Julie Jeanell Leung
My husband moves in the bed like a seal. I watch as he opens the sheets on his side, pulling away the blankets and dimming the lamp. When he slides towards me, I observe his eyes wide, his head round, his body tapered like a seal, now beside me, on this queen-sized ice floe that is ours behind a locked bedroom door in our home.
Ted does not often sleep beside me. Work takes him to Los Angeles and France, to Amsterdam and New York City. From our island home near Seattle, he rides bus, ferry, taxi, train, and plane to his destinations. This fall he arrived home for clean laundry and a dinner with his children on the weekends before leaving again for the airport.
Years ago, when we dated and dreamed together, walking barefoot in the sand along the Atlantic, I imagined a life different from this one, different from the one my mother lived, a home where a man and woman shared the cooking and washing and driving. For the first few years of our marriage, making our home in an apartment near the university campus while Ted finished graduate school, we took turns and planned each day which one of us would cook, which one of us would clean and which one of us would haul the laundry downstairs to the machines in the basement. But now in the kitchen, I eat bars of dark chocolate, breaking off pieces in sharp edges, bribing myself to wash the stacks of greasy dishes waiting in the sink. I browse websites and shop online, marveling at shiny wonders for sale on the screen, hoping deliveries of packages will distract me with glass vases and new books. After the children are asleep, I push a path through the obstacle course of laundry baskets, discarded clothes, backpacks and books left in awkward piles through the hallways. In the bathroom, I ignore the electricity bill and fill the tub to the top, wanting to become aquatic and immerse myself completely, praying hot water can release the aches in my head, neck and shoulders.
Some nights, I don’t sleep in our bed either. Closing my eyes to rest for a few minutes between chores, I can fall asleep on the living room sofa, like I watched my mother do, book or magazine on my face, waking only when sunshine brightens the blinds. I am weeding the yard in the November rain, slicing apples, calling electricians, driving teenagers through dark winter evenings, scrubbing pots and pans after midnight. He is on a canal in The Netherlands, touring Times Square, eating sushi in San Francisco. Who knows where he is. Who knows who he is. Or what he is.
My man is home tonight sliding in bed like a seal, his skin beside mine. Perhaps he is a selkie. My husband is a myth. He is magic. I will kiss him tonight and tomorrow when I wake he will be gone.
As a girl, I read books in bed, alone in the room my stepmother gave me in the house she shared with my father. On a shelf, I found the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, dusty volumes in thick red bindings with gold lettering, books from my stepmother’s childhood. My mother didn’t allow us to read or see violence beyond a G-rated Disney movie, but at my stepmother’s home I could read about Hansel and Gretel shoving the witch into the oven, and birds pecking out stepsister eyes in this Grimm version of Cinderella.
Mythical creatures enchanted me on the pages. Dragons and unicorns ran wild through magical forests. Princes turned into frogs and fish. Women transformed into birds and witches. Brothers became swans and then changed back to human brothers again. Later in life I would learn about selkies, seals that shed their skins to become humans at night. Reading my stepmother’s books during weekends at her house, I wished I could become another creature and disappear.
Stepfamilies and strange marriages appeared often in these fairy tales along with violence and horror. Cinderella’s stepsisters sliced pieces off of their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper, blood revealing their secrets. I didn’t know whether to be shocked or comforted by the violence, unhappiness, and suffering, so different from the Disney versions but the endings promised resolution and restoration, celebration and joy.
In the hall outside my room hung an enormous picture of my father and stepmother on their wedding day, a photo I tried to ignore whenever I walked past it. I didn’t like the frame with its dark, carved wood, and I didn’t like to see my father smiling for the camera beside his new bride. Angry over my parents’ divorce, I couldn’t believe in “living happily ever afterwards” yet I liked boys, writing their names in a secret code of pencil dots and lines in my diary so no one would know my crushes. I hoped boys would ask me out or talk to me, or just look at me once, despite my glasses, braces and chubby face. I didn’t plan to get married and I never imagined being a bride in an elaborate white dress, but somehow I still wanted to fall in love forever. As a girl at my stepmother’s house, I read these books filled with blood and magic, fire and transformation, knowing that fairy tales are fiction, yet hoping for my own happy ending, wishing for magic and amazement beyond what I had experienced and expected.
Selkies, people transforming into seals in daylight, I learned about later as an adult, a few years ago, from a writing teacher. That same summer also I started going to the nearby beaches early in the morning while my husband and children were still sleeping and the tides were low. Once as I stood on the shore of Rockaway Beach during sunrise, a round head emerged from the water. A harbor seal looked at me. I looked at the seal, staring into its dark eyes, until it disappeared into the sea again.
I could believe I am living a fairy tale. We have a home on an island described by real estate agents as “magical”, thick with mysterious forest, and surrounded by blue water, a mix of mountain rivers and Pacific Ocean, now named the Salish Sea. Ted and I have three healthy children. At the store, I can buy salmon, bok choy and mangoes, a feast compared to the toast and instant soup of my childhood. A photo of our wedding day wrapped in a silver frame stands on top of our dresser. I’m wearing a wreath of flowers in my hair and Ted is reaching to touch my face in the light of the church window. My husband still looks young, and his eyes still are wide with passion. If I stop to gaze at the photograph, I can remember how that bride in her princess gown felt twenty years ago. When my husband is with me in our bed, skin beside mine, I am happy.
I wish I could hide my husband’s sealskin, so he will not disappear, so he will stay. But I know he is not the only one. Many disappear. While our children play Monopoly, a neighbor tells me that her husband’s five-week absence for a business trip to Europe and Asia is normal for their family. A friend manages programmers in India. A mother I know travels across the country for her consulting. This spring our local newspaper, the Kitsap Sun, reports statistics from U.S. Census data that the top thirty work destinations for county residents include cities in Virginia, Maine, Rhode Island, Chicago and Georgia, along with cities in California, Oregon, Alaska and the United Arab Emirates. Even our school principal drives hours on the weekend to see his family and home near the Canadian border. A disappearing spouse is twenty-first-century life.
So this is the twenty-first century fairy tale. The selkie lover. The disappearing spouse. Marriage with a magic, enigmatic man who is gone in the daylight. I am also complex. I have multiple identities: girl and woman, mother and bride. My days are busy with adult duties, with dishes and electricians, driving and cooking. But I need to remind myself to be the girl who read fairy tales. The girl hoping for romance and transformation. A bride anticipating her enchanted seal’s return, living in a modern adaptation of Grimm brothers’ stories, awaiting the words to be written on the next page, the fairy tale ending yet unfinished.
In bed together, Ted and I talk about the future. My husband tells me he wishes I could share his hotel rooms, the king-size beds, the restaurants, the rides and the sights. We imagine. When this house is empty, I will find my sealskin.
Julie Jeanell Leung’s creative nonfiction has been published in the Bellingham Review and her essays have been selected as a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award and the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize. After studying biochemistry and writing at Brown University, she is currently a student in the Rainier Writing Workshop, the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.