Read part 1 here.
After dinner, we walked down to the beach. We stopped at a semicircular piece of shoreline surrounded by cliffs. Along the sand, wooden chairs and umbrellas ringed a few open fire pits. The world glowed yellow-orange. Cam placed some logs in a perfect triangle in the middle of the fire pit. Todd and Amy walked off across the beach to examine the tide pools near the spot where the cliff curved back into the water. I sat on a beach chair and watched the fire flicker to life.
As he walked along the sand, Todd raised his arms up to his sides like a little kid play-acting an airplane. He picked up a small stone and skipped it, four times, into the receding tide. It made him so happy to be here with the people he loved. The beach mattered to him. All of Todd’s favorite memories revolved around it. His family had grown up in Santa Monica, in a wooden bungalow along the shoreline. He had gone surfing with his brothers, and sailing on rented boats in the marina with his dad. When Todd was fifteen, his dad disappeared. The family hired a detective, and then couldn’t afford to keep paying him. Todd’s brothers were convinced he ran away with another woman. Todd’s mom didn’t talk about it. Todd had said that they were wrong. His dad had probably just gotten caught in a riptide. Maybe he went out to surf one morning, he told me, and lost his bearings in the water. Maybe his body simply drifted away. Maybe someday, I imagined Todd thinking, the sea would wash it back ashore.
“That was her favorite color.” Cam pointed at the navy blue water. “Mom’s.”
I had never heard him talk about her before. “Uh huh,” I said.
She had studied art history in college, Cam said, but she had given up her career and married Todd. Still, he remembered how she used to read him books about the Renaissance, as if she were remembering a part of herself that had stopped existing. Maybe that’s because the rest was busy ferrying Cam and Amy to school, to soccer practice. She cleaned. She bought snacks. She decorated for Halloween and Christmas. Decades passed. She got sick.
“She came to my graduation,” he said. By now, the fire had reached the larger logs and seemed to pull the wood toward its center as it crumbled. The rest of the world was a purplish blue. “It was a month before she died. She came, and she was wearing this ugly blonde wig. Her skin was pale and she looked hollow.”
“And I just thought — why bother? Why hurt yourself to see something so stupid?”
I could barely remember whether my parents had come to my own graduation. They must have, but separately — mom on her own, dad with a girlfriend. I told Cam that things like graduations were important. They were rituals, signs designed to prove how much we care for each other. We work hard for each other. We sacrifice. Or we don’t, I thought, we just move. Across the country. Into ourselves. We watch other people sacrifice. We watch other people change.
I flew back to Connecticut four years ago, I told Cam. My dad was dying. Mom came to see him in the hospital. They hadn’t talked in over a decade. But she came, sweeping her thin, sun-spotted arm in front of his younger girlfriend. She spent the entire time interrogating the doctor about treatment: “Will this really help him?” “Are you sure?” She opened the curtains. She insulted the flower arrangement. She squeezed his hand in hers, briefly, before she left the room.
“I say make the big gestures, because,” I said — I didn’t have the right way to phrase it. “I don’t know. Maybe sometimes it’s worth fighting.”
Cam frowned. He turned back toward the ocean. The line between sand and water was starting to blur, but you could still make out Todd and Amy’s silhouettes as they wandered back along the beach. Todd kicked his bare heels through the sand as he went, ignoring the pain he must have felt from stepping on little rocks and twigs. He looked at me and smiled, as if no one we knew had ever gone away.
“I found a ring in his drawer,” I said. I was in Todd’s bedroom. He was in the bathroom brushing his teeth. “I don’t know — it must have been twenty years ago, but I found a ring in his drawer.”
This was the part I hadn’t yet told Todd. When Jason and I had broken up, I had the job of separating our stuff. Among his underwear — Jason was never very neat — I found a little black box. I opened the box, took out the diamond ring, and slipped it on my finger. It was a cool and windy afternoon, the kind that seems made of a woolen gray light. I moved my hand in front of the window, and watched the ring scatter reflections across the floor. I had imagined Jason’s proposal before when he and I had first moved to the city, with the giddiness of someone who was skipping a grade, moving straight into real maturity — and then I had started to dread it. I learned I couldn’t have kids. I started to imagine us, old and resentful. He must have bought the ring before my depression set in, before I started picking fights whenever I could.
I put the ring back in the box, slipped the box into a pair of briefs and those briefs into a larger cardboard crate. The next day, I left all of Jason’s stuff outside the door of his parents’ townhouse.
Todd walked into the bedroom in his bathrobe. “I knew you were full of surprises, Annie,” he laughed. “I didn’t know there were this many.” He sat down next to me on the bed, cradling my hand in his. “Tell me,” he said. “Who got you the nicer ring?”
“He did,” I said.
I didn’t have to tell the truth, and I wondered why I had. Maybe I wanted him to know that I had once loved Jason — that gawky blond guy who talked all the time but who never managed to say anything unexpected. I had to admit, when I went through Jason’s stuff that day, I had expected to find the ring.
I had to admit the other thing to Todd too — that it did not bother me, then, to know my future in advance. I was going to marry. I was going to stop thinking. Maybe it wasn’t love I felt then, but a peculiar strain of comfort. But I wanted Todd to know that I had felt it once. Once, I was simply going to be happy.
Todd laughed. He loved me more than Jason had. The story of my ring was just another incident from my past, and weren’t we going to forget the past? He had placed himself at the end of it all anyway. Whatever I had suffered, he decided, he would make up for it.
“Do you pity me,” I asked. “For not having all the things that you’ve had?”
“Of course not,” Todd said, too quickly, in reply.