I couldn’t say whether I killed him—or was it a her?— that cat in the rain-slick road, its coat reflecting silver in the headlights, its white eyes aglow at my approach. I’d been on my way home, heading downhill—a bit too fast, now that I thought of it—flying on cabernet and berry cake, from my belated birthday dinner with Allie, a rare evening without Daniel and the kids. The sensation still pulsed: a bump and a thud, like a soft bundle lodging beneath my Range Rover chassis, dragging before being dropped, the sound—quick and indeterminate—more like a piece of cardboard being ripped than an animal wail or screech. I’d swerved. Perhaps I waited too long before getting out of the car to check, my heart pumping as I looked around and then under. Nothing. Not a stir. Only soaked leaves stuck to the wet pavement, brown pine needles floating in the shallow puddles, the water murky without the moon. Where did it go? Was it hurt? Was it a cat or had I imagined it? I listened—a trickle of rain in the gutter, the sound of my dread. It was dark, I’d just turned thirty-nine, and I was killing things.
The next morning I awoke before dawn. How strange for me to rise earlier than Daniel, who, by six, had usually jogged on the treadmill and blended his beige-powdered protein drink, or than Dylan, whom I relied upon to come into our bed and nudge me out of my determined slumber. Emily, on the brink of puberty, had become more like me—or perhaps me more like her—sleep like on a narcotic, a blissful lull before the relentless rhythm of days I still hadn’t figured out how to navigate since I stopped working full time—mornings folding into afternoons without notice except the position of the sun or the heat of the schoolyard asphalt.
Had I been dreaming?
I summoned the nerve to go outside and examine my tire treads for evidence of gray fur or—(please, no)—pink flesh. Pressed plant life oozed from the thick rubber ridges, oleander petals and lawn shavings, an empty acorn shell. Maybe it had scuttled from the road into the bushes or limped away. Perhaps he (she?) was still alive.
I went into the kitchen and cracked four eggs into a bowl, added a grind of pepper. I heard the whir of the treadmill, a faint vibration from above. No, I wouldn’t tell Daniel. I couldn’t take his disappointment—not about what I might have killed but because of the way my glass of wine, my evening laughing with my friend, might have caused my careless driving in the rain, the way the occasional wine, my laughter, may have sometimes signaled vague disinterest in him. Even though no one had come downstairs yet and the eggs were apt to get cold, I didn’t wait to fry them. Stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon, I turned the event over and over in my mind until a guilty scramble appeared in the pan and the heat from the stove engulfed me in an incriminating haze.
After a week or so, I stopped searching, but the mystery receded into a low pulsing inside me, the remainder of a dark secret I couldn’t quite relinquish. Sometimes it caught me off-guard, wrestling me out of a conversation with a friend or a pleasant moment with the kids into a state of stomach-turning sorrow and remorse. I’d felt it. I’d caused it. A life—gone.
Before the fall, we took a family trip to the Central Coast. The four of us drove in Daniel’s silver Aston Martin, cool air whooshing through the vents. “Do you mind if we warm things up a little?” As I reached for a knob on the dash, Daniel’s hand took over, readjusting the temperature, angling the side mirrors, even switching the radio from the gentle croon of country music I’d selected to an all-news station.
“Hey, what the hell!” Daniel leaned on his horn and swerved to the next lane. “Did you see how he cut me off?” Looking past me, Daniel’s gray-blue eyes stayed steady and scolding on a young, uniformed man in an open jeep who saluted him, smiling. “Goddamn soldier. Thinks he owns the road.” The bumper sticker on the soldier’s jeep said: Honk if you don’t exist.
We were heading to Seal Cove Resort, a large luxury hotel that Daniel’s company had just developed in a sparse area that formerly had only diners and motels, a few scattered filling stations by the road. In his car, I always felt the ride. The engine rumbled through the Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Soon we were cruising through Ventura, alongside the ocean.
I didn’t think about my father until we hit Santa Barbara, a subtle shift in the air that my heart detected before I did. It happened every time just like that, in the same spot: my chest tightened, I shivered, and I found it hard to breathe. No one knew for sure the precise place the water swallowed him, but I did. My body did. It was far out in the ocean, a kind of inner space. Even then I could see a stretch of deadly sea kelp across the horizon, darkening the blue-green.
As we pulled into the resort entrance, Dylan said, “Wow! Daddy built this.”
“He didn’t build it, loser. He paid for it,” Emily said.
“Wait until you see the rooms, guys,” Daniel said. “You’re going to love it here.”
The Seal Cove staff gave us a huge corner suite with a view of the ocean, a basket of melon and apples, and a bottle of Paso Robles Pinot Noir. Dylan said, “I want to live here,” and then stood in the middle of the living room, tapping his index finger on his chin. “Or maybe in my next life, when my soul comes back again. Not right now, while I’m still Dylan.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Great—my son’s a frigging Shirley MacLaine.”
“Where did you learn about reincarnation, Little D?” I asked, exhilarated by his awareness of a soul.
“From Emily,” he said.
“Maybe you’ll come back as a seal.” Emily laughed and claimed “dibs” on the queen bed in the second room, leaving Dylan to fiddle with the cushions of the couch.
Flicking a switch, Daniel ignited the fireplace, lifted a large, loose-leaf notebook from the glass table, and sat on an overstuffed chair. The sun’s energy had drained from Daniel’s freckled face, leaving him pallid; his hair, usually a warm copper, lacked pigment—he’d been spending too much time at the office. “What’s your mood for dinner?” he asked, culling through the menus. The blue flame hissed through the hollow logs. “We can do Asian fusion.” He appeared to study one menu selection more closely. “This place looks like it has decent seafood. And they’ve got your favorite: steak au poivre.”
“Whatever you like, D,” I said, moving toward the veranda to take in the view. Since quitting my job at Foodie, I deferred to Daniel on restaurants, especially given how my career at the magazine ended. Unsure whether to continue outside, I opened the sliding glass doors and hovered near the threshold. The sea blurred menacingly into the sky. Ocean mist drifted in, mingling with the smell of gas from the artificial fire.
After choosing restaurants for the next few nights, Daniel rallied us for a walk on the grounds. There were barely any people around—the property was too new—and I clung to the clean, quiet perfection of the place. A fountain with shiny seal sculptures centered the outdoor landscape, which was scattered with patches of fresh green sod. Salmon-pink cement paths with newly planted pansies lined the barren sea cliffs, awaiting the growth of shrubs. But with the ocean roiling in the backdrop, the rootlessness unsettled me, the futility of everything waiting to change. A couple of wind-blown umbrellas were the only signs of motion at the pristine infinity pool, which, with a trick of my eye, flowed into the murky water below.
We headed down some lacquered wooden steps to the beach, no longer resort territory, where tattooed teenagers lay splayed in the sand, wetsuits and beer cans strewn about. The moment we stepped onto the beach, Emily drifted toward them, higher on the shore. Dylan’s feet burned, and I carried him, his sand-scorched heels knocking against my knees, until he spotted Daniel, who had moved off to the base of a cliff and was surveying a newer part of the property from a low angle. Dylan squirmed from my arms and ran toward his dad.
“How about a swim?” I heard Daniel asking the kids when I caught up. Before I could talk them out of it, Emily and Dylan wriggled from their cover-ups and ran into the surf. Daniel followed them up to his calves, and I sat on the beach, watching them from a distance. Sand flies swarmed the amber-colored kelp around me. The sun was weak, even cool, but the air felt heavy, and I wondered if my father took in this same stench of salt and fish when everything ended. I won’t ever go under the water again. That’s what I’d said, buried in my mother’s bed. With her grief-sour breath on my face, I could never get close enough. It’s cold and dark and you can’t get out. Now my children laughed, splashing in the white foam. All of a sudden, I felt the start of a poem licking the inner tunnel of my ear; it stayed there, tickling me. For an instant, I tasted a salty warmth—a welcome—in the air. Then it vanished.
Growing up, I’d tried not to hate the ocean—my Irish father, a marine biologist, had loved it so. Some of my best moments were the two of us close to the water, combing the tide pools or just sitting together among the mussel beds and dried barnacles during summer weekends in Monterey. “There’s a brilliant forest deep below the ocean, love,” he’d said to me one afternoon, pointing toward the horizon.
“A real forest, with trees and animals?”
“Oh, yes, there are trees. And all kinds of creatures, like surgeonfish that cluster and spawn their young on moonless nights and mysterious giant squid that gobble up small whales.”
“Are there fairies?”
“Of course there are fairies. Kelp fairies. I daresay there are thousands of them, translucent little creatures that catch the light and make rainbows.” He pulled me close and whispered, “You see that foam out there, my love? That’s them, the souls of those wee nymphs, churning around, spreading their magic. No harm can come to us now.”
While he took seawater samples in Monterey Bay that afternoon, I kept my eyes on the yellowish-white foam and the bobbing kelp beds for a long time. And later, as the sun went down and the tide returned and we were tiptoeing along the rocky beach, I couldn’t see it any longer.
“The fairies are gone, Papa! Where did they go?”
“Ahh, the dark hour has come,” my father said.
“Will they be back in the morning?” I had to know.
“We mortals can’t know the mysterious ways of the kelp fairies.” He shrugged, his eyes twinkling. “But we’ll keep watch for them, won’t we?”
His stories were always like that—so open-ended.
The next day, Daniel convinced me to take a hike, just the two of us. Although it made me uneasy to leave the kids, we hired a sitter from the hotel, a pale-skinned girl named Alma with gold eyeshadow. When she was out of earshot, Emily begged me and Daniel to ditch Alma and leave her to care for her little brother. “I’m almost thirteen!”
“You’re barely twelve, love bug.” I explained that Alma’s presence was for my own peace of mind, especially around the infinity pool and the open sea.
The hills Daniel chose were in the shadow of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. We spread a map before an elderly park ranger, who fingered a dotted line representing a strenuous hike on a scenic trail overlooking the ocean. Since the ranger didn’t breathe well, perhaps emphysema, he spoke to us through a machine that made an ominous whooshing sound after each word. I asked him about the warning signs I’d seen posted on the trees with emergency phone numbers and evacuation instructions. “If…you…hear…a…siren…” he said, pausing between breaths. “Make…your…last…call.” He laughed through the machine, his liquid lungs gurgling, then pulled away and continued, mouth open, teeth exposed, in breathless silence.
As we wound our way up the switchbacks, Daniel talked about a condo complex in the San Fernando Valley he was developing. “The board of supervisors is stalling. Some fringe environmentalists are up in arms about an endangered flower.” He wore his self-assurance in his gait, his shoulders pulled back and his tall stance upright. Even though his midsection had softened, his chest still protruded confidently. And he created in his wake, in the pound of his hiking boots on the dirt trail, just like the determined clip of his polished shoes against the wooden floor in the mornings, a sense of resolve that I envied. “The San Fernando Valley spineflower. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous?”
“I wonder what makes it endangered,” I said, privately glad that someone was watching out for the flowers. Here, wildflowers burst across the hillside. The colors, resplendent, spun inside me, and I felt the sense of another poem pulsing in my chest. The hiking was steep, and I began to lose pace with Daniel, whose strides were long. I tried not to look at the smokestacks on the ridge. I tried not to think of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and the children alone with Alma. But that’s what the poem kept taunting, Three Mile Island and my children, and even the cat reappeared, radioactive. I pushed to keep up. “The kids are okay, right?”
He shook his head. “Seriously? I can’t imagine what you’d do if you didn’t have something to worry about. You might actually enjoy the view.”
Although I wanted to talk about the consumptive park ranger or about the physics of nuclear plant accidents, I knew how it frustrated Daniel to expend energy on my outlandish worries and what-ifs. Despite myself, I divulged a nagging concern. “It’s probably the gold eyeshadow.”
“She actually chose that color.”
“Alma. The babysitter. Before she came to work, she pulled open her drawer and selected gold—which means she either has terrible taste, bad judgment, or she’s the defiant type and is going to do whatever she pleases. It makes it hard for me to trust her.”
“It’s not some corporate job, Marie. She’s a babysitter for Christ’s sake, barely out of high school. Have some perspective.” He pushed ahead. This bubbled up—Honk if you don’t exist.
“I’m ready to turn back now,” I called out. Maybe this was how little Dylan felt when he was hungry or tired, when he couldn’t detect the source of his discontent, when solutions never quite put him at ease.
With an audible sigh, Daniel stopped and pulled his map from the daypack to plan the way down. “This route looks good.” He traced a dotted line with his finger. “Come on.” As I followed behind, he shouted, “Watch the poison oak!” Then, in a more distant voice: “Pick up your pace, babe!” Soon his voice became faint, and he kept disappearing around rocks, bushes, and trail bends.
After I walked for what seemed like a long while without Daniel in sight or sound, my frustration mounted, along with the pressure of silence against the wide expanse of sky and sea. Where did he go? Surely he was just up ahead. But when he was not just up ahead, and then not behind any more trail bends, I grew more nervous. Did I miss a turn? The sun lowered in the sky, turning the distant turquoise water into a dark green. “Am I lost?” My head and body buzzed with concentration. What if Daniel disappeared? What if he never came back? It occurred to me that he carried everything: the map, the nectarine and bag of salt-and-vinegar chips we brought, our cell phones. He had all the water too. I swallowed hard to moisten my throat.
By the time the trail delivered me to the parking lot, the fog was drifting over the sea and my heart was pumping. Across a stretch of empty parking spaces, Daniel sat on the fence of a horse corral, head down, legs dangling, his fingers tapping on his cell phone. “Hey. I was about to send out a search party.” He jumped off the fence and walked over to me. “What took you so long?”
As much as I tried to hold back, my eyes welled up, stinging. “Why did you disappear like that?”
He looked at me in that peculiar way he always did when I wept, part alarm, part longing, and now I detected something else, perhaps pity—or disgust. “I thought you were right behind me.”
I stared at the wildflowers in the horse corral until my eyes blurred them into a purplish haze.
“I’m sorry, okay?” he said. “Let’s try not to ruin our whole vacation over this.”
My anger receded some and then flowed back, causing my stomach to churn. Why was I so afraid? No answer appeared. Only this: Daniel must never again carry all of the water.
Returning from the hike, I found Dylan in the large infinity pool, splashing around the deep end. He was alone. At a glance, no one appeared to be watching. I stood frozen for a moment, the horror collecting in a little puddle inside me until I spotted Alma near the seal fountain, chatting with a blue-uniformed pool man, loosely facing Dylan, and then Emily dozing on a lounge chair off to the side, eyes closed to the sun.
Lying in our crisp hotel bed that night, the day still lingered: the taste of paranoia and nostalgia, the strain of staying solid, the cold, indifferent sea. Even with Daniel’s freckled arm against my nightshirt, I could feel him disappearing again. Or perhaps me—Dissolving.
“I killed something,” I said, blurting it out with surprising relief—part confession, part declaration—as though my words had the power to bring something crucial, if stubbornly fragile and elusive, to the surface.
“What did you say?” The news played on the television, its light flickering across us.
“I know it sounds crazy to mention it now but I ran over something. Last month. I think it was a cat.”
“Okay.” Daniel’s eyelids were heavy. “How did you manage that?”
“I don’t know, D. But the thing is—I think I may have killed it.” The anguish came creeping back. “I looked everywhere. I still feel terrible.”
“No point in worrying now.” He lifted the remote from the wave-patterned bedcover, punching up the sound a notch. “If it’s a cat, consider yourself lucky.” He laughed a little. “They have nine lives.”
Later, while Daniel and the kids slept, I moved onto the balcony and listened to the hollow sound of the tide lapping on the beach. With a deep breath that made my throat ache, I wondered at that vast expanse of water, the ancient history and mysteries it contained. Did it ever change? Could it replenish or renew itself? Or did it continue as it had since the beginning of time, shifting only the sand or the kelp or some lost souls in its way? The black sky dazzled me. It seeped into the ocean and deepened into space. All at once: skyless.
Back in our suite, I sat at the small, wooden desk, pulled from its drawer some stationery, and stared at the watermarked page. I thought of a poem I’d written many years ago called “Before and After.” I wrote the “Before” part while still a virgin, and only days after writing it, with a burst of courage, I left a college dorm party with a senior named Jay Rockmore, rode on the back of his motorcycle to Inspiration Point, and had awkward, ecstatic sex with him on a damp sliver of dirt. The next morning I wrote “After”—a graphic description of this slippery rite of passage, a meditation on the inevitable merging of desire, fear, and compromise—and I joined both halves together into a poem, which I still considered my best work. Other poems came to mind too, like “Sea Fairing,” a poem about my father that I recited at my college graduation, and “Buttermilk Falls,” about a tragic accident in which two Cornell students had either slipped or jumped to their deaths in a gorge. I’d won an award for that one—the searchlight on the falling water left a lasting impression. And now I began a new poem, the first I’d attempted in fifteen years. Throughout the night I played with it, working steadily, even joyfully, until the ink-black void muted into dawn.
I had no sense of where this poetry would take me. It simply felt good—not defiant or resistant, rather natural and graceful, a kind of patient stillness. When at last we were on the highway heading home, both the children asleep in the back, headlights shining in my eyes, Daniel asked, “So what did you think, Marie? Pretty amazing, huh?” I wasn’t sure whether he was asking for my thoughts on the resort or our short family trip, but I didn’t ask him to clarify. Turning from the oncoming traffic, I rolled down the window to let in the night and the smell of the sea. There was barely a moon. Except for the slight shimmer from some distant stars, I didn’t see anything on the ocean. I knew that time: it was the dark hour when all signs of life disappeared from the surface. And I must have understood: I was churning inside, underneath, getting ready to break free.
© Andrea Malin
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Andrea’s interview]