After I got back from the hospital, it took a long time to recover, and once my sickbed phase was over, we couldn’t be close to each other. I hated the weight of Tom’s hand on my hip. I hated his very smell. My fall hadn’t been entirely his fault—I’d charged recklessly into that situation—but he’d chosen, when I was eight months pregnant, to violate our marriage vows with his artist’s model in a converted shed. What had he expected me to do, offer them hot towels?
Tom was sorry. He wanted me to turn to him so that we could start another child, whether or not he still cared about me or this life. I began criticizing his every move, telling him stop that, go away, get out of my sight. I used the divorce to take the last of the nest egg he’d planned to live on while he waited for his painting career to begin. I didn’t care. Tom could go back to the ad agency and marry his model and never smear another canvas. I just didn’t want him at my side, holding my hand, pitying me. Treating me like a charity case instead of like Jane Hampton, the woman whose dorm window he used to throw pebbles at.
Everyone was very worried about me. But in the autumn of 1965, after three months on my own, living on canned beans and dry sliced bread from Ocean Park’s lone gas station, I started to walk. I walked everywhere: through the changeless green landscape of the state park, its mosses and evergreens barely registering the seasons; through the dinky town square, its optimistic gazebo filled with beer cans and cigarette butts; and to the beach, where I took off my shoes and hurt my feet on the rocks, trying to force a little life back into myself. And color came back to my cheeks—I found the energy to destroy Tom’s studio—and I asked myself how I’d pay the electricity bill once the nest egg was gone. My parents wanted me to move in with them, but that wouldn’t do. I planned to stay here, but I would need real work.
Back to Simmons’ Market it was. A glorified shack where they sold live bait and homemade ice cream and day passes to the beach. To ensure we made our mortgage payments, I’d worked there throughout my pregnancy, with frequent recourse to the bathroom to vomit a couple times a shift while Tom splashed around his cadmium yellows and ultramarine blues. It was a temporary job, a funny story I’d share someday.
Now I ingratiated myself to the owners, got them to hire me back. Convinced them to sell the bait outside, in a lean-to at the side of the building, so that inside we could add a few tables, start serving food with the ice cream. Then I found out what kind of kitchen set-up to buy, and worked on them until they sprung for it.
I designed the menu myself and wrote it out in my best Palmer Method handwriting, twenty-five times. Fried oysters, fried fish, fries, and the only non-mayo coleslaw on the peninsula. I cooked that menu every day, standing in the same spot before the stove until spider veins webbed my feet.
It was a success. In time, I was able to secure a quarter stake in the business and sway them to sell other things, like marked-up honey, gourmet barbecue sauce, flower seeds, kites, inner tubes for the kiddies. It was quite an operation; we were even written up in the paper.
There were no men after Tom, though.
The boy said he’d hitchhiked into town. He came into Simmons’ Market on a flawless spring morning, sat down at the counter and ordered the fish and chips.
“The oysters are fresher,” I said.
“I like fish,” he replied. “Dunno why, maybe because I’m from Fort Wayne and we never get decent fish there.”
He didn’t read Midwestern to me, he read Californian, with his uncombed brown hair—a shade that was oddly familiar, like the foam on scalded milk—and his jeans that hung just so, and his massive confidence, the confidence of a person who didn’t know what it was to be vulnerable, how they could break you. It was 1983—boys didn’t have to worry about getting drafted anymore, and it made them self-centered, heedless, arrogant. There were millions of white boys like him all up and down the West Coast. God knew what would become of those egos once they ran into their first obstacles.
“Fish it is,” I said to the boy. “Customer’s always right, et cetera.”
He glanced at a paperback I’d left splayed on my side of the counter.
“This yours?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I can’t get into it—not enough is happening.”
“What do you like to read, then?”
“Older novels. Willa Cather, stuff like that.”
“Pretty highbrow for a fry cook,” he said, smiling.
“You want me to burn your fries? Keep talking.”
But I’d already poured them into the fryer basket, was watching them like a hawk. The fish were in another basket. All frozen, of course—we kept a small stock in the freezer under the counter and a bigger one in the broom closet in back, which I’d converted into a walk-in refrigerator.
“Were you always a fry cook?” the boy said.
I shook the baskets to make sure the oil was hitting every surface. “Who wants to know?”
“My name’s Bryce Spicer,” he said.
“Well, Bryce Spicer, I’m forty-three. So you’re barking up the wrong tree. The Red Dog, that’s a bar down the street, they’ll be opening at five. You can find girls there.”
He was disgusted. “I’m not hitting on you!”
I put a fork and knife on a napkin for him, laid them out on the counter. “Then why all the questions?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of making conversation?”
I lifted the fish basket, shook it, then tonged three filets onto a plate for him, followed by the fries.
“Most of the tourists don’t make conversation with me,” I said. “I’m a pair of hands to them.”
I placed the plate in front of him, wiped down two fingerprint-grimed bottles of ketchup and malt vinegar, and set them to the left of his plate.
“Need anything else?” I said. “Lemon?”
“No, but I’ve got one more question,” Bryce said.
“Did you give up a baby in May of 1965?”
I leaned away from him, too close to the hot fryer, and singed my lower back. I jumped away, towards the opposite side of the counter, and made the knife and fork caddies ring, the stacked plates clatter against each other.
“Guessing the answer’s not no,” Bryce said.
I scanned the room, but the Simmonses weren’t there. Just Ferg Simmons, the twenty-five-year-old son, who was manning the bait table in the lean-to outside. Had his own cash box and everything, so he wouldn’t be coming in for a while. It was Tuesday morning, a slow time.
Still, what if Ferg did come in? Or someone else?
“I don’t want to talk about that here,” I said.
“Because I don’t,” I said. “Can you meet me after work? At 5:15?”
Bryce frowned but nodded, and I gave him my address. Forgot to charge him, I wanted him out of there so bad. He lingered over his fries but eventually left, hands in his pockets, glancing behind him as he went. He looked different to me now—less of a confident Californian. More brittle. A Brian Wilson type: tan on the outside, screaming on the inside.
Eventually, people did trickle in. Housewives in need of canned tomatoes and tulip bulbs, a few hungry tourists. Ferg did a brisk trade out front until noon. The whole time, as I smiled and fried fish and made change and waved goodbye, my mind strayed back to the early days of my marriage.
The Early Days of My Marriage
We slept in the sunroom in the summer and in the big living room in the winter, close to the wood stove my father had purchased for us, falling asleep with the scent of hickory in the air and sparks flying onto the rug, a bowl of water on the stove sending its steam up into the tall, half-timbered room. Smooth white drywall and dark shining beams. That’s what had sold me on this house. It was a touch more than we could afford, but I’d begged my father, begged Tom’s father, begged our mothers too, for a little extra money so we could make the down payment.
Tom didn’t have a job, that’s why Tom’s father had been reluctant. He used to work in the art department of an ad agency. But last Christmas, his grandfather had died, and Tom had inherited a nest egg. After setting aside half of it for a down payment, he’d declared he’d use the rest to fund a sabbatical from the agency in order to “really cultivate” his painting.
That’s why we left Portland for this tiny town on the Long Beach Peninsula. It was to be the site of Tom’s greatest achievements, a respite from dashing off pen-and-ink drawings of lingerie. We’d live cheaply, he’d paint like a fiend, and somehow, gallery shows, fortune, and fame would follow.
My mother told me I ought to be worried about the “somehow,” but I was a newlywed recently out of college and had a touching faith in the universe’s commitment toward honoring my wishes. After all, hadn’t I gotten everything I’d ever wanted? To play Emily in Our Town sophomore year, a red Karmann Ghia for my graduation. To go to Reed instead of secretarial school. My dormmate was Tom’s sister. Oh, it had all come together so easily!
Besides, whether Tom became celebrated for his abstracts or had to go back to sketching peignoir sets, we had the perfect home. A five-room yellow house at the end of a lane, right on the beach, with a long back deck and floor-to-ceiling windows, so you could always see the bay. Blue-eyed grass growing all around the back and front yard, too.
The parents said it didn’t have proper heat, they said it would be damp, they said the bathroom was twenty years out of date, and there wasn’t room for more than one or two children, but Tom said he’d be famous by the time we had three children, and they had to laugh along with us. This sweet, sloppy twenty-six-year-old and his grinning wife. How awful we were, in our confidence. As the winters went on, I was to learn that the parents were right about the heat, the damp, Tom’s prospects, everything. Still, none of them had this view of the bay.
After closing the market, I went home and watched the bay go from green to gray as I waited for the boy. He was late. Shifting from foot to foot, I thought about putting on lipstick, but couldn’t pick a shade—pink, for parental abandonment? Mauve, for malfunctioning mom? The open bottle of Chardonnay in the refrigerator beckoned, but I was afraid he would smell it on me—Simmons’ Market is not famous for its wine selection. My hands captured my attention next. They were dry and rough, nicked from shucking oysters.
Was my job an embarrassment to Bryce? Or did he not care what I did? Was he after a connection, or was he coming to stare at me like a roadside attraction?
Or maybe he wasn’t my son at all. Maybe he was—what, a teenage con artist?
When Bryce did finally arrive, he had a sprig of tansy tucked into the pocket of his jeans and was swaying slightly. Had he talked Wally into opening the Red Dog early and serving him a few shots?
“So this is where I was supposed to grow up,” he said. “Cozy.”
Close up, he did resemble Tom, at least as far as his nose, ears, and hair went. I couldn’t recognize myself anywhere—except in his height. He was shorter than Tom, stockier, like my side of the family.
“Won’t you sit down?” I said, ushering him into the living room. “Would you like some water? A snack?”
“Please calm down,” Bryce said. “I’m not leaving anytime soon, or at least not until you ask me to go.”
Then he slouched on my old gray couch. He picked up a hand-hooked throw pillow, scrutinized it, tossed it onto a neighboring chair. I brought him a glass of water, along with a ramekin of peanuts. Bryce snorted and took a handful.
“How did you find me?” I said, sitting down in the rocking chair. Not the friendliest opener, but it was top of mind.
“You are the Jane Sturtevant who gave up her baby in 1965?”
“It’s Jane Hampton now,” I said.
“What happened to Thomas Sturtevant?”
“Tom,” I said. “We’re not together anymore, is what happened.”
“Why not?” Bryce said.
“What do you want?” I said. “Not to be rude, but before I discuss … all that, I’d like to know why you’re here.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’m your son.”
“That’s not an answer to my question,” I said.
He shifted positions on the couch, tossing aside another throw pillow.
“Maybe I’d like some money,” he said. “How does that grab you?”
Oddly enough, I found this answer a relief, seizing on it like a life raft.
“Money?” I said. “For what, college? Aren’t your parents well-off?”
Bryce flinched at the mention of his parents.
“Not college,” he said, pushing a steel ring up and down his knuckle. “Maybe I want to start a business. Or maybe I got a girl into a jam.”
“Well, which is it?” I said. “And how much are you after?”
“How much are you offering?” Bryce said, leaving the ring alone and knitting his fingers together.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But you should just ask me. Then I’ll give you a yes or a no.”
“‘Just ask,’” Bryce said. “As if I can trust you. As if we’ve known each other for years.”
After we’d been living in Ocean Park for a few months, Tom decided he didn’t have enough room to work. There was a structure on the back of our property that had been used by the previous owner as a shed. Tom took a chunk off his nest egg and spent it on wiring it for electricity, adding insulation and a stouter roof so that he could use it year-round. Painted it white. After the studio was done, he spent most days out there. Even bought a hotplate so he could boil coffee and make soup without having to come in the house and say hello.
I pretended it was fine by me. Planted daffodils in the clay soil around the entrance. Never came in unless I was invited. I’d known he was an artist when I married him. It would be inconsistent for me to kick up a fuss now, wouldn’t it? Then he started asking women to sit for him.
The locals, I wasn’t jealous of—even the most beautiful ones were shy around us, and besides, their angry husbands and boyfriends usually parked in the driveway during their sessions. Sometimes, if I was home, I invited them in, and we drank Sanka while I joked around to ease their stiff mouths. If they were relaxed, I could relax. If everyone was laughing, nothing could be wrong.
Later, once Tom exhausted the supply of local beauties, college girls began driving up from Portland. Marguerite was the one who scared me the most. She was the daughter of James Finster, one of Tom’s colleagues at the ad agency. Like many account executives, he was a charming alcoholic, and Marguerite had his winning ways and dark good looks.
But Tom had to understand that he might have to work with James again, that we couldn’t hide out here forever. I thought Marguerite was a line he wouldn’t cross.
I never asked Tom if his models took their clothes off. The paintings he made didn’t show nudes; they showed cubes and triangles. He might as well have been painting mountains. And he said I was prettier than them all, even after I hit my second trimester.
But I didn’t believe him. I’d changed since I’d gotten pregnant—developed acne along my jaw. Lost hair. Acquired a dark line on my stomach, which ran from my belly button down to you-know-where. All of a sudden, I had stretch marks, which I massaged with baby oil every night to no effect except stained sheets. I’d gained weight too, and my features appeared adrift in my face. To make myself look more distinct, I’d dyed my hair blonde, the color it had been when I was a child. The shade I chose clashed horribly with my adult skin. I hated the confused, tasteless stranger I sometimes caught sight of in the bait shop’s employee bathroom.
Speaking of which: you do not know shame until you’ve breathed the fetid air of a bait shop’s employee bathroom. A smell so bad that I often retched in the sink after washing my hands and had to wash them again while trying not to encounter my own eyes in the mirror. Because if I had, the questions that might have arisen! Such as: what was I doing here? Was any mortgage payment, even on my dream house, worth this? While I stood at the cash register, back pain radiating from the base of my spine all the way down to my heels, how was Tom spending his time?
And so on. You can see why I didn’t want to meet my own eyes. I couldn’t think these barbed thoughts and go on making change, taking prenatal pills, running Tom’s underwear through the wringer-washer. Because those actions were incompatible with the questions that tore at me. I mean to say that sometimes, I read a book even when I was brushing my teeth so as to keep my mind off them.
A Family Dinner
After Bryce pointed out that he had few reasons to trust me, we sat in silence for a moment, and I looked him over. Beneath his thin Hanes T-shirt, his collarbones stuck out. I offered to cook him dinner. He said okay, so I boiled hotdogs in a pan, along with two ears of fresh corn. Popped open two cans of Oly and we ate on the back deck, staring at the bay.
“Me and my mom and our working-class, seaside life,” Bryce said. “This is how it was meant to be, right?”
“You can go home if you’re going to talk to me like that,” I said. “I don’t need it.”
“She doesn’t need it, folks,” Bryce said, toasting the air. “Well, I didn’t need to be put up for adoption. I didn’t need to have a shithole brother who lorded it over me that our parents loved him more. I didn’t need to wonder why, what was wrong with me—”
Bryce’s voice died in his throat. I reached my hand toward his arm, drew it back before he saw it. He picked a kernel off his corn.
“What happened?” Bryce said. “Why’d you give me up?”
I tried to keep it simple.
“Our marriage was on the rocks,” I said. “We weren’t compatible. Tom likes attention, always has. He was trying to be a painter.”
“Sounds like a douchebag.”
“Some people might say that.”
Bryce glanced down, disappointed.
“My dad, the doc, is a bit of a douchebag too,” he said. “Although not as bad as her. Valerie.”
“Tell me how much money you need,” I said, not wanting to hear about his parents. “And why. Maybe I can help you out.”
“Eager to be rid of me, are we?” Bryce said.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Why’d you really give me up?” he said. “Were you poor? Was Tom hitting you?”
“I told you already, he was self-centered,” I said. “We were about to split up and didn’t want to raise you in a broken home.”
“That’s it?” Bryce said. “Nothing more to it?”
“And he wasn’t faithful,” I said. “Happy?”
“Who was he cheating on you with?” he said, interested.
I sighed. “You don’t need every gory detail,” I said.
“I do need them,” Bryce said. “They’re the story of my life, aren’t they?”
“That time is a blur for me,” I said. “You wouldn’t have had a good home with us, alright? People around here call that ‘lucking out.’”
“I lucked out being adopted?” he said, gripping the arms of his chair. “Do you know what could have happened to me? Do you know what did happen—the things you made possible?”
I didn’t want to ask, but I owed it to him. “What do you mean?” I said.
“Not what you’re thinking,” Bryce said, fiddling with his ring again. “They didn’t hit me. But I was always second-best in that house.”
I tried not to see the baby in him. Small, bandaged. The helpless body that had once been inside mine, that I’d hurt with my impulsiveness and pride.
Although we were outside, I felt claustrophobic.
“Want to go on a boat ride?” I said.
The Boat Ride
There was a salt marsh a few miles from my house that led into the bay. At twilight, when the birds were active, it was a beautiful place to be. I asked Bryce if he’d like to see it.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ve never been on a boat before.”
We picked up my old rowboat together, loaded it into the back of my truck. Even after all these years, I was still a city girl, afraid of catching my fingers in the tailgate.
As we drove down to the boat launch, Bryce smoked a cigarette, his blunt fingers yellow-tipped. If I really were his mother, I’d make him scrub those fingers, lose that weird ring. Make him quit smoking too.
But that tobacco smell was nice. It penetrated the fabric of our seats, reminded me of when I used to hit the bars to try to forget about what happened. Actually believed that I could dress up like someone else, pretend to be carefree, and bam, I’d be ready to meet Mr. Right, move out of the house I’d bought with Tom, start a family. Most nights, I didn’t stay long enough to warm up my bar stool.
My great strength was in picking myself up, day after day. I made the customers happy, I grew the Simmons’ business. I gratified others, rarely myself, and never counted the cost, because I didn’t know how to want anything new.
We settled the boat in the water and I began rowing, rambling to fill the dead air. Egrets erupted from clumps of cattails as we passed by, headed for the twisted pines behind us.
I told Bryce about my BS degree in marine biology. About how Tom courted me and my mother’s disapproval (she said he was too handsome). I talked about his grandparents: their big house in Burien, how my father had come west from Minnesota to work as a chemist in a paper mill that poisoned the very creatures I’d grown up to study. That wasn’t why I didn’t speak to him, but it did cause a tension between us, as did what he saw as my ridiculous life.
“You have to admit, it’s pretty wacky,” Bryce said. “Why are you selling fish and chips when you have a degree in marine biology?”
“There’s nothing I can do with it unless I go back for more school,” I said.
“I bet you could’ve gotten hired by some scientific organization,” Bryce said. “Worked your way up. Kept me with you.”
I cut my eyes back to the water. He was glossing over the details—a family trait, I guess.
Of Course I’d Known
Before I met Tom, I’d had an ambition—I was going to be an intrepid lady scientist. I’d put even less thought into how I’d achieve this than Tom had put into his “famous artist” dream, but in the back of my head, I’d always had a vision of myself in a lab coat, staring at waving anemone hands. By junior year at Reed, the specifics of the scholastic path I’d have to travel to attain this career had come into unattractive focus. Still, when Tom and I decided that I needed to let it go, it hurt more than I’d expected. To leave the lab, knowing I’d never return.
Sometimes, as I parceled out live bait to the customers, I pitied the creatures in my hands. Worms and nightcrawlers, insensate though they may seem, have five hearts apiece. I pitied their predators, too. The salmon and trout and char would never bounce back if people kept overfishing them—and if cooks like me kept frying them up.
But if I didn’t sell bait and fried fish, wouldn’t somebody else? The ethics were so hard to untangle that I didn’t even try. Instead, I did nothing and worried about it, same as when it dawned on me that Tom was sleeping around.
Because of course I’d known that Tom was cheating on me; I’d heard other women’s ideas pass his lips, smelled other bodies on him, dozens of times. But until I saw him screwing someone else, live and in person, there was a part of me that could and would lie. Tell me that it wasn’t happening, that my fifth/sixth/seventh/eighth month of pregnancy had induced a hormonal paranoia.
Marguerite had delicate eyebrows that looked painted on. They gave her a quizzical expression that I’m sure Tom found darling. As I entered the studio, belly first, those eyebrows flew up.
“Tom!” she yelled, pushing him away from her.
Tom knew it was me before he turned around; it was written in the stiffness of his back.
“Don’t be mad,” he began.
I didn’t dignify that with a reply; merely picked up a stray oar, leftover from the studio’s past incarnation as a shed, and started bashing them with it. Marguerite ran outside bare-assed, buttoning her shirt as she went. Through the window, I watched her jump pantless into her car. Tom tried to take the oar from me while I was thus distracted, but I fended him off.
“How could you, I might say,” I said. “But I know how you could.”
“I admit that things may have gotten slightly out of hand,” Tom said. “But you’re the only one I care about, Jane. Doesn’t that matter to you?”
He was holding himself as far away from me as he could, palms up in the air. Tom was a head taller than me, but that day, he struck me as flimsy.
“I never should have married you,” I said. “Mother always said you weren’t worth the dirt on my shoes.”
While Tom was busy rolling his eyes, I bashed him in the knee. He fell forward, taking me with him, and the corner of his work counter caught me in the side of my stomach.
As soon as I hit the floor, all my anger at Tom disappeared, swept away by abject, gut-cramping fear. He’d landed on top of me. I was close enough to see his pupils dilate, the same fear as mine knocking him over like a sandcastle. He began hyperventilating.
Even as the pain made my vision go staticky, my anger rose from the ashes. Did Tom need my direction? Now, of all times?
“Call an ambulance,” I said. “But first, help me up.”
Tom did as I said, hands shaking. As he pulled me into a standing position, a sticky trail of blood snaked down my thigh.
“Never mind, there’s no time,” I said. “We need to go to the hospital.”
He drove my car. I told him where to turn and when. He didn’t know how to get around the peninsula, since I ran most of our errands. It might’ve been easier if I’d driven myself. Later, when I saw Tom’s reaction to what the doctor said, about the fetus’s brain swelling, I wished that I had.
They wanted to deliver the baby early, by Cesarean. Due to the swelling, there was a chance that it would have lifelong “difficulties.” Or it could develop normally—there was no way to know for sure.
Over Tom’s harsh breathing, I tried to think. The baby had been a part of me for months; it was difficult to conceive of it as a real, separate being. But it would be, and soon. Could I take care of it? “Difficulties” and all?
One thing was for certain: Tom didn’t want to. His misery was as apparent as if he’d been wearing a tragedy mask.
I hadn’t had time to absorb the news about Marguerite, not since the bleeding had started. As Tom leaned against my hospital bed, I recalled the way he’d gripped her trim hips, with the same hands that were now pressing mine.
Despite how splendid it had felt to whack Tom with the oar, despite wishing I still had that oar in my hands, I wanted to hold onto him if I could. I envied his rangy frame, the joy he took in moving through the world. His genuine interest in people. Compared to him, I was bogged down—anxious and suspicious. A kinder way to say it: I was afraid to make promises I couldn’t keep. But it didn’t bother Tom to say whatever was easiest in the moment. He agreed to every dinner invitation he got, and went to less than half of them. Before he met me, he’d been notorious for standing girls up.
After we came home from the hospital, I wasn’t surprised when he informed people that the baby had died. In fact, I was grateful—it spared me many questions.
The Right People
Waves lapped against the side of the boat as I considered Bryce’s clever eyes and perfectly cut hair. I surmised that he must have gone to the right people. He’d turned out well—better, probably, than he would have if we’d brought him home.
That said: what would have happened, if we’d taken that baby back to the yellow house?
It didn’t matter. No matter who Bryce was, we would’ve been unfit parents. Afraid of the potential demands involved with taking care of a disabled child, we’d gambled that strangers would be braver than us—and they had been. So we must’ve done the right thing, no matter how many nights I’d wondered where he was. If he had enough to eat.
My mind was drifting so much, I’d let the boat get stuck in the reeds, and it took some fancy work to escape them. To avoid another mishap, I steered us away from the marsh, into the open water.
The sun was sinking in the bay, surrounded by pink clouds. Bryce kept quiet, his hands in his lap, the fading sunlight bouncing off his fine-grained skin. His cheeks were splashed with freckles, and I suspected he’d freckle more, merely from this short exposure. That was what my skin did, even when I wore sunscreen.
A raw wind whipped the cottonwoods along the rapidly retreating shore, skimming leaves across the water. I shivered.
Bryce broke the silence.
“What it comes down to is this,” he said. “It looks to me like you ruined your life for Tom. Maybe my life, too.”
“You’re wrong,” I said, trying to keep my tone neutral. “Tom’s a mess and so am I. Your parents must be more stable.”
“Not everybody who wants to be a parent should be,” Bryce said.
“So the doctor and Valerie are bad people?” I said. “I doubt that.”
“How convenient for you, to doubt me,” Bryce said. “Must mean you’re a good person. Must mean you didn’t screw up.”
“What was I supposed to do, stay with him?” I said. “While he slept with everything on two legs? On the property we bought together?”
“Why didn’t you use birth control?” Bryce said. “If you couldn’t trust him, if you were gonna split up? What was your big plan?”
He saw the world in black and white, like most young people. But was he wrong?
“I didn’t know he was cheating on me,” I said. “Not until I was pregnant.”
“Are you sure about that?” Bryce said, eyebrows raised. “You never suspected, didn’t have a clue?”
“I didn’t!” I said. “Not really.”
“‘Not really’?” Bryce said. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I remembered the mysterious amusement of certain girls when Tom stopped by the dorm to pick me up; my mother’s worried eyes when I announced we were engaged.
To blot out those images, I said something I instantly regretted.
“I had an accident, before you were born. They said you might have…problems. A disability.”
“So you thought you’d throw me to the wolves? Like some cave woman letting her infant die because he has a bad leg?” Bryce said. “Jesus. There are solutions to ‘problems.’”
“Did you have any?” I said. “Did your father, the doctor…did he have to help you?”
“No,” Bryce said. And nothing else.
I couldn’t stand it.
“It was Tom’s idea, to give you up,” I said. “He was worried you’d derail his career.”
“And you agreed to that, even though he was cheating on you? Are you totally spineless?”
A sharp pain in my right hand made me look down. I was gripping the oar so tightly, splinters were working their way under my nails. For a second, my fingers itched to swing the oar at his head.
Then suddenly, I was back in the hospital. The nurse was laying Bryce across my chest, this tiny, writhing thing who had no other advocates, and I was looking at his soft animal eyes, the tracery of veins visible beneath his skin.
A great wave of shame and horror washed over me, and I let myself fall over the side of the boat.
At that time of day, when the sun’s heat had disappeared from their top layers, the bay waters were bracing. But I’ve never minded the cold. Suppressing a gasp, I dog-paddled in place, heaving the oar back into the boat.
“What are you doing?” Bryce said. “Are you nuts?”
I relaxed into my backstroke, carefully swimming at an angle to the current so it couldn’t bear me back towards the deeper water. I was wearing twill drawstring pants and a T-shirt. They didn’t impede me as I circled the boat.
“We’re both a bit heated,” I said. “I need to cool off.”
“No one is steering this boat,” Bryce said. “I could float out to sea. I could die out here!”
I concentrated on seeming calm, even as my canvas sneakers slipped from my feet. My soles were thick; they could handle the walk back to the truck.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t let you drown.”
“Please get back in the boat,” he said. “Please.”
“Okay,” I said. “But first, tell me what you did back home. Why you need that money.”
Bryce’s nostrils flared. “I don’t want to,” he said.
“Why not?” I said.
“You know why not,” he said, voice cracking.
“I don’t,” I said. “But I know it can’t be good.”
Also not good: the way the cold was creeping into my limbs. I was forty-three, not twenty-three; it was tough for my heart to keep blood pumping to all my extremities.
But I didn’t say anything. I wanted Bryce’s story first.
“My brother told me I was adopted, a few weeks ago,” Bryce said, swiping his hand over his face. “I guess Valerie couldn’t get pregnant for years, but after they brought me home, boom: the doc knocks her up with Jeff. I broke into my dad’s office, found the papers.”
“He just had the papers lying around?” I said.
“They were in a locked drawer,” Bryce said. “The doc is like that. Methodical.”
“Okay, and then?” I said, setting my teeth so that they wouldn’t chatter. “You decided to take a chance that my address was the same?”
“Sort of,” he said. “I thought that at least whoever lived here might know where you’d gone.” He rolled his shoulders, began playing with his ring. “Even hoped that you’d both be here. You and Tom.”
God, what would that have been like? Eighteen years of Tom. Would he have become a great artist? Would I have lost my mind and walked into the bay?
“Are you okay?” Bryce said.
“Never better,” I lied, keeping my face serene as I switched back to a dog paddle. “So what happened after you broke into your dad’s office?”
“I took my brother’s car,” Bryce said.
I couldn’t feel my toes anymore. I made fists beneath the water so that I didn’t lose the feeling in my hands, too.
“What’s so bad about that?” I said.
“He showed up in the driveway with his dick friends, as I was pulling out,” Bryce said. “They yelled and pounded on the hood. Chanted something stupid. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody, just wanted to scare them off. So I revved the engine, jumped the car forward. But Jeff didn’t budge. He got right in the front of the car, started screaming, and his friends were trying to open the doors. I panicked, and—and gunned it.”
I had to leave the bay soon, but he was so close to finishing the story. Beneath the water, I clenched and unclenched my muscles. Willed my heart to slow down.
“Did anybody get hurt?” I said, trying not to sound judgmental.
Bryce was staring at a spot in the middle distance.
“I don’t think I killed Jeff, but I hit him,” he said. “Might’ve hurt him bad. And he’s an athlete. My parents will never forgive me if I screwed up his football season.”
There were worse possibilities than Jeff sitting out a football season, but I didn’t mention them.
“Is there any way you can check on what happened?” I said, shivering.
“The papers from Fort Wayne don’t come here,” Bryce said. “The only way to figure it out is to call my parents, or someone who might tip them off, and I can’t do that. Not if—something bad happened.”
So he knew that Jeff might be suffering from more than a dislocated shoulder. A shudder racked my body, one that I couldn’t hide. It was time to get out.
“Could you pull me—” I began.
“You think you could get me into Canada?” Bryce interrupted. “I ditched the car a couple states ago, no one knows I’m on the West Coast. You could loan me some money, help me over the border. Maybe even come with me?”
I looked at my house, barely visible from here. The tall windows that fronted the living room shone through the dusk like Christmas lights, casting back the fire of the setting sun. Every Sunday, I climbed up on a ladder and cleaned those windows top to bottom with newspapers soaked in diluted vinegar. I didn’t mind the work, although it made my back ache, because my reward was that view.
It didn’t feel possible to leave it. Then again, it didn’t feel possible to leave the bay, but I had to do that. Needed to do it now, in fact, before my head slipped beneath the waves.
“Okay,” I said, forcing heartiness into my voice. “Let’s go.”
“To Canada?” Bryce said. Relief bloomed on his face like a rose; I glimpsed the childhood I had missed.
“Let’s go home,” I said. “We can talk more there. Lend me a hand, would you?”
Bryce’s relieved expression died, and he began breathing loudly through his nose. I expected him to reach for me, but instead, he laid one hand on the oar.
“I told you my secret,” he said. “Now it’s time for yours. For the last time: why’d you give me away?”
I’d hoped we could skip this conversation. Even though words had been piling up behind my lips since the moment he walked into the house. Longer than that, come to think of it.
A series of chills rippled through me. I should beg him to pull me out now. It would be dangerous for both of us if I went into shock.
I offered him the truth instead.
“It was my idea to put you up for adoption,” I said. “Not Tom’s. Okay? When the doctor said you might have a disability, that scared me. Our marriage was held together with chewing gum as it was. I’d never been sure of Tom, never.”
As I spoke, warmth stole back into my limbs. But I kept my eyes off Bryce, afraid of what I’d see.
“After we left you, I grew to hate Tom anyway, almost as much as I hate myself,” I continued. “Loathing like I didn’t know was possible. So don’t be scared of finding out what you did to your brother. Because nothing could feel as godawful as hiding from it, like I have.”
After that was out, it was easier for me to breathe. I felt looser. Maybe the truth hadn’t been a gift for Bryce; maybe it was a gift to me.
I looked him full in the face, extending my wet hand towards him. It appeared shrunken by the cold of the bay, the flesh firm and white as a piece of cod. As I waited for Bryce to take it, his eyes glinted.