Their wedding was quickly followed by a birth. Not the cause of the wedding, but close enough to have people talk. Water cooler talk, people making noise out of boredom but not really caring. In the spring her father died and the following spring his father. The fall brought the deaths of two uncles, his and hers. Hers not close to her, but to her mother; his very close, more like a brother than an uncle. The next spring his grandmother, old, a good life, but still. Then his brother, not like an uncle, but more brother than most brothers ever turn out to be. They tried to joke, hold the baby and joke. She said their seasons were marked by headstones but it wasn’t the type of joke you laugh at.
The following year the fog of memory began to burn off and their laughter started to come more naturally, without the faraway sound it once had. Their daughter was four. Her laughter was always free but she sensed her parent’s liberation and it became more frequent, open-mouthed and hands clapping in front of her. That summer they borrowed a co-worker’s cottage on the bay. Two weeks they had, and after two or 3 days the neighbours made their way over, circling in shy fashion. Homemade wine and pies and common ground was found and the cottage folded itself warmly around them. Still nights spent on each other’s patios and the children all making easy friendships, their noise in the close distance. The smoke from the bonfires still clinging to their hair and clothes the next morning. The ease of it all sifting through them.
One morning she took her daughter out on the bay, a small punt with an outboard. Back by lunch, she said and he took his coffee and book to the hammock. Three chapters and he fell asleep and when he woke up he was hungry and went into the cottage. 3:27. He called out their names but no answer. He went to the window and didn’t see the boat on the shore. He checked the clock again. 3:29. He checked the one on the stove to be sure, a dead battery or a power outage or a blown fuse maybe, even though he knew the clock was changing time. It said . He stared at it until it went to . He started to run to their bedroom but made himself walk and picked up his watch and the numbers winked at him. He put it down and looked out the window and watched a squirrel hop to a tree and stop. It worked its jaws and looked out the corner of its eye at everything and then disappeared up the trunk. He tried to see the squirrel in the branches but couldn’t. He heard it chatter and thought he saw a flash or tail but wasn’t sure. He watched the tree for movement, wanting to see the squirrel again, putting his forehead on the glass and made himself breathe deeply, slowly. The squirrel didn’t show itself. He went back to his watch and picked it up and stared at it. 3:46. Slowly he put it on.
Outside he looked up at the sun and tried to judge the time by its position but couldn’t remember where east and west were. He closed his eyes and tried to picture the sunset, nothing. He went to the shoreline and watched the water, the small waves bringing nothing. He walked the length of the beach and passed a man walking his dog and they nodded at one another. He almost said something, but couldn’t think of anything that sounded right. He walked back to the lawn and studied the cottage and tried to hear a cupboard door or the clink of glasses. He closed his eyes and waited but nothing came. He finally went to the nearest neighbour and talked to him. He put his hands on his hips to try and show his calm, his voice struggling for even. The neighbour listened and wrinkled his forehead a few times and finally said Hold on, and went inside. A few minutes later he came out and said I called a friend in the RCMP and nothing can be done officially yet, but he says unofficially he’ll keep an eye out. Do you want me to take a run out? See if I see anything? He nodded and walked to the water again. The neighbour called his name a few times on the way to his boat but wasn’t heard.
Word spread and throughout the rest of the afternoon people came. Small tinfoil packages of food cradled in their arms. They stood around like weeds, willing to feed his grief with a small, veiled eagerness. He moved away from them and kept his watch on the water. His eyes stopped at the small diving raft about fifty feet out. The night before they had swam out to it. Some wine in them and their daughter asleep. They lay dripping and watching the stars and he had tried to slip a strap off her shoulder, drunk fingers. She had pushed him away and dove in and swam to shore. He had rolled onto his stomach and after a few insulted minutes followed her in but she had already dried and climbed into bed and fallen asleep.
The noise of the neighbours brought him back and sent him closer to the shore. He looked at his watch and it was almost six and glanced at the sun and saw it leaning to one side of the sky and he knew which way was west and a flood of sunsets came at him so quickly he had to sit down. He saw them sitting with their wineglasses watching the bay open itself for the sun. The glow of dusk on his daughter and suddenly he felt like there was something inside him rushing from his feet to his head, back and forth, tearing his organs. He clenched his jaw to stop from screaming until it felt like his teeth would shatter. For a moment he thought of all the money he spent fixing his teeth, after years of avoiding dentists. Finally sitting in the chair and squirming although there was no pain, just the idea of pain, like monsters under the bed. Oh for fucks sake, his wife had said when he complained, try the gynecologist. Try giving birth. He had said Woman always say that. Oh fuck off, his wife had said. Fuck right off. But she had said it laughing. That’s important, he thought, she liked to laugh and swear and drink and this is starting to sound like a eulogy and why am I thinking about the cost of my teeth? He tried breathing deeply and that calmed him slightly and in that small calm his mind started to wander again. There, he saw his wife and daughter and their capsized boat and they were slowly drifting apart and calling to one another, she telling the daughter everything would be okay, the little girl thrashing in the water and they drifted until the thrashing stopped. Or there, he saw his wife landing the boat on the opposite shore and taking his daughter and getting on a bus and driving far away and never contacting him and them starting life alone without him. And there, he saw his wife take their daughter from the boat and put her in the water and hold her head under and ignore the hands scratching at her, her face stone and cold and when there’s no more scratching she takes the boat to the opposite shore and gets on that bus alone and leaving everything and he even thinks he sees her smiling on the bus.
He shook himself out of this and stood up quickly and began moving his arms quickly. He started walking in quick tight circles and kept shaking his arms as if the faster he moved the less he would think, but it didn’t work. He saw himself coming here year after year, to this shore, staring at the bay and thinking Why me? or Why not me? or something like that, pity and grief. The first few years he comes alone and spends sleepless nights afterwards. Then eventually there is someone standing behind him, giving a respectful distance. They make a weekend of it, finding a quiet restaurant nearby and sleeping peacefully in a cozy B&B, his hand on her thigh and her nudging him when he snores. And then he stops coming altogether. Just small moments of thought given to it, maybe the way the new daughter’s coughing reminds him of his first or the way the new wife squints in the sun just like she did.
Finally he let the screams come out and he pounded the heels of his hands into his head and then behind him heard laughter. He opened his eyes and turned to glare at the people, their laughter spreading and small squeals from some of the women and excited clapping. He watched them, unbelievingly, and it took him some time to see his wife and daughter standing there. His wife was talking; a laughing, excited story. She said Our engine quit, stopped dead, nothing. We had no oars. How stupid am I not to bring oars? Stupid. The current was taking us out the mouth of the bay, to the ocean. I started to panic, you know, like you would. So I jumped in and swam with the rope it my hand, pulled the boat behind me. Can you believe that? a woman my size? and swam to the closest shore and had no idea where I was. Just a dirt road, no one around, nothing, not even a raccoon, just tree upon tree upon tree. We just started walking. Hours. Then the man that runs the Quickway, Gordon, the one with the video store in it? he stops and gives us a lift. Everyone looked at the storeowner standing behind her and he gave a small smile and a wave. There was laughter and applause and his wife clapped as well and said You know what he said? He said we were going in the wrong direction. Typical. More laughter and clapping and their daughter skipped around the yard, letting the other children trail in her celebrity. His wife kept saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, over and over and everyone laughed at her for her apologies. Soon the sun set and he watched it go down, staring hard as to never forget it. Patio lights came on and music from somewhere and he walked around in it and every so often someone would clap him on the back and shake his hand and the people started leaving. Left their tinfoil packages and wandered home, smiling at how something so bad could turn so quickly good. His wife told the story again and again, finding new details but emphasizing the same parts each telling. She paused occasionally to smile shyly over at him like they were at a junior high dance and eventually the last neighbour left.
In the quiet they linked their arms around each other’s waist and their daughter pushed her way in between them. They took her inside and watched as she put band aids all over her feet and after each one she looked up at them and said Ahhhhh, making a show of it. Soon after they ate and she fell asleep in front of the tv and he scooped her up and bundled her close and went into her room. He stood above her bed, not wanting to put her down, just smelling her hair, tried to fix her in his mind like that. The sunset and this moment, never forget them. He stood there until his wife came in and touched his shoulder and he put her down and they both kissed her and went into the kitchen to open a bottle of wine. Stood at the counter, not talking much, just looking at each other and finished the bottle. He opened another bottle and they moved out into the warm evening.
He made a bonfire in the pit and a small sensation between his eyes started from the wine, a slight warmth in his forehead that slowly spread into his body and his thoughts started to float on the wine. His mind wandered through his daughter and he thought hard about the sunset and then he thought of the squirrel and then his wife and his mind lingered there and he remembered something and he looked at his wife until she smiled and said What? and he went inside for another bottle. He looked at the clock, it was something after 12, he closed one eye to focus, . He had a glass of wine in the kitchen before he went back out, banging through the screen door like he forgot it was there. From the fire she laughed at him, covered her mouth when the laughter turned to giggles and she couldn’t stop. For a moment he laughed with her then stopped to listen to the fire, then the waves on the shore above it. Then he remembered again and couldn’t stop and he started telling her what he had been thinking that afternoon, when she was gone and he didn’t know if she would ever be back. He just wanted to match stories, to share her adventure somehow. He wanted her to tell him it was alright, to laugh at him and hold his hand and tell him that could never happen. But her eyes became flat as he talked, glossed over and when he finished she stood up and her glass fell to the ground and she left the fire until she became dark in the distance. He heard some noise by the shore and he stood up and finished his glass and went inside taking the bottle with him.
Inside he dropped his wineglass on the floor and cursed and then drank from the bottle. He wanted to go into his daughter’s room but stopped himself and just stood in the middle of the kitchen drinking. He finished the wine and almost went outside to look for her but went into the living room and laid down on the sofa and tried to focus on the tv and the next thing the screen door woke him. He didn’t remember sleeping. In the glow of the tv he saw his wife pass through the room. He didn’t know what to say, he wanted to speak but didn’t know how to start. Later, he blamed the wine and the fact that he just woke up and was confused. He used that as an excuse and people seemed to understand, understand enough so that it became his truth. His wife moved in front of the grey of the screen, slow and shadowed, not looking at him, hands rigid at her sides and he wanted to make a joke, joke like they did in times like these, but didn’t of course, he let her go past but it was only part of her, she was mostly already gone.