She always saw him between worlds, when the only certain thing she could say about her life was in transition. He had shown up at her apartment door the same week in May she’d dropped out of her second college in as many years. He was driving cross-country from Portland, Oregon to Philadelphia to see an old girlfriend. “You were on the way,” he said, the usual grin spreading his thin face. She knew Bozeman, Montana was not on the way, not if you wanted to get somewhere, and a secret thrill pinched her stomach.
Later, after Asian food at a new restaurant rumored to be owned by occultists, they drove up Hyalite Canyon and sat by the lake to watch the moon. It rose yellow as honey, hardened to a silvery pearl as the hours passed. They huddled, arms around each other, the way they had in his dorm room that first year at the private college she’d failed out of, after they’d tried to analyze each other’s dreams for psychology class and, once, the possibility of past lives.
On that past life night, candles flickering on his desk and windowsill, she’d fallen into a deep meditation, listening to the soothing voice on his mother’s New Age tapes, imagining she was pulling right out of her body, up through the dorm, floating. When she lighted down, she saw herself in chains, weighted to the ground, bent in supplication. After the tape had snapped off, after they’d cuddled up—their only physical intimacy—to watch the wax drip, she’d said aloud that she was once somebody’s slave.
“Yikes,” he said, shifting his weight away from her. When she couldn’t explain, she said she had to study for a biology test, and she’d spent the evening walking alone through the tiny town’s empty streets, daring the dogs to bark at her.
Once, before the end of the school year, he’d kissed her in a wheat field where they’d gone to study the stars for an astronomy final. A single, lingering kiss. She felt herself rise out of her body, just for a moment. And then she transferred in-state, failing out again before the summer constellations returned to the sky.
As they huddled under the same stars, he asked, “How happy are you?”
That’s how he was, assuming the best and wanting only to hear of its intensity. “Happy,” she said. “You?”
He shivered when the spring wind launched off the lake and said, “This life treats me well. I must have figured something out in the last one.”
“Do you really believe in past lives?” she asked, thinking again of their last kiss and the whisper of wheat.
“Maybe not literally,” he answered after careful consideration. “But I believe in the past and how it can seem like a life that’s no longer yours.”
“Yes,” he laughed. “I’m so utterly profound.” Yes, she thought, you are.
He dropped her at her apartment with a warm, brotherly hug, thanking her for their moonlight talk. He had a motel room and an early start planned. She unlocked the door to the empty kitchen, aching, watching the tile floor wash white with the streetlight, recede like the tide when she shut the door.
The next time they met, she had her business degree and a hospital job that sent her to conferences like the one in Portland—Health Care and Public Image in the Electronic Age—that she skipped to go hiking along the coast with him.
He seemed taller and thinner, a six-foot reed bent into a waterproof jacket. And he had a trim beard. But he hugged the same, as full and warm as skinny arms can manage.
They had breakfast first, plate-sized pancakes and coffee that burned her tongue. She remembered letters after that moonlit visit in which he pondered chaos theory and the New Age for pages, telling her how they each had multiple lives running at the same time, that every decision made took the present life one direction, the possible life onto some other, now impossible plane.
“Do you still wonder about the lives you didn’t live?” she asked.
His face scrunched into a frown as his mind searched. He knitted his fingers together, and a thin band of gold flashed out at her.
“How every choice erases one life and opens another?” she prompted, sure she was quoting the letter. She’d read it that many times.
“Oh that.” He laughed. “I used to think all kinds of things.”
She glanced into her coffee cup and saw that it was nearly empty. She waved at the waitress for a refill, changed her mind. There were no bathrooms on the trails he’d choose.
The trees were dense and lush green at the base of the trail, a wet, glimmering canopy like something in a fairy tale. Wrapped in the second waterproof jacket he’d been smart enough to bring, she labored up the path behind him, trying to disguise her ragged breath. The trail wasn’t so steep, and her lack of endurance disgusted her. He talked, asking questions, carrying the pack with their lunch, his camera, and a hidden bottle of wine, and she grunted her replies, stopping occasionally to feign interest in some plant or retie her bootlaces while she calmed her breath. By the time the trees began to thin and the sky opened wide and blue, her skin was tacky and damp. She couldn’t be sure if she smelled the salt of the ocean just beyond the hill or her own sweat.
“Close your eyes,” he commanded, stopping suddenly to cover her face with his large hand. She smelled him then, soap and musk, a smell she could inhale until her lungs collapsed. She let him walk her slowly up and over a crest in the hill before he took away his hand.
Eyes still closed, she felt the ache she had that night in Bozeman. She held onto that tight hurt in her chest a moment before letting go and opening her eyes.
“Sweet Jesus.” She whispered the words, and the ache came back in wide, rolling waves in rhythm with the blue ocean she saw from this mountainside. Miles of rolling water stretching back to where the misty clouds swallowed it, stretching forward in a steady series of waves to the rocky shore where the white surf pounded and slid back. She heard it a beat after she saw it. Shh-thum. Shh-thum. Like a watery heart. They stood in fractured sunlight.
“I knew you’d like it.” He stood off to the side, coat flapping in the strong wind. That grin. For a moment, a splurge of a moment, she imagined this was heaven, he the gatekeeper who’d just unlocked her apartment door, revealing a whole rushing world of water, sky, and diving gulls, asking her to take that last step over the threshold.
“Yes,” she said. He knelt to open his backpack and she saw him down on one knee. “Yes,” she said again, then remembered the ring he already wore. He pulled out a small blanket to lay on the damp grass and a plastic sack of sandwiches, and she felt silly and young, like he’d evolved into a man while she’d gone back to the college freshman who’d said she was a slave.
They ate lunch and tasted the wine before deciding it was too sweet. He stopped another couple hiking past and asked them to take a photo, so she nestled into his chest with the whole ocean behind her, her hair streaming in her face, and said “cheese.”
Later, when he sent a copy, she’d see that her eyes were closed, that even if she’d opened them, she’d be looking in the wrong direction.
After that embrace, they didn’t let go. He thanked the couple and took the camera in one hand, keeping the other pressed against her back. They sat again, and he said he was cold, so she moved closer. They talked about people they knew—Jonas from the dorm who’d hanged himself the year after she left, Rhonda, her old roommate, pregnant with her third— and then his lips were on hers, more open and pressing harder than the time before. Everything amplified: the whisper of wheat now the roar of an ocean.
She kissed back, sliding into the taste of the sweet wine on his tongue and the salt of his lips. The beard scratched at her chin and she thought suddenly of Albert.
“I’ve been seeing someone,” she said, pulling away, stunned at how bright the sun had grown.
“Oh? Anyone I know?” he joked, the weight of his arm on her shoulder.
“Albert. He’s an optometrist.”
“How happy are you?”
“In which life?”
She watched from their vantage point high on the cliff as a group of teenagers chased each other on the rocky beach below. She remembered a trip a group of them had taken that first spring of her first college, a month before he’d kissed her. Camping at Palouse Falls, where she’d sat alone at the top, watching the fierce tumble of water, wondering what it would feel like to fall and fall and fall. Though in her fantasy she’d never reached the ground. She remembered now that he hadn’t been there, but Jonas had been. Always playing “Let It Be” on his guitar, he must have known on some intuitive level that it was the last spring of his life.
“In the optometrist life,” he answered.
She thought about Albert with his prickly beard and old-fashioned name, how they’d been together three and a half months and he already imagined how their children might look, how he could sit in a room so quietly that she almost forgot he was there. How she liked that.
“Happy,” she said. “And he keeps my vision 20/20.” It was like a prophecy, saying that. She peered out in the surf with his arm still carefully curled around her shoulder, and she gasped, really seeing for once. “Look, whales.” She pointed, and then he saw them too, killer whales playing in the surf, glimpses of their shiny black tops cresting the waves, spouting plumes of white water.
They held each other then, watching the whales reverently as darker mist rolled in off the ocean and a family of four hiked by advising them there were grey whales further out.
Why, I bet they think we’re lovers, she thought, while he dug for binoculars in that pack, nearly knocking over the re-corked wine. Would Albert think so if he saw them? Would he say this was cheating? She didn’t have to think long. Of course he would. Just the holding part would strike him as intimate, which it was, and unfair to the children upon whom he’d already imagined his own features. But this was merely another life, a past life she revisited from time to time. The kiss was cheating, something stolen from her present life, but the warmth of another body and the gift of whales—they were hers to hold onto and secret away like the wine.
She’d told Albert about him, her friend from the first college, and she’d mentioned that she’d get to see him, but she hadn’t told him about skipping the conference or how, even when she’d first boarded the plane, her heart had raced with expectation. Albert called him Out There, referring to Portland and the West Coast, but mostly to the stories she’d told of their dream therapy and past lives regression. “That’s out there,” Albert had laughed, and the name had stuck.
“I don’t see any grays,” he said, handing her the binoculars, “but you’re the one with the 20/20 happy life today.”
She looked, trying to find something through the lenses, but had no luck. She even lost track of the orca in the surf.
“Are you seeing anyone?” she asked finally.
“You’re right in my line of vision.” His eyes were warm, searching. He expected her to respond in like, with something witty that would fan the small flame she felt in her belly. She could see in a flash what would happen, that they might not wait for a hotel room, but roll in the surf of their own bodies here on this mountain. The flame rose inside her. She thought of melting wax, of watching it drip on the windowsill all those years ago.
“So you’re still single.” It was mere statement, flat and without wit, and he expelled a soft sigh to hear it.
“Looks like it,” he said, smiling, letting his arm drop to his side. A blade of cool air cut between them, surprising her with a shiver, and she saw him cloak his ringed hand in his coat pocket.
On the flight home, she wished she’d seen the gray whales migrating, sure that if she had, she’d feel fulfilled, wouldn’t have this warm yawning sensation in her belly, this stretching desire with no real object. She wanted something, something more, and as she crunched the fragile ice cubes in her plastic cup, she resolved to break up with Albert.
He was waiting for her with a small bouquet of wildflowers, his beard in desperate need of trimming. He hugged and kissed her and asked what she’d learned about her public image in the electronic age.
“It’s shaky,” she said. “The picture’s always breaking up. You can’t tell what’s real.”
Albert laughed. “You sound like you’ve been Out There.”
“I saw him. He’s a marketing manager now.”
Another merry laugh, a real gut laugh that charmed her the way it rooted her to that very spot in the airport terminal. “That’s what happened to all those New Age guys that every woman wanted. VW and TM turned to pure collar-and-tie MBA.”
“He never had a VW,” she scoffed. “And you need to shave that beard before you start to look like one of those guys.”
She and a clean-shaven Albert married the next year. Her invitation Out There was returned to sender, address unknown, and it wasn’t until she’d had her first baby, a scrawny, cholicky thing she loved with parts of her heart she never knew she had, that she heard anything about him. Rhonda, the old roommate, called to congratulate her and catch up on gossip about the friends they had in common which, after only a year together at college, were few. Of course his name came up. Rhonda said she’d heard he was on the East Coast with his wife now.
“I didn’t know he was married,” she said, trying to sound casual.
“Ooh, girl. That’s a story.” With relish, Rhonda told how his wife was schizophrenic, had been hospitalized more than once, and spent most of their marriage living with her parents instead of him. “It’s sad,” she conceded, “But I always thought she was weird.”
“You knew her?”
“She lived on our floor. You don’t remember Kenna Clay?”
But she had no recollection of someone with that unusual name, couldn’t recall her even when Rhonda described her as stick-thin and pale with short black hair and permanent circles under her eyes. Who could forget a ghost like that?
“How long have they been married?”
“Since the end of college I think. Quite a while. I’m surprised you didn’t know, but now that I think about it, they eloped, and nobody really kept in touch with him.”
The baby started to cry from the other room where Albert was watching him, and she felt her nipples tingle and leak.
“Do they live in Philadelphia?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Rhonda said. “Could be. Some big city out there.”
She nursed her baby when she hung up the phone, feeling the pull of milk like a tide. What if she’d moved to a big city or broken up with Albert when she’d thought to? She held the baby closer, unable to imagine her life as real before this, before she was this body, this mammal mother with so much to give—blood, milk, the waters that had spilled from her. Still, she felt the warmth of his body for a moment, the snugness, the protection of an imagined life. She held her baby even closer, fearful that one of them might smother.
After the second child, a girl, she found the photograph. The two of them on a cliff in Oregon, the sea an impossible blue. His grin, her squint-shut eyes. The perfect second when the shutter stopped the universe, freezing the fierce wind in a swirl of her curls, the sharp flap of their coats, the motionless chop of the waves.
She tried to find him again, but Rhonda was right—no one had kept in touch with him, and his name was so ordinary that every attempt led to thousands of possibilities as though he were all of them, split by a million decisions into a million people, none the right one. She tried the college alumni association, a dozen search engines and e-mail directories. His name gave her passage to nowhere and she realized with growing despair that the trail was cold and choked over with weeds.
She began to stare at photographs. The Oregon one and the ones around the house, wedding pictures, family portraits. She mostly studied her own face. Saw it was composed of bits and pieces, fragments sewn expertly together, even the very molecules, which she knew from basic physics were held together by atoms. Infinite pieces in an accidental combination she called herself.
There was no her. Or maybe there were millions of her and she just hadn’t found the right one.
When Albert found her early one morning, wide-eyed and staring at the pictures in the hall, ghastly circles under her eyes, her skin pale as something unearthed from under a rock, he sent her to a doctor.
When the doctor suggested she go back through her life, looking for the “root,” for the first time she felt failure, she laughed. “In which life?”
“In this one of course.” His brow wrinkled as if he were calculating something very complex.
“Doctor,” she said calmly. “In this life I’m a terrific success.” And she went home to her husband, her beautiful children, and let that life be her life until, only a few months later, Albert was killed while jogging, hit by a driver who’d made the simple, irreversible choice to grope for a dropped pen.
After the funeral, her parents told her to take a trip, leave the children with them, just get away. They meant a cruise or resort, some place she could be pampered, put color back in her mourner’s cheeks. No one understood why she bought a plane ticket to rainy Oregon. But it was her grief, so they let her go with wishes for health and relaxation.
She rented a car in Portland, stopping to buy a map when she realized she knew only that the coast was west. She drove that direction, leaving the interstate. She looked for the diner with the plate-sized pancakes, finding only winding roads that split into forks every few miles. And each time she would pull the car off the road and sit and wait until some voice in her head—some life that was no longer hers—told her which way to go.
She ate up the afternoon and half a tank of gas that way. By the time the sun set, she’d seen the coast but nothing that she remembered. She knew she was seeking a place you couldn’t drive straight to, but still, it all looked strange. The voices led her at last to a small motel with a lit vacancy sign. She didn’t drive at night, and besides, what could she find in the dark where everything bled together?
She slept with her window open, cool mid-summer breeze curling in, bringing with it a strong smell of the briny ocean. She was too late for the gray whales, the clerk told her with a shrug. Timing was everything.
She slept in ragged patches. Albert visited her dreams, wearing his wedding tuxedo and offering her glasses of wine. In her dream, she kept shaking her head no, not that one, not sweet enough. And still he brought more. In the morning, she craved sugar and snatched a donut from the lobby. Then, feeling guilty, she wrapped it in a napkin for later.
She drove again, her desperation rising with the slow sun. Nothing looked right. Everything was amphibious green, warm, damp, cool, shivering between worlds. Like her. She pulled off the road to cry, and the first tear released a stampede. She cried and cried, all of her selves pitying, sympathizing, grieving, complaining, shedding. When through the open window she smelled that strong salty breeze, she followed it, driving red-eyed to a wide stretch of public beach. She tucked the donut in her pocket, the one where she’d secreted the old photograph, and walked purposefully down to the water’s edge.
The tide spurted over her shoes, a foamy mix of broken shells and seaweed. She kicked off her shoes and began to walk south along the water’s edge, letting her footprints wash away behind her, pausing sometimes to look back and be sure they’d disappeared. A jogger and his dog passed by, neither paying her any attention, and she stared after them. Then she walked faster, dropping her jacket on the sand when she got too hot. Sea birds squawked at her as she rounded a small bend and began to climb the slippery rocks that ringed a cave where the tide smashed splendidly then echoed a second, lonelier sound. Soon she was wet from the spray, but she stayed, staring out at the brilliant blue ocean, imagining there may yet be whales, those few that lagged behind, their sense of timing disrupted by age, infirmity, or some other distress.
She took the photograph from her pocket and brushed sugar grains from it. She held it tightly, studying it piece by piece: his neat beard, the wildflower her foot hovered near as if deciding whether to crush it. She’d never noticed that before, the way one foot was just above the ground, threatening a purple blossom. She compared the blue of that water to the one before it, realizing with a small hole of sorrow that she’d carried a fake ocean for years. The one before her was ten times more blue and frameless.
When the salt spray began to dissolve the photo, opening pinpricks in the image, the colors intensified and threatened to bleed. She put the picture back in her pocket, wrapping it in the grease-stained napkin and throwing the donut to the curious gull behind her.
“What do women do these days?” she asked the gull. It hopped back instinctively. “They don’t just walk into the sea anymore, do they?” The photograph wasn’t enough weight to hold her down anyway. It wasn’t an anchor or even a link of iron chain.
She lay back on the wet rock, listening to the roar of the ocean, inhaling the birthing smell over and over again. Some shade of herself swam out looking for whales. She felt it rise and slip out while she stared at the cliffs above. She wondered if any hikers stood up there, peering down at her. Would they think she was a woman who’d fallen and broken something? Or an ancient mermaid who’d finally remembered which half of her was home?
Chauna Craig’s short fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Seattle Review, Flash: The International Magazine of Short Short Fiction, the anthologies You Have Time For This and Sudden Stories, and elsewhere. She’s been honored with Special Mention for fiction in the Pushcart Prize anthology and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays. Her first short story collection, The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms, will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press later this year. Her author’s website is www.chaunacraig.com.