On the bus out to the Cape, Karla caught me marking several of my more important items with my name: my camera strap; my little bag of toiletries; my laptop, which she’d ordered me not to bring; the inside heel of my shoes. “Don’t forget to do your underwear,” she said, reminding me how charming it can be, under the right circumstances, when a woman rolls her eyes at you. I pulled my Fodor’s Cape Cod from my backpack and started to write Josh Beeman on the inside cover.
“Jesus,” she said. “You really want the training wheels on.”
Karla had insisted Cape Cod for the summer was more of a drive through the suburbs than real traveling. It wasn’t “living on the knife’s edge,” that phrase she loved to use, the only thing she was interested in doing. We were both twenty, but she’d crammed twelve stamps into her passport and I hadn’t even filled out an application for one, a fact I hid from her like a family skeleton—which in essence it was: no man in my family has ever been accused of romanticism. My lack of a passport was why I’d insisted we stay domestic. We’d only worked out the compromise under a slew of her conditions: no pre-booking, not for tickets out, lodging, return tickets, anything; we would go without a time-frame, taking five hundred bucks each to tide us over while we searched for itinerant jobs; we would stay until our money ran out, then stay a little longer—whatever that meant.
“When I was in Botwsana and my purse got stolen, I kept my passport in the elastic of my waistband for a month, and here I am, safe and sound.”
I responded in my best British game-hunter voice: “When upon my travels in Zambia I encountered a great Oliphant—”
“Oh, shut up.”
She turned playful. She liked it when I made fun of her, perhaps the way a champion boxer likes to string along an initiate. It was what I felt kept me in the game. Karla was too smart, too confident, too beautiful. I knew things would be temporary, but I was going to keep them going as long as I could and pray every night for a miracle. A transformation, perhaps, of myself.
One had to be wary, however, of her playfulness. It manifested this time with her snatching Fodor’s out of my hand and tossing it out the bus window. Before I knew it she had her Polaroid out to snap a picture of my reaction. “What the hell was that about?” I asked. The camera extruded its undeveloped picture and Karla shook it out a bit.
“I took it as evidence, so I can prove to you later who you were when we started this trip.” She turned the picture around to reveal my face emerging from the shades of pudding yellow, and she was right that I didn’t like the face I saw: shocked, offended, my grandmother’s expression when people came to church in jeans.
“Oh, God. Burn it,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she said, tucking it into my shirt pocket. “By the end of the summer you’ll be a different man.”
Living on the knife’s edge—the first time I heard her say it was the first time I met her, at an international student party.
“South African?” I guessed, when the friend who introduced us vaporized.
“Heard of a little town called Brockton?”
“No shit, a real townie? You disguise yourself well.”
“You don’t,” she said. “You’ve got Connecticut all over you.”
She took my margarita and dumped it in a planter, offering me her drink in its stead. Sure, I was interested. A sophomore in college, I’d just learned how to challenge women to draw their interest, but I’d built up no immunity to having it fired back. She, on the other hand, was ambivalent. While we talked she was continually waving at other corners of the tiny apartment that smelled like cilantro rice. I figured it was best to release her, but not before I asked to take her to dinner the following weekend. She said she was flying out of the country on Tuesday. A convenient excuse, I thought.
“Never seen Angkor Wat. Can you believe it?”
“Well, send me a postcard.”
I went home and Googled Angkor Wat. Struck out again, lovesick. I laid on my bed, wrote a poem, masturbated to feel better, and, of course, felt worse. I’d told her how I lived: in a dorm room, the bill footed by my parents, grilling sausages on a contraband Hibachi while I while I slogged through calculus homework. “You’re in the cradle of the spoon,” she said. Everything I told her about my life she insulted cavalierly, as if to say You and I both know your life is boring. Come on now, you’re smart enough to realize.
A week and a half later I was surprised by a postcard from Cambodia, the beehive towers of the old temple on the front:
Been here a few days. Walked a lot. Hope dirty feet aren’t a turn off. Temple a jaunt back in time. Fat American tourists an unwelcome jaunt back into the fat American present. Write back.
There was no address to write back to, so I asked my friend from the party where she was staying. I drove out to Brockton and managed to find a postcard of their statue of Rocky Marciano at an office supply store. “Been doing some exotic traveling myself,” I wrote. The same day I mailed it to her hostel in Cambodia I got a new one in the mail from Mongolia.
Ulan Bator—does it not sound like an alien planet? Feel compelled to eat a horse before I leave. Perhaps not a whole one. Went to the countryside and slept in a yurt! That’s what I call living.
Jetting from the south end of the continent to the north was not part of her itinerary, just a whim originating from the mysterious quality of the name. How pretentious I’d thought it sounded at the party that night, when she told me about her travels, her mode of life, the knife’s edge, et cetera. All that judgment was reversed when I saw her put those words into action. Was it childish to be impressed?
When a week passed and we hadn’t found work—“the season” had started a month ago and the kitchen of every fish-fry on the peninsula was overstocked with dishwashers and busboys—we took to walking around the neighborhoods of Chatham, asking residents if they needed their lawns mowed or any yard work done.
Cape wind blew through the meadow grass as we solicited our way down the long row of beachfront houses whose backyards rolled out into the sea. Many of the homeowners were out back, facing south on their patio sets and chaise lounges. Karla wore a sweatshirt with the hood up over her summer dress, but strands of her red hair blew out of it and when they caught the late sun they looked like translucent threads of amber. She kept her Polaroid around her neck and snapped pictures of the scenery now and then. My much nicer Nikon stayed dormant in its case.
We passed a youngish couple in polo shirts and rolled up chinos who were right on the edge of their lawn with a pitcher of mojitos, close enough to call out to with a plea for work. They demurred but poured us each a drink. “Don’t let us hold you,” the man said. “Just bring the glasses back and leave them on the deck.” So we walked on, drinking on the beach.
“Can you imagine owning one of these?” I asked. ”Owning this lifestyle?”
“This lifestyle is a lot easier to beg or borrow than it is to own.”
“Actually, that sounds like something my father would say.”
“What did he say about our summer voyage?”
“He said, ‘Don’t bring your credit card.’”
“A position I agree with.”
“For opposite reasons.”
“I believe you’re crossing over,” she said, taking my hand.
Not sure how ready I was to cross over, I gazed off at the horizon like a corny poet. When I turned my head the other way it was toward those classic Cape Cod houses, six-thousand-square-foot mansions that managed to look as natural and homey as squat English cottages. It was easy to be taken in, I thought, lotus-eater style.
“I only have eighty dollars left,” I said.
“I’ve got one-twenty, but I only started with two hundred.”
“You were supposed to bring five hundred.”
“Let’s face it: five is cushy. Besides, I’ve stretched my two farther than you stretched your five.”
“You keep making me pay for dinner!” And she was not cheap about it. I would order a side of fries or a cup of chowder, while she ordered burgers, beer, and lobster bisque in the name of getting the full experience.
“I’m offering you opportunities to be a gentleman. Don’t you want to be a gentleman?” She reminded me that Cape Cod was my choice, that she was happy in a yurt, if in a place where a yurt was authentic. I let her hand go as we continued walking.
“I think these are our last few days here.”
“Don’t get sour,” she said. “It’s boring”—and she raised her Polaroid to take another picture of me pouting. She slipped the slow-developing square into the hood of my sweatshirt. I walked along angry at her, and she told me that this was just the beginning, that we hadn’t even started getting resourceful yet. She promised I could follow her lead and asked me to remember that she’d managed a whole unplanned week and a half in Mongolia after her Cambodia trip.
Something buzzed high above us in the sky. I looked up and saw an honest-to-god biplane tracking along the coastline, shining cobalt blue, not sky-writing or towing a banner or anything, just flying. Just crawling across the sky. “There’s a scene in Proust,” I said, “where he sees an airplane in the sky for the very first time, and it’s like entering a magic kingdom for him, like learning there is magic in the world. He breaks down in tears.”
“When you talk like that,” she said, “I believe I could fall in love with you.”
I put my arm around her.
“Always talk like that. Instead of about money.”
A small object fell from the plane. I wasn’t sure if it had come out on accident or had been purposely jettisoned. It looked like an old-fashioned suitcase, though that couldn’t have been right. We both watched it tumble down through the empty air, and its fall seemed slow and unbearably romantic, even after it reached the water and slipped silently below. The sun was just inches above the ocean. She wanted to take another picture—a revisionist history, she said, of this walk—so we put the water at our backs and our faces together and held the Polaroid in front of us. While we watched it develop I took the previous photo and tossed it into the wind. It turned out that the sun was right in the crack between our cheeks and the illumination overwhelmed half of our faces. It was the perfect picture, as if the parts of us we put closest together would glow.
She tugged me farther along, leaving the highball glasses behind where we’d stuck them in the sand. I said to wait, that we had promised we’d return those. “Leave them,” she said. “They’ve got a set of eighteen, I’m sure. If not, they’ll buy another.” Feeling unlike myself, I went along. I was finally starting to get it. This moment was a keepsake that would last as long as I wanted it to. It didn’t matter that we were running out of cash. Or it did matter, and that’s what made the moment what it was.
The next day an older gentleman paid me a hundred dollars to split logs from a large bough that had fallen off the oak tree in his back yard. Karla sat on a stump while I figured out how to use the hammer and the wedge. I got into a rhythm after a while—tap, whack, whack. There was an axe to chop off sections of the bough, which at the thickest point was over two feet in diameter. I worked shirtless as the day warmed up. Karla produced a flask from somewhere—she was wearing just a short sundress and as usual carried no purse, clutch, or bag of any kind. It was a mystery to me where she kept her cash and ID, but she always seemed to have them when they were needed, which was not often.
“Of course you have a flask.”
She came over to give me a sip of her coconut rum, then sat back down on the uncut remainder of the bough which formed a natural bench. “I love to watch you work like this, all pearled with sweat.”
“Pearled,” I said. “Am I a bivalve?”
“Of course you are,” she said, cupping her hands together in imitation of a clam shell. “You open and close, open and close.”
“You’re awfully fond of metaphor.”
“The spice of life.”
“If I’m an oyster what are you?”
“A shucking knife.”
“Especially fond of knife metaphors.”
“I visualize it sometimes. A giant knife lying blade up, myself walking along its edge like a tightrope, my feet not getting cut.”
“Can you stand and visualize? I need to chop where you’re sitting.”
She returned to her stump and I took the axe to the length of bough. I worked for a while in silence while she sat back on her hands. The renewed chopping startled a few birds out of the nearby trees. Occasionally she’d change her angle to snap a picture of me with the Polaroid. I imagined she must have a shoebox, or several, tucked away somewhere in her apartment, into which she haphazardly threw them all. I imagined no organizational scheme, just the archeological jumble of her memory.
“Is this how you made it to Ulan Bator without running out of money? Chopping logs?”
“I met some guys in Cambodia on business who let me stay with them and eat their food. I’m such a charmer they wanted to take me along for the next leg.” This sat queasy with me, though she said it casually. The magician had revealed her secret, and the trick was ruined.
“Very generous of them,” I said.
“Never underestimate the generosity of travelers.”
“Well,” I said as I set the wedge, “you must have found some way repay them.” I swung the hammer down and split another log in two
We celebrated the fruits of my labor that night at the local grill. She’d insisted, and for once, with the tiredness of my arms, the aching of my back, and the heat of the sun still radiating off my skin, I was fully behind it. I ordered each of us a steak and a bottle of wine for the table. I forgot myself, and celebrating the hundred dollars I’d made we spent a hundred and twenty.
When the hour passed nine a DJ showed up to fill the space with loud Jimmy Buffet and UB40. Two bar backs cleared the tables out of the middle of the restaurant, turning the Spanish tile into a dance floor that remained empty for some time. A trace of oil was shining in the corners of Karla’s mischievous smile as she poured the last drops of wine into her glass.
“Another,” she said.
I rubbed my thumb against my fingers: too much money. She laughed and pulled a little fold of money from her bra, and slapped one twenty dollar bill onto the table and then another. I flagged down a waitress.
“And while we wait, let’s dance.”
“Me and dancing,” I said. “Not friends.”
She stood up and tried to tug me by the hand. I slouched in my chair, immovable.
“You dance. I’ll watch.”
Though I’d never seen her dance before I knew what to expect, something hypnotic, something sexual but short of vulgar. Her legs bent and her hips swished back and forth. When she moved the light fabric of her dress fell against her as if it were wet, revealing the outline of the body underneath.
She had the dance floor to herself, but all eyes in the bar were on her. Though her own gaze never drifted from me, I knew she could tell, and that she drew power from the attention, that it enlarged her. Soon middle-aged couples were up trying to share in it, salt-and-pepper men and cardiganed women trying to improvise off the foundational steps of the foxtrot and cha-cha. There was a wine-smile on every face, the whole thing fore-foreplay.
A guy in a Tommy Bahama t-shirt, completely bald except for a bushy white mustache, sauntered up behind her and put a hand on either hip. Without looking over her shoulder she leaned forward a bit and backed her hips up into his. From the grin she cast at me I knew she’d predicted my annoyed expression—that she would have snapped a Polaroid if she hadn’t left the camera on the table. Instead I took one of her, unsure why I was doing so. I set the result on the table and slouched in the booth. I closed my eyes and wished for my bed, and I don’t mean the lumpy piece of shit I’d been sleeping on at the hostel.
When I opened them the photo was developed. Karla had her chin tucked coyly against her shoulder, with her butt out and her shoulders forward and her hands resting on her knees. Eyes shut, face aglow, her hair a frozen orange blur of motion. The man behind her had his lips turned up in a Bugs Bunny grin and rested one hand on her lumbar spine and the other on the back of his own head. His teeth were tall and white against the dull orange of his skin.
I didn’t want to look at the picture anymore, so I put it in my pocket, and I wanted to watch the real thing even less, so I left. The night had a chill to it and I’d left my jacket in the locker in our hostel. As I walked back, I kept looking over my shoulder, hoping she had seen me leave and would chase me down. But of course she didn’t. She didn’t even wake me up when she crawled into bed.
When I woke in the morning, she’d set administrative passwords on my phone and laptop. She said they had been distracting me too much. I’d only been using them to look at job postings. It would take true poetry of the heart for me to guess them, so she thought it make take a while. I wanted to tell her to fuck off. Instead, I asked more gently if she was all right.
“You didn’t catch diabetes from Wilford Brimley last night?”
“Don’t be jealous. Did I not ask you to dance first?”
“It’s not usually contagious but that was pretty close contact.’
“If you didn’t like it, you should have cut in.”
I told her I was down to sixty bucks, just enough for lunch and a bus ticket home with a little cushion. She told me to remember the conditions of our agreement: we would stay until our money ran out, and then a little longer. I said this was an at-will arrangement and I didn’t need to give her notice.
“Josh,” she said. “Just give it one more day. We’ll look for work again, maybe get cash for a few more days. If not, we’ll sleep under the stars in that meadow we found and head home tomorrow. The nights are warm enough. Think about telling this story later on, about how you’ll remember it. Do you think staying one more day will hurt you? Do you think you’ll be in danger?”
I didn’t think I would be any danger, but I wasn’t comfortable, the way she was, not knowing what my coming days would be like, not knowing where my next meal or bed would come from. She was pleading, though, and it fed my ego enough to give her the day. We split up to find work. She said she’d knock on front doors and offer to clean or do dishes or fold laundry for five dollars an hour. I went first to the old man with the woodpile and asked if he had any other jobs. He declined politely. I asked if any of his neighbors might. He said he didn’t know. So I knocked on doors and pitched my services to annoyed weekenders in seersucker.
I walked around for hours like this, earning only an endless succession of rejections. Half the households failed to answer the door, even if there were cars in the drive or people visibly chatting through the front windows. After half a day of door slams I considered that a mercy.
I skipped lunch, intent on preserving my reserve of petty cash, but after what would have been my lunch break I switched gears, begging for dishwashing work or carrot peeling at the back door of every restaurant. I’d already visited most of them earlier in the week. This time they were more brusquely explained to me that they had all the help they needed for the season.
There was a hope, though, that Karla was dusting someone’s mantle right then. I even concocted a little fantasy of her in a French maid outfit, leaning and straightening, a little tan peek of skin between garter and skirt. The costume wasn’t much more fantastical, I joked to myself, than the notion that she was working to begin with. I’d assessed her salesmanship as less than persistent.
Sure enough, at four, when we met in the town square she said she’d give me the bad news first: she’d found no work. She was surprised to hear that I hadn’t either. The good news, she said, was that a good Samaritan had offered her a place to crash for the night, which would save us her portion of the hostel.
“Just your portion?”
“I’m not sure there’s enough room for two.”
We slept side by side. There was enough room on the hostel twin.
“I see,” I said. “Giving someone else the chance to be a gentleman.”
It was a rare thing to see her flustered into silence, and it felt enough like a triumph that I chose that moment to turn and walk away. I was scared to argue with her, scared that she would once again convince me to stay, against my better judgment, while she moved on to the more comfortable bed of a more comfortable patron.
“What about living on the knife’s edge?” she called after me.
“Go sit on the knife’s edge,” I said over my shoulder. She didn’t try very hard to stop me from leaving. I told myself it was because she understood the strength of my resolve, and how unwilling I was to become a patsy, but I knew better than to believe it. Though I was too proud to look back at her again to check, I do believe she was sad to see me go, even though her actions were pushing me away. Some people are capable of great self-contradiction. I didn’t learn until later just how few had that talent.
I got my bag from a locker in the hostel and trekked off toward the bus station. I stopped a block away for a takeout sandwich. I had just remembered, as my anger went from boil to simmer, that I’d skipped lunch. I didn’t have a bus schedule, and if the next departure was too soon I wouldn’t have a chance to stop. I was too hungry to let that happen. Not until I’d placed my order and the ticket had been sent to the kitchen did I try to pay and discover that my wallet was empty. She must have pilfered it early that morning, before we’d even gone looking for work.
I asked the shift manager behind the register of the diner if I could take my sandwich and pay her back tomorrow. “I think you know better than that,” she said.
The waitress, who hadn’t got the memo about the order cancellation, brought the steaming Reuben out and set it on the counter. I stared at it, imagining what would happen if I grabbed the basket and ran. The manager kept a wary eye on me. She knew exactly what I was thinking.
So no meal, no bus. I began walking west. Surely the morning would bring me some clarity and a better plan of action, but for that evening I just needed to know I was covering distance in the right direction—toward the mainland, away from Karla. I walked along the highway with my thumb halfheartedly out. The few cars that passed this late were just hopping from town to town on their way home from dinner parties. None slowed or even honked.
In the morning my first step was to boot up my laptop. A few hours after sunset, I’d sheltered from the wind behind a stone wall and gotten a little bit of sleep. The temperature was fine, but stomach cramps woke me up before the sky began to lighten. I was just outside a residential stretch. I could see fast food and gas station signs jutting up above the trees in the miles ahead, and I was sure I could find an unsecured wireless network and shoot an email to my mother or a school friend and get myself a ride home.
First though, there was the issue of cracking the password. I’d given up on my phone, which just had a numeric passcode, after locking myself out of it for hours at a time. For the computer, I tried every variant of “knife’s edge” and Karla’s name and Ulan Bator and Angkor Wat I could think of. My poetry of the heart was insufficient.
So I closed it up and got back on the shoulder of the highway. Now I thumbed more intently, but without luck. There had been news recently about a hitchhiker getting killed by a sleepy driver, and though the hitchhiker wasn’t at fault, it had still suffused the Cape with that old late-’70s wariness of picking someone up. After a while I gave up the idea, and then I was just walking.
I passed through Harwich and South Yarmouth and plodded along to Hyannis. I had the feeling that, somehow, once I got off the peninsula the ordeal would be over, that the only thing keeping me from being home was the limiting geography of the Cape. I knew that the twenty miles back to the mainland were nothing compared to the sixty that would still separate me from Boston, just as I knew if I had stayed in Chatham and put all my efforts into begging thirty-five cents for a payphone I could be cruising home by now in my mom’s Subaru. But I felt compelled to outdo Karla, now that I knew what her code consisted of. My payback: the most facile revenge ever.
There on the broad downtown streets I passed a bakery still cooking some of its morning loaves. The aroma poured out into the early air like something so natural and pure it could be its own element. I could smell the ingredients distinctly, could smell the butter, the milk, the wheat, the salt. I couldn’t help myself; I went in.
Inside, the pastry cases were filled with loaves of bread of more variety than I could imagine: split, marbled, knotted, rye, sourdough, rosemary, olive. A few studded the top of the case as well, like minarets.
I looked at the guy behind the register, a young guy in a flour-starched apron with a white hankie tied around his head. Prep-school skin. A big class ring on his knuckle that made me imagine its insignia mirrored in the bowls of rising dough. A rich kid in a tourist’s apprenticeship. Exactly what I’d been trying to be all summer.
I felt in my pocket for change that wasn’t there.
“Can I use your phone?” I asked.
“Sorry man, store policy.”
“Can’t you make an exception? I’m in a rough spot.”
“You think you’re the first Cape bum we’ve had in here?”
I was staring at the bread on top of the case, four loaves out there halfway between him and me. I had never stolen a thing in my life. I hadn’t shoplifted a candy bar or a pack of cigarettes as a kid. I knew how swift and dramatic my parents’ wrath would have been. But now I was hungry like a beast, hungry in an all-consuming way that made me ready to fight over the smallest scrap of food. I imagined Karla there with me, grabbing a loaf and trotting out the door, leaving a spritely laugh behind her. I tried imagining myself doing the same.
“Don’t do it, man,” the kid said. “I run cross country.”
I stared at him, eye to eye.
Then I softened and slumped out the door empty-handed. Sitting at the curb, near tears, I started making vows to myself. When I passed homeless people I would give them any change I had. I would always keep my bankcards handy. I would tell the world, or at least the campus, about Karla.
“Here,” a young woman said, sitting down on the curb next to me. She’d been in the bakery, though I’d hardly registered her. She tore her loaf of sourdough into halves and handed one to me. I ate it like an animal, my jaw soon aching from gnawing through big hunks of crust. I finished it before saying a word to her. I thanked her profusely, and, silently I thanked heaven I hadn’t been making those vows aloud.
“I’ve never been this hungry before in my life,” I said. “I’m not homeless.”
“I can tell,” she said, pointing at my watch. “Would have sold that a long time ago.” She tapped the tip of her index finger twice against the skin of my wrist just next to the band. She handed me the other half of the bread, which I took care to eat more slowly.
“You can use my cell phone too, if you want.”
“Or if you’re feeling adventurous, I’ll give you a lift.”
That didn’t count as adventure, I knew, which was perfect because I’d had my fill of it. She asked why I was laughing and I said I’d tell her on the drive. But I didn’t. In her car, the windows rolled up and the heater blowing gently, she never asked what had brought me low. I took her in instead, asking her about herself and watching for the small movements of her face, of her neck, of her fingers when she spoke, that would reveal her character to me. Her name was Caitlyn and her parents couldn’t afford the Cape, not really, but couldn’t resist one weekend a year in a timeshare. She was heading home early to her dorms at Brandeis because her girlfriends were planning an overnight trip into Boston she didn’t want to miss. There was an Oliver Sacks book signing at the Harvard Coop that she said she was ecstatic about, though she didn’t seem ecstatic, just mildly excited. She had a small but sincere smile and a giggle like a silver bell. She was pretty, if in a plain and churchy way. Around certain turns the sunlight would catch her and put a shine into her face, catching the stray strands of her hair and lighting them up like fiber optic cables, and I realized the sun could catch anyone like that. I could see how easily it would all unfold if I wanted it to: a wedding in Maine, a honeymoon in Prague, daughters and sons in the years to come, settling in Stoneham and taking weekend day trips to the Common with a Frisbee. Slippers to get the paper. Tackle football on the lawn. An ice-cream maker churning in the driveway.
Did it all work out that way? Close enough.
I sometimes get out the Polaroids from their hiding place in the computer tower and flip through them. Myself, aghast after losing my Fodor’s out the window. Karla dancing with that stranger, so full of life, so challenging. I hated her when I got back from that trip. But I missed her even when I hated her. And when we were together, I missed her even when we went to bed and she simply fell asleep before I did.
I thought I’d learned such a lesson that summer about getting what you want.
As it turns out, getting what you want is easy. The opportunities are rarer to get what you don’t want. The mind is full of strange reversals. Everything you learn gets undone by its opposite. They say if you’ve ever been truly hungry you remember it for the rest of your life. My dad said that a lot. But he never told me that one day I’d be as hungry for that hunger as I once was for the bread.
Who can ever say just what they want? I had one blessed moment in my life when I had no answer to that question, looking out over an ocean that had gone flat and glassy from Caitlyn’s passenger seat and thinking of the suitcase that had fallen through its surface earlier in the week: how for a few moments it was plummeting through the sky, more alive than ever, and how a moment later it had never existed.