When the cab finally left the main road and turned onto the dirt path that led to the beach, Nina hung on to the door handle for dear life. The road here was pure coral—as was the island—and tires could blow in a second. Their speed slowed; they inched past villages set up in the middle of nothing; cattle penned in makeshift corrals, women in brightly colored veils and dresses gathering sticks, children pumping together at the well for water. The houses were small and dark and made of whatever was handy—sticks, mud, chunks of coral—and everything wore the red cast of the dirt.
At the end of the road, the beach was a hive of activity. Wooden boats bobbed in the shallow water, while men tended to nets spread out on the sand. Raggedly dressed boys haunted the area, hoping for tourists, offering to pose for photographs in exchange for American dollars.
The minute she stepped onto the sleek white motorboat, she realized how tense she’d been. A knot in her neck relaxed. She felt the sea air on her dirty face, whipping through her matted hair as they sped across the flat sea. It occurred to her, as she breathed in the salty air, how lucky she was in this life, even with her grief. She could leave the terrible places behind, change her future with a phone call and an airplane ticket.
The private island—Mnemba—was a small atoll in the Zanzibar archipelago, and when she arrived, the island’s manager, Zoltan, was there with a glass of white wine and a cool, wet rag. When he saw Nina, his dark, handsome face broke into a wide grin. “I am glad to see you again.”
She jumped out of the boat and into the warm water, making sure to hold her gear bag high above her head. “Thanks, Zoltan. I’m glad to be here.” She took the wine from him. “Is Danny here?”
“He’s in number seven.”
She slung the camera bag and backpack strap over her shoulder and made her way down the beach. The sand was as white as the coral from which it had been formed, and the water was a remarkable shade of aquamarine. Almost exactly the color of her mother’s eyes.
There were nine private bandas on the island—thatch-roofed, open-sided cottages—each hidden from view by dense vegetation. The only time guests saw each other, or the staff, was for meals in the dining hut or at sunset, when cocktails were set up on a table at the beach in front of each banda.
Nina saw the discreet #7 sign on the beachside lounge chairs and followed the sand path to the banda. A pair of tiny antelope, no larger than rabbits, with antlers as sharp as ice picks, bounded across the path and disappeared.
She saw Danny before he saw her. He was in one of the woven bamboo chairs, with his bare feet propped on a coffee table, sipping a beer and reading. She leaned against the wooden railing. “That beer isn’t quite the best-looking thing in the room, but it’s close.”
Danny tossed down his book and stood up. Even in his worn, overwashed khaki shorts, with his long black hair in need of a good cutting, and his shadowy, stubble-coated jaw, he looked beautiful. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her until she pushed him away, laughing. “I’m filthy,” she said.
“It’s what I love best about you,” he said, kissing the grimy palm of her hand.
“I need a shower,” she said, unbuttoning her shirt. He took her by the hand and led her through the bedroom and down the wooden walkway to the bathroom and the outside shower. Beneath the spray of hot water, she peeled out of her bra and shorts and panties, kicking the sopping garments aside. Danny washed her in a way that was pure foreplay, and when the soap was still sliding down her slick body, and she reached for him, all it took was a touch. He picked her up and carried her to the bedroom.
Later, when they both could breathe again, they lay entwined on the net-draped bed. “Wow,” she said, her head cradled in the crook of his arm. “I forgot how good we are at that.”
“We’re good at a lot of things.”
“I know. But we’re really good at that.”
There was a pause, and in it she knew he was going to say what she didn’t want to hear. “I had to hear from Sylvie that your da died.”
“What was I supposed to do? Call and cry? Tell you he was dying?”
He rolled onto his side, pulling her with him until they lay facing each other. His hand slid down her back and rested on the curve of her hip. “I’m from Dublin, remember? I know about losin’ people, Nina. I know how it sits inside you like battery acid, burnin’ through. And I know about runnin’ from it. You’re not the only one in Africa, are you?”
“What do you want from me, Danny? What?”
“Tell me about your da.”
She stared at him, feeling cornered. She wanted to give him what he wanted, but she couldn’t. Her feelings, her loss, were so intense that if she let herself feel all of it, she’d never find a way back.
“I don’t know how. He was . . . my sun, I guess.”
“I love you like that,” he said quietly.
Nina wished that made her feel better, but it didn’t. She knew about unequal love, how you could be crushed from the inside if one person was more in love than the other. Hadn’t she sometimes seen that kind of wreckage in Dad’s eyes when he looked at Mom? She was sure she had. And once you’d seen that kind of pain, you didn’t forget it. If Danny ever looked at her like that it would break her heart. And he would. Sooner or later he’d figure out that she might have loved her dad, but she was more like her mom.
“Can’t we just—”
“For now,” he said, but she knew it wouldn’t end here.
The thought of losing him made her feel strangely anxious, so she did what she always did when her emotions were too sharp to bear: she let her hands slide down his bare chest, to the line of hair from his navel and still downward, and when she touched him and felt how hard he was for her, she knew he was still hers.
The sky is slate-gray and swollen with clouds. A lone seagull wheels overhead, battling the wind, cawing. She is little, a girl with long brown pigtails and skinned knees. Running after him. A kite skips on the sand in front of her, twisting; it flips away before she can reach it.
“Daddy,” she yells, knowing he is too far ahead. He can’t hear her. “I’m back here—”
Meredith awoke in a panic. She sat up in bed and looked around, knowing he wouldn’t be here. It was another dream.
Still tired and aching from a night spent turning beneath the covers, she eased out of bed, being careful not to waken Jeff. She went to the window and stared out at the darkness. Dawn hadn’t shown its face yet. She crossed her arms tightly, trying to hold herself together. It felt as if pieces of her soul were falling away lately, like some ugly form of spiritual leprosy.
“Come back to bed, Mere.”
She didn’t look back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Why don’t you sleep in today?”
It sounded good, the idea that she could bury herself in his arms and under the blankets and just sleep while life ticked on without her. “I wish I could,” she said, already thinking of what she needed to do this morning. As long as she was up, she could get to work on the quarterly taxes. She had a meeting with the accountant next week and she needed to be ready.
Jeff got out of bed and came up behind her. She saw a silvered image of their faces in the blackened window.
“You take care of everything and everyone, Mere. But who takes care of you?”
She turned to him, let him hold her. “You do.”
“Me?” he said sharply. “I’m one more thing on your To-Do list.”
At another time—last year, maybe—she would have told him that wasn’t fair, fought with him about it, but she was too depleted now to bother.
“Not now, Jeff,” was all she could think to say. “I can’t have this conversation.”
“I know how much you’re hurting—”
“Of course I’m hurting. My dad died.”
“There’s more to it than that. You’re doing too much,” he said quietly. “You’re still hell-bent on getting her attention, just like—”
“What am I supposed to do? Ignore her? Or maybe I should quit my job?”
“Hire someone. She doesn’t give a shit if you’re there. I know it hurts, baby, but she’s never cared.”
“I can’t. She won’t let me. And I promised Dad.”
“What if she breaks you? Is that what your dad wanted? Does she ever even look at you?”
She knew he was right. In times like these she wished they hadn’t been together so long, that he hadn’t seen so much. But he’d been there on the night of the play—and other nights like it—and he knew her heart and how much pain it sometimes held. “It’s not about her, even. You know that. It’s about me. Who I am. I just can’t let it . . . let her go.”
“Your dad was worried about this, remember? He was afraid our family would break apart without him, and he was right. We’re falling apart. You’re falling apart and you won’t let anyone help you.”
“Doc Burns says Mom will be okay in a little while. Once she’s fine, I promise I’ll hire someone to clean her house and pay her bills, okay?”
She kissed him lightly on the lips. It was over. For now. “I’ll be back for breakfast, okay? I’ll make us omelets and fruit. Just you and me.”
Easing away from him, she headed for the bathroom. As she was closing the door, she thought she heard him say something. She caught the word worried and closed the door.
In the dark, she dressed in her running clothes and left the bedroom. Downstairs, she turned on the coffeepot and collected the dogs and headed out into the cold early February darkness.
She pushed herself harder than ever before, desperate to clear her mind. Physical pain was so much easier to handle than heartache. Beside her, the dogs yelped and played with each other, occasionally running off into the deep snow on the sides of the road, but always coming back. By the time she had come to the golf course and doubled back, dawn had gilded the valley. It hadn’t snowed in almost two weeks and the top layer was crusty and glittery in the pale sunlight.
She veered into Belye Nochi and fed the dogs on Mom’s porch. It was one of the many changes in Meredith’s new schedule. She always did at least two things at once. She slipped out of her running shoes and went into the kitchen, where she started the samovar, and then climbed the stairs. She was still red-faced and breathing heavily when she opened Mom’s door.
And found the bed empty.
Meredith went outside to the winter garden and sat beside her mother, who wore the lacy nightdress that Dad had given her for Christmas last year, with a blue mohair blanket draped around her shoulders. Her lower lip was bleeding from where she’d bitten it. Her feet were covered in stockings that were gray with damp and brown with dirt.
Meredith dared to reach out and cover her mother’s cold, cold hand with her own, but she couldn’t find any words to go along with the intimate act. “Come on, Mom, you need to eat something.”