As soon as Camille walked into the house, she knew it was where she would die. A small cottage with a generous yard, the house faced southeast. The crepe myrtles and oak trees shaded the front from the morning sun. For the past twenty-three years, Camille Dearin lived with her husband, Dirk, up-town in an apartment. A nice apartment with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, a living space big enough for their grand piano, and ceiling-to-floor windows with a view of the river. Their two sons, grown now, had shared a room prior to college, so the third bedroom served for guests, not that they had many to stay for the night.
Moving was Camille’s idea. The boys were married and gone, and one morning as she sat on the piano bench drinking her coffee, she looked out over the river. The city suddenly felt empty…eerie. Cold, too, no matter how many hapless plants struggled on balconies.
“Ridiculous.” Dirk said. “How can a place teeming with people and taxis feel empty?”
Dirk was short for Dietrich. Dietrich Dearin. Dirk Dearin. The alliteration was enough to make Camille’s spine straighten. She squirmed trying to smile each time Dirk introduced them around to whomever. She kept waiting for someone, anyone to laugh in his face, but no one did. Ever. And she knew why: he glowed. His eyes, his teeth, his skin, his presence, all incandescent. People were drawn to him, she certainly had been. It was her secret hope that by standing beside him, his hand reaching for hers, his skin on her skin, would cause a reflection. Her face and smile and who she was on the inside would light up. She filled with his importance. She lived it until the cracks started to show and through the cracks, tiny at first, then bigger like a map of streams flowing into rivers and rivers becoming oceans, all the light she had absorbed, packed and stored, slipped away.
“It’s not what’s going on out there, Dirk. It’s about what’s in here, or rather, what’s not in here.”
“Oh, Cam. You’re not making any sense. Maybe you’re just missing the boys. Why don’t you try calling one of them? Or maybe a text. What time is it? They’re probably in meetings.”
For a while, Camille did feel ridiculous. After all, she did have her book club. She met with girlfriends for lunch the last Wednesday of every month. She had her yoga class. There was plenty to do and Dirk, newly retired, was home more often, which meant they could walk to the café for brunch and visit the new exhibit at the museum. Together. The problem was she realized she didn’t like any of those things.
As a child, Camille loved to read and did so instead of drawing horses with oddly proportioned heads or houses with four windows and a door, a yard with giant flowers, their dark centers staring back, their petals asymmetrically drawn. That’s what her two sisters did. Camille read. And read and read. In the car, sitting in the corner of her room, on the playground at school. Mostly mysteries and crime novels. The characters were so clever, so daring and complicated. They were interesting. Her parents worried. And because her parents worried, Camille worried, but that didn’t stop her from reading. In fact, she spent more time at the library looking for a story that would explain herself. Which one of these is me, she wondered.
The book club should have been a good idea. The group made up of mostly women met in the social room of the apartment building. There was a fireplace and comfortably deep leather chairs and a bar to which you could bring your own bottle of wine for sharing, or not sharing. It became increasingly difficult for Camille to make it through a meeting without drinking three glasses of chardonnay. By the third glass, her fingers struggled to turn the pages of the book. It was like she was wearing thick gloves, her mobility restricted, her physical reactions slowed as if she were trudging through deep snow. She knew she could do it, she just had to try. But did she absolutely have to try? She couldn’t remember the last time she’d read one of the books for the club. It was always some historical fiction with women who wore entirely too many layers of clothing with ribbons and pearly buttons and nowhere was it ever mentioned that they probably had hairy legs and bad morning breath. And then there was the analysis. Camille listened as one group member droned on about a character’s unruliness in the face of the society’s feminist roles.
“But she still married him in the end, right?” Camille snorted. Wine sloshed out of her glass.
She listened as one woman after another fawned over Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff, Edward Rochester. Camille rolled her eyes and her Rs, “RRRRReeaallyyy.”
The group disapproved.
“These women are exhausting and unrealistic,” she told Dirk.
“Who? The book club ladies?” Dirk asked.
“Well, them, too.”
“Then don’t go. Jesus, Camille. It’s not like it’s required.” Dirk turned back to the TV and changed the channel to a news program.
“I don’t know why you watch that. You can’t even hear what those people are saying. Look at them. Yelling at each other. They don’t listen. What are they even talking about?”
Dirk shrugged his shoulders and swatted his hand in her direction. Camille looked at the back of her husband’s head.
“Enough, already,” she said.
The following Wednesday, she told her girlfriends about her decision to stop attending the meetings. Barbara smiled. Lindsay nodded. They munched their salads, sipped their ice waters with freshly cut lemons. Camille picked at her buttered roll. They thought she was boring. She knew it. Barbara was an old friend from school and she and Camille attended Lindsay’s yoga class. At first, Lindsay seemed entirely too peppy and not nearly sweaty enough for her and Camille to be friends. Camille always left the gym limping and wishing for a nap. Barbara introduced them and one way or another, Lindsay ended up joining the Wednesday lunch. After the first two lunches with Lindsay, Camille determined she had been right: they shouldn’t be friends, plus she hated yoga.
“Lindsay will not change out of her workout clothes into normal people clothes before we eat. Why? She doesn’t own normal clothes? And she wears this batik headband every time. It’s just annoying.”
Dirk nodded his head, stared at his phone. “She sounds terrible. Someone ought to lock her up.”
Barbara was in real estate and yoga was an excuse to ambush prospective clients. She discussed The Market with religious fervor. Everything was great or miserable; her clients were demanding or couldn’t tell her what they wanted. Her brain was a vault of neighborhood information. She recited names of school districts, average home sales, and available amenities while reaching through a Mountain Pose. She prayed for quick sales and big commissions. She was go go go and her phone was constantly beeping and booping.
“Do you have to do that now while we’re eating?” Camille would ask.
“It’s just a quick email,” Barbara would say.
When Camille told Barbara she was thinking about selling the apartment and moving out of the city, Barbara stared at her without blinking.
“Why would you do that?” Barbara said.
Because I hate everything and everyone! “Because it feels like it’s time,” she said.
“And Dirk likes the idea?”
“It doesn’t really matter.”
“Okay. Well, then I’ll be your agent.”
Dirk Dearin didn’t like the idea. He protested and refused. He made his sensible objections and came up with patronizing explanations. He asked her why and then talked over her while she tried to answer. He turned up the charm to convince her that she was wrong. This time she saw through his bright smile and shining eyes. He resorted to yelling, but it only made him small and childish.
This is it, this is who he really is. “You do remember, Dirk, that I never wanted to move here. To an apartment in the city. It was for you, for your career. Customer dinners, conferences in other cities, benefits with unmannered people, eighty-hour work weeks. That’s what I supported. I hated raising the boys here.”
“But the boys loved it here! They were happy. Good schools, nice friends. We’ve been happy!” Dirk pointed at Camille. “I took you to that conference in Toronto.”
“You owe me.”
Dirk stared at her, his laser-like eyes on her face. Camille ran her hands over her cheeks and forehead just to make sure there was nothing there, a spider, a beetle, whatever pest would cause that crawling feeling on her skin. But there was nothing. Just unlined softness achieved through years of showing little to no emotion and an extremely expensive overnight cream.
Dirk drove them to see the house, following Barbara’s car out of the city and over the bridge. Buildings gave way to trees, taxis became minivans, and lining the sidewalks were fewer bus stops and more mailboxes. Camille sat quietly as Dirk commented on the slow drivers, and so many school buses, and where the hell do these people go out to eat, and was she sure she wanted to be this far out, this far away.
Yes. Yes, she was sure of at least that one thing.
The driveway was shaded by a line of crepe myrtles. There was an easement on the front of the property. A ditch, a deep swale really, lined with rocks to keep the weeds from taking over. The grasses were strong and persistent and had grown tall and were impeding the flow of water. It was more a little pond than a puddle. Lovely petals of pinks and whites and reds from the blooming crepe myrtles floated in the water. Camille was stunned by the beauty of it and the fullness of life in it. The green of the weeds and the shades of the flower petals and the grays and browns of the rocks; surely, there were frogs and snails and bees and all of it a mess together in and around the fertile ground.
“Look at that. An unacceptable mud pit. A breeding ground for mosquitos.” Dirk jabs his finger into Camille’s arm. “Do you see that?”
They walk up the driveway. Barbara reads off the square footage calling it “cozy”, and cites the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. Oh, and heart pine floors. Barbara just loves heart pine.
“What about the house across the street? Does it look somewhat shabby?” Dirk asks. They all turn to look. It was a brick ranch with black shutters. A large pear tree stood a few feet from the front door. The tree looked to be discarding its fruit on the sidewalk leaving them to brown and lose all resilience becoming mush. Was it nice enough to see out of the front window? Barbara checked her papers.
“Tax records show it belongs to a Richard and Lois Brimm. I think he’s deceased at least according to the internet.”
Camille looked at the pear tree and imagined it reaching out to her. She recognized the pull of a lonely soul.
Barbara turns back to the house she intended for her clients to buy. “So much character. Excellent bones. It’s a cottage style,” she says, “which is a smart investment. Great resale value. Limited HOA. Access to the tennis courts and swimming pool.”
“Is there golf?” Dirk asks, a lift in his voice.
Barbara flips her paper over. “No, afraid not. But there are a number of walking trails. Oh, and Dirk.” She snaps her fingers in his direction. “There’s that driving range…what’s the name? Hillside Golf. That’s it.” She was triumphant.
“Will you open the door, Barbara?” Camille leans over the front porch banister to look through a window. She sees her reflection.
They are onto the porch, and Barbara unlocks the door, pushes it open letting Camille step through first.
“This is where I’ve been all along.” She whispers.
She sees her boys with building blocks on the living room floor, the backs of their necks white from fresh haircuts. How small and narrow their shoulders are. She sees them stumbling down the stairs with book bags and grabbing lunch boxes and then older, taller, fighting over car keys. She’s sitting in a chair just inside the library French doors reading a book. She’s in the kitchen making a cup of tea, emptying the dishwasher, burning her fingers on a freshly-toasted waffle. She sees herself smiling.
And she was smiling. Dirk and Barbara looked at each other.
“Well, I don’t know. I guess that if we look at the rest of the house and like it…maybe we could try it. But, whatever we do, I’m not getting rid of the apartment in the city yet.” Dirk said.
“Fine. Do anything you want with the apartment.” Just stop talking. She ran her hand over the chair railing as she walked from room to room. She slowly climbed the stairs, counting each step, a moment, a memory, a choice, until she reached the last stair and stepped quietly onto the landing. Finally she said, “I’m never going to let this house get away from me.”
Two weeks after Camille and Dirk Dearin moved into their cottage outside of the city, Dirk had a heart attack. He went down the short driveway to get the mail. He fell into the rock and grass lined swale, into the mud, facedown, sucking in water and dirt and petals from the crepe myrtles. Unable to turn over, he drowned. The grasses that weren’t trapped under his body remained tall and reached upward, the frogs jumped and eventually the water settled.
People drove out of the city and over the bridge to ask Camille how it happened, did he have a stroke, a heart attack, where was she when it happened, could it be more dreadful? People from Dirk’s work, ladies from the book club. The widow from across the street, Lois Brimm, an elderly woman, heavy and attractive with white freshly styled hair and neat blouse and slacks, brought a spiced pear cake. Lois held Camille’s gaze and handed her the cake without a word. Barbara brought wine and Lindsay, who managed to lead a yoga class before they left to visit. Lindsay, of course, couldn’t bring herself to change into appropriate clothing. Camille’s sons came with their families. She hugged her grandchildren and showed them how to use a wagon in the backyard. She helped them find sticks and let them swat at low-hanging tree branches. She told her sons she had not heard the door open and close, didn’t know their father had walked down to the mailbox, wasn’t aware he was outside lying dead in the ditch.
Her sons said, “Maybe you should move back. There’s no life here for you.” As they wandered through the house, looked at ceilings and peered in cabinets, flipped through a magazine or leaned against a door jamb, their unease pressed, weighty and wearing. Their phones beeped and booped. Their wives waved to them from the backyard, but they didn’t see.
Camille waved and moved closer to the window. She thought back to that day. Dirk walking to the end of their drive. Dirk taking a step and grabbing on to the mailbox. She could still see the mail on the ground, white rectangles and a small brown package, which turned out to be a book she ordered and was desperate to read. Her eyes drifted from her husband’s body to the window across the street. The curtains were pulled aside and Lois Brimm was there watching. Camille pressed her hand against the glass. Lois waved.
Rays of sunshine blinked through the tree leaves. She shivered. With the warm light on her skin she knew the boys were wrong. This house, this yard, was warmth in her heart and now that she’d lived in it, read books in the library, made tea in the kitchen, watched her grandchildren play in grass that was a beautiful bright green in the sun, just the way she’d imagined, she would never give it up.
© Alissa C. Miles
About the Author: Alissa is a writer living in Hillsborough, NC. She writes short stories, novels, a monthly newsletter for writers called WRITE RABBIT, and book reviews while dodging paper airplanes, making her two sons’ school lunches, planning baseball schedules with her husband, and stepping over dogs. She dreams of running a bookstore with her mother, and cake.