Kate — though she wished Hal wouldn’t work so hard — knew he wasn’t as bad as some; not like the ones who crashed on the couch in the lounge at 4 a.m., crawling home at seven to shower and change and get back in time to teach at eight. No, she and Hal had some social life; they were close to several of the other young married professors — they took turns hosting dinner parties, and sometimes on Fridays they all met for a few beers downtown. And, of course, she and Hal had always talked about taking real advantage of his academic calendar — short vacations during midterm breaks, escaping New Jersey for Maine or Vermont in the summer — though they hadn’t managed anything like that yet. They’d been married for four and a half years — their daughter, Rebecca, was two — but so far the only real vacation they’d ever had together was their honeymoon.
That was why, to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in July, Hal suggested they take a car trip through New England — just the two of them. Kate agreed to the idea, and her mother was willing to come up from Washington to stay with Rebecca — but, as the date of the trip got closer and closer, Hal became frustrated, even irritable, when Kate was unable, or unwilling, to make the smallest of decisions concerning the trip.
He brought home plenty of maps and guidebooks for them to go over together — but Kate found when she tried to read through the material, she got floaty and detached, incapable of linear thought. Hal would stare at her, his eyebrows raised in mild interrogation. “Sure, that sounds good,” she’d say, nodding in desperate agreement with whatever he had suggested.
Hal had always been the more methodical planner. Perhaps that was what was holding her back.
“Do you want to go on this trip, or not?” he asked her, at one point, sounding exasperated.
“Yes, yes, of course.” She looked up at a large cobweb draped over the window molding. One loose corner of the web waved in the air currents like a miniature flag. Damn this house, she thought. “You’ve read all the books. I’m sure whatever you decide on will be great.”
“Then I don’t want to hear any complaints,” Hal said.
“You won’t,” she said. “I have faith in your judgment.”
As it was, she could barely manage to pack. Her wardrobe was entirely inappropriate, she thought: her suits left over from work were too formal, but her everyday clothes made her look like just another suburban hausfrau.
The morning of the first day, as Hal backed out of the driveway, Kate’s mother held baby Rebecca up, flapping her tiny arm for her in a mock goodbye, the child herself oblivious to their departure. Kate waved goodbye back more vigorously than she had intended.
“She’ll be fine,” Hal said, smiling at her and patting her hand.
“Oh, I know,” Kate replied, shrugging. She hated to seem like a stereotypical mother, but she felt both annoyed and vaguely panicky.
The drive was easy, the traffic light. Kate worked on a piece of needlepoint she’d started while pregnant with Rebecca. The first scheduled stop was halfway through Connecticut — a small, formerly decaying town, adjacent to the state university, located in the middle of vast, uncultivated pasture. The house they were to sleep in was centuries old, though it, like the rest of the recently renovated buildings, looked brand new. Kate tried to imagine what this place had been like back when the house was built. Nothing much came to her — images of women in long, scratchy wool dresses, perhaps, similarly clothed children covered with prickly heat.
The owners of the bed-and-breakfast were pleasant enough. Husband and wife, gourmet vegetarians — new-age bodies thin and neat; limbs long and slow-moving; dark, bowl-shaped haircuts giving them an ascetic-Oriental look.
Even before the walking began, Kate was exhausted. Oh, she’d been low-energy for as long as she could remember, starting around puberty — but she’d been even more that way after the birth of their daughter. She craved feeling zippy, peppy, and enthusiastic as others craved chocolate, champagne, sex. She’d discovered, however, that the more she slept, the drabber and more leaden she became.
Kate had very little to say to Hal over dinner. At the historic tavern restaurant he’d chosen from the guidebooks, she looked enviously at the surrounding couples — coveting what seemed an easier and more satisfying intimacy than their own. The food was good, the ingredients fresh and dramatically prepared, but she wondered why he had picked this town. Their room at the bed-and-breakfast was clean and lovingly decorated — but something seemed to be missing. Of course she couldn’t possibly say anything to Hal. She had let him plan everything.
Moreover, she had the horrible sinking feeling, that she would never be any good at vacations. In her family, the appearance of tourism had always been something to be strictly avoided.
Vacationers, her parents said, always seemed such bores. Hal, on the other hand, seemed at ease in his role as traveler. She tried to relax, to copy his behavior, to see everything through his eyes, but it seemed an arduous task, barely worth the effort. Enjoying this sort of travel must be a genetic trait — in which case she was doomed.
The second day, they drove on to Boston. In the car, Kate began to feel so alienated from Hal — from even their physical surroundings — that she was frightened. Without the baby, she felt light as helium, and dizzy with unaccustomed altitude. Yet she was also glad to be rid of the child. At every opportunity, she looked into Hal’s eyes over and over again, waiting for him to reassure her, waiting for the comforting rush of affection to take hold and be returned. Upon checking in at the famous, 100-year-old hotel Hal had selected, they discovered in their room incongruous sixties shag carpet, faintly damp, faded bedspreads, and chipped Formica furniture. Only the bathroom was authentic, with its small, hexagonal white tiles, massive, pull-chain toilet, and stubby porcelain faucet-handles.
Again, she could reveal none of her discomfort to Hal. There were no excuses for her. It was true that, ever since she’d quit her job to stay home full-time with Rebecca, her wants and desires seemed less and less clear, less discernible — even to herself. Thus, she often found herself waiting for things to happen around her, griping when events didn’t happen at the right time or in the right sequence to suit her. Had she always been this way, she wondered? She fell asleep that night as abruptly and uneasily as though knocked over the head with a large hammer.
The next day — at least for the first hour or two — the walking tour of old Boston was successful. Kate loved the feel of the tidy old churches: the bare, wide-board floors, the quaint boxed-in pews, the high pulpits covered by conical sounding boards. She and Hal hiked all the way from their downtown hotel to the watery edge of the city. But the day grew sunnier and sunnier, hotter and hotter, until, after lunch, all she wanted to do was sleep.
“I’m getting tired,” she said. “How about going back to the hotel for a nap?”
“You can nap when we get home,” said Hal. “Napping wasn’t in my plan.” He smiled unforgivingly. “Next on our itinerary is the Battle of Bunker Hill memorial.”
“Oh,” she said, nodding her head resignedly.
They got lost on the way over, both of them confused by the number of bridges and interchanges, though Hal refused to pull into a gas station for directions. The neighborhoods they passed through grew more and more ominous-looking. Then Kate spotted the monument’s tower, which could be seen over the rooftops from several blocks away.
Standing in the small museum built next to the monument, Kate listened carefully to the guide’s lecture. Jostled by the other visitors, she nonetheless peered through dusty glass at a miniaturized tableau of the battle. She couldn’t believe it, but she even got choked up, reminded anew of the preposterous bravery of the untrained American farmers taking on the redcoats. Why, she hadn’t gotten emotional about that sort of thing since high school! Hoping no one saw, she wiped her teary eyes and felt like an imbecile.
Inside the darkness of the monument tower, even one loud-and-cocky school group of robust twelve-year-olds became red-faced and silent, panting during the steep climb. The odor of many thousands of perspiring bodies hung in the air like an almost-visible curtain. Still, upon reaching the top, Kate had to admit that the view — though rather claustrophobically viewed from between corroding iron bars set into tiny, deep-cut windows, the wide stone sills themselves further ornamented by large, multicolored wads of gum — was panoramic.
Hal’s entire vacation plan, Kate now realized, consisted of walking, walking, and walking. The next day, on their way west, out to the Berkshires, they stopped at a restored Shaker Village. Again, more miles to be traversed, through wet grassy fields and gaping wallows of mud. Kate’s sneakers were a disgrace. But she found she enjoyed touring the dormitory buildings: men on one floor, women and children on another. The sect’s emphasis on celibacy and the members’ resultant childlessness caused her a strange, unexpected envy. Why hadn’t she thought of that? No one to worry about but herself.
“What a wonderful idea!” she said to Hal, turning to face him, surrounded by the cots in the middle of the women’s dormitory — pretending she was joking — and they both laughed. Suddenly, she craved the hard, simple life that the narrow, rather lumpy Shaker cots suggested. One’s life decisions made by the elders, no questions asked. Unfortunately, toward the end of the tour Kate discovered that the last surviving Shaker community of elders had already decided: no more members admitted! Even so, she imagined what it would be like — being far away from Rebecca for the first time since her birth, it was almost as if the baby had never existed. Could Kate really forget her so easily? She concluded she could not, then felt absurdly guilty.
That night, spent in a lovely old mansion near Tanglewood, was no better than the rest. She feared the trip would be over before she figured out why she wasn’t enjoying it. Her conversations with Hal were horribly self-conscious, forced in a way that she’d never experienced before. At dinner, the two of them were the only ones in the hotel’s restaurant — the music festival hadn’t started yet — so the empty tables around them made the staleness of their words even more obvious to her. The waiter, however, hovered over them: there was, it seemed, an oversupply of waiters. She drank too much, and though they made love back in the hotel room, it was more out of a sense of not-to-be-missed opportunity than of passion.
The next morning, they started for home. Kate had a peculiar rotten feeling, formless and overwhelming like motion sickness. She thought of how much money they’d spent on the trip and how it had been wasted on her. She was incapable of appreciating anything! She resigned herself to going home feeling even more tired and depressed than when she’d left. In self-disgust, she rolled up her needlepoint and contemplated throwing it out the window. As she was drifting off into a light, disoriented sleep, just before they crossed over the Tappan Zee, Hal saw a highway sign that caught his eye — something he hadn’t planned. A scenic overlook called Wappingers Falls, located in the middle of a large state park. One last hike. Just what I need, Kate thought.
“Look it up in the guidebook,” he told her.
“It says it’s a big waterfall,” Kate said.
“No kidding,” Hal said sarcastically. His tone turned to one of reflection. “Wait, wait. Now I remember. I read about this one. It’s supposed to be really beautiful.” Still driving, he turned to her for a moment. “Don’t be such a wet blanket.”
Saying nothing, she slammed the guidebook closed, and was not at all surprised when he took the following exit. She considered waiting in the car while he hiked alone, but as they drove through the park, something in Hal’s face opened up as he hunted for a parking space — she seemed to remember that particular demeanor, his earnest expression from years ago, that one where he really looked her in the eye. A remarkably clean light of awareness shone out of his pupils, bewitching her utterly. So, giving him the benefit of the doubt, she walked up to the falls with him.
The march up the mountain made her calves cramp bitterly. She forgot about his eyes and regretted having come. She couldn’t decide which aspect of the vacation had been the worst. Deep in self-loathing, she did not speak at all on the trail. They passed several laughing groups on their way down, and she felt horribly conspicuous in her sullenness. She lagged farther and farther behind Hal, becoming irritated when he didn’t wait up for her. She rolled her eyes at the dark canopy of trees, shaking her head, and then Hal disappeared around a bend in the trail.
As she walked, alone now, the air changed, becoming eerily fragrant, sweet with the mysterious smell of growing things and dirt. Presently, she could hear the water rushing in the river, then she could glimpse through the trees the rapid, swirling current, the translucent shine of the mountain water. Breaking into a fast jog, she labored up the steep path to catch up with Hal. She walked rapidly, next to him, eyeing him surreptitiously, checking his face for the look she remembered she’d seen earlier, but it was gone. They went around another sharp curve, and then the trees opened up into a large clearing. There was a narrow stairway carved into the huge granite boulders in front of them.
As she went down the stone steps, her view of the falls still blocked by trees, Hal held his hand out to steady her at the bottom. She stood gingerly on a patch of moss and raised her eyes to the sound of the water. The falls themselves almost made her stop breathing: high, jutting projections of rock; twisted, angular trees growing between the boulders; the surrounding sky bright blue and cloudless. There was something she’d never seen before in these rocks, in this moss, in the sight and spray-mist feel of this water. The falls bathed her face with a soft sigh of coolness — a breath of fresh air, moistened by God. She felt some sort of calcified anger snap in two, giving way inside her like a dry stick; with that, the merest bit of her accumulated, self-hating poisons began leaching out and away, and that was enough.
She had always been such a reluctant, grudging optimist — always, in the end, forced, against her will, to appreciate the universe, despite her tiredness, despite her crankiness. Kate wasn’t silly enough to believe she would be able to change her whole outlook overnight, but if she wanted it badly enough, she knew this moment could be the beginning of a new way of looking at the rest of her life. This — this rocky fall of water was somehow the truest thing she’d ever seen — dramatic, passionate, and dangerous — and it was demanding admiration from her. Whatever made this made me too, she thought. She stared at the exploding mass of water, the roaring noise soothing her like a baby.
Hal reached out and touched her arm. “So. Was this worth walking two miles?”
She turned to him, wondering at the smooth warmth of his palm, the slow gentleness of his voice. It was so seldom she and Hal were ever in sync. It was like he was a stranger most of the time — but not now. Perhaps this was also what had been missing. “Yes, it was worth it,” she said.
“Did you have a good time?” he asked her solemnly. “Was it a good vacation?”
“I did,” she said, and she squeezed his hand.
“Now, let’s go home to the kid,” he said, smiling as he turned away from the falls. She leaned forward and kissed him. “I actually missed her,” he sighed. Kate didn’t reply.
“Race you to the car,” she called, turning away from her husband and rising up the stairs, running as fast as she could down the angled mountain trail, moving easily towards home.