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Prints in the Sand
I thought I knew this woman.
She’s only been my wife over the past 14 years.
We share so much. So many of our goals in life are aligned. Neither of us wants kids, so I got the Big V as an anniversary gift to her, and she really seemed to love that sacrifice.
She agreed to my trip proposal with gusto, hopping on the phone almost as soon as the suggestion rolled out of my face. A chance to go to the Holy Land and walk where Jesus trod? Beth was overjoyed.
There was the spontaneous hug and smooch and… God she felt so wonderful in my arms, and I suddenly realized that she’d not been in my arms in… ages?
How can that be?
But as my mind both embraced and basked in her; the fresh, floral scent of her lustrous, raven hair; the way she seemed to just mold her body right into mine that was so perfect; I was also a bit stunned and surprised at the realization of how distant we’d become as days became weeks and so on.
We so needed this trip.
We needed to step away from our day-to-day. We needed to re-connect. We’d grown into comfy roommates, and that was depressing as hell.
The rest of that day passed with Beth in a flurry of activity; putting together packing lists, posting a TO DO on the big, white grease board that we mounted on the wall beside the door to the house. The grease board was her idea, and it was a doozy!
With her hectic schedule and mine, sometimes we’d only catch ten minutes or so together per day, and weeks blew by with so little contact. But there was the big, white grease board, and it was there I’d stop every morning, bleary-eyed from too many legal briefs and too many late night scotches (neat please) with prospective clients to see some little thing she’d written or drew or both, and that stuff made my day.
But then the little messages became terser as time sped by. From stuff like “Keep me in your shirt-pocket so I’m close to your heart!” to “Don’t forget the grocery store this evening.”
I should have seen the shit coming. But that’s the thing about being comfortable; about being happy and complacent. Shit slips by. And then when you finally wake up and smell the coffee, an ass-bomb is about to go off in your life, leaving you to say…
Time crept by — because that’s what time does when there’s anticipation in the air, and we began to step up our game a bit as a married couple. Anxiously waiting for the upcoming trip. We took in a couple dinners together; we texted each other more during the day.
There were more smiley faces on the grease board.
Two weeks before the trip; on a sparkling autumn Saturday afternoon. “Jeff? I need to talk.”
That got my attention. I popped the tops on a couple of Iron City beers and perched on a barstool, facing her over the kitchen island. I pushed an open beer toward her.
She glanced at it, and that was all. “What’s up, Bethy?”
Beth and Jeff. Funny how sometimes the names rhyme and makes everything seem a-ok.
As if having names that rhyme would make for a strong marriage.
She placed both palms against her cheeks; pulled them to the countertop and took a deep breath. “I can’t do this.”
A bolt of concern jolted me. “Can’t do what?”
“Baby…” and she laid her delicate little hand on my thick forearm; I heard and felt the sob that wracked her, and that little bolt of concern bloomed. I placed my other hand over hers. “Talk to me, honey. What’s wrong? Whatever it is, we’ll work through it. Together.”
“There’s someone else.”
“Wha…” Someone just punched me in the gut, sucked all the air out of my lungs, and laid a cast-iron skillet upside my head. I uncovered her hand and removed it from my forearm.
I just stared at her, as in, ‘who the hell is this person?’ A torrent of powerful emotions all ripped through me at once, yet all I could do at that time was stare at her.
“Jeff? Say something…”
What to say? For once, I honestly had no idea of what would come out of my mouth, but if I were a gambling man, I’d lay odds on it being harsh.
“The tickets are non-refundable.”
As those words echoed in my brain, they just… felt right. That sentence spun back and forth, and with each passing beat of my heart, my determination to see this through grew. Then, “We’re doing the trip, Beth. Period.”
The conversation — such as it was, was over, as I was on my feet before I knew I was on my feet, and I snatched that beer off the counter and tromped my way to the basement and my hidey-hole; my safe space. Beth called it my personal porn central and we laughed about it because of course, it was so not true. I know what that shit does to a person’s brain.
I heard her as she called after me on that stunningly beautiful fall afternoon, with the air crisp and a hint of the coming winter, and I ignored her. I had to process this development, and I had to do it without her in my grill.
I threw the door open to my cedar-lined space, then shut it, angrily twisting the lock in place; I stabbed a button on the remote control and the flat-screen blared to life in the face of my indifference. I plopped on the couch and wetly slurped the beer. Some dribbled down my shirt, and I told myself that I’d do my own fucking laundry, thank you very much, so I’ll slurp whatever the hell I want all over myself.
And there was Tom Selleck cruising around Hawaii in a sweet, red Lambo, but I was nothing but numb. Fuck his Lambo, fuck Hawaii and fuck Bethany.
I was amazed to see that my beer was empty. But never fear, the mini-fridge was stocked! I leaned over and popped the door and nope.
Now I had to make a decision. Do I go back upstairs to snag another six-pack and face her, or can I get by with that sweet looking bottle of Johnny Walker Blue?
I dropped back to the couch and let the tears erupt.
The flight to Tel Aviv would have been bad enough had we been talking. But we weren’t; we were barely civil toward each other.
She almost bailed on the trip, but I explained two very salient considerations to her:
- If she bailed on the trip, I would take it out of her butt in any divorce settlement, and it would not be cheap.
2. Maybe this trip is what we need to save our marriage.
She laughed derisively at that last one, but said the Holy Land might be “cool,” and she’d never been, so there ya go.
We occupied a row of three seats, but the middle seat was empty, and that’s how we left it. The empty seat was a chasm between us, and while my heart ached and yearned to span it, I didn’t.
She caught me glancing at her askance. “What, Jeff?”
“Did you break it off with… him?”
She pushed her hand through her thick, black hair, resting locks of it behind her ear, which was adorned with the little diamond crosses I bought her years ago. “What’s it to you?”
A spike of anger flared. I pushed it down and clenched my teeth; sometimes this woman could be so frustrating! “If we’re gonna make this work, it’s gotta be over. You know that, right?”
She bowed her head, then brushed her eye quickly and turned to me. Her deep, rich brown eyes were liquid. “First, what makes you think it’s a him?”
“And second, I broke it off right after I told you.”
I wanted to fold her in my arms and absorb her pain.
And I wanted to punch her right in the face too. How could she fucking do this to me?
Instead I nodded, and not knowing what to say or what to ask, I let it go. Beth, however, was not done. “Happy now?”
I turned away and stared out the window of the plane without actually seeing anything. That numbness was coming back with a vengeance. I wanted scotch or something so that I could…
Tel Aviv is old. Rich, vibrant; thronging crowds; millions of colorful voices calling out in a crazy-yet-oddly-melodic tongue that neither of us understood; we managed to make our way through customs and to our hotel without incident and without really talking to each other.
I grabbed her bag, as any chivalrous hubby would do, but she yanked it out of my grasp and stalked off, leaving me to shrug at the dozens of nodding and smiling people who witnessed the little incident, and I felt both embarrassed and humiliated.
I’d booked us a suite at The Jaffa, the single best hotel on Tel Aviv Beach. It was a divided suite, so Bethany went her way and I went mine, and we passed our first night in Israel essentially alone. Definitely not what I’d planned at all.
We did not break bread together; we did not share in our habit of sipping wine together at every new place we traveled to over the years.
And damnit, I missed her.
Instead of us coming closer, it seemed like this trip was splitting us even more. Maybe she resented me for having to break off the… what? Fling?
I don’t recall sleeping that night.
The next morning saw her and me standing together in the hotel lobby, waiting for our ‘Custom Tour,’ and even though I was supremely aware of the yawning gulf between us, I was almost hopping with anticipation over this tour. This was the bomb.
A white, twelve-passenger shuttle pulled up before the front doors of The Jaffa and a swarthy, liveried man stepped from the vehicle holding a white sign with my last name scrawled across it; this was our Guy. Our Dude. The bearer of Mysterious Secrets of this land that seemed older than time itself.
We both stepped to the shuttle and shivered at the blast of air-conditioning that enveloped us as the doors swooshed shut, and our guide set off at an absurd, breakneck pace.
His eyes were quite busy, but he and I connected glances in his rear-view, spurring him to chatter. “Good to see you Boss. I am David.”
“Hello, David, and thank you for this.”
“How are you enjoying our land?”
Beth seemed to radiate her own brand of frost. “It’s nice.”
“Is good, Lady. There is much to see, much to try. You must sample our food. It is wondrous.” The shuttle careened across a chaotic intersection littered with a wild variety of vehicles and people.
“I just want to see the places where Jesus walked.”
David glanced in his rear-view again. Furtive, busy. “You will like this tour, Lady. It is a Custom Tour!”
Beth was silent, turning away to stare out her window. “How long to get to the first place?”
“It will be about an hour, Boss. It is about 85 kilometers.”
David drove us to the desert.
The freaking desert! As if there wasn’t enough desert like everywhere, this Custom Tour consisted of a freaking desert.
The three of us stepped from the shuttle with David coming around the front of the shuttle to greet us. He turned to face the arid expanse with arms opened wide. “Here it is!”
Beth and I had our shades on against the baking sun; its heat pummeled us as soon as we stepped out of the vehicle. How is it possible that the sun seemed closer here than anywhere else on earth?
Beth took the words right out of my mouth. “Here what is?”
David pointed at the lone mountainous crag poking up from the desert floor. “Here!”
I glanced at Beth; with her shades on, there was no way to read her. She’d make a hell of a poker player. I faced David, who was beaming from ear to ear. I took a deep breath to rein in my temper. “David?”
He started off the dusty road toward the crag, shouting “Come!” over his shoulder. Beth shrugged and set off after him, and so I followed along like a doggy on a leash.
Every step we took kicked up little puffs of dust and I wondered just how in the hell anyone could possibly breathe around here without N95 masks, but then an image of a slew of crazed and shouting mounted Bedouins waving Kalishnikovs popped up in my head, and they were all wearing some kind of face covering. Well, there ya go.
Beth was annoyed. Her back was ramrod straight and her shoulders were thrust back, as if she were challenging the desert itself. Like, ‘C’mon, Latrine-ditch of the world! I dare you to try to beat me!’
This was not going well at all; her attitude was leaving much to be desired.
The walk across the terrain took forever, but later-than-sooner, David came to a halt before the looming pile of rock. I felt a little… tingly; the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. “David, what is this place?”
“This is your Custom Tour, Boss. This is Megiddo!”
He said that like we were supposed to know what it meant. Newsflash: I didn’t. I glanced at Beth who was posing as a statue, and the Biblical story of Lot and his betrothed flashed in my head.
David pointed at the base of the pile of rocks. There was a small chunk of darkness. An entrance maybe? “That is where we are going, Boss and Lady. Come.”
Beth glanced at me; she yanked her shades off. “Jeff? What the hell is this?”
“You heard the man. It’s Megiddo.” As if that statement should settle any further discussion. It didn’t.
“Humor me a second, Jeff. Have you heard the word ‘Armageddon’?”
“Of course. A battle, right? Wait, give me a sec—”
”Yeah it’s a battle site. It’s The Battle site. As in, the Book of Revelations.”
“It’s where good and evil wage the final war.”
She pushed past me, leaving me to wonder what subtle nuance I missed.
David stopped at the dark entrance; it was in stark contrast to the blinding, searing light of the sun. It promised cool, soothing comfort. David handed us each a small flashlight and he stepped inside, bidding us to do the same. Beth hesitated. I stepped up beside her. “Whatcha waiting for?”
“I don’t like this, Jeff. I don’t like this at all.”
I snagged her hand and pulled her along with me. “C’mon. I’ll take care of you.” And I completely believed that I’d be more than capable of handling whatever dangers might be lurking.
We stepped into the cool, enveloping darkness, feeling the temperature plunge by a good twenty degrees, and I felt Beth shiver as she let herself be pulled along. I thumbed my little flashlight, while several meters ahead David’s beam cavorted in the gloom. “David?”
“Come, Boss. Only a few meters…”
We had stepped into another world. The searing, incandescent light of the sun looked so far away, and there was an odd silence with a sonorous backdrop of susurration. The swishing of sand on sand.
Then, several things happened at once:
Beth and I heard laughter. Sounded like it was David, but it was everywhere; all around us.
Our lights began stuttering, almost strobe-like.
I leaned against the side of the passage through the cave, expecting solid rock, not the soft give of sand. How was that possible? Vertical sand?
Beth screamed behind me; her hand suddenly and forcefully ripped from my grasp, and as I fixed my stuttering beam on her I was privy to my own personal horror show.
A shower of what looked to be black sand poured straight down over her head, engulfing her, and she screamed in agony. “They’re BITING ME!”
And then an oily, pervasive voice blared in my mind, and I imagined that if the vilest cancer ever could speak, this is what it would sound like. “SHE’S MINE, FOOL!” and then that laughter; mocking, trumpeting… crippling. Battering my every sense, my every thought, and I was dimly aware of falling to my knees, overwhelmed by despair. I was beaten, but by what?
Didn’t matter. Beth was gone and I just wanted all of it to end.
Her name exploded, going supernova in my mind. Was she still alive? I had to…
The laughter thundered again, threatening to subsume me. But my Beth. Where was my Beth? I had to find her, and I crawled to where I thought I’d last seen her, the image of her utter terror scorched in my head. I had to find her, I…
And with that thought came an eruption of white-hot flame within that I could not contain, and it powered me to battle through the lethargy, the ennui, and plunge my suddenly-burning hand into the pile of hungry, carnivorous sand as the whimpers of her horrific suffering touched my soul. And suddenly I was furious.
A towering pillar of blazing, righteous fury, I pulled my hand back, watching the toothy sand fry to ashes and fall from my arm, and I plunged back in again and found her grasping fingers, and we connected. The power that flowed through me flowed into her, and I pulled, climbing to my feet and using every erg of power I could muster to rip my Beth free of the filth, and she was suddenly in my arms, folded into my body, shaking, wracked with turbulent sobs.
The love I have for my Bethany flowed from me in healing waves, and gradually her heaves abated, and we held onto each other in the pitch black.
The laughter was gone. A ray of sunlight struck our heads and shoulders and we both looked up. The ceiling of the sandy crag was collapsing in piles of fluttering ash all around us. Motion caught my eye and I turned to see the very walls of the cave doing the same. Ere long, it was done and we were exposed to the seething, comforting sun, surrounded by piles of ash being lifted on the desert winds.
I whispered something or the other to my girl and pulled her back toward the shuttle.
We’re inseparable now.
There have been so many times she has apologized to me for her infidelity, but I had forgiven her ages ago. It occurs to me that maybe that happened before our trip.
As odd as it seems, I struggle to remember the details of what happened, which is why I’m writing them down now, lest I forget completely, which would suck.
And on a summer night, as we lounge in our respective rockers on our deck, sipping a cold chardonnay beneath a canopy of stars and moths engaged in their chaotic flight, she’ll look at me with meaning and say, “Remember?”
And I nod and reach for her hand, knowing with every fiber of my being that Love Conquers All.
But what I do not share with my Bethy is this:
That there were three of us who went into that cave, so there should have been three sets of boot prints in the dirt leading up to that entrance.
There were only two sets of boot prints.
The other set of prints?
They were hoofprints. Cloven hoofprints.
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