Brian’s snore raked through Eleanor’s ears. His nasal strip and her earplugs had failed her again and she was up, smothering a pillow over her face. No remedy ever worked a permanent miracle. No food after seven p.m. only kept their cholesterol down, but throwing out the cigarettes had its benefits. Their sleep-by-number mattress cost more than his month-long expedition to the Sea of Cortez, yet he remained a bullhorn. Giving up Sangria had just added another layer of punishment and she had to wonder: Where was the justice? Is he a man or some kind of crazy pig-dog amalgamation? She leaned over him. Brian wheezed and grunted. A pog.
Marriage equals compromise. No one’s perfect. John Lennon said it best, “All you need is love.” Of course, someone shot him, but still, it was a noble sentiment. Long and lean in his youth, Brian had been pressed by age to a papery thinness. He’d become a brittle man. It was difficult to comprehend that he was capable of creating such raucous noises.
She thought of his fervent grad students bearing his bellows and brays in their green tarps pitched at the edge of the sand between basalt crags and broken coral, his snores competing with the scream of wind at land’s end. Did they all fall under its spell, like sailors? Is that why they strained their backs and scorched their lips? Or was it just the idea of salvation that appealed to them? Of course, youth has no concept of how long life can be. Eleanor knew better. His windpipe was brash—it relished ululating like a walrus. Once she began to suspect his esophagus of spite, she began to fantasize about hiding a wooden club under their bed.
A bull-male snout with its wet bristles burring in her ear all night long—why not bring in blunt objects? Survival. Natural Order. These were on her side. Even Brian had agreed.
“If it gets bad, just do it,” he’d said once, nudging her with his elbow. A funny man, her husband.
Brian had done everything he could. Eleanor knew that. He’d gone to homeopathologists, acupuncturists, sleep apnea specialists. All for her. He’d swallowed fish oils, snuffed antihistamines, and put sublingual strips that tasted like mold under his tongue. What we do for love. She squished the earplugs in deeper and tried to visualize ocean waves and a word like “endure.” He let out an exceptionally loud grunt, and her eyes snapped open and narrowed down on him.
To bear. To tolerate. To abide. To endure.
So what if Brian had spent the last forty years saving miniature ecosystems from the disease of human consumption? Who cares if he was a real-life Jolly Green Giant? The proximity of their life, the decades and decades of forbearance permitted a woman to collect a few hypotheses of her own. One: Brian was lucky to have hooked up with a woman of such remarkable mercy. Two: becoming a walrus might be an occupational hazard of marine biologists. Three: she did not like walruses much anymore.
Maybe she should blame her father’s farm near Atlanta for brewing intolerance for the physical sound of a snort. It was the sound pigs made when they ate scraps of other pigs. It was the sound of her father heaving up the feed into the hoppers, the sound of sex; a sound that imparted little room for sympathy for the needs of men. It was all the same.
As a young girl, she had moved all her desires into small cottages in coastal towns like San Francisco, Vancouver, Nova Scotia. In these balmy imaginings, there were long walks along a grey shore, numerous brilliant lovers with soft lips; there were many swigs of vodka straight from imported Russian bottles, and songs about things like “proletariat universalism.” This was the future she packed with her on the plane ride to California, but Brian was never a beat-musician or on the fringe of any radical ideology, unless counting seahorse eggs was anarchistic. He looked like a Franciscan friar with polite rimmed glasses and a notebook tucked into the nook of his arm like a Bible. His grad students were the zealots, the converts, the educationally ordained. But he wore sandals instead of chickenshit-covered work boots, or army stompers, so Eleanor got busy smoking cigarettes and reading Erica Jong and tried to keep up with their worship.
She looked at Brian’s gnarled toes protruding from the end of their tea-dyed hemp quilt and thought about the call home all those years ago.
“Sandals? All to hell!” her father had barked.
“He’s a biologist, Pa.”
“A commie’s what he is!”
“Well, that commie is coming home for Christmas.” She’d imagined him shaking from fender to tender, sputtering like his rust-covered truck, his brain leaking all that fueled him out its tire-bald head.
“The hell he is.”
She’d hung up before he could pour more out of the receiver. John Riggs had loved three things more than cussing out his only living child: his country, his God, and his near-bankrupt chicken farm. Among her father’s things she’d collected from the estate sale was a picture of Brian in a tide pool, his pink communist toes wagging themselves in the watery sand like anemones. “Welcome to hell” was written on the back in her scrawling cursive, and under her childish insurrection, in her father’s neat print: “Brian Mackenzie, my Ellie’s beau, 1967.”
A fit of coughs erupted beside her. She gave up the idea of sleep and went into the living room.
Eleanor flipped through the channels for a few moments. She enjoyed watching cable TV shows in which indiscreet documentaries played out the lives of women gone wrong—affluent and affable wives who one day took a shotgun and put a large, unseemly hole through their marriage bed and their husband’s skull, or pushed a feather pillow over his face and held it there against all probable exertion on his part. Demure ladies who snapped. It took effort to smother a grown man. She’d seen such subaltern statements from the hen house end in a sea of bloody white feathers, and the rooster was rarely put out for more than a day. Just enough time for all the chickens to forget and go back to pecking and scratching—the communal clucking would continue blissfully, as though the coup was never attempted. No one else seemed to care about this incongruity.
The dial landed on Animal Planet. Eleanor watched an orange crab scuttle over sand as she raised a coffee cup full of red wine to her lips. Brian didn’t know about the wine. He wouldn’t have voiced an objection—he didn’t need to—all he had to do was purse his lips and turn up the corners of his mouth. She gulped quickly. Felt the slow heat move down her throat, spread over her face, and send its warm fingers trickling down her spine—and then came a procession of snuffs from the back of the house. There was no escaping.
Walrus cows had it bad. Again, nature had not served them well. A bull’s protection included pushing, tusks, and a lot of spittle—the cows and calves were always in danger of being squashed under their protector’s well-intentioned weight. She’d seen a documentary. It was awful, but according to the researcher who had slept next to her for the better part of last century, walruses were on the endangered species list. Warmer water was decimating coral reefs, sterilizing seahorses, and depleting glacial lands. They were feeling the pressure of being on the edge of the void. Global warming wasn’t the only reason for their disappearance. They were hunted, not for their skin (because they were a repulsive-looking mammal) but for their ivory, their big walrus tusks.
Eleanor was not sure she cared. She slipped a hand-beaded Navajo sack out from the back of the coat closet and rummaged down through her loose receipts, plastic clips, and travel makeup, feeling her way for the familiar weight and texture. She pulled out her pack of smokes, and went out the sliding glass door into the night.
She slid the door shut behind her and muttered: We’re a prejudiced species.
His hands are magnified by the bathwater reflecting off the white tile. He struggles to comprehend what he is doing. The whiteness of bathroom, the sweat sliding down the ridge of his nose, the warble of his hands submersed at the end of his arms. The woman is not struggling under the pressure of his hands forcing her down into the water. He feels trapped between awe and revulsion, a child holding a mysterious wonder on the verge of escape, an octopus or a sea turtle or a slick-black. She squirms a bit, but he does not let go. If he lets go, she will be lost.
Her hair is sun-bleached seaweed. She should be named after the color of her hair in this room, in this water. Like a baptism, she could be reborn and find her true name. He could be God and name the new species that she transforms into. In the way her hair circles and braids itself into a crown, something is magnificent and horrible about his wife.
And he is aware suddenly that this is his wife. Eleanor looks up at him with a full-faced contraction. He is reminded of her orgasms, and her carotid artery pulses under his palms. The water begins to turn red, like blood. Is this a dream? He becomes aware that he is naked and freezing with wetness. He shakes her hard, but she only smiles. He can’t breathe. He closes his eyes.
The white bathroom is replaced by a long, dark row of mulberry hedge and wet grass. He knows this is 1967 and the girl lying on the old pill-balled tartan is Eleanor. The blanket is a remnant of a trip to Yosemite he kept stored in the trunk of his dented Olds. He knows he has been in this scene before, but it’s been a long time. This is where they came after seeing that community theater shtick. This night, he put off his thesis work on the off-chance she might lie down on a nubby blanket.
He gets on top of her. She pitches her weight under him, against him, and as she arches her back and buckles to him, he comes so fast that he isn’t sure she has noticed.
He crumples onto her and says, “I am so sorry.”
She does not say anything. She places her hand on the back of his head and reaches behind her and pulls the blanket up, but the blanket is now made of green grass. The earth moves like a quilt in her hand and she encloses them beneath it. The darkness fills with the smell of her hair.
He cannot catch his breath, and he is thrust once more into the white room. He is afraid to look into the water, but he cannot help it. Her eyes glaze over. Her mouth opens and closes like a fish’s. His hands are around her neck, and he can feel himself hardening.
Eleanor, Nora, his wife of forty-five years. Eleanor, the inexplicable Southern girl who claims to be a reincarnated druid and makes the best fried chicken, that is her name. The naked woman in the bathtub, under the water, can create anything out of dirt and water or wire or old bits of sea glass—she even created a human inside her belly. An impulse rises in him to let go of her neck and rub his hands up and down her belly and thighs.
Woman. Mother. Goddess. His erection pushes against the cold porcelain tub. The energy comes out of her and flows through him; it breathes from her pores into his hands. Flecks of white light, bright like bioluminescent particles at the bottom of the ocean, stream out of her skin. He remembers being a boy in a pet store, stretching his arm down into the water toward a bright yellow fish, the vibration of the air pump on the glass, the delight the aerator bubbles gave his skin as they swept around him, all the mystery and the color. Her mystery, her color.
Let this be real, he pleads.
He looks down at the curls of dark at the crest of her thighs. He wants to slip his hand down into her hair and find her pink, pure skin. He lets go to reach for her sex, but as he does the water begins to roil around her. She starts to dissolve, as if she’s made of carbonate. He grabs at the water, pushing with his hands, but they clutch only emptiness. Nothing—she is gone. He punches the water with his fists. The anger closing up the back of his throat wakes him.
“Elle? What are you doing out there?” She flicked something over the back of the balcony and coughed.
“Nothing. Just getting some fresh air.”
“It’s two in the morning.”
“Elle,” he came out on the deck. “I woke you again, didn’t I?”
Eleanor turned her head downwind and blew out a long sigh, hoping the smell of smoke would disperse. The lights of the city twinkled over the bay. She smelled of salt and seaweed and wetness, and the slight hint of wine. The owl that had been roosting in the big cypress gave one of his smooth hoots.
A knot furrowed the center of her forehead. She wondered why she always thought owls were male. Is it the deep tone or methodical pattern of their calls that makes them seem so wise?
“I’m sorry,” he said, as he put his hands on her shoulders for a moment before retreating.
“Your hands are freezing, and one of these nights I am going to smother you with a goddamn pillow.”
He smiled in the half-light, but she noticed something pulled at the corners of his expression—he usually made a joke to break the tension.
“Want a cookie?” Eleanor asked.
She flipped the kitchen light, the sudden florescence making the leftover pasta in bowls on the counter seem exposed. Her cup of wine sat next to them. Brian didn’t seem to notice and was tapping his tendril-veined fingers on the pantry door. They leaned on opposite counters, and Eleanor studied her husband as he ate his cookie. She’d grown a long list of behavioral knowledge about him, felt attuned to the slightest bit of difference. He popped another wedge into his mouth and dusted himself for crumbs. Brian crossed his arms, shifted his weight to one side, and sucked some cookie goo into his mouth.
“Well, do you plan on saying anything, Mister Mackenzie?”
“Cookie was good.”
“I’m guessing you smelled the smoke?”
“I dreamt I was drowning you in the bathtub.”
“It was damn sexy, Missus Mackenzie.”
“Well, coo coo cachou.”
They startled with the ferocity of their laughter and then were silent for a long time. Taking each other’s thinning hand, they walked together down the hallway, back to bed. They stepped slowly in their slippers over the old floorboards. Outside, the moon swam into the bay and the owl flew away to hunt.
Eleanor Mackenzie opened her eyes to see the sun shining on her husband’s gaze. She sat up, watching him as she backed to the edge of the bed. She stretched a shaking leg out behind her and touched the morning-cold floor. Winced. His eyes did not respond. Eleanor clenched her fingers around a pillow, and pulled it to her chest.
The pillow came with her as she padded into the kitchen. It seemed to her that she could not breathe and that the kitchen was too bright with light. For a moment, she was certain she was in the wrong house. She couldn’t find the wall with the phone on it. Once she saw that it was still hanging where it had hung for thirty years, she could not remember how to use it until she lifted the receiver and dialed their daughter’s number.
“Hi, Momma. What’s up?”
“June-bug?” Eleanor forgot why she was calling. “He…”
“Momma? You all right?”
“Juniper, he… I—”
She considered hanging up, dropping out of the conversation. Through the curtains, she stared across the ocean and watched the foam caps of waves push from the shoreline. She began to wash away with a great tide.
“I’m coming over.”
There was a deep trench of panic in June’s voice, but it was the kind of cool, collected panic that solidified into action. There was a muffled shout.
“Don’t go anywhere!”
Where would I go, now? Eleanor thought.
She knew June would fix this, so she set down the phone.
Eleanor went back down the hall and from the doorway looked at her husband lying in bed. She stood for a while, feeling certainty draw its closed fist around her neck, and wondered if she were guilty of loving him too much, or too little? She sucked in her breath, walked into their bedroom, and felt herself descend under the wave of his being, or the absence of it.
What will the seahorses do? Will their stories end in oceans of quiet, sterile water?
The questions unwound themselves in her mind—she let go of their tenuous anchors—she closed and opened her eyes to see the magnitude of it all: Brian Mackenzie, dead.
Pulling the quilt over their heads, she tucked herself close to the hint of warmth left in him, entangled her feet with his, and pressed her ear to his neck. Amongst the smell of coarse salt, the wetness of a primitive sea, she searched for a purr of life. She held to him and rocked on waves, guarding his moment of extinction.
There was no sound in the darkness under the cover.