Once upon a time there was a lovely little path that ran north and south along a cliff. The cliff dropped to the edge of the ocean. The path was covered with ashy, pea-sized pebbles. The sky above the path connected the ocean to a grassland that grew between the path and the horizon. The grassland swayed back and forth in the gusts and breezes that blew in off the sea, rhythmic and habitual, keeping time as it had for centuries. The cliff’s edge scalloped in and out, rising up to one hundred feet above the waves. The cliff walls were sheer and precarious, plunging deftly into the foam.
The space between the path and the cliff was close; too close for some. Periodically, a rock wall appeared in this margin, moss bathing the stones in its ancient, curly tendrils. The cliff below the places where the rock wall stood was particularly steep and rocky, cascading directly into the water below, with no sandy shoreline dividing the face and the water.
In places, hardy trees fought the wind and coarse soil to make a home for themselves along the path. During winter, the trees were cold and skeletal. In spring, blossoms burst forth with luster and strength, giving birth to lush foliage that lasted well into fall.
The path ran for miles. It began randomly off the coast amongst several run-down cottages that overlooked the shoreline. It concluded at the berth of a hill overlooking a quaint, little town. Every year different townspeople took it upon themselves to care for the path. Men would lug bags of gravel to fill the thin places. Children would plant lupines and sweet peas.
Citizens of the town used the path for various purposes. Some ran. Others strolled. One old woman walked down the path and back every Saturday, no matter the season, no matter the weather. Couples sauntered hand in hand, sharing the sunset, bundling together against the breeze.
One such couple walked daily along the path, if the weather suited them. Depending on their schedule, they would walk for a short half hour or spend the day walking to the path’s end and back. Some days, the fellow held the woman close, her head laid gently on his shoulder, their stroll languid, contemplative. Others, she would bounce ahead, while he followed more sedately behind.
Regular path walkers knew the couple. The woman had walked the path since she was a small child. She had developed a routine whereby she walked its entire length once a week on Sunday if the weather was cooperating. The man was not much of an exerciser, but he loved to walk the path as well, and gradually adapted to her habit. When she jogged, he would walk along behind, waiting until she returned, the two walking back together while she cooled off. Or sometimes he would ride his bicycle, the handlebars unsteady on the gravel, as she ran beside him, her ponytail bouncing to the rhythm of her steps.
One elderly woman, Mrs. Mettle, often followed them while they walked together, hand in hand. She eavesdropped on their conversations, wishing her life was more like theirs. She was not certain of their names, but she had taken to calling them Martin and Beth in her mind. She felt the names suited them. She knew the two were not married, but thought perhaps they were planning to do so soon. Martin worked as a schoolteacher in town, teaching math. Beth wrote children’s books and sold vegetables and flowers from her expansive garden. Mrs. Mettle also knew that Martin owned a rambling, delightful bungalow with an enormous front porch that overlooked the cliffs to the sea. She longed to follow them into that bungalow and learn more about the life she was sure the two must lead.
Ah, if she could. As is often the case, Mrs. Mettle would soon discover that things were not as sanguine as the surface would have the world believe. Although the two appeared connate, if Mrs. Mettle had spoken to one of the pair, each story would be quite different from the other’s, much more so than either of the two could contemplate.
Both of them had remained unattached for quite a long time before their inadvertent meeting in a bookstore one rainy morning. Martin had a family who adored him, decent friends, and a good job that, although it did not pay a lot of money, allowed him enough for a comfortable living. But he had been terribly lonely for a long time. He had longed to share his life with another. He dated women and had a few girlfriends, but nothing ever panned out.
Then he met Beth. She was a wild, fearless, energetic woman who rearranged his every aspect. Her life was so different from his; she had four dogs and three cats, her work was sporadic, and she often had a million things going at once, which overwhelmed his sure and steady single-mindedness. But overall, she liked things mostly tidy like he did, she enjoyed art and theater, she cared about the environment, she loved to travel and relished studying other cultures, she had principles and lived her life accordingly. And she was so beautiful. Devastatingly so. His heart ached each time he imagined her pristine complexion, the golden hair she wore casually pulled back from her face, her luminous eyes, whose color matched the ocean below his house. He felt certain that he was truly in love. Beth completely captivated him; she was perfect and everything he had ever dreamed of.
Martin knew he had never loved a woman as he loved Beth, and not long into their courtship, he realized he would ask her to marry him. Even though they had only been going out for a few short months, he had no doubts that she was exactly what he wanted, and he began to plan how to convince her to accept a proposal so early in their relationship.
Beth was not as immediately enamored of Martin when she first met him. She had a busy life and liked the way things were. Although she was not in the market for a boyfriend, she welcomed the diversion. She thought that even though his hair was thinning, he was attractive enough. He wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she enjoyed the way his eyes crinkled at the edges like he always had a laugh waiting, and his calm and easy smile made her feel secure. There was an allure in his manner that made her unusually active mind sedate. He was frankly earnest, and this made her laugh.
Still, she spent their first few dates debating with herself whether she really wanted to go out with him. He was much too interested in science fiction and sports cars to suit her tastes. He insisted they watch all of the credits in the movies they watched, which drove her to distraction; she hadn’t the patience for it. And even though he had worked at his job for a number of years, he complained incessantly about the place when the subject came up, but would take no steps to change things. She wondered whether he was a pessimist in disguise.
Over time, though, these things seemed to matter little. He was so attentive, she could not help but react positively. He brought her bundles of flowers on a regular basis. He took her to dinner at fine restaurants and refused to even consider allowing her to pay. Beth had girlfriends who would have found this offensive, but Beth did not. She actually thought it was quite sweet. Martin wasn’t pushy or aggressive; he simply wanted to offer her a nice time. And she liked that, rather a lot. In time, she was certain she would grow to love this man.
Gradually, Beth stopped questioning her interest in Martin and allowed that she was utterly in love with him. She accepted the characteristics of his that were different from her, to the point that she found them deeply endearing. She noticed acutely his absences. When they spent even one night apart, she found that she could not focus on anything. When they were together, she felt complete, content. It did not matter if they were on a date at a fancy restaurant or digging plants in the garden. In any case, she wanted him there with her.
But Martin had begun to notice what he perceived as Beth’s flaws. She was irritated by small things and this drove him nuts. For instance, Beth would swear and complain during nearly every walk about the roots that poked into the path and tripped her when she was not paying close attention. Why couldn’t she just pay closer attention? The roots weren’t going anywhere and it ruined their walks to have her bitching about it all the time.
And she was shy. He would take her to functions at his school and she would stand off to the side, avoiding conversations with anyone she did not know. Why was this? She said she felt uncomfortable talking to people with whom she was not acquainted. But Martin knew them, so why couldn’t she just step up and start talking? And if she would talk to them, she would become acquainted, thus eliminating the concern over not being so. Why did she have to make such a production out of it?
Reality was sinking in: his lover was human and this humanity scared him. He did not want to feel the distress of heartbreak. He did not want her to either. But sometimes he could not stand how she was. He was also concerned that their being together would eliminate who he had been without her, a perplexing problem for which he saw no solution. He could not bear turning into one of those meager, simpering men who crouched at the call of their spouses, rushing off to do their “chores” with their tails between their legs. Castrates, thought Martin.
He was terrified of arguments. They did not have many, but each time one occurred, he was certain it represented the state of the relationship’s future. The subjects of these arguments were most often trivial, and usually occurred when both were overly tired, not feeling well, or both. Yet he was unable to shake the feeling that argument was their destiny.
With time, he began to ignore all of the things about Beth that had seemed so marvelous, and looked longingly into his past at the days he spent alone, wondering how those days had gotten away, forgetting how lonely he had been. He blamed her for the time he was not spending by himself, for the choices he had made in letting things go too fast. Oh, he blamed himself too, but he really felt that she was the problem because she was no longer what he had dreamed. He began to wonder and worry again and again how to eliminate their courtship without the wretchedness that was guaranteed to ensue.
Of course, Martin could not tell Beth these things that bothered him. To do so would solve nothing. He did not want to hurt her feelings. He hated conflict and speaking to her about such matters would bring considerable conflict. And most of the time, he really felt he loved her. He would take one look at her immaculate cheekbones, her delicate, slender neck, her impossibly long legs, and swoon. Could he give this up? Never.
One morning, Martin decided to take the day off to spend with Beth. They went to breakfast at a lovely café. They went back to Martin’s bungalow and made love in the late morning. Afterwards, they walked hand in hand through town, to the bookstore, and ate lunch at the local delicatessen. That night, they attended a play together, laughing over its silliness as they curled together in bed, nestled in one another’s arms.
Beth yawned in contentment as she snuggled deeper into Martin’s shoulder, falling drowsily into sleep. She felt so safe with this man she adored. Martin lay with his arms around Beth, wondering when their next struggle would develop. He forced these thoughts from his mind. He would not think of them. He would not. He held Beth close and fell determinedly to sleep.
The next morning, as Beth kissed Martin goodbye on his way to work, she asked if he would like to take a walk down the path on his lunch break. Martin liked the idea. He enjoyed getting away from the school during the day, and the path always worked to clear his head. He readily agreed and Beth offered to pack a picnic lunch.
Later that morning, Beth held Martin’s arm as they strolled away from the town. No other walkers were out. It was early spring and winter still held sway over the temperature. The air was cool and still, a mist hanging over the edge of the ocean, hovering lightly on the tranquil grassland. They settled onto one of the rock walls overlooking the ocean and spread out their lunch.
Neither spoke as they finished their sandwiches and potato salad. Beth brushed bread crumbs from Martin’s chin. He flinched. She patted his hand and asked if he was okay. He smiled, but did not answer. She turned and began to pack the cloth, utensils, and plastic cups back into the basket. They stood and began to walk down the path. Beth traveled slightly ahead of Martin, as was often the case where the path narrowed. As she headed towards town, Beth stumbled over a root in the path. She stopped and bent to rub her foot, complaining bitterly at the root’s existence, at the fact of its being exposed.
Thoughts flooded Martin’s mind, overwhelming him. Beth was so exquisite. In some respects, they got along marvelously. But she was also frustratingly picky, had an obnoxiously quick temper, and he would never understand her sense of humor. And most of all, he was losing himself. He had no idea where his fundamental self had gone. Who was Martin? Who was this man who would spend his life with a woman who complained about roots? He no longer knew. If he broke up with her, he would break her heart. If he stayed with her, he would smother. He would disappear. Martin would cease to exist.
Martin reached out. He saw his hands, disembodied from his arms. He saw his thumbs. He saw each of his fingers. He saw the two hands like the plaster hand impressions taken as a child, hanging in memorial on his mother’s kitchen wall. Together his hands pushed Beth in the back, shoving her hard from the path into the water below. He did not look at her. He did not look over the edge. He did not look down. He kept his eyes up and walked back to town.