I am trying to get our towels to lie flat when Suzanne notices a red plastic shovel half buried.
Someone left this, she says.
The sand here felt silky when we were barefoot looking for a spot. Now the wind picks it up and throws it in my face; I am losing sight of green terry cloth shapes so close my eyes and does she really expect me to respond to that? One shovel another shovel one plastic another Coca-Cola bottle in the ocean the end of the world all washing under not our child or our recuperation. When I spit the sand out of my mouth my saliva leaves a darker tan puddle on the beach. It is almost the shape of a shell.
This is the part of the argument where she brings it up without bringing it up. Sideways. Half buried. And when you fish the problem out from her speech she will say it’s you that made it. Beware the jellies here and how they sting. I remember the first time I went in because of the phosphor. The water was cool around me.
I think I’m burning.
Suzanne doesn’t speak but takes the white tube of SPF 30 from her bag. It’s not till we’re back at the car that she says, Maybe we shouldn’t have come. Or maybe we should have only stayed a week.
I’ve got sand in the seat upholstery and hope they don’t mind at Budget. The road is black and open. We can see the tan earth far in all directions. I want to say something about the spare strange plants, how they contort themselves in order to stay low.
Poor kid, Suzanne says, lost his shovel.
As we go up I look at myself in the brushed steel wall of the lift. Suzanne is checking her phone. We’ve brought some wine and a cake that Suzanne bought but wants to say she made. I would have thought we were all right with just the wine but I don’t need another marine argument. I’ve been holding the bag as steady as I can so that the icing doesn’t come off on the side of the cake box. This has required wrist control. No tilting. I press my top lip to my bottom lip. I want my shoulders to be bigger than they are. I thank Suzanne again for pressing the front of my jacket.
She looks up. In the texture of the steel, my eyes meet two shapes that make clear that her eyes are behind me. The shapes are impassive, I turn around, the dark eyes of my wife are impassive as well. I want so badly for our problems to be fractures in communication only. As I see it, she does not understand that I want to give her the things that she wants. But what she wants and what she once wanted have pulled away from each other, a thick film of soap forming a glossy bubble. I can find nothing in our tense and floating space, and my fingers are clumsy when afraid.
On the beach trip, I made an effort to explain myself in full. I started with the part I thought would please her: of course I want us to have a baby someday. Of course. It was morning near the dunes; we walked towards toddlers who built and destroyed sand castles in a wetter sand. I told her why I wanted to wait and about the deals, I saw emerging from the distance and the beautifully inlaid life I knew we could have. But she wasn’t listening; out of the corner of her eye, she was watching something fall to pieces. You know, she said, I make money too, or had you forgotten, and then she walked off.
That evening I saw her drinking something clear in the hotel bar. She was looking out at the big view of the sea beneath us, expanse and foam all rolling, and I did not see the possibilities she saw but I saw her see them. Her forehead was broad and relaxed like it was ten years ago when we were brilliantly young and tender with each other. I thought about the few times in the past month when awake and sweaty at the open centre of the night, I’d tiptoed to the bathroom and unzipped her medicine bag carefully, slowly, to check there was one less pill in the packet and one more blistered space. I do not think she noticed me. Most nights she slept wrapped in the greater part of our white top sheet and so when I lay back down next to her it did not overly disturb the arrangement of our bedding. I slid into the spot where I had been. Increasingly there was no reason to invade her privacy.
We are early. Suzanne knows first, perhaps from the shoes in the corridor, long laces crisscrossing the runner on the floor. She takes a delicate step past me and onto the carpet. Then she looks at Lou and asks if we can help with anything.
Wasn’t it seven? I say, my hand outstretched. Lou grasps it and adds Thirty. But it’s fine. I want to hear all about the trip. Excuse me for just one second, before I forget.
He grabs the shoes and walks quickly to the right, to some private area into which I have never been invited. Suzanne is annoyed with me for getting the time wrong. I remind her quietly that Lou is an old friend and anyway not the type to take small infringements too seriously. When he comes back we follow him into the kitchen. At the island, I take the box out of the bag and set it on the counter. Suzanne removes the tape and raises the thin white lid.
Wow, says Lou. I too say good things in the fluorescence of the lights. Then I bring out the wine but Lou is still talking about how beautiful the cake looks.
It’s sparkling, I say. It will need to stay cold.
Suzanne offers to help Lou chop. I put the wine in the fridge myself. When I turn back his fingertips are next to hers on the flat top edge of the metal portion of a knife as the blade underneath flutters an onion into small curved squares. I say I can put out snacks. I find the cheese and the crackers and some olives; I get a small bowl for the pits for lack of something better to do.
Together Lou and Suzanne dispense with the security of a pepper and the integrity of various tomatoes. The whole time she’s holding the handle. Suzanne told me once that a good technique for stability was to rest your spare hand on top of the blade. This is how they get that even dice, she said, all the pieces the same, like on MasterChef. She said this about onions and I had never thought the weight would be helpful for fleshier vegetables or that an extra hand would be appropriate but Lou’s fingers stay until nothing on the cutting board is intact; instead, there is an even field of glistening colour. Some of it goes into the salad and some of will be roasting while we drink.
An oily baking tray is sliding into the oven when the doorbell rings; more guests have arrived.
Did Lou tell you, says the woman to my left, he’s adopted an iguana? I put my fork back onto my plate and finish chewing.
Adopted? I say.
Most people are surprised by the lizard part, not the adoption part.
Lou’s voice is always jovial and goes so far in space. It is easy and free. I know I do not sound like that; my tones get tripped up trying to hold on to what is near me and then they can’t make it as far. I hear Lou like a bell even though he is not close by but rather at the far corner of his long table; he does not need to place himself at its head to command attention. His voice comes to me cleanly and distinctly, along with—for the first time—the possibility that I dislike him. It is unsettling.
The whole thing is surprising. The iguana part and the adoption part. I mean, I didn’t think iguanas were something you adopted. I thought you just, you know, bought them. At the pet shop.
You can adopt anything, says Lou. Iguanas. Habits, good and bad.
People laugh. Suzanne is seated to Lou’s left. He looks away from her face and says, At any rate, actually, I’ve got a gecko.
Yes. A Tokay gecko.
To Suzanne’s other side, ginger Mark, whom she clearly finds aggravating (who could know her flinches like I know them?) asks what’s wrong with a nice dog, and chuckles.
Did you know, Lou goes on, that the Tokay gecko can abandon its own tail under stress? If something’s got a hold of the tail it can just let it go. Minimal blood loss, because that’s how the connective tissue has evolved. Exactly to make this possible. And the gecko runs off and the tail’s there still twitching and the predator thinks it’s got what it came for. The Tokay’s not the only reptile that can do this, either. It’s fairly common.
That’s disgusting, says Suzanne, but the life in her eyes is sweet.
Where’s Tokay? someone interjects.
It’s not a place. It’s the sound they make. Tokay! Tokay!
Really, it was easy, says Suzanne, I’ll send you the recipe. Remind me. I’m so glad you like it.
And then she licks the icing from her fork. I get up to help clear.
With coffee Lou serves chocolates dark enough that they are bitter even to vision, along with casual sliced oranges and sugared ginger that sticks to the plate.
Lou, says the woman to my left, you do know how to live. Now she is placing a second chocolate in her mouth, Suzanne is blushing, I am imagining sweat on my wife’s thighs.
At this point, I have recounted the beach trip more than once and there is nothing more to say about bugs and ripped holes in hammock chairs. I don’t mention Suzanne’s clear drink by the ocean. There is nothing more to say about the how much sun there was. No, we have no special plans upcoming. I don’t know much about Coltrane and if I’m honest I doubt Mark does either, but there’s no need for honesty. When he and Dolores put their coats on I put my hand on Suzanne’s shoulder and say we should go too.
Not quite yet, she says and sits on Lou’s blue sofa. Without looking she runs her fingers through the fronds of the houseplant positioned on a shelf above her shoulder as the last of the other guests thank their host and shuffle into the hall. Lou goes to pour us a drink. I watch Suzanne’s hand moving slowly and surrounded by green.
Lou, she calls out, tell me where you’re from. I don’t think I’ve ever heard.
Lou is from approximately where I am from. I did not know him as a child but in our first meeting, we discovered the relative geographical proximity of our parents’ homes. The spaciousness of his upbringing had not yet positioned itself between us, or rather at nineteen I thought I could elide its insistence there. Extra rooms were extra rooms, and I knew I could have them. I did not yet have a wife, but when I did she would not rest her head on Lou’s blue sofa or her hand on his knee while I washed oranges away with an awkward grappa. I would construct the perfect life around her; I would make the most extraordinary extra rooms. I am sure I have told her the things that Lou is saying now.
Suzanne, I say, I think it’s time to go.
So go. Do what you want. You’re entitled.
In her eyes I see a challenge but can’t find it, don’t know how to take it up.
It’s all right, I say, and I stand and walk down the hall. I take my grappa with me.
The clock in Lou’s office shows me how late it is. I can hear them laughing behind me, I can hear them saying my name in an anecdotal incidental kind of way that impedes nothing. I hesitate before deciding it is better to shut the door than to leave it open. Suzanne’s voice invades the slight space left next to the frame and she can almost open the door again with that laugh, clear all the spaces, tear things off their hinges with its force, except that she doesn’t, she doesn’t. And Lou must know that its currents have nothing to do with him, and I don’t think Suzanne really cares.
In the corner of the room, in a lit terrarium, an orange-spotted lizard takes quick steps along a branch, then freezes. I refrain from tapping on the glass.
Now Suzanne doesn’t laugh anymore. I am looking at the objects Lou keeps on the edges of his bookshelves as decoration. I see stones and jars of ink and long-bleached coral. A framed photograph of the children without the ex-wife. Then there are paperweights that are not weighting paper. I imagine they were gifts if not souvenirs. Straight to the spot on the edge of the shelf, decoration. Marker of facile and shallow bonds. You give paperweights to people you don’t really know precisely because no one can possibly need them. I see an arrowhead. I see a glass animal. Behind all these, I see spines, spines, spines.
I think of what I read in the news about the Great Barrier Reef. Scientists say that in layman’s terms it’s dead now. I think about a gargantuan shared skeleton that sprawls at the bottom of the ocean. Pale hard shapes, no longer teeming with anything. I wonder when the fish know it’s time to vacate the area, if they wait for the whole thing to go white or if they leave at the first sign of trouble; I wonder if different fish make different decisions.
Tokay! the gecko calls, before curling up in the warmth of its own little artificial sun.
I imagine disrupting the scene in the living room but instead slide my hands into my pockets. This slithering action is all that extends itself to me. Then Suzanne comes in dressed for the weather with my coat slung over one forearm, and she says, Let’s go.
When we get home we do not talk. I lie in the bed and hear the shower turn on. She undresses as if I am not there. I hear the noise of the water soften when it is hitting her skin and no longer the tile.
January now. Loneliness brings mornings to our bed. I remember the years when I slept cold because I loved her; I did not want to wake her by pulling the blankets back.
At the front of my nightstand drawer, I keep two books and some first aid supplies. When we moved in I told Suzanne that we shouldn’t buy intermediate furniture; we would use what we had until the rosewoods of her heart were a viable option. This made her happy then. My shirts are still in a beige office cabinet with flaking paint and sharp corners. Once, when I was naked and careless, it tore a red line through my leg’s dry skin; after I got a bandage from the kitchen I had to douse parts of the carpet with water and hope for the best. You can’t find the stain if you don’t know it’s there, and even then only barely, on the line between vision and hallucination, teetering.
We’ll have to replace that cabinet before the baby comes, or at least before it’s crawling around. Rosewoods will have to be for other lives.
When Suzanne tells me she has found the paperweight I know she has gone through my drawer. Not just opened it but gone through it; I know because of the books and bandages and painkillers that occlude things behind them. This morning she says that I will have to find a way to give it back without Lou noticing. She says we are lucky if he hasn’t put two and two together already; then she buttons her black coat’s top button.
Martin, she says, I’m embarrassed—I mean, a paperweight, to steal a paperweight from a friend who’s invited us for dinner—is that when you took it? Don’t tell me, Christ you’re embarrassing, honestly Martin, and shuts the door behind her.
The flat is large around me. I know that I have blistered my world with ingratitude, that it flinches at my clammy and ill-disposed touch. When I walk through my days now I hurt them. Take me back to what I stole; take me back to what was stolen.
Not worth surprise that Suzanne recognises the things from Lou’s office. Not worth thinking further, not worth, not. Do not. Do not.
I text Lou, ask how he is. Is that the best way to start this? I want to put all of my shames in their places, shelve them like books, close the library door. I will admit no new borrowers. Nevertheless, it’s awkward, this conversation: finding the shelf space and discarding duplicate copies.
I tell Lou I want to drop something off at his house. Was in a bookshop, saw something he’d like, thought of him, when might he be home? And we can have a drink. Yes. No, not doing anything at the minute, really.
Paperweight in jacket pocket, I walk five minutes to the bookshop; the blueness of the sky is devastating. Your New Reptile: A Guide to Ownership. I put my card in the reader. Yes, I say, this is a gift for someone. The attendant folds paper, the attendant’s manicured hand pulls clear tape past the serrated metal edge of office supply. Suzanne’s blouse, blouses, unbuttoning. Also the little buttons at her wrists, silver that night. The attendant makes the last crease and folds the last end in.