The painter’s wife was instantly recognisable: she was hurrying barefoot along the cracked stone path that linked the lodge’s drained pool and its cottages, clutching flip-flops and a blanket. She wore a focused yet unseeing expression that reminded me of her famous portrait, in which her husband had painted her lying in a bathtub, staring at an off-canvas ceiling, exuding a weariness she hadn’t accepted but had learned to expect. The lines around her mouth and eyes suggested that this unwelcome exhaustion was a form of imprisonment, placing her beyond the reach of love or interest, as if disappointment was the most impenetrable and isolating form of loneliness. The only obvious difference between the painter’s wife and her portrait was her dress, which was cut from a dark cloth embroidered with swans that bared her neck. The woman in the bathtub would’ve stepped into clothes stripped of all adornment.
I saw her again a few days later: it was late morning and this time she was sitting by the pool, holding an empty glass in her hand, flip-flops tucked within a rectangle of her chair’s shade. I’d seen her husband’s painting of her in a museum I’d visited a few summers before, with a boy who had meant something to me at the time but who I’d left with a brief, outsized drama once the summer was over. During those manic weeks I flipped through photos of him and I, including one we’d taken in front of her portrait, as a form of punishment and relief.
‘There she is,’ the lodge manager said, nodding at the painter’s wife beside the pool. ‘Our other guest. Like I said, she keeps to herself. You’re being graced with a rare sighting.’
The lodge manager, who ran a cafe and grocery from the Victorian farmhouse that also served as the lodge’s check-in office, stood behind the counter looking out the window at the pool, which was filled with downed Eucalyptus branches and flickering scraps of trash. Next to the pool was a single, shaggy Cypress tree, its thin arms shading the painter’s wife, and a fence whose wire diamonds were bowed by the weight of a glossy, heart-shaped vine. This vine had crept up to the fence from the cliff beyond, which fell, with a duplicitous slope made soft-looking by the swell of flowers, succulents, and trees, to the ocean.
Turning back to my goods on the counter, the lodge manager asked if I’d ever tried one of the biscotti she was about to scan. They were too sweet for her, she said. She stocked them for the weekenders, who liked the blue etchings of the bonneted girl on the lid. She couldn’t recommend an alternative, however, as she didn’t consider most of the items in her store to be edible. Nothing here is really meant to be eaten, the lodge manager said. People come to the coast to dream, not to eat. She chose items to sell based on her understanding of these dreams, and filled the store with food-like props that helped her customers feel, through their purchases, that they’d made the intangible concrete.
I said I’d often seen the tangible lead to disappointment, as our surroundings became visible evidence of the gap between our fantasies and reality.
‘That’s why I’m sure most of our food ends up in the trash,’ the lodge manager said with a laugh. Though that’s not to say I’d find anything better at the K&J thirty minutes north, she added. That place only stocked food for the apocalypse.
‘Just a different kind of stomachache,’ said the other woman in the farmhouse, who worked variously as barista, gardener, and house-cleaner, and who I’d learned in my first days at the lodge was the manager’s partner of many years.
They had tried selling real food, the lodge manager continued, things like lentils and chicken and butter, but it confused the people who stopped by, the combination of high-end goods and basic ingredients. Sales declined. For awhile it seemed odd to her that people preferred delicacies, salamis and cheese and jars of honey, as most of those that passed through were staying in cabins without flushing toilets or yurts propped up on the slanting hills. The simultaneous desire for scarcity and abundance didn’t make sense to her, she said, as it seemed like a precarious and exhausting balance to achieve, until she realized that it was, in fact, this very fight that people were after, as if the only real adventure left was in seeking and eluding unhappiness.
‘I forgot, dear,’ interjected the barista, ‘Do you take milk with your coffee?’
‘Don’t take anything she serves you black,’ the lodge manager said, scooping my goods into a small plastic bag.
The Victorian’s first floor had been carved away to incorporate the store and cafe, and the space was white and airy, with rickety walls and long, narrow windows. The bones of the old rooms could still be seen in the high ceiling, and there was everywhere a sense of slowness and age, as if only a minimal amount of activity was permitted on premises that had been quietly ruined by two hundred years. The sound of the ocean, always near, was often so loud it seemed like the building itself was unmoored.
‘We’re all out of milk up here,’ the barista called from behind the coffee machine, ‘Just a minute while I go for reinforcements.’ She opened the front door with her elbow and a chill that smelled of seaweed and salt filled the store. A few seconds later she reappeared beside the pool and waved at the painter’s wife, who didn’t wave back or acknowledge her.
Settling onto a stool behind the register, the lodge manager crossed her arms over her sweater and smiled warmly. When she spoke again it was with pleasure, as if she’d shared what she was relaying so many times before uttering it now offered her a reassuring sense of permanence and comfort.
‘She devises these tasks to combat boredom,’ the lodge manager began. The barista, according to her, was someone who only appreciated silence or staring at the ocean if it was part of a scheduled plan. The barista’s need for activity had been a problem in the early days of their relationship, the lodge manager said, for it had seemed to her then that the barista was constantly on the run, fleeing solitude from task to task, while the lodge manager longed for nothing more than an oasis of downtime in which to comfortably disappear. They couldn’t figure out how to relax. The lodge manager said she’d accused the barista of refusing to confront a deep fear, likening her aversion to stillness to children refusing to check for monsters beneath their beds. In turn, the barista had accused the lodge manager of an unbudgeable laziness that was motivated by the lodge manager’s own refusal to confront a childish fear, that of effort resulting in failure or diminishment.
‘The battles we used to have,’ the lodge manager said, smiling wistfully.
They had never resolved the argument, exactly, continued the lodge manager, but over the years she’d given up trying to encourage her partner towards stillness, for not only did the barista stubbornly resist any such attempts - the more space the lodge manager gave her to do absolutely nothing the more frenzied she became - but the lodge manager had also reached a place in her own life where she found it hard to distinguish between boredom and loneliness.
I said it seemed to me our fears, and the habits we’d built because of them, were among our most cherished features, and to lose them would be as painful and disorienting as losing a lover or close friend.
‘Well, no good thing comes without a little tragedy,’ the lodge manager said, winking, ‘Though the truth is I’d hate to see her now plunked beside some pool,’ and we looked through the windows at the painter’s wife.
She’d placed her glass beside her chair and curled onto her side, wrapping the long satin robe she wore tight around her chest and tucking her feet beneath her. Her weight barely indented the chair’s blue and white bands. She wore a pair of large tortoiseshell sunglasses that concealed most of her face, but her mouth, pressed into a slight frown, betrayed a hint of her portrait’s consuming rancor. Any shadow she cast was swept away by the tree behind her.
‘I’d be cold if I was her,’ the lodge manager said.
My first night at the lodge I searched for information about the painter’s wife. I found, unsurprisingly, more information about her husband. Her portrait was one of the few he completed of people, at the beginning of his career, and his focus afterward turned entirely to dessert and landscapes. For the rest of his life he painted jewel-toned cupcakes or tilted empty cities. It became obvious, as I clicked through pictures of these paintings, that the painter was trying to recreate a very specific feeling induced by late-afternoon sunlight that would’ve been either cluttered or overshadowed by a human form. After looking through this work, his early portraits seemed stiff and cartoonish, as if he couldn’t see as clearly when looking directly at a person.
‘I’m back!’ the barista called, waving a plastic milk jug. ‘Told you that would take no time at all.’
A car turned into the lodge’s parking lot. Footsteps, accompanied by sharp whispers, followed the opening and shutting of its doors. A man and a woman approached the farmhouse. They stopped on the porch, the man with his back to the windows, the woman tilting in and out of view as she turned to and away from him. Though they continued to whisper, their conversation was perfectly audible, for they had mistaken the wall between them and the store to be a definitive barrier when it was barely a screen.
‘We promised we weren’t going to do this today,’ said the man.
‘Surprise, we blew it,’ said the woman.
The man said he knew that the woman wanted him to apologize but that he didn’t know what to apologize for, except that they were now fighting, and though he knew saying this would only make the woman more angry he didn’t think he should lie to her in order simply to end the argument, for in the long term that type of pandering would only lead to a buildup of resentment and distancing more destructive to their relationship than their current argument.
‘Coffee’s ready,’ the barista called quietly. I set the goods I’d purchased on one of the store’s small wood tables and followed her beckoning hand to a mug of coffee, which she stirred with a silver spoon.
‘Traveling’s hard on everyone,’ the barista said, her voice still low, ‘I was an absolute mess when I showed up.’ The barista said that she, like most of their customers, had been very interested in salvation when she first arrived. Not salvation in the religious sense, the barista clarified, but salvation in the form of self-betterment: she’d wanted to be saved from who she was and had been her whole life. She’d left her hometown for the coast almost overnight, in what at the time had felt like a risky departure into the unknown, an act dangerous enough that its consequences would force her to forge a new self.
‘Of course,’ the barista said, ‘Nothing ever goes to plan.’ After a few days driving through the creaking towns that bumped up against the ocean she realized she liked the pilgrim version of herself even less than the woman she’d wanted to leave behind, and that the cleansing solitude she’d imagined she’d find beside the water was rife with dread and loneliness. But if life in her hometown had been unbearable before she left, she knew it wouldn’t withstand the shame and failure of a return. Simply put, the barista said, she became stuck and lost at the same time, and she often saw this same dilemma play out with their customers, especially the weekenders.
I asked the barista the name of her hometown and she told me.
If she hadn’t met the lodge manager, the barista continued, she’d probably still be wallowing in the depression that had claimed her after she realized escape from herself wasn’t possible. But then the lodge manager had come into her life, the barista said, and though she’d never become the woman she wanted to be an,d still carried around a nagging sense of defeat, she’d been sufficiently distracted by love to ignore it.
‘That’s not what I said,’ said the man, ‘And you know it.’
‘Just stop already,’ said the woman, and the chimes above the door rang.
The woman entered; after a pause, the man lunged out of view. He popped back into sight rounding the building, hands shoved into his pockets and shoulders raised. When he started down the steps to the pool the painter’s wife rolled over on her deck chair and watched his descent. She made no attempt to disguise what she was doing, sliding her sunglasses down her nose. With her sunglasses out of the way, and her attention fixed on the stranger, I saw her face in full for the first time. She looked like a trickster god surprised from slumber, alert and mischievous. The impression of someone capable of immense, casual destruction was so strong that it made her husband’s painting of her seem like a wishful plea. When the man nodded at her she did not respond, except to slip her sunglasses back on.
The farmhouse door clicked shut. The man’s companion ducked into a grocery aisle, head averted and eyes downturned. She took a few steps, ran her fingertips over a filmy bag of wafers, then lifted a silver cookie tin from the shelf. Her thumbnails turned white and red against the lid. Her sweater, blue and threaded with the name of a university, rose and fell. It became clear she was trying not to cry. Short, choking gasps drifted beneath the sounds of the ocean. The lodge manager, without looking at the barista, rocked back on her stool, cleared her throat, and called out, ‘Welcome in! Let us know if we can help you find anything!’
The barista winced and fidgeted with a stack of paper napkins, a frown deepening between her eyebrows. My phone vibrated with a text from the boy I lived with in the city: When are we talking? I took my coffee and left through the farmhouse’s side door, which opened with a rough creak, as if it was only meant to suggest an exit and not actually be used as one.
By now it was almost noon. Outside the ocean was bright and loud. It was cold, as the lodge manager had assumed, and the wind was high: it pushed against the porch, tumbling long strips of damp bark, leaves, and thorny seeds. On a curve of cliff in the distance Cypress boughs streamed back and forth across a church steeple. The town there, as well as the little bungalows tucked into the hillside above the highway and finally the lodge itself, all looked like driftwood, as if they and the people who maintained them were nailed to the cliffs by the smallest, most accidental of desires, ones that were kept upright by chance and that could, with the slightest gust of wind, collapse at any moment.
In an interview I read after skimming through his life’s work, the painter said he didn’t consider himself a painter of cake or cities, but of nostalgia, an emotion that had suffused everything he’d felt since he was young. He acknowledged it wasn’t flattering to be besotted with the past and reassured his interviewer that he didn’t place any faith in the accuracy of memory; if pressed, he added, there was no single point in his life he wished to revisit. Yet he nonetheless found himself in a constant state of yearning for something he couldn’t identify except to say he knew it had vanished. ‘I’ve been accused of casting around for Eden,’ the painter said, and though he knew devoting one's life to the pursuit of perfection was incredibly limiting, it was also the only thing that had ever driven him, and he owed all that he had to this desire.
A postscript appended to the interview included a few details about the painter’s estate and death. The painter’s wife, to the consternation of many of his family and friends, had buried her husband in the cemetery of the town where they met, a place where they hadn’t lived for many years and which the painter had publicly derided. The cemetery, from what I could tell from the few pictures online of it, was a squat, astro-turfed lot with tiny white stones and plastic flowers, surrounded by various forms of concrete and the city’s boiling red hills. It seemed like a place which was meant to be forgotten, and though I had never been there or heard of it before it looked very familiar. It took me a little while to realize that the burnt hues of the land, the endless yet coffin-like sky, even the stiff, suffocating stillness, reminded me of the painter’s famous portrait of his wife.
‘I’m sorry, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to make it tonight,’ the man from the car said. He’d wandered away from the pool and stood below the far end of the porch talking into his phone. He was completely still, as if the person whom he was speaking to required all his attention and his body was left unattended as a result.
‘I’m disappointed too,’ the man said. He’d been looking forward to the evening for some time, he said, and had found himself, over the last few weeks, daydreaming about it more and more frequently as a way to escape his present. ‘I just miss you guys,’ the man said, lifting his chin to stare at the ocean. ‘Yeah, I hope so,’ he said. He ended the call with a promise, then shielded his eyes as if searching for something in the water. Waves crashed against the rock and debris-strewn shore, but outside of this movement, and the slow swoop of a seagull almost too far away to be seen, the ocean’s surface was empty, and the man returned to his phone and began to text, his thumbs moving quickly over the screen.
The farmhouse’s front door opened and shut; the man’s companion crossed the parking lot. Without looking around her she opened the passenger’s side door and folded herself into the car, where she disappeared entirely from view, her face obscured by the windshield’s glare.
‘Honey, you forgot this!’ the barista called to me from the side-door. My bag of goods hung from her hand. Though she smiled, a frown still hovered over her features. Stepping back inside, she added: ‘Don’t worry about it. If I got worked up over every little thing here, I’d spend my days itemizing damages.’ If she’d learned anything in the service industry, it was to ignore ninety-five percent of human activity and be thankful for the rest.
I said I envied her capacity for forgiveness, but by then she had left.
A blast erupted from the parking lot. It was the horn of the couple’s car. Its bellows became a pounding howl, louder and more demanding than the wind. The woman’s companion, still cradling his phone in his hands by the porch, didn’t turn in her direction or move to follow the summons. If anything, he became more fixed in his position, and looked at his phone as he had looked before at the ocean, as if searching for a comfort he already knew wasn’t there.
Over his head I saw the painter’s wife. She was upright on the deck chair, her feet on the concrete and her elbows on her knees, chewing on the stem of her sunglasses and staring at the man. When she noticed me looking at her she pulled the sunglasses out from between her teeth, waved them in the air, and mouthed something I didn’t understand.
What? I mouthed back.
The painter’s wife waved her sunglasses back and forth, leaned forward, and mouthed something again. Her mouth was very tiny in her face, even when she was stretching it wide to make her words clear. Around her everything shook in the wind: the chain link fence, the Cypress, the wild flowers and succulents, the pool’s scraps of shiny trash. For a moment it seemed as if it all was going to be swept into the air - the deck chair and the painter’s wife, the man and his phone, the swimming pool and the lodge, the car and the loosened chunks of highway tar - and at the center of this terrible freedom would be whatever the painter’s wife wanted to communicate. But then the wind went flat, the woman in the car stopped pressing its horn, and the painter’s wife patted her hair, put on her sunglasses, and lay back in her chair.
Claire Dodd's work has been published in Columbia Journal, Fjords Review, Meridian, The Rumpus, and SAND. She was awarded Meridian's 2020 Editor's Prize in Prose, was a semifinalist for American Short Fiction's 2021 Halifax Ranch Fiction Prize, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train's 2019 Short Story Award for New Writers contest. She lives in San Francisco with her partner and son.