We couldn’t advertise our grief, lest, years from now, friends and family would watch us sideways, waiting for an explosion from the bomb that never

Poissant: Fiction essay- Solstice
Pitinan Piyavatin/ Mauritius Images GMBH/ Alamy

From our room in Reykjavík, we move to the balcony and watch the beacon break the night in two.

“It’s like the bat signal,” my wife says.

What we’re looking at is the Imagine Peace Tower, a beam of dense, white light cooked up by Yoko Ono and probably a tourism bureau or two.

This is Iceland, and today is the Winter Solstice.

In the room, my cell rings. I move to answer it, but Maria holds me by the sleeve.

“What if it’s your mother?” I ask.

“What if it is?” Maria asks.

“It could be an emergency.”

“They’re fine,” Maria says. “In Florida, it’s four in the afternoon. Nothing bad happens at four in the afternoon.”

The phone quiets. I zip up my coat and tighten my scarf. A thermometer on the wall reads two degrees, which throws me until I see I’m reading Celsius.

I’m still struggling to convert the temperature to Fahrenheit when the phone rings again, and I leave Maria on the balcony. It’s her mother at our home in Pensacola.

“I can’t find the colander,” she says. “I’m trying to strain pasta, and I swear this kitchen has no colander.”

“Above the microwave,” I say.

Above the microwave,” Maria’s mother says. “I see. Hold on.”

There’s a rattle of pans, then Kate’s in the background, laughing. The TV is on, tuned to the show with the animals that pilot a submarine and rescue marine mammals in danger. The show’s educational, sort of. It beats princesses, though that’s a low bar.

“I swear all this child eats is mac and cheese,” Maria’s mother says.

“You found it?” I ask.

“Found what?” she asks before saying, “Oh, the strainer. Yes, it’s here. It’s plastic. For Christmas, I’m buying you a nice metal one.”

“Well,” I say, “thanks again for watching Kate.”

“Hold on,” she says. I hear water gushing into the sink, then the clatter of the pot being returned to the stove, then Maria’s mother is back on the line. “You kids have fun. I’ll see you Christmas Eve.”

“See you Christmas Eve,” I say.

On the balcony, Maria’s crying. I go to her. I want to put my arms around her. I want to say, “Honey, it’s nothing. Not nothing, but things could be worse.” But I don’t. I grip the iron railing. I watch the beam. I lean into the wind.

I let my eyes unfocus, let the Peace Tower go to jelly and the lights of the buildings fuzz to flame.

The sun rose today at 11:23 A.M. and set at 3:30 P.M. Just over four hours of light, total, for the day. When the sky went dark, the Tower turned on.

Iceland in winter was Maria’s choice. Iceland is supposed to save us, I just don’t know how.

Last year, Maria had an affair with a man from work. I don’t know how long the affair lasted or how many times they rendezvoused. I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know.

In time, the guilt caught up with them. The man from work confessed to his wife, took a transfer, and moved their family to Phoenix. Maria confessed to me.

Every day, I wish she hadn’t. Every day, I wish I never knew.

Every day, I consider Maria’s confession and whose benefit it was for and how it wasn’t for mine.

Maria told me over dinner in the spring. The confession was planned—worse, somehow, than if I’d pulled it out of her or if the confession had sprung, unbidden, from a sob. She was in therapy, had been, it turned out, for a month. Her therapist had helped her find the courage to be honest with me, and, as Maria put it rather woodenly that night, she’d helped her find the courage to forgive me for whatever I said next.

“Forgive me? ” I said.

The whole thing turned lamentable pretty fast. There was shouting. There was cursing. A wineglass may have hit the floor. Kate woke, and we lost an hour getting her back to sleep. By then, it was late. Dinner was cold. We were too tired to fight. I made a call, and, when the pizza arrived, I locked myself in our bedroom, ate all 12 slices, threw up, and went to bed. I woke early, ran five miles, threw up again, showered, took Kate to school, called in sick to work, and returned home. Maria took the day off too. We shared the house that day, Maria upstairs, me downstairs. We passed once, midmorning, on the stairs, and, in that moment, I felt a tug so strong that I found myself gripping the banister, holding back. The urge wasn’t to push my wife down the stairs, but to throw myself down them, to hit the bottom and see how long it took the woman I loved to reach my side.

The concierge recommends a restaurant not far from the hotel. Though the place is small and unassuming from the darkened street, inside it is warm and bright. We’re shown to a table, white linen and place settings for multiple courses and wine. The wine list is short, too short for such a fancy place. Under reds, there’s a Chianti, a Pinot, and a Rioja, plus a Syrah from a place I can’t make out.

“Where the fuck is Frakkland?” I ask.

“France,” Maria says. “It’s Icelandic for France.”

“But France is France.”

“Not in Iceland,” she says.

Maria’s the expert. On the plane, she read the travel guides she’s read so many times before, the Rick Steves dog-eared to the point it won’t quite shut. She’s studied Iceland, planned this trip for years. She’s told me all about the thermal pools, the architecture, the language, the whales. She told me about these little horses that can only be seen here. Not even in zoos? I asked, and Maria shook her head, very proud, as though small horses were as good a reason as any to fly eight hours and 4,000 miles to an island of dark and cold.

This isn’t the vacation Maria wanted. This isn’t the right time of year or the right point in our marriage. Nor do we have the money for this. This trip, its impetus was desperation. But the decision to come here was Maria’s. The decision regarding what’s next for us will be hers too.

I order the Frakkland. When the server returns and pours the wine, I’m ready to order dinner.

“I’m not hungry,” Maria says. She sips her wine.

“Order something,” I say.

Maria glances at the menu. The server excuses himself. When he returns, she’s still looking at the menu. The server clears his throat, and Maria points at the appetizer page. The server nods, nods again when I order the fillet of lamb, then he’s gone.

I try the wine. It’s plummy, sweet like a Zin, a little peppery. I’m no wine expert, but it’s fine.

“Excellent Frakkland,” I say, doing my best imitation of a sommelier. “Good year. You can really taste the growing season.”

All day, my strategy’s been to keep the conversation light, as though making Maria love me is as simple as making her laugh. But Maria hasn’t been laughing, and she doesn’t laugh now. She won’t look at me.

“What are you thinking?” I ask.

My cell rings.

“Sorry,” I say.

I pull my coat from the back of my chair and step outside. By now, in Pensacola, Kate’s eaten. Soon, she’ll be bathed and ready for bed.

“Kate dropped her toothbrush in the toilet,” Maria’s mother says. “Are there spares?”

Through a frosted window, I watch the server set a small plate before my wife. I watch him refill her wineglass. He says something, and, though I can’t be sure, from here, she seems to smile. She smiles, and I want to punch the server, hard.

“There should be an extra toothbrush or two in my medicine cabinet,” I tell Maria’s mother.

“No,” Maria’s mother says, “for Kate. I need a child’s toothbrush.”

Your daughter cheated on me, I don’t say. I don’t say, Every time you call, you fuck things up.

“I’m sure she’ll survive one night with dirty teeth,” I say.

“Is Maria there?”

“She’s indisposed.”

“It’s that food,” Maria’s mother says, “that foreign food. You’ll both be in the bathroom the whole time. Did you bring granola bars?”

“I have to go, Alice,” I say. “It’s late here. Let’s talk tomorrow, okay? Unless it’s an emergency?”

“Oh,” Maria’s mother says. Then, “Oh! Oh, dear. I’m so sorry. Am I … interrupting?”

“No,” I say. Then I get her meaning. Reflexively, perhaps too emphatically, I repeat myself. “No.”

Maria and I haven’t had sex in months. I can’t say we haven’t had sex since her confession. We’ve been married long enough that sex is like breathing. It fills a void, fulfills a bodily need. But there’s no love in it.

“Okay, dear,” Maria’s mother says. “You lovebirds enjoy yourselves.”

At the table, Maria picks at her plate. The dish looks like some sort of raw fish mixed with cucumbers nestled on a bed of seaweed.

“What is that?” I ask, and Maria tells me it’s raw fish and cucumbers nestled on a bed of seaweed.

“Any good?” I ask.

“Does it look good?” Maria asks.

I shrug. I can no longer guess what looks good to my wife.

You’re the Iceland expert, I want to say. You’re the one who raved about the cuisine.

“You’re welcome to my dinner when it arrives,” I say.

Maria shakes her head, and it occurs to me, as it’s occurred to me every day for eight months, that I’m the wronged party here. So why is it I’m the one trying so hard to make this work? And the answer arrives as it has every day for eight months: Kate.

Our daughter, age three, my love, my light. If my marriage ends, the end will be ugly. We’ll both fight for Kate. I can’t say how the fight would end, but I’d fight to win, and I wouldn’t hold back. I’d fight with everything I had, down to my last dollar and bit of strength. This fact, it’s not a threat I’ve ever made. I don’t have to. My wife knows me well enough to know.

The server returns with my lamb fillet. I don’t thank the man. I don’t meet his eye. I slice the meat and move half to Maria’s plate.

“It’s raw,” she says.

“It’s rare,” I say.

“It’s bloody,” she says, and I return the lamb to my side of the table.

“Why do you bother?” my younger brother asked. This was last month, Thanksgiving, after I let slip the particulars of my situation.

If Maria and I hoped to make this work, we couldn’t advertise our grief, lest, years from now, friends and family would watch us sideways, waiting for an explosion from the bomb that never went off. We agreed to tell no one. Maria promptly told her sisters, so I felt little remorse telling my brother.

“I love Maria,” I said. And I did, I do.

“Bro,” my brother said, “we’re talking about some other dude’s dick. In your wife. My wife ever cheated on me, you’d better believe I’d ditch the bitch.”

“You say that,” I said. “But you’re not married. You don’t have kids. Things get tricky when you have kids.”

My brother pushed his hair out of his eyes. He’d just dumped his girlfriend of six months and was already on to the next. In the kitchen, the new girlfriend was talking to my parents, telling them a censored version of how she and my brother met, one that didn’t involve a bar and a bathroom stall.

“You don’t get it,” I said.

“What’s there to get?” my brother said. “Ditch the bitch.”

“All right. Enough. That’s my wife.”

My brother drank a beer. He smiled, but he could no longer look me in the eye.

He didn’t understand. He has yet to love someone more than he loves himself, and that’s fine. That’s youth. But I hope for more for him. I hope, one day, he finds what I had, or thought I had, not so very long ago.

I finish the lamb, then I finish Maria’s pickled fish.

We’re quiet. Perhaps Maria’s mad at me for taking her mother’s calls. Perhaps we’re dying of politeness, each waiting for the other to speak first. Perhaps we’ve simply run out of things to say.

Together, we finish the wine and order a second bottle. We didn’t use to be big drinkers. This year we’ve drunk more and made love less. We’ve talked less and fought more.

Outside, the snow comes down, a few flakes at first, then what looks like a curtain of confetti pulled white against the glass.

“Would you look at that?” I say.

Maria spins her glass, working a small puddle of spilled wine into a red ring on the tablecloth.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“It’s fine,” I say. “It’s our second day in the city. We’ll find a better restaurant tomorrow.”

“No,” Maria says, “I’m sorry. I thought I could make this work.”

My eyes shut the way they do when you don’t want to watch the fastball hit your face.

We,” I say. “We can make this work. And we will.”

“You hate me,” she says.

“I don’t.”

“Well,” Maria says, “you should.”

“You wouldn’t hate me,” I say. “If the roles were reversed, you’d still love me, right?”

As soon as I ask it, I know by the look on her face, by the silence that follows, by the hum of the bubble that is nothing—pure, unadulterated nothing—that envelops our table, that this is the wrong question to ask.

Because Maria will never forgive me. She’ll never forgive me for forgiving her.

Except that, my secret, the thing I don’t know how to tell my wife, is that I haven’t.

Outside, more snow comes down, and Maria turns to watch it. There are 30 things I want to say to her and not one that will fix this, and I keep my mouth shut.

I wait. I hope. I pay the bill.

Maria rises.

At the door, we put on our winter gear, and I follow my wife outside. My phone rings, and I ignore it.

The hotel is close, but we hail a cab, eager for its warmth. The driver greets us in Icelandic, then switches to English when I tell him where we’re going.

“No,” Maria says. “I want to see the city. I don’t care what it costs.”

So, the driver drives, and we see Reykjavík. We see the church and the concert hall. We see the houses and the harbor. We see the Pearl and the pond. Everything is icy, powdered white, like fallout. And everywhere, we see the Imagine beacon, that tower of light that is meant to stand for peace, like the song it commemorates. From every angle, the beacon is beautiful. From every angle, it’s easy to forget that the life of the man who wrote the song ended with four hollow-point bullets to the back.

“Keep going,” Maria tells the driver. The driver asks what she hopes to see, and, when she doesn’t answer, we leave the city. We drive through the dark in a cloud of snow until there is a glow, three cars parked on the side of the road.

“Stop,” Maria says.

The driver stops the cab, and I see what’s caught Maria’s eye. It’s a geothermal pool several car lengths from the roadside. A few heads rise from the water like Japanese snow monkeys in those nature videos everyone’s seen. The sky above the pool is a skein of steam.

And she’s out of the car, Maria, across the grass, down a path of fieldstones, and up a half-flight of wooden stairs.

I pay the driver. I ask him to wait. I step out of the cab.

My phone rings, and I answer it.

“This had better be an emergency,” I say.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” Maria’s mother says. “The break isn’t bad.”

Maria stands at the top of the stairs. She waves for me to join her, and I hold up one finger.

“Didn’t you get my message?” Maria’s mother says. “We’re at the hospital now. Kate fell out of bed, landed wrong on her wrist. The fracture’s a hairline, but the doctor is going to put a cast on her, just to be safe.”

“We’re coming home,” I say.

“No,” Maria’s mother says. “It’s fine, we’re fine. Hold on.”

Then, it’s my daughter’s voice on the phone.

“I picked green, Daddy,” she says. “Grandmommy said she’ll sign it for me!”

“Kate,” I say. “Kate, I love you.”

The cab idles. Maria’s gone. The world is out of focus, a commotion, a whirl.

“Will you write your name on my cast when you get back?” my daughter asks.

“Of course,” I say. “Kate—”

But Kate’s no longer on the phone. Instead, it’s my mother-in-law, calm and self-assured, voice firm as orthopedic shoes.

“See?” she says. “Kate’s fine. You kids relax. Don’t come back early on our account.”

I don’t know what to say. I’m shaking, either from cold or from fear. How fragile the human body is. More fragile than marriage. More fragile than ice holding up a skater on a pond.

“Thank you,” I say. “And, Alice, I’m sorry. I’m sorry this happened when you were there.”

“Oh, honey,” she says, “don’t mention it.”

“Thank you for taking good care of Kate.”

Alice laughs. “Thank you for taking good care of my daughter.”

I wince. We hang up. I return to the cab, where the driver assures me he’ll wait, then I’m up the path and down the stairs, just in time to see my wife disrobe.

“Maria,” I say, but she’s got one foot in the water already, then she’s in.

She’s not embarrassed by her nakedness the way I’d be. The others in the pool are naked too. Their clothes are bright piles on rocks at the water’s edge. The steam is thick, snowflakes gone before they reach the surface of the pool.

I want to go to my wife, to tell her there’s been an accident. I want to wrap my arms around her in the water. I want my daughter’s break to be the thing that saves us.

I bring my hand to my collar, but I can’t bring myself to pull the zipper down.

“Maria,” I say, but no one’s paying attention to me. They’re not watching Maria either. Their heads are angled at the sky.

“Darling,” my wife says. “Look up.”

And there they are, a thing Maria’s talked about, a thing we’ve never seen: the Northern Lights, like ribbons dancing inside of ribbons, funneling and fanning. An orgy of color. A kaleidoscope of light.

I take off my clothes. For a minute, I am very cold, then very warm.

Maria makes room for me beside her.

We watch the lights.

“Who was it,” Maria asks, “on the phone?”

And, though I know she’ll never forgive me, though I know, tomorrow, when she talks to her mother, she’ll learn I knew and hate me for keeping this from her, I also know that all we have is now, this night and these lights and this warmth. And would I trade the chance at a lifetime of love and goodwill for pretty skies and one night of gentle recklessness?

I would. And I do.

“Who was it?” Maria asks.

“Wrong number,” I say.

And, in this way, I forgive my wife.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David James Poissant&nbps;is the author of The Heaven of Animals, a collection of short stories. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and Best American Experimental Writing. His novel Lake Life will be published this summer.


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