A Connecticut native, PATRICIA GOSLING has lived and worked in the Netherlands, France, and Morocco. Currently resident in Malaysia, she has published short fiction in a number of US and European literary journals.
In the Pleistocene
by Patricia Gosling
They sat together in the living room as the sun slid below the trees. Soon it would be dark enough to switch on a lamp. The log in the fireplace collapsed into coals and Robert glanced at his wrist, a sure sign he was preparing to leave.
“That’s new, isn’t it?” Margot pointed at the slim gold watch.
“What, this?” He flushed and covered the watch with the cuff of his sweater. “Just something I bought for myself.”
“Let me see.” Margot grabbed his hand. “Fancy. You must have done something pretty good to treat yourself to this.” She poked him playfully in the ribs. He’d been working out lately and the small paunch he used to have was nearly gone.
Margot knew that the watch was probably a gift from his wife, but she didn't want to quarrel right before he left.
Earlier in the evening she had cooked dinner for the two of them. Tuna steaks with cilantro and lemon, a salad of red peppers and artichoke hearts heaped in the pretty Tuscan bowls she’d bought from a catalogue. The dirty plates were still on the table and they’d only just settled themselves on the sofa with the last of a bottle of Merlot. It was still early and Margot wasn’t ready for the evening to end, but there it was again, the quick downward glance at his watch, the nervous flick of his shoulders.
Robert knocked back the rest of his wine and set the glass on the table. “I should get going.” He stood up and stretched the kinks from his back. “Thank you for dinner. It was delicious. As always.”
He was halfway to the front hall as he said this, pulling his jacket from the coat rack with a nervous smile, in a hurry now. Margot hated this moment of departure, but she knew better than to pout. In the old days she would beg him to stay, locking him tight in her arms when they embraced at the door, but she’d long since put an end to such nonsense.
“I’ll call you.”
She smoothed his collar and patted him lightly on the chest. “Drive carefully.”
Margot could tell he didn’t look in the rear view mirror as he drove off. His mind was elsewhere now. Getting home, coming up with a fib for his wife. Maybe he’d say he had stopped off for dinner somewhere on the way home, or eaten a sandwich at his desk. Margot didn’t know what he told his wife, and she didn’t want to know. Not anymore. But sometimes she allowed herself to picture the scene at his house out in the valley, Robert coming through the back door with a ready excuse on his lips, flushed with wine and lovemaking, smelling of another woman’s cologne.
The fire had burned down to embers and ash. Margot looked dolefully at the dirty plates and glasses on the table. This was always the worst time, right after Robert went home to his wife, and she was left with the dregs of the evening. Two weeks ago the dishwasher had broken down and she hadn't gotten around to having it fixed. Now she would have to do the dishes by hand.
But first she would reward herself with a cigarette. Over the years she had tried to cut down – Robert hated her smoking – and lately she had whittled her habit to just three a day, but the urge to smoke was always with her. She never lit up when Robert was in the house, but he was gone now, so yes, another glass of wine and a cigarette would be just the thing to settle her nerves.
They had met at a poetry reading on a rainy December evening. Few people had dared to venture out of their homes in the wet weather and only half a dozen damp souls gathered on folding chairs at the bookstore in town. As the rain pummeled the roof and streamed down the windows, they listened to a wan young woman recite poems of love and heartbreak, and then an older man with a mass of gray hair read aloud about disillusion and loss in the Asian jungle.
After the reading Robert approached her, jauntily balancing a cup of coffee and a plate of cake in his hands, making some joke about being washed away in the flood.
“We might have to head out in canoes if it gets any worse,” he said.
“Or we could swim in the streets. Wouldn’t that be divine?” She smiled up at him. “I’m going to my sister’s for Christmas. She says it’s dry as dust in Phoenix. Hard to believe it’s dry anywhere with all this rain.”
She could still remember the color of the cable knit sweater he wore that night (teal blue). She had been taken by the way his skin crinkled at the corners of his eyes when he smiled. After the others had gone home, they stood in the back of the bookshop and talked about films and poetry and sailing (his passion) and painting and hiking in the desert (hers). When they parted, somewhat reluctantly, she scribbled her phone number on a scrap of paper and pressed it recklessly into his hand. Almost as an afterthought he had given her his. Later she discovered it was his work number he’d given her, and much later after that, that he had a wife and two young children.
Cupping her hand around the flame, Margot leaned over and blew out the candles. She switched on the TV to catch the news, hoping the sound of voices in the room would soothe her growing unease. Lately, she dreaded being in the house alone after dark. A strange fear prickled the backs of her knees and buzzed in the base of her skull. At the sound a pine cone hitting the roof she jumped like a frightened cat.
It was cold in the room with the fire dead, so Margot went into the bedroom to fetch a sweater. The sheets were rumpled from their hurried lovemaking. This time Robert hadn’t bothered to remove his shirt or socks. Just a frantic coupling and release; hurry, hurry, his mind on the ticking clock.
She supposed it should have ended the day he held her hand in a dark booth in the bar down by the harbor and told her he had a wife. But it was too late for that; she had already fallen for him. At twenty-one, her whole life was in front of her like a shining sea and it seemed like a lark to have a love affair with an older married man, something that gave an edge of sophistication to her life. She was planning to move to Phoenix soon anyway, to be closer to her sister and attend art school. So what did it matter if this handsome, smiling man, who gazed into her eyes as if he were drowning, had some wife stashed away in a house in the valley? Shouldn’t she just enjoy his attention while she could?
Each time they met at some out-of-town café, her heart would dance and skip as they touched feet under the table. In her apartment, alone at last, Robert’s arms snaked around her body and crushed the breath from her lungs.
Margot tamped out her cigarette and filled her glass with the last of the wine. The dishes could wait until tomorrow. She was tired now and wanted to sleep. Her cat appeared in the doorway and sniffed the air before making a beeline toward the table, enticed by the smell of tuna. “Oh no you don’t, Minx,” Margot said, wagging her finger. “You’re getting too fat as it is.” She lifted up the plates and carried them into the kitchen with the cat at her heels.
The sound of the TV filtered in from the living room, but the house felt strangely quiet. On evenings like this, old ghosts lurked in the corners, waiting and watching, tallying her missteps and past regrets. Trying to shake off a feeling of dread, she carried her wine glass into the back room, which functioned as a make-shift studio. Art school was a long forgotten dream, but every now and then, when she was feeling lonely or inspired, she would work on a painting. Margot flicked on the light and gazed at the empty easel and the tubes of paint and brushes jumbled on the table. Tomorrow, after work, she would take her easel down to the seashore and try to capture the stark beauty of Lighthouse Point as the sun was going down. No sitting by the phone waiting for Robert to call, hoping he’d be able to see her. No yearning for an hour of his time, a hurried kiss, the chance to hold his face between her palms.
In the early months of their affair, drunk on danger, they would meet in the afternoon in dark, smoky bars over on the other side of the peninsula. Margot found it thrilling to sneak around. Once, they made love in an old rowboat on the beach with the waves tugging at the stern, and another time in his sailboat cabin out in the bay. Fear of discovery paired with Robert’s guilt only flamed her ardor. Over glasses of wine or beer they would twine their hands together and talk about the marvelous stroke of fate that had brought them together. When their drinks were finished she would slip off her shoes and stroke his feet under the table with her naked toes, watching him squirm until they raced over to her apartment to spend the afternoon making love on the mattress on the floor. Robert would grab a fistful of her long brown hair and wind it around his hand, pulling her head back and kissing her till she grew dizzy. When he whispered that she drove him wild, that he couldn’t get enough of her, she clung to him, her voice husky with heat. Such happiness and dread. The deadline for applying to art school came and went. Margot couldn’t bear the thought of going off to Phoenix and leaving him behind.
The only hitch in their happiness, like a burr stuck to her skin, was Robert’s wife. He avoided talking about her at first, although Margot was naturally curious, peppering him with questions in the languid aftermath of lovemaking. What was she like, how had they met, was she pretty? When she’d first worked up the courage to ask about her, Robert shrugged away her questions and covered her mouth with kisses, holding her face hard between his palms the way she liked. But he made enough vague references to the unhappy state of his marriage that Margot felt sorry for him. And while she didn’t allow herself to think about it, she was certain, with the all the passion and fervor of youth, that Robert would never stay with his wife in the long run.
Up at dawn and dressed by seven, Margot drank her coffee at the kitchen sink, checking her watch and fussing with her hair. The sky was a brilliant blue, a welcome sight after the months of summer fog. On the way out the door, she checked her appearance in the hall mirror, wanting to make a good first impression with the new museum director. She’d heard he was young, thirty-five, and this was the first time she’d be working for someone younger than she was. As she stood at the mirror, combing her hair, Margot decided it made her feel old.
Just offshore, sea otters floated in the kelp fronds and seals sunned themselves on the rocks. Walking to work was usually the best part of Margot’s day, but her shoes pinched, aggravating the blister she’d gotten during her solo hike over the weekend. She’d been hoping Robert would join her, but it was hard for him to get away on Sunday, or so he said, even though it wasn’t really family day anymore, now that both his children were attending college on the East coast. The oldest was graduating next year in the spring and Margot pictured Robert and his wife flying out to Boston to attend their daughter’s graduation, the warmth and laughter, the twin emotions of joy and sadness at sending a grown child out into the world.
Once, in a fit of anger, she sent away for the applications to art school in time to sign up for the spring semester. Jill was urging her to come down to Arizona, saying how fun it would be to live together in the same city. Only three years older, but already married, Jill was the only family Margot had left. Their mother died of cancer when Margot was twelve and their father died of a stroke six years later. But by the time the application arrived in the mail, Margot had forgiven Robert for neglecting her and forgotten about the whole thing. She’d torn open the envelope, flipped through the glossy brochure and dumped it in the trash.
When Jill was killed in a car accident a year later, moving to Phoenix no longer made any sense and Margot, grief-stricken and lost, took her parents’ house off the rental market and reclaimed her childhood home. She hauled the furniture out of storage and Robert came around to help her put up bookshelves and sand the floors and hang some of her own paintings on the walls. On the French doors she hung gauzy white curtains that blew in the breeze and grew pots of rosemary and lavender out on the patio.
Margot quit her job at the gallery and accepted a secretarial position at the natural history museum on the edge of town. It was quiet there. She had a view of the ocean from her desk and performed her job faithfully. After the museum was closed to visitors at the end of the day, she would let herself into the big draughty building that housed the exhibits and walk around the dimly lit rooms, listening to the tap of her shoes on the wooden floor, leaning over to gaze at the rows of fossils in their glass cases and running her fingers along the mounted skeletons of seals and sea otters.
A mural on the far wall depicted the creatures that had once roamed the earth in the age of the dinosaurs and beyond. Pterodactyls swooped in the sky, brontosaurus grazed in swamps, ammonites and belemnites swam in the shallow seas. In the Pleistocene, woolly mammoths reared their heads amid the encroaching ice sheets, while saber-toothed tigers stalked their prey. Margot would walk the length of the mural, thinking about the age of the planet, the mass extinctions of the past, the crushing weight of time.
Robert had his own key to her house and sometimes she would come home from work to find him sitting in the living room, riffling impatiently through the magazines on the coffee table. As soon as she walked in the front door, he’d sweep her into his arms and kiss her quickly before waltzing her into the bedroom. Afterward, when he’d gone home to have supper with his wife and children, Margot would draw herself a bath and light candles, lying perfectly still in the soapy water, touching her bruised lips, her trembling thighs. She was twenty-five. Then thirty. After that she stopped counting.
The new director, Doug Littlefield, arrived at the museum a few minutes after Margot settled herself at her desk. She stood up and smiled at him and extended her hand. He shook it and greeted her, briefly meeting her eyes before looking away at a spot beyond her left shoulder. He was thick around the middle and losing his hair (not so young after all) and jiggled his keys in his pocket while he talked, but other than this one nervous habit, he had a pleasant manner and she thought they would get on well together.
“Would you care to show me around?” Doug said. “That is, if you’re not too busy.” He peered at the stack of papers on her desk.
He’d had a quick tour of the museum during his interview, of course, but Margot was delighted to show him around again, leading him through the museum’s cavernous rooms as she would her own home, pointing out the things that delighted her. He was contemplative during the tour, quiet, interested. They would get along just fine.
“Thank you, Ms. Sloan,” he said when they were finished. “I’m starting to feel at home already.”
“Please call me Margot,” she said, blushing.
That evening she was having dinner with two friends. They’d all known each other since high school, although they hadn’t been friends then. Margot had been too bohemian and odd, she supposed; ‘arty’ they called her, and they moved in different circles. It was only later, in their thirties, that they sought each other out, finding they had enough in common to enjoy the odd girls’ night out. Two or three times a year, as a special treat, they would get all dressed up and eat lobsters and drink cocktails at one of the swank seafood restaurants on the pier.
Margot was the first to arrive, stepping into the crowded restaurant in a black sleeveless dress and a beaded necklace she’d bought on a recent trip to New Mexico. She wore sheer lipstick and low-heeled shoes. Nancy and Debra came in together, laughing. Both women were all dolled up in tight short dresses and stiletto heels and too much makeup for Margot’s taste. Nancy was still married, but Debra’s husband had divorced her three years ago and she was raising her teenage daughters alone. Since the divorce, Debra had developed the habit of laughing too loud and too often, and her eyes roamed the room, as if searching for prey.
“We stopped by the Low-Down for drinks first, so don’t mind us if we’re a little tipsy,” Debra said, giggling behind her hand. Margot felt a flash of jealousy. She knew that they often talked about her relationship with Robert behind her back.
The sun was just going down as they were led to their table and they stopped to admire the view through the window. Debra and Nancy flirted with the young waiter and ordered extravagant rum cocktails full of crushed fruit.
“This will send me right over the edge,” Debra said when the drinks arrived and then took a long swallow.
“You’re awfully cheerful,” Margot said, eyeing her friend. Debra had lost weight, her hair was nicely styled, and her eyes were bright.
“I’ve met someone,” Debra said, breaking into a grin. “Can you believe it, at my age and with three kids? I’d pretty much given up hope.”
Nancy rolled her eyes and sighed. “I know all about the new man, but go ahead, fill Margot in on the details.”
Margot listened politely as Debra described the man she was dating. A CPA, recently divorced, two kids. She tried to nod and smile in the right places, but was having trouble focusing on Debra’s words. “I’m so happy for you,” she said when Debra stopped to take a breath. But her smile felt forced.
When their food arrived, the conversation turned to other things: work and children and summer holidays. Nancy was talking about their recent family trip to Disneyland when Debra excused herself to go to the bathroom.
Margot toyed with the food on her plate. When she put her fork down Nancy said, “How’s Robert?”
“Do you mean how is Robert doing, or are you asking me if I’m still seeing him?” Her voice was cold.
“Oh Margot. Don’t be touchy. I guess I’m just asking how you are, that’s all. If things are still the same. I saw him in town the other day. With some woman. It must have been his wife. Although, she seemed awfully… Never mind. I was just wondering.”
“Robert’s fine. I’m fine. We’re still seeing each other. He’s still married. Is there anything else you want to know?” Margot pulled her cigarettes out of her bag and lit one. To hell with quitting.
When Debra came back from the bathroom with her hair combed and a fresh layer of lipstick, the women tried to get the conversation going again, but the mood had soured.
At nine-thirty Nancy announced she had better get back home or Ted would start moaning about her being out at all hours. It was a relief when they stood up to go. Margot studied her friends’ faces in the candlelight, flushed from booze and laughter, and wondered how she looked to them. Tougher and wiser after all these years, or merely old and worn out?
Back in her car, sitting at a red light on Ocean Street, Margot lit another cigarette. It felt too early to go home.
When the light turned green Margot jammed her foot against the accelerator and lurched the car forward, rather than turn left onto the road that would take her home. She drove along the coast road south of town, through the dark stands of eucalyptus and pine, until she came to the turn off to the valley. It wouldn’t hurt to swing past Robert’s house, just a quick drive by, and then turn around and go home. It was something she hadn’t done in years, because each time she was mortified to sink so low. Jealousy. Suspicion. She couldn’t allow those twin demons to fester and grow.
The first time she’d worked up the courage to drive by Robert’s house was the year after Jill died. It was her first Christmas alone and she’d woken up early and made herself a cup of coffee and hummed along to Christmas carols on the radio. The apartment was bare of decoration except for a small wreathe of holly on the kitchen table. A tree would have depressed her. All day long she waited for the phone to ring, for Robert to wish her a Merry Christmas, whispering in a husky voice that he loved her. Around seven in the evening, tired of waiting and buzzing with anger, she had driven out to Robert’s house.
It took her awhile to find the old Spanish villa ringed by cypress trees and live oaks. She’d parked the car at the end of the road and crouched in the bushes at the end of Robert’s drive. The curtains were open and the rooms were all lit up. Robert and his wife and their two children were seated at the base of an enormous Christmas tree, bathed in the winking lights, laughing and talking. The children’s faces glowed like suns. Robert crouched in a sea of torn paper and tattered bows with his blonde wife at his side in a pretty red blouse with a spray of holly pinned above her breast, diamond earrings sparkling. A fierce pain stabbed into Margot’s heart and lodged there like a stone before she found the strength to turn away.
Margot couldn’t remember the exact moment she knew Robert would never leave his wife. In the weeks following this revelation, she learned to make do with what Robert could offer her: stolen hours here and there.
Like a thief casing the neighborhood, she drove slowly past the house, hunched down low over the wheel in case someone saw her. What was she hoping to see? Robert quarreling with his wife through the kitchen window, or evidence of separate sleeping arrangements? And what did it matter, now. What she was truly worried about was being replaced.
The house was all lit up as if for a party. Were they sitting together on the sofa in front of the TV? Or was Robert’s wife alone in the house, waiting for Robert to come home from what she thought was a business dinner? Margot turned around at the end of the road and cruised slowly past the house again. She didn’t dare stop the car in case Robert looked out the window and saw her.
Back in her own house she went straight to the answering machine, but there were no messages. Margot set her bag down on the table and chewed her lip. In her mind she went over all the conversations they’d had in the last several months, the appointments he had canceled, the times he said he would call and didn’t. Her hands started to shake and she fumbled in her bag for her cigarettes. The house was horribly quiet and lonely. She smoked half a cigarette in a fury, then stubbed it out and left the house and drove to the museum. Sometimes it calmed her to walk around the exhibits late at night when the museum was closed. She had her own key. It was would be a simple matter to let herself in.
The cypress trees rustled in the breeze blowing in off the water. Margot unlocked the building and closed the door behind her. She breathed in the musty air and pressed her hand to her chest. Even with the moonlight coming in through the window, it was too dark to see anything. She felt along the wall for the light switch and flicked it on. In front of her the brontosaurus reared up, big as life, and the red eyes of a pterodactyl stared at her with menace. Giant tree ferns and palms stood out against the blue sky, and in the Pleistocene the saber-toothed tigers roamed the plains in their moment of glory. At the far edge of the mural, an early hominid family, draped in furs, huddled close to a fire at the mouth of a cave, seeking warmth as the ice sheets retreated behind them. The dawn of Modern Man.
Margot leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor. She lit a cigarette and studied the mural, criticizing its faults, appraising its strengths. She could paint something like that, make a new career for herself as a commercial illustrator. It wasn’t such a crazy idea. She had the drafting skills and the talent. It wasn’t too late to start again. It was the will she had been lacking all these years, the strength to pull away.
In her mind she began a letter. Just a few words would do it. Margot wanted the power of her words to take his breath away, to slow, for a moment, the steady beating of his heart.