For the first couple of weeks, it was mostly about the sex. When you’ve got fifteen years to make up for, and you only get to see other a few times a week, usually just for an hour or two, there’s not much leisure for doing sudoku together.
Fiction by Tom Gartner
For the first couple of weeks, it was mostly about the sex. When you’ve got fifteen years to make up for, and you only get to see other a few times a week, usually just for an hour or two, there’s not much leisure for doing sudoku together. Monica and I would meet downtown at twilight, drive out to Golden Gate Park, and make out ferociously on some deserted lawn. Or she’d drive across the bridge to my apartment in Seacliff, fresh out of the shower, her cheeks pink, her skin warm and soft and expensively fragrant. We tied each other up with silk scarves, we made up nicknames for her vibrator, we strained our backs and our necks and our hamstrings. I started to find condom wrappers and pieces of black underwear everywhere.
But there was more to it than that. Her energy, her appetite for excitement, the intensity of her affection—when you were lucky enough to have them focused on you, it was like moving through the world weightless and at twice your normal speed. I’ll admit, at first, I didn’t give much thought to the fact that she was married.
Monica was thirty-eight now. There was no blue or green or purple in her dark brown hair. She didn’t wear clothes that came from thrift stores, and all but a few of her piercings were gone. She lived in Sausalito and drove a Lexus 4×4. All in all, I liked the changes, but none of them mattered. She was the same as she’d ever been: loud, unfiltered, volatile, a menace when drunk, demonic in bed.
We ate pizza one night at a tiny place next to a dance club on Geary. Signs in Spanish and Chinese and Tagalog covered the raw sheetrock walls. Guys in black shirts with spiky hair kept wandering by to check out Monica. The girls didn’t seem to have an equivalent interest in me. Walking back to the car, Monica pushed me into a doorway and wrapped both arms all the way around me, pinning my arms at my sides.
“You know I don’t believe in giving compliments,” she said. “But this is really good.”
“Do you ever wonder if it could actually go somewhere?”
“No, not really.” She rocked me back and forth, then sighed and let her weight fall against me. “The thing about plans…”
She hadn’t told me much about her marriage, but I knew something was wrong. Sometimes, she’d told me, she just needed to be with someone who wasn’t an utter narcissist.
“The thing about plans is what?” I struggled a little, not really trying to escape but just enjoying the friction of our bodies against each other
“People always have plans, Rob. You remember we wanted to open the brewpub in Sedona? And after we broke up I made plans to live in Europe, I wanted to be a model, I wanted to go to design school. And you had plans for you and this woman in Utah, right?”
“Right,” I said. I was already regretting telling Monica about Caroline, but it was done. After Monica and I broke up, I’d spent twelve years in Utah working for my friend Wade’s outfitting business. Caroline was Wade’s widow. She and I had been close before he died—heart attack during a climbing trip to the Tetons—and afterward the pendulum had swung to romance for a few months, then back to complicated friendship. That friendship had lasted even after I left Utah—I still had in my voicemail the first message she’d left for me after I moved back to San Francisco a year earlier.
“How much of that ever happened?” Monica asked.
I bit the inside of my cheek. “Right…”
“I just think, you never know until you get there.” Her head was tilted up, her eyes steady on mine. “That’s just how it is.”
I didn’t think I had much choice but to agree. After all, maybe she was right, maybe it only worked for Monica and me when it was chaotic and ephemeral and we just pretended otherwise.
“And you know us,” she said. Her grip on me tightened, and I felt her breath on my face. “You know me. It’s smooth now. But sooner or later it won’t be.”
I did know us, I did know her, so I knew what to expect: irrationality, heavy drinking, lost sleep, silent battles and not so silent ones. I pried my arms free, pushed her farther back into the doorway, and kissed her until we were both gasping for breath.
A few days later, on a cool, bright morning, I walked down to Baker Beach and then up the long curve of Lincoln Avenue. Sitting on a bench by the roadside path, I could hear sea lions barking and watch golfers strolling down the fairways of Lincoln Park.
I called Caroline and we talked for half an hour or so, something we often did. This time, though, it wasn’t easy for me, because even though I had no doubts about the strength of our friendship, I was afraid to get to the real point. I had no way to frame it that wouldn’t leave her disappointed in me. She already knew the history: Monica and I had first met when we were in our twenties, working together in a restaurant in the wine country. We’d stayed together for a turbulent couple of years, moving all around the West, then finally back to San Francisco. We were living in a tiny apartment in the avenues when we broke up.
And the sequel: Fifteen years later, fifteen years without so much as a phone call or a letter, a chance meeting outside the Ferry Building. Another meeting, this one strictly Monica’s idea, at the opening for my brother Steven’s photography show. A nighttime walk in Pacific Heights, a mutual agreement that a reprise of our relationship would be a huge mistake. Caroline knew all this too, from our last call.
What she didn’t yet know, what I had to tell her, was that in spite of all sane counsel and moral considerations, Monica and I were now committing adultery—as Caroline would see it– pretty much every chance we got. Was it because of all the history we had, or in spite of it? I didn’t know.
“Rob,” Caroline said, “What’s not to know? She’s married.”
“Not to mention…”
“Right. Not to mention the five-year-old.” Monica and her husband had a five-year-old son.
But it wasn’t in Caroline’s nature to press a disagreement, and she admitted that I sounded happier than I had in a while. No doubt she was making her own predictions about how long it would last and how badly it would end.
“Well, sometimes it’s hard to make good judgment apply,” she said finally.
I tried not to talk to Monica about Caroline— when you’re with the current girlfriend, you keep quiet about the previous one. But in this case the current girlfriend had a morbid curiosity about the previous one. Monica seemed to enjoy teasing me about how much Caroline hated her without ever having met her. “Hate” was too strong a word, of course, Caroline didn’t hate anybody. But once I’d told Monica that Caroline knew about her, knew we were seeing each other again, there wasn’t much point in pretending that Caroline approved. I just told Monica that Caroline had heard too much about the old her to believe in the new her.
“And the old me was so bad?” Monica asked.
“If you want people to think of you fondly, you shouldn’t leave in the middle of the night.” I traced the high arches of her eyebrows with the fingertips of my index fingers, inside to outside. We were lying on the sand at Tennessee Cove in Marin.
The memory still stung. I’d woken up that morning fifteen years earlier knowing that we were in trouble, but with no idea that she was already on a plane to another continent. From what she’d told me about previous breakups—drunken fights, stolen cars, sex with strangers—this was her version of letting me down gently.
“I know it wasn’t good,” she said now. “But when Caroline broke up with you, was that so much easier?”
“Well, she didn’t leave town to get away from me. So yes, I’d have to say it was easier.”
“Maybe you just didn’t love her as much as you loved me.”
“Probably not,” I said—what choice did I have? But it seemed true in a way it wouldn’t have just a few weeks earlier. I’d gone so long without expecting to see Monica again that I’d walled off most of my feelings about her. I’d been happier with Monica when things were going right than probably at any other time in my life, even including those few months with Caroline.
The other thing that Monica was curious about was Lupine Station, the ranch on the Lost Coast, north of Mendocino, where my brother and I had grown up, where our father had lived all his life. It’s miles from anywhere, and almost unchanged from what it was fifty years ago. A gravel road plunges out of the coastal hills, down past the ranch house to a rockbound cove that once served as a harbor for lumber schooners. From the time I could walk, I hiked and climbed and swam and fished there, until I knew every rock, every tree, every tidepool on the property.
Monica’s curiosity was reasonable enough. In the two years we’d been together long ago, she’d met Steven a few times, gone to a couple of his shows on her own, and had dinner with my father and me once, but that was as much as I’d brought her into the family. I’d never taken her home to the Lost Coast. In those days, I was pretty resolute about keeping friends, girlfriends especially, away from Lupine Station. I didn’t want them thinking of my family as rich. I hated the way that felt, and besides we weren’t rich. My father was an artist. His woodcut prints of the Pacific Coast, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades sold for prices that almost justified the fanatical effort he put into them. The house, and the land in particular, three hundred acres of Lost Coast seafront, were valuable on paper, but he had no intention of selling, leasing, renting, or borrowing against any of it. His income came from his art, period. The ranch was actually a financial drag.
At any rate, Monica wanted to see the place now. Given the uncertainty about our future together, if there was one, it seemed strange that she wanted to visit, but I didn’t fight her. It was a complicated proposition, though—an entire weekend out of town, not just a few hours for sex and take-out Thai.
Her first scheme, to go there while her husband was meeting clients (and, Monica was convinced, a girlfriend) on the East Coast, fell apart when her son’s nanny balked at working the whole weekend. Plan B involved a $10,000 sculpture at a gallery in Mendocino. She’d arranged to buy it in a fashion that forced her to drive north and pick it up herself. Her husband would stay home with their son. I’d meet Monica in Mendocino. We’d spend the night at Lupine Station and return as separately as we’d gone.
“You’re going to be bored,” I told her. “No bars, no restaurants, no television.”
“Weren’t you always telling me what a great raconteur your father is?”
“If you like stories about Hokusai and Diebenkorn.”
“And you think I wouldn’t?” She poked me in the obliques. We were in my apartment, lying tangled together on the living room rug, watching Shakespeare in Love. “So, I married a real estate guy. That doesn’t make me a philistine. It just means I like money.”*
My brother Steven lived a few miles from me that year, in a condo on Diamond Heights, but we didn’t see each other often. I’d once told a friend that after death and taxes, the third certainty in life was Steven being a dick. That was at a low point in our relationship, when Steven borrowed money from me to buy cocaine, then showed no interest in paying it back. Things had gotten better since then, but we hadn’t been close since we were teenagers. In any case, he wasn’t in the city much. Steven is a professional photographer and travels a lot—shooting, attending shows, meeting clients and potential clients. He’s primarily a nature photographer—if his style and his success owe a lot to our father, that’s not surprising.
When he called, I figured it was to ask me to help out at one of his shows—waiter, sommelier, stagehand, whatever. I generally said yes to these kinds of requests if it was local, figuring it couldn’t hurt to do a little bridge-building. The last time had been the gallery opening where Monica had shown up.
He wasted no time getting to the point. “You lied, you little Casanova.”
“You said you weren’t seeing her.” He was joking, though in that aggressive way that made me think it wasn’t entirely a joke. “Then I talk to Dad today and he tells me you’re bringing her up there.”
I remembered now—on the night of Steven’s show, Monica and I had left together for our walk, the one where we’d agreed it would be a terrible idea to get involved with each other again. Steven had noticed us leaving together—of course he had. He always paid attention to my girlfriends, sometimes too much attention. Mostly they shrugged it off, but with a naturally flirtatious woman like Monica he’d no doubt felt encouraged. At any rate, when I came back to the gallery alone that night, he’d asked me if I was seeing her again and I’d said No. Which at the time had been perfectly true.
“All right, Steven,” I said now. “You win. But I wasn’t sleeping with her, not then.”
He laughed. “And you thought you wouldn’t? You were the only one, then.”
After we’d made our plans for Lupine Station, Monica and I didn’t see each other for the next few days. She was supposed to come to my apartment one night, but she didn’t show up. I tried a couple of times to reach her on her cell; no luck. Finally, I left a message, which wasn’t exactly against the rules but wasn’t encouraged. When she called back, she sounded like she was in a bar. “All right, I guess I got the days screwed up,” she said finally. “I thought it was tomorrow. Is tomorrow all right?”
“Sure,” I said, and we hung up. The next evening, she was punctual, but so tired that we spent all our time on the couch. I read a book while she sprawled across me, dozing through three consecutive episodes of What Not to Wear.
“I have to go home,” she kept saying in a narcoleptic whisper.
I kept answering, “I know,” but she wouldn’t move, and she wouldn’t let me move. Then her phone rang. She woke up enough to look at it, swore under her breath, and was gone in ten minutes.
The next week was just as cryptic. Monday night we’d been planning to meet in Japantown for dinner, but she called to cancel—something about her son and his schoolwork. Silence the next two days. Then at 1 a.m. on Thursday morning she called, clearly drunk, and wanted to come over. I couldn’t talk her out of it, couldn’t talk her out of having hostile, uncoordinated sex with me, couldn’t talk her out of leaving, hung over and unshowered, at 6 a.m.
Friday afternoon, the day before we left for Lupine Station, she was waiting outside my apartment when I got home. When I tried to kiss her, she turned away so that it was just a bump, mouth against cheekbone.
“Something going on?” I asked as I let us into the apartment.
She didn’t set her bag down. “Rob, were you in Sausalito today?”
“I was at work all day. I never left the building.” After two nomadic decades in retail and restaurant jobs, I finally had an office gig, working on store design for REI. I hadn’t foreseen that an alibi for imaginary sins would be one of the benefits.
“Is that a no?”
“That’s a no.”
“It’s a no. It’s a categorical no. Monica—”
She blinked. Her cheeks were white. She put a hand to her chest. She was hyperventilating. I felt a little sorry for her, mostly just baffled.
“I thought I saw you.” Her voice was rough. “I was shopping on Bridgeway with Derek”—her son—”and I had this feeling like someone was watching me. And I thought I saw you.”
“You didn’t,” I said, trying to balance definitive and gentle.
“Because there’s a wall, you know. There’s a wall between you and my family. And you can’t come over it, you can’t even come anywhere close.” She still sounded angry, but confused too, realizing she was wrong. If the effect was to make her sound a little irrational, that wasn’t so bad—the old Monica would have sounded a lot irrational. “You have to promise me. I’ve got so much to lose.”
“Monica, I promise. I wasn’t there. You know if I was there, I’d admit it.”
She sighed, her eyes closing momentarily—pale green eyelids—and walked past me to the refrigerator, poured herself a glass of my cheap wine. She turned back and hung her arms around my neck, leaning her cheek against my back. “I know that.”
The statue she’d bought was an abstract fusion of burlwood and hand-blown glass. It looked like a bowling ball that had collided with a redwood stump. We left it in her 4×4, parked on a side street in Mendocino, and headed north in my car
My father met us on the veranda, moving more slowly than I remembered from my last visit. A few years back, he’d have been trying to help Monica with her bags. A few years before that, he’d have been away from home, backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or rafting on the Klamath. Now, he held onto the doorframe as he leaned forward to shake Monica’s hand.
I was nervous about the chemistry between them. He’s been known to gently skewer people who strike him wrong, and Monica of course is never a safe conversationalist. But they were both on their best behavior, it seemed—serious, focused, polite. The three of us sat in well-worn armchairs, drank margaritas, and talked about the weather, the wildlife, Mendocino, my father’s work. I winced when Monica mentioned the sculpture. I’d said nothing to my father about her family and didn’t plan to say anything.
“He does great work,” he said, meaning the sculptor. “Never cheap, though.”
“You’re telling me.” Monica laughed carelessly.
My father smiled—he was still a handsome man at seventy, Viking nose, close-cropped grey beard, vivid blue eyes—and glanced at me. It was a question, I thought—how does your old girlfriend the waitress have this kind of money? but only a question. My father wasn’t in the habit of making judgments. Monica, though, couldn’t read the subtext. She just knew there was one. A couple of minutes later she excused herself to make a phone call. Her look, much more forceful than my father’s, told me to follow.
She was on the phone with her son’s nanny, talking about screen time and sugar consumption, frowning darkly enough to drop birds from the sky. I stood in the doorway and waited for her to finish. We were in my old corner bedroom—a guest room now, completely redone in my father’s Spartan style, but just the sloped ceiling and the view out the window to the ocean were enough to send me spinning back into the past: Hash smoke seeping from my brother’s room, the eerie strains of his Yes album overlaid with a tapping from farther down the hall, my father chiseling a thousand tiny lines into a block of maple.
Monica put the phone away, crossed the room, took me by the wrists. “He doesn’t like me.”
I made myself lean into her stare. “I don’t know where you got that.”
“You think I’m reading him wrong?”
“You know,” she said, “the world would be a much better place if we could all be as clueless as you.”
She wanted to take a walk around the property, and so that’s what we did, leaving my father in the living room with the pitcher of margaritas. We followed an old track, overgrown with scotch broom and yellow lupine, that cut down to a ruined stone hut on the headland north of the cove.
I told Monica what I knew about Lupine Station’s history. From the 1880s, when the ranch was first settled by my great-great-grandparents, on into the 1930s, ships from San Francisco and Portland would anchor in the cove, and lumber would be loaded from the clifftops by chute. Wool, dairy goods, and the occasional human passenger would go aboard in small boats. A sawmill, a dozen houses, a cookhouse, and a livery stable had stood along the creek or on the headlands.
“Now there’s only the main house and the carriage house left.” I looked through the doorway into the hut—roofless, floorless, the west-facing wall collapsed outward. “And a few ruins like this. I don’t think they’ve cut down a tree on the property in forty years.”
“It’s spectacular,” Monica said. “It’s such a beautiful piece of land. But the house… do you ever think about building one that’s more…” She went on looking at me as she searched for the word, as if maybe it were written in code on my eyelids, and she just needed me to blink once or twice more so she could decipher it. “…current?”
“Well…” I took her hand, twined my fingers with hers. “It’s not my house.”
“But it will be. Yours and your brother’s. Right?”
“If we live that long,” I said. “I don’t look that far down the road.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Probably best.” She leaned into me, her head turned sideways so my cheek was against her hair and I could smell her shampoo mixed in with the salt air and the dry spice of the chaparral on the headland. “Are we going to go inside?”
I pulled her through the doorway into the hut, and then, with no transition at all, no soulful moment of looking into each other’s eyes, we were kissing violently, pressed against each other so tightly my ribs hurt. When I opened my eyes, she was smiling at me contentedly, maybe a little smugly, as if I were in territory she’d just marked as her own.
After my mother died, my father had had to learn, among other things, how to cook more than hot dogs, spaghetti, and T.V. dinners. He took it on with the same Zen reverence for craft—the drive to use the right materials, the right tools, the right techniques from pot to plate—that made his art special. Monica, for her part, was not enthusiastic about cooking but loved to eat. Clam chowder, garlic bread, crab cakes, green salad, grilled wild salmon, marionberry pie with ice cream—she complimented him on every dish, even if it was only to point a fork at him and nod while she chewed. And my father, accustomed to positive reviews as he was, seemed to slip into a warmer mood under the attention.
We drank two bottles of wine with dinner. When we moved into the living room, my father brought out a bottle of Irish whiskey and poured generous helpings for all of us. Sitting in his Morris chair with my grandfather’s bookcase of Greek and Roman classics behind him, he played docent for Monica, pointing out the rolltop desk (brought around the Horn from Boston in 1890), the ten-point Roosevelt elk head (shot at the door of the sawmill on Christmas Day in 1914), the half-dozen paintings of the Lost Coast by various artists of the plein-air school, the luminous view of the Sierra Nevada by Bierstadt, the William Keith, the Tom Killion woodcut prints, and of course the Diebenkorn.
“You don’t put your own work up in the house?” Monica asked.
“Only in the studio. I’ll show you that in the daylight. It always seems vain to me, hanging your own art in your house—like fishing for compliments.”
“Well, fortunately I don’t have any of my own to hang. So, I’m just going to have to shop.”
“Don’t get the idea that it’s all about how much you spend,” my father said. “There’s a lot of expensive crap at galleries, and so much good stuff going dirt cheap at art fairs.”
“Well, that sounds nice. I’d love to believe that.”
“Did you look around in that gallery?”
“Yes…” Monica said. She sounded cautious.
“It’s all competent, it’s all reasonably tasteful. I’m not talking about the Thomas
Kinkade type of garbage, everyone with a brain knows that’s terrible.” This is a subject my father gets wound up about—the decline of artistic standards. He and Steven can spar about it for hours. To me it seems like arguing about the weather. “My problem is with the stuff that’s just hyped without mercy—halfway decent artists who are insane self-promoters, con artists really. They get together with some half-wit critics and some collectors with more money than sense and suddenly some piece of junk is worth six figures.” This could have sounded like sour grapes, but my father’s work is, if anything, overpriced these days, as he’ll freely admit.
“Well, people like what they like.” Monica seemed less jolly now. “That’s not bad, is it?”
“I don’t know. Is ignorance bad?” My father was enjoying himself, in a perfectly innocent way, thinking this was all just banter. “Not necessarily. It’s just when you mix it with too much money.”
“So bad art’s OK as long as you don’t pay too much for it?”
“Seems like a victimless crime,” I said, trying to nudge the conversation back on course, but I was too late.
“Bad art’s fine,” my father said. “As long as no one ever sees it. But when people spend a lot of money on it, then they have an unfortunate tendency to embarrass themselves by showing it off.”
Monica’s chin jerked up a fraction of an inch, the cords of her neck tightening. “That’s why my husband delegates the art purchases to me.” She watched my father to be sure he heard. “But it sounds like I need to be delegating them to someone better educated.”
“I’m not maligning your taste. I’m sure you did fine with the sculpture.” A typically nimble retreat by my father, but if I hoped he was going to ignore what she’d just admitted, I knew better. “Your husband should be very happy with it.”
She laughed. “Just not so much with the other thing.”
“Monica—” I started, not even knowing what I was warning her not to do.
She stood up. “Let’s not be over-subtle,” she said to my father. “If you have a problem with me—”
He held up a hand, and surprisingly she stopped in mid-sentence. “It’s not for me to judge,” he said. “But you’d better know it’s trouble.”
“I do know that,” she said.
“I wish you well.” He looked from her to me and back again. “I don’t know that there’s much I can do to help.”
“Or would if you could?”
A ghost of a shrug in reply.
“Well, don’t worry,” she said. “It’s not your problem.”
“I guess not.” He poured another slug of Bushmills into his glass and screwed the cap back on.
When my father went to bed, Monica and I walked out onto the veranda. The fog had rolled in off the ocean. Bats fluttered in and out of the eucalyptus trees along the road.
“What the fuck did you do that for?” I asked her—calmly, I thought.
“He was going to find out sooner or later. Better to save ourselves all the contortions.”
Better if we just hadn’t come, I thought.
My father only sleeps five or six hours a night, so it was no surprise to find him awake and cooking prodigiously at seven the next morning. I’d been thinking to sleep in, to lie there holding Monica and watching the drizzle collect on the windowsill. But she was up and on the phone. Evidently, we were leaving early. The kitchen was hazy with bacon fumes, as warm as the rest of the house was cold. My father had cooked more breakfast than I normally eat in a week—French toast, waffles, bacon, sausage, blueberry muffins, fresh fruit, orange juice, grape juice, coffee. Monica wouldn’t take anything but coffee and a grapefruit. She hustled me to the car so fast we left our toothbrushes behind.
I didn’t say anything until we were back on the main highway again. Then I put my hand on her shoulder. She leaned a few inches toward me.
“I wish that had gone better,” I said.
She turned away from me as the ocean came into view. I felt her take a breath and let it out.
“I guess my question is why you didn’t make more of an effort.”
This seemed to take her by surprise. “Rob, the only thing I really make an effort at is being myself.”
“I’m sure. But this was kind of important. At least I thought it was.”
“And I fucked it up, is that what you’re saying?”
“It got fucked up somehow, that’s for sure.”
“But see, here’s the thing. It wasn’t important, not really, it wasn’t about either of us wanting me to connect with your dad. It was about me wanting to see the ranch and you humoring me.”
“And that was the wrong thing to do—humoring you?”
“Wrong? I don’t know. But irrelevant.” Now she was giving me her white-hot stare. “It doesn’t matter if I connect with your dad or not, because he’s up here and we’re down there, and odds are by the next time you visit him, I won’t even be in the picture.”
“There’s some news worth analyzing,” I said.
“We both know you don’t have the stomach for this.” She scooted away from me. “It’s going to get ugly eventually, and you’re going to bail. You’re going to go running back to Utah.”
“I’m not the one with the history of running,” I said. I was thinking that Utah didn’t sound too bad in that moment.
Even after the argument burned itself out, driving with Monica was no time for clear thinking. It wasn’t until I’d dropped her off in Mendocino—a moment sitting in the car forehead to forehead in sotto voce negotiation, a kiss that was too hard and too quick—it was only then that I started to work through the equation, driving alone through Little River, Albion, the road twisting high up on the green bluffs, the sun blazing overhead now and the ocean a brilliant mesh of fiery reflections. Then down to the Navarro, through the deep shade of redwood groves to the ramshackle orchards and dairies of the Anderson Valley. Somewhere on that road, it came to me that maybe Monica was right, maybe she could see me more clearly than I saw myself, maybe I wasn’t built for this. I was in Boonville, stuck behind a CDF fire truck, when I decided to break up with her.
I had no idea how to do it, what to say to her. I was usually the one desperately hanging on, or the one who goes into hiding and hopes the other person gets the idea. This seemed like it was going to take a little more effort on my part.
Steven called me the next day while I was at work. He’d talked to our father, it turned out, and now he was curious, in a jovial, locker-room kind of way, to hear my version of Monica’s visit to Lupine Station.
“What can I tell you?” I said. “She’s a lunatic.”
“I always liked her. She’s smart and she doesn’t take any shit. Even from Dad, apparently.”
“Yeah, well, it doesn’t matter. I’m breaking up with her.”
“Yes.” I got short of breath just thinking about how it would be without Monica. “It’s stupid. She’s got a fucking family.”
“You don’t see how that’s a problem?”
“In theory? Sure. In practice? Not at all.”
Monica came over Wednesday evening, quiet, dull-eyed. She seemed to be pondering something, but when I asked, she shook her head.
I poured her a glass of wine. She took it, then set it down on the coffee table without drinking.
Finally: “Remember I told you my husband lies to me about money?”
I didn’t remember it, but I nodded.
“Apparently I’m not the only one he lies to.”
“I wish I knew. It could be nothing. Or maybe he’s just spending too much on other women—that wouldn’t be anything new. But maybe I don’t have as much to lose as I thought I did.”
If that meant more fault lines in her marriage, it might have seemed like a hopeful sign, but I wasn’t looking for hopeful signs just then. I told myself I was waiting for the right moment to break up with her, that I’d know it when I saw it.
I called Caroline the next night. I was in my apartment, drinking 7 & 7s—Seven Crowns whiskey and 7-Up—and remembering an evening when she and I had sat drinking them on the patio of her home in Salt Lake City.
She was glad I was planning to break up with Monica, of course, but she didn’t have much practical advice.
“Just try to do it someplace she can’t make a scene.” And then, about as snarky as Caroline ever gets—”Though I’m not sure there is such a place.”
“I feel like a shit.”
“You should,” she said gently. “But you’re not.”
I wanted to argue with her, or maybe just with myself. In spite of everything, I didn’t see how I could walk away from Monica.
The following Sunday, wondering what the hell to do with myself, I was watching video clips of the previous summer’s Tour de France, reading blogs, playing mindless computer games, when an email came through from Monica. Unusual. The subject line read, “Don’t Bother.”
I tapped a pen against the frame of the keyboard, trying to guess what was in the email. I eventually opened it.
Don’t bother breaking up with me.
There was an attachment—a photo of Monica and Steven in the gallery, just the two of them, standing in front of one of Steven’s photos of Lupine Station. Steven was looking at Monica, his arm around her, hand on her ribcage just under her breast. Monica was beaming at the camera. It was a low-quality picture, taken with a cellphone, I imagined, but it captured Monica perfectly, rendered into a few thousand pixels her hybrid magic—the polished beauty of a mature woman and the raw cannibal glee of a child.
I turned off the gooseneck lamp on the desk so the computer screen, glowing with that image, was the only light source in the room. I was sick with wanting her, a deep bone-level ache. Then too, I felt a need to cut my brother’s throat and leave him in a dumpster. And of course, in a way I felt relieved to have it all be over, though it was a relief that left me so empty I thought I might blow away.
I ran a lot that fall, something I hadn’t done in a decade. I was trying to use the pain and the monotony and the occasional exhilaration to wear down the sharp edges of two equally unacceptable thoughts. One: if Monica was worth missing as much as I missed her, and I’d committed one of the major fuckups of my life chasing her away. Two: maybe she wasn’t.
On Thanksgiving Day, when I would usually have been at Lupine Station except that Steven was there—and with Monica, for all I knew—I ran north, across the bridge and up a steep trail to a shoulder that overlooks the Golden Gate. In the three months since Monica sent me the photo, I’d heard nothing from either of them except for one phone call from Steven that started out as a sort of apology and ended with us hanging up on each other. I didn’t know if they were still together, if she’d left her husband, if she had some plan for Lupine Station. I understood, though, from her silence and the way Steven defended her, that she thought she was the injured party in our breakup. Which maybe she was.
As I was resting there, staring down at the bridge, the freeway, and a parking lot where fifteen years earlier, Monica and I went to watch the sunsets, my phone rang. It was Caroline. We’d talked a few times since I broke up with Monica, but not so much about that. I didn’t think Caroline needed to hear every gruesome detail, and she couldn’t really say anything to make me feel better.
In any case, she hadn’t called to talk about that. “I know this architect,” she said. “Husband of a friend of mine. He’s just starting his own firm, but he’s really good. He needs an assistant. It’d be perfect for you. You’d be perfect for it.”
I thought about Utah. The canyon country with its surreal pastels, the waterless hills where Caroline and I had climbed together, the dark wall of the Wasatch range laid out like masonry across Salt Lake City’s horizon.
“It sounds good.” And it did.
“Because, I don’t know,” Caroline said. “It doesn’t seem like the West Coast worked out so well for you.”
I looked around me: the blue mass of the Pacific fracturing on shoals, islands, cliffs, breakwaters, lighthouses, the hills dark green on grey green, the hawks flexing and tipping their wings against the flow of the wind.
But the landscape wasn’t the point, and even the job wasn’t the point. The connection with Caroline was the point, and if she wanted me to come back to Utah, wasn’t that exactly what I’d been waiting to hear?
“I don’t know, Caroline,” I said. “It sounds really good. But it might be too soon for me to come back.”
“How too soon?” Very soft and low, not like she disagreed, but just like she wanted to understand.
“You’d think three months would be enough time to get my head clear,” I said. “But apparently not.”
I still missed Monica. And I still couldn’t think rationally about my brother. I had to get over that. I hated myself for doing something I knew was wrong in the first place. And I couldn’t go to Utah with all that unresolved.
“I can see that.” Caroline was always reasonable.
I remembered the climb we’d done together after Wade died: a long, uncertain day on the Grand Teton, each of us afraid of failing the other. For a moment I was back on that summit with her, whirling around in the cold wind off the glaciers, trying to see all 360 degrees of view at once.
“You’ll be ready when you’re ready,” she said.
Tom Gartner’s fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Whetstone, California Quarterly, Concho River Review, and most recently The Madison Review and Above the Margin. One story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work is forthcoming in Levee and Deracine. He lives in California, just north of the Golden Gate, and works as a buyer for an independent bookstore in San Francisco.