Tidewater Breakdown

By Sarah McCraw Crow

Brian was late getting home — he’d gone surfing with Rob, down at Rudee Inlet, and they’d stayed out a little too long, waiting for one decent spring wave — but even now, Carly’s minivan wasn’t in the driveway. Maybe she’d gone out to pick up dinner, or maybe one of their kids had a game he’d forgotten about.

He found his daughter Bailey alone in their little den.  She’d draped her plump self sideways over a chair, and was watching an old “Full House” episode on TV.

“Where’s Mom?” he asked.

Bailey turned from the screen.  “I don’t know, Dad.  You see her more than I do.”

Both he and Carly taught at Tidewater Country Day School, where Bailey was an irritable seventh-grader, and Luke a second-grader.  But Brian hardly ever saw Carly at school, except for faculty meetings; she taught upper-school English, and Brian stayed over in the science building, where he taught marine biology and whatever else was needed.  This year, pre-biology after lunch to sleepy eighth graders.

Wasn’t this the kind of thing he was supposed to do?  Seduce a pretty junior, have IM sex with her?

In the kitchen, he noticed his GPS device sitting on top of the morning’s unread newspaper. Carly had rolled her eyes when he’d bought the GPS.  “We can go anywhere with this,” he’d said.  Brian’s gadget buying was a reliable fight-starter: He’d bring home wireless speakers for his iPod or an immersion blender for Carly, and she’d start in about his overspending — had he forgotten they were teachers, not hedge fund managers?

“We have maps, Brian,” was all Carly had said about the GPS, and Brian hadn’t reminded her that she couldn’t read a map worth a damn; when they traveled, he had to drive and read the map at the same time.  Anyway, they’d used the GPS in Florida last month, and it had worked fine.  The kids had watched the animated map and mimicked the thing’s British accent until Brian turned off the sound.

Now the device sat on top of a note:

Dear Brian,

I must follow my path.  Garrett’s love has refreshed and renewed me, and now I must help him.  I am suffused with love.

XO  Carly

P.S.  Luke is with me.

P.P.S. Here’s your GPS in case you need it.

The other side of the paper held a quote: The clocks had ceased their chiming, and the deep river ran onAuden. Carly was always copying snippets of poems and leaving them around the house.  She’d done that since grad school, when she mooned around after the business-school guy who’d dumped her.  That was back when Brian was just a friend, someone who brought over beers and made her laugh, and said no, she didn’t look fat, even though he could tell she’d gained twenty pounds since college.  Back then, he’d loved her olive skin, her sleek dark hair, the dimples that appeared whenever she started to smile.

But now this note: Garrett?  Refreshed?  Suffused?  The only Garrett he could think of was Garrett Matthews, a senior at Tidewater Country Day. Brian’s hands felt too big and heavy, his face suddenly hot.  OK, maybe she was making a weird joke, to get his attention, maybe.  To get him to stop wasting his time surfing.  He shoved the note into his pocket.

He and Carly traded funny stories about kids at school, about busting them for public displays of affection, and the kids’ ruffled indignation afterwards.  But Garrett Matthews — curly dark hair, too many teeth in his mouth, too much confidence — had been accused of stealing physics exams from Ms. Portman’s office, and was now suspended until the honor court could meet.  And wasn’t Garrett one of the poets?  The students who braved Carly’s creative-writing class were known as “poets” at TCD.

Slowly Brian got it: Carly had run off with Garrett.  Jesus Christ, my wife is sleeping with a teenager, he thought.

But wasn’t this the kind of thing he was supposed to do?  Seduce a pretty junior, have IM sex with her — that would lose a guy his job, put him on probation or something.  But Carly taking off with Garrett:  It sounded like that crazy teacher in Florida who tried to marry a seventh-grade boy.  But that woman had been barely into her twenties, not a thirty-nine-year-old mom of two.  Jesus, how long had Carly been doing this?  Weeks?  Months?

She’d gotten through half her Ph.D., and then she’d gotten pregnant, and that was that.

Brian had seen Garrett surfing one Saturday last fall, when they’d both been out near the fishing pier. They’d been drawn to the beach by news of Hurricane Stefan, moving slowly up the coast.  “Hey, Mr C,” Garrett yelled, and then he’d paddled over.  “So cool to see the old dudes out here.”  Garrett sat on his board, arms crossed over his wetsuit, like he was an old dude, too.  Brian asked Garrett whether Carly was teaching his English section, and he’d said yes.  “She’s tough, man,” Garrett said.  “Don’t worry, though, everybody likes her.” That day, Brian had smiled at the kid’s hubris; he’d even considered reciting that Yeats poem, “Innisfree,” the way Carly did, slowly and with her eyes closed, as if she were old Yeats himself, because he knew Garrett would think it was funny.  But then he thought better of it.

What a blind moron I am, he thought now.  He rubbed his eyes.  If Carly had really run away with Garrett, then seven-year-old Luke, with his straight dark bangs in his eyes, was zipping down some highway too, belted into his booster seat.  Right now, Carly could be handing out goldfish crackers and singing along with Dan Zanes or Allison Kraus, and Luke would be wondering about the toothy, smiling teenager in the front seat.  Or no, what if Carly said something to Luke, that she loved Garrett now?  Fuck.

“Hey, Dad, what’s for dinner?” Bailey yelled.

He’d been holding his breath; he let it out.  “Working on it.”  He opened the freezer door and pulled out a box of taquitos, then grabbed the phone and punched in Carly’s cell-phone number.  As he waited, he turned on the oven and banged the taquitos out onto a cookie sheet.

“I really can’t talk right now,” Carly answered, in a whisper. He could hear the hum of the minivan, or maybe the wind, in the background.

“Carly? Are you fucking out of your mind?”  Brian was surprised at how loud his voice had gotten.  “With Luke right there?  Bring him back home right now.  Right.  Now.”

“I can’t.”  Still whispering.  “They’re both sleeping, and we’ve got a long way to go.  Don’t worry, we have plenty of snacks, and I’ll stop before I get too tired.”

“You cannot run away with a high-school boy and your own child,” Brian said, more quietly — he didn’t want Bailey to hear him. His words came out in short, strange puffs.  “This isn’t funny!  Think of what you’re doing.  What, you think you’re going to rescue this kid?”

“I don’t need your anger.  And I don’t need you telling me how to be an adult, Brian.  My battery’s running low.”

She was gone.  When Brian hit redial, only her cheerful voicemail — “Hey, it’s Carly!  Leave me a message, OK?” — picked up.

Carly got asked to give talks to Tidewater Country Day alumni more often than Brian did.  Well, she’d gotten through half her Ph.D. coursework, falling into high-school teaching when she’d filled in for another teacher out on leave.  Then she’d gotten pregnant, they’d gotten married, and that was that.  Still, people at school asked her about her thesis — her never-written dissertation on Auden and MacNeice, two poets that Brian couldn’t tell apart — even these days.

Brian wasn’t sure whether his students cared about his specialty: the fragile, dirty Chesapeake Bay.  He knew they liked the field trips to Fort Story, the point where the Chesapeake Bay met the Atlantic.  He and his students would spend a morning netting small creatures for the school’s tanks, the kids flirting and splashing each other.  All his students knew that Fort Story was where the Jamestown colonists had landed — they’d learned that way back in fourth grade. But did anyone else ever wonder why those settlers had left that beautiful point, where you could spot dolphins on one side and endless waves on the other, for swampy, malarial Jamestown?

He sat down with Bailey and tried to eat the taquitos.  Bailey had surprised him, slicing cucumbers and peppers, and setting them on the table with a bowl of dip. Maybe she’d caught on to something.  Bailey and Luke honed in, radar-like, on conflict or sex — one of them would invariably bang into the bedroom on a Saturday morning when he and Carly were about to have sex.

“Christie’s not going back to camp this summer,” Bailey said, about her best friend.  “She thinks she’s too old.”

Brian nodded as Bailey went on about Christie, how she’d changed.  “Sweetie, I need to go pick up some papers from Rob,” he said, improvising.  “Just some legal stuff.  Will you be okay here?”

Bailey gazed at him.  “Dad.  I stay by myself all the time.”

“Just, you know, if you need help with homework, I’ll be back in an hour.”

Bailey didn’t answer him.

Rob and Jane’s street featured the same mix of nineteen-thirties bungalows and miniature Colonials as Brian and Carly’s street, with overgrown loblolly pines and oaks spreading their bumpy roots under the sidewalks.  Brian tripped over those roots as he jogged through the dusk.  At Rob and Jane’s walkway he had to stop to catch his breath and wait for his racing heart to slow.

Now he leaned against the deck railing, holding tight to his beer bottle.  Crickets sawed their high-pitched squeaks somewhere out in the yard, and Navy jets roared overhead on their way back to the base.  He could see Jane, upstairs, moving from room to room; he heard kids’ shrieks and then her voice, raised but indistinct.

He couldn’t focus on what Rob was saying, something about Surfers United, how the group wanted to protest shoreline development down at the south end, but couldn’t agree on how best to do it.  Even surfing wasn’t just surfing anymore; surfers were politically active now, with meetings and lectures about rising sea levels and pollution.  He interrupted.  “Have you noticed weird things going on lately?”

“Weird how?”

Brian took too big a swallow of beer.  “Like that Navy guy whose wife was deployed, and how he put his two little girls to bed, then went out to a bar, because who would ever know, and then crashed his car and died on the way home —”  He stopped.

“People do crazy things,” Rob said.  “Maybe the guy needed a lady friend — his wife was in Iraq, right?  Gone for a year at least.  Can’t blame him.”

Brian nodded, and set his empty bottle down.  “OK, so here’s a legal question. What would happen if someone had a relationship with someone who’s seventeen or eighteen? If they went away somewhere, together, would they be breaking the law?”

He’d been balancing on a broken-down boat, a shipwreck in progress…

“Speaking of lady friends,” Rob said.  “You want to tell me something?”

“Not me.” He waved away Rob’s suggestion.  “Someone at school.  It may be hypothetical, anyway.”

“Mmm.  Hypothetical.  Depends on her age, but it’s only a misdemeanor if the girl is seventeen.  The answer is probably nothing happens until the parents find out, and then all holy hell breaks loose.”

Brian tried to laugh with Rob, as if it were all hypothetical.

“So Jane said that Miss Majors finally retired,” Rob said.

“Yeah, it’s a whole different place lately.”  Brian reached for the beer that Rob had opened.

“Tightass Thompson wouldn’t want to hear that,” Rob said.  Mr. Thompson had been a stickler for dress code and conduct, back when Brian and Rob and Carly had been at Tidewater Country Day.  Back then, if he got word of a party on a Saturday night, he’d drive by, looking to catch misbehaving students.

But Tightass Thompson had retired thirteen years ago, and now their head of school was Betsy Weeks, a psychologist.  She didn’t talk about good conduct; she talked about motives — “What is this girl’s motive?” she’d ask — and personal narratives.  Brian would have to tell Betsy Weeks what had happened, if she didn’t already know.  But then she’d lay her hand on his arm, and tell him they’d work it all out, uncover Carly’s and Garrett’s motives.  She’d smile and say that Tidewater Country Day was their family, and behind them one hundred percent.

At four in the morning, Brian’s dreams came back to him in pieces: He’d been balancing on a broken-down boat, a shipwreck in progress, with his boss from the science magazine in New York, where he’d worked for a year before grad school.  “Solve it, Brian!” she shrieked.  Stupid; a dream that was twenty years late.

Then the boat was gone and he was down in the waves, those big floppy waves that come after a storm, swimming with Bailey and Luke. The waves were bigger than anything he’d ever surfed or swum in real life. The three of them floated high, then down, down into a trough, and then up again.  The kids shrieked and squealed, thrilled by the ride, but he knew he couldn’t bring them back to shore without all of them getting pulled down by the monster waves.  In the dream, the ocean was a gorgeous, translucent blue.  In real life on stormy days, the water was just muddy brown, with foamy, debris-filled caps.

All Brian had wanted to do as a teenager was surf, and he’d gotten into trouble for it. He’d missed team practices; he’d kept his one and only high-school girlfriend, Alice, waiting; he’d scared his mother.  “I thought you were dead!” she’d say every now and then, when he came home late from surfing, even though the waves were rarely more than a few feet high.

Brian sat up in the dark and reached for the phone; Carly’s cheerful voicemail picked up again.  He set the phone down without leaving a message.  Then he picked it back up and tried 911.

“If the Virginian-Pilot calls, give them my number,” the detective said, at the door, before he left the house.

It was almost seven in the morning, and the detective had Carly’s note. He’d written down descriptions of Carly and Luke and what they’d worn yesterday, a black tiered skirt for Carly, her dark hair clipped with a barrette into a low ponytail.  On Luke, a collared knit shirt and khaki shorts.  Names of Garrett’s parents, Carly’s parents (fuck, he thought), school administrators, places Carly would seek out.

There was a heavy scent of something blooming… the scent confused him.

Carly might be having a breakdown, the detective had said.  “Any big fights lately? Problems at work?  Has she had other boyfriends?”  Brian’s throat had tightened and his underarms and groin prickled with sweat.  “And you.”  The detective pointed at him with his pen.  “Do you have a girlfriend?”  Brian could only shake his head no, that he was too stupid, or something, to have a girlfriend.

This detective knew more about Carly than he did, it seemed.  Everyone else probably did, too.  And now Luke would be scarred forever, and Bailey would keep up her surly act long after adolescence. At least he’d get custody.  Or maybe he wouldn’t even get that.

“Dad?”  Bailey had been in her room, door closed, when Brian got home last night, but now she sat on the top stair.  She wore one of Carly’s college T-shirts as a nightie; she’d tugged it over her knees so it covered her new breasts, her floppy belly. Her straight dark hair, so much like Luke’s and Carly’s, curtained her face.

His eyes itched; he’d have to say something.  “It seems your mother has gone on a short trip.  She’ll be back soon, but the problem is she has a senior with her.  And Luke.”

Brian got ready to tell a little more, but she scrunched up her eyes and started to cry.

“She left me behind?”  Her voice rose to a little girl’s pitch.  “Oh, where is she?  I can’t believe Mommy left me!”

He climbed to the top step and sat down; she leaned over and wailed into his shirt.  “She’ll be back soon,” he said.  “They’re probably on their way back right now.  It’s just a crazy mix-up, sweetie.”

She sat up and looked at the front door, where the detective had just stood.  “Why would the Virginian-Pilot call us?”

“There’s no reason for them to call, so they won’t,” he said.

Oh, if I knew then what I know now,” he could hear his mother saying.  She’d say that about the hundred-year-old waterfront house she and Brian’s dad had worked to restore when the boys were little, or about some dumb thing Brian had done, like that time in high school he’d taken her car to the U-2 show up in Richmond and totaled it coming home, near the rest stop on I-64.

And what if Brian had known, way back when, about Carly taking off like this, ditching him for a high-schooler, or about Bailey bawling like she was five years old again — what would he have done?

At school that morning, Brian sat on the couch in Betsy Weeks’ big, carpeted head-of-school office. He’d missed his first class because he could barely get Bailey, weepy and stringy-haired, out of the house.

“Brian, you’ll have to take a leave,” Betsy said.  She wore her sleek gray hair turned under — Carly had said that Betsy let her hair go gray for the effect, for gravitas.  She looked down, fiddled with her glasses.  “Our kids won’t be able to concentrate with all this going on.  Exams are coming up…”  She trailed off.

“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” Brian said.  “I didn’t run off with anyone.”  Jesus, he sounded pathetic.  He wanted to tell her about Carly’s note, the lines of poetry on the back.  He’d googled those two lines and found the whole poem, “As I walked out one evening.”  It sounded like something you’d read to a child, and right there in the middle was the phrase Carly used to say at bedtime to Bailey, and then Luke, when they were toddlers.  “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you/Till China and Africa meet,/And the river jumps over the mountain,/And the salmon sing in the street.” He’d always thought it was a nursery rhyme he’d missed out on as a boy. The lines from the back of Carly’s note came at the end; as best he could tell, she’d left out the only lines that mattered: “It was late, late in the evening,/The lovers they were gone;/The clocks had ceased their chiming,/And the deep river ran on.”  But what could he say now?  Oh, and another thing, Betsy, my wife’s been sending me adultery-related messages through old poetry that I can’t understand?

He leaned around the library lamp on Betsy’s desk, and tried again: “We need to keep up our routines, right?  Isn’t that the thing?”

“Kids need their routines, absolutely.  And Bailey should stay in school, if she’s willing.  But your presence here this week will only disrupt our upper-schoolers’ routine.”  Betsy folded one hand over the other.  “I’m so sorry, Brian.”  She stood up, so Brian had to do the same.  She half-smiled at him from her office door.

Brian nodded, then let his head sink down.  “Thanks.”

She hadn’t laid her hand on his arm and talked about the support of the TCD family after all.

At four that afternoon, Bailey got off the bus, and Brian stood on the sidewalk in his running shorts, waiting for her.  He slung her backpack over his shoulder and walked as close as she’d let him.  As they started up the street, his cell phone rang.

“This one was easy,” the detective said.  “They’re not far.”  Alicia Matthews, Garrett’s mom, had gotten the call, and then phoned the detective.  Garrett hadn’t thought to use his cell phone, or Carly’s; he’d used his grandmother’s house phone instead, and the number came right up on Alicia Matthews’ caller i.d.

Carly, Luke, and Garrett were in Corolla, at the top of the Outer Banks, at Garrett’s grandmother’s beach house. Just south of Virginia Beach, Corolla was near as could be but inaccessible, because no bridge connected the two states’ barrier islands.  To get there, he’d have to make a big circle, driving west, then south into North Carolina, then back east across the Currituck Sound, and finally north from Nags Head.

“I want to go with you, Dad,” Bailey said, as he snapped his cell phone shut.

Brian and Bailey started over the Currituck Bridge, the GPS device on the seat between them like a tiny passenger.  Bailey had pulled the device out of her backpack and handed it to him after she’d slid into the car.  Her eyes were so big and shadowed that he hadn’t had the heart to whip it out the window and watch it shatter against the curb.  What a loser he’d been, to think that a GPS was just what he and Carly needed.  What a loser, to miss Carly’s signals: that she was screwing a teenager, running away, falling apart, while he was out surfing, or buying gadgets, or grading science tests as if they actually mattered.

Now the setting sun glowed from behind them, making the tops of the little waves on the sound sparkle, and lighting up the bridge.  He opened all the windows, and the breeze blew through the car, north to south, though the air was still hot.  If he and Bailey could just stay on this bridge for a long time, with the light spilling onto the sound, they’d be fine.  He wasn’t ready to see the ocean, or those ridiculous, top-heavy beach houses that covered every inch of the Outer Banks these days.

Garrett’s grandparents had one of those mammoth houses, Brian saw, as they pulled into the driveway an hour later.  Day lilies and coreopsis edged the driveway; as they got out of the car, there was a heavy scent of something blooming, Confederate jasmine, maybe.  The scent confused him; it wasn’t a beachy smell.

He and Bailey rounded the house, following a wooden walkway that climbed up and over a high dune.  From the top, Brian could make out the three figures in the near dark: Carly in her black tiered skirt and an oversized T-shirt; Garrett in swim trunks; Luke in his school shorts, down in the sand, digging.

“Hey, Mr. C!”  Garrett said, as Brian and Bailey clomped down the wooden stairs.  Carly stood still, watching them approach, while Garrett grinned and waved.  Drunk, probably.

“We were just talking, taking a little break,” Garrett said, making quote marks in the air.  “Did y’all just get here? ”

Brian’s hands squeezed into fists — should he hit this guy now, or go straight for Carly? — even as his brain processed Garrett’s ridiculous words. We were just talking. God.  Exactly what a junior girl had said to him when he’d told the girl and her boyfriend to knock off the PDA and leave the high-jump pad to the high jumpers.  And hardly anyone said y’all anymore; everyone — teachers, kids, Carly — said you guys these days.  Except for his mother, who still said you all in her gentle voice: “you all come on in to supper, now.”

“Brian.”  Carly’s nose and cheeks were sunburned, her eyes puffy, like she’d been up all night.  “I was just trying to help, and I got a little—” her voice shook; she was about to cry. Bailey hung onto her mom — she’d sprinted to Carly as soon as her feet had touched the sand — and now Luke was clutching his sister.

“And you knew we needed a change,” Carly whispered, as if it were all his fault.

Brian looked at his wife and kids, clustered together — he didn’t understand any of them.  He turned to look at the water.  The waves were so gentle that it could have been the sound or the Chesapeake Bay out there.

“Let’s swim,” he said, and took a step toward the ocean.

Bailey shook her head, but Luke took off, yodeling out his usual tiny-warrior sound. After a few seconds, Bailey started toward the water, too.

Carly stepped toward him and put her hand on his arm.  “That’s not safe.  It’s getting dark.  And after sunset is the time of day for sharks.”

He shook off her hand.  “Fuck you, Carly.” That’s all that would come out.

He bent to pull off his shoes and shirt, then jogged over to the kids.  They splashed out together as they always did, running full speed until they’d passed the waves’ first breaking point.  Bailey’s skirt billowed around her, and he held Luke’s hand, the two of them rising and dipping with the soft waves.  The water was warmer here than at Virginia Beach yesterday, when he’d been surfing. Yesterday seemed like a million years ago.

“Lightning bugs!” Luke said. “In the water!”

Bailey shrieked.

All around them the water glowed.  Tiny phosphorescent jellyfish streamed past them.  Twenty years of studying marine life, yet Brian hadn’t seen these little guys, plates they were called, since he was a teenager, when he’d swum drunkenly after keg parties on the beach.

“They’re so cute,” Bailey said.  She scooped a handful, let them run through her fingers, and held them up for Luke, who had backed up tight against Brian.  “They don’t sting, silly.”

The three of them swam in the starry water.  Luke somersaulted, Bailey floated on her back, and Brian treaded water between them.  Garrett, that moron, was walking out toward the three of them now, but Carly stood knee-deep in the shallows, watching them all.

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About Sarah McCraw Crow

Sarah Crow's articles and essays have appeared in Women's Health, Parents, Ladies' Home Journal, Family Circle, The Christian Science Monitor, Parenting.com, iVillage.com, and other publications.  Her short fiction has run in Trillium Literary Journal and Stanford magazine's website. She lives in rural New Hampshire, and is working on a novel set in the Missouri Ozarks.

One Comment

  1. Diane Hein-Beutel
    Posted January 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    This was very good. I very much liked the pacing, the subtle pain and the ending that did not solve.
    Thank you!

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