I once asked a travelling bum what the most beautiful place in the country was. He had been hitchhiking around for over ten years, so I felt I could trust his authority. He exhaled heavily and stared off into space, shaking his head, as if blown away by the enormity of the question. Finally, he said, “Humboldt County, in northern California.”
As he explained it, Humboldt county was situated right on the coast, riddled with redwoods and small towns, with temperatures never above 70, rarely below 40, and the best damn pot in the world. In fact, it is the county’s number one export – for strictly medicinal purposes. Eureka has the second largest bay in California; young flesh gravitates around the college town of Arcata. Hipness is ensured through a sprinkling of exiles from San Francisco. When he mentioned this last fact, something caught in my memory. Humboldt sounded familiar, though I was certain I had never been, and it took me a few days to remember that Vivian lived there.
I had not seen her since the move. Her last residence had been San Francisco, where I visited her once. The second visit fell through due to a stupid argument on the phone a few days before my arrival. We always had a tempestuous relationship, though, strangely, one with its own stability. No matter how angry we got or how much time passed, one of us would always eventually reach out to the other. It was the acknowledgement of the peculiar comfort you feel around those who have broken your heart. There’s not much more pain they could cause, you’ve already experienced the best and worst that they have to offer, and in the absence of hope or expectation you can actually be honest. Or maybe it was comfortable simply because we had known each other for so long, and the periodic reaching out was simply an act of boredom.
The peregrinations of our relationship notwithstanding, one thing I never expected was for Vivian to remarry and move to a small town in the middle of nowhere. But she was always full of surprises.
Early in the morning, when the fog rolls in from the Pacific to shroud her house in mystery, Vivian likes to imagine that she is dead. A lunatic once told her that everyone was already dead, and that we are all in heaven. She believed him those mornings when the sea invaded her home and turned the world outside gray. She stood at the kitchen counter and filled a small bag with loose ground tea, which she then dropped into a waiting mug filled with hot water. She carried the mug over to the kitchen table and sat, turning her gaze out through the window. Beyond her front yard, everything became indistinct, uncertain. She heard a car drive by but saw nothing of its form.
Vivian had always been an early riser. She enjoyed the solitude of morning, when the only sounds in the house were her own soft footsteps. Her husband, Dan, would not wake until later, until after the fog had burned off. They had been married for three years, and while there was no longer much passion in their relationship, they had gotten used to each other. Vivian was aging well. Her weight no longer fluctuated with the gluttonies of early adulthood, and she would remain petite and fragile-looking until the day she died. Her pale skin and dyed-black hair made her look somewhat younger than her thirty years. Her eyes were her most expressive feature, green shot through with gray, the color of a lake on the cusp of dawn. Covering her arms and shoulders were colorless tattoos depicting illustrations from children’s books. She had had them for so long she no longer noticed them; it was always a slight shock when a stranger made a comment.
She took a sip of her tea. The minutes ticked slowly by. She would not move from her seat until Dan stumbled into the kitchen an hour later, yawning and stretching.
Vivian was born and raised in Los Angeles. When she was twenty-three she moved to Austin to marry a man named Brian. They had known each other as teenagers and remained in touch through college via email and the occasional hook-up when Brian came home to visit his folks. They shared a passion for mod culture and fashion, scooters, and classic cinema. When Brian one day out of the blue suggested that Vivian marry him and join him in his adopted home, she agreed on a whim. Looking back on it later, she would admit to not knowing why she did what she did. She was never particularly attracted to Brian, though he was a handsome man, and their connection hardly extended beyond the superficial. She had gotten bored in Los Angeles, she supposed, and wanted a change of scenery. She figured he would support her in the transition, their marriage would be open, and that if Brian ever started to cramp her style, she would simply divorce him, which she did, just over a year after exchanging vows. Her relationship with me caused the split.
I met Vivian online, through a personals website. We posted ads for the same reason – both recent transplants to Austin, we figured it was an easy way to meet people. I saw her ad, made a witty comment in reference to something in it, and after exchanging a few messages we arranged to meet for coffee. I was stunned the first time I saw her. She was beautiful; she wore a t-shirt that barely covered her rib-cage, and a long black skirt that accentuated her full hips and beautiful ass. As she crossed the courtyard toward my table, the head of every man she passed turned in her wake. We talked for hours that first night; she never mentioned she was married. When her husband called her cell, she played it off like he was a roommate. She later admitted to being charmed by my naiveity. It blew her mind that the population of my hometown was less than 2500. I had never heard of any of the bands she mentioned. The fact that she was from LA impressed my hickish sensibilities; I had never been farther than New Orleans, and she seemed so experienced, already wise and world-weary. I was eighteen.
She gave me a ride home and we arranged to meet the next night for dinner. I spent the entire next day thinking about her, going over in my head what she said, remembering the way she looked at me, how her gaze left me chilled, tingly, and lightheaded. I was convinced that I had met my future wife, that it was not simply the internet that had brought us together, but fate. Although our relationship later evolved, I realize in hindsight that while I was totally enamoured of her from the get-go, I was at first for her simply an amusing distraction. Just as I had never met someone so culturally astute, well-spoken and charming, she had never met someone as hopelessly innocent and awkward. She was slumming it by pursuing me, a big city girl taking a trip to the country and marvelling at the cows.
We met the next evening at a mexican food restaurant. Soon after we took our seats she mentioned offhandedly that she she had a husband. I was perplexed and disappointed. She laughed at my stuttered query for clarity, and pointed out that she had worn her wedding band the night before. I was not yet experienced enough to notice such things. What confused me was that, even though she made clear she was in a relationship, her tone remained flirtatious. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Her eyes betrayed interest; my animal instincts picked up on this, and my heart raced when she spoke; I flinched when she touched me, which made her giggle. By the time we finished dinner it was dark outside, and I assumed she would go home. Instead, she suggested we go somewhere quiet and talk. I had recently discovered a secluded spot that afforded a gorgerous view of the downtown skyline, and suggested we go there.
The summer night settles softly over Austin, the cool hand on the forehead of scorching days. Castle Hill had once been the site of a boy’s military academy. The imposing structure remained, medieval in its façade, yet was abandoned and served no purpose other than as a meeting place for people in need of privacy. It sat on a bluff in the west end of the city, secluded from the surrounding neighborhood by the vastness of its lot. A couple could squeeze through a gap in the chain link fence surrounding it and find a comfortable spot with a spectacular view of downtown. A young man and woman sat together upon the ground, thighs touching, looking away from one another. The man sat stiffly, awkward in his youth and the romantic nature of the surroudings. The girl was more comfortable, and leaned back on her hands to stare up into the sky. Before them a group of high-rises rose into the light-deadened sky like a council of mute, concrete Jehovahs, their eyes a thousand blind windows. The man began to fidget, as if something within him was fighting for release. He adbruptly sat up straight and began to talk, as if addressing the buildings, the streets below, and the sky above.
“Do you ever look at the stars? I mean…. really look at them? They’re beautiful in their gentle twinklings, those constant reminders of our insignificance. We die, they remain, mute witness to the meaningless struggle that is life. No matter how brilliant, how gifted, how powerful, the end result is the same for everyone. Just as it always has been and always will be. While the poets and the generals are rotting in the ground, their deeds forgotten by a new crop of walking corpses, the stars shine on . . . so softly.”
The girl looked at him throughout his address, her face relaxed, expression one of quiet care and contentment. When he was done, she waited a moment, his words drifting in the air to settle on the scene, then spoke quietly:
“But we can’t even see the stars. The lights are too bright.”
The man chuckled and looked away. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
She gave space for the silence of the moment to blossom, then reached over and took his hand. He started, then relaxed into her grasp.
“What you said was very beautiful, though,” she said.
“Thanks. Sometimes I just talk.”
“I liked it.”
The girl reached over with her other hand and began to caress the one she held. The man turned to look at her. She lowered her eyes and smiled softly.
“Let’s take off all of our clothes,” she said.
“Nothing. Have you ever kissed a married woman?”
“No,” the man said, searching her, his heart racing.
She raised her eyes to his. He felt himself fall into her, saw himself lost in her, comfortable, warm, conquered by the power of those liquid pools that contained the absent beauty of a polluted urban sky. Without another word she leaned into him, pressed her chest to his and her lips to his. His hands moved to her waist.
Things progressed quickly after that. It never bothered me that I was breaking up a marriage. I was impatient for it to happen. I wanted her to belong to me, not him. And she seemed energized by the whole situation. We began to spend whole days together. She didn’t have a job, and I began to skip all my classes. To Brian, I was simply his wife’s new best friend. I was too young and unaccomplished to be seen as a threat. Things hit a pitch when she and I travelled to Los Angeles together for a weekend. The given reason was that I was going for a concert, and she wanted to come along for the opportunity to visit her family. He was perhaps a little suspicious, but he didn’t show it. While we were there, I took several pictures of Vivian, sprawled naked on a motel bed. She left the pictures on her camera, probably intentionally. A few days after we returned, Brian found them. He blew up, hit her, threatened to kill me. She left him and took refuge in my apartment.
“I don’t know what to do. You don’t know him, he’s crazy. If he finds us he will kill you.”
“He’s not going to kill me.”
“You don’t know him. You’re so fucking naïve.”
“I’m not naïve. And I’m not afraid of him. Chill out. We’re together. Nothing else matters.”
The girl sat in silence, staring at her feet.
“Look,” the man began, “don’t worry about anything. From here on out it’s just you and me. Us against the world. As long as we’re together, everything will work out . . . right?”
The girl hesitated a moment.
“Yeah. It’ll be okay.”
She stared at the floor, her eyes opaque.
A couple of days later she officially moved in. I gave her a key. She told Brian she wanted a divorce. We entered into a brief honeymoon period, grocery shopping, buying furniture, going to movies. I felt so proud to be seen with her. She was my prize, and I wore my pride on my sleeve. It wasn’t long, though, before she began to set parameters. We should have separate bedrooms, so we could preserve our independence. Coming out of a marriage, she wasn’t ready for a committed relationship. She wanted to go out, meet people, come to see Austin as her home independently of a man. I agreed. I was so enamoured with her I would have agreed to anything. One night, after going out with a boy we had met together at a concert, she didn’t come home. I couldn’t sleep. I sat up drinking. As I watched the sunrise spread on the carpet in our living room, I heard her come in.
(The clear light of a morning that illuminates our anguish can seem cruel, confrontational, a cosmic jibe that pokes fun at our insecurities. We are on display.)
The anguished light of daybreak crept over the carpet toward Henry’s naked, lonely feet. His toes were curled inward, hidden from the light of honest reflection. Upon the coffeetable there was a glass with more whiskey in it than the bottle beside it. He sat, shirtless, coated with a thin sheen of sweat. He had stopped thinking hours before; he sat mute, no longer expectant, but resigned, sickened by the reality of his situation. She hadn’t even bothered to call. She would have known he’d worry. But she didn’t care. He was a fool. She was heartless. He had given his fool heart to her, and she didn’t care enough to let him know she wasn’t dead. The door behind him opened and clicked shut again. He jerked around.
“Vivian? Jesus, fucking christ.”
She appeared rosy, ebullient. Her smile beamed forth to shame the incipient sunlight of the accusatory daybreak. She appeared enlivened by the early hour. He was a wreck. They were both drunk.
“Where the fuck have you been?” he slurred, rising from the couch to face her.
“Out with Beamer,” she began, her smile fading. “You knew that.”
“I assumed you would come home. You wouldn’t answer your phone.”
“Well, you shouldn’t make assumptions. And my phone died.”
They stood and stared silently at one another. Vivian’s smile had collapsed into a firm line. Henry looked at her, visibly wavering, wanting to trust her. His lip began to tremble.
“Oh jesus,” she said. “You fucking child.”
The tears began to flow from his eyes as he stood facing her, clenching and unclenching his fists. She shook her head slowly back and forth, as if unable to stomach her swelling disgust.
“You fucking whore,” he croaked.
She stood and let her eyes travel up and down his quivering form. They settled on the bottle behind him.
“How much have you had to drink?”
“What were you doing all night?”
The firm line of her lips coalesced into a cruel half grin. Her eyes remained fixed on the bottle.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think about you anymore.”
Vivian looked at Henry, her grin deeping. A malevolent light had crept into her eyes.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that, if you loved me, you wouldn’t act like this. I . . . “ Henry wiped his eyes and swallowed hard, unsteady on his feet, “was up all night thinking about you, and . . . “
Vivian cut him off with a short, sharp laugh, “You make me sick. You act like you own me, like you took me in and I owe you something. Get a life, Henry. You want to know what I did all night?”
Henry stood pale and silent. She continued:
“Did you know that Beamer was a virgin when we met him at that show? So good looking, and all that money, and he’s deathly afraid of girls. Funny, huh?
Henry’s eyes travelled to the floor. His shoulders slumped in preparation for the blow. Vivian’s voice came low and sharp, a probed instrument pressed insistently into a sensitive area.
“Well, he’s not anymore.”
Her words fell heavy into the light and silence of the Sunday morning living room. Henry had no words, no thoughts to express the dead weight her admission had cast upon him. He could not look at her. She stared at him, gloating, savoring her victory over his weakness, his neediness. Finally, after a couple of minutes, Henry managed to croak dryly:
Without a word, still smiling, Vivian turned and left the apartment.
After Vivian left our apartment that day, I didn’t speak to her for almost two years. We arranged for her to pick up her stuff while I was at work. Her ex-husband helped her pack, and even drove her to Beamer’s, where she planned to live. Learning this, I felt for the first time sorry for what we had done to the man. I resumed my courses at the university and tried to put behind me what had happened. I promised myself I would never again trust so easily, nor would I ignore such obvious indicators of character, such as a willingness to cheat on a husband. Of course I did neither of these things; the relationships I had after Vivian all more or less followed the same course, though without the dramatic trappings. I got used to this after awhile, and relegated myself to what I considered a fate of explosive romantic beginnings and precipitous, and emotionally fraught declines. The rapid succession of relationships that followed, while not healthy or emotionally satisfying, at least served to obscure the memory of Vivian. I finally even managed to convince myself that I had totally moved on, until one day I received a letter on a child’s stationary:
I’ve been thinking about you. If you’re interested:
293 – 5689.
Naturally, as soon as I put down the letter I picked up the phone.
An inch of ice coated the streets of Austin, the product of a freak storm in early February. Classes and work were cancelled around the city, and the day had the form of one stolen from history, outside of time and unbeholden to its laws. Henry and Vivian lay in the bedroom of her small apartment, cast in dim light, survivors from the shipwreck of a failed relationship. He held her in his arms. They had already shared a bottle of wine and were contemplating opening a second. The only sound was of the wind outside.
“Should I get the other bottle,” Henry asked softly.
“Wait a minute. Let’s just lay here.”
She felt empty and frail against his body. Earlier they had begun to have sex, but stopped when Vivian began to weep. They were both nude, pressed tightly together atop the covers. They could have been twins, adult simulacrum of infants in the womb.
“What happened, sweetie?”
It took her a few moments to decide where to begin. Lying in the half darkness, her mind travelled back over the last few months, the pain and disappointment, the regret and isolation, everything building towards this moment, this tentative reconciliation in the dark on a frozen day. She began to speak in a whisper, telling him about the early months of her relationship with Beamer. They had acted like children, spending money frivously, buying clothes, food, alcohol, riding around town at 3am on scooters, drunk and screaming. His life was a boyhood fantasy: a do-nothing heir who enjoyed a monthly allowance, a huge downtown condominium, and a complete lack of ambition or sense of responsibility. When Vivian had mentioned getting a job, he stared at her as with a mixed expression of horror and disbelief. His solution to a quiet, boring Sunday afternoon? Round-trip tickets to Paris, first-class, leaving in the hour.
The privilege had seduced her, even though its frivolity irked her sensibilities. As time passed she realized she did not have a lover on her hands, but a dependent, a little boy for whom she provided stability, comfort, and the occasional sexual gratification. Her intellectual pursuits were stymied by his fascination with pop culture and all things kitsch. After all, who has the time to parse Nietzsche when there is an 80s throwback night at a downtown club?
Beamer’s mental health problems began to weigh on her after about a year or so. He was diagnosed manic-depressive, and his depressive bouts were often coupled with delusional thoughts and hallucinations. One time, while they were baking cookies and watching ChiPs, Beamer became suddenly hysterical because of all the dead people he saw crowding into the apartment. She put up with these things out of a feeling of obligation, to both him and herself. To leave Beamer would have been to admit defeat, and it wasn’t until she became pregnant and his parents offered her ten thousand dollars to have an abortion that she finally made the move. Beamer was to be left totally in the dark. She packed her things and left early one morning, while he was still asleep. She moved into an apartment arranged for her by his parents. A driver showed up early the next day to take her to the clinic, where, after the procedure, she found out that her terminated pregnancy consisted of twins. This had all happened one week before she sent the letter to Henry. She was planning on using the ten thousand to leave the country, and wanted to see him one last time.
They lay in bed together, Henry listening in silence. He said nothing when she finished, simply holding her, letting her cry. He forgave her everything, the emotional anguish, the uncertainty, the betrayal; with each shudder of her weeping body he knew that he would love her for the rest of his life, even if he never saw her again. As the minutes passed, her tears subsided slowly, until at last, breathing normally, she turned to face him.
“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered.
He kissed her on the forehead. “You’re owed a lot more than me.”
A few days after their reunion, Vivian flew to South Africa. I dropped her off at the airport with the vague promise to join her there at some point. I never did. We exchanged the occasional email, she sent me a care package, and I wrote her one epic letter that she never received. She dove in a cage with great white sharks, got a job in a coffeeshop, and, in a fit of whimsy, gave her wedding band to a boy she met in a bar and never saw again. When she contracted pneoumonia and was faced with a health care system in which she had no insurance, her grandmother sent her a plane ticket back to California. I was still in Texas, and after she had settled again in Los Angeles, I flew out to see her. Our reunion was fun and inscouciant. She had met a man, Dan, who she married out of exhaustion and the need for emotional sustenance. She cheated on him easily with me, but by the time I left we both knew that our relationship had reached a coda. There was nothing left to do or say. Life and circumstance had dictated that we could not be together, and we accepted to this. As the years passed our communication persisted in fits and starts, sometimes steady, sometimes nonexistent. We came to occupy for one another the place of old friend and reserve confidant, a person to turn to in the wee hours when the world seemed to turn without us. I wonder sometimes how it will all end for Vivian, whether she’s truly settled down or if, one day, I can count on receiving another letter, another supplication, another day holding her in refuge from a frozen world.
Vivian finished her tea and placed the empty cup before her. She continued to stare in silence out the kitchen window, into the lightening fog. Her thoughts were ephemeral, diaphonous, tendrils of smoke that drifted and dissipated. She thought of her graduate course that afternoon. She thought of the film she and Dan had watched the night before. She thought of taking a vacation. As the sun began to tentatively break into her musings, she heard movement in the bedroom. She blinked, distracted. For a moment her thoughts had settled, and she imagined she was someone else, in a different place and time. Aching for more silence, she stood and walked out of the kitchen, into the yard, into the fog.