Dead In The Water

By: Julie Smith


For Aliza P. Rood, a friend of the sea otter

It was one of those days in Monterey when the air is washed and polished like a lens. The sunshine had a goldy look and the red geraniums burned the air around them. The delphiniums were like little openings in the sky. There aren’t many days like that anyplace.

—John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday


Sometimes in the life of a lawyer (even one as dedicated as I), there comes an overpowering urge to be under the sea, not so much in an octopus’s garden as in a hermit crab’s.

I indulge this fantasy vicariously, by keeping a one-hundred-gallon saltwater aquarium in my living room. A lot of people think I’m weird.

Marty Whitehead was weird, too.

It was late August when she called that last time, and I was staring out my office window thinking how odd it was to feel so empty and sad on such a beautiful day. I didn’t want to make nice over lunch. I wanted to hole up like a hermit and be as crabby as I liked.

“Gosh-I’d-love-to, so-sorry, I’m-booked,” I said, or something close enough. I’d said it a lot lately and I was getting it down pat.

“Drinks then?”

“I’d really love to, but I’ve got to try this case tomorrow and I could probably be ready sometime in October if I worked every minute. One of those things, maybe next time …”

“Oh.” Her voice was low and gave nothing away, but something didn’t feel right.

“Marty, is anything wrong?”

“No, I’m fine. Well, I guess you should know, but it’s all right, I’m coping just fine. Don’s dumped me, but it’s okay. Really.”

Rob Burns hadn’t dumped me, exactly, but it was our relationship that had me in the dumps, and you know what they say about misery. I had the damn drink with her.

* * *

My true love had gotten a Nieman Fellowship and had already left for Cambridge to find an apartment. I knew that Nieman Fellows returned from Harvard after a year; and that, like anyone else in this great country, they were free to receive visitors during their year. And I knew that a Nieman was about as prestigious as anything in journalism and that this was the high point of Rob’s career. So why was I so sad?

Because I knew it was over, that’s why. Rob didn’t know, but I did. I wasn’t sure what the problem was, exactly. The easy explanation was that I felt he cared more about his job than he did about me. He was a reporter for the Chronicle—a workaholic who could forget dates and cancel weekends when he was on a good story. But I had a nagging feeling that was only an explanation of convenience.

There was my half to think about, too. I found myself more and more haunted by ugly questions, questions like “What’s wrong with me?” Or worse: “Am I really so unlovable his job looks better?”

Since I like to think of myself as an independent, capable, Twenty-First-Century kind of woman, these clingy thoughts, so suggestive of poor self-esteem and emotional dependency, weren’t comfortable, to say the least—even buried deep, which was where I carried them. You bet I kept them deep. No Rob Burns or anybody else was going to view the spectacle of Rebecca Schwartz begging and nagging.

After two years of the same old setup, I had to conclude that, for whatever reason—something about me, something about him, something about both of us—Rob wasn’t really working out.

It was going to be an awful wrench. If anything, the Nieman made the whole thing easier, because he’d be gone in a natural way while I got used to the idea—but not having him around was going to be hard as hell. It already was. He’d only been gone a week and I was moping about so unproductively that Chris Nicholson, my law partner, was begging me to take a vacation and make it official. My sister Mickey, able to tell by my eyebags how badly I was sleeping, had shown her concern by giving me some Seconal prescribed for her after a miscarriage.

Our smart-aleck secretary, Alan Kruzick, had hung the office in black the day before Marty called—you’d have thought it was someone’s fortieth birthday. Kruzick, one of The King’s most loyal subjects, had an Elvis song for every occasion. His favorite trick was to greet me with the song of the day, flipping the switch when I walked in. The day of the black office, it was “Heartbreak Hotel.” Normally I would simply have picked up the nearest chair and heaved it at him. That day I broke into tears.