On the Mediterranean, the ocean expels an aroma uncommon to the beaches you are used to. A scent unlike the steely brine of the North Shore where you grew up, or even the sulfuric perfume of the California coastline where you moved for love.
You gather sea glass with Clare as to always remember the moment when the two of you walked along the shores of Sorrento. From a few paces behind, you watch her inspect a piece with care. She stops, crouches, runs a thumb along its edge, and after she’s satisfied, she points her nose up 45 degrees, as if the cast of her head is what causes the breeze to pick up.
“It smells different here,” she nearly whispers into the wind, which kindly carries the thought to you. She moves on to scan more sand. You know what she means. It smells like lemon in ice water, but sometimes also brothy soup. Like a meal you might eat with crusty bread and sigh afterward from pleasure. You take this as a good sign.
You love this view of your wife, her apparent control over the environment. At this distance she looks so serene. Like nothing could bring her down.
Sometimes, in the mornings, before you know what kind of day it will be, you stand at the top of the stairs and stare at her, like some long-treasured masterpiece, for just a little while. You try to remember the way she looked up at you that first time you saw her and stuck her tongue out at you without anyone else seeing—like she’d known you well enough to tease you, to keep a secret between you. You remember how damn happy she could be.
Today, you woke her up early, so you could have this time together before your meeting in the afternoon. You tapped her on the chin with your lips, and she grinned momentarily before opening her eyes and glancing off listlessly toward the bathroom, her first hurdle.
“You still?want?to?hit?the?beach?” you asked.
It’s a little too breezy, a little too early, so the two of you are almost alone, how you hoped it would be. Not too overwhelming. It is only you two and a young family of three in cable knit walking hand in hand.
When you catch up to Clare she’s sitting cross-legged on a smooth black rock. She’s sorting the glass into color categories. Blue hues, the rust-colored pieces, minty green, each in their own piles, darker ones in another, clear and white mingling together.
She makes you nervous, but not like she used to. Her stormy moments had once been part of the love. Whether it was right or not didn’t matter when up against the maddeningly seductive anxiety fueled by the possibility that everything could collapse. The threat of having your first fight buzzing like coffee in your veins, charging you forward. But then when that first storm did come it was harder than you thought it would be, wasn’t it? Sadder. And you realized the rumbling maybe wasn’t the electric love making you nervous in a fun way. It was something else.
“Hey cutie,” you say, but when she turns to you, you see that she has been crying again and you know hey cutie was wrong. That’s your first mistake.
She rolls her eyes, turns away. You put a hand on her delicate but muscular shoulder, and, like it’s your first time, with an idiotic innocence, you make a second mistake blurting out, “What’s wrong?”
Ever since she gave birth to Sean you are always not enough or a little bit too much. Always landing your hands wrong, your words worse. You thought it was postpartum at first, but Sean is four now, staying with his grandmother, like he does more and more often.
“I’m depressed,” she coughs out angrily, wrinkling her forehead like she does, and you wish it would still be enough to do what you did in the beginning—kiss your thumb and wipe it across those ridges to erase them away—but she doesn’t think this is sweet anymore.
It was the therapy, of course, that had given her that diagnosis—“I’m depressed”— which she has adopted as a catchphrase. You are feeling more and more like “dumbass” is implied after that statement.
“Hey now,” you say, “Today’s going to be great though! Isn’t this nice? This is supposed to be about us.” But you suspect it isn’t really true.
You invited her on your business trip because you were worried to leave her at home alone with Sean, and you couldn’t tell your boss you had to stay home because you shouldn’t leave your son with his mother. For fear that she might ball up like this in a flash, unable to explain to him, to herself, what had gone wrong, what had switched inside of her. So you told your office she was dying to go, and you told her you were dying for her to come with you.
But now, you suppose, it is about “us.” You are getting sick of things being about “us,” about “Clare’s condition.” You wish moments could just be about nothing, like they used to be. When you would listen to her breathe in her sleep and not worry about what she was dreaming, not worry she might wake up crying, unable to fall asleep again.
You are also hoping the trip will prove that she doesn’t need to be taken somewhere for treatment, that you have it under control together, but the good days are getting further apart now and both of you know it. It’s as if you can only love her from back there now, from down the beach, the top of the stairs.
From there you still have that beautiful tether that couples have. The invisible string that connects you even when you are apart, that binds you when you enter a room and go in different directions. But then you meet up again at the cheese spread or the punch bowl, and it isn’t the cheese that brings you back.
Whenever you feel it, you want to run up and tell her about the tether, about how you can still feel that bond, but you always seem to get too close too fast and it ends up getting tangled. You’ve also come to know in the last couple of years that if you step too far away, the tether can snap.
You’ve slept with other women when it snaps, when Clare goes with Sean to stay with her mother and have a getaway from the stresses of life, from you. When the car’s been gone for too long and you start to feel anger, resentment that you and your perfect son can’t be good enough and you go out to have a drink after work.
The first time was a year ago. When the woman first kissed you it felt less sexual than the hug she gave you after you’d done it. She let you linger there, and that’s the only point where it felt wrong.
Aside from the hug you felt nearly remorseless for having done it, because you knew you didn’t love this girl like you love Clare, or at least like you love her from down the beach, and you know your wife doesn’t care about an indiscretion as complex as an affair anyway.
She doesn’t care about anything now, only about nothing. Only about you saying the wrong thing, stepping the wrong way, not about sleeping with the wrong woman. The last time you slept together was right after Sean was born.
“Let’s take a break for awhile,” she’d said to you as she rolled over, and you only thought that meant for the night, not forever.
You began to intentionally invite the women over, maybe so she would find you out, get angry at something real, maybe so that she would ask to leave you, do what normal couples do when things are less than perfect. You’d muss their hair and leave it on the pillow. Later you’d watch Clare pinch a strand between two fingers, let it float to the carpet without a word. Lie down. Sigh in her sleep, the strange hairs piled on the floor below her.
Your mom used to say you can’t have a healthy relationship without a healthy mind, but what happens when the mind sours after the relationship? After the baby, the family, the life?
Up close you can see those deep ridges below her tear ducts, like the striation in the sand that’s been carved out by ocean water flushing through it over and over. She starts to cry again, and when you try to rock her in your arms she pushes you away. You wish she’d let you hold her again.
“I’m crawling.” It’s more therapy lingo. The doctor asked her to describe her “spells” as something physical, something familiar, since she couldn’t articulate it to you even when she knew it was the darkness coming up.
“Let me crawl with you,” you say, and you mean it. You’d get face down in the sand to save her, to fix “Clare’s condition,” to fix “us.” “Maybe if you let me crawl, eventually we can help each other stand up.” You smile. She glowers, but she lets you touch her wrist. She is in a bad way. You know she hasn’t taken her medication, but you can’t mention it. It’s part of the rules you’ve learned.
The wind is dying, the clouds gathering, to create a serene kind of silence only a grey beach can support. You could say anything now, and she could not feign lack of hearing. You squeeze her wrist tighter, the words you’ve held in for years ball up in your throat like they might finally escape through your lips. This isn’t working. I’m cheating on you. We are broken. I want a divorce.
But then, as if she can hear your heartbeat cut through the stillness, she says, “I think I’m just tired. A nap will do me good.” You make her a little nest out of your sweater and the picnic blanket you brought. Before she lies down, she kisses your cheek like magic. She never apologizes anymore. She doesn’t need to. It isn’t her fault; it isn’t her at all really. The kisses help to remind you of that.
While she is napping you walk down to the ocean. Rain begins to prick its glossy surface. You take a few laps out, until the goose bumps along your legs dissolve and your muscles relax into the water’s temperature. You flip around to float on your back, and it’s nice out there alone. Two birds dance around each other, fighting gracefully for the same fish. Having distracted each other from the prize, they fly away as a couple toward the horizon.
Maybe she does need to be somewhere full time, you think, so they can make sure she takes her dosage, so you can do life a little. Maybe it would be good for you both to be honest about it. You could stop lying to teachers, making excuses to neighbors about why “Clare couldn’t come.” You could tell them the truth, tell yourself the truth. “Clare is getting help,” you could say. “Clare is unfortunately ill, but she’s being treated.” You thought Italy might brighten her, might tune her up sufficiently, convince her to want to make love, or confront you about making love to other women, break her out of this long-standing spell, but that was na?ve.
When you come up to swim back, you see her standing there on the shore. She is smiling. She waves a little wave. The tether pulls you back like it’s made of rubber. You’ll try at a better afternoon before making any decisions, before mentioning anything to her, and maybe it will be better. Maybe, someday it will be.