by Erica Verrillo
The plane circled over Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, delaying its descent until it received permission to land. The passengers shifted in their seats, craning their necks to peer out of the narrow lozenges that framed the canted city below; they kept their seat belts fastened, as if any minute the plane might touch down. Claire kept her eyes on the book she was reading, Trust Me, by John Updike. She found the theme a little dated. Except for take-offs, that brief moment when the laws of Newtonian physics did not apply, flying was a dull affair.
She read straight through the landing, through admonitions to remain seated, and through the dyspraxic shuffle of passengers removing their belongings from overhead compartments. Only when there was nobody behind her did she put her book in her purse, remove her carry-on from the overhead compartment, and walk down the empty aisle to where a tired flight attendant had run out of wishes for a pleasant stay.
A businesslike traipse through the airport led her to the outside world, where no sooner had she stepped into the late afternoon light, than she was hit by a wall of heat. Austin air is a contradiction in terms, she thought. You could cut this sludge with a knife. Fortunately, the taxi line wasn’t crowded and she hardly had time to suffocate before she was whisked into a refrigerated vehicle. The first thing she did when she got home was crank up the air conditioning. It was a pity the thermostat would not go below sixty-five degrees. Even at that temperature she felt enervated just knowing what lay in wait outside her front door.
As she expected, the house was empty. Dylan was still at work.
She unpacked her bag: underwear, toiletries, a few changes of clothing, and a sweater which she briefly held to her face—it still smelled of pine and mist and mountains—before throwing everything into the washing machine. Nights were chilly in the Green Mountains, even in August. There had been frost on the ground that morning; when she walked across the lawn she’d left a wake of glossy footprints. Her daughter was shivering a little in the doorway, hugging her arms tightly around her torso as the car backed down the driveway. Like all her Yankee ancestors, Claire enjoyed the cold. Her mother, returning from her frigid New England rambles flushed and shiny-eyed, had always cried “bracing!” as she removed her scarf and coat. Claire felt braced as well when the temperature dropped, as if she could tackle anything.
The washing machine companionably chugging away, Claire did a quick survey of the house. It was much as she had left it. The spare room was tidy and absent any reminder that it had once been her daughter’s room. Beth had taken what she wanted when she married, and given away the rest. Still, whenever Claire walked by the room, she sought a reminder—a childhood picture, a stuffed animal —something to stretch the past into the present.
Claire was hungry. There wasn’t anything edible in the fridge, but there was a loaf of bread in the basket and a jar of peanut butter on the shelf. Dylan had probably eaten out during her absence; he wasn’t much of a cook. As she munched on her sandwich, she took a package of ground beef from the freezer and set it out to thaw.
Aimlessly, she wandered into the study. Fall semester would be starting in a few weeks, but she was officially still on sabbatical, so there wasn’t anything pressing, aside from her manuscript, which was nearly finished. An academic press was waiting to publish it, and all she needed to do was look through the manuscript one last time and write the acknowledgments. Her field was so narrow the acknowledgment section of every book on the subject could simply be copied, including the token expression of gratitude to tolerant spouses, without-whose-loving-support-this-work-would-not-have-been-possible.
The computer stared at her blankly, inviting her to boot it up. Obediently, Claire switched it on, waiting for Windows to sound a welcome.
Dylan came home well after sunset. He gave her a peck on the cheek and sat down to eat. He talked about his day, his week, his work, took a shower. And when they climbed into bed, he turned away from her and fell asleep.
Listening to Dylan snore, a crushing sense of annihilation passed through Claire, drowning her in terror. She felt the complete erasure of her conscious life, her one-way passage into oblivion. This was a nightly occurrence when she was home, though it had not happened once while she was in Vermont. She tried to breathe deeply to overcome the stifling pressure in her chest, quelling the darkness.
“You don’t love me anymore,” she whispered, before falling into sleep.
Seamlessly, her domestic routine resumed, comfortable in its familiarity: laundry—Dylan hadn’t done it in a while—scrubbing the scum from the bathroom tub, grocery shopping. After starting a stew for dinner, Claire sat down to work. She opened the file of her manuscript, Nonverbal Communication Between Mayas and Ladinos: Shrugging Things Off, and began to read, only to find her eyes wandering. Editing can’t be done on a screen, it demands hard copy. She clicked Ctrl P and waited for the hum of the laser printer, but after whirring for a minute, it fell silent. Claire leaned over it, fearing that the printer had finally given up the ghost, but the red light was on. It was merely out of paper.
Reaching for a fresh packet in the undercarriage, Claire felt the hard edge of a notebook, a journal with a burlap cover, entirely unfamiliar to her. Opening it, she recognized her husband’s cramped handwriting. She immediately felt she should close it, but it couldn’t be his. Dylan said ”journaling” was puerile. Yet, here it was, in her study, under her printer.
The words seemed to pop off the page. Here was an entry about one of his grad students, Julia. She recognized the name. Julia had come to the house for dinner last spring. He was writing about sex. With Julia. In detail.
The page began to blur, and Claire had the unusual sensation that she was reading fiction. This could not possibly be real. How could this outpouring of emotion, this vomitage, be coming from Dylan, her husband of twenty years, a man with a paunch and a receding hairline, and not one ounce of anything that was unknown to her? Why were her hands shaking? Was this rage? Disbelief? She had no idea what she was feeling, but the impetus to call Dylan right then and there and scream into the phone was nearly overwhelming.
She picked up the journal and went into the kitchen. She turned off the stove, and went to the bedroom, sat down on the bed. She waited until it was dark, until she heard the car door slam. She waited until his footsteps, echoing slightly in the silent house, approached the bedroom. She waited with murder in her heart.
“What are you doing?” he said, flipping on the light. “Why are you sitting in the dark?”
Claire opened the journal and began to read. “Julia wants to use birth control—”
Dylan interrupted her. “It’s not what you think. She was having problems in a relationship, and I was just giving her some advice.”
She rose to her feet. “How stupid do you think I am? This is about you! You and Julia!” She thrust the journal into Dylan’s hands. “It’s right here! Read it!”
There was a pause, and for a fleeting moment Claire believed that she might be going mad— this was her husband, after all. She knew him, knew every tic and facial expression, knew the lines around his mouth, and the grunts he made on the toilet; she knew the sound of his voice, his odors, the textures of his body; she knew every inch of him.
“Yes, I slept with her.”
A white hot lance of pain shot through her; she made a strangled animal sound deep in her throat, an aaahhhhh of suffering that came from a source she was unaware she even possessed, and then she was lying on the bed, Dylan gripping her hard. He was saying “I didn’t know, I didn’t know” and before she realized what was happening, their clothes were off, and he was entering her, his eyes fixed on hers, his fingers running along her lips, exploring her mouth, murmuring her name as he came … and she came too, howling with pain and passion. Afterward he held her against his chest while she wept frantically, leaving pools of salt water on his skin, marking him indelibly as hers.
When she calmed, he stroked her hair, and told her he hadn’t realized how much she cared for him. She listened, her heart beating very slowly beneath her ribs as he confessed his wants, his desires, his needs. She listened as he told her about Julia, that he’d made a mistake, that he’d been sucked into something beyond his understanding or control. She listened to him say that Julia meant nothing to him.
“She means something to me,” Claire said.
Dylan went to work the following morning, but before he left he hugged Claire closely to him, in a way he hadn’t in longer than Claire could remember, and he gazed into her swollen eyes with genuine tenderness. When she heard the car pull out of the driveway, Claire made two phone calls, one to her daughter, and one to American Airlines. Miraculously, there was a flight later that morning. She called a cab. Then she packed two large suitcases with everything she thought she might need for the rest of her life. Almost as an afterthought, she removed her wedding ring and left it on the kitchen table. The stew, untouched, was still on the stove.
Seated on the plane, Claire waited impatiently for the engines to rev. When they finally began to whine, the plane taxied down the runway, awkwardly bumping along until it turned, as if to face an adversary. Then it charged, faster, faster, the engines roaring, until the exhilarating moment of lift-off, when Claire, at long last, was suspended, weightless, free.