The year of Gibb Chapman’s second great accomplishment was the same year his wife decided she didn’t want to live with him anymore. Strangely, the two events were connected. Yin and yang with a bullet, as Gibb later called it.
On his last normal day, the final day of Gibb’s seemingly perfect life, they had a date to meet for lunch at the beach, at a picnic table under tall pine trees. Gibb arrived first and lay atop the hard wood, staring up at the crowns of trees as they cut through cumulus clouds floating in from the Gulf of Mexico. He had never lost his childhood fondness for the lazy habit of cloud-watching.
The air grew still, in that odd way it does when someone is nearby but not yet seen, and Gibb sat up to greet Laura. Because it was a workday, his wife wore the uniform of the successful attorney—dark blue suit, starch-white shirt, no-nonsense shoes (but with a decent heel). She’d skipped the nylons, as she almost always did—a subtle touch that Gibb found terribly erotic. Laura stepped awkwardly through the sand in those shoes, her normally full lips now a thin line of determination, and Gibb wondered why she didn’t just go barefoot.
“Hi, kid,” he said. “I nearly fell asleep, it’s such a beautiful day.”
Behind silver Ray-Bans, Laura said nothing.
“I made you a sandwich,” he said, reaching into a cooler beneath the table. He pulled out a ham and cheese for his wife, a beer for himself. Laura unwrapped her sandwich but did not take a bite.
“You okay?” said Gibb. She nodded.
“Then how has your day been so far?”
“Always the same,” she said. “Lots of pissed off people. Anger keeps me in business.”
“That’s a pleasant thought,” Gibb said, sipping his beer. “Take a swim with me. It’ll make you feel better.”
His wife laughed, not a friendly laugh.
“I wish,” she said.
Gibb looked at Laura and squinted, trying to decipher this mood she was in. Eventually, he took off his shirt and shoes and trotted to the surf. When he returned, dripping and sandy, Laura held his towel, as she almost always did, and dried his neck and chest. This ritual they often performed on each other—after swims, showers, and baths. It was one of the casually intimate treats of their long relationship. But this time Laura touched him without really touching—a sort of clinical pat down—as if she were dabbing blood. Gibb shivered at the feeling.
“I have to get back now,” she said, her sandwich uneaten, and Gibb followed her to her car, parked next to his in the lot of crushed shells. They kissed just once—their habit was to peck three times—and Laura got in to drive off. But at the exit to the main road, her car paused. Gibb trotted toward her for the last two kisses, getting close enough for the sweet exhaust to sting his nostrils, when Laura pulled away onto Gulfshore Boulevard and south, in the direction of her office. Bits of shell flung by her tires peppered his shins. Then she really put her foot into it, the burst of speed shooting her up and over the bridge and out of sight.
And at that moment Gibb knew, without knowing how he knew, that there was big trouble ahead.
Oh, bloody hell, he thought.
Three months ago he wouldn’t have believed it. He was living the life of his dreams. What Keats Would Do, the novel he’d been rewriting since college, was finally published and had just been released, to decent reviews and a flurry of publicity from his publisher. Initial sales were brisk. Laura seemed as thrilled as Gibb, and they celebrated like newlyweds on New Year’s Eve. When Gibb finally held his first copy, he cracked the spine and sniffed the pages. This was, to him, the smell of success. If he did nothing else with the rest of his life, he had already taken the prize.
“It’s almost like being a Beatle,” he whispered to his wife.
There was a book tour and there were readings. There were trips and interviews and parties. Lots of parties and lots of drinks. There were claps on the back and cow-eyed women who slipped him scraps of paper with their cell phone numbers. Though Gibb never called them, they did make him smile.
For the first few weeks of the tour, he had Laura by his side, which was exactly how he wanted it. This time of their lives belonged to them both, of course. She put her law practice on hold to play author’s wife and sat patiently through his readings and signings, their daughter often asleep in her lap. Asia was three and was Gibb and Laura’s first great accomplishment. (“This is the most important thing we will ever do,” Laura had said, when she was handed their brand new baby girl, and Gibb, suddenly unable to speak, had nodded his agreement.)
But the late nights and plane trips were too hard on a child, and finally Laura told Gibb she would have to return with their daughter to Florida. Surprising himself, Gibb did not protest. The truth was that he’d grown tired of leaving parties early to put a child to bed, and he definitely got more attention when wife and daughter were not around. So he saw Laura and Asia to a plane, kissed and squeezed them both, and got back to the business of being a literary sensation.
At a publisher’s party in New York one night, Gibb chatted and danced with his agent, Myna Silver. They took turns fetching champagne and toasting each other. He was now her very favorite author, she told him, and by the end of the evening they were huddled on a sofa, fingertips close to touching. There was talk of her apartment being closer than his hotel (though Gibb didn’t think it was), and why didn’t he just stay over? She had a daybed in her guestroom. But Gibb never saw the daybed or the guestroom; he spent the night in bed with Myna. It was the first time in his life he had ever been unfaithful.
Though he felt guilty when he got back to Florida—back to Laura and to Asia—he didn’t make it known. In fact, he didn’t change much at all, though he was not stupid enough to sleep with anyone else so close to home, if he had been at all inclined. He spent his afternoons drinking martinis and answering emails from fans (Myna had set up for him a “Gibb Chapman” website, and it got dozens of hits a day). Sometimes he forgot Asia’s lunch until she whined to remind him, or he left her in front of videos for hours. When Laura got home late, he would order (instead of cook) their dinner.
It should have been plain to Gibb that something was about to break, and that only he could prevent it. The evening of that day at the beach, he had a few drinks, checked his book sales, and called Myna Silver. When Laura arrived, she could not find their daughter.
“Jesus, Gibb,” she said, “she’s barely three years old.”
“I can’t watch her every minute,” he said. “I’m sure she’s just hiding somewhere.”
Laura looked at the empty glass on his desk and looked in his eyes.
“You’ve changed, Gibb,” she said. “When Asia was a baby, you never let her off of your lap, much less out of your sight. Now it’s like you don’t even care. Can you be bothered to help me find her?”
“Laura...” Gibb began.
They didn’t have to look hard. When Asia emerged from around a corner, Gibb choked back a laugh. She’d found Laura’s make-up and painted her face, arms and legs. Under her clothes she appeared painted too. But Laura wasn’t laughing. She looked at Gibb and threw up her hands.
“I wish you’d never published that goddamn book,” she said.
“What’s that got to do with this?” Gibb said, his voice rising a notch. But Laura had walked away from him.
“Nice to have your support,” said Gibb to her back. “It’s a good thing Myna’s behind me.”
Laura turned with a fury, almost bumping into Gibb. “She’s your agent,” she said. “You pay her and she’s nice to you.”
“No one paid her to sleep with me,” Gibb said, the words spoken aloud making his ears burn hot.
And then Laura punched him flush in the mouth.
Very quietly she announced, “I knew that already, you prick.”
Laura and Gibb first met, ten years before, at a library book sale. Gibb once believed this meant their life together would have the qualities of a fine story. (He had always thought of his own life in book terms, with chapters and characters and plot twists and complications.). It was mid-May, when the bulk of the tourists and winter residents had already gone north, pushed out by the subtropic swelter of the long Florida summer, and the locals got their town and their diversions back—the amateur art fairs, jazz and reggae jams on the beach, and lazy outdoor book bazaars.
For its semi-annual purging, the downtown branch of the Naples Public Library had set up rows of folding tables beneath the twisting banyan trees, charging a nominal buck a book. Gibb, winding around tables and examining spines, had picked up a couple of real finds—a hardcover of e e cummings and a battered old coffee-table volume of prints of tropical birds. But when he went to pay for them, he realized he had left his wallet in his car.
“Could I leave these right here for a minute?” he asked the woman who was collecting dollar bills and placing them in a metal box.
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “We can’t hold books. It isn’t fair to the others.”
“I’ll be right back,” Gibb said. “Look, you can see my car from here.”
Pinch-lipped, the woman shook her head. Nope.
“Oh, my,” was all Gibb could think to say, and he set the books on the edge of the nearest book table and walked to the car for his billfold.
When he got back the books were gone. He looked around, thinking perhaps someone (like maybe the tight-fanny at the money table) had already put them back, in their proper Dewey-Decimal places, but he was wrong. His books were in someone else’s arms.
“Excuse me,” he said, tapping gently on the back of a woman’s shoulder. “But I think you picked up my books by mistake.”
The woman turned, and Gibb sucked a breath and blinked. He blinked again. He would later say that he had been rearranged by his first look at her: the shoulder-length hair so brown it seemed to swallow light, the perfect skin tea-colored by the sun, the eyes that crumpled at the edges in an expression of private amusement, with irises like fat Greek olives. Damn, he thought. Inside, he melted.
“No, there’s no mistake,” she said, her eye crinkles deepening. “I just bought these.” She turned the books, opened them, admiring. “A dollar a piece. Wow.”
“I’ll give you twice what you paid for them,” Gibb responded, thinking it was quite possibly the stupidest thing he’d ever said, but when the woman’s blank expression became a smile and then a little pop of a laugh, he knew he’d been had.
“You saw the whole...” he began, gesturing over his shoulder at the librarian with the cash box. “And so you took them. Funny.”
Laura nodded. And Gibb thought, how cool.
There were times, he knew, when it paid to be cautious, when it made sense to worry about rejection or failure, but Gibb did not care if this was one of those times or not. He asked her if she’d like to have dinner with him that night, and when she said yes, he knew—at some level beneath conscious thought—that the course of his life had just altered dramatically.
The next day they made love for the first time after an afternoon of hiking and canoeing at Rookery Bay. At one point on the trail, well away from other hikers, where the only sound was the wind buzzing through sawgrass and pines, they got close and kissed for the first time. Gibb breathed the orangy scent of Laura’s hair and marveled at how neatly their bodies fit together, the solid parts meeting curves, the hard parts finding soft ones.
Then Laura asked Gibb, in a relaxed way that didn’t sound silly, “Do you have a favorite bird?”
He glanced up at a pair of swallow-tail kites, all perfect slopes and contrasts, an uncommon and stunning sight as they circle-glided without riffling a feather. The birds had floated high above them throughout the day, and now they’d been joined by a third. It wouldn’t be the last thing that Gibb would regard as a symbol of their relationship.
“Right now I’d have to say that one,” he said, motioning toward the sky with his head so he didn’t have to take his hands from the small of Laura’s back. Laura nodded, as if she approved of his choice.
That evening at Laura’s place outside of town, while Laura worked in the house, Gibb prepared to grill some salmon on the front porch. Sipping a beer, he watched fragile petals dance down like a flaming snowfall from the poinciana tree in the front yard. Somewhere else a wooden wind chime clattered, and Gibb realized that he’d never been more awake. Or more content. He wanted to suck in the feeling and jam a cork in the top so it would never get away. Was this what love felt like?
When they fell into bed after midnight, the new lovers were awkward and tentative together. But afterwards, exhausted, they could laugh about it, and they didn’t get out of bed again until well into the day, when their growling stomachs finally forced them out.
“Making love to you is like eating Chinese food,” Gibb once said to Laura in bed, when they had been dating just a few months and still leaked passion.
“I think I know where this is going,” Laura said and giggled.
“Yep, an hour later I want to do it again.”
And they did.
“Are you foolish enough to marry me?” said Gibb one evening, after they had been living together for almost two years. “For my sake, I hope you say yes.”
They bought a big old fixer-upper in the oldest part of Naples, and Gibb continued to write and cook their meals. Laura did what lawyers do, making a lot of money in the process—money they used to renovate their home, restoring its original old Florida charm. Busy as they were, they still made love three or four times a week, but for all of their efforts, they could not conceive a child.
Laura took this hard, like a personal failing, and they endured the agony of repeated fertility treatments.
“The only thing that matters is that we love one another,” Gibb insisted, but some days Laura could not be consoled.
Then one Sunday morning, Gibb read about babies in China who needed homes, and he knew he and Laura had found their family. So they traveled to Nanjing and adopted a beautiful baby girl who was found in a box by the Yangtze River, on the grounds of a crowded orphanage. That’s how Asia joined Gibb and Laura’s life, and that’s when life got complicated indeed. While Gibb and Laura still learned the ins and outs of earaches and colic (and the sheer magic of being new parents), Laura’s mother died, and her father gave in to his infirmities. Unable to live alone, Frank had nowhere to go but into Laura and Gibb’s guest house, on the far side of the pool. And it was on the pool deck, between his new little home and theirs, that Frank would while away the hours, day and night, reading sports magazines, drinking coffee, and inhaling Marlboros, despite glares and pleas from his daughter and son-in-law to at least consider his grandchild’s lungs, even if he’d written off his own. (As a concession he switched to Marlboro Lights.)
Frank’s coughing jags could wake the dead, and—as their neighborhood was rumored to be built atop ancient Calusa burial mounds—Gibb feared he might stumble upon a ghostly pow-wow some night, with Frank and the Indians enshrouded in smoke, as he slipped out for a moonlit dip.
Frank’s coughing spells had another unintended effect. They alerted all within sniffing distance that Frank had become incontinent too, so now when Gibb emptied the trash, he disposed of an extra load of diapers. Perhaps worst of all, the phlegmy racket from the pool deck drifted up and into Gibb and Laura’s bedroom, and often formed the background sound to their Sunday afternoon lovemaking. At first they giggled, but eventually Gibb threatened to drown the old man. But instead, he bought earplugs for two.
Then What Keats Would Do found its publisher, and their lives changed again, in ways they would not have imagined those first heady years of their intoxication with each other.