Alicia's main goal, back in the mid-Carter, Cenozoic Era—before Silicon Valley spawned a population overgrowth of Geekus millionairus, before the Me Generation erupted on the scene creating a fissure through which Reaganomics trickled down into American bedrock—was getting her Paleontology professor into bed.
The Goal (as she came to refer to it) gave her something to reach for outside of academics; it gave her purpose. The Goal began as intellectual adoration; she adored her professor for what he could give her mind. Later, when he returned her attentions, she adored him—such a smart man!—for wanting her. His erudite desire made her more deserving; it made her valuable.
And even when Professor Baxter—Quinn—had mentioned the wife, Alicia hadn't been deterred, not so long as she remained nameless and insubstantial, a will-o-the-wisp wife, if you will.
The children, though, were more tangible, as evidenced by Quinn's many relics: plaster-cast handprints arranged on his office bookshelves (flanking a prized Silurian Eurypterid), a trio of lost teeth taped to a picture frame holding a photo of the littlest one with a fish at the end of a stringer.
It was the teeth that made the biggest impression on Alicia, something solid and real, little pieces of castoff bone, the archaeological remains of a child, treasured before they'd had the chance to be buried and retrieved.
Anyway, with a little distance—she has her own classroom now, her own fawning students to contend with—she understands how decent it was of Quinn to mention The Wife's existence. Andrea, she was—the A, Quinn said, pronounced like an O—On-drea. A priggish name. Alicia prided herself on not being priggish. Not an On-drea at all. A quarter of a century later and Alicia still remembers The Wife's name. She must have become real, then, solidified over time like a fossil's calcified remains.
In the years since, Alicia has refashioned the Quinn and His Will-o-the-Wisp Wife saga into something useful: a story to regale girlfriends with, over drinks, in the salsa-and-margarita joints that attract unattached women-of-a-certain-age.
Most often, it's the breakup story she tells. "We broke up in a pile of bones," she'll start. Except it wasn't really bones they'd been digging for, since an arthropod's shell takes the place of bones, but "bones" sounds better than "exoskeleton." Bones fit the theme of a dying relationship. So she lets her listeners think "bones" as she speaks about Quinn, old himself—ancient compared to Alicia, or Lixia, as he called her then, some shortened version of delicious, which he liked to tell her that she was.
Sex with Quinn had been a revelation; a sudden understanding that this was what all the fuss was about. She'd had other lovers before him, mostly overeager frat boys, and that one embarrassing high school foray atop a grave in the Methodist cemetery, but none who wanted to do it in a real bed, take their time, bring her pleasure.
She tells her listeners that the end came in a hotel near Niagara Falls, honeymoon capital of the world. The lure of eurypterids had called to Quinn, siren-like. Eurypterids were small, smaller than a hand, related to scorpions, and western New York's limestone harbored a subterranean treasure trove of them. It was Quinn's professional ambition to discover a new species and name it eponymously.
Already there was Euripterus pittsfordensis named for the town of Pittsford, New York, discovered in the early 1900s when blasting the Erie Canal out of its surrounding shale. And also Hughmilleria socialis, named for Hugh Miller, an old-timey Scottish geologist who'd shot himself in the chest because he couldn't reconcile his search for fossils with a strict religious upbringing that said the world was made in six days.
Alicia considered the taxonomy of a Quinn-discovered Eurypterid. Quinnbaxteria adulteralis? Its outstanding features being a pair of elongated grasping pincers, designed for mating with more than one female at a time . . .
Okay, so it's only with hindsight that Alicia thinks this way. At the time, she was smitten, smote by love. And aside from the Latin names—which she adored for their musical rhythms and exotic appeal (taxonomy had been her favorite part of biology)—she doesn't remember a lot about the Eurypterids. But Quinn has long been classified as The Man Who Taught Her To Appreciate Her Own Body. In the middle of Alicia's Great Sensual Awakening, small wonder that The Wife seemed inconsequential, unrelated to the things that she and Quinn did, an utterly unimportant aspect of their secret lives.
Besides, The Wife had been nearly the age of Alicia's own mother. Women that age didn't have lives; they didn't need a man the way Alicia needed Quinn. To women like The Wife, The Husband was something laughable, something to pityingly mock when he attempted to shop for groceries, wash a load of clothes, change a diaper.
Alicia had passed that long ago drive from Penn State to Niagara Falls trying to imagine the ancient inland sea that had harbored Quinn's eurypterids. She closed her eyes and dreamed big wavy expanses adrift with giant seaweeds, sheltering strange-shelled creatures zipping in and out and through, eating smaller creatures, eaten by larger ones, emerging from their briny home to crawl up into the intertidal zone for seconds and then minutes and then hours.
At the hotel check-in, Quinn arranged adjoining rooms that overlooked The Falls; Alicia watched the water hurl itself ceaselessly over the steep precipice, trillions of droplets at a time. A fine mist hung over The Falls, refracting in the sunlight.
Quinn's decidedly unromantic destination was not The Falls itself, but the escarpment, which is what The Falls falls over. The long ridge of the escarpment ran east from the city of Buffalo toward central New York. It's what the Erie Canal's famous three locks of Lockport had to climb and the only thing in the area that even slightly resembled the side of a mountain.
Alicia loved mountains—they gave her body purpose, something to strive for, to conquer—and Quinn—Professor Baxter—became her Matterhorn. By the time she finally scaled Mount Quinn, though, he was easy enough. Too easy, really. She would've liked a little more struggle, a little more sweat. But he was ripe and ready, and fell right off that old monogamy tree, smack into the palm of her hand.
And during that college-sponsored dig, they had the whole Thanksgiving holiday to spend together—nights!—all night long, in a real room, in a real bed, like a real couple.
In the years since that dig, Alicia has progressed to the age that Quinn was back then (it had been so ancient!) and today she moderates as her own zoology students dissect a virtual fetal pig in her anatomy classroom. The virtual pig allows for no muss, no fuss dissection, electronically blipping between pages that show digestive, excretory, reproductive and nervous systems. No more real pig dissections for her students. PETA would be proud, but Alicia isn't convinced. Dissection-by-proxy might be fairer to the animals spared, better for the environment, and cheaper for the schools, but there was definitely something missing. Her students wouldn't get their hands mucked up, wouldn't smell the acrid stench of formaldehyde in their nostrils, wouldn't attend their next class with preserved fetal pig beneath their fingernails. Life was messy and occasionally unkind—even to unborn pigs. Today's sheltered kids deserved the chance to learn that. And yet her students, with their helicopter parents—who had been known to actually call Alicia at home to argue on behalf of precious Brittany's or Josh's grades—would never understand the logic of unsheltering, of deliberate exposure. The parents were fossilizing their children before their time.
Then again, maybe Alicia was the fossil. One of her shortcomings had always been to hold on to the old ways of doing things. Years of study at her Tennessee grandmother's "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It" school of thought had made Alicia slow to adapt to technology's many and varied newfangled contraptions.
The fetal pig lies curled on the screen before her, larger than life. It looks distinctly humanoid, lying there with its tongue stuck out and its eyes tightly closed, lashes knitted together, ears folded back against its head, smooth skinned, with an umbilical cord tied off and a baby-like butt—smooth mini ham hocks.
She's seen this image a hundred times. Why now the sudden likeness to a human fetus? It's the thoughts of Quinn she's been having; it has to be.
Last week, in a back issue of Paleontology Today, she'd encountered an obituary for Quinn; six months old by the time she read it—and it seemed ludicrous to grieve, but she did. Sat right down and wept. His forty years of teaching were mentioned, and his study of the eurypterids, which would have pleased Quinn, a brief mention of The Wife, the children and even grandchildren.
She'd searched Quinn's obituary for mention of her, not honestly thinking she'd be there, but somehow looking still. They had been so important to each other. How could she not be mentioned? (Also surviving, Dr. Baxter's illicit lover who drove him back to The Wife in the late seventies . . . ) She was as invisible in his death as she'd been in his life.
That article had excavated too many long-buried memories of Quinn—and in the intervening days he'd kept popping back into the voids in her mind. She kept having to remind herself that it took place twenty-five years ago, not yesterday.
She'd had loved ones die before—her beloved grandmother, shortly after she'd started dating Quinn, and he'd held her through the worst of her sobbing fit, three days post-funeral—but knowledge of his death has affected her in a different way. It's as if Quinn's dying has somehow shortened what's left of her life.
She isn't sure how to reconcile the remembered pleasure of shared flesh with the death of said flesh. Flesh is what she remembers most about Quinn, and now it's all he is. Flesh. Not a virtual carcass, like the splayed pig on the monitor at the front of the classroom, but really and truly dead. A man she had loved, had allowed into her body, a man she had craved was now a man no more.
It also makes the new life they created finally and completely dead. Yes, Alicia had been awake during the procedure, she knew the moment the fetus was gone—no need for the doctor to announce, "All done" as he had—but somehow, she realizes now, as long as she felt that Quinn was still alive, out there somewhere, a child of theirs was, too. Or the possibility of a child. The shared memory of their creation a living thing on its own. A virtual life being lived alongside hers. But now it isn't, because Quinn is gone. He can't carry his half of the memory any more and she feels the sudden truth of that more completely than she ever has before.
Had Quinn told The Wife about Alicia? Had she become an accepted anecdote between them? An explanation for occasional stony silences? Or a hard suspicious knot that was never mentioned? Had he cherished their time together and kept it to himself for the last twenty-five years of his life? Had he taken Alicia with him to his grave?
She imagines her body locked away in a tiny room in his now decaying mind. She would like to be entrenched in his brain. She'd like to be worn forever, invisible yet visible, a tiny, pearled, brain-scar of memory.
"Professor Sparks?" It's a student, interrupting her reverie, and she looks up, the eye contact enough to keep him talking. "Is there a slide for the lachrymal ducts?"
Lachrymal ducts? Do pigs cry?
If Quinn is dead, what does that make Alicia? Old enough to have found bliss with a man who is now old enough to be dead? Old enough to be a virtual grandmother? Alicia could be consoling her own child right now, consoling him over the loss of his father. Or her father. Doctors didn't tell you the sex of the child you'd aborted, if they could even tell. She knows because she'd asked, and realized as soon as she had that it was a dreadful faux pas.
So Alicia is old, then. Old by association. A near-miss grandmother. Virtually dead.
When pigs cry.
Back while Quinn was off busily unearthing evidence of ancient life, Alicia kept busy in the hotel room. She stayed away from the dig because Quinn had other scientists working with him and when she did show up she got we-know-why-you're-really-here-Miss-Helpful-Assistant-who-isn't looks.
So Alicia's sketchpad was a blessing. She'd thrown it in at the last minute when Quinn asked her if she'd packed a book, if she had anything to read. That was the first indication that her role wasn't the one she'd imagined: Alicia and Quinn standing shoulder to shoulder in a dusty pit, sighing as they brushed fine layers of dirt from finds-of-the-century with soft-bristled brushes. She'd grabbed her sketchbook while the college van idled outside her dorm and Quinn paced guiltily around the quad.
Alicia didn't draw from life. No horses or landscapes, no still lifes or portraits. She drew fantastical images, ancient creatures, fossils on the page. Things with odd, long, stalked eyes and wings and too many or too few legs with an excessive number of joints to the appendages. The Year of Quinn had been the year of the colorful dangling heart swarming with hundreds of leggy, crab-like creatures.
On the final day of the dig, Alicia lay under the covers in Quinn's room, waiting for him to emerge from his post-dig shower. He opened the door and stood in the steam looking slicked back and doughy. A paunch hung over his underwear like the crown on rising bread. But she loved him, didn't she? She wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.
The Wife loomed, though. What did she have that Alicia didn't have? She asked Quinn this as he made his way toward the bed, drying his ear with his pinky on approach.
Quinn took it as a joke, she could tell by the way he smiled and kept walking toward her. The beginning of an erection strained his Fruit of the Looms.
"Why did you marry her?"
"You were in diapers," he said. "Now let me into bed."
She lifted the covers and scooted over but continued the barrage. "I'm serious. What about me?" She hated the way her voice rose up at the end, hated the grating sound of it in her own ears, but she couldn't stop the momentum of her words.
He bit her shoulder. She sighed and dropped her head back. Yes, there was that. How could she do without that?
But when he pressed what was left of his erection against her thigh, tears inextricably stung her eyes. "I want more."
He gave a long sigh and turned away, pulling the sheet up to his shoulder. "We can just go to sleep. Whatever you want."
"Whatever I want?" She felt the desperation rising. "Maybe I want to be The Wife for a change." There, she'd said it. Quinn turned back and his face told her she'd crossed a line, so she pressed it home. "Maybe I want to be the one you come home to every day."
A film like frosted glass descended over his eyes. "You know my situation."
"You'll fuck me but you won't marry me."
"I've been straight with you."
"You could divorce her. You could love me forever. Would that be so hard?"
"I will love you forever."
"Oh, sure, but there's On-drea," she said, derisively. "On-drea with her hook in your nose, leading you around wherever she wants you to go."
She rose from the bed and walked into the bathroom. She ran water so he wouldn't hear her crying. How had they come to this? When she turned the water off and opened the door, Quinn sat hunched at the edge of the bed, cupping the mouthpiece, talking low but trying to sound like he wasn't.
She turned back to the mirror but spoke loudly and deliberately from the bathroom. "Will you have to go back to the dig in the morning, honey?"
"Hang on," he said into the phone, then too loudly, "No, no turn-down, thank you." He returned to his call saying, "Sorry. Housekeeping."
Alicia-the-turndown-maid opened the door to the adjoining room and stepped inside, locking it behind her. She hadn't even set her luggage in here. The beds were made, the towels folded neatly on the rack, the soaps wrapped, the toilet paper triangled. Goddamn him. She screamed an animal sound and threw the shower curtain to one side, then turned the water on and stood under it in her nightshirt, letting the water blast her face. She shook her hair. Water strafed the walls. Quinn would always put his fucking wife first. Alicia would always be invisible. The Invisible Fucking Woman.
She turned and looked in the mirror. "Where are you?" she asked.
Quinn banged on the door. "Lixia, let me in." He banged some more. "I know you're there, Lixi."
She stepped out of the shower, dripped across the floor and sat in front of the TV stand, staring at the tucked, boxy corner of the bedspread with its geometric southwest-style patterns.
"I have my own key," he said, banging again.
When it got quiet she stood and walked to the door, pressing her ear against it. She thought she could hear him standing there, breathing on the other side, but she wasn't sure.
"I'm pregnant," she told the door, then listened again. She leaned against it, shivering, then went back to the bathroom and ran a bath. She stripped off the wet shirt and climbed in.
The phone rang ten times. She counted. When it stopped, she told the shower curtain, "You don't love me."
When the water was still hot and steam clouded the mirror, she heard the door open and close. Quinn appeared and stood there, staring at her.
"I'll leave her," he said, his arms limp at his shoulders. "I'll do it." He moved closer to the tub and kneeled. "I mean it, Lixi. I'm ready."
"God," she said, and stood, dripping. He rested his hands at her waist and pulled her toward him. Quinn hung his arms around her and sobbed against her shoulder. They moved in tandem to the bed. Beads of water coalesced and cooled, puckering her skin. Quinn's face was red and blotchy. She had never seen him cry. He cried like a small boy, breathing in big sobs and rubbing his eyes. She knew it should have made her sympathetic. He continued to whimper so she stroked his hair. "Poor baby," she said.
Quinn cupped her breast, then bent down and nuzzled it. He pulled it into his mouth and sucked greedily like an infant, still whimpering. This was a new element of her take-charge lover. Did he do this with his wife? She cringed in pain and distaste as he continued sucking and whimpering. Alicia wanted her passionate lover back, the man who controlled her passion, who led her on the path to pleasure. She didn't want a little boy.
"Quinn," she said. She thought she would tell him it was over, that she appreciated all the time they'd spent together, that they both deserved better. Or that it was about her, not him. Or that she really needed some space, just for a little while. Or that she'd really been feeling lately that it wasn't fair to his family. Instead she said, "Show me that you love me."
And the melancholy romantic notion of one last time fed her desire and her recklessness, and the passion was insane the way they rolled around and she bit his shoulder knowing it would leave a mark. A mark for The Wife to find. She grabbed him and pulled him deep inside her. He was the only man who could touch her to the core, she thought, the only man who ever would. The only one.
Except other men had touched her, of course. She'd had many lovers since Quinn, but still he held that special place—the place that the body-memory of first passion takes.
The thing that Alicia never tells when she tells her tale of leaving Quinn is the pain that followed. The nights of lying in her bunk worrying and crying. Of sitting in class those last two weeks of the semester and watching Quinn teach and seeing the sadness and the droop of his shoulders and her hurrying to be the first one out the door so there would be no chance of him holding her back after class. Of crying when she got her grades because he had given her a perfect score. The times he called her on the hall phone and she told her roommate to say she wasn't there.
Since then, Alicia the arthropod has grown her very own emotional exoskeleton. For forty-eight years she has hardened her outer shell. But now Quinn's obituary has caused her to molt and expose a soft underbody that feels the pain she inflicted on Quinn's wife and family. It must have been great. He had left The Wife, she's sure of that. But had they reconciled? She was in his obituary, so they must have. Had she suffered? Had the children? For years Alicia couldn't imagine, but now she can. She can imagine because imagining is how she spends her days. What if she had stayed with Quinn? What if she had married any one of the other men who had asked her over the years? Why had she not pursued a family? Who would look after her as she aged? Even now, when she has a cold or flu she is acutely aware that there is no one there to nurse her back to health.
Aging is the pits. The La Brea Tar Pits. And Quinn has taken the first step toward becoming a fossil: he's died, leaving Alicia to flounder all alone in the stickiness of remembrance and regret. Did the great mammoths have regrets as they struggled in the muck? Did they pine for things done and left undone? Did the carnivores regret consuming an animal trapped by its own desires? When the scavengers descended and got stuck themselves, did they understand that their hunger was also their downfall?
Copyright©2009 Mary Akers
Mary Akers' fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Fiddlehead, Brevity, and other journals. She co-founded the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology in Roseau, Dominica, and frequently writes fiction that focuses on the intersections between art and science, including such topics as diverse and timely as the environmental movement and the struggle for human and animal rights. She has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and has been a Bread Loaf waiter and returning work-study scholar.