By Kathy Harding
They discover what they’re willing to risk for love.
Buoyed by the brazen optimism of our new love affair, my Kiwi, Rob, and I cast ourselves adrift in a revelatory landscape, the South Island of New Zealand.
I was 41 years old and desperate for a baby, he was a stranger from the bottom of the planet, and nothing about our romance made sense. Spring he rented a townhouse, summer he decamped to expedition ships, fall he floated on private yachts, and on Christmas he woke atop ice floes, drifting 60 degrees south of the equator. I could be found in my bed every day of the year.
Faced with the uncertain certainty of his departure, I did the only thing possible. I rode the dopamine high. Off we flew to tour his old stomping grounds, slipping away from reality and Seattle’s dismal November rain.
Across the vast Canterbury Plains we drove. We admired Oreo cows. We braked for sheep. We explored Christchurch, a 19th century village bloomed from stone. It was 2008, and the city vibrated with commerce, oblivious to underground rumblings that would soon flatten it.
“This is the closest thing I have to a home,” he said.
“Did you used to live here?”
“Kind of,” he said. “My stuff is here. In storage.”
What a strange definition for home, I thought, yet for a man who lived out of a duffel bag, it had a pragmatic ring of truth. After ten years of marriage, he’d thrown into that storage unit the material evidence and stayed in motion ever since.
“Do you want to move back?” I asked.
“That was the plan,” he said, darkly, referring I knew not to his ex-wife but to another ex, P., his cohort in adventure, a woman with whom he’d organized expeditions to the Titanic. The one who’d dumped him without warning a year ago, crushing him so deeply he didn’t speak for two weeks.
“Is it still?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Could you see yourself here?”
I was thrown by his frankness. We’d been talking about a future together, in a helter-skelter kind of way, but our situation was complicated, to say the least. The more I studied it, the less sense it made, like black matter defined primarily by what it was not. Not practical, not aligned, not likely to succeed. Yet, refusing to be denied, one of the most powerful forces in my life.
Who knows, truly, when a story begins or ends? Let’s open the book on the day last June my adoption agency told me I’d be matched with a baby within six months. Two days later I met Rob at a potluck. He was in Seattle to oversee construction of a one-of-a-kind expedition boat, a project scheduled to end soon. By that I mean his business visa had expired, his company was facing bankruptcy, and he was at risk of being deported. Not the future I’d been dreaming of.
But there was this: Although I could barely understand his Kiwi accent, his penetrating steel-grey eyes were unfurling the tight sad core of what I’d become. It was love at first sight in the least ironic sense of that overused phrase. After a summer cast in hallucinatory sheen, I’d put my adoption on hold, striking a deep blow to my heart. Rob didn’t want to adopt. He was open, perhaps, to having his own child.
Perhaps. The word echoed painfully in my mind as I looked around.
Across an old bridge, people wearing fine wool coats bustled from cafés to office buildings, their style and efficiency giving the historic town a modern vibe. The cobblestone streets were bedecked with flowering pots. I could smell Thai food, and I could see pigeons.
Could I see myself? I wasn’t sure. “It’s cute,” I said, hedging.
“It’s the second largest city in New Zealand.”
He laughed, before giving a funny little sigh. His cell phone rang, droning like a dying battery. I knew from the ringtone that it was Ted, his brilliant, mercurial boss, and wasn’t surprised when he hurried off to talk privately. The project was perpetually in crisis, what with chapter 11 proceedings, a corrupt construction manager, and the complexities of doing a major refit to create the world’s premier deep-ocean expedition ship.
I moved to a bench above the Avon River and watched several families playing by the water. A pack of toddlers were fearlessly throwing themselves towards ducks. I marveled at their spiraling energy. Seized by maternal longing, I forced myself to walk the green bank. I could hear Rob’s heated conversation from yards away.
“Jack said the wallpaper was fine. It’s curling. Did you hear they installed air conditioning pipes? No, not great. They slope up. Guess which direction gravity pulls water?”
There was a long pause. “Water. Will. Drip!” he yelled, and hung up.
“Everything OK?” I asked, returning to his side.
“Let’s go.” He snapped his phone back into its holder. “We’re late.”
What for? I wondered, getting in the car.
“Ted is naïve,” he said. “He trusts the wrong people. I have to protect him.”
Really? I wanted to ask. “Has he paid for your plane ticket yet?”
“He will,” he said. “Eventually.”
No, Sherlock, I thought. He won’t.
It was becoming clear to me that Ted made messes and Rob cleaned up after him. Ted was forever losing things (cell phones, chapter 11 filings, his own fortune), confusing one day for another, stealing from Peter to pay Paul, and investing in speculative deals with other people’s money. Rob organized paperwork, timelines, and people, smoothing feathers, covering Ted’s ass, and getting stuff done.
He was a good man, I thought, and hopefully not getting suckered.
“Are you sure he’ll pay you back?” I asked, not wanting to push it but wanting to push it.
“You’re going to love this next place,” he said, reaching over to take my hand.
Presto! We were back in adventure mode, I thought, feeling weary.
We drove for hours, crossing yellow plains, switch backing into snow, rising up and over Arthur’s Pass before turning inland to reach his favorite glacier. Finally, we got out of the car. My legs were stiff, my eyes tired. I couldn’t process any more amazing sights.
“This way,” he said.
We twisted past a warning sign, slipping on rocks. Higher up on the ice fields, a man was repairing a rope.
“I know that guy,” he said, and climbed the snow stairs.
Not possible, I thought, staying where I was, on formerly solid land.
Up close, the glacier was a sheet of white shaping itself into whatever imaginary object I projected onto it. Airstrip, football field, avalanche. An optical illusion, it refused to fix in my mind as a stable piece of information. Now that I had a red speck, Rob’s jacket, to give it scale, I saw that it was huge.
I watched him explore the ridge, moving as elegantly as a tightrope walker. On his way down, he bowed to the man, who saluted him.
“That guy did work for me,” Rob said to me, pleased as I’d seen him, and slapped me on the ass.
I kissed him, finding it hard to believe, just the same.
For lunch, we stopped in the township of Franz Josef, where he’d lived for four years, with 200 other inhabitants. More rest stop than village, it consisted of a few log-cabin service buildings, put up in a hurry during a short thaw, stacked beside the two-lane highway.
Of one thing I was sure. I could not live here. Buttfuck nowhere.
“My wife and I got married under those trees,” he said, pointing up.
“Really?” I said, immediately regretting how snobbish I sounded. “It’s lovely.”
It was a world of green shimmer. Rainforest curled over foothills, creating a roiling haze of silvery-green bush abutted by white-capped mountains. I knew from my Lonely Planet guidebook we were looking at the Southern Alps, spine of the South Island, a series of peaks created by the Alpine Fault, a strike-slip fault between two subduction zones where Pacific and Australian tectonic plates slid past each other at high speed. Underground activity was strong enough to push the mountains up by an inch each year.
“I was a happy little ranger here,” Rob said. “I spent my days cutting trail, my weekends fighting fires.” Energized, he zipped up the steps to the general store, getting hailed by an outdoorsy type.
Could it be yet another person who’d worked for him? I wondered, astonished.
If I took him on a whirlwind tour of the States, the chance of my running into work colleagues from twenty years ago was absolute zero. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was truly in another country, 1/35th the size of my own.
“Kathy,” he said. “Come meet Angus and Sally!”
A giant of a man smiled kindly down at me. His wife radiated confident goodwill, a cascade of turquoise necklaces sparkling around her neck.
“Gudday, mate,” he said, enveloping me in a crushing bear hug.
“We’ve heard so much about you!” Sally cried.
As we clutched together, I threw Rob a desperate look. Who the heck were these people?
“Angus is P.’s uncle twice removed,” he said. “I got to keep them after we split.”
“You got the right end of that bargain.” Sally patted his cheeks with big, rough hands.
“We’ve come down for a wee break,” Angus said. “Never expected to see you, bloke!”
“Sweet as,” Rob said, breaking into Kiwi vernacular I rarely heard in Seattle.
“Let’s eat, eh?” Sally said.
Congratulating ourselves on our superb timing, we sat at the lone picnic table and tucked into chicken-and-brie sandwiches, New Zealand’s ubiquitous deli option. Angus and Sally told us about their new place, a light-filled country stunner bordered by 30 acres of tamarillo orchards. The farm doubled as a bed and breakfast, generating extra money in jam, every piece of the property squeezed for cash. Times were tough, they explained. The real estate market wouldn’t budge. The dollar was artificially high. Their daughter Wendy was moving with her husband Mark and the baby to Sydney where he could make more money in one year than five back home.
“Never mind,” Sally said. “Give us your good news.”
“How’s the boat?” Angus asked.
Rob hesitated, not wanting to disappoint. “We’re close.”
“We’ll sail in January,” he said. “February at the latest.”
Huh, I thought. Yesterday he’d said they’d be lucky to make sea trials in March.
“Good on ya,” Angus said, visibly relieved, unpeeling plastic wrap from a second sandwich. “How’s Ted?”
“Aw, Bruce.” Rob mimicked a broad Aussie accent. “Can you loan me a fiver?”
“You’re not giving him money, are you?”
“Of course not.”
I drank my Coke Zero, a poor imitation Diet Coke, and said nothing about the salary he’d waived last month.
“No use throwing good money after bad.”
“Of course not.”
“Are you covered by the bankruptcy court?”
“Yes,” he said. “Mainly.”
I dug into my own chicken-and-brie sandwich, trying not to think about the $40,000 he’d recently charged to his personal credit card to cover electrical parts. I couldn’t help thinking about how I’d left teaching, which I’d loved, in order to earn a good living at Microsoft. Of course I’d hook up with a dreamer with no sense of money. It made perfect, horrible sense, I thought, and guzzled my soda.
“Have you been in touch with folks at the department of conservation?” Angus asked.
“Not higher ups,” Rob said. “I’ve bumped into a few folks who used to work for me.”
“For a ranger,” I said, taking a stab at a joke, “he had a lot of direct reports.”
Angus and Sally glanced at each other.
“He certainly did,” she said.
“Weren’t you once in the paper every day for a month?” Angus asked.
“Forty-five days in a row,” Rob said.
“He was the youngest conservator New Zealand has ever had,” Sally said, sounding serious, like a proper grandmother. “There are only ten of them in the country.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling stupid. Apparently I hardly knew Rob, though I couldn’t help wondering if they knew he currently worked in a trailer. “That’s amazing.”
“Yes,” Angus said firmly.
The conversation turned to cows.
After lunch, the men jumped on quads borrowed from one of Rob’s work buddies to check out a recent landslide. Sally and I walked along the highway. Fog blew off pavement, obscuring my feet. We were encased in the stuff.
“He seems much better,” she said. “Oh, oh, oh!”
“He’s happy,” I said, feeling pretty confident. Anyone could see how in love we were.
“We have you to thank for that,” she said, pressing my hand. “Oh those emails, he was upset, wasn’t he? I told P., listen, he’s our friend. I don’t care what he wrote. He’s absolutely wrecked!”
“Of course,” I said, willing myself to stay calm.
Although he’d told me about writing his ex’s family about her chronically poor health, torn up over the (far-fetched) idea that ever sickly P. was breaking up with him to spare him future suffering, I took Sally’s point that there had been another, less compassionate line of questioning. Had he accused her of cheating on him? That was his other theory.
“She’s onto the next one,” she said. “Didn’t waste any time, either.”
“Oh, with the pilot?” I asked, lightly.
“Yes,” she said. “From Perth.”
He’d been right, I thought, stricken. She’d cheated on him with the pilot.
“They’re talking babies.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said, trying to save face. His, but mine, too.
“Do you think?”
Stepping over a downed punga, I took my chance to pat her. “It wasn’t right between them.”
“They always seemed happy,” she said, looking wistful.
I paused, not knowing what to say to that.
“Listen, so what if he wants to show everyone he’s recovered?” She wrapped her arm through mine. “That doesn’t mean he’s not happy with you, right?”
“Right,” I said, instantly dejected.
You didn’t have to be a genius to get her drift. I was a rebound, and an interloper. Although her niece twice removed had broken Rob’s heart, she was a nice girl from Stewart Island, the logical choice for a hometown champ. I could practically hear Sally thinking, why does this American city slicker get to have Rob?
I wondered that myself.
Two quads came roaring down the road—for that’s what it was, not a highway in any true sense. Angus waved for us to hop on. We sped down the strip to our rented Toyota Yaris, one of several cast-off Japanese imports populating the island’s narrow roads. Without further ado, Rob leapt off his quad and handed Sally his keys.
“Let’s go,” he said to me.
Baffled, I climbed off and gave his friends a weird little wave.
“Bye, love!” Sally jumped on Rob’s quad and raced Angus down the strip.
“C’mon,” Rob said. “We’re late.”
“Late for what?” I asked, tired of being inexplicably rushed from one place to another. “Do you need to talk to Ted?”
“No,” he said.
“We’re on vacation, remember?”
“Exactly,” he said. “Why do you want to waste it?”
We got into the car and drove for hours. I sat stewing over the casual way Sally had dropped her bombshell on me. If I told Rob about P., he’d be upset. We’d have to deal with his reaction, and whatever it implied. With my toes, I changed the radio station, delighted by my dexterity and the opportunity to piss him off. Sally was my proper target, but he’d do nicely.
“That’s disgusting,” he said. “Do you know how many germs are on the human foot?”
“Yes,” I said. “You’ve told me before.” He had a tendency to obsess over the topic.
“Then why did you do that?”
I spun the tuner with my big toe. Slowly, then slower. “Why do you care?” I knew why. He was afraid of bacteria lying in wait to destroy him.
“Because I have to touch the dial!”
“Bwahaha!” I raised my hands in mock spider fashion.
He shivered, pursing his rosebud lips.
We stopped talking after that. The afternoon grew long. The sun began to slide below the horizon.
“Follow me,” he said, parking on the side of a road and dipping under rough bush.
We stomped through dark undergrowth, under a canopy of rimu trees blocking the low-lying sliver of sun. I wasn’t sure if we were following a poorly maintained trail or making an illegal one, and I didn’t like not knowing. Why couldn’t he include me in the goddamned decision-making process?
“Can you tell me when I’m about to get blinded, please?” I asked, holding up a sharp branch he’d let go of and allowed to whip back into my face.
Grunting, he climbed over a boulder, disappearing downhill.
You, my friend, can be a real pain in the ass, I thought.
We worked our way through the ferns, which were grasping and huge, food for dinosaurs. From every angle, I could see plants growing greedily on other plants, the epiphytes creating an oppressive mossy density. We were in a wet, temperate rainforest that looked like the Garden of Eden, life without competition and before zoning laws, when you could really let yourself go.
Gluttonous, I thought.
He was hoofing it through wetlands, shaking his boots after each step.
Rubbing dry the wet swipe of a long sopping frond, I shouted, “Wait up!”
He kept moving.
Seriously? I thought.
“Kathy,” he said, appearing atop a slick-looking mound. “Come see this.”
Resentfully, I made my way to him. Beyond the little hill, there was a river, cutting through sand. We crossed it together. The beach was empty, with no sign of human activity. He fell to his knees. I got down on all fours and followed him. We crawled across a lonely stretch along the Tasman Sea to a slab of grey flat stone.
“What are we doing?” I asked, firmly, patient no more.
“Ssshh,” he said, pointing further down the beach.
“Oohh,” I breathed.
Penguins were hopping across rocks. More bird than fish, they were petite and glistening, a bright stripe of yellow hair flaring from their eyebrows. Grunting companionably, they strutted towards us before bouncing up a dirt path.
“Where are they going?” I asked.
“To their burrows,” he said. “Under the trees.”
Not possible, I thought, having imagined penguins dotting ice shelves, but it was.
“I didn’t want you to miss them,” he said. “After they come back from fishing, they don’t come out of their burrows until morning.”
All day, I realized, he’d been trying to tell me the story of his life, aligning each major stop with formative periods. He’d been accounting for each minute so I could have a body of knowledge from which to make my decisions, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this magic before my eyes—threatened penguins in the wild. From his perspective, it had been late. The sun was low on the horizon, leaving seas to blacken. Night was almost here. Penguins were heading to bed.
He was right, I thought. There wasn’t enough time, given what was at stake: the penguins, our hearts, our lives.
“This was a good reason to hurry,” I said.
“Time bandit,” he said, giving that sigh again, and took my hand.
We watched, getting stiff, until the very last penguin was back from the sea.
Queenstown, Mount Cook, Lake Tokapo. We spent another few days traveling through shimmering beauty, visiting places of personal triumph—a national park he’d managed as a top conservator, a barrier island he’d saved from pests, a Kiwi sanctuary where administrators welcomed him like a conquering hero. College friends opened their homes; a famous explorer patted dough into handmade tortillas for our private lunch. I began to realize how deliberately and forcefully he’d thrown off the predictability of his former good life. Sure, living in a big city across the world, working on a tough refit, falling in love with an American interloper on the verge of starting a family was pushing him to his limit. Perhaps that was exactly the point.
After a final blustery hike along Kaikouru’s perilous, spectacular cliffs, we returned to Auckland. I was flying back to Seattle alone. Rob was crossing the ditch, headed to Sydney and Ted, for another couple of weeks. Taking care of business, and his friend.
On the way to the airport, we were quiet, processing the last ten days.
“Good trip, eh?” he asked, taking my hand.
Without thinking, I blurted out, “Sally mentioned your ex.”
I hesitated, not wanting to hurt him, but I couldn’t keep the secret anymore. He deserved to know. “She’s living with the pilot.”
“Right,” he said, turning off the highway and parking beside yet another random field. Then he pulled me on top of him.
“Here?” I asked, flabbergasted, glancing at golden haystacks. “Now?”
“Shall we make a baby?”
I found myself tearing up; it was my clarion call, the words I’d waited to hear my entire life. Although I wanted to shout yes, and grab my chance, I couldn’t. Sorrow was rising up, ache from an old injury, warning me to be careful.
“It’s what you want, right?” he asked, sensing my hesitation.
I searched his clear eyes, hoping for a sign I wouldn’t be sucked down again by grief; another blow might do me in for good. What I saw surprised me. He was as scared as I was. Scared, but offering up everything he had, for me.
“Yes,” I said.
He kept an eye out for tractors. I kept an eye out for cars.
On the plane back home, I pulled a blanket over my lap and settled in for the long flight. I pressed my stomach, allowing myself to feel the barest, bravest scrap of hope. My relationship with Rob might leave me a crippled mess on the battlefield, but what were my other options? Nothing I could bear to choose.
I leaned back and watched the city shrink. As we gained altitude, the rangy contours of the island became more visible. Two long strips of land encircled and divided by water. In New Zealand, Rob liked to say, you’re never more than an hour from the sea, and now I knew what he meant. It was a land of geological accidents. The real story was taking place thousands of miles below the surface, where the earth’s plates shifted and creaked, oblivious to creatures upstairs trying to make sense of the beautiful rubble.
Kathy Harding has returned to writing, her favorite endurance sport, after 15 years of working in technology. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Tales To Go, and Radical Society as well as turned into a short film shown on WGBH-TV in Boston. Years ago, she earned an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, where she was the fiction editor of Sonora Review. Currently, she is a 2015-2016 Made at Hugo House fellow in Seattle.