L O V E J O Y
By Elizabeth Oness
Caroline had been sleeping with Richard for most of the school year, and was thinking about the best way to break it off, when he called her at home, early one morning, and the unexpected ringing startled her into fear.
“It’s Mickey, he fell off the bluffs.” Richard’s voice was hoarse. “I have to meet my wife at the hospital. Would you have Elsa cancel my classes?”
“Of course,” Caroline said. “Go on. I’ll talk to you later.” She hung up the phone and pulled her robe around her. The bluffs, visible from her kitchen window, rose against the sky. On overcast days, they reminded her of a scene in a Chinese scroll––steep mountains shrouded in mist. On clear days, they glowed with reflected light––copper, siena, umber––tinting the towns, Trempealeau, Onalaska, La Crosse, that had grown up beneath their shadow and the Mississippi.
She put water on to boil, then sat down at her kitchen table. In grief he had said ‘my wife.’ He was usually careful to say ‘my children’s mother,’ a way of declaring his singleness. She had never met Emily, but whenever Richard mentioned some small disagreement, usually involving the children or finances, Caroline thought he never seemed to realize, in his brief reporting, how much they were alike.
On their second date, Richard told her that his marriage had ended by the time his children were teenagers. As he looked at her across the table, turning his fork in his hand, Caroline wondered if she detected a practiced sincerity. From other sources, small town gossip really, she knew that he had left his wife for someone younger, so Richard’s negligence, in her mind, was that he failed to report his mid-life crisis as such. He could be selfish like that, and his selfishness was one reason she allowed herself to start sleeping with him. She would never have to feel responsible for him in the way she had once felt responsible for her husband, who she had married long ago in a burst of optimism. They had little in common and finally divorced; she tried to think of her marriage as a healthy mistake. Richard was a different matter: well-traveled, a witty conversationalist, unselfish in bed, but she suspected this last attribute was partly a matter of pride, and partly because the benefit of his generosity came back to him so directly.
She waited until after eight a.m. to call his secretary in the History Department. Caroline told Elsa that she wasn’t sure whether the boy was alive, although she gathered from Richard’s tone that he had been very badly hurt. She asked Elsa to notify the Dean of Students. Mickey was a sophomore at the University.
When she got off the phone, Caroline sat down at the table and pressed her palms against a mug of tea. Now she would be required to act the part of the helpful companion. She didn’t mind, she owed Richard that, but she couldn’t provide any real relief. His children had not forgiven him. Mickey was an unhappy boy, “a bit like Eeyore,” Richard once said regretfully. She had never met his daughter, a senior at Madison.
Their involvement had been easily navigable in terms of their colleagues, although Caroline found it irksome that, once people realized you were sleeping with someone, they wanted to make you a couple. It was a polite thing to assume, of course. Caroline and Richard both taught at the university. She was in Economics; he was Chair of the History Department. They were often invited to the same functions, and those who knew about them accepted them without fuss. But Richard was starting to rely on her for little things, wifely duties, and she didn’t want that. She was going to England on sabbatical next year, and planned to leave in the summer. A few months ago, when Richard suggested he might come and visit, she tried to politely deflect his proposal. She thought that, if she broke with him at the end of the semester, she would avoid prying questions from colleagues, and it would be a year, or more, before she saw him again.
She expected to hear from him that night, and when she didn’t, she imagined that Mickey had died, or was close to it, and Richard was at his bedside. At dinner time, she made herself some toast; she didn’t want to linger in the kitchen where the glow of sunset lit the bluffs.
At the wake, Richard introduced Caroline as his ‘friend.’ Under a sleek cap of brown hair, Emily had the blanched look of a person in shock. Her brown eyes were huge and fish-like in her narrow face. Caroline recognized the expression. Moving forward without a compass. She had felt that way through the long vagaries of her sister’s misdiagnosis, even more when the doctor tried to explain why her sister had died.
“I’m so sorry,” Caroline said. “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”
Emily looked at her, befuddled; grief had made her transparent.
“I lost my sister, very suddenly, a few years ago,” Caroline said. She felt awkward as soon as she said it. She’d meant to explain she had some idea how Emily felt, but it sounded as if she were comparing griefs.
Emily’s chin trembled; she pressed her lips together. A young woman came up behind her, put her suntanned arms around her mother’s waist, and rested her chin on her mother’s shoulder.
“This is Natalie,” Emily said. “This is Caroline, a friend of your father’s.”
The girl straightened up and looked at her, appraising.
Natalie had a face that should be painted. She had a deeper version of her mother’s coloring: olive skin and hazel eyes, green and brown flecked with gold. She looked as if she came from somewhere exotic, Zagreb or Trieste, as if she were a gypsy girl, a changeling, and couldn’t truly have been born to Emily and Richard with their narrow, quizzical faces. Natalie’s face, round and smooth, had a watchful expression. Over her hair, she’d wrapped a deep green cloth, and her shirt, the color of a new leaf, was pale and translucent against her skin. A macrame choker, with a small clay bead, rested at the base of her throat. The string had a patina of sweat and dirt on the top.
Natalie stared at Caroline, as if to compensate for her mother’s distraction. Caroline remembered the feeling: how a veil of grief was like a scrim between her and everything she saw. As she and Natalie looked at each other, Caroline had an odd sensation of being seen through, as if it were clear that she wanted to leave Richard, but it would be awkward to do so now, as if Natalie understood her pretense. Caroline had a sudden image of pushing Natalie’s choker aside, kissing her dirty neck.
Caroline murmured a greeting. She scarcely knew what she said.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Natalie said.
Muted greetings murmured by the doorway: a group of old friends had arrived. Caroline, grateful for the diversion, stepped back to let them speak to Richard and Emily.
On the other side of the room, Mickey’s friends huddled together, their hands in their pockets, their hair gelled or wet, as if they’d been shoved into a shower and then forced to appear in public. They looked like recalcitrant calves, ready for slaughter. They kept their restive distance on the other side of the closed casket.
Caroline had moved off to the side, and was examining an ugly bit of wallpaper, when Natalie came to stand beside her. She looked across the room at her parents, standing together, talking to someone Caroline didn’t know.
“Your father should go back to your mother,” Caroline said.
Natalie glanced at her, then folded her arms. “He never should have left.”
“Why are you with him if you don’t like him?” Natalie asked.
“I didn’t say I didn’t like him,” Caroline said.
“Here’s Gina,” Natalie said, as if this explained something. Gina moved toward them, looking neither left nor right. She had dark, curly hair, a sullen mouth, and glasses with heavy black frames, urban artist wear. A spiky tattoo circled her left wrist, and the side of her sturdy calf was covered by a monster from Where the Wild Things Are. Gina hugged Natalie long and hard, and they stood together, swaying in grief, in the middle of the room.
After the wake, they all went back to their separate places, like a boxing ring, Caroline thought, each resting in his or her corner. She flopped on the couch in front of the television and picked up the remote. Since Pamela’s illness, there was very little she could stand to watch. No hospital shows, no courtroom dramas, no shows about children who were sick or in pain. She did like Mystery! on public television. While Pamela was sick, Caroline became peculiarly attached to a show called “Lovejoy.” The show was set in a cozy version of England, and the main character was an old-fashioned, politically incorrect womanizer–a person one didn’t have to worry about. She liked his mischievousness, that he broke the rules and got away with it. He had an alcoholic old friend, full of arcane knowledge, who was not a realistic drunk, but an endearing one. Caroline imagined living in a thatched roof cottage, drinking tea and reading books. She wanted to be surrounded by green fields, wanted warmth in the midst of cold, history at the center of the swirling world around her. She wanted to accept the eccentricities of her neighbors with a benign humor. She wanted a life that was the opposite of her life right then: Pamela’s illness, the erratic series of tests, the chill of fluorescent lights, bedpans and IVs, the frightening way that illness had taken her.
Pamela had looked like a figure in a pre-Raphaelite painting: long chestnut hair, elegant, snooty features. She and Caroline looked alike, although Caroline always thought of Pamela as sharper, freshly minted, while she, Caroline, was the slightly blurry copy. When they were girls, Pamela had always been ahead of her, and Caroline remembered the way her sister grew beautiful before her eyes, telling her how boys acted, how they liked to be touched, how it felt when they touched her. Caroline felt as if her knowledge of men had been sieved through Pamela, who relayed her experiences without ever asking if Caroline wanted to hear them. First he did this, Pamela said, running her finger up Caroline’s thigh. Then he touched me, here. Caroline shivered. Pamela had loved her husband, Bryce, but sometimes, Caroline felt as if Pamela’s love had been acted out, partly for her benefit, behind a screen of domesticity. Pamela had forced her to become a voyeur.
Bryce owned a store that sold and installed woodstoves and gas fireplaces. Early on, Pamela had confided her fears that the business would never come to anything. She wanted to stay home with their two little girls, but Bryce believed in the business, and Pamela continued to teach Special Education classes at the local elementary school; her salary kept them afloat. Finally, in the months leading up to December 2000, when people were afraid that computers and municipal systems would fail, Bryce’s business had blossomed. He hired extra men. When Pamela was finally diagnosed, he wanted to take her on a trip, let her quit her job, but it was too late.
During Pamela’s illness, Caroline juggled her grading and preparation for lectures around taking Pamela to the hospital, the girls to their various activities. Of course Bryce took time off too, but Caroline’s husband was left to fend for himself.
“Your sister’s illness has been running our lives for more than a year now,” he once said.
“Yes,” she agreed. “It has.”
She didn’t think their marriage failed because of Pamela, but because she and Harry were so different. He worked for a cable TV company. Their whole marriage had been an aesthetic compromise. Harry once described her as being tepid, and she had the feeling it was a word he’d looked up in the dictionary. After they divorced, he and his new girlfriend went to Branson together.
They all believed that Caroline stepping in to help was temporary, the doctors would figure out this auto-immune thing, but Pamela got pneumonia in the fall, and then died from sepsis while they were waiting for her long recuperation to begin.
Mickey’s funeral wasn’t until Saturday, giving out-of-town relatives a few days to get to La Crosse. Caroline tried to be helpful, which mostly meant staying out of the way. She wondered why Richard hadn’t said more about Natalie, who he’d mentioned only vaguely. Of all the things that Richard could be obtuse about, this seemed the most glaring oversight.
On Friday night, Caroline met her friend Zoe for dinner downtown.
“You should come to London for a few weeks,” Caroline said. She picked up a French fry and looked at it dubiously. “Think of it–tea at Harrod’s, the British Museum, disgusting pub food. It’ll be great.”
“The bookstore’s always so busy in the fall.” Zoe had recently cut her hair short and spiky. She was ready for an adventure, Carolyn thought.
“Oh, please. I know you hold the place together, but they could manage for a little, couldn’t they?”
“Why me instead of Richard?”
“You’re more fun.”
“Yes, really. He’s angst-ridden already. Now he’s going to be further depressed.”
“Stop. He’s lovely.”
“Have him yourself then,” Caroline said.
After dinner, Caroline walked up Pearl Street, past the old-fashioned candy store, the bookstore where Zoe worked, a beauty school where students got their hair cut. A few doors up, a bar called CASINO had a neon sign: Lousy Service. Two young women hurried out the door; it looked as if one was chasing the other. Caroline recognized Natalie and Gina.
“Lug!” Gina shouted. “Fucking lug! I can’t believe you.” Gina shoved Natalie, who deflected the hit by spinning to the side. Gina stumbled, then caught herself against the brick wall. Caroline hurried toward them.
“Please, stop! What’s going on?”
Gina’s glasses were crooked, her eyes streaming. “I can’t believe you!” she shouted.
Natalie turned and walked toward Caroline. It looked as if she were stepping out of the ocean, heading for dry land.
“Do you have a car here?”
“Of course,” Caroline said. They hurried away, leaving Gina shouting on the sidewalk, pounding her fist on the wall of the bar.
They didn’t speak until they had turned the corner. Caroline hit the remote, unlocking her car doors. Natalie slid in the passenger side.
“Are you all right?” Caroline asked.
Natalie nodded, her eyes tearing up.
“Why in the world was she calling you a lug?”
Natalie pressed the door lock. “L-U-G. Do you know what it stands for?”
“Lesbian Until Graduation.”
“She gets like this. She’s raving.”
Caroline put the key in the ignition. She was perhaps fifteen years older than most of her students and often had these moments of feeling impossibly far away from them. They didn’t share the same references. She knew that Ani Di Franco was a singer that some of her most pierced and disaffected women students liked. Once, in a lecture on labor economics, she had worked in a few references to the show Friends, the sorts of jobs the characters had, and she’d been pleased to see a glint of recognition on the students’ faces.
“Where do you want to go?” Caroline asked.
“Well, I was staying with Gina, but it doesn’t look like that now.”
“Do you want to me to drive you out to your mother’s?”
“If you don’t mind, that would be great.”
Caroline turned north, toward Onalaska, and Natalie directed her toward her mother’s house. From Richard, Caroline knew that Emily still lived in the house they had shared. As they drove through the quiet streets, Caroline asked. “Have you and Gina been together a long time?”
“We’re not really a couple,” Natalie said. “We were, a while ago, but she still feels… proprietary, I guess.”
Caroline pulled up in front of a split-level house on the side of a cul-de-sac. It was hard to distinguish one house from another in the dark.
Since the morning of Mickey’s death, her private conversations with Richard had been hurried and mostly taken up with logistics. When she encouraged him to spend time with Emily, Richard gazed at her with appreciation, and she tried not to show that she was relieved to be out of the fray. The unspoken shimmered around her. Mickey had been drinking. They were calling it an accident.
The morning of the funeral was cloud-scudded and bright. Caroline watched from a distance as Richard stood with Natalie and Emily in front of the church. Natalie wore a dropwaist vintage dress made of sheer green fabric. She looked as if she belonged in an English garden, drinking tea, although her choker didn’t go with the dress at all. Caroline had never seen anyone look so lovely.
Natalie looked at her directly and nodded. A pulse flared in her throat. She understood that she should not mention the other night. Richard walked over and kissed her on the cheek. His warm, clean smell was familiar, and suddenly she felt sorry for him, sorry for all she could not say.
“Emily’s sister wants to sit in the front row, and I don’t know if there’s room–.” He rubbed his hand across his face.
Caroline put her hand on his arm. He seemed to have shrunk inside his clothes, his already reedy frame become thinner. “Richard, please, put Emily’s family in front. I’ll sit a row or two back.”
During the service, the minister spoke in measured abstractions–youth, acceptance, God’s mystery. What a terrible assignment, Caroline thought, having to say all kinds of things that your audience wouldn’t buy. Friends glanced at her, sitting behind Richard’s family, and probably imagined she was being nice, or diplomatic. Nothing was further from the truth. She was not nice. Pamela had been nice–too nice. Caroline had gone to see a therapist about a year after Pamela’s death, at her husband’s insistence, which was surprising because Harry wasn’t an introspective person, and had never insisted on anything before. The therapist made her think of an old-fashioned organ grinder. All he needed was a waxed mustache, a little monkey on a chain.
“It’s the nice people, caretaker types, who get these auto-immune things,” he told her.
“That doesn’t sound very medical,” Caroline said.
“It’s not. It’s just an observation.”
It was true, Caroline thought. Pamela tended to everyone around her, especially her students. Bryce got his business off the ground while Pamela did the housework, made her kids’ lunches, looked after them, soothed them and cheered for them, encouraged Bryce when he felt discouraged. She had been like that all through Caroline’s growing up: she kept everyone else going. What was not nice about Pamela was the part of her that flirted and teased, that explained things Caroline didn’t want to hear, that said to Caroline Do you know how to kiss? The side of Pamela that was dark and provocative, the part that made Caroline most uncomfortable, that had been Pamela’s true strength.
Mercifully, there was no graveside visit. A friend of Emily’s had offered her house, close to the university, for a place to gather. Caroline hoped to arrive after the crowd, so she encouraged Richard to ride back with Emily. Parking at her own house, she walked the few blocks to the gathering. She’d always thought that eating and drinking after a funeral was an odd custom. Sun shone on the bluffs: umber, orange, shadowed where the sun cut across. The ambiguity of Mickey’s death cast them differently.
A young man who looked familiar, perhaps a former student, was standing behind the bar; his stance seemed temporary, as if he were merely helping himself. Caroline reached for a wine glass, and turned to find Natalie at her elbow.
“Would you like something to drink?” Caroline asked.
“Wine would be great.”
Caroline poured her a large glass of wine, then poured one for herself. It felt vaguely illicit to be pouring a drink for a student, although she told herself that Natalie was certainly old enough to drink.
Natalie took a sip, then looked at Caroline over her glass. The wine shimmered with reflected light. “Thanks for the ride home the other night.”
They walked away from the bar together and leaned companionably in the corner. Up close, Caroline saw Natalie’s dress was truly old: the neckline hand-stitched, the material sheer and unfamiliar. She guessed it was organdy.
“How’s your mother?”
“Not so good.” Natalie said.
Caroline studied the crowd around Emily whose hair fell smoothly to her shoulders, framing her face. She looked sleek and organized, but her expression was distraught.
“You and my father aren’t terribly serious, are you?”
“No,” Caroline said. “At least, I didn’t plan for it to be.”
“My mom thinks you’re nice.”
“I’m not nice,” Caroline said.
“Well, you have manners.”
“Do you ever come to Madison?”
“Sometimes, not much.” Caroline answered off-handedly, and then became aware of the sharp scent of patchouli, the closeness of Natalie standing beside her. Lulled by the wine, by the bright afternoon, Caroline had missed the import of Natalie’s question. She tried to recover. “Well, sometimes, you know. For the library.” The truth was that she hadn’t set foot in Madison’s library for years. Her academic career, such as it was, had not seemed important for a while. “I’m going to England on sabbatical next year.”
“I love England,” Natalie said. “I did a semester in London last year, but next time I go, I’d like to go to up to Edinburgh for the theater festival, see more of the countryside.” She smiled, her teeth white against her skin. Caroline felt a pulse between her legs, a wetness, a wave of heat come over her.
Richard ambled over and sighed. “I don’t know how to deal with Mickey’s friends,” he said. “I don’t know what to say to them.”
Richard’s presence called for their attention. Natalie looked as if she wanted to leave, then the thought flickered across her face like a cloud: she was the only child left. Richard stood with them for a few minutes before being drawn away to talk to someone.
Before she left, Natalie pressed a moist piece of paper into Caroline’s palm.
“This is my number in Madison. Call me,” she said.
After a while, feeling properly drunk, Caroline excused herself. Outside, the air was warm and clear, gardens blooming, and she felt like a plant that was growing too fast: weak in the knees, wobbly and attenuated. She looked at the piece of paper in her hand. Natalie made her sevens in the European style, with little cross-hatches, like upside down £ signs. Caroline felt overcome by the fact of her handwriting on paper.
She called Natalie a few days later, saying she was coming to Madison to do some research on Saturday. Natalie suggested they meet at a Himalayan restaurant, down on State Street, for dinner.
Her voice, soft and even, made Caroline wonder, for the hundredth time, what Natalie’s intention was. Did she want to talk about Richard? It was possible, but didn’t seem likely.
On Saturday morning, Caroline debated her route. The interstate was faster, the country road through Vernon County prettier. She decided on the interstate. She’d been deliberately vague about her weekend plans with Richard, although she told herself she had nothing to feel guilty about. She was simply driving to Madison, doing some research, having dinner with an interesting student who happened to be his daughter. How would she describe their relationship? “A man I’m seeing…” seeing such an understatement. Richard had introduced her to his family as his “friend” because it was polite to sidestep the sexual. “Boyfriend” was too youthful a word, “lover” too romantic, “partner” inappropriate. Richard wasn’t her partner, not in any real sense. How would she describe her relationship to Natalie? Daughter of the man I’m sleeping with.
Caroline had never heard of Himalayan food, but she found the restaurant Natalie had chosen. Rattan furniture, modest prices, a student place. When Caroline stepped into the main room the scent of unfamiliar spices made it seem like a different country.
Caroline looked at the menu, read it twice in great detail. After twenty minutes, she was annoyed; after forty minutes, she felt ridiculous. What had she been thinking? She had booked a room at a small hotel, but it would be pathetic to stay. She stopped for some fast food on her way out of town, and took the long route home in the fading light.
When she got home that night, there was a message from Richard, curious about where she was, and a contrite message from Natalie, saying something about a friend, an emergency, the hospital. Caroline was ashamed to feel a vast relief. She didn’t call either of them back.
She sat down in front of the television, picked up the remote, and put it down. She wouldn’t go to Madison again. She would not make herself ridiculous. She would not think of Natalie’s throat, her suntanned arms, the way there seemed to be a foreign city, silent, behind her eyes.
In the final weeks of classes, the students were always itchy. Macroeconomics didn’t stand a chance against springtime. Two weeks later, Natalie called again, her voice hesitant.
“Hi,” Natalie said. “I was coming home this weekend to see my mother. I wondered if you wanted to catch some dinner or something.”
Caroline had rehearsed this moment, how she would say no. “All right,” Caroline said.
Caroline mentally ran through her appointments, trying to think if she had anything specific planned with Richard. She would rather omit the truth than have to come up with a plausible lie.
“Friday would work.”
“I’m catching a ride with a friend. Can I just come by your house?”
The house needed cleaning, or dusting at least. She was supposed to be grading–this final set of papers was a way of preparing for departure–but she couldn’t settle into a rhythm. She got out a dust cloth and started moving piles of books and papers. Once she got started, there was an infinite amount to do. She picked up a coffee table book on the Cotswolds that Richard had given her; it had a wistful inscription about spending time in England together. He knew she was leaving during the summer, but in the tumult of Mickey’s death, he hadn’t asked about her plans specifically, and she hadn’t offered any information. He was busy catching up on department business and other administrative chores. The lines on his face had grown deeper. He and Caroline saw each other, had dinner a few times, but hadn’t slept together since Mickey’s death. Now, she cleaned frantically, as if she’d drunk too much coffee, propelled by a need to keep moving.
Late in the afternoon, Caroline realized she hadn’t asked Natalie what time she was coming. What was “dinnertime” to a twenty-something? It could be ten o’clock. Years ago, when Caroline first moved to Wisconsin, she had laughed at the fact that grown-ups would eat dinner at five thirty or six o’clock. It had seemed childlike, ridiculous, but she had adjusted, mostly because of Pamela’s children. By six o’clock, Caroline wondered if she would be stood up.
Natalie appeared at seven o’clock, wearing the clothes that Caroline had first seen her in. The friend who’d dropped her off had done just that, the car was gone, as if Natalie had appeared by magic. She walked around Caroline’s house, looking at her books, her photographs and knick-knacks.
“I like your house,” she said. “I guessed it would be like this. You don’t strike me as the subdivision type.” She stopped in front of a picture of Pamela, looked at it carefully, then turned to Caroline. “When are you leaving for England?” Natalie asked.
“In a few weeks.”
“Does my dad know you’re leaving so soon?”
Caroline didn’t feel like discussing Richard with her, and she moved toward the kitchen, gesturing that Natalie should follow. She pulled a small ceramic platter down from a shelf.
“You don’t seem to be in the last semester panic,” Caroline observed.
“This is my fifth year–I have a light semester.”
“Is graduation next week?”
“I’m not really into rituals like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t feel like standing around, having my picture taken, wearing a stupid hat.”
“Will your parents mind?”
“I don’t know. I feel like we’ve had enough family gathering to last us for a while.”
Caroline set out dark bread and salmon, cheese and fruit. She opened a bottle of wine, and they carried it all into the living room, setting it on a low table between them. They drank wine and picked at the food while sitting in armchairs.
“Who’s the woman in the picture?” Natalie gestured across the room.
“You look alike.” Natalie took a slice of apple and laid a piece of sharp cheese on top of it. “Are those her kids?” she pointed to another picture.
“Yes. Although they’re not so little now: eleven and thirteen. My sister died a few years ago, and it seems foolish, but I’m still not adjusted. Obviously, I know she’s gone, but I keep thinking it’s some kind of mistake, as if it’s an alternate life, that one morning I’ll wake up, and it will all be undone, that somehow my sister will come back.”
“I don’t think my brother was a mistake,” Natalie said.
“You think he jumped?”
“Maybe accidentally on purpose.”
When Caroline looked at the clock, it was almost eleven. They’d never gone out to eat; they’d opened a second bottle of wine. Alone, they talked easily, as if their pasts were two large bodies of water and their talk created a channel, an equilibrium between them.
“I’ve drunk too much wine to drive you anywhere,” Caroline said. “Do you want to stay here? I have a guest room, it’s all made up.”
Natalie looked at her, red-eyed. “Yes,” she said, “that would be great.”
“Will your mother worry?”
“I told her I was staying with Gina, that I’d see her tomorrow.”
Caroline stood up and moved toward the guest room. She shouldn’t have had so much wine; it made everything confusing. Had Natalie planned to go to Gina’s later or not? The ambiguity made her dizzy. Natalie followed her down the hall.
Caroline got fresh towels from the linen closet, then they stopped in the shadowed hallway. The towels were a fluffy barrier between them. Caroline wondered what would happen, aware that she was waiting to be kissed. For a moment, she heard a voice that sounded like Pamela’s You have to practice, you know, and then Natalie leaned toward her, and Caroline felt herself letting go.
In the middle of the night, Caroline got up to use the bathroom, get a drink of water, and then went back to her own bed. It seemed polite, although the idea of being polite, after what they’d done, was ridiculous.
The next morning she woke, filled with a quiet elation. The house was silent. Was Natalie accustomed to sleeping late? What if she’d risen early and left? The thought was like freezing water poured over her. She showered quickly and went to the kitchen. Hearing footsteps padding down the hall, the sound of water running in the bathroom, she felt an enormous relief.
When Natalie appeared, she looked pristine, astounding.
“What do you drink in the morning?”
“Coffee,” Natalie said. “Do you make it strong?”
Caroline measured out the coffee, putting in extra, and when it was ready, they resumed their chairs from the night before. She felt a sense of familiarity and comfort, and at the same time wondered what to call this. She didn’t know if Natalie would call it anything.
“What are you doing after graduation?” As soon as she asked, Caroline felt self-conscious; she sounded like an elderly aunt.
“I don’t know. ” Natalie looked down at her hands, her dark lashes fringed against her cheek. “I was thinking about moving to Seattle. I’ve got friends there. But now, with my brother gone and all, I think about my mom.”
Caroline nodded. The strong coffee made her feel excited, optimistic, as if anything were possible.
“Come to England with me,” Caroline said.
Natalie looked up at her. “Are you serious?”
Caroline’s knees trembled. She felt as if her vision had grown larger, as if she could see from the corners of her eyes. “Why not? I’ll have a flat in London.”
Natalie looked down into her cup, like a gypsy reading tea leaves. “Do you even know what you’d be getting into?” she asked.
Caroline’s heart thudded, and she tried to take a deep breath. What would people say? What did it matter? Pamela gone. Richard inconsequential.
“We have no idea what we’re getting into,” Caroline said. “But none of us do, even when we think we do.”
Natalie looked at her directly, as if wanting to see whether Caroline could hold her gaze. Caroline studied the green and gold of her eyes; hazel seemed an inadequate word to describe their color.
“You really mean it, don’t you?” Natalie’s tone was a statement more than a question.
Caroline nodded, then looked out the window at the bluffs covered in mist. She didn’t understand how Richard could stand to live in their shadow. She had watched them for years, loving how the light changed in each season, but they seemed harsh now, as if one false step made your choice for you.
“I’m tired of waiting for life to get better,” Caroline said.
Natalie set down her cup and stretched her arms upward, the cords of her neck tightening, then turned to Caroline and grinned.
“You’re sure you’re up for this?” Natalie asked.
“Yes,” Caroline smiled. “I am.”