Chloe Eastwood had thick blond hair, startling green eyes like peridots, high cheekbones, and pale taut skin that seemed straining to contain a vast intelligence within. She often appeared flushed, as if she had just been running or engaging in another and more complicated activity. She was tall and on the cusp of being too thin. Her body suggested a haphazard assembly, as if she was wearing her flesh as an afterthought or an accommodation to convention.
Chloe Eastwood felt profoundly disconnected and wondered if it showed. She was big boned, even her hands were unusually large, and she had been wearing her father’s gloves since she was thirteen. No one seemed to notice. A process of revision attached itself around her, as if she brought her own climate with her. Chloe Eastwood gave the impression of fragility. People felt they were in the presence of a woman who might be subject to sudden fevers or fainting spells. They lowered their voices when they were near her and avoided eye contact, as if they sensed her unique boundaries and requirements and how a glance might soil her.
She wore flat shoes, typically ballet slippers or leather sandals, perhaps to compensate for her height. In the summers, her feet were bare. She tied her long white-blond hair in a ponytail, as if it, too, was marginal, a mere annoyance she simply wished to keep away from her eyes. She was pragmatic about her body and abhorred decoration and cosmetics. She was a sort of vehicle, an organic machine. It was only thought that mattered.
Chloe suspected her external configuration was a deceit. She did not consider herself particularly attractive. When confronted with evidence of her statuesque elegance, her popularity, her ease with men and their interest in her, she dismissed this as transitory and insignificant.
“Anyone can be beautiful,” she would say, shrugging. “They have the procedures in magazines. You can have surgery and hire special consultants.” She said this with authority. She believed it was true.
At the core, she did not trust her physical body. She felt it was a trickery that would eventually betray her. Her maternal grandmother Natasha had been a peasant. Chloe thought she saw her in dreams, a huge woman, grim behind a stained blue apron, doing something always with potatoes. The rooms where Grandma Natasha stood were steaming, greasy and bitter. They became the final night in the furthest depot. The last train that would ever run had just left. It was cold. There was perpetual wind. It stung the ears like an invisible whip or a wire at the perimeter you tripped on. There was only that taste of barbed rust and the fading whistle of the train they had missed. The last train on its final run.
Perhaps Chloe Eastwood had heard the nighttime stories wrong. Or she had misperceived something in the tone of a cousin or aunt at one Christmas party or another and she had been misled, perhaps even deliberately. She was an eavesdropper and auditory distortion is a common hazard. It was even possible she had taken the trivial and created an elaborate architecture of self-sabotage. Certain facts, however, were not disputable. Chloe had come to sense a sort of hunger inside. It was more than an ordinary appetite, and there was nothing polite or socially acceptable about it. Within her was a famine. She was a shell, pretty enough for a while, but deep inside the fabric curled an insatiable want. It was hereditary. She would only be able to disguise it so long. This was her secret inevitability. It arrived in childhood and never left.
Chloe Eastwood went to college with a nearly unblemished record of A’s, one red lipstick, a few pair of blue jeans, several black sweaters and a navy blue beret. She wore dark glasses and a man’s charcoal gray cashmere overcoat. She thought of herself as a shadow and tried to wear garments and fabrics that reminded her of twilight and shade, of tree groves and sudden riverbanks with dense foliage where a person could be lost.
She was indifferent to her sorority sisters, and as a consequence, her attention was valued. She spent a skiing weekend reading poetry alone in the hotel. At a gala, she stood with her back against a wall decorated with holly wreaths, and planned a seminar paper. She remained polite, declined most invitations, and when, on rare occasion she attended a gathering or event, she preferred taking her own car and leaving early.
It was in October of her senior year that she received the note. A woman she vaguely knew from Russian literature passed it to her. They were on campus, wind was blowing. On the hills beyond, golden rod and its variations were like an inland sea. The woman whose name she couldn’t remember was riding a bicycle. It was on the hour. The campanile bells were ringing, at least eleven of them. They sounded like the flicker of a dozen yellow metal kisses. This is all I will get, Chloe was thinking, not roses. Then the woman on the bicycle was explaining that someone had asked her to deliver this note. No, she didn’t know his name. A med student, she thought.
Chloe opened the envelope as she walked and read it as she climbed the stairs to her noon 20th Century Spanish poetry class. It was written on a computer, and printed out on university letterhead and said, You are the only sign of sentient life in this edifice of mediocrity. Coffee at the Hive at 5. Bernie Roth, M.D. She knew, at that instant, that juncture, she would accept, would be in the Student Union basement at the appointed time. She folded the note into her purse, carefully. It was already an artifact.
Chloe Eastwood could remember precisely how he looked on that first late afternoon in autumn. She identified him immediately. He was leaning against the back wall, and he was short, much too thin, dark, bearded and nervous. He looked like a speed freak or a man who had just committed a crime. There was a quality of furtive airiness about him. She thought of night maples, how wind cuts through them, savaging branches and leaves, and how one could get lost.
Then she noticed his clothing was much too large. He must be wearing the garments of a larger roommate by mistake. His black jacket seemed to want to float off his skin. Yes, he could rise up. It was as if he was willing himself to remain on the floor, in the room. He was fighting the current. This basement was not his natural environment. And there was something further unanchored about him. He would smell of Middle Eastern ports and nights that lay a mysterious spiced filigree across them. Nets of secrets, forged passports, bribed guards, the history of contraband in waters so dark they would permanently stain you. You would become the color of pomegranate and moss. She thought of Pablo Neruda, her favorite poet at his home in Isla Negra, with his collections of shells, driftwood and salvaged objects from ruined ships, pieces of sail, old navigational instruments, star charts etched by hand on parchment. Then she was walking forward.
He was surveying the basement alcove of the Student Union, the small Bee Hive, with what she decided was disdain. It was simultaneously serenely controlled and unabashedly predatory. It was a gaze that contained both amusement and contempt. She found the combination exciting. They could have a house made from sea beams, woods waves have polished and randomly deposited on a southern shore. Everything would be carved, like the furniture and statues, the trunks and masks and artifacts in Isla Negra. They could live where the sea was permanently with them, slate gray and tempestuous, their own opera in a fluid arena washed by stars. Then they were shaking hands.
It was the autumn she unexpectedly fell in love and almost lost her left eye. In retrospect, she came to believe that was why he married her. It was the disfigurement that made him feel guilty and responsible. It was a form of public deflowering. She was grotesquely violated. Everyone knew. There was no way out.
Chloe recognized that he had already grown used to her beauty. That had happened for him in a matter of weeks. By spring, she had become a sort of neutral zone, uncharged, shaded, a hollow or gully where he could sleep. She was a washed ashore fragment of a ship with a comforter in a silk duvet, down pillows and a candle. He had begun to see her as she saw herself. His indifference confirmed her suspicions. It was true then, she realized, and it was contagious.
But it was her mind that failed to hold his attention. Bernie Roth had thought her the creative one and discovered instead a void with a capacity to absorb data. The double major in comparative literature and history seemed affected and predictable. It was the sort of quasi study reserved for wealthy girls who would never have to consider the market place. If poetry was music assembled from words, he could not hear it. Perhaps he was too exhausted for such acts of verbal choreography. She lacked spontaneity, offered instead a forbearance that repelled him. He called her his Chestnut Hill Special behind her back and no longer asked her to read Octavio Paz and Mayakovski out loud or teach him phrases in Russian or Spanish. She was going to spend her first year of graduate school in Madrid. He was going to do his internship in Los Angeles.
Then she had the accident, on a long weekend in the borrowed cabin. It might have been their last tryst. The air was a cool taunt, as if prepared for separation. It was the air of a last kiss. The smell of pine made her think of resins and how petals and insects are trapped in amber. She was thinking this was how time took photographs. It occurred to her, suddenly, that she was being watched.
Bernie was taking his suitcase out to the car he had borrowed. She was carrying her own overnight bag and books, walking by herself, behind him. She turned back momentarily, was staring at the cabin curtains instead of the unexpected ice on the unfamiliar path. The pale blue stained cotton hanging on rods in the kitchen were like the smock her Grandmother Natasha wore. It wasn’t an apron. It was really a housedress, too thin for the weather. Why didn’t someone bring her a sweater? Why didn’t someone insist?
Chloe was holding her overnight bag. Bernie didn’t carry groceries for her either anymore. They weren’t even holding hands. He was already in the car, it was dusk, she could barely see him. Then she tripped. It wasn’t the pain that made her faint, but rather the shock of the red of her blood on the snow, its monumental crude statement. So this is a natural hieroglyphic, she thought, as she fell down, floated down, really. She had put her fist to her eye that was falling out of its socket. She was trying to hold it in. She thought, absurdly of Swan Lake, all the first grade ballerinas in gauzy white were reaching through the air. She could have been one, but she didn’t think herself graceful enough. She wanted to work with the lights instead and pull the velvet stage curtains open and shut. She was eight.
“It’s not like this is permanent,” her mother said. They were in the hospital and her mother Constance laughed, false hearty. Chloe had twenty-two stitches, one for each year of her life, sutures like women’s primitive etches on the walls of their prison cells, gouges to mark the passage of days and seasons. The scar was a brutal red arc below her eye, which was only marginally damaged, a small loss of peripheral vision that might only be temporary.
“In six months, we’ll have a plastic surgeon take care of the scar. Then some powder and no one will know.” Her mother said. She already hated Bernie. Chloe could decipher this in her mother’s eyes, in her pinched gray squint. Her mother’s eyes looked as if splinters were lodged inside, charcoal stubs, pilings for a pier under construction. Her mother loathed Bernie, had said once, after too much wine, that he gave the impression of being a man who would carry a concealed weapon. He made her want to count the silver after supper. Chloe didn’t require verbal confirmations. They were redundant and too small. She could calculate the situation by her mother’s stiff shoulders and in the tension around her neck.
Chloe stared at her scar, after the bandages were removed. A red half circle began at her eye and then cut a southern route across her cheek. She thought of train tracks and how faces can be transformed into maps. She would never get married now. Her ravenous interior had found a way to break out. There had been an excavation and now the ruins and what they implied were irrefutable. She experienced a sense of perfect justice about her disfigurement. She had felt a similar way when she knocked out a front tooth sledding when she was eleven, slamming into a parked car. Now they will all know what I’ve always known, she had thought then, mouth a pool of blood. See how defective, how false I truly am?
It was the accident and its residue that made Bernie propose. A judge enacted the ceremony for them in the courthouse downtown at lunchtime. Bernie put the ring on her left finger, a generic gold band. Just one for her. He said he couldn’t wear a ring, what with all the constant scrubbing up and disinfectant and gloves. Neither of their parents came. Then they went to the airport with their books in cardboard boxes and flew to Los Angeles.
It was the time of the little apartment near the hospital in West Hollywood and how infrequently Bernie was with her. The kitchen was a debased lime green linoleum and the counters were a dull composite plastic where you could not see your face, no matter how often you sponged and rubbed. There was never enough light. There were hills in the north behind the boulevard but it had nothing to do with them.
She became pregnant the second month in Los Angeles. Chloe would walk past rows of stucco apartments with bony trees and undernourished bushes she recognized as indications of famine and disease. The palms seemed superimposed, glued in, not merely imported from some place else, but actually spliced into the reel. They were another form of graft.
Further east, with Hollywood behind her, Los Angeles became a warm and surprisingly Spanish city. It hid itself. It had the psychology of a populace living under tyrants. She understood the restrained festivity on the boulevards, how somber and defeated the faces were. It would never be Saturday night in the plazas here.
Sometimes she pretended that she had in fact gone to Madrid to graduate school. She imagined it was the Spain of Garcia Lorca and Franco. She would leave the small apartment in West Hollywood and ride buses at random. The women on the buses spoke Spanish. They assumed she was also a day maid and wanted to know how much she was paid for cleaning houses. How many hours and how many rooms? Did she also have to wash cars and garages and take the fleas off animals? Did she have to wear a uniform and work on Christmas? Was she permitted to use the telephone?
Chloe Roth rode downtown and then back west to the ocean. She felt the baby growing. She was used to having secret things establishing camps and bases inside her, outposts and villages. She did not experience any sickness. The women from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador on the buses touched her belly and said it was a boy and lucky.
In between, she sat in cafes near the ocean, drinking espresso and reading Spanish poetry out loud to her unborn baby. It was months of Pablo Neruda. Bernie came home and fell asleep immediately. They decided against natural childbirth. He didn’t have time for the Lamaze classes. She was grateful, freed from the necessity of feigning commitment to a painful and meaningless passing fashion. She wanted to give birth with the medicines of modern technology. She wanted to feel as little as possible.
Then she let Bernie convince her to name the baby Irving, after his recently deceased father. It was a mistake that was happening in slow motion, like watching a car crash, where you are simultaneously adrenalized and unable to move. Her entire life was becoming like that, she thought, agreeing to the name in another imperceptible surrender. One hour at a time, across months, more etches on the walls.
She hoped it would be a girl. Chloe thought they could name it Ivy then, or even Iris or Irene. But it was a boy and Irving. They couldn’t devise a plausible nickname, though they tried Ivan for a while. It sounded wrong in their mouths. It hung like a malformed shard in the air. Perhaps she would lose her other eye.
Then there was the next baby. This time, a girl. Bernie said she could name it. Her mind was entirely blank, uniformly seamless, without nuance. She envisioned night oceans and wind and her grandmother, Natasha. She could still remember her, shoulders and torso enormous from cutting and stacking and carrying wood, washing flannel in icy creeks, airing wool, filling the larder which was vast and lantern lit with sacks of lentil beans and flour. Her infant daughter was named Natalie. Bernie called her Nat. He liked to spell it with a g. Gnat.
Chloe rarely left the apartment now, only to market and wash clothes. She began watching television, the afternoon talk shows where every woman had experienced rape, incest, drug addiction, multiple terminal diseases and prison. There were theme programs during which women with drowned or burned up children discussed their feelings. People gambled away houses, had senile parents who had to wear diapers, and daughters who robbed banks. People met their spouses through the mail and married their in-laws. Chloe ironed white fabrics and sterilized bottles and tried to imagine this.
Every spring, she applied to graduate school, but when the moment of the interview arrived, one of the children was always sick. Besides, the residency was nearly over. Bernie had specialized in pediatrics. He was going to begin his practice with an older doctor north of San Diego, in a county that kept growing. Los Angeles was a terminal situation. But in the south, the demographics were right. There would always be children in this geographic region, Bernie had explained. Pediatrics could never become a cul-de-sac, not in his lifetime.
Then one morning it was all behind her. The apartment in West Hollywood with the view of palm trees placid and rinsed of color like an old postcard you can’t remember why you saved. She had stood at the sink for nearly four years, thinking about her Grandmother Natasha, talking to her sometimes, asking her about soups and wind in forests and bread. Now she didn’t have to do that anymore.
This was the start of their new and real life. Los Angeles had been a first draft, less then a dress rehearsal. Even her scar had faded. Bernie had purchased a second hand black Mercedes. Dr. Bernard Roth, her husband, was driving. Los Angeles, that sequence of deserted plazas ripe with disappointment and clandestine betrayals that could not be spoken about was behind them. The children were sleeping in their car seats. They would grow up in San Diego where there would be a surplus of other children like them.
It had been raining, everything was the color of new aluminum. Chloe envisioned kitchens with rows of pots, coppery, scoured, surfaces where you could see not only your own face, but also the faces of your female ancestors. All the grandmothers were watching, waiting to reveal the secret of what could be done with potatoes, how to find shelter from canine packs such as wolves and coyotes, and what to do with drunken husbands.
The sky was a seamless gray like bolts of infant beaten tin. This was the world decorated in primal oyster shell and pearl. Those were the only colors that existed at the beginning of the world when even the ocean was relentlessly gray and it rained for hundreds of millions of years. There was only rain and sea. This was before the aberration of lightning, before anything even stirred beneath the monumental waters. It was the primitive fluid calligraphy of wind and liquid. Everyone stayed home and watched talk programs on television, Chloe thought, making herself smile. There was nothing else to do.
Outside was an afternoon stalked by gray. This was what waited on the other side of the tropics, after the steam heated green and laminated foliage. You could come to the other side of seduction. Chloe knew what that was. It was sleep, deep, heavy as pewter, and dreamless. You could know what a stone knows and you would be grateful.
Chloe glimpsed patches of sky that appeared lit from within. This was where the sky was thinking. You could see the synaptic flow, a charge sparking here and there, a sudden slate-blue sizzle above the fan palms. There were ruined rivers in the air. The late morning was a non-color, purely reflective. She thought of metal, an old woman holding a knife, blade whiter than sundown in autumn across a stunned and silent lake.
Outside was northern San Diego County. Bernie had pointed to the geometric green sign on the freeway, with its arrows and exit numbers. In this future, information was something one drove by. Then he turned off to follow the highway along the coast. Houses perched on cliffs above the ocean, which was sheeted and dull. The houses were erected on stilts behind banks of hallucinatory red and magenta bougainvillea. Such houses could slip down in rain or earthquakes. They were not buildings but rather architecture from dreams made manifest. People would continue moving to this smog free Southern California coast. They would reproduce. Then she noticed Bernie had turned off the radio. He pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road.
“What is it?” she asked. She glanced at her children, Ion and Gnat. As if responding telepathically, they both woke up and began crying. She opened the back door and unbuckled them from their car seats, their miniature transportation prisons.
“Something with the radiator,” Bernie said. He was opening the hood. He removed a flashlight from a sort of toolbox. The inside of the car was an anatomy of metal, tubes and chambers, intestines, plugs, pipes and valves. He began his examination. It was just another autopsy. He seemed enthusiastic.
Chloe was holding both of her children. The baby girl was in her arms and the hand of the boy was in her hand. It had rained briefly in northern San Diego, too. The clouds were gray, painted alabaster at the edges, laminated and moving fast. They were tinged with brownish rust. This was where you could see the bad dreams. And there was nothing subtle about them.
There were eucalyptuses on the side of the road in a sort of accidental linear grove. They rose unusually slender and denuded. Wind had swept away their leaves. As she was watching the trees, at that precise instant, the sun came out.
“Open the glove compartment,” Bernie instructed. “See if there’s a manual.”
She opened the dash. She felt inside. She extracted piles of papers. road maps in alphabetical order, beginning with Arizona and ending with Wyoming. Unopened bills and stacks of pamphlets. There were numerous books of matches. She recognized the restaurants. There was also something small and square and she removed it, slowly. She held it in the center of her hand. It was a packet of condoms. Chloe used a diaphragm
“What’s this?” she asked.
She approached Bernie, who was staring down into the hood, as if it were an enormous tunnel. She held the packet out into the air between them. It was a miniature square flare. It was a form of plastic explosives. It was the way your skin became magenta and stayed that way forever. Burns were the worst scars. They didn’t heal like a face hitting an icy rock did.
“How would I know?” Bernie asked, annoyed.
The day has suddenly become so vivid Chloe has the sensation she is falling. She looks down at her feet, wanting to be certain nothing is wrong with her shoes or where she is placing them. It is the sort of day that reminds her of being a child, of stretching out her arms and spinning. She used to do that, locked in the attic of the summer house, thinking there was some way to twirl herself into another dimension with a more reasonable climate, a more habitable terrain, a language in which she would be fluent.
Bernie is staring into the open mouth of the car with his flashlight. “They’re condoms,” Chloe says, holding the packet in her right hand. It’s the size of a communion wafer. Perhaps she is supposed to swallow it.
The son they had begun calling Ion pulled at her sweater. She holds his shoulder with her left hand. She presses the daughter they called Gnat against her chest. Both babies had black curly hair and olive skin. Neither look anything like her. She might have adopted them from a new Eastern European refugee organization. Russia was deconstructing itself. Even its babies were for sale.
Ion and Gnat. A nurse in San Diego would find that amusing. She’d think the names cute and millennial. A brunette, no doubt, probably seasoned. A woman who had seen a thing or two. Of course, Bernie had the reputation of making the nurses laugh.
Bernie put the flashlight down, slowly, as if it was extraordinary heavy, a distillation of all inventions since flint. He glances at her, allowing their eyes to meet. “It’s a used car,” he said. “They must have been in the glove compartment all along.” He picked up the flashlight again and a wrench and turned back to the gaping hood with its exposed interior.
He was obviously lying. The sun is rising above the scrapped raw eucalyptus. They were just trunks, shaved. There was a suggestion of ritual. They reminded her of a garden of amputated fingers. This is how they should bury virgins, with their hands spread and outstretched, reaching up through the dirt as if still expecting something.
The afternoon is turning stunning. The air might be a series of green needles, hypodermics, all of them filled with amphetamines. Bernie had jars of orange and green pills he had taken from the hospital and kept behind the spices in the kitchen cabinet. Chloe doesn’t need any today. She is more than awake. The day is becoming so clear she is disoriented, off balance, like she could trip. The earth has divested itself of more than the torn off leaves of the eucalyptus, which smell like cough medicine. It is more than the way even the stones look wind washed and waiting to be collected. The earth has lost an essential element, something fundamental, like gravity.
Chloe crosses the highway. She stands on a bluff above the Pacific that is suddenly and absolutely unadulterated blue. The world is stripped of direction. It’s a moment when one could become unanchored, or become someone else entirely. So this is how it happens, she realizes, color and wind are the catalyst.
Yes, it’s an afternoon for cleansing, editing and revision. She will begin with their names. She will call her son Pablo. She will call her daughter Christine. She will say her own name is Marguerite. She was born in Barcelona. She can tell you the secrets of cathedral bells and cobblestones and harbors.
“Where are you going?” Bernie yells.
He is standing near the car, on the other side of the highway, perhaps half a block from her. She keeps moving. There are moments of psychological high voltage, she thinks, junctures where we feel ourselves in flux, inside the current. Our legs are strange where we step, like walking on a ship or on water itself. There is give where one doesn’t expect it. Nothing is as hard as it seems, certainly not the wavering surface brushed by fallen leaves.
Of course, the wind is not simply rustling. It has more serious intentions. You must consider the bent grass and damp leaves forming derelict yellow rivers between weeds. These are the rare hours where you see each needle in the pines, how they are separate and distinct, and smell like damp talcum powder. This is the scent that remains in abandoned children’s rooms. The bedrooms of kidnapped or murdered children. Drowned and burned up children. A faint powder, a sense of green and a long cold rain when no one answers the telephone or doorbell. They are all packed and waiting at the depot where no train has passed in decades. You wail but they cannot hear you. The barbed wire wind has made them deaf.
Chloe reaches the edge of the bluff. There is nothing now but vines on the sculpted bare rock, vines with buds of tiny red flowers. She will name such blossoms baby mouths. Then she is skirting the rim, cradling the infant she is going to name Christine. She will have her christened in the same white silk gown that she wore. Aunt Clare’s Belgium silk, nearly two hundred years old.
But the baby is too heavy. Ion who now named Pablo is grasping the edge of her left married hand with his stubby fingers. He looks exactly like his father. She remembers Bernie in the Bee Hive basement alcove of the Student Union. He was obviously a thief, a pirate, a dealer in contraband. He was going to show her stolen papers, strands of black pearls, forged documents. The lake beyond the plate glass windows was still, the wind slid away, even the ducks stopped swimming. She sensed it then. Intrigue and fire. A vast fraudulence in blurred facts passed over too quickly, like faces in fields seen from a night train. Then she had shaken his hand. She had only herself to blame.
“I said stop,” Bernie screams. He puts the tools down. Now he is running.
The sky itself opens up. It is too high. She understands that. There is too much altitude. Everything is exposed. There are autopsies everywhere and you don’t need a special table or gloves to perform them. She is sorry she hadn’t touched the eucalyptus by the roadside. She wanted to trace the swirls in their bark. They reminded her of a current, a vertical river with eddies and branches, dead-ends, wrong turns.
Bernie has crossed the highway. He is half the bluff behind her. Another car has stopped. An older man and woman are also running toward her. Chloe wants to say something, to raise her hand, perhaps, but her son Pablo is holding her fingers. So she lets him go. She has no alternative. They would have to recognize that. And the daughter she christened Christine in her aunt’s white silk baby dress. It is time to place her on the ground, too. Baby mouth to baby mouth. Vine on rock. The infant in reeds and too much sudden sun and spinning.
Bernie is picking up the children. The older woman is now holding the hand of her son. No one would know his name is Pablo, or that he has a legacy of sextants and astrolabes, and a penchant for wood and stones the ocean polished and engraved. No one will know he loves gray. Inexplicably, the children are completely silent. She senses him now, arms outstretched. Bernie. He can almost reach her.
At Isla Negra, it was stones Neruda thought about. He understood their metamorphosis, their struggle to become tangible, from liquid to rock. In the ordinary agate are villages with canals and dogs and alleys, and constellations of swallows and bridges of stars. He understood the transformation of granite into rain, then rivers and seas. Stones are a buoy in time. Granite. Agate. Topaz. Opal. Carnelian. Garnet. They mark the contours of harbors and empires. They are a kind of lighthouse. The stars are burning rocks, immolating from within, with their shelves of knowledge turning into charred scraps. Then they become emeralds and sapphires.
Chloe hears the Pacific, a chant of turquoise mouths. It’s the hour of choir practice. Waves call through aqua and tourmaline lips. There is no pestilence, no betrayal, nothing unexpected when you realize it’s all a process, insect to wing to sky. Then you know what the stones know. That’s what Neruda thought about in Isla Negra, as he studied the ocean and felt his cancer growing. He contrived a litany of stones. He imagined it recited in cathedrals. Obsidian, ruby, quartz, onyx, jade. Women with black mantillas would repeat this, women with bony hands like still white lilies, women wearing amethyst rings and holding lace fans.
Neruda knew we are hustlers of the semi-precious. She had tried to explain this to Bernie. We are always bartering chunks of the elements. This is the central paradigm. There are no debacles, no lost cultures or artifacts, only rearrangements of stones. Now a necklace, now a ring, now a circle with which to chart the passage of the year. Now a contrivance of spokes to attract shadows, to tell you what to name babies and when to plant corn and potatoes. Now it is a wall defending a port that crumbles, becomes a smoothened pebble a child finds, drops into a red plastic pail. Summer.
Chloe could have been a swan and performed at the annual winter dance recital but she realized she was too large. She was the best runner in her class, faster than even the ten and eleven year old boys. She had enormous legs. But her arms were not suitable wings. There was no substance you could sew or glue on to conceal them, to make them seem gossamer, aerodynamic. She decided it was better, spending winter talking to her grandmother in a language she didn’t yet understand.
Of course, there are often mistakes in acts of navigation, Chloe is thinking. Even trees make them, the wind and rain, the sudden turquoise crashing waves are not immune, rushing up, rising as if in an improvised insurrection to meet her, now and finally, in the unbolted blue acres of unraveling autumn air.
She broke her right leg, wrist and elbow in the fall, which wasn’t into the lapis lazuli arms of the ocean at all, but into brush covered rock. California succulents. She experienced a brief startled crevice of disappointment, small rocks and sand in her mouth. Pain perhaps, but it seemed the ambulance is there immediately. The morphine, the stretcher, the IV on the gurney. An orthopedic team is waiting in the emergency room driveway. She is, after all, Dr. Roth’s wife.
When she finally returned to consciousness, in a private room with an ocean view surrounded by bouquets of roses and lilies, with her leg in a plaster cast and arm in traction, she is oddly and spectacularly alert. It is the first good sleep she’s had in years, perhaps since childhood. It is the rarest of sleeps, where calculations occur, possibilities are analyzed and resolved completely beneath the surface. All the machinery that processes and emits decisions happens on their own accord and one awakens fully committed and undisturbed.
Were these five years as enlightening as graduate school would have been? Probably. Chloe doesn’t want the children, but neither does he. Bernie will offer her everything, she recognizes, including a generous divorce with a guaranteed after tax stipend tied directly to his gross income.
Chloe Roth is through with the periphery. It seems impossible that she rode city buses and talked about cleaning toilets and dogs with strangers from pueblos in Guatemala and Mexico. They’re called aliens for a reason. And she has nothing of consequence to say in any language. She would have been a bad poet, even if she lived in Neruda’s house, breathing the same salt air in the wooden perch above the ocean in Chile with his collections of whalebones and clay vessels, pottery and stones.
An attractive nurse brings her breakfast. Chloe asks for wine with her waffles The hospital gift shop sends perfume, cosmetics, and a large selection of reading materials in a graceful basket tied with red ribbon. She finds architectural and fashion magazines a fascination.
Some women have a capacity for connecting the dots and painting by numbers. They are born to decorate houses. They possess an innate sensitivity to the nuances of walls and fabrics, how lampshades are a punctuation, and hallways avenues for acts of bold interpretation. Every sofa is a distillation of sensibility, the evolution of personal history defined as an artifact. In between, they supervise the children’s extracurricular activities, coordinate piano and ballet, karate and soccer, and schedule the carpools, recitals and play-off games. They select the correct cultural events and know which plays and concerts require attendance. They plan cruises and rent the family vacation villas in Hawaii and Amalfi.
Some women absorb detail. There’s the landscaping, where the rose garden should be, where the hibiscus and lilies should be planted, what to place in the flowerbeds in front of the house after the bougainvillea. Then the shopping. Chloe Roth imagines herself when the bandages and casts come off. She will be spectacular in a short silk sheath. She will need mini skirts in neutral colors to begin with. Chanel and Prada high heels and boots with thin spike heels. Her long legs should be on continual display, particularly in this climate. She must begin yoga and have her hair cut with blond highlights immediately.
Seasons are announced and defined. Magazines provide blueprints and clear instructions. You decorate the Christmas tree, each year gradually adding a few new unique adornments to the collection, cut crystal stars and bulbs made from glass coated with beads, and angels in antique brocade with 14 carat gold outlining their wings. You’ve barely packed them away when it’s time for Easter egg painting.
Chloe will join the doctor’s wives book club, call now in fact from her hospital bed. In such a group, her analysis and critiques will arouse and amuse in a manner guaranteeing their admittance to the most stimulating affinity groups. She will identify the families they will know for the rest of their lives.
“Ion and Gnat,” their new friends will smile with appreciation. “How original. How millennial.”
“My wife is so cutting edge, I have to carry Band-Aids,” Bernie will laugh.
Guilt, contrition and an increasing sense of her as both formidable and vulnerable will cripple Bernie. Either way, he’ll have to pay full attention. He will recognize that she both reduces and defines him. Some borders are plausible. He’s post-modern, after all. Everyone knows empires are more trouble than they are worth. It should, in fact, go without saying. They’ll play tennis on weekends. She will arrange lessons as soon as possible. They will walk on the beach on California afternoons when Bernie returns from work, discussing the children’s athletic and artist developments, the headlines, the stock market, occasional vivid anecdotes relating to something Bernie has done or Chloe has read or heard. Bernie must be rendered entirely in black and gray Armani.
Eventually, a larger house on cliffs directly above the beach with a pool and tennis court will be necessary. They will require a vehicle for transporting the children and their friend’s, the equipment and assorted paraphernalia, hockey sticks and bats, volley and beach and basketballs, the various rackets, helmets and masks, the round pink valises containing ballet slippers and tutus, and the rolled up mats for gymnastics. They will need a housekeeper who can cook and drive.
Bernie takes Chloe to India and Nepal. It is her 29th birthday. They begin the day in Katmandu. A charted plane flies them within half a mile of Mt. Everest on a morning that is flawless, looks in fact identical to the postcards. A different aircraft transports them to a grass landing strip where guides drive them across rivers to a game preserve. They ride elephants through the jungle and Ion and Gnat claim they saw a tiger dart though the mist of primeval greens forty feet below them.
Bernie and Chloe Roth drink martinis in the lodge. The nanny is in the hotel compound with the children. Bernie and Chloe hold hands before dinner, the memory that they had ever been different is vague and distant, less than an irritation. It is less than a pebble at the tide line of a deserted beach in an off-season waves momentarily deposit and then remove. What do stones know? They have a limited vocabulary. Peridote. Turquoise. Opal. Jade. They know they look best when mined, polished and strung around the neck of a gorgeous woman.
Bernie Roth’s arm encircles his wife’s back. He feels the silk of her shawl across her suntanned and toned shoulders, and the nub of rubies like miniature vertebra in the necklace he gave her this birthday morning. She spread out naked, wearing only the new jewels, and they made love with singular intensity. Next year she will be 30 and that may require diamonds. They look into one another’s eyes just before they kiss, precisely as the sun is a round red ball sinking into the jungle. They are astonished by their happiness.