As part of our ongoing celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth year in print, this month’s Dog-Eared Page is a short story previously published in The Sun.
Shortly after I started working at The Sun, a friend asked me what kind of work we publish. He and I both love speculative fiction, from traditional sci-fi and fantasy to anything that departs from reality as we know it. I told my friend The Sun doesn’t typically print genre work and tends to favor literary writing. My friend reminded me emphatically that separating writing into “genre” and “literary” presents a false dichotomy. I don’t really know why I’d suggested otherwise. My personal canon has always been rich with genre fiction and traditional classics alike.
Work published in The Sun is hard to categorize. A wide range of anthologies have recognized our contributors. There are the usual suspects: the Pushcart Prize and the Best American anthologies of essays, short stories, and poetry. But then there are the more specific Best American series for spiritual writing, science and nature writing, nonrequired reading, and even Best American Sports Writing, which acknowledged four Sun essays before that series ended. My favorite has always been our inclusion in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, thanks to Debbie Urbanski, whose story “When They Came to Us” was printed in the 2017 edition, along with a Notable mention of the story featured here, “The Portal.”
Urbanski uses genre tropes, but you don’t need to be fluent in them to appreciate her stories. “The Portal,” published in March 2016, may seem fantastical, with its gateway to another world full of magic, but its characters live and love, struggle and strive, in deeply human ways. They seek to know themselves and their world with the same voracity for the truth that you’ll find in anything else The Sun publishes.
As the narrator of “The Portal” acknowledges, effective portal stories tend to offer an escape leavened with a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moral. Urbanski subverts the genre’s expectations by having the visit to a portal world end abruptly. Most of the story’s tension rests in the aftermath, when Amber, the traveling character, must contend with a life that feels increasingly ill-fitting. Another subversion: it isn’t even the narrator who ventures through the portal. Instead the narrator explores her marriage and her identity.
At its best, speculative fiction disarms me and presents a world where I can escape the preconceived notions that so often get in the way of empathy. It helps me meet an idea on its own terms. Without Amber’s fantastical narrative, I might have been less attuned to the complex relationships in the story. With it, I came away even more moved by the choices these characters make.
Like her narrator, Urbanski is asexual, and this story was the first time she featured an explicitly asexual character in her writing. We are working to make The Sun a more inclusive magazine, and I am heartened that Urbanski felt it was a place she could share this story, and that our readers might see something of themselves in it. Some who sent us letters recognized in the story’s relationship dynamics a troubling pattern from their own lives. Others were drawn to its familiar yearning for a place just out of reach.
We have continued to publish Urbanski’s distinctive blend of fantasy and reality with stories about close encounters, climate catastrophe, and children coming of age. Other writers, too many to list here, also have found a place for their science fiction and fantasy in The Sun in recent years. I learn something about myself, and about my world on this side of the portal, every time I read them.
— David Mahaffey, Associate Editor
The second portal to Mere had been two feet high and three feet across. Amber knew this because later she returned to that exact spot beside the woods and measured where the portal had been using her wooden school ruler. She did not know the size of the first portal because she had been much younger then — just six; she was seventeen now — and so she had overlooked many important details. In the back of her notebook she recorded the second portal’s measurements, and beside those numbers she drew a crude sketch of the surrounding landscape, indicating the portal’s precise former location: low to the ground and in the shade, as if it hadn’t wanted to be noticed or had no need to be. It hadn’t appeared in the center of the woods, where the canopies of branches crowded closest together and there was a tinge of darkness even at noon, but at the spot where the trees ended and the athletic field began. When she turned, Amber could see the soccer nets set up for the afternoon game and, farther down the field, a pair of frisbees rising into the air. What had even drawn her to this spot? A glimmer like a piece of lost jewelry in the dead leaves. But the real source of the glimmer had been the light from that other place, Mere: a glimpse of its foreign sky. There had been no omens to suggest that, by going through the portal a second time, Amber would ruin the rest of her life: no bats circling the entrance nor enormous crows cawing ominously from nearby branches. Even if there had been bats and crows, I believe Amber would have gone anyway.
The portal resembled a sheer curtain. To pass through it, she had to get down on her hands and knees. It was like crawling through a sheet of tepid water. On the other side the portal was high up in the limbs of a large and peculiar tree, and Amber fell upon arrival, landing in a pile of swollen fruit that the branches had dropped. Because this was her second time, and she was older, she intended to pay closer attention. Her first time through she had acted as if a portal to another world were a commonplace occurrence. All she had done was run barefoot once around the tree, ignoring the dirt path that led down the hill to the village. Then, as if expecting the portal to remain open indefinitely, she’d leapt back through and gone home. The following day she’d returned to the woods, a knapsack on her back, only to find nothing there, the portal having moved on, portals to other worlds being notoriously transient things. She’d spent the rest of that summer in tears.
This time Amber did not make the same mistake.
Above her in the tree, the second portal appeared to breathe, its borders pulsing in and out. Looking back through it, she recognized where she’d come from: the slight dimness of the woods and, beyond that, the hill where her classmates raced toward the parking lot. The kinds of images a person might toss into a drawer and forget.
She felt something like wings brush her shoulders.
Then Zef put his hand on her arm, and she turned around.
This place where Amber went is meant to be another world, in case this is still unclear to you. I do realize that, as an author, I’m not supposed to let my other worlds become utopias. At least, that was one successful writer’s advice to me when I told him I was working on this story. He explained that when portal worlds are utopias, it’s like a flashing neon sign that says: LAZY WRITING. If we want such fantastic places to be believable (and who doesn’t want their writing to be believed?), they have to possess a substantial dark side.
“But what if I don’t want Mere to have a dark side?” I asked. “What if I’m trying to create a really pleasant world that might haunt someone for as long as they could remember it?”
“Then I guess you’re an amateur,” the successful writer said.
“It was like you fell out of the sky,” Zef told Amber about her second arrival. Though it wasn’t the sky; it was the tree from which Amber had tumbled, twisting her ankle. Zef helped her up and led her to the village with a long-limbed stride, slowing his pace when she lagged behind and letting her lean on his arm when she needed.
The trail paralleled a dry creek studded with rose-colored boulders. On some of the boulders grew a layer of a pillowy moss that looked soft enough to sleep on. Now and again an animal peeked from the shadow under a rock, though it was hard to see much: An eye. A scale.
“What’s that?” Amber asked when the animals made a whistling sound in their throats, like a warning.
“Nothing,” Zef said dismissively, his tone an indication she should stop asking questions.
When they arrived at the village, Amber still limping, none of the men squatting in the shade beside the meeting house looked up. That morning there were only men present. Most of the women were down by the spring, washing, and would return later in the day. Zef entered the first house they came to — really more of a hut, with a dirt floor and a fire pit — and Amber met the family that was waiting for her: an old man with a tangled beard, a woman who cried, and a younger woman who talked to Amber teasingly, as if they had known each other forever. They had set a place for her at their modest table, and come evening her new mother taught her the village dances in the clearing beyond the row of cabins. Someone built a fire, and others played instruments — a type of stringed gourd and a drum — while spectators stomped, and everybody sang high and penetrating notes.
It was while she practiced dancing that Amber first noticed Zef watching her.
There was magic in Mere but not as much as you might expect from a portal world. Such places are usually knee-deep in talking animals and spell books, but Mere’s inhabitants received at birth a set amount of magic that had to last them their entire lives. “Which is why I let you fall,” Zef explained. “I could have stopped you from falling, but that would have used up a lot of magic, and I don’t know how much I have left.”
Amber now had such magic in her, too. It felt like a warm pressure rising in her chest, as if something large had been placed there and was trying to work its way out.
Zef made it clear that once your magic was gone, you had to go away from the village, but Amber was headstrong and foolish, and she did not bother to conserve. She dressed in the robes they all wore, cut from a coarse, sand-colored cloth, but Amber still stood out because she wasted her magic, using it to make Zef spin in wild circles. “Stop it,” he cried, laughing. When they walked through the barren fields, she made clumps of dirt rise from the ground and flutter around them like rust-colored birds.
By this point you might have some practical questions about Mere: Just how large is this world exactly? Does it have an end or a border? And what is on the other side of that border? I’ll be honest; I still have no idea how big Mere is. Its inhabitants showed a definite lack of interest in geography. The only existing map, crude and incomplete, detailed a mountain range to the north, but beyond that, who knew? No one wished to travel that far. As for politics, economics, and history, the people of Mere didn’t care for those either. Such matters did not touch Amber’s life. Sometimes she closed her eyes for a long time — it could have been hours or days, time in Mere having a different nature — and had the sensation that she was being carried. That this world, or something, was holding her.
Once, she annoyed Zef by asking too many times about the end of a person’s magic.
“You always want to talk about endings,” Zef complained.
She pressed on anyway: Where were the people who had used all their magic sent? What if they didn’t want to go away?
“There’s no reason to speak of it,” he said.
“What would I have to look like for you to want me?” my husband asks. “What if I looked like a bird? You like birds. You’re always watching them at the feeder.”
My husband is persistent with his questions. He asks, “What if there were a pill that would make you want me. Would you be willing to take it?”
I have told my husband that he can leave me, but he doesn’t believe in divorce. Fine, an open marriage, then, I suggest.
“What’s happened to you?” he asks.
These days all we do is ask questions the other person can’t answer.
He asks, “Why couldn’t you keep pretending?”
He asks, “What if you’re only pretending not to want me now?”
We have known each other more than half our lives — unless, that is, we are only pretending to know each other.
He asks, “Do you still like kissing me?”
Later, over tea, my husband returns to this concept of a pill. He’s become obsessed with the idea of a single miraculous cure that could heal our problems, as if we were characters in a fantasy story. Or would it be science fiction? I suppose it depends on how the pill is made. To complicate matters, we have two young children. My husband likes to remind me that the children of divorced parents have a higher incidence of drug abuse and often perform poorly in school.
During our compromised moments in bed — when we are not having sex but doing something else, the particulars of which I don’t want to describe right now — I have begun to wonder: What if a doorway opened up, a portal to take me out of this life? What if I were a character in a story in which that happened? Would I get up from the bed, leaving my naked husband and my children behind, and enter that other world? This is what I think about when my husband has made me remove my clothes and has taken my legs and wrapped them around his waist. Often I like the story better than I do my life. I guess that is why I’m a writer. My husband leans down and licks my neck, his tongue moving toward my ear. To be honest, it feels like a dog is licking me, and I don’t like dogs, but I would never tell him this.
When we first met in college, I saw my life as a stage upon which I tried to act like the other people I knew. It took me a long time to understand how to do it correctly. Right now I am in the process of ruining certain lives — in particular, my husband’s and my own.
“What you’re saying is this pill would make me a different person,” I tell my husband. “So you want to know if I’ll become a different person for you?” It seems a fair question.
In college my husband was a sweet, often drunk kid who liked bands incapable of melody. He also liked frequent sex. We had sex after dinner every night if he wanted to, and again in the morning if I slept at his apartment. I’ve spent more time looking at his face than I have looking at my own.
“Why don’t you go ahead and cut my penis off with a knife?” he said recently in one of his darker moods. I told him maybe that would help our situation. I was joking, of course, but he didn’t find it funny. Honestly, neither did I. My refusal to have sex must be difficult to understand if you belong, as my husband does, to the 99 percent of the population for whom intercourse is a necessity, or at least a strong urge. There is a chance my husband may never have sex again because of me. I don’t want to ruin anybody’s life, especially not his.
My husband asks, “Why couldn’t you have figured this out before we had children?”
We are at a crossroads, the kind every couple approaches now and then. I picture some bucolic countryside where the well-graded paths branch out in numerous directions, and there are grazing cows and helpful signposts. My husband and I are standing there, and I am making it clear to him, through my body language and hand gestures, that he is free to go in any direction he chooses. It’s not like I have a leash attached to his collar. It’s not like I make him wear a collar. He can select any one of these paths. He can take me with him or not. If he does not take me with him, there are several appealing paths I can choose on my own. I don’t know where our children are in this picture. Will there be child-sized paths for them, leading to water parks? Or must we cut our children in half and each keep a part? In any case, I tell him to ignore the trails that lead to the cliffs and look instead at all the other paths rambling downhill to welcoming villages, fulfilling futures.
My husband asks, “Did you know before we had children, but you didn’t tell me, because you didn’t want to be alone?”
He acted like it was a turn-on at first. I remind him of this now — how, after I told him who I had become, he said, “Oh, my little asexual,” and pushed his pelvis against mine as we stood beside the dirty stove in the kitchen, as if not understanding the definition of the word. It was only after a few weeks that he grew frightened and withdrawn. Then came the period in which he wanted to discuss my “condition” whenever the kids were in bed and we were alone.
“Can we please talk about something else?” I asked.
He did not want to talk about something else. He wanted to know what he was supposed to do with me after a romantic dinner. “We come home and then . . . what? You go upstairs and read?”
“I like reading,” I told him.
“You like reading more than sex?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Still, one’s needs must be met — or, at least, my husband’s needs must be. “I will go crazy if we don’t do anything in bed,” he confessed, dragging me through many embarrassing conversations about what I was or was not willing to do in my new identity. Somehow we stumbled upon certain accommodations, which I guess are what prevent him from going crazy. For my husband it remains an act of love, what he’s doing to me once a week while I think, This is what it must feel like to be molested.
“Look at me,” my husband demands. He likes me to at least look at him, but if he would allow me to turn my head to the bedroom wall, I might see the hopeful suggestion of a light from some faraway place. I am aware of the problems with such a plot: that the laws of physics say we can’t step through some imagined doorway into another world; that there probably are no other worlds. But for the moment please put aside your need for realism and let me believe in this.
At first Amber found the landscape of Mere to be desolate: rocks, the occasional scraggly tree, a pond. But if you become happy in a place, as she did, it will become beautiful to you. And she grew to love the land surrounding the village, despite its severity and barrenness.
There must have been fertile spots in that world, though Amber did not see them. The food — roots, grains, sometimes beans — arrived at the village weekly, delivered on a cart by a woman who did not speak a word. New robes, when someone required them, were left outside the person’s door during the night. What else was there? In the lazy afternoons Amber lay on the bare ridges behind her home, arms spread out against the ground, and stared up at the stars, which were visible day and night. She wondered: Is my old life circling one of those stars? But she didn’t really care. The only time she ventured from the village was for a quest.
Here is how the quests worked: The village matron chose who among them must go. The chosen ones donned traveling cloaks, mounted their horses, and rode into the northern mountains. They rode high enough to reach the caves, from which they snatched the silver cup, or the bronze cup engraved with the sun, or whatever cup the matron wanted that time. The precious items were always cups, and they were always taken from the lair of a monster who was never there. Upon their return to the village, the travelers tossed the cup unceremoniously into the corner of the matron’s cabin, to be pulled out only for use at celebrations. But the cups were so enormous that whoever drank from them couldn’t help but look foolish, and so no one wanted to drink from them.
What I’m trying to say is that life in Mere wasn’t like it is in certain fantasy worlds, where such quests would be the whole point of one’s existence.
Sometimes it seemed the purpose of Amber’s life was to sit with her back against the tree and Zef’s head in her lap while she coaxed the pebbles around them to hum. As she stroked his hair, Zef changed into a being whose entire body was covered in eyes, most of them closed. A narrow vein pulsed across each eyelid. “Am I scaring you?” Zef asked. Every eye opened to look at her.
Eventually Amber did return to our world, because of an accident, a tragedy: whatever you want to call it. She hadn’t planned ever to come back, and upon her homecoming she fell apart and proceeded to spend years of her young-adult life crawling around the forest floor, crushing beetles out of frustration, not understanding that there were rules about how many times a portal could appear to someone: only twice. (Not everybody knows this.) Her mother finally convinced Amber to enroll at the local university, where she would discover anonymity and post-structuralism and a young man behind the library’s reference desk who never took his knit hat off, as if he were hiding something under it. When he smiled at her, Amber made herself smile back.
On their second date she asked this young man, whose name was David, “What do you see when you look at me?” She imagined opening herself up for him, lifting each flap, as she once had for Zef.
“You’re really, really sexy,” David said, tilting his head and squinting at her, as if he were looking directly into a bare light bulb. Unlike Amber, he wasn’t a student. He worked at the library and owned a house in need of paint in a decent part of town.
On their third date Amber asked him to take his hat off, and it turned out he was hiding nothing. His hair was brown and ordinary.
What would he have done if he had known that she held the memory of another world inside her, one where he could never go?
Soon Amber learned how to kiss David as if she wanted to be kissing him. It is not a waste to know how to do this. Pretending can be a bridge to feeling a certain way about people in your life. At least, that was once someone’s advice to me.
On their eighth date Amber told David about Mere. “Some people believe in God,” she said. “I believe in this place.”
David tried to play along at first. “Tell me more about this planet where you think you went,” he would say: Was the food tasty there? Who ruled over the land? How did they make babies? What was considered bad there? Did Amber ever do any of these bad things? David asked such questions while they lay naked in bed, her head upon his shoulder. Depending on which details she told him, he sometimes became aroused. “Tell me again about that creature,” he said. “That Zef.” He suggested they act out certain scenes. It was fun for a while.
Within a year they eloped to Barbados, where David wanted to visit as many of the island’s beaches as they could. It turned out every beach looked identical, like a postcard picture of a beach. Upon their return he insisted on carrying Amber across the threshold into their bedroom. A box was waiting for her on her pillow. “You shouldn’t have,” she said. The box was white and cheap and not large. Amber opened it expecting the kind of lingerie David liked, sheer with black ruffles, but it was empty.
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“It means that now is the time to put away our childish things,” he replied. “That’s what the box is for.” He’d grown tired of hearing stories about a place in which he would never have even a small part. “You can’t go on believing in that stuff forever,” he said. “There is a lot you can believe in, but not that.”
They buried the box that evening, after she had supposedly placed in it all she remembered about Mere, including when Zef had transformed into a being with wings, the tip of one rhythmically grazing her right shoulder. David made a point of pretending to put a lot of his own childish dreams in the box, too, ones that were clearly not going to come true. He said he was sorry, but he could not tell her what they were. He pretended to crumple up his nonspecific hopes and stuff them into the box. Afterward he opened a bottle of champagne, and they drank it on the deck overlooking the garden, where they had buried the box. “To our future,” David said, clinking his glass against hers. He had even made a tombstone out of cardboard: HERE LIE ALL THE UNNECESSARY PARTS OF AMBER + DAVID. R.I.P. The following morning Amber tiptoed down the stairs from the deck and tore apart the tombstone, then blamed it on the black squirrels.
“If you have to believe in something, why not believe in God?” David suggested.
Amber did not finish her degree.
They had a child together, a boy, Josh, who was pale and always hungry. When Josh was three and beginning to fill entire notebooks with the letter J, Amber wandered off into the woods north of town with the intent of either finding her way back to Mere or becoming permanently lost. The search party found her two days later, curled on the forest floor, naked. David took Amber’s attempted desertion personally — and it was, in fact, personal. The couple might have separated shortly after that had it not been for a tiny orange pill called Horiza, which Amber was prescribed to take once a day, preferably in the morning with a healthy, whole-grain breakfast.
From the moment Horiza received FDA approval, pharmacists could barely keep it in stock. The pill was intended to make a person want whatever was in front of him or her. The side effects — possible insomnia and weight gain — seemed a fair trade-off for an assurance of contentment. David’s brother was in pharmaceutical sales and could score samples of the drug even when the supply was tight. One day David brought home a bag of the samples and spread them across the kitchen counter, each pill individually wrapped in bright-orange packaging.
“All it does is make you happy,” David said. “That stuff in the past, that stuff you think you remember — it’s not going to matter anymore. You know what’s going to matter? I’m going to matter. Your family is going to matter.” To prove to her Horiza was harmless, he swallowed one of the pills, and for several hours afterward the creases between his eyebrows faded, and he touched her more frequently. In fact, he touched her too much.
At David’s insistence, Amber began taking a pill every morning. Sometimes it made her happy, as promised. Other times, particularly when that day’s dose was wearing off, she felt frightened, as if she were forgetting something important. What was it? She remembered only fragments — the tree, falling, Zef — and then her present life rose up, shimmying its enormous hips and blocking everything else from view.
They had another child, a girl, Mia.
My God, you might be asking at this point, shouldn’t they give up already and call it quits? But I think there are a lot of ways for two people to love each other. We might not even be able to identify all of them.
I ask my husband, if there were such a thing as a magic pill, why shouldn’t he be the one to take it? “Maybe the problem is you,” I say, which is probably unkind. We have begun to fast-forward the sex scenes in movies, because they create an insufferable tension between us, and I have to let go of my husband’s hand if I am holding it.
Actually we did watch one sex scene, in a movie that was unapologetically violent. I don’t remember the title, but the plot concerns a man who is tortured overseas and then comes home to his wife. All his wife wants to do is gently caress his scars. Instead he grabs her and throws her onto their bed and fucks her in a brutal way, after which he rolls off and falls asleep. The film wasn’t even halfway over when my husband stomped upstairs to bed. For the rest of the movie, the only way the man will have sex with his wife is to masturbate while looking at her naked body, during which time she has to lie completely still. The camera work during these scenes is artful, beginning with a wide-angle shot from the far side of the room, so the husband and wife appear happy for all you can see. Then the camera begins creeping in, and you realize what is really going on.
Because we need to try something, we agree to an open marriage for a month. My husband wastes no time. “I’m all set for Tuesday,” he announces. Tomorrow is Tuesday. His voice is forcefully neutral, as if he has set up an appointment with the dentist.
On Tuesday night he puts on a decidedly unfashionable T-shirt with LOST IN SPACE spelled out in bubble letters on the front. Before he walks out the door, he wetly kisses the bottom of my ear and tells me he loves me. I don’t know how one goes about setting up such appointments for sex, and I do not ask. I tuck the children into bed, kiss my daughter’s cheek, and blow my son a kiss, which he does not acknowledge, as he no longer tolerates kisses or hugs. Then I climb into bed myself, exhausted. I don’t know what time my husband returns because I am asleep, but he is there beside me the next morning. After he showers, which I insist upon so I can’t smell whoever she was, he wishes to talk about his escapades. I tell him no; those are his, only his.
After two weeks of this he believes he has fallen in love.
“But you pay her,” I point out.
Or is love as simple as finding someone who can pretend she wants to kiss you back? In which case I am out of luck.
He asks, “Are you OK with all this?” He does not sound OK with it himself.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I say, and he smashes his fist against the wall repeatedly until he wakes the children.
Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought to love multiple people at the same time.
The first time I wrote this story, I wasn’t a part of it all. The reader got to pretend the portal and Mere were real. My husband thinks that early draft was better.
“Amber, are you taking your pills?” David asked.
“Are you accusing me of not taking my pills?” she replied.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“Why would you accuse me of something like that?”
“Because of how you’re acting.”
“OK, tell me how I’m acting.”
“Like you want to step on us.” David gave an exaggerated frown and stomped clownishly around the room.
“I don’t want to step on you. I don’t want to step on anybody. That’s ridiculous. What if this is just who I am?”
“It’s not. I think I know who you are.”
The following morning, before entering the kitchen to toast half a loaf of wheat bread for her family’s breakfast, Amber flushed the orange pill down the toilet, just as she had done each morning for the previous three weeks. Josh ate his toast with butter; David, with butter and honey; Mia, with grape jelly, only this morning the globs of jelly on her toast made Mia cry.
“You liked toast with jelly yesterday,” Amber said.
“I do not like it at all,” Mia wailed.
Amber cooked her daughter a sunny-side-up egg. This, too, made Mia cry, because she could not bear to see the yolk.
“She’s hurting my ears, Mom,” Josh complained.
Amber made another egg, scrambled this time, and Mia gobbled it up. “That was delicious, Mommy,” she said, petting Amber’s leg. By then it was a quarter to eight, which meant everyone would be late. When Amber handed out the lunches, Mia pledged she would refuse to eat even one bite if there was a vegetable inside. (There was.) Instead of kissing Amber goodbye, David bit the edge of her ear, a technique he must have read about online. “I love you,” he whispered. Looking over David’s shoulder into the kitchen, Amber thought she saw a shadow move in the corner, a suggestion of an opening in the air itself.
Where are you?
There are many types of mothers in the world. One type of mother does not leave her family, no matter what. Another type does. Another type wants to leave but doesn’t; she only thinks about leaving. Another type of mother tries unsuccessfully to leave.
That time Amber walked into the woods when Josh was three, she had not brought a backpack or a jacket or a map or a bottle of water or a bag of almonds. She drove until she ran out of gas, and then she left her car in the middle of a logging road, keys in the ignition, door open, and began walking. Later David, unable to talk about it, would insist that none of this had happened, or that it had happened to another woman, perhaps a character in a novel.
At first it was easy to walk in the woods; then it became more difficult. Amber had intentionally worn impractical shoes: strappy gold sandals. Wherever the undergrowth in front of her was too thick, she changed directions. At this point Amber still thought, wrongly, that portals must appear when people really needed them. Black thorns left long scratches on her arms. Her shirt snagged on one and tore, so she took it off. She assumed the portal would be close to the ground, as it had been that second time, so that was where she looked, crouching to peer beneath bushes and running her hands under rock ledges. Come out, she pleaded. Please come out.
It wasn’t just Zef. Everybody in Mere could change their form, Amber included, though she learned this gradually, as changing one’s form in front of someone was considered an intimacy. How exactly it happened remained a mystery to her. All she knew was that when she and Zef were in a private place, such as beside the dry creek where the scrub grew, he changed into whatever she wanted him to be, though it was still his eyes looking out of whatever form he took. The sight of what she wanted sometimes surprised or even shocked Amber. How could anyone admit to themselves that they wanted this?
She did not always recognize the shapes she took either. She would glance down to see an animal form, or parts of her gone or hanging open. There was the time she became a furry creature, like an otter, while Zef remained who he was. (She looked back upon that particular memory with equal parts revulsion and longing.) Or the time Zef became Amber, and she remained herself. Such transformations required the use of one’s limited supply of magic, but Amber and Zef couldn’t help themselves. When she became a pool of water, Zef laughed, scooped her up, and took a sip.
No other world glimmered for her when she was in Mere. If she turned her head, she did not get the sense that there was a better life just out of reach.
Because people barely aged in that world, it was difficult to estimate the passing of years except by one’s dwindling magic, which was not discussed. There were not even seasons. There were only the days she spent with Zef in the village, and then the times when she and Zef went on a quest.
It was on their return from one such trip to the northern mountains, to obtain yet another cup (a pewter one this time), that Amber found herself beside a grove of trees — unusual, as this landscape didn’t accommodate such growth. There was something familiar about these woods, an underlying suggestion of meaning.
“I have a bad feeling about this place,” Zef said.
“You have a bad feeling about every place that’s not our village,” Amber laughed; in that world, everything she said came out as laughter. Zef grabbed her arm but was unable — or unwilling — to hold on to her.
She kept laughing as she ran off toward the trees. “Try and catch me,” she shouted over her shoulder. The moment she entered the shade, taking her first heavy step back into this world, part of her cloak got caught on the rough edge of the portal and ripped. She heard the fabric tear, but by the time she’d turned around to go back, it was too late. There was no portal behind her, only a clearing in the woods beside her high school, where the birds sang out of boredom.
Our couples therapist (my husband’s idea) believes my asexuality is a way for me to exert control over the relationship.
“I don’t think I’m making this up,” I tell her.
“My wife is a writer,” my husband says. “She makes things up for a living. In fact, she likes to write about other worlds.” He makes a funny motion with his hand that must signify other worlds to him.
Our therapist has made it clear that she does not wish to talk about our children, or our childhoods, or our open marriage. “Those are secondary issues here,” she says. The primary issue is fixing me. Her office is cramped, with browning ferns and dim lighting. She has placed boxes of tissues upon every available surface. “You are not unfixable,” she insists. It’s obvious which one of us she’s talking to.
It turns out there is a new pill on the market called Horiza that could be of use to us. This pill makes people want what is right in front of them. I admit to our therapist that I would prefer to stumble off into the woods and find a portal that would take me somewhere far away.
“A place your husband wouldn’t be?” our therapist asks.
“Not everything is about him,” I tell her.
“If what you’re doing is waiting for some new world to open up for you, then I have some bad news,” our therapist says. “That isn’t going to happen.” Most people, she reminds me, outgrow fantasies of other worlds by early adulthood.
I ask why my husband doesn’t take the pills; then he could want me the way I am. But I am outnumbered. The two of them agree that there is something broken about an adult who would be willing to abandon her young children for another world if she had the chance.
“I’m concerned for you,” says our therapist, offering me a fresh box of tissues. “I’m afraid you might harm yourself or others.” She lays out my options: I can abandon all that’s familiar to me, including my son and my daughter, and wander off in search of adventure, in which case I will only find out what everyone else already knows: that there are no portals, and this world is all we get.
Or I can take Horiza.
Even if I could find a portal, I realize, there is the chance I wouldn’t want the other world either. No matter what Zef transformed into — Fish! Woman! Lion! Unthinkables! — my body might remain unresponsive, in which case Zef would probably grow tired of me and ask me to please go away. This is a story that depresses me too much, so I am not going to tell it.
“Maybe you like being special,” our therapist suggests. “The reason Horiza scares you is that it would force you to be like everybody else.”
There is also the chance that I am making Horiza up, that I am confusing fiction with reality, though I hope I’m not, because that would leave me very few options.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” Amber said.
David forced a chuckle. The children were somewhere else — probably outside in the yard. “Where do you want to go?” he asked. “Wait, I have an idea. How about I take you to Indiana!”
This was an old and unfunny joke between them, as Indiana, an hour’s drive east, marked the nearest state border. They used to laugh about how everything would be different there.
They didn’t go to Indiana. Instead David suggested increasing her dosage.
“Is it such a terrible thing to want me?” he asked. “What would you be giving up if you wanted me?”
There are all sorts of ways to leave your family. Women apparently do it all the time. When I read about one, I add her name to a list I keep in the back of my notebook, and beside each name I write down how the woman left. You probably have not heard of most of these women: Tiffany Tehan or Stacey Hessler, for example. I don’t think they stopped loving their families. You don’t have to be present to keep loving somebody. You don’t even have to be alive; some mothers who leave sit in lukewarm bubble baths and slit their wrists. I have written down their names, too. Other women have walked off into the woods, some not even wearing clothing. None of them planned to turn around. I certainly didn’t. I wonder if we wouldn’t all have been better off becoming different people — or, at least, pretending to.
I say to my husband, “What if this isn’t my actual life? What if my real life is going on in some other place, and I’m not even there to see it?”
My husband tries to laugh.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” I say. The kids aren’t in the room with us. I don’t know where they are.
He says, “Where do you want to go? Indiana? I bet things will be really different there. Sure, we can all go to Indiana.” It is an old and unfunny joke between us.
We actually drove to Indiana once, passing by all the smoldering mills to reach the dunes on Lake Michigan. You’d think we would go more often, because it’s only an hour’s drive. The day was windy and overcast with low-hanging clouds. The children cried when the wind blew sand onto their sandwiches. They wanted to ride a jet ski, but there was nowhere to rent one, so they scurried up and down the dunes, ignoring the KEEP OFF signs. We were probably causing some type of irreversible erosion.
There are other ways to leave one’s life for a time. Several of these ways Amber and I both have tried. I will confess that some of them have been uncomfortable. Others have been pleasurable, or painful, or both. During such periods the two of us certainly went elsewhere. But not to Mere.
It was said that Horiza not only blocked old, impractical longings; it could permanently erase memories if the dosage was high enough. This time the dosage would be high enough.
Before she began to take the pills again, Amber went out into the yard after dinner and lay in the hammock with the intention of letting herself remember Mere for perhaps the last time. Mia and Josh were elsewhere in the yard. She could hear them yelping as they took turns throwing a stick.
Amber closed her eyes. The wind in her hair felt like a hand touching it. She remembered falling from the tree and Zef standing over her, gazing upon her as if he had known her all her life. The memory was so clear, it was as if she were there. Laughing, he picked her up and held her in his arms, which smelled like pond water and dirt. He held her roughly. It felt as if an animal were holding her, or as if she were an animal being held, but she was not afraid.
The part of the other world where they stood was full of afternoon sunlight and yellow trees. In the tree from which she’d fallen, a black bird shook its wings open and began to sing with warbling sorrow, as if it knew something they didn’t. Zef scared the bird off with a well-aimed rock.
“I don’t know why they have to sing like that,” he said.
Zef told Amber he had seen her that afternoon many years before, when she’d been six and had run around the tree only once, mistaking the world for empty. He had been waiting for her ever since. Practically every day he had walked to the tree to see if he could find her. And now here she was. (“Couldn’t you have come to get me?” she would later ask. He wouldn’t answer.) He took her hand and led her down the path to the village, and there her life began — or, rather, it continued on as if it always had been waiting for her.
Amber rose from the hammock and went inside. The next morning, with David anxiously watching, she took the larger pill.
David said, “You look happy. Are you happy? I think you’re happy.”
“What’s it like?” my husband asks.
We are in bed, my head resting upon his comforting shoulder, my hand rubbing his belly, which has grown hairier over the years. I began taking Horiza last week: one pill in the morning, one in the evening. Before Horiza I wrote every day at dawn, but now the half-finished stories I was working on seem foreign to me and somehow unnecessary. Perhaps I no longer have any use for them. In their beds our children are blissfully asleep, and our own bedroom is filled with a warm and attentive darkness.
I assume, when my husband asks what it’s like, that he wants to know how sex feels now. The sex feels like someone is pushing me underwater, albeit tenderly. But perhaps they will improve the medicine later so that it doesn’t feel like I’m drowning. I’ll bet I get used to being on the pills. So what if I’m not the person I actually am, whoever that is. At least I’m the person someone wants me to be.
“Give it time,” our therapist suggested. “A lifetime of habits cannot reverse themselves overnight.” She also said, “Consider this a triumph for your relationship. And have fun!”
I do not want to tell my husband about being forced underwater — that does not sound like “fun” — so I respond as if he is asking how it feels to be on Horiza in general. I say, “You know how it is when you wake up from a dream, and you can’t remember it, and you really wish you could?”
“Let’s talk about something real,” he says.
My husband has said he plans on ending his relationship with the other woman he loves. That way we will both sacrifice something. Petting my hair, he asks if I would like a cup of herbal tea or maybe a midnight snack.
It is not the worst thing in the world to be asked such a question. Yes, I am certain there are worse things in the world.
My husband wonders if there is some leftover roast beef in the fridge, and I tell him I believe there is. It’s our lucky day, then, he says, proposing a sandwich with aged cheddar and a slice of tomato. Such a sandwich sounds like exactly what I want, I tell him.
“You look happy,” he says, his fingers lingering on my neck. “Are you happy?”
He slips on his plaid flannel robe and doesn’t bother to tie the belt as he leaves the room. It’s winter. All night the snow has been falling heavily, just as the weatherman predicted. It’s probably lovely outside, fresh flakes piling up on the bare branches, blowing across the sidewalk, erasing the borders between the road and the driveway, the garden and the lawn. But I don’t feel like looking out the window. A car passes by our house. The parallel paths left by its tires will soon be covered as well. Neighbors have been complaining that this winter is never-ending.
“The Portal,” by Debbie Urbanski, first appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Sun. Copyright © 2016 by Debbie Urbanski. Reprinted by permission of the author.