Above the hotel check-in desk. Smiling, arms around a short-haired dog. On the cash register at the breakfast diner. Last seen wearing a red sweatshirt. Last seen in the family car, waiting in the grocery parking lot for her mother inside buying salad makings and a piece of flounder for dinner. On every light pole, every fluttering bulletin board, all over everywhere. Livia thought the girl looked friendly. Like a girl who made friends without even meaning to.
Several posters were spread on the window of the grocery store from where she’d disappeared, where Livia and Chris bought cucumbers, bread, noodles, tomato sauce, chocolate bars, canned beef stew, mayonnaise, sesame crackers, olive spread, flaky Italian cookies, wine, bottled water, milk, peanut butter, four oranges, and diapers. The diapers: a joke, a whim, Chris’ idea of funny. The baby wasn’t due for another three weeks. Livia felt guilty going to an island where they’d be secluded, neighborless, carless, doctorless for three nights and two days. They had only a cell phone. The real estate agent who had rented them the cottage reassured them they would have signal, even as far as three miles off shore. She shouldn’t be going to an island. The girl’s face, twelve years old, everywhere, a few times looked accusing. As if Livia’s thoughtlessness had everything to do with the disappearance.
“Never leave our child alone,” Chris said as they stood on the empty pier facing a chiseled surface of ocean.
“Never in a car, at least.”
Chris gave her a look that meant, “Never means never,” and they may have expressed themselves further and badly — as they seemed more and more prone to do as the due date closed in — blaming each other for an excruciating event that hadn’t yet happened and stood a good chance of never occurring but the boatman pulled into the small, dirt parking lot with his rusted blue pickup truck and saved them from beginning their last time alone together in a bad way.
Livia thought: our boatman could be my son in another twenty years. The baby was an unknown sex; so far they had resisted the offers of three ultrasound technicians. But if it was a boy he could grow into a face like the one approaching, already tinged with permanent chap, a face older than twenty. The boatman had a walk that was more of a lope, an easy sway of legshipsshoulders, a long, slow chain reaction to the ground. Livia listened carefully for a kick of recognition from the possible boy inside, but none came. The baby had been still since yesterday. Not for the first time. The doctor said not to worry. Babies have their own scheduled rhythms.
The boatman reached us on the dock and shook our hands. “Rondeau,” he said.
Livia tugged her coat as close together as the front would go around her stomach. Wind had sprung sharp edges. Cold was still a relief to her after a pregnant summer but this air was tough, no relaxed, casual breeze.
Rondeau took their green duffle bag and the small yellow cooler from the worn boards of the pier and led them to the end where a small boat nodded on the breaking water. “A dinghy,” Chris had muttered when they’d first arrived on shore. The duffel’s solid thud on the bottom gave the boat a sloppy jerk and Livia had a passionate moment of worry for the bottle of wine rolled up in Chris’ sweater, wine she wouldn’t drink but liked to taste on her husband’s lips if they kissed. Water even snuck over an edge and crowded in the bottom of the boat. Wooden planks stretched from side to side and Livia anticipated a resulting backache that would last until she could lie on a firm mattress for a few hours, on her left side, right hand reaching and kneading lumbar muscles and her left hand holding a paperback mystery – no romance, no parenting books; at this point she could only stand mysteries in which the mystery was solved.
“How long will it take to get to the island?” she asked, looking at the gap between pier and boat. Mind the gap, she thought, mind the gap.
Rondeau shrugged. “Half hour, forty-five minutes.”
“Will the wind make it dangerous?”
“Maybe. Probably not.” The boatman shrugged again.
“Some news in town,” Chris said.
Rondeau nodded while stepping easily from pier to boat and then looked back at Chris in what felt to Livia like a subtle challenge, though no change occurred in his expression of already worn daily survival. Chris presented her using her elbow and the two men linked her momentarily between them in the wind above the deep, green water and then the action was completed and she was settled in the front of the boat, the boat rocking with the weight of their bag, their food, their boatman, the anxious air, herself.
“She was my sister.”
Livia noticed his use of past tense before she understood what had been said, before she could be embarrassed that her husband had introduced a nod of discomfort, pain, possible tragedy into what was supposed to be a casual, businesslike relationship, coldly carved by logistics and payment. They were all New Englanders, but this coast lay much farther north and the winters were worse and the people more reserved, turtled into their own protective collars of chilled politeness. They should have been talking about the weather and not much more.
“I’m sorry,” she told him.
He nodded and looked directly at her for what seemed like the first time. His eyes were blue. Chris maneuvered between them. Rondeau drove from behind and would have to adjust his line of sight around his passengers. Livia straddled her legs apart to give her belly the most room.
She should not have been heading toward an island.
The boatman’s dark, blue, flannel shirt and his near beard and the quiet way he’d spoken three sentences made him looked smudged against the gray, clouded sky.
Her son, if she had a son, could become a man who drove boats and bent to look around his paying customers instead of asking them to move out of his way. He might have warm, dense hands, callused, warts along the cuticles, an overly obtuse angle to the thumb, a slice of pinky finger shaved from a childhood accident. Welcome hands, despite, or perhaps because of, their minor deformities. Women would feel those tiny, chilled, invisible beads filter down the skin of their necks at the touch of those hands.
The wind on the ocean was stronger than the wind on the shore. The boat seemed to trip over its own waves, so much in a hurry that it slowed itself down. Livia tucked her hands up into the sleeves of her coat.
Livia wasn’t used to boats, or water, or the way the sky looked over the water when you were on the water, a different view from back on land. They lived in hills back home, a four hour drive; she had grown up in hills. A hilly horizon looks accommodating and distant, like an aunt who sends money on holidays but otherwise remains unheard from. This trip to an island was a vacation from that view, their forced celebration of time alone together as a couple instead of the threesome they’d soon make. Knock on wood.
Chris had lived by the ocean as a child and learned to sail long before he’d driven a car. His father taught him. Chris has claimed, several times over the five years they’ve been together, that his displacement from the shore when he was fifteen provided the root for most of his problems: allergies (broccoli, pork, cats, dandelions), insomnia, addiction to sugar – all of these and even his grander afflictions might have been avoided if his mother hadn’t woken to the fact she was unhappy facing so much water and found herself ultimately willing to sacrifice her marriage just to smell dust unadulterated by sea salt. Chris maintained that that was the real reason she had left her husband of twenty-two years. Because she was tired of the ocean.
“But don’t you think, Honey, that there might have been something deeper going on, something to do with your father, to make her leave?” Livia asked once. It was before they were married. They had just merged into one apartment and were carefully arranging their books in alternating order on the shelves: Chris, Livia, Chris, Livia. The walls had fresh yellow paint and the windows were still textured with dirt from the last tenants, several tenants — Chris had claimed the windows as his own job and Livia was waiting for him to do it.
“You’d understand if you’d known my father. And my mother in comparison. She seems reasonable now, but with him she was like that, she’d make these decisions based on stuff like the direction of the wind or how many nickels the grocery store clerk gave her in change. She had a group of women she saw every week, they were like a coven or something, and she’d come home and not even say hello, she’d just sit at the kitchen table and drink herbal tea. It was the ocean that did it. It had nothing to do with Dad. He was a really good man and he tried his best.” Chris’ hair was long back then and tied with a blue ribbon. She watched him squeeze his L. Ron Hubbard in between two of her Virginia Woolfs.
“But there must have been some friction between them, something to make her give him up so easily even if it was mainly a matter of geography…”
“Jesus, Livia, is it so hard to understand? People just leave. My mother left and made me go with her. It had nothing to do with Dad. How can you possibly have lucid opinions about parents when you only ever had one shitty one?”
The rest of that night they were polite, they avoided each other’s eyes and hands and Livia went early to bed with a book. In the morning she found the windows clean, clear of any dirt, and the newly allowed summer sun made the paint on the walls into a garish yellow like a storybook rendition of a living room, so primary that even new, unfocused baby eyes could follow the cut of the ceiling.
Livia’s story: father left when she was four, mother decided to follow possible calling and moved to isolated cabin in Vermont hills and threw pottery every day, eight, ten, fourteen hours at a time, while Livia ate crackers and rice cakes and deli meat from the gas station only three miles away, close enough for mother and daughter to walk, later only daughter. Nothing strange occurred to her until school age hit and an officer picked her up and a cascade of accusations and interruptions brought her into the social system and her mother to a hospital, then jail for maiming a nurse. Lucky — her foster family was fine, willing to admit various perspectives, interested in many things beyond and besides their three foster children, and the children reacted in the same vein, finding things to do and goals to meet and lives to begin. Livia thought herself more normal and well adjusted than most other people, and wasn’t that what everyone wanted to be?
She met his mother three years after their argument at their wedding, not before and only once since, when Chris had his heart surgery. For the sparse ceremony Diane had worn a black shift dress and battered leather sandals, then she changed somewhere, maybe in her car, into torn cutoffs and tennis shoes with no toes. Her handshake lasted longer than her smile. But her hands were warm and after the few other guests left she stayed and drank Meyer’s in the yellow living room and she and Chris fell into an obvious pattern of joking and teasing, a relief from their harsh politeness they’d both displayed when dressed more formally. Whatever bitterness Chris harbored he sank nicely into drinks. Perhaps Livia was judging too harshly — perhaps it was not bitterness that made him stiff with his mother at first but shyness, embarrassment over certain fragilities.
Now, where Livia sat in the boat, the noise of the engine and the noise of the wind blocked any sound of conversation behind her. She turned to see if Chris was watching his wife look out towards the horizon, if he admired her posture, her bulk against the malicious blanket of air. But he was twisted to face the boatman. The wind split the back of his head but she could tell from the tilt that he was talking, asking questions, making Rondeau lean slightly around him and stretch away from the stick of the motor. She worried Rondeau’s hand would slip and they’d veer and twist and go down. She wondered if Rondeau’s mother was angry, resentful, that he’d gone back to work, that he wasn’t still out searching for his sister. Perhaps he was searching. She might have been here, in the ocean. Livia turned her own body and bent to look at the water rushing under; she felt suddenly anxious that she should keep a careful watch for bodies.
Two years after their wedding, Diane and Livia had hugged without seeming to touch each other in a dim hospital waiting room. They hardly talked for the nine hours they waited together. Diane asked twice if Livia wanted coffee and Livia asked about the fifteen-hour drive from northern Iowa, for which she received the answer, “Fine.” They spoke nothing about their lives to that point and nothing about any change in their lives now that Chris’ heart had introduced the idea of immediate mortality. Livia mostly sat on a greasy, orange plastic seat and riffled through Chris’ wallet until she had memorized all of his numbers (credit card, driver’s license, social security, frequent flyer) and could recall the exact angle of his chin in each of his photo identities. She had no idea what Diane might have done for those nine hours of terminal wait. Livia did not know what Diane wore, what she smelled like, where she went after they were finally called to see him, to view him, still unconscious, in the recovery room. She came and left and never saw her son awake.
Since they decided on this trip a month ago, Livia had been running movies in her head of being trapped on the island while her body split in half to spill a baby.
The baby could stick between her hips. Doctors called these hips unproven — they had yet to perform under duress.
He could make it out and have lungs full of her water and drown there on the floor of the cabin.
Maybe the little girl was there, on the island. A stowaway on one of her brother’s trips. No, the boat wasn’t big enough for even a small bump of deception. Still, Livia thought, she could have made the trip another way, maybe she swam the hard distance, and now she’s waiting for us in our cabin, half dead, in need of us. But what could they do with a half dead little girl? They were not medical people – Chris sold real estate and she was the assistant director of a nonprofit organization. She helped disabled people get dental care, for crying out loud, she had no call trying to help a half dead little girl. What was the poor thing thinking?
The boat rocked suddenly and, though Livia stayed facing forward, she could picture the sequence behind her back, the actions that caused the motion. She could see Chris make an effort to move out of his seat to come sit close to her where they could watch the approach of their three day home together in a parody of mutual willingness, and she could see his weight cause a seismic shift in balance, spooking the boat, and the boatman’s hand reach to Chris’ shoulder in a gesture of warning, reprimand, and forgiveness all in the same moment. The same connection of hand to shoulder their son might make someday when his father has done something ridiculous and embarrassing and should have known better. At a school event, a drama production (because she cannot see her son, nor the boatman, playing any kind of team sport they’d need to go and watch), after everything was over and they met their successful son in the nearly empty auditorium and Chris expressed his pride with too much enthusiasm and his joy echoed among the surrounding plastic seats. Her son would do that, place his hand on his father’s shoulder to staunch the flow and convey his appreciation at the same time.
When the boat again felt confident she looked back and saw that Chris’ cobalt windbreaker was still twisted toward the boatman. No evidence of attempted migration. No physical contact between the two men. And Chris knew enough to avoid extraneous movement on so small a boat. Livia wondered if all of his incompetence was just her imagination. An inherent distrust stemming from an early lack of father. But that excuse had always seemed too pat, entirely too available.
Her back hurt.
Livia wondered about Rondeau’s mother. She felt sure the mother stayed awake every night and all day, waiting for the lightness of twelve year old feet on the doorstep, in the hallway, in the bathroom, the careless brushing of teeth, the snuggle of a warm, live, breathing, moving body. The local paper Livia had read over breakfast mentioned the parents were separated. Not quite divorced but on their way. The girl’s disappearance could be her own fault. A planned disruption. An orchestration of tragedy designed to fuse two factions back together.
Livia could see the island ahead. It looked small and insubstantial, like a mirage that would disappear as she reached out a foot, expecting solidity. She would splash into the water and, being so cumbersome with this weight, drown within the moment.
When Chris suggested this trip he was thinking Hawaii, Jamaica, someplace tropical where her belly could tan and waiters in white suits would bring him drinks on the beach. But Livia refused to fly.
“No, Chris, you know my luck.” They were sitting in the doctor’s office, waiting. Their monthly checkup. “We’d get to the highest cruising altitude and the pressure or something would send me off into labor and I’d spew amniotic fluid all over the passengers in front of us and no one would be trained in first aid or anything useful. The kid would come out and choke to death because of the cord around his neck, or he just wouldn’t start breathing and no one would know what to do.”
“Why do you keep thinking it’s a boy?” A boating magazine lay on his lap.
“I mean it, I am not getting on an airplane. And how much fun would a tropical beach be for me? I can’t fit into a bathing suit, I can’t drink. I hate to sunburn.” She had to remember to ask the doctor why the baby wasn’t moving as much as it used to. This could not be normal. Someday a whole day would go by and she’d feel only what she willed herself to feel.
“Because I’d really love a little girl, Livia. I know you’re not supposed to care as long as the baby’s healthy, but I’d really love a little girl. They seem to love their dads more. Don’t you think?”
“How the hell should I know? I am not getting on an airplane.”
He convinced her of an island – car and boat.
They could see gulls raised in chaos along the shoreline.
The doctor had assured her that some babies lie still for lack of space, resting up for the great purge, and that certainly the baby did move once in a while, when she was asleep or distracted. She was never distracted, though. The baby was her complete distraction from everything else. The doctor had also discovered that the baby had flipped to breech and he warned them that if he didn’t maneuver back to head down he’d have to be cut out instead of following the usual vaginal route. Every night before Livia slept she whispered to the baby, “Turn, baby, stand on your head,” and Chris giggled when he heard her, which wasn’t often since his insomnia kept him on the couch more nights than not. (Would their cottage on the island have a couch for him?) Livia worried, Chris laughed. Their usual balance in terms of risk and response to danger, real or perceived. Chris never cried, never shook, never pounded the steering wheel or dropped dishes to the floor. When Livia had woken one morning on a patch of reddish brown sheet in her third month of pregnancy, when he dialed the doctor’s office, when he searched for the keys to the car, when he drove just above the speed limit to the hospital, his hands remained steady and when they held Livia’s they were dry, calm. Livia carried Band-Aids and antiseptic cream. She made animals and small children nervous. For Livia, the baby had been in danger since conception, a potential victim of her own bad diet, bad genes, clumsiness, carelessness. She thought Rondeau’s mother must be visiting every bad decision she’d ever made during the life of her child.
Livia wanted a husband who shared her consuming concern about the baby. Someone who would stay in bed with her and whisper encouragements and orders to the baby, someone who researched the problem and slipped herbal extracts into milkshakes, took her to an acupuncturist, checked her blood pressure in different rooms of their apartment. Someone who would run his hands down her turgid belly, carefully avoiding her sensitive navel, and instruct the baby to follow the warmth.
The boat slowed. The waves licked the sides of the boat like they were hungry.
Chris’ mother once told him he would marry a woman whose hair got in her own constant way. She will trip herself, his mother said, she will wrap her hands beyond use and then try to twirl in a fruitless effort to untangle. Chris was twenty, ready to leave college, no degree, after three years of television, beer, weed, an occasional hurried essay, and he listened to his mother with a look of pointedly adult distaste.
“I like short hair on my women,” he told his mother. She was sitting on the floor with her legs crossed and didn’t seem to hear his retort. “I like short hair, I said.”
“I think you will treat your wife better than you have ever treated yourself,” she went on.
Chris had lived with his mother’s adamant proclamations all his life and was uncomfortable with the number of times she was right. Their move from the beach, his father’s death by heart attack, his own slow failure at college and other aspects of experience so far. “Stay in next Friday night,” she had told him when he was seventeen and still overtly angry at his mother’s decision to leave her husband. He’d ignored her advice and nearly been killed when his best friend rammed a pickup truck into a tree. A broken leg. Two broken ribs. Broken teeth. Wildly, later, he wondered if he hadn’t died because of her, he wondered if she had power beyond mere foretelling. Maybe his various disasters and incompetence would be triply magnified if it weren’t for her good will, or sense of duty, or moral responsibility.
Livia’s hair had been shoulder length since he’d met her at a coffee shop after a potentially lucrative housing sale went through the floor and he needed pie to help him recover before his next viewing. Plain brown shoulder-length hair. She was drinking a large hot chocolate and reading a second hand copy of To The Lighthouse. He’d wanted to talk about life stories but she kept giggling at other people in the diner, the fat man squeezed into a booth and the woman with the pantless child and teenager dressed in a tuxedo. She kept saying, “How did they all arrive here at the same time?” Chris wondered if this was what his mother had meant about being tangled.
Later, he learned that giggling was a rarity with Livia, brought on by the antihistamine she’d taken that first morning to help with a headache.
One affair. Whenever he thought of his transgression he resisted the “only” that seemed an obvious choice of description: only one affair. Before Livia became pregnant. Right before. They went to the same allergist and stood side by side in line at the drugstore and compared symptoms — his: light rash and burning eyes; hers: hair loss, hives, and burning eyes. They had sex once. Only once. Chris cradled this memory when he needed, when he and Livia fought or failed to speak at all for so many hours he lost count. The formality of hotel sheets, a bathroom cleaned by no one they knew, scant soaps that left a residue Chris had trouble believing Livia didn’t notice when she hugged him hello later that night and asked how his appointment at the allergist went. He protected this memory from guilt, even with the birth of a child drawing close. The woman had long wavy black hair and a habit of smoothing her own eyebrows. When he told her about his heart and the way it skipped sometimes like that of an old person, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “C’est la vie!”
Protection, occasional adoration, attention, forgiveness, resonance — these were the parcels he would bring to the family. He hoped the baby was a girl. He would never say how much he hoped for fear of having to hide disappointment from Livia when the game was called, but he hoped passionately, almost desperately, for a girl. He couldn’t tell you why.
Sometimes he thought he could hear his heart above the din of daily pattern. Like a whisper of wind through a brief slit in tissue. Sometimes when he failed to sleep at night he wondered about death, not worrying, wondering, wondering what it would feel like to feel nothing after having spent a whole life exposed to malicious elements. He thought death might feel like clear breathing, smooth skin. He wondered what Livia would do when he died; he hoped she would marry someone who liked to fall asleep within a single moment of rest, someone who would share anxiety instead of adding to it.
On the days he loved her, he loved her new shape and the new weight of her. He loved the brown mole on her thigh and the near constant purse on her lips. He thought his wife deserved credit for taking on so much of the worry, and loved her for doing it; she was like his mother in that way, her worry helped him to live in a fairly pleasant surrender just as his mother’s predictions allowed him to pursue those few risks he felt made up his real life, like his one, precious love affair.
As the engine slowed toward another aging, graying pier, Livia could hear Chris’ voice behind her. “Fishermen have a good year this year?”
Rondeau’s answer was mixed and garbled with the screams of gulls and she couldn’t tell from the slight inflection she picked up whether he was annoyed at the barrage of questions or generally stoic, but she could guess that he would answer as shortly as possible and let the matter go. The baby inside had not moved during the trip. She hadn’t felt a flutter since this time yesterday. This had happened before. The doctor said normal. Chris said not to worry. If the baby was dead that would show them all that they should have listened to her concerns. She imagined the boatman lived in a small, neat apartment above a hardware store or next to the early morning diner and that he woke every morning to the smell of other people’s coffee and bacon.
“It’s a walk,” Rondeau stated as he helped her out of the boat, heaved her out of the boat, held her arm until she stopped her sudden, lumbered, leaning sway. “It’s a slope.”
They formed a line: Rondeau, Chris, Livia. The two men carried duffel bag and cooler. Livia carried the baby.
The breeze on the island seemed quieter but denser, more compact, like a solid, overstuffed pillow flailing again and again. Livia thought about Chris’ heart and was angry that he didn’t slow down and take it easy, but rushed up the slight slope like all was at stake, leaving her behind to pick her way over pine needles and scrubby shrubs. Forcing her attention away from the silence inside her she thought about the boatman’s apartment; she saw a space small and careful, necessary detritus sequestered in quiet drawers; toilet, sink and tub wiped free of hair and lint. He would keep the middle stretch of his floor empty and free and line his possessions (chair, television, bookcase filled with manuals and biographies) along the walls in a pattern suggesting discipline and loneliness.
Rondeau turned back once to look down at her but she didn’t notice until she caught the motion of his body turning back to face forward out of the corner of her eye. She was paying close attention to the precarious ground.
The cabin sat sweetly between two tall pines – immediate dangers in a storm.
Chris tipped the yellow flower pot from the top wooden step and found the key where the landlord had instructed. Before inserting the key he tried the doorknob and it moved, it allowed him through and he looked back at Livia and Rondeau and shrugged and grinned. Livia tried to remember where in the bag she had packed their phone. And the list of numbers, doctor, midwife, insurance company, closest hospital.
Inside was crowded with furniture you might find in a permanent city apartment — large and cumbersome, bulky, solemn despite obvious wear and too long of a sentence in damp, chilled, salty weather. Livia had expected more emptiness: a fireplace with a braided rug to catch the embers, two minimalist rocking chairs, a rickety kitchen table. As Chris and Rondeau dropped their baggage on the kitchen floor she saw herself briefly, a vision – naked and sweaty and frothing on the floor amidst the several stuffed wrinkled leather chairs, a look on her face of unfiltered panic and pain and no sign of a baby, or a husband, or a boatman, just Livia alone held down by a previously inconceivable weight. The vision dissipated as Chris and Rondeau shook hands and nodded and Chris smiled. Rondeau turned to Livia and she wanted to convince him not to go, not to leave her on an island with a still baby.
“See you in two days,” he said.
“Tell your mother…” Nothing else came. But Rondeau nodded as if she had said something perfect and profound.
The cabin smelled of wood, old newspapers, pine trees, a ghosty scent of previous renters. And an animal smell, wet and dry at the same time.
Rondeau turned to leave and shut the cabin door behind himself and Livia thought that would have been the perfect time for a movement from the baby, a kick or wave, and she listened extra inwardly but nothing came.
“Home for two days,” Chris said cheerfully and she couldn’t bear it. She moved as fast as she had in two months around the displaced furniture to the window and slammed her forearms against it and shouted no words, feeling as she did how ridiculous she looked, how prophetically insanely she was behaving, but she felt in some distant core that she was losing her child, that the man walking back down the path toward the ocean was someone she would never get to know. She screamed and flailed herself against the glass and behind her Chris muttered, “What the hell?” and in front of her a man failed to turn to find the source of commotion.