Beth is alone in her house, listening to the storm, wondering what to do next. To be fair, she’s not really alone. Jimmy is upstairs sleeping. But she feels alone. It’s ten in the morning, and the girls are at school, and Jimmy will sleep until at least noon. She’s curled up on the couch, sipping hot cocoa from her favorite blue mug, watching the fire in the fireplace, and listening.
Rain and sand spray against the windows like an enemy attacking. Wind chimes gong repetitive, raving-mad music, riding gusts from some distant neighbor’s yard. The wind howls like a desperately mournful animal. A desperately mournful wild animal. Winter storms on Nantucket are wild. Wild and violent. They used to scare her, but that was years ago when she was new to this place.
The radiator hisses. Jimmy snores.
She has already done the laundry, the girls won’t be home for several hours, and it’s too early yet to start dinner. She’s grateful she did the grocery shopping yesterday. The whole house needs to be vacuumed, but she’ll wait until after Jimmy is up. He didn’t get home from work until after 2:00 a.m.
She wishes she had the book for next month’s book club. She keeps forgetting to stop by the library to check it out. This month’s book was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It was a quick read, a murder mystery narrated by an autistic teenage boy. She liked it and was especially fascinated by the main character’s strange inner world, but she hopes the next one will be a bit lighter. They typically choose more serious literature for book club, but she could use a pleasant escape into a hot summer romance right about now. They all could.
A loud bang against the back of the house startles her. Grover, their black Lab, lifts his head from where he’s been sleeping on the braided rug.
“It’s okay, Grove. It’s just Daddy’s chair.”
Knowing a big storm was on its way, she told Jimmy to take his chair in last night before he left for work. It’s his “cigar-smoking” chair. One of the summer residents left it on the side of the road in September with a sign taped to it that read FREE, and Jimmy couldn’t resist it. The thing is trash. It’s a cedar Adirondack chair. In most places on Earth, that chair could weather a lifetime, but on Nantucket, the salty, humid air eventually degrades everything but the densest man-made composite materials. Everything needs to be extraordinarily tough to survive here. And probably more than a little dense.
Jimmy’s moldy, corroded chair belongs at the dump or at least in the garage, as Beth wisely suggested last night. But instead, the wind has just lifted it off the ground and heaved it against the house. She thinks about getting up and hauling the chair into the garage herself, but then she thinks better of it. Maybe the storm will smash it to pieces. Of course, even if this happens, Jimmy will just find some other chair to sit in while he smokes his smelly cigars.
She sits and tries to enjoy her cocoa, the storm, and the fire, but the impulse to get up and do something nags at her. She can’t think of anything useful to do. She walks over to the fireplace mantel and picks up the wedding picture of Jimmy and her. Mr. and Mrs. James Ellis. Fourteen years ago. Her hair was longer and blonder then. And her skin was flawless. No pores, no spots, no wrinkles. She touches her thirty-eight-year-old cheek and sighs. Jimmy looks gorgeous. He still does, mostly.
She studies his smile in the photo. He has a slight overbite, and his eyeteeth jut forward a touch. When she met him, she thought his imperfect teeth added to his charm, lending just enough to his rugged good looks without making him look like a hillbilly. He has a self-assured, mischievous, full-out grin for a smile, the kind that makes people—women—put forth considerable effort to be the reason for it.
But his teeth have started to bug her. The way he picks at them with his tongue after he eats. The way he chews his food with his mouth open. The way his eyeteeth stick out. She sometimes finds herself staring at them while he talks, wishing he’d shut his mouth. They’re pearly white in this wedding photograph, but now they’re more caramel- than cream-colored, abused by years of daily coffee and those smelly cigars.
His once beautiful teeth. Her once beautiful skin. His annoying habits. She has them, too. She knows her nagging drives him crazy. This is what happens when people get older, when they’re married for fourteen years. She smiles at Jimmy’s smile in the picture, then replaces it on the mantel a little to the left of where it was before. She takes a step back. She purses her lips and eyes the length of the mantel.
Their fireplace mantel is a six-foot-long, single piece of driftwood hung over the hearth. They found it washed up on the shore one night on Surfside Beach during that first summer. Jimmy picked it up and said, We’re hanging this over the fireplace in our house someday. Then he kissed her, and she believed him. They’d only known each other for a few weeks.
Three pictures are on the mantel, all in matching weathered, white frames—one of Grover when he was six weeks old on the left, Beth and Jimmy in the middle, and a beach portrait of Sophie, Jessica, and Gracie in white shirts and floral, pink peasant skirts on the right. It was taken just after Gracie’s second birthday, eight years ago.
“Where does the time go?” she says aloud to Grover.
A huge, peach starfish that Sophie found out by Sankaty Lighthouse flanks the Beth-and-Jimmy picture on the left, and a perfect nautilus shell, also huge and without a single chip or crack, flanks the Beth-and-Jimmy picture on the right. Beth found the nautilus shell out on Great Point the year she married Jimmy, and she protected it vigilantly through three moves. She’s picked up hundreds of nautilus shells since and has yet to find another one without a flaw. This is always the arrangement on the mantel. Nothing else is allowed there.
She adjusts her wedding picture again, slightly to the right, and steps back. There. That’s better. Perfectly centered. Everything as it should be.
Now what? She’s on her feet, feeling energized.
“Come on, Grover. Let’s go get the mail.”
Outside, she immediately regrets the idea. The wind whips through her heartiest “windproof” winter coat as if it were a sieve. Chills tumble down her spine, and the cold feels like it’s worming its way deep into her bones. The rain is coming at her sideways, slapping her in the face, making it difficult to keep her eyes open enough to see where they’re going. Poor Grover, who was warm and happy and asleep a few moments ago, whimpers.
“Sorry, Grove. We’ll be home in a minute.”
The mailboxes are about a half mile away. Beth’s neighborhood is inhabited by a smattering of year-rounders and summer residents, but mostly summer people live on her route to the mail. So this time of year, the houses are empty and dark. There are no lights on in the windows, no smoke billowing from the chimneys, no cars parked in the driveways. Everything is lifeless. And gray. The sky, the earth, the weathered cedar shingles on every empty, dark house, the ocean, which she can’t see now but can smell. It’s all gray. She never gets used to this. The tedious grayness of winter on Nantucket is enough to unravel the most unshakable sanity. Even the proudest natives, the people who love this island the most, question themselves in March.
Why the hell do we live on this godforsaken spit of gray sand?
Spring, summer, and fall are different. Spring brings the yellow daffodils, summer brings the Mykonos-blue sky, fall brings the rusty-red cranberry bogs. And they all bring the tourists. Sure, the tourists come with their downsides. But they come. Life! After Christmas Stroll in December, they all leave. They return to mainland America and beyond, to places that have such things as McDonald’s and Staples and BJ’s and businesses that are open past January. And color. They have color.
COLD, WET, AND miserable, she arrives at the row of gray mailboxes lining the side of the road, opens the door to her box, pulls out three pieces of mail, and quickly shoves them inside her coat to protect them from the rain.
“C’mon, Grover. Home!”
They turn around and begin retracing their route. With the rain and wind pushing behind her now, she’s able to look up to see where she’s going instead of mostly down at her feet. Ahead of them in the distance, someone is walking toward them. She wonders who it could be.
As they get closer, she figures out that the person is a woman. Most of Beth’s friends live mid-island. Jill lives in Cisco, which isn’t too far from here, but in the other direction, toward the ocean, and this woman is too short to be Jill. She’s wearing a hat, a scarf wrapped around her nose and mouth, a parka, and boots. It would be hard to recognize anyone in that getup in this weather, but surely, Beth must know who it is. There are only so many people who would be out walking in this neighborhood in this weather on a Thursday in March. There are no weekenders or day-trippers out for a stroll on Nantucket today.
They’re a few yards apart now, but Beth still can’t identify her. She can only see that the woman’s hair is long and black. Beth prepares to say Hello, and she’s already smiling when the woman is directly in front of her, but the woman is fixated on the ground, refusing eye contact. So Beth doesn’t say Hello, and she feels sheepish for smiling. Grover wanders over for a sniff, but the woman skirts by too quickly and is then behind them before Beth or Grover can learn anything more about her.
Still curious after a few steps, Beth looks back over her shoulder and sees the woman at the row of mailboxes, toward the far end.
“Probably a New Yorker,” she mutters as she turns around and presses on toward home.
Safe inside, Grover shakes himself, sending water everywhere. She’d normally scold him for doing this, but it doesn’t matter. Just opening the door splashed a bucket’s worth of water into the mudroom. She removes her hat and coat, and the mail falls to the ground. She kicks off her boots. She’s soaked through.
She peels off her wet socks and jeans, tosses them into the laundry room, and slips into a pair of fleece pajama bottoms and a pair of slippers. Feeling warmer and drier and immediately happier, she returns to the front door to collect the mail from the floor, then walks back to the couch. Grover has returned to the braided rug.
The first piece of mail is the heating bill, which will probably be more than their monthly mortgage payment. She decides to open it later. The next is a Victoria’s Secret catalog. She ordered one push-up bra three Christmases ago, and they still keep sending her catalogs. She’ll toss it into the fire. The last piece of mail is an envelope hand-addressed to her. She opens it. It’s a card with a birthday cake pictured on the front.
May all your wishes come true.
Huh, that’s strange, she thinks. Her birthday isn’t until October.
Inside, the words Happy Birthday have been crossed out with a single, confident ballpoint blue line. Below it, someone has written:
I’m sleeping with Jimmy.
PS. He loves me.
It takes her a few seconds to reread it, to make sure she’s comprehending the words. She’s aware of her heart pounding as she picks up the envelope again. Who sent this? There’s no return address, but the postmark is stamped from Nantucket. She doesn’t recognize the handwriting. The penmanship is neat and loopy, a woman’s. Another woman’s.
Holding the envelope in one hand and the card in the other, she looks up at the fireplace mantel, at her perfectly centered wedding picture, and swallows. Her mouth has gone dry.
She gets up and walks to the fireplace. She slides the iron screen aside. She tosses the Victoria’s Secret catalog onto the fire and watches the edges curl and blacken as it burns and turns to gray ash. Gone. Her hands are shaking. She clenches the envelope and card. If she burns them now, she can pretend she never saw them. This never existed.
A swirl of unexpected emotion courses through her. She feels fear and fury, panic and humiliation. She feels nauseous, like she’s going to be sick. But what she doesn’t feel is surprised.
She closes the gate. With the card and envelope squeezed in her fist, she marches up the stairs, emphasizing each loud step as she heads toward Jimmy’s snoring.