The house is nice enough.
Lena Luthor pushes her sunglasses up her forehead and squints against the light. It’s large and carries an air of dignity. Private, judging by the road they’d had to take to get up there. The driveway to the main house alone is nearly half a mile long through a thick, pine-scented wood. The car, a small, sporty thing, was clearly more equipped for New York City driving than navigating an unkempt back road in Maine. It had bumped and jostled the whole way, so much so that Lena had to put her head between her knees to keep lunch down.
The exterior looks so much different from the pictures in the listing. The painters had followed her instructions to a T, and the shabby but stately old farmhouse now looks like it has another few decades of life injected into it.
The yard, though, is still a wreck. Lena’s heel had squelched into mud when she stepped out of the car and remains caked brown as she stands to take everything in. The expanse of green space is grown over with weeds and knobby hedges. There’s an old pond some yards away, near the tree line, that’s obviously full of more slime and algae than water.
The grass and the gravel have also not fared well through however many unoccupied winters the house had stood. It’s mostly mud and potholes. The first and only other time she’d toured the property, the Tetwiler children had explained to her that, while they had continued running the winery up until recently, their parents hadn’t lived in the house for close to a decade.
“There’s another entrance to the tasting room building off of Old Karner road, so guests don’t need to drive past it.” Jane Tetwiler had said. She then gestured up to the gravel road that continued past the house. “But you can also get there from here.”
The advertisement, when Lena had read it, listed a boutique family run winery and vineyard property for sale, suitable for somebody trying to get into the business. It boasted equipment, a tasting room building, and mature grapevines. Words on a page were so much different than the reality in front of her.
She rubs one puffy, red eye. This is fine. The sunglasses go back to the bridge of her nose. Lena doesn’t notice that there's a woman standing on the front porch waving her down until she calls her name: “Mrs. Spheer?”
Lena looks up, wracks her brain for who this could be. Behind her, her driver unloads her bags from the back seat and stands, one duffel slung over each shoulder. The woman comes down the stairs of the front porch and smiles.
“Hi—it’s Darla. I work for Jen?”
Of course, Jen, her interior designer. Darla, who was there to give her a tour of the furnishings they’d selected for the house. Lena trods carefully through the boggy lawn to shake her hand. “Sorry, I’m a little scatterbrained. Of course, hello. Thanks so much for coming.”
“My pleasure.” Darla chirps.
Lena doesn’t speak for the entire tour. The furniture, like the house, is fine. They’d picked everything exactly to her specifications, from the couch to the beds to the art on the walls. Most of the downstairs windows in the living and front rooms had pre-installed wooden shutters, the kind that folded inward over the glass and latched, that Lena had decided with the contractors to keep. But the ones without had been carefully draped in fabric that matched the throw rugs. It looks like something a person would see as the after tour on an HGTV show.
Upstairs, Darla opens one of four doors along the hallway with a flourish. “You said this was the room you wanted for yourself, correct?”
“Yes.” Lena murmurs, stepping in. She notices that there are boxes piled against a far wall—everything she’d had shipped over from New York. It had looked like so much more when she’d packed it. “It has the best view.” Indeed, out the bay window from the back of the room you could see the small, tidy rows of grape vines that lay partially dormant, and beyond that, the woods.
The house is pin drop quiet after Darla and her driver leave. She had spent so much time the last few months making sure that everything would be ready for her arrival and now she sees the fruits of her labor. The house is perfect for her—and most of all, it’s hers. Not Jack’s. Not her mother’s. It’s Lena’s.
Standing in her bedroom, Lena holds her left hand out in front of her. She looks at her wedding ring, a small, tasteful thing. The kind that you probably couldn’t guess from first blush how exorbitantly expensive it was. Jack had been very proud of himself for that one.
She huffs out a sigh and moves to the boxes at the far end of the room. There’s a few marked clothes, a few marked miscellaneous. And three in a stack, all of them marked books. She opens the top one, peeling the packing tape carefully and folding open the panels.
The first book she sees, on top of an Organic Chemistry textbook, is a pristine hardcover. She knows it instantly. Lena picks it up and holds it in her hands, feeling the weight of it. The title reads A History of Wine and below that is the name of the author, Lionel Luthor. She opens it and flips a few pages in. There’s a dedication right before the first chapter.
It’s not terribly verbose. But, then again, neither was her father.
For my Lena, always with love.
She shuts the book gently and puts it back in its place.
The first of what will be many surprises comes the next morning. Lena, who had planned on sleeping in until noon, is woken at 9 AM by a heavy knocking at the door. She does her best to scrub the three hours of sleep she’d gotten from her face and stumbles around her bedroom, collecting a pair of leggings and a large T-shirt.
She grabs her sunglasses and puts them on before opening the door. There’s a woman on her porch. It isn’t Darla, and it isn’t Jen, and it isn’t Jane Tetwiler, which means that Lena is out of guesses. The woman is in a deep blue polo, a ballcap and khaki pants, with a clipboard clutched in one hand. Behind her, a truck is parked next to Lena’s car. There’s another woman there, leaning against it, but she’s not facing them.
“Good morning.” The woman on her porch says, somewhat grimly. “My name is Alex Danvers. Is…” She looks down at the papers on her clipboard, squints. “Jack Spheer home?”
“No.” Lena says flatly. “He doesn’t live here.”
Alex waits a few seconds for elaboration, but Lena doesn’t give it. “Okay.” She draws the word out. “Well, we have a consultation scheduled for this morning with Jack Spheer at this address.”
“Landscaping.” Alex responds flatly. Lena pinches her eyes closed, suddenly feeling a headache even as her sunglasses block out the harsh early morning sun.
This is Lena’s fault, really. When she’d asked Jack for a divorce, he’d negotiated her down to a trial separation, and, exhausted, she’d let him. She hadn’t told him about the Tetwiler place because she knew he would turn that into a negotiation as well, and she’d have ended up with a vacation home in the Finger Lakes instead.
When she’d finally told him, after she’d closed on the property, that she was moving out, he had been stunned. As if she hadn’t just sat in front of him months before and expressed to him that she didn’t want to be married anymore—but wasn’t that just Jack’s way. To bury his head in work and money until the problem just disappeared.
She’d shown him the pictures on the listing sent to her by one of her father’s friends a few days later and he’d commented on the disrepair of the front yard. Foolishly, Lena had told him she was saving it for last. That between buying and fixing up the house and the money she needed to live on, she'd nearly exhausted her father's trust money. What she hadn't mentioned was the seed money she was saving to hire harvesters come October.
“I’ll pay for it.” He’d offered. This was one of many times over their long relationship that Lena had wanted to stand up and scream you’re missing the point! but had schooled herself. Lillian would have said that screaming was unladylike. Instead, she’d said no and left it at that.
Stupid. Stupid of her to think he’d listen.
“I’m the owner of the house.” Lena looks over Alex’s shoulder to where the blond woman still has her back turned, talking to somebody on the phone. She’s in blue coveralls with the words Danvers & Daughters emblazoned across the back in golden thread and work boots.
Alex lets out a breath and flips through a few pages on her clipboard. “Right, and Jack Spheer is—”
“Not the owner of the house.”
“Right. He’s just—”
“Paying for the landscaping, I guess.”
Alex looks up at her for the first time. Her face is tired, Lena notes, like she hasn’t slept in weeks. Her ball cap also says Danvers & Daughters, is also blue, the thread is also golden yellow. “Husband?” She asks. Lena suspects that this belies curiosity more than information required for the forms.
“If you like.” Lena responds. She smiles, pushes her sunglasses up to the top of her head. “He doesn’t live here. If you need permission to talk to me, you can call him and ask.”
Alex scribbles something down on her clipboard, nodding. “We’ll do that.”
Lena’s gaze drifts back behind Alex, back to the woman. She’s still on the phone, leaning with one elbow against the truck. She gesticulates broadly and expressively, then laughs so loud that Lena can hear it clearly even though she’s several yards away.
Alex must hear it too, because she glances over her shoulder and then back at Lena. “That’s Kara.” She says. “My sister. She’ll be doing the actual landscaping once we get started.”
“Oh.” Lena responds, trying to act disinterested. She pushes her sunglasses back onto her nose. “Okay.”
A few hours later, her phone lights up with a phone call. She’d predicted this. Lena closes the book she’s reading and sets it beside her on the couch.
“Hello, Jack.” She says when she picks up. There’s a staticky laugh on the other end of the line.
“Lena.” His voice is laced with good humor. “I had an interesting phone call with the landscaping company this morning.”
“Did you? Me too. I didn’t know that there was a landscaping company.”
“Don’t be mad.” He says. “I know you said no.” Jack says this as if it is the tiniest, most insignificant detail in the world. Lena wants to throw her phone across the room. “But I couldn’t stand thinking about you out there living in a swamp.”
“Well, aren’t you humanitarian of the year?”
“You can always turn them away.”
“You’d just send others.” She tries her best to make it sound sarcastic, even though she really believes it to be the truth. Jack laughs, so she supposes she’s succeeded.
“Yeah, I guess I might do that.” A beat of silence. “Well, I told them to do whatever you wanted. They’re going to call later to hash out the details.”
More silence. Lena is still puzzling over the fact that Jack likely feels that this is a romantic gesture. Her enormous house suddenly feels so small, almost suffocating. “Thank you.” She says, weakly.
“You’re welcome, baby.” Lena’s eyes pinch shut. That headache that had threatened her earlier in the morning makes good on its promise, throbbing around the crown of her skull. “Listen, I know that we’re—but don’t be a stranger, okay? You can call me any time.”
“Alright, yes, I will.” She says, and begs off with her headache. Lena lays on the couch, phone on the ground below her, book forgotten on the opposite cushion. It’s going to be a long afternoon.
Her mother calls three days later. Lena knows better than to pick up, but she does anyway. She’s in the kitchen around noon, having just woken up, surveying her breakfast options.
“You know, Jack is being so patient with you, Lena.” Lena hums, ripping off a section of purple grapes from the bowl in the middle of the kitchen island. She plops them down on her plate and moves to the bread cupboard. “Paying for all the landscaping? What a man.”
“Right.” She selects a bag of english muffins and inspects them for mold. Satisfied, she fishes one out and cradles the phone to her ear with her shoulder as she rips it open with her hands.
“Your father would be rolling in his grave if he knew this is what you’re using his money for.” Lena drops a half of the muffin on the ground and swears under her breath. She crouches to pick it up and, deciding to believe in the 5 second rule, tosses it back onto the grape plate with its twin.
“What was I supposed to use it for?”
“College funds, for your children.”
“I don’t have any children.”
“For your future children.”
Lena rolls her eyes. She opens her butter dish, gathers a generous amount on a knife, and smears it haphazardly across the bread. “If he had wanted that, he would have said so in his will.”
Another thing that Lena knows she shouldn’t say. Her mother talking about her father like this used to bother Lena to the verge of tears, when she was younger and more sensitive. Now she just finds it annoying, like a pinch to the back of her neck. She’s developed thicker skin.
Predictably, her mother’s voice takes on a theatrical warble. Lena rolls her eyes. “Do you really think you know what your father wanted better than me?” From the front yard, she hears a crash. “After everything we did for you, Lena—”
Lena sets the phone on the counter and moves to the front room to peer out the window. Her mother’s scolding becomes a distant buzz in the background.
She unlatches the wooden shutters and flips one open, peeking out onto the front lawn. There, again, is the blue Danvers & Daughters pick up truck. The blonde woman—Kara, Lena remembers—is standing in the bed helping a windswept looking young man haul a piece of machinery out onto the grass.
Kara has a broad stance to anchor herself while she lowers the equipment down. Lena can’t see the flex of her shoulders through the fabric of the coveralls, but can imagine it—muscle working under skin.
When the object lands on the lawn, Kara hops off the bed of the truck and high-fives their co-worker. Lena swallows and closes the curtains, wandering back into the kitchen. The tinny sound coming from the phone tells her that her mother is still rambling on. She picks up the phone.
“Mom–” Lena pinches the bridge of her nose. “Listen, I’ve gotta go–I have a lot to do today.”
“A lot to do.” She can hear the eye roll, see it clearly in her head. The same eye roll her mother had given her as a child when she got a grade below an A or cried when she scraped a knee. “What on earth could there be for you to do out there?”
Lena considers this. She thinks about telling the truth about what she’s doing, and then decides against it. The last thing she needs is for Lillian to have a premature heart attack. A funeral would be so inconvenient. “The landscapers are here.” She half-truth, half-lies. “I have to let them into the garage.”
Lena leaves her phone on the counter and takes her breakfast plate with her upstairs to the bedroom. Pushed up against the window is a king bed that she’d insisted on but only used about a quarter of when she slept in it. Then there’s a large desk with her laptop open and papers strewn about. Next to the laptop, her father’s book rests.
She looks at the laptop. The webpage is open to a Harvard Business Review article about soliciting investment money. Not for the first time in the last half a year, Lena asks herself what the fuck she thinks she’s doing. Between her trust and some money that friends of her father's had given her, there's enough to get her through the end of the year; to harvest the grapes, to make the wine. But beyond that? She needs more.
A knock at the door downstairs startles her out of her reverie. For a brief, hysterical moment, Lena thinks that it must be her mother having driven all the way from New York City to keep scolding her. Or, worse, Jack. She leaves her plate on the desk and pads downstairs.
The person at the door is, in actuality, a bouquet of flowers. Or, rather, a person shrouded behind the largest arrangement Lena thinks she’s ever seen. Lena glances down at the blue-coverall covered legs, cuffed to the top of a pair of brown work boots. “Hi, I am so sorry to bother you—these just came. I think the delivery person was confused and thought they were for me.”
Lena can’t see her face, but infers that this must be Kara. She has a pretty voice, and this shocks Lena more than it probably should. She doesn’t know why she assumes all landscapers must have a low, gravelly intonation. Or at least that they don’t sound like they dot their i’s with little hearts when they write.
Her eyes flit down to where Kara holds the vase. Her nails are dirty, the skin of her hands rough. Lena wonders why she doesn’t feel disgust when she sees it.
“Sorry, Mrs. Spheer?”
“Hm?” Lena clears her throat. “It’s Lena.”
“Not Mrs. Spheer. My name is Lena.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Sorry, Lena. I think they’re for you.”
Of course. Lena hates bouquets. Not flowers, just bouquets specifically. Especially the kind that Kara’s holding, full of carnations dyed unnatural colors. Something about them just feels so forced.
“Alright, I’ll take them.” She reaches out and takes the vase from Kara’s hands, seeing the other woman’s face for the first time. Lena is shocked again to find that Kara is beautiful. She has a strong jaw and blue eyes that are crinkled at the edges to match her inquisitive smile. Like the first day she’d come to the house, her hair is pulled back into a french braid. Normally, Lena would think it a bit horse girl for an adult woman to wear a french braid. But, on Kara, it looks both practical and flattering.
“Mrs. Sphee–sorry, Lena?” Kara’s face pinches further as her smile deepens. “Are you alright?”
“Am I…yes, I’m fine.” Lena realizes that she’s been staring and flushes with shame. “Thank you for taking these.”
“No problem.” Kara chirps. She doesn’t leave right away. Rather, she folds her hands behind her back and rocks backward a little on her heels. “They’re nice. Are they from your husband?”
“I guess.” Another headache begins to creep behind Lena’s eyes. She doesn’t understand why they’re still having this conversation. “Well, I’ll just…” She begins to slink back into the house, cradling the flowers in the crook of one arm and moving to shut the door with the other.
“Oh! Of course. I should get back to work too.” But Kara doesn’t move immediately. She’s studying Lena’s face too, perhaps just as intently as Lena had done to her just moments before. “It was really nice to meet you.”
“You too, uh, Kara, right?” Lena is already mostly eclipsed by the door, just her face peeking out. Kara smiles even larger when she says her name, and nods. “It was nice to meet you, Kara.”
The door shuts. Lena turns around and lets out a relieved breath. In contrast to the almost nauseating brightness of the outside, her house is dark, curtains drawn. She looks down at the vase in her hands, searching for a card. She finds it stuck on a wire stick next to some Gerber daisies.
Lena–always thinking of you, always loving you. Your husband, J.
Lena rolls her eyes. Her headache intensifies with a nauseating throb. She relegates the flowers to a side table in a room she never goes into, leaving them to wilt in darkness until the overripe-fruit smell calls her to throw them in the bin.
For the next few days, Lena watches out her window as the landscapers work. Kara is there every day. Some days she’s by herself, some days she has the winsome looking young man with her. They drain the artificial pond, scrub it, and replace the lining and water. They trim hedges, mow the lawn.
Kara doesn’t come back to the door. They eat lunch sitting on the lip of the open truck bed, usually sandwiches and cookies and thermoses of coffee. Sometimes they get take out and shovel food from white clamshell containers into their mouths. Lena knows she must be bored because she spends a not insignificant part of her day watching them.
Now that she’s seen Kara’s face, it’s like she can’t unsee it. Kara seems to turn toward the house like a flower turning toward the sunlight, always laughing towards it, always facing Lena’s bedroom window and mopping sweat from her forehead with a ratty handkerchief.
It gets hot seemingly overnight. Lena is used to New York City, the punishing way that the heat and the trash smell would start lingering into the night to tell you that the weather was about to change. In Maine, it could be 40 degrees one night and then 80 at the heat of the next day. It’s only the end of May, but that whole week has been unseasonable.
That’s Lena’s excuse when she finds herself downstairs stirring a Crystal Lite package and water into a pitcher. It’s the end of May, and it’s hot. Kara and her coworker have been laying mulch since 8 AM that morning. Lena is many things, including a misanthrope, but she’s not an asshole. And the house is air conditioned.
She steps out onto the front porch when she sees Kara pop the truck bed for lunch. She stands, feeling silly, arms wrapped around her front. “Hey!” She calls. Both Kara and the boy look up. “Do you want to come in for a glass of lemonade?”
They stand in her kitchen with the awkwardness of a pair of young, well-trained boys trying to remember their manners. They’d both spent countless minutes trying to kick off caked-on mud from their boots at the front door, and excused themselves to wash their hands in Lena’s guest bathroom before accepting a glass of lemonade.
Kara introduces her male counterpart to Lena as Winn. “This is the old Tetweiler place, right?” Kara asks, eyes glancing around the kitchen and living room.
Lena hums affirmatively, thinking about why she’d decided to do this in the first place. She wonders if a cold chill had crept up Lillian’s spine when she invited the help into her home and let them track mud all over her new kitchen.
“It’s been empty for a while.” Kara continues. She’s eyeing Lena again.
“That’s what the realtor said.”
Kara lets out a low whistle. “We used to ride our bikes in the woods back there when we were kids. I always wondered what it looked like in here.”
“Do you want to see it?” Lena asks before she can stop herself. Jesus, she feels desperate. She chalks it up to how long she’s been alone in this house, cloistered in her bedroom making spreadsheets and investment portfolios.
She’d never been good at making friends, but she figures that asking to give your landscaper a tour of your house is probably a rock-bottom low. The fact that Kara seems genuinely interested is only a slight balm.
“I should probably—” Winn jerks a thumb toward the front door. He looks bashful, a little uncomfortable. Kara barely takes note of him.
“I’d love a tour.” She does glance back at Winn then, smiling. “I’ll be out in 10 minutes.”
Lena wonders again if she’s gone insane as she leads Kara through the living room and into the formal sitting room. If Kara notices the flowers sitting in their grave on the sideboard, she says nothing. Instead, she crouches and touches the moulding on the floor with two fingers, whistling low. “Did you do this?” She asks. “Or is it original?”
“Original, I think.” Lena responds, maybe more breathlessly than she’d like. This is all so odd.
They move down the hall together, then upstairs. Kara pokes her head in and out of the bedrooms, curious as a cat, murmuring about the detailing on the walls, or the furniture, or the framed artwork.
She walks heavy, especially in those boots, especially on the old hardwood floors. Kara’s weight is centered and solid. Like her dirty fingernails, Lena recognizes how it ought to bother her. But Kara wears it as well as her french braid, as if there’s no other way for her to be.
“Is this your room?” Kara asks when they reach her bedroom door. Lena is about to ask how she knows, then realizes it’s the only bedroom with an open door. Kara doesn’t even try to hide how she cranes her head in, so there’s no point in preventing her from entering. Lena just says yes, and pushes open the door a little more for Kara to step in.
She stands at the doorway and watches as Kara looks around. Her skin itches. Kara walks to the bay window and peers out, hands stuffed into her coverall pockets. “Gosh.” She murmurs. “It really is beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Lena responds, completely honest.
“You must be pretty excited for the work to be done.” Kara looks back over her shoulder. “It’s gonna look great.”
“Honestly, I’d just as soon let it grow wild.” Kara’s eyebrows knit together at that. She tilts her head. “Jack insisted, though.”
What an exhausting word. Lena’s face twists into something both a grimace and a smile. She contorts her hand so that her thumb rubs and rotates the ring on her finger. “My benefactor.” She jokes. Kara smiles back uneasily. There’s a moment of silence.
“So, I should—”
“Right.” Lena agrees, relief washing over her. “I’ll walk you downstairs.” They wind their way down through the house until they arrive back at the front door. Lena opens it and ushers Kara out to the front porch.
Kara, as it seems she is wont to do, lingers. The sleeves of her coveralls are rucked up around her elbows and the top is unzipped down to her waist, revealing a pink t-shirt. “Thanks for letting me look around.” She says. It’s completely unnecessary, and Lena knows she’s just trying to draw out the conversation. “You did a great job with the place.”
“You’re welcome.” Lena begins to shrink behind the door. The sky is so bright without her sunglasses. “Come in any time it’s too hot to have lunch out here, okay?”
“We will.” She dawdles for just a moment longer and then, with a tight but genuine smile, bounds down the porch steps to join Winn somewhere off yonder. Lena watches her go. She feels—she feels—she feels something . How odd, she thinks, not for the first time that afternoon. Loneliness is such a strange, fickle creature.
Lena doesn’t sleep that night. She’s never been very skilled at it, anyway. As a child, she was either an insomniac or plagued by nightmares. Most of her adult life has been spent crowded by Jack’s solid, sweltering body. The faint smell of cologne he carried to the end of the day that always made her feel vaguely ill. In Maine, she works until 1 AM and then lays in a fugue state until morning.
That night, however, she’s got something else on her mind. She’s thinking about the house, it’s moulding and it’s sconces and it’s built-in wooden window shutters. A puzzling, almost excited feeling has rooted itself deep in her gut. She realizes then that this is the first time since she'd gotten to the house that she feels anything more than complete apathy. What the sensation is that's replaced it, she couldn't say. But at least it's there. Lena moves her hand over her lower stomach and lets it rest there, over the seed of feeling, and then closes her eyes and tries to rest.
A week goes by. Lena talks to no-one. This is not unusual. Even when she and Jack lived together, even in that tiny crackerbox of an apartment that he’d insisted upon because of its proximity to Central Park and sweeping skyline views, she could go almost a week avoiding him. Sleeping on the tiny couch in his office and only emerging after he’d left for work.
For the first time since she’d moved to the old Tetweiler place, she starts leaving the shutters to the front room open during the day. The house looks so different in the light. Even the furniture looks better, truer to itself.
With the windows open, she can observe the landscapers. She doesn’t try to hide from herself that that’s what she’s doing, there doesn’t seem to be a point to it. She just can’t understand why, exactly, she’s so fixated. There’s not much inherently interesting about watching Kara, and sometimes Kara and Winn, haul brush in a wheelbarrow or plant violets along the walk up to her house.
Lena doesn’t even turn on the TV, most days. She just works from the living room and occasionally looks over her shoulder to see what’s happening. Kara and Winn never take her up on her offer, even when it is really hot out—they always take their lunch on the back of that truck. Even yards away, she can see their conversation and their laughter.
It’s not that Lena isn’t used to not talking to people. It’s that she’s never felt quite like she wanted to before. The feeling disturbs her. She supposes that, in New York City, when an urge like this came over her, she could just get lunch with one of the wives from Jack’s firm or entice Jack into sex and remember why she detested human interaction in the first place. Now she can only stew alone in her thoughts.
That must be it. Lena thinks. She’s on a break from her latest iteration of the investment proposal, doing laps around the house. Sometimes, after Kara and Winn are done working, she’ll go outside and stroll around the grounds, past the grape vines. But, during the day, she stays mostly homebound.
She passes by one of the windows in the front room and pauses. One side of a wooden shutter is broken, fallen off its top hinge and laying askew against the wall. She stares at it and blinks.
Lena is on the front porch before she can think about what she’s doing. She spots Kara and Winn out next to the newly refurbished pond, arranging stones around the perimeter. She tromps down the lawn to greet them.
“Mrs. Spheer!” Winn stutters, obviously surprised to see her.
“It’s Lena.” She says with more snappishness than she intends. Winn looks cowed. Kara beams up at her, setting down the rock she’s handling with a small grunt of exertion and then standing up straight.
Her coveralls are off the top half of her body now, tied around her waist. She’s got on large, worn-in yellow gloves that she removes and tucks into the waist of her jumpsuit, in the same way that a man might remove his ball cap to show respect when he enters into a building. That strange, excited feeling laps against the edges of Lena’s heart.
“Kara.” Lena musters a smile. What am I doing, what am I doing, what am I– “I’m sorry, I—something is broken, in the house. I’m not sure if either of you are particularly handy, but…”
“I’m handy.” Kara blurts. “What needs fixing?”
“One of the shutters on the front window.” Kara nods her head. They stop by the truck on their way back up to the house so she can grab her toolbox from the back. Neither of them talk on the walk. It’s not uncomfortable, exactly. It’s more like Kara doesn’t care either way if they talk or don’t.
Once in the house, Kara spends a few minutes inspecting the window. She opens and closes the shutter, wiggles it up and down. She gets on her hands and knees and searches for a missing screw, then rummages in her toolbox for something. Lena watches all of this from a few feet away, wrapped in a cardigan far too heavy for the weather.
She wants to say something to Kara, she realizes. She wants to strike up some kind of conversation, ask her where she’s from, what she’s doing here. Ask her about riding her bike around the woods behind Lena’s house as a child. Ask her about where she went to college, if she had gone.
But by the time she thinks she might have worked up the courage, Kara has fixed the window. She turns around proudly. “Just needed a bigger screw.”
“Oh.” Lena nods. “Thank you.” She feels idiotic.
“No worries.” Kara packs her screwdriver back into the toolbox and straightens, smiling. “Anything else, just let me know.”
“I’m great at, like—squeaky doors.” She clears her throat, cheeks turning slightly rosy. “Or leaks.”
Lena shifts her weight between her feet. “Alright.” She says.
“Alright.” Kara parrots in response. She goes back outside to work, leaving nothing but silence in her wake. Lena’s body feels like it’s groaning under the weight of it. She grows tired of looking at spreadsheets, doing her laps.
She gives in and calls Jack around 10 PM. He picks up on the first ring. This irritates her. She rubs the heel of her hand between her eyes. “Hi, Lena.” He says, sounding eager. Lena flops back against her bed. “Haven’t heard from you for a while.”
“No.” She plays with the tie of her sweatpants. “I’ve been busy.”
“Well, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Lena turns her head to stare at the wall. She’s tired of this already, but also still in some sort of mood. It boils deep in her gut. Jack is always so affable, so unflappable. It’s part of why she chose him, of all her suitors, to be her husband. His good nature. It makes sense, in the grand scheme of Lena’s luck, that it’s also what repels her from him. “I was—I felt lonely, that’s all. I’ve been alone out here for a while.”
“Oh, baby.” She winces. At least she has what she’s looking for, a reminder of why she doesn’t do this more often. “Why don’t you come up to New York for a few days?”
“The landscapers are still here.”
“I’m sure the landscapers can cope without you.”
“Jack, we’re about to get divorced.”
“I thought we were calling it a trial separation.” He says it with a dry edge, but Lena can tell she’s shaken him. You don’t spend seven years with a person without being able to tell when the hair on their back starts standing up. Isn’t that what she wanted? To swipe a staff under his feet, rattle that likeable nature of his?
She feels bad, anyway. Lena isn’t sure when she lost her touch. Years of being groomed by Lillian for a life of casual cruelty and she can barely manage one swipe without getting sentimental.
“Is that why you called?” He asks. “To remind me that our marriage is about to end?”
“I don’t know.” Lena says. “I’m just in a mood tonight.”
“I can tell.” He sounds patient again, that bothered quality of his voice gone and replaced with something like affection. Lena squeezes her eyes shut. If she was a cryer, there’d be tears, but she’s not. “Well, if you find yourself in a different mood, I’ll be here.”
“I mean it. Just say the word, and I’ll send a car.”
“Okay then.” He pauses. “Listen, I’m still at the office. But I love you.”
“Don’t work too hard.” Lena murmurs. “Bye, Jack.”
After they hang up, she lays in stillness for a moment. The sound of crickets, of rustling leaves, of the occasional coyote, come drifting in through her open window. Nobody’d told her that the country would be as noisy as this—differently noisy from the city, but noisy nonetheless. Even the silence, which came so sparingly in the summertime, was different from the artificial silence you could sometimes find in New York. In the bathroom of a quiet restaurant, in the laundry room in the basement of an apartment building. Here, quiet came like a lull in conversation. One moment, everything could be alive and chattering and the next, nothing.
She sighs and, determined for peace and quiet, she shuts the window.
The next day starts out beautifully and without a cloud in the sky. As has become usual, Lena takes her coffee to the living room window around 12 to observe the work in the front yard. It’s just Kara today, sitting in the truck with a sandwich, kicking her feet back and forth and scraping her heels in the dirt.
Somebody’d come the week before and covered the grapes in the back with mesh netting to protect them from birds. The Tetwiler children had asked her, when she bought the property, if she’d wanted to keep the same people tending to the grapes. Lena had agreed, at a loss for who else she would hire to do it. They come silently to prune and protect, leaving no trace of themselves other than a truck or two parked next to Kara’s in the drive.
She looks at it out her bedroom window and sighs, returning to her desk. She has her latest investor proposal attached to an email to a bank in Portland. It had been finished and ready to send since yesterday, but Lena had scarcely done more than stare at it since this morning. She stares at it now, cupping a mug of coffee in her hands, biting her bottom lip. She opens it for the thousandth time and scans it for typos, closes it again.
Lena is so engrossed that she misses the clouds rolling overhead. She barely clocks the change of light in her bedroom, and when she does she assumes a shadow from a tree had passed overhead. She doesn’t even notice when pinprick drops of rain start to hit the glass of her window.
It’s not until the drops turn into a mighty downpour that she looks up from her work, startled. The beautiful day from a mere hour before is transformed into a near night-like darkness. Rain comes peeling down in sheets, thunderous.
The first thing Lena thinks about are the downstairs windows. She gets up from her desk and moves to the lower level at a quick clip, finding the two windows that frame the back of her sitting room couch open. She shuts them and latches them quickly.
Then, from her left, a squeak. The wooden shutter of one of the windows, the one that Kara had fixed, swings open and shut in a stilted, shuddering fashion. Lena checks, but the window isn’t open—not even a crack. She latches the wooden panels shut.
She looks at the wood of the repaired shutter, runs the tip of one finger along the new screw that Kara had installed at the top. It’s strange—she’d expected it to look somehow different, now that Kara had touched it, fixed it. But it’s the same.
That’s when she thinks, Kara, and turns toward the front entrance. As soon as she begins to wonder where the other woman has gone, there’s a knock at the door. Lena bolts over to open it.
Kara stands in front of her looking waterlogged. Her coveralls have turned a shade darker and her tawny hair has frizzed most of the way out of her braid. She wipes at her eyes with the back of her hand, a small smile on her mouth. “Hi.” She says. “Can I come in?”
Lena manages to find every towel in the house. She lays one on the floor for a shivering Kara to stand on, and hands her another to try her face and hair. Lena watches her from a safe distance, wringing her hands. “Let me get you some dry clothes.” She offers. She’s not sure why she feels so nervous—it’s not like this is Kara’s first time in her house.
“I don’t want to be a bother—I can just take a towel to put down on the seat while I drive home?”
“No, it’s not a bother.” Lena swallows. “I’ll just, um. Follow me?” She nods her head toward the stairs, hands still clasped together in front of her. “You can change in the bedroom.”
“I don’t wanna get your floors dirty.” Kara’s smile hangs on her face, lopsided and charming. There are those boyish manners again, the kind that make Lena drive one of her thumbnails into the skin of her hand until it smarts. Kara holds the used, wet towel in front of her with two hands. She’s twisting it, just a little. Lena sees it and thinks, maybe, that Kara might be feeling nervous too.
“Don’t worry. Come on.” Kara’s footsteps behind her are the same as when they’d gone on the impromptu tour of the house, only with a soggy undertone. Lena has to marvel at the consistency.
Kara stays one step out in the hallway while Lena rummages around her drawers for something suitable. She comes up with a pair of old grey sweatpants and an MIT crewneck, both oversized. She places them on the bed, folded, and then turns around to offer Kara what she hopes is a reassuring smile. “These should fit. You can change in here. Just, um. Leave the wet clothes in the hall. I’ll take them to the dryer later.”
Downstairs in the kitchen, Lena can hear the sound of Kara moving around in the room above her. The old house leaves almost nothing to the imagination. She has to focus on anything else but the fact that Kara is naked somewhere in her house, not too far from where Lena herself stands now.
So, she makes coffee. Boiling the water and portioning out grounds into the french press gives her something to occupy her mind. The grounds are still steeping by the time Kara comes down.
She’s taken out her braid, and her hair is loose and kinky in places around her shoulders. The MIT sweatshirt and the sweatpants do, in fact, fit. Possibly too well.
Lena isn’t sure she’s ever felt this way upon seeing another person emerge into a room. How strange that she should be feeling that way now, and with a woman she barely knew. Try as she might, smart as she is, she can’t quite puzzle out what’s happening to her.
“Coffee smells great.” Kara chirps. “Is it alright if I—”
“Oh.” Lena shakes her head a little, then gestures to an empty seat at the kitchen island. “Please, sit.”
Kara does, and Lena busies herself finding two mugs and straining out the coffee grounds. She places one mug in front of Kara and keeps the other to herself, standing directly across the kitchen island from her. It occurs to Lena that this is the closest she and Kara have physically been to one another.
“Who went to MIT?”
“Hm?” Lena is shaken out of her reverie. She looks down at the letters emblazoned across Kara’s front. “Oh. Me. For undergrad. Chemical engineering.” She takes a hesitant sip of her coffee. Still too hot. “I went to Harvard, after. For my master’s.”
Lena isn’t sure why she volunteers this information, except that she suspects that Kara might be impressed by it. She rarely talks about going to school, and isn’t sure who she’d even talk about it with if she wanted to. Her mother would rather forget that she’d ever gone and Jack, while encouraging, always seemed to think of it more like a fun fact he could trot out at parties. “ My wife went to Harvard business school,” he’d say, with the same cadence as somebody revealing that their wife had met Kim Kardashian once at a party and made her laugh. She always felt vaguely uncomfortable when he mentioned it.
So, no, she doesn’t talk about it. But she is right that Kara looks impressed. Her face opens up into a surprised little grin, her eyes pinching at the corners. “Harvard? Gosh, that’s something. So you’re really smart, then?”
Lena laughs. She feels large under Kara’s compliment. “Depends on who you ask.”
“I’m sure you are.” Kara nods, as if agreeing with herself. “So you must have been some kind of big shot in New York, then.”
“Not really.” Lena hides herself behind another sip of coffee. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything after all. “Jack’s the big shot.”
“Your husband?” Lena nods. “I don’t believe that. What was your job?”
“Nothing. I didn't have one." Kara’s eyebrows shoot up to her hairline. She clears her throat, seeming to realize in the same moment that her reaction could have been considered rude. “I mean, party planning. Mostly. Giving instructions to housekeepers.”
“Oh. Why not?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t you work? You have all those degrees for something, I bet.”
Lena is surprised to find nothing cruel or deceptive in Kara’s expression. She’s cradling her chin in one palm, brows knitted. It’s genuine curiosity, listening. Outside, the wind whistles through the old wood of the house. Lena scratches her cheek and shifts her weight back and forth for a moment.
“I just felt—” Her words trail off. She runs her tongue along the seam of her lips. “My mother always thought that was best. To get married. The security of it. She wasn’t crazy about me going to school.” Lena looks down into her coffee, staring for a moment into her distorted reflection in the black liquid. “It was my father, who told me I should.”
“Well, that was good of him.” Kara says kindly. She smiles. “Sounds like he was onto something.”
After that, she seems content enough to drop it. They finish their coffee over small talk, watching out of the corner of their eyes to see if the rain lets up. It doesn’t.
Kara talks out some logistics, mostly to herself, while she pulls on her soggy boots at the door. It’ll add a day to the work, but that’s not so bad, and it happens. “We just don’t usually get a big storm this early in the season.” She tuts. “Bad luck, huh?”
“Bad luck.” Lena smiles tightly. She’s standing a good distance back from the door, hands clasped in front of her.
Kara looks down at her front. “Your clothes—”
“Just bring them next time.” Lena flaps a hand. “I’ll get yours in the dryer tonight.”
And Kara lingers again. Lena is flummoxed by this, how the other woman will draw out every interaction just a minute past its expiration date. Even standing in her soggy boots, socks soaking through, she seems content to tread water in the living room. Just for a moment.
It makes Lena uncomfortable, in the way that somebody might be uncomfortable being looked at through a magnifying glass. She wishes fiercely that Kara would just leave. It would feel like a mercy.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” She says, finally. Lena nods once.
After she leaves, Lena wanders into the kitchen. She moves their mugs into the sink and fetches a wine glass from the cupboard, filling it almost to the brim with red. She takes a sip off the top to stop it from spilling, then traverses up the stairs.
Kara’s wet clothes are in a pile by the doorway. The other woman has placed three towels underneath them in an effort to spare Lena’s hardwoods. The way they’re arranged, it looks Like Kara had simply evaporated in place and they’d fallen into a heap beneath her.
Lena stares for one beat, then two. Then she moves into her bedroom and sits down at her desk. Her computer warms up and opens to the same page she’d been looking at before the storm broke out: her e-mail, investment proposal attached, ready to send. She toys with the stem of her wine glass, and glances once out her window to the storm raging on outside. Then, she turns back to her computer. She types a brief, polite, professional message, and then, without giving herself time to think about it any further, she hits send.