And did this woman know? Irene wonders. Did she know that Russ was married and had two sons? Did she know that he lived in a Victorian house in Iowa City, Iowa? Had Russ shown her pictures of Irene? It’s too heinous to contemplate. Irene cries, she wails, and Winnie starts to bark, but Irene can’t stop. She’s grateful that the boys are gone so she can just let go. She was such a trusting fool.
She thinks back on the many hours that she spent comforting Lydia when Lydia found out that her husband, Phil, philandering Phil, was cheating on her. Phil worked as the head of security for the University of Iowa. One night, he answered a call from a freshman named Natalie Mercer, who was receiving calls on her dorm room phone. The caller kept saying he was watching her, he could see what she was wearing, he was coming to get her when she least expected it. Irene could remember Lydia relaying these terrifying details to her, back when Natalie Mercer was a faceless university student. Phil ended up catching the guy, a doctoral candidate in psychiatry, of all things. He was expelled from the school and this was, in theory, a happy ending. Peace was restored; Phil was a hero. But then, over a year later, when Lydia sensed the temperature of her marriage cooling to a suspicious low, she did some snooping—and what did she find? Phil’s cell phone documenting a lurid affair with Natalie Mercer that dated all the way back to the day Phil caught the caller.
Irene remembers feeling disgusted with Phil, but also—in her most private thoughts—a bit incredulous that Phil had been conducting an affair for over a year and Lydia hadn’t noticed.
Compared to what Russ has done, Phil having an affair with a student seems almost quaint.
Irene and Russ were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City in 1984, when they were fresh out of college. They had been together for a scant year and a half, since that football game in the blizzard. Russ’s father, the navy pilot, was dead by then, but Milly was there to represent the family. Milly and Irene had hit it off from the moment they met. Because Russ had grown up in so many places, he didn’t have any longtime childhood friends or neighbors or members of the community attending the wedding, the way Irene did. He had Milly and Milly’s two sisters—Bobbie and Cissy, whom Russ called “the aunties”—and there were also a bunch of Russ’s friends and fraternity brothers from Northwestern. Nothing about Russ’s background had seemed unusual, and certainly not sinister.
Irene and Russ had said their vows and kissed at the altar. There had been a reception at the Elks Lodge, where they ate filet mignon and cut the cake and danced to “Little Red Corvette,” and then after the reception, Irene and Russ ran through a shower of rice to get to the getaway car. They drove to the Hancock House, a bed-and-breakfast in Dubuque, Iowa, where they were given a suite with a library, and a claw-foot tub in front of a fireplace in the bathroom, and it was in this moment that Irene fell in love with the style and decor of Queen Anne houses. She said to Russ, “I want us to live in a house just like this one.”
Russ had laughed nervously. They were renting a one-bedroom apartment in University City. They were kids. They had, Irene sees now, barely known each other then, the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Russell Steele.
Irene had grown to know Russ the only way it could be done—by putting in the time. She had learned how Russ liked his coffee, how he liked his eggs, the way he brushed his teeth, the sound of his snoring, the habits of other drivers that made him angry, the actors he admired and found funny, the way he whistled “Penny Lane,” only that song, when he was doing small home improvement projects. Irene knew his shoe size, his jacket size, his waist and inseam measurements. She knew how he had voted in every election. She knew his first, second, and third favorite flavor of ice cream. She knew he would get forty pages into a book and then abandon it, no matter how good it was. She knew that he had spent his childhood as a constant outsider because he moved so often. She also knows he never felt like his father loved him. Russ’s father was a military man, a fortress, with a mind and heart that were impossible to penetrate. Irene knew that, because of his father, Russ had never wanted to serve in the military. In fact, if Irene were to disclose Russ’s biggest secret, it was that he had sabotaged his chances of getting into the US Naval Academy by intentionally missing his interview.
That, as it turns out, was not his biggest secret.
Irene howls. There are so many thoughts that pierce her, not least of which is her own blindness, her own myopia, her own pathetic, middle-class, middle America view that marriages are meant to last forever, through the bad times, through the boring times. They were Russ and Irene Steele, parents of Baker and Cash, owner of the stunning Victorian on Church Street. They are good, God-fearing, straightforward people. Not people with scandalous secrets.
Finally, Irene stops crying. She wears herself out. She must have worn Winnie out as well, because Winnie has fallen asleep in a sunny spot on the floor.
Irene regards the photograph. Russ has a lover, an island girl. It seems less awful than it did forty minutes earlier. One thing Irene has learned in her fifty-seven years is that no matter how hideous something seems at first, with the passing of time comes habituation and then acceptance. What Irene is living through now is abhorrent. But the world is filled with deceptions and betrayals—nearly every life has one—and yet the sun still rises and sets, the world continues on.
She sits up. The water out the window seems to wink at her, and not in a wicked, I-seduced-your-husband sort of way but in a benevolent way.
What did Paulette say? Eighty steps down to a private beach. Okay.
Irene decides to go barefoot. The stone steps turn to wood, they meander down the side of the hill until the vegetation clears and Irene steps onto a tiny, perfect crescent of white sand beach. The sand is like sugar, like flour, like talcum. She stoops to pick some up and rub it between her fingers. Is it real? Yes.
There are three teak chaises on the beach with bright orange cushions. Irene tries to imagine Russ lying on one of these chaises, with his girlfriend next to him. And who would the third chaise be for? she wonders.
Today it’s for Irene. She lies back in the sun, absorbing the heat, which feels like a miracle after the icy winds of Iowa City. She can’t stay here long, just another minute; wrinkles are multiplying on her face by the second, she’s certain. Her breathing is almost back to normal. Her eyes are sore but dry.
Russ had a lover.
Irene gets up and walks to the water’s edge. The color is halfway between blue and green; it’s not a color found elsewhere in nature, except, in rare and wonderful cases, in people’s eyes. Tiny waves lap at her feet. The water is soft and just cool enough to be refreshing. When Irene had packed, back in Iowa, the idea of bringing a bathing suit had briefly crossed her mind, part of some kind of mental checklist, but she hadn’t been able to imagine circumstances in which she would want or need one. She looks both ways. This beach is secluded from view. There are a few boats on the horizon, but no one can see her here.
Irene shucks off her clothes and stands naked on the beach. Is she invisible? She feels quite the opposite. She feels exposed. Let the world see her drooping breasts, the dimpling at her thighs, the cesarean scar eight inches across her lower abdomen.
She steps into the water and all she can think is how good it feels, the coolness enveloping her. She swims out a few yards.
This is the same water that claimed Russ. Russ is dead. That’s the next fact Irene has to grapple with. He’s gone. He’s never coming back. She will never see him again. She can’t ask him why he did what he did, where she went wrong, where they both went wrong. She can’t scream at him and he can’t apologize. There is nowhere to put her fury, no one to answer the question of why.
Irene lies back in the water, floating, looking at the cloudless bluebird sky, and thinks, really thinks, what it was like for Russ in that helicopter. Irene has never been in a helicopter, but she has a vague notion that it’s loud. Russ was probably wearing a headset. Did he see the storm approaching? Did he see flashes of lightning or hear thunder? Was he scared? When the helicopter got hit, did it go into free fall? Was it terrifying? Did Russ have a second or two when he knew they were plummeting, when the earth was getting closer and closer? Did his heart stop? Did he have any thoughts? Did he think about Irene and the boys? And what about impact? Did he burst into flames? Did he lose consciousness? Did he drown?
Irene sets her feet on the firm, sandy bottom and wades toward shore, until her toe hits something solid. She bends down and picks up a smooth gray rock the size of an egg. She drops the stone from hip-height into the water and watches it sink.
Russ’s body had been lying at the bottom of the sea like that rock.
Her heart shatters. The tears she cries now aren’t of anger or indignation but of pure sadness. Russ is dead and the woman, his lover, his love, is dead. Dead. Never coming back.
I will forgive them, Irene thinks. I will make myself forgive them if it’s the last thing I do.
Irene dries off in the sun, puts her clothes back on, and faces the eighty steps she has to climb to get back to the villa.
The woman in the photograph is young, thirty or thirty-five. She must have family, parents. And Irene is going to find out who they are.