The Moment I Parted the Curtains
I spotted the black shape at the edge of the lawn, next to where the scrub pines started, the moment I parted the yellow and white checked curtains I’d hung the day before on the small kitchen window. At first, I thought it was a dog. The longer I looked, though, the more I realized the animal was way too big to be a dog and much too dark for a deer.
When I finally figured it out, I gasped out loud, though no one else was there to hear me. “A bear,” I whispered. “A bear’s sitting in my yard.”
As soon as the truth settled in, I got scared. But I was also thrilled. Hadn’t I come to this place ready for a new life?
The bear didn’t leave the entire time I watched from the window. Even after I poured boiling water over dark French Roast coffee and waited for the coffee to soak through into my cup, the bear stayed. When the coffee was done, I took a few sips while I considered whether to step outside. I knew nothing about the black bears that lived on this narrow peninsula. Were they as fierce as the ones in Yosemite or Yellowstone, I wondered.
Jonathan, my neighbor across the dead-end street who only came out to his cedar-sided cottage on weekends, had already warned me.
“You need to put bungee cords on your garbage cans,” he said. “Otherwise, the bears will get in. They’ll strew the garbage all over the road.”
Jonathan said he wanted to show me something. I followed him behind the cottage to my back yard. We tramped over the wet spongy grass to where the stand of scrub pines started.
“See that?” He pointed to a bare mud path leading into the woods.
I nodded. “Uh huh.”
“That’s the trail the bears use.”
He looked at me, checking to see if I’d heard him right.
Bears, I thought that afternoon when I was alone in my cottage. This was the beach, not a mountain wilderness. I had bought the little blue board and batten-sided cottage because it sat steps from a sandy path that cut through the dunes to a wide stretch of nearly endless sand. As far back as I could remember, I’d had a thing about beaches. The beach would cure me, I hoped.
Cure me of what? My addiction to Michael, of course. I also desperately wanted to have something that wasn’t his.
I took my coffee into the living room and sat down. For some reason, I didn’t feel lonely, at least not so far. The silence was palpable. Every so often, I heard a gull cry. Otherwise, the only sound, besides the refrigerator’s hum, was the faint whoosh of waves rolling onto shore.
Eventually, I would need to figure something out. I had enough money to last for a while. For now, I wanted to be what I’d imagined before Michael and just getting by had sapped me of everything resembling inspiration. I wanted to start painting again.
The garage next to the cottage had plenty of light from rectangular windows along both sides. I was planning to make it my studio. The man who sold me the cottage had built it from trees growing on the property. Lovely wooden cabinets and shelves he had made would be perfect for my supplies.
As soon as I finished my coffee, I got up to check on the bear. She had moved closer to the scrub pines. Her head rested on her front paws. She appeared to be napping, not the least bit concerned about anything.
The day after I told Michael we were done, I got in the car and started driving. I didn’t have a clue where I’d end up. All I brought was a bag of trail mix and a bottle of water.
Several hours later, I was on a bridge spanning the Columbia River. Halfway across, I passed the sign welcoming me, as I left my home state of Oregon and entered Washington.
Not long after, I landed here. Well, not exactly here. As soon as I made it over the bridge, I pulled over alongside the river. Light winked on whitecaps the wind was making in the blue water. A hundred yards up the road, two men sat on folding chairs fishing. I turned my head away, so they wouldn’t see me crying.
I got back in the car and kept driving north. One after another, I passed through tiny towns. Along the way, the road was lined with old weather beaten houses. I had a thing about old houses and also about water. A funny feeling crept in, telling me that maybe I’d landed in a place I belonged.
I kept on driving, until I ended up in a park at the end of this peninsula. My car was the only one in the lot. Not a single cloud marred the flawless blue sky.
I followed the sandy trail through a thick stand of pine. When I stepped out from under the trees, I found myself on a wide, long beach. Wright’s Bay sparkled all around me.
Great blue herons posed gracefully in the shallow water not far from shore. I walked up the beach, feeling as if my heart was about to explode. I’d never been here before, but felt like I’d come home. The sunlight and water, dark hills on the opposite shore, herons and a few gulls, chartreuse waving grass, were soothing the pain from years of Michael’s betrayal.
Later that afternoon, I booked a room in a Victorian hotel partway up the peninsula. After I registered, I sat on the adjoining porch admiring the garden and breathing in the sweet lavender scent. When I thought I might be ready for company, I went to the lobby.
“Can I pour you a glass of sherry?” the smiling, bearded owner I’d met when I arrived asked.
“Thank you, yes,” I said.
I took a sip and then two more. I could feel the sherry working its magic.
The room was cozy and dark, with couches surrounding a stone fireplace and overstuffed chairs. I glanced around. I was the only guest.
“So, what’s it like living here?” I asked the proprietor.
“It’s wonderful if you like quiet,” he said and smiled. “If you need a nightlife or shopping malls, this isn’t the place.”
We talked some more. His name was Peter and he’d lived on the peninsula his entire life. A true Renaissance man, in addition to running the hotel, he made pottery and wrote poems. After his wife died, he started cooking the full breakfast that came with the room.
I accepted Peter’s offer of a second glass of sherry, even though my limit for anything alcoholic was usually one. After I emptied the glass, I knew I should walk back to my room and sober up but decided to go out and explore the town.
The wind practically blew me back into the hotel the minute I stepped outside. I zipped my windbreaker and pulled up the hood, even though it was the middle of summer.
About ten minutes later, I found myself in the heart of the little seaside town. Red, yellow and green kites whipped around in the wind outside several shops.
I stopped to look at pictures of houses and cottages for sale, displayed on boards in front of a realtor’s office. My eyes were drawn to a teal blue cottage.
STEPS FROM THE BEACH, the headline of the flyer read. Without another thought, I walked to the front of the office, pulled the door open and stepped inside.
Michael had always been involved with other women. I finally acknowledged this the day I got into my car headed for any place Michael wouldn’t be around. The night he flirted with me the first time, I told myself this handsome man, with the huge dark eyes that looked straight through my clothes when he talked to me, couldn’t possibly be trusted. A few days later, I found out he’d been involved with a woman named Susan for months. Though he dropped her soon after, that should have been my first warning. As I drove out the lonely highway toward the coast, I realized I never expected that he would love me enough to give the other women up.
I bought the cottage in a rush. I just had to have it. There was nothing logical about the decision. As I signed the papers and wrote a check for my good faith offer, I couldn’t have said what I was going to do with the place.
Later, I celebrated with a glass of wine and a burger in the dark pub on the hotel’s ground floor, even though I rarely ate meat. Peter wandered in, right after I took the last bite.
“I bought a cottage today,” I announced.
A smile tugged the corners of his mouth.
“People do that. Come out for the day and fall in love.”
I didn’t want to ask but I couldn’t help myself.
“And does the love last?”
“Sometimes. Most of the time, it doesn’t.”
I’d never had luck with men, even before Michael. He was the latest of a type I seemed incapable of avoiding. They fell hard for me at first, with passionate lovemaking, and flowers, calls and promises. Then they disappeared.
Michael had been different. He left all the time, not just once. Each time he fooled around with another woman, I told him I’d had enough. He could never commit himself to me completely but neither would he let me go. By the end, I felt pulled in so many directions, I wasn’t sure if there was anything left of the woman Michael had once been attracted to.
I didn’t tell Michael about the cottage, in part because I hadn’t yet decided what buying the place meant. Even if I had known I would one day leave him, I wouldn’t have told him then. If he’d found out I was leaving for good, he would have done anything to stop me.
I warned myself not to get too close, when I opened the back door and stepped outside. The air was cool. I could smell the ocean in the breeze that lifted my hair as I headed from the gray concrete slab next to the cottage over to the lawn.
The bear didn’t move, even as I inched forward. She lay on her paws, her wide snout facing me. I thought I should say something, introduce myself perhaps. I had only been alone for a week and was starting to act crazy already.
Once again, I told myself not to get too close, yet I took another two steps. She must be sleeping, I thought, and wondered how long it would take her to charge across the lawn. She didn’t move and I realized something else. From the first moment I’d spotted the bear, I had assumed she was a she. What if the bear was a he? Weren’t males more aggressive than females?
I crept forward a few feet more and then told myself I’d gone far enough. From that distance, it looked like the bear was sleeping. She was very black, her coat shiny in the sun, and pudgy, with ears too tiny for her wide head and thick body. The previous owners lived about two-hours away and had hardly come out to the cottage in recent years. Maybe the bear moved in one day, figuring the place was abandoned.
I sat on the grass, aware of how foolish it was for me not to be in a position to run. The bear didn’t seem to notice. Maybe we could slowly get to know one another, I thought. We obviously would inhabit our separate spaces, neither of us bothering the other. I would agree to stay out of the bear’s way. She would of course never be allowed inside my studio or the cottage.
After about twenty minutes when the bear didn’t get up, I went inside to pee and consider what I was going to do with all this free time, now that I’d quit my high school art teaching job and moved to this rural place. I knew that I should paint – wasn’t that what I’d been fantasizing about -- but all the inspiration I’d felt when I was young seemed to have dribbled away.
It was early for lunch but I needed to hear people talk. I told myself I wasn’t interested in Peter, even though I hoped to see him. I never drank alcohol before six o’clock. But after the waitress handed me the nearly table-size wine list, I surprised myself by ordering a glass of white wine.
I settled on the Dungeness crab salad with dried cranberries and hazelnuts, even though at fourteen dollars it seemed overpriced. If I kept this up, I’d be out of money in no time.
My table sat next to a stained glass window. I peered through the yellow, blue and green glass, trying to get a glimpse of the patio and garden. Normally on such a nice day, I would have opted to sit outside. But I feared Peter wouldn’t pass me there. I tried not to make it obvious that I was looking for him. Still, at every opportunity, I glanced around. Except for the waitress and me, the pub was deserted.
The wine arrived in an oversized goblet filled a quarter of the way up. I loved holding these glasses and immediately palmed the smooth round bottom and took a sip, hoping to make the wine last through my lunch. At that moment, I glanced toward the door.
Peter’s eyes fell on me then. I raised my hand to wave, just as he bellowed, “Hello there, Sheila,” and started walking over.
He shook my hand and stood there looking at me, both hands on his hips. “So, how are you liking it here?” he asked.
Before I had a chance to respond, he gestured toward the empty chair. “Mind if I sit down?”
“Please do,” I said, the blood warming my cheeks.
“I’m liking it fine. Although, it is, as you warned me, a bit quiet.”
“Yes,” he said. He looked almost sad.
“In the summer, I’m so busy I can’t think. I look forward to the fall and winter when it’s quieter. But after the crowds are gone, I miss the noise and all the conversation.”
He twirled the right end of his moustache between his index finger and thumb, before moving on to the left. “Since my wife died, I find the quiet a little harder to take.”
I nodded, not sure what to say. He turned and looked toward the garden.
“How long has it been?”
“Three years next month,” he said, his gaze still focused out toward the garden.
“That must be hard.”
“Yes, yes. Very hard.”
He turned and looked at me. I remembered that he had the loveliest pale green eyes.
“It’s easier now. But never easy.” He shook his head, as if trying to rid himself of the sadness.
“But you. Not married?”
I took a sip of wine. “No. Never have been.”
Briefly, I considered not mentioning my relationship with Michael, then changed my mind. “I lived with a man for a while. It didn’t work out.”
“So you’ve come to recover?”
“More or less,” I said.
It’s one thing to know a man is cheating on you and another to catch him. The first year I made a rule. Michael must come home to sleep with me. I couldn’t have said why that mattered. But I promised myself if he ever stayed out the entire night, I would leave him. Three years after our first date, I was sitting in a pub sipping a second glass of wine, confessing this to a man I’d only just met.
“Betrayal of trust,” Peter said, after I told him what I’d only dared share with my therapist before. “Trust matters. Everybody’s got different lines that say, ‘If you step over this one, then I know I can’t trust you anymore.’”
I had never thought about it like that and I told Peter. What I didn’t say was that for me, the lines were all about love.
“So,” Peter said to me now. “Did Michael ever not come home?”
Late that afternoon when I returned to the cottage, the bear was gone. I had carried a low blue folding chair outside, planning to set myself up where I might sketch my dark friend. When I saw the empty space where she’d been, I walked over to see if I could find something of her that she had left. The grass was flattened but otherwise looked the same as the rest of the yard. I wondered if maybe I’d imagined her.
It might have been the wine or the talk with Peter but I felt so vulnerable and open, like the blue and gold-streaked clam shells tossed every few feet on the beach. I had waited for Peter to invite me to his apartment behind the hotel’s front desk or for me to be bold enough to ask him here. But neither of us made a move. We were both wounded souls. Even a little drunk, I sensed that our making love would have left me feeling soiled.
Abandoned by a bear, I thought. How silly of me to be upset. Yet I was. Before I could catch myself, I started to sob.
The night Michael didn’t come home, I stayed awake, sitting in a rocking chair to the left of the front door. I tried to read but every few minutes I imagined him in some woman’s bed and my heart started to pound. At that point, we had been together for nearly three years. The thought of being alone again was terrifying. Yet if Michael stayed out all night, I would have no choice.
I’d kept the one floor lamp turned on. It cast a yellow circle of light over my book. I must have read the same paragraph fifteen times and still couldn’t have said what it was about. As the hours ticked by, every nerve in my body was primed, telling me I would have to decide. My mouth felt so dry I could barely swallow. Still, I refused to walk to the kitchen and get a drink of water. It was as if I needed to stand guard there so I wouldn’t miss seeing Michael the second he arrived.
Would I feel any different, I asked myself while I waited, if I’d kept the child? When I learned I was pregnant only a few months after meeting Michael, I knew I would get an abortion. Unlike many of my friends, I had never, not even once, yearned to be a mother. Though I didn’t admit the truth to myself, even then I knew I couldn’t trust Michael.
If I’d kept the child, I wouldn’t be alone, and that might make it easier to leave. That thought was followed, though, with its opposite: If Michael and I had a child, no matter what he did, I would feel the need to stay.
Though I tried to stay awake, at some point I nodded off. By the time I woke up, the sky had grown light. My watch said it was seven o’clock. For that one moment, I hoped I’d somehow missed Michael creeping back into the apartment. To make sure, I tiptoed to the bedroom, my feet bare on the cool hardwood floor. The green and cream-colored bedspread was still smooth, a crowd of fat pillows covered in matching shams piled against the walnut headboard.
The sun climbed higher in the sky. Before long, the living room was flooded with light. From the wide windows, I could see white sailboats floating on the river below. The world was moving on, enjoying a rare day of sun in this rainy spot, while I sat inside, half dead with dread. Michael was having breakfast with this latest love I felt certain, throwing the betrayal in my face. As much as I wanted the world to stop and go back to when Michael still felt enough for me to come home at night, I knew that wouldn’t happen.
I sobbed there on the lawn the way I only did sometimes in therapy. It wasn’t just the bear, I knew. What felt most sad to me was that I’d been so grateful to get only crumbs. I searched for the slightest proof that Michael loved me. Until now, I’d failed to accept that he never had.
Thankfully, the crying cleared my head, the way it often did in therapy. Everything around me, from the green lawn to the scrub pines, on up to the blue sky overhead, looked so bright.
I folded my chair and carried it inside. After I splashed water on my face and dabbed my puffy pink eyes, I pulled a bottle of water from the refrigerator and stepped outside.
The light breeze cooled the back of my neck as I walked to the end of the street and stepped onto the sandy path. Sunlight peeked through the tall shoots of pale green and tan dune grass. I could make out a dark blue band ahead that signaled the start of the ocean.
I plodded through deep soft sand to the water’s edge. Blue and gold clamshells and the cracked orange bodies of crabs were strewn here and there. Sandpipers scurried away as the waves rushed in behind them. Further out, a line of brown pelicans soared, then dropped down and skimmed the water’s surface. Seagulls squawked and the waves made a percussive sound, as they pulled back over a cluster of small rocks.
Above where the sand grew damp, I stopped. I took a deep breath in. Then I watched with my mind’s eye as the breath filled my lungs and trickled into the rest of my body.
That afternoon when Michael came home, he told me the truth for the first time. The woman he’d spent the night with wasn’t just anyone. Her name was Andrea and Michael had been seeing her for several months.
As if his not coming home and this news hadn’t been enough, he had one more confession to make. “Andrea is pregnant,” Michael said, his gaze fixed behind me, as if this woman I’d never met was waiting for him there. “She’s going to have my child.”
I turned to the right and headed north. The sun had dropped low in the sky, so I knew I wouldn’t get far.
By the time I turned around, the sun had set and the clouds were saturated with streaks of red and mauve. Pink waves washed onto a lavender shore. Before turning around and heading up the path through the dunes, I painted the sunset landscape in my mind.
Stepping from the path onto the road, I saw something black dart from behind the cottage, heading toward the pines. Right after that, in the retreating light, I noticed something white on the gray and black road.
As I moved closer, I could see the white thing was a wad of paper towels. That’s when I noticed the ragged trail, leading to the overturned garbage can.
“Shit,” I said, suddenly remembering Jonathan’s warning about the bungee cords.
The next morning, I woke to the sound of rain pelting the bedroom window. I managed to get the pellet stove going in the living room and sat in the big comfy blue chair watching pellets sizzle, sipping my coffee and feeling for the first time since I’d left Michael really alive.
The rain stopped before I finished my coffee, and sunlight lit up the cottage. I walked to the bedroom, pulled on a pair of gray sweatpants and a black sweatshirt. Clutching my mug of half-drunk coffee, I stepped outside.
Wet grass sparkled in the sun, as did the dark green pines. I moved through the grass that needed mowing, dampness darkening the bottom of my sweatpants.
I sensed the bear’s presence before I saw her. Without another thought, I turned in the direction of the path heading into the pines. She was stepping out slowly, as if she had only just now gotten up.
Trying not to startle her, I backed up ever so gradually toward the house. She appeared to glance my way and for that one moment, we seemed to acknowledge each other and make a silent pact. You stay in your territory. I’ll stay in mine. And everything will be all right.
That’s when I heard this phrase in my mind. The rhythm of life. It was the kind of thing I might remember in the morning from a dream and think, I don’t want to forget that, though I couldn’t have said why.
Later that morning, I took another walk on the beach, and the phrase repeated in my mind. That’s what I was here for, I thought, to finally start moving in time to my own rhythm, rather than fighting against it, as I seemed to have done so far.
By the time I reached the inn, I was famished. It was after noon and I hadn’t eaten a thing since the previous night.
The weather was lovely, so I opted for a table outside. A few minutes after I ordered, Peter found me.
“You’re back,” he said.
“Couldn’t stay away. I was too hungry to cook. Thought if didn’t eat soon, I was going to faint.”
“Well, we don’t want that. So, are you liking it here on our quiet peninsula?”
“I am. At least, so far. And guess what? A bear has made herself at home in my back yard.”
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Have you ever read our local paper, the Oyster Point Courier?
“The reason I’m laughing is because the paper always has stories about folks calling the police to report bear sightings. Once the police get to the house, the bear’s nowhere to be found.”
“Are you saying people make the bear sightings up?”
“Yeah, a lot of the time. They’re here, for sure. But not around people’s yards as often as folks think they see them. More likely, it’s a raccoon or a dog.”
“Well, my bear is real. She even has her own section of the yard.”
I wasn’t sure whether the invitation came out because I wanted to prove to Peter that my bear was real or if that had been an excuse to ask him over. By the time he arrived, the air had cooled. I worried that the bear might have already retreated into the pines.
Before stepping outside, I poured Peter a glass of red wine and topped off the one I’d already started. I told him to be quiet and follow me out the back door.
I tiptoed over to the two chairs I’d set close to the house and gestured for Peter to sit down. The evening was lovely, the low sun bathing the yard in golden light. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted from Peter, other than to share this moment, listening to the waves and sipping wine and admiring the light before the sun set and colored everything mauve.
Before I turned to look across the yard, Peter touched my arm. I looked at him and he smiled. Then he gestured with his head to the right.
I turned in the direction he had indicated with that nod. I saw the dark head with the small ears, resting on a pair of outstretched paws.
I silently told her how happy I was to have her in my life. Then I raised my glass, turned back toward Peter, gently clicked his glass and proceeded to cry.