We’re pleased to present an excerpt Sara Rauch’s new book XO. The publisher notes that this work of nonfiction “[allows] the author to explore her longstanding obsessions with romantic love, personal faith and belief systems, and the stories we tell ourselves to get through our ever-changing lives.” Along the way, Rauch delves into her own experience of desire and fidelity, all manifested in an unexpected way.
On the Beach
That winter, the month after I turned thirty-two, I flew west again for my second residency. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the man I met in a hotel bar in the off-season resort town perched on the edge of the sea.
He approached me and introduced himself, though I knew who he was—I’ll call him Liam—and I told him my name. We shook hands, and he stood close for the rest of the night as we talked. Walking through the deserted streets later with my friends to our own hotel, one of them exclaimed, He was flirting with you!
Was he? (I knew he was.)
He has a wife, you know.
Does he? Oh well. I do too. (Laughter, because this was true, in its way.)
That he was married was easy enough to verify via Wikipedia in my room. And so, the next morning, seeing him again, I smiled and nodded and tried to keep a safe distance. It is possible I overstate my innocence—my body, my heart, were in overdrive, and it was hard to see clearly—because I was hooked and I knew that. I was curious and confused by that curiosity; to the world I was happy with Piper, a hard-won happiness, but here all I could think about was what, if anything, this married man who never stopped looking at me would do next.
For two days, it seemed perhaps nothing would happen next, nothing beyond flirting over whiskey in a hotel bar. I told myself I was okay with that; I had every reason to believe that flirtation was innocent, by which I mean guileless, despite the whispers from classmates who studied what was unfolding. Was I waiting those days for a heightening of tension, or a crossing of a threshold? Surely, I was. On the third night of our acquaintance, standing in a ring around a bonfire on the beach, laughing, drinking, and pretending neither was aware of the other, Liam pressed his body against mine, thigh to thigh, hip to hip, elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder. In the dark, the seam we created was merely one more shadow. But his intention became clear to me; whatever paltry seawall I might have possessed was overcome. I anchored my heels in the sand and let him rise.
The day after the bonfire, wood smoke lingering in my hair, I crouched near the entrance of Liam’s hotel to photograph a triangle spiderweb glistening with leftover rain. When I heard voices and glanced up, I saw him cross the parking lot with his family—the lean of his wife as she carried their youngest child, their eldest’s close-cropped hair.
I stayed put, concealed by the bush where the spider had built its home, until they’d driven away. Then I stood and called Piper and told her about the web. She was tired or distracted or my words did not do the sparkling droplets justice. We talked about other things—probably her day, our cats, the weather—and we said goodbye.
Spiders are territorial about where they’ll build their web, and most of their construction goes on under cover of darkness. The web which so captured my attention was empty that late afternoon, its builder either moved on to new horizons or hiding amid the foliage until I found something else to focus on. It was a small web, with only a few, very fine, strands. Without the raindrops suspended on them refracting light, I might have missed it altogether.
I had some time to burn before the next craft talk, so I walked out onto the beach, past the rusting swing sets, through the dunes, to the shore. A mild day, breaks of sun between low clouds. For a long time I watched the waves roll in and out. I had been looking for a sign; was this it? I couldn’t tell you. But I can tell you that some spiders eat their webs when they are finished with them, as a way to replenish their silk supply. Eventually I headed back the way I came, and the web remained vacant, glimmering in the holly bush, as I passed by once more.
Before Liam and I left that town by the sea, we kissed. It was past midnight and in the empty streets the air fizzed with salt and humidity. The kiss was his idea, arriving first as we said what I thought would be our goodbye. Faced with him in that moment, I drew a line down the center of my palm and said, I won’t cross this. And then, an hour or so later, the proposal came again, this time via DM. In such moments, where we recognize how a choice can change the arc of a lifetime, how do we decide? My way has always been similar to the spider’s, who might throw their silk strands up to twenty times while building a web—they only need seven good attachment points, and thus thirteen of those tries will eventually get cut away. I pulled my jeans back on and snuck out of my room, slinking along the front lawn of the hotel. On the far corner of the nearby bridge, I waited under an antique-style street lamp for his dark figure to emerge. The river below dashed against concrete structures as it tumbled toward the nearby estuary.
In his arms, I was shy. Hadn’t we stood together on this bridge mere hours earlier? Hadn’t I drawn that line across my palm? Hadn’t I told him I wouldn’t cross it? I had always been faithful—would this change the story I told of myself?
I removed my glasses and tucked them into my coat pocket and the world blurred like a rushed photo. He moved closer until I could see him, and then so close that again I couldn’t. Our kiss was awkward, stiff and timid, a fumble. We bumped noses and I giggled, looking down till he nudged my chin up and for a moment one tiny spark flared between us, mouth on mouth like an infinity loop, and I stepped back, said, I have to go, and rushed away before he could say otherwise.
It took me till halfway across the bridge to realize my glasses were still in my pocket, the world as distorted as if I’d opened my eyes underwater, caught in the merciless pummel of a riptide.
The next morning, we left the final talk and headed south. Stopping in a coffee shop, he tried to pay with his card and the barista shook her head. Cash only.
My treat, I said, handing her two dollars.
I’ll get you back, he said.
That’s not necessary.
I opened the door for him and he paused, hesitant.
Want to walk out on the beach?
If you’ll share.
Months after my cat died, I woke to the thought, I’ll never hold him again. I cried for most of that morning, cradling this particular ache. Why, of all those for whom this statement is true, do I miss him so much? I could feel his spirit, but I wanted his body, the sturdy warmth of him, the soothing rumble as he purred nearby.
In Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, the character Fanny is described as perceiving “the living and the dead [as] pretty much the same,” they are “present to her in about the same way.” I’ve long tried to adjust myself with this lens. If the world of the living is but one layer of reality, then surely all that is lost—physically, emotionally—continues to exist elsewhere, alongside this experience on other earthly, or less earthly, planes.
I dream of my cat almost as much as I dream of Liam. My cat acts as a guide in dreams, as he did when he was alive, leading me toward understandings I cannot quite come to on my own. Liam remains mute, in dreams as in waking life, his presence strong and watchful without crossing whatever boundary divides us. How else might I contend with this continued presence than to assume that somewhere in the vast unknowable universe we remain attached to a common touchpoint? My cat’s ashes rest in a carved pine box on my dresser. I know his spirit is not contained there—I heard it leave along the note of his final exhale. Where does the spirit go when it is relieved of an earthly form? Since we have no way of knowing—or, I should better say, proving—that the spirit even exists, is such a question worth asking? Or, is the very act of asking the question the entrance point to belief?
How easy it was, to fall into pace with Liam on a trail that could not lead us anywhere but back to the place we started. We left the promenade for the sand and squished down to the waves. We walked south, the sun casting only minor shadows.
The coffee we shared was like battery acid on my tongue, a dark line burning down the center of me. Strangers played frisbee and sunlight cascaded off ebullient waves. A cloudless sky domed overhead and I had the feeling of being outside of time, the moment, with him and me in it, indestructible. By my side, he stared toward the horizon. His eyes matched the sky, a wide, wild blue, unfathomable. I tried to grasp what was happening. Was he trying to think of the words that I was also trying to say?
He offered me the coffee one last time and I shook my head.
My stomach, I said, floating my hand in the air the way gulls ride air currents.
You ready to head home?
I guess so.
But I wasn’t sure at all if home was what I was after: Piper would be there, waiting; she’d be sweet and make dinner and let me sleep off the jet lag and not ask any hard questions. I tried to picture her face but there was only that glorious sky.
I thought we should see each other, he finally said, and say goodbye.
What more could I expect? We were in a resort town off season, a secret wonderland. Thousands of miles and half a dozen state lines separated our everyday lives: a marriage, a partnership, homes, pets, children. We’d only kissed, and just the once. We were not a new frontier, but a wave, crashing and then, gone.
And, to, well—can I kiss you again?
Ah, I smiled, I knew there must be an ulterior motive.
Is that a— ?
He tasted of salt and pine and gasoline, of intention and fear, of coffee dregs and promises that did not belong to me. Still we were awkward, but now there was more. A midnight rendezvous was one thing, this broad-day encore quite another. My stomach burned and gurgled and I pulled away, hand covering my mouth.
There is little evidence of our affair beyond what I’ve written here and in the veiled journal entries I wrote through our years.
Our letters, the lust and charm of them: gone.
The receipts of our coffees, our lunches, our bourbons: gone.
A book, with notes scribbled in both our hands: gone.
What remains are gaps. Spaces between lines. Memory—mine, his—no longer coinciding. And a few fragments of bleached shell, half a crab’s claw, lingering inside the “secret” pocket of my winter raincoat—I cannot shake them loose. Grains of sand stick to my fingertips if I forget and reach in.
As we walked back from our stolen hour, Liam and I came upon a whole, bone-white sand dollar. I picked it up, amazed. I’d never before found one so perfect. Things like this did not wash up on the beaches I knew. I went to pocket it, and then, flushed, held it out to him. He took it and turned it round. Do you want to keep it?
No, he said, laying it back in my hand. He closed my fingers around the circle. This is meant for you.
I loved him in an instant. It was simple, and complete, and beyond the wildest of my imaginings. Did I know then, the exquisite and terrible grace of what I was being offered? I must have; I carried it home.