Last week Neil called to invite us for a weekend at his new cabin. Danny was out when the phone rang, but we both like a good road trip and so I agreed on the spot.
It was only after we’d nailed down the exact dates, only after I’d scribbled the directions on a scrap of paper, only after I’d jotted down a list of knickknacks, that Neil said, as if it were an afterthought, that there’d be another woman.
“She’s new” is how he put it. “She’s new, but she’s a keeper. You two will be fast friends.”
Later, as I was picking tomatoes from the side garden and waiting for Danny to get back from the construction site, I thought about Susan, Neil’s wife, my maid of honor, my only friend left over from the group home. She died two years ago. Breast cancer. It wasn’t Neil’s fault Susan was gone. But as I picked tomatoes and wiped my forehead, I found myself already hating this new woman, already resenting the suggestion we’d be fast friends.
I didn’t make fast friends. In my life, I’ve had only Susan, Danny, and Neil, and Susan was lost to us all. Neil’s suggestion made me think he mightn’t know me nearly as well as I’d always assumed, which made me feel I’d lost him, too, in some respect.
By the time Danny drove up, I was in a foul mood. I’d eaten half the cherry tomatoes that I’d intended for supper, and my nose was badly burned.
“You look like a beet,” said Danny.
“That makes no sense,” I said. I was on the ground, sitting like a prairie dog on the backs of my heels. My knees, like my hands, were covered in dirt. “Do beets have noses?” I said. “Do they have eyes?”
He picked up my sad little bowl of vegetables and shook it.
“What happened to all the tomatoes?”
“Rabbits,” I said, taking the bowl back.
He shrugged, and I pushed him aside and crawled toward the eggplants. I had decided against marinara for dinner.
Danny and I have been married five years, but we’ve known each other closer to twenty. Between us, we’ve had three dogs, two houses, one divorce (his, and we won’t talk about that), one bankruptcy (mine, and we won’t talk about that either), and no babies. Danny is from his own group home. He was messed with while he was there, and because of that it took a long time for me to wrap my mind around being intimate with him.
Susan and I met Danny and Neil on a kind of double blind date. It was only kind of a blind date, because Susan had already met Danny and Neil. It was only me that was in the dark.
“They told me to bring a friend,” she said on the day-of. “So it’s definitely a date.”
We were walking along the coastline on a beach north of the city. It was June. The winter had been protracted, vicious. Only in the last week had the temperatures finally pushed up and away from the teens. In seven days we’d gone from 20 degrees to 70, and the whole city of Chicago was in a glorious mood. We were taking in the sun full force. We weren’t ashamed of our bellies. Junkies, dealers, bankers, coeds, we were all out and about and proud. And Susan and I walked the length of the makeshift volleyball courts that day in bikinis and cutoffs, and we felt, I swear, like gods.
“Which one is for you?” I said.
“That’s the thing; I couldn’t tell.”
“This always happens.”
“They’re both for you.”
We stopped where the beach curved westward toward Evanston, where the rich people lived, and where Danny and I live now, though we aren’t rich. Susan made a line in the sand with her toe. We were both nineteen that year. I’d lost my virginity only a few months earlier. Susan had lost hers at the group home, willingly, to a boy named Timothy. In the years since then, she’d had many lovers, which was the word she used. She said it wasn’t true, but I felt she was maturing faster than I. She was on a speedy trajectory toward womanhood, close to achieving real sexiness. I was still a girl, still fumbling my way through kisses and hand jobs and one very short, unpleasant experience with actual penetration.
“It’ll be different this time,” she said. “You can pick who goes with who.”
“What if I don’t like either of them?”
“What if I don’t?”
“Trust me,” she said.
What happened was that Susan got drunk and spent several hours in the bathroom, first puking, then sleeping in the tub. We were at their place—Neil and Danny’s—and I liked the attention Susan’s quasi-absence afforded me, which is why I didn’t insist on taking her home, when maybe I should have.
Neil was the more collegiate-looking of the two, and if Danny hadn’t been there, I’d have said Neil was definitely my type. But Danny was there, and so my analysis of—and, I suppose, my potential attraction to—Neil was thrown off. On the one hand, I felt sure that Neil—tall, energetic, outspoken, generous with his glances and his accidental touches—was the alpha dog. (In all sets of two, there is an alpha. You can guess which I was.) At the same time, there was a quality to Danny—his reserve, the way he’d close his eyes and rest his forehead on the tips of his thumb and ring finger—that made me suspect he was better, more patient, in bed. And I was looking to learn about sex. I was looking to make leaps and bounds without necessarily having to go through a large number of partners. And so, in spite of Neil’s obvious interest (even if it was only because Susan wasn’t an option), I focused my attention on Danny that night.
At some point—we were stoned, it was close to dawn—Neil must have sensed my choice. We were sitting on a crummy little carpet in their front room. An industrial-sized wire spool was their coffee table. Along the wall were several empty milk crates turned upside down, which I gathered, on another occasion, might have doubled as chairs. Neil stood, yawned, stretched. When he left the room, I assumed he was going to bed for good, though he hadn’t said good night. Instead, he reemerged from the kitchen after only a minute with three beers.
“I have a story,” he said. He opened a beer and handed it to me.
“It’s about this guy right here,” said Neil. He gestured toward Danny, then opened another beer and handed it to him.
“It’s about a mean old man and a little boy who didn’t know how to defend himself.”
Now Neil opened the last of the beers. He was standing over us. He took a long, slow sip. I looked at Danny, who had closed his eyes and was once again resting his head on his thumb and ring finger. I thought it was a game. I thought they were playing. I took a sip of my beer, which was ice cold. I had already started to fantasize about Danny. I thought of us lying on the carpet together, his hand on my face, his thumb tracing my eyelids. I thought of everything he might teach me.
“The mean old man fed Danny. He clothed Danny.”
Danny shook his head. You must understand, even then, I thought it was an act. I thought they were in the midst of a routine, one for which Neil had assumed the role of annoying older brother. “And it was because of this,” Neil was saying. “It was because the man took care of him, that Danny didn’t know what was allowed and what wasn’t.”
“Stop,” said Danny. “Stop it.” It was a whisper, a wheeze. I thought he was stifling a laugh.
“And so at night, when the mean old man came into his room, the little boy didn’t know he could say no. And so he didn’t.”
I looked at Danny. His eyes were still closed. Only now his face was crimson. And I understood all at once that what Neil had said was the truth.
“Were you ever messed with?” said Neil. He kicked at my shoe.
I shook my head. “I should get home,” I said. “I should get Susan home.”
“Probably you were messed with,” Neil said.
I stood up. I was unsteady.
“You look like a girl who’s been messed with, for sure.”
I set my beer, nearly full, on the wire spool and took a step back, toward the bathroom, where Susan was sleeping.
“I have to go,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
Danny told me later, years and years later, when we were married and when that night was a thing of the past, something we all looked back on and laughed about, that it was that—the “I’m sorry” – that finally did it. He was still sitting there, and Neil’s attention was on me, and my attention was on getting out of that particular situation, and so it surprised us both—though obviously Neil all the more—when Danny bent forward and pulled Neil’s right leg out from beneath him so that he went down, unprepared, his head hitting the curved edge of the spool.
The cut was small, but there was a surprising amount of blood. I ended up staying the night. I believed that, if I left, Danny might kill Neil, making me some sort of witness to a crime. Instead, when I came back from checking on Susan in the bathroom, what I found was Danny sitting Indian-style in the middle of the room, Neil’s head in his lap and a bag of iced peas on his forehead. Blood was caking at the cuff of Danny’s jeans.
I remember thinking three things when I saw that: one, that no one had ever slept with their head in my lap before. Two, that I wanted desperately to become friends with both these men. And, three, that I’d never have sex with Danny.
“Neil called,” I said. It was after dinner.
“While you were out.”
I was sitting at the kitchen table, my feet on the chair next to me. Danny was at the sink, his back to me. This is the deal in our house—whoever cooks doesn’t clean, whoever doesn’t cook, cleans. It was Danny’s turn with the dishes.
“There’s a new girl,” I said.
“Her name is Georgia.” Danny still had his back to me.
“How do you know?"
“He told me.”
Danny was wearing a lady’s apron, embroidered with pansies and edged with lace scallops. It had been a gift from Susan, a joke obviously, because we’d decades ago grown out of our girly phase. But Danny liked to wear it when he cleaned.
He turned toward me now. He had on yellow rubber kitchen gloves. He didn’t like the way his fingers pruned at the nail.
“So nosy,” he said. “Secrets are important to a relationship.”
Every six months or so, Danny bought a new self-help book, whether he needed help or not. He said they amused him. He once brought home a book about eating disorders, though he’d never in his life suffered from one. Before self-help, he was fascinated with how-to. I liked this better. One summer, he pickled anything he could get his hands on just because of a slim little guide to pickling. We ate carrots and okra well into the winter. The latest self-help book was about sex and relationships.
“Don’t quote at me,” I said.
“You like it.”
“You should put aloe on your nose,” he said. “You’ll scab up.”
“I’ll scab up if I do and I’ll scab up if I don’t,” I said.
“Tell me about Neil.”
I scooted my chair out and went to the fridge. There was a half-empty bottle of white wine at the back on the bottom shelf. I pulled it out, popped the cork, and took a sniff. It smelled of acid.
“Don’t just put it back,” Danny said. “If it smells, throw it out.'
“I can use it to cook.” I put the bottle back and shut the door.
“You can,” he said, going back to the last of the pans. “But will you?”
By the time Danny and I finally started going together, Susan and Neil were already married. In fact, Danny had gotten married himself—married and divorced. It was inevitable, we decided. And so we started having sex. A couple years later and we decided to get married. It, too, was inevitable. A couple years after that, Susan died. Inevitable also, I suppose, but not in a way we could have planned or predicted.
In bed, after the kitchen was cleaned and the garden watered, Danny read from his self-help book while I hid behind my eye mask and brooded about Georgia. A week later, as scheduled, we packed up the truck and drove north in the direction of Neil’s new cabin.
About an hour outside Door County, Danny’s cell buzzed. It was Neil, and he wanted us to meet him in town instead of at the cabin.
To Danny, after he’d hung up and relayed the new plan, I said, “Did Neil say we, or did he say I?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did he say we will meet you there, or did he say I will meet you there?”
Danny thought a minute. “I can’t remember.”
“We or I?”
“Really,” he said. “I can’t remember. He might not have told me either way.”
I cracked the window and breathed in the country air. The trees were freshly green. The hood of the truck was coated thickly with mustard-yellow pollen. I tilted my head so that the breeze tickled the vibrissa in my nostrils. Sometimes, doing this, I could make myself sneeze.
“It’s good to be open to new things,” Danny said. “In relationships—any kind of relationship—it’s important not to have too many set-in-stone preconceptions.”
“Are you quoting at me?”
When Danny didn’t answer, I said, “That’s redundant. Preconceptions are necessarily set in stone. They are pre-thoughts. They come before you can know for sure. By the time you figure out whether you’re right or wrong, you’re on to something new. You can’t go back and change your pre-conceptions. You just move on to the concept.”
“Look at that cloud,” he said.
“The one that looks like a schnauzer.”
Before the sex and relationship book, he’d been reading about dog breeds and training. They all looked like clouds to me.
I closed my eyes and, eventually, fell asleep. When I woke up, Danny was putting the truck into park. There was Neil, leaning against a parked jeep. Beside him, a woman. The other woman. Georgia.
Before I had my wits completely about me, Neil had the passenger-side door open and was guiding me down from the truck.
“Dot,” he said. “Meet Georgia.”
Georgia stuck out her hand. She was small-boned and feline, but she had a little bit of a potbelly, which she showed off with a tee shirt too short to cover it. For a skirt, she wore a large piece of cloth with no actual waistline. She’d folded over the fabric at the belly in order to hold it in place, the way Danny sometimes does when he’s just had a shower.
“Or Dorothy,” I said. “Whichever.”
“I like ‘Dot’ just fine.” She winked.
I smiled. Neil and Danny call me Dot. No one else.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Georgia said. She was animated as she spoke, dancing from side to side on the balls of her feet. I worried about her skirt coming undone. “I’m thinking that you” – she was looking only at me – “do a little shopping with me. Now. That way we get to know each other without the boys around.”
Danny had made his way around to my side of the car. Georgia bounced all the more ferociously when Neil introduced them. She clapped. Clapped!
“Can I?” she said, now looking at Danny. “Can I have her? Just for a few hours. Neil says she has taste.”
I looked at Neil. He shrugged. My shirt was dampening rapidly at the pits.
“Or we could just do groceries together,” I said. “Get to know each other over the produce aisle.” I said it wide-eyed. I was trying to convey a lack of terror.
“Go,” said Danny. “Give the men some peace. We’ll meet you back here in—what?—three hours.”
“She’s crazy nuts,” said Neil, knocking into Georgia’s shoulder with his arm. I didn’t know whom he was talking about.
Georgia linked her arm in mine. She smelled of cedar and yeast. I suspected she made her own yogurt, possibly brewed her own beer. “I have a plan,” she said. “I have a whole list of things.”
Georgia’s plan, it turned out, was to go antiquing—her word. Neil’s cabin, she told me, was cold. “Cold as in mood,” she said, “not temperature. I need to warm it up, soften it.”
In the first shop, she found a cow skull, bleached white. She said it would be perfect for the living room. “It’s important,” she said, “to keep reminders of death nearby. Because, well, death is nearby. We have to remember that. My brother’s little girl, she collects postcards. She’s only five, but it’s like she knows there’s an expiration date. She knows they’re only going to be available for so long. So she hoards them. Pages and pages of them.”
I thought of Susan. Neil didn’t need a reminder of death. But I didn’t stop Georgia as she wrote a check for the skull. I didn’t stop her either when she wrote a check, at the next shop, for a statue of a unicorn. It was bronze, and it stood on its hind legs, its front hooves pawing at the air. When you turned its base, a song played and the unicorn spun slowly around. It looked like something for a grandmother’s house, not a cabin owned by Neil.
Susan would have hated it.
We walked. Georgia shopped. She asked about my childhood in a way that made me think Neil hadn’t even told her about the group home, which meant she couldn’t know much about Susan. It would have been impossible to tell the story of my childhood or Susan’s without including us both. It would have been impossible to tell the story of Susan at all without including me. She asked me about children. “When I was younger,” I said, “I used to think about it. But it was a blip, a passing ping on the radar. I like that it’s just me and Danny.”
The three hours passed with relative ease and, as Georgia was paying for a lamp with a rotary phone for a base, I realized I didn’t hate her. I realized I felt sorry for her. Here she was, this sweet-faced woman buying things for a home she didn’t own and never would. She was in love with Neil; I could see that. And it made me sad that these things would either be left behind when he broke up with her, or they’d be moved away in the back of whatever car she borrowed from whatever friend would help collect her belongings on that inevitable day in the future.
We put her items in the back of the truck and walked across the street for an iced tea.
“We can sit,” I said. “Or we could stroll.”
“Let’s stroll,” she said. “There’s a place that’s closed but I want to look in the windows.” Her arm in mine again, we walked to a store on the corner, with large fuchsia lettering across the front window: ODDS & ENDS, the letters spelled.
“Odds and ends, indeed,” I said. Feeling sorry for someone always makes it easier to be kind.
Georgia cupped her hand to the glass and looked in. Down the street—several blocks away still—I spied Neil and Danny. I waved, but they hadn’t noticed us.
“Which thing would you buy?” said Georgia.
“Wait. Don’t tell me. Look inside and pick three things you’d buy. I’ll pick three things I’d buy. Then we’ll guess each other’s things.”
“It’s a game,” I said.
“Yep,” she said. “A game.”
“Have you played it before? This game? Does it have a name?”
“No,” she said.
She had her hand cupped to the glass again.
“I have my three things,” she said. “And I know at least one thing you’d buy.”
I looked in the window. There was a pretty glass pendant that hung from a knotted sailor’s rope. It had Georgia’s name all over it. There was a blue neon sign in the shape of a star attached to a side wall. Georgia’s name, as well. As far as I could see, there was nothing in this place I would want to own.
The temperature was dropping. We’d be able to have a fire that night. It was my favorite time of year—a little bit winter, a little bit summer. Down the block, Neil and Danny were getting closer. They had stopped on the sidewalk. They were deep in conversation. I wondered if they were talking about us, about all of us. Or perhaps they weren’t talking of women at all.
“You’d buy that lamp,” said Georgia.
She pointed out a little Tiffany-style number that I hadn’t seen. It was sitting on an end table, the iron base of which featured the delicate figure of a mermaid. She was right. The lamp was beautiful. So was the end table.
“God, no,” I said. “Try again.”
“The side table,” she said.
“The zebra rug,” she said.
“Where?” I said. “I didn’t see it. I couldn’t see it before.”
“There,” she said. “If it were a snake, it would have bitten you.”
“Yikes,” I said. “Not that either.”
But I wanted her to guess again. I wanted to see what other things I hadn’t noticed. What other things were in that store that I wanted but didn’t know I wanted? It’s a funny person who keeps and markets ancient knickknacks, who dusts and displays aging trinkets. It’s all for sale, of course. But does the owner really hope to part with any of it?
“You do me,” she said.
I looked again at the neon sign, the hanging pendant. They weren’t right anymore, and I didn’t want to offend her.
“Too late,” she said. “Time’s up. We’ve been found.”
Neil and Danny approached with two bags of groceries each.
“We’re cooking,” said Neil.
“Which means you two will be cleaning,” said Danny.
“Did you make friends?”
“Best friends,” said Georgia. She squeezed my hand quickly, then bounded across the street on her own.
Danny gave me a funny little look, but I ignored him. They’d come back too soon, and I felt somehow let down. Like a song I was listening to had been cut off just before the end, just before we’d come to the One.
Danny and I followed behind them in the truck, up a series of narrowing roads.
He was silent. I rolled the window back down and pulled my hair out of its ponytail.
“I love the smell,” I said.
“She’s too young,” he said.
“She’s hardly too young,” I said. “But she won’t last. That’s true.”
Danny was shaking his head.
“What’s gotten into you?” I said. “You’re the one who says we have to be open to new things.”
“He wants to marry her.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “We barely know her.”
“I bet now you think she’s too young.”
The first time Danny and I had sex—after his divorce—was the first time he told me in his own words what had happened at the group home, with that man. We were lying in his bed, the deed already done. He was every bit as sweet and patient as I’d years earlier imagined. Though, in the time between, I’d obviously learned many things on my own. It wasn’t the sex I’d imagined when I first met him. Instead, it was as though the fantasy had aged along with us. And this new, older, slightly less flexible fantasy fit perfectly alongside my advancing expectations. I felt grateful, as well as foolish for having thought his past might mar his ability, or my interest. All the years we wasted being apart because of something that turned out, ultimately, to be meaningless.
Danny must have sensed the nature of my thoughts that night because he said, out of nowhere, “For a long time, I thought it meant I was gay.” Exactly what had scared me off to begin with, though I didn’t tell him that.
“I was so little when it happened,” he said. “There was another boy. I wasn’t the only one.” I thought of Neil. “And this other boy—he was older—finally told. When they shut down the home, I wanted to go with the older boy, but they separated us.” I remember trying to divide my brain in two at that precise moment: one half to pay attention to every word Danny spoke and one half to remember the specifics of Danny and Neil’s shared timeline.
“I heard later that he died,” said Danny. I felt relief. “An overdose or suicide, the details were vague. I thought it meant maybe I would die too. But I didn’t die. I just kept living.”
We were quiet for a while. Danny, out of embarrassment, out of necessity, had turned away from me. I knew not to misread the gesture. I stroked his back—hairier than I’d imagined, but in a comforting way that made me think of wilderness and campfires and all the cave-couples that had come before us—and for many minutes we were quiet. The conversation could have ended there.
“The first time I kissed a girl, I puked. She called me a fag. When I told Neil, I expected him to do the same. Call me fag. I was waiting for confirmation. But he didn’t. He said it was another kid, not me, that the guy had messed with. He said I needed to put it out of my mind. Pretend it never happened.” Again, I tried for the timeline, but the specifics were murky. We’d known each other so long by then. The facts felt far away. “Neil introduced me to girls. Better girls than the ones I’d known when I was little. I tried again. It got easier. I stopped thinking about what had happened, what that man had done. If only there’d been girls like you and Susan at our home.”
I stopped rubbing his back and inched my chest, my pelvis, my knees as close to his body as I could. I wanted to be part of him. I didn’t want to tell him he was wrong, that we’d have been as cruel as—maybe crueler than—those other little girls. It was all a matter of time, of timing.
“That night,” I said, “when Neil told me, when he joked about it, why weren’t you angry? Why weren’t you furious?”
“I was furious,” he said.
“What I mean is, why did he do it at all? Why did he say it, to me, to a stranger?”
“He was jealous.”
And I remembered anew that I could have had Neil, that he could have been mine if I wanted. But I chose Danny.
We fell asleep not too long after. It was the first time we had sex. And, since then, we’ve never spent a night apart. Not once. It’s been more than five years.
The tree line on my side of the car broke open momentarily to reveal a roaring pasture of gold. Four white cows stood together by a feed trough. Behind them was a long-legged calf, its tail flicking idly at the flies.
“She’s too young,” said Danny. “I’m not saying I dislike her. Just that she’s too young.”
I chewed at my thumb. I’d enjoyed antiquing with Georgia, and I suspected that I might actually like her as a person, or as an eventual friend. In spite of that, I didn’t like this idea that Neil wanted to marry her. But the two thoughts didn’t line up, which caused an uneasy feeling in my stomach.
“You don’t like it either,” he said. “I can tell.”
He was right. But another thing that was bothering me was that Danny didn’t approve. He had no reason not to approve. He’d spent even less time with Georgia than I had. Yet he seemed more put out by the proposition than I. It made no sense. For two years, Danny had been encouraging Neil to get out there, to date. “He needs to meet someone,” he was always saying. “He deserves it.” And now he’d met someone. Danny should have been happy. But he wasn’t, and neither was I. And it had nothing to do with her youth.
“Let’s give her a chance,” I said. “For his sake. It’ll ruin the weekend if we start off in bad moods.”
Danny was massaging his right thigh. It often cramped when he drove for long stretches. “Agreed?” I said.
“Agreed?” Just as quickly as the pasture of gold had come into view, now it was gone. We were again under the intense shade of the canopy.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Agreed.”
While Danny and Neil cooked—leg of lamb, flowering kale, yellow beets—I assisted Georgia with the placement of her day’s purchases. I stood beside her as she climbed atop a short stepladder and drilled a mount above the cove that separated the living room from the den. I held the cow skull in my hands and regarded it warily. I felt I was being watched, stared at from beyond. It was Susan hiding in the skull, and what she was communicating was, You’re falling for her. Such a slut. Look how you’ve let her win you over. All because you like feeling useful. She said it with a sly wink, and I knew she wasn’t truly mad.
When Georgia asked for it, I handed up the skull. She positioned it, then climbed down and stepped back.
“What do you think?” she said.
I joined her where she stood and looked up. In context, the piece made sense. The room, somehow, felt complete.
“I like it,” I said. “You have an eye.”
“Neil says secrets are good in relationships.”
“Danny said the same thing just recently.”
“No,” I said. “He did. I swear it.”
She punched me lightly on the arm. “I disagree with the idea. Not with you.”
We were quiet. The cow skull stared down at us. Susan would have disagreed with the idea as well.
“What you said just now—I disagree—it reminded me of something,” I said.
“Good or bad?” She turned to face me, but I kept my body squared with the skull.
“I’m not sure. Neither. It’s just a moment in my life. One I probably wouldn’t have remembered ever again if it weren’t for how you said those words just now.”
“Is it too intimate?” she said. “Can you tell me?”
Nothing was all that intimate with time between it and the telling.
“I dated a boy once,” I said, “a man, I suppose. He had a temper. I found that out the hard way. He slapped me once. When he phoned next, I told him it was over, and he said, ‘I disagree.’”
Georgia made a little noise—a little hmp with her mouth. It was a silly memory, after all, one that didn’t bear repeating. Before I could say as much, Neil, from the kitchen, called us for supper.
After dinner, Georgia and I, as promised, did the dishes. Danny had kissed me on the cheek while I stood at the sink, wrist-deep in suds. “You don’t have to,” he said. “I’m happy to clean.” His spirits were improved from cooking with Neil.
I gave him a quick peck just beneath his ear. “Go play,” I said, which was all the convincing he needed.
Georgia and I fell into a rhythm, me washing, her drying. And for many minutes it was pleasantly quiet in the kitchen. The water turned from hot to warm to room, from sudsy to flat to gray. After a while, Georgia spoke.
“I lived with a man—this was ages ago.” As far as I was concerned, though I didn’t think she was too young in general, I did think she was too young for anything to be ages ago. The implications. “I knew it was over when I asked him whether or not he thought I was smart.”
“He said you weren’t?” I handed her a plate.
“No. He said he couldn’t gauge the intelligence of women. He didn’t know if I was smart or not. He couldn’t tell.”
“Devastating.” I pulled the food-catch at the bottom of the sink. The drain belched. The water gurgled.
“Devastating,” she said, “is that I stayed—though I knew it was finished—for six more months.”
The dishes were done. We could have joined the men. Instead, Georgia hopped up on the counter on her side of the sink and I did the same. She poured me a glass of warm white wine. I took it. I felt utterly content.
“Neil says you two were almost a thing.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it. Neil had told her about me, about all of us. She knew more than she’d initially let on.
“He did?” It occurred to me that my only problem with Georgia was that she existed. It occurred to me that I wanted Neil all to myself, not in a romantic way (though I didn’t immediately rule that out). Rather, I wanted him only for Danny and me. It was an honest, immediate assessment of my reaction to knowing there was another woman. One I think is probably fairly human, totally natural. I suspected it was what Danny was feeling too—the anticipation of a diluted friendship. Georgia, if Neil married her, would necessarily become more important than the two of us.
“You’re blushing,” she said.
“So it’s true.”
In fact, it wasn’t true, but just then I liked the idea that it might have been. I liked thinking there would always be an ounce of jealousy between us. It keeps a woman on her toes, jealousy does.
“There was a night, nearly two decades ago,” I said, “when there was an option.”
“Between Danny and Neil?”
“In a sense.”
“And you chose Danny.” She said it like a fact.
“Actually,” I said, “I never got to choose. Or if I did choose Danny—which I guess ultimately I did—I didn’t get him for many years.”
“And you didn’t get Neil either.”
“He fell in love with Susan.”
She nodded. “You were best friends.”
“You miss her.”
“It makes sense.”
“Neil says Danny was quite the Lothario.” He was anything but. She added, “Before you married him.”
“Before I married him, he was married to someone else.”
Georgia reached for a bottle of red wine. I shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said.
She opened a drawer beneath her and pulled out a bottle opener.
“I used to wait tables,” she said. “I’ve always loved uncorking a bottle properly.” She flipped open the ridged blade at the end of the opener, rested it against the foil, then rotated the bottle slowly. Next she dug the blade into the top and lifted. The cut metal broke away in a tidy little circle. She tossed it on the counter and pushed the tip of the screw into the exposed cork. After a moment, there was a satisfying pop.
“So Danny wasn’t a Lothario,” she said. “Which means Neil was really talking about himself. Measuring my reaction.”
She took my glass, dumped the little bit of white that was left, then poured me a bit of the red.
“More than twenty.”
“Good God,” I said. “Danny’s closer to a dozen.” It occurred to me that this wasn’t mine to share, this number. That said, Neil had already done sharing of his own—rightly or wrongly. He’d opened the door, and now I, too, walked through it.
She nodded. I could see she didn’t quite believe me.
“Would it matter?” she said. “Would that be a deal-breaker?”
I took a sip of the wine. “This is good. Are you trying to get me drunk?”
“Maybe,” she said. “Is it too personal a question? What I’ve just asked? Neil says I can’t read cues well. If he were here, he’d tell me, right now, that you’ve deliberately changed the subject and that I’ve broken some rule of etiquette.”
“Neil says all sorts of things, doesn’t he?”
“See? You’ve done it again.”
“And so have you.”
She laughed and fiddled with a dishrag that was resting on her knee. “Then I won’t ask again.”
“I’ve forgotten the question,” I said. “Remind me. I’ll answer. I promise.”
“Just that—if you found out now, after being married for so long.”
“After being married for five years, if you found out now that your husband had had sex with twenty women, not twelve, would it matter?”
In general, I don’t go in for hypotheticals, or questions that are merely theoretical. It often leads to empty talk, which bores me. But I liked being in the kitchen with Georgia, and I didn’t want to ruin the mood.
“I’d want to know first if I’d been intentionally misled.”
“And then, I don’t know. I need to think about it. Probably it wouldn’t matter at all.”
She swirled her glass, and the wine made neat little waves against the sides. “I loved waiting tables.”
“Why’d you give it up?”
“Once you hit thirty,” she said, “if you’re still waiting tables, then you’re a loser. Even if it’s something you love.”
“Move to France.”
Georgia leaned back against the subway tile that lined the kitchen walls from the counter to the ceiling. She closed her eyes. For a moment, I studied her. She looked nothing at all like Susan. But why should she?
“Does Neil’s past bother you?” I said.
“Yes and no.” She opened her eyes but didn’t look at me. Instead, she looked at the nautical-style lamp that hung above the table. It had once hung in Neil and Danny’s apartment. I wondered just then why it was Neil had taken ownership of it and not Danny. “This will sound oafish,” she said, “but it’s difficult to compete with the dead. I think some women would prefer it—a dead wife to an ex—but I don’t know. The battlefield seems uneven.”
I nodded. I tried to imagine a similar situation, one in which I knew none of the players. But I couldn’t divorce the specifics. “Plus there’s us,” I said. “Part of the package of the past.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
I yawned. “I’m sleepy,” I said. “I’ll have to go to bed soon.”
From the other room, I could hear the sound of the automatic turntable flipping the record. They’d long ago stopped talking.
“Do you think—” Georgia shook her head and looked down at her wine. Her cheeks had turned a deep fuchsia, though it might have been a trick of the overhead. “This is such a discomfiting thing to ask.”
I mistrusted her choice of discomfit. So often it is misused.
“Do you think,” she said, “or would it matter or do you know—”
My heart, I noticed, had begun to beat faster. At the time, I was confused by it. I wonder now if it didn’t already know something, if it—my heart—hadn’t sniffed out the nature of Georgia’s question a meager moment before she asked it. I read once about a certain breed of shepherd that can smell ovarian cancer with ninety percent accuracy, even before it’s detectable by machine.
“Danny and Neil,” she said. I thought I might vomit. “Were they ever?”
I could see them, still so young, on the carpeted floor of the front room of their dingy apartment. Danny with his hand in Neil’s hair. Neil with his head in Danny’s lap. When I walked in, I felt I’d walked in on something private, something deeply personal and not meant to be shared. I’d had the same feeling in my stomach—of excitement, of nervousness—as when Susan (so, so, so unbearably long ago now that it hurts) described to me her first encounter with an erection. I’d felt turned on by her story. I’d felt envious, sick with lust, but also filled up with sadness and shame.
Georgia was chewing at her bottom lip. The skin to the left and to the right of her upper lip was stained purple. It gave her face something of a painted-on smile, like a clown, whose real mouth shows no expression.
“Would it matter?” I said.
She looked up. Her eyes were watery. She seemed truly overcome.
In the morning, Danny got a call from the construction site. They needed him in the city immediately. The initial inspection on one of the model homes had failed, and they were desperate to get the repairs made before the whole deal fell through. He told me repeatedly I should stay, that he’d come back in two days and pick me up. But I said no. In more than five years, we’d never spent the night apart, and I had no intention of doing so now.
While I was packing up the last of our toiletries, Georgia found me in the guest bedroom. Danny was outside with Neil. I could see them from the upstairs window, talking across opposite sides of the truck bed. They looked like a couple of farmers.
For a while, we stood together at the window, and we watched them.
“I wonder how long before they notice us,” she said.
As if on cue, Danny looked up. But the glare from the sun must have been too strong, because he looked immediately away.
“Too long,” she said, almost a catechism.
And then, with a dexterity that made me think it hadn’t happened, she kissed me on the cheek. I put a hand to my face. She’d taken me by surprise.
“Here,” she said.
She passed me a little paper bag, tissue popping up from the mouth.
“A gift,” she said.
Before I’d finally left the kitchen the night before, belly full and eyes tired, Georgia had said, out of nowhere, “I’m the least intelligent woman I know when it comes to female anatomy.” I thought she was making fun of me. I’d said the same thing to Danny, almost word for word, just last month. He’d gone out immediately and purchased a book about women, pictures and everything, and made me read it front to back. For a nano- second, I thought they must have been talking about me, all of them, all along. But then I realized it was simply something we had in common, one more thing that Georgia and I shared.
I pulled the tissue from the top of the bag. Inside was an ostrich egg, hollowed out and lacquered to shine. I’d admired one just like it in one of the little stores, not twenty-four hours earlier.
“A reminder of death?” I said.
I thought of Susan, of the cow skull, of the way time passes, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but always it is passing.
“Of life,” she said. “An egg.”
I like her idea, and I like her, too. But she’s wrong. Because the egg, which sits now on my bedside table in the home that I share with my husband, is empty and intact, except for a small hole at the bottom where the artist—if you can call such a person who discharges eggs an artist—drilled and drained out the life.