Sometimes Isabel dreams she goes back to a house she has never lived in or set foot in. Yet the moment she opens the front door, the moment she enters the front hall, everything seems familiar and, in the dream, she feels enormous relief. They are back together again. For a trial period. Her former husband is very subdued, he does not shout or tell stories in his booming loud voice; when he kisses her he kisses her on the cheek, not on the mouth. Also, he does not make any sexual advances. It is she now in the dream who flirts with him. When she speaks to him she puts her hand on his arm for an unnecessarily long time, she bumps into him accidentally-on-purpose with her hip; she sighs a lot, she leaves the top buttons of her blouse unbuttoned. In bed, she turns from side to side dissatisfied and unable to go to sleep while, next to her, her former husband lies flat on his back and snores evenly, peacefully.
The first house Sam and Isabel lived in together was not a house but a boat. A thirty-four-foot ketch named Eudora. They had planned to sail around the world or cross the Atlantic Ocean but they only got as far as the Caribbean where they stayed a year, island hopping and living the ideal, dreamed-of, carefree life: cooking fresh-caught fish, eating fresh-picked fruit, every day wearing the same clothesIsabel wore a bikini bathing suit, if the wind picked up, she put on a T-shirt. Every day, too, they dove off the deck of the boat and swam for hours in the warm aquamarine water. At night, they made love rocking to the motion of the boat at anchor and listening to the slap-slap sound of the waves against the boat's hull; if it got too hot down below, they slept on deck under the stars whose names and positions in the sky Isabel got to know by heart.
They were fortunate too, they never got into really bad weathera few sudden tropical squalls that made the boat heel way over and the keel shudder and groan and that caused all the gear that was not tied down or not put away to roll noisily to the floor. One time when they were sailing around the island of Puerto Rico, they got becalmedthe sea was full of floating bunches of seaweed, the reason perhaps the motor did not startand for a while they drifted so close to the coast that Isabel claimed she could identify, with her naked eye, the laundry hanging out to dry in someone's yard: "Mira, mira," she sang out, "two pairs of jeans, four white shirts, two bras, one red blouse."
"Come on, baby!" Sam was not listening to Isabel. He seesawed the tiller back and forth trying to create some momentum so they could come about.
Sam loved the Eudora"honey," "sweetheart," was how he talked to the boat. He scrubbed Eudora's teak deck with a holystone, he polished her brass until it sparkled. He liked keeping everything on board shipshape, the sheets coiled, the winch handles stowed, he liked for nothingIsabel could not leave even a sweater lying on deckto be out of place.
"I learned my lesson the hard way," Sam told her. "One summer when I was a kid and I was cruising up in Nova Scotia with my uncle, I left my brand-new Top-Siders lying on the deck and my uncle found them and he held up the Top-Siders and asked: 'Whose shoes?' When I answered, 'Gee, thanks, they're mine,' my uncle tossed my Top-Siders overboard. But he got his comeuppance," Sam continued. "A few days later I found his Rolex watch inside the head. He had forgotten it there. I held up the Rolex watch and said: 'Whose watch?' and my uncle went: 'Gee, thanksthat's my watch,' and, guess what, I dropped the Rolex watch in the ocean."
"I can't believe you did that," Isabel said.
And "Captain's word is law," Sam also liked to tell her especially when they were lying in their double bunk in the bow of the boat and he was putting Isabel on top of him.
The first time Isabel saw Sam, he was standing in the middle of a group of people and he was telling them a story. A story Isabel could hear clear across the room about how one of his relativesSam came from a large family of sailorshad sailed alone across the Atlantic Ocean and every evening at six o'clock sharp no matter what the weather was like, even if the wind was gusting at thirty knots and the waves were ten feet high, he went down below and put on a coat and tie and made himself a martini. Everyone, including Sam, laughed, but Isabel stepped in. "I don't believe you," she said.
"It's true, I promise you," still laughing Sam looked Isabel over. "A gimlet martini."
Usually they stayed only a couple of days on each island: Eleuthera, Nassau, a few of the Virgin Islands, Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts; but they stayed nearly a month in Jamaica. They anchored out in Montego Bay and every day they hitchhiked to Negril, a two-mile-long sandy beach filled with kids. Sam and Isabel didn't do anything special: they smoked a little pot, they drank rum, they lay in the sun and got free massages on the beach; also they met Neil.
Like Sam and Isabel, Neil was in his early twenties and bumming around the Caribbean. He had worked on a couple of charters and had stories about the goings-on on board. Stories of how the couples drank too much and switched partners and how one time when they were anchored off Barbados, one couple went skinny-dipping in the middle of the night only the couple forgot to put down the ladder so when they tried to get out of the water and back on board they couldn't. Apparently, the couple shouted and yelled and splashed water against the portholes before finally Neil woke upeveryone else he claimed was too drunkand he helped them climb back in the boat.
"I should have just let them drown or get eaten by sharks," Neil said. "You should have seen themthe man's dick had withered to nothing, the woman's breasts came down to here." Neil pointed to his knees.
Isabel said, "They could have swum to shore."
"Yeah, and then what? How would you like to be wandering around the island of Barbados in the middle of the night stark naked?"
The three laughed at the idea of it. But, like a bad dream, the image stayed in Isabel's head. She could see the middle-aged couple stumbling around on the dark beach, shivering and trying to hide their nakedness with their hands, then walking to a house where there still was a light and knocking on the door and a dog barking. The man would be murdered, the woman raped and then murdered.
Isabel does not remember who asked himor, more likely, Neil asked thembut Neil went with Sam and Isabel from Jamaica to St. Thomas, where the charter company he worked for sailed from. Once on board the Eudora, Neil's stories no longer seemed funny and, worse, Neil's presence seemed in some way to pollute the atmosphere. Neither Sam nor Isabel spoke of this but while Neil was talking, Sam and Isabel avoided each other's eyes and looked out at some distant point on the horizon. Often too, when Neil was on deck, to avoid him, Isabel went down below and tried to readshe was reading War and Peacebut she knew she would never finish it. After a few pages she started to feel seasick and she had to shut the book. Lying on the bunk, Isabel would start picturing the middle-aged naked couple again. This time they were walking along a road in the darkthe woman was holding a palm leaf to her pubis, the man had cut his foot and was limpingwhen an old wooden truck rattled by. The old wooden truck came to a sudden stop. Several men were standing in the back of the truck; the men started to yell and hoot when they saw the naked couple. Frightened, the naked man and woman ran into the woods by the side of the road; yelling and hooting the men who were brandishing machetes and who were wearing shoes jumped off the truck and ran into the woods after them.
Once, on a particularly hot and airless afternoon, Isabel was down below taking a shower and washing her hair, when Neil opened the head door. Isabel was standing with her arms raised, her hands in her hair which was full of shampoo, and Neil held the door open and looked at her. They stood there without moving for at least a minutethe shower splashing out the door on to Neil's footuntil, at last, Neil shut the door.
When Neil said good-bye, he tried to kiss Isabel on the mouth but she turned her head at the last minute and he kissed Isabel's hair.
"I'll get you later, Isabel," Neil said.
After Neil left, Sam and Isabel sailed away the same day. They didn't want to stay in St. Thomas. Neither Sam nor Isabel spoke about Neil; they wanted to forget about him. Only at dinner that night, Isabel said, "You think that story about the man and woman swimming naked was true?"
Sam shrugged. "Why would he make something like that up?"
"He gave me the creeps," she said. Despite the heat, Isabel shivered.
That night Sam and Isabel made love as if they had not made love for a weekwhich was nearly truefor while Neil was on board, Sam and Isabel made love quickly, silently, as if afraid of being seen or heard. Now, they left the cabin door open and made all the noise they wanted to. The next day Isabel found a soiled yellow cap with the logo of a hardware store on it that Neil had forgotten and she threw the cap overboard. The cap floated for a long timeeach time it disappeared under a wave Isabel thought the cap had sunk and was gone for good, but then it surfaced again. She watched the cap until it disappeared from view.
"Guess who I ran into? You'll never guess." Sam's voice was far too loud for their apartment.
"Ssh, you'll wake up the baby," Isabel said. "Who?"
"Neil. Remember the guy who sailed with us to St. Thomas?"
The baby started to cry and Isabel didn't answer Sam.
The second house Sam and Isabel lived in was a third-floor walk-up off Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sam was in business school and they had a baby; another baby was already on the way. The apartment was too small and whatever available space was filled with cribs, playpens, strollers, toys. Outside it was always raining or snowing and, alone with the baby all day, Isabel was lonely. Whenever the baby was sleeping, Isabel would lie down on their bed. If she tried to readIsabel never finished War and Peace and she had switched to romancesshe could not concentrate or remember what she had read. Often Sam came home late, after Isabel had eaten, and she left his dinner on top of the stove which he ate with a book lying open next to his plate.
The Eudora was in dry-dock in a boatyard near Sam's parents' summer house. Once or twice, Sam drove out by himself to sand and repaint her hull. They had not sailed her in over a year.
"Where did you run into him?" Isabel asked Sam after she had fed the baby.
Sam did not raise his head. "Who?"
"Neil. The guy from the Caribbean."
"In the Square. In a drugstore. He was buying a package of condoms."
"You're kidding," Isabel said. "And what were you buying?"
Tired and fat, Isabel no longer wanted to make love. In bed, if Sam touched her, Isabel shrugged off his hand and turned away.
"Not now," she said.
"I don't know. After the baby, maybe."
"Christ," Sam answered as he, too, turned away, "that's four months from now. Why don't you just say never, Isabel."
The next day Neil telephoned. He must have gotten their telephone number from information, unless Sam had given it to him.
"Yeah, sure. Sure. That's great. Fine. Give me the address again," Isabel heard Sam say.
The party was in Boston, on Beacon Hill; Neil was house-sitting. A bar had been set up downstairs in the dining room and a lot of people Sam and Isabel did not know were milling around the antique oak table. Isabel got a glass of soda water, Sam got a beer and they went upstairs. When Neil saw them, he came right over.
"God, I'm glad to see you." He shook Sam's hand up and down. Again, he tried to kiss Isabel on the lips and Isabel ducked.
"God," Neil said again, "I love pregnant women. Pregnant women are so sexy."
"Jesus, Neil," Sam said, but he was laughing.
Neil came and sat down next to Isabel on the chintz-covered sofa. His hairline had receded and he no longer looked so boyish. "You know what? The first woman I ever made love to was pregnant," he told her. "The woman I lost my virginity to. She was ten years older than I was and I had the biggest crush on her."
"Neil. You're full of it," Isabel said.
"No. It's true. I swear. Her name was Elizabeth. She was gorgeous and she must have been seven months pregnant at least. She was out to here." Neil held his arms out like he was holding a huge beach ball. "Do me a favor, Isabelcan I touch your stomach?"
Looking around the room, Isabel once again heard his voice before she saw him. His back to her, Sam was standing across the room telling a woman with long blond hair a story"first the father fell overboard then his son jumped overboard to try and save him, then the second son jumped overboard to try and save his father and brother, and finally the third son who was the only one left on the boat jumped overboard"
The woman with the long blond hair was frowning and nodding, the corners of her mouth were turned down to show her distress.
The third house Sam and Isabel lived in was a small house in Westchester County. Every morning Sam took the train into the city to work in a bank while Isabel stayed at home and looked after the two little boys. Sam had brought the Eudora to a marina in nearby Rye, and, on weekends, weather permitting, Sam went sailing. Mostly, he sailed alone; one time he took the oldest little boy, Sam Junior, with him. Sam Junior was fair-skinned and small for his age and he was always sucking on something. On board the Eudora, Sam Junior had the nylon strap of his orange never-sink in his mouth.
Sam could never explain how it happened exactly except to say that it happened so fast and to say that when they came about and Sam Junior stood up to move from the windward side to the leeward side of the boat and he was still sucking on the strap of the never-sink, Sam shouted: "Will you take that goddamn strap out of your mouth!" at the same time as Sam tried to snatch the strap out of Sam Junior's mouth so that Sam Junior must have jerked away just as the boom swung over and hit him on the head. Without a sound, Sam Junior went overboard, and by the time Sam had jibed the boat and headed the boat into the wind and was able to grab his son out of the water, his son had drowned.
Years later and long after Sam sold the Eudora and after he and Isabel separated and Isabel is still living in the house in Westchester County with the one boy, she receives a postcard which has been forwarded to herIsabel can hardly believe thisfrom her previous address in Massachusetts. The postcard is torn and mangled and it arrives in a plastic cover; the postmark is several months old and from the island of Barbados. The picture on the postcard is of a long white beach with palm trees and the message reads: Wish you were here!; it is signed Love, Neil. Isabel starts to throw the postcard away in the wastepaper basket when instead, for no reason she can think of, she looks at the picture again. The picture reminds her of something but she is not quite sure of what. Something that has stayed lodged in the back of her head, like a dream, and only later, a few hours later that same day when she is in the car on her way to pick up her son from school, does she remember what it is.
Isabel has remembered the story of the middle-aged naked couple who swam off the boat at night that Neil had told them about and how they could not get back on board and she also has remembered how she had told Neil that they could have swum to shore. Once again, as she drives her car, Isabel can picture the naked middle-aged couple swimming to the beach in the dark, then stumbling and shivering and walking to the house where there is still a light, only this time when the couple knock on the door and the dog barks, she pictures how the people who open the door to the house give the couple towels and how the dog stops barking. And after the couple have dried themselves off with the towels, Isabel pictures how the people who live in the house also give the couple some clothesa pair of pants, a clean white shirt, a skirt, a red blouse, Isabel imaginesand after the couple are dressed and are patting the dog, how the people who live in the house fix them something to eat and bring them each a cup of hot tea and when the middle-aged couple are done eating and drinking, how the people who live in the house give them a place to sleep.