Ruth likes slightly overcast weather and the smell of public libraries.
Ruth likes the color mauve. She bakes cinnamon raisin bread in the winter, and she wears orthopedic shoes on her nightly walks.
Ruth dislikes it when the person in front of her in line gets chatty with the cashier. It’s inconsiderate, she thinks, to make others wait for what should have been a brief transaction. After this, she has to get to the pharmacy, and then to her favorite poultry store, where she buys a roast chicken every Tuesday. But the person in front of her, gabbing on and on to the pimply boy behind the glass, doesn’t seem to consider these things. Ruth says nothing, but still, she doesn’t like it.
Ruth finally arrives at the poultry store. She knows it’s old-fashioned to buy chickens at a specialty shop, but it feels quaint and things that feel quaint ought to be held on to. Besides, Joey, the loud but kind man who works behind the counter, knows her. She likes watching him give the special bit of the chicken—the oyster—to the children who come in with their mothers, who must also love quaint things.
“This,” he says, extending a gloved hand to a wide-eyed child. “This, my dear, is the best kept secret of the chicken. It’s for you.” The child receives the gift cautiously, eyes lighting up at the juiciness of the meat.
Ruth takes home the chicken and cuts up vegetables to eat alongside it. While they roast in the oven, she sits and watches television. No one comes through the door. She takes the tray of vegetables out a while later. Still, no one comes through the door.
Ruth eats alone.
It’s late. No one is home, except Ruth. He is not there. Ruth stays up until eleven watching more television and then goes to sleep.
In the morning, Ruth wakes up, and he is not there. She makes her breakfast and black tea. She goes upstairs and packs her bag. She packs sensibly. A pair of orthopedic shoes. A sweater. A turquoise necklace.
She gets in her car, an old sedan, and flips on the radio to the jazz station. She sits in the driver’s seat, five minutes. Ten. He is not there. She must go anyway. Perhaps not must, but she wants to go. It’s a decision.
She drives up the long stretch of highway, passes through farmland, where the scent of cow dung hangs in the air. She drives along picturesque coasts. She steers the car through misty trees in the north. She stays the night at a motel. Her bad knee stops her from driving through the night.
Ruth arrives the next day. Seattle. It’s the time of year when the salmon spawn. Standing on the soaked creek bank and looking below, you can see them, the salmon, crimson, brightly colored, hopping in and out of the water, over the jutting rocks. The energy they have! The water that pelts down on her rain poncho is from the sky, not the splashing of the fish, but Ruth likes to imagine she is among them, scaly bodies smacking against one another, swimming upstream. They used to go every year together. This year, she will go alone.
The first time they’d driven up to Seattle was right after Ruth found out that she was pregnant with their son. The two of them had walked along the waterfront, fingers entwined. Their first trip together. It was a beautiful autumn day, no clouds obscuring the sun, warm enough for the Washingtonians to go about in their shorts. The bare legs and the light casting off the bay and the glinting of the fishmongers’ ice in Pike Place market all added to the brightness of the day, and Ruth could feel it inside her, like warm tea. When they arrived at the creek, they both knew they’d hit upon something special. Watching him watch the salmon, she fell in love all over again, the way calm washed over him. She saw him like this only two other times. Once was after the birth of their son. “Ruth,” he said to her as they lay in bed at night. He always did this—addressed her by name, like he was her distant lover, writing her a letter. “Ruth, he’s perfect.”
The second time was only a year later. She woke in the middle of the night to tend to the baby, walked down the hall, saw the pale light of the kitchen. White linoleum, chipped fruit magnets gripping the fridge, a dirty pot soaking in the sink. He sat at the table, a near-empty jug of wine in front of him. His face, calm, brows unfurrowed for the first time in months, like it was after the birth of their son, like it was with the salmon.
Now, Ruth arrives in Seattle, around midday. She tries not to let memories associated with the places she passed seep into her. The doughnut shop where they’d huddled one rainy afternoon, the eccentric milliner’s where’d they spent an hour giggling, trying on hats. She stops for lunch, fish and chips, and tries to calibrate being here alone. She breathes deeply. She’ll check in to her hotel, take a nap, and then, perhaps, go to the creek.
At check in, the woman at the desk informs her that she’s received a message.
She returns the call, doesn’t say anything when it connects. He speaks first.
“Ruth. It’s me.”
Her breath catches in her throat. His voice is the same as it had been a million times before. Pleading without saying anything. A familiar knot forms in her stomach.
“I fucked up. I’m sorry.”
Ruth says nothing.
“How are the fish?”
“I haven’t seen them yet.” Then, “Is it over?”
“Yeah, it’s over. And I was thinking . . . what if I flew up to meet you? We could still see the fish. How about we spend the afternoon at Pike Place?”
Again, Ruth is silent. The knot is still there, but so is something else.
“You can come,” Ruth says, slowly. “You can come, but you have to buy your own ticket.”
“Ruth, I can do that.”
“You have to buy your own ticket,” she repeats. “And once we’re home, things need to be different.”
“I can do that,” he says again. “Thank you. You have no idea what it means . . . I love you, Ruth. I really do.”
Silence on her end.
“And I’m sorry. It’ll be different now. It’ll be different.”
Ruth hangs up.
She forgets about lunch, heads straight to her room. She breathes raggedly. Shaky hands as she pours water into a highball glass, and takes a sip. She sits on the side of the bed, one hand massaging her bum knee. And she just sits awhile. After a time, she almost laughs. To get worked up, after all these years of the same old thing. What a ridiculous creature she is!
She remembers her date with the salmon, what she’d promised herself only twenty minutes before. It feels like years have passed. Haven’t they, in a sense? What had changed between now and any number of moments, five years ago, ten, standing somewhere else on the other side of that phone call—their son’s soccer game, a baby shower, an anniversary dinner? Ruth. It’s me. I fucked up. I’m sorry.
Glass on the bedside table now, Ruth leans forward, rests her elbows on her knees. Breathing in and out. The salmon.
Ruth goes to see the salmon. She could have waited for him—he’s sent her a text message letting her know his flight will get in later that evening. They’re only about two hours away, after all. But she thinks of the salmon, and again the promise to herself, and she heads to the creek.
The salmon meet her there, as they do every year, as their ancestors have done for years before them, completing their life cycles, their biological death march. The salmon are here to spawn, and then, to die. They have come from the ocean, swum miles and miles, back to their own birthplaces. Developed through centuries of mating, and of dying, the salmons’ genes contain a map of the particular river that will eventually deliver them to their final resting place, the same place where the next generation will be born to continue the cycle. The journey is harrowing, and the salmon transform over the course of the trip. Their bodies, once silvery knives that cut through water, develop a copper hue. The male salmon grow a hooked jaw. Once they arrive, they no longer eat. They have a singular purpose: to mate, and to bury their eggs in the pebbly bottom of the river before they die. When it’s all over, their bodies fertilize the streams, providing nutrients to their unborn young who will hatch, and one day complete this same journey. Like clockwork. The great migration of their species. To Ruth, it feels almost mystical.
Ruth watches them, the crisp fall air nibbling at her ears as she contemplates their writhing bodies, flapping, whacking. Their desperate battle for life, but also for death. Normally, she feels content watching the salmon, but today they don’t bring her the same peace that she’s come to expect. Instead her stomach churns, splashes like the creek water. But what is it? Does she envy the salmon because of their determination? Because they have purpose? Maybe it scares her that they fight so hard, that they go through all this work just to die. Do they accept their death, she wonders? Is it in their blood to die?
She thinks of him, too. The benders, the apologies. Sitting with him in a drab room in a church, grey walls, a tissue box, plastic chairs in a circle, the serenity prayer.
Squeezing his hand. Him looking her in the eyes, like it meant something. Then another bender.
Her attention turns back to the miserable creatures before her. Is it masochistic, to watch them, their morbid battle? To take pictures of their deformed jaws, their scales, the color of blood. Is it sick? She promises herself that this is the last time she will watch as he destroys himself. This is the last time that she will visit the salmon.
Before she knows it, it’s dark. When she arrives back at the hotel, he’s there, and he has a turquoise necklace for her. They go out to dinner. Their favorite place, an old-fashioned seafood joint. White tablecloths, candlelight. A bread basket with salty squares of butter before dinner. He winks at her when they order their drinks, two Shirley temples. He’s still handsome. His hazel eyes are somehow the same eyes that looked over at her, inquisitive, coy, forty years ago in her college literature class. The same eyes that looked at her in the drab grey church, six months ago. A year ago. Ten. Twenty.
They return home a few days later, his hand on her thigh as he drives. A pound of smoked salmon from Pike Place is nestled in his backpack in the trunk, and he talks about serving it when the kids visit. He makes a joke to the barista at a roadside cafe in Oregon, and she giggles, charmed by his easy way. It’s always been easy for him to talk to people, to get them to like him, like it never has been for Ruth.
Finally home, they tune in to Ruth’s favorite jazz station. Ruth marks the calendar for the next meeting at the church. Everything is fine. But by the following Tuesday, Ruth wakes up and he’s gone again. She goes out, buys a chicken, and waits for it to be over. She waits for him.