There’s a song on the radio that makes Sam think of her husband as a young man, the way she imagines he was before she knew him. The song is about a man who meets a woman—in a bar? At a party?—and they spend the night together. Not very original. But it makes her smile and want to cry at the same time. She doesn’t see herself as the woman in the song. She is in the room; she’s watching her husband’s surprised smile as the woman walks over to him. He is sitting and he tilts his head back, and the woman bends to him and kisses him—they don’t speak because they just understand—and she takes his hand and they dance. The woman is no beauty school confection—she’s trim but not tall; she has dark hair and the dress she wears is something from the same era as the song, late seventies: swingy skirt, slim gold belt. Then for a moment Sam becomes the woman, and she imagines this man, the mystery of him, under his clothes, what he will feel like and taste like, the not knowing shimmering against the knowing, and then she slips into her husband’s body, and she feels the anticipation spreading in his chest, the woman’s hands sliding from his shoulders to his hips. But Sam is still on the outside, too, and she can see him laughing as the woman shakes her head slowly, smiling a secret smile. And he is young and handsome and he doesn’t know about Sam yet. Maybe that’s the part that makes her want to cry. Because of his unawareness of her in this moment, but also because she sees what’s coming and he doesn’t.
It’s Monday afternoon, three weeks into February, and the windows are open. The breeze carries a pulse-quickening scent of wet earth. Her neighbor—not the one she slept with, but the old man she sees jog-shuffling most mornings when she gets the paper—says he saw crocuses nudging, white-nosed, through the soil in someone’s front bed.
“What do you want me to say?” Sam’s friend Mandy opens the fridge and finds a bottle of chardonnay. “You screwed up? OK then. It happened, now let it go.”
Sam wishes she were crying as she tells Mandy about it. She wishes she felt guilty. Instead she feels thrilled, still tingly. Yet there is also a pressure on the top of her head, like the gathering of air before a storm.
“I know you,” Chris had said to her at the party. Chris and his wife Tara live two doors down, on the opposite corner. He said, “You probably carry tissues in your pocket, just in case.”
Tissues, she’d thought. For what? This only because a friend had told her of finding tissues wadded in her husband’s pants pockets, sticky with semen. How had she thought to check? A wife knows. She’d said the smell was unmistakable, salty. The fact of it seemed betrayal enough. And then with no real intent to hide, or he might have gotten rid of it somewhere away from home. A message then? Or simply forgotten?
At the uptick of Sam’s chin, Chris smiled. “See, I knew it. And you make lists.”
Sam’s older sister said to her once, “For you, daydreaming is planning your next move.” Their mother had called her a sneak. They were both right, and she was proud of it. Any price to have her own life was worth paying. There was the world, and then the people close to you, and then there you were, a hot core, into which knowledge and manners and duty melted, and from which radiated unapologetic desire.
“Am I that bad?” Sam pursed her lips in a pout of regret. The kind of face she’d only make after a glass of wine; it would feel ridiculous otherwise.
Chris leaned toward her, too close. Not a calculated move; he was a bit off balance. And not the first time by any stretch, seeing him drunk, in the three years since Sam and York had moved to the neighborhood. “Know how I know?”
Sam looked away, careful not to change her expression. Through the small groups of people on the lawn she could see York with Cecile on his hip, her face turned away, cheek on his shoulder. Before she caught herself, Sam swayed her hips from side to side, the way she knew Cecile liked. Though Cecile—Ci-Ci, as she calls herself—likes York better this time of the evening, hip rocking or not. She straightened up, grinned at Chris.
“OK.” I’m game. “How do you know?”
“Because we’re alike. Peas in a pod.”
Peas in a pod? That was something her grandmother would say. But then, southern men seemed to get away with this kind of talk. A certain irony, perhaps, between lilting accent and muscle, words and volume. Southern men could boom a sonnet across a football field. She imagined them all growing up in fields, until they were permanently tanned and crinkled around the eyes. But the truth was that in this mid-sized, piedmont city, they had probably all come of age in the same suburban trappings as Sam, and from all over the country. Snow days instead of snow tires here, yes; Baptists the conservative vanguard more than Catholics. But this was solidly the New South, no matter how many barbeque throw-downs you had in July.
“Not quite,” Sam said. “We don’t live in the same pod.”
Chris waved this away. “Details. Chance. We play the same role at home, anyway.”
He was right about this, he really was. Sam paid the bills, planned vacations, planned any item that went on the calendar, in fact. From her kitchen window, where she stood in the mornings packing Cecile’s nursery school lunch, she could see Chris leaving in his navy Volvo, his crisp shirt glowing behind the glass. Friday evenings he mowed, then washed the two family cars. Saturday mornings he took Troy and Linda to play various team sports. He shot hoops with them at the top of the drive. And always a project—repainting the garage, cutting crown molding in the driveway for the living room, adding a patio off the back porch.
But she couldn’t see much contrast between Chris and Tara in the organization department. When Tara wasn’t working as a teacher’s assistant, she tended a vegetable and herb garden at the side of their house where the sun was best, growing things nearly year round. Also she made elaborately detailed baby dresses, which at first she’d donated for church fundraisers until word had spread and the women from Taylor Grove began commissioning christening gowns and matching blankets. These she sold for several hundred dollars apiece, she’d told Sam once. On the rare occasions when Chris and Tara went out, Sam offered to watch their children if she and York didn’t already have plans. After Troy and Linda arrived loaded with movies, games, and pajamas, Sam would try to watch Chris and Tara leave. Tara always wore a dress, which showed off her long, pale legs. She would walk to the car while Chris locked the front door. Then she’d look up at Chris, almost surprised, when he opened the passenger side door for her and gently closed her inside.
At the back yard party, Tara was looking over at Sam and Chris at that moment. Sam tilted her head to beckon her over. Tara started toward them but someone stopped her and she laughed politely and rolled her eyes at Sam, a flicker of conspiracy between them. How many hours had they watched their children on this square of grass? Cecile was wearing a hand-me-down dress from Linda, a green linen shift with orange and yellow embroidered flowers sewn in Tara’s tight, even stitches.
Sam turned back to Chris. “Well, anyway, we can’t be,” she said. She gulped her wine.
“Can’t be what?”
“Peas, in or out of pods. Opposites attract, and like repels.”
“Like the poles?” Chris laughed at this. Was he trying for a double meaning of some kind or just too drunk to be clear? Anyway, she didn’t get it, and she wasn’t sure what was going on between them right then. Chris had never come on to her before, never even flirted, as far as she could tell, though he always seemed pleased to see her if he came home from work to find her perched with Tara in wicker chairs on their screened back porch sipping tea or beer while the children played in the yard. “You stay!” he’d call over his shoulder as he headed down the hallway to change, when Sam stood to show her readiness to leave them to their family time. In summer—and this last one had been extraordinarily dry and hot—his dress slacks might be wilted against him, and the back of his shirt might be sweat-darkened, but his sleeves were folded neatly under. His energy unnerved her.
Sam and Mandy have been such close friends for so many years that York has a nickname for them: Samandy. Mandy’s husband died fifteen years ago of a heart attack at forty-four, and she’s never remarried, though she was only thirty-four when he died, which is the age Sam is now. York is forty-six. When Sam met him five years ago, she thought he was so handsome she was a little afraid of him.
Sam describes it as a hurricane no one could have predicted. Mandy says, “Honey, it’s only that once.”
The party was to celebrate the warm weather, so odd with the long strips of light on the brown lawns, bare tree shadows like lace. Sam brought Cecile over to visit with Tara after Cecile had woken from her nap and Troy and Linda had come home on the bus. Funding cuts had shortened Tara’s workdays to noon, and Sam knew that the couple of hours between when Tara got home and when the bus came gave Tara a chance to sew or clean or tend the garden. Now that she had her own child, Sam knew how essential this time was—not just to accomplish things, but to be inside one’s own head again—and so she never attempted to visit Tara then. But she wanted to. Just as she could feel rather than hear Cecile breathing in her bedroom, she could sense Tara’s presence like a low hum across the street. Sometimes Sam thought she could catch a flicker of movement behind her neighbor’s dark windowpanes as she tiptoed from her office to the bathroom, careful not to disturb Cecile, who was cranky if she didn’t wake up on her own.
Sam was aware that her interest in Tara and Chris and even their children went beyond normal curiosity. Was there a normal level of curiosity? The word implied observation rather than intimacy. She knew their friendship would not likely continue if they were no longer neighbors. Proximity—it had shocked her initially that the first factor in the strength of a human bond was really a matter of convenience. Are we close enough to be close? Shocked, yes, at first. And offended by the idea. Then resigned. Then, finally, gratified for an explanation (a defense, even) for the ease with which she was able to let people in her life go.
But the party. Earlier that day, Thursday afternoon, when Sam came over with Cecile, she found Tara standing on the patio, watching Troy and Linda on the swings. When Cecile caught sight of the kids she kicked her legs against Sam’s thighs and arched her back to get down. She ran to them, flat-footed and floppy-armed, plump thighs jiggling. Troy and Linda jumped out of their swings and argued about who would be better qualified to put Cecile in the plastic bucket swing.
Tara turned to Sam, arms folded across her chest. She looked as if she’d had some kind of altercation, her normally smiling face tight, her eyes cutting away as if she expected someone to sneak up behind her.
“What’s wrong?” Sam asked.
Tara looked back at the children again before speaking. She kept her eyes on them. “Chris—they had a random drug test at work last week. Something for the new insurance provider. They found something.”
Sam shook her head. “What?”
Tara was hugging herself. Sam couldn’t tell if she was crying.
She was crying. “It was nothing! Just pot. I mean, I think that’s—well, it’s no worse than alcohol.”
“Are they sure?”
Tara blew air between her teeth, wiped her eyes. “That’s what they’re saying.”
Sam wondered what York would think about this. They’d both smoked it before—she’d met few people who hadn’t—but he hadn’t used it in years, though he tolerated her occasional joint with Mandy. She was surprised that Chris used it, and that Tara thought so little of it. She’d thought of them both as so clean, other than Chris occasionally getting drunk—he was a happy drunk, at least. She thought she was good at reading people. Not that pot use told you much about a person, other than a willingness to break inconvenient rules, to take a bit of risk. Maybe the baby dresses had thrown her off.
“What are they going to do?”
“Two weeks off with no pay. Mandatory counseling.” She stopped, bit her lip, steadied herself. “Then extra random drug testing for, I’m not sure how long he said. He just called like ten minutes ago.”
Sam tried to think of what to say. “Well, it’s just pot, like you said. It’s not cocaine or whatever else. You’ll put this behind you.”
Tara stepped onto the porch. “They don’t see it that way. He’s driving all over to visit clients, walking around on construction sites. What if he’s stoned?” She mouthed the last word with a sarcastic curl to her lip so the children, who did not appear to be listening, wouldn’t hear. But Sam still remembered her own childhood gift for eavesdropping without appearing to do so. Tara was right to be careful.
“Anyway, they say it won’t go on his ‘permanent record’ this time,” she said, holding her fingers up like rabbit ears. Then she smiled—the expression still strained, but an attempt at levity nonetheless. “He’s on his way home now.”
Tara stopped at the back door. “No. Please stay. I told him you were stopping over. But just between us, OK?”
Sam nodded, nodded again at the offer of a beer. While Tara was inside, she watched Troy and Linda compete for Cecile’s fleeting attentions, offering her toys, suggesting games, arguing over whether Cecile was old enough to draw with sidewalk chalk. Tara had said they wanted another baby in the family. But after years of no birth control, and Troy now seven and Linda five, the chances seemed slim. Sam had known, fortunately, not to suggest the idea of adoption when that conversation had come up. When she’d turned twenty-nine (not even thirty, for God’s sake) only weeks before she met York, her mother had told her if she never married she could always adopt. “So many of those little girls in China get left in orphanages,” she’d said.
Sam, already riding a wave of rage at her mother for a list of grievances she no longer cared whether or not were fair, felt another swell cresting beneath her. She thought she might rise off the floor. Her palms were slick. “You should have left me in one, too.”
York is a hydrogeologist and a world traveler. In Botswana he worked on a project to direct water to hundreds of villages at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. In California he helped assess the impact of a major hydrocarbon spill; his report landed him in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In Pakistan before 9/11, he participated in an international project to determine the monitoring requirements for places where fresh and brackish waters meet. The interface, that’s what this is called.
York discusses his work insofar as he can detect interest. This was one of the first aspects of his personality that Sam noticed and liked. Unlike most men—and scientists were the worst—he knew when to shut up. People have limited attention spans. He knows this but he doesn’t hold it against them.
This was the second aspect of York’s personality Sam noticed, though respected rather than liked. He understood things without you telling him. Things you would prefer he’d not know—weaknesses, longings, limitations—but he wasn’t superior about it. He had his own baggage; he reminded Sam of this frequently, whenever Sam screamed at Cecile for some two-year-old infraction and then cried for hours afterward in self-loathing, or when she lost a magazine page layout bid because she couldn’t make the deadline, which had happened more frequently after Cecile, or when she hung up after talking with her mother or sister, white-faced and fumbling for a wineglass. “You should have had that before the phone call,” he would say to her, filling her glass, holding her until she could stop shaking.
And, yes, he was handsome, with the kind of symmetry of bone structure one saw in magazine models. Blue eyes, thick wavy brown hair only flecked with gray when she met him. A broad, easily given smile. And an excellent physique, the result of good genes, occasionally strenuous work, and an appetite for jogging and healthy food.
“Who could ask for more?”
Mandy, pouring the chardonnay. “Stop tormenting yourself.”
After Tara’s news, Sam took Cecile home to feed her, but not before Chris arrived. He boomed his typical hey y’all, emphasized for Sam’s benefit—he got a kick out of how she called soft drinks pop and thought a toboggan was a sled—but she could tell from his glances from her to Tara and back again that he was to trying to determine whether she knew. It wasn’t until Chris walked in the door that Sam realized why Tara had wanted her there—as a buffer of sorts, a way to extend the normality of the moment. Sam did her best; she’d flashed a cheerful smile and expressed surprise at his early arrival. Then she’d gulped down her beer and told Cecile it was time to go see Daddy. This worked, though there’d been a price to pay when they’d gotten home and found no second car in the garage. A tantrum, brief but intense, which Sam could only diffuse with PBS cartoons, cookies, and the pacifier, usually reserved for bedtime.
When York came home, Cecile ran to him and “assumed the position” as they called it—face buried between his thighs, fists clutching the fabric of his khakis on either side of his knees. York always pretended that he might lose his balance at any moment, which delighted Cecile. Cecile rarely did this with Sam, which was fine because the clinging elicited a panic in her that she could neither explain nor quell. Often she looked at her daughter and thought about that body inside of hers, the heels tucked against her rib cage, head fitted in her groin. But she couldn’t think about it for very long, nor could she remember much about the labor, not because of drugs, but because there hadn’t been time for any; it had gone so fast. The nurse who had coached her through it and then cleaned her afterward had said, “You’re made for making babies, sweetie. You’ll do fine.” And Sam had sobbed with gratitude. Now, the memory seemed to belong to someone else.
She told York the news about Chris. “Tara doesn’t want Chris to know that we know.”
York raised his eyebrows and smiled, his hands cupping the back of Cecile’s head. “Are they still doing the party?”
Sam nodded. “Chris will probably tell you, anyway. You’d figure out something was up.”
“Give me some credit.”
This was vintage York, as she called it. He wanted credit for what he might fail to know, while most people never wanted to admit ignorance of anything. He was lurching like Frankenstein around the kitchen now, with Cecile’s fat bare feet balanced on his loafers, her laughter echoing off the high ceiling. He lifted her into her booster chair at the table and pulled his shirttails out of his khakis, even fanned himself a bit. “You had the windows open all day?”
Sam nodded. Here it was, a little before six o’clock, the orange light of sunset streaming through the kitchen, warm enough to be spring. “Had to have gotten to seventy.”
York found Cecile’s cup of milk on the counter and brought it to her. “I heard some guy on NPR saying a warmer planet could be good for business—longer growing seasons and whatnot.” Sam could hear the gentle lilt of sarcasm in his voice—York knew better than most the consequences for the planet, for all life upon it. He also knew the danger wasn’t worth harping on; people couldn’t imagine it, so they couldn’t believe it.
“Cookies! More cookies!” Cecile shouted then from her booster, and York winked at Sam. She’d managed to get rid of the pacifier before York got home, but now Cecile had given her away on the rest of the bribe. Busted. York didn’t care whether Cecile had sweets before dinner, but he knew Sam did. She shrugged: What do you do? York got the animal crackers from the cabinet and doled them out to Cecile, “one for each hand,” and popped another in his mouth. He pulled off his shirt as he headed down the hall, and Cecile called after him as if he’d left her completely alone in the room.
Sam turned her back and ran water into a pot for pasta, a dependable favorite of Cecile’s. Maybe her ineffectiveness with Cecile came from being the baby of the family—her misfortune, that timing. In any case, she’d never planned to have children. It had seemed the safest course, considering the unspeakable things that could happen to them, from which they could scarcely protect themselves. Then came York, and his desire for her, and his desire for them to have children. He’d told her the chance was slim—he’d been turned away as a sperm donor in college because of extremely low sperm count. He’d tried for children in a past relationship. At the time, she’d considered his condition a blessing.
York came back into the kitchen wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans. He leaned to look in the fridge. “I see Mandy’s coming over,” he said, tilting the beer he’d just gotten toward the bottle of chardonnay in the door. They usually didn’t have white wine on hand unless they were expecting guests.
“She’s not coming ‘til Monday,” Sam said.
“What are we doing this weekend?” York asked, opening the bottle, taking a sip.
The picture of him in that moment, head tilted back, throat exposed, stabs her.
Sam doesn’t know many details about York’s love life before her, and York has been incurious about hers, which is probably for the best. Her past relationships were a string of short bursts—explosions—she would meet a man and he’d be unaware of the depth of her need, and then he would realize there was no lower gear, and he would exit, exhausted, angry at her for exhausting him. After the last repeat, Sam had decided to train herself to be alone, to work and be alone, so she wouldn’t have to kill herself.
Perhaps York assumed his experience—if one were to boil it down to numbers—had been greater, since he was male and twelve years older. She doubted he was right. She only knew the name of one of the women in his past. She imagined all of his lovers to have been more exotic. She’d admitted this to him once.
“I’ve slept with a much wider variety of insects than women.” Pulling her to him.
After Cecile was born she was grateful he wasn’t traveling all the time. But he’d owned the choice—wielded it—to move from adventure to the shelter of home and family. Now he tested commercial lots to make sure they perked with usable water. He was well-paid and could set his own hours, and in this growing city, there was no shortage of work.
But that life before. The York Sam carries in her mind is sitting in a road-dusted bar with his back against a mud wall, sipping a syrupy local cocktail she’ll never taste. When she’s told him she’s jealous of his past, he reminds her that he saw terrible things. Had he been shot at? Yes. Seen people die? Yes. Feared for his own life? Yes, many times.
“Did facing death make you more grateful to be alive?”
“Sure, but not for long.”
And then, when he was done, he’d folded all of that experience away and began a new life with Sam. Forty-one years old, married for the first time. As young looking as she was. People were always shocked to learn their age difference. And she knew what they were thinking—she was the second wife, the new model. But that’s not it, she wanted to tell them. Not exactly.
After feeding Cecile, which only York could accomplish after the crackers, they walked across the street to Chris and Tara’s house. She remembers wishing they were leaving, not just for the evening, but for a month, just walking away from their home, heading anywhere. Maybe because the mild air, so odd for February and barely detectable against her arms, made her feel as if they were already somewhere else. Maybe also because of the vision Sam carries of the York who existed before they met: a man who moved through territories—places so remote you could hardly think of them as part of a country—with nothing but a water filter and his instruments. And a gun, though he’d gotten rid of it since. When they made love, Sam often pretended York was still that man, and she was a stranger he’d met in a tin-roofed bar—not that she’d be allowed in a place like that, other than as a prostitute. Not that she was unaccustomed to being thought of in that way.
There were maybe a half-dozen other couples already standing in the back yard of Chris and Tara’s house by the time Sam and York and Cecile arrived. Also some children, most of them older than Cecile. Cecile ran to find Troy and Linda, but they were high up in the turret of the play set, and they didn’t come down to her when she called. Sam coaxed her into the baby swing while York got drinks. Cecile tipped her head back and laughed when Sam wiggled her fingers between pushes and said, “I’m going to tickle you!” Cecile had already forgotten about the older children’s snub, though Sam could actually feel it, an ache in her chest. Not because of the snub really, but Cecile’s innocence of it—her focus on the moment, this moment, meant she could not concentrate on the past. Sometimes when Sam kissed her and breathed in the milk smell of her skin, she tried to believe she was drawing in that too, the ability to forget.
York came back with a beer for himself and a glass of red wine for Sam. A woman lifted her son into the swing next to them. The boy and Cecile regarded each other as they swung back and forth, their heads swiveling with each pass.
“They like each other,” the woman said, smiling, and then introduced herself: Natalie. Sam shook her hand and noted her ringless fingers, then watched her face as she shook York’s hand. Usually you could tell right away if they were ga-ga. That’s how Sam thought of it. What had scared her about York—his clean, good looks, his even smile—rendered most women unable, or unwilling, to hide their attraction. Whether Sam was by his side or not seemed have little influence on their behavior. Sometimes, when a woman first noticed him, there was a flicker of shock in the expression, a sort of disbelief. It was as if he were seven feet tall, or green-skinned. He wasn’t normal.
There. Natalie blinked twice. And then the classic offertory pose, leaning forward, eyes and mouth widening. York looked down at the children in the swings. He either didn’t notice or was pretending not to. “Yep, they seem to be hitting it off,” he said.
Sam used to point it out to him. You know that you have an effect on people, right? A shrug. In Darfur I was stared at all the time. But that was different, obviously. It embarrassed him; that much he would admit. So at least he was aware. It occurred to her, early on, that he went through life like a twenty-year-old girl in a bikini; he’d learned to simply not notice women staring at him. Men, too, if not with envy then outright desire.
“I love how kids size each other up,” Sam said, and York laughed and Natalie looked at her and swallowed, frowning slightly as if confused by her presence. Sam was used to this, too; the way she could become invisible around him. For much of her life she’d wanted to shrink from view, but she’d never expected it would happen because of an exceptionally handsome husband. “I mean, they make no bones about it,” she went on, pointing to Cecile and the boy, who were still checking each other out with open, unapologetic curiosity. “No concerns about being polite or modest.”
Natalie looked at the ground, obviously trying to steady herself. Sam waited, unfazed. Was it because she believed York wouldn’t stray? Perhaps, to some extent. But also because women were so quick to turn on each other. Her own mother had turned on her when she found out what Dan had done to her. Blamed her for it and yet refused to believe her at the same time. And of course men had an amazing capacity to blame women for the things they wanted from them. For Dan, too, everything had been Sam’s fault, for looking the way she did, for not seeing where things were headed, for simply living in her mother’s house. And she had blamed herself.
“Say hi,” York said to Cecile. She stared at Natalie’s son but said nothing.
Natalie cleared her throat, recovering. “So how do you know these folks?” she asked.
“We live a couple of houses up,” Sam said, and Natalie nodded. The equilibrium seemed to come back—they were just three people talking again.
“Oh, OK. I work with Tara.”
“So you teach?” Sam asked. She noticed Chris talking with some man near the grill and wondered if it was about the drug testing. They seemed to know each other well, gesturing as they spoke. Probably coworkers. Was the man giving advice? Telling him which cleansing kit to buy next time around?
“I’m in the media center,” Natalie said.
“Sam taught for a while,” York said. He slid his arm around her waist, squeezed her hip.
“Phillips High School,” Sam said.
“Wow.” The woman shook her head. She didn’t clarify her reaction but Sam assumed it was related to the realization Sam had come to early on, that trying to control—not even educate—a classroom full of kids who were scarcely five years younger than she had been at the time, many of them functionally illiterate, several of them frankly menacing, was more than she could manage. There’d been no jobs on the elementary level and the switch would have required additional certification, for which she at that point didn’t have the money or the patience. It was no wonder teachers snapped those positions up, even though they paid less. At least you didn’t have to worry about someone keying your car or jumping you in a stairwell.
Cecile batted her arms and demanded to get out of the swing. Sam handed her wine to York and lifted her out. Seeing this, the boy hopped out of his swing. He picked up a tennis ball and handed it to Cecile, who threw it. He ran to get it and Cecile followed. The adults watched with indulgent smiles. York handed the glass of wine back to Sam. “I’ve got an eye on her,” he said.
Sam nodded to Natalie, who nodded back and smiled. She had collected herself, but Sam could see something else in her expression—again, not unfamiliar. A certain upturn in the corners of Natalie’s lips as Sam began to turn away, as Natalie cut her eyes back toward York again—there may be an opportunity yet.
But Sam was happy to be free to wander on her own. She decided to find Tara and see if she could help with anything. She took her time crossing the yard, sipping her wine. She didn’t know any of Chris and Tara’s friends. A few looked familiar; she must have met them, but she didn’t remember their names. The men wore pastel golf shirts and baseball caps, the women tight tops and jeans. They all seemed to want to look like a bunch of kids. But then if you focused in a bit you could see the bulge over a beltline, veins snaking up the backs of legs. They were still holding on to the image of youth, if you didn’t look too closely.
As she crossed the yard toward the porch, she almost ran into Chris, who had left his post at the grill. He brushed her arm, an apology. “I almost ran you down.”
“It’s OK.” His fingers were wet from the beer he’d just switched to the other hand. He was drunk, and she couldn’t blame him.
He didn’t ask her if she knew what had happened with his drug test. Maybe he assumed she did. Instead, he started in on how well he knew her, and that she probably made lists. Peas in a pod.
Then he said something slurred, a drunken attempt at a play on words, and leaned into her. “It’s hard,” he said. She shook her head, stepped back, and he took a steadying step backward, too. “It’s hard to be so,” he looked at the yard, then at her again, with a serious but wavering stare. “So good. How can anyone be good all the time?”
“I don’t know,” Sam said. But in that moment she knew he was right; they were peas in a pod. She thought she’d burst out of herself sometimes, trying to be good.
Two men wearing baseball caps with the bills turned over the backs of their necks came up to Chris. One man slapped him on the back and the other wanted to know where he kept the charcoal. “You’re falling down on the job, man!” he said, steering Chris away. Sam was invisible to them, and she was happy for it.
She stepped inside from the back porch, listening for whether anyone was inside. She had a brief desire to steal into the master bedroom, snoop around. She’d done this once at a church youth group party held at the house of an older boy on whom she’d had a crush. She’d opened his drawers, looked under his bed. What she’d been looking for, she either hadn’t known at the time or couldn’t remember now. Nothing specific. Some key to who he was. She’d stolen a pair of his underwear—white briefs—and her mother had found them later and had called her a slut. Prophetic, really.
She heard someone in the kitchen and took her time rounding the corner, glancing back at the scene on the lawn. It was funny to her that Tara and Chris were both older than she was by two years. Nothing really, in the scope of a lifetime. But they seemed younger to her, even with two kids older than her own. Maybe because York was so much older, and because Chris and Tara weren’t as financially well off, living in the smallest house on the street, cutting coupons. The trade-off for the danger of York’s previous work had been the compensation—now their retirements were secure and they already a healthy savings for Cecile’s education. And yet she wished sometimes that they didn’t have money. She’d grown up without it—hand-me-downs from her sister, used cars always in the shop. Having money made her feel victorious and helpless at the same time. Guilty. In those years before she’d given up on imagining her future, she’d seen herself falling in love young, fixing up an old house with her husband, planting gardens—growing everything from the ground. Not being swept up, saved.
Tara was in the kitchen pouring chips into a bowl.
“Help with anything?”
“No, just refills. More wine?”
“I’ll get it.” Sam poured another glass. She could feel the heat of the first one on her throat. This, and a cool breeze moving through the porch screen, the slow ticking of the bare branches outside.
Tara leaned into the fridge and got out a jar of salsa. “Everyone OK out there?”
“Of course,” Sam said. “Why don’t you join them? I can get that.”
Tara didn’t look at her, spooning the salsa into a clay bowl. “I’ll just do it.”
Sam leaned against the counter for balance. “How about you? Are you OK?”
Tara put down the spoon. Sam took a sip of wine, waited. “No. I’m pissed. I guess it’s just hitting me now.”
So why do this? The party, the small talk. Letting Chris get drunk and lurch around. “I’m sorry. You know, I agree with what you said earlier. What he did shouldn’t even be illegal.”
Tara turned back to the fridge. “He knew they were switching insurance companies. He had to take a drug test when he started. He knew this was coming.”
“You don’t think he did this on purpose.”
“No. Just the opposite—he didn’t think about it at all. He was careless.”
“Good point.” Sam couldn’t blame her for being angry. One thing Sam could say about York was that, while he left most of the details of their lives to her, he was very deliberate about anything he took care of—car maintenance, replacing the breaker switches, testing the fire and carbon monoxide detectors. He’d said more than once that he was alive because he was careful. And lucky. He didn’t discount luck either.
“It’s not even the lost pay. Although that’s not nothing.”
Sam waited for what Tara would say next. She felt tired suddenly; she wanted to go home. She took another sip of wine and was surprised to discover she’d nearly finished her second glass. She heard York’s voice—the kitchen window was cracked, the now cooler night air seeping in, and it sounded as if he might be standing in the driveway. There was the hollow scrape of plastic wheels on pavement and Sam figured Cecile was trying to master one of Troy or Linda’s old scooters.
“So what is it, then?” she finally asked.
“The humiliation. Not for what he did, but because he was caught. And everyone knows.”
“You know they do. The guys Chris works with, and their wives—it’s the talk of the evening.” She looked toward the back yard, as if to point out evidence obvious from where they stood.
“Well, you’ve helped them get it out of their system, and you’ve shown them you won’t let a bunch of insurance dicks—who you know are all getting the good shit with their bonuses—run you under a rock.”
Tara’s eyes snapped back to meet Sam’s. She smiled. “You know? You’re right.”
Sam felt a flush of pleasure rise in her chest. She’d solved something. She’d brought it around. And she’d tapped a part of herself, one which had lived for a while without regard for anyone else—miserably, yes, but more honestly than the way she lived now. That, too, was a dangerous and yet magnetic jolt. “Good,” she said, pouring herself another glass of wine. A third. God, she would have a headache in the morning.
“Here’s an idea,” Tara said.
Sam lifted her glass, raised her eyebrows, waited.
“Let’s get stoned.”
What Sam likes about pot is the distance it puts between her and the moment. She’d rarely smoked it in college—she was a scholarship student and no way was she going to screw that up and have to go home again. No, it wasn’t until she’d started teaching, ironically, when a neighbor who was also a dealer began sharing a bowl with her every once in a while. And soon she had to have it on hand. It wasn’t a physical addiction—she still gets a kick from hearing pot called the gateway drug, the slippery slope—no, it was that distance she was after. She’d smoked it every day before and after class when she taught high school, which meant, sadly, she’d probably had more in common with her students’ state of mind than anyone might have imagined.
She doesn’t tell Tara about smoking while teaching. But she does tell her that she’d smoked a lot at one time in her life, and that time has long passed. She is standing in Tara and Chris’ small bedroom, wedged between the bed and the one window which can’t be seen from the front yard. The first hit blankets her thoughts, wraps each one individually for her examination.
“This is good,” Sam says.
Tara nods, repacks the bowl. “His brother grows it.”
Sam shakes her head. “I’m getting a new picture of you.”
“Oh, that we’re potheads? I can’t tell you the last time I smoked.”
“Neither can I.” Sam takes a second hit and knows that’s enough. She won’t be able to talk. Her thoughts drift back to that year of teaching, and she shivers. She’s embarrassed by her reasons now—she’d wanted to be a positive influence, maybe to neutralize the hell her teenage years had become when Dan showed up. Karma. What kind of person would she be now had the teaching worked out? Maybe more satisfied with herself. Might have married another teacher—God knows she slept with enough of them, married and single. Put a man in a low-paying job with huge responsibility and no power and he gets very grateful—at least briefly. She’d learned that. Maybe she would have settled down into that life after she’d worn herself out a little more—term papers piled on the kitchen table, her children running around, her husband a wearer of short-sleeved button-downs and sweater vests.
York. She doesn’t want him to know she’s been smoking for some reason. Why? He doesn’t really mind. Why then?
Because he has no weaknesses.
Tara waves her hand around the open window, trying to dissipate the smell.
“I guess we better get back out there,” Sam says. Her voice is slow and thick in her head.
“Let’s go out front first.” Tara reaches in a dresser drawer for a pack of cigarettes, pulls one out, offers it to Sam, who shakes her head.
“You smoke, too?”
“Only when I smoke pot.”
They stand on the small front porch. Sam can hear York, but she can’t see him. He is talking with someone in the driveway now, while Cecile chirps and rattles around on a scooter. A woman’s voice. She edges to the far corner of the porch, hoping to catch a glimpse of him over the tops of the bushes.
He steps into view, and her heart squeezes in her chest. It’s not the pot; it’s the thrill of seeing him unaware. She hears the click of Tara’s lighter behind her and wonders if it will get York’s attention, but he doesn’t turn his head—probably can’t hear it over the music playing on a portable stereo on the patio and the noise Cecile is making, weaving her scooter in tight circles around his legs.
Then another squeeze, this time because of a flicker of movement beside him. It’s the woman they’d met earlier, the one with the son Cecile’s age. Sam struggles to remember her name—that’s the pot working on her. The woman is saying something to York, leaning into him again, a glass of wine in her hand. Maybe a bit tipsy by now. York nods, steps away from her, but smiles broadly at her, nodding—his typical discretion, controlling the space without letting anyone know it.
“Spying?” Tara peers over Sam’s shoulder, then steps back again to take a drag from her cigarette.
Sam isn’t sure if Tara got a good look. “Watching his admirer,” she says.
“Oh, Natalie,” she laughs. “Yeah, I saw. She’s notorious. Can’t blame her though. York’s so cute.”
Sam stands on tip-toes again to watch—Natalie leaning in, York using Cecile as his reason for moving away, bending to redirect her, or to ask her to repeat some jabbered comment. Sam wishes she could explain to Natalie what it would be like to get what she wants. There is, for example, the experience of simply walking into a room with him: a ripple, a turning of the energy. Some people can think in three dimensions; some can run a four-minute mile. You’re born with certain talents and characteristics; this is a fact. York is accomplished in his field, a good husband and lover, a devoted father. He also happens to get stopped for autographs on occasion, mistaken for a prominent film actor.
Sam has done her best to look like a deserving match—shaping her brows, highlighting her hair, toning up at the gym. She never thought of herself as beautiful—and there were those years when to be seen at all was an invitation—but now she believes she’s reasonably attractive. Still, she’s never quite understood why he was interested in her in the first place, much less why he’d wanted to marry her. “You could’ve had anyone you wanted. So why marry at all?” “Please, Sam.” “Tell me.” “To make a life with someone?” “Anyone would do?” “To tell you the truth I never thought I’d marry until I met you.” Silencing her with that level gaze, then his mouth on hers. The killer charm is that he seems constantly surprised at people’s reaction to him.
One other interesting feature that comes with having a handsome husband is that other women assume she’d never want theirs. In fact they seem to want to offer them to her, like sacrifices, or maybe patients, hoping that even her brief association with them, like a magic kiss, will be all it takes to turn them into a prince like her own.
Someone yells in the backyard; there’s a clattering, then the sound of a glass breaking—shrill as the scream of a child.
“Shit,” Tara says. She knocks the glowing tip off her cigarette against the brick wall, drops the butt behind a planter.
Sam almost loses her balance turning to look at her, but Tara is already down the front steps, crossing the yard to the driveway where York and Cecile were playing and Natalie was circling. Sam sets down her glass of wine—no sense in trying to carry it with how off-balance she feels. By the time she’s made it around to the driveway, York and Cecile and Natalie have already gone through the tall gate to the back patio; she can hear Cecile asking, “What, Daddy?”
When she makes it to the patio, most of the guests are bunched shoulder to shoulder, their backs to her. York has Cecile on his hip, and he’s heading for the screened back porch. Sam couldn’t get there now if she tried—too many people in the way. As she gets closer though, she catches glimpses of what they’re seeing: Chris on his back on the slate patio, rolling onto his side, and now groaning, trying to turn the groan into a laugh. He is cupping his cheek with one hand, and in the yellow backyard lights, she can see a trickle of blood between his knuckles.
Sam watches York set Cecile down on one of the wicker chairs in the screened porch next to Linda. He asks her to keep Cecile with her, and Linda nods solemnly. He is turning to go back out on the patio just as Tara says, “What the hell, Chris?” People are saying other things, like, “Are you OK, man?” and “Took a tumble there, didn’t you, buddy?” A couple of the men are crouching at his shoulders, trying to ease him into a sitting position, but Chris doesn’t seem too interested in cooperating—he is curled up, cupping his cheek, mumbling something Sam can’t understand.
Then York makes his way toward him, stops at Chris’ feet. “OK, Chris,” he says. He bends and extends his hand with such authority that Chris simply reaches up with his bloodied hand and grasps York’s, and York pulls him to his feet and steadies him when his momentum tips him too far forward.
Sam gets a look at the wound on Chris’ face as York turns him slightly and puts his arm around his shoulders to keep him on his feet. In the harsh light, she can see what looks like a bruise from his right eye socket to his jaw, and then a gash over the cheekbone, bright with blood. York angles his head close to Chris’ to inspect the wound. “He’ll need stitches.”
“And somewhere else to sleep tonight,” Tara answers, so promptly it sounds rehearsed. Everyone’s quiet, waiting to see what’ll happen next. She doesn’t even look at Chris, but he squeezes his eyes shut and hangs his head. Then she turns and raises her arms like a referee. “Sorry folks! Party’s over!” Her smile is tight with anger. The only evidence Sam can see of the smoking is a slight puffiness around her eyes.
Sam, meanwhile, feels dizzy with it. The wine, too. It’s only a little after nine, but it feels like midnight. Chris and Tara’s friends are dispersing. A couple of the women approach Tara, hands resting sympathetically on her shoulder, and Tara smiles back at them, close-lipped. People file into the house and back out again carrying purses, food containers, their jackets, which they couldn’t make themselves leave home in February despite the warm weather. Sam walks toward Chris and Tara and York, who is saying something to Tara which Sam can’t hear. Tara crosses her arms, cocks her head to one side, looks at Chris, and then answers. She’s made a decision.
Sam puts her hand on York’s arm, and he’s talking before their eyes meet. “Can you take Cecile and make sure the guest bed is made up?” Tara looks away at this, bites her bottom lip.
Can you take Cecile? York had managed this small emergency so well—Cecile tucked away on the back porch, Chris apparently headed for the Urgent Care, and then to their house for the night. He hadn’t needed Sam at all. “Sure,” she says.
Tara gives her a relieved smile. “Thank you,” she says. “That way I won’t kill him in his sleep.” A dismissive tap on Chris’ arm when she says that, and then she walks away, jaw set, to unplug the radio.
Chris sags against York. York boosts him upright again, glances at Sam, eyebrows raised. A thank god this isn’t us kind of look. Sam shrugs, and in that moment she wants to push him against the picnic table behind them, straddle him. Anything to break his calm control of the situation. She heads to the back porch to get Cecile, who is clutching one of Linda’s Barbie dolls. Cecile cries when Sam says she needs to leave it.
“It’s OK,” Linda says with a serious face, looking so much like her mother in that moment. “She can bring it back tomorrow when my dad comes home.”
This last comment snaps through Sam’s brain. She realizes Linda has heard everything. She wonders if the girl’s calm comes from being old enough to recognize the oddness of the situation, or, at the other end of the spectrum of possibility, from practice. “He’s fine,” Sam says.
“Take care of her,” Linda says to Cecile with a lilting voice, mimicking the way adults speak to small children, and Cecile clutches the doll, with its wild tangle of blonde hair and torn pink dress, to her chest. “I will,” she promises, her blue eyes large and earnest. York’s eyes. By the time Sam makes it back out to the patio with Cecile, Tara is gone, and York and Chris have made it to the driveway, arms around each other’s shoulders. They could be old buddies carousing out on the town. “Daddy!” Cecile squeals, and when he looks back, she waves the doll.
York winks at her and turns back to his task of guiding Chris across the street, toward their house. Sam is trying to keep her own balance with Cecile on her hip and the pot still heavy in her head. Cecile lifts the doll close to Sam’s face, so that she has to push it back or risk getting jabbed in the eye with a miniature plastic hand. “Look Mommy!”
“Yes, honey,” Sam says. All she wants is to get into bed.
“Look!” Cecile says, urgent now. Sam pushes the doll back from her face again, tries to see what Cecile wants her to see. She touches the frizzed, gummy hair. “What?”
Sam wakes up when York slips into bed hours later. For a while, she falls asleep again, then gets up, her mouth dry, her head aching. She gets up, goes to the hall bath so as not to wake York. Then she hears what sounds like a large piece of furniture scraping across the floor, and she turns around in the hallway, panicked, not sure what direction it came from. Then she hears it again and she realizes it’s a snore.
Chris is on his back on the guest room bed, mouth open and spread-eagled on top of the comforter. He’s wearing boxers and a white T-shirt with York’s company logo. The right side of his face is bandaged from cheekbone to jaw. Her heart is still pounding from being startled in the hallway, and she stands there listening to his rattling snore, watching his chest rise and fall as her own breathing slows. How does Tara sleep through that sound? Maybe it’s just because he’s drunk.
In the green-white streetlight coming through the window, she can make out his clothes crumpled on the floor at the foot of the bed. She takes a quiet step, her eyes on him, and leans to pick up his shirt, a light blue knit. There are tiny drops and smears of blood on the collar and shoulder, which look black in this light. She brings the shirt to her nose and smells his cologne and sweat and beer. She drops the shirt to the floor and takes two steps closer to the head of the bed, so that her hip is even with Chris’ wrist. What would she say if York appeared at the doorway right then? She’d explain that she was worried about Chris, with his snoring which drags like he’s breathing through wet cotton.
She could explain anything; she knows this as she leans closer to Chris’ face, close enough that she can feel his breath on her cheek. She looks down the length of his body, her pulse rising in her neck. There’s something about his—what is it—helplessness? Unawareness? All the life in him, contained somewhere, suspended. It makes her want him. She has not been in a room alone with another man in the middle of the night since York asked her out those five years ago. Not something she could say with any sort of regularity since Dan had snuck into her room and woke her with a finger to the lips. Fourteen years old, and a decade after that of thinking sex with other men could somehow erase Dan. Including the coworker teacher who had asked her to pretend to be a student, to say, “Yes Mister Thompson,” when he ordered her to suck his cock, to bend herself into various positions, and so forth.
That had been the last one. The last straw. After that, she left the school. Mid-semester, no notice. She wasn’t sure what she would do; going home was of course out of the question, and she’d rather neatly burned her bridges for references. She briefly considered stripping; for some reason at that time it seemed like the logical next step in a life that wasn’t going well so far and wasn’t likely to get any better.
Then, through her pot-dealing neighbor, she’d heard about a job at a company which published in-flight magazines, and it was through this job that she’d met York. Who knew drugs could be good for professional networking and your love life? she’d joke later with Mandy, telling the story. Of course, in the four years before she met him, she was busy working whenever and wherever she was needed, because she’d given up on any ideas of a personal life. As a result, she became the youngest editor charged with concepting and supervising the entire layout of one of the in-flights. She directed photo shoots outsourced to a studio downtown, where exposed brick warehouse walls, loud music, organic snacks, and neo-hippie assistants apparently justified the photographer’s decidedly non-hippie fees. But he was good, no question, the best.
And there in the studio, one day, was York. She’d assumed he was a model and was momentarily confused. Were they also shooting an ad for one of the branded magazines? When he’d smiled, so openly, so kindly, at her, she’d then assumed he was a model with decent people skills—not typical—who wanted to be in her good graces for future work. When he’d asked her out, she’d almost spat in his face. How dare you? She’d wanted to say. How dare you pretend to stoop to me?
York said later that he’d thought Sam was pretty glamorous, directing the shot. The story was about the villages on the edge of the Kalahari Desert—but since that project was already concluded, York was back in the US, so he was available for the shoot. The photographer used a sand-toned backdrop with indistinct shadowy shapes, and lit York so brightly that he’d had to squint. The shot was very convincing.
And isn’t that shocking to think about? Sam pulls out her wonder at how they met whenever she needs to. Two humans on a planet of seven billion swarming the land masses—he who traveled so much he’d stopped keeping an apartment and had left his few possessions at his parents’ house in upstate New York, and she who’d never left the country but hadn’t been home in ten years because her mother’s boyfriend had insisted on fucking her until she’d finally run away—how did it happen?
“How did it happen?” she hears herself saying, whispering, out loud. And then she realizes where she is, standing over her unconscious neighbor, the husband of a woman she’d consider a friend, if only due to proximity.
Chris snorts and his legs twitch in his sleep, possibly a reaction to her voice. She can hear York breathing across the hall, and the low hum of the fan they run in Cecelia’s room for white noise. She can hear her own breathing, the rustling of her short cotton gown against the sheets as she leans across Chris again and presses her mouth to his belly, just above the waistband of his boxers. This time he doesn’t move, but his breathing catches for a beat, just as she flicks her tongue against his skin, straightens, and moves quietly out of the room.
When searchable satellite views of Earth became available online, Sam went first to western Sudan. There were two places she wanted to see— El Geneina, the capital of western Darfur, and Tanjeke, a village north of the capital. Tanjeke was the last place York visited before heading back to the States. He had been hired as a consultant on a private organization’s aid project in El Geneina to study the water supply and assist in finding a suitable site for a clinic that could serve the region. He had just come from the Kalahari project. It was late 2002, and Janjaweed raids had been rumored in villages to the west and north. By the time he left a year later, some of those villages no longer existed. They had been scorched from the earth, and thousands of survivors were streaming into camps scattered around the city. Some camps were run by aid groups, where people were registered, their miseries and deaths catalogued—fifty children per thousand under the age of five dying per week of diarrhea, for example. But York said there were dozens more camps, some thrown together with brush around abandoned buildings—the remnants of already-annihilated villages—this he had seen from the air, on the way to Tanjeke, because by then road travel was considered hazardous, and the aid workers avoided it if at all possible.
He made the trip to Tanjeke with a group from Doctors Without Borders to visit a tent clinic not long before he returned to the States. This trip was significant to Sam not because of the horrors the clinic patients reported, some of which York had recounted to Sam, and the searing—what else could you say but evil?—of it, which could turn anyone’s sense of mercy (who deserves it and who can give it) to a fine, black ash.
No, the trip was significant because Tanjeke was the birthplace of Munira, whom York had met after construction of the clinic was complete and he was working on another well project in the city. She’d been hired to clean up the leftovers of surgeries, amputations, and births—many of which were shortly followed by death. Munira was twenty-two and still not married, staying with relatives in El Geneina. Her family had made it there intact except for her father, who had stayed behind in Tanjeke. He traded with the Arabs; he believed that the troubles would be resolved. By the time Munira started work at the clinic in mid 2003, he was presumed dead.
There are so few things Sam knows, but she knows them deeply, the way you know a street you walk down every day. Munira’s father wanted her to get out of the country and go to school, and that was why he hadn’t insisted on matching her to any of the suitable men in their village. Her two younger sisters were already married and had children, but he held a special love for Munira. He had hopes for her.
Sam also knows, because York made it clear to her, that Munira pursued him. At first, he thought, because she believed he could fulfill her father’s dreams for her and take her with him when he left. But, he explained, and she claimed to understand, that this was impossible. She would never be let into the States, because at that time officially there was no conflict in Darfur, no budding genocide. “Was she beautiful?” Sam had asked at some point as York went through his confession as if talking in his sleep. “Yes, very.” York had said, looking at the floor, as if the question pained him.
Their meetings occurred in the clinic. By the time York left on a small plane headed to Khartoum, Munira was pregnant. This she told him after he returned from Tanjeke, where he’d confirmed the news of her father. And now Munira, her father’s favorite, the shelter for all of his dreams, was in danger. York offered to try to arrange an abortion through one of the doctors he’d befriended, but he could not persuade her to do it. Knowing he would fail, he then tried to pursue a way to take her with him. Discretely, though, hoping not to arouse suspicion that would cost Munira her job and possibly also her life. What they had done was so far outside the bounds of her society, and the coming result of it so egregious, that he begged her to go into hiding. She told him there was nowhere for her to go. Besides, she couldn’t leave her family—she was now their only source of income with her father gone. In any case, she said, she wasn’t afraid for herself.
“Was she afraid of anything?” Sam had asked. Her own fear, of finding herself in that part of the world, pregnant and alone, prickled on her skin.
“Her only fear was that she would have a girl.”
When York said this, Sam felt a twisting in her gut—of what? Recognition. She, too, had hoped that she would never bring a daughter into this world. Too many ways to destroy a girl, too many people willing to do it.
They had not used condoms. Munira didn’t like them, and York didn’t think they needed them. Aside from the low sperm count results he’d been told of in college, there had been two relationships where his partner had wanted to get pregnant, but there had been no success after years without birth control of any kind. In fact, York believed those relationships had ended because the women came to realize that they wanted children, their own children, more than they wanted him. For Sam, who had not wanted children, his condition had been a gift.
Munira said they’d created a miracle. But York, who doesn’t believe in God, thought of it as his failure. To be careful, to protect her, and then later, to be there for their child.
Sam believed in God as a girl. Later, she’d simply viewed herself as forsaken. By the time York told her about Munira and their child, a boy—York had managed to find out that much—Sam was sure she knew who the real gods were. They were the ones who could direct water to or away from a crescent of parched villages, who ignited the wars to facilitate the drawing of oil from beneath vast deserts, who sat in boardrooms so high in the air they swayed, deciding, deciding. The idea that she herself was any less ruled by these gods than Munira seemed absurd.
York answered her questions patiently. But there were many that he could not answer. There was one aid worker to whom he had confessed the situation in desperation before he left. The man promised to share news between them—type emails for Munira, who was literate but had never touched a keyboard. That man was later killed in a convoy driving over the same roads York had traveled. After that, there was no one who knew of their situation who was both willing or able to help them maintain a connection.
That was all. All he knew. All he could tell her. The trail was cold. This entire story, in all its terrifying incompleteness, he’d offered up to Sam the day he asked her to marry him.
“There’s something about me you need to know.” Not the words you want to hear along with a marriage proposal. And yet, her body was humming with joy that this man, this man who’d done so much with his life, who was so intelligent and kind, and, yes, beautiful, wanted her. It took time for her to realize that his honesty had not been just an attempt to ease his burden by sharing it, though that was part of the equation. No, it was a condition. To marry him, she must accept it. And because, at least for now, there was nothing that could be done, they must put it behind them. “There may be a day when I—when we—can help her,” York said. And this she would have to accept, too. Even as she wanted to plunge her arm through the earth and tear this woman to safety, she also hated the reality of her, and of the child, who might someday enter her life with York.
And then two years into their marriage, Sam was pregnant. Another miracle! she’d wanted to shriek at York. Before she told him, she’d briefly considered abortion, not just because the prospect of motherhood terrified her—would she turn on her child? Would she let her be repeatedly raped and then blame it on her? But also because she didn’t feel she deserved to have a child who would be raised in comfort and safety, with the best care available on earth, when so many, and one in particular, would not.
York’s joy over the news was both encouragement and a rebuke. She did not want it enough. She did not love him enough. Her love was in spite of, regardless of—it was hobbled by the fact that Munira and her child were always, always in the room.
She thought of Munira when she and York saw the ultrasound’s shadowed heartbeat of their eight-week-old baby, fluttering like gauze in a breeze. And when she felt the first movements at fifteen weeks, unsure of whether it was gas or that tiny body turning. When her sickness came and receded—had Munira felt nauseous? When had she felt those first kicks? Every time she sat in a clean waiting room, every time she went shopping for the nursery, every time she rested on cool sheets in the quiet house they’d bought in which to raise their child.
Before the pregnancy, Sam had been jealous of Munira, which wasn’t easy to overcome even though she recognized the sickness of being jealous of a woman in Munira’s situation. Perhaps it was because Munira was a heroic figure, unfazed by the danger she was facing. Also perhaps because Munira had been the last woman in York’s life before Sam. Less than a year separated his time with her from meeting Sam. And he had loved her. Maybe in fact it was that love which had readied him to love Sam. Presumably he’d loved the other women before Munira. But his love for her was still present, something he carried with him, even if it had evolved into something more like an ache for what he’d done, or failed to do; Sam knew this, and nothing he could say to the contrary, if he’d been inclined, would convince her otherwise.
For the two years before she became pregnant, she’d tried to keep the bargain she’d made with him—not to think about Munira and her son. She avoided news reports about Darfur. She did not ask York anymore about his time there. But she gave money—hidden online credit card charges—to various aid organizations based there. She knew she was trying to ease her guilt. It didn’t work.
And once she became pregnant, she could not stop thinking about Munira. Did she deserve to think that they had anything in common? Both of them without fathers, though Sam’s had died of a heart attack before she was born—his death sudden and untimely, and tragic for Sam, to be sure, though at least he hadn’t been murdered. And both of them had been forced to leave their homes. They both had a child by the same man. They were both survivors. Hopefully.
But there were of course limits to how much kinship you could feel with a woman who might at any time fall prey to the war raging around her, if she hadn’t already. There were limits, you had to admit, when you paced the sunlight-warmed wood floors of your air conditioned house, cooked meals in your gourmet kitchen with fruits and vegetables flown in from all over the planet. The only thing unlimited was that silent reproach—the fact of Munira and her son, their fates unknown.
So Sam began to fantasize about ways to bring Munira and the boy—they didn’t know his name—to the States, sneak them in like orchids in a suitcase. She looked at satellite photos online, zoomed down as far as they would go. She went first to El Geneina, where Munira and York had met. From far away, the land didn’t look as flat and devoid of green as she had imagined. But as she zoomed in, the green became widely separated dots of brush. El Geneina was a city only in that it covered a lot of area, about three by five miles, and there were many low buildings, some with metal roofs, all collared by courtyard walls. She couldn’t tell if the walls were low or high. She could see vehicles here and there, but no people. There was a soccer field. She tried to discern which cluster of larger buildings might be the hospital—she couldn’t ask York; she did not want him to know about this research. Everywhere there was the sand-colored earth, the low brush. She stared, trying to discern humans in the images. It was possible, just possible that she was looking at a view in which Munira was included. What had she been doing in the moment when the satellite, floating over the earth, had turned its eye on this place? El Geneina, where Munira had fallen in love with York. Where they fell in love. How had she first convinced him to respond to her desire? Because York was nothing if not possessed of self-control. Self-contained, in fact. She would have had to be powerfully persuasive. Not just with her beauty, but with who she was.
Sam stared at the tiny squares that formed uneven city blocks, the twisting sandbed which apparently had been a river at one time, or maybe still was during the rains, imagining Munira and York’s first moment. Then her eyes traveled to the lower right-hand corner of the image, where there was a copyright symbol. And the year. 2004.
The image was three years old. It was January 2007 by then, and Sam was days away from giving birth. Her skin radiated heat even though she wore only a tank top and shorts. In 2004, York had already left. And Munira’s baby had been born. They were possibly still somewhere in that region, on that baked ground. The image was a time capsule, a letter from the dead. All the misery, all the love, or joy, if any was left or ever possible again, all the gestures and words, of anyone who had ever lived there, were flattened in her view by a mile of air.
She went then Tanjeke, where Munira had grown up enveloped in the love of her father—Sam had been jealous of that, too, back when her feelings about Munira had been that simple. Tanjeke was a village of thirty or so huts, as best as she could tell—the image quality was poor. The huts were dark dots in a sea of wind-raked earth. No sign of people or animals or vehicles. She searched news stories about Tanjeke and El Geneina, the latter of which seemed, perhaps because of its larger size, relatively secure. But later in 2007, after Cecile was born, she also found a Doctors Without Borders report issued after a trip to Tanjeke to treat survivors: They did not know when they could go back; it was now too dangerous.
After that, Sam went to her desk most evenings after Cecile was in bed and York was in the living room reading. She checked for map updates and news, zooming in and out. York thought she was working too hard. Sam was glad he left the household finances to her, so that he wouldn’t notice her freelance income had shrunk.
Two years. The night of Cecile’s second birthday, only a few weeks ago, after the remnants of cake and ice cream had been washed from Cecile’s hair and the floor under the table where her nursery school friends had been sitting, Sam went back to the maps. She especially wanted to look at them on special occasions, like holidays, or birthdays. Celebration drew her mind to Munira and her son. If he was alive, what were his birthdays like? That night she sat down at the computer, opened a browser. There were new satellite images available. Copyright 2009. Her heart squeezed as she zoomed in. They were extraordinarily clear. In El Geneina you could see the glint off the metal roofs, the tracks of vehicles across the dry riverbed. Each tree, looking impossibly green.
She zoomed out again, scrolled north, zoomed back in. Tanjeke, Munira’s birthplace, expanded before her eyes; she was a diving bird. The huts, smudges really, that she’d seen before were gone. What was left were gouges in the ground.
If Munira is alive, she’s twenty-eight. Her son—their son—almost six. If he is alive.
And so when Tara fretted over the casual drug use of her husband, Sam found herself jealous again. If every marriage came with its secret burdens, she would give anything to trade hers with Tara’s.
When York left for work Friday morning after the party, taking Cecile with him to drop her at nursery, Chris was still sleeping. Sam made coffee and thought about what she had decided do. The fear she felt, that shortness of breath, came not from the betrayal of both of their spouses, but from the prospect of rejection.
In that sense, Sam realized, with Chris underneath her, and then on top of her, slamming himself inside her, that she had, after all, been able to force herself to forget a thing or two. Rare is the man who will turn away from a woman slipping into his bed, naked under her gown, ready to offer him comfort, however short-lived it might be.
Afterward, lying on their backs, catching their breath, Sam could not help saying it. “Peas in a pod.”
Chris turned his head to look at her. The bandaged right-hand side of his face reminded her of the comic book anti-hero whose face was half-normal, half burned. Above the bandaging, there was bruising and swelling around his right eye, narrowing it to a slit, which seemed to stare at her with a mixture of confusion and hatred. Ah, her memory was coming back—she knew this look from the men she’d slept with during her teaching days, especially the married ones. It was easy for them to blame her for what they’d wanted to do just as much—perhaps more so, because their need, as far as she could tell, was purely sexual, whereas hers had been wrapped up in obliterating herself. She wondered what she would have done if Chris had held back. She wished he had, if only so that the burning, corrosive core of her guilt, which had always been there, melting any good intention from its foundation, would be hers alone.
Nothing to do but sit up in the bed, take one last look at his naked body. He pulled the sheet up over his hips, hiding himself. Too late, she wanted to tell him; take it from someone who knows. He had a beautiful chest, muscled and smooth. She imagined that he was actually a gentle lover with Tara. She wanted to ask him if this was the first time he’d strayed. She thought this might tell her what it had been worth to him.
Across the street, Tara and the children were already at school. She could see their house through the bedroom window. “You should go home,” she said. But she knew, even if he didn’t yet, that he’d destroyed his home, just as surely as if it had been bombed. It would take years to rebuild, if that was even possible.
He sat up, too, turning his back to her, and began to dress. The normal side of his face looked slack. She left the room, pulled on her robe, waited at the front door for him. “You’ll want to confess,” she said, opening the door. “But I don’t recommend it.”
And yet Sam wants to, too. Rehearsing as she pulls the sheets off the guest bed, stuffs them in the washing machine. The urge comes to her in waves, each taking its own shape. First, before her husband, before her child, there is Munira. Munira, who would’ve been faithful to York, would’ve loved him fully. And then York, who, no matter what he’d asked of her, had given so much. Then Cecile, whom she’d betrayed by not being a good mother, a faithful mother. And finally, Tara, whom she thinks of with a jolt of fear. What will Tara do if—no, when; she should bank on it—Chris tells her? People do kill over things like this. Crimes of passion. Same as any other killing.
But she makes it through the weekend—the Friday evening movie rental that York brings home, which she can barely follow, the Saturday morning trip to the park, because the warm weather is still holding, the family dinner out at a hibachi restaurant, where Cecile squeals at the chef’s spinning knives and flaming shrimp, and where for some reason the background music is seventies love songs rather than the usual plucked stringed instrument on loop, and Sam hears that song about a man remembering a night spent with a woman whose name he never learned. And Saturday night, when York pulls her to him in bed, in her mind she is that stranger, and he will always remember her with longing, because that scenario is so much better than the truth.
At some point over that weekend, York asks her if she’s heard anything from across the street. “How is Chris?” he asks, and she wants to scream out her confession.
“He seemed fine,” was what she managed. “Left not long after you did.”
“Do not tell him, Sam.” Mandy looks fierce—partly from the joint they’ve smoked which has reddened her eyes—and Sam, stoned too, for the second time in four days, wishing she could always feel this addled and detached.
The argument for telling him is that it would be better for him to hear it from her rather than Chris or Tara. It’s Monday afternoon, and she hasn’t seen any sign of anyone across the street, even with the unseasonably warm weather. She meant to watch for the school bus, to try to discern if they were even there, but was busy with Cecile. When she went to pick up Cecile from nursery school, she saw that both cars were gone from the garage. On her return, the garage doors were down, the house sealed tight.
Now Cecile is napping, and York will be home within the hour. Mandy has poured the wine. When she says to Sam to put it behind her—it was only once; there is no reason to torment herself—it seems so reasonable, so possible.
Sam has, after all, kept her promise to York over these past five years. She has never told Mandy about Munira. But now she does.
Mandy forgets to nod as she listens. She is holding onto the counter by the time Sam finishes, trying to swallow her wine. Sets down her glass carefully, hugs herself.
There, Sam thinks. I am not crazy.
If her instincts about telling Mandy were correct, Sam reasons, then she should follow them in telling York. She does it that night, even after Mandy recovers from her initial reaction and insists again that she shouldn’t and for this reason: You will want your life back.
“You don’t understand,” Sam said. “This has never been my life.”
York takes it exactly as she expects. He looks at her, his face tight, for a long time before saying anything. “I started it, not him,” she says, feeling like a child admitting some infraction. She’d waited until after dinner, made sure Cecile is asleep.
“What do you want me to do?” he asks. Ever reasonable.
Sam shakes her head. She doesn’t know. He gets up from the couch, walks down the hallway. “Why don’t you sleep on it?” he says, gesturing toward the guest bedroom doorway as he passes it.
After the first few days, it is clear that Tara has moved out. She has taken Troy and Linda with her; the bus no longer stops in front of the house. Cecile, who loves the school bus, notices and asks. Sam tells her they must be on vacation; surprising herself with the smoothness of her lie.
Cecile has slept each night with Linda’s Barbie doll. She asks, after that first week, if Troy and Linda are back yet. Of course, York is there to hear. “Satisfied?” he asks her, mildly, as if her injury to him, to their family, weren’t enough.
Sam has moved, too, into the guest room—meaning she’s put her clock and her robe and the coaster for her water glass in there. York does not bring up anything to do with Chris or his family again. He goes to work, but comes and goes more frequently, Sam notices. He takes care of Cecile in the evenings, focusing on her so as not to have to interact with Sam. Cecile basks in his attentions.
It occurs to her to tell him that he will just have to live with it. She will not apologize, because what’s done is done. We will just have to put this behind us, she wants to say. But there is a fear, heavy in the pit of her hips, that if she angers him, he will take Cecile. He could go anywhere, and she’d never find him. This, she now understands, is the one punishment that would mean anything to her. She feels Munira in every room with her, standing aside to let her wander through the even doorways. One morning, in her distraction, she forgets to buckle Cecile’s safety seat. She realizes only when they arrive at nursery school. Her daughter never climbed out, or tumbled from it; on this day, there is no car accident, no death.
When she returns home, the day stretching out before her, she feels Munira so strongly that she lies down on Cecile’s pink shag rug and weeps.
And when York tells her about the lake in Darfur that evening, she feels as if Munira has already whispered this conversation in her ear, preparing her.
“It’s a desert, isn’t it?” She does not want to reveal how intimately she knows the region. But she knows about this underground lake; news of it was all over NPR and the internet the summer after Cecile was born. It stretches from northern Darfur to Egypt, nowhere near where Munira was—is. It is reportedly the size of Lake Erie. Sam knows also of the follow up by geophysicists, which mostly detailed all they didn’t know: whether or not this ancient lake had water, whether it was saline or fresh, whether there was any way to access it at all.
“All they’ve got is satellite data. I’ve been asked to go for the ground analysis.”
Sam knows there’s been no out-of-the-blue invitation. “You won’t find her.”
They’re sitting opposite each other on their matching couches. He rests his elbows on his knees, studying a space of floor between his feet. He looks up at her. “This is a chance to save a people. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Because the situation is unsalvageable here.”
“Much of the misery there is connected to water.”
And the misery here? She wants to ask. But she’s overcome by a moment from her past, a trawler on Lake Erie with Dan, her mother’s boyfriend, taking her out under the pretense of teaching her to fish. Teach her, he did. The hope that it wouldn’t turn out that way still fresh in her mind, how she had hoped. And then how she’d thought she could just throw herself overboard, fill her lungs with that steel-gray water.
“And if you are killed?”
He stands. “You’ll be well taken care of.” Walks out of the room.
She lowers herself from the sofa cushions to her knees. And why? The gods in their swaying chambers will not hear her. Munira kneels beside her, counseling patience. It’s true that the seasons have divorced themselves from the tilt of the planet. It’s true that many are born only to be lost. Miracles and destruction, untroubled by human yearning. Her own daughter will enter womanhood raging at her mother for other injuries. Her husband will forgive her in his own time. Cool fingertips on her temples, both a comfort and a warning: your guilt will change none of this.
Through the screens, the breeze across her shoulders has grown cold enough to make her shiver, the smell of snow in the air. She must close the windows.