Salt Air

In the mornings, we’d stand up to our waists in the ocean for thirty minutes. Carolyn would time it. The salt sped the healing of our blisters and scrapes. The frigid Maine temperature revived our muscles. Every day when we emerged from the waves, our legs stiff and unsteady, we would promise that we were going to take a night off.

Back at the house, I’d fall asleep with the rocking of the waves still in my body, the bed swaying back and forth. Carolyn would shower and the slamming of the screen door would barely rouse me. I could hear the rocks crunching under her feet as she walked down the road to the post office, where she sorted letters and worked at the counter when someone took their lunch break.

At five or six I’d wake up—my sheets twisted and thick with salt—shower, and walk down to The Dunes, where I waited tables at night. By the time I got off work, smelling of fish and butter and wine, Carolyn would be sitting on one of the wooden pilings outside the restaurant. She’d already be dressed in her running gear, no matter what we’d said that morning.

She’d wait outside the cottage for me, stretching. I’d throw on a pair of running shorts, whichever felt driest, some socks, whichever smelled cleanest, and my shoes.

The nights felt enormous. Insects thrummed. Large birds soared overhead, searching for prey. Once we stepped out onto the road at the end of the sandy driveway, which was overhung with trees, the sky cracked open above us, stars with a depth and number I’d never seen before coming to the coast of Maine. Carolyn told me it was all the light pollution in the city, where I rarely looked up between the buildings to find the sky.

We’d start slow, the roads empty, not talking. As our legs warmed up, we’d try to figure everything out. When we first met, we’d been surprised to learn that the other ran. Greg, our father, had been a runner in college, but by the time we were born, a year and a month apart, he had filled out a protruding stomach.

It felt good, knowing I’d outrun him. I was thirty-one, and he’d been twenty-eight in the photos where my mother is holding me, and he’s holding her, but even the two of us didn’t obscure the outline of his expanding gut. He’d only been fifty-seven when his heart gave out, clogged beyond repair, two weeks short of his birthday. I had worked hard to ensure my springy legs and boyish waist stayed with me.

Carolyn and I pieced together, on one of these runs, that we’d actually been at the same track meet at the Empire State Games, not once, but twice. Greg had gone, but I couldn’t remember any clues I should have followed, even in retrospect. Greg was careful.

We turned toward the sea, always toward the sea. Sometimes we ran on roads that dead-ended in dunes, and we’d continue right onto the sand, and down the beachfront until we found another road. Carolyn left her watch at home.

The smell of the ocean, the rustle of the waves, and the breeze, if there was one, kept us company.

Every night we’d try to piece together another moment in which he’d deceived us, but the permutations were endless and our memories were inexact. We had been young. He kept things simple, too, as much as he could. This, we decided, had been his masterstroke. He did not change his favorite actor (Jimmy Stewart) or his favorite meal (meatloaf). But sometimes he would forget a birthday or mix up presents he’d bought us. In the mornings, we remembered, he wouldn’t talk, and we guessed that he couldn’t trust himself to keep everything straight. It could not have been easy, we knew, to have two families. It helped that he lowered expectations on a regular basis.

When we’d been running for long enough to exhaust us both, we’d find a way down to the ocean and lie stomachs down on a rock and dip our faces into the water. Carolyn worried about sharks coming to snap her face off, but I told her sharks did not hunt at night. I hoped it wasn’t a lie, but thought it probably was. This made me feel like Greg.

It also made me feel like Greg when I left the toilet seat up, or forgot to stop at the grocery all three times Carolyn had asked me, or left the dishes in the sink to get caked and stale. I felt like Greg when I skipped his funeral and forgot his birthday after he was dead (only to remember it three days later), but arrived early to the reading of the will.

I’d known about Carolyn then, and had sat with her and her mother as we listened to his final wishes. My mother had figured the whole thing out when I was seventeen and she found one of Greg’s checkbooks. He didn’t hide it. Once she asked him, he simply told her the truth. My mother had appreciated this, and would have stayed with him because of it. She told him she would call Carolyn’s mother and tell her if he didn’t. So he called, with my mother right there, and told Carolyn’s mother how sorry he was and how he wanted to be with her and have her be his one and only. When he hung up the phone, he told my mother he didn’t love her and left.

If my mother had seen Greg’s houses, she would have known right away that he’d given them the life she’d always dreamed of for us, but thought Greg couldn’t provide. Their house could have fit ours in the garage, and the vacation cottage on the coast of Maine was the kind of place my mother read about in Coastal Living and Preservation, magazines she brought home and left on our coffee table. They felt sad and embarrassing to me, these photos of how things could look in the middle of how they did.

Greg had kept my mother out of the will, which she’d expected, but he left the use of the house to me and Carolyn. Her mother had never really liked the beach or the ocean, whereas my mother swam every morning at the Y. Once, after Greg had gone, while he was still living happily with his other family, we went to the Cape to visit a friend of hers from college, and my mother sat on the rocks and stared at the ocean for what seemed like hours, and always seemed surprised when one of us talked to her, as if she’d forgotten that we were there.

Greg had divided the time between me and Carolyn. I was to have access in June and August, and Carolyn July and September. After the reading of the will, I moved out of my apartment, threw everything in storage, and spent a week sleeping on a friend’s floor before I called Carolyn. We discussed how things would work, and we decided we could coexist. I didn’t tell her I’d already put all but a single duffel bag of my possessions in a locker and had been counting on the house. Later, she said, when we have spouses and kids, we can split the time. But for the time being, when it was just the two of us, we could come and go as we pleased.

During the day, we rarely spoke; we communicated in gestures, notes, and grunts until the stars came out. The more we ran, the more I became aware that we were asking different questions: Carolyn’s were “more” and mine were “never.” She would ask, “Why didn’t he spend more time with me?” And I would respond, “How come he never spent time with me?”

We had gone about four miles, and I was thinking of turning back. I was waiting to see if Carolyn would break off the run first. We ran so close and in such tight rhythm it felt as though we were connected by the strands of a spider web. She asked, “Why didn’t he love me more?”

“He never said he loved me,” I said. “Not once.” My shoes hit the blacktop, and the sand crackled beneath my shoes from where the wind and the beachgoers had carried it onto the road. The sea grass rustled as we ran past.

“Maybe he didn’t,” she said at the very tip of an exhalation. I listened to the waves and the pounding of our sneakers. I smelled something rotting—a gull or a fish washed up on shore. She made a noise as if she was going to say something else, but kept quiet. I waited, the pavement sliding beneath us in the light of the moon.

I sped up. I had been holding back, I decided. She had been setting our pace, and I ran faster.

After a mile, her footsteps falling farther and farther behind me, I stopped and stretched my calves on the cement footing of a park bench. I loosened my hamstrings and my thighs. After a while, I sat down on the bench and waited. My breathing slowed. I calmed down. The moon stood high in the sky, nearly full, the light catching on the crests of the waves, bright enough to cast shadows.

When half an hour had passed, I made my way home. Carolyn’s shoes sat next to the mat, side-by-side. The lights in the house were all out, but the moon provided enough to make my way upstairs without incident. Her door was shut.

The next morning, Carolyn ate breakfast on the porch, in the hammock. She was on the phone. She assured the person on the other end that everything was fine, the house looked fine, things were fine. Her mother. Then she went silent, and I knew her mother was asking about me, so I gave her a weak wave and headed back into the kitchen, where I tried to hear what she said, but it was lost in the sound of the surf and the hum of a lawnmower.

When she brought her dishes to the sink, I asked her if she wanted to go and soak in the ocean, and she checked her watch and said she had offered to work someone else’s shift and didn’t have time. If she knew she’d made a mistake or hurt my feelings, she didn’t show it.

I walked down to the shore by myself. My joints felt like they were full of sand as I waded through the waves until the water came up to my waist. Without Carolyn, the cold water became unbearable after maybe five minutes. Of course, I didn’t wear a watch so I didn’t know how long I’d been in there. I knew then I couldn’t stay.

I passed her on the way up to the house, and she smiled at me, as if she knew I couldn’t hack it.

While she worked, I packed my bags. All I had was the one duffel, so the entire process took about ten minutes. I did the dishes. I stripped the sheets and washed and dried them, left them in a purposeful, polite pile at the foot of the bed, and she still hadn’t come back. I sat around and tried to read one of the paperbacks on the shelves. The sea air had bloated them and the pages smelled musty. My eyes ran over the words, and when I found myself rereading the same sentence three times, I put it back. I had never seen Greg with a book, and wondered where he’d gotten them, and where he used to sit to read them.

I left a note for Carolyn saying I’d be back in August, and thought of her coming back, reading the note, replacing it, and then walking upstairs to dress in her running gear. I tried to think of a way to have my leaving mean more, and all I could come up with was I wished I hadn’t washed her dishes so she would at least know I had gone.

I drove through the night to get to my mom’s house in Utica, four and a half hours doing seventy-five. In the morning, I made my way downstairs, and my mother sat in her breakfast nook, sipping coffee in her bathrobe.

“How was your time at the villa?”

I explained it was more like a cottage.

“It was a joke,” she said. “Did you have fun with your sister?”

“She’s not really my sister,” I said.

She asked me if I wanted some French toast. I didn’t, but I said yes, because it seemed she wanted to do something for me. She got up and began banging around in the cupboard. On the small counter beneath the cabinets, where the phone sat, the message light dead, a framed photo of the two of us and Greg stood leaning against the wall. I thought of all the other photos we had, albums full, and the boxes full of my old drawings and report cards, verified with Greg’s signature, and I wanted to load them in my trunk and drive right back to Maine, and show them to Carolyn, to explain to her, one by one.

I realized my mother was talking and I sat down on one of the stools that lined the counter. She waited for an answer to a question I hadn’t heard. I shrugged.

“Well, does she?” my mother asked.

“What?”

“Does she look like your father?”

I ignored her and walked upstairs, where I settled back into my sheets, which felt insubstantial and soft.

 

I returned to the house on the first of August, without calling, without a note to warn Carolyn. Her car wasn’t in the driveway. The door was locked. I put my hand up to my forehead and leaned into the window, and it appeared as though no one was there. The furniture had been covered in dust cloths. The key had been placed behind a loose brick in the foundation, and I turned it over in my hands.

The house smelled of must and salt, and it felt as though Carolyn had left long ago. Upstairs, her running shoes were not in her closet, instead the occupied hangers held a pair of paint-stained shorts and a hole-filled Oxford, and the empty hangers sang like wind chimes.

At the Dunes, no one remembered that I had ever worked there, even though I’d only been gone a month, and they said that since the season was starting to slow down, they didn’t think they would need me except for one or two shifts a week. I took them.

I ran alone. Through the small town, the light bulbs yellow and surrounded by moths, and beside the beaches, on the ocean-side roads, the houses big and lit up with people and noise. I had forgotten how long it had taken us to warm up, how long it had taken to get out of the reach of civilization, until we’d only spot a small clapboard house every half mile or so, a clothesline hung loose in the side yard, drying sheets mimicking the sound of thunder if the wind was strong. But I never got there. My left leg began to cramp up, my calf twitching. It was the kind of thing I could have made it through, something I may not have even noticed if Carolyn had been pushing me. I walked home, pausing to buy an ice cream.

That night, I listened to the house groan and creak as the heat of the day escaped. I remembered sitting up in bed as a child, my nose gushing blood, my mother’s frame blocking the light from the door, telling me everything was fine, that the nosebleeds were from growing up. She rushed to find me some rags and some ice. I’d asked for Greg, and she’d told me he was gone, away on business. I wondered if those same nights, Greg had come running to Carolyn’s room, to settle her nightmares, to check on her in the sliver of light from the door.

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