Every little boy we pass is him. It’s the reason I didn’t want to come. This trip was your idea and I couldn’t tell you why I hated it, so here we are. Seagulls squawk in the distance. I love that sound and you know it.
My therapist says that seeing him still alive is part of the process. It’s difficult to accept. The flashes in the corner of my eye stop my heart with their insistence that
—it’s him, this time it really is!—
I want to enjoy their sweet faces the way I did before, when happy children made me smile, even if they weren’t mine. But jealousy is a mean thing to control.
Before us looms the dike. It’s steep and tall enough to blot out half the sky. A layer of grass covers the slopes and a stone staircase cuts through the middle. The flat expanse fills my vision, running off dizzily to the right and left. My horizon shifts impossibly and I’m walking up a wall, into an Escher painting.
In one month, he’ll be dead two years. I’m trying to live without him, I promise you. Though I’ve stopped saying it out loud; my track record on that promise is terrible. You don’t believe me, anyway.
A swallow dives into view, swooping low to catch bugs. Its white belly flares. I can't remember the last time I saw one. They remind me of summer holidays at sea with him, before. I point out the bird to you. You nod and keep climbing, silent. You haven’t spoken since we parked the car and I wish you'd say something.
The bird disappears over the rim. One swallow does not a summer make.
Your reason for bringing us here has me anxious. The longer you don’t speak, the darker my thoughts spiral. Divorce flashes through my mind.
The sun is oppressive on the leeward side of the dike. We’re both panting when we reach the narrow asphalt at the top. My sunscreen itches and pools in lines around my eyes.
We're not at the ocean, though it sounds and smells like it. Our view over the saltwater canal is gorgeous. Across hammered silver, we can see the opposite shore. Apartment buildings form a gap-toothed smile and rows of clean-cut poplars alternate with wind turbines that look like blown-out dandelions. It hurts my heart to imagine a wish so large.
Though the dandelions aren’t mine, I close my eyes and try.
—Love me anyway—
Looking down the way we came is unsettling. The parking lot is lower than the shore and the two images won’t connect. For balance, I grab hold of the sign at the top of the stairs. It’s a map of the beach with warnings in Dutch, German, and English. “Enter at own risk,” and “Careful, the bottom may be sticky.” The phrases sound better in Dutch.
The beach borders a wide canal that snakes inland from the North Sea. Over centuries, the water has deposited alluvial clay with the viscosity of quicksand. The tide is out and the muddy clay lays exposed in gray, glutinous ripples. On the wind, a smell of damp earth, metal, and decay.
I knew there'd be a lot children here and I wasn't wrong. The summer holidays have started and families are everywhere. So many have children below five, it's like they're doing it on purpose.
You’re looking out over the water. The blue lenses of your sunglasses catch the sky in miniature. Cumulus clouds, like flecks of seafoam, run away towards the horizon of your eyes. Windows to another world. Am I in that world?
Your profile hasn’t changed much since we met, only the beard is new. After eleven years, I still can’t read your expressions. I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I know what you want: another baby. Is this your last-ditch effort to persuade me? Do you think happy memories from before will change my mind? What happens when I say no again?
“Beach or road?” You catch me off guard. I thought we came for the water.
“Where are we going?”
You point to the right. In the distance, a veranda extends across the sand, a canal-side restaurant.
The road would be quicker and easier. It’s paved and not covered in gelatinous mud. But I haven’t been to the beach since he was alive and suddenly my feet are aching.
“Beach,” and I leave the path.
I remove my shoes at the bottom of the steps. Despite the noonday heat, you keep yours on.
Blocks of concrete, heaped in piles and evenly spaced, form wave breakers on the sand. A teenager is washing caked clay from her feet in a puddle at the base of one. She scrubs at her shins and spreads gray streaks to her underarms.
I see you, long ago, teaching him to catch crabs in such puddles. They get stuck between the rocks when the tide recedes, easy pickings with a piece of bacon, a clothespin, and a string.
He was scared to touch them after getting pinched, but he enjoyed studying the ones you caught. You gently placed the crabs in a bucket for him, careful not to crowd them. At sunset, we returned them to the ocean and watched them scuttle.
There aren't any children hunting crabs today.
I'd like to be a crab in your bucket. Gently lifted and gently placed. Handled by your hands, touched. And at the end of the day, your calloused palms a cradle in the sunset.
A crying baby draws my attention. To the left, a young mother picks up an infant to swaddle in a sling across her body. As soon as the small head disappears behind the cloth, the crying stops.
You want that again, but I can’t give it to you. IcantIcantIcant.
The salt air crystallizes in my lungs. Can you love me without a child? Concentrating on the exercises my therapist has taught me, I count to five—inhale—count to ten—exhale.
I canceled therapy for this trip. Another reason I didn’t want to come. Another thing I won’t tell you. I go every Tuesday. You don't mind, but you also don't understand. You tried therapy and found it lacking. To me, it’s sacred time, the only hour a week when I’m allowed to not feel guilty.
You’re a few steps ahead, the baby didn’t trip you up. Did you even notice? Do you care at all that these people have what was stolen from us? Aren’t you angry?
You’ve never expressed your emotions in words and I’m terrible at reading your face. You tell me how you feel with actions. What does this one mean, this trip?
The wind pulls your linen shirt tight across your back, outlining broad shoulders. It’s been months since I ran my hands across them. My palms tingle and I curl my fingers up. The only way we touch now is with our feet under the blankets, out of sight. I press mine against your calves and you leave them there. Connected, but invisible.
Near the shoreline, a young girl fights to free herself from the clay. Her legs are coated in gray sludge to below her bony knees. Though we stay far from the water, my feet and your shoes get the same coating. Our footsteps make sucking slurps and you nearly lose a shoe. See, you can’t leave me. Even the earth wants you to stay.
We pass a patch of ground dotted with the hidey-holes of razor clams. They’re buried at semi-regular intervals, small perforations dotting the beach like stars, every hole accompanied by a mollusk-sized pile of mud. I’m tempted to search for patterns, like constellations in the night sky. Except this firmament changes with the tide, wiping clean the horoscopes—a fresh future twice daily.
How many futures do we get?
A broken Venus shell pokes my sole and I pick it up. The inside is baby-cheek pink and soft. With a sideways swoop, I skip it on the ripples of the sand, a shooting star that burns out in three bounces.
—Stay with me—
You pick up another and do the same. It bounces one farther than mine.
Watching the white shell flash from your fingers, hearing the rhythmic plopping as it skips, I’m reminded of the days before. You played piano then, practicing eight hours a week. Often, he’d sit in your lap. You filled our world with music. Sometimes, he’d put his hands on yours and you’d fill the world together. I want to pick up my star and redo it.
—Give us back the music—
In the shadow of the restaurant’s veranda, a father is letting up a parafoil. It snaps and flaps before ballooning in the wind. His son—maybe eight years old—watches with interest and waits his turn. You capture the pair in your glasses, a snapshot of one of your potential futures. I know how you used your shooting star.
—You’ll have that, with me or without—
I jab a fist below my ribs, pushing hard enough to hurt. You see what I'm doing and it forces me to stop. The fist drops heavy to my side, full of emptiness. Shards of sea glass fill my belly. Today, I lose you to the children I won’t have.
With effort, I unclench my hand and mind. Moving on is living now—another lesson from my therapist. You’re still here. Until sunset, we’re crabs in the same bucket.
At the end of the beach, a mat of cobblestones leads up the dike and to the restaurant. We get lucky and there's a table free on the terrace, with a view over the water. On the horizon, a loaded barge bobs out to sea.
You open your mouth for the second time since arriving. “Coke, please.” I order a beer, plus fries for us both.
While you wait for the food and I wait for you to speak, we watch a flat-bottom sailboat cut the waves. It has red sails, a warning sign nobody needs; we both know we’re sinking.
The waiter brings our order. Between us on the table stands a plastic succulent. The fries come in a basket, the mayonnaise in a folded banana leaf. We don’t clink our drinks.
A couple enters the terrace with a dog and I flinch. I can't help it. You snap my attention away by rapping your knuckles on the coke bottle.
"How's the beer?"
Despite it all, you remain the man I fell in love with.
"Decent. Want to try?" A shake of the head.
"The fries are nice," I add. How long have we been this stiff?
Finally, you speak. "I have a proposal and I want you to really think about it. Don't just say no."
And there it is. I need you to stop asking, but you can't. This is where we hit our wall. You want another child and I don't. I can’t give you that future and you can’t let it go.
"I won't have another baby." I look at you as I say it. I want to enjoy your beautiful face while I can. I'm not ready for goodbye, but once again it isn't up to me.
You shake your head, sunlight flashing off your glasses. This is the moment it ends. All I’ll be left with is a therapist and one hour a week.
I inhale deeply, taste the ocean. I wish you’d look at me, but your attention is on the coke. Your fingers are steepled on either side of the bottle. We both have clay under our fingernails. I pick at mine and watch your lips.
“I want us to move to Sweden.”
You’ve turned a new, impossible corner on the Escher painting of my life.
“Did you say us?”
You look up, confused. Before you can analyze what I’ve said and change your mind, I replace the question with a “Why?”
“It was our plan. You remember—”
Of course I do. But that was before and before no longer exists. I don’t have to say it for you to hear it. You take off your glasses. Your eyes are unbearable, gray like the mud.
“We can’t stay like this. It isn’t healthy. We’re frozen in grief, stuck. I need to live again. Chase some of our dreams. Mine haven’t changed. I want that house in the forest, a life in nature. I think it would be good for us.”
I see us among the trees. A shadow falls between us.
I push a palm against my eyes, smell the mud under my nails. A dark unknown opens below me. I need something to hold on to or I’ll drown. “When?”
“As fast as we can get our things together.”
“No.” It slips out, another promise broken. I’d meant to think it over, but one thought screams through the good intentions; I'd have to give up my therapist and he’s all I’ll have left when you leave.
Your voice holds disappointment, but not surprise. “You promised to think.” The floor creaks as you lean back—underneath our blanket, you pull away. Whatever we have left is foundering, icy water rising up my legs.
I’m ashamed to say the words, but I have to. You can’t leave without me, I have to make you understand.
“Is that all?”
“Yes.” No. Maybe. You cross your arms. My lies are making things worse.
You want to live our dreams, but what dreams? Mine is in a coffin. How do I dream my way out of that?
But then, so is yours.
You buried him with me, were there through every agonizing moment. Yet, you’re still trying. Even when I tell you no over and over, and crush your heart with my empty womb.
I study you.
The beard almost hides how sunken your cheeks are. Is that why you stopped shaving? There are bags below your eyes and your normal olive hue has a sickly undertone. You look almost as tired as you did right after.
You aren’t doing well. I knew that, but now I see it too. The reckless self-regard I’ve been practicing in therapy has leaked from its allotted single hour. I’ve been so consumed with saving myself, that I lost sight of you.
Your surprise is big enough that even I can read it.
“Let’s move. Something has to change, maybe this is it.”
“On one condition.”
There’s sad relief in your eyes. This is what you expected. Firmly, you say, “I won’t give up on another child.”
You drop your hands in your lap—palms up and fingers lightly curled, like you’re waiting for me to land in them.
“You have to get a grand piano.”
Your hands close. “I haven’t played in two years. We’re not getting a grand.”
“A grand or no deal.”
“If we’re going to follow our old dreams, I want to do it right. We move to Sweden, you get a grand, I write again. If we’re going to try, no excuses.”
It’s your turn to study me. I reach across the table to take your glasses. I fidget with them, making the lenses flare.
“What about a baby? You always said you wanted two.”
Why do you have to keep asking? Can’t you just give up? But, if you did, we wouldn’t be sitting here with clay on our feet.
In your sunglasses, I see myself. I wink in and out of frame. In one future I get the answer right, in another there is only empty sky. It hurts to swallow. I can’t make more promises I might break, but I have to give you something. I angle the glasses and watch my lips.
“Maybe.” It’s more movement than sound. It isn’t anything, but it’s enough for you.
For the first time since it-hurts-to-remember-when, you take my hand in public. Our intertwined fingers lie in the middle of the table, reflected in your blue lenses. The sight reminds me of before and, because you’re here with me, it doesn’t hurt as much.
I rub my thumb across your palm. It’s rougher than it was.
A trade. My dreams for yours. We shared the nightmare, maybe we can share the waking. Is this moving on?
With my free hand, I wipe at a tear. It clears the sunscreen on my cheek and I feel less guilty.
You don’t express your emotions in words. In all the years we’ve been together, you’ve never said it. Not when we moved in together. Not when I told you I was ready for a child. Not when he was born and certainly not when he died.
But today the razor clams align, my lucky stars, and you say it. So low the wind almost steals the moment.
“I love you.”
It’ll mean giving up my therapist. It’ll mean a thousand scary things. But if you’re there with me, maybe I can do it. Carefully, I smile at you and, carefully, you smile back. We’ve upended our bucket.
Outside the restaurant, I take your hand again. You say nothing and give me a squeeze. We walk, hand in hand, back home across the paved road, leaving the sticky clay behind.
A flight of swallows passes overhead. Four or five of them wax and wane above the dike, showing us their shining crescent moons.
"Look," you say, and lift our joined hands to point them out.
—The start of summer—