excerpts from the novel, NORTH HAVEN

That night he found Melissa because she couldn’t stop giggling. Like a child, he thought, she can’t play the game right. Melissa was sitting in the bottom of a coat closet full of tennis rackets and foul weather gear. The closet was tucked under a balcony in the corner of the great room by a seldom-used side door. A forgotten place. After dinner, once the sun went down, they had agreed to play Sardines, one of Danny’s favorite games, and Melissa agreed to be It. The goal was to find her and hide with her, then the last person left looking had to be It in the next round. This usually ended up with six people standing in a bathtub shushing each other behind a moldy shower curtain. She had chosen a good spot. He couldn’t even see her when he first opened the door, but he could hear her, snuff and sniff, the soft nasal rumblings of suppressed laughter.
            “How old are you,” Tom said, as he quietly moved a pile of tennis rackets and some ancient snowshoes. He sat down beside her, cross-legged. She was cursing herself, giving away her excellent location. He told her where the rest had headed, Danny up stairs, the girls down the back hall, it would be a while before they circled back. He was catching her giggles.
            “Don’t you start,” Melissa gave him a shove. He pushed her back and she pulled him close, slung her legs across his lap in an effort to move them both further into the corner. They were nestled behind a few yellow slickers hanging from pegs, and Melissa lined up boots in front of them to try to hide their feet.
“Smart thinking,” he said.
“Not my first time,” she replied. In the dark he reached for her, grasping gently up her arm to find her face. He let his hands frame her face, pulled gently at her earlobes, kissed her. She moved into his lap, kissed back, led his hand underneath her shirt. He wrapped his mouth around the tendon between her shoulder and neck, the soft slope that dipped into the hollow above her collarbone. He bit her slow and hard and she sighed, pressed herself deeper into his lap. They kept kissing, moving, hands and arms, turning their heads, first this way, then that. She turned in his lap to face him, wrapping her legs around him. His hands went under her shirt up her back. Her skin like water. She leaned back and then forward, pressing her forehead to his, both of them breathing hard.
            “Why can’t it be like this at home,” she whispered. He exhaled sharp out of his nose. She’s so quick to kill the moment, he thought. Whatever was building went flat, and they were just playing a stupid game.
            “That’s why,” he said and slid her off his lap. She always wanted to pull it all apart, to dissect it, to put pins in it, put it under glass. She wanted to bring someone else in, a team even. She’d talked about therapists, doctors, even third party participants, like a porno. She said she’d try anything. He believed it, all those ex-boyfriends, the one girl at boarding school, she still talked to some of those people. There was the film maker with the huge cock, Gigantor; the white boy with dread locks, who discussed the motion of the ocean (the voiced cliché hurt him to think about); the heroin addict with the rottwieler; the alcoholic bed wetter, known as the Elf (this was an admitted low point for her); The Irishman whose name was either Ronan or Roland, she could never quite tell; the tattoo artist (she still talked to him); and the writer (also still the occasional email). And then him. Him in a long line of strange, deranged freaks who defiled his pretty wife in ways that he wish he didn’t know, she had tried things that he had never thought of. At first all her experience was thrilling. Dating a slut is great, he thought, she had no inhibitions, no judgments, his mundane fantasies were happily tried, refined, perfected, bolstered by her ideas, her flair for the risqué. But after their children were born, after there was a lull in things, while she healed, while they adjusted to being parents, to no sleep and no energy for each other, a change happened. It was so small. The turning of a page, the whisper of paper, the hush of a finger down a fresh sentence. It was imperceptible at first. And things seemed fine, fine for years, until she started to complain. And then he saw that it was not fine. That she was changing or his response to her, as she claimed, was changing. He saw her in two ways, both as a woman who spent years fucking other men, and then as a woman somehow separate from her sex, a woman who spelled words out, who strangely had started baking her own bread, whose hair had gone coarse and dull, like she lacked vitamins. Her breasts hung flaccid from her chest joggling lasciviously when she brushed her teeth, how many men had grasped and kissed and chewed and sucked on those breasts, those beautiful ruined breasts. He still loved her, her thoughts, her jokes, her voice, her lips. There were days when her body seemed unchanged from their first night together, and that was almost worse. Her body lying to him like that. They still found each other under blankets across the dark plain of their king sized bed. But less and less. And she asked why and he couldn’t tell her, because you have ruined your breasts twice, first with men and now with babies. There is no space for me. Your past is full, your future planned. I will stay in my cold corner of our too large bed. This will not change, this mattress, this torn spot of wallpaper by the table, this will stay and I will forever be able to satisfy my pillow, desperate only for my sleeping head.
            Tom cried there in the dark closet. He can’t satisfy her. If he could fuck her mind with his mind and leave their bodies out of it. That was what he always wanted, pure mind fucking. The body makes it all base, all so rife with potential betrayal. She knows this, ask the Elf, she lied to him. She said she loved him as she backed away from the bed with plastic sheets, you’re wonderful, I’ll be right back. She tells this story, laughing, a cautionary tale, a commiseration with their single friends. She has been there. And he? He was only here in a closet with his wife, who wouldn’t be his wife much longer.
            Melissa had her arm around him, her forehead on his shoulder.
            “Nothing is set in stone,” she said. But they had been over this too much to turn back. He couldn’t find his footing, he was being pulled away by the force of this current. It had begun in his mind and now flooded his whole life, sweeping him away. He loved her still. She wanted to keep trying. But that meant therapy.
            “We are out of options, people go to therapy to get divorced,” Tom said.
            “Well then, if we’re getting divorced, why can’t we go to therapy?” asked Melissa.
“Because the job is done, you don’t go to a doctor for an appendectomy if you’ve already taken it out yourself.”
            “This does feel like amateur surgery.”
            “Which one of us is the amateur?” Tom whispered. They were still trying to keep their voices down.
            “I’m just kidding. It’s all awful, nothing about this feels good. I just thought we could use support.” They couldn’t see each other in the dark of the closet, she put a hand on his knee. He moved it away.
            “That’s what lawyers are for,” he said.
            “Well, kill me now.”
            “I’m doing the best I can.” Tom’s whisper was growing louder, more raspy.
            “Really? Because it feels like you’re not even trying.”
            “You think if we fuck more everything would be fine.”
            “I think if we fuck at all we might have a chance in hell.” She said this into his ear and her breath burned. They stopped talking. There were footfalls in the great room. Someone was coming. The door opened and a hand pushed the slickers out of the way.
“Ah!” Said Libby and then she flung a hand over her mouth, craned her neck to see if anyone was on the balcony above, and she stepped quickly into the closet. She squeezed between the two of them.
            “I can’t believe we all forgot about this closet, nice choice Melissa.”
            “Thanks,” She looked past Libby at Tom who reached out and pulled the door shut leaving them all in darkness. Melissa asked where Danny and Gwen were, clearly trying to get herself back in the mindset of the game. Now that Libby was there, now that he couldn’t, he wanted Melissa alone, back on his lap, her face between his hands. He wanted to answer her questions. It’s not like this at home because I am afraid. Because if I don’t leave now, you will beat me to it, because if I fuck you the way I want to, I will disgust myself, you, the memory of my mother. I will be no better than he was.
            He could smell the wine from dinner on Libby’s breath. She elbowed Tom to move over. She giggled at the clatter of a tennis racket to the floor. Steps on the main staircase. Ten bucks says it’s Gwen. And there she was opening the door and pushing past the raincoats, not even reacting to them, as if she knew they were in there all along.
            “Shhhh,” she said, “Dan’s in the rug room, he heard me coming down the stairs.” And they were silent, holding their breath, pressed together, hot skin and the cold rubber of the raincoats. There was nothing. Nothing. And then the sharp tap of the ping pong ball on the paddle, fast, tap tap tap. The door yanked open and there he stood, paddle in hand, “everybody out of the closet, Libby you first.”
            “Very funny, loser,” said Libby, stepping over the boots and fallen rackets.
            “Poor Danny boy, always last,” said Gwen, patting his cheek as she stepped from the closet. Tom gestured for Melissa to go ahead, she moved to the doorway and reached back for his hand. He took it. The others had gone toward the bay window, out of sight. He pulled her back into the closet. Kissed her.
            “I don’t know why, I wish I did,” he said. She made a fist around a lock of his hair, shook it gently, and rested her other hand on his side. Then she let go, went to join the game. They were already counting.


            The Oldest, now thirteen, hears his parents one night, he is no longer in the nursery with the girls, but now downstairs, down the back hall off the kitchen, the glassed porch with a brass bed that his mother says is fit for royalty. It’s his father who says it is an old lady bed, who calls his son’s new room, his grown up room, all to himself, his father calls it The Queen Mother Suite. While it may have been this comment or the expansive bed with its scrolling frame and gleaming posts, later something will push him to fill it.
Middle is still in the nursery, but it is in her too. The strange realization that beds could be for more than sleeping, and certainly should be far away from one’s siblings. Their mother sees only Little, with her tanned skin and downy hair, like she was born from the warm summer hay of the meadow. His mother has forgotten what beds are for. He hears her first. Early before the birds. The black, shagged limbs of the pines around his room go prickly and yellow in the sudden light from the kitchen widow. He hears the pull clink against the bare bulb, he hears the whine of the cabinet in the pantry, tea and cookies. The water sloshes fast and tinny into the kettle and the stove snaps to light itself. His mother’s bare feet pad the painted floor, he hears her go from the sink to the back door, to the pantry, to the bottom of the back stairs. Is she looking for something? The kettle thinks of whistling and the stove clicks off and he knows the tea is steeping and she is at the kitchen table, her feet on the wrung of a chair. He hears her breath stutter out of her, and he knows that sob. Little cries like that, labored inhales and exhales. Like an asthmatic, he thinks. Though he knows no one with asthma. He pulls back the blanket, tugs it from its hospital corners and wraps it around his shoulders. Sitting on the step of his threshold he leans against the closed door and waits. Oldest sits and whispers, please birds wake up, please let it be 4:15, let the sky lighten, birds please start singing. He has never thought much about the birds and their chatter, about Sam Peabody or the Towhee who tells you to Drink Your Tea. Now he craves their soft first flights, from low branch to low branch. Their songs will fill the nursery and his sisters for a moment will be awake too.
His mother leans into the steam. Her stuttering breath brings it in and then pushes it away. Her hand encircles the mug, but doesn’t touch it. Nothing seems worse, and that makes her breath harder to move. Sometimes it just stops all together, that mug too hot to touch. The less she breathes the more she cries. The window is ajar, and the breeze through it chills her, blows right across her shoulder blades, making her press her elbows to her sides. She wishes for her bathrobe, but she can’t close the window, for closing the window would mean moving her hands and she wants only to hold the mug.
Her husband, their father, thumps and bangs down the stairs, not at all like it is the middle of the night. The stairs creak under his feet, his shushing slippers, shush thump shush thump. He stands in the doorway at the bottom of the steps, his hands grasping high on the doorframe like he’s ready to launch himself into the room. But as with most of his entrances, he flags, hesitates. He tucks his wide chest under shoulders and slides past her to the fridge, cracks and shuffles an ice tray and slides back to her side. He slips two cubes into her tea and she turns to him quickly. But the ice has already softened at the edge and he has turned away. She starts anyway. Who needs his help, she says all venom and whisper. He robbed her of something, that it isn’t natural, that the tea should just cool and then she can hold the mug. Now the mug is still too hot and the tea too cold. Even the way you drink your tea is oppressive, say the roll of his eyes. She misses it.
He wants to make her more tea, but it is too late, her moment for tea is lost. And he hates that she robs him of every opportunity to be close, to do something nice for her, and she hates that she can’t get near him without him ruining things. He hugs her too hard. He does that to the children too, she sees it in their faces. And she knows that he has found someone to hug as hard as he wants. She doesn’t know that he brought another woman here once.
The woman from the other island, he brought her here when his family was in their winter home, back for a wedding that he couldn’t tolerate. He brought her to the house and let her touch the animal heads, something he hated anyone doing, but he let her, and he laughed with her when she broke a wine glass. My wife will ask about that. This woman is building lies as she stands here separate from me. Her presence is a new lie I have to tell. But he didn’t take her home, buzz her quickly over the thoroughfare a fast ride of slap and spray. Instead he took her to a room, the last room down the back hall filled with mothballs, and pillows that didn’t make it back to their rightful spots when they opened the house. She told him her hair would smell of camphor for weeks. He said that she should be happy she would repel bugs. It was black fly season.