Story — From the May 2014 issue

The There There

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That August Will moved to Santa Barbara, where he rented an apartment from a Peruvian woman named Adora Zabron. His parents heard about the landlady frequently, her gift for all things domestic, gardening, cooking, kindness. Will changed his major at UCSB to international studies (he’d intended to study philosophy), and then, after his first year (three classes in Spanish; maybe they should have seen it coming), he was clearly more than merely her tenant and young hungry friend.

Caroline’s son was in love with a woman her age. His brother, Drew, then sixteen, could not quite solve this confounding dilemma, no matter how many times he played with the pieces, no matter his angle of approach. A true conundrum. “When Will’s thirty,” Drew would say, “she will be fifty-six.”

His father the romantic said, “Love is not logical.”

“And when Will’s forty —”

“Love is not about math.”

Adora Zabron had two daughters older than Will who still lived with her. In his second year of college, he moved from the apartment into their home on the ocean. He returned to Telluride for holidays, and then Drew took his first trip alone to visit in California. This visit did nothing to solve the riddle of his brother’s romance; he told Caroline, confidentially, that were he in Will’s shoes he would opt for one of the daughters, that they were both very pretty but the mother was, “Well, no offense, because you definitely don’t, Mom, but Adora even smells old. Nothing like you. She’s exactly opposite of you.” Now who was the most perplexed? Her son had apparently chosen a woman who was not Caroline in every way except the most alarming one of her age.

The Peruvian, Drew reported, was frequently overwhelmed by feelings that brought on tears. “Happy tears,” he clarified. “She hugs everyone. She cried at the airport and gave me this necklace so the plane wouldn’t crash.”

When the family took their annual trip abroad that summer, Will for the first time declined to join them. Drew missed his brother. There was nobody to share the tiny back seat of the rental car. Nobody to race around the ruins. Nobody to go adventuring at night into Rome’s or Florence’s or Siena’s streets. Drew simply had his placid parents, Caroline pondering the people, and her husband, an engineer by trade, marveling at ancient ingenuity. At the Colosseum, they had an unfortunate encounter. An American couple were bickering bitterly in the shadow of the structure. “Where the hell are we?” the man shouted at his wife, who told him she didn’t fucking know, hurling the guidebook in his direction, both of them sunburned in their too-tight red T-shirts. Caroline had begun laughing, her hand on Drew’s shoulder as they both turned away tittering. But her husband had taken pity on the couple, offering a kind smile and a patient explanation of their map. He did not like to have fun at the expense of others.

“But Dad,” Drew tried later, hoping to explain himself, “I mean, it was the Colosseum. That’s like not seeing the Grand Canyon until you fell in it, like, it’s the there there.”

But Gerald refused to be amused. And then, by year’s end, he left Caroline for another woman. How alarming this was to her. She had for years believed that it was she who had the choice, she who could claim the martyr’s virtue of staying when she wished to go. Her pride injured, Caroline indulged in her old fantasy of Gerald’s death; she would have far preferred widowhood to divorce.

He was leaving her, he explained, because love had struck him, unexpectedly, without his asking for it, like lightning.

“Oh bullshit,” Caroline said. “Even I know the function of the so-called lightning rod.”

“You won’t miss me,” Gerald said. “You’ll miss the idea of me, but not me.” Which was indeed true. Scorched by an idea, stung by a role suddenly undone, and, finally, zinged by her husband’s smarts about the whole thing.

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’s latest book, Funny Once, will be published this month by Bloomsbury.

More from Antonya Nelson:

Fiction From the February 2002 issue

Ball peen

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