The night her affair with the superintendent began, Marilyn had anticipated a brutal meeting. There’d been four student suicides in three months, all by hanging. Would she be asked why she hadn’t attended the funerals? It was her understanding that funerals were for family and friends; teachers and building principals would officially represent the district, not the head of student services. What if she lied and told them her own little boy was sick at home and needed her?
Only once, when she was in middle school, had she been to the funeral of a young person— Samantha something, who’d died after “a long brave battle” with leukemia— a wan girl, rarely in school. Marilyn practiced a sorrowful expression in her bedroom mirror. The kids in front of the funeral home wore similar looks, though a few just cried and some boys with loose ties and untucked white shirts laughed with darting eyes. The carpeted hallway reminded her of a theater lobby. Not seeing a friend, worrying that she was late, she slid quickly into a seat at the back of the viewing room. The woman next to her asked, “Are you okay, honey? You look so pale. Would you like some water? Do you need some air?” Others leaned for a look. “You’re so pale, honey,” the woman repeated. Marilyn’s eyes filled with tears. The tall woman handed her a crushed, perfumed tissue. “Okay now, okay?” the woman asked, and Marilyn nodded. A tear dropped and melted into the dark fabric of her skirt. Her shins glowed like chalk sticks. Afterward, she lied to her mother about offering condolences to the girl’s parents.
“What are you doing?” a furious father demanded. “Kids are dying!” Was one of the dead girls his? Marilyn adjusted the lectern microphone. The auditorium was poorly lit. “First of all,” she began, “I want to express my sympathy to those suffering from these tragic events. But I want to make clear that this is not the school district’s problem.” Silence — as if she’d fallen in a well. “Not the school district’s problem alone,” she meant to say, but it was too late. Angry shouts battered her. The superintendent joined her at the lectern, and she heard firm syllables she mistook for a moment as her own. But the voice was William’s. He touched her elbow. He guided her into the shadows where she waited with dread to be called on.
Hours later, only a few cars remained in the lot. Marilyn shivered behind her steering wheel. Her face in the rearview was as white as a pan of milk. She should try a tanning salon. She should make a doctor’s appointment. Maybe they’d do tests and discover something seriously wrong with her. She pictured tubes dripping comfort into her veins, no expectations except that she lie still, invisible under the sheet pulled under her chin. Then the rap at her window, as if a lost bird had flown into it. William’s glasses flashed from the streetlight. His palm spread over the glass.
What about her husband Nick, and the boy, Danny? Marilyn’s gaze melted across their living room when she informed her husband of the Boston conference “focused on self-esteem building among inner city minority teens.”
“This is serious business,” he said. “Kids are dying. I guess you’ve got to do everything you can.” Marilyn hid her joy behind the expression he’d expect, but her pulse beat color into her cheeks as she nodded toward the stairs and Danny’s bedroom.
“We’ve got to thank our lucky stars,” she sighed. Nick murmured agreement and faded into the kitchen, while she waited for the right moment to text William the news of her good fortune.
If she cried “Willy” would William think she was mocking him? Was that a singer or an athlete? She rocked with his shifting weight. He grunted, his breath hot on her shoulder, and over his back she watched her legs wave through the screen of the silent TV. She tried to make her big toes touch. If she could do that, then surely she would come, and her orgasm would be something to share with the busy man on top and inside her. Later, he would ask if she enjoyed herself, and she would purr a compliment.
Soon they would go out to dinner. William went to shower. Marilyn luxuriated in the tangled sheets of the giant bed and the perfect freedom of this flat-on-her-back hotel room world. She pictured her lover’s naked confidence and imagined his caresses, but hoped he would stay in the bathroom until she finished. She rolled onto her stomach and pressed against her fist, had begun to lose herself with a practiced rub, when she heard William singing a country tune in the bathroom, his voice high and flat.
“Where do we eat — what are you in the mood for — how about seafood?” William burst from the bathroom in a cloud of steam. His boar’s belly hung over his towel. His hair was neatly combed, his cheeks pink. For a moment his small eyes seemed timid, almost apologetic, but when he slid on his glasses authority leapt to his face.
“I’d like to go to the aquarium tomorrow.” Marilyn still lay on her back. She parted her knees slowly, then brought them lazily together like a butterfly drying new wings.
The distant past as free of complication as the immediate present, the couple exchanged childhood stories as if they were collectible toys. While listening to ruddy-faced William in the hotel restaurant, Marilyn’s thoughts drifted to games of tag — to trees and telephone poles and stoops that had been “safeties.”
“We took vacations, when I was a boy, in the summer.” William’s lips glistened from his lobster. “We would go to caves, caverns, you know, the big famous ones. Ruby Falls Cavern, Mammoth Cave, Luray Caverns. They were dark, and they echoed. Sometimes there’d be underground streams and you’d get into little boats with other families, and the guides would tell you to keep your hands inside. Maybe they’d tell a story about a boy who didn’t listen and got his hand ground off. It was a humid cool, and you felt all this weight around you, all the solid rock. Afterwards I’d think that if they hadn’t lit the place up, it would just be dark; nothing would be visible at all. Blackness forever.” He paused so Marilyn could reflect. “I used to get yelled at for making faces in the family pictures. I don’t know why I did that. When the flash went off I’d stick out my tongue or cross my eyes. Just to be noticed, I guess, next to all the stuff that had taken so long to become what it was.”
Marilyn felt William’s pride in his self-analysis but only smiled.
“I don’t think I can make my face do some of the things I made it do when I was a kid.” William took a swallow from his wineglass and peeked at Marilyn, impatient for her to speak.
A story popped into her head. “We went to Cape Cod once when I was very small,” catching herself before beginning with, When I was my son’s age. “I remember a cabin and my brothers running on the beach,” she continued. “One of my brothers was terrified of these little crabs, I don’t know what kind they were, but they were all over the beach, and when he thought he got nipped by one in the water, he ran out screaming. My other brother and I caught a bucketful of them, and we left them outside the door of our cabin. The next morning they were all dead and stunk terribly — oh, and, the next day, I helped my brothers catch a bucketful of minnows. Those died overnight, too. They were stunk even worse — I gagged when I saw them floating in a kind of scummy jelly. I stood guard while my brother dumped them behind some rocks. We thought it was far enough away, but the wind was wrong and the beach smelled terribly all day.”
“Didn’t quite get rid of the evidence,” William nodded.
Had she really told such a horrible story at dinner? Her boldness left Marilyn giddy, and she hiccupped without excusing herself. “When we go to the aquarium tomorrow,” she said, “I want to look for those crabs — to find out exactly what kind they were.”
William gazed at her coolly. Was he trying to charm her? “Oh—” he said, “I was thinking we should spend some time at the workshops.”
But Marilyn had grasped something — it was the thing, she realized, that made her giddy: even though this was her first, she was better at having an affair than William. She could make herself forget the things that needed forgetting. He needed her to tow him along.
“‘Oh, you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you,’” she sang with a giggle, bowing toward him. Her lids slid up, and she trapped William with her eyes. “That’s Joni Mitchell,” she said. “You know, she sang that song about ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. . . Paving paradise to put up a parking lot.’ You know.” It felt sexy to sing to her man. And he did have to worry about paving parking lots, didn’t he? She imagined herself fluttering her lashes over William’s cheeks and lips. She thought of licking his cock.
He sulked. If he only knew, Marilyn thought, what treats she had in store for him. He was a messy-faced child, but he’d clean up nicely.
“We’ll make a showing, and then I suppose we’ll go to the aquarium, if you need to,” he conceded.
“Mmm—” She hummed into her glass as if she were blowing a pretty bubble. “I think I’m going to be too tired in the morning to make much of a ‘showing.’ We’ll go to the aquarium, though.”
When they returned from dinner, William had stayed in the hotel lounge so that Marilyn could telephone home. “Love you,” “Love you,” “Miss you,” “Miss you,” she’d exchanged with her husband and son. She listened attentively to Nick’s description of the day he’d shared with Danny, the dinner at McDonald’s, the DVD they’d watched, the bedtime story that was read. In response to his questions she sighed, “Don’t ask, it’s all so sad, so depressing. But I think we learned some important things—” She invented a visit to the Aquarium “with Carol, an associate superintendent from San Diego, where they have a really great Sea World, she says,” her lie so natural she yawned in the middle of telling it. She told Danny about seeing sharks, and he asked if there were any penguins, and she said, “Yes, they looked like little men in tuxedos,” but she didn’t promise to take him some day. “Love you,” “Love you,” “Miss you,” “Miss you.”
After the call, Marilyn sat on the bed, sheets still whipped to a froth from the afternoon. She let the tide of the present pull her, and photo album thoughts of her husband and son drifted away.
She lay back, her cheek on linens that smelled of sex, and remembered a news feature, an expose of hotel rooms in major chains, guaranteed “clean and sanitized.” Examined under ultraviolet light, there were semen and fecal stains everywhere: on bedspreads, carpets, arm chairs, even on walls.
William knocked and entered. What if she were still on the telephone, what if William’s head were between her legs, what if he were tonguing her insistently while she listened to her husband describe his day. A room in a hotel is only a bedroom, and the two things to do in a bedroom are sleep and fuck. “Your family is well,” William said — a statement, not a question. He sat in the corner armchair, neck deep, Marilyn imagined, in invisible stains.
“Make me a face,” she said. “A real face, like when you were a bad little boy in a cave.” Her demand sounded like a fee. When William blinked at her, she added, “At least stick your tongue out or something. Or cross your eyes.” William grinned like the Cheshire cat. The tip of his tongue appeared between his teeth. With a sidelong glance at her reflection in the closet mirror, Marilyn stuck her own tongue out at her lover.
Later, half dozing, while William snored lightly beside her, Marilyn imagined writing a note. It would be a masterpiece. “Dear Everyone,” it would begin. The note would explain things to Nick without apologizing. She would address William, too, and his part would be full of passion and gratitude. The magnificent note would close with words for her son, wise advice about life; she pictured the hands of a young man taking it from a box where he kept his treasures and unfolding it for its thousandth reading: “Dear Everyone . . .” Then Marilyn remembered that this was the opening of the Facebook message left by her district’s last suicide. That wouldn’t do. She would have to think of something else.
The next morning, William lectured her as they walked to the aquarium from the subway, squinting against a painful sun. His ignorance astounded her. “—Or Moby Dick,” he growled. “Would the world be the worse without it or without anything Herman Melvin wrote? Can you even name another book by Herman Melvin?” Marilyn thought she could, if she took a moment, but she was sure the name was Melville, not Melvin, and it clearly wasn’t a slip because William repeated it. “All of them, Melvin, Shakespeare, what, Plato — what do they have to do with what kids need to know?” And Marilyn remembered William’s first speech to the district faculty, when he’d previewed the direction he intended to steer instruction. “Come on, raise your hand if you hated Hamlet as much as I did!” he’d prodded. Because he was the superintendent, she’d started to raise hers, although she hadn’t remembered hating the play, then noticed that all the hands around her were in laps, or arms were crossed; all eyes shifted uneasily. Had Hamlet killed himself? Or it was the female character, wasn’t it, what was her name?
They walked up the steps of the Aquarium and, separately, paid for entry. “Kids need skills work! And the world wouldn’t be any the worse off if there’d never been a Shakespeare. Or Melvin,” William ranted. “People would do something else besides read.”
“Melville,” Marilyn murmured.
“What?” William nearly barked.
“Nothing,” she said and took his arm.
The interior of the New England Aquarium was dark and humid, and Marilyn pretended that they had passed behind the rainbow mist of a waterfall into a secret lagoon. A colossal cylindrical tank rose several floors at the building’s core, stocked with an overwhelming number of fish. Visitors could ascend floor by floor and watch sea life swirl past, or turn to the aquariums arrayed like television screens around the exterior wall.
William and Marilyn began with this outer wall. Each tank was a window onto its own magical world, where at any moment a flash of exotic color might dart through lush weed beds. Signs warned against touching the glass, and Marilyn remembered the night she’d opened her car door to William’s knock. “All the children, it’s so sad,” she’d offered as an excuse for her tears. The thick Aquarium air brought back the smell of his breath, the feel of his hand on her shoulder, then at her waist, the touch of his lips on her neck.
Behind them glowed the vast, luminescent central tank. It was 33 feet high, its promotion read, and 40 feet wide, containing 300,000 gallons of salt water heated to 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Around an artificial coral reef the fish, sharks, and a sea turtle—there might have been two —rolled by and by and by in endless laps.
Level by level, Marilyn searched for the little crabs that had tortured her brother. William followed at first, but lost patience and wandered to the giant cylinder. He leaned on the railing and gazed upward at circling bellies. Marilyn gasped at a blue and yellow fish, as bright as a new idea, in one of the small aquariums and reached for William, but caught only air. An elderly couple whose matching jackets shimmered with patches of aqueous light nodded appreciatively. Marilyn saw William’s silhouette pasted against the giant tank and thought of the bug lights people hung on their porches and decks.
When Marilyn reached the top level without finding the little crabs, she felt she’d lost something. William had risen with her floor by floor, keeping to the central tank. She joined him there, pried one of his hands from the railing, and held it. Nearby, a man in an orange jumpsuit stood on a platform beside the tank’s rim. He tossed chunks of fish from a plastic tub into the water, and small sharks fought over them.
“Why don’t the sharks eat the other fish?” Marilyn asked William.
“You can see why, can’t you?” he asked. Marilyn realized that they had barely spoken since they’d entered. “They keep them well fed. They never have to look for a meal.” The man feeding the sharks lowered a long pole with a net on its end deep into the tank. When he drew the pole up, hand over hand, a silver fish, dead, lay in the mesh. He dumped it into a cooler and, noticing William and Marilyn watching him, shrugged. “That’s life,” he seemed to say.
An odor so powerful it was almost visible stung their eyes.
“We should be at the conference,” William said.
Marilyn wondered at his distance. How could she show him how free and safe they were? She felt as satisfied as the sharks. Couldn’t he think his way into happiness? A superintendent was someone you’d like to think was smart in every way. When William consulted his watch, Marilyn let her hand slip from his elbow.
“Why does it stink so much up here?” he muttered. “Must be carried up on the warm air.” Marilyn wanted to soothe him, imagined pressing close and sliding her hand down his pants. She’d fondle him, feel his coarse hairs between her fingers, cup him in her palm; she’d excited herself, and smiled. Look at what she’d done: she’d invented a safe, thrilling world with two terminals — the hotel room and the Aquarium, the subway a pause of light and motion between them.
They made their way along the circumference of the great tank, the stench as strong as a headwind. Ahead were bright lights and commotion. William stood tall for a better look.
“Penguins — that’s the smell, bird crap,” he said, and seemed to relax. Marilyn looped her arm around his waist. When he didn’t reciprocate, she pretended he had.
They joined the crowd. The concrete floor in front of the exhibit was wet, and Marilyn stepped carefully. Before them the little penguins posed like statues on flat gray rocks set in a shallow turquoise pool. When a man behind Marilyn whispered loudly, the motionless penguins seemed to strain to hear his words.
“Wasn’t there a story about a little kid stealing one of these penguins? He stuck it in his backpack, and his parents didn’t figure it out until they were halfway back to Connecticut?” The spectators buzzed. Children giggled with sly faces, imagining themselves the thief.
“I believe that’s just an Internet fable,” William pronounced, seemingly to the penguins. One of the birds cocked its head for a moment, and then shook itself still. The mood shifted, and the penguins appeared burdened, as if they’d just learned that their party was a funeral. And to Marilyn they seemed like little dying souls, stuck someplace where no one could save them.
There was a disturbance behind the exhibit. A door opened, and the penguins’ heads shifted in unison to the man Marilyn and William had seen feeding the sharks. He carried a bucket, and the penguins rushed to him, waddling and slipping with a frenzy that delighted the crowd. William laughed, but Marilyn frowned at the birds’ desperation.
Something struck the back of her leg, and she nearly fell. She caught her breath as a little boy, barely more than a toddler, lurched past and sprawled face first into the shallow pool. The crowd groaned — where were the floundering boy’s parents? William rolled his shoulders and took a step forward, dragging Marilyn, who hadn’t let go of his waist. He stretched for the child, yards beyond his reach, with an open hand. The boy, now sobbing, flopped in the dirty water and choked on his tears. Several of the penguins struggling for food paused to look.
As the little boy’s father finally shoved through and plucked his drenched son from the water, the crowd might have missed the slap Marilyn gave William’s forearm. The blow stung them both. William pulled his hand back as if he’d been bitten.
“How could you be so stupid,” Marilyn scolded. “Don’t you have any sense at all?”