We buy the girls a hermit crab while at the beach. In the gift shop, Caroline, six, and Rhea, four, watch dozens of pink- and purple-painted shells slowly crawl like bacteria around the wire tub before deciding on one with a conical, ridged shell and a meaty pointer. A sea sponge, a water cup, some food, and a smaller wire cage are purchased. As we ride the boardwalk train back to the hotel, names are tossed out, little Frisbees of conversation, Caroline and Rhea facing us, on our laps.
"What about Poseidon?" Matt, their father, suggests, after a list of Disney-inspired characters is rattled off by Caroline.
"Who's that?" Caroline asks, her windbreaker slouched off one shoulder, her blonde hair weighted and full, like a lampshade, framing her face.
"The king of the sea," he answers as Caroline considers, afraid of offending his better judgment. But the truth is Matt has never bothered much to learn the names of the Disney princesses that adorn the girls' nightgowns and live on their walls and in their DVDs.
"Not Poseidon," I answer, clutching the plastic bags of caramel corn and fudge. "It has to be something the girls like."
"But Mommy, I like Po... Pos..." Caroline protests.
"Especially not a name you can't pronounce," I say, fixing her coat with my free hand. "Let's all sleep on it and decide tomorrow."
On the sleeper sofa at the hotel I hear Caroline and Rhea; little whispers of names for the hermit crab and giggles float around them. Across the room, I hear the crab moving slowly, like a minute hand in the dark, its claw scraping the wire of the cage in exploration of its boundaries. On the other side of the partition Matt and I lie on our bed, our bodies not touching. Slowly the little voices fall off, Matt snores softly, and the only sounds are the scraping claws, my breaths. We both wait for morning.
That night and the next, the hermit crab manages to escape its wire and plastic carrier. Both mornings the girls search, in alternating fits of excitement and worry, along the baseboards of the hotel room. It is found both mornings in a sandy corner under the air conditioner, pinching its claw slowly like a blinking neon sign, warning us to retreat.
"It's our little Houdini," Matt laughs over breakfast. We have stopped at a coffee shop across from the hotel before hitting the beach. Outside a man begins setting up bikes for rental in an alleyway, red and green and black and blue frames gleaming in the sunlight like aluminum seahorses.
"Who's that?" Caroline asks, patting her scrambled eggs with the rounded side of her fork. Her plate becomes a landscape of soft yellow sea flicked by white foam caps.
"An escape artist," Matt answers, stirring his coffee with a dulled steel diner knife. "He could escape anything. You could lock him in a box and throw it into the bottom of the ocean, and he'd escape."
"That ocean outside?" Caroline stands and points over the heads of other diners.
"Even that ocean," he answers, making a motion for her to sit.
"Why don't you name your hermit crab Houdini?" I suggest, separating a muffin from its soft, waxy shell.
"I think your mother is onto something," Matt smiles, not looking at me. It is the first time we have agreed in weeks.
All morning the girls pack Matt into the damp sand.
"Try to get out, Daddy," Caroline taunts as Rhea dances around the sandy grave with her bucket and shovel.
"Hoo-dee," she laughs, her belly full and white and soft. Matt squints his eyes and tenses his body as if trying to escape, his bare, smooth head red and shiny, a vein rising from the depths of his neck. The girls giggle with delight and pack the sand tighter with their spread hands like little pink starfish. After awhile they lose interest, padding toward the surf. I stand over Matt.
"Looks like they've packed me in pretty tight, Sara," he grins devilishly at me, as if we've shared some precious secret of parenthood. He does not know I know about her, the young woman who hangs out at the bike shop we own. She is not much younger actually, three or four years, but she does not have the battle scars of marriage and children. "Can you help me out here?"
I consider leaving him, telling him, not digging him up. I imagine his sunburned head. Can I imagine much more? I imagined those overnight biking trips, when I stayed home with the girls, watching DVDs and playing Candyland. I have imagined the muscles under their biking shorts, moving, contracting long after the day's ride has finished. I have imagined the way he slips out of her arms and back into my own, a kiss to my cheek before retiring to the garage, to his bike to work out, as he calls it, "one last kink."
I have not imagined the text messages from her on his cell phone.
"Come on—I'm burning up here," he says, slightly irritated. It is a tone with which I am more familiar. I bend over and grab Rhea's yellow plastic shovel, sticking it into his sand heart like a stake.
"Caroline, Rhea!" I catch the girls' attention. They are bent over in the surf, digging for sand crabs. "Come dig your father out."
At home, Houdini lives on a windowsill in the girl's bedroom. They have cut out palm trees and coconuts from a Lilo and Stitch coloring book and taped them to the window panes around Houdini's cage. I wonder if they believe that the crab can fool himself in his captivity, that he is seconds away from the sea. Every night he escapes, taking a perilous two-foot drop from the low window ledge to the floor, moving slowly across the sandstone Berber carpet, toward a sea he will never find. Caroline marks the spots of his progress each morning with old poker chips Matt has given her, believing him to grow bigger and stronger through this nightly exercise.
"What if he misses his home, Mommy?" Rhea asks, standing before me, her fists tight like mine, as Caroline marks this morning's progress.
"This is his home, sweetie." I pick her up, feeling the solidness of her miniature. "He's part of our family."
"But what if he doesn't like us anymore?" She wriggles to face me. I can smell the faint scent of sleep about her.
"He likes us fine, Rhea." I kiss her ear. "He just gets a little bored, that's all."
Matt buys some chicken wire from the hardware store and makes a bigger cage.
Houdini's new home is in the living room bay window, which is lower and wider. The girls move their coloring book cut-outs, faded from the sun and curled from being moved, and carefully re-tape them to the bay window. They leave the old tape pieces on their bedroom window, angles of translucent tape that surround cleaner, empty spots.
"I'm going down to the shop for inventory." Matt appears in the bedroom doorway. He's showered and wearing his favorite khaki shorts and T-shirt. I am painstakingly rubbing the tape off the window with adhesive remover.
"I thought you did inventory two weeks ago," I answer, rubbing the window.
"No, that was a shipment," he explains. "The new Treks."
"No, it was inventory," I murmur, as he turns to leave. "So where's she meeting you?"
"Did you say something?" he asks, steps back toward me.
"Try not to be home too late." I rub the spots harder.
It is after midnight when Matt returns. I pretend to sleep as the bed groans and receives his weight. I wonder when we will revisit this afternoon's conversation. He will not bring it up, and I'm not sure how I will. There are so many things that will happen if we broach this subject. If we do not speak, nothing will change. Perhaps it will end without my intervention. But what if it starts again?
Houdini still escapes. At nights I have taken to watching. After the girls go to sleep, I bring Houdini's cage into our bedroom. I try to stay awake long enough to watch him escape, to see what mechanism is activated so that I can block this action in the future. Every night I am too tired, and the escape happens while I slumber. Or perhaps he has outwitted me, waiting patiently for me to surrender to unconsciousness.
"I'm going to step on him and kill him," Matt complains one morning when he inadvertently kicks Houdini across the bedroom floor on the way to the bathroom. "You need to leave him in the bay window."
"Hermit crabs don't like sun," Caroline announces at breakfast. "I found it on the Internet."
"Well, I guess we can put him in your playroom," I answer, retrieving a Froot Loop that has escaped from Rhea's bowl. "It's dark when you're not in there."
The playroom is a treasure chest of possibilities for the hermit crab. Some mornings he is in the Barbie house; others he is in the Lincoln log cabin. The girls purposely leave toys out the preceding evening and speculate over breakfast where he will be found next.
"Maybe if he has a wife, he won't want to run away," Caroline muses.
"Maybe," I answer.
"Mommy, can we get Houdini a wife?" she presses, leaning across the table and trying to make eye contact with me.
"We're not going to the beach again this summer," I answer. "He'll have to get a wife next summer."
"What if we took him from his wife, Mommy?" Rhea chimes in. "Maybe he misses her."
"Well, I guess we should not have brought him here, then. What if we get Mr. Houdini a wife and then we find out she's already married? What if she misses her husband?"
"How will we know?" Caroline looks horrified. "How can you tell if Mrs. Houdini loves somebody else?"
"She tries to escape," Rhea concludes. They both look at each other, knowing they are on the cusp of something important, but not sure what.
"Look, I'm sick of talking about Houdini." I grab their cereal bowls and head toward the kitchen. "If he wants to leave, then fine. Come on; get your bathing suits on if you want to go up to the pool."
Matt comes home early today from the shop.
"Get dressed everybody—we're going to dinner." He grabs Caroline and Rhea in each arm, like two sleeping bags, from where they are having a tea party on the lawn, and carries them into the house.
"What's the occasion?" I ask from the doorway of their bedroom, where Matt is pulling little dresses from hangers in the closet.
"No occasion," he answers, shrugging. "I just haven't seen my ladies very much since we came back from vacation."
I don't point out to him that his absence has been his decision. I try not to read too much into this, his sudden surprise. We go to the restaurant that puts on medieval performances—horses and knights prancing around the dirt floor encircled by a suburban audience. We eat turkey drumsticks with our hands but are supplied with wet naps. The girls' eyes light up at the jousting, and I can almost see the dizzying cosmos of wonder that orbits quickly in their minds. I wish I could step in with them, live as the little maidens they dream every night they are, waiting for their princes to come, their hermit crabs to have wives.
"Daddy, can we get a horse?" Caroline invariably asks on the ride home.
"We don't have a big enough yard, honey," he answers. "Maybe when we move out to the country."
"In a few years."
"I want to go now," she insists. Matt and I brace for the upcoming tantrum. "Everybody gets what they want but me!"
"Does everybody get ice cream?" Matt asks, pulling into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen.
When we arrive home, sticky and napkinless, Rhea stands by the French doors, looking out in satisfaction to the night.
"Ice cream good, honey?" I tousle her hair.
"How far is the ocean from here?" she asks.
"Very, very far, Rhea. Why?"
"I put Houdini in the yard. He told me he didn't want to stay here anymore."
"You what?" I feel faint. I grab her hand and we enter the kingdom of crickets in the night. "Where did you put him?"
"Over by the big tree." She yawns.
"When?" I ask, scouring the surrounding area with my eyes.
How far could he have gotten? Not very far, I tell myself, remembering Caroline's poker chip math. But he is not visible within a twenty-foot circle of the tree.
"Rhea, that was a very bad thing you did," I scold when we're back in the house. "Mommy is going to have a get a flashlight and look for him."
"I don't want him anymore, Mommy. He doesn't like us."
"What about Caroline?"
"Caroline wants a horse. She doesn't care."
Later that night I take no chances. If I keep moving, I will not fall asleep. I can cover every inch of the yard slowly, methodically. If I think like a hermit crab, I will find him. I am crying, kneeling in the grass, running my fingers through it in the hopes they will touch upon him, his familiar ridge of shell, his meaty pincher. I pull myself together. The girls cannot see me like this tomorrow, my puffy face and dark eyes. But they will see Houdini again, I promise myself. He cannot escape forever. Before the day breaks, I convince myself, he will be back in his cage, where he belongs.
Copyright © Jen Michalski 2007.