Alexandra Marshall

"Punchline"

Originally published in The Cape Cod Voice

She learns that the Outer Cape grasses don't flower until the fall, when they wear shoulder-high tassels that look like yarn for a sweater. After the frost the sand feels firmer, and at low tide the flats are cousin to the clay she's being taught to manipulate by a potter with extra time and space only once the vacationers have gone back to work. The textured sky is reflected in the surface of the bay with the distorted verisimilitude of a hinged mirror, and with these riches of the natural world as her leased domain for these solitary sabbatical months, she feels eager for winter. This is another novelty.

Until she hears the doorbell she hasn't known the house had one, and when she opens the door and sees her former husband on the landing, she's glad for the protection of the storm panel inserted in place of the screen. Maybe he can read her lips—"Oh no!"—as she stares at him through the glass, trying to assess the difference she can feel but not recognize. Didn't he used to be taller? She doesn't remember being able to look him in the eye.

"May I come in?" he asks by pointing to the doorknob he doesn't dare open for himself, and when he steps inside—into what the rental agent calls the "fore-yay"—she's shorter again. Investing him with the awful power of a harbinger she asks, "Did someone die?"

But which of her loved ones could she spare? "Did something happen to one of the kids?" The twins were the old-fashioned non-engineered kind whose doubling up provided the surprise bonus of alleviating the necessity of a subsequent pregnancy. In fact their son and daughter had little in common beyond their shared birthday, yet each of them had survived the divorce with grace and humor despite the insult of it being such a clichĂ©. But how could—why would—either of them have told him where to find her?

"No, I only ran into what's-his-name, your friend's husband, and he told me you'd sublet the apartment. Maybe you already heard that I now know what it feels like to be moved out on, but if not, I thought I'd bring you the news in person." He looks over her head to the wide window and the choppy bay, feeling glad, at least, not to be out in a boat.

He's wearing a scarf that she thinks she may have given him (maybe even cashmere) in the midnight blue color he always used to look good in. Is it with relief or disappointment, then, that when they lean toward each other for a perfunctory kiss, she notices the scarf's label isn't Brooks Brothers but Barney's, so not possibly from her.

"No, I hadn't heard," she says, feeling tension in the corners of her eyes. "Nice scarf," makes her sound noticeably uncomfortable, but she can't immediately think of anything less stupid, or more welcoming.

"Anyway, hi," is his contribution, but at least this falls within the category of official greetings.

She starts over too, asking, "So would you like a cup of tea?" They sit for an hour on opposite couches and talk relatively easily, bringing each other up to date on the uninteresting news of their respective relatives. He asks about her work, and when she tells him about the sky and the water, the sandy clay and the grasses, he loves the sound of her voice. "I've become sentimental," she admits proudly.

He's already driven up from New York, but she nevertheless shows him the 6A route into Provincetown, directing him all the way to the end where, like a beached Puritan, he can look across to Plymouth and think it isn't so far to terra firma.

"I'm aground and adrift, both," he tells her, sounding as if he's had enough therapy by now to figure out what a huge missed opportunity it was when, instead of the two of them taking up some new shared activity, for instance, he decided to invest in fly fishing equipment and spend countless hours off on his own, trying to stand still in the middle of a moving river.

She knows how much their kids could have used the time with him, especially since they were in seventh grade at that point and wanting nothing to do with either parent unless it involved money. Of course he was the one with the money, too, but at the time it was this pursuit of solitude that was more troubling to her. From all she could tell, whether through his increasing inattention or these explicit absences, he'd missed practically everything that had mattered to her and their kids, which seemed to have made it easier—for him, at least—to find someone new.

Nevertheless, the afternoon gently gives itself over to evening, and after a bowl of Portuguese stew and a bottle of wine in the cozy stained glass interior of her newest favorite restaurant, she guides him along the highway to the turnoff for the winding road to the weathered-shingle house that sits on the bluff like a traveler at a scenic overlook. If they were back in the city he'd be moving along now, but out here she allows that the room she's using as her study is really a guestroom. This is what she has in mind when she asks, "Do you need a place to stay?"

And does it all come back? Of course it does, and she remembers not only the more purposeful occasion of conceiving their children but all the other times when they'd proven to be a perfect fit. Like most single women her age she's come to find it preferable not to bother having awkward sex with strangers, and she wouldn't have said she missed it either, until his warm skin feels so comforting when, afterwards, with him fitted in against her like a shadow, she faces the window to watch the lemony half-moon rise to make nature's form semi-visible.

Then the next morning they're sitting at the kitchen table and he's making himself at home by pouring into two wide cups such fragrant coffee as to take her all the way back to their honeymoon week in Paris, where she was introduced to the healing value of adding warmed milk to a brew strong enough to stand up against it. Having flown through the first night of their marriage, upon their arrival they went to a travel poster café on the Rue du Cherche-Midi, where she told him she definitely already felt Happy Ever After. She's about to recall it for him now when he asks her, as if this is his place and she's just some girl, "How do you take your coffee?"

As a professor of history she's in the professional habit of looking backwards to where it repeats itself, and though with such expert knowledge she could perhaps also be a forecaster, she claims this is a different specialty. "I can never see the punchline coming," she likes to say, "so I compensate by listening for it."

She also notices how much more efficiently decided it is this time, which surprises and relieves her. He'll find somebody else again, so only the twins might have profited from their reconciliation. She feels grief on their behalf, but her own sorrow is greater. Studying his busy hands as he adds his two teaspoons of sugar and stirs—she will drink her coffee black for the first time in 19 years—she wonders how it could be as simple as their having no future, when the implication of his question is that they have no past.