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Authors: Melissa Falcon Field

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BOOK: What Burns Away
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The water ran from the tidal marsh into Long Island Sound and separated our neighborhood beach, Hawk's Nest, from the bird sanctuary and the private strand on the other side. From the cab of Dean's truck, I learned to spot the piping plovers bobbing on the branches of ocean roses before they buried themselves amid the sea grass to nest. At low tide, when the weather warmed, we rolled up our jeans, darkening the cuffs of our pant legs in our attempt to wade across. At high tide, the creek was over my head, up to Dean's chest. But on that first day, it was frozen along the edges, glazed with a thin layer of ice that would have cracked like peanut brittle under the slightest pressure.

Before my classes that first morning together, he'd simply asked, “Can I kiss you?”

In my moon boots, with a papier-mâché comet in my lap, I looked up to the sky as if the answer could be found there and said nothing.

Dean took my chin in his fingertips and guided me toward him for a kiss. He smelled like menthol cigarettes, Juicy Fruit gum, and the coffee he sipped from a thermos that made him seem old.

In the cab of his truck, we shed layers of our clothes and kept the heater on high as our bodies drew close. Beside him, my pulse banged against my wrist, my chest, inside my ears, and I wondered if Dean could hear the noise.

But unlike my previous sloppy make-out sessions with other boys among the
National
Geographic
magazines at the public library, I lost myself beside the creek with Dean.

His touch somehow emancipated me from my insecurities and left room to fill that space with desire. With him, I grew gutsy, not just about skipping class, but also about what it meant to yearn for more. I had not known that feeling before and it came as a surprise to me. But Dean knew. He was older and understood what girls wanted, even when they didn't.

From the moment his calloused palms slid over my skin, I wanted it to happen again. His touch was like a small lamp illuminating a big house of dark rooms—and I wanted, desperately, to feel my way back to that light.

• • •

The morning before Dean picked me up, I had been struck by an unfamiliar and blooming emptiness after discovering a sealed letter left on top of my father's dresser. The envelope had Dad's name, Peter, written in Mom's loopy cursive. It was unusual for her to correspond with any of us in writing, and given the weighted silence between them, my curiosity rose. So, I had folded it in half and slipped it into my coat pocket, opening it after I escorted Kara to school. The letter read:

January 28, 1986

Peter,

Last night was just another example of how, even when you are in the room, I feel deserted. I need someone who makes me feel wanted and less alone. I'm very sorry, but I just can't do this anymore. I'll try my best to make this easy on you and the kids. We can work out the details later. I plan to talk to a divorce attorney sometime this week, but I don't want there to be any surprises.

Kat

My stomach had churned with fear and hurt. I'd taken my mother's words to mean that if she didn't want my father, then she didn't want any of us. From the second I crumpled the note and stuffed it back into my coat pocket, the entire world became suspect.

But there in Dean D'Alessio's truck, with the defrost blowing a hot stream of air on my face and feet, I wanted to get closer to the center of something that felt good, to move away from the injury of my mother's letter and the fear my stomach sickened with upon reading her words, so I took his hands and held tight as he guided our interlocked fingers down the front of his jeans.

• • •

And as chance would have it, while eating cereal with my husband and son in Madison on my birthday, an entire lifetime since that moment, I logged into my Facebook account for the first time in months. Among the birthday wishes, I was shocked to find a brief message and accompanying friend request from that old love, Dean.

Claire Spruce, is it you, after all these years?

After reading the message, I studied the thumbnail image of a man I'd never dared search for, always stopping myself from imagining his hulking frame, but there he stood on a mountain summit, something familiar in his posture, thrusting a ski pole into the air.

Crosswise from me sat Miles, who slurped his coffee and studied stacks of EKGs without any awareness that our son had dumped his milk across the kitchen table.

I closed the lid to my computer, searched for paper towels to sop up the mess, and pulled Jonah into my lap. The smell of his hair suggested maple syrup, and I nibbled the sticky finger he held to my lips, thinking about that photograph of Dean.

Tempted to send Dean an immediate response, I considered the time. Story hour at the public library was in twenty minutes, and getting there would take longer than usual with the falling snow, so I would wait to give the correspondence my full attention, when I wasn't rushing—once Miles was gone and Jonah was down for his nap. Eager to respond, I read the request again, lingering a second longer over the words. “Is it you, after all these years?” And with that one question, I envisioned Dean D'Alessio removing me from all that had frayed between Miles and me.

• • •

But things weren't always unhappy between Miles and me. We used to laugh together until we were breathless on the stretch of coastline down the lane from our turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Mystic, Connecticut. The expansive front porch and gorgeous framework of the place were obscured under a peeling, gray hide against which we leaned twenty-four-foot ladders and from which we skinned a hundred years' worth of paint. We were newlyweds and new homeowners, blissful and madly in love.

Those hot days of late August 2005, only a few weeks into our marriage, I was thirty-three years old, and while I stood on the top rung scraping a chisel over the clapboards, Miles steadied himself on the rooftop. From my vantage point, I studied his meticulous doctor's hands reconstructing the pebble chimney as a gentle rain fell over us. Knowing the surface beneath Miles's work boots had grown slick, I worried he might lose his footing and slip down the steep pitch of the copper roof, believing wholeheartedly that I would go undone if I had to live one moment of my life without him. I had found, I believed, the person I was meant to build not only a home with, but also a life, and it seemed I could never hold him close enough.

Through the year of restoration, my love for Miles only grew stronger, and I could feel the ache of it somewhere at the center of me, my desire for him throbbing like the exhausted muscles under my skin. All day, wearing tool belts and climbing ladders, we encouraged and challenged each other, resting only for lunches, devouring sandwiches a yard long, gulping down gallons of iced tea. We were a solid, unyielding team, and the house became an example of what we could accomplish together.

One freezing Sunday morning a month before Christmas, our goal, overly optimistic, was to have the kitchen primed and ready for a holiday meal. But watching Miles fuss over the base coat, dabbing the tiniest crevice with bristles, I saw his detailed process as a complete waste of time.

“At the rate you're working, we'll have the primer done by St. Patrick's Day,” I teased.

Miles turned to me, brush in hand, and painted a white splotch on my nose.

“Watch it,” he warned.

Responding to the threat, I ran a roller drenched in paint over the side of his face and grinned wickedly.

In retaliation, Miles chased me, half a gallon of primer in hand, hollering, “You're about to get it, my dear!”

Protecting myself, I pulled the drop cloth out from under Miles's feet, which sent him to the floor and the can into the air, splattering both our faces with white.

Stunned, blinking like two characters in a pie scene from an old television sitcom, we tumbled to the floor, giddy with laughter.

After a moment, Miles stood, drenched in paint, and ran his fingers over my lips, searching for a clean spot to kiss before he picked me up and carried me over the threshold and into the bathroom shower he had tiled himself.

With a pair of shears, he cut me from my paint-soaked clothes. Under the warm water, the paint ran from my hair in a milky stream. He pulled my body against his, kissed my neck and shoulders, and moved his hand between my legs, both of us frantic with desire.

“I love our life,” he whispered, and I paused, hoping I could forever love it back.

I whispered, “It's the perfect life. Let's take good care of it.”

Then, I eased us into the basin of the tub, straddled his lap, and moved him inside me, while the water rained over us. In that moment, I never wanted the house to be finished or the days constructing it to end.

But by the close of that second summer in Mystic, the house was completely prepped, everything but the trim painted sage green. With extra time on our hands, we started taking morning swims, running barefoot past the swing on the portico, and racing beyond my raised gardens filled with tomatoes to the sandy lane where the sea grasses had thickened alongside the dunes, out onto our private stretch of shore.

And there, as predictable as the tide, we'd encounter a pair of pugs always dressed in seasonal attire headed toward the surf. Our middle-aged neighbors outfitted their dogs, Pansy and Sebastian, as daisies in springtime, complete with petal headbands. Then, as the days grew long and muggy, they refashioned the pitiful little animals into gigantic bumblebees, with black-and-yellow T-shirts and battered wings bobbing behind them until Labor Day. Come fall, the dogs had their final metamorphosis, turned into apprehensive-looking jack-o'-lanterns who scuttled after sandy tennis balls in orange cable-knit sweaters.

Every time Miles and I caught a glimpse of them, pink tongues hanging from their dark lips, we debated how much humiliation a dog could stand and then how much humiliation we might one day tolerate from each other. For us, during that first year of marriage, the absurdity of Pansy and Sebastian was the worst we could ever imagine.

Standing on that stretch of beach, Miles told me, “I love how you just get it. Why I find those damn dogs so ludicrous.” He was drying his tanned face on a towel after a swim. “And you'll get this one too,” he said, as the pug twins darted by us in yellow-and-black T-shirts. He gestured toward the dogs' owners, Ned and Sheila Whitaker, wielding metal detectors over the sand.

“Check out Ned's shorts,” Miles whispered. “He and Sheila are even worse off than the pugs.”

We watched Ned stroll ahead of us, a cascade of pocket change falling from some forgotten hole in his tartan shorts and onto the sand. A few feet behind him, his wife, oblivious, whirled her metal detector over his path, sending the thing into the computerized song of a slot machine and her down on hands and knees, digging for treasure.

We watched our neighbors cackling like seagulls, amused tears welling in our eyes, as Sheila called to Ned. She wanted to show him her riches, not a clue in the world that they'd come from his pocket.

Miles reined me in to kiss the joke from my lips. “That's gonna be us,” he said. “And I wouldn't want to grow demented with anyone but you.”

As he held me close, the cold coming off his body from a swim, I let Miles's wet trunks soak through my clothes. I was happy then, happier than I had ever been in my life. I trusted that the strength of our love propelled not only our laughter, but also our mutual career successes—both Miles's clinical accolades and research distinctions at UConn's medical center, and my frontline investigations into global warming at the school's Atmospheric Resources Laboratory. Our combined honors were more than we had imagined for ourselves, or each other, and like the house, those achievements were something we worked at building together.

But somewhere in the seven years of our marriage, Miles and I stopped finding each other. We stopped working cooperatively; we stopped encouraging each other professionally; we stopped rejoicing in the ridiculous. As soon as our laughter vanished, so did our casual everyday intimacy—the way we reached for each other in the morning, shuffling through sleepiness to the coffeepot, or how we brushed up against each other on the way back from the mailbox. That kind of routine touch had become mislaid.

After we moved into our modern rental house in Madison, Wisconsin—where there were too many floor-length windows and doorways to keep the cold out, where Miles stood waiting in his lab coat and his mismatched socks, awaiting the kind of send-off I was too lonely and homesick to give him—the awkwardness of what was missing between us brought forth a deep sadness in me. There was no argument, no unforgivable exchange of words, no discussion, just a sense that what held us together was coming unstitched. Fraught with uncertainty about what that meant, I couldn't bring myself to move toward him.

Maybe because Miles had become so preoccupied with his work, he failed to recognize how hard the relocation for his clinical research and job prestige was for me—the way I craved the stimulation of my own former career, or simply how I longed for the sound of foghorns over the bay. He never once asked about my deep morning breaths as I sought out any hint of salt in the Midwestern air. Instead we went inward, silently tucking ourselves away from each other, not uttering a single word, pretending for a long time that everything was okay.

It was different back East in our green farmhouse before the pregnancies, before three years of attempting to conceive, before I gave myself over to Jonah, to motherhood, when in those happy early years of our marriage, I would carry Miles's coffee mug into the breezeway and block the exit.

“You're not going anywhere yet, Dr. Bancroft,” I'd tease.

Miles would often start the day hiking my skirt over my thighs, and many mornings we'd find ourselves pinned against the pinewood door, stripped naked, both of us wanting each other, as Miles whispered, “What do you predict for us today, weather girl?”

BOOK: What Burns Away
10.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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