Art by Joya Logue
On the morning they were to leave for Orange Island—he had packed their clothes and beach things the night before—his wife told him she was no longer attracted to him.
The problem, it seemed, was his moles. He had—he’d had since puberty—three dark moles on his lower belly, between his groin and his navel on his right side. The moles were arranged in a triangle with a dime-size spot at the center, and although they weren’t very large, they were raised, and they sometimes sprouted coarse hairs.
“I’ll get them removed,” he said. “I’ll call the dermatologist as soon as we get back.”
His wife sat cross-legged on the carpet.
“What?” he said. “What is it?”
“It isn’t the moles,” she said. “It’s the way you smell.”
This surprised the man; he’d always been scrupulous about hygiene.
“The way I smell?” he said. “I smell bad?”
“Not bad,” she said. “But not good.”
The man asked his wife, as calmly as he could, to describe his smell. She pulled a shawl over her bare shoulders. He asked her again.
“Like carrots,” she said. “You smell like cooked carrots.”
The man was dumbfounded. “But haven’t I always smelled the same?” he asked.
No, she answered. When they met, in their mid-20s, he had smelled like Thomas Fine, a boy she had known in junior high. Then things had changed and now he smelled like cooked carrots.
The man asked his wife to describe the old smell for him—the Thomas Fine smell.
“Actually, I was lying just then,” she said. “You’ve always smelled like cooked carrots.”
What could the man do? He agreed with his wife that they had to separate. I am still a relatively young man, he thought, and virile. I will attract someone else. For a long while the man and his wife sat without talking. Then the man said he was going to go tell the kids.
“Be gentle,” the woman said. “They have their tests next week.”
The man put on a shirt and walked down the hall. Their daughters shared a room with a window overlooking the harbor. They were at their desks, studying their test manuals. When Lucinda saw the man at the door, she flinched.
“Something grown-up has happened!” she cried.
“Yes, something grown-up has happened,” he said. “That’s very perceptive. You’re a very perceptive child.”
“And I’m an idiot,” Antonia said.
“No, my love, you aren’t an idiot,” he said. “You just have different skills.”
Antonia’s eyes grew bright. “What are they, Daddy?” she asked. “What are my skills?”
He answered honestly that he didn’t know. “That’s what the test will tell us.”
“I’m going to fail it,” said Antonia.
“No one fails,” he said. “It’s not that kind of test.”
Then Lucinda said that Billy Bradfield’s older brother had failed his test, and that he’d been transferred to a special school far inland, where his parents could visit him only on bank holidays. Hearing this, the man became upset and told both of his daughters to quiet down, he had something important to say.
Lucinda wiped her eyes on a stuffed dolphin. “It’s about Charles, isn’t it?” she said.
“No, it isn’t about Charles,” he said. Then: “Who’s Charles?”
Antonia, brushing her hair, said, “Mommy’s friend. The one she has coffee with.”
“On Tuesdays,” Lucinda said. “While you’re at work. They go to coffee and Mommy comes back looking happy.”
“Not happy,” Antonia said, and her face seemed to lengthen. “Satisfied. Mommy comes back looking satisfied.”
“That’s right,” Lucinda said. “Satisfied. Satisfied is the better word.”
The man felt faint, and the girls took him by the hands and led him to a beanbag chair in a corner. They sat him down gently and stood above him. They looked very sweet to him standing there, with the light behind them and the breeze in their hair.
“Don’t worry,” Lucinda said. “We won’t forget you.”
“How could we?” Antonia said.
“Impossible,” Lucinda said.
“You’re a part of us,” Antonia said.
“Indelible,” Lucinda said.
“Absolutely,” Antonia said.
The man pleaded with his daughters to tell him all they knew about Charles. He said that he hated Charles and wished he were dead. He said that he would find and murder Charles.
The girls frowned.
“That’s absurd,” Lucinda said.
“An absurd male fantasy,” Antonia said.
“We expect better of you,” Lucinda said.
They told the man that Charles seemed like a decent-enough person, no better or worse than any other. He had lost his way for a while, they said. He’d struggled with addiction. Pills. But he was better now.
“More or less,” Antonia added.
“Yes, more or less,” Lucinda said.
“But I want to know more,” the man said. “You have to tell me more. I want to know everything about him.”
The girls looked at each other sadly and then nestled into the crooks of the man’s arms. They sat in the beanbag chair like that for a long while, listening to the gulls and the harbormaster’s horn. Every so often the man pressed his face into the tops of his daughters’ heads and breathed in their scent. The sun went down and they began to hear the girls’ mother calling them from the dock.
“It’s time to go,” Lucinda said.
“We don’t want to miss the ferry,” Antonia said.
Their mother called again.
“We’ve decided it would be best if you don’t come,” Lucinda said.
“It’s a matter, we think, of which sadness is worse,” Antonia said. “It will be sadder for us to have you with us than for us to miss you.”
They had each packed a little suitcase. One had a ladybug on it, the other butterflies. The man had bought the suitcases himself, and attached little bottles of hand sanitizer to the zippers. The girls pulled their suitcases out from under their desks and wheeled them to the door.
“Well, so long,” Lucinda said.
“Goodbye, Daddy,” Antonia said.
The man told his daughters that he would call them every day, and that they should check each other for ticks every night before bed, even on their privates, because ticks like warm places and you could never be too careful.
From the beanbag chair the man could hear the little suitcases thump heavily down the stairs. He waited to hear the wheels rattle across the old dock and, faintly, up the aluminum ramp to the ferry. The wind had died down. It would be an easy crossing for them. On the other end they would have to drag their suitcases through the sand to the bungalow, where they would be tired from the trip. But the weather all week would be bright and warm—he had checked the forecast—and they would laugh and see deer. They would see deer every day, shyly poking their blank faces out of the orange groves, only to pause and dash back again, searching for those dim clearings between the trees that must have seemed, to their dull animal minds, to be the only refuge permitted to them on that thin, crowded island.