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Authors: Melissa Falcon Field

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BOOK: What Burns Away
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“Hey,” I said. “Any more news? Want to come home and take a breather?”

“I'm still backing up files,” he told me flatly.

“Don't you need a break after today? I could help you.”

“They haven't even initiated the investigation yet.” He sighed. “I'm distressed by the whole thing. And I have the grant looming. You turn in. I'll be late.”

I did as he suggested and took slow, deliberate steps up toward my bed. Feeling more dismissed than tired, I logged on to Facebook to see who was on chat, sensing the need to sum up the day, but also knowing that most of my mommy friends back East, an hour ahead of me, were fast asleep, making it all the more justifiable for me to instead reach out to Dean.

Dear Dean—

Today was a weird one. This morning my husband's lab was set on fire. We were there just minutes beforehand. Can you believe it? So scary. They have no idea who is responsible and thankfully no one was hurt, but the whole thing has left me unsettled.

And what's worse is that Miles doesn't seem to need me, even now. I had assumed he would—at least for some comfort. But he's still not come home. I guess there's nothing new there, but it's disheartening all the same. It's like the hospital and the labs it houses have stolen him from me altogether. I can't feel anything other than hostility for the place.

Anyway, I don't know if any of this even makes sense. I guess what I'm asking is did you ever feel alone in your marriage, like you weren't necessary for anything? That's where I'm at right now.

Be well,

Claire

Later that night, I woke to find Miles in bed beside me, his snores like the shallow purrs of a cat. His back to me, I moved against the warmth of his skin and pulled him close. “Finally,” I whispered, glancing at the clock, the hour well past midnight.

While Miles showered the next morning, I got up and made the coffee before Jonah woke. And as I discarded the previous day's grounds, I discovered the card I had written to my husband unopened, next to the stuffed pugs, toppled over on the counter.

“How did you sleep?” I asked him coolly when he joined me downstairs.

Miles leafed frantically through his duffel bag. “Slept fine,” he muttered, searching the countertops until I held out his keys. He kissed my cheek and took the mug I offered from my hand. “I've got to meet the investigator before a case, so I'm going to scoot. That whole mess is eating me alive.”

Jonah called, “Mama,” from upstairs, and as I headed up to get him, I said, “Did you like your surprise?”

“Surprise?” he asked.

“The card on the counter,” I said. “And those pugs.”

He looked at me blankly.

I pointed. “Remember Pansy and Sebastian? I thought those little guys might make you smile.”

“God, I'm sorry. I'm so wiped out, I never even noticed. Very sweet, thank you.”

Miles took a sip of coffee and headed toward the hallway mirror to check his nostrils and straighten his tie, again leaving the unopened card behind as he raced off.

I walked up the stairs, wondering why I bothered, and pulled my iPhone from my back pocket, reading a short Facebook message from Dean, the post timed just after midnight.

Dear Claire—

That's horrible, such crazy shit. You guys okay? Maybe you should just get out of there for a few days, come home. Come see your friends, your family, stuff your face with shellfish, and meet me for a beer. You need to see the ocean. It'll do you some good. And maybe your husband would miss you?

You deserve to be happy too. You really do.

And you are right, marriage shouldn't be so lonely. I know mine was. You start to realize that it's a hell of a lot less lonely to be on your own.

Anyway, I'm here for you.

Yours,

Dean

While Jonah ate his cereal and stuck his fingers in his milk, I read the message a second time, then set my phone bearing the message on the counter. As I went on with the day, I moved through the routine but fantasized about Jonah and me bundled up in snow gear walking our old stretch of beach, while Pansy and Sebastian came dashing past, chasing tennis balls and wearing matching cable-knit sweaters. It hit me that maybe Dean was right, that maybe I wasn't just homesick. Maybe my ambitious, distracted husband really didn't need my comfort. In fact, it seemed he needed nothing from me at all.

• • •

Two days after the lab fire, the investigations still incomplete, the day began with the yellow whirl of light on top of the snowplow illuminating my bedroom. I dressed quickly that morning, made the pancakes, and as the truck scraped snow from our street, I mused over those long-ago plow rides with Dean, the sea out before us as he cleared the far end of Willard Street, removing the snow from my dad's driveway and dropping it from the seawall into the creek.

I cut Jonah's pancakes into small bites and wondered if Miles came home last night, or if he left before dawn, seeing no trace of his mug by the sink where he usually set it.

I finished my coffee and poured Jonah a small dish of syrup. He clapped his hands together in a cheer. “Dip!” he hailed.

I placed his breakfast on his high-chair tray and kissed his cheek.

He swatted me away.

The doorbell rang.

I grabbed my purse and dug around inside for my wallet, making a check out to Sage Anderson, the old man who cleared our lane, and entering the amount of payment in the register, sickened by how much we had already paid for snow removal that winter.

The bell chimed again.

But when I left Jonah to pay Sage and thank him for his help, I could barely catch my breath. Twenty-five years and 1,100 miles from where I'd last seen him, Dean D'Alessio stood on my icy front stoop.

“Claire,” he said softly.

CHAPTER SEVEN
Desire

Dean's features were even more striking than I remembered, his eyes that unmistakable blue, the corners of his squint notched by time. His body had that same tall, brawny build, and his demeanor was as easy as if he were invited.

He smiled. “After reading your message yesterday, I couldn't take it anymore, so I grabbed the first flight out this morning.”

“It's you,” I said in the tiniest whisper.

He thrust his hands deep into his pockets. “I hope this is okay, me showing up like this. I just… I had to see you.”

I tried to regain my composure and scanned the yard for signs of my husband. Anxiously chewing my thumbnail, I took a step back, distrustful of my own excitement.

He said, “You're even prettier than I remember.”

I looked down at the yoga pants I had worn the last three days and pushed my dark-framed glasses on top of my head. “I'm a mess,” I said, pulling the clip from my hair and letting it tumble to my shoulders, my attempt to make the best of the wreckage.

And as Dean and I stood there beholding each other for the first time in twenty-five years, Sage Anderson slammed the door of his F-150 pickup and walked up the footpath to my house with the predictable yellow snow removal invoice in his hand.

He hollered, “Mind if I interrupt?”

“Good morning, Sage,” I said and handed him the check already made out in his name.

“Cold one,” he told us.

Dean confirmed. “Sure is.”

The men shook on the weather.

Dean and I watched Sage limp back to his truck. Then we took a long moment to examine each other.

Inside, Jonah cried, “Mama?”

I tugged at a strand of my hair, conflicted, wanting to invite him in.

“The baby's in his high chair,” I said. “And my husband said he might try to stop home. I just can't—”

Dean rubbed his thumb under my chin, and the intimacy of the gesture softened my defenses.

“We'll figure it out,” he said.

Jonah called out, “Mama! Uh-oh!” Then began to cry.

“Go,” Dean told me. “We'll find another time. I had to come. You sounded so upset.”

I watched him pat his coat pockets, searching for smokes. His shoulders were broad, and he'd maintained the weathered fitness of a man who worked outdoors.

We looked at each other again with some old recognition, and he wrapped his arms around me. Lifting me off the ground, the mass of him swallowed me up. I almost wept with the generosity of the embrace, sensing the tug of what was behind it—my body remembering. I hugged him back. We held each other too long, I suppose. But his touch was like going home, the comfort of the familiar, and toggled to it was the accustomed grief of what had been lost back there.

“It's so goddamn good to see you,” he whispered.

Reluctantly, I let go and Dean jogged down my steps and across the street, and got into a silver SUV that sat idling there. Calling my name from the open window, he said, “I'll be in touch.”

“See you later,” I called back and shut the door, but I was already nervous about the follow-up encounter, understanding the danger in what Dean had come to pursue and how willing I was to follow through.

“Mama!” Jonah called through tears. I shut the door, glancing at my reflection in the hallway mirror on my way to the kitchen. Not a lick of makeup on my face, and I had not showered in days. “You're disgraceful,” I uttered and raced to my boy, my heart still pounding as I went.

A gooey well of syrup pooled out of Jonah's reach, and as I mopped it off the table with a sponge, I understood that with all the online flirtation and the retelling of what we once felt in the cab of his pickup, narrating to each other the explicit details of what we wanted more of, Dean and I had dragged our shared history too far out of the long-ago and into a current place and time, where, if I let it, it would grow reckless.

I carried Jonah into the living room, wrapped him up in a blanket, and pulled him close to me. Grabbing the remote, I turned on
Sesame
Street
and peered out the window.

Dean was gone.

But still, I trembled with panic, and also delight and an eagerness that had become foreign to me. As I attempted to reassess the meaning of his arrival, I peeled a tangerine for Jonah and decided to write Dean an apology for sending him off so abruptly. I'd tell him I was just caught off guard and explain that I already regretted not asking him in for a cup of coffee.

Logged on to the computer to message Dean, my second shock that morning was discovering a friend request from my mother, her familiar profile image backlit by a pink sunset. It was a simple plea:

Claire, honey!

I see we share some mutual friends. :) Let's connect! I want to see pictures of you and your boys, the new place too. How are things out there? I've heard nothing since receiving a change-of-address card from Miles. I hope Jonah is still getting my letters.

Love,

Mom

I clicked Ignore. Annoyed by my mother's casual attempt to track me on Facebook, I paused, as I recall it, for just a moment and contemplated a response to her before I deleted her request entirely, too distracted by the next message in the queue, from Dean, who had already beaten me to the punch.

Claire—

Sorry for the surprise. That wasn't fair. But I believed you when you said you wanted a spaceship to come rescue you. I know you're lonely. And I don't have a rocket, exactly, but when you catch a minute, give a holler. I'll be at the hotel, waiting to catch up.

Dean

While I typed up my response to him, Dean popped up on chat.

Dean:
Amazing to see you this morning, Claire.

Claire:
I was just sitting down to write you. I'm shocked!

Dean:
I'm sorry it was unannounced. You sounded so sad in your message. Plus I wanted to get out of town for a few days, anyway. Needed a break. And hoped to cheer you, so I brought you some things—your ninth-grade report card, for one, and also your mother's ring, the one your father gave her, the one you couldn't bear to keep. I wore it on a chain way past our time, and then I set it away. I could never bring myself to chuck any of it. I have your track T-shirt too.

Claire:
Mom's ring? I forgot about that thing. And the report card? How were my grades in ninth grade, anyway?

Dean:
Do you really need to ask? A+ in science, of course. Back then I'm pretty sure you loved Mr. Barnet even more than you loved me.

Claire:
OMG, Mr. Barnet! I loved no one more than I loved you. That said he DID let me play with fire in school. He also had a telescope and like a thousand books on Halley's comet.

Dean:
You were obsessed with that comet. Blamed everything on it—the Challenger. Your parents' divorce. The fires you set. I think the next Halley's comet comes in 2062, something like that. You'll be turning ninety and I'll be ninety-three. If I'm lucky like my grandpa, I'll still have all my hair.

Claire:
The next year of the comet is 2061. I will be a spry eighty-nine. Where are we meeting? Seems by then, it might be more appropriate for us to have a drink. I feel bad about running you off today.

Dean:
We will meet where we always meet—the creek. I remember being there with you when you told me about igniting your mom's car. You said it made you forget to be sad for a while, that fire was like water—it washed things away.

Claire:
Baby's fussing. I better scoot! Let's talk soon. I'll try and figure out a good time to meet.

Dean
: Are there still things that make your heart pound?

Afraid to answer, I logged off and left him with an automated message:
Claire
Spruce
is
no
longer
available
for
chat.

• • •

That night Miles worked late, and after Jonah went to bed, I took a bath and tried to disregard the impression of Dean's thumb on my chin, that dangerous reminder of his touch. I shaved my legs as my son's toy schooner floated by. I blew on the sails as I'd taught Jonah to do and thought about our last summer day sailing across Long Island Sound. It was September. Jonah was a newborn, nearly a year and a half ago, almost to the day, which was the last time I felt assured in our love, our marriage, and our shared life.

In the cabin below, Jonah had fallen asleep swaddled in a blanket despite the humidity. Together, Miles and I pulled in the genny and folded up the sails. I tied them, as I always did, sitting on the bow, looking at the toenail sliver of a moon rising over the horizon. Hearing Miles toss the anchor, I turned around.

He smiled at me and held a finger to his lips, a signal not to wake the baby, while he tiptoed toward me. Once he reached my side, he slid the strap of my sundress off my shoulder and rubbed his thumb down the nape of my neck. Leaning himself up against the mast, he pulled me close. His lips were salty, and under a sky the color of apricots, he hummed in my ear as he fumbled beneath my sundress. We took our time with each other in what felt like a new forever.

With our sleeping infant and all that new love pouring from us, Miles wanted me, despite my unfamiliar postpartum body. And I not only felt more desired by him than I had since the beginning of our relationship, when he courted me with lilies, but also respected by him in a way I had never experienced before becoming the mother of his son. I was the champion of a complicated childbirth, a woman who was far tougher physically than he had ever predicted.

Yet after the move, that wantonness dampened. Maybe my resentment about leaving home or the job that took Miles away caused things to change. But no matter the reasons, that flicker of desire didn't return to me until Dean's reappearance. And following our unanticipated encounter on my doorstep, I had to remind myself that I did not want to end up like my mother, entertaining an affair and leaving my husband behind to weld together some renovated version of a family life. So soaking in the tub that evening, I pledged to reignite some of that old need I assumed Miles and I still had stowed away somewhere for each other.

After toweling off, I executed a plan for romance by making a late dinner of steak and potatoes with rosemary, and wore red lipstick with no other makeup, Miles's favorite kind of sexy. I pulled on a black sweater dress, and in the kitchen, I lit every candle I could find. After dinner was in the oven, I sat on the center of the island circled by candlelight, with a glass of red wine. Out the back windows, I watched the glimmer of snowbanks under the porch lights and waited for my husband to come home.

“Hey,” he said, stomping the slush off his feet when he finally entered at half past nine. He looked around the kitchen, then back at me. “Everything okay in here? Is the power out?”

“No,” I said. “Candlelight supper. Thought we could have some wine.”

Miles flicked on the lights with an apologetic glance and sorted through the mail. “I'd love that, but I've still got a ton of reading to do. Crazy day in clinic and I haven't even signed off on all my patient records and procedure notes yet. Then there's the investigation, and the grant deadline is next week. Rain check?”

On my tiptoes, I reached up for my husband and wrapped my arms around him, pulling his belly tight against me. I pushed unwanted thoughts of Dean from my mind. “Take a break,” I said. “You need to eat dinner anyway.”

I kissed his cheek; he absently wiped my lipstick off.

I poured him a glass of red wine and topped off my own. Switching the lights back off, I tried to stay enthusiastic about the expectations I had set for the rest of the evening and my decision to attempt to salvage things between us.

“Honey, I really have to finish up my dictations and decipher what's most pressing before my clinic in the morning. Would you be terribly disappointed if I ate in the office so I can wrap things up?”

My temperature rose, then plummeted to a defeated simmer. I told him, “Sure. Eat in your office.”

“Really?” he asked, noting my flat tone.

“I was trying to connect,” I explained.

He squeezed my hand on his way out. “Another night, I promise. I can give you my full attention.”

“Go.” I pointed to his office door and polished off my drink.

“You sure you're okay?” he asked. “I appreciate dinner.”

“Yup, I'm fine,” I said, but of course I wasn't.

From his office, Miles called out, “Delicious, thank you!”

Alone in the kitchen, after a few bites from a supper I was no longer excited about, I sat Indian-style on the island with a plate in my lap. My efforts seemed foolish, as I watched the candles soften into waxy puddles. Flames flickered near the end of their wicks, and I thought about brightness, how the survival and intensity of a fire is solely dependent upon the oxygen supplied to it.

I recalled the experiment performed in
The
Chemical
History
of
a
Candle: Lecture II—The Brightness of the Flame
, proving Michael Faraday's theory that the outcome of combustion is always water, the atoms of hydrogen changing form, all of it carefully noted and highlighted in the margins of that old book still packed up in the attic. That lecture yielded one of my favorite quotes about the splendor and intensity of the chemistry sustained inside a single flame.

“Is it not beautiful to think that such a process is going on, and that such a dirty thing as charcoal can become so incandescent? You see it comes to this—that all bright flames contain these solid particles; all things that burn and produce solid particles, either during the time they are burning, as in the candle, or immediately after being burnt, as in the case of the gunpowder and iron filings—all these things give us this glorious and beautiful light.”

BOOK: What Burns Away
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