Of course the past doesn’t really exist. That was the odd phrase running in Ed’s head as he packed the car. He had no idea where it came from. Packing was easy since Lily had a thing about traveling light. Plus, it was only a weekend get-away. He closed the trunk and stood waiting at the curb. He had already kissed the baby goodbye. Lily was inside repeating the list of instructions to her folks. It was not like Bill and Beatrice hadn’t raised kids of their own, but never mind. Lily was Lily, and Susanna was her first-born child.
Leaving Syracuse, heading toward the lake, Ed had the sensation that he and his wife had agreed on something. He had no idea what it might be. They had talked nothing over except how terrific it was going be to, their first weekend on their own since Susanna had come along. But there it was, a powder in the air. Driving, he snuck a look at her. With exercise and discipline she had expunged the flab that came with pregnancy. Her appearance was important to Lily. A neutral observer would say she looked like a cheerleader. Blonde, shapely, optimistic. Well, there you had it. They listened to the playlist of songs she had put together for the two-hour drive. Everything has significance, it occurred to Ed, or nothing does. Could there be a middle ground? Was that what maturity brought you?
They didn’t bother with the GPS and wound up taking an interesting wrong turn at the lake. The road quickly dwindled to a path through droning woods and then suddenly there sat a house all by its lonesome, its broad deck jutting out like a chin, facing the water. It was an expensive place and well maintained, like a cabin on steroids. The designer had been given a free hand. There were no cars, no sign of life. Ed found a place to turn around and did, but Lily put a hand on his arm as he shifted into first gear to head back up the track through the murmuring trees, where he sensed resentment.
I want to look around.
This, it occurred to Ed, was what they had agreed on without discussion. Maybe it was time to revisit the deal before they made a significant mistake. But he humored her and got out as she did. They walked slowly around the house like building inspectors, then down to the dock where a trim little outboard was tied. Fantasia, that was the name of the boat. It was painted red and blue. Lily told him, I love it here.
Being a person who worried, Ed had to exert himself to hold up his end of the bargain. It was the end of June. Butterflies grazed everywhere in unstable pairs. A dozen Canadian geese rested on the water a couple hundred yards out, floating in the same V formation they kept to while flying. Closer by, a robin sorted through fallen needles at the base of a Scotch pine on the bank. Everything seemed to be content with itself, or its situation.
This is it, Ed heard himself tell Lily. This is it, isn’t it?
She nodded absently, her mind on the house. It took no time at all to find the key the owners hid under a huge and heavy ceramic pot with an effusion of ferns growing out of it. Ed did his part by lifting the pot for Lily. As she bent down, a soft sound of gratification escaped her.
Should he have hesitated when she turned the key in the lock and pulled him inside? Hard to say, because the significance of things evaded him. The industrious robin, the teasing white letters spelling Fantasia on the side of the boat, the wonderful blind coordination of the cicadas. It was all so emphatic and at the same time so hard to grasp. At any rate he went in willingly and fixed them a gin and tonic while Lily explored the place upstairs and down. He enjoyed seeing her happy in a new way. It was like discovering a hitherto hidden aspect of her personality. His, too, come to think of it.
They sat on the deck outside with their drinks and some Gouda with crackers, watching the geese. Farther out, a Jet-Ski whined aggravatingly, but they tuned it out. Lily told Ed, Here’s the problem.
I don’t pay enough attention to my dreams.
That’s not my fault.
I didn’t say it was. You see, don’t you, that I don’t want to be a trivial person. I refuse to let us be a trivial couple.
We’re not, Lily. Not yet anyway.
Will you make me another drink? It can be weak. A halfie, that’s what my grandma used to call them.
This was the moment to say it so he did. – Of course the past doesn’t really exist.
That drew a frown, but not an unfriendly frown. – Did you think I didn’t know that?
He mixed them both a halfie. The limes he found in the refrigerator were fresh, suggesting the owners came regularly. Why wouldn’t they? Anybody who had a place like this would want to make the most of it. Handing Lily her drink he told her, I think you should give it a name.
She knew he meant the house, the place, the day and the day’s paraphernalia. She must already have been thinking about it. – My vocabulary isn’t what it should be, Eddie. I used to read, you know. I used to have a brain.
She frowned. Closed her eyes. Tilted her head back and let the sun bathe her comely face. When she opened her eyes she had it. – Guinevere.
Perfect, he told her.
Then tell me what it means.
He thought for a moment. – King Arthur is obsessed with the beauty of beauty. His Guinevere. It’s about not settling for the world as it is. Giving everything you have to make it be what it should be.
As he spoke he was aware of the shadows falling with a quiet thud behind all the words they spoke, creating places to hide that might well be necessary before long. Was she also aware?
Guinevere doesn’t need to look for beauty, she told him. It’s in her. The beauty is Guinevere.
They both considered that for a moment, and then Lily asked him, Do you think Susanna will grow up to rule the earth?
No, I don’t think she will.
She nodded. – It’s probably just as well. Will you give me a suggestion? I mean, do you have any ideas for what happens next?
Surprisingly, he did. They went inside and up the circular staircase. They stripped and made love on the king-sized bed in the master bedroom. On top of the ivory-covered brocade duvet, leaving a stain when they came. Lily was a cheerleader, Ed was a running back, in this iteration. But that mattered little. What mattered a lot was the reverence with which they treated each other’s bodies, the secret parts that were always mysterious, sometimes impervious. Afterward Lily showered first, Ed lying on his back on the big bed, scratching his chest in lazy luxury. He enjoyed watching her slip into the kimono she found on the back of the bathroom door. She came toward him and he tied the sash. Then he untied it, opened the robe, and kissed her belly. He tied it again.
He asked her if they should clean the stain from the duvet.
No, she said. The stain is important. It’s part of this whole Guinevere thing.
That troubled him a little but he said, Okay.
He showered, and they took the Fantasia out on the lake. They waved at the people in the other boats as though they knew them, they were neighbors after all. They had brought along a loaf of bread and made little doughy balls of the slices, tossing them in the water for fish as he throttled down to trolling speed. Every so often a suspicious hungry mouth rose and went for a bread ball, and they clapped. They shared a bottle of Mexican beer taking appropriately tiny sips.
Sometimes I wonder if we should be religious, Lily said once, handing him the bottle.
A day like today, it makes you think God is real.
What King Arthur saw when he closed his eyes, he said.
She nodded. – Arthur saw Guinevere. Guinevere saw… what she saw. Eddie I keep thinking of things. – Then she stood up and threw off her T-shirt. She shucked her shorts and dived into the water. Ed watched her swim confidently back toward the dock. The phrase ‘shifting tectonic plates’ came to him, and he pointed the responsive little boat back where it belonged. Lily was waiting for him on the deck, demure and sexy. He tossed her the clothes she had shed and asked her what the things were that she kept thinking about.
Leisurely putting her clothes back on, she told him, All the people I’m not.
Give me an example.
I never once in my life seriously considered becoming a psychotherapist.
Do you want to be a psychotherapist?
She glared at him. He did not want to spoil Guinevere, which was still unfolding. But the fretting conscience he was working to hold at bay got past the wall he had put up and obliged him to point out the obvious. – It’s Friday.
The people who own this place might come for the weekend.
She nodded thoughtfully and told him, They won’t show up until tomorrow.
This is how you do it, he thought. How you made the world compliant, so it did what you wanted it to do, it behaved. Another lesson learned.
Lily came up with the makings for carbonara, though they lacked a salad to go with it. They put a bottle of white wine in the fridge to chill. Ed rummaged through the CDs and put on some soft Brazilian jazz. As Lily puttered in the kitchen and he concentrated on improving his putt with a club he found in a closet, the girl from Ipanema went walking. The meal was fine. They were relaxed and mellow, although if he listened hard Ed could make out a warning siren, very faint, on the periphery of his consciousness. It was monotonous, as sirens were, and could be tuned out. In between songs, once, he distinctly heard a woodpecker drilling a hollow tree nearby. It was the oldest sound in the world. He recalled that in a previous era, a woodpecker had pecked the cross of Jesus after they cut him down and took away the body. It flew off with a shred of wood in its beak that had the power to make blind men see, lame women walk, dumb children sing folk songs. It was a Guinevere sort of story.
Later they watched the sunset from the deck. They had no desire to get up and go anywhere. A cooperative breeze kept the mosquitoes off, and many stars came out in the inky moonless sky that appeared overhead.
You’ll be thirty your next birthday, Lily said quietly after a while.
And you’ll be twenty nine.
A guy at work hit on me.
A couple weeks ago.
You don’t know him.
What did you do?
I laughed at him. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?
I don’t know, Lily. I thought you were supposed to say hell no, you asshole. And mean it.
She nodded thoughtfully and said something that would have distressed him, if she had said it anywhere else, any other time. – If it happens again.
That was the end of their mini-conversation on the subject. Ed was glad to see it go. He felt pleasantly secure, which argued for staying where they were. When they did finally get up and go inside, the house felt like home. Lily told him she wished they had thought to take some pictures while they still had light. The strangeness, the unexpectedness, the alcohol and sun and bossa nova, all of it combined to make them tired. In the bedroom Lily was delighted to discover that the woman of the house was close to the same size she was and had upscale taste in nightwear. She explored a cherrywood jewelry chest and tried on every ring, each necklace, admiring them and setting them down as though she were shopping but knew these pieces were out of her price range.
Ed told her, I think I’m part dinosaur.
You mean your heavy feet, how they tromp sometimes.
I like that about you, she assured him. I always have. Believe me please.
He was lying on his back. She rolled over and kissed his kneecap. She said, Don’t say what you want to say. I can feel it coming. It’s building up in you, isn’t it. Don’t say it, you’ll kill… everything.
He made the heroic effort it required to seal his lips, to turn out the light, to lie there cradling the wife he loved. To sleep.
It wasn’t fear that woke him in the middle of the night, it was naked terror. He was shivering so hard he couldn’t think, could not make words form in his mind let alone come out of his mouth. He shook Lily awake. She was sleeping hard, and he had to rattle her bones. By the time she swam into consciousness he was able to say, Come on. We have to go. Now.
She didn’t fight him. Whether she understood was another matter, but she didn’t fight him. They dressed hurriedly, but then she insisted on putting all the jewelry back in the cherrywood chest, laying the bracelets out their full length like spoiled children being tucked into bed.
He was afraid to turn on a light so they held hands going down the spiral stairs. Across the great room with its vaulted ceiling, into the kitchen and then out the side door. Until he turned the key in the ignition, Ed was absolutely certain the car was not going to start. But it did. It was almost a new car, with a battery just as new. He turned on the parking lights and they went up the path through night woods whose constituent trees were much thicker and more mobile than they were in the daylight. They waved their angry arms at the couple in the car who were trespassing on their ground. What might have been an owl swooped low in front of them, soundless and hostile, dropping the warning it carried in its beak.
Not until they were out on the highway did Ed stop trembling. He felt a brief sensation of exhilaration. It was followed by a queasy feeling as though he might heave. There was the siren, louder now and more distracting. It took a minute to realize Lily was screaming at him.
Stop. Pull over and stop. For Jesus’ fucking sake pull over.
He did not dare look at her, so he concentrated on the road ahead and was grateful to come soon to a wide spot where he could park the car. Lily threw the door open and jumped out. She started running back in the direction they had come. When she wanted to, she could put on serious speed, and it took everything he had to catch her. As he trapped her, wrapping his arms around her from behind, she turned and pummeled him with her fists. She slapped his face.
We have to go back, she kept saying. We have to go back, Eddie.
Why do we have to go back?
I left something behind.
What? What did you leave behind, Lily?
She moaned and shook her head. While they slept, half a moon had come up, and he saw the tears streaming on her face, little rivers of ritual sorrow. He asked her again, What did you leave behind? But she wouldn’t say it. Maybe she couldn’t. It was possible she didn’t know. She knew.
Going sullen, she muttered, Take me back.
The sullenness was harder on him than the anger.
Eventually he got her turned around and headed back toward the car. He eased her into her seat and buckled the belt as though she were a kid just past a tantrum. The resentment was blasting off her in waves. Well, he would have to deal with that. When he started driving they were not going in the direction she wanted to go.
A former U.S. Foreign Service officer, Mark Jacobs has published more than100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, The Southern Humanities Review, The Idaho Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. His story “How Birds Communicate” won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award.
His website can be found at http://www.markjacobsauthor.com.