My Secret Place


Henry Corman stood outside Mika’s room dangling a jumble of keys on a keychain he’d found, left behind by the previous owner of the house. Their house now. He had knocked and banged on the door—to no avail. He called his wife’s name, curious and questioning at first before pleading; then becoming stern, he addressed her as “Mikako” like a scolding parent. That she required a secured room in their Santa Fe adobe home had bothered Henry from the get-go. Why does she need a lock? I would leave her alone, he had thought. The fact that she doesn’t trust me makes me suspicious.

Those simple paranoid thoughts came from simpler times.

Mika hadn’t returned home last night. No calls or texts, and his attempts to contact her had failed. Neither breathing sounds nor body noises emanated from the sealed room. However, she could have sunk into a silent depression. Her therapist had prescribed medication—that was certain. What if she took too much and blacked out, or worse, attempted suicide? Henry worked various keys in the door handle until one finally clicked. The door barely pushed inward until stopped by a chain lock.

Again he spoke her name, even pressing his nose near the door to try and smell her, or, as fear clutched his heart, the effluvium of death and decay.

Henry had to break in. Yet he knew this action would either reveal a horrible truth or irrevocably damage their relationship. The breach of trust too severe to recover from in an already cloudy, difficult marriage.

He located his hand saw out in the garage—a flimsy plastic-handled thing from Home Depot for people who never actually wanted to use a saw. The jagged blade only scratched the hanging chain. Henry shouldered the door but it resisted. He repeated his efforts until the chain latch finally tore loose from its moorings. Then he entered a room dark and tomb-like, even early in the morning.

Henry and Mika had moved from San Francisco to Santa Fe seven months before in late 2018, joining an exodus of other affluent Californians who could no longer live as they wanted to in the Bay Area.

Though they had been married for five years, Henry had met Mika and her first husband Dennis Garcia over fifteen years ago in Los Angeles. Henry was a structural engineer with dreams of someday designing homes. Because of his years of acting school, local friends back then told him he had a shot in Hollywood movies. And they knew people.

“What the hell,” his first wife Sarah said. “You may as well give it a try.”

Henry scoffed at their advice, but a meeting was set with an agent who had seen his photos.

So, expecting nothing, Henry met Dennis Garcia at the Hotel Bel-Air’s bar. Dennis looked mid-thirties, with slicked-back hair, a gold earring stud, pastel-colored clothes, and the beatific expression of someone comfortable in their present moment.

“I totally see it,” Dennis said after chatting for twenty minutes. “You’d be a natural.”

Henry laughed. “Thirty-seven is a bit old to start out and star in films. And my nose got broken in high school.”

“No, no, no,” Dennis said. “You don’t want to be a star, the movie’s success riding on your shoulders. You’re kind of bland, a Bill Pullman type—before he got famous. The nice boyfriend, the decent boring husband. The guy who gets jilted when the female lead runs off with Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp.”

And Dennis had been right.

Henry appeared in three blockbuster films over the next four years where he either got dumped, forgotten, or died in the chaos when a giant meteor struck Los Angeles.

After Dennis became a close friend, Henry met his agent’s intriguing wife Mika. Movies made Henry good money, but months of shooting films away from home led to a divorce and a loss of those funds.

“You’re a decent actor because you don’t see underneath,” Sarah told him in parting. “You never look ahead. Good for camera reactions but not real life. Other people have things going on inside. Thoughts, grievances, unresolved issues.”

When acting roles dried up, Henry relocated to San Francisco for a position at an architecture firm. Dennis and Mika moved north to the Bay Area in 2011. The three maintained their friendship until the accident. The multiple-vehicle collision near Oakland on a fogbound stretch of Interstate 680 damaged five cars and hospitalized several people. Dennis died on impact. Mika survived but lost their baby she carried.

After six months of depression and hiding away, Mika got a job at Woofle, a local tech firm. She soon resumed doing things with Henry: rock concerts, museums, movies. It felt natural when they began seeing each other a year later. Though she was Japanese-American, Mika spoke only English and none of her friends at Woofle were Asian.

“Close the window. I’m not ready to talk about it.” That’s what Mika told Henry in bed when he delicately inquired about the car accident. She had seen a therapist ever since to deal with her trauma.

Their eventual marriage had been pleasant and calming, if not wildly exhilarating. However, after five years, their relationship slid into a rut.

Henry confronted Mika. “Is anything wrong? Is it me?”

“It’s San Francisco,” she replied. “I’ve gotten raises and promotions and you’re working, but we’re struggling to get by. We couldn’t even afford to take time off for a vacation last year.”

They both hated what the City had become, an overpriced playground for tech geeks working at Google, Uber, and Airbnb. Once sketchy nightclub areas had been gentrified into neighborhoods where newcomers fought over four thousand dollar a month, one-bedroom apartments.

The market price of their compact Tiburon home sounded unbelievable, and yet selling it afforded them little in local buying power. Unless they relocated out of state. Over the next weeks they entertained moving to Portland, Seattle, or Santa Fe. New York looked equally expensive to San Francisco, and the excessive summer heat and conservative retiree culture crossed Phoenix off their wish list.

Mika envisioned a creative future. “I want to write a memoir, get back to painting again.” So she gravitated toward Santa Fe. Henry thought New Mexico sounded like a grand adventure and he felt she should write, deal with her past trauma. If the Southwest didn’t pan out they could try Boulder, Colorado.

A month later, they found a spacious three bed, two bath adobe set high in the foothills northeast of Santa Fe’s Plaza. The house’s price a third of what they would have paid in Northern California. With the leftover money from their Tiburon home sale, they could putter around and work part-time for two years.

Henry hoped the move might revitalize their stagnant marriage. They had transitioned into housemates, rarely sharing a bed, staring at their phones when dining out, and talking in sparse phrases to each other. Separate people tolerating one another for the economic boost of a shared existence. Marriage reduced to its origin as a financial bond benefiting both parties.

For six weeks after moving in 2018, a spark did inhabit them. Perhaps the New Mexico light or the altitude served as inspiration. Their ridgeline views east toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and west over the city then out to the Jemez Range were staggering. Henry bought furniture, beds, and expensive rugs; home design was treated with evangelical fervor in Santa Fe.  And something about home furnishings served as an aphrodisiac. They had sex in each room of the house, and just reciting fixtures and brand names seemed to arouse Mika further.

“Can we put new tile on the floor, Henry?”

“Saltillo tile,” he whispered in her ear.

“And a remodel for the kitchen?” She turned. “Open concept?”

“Yes. Quartz countertops, stainless steel oven, and a slate backsplash.”

“What about a fireclay apron farmhouse sink?”

Henry lost his concentration. “Maybe that’s too much.”

Her desires calmed after that initial period, so they supplanted their trysts with visits to the best restaurants: Santa Cafe, Vinaigrette, Rio Chama, The Pantry, Geronimo. They drank beer at El Farol’s bar and even danced a bit.

“What makes older people retire here?” he asked Mika one night at Cafe Sonder.

“It’s like Miami, except for eccentrics, creative types,” she replied.

They both noticed a seventyish woman wearing face glitter and showing an electric shock of hair, some gray thatches colored deep blue and purple.

“Female artists are drawn to this area,” Mika added.

Henry dug a fork into his fried chicken. “Their guiding light is Georgia O’Keeffe.”

They met other couples, but everyone in their age range seemed transient: Texans or Californians or Nevadans who visited New Mexico for certain weekends of the year. Solid friendships remained elusive. At least Santa Fe was as liberal as San Francisco, Henry thought. They could groan and endure the bad news spewing out of Washington with communal solidarity.

Soon, Mika no longer wished to go out for meals or anything but preferred to work on projects in the den—now her private room.

“What do you do in there for so long?” he asked.

“I’m creating art. Please.” She reached a hand out as if to fend him off.

Their relationship clouded over. They ate alone or briefly together, slept at different times in separate bedrooms. When passing each other in their sprawling house, they sometimes didn’t exchange a word.

One night outside Mika’s room, Henry overheard her talking rapidly in Japanese, her  voice guttural and low-pitched. He’d never heard her do so before. Mika spoke English to her mother and sister living in Seattle. Was she conversing with relatives in Osaka? He considered the theory that all human cells change every seven years, creating a new person. Maybe at some point they wouldn’t recognize each other if their shopping carts accidentally collided in Trader Joe’s. Or was that theory just New Age nonsense?

Henry didn’t dwell on it. He had joined John Foote, the best structural engineer in Santa Fe. Part-time work soon expanded to fill his days with on-site inspections over a twenty mile radius.

“Well?” Foote asked him after they toured a condo’s exterior on a hillside. “What do you think?” The air smelled of pine needles and sunbaked earth. A sky blue sky promised everything that morning but delivered only heat.

“The structure looks sound to me. I jotted down some notes for my report.”

Foote examined Henry’s writing and scowled. “You’re seeing what’s there now, but not what might happen in time. Look.” He kicked at the ground. “Softer on the slope side. The house will likely settle and angle a bit over the years. Might need to be secured.”

Henry nodded.

“The high desert is different terrain than California. Inspect with a long-range-vision. Judge what’s up above, then imagine what’s beneath.” Foote handed Henry back his clipboard.

Maybe his first wife Sarah had been right. He didn’t deal with trouble below until it broke the surface.

“Did you find a good therapist?” Henry asked Mika one morning when they met grazing amid the cool air issuing from their Sub-Zero refrigerator.

“Yes. Doctor Thaler.” She paused, eyes fixed on the tile floor. “I’m not ready to discuss it.” She wandered toward her room.

“I know…” He closed the fridge’s door. What was she thinking? What was she doing?


Mika drove southwest on Cerrillos Road for her art supplies: pencils, canvas paper, pens, paint sticks, a large calendar. She loaded the accumulated purchases into her Subaru Outback. Mika had made a fuck-ton of Bay Area tech money and now just wanted to create something. Something big that reflected the totality of her life experience. Why couldn’t Henry stop hovering and leave her alone? She wanted silent, respectful support from him. They had had plenty of sex. Give it a rest, dude. He needed male friends to hike and watch sports with. Most of all, he needed to stay out of her hair until the project was finished.

“Do you plan to show your art on Canyon Road?” Henry asked upon seeing various bags from both Michaels and Hobby Lobby. Santa Fe remained the third largest art market in America.

She shook her head. “Probably not.”

Almost finished, Mika thought as she drove aimlessly north of town. Her creation was for her and her alone. She might photograph it, but afterwards destroy the original. It matched her love of Buddhist sand mandalas. Everything is temporal. Live in the now. From nothingness comes sublime creation before it vanishes back into nothingness. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Perhaps she could finally move on then, start over again. Mika’s phone pinged and she stared downward. Her cousin Luci’s flight had just landed at the airport.


Henry called Doctor Thaler in a panic the morning after her disappearance. “What medication is my wife Mika on? Zoloft, Lexapro, Cymbalta?”

“You know I can’t share confidential information.”

“She has no appetite anymore. The pills have side effects, right?”

“Look, Mr. Corman,” Thaler said. “If your wife is taking antidepressants, then side effects could vary from physical weakness to depression to thoughts of—”

“Suicide,” Henry finished. “Mika might be lying dead inside her locked room or collapsed out in the hills somewhere.” He paused. “If she’s hurt, I will sue your sorry ass for not disclosing the information.”

Thaler sighed. “I recommend forcing entry into her room. Might be a message or a clue to clear this whole thing up. Good morning.”

Now, Henry had breached the door. She must be inside; the chain lock could only be set from within. He ran a hand against the walls until his fingertips located the light switch. They flashed on and he soon deduced that Mika had sealed her room before departing through the casement window. It led out to the back of their one acre property onto a patch of dried grass that meandered off into wilderness: pine trees, desert willows, and dried dirt the color of beige clay.

Where she had disappeared to faded from importance. He became distracted by the studio, her creative space. The far wall was covered in papers, tacked-up sketches, and even portraits in paint markers. Beneath the tangle of attachments lay a map, a graph of her alternate life. It only took a minute to understand. A minute that shattered Henry.

Mika had constructed a timeline of her life for the past eight years—if the tragic car accident hadn’t occurred and her first husband was still alive. Sketches of Dennis and Mika together, postcards from Portland, and drawings of their make-believe mansion in Oregon with a view toward Mount Hood. Dennis appeared as handsome as ever, hair graying at the sides and receding a bit. A series of detailed illustrations and painted images showed the son Mika had lost, following him through the first eight years of his life. Henry had never asked the gender of her child. Any time he even got close to discussing the incident….

“Can you close the window? I’m not ready to talk about it.”

Mika had scrawled the name Philip above the child’s pictures, and imagined his combination of Latino and Asian features as he reached the age of eight. Dark hair in a bowl cut like a little Beatle. Birthday party photos she must have downloaded off the Internet showed random children playing, their faces blurred by pastels. Henry squinted to read the event markings on a calendar: gifts given, first years of school, summer trips.

His rib-cage tightened, breathing an unaccustomed effort. Henry felt queasy but couldn’t stop viewing the creation, months of her daily labor.

He considered that Mika could only live the life prematurely robbed from her in this private room. Safe and swaddled in the folds of her imagination, she continued on as if normal, while her marriage with Henry became a dream to sleepwalk through. He did not belong to her reality but existed as a phantasm, a reoccurring presence that might possibly fade into oblivion if she just ignored it, if she disbelieved in him altogether.

Did her weekly therapy sessions deal with this? And if the two of them didn’t exist on the same plane of objective reality, perhaps they were already separated. Solitary people staring at intriguing strangers in malls or museums and imagining what their shared life might amount to.

Henry tried to swallow bottled water, but it caught in his throat and he retched it up.

He smelled a fragrance, felt a presence. Mika stood just behind, talking softly to herself. She studied him studying her wall of creation, then examined the damaged chain lock.

“I thought you were in trouble,” he said, and his words sounded halfway submerged in his lungs. “You didn’t come home. I got worried.”

“I forgot my charger. My phone died,” she said quietly, as if attending a funeral. And perhaps they both were. “I told you Luci was visiting, staying at La Fonda, and I’d see her. We drank a lot of wine with dinner. It seemed best to sleep over. I e-mailed you twice.”

“E-mail?” He hadn’t checked since dinner-time and turned off phone notifications at night because he was cc-ed into countless work communications. “Look at all this.” He pointed. “Why did you keep it secret?”

“Will you close the window from the wind? I’m not ready to talk…” Mika’s voice trailed off. “Been windy all month. Spring here is driving me crazy.” She headed for the kitchen, distracted and mumbling to herself.

Henry swung the massive, hinged window wide open. Stepping through and outside, he wandered off the lip of lawn to roam across bumpy terrain. A nomad by circumstance. Other giant houses loomed in the near distance as he hiked an incline through scrub brush and around a cholla cactus toward higher foothills of the dark moss green mountains.

He reached a saddle where coyotes sang and cried out painfully after midnight. The scent of exotic wood burning in fireplaces from excessively air-conditioned residences drifted over.  His good shoes looked scuffed, then endured more damage against rocks and gnarled roots. At some point he would have to stop, but Henry felt a long way from that point. Forgot my hat and bottled water. The sun shone brutal at seven thousand feet above sea level, dehydration waiting somewhere ahead.

Henry imagined it flaring up into a fireball and obliterating him right then and there. Leaving ash and cinders, charred bones and skin turned to windblown dust—the ghosts of the high desert howling their laments to no one in particular. Unrecognized and unremedied, they could rattle the windows and doors of modern houses rising over ancient burial grounds.

New owners transplanted from other regions, ignorant of the past and concerning earthbound spirits, would secure their remodeled homes against the buffeting winds. Secretly hoping and dreaming of those long halcyon days of summer. Days when they were young in their love—for this land, for their partners, and for whatever the future might bring.

Max Talley was born in New York City and lives in Southern California. His writing has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Atticus Review, Bridge Eight, Entropy, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Litro. Talley’s novel was published in 2014, and he is associate editor for Santa Barbara Literary Journal.