The book is open on the counter beside Own when Jamie walks by. It’s not a book really--more of a loose leaf binder, pages laminated. Taking a crunchy bite from her apple, she sidles up beside him, tapping the corner of a page with her finger.
“Cauliflower au gratin.” Jamie parrots through a mouth of honeycrisp. She swallows it down and looks closer.
2 cups cheese. Pinch of cayenne, if not cooking for children.
“I brought it with me from France.” Owen doesn’t look up from where he’s whisking something thick and off-white in a pan. “Thought the new au pair might appreciate a comfort meal. Wasn’t sure what she liked.”
She hadn’t remembered that the new nanny was coming today. Wonder what she’s like. The thought drifts across her mind before she loses it, looking out the window, thinking about her to-do list.
All of the women in Jamie's Feminist “Book Club”, goose eggs that they are, are always talking about men and how wrong they have it. They always call us complicated, says Annie, saying us and meaning women, for having needs.
Well, the girls in the club aren’t philosophers. Anyway, it’s less of a Book Club and more of a singles mixer for every lesbian within a 30 mile radius of Essex County. And they’re wrong, Jamie thinks. Women are complicated, especially when you’re making love to ‘em—they want to be touched, to be scratched, cradled, bitten. They want you to be careful, either gentle-careful or careful in the way you toss them around.
The mistake, says Jamie, if you were to ask her (and nobody has yet)—the mistake is in thinking that being complicated is a bad thing. Nobody would ever accuse Jamie of being a great lover of mankind, but as a gardener she acknowledges that sometimes the complicated bits are the best. Helping a moonflower into its nighttime bloom, misting an orchid, loving the right woman--apples and apples, all pretty much the same. This is something she thinks about, ruminates on , and she’s thinking about it when the au pair comes to Bly.
Change is part and parcel of Jamie’s life. She figures that some people just get dealt a hand and this is hers, same as Owen, same as Hannah, and same as those poor children. So it made sense, cosmically, that what had started off as a mostly solitary position had become a hybrid of gardener, handyman, and crotchety aunt for two unruly children. There had been funerals, and death, and life, and now Jamie had to go to the greenhouse if she wanted any peace and quiet during her day. All that to say, when Dani shows up, and Jamie is thinking, she also has the thought that things are going to change again. And it doesn’t worry her.
“What do you think of her?” She asks one afternoon, arranging a bouquet of flowers in a vase on the kitchen table. Hannah hums, licking her forefinger to turn a page in her magazine.
“Our newest esteemed colleague.” Jamie says. She pulls one of the flowers from the bunch, longer than the others, and clips the stem with a pair of shears. The green stalk falls onto a pile with the others, piled on a blanket of newspapers.
“Oh.” Hannah looks up with a placid smile. She toys with the cross necklace that rests on her sternum, humming a bit. “I quite like her, don’t you? She’s very…”
“Well, that’s not always a bad thing.”
“Haven’t had her tea, I see.” Hannah doesn’t laugh at that--takes a lot better to break that cool exterior, Jamie thinks, but she does quirk an eyebrow in a way that Jamie knows means that her statement has been received and appreciated. Having set her magazine on the table in front of her when they started talking, Hannah picks it back up, flicking through to find where she’d left off. It’s a copy of Better Homes, last week’s (Hannah is always a week behind. Partially, she says, so she doesn’t have to wait for the next to arrive, and partially because she rarely has the time for such pursuits. Jamie would think that the only thing that Hannah does for pleasure is read Better Homes and Gardens, except that she had once gone into her room to find a pair of borrowed scissors and found stacked on her nightstand some grocery store romance novels.)
“Well, yes, but--when was the last time you heard it this quiet in here?” Jamie pauses to consider this. Bly, like many old houses, is rarely if ever silent. She thinks sometimes that houses go the opposite way of people. The older they are, the harder they breathe, the more they make their existence known. But it is quieter than usual, she must admit.
Just then, the great front doors fly open. “Miles, Flora--wipe your--” but Dani’s shrill voice gets engulfed by the sounds of children eager for lunch. Miles and Flora fly past the dining room, a blur, and Dani comes trodding after them. She looks pink and exhausted. “I’m so sorry, Hannah.” She says when she sees her sitting at the kitchen table. “I’ll get them to clean the mud up, I swear, they just--”
“That’s alright, dear.” Hannah closes Better Homes with finality, not having read a single extra page. Jamie would feel sympathy for her if she wasn’t sure that Hannah loved it. “I’ll fetch the mop.”
Hannah goes one way and Dani another, scarcely acknowledging Jamie. It isn’t rude, not yet. At that time, and perhaps only in that moment, for the only time in either of their shared lives, Dani and Jamie are strangers to one another. The au pair stands in the archway between the dining room and the kitchen where they usually eat, saying something to Owen. Still at the dining room table, still with the shortened flower in her hand, Jamie takes in Dani’s back. The sweep of her hair, her shoulders, down to--
What on earth would the ladies at the book club think of you? Jamie thinks before placing the flower back into the vase with finality. What, indeed.
Not knowing each other lasts for all of another week. Looking back, Jamie will realize that it’s just Dani’s way. That is, after all, how she’d gotten the job, how she’d endeared herself so quickly to Owen, to Hannah, to the children. Dani was a stranger to few by design.
It starts as a coupling of necessity. The end of fall is closing in quickly, and it’s been unseasonably warm, so Dani takes the children outside to play on the grounds as often as possible. It’s as if she thinks she can run them out so thoroughly, like a pack of dogs, that they will sleep all winter. An admirable pursuit, Jamie thinks, watching Dani trail after them in an overlarge jacket and muddy boots, shouting anchoring words. Stay close! and be back before dark, or so help me--
Jamie is, of course, outside as well. Even in the waning months there’s brush to be cleared, leaves to be raked, bushes to be pruned. Normally she cherishes the solitary work and balks at interruption, no matter how well intentioned. But Dani’s magic is so well spun that Jamie scarcely notices that she’s allowed the intrusion.
So, a few times a week they stand together and talk. Sometimes Dani comes out bearing apple cider or a tea or a toddy with a nip of whiskey, sometimes they share a cigarette in the private embrace of a deadening rose bush. Jamie finds Dani to be anxious, captivating, a little strange. She likes Dani’s candace and thinks that they have things in common, which is a rarity to find in such a small place.
And occasionally, perhaps more often than Jamie is giving her credit for, Dani will do something inexplicably charming. Once, after disappearing with the children for a time, she’d turned up to where Jamie was raking leaves with her pockets full of mushrooms they’d found growing around the pond.
Dropping the rake, Jamie had shown her which was what with great pleasure. The children, she suspected, were less interested in this than was their dutiful nanny. Later, Dani shows up with rosehips (“Makes a good brew--for the love of god, give ‘em to Hannah.”) Rowanberries (they go into the greenhouse where Jamie keeps her foraging book, a moleskin full of notes and recipes. Jamie copies the one for rowanberry jam into a scrap of paper and Dani tucks it into her pocket.) A suspect pile of leaves (“They’re just leaves.” Dani’s face falls. “But come with me, I’ll show ya how to find nettles.”)
Now, despite the opinion of her mother, father, several of her foster families, and every person who had piled into that bathroom stall with her at that London club in 1980, Jamie is quite decently self aware. Just because she frequently choses to give into her urges does not mean that she is not cognizant of them. It is with that in mind that after a few weeks she realizes with only a little distaste that she is developing a crush on Dani.
And really, how could she not? On top of everything else, the woman was as pretty as the full moon. Pretty as a big bush of clean, blooming flowers. But crushes, she thinks, aren’t always such a bad thing. In fact, when done correctly, they can be quite engaging. Can bring fun to an otherwise dull winter, can churn excitement into a work day. Can give her better wanking material, in really particular circumstances. So, in the same beat that she realizes--with Dani, who has a handful of sloe berries, explaining to her what they are and how to make sloe gin with ‘em--she decides not to worry about it. Nothin’ wrong with a crush, especially if the object of one’s affection isn’t attracted to women.
This is something that Jamie feels intensely, foolishly sure of. In fact, beyond acknowledging it the first time, she doesn’t give it any extra following thought. She has a crush, and Dani is straight, and that is the beginning and end of it. Except, for all her self-awareness, Jamie will be the first to admit that she doesn’t have a knack for thinking things through. Her mother, quite a few bar bouncers, and at least two thirds of the police force in Essex county would have agreed with her on that.
Her first inkling of her soggy, half-baked plan, comes on a proper fall afternoon. All that unseasonable warmth had lifted like steam coming off a pie and it had become really chilly, the kind of chilly that warned of a harsh winter and first frost and short days ahead. Jamie is out deadheading the last of the rose bushes, the fall blooming ones that had just died off last week. She can hear the children playing somewhere in the great beyond, a sound so familiar she almost doesn’t register it anymore.
“Working hard or hardly working?” Her ears perk at the sound of Dani’s voice and Dani’s shoes tromping down the dead grass underfoot. When Jamie turns her companion is there, hands in the pockets of her jacket, breaths visible in front of her.
“Never worked hard a day in my life.” Jamie flashes her teeth.
Dani opens her mouth as if she has something else to say, but seems to ultimately decide against it. She smiles. “Looks like there’s still one left.”
Jamie is about to ask what she means when she sees what Dani is referring to. A rose, a late-blooming straggler, still attached to the otherwise bare bush. It’s orange, a little threadbare, but still-- “It’s pretty.” Dani says as if reading her mind. Without another thought, Jamie takes her pruning scissors and snips it off, holding it out to Dani between two gloved fingers.
Dani feigns swooning, putting the back of her hand to her forehead. “My, what a gentleman!” And what accent she’s doing, Jamie couldn’t tell you if you’d put a gun to her head. But it was--what was the word she’d used before?--inexplicably charming. “The last winter rose, all for me?”
“Ah darn--doing this all wrong, ain’t I? Forgot you was a lady.” Jaime plucks off her glove with her mouth, revealing the chilled skin of her hand and, in the spur of the moment, gets down on one knee. Dani is laughing and playing along and clutching her hands together in front of her heart. “M’lady?” Jamie offers her other hand, the one not holding the rose, the one still covered in a thick gardener’s glove, outstretched in front of her. Dani’s laugh dies out, but the smile lingers on her mouth.
Dani slips her hand into Jamie’s and this, this is when Jamie notices for the first time that something--something had not been factored into her previous calculus. Because she’s leaning forward to kiss Dani’s hand as a joke, but Dani isn’t laughing. Her mouth, no longer smiling, is a little parted. She licks her lips, rubs them together, her neck bobs with a swallow. And underneath the trim of her sweater, Jamie can see a blush.
She blushes on her chest, huh? Jamie pecks her hand, quickly, and presses the rose into it, careful of the thorns. She remains on her knee, looking at Dani, frantically re-doing the math in her head. People blush all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Dani could just be cold. Or it could be--
But the way Dani averts her eyes when she brings the rose to her nose to smell it. The way she clears her throat. Jamie squints, and she thinks-- well, well. And then she thinks, this might be more complicated than I thought.
Two cups sloe berries. As much gin as you’d like and plenty of sugar. Combine and let sit in a sealed jar for at least two months. Excellent for toddies. Drink responsibly.
The book they’re reading is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe and for once, Jamie has actually read it. Not that it matters, really, the pretense of being a women's book club mostly used as an excuse to secure a room for meeting in the back of the local book shop. Jamie does wonder occasionally what the shopkeeper must think when this lot comes trodding in for their women’s group, the brutish, hairy, short haired gaggle of them.
The book isn’t why she’s there, anyway. She does turn up for just about every meeting, love these twats as she does, goose eggs though they may be. It’s just that every once and a while she shows up with a purpose, and her purpose today is Auggie.
Auggie who is, luckily, sitting in one of the folding chairs arranged in a perfect circle close to the center of the room. She looks much the same as when Jamie had seen her last two weeks ago—small, thick, head shorn, ring in her nose. Auggie has been there since before Jamie started coming to the group and, she suspects, will be there long after. She gives the impression of somebody who was born in that room and will die in that room.
Jamie also knows for a fact that she reads all the books. In fact, she has a copy of Fried Green Tomatoes tucked under one tattooed arm now, a prop. When she sees Jamie, she smiles, and Jamie wonders if she knows what she’s there for. Auggie is smart. They’ve been doing this for years, since the last time Jamie came tumbling out of prison with naught but a fiver and the clothes on her back. She’d bet money that she does.
The meeting passes in a blur. Their numbers change depending on who’s passing through, coupled up, in prison, but there’s a steady core of about eight. Annie brings beer, which is technically forbidden in the store, but the likelihood that the frazzled looking store clerk would so much as set foot in the room during their meeting is low.
At the end of it, Jamie finds Auggie standing outside, having a smoke. Auggie smiles at her, a smile full of genuine mirth, a smile that reminds her of—
“Did you read the book?”
“Actually did, if you can believe it.”
“Can’t.” Auggie laughs, dropping the cig and stamping it with her boot. They’re back at Jamie’s apartment, only two doors over from the book store, within 20 minutes.
Sex with Auggie is so easy that Jamie could almost get tucked away inside of it. Like many other things in Jamie’s life it is an act born of necessity. She is, Jamie knows, not Auggie’s type. Not butch enough, not rough in the way Auggie likes, shorn and calloused and tobacco-mouthed. Jamie has always suspected with no bite, no jealousy, that she is the closest thing Auggie can get without being considered gauche. Out here in the sticks, boys went with girls, even if you were neither or both. Auggie would still see a never-endin’ rain of grief for dating like that.
A boy like you would make a killing in London, though. Jaime thinks, but never tells her. Where would she be, then? Not here, not on this couch in her apartment. Not with Auggie underneath her, keening as Jamie works the toy between her legs.
See, she needs this too. Once Jamie’s fixed on a person--once she’s found one that she’s comfortable with, it’s tough to tear herself away. And it has, to Jaime’s chagrin, become increasingly important that she have an outlet for her sexual frustration. More and more she finds herself coming home worked up into a tight coil that can only be helped by this.
Auggie comes with a sharp cry, pressing up into Jaime before collapsing back into the couch. She tangles a hand into the straps on Jaime’s hips, a wordless stop, that’s enough. “Christ, Jaime.” She pants, throwing a forearm over her eyes. “Didn’t know you had all that in you.”
They’re on the couch in what Jaime supposes to be her living room, although her whole flat is really just one long room that used to be--who knows, servant’s quarters? There’s a kitchen and a small dining area, and then the room with her couch and a wood-burning stove that Jaime is terrified of but uses anyway because the heat hasn’t worked properly since the mid-70’s. That’s where they are and that’s why they’re there, the yellow heat coming from the stove, deadened from inattention.
Sitting on the couch with a blanket thrown over their laps, Jamie grabs a pack of cigarettes from the side table and offers Auggie one. She angles her body to open the window beside the couch-- “Reeks in here if you don’t” -- and Auggie is already on her feet pulling pants up around her stomach.
“Better get some wood for the fire then, keep it toasty in here, eh? Still keep it in the cellar?”
Something else she loves about Auggie, about all butches she’s ever met, really--especially on one of her days off from schlepping and fixing--is they’re always eager to fetch something for you, even if you haven’t asked. Jamie smiles with real fondness, says “thanks, love” and lights her cigarette.
The phone beside the couch rings second after Auggie closes the door. There’s only a few people who it could really be, and only one person who it’s likely to be. During winter, her hours are technically cut down to two days a week or so. There just isn’t much to be done on the grounds, and two days is generally plenty to keep things from falling into squalid disrepair in the house. Before the Wingraves died, that’s all it was, and Jamie would simply pick up odd jobs in her off time to make a little extra income.
Now she doesn’t bother. Scarcely is there a week that she doesn’t get a call on her days off from Hannah or Owen complaining about something or other wrong with the house that very suddenly needs an urgent looking at. In the two years since the Wingraves had passed, bulbs burn out with alarming frequency, leaks require immediate attention, windows catch a draft that’s liable to give Flora a cold that would make the whole house sick. And if Jamie comes and stays for dinner and board games and later, after the children are in bed, a nightcap by the fire, all the better.
“H--hell--” Jaime coughs when she picks up the phone, sex or a little bit of cigarette smoke caught in the back of her mouth. She clears her throat. “Hello?”
“Jamie?” Judging by that American accent, there’s only really one person it can be. Jamie smiles and drags on her cigarette.
“Hey, Poppins. Didn’t expect a call from you this evening.” With the hand holding the cigarette, Jamie turns the digital clock on the side table toward herself. 6:30. “What can I do for ya?”
“I’m really sorry to bother you like this, but there’s this horrible leak up in Flora’s bathroom--” Jaime is already standing up to fetch her clothes when she realizes that the strap-on is still affixed to her hips. Cursing under her breath, she drops her cigarette into an ashtray and cradles the phone between her shoulder and ear as she shimmies it off. “--are you okay?”
“Fine, Poppins. Listen, I’ll be there--”
“Jamie, somebody else in here?” Auggie nudges the door open with a foot, arms full of wood. She laughs when she sees Jamie, naked as the day she was born, strap pulled down to her knees. Jamie tucks the reciever against her collarbone and waves Auggie in with exaggerated gestures of her arm. “It’s fuckin’ freezing in here, mate.”
“Is there somebody with you? I’m so sorry, Jamie--” When she brings the phone back to her ear, Jamie can hear the plain distress in Dani’s voice. She can imagine her on the kitchen phone at Bly, wringing her hands.
“It’s alright, Poppins, it’s just a friend. Look, I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Just stick a mixing bowl under it while you wait, yeah?”
They hang up and Jamie finishes getting the wretched thing off herself, much to Auggie’s amusement. “Duty calls?” She asks, and Jamie can only shrug.
The leak turns out to actually be a bit of a nightmare. Jamie considers herself a jack of all but realizes that that is a poor substitute for being a licensed plumber. She replaces the mixing bowl--already full by the time she’d gotten there--with one of Hannah’s enormous canning pots and goes downstairs to deliver the news.
“You’ll need a professional.” She says, wiping her hands with a hand towel snatched from the bathroom. “Got a friend who can fix it up in the morning, worry not.”
So they don’t worry. Owen warms Jamie up a plate of dinner and she fetches herself a beer from the ice box and they sit around the table talking and laughing. She catches Dani looking at her a few times with an inscrutable expression, eyes flicking between her mouth, neck, and eyes, but she always looks down when caught, brows furrowed.
“Did you have a friend over?” Dani asks at one point. “When I called? I heard a woman’s voice.” Owen and Hannah exchange a look that Dani appears to miss entirely, fixed as her eyes are on Jamie’s face.
“Oh.” Jamie clears her throat. “Yeah. Friend from my book club came over to help me bring wood up to my flat. Cold as a witch’s tit in there.” Dani’s eyebrows pinch together briefly before her face relaxes and she smiles, looking a little tired.
Hannah excuses herself a little while after that and Owen only a few minutes after her, probably thinking he’s slick. He puts on a kettle for Jamie before he goes, a kindness. The drive isn’t far but it’s getting late and a winter night in the country can be as inky and treacherous as a black hole or the heart of the jungle. The woods are full of deer just waiting for their chance to leap in front of Jamie’s truck and catch her uncaffeinated.
“You don’t have to keep me company, Poppins.” Jamie says over the rim of her mug, taking a long sip. “Couple sips of this and I’ll be right as rain.”
“Oh, I don’t mind.” Dani flaps her hands in a way that Jamie supposes is meant to be nonchalant. “It’s nice, you know, to have somebody my age to hang out with. Not that Owen and Hannah aren’t--”
“Say no more. ‘M happy to be your companion, for as long as you’ll have me.”
That blush betrays Dani in a huge way by travelling to her ears in a manner of seconds. Jamie would be amused if she weren’t so completely flummoxed and, if she’s being honest with herself, a little curious. Maybe Dani does have a little crush too, in turn. Wouldn’t be the first time a woman had been a little sweet on Jamie without realizing. Harmless, she figures. Toothless.
“You know.” Dani says, not quite meeting Jamie’s eye. “You can always spend the night, whenever you want, if you’re here late or--I’m sure the roads can’t be good, this time of year.” She clears her throat. “Lots of rooms.”
She says this as if Jamie hadn’t spent the night a million times, or as if she wasn’t aware that Bly Manor famously boasted many rooms. As if she herself hadn’t shut half of them off for the winter just weeks before. Jamie squints and cocks her head. “Does it?”
Dani does meet her eyes then, and Jamie thinks she almost prefers shy Dani. Blushing Dani and careful and anxious Dani. Prefers her that way maybe because Jamie understands that that’s not really who she is underneath those layers, and to see Dani play the role of the ingenue keeps a distance between mild flirtation and reality. Jamie swallows, caught. “It does.”
Later, in her truck, Jamie remembers something and angles her rearview mirror to look at her neck. There, illuminated by the white light of her car overhead, is a rather obvious love bite. She presses her fingers to it and thinks of Dani’s stare flitting around her face and neck as if playing a game of what doesn’t belong.
“Did you have a friend over?” Jamie swallows and turns the mirror away from herself.
“They’re beautiful.” Flora coos when Dani takes the Tupperware from the freezer. It’s full to the brim with frozen berries. “Can I have one? Please Miss Clayton?”
“I don’t think you’ll like it.” Dani tuts, but relents. Indeed, the first sloe berry that Flora pops into her mouth she spits directly into the sink, much to the shared chagrin of every adult in the room. The second Dani dips in sugar and this Flora finds more palatable.
“It’s so bitter.” She scrambles onto a chair to get a better look at what Dani and Jamie are doing. “What’re you doing with it?”
“We,” Jamie says with flourish, dumping the berries into the bottom of a mason jar. “Are making an adult bev, not to be consumed by young sprouts such as yourself.” Berries at the bottom, they dump in gin and mix it with sugar. Flora watches with her head cradled in her hands, looking awestruck at the purple color that begins to swirl.
“But it’s so pretty.”
Dani makes sure to stash the mixture away on the very top shelf, where it can’t be reached by Flora even if she drags a dining chair over. “One time,” Dani stretches up to reach the top shelf. Jamie tries her best to stay involved with the story but her gaze is fixed on the strip of skin being revealed between Dani’s shirt and her jeans. “I caught her in here trying to steal Flintstones vitamins.”
This has been happening more and more as of late. Jamie’s brain is no better than a cesspool, a bog--it’s like the more she knows Dani, the more she likes her, the more she thinks about her body. Or their bodies, pressed against each other, doing derelict things that would earn her a slap if she was ever to say them out loud.
Dani lays stretched out on the living room couch, paperback in hand. Jamie thinks of what it would be like to be pressed on top of her, skin on skin. Dani bends over to retrieve something from the cupboard, Jamie thinks about her hips pressed right there, what noises Dani might make if she could feel Jamie’s fingers inside her from that position.
Once, in a low point, Jamie imagines Dani’s head between her thighs, her mouth working over her cock. Thinks about how it might feel to tangle her hands in blonde hair, or see the tensing of her back when her head bobs down--
When she looks up from that particular fantasy, Dani is fetching Otter Pops for everybody at the kitchen island. Flora and Miles scamper off with theirs, leaving Dani leaning over the counter. She takes the tip of the popsicle in her mouth and bites off a chunk, swallowing it down before going back to suck the leftover juice free. Her cheeks hollow out a little, briefly, and when her mouth parts from it with a pop her lips are blue.
Jamie sees the exact moment Dani notices her watching. “Jamie, hey! You want one?” She smiles even as her face crumples a little in confusion. “Are you okay? You look like you have a fever.”
And that would be bad enough. But she’s slipping up in other ways, ways that feel more threatening because they’re obvious and don’t involve just sex.
She gives Dani flowers one day. Doesn’t even think about it. She’s on autopilot, having harvested a bunch of winter jasmine from the garden for house arrangements and finding that there’s some leftover. They’re yellow, like Dani’s hair, so of course she has to take a bunch to give to her.
Dani doesn’t even try to hide her delight when Jamie gives them to her, which almost makes Jamie more ashamed. Later that day, standing in the dining room, she hears Owen’s voice:
“Those are lovely, Dani.”
And then Dani’s:
“Thanks, Owen. Jamie gave them to me.”
And here’s the thing: Jamie has given a lot of things to a lot of women. And she’s even heard those women talk about those things to their friends. Say things like “Oh thanks—a friend grew them in her garden” or “Jamie fixed it up for me, she’s my handyman.” But Dani says it so earnestly and with such naked affection that it seizes Jamie’s chest and tightens it like a screw.
Dani makes it sound like she fancies herself the luckiest woman in the world for having gotten those flowers, and Jamie realizes suddenly that she can’t forgive her for it. Can’t forgive her for the hope that blooms from that soil, from the clean, unfixable fissure it opens in her stomach.
Another book club, another novel she doesn’t read. Another early evening having a fag with Auggie, shooting the breeze.
“Fancy it?” Auggie says, and Jamie almost hates her for knowing that she doesn’t have to be much more specific than that.
“Ah.” Jamie smiles. “Actually got a long day tomorrow. Sorry.”
Auggie shrugs as if Jamie has just turned down coffee or a ride home. It’s impossible to tell sometimes when people really don’t care, when they’re upset, or when they’ve simply been too dragged down by the constant churn of rejection to muster up much of a feeling for it. Jamie feels for her any way she cuts it, having been in Auggie’s shoes often enough. But by the time she's opened her mouth to say something else Auggie's already extinguished her cigarette with the heel of her boot and moved on with a scant goodbye.
The real shit of it happens on the Friday before Christmas. It’s a book club week, and Jamie has arrived at the store early. This is a rare occurrence, being as at 4:00 PM on a Friday day off she’s usually stoned in front of an episode of Coronation Street. But lately her relaxing time has felt more and more like time spent waiting for the phone to ring and call her back down to Bly. Putting on her jacket, her boots, and getting out of the house has been a weight off her shoulders in comparison.
She’s browsing the stacks. This week’s book is Beloved which, once again, she’s actually read and, even worse, has thoughts on. The small, thick paperback is tucked into the pocket of her jacket, just in case.
“Jamie?” Jamie starts because that voice can’t be the voice she’s thinking of. It’s Friday, late afternoon, so Dani should be on the grounds, fixing the kids tea. Harried, she turns around to see none other than Danielle Clayton smiling back at her.
“Dani, didn’t expect--what’re you--”
Danie huffs out a little laugh. Her cheeks are chapped and there’s a layer of unmelted snow in her hair, which Jamie expects means she’s just been outside. “The festival.” She explains. “I realized today that I’ve been here for like, 4 months and still haven’t gotten the chance to see the village. So Hannah took the kids to the winter carnival and dropped me off to do some exploring.”
“Ah, so you’ve decided to explore a book shop in your spare time. Very studious of you, Poppins.”
Dani honest to god giggles, a sound so devastating that it nearly takes Jamie’s mind off the particular crisis of the situation. But then the bell above the door jingles, and the man behind the till shrivels up behind his magazine so small that Jamie thinks he’s actually got a good chance of disappearing, and a large gaggle of lesbians comes flooding into the shop.
“Taylor!” Jamie’s body shakes as Annie punches her shoulder jovially. “You’re early.” It only takes them a second to notice Dani. New people in the group are like chum in the water, especially ones as pretty as that. Jamie adjusts her body slightly to eclipse Dani from Annie’s view and smiles tightly.
“ Coronation Street was a rerun.”
“Who’s your friend?” Annie asks, and all at once six heads have swiveled in curiosity. Before Jamie can open her mouth, Dani answers for herself.
“I’m Dani Clayton, I work with Jamie at Bly Manor.” Then, to Jamie, with much more interest than she’s comfortable with: “Is this your...women’s book group?”
“Yep, so,” Jamie blows out a breath and shrugs in an aw, shucks! kind of way. “Better get goin’. Sorry, Poppins, maybe we can meet for a pint after?”
“Wait.” Dani is gazing past Jamie to the group either loitering with little social grace to hear the end of their conversation, or filtering into the multipurpose room. “What book are you guys reading?”
“Ah, you probably haven't--”
“ Beloved.” Bellows a voice from the crowd. Jamie recognizes it as Sarah and curses her in her brain, wants to say you know you ain’t even read it! She ultimately remains quiet.
“I loved Beloved. I actually just read it.” Dani says, sounding a little breathless. If she has any opinion about the amount of shaved heads and work boots present at the women’s book club, she says nothing and betrays nothing. It is at this point that Jamie realizes she’s lost the battle. She questions whether she was ever even a fighter in the ring. Resigned, she smiles and gestures to the room with her head.
“Why don’t you come in then.” Dani’s eyes twinkle at that. “I think Annie brought beer.”
It is among the strangest hour-and-a-half periods she’s ever spent in her life, and for Jamie Taylor that’s a high bar. She and Dani had been artfully split up by the lesbian forces that be almost immediately upon entering the room, a group of them taking Dani to the other side of the room to sit and chat while Annie and Auggie steal Jamie away with some kind of asinine question.
Nursing her beer, Jamie keeps one weather eye on Dani at all times. She’s looking for any sign of discomfort, any sign that Dani might be surprised or shocked or upset by what this “book club” turned out to be. Instead, for most of the afternoon, Dani is tucked between Max, a handsome bartender from the next village over, and Spit, a potato farmer from deep in county Essex who always turns up with dirt under their nails. They talk to her animatedly, with great interest, and Dani looks--Jamie licks her lips--Dani looks pleased. She looks rapt, absorbing the attention they give her and refracting it back at them.
“Better go talk to your girl over there before Max makes her their second wife.” Annie says in a way that Jamie recognizes is testing the waters. She’s trying to see how Jamie will react, what she’ll own up to. Certainly, if she’s about to beat her chest in possessive rage, it would happen watching Max casually swing an arm around the chair of the girl she fancies. Jamie won’t be doing that, isn’t that kind of girl. She just isn’t. I’m just not.
She clenches her teeth. “Not my girl.” And takes a swig of her beer. Annie and Auggie look at each other briefly and seem to mutually decide that it’s not worth it. It’s a moment that Jamie misses, having given up the pretense of participating in the conversation or only having the one eye on Dani. She’s watching her in full force right now, watching her giggle at something Spit’s said and wipe a smidge of beer from her mouth.
It’s snowing faintly and dark when the event is over and they step onto the sidewalk. Just as always happens, groups of book club goers split off into separate groups outside, chatting and smoking. Dani
Jamie rests an open palm on Dani’s shoulder and steers her away from the gravitational pull until they’re a block away and well and truly free of it.
Dani, usually an anxious chatter, says nothing the whole time. Her face is pensive, hands tucked into the pockets of her jacket.
“What’d you think? Jamie says. She’s watching the air puff from Dani’s mouth and dissipate in the space in front of her. Dani blinks and then, as if she’s remembering that she’s on stage, turns to Jamie with a small smile.
“It was--we didn’t talk about Toni Morrison very much.”
Jamie barks out a laugh at that. A minute more of silence and they’re in front of her truck. It’d gone unspoken that Jamie would give her a ride back to the manor, seeing as the Hannah taxi service had probably long departed. “Look, I saw those two blokes talkin’ to ya, and I have to say, if they made you uncomfortable--”
Dani says: “Blokes?” Then she says: “They didn’t make me uncomfortable. It was nice, talking to them. I--” She licks her lips and glances up at the sky. The whole time she’s been refusing to meet Jamie’s eye, but she’ll stare down the stars just fine. A piece of insane, unjustifiable jealousy roils in Jamie. “You know, sometimes when you talk to men and they look at you and it just feels-- bleh-- but, hm. I could tell they liked me. It just didn’t feel as oppressive as it usually does.”
Jamie is floored by this. Dani had just come as close as she had the entire evening to acknowledging that the book club she’d just attended was actually a lesbian meet up group. And she was so casual about it, so unperturbed, so unlike how Jamie thought straight women were supposed to react to these things. With fear, horror, disgust.
“Well, even so.” Jamie does the ground a little, suddenly petulant. “You know, they ain’t men and they may not talk like men, but they’ll think about ya like a man does.” She realizes what she’s doing, throwing two of her mates under the bus in order to gain more favor from a woman she fancies. Apparently, she’s doing a piss poor job at it, because Dani laughs. Then she looks at Jamie square. She looks at her in that way that’s happening more often, the way that drops all pretenses between them like heavy curtains falling from a ceiling.
With a smile, she says: “You really think so?” And it lands on Jamie like a cold cock to the gut. She just gapes like a fish, watching Dani open the door to the truck and step in. “Come on, it’s freezing out here!”
And what else could she possibly do but comply?
Every adult at Bly looks forward to the Christmas of 1987 with a mix of hesitancy and hope. Jamie knows that they all have secret and not-so-secret pain, but still they make hot chocolate in the morning, string the house up with garland. Jamie cuts her fingers making holly wreaths for each of the doors in the house, tries to ignore the look of plain affection on Dani’s face when she hangs each of them, swearing the entire time.
Instead of a visit, the children receive a truckload of fancifully wrapped gifts from their uncle, as good to them as a slap in the face. Jamie is there in the yard clearing brush when the courier delivers them and she sees on Flora’s face the exact moment when the memory cements itself into her brain. The pain of absence, the realization that adults will let you down.
She drops the branches she’s holding and walks over, waving an arm. Dani is with the children on the front walk, crouched and whispering to them, and looks up when she approaches. “Hey you lot, I think Owen’s making something special for ya in the kitchen.”
Flora doesn’t look up. She’s staring at her hands, worrying them together in a gesture that’s so adult that Jamie has to swallow back the urge to grab them, to stop her. “Jamie?”
“Yeah, sprout?” Jamie bounces down into a crouch to get a better look at Flora’s face.
“Will you stay for Christmas?” Her voice has a warble of almost-tears in it. She glances furtively at Dani as if asking permission. Dani smiles. “And be there when we open gifts in the morning?”
And of course Jamie stays. On Christmas eve they have an enormous dinner with all the trappings. The children are noticeably somber but the four of them, heavy as they are, crack on for the entire evening as if the spectre of grief had never touched a single of their souls.
“What do you mean you’ve never seen A Wonderful Life?” Dani gapes. They’re at the kitchen table playing a hand of rummy while the children, crashing from an overdose of sugar but making a valiant effort to stay awake, watch on. Owen puts down three of a kind and Jamie swears under her breath, holding her hand closer to her face.
“Not really my bag.”
“We’re watching it tonight.” She says with finality. It’s her turn, and she lays down a perfect rummy. Jamie gapes, glancing back at her hand full of threes and fives and one single ace.
Everybody goes to bed after Dani wins. Dani carries Flora on her shoulder and Miles behind her like a forlorn puppy. Jamie is sitting on the couch, unsure, when she comes back in with a smile on her face. “Don’t think you got out of it.”
“Would never imagine such a thing.” Jamie says, cracking a smile on her own face. “Know you’re a woman of your word.”
It’s playing on at least five different channels. They miss the first fifteen minutes, but Dani catches her up to speed to the best of her memory. There are already blankets on the couch, ones that Jamie was going to use for her bed, that they’ve tucked themselves under.
The couch is big, but not that big. They’re one stretched out limb or shift in position away from being close to each other, a situation that Jamie finds both completely intoxicating and totally intolerable. There’s an awareness of the space between them hanging in the air, and Jamie suspects it’s the reason that neither of them will peel their eyes from the television. An awareness of the space, and an awareness of what it would take to close it.
“I lied earlier.” Jamie says, suddenly sick of it, suddenly ready to take an ice pick to it. “I like this kind of thing.”
She feels Dani turn to her but does not stop watching the television. The gym floor opens, dance-goers splash into the pool below with delight. “Christmas movies, I mean. When I was wee--Flora’s age--I used to watch White Christmas every year. I loved it. Always made me want to go to Vermont.”
“A crack in the tough guy exterior.” Dani jokes, but her voice is unsure. Like she’s groping in the dark for Jamie’s point. Jamie turns to look at her and finds Dani’s face illuminated by only the television screen. It makes her look like a memory, a dream.
“Got put into the system, not long after that, and the whole thing just got...sad.” Dani blinks and her expression crumples. Jamie turns back to the TV, not willing to see the pity or regret any longer. “I like this though.”
After that, Dani moves closer, until their thighs are just barely touching under the blanket. Jamie stops breathing and takes a bunch of her sweatpants into her hands, gripping the fabric until her knuckles turn white.
What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.
Dani’s hand, soft and dry, comes over the skin of her knuckles, soothing them. Jamie, feeling warm and pliant, relaxes it. She turns her palm upward and allows Dani’s fingers to slot between hers until they’re holding hands on her thigh. She looks, but Dani is still fixed on the TV, staring forward as if nothing at all is happening.
Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary.
At breakfast, at some unidentified late-December day. After Christmas, but before the new year. Flora is drinking Orange juice, Miles and Hannah tea, Dani coffee. Jamie can’t see her face because it’s obscured by the morning paper. Owen stands in the background, whistling, flipping french toast.
“Jamie.” Flora says, setting her juice cup down with both hands. She’s sitting in her chair on her knees. “Why don’t you come around as often in the winter? Me and Miles miss you quite a lot.”
“Speak for yourself.” Says Miles, but he’s not looking at Jamie, which to her means that Flora’s being completely honest.
“Well.” Jamie smiles warmly. “Just ain’t that much work to do around here in the winter, sprout. I’ll be back more in the spring.”
This is a disappointing answer. Flora frowns. “Well, you should just come stay with us all the time. Like Mrs. Grose and Miss Clayton.”
“That’s not Jamie’s job.” Remarks Hannah mildly, taking a sip of her tea. “She probably has a whole life and friends in the village to see to when she’s not here.”
“Yeah, how’s Jamie going to see her boyfriend if she’s around here all the time?” Miles says this in the way that children who think they’re adults often do. Full of unearned confidence and knowing. Jamie barely has time to think mind your business and boyfriend? Before Flora chimes in.
“Jamie doesn’t have a boyfriend, silly, she’s a lesbian .”
Flora has always had a way with stopping all conversation in a room with one well placed comment. Hannah’s tea cup pauses halfway on it’s journey to her mouth, a slight tremor in her hand the only indication that she’d heard anything at all. Jamie sees Owen’s back tense, but he doesn’t turn around. Dani sets the newspaper down on the table.
“Now, Flora, I don’t think that’s very appropriate. It’s none of your business.”
Flora, a little girl who has had complete access to the world and every person in it since she was born, looks flummoxed by this. “What’dyou mean? She is one.”
“Nah, it’s alright, Poppins. Flora’s right. Not a dirty word or anything.”
Dani looks a little scolded by this and Jamie wishes that they were alone so she could reach across the table, say it’s fine. But the kitchen is full of people and heavy with tension, so she shoots her her best approximation of a warm look.
“ Lesbian,” Flora begins with flourish “means that you only date girls. Miles told me that.”
Beside her, Miles turns red from his chin all the way to the tips of his ears. Jamie could hazard a guess as to exactly where he’d learned what a lesbian was, but does not. “That’s right, m’love.” She says instead, hoping the simplicity of her answer will hobble the conversation. But Flora, of course, is dogged, and in a mood this morning as she sometimes is. One for chaos that will leave no-one unscathed. She sets her sights on Hannah next.
“Mrs. Grose,” she says sweetly. “Are you a lesbian?”
Owen drops a piece of french toast on the ground behind them with a wet slap. Hannah, however, seems committed to the conversation, God bless her soul. She only smiles, holding her elbow with one hand and keeping the other tapping against her sternum. “No, dear, I am not.”
This seems good enough for Flora, who turns to look at Owen’s back. “Owen.” He turns, towel over his shoulder, looking shell shocked. Nobody comments on the slice of soggy bread laying at his feet. “Are you a lesbian?”
“I--” He clears his throat. “I do date women, Flora, but to be a lesbian you have to be a woman.”
Jamie curses him for arming the little spitfire with more information. Flora absorbs this for a moment then, satisfied, swivels to face Dani. Dani has been uncharacteristically quiet this entire time, trying to melt into the sidelines rather than dirty herself in the heat of battle. Dani’s face, when Flora turns to her, looks rather like her young charge is levelling a pistol at her. Jamie doesn’t think she’s ever seen her look that pale.
“Miss Clayton--” Flora pauses, looking thoughtful. Then she breaks out into a giggle. “Oh, nevermind, Miss Clayton. You’re much to pretty to be a lesbian.”
The tension breaks in the room like a crack of thunder. Owen and Jamie simultaneously say “Hey!” Dani gasps, and whether her mock offense on their behalf is real or a play act Jamie can’t tell. Either way, she figures, Dani’s putting on a show of disaffection for the group. Knows this because later, when Owen and Hannah are flirting over the stove and Miles and Flora are playing hangman on a scrap of paper, she turns and sees Dani.
She’s at the table, coffee and paper in front of her, looking a thousand miles away.
The branches in the burn barrel crackle spiritedly as Jamie hauls more in and pushes them down with a large bit of wood, like the mortar and pestle from hell. That done, she blows hot on her chapped hands--bloody cold, it is--and stands back for a moment. She used to appreciate how quiet the grounds were at wintertime, get irritated when the children would run out to skate or make snowmen. But now it tugs on something nostalgic in her, like a string of remembered loneliness.
“Care for a smoke?” Jamie turns her head and smiles. The Devil himself could have been askin’ and she would have said yes. Thankfully it’s just Dani. She draws one up to the pack and draws herself close to the other woman to light it. Sharing the same space with her these days is electric. It licks Jamie up and down her whole body, the proximity and the not touching. When they pull their heads back, almost shyly, it’s like atoms being forced apart.
“I’ve got big news.” Dani says, taking a long pull of her cigarette. For somebody so petite, she smokes like an old beatnik. Deep and heavy.
Jamie wonders what else Dani does like that and has to physically shake the thought from her head. For another time. “The sloe gin is ready.”
“Take a nip, did ya?”
Dani looks faintly scandalized at the implication. “Owen tried it. He sent me to invite you to stay tonight for toddies.”
“Did he now?” Jamie is certain--well, fairly certain--that Owen would have just asked her himself when she was in the house not 20 minutes ago for a glass of water. Or talked to her before she left before the end of the day, as it was unlike Owen to assume that she’d have plans that required prior notice. In a different world, Dani might’ve just asked her point blank. Ever since the night at the book club she’d been coyer than usual, as if not trying to show too much of her hand.
The deeper they wade into these waters, the more Jamie finds herself not understanding exactly what the stakes are. This is why she doesn’t like relationships, and why she occasionally craves them. Things were so simple before, when she had a crush and Dani was the naive au pair who didn’t know any better. But Dani isn’t naive, and Jamie is now dreadfully sure that she does know better.
But it’s like she said, women--complicated. She wants to kiss Dani, pull her down and swallow her whole. She’s pretty sure Dani wants that too.
“Earth to Jamie?” Jamie blinks out of her thoughts and realizes that her cigarette has burned halfway down to its filter without her once having taken a drag. She brings it to her mouth, puffs it. “What do you think?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Poppins.”
The sloe gin in one of Owen’s toddies goes down too easily, something that should have been Jamie’s first warning of imminent catastrophe. Going-down-easy alcohol, in her experience, makes you feel too safe. Too in control. Makes you feel like you can chase it down with beers and whiskey shots on the rocks, running your mouth with your friends into the wee hours.
It’s why she doesn’t drink sparkling wine anymore. At 28, she should know better. But Jamie doesn’t have her come-to moment until just before midnight, staring into a tumbler of whiskey and realizing, with a start, that she’s too pissed to drive home. She looks up beside her to Dani, who is dealing them another hand of cards, counting silently under her breath.
“How many is that?”
Jamie counts. “I’ve got nine. You’ve got eleven.” Dani swears and draws the pile back toward her, beginning the delicate work of putting them back into the deck to re-shuffle. “Where are Hannah and Owen?”
“They went upstairs a few minutes ago.” Dani is pink all over, smiling loosely. “Hey, do you want another drink?” Not waiting for Jamie’s answer, she stands, knocking over the chair behind her with a sudden crash. Dani giggles, then cups a hand over her mouth as if to scoop the sound back in.
“Maybe not, love. Hang on.” Jamie rights the chair and manages to guide Dani, body warm and malleable from drink, back into it.
“I liked that.” Dani says, resting her head on the back of the chair to get a look at Jamie. She’s walking to the sink, fixing to pour them each a cup of water.
“Drinkin’? Makes two of us.” Jamie tries not to get sucked too deep into Dani’s gaze. Alcohol has dulled it’s edges but not the acuity, not the way her looks make you feel like you can hear her thinking something about you. She flicks the tap on.
“No, when you called me love.”
The tap water fills the second glass and then goes spilling over. Jamie blinks, turns it off. She turns around. Being drunk has already unmoored her, robbed her of some of her most essential faculties. Why, she wonders, does God keep giving her these challenges in times like these?
“It made me feel--” Dani, blessedly, does not finish the minefield of a sentence. She closes her eyes and giggles again, wipes her hands down her face. “I think I’m drunk.”
“Suspect you are.”
“Can I have some water?”
Jamie places one glass in front of her and Dani looks up with wonderment, as if Jamie hadn’t just been standing at the tap moments ago. When she sits back down, they’re altogether too close. Like the couch again, all that unused space between them. All that potential. Dani drinks, long and thirsty. “Wanna know something stupid?”
No. “Depends on how stupid we’re talkin’. Am I gonna lose brain cells?”
Dani laughs. “ Really stupid.” She takes another drink, draining the glass and wiping her mouth. “I was engaged before I came here. To a boy.”
Jamie’s eyebrows raise. She’d known that, of course. Dani had mentioned it to either Hannah or Owen, who’d mentioned it to her. It wasn’t really a secret and Jamie found herself wondering why Dani was saying it like it was. “That’s not the stupid part though. I was dating him for,” Dani counts on her fingers, swallows. “Ten years. And you know what? We never had sex.”
“Dani--” Jamie tries to stop her. It feels like a violation, letting her go on. Like touching somebody in a place they don’t want to be touched when they can’t tell you no. But when Dani looks at her--one of those looks--there’s a layer of desperation under it. Jamie pinches her lips closed and sits back.
“Ask me why.”
“Ask me why--” Dani hiccups, then she leans into the table on her elbows, pivoting towards Jamie. There’s even less space between them now. Jamie can smell her breath, warm and fermented. “--I never had sex.”
“Why’s that?” Jamie asks before she can stop herself. Dani is so, so close, she’s scooted her chair in to close their bodies together. They’re steepled in, heads stooped, and Jamie, though more sober now, is dizzy.
“In America,” Dani begins, quieter now. “You’re supposed to wait until marriage to do it. So we didn’t.” Jamie’s eyebrows knit. Dani passes her hands over her face again, shaking her head. “That’s what I always told myself but you know--you know--” Another hiccup. “He wanted to. And he tried, but I always told him no. I always thought, I thought that I just didn’t care. But then I came here, and I met you. And I started to care.”
In her head, Jamie holds an image of her and Dani. A few months or a million years ago, behind the rose bushes, smoking. Laughing. A big bunch of yellow jasmine, picked just for her. Jamie gave them to me. She feels important, chest big with pride, and she feels small. “I started to want. I thought--I think--all the time. About you. About sex. I don’t even know what--how girls do it, with each other.” She laughs at that, at herself. Jamie doesn’t. “And then you brought me to your group and they were all so--”
Dani is looking at her, pleading with Jamie to know what she means. And Jamie does. And Jamie knows that a good person, a decent person, would end this conversation now. Jamie wants so badly to be decent. She closes the small space between them to lay her hand over Dani’s. When she speaks, her voice is gentle. “Why don’t we go upstairs, love, and get ya to sleep.”
Dani shudders, like she’s about to cry, like Jamie’s words had physically rocked her, and reaches one arm around them to cup Jamie’s neck. She brings them together, seamed from the thighs to the knees, foreheads touching. Touching like this is a relief and an open door threatening more to come. “Why’d you do that?” Dani whispers. “I feel so--why’d you--why--” But Jamie is hugging her now, one arm around her waist and the other bunched in her hair.
“Come on now,” She murmurs. “Let’s get to bed.”
This time, Dani nods her head.
Perfect Hard Boiled Eggs
Cover eggs just with cool water and a splash of white vinegar. Bring to a spirited boil, then remove from heat for 8 minutes. A favorite for Easter, other pagan rituals of rebirth and new beginnings, or just a snack.
The leak comes trickling down the first week of March, just before Jamie is due back to her regular schedule at Bly. In living memory of all her years in the English countryside, she cannot remember a rainier beginning to spring, thinks of the mud that must be getting tracked into that great, good house.
She notices it stepping out of her bathroom, toothbrush hanging from the side of her mouth. The rain outside had been so deafening that it obscured the sound of the single drop landing square in the middle of her living room. Jamie looks up at it and squints. She scratches her lower belly, between her white briefs and her tank top, and then she retreats to the bathroom to rinse and spit.
The phone beside her couch begins to ring when she steps out again, wiping her mouth. She picks it up and drops it back into the cradle in the same motion, fetches her cigarettes from the same table, and takes note of the time on the clock—12 PM noon even, just about. A pot will do for the leak for now, while she runs out for another carton of smokes and eggs for breakfast and something silly and small to eat all day so she doesn’t have to think about dinner.
The phone rings again just as she’s pulling on her waxed jacket to leave the apartment. She barely glances back in before shutting the door and locking it. She’s got one more week before she’s due back at Bly.
a prologue to spring
The next morning, Jamie has the kind of hangover that you taste in your mouth the whole next day. The kind that keeps you teetering right on the razor’s edge of barfing your brains out. She is still in all of her clothes from the previous evening, but when she turns in bed the space next to her is empty. No Dani. For a moment she wonders if the whole thing was a dream, but then she turns the other way and sees the carefully laid out aspirin and water. And she hears, downstairs, the sounds of breakfast carrying on.
Not a dream, then. She can’t quite parcel out if she finds that fortunate or unfortunate.
After doing her best to make herself look presentable in the mirror of Dani’s bedroom (there’s nothing to be done, she decides—her entire outfit has been pressed into one permanent wrinkle. If the children are scandalized by this, so be it) she makes her way down to the kitchen. Before she registers anything, Jamie notes that it’s bright. And loud.
Dani is at the table looking miserable but clearly attempting to pay some mind to Flora as she explains a drawing she’s done. Miles is watching this with scant interest while Hannah and Owen sit on the other side, also looking faintly green, their breakfast plates in front of them untouched. At least Jamie is in good company.
“Morning, you lot.” Owen and Hannah make a passing effort not to look too surprised to see her, but their eyebrows still raise in unison. Dani doesn’t look up, nor does Flora. “What’s on the menu today, mate?”
“Uh, sausages.” Owen smiles. “And there’s brew on the stove, if you want it.”
“Thank fuck.” Hannah and Dani both verbally protest. Jamie rolls her eyes. “Thank goodness. ”
“I didn’t realize you’d stayed last night, dear.” Hannah says as Jamie pours herself a mug, hip cocked against the sink. She takes a long sip, hoping for comfort, but even tea sits in her stomach like toxic waste. It’s a shame, too. Owen’s sausages are her favorite.
“Roads were bad. And I was piss—” Hannah and Dani both look at her witheringly. “Tired. Knackered, really.”
“I wish I’d known, I would have made a bed for you.”
Jamie is opening her mouth when Flora cuts in, not looking up from her drawing. She’s adding something in pink crayon, head tilted as if trying to get the angle just right. “She didn’t need one. Jamie and Miss Clayton had a sleepover last night.”
Children, Jamie thinks, are shite at reading the room. Flora seems completely unaware of the levels of hidden conflict that occur between the four adults at that moment. Dani pales, and then looks up at Jamie like a frog that’s just been pinned for a science project that involves removing it’s internal organs. Jamie shrugs and shakes her head.
“They were quite loud coming up the stairs.” Flora continues, tongue now sticking out from between her teeth in concentration. “And when I came out of my room for a glass of water, Miss Clayton was crying.” She does look up then, pressing the back of the crayon against her forehead as if to pinpoint the memory in her mind. “So I thought, maybe they’re going to cheer each other up. Or have sex.”
Owen chokes on something. Dani, already pale as a sheet, turns whiter and opens her mouth. “Flora, that’s private between Jamie and Miss Clayton.” Hannah interjects before either can get a word in edgewise. But she’s not looking at Flora when she says it, rather fixing Dani and Jamie with an inscrutable expression. “ Very private. Young girls don’t need to be preoccupied with—”
“Why?” Flora interrupts, sounding peevish. “It’s just kissing. Kissing laying down. And then you have a baby.” She sighs. “It would be marvelous to have a baby in the house. It’s been so dreadfully boring lately.”
“I think.” Owen thumps his hands down against the table. “We should all take a little stroll outside, get some fresh air, good for the constitution. Jamie, Miss Clayton, do you mind doing the washing up?”
“But I don’t want to—”
“I’m not done with my—”
Owen fixes Miles and Flora with a look that indicates the suggestion is not optional. Each of them grumbling, they stand up and follow Owen out of the kitchen. Hannah stays near Flora, and Jamie hears her whisper “let’s have a little talk on our walk, shall we?”
The silence that follows their departure is long, sticky, terrible. Dani sits at the table with her hands folded in front of her and Jamie stays at the sink. “Those children,” She says, willing to do anything to break the ice. “Could benefit mightily from public schoolin’.”
Dani lets out a long, pained groan and her head falls to the table with a thud. “Fuck! God, that was mortifying. I’m so—” She pulls her head back up and runs her hands through her hair, still not looking at Jamie. “I have to go catch up with them—explain to Flora…”
“I’ll come with you.” Jamie sets her mug on the counter, but Dani is already shaking her head as she stands.
“No, no, that will just make it worse.”
“Blimey.” Jamie barks out a half-laugh. She tries to bury some of the sting she feels, but figures that it bubbles up anyway.
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be mean. I just feel ill, and I…” Dani places two hands on the back of the chair in front of her and leans on them, letting her head hang down for a moment. She shakes it. Jamie can’t count how many times she’s done that exact motion in the last 20 minutes; sublimated herself, said no, rejected the whole situation. “...last night was so, so unprofessional. And it shouldn’t have happened.”
Jamie can’t hide the pinch of that. She looks down, abashed. “Right. Message received.”
“Wait. Wait. I feel like I’m not—” Dani looks a little desperate now, a little confused. But Jamie is already leaving the kitchen. Dani reaches out as if to try and stop her on her way out, but Jamie angles away.
“Wasn’t even meant to be here this mornin’.” Jamie turns and faces Dani, feeling spiteful, trying not to show it. “ You asked me to stay.”
A flash of it passes through Jamie’s memory. Folding Dani into her bed, Dani whispering can you stay up here with me? At the time, it had felt like something. Jamie flushes at the memory, at her own stupidity at indulging it.
“Yes, I did.” Dani says quietly. “And I’m not talking about that.”
But Jamie already feels scorned, indignant. And at this point in her life, after her years in the system, the scorning doesn’t even have to make sense for Jamie to root herself in it. To be unreasonable about it. Her stomach is churning with tea, bile, alcohol. She needs to go home, vomit, brush her teeth and go back to bed. “It’s fine, Dani. Just—it’s fine.”
“It doesn’t feel fine.” Dani says as she retreats. “Jamie, it doesn’t feel fine!” She’s calling, but Jamie already has her back turned and is halfway out the door.
Auggie, when she shows up, looks like a drowned rat. Jamie keeps her in the kitchen, dripping onto the linoleum, while she fetches her only other towel from the bathroom. Then she makes her strip down to nothing but her briefs and undershirt and towel her head, spraying droplets as she does.
Jamie watches her, grabbing beers from the fridge, and feels suddenly so affectionate that she could gather Auggie into her arms and cradle her. Like sometimes happens when she sees Flora saving bugs from drowning in puddles or when Miles hangs his little sister’s crayon drawings up on the walls of his room—deep cherishing from an unknowable wellsource. Even sexless, there’s a kind of intimacy that remains between them like residue on someone’s fingertips.
They sit on the couch like that, in their underwear with the leak dripping into a pot right in front of the television. Jamie’s flipping through channels, occasionally stopping on anything that looks good (the last half hour of a favored movie, a good episode of a TV show they’ve seen a million times before) they jeer at a BBC newscast of Ronald Reagan, looking waxy and villainous.
“Goin’ back full time tomorrow?”
Jamie hmms in affirmation, not really looking away from the television. There’s a rugby match on.
“Gonna see Diane?”
“Dani.” Jamie corrects without thinking. She winces and looks sidelong at Auggie. The other woman is hiding a smile against the lip of a beer bottle. “Suspect so, seeing as we’re colleagues. ”
“Ah.” Auggie nods slowly. “Thought you were—”
“We’re not.” Jamie interjects sharply, and too quickly to be casual. Auggie’s eyes are glittering. “Thought maybe something might happen, but it was stupid.”
“Bet it wasn’t stupid.” Auggie shrugs, looks thoughtful. “I mean, if you thought it was somethin’, it was probably somethin’.”
“Maybe so.” Jamie crosses her arms over her chest and sinks into the couch. “She was just experimenting, probably.”
“She told you that?”
“Well.” Auggie’s eyes flick back to the TV where two men smash into each other, their bodies vibrating with the impact. Jamie can see the gears turning in her head, and Auggie is a bit like Dani in that way—always thinkin’. It makes Jamie nervous. She knits her brows together. “You never really know how a person means something. Maybe if you asked her...”
The chasm between Jamie’s brow deepens. Auggie is looking at her now, balancing the beer on one of her knees. Jamie can see the condensation on the skin beneath it. She thinks about that day last winter that she’d rejected her, how Auggie had snuffed out that cigarette under her boot and drifted away. She puffs out a breath through her nose. Always thinking so much and saying so precious little.
There’s a flippant remark on her lips, but instead what comes out is: “I’ll think about it.” She turns away then, but can feel Auggie’s smile on the side of her face. Jamie figures that she owes it to Auggie, at least, to be a little brave. Braver than she’d normally be, anyway.
The next day, her first back at Bly, brings downpour the likes of which she’d not seen in years. Her old pickup, perhaps in protest of the bad weather, makes a viable threat not to start. Breath puffing in front of her, Jamie lays her head on the steering wheel. “Not today. Please, Christ.” She whispers, and cranks the key once more in the ignition.
The car rumbles dangerously. Then it smoothes into the regular sound of the engine and she peels off from the curb.
It’s a quiet drive, not yet light out. If she didn’t know her way around the grounds like the back of her hand, she would have had to find a flashlight to navigate to the greenhouse in the predawn darkness. As she passes the house, she sees a light from the upstairs turn on and a figure appearing in front of it. Jamie squints, wonders briefly who would be up at such an hour, then trudges on through soggy grass.
Her question is answered an hour later by the opening of the greenhouse door and a timid “good morning.” Jamie knows who it is before she’s turned her head away from the flower she’s busy misting.
“Poppins.” She sets the spray bottle down and picks up a rag next to it to wipe the dirt from her hands. When she turns, Dani is looking frustratingly radiant. She’s got on her slicker, hair pulled into a high ponytail and her hands clasped in front of her. Jamie, feeling flustered, pulls the arm of her coveralls back to glance at her wristwatch. “It’s half-eight.”
“What’re you listening to?” Dani says, in lieu of an answer to the unfinished question. She looks past Jamie’s shoulder to the boombox on the shelf behind her. Her lips quirk into a smile. “Is this Joni Mitchell?”
“The plants like it.” Jamie sniffs. “Little early to be up snooping around, isn’t it?”
“Owen said you’d be coming back early today. I just wanted to…” Dani trails off, her lips and mouth working a little bit, as if she’s chewing the words that she wants to say. “I was hoping we could talk. Before the kids got up. I don’t like the way we left it.”
Jamie’s first responses, petulant, flash through her head. Talk about what? And Let’s just forget about it. But Auggie’s face follows them and, to her chagrin, Jamie finds herself pushing past the muck to try and offer something more productive. It feels like trying to fish a pearl from the guts of a mollusk, slimy and wretched. “I was being a cunt.” Dani’s face registers surprise, either at the admission or her harsh language. Jamie carries on regardless. “Wasn’t listening to ya, when you were trying to explain yourself.”
“I was being mean. And not,” Dani licks her lips. “Expressing myself well. I don’t really know how to express myself about this, to be honest.”
Jamie chuckles. “Dunno a person on God’s earth who does.” A silence stretches between them, but it’s not uncomfortable. Dani is looking and Jamie and Jamie is looking at Dani and to her, it feels like they’re sizing each other up. Placing each other in the world like a chess piece. “Did Flora…”
“Oh.” Dani blanches noticeably. “Hannah talked to her, I don’t know. She knows you can’t get me pregnant now.” The blood that had just left Dani’s face appears to flood back all at once in a rapid, scarlet blush. Jamie raises an eyebrow.
“How would Hannah know a thing like that?”
Dani’s mouth opens and shuts like a fish and Jamie laughs, probably for the first time in weeks, long and hard. “You’re teasing me.”
“Me? Never.” Jamie looks to her hands, feeling the levity of the moment get caught in the back of her throat and wither there. “Did you tell her we didn’t—”
“I didn’t know what to say about...that.” Dani takes a few tentative steps closer. The rain is pounding on outside, and there’s a gray light pressing through the clouds, and she looks softer than Jamie thinks she’s ever seen her. Jamie takes a deep breath and chokes on it, watching Dani’s continuing approach with a mix of anticipation and wariness.
They’re close then, close enough that Jamie can see Dani look up at her through her eyelashes. Jamie reflects on this for an incredulous moment—her, here, in the midst of the thing that romance novels are made of. Once upon a time, in her youth, maybe she had imagined herself as some kind of roguish, troubled hero. She could have perhaps even seen herself as deserving of what Dani wants to give. What that could possibly be, the extent of it, the contours of it, Jamie still doesn’t know. A simple peek behind the curtain and into her fantasies, mostly a courtesy due to Jamie’s role in them? Or something deeper, more physical, more touch-involved? She has to swallow the thought back like a horse pill. Jesus wept. “I know we didn’t, technically, but I—”
“Miss Clayton!” They jolt apart. Jamie realizes belatedly that her hands are shaking and tucks them into the pockets of her coveralls. Hannah is shrouded when she enters the greenhouse, wearing a large rain jacket. She pulls the hood down when she passes the threshold. “Jamie, good morning.” Her nose wrinkles. “Is that Joni Mitchell?”
Jamie reaches out and hits the pause button on the boombox. Hannah’s attention has already turned to Dani. “Dear, you’re needed inside for a moment.”
“Are the kids okay?”
“They’re fine.” Hannah smiles reassuringly. “Haven’t woken up yet, even. Mr. Wingrave is on the phone.”
Dani glances back at Jamie almost pleadingly. Jamie wonders if she’s as hesitant to leave the shroud of their conversation as Jamie is to let her go. They hadn’t even really gotten to address anything. “Everything alright?”
“Perfectly.” Hannah smiles tightly. She looks stressed, Jamie notes.
“Okay.” She says, finally, seemingly deciding not to push it. At least not there in the greenhouse, sandwiched between two different conversations. “Bye, Jamie.”
“Poppins. Hannah.” As they leave, Jamie turns back to the plant in front of her. She supposes that she should continue working, but finds that she has suddenly and briefly forgotten everything she knows about gardening or even what she had been doing moments before. Dani’s smell, clean and sharp, lingers in the air all around her. Jamie presses play again, and decides that, at the very least, she has the rest of the day to come back into herself.
Gossip at Bly has always followed a certain hierarchy. Lady Wingrave, God rest her soul, was a prolific tattle. In the old days, if something started with Hannah, it ended there. But if Owen or Lady Wingrave got ahold of it, it was certain to trickle it’s way down to Jamie in one way or another. Either directly or because Flora overheard, which happened more and more as she got older. Then, of course, Hannah and Owen got sweet, and even things that Hannah knew were not safe from the giant ear of the house.
Jamie is sure that she will find out the form and substance of Henry Wingrave’s call in one way or another. And that afternoon, when the rain has slowed to a trickle and she’s hauling a wheelbarrow full of dead matter from the garden beds, she sees Flora’s pink rain jacket jostling toward her in the horizon. Jamie drops the wheelbarrow handles and waves. Flora waves back.
“Hi, Jamie.” She says when she gets near enough, looking a little out of breath from her jog. Her hood is up but pressed back behind her ears, and tawny flyaway hairs stick up from the humidity. “Miss Clayton wanted me to fetch you for tea time.”
Jamie’s eyes flick above Flora’s head to the house beyond and then back to her face, smiling. “I’ll be missing this one ‘m afraid. If I come in from the rain now, I’ll never come back out.” Flora frowns, looking like she’s fixing to say something else. “Quite the tizzy in there today, isn’t it?”
“Oh.” She says, kicking some mud with her rain boot. “Yes. Uncle Henry called this morning, now everybody has the vapors about it.”
Jamie hums. “Coming to visit, I reckon?”
Flora nods fiercely. “I heard Miss Clayton talking on the phone with him, when I came downstairs for breakfast. She sounded so sad, but like she was trying to hide it.” Her face pinches all together in that distinctly Flora way she has. The way that tells Jamie she’s puzzling something out. Jamie wonders for a moment if Flora will remember her in the way Jamie is certain she’ll always remember Flora. “Do you think he’s going to take us to London?”
Jamie fights down a wave of melancholy. “Dunno about that, sprout. You’ll have to ask him when he gets here.”
Another nod. Flora is digesting this information, this lack of a complete and satisfying answer. Jamie is so used to Miles’s prematurely adult disposition, but to see Flora adopt it as well grieves her. She searches for another comforting word, something certain, but comes up with nothing.
“Anyway, you must come in.” Flora says finally. “Miss Clayton is beside herself about it.”
Jamie’s eyebrows raise. “Aye?”
“It’s all she’s talked about all morning. She’s worried about you catching cold.” Flora stuffs her hands into the pocket of her rain jacket. “I fear if you don’t come with me, we may never hear the end of it.”
Jamie laughs at that, at the look of real consternation on her young face. She picks up the arms of the wheelbarrow again. “You can tell Miss Clayton I’ll be in when I’m finished.”
“I think she has a little crush on you, you know.” Flora says, sagely. Jamie’s mouth drops open at the same time she emits a sharp, surprised laugh.
“Oi! Cheeky.” But Flora has already turned around and started off toward the house. Jamie watches her go, her pink jacket fading into the fog surrounding the house. Then she begins the arduous task of pushing the wheelbarrow through the mud.
By the end of the night, Jamie has made peace with the idea that they'll not have another chance to talk. She does go in a few hours later, and Dani fusses over her, stripping off her wet jacket before she’s even properly in the kitchen. But then Flora falls playing hide and seek with Miles, and Dani leaves, and Jamie has her re-warmed tea in the kitchen with Owen.
Early spring is always a busy time for her. The beds need to be cleared, a map made of where things should be planted. Then there’s the greenhouse work, and the dead leaves and fallen branches leftover in the gutters. And if Mr. Wingrave is really coming the next weekend, the yard will have to be looking spic and span, which stresses Jamie greatly. The rain has the whole grand place waterlogged and covered in mud.
By the end of it, she hadn't even eaten lunch. Her bones hurt and she’s damp in the way that only a long shower and diving in bed will fix. It’s dark out again when she trudges down the driveway and to her truck, only realizing that Dani has been speed walking toward her when she’s very near. She has a hat in her hand that Jamie immediately realizes is one of Lady Wingrave’s floppy, frilly things from when she kept a hobby garden around back. Jamie eyes it in bemusement.
“Hannah knows you have that?” She drawls. Dani’s brows knit and she looks down at it.
“I guess so, I—” She swallows. “I needed an excuse to come out here, so I told her I was bringing you something you forgot.”
Jamie can’t help but let out a sharp chuckle at that. She reaches out and fingers the teal ribbon tied in an enormous bow around the middle. “Not really my style, but—”
Dani reaches out and clasps Jamie’s hand with her free one. Jamie is startled by this, by the suddenness of it and by the way it sends electricity shooting through her body. Dani looks both determined and hugely, terribly frightened. She opens her mouth once, and then closes it. She licks her lips.
“I meant it, what I said that night.” Is what she ultimately decides on saying. “And what I said today. I’m not really sure how to talk about it.”
“Poppins, it’s okay. We don’t need to talk about it now.”
“I want to talk about it.” Dani huffs. “I feel like I spent so long not talking about it. And now that I know, I—” She’s stepped closer as she talks. The hat is pushed and crumpled between them, still clasped in Dani’s other hand. She holds tight to Jamie’s, arms dangling to the side. “I feel like I can’t go backwards from here. But I also don’t know where here is. And I want to know before we...”
Jamie’s breath stutters at the low, syrupy whisper that Dani’s voice has become. She thinks about her younger self again. Jaime, cocky and 19, with a wet drip of cocaine perpetually in the back of her throat and a regular only to bars that happened to be in basements. Jamie who would dance cheek to cheek with women twice her age, women taller than her, women with husbands at home. That Jamie, she reckons, would have flung the car door open and dragged Dani into it and been three fingers deep without much worry about how she herself felt about it or how it looked to other people.
But now she's Jamie who gets cranky when she misses her 2 PM tea. And for the first time in a while, she feels a sort of fondness for that other girl, a regretfulness that she hadn’t hung on to more of her. Her emotions were raw, and loud, and inappropriate, but christ—at least she had them out. Had them in her hands like a knife. Now she struggles, swimming against twin currents of arousal and something else, something that inspires anxiety tight and deep in her belly.
“No reason we ought to do that. Go backwards.” Jamie whispers back. They float together for a moment. Dani’s eyes are hooded and Jamie can see that telltale blush on her chest, and in the same look realizes how deep her breathing has become. Her free hand drops and without thinking she slides her hand against the small of Dani’s back. Amazingly, tragically, her shirt rides up and Jamie’s fingers brush against skin. Dani’s breath stutters and a small, almost imperceptible groan slips out of her mouth.
Dani’s hand drops Jamie’s, causing a moment of acute loss. But she quickly reaches between them to grip Jamie’s shirt, using it as leverage to position them just a little bit closer. “I don’t know what to do. I had this whole thing planned out, everything I wanted to say, but now I feel like I can’t remember.” She murmurs. Her hand fists the shirt tighter and pulls Jamie in until, like magnets, they’re orbiting but still repelled by an invisible force. Jamie’s eyes flick up for a moment and she stills. “You make me forgetful. I’m forgetting that I want to do this right.”
“Sorry to say it,” she murmurs, looking over Dani’s shoulder. “But I think we have an audience.”
Dani looks over her shoulder and, sure enough, there are four shadows visible against the first floor window. Startled, she takes a step back. Jamie grabs the hat before it can fall to the ground, holding it slightly crumpled against her chest with one hand. Dani laughs a little, breathless.
“I guess I should, uh—”
Jamie nods, sharply and does her best to smile. “I’ll be back tomorrow, hey?”
This seems to cheer Dani a little. She brightens. “Yeah.” She says. “Tomorrow.”
The world takes on a surreal texture when Jamie watches Dani walk back down the drive, hat still clutched to her chest. For so many years, she has known exactly what the next day will bring. This is by self design. For those same years, her conviction has kept her out of prison, out of trouble, out of love. Jamie feels the little cracks in her plan now, like rubbing your tongue over a cut in your mouth. On that spring night in 1988, in the Wingrave’s driveway, damp and keen-feeling and holding that stolen hat for dear life, she can sense the holy mess beginning to seep in.
Jamie huffs out a breath and tilts her head up to look at the cloudy sky. Tomorrow it was, then.
Jamie wakes up late the next day and thus doesn’t get to Bly until after breakfast. As with yesterday, the house is in a tizzy before Mr. Wingrave’s visit. Hannah greets her with a harried look and gently scolds her for tracking mud in the house before shooing Jamie out to get the last of the wet slop off of the chapel roof.
It’s the first day in a week with no rain, so Dani has let the children out to run wild like the feral animals they are. Jamie can hear them squeal and tussle as she stands on the ladder, sweeping off an entire winter’s worth of tree detritus and scooping it from the gutter. The laughter and yelling comes closer. She rolls her eyes.
Job done, Jamie begins to descend the ladder. She can hear the children coming ever closer until she finally sees them, Miles holding something likely stolen and Flora coming after him in a rage. She’s four rungs from the bottom when they come sweeping past her, and Jamie scarcely has time to shout for them to slow down before they’ve rattled the ladder so much that she loses her footing and crashes to the soggy, muddy ground.
For a moment, everything is black. She begins blinking back into consciousness and taking stock of her body--nothing feels broken, but there’s a dull, persistent ache in the side that she’d landed on. When she fully opens her eyes, Flora is above her, face wide and bright with concern. “Jamie.” She whispers. “Are you dead?”
Jamie groans and flips over onto her back, squinting up at Flora. Miles is a few feet behind her, wringing his hands. She manages to gather her body up onto her elbows. “‘M not dead. But I need you to run and tell Miss Clayton and Mrs. Grose that I’m hurt.” Taking stock, Jamie realizes how much mud she’d fallen in. She reaches up and picks a twig with a leaf attached out of her hair. “And that I need a shower.”
Without missing a beat, Flora turns and hollers. “Miss Clayton! Mrs. Grose!” And takes off running so fast that Jamie is worried she’s going to slip and fall. Miles casts her a worried glance, but Jamie just shakes her head at him. “Go on, mate. Follow your sister.” And he does.
It takes a minute, but Dani and Hannah come trotting back on Flora’s heels. They fuss and tut, help her up and walk her back to the manor house. They decide that a doctor isn't necessary yet, but a hot shower is. Jamie can’t lift the arm on the side of her body that she’s landed on, but she puts the other on Hannah’s shoulder, and Hannah totes her weight admirably.
The thing that Jamie has discovered about being hurt is that so much happens around you so quickly that you can blink your eyes and suddenly be somewhere else. In this case, Jamie blinks and finds herself in Dani’s bedroom, sitting on the bench at the foot of her bed, with her coveralls zipped down. Dani herself is standing in front of her, worrying her thumbnail in her mouth. There’s a tension in the room that is readily apparent even as Jamie feels that she’s just teleported herself there.
“Do you want me to—” Jamie blinks. “Turn around?” She looks down at herself, covered in mud and debris, and realizes what Dani is saying. Yes. The shower. To take a shower, you traditionally have to take your clothes off.
“Can’t lift my arm, really.” Dani bites her thumb so hard that Jamie is afraid she’s going to sever it completely, like a carrot. “If you could…”
“Right. Of course. That’s why I’m here!” A manic chuckle. Dani’s eyes are flitting all over her and land, finally, at her feet. “I’ll just.” She swallows, audibly. “Your boots, first.”
Jamie is opening her mouth to say something, though she isn’t sure what. Perhaps offering that Owen or Hannah can help her? Or that she’ll just shower in her coveralls and worry about the rest later? But Dani, with an eagerness that she had buried well under her anxious energy, is already on her knees in front of her. Jamie covers the surprised grunt that escapes her with a little cough.
She stares at the ceiling while Dani works. Somewhere distant, in a universe above Jamie’s head, there’s the pressure of her shoelaces coming undone, of Dani separating the sides of her boot from the tongue. The pop as one and then the other comes free of her ankle. She figures she can get through the rest of it like this, just pretending that the person taking off her clothes is anybody else.
Then, somewhere in that distant universe, there’s a sensation at her heel. She looks down and sees first that both of her boots are off and discarded somewhere off to the side. Below her, Dani is gently touching her right foot. There’s nothing wrong with it—other than the fact that she’s wearing two different socks from her rush to get out of bed that morning. The right one is shorter than the left, the end of it hitting just at her ankle. Jamie swallows and watches as Dani, transfixed, rubs her thumb against the bony bump on the side of her ankle.
Dani flicks her eyes up to meet Jamie’s and just the sight of her like that, on her knees, looking at her as if asking what’s next? And is this okay? At the same time has the effect of two tectonic plates rubbing together. An earthquake, a tsunami. A tremor in the foot being held such that Dani reaches out to hold it with her other hand also.
“Maybe we should—”
“Yeah.” Dani clears her throat and stands, and Jamie stands too, at a loss for what else to do. Jamie expects that her next move would be pulling the coveralls down her arms and to her knees. Instead, Dani’s hands, soft and dry, slip into the opening of the coveralls and come to rest on Jamie’s waist. Dani seems as surprised by her action as Jamie is.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did that.”
“That’s okay. You can—” Instead of explaining, Jamie uses her good hand to hold Dani’s elbow and guide her hand under the fabric of her t-shirt. They both shudder in unison at the feeling of skin on skin. “Okay?”
“Okay.” Dani nods feverishly. Her eyes are closed, but she slips the other hand underneath the shirt and begins to roam, touching every piece of skin available to her. The motion of it drags the coveralls off Jamie’s shoulders naturally and Dani, regrettably, pauses her actions to pull them down around her waist.
Her hands go right back to where they were. Jamie feels like her legs aren’t going to hold her, especially as Dani presses her body in until they’re cheek to cheek. Especially when she feels Dani push her face into her hair and smell in one large inhale and in the same motion squeeze her hands around Jamie’s waist. It’s been a long time since she’s been touched like this, if she ever has. Like Dani is a schoolboy being allowed to go to second base for the first time. Her fingers skirt all around her stomach, her hips, and finally the edge of her bra.
“Not to bring this up again,” Dani’s voice is a warm breath against Jamie’s ear. It makes her shudder, melt. “But I’d really hoped we’d get to talk.”
“Yeah.” Jamie breathes. “We should definitely talk. Before we do anything else.”
“Okay.” They both push Jamie’s coveralls down until they’re pooled at her ankles and she’s able to step out and kick them to the graveyard of her socks and boots. Dani is tugging at the hem of her t-shirt then, with the kind of confidence that only comes from somebody in a fugue state. Jamie lets her, lifting her good arm. They pause then, looking at each other. There’s a dare hanging in the air, to go forward or to stop. Dani makes up her mind flint-quick. She breaks their gaze to go for Jamie’s pants button, sticking her hands between them to fumble with the zipper.
Their mouths are so close and they’re both breathing so hard. But nothing happens. The other woman’s face looks clouded, muddy with pleasure. Like somebody had reached inside of her and splashed around until silt long hidden at the bottom rose to the surface. The zipper comes down with a metallic hiss and neither hesitate before pulling Jamie’s pants down and discarding them.
Jamie has her first moment of clarity then, standing in front of Dani in only briefs and a sports bra. The first-time shame of being nearly naked in front of a new person rises and is dispersed by Dani’s look. It’s not just the hunger, but the urgency underneath it. The desperation.
“I want to—can I—” Jamie nods, not really sure what she’s agreeing to. She’s going to end up naked one way or another. Dani steps back in and the feeling of her clothed against Jamie’s skin makes Jamie shudder. Her head falls against Dani’s shoulder. Dani’s face is in the crook of her neck too, puffing out breaths as she slips both hands under the waistband of Jamie’s underwear and feels her hips and thighs with open hands that are roaring with appetite. Jamie can’t help it—a soft, feminine sigh escapes her. When Dani echoes it, lost somewhere between her curls and the crook of her neck, she feels it in the center of her cunt.
Her briefs go before her bra. Jamie squeezes her thighs together, a strange shame bubbling up that Dani might touch her inner thighs and discover the slickness there. That Dani might know how turned on she is. She fights the urge to laugh at herself as she feels Dani tug at her bra until it, too, crests over her head and is left at their feet.
It doesn’t even feel strange to be naked. There’s a chill in the room and somewhere in the back of her mind, she recognizes that she’s in pain, although it feels far away now. Dani has fended it off with her looks and her touch and now, with the way she steps back just an inch and her hands smooth over Jamie’s stomach and Jamie honest-to-Christ groans and she feels the heels of her hands skirt around the wiry hair between her legs.
“What happened to talkin’?” She asks, rhetorically and to nobody.
“What if I…” Dani swallows thickly, and presses them both back a step until Jamie’s knees bump the bench behind her. One of the hands that had been hemming at the apex of her thighs moves down until she’s nearly cupping it. Jamie emits a strangled gasp, grabs her wrist. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Jamie. I want to—do you want me to? I promise I can—”
The knock at the door sends Dani flying back. It might have broken the moment if that wasn’t also the first time Dani was really looking at her full body, flushed and naked. Her mouth drops open and they stand there for a moment, chess pieces again, trying to reorient themselves. The knock again, more persistent this time. “Dear, are you in there? I brought towels.” A beat. “It’s Hannah.”
“Yes!” Dani calls, not tearing her eyes away from Jamie. She looks like she’s trying to take a long, thirsty drink of water before a period of drought. Then she turns, and she goes to the door and opens it just a crack to receive the towels.
The next time she’s next to Jamie’s body, she’s pressing the towel into it, wrapping it around her. Still shellshocked, Jamie holds it up against her chest. She isn’t sure what she’s expecting when the fog of sexual tension rolls off of them. Embarrassment, maybe. Shame. But when she looks at Dani, the woman looks so achingly fond that it pulls something similar from Jamie. Something adjacent to wanting to kiss somebody, like she wants to take Dani’s face in her hands and rub their cheeks, their foreheads, their noses together.
“The bathroom is just there.” Dani says, gesturing to the doorway near her bed. “There’s shampoo, soap…” She trails off, smiles. “I’ll just—”
At the doorway, Dani wrings her hands. She’s still smiling, something that comforts Jamie amid all the resurfacing anxiousness. “I really like you, Jamie.” There’s a look on her face now like those aren’t the words she’d expected to leave her mouth. Jamie grips the towel tighter around her, feeling dumbstruck. “I want to do this right, I just keep getting—”
“I understand.” Jamie blurts, shifting from foot to foot. “‘S alright, I mean. I get it.”
“Okay. Well, um.” She clears her throat. “Have a good shower.” And then she’s gone, and Jamie is alone again.
She has to take the rest of the week off after that. She protests, of course—she’s missing valuable planting time, and the yard is going to look a mess when Mr. Wingrave gets there on the weekend, even though Miles and Flora had been relegated to yardwork as punishment. But Owen says if he sees her anywhere on the property he’ll chase her off with the shotgun. Although Jamie thinks it would be quite the sight, she decides not to push it.
“I’ll call you.” Dani says before she goes, and kisses Jamie on the cheek. Everybody’s watching, but she doesn’t really seem to care. The kiss, a four course meal and a promise, will tide Jamie over the whole week.
A huge, thundering bruise erupts over the side of her body that had hit the ground. Auggie coos over it when she comes to visit, toting a sack of gifts from the book club. There’s nothing better when you’re hurt, Jamie figures, than a bag full of gifts from a bunch of lesbians. There’s salves and tea and chocolates and crisps and zines that she’ll never read.
“One of them’s pretty dirty.” Auggie says conspiratorially, holding up a zine with a cover displaying a rather colorful picture of Margaret Thatcher doing something odious. “Just so you know. I put one in there for Dani, too.”
“Noted.” Jamie laughs, and snatches it out of her hands. “She’ll be dead chuffed.”
Auggie leaves. The leak leaks. There’s nothing good on TV. Jamie’s body aches, but she finds enough fortitude in herself to drag it down to the bar beneath her apartment for a pint. By the time Sunday comes, she’s feeling a little better and deciding whether or not to test Owen’s shotgun threat. That’s when the phone rings.
She picks it up on the first ring, too eager to really be embarrassed. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Dani’s voice is smooth over the line. “It’s good to hear your voice again.” Jamie sinks into the couch cushions, feeling like a schoolgirl.
“Yours too.” She presses the phone tighter against her face as if it’s Dani’s hand, or her cheek. “You finally called.”
“Yeah.” Dani chuckles a little ruefully. “It’s been pretty crazy here with Mr. Wingrave’s visit and all—”
“—He left.” She sighs. “This morning.” Jamie is about to ask if it went well, but figures that the long silence that follows that statement is answer enough. She feels a twist in her stomach. “The kids are…”
“I bet.” Jamie licks her lips. “Y’know, I’m feeling a bit better—well, to be honest I’m going a bit mad here—and I thought—maybe I could rent a movie or something. Come down there tonight.” She pauses. “For the kids. To cheer ‘em up.”
“Oh.” Dani’s voice brightens. “I’m sure they’d love that.”
“You’ll have to keep the shotgun away from Owen, though.”
They hang up the phone and Jamie limps down to the general store, which boasts a selection of about 10 video tapes you can rent on good honor. There’s about five staples— Gone With the Wind and such—but Milton, the owner, does make a decent go of getting some new ones from London that he rotates though. Jamie ends up with The Princess Bride, something Flora’d been begging her to bring since she’d first read about it in the paper, and Moonstruck, for after the little ones went to bed.
The VCR was a new addition to Bly. The children had begged for it, seeing as the closest movie theater was an hour away, and Mr. Wingrave had given in for Flora’s eighth birthday. It was a colossal thing, and the only person who’d ever used one before was Owen. He still has to fish the instruction manual out of one of the kitchen drawers and study it intently, one eager child peering over each shoulder.
“Thank you.” Dani whispers. They’re observing from the living room. “They’re really excited. It’s all they talked about since you called.”
“My pleasure.” A smile tugs at the corners of Jamie’s mouth. “They seem happy.”
“Yeah, and trust me, that was a feat.” Jamie hums. She doesn’t ask anything else, but she doesn’t need to. “Mr. Wingrave has good intentions, he just—he’s so eager to get them back to London, all the sudden. And they don’t want to leave.” Jamie watches on as Owen begins reading the instructions out in a silly voice. Flora giggles, delighted, and Miles rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling too. Hannah, behind them, is fixing hot chocolates.
“Can’t blame ‘em.” She murmurs, and Dani smiles, touching her arm. The feeling of it, reasonably, should be dulled after all that had happened before her shower. But it still zips through Jamie’s body all the same.
For the first movie, the children cram on the couch next to Dani and Hannah while Owen and Jamie are relegated to the two seater on the other side of the television. Fresh rain starts outside, to which Hannah tuts (“I thought we were finished with this, already”) but otherwise, Jamie thinks it creates quite a nice atmosphere.
Miles and Flora eat so much candy that Jamie fears they won’t be able to settle after the movie is done. But by the time the credits roll, they’re each snoozing against one of Dani’s arms, Flora with a little string of drool at the corner of her mouth. There’s a little protesting, mostly from Miles who wants to stay up to watch the adult’s movie, but Dani gets them to bed without much of a fuss.
By the time she comes back downstairs, Owen’s already moved to sit next to Hannah, and Dani comes to sit next to Jamie without drawing any attention to it. It feels natural, Jamie thinks as she slides the blanket over her lap, to have her here, so close. “I love Cher.” Hannah says, looking at the back of the box while Owen pushes the tape into the machine. Dani and Jamie’s eyes both flick to her, amused.
The movie plays. Despite everything, Jamie feels a sense of intense relaxation float over her—her side still hurts, sure. There’s still this bubbling up thing between her and Dani that remains mostly unspoken. But this, a quiet night of watching a movie with friends, cuts through the noise. She finds herself letting her guard down and sinking back into the cushions.
Dani’s first move is innocuous. She shifts close enough so that their legs and shoulders and arms are pressed together. The first place Jamie’s eyes go is to Owen and Hannah. This is inconsequential, she knows: the two of them, firstly, are cozying up themselves. Secondly, Jamie would be hard pressed to believe that neither of them knew that something was going on between her and Dani. To see them sitting lover-close like this would come as no surprise.
Then, she looks at Dani. The other woman is still fixated on the TV until, it seems, she feels Jamie’s gaze on her. Then her eyes flick up, just for a second, and she smiles. Jamie doesn’t have time to mull over the sticky feeling it leaves in her stomach because the next thing that Dani does is take Jamie’s hand, which until that moment had been resting on her lap beneath the blanket, and move it to rest on her bare thigh.
Dani, Jamie reflects, had been wearing these high-waisted gym shorts with a T-shirt tucked in when she came down from putting the children to bed. At the time, other than her gaze stuttering on her legs for a moment, Jamie hadn’t thought much of it. They were in style, and more comfortable than the light wash jeans she’d been wearing earlier. Jamie’s own bedtime attire, when she’s at home, is a pair of basketball shorts and a Cure t-shirt. Nothing strange about it.
Now, she finds herself with a sudden handful of smooth, dry skin, and she can’t help but wonder if the move had been calculated. Has she ever seen Dani wearing shorts before? She wants to look again, but recognizes the fragility of her good fortune. There is a saying about gift horses and their mouths that Jamie doesn’t remember but thinks may be applicable.
Gamely, she opens her hand so her whole palm and all five fingers are holding the circumference of Dani’s thigh, just above her knee. This must tickle a little, because Dani jerks slightly and smiles. When Jamie goes to move her hand away, unsure, she grabs it and places it back firmly. Okay Jamie thinks, fine.
On screen, Cher, wild-haired and stoic, gets ready to go to the opera with Nicholas Cage. Later, when thinking about this moment, Jamie will blame it on the romance of it all. She’s never been to New York, but the movie makes it look so enchanting, so sincere. Her hand, which had been planted in the same place, moves along Dani’s seams, pulled upward like a puppet.
Under the blanket, Dani shifts. Jamie glances at her face, sees her blink twice, hard. Still, she doesn’t look back over although she knows Dani must feel her gaze. Her hand, still open as if begging for something, is now still on her upper thigh, threatening to be but not quite underneath the hem of her shorts. For a moment, Jamie thinks that might be the end of it. A little earnest, unpracticed intimacy.
But then, Dani shifts again. And this time, she does it to put both feet on the ground and spread her legs, just a little. Not enough that if Hannah or Owen glanced over they might notice that something was going on, but enough to give Jamie’s hand more room to roam. Explore. Find. Take. She realizes that her thoughts are unspooling and tries to reel them in, but is finding it increasingly difficult. Imagines she can feel the tension of anticipation under the skin of Dani’s inner thigh.
She moves her hand up, into the leg and under the cotton fabric of those gym shorts. Dani brings her thumbnail up to her mouth and bites. The skin of her thigh is chalky, soft, dry. Jamie has to bite back a noise when she feels the edge of Dani’s underwear, a few of the hairs that creep out the sides. Then, with a courage she wasn’t aware she possessed until it happens, she slides three fingers horizontally until they rest squarely on the center of Dani’s underwear.
The reaction is immediate. Dani’s eyes slam closed and her brows knit together and Jamie’s not sure that in her whole life she’s ever seen anything that erotic, feels fear of what’s to come with that being the case. The thought of it makes her come back into herself, and she almost moves her hand when, as if sensing this, Dani uses the hand underneath the blanket to cup Jamie’s over the fabric of her shorts, keeping her there.
They sit like that for a moment. Jamie with her three fingers over Dani’s warm, increasingly damp-feeling panties, and Dani with her own hand cupping Jamie’s over the fabric of her shorts. The friction created by Dani’s hand and the restriction of the inside of her shorts is enough that Jamie only has to grind her fingers a little to make firm contact. The first press is experimental. Now watching her face more than the movie, Jamie sees Dani’s eyes flutter and struggle to stay open. Sees her lips part. The next is more confident. This time, Dani wiggles her whole body around, obviously trying to disguise it as an attempt to get more comfortable on the couch.
They enter a rhythm. Jamie presses, Dani presses back. She moves her body in small ways, trying to find relief without attracting attention. But her face is now so plainly colored with pleasure that if Owen or Hannah were to look over, Jamie thinks they would certainly know immediately what was going on. To that end, she thinks they should stop, but the cacophony building around them makes it feel impossible. A kitchen full of Italians yelling. Owen yawning. Dani’s small, loud movements. The rain hitting the window panes. Jamie’s own heart, feeling saturated and open.
Jamie is rubbing with unmistakable purpose now; small, tight circles over Dani’s clit. Perhaps she had been playing coy earlier, perhaps they both had. That sort of creeping around corners dance that new lovers do, the kind that Jamie is all too familiar with. Tipping your hand just a little, just enough to let the other person know you’re interested without revealing anything else.
All of that pretense had been quickly, tidily disposed of. Jamie is touching Dani to make her come, and she’s certain Dani knows, and she’s certain that neither of them are thinking about the consequences of the thing. What Jamie is thinking about is this: Dani had said she’d never had sex, but had anybody ever touched her like this? Stroked her body into this specific frequency of pleasure, made her cheeks turn that color, made her unable to keep the seams of her pretty mouth together? If Jamie does do these things, doesn’t it mean something, to them, here, now, or cosmically?
All at once, Jamie can’t stand it. Feeling turned on is one thing, but that other dimension of wanting is too deep a place for her to wade through. She wants Dani to come, but more than that she wants Dani to be desperately entangled in her. She understands, briefly and with a film of irony, the brutish, masculine urge to be the first of something. To be the cherished, singular point of somebody’s affection, of their gratification.
In the background, she hears the roll of the credits. Blinking back into reality, Jamie looks at the television and sees the scroll of names across the TV. She moves to take her hand from Dani’s pants but, to her surprise, Dani presses her cupped hand harder to keep her there. When her eyes flick to the other woman’s face, Dani is smiling at Hannah through the dark. (Hannah is saying something like, “oh, that was lovely! Doesn’t New York look lovely?” and Dani is agreeing, and Owen is standing to find the light switch on the wall. Dani only allows Jamie’s hand to move once the lights come back on and there would be little they could do otherwise to hide their half-completed indiscretion.)
Jamie says goodnight in the same way she’s been saying goodnight for all the years she’s been at Bly. Helping them put empty wine glasses in the sink, saying “alright, mate” and clapping Owen on the shoulder. It’s all so incongruously bland. She doesn’t move to the front door until there’s nothing else she can do to stay. When she spills out into the chilly, early spring air, it’s in a daze.
The only sounds for a moment are her boots crunching the gravel as she walks to the truck. She stands by the driver’s side door, jingling and rustling as she tries to separate her keys from her pack of cigarettes and 10 loose receipts in her pocket. In the background, another sound emerges: more crunching gravel. Confused, Jamie pokes her head up to see Dani Clayton, still in those damned gym shorts, barreling down towards her with a pair of Lady Wingrave’s gardening gloves clutched in one hand.
Jamie opens her mouth when she gets near, a half-formulated question on the tip of her tongue. Without saying anything Dani reaches behind her to wrench open the door and pop the driver’s seat forward. She sees Dani glance over her shoulder as if checking for onlookers before firmly pressing Jamie back until she has no choice but to scoot backwards onto the rear bench seat.
There’s no question, really, as to what Dani is there for. The other woman carries a charged air with her when she clambers on top of Jamie. The back of the truck is a tight fit, and they make it work humorlessly, shifting limbs until Dani is on top of Jamie and Jamie is beneath her, panting in the dark. She reaches up to flick on the overhead light—to see her, she realizes she needs to see her—but Dani grabs her hand and instead guides it to the front of her shorts.
“Is this okay?” Her voice in the dark could be coming from anywhere. Jamie blinks, squints. Tries to see through the shadows. A heavy breeze ripples by, making the trees sound more like an ocean. She clears her throat.
“What’re we doing?”
“I need—” Jamie hears Dani lick her lips, feels her shift a little on her lap. “I need you to finish what you were doing. I can’t go back to bed if you don’t.”
“Alright.” Rearing up, Jamie goes for a kiss, instinctively. She doesn’t know what else to do, how else to start Dani off. It had been so easy in the living room, but now she feels a little small, a little unconfident. A little like the teenage Jamie who’s entire sense of self had depended on how good she could make others feel.
The kiss, too, is rebuffed. Dani turns her head and Jamie remains in the liminal space where the kiss would have otherwise been, unsure if she feels confused or hurt. There’s a charged pause when it seems that they might not go forward, that Jamie might, mired in that small rejection, toss Dani back into the night where she came from.
Instead, she slips her hand beneath the waistband of Dani’s shorts, her underwear. Dani sighs with her whole body, slumping forward. The entire act in reality takes about two minutes, but in the shelter of the car it stretches on forever.
All Jamie does, really, is press her fingers against Dani’s clit. She doesn’t have room to do much else, with the angle and with Dani’s layers impeding her. But it doesn’t matter. Dani capably drags her pleasure from the depths of what she’s offered, rocking her hips with a ferocity that Jamie had only dared to guess she might possess. Little, desperate noises are escaping her, and her hands, frantic, press on Jamie to gain purchase. Her chest, the curve of her breast, her shoulder.
The rocking intensifies. Jamie is sure, distantly, that anybody who chanced a peek out into the driveway would see a steadily shaking car with foggy windows. It doesn’t matter. The universe has narrowed in that moment to the few square feet in the back of her truck, occupied almost to the brim by their sweating, rutting bodies.
Though she hadn’t slipped a single finger inside her, Jamie is wet up to the wrist when Dani’s rocking begins to lose its rhythm. Her hand, which had been flitting and pressing, rubs over the side of Jamie’s face, pressing it sideways into the seat. Jamie grabs her wrist, turns her head, and sucks Dani’s thumb into her mouth. She grips her, strokes the pad of it with her tongue. Makes her feel it.
Dani comes right then with a shout that could have sent birds flying from the tops of trees.
Later, in the back seat, they’re laying crumpled and panting and spent. Jamie can almost feel the tenderness returning to Dani, her body softening. She knows it for sure when Dani reaches up and flicks the overhead light on. Above her, her cheeks are pink, hair mussed, face streaked with what Jamie realizes are tears.
Jamie sits up on her elbows, flummoxed. “You alright?” She feels stupid saying it, like her voice isn’t exactly hers.
“When I left Eddie,” Dani begins, very preciously, very quietly, as if her words could somehow shatter the windows of the car if uttered too loudly. “I thought that was the bravest thing I’d ever have to do. To leave him and come here and start my life. I’m so tired,” she takes a deep breath in, and Jamie thinks she does sound very, very tired. “Of being brave. Of doing the brave thing.”
“That’s alright.” Jamie says, at a loss for anything else. She feels like she’s just been spun in a tilt-a-whirl.
“I just thought you deserved to know that. Before anything else.” Dani continues, unabashed. “I know kissing you is going to make me different. And I’m scared to do it.”
Dani’s face is unreadable, bald-looking in the white light of the car. Jamie looks at her and feels young again, young enough to understand something but not articulate her understanding of it. Young enough that the words don’t matter. They’re each of them present in this moment together, with the night cold around them, the trees moving like the ocean, Dani’s half-secret safely stashed in the back seat of her truck.
Most of all, Jamie understands that Dani is asking to be done making the hard choices, the hard discoveries, if just for a night. So, she does the only thing she thinks might help: she leans up, and she kisses her.
Jamie returns home with that kiss nipping at her heels. She floats up her stairs in a suspended state of delight and disbelief. Receipts fall to the floor as she retrieves her keys, again, and pushes the front door open.
The leak, once a trickle, has borne open a hole in her roof. Water from the rainfall pours down in biblical proportions. It spills over the sides of the pot she’d put down freshly just that morning, making it look almost comically small. It runs rivers over her historic hardwoods, under that damned wood stove, puddles under her boots. It comes and comes, unrelenting, and all Jamie can do is stand and watch.
“Easter,” Hannah says with her yearly flourish, “is a big deal at Bly.”
Dani’s eyes round off big, like twin moons. Her mug stops halfway to her mouth. “Really?” Her eyes flick over to Jamie. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
Jamie shrugs, swallows a mouthful of eggs. “Ya’ didn’t ask.” She barely dodges the napkin Dani throws at her, chuckling the whole time.
“Now, now children,” Owen comes, towel thrown over his shoulder, to sit with them at the kitchen table. “Seeing you two fight is so un- fork- tunate.”
“Boo, hiss.” Jamie deadpans. Hannah and Dani roll their eyes. “It’s not really a big deal, Poppins, the kids just like it. We hide a bunch of eggs for them and they go nuts.” She takes a long sip of her tea. “Everybody gets into their Sunday best. It’s fun.”
“Not a big deal?” One of Hannah’s perfect eyebrows arches upward. She turns her gaze to Dani. “One year we got your lovely Jamie to wear bunny ears.” Dani’s mouth opens and rounds with delight and Jamie lets out an aggrieved “oi!”
“I don’t really have anything.” Dani admits, once the laughter has died down. “To wear, I mean.”
Jamie shrugs. “It’s the thought that counts.”
Later that day, when they’re kissing feverishly in the laundry room, Dani breaks away to ask: “Is it really okay?” Jamie looks back at her, wild eyed. They haven’t done anything more than kiss since that night in the truck, but the kissing has been persistent and all consuming. Jamie is lost in it. She can’t fathom what okayness Dani could possibly be checking in on. “The Easter thing. I only really have one dress.”
“Oh.” Jamie swims in this for a confused moment. “‘M sure it’s fine, Poppins. The dress.”
“It’s just not really a church dress.”
“Good thing we’re not really at church.” Jamie says, and leans down to continue the kissing.
Dani and Jamie return to her apartment to fetch the last of her things on Saturday. As usual, Jamie’s landlord is there with his new promise of what day they’ll be done fixing the roof (“The 10th, the 10th, the 10th.” He says to her as she shoulders past him, rolling her eyes.) Most of what she needs is already at Bly: clothes, toothbrush, odds and ins of comfort. Her couch, television, and bed are all draped with plastic covering when they step inside, giving her place the appearance of something abandoned and haunted.
This isn’t Dani’s first time in her apartment since the leak had exploded but her eyes still roam over the place with curiosity. Jamie makes a beeline to the other end, her bedroom, to fetch the duffel resting on her plastic-covered bed. “Poppins.” She says, once she has it zipped open for a last look inside. This breaks Dani out of her reverie and she glances over, smiling. “D’you mind grabbing the—”
“Oh—of course.” Dani comes over to retrieve a box sitting next to the nightstand, full of books and pictures Jamie doesn’t want soiled by rainwater. Discovering something missing in the duffel, Jamie swears.
“Actually, can you...in the nightstand, there’s a book. Can you grab it for me?”
Humming, Dani peels up the plastic covering to access the drawer. Jamie isn’t facing her, too busy rearranging something in the duffle, but she feels Dani stiffen behind her. Blinking, she turns around.
Of course, there was something in that drawer that wasn’t a well-loved copy of Leaves of Grass. Jamie had known that, too, just forgotten. How had she forgotten? But Dani doesn’t look upset, or confused. Jamie realizes that she's bemused as she holds the thing up by a strap.
“You’re blushing.” Dani says, and Jamie is mortified to hear the note of delight in her voice. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you blush.”
“I forgot,” Jaime croaks “That I’d put that in there.”
“The zine Auggie gave you made it seem like everybody does—keep it in their nightstand, I mean, or their backpack.” Dani extends the strap-on out to Jamie, who looks at it dumbly.
“Do you want to pack it?” They speak at the same time, words stepping over each other. Jamie darts a hand out to take the thing from Dani, if only to remove it from the dead center of their exchange. “To take back to the house?”
Unmoored, Jamie mulls over the right answer. It feels like she can’t say no, not that she’d even really want to, but she wonders feverishly what else exactly Dani had gleaned from that zine, other than the chestnut about nightstands and backpacks. What does she think it’s used for? What is she asking Jamie to do with it, at Bly, after she packs it and brings it? The darkness of Dani’s eyes tells Jamie that she's cobbled together some idea.
Jamie swallows harshly and presses it into the duffel.
The book is Leaves of Grass. Jamie had had it, that copy, stolen from a library when she was a scrawny twerp of a thing, since she was 14. It had seen the inside of as many prisons and jails as she had, sitting in the personal effects locker. As many foster homes, as many apartments. It’s surreal to look over and see Dani hold it open in her lap, squinting. The truck rocks her body every time they go through a pothole.
“Doesn’t that make you sick? Reading like that?” Dani doesn’t respond. She’s scratching her cheek now, engrossed in whatever passage she’d opened to. “Which one?”
“Song of Myself.” Dani says, not looking up. Jamie knows it exactly, knows that she’d dog eared it enough that the corner had nearly ripped clean off. So she knows, when Dani mouths a line, reading it to herself to comprehend, what she’s reading. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, her mouth moves slowly, intentionally. She tucks a stray piece of hair behind her ear. If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Jamie trains her eyes forward and clenches her hands on the steering wheel.
Easter comes. Like years past, the whole house smells like boiled eggs from the previous night’s dying party. Jamie, being both the earliest riser and the master gardener, had always been tasked with hiding the eggs about the garden. It was something she did with relish, tromping around the lush greenery in her boots and calculating just the place to put each one. Hidden enough to be hard, but easy enough that they wouldn’t have a garden smelling like rotten eggs come next week.
She watches them over breakfast, nattering on in excitement. Flora is beside herself, wondering aloud which frilly thing she’s going to select for the hunt. Miles is more reserved; he’s too old for this now. Jamie knows he’s doing it primarily for his sister. Maybe they all are, on that warm spring day in 1988. Doing it for Flora. Owen in his pastel shirt and suspenders, Hannah in a lovely emerald colored pantsuit. And Dani—
“Oh! Jamie!” Jamie doesn’t realize she’s spilled her whole mug of tea down her front until Hannah is leaning over to dab it off her. In front of her, having just passed the threshold of the kitchen, Dani looks surprised. But in an instant her gaze softens into something else, something more dangerous. Hannah’s eyes flick over to her, taking in Dani’s dress. It’s yolk colored, a little low cut, and silk. Just put together enough that people might think twice before considering it indecent, but depending on the angle, who knows. Like a kaleidoscope, Jamie figures. One twist and it’s all different. “Well.” She says, softer and a little knowing. “You just go up and wash up. Thank goodness you weren’t in your propers.”
“Right.” Jamie clears her voice and stands, rubbing her hands down the front of her pants. She can’t tear her eyes from Dani. “I’ll just—meet you all in the garden, then.” When she passes by Dani, she doesn’t touch her. She’s not sure she could stand it, that either of them could. “You look nice.” She murmurs, and feels more than hears Dani’s smile.
It’s traditional for the adults to watch on with a cocktail as Miles and Flora poke their heads in and out of bushes, planting boxes, birdhouses. Hannah only admonishes Jamie a little about not spilling her French 75 down the front of her “nice” shirt, an oversized men’s button down with short, rolled sleeves that she’d tucked into her gardening pants. Jamie rolls her eyes but her gaze does wander often to Dani in that dress, cheering every time Flora holds up an egg with triumph.
Time carries on, strange and prompt and circular. This Easter could be every Easter they’d ever spent together; the egg hunt, the baskets full of sweets, the sugar crash nap, and the large supper. Mr. Wingrave calling at 7 PM on the dot and Miles and Flora holding the phone between their two ears to both hear and respond, a bit drolly. Even Flora demanding to be put to bed in her dress, as if clinging to the goodness of the day she’d had and dragging it with her into sleep, feels deeply familiar.
Jamie doesn’t make it out of the house for a smoke until half past 9. She’s been keeping all the things that Dani doesn’t want the kids to stumble on in the greenhouse—smokes, mags, books of questionable taste. She’s pulling the cigarette carton from her duffel when she sees it, the thing she’d pressed in there at Dani’s behest yesterday. That same, unmoored feeling washes over her.
Her head whips around and she sees a dark figure at the threshold of the greenhouse. At this point, Jamie would know Dani by the simple cut of her from a thousand miles away. Like a precious dress pattern made time and time over again until you could do it with your eyes closed. She unfolds from her crouch and smiles. “Poppins. Just came out for a smoke.”
Dani steps in further until she’s no longer obscured by shadow. She’s still in that dress, the one that feels to Jamie like a punch in the gut. She’s smiling, looking a little tired. “I just got Flora down. She did not want to get out of that dress.”
“Every year.” Jamie rolls her eyes. “Doesn’t hurt any to let her keep it on, I reckon.”
“I guess not.” She comes over to stand by Jamie. A thick silence overtakes them like rising water filling the greenhouse. They have such precious little time away from that clown-car house of people and children that any moment alone feels significant, somehow. “Owen and Hannah went to bed, too.” Dani’s voice is lower when she says this, like she’s telling a little secret.
“Ah.” Jamie swallows. They’ve drifted closer, knees and arms brushing, Dani’s head tilting. Jamie can smell her breath, sweet with alcohol and pilfered chocolates. She’d called it taxing when she poached them out of Flora’s basket before putting it away into the cupboard to be doled out over the week. What a scam adults play on children, thinks Jamie, and almost laughs. “And you?”
“And I…?” Dani has the dreamiest look fixed on her face, all fluttering eyelashes, and Jamie knows looking at it that she’s not listening at all.
“You’re going to bed?”
“I actually came in here to ask you something.” One of Dani’s hands wraps around Jamie’s bicep and pulls her closer. “But I forget—” the sentence is swallowed in a kiss. They both moan under the weight of it. Jamie backs their bodies up until Dani is pressed against one of the shelves and the little cry she lets out when her back hits the wood, when Jamie’s mouth travels wet and open down to the crook of her neck, sends Jamie into a frenzy. They press their bodies together, fabric on fabric, searching frantically for purchase.
Jamie mouths her way down Dani’s neck, pressing her thin dress strap away to bite gently at her shoulder. She has a desperate, yawning open feeling, like she could swallow her whole and still be hungry for more. The appetite is fueled by the sounds Dani is making, eager and full like an overflowing cup. Like Jamie’s pot, spilling over with a torrent of rainwater, unable to hold everything it’s been given.
They scramble like that for a minute, kisses wet, hands open and searching. Jamie rucks Dani’s dress up around her hips for the chance to grab a warm thigh, to spread her legs open and step in between them. She feels and sees Dani’s whole body stutter when Jamie grinds even just gently into her center, one hand flying up to press against a shelf above her head. Her eyes pinch closed.
“Wait—” Jamie pauses immediately, both hands still holding Dani by the hips. She has to bring herself down like a train speeding and hitting the breaks.
“Sorry, think I might have—carried away, a little.”
“No, no, I just want to…” Dani’s eyes flutter open and she fixes Jamie with a look, then slides her arms around her shoulders and pulls her in for another kiss. This one is slower, more tender. It leaves Jamie weak in the knees when they pull away. “...I came in here to ask you if you wanted to have dinner next week.”
Jamie laughs, stupidly. “We have dinner together every night.”
“No, I know.” Dani sucks on her teeth. “I mean, together and without children present. Just you and me.”
“Oh.” Jamie searches Dani’s face for any sign of hesitance, untruthfulness. All she sees is dark eyes, naked want, tenderness. She becomes mired immediately in intolerable softness, her hands clenching and releasing for a moment with the force of it. “Like a date.”
Dani’s face breaks open immediately in a beautiful smile. Her eyes crinkle, her teeth flash in the semi-darkness. It makes Jamie want to get on her knees and kiss her feet. “Yes, a date.”
Jamie murmurs an agreement. They kiss, again, chaster this time. Jamie feels caught in her sway, a hypnotizing spotlight of goodness. Caught in the way that Dani had come to her like an altar when she was ready to pray and light the candle. And how long she’d waited for this—to be approached and invited with a distinct and thoughtful readiness. The time she’d spent at the doorway, the long wanting to be invited inside. “We can just…” Jamie makes to step away, to give Dani breathing room. But Dani makes their bodies flush again.
“We don’t have to.” She says, clearing her throat. “I’m just nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“Right. Thought you’d gotten all sort of pointers from that dirty zine.” It’s meant as a tease, but Dani’s eyebrows lift as if she has an idea.
“Do you have it?”
“I mean yeah, but—” Jamie is stuttering now, but immediately sees the sense of control Dani is seizing from this. To have Jamie transformed to some shy, careful thing. She sees the appeal of it. “Yeah, I mean. I do.”
“Can I see it?” Dani’s eyes dart over to where the duffel sits in the corner of the greenhouse, once an inanimate object but now a fully realized character in the moment. “On you, I mean.”
“You just want to see me look stupid.” Jamie accuses, with no malice. She’s already moving over to get the damned thing.
“Maybe.” Dani admits. Her eyes follow Jamie all the way to the bag, follow her back when she stands in front of her with the strap-on held in one hand. She shifts back and forth on her feet.
“Want to have a rest on the couch while I—” Jame gestures vaguely to the toy and to her lower body. Dani bites back a laugh and complies, sitting on the couch with her hands on her knees and her knees pressed together while Jamie disposes first of her pants, leaving her in just a white undershirt and briefs. Dani’s eyes immediately stray to her underwear and stay glued there while Jamie drags them down her legs and kicks them off, leaving her naked from the waist down.
“We don’t have to.” Jamie says, feels like she has to say, even though Dani looks like she’s about to throw her down onto the couch and have her way like she did that night in the car. Both hands have fisted sleek yellow fabric so tightly that Jamie thinks the dress might rip altogether.
“I want to.” Dani says firmly. And that’s all Jamie needs to hear to finish pulling the strap-on up her legs and fix the buckles firmly around her hips.
“Well?” She does feel a little nervous, especially with the way Dani is looking at her—well, Jamie supposes, she’s looking at a part of her body, at least. But she’s been naked like this in front of other people enough that she can hold her own a little, even if she feels like she doesn’t quite know what to do with her hands. When, she wonders, do you figure out what to do with your hands? “Do I look stupid?”
“No.” Dani breathes the word out in a gust. She finally manages to pull her eyes up from where they’d been stalled between her legs to look at her face. “You don’t look stupid at all. That’s so mean?” Her voice tilts up at the end. Jamie laughs then, all delight. “Come here.”
And she does. She’s not sure where here is, but she knows where she wants it to be, so she tries there first. Jamie kneels in front of Dani, placing a hand on each knee and guiding them gently apart. Dani complies like she’s a puppet on a string, waiting for Jamie’s next move to guide hers. Her body slides down the couch in time with the motion of Jamie pushing the dress up her thighs until it’s bunched around her waist.
All of this might be too much on its own, but the sight of Dani’s center inches from her face, only in gray underwear with a large, noticeable wet spot in the middle, transcends into the realm of the unbearably erotic. Dani’s stomach rises and falls with each breath and Jamie gives into her first urge to lean up and kiss her there, right above the band of her panties, evoking the most lovely sound.
She hooks her hands into her panties and drags them down, down, until they too are off and disposed of somewhere in the corner of the greenhouse. Jamie has never felt such conflicting urges before: to be good at something, and to give completely into hedonism. To have her fill of Dani with her mouth while her other hand works under the straps of the toy. At the thought of it, she wraps her hand around the base of the strap, pressing it just a little into herself. Enough feeling to tide her over.
“Yes, yes, it’s okay, please just— oh.” Dani’s whole body rises as if from the dead when Jamie’s tongue makes contact. She grabs her thighs with her hands to hold her a little steadier as she licks, messy and unguided at first. She has to bury down the urge to focus her attention and make Dani come, just to show her that she can do it and do it well . It’s tough because, with every stroke, with every time she sucks Dani’s clit into her mouth and laves it, Dani utters a near-constant stream of oh my god, Jamie, oh my god, Jesus Christ —and where she got that mouth Jamie has no idea, but it does figure that she’s a talker.
When Jamie presses a finger in, testing, she thinks Dani might blow the roof off the greenhouse. Her body squirms and her hips buck so hard that it’s no longer useful for Jamie to try and keep her steady. She is, she realizes, just along for the ride. “Another.” Dani says, and Jamie presses another finger in, working them in and out wetly. Above her, with an arm thrown over her eyes, Dani shakes her head. “One more.”
Jamie releases her clit from her mouth with a wet pop and looks up, momentarily taken aback. “You sure?”
A frantic nod. “That’s how I—when I—”
Jamie doesn’t need to hear any more. She puts her head back where it’s most useful and presses a third finger in, causing Dani to groan, low and broken. She says something that Jamie can’t quite understand, then says it again, and Jamie realizes it’s I’m gonna come, and so she lets it happen. It only takes a few more strokes of her fingers and Dani is seizing, shaking, wrapping her legs around her head and squeezing.
Jamie sits back on her heels and wipes her mouth, panting with the exertion of it. She’s so painfully turned on that she can feel her wetness smeared not only on her inner thighs, but down her legs. Arousal sits in her belly like a coiled snake.
Her moment of reprieve ends when Dani pulls her up, pressing her back onto the couch so that she’s sitting. Her first instinct is to cover herself—the toy sits between her legs, feeling somehow crude in the afterglow. But when Dani leans over her from the other side of the couch she realizes that her dress is pulled down enough on one side to expose a nipple. The urge to lean up and capture it in her mouth eclipses everything else and she does just that, delighting at the raptured sound Dani makes, only stopping when she feels the base of the toy press purposefully into her clit.
She rears back with a surprised, pleasured grunt and realizes that Dani’s hand is on it, grinding it down. She shoots Dani a questioning look, to which the other woman shakes her head.
“Did you learn that from—”
“Doesn’t matter.” Dani kisses her fully, feverishly. Their tongues claush. Then she’s sinking to her knees, hand still on Jamie’s cock, eyes wide and blown out. Jamie makes to take the thing off, eager for contact, but Dani stops her with a hand over her own.
“Love, you don’t have to—”
“I want to.” A kiss, filthy and chaste at the same time, on her upper thigh. Jamie groans and puts her hands over her face, unwilling to watch what’s happening between her legs, needing to watch it. “Can you feel it if I…?”
She presses down on the base of the toy again, experimental. It sends shockwaves up and down Jamie’s body. Her hips buck up a little, involuntarily, and her hands grip the edge of the couch. Her face uncovered, she’s able to drink in the image in front of her; Dani, on her knees, hair swept over one shoulder, leaning forward to take Jamie into her mouth. Jamie lets out a choked sob and shifts a little, gasping again when she feels Dani’s mouth make contact with the toy.
Jamie had come to know over the years that even if you could only really feel one thing—the base of the toy bumping against you, if you did it right—watching allowed for a different spectrum of sensation. All she wants to do is let her head fall back, listen to the wet noises happening between her legs, imagine what is and what could be, but she makes herself watch.
“Dani.” She breathes, placing a hand on Dani’s shoulder. Her blond head looks up and Jamie has to school herself into respectfulness, looking at her swollen mouth and pink cheeks. She knows that there’s something she needs to articulate, but finds the words shuffled around in her head like an alphabet soup. I need to come, but not like this “Can you—” She’s pulling Dani up by her biceps, and Dani seems to understand. She’s meeting Jamie where she’s at, in the middle for a messy kiss, allowing herself to be pushed back on the couch by the force of Jamie’s body. Hitching her legs about Jamie’s hips, slipping her hand beneath her shirt, groaning. It’s all such beautiful, messy poetry, one thing lost within another in a sailor’s knot of movement.
“Can you...like this?” Dani bucks her hips up to illustrate her point, threads her hands in Jamie’s hair to keep her close. “I want you to be close to me. When you come.” Whispered into Jamie’s cheek, and Jamie has never been so inside and outside of her body at the same time as when she feels Dani’s hand creep between them to fumble with the appendage between her legs. “Is this okay?”
In her mind, Jamie is treading water. Shouldn’t Dani’s first experience be better than this, than Jamie in her tattered undershirt and no pants, damp with sweat, biting back the impulse of rudeness. The yen to take, to have. Jamie had always thought there’d be flowers when she did it the first time, candles. Some soft music. For herself, Dani doesn’t seem concerned with formalities. Nor does she seem to be wasting mental energy on parceling out what she’s owed by the universe, or by Jamie as it’s current steward.
Or maybe, Jamie thinks, she’s already decided. She blinks down at Dani, the woman beneath her waiting for an answer. Body trembling with all the energy building up there. Jamie nods once, an assent, and reaches down to help Dani guide herself inside.
She goes slowly, figuring that’s the way, watching Dani’s closed eyes and furrowed brow for any discomfort. Her legs squeeze around Jamie’s hips, urging her on until she bottoms out with an approving gasp from both of them. “That feels— oh.” Dani clutches her and groans when Jamie gives her hips an experimental twitch. “Just go slow at first.”
“Of course.” She murmurs into her temple. The feeling of it when she begins to move gently, the call of her body and the response of Dani’s, is strange and carnal. They’re pressed so tightly to each other that Jamie worries transiently that she might be crushing Dani, thinks to ask and immediately forgets when Dani presses back into her hard and she thrusts harder in response.
“Oh, Jamie. ” Dani whispers, cradling Jamie’s head close to her. They’re moving in earnest now, the only sounds in the greenhouse moans, skin against skin, the scrape of the couch legs against concrete floor when Jamie’s thrusts smudge it to the side. “Can you feel me?” Every bite of her hips is pressing the base of the strap-on into her, driving her closer and closer to an apex, and Jamie is so deep in the thick of it she can’t speak. “I can feel you, can you feel me?” Dani continues, a babble. “I just want you to feel good, Jamie, I just want—”
They’re so close at every conceivable point that it seems impossible. Giving in to the urge to be as close to Dani as possible, Jamie drives in once, hard, and grinds there. She sucks her earlobe, devours the sounds coming from Dani, feels her toes curl and feels the softness of Dani’s thigh under one hand. The pressure builds and builds and finally crests and Jamie has to bury her head in Dani’s chest so her shout doesn’t startle her. She feels her orgasm travel from the tips of her toes all the way up to the top of her head. Dani’s heels dig into her lower back, drawing her deeper, keeping her in place.
Dani’s chest is heaving, her hand covering her eyes. She keeps saying oh, the word escaping in miniature from her mouth like droplets of water. When Jamie finally has the strength to lift her head from her chest, to look her in the eye, Dani is disheveled and smiling. “Thank you.” She says, seemingly unaware of the devastation those two words create in Jamie’s body. She punctuates them with a series of kisses; to her temples, her eyelids, the tip of her nose.
Everything precious; nothing unappreciated.
A perfect last-course to enjoy with friends after a filling dinner, can be made any way you please. Always use fresh strawberries.
They find that they have another year on a Tuesday in June. Henry Wingrave stands in front of them in the driveway on that unseasonably warm day, mopping sweat from his head with his kerchief. He’s saying something about giving the children one more year before introducing them to a new school. About giving them a weekend a month in London to ease them into it.
What he’s really saying, Jamie knows, is he’s giving the children time to get used to him. He’s not really such a bad man; absent, like a ghost, but everybody has their sins. Nobody knows this more than Jamie Taylor. Most of all, she’s glad for them to have an unencumbered summer. To move together in that big, alive house, swatting flies and fanning themselves and throwing open windows. Drinking lemonade and staying up late. Who knows how many more they'll have, considering this one already feels borrowed. Might as well treat it as something precious.
There’s no school during summer, and Dani takes this as sacred text. Still, during the afternoons, she sits out by the lake with the children and they read, or do embroidery, or journal. Jamie likes the reading days the best, tends to linger in the wings when they do it just to hear Dani’s voice rising over the cattails. She’d even lent some of her own books to the cause.
“Why, who makes much of a miracle? As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles.” She hears one afternoon, trimming back a bush near the lake. Jamie pauses and listens, cicadas loud in the background, trees whispering overhead. “Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water…”
When she peers over, Flora and Miles are sitting criss-cross in front of Dani on a blanket, looking enraptured. Dani is spread out with her shoes kicked off, the list spilling of her tongue. Or stand under trees in the woods, Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love, Or sit at table at dinner with the rest —
Jamie smiles, and she sighs, and she returns to her task.
Thanks for reading this fic that turned out to be about 15k longer than I thought it would be, and enormously self-indulgent. I had fun, and hope you did too.
Though I don't often post there, you can find me on tumblr at seabiscuits-us.