This excerpt and the mounting advance praise for Jac Jemc’s My Only Wife has me excited for April 10th. “Ten years ago the narrator unlocked the door of a wrecked apartment, empty of any trace of his wife. As stunning as her disappearance is his response. He freezes on the facts of her, haunting his recollections. This is the story of a man unable to free himself enough from the idea of a woman to try to find her.” This is a book to watch out for. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
On weekend days during the summer, of our fourth year in particular, we would pack a cooler, pack a bag of towels and books, and head to the beach. Often we’d ride our bikes there, but there were days when we decided to walk the two miles to the lake.
As we got closer the sidewalks got more and more crowded. If we were on our bikes we stayed in the street. If we were walking we parted now and then for the children darting between us. Rollerbladers sailed past, my wife marveling every time at their balance. She, in her clumsiness, had never gotten more than a few squares of cement before tumbling from her height to her knees, jamming the heels of her hands into the ground, imbedding pebbles in her joints and standing again to brush them away. “They move so fast!” my wife would say and look to me for some answer she knew I didn’t have. I wasn’t much better.
When we arrived at the long strip of walkway that ran along the miles of beach, we’d have to wait for a break in traffic. We’d wait for the bikes to whiz past, for the rollerbladers to glide by, for the runners and joggers to get ahead, so we didn’t break their pace.
We never got up early on these summer mornings so the beach was crowded by the time we got there. Broken by docks at which boats never arrived, the first few spans of beach were always packed with people, blanket to blanket, masses of little children weaving in and out between them.
We were in no hurry, though, and so we walked down lengths of beach before we found one that was not so crowded, that seemed a little bit quieter, one where we might relax. Again we crossed through the oncoming traffic to the warm sand, where we kicked off our shoes, and gasped at the heat beneath us. We limped quickly toward the water. We threw our bags down and spread our blanket wide. We whipped our clothes off hastily and raced to the water.
Both of us had been the children who never had the patience to put on sunscreen when they first arrived at the pool. The temptation was too great, and, as kids, we would feign the contentment of setting our beach towels down at the perfect spot, and then throw ourselves into the water with abandon, often shocking ourselves with how cold the water was compared to our warm expectations. We were relieved that both of us had been that child in the group and that neither of us had ever outgrown those instincts.
We agreed that the best part of going to the pool or the beach was the first moment of getting into the water, before you had time to realize how cold it was or to become bored with the floating and splashing.
We raced to the shoreline, didn’t stop when our feet hit wet sand or when we were ankle deep in the freezing water. We didn’t even stop when it was deep enough to begin swimming. We swam until neither of us could touch the bottom. We dove beneath the water and played shark, circling each other beneath the surface. We swam back a ways to where we could stand again, teeth jittering, refreshed. My wife’s long arms now visible above the waterline were covered in goose bumps, and I’d hug her to me for a long while, both of us shivering. I’d keep my arm around her waist as we battled the small waves back to shore.
We would lie on our blankets, still chilled from the cold water living in our skin, but it was never long before the sun baked us dry, and the glisten of sweat would twinkle again along our hairlines; a trickle would escape the crease behind our knees. We’d roll over and let the light shine on our backs, propping ourselves up on our elbows to read books that had waited on the shelf all year.
I watched as stray hairs fell forward, dusting watermarks onto the pages of my wife’s fine hardcover books. I would wince at the stain, lean across and brush the hair back behind her ear. She’d look at me and smile, thinking I was being tender.
I’d lie down and let my eyes rest, heavy from the fresh water drying on them and the overwhelmingly bright sun. Inevitably I would doze off, the sound of plastic shovels in sand and the hiss of pop cans cracking open on all sides.
When I awoke, she was always gone. I wouldn’t worry. I knew she couldn’t be far. I knew she liked to swim and that she didn’t like it when I swam with her or watched her. I knew my wife liked to swim for herself.
When I tried to swim with her, she’d say, “This is not a competition. I know I can swim faster than you, but I don’t want that added stress. I want to swim against myself.”
When I’d watch her swimming, whether I was in the water with her or lying on the shore, she’d later tell me, “I don’t need an audience. It screws up my stroke when I know someone is watching me. Let me feel lonely and private when I swim. For once let me forget that there is always at least one set of eyes on me from some direction or another.”
So she started heading out for her swim when she knew I had fallen asleep on the warm sand. More than once, when I was resting my eyes, she’d whisper my name to see if I was out yet.
“Go swim. I’m not moving for at least twenty minutes,” I’d grumble, half-asleep.
She wouldn’t move from her spot, though. She stayed put until I was truly asleep.
When I awoke, I would sit up on the blanket, and watch for her to return. I knew I wasn’t supposed to do this, but I didn’t care.
Of course, I would see other swimmers before her and think they were her, only to have them approach and show themselves to be other than my wife.
When she was close enough I could tell by the color of her hair, whipping about as she came up for air. I could tell it was my wife because of the glimpses of her swimsuit that snuck above the water when she took an unevenly large stroke.
My wife found her grace when she swam. There is no falling when one is in water. My wife did not have to go up or down in the waves, she hovered near the surface and moved with assurance. Gone was the fear of a misplaced step that so often brought her down to the ground.
When my wife emerged from the lake, slow and dripping, she would set her eyes on me, warning me, threatening me because she knew I’d been watching her. “Flawless,” I’d say. “And I’ve been watching for sometime.”
She would push my shoulder playfully. “You know better,” she’d say and lower herself down onto the blanket, ribs rising and falling with an exaggeration only the weight of water can cause.
She changed the subject. “Once, there was a woman with maps covering her skin. They weren’t tattooed onto her or anything. They had just been there as long as she could remember. Looking at pictures of herself as a child, there were no maps on her skin, but looking at photos of herself when she was a bit older, out of school, she saw them in every photo. They hadn’t formed lightly and darkened with time. They had suddenly appeared, though I remind you that the instance in which they showed up for the first time was not significant in any way, and she did not remember it.
“Sometimes, in boring situations, like watching insufferable romantic comedies or listening to her boss explain the importance of not using the office copy machine for personal business, she would stare down at the exposed parts of the map, on her arms and legs. She would stare longingly at locations, wondering where she was supposed to go, knowing if only she were ever told, she would have the means of finding her way there.
“Other people never brought up the fact that she had a map on her skin, though on occasion she caught people staring curiously and then looking away in public. The map was in no way natural looking. It did not look ancient in a way that might have been misconstrued as some sort of birthmark. It looked like a modern road map. She was unaware of where in the world the streets and roads lining her body might be located, and she never researched where the names might have a common bond, because she never knew exactly what good it would do.
“For the most part the woman liked the map, saw it as something that differentiated her from the rest of the population, and memorized directions from the street above her left breast to the one that ran parallel to it below her right ankle. She memorized other routes as well, but this was her favorite because these two locations – dead end side streets, running one way – seemed the most difficult to find a way between.
“In bed, her husband traced paths along the map, lightly running his index finger, his tongue from her ear to her navel, never cutting between streets, turning at right angles, sometimes rounding corners that caused him to arrive in the least efficient way possible. The woman narrated the directions he was taking. A compass graced the skin of her right hip, indicating which way was north.
“The woman did not know the maps on her back as well as the ones on her front. In the mirror, she attempted to memorize the names, but her neck would tire from craning around, and her eyes would strain from trying to read the names backward. Her mind twisted as she tried to convert east and west through the confused left and right of her mirror image. She would give up sooner rather than later, her hair not yet dry from the shower she had just taken.
“One day the woman was lost and unsure of how to find her way home. She stopped at a gas station, but the attendant didn’t know how to help her. He had never heard of the town she said she’d come from. ‘Where am I now?’ she asked and the man named first the town she was in and then the intersection at which she was located. She recognized the street names from the back of her neck, but did not remember where they were in relation to any of the streets on her front. She asked the attendant if she might use the bathroom and he handed her the key.
“She looked in the mirror and saw nothing but herself. Her clear skin was unblemished by the map which had covered her for so long. She began to weep. She turned around to look at the back of her in the mirror, hoping to see the streets the man had named on the back of her neck, but there was nothing there either. She emerged from the bathroom and asked the attendant if he had seen maps on her skin when she had entered the gas station. The man squinted his eyes at her and said, ‘Maps?’ She asked if he had a map of the surrounding areas that she might use to determine how to get back home. She knew she had not gone far. Wherever she was, she had walked there.
“The man brought out an atlas, but she could not find her town anywhere on the map. She searched for towns that she knew were near her own, but found none of those either. The man asked repeatedly if she was alright. She wept onto his atlas, large watermarks marring the broad pages, and he pulled the atlas away, stashing it again under the counter.
“The man asked if he could call someone to come pick her up. She recited the number of her home telephone, but an automated operator informed first the attendant and then the woman that the number had been disconnected.
“The woman was at a loss. The attendant sat her down behind the counter while she cried. An older woman, who had filled up her car outside came in to pay for her gas, and asked what was wrong. The attendant informed the older patron that the woman was lost. The woman heard the attendant whisper what she had said about there once being maps on her skin. The older lady craned her neck around his shoulder to get a look at the lost woman, still crying but quieting down to hear what the man was saying about her. ‘Isn’t that always the way?’ the old woman called to her.
“The woman looked quizzically back at the old customer. ‘But who needs a map of where you’ve been or where you are? You should be looking for a map of where you’re going.’ The old lady winked and walked out. The lost woman slumped, breathless and unsure behind the counter, as the attendant turned to tell her she couldn’t stay there much longer unless she bought something.” My wife turned her head toward me.
“Where did that come from?” I asked, surprised, a bit lost myself.
“Came to me while I was swimming. I feel like I’ve heard it somewhere before, but I can’t remember where.” My wife brought a hand up and looked at it. She held her hand in front of her face, palm facing out, still pruned from her long swim. I held my hand up to hers. Our palms touched. “We might be told where we’re going before we even know the place exists,” she said, avoiding my eyes.
“It’s true,” I replied, “but if we never know what that place is, why bother thinking about it? Who needs a map when you’re already being carried there?”
Her fingers closed around mine. Our hands fell to the sand between us, grains clinging to her damp wrists.
“I guess that would be the case if you never wanted to return.” Her hand pulled away.