No one else swims in this river, but Leo follows a course where the sculling shells slide through the shadows of city buildings. The rowers in their brightly colored jerseys are as accustomed to seeing him as they are the cormorants that pop to the surface just beyond reach of their oars. With each butterfly stroke, Leo fights the suck of the dark water. His head is large, his limbs long. He surges up, defying gravity for a split-second. Clumps of birches on the shore leap and wheel — subsumed by water as he sinks. Riverfront buildings rise and fall as he falls and rises, their murky gray-brown foundations under water, their whitewashed balconies in the sunny air above. His heart thuds; his lungs empty and fill. He is in the rhythm, working toward numbness. Breathe in. Let it go, a silver bubble at a time. Do not think back, do not plan forward. Breathe in. Let go. Let go. He needs to lose himself, to bear — for a breath at a time — that he lost her. He swims until he is desperate with cold, almost too cold to recover.
On a stretch where there is no beach, just nubbins of worn grass, he emerges, dripping. He has stashed his towel and uniform in a neglected strip between apartment buildings. He flattens himself against a sunny wall and shivers until his blood responds and his fingers and toes come tingling back to life.
Leo hops on one foot to keep from tipping over while he pulls his pants on. “I lost my wife,” makes it sound as if he had misplaced her like a lighter or a pair of reading glasses. He didn’t need reading glasses when she vanished. Now, to re-read the consoling words of the philosophers, he does. She disappeared a year to the day after their wedding.
She died, or she walked away to begin a new life. He can’t believe or understand, but she is gone. That much he knows. If she drowned, there is the possibility of peace for her at least. If she is living, where is she? Over time, the shock has worn off, and here he is, stuck inside a dialectic: she is dead and she is alive somewhere else.
He doesn’t swim in the ocean. The ocean is no farther from his apartment than the river, but he avoids it. The closest he can come is to immerse himself in the cold and dirty river until his temperature drops dangerously.
His city is as dilapidated as an old couch. The museum, a dusty little gem, is where he works. He had planned to complete his degree in philosophy and to be teaching by now. Museum guard, which he’d thought a stopgap until he finished his dissertation, became his profession. His years of study in the University library, though not distant in time, seem long gone.
These days, his informing principle is to maintain everything as it was when Kirstiana disappeared. Nietzsche said if you wish to lower the level of human pain, you must also lower the level of joy. He repeats: waking, swimming, walking to work, and making the return trip home to eat, to read, and to sleep. He cinches the parameters of his life tight as a belt.
At first, he had searched frantically, feverishly, possessed by his attempt to do what she would have done had he been missing. After the police found her phone and wallet on a towel on the beach, Leo made a poster with her photo, which he put up all over the Internet and in libraries, and churches, and homeless shelters.
Several bodies had washed up, each instance leaving Leo more ragged. People claimed to have seen his wife as far away as the Mid-west. The leads petered out. Now, there is nothing left to do.
As he enters the museum with its gargoyle downspouts and unforgiving stone, Newt, another guard, pats him heartily on the back. “Hey Leo. How they hanging?”
Leo cringes and says, “Magnificently, thank you,” his voice rusty with disuse and cigarettes. He says, “And yours?” fleeing before he has to hear the answer.
Upstairs, Leo shifts between two rooms, one filled with light, the other with shadow. In one, a Vermeer, in the other, a Rembrandt. Newt and the others like to work in the galleries downstairs where the exhibitions change and Rothko’s colors and Bonnard’s swirling details give way to work by new artists. Leo prefers to be assigned to the rooms where everything remains the same. He makes sure no one gets too close to the paintings or touches the antiques. As a personal rule, he doesn’t speak to the museumgoers except to give them the time when they ask, or to tell them to stand back from the work. His imposing height and craggy face usually discourage people from approaching him. Crowds pass through — so many hands to watch, so much motion to keep track of — and his vigilance exhausts him to the point where, sometimes, afterwards, he doesn’t eat or read but falls into bed and pulls a blanket up over his ear. Leo has an earnest desire to do his job well. At the same time, he knows nothing matters at all.
His favorite room in the museum – the one with the Vermeer – is lit by windows on both sides. Fat yellow ropes cordon off chairs no one has sat in for hundreds of years. Vermeer shares a wall with an unknown British painter’s portrait of a beloved hound with pheasants. Between the paintings stands a glass case of cufflinks and yellowed letters sent between French poets two centuries ago. While there is no one in his rooms, he re-deciphers the cramped handwriting of the poets, looking for phrases he recognizes: “Je t’aime” or “Je ne t’aime plus.” He isn’t paying enough attention when a child, a boy of three or four, ducks under the yellow velvet ropes and makes for a Louis XIV chair. The boy’s solid little legs carry him unswervingly. He has wispy pale hair and hands sticky with lollipop. From the back, in his stiff jacket, he seems too well dressed and tottering to be any real threat, and yet, nothing but a feather duster has touched the seat of that chair for as long as Leo has worked at this job. He anticipates the syrupy hands clutching the cushion and the hard, little shoes scrabbling against the chair leg’s gold leaf. He barks, “Get away from there!”
The child stops with his palms on the nap of the seat. Leo plucks him up by the scruff of his jacket and sets him down outside the rope. In the pause before the boy begins to cry, Leo’s face reddens to the curls of his ears. I have become frightening to children. Feelings flap up at him like startled pigeons. Now I will be fired. He squats down by the boy. I will be sued. He says, as softly, and as kindly as he can, “No one is allowed —”
A woman grabs the boy’s sleeve and hauls him — squalling now — toward the stairs. She gives Leo a sharp look, but doesn’t speak, just marches the little boy away, his jacket stretching at the sleeve where she holds fast. Her heels ring on the polished floor.
Kirstiana would have spread reassurance over Leo like a blanket. She could smooth his rough edges. Lying in bed with him in the morning, she’d look out at him from under her dark lashes and ask, “You wouldn’t mind, would you, if I just curled my whole self here” — she’d stroked the inside of his thigh — “to stay with you for the day? You wouldn’t have to pay any attention to me. You could just carry me here like a secret while you work.”
He looks out the museum window and sees young dogs, loose-limbed and glistening, running along the riverbank, and he thinks of the way her youth glossed her hair, rounded her buttocks, and pushed her lips to fullness. One of her front teeth was chipped.
He expends so much effort to get close enough to look at what she’s done. Had she done it, really? Did she swim out so far that she couldn’t possibly get back? The image of her drowning – which he attempts to make himself examine – shimmers and eludes him. He won’t ever believe it unless he can make himself go there with her, to follow her, to hold onto it and make it real. Wet hair in her mouth. Dark wet hair like seaweed. She vomits water and thrashes.
Impossible to stay with it. Maddening and brief, the images dart and fail. Her drowning falters, empties, and vanishes. He has to know, and can’t know.
As if he’d lived in a box all of his life, she happened along and lifted the lid off. By the time she found him, his concentration on his studies and his quirks of character had taken him far off on his own. She blew in like a sea breeze. She made him presentable – lassoed his wrist with a watch, told him when he needed his hair cut, and then cut it for him, and did the wash every Monday. She decorated their apartment for holidays, especially Valentine’s Day, read the daily paper, and hauled him out of the Ancient Athens of his mind, to go to the cinema. He admired her memory for detail, her ability to polish off the Saturday Times crossword puzzle, and to make things happen. She was precise and thorough. What she did, she did perfectly. She surprised him on his lunch hour with picnics, the basket full, with napkins and silverware, glasses for his favorite beer. She kept their wedding photo on the hall table, where it remains: Kirstiana and Leo, cheek to cheek. Her face is carefully composed into a smile. His bristly hair sticks up, as if infused by his surprise at being loved.
Leo circulates into the Rembrandt room and takes up a position with his back to the wall. From there he can keep an eye on both of his rooms as well as the staircase and part of the hallway. It is midweek and few people are visiting the museum. Newt, who has not worked here as long as Leo, stops in to report a rumor of layoffs this month. “Now, if they’d make their cutbacks by who is supporting a bigger family, I wouldn’t worry so much. You’d be the first out.” What can Leo say to that? He rarely knows what to say to anyone anymore. He offers Newt a sardonic grunt. A front desk volunteer runs up the stairs to tell Leo he has a phone call. He deserves whatever the mother of the sticky-handed little boy is going to say. But the call is from the administrator of the homeless shelter on 8th Street. She says, “Mr. Brimmet? We think we have your wife here.”
The first time Leo saw her, Kirstiana walked an ancient hound-dog past St. Paul’s church at the corner of Bow and Arrow Streets where he performed with his beggar marionette to supplement his stipend from the University’s philosophy department. Performing did not come easily to him. Most nights, he waited for it to be over, but he had been given the puppet by a very old Russian man with whom he’d shared a study space in the library. And for such mindless work, the money was good.
The evening Kirstiana came along, the brick buildings surrounding his performing space cast early shade, easing the day’s heat. Her old dog lifted his leg on the steps of the church entry, but Kirstiana had her eye on Leo and his puppet. With a flick of Leo’s wrist, his diminutive beggar added a sexy little swagger to his dance just when the recorded horn music turned especially bluesy. Kirstiana laughed with the others in the audience. Leo noticed her because of the way her hair shone out in the crowd. He looked at her and thought: summer. Not wanting her to see how much more invested he was in his smoke than in his work, he put out his cigarette. It was such a little show — a cleverly jointed marionette with old world charm, dancing on the sidewalk . He worked his way through his playlist four times a night on the weekends.
His beggar puppet could turn his little head so endearingly, so inquisitively that almost no one could resist putting a bill into his outstretched hat. The little beggar made a special bow in front of Kirstiana, who gave him a dollar. He danced up to her hound and appeared crestfallen when the dog sniffed but didn’t offer any money. Everybody laughed and Kirstiana stayed through the last show.
Afterwards, she insisted on buying Leo coffee and a sandwich. He strode along next to her, shortening his steps to match hers, and couldn’t think of anything to ask her about, except her name. “It’s pretty,” he said. “It’s unusual.” She said thank you, and shifted her bag to her other arm so she could walk closer to him.
“It says something about your parents to name you so perfectly.” And as abruptly as his ability to speak had arrived, it left him.
She said, “My parents! Dingoes would have loved me better. But let’s not start there.” She took his arm. “Who was Seneca and why are you studying him?” He stuttered something about the mind striving for tranquility. She bought him a latte. “No, I insist. Please.” He’d never tried those expensive coffees. She was overwhelmingly polite.
One night, not long after the second time she’d taken him for coffee, Leo came home from the library, reached to flip on the light in his small, sparely furnished apartment, and saw a glossy new white switch plate where there had been none. He had been readying for a class on Montaigne, his head rumbling with how life consisted partly of madness, partly of wisdom, and at first a new switch plate seemed nothing but a natural illustration of the former. Leo hung his jacket on a plastic hanger he had never seen before. His next thought, as he passed his bathroom, which sported a striped shower curtain, was that his key had unlocked the wrong apartment. His lack of a curtain had meant he took only baths, but that had hardly registered as hardship or limitation. Leo was used to making do. A dark green fluffy bathmat lay in place of the towel he usually tossed on the floor. Sweat pricked his underarms. A light shined out of the front room. His pulse beat in his temples. He backed out toward the entry, hurriedly, shakily hunting for something he could use as a weapon, clearing his throat quietly so his voice wouldn’t crack. “Hello?”
Kirstiana leaned into the hallway, her hair swinging into the light. “I decided there must be something about your apartment that prevented you from asking me over for a drink.” The huskiness of her voice enthralled him. “Would you like one?”
“How did you get in?”
“I told the super I’d left my cell phone in your apartment.” Her pronunciation was precise, like a foreigner working to lose an accent. She poured him a scotch. “While I pretended to look for my phone, I saw there were ways to make your life better.” She’d arranged a bright plate of cheese and bread and cut vegetables. “There,” she said, and her tongue pressed against her front teeth, pink and soft in the small gap where one was chipped.
He tried the whiskey in his new glass. He helped himself to cheese and all the rest. He said, “Nietzsche warns us of the siren sent to lure the philosopher from his appointed truth-seeking path.”
She said, “Maybe if he’d had some good French cheese like this, he wouldn’t have gotten his knickers in such a twist.”
It wasn’t until after she’d spent the night that he wondered at how she’d gotten into his apartment not once, but twice. He didn’t want to put her off by asking. She’d witnessed his meager way of getting by; she’d had a good look at his mess; and she had come back. More often than not, women had kept their distance.
In a matter of days, she’d moved in with him. She blindsided him with her ability to know what he needed. Curling her fingers in his chest hair, she’d close his book and bite his upper arm. She played old rock’n roll music and taught him to dance. She eased him out of himself and discovered he had a natural duck-footed rhythm, which she said was lovely. She bought him new clothes, which made him look fine, saying she’d insisted on paying for his coffee when they first met because he looked impoverished.
Kirstiana free-lanced. The bulk of her work was editing papers for the faculty at the University. Her sort of energy and competence looked like magic to him. He hadn’t believed he would ever be so lucky.
A month later, they were married on the steps of City Hall. When she reached up to kiss him, he thought: flower petals.
The police detective, Burns, had warned him about the treachery of sentences that start with “if only.” Everything about Burns was solid — neck, wrists, nose, gut — a cop with a regulation haircut. He’d said, “I’ve seen these things before. You’re not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.” When Leo started to slide down the easy slope of self-loathing, he would quote Burns, like one in his pantheon of philosophers. “No one can be responsible for another’s happiness.”
Her divorce had been final for less than a week when she took up with him. He thought nothing of it, except to be pleased she’d found him. Neither of them had friends or family. He had his philosophers. He’d walked away from his past – from hardship, from the heart of the country where Catholicism had killed his mother. He’d been the last of thirteen children. Except through the lens of philosophy, he was done with looking back. So was Kirstiana. She said none of that mattered now that they had each other.
It flattered him how often she phoned him at work, how much she wanted to be with him, how her eyes seemed to darken when she said she loved him. He saw wisdom in her eyes and knew it to be like his, hard earned, partial, a work in progress. He would stare into her eyes, the color of cinnamon, and see depths of understanding. He’d said, “You know the painful beauty of loneliness.” She whispered into his chest, “Don’t go all abstract on me,” and kissed her way to his mouth. But he saw it, how sex connected them inside their loneliness. A purity of focus commandeered him, then, mind and body. Afterwards, she’d laugh and cry at once.
One time, on his way back from the bathroom, he’d picked up the camisole she’d slipped off. It was pretty, a sky blue of stretchy fabric. He slipped it over his head, watching for her smile, pulling it tightly down his torso so it skimmed his waist.
“How do you like it?” he asked, showing her his wide and bony chest in her tiny underwear. He shifted his shoulders like a model on a runway. His spent sex hung loose below. She rewarded him with a quick laugh. Her eyes turned suddenly mischievous and flirty.
She’d meet him at his street performances and slip her arm through his after the music ended. She said she wanted everyone to know he was hers. Before long she admitted she didn’t like the idea that any woman could come to watch his puppet dance. She said, “If it was so easy for me, what’s to stop your next lover from meeting you the same way?” She said his job change wouldn’t be just for her. As he said himself, performing had never been right for him.
She found the museum job listing and convinced him it was a better fit. He’d have plenty of time to reflect on the outline for his next chapter. He wouldn’t have to talk much to anyone. His height and bearing were perfect to discourage museumgoers from misbehaving. “You’d have steady pay.”
“Seneca says prosperity fosters bad tempers.”
She’d laughed. She’d said, “Your head’s in the clouds,” and had given him a ride to the museum interview.
He holds the phone receiver long after the shelter administrator has hung up. He remembers Kirstiana’s warmth in telling him, “I first saw you in the early morning, down by the river when the sun was just coming up. I watched you from the bridge. I thought you might be the tallest man I ever saw! I think you thought you were alone.” He hadn’t known she’d seen him anywhere before his puppet show. “As the sun came up, your shadow reached high up the wall of the library. Your clothes looked rumpled, but your shadow sliced through the University buildings. Maybe you’d been working all night?” He didn’t remember. “Well,” she said, “you stood straight at the edge of the river watching the sun come over the horizon, lighting you up, and then you bent over into what was left of the dark, and raised your head slowly, making the sun rise again, just for yourself. Playing with the sunrise. Do you remember?” He liked the picture she was making for him of himself. He had folded low into shadow, like his marionette, and risen up into the light several times, she said, to see it crest the horizon and feel its warmth begin. She said, “I envied your sense of wonder.”
At his lunch hour, Leo strides down the blocks toward the 8th Street shelter. At six and a half feet tall, he can cover ground, but on land he lacks the grace that is his in the water. His hair sticks out from his head like Beethoven’s. He throws his huge feet forward, his hands in his pockets, a cigarette hanging from his lips. His jacket flaps out behind. People move out of his way. Smoke trails him. There is hubbub in his head, bars of blues from his puppet playlist. The photo of Kirstiana he’d circulated. Lines from the French poets’ letters. Lines from Nietzsche, Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius. The shelter’s administrator: “We think … your wife here.” Passing 7th Street, he pushes to keep going. Whatever happens will take such delicacy. Where among the walls he has built around his memories, where among the impossible rocks, the rubble of her disappearance, would he find the way to bring her home again?
The night he’d tried on her camisole, just after she laughed her throaty, alluring laugh, everything about her had dimmed. She fingered the wrinkles in the bedspread.
“What?” he said. “What just happened?”
She didn’t answer. She looked at him as if she were looking out the window of a passing bus.
He pulled the camisole off and sat on the bed. He tried to take her hand but she pulled away. She drew herself up, long-necked.
“Do you sleep with men? Do you have lovers?”
He squinted at her, disbelieving.
“You wanted to show me, didn’t you? How beautiful your bones are, how graceful your shoulders could look under those straps!” She grabbed the camisole and threw it across the room in a wad. “How many men? How many have loved you?”
The streetlight hit their bed, block-like, solid. His shadow fell like a flimsy scrim across her shape under the blanket.
In the morning, he’d had to leave her sleeping. He’d hauled himself through his day, struggling to keep his eyes on the museumgoers. What had come over her?
When he rushed home that afternoon, she said, “I’m sorry I was so dramatic.” She gave her head a shake. “So embarrassing.” She twirled toward the kitchen counter, and her skirt swished. With a pop, she uncorked a cold bottle of white wine. She’d made his favorite dinner of white fish sprinkled generously with paprika on a bed of sautéed spinach.
Sometimes, dreaming, he kisses her. His whole body arches with longing and his lips pucker and seek, push into nothing but air, into a still space so empty that it wakes him.
He tries to envision her walking away from the city, without belongings, without money, without anything but what she wears. She might have charmed her way onto a bus or slipped onto a train, but what then? Where to? What had he really known about her? Had he known one thing? One sure thing?
At the door of the shelter, he loses momentum, his feelings pooling into backwaters, slowing him to a standstill until he is too paralyzed to ring the bell. He backs out of the doorway to stand on the corner of 8th and Valliant under a highway overpass. The wheels on segmented pavement above him keep time, thumpita-thumpita-thumpita. He shakes a cigarette out of the pack. He taps it against the package, and puts it to his lips, but his other cigarette is there already, and only half-smoked.
He throws them both down and jabs his thumb into the doorbell.
Some months after they were married, he’d remembered the dog, the old hound she’d had when he first met her, and wondered where it had gone.
She’d been balancing their checkbook. She didn’t turn from the numbers, and said nothing, but made a shooing gesture with her graceful fingers.
He wished he hadn’t pursued it. But the question rankled him. The not knowing. It had been a bony old pale dog that looked at her with devotion.
The next time he asked, she’d busied herself cleaning the refrigerator. He hadn’t been able to see her face. She’d said, “He was very old.” As if that was the end of the story.
“Did he die just before you moved in?”
“I don’t want to talk about him.” Without turning towards him, she handed off a moldy jar of spaghetti sauce. “It makes me too sad.”
“But, was he sick?”
“Are you trying to make me cry?”
“Was he someone else’s? Is he with your ex-husband?”
“Why are you attacking me?” She wheeled around. “Can’t you see what you are doing to me?”
Had he been attacking her? Her question shocked him into silence. He knew something needed to come next. What should he have said? What should he have done?
The dark hallway of the shelter smells like mothballs. A matronly volunteer fusses with papers at the desk where those needing a place to sleep are welcomed. In her patient, practiced look, he sees that she thinks he — disheveled and agitated as anyone — is looking for a bed.
He wracks his brain for the name of the woman who phoned him. He bangs his hand down on the table as if to make a point. She startles. An upwelling in his throat prevents him from speaking. He is saved by the appearance of another woman. She bustles through a door to his left and says, “Are you Mr. Brimmet?”
She takes him into her dank little office and tries to get him to sit, but he can’t. He barely sees her, a gushing woman with sensible shoes who pushes toward him the photo of Kirstiana he’d circulated, and says, “You might find it hard to recognize her. She has refused to take a bath and she won’t remove her hat. She’s pretty oppositional. She insists her name is Holly.”
“You won’t meet her alone.” She puts her hand kindly on his sleeve.
Burns, the detective, had told him Kirstiana’s real name was Kathryn. She had renamed herself. She had not told him. She’d been married twice before.
Burns had kept asking him if there was anything else.
How far back did Burns want him to go? She’d phoned him at the museum, sometimes four times a day though he could take calls only when he was on break. She wanted to know who he’d eaten lunch with, who he’d seen, what they’d said and when would he be home? Did he love her? Would he tell her he loved her, please?
Burns asked for identifying marks. She’d had two delicate and precise piercings, one in a smooth whorl of her ear, one in her nostril. She smelled like cloves, and behind her ear, her own musk. He remembered standing behind her at the window, lifting the weight of her hair from her neck. On the nape, just at her hairline, a red smattering of a strawberry birthmark, which he bit.
Sometimes, when he came home, she smelled like their bed, as if she had only just risen. But the surface of her was so polished, so smooth, he couldn’t be sure. If he asked, she lashed out at him, and then at herself.
She didn’t say she’d put her dog down so that she could move into his apartment where no pets were allowed. But after the last time he pressed her about the old fellow, her moods had quieted. She still slept facing him with her hands between his thighs. He welcomed the calm. But there were signs. She forgot about cutting his hair. She made declarations that defied logic. She said, “I’ve destroyed your sense of wonder.” And then, her last night at home, she’d folded her hands between his thighs and said maybe when she died, he would let her ashes rest where his muscle was so solid and his skin so soft. Not that she meant anything by it, she said, except that when she died, she would like to be buried in him.
His head churns: a slow and continual irruption at the base of his skull. He cannot think of one thing he could have done in any way but the way he did it. He is the man he is, a bundle of himself. If only he could have gotten beyond that. If only. He tries to imagine himself as someone with a wider heart, and by this he means more loving, quicker to empathize, someone with the right words to say. How might it have gone if he had been someone who could step out of his own big head?
The shelter director’s name comes back to him. Mrs. Pritchard. He follows her down the hall of the shelter, his shoes clunking, hers silent. No one is about, except a staring old man slumped on a bench. Mrs. Pritchard leads Leo past one closed door after another. Something like a used clothing store is set up along one side of the hallway — racks of used jackets and coats. Like the closet where Kirsti’s clothes still hang, it gives off whiffs of depletion.
The mix of his feelings might be combustible enough to ignite the cloth of his own jacket like a rag in an old barn. Mrs. Pritchard guides him through an open door. His breath is shallow in his ears.
A slight woman with her back to them rocks forward and back in front of a window. She wears a filthy maroon hat. This woman’s hands clutching the arms of her chair are not clean — calloused and thickened beyond anything he could recognize as Kirstiana’s. But she is in a shelter and her hands wouldn’t be manicured as he remembers them.
Mrs. Pritchard touches the woman’s rocking shoulder. “There’s someone here to see you, dear.”
The rocking woman turns. Freckled angular face. Of course, she’d have lost weight. He tries to make this face Kirstiana’s. He wants to believe. Her eyes are brown. A flat brown.
She says, “Who is that?” in a nasal twang, nothing like Kirstiana’s husky, seductive voice. This woman’s front teeth are small and square and whole.
He sees his hand rise up in a back swing, aiming, open and flat for the side of her face. Instead of hitting her, he lets out air as though he has been gut-punched and grabs the dirty hat off her head – as if by subtracting the hat he will correct the situation. As if the hat is what is wrong.
The woman claws it out of his hand and erupts. “Rape!” she swings at him with both hands. She hits him with the hat, with her little fists balled up and pummeling his chest. “You FROG!” He catches her wrists in his big hands. This woman who is not Kirstiana kicks his shins and tries for his groin, and when Mrs. Pritchard summons help, she kicks out at Mrs. Pritchard. Leo forces her wrists, twirling her back to him as if they are dancing.
He holds her from behind with her arms crossed in front and spins her away from Mrs. Pritchard — who had said, “We think we have your wife here.” Holding a stranger as if he is a human straitjacket, he feels an essential part of himself hurtle out.
He lunges down the sidewalk past stained facades of old stone buildings shining darkly in the afternoon light. Sunlight angles off the passing taxis and trucks, and transforms the gas station on the corner of 9th Street into something gemlike. The brightness in his eyes is a burst of salt on his tongue. He drags his fingers along an iron fence, thrumming. He veers onto Atlantic Avenue to the beach.
A gull, hanging in the wind, tilts a yellow eye at him. The beach curves in swells of sand. The snack bar and changing shacks have just closed. Dark strips of seaweed coil and loosen in the currents, but the surface gleams like a travel poster. A couple of bleached white sails shine out past the breakwater.
Several months earlier, they’d found remains up in the dunes and Leo’d rushed to the scene only to be turned away by Detective Burns, who’d recognized him, who’d told him to go back to work. It had been the body of a man.
The beach has changed. The dunes have eroded and built up elsewhere, sandbars coming and going with tidal shifts. He can’t see the spot exactly where her things were found, or where she might have walked into the water. It is not the same place. Why had she taken a towel if she intended to drown? Maybe because when one goes to the beach, one takes a towel. Perhaps it had been simpler still: she wanted to sit comfortably and look out at the ocean before she walked into it. Or else, she needed it to dry herself before she walked away to start her new life.
Burns had said, “Most people who try to drown by walking into the ocean don’t succeed, Mr. Brimmet.” Leo had heard this all before. “The currents aren’t predictable. Most people who try to swim out are brought back in. On the other hand, if she did drown, it’s a long coast.”
Leo turns, and the sight of a young mother standing in the foam tricks him. For a hare-brained second she is Kirstiana, filming her child in the surf. He sees her so easily, as she had been. You could think — with the dark hair, those soft hands with the tapered fingers — but this other woman focuses intently on the video screen and doesn’t notice him.
Her daughter looks barely old enough to float. A toddler. She pushes her baby-face up through crashing waves too big for her — pudgy mouth opening like a fish, choking and coughing, then giggling. When she stands, her hair clings to her pink face like swatches of seaweed. Her nose is running. Sandy water pours off her face, her arms, her yellow suit. Almost before she can see again, her chubby legs take her, pounding and splashing back to deeper water.
A wave comes. The child throws herself in front of it. Her chunky little body takes a thrashing. A pink leg spins in the tumult. The wave clobbers her. The little girl staggers up from the foam, coughing and grinning in her sandy yellow-flower swimsuit. Her doggedness is a force stronger than the surf. Blue-lipped and relentless, she reels up out of wave after wave.
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