It’s Columbus Day weekend, and they lucked out with gorgeous weather, an Indian-summer day in October. She sits in her beach chair with the seat upright and digs her heels into the hot sand. The ocean in front of her sparkles white and silver in the sunlight. There are no fishing boats or yachts in the distance, no kite surfers or swimmers near the shore, nothing but a pure ocean view today. She inhales and exhales.
Soak it up.
Her three daughters are busy building a sand castle. They’re too close to the water. It’ll be flooded and destroyed within an hour, but they wouldn’t heed their mother’s warning.
Her oldest daughter, almost eight, is the architect and fore- man. More sand here. A feather there. Go get some shells for the windows. Dig this hole deeper. The younger two are her loyal construction workers.
The youngest, barely four, loves this job. She skips off with her pail, charges knee-deep into the ocean, fills her bucket, and returns, struggling with the weight of it, sloshing at least half of the water out as she walks a drunken line back to her sisters, smiling, delighted with her contribution to the project.
She loves to watch her daughters like this, absorbed in playing, unaware of her. She admires their young bodies, all in little-girl bikinis, skin still deeply tanned from a summer spent outside, skipping, squatting, bending, sitting, utterly unself- conscious.
The weather and the holiday combined have invited a lot of tourists to the island. Compared to the last many weeks since Labor Day, the beach today feels crowded with walkers and a few sunba this same stretch of sand for an hour and saw only one other person. But that was a Friday morning, and it was foggy and cold.
Her attention becomes drawn to a woman sitting in a simi- lar beach chair at the water’s edge and her boy, who is playing by hims thing, shirt- less in blue bathing trunks, probably a year younger than her youngest daughter. He’s creating a line of white rocks on the sand.
Each time the ily drowning his line of rocks in white foam, he jumps up and down and squeals. He then runs into the water as if he’s chasing it, and runs back, a huge smile stretched across his face.
She continues to watch him, for some reason mesmerized, as he methodically adds more and more rocks to his line.
“Gracie, go see i little boy wants to help you build the castle.”
Outgoing and used to taking orders, Gracie bounces over to the little boy. She watches her daughter, hands on her hips, talking to him, but they’re too far away for her to hear what her daughter’s saying. The boy doesn’t seem to acknowledge her. His mother looks over her shoulder for a moment.
Gracie runs back to their beach blanket alone. “He doesn’t want to.”
Soon, the ocean begins to invade the castle, and the girls grow bored of building it anyway, and they start grumbling about being hungry. It’s lunchtime, and she didn’t bring any food. Time to go.
She closes her eyes and draws in one last warm, clean, salty breath, then exhales and gets up. She gathers a handful of stray shovels and castle molds and carries them to the water to rinse them off. She lets It’s numbingly cold. As she rinses her daughter’s beach toys, she scans the sand for seashells or sea glass, something beautiful to bring home.
She doesn’t see anything worth collecting, but she does spot a single, brilliant white rock peeking out of the sand. She picksitupalksover to the little boy, bends down, and carefully places her rock at one end of his line.
He glan n easy to miss them altogether—stunning brown eyes, twinkling in the sun at her, delighted with her contribution to his project. He jumps and squeals and flaps his hands, a happy dance.
She smiles at the boy’s mother, who mirrors a smile in re- turn, but it’s guarded and weary, one that doesn’t invite any- thing She’ssureshedoesn’tknowthiswomarher little boy and has no particular reason to think she’ll ever see them again, but as she turns to leave, she waves and says with total conviction, “See you later.”
Beth is alone in her house, listening to the storm, won- dering what to do next. To be fair, she’s not really alone. Jimmy is upstairs sleeping. But she feels alone. It’s ten in the morning, and the girls are at school, and Jimmy will sleep until at least noon. She’s curled up on the couch, sipping hot cocoa from her favorite blue mug, watching the fire in the fireplace, and listening.
Rain and sand spray against the windows like an enemy at- tackin Wind chimes gong repetitive, raving-mad music, rid- ing gusts from some distant neighbor’s yard. The wind howls like a desperately mournful animal. A desperately mournful wild animal. Winter storms on Nantucket are wild. Wild and violent. They used to scare her, but that was years ago when she was new to this place.
The radiator hisses. Jimmy snores.
She has already done the laundry, the girls won’t be home for several hours, and it’s too early yet to start dinner. She’s grateful she did the grocery shopping yesterday. The whole house needs to be vacuumed, but she’ll wait until after Jimmy is up. He didn’t get home from work until after 2:00 a.m.
She wishes she had the book for next month’s book club. She keeps forgetting to stop by the library to check it out.This month’s book was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night- Time by Mark Haddon. It was a quick read, a murder mystery narrated by an autistic teenage boy. She liked it and was espe- cially fascinated by the main character’s strange inner world, but she hopes the next one will be a bit lighter. They typically choose more serious literature for book club, but she could use a pleasant escape into a hot summer romance right about now. ThThey all could.
A loud bang against the back of the house startles her. Gro- ver, their black Lab, lifts his head from where he’s been sleep- ing on the braided rug.
Kno Jimmy to take his chair in last night before he left for work. It’s his “cigar-smoking” chair. One of the summer residents left it on the side of the road in September with a sign taped to it that read FREE, and Jimmy couldn’t resist it. ThThe thing is trash. It’s a cedar Adirondack chair. In most places on Earth, that chair could weather a lifetime, but on Nantucket, the salty, humid air eventually degrades everything but the densest man-made composite materials. Everything needs to be extraordinarily tough to survive here. And probably more than a little dense.
Jimmy’s moldy, corroded chair belongs at the dump or at least in the garage, as Beth wisely suggested last night. But instead, the wind has just lifted it off the ground and heaved it against the house. She thinks about getting up and hauling the chair into the garage herself, but then she thinks better of it. Maybe the storm will smash it to pieces. Of course, even if this happens, Jimmy will just find some other chair to sit in while he smokes his smelly cigars.
She sits and tries to enjoy her cocoa, the storm, and the fire, but the impulse to get up and do something nags at her.
She can’t think of anything useful to do. She walks over to the fireplace mantel and picks up the wedding picture of Jimmy and her. Mr. and Mrs. James Ellis. Fourteen years ago. Her hair was longer and blonder then. And her skin was flawless. No pores, no spots, no wrinkles. She touches her thirty-eight- year-old cheek and sighs. Jimmy looks gorgeous. He still does, mostly.
She studies his smile in the photo. He has a slight overbite, and his eyeteeth jut forward a touch. When she met him, she thought his imperfect teeth added to his charm, lending just enough to his rugged good looks without making him look like a hillbilly. He has a self-assured, mischievous, full-out grin for a smile, the kind that makes people—women—put forth considerable effort to be the reason for it.
But his teeth have started to bug her. The way he picks at them with his tongue after he eats. The way he chews his food with his mouth open. The way his eyeteeth stick out. She sometimes finds herself staring at them while he talks, wishing he’d shut his mouth. They’re pearly white in this wedding pho- tograph, but now they’re more caramel- than cream-colored, abused by years of daily coffee and those smelly cigars.
His once beautiful teeth. Her once beautiful skin. His annoyits.Shehasthem,too.knowshernagging drives him crazy. This is what happens when people get older, when they’re married for fourteen years. She smiles at Jimmy’s smile in the picture, then replaces it on the mantel a little to the left of where it was before. She takes a step back. She purses her lips and eyes the length of the mantel.
Their fireplace mantel is a six-foot-long, single piece of driftwood hung over the hearth. They found it washed up on the shore one night on Surfside Beach during that first sum- mer. Jimmy picked it up and said, We’re hanging this over the fireplace in our house someday. Then he kissed her, and she be- lieved him.They’d only known each other for a few weeks.
Three pictures are on the mantel, all in matching weath- ered, white frames—one of Grover when he was six weeks old on the left, Beth and Jimmy in the middle, and a beach portrait of Sophie, Jessica, and Gracie in white shirts and floral, pink peasant skirts on the right. It was taken just after Gracie’s sec- ond birthday, eight years ago.
“Where does the time go?”she says aloud to Grover.
A huge, peach starfish that Sophie found out by Sankaty Lighthouse flanks the Beth-and-Jimmy picture on the left, and a perfect nautilus shell, also huge and without a single chip or crack, flanks the Beth-and-Jimmy picture on the right. Beth found the nautilus shell out on Great Point the year she married Jimmy, and she protected it vigilantly through three moves. She’s picked up hundreds of nautilus shells since and has yet always the arrangement on the mantel. Nothing else is allowed there.
She adjusts her wedding picture again, slightly to the right, and steps back. There. That’s better. Perfectly centered. Every- thing as it should be.
Now what? She’s on her feet, feeling energized. “Come on, Grover. Let’s go get the mail.” Outside, she immediately regrets the idea. The wind whips
through her heartiest “windproof ” winter as if it were a sieve. Chills tumble down her spine, and the cold feels like it’s worming its way deep into her bones. The rain is coming at her sideways, slapping her in the face, making it difficult to keephereyesopenenoughewherethey’regoing.Poor Grover, who was warm and happy and asleep a few moments ago, whimpers.
“Sorry, Grove. We’ll be home in a minute.”
The mailboxes are about a half mile away. Beth’s neighborhood is inhabited by a smattering of year-rounders and summer residents, but mostly summer people live on her route to the mail. So this time of year, the houses are empty and dark. There are no lights on in the windows, no smoke billowing from the chimneys, no cars parked in the driveways. Everything is life- less. And gray. The sky, the earth, the weathered cedar shingles on every empty, dark house, the ocean, which she can’t see now but can smell. It’s all gray. She never gets used to this. The te- dious grayness of winter on Nantucket is enough to unravel the most unshakable sanity. Even the proudest natives, the people who love this island the most, question themselves in March.
Why the hell do we live on this godforsaken spit of gray sand?
Spring, summer, and fall are different. Spring brings the yellow daffodils, summer brings the Mykonos-blue sky, fall brings the y all bring the tourists. Sure, the tourists come with their downsides. But they come. Life! After Christmas Stroll in December, they all leave. ThThey return to mainland America and beyond, to places that have such things as McDonald’s and Staples and BJ’s and businesses that are open past January. And color. They have color.
COLD, WET, AND miserable, she arrives at the row of gray mail- boxes lining the side of the road, opens the door to her box, pulls out three pieces of mail, and quickly shoves them inside her coat to protect them from the rain.
“C’mon, Grover. Home!”
They turn around and begin retracining their route.With the rain and wind pushing behind her now,she’s able to lookup to see where she’s going instead of mostly down at her feet. Ahead of them in the distance, someone is walking toward them. She wonders who it could be.
As they get closer, she figures out that the person is a woman. Most of Beth’s friends live mid-island. Jill lives in Cisco, which isn’t too far from here, but in the other direction, toward the ocean, and this woman is too short to be Jill. She’s wearing a hat, a scarf wrapped around her nose and mouth, a parka, and boots. It would be hard to recognize anyone in that getup in this weather, but surely, Beth must know who it is. There are only so many people who would be out walking in this neighborhood in this weather on a Thursday in March. There are no weekenders or day-trippers out for a stroll on Nantucket today.
They’re a few yards apart now, but Beth still can’t iden- tify her. She can only see that the woman’s hair is long and black. Beth prepares to say Hello, and she’s already smiling when the woman is directly in front of her, but the woman is fixated on the ground, refusing eye contact. So Beth doesn’t say Hello, and she feels sheepish for smiling. Grover wanders over for a sniff, but the woman skirts by too quickly and is then behind them before Beth or Grover can learn anything more about her.
Still curious after a few steps, Beth looks back over her shoulder and sees the woman at the row of mailboxes, toward the far end.
“Probably a New Yorker,” she mutters as she turns around and presses on toward home.
Safe inside, Grover shakes himself, sending water every- where. She’d normally scold him for doing this, but it doesn’t matter. Just opening the door splashed a bucket’s worth of wa- ter into the mudroom. She removes her hat and coat, and the mail falls to the ground. She kicks off her boots. She’s soaked through.
She peels off her wet socks and jeans, tosses them into the laundry room, and slips into a pair of fleece pajama bottoms and a pair of slippers. Feeling warmer and drier and immedi- ately happier, she returns to the front door to collect the mail from the floor, then walks back to the couch. Grover has re- turned to the braided rug.
The first piece of mail is the heating bill, which will probably be more than their monthly mortgage payment. She decides to open it later. The next is a Victoria’s Secret catalog. She ordered one push-up bra three Christmases ago, and they still keep sending her catalogs. She’ll toss it into the fire. The last piece of mail is an envelope hand-addressed to her. She opens it. It’s a card with a birthday cake pictured on the f ront.
May all your wishes come true.
Huh, that’s strange, she thinks. Her birthday isn’t until Oc- tober.
Inside, the words HappyBirthday have been crossed out with a single, confident ballpoint blue line. Below it, someone has written:
I’m sleeping with Jimmy. PS. He loves me.
It takes her a few seconds to reread it, to make sure she’s comprehending the words. She’s aware of her heart pounding as she picks up the envelope again. Who sent this? There’s no return address, but the postmark is stamped from Nantucket. She doesn’t recognize the handwriting. The penmanship is neat and loopy, a woman’s. Another woman’s.
Holding the envelope in one hand and the card in the other, she looks up at the fireplace mantel, at her perfectly centered wedding picture, and swallows. Her mouth has gone dry.
She gets up and walks to the fireplace. She slides the iron screen aside. She tosses the Victoria’s Secret catalog onto the fire and watches the edges curl and blacken as it burns and turns to gray ash. Gone. She clenches the envelope and card. Her hands are shaking. If she burns them now, she can pretend she never saw them. This never existed.
A swirl of unexpected emotion courses through her. She feels fear and fury, panic and humiliation. She feels nauseous, like she’s going to be sick. But what she doesn’t feel is surprised.
She closes the gate. With the card and envelope squeezed in her fist, she marches up the stairs, emphasizing each loud step as she heads toward Jimmy’s snoring.
Olivia strips down to her underwear and changes into sweatpants, socks, and her oldest favorite Boston College sweatshirt. Drier but still freezing, she hurries downstairs to the living room and presses the button on the remote to the fireplace. She stands in front of the instant blaze and waits and waits, but it doesn’t throw off any noticeable heat. She touches the glass with the palm of her hand. It’s barely warm. It was David’s idea to convert the fireplace to gas. Better for the ten- ants. More convenient and less messy.
Although they’ve owned the cottage for eleven years, she and David have never actually lived here. They bought it as an investment just before the housing market boomed and prices skyrocketed. David, a ess r who reluctantly stepped into his family’s real estate business after college, is always keep- ing his eye on properties with potential. He’s all about location, location, location. He looks for a fixer-upper in the right neigh- borhood, buys it, hires contractors to renovate the kitchen and baths and to paint the interior and the exterior, then he sells it. The goal is always to flip it fast,a SOLD sign on the front lawn and a tidy profit sitting fat and pretty in his pocket.
But Nantucket was different for David. With almost 50 percent of the island designated as conservation and “for- ever wild,” leaving only half of the almost fifty square miles buildable, David wasn’t interested in flipping this house. He assured Olivia that the property value would never dip below what they paid for it. The house is nothing special, a modest three-bedroom cottage with little remarkable about any of the rooms or layout. But situated less than a mile from Fat Ladies Beach, it’s a highly desirable vacation property, and David correctly guessed that they would al- ways more than cover their annual mortgage payments with summer rentals.
It’s a smart investment for our future, he’d said, back when they could so blissfully imagine a future.
They stayed in the house for a week or two each year in the shoulder seasons, usually in October, but stopped coming al- together after Anthony turned three. Pretty much everything stopped after Anthony turned three.
A violent gust of wind screams in the distance, sounding to Olivia like a small child crying out in pain.The windows rattle, and a cold breeze dances along the skin of her bare neck. She shivers. Nantucket in winter. This is going to take some getting used to.
She rubs the palms of her hands together, trying to create some friction to warm them. Dissatisfied, she wonders where she might blanket. She’s only here nine days, and she’s still learning where everything is, still feeling like a guest in someone else’s home. A stranger at the inn. She searches the linen closet, finds a gray, woolen blanket she vaguely remem- bers buying, wraps it around her shoulders, and snuggles into the living-room chair with the mail.
The bills are still sent to their house in Hingham, a small, suburban town on Boston’s South Shore, so she hasn’t yet re- ceived anything but home-repair-service advertisements, local election postcards, and coupon flyers, but today she knows she has some real mail.
Before even opening the first, she knows it’s a book from her old boss, Louise, a senior editor at Taylor Krepps. The en- velope has a yellow forwarding-address sticker on it. Louise doesn’t know that Olivia has moved to Nantucket. She doesn’t know about Anthony either.
She doesn’t know anything.
Olivia hasn’t worked as a junior editor to Louise in self-help books at Taylor Krepps Publishing for five years now, but Louise still sends her advance reader copies. Maybe it’s Louise’s way of keeping the door open, of trying to entice Olivia back to work. Olivia suspects Louise has simply never gotten around to taking her off the mailing list. Olivia’s never hinted to Louise that she’d ever come back; it’s been a couple of years since she’s sent a note thanking her or commenting on a book, and even longer since she’s read any of them. But they keep coming.
She doesn’t have the heart or stomach to read anybody’s self-help anymore. She’s no longer interested in anyone’s ad- vice or wisdom.What do they know? What does it matter? It’s all bunk.
She used to believe in the power of self-help books to educate, inform, and inspire. She believed that the really good ones could transform lives. When Anthony turned three and they were told with certainty what they were dealing with, she believed she’d find somebody somewhere could help them, an expert who could transform lives.
She scoured every self-help book, then every medical journal, every memoir, every blog, every online parent support network. She read Jenny McCarthy and the Bible. She read and hoped and prayed and believed in anything claiming help, rescue, reversal, salvation. Somebody somewhere must know something. Somebody must have the key that would unlock her son.
She opens the envelope and holds the book in her hands, rubbing the smooth cover with her fingers. She still loves the feel of a new book. This one is called The Three Day Miracle Diet by Peter Fallon, MD.
Hmph. Miracle, my ass.
She used to attend conferences and seminars. Please, expert Dr. So-and-So, show us the answer. I believe in you. She used to go to church every Sunday. Please, God, give us a miracle. I believe in you.
Sorry, Dr. Fallon. There are no miracles, thinks, and tosses the book to the floor.
She holds up the cardboard envelope from David next, staring at it for a long moment before carefully tearing the tab and upending it.
Three white, round, perfectly smooth rocks fall into her lap. She smiles. Anthony’s rocks. And three of them. She shakes the envelope. ThThere aren’t any more. He would’ve liked that there are only three and not one or two or four. He loved thi ittle Pigs, One- Two-Three-Go, Small-Medium-Big. Of course, he never said the words to her, Mom, I like the “Three Little Pigs” story. But she knew.
She rolls the three small rocks in the palm of her hand, enjoying the cool, smooth feel of them. When she’s done with the mail, she’ll add them to the glass bowl on the coffee table already containing at least fifty more of Anthony’s white, round rocks. A shrine in a bowl.
Anthony wouldn’t have liked his rocks in Olivia’s bowl on the coffee table, however. He preferred them lined up like perfectly straight rock parades on the floor, all over the house. Heaven forbid Olivia should ever clean up and put his rocks back in his box in his bedroom. But sometimes, she couldn’t help herself. Sometimes she simply wanted to walk through the house and not kick through a rock parade. Sometimes she simply wanted to walk through a normal house. It was always a huge mistake. They didn’t live in a normal house. And change, however small, was never Anthony’s friend.
She peeks into the envelope and sees a folded piece of stationery.
Found these three under the couch. Love, David
She smiles, thanking him for taking the time to send her three rocks, for knowing she’d want them. And the Love, David. She knows these words aren’t throwaway or insincere. She still loves him, too.
The rest of Anthony’s rocks are in his box, now in her bedroom. It was one of the few things she insisted on bring- ing with her on her final trip over, and it was no small feat getting it here. She lugged it, sweating and questioning her sanity, from the backseat of David’s car to the ferry in Hyannis, from the ferry to the taxi in Town, from the taxi to her bedroom here. More than once she thought about dumping the rocks overboard on the way over, freeing herself from the physical and emotional burden of carrying all the damn rocks. But they’re Anthony’s damn rocks. Beautiful damn rocks collected from the beach and obsessively lined up in rows by her beautiful boy, now artfully displayed in the glass bowl on the coffee table.
So the damn rocks came with her. She left behind her cookbooks, her collection of books she helped edit at Taylor Krepps, all of her novels. She didn’t take any of the furniture, the appliances, or any dishware. She left Anthony’s clothes still folded in his drawers, his bed unmade, his Barney DVDs in the TV console cabinet, all of the educational toys he never played with, his toothbrush in the holder in the bathroom, his coat on the hook by the front door.
She brought her clothes, her jewelry, her camera, and her computer. And she brought her journals. Someday, she’ll have the courage to read them.
She also left all of her photographs—her college album, their wedding and honeymoon albums, the collection of arty shots she used to take of sunsets and trees and seashells, the best of which adorn the walls of their house, Anthony’s baby album. She left it all with David. She feels as if that life didn’t happen to her. It happened to some other woman.
She kept only one picture. She looks up at the eight-by- ten photograph framed, matted, and hung on the wall over the fireplace, that one picture that took many hours over many days of waiting to get. She remembers how she sat cross-legged in front of the refrigerator, camera over her face, finger on the button, ready to click, waiting. Waiting. Anthony passed by her many times, skipping on his toes, squealing and flappingreath.Shedidn’t move. He didn’t look at her.
One day he sat down only a couple of feet in front of her and spun the back wheel of a toy truck with his index finger for at least an hour. She didn’t get up and demonstrate how to play with the truck appropriately. See, Anthony, the truck goes vroom, vroom. She didn’t redirect him. She didn’t move. He didn’t look at her.
With each attempt, her knees, arms, and ass would eventu- ally ache and scream for her to shift position. mind would try to talk her out of it, too, mocking her for wasting another morning sitting on the floor like an idiot. She ignored herself and sat, silent, unthreatening, invisible.
Then finally, it happened. He looked directly into the lens. He was probably thirsty, looking to the refrigerator, wanting juice. It was probably a complete accident, but she clicked the button before his eyes darted away. She looked at the LCD display, and there they were. His eyes! Wide-open windows into a shiny, clear day. Not disconnected or wandering eyes. Deep, dark, melted-chocolate-brown eyes belonging to her little boy, looking at his mother. Seeing her.
She sits on the living-room chair with the mail in her lap and loses herself in his eyes, wiping tears from hers, grateful for the chance to look into them and see real meaning, even if she doesn’t understand what that meaning is, even if it was only one moment in almost nine long years, and even if she only ever saw them like this through her Nikon lens and then on two-dimensional paper. She’s grateful to have it.
She wipes her eyes again with the edge of the blanket and turns her attention to the last piece of mail, a manila envelope from the law offices of Kaufman and Renkowitz. Olivia slides out the stack of papers and reads the top of the first page.
Separation Agreement for David and Olivia Donatelli
She closes her eyes and listens to the wind and rain banging at the windows, pounding on the roof, raging all around her. She tucks the blanket around her feet and holds on tight to the three rocks still inside her hand. Like everything, this storm can only last so long.