by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
The attic was going to be hell.
Katie stood in the middle of it, turning a slow circle with her hands on her hips. Old steamer trunks with garment bags stacked up on top of them, cobwebs sealing them to the floor like tape across the door at a crime scene. Defunct cabinets and haphazardly added shelves full of useless junk whose price value probably varied from ’50 cents, maybe’ to ‘worth more than your life, Katherine Willard,’ too tacky or too expensive for regular house display. It was an alien landscape up here, mountains made of history. The bruised-looking husk of a Commodore 64 computer perched on top of one of them, shockingly old, probably never used once since Katie’s dad had moved on to better things and donated it.
She blew with her lip pushed out, and sweaty blonde strands flew up off her forehead and fell right back where they’d been. She could hear Eric’s voice faintly from the floor below, calling something to Grandmamma, but not the answer; Grandmamma must be downstairs.
Since Katie had gotten her license, just she and Eric had been coming to Decatur on the weekends. Their mom had stopped coming altogether, and though she complained a little about the hour of farmland each way, Katie was actually glad. Things had been icy between Mom and Grandmamma since Grandmamma had put the house on the market; like the two of them unrolled a little strip of frozen tundra between them every time they got within range, each holding an end, like kids with a cup-and-string telephone. Walking through the middle of that no-man’s-land gave you chills. Katie guessed Mom didn’t want Grandmamma to sell the house she’d grown up in, but she was also getting old enough to think that maybe that was just the tip of it. Maybe the cold went further, back to when Grandpa Carlisle had died. Maybe they’d lost something in him: the slightly bemused, but affable glue that had held their two unlikely parts together, whether they liked it or not.
It didn’t matter now, anyway. Grandpa Carlisle had been gone since Katie was fourteen, taking all of his card games and puzzled good humor with him, and the house was sold, to a sweet couple from outside Chicago. They moved in in June, and Katie and her brother had been going to help Grandmamma pack up and get ready for the movers every weekend since the offer. Eric was thirteen and a little jerkwad, of course, but they didn’t get along too bad. And he got right to it whenever Grandmamma asked him for something, but who didn’t? Dad always said that even tornadoes backed off when Grandmamma made up her mind.
But there was so much to do, even with the three of them. Forty years’ accumulation, crowded into a two-level house. All the ordinary necessities of life plus everything Grandpa Carlisle had ever brought home from abroad — it was crazy, it was like trying to fit a museum into suitcases.
Katie picked a huddle of cabinets at random, plopped onto the dusty floor with her legs crossed after a quick check for spiders. She pushed all the doors open, and pulled out Russian inlaid jewel-boxes, stationery sets, a small cardboard box of glittery junk jewelry. She tried to stack them in some sort of helpful order, for cataloguing, and mostly ended up feeling like she had a giant pile of salt she was moving three feet to the left. She rooted through the drawers, found mostly old stamp collections. Then squeezed past the cabinets (well — mostly over) to get at the trunks under the window.
These were even older — probably not even stirred within Katie’s lifetime. It wasn’t exactly surprising, if so, but it was still a thought with a funny sort of chill; that the entire time she’d been alive, from the day of her birth through the next sixteen years, this trunk had been sitting closed, right where it was now, dust settling mote by mote on its lid. It was more curiosity now than inventory that made her open them, sifting through without any of the ordinary mechanical speed of packing. In a box delicate with age, nested in tissue, was an age-stained ivory dress that Katie thought might have been Grandmamma’s wedding dress, when she got married to Grandpa Carlisle; even deeper in the same trunk was a white one, and she sat with both of them out on her lap, looking at them a long time. There was jewelry in here, as well, most of it tarnished, and old pairs of crushed, ballet-slipper-like shoes, and…
Down at the bottom, a scattering of papers, velvety and yellow with time. They had been stacked neatly before, she thought, but her diggings had upset them, and now they were a tumble of envelopes with postmarks that started 195- and loose leaves sprawling with a feminine cursive that wasn’t Grandmamma’s. There was a photograph mixed into this mess now, too, and Katie picked it up, frowning.
In blacks and whites and greys, two women stood side-by-side on a broad green lawn, rows of low houses in the distance behind them, arms around each other’s waists. One was very young, the other one a little older. The latter, the older brunette with the wide-sweeping shirt-dress and the short finger-waved hair, she thought she recognized from old pictures as Grandmamma, although this was younger than Katie had ever seen her apart from in the crumbling pictures of her wedding to Grandpa Day. The younger woman, with her paler hair curled up and twisted behind her head, in a pencil-skirt and jacket and hat, Katie didn’t recognize at all. They were both smiling the same way: like they knew they should be more serious, but they couldn’t help it all the same. Grandmamma, in particular, had a wise, canny look in her eyes that made Katie both grin and feel uncomfortable.
She flipped the photo over. Written on the back in yet another handwriting, this spidery and slanting, was:
Clora and Deirdre.
Picnic in Joliet.
May 17, 1949.
Katie’s frown came back, deeper. Clora was Grandmamma’s name. She’d never heard of anyone named Deirdre.
She picked up the letters, shuffling them in her hands, gathering them back into order by date. The ones that had envelopes were all addressed to Grandmamma, first by her maiden name at an address in Chicago, then by ‘Mrs. John Carlisle’ at the house in Decatur. They were return-addressed to a Mrs. R. Vanderbilt, in California.
Katie carefully freed the first one from its envelope, postmarked October of 1952, and glanced over her shoulder for no reason before she started to read.
In the end she found herself reading the whole stack, all that afternoon, and got absolutely nothing packed. The story they told said nothing, really; not in so many words. But there was something inside it, all the same: a depth of power packed in between the lines of squashed dark cursive that made Katie’s skin crawl under the attic dust, that made her feel a little stupidly like crying. She only stopped — jolting, and then scrambling to push everything back down in the trunk, and then giving up when she realized she hadn’t done anything wrong — when Grandmamma’s voice called up from the bottom of the attic stairs. “Katie?”
“Yeah, Grandmamma!” She at least eased the old clothes back into the trunk, and stood up, dusting off her legs. Grandmamma made her way up the stairs, her footsteps heavy and resolute; she had just turned eighty-two this winter, and had a walker that she scorned, a cane she saved for rainy days. Grandmamma hated to hold still, and she limped into the attic in a crisp breath of pale green crepe suit and ivory from Zimbabwe, even though they were just packing today.
“What on earth are you doing up here?” Grandmamma said in her best tornado-taming voice, surveying the attic and dismissing it with one critical sweep. “This is all packed, the moving men can manage it. Come downstairs and help Eric pack the stemware.”
“Okay, Grandmamma.” Katie put the stack of letters back in the trunk as discreetly and graciously as possible, and tried not to knock anything down on her way back. She took her grandmother’s arm when she was close enough, and Grandmamma was gracious enough to permit the help. “…Can I ask you something?”
“What’s that, dear?” Even picking her way across the floor to the bannister, Grandmamma carried herself in a regal way; just the sound of her voice could still bring whole rooms to attention. She’d been to the beauty salon two days earlier, and her silver hair was an elegant helmet.
“Who was, um… Deirdre?” She watched Grandmamma’s face as she said it, but there was no visible change of expression; she seemed entirely concentrated on making it to the stairway, as though across an ocean. But she walked better than that most days. “Deirdre Vanderbilt? I saw this old picture.”
“Why, that’s Leslie’s wife,” Grandmamma said, without a second’s hesitation. “Your Great-Uncle Leslie who died in the second World War. Deirdre Markham before she was married again. Didn’t you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.” Katie glanced over her shoulder, at the half-open trunk. All its secrets still trapped inside it, and probably not all that secret at all.
“Come on downstairs,” Grandmamma said, with all the firmness of the queen of England. “We’ll finish up with the stemware, and then I guess we’ll all have supper.”
Three weeks later, whether it had anything to do with it or not, Katie finally screwed up the guts to ask Lisa Wu at school to go to a movie with her. She still wasn’t sure Lisa actually thought it was a date until the last fifteen minutes or so, when Lisa leaned across their seats in the back of the dark theater and pressed her mouth to Katie’s, a tiny, tight, dry flower that was just beginning to bud.
October 21, 1952
My dearest Clora,
How fast this train is! I can almost hear you laugh at me but it is so. It is strange to travel in such safety and comfort, and yet be terrified every time one thinks of the speed. I suppose it is much more dangerous, what Leslie did, to fly little planes so high up over the ocean and the earth, but I cannot help but feel it much more so to ride to it over the ground. The sky is not so crowded. On land there are so many obstacles, so many chances to crash. I think more and more these days that human beings must be so fragile, and the world moves us all along so quickly, heedless of our safety. It is a wonder any of us lasts a day.
Richard says that we will change trains in Kansas City, and then again in Santa Fe. I have never been to a desert before. I do not think I shall like it very much, but Richard tells me it is very beautiful, and that anyway once we arrive in California there will be beaches and plenty of green. He is most amused by all of my worries, but he is very kind.
Clora, I know you will have nowhere to write to me until we arrive, and that it hasn’t been so very long. But I am bursting for news of you. Are you well? How is your mother? I hope someday I can repay her for all the kindness she has shown me, and you for all of yours.
So many farms go past our windows, their fields brown and green and all interlocking like checkerboards or quilts. I sit up late at night, when I can’t sleep for being so frightened, and watch them go by. I think of the people who live there, if they are happy, if their husbands and children are happy. How strange it must be to fall asleep in all that space, able to hear your own breath. It must be like living in the middle of the ocean.
I know you will tell me I’m silly to be afraid, but I am, I am. This train goes so quickly, and all that space is around me too, stretching out between myself and all I have ever known.
The first time Clora had met the future Mrs. Leslie Markham, her first thought had been, “Well, I guess she’ll do for Irish.”
She felt ashamed later, but mostly only because it had become clear that Deirdre was so much more than just Irish, more than just a whim of spineless, senseless Leslie’s on a night out being boys. Deirdre was a high school girl back then, seventeen in a long skirt and short hair, the youngest of six. Leslie was fulfilling his promise to Mother and finishing out his college years before joining the young AAF, a rich young buck with not enough to do with himself, with strange friends and curious absences. He found her at a dance a fraternity brother had insisted on in order to see his own girl, and seven months later they fled Mother’s critical eye in the bumbling little plane Daddy had given him at eighteen, up and over to Minneapolis.
(“Who, in God’s name, elopes to Minnesota?” Clora had asked him some time later, when it was just the two of them alone. Leslie had laughed like a loon, laughed until tears squirted from his eyes.)
But Clora had only been his eldest sister, Clora had wielded no power over him; and so Clora had been introduced to Deirdre over a yachting club lunch long before the plan swung into action. Deirdre had kept her hands in her lap and her eyes modestly downturned, sparkling with jewelry Leslie must have given her. Clora hadn’t been impressed with her then, but although grudgingly, she had been when the two of them returned from Minnesota. She called at the small house on the lake Leslie had somehow cadged enough to buy, and a new Deirdre waited for her there, almost unrecognizable from the child she had been. A small diamond ring graced one hand and her hair had grown longer, and she had left her long mended school skirts for a delicate coral-colored housedress, serving tea and shaking Clora’s hand all with a practiced even gaze trained on her eyes. Occupying her new home with her presence, almost her authority. I guess she knows what she’s caught, Clora had thought this time, but even that cynicism she had come to regret. Even at the earliest she couldn’t have convinced herself that Deirdre was only panning for gold; unless it was the gold buried at the bottom of little Leslie Markham, who had only sisters and silly ideas.
The fact of it was that Deirdre grew up like lightning, and like a miracle she sprouted into the roots Leslie had so long needed, to keep him connected to the ground. She had been a Catholic to start (Catholic! Clora could fairly hear Mother echoing in a hoarse cry, into a handkerchief she would keep by to fan herself with), but when they married she converted as neatly as you please, never absent a Sunday thereafter from First Methodist Episcopal Church. She kept the little house clean, cared for guests like a born hostess, left not a word for Mother or anyone else to say against her until at last Mother was forced to say quite a few for her. The most obvious of it, Clora thought, was the change she wrought in Leslie: not only the suspicions she erased but the calm conviction that began to lift him, firing him like a bullet in slow motion, out of university and into a world at war, an America with its Hawaiian flank torn open and ready to turn and bite.
But he came down again, in time; as those things that rise always must.
Clora, for her part, had been married to William Day for six years when her younger brother married, nine when William died. Their family’s wealth was something of a riddle: smaller than a Rockefeller, greater than a businessman, casts no shadow but sheds no light. Her father’s father had not been a railroad baron but perhaps something of a baronet, and he and his son had both made good use of their stocks; Daddy had ended up with a sizable portion of Chicago’s steel in his pocket, which had only blossomed there in the Great War. In any case they had been a part of what Chicago had for society, and William had been the son of an old Yale chum of Daddy’s, a Yale man himself, invited to dinner one night on the expectation that he and Clora would fall quietly and sensibly in love. Clora never fell in love with anyone, but she saw no reason to disappoint anyone either. They were married in First Methodist in theory and on the society page in fact, and she kept his house as he enrolled in officer’s school. War, she supposed, was like music to men’s ears somehow. All a woman could hear was a clattering screech, but that meant nothing; they were not tuned to the same frequency, that was all.
Those things that rise must always fall. A storm blew up in Daddy’s brain two years after her wedding, and blew him away with it. Clora’s widowed mother set aside his staggering assets, sold their sprawling fairy tale of a house to the bank, which even then could still afford to buy, and bought a tidy brick townhouse at the city’s edge in the hopes that she would rattle less, alone inside it. In 1944 the war swallowed William, drawing him down into the soil of Normandy, never to be recovered. Only when Clora received a folded flag in his place did she arrive at the certainty, after almost ten years of marriage, that it was not enough: that there could be no fair exchange. She had borne him no children, but then he had been home seldom, much of the time. They had made little love, in bed or anywhere else. But he had been kind.
So Clora, the oldest, the coldest, moved back in with her mother, into the small brick house with gloomy hallways and slow taps. She was no riveter, even then, but she could recall a bit of shorthand and typing from her school days, and took a job at the News Sun. She worked alongside other, poorer girls, their plain hair tied back with no fuss or nonsense and their trousers daring beyond reckoning, and when she spied by accident Rose’s hand falling in just the wrong way on Laura’s hip after coffee one morning, her rusty, tired mind remembered more about school than just shorthand.
Things rise, then fall. They were deep in the city, and there were more than enough blind alleys for a young lady to wander into, should they open to her. She let them lead her to a club called The Mayflower for reasons no one cared to explain, on nights when Mother didn’t expect her too soon after her work. She took in the sights that no doubt corrupted innocent eyes, and would hers if she had had them. Beautiful men-women in their suits, their pink lips pressed pale by hard sneers, the painted tottering dolls they kept and traded, and who kept and traded them. She was seldom approached, seldom even spoken to: no one would risk a “kiki girl” like her, she learned in time, too rich for their blood, neither fish nor fowl. They might even have thought her a policewoman, a thought she found deliciously lunatic. But she went home with one or two, as the war dragged on, mostly the butches with their broad-shouldered conviction and their empty trousers, their shabby apartments in places where no one much minded. She stumbled drunk through the starry city rain to their beds, and one woman made love to her as William had on those seldom occasions, tenderly, all slow hands and breath in a dim moldy flat; one shoved her against a wall and bruised her wrist, and she thought, I am run wild, mourning my husband, she thought, I am lost without my father, she thought, I am making my own mess for once, maybe and she thought I am an explorer in another world, hacking through a jungle with my machete, finding strange new fauna in the shadows of inverted trees. She thought, Things rise. Things fall. She wore bracelets the next day to hide the mark.
And then a year later Leslie had fallen with his comrades’ bombs on Malaya, shot down or merely careless in his clever little plane, mute forever on what she never could have asked him. His head brought out of the clouds for once and for all.
And that was when Deirdre came to live with them, and stood the first afternoon with her two little suitcases pitiful around her feet, in the cloudy grey light of the front hall.
The acceptance letter from NYU came at the start of the month. It was her first choice, and she bellowed over it in the kitchen with a hand over her mouth and did a really stupid impromptu dance. When she came waving it in her hand at her favorite teacher, Ms. Frankford, honors chem, the next day, she got a huge inappropriate hug, and it was awesome. It was awesome for at least three full days, until finally she actually thought in bed one night, I’m moving to New York, and nearly threw up.
No, though. No. She was ready for this. She didn’t really believe it, but Katie kept telling herself, swearing it to herself, hoping it would finally stick. She was ready for all of it.
And first things first. She was going to be away all summer, she repeated every time she gave herself the talk, while washing the dishes or combing out her hair after a shower, and then there wouldn’t be another chance. And she was ready. She’d been telling herself she was ready since last November, when Eric had come into her room one day after school, sat on her dresser, and said, “Joey said you’re a lesbian.”
She’d looked at him, not quite gobsmacked or even quite surprised. She’d been folding shirts from the laundry to put away and she stopped with one halfway there in her hands.
“Joey’s a dick,” she said, finally, and made herself finish the fold. Eric shrugged.
“Kinda.” But that obviously wasn’t the end of it, and she waited. The shirts were good for keeping her eyes on. “Are you?”
She thought that would make Eric laugh or at least roll his eyes, and it did both, at least a little. “A lesbian, retard. I think that’s kinda the opposite.” She told herself she wouldn’t dignify that by laughing, but she did anyway.
“How would Joey even know?” she said, too, but Eric didn’t say anything to that. She put down the polo shirt in her hands and finally looked at him, and found him looking back at her, with a solemn big-eyed expression that made her want to grab him in a headlock and Dutch rub him out of all possible vulnerability. Eric was a little turd but he was also so sweet, and the world was going to shit on him forever for it. He looked sort of like a dandelion like that, with his long skinny neck and thin fuzz of the same dark blond hair as her own. She sighed instead. “Yeah. You didn’t tell Mom, did you?”
Eric recoiled. “What, what Joey said? She’d kill me and then him.”
That made Katie laugh, startled or even shocked her into it, and that made Eric laugh, and that was kind of a crazy relief. She hadn’t really thought Eric would be weirded out, but… well, but.
“He said you went out with Brandon’s sister for a while,” Eric continued a minute later, still giving her that fixed, naked, curious look. She watched his face while he said it, but finally she decided it was just something he needed to know about.
“A little,” Katie admitted, and shoved Eric’s leg to the side until he moved it and let her put the shirts away. “I guess. I don’t even know if you’d call it going out. Mostly we just hung out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
And that, finally, sounded less curious and vulnerable. It sounded like Eric had finally busted a gasket. She didn’t look at him, but she didn’t think she had to.
“I didn’t tell anybody,” she’d said.
“Yeah, but why didn’t you tell me?” Eric had asked. And she’d found herself with no answers to give him at all.
So now her acceptance letter was stuck up on the fridge with a white-on-black “got milk?” magnet, she had never been to New York before in her life and was scared so bad she could barely think about August without starting to breathe too hard and sweat, and she’d made herself this stupid, stupid promise that before she left to be a counselor at Lake Michigan Summer Adventure Camp this year, it would be Mom’s turn. Both to hear the truth and to ask all the questions she wouldn’t have answers for.
Yeah, no pressure for Katie this year. Maybe if she got bored she could go defuse a bomb.
Mom was working on dinner in the kitchen when Katie finally steeled herself up on the way in from soccer practice, stirring peas and pearl onions around in a saucepan on the stove. She smiled at Katie when she came in, but it faded. She wouldn’t forget that, whatever else about it she forgot, as time went by. How her mother’s smile faded.
But she didn’t get angry. There was no fight. They were by and large lackadaisical midwestern Methodists, saw the inside of a church maybe six times a year, on Easter and Christmas and Mother’s Day and the occasional birthday or guilt-trip. She got no hellfire or brimstone out of her mother, only that thinning of her mouth, and an especially fixed look into the vegetables she was cooking. And who even knew what that meant? She didn’t think Mom was angry, but she couldn’t tell what Mom was: if it might even just be Eric’s question clanging around in her head too. Yes no one, but why not me?
“I guess I’m not all that surprised,” Mom said at last to the peas, and her face was pretty much blank, in a way that Katie only now suddenly cross-associated with Grandmamma. Also not exactly surprising, in its way. Mom knew a thing or two herself about staring down tornados. “I guess I don’t have much to say. Except I want you to know your dad and I love you no matter what.”
And that was the end of it. An anticlimax after all, and New York still looming overhead.
No matter what. Yes. She thought about that a lot, over the next few years, when she thought about coming out to her parents. About those three little words, and how they went with those other, more famous three little words. That magic power they seemed to have to make the whole sentiment into jail time.
We will always love you, Katie. You will never be free of our love; the faster you run, the faster it’ll rattle along behind, like a tin can tied to a dog’s tail. In spite of however hard you may try to slap it aside, to break its dark red heart, whatever crimes you might commit against it. Our love will still be there with you, and it will never give up. It’ll rub you raw as a noose.
No big deal, anyway, all things considered. No horror story. No scars to show. She counseled at summer camp like always, and at the end of August rode in the minivan with her dad and all of what little she had in the world across half the country lengthwise. She tried to keep smiling. When they had unpacked into a dorm right smack in the middle of towering, crazed Manhattan, her out-of-breath dad gave her a squishy, sweaty hug and said he was proud of her, Katie, he hoped she knew that because he was so proud. And she couldn’t help waiting for No matter what to come following behind — the grim pallbearer in the dark tailcoat — but it didn’t. It never did. And when it didn’t, she found that even in this new clamor of smog and honking horns, she could suddenly breathe a little easier.
December 13, 1952
My dearest Clora,
Merry Christmas! I say that very hopefully, since where I stand it is hard to imagine Christmas could possibly come in less than two weeks’ time. California is another world. You may not believe it but it is as warm here by the sea as a Chicago July. I go out in short sleeves and open shoes each day, more like a beachcomber than a wife to the grocery. It is pleasant for now, but I wonder how I may tire of it in ten more years.
I was most sorry to hear that your mother is feeling poorly. Please send her my love, and take the best care of her. She is a woman with much more to give the world, like you yourself.
I’ve sent you and Mother Markham a postcard each. Do you see the way the horizon seems to almost curve, between all that blue and blue? I could walk outside, walk half a mile, and throw a stone into that water. It’s true! Sometimes I even think I could strike the horizon-line with it, and it would ripple and crack, the illusion broken. Sometimes I believe that so much I don’t dare try it. People have paid dearly for trying less foolish things. But you always said I had such an imagination.
Deirdre was infatuated with Clora almost at once. It waited no longer than the passage of the initial fog of grief for Leslie, for the life she had anticipated but never entirely believed would come to pass, and even this, she sensed, had only been a decorous sleight-of-hand on her own mind’s part. Because, she supposed, she had always been infatuated with Clora, because Leslie had also been infatuated with Clora, in his way; his enthusiasm had been contagious. He’d called her “Sister Clora,” as though she were a nun, or it were only one step shy of “Dame Clora” or “Duchess Clora,” and told legends of her bitter tongue. “When we were kids Daddy had the strap,” he said, in bed one night with his hands woven into hers, fingers fitted tight as light and shadow; “but if you tried anything funny it was Clora who’d give you the lashing.” Leslie always talked himself hoarse after they made love, like too much had just happened and he needed to get his thoughts in order. She had nodded then, even laughed, but down inside her head she had been unable to imagine the terror of being snapped at by Leslie’s older sister: who over their first lunch at the yachting club had pushed her nerves — fine silverware, fine linen, two-bit little Deirdre Kelly in her ten-dollar dress, trying to touch nothing down to the chair she sat in — over into mute panic. She had been beautiful like a frost on the crops, her dark hair twisted up behind her head, her long swan’s neck arched, her dark eyes swift, assessing, dismissing. She had known every fork to use and when, and Deirdre had felt strongly that she’d barely escaped with her life.
Sharing a house with Clora, though, she found that a withering tongue was only the tip of Clora, not really even the truth of her at all. The truth of her was that she was more like Leslie than Deirdre would ever have dared imagine, or than Leslie would have, she expected. The quick temper and quicker wit, the energy that pushed and pushed and frustrated them if they were stopped by common, human inability, the mirror-polished steel down at their cores that an especially kind observer could call bravery. Certainly Clora had needed to be brave. She had lost not only her own husband, as Deirdre had, but Deirdre’s too.
So she was taken with Clora, who belonged in glittering ballrooms with pride arching her swan’s neck, but instead took shorthand in a gritty newspaper office and swept up a dim-lit brick townhouse at night, who seemed to Deirdre like a diamond knocked out of its setting and rolled under the rug. Although she knew well enough that that wasn’t the truth of Clora, either; only her own girlish Cinderella dreams. In reality they were just three widows, doing what they could. There was still money, but Clora and Leslie’s mother had put it aside to let it continue its own monstrous growth, like mushrooms in a damp cellar. Deirdre suspected sometimes that Mother Markham was a little afraid of that money, that she would manage to offend it somehow with her unworthy touch. If so, Deirdre could more than understand. She took a job of her own, a secretary in the office of a steel mill the Markhams might quite possibly still own, at least on paper. She wore suits and hats, and walked down the street alone. It was what Clora would have done. What Clora was doing.
She had loved Leslie, and so she had made herself become what he needed, whatever the cost. She had sat in the cockpit of his noisy little plane and watched the world move underneath her, transforming bit by bit until it had fully become Minnesota, until he landed on a bumpy strip outside the city and grinned at her like the sun, and she had not been frightened then, or so much as allowed herself to think of fear. In her love and trust she had forgotten gravity. And now she loved Clora; and for her would do the same.
On a Tuesday morning she woke up, as she would on any other, washed her face and brushed her teeth in her slip, put on a dressing gown. The light was so dim in the townhouse it left her puffy-eyed and thick in the head for hours; the windows were narrow, and time had left them resistant to even the firmest of washings. She found Clora at the small square kitchen table, half-dressed with her hair already up, reading the newspaper. A cigarette was burning in her hand, but when she glanced up and saw Deirdre she snubbed it out.
“You don’t have to do that,” she said, her smile only faint; she was concentrating on her earrings, which she was still trying to put in, her head cocked on one side like a listening dog. “You’re up early.”
“I couldn’t get back to sleep,” Clora said. She took a sip of her coffee and then got up to fetch Deirdre a cup. Her voice was low, rich, cultured: a Vassar alto. Although she hadn’t finished at Vassar, of course; she’d been married before that. She touched the paper on the table with the tips of her fingers. “So I came down and read the news. The war is over, in Germany at least. I think we must even have won, or else we’d know about it.”
Deirdre stared at her, then at her hand. Of course the headline said VICTORY in it, in bold type no less; Clora was only being herself. But that wasn’t why she couldn’t stop looking.
She had wondered sometimes, guiltily — especially moving in with his mother and sister — if she hadn’t mourned Leslie too little. If she hadn’t been too ready to be done with her grief, too quick to move back out into the world and be a woman alone again, her husband gone, her fortunes unanchored. But the truth that she suspected was that she had mourned him as much or as little as any war widow; that she had started early, taken a running start, the first second that he had left home. Turning away from her in his bomber jacket, his hand raised and smile as large as ever, a photograph already fading.
It was August before the war was fully over, before it came to such an apocalyptic and appalling end in the theatre where Leslie had been a player. By then it was hard for her to believe there had been any sort of victory at all.
Where they stood, after all, not much changed.
Katie spent her whole first month in Manhattan not admitting to herself that she wanted to go home.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like it there, it was more that there were just so many details she couldn’t make a picture of there at all, a good one or a bad one. It was too big, too much, all the time and there was nowhere to get away from it. She couldn’t sleep at night; the light through the blinds and the amount of traffic noise might as well have made it day, even on the tenth floor of her dormitory. She got lost on the subway on the weekends. Gruelingly, stupidly lost. Like Brooklyn lost. She forged her brave way to classes and her even more brave way to LGBT meetings, but didn’t really make friends. Her high school in Champaign had had a graduating class of 70, at least 55 of whom she knew down to their parents and preferred music. She was swamped.
But it was a new world, too, and every now and then, even now, inexplicable joy would come bubbling out from under all her terror and overload. She saw amazing things every freaking day, most of them astonishing little human dramas. She passed a tiny elderly woman, her white hair perfectly coiffed, with something enormous from Starbucks in one gracefully gnarled hand and a puffy little dog tucked under the other arm, a little dog that had somehow been induced to be exactly the same delicate shell-pink shade as her silk suit. (She couldn’t stop staring into space the entire way back on the subway, totally arrested. Did she dye it every day? Did she dye her dog every day? Or were all of her clothes just the exact same color pink? She couldn’t decide which idea was more appallingly fantastic.) The leaves turned colors with absolute conviction in Washington Square Park, cutting the sky into slices of blue between their reds and golds. A homeless man told her she was beautiful. On the hundredth same exact walk back from class she noticed a statue on a building that she’d never seen before, high above street level, and for a second could only gape at the amount of the city that took place above her head, far above the street, how beautiful they had made parts of buildings so high up that people could hardly even see. That was New York too, Katie was starting to discover; little treasures that sometimes came toppling out of the whole schizophrenic parade. You just had to have the confidence to stop for a second and look around.
She was working on that.
Her roommate — straight, but also a frequent LGBT visitor; she seemed to be friends with every last gay boy in the freshman class, or at least to think she was — invited her out to a party one Friday night, at another dorm a few blocks away. Drinking had been pretty much the only thing to do in Illinois, and she handled the vodka like an expert, and ended up in an epic futon conversation with a girl named Ennis, which she freely admitted was pretty weird. Ennis was so tiny she made Katie feel like the elephant girl, trunk and tail flopping out everywhere. She had wrists the size of rulers and a fringe of dark brown hair in a pixie-cut across her forehead, big black-framed Buddy Holly glasses. She had a big nose, though, which made her look birdlike and friendly. She was in the theater school, but where else would she be?
“I used to read people’s palms in high school,” she said, and laughed. She had a big laugh Katie liked, where she tipped back her long skinny neck and let it go. “Like that was my dorky thing. There was a thing about it in the yearbook and everything. Palm-reader! Mostly I just made shit up, I didn’t fucking know how to read anybody’s palm.”
“You wanna make some shit up about me?” Katie had said, offering her palm and grinning. There was something about Ennis that just made her want to grin. Ennis took Katie’s hand in both of her own; she needed them both. Katie’s hand looked like a big slab of meat in her little pencil fingers, a big T-bone with the lines crisscrossing the palm. She was pretty drunk and the thought made her snort laughter, and Ennis laughed too, her slight weight falling into Katie’s sturdier shoulder.
“My hand looks like a steak,” Katie said without thinking, explaining and apologizing in one go. It didn’t make any sense, but Ennis cracked up, laughed so hard she had tears in her eyes.
She didn’t remember later any of what Ennis made up about her, but she remembered making out with her in a stranger’s suite bathroom, pressed up between the tiny sink and the wall that was too close to it, Ennis’s glasses folded up on the sink-rim behind the rank of unknown toothbrushes. Ennis’s tiny hand pushed up her shirt and under the cup of her bra, flickering across her nipple, making her feet lose traction and slide out across the tile floor as she whimpered. She’d taken off her shoes at some point, maybe had to before coming in to the party. She unbuttoned Ennis’s tiny doll jeans and worked her big hand down in there, crushed between tight panties and her skin, inchworming down past her pubic hair between her thighs. She had a big clitoris, though, which seemed like the last crowning absurdity, and she pressed her face into the crook of Ennis’s shoulder to keep from laughing. It almost took two fingers, and she held Ennis up, against her bigger body on the creaking sink. Somebody pounded on the door at some point, but eventually went away again.
Ennis shivered against her like a rabbit, grappled at belt-loops on her jeans, came making a high and nearly theatrical whine against her neck. She kissed Katie and worked her own hand into Katie’s pants, ground her fingers around. She tried to put a finger in but Katie stopped her; she wasn’t always great with that, and the angle was all wrong. It seemed like it took her forever to come, and when she did it was like a train wreck: all jangle and crash, nothing left but twisted metal.
Everyone still there was pretty much dead drunk by the time they came out, but Katie felt almost sober again. They sprayed the whole bathroom with a stranger host’s perfume until it stank of homicidal flowers, and staggered out laughing like loons. Ennis shambled off to bed, waving with her tiny fingers, but not before she wrote her number down on the back of a Thai delivery menu; but somehow Katie lost it in her jacket pocket, no matter how she rustled through later or turned the whole thing upside down. She never saw her again — but then, there was no way to be sure that wouldn’t have happened anyway.
Learning the city, learning not to be scared. It’s okay to look into other people’s faces, to walk a little slower. Take a few deep breaths. Look up more.
June 17, 1953
My dearest Clora,
Thank you so much for the news of Mother Markham, and for keeping me in both your thoughts in this difficult time. I am most pleased to hear she is still in good spirits, at the least. I wonder if there is anything nobler any of us can do, than to keep our spirits high, to lift our heads and whistle our way into stormy seas. Am I a terrible bore, Clora, an overgrown schoolgirl filled with patronizing sayings? But we can think of so little to say at times like these, I think the sayings serve us best. At least they have been tried before and have at least held a little water. I send you both my love and wish I could be with you.
For my part I do not think I have much news, at least not in the face of what you’ve been through. There is a tense, strange atmosphere around Richard lately. He is terribly angry, I think, although he speaks of it little. I think I might be angry too if I were more in a position to understand, but Richard makes deals all day with army men who have all sorts of things to say, about Senator McCarthy and the Jew and his wife with the pleasant faces who have been sentenced to die in New York, and he knows much more to be angry about than I suspect I ever will. He has told me what he believes, but I will not repeat it. Other women’s husbands have been arrested for less than their putting in a letter what their husbands say in private. I know a few.
I don’t know much else, but I think after the war was done, America became too quiet. Don’t you think that might be true? All of a sudden it was quiet, and we all could clearly hear one another’s breathing, like on an elevator stopped between floors. We looked around and saw all at once who was on board with us.
Which reminds me that I have thought about what you said, about perhaps trying to write a novel. A novel! But it is not so absurd. Busier people than I have written them, and I feel as though I think enough strange things to make a novel from every day. The only question is of who in their right mind would want to read such a thing.
I think about you always. Perhaps if I wrote a novel, it should be about you. Then at least I would know that I would want to read it, if only to refresh my memory.
Clora never fell in love with anyone, but that wasn’t entirely true; there had been a girl at Vassar, a girl a year her senior, and they had traded letters and dried flowers and delicate silk ribbons, any trinkets an envelope could hold. Anyone watching would probably have called it innocent, a girlish rehearsal for things to come, but that was the safety of being a girl, wasn’t it? Still, they had kissed only once, and there hadn’t been much more to it than that, but Clora had loved her for a time, most likely. It grew harder and harder to be sure with age. And she began to love Deirdre only when Deirdre set fire to the medical bill.
Mother had migraines (which the family doctor had diagnosed as hysteria up until perhaps five years ago, and probably still resented being forced to renege), intermittently, and at last at Clora’s insistence had seen a specialist over the summer. The heat — and grief, let us not forget grief, what mother’s body can bear to have outlived its own son — had driven the attacks for the first time in years to the point of the unbearable, and Clora had tired of bringing meals up to her mother’s pitch-dark room. Which wasn’t exactly very far out of the ordinary, but enough, she had decided, was enough. The specialist had been full of mildly useful notions and a much more useful prescription, and the bill had been paid in full — at last requiring a dip into Daddy’s estate, but what could it matter? But there had been some sort of error, which Clora was certain was the office’s and the office insisted was hers, and the bill was sent again and again and again, no matter how far she went to gather proof that the money had been paid.
Clora threw the fourth bill down on the kitchen table, on the verge of fury, digging her teeth into her cigarette. “I’m going down there,” she said, rattling her fingers on it like a snare drum. “This instant. I don’t care what comes of it. I’m not trusting anyone who can’t keep their own damn paperwork straight with a brain, for God’s sake.”
Deirdre just nodded, as if to agree with a prediction about the weather. The upper half of her hair was back in a simple twist on the crown of her head that day, her lipstick a pale pink. Clora would remember these things only later. “Could I have a match, Clora?”
She rooted back into her purse for the matchbook, not even thinking, her teeth just clamping all the harder. She talked through them, her voice low. Hard. “They know we’re on our own here,” she said, almost in undertone, handing off the matches. “They know. They’d never get away with it otherwise. That’s the whole… what on earth are you doing?”
Deirdre didn’t say anything, but what did she need to? She’d already touched the match’s flame to the corner of the bill, and dropped it in the ashtray.
They both only stood there a moment at the table, staring down like startled schoolchildren at a captured frog or turtle. The flame catching in dancing miniatures in both their eyes.
Then Clora glanced over at Deirdre, and saw the smile struggling on her lips, the pert sweep of her hair back behind her shoulders as she tossed her head and looked up, looked back. Half-defiant, half-embarrassed, but all as certain as could be. “I don’t know much about money,” Deirdre began; but before she could get any further, Clora had already started to laugh.
Becoming aware of Deirdre was a slow process, full of fits and starts. She was so gentle, so ready to help, that she faded a bit, but she was already so much older than the nervous girl in new jewelry at lunch at the club had been. Hadn’t she thought it herself? Deirdre was very pretty, but that was something in a woman that so seldom seemed to have anything to do with any other, even a woman like Clora, who sometimes found herself in strange blind alleys with a hand around her wrist. Deirdre was shy, she was anxious, but she was not weak. She would sing, softly, in the kitchen, when she thought she was alone: Don’t start collecting things; give me my rose and my glove…
Winter sped windy and bitter into the city, and Clora put aside enough to buy Deirdre a necklace for her birthday: a pearl at the heart of a gold rose. She put it on Deirdre as she lifted her hair up out of the way, the pale nape of her neck golden itself in the light of a frugal oil lantern.
Deirdre and fire, in the wake of the war.
“Why are we even here?” Katie yelled, and then collapsed into laughter at her own volume. Inez laughed too, going sprawling across the arm of Katie’s she was clinging on to. Whether it was because someone bumped into her or just because was up to debate.
“Because this is HISTORY and you need to be in Times Square when HISTORY is happening,” Inez yelled back practically in her ear, and she winced a little but kept laughing. They were both full of champagne and takeout sandwiches, Chloe just full of the sandwiches since she didn’t drink. She was behind them, staying attached by holding on to one of the zippers on Inez’s leather jacket, with serene authority.
“History’s cold and I think it just stepped on my foot,” Katie said, but Inez only kept laughing and whooping. Something must be going on with the ball. Chloe leaned forward, putting her chin in the lopsided V between their shoulders.
“Is it time, is it time?”
“Do you hear anybody counting, bitch?” Inez yelled back at her, jovially, and Chloe flipped her the finger and then mimed turning down an invisible volume knob on Inez’s neck. Inez made as if to yell in her ear in response, but Katie gently separated them. “Quit it, quit it, I’m watching.”
“Watching what?” Chloe said, but then Inez erupted into bouncing and cheering, throwing her arms up into the air. Countdown hadn’t started, but it was approaching.
She’d gone home for Christmas, as over the summer, and each time found Illinois miraculously unchanged: Mom in a book group, Dad with a new computer, Eric doing community theater and demanding a lip piercing without much success, Grandmamma the undisputed queen of any activity she decided on, mostly complicated and exhausting dinners at her new condo. Katie saw a few high school friends, got along okay with everyone, did everything she was asked but mostly sat sidelined, bemused by what passed for busy. Getting on the plane to O’Hare had felt like going home, it was true, but she was almost but not quite surprised when getting on the plane back to LaGuardia felt even more so. And now — well, she’d even let herself be dragged out to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, if you could imagine that. Last year she’d been home for all of the holidays through January, and glad for it; just the idea would have given her the screaming horrors, and this was the biggest New Year’s Eve of them all, the biggest one she’d probably see in her whole life. She’d sort of wanted to spend tonight being the pain-in-the-ass friend who keeps pointing out that the new millennium doesn’t actually start until 2001, but as hard as she tried not to get excited, she couldn’t help herself. Popular consensus insisted that a whole new page was rolling over tonight, a new digit over on the left to prove it. You got swept along.
She kept her eyes trained on the glittering ball, which they had to be at least a half a mile from; they were all the way back down 42nd Street, just squinting to see anything, and they were still pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with what seemed like everyone else in the whole city. Before much longer, the whole city started counting. Inez on her arm, Chloe on her shoulder, Katie raised her voice and counted with them.
February 3, 1954
My dearest Clora,
I hope you’ll forgive me for being brief. I haven’t been well.
But I did receive the wedding announcement. They are so lovely. You have always had the best taste of anyone I have ever known, I’ve often thought so. But what a surprise – I never even knew you and John were engaged. In fact I cannot remember having seen you mention his name.
All my congratulations, Clora. Please give my love to Mother Markham.
One day was much like another, but some nights Deirdre had to work late; and it was on one of these that she came in in the evening and found the lights down as usual to save on the electric, Clora’s shoes in a tumble in the hall, Clora herself in a tumble as well on the loveseat in the parlor. Her hair was loose, a dark curtain over her shoulder, and her face seemed to sag with weight. There was a drink on the sideboard, ice and some liquid in one of the crystal tumblers that Mother Markham’s move to this tiny house had rendered utterly incongruous. The liquid was unknowable, a pale translucent brown.
“Oh, Deirdre,” she said, when Deirdre had been standing in the door for a few seconds. On an intake of breath, as though she had just thought of something she had been meaning to tell. “You should go on upstairs. Sister Clora’s quite indisposed, I’m afraid.” Her mouth stretched in a tottering line. Deirdre frowned, stepping closer to the sofa. The smell of Clora’s drink was faint but evil.
“What’s the matter? Are you ill?”
“Only drunk,” Clora said, and then laughed in a bright peal. It shocked Deirdre a little, but mainly because as tired as Clora looked, she didn’t sound tired. She sounded angry. Furious, even. “Drunk as a skunk, I think. Such talents ladies learn alone in the city.” She drew up her head a little, taking a moment to settle it in place. Her eyes, regarding Deirdre, were narrow, almost suspicious, but all she said more was, “Or in certain parts of it.”
“Clora — ” Deirdre began, gently, but Clora had sat up all the way now, one of her long legs toppling from the side of the sofa. Her disarray had pulled the seams at the backs of her stockings ragged.
“I suppose you wouldn’t know,” she said, and then groped out for her drink. Her hair fell in a curtain across her cheek; somehow the sight of it squeezed at Deirdre’s heart. “Or would you?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Of course not,” Clora pronounced, half-humorously. She drained half of what was left in the glass, and set it down, watching it with an air of bemusement. “What the hell’s the point,” she said, mostly to herself, the way it sounded. “I’m so tired.”
“I should help you up to bed,” Deirdre said. It was hard not to let her voice shake. This was nothing she had ever even begun to suspect. Clora laughed for no reason she knew, this time in a caw, and waved off her approach yet again.
“I’d think again, dear… …Deirdre.” It was impossible to tell if ‘dear’ was actually what she had said, or only a trip and stutter of the name. In the end, Deirdre supposed it didn’t matter. She came close anyway, bending her knees in her straight skirt in front of Clora, the slave girl before a reclining Roman empress. Only one long year had made the empress so old. Clora cocked her head, giving Deirdre that narrow look again. “Dee-Dee? Leslie called you that, didn’t he.”
Deirdre couldn’t help herself; she dropped her eyes to the floor. The wooden boards were knotted and whorled, dark and shrunken with age. They creaked with every step. “Yes,” she said, barely in a whisper.
“Dee-Dee,” Clora said again, musing, and gooseflesh wandered up Deirdre’s spine. “And what about Leslie?”
“What?” She glanced up again, tricked into it, and found Clora’s eyes too arresting to look away from. “What about — ”
“Leslie,” Clora exploded, nearly shouted, shocking again in the dim quiet of the house. She came forward half off the couch, her hair hanging, looking quite mad. “I’m asking about Leslie, you stupid little girl — was he? Would he know what I mean? Was my brother a fairy, was Leslie a fairy, that’s what I’m asking! Did he marry you for an excuse, did he take boys, did he fly off over the ocean hoping to be packed in with a bunch of men!”
Deirdre stared into her eyes. For a second she thought she would fall back, pull away, run from the room, but she didn’t do that. Her lips twitched for denials; her eyes prickled and stung to cry, to armor herself with tears. That had always been Leslie’s weakness, when she cried. He would fold her hand in his, and murmur in her hair Don’t cry, Dee-Dee, don’t cry. The world isn’t over yet.
“I don’t know,” was all she somehow said instead, in a tiny little voice scarcely a whisper. “He… he never said. I knew there were men — not boys — there had been men, but…” Clora’s face never moved an inch; it might as well have been stone. She rubbed the back of her hand, her unsteady hand, across her own mouth. “It didn’t seem to matter, any more than women would,” she said, into Clora’s eyes. “I loved him.”
And maybe it was too simple, but it was true.
The silence seemed long. “I know,” Clora said, finally, at the end of it, and her voice had softened again. “I know. I’m sorry. I’m being an awful brute.” She made a tiny sound in her throat, possibly a laugh, and sat back on the loveseat again. “I think I should have been a man, and Leslie should have been a girl,” she said, after another slow, brooding pause — one in which Deirdre was entirely unable to move. “The eldest son, all daughters after. That would have been something, at least; and he could have wasted all the time he liked.” Clora’s eyes flickered to her face, and she half-smiled, reaching out her hand to brush fingertips on Deirdre’s cheek. They were soft, but callused. “I might even have been your husband instead. What do you think?”
Deirdre could think nothing, and in the end that was what she was able to say: her eyes wide, her breath caught in her throat. Eventually Clora’s fingers fell away, and she stared at her hands in her lap.
“What’s the point,” she said again, to them. “We get by and we manage and we go on surviving, and there’s some in the bank if we ever can’t make our way. There’s plenty more who don’t have the luxury, too. But what’s the point? Why even bother? Mother’s shut up in her room with the shades pulled, I’m in the bars watching other women have a good time, you’re home in the parlor mending skirts like you think I am your husband. What for? We’ve all got holes in our chests. We’re just… passing time.”
She reached for her drink again, but this time Deirdre could move. She leaned forward on her knees, took the glass before Clora’s hand could reach it, and plucked it away, then as an afterthought stood up to remove it entirely. Clora did not stare up at her exactly but merely looked, eyebrows raised, eyes mild. Amused, even? Possibly. Certainly the anger seemed to have drained out of her.
“That stuff is dear,” she said, nodding toward the glass, when Deirdre had no more than tensed her muscles to go to the kitchen. “Don’t waste it.”
Still meeting her eyes, Deirdre stood a moment longer; and then drained the glass in two swallows. It burned like fire and tasted like poison. She never let her face change. Clora’s brows managed to climb even higher, and Deirdre thought there was even a smile buried back behind her mouth — and then she was on her feet, fast enough to be frightening. Steady as sober, standing a head over Deirdre, hand clutched into her arm. Eyes and mouth so close. It was frightening, but Deirdre’s body took a wrong turn somewhere: her nipples tightened and stiffened under her blouse, and between her legs a wet heat struggled to unfold.
“Then you tell me,” Clora said, almost in a whisper down into her face, as though Deirdre had spoken instead. The alcohol was thick on her breath, but somehow not as unpleasant as it might be. Her hand was tight but still gentle. “What’s the god damned point? What are you even here for?”
Her voice was gentle, when she found it. Old. Wise. Not like her own at all; but it must be, because it told the truth.
“You’re the point, Clora,” Deirdre said. She reached up and pushed loose dark hair from Clora’s brow, hair that was just beginning to take on a frost of silver. “I thought you knew.”
She did not quite have to lean up on her toes to kiss Clora’s mouth. She did not quite have to reach and pull her down. Clora’s lips tasted of whiskey, but so did her own. She had thought it was a sisterly kiss, but it stopped being one fairly quickly, and she wasn’t sure what it was after that. But Clora’s arm gripped suddenly around the small of her back, and reeled her in; so it seemed like Clora knew, like Clora seemed to know all things, and that was a relief. She could trust Clora to lead, even now, even always. Her love defied fear. Gravity was a rumor, the ground a myth.
The crystal tumbler ended up falling from her slackening fingers, saved by the cushions of the loveseat; and the last dregs of whiskey would leave the upholstery only slightly, but irrevocably, stained.
Deirdre was still wearing one of her suits, and in Clora’s bedroom the jacket wound up behind the door, her blouse open, her hair disarrayed. Clora knelt, unfastening her skirt, and kissed the vague shape of Deirdre’s hip through the silk of her slip as she slid it down. Her breath was hot, humid, shaky. Her hands were so long and delicate, piano-player hands, tea-server hands. Deirdre bent, touched Clora’s face, drew her back up.
Clora’s bed was made for one, and Deirdre ended laid out on it on her back, her blouse spread like wings, with Clora on her hips. Her brassiere gave way, and her slip, but the girdle and garter-belts were too much trouble; Clora’s fingers just found the cracks between fabric and skin, let elastic and nylon pin them. Precious as the crystal, these days, the nylon, but both of them beyond caring. She twisted her head into the pillow until her hair was an unfathomable muss, and Clora pinched and rolled her nipple, kissed her, kissed her, pressed a hand at the fork of her thighs and worked her way beneath the edge of Deirdre’s panties, in to the center. Her long finger sank into the soft wet there, found the little bud at its high center, and set to its work. What were they if not accustomed to operating in limited space?
She thrust her hips up in a circular grind as Clora found a more certain rhythm; her mind drifted across the darkness, thinking of Leslie’s sunny grin, the swan’s arch of Clora’s white neck in happier times, the sweet play of light off Spring Lake as she’d first seen Minneapolis. As her heart raced, as her breath began to be so fast it hurt her throat, she opened her eyes just a crack, and looked up in the dim light into Clora’s face, hung with the dark curtain of loose hair, lips parted, as unguarded as Deirdre had ever seen. Her eyes filled with that same sparkling lakelight, and Deirdre was not at all afraid, not even now. She was in hands that would not let her fall.
Her climax was sweet, huge, endless; her mouth gaped wide but let out nothing but breath, and it did not surprise her that she could be so taken into warm darkness and yet still mindful of mothers and neighbors. She caught her breath puddled on Clora’s bed, her fingers relaxing out of the pillow, the muscles of her thighs and inside her twitching and fluttering.
Then she drew herself up on the bed beside Clora and fumbled for the clasps of Clora’s dress; and proved herself, as always, ready to learn.
It was already a very bright day, blue-lidded, and she was out early, to spend some time studying in the Starbucks a few doors down from her dorm before heading to class. All her friends’ classes were slowing down, but Katie was heavy-loaded; she was trying to get out the year with a dual major in psychology and neural science, and she’d made the decision later than she probably should have. She was starting to work on grad school applications — mostly banking on the one that would let her right back into NYU — and she figured she might aim for getting a therapeutic license, but she had to admit she didn’t really even know what she wanted to do from there. All Katie had ever really known was she wanted to save the world.
It all took a few seconds to register, even after she had walked in through the glass doors: the radio on to news and turned up high, the customers already there — a young man in a grey suit, a tall woman in a purple scarf, a girl, probably another student, with two lip rings and an old camo dufflebag with bands’ names hand-written on in Sharpie, others out of immediate sight — clustered around the cashier and the barista, none of them talking or doing business. Just shoulder-to-shoulder, listening. First she didn’t even notice, then she was thrown and bewildered and almost left, but somehow she ended up among them, one of them, without meaning to. Crowds had their own weird gravity.
Things had only just started falling into a disjointed kind of sense when a hand touched her shoulder, and it was the young man in the grey suit. He had short dark hair, a still, even gaze, an earnest coffee-colored face. He was offering her his cellphone, it took her a minute to notice.
“Do you have someone you need to call?” he asked, and while she was staring at him her eyes finally filled up with tears.
The lines were clogged even then, service spotty, but she hammered her way down them in the corner of the coffeeshop, the others milling and talking softly as if they’d been trapped there, as if the same gravity that had drawn them into a crowd would not itself let them get on to jobs and classes and ordinary lives; she crawled her way through the crowded air on the back of a straining signal, to Illinois, to Champaign, where Mom and Dad were waiting at the TV. Where they’d been trying to reach her in her dorm room, where they sort of knew more than she did at this point, or at least in a more logical, if artificial, order, where Mom was going to get Grandmamma and they promised to call Eric at Stanford for her. Where she could touch, at least, and touching eased her. What more was there?
The next few days were dim and numb, and the fog faded slow over the following weeks. She passed collages of missing faces on her way to the subway, through crowds that were sometimes almost perfectly normal New York City crowds, like nothing had ever happened, and that sometimes looked shell-shocked and hollow to her, like refugees. The news was on every night in the kitchen of her dorm suite, on the tiny TV one of her roommates had perched on their picnic-style table, which had already for some reason gotten a post-it note stuck to its top that labeled it MR. BUTTS. Mr. Butts showed them news anchors who looked lost, other New Yorkers who looked lost, a president who looked more lost than anyone. As time went by, Katie found she was most worried about what would happen when they all found themselves again.
Jamilah was in Katie’s International Relations class, more a friend of friends than a friend directly; she was recognizable, though, with her black headscarf above her suede jacket and jeans. She’d been born in Manhattan, and her parents might even have been too, although Katie didn’t know for sure. She was knocked off a curb in the middle of a green light in midtown. It could have been an accident.
(“And I’m thinking it wasn’t real well thought out if it wasn’t,” she told Katie and a few others much later, over lunch. “There’s a lot of traffic on 6th, but it’s all going, like, eight miles an hour. It’s like stabbing somebody with a plastic knife.” They had laughed, but not because it was all that funny.)
Still, after that, people in their class took by unspoken compact to walking with or near Jamilah between classes and her dorm. Mostly her friends at first, but the practice spread; there were always two or three people with her in the city for a couple of days, whether she knew them or not. Jamilah always seemed somewhere between amused, irritated, and touched by the attention, but she also never tried to shoo them off. Fears came in all sizes that fall. Katie had a similar class pattern to Jamilah, and ended up being one of her entourage more often than not, and before long, they were sort of actually friends.
One day she was waiting with a mutual friend, Shawna, outside Jamilah’s dorm for her to come out — getting in and out of a dorm that wasn’t yours was just too much hassle to do on a regular basis, especially now — and when Jamilah did she had a scared-silly grin on her face, like she was about to go play chicken. “So I had this idea this morning,” she said, before either of them could ask, and turned slowly around. “‘Cause, you know… enough is enough, right?”
Stuck to the back of her suede jacket was a ripped-out piece of notebook paper, attached with two fragments of tape. On it was printed, in stark black marker letters, KICK ME, I’M MUSLIM.
For a few seconds Katie and Shawna could only stare, in a stunned, respectful silence. Finally Shawna said, “Girl, you’re crazy,” and Katie couldn’t help starting to laugh.
But that morning brought back all her old love for New York, brought it back in force, after weeks of getting it buried under the fog and haze of ash; it made her remember what had made her become a part of this city, move her lips in time with its voice. Young white guys aimed sympathetic, sheepish grins at Jamilah on the street, and at one corner she got a round of applause. The woman at the counter where they stopped for lunch cracked up in a roar when she turned to leave, and called, “You got balls, sweetie!” as Jamilah glanced back to grin and wave at her. As they went up Greene Street, a homeless man sitting by the curb, with a well-that’s-just-great sort of expression on his crushed half-covered face, glanced up at Jamilah’s back. “God bless you, sister!” he yelled after them, in a startlingly strong voice, surprising Jamilah into glancing around and then smiling at him. He kept calling to them all the way up, until they had all smiled, all waved their thanks, and even still, not even caring if they could hear anymore: “Ain’t nobody should kick you. We all brothers and sisters. Allah bless you, dear. I’ll kick the man who kicks you.”
That was the last straw. The three of them held their collective breath all the way around the corner, not wanting to laugh, not wanting to seem cruel or to make fun; but it all bust out of them once they were out of sight, a great blustering gale. They held on to each other, in amazed sudden tears, and howled. All the rest of the way to class, all through class as they huddled in the back row trying to catch their breath, every time one or all of them would start fading back to silent snickers and getting control, someone would repeat it to the other two in a quick, urgent whisper: I’ll kick the man who kicks you. And the hurricane, blowing up again.
The Jamilah patrol disbanded in time, but the three of them still had lunch or went out together from time to time, and the sentence stayed among them and spread out to a few others they’d told, a private joke and a motto. A parting salutation, in person or in email: ttyl hon. i’ll kick the man who kicks you. And sometimes Katie wondered if that was all they could offer each other, a bunch of college seniors in this amazing city: the promise of violent retribution, for every slight. Sometimes she wondered if there weren’t much worse things.
Sister, I’ll kick the man who kicks you.
It was that December that she met Oliana for the first time.
October 8, 1954
My dearest Clora,
I think if I were to never hear or see the ocean again, it would be too soon. The Pacific Ocean, at least. I imagine the Atlantic being somehow greyer and more sedate, a stately old gentleman of an ocean. I suppose probably it isn’t so, but it seems to me like an English ocean, grating with rocks on the edges of moors filled with wild heather, sending up fog and grey. An ocean like that must be indifferent to human doings, too occupied with its own business. Not to be trusted, certainly, with fragile ships, but well enough when left alone. What a terrible lie the name “Pacific” seems to me! It makes me feel anything but. It teems with ships and creatures. The sun won’t leave it alone.
And what a way to begin a letter! Yes, I have grown tired of California already. I want to hide under a blanket and never see the sun again. I miss you so much, Clora, and all the dim shadows in Mother Markham’s little house. I want to rest my eyes.
I suppose it is trying to write my book that has made me so melancholy. But there is another thing, and I don’t think I can speak of it to anyone but you, Clora. We’ve been trying so hard to have a baby, but we’ve just had no luck. Richard tries not to let me know how disappointed he is, but of course I can tell. I’m a better wife than all that. Although I wonder how well I can ever be one, when we try and try and nothing comes of it. I suppose you’ll tell me this is ridiculous, that it’s only a matter of time. Of course I know. But the waiting is always hard.
Oh, Clora, I’m so sorry to have written to you in such a gloomy mood! Perhaps I should tear up this letter and wait to write another, but I don’t know when I will have something brighter to offer you.
How is Mother Markham? Is your husband well?
Thinking we have everyone fooled, we become careless. When we are in love, we become careless. Clora had prepared herself for one of these pitfalls, but been unable to predict the other. She had never been able to bend her mind so far as to imagine herself, so caught up in a flood of emotion that she lost sight of reason. Her nature had seem to laugh at the very idea; but Nature laughs at us when we believe we know her mind.
The weather was hot, and Mother had pulled the shades on the third floor again, languishing in her chaise with a damp cloth over her eyes. It was mostly Deirdre who brought her up trays with her meals and lemonade, but Clora took it on whenever Deirdre couldn’t be home, the evenings she worked late and mornings she went to the grocery. Mother had always been a retiring woman, never healthy, often pale and wanly smiling from her bed when she and Leslie and the twins had come to kiss her on Mother’s Day, all in their best. Father stood over her, seated, in all their family photos, like a pillar hung with her, a limp fluttering curtain. He was always so stout and healthy it seemed he must be a vampire of sorts, eating her life. But he had loved her most of all.
“Hello, Clora,” Mother said when she came in, as though they saw one another seldom. She was sitting up for once, and the cloth pushed back on her brow. Her eyes were very bright in the dim room, seeming almost to glitter. “Thank you for bringing me supper.”
“Not at all, Mother.” She set the tray down on an end-table. It was small; Mother would eat little. She crossed instead to crouch by the chaise, touching the delicate vein-traced skin at Mother’s temples. “How does your head feel?”
“Oh, better than it might, I suppose.” She nodded to the end of the bed, a close seat to her own in the crowded upstairs room. “Sit down, dear. Stay with me a while.”
“If you’ll try to eat a little,” Clora said, but sat. What did anyone have children for, after all, if not to be able to have them sit when they did not want to?
“It can be hard,” Mother said, presently, in the dim hot upstairs room, “for women to be alone. Nobody knows that better than I do.” She fell quiet again. Although Clora had no sense that she had finished, Mother’s eyes were fixed on the crack of light at the window, where the shades had not quite sealed it. Outside the neighborhood breathed and moved, although Clora couldn’t see it from where she sat. Finally Mother sighed.
“I know you can be discreet, Clora,” she said, at last. It wasn’t what she said that jolted Clora so much as the instant knowledge of what she was saying behind it. When had she learned to read between her mother’s lines so clearly? “You and Leslie both, God bless him. I’d feel much better if there weren’t any need for you to be, but what can I do?” She sighed again, and passed a slightly shaky hand across her brow. Her hands were very pale, fragile-looking, also run with the clear rivers of veins under the skin. “But I worry about you. And little Deirdre, too.” Her eyes, cutting to Clora, didn’t look misty or pain-dimmed in the slightest. They were bright and aware. Then gone again. “She’s a very sweet girl, you know.”
“She is,” Clora said, barely moving her mouth.
“I worry about the two of you,” was all Mother said, though, again. “I think it’d be best for both of you if you were married again. Although maybe it’s a little soon for her, still? I can hardly say.” She shook her head slightly, her eyes fixed on the crack of daylight, the washcloth just barely shifting on her head. “It’s just so hard for a woman alone.”
Clora said nothing. Mother didn’t either, for a long time — might even have been waiting for something from Clora — but still she gave nothing, said nothing, never even moved. She wanted to be angry: anger would be something to wrap herself around, a hard pit in a peach or the grit that an oyster could fashion into a pearl. But she could find none. Her center was hollow. Mother really did want the best for them, the best for everyone. And no one had loved Leslie, doted on Leslie, like she had.
“Well, will you bring me the tray, Clora?” she asked at last, and Clora did. Mother ate in silence; but when Clora crossed the hall to Deirdre’s room that evening, she paid new scrupulous attention to the placement of her feet, to keeping the creaking voices of the floorboards mute.
Of course, meeting someone for the first time in college was never something you could exactly prove, but Oliana was in a pretty different program from hers — Gender and Sexuality Studies, concentration in Africana Studies, way liberal artsier — and had taken the past year off. Oliana was Katie’s exact same height, taller in the kind of shoes she normally wore. She had a huge river of tiny braids for hair, not black but a deep coppery brown, which she normally pulled back further into a massive ponytail behind her head, damming up the river to a waterfall. Katie met her through Shawna at an end-of-semester party and was instantly tongue-tied around her, terrified to talk. Fortunately Oliana was amused, and didn’t give up. She seemed to Katie that night the most perfectly poised person she’d ever met, like a marketing executive or a diplomat. Like she could do anything to put you at ease, but she’d say whatever the hell she felt like afterward.
Also through Shawna, in the weeks afterward, they’d ended up with each other’s AIM names, and after a few initial weird gambits on either side (chatting online to someone she didn’t know what to say to always felt even more awkward to Katie than the same thing in person, for some reason), Katie found herself talking to Oliana nearly every night while they were home for break: Oliana presumably back in Philadelphia, Katie sitting up alone after midnight with her laptop on the living room couch and scrambling for last-minute application stuff. She found out more than she’d been able to learn at the party: that Oliana was devastatingly smart, funny, ready with a fast witty answer to just about anything, and chatted with scrupulously correct punctuation and capitalization even when Katie so didn’t. And Katie just managed not to get tongue-tied again.
Still, when she opened up the last night, after Mom and Dad had gone to bed and Eric out with old high-school friends, and typed comin back to nyc tomorrow yaaaaaay into the window, she still managed to be completely knocked over to see come back, Cool. Coffee sometime, when you get back?
sure!! she put in the text entry field, after a moment.
Backspace backspace backspace. Let’s try this again.
She probably would have gone on like that all night if she hadn’t then slipped and hit enter instead of backspace again. Eventually, she had to admit it was probably just as well.
So they had coffee, over January term, while Katie was working on her internship at a nonprofit in Queens. (Or ARGH QUEENS, as she usually greeted Oliana online when she got home at night; Aww, but I like them, Oliana came back once, unexpectedly, and completely cracked her up.) They even had dinner. Katie was still getting used to this senior thing, this transitional thing where you did stuff half like a grownup and half still like a college kid, even dating: half dorm rooms and booze and the other half dinners and shaking hands. And finally Oliana came up to her room one night afterward, standing amused and out-of-place in Katie’s little buttonhole, her hands linked, looking at the family photos and the leftover junk from the Vagina Monologues.
“Sorry it’s a mess,” Katie said like a confession, dumping off her bag and her coat. Oliana had already shrugged out of hers and had it slung over her arms, holding it in front of her like she was in a gallery. She was wearing a cream-colored sweater with a high neck, dangling earrings seeded with little glinting glass gems. Katie thought she could pretty much look at her forever.
She touched the framed picture on top of Katie’s little TV: Mom, Dad, Eric, Katie, in Grandmamma’s back yard at the old Decatur house. They all looked way too young. “Is this your mom and dad?”
“Yeah. And my little brother.” Katie sat down on the bed, trying not to hesitate too obviously about it — but Oliana managed to sit beside her as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
“Are you out to them?” She glanced at the picture again, as though it weren’t obvious whom she meant. “…I’m not trying to nag or anything, I’m just curious. I know you’re kinda from the middle of nowhere — ”
Katie rolled her eyes, although she was somehow grinning. “Champaign is not the middle of nowhere. Jesus. You think anywhere that doesn’t have a Chinatown is the middle of nowhere.”
“I do not,” Oliana said by reflex, and then started laughing. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be a dick.”
“You’re not being a dick,” Katie said quickly, chagrined. “I’m just kinda defensive. Most of the time I tell people I’m from the midwest, and I can, like, see their thoughts, where there’s this picture of me with corn growing between my ears.” That made Oliana laugh a lot harder, rocking back and coming to rest with some of her weight against Katie’s shoulder. That was a good place for her, Katie thought.
“I don’t think that, I promise.”
“I know.” She paused, thinking a little. “And yeah, I am. I mean, we don’t talk about it much, but I am.” Another pause, where Oliana seemed to be watching her with faint amusement, waiting for the question, but she asked it anyway. “Do yours know?”
“My mom does,” Oliana said, shrugging. “I don’t see my dad much.”
There seemed to be nothing to say to that, and they both lapsed into a weird momentary silence. Finally it was Oliana who broke it: saying, in a softer, more serious voice, “Katie? I like you a lot.”
I like you a lot too, Katie told her stupid mouth to say, but somehow instead it came out: “But?” Which was terrible, and not at all where she wanted to go, but Oliana only smiled, soft and with half her mouth. Her mouth was so distracting: lips that curled against each other pink and smooth as the inside of a seashell.
“No but,” she said. Which made Katie for no good reason think of MR. BUTTS and choke on not giggling. She got stupid, trying to hook up, she’d laugh at anything.
After that they kissed, though, which was better.
Her room was only lit by a little gooseneck lamp in the corner, which seemed to give off more shadows than light; but orange New York night-light slipped in between the blinds, making laddered patterns on Oliana’s dark skin that seemed like it was glowing from inside. Katie ran her tongue through one, on the little bit of her neck behind her ear that was left unprotected, and Oliana made a little choked sound that turned out to be a giggle. “Tickles,” she murmured, stirring Katie’s hair, grinning, and Katie exhaled her own answering, laughing breath.
“It’s okay.” Oliana shifted her weight, folding her legs up under her. She’d toed her ankleboots off at the suite door, and her feet were warm, exotic little treasures in the pantyhose under her jeans. “If you were doing it on purpose I’d have you in a half nelson by now.”
“I’ve gotta weigh like fifty pounds more than you,” Katie pointed out, but by then they were both laughing for no reason at all, and it got lost.
They kissed more, both of them leaning forward to cross the awkard distance of legs, Oliana not quite in her lap. Oliana’s hand rested on her thigh, also small, holding and then squeezing it gently. She put a hand around behind the back of Oliana’s neck, under her hair, feeling her pulse faintly at the base of her own palm.
“Okay, I’m sitting on something,” Oliana muttered into her mouth a minute later, and lifted her weight up off her butt; she first dug around behind her without looking and then finally broke the kiss once she’d found it. “Oh! It’s Freud. Sorry, guy.” She chucked the book on the floor, Katie already blinking tears out of her eyes from laughing.
“Too many jokes,” she managed, “can’t deal,” and then Oliana was in her lap, kneeling across her thighs, and rolling her eyes.
“Yeah, yeah. Why do you even have that around, hasn’t psychology, like… progressed in some way in the last century?”
“That’s actually for my Historical Lit class,” Katie confessed, and now Oliana was the one laughing so hard she almost hurt herself, her arms secure on Katie’s shoulders.
They were still giggling as they kept kissing, enough that Oliana first twitched away, muffling more laughter, from Katie’s hand slipping up her sweater along her ribs, and had to calm herself down a second so she could be still for it. Still choking back her own unsteady breath (and trying really hard not to get the hiccups, because at this point that would just be an instant failure), Katie found raised lines of embroidery on the cup of her bra, searched among them until the nipple made itself known. That was good for calming them both down, at least; she nudged it with her ring fingertip until Oliana bit her lip, and rocked, gently, along Katie’s closed thighs. Then she was leaning back, on Katie’s knees, stripping the sweater up over her head and then just reaching around behind her and unclasping her bra. And she was all light-striped skin to her waist, her breasts small but very round, her nipples small dark nubs in large, long areolae, almost purple. Katie couldn’t think of much to do but lean in and take one in her mouth, so she did. Oliana sighed and put a hand at the back of Katie’s neck, at the edge of her hair, and held it.
She leaned Oliana back at some point, gently, and Oliana went; her legs shifted easily as she lay down, from straddling their knees over Katie’s hips to wrapping her waist loosely in her thighs. She looked fucking amazing in just jeans, with the faint black band of hose peeking up over the waistband. Katie just had to pause to take note of that again, and then Oliana started working the buttons of Katie’s shirt as Katie leaned over her, her hands lazy and graceful as two expert dancers. Oliana watched them first, and then looked back up at Katie looking. Her mouth spread, widened, into a grin with no teasing or irony at all. Her face, like all the rest of her, was smoothly curved and very beautiful.
“What are you thinking?” she asked, softly, and pushed Katie’s hair out of her eyes. Where it didn’t stay, of course, it was too short and too thick. Katie hesitated, her shirt hanging open now.
“Am I supposed to be thinking?”
On their laughter, Oliana gathered her back in, back to Oliana’s shoulder and her breast.
She worked open the button and zipper of Oliana’s jeans one-handed, somehow, and Oliana did the rest, wriggling under her out of the jeans and pantyhose, and then shoving off her panties in a twisted bunch to a sad grave amid the piles of notebooks on the floor. Katie took the chance to get up a minute and get out of her pants, too, and underwear, although she came back fast and without daring to look at whether Oliana was watching. She didn’t feel like the elephant girl next to Oliana; she felt like Katie, and that was its own sort of amazing thing, but it was still weird to watch somebody see you naked for the first time. What if they looked like they were going to barf, even just by accident or something?
Even lesbian sex is risky, I guess, Katie thought, and tried not to start giggling again. It didn’t help how awkward it was getting back on top of Oliana, either. The bed was just a narrow college bed, barely even big enough for Katie’s pillows, let alone two women besides. But they managed.
When she placed her hand between Oliana’s thighs Oliana took expert control of it, settling her fingers over Katie’s fingers and guiding them. She had to admit, it was a nice change from girls who never said anything unless it was finally, Ow. Katie’s third and ring fingers she curved under, without any fuss or hesitation, to the slickness of her lips. Katie took the hint, and made her fingertips a vertical line, pressing. Heat folded them in, muscular and and wet and sure, pulsing with heartbeats. Oliana let out her breath in a long hiss, and Katie pillowed her head on Oliana’s shoulder, cupping her breast closer so she could bring her tongue to its nipple again. The knuckle of her thumb elbowed into Oliana’s clit, then ground across it, and she worked.
Easy from there: just repetition, trying the occasional new angle, from time to time something faster with the tongue. At some point one of Katie’s roommates put on music in her room, across the suite, and the bass thrummed softly through the walls. The heater hummed under a faint ticking against the window, announcing that it was snowing outside; and Oliana’s breath filled the room, like blowing up an endless red balloon so that its skin was stretched and shiny, enough to reflect back your face. The two of them joined inside it, and floating.
Eventually Oliana made a sound — a little glottal shock in her throat. It was the only warning, but Katie dived: driving her tongue into a mad faster flicking rhythm, her hand going doubletime. Oliana arched, shuddered, and then let out a soft cry — and then she was collapsing into shuddering, her breath rasping in and out like a train, her shoulders falling back to the mattress in a heap. Slowing, and calming down. Katie’s hand slowed too, then stilled.
After a few minutes, she made a drowsy, contented sound, and rolled to Katie, wrapping her in her smooth warm arms. They kissed again, for a long time, tongues in a slow lazy grind. Finally she first slipped her knee between Katie’s thighs, and then rolled her on her back, slipping her own hand between Katie’s legs. Her hand was cool, the big silver ring she wore on her thumb doubly so. Katie shivered, but she let her.
It was so quiet, so easy. She felt so safe and normal, not like this was new at all: like they’d known each other for years. Oliana was a little gentler than she would have really asked for, delicate, running her thin fingers down the edges of Katie’s outer lips and then making light and almost teasing circles around her clit, but that was okay this time, she could let it ride and not rush toward anything. Although at the end, as she was getting close, she did start to whimper a little — and Oliana bore down immediately when she did, overwhelming her with sudden contact, driving her so hard that she came in a bucking pistol-shot, half a startled shout trapped in her mouth.
And then they were just curled together, panting, a little cold. Oliana’s hair smelled sweet and herbal somehow, and kind of oddly warm, like juniper. Katie fumbled one of the blankets across them at some point; at some other point she dozed, or they both did.
“I should probably go,” Oliana murmured with her eyes still closed, when Katie made her way halfway awake; but Oliana didn’t, not that night. Nor most any other, over the course of that spring — especially once they started going to her apartment, where there was a futon that was actually big enough for both of them, but also a much older roommate who sent Katie scurrying off in the mornings with her flat, unimpressed stare.
As graduation crept closer, they finally mustered up the courage to awkwardly compare notes. Katie was in fact going into NYU’s psychiatry program, Oliana starting a master’s program in African-American studies at Columbia. Which was something of a relief. At least compared to Oliana looking at Katie over coffee one morning (at the same Starbucks just down the street), and saying with a perfectly straight face, “So we should move in together.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Katie managed to say, after only a minimal hesitation. Although of course it didn’t.
But somehow, against all odds and logic, it actually turned out to be.
1955, the postmark says. No date inside.
Only a greeting card, age-tainted but still clear. On the front, yellow flowers in watercolor: With Deepest Sympathies. Inside, something equally forgettable engraved; and a few lines of pen, in the same hand as the letters.
She was an angel. My heart breaks for both of you. I can’t tell you how much.
If there’s anything I can do, anything at all, don’t hesitate.
The card itself is bowed and dog-eared, as though it were stood up on a mantel or a windowsill, displayed for a long time.
She had to back into Mr. Pearson’s office, holding the door with her rear; between his letters and the tray with his coffee, her load took up both hands. It was a practiced move by now, easy as dancing even in her high heels, and she was in no danger of disaster — but a hand still caught the top of the door from somewhere nearby while her attention was occupied, pulling it firmly open for her, and she almost upset everything just in her surprise.
Deirdre looked up, and the man holding the door was someone she didn’t know. He was tall, and older, perhaps forty, his hair in shades of iron grey before its time. His face was too thin, his brows too thick and stern, for him to be genuinely handsome, but something about his face made it seem to be handsome regardless, heedless of the rules. Perhaps just how easily it seemed to smile.
“Ah,” Mr. Pearson said, standing behind his desk. He was a gentle, timid sort of man, small and balding, with round gold-rimmed glasses. He could have been much worse, in his position, but he had never even seemed tempted, and Deirdre was fond of him. “Mr. Vanderbilt, this is Mrs. Markham, my secretary.” He cleared a space on his desk, and she hurried to set down the tray, flashing only a quick smile at this Mr. Vanderbilt as she passed him. “Mrs. Markham — ” He stretched out his hand. “Richard Vanderbilt, who will be working with us for a time on a project for Boeing.”
“How do you do.” She shook his hand, and he clasped it in with his other for a brief second. It was both a sweet gesture and slightly irritating. But his smile was broad, and, to all her senses, true.
“A pleasure,” Richard Vanderbilt said; and when he let go of her hand it took her a moment, to gather her balance again and see herself back out of the room.
“You aren’t a current Mrs. Markham, are you?” Mr. Vanderbilt said also, a few days later, standing by the side of her desk as he waited for Mr. Pearson’s phone call to come to an end. She was typing correspondence, but glanced up at him; he smiled at her frown, and gestured toward one of her hands on the typewriter keys. “I couldn’t help noticing your hand.”
Yes, she had taken the ring off: just about a year ago, and now she half-wished she hadn’t. The ring had been protection. Clora had never even asked her to, but then, Clora wouldn’t think about things like that. She set her eyes back on the letter. “You aren’t very subtle, Mr. Vanderbilt.” He laughed, in spite of her attempt to sound severe, but she thought not because of it. He was kinder than that; she had gleaned that much just for the bits and pieces of him she had seen around the office, for the start of his contract, and how much Mr. Pearson seemed to enjoy him. She paused a moment, and then finally finished, “My husband was killed in the war.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He said it so genuinely and with such chagrin that she stopped typing, and actually looked up long enough to offer him a brief smile.
“Thank you. But it was some time ago. As I’m sure you remember.”
He nodded, though, as though she’d been serious. “Well, I was still here then, building airplanes. But I do.” Mr. Pearson buzzed from the office — he’d hung up — but Mr. Vanderbilt lingered although he must understand the sound. “Even so, I admire your courage, Mrs. Markham.”
“Deirdre,” she said, for no reason at all; and then scrambled for her professional smile. “He’ll see you now.”
Everybody made too big a deal, Katie thought, about long-term relationships. What they didn’t tell you was that after a while, it would take more effort to stop. …Or maybe, she had to admit, that was just them.
They’d ended up with an okay place in Woodside, which was sort of a compromise in that it suited nobody. Katie was still working on her residency; Oliana had graduated in May, but was still at Columbia with a fellowship. It was no particular time at all in their joined life, except that things seemed, suddenly and strangely, to be changing everywhere outside. That had really started a year ago, when Oliana — whose mother was a lawyer, and she’d been following the Supreme Court case a lot more closely than Katie had been able to find the concentration to — banged home from work one day in June, grinning, grabbed Katie’s face and kissed her first thing. “We won,” she’d said.
“Lawrence v. Texas. We won.”
“Get out!” Katie had nearly shouted, and at the end of hugs and laughing and dinner and all that good glad noise she had started to think that maybe things were changing, maybe things were really getting different. It had only been amplified just after the turning of the year, when California had erupted into uneasy fireworks, and they’d seemed before long to be catching. It had been embarrassing in a way to just be watching, middle-class Manhattan dykes in luxury they were, but for a while that was all they had been able to do. Katie felt like she was hard pressed just to keep her mouth from hanging open.
So July that year was no special time, except it was the first time Oliana turned to her in the kitchen as they were working on dinner, half-amused, and said, “So are we going to get married?” and it was a question there had hardly ever seemed to be any point in being prepared for. Were they? If that was even a question that meant something? They weren’t perfect. Oliana had a short sharp temper, humor-tipped, and Katie drove her crazy with wanting to turn every argument into a conversation, starting every statement with “I” until Oliana called her out on it. It had been rough, especially early on, before they got used to each other; they’d cracked and broken down and from time to time she’d even suspected, in the darkest hours, that it wasn’t going to work, but it had. It had smoothed out. Now it seemed like… more effort to be apart than together.
Was that it? Was that all it took? Or was there something she was missing because she’d never even thought it would matter?
“I don’t know if that’s really up to us,” Katie said, and grinned uneasily, scratching her nose with the back of her hand and getting flour on it. Oliana thumbed it away expertly, holding her eyes.
“Fuck that,” she said. “It is if we say it is.”
November 11, 1955
What wonderful news! All of my congratulations to you and to John. Of course I understand your reserve, but I think it is hardly necessary; I suspect motherhood transforms us all into the best mothers that we may be. Nature always finds her way.
I understand, also, why you might have hesitated in sharing this news with me. I can only hope it did not cause you too much worry or keep you too long. I could not be more delighted for your sake. Let there be no more to it than that.
Deirdre had hoped for better, of course, but if pressed she couldn’t really have said why. It had been Mother Markham’s idea: she was bowled over with Richard, and took every chance to try to make him welcome, but Deirdre didn’t think that was the whole reason for inviting him over to dinner, either. She thought Mother Markham was trying to make it plain to Clora the way of things. Mother had chosen her loyalty; and Mother controlled all, Mother’s choice was still the house’s choice.
Clora was quiet as they ate, but not rudely so, and Richard tried especially to be kind to her: Deirdre noticed, and was grateful for it. He was a sensitive man in many strange ways, and seemed to understand that he did not yet have a friend in Clora. Deirdre tried not to let her eyes flicker between them, or to be too conscious of the dim little dining room: the table at last un-draped of its protections, and made handsome with polish and candles, the shadows nonetheless collecting in the corners as always. Mother Markham was dressed up, gracious and matronly. By the third time she laughed and touched Richard’s hand, Deirdre found she had to excuse herself to the kitchen, claiming some foolish dining need, and managed to evade Richard’s effort to catch her eye.
Clora swung in behind her barely seconds later. She must have told them she would help.
“Well, Mother loves him,” she said, going to the cabinets — and there was such bright hatred in her voice that Deirdre actually reeled against the stove. This was the difference in breeding between them, she thought faintly; she’d never have been able to hide a fire like that inside her chest, never in a hundred years. “If you don’t hurry I expect you’ll be asked to share.”
“Clora — ”
“What?” She whirled, and Deirdre fought not to take a step away. “What could you mean to tell me now, after this for a year?”
“Not a whole year,” Deirdre’s numb, stupid mouth was saying; but that lost her Clora, her long gathered tail of hair whipping away. She gripped the counter. She couldn’t lose here; not after all this time. “Clora! You don’t understand.”
“Oh, don’t I?” With her canny, caustic look. “He’s nearly old enough to be your father.”
“It’s for you!”
That actually made Clora turn, slowly, to look at her, and though Deirdre could read nothing from her she pushed herself through, falling headlong over words into the dark. “You’re still the point. You. I — he has money.” Saying it was hard, humiliating, probably for both of them, but necessary. Clora still didn’t move, and she pushed the advantage, pushed the distance, came forward to take both her hands and hold them between their two bodies like a warning. “If I marry him I can help you, you and Mother Markham. That’s all I want! After all you’ve given me… I can’t let you live like this. Clora, you deserve so much better than this life.”
Clora was silent for more long moments, her face still. When she spoke, her voice was soft, but steady. “Did you ever ask me,” she said, “if this was the life I wanted?”
The words melted from Deirdre’s mouth. She was caught, wide-eyed, staring up. Clora held her hands hard; not enough to hurt, but enough to frighten her a little, enough to bring her close to the sotto voce hiss of her venom. “Don’t disgrace yourself, and me, by pretending this is generosity. All that matters to you is having a husband to hide behind. If you’re after his money than at least have the guts to be after it yourself; don’t drag me into it. And certainly don’t make this out as a charity case when I know it’s your easy way out.”
She stared, fixed. They were no more than a few inches apart in the silent kitchen, the dim cheerful sounds of Richard and Mother eating and talking drifting from across the house. Tears shoved at Deirdre’s eyes, but she blinked them away, trying to firm her mouth. That would do no good; not with Clora.
“That isn’t true,” she said in a soft, beaten whisper. After another moment had passed, Clora at last let go of her hands, and stepped back to rest against the counter.
“I can’t blame you for wanting to be safe,” Clora said, after several more moments’ pause. “But I damn well blame you for forcing it on me.”
Even still, the engagement ring came, like a flower unlooked-for but with its bulb forgotten in the earth. And when, in spring, Richard said to her California, she knew that what Clora had said had been either true or a self-fulfilling prophecy; she knew it by the way she was able to close her eyes, and step off the ledge of all good intentions. And the fact that Clora would never have let Deirdre support her anyway was as nothing in the face of how the effort was never made.
Oh well, oh well; she had knitted a life out of oh well. Oh well, no matter. Women always find a way.
Oliana stood watching her as she dialed her cellphone, and although Katie kind of wished she wouldn’t, it was also nice in a way to have her there. She stared out-of-focus at the kitchen wall, the slip of paper where she’d written down the number.
Grandmamma had turned 92 in spring, but she’d gotten sick over the winter before, and so suddenly it had scared all of them. Pancreatic cancer, of all damn things, and although it had been found pretty early, at her age… well. Katie had gone home, brought her wagon into the circle, and for the first time Oliana had gone with her. Not that she hadn’t met Katie’s family — she had at graduation, and when Eric and her parents had each visited once or twice in between — but that she hadn’t gone to Illinois.
“You don’t have to do this,” Katie had said in the back of the cab, on the way to the airport, and Oliana had given her that amused, ironic sideways smile.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she had said, and Katie had tried not to be.
And it had been… okay. Awkward, a little, not least because it was such a weird emotional time for Mom and she was the biggest trouble spot, but still, okay. They had gone to see Grandmamma in the hospital, and Katie had held her tiny, thin hand; age and disease were finally accomplishing what nothing else in the world had been able to, cutting Grandmamma down to size. And she had left Oliana hanging out with Dad and Eric and gone with Mom to the assisted-living community suite that had followed Grandmamma’s condo, to gather some things together for her; and somehow in digging around the closets Katie had again come across that one particular trunk, the one she had found when she was sixteen. The one with the letters in it.
And then Katie had started getting a really dumb idea.
“I mean, I don’t even know that for sure,” she had said to Oliana, as she was pacing around back in New York, trying to talk herself into or out of it. “They could have just been friends. But you can’t even tell, nobody said what they meant about anything in the fifties.” That made Oliana laugh a little, but distractedly.
“Well, even if they were friends, maybe she’d want to know,” she said, not unreasonably. And Katie, looking at her and chewing her lip, finally decided she’d wanted to be talked into it after all.
From there, it had been almost a year’s worth of work: trying to find contacts, hunting down leads, grimacing at postmarks and at Google Maps, and at way too many aeronautics websites. The real break, though, finally came not regarding Richard Vanderbilt’s wife, but his daughter: his youngest daughter, Donna, who had by chance graduated from Columbia University some twenty years before it had even heard of Oliana Jordan. Oliana ran across her by chance in alumni mailings, found the time frame and her original address sort of matched up, and called her on a whim — and their other bit of good fortune was that Donna (now Donna Stevenson of Fort Lauderdale, Florida) was all for the idea.
“Aunt Clora?” she thrilled, or at least she did in Oliana’s impression of her, which probably wasn’t entirely accurate but was pretty funny. “Of course, Mom’d love that! She used to talk about her all the time. They were practically sisters, weren’t they?”
“Hence the ‘in law’,” Katie noted to this, and Oliana whapped her lightly on the arm with her fingertips. When she was done, though, she turned over the number. Still in San Diego; apparently Deirdre hadn’t ended up as tired of California as she’d thought.
The phone rang and rang. Once she almost lost her nerve and hung up.
The voice was sweet; definitely an older woman’s, but still more in true and firm than Katie might have expected. She gathered her nerve, and glanced at Oliana, who took her hand.
“Is this Deirdre Vanderbilt?”
“Yes, it is,” the woman on the other side of the country said. “Can I help you, dear?”
“I hope so,” Katie said; and then she pushed on.
When she had finished, Deirdre was quiet for so long that Katie was afraid for a moment that she’d lost her somehow, perhaps to the line or perhaps just in memory. Who was to say she even knew who Grandmamma was anymore? But after probably only a few seconds had ticked away, Deirdre finally said, “I’m just writing myself a note, Katie, so I don’t forget to ask Marisol to help me book a flight to Chicago. I’m dumb as a stump on the computer.”
She wanted, at first, to go and meet her there — to actually meet this woman who might or might not have been something special to her grandmother, forever ago — but she was going crazy in the last year of her program, trying to finish up her residency and find the next step all at once. She settled for calling Grandmamma through Mom a couple weeks later, but as she’d suspected she couldn’t make out a thing from Grandmamma’s mild, surprised answers. From all she could tell, Grandmamma might not even have remembered Deirdre at all. Old women, she thought, could be more inscrutable than anyone; they could sidestep you into vague white clouds in their memory, or just smile at you until you gave up.
“Are you coming out for the wedding next spring, Grandmamma?” she managed to ask, at least, before hanging up; and she was almost sure she could hear Grandmamma’s thoughtful, deliberating pause.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Grandmamma said, finally. An evasion, yes — but Katie thought also a promise.
After 1956 there are no real letters to speak of. A few brief missives, maybe. A postcard from Venice Beach, and a number of Christmas cards. Finally, late in 1958, a fat and beaming infant boy appears in Deirdre’s arms in the photograph inside one of these latter (still in black and white, although barely), and after that even this last weak trickle finally dries up. Children bring their own alterations to women’s lives, cutting and hemming and tailoring to suit. The attention becomes refocused, and even the most important prior matters can fall by the wayside.
She looks content, this Deirdre on the last photograph; her once-long hair is now shorter and puffed around her older face, her suit smart, her arms sure around her son. She looks content — but she does not exactly look happy. There is something missing, one might say, around the eyes.
But what can be said? Content is better than most of us get.
So she let go.
Clora did not see the train from the station; she did not stand with Mother Markham, weeping and waving handkerchiefs, in the fading trail of its steam. With a new husband they have lost the tenuous thread that bound them into Deirdre’s life, and would only be strange interlopers now, their presence viewed askance. Clora went to work, bought groceries, fixed dinner in the gloomy kitchen where her last real talk, her last talk about them, with Deirdre had been a fight. She behaved like a widowed woman on any ordinary day.
“You mustn’t be spiteful,” Mother had said up in her room, in the intervening time, with a slight tremor in her voice that probably meant nothing. “You know you mustn’t try to hold her here, Clora, no matter what you may feel. This is no place for a girl like Deirdre, not for good.” She had watched, her eyes reflecting lamplight, as Clora set down the cups for coffee that she had asked her to bring for just this purpose, Clora mute and even as a doll.
“What can there be for her,” Mother had said, “in a house full of women?”
And Me, Clora had nearly said — nearly shouted, risen to her feet and upset the table, made some grand dramatic gesture that might have salved her battered sense of the banality of all this. Was perhaps even what Mother wanted her to say, from the gimlet cast of her eyes in her downturned face, demure as a girl thirty years younger. Because, Clora supposed, she already knew the answer to that gambit.
There can be me; but I am not enough. If I was the point, now I am beside it. And that’s the true way of things.
But did she believe that?
She put meager beef into the oven, simmered vegetables on the stove. An ordinary day in an ordinary life. After a while she sat down at the table, and rested her head on her hands.
And a while later, she got up, and went back to work.
It was Oliana’s mom, who’d gotten sort of disconcertingly enthusiastic about the whole thing, who insisted on filing all the paperwork and putting up all the fees if it would just get them to have the ceremony in Central Park. They both sort of hedged about it (“We’re already married, Mom,” Oliana’d said loudly on the phone while Katie pretended not to be listening or laughing, “Canada did the whole part on paper already, this is just an excuse to make up dumb vows and drink champagne.”), but in the end she was undeterrable, and now Katie’s actually sort of glad; the conservatory is beautiful this time of year, flowering against all last struggling attempts of winter. Their small family attendances (including Oliana’s father, for a wonder; he lives in Detroit and calls about twice a year) are set on rows of folding chairs, the sun bright and sweet on their faces, and she can’t imagine a better place for this, for whatever this is exactly they’re doing.
“I promise to keep you honest,” Katie is saying, because there have to be dumb vows, as hard as you might try to keep the vows from being too dumb, “and I trust you to do the same. I promise to listen every time you talk, no matter what, and stop, and think, even when I’m busy, even when there’s noise all around. I promise that I’ll be there when you need me. And that I’ll keep trying, every day, because when I’m with you I know there’s nothing to stop me from always being better, from being the best that I can be.”
The vows are written down on a little card in her hand, but nobody minds, and it turns out she doesn’t need them anyway. She’s had them in her head for years now, to navigate from like the stars. Oliana is standing in front of her, smiling; she’s radiant, in a white pants suit, her hair knotted into wreaths of braids this time around behind her head, with white flowers — lilies — nested in them. The sun is bright on her skin and Katie’s eyes sting. Yes it’s dumb; yes it’s unnecessary; but at the end of all that, just yes.
“I promise to be what you love in me,” she says, “and to always find what I love in you. And that no matter what else is hard, or slow, or strange in our lives, that’ll always matter the most. Until maybe nothing else will.”
Which is the end of her dumb vows, and Oliana knows it; they practiced for this, like they practiced for everything, like all the mundane bits and pieces of planning went in to create this illusion of romance. And that’s cool, Katie thinks; that’s just life. You have to do all of the hard work before you can find the beauty — but when you can, it’s always there, waiting.
Oliana’s friend Jacky, who’s presiding for them on a drunken promise — he is a minister of some sort, Katie thinks, works for something to do with the U.N. — smiles, and turns his attention to Oliana, offering by rote the couple of lines that will let her begin her half. They both look outward, while he does, glancing across their people in a quick thirsty gulp. Katie looks at Mom and Dad, holding hands, Dad proud, Mom at least resigned, but they’re both smiling now and so it’s all okay, probably; Eric, with his lip piercing and one in his eyebrow besides, wearing his theater-program hair and a long wrap skirt — and also holding hands with his girlfriend, which just goes to show you. Something.
And then behind them, her gaze falls across Grandmamma, in her wheelchair, her oxygen tubes resting in her nose like some weird hockey guard, a shawl across her lap and her thin threads of white hair lifting slightly with the breeze, smiling her unreadable old woman’s smile… and Deirdre, plump, pleasant, coiffed, humble in her chair beside Grandmamma in white slacks and a pink sweater. Deirdre who went all the way back to Illinois, and now has come all the way to New York, to sit in that chair by Grandmamma’s. And Katie sees on top of the shawl that they are holding hands, their spotted, age-delicate fingers knitted together.
And that’s when the tears actually come, unbidden but not unwelcome.
This is not for us, Katie thinks — realizes, is struck by — in the space of seconds before Oliana begins to speak, and it will be time for her to keep her promise, and listen. None of this is for us; nothing for us will really change, by doing this. We’ll go home afterward and our lives will be pretty much like before. This is about the ones who couldn’t, shouldn’t, never did. This is for you. You dropped things as you went, left them behind on the march, because you had so much already to bear; but we’ll pick up everything you abandoned, and carry it with us on our way. Nothing is lost. Nothing is over. We’re here with you, and we do this for you.
Sisters, mothers, grandmothers: for you, anything.
There is a time between times, a time where time fades away; and here are interred the things which might have happened, which did not happen, which happened but have been lost in the mists of our memory, as we have moved farther and farther away. This place is not unlike the breath’s worth of hesitation that passes through a mind between waking and sleep, when the patterns of sense are disconnected but the brain does not yet dream.
It is in this place that Deirdre writes her novel at last: a fantasy for children, a story of mermaids, in which the starring hybrid creature has an arching white swanlike neck and long dark hair, and a cynical, but sweet, smile. It is in this place that Deirdre writes letters to Clora, twice as many letters, enough letters to fill a colosseum, each more full with the words that she really wants to say than the last. I love you, Clora, I love you, I love you, always the point, always you, she writes, so fast that the scratching of her pen is like frantic rats’ feet, so fast that in time the nib cracks in half.
It is in this place that Clora begins to find her place, again, in the lost and empty shadows of her mother’s townhouse; here that she rises, as always, to her feet, because anyone with all her sharp edges, collapsing in on herself, can only cut herself to ribbons. And here Clora moves through the dim kitchen, her skirt swaying around her calves, making a dinner for two or tea for her ailing mother, finding the space that was hers, then another’s too, now hers again. She chops vegetables, washes her hands at the sink, and every now and again finds herself humming some old song from the radio, one of the ones Deirdre used to sing:
Don’t sigh and gaze at me
Your sighs are so like mine
Your eyes mustn’t glow like mine
People will say we’re in love…