Bess had been a dancer in New York, once upon a time. I could tell from the way she twirled in front of the jukebox the night I met her at the Raccoon Lounge that she had some kind of training. Watching her work that tiny space, sidestepping customers lurching for the bathroom, was like watching a private show, one put on just for me and the forty other people crowded into the bar. At the end of the evening I found myself mashed up against her in the back of a cab with some drunken people I hardly knew. We began kissing as soon as they got out of the cab and I was amazed that she let me put my finger inside her.
Later, once I had wooed her and wed her and brought her back to California, Bess told me she had gone to Studio 54 when she was just a kid. I think that was meant to impress me but it just made her seem old. Age was an issue for Bessie, as I guessed it was for many women. I was turning 40 when we met and guessed her to be ten years younger, but she danced around the topic and hid the year of her birth from me, even after we married.
She’d never been West before, had never seen the Pacific Ocean. She had a picture of redwoods, shrouded in fog, in her apartment. That was her idea of California, she said and I told her that photo was taken just miles from my house. I had no idea, really; there was no information on the photo, and Bess couldn’t remember where she found it. Not to sound like Ronald Reagan but all redwoods kind of looked the same to me, and I’ve been looking at them my whole life. I like that you can cut them open and determine their age by counting the rings but once you’ve done that, the tree is dead.
My house is on a ridge, overlooking the ocean. I built it myself, meaning I designed it and hired an architect and a contractor and chose all the materials myself. We were still looking at lumber, much of it salvaged, when I brought Bess back with me. I impressed her that first week by breaking a piece of a board off with my bare hands; the guys working on the house were pretty wowed, too. I’ve liked to do that since I was a kid: show people my secret strengths. In business I’ve found that if you do that judiciously, you can keep the world off balance.
At first I felt like I was keeping Bess off balance, directing her attention away from whatever it was in me that other women hadn’t loved. I’d had several significant relationships by the time we married, had even lived with a woman. But they had faded away, the last pausing in the doorway long enough to tell me what a control freak I was.
But when I got priggish, Bess just giggled. Once I complained about keeping my albums in order and she spread them out on the floor and spread herself on top of them. She moved my furniture and mussed my hair and in general acted like some free spirit in a French New Wave film as she moonwalked across an invisible tightrope. She unbound some part of me, and one morning I walked around ‘til noon with my shoelaces untied.
We hiked, biked and fucked, stopping at the farmer’s market in the afternoon to buy ingredients for dinners we cooked together. I had graduated from vegetarianism to a diet that now included fish and even chicken. “I won’t eat anything with a face,” I’d say, which always got a reaction from Bess and if I said that while we were cooking, she’d pull me to the sofa in the living room, where we’d make love above the roaring waves. Everything was right.
But Bess got bored.
Maybe there was too little to do in our town. It’s one of those coastal villages that time forgot, and we all hope you will forget it, too. The county puts up a sign by the highway, telling you where to turn to get to our town and we keep taking it down. Here we celebrate the winter solstice in the village square and on May Day women literally dance around a maypole. Everyone loved Bess from the moment they saw her dance, which she did on the street, on the beach, at the drop of a hat. They would have gladly danced with her, day and night, but as that first perfect summer came to a close, she said she wanted to take a class.
I was rinsing a cauliflower when she said that, water bouncing off the white brain of a vegetable as the wind chimes in the yard started to tinkle. I turned off the tap so she could hear me.
“What do you want to study?”
“I don’t know, Spanish? It’s embarrassing to live somewhere with so many Spanish-speaking people and not know a single word except ‘gracias,’” she said.
“De nada,” I said but she didn’t laugh. I put the cauliflower on a cutting board and sliced it in two. I wanted to tell her that there were more Spanish-speaking people in New York than there were here but felt that it wasn’t the time.
“Why don’t you let me hire you a tutor,” I said. She was playing with the tablet, looking for something on Spotify while I filled a cauldron with water. “She could come here and you could go at your own pace.”
“’She’?” Bess said. She was looking at me with one raised eyebrow, a pose that usually promised sex. Not this time, though.
“Or he.” The music started: Earth, Wind and Fire. She must have been dancing at discos before she was born.
“You don’t get it,” she said. She moved closer to the island in the kitchen while the branches of the Monterey cypress moved behind her, outside the plate-glass windows, throwing skeletal silhouettes on the sunset. “I need to get out of here once in a while.” She began doing the Electric Slide.
The only fight we ever had came after she told me that she might want to get a job. I thought that had all been settled. “You don’t have to work,” I had reminded her. “You don’t have to do anything.”
“No, you don’t have to do anything,” she had said. That wasn’t fair; I did a lot, was on a number of boards and played the market, responsibly, from home and an office I kept in the city. But I’d inherited money and was not ashamed to say it. That’s how I won my Bess.
She didn’t look at me much after dinner but finally reminded me that she had agreed she wouldn’t get a job, and insisted she had to do something. I guess Spanish was that thing.
She had found a course at a local college, about an hour’s drive. The class met twice a week but there were lab hours as well and she figured she’d be over there four days each week. I bought her a new Prius so that I wouldn’t have to drive her; I would have been happy to, honestly, but I knew Bess wouldn’t like that.
The first day of class I thought of following her, just to make sure she was safe. “I have GPS,” she reminded me, sitting behind the wheel in her tight, striped shirt. “Disco Inferno” was blasting from the car speakers as she spun out in the gravel.
I had dinner ready for her when she returned though she said she wasn’t hungry. She played with the pasta on her plate as she answered my questions. Yes, most of the class was “way younger” than she was though there were some “old people,” too.
“Old like me?” I said, pouring some pinot into her glass even though it wasn’t empty. The wine had farmyard aromas I wasn’t quite sure of.
She smiled a little thinly, I thought. “There was one guy my age.”
“Oh?” I swirled the wine in my glass and sniffed. “I hope you told him you were married.”
Bess took a sip and made a face. “He looked right at my ring and said, ‘I see you’re married.’”
Genius, I thought, but did not say. “You don’t like the wine?”
“It’s okay.” She took another sip without wincing. “His name’s Dustin.”
“Dustin? That’s a name I haven’t heard in forever.” There was something wrong with the wine, I decided. I took the bottle into the kitchen and poured the rest of it down the drain.
“He seems nice,” she said, behind my back. “He writes poetry.”
I bet he does, I thought as I opened a bottle of Malbec. The popping of the cork seemed to mute all the sound in the room. When I came back to the table she was looking out the window as if I wasn’t there.
I didn’t hear anything more about Dustin for a few weeks. Bess left around ten, almost every day, shouting “Adios!” In the afternoons she would spread her workbooks out and repeat phrases from dialogues aloud. “Cómo la quiere?” she would say. “Quiere probarselos?”
I decided it was suspicious that she never mentioned Dustin again; then I decided it was stupid of me to be suspicious. He could have dropped out after the first day. He could be gay. Even if Bess thought he was interesting, he called himself a poet. Who would even say that?
“And how is Dustin?” I asked one night. We were sitting outside, enjoying some grilled shrimp as a cool fog settled around us like languorous smoke.
“Oh, he’s fine,” she said, rather chirpily. She had one of my sweaters on, which made her look like a doll in a gift box. “He works, like, two jobs and goes to college. Not just one class, like me. Spanish is an add-on, he says. He’s not very good, I’m afraid. He said that the class is bringing his grade average down.”
“Then he should drop it.” A gust of wind shook the wind chimes like a tambourine and Bess gave me a sidelong glance.
“I’ll tell him you said so.”
Bess kept her books in a canvas messenger bag that she often dumped on a dining room chair, even though I had asked her not to. She had an office of her own, though she didn’t really need it and preferred working at the dining room table. One side of her office was glass and looked out on a stand of redwoods just like the ones she had a picture of in New York. But I guess in real life they weren’t so great; you could get cold standing in their shadow.
I picked up the messenger bag when we were getting ready for dinner one night and a few books tumbled out. One was called The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus. I had never seen anything like that in Bess’s possession. I was reading the text on the back of the book when she came into the room.
“What are you doing?”
I held the book out. “What’s this?”
“What does it look like?” Her hair was wet and it suddenly occurred to me that she was always taking a shower when she came home.
“I mean, where did you get it? It’s not the kind of thing you read.”
“How do you know what kind of thing I read?” Bess came over beside me and started putting her books back in the messenger bag. She reached for the gospel book and I held it away from her.
“Come on, I’m just curious.” I smiled to show her I was teasing but inside I felt scared. “Where did it come from?”
“Dustin loaned it to me.”
“Dustin,” I said, and looked at the book again. “Is he a Christian?”
“No!” she said with a laugh.
“Why is that funny? About a third of the people on earth are Christian.” Bess was raised Catholic though she hated to talk about it. When I said something about the Stations of the Cross once, she stood up and fell to the ground, three times.
“Yeah, but he’s not.” She reached for the book.
“Do you mind if I read it?” I said. “It looks very interesting.”
She looked at me skeptically.
“I’m interested in all religions,” I said, which was sort of true. I used to meditate until my knees started to ache. Somewhere there was a picture of me, and a bunch of other people, with the Dalai Lama.
“Well, don’t mess it up,” she said. “I need to give it back to him.”
The Gospel of Thomas turned out to be a quick read and one of the weirdest books I’d seen in a while. Unlike the gospels we know from the Bible, this was just a collection of sayings that someone, maybe Jesus, had said to someone, maybe Thomas.
“Jesus said, ‘You cannot enter the house of the strong and take it by force without tying the person’s hands,’” read one. “Then you can loot the person’s house.”
Or: “Blessings on those who are alone and chosen, for you will find the kingdom. For you have come from it, and you will return there again.”
I finished the accompanying text, the forward and the afterward, went online and read more about the gospel’s history. Then I read it all over again.
The next morning I set the book down by Bess’s bowl. She was slicing a banana over yogurt and a dusting of granola. “Thank you for letting me have a look at this,” I said.
She nodded without answering. Then she began drizzling honey over her breakfast.
“I’m sorry if I seemed,” I started to say, then stopped. I didn’t know what I seemed. “It’s just that it’s not,” I tried again and then stopped.
“I haven’t read it yet,” she said finally. “I just thought it sounded interesting.”
I nodded. I was looking at the amount of granola in my bowl and comparing it to hers and wondering if that was why I couldn’t seem to lose these last few pounds, even though I biked or ran every day and practiced yoga each morning.
“I was just curious,” I said, “how did this come out?”
“’Come out?’” she laughed at my phrase, even covered her mouth. “You mean, how was the book published?”
“No, no.” I was irritated as I got sometimes when Bess tried to act like she was smarter than me. I went to college when I was 16, I thought of saying. I had my first degree before I was 20. “I mean how did it come out in conversation between you?”
She started to eat, slowly. Outside a hummingbird was flitting around a feeder as if testing the seed for poison. “Wow,” she said, looking at her food. “I don’t remember. Maybe I asked him what he was reading? And then when he told me I said I thought it sounded interesting?” She looked at me and shrugged and that may have been my opening to laugh it off. People were always pressing books on me that I didn’t actually care about and sometimes it’s easier to just say thanks and forget about it.
But I’d never seen Bess do that; I couldn’t remember having a conversation with her about a book before. Certainly not one about Jesus or God or whatever this was that Dustin was pitching.
“I just knew Thomas from the New Testament,” I said. I’d taken a Bible-as-literature seminar as an undergrad, and some of the highlights stayed with me. “He was the one who didn’t believe in the Resurrection. Had to put his fingers in Jesus’s wounds.”
“But that’s the thing,” Bess said excitedly. “Dustin says all that stuff was made up by John. That he questioned Thomas’s belief and hated that Thomas said the light comes from within.” She took a mouthful of yogurt and swallowed it sensually, white froth lingering on her lips. “It’s like all the stuff that I was taught was wrong.”
I’d read some of the Gnostic literature and never thought much about it. I wasn’t a Christian and didn’t much care, one way or the other. To me it was like listening to baseball fanatics argue about Ty Cobb: No living soul had seen him play. I tried to sound curious and noncommittal with Bess but when I suggested she ask Dustin to come to dinner some night, she stood up as if stung.
“You just reminded me, I’m gonna be late for class!” She ran downstairs and a few seconds later I heard her cellphone throb. She’d left it on the table and without thinking—okay, with a little thinking—I picked it up and looked at the screen. There was a text from Dustin.
“Mediterranean? 1 pm?” it read. And it was signed with a simple red heart.
Bess came bounding up from below and I placed the phone back on the table, face down.
“Do you have plans for lunch?” I asked. She grabbed her messenger bag and stuffed her cellphone in her pocket with looking at it.
“I think I’m just gonna work through lunch,” she said, dipping down to give me a kiss. “Get some extra time at the lab.”
I opened my laptop before she was out of the driveway and searched for Mediterranean cafes near campus. There was one within a few miles, not all that convenient and it occurred to me that maybe that was the point: Far enough away that no one would see them together. I read some reviews on Yelp, which weren’t that great; several noted the mash-up of cuisines represented on the menu. “It’s like a restaurant that doesn’t know itself,” one said. I decided I would get there a little before one and act surprised if I saw them there. There was a tire shop nearby; I could say I came in while they were rotating my tires. I practiced saying that aloud.
I was greeted at the door of the Mediterranean by a smiling, mustachioed man. He could have been Arabic or Spanish or Greek; his accent betrayed nothing. “Some friends might be joining me,” I told him. There was no one else there and I needed a reason to delay ordering. I hadn’t seen Bess’s reply. For all I knew they were locked in an embrace somewhere.
The murals on the wall were as confused as the menu. Some looked like Santorini, though one was clearly Barcelona; I could make out the pinnacles of Sagrada Familia. I told the waiter I was waiting and declined his offer of sangria. That was the last thing I needed in the middle of the day.
I pretended to read the menu and wondered what to do if Dustin came in first. I had no idea what he looked like. What if Bess came in holding his hand? The thought made me close my menu and I looked at the murals again. I thought of the first time I went to Spain; I was in my twenties and staying near an old cathedral. I was traveling alone, staying in two-star hotels; I could have afforded better but didn’t want to be ostentatious. Any young travelers I met might not understand.
I’d fallen asleep in the squishy bed with the metal frame right after I checked in and was awoken by the sound of church bells. There was a moment, before I was truly awake, when I had no idea where or even who I was. I was just a person hearing bells. And I remembered the feeling of that moment slipping away, as the details of life began to rush in and fill up my consciousness, like a tide rushing in around my feet at the beach. I wanted the unknowing back.