, no bra, and got high whenever I could. I worked as an administrative assistant at the state university; at night I took classes. On weekends I protested the war. People told me I was pretty. I didn’t believe them. My nose was too short; my skin too olive, but guys seemed attracted to me, which was fine, because I was more attracted to them than I was to working or studying. I was married then, to a man who was busy climbing out of the working class.
You were from the other coast, thirty-two, a professor of art history, newly arrived in New Jersey. You played standup bass and drove a yellow pickup, and when you walked through the door for the first time searching for your office, I had to force myself not to stare. Behind your steel-rimmed glasses your gray eyes lingered on me for a moment. Your girlfriend Jill trailed you. She nearly matched your six feet. She gave me a dismissive nod. Across the room you looked at me again, this time longer. Sometimes a glance can be just that; sometimes you want it to mean more. And sometimes it does.
A few weeks later I was at a party at a house where several people from the university lived together, a new thing back then. Someone from our department brought you along. Jill had returned to California for her last year of grad school.
The September night was warm enough for us to sit outside. Overhead a half moon spread an intimate light. Five or six of us sat on lawn chairs getting high. You dragged your chair next to mine. Maybe that was the time you told me about your father, a physicist who abhorred the idea of his son becoming an artist. Maybe that was when I told you about being called a Rican in high school even though I’d arrived from Cuba when I was four and had no accent. I don’t remember much except it was two in the morning, and you were kissing me, and I was kissing you.
I drove us to the apartment you’d rented. I pretended not to know the exact place where you lived, as if I hadn’t already driven by it a dozen times. It was in an area of town where houses teetered between neglect and renewal. Your apartment was on the first floor of what had been a stately Queen Anne that hadn’t been painted in twenty years. It smelled of cigarettes, beer, and turpentine. I remember a double bed, a lamp, and a nightstand with a radio tuned to a local jazz station. There must have been more. Surely you had your paintings there.
A streetlight lit the room. We undressed each other. You tugged the shirt over my head; I pulled the jeans down your slim hips. We fell onto your bed with its scratchy cover, our skin hot and sweaty, finding each other’s places, exploding into one another, then lying there in the semi-darkness on damp sheets listening to Billie Holiday sing “Fine and Mellow.”
“Thanks,” you said. “I needed that.”
I smiled. “Me too.” I pretended I wasn’t looking for love. Back then desire was an itch that could be scratched at any time. I didn’t think of consequences, only satisfaction.
For a week I did little except stare at my computer. I stopped eating breakfast and lunch. “Why don’t you see a doctor,” Ben said. “There’s so many diseases going around. It’s not like you to turn down food.” He brought home dinner from our favorite takeout places. I moved the food around my plate while he chowed down and told me about his day, and then I threw my helping into the garbage disposal. Every morning after he left for the university, I promised myself I would get dressed, but by three in the afternoon, I was still in my pajamas.
Did I tell you about the time in grammar school when someone asked me if it was true spics ate prairie dogs for breakfast?
Did I tell you about the time I almost got expelled for plagiarism?
Do you know how cold a half moon looks?
The last time I heard your voice I was parked on top of Mt. Battie, the one place I could get cell reception and even that was unreliable. I must have called you because you wouldn’t have known if I was in range. Penobscot Bay spread below me. In Camden Harbor the ships snugged into berths appeared placid, impregnable. And beyond the harbor was the ocean, the surface calm, belying the rocks and currents below.
The sun was out. I wanted you to see it. You would distinguish the different types of boats even from such a great height. From your backpack you would produce a baguette, a pear, and a split of Bordeaux to share. I wanted us to walk through the hills, to stand in the shadow of a boulder out of eyesight, and for you to make love to me right there. Every time I hiked these mountains, I looked for you on the trail, as if you would magically appear with your hand-carved walking stick. When the wind blew through the trees, I imagined it was your voice whispering to me.
That day you had visitors. “How’s the vacation, Elisa?” you said as if I were a mere acquaintance. A woman’s laugh. Your daughter’s? It couldn’t have been Olivia, your wife. You would have said my call was a wrong number. Yes. I must have been the one to call. We hadn’t set a date for the next time. “It’s been too long,” I said. “Over three months….”
A man—your son?—said something I couldn’t hear.
“We can take the train,” you said. You sounded upbeat. I didn’t know if you were talking to them or me.
“We’ll be home next week.” I said. “What about the end of the month?”
Your voice shifted just perceptibly. “Can we talk later?”
I wouldn’t be put off. “September would work.” A convertible with its radio blasting “Stairway to Heaven” parked next to me. I pressed my finger to my ear to hear you.
On your end, a woman’s voice, a closed door. “Sorry. I’ve got to run,” you whispered. “Call me tomorrow?”
“I can’t keep climbing hills to speak to you.” I tried to hide my frustration. “Ben thinks I’m getting groceries.”
“My kids are waiting for me.”
“If we could set a date—” Surely your adult “kids” could wait.
“—I miss you. Really. I mean it,” you said. “Call me.”
"I'll try," I said through pressed lips.
Every day I searched through my email accounts to make sure I hadn’t missed a message from you. I looked up your obituary and read it over and over again, until I believed it. You had died. There would be a memorial service for family and friends next month on Cape Cod. I read through our old emails, the ones I’d promised to destroy but never had. Ten years’ worth. You apologized for the way you treated me that long ago time when after months of our loving one another, you married Jill. “My marriage was a complete fiasco,” you wrote. “I married Jill because her sister had just committed suicide. I was about to break off our plans to get married. I went through with it because I thought her family would fall apart if I didn’t. That’s narcissistic thinking, but I thought it was heroic. ”
I wrote that I forgave you and had forgotten much of what happened. I didn’t tell you that my first marriage came apart after my husband found out about us. I didn’t tell you that for thirty years I never forgot you.
It wasn’t as if we hadn’t kept in touch. You’d get my address from mutual acquaintances and send letters about your life. Your marriage broke up; you found someone new. When a romance foundered and you had too much to drink, you’d call in the middle of the night to tell me I was your true love. I’d hang up without speaking to you, telling myself I was over you, replacing the desire that snaked through me with the satisfaction of your desolation. After you married Olivia and I married Ben, the man who wiped you from my mind, we stopped communicating. Then ten years ago you found me online.
We wrote each other several times a week. I didn’t think we were doing anything wrong. “Seems like you have a good family situation now,” you wrote. “I don’t want to screw that up. Just want you to know how deeply I’ve thought of you these last years.” I never mentioned you to Ben.
We shared the problems in our marriages—Olivia’s preoccupation with appearance; her dissatisfaction with your lives; Ben’s drinking; his verbal abuse of his colleagues. We established new email accounts. “God I wish I could see you,” you wrote. With one failed marriage behind me, I didn’t want to destroy another.
Did you know what a struggle it was not to be with you? I resisted as long as I could. But desire, even in late middle age, is a disease with only one cure. We resumed where we’d left off. A half dozen times a year. Nobody knew. What was it like when Olivia found a text from me? You told her I was a former student who had a crush on you; you were showing me a kindness by keeping in touch. When she accused you of showing more kindness to me than to her, did you resent me for the lies you had to tell? Honestly, I wanted to think she was the one you resented.
At the time I saw the choices I’d made as fate. If Ben hadn’t been in a political struggle in his department and drinking heavily; it wouldn’t have been as easy for me to disappear for a day or two to see you. I felt guilt, of course. Although he drank too much, Ben was a reliable husband, respected in his field, and he gave me encouragement and wide berth. He didn’t excite me as he once did, but his warmth shielded me from my insecurities. He didn’t make me feel less of a person because I was a Latina and without an advanced degree which, by the way, you sometimes did. I didn’t want to ask if you’d meant to do that.
After a while I deleted all of your emails except the three that moved me most. Those I printed out and hid in my purse. I had to keep them for the same reason I should have destroyed them—without them, what evidence was there that our relationship had ever existed?
When I finally ventured out it was to drive to your home in Brooklyn. In a blonde wig and dark glasses, I sat outside the brownstone and watched Olivia leave the house. I recognized the curtain of dark hair and the haughty tilt of her chin from pictures you’d posted on Facebook. I waited another half hour, and when no one appeared, I got out of my car. I started up the steep stairs and immediately tripped, fell, and tore my black slacks. Sweat bubbled under my wig. I climbed to the top and knocked on the door. No one answered. I removed my sunglasses. I wanted to look inside, to see what your life had been like. I stood on my toes and leaned across the stoop but still couldn’t peer into the window.
“Can I help you?” a woman’s voice said behind me. I turned and came face to face with Olivia. I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. For a wild moment, I considered pretending to be speech impaired.
“If you’re looking for the Fitzgeralds,” she said, “they live next door. People get the addresses confused all the time.” She carried a shopping bag from Junior’s. Her unlined face glowed emphasizing the whiteness of her skin. The blue-green chiffon scarf tied carelessly around her throat gave her a jaunty look.
“I…I…actually, it’s the Davis’s,” I said. “I met Professor Davis at a seminar last year and, and uh, I was in the city, and uh, wanted to express my condolences. Are you Mrs. Davis? I’m so very sorry.” I sweated and shivered at the same time, certain that the wetness on my face intensified my olive skin and heightened my exposure.
Olivia sighed. “No need to be so very. Griffin had terrible arthritis. Could barely hold a paint brush. Couldn’t walk without a cane.” She ticked off ailments like items on a shopping list. The coldness of her voice startled me. I couldn’t stop the rapid blinking of my eyes as I tried to reconcile my image of you with hers. “He went quickly,” she said. I prayed she wouldn't tell me she was relieved you died on your own, that, like an old dog, she didn’t have to put you down. My hands trembled, and the buildings seemed to tilt toward us.
She looked directly at me, her eyes wary. “What did you say your name was?” Her fruity breath brought on a wave of vertigo. I tried to swallow, but my throat constricted. I couldn’t remember if I’d given her a name or not. Surely it wouldn’t have been my own. My legs didn’t want to support me. I leaned against the iron railing. “I’m going to be sick,” I said. “May I use your bathroom?”
She took in my torn pants; my trembling hands. Suspicion flickered across her face. She placed her shopping bag between us and pulled out her cell. “There’s a coffee shop down the street,” she barked. “Go before I call the police.”
I stumbled down the stairs and walked toward the coffee shop. The sharp morning light blinded me. All around me dark shapes expanded and contracted in sync with my throbbing head. Sirens wailed. I leaned against the coffee shop window until my breathing slowed to normal. Then I wobbled to my car, embarrassed but relieved.
That night I lay close to Ben. I inhaled the tangerines he’d eaten before coming to bed; I felt the coarse hair on his legs as they grazed mine. While he slept I wrapped myself around him tight enough to awaken him, and we made love for the first time in weeks. Afterwards, Ben nuzzled my neck and sighed contentedly before returning to sleep. In the glow of the nightlight, I stared at the wall and tried to calm the unrest that crept through my body and sat like an undigested lump of fruit in my stomach.
Just wanted you to know.
I forgot about Ben’s appointment to have moles removed. A few days before he’d asked if I would accompany him in case there was bad news.
“Really, Elisa. Could you concentrate on what has to be done?” He fastened his seat belt. “It’s like you’re not here anymore,”
“If I’m not, who’s driving you to the doctor?” I thought some levity might help.
“You’ve been like this for weeks.” He put his hand on my thigh and gave it a squeeze. “I’m concerned about you.”
I pushed his hand away. “I can’t work the pedals if you’re pressing down on my leg.”
“Fine,” he said. “Just don’t miss the turn for the medical complex.”
At the entrance, I screeched to a halt. He got out of the car without looking at me and slammed the door. My stomach contracted, and the air went out of me. Your voice crept into my consciousness. “We get tired of one another in marriage. Some of that’s because we tire of ourselves, of what we've become versus what we dreamed. And that projects onto our partners, however wonderful they are or aren't.”
I sat next to Ben in the waiting room. He stared at the TV monitor showing the history channel. "Without a job, I'm at loose ends," I said. I reached for his hand. He squeezed mine lightly then let go.
On the day of your memorial service Ben was to be feted at a conference of architects. The main event was a formal dinner he expected me to attend. Your memorial service was going to be held on a Cape Cod beach, three hours away. I could drive there, attend the noon service in Eastham, and be back for the award presentation. If I went to the service, saw your ashes being dispersed if only from a distance, perhaps I would have some peace. I told Ben I had a job interview in Hartford.
I planned to leave before eight that morning, but Ben insisted we have breakfast together. “Have another cup of coffee, Elisa. You need to be sharp for your interview.” After watching me fiddle with the scrambled eggs he’d made, he pressed the keys of his Lexus in my hands. “Take my car. It’ll make a better impression.” We were not an affectionate couple, and I was surprised when he kissed me goodbye. “Be yourself and everything will fall into place,” he said. Then, “I love you.” I couldn’t remember the last time he’d said that. I swallowed the urge to come clean. “See you tonight,” I said.
Traffic was heavy through Connecticut and Rhode Island. I selected a radio station that played jazz standards, the music I associated with you and me. It took my mind off of Ben’s kindness.
The last time I saw you it was spring, and the daffodils were in full bloom. I’d driven my old Mazda to Cape Cod, where the smells of marsh land, oysters, and salt mixed with sweet fern and bayberry. Come to me, you said. I’ll show you what I love about the sea. You had summered on the Cape as a teenager; your father had taught you to sail on Pleasant Bay. You wanted your ashes placed there when it was your time.
That day you took me to Breakwater Beach. It was late April. We were dressed in wool sweaters to protect us from the cool breezes skimming across the water. Marsh grass grew along the soft dunes. Rocks created tidal pools, where kids searched for small fish. From where we stood we could see twenty miles northeast to Wellfleet, the view obstructed only by a small boat stranded on the sand. It was low tide and the flats extended almost a mile into the bay. I insisted on walking on the sand the water had laid bare.
“Not so far, Elisa.” Your hand wrapped around mine felt strong, warm. “Tide’s about to turn, and when it does, it’ll rush in faster than a locomotive.”
“Then I’ll need Superman to save me.” I pulled close to you and put my hand on your chest. Through your sweater I felt your heartbeat. I swear I felt your heart beat.
“It changes everything. The water covers the beach. Look at the dunes. You can see how high the water rises. In minutes. It can happen in minutes.” You squinted and looked across the water as if gauging how much time we had. “You don’t play around with stuff like that.”
By the time I crossed the Bourne Bridge onto the Cape my neck ached. It was after eleven. I still had forty-five minutes of driving time. Halfway there road construction blocked off one lane. My head was pounding. My hands were slick on the steering wheel. I took the next exit and sped down the road. When I reached the traffic signal in Dennis, it turned red and seemed to stay that way. As soon as it changed, I accelerated. I didn’t see the dog run across the road until it hit the side of my car.
It was a black lab. The impact stunned him for a few seconds. He took off before I could restrain him. I stood alongside the road shaking. The door was scratched where the dog had slammed into it. I looked frantically for the dog, for its owner, for anyone who could help. What was I doing here? I got in the car and circled the area searching for the dog. Maybe he’d run home. Maybe someone had captured him. Except for the scratch on the door, there was no sign he existed. Only I knew he had. My phone buzzed. I ignored it.
It was past noon. I was drained. If I continued to drive to Eastham, I’d find a deserted stretch of sand. Instead, I drove along 6A, turned onto Breakwater Road, and pulled up to the beach. The tide was in and only a narrow strip of shoreline remained. The water was dull gray. I left my shoes in the car and made my way along the dunes. Broken shells and carcasses of horseshoe crabs littered the sand. If I looked back, I would see the unsteady line of my footprints had been washed away. I walked for at least a half mile not thinking or feeling anything.
At the last breakwater, I pulled your emails from my purse, and read them again. The wind riffled the pages. Slowly I tore each one into pieces and fed them to the sea, and then I sat on a dune.
I listened to the tired slap of the waves against the sand as the tide receded. I tried to remember the timbre of your voice, the texture of your skin. Gulls flew overhead, dark shapes against the gathering clouds. On that empty beach I saw the choices I’d made and the chances I’d taken. The air was wet and cold, and as the wind struck my face, I was suddenly overcome with a desire for home. My stomach growled; for the first time in weeks, I was hungry.
My cell buzzed with a text from Ben. “How’d it go?”
I texted back. “I’ll tell you later.”
But I knew I wouldn’t.
Rayne Ayers Debski’s short fiction has appeared in national and international literary journals, ezines and anthologies. She is the recipient of Mslexia’s New Writing Award and Six Sentences Love Stories Competition Bronze Award. Liars League NYC and professional theater groups in New York and Philadelphia have selected her work for public readings. She is the editor of two anthologies published by Main Street Rag Press. After living up and down the East Coast, she now splits her life between Pennsylvania, where she guides hikes on the Appalachian Trail, and South Florida, where she tries to avoid running into alligators with her kayak. She and her husband have two dogs.