ANOTHER HOT, DRY JANUARY NIGHT and Gwen yanks down her blanket then the sheet, sweating, sleepless, thinking about the affair that derailed her life in Maine, her mother in the next room and her son bunking with lunatics in Honolulu. It began three years before the end of her marriage, stopped half a year after she discovered what a loser the prick was, then picked right back up again when she realized she didn’t care. Turns out it wasn’t her emotional life Gwen was fixated on, whether she was still capable of having one; it was the sex that drove her back. Affairs are like that sometimes. Rob found out the Christmas everything blew apart. Cliché, but that’s how the ship went down.
Go back four years, Buddy’s an especially rude and hostile thirteen year old, and it seemed Rob and Gwen had permanently weaned themselves from any love in their marriage, just habit. The problem, as Gwen has come to see it, was that they had made each other up—he was her revolution and she his runner, his long-legged champion, and as time blew by and they weren’t these things anymore, their fantasies evaporated like smoke into the ozone, leaving the waste of what might have been possible. Some live their whole lives without enchantment, grasp on to one or two sweet moments, and these are enough to feed a marriage, or at least keep it from starving to death. What was it that made the Canada/Johnstone/Winter clan demand more?
Gwen felt like she was withering on the vine. Mostly what she wanted to do was sleep; even breathing was a chore. Despair a fist inside her chest had replaced her lungs, squeezing, releasing, squeezing, releasing just enough to keep her alive. Rob accused her of drinking too much, not totally a drunk he clarified, but too much all the same. “You should quit,” he said.
“You think that’s going to change me, make me better, a perfect wife and mother, cure me? It will still be me, Rob, just sober.”
It was a cold spring that year, ground still winter-hard when Gwen gave notice at the school. She couldn’t bear it any longer, classrooms of children who would never go anywhere, be anyone, knowing she could do nothing to affect this; poverty had already marked them, stamped them with who they could and couldn’t be. And then she had nothing. She was at Speedy’s, the University’s copy center having her CV run off twenty times to apply for God knows what twenty other jobs, twenty teaching positions she didn’t want and wouldn’t get, just to convince Rob she was trying. His creed was either you’re in a job or you’re searching for one, because, heaven forbid! you wouldn’t want “dead space” on your resume. Alyn Crysler, Assistant Professor of Biology, was copying an article for Bio 101.
The article is what she stared at to avoid sliding her eyes at him, his cut face, tan drifts of hair breezing across a sure forehead, smile like some toothpaste god. Behavioral Discrepancies In Arctic Animals. Whir of the machines in the background, their chemical stench filled her nostrils. She pictured him an animal in her own bed, erasing Rob’s turned-toward-the-wall spine. “I’m a flagrant violator of the copy rights law,” he admitted, winking; “no tree is safe around me.” Gwen had in mind a different kind of violation and blushed.
The next day she walked up and down the block in front of Speedy’s like some shameless schoolgirl, until he approached from the opposite direction. A brief, strained conversation punctuated by the roar of the traffic; the following day he bought her coffee at Starbucks. She wondered briefly why he didn’t meet her on campus—was he ashamed to be seen with her?—then dismissed it in the steam of her latte, the precise angle of his chin.
After their third refill he asked did she want to take a ride with him? He knew a beach, he said. Which turned out to be the cove. They drove down from Augusta in his cobalt Fiat, Route 17, hills like bones on either side, nonspecific conversation. Gwen felt something light up inside herself and was concentrating on it, this fiery new sense of her. She didn’t have much to say. She wondered what she would do. Hadn’t explored these limits before, the extramarital flirtation (she was calling it just that, at this point), didn’t even know if she had any. His hands were anchored on the steering wheel, and Gwen wished he’d put one on her leg, then prayed he wouldn’t. What would Jesus say? Though she’d have to confess: Jesus was not on her mind. Alyn parked the Fiat and like a puppy Gwen followed him on the familiar path, down a meandering wildflower-strewn cliff in the summer, barren of everything but dried yellow grass during any other season. It didn’t occur to her she could be seen, exposed, this stark walk to the beach, that Rob might see her if he was driving home from the prison. (Three and a half years later this is in fact exactly what happens). And anyway, they hadn’t done anything yet. Yet? It was as if she’d been shot up with a spinal-block of the mind, all that raw electric nerve energy flowing everywhere but her good sense.
The day was bright and cool, beach deserted, the bay a skin of grey. “Where I come from the sea’s blue,” she murmured, feeling instantly foolish. Filler talk. He didn’t give a damn where Gwen came from. Best not to know too much. Knowing means thinking, and if she started thinking she might think her way out of this. He grinned and squeezed her hand. “Could be red or puce right now and that’s OK by me,” he said. A man who uses the word puce! Even Gwen’s fingertips were sizzling; she tucked her hand into his, hoping he wouldn’t feel its clamminess despite the chilled air. Sight of the ocean, its smell, the grainy tickle of salt air quickened Gwen’s breath. Alyn’s hair blew across his forehead, delicate and web-like. Probably this meant, when she thinks about it now, that he was already losing his hair, that broad uncluttered forehead.
They ducked under a ledge of deep green spruce, the final steep descent of the trail pouring them onto the rocky shore. High tide, a wind rising off the frigid water and small waves slid silkily up toward their feet, retreating over thousands of pebbles with a sound like a motorcycle backfiring. Gwen shivered and he slung his arm over her shoulder. “Cold?” Heart thumping she nodded, falling deeper into his arms.
Desire was a quivery, melting sensation, staggering and immediate. She pressed against him, the shadow of his face over hers blocking the white glare of the sun, his lips smothering hers, sucking hers inside his, the mingling tastes of mint and salt. Toothpaste god. Hers. His. Barriers becoming less distinct. His hand on her breast, feeling the prod of his erection in her groin. “I’m not always so impulsive,” she whispered. Somehow Gwen needed him to know this, that this was her yet it wasn’t. Then she didn’t care what he knew, who he was or who she was. In the distance the wail of a ship pulling out of Rockland Harbor, gulls wheeled and soared.
That night Gwen examined herself in the bathroom mirror, Rob snoring from the bedroom, her thighs, buttocks, covered with bruises, darkening signposts of the rocky beach that had been their bed. Alyn Crysler. Ran her fingers over those bruises, their purplish heat, wondering who she had become.
January still, still hot, and Gwen again awakes after only an hour of sleep with the panicky sense of something wrong. It’s a way of waking peculiar to the volcano area, animals can sense an upcoming eruption and act queer all day, but people, less sensitive in their daytime lives, going about their business oblivious to the troubling smells of things, are more open in their sleep, waking suddenly, fretfully, instinctively. Before falling asleep she’d been thinking about Alyn again, though she tried not to—a penance perhaps? She’s not Catholic, can’t go to confession and emerge absolved. Do you miss him? She’d asked her sleep-starved self. No, she concluded, not him, it. Him was an abstraction, a person who served a role in her life, EXTRAMARITAL LOVER. The it, a love affair, was what was alive, reminding her she was alive, a person with a heart, a pulse, genitals, desired, desirous. It gave her back her life, not him. She’d slept little hashing through all of this. Now she rubs her eyes, snags a deep breath.
It hasn’t rained in months. The rain forest, normally pungent and dripping with moisture, beads of it like sweat in the fronds of ferns, appears to be shrinking, turning in on itself in the strange Hawaiian winter heat. Giant leaves of ginger sag to the ground, as if the weight of their own blossoms is unbearable. Ferns are hard and brittle at their tips from the vog, the acidic breath of the volcano, their leaves like fringes of decayed teeth. Her mother’s anthuriums, planted years ago and cared for passionately until Madge’s sickness became too distracting, are dried out and cracked, waxy colors fading like old lipstick. Their water tank is dangerously low. Water, the silvery thread of life pumped into the area’s catchment homes has become a commodity, to be sold, bargained for, even stolen.
This time it isn’t Madam Pele that’s shaken Gwen awake so suddenly, however. She calls the Park Service from the landline on her night table and the recording says that Kilauea, erupting for years now, is presently a thin lava rivulet creeping toward the sea. Shaking off the sensation of wanting to fall back asleep she climbs out of bed, pulls on her bathrobe and moves over to the window. Something is wrong.
And there’s Madge in the yard below, wild haired and butt-naked in the moonlight, arms outstretched as if she’s sleep walking, zombie-like lurches heading straight toward the rift ahead, Mauna Loa a luminous giant in the moon-painted distance. Fear seizes Gwen’s chest. She breaks away from the window, tears through the house and rushes outside wailing, “No, No, No!” A few more steps and her mother will tumble, sucked into the earth, its gaping trench sheltered by the abundance of ferns and ohia Madge once coveted, graceful, botanical courtesans decked in green, coyly disguising a mortal danger.
Gwen hurls herself down on the hard dry ground, tackling Madge around her ankles, her bird-boned body collapsing in front of Gwen’s like pickup sticks. “Where in God’s name do you think you’re going! Why the hell do you do these things to me?” They lie panting in pili grass not even damp with dew, Gwen’s own heartbeat crackling in her ears. “You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you? Just to make my life more miserable than it already is. You don’t care! You never cared!”
“This? What’s this?” Madge shrieks. Then she’s quiet, peering around the yard blinking.
She doesn’t even understand where she is, Gwen realizes. Must have been having one of those brain episodes. She sits up, then pulls Madge up into a sitting position beside her. “You think I want this to be happening to you, Mother? This isn’t exactly easy for me either. My life is crumbling like it’s built on sand. Don’t you think I need you? Don’t you understand I’ve always needed you? For Lord’s sake, it’s always been you. When the hell is it ever about me? When’s my turn for attention!”
Madge starts to cry, a shrill, tremulous keening. Gwen rises, yanking her up by her underarms, hollow as two empty flour sacks, then marches her across the parched grass back to the house. She’s determined Madge won’t wail her way out of this one, make Gwen pity her, not this time. Inside she sits her mother down on her rocker and examines her, for what she doesn’t know—some kind of brokenness manifest on the outside, all the while Gwen understands what’s damaged in her mother is too deep to see. Madge continues to cry, a little slower, softer, then a whimper like a hum, a disturbance of the air around her. Gwen covers her naked body with the pink and pale yellow afghan her Grandma Ana had knitted, baby colors. Madge’s mother never had the chance to see her daughter grown up. She notices the stain of tears on her mother’s face, her swollen eyes. Madge has been crying for a long time.
OK, Gwen’s thinking, is hers the only broken heart? “So you figure you won something tonight getting out of the house? I didn’t tie you because I thought I’d allow you a little dignity for one night, now look what you’ve done.” God the cruelty of it! These little strokes, as though in erasing bits of a person’s brain, the memory that charts who she’s been, her very soul is rubbed out. “Do you see why I have to tie you, Mother? Do you get it now? You almost ended up in the rift, for Jesus’ sake!”
Madge snaps her mouth shut, rolls her eyes up, tosses her head back against the back of her rocking chair and glowers at the ceiling, her belligerent, sulky I’m not saying a word to you look. Gwen sighs, closes her eyes for a moment, and then in the quiet she hears it. The faint, steady whisper of running water. Pops open her eyes. “Oh dear Christ! Tell me you didn’t. Did you turn on our water out there? Jesus, why would you do a thing like that in the middle of a goddamn drought!” Gwen tugs the kimono sash still attached to the back of the chair around Madge’s waist, knotting it tight—she doesn’t care if it hurts her! snatches a flashlight off the shelf by the door and dashes back outside.
Under the yellow glow of the lanai light Gwen sees it, a stream of it like it’s supposed to be there, natural and unassuming as a mountain brook, from the runoff hose at the base of their water tank. She shines her flashlight on the gauge after twisting the spigot taut. The tank is almost dry. Flopping down on the muddy ground where their water ran free Gwen sobs, her back pressed up against the aluminum side of the tank. They’ll have to buy it from Hilo now, shuttled up in trucks when the drivers get around to it, Hawaiian time, no sweat yeah? Water, the price of imported beer. And where will this money come from?
At her mother’s last appointment Dr. Alvarez suggested that maybe it was time to consider a nursing home. She pointed out Madge’s thinness, eating like a moth these days. “It’s her way of exerting some control. I could admit her to the hospital, put her on a feeding tube, but that just buys time, you understand?” Juli’s slender fingers hooked over Gwen’s hand, squeezing for a second, then let go.
Where will the money come from? Rob still sends a check for Buddy’s schooling, a little extra now and then, nothing to depend on and nothing legally binding until they are officially divorced. Gwen’s without a job so they’re living off Madge’s social security, her savings dwindling and soon maybe dry as the tank. She’s struck with a sudden memory, an especially gentle moment between her mother and herself just months ago, when she seemed almost normal, accepting of the two of them together, wanting Gwen to be with her. It felt the way it’s supposed to, mother and daughter, cooking then eating dinner, enjoying a cup of decaf afterward. Madge made Gwen promise she wouldn’t put her away.
This is what occurs to Gwen, that she’s living her life in myths: the myth her son will come home and nothing will have changed between them; the myth her mother can get better if she just finds the patience to give Madge more of herself, not resent her mother for taking it; the myth Rob might find life unbearable without his family and become the man he was when she married him. The myth she can somehow crawl out of this sinking life into a better one.
Two nights ago she found her mother on her bedroom floor weeping. Madge had fallen from her bed, but she didn’t remember it. She was too weak to even pick herself up. Gwen helped her back into bed, tying her wrist gently to the mahogany bedpost with the kimono sash. “So you don’t fall out again,” she told her. Felt like some kind of criminal, tying down her mother when it was so heartbreakingly obvious that what Madge wanted was to be free.
Gathering herself up off the ground, trailing her hand over the scaly side of the tank, Gwen moves heavily back into her mother’s house. There was a question she had asked after her affair with Alyn was finally over. What will she have to pay?