For ten years they had been on their own, done with college and living as adults, chasing jobs with benefits and a salary and something of the good life. They had settled in many places, among them, Denver, Asheville, Nashville, Austin, Minneapolis, Portland, in apartments and neighborhoods always a little better than they could afford. There had even been three weeks in Chicago when she worked at a Burger King while he worked at a Waffle House.
Then it was decided. She had discerned a call to become an ordained priest, and at the same time, as if by fate, he was offered a job at the seminary working in development. So they packed up and moved to Virginia, where they adopted a little dog. Within three weeks he knew that he hated the work, that he hated his boss and the utter mindlessness of his colleagues, and by the middle of the fall the seminary proved altogether lackluster. That was when he applied for the scholarship. His proposal said he would continue with some research he had done a few years earlier, to some acclaim, and that spring, unexpectedly, they awarded it to him—ten months in the UK, all expenses paid, the only condition being that he write another paper, which of course was better than updating the addresses of donors for the seminary. And while they would have to live apart, the timing would work out well, since during her second year it was required of her that she not only attend class but serve at a church and hospital. For the next year there would hardly be any time together. So he accepted the scholarship and promised to return home at Christmas.
It was by accident that he woke. Looking up, he saw a panorama of ocean and mountains: on one side of the train, the surf coming to break over the rails, on the other side, bright, verdant fields rolling off toward the Highlands. Over the rocks lay a congregation of seals radiant in the sun like great things of corpulence. He remembered someone telling him why the grass was so green—something about how because of the rarity of sunlight the chlorophyll was more intense, and indeed the grass everywhere seemed almost to glow.
Within a few days he had settled into the routine he would more or less adopt for the rest of his time abroad. After mornings in the library, he would go for walks on the sands or up on the bluff, trying to cast the research from his brain. He had never seen clouds moving so quickly and so close to the ground. To the north, beyond an inlet, an assembly of windmills were cutting the fog clockwise.
In the evenings there were seminars and parties to go to. Professors invited him to events that featured opulent receptions where the object of the night was to gladhand more people than you could rightly remember the next morning. While none of the subjects much interested him, he treated most of the people he met with that easy insouciance that belongs among close friends, since he knew he would never see any of them again after ten months. But if there were times when the research felt too tedious or the people too interchangeable on account of their esoteric elitism, he reminded himself that even the worst of it easily beat out the best of the work he had done back home.
He told his wife that all was coming along—the only problem being a mix-up with the Fife Council, which was charging him several hundred pounds in fees and utilities he had never owed. The Council believed he lived for a time at the residence when he did not. He and his flatmate shared a small stucco cottage near the end of the road by the ruins of the cathedral. His flatmate, another researcher who was visiting for the year, a pale, bald, foppish lecturer from a small school in Georgia, would sometimes accompany him to one of the pubs if there were no events going on. One night, under the influence of several rounds of bitters, they made a hearty pledge sooner to go to jail than pay the five hundred pounds in council tax.
That he talked with his wife for barely an hour each day and afterward rarely thought about her seemed natural, even expected. For years he had imagined getting away, though he never dwelt on leaving her. He imagined what it would be like to know other people, to live in the quiet of only his thoughts. Now there was a host of opportunities for meeting new people, for long conversations in low-lit settings, the enthusiasm of which was not so much fueled by the cider that had been imbibed or the prospect of touching bodies as by the very freedom that allowed such intimacy. He thought: Perhaps it's a sign I'm getting older, but sex in itself doesn't interest me. Far more, everything else before it.
One of these opportunities included a dinner with a woman from his department, and her partner. He and his flatmate were invited out to celebrate some work-related occasion. Having just left another event, he showed up a little drunk. There would have been no reason from him to remember it or her had there not, a few days later, been a seminar where he ran into her and following which she invited herself along for a pint. As the night grew late, they talked less about ideas than the past. He listened and watched her eyes light up as he looked on not without a certain tenderness and, smiling, thought to himself, Yes, I know exactly how this story ends, and that's what makes it hurt, and hurt so sweetly.
At one point she sprang up from the table and began to dance (no one else in the pub was dancing) and cajoled him to come to her between the tables as you would a toddler into bad weather. But he insisted he sit in his chair.
After he walked her home, he could not stop thinking about her, making all sorts of plans, running through possible scenarios. Then he stopped himself. He knew that, as with so many fresh acquaintances, love tended to flame out as quickly as it flared.
Within a few days they had arranged another meeting: he had suggested taking her along one of his walks up the bluff. Under her coat she had on a sleeveless houndstooth dress, and it was now that he noticed her cheeks were faintly acne scarred and that she walked with a slight dip, and though she was only twenty-four, her hair was already starting to turn gray, and the confidence it must have taken not to dye it served fiercely to attract him.
They went down by the ruins, then by the harbor and onto the sands, which led toward the bluff, all the while taking care to share the path while not brushing hands. Twice a day the sea incarnated the rocks with a skin of seaweed: when it came, everyone in town could smell the muck. A luminous fog lay in the distance, though the weather remained wholly blustery. Dark bodies dotted the beach, which, seeming to hold their place, gave the late morning a staged sort of randomness. She had one leg that was shorter than the other and told him about the many operations she had undergone—eighteen—and she admitted that the first time she had ever lied was between the age of three and four, to her parents about not being in pain.
He told her his wife was currently working at a hospital.
He told her the name.
"I spent some time at that hospital. What wing of it is she at?"
"I don't know. You were there for an operation?"
"No. I had a good friend who was there for two weeks in the psych ward after she tried to kill herself. I would go and visit her every day. I was also there when I overdosed on acetaminophen."
They were going up the bluff. Through yarrow, patches of knapweed, lady's bedstraw, saxifrage. Below them the sand was slithering toward the surf like the smoke of fires just extinguished.
"You tried to commit suicide?"
"There's a distinction to be made between actively trying to kill yourself and wanting to chuck away your life. I wouldn't have spent only a night in the ER if I hadn't told them I'd taken too much by accident."
"Was that because of a breakup?"
"Yes. Because of a breakup."
They were almost at the top of the bluff. The brush hung under the weight of dew or the night's rain. He admired the drops in their chance perfection. Peering in, he tilted one of the dozens of white trumpet-shaped flowers that were in bloom alongside the path: inside its cradle lay a fat bee asleep, the rump of him jutting out.
They stood there for a time, at the top of the bluff. The town looked small and closer together than it was. Below, seagulls gathered from the rocks and moved toward the opposite end of the strand, drifting loosely like bits of paper in the wind.
Wondering whether he should forge ahead, he said, "You appear to have an appreciation for life that is remarkable despite such suffering in your past."
He glanced in her direction. There was no reply. At the corners of her eyes tears were brimming, and she moved on suddenly, leading with that slight dip.
Far down the bluff, like a castle from a fairy tale, and behind a shimmering haar like a painted background from a movie set that lends more illusion than depth, was the Fairmont, which they agreed was their destination. An hour later they reached it drenched (it had rained, been sunny, and then rained again) and more worn out than they were expecting, and they ordered cheap champagne that instantly went to their heads. Within minutes she had sprung up and was dancing. Her tiny body swaying and dipping, enlivened as though with stuff from the origin of time. He settled back contentedly into his chair. It was a bar of some refinement; everyone in the room in their gowns and dinner jackets was watching her, sizing up that motion. He wished she would go on dancing that way forever.
"Your partner... Astrid, does she—"
"Do they like to dance?"
He downed the rest of the glass of champagne with the commitment of making an ass of himself.
As he was kissing her later that night, he thought: I am a man who cheats on his wife.
As the days began to shorten, they continued seeing each other. The days she did not come by, he felt, were merely steppingstones to get to the days she did. On some nights when he had failed to see her, he wondered whether she was out dancing or bringing some other man to her bed, and often on such reflections he caught and told himself that none of it really mattered. He was surprised by how quickly he made himself not care. Indeed, he smiled at himself whenever he observed the onset of jealousy, doubt, the urge for possession, giddiness, anticipation, feelings that he had long not associated with any particular woman. He liked seizing the small content of her body and letting go the kisses that had been waiting to scamper off his lips. Now and then she complained that his beard gave the skin around her mouth a rash, yet in a way that conveyed he should go on doing it. The nights they stayed over, before they went to bed, she would record long messages to her partner in her native Spanish. He was never sure of a word of whatever she said, but something about the whole ordeal gave him comfort. Ere the terns flew he kept waiting for the falling out.
Of all that accounted for their quick leap to intimacy, he was grateful that his flesh proved a constant source of delight for her. From what he gleaned, she had known many lovers in the past, and took please in seeing him feel pleasure. He felt like a worn-out dog in the lap of its sensitive master who knows precisely where and how to scratch it, a creature with no concept of pleasure and pain, something that is merely made to feel. For so long he had abandoned the body in favor of the head. But what is the head without the body? The answer, of course, is nothing. As the peak of her pleasure was approaching, she would start whispering a soft Spanish. He had to look up what cielo and cariño meant.
He was keeping to his routine of studying in the morning and then going for walks in the afternoon before returning to the library, the intrusions of her name, of something she had said, of a memory from their time together forming the primary object of his attention, with everything else relegated to a sort of background mechanics. Rarely did she ask about his wife and rarely did he mention her, for, as a rule, he tried to refrain from talking about the problems they had been having, since he felt such talk would be an unjust plea for sympathy. But as the winter break drew near, his wife accounted for more and more space in their conversations so that she was almost a living presence in the room.
"Talk to your wife," she told him.
"We do talk, every day."
"About what's bothering you."
"It's not so simple." Then as an afterthought: "You'll see. Once you and Astrid have been together ten years you'll come to accept your fate with a certain amount of... happy resignation."
She gave him one of those looks that said he should probably stop talking.
"So you don't feel guilty?"
The question caught him off guard. For a while, he was wondering whether it was something she wondered about as well, until he quit wondering about it himself. While she continued to pack, he sat on the bed, thinking—or rather, waited for any thought. Finally, he told her, "There are times I do, and times I don't. Perhaps one day I will ask her for forgiveness when I can be sure she will forgive me."
His wife was still very busy over the winter break in the strain and stress of her own device, and much of the time it was just he and the dog settled beside each other in the living room or walking around the seminary. Now back home, he often ran into colleagues and acquaintances from the previous year. He kept waiting for a message, but some kind of unspoken game of chicken was being played between them as to who would be the first one to write—he was sure she must have been thinking about him as he was thinking about her. He had written three versions of an email, each at varying levels of passion. In the meantime, holiday plans, preparations, inquiries, and purchases came each embodying a new string of fantasies. When Christmas Eve arrived, his wife was finally reprieved from work, and they packed up the car and drove the ten hours to his parents. For the whole trip they hardly shared a word, and the view of the gray land beyond the windows seemed almost nonexistent, a place at the end of its creation whose only value was as a canvas over which to imagine Katia.
All during Christmas Day—through the presents, the welcoming of friends and relatives, the preparation and enjoying of dinner—she was his whole mind. Each event invoked a profound new meditative grief. He thought: This woman will never see inside my bedroom; she will never taste the milk punch my father makes; she will never be anywhere near me on Christmas morning. And when suddenly the revelation that the day was almost over for her (she was seven hours ahead) dawned on him with the brutality of the moment, his utter thoughtlessness compelled him to send her the most passionate message he had been saving. To have not sent any greeting whatsoever on Christmas seemed one of the worst acts he could inflict. Within ten minutes he received a response—far longer than the one he had sent, but hers filled with details of the day and her own celebrations, which incited him to wonder whether she were an extremely rapid typist or whether she had composed hers earlier and had simply been waiting for his first. He spent the rest of that evening reading his message then hers over and over, as though it comprised an actual dialogue. He could now say to himself the day had not been wasted.
When they got back to the seminary, they had a few weeks before his wife resumed her work and before he recrossed the Atlantic. Nights the two of them drank some of the wine they had been saving and watched movies they had talked about wanting to see, or perhaps someone would come over and entertain them, and there were moments when he could almost convince himself he was happy, that the future, as it looked, would be hospitable with no reason for grief. Yet no matter his contentment, he could not help conjuring comparisons. He missed kissing the scars along Katia's leg. He felt his wife was not adequately comprehending life's pleasure. (For instance, one evening, as they were cooking, a song came on and he began to dance as he had those times with Katia, coaxing his wife into joining him in the kitchen, but she looked at him like he was crazy.)
For her, making love seemed less a sort of surrendering and more a compulsory duty, a type of mandatory resignation. Moreover, he would be in the midst of talking to her, his wife, and would notice something, perhaps her hair or the way she did her eyebrows, perhaps the phrasing of what she said, and would weigh her along these lines against Katia, as if in the balance of fate: Her hair, it looks like Katia's; or, Katia's eyebrows are slightly more angled and go further down in front of the eyes, are thicker; or Katia's arguments and observations are much more subtle, of substance, less wholesome, and yet far more refined. At one point, his wife even mentioned something like the possibility of an open relationship, of trying out a marriage that might navigate a few affairs, but he chickened out of pursuing the subject further: something about her even having to say such a thing struck him as profoundly sad.
At the airport they said goodbye, kissing with a fair amount of passion so that it was hard to tell what was real and what was feigned.
"Come back to me," she told him.
From the day he had arrived back in the States he had been looking forward to returning to his life without consequence, but on walking into his apartment he sensed a falling out with his flatmate. Drew would no longer speak to him. He had been arrested. Having returned a few days ahead of the term, he had settled into his research when the Fife Council came knocking on their door with a warrant for both of their arrests, but since Drew was the only one present, he had spent the night in jail by himself, with his parents not only having to pay his bail and the processing fees but the initial five hundred pounds they had so flagrantly denied paying.
It was around this time that he was finally able to put a finger on Katia's primary fault. Apart from a few eccentricities like she could not stand to touch a bare foot on the floor and got violently ill on trains, she could not bear to be alone. Always she was running into somebody or making new friends or plans for parties or coffee, was always cutting short their rendezvous for some new date; she could never be by herself. And it was this essential fault that worked to diminish her in his esteem, as if her company might stand to be more selective. Then after a while he thought, It doesn't matter. If it wasn't this, it would be something else.
Having been physically intimate together for several months, he now realized that so much of his initial attraction had been merely the need to be physical, to be desired and touched, a need that he had disguised from himself as a kind of chancing of kindred hearts. Yet rather than view this with cynicism or outright dismissiveness, as an incentive for pulling away, he was glad the way things had turned out. He thought: If we were still crazy about each other, would it be possible I would know her so well as I do?
As the nights began to shrink, as winter parkas one by one returned to their summer hiding places, they were making plans for her to host her partner for the week. He offered to disappear until the moment her partner was gone. But she insisted her partner was fine with the whole affair, with everything, in fact had encouraged Katia to become more intimate, and merely wanted to meet again, having heard so much about everything, to savor their company together. That week he kept trying to find a good reason to be out of town, some dire visit across the country he owed somebody or to some remote library for some random footnote necessary for his paper, while at the same time he kept waiting for her call: he kept wondering whether she would invite him to stay the night or join them on a date as a prelude to getting him in the sack with the both of them—but she never did—and the meal she planned ended up turning out rather pleasant.
Twice she had told him "I love you." Once, when they were returning home from dancing at an upscale cocktail bar, she had pulled him aside from the streetlamps, into an unlit door, and, after kissing him fervently around the ear, whispered, "I love you so much," but he had chosen not to utter those words back. At the time he told himself he had not said them because they were both a little bit drunk, and he was uncertain how much she had really meant them. Had she been too afraid to tell him in the past or did the drinking spur her too far forward? Then a few months later she had written in a message: "...and of course I love you very dearly." And again it was a predicament. Of course he loved her the same. But then of course he loved everybody on some level; everybody was worthy of love; he had no problem telling any stranger he met off the street that he loved them truly. Still, he wanted his first time saying it to be in person, so he decided to hold off for a better occasion. Later he wondered whether it was this slight pulling back that held her from seeking him out for the next several days.
While there were still a few months until she would graduate, with the end in mind they made plans to get away to the mountains—to a cabin with a hot tub—where the goal was to lounge around naked for the weekend and drink champagne, a kind of last hurrah before the inevitable pulling away that would accompany the onset of summer. At their cabin, which looked nothing like the pictures and where the hot tub had become a grave for snails and deliquescing leaves and where the mountains remained bearded in fog, they lived under the sheets, only rarely venturing out as if into a hazardous element. For barely an hour each day there was no rain, though it scarcely mattered. He chanced on new particulars of her body he had not happened on before, moles whose coordinates he should have been able to locate by now, scars whose mysterious hieroglyphs signified a buried prehistory as yet unknown. There they finally made love. By this point he knew that it would be unremarkable, that he would look back and see so little that was inspired among that tackle of skin, only another occasion for the passing weather of guilt. But something about its purity worked to arrest him, and afterward he held onto her for a long time as though she were some kind of last hope for salvation. By the end of the trip her entire face glowed from being kissed. The days were so long now that light itself seemed inherent to darkness.
Not long after they got back his wife informed him that she was coming to stay for the summer. After some problems obtaining a visa, she had worked it out with the seminary that she could take a few classes abroad, and had found somebody to watch the dog. But before he had time to process it all, Katia and her partner were suddenly broken up. The rupture had made sense; they had been wanting to go their separate ways, and Astrid met somebody in Oxford. There were no hard feelings.
"We're still good friends. In fact, we talked this morning about their article on Homeric epithets in eighteenth-century protest literature. They're really quite happy. We just realized some things would never change."
"I never committed to marriage expecting to change anything," he offered hastily, as if in covering something up. "I just thought I'd get more used to any problems is all."
"Like how you got used to mine?"
He sighed. He had been through this on every angle.
"We'd get tired of each other or fight about something stupid. That's the way it always ends."
"Not if you end it first," she said. "Ends are also beginnings."
During those last weeks before his wife was set to arrive, he continued his routine of research in the morning (the paper was nearly finished, and he had the summer to explore the country before returning home to the seminary) and going on long walks on the sands or the bluff, now and then seeing Katia. He was drinking less those weeks, intent on meeting the evening in a state in which he would make himself feel the strain of being alone. Once he gazed down on the beach and chanced upon a still-limp starfish. He thought: None of it really matters anyway. But this is better than some things.
Every day he was deliberating whether or not to marry her, tabulating the pros and cons in the hope that the balance would clearly favor a certain outcome. So often when they were together, he felt he was standing outside himself, castigating himself for not appreciating her, for taking for granted these final sad moments. There was briefly talk of incorporating his wife into their affair, but the idea soon dissipated to another false start.
The night before his wife was set to arrive, they went to the most expensive restaurant in town and sat across from each other in silence. Speaking felt wholly useless; any verbalization felt preordained. At one point in the middle of their meal, she rose effortlessly from her chair and started swaying in rhythm to the piano music. He stood and drew her near, and they danced like that between the tables of dinners like people in some private world.
"I know, I know," she told him. "Shut up. Quit faffing around and remember."
As she lay beside him a final time, he sat there thinking about whether or not to marry her.
Well, I'm one kind of coward or another, he thought.
He was back at his place by the cathedral. They had said their goodbyes an hour ago, and he had just stepped out of the shower. Still wet, he had lathered his cheeks and chin, the straight razor reared to his neck. His wife had messaged him that her train had left the station, and there were less than thirty minutes until he was picking her up from the bus.
Now, as he looked at himself in the mirror, what looked back was unsettling, a person he was supposed to know but whose features seemed somehow removed. The gray in the hair, the lines at the dark sides of the eyes, the random mottling of liver spots along the shoulders, the general weariness of the stare—it looked more like a photograph than his actual self.
He thought: I can do anything right now and say I had a good life.
Title image "The Bluff" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.