Grace is 6 when she decides that she does not believe in soulmates. She knows the stories, of course, has heard all about how this word on your skin is supposed to tell the name of the person you’re destined to be with and then you’re supposed to hope that they have your name on their skin too. Some people have more than one name, some people have none, but if you do have one then that’s supposed to be it. That’s your person. However, being soulmates did not make Grace’s parents happy together, and the idea that some mysterious force will decide her future is something Grace doesn’t like at all. She wants to be in control of her destiny, will be in control of her destiny. She decides that soulmates are an absurd flight of fancy and she is as sure of it as she is of anything else in her life.
Her disbelief, however, does nothing to stop the mark from appearing.
She is 12 and over the course of three weeks a name appears in dark printed letters on the back of her right knee. She watches it happen with mild interest. When it says Frank she assumes that it is done, but it goes further: Frankie. Really, Grace thinks, that is just ridiculous. What kind of man uses a diminutive form of his name? Won’t go by Frank but goes by Frankie? Even if she did believe in all this soulmate hogwash, she would never fall for a man like that.
She resolutely ignores it, wears skirts that cover her knees, with dark tights just to be sure, goes about her daily life without bothering to think of any absurd mumbo jumbo like soulmates.
When she is 26 she meets Robert. He is nice and charming and he is almost a lawyer. Grace decides that he will fit perfectly in her life—in the vision of her life she has been holding in her mind since she was a child—decides for that reason that she likes him very much. They’ve been dating for three weeks when he brings up soulmates.
“Oh,” Grace says, “I don’t believe in that stuff.”
“Good,” Robert says, obviously relieved, “I don’t have one either.”
It’s not quite the truth but Grace doesn’t see any reason to correct him. She might as well not have one, seeing as she doesn’t put any stock in it. And she takes Robert at his word, chooses to believe him, and if once or twice in the ensuing forty years she sees a flash of what may have been writing on his hip, well, she does her wifely duty and ignores it.
It’s possible that Robert would’ve found her mark at some point in their marriage, had he been the sort of man to pepper kisses up and down her legs, or that she might have seen his in a similar situation, but to Grace’s relief they have sex the way she believes married people are supposed to: quietly, quickly, and in complete darkness. And not often, either. She sits sipping martinis with her friends and listens to their endless stories of their husbands pestering them for sex and breathes a sigh of relief that Robert has never been like that.
Skirts get shorter and nude tights are in fashion so Grace gets into the habit of having a tube of concealer close at hand. Makes sure in that way that her mark will not be seen no matter the occasion. She uses makeup to hide her skin’s other flaws, thinks nothing of covering this one up as well. Say Grace’s first product, in fact, will be a concealer strong enough to cover a soulmark and last the whole day without reapplication. When it flies off the shelves Grace will be comforted by the fact that it is obviously not just her.
Her marriage to Robert is proper. That is the only way Grace can think to describe it. Cold and lonely, perhaps, but very proper. She works hard at it, not so much on the interior, the quiet inbetweens, but very much on the parts that everyone else can see. Ensures that all anyone ever sees is a perfect family. A perfect wife. A perfect Grace. Perfection trumps happiness every time.
Grace has never been the type of woman to go doe-eyed over babies, has never felt a particular draw to anything maternal, but Robert wants kids and Grace wants him to be happy, and, well, that’s what people do, isn’t it? Another piece of that ideal life she is striving for. So they have one, then another, and Grace tries not to hate them from the onset for the way they invade her body, the way they take away that precious control she’s always had over how she looks.
She’s mostly successful.
Once they’re born, she does love them. It’s slow to come, perhaps (slower than people say it should, at least) and even though she cannot truly appreciate them when they’re tiny and needy she holds them close and hopes she will raise them well. She thinks that having the girls will bring a warmth to her life that was lacking before, but even with Mallory and Brianna running around, Grace’s house feels awkward and cool and she yearns for freedom.
So she gets up, dresses impeccably, does her makeup flawlessly, and heads out to rule the world. She is Grace Hanson so of course, she succeeds. She pours herself into work, into Say Grace, tells herself that this company will make up for all the lacks in her life. Decades and decades later Grace will realise that the company she built from the ground up, her life’s work, was in effect a way to center her life around femininity, a way to dedicate herself to women, the only way she possibly could.
At some point amidst all that (after Brianna but before Mallory) Robert gets a new coworker. His name is Sol and Robert talks about him all the time, about how great he is, about what a good lawyer he is. Grace is happy that her husband has found a friend, replies the way any good wife would:
“Well, we must have him for dinner.”
Them, they have them for dinner because Sol is married, of course. So Sol and his wife come for dinner. Grace stands in the foyer as Robert introduces her to Sol, smiles and kisses his cheek just as she should. And then Sol gestures to the woman beside him—dressed like she’s a carnival fortune teller with an addiction to hideous jewelry, her long curly hair sticking out at every angle.
“This,” he says, “is Frankie.”
Grace’s blood runs cold. She feels like she’s standing behind a veil, watching herself shake Frankie’s hand and welcome to her home while really she’s still off to the side, reeling from the impact of the words. Frankie. She tries to tell herself that it could be a fluke, that her Frankie could be another Frankie, that this could all be some big misunderstanding. But who is she kidding? That’s not how this kind of thing works.
The name on her skin is not from Frank but from Frances and half of Grace has already started running, is halfway down the driveway, is assuredly about to hit an 8-minute mile. The only place actual Grace is going however is to the drink cart, not at a run but at as quick a walk as decorum will allow, because if ever a time called for vodka it’s now.
Far from loving Frankie, Grace hates her. Hates her for all sorts of reasons. She hates her for her oddities and silly beliefs. She hates her because she and Sol are so unbearably happy and because she is so naturally maternal, hates her because she wins over Grace’s children in a heartbeat. She hates Frankie because of the way she goes through life without giving a rat’s ass what anyone else thinks (a luxury Grace has never had) and because everything she says seems specifically designed to drive Grace up the frickin’ wall. But most of all, really, she hates Frankie for having the audacity to have her name written on Grace’s skin.
She tells Robert never to let her within fifteen feet of the woman without a drink in her hand. She makes Robert promise that they will never be at the beach house at the same time. She bites her tongue on any number of acerbic responses when the girls excitedly tell her about their weekend in Aunt Frankie and Uncle Sol’s yurt. She ignores Frankie’s presence in her life as much as she can and when she can’t ignore her she pours herself a drink or buries herself in work—or both.
Then Grace’s life falls apart. Grace is seventy and her husband is a homosexual and everything she has oh so carefully built crumbles in an instant, over a fucking seafood tower for god’s sake. Somehow Grace finds herself divorced and alone and, wait, not alone, actually, because now her least favourite woman on the planet is her roommate.
As unrealistic as it seems, Grace ends up building a life of sorts with Frankie. Ends up being friends with Frankie, starting a company with Frankie. Learns how to be happy, of all things, with Frankie. She looks at her life and doesn’t recognize a shred of it and then she realises that that’s actually a good thing.
“I thought this was life,” she told Robert after he came out. Because she did, she really did think that what they had together was what everyone had together. That the lonely frigidity they had shared was what she was supposed to have. What she deserved.
“And I thought there was more,” he replied. Between late night trips to Del Taco and healing crystals and marijuana smoke and paint splatters all over her home Grace slowly but surely begins to discover that more.
Happiness sits uneasily on Grace’s shoulders, but it is getting better, more comfortable, with each passing day.
It is at that point, amidst everything else, that everything changes. Frankie goes from being her husband's coworker’s wife who just happens to have her name on Grace’s skin, to a woman she hates who just happens to have her name on Grace’s skin, to the only other person who understands what she’s going through who just happens to have her name on Grace’s skin, to her sometimes infuriating roommate whose name is on Grace’s skin to… everything. In a moment that took an eternity it all changes and Grace may as well have Frankie’s name on her skin a hundred times, a thousand times, because there is no one for Grace but Frankie.
Grace pours herself a drink and tries to deal with that.
It’s not just that Frankie is a woman, though it is, in large part, that Frankie is a woman. And that Frankie is Frankie . It’s also spite, in a way. Grace decided a long time ago not to be controlled by the mark on her skin, not to let it have the final say. She is not Frankie, she does not believe in the universe or in fate or in any of that crap. But she is in love with Frankie and Frankie’s name has been on her skin since she was twelve and Frankie is a woman and Grace is no fool and no coward. She faces life as it is, always has. Has never seen the point in wishing for better.
“Lesbian.” She says the word quietly into the still air of her bedroom one night. “Lesbian,” she says again, a little louder, breathes through the way it tightens her chest like the start of a panic attack. Tries to deal with it, tries to come to terms with what it means, what it has always meant. A tear rolls down her cheek and onto her pillow. She wasn’t expecting that, wasn’t expecting to cry, but what else is she supposed to do, late at night, facing a revelation made only more painful by the fact that it will never matter?
She, Grace Hanson, is a lesbian. She, Grace Hanson, is in love with a woman who doesn’t love her back.
Frankie knows from the get-go that the universe has big things in store for her. She lies in bed at age 4 and talks to the universe like she is her best friend (she is). Tells her about her day and asks her for advice and listens carefully for her replies. The moment she hears about soulmarks she cannot wait to get hers.
“You’re gonna make sure I get a good one,” she says that night, “right? Oh of course you will, universe, of course you will.”
She watches jealously as over the course of six days the letters ‘Richard’ appear on Teddie’s arm when Teddie is 11. Teddie makes like it’s no big deal but Frankie sees her smile, catches her looking through her yearbook and taking special note of every Richard. From that point on, every morning and every night Frankie does a careful full body check over to see if hers has come in.
It is with some cruel irony that, at 14, Frankie wakes up to find her soulmark, fully formed, stark and illegible on the outside of her left foot. It starts with a ‘G’ and everything beyond that is a line of squiggly penmanship she cannot decipher for the life of her. Greg, she thinks, or Gary? But there is no downward stroke to make the g or the y. Gene, perhaps, or maybe she is closing herself from possibilities by not thinking of names from other cultures. She saves up her allowance and buys a book of baby names for boys, pores over every page of G names and compares them all to her foot with mounting despair.
It is not fair, not in the slightest, and after a couple of years Frankie resolves to forget about it, stops sitting in front of the mirror and tracing the letters with her fingers over and over.
Robin dies and Frankie sets off on her own and there are many more things to worry about than a soulmark she can’t even read.
She meets Sol when she is in her late twenties. He is kind and wonderful and Frankie loves him from the get-go. They bond over their illegible soulmarks—Sol has looping messy script running over his ribs that probably starts with an R and continues with who knows what. Frankie likes to run her fingers over it during their post-coital cuddles, likes to offer suggestions as to what it could be and Sol shrugs and says ‘maybe’ after every one.
“I don’t care that you don’t match the mark on my skin,” Sol says when he proposes, “I know in my heart that you’re my soulmate.”
Frankie says yes because she feels the exact same way, because she cannot imagine a love more pure and comfortable than what they have together.
“Promise me one thing,” she says a few days before their wedding. “Promise me that if you find her,” her touch lands on the word on his chest, “that you’ll tell me.”
“I promise,” Sol replies seriously, “as long as you promise me the same.”
That makes the eventual betrayal worse than anything else. Somehow that promise stands out amidst all the other promises Sol has broken, that he couldn’t even share the moment of understanding what his mark says with her. She is jealous and heartbroken and pissed off. Sol has found his soulmate, his true soulmate, and all Frankie finds is an uptight alcoholic roommate and a strength inside of her she didn’t know she had.
The uptight alcoholic isn’t so bad, really, once Frankie gets used to her. Sure, Grace is annoying and stuck up and mean but then also Grace is caring and sweet and every time Frankie breaks through that hard exterior and gets to the soft gooey centre—like a human tootsie pop but so much better —she feels like she’s getting a gift, a glimpse at the Grace Hanson nobody else gets to see. And the more time they spend together the more of the real Grace Frankie sees, and it’s not that she’s suddenly nice or that she stops being judgemental but she is real and tenacious and witty as all hell and she tries, she always tries to be better. She makes Frankie want to be better too.
Grace is strong in a way that Frankie never had to be and she teaches Frankie to be powerful in a way Frankie had somehow never dreamed of. She makes Frankie laugh and think and put her shoes away and somehow Frankie loves it all. This woman who was, ugh, the worst is suddenly the best and Frankie doesn’t quite know when that happened.
“The old me is the best new me,” she tells Grace. “Vive la Frances.” But she knows that there’s a caveat there: the old her is the best new her only when she has Grace at her side.
Grace seems to focus the manic energy that has always flowed through Frankie, somehow fits perfectly into Frankie’s life. Or, rather, they fit perfectly into each other’s lives and Frankie listens to the universe when she tells her that this is how things are supposed to be.
It’s probably why the gun thing bothers her so much. She had trusted Grace, had believed Grace, had decided years ago that she would not be lied to again by someone so close to her. Grace, of course, is not Sol and what they have is nothing like what she and Sol had but it still hurts like hell that Grace lied.
But then Grace tells her why and Grace looks so sad and so worried and Frankie remembers that Grace is not used to this, to emotional honesty, to actually liking the person you live with. Grace apologises—in her way—and Frankie forgives her in hers and it’s sealed in the best way possible: with a kiss.
Frankie loves Grace, loves living with Grace and spending all of her time with Grace. Loves fighting with Grace and laughing with Grace and she doesn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t; they are best friends, after all. But Frankie also loves Jacob. He is kind and gentle and he is so easy to love, much easier than Grace—and it’s perverse or something that earning his love feels like so much less of a prize than earning Grace’s does—and he is safe in a way Frankie doesn’t really want to think about.
Jacob invites her to Santa Fe and Frankie doesn’t think she’s gonna go but then Grace tells her that she should and, well, she’s probably right, Grace has this annoying habit of usually being right and Frankie can’t think of any reason that she shouldn’t go.
Nothing she can name, at least.
She asks the universe for advice but she’s being unusually reticent and when she meditates on it, all she can think about is Grace telling her she should go and that’s the answer, isn’t it? She’s gonna miss La Jolla and her family and Grace, of course, but this feels like the right move. Actually, Frankie’s gut’s been all over the place recently so her feelings haven’t been nearly as easy to interpret as she’s used to but she’s pretty sure this is the right move. It’s gotta be the right move.
The problem is, Frankie hates Santa Fe. She hates the heat and the snakes, oh fucking hell she hates the snakes. And it’s nice when Jacob’s there cause she likes Jacob but he’s so busy with his family and the life he’s building, busy loving a city that Frankie hates. It makes Frankie miss her family, her kids and her grandkids, born and unborn, and okay yes so Grace’s grandkids aren’t ‘technically’ her grandkids but they kind of are and she’ll be damned if Sol gets to be Grandpa Sol and she doesn’t get to be Grandma Frankie and they do call her that anyway and, wait, that’s not important right now. The point is that Frankie misses all of them, Frankie misses home. She misses Grace, too; she misses Grace so much that she has to wonder what it really means, even if the distance has led to Grace really upping her emoji game. But she’d honestly rather have an emoji-less Grace at her side than a bunch of cartoon hearts from eight-hundred-some miles away.
Jacob is away tonight, having dinner with his family and Frankie had begged out of it, appealing to an invented need to work on her paintings, and being in Jacob’s house when he’s not here, Frankie finally begins to understand how Grace felt for all those years in that big stupid house with Robert. A bone-deep loneliness Frankie’s never felt before.
She never felt like this with Grace, not even when Grace wasn’t home and there’s a feeling in the pit of Frankie’s stomach she doesn’t want to name, a shove from the universe that’s getting more and more insistent. Something she isn’t going to be able to ignore for long. She patters around the house, tries to paint but her heart isn’t in it, tries to make food but when she goes for the tater tots in the freezer she can feel Grace’s disappointed look and suddenly she isn’t hungry either.
Frankie ends up in the bedroom, sitting in a way she hasn’t in a long time: barefoot by a mirror, folded up so that her soulmark is visible in her reflection and her chin rests on her knee. She traces over the shape of the word with one tentative finger, wonders for the umpteenth time what it could be. G plus illegible scrawl. Idly, no more than a flight of fancy, Frankie wishes it could say Grace. Wishes that those cramped little letters she’d never been able to suss out could say ‘r-a-c-e’ so that she could have an excuse to leave Santa Fe and go home.
Frankie realizes two things absolutely simultaneously. The first is that wishing for a reason to leave and go back to La Jolla is reason enough to do so. The second is that her soulmark definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, says Grace.
Frankie leaves. Frankie leaves and Grace tells her to go and that doesn’t make it hurt any less when she’s gone. Grace pours herself a drink but she stops at one, she knows what desperation and alcohol lead to, can see that quick slide from something more than social drinking into out-and-out alcoholism and knows that she needs to stay away. She is alone now, does not have a beautiful weird hippie-shaped safety net to catch her this time, and she knows she needs to be more careful than she used to be.
She dates Nick because he’s there. Harsh, but true. She dates Nick because he’s persistent and not awful looking and sometimes even charming. It’s probably not fair to either of them, really, but she’s been seeing men her entire life and she sees no reason to change that. Coming out? At her age? To her friends? Christ, to her daughters? (Facing the “Really, Mom, you too?” and every acerbic remark Brianna would fling her way?) It would’ve been worth it for Frankie, she thinks; it would never be worth the pain of coming out for anyone but Frankie. And Frankie? Frankie’s gone. Frankie is in Santa Fe and happy and in love and Grace needs to move on. So Grace dates Nick and invites Sherree to stay and moves the fuck on.
It’s not awful. Well, it’s pretty fucking awful, actually. But it’s not so awful that Grace thinks she will be consumed by the awfulness. She’s lonely as hell at first, lonelier than she ever was in that big empty house with Robert for all those years, but she’s trying to deal with that loneliness in not entirely self-destructive ways. She likes Sherree, likes Nick, even, and she pours herself into her life as it is, into her business, concentrates on the parts of her life that aren’t awful and not the loneliness she feels deep in her heart late at night. Always, actually, but she doesn’t let herself admit it except when it’s dark and she’s alone in her bed and wishing there was a Frankie curled around her.
Funny, isn’t it? How she used to hate the way Frankie would wheedle her way into her bed and now it’s the only thing she wants. She has no illusions about it, she in no way lets herself dream that Frankie could ever love her back, she knows that Frankie will never be in her bed in the way that she truly desires. But, oh, it would be enough for Frankie to be there at all. To be at the beach house with her forever. Grace could bite her tongue and keep her hands to herself and never betray any of her true feelings and she could be happy like that, if it meant they were together.
She tentatively touches the skin that bears Frankie’s name, finds it comforting and awful all at once. The thing is that Grace knows Frankie must believe in soulmarks. They’ve never actually spoken about them, save for a throwaway conversation about Robert and Sol in the midst of their divorces, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that Frankie lives for. Mystique and fate and all that crap.
Also Frankie is the worst person at keeping secrets that Grace has ever known. Which means that Grace can be absolutely positive that if Frankie had Grace’s name on her skin she would’ve said something by now. Grace takes stock of the fact that Frankie has never told her about her soulmark, or even asked her if she had a soulmark, and the fact that Frankie left Grace to be with Jacob in Santa Fe and that’s that, really. That’s all Grace needs to know.
Frankie’s gone and Grace isn’t Frankie’s soulmate and in the aftermath of everything all that is left is for Grace to piece her life back together, for the second time, to try to be better this go around. A better mother, a better grandmother, a better friend.
Grace pours herself a glass of water and makes a concerted effort to eat the food that Sherree makes for her, tries to let herself be more than porcelain and pills and the unattainable vision of womanly beauty she has been piecing together her entire life with makeup and exercise and, yes, a couple of discreet visits to a surgeon’s office here and there. Not that she’s going to stop wearing makeup any time, or god forbid leave the house looking any less than her best. The time for orthotic shoes has not come—will never come if she has anything to say about it. But she eats carbs and tries not to fret if she gains half a pound and that is a start.
She calls her daughters and that is a start, too. Remembers what Brianna had to say about being unconditional. She spends time with them and with her grandchildren and she still doesn’t really like babies but Macklin and Madison are getting old enough to be real little people and Grace talks to them like they are, listens seriously to their answers, feels like she may finally be getting things right.
“So I’ll meet you at the airport three flights after the one you were supposed to come in on,” Grace says. Knows she is smiling like an idiot into the call but she can’t help it, can’t help how happy she is that she is going to get to see Frankie again.
“I feel so known,” Frankie says.
Known and loved, Grace thinks, but she hangs up instead of saying it.
Frankie comes home and Grace wants to be happy, wants to be easy and casual but she is hurt and she didn’t realise quite how angry she is about it until Frankie is there in their house judging everything that Grace has done to make life bearable since she left. First it’s the snide comments at Sherree that Grace tries to let slide but then Frankie has the nerve to bring up Nick. To find out about Nick and then to use it against her like a weapon.
“Has he been inside of you?” Frankie asks.
The answer is yes. Yes but I was thinking of you the whole time. Yes but I so wanted it to be you. Yes but I only came when I closed my eyes and pictured you instead. Yes, but… Frankie only hears the yes. If Frankie wants to fight about it then Grace will fight because she doesn’t have anything to feel sorry for. Frankie left, Frankie left her, and she dealt with it the best she could.
“Anger solves everything,” she tells Mallory and she means it. Well, anger solves just about everything. So far it hasn’t been able to make her not be in love with Frankie but she’s still trying on that one.
And then, and Grace can’t really believe it’s happening, then Frankie tells her she wants to come home. Frankie tells her she hates Santa Fe and she broke up with Jacob and it takes every fiber of control Grace has ever had to not stand up and whoop for joy and pull Frankie into her arms and kiss her right then and there.
It’s worth screwing up her knee to get Sherree her house back. Worth it because she deserves it and because she and Frankie are, well, Grace and Frankie again. Together. In their house. She wonders if it’s ironic, or something, that the knee she hurt is the one with Frankie’s name written on the back of it. Like a message from the universe or something, if she believed in that sort of thing.
“It must have been nice for Sherree to have been loved like that,” she tells Frankie, but she’s really thinking about the letters she would write to Frankie, were she allowed, even if she was just in the next room. She reads to Frankie until she falls asleep, covers her with a blanket and dares to lean down and press a kiss to her forehead, heads to bed and can’t help but stop at the base of the staircase and take one last look at her before she heads upstairs. She doesn’t feel alone that night, even though there’s no one in bed beside her.
She forgets to break up with Nick. In all honesty, actually, she forgets about Nick entirely. The only thought in her head is a recurring chorus of ‘Frankie’s home, Frankie’s home, Frankie’s home’ and then there’s a knock on the door and it’s Nick coming to pick her up for a date and Frankie is smiling and telling her that she’s okay with it, that she’s made her peace with Grace dating him even if he’s a soulless corporate monster who doesn’t even have the decency to listen to the story of how Frankie’s yurt exploded. Grace doesn’t bother to remind her that she never gets through the story, but it’s true that after two or three tangents Nick always completely gives up on the conversation and Grace knows that every great Frankie story requires six tangents minimum before getting to the meat of things. The point is, though, that Frankie is okay with Grace dating Nick. The only problem is, Grace isn’t.
She goes for lunch with Nick and does her best to make pleasant conversation, almost makes it through the first course before she’s fed up to the point of calling it. Suddenly, his persistence, his refusal to take her no for an answer is no longer charming; it’s just plain annoying.
“I can’t do this anymore, Nick,” Grace says. “It’s over.”
“Is this the age thing again?” Nick asks. “Because I thought I’d made myself pretty clear where I stand on that.”
“It’s not,” Grace sighs, “it’s just not going to work.”
“Oh,” Nick says, “oh I get it, this is another test.”
“No,” Grace tries to imbue the word with all the force in the world. “No, it’s not. I’m serious. This,” she gestures between them, “whatever it is. I’m done. It’s done.”
“Tell me what the problem is,” he says, leaning forward and taking her hand, “tell me what it is and I’ll fix it.”
Grace has to laugh at that. “You can’t,” she tells him. Wishes he’d let go of her hand, let go of her. Why can’t he just let this be?
“Money solves everything,” Nick says. The incredible thing, to Grace’s mind, is that he obviously believes it. Grace, for her part, takes a deep breath, downs her drink, can’t believe she’s about to say this until her mouth is open and the words are coming out.
“I’m a lesbian and I’m in love with Frankie.” Fix that, she wants to say, but she’s so much more preoccupied with how real it is now that she’s said the words out loud—just blurted them really—now that Nick is staring at her in disbelief and she’s wishing she hadn’t just finished her drink.
“Kooky?” he says and Grace bristles at the nickname, hates that he somehow thinks he has the right to call her that.
“Goodbye, Nick,” Grace says. She stands up, walks away from the table, takes a cab home. “We broke up,” she tells Frankie, doesn’t elaborate beyond that but Frankie, for once, doesn’t ask; she just pulls Grace into a tight hug and Grace drops all her pretenses about hating hugging and hugs her right back. Frankie smells like lavender dryer sheets and patchouli and Grace breathes in deeply.
The one thing Grace had forgotten about, while Frankie was away, was how hard it actually was to live with Frankie. Not because of the incense or the food stains or the way she seems to create mess as easily as breathing. Not because of loud tangents or throat singing or wild-eyed lectures on everything from bedazzling to capitalism’s role in maintaining the cisgender hetero-patriarchy. Not because of any of the reasons she would have expected, had anyone told her five or ten years ago that this is where she would be. But because she just loves Frankie so goddamn much.
It was hard enough to love her from afar, to be tragically in love with Frankie while Frankie was in Santa Fe. But now Frankie is here, beside her, all the time, and while there is nowhere Grace would rather have her be…
She loves Frankie when she’s waxing poetic about the universe and when she’s lost her glasses (she has at least two pairs on the top of her head) and when she’s convincing Grace to forget about any and all responsibilities and to instead get high with her in their chairs on the deck (Grace can never say no). She loves Frankie when she’s having an existential crisis because she’s legally dead and when she’s leaning in close to Grace on the couch and when she’s wheedling her way into Grace’s bed because she ‘doesn’t feel right sleeping alone’. She wants Frankie first thing in the morning and last thing at night and at every conceivable moment in between and it is eating her alive.
It’s not fair, really, for one human to be so adorable. And how is Grace supposed to handle it? The way that Frankie’s skin wrinkles when she smiles, how soft her hands are when she reaches out to grab Grace’s, how beautiful she looks in balloon pants and muumuus and overalls, how sometimes she smiles at Grace and Grace can feel her heart stop beating.
Something about being in Frankie withdrawal has made it worse, she thinks, has made her feelings stronger or perhaps just made her weaker, like her self-control is flabby and out of shape from the lack of practice it’s gotten over the past few months. Or maybe, she thinks one night as they watch The Goonies for the 42nd time—which is to say that Frankie watches The Goonies and Grace watches Frankie because she can’t for the life of her tear her eyes away—maybe it is because she finally said the words out loud. She still can’t believe she told Nick, but she did. She took a deep breath and she put those words out into the world. I’m a lesbian. I’m in love with Frankie. It’s been the truth for longer than Grace cares to admit but it seems so much more solid now. Frankie always says that naming things gives them power, maybe she should listen to her. Grace sighs and unconsciously rubs at the spot behind her knee that bears Frankie’s name.
“Is your knee still giving you trouble?” Frankie asks.
“Oh.” Grace looks up in surprise; she hadn’t realised that Frankie was looking at her. “It’s not so bad.”
“You’re gonna have to get surgery on that you know,” Frankie tells her.
“Yeah,” Grace admits, “I know.”
Before she can do anything about the knee, there is a funeral. Another funeral. It seems like all she does these days is go to them. She and Robert go together and as they talk in the car he makes equivocations between Sol and Frankie that she brushes off as best she can.
“You chose your person,” she says, “I was tethered to mine.” It’s the truth, technically, but the reality is she would choose Frankie every chance she got. Soulmark or no she would still choose Frankie. She doesn’t want Robert to know that, doesn’t want him to think that they’re the same. That he’s somehow off the hook just because she’s gay too.
Finding out that Phil died is a blow. More of one than she would have expected, if she’s honest. She has to excuse herself, steps outside to the fountain so she can clear her head. She doesn’t expect Robert to follow her, to stand beside her and offer her his handkerchief. Then again, he may have been a lousy husband but since their divorce he’s started to be a pretty good friend.
“You took your chance,” she tells Robert, “you found happiness.”
“You can too,” he says, and his tone makes Grace look at him sharply.
He looks like he’s about to speak again so Grace just shakes her head, knows he understands the ‘don’t you dare say it’ that hangs between them.
“I lied,” he says finally, like he’s changing the subject, “about not having a soulmark.”
“I figured that one out for myself,” Grace says, her voice hard and grating.
“Mine says Sol,” Robert continues, unfazed. “On my hip. It’s occurred to me for a while now that you might’ve been lying too.”
That tone, oh that tone is in some ways so close to his lawyerly determined to find out whatever the secret is thing he always did but this time it’s tinged with, what, compassion? Comfort? Robert now is a far cry from the man she used to live with.
“Phil?” he suggests and they both know it’s a joke—and a bad one at that.
“Ha,” Grace says. Harsh, short, not an ounce of humour in it. She stands and watches the water tumble down from the fountain and then finally, finally, she says, “Frankie. On the back of my knee.”
Robert doesn’t say anything, just puts his arm around her shoulder and holds her close. Is more comforting in that moment than he has been since she met him.
“We make quite the pair, don’t we?” he says finally.
“Imagine if we had known,” Grace says. But then she wouldn’t have her life, she wouldn’t have her daughters, wouldn’t have Frankie.
Forty dark painful years of bitter loneliness were worth it, she thinks. Possibly because part of her still believes she deserved them. Deserved the empty house and the empty heart and the never feeling loved. In fact, it’s only since Frankie that Grace has ever dared to think that she might’ve deserved anything else.
Bud and Allison have their baby and Grace is there. She didn’t expect to be, didn’t ask to be, but Frankie asked her to be there and Sol and Robert are there and all the kids are there so in the end it makes sense, really, that she should be there too. She is not there for the actual birthing process itself, despite Frankie’s many pleas and claims that there’s nothing more beautiful than the process of a woman giving birth. Instead she chooses to stay in the waiting room with Robert and all the kids save Bud, almost says ‘if you’ll remember, I’ve given birth twice myself’ but she bites her tongue on that because she realises how cruel it would be to say that to Frankie of all people and keeping even accidentally hurtful comments to herself is something Grace does now.
But she is there afterwards to coo and congratulate Bud and Allison and most of all Frankie. Frankie who shines with delight at holding her granddaughter in her arms and Grace feels a little bad, in that moment, for being the one between them to have four grandchildren because she has never been as natural with them as Frankie is now. Frankie has always been maternal in a way that Grace envied. Now instead of envy it’s just plain admiration, adoration, because Frankie is glowing and happy and Grace wants to put her arms around her and stand cheek to cheek with her as they look down at their fifth grandchild together.
Of course she can’t do that because Frankie is not hers and Bud and Allison’s baby is not her grandchild, and Mallory’s children are not Frankie’s grandchildren and the pain of remembering that is somehow gut-wrenching because for a few heady minutes she was thinking of all of them as one big family, somehow without realising it thinking of Frankie as her wife or something and she really really needs to get ahold of herself.
She congratulates Bud and Allison, narrowly escapes a conversation about Allison’s nursing worries—she really does not want to hear about her assuredly screwed up nipples—and takes Frankie home.
A week or two later and Grace has gotten used to going over to Bud and Allison’s to visit Faith with Frankie. She still hasn’t changed her mind on babies but she loves Faith for the same reason she loves her grandchildren, because she is a part of her life, a crucial part of her family. She doesn’t know if she’s really allowed to feel that way but that’s the truth of it. She doesn’t have the magical baby calming touch that Frankie has and the few times she’s been handed Faith she’s been just as happy to hand her back. But she is great at doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, putting a load of laundry in the washing machine. Sometimes Bud and Allison fall asleep and then it’s just Frankie and she in the kitchen and Frankie’s holding a baby and Grace is cleaning bottles and it’s enough to make all sorts of stupid what-ifs fly through her brain.
A month later Grace gets the date for her knee surgery and she is terrified. Abso-fucking-lutely terrified. Thankfully, she has Frankie. Frankie holds her hand and promises to be there for her no matter what and when the day of the surgery comes, Frankie goes as far as they let her—tries to sneak into the restricted area, even, in an awful disguise made entirely of surgical masks and latex gloves—tells Grace that she will be fine. She gets a text from Robert the day of, saying ‘You won’t die on the table, you can’t, you’re not done yelling at me yet’ and it makes her laugh out loud. ‘True,’ she replies before giving her phone to Frankie and making her swear not to make any impulse itunes purchases.
“I can’t promise that,” Frankie says, “you know how the app store calls to me when I’m stressed.”
And then it’s Frankie this time who leans down and presses a gentle kiss to Grace’s forehead and Grace thinks only of that when the mask goes over her face and the anaesthetist asks her to start counting backwards, thinks of how much she has left to live for.
In the aftermath of the surgery Frankie is still there, with food and pain meds and everything else Grace could want or need.
Grace makes a concerted effort to eat the food Frankie offers, takes her pills (in the prescribed amount) with water or juice. It’s not much, really, more of those baby steps and she still enjoys a stiff drink but she also enjoys being in control and being present even if the only thing she is present for is Frankie’s persistent efforts to get her off the couch and loud off-key renditions of Lean On Me, as though that’s going to help the situation.
She does get up, though. And she does lean on Frankie, though she growls out a ‘don’t start’ when Frankie draws in a deep breath to start singing. She lets Frankie guide her to her walker and makes it from just standing to going from one end of the couch to the other.
“Grace,” Frankie says that evening from where she stands at the door to the patio, “come look, the stars are so beautiful tonight. Oh, universe, thank you for gracing us with this today,” and she sounds so excited that it’s worth grasping at her walker and hobbling out to her side.
Being stuck on the couch all day sucks but it does give her time to go over some things for Vybrant that she’d been putting off and to finally call a few contractors to get quotes on the water damage on the kitchen ceiling. It also means more time spent watching shitty movies and shitty reality tv but those aren’t so bad, really, because Frankie’s there watching them with her, quoting the movies line by line and shouting ‘open concept’ at the top of her lungs every time someone takes a sledgehammer to a wall on a home improvement show.
She makes sure to wait to change her bandage until Frankie’s gone, out running errands or in her studio painting, anything like that. She has been careful, very careful, while living with Frankie to make sure she doesn’t see the soulmark and the last thing she wants is for Frankie to catch a glimpse of it now.
Her endeavour to keep Frankie from touching her knee is kept in place by a few pleas to her own independence, a few more to how disgusting it is and how Frankie really doesn’t want to see the wound in the first place, and timing. It works until the day that Grace pulls off her bandage before realising that the new bandages are too far away to be able to reach them.
She tries to get up while keeping her leg straight, thinks she can probably hop to the other side of the room and grab them but she ends up hitting her knee against her walker and she lets out a yell of pain before she can clamp her jaw on it.
“Grace?” and Frankie’s running into the room with a paintbrush in her hand looking panicked. “Grace, was that you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Grace says, gritting her teeth at the pain. “I couldn’t reach the bandages.”
She gestures at them and Frankie grabs them for her and Grace expects Frankie to leave hef to her own devices but instead she sits down on the sofa beside Grace and pulls her leg into her lap. Frankie carefully starts cleaning the wound and it hurts a bit, just like it always does, but Grace can’t concentrate on the pain because Frankie has put one hand on the back of her knee and Frankie’s fingers are—unbeknownst to her—tracing over her own name and why didn’t anyone ever tell Grace that there were four billion nerve endings there just waiting to be brought alive with Frankie’s touch?
Thankfully between putting on new pieces of gauze and then wrapping the whole thing in a new bandage, Frankie doesn’t actually end up looking at the back of Grace’s knee. Grace realises that that actually makes sense, that it would be almost impossible for Frankie to see the back of her knee like this and she breathes out a sigh of relief.
“No clogs,” she says once it’s done, pointing at Frankie’s stocking feet, desperate for something else to focus on.
“Oh right,” Frankie says, “I kicked them off, they were slowing me down.”
Grace’s heart swells with love at that, at the fact that this beautiful perfect woman cared enough to sprint into the room just to help her, at how lucky she is to have such a good friend.
Moving forward, she’s less careful. She doesn’t necessarily wait until Frankie’s out of the room to change her bandages, even lets Frankie do it sometimes. She feels bad for how much she loves the feeling of Frankie’s hand skimming over the skin that bears her name, feels bad for taking advantage, but it makes her so happy at the same time and this, this is true addiction; Grace doesn’t know how she’ll ever give it up.
She gets through the two weeks of bandage changes until the staples are removed without Frankie catching a glimpse of the back of her knee. When they go in for her appointment she makes Frankie stay in the waiting room as an extra precaution. And then she thinks it’s over, that the hypervigilance is done and she can go back to her regularly scheduled life, her regular amount of worrying that Frankie will catch a glimpse of the mark. There’s a reason she’s been wearing pants the whole time they’ve been living together and it’s definitely not because she’s trying to hide her fabulous calves. A week later, she’s on her way to bed, wincing with every step, and Frankie stops her before she can go further.
“Hey Lady, when was the last time you took any pain killers?” she asks and Grace thinks about it, is almost surprised to realise she missed her latest dose. She lets Frankie get her some acetaminophen, accepts the glass of water as well and swallows them down. And then Frankie says, “Let’s get you some ice, too,” and Grace nods in agreement, starts to roll her pant leg up, stops cold when Frankie speaks again. “Grace, what is that?”
Fear spikes through Grace’s heart and she immediately shoves the fabric back down.
“It’s nothing,” she says in a tone that brooks no response. “I’m going to bed.” She grabs for the railing, hauls herself up the stairs without once looking back to Frankie. When she makes it into her room and leans back against the closed door, she puts a hand to her chest and tries to breathe slowly. Her heart is racing and it has nothing to do with the exertion of her trek up the stairs. “You idiot,” she breathes out, “you stupid, careless idiot.” She lies in bed for hours unable to sleep, unable to do anything but think about how close she got to ruining everything.
The next morning, Grace tentatively makes her way downstairs. She heads to the kitchen, makes coffee and stands with the fridge door open trying to decide what she’s going to eat. She’s on high alert, still, listening intently for any sound of Frankie but none arrives. There’s no sight or sound of Frankie all morning, or through lunch. Grace makes herself comfortable in the living room, settles in to read a book and tries not to fret about where Frankie is. Anywhere else is better than here, she thinks. If she’s not here we can’t talk about it. Still, she can’t focus on the book, reads the same paragraph over and over without absorbing a word of it before dropping both book and glasses on the table and covering her face with her hands.
When the hell did life get this complicated?
“So.” Frankie plops down on the sofa, and Grace jumps, shocked. She hadn’t even heard her come in. “Soulmark or tattoo? I’m assuming soulmark because I can’t really imagine Grace Hanson with a tattoo, but then I realized you may have a dissident youth you hadn’t shared with me—and if you do know that I’m very offended by that—but it’s sort of a weird place for a tattoo which definitely makes me think soulmark. So?”
“So?” Grace repeats.
“So which is it!”
“It’s nothing,” Grace says. “It’s not important.”
“Ha! Yeah right. Don’t think you’ll get me off the scent that easily.” She taps her nose. “I’ve got the nose of a bloodhound and the tenacity of a chihuahua on LSD.”
That’s weirdly specific in a way that Grace both does and does not want to know more about. “It’s not a big deal, Frankie,” Grace says, and then switches tactics. “I just really don’t want to talk about it.” She hopes desperately that Frankie will, for once in her life, just let something go.
“Oh come on Grace!” Frankie says, her tone wheedling. “Please please please, I wanna see it. You know how I get when I have a mystery to solve.”
“It’s gonna consume my very soul,” Frankie continues. “Oh my god, it doesn’t say Robert does it? Cause that would be tres tres tragique. Or Nick? Jesus, please tell me it doesn’t say Nick.”
“No Frankie, of course it doesn’t say Robert. Or Nick.”
“Oh my god it is a soulmark! I knew it!”
Fuck. Grace hadn’t meant to confirm that. Frankie’s a lot more cunning than she looks, Grace would do well to remember that.
“Please tell me Grace. Please please please.”
“I don’t have to listen to this,” Grace says. She pushes herself up from the couch and hobbles her way to the foyer, Frankie on her heels.
“Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you!” Frankie shouts, and that’s enough to make Grace whirl around.
“I’m not the person here who has a history of walking away.” The words are harsh, cruel even, but Grace is willing to play dirty if it gets her out of this conversation.
“That’s not fair,” Frankie says, her voice trembling just enough to make Grace feel like a fucking monster. “You told me to go.”
“That doesn’t mean I wanted you to.” There it is, the truth plain and simple.
“Well how was I supposed to- hey! Don’t change the subject, we’re talking about you and your reticence when it comes to sharing things with me, not Santa Fe!”
Grace just sighs, continues to try to stare Frankie down. It’s a glare that would send even Brianna scurrying away but Frankie seems not to notice it.
“I don’t get why you won’t just tell me,” Frankie says, a little quieter now, a little sadder. “You know how much it hurt me when Sol kept his mark a secret from me and now you’re doing the same thing.”
It’s a low fucking blow but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make Grace’s heart hurt any less because Frankie looks so sad and she legitimately believes that she’ll be happier once she sees the mark. Grace knows the truth, knows she won’t, but she doesn’t know how to make Frankie understand that.
“You don’t wanna see it,” Grace says.
“Oh that’s bull! You always act like you know what’s best for me but guess what Grace? You don’t know everything.”
“Ugh!” Grace shouts. “Fine, Frankie, fine!” She leans down, hikes up her right pant leg. “Read it and weep if it means that much to you.” She straightens as she waits for Frankie to read the letters, squares her shoulders and tries to prepare herself for the ensuing laugh of derision or sigh of disgust—she doesn’t know which would be worse—braces herself for it. She doesn’t expect for Frankie to kneel down, to trace the letters with her finger, to lean so close that Grace can feel her breath on her skin.
“Oh Grace,” she says and oh shit, Grace hadn’t even considered pity as a possibility but it is definitely worse than any of the other options.
“I know,” she says, wills her voice not to break on the words. “Feel free to go tell all our friends about poor pathetic Grace and her ridiculous soulmark.”
“Grace!” Frankie is tugging at her arm to get her to turn around, is in the process of standing, of kicking off her clogs, of pulling off one of her socks and trying to lift her foot to chest height.
“Frankie, stop! You’re gonna fall and break your hip.” Grace can’t imagine what in all hell Frankie is trying to do but the last thing she wants is for her to hurt herself. She goes along gamely as Frankie leads her back to the sofa, pushes at her so she’ll sit down. She is still unbelievably tense, can’t understand what the hell Frankie is doing. All she wants is for the fallout from the soulmark to happen, for Frankie to leave or make some obvious and disparaging remark about how she doesn’t like Grace ‘like that’, so that Grace can pour herself a very large martini and start working on forgetting that this day ever happened.
But then Frankie is shoving her bare foot in Grace’s lap like it means something. And Grace just looks at her hopelessly before finally looking down at that foot and there, there on Frankie’s skin is something Grace never expected to see in her life. The letters are a close scrawl that she recognizes immediately: it’s the way she used to sign her name, when Say Grace was first getting started, before power and speed made her letters broader and bolder.
She traces over the letters, can’t look away from the dark lettering, can’t look at Frankie’s face because that would mean really facing this and Grace isn’t sure she wants to do that, is fairly certain she’d rather just stay like this—caught in limbo—forever.
“Honey,” Frankie says, and the pet name fills Grace with warmth, “I swear I didn’t know what it said. I couldn’t read it for the longest time.”
“When did you…” Grace still concentrates on the letters under her fingers.
“Santa Fe. I missed you so much. I think I knew you were my soulmate before I could even read the word, the soulmark just made me face it.”
Grace looks up at that, meets Frankie’s eyes, cannot believe the words that Frankie is saying to her.
“I don’t…” she trails off, cannot conceive of a universe where this is the truth, where Grace’s name is on Frankie’s skin and Frankie wants it there.
Frankie takes her foot out of Grace’s lap and for a moment Grace feels bereft but then Frankie is kneeling close, cupping Grace’s cheek with her hand.
“I love you, Grace Hanson,” she says, soft and steady, and all Grace can do is lean forward and capture her lips in a kiss.
Kissing Frankie is like nothing Grace has ever experienced and everything Grace ever imagined. Frankie’s lips are soft against hers and she’s sighing softly into the kiss and it is exquisite. Suddenly, Grace understands what the big deal is, understands why everyone talks about kissing like it’s the greatest thing on earth when to her it always just felt awkward and strange. After a lifetime of repression and confusion, she’s finally kissing the right person and she never wants to stop.
They do have to stop though, and it’s probably a good thing they do because Grace’s sanity is rapidly disappearing with every second she spends kissing Frankie’s perfect mouth. Frankie pulls away first and they both take a moment to breathe, their foreheads pressed together. Grace is surely smiling like a lunatic now but she can’t even bring herself to care how she looks.
“I love you,” she says. “I, um.” She bites her lip. “I didn’t think you… And I, well, I didn’t want the mark to be true for the longest time. I think I probably hated you more for it, really. And by the time I figured everything out I just figured it was too late.”
It is still too late, in a lot of ways, and she curses whoever’s in charge of this kind of thing that it took them this long, that they didn’t figure this out decades ago. How cruel the irony is that it took almost her entire life to find the person she was destined to spend it with.
“It’s never too late,” Frankie says, unexpectedly solemn. Then she grins, quips, “If only mine said Kevin, we would have figured it out years ago.”
Grace has to laugh, some things just don’t change.
“C’mere,” she says, soft and low, tugs Frankie towards her and greets her with a longer, deeper kiss. Frankie reaches out a hand to gently grasp Grace’s knee, her fingers skimming over her mark, still bare from when Grace had shown it to her earlier. The sensation makes Grace shiver which in turn makes Frankie grin and christ she is beautiful when she smiles.
For a moment, she feels as much an observer to her own life as she was the first time she met Frankie, like she is standing off the side watching herself dig her hands in Frankie’s hair and kiss her way along her jaw. Only now, there is no disgust, no fear, no anxiety; now she stands and watches herself and all she thinks about is that she didn’t know it was possible for a human being to contain this much joy.