Michelle finally gave up on sleep altogether shortly after four o’clock and quietly got out of bed. She gathered her clothes in the darkness, looked once at the slumbering shape of her husband, Paul, and went into the bedroom that had been their son’s to change. She took her fleece jacket from the coat rack next to the front door, left the house, and drove through their silent Coronado neighborhood towards the beach. In her rear-view mirror, she could see the bridge to San Diego lit like a tossed blue ribbon against the night sky.
There were no other cars along the curb where she parked at North Beach. The crash of the waves was her only companion walking down to the shore and along it. A full moon bathed the sand and froth with dim white light. She went in her usual southward direction, her balled fists deep in the pockets of her jacket against the early February chill, her mind filled with the same haunting thoughts that had been chasing sleep for months. She’d often taken such solitary pre-dawn treks, but never so early.
It was low tide, and she walked in the wide swath of wet sand with her head down, so she didn’t see the beached rubber lifeboat until she almost stumbled up against it. It sat still at an angle where the last whispering crawl of the waves almost reached it. An outboard motor tilted up at its stern. The only things inside were a nearly empty jug of water, a gas can, and an enlarged Google image of shoreline in a plastic sleeve. In the moonlight, Michelle could clearly see words written in Spanish on the image’s edge; the shoreline in it was the one that reached from North Beach down past the Tijuana border to Puerto Nuevo. A collection of footsteps leading from the boat dented the wet sand towards the dry; she followed them with her eyes until they became indistinguishable with others heading in the direction of the boulders that bordered the street.
Michelle looked up and down the empty beach. She stood roughly halfway between the entrance to North Beach and the main lifeguard tower perhaps two hundred yards away to the south. The tower loomed tall, dark, and silent while she considered things. The lifeboat didn’t necessarily mean migrants from Mexico. It could have drifted loose without being noticed while being towed behind a cabin cruiser. It might have involved drug smuggling, although it seemed likely that it would then have been used to return the way it had come. It could even have been stolen by some teenagers on a lark from one of the harbors nearby and then dumped and left to be found. But, there were the Spanish words, the shoreline’s image, the water jug, and the retreating footsteps that made the first seem most likely. Michelle looked at the boat and frowned. She felt for her cell phone, but hadn’t brought it, so retraced her steps back up the beach to her car and drove away.
At home, she closed the door to the study to keep from awakening Paul and called the police. A woman at the station took her report. She didn’t ask Michelle what she was doing on the beach at that hour. When the call ended, Michelle looked out the window. A gray cusp of dawn muffled the sky over their back hedge. She thought about the day ahead, the things that she needed to prioritize at work, those that awaited her when she returned home, and her heart made its familiar drop. She blew out a breath and went down the hall to get ready.
She’d showered, changed into work clothes, and was pouring coffee into a travel mug when Paul came into the kitchen and put his arms around her from behind. She set the pot down on the warmer and put one hand on his. He was a big, heavy man, and she felt his girth against her and his chin on her shoulder; she could smell the sourness on his breath.
He mumbled, “Morning.”
“Hey,” she managed.
“You go for your walk?”
She nodded. He began to sway a little behind her. She moved grimly with him for a moment, then said, “I have to go. I’ll be late.”
She separated his hands at her waist, picked up the travel mug, and slid by him to the back door.
“When will you be home?” he asked.
“Anything special you want for dinner?”
She shrugged and regarded him in his rumpled T-shirt and plaid pajama bottoms. His downturned, goofy eyes that she’d found so endearing a decade earlier in college when they’d first started dating were still full of sleep, and his short brown hair was matted. He kissed his fingertips and extended them towards her. She did the same and left.
After she’d started her car in the driveway, she sat in it and looked at the rusted birdfeeder outside the kitchen window that they’d mounted together when they’d first rented the house. She saw a light go on in the bathroom, and saw his bulk pass its frosted window.
“I admire you and respect you,” she said softly looking at the window. “But, I don’t love you anymore.”
She said the words slowly. They were ones she’d practiced many times before. She thought of the lifeboat and wondered if whoever had been in it had gotten away.
Michelle had a meeting to attend as soon as she got to the non-profit where she worked, so she waited until she was alone in her office afterwards to bring up the private email account on her computer she’d set up after meeting Stan. That had been at a NPO conference in Los Angeles, but he worked and lived in San Jose. She’d been struck by his eyes when she first saw him across the room during a break, and a few minutes later, he appeared at her side and introduced himself. The attraction was instantaneous. They exchanged cell phone numbers and agreed to have dinner together that evening in the hotel restaurant where they were both staying.
At dinner, they drank and talked freely. He was divorced with no children. She told him about her husband and their son who had passed away – his severe disabilities and lengthy hospitalizations. They went upstairs to his room afterwards for a nightcap and lay propped up on the bed because there was only one chair. She admitted how unhappy she was in her marriage; he told her about his ex-wife leaving him after having an affair. The night got late, and they ended up falling asleep next to each other with the bedside light still on. At one point, she awoke and felt his hand on her hip. At another, she heard him turn the lamp off, the room went dark, and he replaced his hand where her skirt met her untucked blouse. She didn’t return to her own room until she heard birds tittering outside.
She hurried and checked out almost immediately. If he’d gotten up by then, she had no way of knowing. But halfway down the freeway to San Diego, she glanced at her cell phone when it pinged on the seat next to her. It was a text from Stan that said he missed her already. She pulled to the side of the freeway, hesitated, then responded, “Me, too.”
They saw each other a dozen or so times over the next year. Each visit involved him flying to San Diego, getting a hotel room, and then her finding a way to take time off work to meet him there. Their intimacy deepened quickly, but she was careful to put physical limitations on things. The most they did was kiss, hold each other, and talk about possibilities together. Each time scared and excited her more.
When she opened her email that morning after the meeting, the usual smile creased her face when she saw his message waiting. In it, he said that the job he’d told her about at his NPO was definitely hers if she wanted it, but he could only keep it open for her for a few weeks. He said he loved her. She sat back in her chair and re-read the message, then the entire string of exchanges under the subject line: “Move Here”. She felt the beat of her heart in her temples. Finally, she typed, “Oh, let me think! Let me see. XO.”
For dinner that night, Paul had prepared corn chowder, salad, and crusty bread. The dining room table was set and wine poured when she arrived home. While she changed into sweatpants and a flannel shirt, he dished out the food and brought it to the table. The overhead light was on; he left the candles unlit.
As always, they ate mostly in silence. Paul told her a little about his day teaching at the elementary school in town; the school had received good news about a fine arts grant they’d applied for, but he’d also had to deal with a parent after dismissal who was upset about a report card grade. She forced herself to find something to say. She told him about a fundraising event she’d put final touches on. She told him the soup was good. She watched him turn his attention to it, slurping regularly as he did. She knew that if he had any inkling that she was unhappy, he would attribute it to the lasting effects of their son, Ben’s, death two years earlier. Whenever she rebuffed Paul’s attempts at lovemaking after Ben’s birth, he said he understood; she knew that he excused any moodiness or change of behavior in her and attributed it to Ben. But, she didn’t really think he suspected anything about her deep discontent; he was just too oblivious, too eternally hopeful. Those were things she’d once found ingratiating in him, too. The truth was she’d been unhappy even before becoming pregnant and hadn’t found a way to tell him. She understood that the impression she gave him at the time was that she was just as enthusiastic about trying to have a child as he was. She avoided thinking about that, but felt both angry and a blush of guilt when she did.
He burped, chuckled, and apologized. She watched him rip apart a piece of bread and thought of how little they’d grown to share over time. It was true that Ben’s troubles had consumed them for the six years he’d been alive, but that diminishing had begun early in their marriage. It hadn’t taken long for Paul’s innate generosity of spirt and selflessness to begin irritating her. He always insisted on staying overnight at the hospital with Ben during his admittances so she could get some rest; he took Ben to most of his doctors’ appointments. She grew weary when people stopped her in the grocery store to tell her what a good teacher he was, and she bristled at the devotion he showed to the old lady next door, taking out her trash each week and mowing her lawn. Even when Michelle made passive-aggressive attempts to rouse him – setting her unwashed dishes in the sink, leaving the shower so it dripped, discarding her dirty clothes at the foot of the bed – he cleaned up after her with good-natured silence.
After dinner, they sat in front of the television. She flipped through the channels from one side of the couch while he graded papers on the other, glancing up now and then at the screen. She waited her customary hour or so, then handed him the remote, and headed to bed, saying she wanted to read. She closed the door to their bedroom, changed into her cotton nightgown, got under the covers, and checked her cell phone for texts. The last one she’d sent Stan before leaving work for home read: “I’ve settled. I have.” The bubble with his response was there; it said: “Don’t settle. Live.” She touched the narrow box to reply and heard Paul come into the kitchen. She listened to him pour the rest of the wine into his glass, drop the bottle into the recycling bin under the sink, and return to the living room. She tapped the screen on her phone and wrote: “Sleep well, my sweet.”
The weekend arrived. They spent it like most others. By the time Michelle had returned from her morning walk on Saturday, Paul had gone off with his watercolor kit and easel to paint somewhere. She spent time in the study on things she’d brought home from work, checking her texts and emails often for messages from Stan as she did. When Paul returned in the early afternoon, he mowed their lawn and the neighbor’s and finished other yardwork while she cleaned the house, paid bills, and did laundry. Later, he got things ready for the bar-b-que, and she went to the library to check out a movie on DVD; they’d settled on comedies. After dinner, they watched it from their separate perches on the couch, then he turned out lights and locked up while she got into bed ahead of him and feigned sleep.
On Sunday morning, he played pick-up basketball with the same set of guys he had since they’d moved there. She substituted her morning walk with a weekly yoga class at a studio nearby and had coffee afterwards with some women she’d gotten to know from the class; when they shared stories of disappointment or dismay about their husbands, which was often, she said nothing. After lunch, he went to school to lesson plan for the week ahead while she repeated her Saturday morning routine of work from the office, emails and texts, or fiddled with some sort of project. That Sunday afternoon, she reluctantly returned to cleaning out their son’s bedroom closet and came upon the paper bag of rectal valium syringes that had been put there shortly after his death. Those had been used when Ben had a seizure that lasted more than five minutes. They needed to be disposed of at the police station, which she’d intended to do long before, but had forgotten. So, she got her jacket, brought the bag out to her car, and drove to the station.
Its entry area was empty except for a big, brown-haired female officer who sat behind the counter typing on a computer. She paused and looked up with a combination of weariness and expectancy. Michelle explained to her why she was there and then extended the bag. The officer took it from her and said, “We can take care of that for you.”
Michelle felt her brow knit. “I recognize your voice,” she said. “You took my call a few mornings ago about the lifeboat on the beach.”
The officer nodded. “That’s right.”
“Was anyone apprehended?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “The matter was turned over to the border patrol.”
Michelle stood nodding. Something spread over her. She said, “How often do they catch migrants who try something like that?”
The officer shrugged. “I wouldn’t know that either.”
Michelle nodded again. “That was pretty brazen, don’t you think?”
“I guess so,” the officer said. “Yes.”
Michelle nodded once more and said, “Well, thanks.”
She left and returned to her car along the curb in front of the station. She didn’t start the engine right away. She stared out the windshield at the white brightness of the afternoon and thought about whoever had been in that lifeboat. What had led them to make that attempt, and how had they found the courage to risk everything and try?
Michelle sat breathing deeply for several moments. Finally, she rubbed her forehead, reached for her cell phone, and checked her texts. There was one from Stan that said, “Please come.” She looked out the windshield again towards the bridge and then replied, “I might.”
She didn’t decide for sure until the following Sunday when she was rummaging in the desk of the study looking for a postage stamp. There weren’t any in the general drawer they kept for things like that, and none in hers, so she pulled out Paul’s drawer and found a Valentine’s Day card on top. Her name was on the envelope, and there was a brochure inside the card from a bed-and-breakfast up the coast. On it, he’d drawn a heart and written: “February 20th and 21st…for my lover and wife.”
Michelle closed the drawer quickly, a numbness spreading over her, followed by a chill. “I can’t,” she whispered. She shook her head. “I just can’t.”
A whimper, like a small cough, escaped her, and she thought of the boat on the beach. She shook her head harder. Her hands trembled as she lifted her cell phone, scrolled to the last text with Stan, and tapped the words: “I’m coming.”
When she sent it, her heart immediately began to race. She felt untethered, disoriented, filled with disbelief. She felt as if she was standing on that beach with miles of empty sand on both sides of her.
The preparations were surprisingly few and easy. She began by getting a new checking account and credit card at a bank other than the one she shared with Paul that had branches throughout the state. That was something she could always undo if she changed her mind. She waited a day to see if she would, but felt no different, so told her boss at work that she’d found a new job she couldn’t pass up and would be leaving. Her boss congratulated her, said she’d be missed, but that the timing was good because they’d just completed a big project together, so Michelle wouldn’t even need to give two weeks’ notice.
That same afternoon, she left work early, bought a new cell phone, and texted Stan the number. His reply was almost instantaneous: “When?” She was jittery with anticipation, anxiousness, and excitement, so was afraid to delay; she replied: “Tomorrow.”
She stopped at their bank, transferred some of their joint account into her new one, and got her birth certificate and Social Security card out of their safety deposit box. Paul was still teaching when she got home, so she gathered some personal documents, her laptop, and a few clothes and toiletries, packed them in a duffel bag, and put that in the trunk of her car. She took no photos.
There was still an hour or so before Paul would arrive home, so she busied herself in the kitchen making fresh marinara sauce and pasta for dinner. She moved frantically and almost cut herself chopping onions.
When Paul came through the back door and into the kitchen, she was stirring a pot at the stove. He stared at her wide-eyed, grinned, and said, “Well, this is a nice surprise.”
She made her best attempt to return his smile, then turned back to her stirring. He came behind her and kissed the top of her head. “Get off early?”
“Well, that’s good. A treat.” He moved off into the bedroom where he called, “I’m going to change and take out the trash. Then I’ll open wine.”
That night, she didn’t even try to sleep. She’d cracked the window next to her for the fresh air it provided and lay on her back staring at the ceiling in the darkness. Paul snored quietly, his large figure turned away from her under the covers. She heard the final ferry of the night belch its horn at the pier several blocks away. Not long afterwards, the night’s last southbound train rumbled faintly into the downtown station across the bay. She found herself blinking rapidly and drying the palms of her hands against the sheets. Towards dawn, she listened to a siren from the fire station whine its way across town. She put a hand over the thud of her heart and whispered, “Stop.”
When the first light crept under the curtains, Michelle got up and drove to the beach for her walk. She stopped where the boat had been. It was low tide again; there was no sign it had ever been there, no footprints, no mark where it had sat angled in the wet sand. Just the quiet whoosh of the small waves and the long, curving stretch of shoreline to the south. In the blush of dawn, she could just make out the tip of Mexico in the distance. Her fingertips tingled; she felt short of breath.
She stayed long enough to be sure Paul had already gone to school when she returned home. She went into the study, took out a piece of paper, started with his name, and then wrote the long-practiced words she couldn’t bring herself to say to him in person. She added only: “I’m going away.” She signed the note, set it on their bed, and left the house again quickly. She stopped at the trash cans in the alley where Paul had moved them. They hadn’t been picked up yet, so she took her old cell phone that she’d sealed in an envelope and buried it in one of them.
Driving away, a daze engulfed her. Cresting the bridge, and then watching it disappear in her rearview mirror, it seemed as if she was watching herself from afar. She turned on the radio, fiddled through stations, then turned it off again. It was a gray morning. She wouldn’t have minded if it began to rain; the thought of it brought something like relief. She tried to hum, but felt a lump crawl into her throat as she did, so stopped. She glanced at the clock; if she kept a good pace and traffic cooperated, she could be in San Jose by late afternoon. Stan would be waiting; he’d written that he would be taking the day off work. They would meet at the door of his townhouse. She’d ring the bell, or perhaps he’d be watching for her and would come out to the car. They’d embrace, and then things would start anew. Suddenly, the image of Paul in his classroom writing on the whiteboard invaded her thoughts, followed by one of a newly swaddled Ben being handed to her in the delivery room. She shook her head to make them go away; she bit her lip.
Once she passed Del Mar, there were few cars on the freeway. The wide ocean stretched out to her left, and foothills on the other side were lush green after winter rains. A long train going north pulled abreast of her between the freeway and the coast, then gradually moved on ahead and disappeared. She passed the fields of flowers east of Carlsbad, a vast checkerboard of colors. She thought about going there each year to visit them, first with Paul, then with Ben and Paul, and for the past two years, not at all. Her grip tightened on the steering wheel. She was leaving that, leaving all of it, behind.
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, J Journal, and Gravel. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.