Two years after her mother’s death, Jane’s boyfriend asked her to marry him, and nine months later, they moved across the country to start their new life. Jane was twenty-nine, ready to step away from Phoenix after a hard few years. Ryan had taken a job at a recording studio in Tennessee, and he pointed out that the public schools there were as bad as the ones in Arizona, so she could easily fail teaching fourth graders in either place. Her father was a kind, if distant, ichthyologist, and he seemed to think the move was maybe not ideal, but maybe not a bad idea. Jane was excited to start over. She’d been adopted when she was six, and she thought of six as the beginning of her real childhood. As they drove out of town, she decided twenty-nine was the beginning of her real adult life.
Three weeks after the move, Jane and Ryan went out for drinks with two other couples, one from Ryan’s new job, one they’d met playing trivia at a bar. Afterward, they argued about whether to park their Toyota in their overgrown driveway or on the street, and then about whether they should have left the porch light on, as it was now the center of a thick swarm of bugs. They kept arguing after they went inside. Jane realized as she was brushing her teeth that this was one of those fights that happens because someone needs it to happen.
She could see Ryan in the bathroom mirror, sitting on the arm of the living room couch, looking brilliant and restless as he talked. He was always his most beautiful when gearing up to push someone into an epiphany. She rinsed off her toothbrush and turned around.
“You’re not cheating on me, right?” she said. It wasn’t something she had been planning to ask or had even thought about consciously.
Ryan laughed. He stood up as if to leave, then sat down again.
“You’re not,” Jane said. “You are?”
Ryan started to cry.
He left at 5 A.M., acting contrite and mysterious. She watched him pack up his messenger bag and turn off his laptop. She couldn’t tell if he was leaving because it was required after such a revelation or because she’d asked him to go. Instead of talking about it, he’d wept into his hands while she watched, too stunned to feel, and then he’d gone into their bedroom while she sat on the couch, surprised at her own stiff posture. When he finally came out, two hours later, looking wept through, she’d gotten them each a bottle of seltzer water. Ryan drank half of his while she held hers close, the glass a cold ache on her skin.
“I don’t understand,” she said, and he nodded as if the situation was incomprehensible. But she was confused about the basic facts: Who? Here or there? Was it over? Why?
She followed him outside.
“I’ll call,” he said. “Please remember that I love you.”
She began to understand that he was leaving because he had somewhere to go, and then he was driving away, and she was alone, standing barefoot in the street in a neighborhood she did not know. It was still dark. A possum scuttled across the road in a hunch. Jane went inside and threw her bottle of water right through the bedroom window.
By noon, any notion she’d had of strength or independence was gone. Incompatible sensations rolled through her body. She was angry and started to cry. She felt sad and decided to go for a run, but halfway through changing, she was angry again and couldn’t find her shorts. She gathered the clothes on the bedroom floor and shoved them into the washing machine. She needed to tell someone, but her oldest friend, Allie, was on Fulbright in Malawi. Her other best friend had just had a baby.
Jane’s rage felt contagious. Her dog was hiding under the couch, and when Jane tried to coax her out, Sudie lay on her paws and gazed out with worried black eyes. Jane sent a text to Allie explaining what had happened. Allie didn’t have her phone in Malawi, so she’d see Jane’s message in ten and a half months. In the meantime, Jane practiced the conversation in her mind. “What happened,” she imagined Allie asking. “What are you going to do now?”
She felt inadequate to the task of self-care, and this frightened her. Everything in the apartment had Ryan in it. Four of his unpacked boxes lined the living room wall, as if he hadn’t planned to live there long. He’d been very frisky lately, and in movies, when someone cheated, they became more amorous at home. He’d been frisky in Phoenix, too, and in the hotels on the drive over. So had she, unlocked by their adventure, a leap of faith that left her feeling clean and light. Thinking of this now, she felt ashamed. She’d always thought of people who were cheated on as being complicit or in denial. Now she was one of those, maybe both.
The desire to call her mother was physical, a clamp in the back of her throat. It wasn’t a good idea to call her dad. After Jane’s mother died, he’d napped all day for five months, dropping all his research projects, and only in the last year had he come back to himself again. Plus, she’d never called him about a man. She liked to talk to him when she was doing well.
She examined the jagged hole in the broken bedroom window. She could not believe how easily the glass bottle had gone through. Because they were in an old house, the hole was self-contained—just one pane in the lower left-hand corner.
When her phone buzzed and she saw a text from Allie, an ancient part of her thought something magical had finally happened. But it was Allie’s mother, texting to say that she and Allie’s father were using Allie’s phone to navigate to Michigan State. They hadn’t meant to snoop, but they’d seen Jane’s text. Was she all right?
A quick horror zipped up Jane’s spine. She texted back that she was fine, sorry to worry them, and she hoped their trip went well, which was a ridiculous thing to add. Allie’s parents were older than hers, but they’d become friends when the girls were in high school. Jane had once been required to write a letter of apology to Allie’s dad for backing his truck into a pecan tree. Remembering this now, she felt quiet and far away, like a satellite blown out of orbit. She waited a minute, and when no one responded to her text, the problem of Ryan swept right back through her chest.
They’d arranged the front room as an office, and she stood on the window seat with her hands on the cool glass, looking out at the dogwood tree. An empty bird’s nest rested on a branch at eye level. Across the street, her neighbors were fencing in their giant yard, yellow boards stacked by the road, white twine strung between sunken posts to guide whoever had to nail them. Beyond this, the trees were every shade of green and brown. The shape in their branches was infinite, nothing like the picture-book trees she’d imagined when she’d thought about moving here from the desert. Beyond the trees, the mountains were a chalky blue ribbon lining the back of a curving sky.
When a couple pushing a stroller walked by, Sudie erupted, lunging against the window seat, her front paws skidding across the wood. She barked ferociously.
“What are you doing?” Jane yelled. “Stop!”
The dog fled to the living room. Jane realized she was standing in the window like someone trapped in an asylum. She sat down. When they’d first arrived, she’d imagined working here in the shadow of the moving leaves, grading spelling tests and making lesson plans. Now she wasn’t even sure she wanted to teach. It was part of their short-term plan, a way to stay afloat while Ryan broke into the music industry.
Her father sent a text saying to please call him ASAP, and Jane knew Allie’s parents must have contacted him. This was infuriating and relieving. She sent him a text saying she was sorry to have bothered everyone, and she’d call in the morning. Before he could respond, she wrote, “I promise I’m okay.”
As soon as it went from daylight to dusk, a high panic rose in her chest. She texted Ryan to please call her.
He texted back, “We can’t talk until you calm down.”
The sun was about to set. The creeing noise of 10,000 bugs had reached its climax and half the trees looked sad, while the other half looked illuminated in a holy way. From the window, she could see the pale bark high on a tree a block away because of the way the evening light penetrated through its branches. A bird with a tiny voice started making noises near the roof. Jane needed to eat something, but her stomach felt too tight. She lured Sudie out from under the couch by pouring her a bowl of food. The dog looked at her in such a curious and sweet way that Jane lay down on the floor to watch her eat. She knew, because her mother had confessed, that they’d gotten their first family dog when Jane was in ninth grade because her parents hadn’t liked the boy she was dating. Teenage girls need something to love, her mother had said.
Jane ate a banana. She filled a glass with water. She folded two baskets of wrinkled but clean clothes. She listened to the sound of a train, one of the only things left that could call her back to pre-childhood. That and birds, the way they came from somewhere, flew across the top of her life, then went somewhere far away. She tried to look out the front window but now it was dark, reflecting her to herself. She pulled the cord to lower the dusty blind.
If she were in charge of someone else, what would she tell them to do? She’d tell them to make a bed on the couch. She did this using her old sleeping bag.
At 9 P.M., she texted Ryan again. “I’m calm,” she wrote.
When he didn’t respond, she wrote, “Why do I have to be calm? You cheated on me.”
“This is what I mean,” he wrote back.
“I’m sorry,” she started to type, but then her chest seized up with a combination of anger and self-hatred. This might be one of those moments that could define you, where you turned into someone weak if you acted weak. She held down the power button until the phone went dark.
When she turned the phone back on, she called her dad. She heard him fumble with his phone as he pulled it out of his pocket. As soon as she heard his voice, she started to cry. She held the phone upside down so he wouldn’t hear. She could picture him in striped pajamas, sitting on the side of his bed. He would not touch her mother’s side. Then she remembered the time difference; it was 9:30 here, 6:30 in Arizona. She re-imagined him in shorts and a polo looking at scatterplots on his laptop. Reading glasses on. Between them lay most of the country, arid and dry, brown and green, cut into massive perfect shapes in the west, circular fields for the mechanical irrigation, carved in jagged, squarish patches where she lived now, where everything was smaller, older, and more green. The Colorado River and all the rivers, full of his fish.
“Jane?” he said. “I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
As a kid, she’d learned to smile when she thought she might cry, and she could feel herself doing this now. It worked; her body stopped shaking.
“What are you doing right now?” he said. When her mother asked this, she meant: What are you up to? When her father asked, he meant: Where is your physical body and what are you doing with it?
“I’m standing in the living room doorway,” she said.
“Are you thinking of the salmon runs? Or even better, the trout?”
Jane smiled. “No, but I’m glad you’re going back out.”
“Someone has to count the fish,” he said.
“Someone has to count the bears.”
She heard his old self in his voice, and even in this horrible moment, the familiarity surprised her. “You sound just like you again,” she said.
“Are you safe?”
“Of course. I’m at our house.”
“What would help?” he said. “What can I do?”
She wondered what Allie’s mother had told him. The idea of them talking about her being cheated on filled her with a slow and chilly shame.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just really need to talk to Mom.”
Her dad sighed. His sighs weren’t passive-aggressive; he was just a person who took deep breaths. She had picked up this habit from him. Why had she brought up her mother? She’d tried not to shove her grief on top of his, but now here she was.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I really wasn’t trying to bother everyone. I was trying to text the future.”
She could hear her dad opening a door, maybe the bedroom or a closet.
“What are you doing right now?” she said.
“The light in the living room is out, so I’m hunting for a bulb. This hall closet is a disaster. But now I’m sitting down. I’m in the living room. I’m sitting down.”
She heard him sit dramatically in his armchair.
“Why don’t you tell me what you’d tell Mom?” he said. “Maybe I can think of what she would say back.”
“You’ll think it’s stupid. You’ll say I’m circling the drain.”
“Circling the wreckage,” he said. “You’re not circling the drain.”
“He’s not staying here. And I don’t know where he is.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“But I keep texting him.”
Her dad was quiet for a few seconds. “You know,” he said, “I’ve had the strangest thoughts this month. About your mom. It’s very dull in the lab right now. The students don’t come until the first. Sometimes I just think about her. Remembering.”
“I could come home and help,” Jane said.
“It’s okay. I think it’s just passing through. These are quiet days.”
“I guess what I would tell Mom,” she said, “something I wouldn’t tell you, is that I can’t imagine seeing Ryan again. I feel so stupid and embarrassed. But I need to see him. I know that’s pitiful. I hate him, but I need to talk to him. He’s who I talk to. He’s how I calm down.”
“Honey,” her dad said. “I think you’re probably in shock.”
“Maybe.” Jane realized she was pacing and forced herself to stop. “Maybe I need a strong drink,” she said.
“You absolutely need a strong drink. Why don’t you call a girlfriend and go out?”
“I don’t know anybody. We have the same new friends. I don’t even know why we moved here. We’re so far away.”
“Okay, okay,” he said.
“Sorry.” She didn’t want to sound crazy, but she currently was, and this is why she hadn’t wanted to talk to her dad. She could picture him taking off his glasses and scratching the skin above his ears. Looking at the television longingly. He hated feeling helpless.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I could use a drink myself. Why don’t you have a drink with me?”
Jane laughed. “I think I just need to lie around and be crazy and full of rage,” she said.
“Plenty of time for that. Let’s have a drink. Do you have anything? Don’t argue because I’m already up. I’m walking to the kitchen. Here’s the freezer. Look at this picture of you in your bathing suit. Wearing fucking water wings. Those things were god-awful to put on. Why we have them memorialized on the fridge I’ll never know. I guess it’s your goofy face. What a goofy kid. Anyway, the freezer is open. I’m getting ice.”
Jane went into the kitchen. Earlier, she’d put the clean laundry in piles on the table, and now it surprised her to see it sitting there so neatly. In the refrigerator, she found two bottles of beer in the crisper, lying beneath three orange bell peppers.
“Are you there?” he said.
She pulled a beer out and found the bottle opener shaped like a robot in the utensil drawer. She opened the beer and sat down at the kitchen table, resting her elbows on her clean socks. She smelled the lip of the bottle; it didn’t smell like peppers. When she took a sip, the beer was cold and cracking in her throat.
“I’m here,” she said.
“Good. I thought of something Mom would say. She’d say to remember you have choices.”
“That would be annoying,” Jane said. “I chose Ryan. We’re engaged. But I’d feel stupid planning to marry someone who cheated on me.” She heard her voice losing its certainty as she spoke. “I mean, no matter what, we can’t be together now. Right? Don’t you think?”
“I’m not thinking,” he said. “I’m being Mom. I can tell you that as Mom, I’d be worried. I’d talk to my husband about this late at night. We’d be very concerned if our kid wanted to marry someone who’d been so thoughtless.”
“Even if your kid was me?” she said.
He laughed. She listened to him swallow his drink.
“I just don’t want to keep starting over,” she said. “I hate starting over. And I don’t want to die alone.”
Even as she said this, she thought of her father’s empty house and felt a stab in her lungs. “That’s not what I mean, Dad,” she said.
“How about I be myself?” he said. “Is that okay? I have a drink in me now.”
Jane laughed. She closed her eyes and felt the heat there, behind her eyelids. Too much crying, not enough water.
“How about I tell you my trout story?” he said.
“That sounds good.”
“I think I was your age. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine. I don’t know. The point is, we were working outside the fishery. The drainage system in Northern California was fucked. All those systems were just falling apart. We were worried about the salmon run. We did an excursion all the way up to Washington, to the peninsula. The peninsula was busted. We went underground.”
“To map,” she said.
“That’s right. And then I made my discovery.”
The story was that her father found a trout that was completely colorless. They found it in the tunnel system. The fish was translucent; when he held his flashlight up to it, he could see its organs beneath the skin. He’d never seen a fish like this before. He went back to his room and looked it up, and then he looked it up at the library. There were no pictures of trout that looked like the one he’d seen. He came back to the tunnel the next day and found more. He thought he had discovered a new subspecies. He showed his buddy. They spent two weeks watching these pale fish. They stopped exploring the underground cave system. They stopped mapping. They used up their grant money.
“Anyway,” he said, “you know the ending.”
“You put the fish in a bucket and by the time you got to the lab it was trout colored.”
“Exactly the coloring of your average male trout,” he said.
He laughed. Every time he told this story, he laughed at exactly the same point. “It doesn’t take a genius to realize a trout in the dark might look pale,” he said. “I was too focused. I was desperate for a discovery. I was tired of mapping the fucking cave system. Anyway, the point is, when I came home, which I did, because it turns out you get canned if you spend two weeks off the grid, I felt like I had ruined my life. I remember getting drunk at the airport, sitting in one of those kill-yourself bars. Watching the businessmen go by. You know the men at the airport? I felt like I had ruined my chance to be one of them. Not a businessman, but you know.”
“A real grownup,” Jane said. While he was talking, she’d changed into her pajamas in the kitchen. Her dog walked in, cautious on the tile, and stood between her feet.
“You never told me that part about the airport,” she said.
“I’m trying to say you’re allowed to make mistakes,” he said. “I don’t know that you’ve ever really believed that.”
Jane tried to squeeze Sudie between her shins and the dog fled. “I was so stressed when we were packing,” she said. “I made things harder.”
“I know you hate it when I say this, but you had a lot of losses, starting very early. And we had a huge loss with your mom. Maybe this is part of that. Isn’t that the nature of grief?”
“But I’m not grieving.”
“Honey, you are grieving.”
Jane started to cry. “If I’m grieving, there’s no hope. So it’s over forever with Ryan. Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s not what I was saying,” he said. “But now, yes, I think it should be what I’m saying.”
Jane finished her beer. She shoved a pile of T-shirts off the table and onto the floor. She got the other beer and opened it and when she turned and saw the shirts on the floor, she felt a rush of anger at herself. She was turning into a caricature. She made herself pick them back up. All she wanted was to go home. But she was home.
“I just don’t want to be here right now,” she said.
Her dad took a breath. “I’m glad you called. I want you to call when you need to. When you want to. More often, is what I mean. I’m sorry if I haven’t been the best talker lately.”
Jane took her beer into the living room and sat on the couch. Beneath her, the sleeping bag felt slippery and nostalgic. She smoothed it with her palm. She knew that as a woman, it was her job to protect herself from her own weakness and need, to not chase after Ryan. She knew that as an adult, it was her job to release her father now, to let him go on with his evening. She was just waiting for the courage.
“I think you’re a good talker,” she said.
“This was so much easier when you were little. You used to get so angry. You were a child with a serious glare. But I could just grab you and tickle you and pretty soon you’d be just fine.”
“Too bad I’m not like that now,” she said. “I wonder why I was so mad.”
“You weren’t mad,” he said. “You were scared. And you had plenty of reason.”
Jane lay down on the sleeping bag. Sudie hopped onto the couch and slid on the strange fabric. She curled up between Jane’s ribs and the back cushion. “Maybe I’m scared right now,” Jane said. “To go to sleep. When I wake up, I’m not going to be engaged anymore.”
“Honey?” he said. “I just made my second drink. I’m about to read an article about freshwater trout. It might be interesting, but nothing mind-blowing. I’ve got my eye on this guy because he’s doing some interesting things, but he hasn’t done them yet. What I’m trying to say is I don’t have anything I need to do. I’m just going to have my drink and read. If you want me to keep you company, I’m happy to. I don’t know if that helps.”
Jane looked at Sudie. “Can we never talk about this later?” she said. “I don’t think this is ever going to feel like a funny story.”
“On my honor.”
“It feels too weird to ask you to keep me company.”
Her pajama pants were too loose and slid up her body, and she used her heels to pull them back into place. She tried to move the dog so they were both lying lengthwise, but Sudie insisted on staying curled up, taking up most of the couch. She rested her head on Jane’s stomach. Jane breathed in against the weight of the dog’s head.
“What’s going on over there?” her dad said.
“I’m just trying to make room. I’m trying to think of something interesting to tell you. I haven’t slept in two days.”
“Want me to read to you? It knocked you right out when you were a kid.”
Jane felt herself blush. “I don’t want you to think this is what I’m like,” she said.
“I’m fairly familiar with what you’re like. Want to me to tell you about how they found actual salmon DNA inside a living tree?”
“Well too bad. I’m saving that story for another day. It’s just too good.”
“Come on,” she said. “That would cheer me right up.”
“Nope. The deal is, I’ll read this article out loud, or I can sit here with you on the phone and read to myself. I’m going to try and put myself on speaker right now. If I lose you, I’ll ring you back. Hang on one second.”
Jane turned off the lamp beside the couch so she was lying in the dark. She pressed her palms against the slippery vinyl sleeping bag. She heard a creak in the kitchen, the refrigerator settling. She held her body very still. And then she remembered standing in her new room when she was a young child, watching her mother, a stranger with long shiny hair, pulling book after book off a small blue shelf. This one’s about a ghost, she’d said to Jane. Oh this one’s about a bear. She wanted Jane to choose, but Jane didn’t know how to read or what to do with a book, so she was too scared to move or speak. Afraid her new mother would leave, or stay.
Jane put her hand on the dog’s head. She never remembered her life that early. She hadn’t felt tearful about her mother in a while. She heard more fumbling through the phone, a sound like fabric folding, a clicking noise in Arizona.
“Can you hear me?” her dad said. He sounded hollow because of the speaker phone.
Jane cleared her throat.
“Can you hear me?” he said again. He didn’t wait for her to answer. “Great,” he said. “This is very good. It’s nice for me to have company. Now close your eyes.”
Jane closed her eyes and started laughing. She opened them again. “This is embarrassing,” she said. “What about my self-respect?”
She took a deep breath. The living room was dark, but the light from the street started to give shapes. Her television hulked in the corner. Ryan’s television. She waited without speaking to see what her dad would do, but he didn’t do anything. She closed her eyes and they immediately filled with the most private, nighttime tears. The shape of Ryan’s shoulder blade, the heat of him, the plans he’d whispered to her at night. The awful twist of love in loss. She opened her eyes.
“My eyes are closed,” she said to her dad. She wasn’t sure if she’d said thank you. Or if she’d ever get to thank him for anything.
“Perfect,” he said. “This is so good for me. I haven’t put a cub to bed in a long time. It’s all coming back now. You don’t have to fall asleep. You can stay awake as long as you want. Just don’t move. And don’t open your eyes.”
“I remember this trick,” she said.