Chapter 1: i. budburst
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.
Chapter 2: ii. leaf growth
This looks great. Let’s meet this week—Friday?
Lena re-reads the email for the ninth or tenth time. She wills there to be more words, future telling words, maybe. About how the meeting will go. About if they’d really liked her proposal. But there are only eight. Ten, if you counted special characters.
She clicks over to the other open tab on her computer and a New York Times article fills her screen. It’s her father’s obituary. Lena’s fascination with it might be considered morbid except that it contained more details about her father’s life than she’d ever learned from him before he died.
There’s a picture before the text. Her father, a young man in the 70’s, dressed as a fine dining server. He’s got his left arm bent in front of him with a towel draped over it. In the other, a bottle of wine. He’s grinning.
WINE GIANT AND RESTAURATEUR LIONEL LUTHOR DEAD AT 71
Lionel Luthor, prominent New York City investor and restaurateur, passed away yesterday at the age of 71. He is survived by his wife, Lillian Luthor, his daughter, Lena Spheer, and his son Lex Luthor.
The only son and heir of the Luthor family, Mr. Luthor utilized most of his inheritance supporting his interest in wine and food. He spent much of his early adolescence and adulthood training and serving in New York City and the Finger Lakes region. His long job history has included seasonal grape harvesting, restaurant hosting, and, according to one winery owner, spit bucket emptying. Mr. Luthor became certified as a sommelier in the late 80’s and quickly rose to be one of the preeminent voices in the New York City wine scene.
In his later years, he used his wealth to invest in restaurants and wineries all over New York State. Some of New York City’s most well-loved restaurants, including Downstate Provisions, Dolce, and the Gathering Room, credit their start to Mr. Luthor.
Most recently, Mr. Luthor authored New York Times best selling novel A History of Wine. The novel details changes in wine making standards in America from the early 18th century to modern day. It was critically praised at the time of its release and is considered by many to be a major work of contemporary nonfiction.
Lena closes out of the tab without finishing. She navigates back to her email and types out a hasty response— sure, Friday works. What time? Something that she hopes strikes the right balance of casual and interested, and then goes downstairs to put her empty coffee mug in the sink.
There’s a knock at the door when she gets to the landing. She opens it to find Kara standing on her porch, lunch box and thermos in hand. Lena holds her mug by the handle from one finger and squints. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Kara beams. Her coveralls are zipped down to her waist again. Her t-shirt today is black. Lena can see a thin sheen of sweat beginning to gather along her collarbone. She swallows harshly and tears her eyes away. “I was wondering if I could come inside for lunch today—it’s pretty hot out.”
Lena looks over Kara’s shoulder. “Sure. Does Winn want to come in too?”
“He’s not working today.”
“Alright.” Lena steps aside and gestures broadly to the kitchen. “Come on in.”
Lena sort of wishes that she’d known this was going to happen today, because she would have worn something nicer than billowy linen pants with a tank top tucked in. Not that you need to be wearing designer clothes to have lunch with your landscaper, but she figures she might feel less off-kilter in something more put together.
Kara washes her hands at the sink before sitting back at the place she had the night they’d had coffee together. She’s chatting about her drive that morning and Lena is intermittently humming as a sign of listening, trying to cobble something together for her own lunch. There’s not much.
What she finally sits down with is a plate of grapes, a small wedge of brie cheese, and a handful of crackers. Kara eyes it incredulously.
“That’s your lunch?”
Lena pinkens. “I haven’t been to the grocery store since I moved in.” She doesn’t want to reveal to Kara the reasoning for this. Firstly, she hasn’t driven herself in years. Even the car she’d purchased had been dropped off at the house by the dealership and untouched since then. Secondly, she had never, not once, done her own grocery shopping.
The thing is, she feels an urge to make Kara like her. Or at least for Kara not to think that Lena is some kind of know-nothing New York City socialite, true as that may be. “I’ve been so busy.” Lena finishes instead, worrying her hands together under the lip of the kitchen island.
Instead of responding, Kara reaches into her lunchbox and empties it of its contents. She’s got two sandwiches on white bread, each packaged into a reusable plastic bag. Two bags of chips, and an entire Nutty Bar. Without speaking, she opens up one of the sandwich bags and retrieves half, plopping it down on Lena’s plate without asking. Lena stares at it.
“Kara, no.” She says, finally. “You can’t give me part of your lunch.”
“Just did.” Kara responds. She pops open the top of her thermos and pours coffee into it, bringing it up to her mouth. She takes a small sip, winces, whispers too hot, and then sets it back on the counter. This personal exchange, for whatever reason, makes Lena’s heart gallop fiercely in her chest.
“You do manual labor.” Lena points out. “I sit at home all day.”
“I always pack way too much.” Kara responds. “Besides, I can’t watch you eat just that. It’ll make me sad.”
Lena picks up the sandwich half and looks at the cross section. It seems to be some kind of lunch meat, cheese, and mayo. If Lillian were here, this would put her into an early grave. Jack would probably call a car to try and take her to the doctor. It’s those thoughts that convince her to take a bite, more than anything.
The sandwich is good. Kara smiles at her, pleased. She holds up her own half. “Cheers.” She says. They touch their crusted corners together, and keep eating.
That night, to celebrate the confirmation of her Friday meeting in Portland, Lena runs a bath. She hasn’t yet used her en suite to its full potential. It’s large, with a double vanity, a clawfoot tub, and buffed tiles that she can see her reflection in. She starts the tap, crouching next to the edge and adjusting until it’s hot but not scalding. Then, she puts on a robe and goes downstairs to fix herself a tea.
By the time she comes back up, the tub is full, steam rising and evaporating. Lena places her tea on the tile beside it and sheds her robe, stepping in and beginning to sink down. The hot water feels so good, especially in the context of the artificially cooled house, that she actually shudders with pleasure when the skin of her butt hits the bottom.
They didn’t have a bathtub in New York, so this is a pleasure Lena hasn’t experienced since she was a child. There’s something about being submerged in nearly painfully hot water that puts her immediately inside her body. She can feel everything; her legs rubbing together, her hands gripping the porcelain edges of the tub, the weight of her own breasts. She sinks so that the water rises around her chin and tips her head against the back of the bath.
For a few minutes, she thinks of nothing. She just drifts in a pleasant fugue state, enjoying how her body feels, enjoying being alone. Then, she thinks of Kara. At first, this doesn’t bother Lena. She’s just thinking about eating lunch with her that afternoon, the sandwiches and the thermos of coffee.
Then, she remembers Kara’s hands as she’d held that large bouquet of flowers the first day they’d met. How her fingers had been crusted with dirt, but Lena could tell it was new—not like Kara didn’t wash her hands, but like she’d been interrupted in the process of working hard. How the rest of her skin was rough, worn in.
This thought sends a little hum up Lena’s arms, into her chest, and down into her belly. A vapor of satisfaction. She breathes out her nose and shifts, causing water to slosh up and almost go over onto the floor.
Her next thought is of Kara a few days ago, watering the violets they’d just planted along her front walk. Lena didn’t have a nozzle for the hose, so Kara was using her thumb over the flow of water to create a spray, dampening the petals and the mulch beneath them. And then, as Lena watched on from the living room, Kara had taken her thumb off and leaned down to take a drink from the hose.
That should have been innocuous, probably. But something about the way the water had splashed up on Kara’s face, how she’d pulled back with it dripping off her cheeks and chin and wiped at it with the back of her hand—Lena had to step away from the window and find something else to do.
Thinking about it now, Lena realizes that the pleasure that had once been dispersed all throughout her body is now concentrated in her lower stomach and between her legs. What had before been a vague, soft-edged feeling is now a tight, wanting ache.
Startled, Lena sits up abruptly. This time, water does make it over the edge of the tub. It hits the tile, and her mug of tea sitting below it, with a wet slap. Lena looks down at her wet floor and her ruined drink. She sighs heavily. This is so typical—just when she tries to get some peace and quiet, something disrupts her.
Lena drains the tub after that. The water isn’t even cooled off. She just feels unsettled, somehow, by the places her thoughts had gone. She decides that something that makes her less mindful, like watching television, would probably be better.
The next day, Lena watches out her bedroom window as Kara and Winn work in the backyard. They’re hauling brush off by the wheelbarrow-full, trying, she thinks, to clear a space for a flower box. After so many empty winters, there’s enough detritus to keep them pretty busy.
She’s leaving for Portland tomorrow. It’s a long day trip, so she’ll be gone by the time Kara and Winn get to her house. She doesn’t know if they’ll care—if Kara will care. Most days, they don’t interact, so what reason would she have to even really notice?
Lena realizes she’s biting her nail and stops herself, crossing her arms and tucking her hands into her armpits. She spends the rest of the afternoon hashing out the details of what she wants to talk with the investors about tomorrow. Her father had always stressed to her that you can never be over-prepared: every detail, every number, every estimate should be perfect.
She hears them packing up their equipment to leave around 7. Lena sits back in her computer chair for a second, looking at the screen. There’s a fifty page word document in front of her, brimming with every piece of information a person could want to know about why she’s qualified to run a winery and vineyard.
Her stomach growls. She thinks about her empty fridge, and then she thinks about her trip tomorrow, and Kara. Lena stands and goes down the stairs as fast as she can without falling, opening the front door. It’s still pretty light outside. Kara sees her just as she’s opening the driver’s side door to her truck, smiles, and waves.
“Hey, boss.” She calls up. She turns her head to say something to Winn, and then half-jogs up the newly-laid pathway to the porch. “Everything alright?” She’s a little breathless. Lena chews on her bottom lip.
“I was just wondering if you knew any good places to eat around here.” Lena blurts before she can stop herself. Kara raises her eyebrows. “I still haven’t gone grocery shopping.”
“Well.” Kara draws the word out, putting her hands on her hips and looking up at the sky while she thinks. “There’s not much. A couple take out spots. It’s not New York City.” Lena smiles thinly at that. “There’s a pretty good hot pot place about 20 minutes away.”
“Hot pot?” Lena is genuinely surprised. Kara laughs, a pretty sound.
“Don’t get too excited. It’s in a strip mall.”
“But it’s good.” Kara follows up quickly. “Just…unassuming.”
“Would you—do you—” What the fuck is Lena about to say? Even she doesn’t know. She wets her lips. “Are you doing anything tonight?”
“Me? No. Unless you’re about to invite me to get hot pot with you.”
Is Kara…flirting with her? Lena is completely taken aback by this. She’s a born and bred New Yorker and spent most of her formative years attending girl’s schools, so she does know about gay people, technically. But to the extent that Lena feels desire for anybody, she’s straight. And she’d always thought that out here, people would be—well, that was probably the big city prejudice talking, anyway.
Kara seems just as surprised as Lena, and a little embarrassed. She begins walking back what she’d said almost immediately, gaze dropping to her boots. “Sorry, that was stupid. I wasn’t assuming…”
“No, it’s fine. I was going to invite you to get hot pot with me.” Lena says quickly. “If you want.”
Kara’s gaze flicks back up to Lena’s face. She’s smiling. “That sounds great.”
Logistically, Lena hadn’t considered how her inexperience with driving and the surrounding town would play into their trip. But, she’d gotten through most of her life so far projecting complete confidence about things that she actually knew nothing about, so she’s not sure why this would be any different.
Nevermind that her tendency to do before thinking is what got her married in the first place. It had been a good strategy in other areas of her life. For all her hand wringing about it, driving turns out to be mostly muscle memory, and Kara gives excellent directions.
True to her word, the hot pot place is in a strip mall that’s fifty percent abandoned storefronts, a liquor store, and a Jo Ann Fabrics. After she pulls into a spot and parks the car, she turns to Kara in the passenger seat and raises an incredulous eyebrow. The other woman laughs and throws her hands up.
“You can’t say I didn’t tell you.” Lena cracks a smile too, holding back a laugh of her own. Outside the car, dusk is finally falling, giving the entire parking lot a sort of ethereal blue glow. Kara is turned to her, looking at her, eyes roaming all around Lena’s face.
“What?” Lena asks, after a second of silence.
“Nothing.” And then, “I just think that’s the first time I’ve seen you really smile.” Without another word, Kara turns, breaking their gaze. She opens the car door and steps out into the parking lot, stretching a little. Lena remains in the car for a few moments longer, breath caught in her throat, hands cemented onto the steering wheel.
They are the only people having hot pot on Thursday evening. The restaurant is cavernous, lit only by fluorescent overhead lights, and playing Lorde’s first album quietly on repeat in the background.
Lena learns, first, that Kara knows how to use chopsticks and that she has a preference for spicy broth. There are other things she notices, things that she already pretty much knows: Kara is an easy talker and an easy listener. The kind of person who’s smile could put anybody immediately at ease. After having spent her whole life in one of the world’s major cities, it takes Lena somewhat aback that one of the few genuinely interesting people she knows she met in the middle of nowhere in Maine.
They order Sapporos, talk long and about nothing. Usually this would bother Lena and remind her of so many afternoons spent brutally hungover at the Union League, trading pleasantries with another law firm wife until one or both of them must have been contemplating opening the window and jumping out. With Kara, it just feels like a conversation of no expectation, one topic folding into another until hours have passed scarcely noticed.
At one point, Kara takes the top half of her coveralls down so that she’s in just her t-shirt of the day. The green fabric strains against the muscles of her biceps.
“Jesus.” Lena groans and leans back in the booth seat after her second round of shrimp and broccoli. “Who knew that could be so filling.”
Kara nods, head bent over her bowl and scooping udon noodles into her mouth. “Good, right?”
“It was actually amazing.” Lena agrees.
“Now you’ll have a place to take your husband when he comes.”
This puts Lena on her guard for the first time that evening. Lena suspects that the casual sound of the question is a front for Kara’s interest, God knows what that may be. “Jack isn’t coming.” She says flatly. Kara looks up from her bowl and opens her mouth as if to say something more, but before she can, their server comes by and sets the check down. Lena takes it, swatting the other woman’s hands away.
“Don’t start with me.” Lena says, throwing her card down. “You’re a cheap date, anyway.”
Kara looks genuinely pleased by this. They walk back out to Lena’s car in companionable silence. Kara seems to be lost in thought and stays that way for the remainder of the drive to her house, speaking up only to point out a turn or tell Lena to keep going straight.
It’s dark out by the time they arrive, but Lena’s headlights illuminate Kara’s house so that she can see it pretty well. It’s set back into the woods, the only place around for probably a mile. It's a small, one story, crackerbox house. The kind that had likely been made on a lot somewhere and then driven to the plot on a massive semi truck. A truck, what Lena assumes to be Kara’s personal vehicle, sits in the driveway.
Lena cuts the engine so that they’re sitting in darkness for a moment. Kara makes no move to get out immediately. “I had a really nice time tonight.” She says, finally. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“Thank you for coming.” Lena responds. She turns to face Kara. “That was nice of you.”
“Nice of me?” Even in the dark, Lena can see Kara’s puzzled face. Kara reaches up to turn on the light above them. “I wasn’t being nice. I wanted to.”
“Well, thank you anyway.” Lena watches Kara study her face again and then follows her eyes as they drift to her left hand, resting in her lap on top of her right. She watches Kara look at her wedding ring, watches her body straighten, and watches her clear her throat and turn away.
“Drive home safe, alright?”
“I will.” Kara exits the passenger door and crosses in front of the car to get to her front entrance. She waves once, and then disappears inside the house. Lena watches for a moment as the front windows illuminate with the lights that Kara is turning on. Then, she looks down at the ring on her finger.
After a moment, unable to look at it any longer, Lena flips off the overhead light, turns on the engine, and drives home.
The man across the table from Lena looks down at the stack of pages in front of him, up at Lena, and then back down. He’s tall, and the coffee shop seating is a little small for him. His knees keep bumping the bottom and threatening to overturn their coffees.
This is the first time in three weeks that Lena has worn make up, and she’s acutely aware of how it feels on her face. She’s also bothered by the long sleeved silk blouse and modest hem of the skirt she’d chosen to wear. It’s creeping up on 80 in Portland that afternoon.
The man hums, takes a sip of his cappuccino, and then returns his attention to Lena. He smiles congenially. He’s handsome in a way that had stricken Lena immediately upon meeting him. He has a young face and the only signs that he’s creeping up in age are the gray spots beginning to form at his temples.
“This is very thorough.”
“Thank you, Mr. Mooney.”
“You can call me Tom.” He says, probably for the 10th time since she’d arrived that afternoon. “We were all very impressed when you sent this over.”
“Thank you,” Lena swallows. Under the table, her hands fidget with the sleeves of her blouse. Above the table, she tries to project confidence. “Tom.”
“But we were sort of wondering…why?”
This catches Lena off guard. She had prepared for essentially any question Tom Mooney could have thrown at her. Questions about harvest yield, about labor costs, about tannins. “Why?”
“Yeah.” Tom nods, taking another sip of his drink. “I mean I know your father…he’s a big deal, even up here. But you never—” He trails off, but she knows what he’s going to say. You never followed in his footsteps. Lena's had nearly 30 years to do any number of things; become a somme, invest in a restaurant. Anything. Instead, she’d been a housewife. “Listen, I won’t hold you to this. Just between us. I’m curious.”
Lena spends half a second considering how much of the truth she wants to tell.
“My father…had a natural palate. I don’t. I mean…not really. I’m a scientist.” A wannabe scientist, her brain corrects, but she forges ahead. “That’s what I’m interested in. The fermentation, the yeasts, the acids—it’s all just chemistry, isn’t it?”
She leaves out the parts about her mother. About her marriage, her days spent wasting away in a New York City high rise while her degrees gathered dust in two very expensive frames. Those parts, she’s certain Tom Mooney isn’t interested in.
“I guess it is.” Tom smiles again. He folds his large hands on the table. “We’d like to come take a look at the place as a next step, if you’re amiable.”
Lena exhales all the breath she’s been holding for the last two hours in one go. “Really?”
“Really.” He laughs. “Call the office Monday morning, Carla will help you schedule something.”
Overcome but trying to play it cool, Lena wipes her suddenly sweating palms down the front of her skirt. When Tom stands, she does too, reaching across the table to shake his hand.
“Thank you Mr. Moo—Tom.”
Not wanting to go home just yet, Lena wanders around downtown. She hasn’t eaten anything all day, too overcome with nerves. She orders the largest lobster roll she can find and eats it in a park, shooing away seagulls.
It doesn’t matter. She’s happy, and so keenly aware that this is the first time in years she’s ever really felt that way. They want to see the vineyard, Lena’s vineyard. They liked her ideas.
She doesn’t arrive back at the house until well after dark. Of course, Kara and Winn are long gone. She’s not quite sure why she half expected to see Kara waiting on her front porch. She wonders what color t-shirt she’d worn that day.
Lena supposes, as she climbs the steps to her front door, that she’ll find out on Monday.
Only Winn shows up on Monday morning. At first, Lena thinks that Kara must be somewhere else—beyond the tree line, maybe, or in the vineyard for whatever reason. Kara sometimes came without Winn, but she’d never seen Winn without Kara.
She calls Carla at 9 promptly, standing by her bay window and peering out. She makes the appointment for the following week and hangs up still not having seen hide nor hair of her.
By lunch time, when she sees Winn sitting out alone on the tail of the truck, she realizes that Kara is really just…not there. Lena only spends a few minutes wondering whether it would be strange to run out and ask Winn where his coworker is. She doesn’t care, actually, if Winn thinks she’s strange.
The boy, as always, looks startled when she opens the door and starts toward him, and then a little afraid. “Mrs. Sphe—uh,” he fumbles and nearly drops his sandwich. “Lena. Hi.”
“Hi.” She says dismissively. “Where’s Kara?”
Winn blanches noticeably. “Alex didn’t call you?”
Lena flips back through her memories, eyebrows pinching together. “No?”
“Shit, uh.” He rubs the back of his head. “There was an accident Friday. Nothing bad, but Kara had to go to urgent care. She’s totally okay. We’re only going to be like, a day off schedule, and Alex said our insurance will cover it—"
Winn is still talking, but Lena has stopped listening. “Wait, so she’s—she’s okay?”
“Yeah. Weed wacker got her leg, but not too bad. She just needs a couple days to heal.”
“Oh.” Lena exhales. “Of course.” She puts a hand to her forehead and feels how warm and clammy her skin has become. “Thank you for telling me. When will she be back?”
“Few days? Thursday?”
Lena bids him goodbye and wanders back to the house. Thursday? She sits at her desk and tries to focus on making a to-do list for Tom Mooney’s visit the following week. Check out the grapes. The old tasting building. Make sure the road up is still driveable and, if not, find somebody to take care of the potholes. Maybe Kara can do it.
Kara. Lena’s hand clenches around her pen and she sets it down, leaning back in her chair. She glances out to the window, the change in light telling her that a few hours have passed already. She guesses that days have passed without her seeing Kara before. They only really come three or four days a week. But something about this feels different, somehow.
Deciding something, she stands from her chair and goes down to the basement. Lena opens her dryer, unused since the night of the thunderstorm, and finds Kara’s crumpled up clothes. Her coveralls and the t-shirt she’d worn that day (orange). Lena transfers them to the washing machine with a little detergent and starts the cycle, going back upstairs for a cup of tea while she waits.
That done, she dries the clothes and then folds them as best she can. Lillian had taught her a few domestic arts as a child, despite the fact that she was expected to employ any number of housekeepers in her adulthood. So, she knows how to fold clothes decently well. Still, the coveralls are a challenge—she was meant to marry a financier or a lawyer not, god forbid, a carpenter or a landscaper.
She picks a couple things from her closet to wear, a process that takes almost longer than washing and drying Kara’s clothes. Picking which shirt would go best with her shorts helps her take her mind off of second guessing herself. By the time she makes it to the driveway, Winn is already long gone. He’s not there to witness her carefully putting Kara’s forgotten clothing on her passenger seat, climb into her car, and peel down the driveway.
Kara only lives about 15 minutes away, which is close, all things considered. Lena has to drive through the small town her vineyard borders, shops already closed up for the night. The only two things that seem to remain open after 6:30 are the brewpub and a Dairy Queen.
She pulls down into Kara’s driveway, relieved to see the lights of her front window on when she parks. Lena waits for a beat before she goes in, self conscious. She didn’t even have Kara’s phone number, and she’d just vaguely remembered the directions Kara had given her a few nights before—there were only about three roads in the area to choose from, so it wasn’t hard. Certainly this is crazy, or at least bordering on it.
But before she can decide to back out and pretend like this never happened, a familiar blonde head pokes into the front window. At first she looks puzzled then, upon recognizing Lena, she smiles. Lena exhales deeply. There’s no going back now.
She steps out of her car just as Kara opens the front door and waves. She has a front door light—a bare bulb—that illuminates her like a spotlight and draws flies and moths to her vicinity. They circle around her head like some kind of buggy halo.
Kara is wearing basketball shorts, a large t-shirt and, instead of her customary braid, her hair is loose around her shoulders. There’s a large white bandage covering a portion of her right calf.
“Howdy.” She calls when Lena starts crunching up the gravel driveway towards her. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Sorry, I should have called.” Lena bites out hastily. She holds out Kara’s folded clothes without any context or preamble. Kara takes them, her blue eyes twinking in a way that Lena’s not sure she likes.
“Well, you don’t have my number, so that would have been hard.” She says, then angles her body to clear a path for Lena to come inside. “Come on in. I’ve been holding yours hostage, too.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t—I would be imposing.”
“You couldn’t impose even if you wanted to. Come on.” Kara gestures with her head and then disappears inside herself, leaving the door open. Lena rubs her hands down the front of her pants and takes a step inside, shutting the door behind her.
The house is small but neat. There’s a kitchen that leads into a living room, and the living room is bursting at the seams with a large TV, a sectional couch, and shelves everywhere holding pictures and plants. Two doorways on the far wall lead, Lena assumes, to a bathroom and Kara’s bedroom.
Kara is nowhere to be found for a moment, and then she proudly steps out of her bedroom door with Lena’s MIT sweatshirt and sweatpants in hand. “I washed ‘em, so you don’t have to worry about my stink.” She says. Lena, famously worried about many things, is not worried about that.
Instead of handing the clothing to Lena, Kara sets the folded pile down on the kitchen counter and sticks her hands in the pockets of her shorts. Behind her, off of the living room, there’s a sliding glass door leading out on what looks to be a back yard.
“How are you feeling?” Lena asks, to break the silence. “Winn told me what happened.”
“Oh, this old thing?” Kara laughs and scuffs the floor with her injured leg. “That weed wacker has been out to get me from day one.” A pause, then. “It looks worse than it is. Alex just gets overprotective about this stuff. Typical big sister.”
“I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Thanks. Um,” Kara licks her lips and looks behind her. “Would you want to go outside and have a beer? Since you’re already here and all. It’s a nice night.”
It is, in fact, a nice night. The kind of night that you can start taking for granted in the summer. All the bugs are out and singing and it’s warm, but not hot. It could easily be made nicer by a beer on the porch with Kara. Lena agrees.
“Great!” Kara starts towards the fridge, opens it. She scratches her cheek as she peers through, face illuminated by the white light. “You like IPAs?” She asks without looking back at Lena.
“Good, because that’s all I have.”
They step out onto the back porch together. Lena takes it in. Kara’s back yard is large; not as big as her yard at the winery, but a half-acre at least. The other woman has let it grow wild in a practiced, curated sort of way. The ground is carpeted with clover and wildflower instead of grass, there’s a small plot of plant boxes growing what look to be tomatoes and other vegetables in a far corner, and ivy and vines creep up the wooden fence erected around the property. There’s also a stone path that leads down to a small clearing where Kara has built a fire pit surrounded by chairs and a bench.
It looks like a fairy tale garden. Lena is dumbstruck by it for a moment, pulled out of her thoughts when Kara scrapes a chair against the wood of the deck. She turns and realizes that she’s pulling it out for her.
They sit in silence, nursing their beers. There’s a small, round table between their chairs with an unlit citronella candle sitting on it. Kara sits slightly slouched down in her seat, one hand in her pocket and feet splayed out in front of her.
“Your yard is beautiful.” Lena says finally. Kara turns to her with a crooked smile.
“Thanks. I did my best with it.”
“I guess you don’t get tired of landscaping after you do it all day for work.”
“Nah.” Kara agrees. “I don’t really. I think it’s relaxing. Can’t believe that people pay me to do it for them, to be honest.”
“Must be nice to have found something you like doing so much.”
Lena sees that Kara is studying her again, an inscrutable expression on her face. “I guess it is. I mean, I’ve been doing it since I was…I guess, twelve years old?” Lena makes a noise of surprise. “Started out by mowing lawns, just kept going from there. By the time it was time for me to go to college, I wasn’t ready to go and Alex had just graduated from undergrad…so we just kept doing what we knew. I thought it was just going to be a few years until I was ready to go back to school, but…”
“Life takes you by surprise, I guess.”
Kara’s eyebrows twitch. She keeps her gaze fixed on Lena’s face. “It does.”
Lena clears her throat and takes a deep drink of her beer, breaking their gaze. A cool breeze rushes through, the first herald of a chilly evening to come, and rattles the clover and the wildflower. “So, twelve? When I was twelve I was still playing with dolls, not starting my future career.”
This is partially, maybe mostly, a lie. When she was twelve, Lena spent most nights under her comforter in a bedroom full of porcelain dolls that her mother had purchased for her but told her were too delicate to be played with, flashlight on, reading Ursula Le Guin books she’d stolen from the school library. Every time Lillian’s footsteps came creaking down the hallway toward her, she would flick it off and lay flat, praying that her mother didn’t choose that evening to open the door and check in on her.
“Oh, yeah, I—” Kara pauses, licking her lips. She scuffs the heel of one boot against the wood of the porch. “—I’m about to tell you something really stupid, and I need you to promise not to laugh.”
“I will do no such thing.” Lena deadpans. Kara’s lips quirk and she carries on anyway.
“I was adopted by the Danvers’ when I was eleven. My parents died in a car accident. And I just felt so…” she trails off, shaking her head a little. “Angry. And confused. And I made up this story, about a year into it, that my parents—the ones who had died—weren’t my real parents, that I was an alien that had come to earth in a comet and that they’d found me and taken me in, but that I still had a real family out there that was coming back for me. That it was just taking a while because, y’know, space.”
Lena doesn’t laugh, but she smiles. There’s a sad sweetness to child logic, and a charming way to how Kara tells her story. Her words have an undertone of good humor, or nostalgia, where others might have self-pity. It’s a bit odd but, then again, so is Kara.
“So, my adoptive mother, Eliza, started to take me out back to help her garden. Something to take my mind off of things. She had these huge planter boxes where she grew, y’know, tomatoes and stuff like that. At first I hated it, but…something about having my arms in the dirt, or helping things grow, about dealing with it when they didn’t, even when I’d tried so hard to keep something alive. It helped me deal with everything else. I didn’t need to dream about like, going back up to space. I liked earth. I like earth.”
It makes sense, in a way, that gardening could help somebody understand the world’s simultaneous bounty and complete indifference. Kara’s yard makes sense, too, as a sort of alter to that understanding.
“You’re not laughing.” Kara says.
“It wasn’t as stupid as you said.” Lena responds. The other woman smiles and then winces slightly, reaching down to scratch at her bandages. “Still hurts?”
“Itches.” Kara bites out, rubbing her fingers along the fabric. She glances at Lena out of the corner of her eye as if remembering something important. “Hey, where were you that day, anyway? We went to the door to find you but it looked like nobody was home.”
“Portland.” Lena realizes that she’s not mentioned anything about her plans to anybody, including Kara. It felt like telling somebody might jinx it. She wraps both hands around her bottle and twists. “I was meeting with an investor. For the vineyard.”
“Trying to start the place back up, right?”
“I never told you that.”
“I inferred.” Kara says, somewhat dryly. She sits back up and slides down a little in her chair. “I think it’s a great idea, for whatever it’s worth. That place has been empty for way too long.”
Lena is stricken by this easy, casual acceptance. She knows how to respond, mostly, to pushback. The withering disapproval of her mother. Jack’s quiet, charming infantilization of her plans. She has nothing to offer to somebody who simply thinks that she’s got a good idea.
“What did the investor say?” Kara asks after Lena provides no answer.
“He liked my proposal. He wants to come see the property next week.”
“Lena, hey!” Kara sits forward. “That’s awesome. Great job.”
She then reaches over, underneath the table, and places her hand on top of Lena’s where it rests on her knee. It’s meant, Lena thinks, to be a congratulatory gesture. Like knocking or slapping somebody’s shoulder, or the enthusiastic handshakes that she’d seen Jack and the other partners at his firm exchange after bringing on a big client.
Lena struggles to think of the last time she was touched by another person. One of the great reliefs of her marriage was, upon the declaration of their trial separation, Lena’s move to the pull out couch in the office. For months, she was free from her husband’s orbit, from his hand on the small of her back or his arm slung over her in sleep. Touch had come to feel like a punishment; a punishment for what, she wasn’t sure.
There had to have been other times between then and now, handshakes or brushes on the street. For the life of her, Lena can’t think of them right now. All she can think about is the feel of Kara’s palm over the top of hers, a little calloused but so comforting. The pleasure of their initial contact is eclipsed by the rapid beating of Lena’s heart and the constriction of her belly.
At least this sick feeling is something she’s familiar with. It’s as if her nervous system had received an initial signal of enjoyment and, unsure what to do, had churned it down into panic and anxiety.
Lena pulls back her hand as if burned and stands abruptly, nearly sending the chair behind her toppling over. Kara, looking abashed, stands too. There are apologies falling out of her mouth as she hastens to try and remedy the situation. “I am so sorry, I shouldn’t have touched you without—”
“No, no, it’s fine.” Now that there’s space between them, Lena finds herself more clear headed. She notices that she still has the beer in her hand and leans forward to place it down on the table. She racks her brain for something that will explain the situation and make it less mortifying for both of them. “It wasn’t you. I just…I felt a bug on me.”
“Oh.” Kara’s stance, her face, and the deliberateness with which she does not move toward Lena all tell her that the other woman isn’t quite buying it. “Yeah, sorry, there are bees all over here in the summer.”
God bless her, Lena thinks, for pretending like she believes her. Even though she’s pretty sure it’s an act, it does make Lena feel better, in a way.
“I should go.” She swallows harshly. “I have so much work to do before next week.”
“Sure, sure.” Kara nods her head twice. “I’ll walk you out.”
Kara’s house, chilled with A/C being pumped out from a window unit, is refreshing. Lena hadn’t realized that she’d been overheating on the back porch. It isn’t even that hot outside. Still, she presses a hand to her forehead and finds it startlingly damp, like she’s coming down with a fever.
From behind her, Kara reaches around to twist the knob to the front door. They don’t touch, not even nearly, but it’s as if now that Lena’s brain knows what their skin feels like together, it is filling in the gaps any time it gets a chance. She clenches her eyes shut, willing herself not to act like a fool again.
Luckily, she makes it back onto the front step. Kara stands inside the house, hands in the pockets of her shorts, looking scolded. If Lena were a different person, she might be able to reach out to her, lay a hand on her arm. Offer some sort of solid, physical, reassurance. Instead, the best she can do is smile tightly. “Thank you for the beer.”
“Any time.” Kara squirms somewhat nervously. “Oh—I almost forgot.” She disappears briefly into the house and returns with Lena’s stack of clothes. Lena takes them from her arms gently. “Get home safe, okay?”
In the car, Lena sits for a moment, just breathing. She knows she only has a minute before it will seem strange that she’s just idling in Kara’s driveway, but she’s sure if she doesn’t get herself together she’ll veer off the road and into a ditch when she tries to drive home.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees something poking out of the collar of her folded sweatshirt. It looks like a tag at first but, upon further inspection, she sees that it’s a scrap of paper. Curiously, Lena pulls it out and opens it. There’s a phone number scribbled out in sharpie and, below that, a message:
Lena—so you can let me know next time you want to come over :)
Lena crumples the paper in her fist and then, remembering that she actually wants Kara’s number, she uncrushes it, smoothing it out against her steering wheel. She stares and the phone number stares back, unblinking, unable to answer any of her questions.
The house is so frightfully silent when she returns that she briefly and hysterically considers turning around and driving back to Kara’s. It’s an old house—where are the creaks and moans when you need them to be there?
Frustrated with herself and with her house not doing its job, Lena shuts the front door hard behind her. From the living room, there’s a popping sound followed by a slam. She goes in only to find that the shutter that Kara had fixed just days before has fallen down again, hanging from one hinge, creaking back and forth. Perfect.
Lena goes upstairs and re-opens her laptop. The tab for her father’s obituary is still open, eclipsed in between at least a dozen others. She clicks over to it. At first, she just stares at the picture of Lionel. It was taken of him years before her birth, perhaps even years before he met her mother. She stares at it, unblinking, and then shuts her laptop again and goes downstairs.
There’s one bottle of wine in her house, from a local vineyard about an hour away. Lena grabs it from the back of her cupboard, along with a glass. Not a mason jar or a pint, but a proper bottom-heavy wine glass. She remembers her father sitting with her when she was fifteen years old, a bottle of merlot in his hand, showing her what to do.
The cork comes out with a pop. First, she lets it breathe. Lena roots around in one of her drawers for a pack of cigarettes. She finds them and then retreats to the front porch to smoke and give the wine privacy.
She returns twenty minutes later, a little light headed, and pours three fingers into her glass. In her memory, she can see her father swirling his wine to pick up the sediment, then bringing the glass to his mouth and nose to sniff. She remembers her fifteen year old self, so pleased to have some of his attention, mimicking him. Lena mimics him again now; swirling, sniffing, then finally taking a swallow.
Her father had loved his work. Lena is fairly certain, even now, that he’d loved his family more—but wine was a close second. He’d always been a man of few words and fairly solitary. Somehow, he’d always found a way to let her know he’d loved her.
Her mother, for instance, had spoken of college as if they were paying an outrageous sum for Lena to find a husband. She’d told her to go for something relatively inconsequential—Lannie at the club had her bachelor’s in comparative literature, Summer had hers in Russian. She’d found pursuits like engineering or business to be too masculine, too unbecoming for a woman.
But Lionel had supported her. He’d gotten her meetings with his friends who’d gone to MIT and helped her with her applications, promising her that they didn’t have to say a thing to Lillian until she was in and the deposit was down. That had to be love, right? Or something like it, something frightfully close to it.
Lena takes her glass, along with the bottle and her pack of cigarettes, out onto the porch. Is it foolish of her to think that by growing and creating the thing that her father had loved more than most anything, atom by atom, she might understand him better? Probably. Probably it’s another fiction that people create, like Kara’s family in space, to make better sense of a difficult universe.
She tips her head back and puffs out a billow of smoke. Lena supposes that, in the end, her mother had been right. She’d met Jack her first week at MIT; they’d shared an orientation group.
He hung around her like a puppy dog while she flitted around from boy to boy. Lillian had always made her feel like it was better to be dead than without a boyfriend. At 18, Lena still believed in everything she told her. So, frightened of death, and never without a boring man that wanted her attention, Lena dated.
It wasn’t as if she’d cared particularly for any of them and, if pressed now, she could probably only name three or four of them with any kind of confidence. At the time, she’d thought of it as kind of a super power, to not care like that. Where the other girls were swayed and trapped easily by things like sex, she remained indifferent. She’d always found the whole act of it fair-to-middling at best, and truly embarrassing for her partner at worst.
God, how long she’d let herself think that was a good thing. Another fiction, one that had stripped her skin from her bones until there was nothing good left on her to touch.
Lena takes another drag from her cigarette. Jack never seemed to mind. First, he didn’t mind when she dated other men. She’d finally decided to give him a chance out of convenience when they’d gotten into Harvard at the same time. At that time, he didn’t seem to mind her impassive demeanor. Where others were content to call her an ice queen and move on, he’d seemed determined to find some way to please her. To bring her alive.
It isn’t embarrassing for him, now, that he’d tried. It’s embarrassing how hard he’d failed, and how little he seemed aware that he had failed.
Lena chews on her thumbnail. She’s halfway through the bottle and well on her way to being drunk. She supposes that some people just aren’t meant to be warmed up—maybe she was capable of passion at some point in her youth, but certainly a person reached a point where that just wasn’t possible for them anymore. If that’s true, Lena had certainly far surpassed it.
She finishes her cigarette, drops it on the porch, and stomps it with her heel. Night has fallen. In the inky blackness, fireflies blink and frogs bellow. Lena drifts into her house, setting the wine bottle down in the kitchen and picking up her phone from the counter. She has two missed calls, both from Jack.
He picks up on the second ring when she calls him back. “Hey!”
“Hi.” Lena pours herself another glass. “Everything alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I just…” He clears his throat. Behind him, she can hear traffic passing, cars honking. She feels a sudden stab of nostalgia for the city. “...I got off work early tonight and just missed you, I guess.”
Lena glances at her microwave clock. It’s half past 9. She chuckles a little. “Any big plans?”
“Couple of the guys want to go to karaoke.”
Ah, karaoke. A favorite of their undergrad days. Lena remembers Jack, in the cracks of time between courtships, buying pitchers of cheap beer for the table and belting out Celine Dion with his tie loosened. That Jack, the Jack who had existed outside of trying to have sex with her or marry her, was her favorite. The promise of him, no matter how faint, had been a large part of what kept her going all these years.
Funny how things like that could get eroded over the years, like a rock being hit by the ocean. Lena is overcome, suddenly, with melancholy and the beginnings of a headache. She hasn’t had one in days. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, anything.” In the background, she hears him say thank you, and assumes that he’s just gotten into a cab.
“Did we have a good sex life?” Lena crosses one arm across her middle and leans against the counter. “Before, I mean.”
The long, uncertain pause is probably enough to answer her question. Jack only pauses like that when he’s trying to deliver news diplomatically. “Yeah, it was—of course we did.” He lies. “What kind of question is that?”
“I was just wondering.”
“I mean we—” He’s flustered. “—we had our issues, for sure. I mean you had that thing, with your—but the doctor said that was normal.” He’s talking about the fact that she couldn’t, in seven years of intimacy, get wet. Lena wants to laugh, but doesn’t. She feels a little bad for both of them. “I think we had a good life, in general.”
“You really think so?”
“Yes, Lena—I do, I miss you.” The way he says it, he must think that she’s asking out of insecurity. Lena is really just incredulous. She wonders, not for the first time, what relationship Jack had been playing out in his head for the duration of their marriage. It couldn’t have been theirs. “Are you sure you don’t want to come down here?”
“I’m positive.” Lena says. There’s a long, wounded silence on the other end of the line. Jack is becoming less and less good at acting unflappable about the whole situation.
“Alright.” He says, nearly as flatly. “I’m out front of the bar now, so I should—”
They hang up. Lena stands in the kitchen in silence for a moment. She rubs her hand, the one Kara had touched earlier in the evening, as if to massage out any remnants of the feeling it had given her. Underneath the panic, there had been something else. An electric spark, maybe.
Or maybe Lena is just delirious from being on her own for so long. She walks through the living room on her way to her bedroom and pauses in front of the broken shutter. It looks back at her accusingly.
Upstairs, Lena dresses down into a large t-shirt and underwear and, half-drunk, crawls into bed. The lights are off, the window closed, and the only sounds in the room are of her own breathing and the hum of the A/C. Thoughts and bits of conversation are rattling around in her head, preventing her from sleeping.
Without thinking, Lena slips one of her hands down the front of her body to the top of her underwear. She sighs, squeezing her eyes closed. She’d never been particularly interested in touching herself, but so much is pent up in her from the last few days that she feels like it might help.
Just as quickly as she moves her hand down, she jerks it back up, tucking it under her head. She’s being silly. Loneliness has made her feelings seem like something they’re not. She just needs to take her mind off of things, really throw her attention into getting things ready for the visit, and she’ll be fine.
She rolls on her stomach and sandwiches her right hand between her chest and the mattress, trapping it. Better safe than sorry.
Chapter 3: iii. cluster initiation
Lena hasn’t been up to the old tasting building since she’d bought the place all those months ago. Instead of driving, she decides to walk up the dirt and gravel path that winds behind her house, past the vineyard, and up a hill. Kara and Winn had just finished filling potholes and laying new earth, turning it handily from a muddy soup to a walkable, if overgrown, pathway.
The building, a newer construction than Lena’s house, has better withstood it’s empty decade. It’s one story with a quarter of it entirely overtaken by a glass sunroom for guests to sit and drink.
When she steps inside, Lena finds it dark and muggy. There’s a large, mahogany counter with a kitchen tucked behind. She has to go through a doorway to access the sun deck, something she supposes is handy to keep the main dining area from getting too hot in the summer.
The view from the deck is of the vineyard, unfurling until it’s cut off by a deep pine forest. To her surprise, there are still a few wooden chairs and tables scattered about, leftover from the last time people had sat and drank there. Lena throws her whole body weight into a chair, rolling her shoulders and sighing.
She’d been worried that the building would be an eyesore that she’d have to explain away to Tom Mooney and his people when they arrived tomorrow, but now she thinks that the view from the deck might sell them on the whole thing. In her pocket, her phone buzzes. She takes it out and sees that it’s a message from Kara.
How does it look?
Lena had texted her right before she made the hike up to the tasting room to let her know what she was doing. Another message follows the first before she can respond:
Did the road hold up ok?
Her lips twitch. She scrolls up a little bit in their conversation before she responds. Four days of texts, starting the day after they’d had a beer on the porch. Lena had messaged Kara with an innocuous question about how to take care of the violets.
Kara, as she often did, lingered. They messaged back and forth even on the days that she and Winn came to work on the yard. To anybody else, their conversation might look like an endless stream of small talk, full of how was your day’ s and the weather has been beautiful’ s. But Lena knows a facade when she sees one, and here she senses something larger lingering under the surface.
Slouching her shoulders, she bites her thumbnail and responds. It doesn’t take long for Kara to message back— send me a picture ! And Lena finds herself biting back the urge to respond come see it yourself.
She bites it back because she knows if she asks, Kara will come. She can just imagine the heavy, even crunch of the other woman’s boots coming up the gravel walkway. Kara will come, and then what? They’ll watch the sunset together? They’ll sit in that sunroom, side by side, looking out at a forest big and toothed like a mouth, and say what to each other? More small talk?
It’s the and then what that Lena stumbles over every time. These days she’s moving easily through the threshold of pleasure into frustration. The line is so vanishingly thin that she trips over to the other side with regularity. It feels like taking a bite of the most delicious fish you’ve ever eaten and then pulling a slimy bone from between your lips right before it reaches your throat.
Lena sends the picture. She leaves the tasting room then, stepping back out and onto the path. The gravel crunches under her sneaker and she looks down. She imagines Kara, stooped over and pouring it carefully onto her freshly packed sod. Kara, tensing and focusing, scraping the rocks even with a rake. Lena flexes her foot and grinds her heel into it, crunching the small rocks underneath.
Then, as if catching herself doing something silly, she shakes her head and retreats down the hill and back to the safety of her home.
Tom Mooney and a clown car of men and women in suits arrive five minutes to nine. Lena has been ready since eight. She watches out the front window, trying to remember if she’d told them to wear more comfortable clothes and they’d just ignored her, or if she’d just neglected to mention it altogether.
There are five of them in total. They look around, squinting against the sun. Tom Mooney has a clipboard with a thick stack of papers attached, and he’s already scribbling something on it. A stab of anxiety pierces Lena’s stomach. Is him already writing notes a good thing? She realizes when she starts to feel lightheaded that she’s definity had too much coffee.
She opens the door on the first knock. The suits crowd her porch like a gaggle of geese. They’re all taller than her. Lena smiles up at them pleasantly, touching the side of her head where her hair has been pulled into a slightly wayward bun. They smile back. Tom Mooney is the first to speak.
“Thank you for having us, Lena.” His voice registers with sincerity. Lena feels a little more at ease hearing it.
Lena has practiced the tour that she takes them on about a hundred times, doing endless laps around her property. First, the hardest part, to the building where they’ll make the wine. There’s equipment already there, fermenters and air locks and tubes. She answers questions about how she’ll ferment and clarify the grapes, about when she expects her first batch to be ready, about how many bottles she’ll need.
Then to the vineyard. There are people working there today, and this is by design. Seeing them prune and lay new netting completes an image of a busy, productive vineyard heading straight into harvest season. By this time, she sees that the shoes and pant legs of the group have been stained and crusted with brown. This makes her proud, strangely, like she’s taken some sort of ownership over the mud.
The tasting room is the coup de grace . Lena lingers in the background while they murmur approvingly and peer out onto the vista in front of them. She watches Tom Mooney scribble furiously. Yes, she wants to say, this is all mine, and I am going to invite people to come when I choose.
It takes three hours altogether. When they round back to the house, one of the suits squats to look at the violets lining the walk. “Who’s your landscaper?” She asks. Lena twists the skin of one hand with the other and feels her ears burn like coals.
Her name is Kara. “I’ll give you their number.”
They all talk in a circle for a while. Lena invites them in for coffee but they seem to want to stand outside which is fine by her, anyway. Once she’s answered all of their questions, there’s a moment of silence.
“Well,” Tom Mooney says, still writing on his clipboard. “I think we’ve seen all we need to see. This has been very thorough, thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Lena works her face into another smile. Her heart feels like a hummingbird held tightly in somebody’s fist.
“We should be in touch in a few weeks with our decision.”
“Take your time.” Lena watches them all squeeze back into the car. “Have a safe drive back to Portland.”
Tom Mooney is the last to get in. After everybody else has returned to the car, he turns to Lena. “I want you to know that that was very impressive.”
Lena’s breath catches in her throat and her mouth trembles a little. “Thank you.”
“No matter what happens, you should feel proud of yourself.” He pauses. “But, off the record—I think it went very well.”
As he’s folding his body into the front passenger seat, he looks back at Lena. He smiles, and gives her a thumbs up. Before she can react fully, the door is shut and the car is pulling down the driveway.
She stands there for a while after they’re gone. Tom Mooney had given her a thumbs up. The entire tour, she’d felt numb to whether or not it was going well, schooling herself into not worrying about facial expressions or note taking. But he’d given her a thumbs up, and he’d called her impressive— and he’d said it went very well.
It had, hadn’t it? It had gone well. Lena takes in a deep, excited breath and runs back toward the house, bursting into the front door and finding silence. It’s like a punch winding up and then landing square in her gut. Who is she going to tell, Jack? Her mother? They don’t even know what she’s doing out here.
Instead, Lena stands in her front room, in the greatness of her empty house. There’s one person she could tell, but Lena bites back that urge just as she had the previous evening. These compulsions, the more she has them, feel like little admissions of guilt.
Still, Lena feels big. She feels able. This house is her lonely house. The grapes outside are her grapes, the mud is her mud. She turns a little and sees the broken shutter to her left, hanging sadly off one hinge.
Without thinking, Lena gets on her hands and knees beneath it and goes searching for the screw. She finds it halfway underneath the couch and retrieves it. She has no screwdriver, so she uses her fingers to clumsily slot it into its place and screw it as tight as she can get it. It still hangs a little lopsided, but that doesn’t matter.
Lena then moves quickly into the adjacent room where she’d condemned Jack’s bouquet to an early grave all those weeks ago. She hasn’t gone in since, and the fermented sweet smell of rotting flowers hits her as soon as she walks in. Lena grabs the whole bunch of them out of the vase with two bare fists and takes them, dripping water and slime, through the house and into the kitchen.
She smashes them into the trash can. Realizing the smell has followed them, permeating the whole house with the stench of too-soft fruit, she picks up the entire trash can and walks out, onto the porch and around the side of the house to where she keeps the smaller bins. There, she throws the smaller one into the larger one, dusting her hands after.
Only now does Lena realize that she’s panting with the exertion of it all. And that she has no more kitchen trash can. Now she really is going to have to properly grocery shop—Lena supposes that revelation was always coming. A girl could only survive on brie cheese and take out for so many weeks.
She slumps onto the steps of her deck with a huff. Pulling out her phone, she whips off a text to Kara— where are grocery stores that also have trash cans?
The other woman responds instantaneously. You still haven’t gone shopping?!?!?!
Lena laughs and leans against the railing.
The next morning, Lena’s eyes fly open before her alarm clock. She sits up like a shot, at first feeling like she’s late for something, then realizing that it’s barely 9 AM.
In the bathroom, she looks in the mirror and sees sheet marks grooved into the skin of her cheek. She’d actually slept well last night. She touches them with the tips of her fingers. How odd.
Kara and Winn’s truck is just crunching up the driveway by the time she’s made it to the kitchen to start her coffee. They’re coming earlier and earlier to beat the heat now that it’s the middle of June.
Lena hears the truck doors open and slam, Kara’s laughter, the sound of equipment hitting the earth with a solid thud. She watches the grounds steep in front of her and decides, just in that moment, that she is going to take the day off. Doesn’t she deserve it, after all?
She pushes the plunger down with ferocity. Then, she goes upstairs to change. Lena is going to spend her morning off on the front porch.
The outfit she decides on is a tank top and billowy linen shorts. Finding this perfect for the weather but mildly indecent for company, she throws on a colorful silk robe that hits just above her knee.
Lena appraises herself in the mirror. Her sunglasses are perched on the top of her head, her hair thrown together in a messy bun. She looks good, she thinks, and a voice in her head asks her good for who? before she takes it by the neck and sticks its head underwater, silencing it.
She glances down at her bare feet. Her nails are unpolished, filed down and rounded like little pebbles. Lena hasn’t painted them in a while, despite her copious amounts of free time as a stay-at-home wife. She hadn’t really been interested in it since she was a girl.
During her brief but illustrious tenure at a boarding school just outside the city, painting toenails had been something of a weekly ritual among the girls. While your fingers had to be bare and well-kempt, a few of the more liberal house mistresses allowed students to paint their toes as long as they wore close-toed shoes.
Lena and her classmates had taken advantage of this small liberty with the kind of vigor only possessed by 12 year old girls. They would cram three or four sitting on the edge of a twin bed, bare shoulders bumping and rubbing, legs stretched out in front of them or knees tucked under their chins, applying varnish and then flexing their toes for the approval of the others. The thrill of that first real act of homosocial intimacy was always palpable in the room—they were like apes, grooming and chattering and preening.
The other girls always asked Lena to do theirs after she was done with her own. She had the steadiest hands, as evidenced by her handwriting. All too happy, she would crouch, holding a calf or an ankle and biting a lip in concentration. The girl above her would watch, propping herself up with hands on the edge of the mattress and humming in approval when Lena would make a perfect swipe of red or purple across the nail.
Now, Lena wonders when exactly it was that she’d gotten so lonely. After a certain point, she supposes, she’d been so focused on elbowing her way through two male-dominated degree programs and an ill-fated marriage that she’d forgotten the heady thrill of those first moments. How she’d felt when she was asked for especially, when the girl above her would compliment her hair or her eyes. The sense of shared secrecy when you’d sit side by side with a girl from your floor in English, your saddle shoes nearly touching.
If there was ever a time that desire, real desire, felt in reach for Lena, it was then. Of course, she’d had to grow out of it. There was no opportunity for her to linger in that space of girlish happiness. It would have been silly.
She goes into the bathroom now and opens the medicine cabinet, sticking a hand in and rattling around the sundries. The only bottle of nail polish is a deep red that Lillian would have called whoreish, likely a white elephant gift or hand-me-down from another Union League wife that she’d swept into a box in her haste to leave Manhattan.
Lena sits on the toilet, knee under her chin, and paints quickly and methodically. She fans the paint with her hand. The window beside her sink is open and letting in the sound of birds and a leaf-rattling breeze. She tilts her head back for a moment and just listens.
Downstairs, she pours herself a cup of now lukewarm coffee and retrieves her cigarettes and a pack of cards from a drawer.
The wood of the deck is hot underneath her feet, even with the overhang protecting it from the sun. Kara and Winn are in the front yard, seemingly discussing a mulch layer that sits in between them. Kara has her back turned to Lena, allowing Lena the opportunity to observe her while she sits at the patio table and sets up for a game of solitaire.
She’d done this often in New York. When her father was gone upstate and there was no-one to buffer her and Lillian, when she was back at day school on the Upper West Side, she’d creep out onto the fire escape outside her window with cigarettes and a deck of cards. Lena shuffles and lights a cigarette, all the while keeping an eye on Kara.
Winn notices her first and turns instantly, vibrantly red. Even a yard away, Lena can tell that the color has reached the tip of his ears. Seeming to notice her companion’s fluster, Kara turns back toward the deck.
Lena sees, from her vantage point, the exact moment that Kara registers what’s in front of her. The other woman stutters almost like a glitch on film, like if she was holding something in her arms she would have dropped it. They both stare for a moment and Lena raises her hand in a wave, wiggling her fingers. Winn and Kara both wave back, looking dumbstruck, and then turn back toward each other.
Laying out her cards, Lena tries to forget about whether or not Kara is watching her. It doesn’t really matter, does it? That’s not why she’s out here. She’s on the porch for fresh air and sunlight.
But every time she looks up from laying cards on the table, Kara’s eyes are on her. Her coveralls are down around her waist again and she’s covered in sweat from the heat of the morning. She’s wearing a tank top today, not a t-shirt, and there are smears of dirt on her shoulders and biceps.
Lena shakes her head as if trying to physically disperse the image from her mind. She turns back to her game. She’s losing. The cigarette smolders in an ashtray and she picks it up, taking a deep drag while considering the spread in front of her. Lena slips so deep into concentration that she doesn’t notice the crunch of boots approaching the deck.
“Hey.” Kara is standing in front of her on the other side of the deck railing. She’s close enough now that Lena can see the sheen of sweat all over her skin, something that would have made her nervous yesterday. Today, she drinks from it like a cool glass of water.
The deck railing comes up to Kara’s shoulders. She folds her arms on top of it, resting her chin on her hands. “What’re you playing?”
“Solitaire.” Lena answers simply. She leans back in her chair, throwing the hand holding her cigarette across the back. Even though she’s wearing shorts, she keeps her knees pressed together.
Instead of answering, Kara openly stares. Suddenly, Lena can see the other woman’s desire as if she’s lain it at Lena’s feet like a bolt of cloth.
Lena doesn’t spread her legs, but she lets her knees fall open the slightest bit. Kara’s eyes fall to them as if orchestrated by Lena’s small movement. “Kara?” Lena asks it casually. This is well-trodden territory for her. She used to do it all the time with Jack, when they were first dating: do something simple that he’d misunderstood as flirting. She’d delighted in that misunderstanding, in the power it gave her. Him flustered and her, unaffected.
Kara’s eyes snap up to her eyes and she clears her throat. “Yeah?”
“Do you need something?”
She anticipates it, that feeling of power. Even begins to feel it, when she sees Kara go red and fiddle with the frames of her glasses. But Kara doesn’t give herself into it naively in the way that Jack did. Makes sense, Lena supposes. She’s too smart. Instead, she clears her throat and cobbles together a borderline pitiful excuse. “Can I have a glass of water?”
“Sure.” Lena says, amused. She takes a last drag of her cigarette, pulling it down to its filter, and then snuffs it out in the ashtray before standing. “Don’t let my cards blow away, okay?”
“Alright.” Kara nods sharply, but she’s not looking at the cards.
Lena returns a moment later with a tall mason jar of water with ice, handing it over before settling back down in her chair. Kara takes a couple sips still standing by the railing before setting it, still two-thirds full, on the deck.
“Not thirsty after all?” Lena drawls, cupping her chin in her hand. Instead of bumbling, Kara smiles. She presses deeper into the railing, then shakes her head playfully without saying anything. “Shouldn’t you be helping Winn?”
“Seemed like you were having more fun over here.”
This exchange has Lena thrown off kilter. She blinks her eyes several times rapidly and feels a sudden empathy for Jack.
Kara is still staring at her. Tracking her eyes, Lena follows them on their study of her face, her shoulders. Then downward to where her robe has slipped at her chest, revealing an expanse of creamy skin and the low edge of her tank top. This kind of attention from other people had always made her feel disgusting. The earnestness of desire, of not being able to help yourself from fixating on the curve of somebody’s breast. Lena found it embarrassing.
But Kara’s hungry gaze does something different. Lena finds herself, against all common sense, wanting to feed into it. Let your robe slip a little further, a small voice in her head instructs. Lena clutches it together instead, cutting off Kara’s view and causing the other woman’s eyes to snap back up.
Kara picks up the mason jar and takes a few more gulps of water, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Sorry, uh, Alex wanted to let you know—we’ve got a week left here, maybe a week and a half? You’re just going to have to do a final walk through with us when we’re finished.”
Lena tilts her head, squinting. She’d known in an academic sense that they wouldn’t be working here for the entire summer, but the thought of it ending makes a hole open in her stomach. It will really just be her in the house—no chattering from the yard, no lawn mower sounds. No Kara. “What will you guys do after?”
Kara shrugs. “Take a week off, then we have a couple jobs in Portland.”
“Mmhm. We’ll probably be there for about a month or so.” Kara’s expression is somewhat opaque. She has her hands on her hips. “Is that alright?”
For a moment, Lena thinks Kara is asking her permission to live in Portland for a month. She wants to say no. Then, she realizes she’s asking about the timeline for their work on Lena’s property. “Yes, of course.”
“Kara!” Winn is standing in the background, face pinched. He throws his arms up in a what gives? Motion. This time, Kara does turn pink. She flashes a puckish smile back at Lena.
“Thanks for the water.” She says, already beginning to jog off and back to work. “Good luck with your game!”
All Lena can do is watch her go.
Lena goes back inside after losing three games of solitaire and getting a faint sunburn on the top of her shoulders. She scatters her cards and cigarettes haphazardly across the kitchen counter and leaves her mug in the sink and proceeds to stand for a moment, thinking.
That feeling, the one that’s been blossoming in her stomach since she’d taken her bath, has whipped itself up into a boil. She’d thought that fresh air would help—it hadn’t. She’d thought that her success with the investors would help—if anything, it had worsened her condition.
In New York City, there had always been such a tightness to her. Lena always had to be on her guard against something; Jack’s attention, or a petty swipe from a jealous acquaintance, a call from her mother. There was always so much external to herself to keep her busy. How truly mind-numbingly time consuming it had been to run a household, even a small one. Lena had often felt, instead of a woman, like a scarecrow made out of grocery lists and pleasantries and the perfect tennis stroke. A cup for her husband to pour his affection in, albeit a small one. A thimble, perhaps.
Here, there’s no such small-bore. It’s just Lena and her many thoughts and the house there to hold them both.
The thing is: the more Lena thinks, the more a stranger herself she becomes. She drifts up the stairs into her bedroom though it’s scarcely 1 PM. She’s going to take a nap—it is her day off, after all, isn’t it?
Her robe falls to the floor, followed by her shorts. She crawls on top of the duvet, feeling the scratchy, not quite softened-up fabric against her knees and hands. She flops onto her back, folding her hands loosely over the patch of skin on her lower stomach exposed by her shirt and panties.
Lena’s mind drifts a little, empty and full all at once. Three fingers slip under her waistband and linger there, scratching gently against her public hair. Her head rolls and she looks at the adjacent wall. She takes a deep breath.
Fuck it. It’s her day off. She slips her whole hand into her panties and presses the heel with some force into her clit. A soft breath passes through her lips. It feels— good, but maybe not as good as she’d expected it to.
Lena sits up, retrieves her laptop. She settles with it on her bed and navigates into a private window (as if there’s anybody to see what she’s doing) before quickly typing in the name of the website. The page loads quickly, full of little squares featuring people in obscene positions and ads assuring that there’s a 50 year old in her area with a dead husband who wants to meet her.
This on it’s own almost makes her quit the entire venture altogether. But Lena is perseverant. Her mouse hovers over the search bar for a moment. She bites her lip and rubs her ankles together, then she types in the word lesbian and clicks the magnifying glass.
A lifetime ago, at the tennis club, the wives of Jack’s coworkers used to tell her about only watching lesbian porn. They’d have three martinis at two in the afternoon on a hot September day and start telling secrets. That’s why she thinks about it, before anything else.
Those were Lena’s favorite conversations, because they’d felt so real. There was no pretense or doublespeak. It was just Lyddie Watson sitting in front of her in an impeccably pressed, recently bleached white skirt and polo, legs stretched out in front of her and shoes kicked off, telling her that lesbian porn was the only thing that could get her off.
“It’s less aggressive.” Lyddie’d said, leaning in with a conspiratorial tilt. As if to say, you know how it is. And Lena would nod as if she did know how it was. She’d always been the biggest liar of all the wives in New York City, anyway, if only because she was aware enough of how unhappy she was to fib about it.
Now, Lena’s eyes scan across rows of thumbnail pictures and she feels nervous. She feels like there are stakes here, somehow. Like if she were to watch something and like it, it would be different than Lyddie Watson.
Lena sits up, comforter under her bare ass, her legs slightly bowed and ankles crossed, and the laptop beside her. She swivels the mouse around at random as if daring herself, or as if not really choosing a video will make her less culpable in whatever comes of it. She closes her eyes and clicks, and then opens them to see what she’s picked.
On the screen, two women kiss open mouthed and messy in a somewhat grotesque imitation of intimacy. Lena squints. They’re having sex in the most technical sense of the word, writhing and licking and grinding, but nothing that’s immediately recognizable to Lena as something somebody would actually enjoy.
She tilts her head a little and then puffs out a little laugh. This isn’t sexy, it’s funny—maybe a little sad. This realization feels like a little pressure has been released from Lena’s stomach, as if from a valve being turned. She watches for another minute or so, just basking in her own distaste. Then she clicks the back button and scans the offerings with more confidence.
Looking back on it, Lena might not be able to directly answer the question of why she keeps looking. Only that maybe she’d wanted to be like Lyddie; so at ease with her curiosity that it didn’t matter. She wanted to go back to New York and not fake that nod of conspiratorial knowing.
There’s a thumbnail at the bottom of the page that catches Lena’s attention. While all of the others looked professionally produced, this one seems to have been filmed in somebody’s actual bedroom. She clicks on it without thinking and the video begins to play.
A woman lays on a pedestrian looking bed, completely naked. Her head is at the base, arms stretched out and dangling over the end, and her feet dawdle against the pillows and headboard. Even with the poor video quality—it looks like it’s being filmed on a phone camera—Lena can see that she’s beautiful. She’s talking to somebody off screen and laughing, clearly at ease.
The camera shakes a little, and then another woman steps in front of it. She’s in boxer briefs and a sports bra and—oh, she’s blonde. Her hair cascades over one shoulder as she frames herself in the shot. Lena’s breath catches in her throat. It’s not that it looks like Kara—it doesn’t. But Kara is the first person she thinks of when she sees the woman.
The blonde proceeds to crawl on top of her partner, moving up her body until they meet in a passionate kiss. The woman on the bed wraps her whole body around the blonde, hands splayed at her shoulder blades and ankles stroking at her calves, and lets out a small whimper that’s barely audible to the camera. Lena squims, but she can’t click away.
The sports bra is shed, tossed somewhere off camera. The blonde woman’s partner—her lover, her girlfriend?—stoops her head somewhat to capture a nipple in her mouth. Lena is as rapt as if somebody had a gun to the back of her head; she feels just as nervous and just as compelled to watch. The blonde’s hand slips lower, disappearing into the divot between their bodies, and—
Lena slams the laptop shut. She stands up, a slight tremble in her hands, and runs her fingers through her hair. Her fugue state melts away piece by piece and sounds and smells filter back into the room as if being strained through a cheesecloth. Kara’s laughter, a lawnmower. Then, her eyes catch on something on the duvet, right in the place where she’d been sitting.
Once, Jack had taken her to the MOMA. It wasn’t her first time, but it was the first and only time he’d ever gone with her. To Lena, looking at art felt somewhat like sticking your tongue into a cut in your cheek. It hurt her for reasons she couldn’t quite identify and she enjoyed the pain for the same unquantifiable reasons.
Jack was less contemplative. He stood in front of a floor to ceiling painting, suit jacket thrown over his shoulder, and scoffed. This sort of wholesale flippancy about all things that evaded his understanding was something that had always bothered her about her husband.
“Did it call you a name?” She’d drawled. He rolled his eyes.
“I just don’t get it.” He said, eyes drifting up toward the ceiling. “What’s the point if it’s not even beautiful?”
Lena had joined him in staring. The marriage of hurt and intrigue in her stomach trembled like a firmly set jelly. “It’s not about how it looks.” She’d said. “It’s about how it makes you feel.”
Now, Lena stares at the rather large wet spot she’d left on her duvet cover. How does it make me feel?
She settles on sick. And a little excited. She briefly considers tearing the duvet cover off and taking it down for a wash immediately before remembering that there’s nobody around to see it. She’s not a schoolgirl, every desire and bodily function a secret to be kept under lock and key. She’s not even anybody’s wife anymore. The site visit had gone well. It’s her day off.
Lena decides she’s going to keep the stain.
What had Kara said? A week-or-a-week-and-a-half? Whatever it was, it had inspired in Lena an angst she hadn’t felt in years. She has other things to do, of course, that are unrelated to mooning over the end of the landscaping project in her yard. Things like waiting, tearing at her cuticles, for an email from Tom Mooney, or trying to hire a larger outfit to harvest the grapes in October. Things like getting calls from her mother and from Jack.
Things like not returning those calls. Things like getting texts from Kara—those awful, mundane texts. Things like sitting on her porch, smoking and playing solitaire. Losing to herself.
Kara hasn’t come back over and they haven’t gone out together again. It feels like an invisible boundary has been erected between them that they can only circumvent by sending messages to each other. That ill-fated touch had uncovered something destabilizing.
Lena knows, somewhere in the back of her brain, that if she’s going to see Kara again she needs to be the one to ask. Every day of that week-or-week-and-a-half she considers it, and every day she dispels the idea. Like the day she’d visited the tasting room, she wonders to what end she would ask.
If Lena were still a good liar, she would tell herself it’s because she wants to be friends with Kara. But she’s not so sure she is a good liar—not anymore.
But then, the day arrives. Lena knows it’s the day because Alex comes with Winn and Kara to the job site in the afternoon, looking as pinched as usual. They walk around and let Winn and Kara describe the various changes they’ve made and how to care for them. Lena is barely listening. She’s mostly watching Kara and her obvious delight at describing her own work.
In the end, she signs some paperwork in duplicate and triplicate. She has a new yard, tidy and paid for by her husband. Kara is leaving in a week.
“Hey!” All three of them turn around from where they’re making their way back to the truck when Lena calls out. “Uh, can I talk to Kara for a second?”
Kara shrugs and comes back in a slight half-jog. She’s smiling brilliantly. “What’s up, boss?”
“I was just wondering—” Lena licks her lips. “Do you want to stay?”
“Stay?” Kara quirks an eyebrow, but she’s still smiling. Lena imagines this must be a good sign.
“Yeah. To celebrate…” She gestures broadly to the finished yard. “...all this. You guys being done. I could open a bottle of wine—”
“Yes.” Kara says quickly, cutting Lena off. She pinkens and clears her throat. “Yes, yeah. That sounds really nice. Just let me—”
Lena watches her go back to Alex and Winn and say something that she can’t hear. Alex’s face twists into an expression of confusion and her eyes flick from Kara to Lena before she shrugs and shakes her head.
It’s not really an appropriate hour for drinking wine, being barely four-thirty, but they do it anyway. Kara, ever-chivalrous, repeats the routine her and Winn had performed the first time they’d come into Lena’s home. She kicks the nonexistent dirt from her boots and washes her hands in the bathroom sink though she’d done no work that day. Old habits, Lena supposes.
At first, it’s a little awkward. Kara carries a sense of unsureness that certainly hadn’t been there before. Even when she was flirting with her out on the deck last week—and Lena is sure she had been flirting—she seemed confident, at ease with herself. Now, Kara is mousy. She says thank you quietly when Lena pours her a glass of red and takes a small, flustered sip.
They sit at the counter talking for a long time. Lena is suddenly desperate to get at the pith of what’s going on between them. What was it that had changed Kara from the easy talking woman who’d sat across from her at a hot-pot restaurant to this soft-spoken, self-conscious creature?
“You seem quiet today.” Lena muses. She raps her knuckles a couple times on the countertop. “You really don’t have to stay very long if—”
“No, no, it’s not that.” Kara interjects quickly. “I’m just—feeling in my head today, I guess.”
“About anything in particular?”
Kara is suddenly very interested in her boots. She reaches down to swipe at a non-existent smudge with her thumb. “We’re friends, right?”
Lena hadn’t expected this. Her brain blanks out for a moment before she realizes that it’s a question that demands a prompt response to avoid hurt feelings. “Do you think so?”
Kara looks up, her eyes full of mirth. “Do you ever give anybody a straight answer?” It sounds fond coming out of her mouth. Fond enough that instead of feeling struck, Lena preens a little, like it’s a compliment.
“I try to avoid it when I can.” A pause. “Yes, I think we’re friends. If you want to be.”
The small breath Kara sucks in seems, impossibly, to take all of the air out of the room. “I gotta say, this is the first time anybody I worked for has ever tried to befriend me.”
It’s amusing to Lena that Kara isn’t answering her implicit question, either. It doesn’t make her feel self conscious. She’s sure Kara wants something from her; whether it’s something she’s willing to give is another question. “You don’t seem to be complaining.”
Kara’s face crinkles into a genuine smile. Despite herself, Lena smiles back. She’s never really been somebody who gives affection easily, not even the small tokens like smiles. She is, after all, Lillian Luthor’s daughter. But Kara draws it out of her like a magician pulling scarves from a hat, multicolored and seemingly endless, new and surprising even to Lena.
“I want to see the tasting room.” Kara says. “Can we go?”
They take a bottle of wine with them. It’s been a couple hours, so Lena has cultivated a fine little buzz. Kara, who has to drive home, seems sober. She laughs a little when Lena fumbles with the keys in the lock before finally getting the door open.
They waste very little time in the main dining area. Lena knows immediately that she’s going to take Kara into the sun room—the coup de grace, as she’d thought of it when Tom Mooney and the others came through a lifetime ago .
Still, she can’t resist a little showmanship. “In here we’ll have…mm, six or seven high tops. That counter will be the tasting counter, we’ll have spit buckets and bottles for sale…”
“Uh-huh.” Kara peers around. “What about the kitchen?”
“Maybe in a while. But for now, just wine.” Lena moves to the door to the sunroom and opens it, gesturing for Kara to walk through.
She has exactly the kind of reaction that Lena would have hoped for. Kara stands in the glass-paneled space, hands in her pockets, and whistles low. “Lena, this is awesome.”
“Isn’t it? Sit down.” Kara sits obediently. Lena tries to ignore the little tug it evokes in her stomach. “Imagine, the sun’s going down, you’re here on a date—”
“Who’s my date?” Kara is leaning forward indulgently, elbows on her knees, hands clasped.
“Whoever you want. Imagine somebody.”
“Who are you imagining?”
Kara’s eyes sparkle. “Mind your own business.”
“Fine.” Lena sniffs a little theatrically, and Kara laughs. “You’re here with your date—” She pauses, suddenly insatiably curious, then suddenly aware that she can use this situation to prise some much needed information from Kara. “—George Clooney?”
Kara laughs, big and broad enough to fill the whole sun room. “George Clooney? Am I fifty?”
Her lips are twitching. There’s the briefest half-beat of silence. “Men aren’t really my type. Will that be a problem at Chateau Lena?”
This is meant to be a joke, Lena is sure, at least partially. But underneath that, Lena thinks that Kara might be trying to prise something out of Lena, too. She has some flippant, witty answer teed up at the tip of her tongue.
Instead, she sinks into a chair across from Kara and simply says: “No. No, it’s not a problem.”
They spend a moment simply appraising each other. Then, Kara clears her throat, breaking the moment in half. “So, I’m here with my date—not George Clooney, not Tom Holland—”
“Right, and the sun is going down.” They both glance out onto the horizon. It’s barely six-thirty and the sun still sits high in the sky. “You’re using your imagination, remember?”
“And you’re enjoying a glass of wine.” Lena looks to the bottle she’s holding in her hands and blinks uselessly. “We forgot glasses.”
“That’s alright.” Kara reaches for it and takes a long swig, straight from the bottle, before handing it back to Lena, who does the same. “Tastes the same.”
“My father would be rolling in his grave.” Lena pauses. “Wouldn’t you want to come here, for that?”
They sit together in silence, trading swigs from the bottle. The sunroom is hot, but Lena has left the door open and a window cracked to allow for a cross breeze. Every time it passes through, it tickles the hair stuck to Kara’s temples, making it flutter and then rest. “Can I ask you a question?” Kara says, finally. She looks at Lena head on. “A real one.”
“Are you going to give me a real answer?”
A pause. “Depends on the question.”
“No, come on.” Kara shifts in her seat and angles her body toward Lena. Like this, there’s very little space between them. A little spark races up and down Lena’s sternum. “You said we’re friends, right?”
“But I don’t know anything about you.” This is true, even Lena has to admit. But Kara isn’t special in that regard—who does know anything about Lena, really? Her whole personal life is a web of secrets and half-truths so thick that she’s not even sure she can untangle them.
“Alright.” She concedes. “What’s your question?”
“What’s going on between you and your husband?”
Lena exhales. She probably could have seen that one coming from a mile away. She considers what to say and realizes that none of her options include actually lying. Funny, considering she’s never kept a promise to tell the truth when it was inconvenient to her before. “I want to get a divorce.” She says. “It’s just about convincing him.”
“So you’re not…” Kara appears to be choosing her words carefully. “...actively getting a divorce?”
“No.” Lena says, unsure as to why she’s so afraid that saying it will hurt Kara’s feelings. “But it’s not—it’s not because I don’t want one. Our relationship isn’t…” She licks her lips. “Jack is obtuse. And sensitive. He’s still getting used to the idea.”
“You sound pretty decided on it.”
“I am.” Lena laughs, tilting her head back on her chair. “I remember when I first thought about it. I was vacuuming the rug in our living room and it just…” She waves a hand in front of her. “...passed through my brain, that thought. I want a divorce. I can leave him if I want to. And I’ve never really been a person who feels sure about things, you know? Stuff doesn’t just make me feel good. But that, that thought—that I could just do it. Jesus, I felt amazing.”
When she looks up, Kara is staring at her, hard. The other woman doesn’t say anything. Instead, she slowly, deliberately places her hand on top of the table between them, palm up. Lena stares at it for only a moment before realizing what Kara is asking.
Cautiously, Lena lifts her hand and slides it into Kara’s waiting palm. Without the element of surprise, the uncomfortable anxiety isn’t there. It’s just the warm, syrupy feeling, melting down from her arm, to her chest, to her stomach.
When Lena was in high school biology class, each student had received a flip book to study anatomy with. It was shaped like a hand-held notepad, the kind with a cover that flipped back to reveal pages, but a little bigger. The back had been a cardboard piece with a labeled skeleton. The pages were transparencies that you could lay over the skeleton, revealing another layer of anatomy—veins, guts.
She feels now like she is the skeleton and Kara is one-by-one laying those transparencies over her. That she is carefully putting in place the intricate highways of Lena’s veins and arteries, the assorted viscera and sweetbreads between. The final transparencies were the things that made a person look human; hair and nails, skin.
Lena wonders what it will feel like when Kara finally gets to those. When she drapes Lena’s skin over the rest of her with careful, unhurried consideration.
When Lena snaps back into reality, she sees that she’s given Kara her left hand. The one with the ostentatious diamond sitting on the fourth finger. It sits between them as if Lena had pressed a knife into Kara’s palm.
Kara is the one to withdraw her touch this time. It isn’t abrupt and unkind like when Lena had jerked away on her back porch. It’s slow and melancholy feeling. “I hope you get it figured out, Lena. I hope you get what you want.”
“I hope so too.” Lena says dumbly, the feeling of their touch still ringing in her like a bell.
“I should go.” Kara stands and brushes her palms against the bottom of her coveralls. Lena stands too, mirroring her. “If I stay much longer, I’ll have too much wine.”
Later, Lena watches Kara’s truck rattle down the driveway and disappear. Dusk is settling in properly over her beautiful yard. She stands on her front porch for a little while, considering it.
They really had done an amazing job. Jack had picked well. Lena punches out a little laugh. It’s a little funny, isn’t it? She’s just not sure she knows the punchline yet.
Tom Mooney calls her the next morning while Lena is in the kitchen making toast. She lets it go for several rings, partially out of nerves, partially out of a desire not to seem overeager.
“Hi, Lena.” He says when she picks up, before she’s had an opportunity to greet him. “How is everything out there?”
“Fantastic.” Lena says, clearing her throat. She drags the tip of her butter knife over the surface of the bread, listening to the dry scrape. “How is—how are—”
“Good.” Tom says quickly. “Everybody was very impressed by the site visit, like I said.” A pause. “It’s just one thing—”
Lena’s stomach plummets into her feet. She feels faintly dizzy, and then a little silly. “Mm?”
“Remember that day we met, you said you didn’t have much of a palate for wine—I said I wasn’t going to hold it against you, and I’m not. I wanted your work to speak for itself.” There’s the sound of shuffling papers on the other end of the line. “But the others—I think they’d all feel a little more comfortable making the decision to invest if you had somebody else on board with you. Like a somme. Somebody with experience in the industry.”
“Oh.” Taking the knife, Lena slices it through the middle of the bread with a fierce crunch. She feels so silly—how excited she’d been! She’s sure that this is all leading up to a delicate no, or come back to us in three years.
“Listen, I know this isn’t something you want to hear. But speaking off the record—I really like you. I’d like to see this succeed.”
“I understand, Mr. Mooney.” Lena tips the plate of bread into the trash. “I really appreciate you taking the time to call and explain—”
“Wait, wait—I think we may be misunderstanding each other.” Tom Mooney says. “I know somebody.”
“Her name is Sam Arias. We’ve invested in a few of her projects over the past couple years. She’s a somme and a buyer. One of the best in the northeast.” Stupidly, Lena can think of nothing else to say. “She’s usually in the city but she’s at her summer home in Kennebunkport right now. I talked to her a few days ago and she seemed interested in meeting with you.”
“Listen, Tom, this is so kind, but—when I started this project, I sort of thought I’d be doing it on my own. As my own thing.” Coming out of her mouth, the protest seems childish.
“Lena, I think this could be really successful.” His voice is patient but insistent. “I think you’ve got all the right stuff to make this happen for yourself. If you had somebody like Sam on board, it would be a definite yes from the committee. I’m sure of it.” It feels like a more fatherly way of saying don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. “I hope you’ll at least take her number.”
Lena takes the number. She scribbles the name Sam Arias in bold print across the back of an old receipt, followed by the digits.
Just a week ago, she’d been reveling in her singularity in the world, wild amongst the grapes and the sod. Now she sits defeated in her kitchen, about to call a woman she doesn’t know to set up a meeting and possibly grovel for partnership. Lena fingers the paper. She pinches her eyes closed.
I wish dad were here, she thinks, not for the first time. He would tell her how to feel about this—humiliated or rightfully humbled or both. He’d tell her whether or not to invest in Tom Mooney’s paternal encouragement.
Maybe she’d even be able to tell him about Kara. Probably not. Although he probably knows, now, in the way that the dead know everything. Lena finds herself feeling bizarrely jealous at the thought. Could he see the end of all this? Had he already?
Yes, she decides. Her father was always in the habit of skipping to the end of books and reading about the last scenes in movies, a compulsion that Lena had shared, and something that had driven Lillian to the brink of madness. If it was possible for him to know the ending, he certainly would have seen it.
“I hope it’s good.” She says out loud without a hint of self consciousness. Then, she smooths out the paper against the counter and dials Sam Arias’s number.
Chapter 4: iv. fruit set
in celebration of the finish line nearing, have a song from my writing playlist for this story
Everybody born in New York City is born with the gene for watching. Lena’s mother certainly had; she’d watched with an acuteness and severity that Lena had never seen matched, not even in herself. When she was a schoolgirl on breaks she’d been made to suffer through hours long lunches, either in the high-ceilinged dining area of a private club or on a sweltering West Village sidewalk, just so Lillian could see and be seen.
Being seen was almost as important as seeing. Lena was subjected to uncomfortable dresses, tights, bows in her hair, braces to straighten her teeth, bracelets and earrings. Scuffing a black patent shoe against concrete was a sin punishable by days of silent treatment. Sometimes she did it just for that—to get a little peace and quiet in their overlarge apartment.
Nobody could make a cocktail and a garden salad last longer than Lillian Luthor. She’d flag down every acquaintance who passed by, leave Lena alone at the table to flit around and chat, then return with a huff and say something like “Sandie got a little fat, don’t you think?” light a cigarette, and press her dark hair back from her face.
Lena’d gotten both of those things from her mother. Her hair, and the watching, though she never really grew to be quite as mean. It had seemed a few times in her life like she might. But that tree never quite bore fruit.
So, when Sam Arias rolls her Range Rover up into Lena’s driveway, she’s already sitting at the living room window peeking through. Lena wants the opportunity and power of being the seer as opposed to the seen, and what she sees is this: Sam steps out, a delicate figure in opposition to the largeness of the car. She’s wearing linen chinos and a short cropped blouse and shoes that are entirely inappropriate for a tour of a vineyard.
Lena sees the heel of one squelch into the mud and rolls her eyes. Like the investors from the city, she’s entirely unprepared. What had Tom Mooney said about her—that she was a buyer? A somme? Lena guesses from her appearance that she hadn’t had much experience getting her hands dirty in anything else.
She watches as Sam lifts her heel, looks at it, then pulls open the back passenger side door. She ruffles around for a moment and Lena struggles to make out what she’s doing until it becomes clear that she’s sitting and exchanging her footwear for a pair of large, chunky Wellington boots.
They look silly with her pants tucked in, but she walks up to her front door like she hasn’t noticed. Lena is so transfixed by how instantly she’d begun to like Sam Arias just from watching her pull on a pair of boots that she has to scramble from her perch on the couch when the knock on her front door comes.
Sam is leaning on the doorframe when she opens it, arms crossed, a smile worn deeply into her face. “Scorcher out there today, huh?”
Lena blinks, surprised by the introduction. “The house is air conditioned.” She says, and steps aside with an arm open to let the other woman step in. She does, and like Kara, she doesn’t try to hide the way her gaze slides over the furniture and decor in Lena’s living room. “I like your boots.”
Sam lifts one and looks at it as if she’d forgotten she was wearing it. “Thanks. My daughter picked them out for me. Never know when you’re gonna need ‘em out here.” She follows with her eyes as Lena moves into the kitchen, pouring two cups of iced coffee and setting them out on the counter. “I’m Sam, by the way.”
“No thanks. Black and bitter is fine.” Sam smiles, drifts into the kitchen, and takes the coffee. It’s been so long since Lena has had somebody in her house that wasn’t being paid to be there that she loses herself to awkwardness for a moment. She tries to hide it behind a sip of her coffee.
“So, you have a daughter?”
“Mmm.” Sam nods her head. “Ruby. She’s 13. Smart kid.”
“Good taste in boots.”
“Tom says you’re in Kennebunkport.”
“Yeah, my parents have a house up there. We’ve been crashing for the summer.” Sam shrugs, smiles. She has an easygoing way about her. “Beats New York City.”
“Oh yeah. Fresh air, better schools for Ruby, less rats.”
“Not as much of a wine scene.”
“No.” She agrees and takes two long swallows of her drink before setting it on the counter and wiping her mouth. “But here we both are, anyway.”
Lena has expectations for how the visit will go. She expects that Sam will ask the same, rote questions that she’s been asked for the last two months. Yield this, production that.
Instead, Sam arrives in the vineyard and immediately begins crouching and looking under the netting. She rubs the grape leaves with her thumb, inspects the roots that poke out of the ground. Lena sees the knees of her chinos crust over with dirt. Sam doesn’t even try to wipe them off.
“It’s a vineyard and a winery, right?”
“How much wine are you going to make with these grapes?” She gestures broadly out at the rows stretching out in front of them. Lena scratches behind her ear, caught off guard but not unprepared.
“Twenty percent.” She responds, and Sam whistles low, getting up from her crouch and squinting out against the sunlight. “Then however much I can get from other in-state vineyards.”
“I think you’d be lucky to pull ten percent before the frost comes this year.” She says, nodding to herself. “Have you thought about hiring a botanist?”
“Somebody who knows the ecology out here. Growing grapes in Maine isn’t for the weak-hearted.”
“I’m not weak-hearted.”
“No, it doesn’t seem like it.” Sam agrees. “But you’d be stronger with a botanist. What about the Finger Lakes?”
“I’d rather keep it local.”
“Fruit wine? Blueberries?” Lena pulls a face and Sam laughs, sniffing and wiping at her face with the back of a hand. “I know, I know, it’s a little yokel. But you’d be surprised. Tourists like it, anyway.”
“You don’t seem to think that this is a very good idea.” Lena points out. She tries to keep the panic in her stomach at a low simmering point, but the sun and her lack of a breakfast aren’t helping. Sam regards her not unkindly. Lena can see that she’s still smiling, but isn’t sure if it’s an active choice or if her face just naturally falls that way.
“You know, I’ve found that grapes grown in Maine have a really distinctive terroir. I can’t always really put my finger on it, but if you blindfolded me I could probably always tell you if a wine is local. Maybe it’s how hard people have to work to make ‘em grow good.” She stares out into the distance for a moment, toeing the dirt with her boot. “It might be a terrible idea, but it’s an interesting one. Interesting that you’d want to try it at all.”
Lena shrugs. “I’m not sure what to say to that.”
“Tom made it seem like you didn’t want any help, but it looks like you need it. I mean that as a compliment, by the way.”
“Well, if it were a lost cause, you wouldn’t need any help at all to fail at it. Better to have a terrible, interesting, under-planned idea than a total dud.”
“Are you offering to help me?”
“I could be.” Sam admits. “Are you offering to hire me?”
“I don’t know yet.” Lena says, to Sam’s visible delight. She laughs and her eyes twinkle. “Can we talk about it over a drink?”
They spend the afternoon having iced tea on Lena’s front porch. To her surprise, very little of the time is wasted on talking about wine. They have too much in common to linger on it for more than a few minutes; childhoods in New York City, grand escapes to Maine.
“Oh my God, it’s already 6…” Lena clicks her tongue and looks at her watch. “I’m starving. How are you feeling about dinner?”
“Open to it.” Sam says. “Do you know a place?”
“Well, there’s only one, unless you like hot pot.”
The restaurant, being the only place in town to sit and eat other than the strip club down the street, is packed full when they arrive. A harried hostess who couldn’t be a day over 16 greets them, asks if they have a reservation, then takes them to the only available table—a two top next to a window where they share legroom with no less than six other people.
Sam looks charmed by the whole affair. Lena notes, as they sit, that her shoes and the knees of her chinos still have a caking of dirt from when she’d stepped out of the car earlier that day. It squeezes her into the space like a rented suit jacket over a t-shirt at an upscale restaurant. “I bet this place has a good burger.” Sam decides, flipping to the back of a laminated menu. “Ruby has been going through a farm-to-table phase. I haven’t had a good burger in an age.”
“I thought you said she was 13?”
“I know.” Sam rolls her eyes affectionately. “I don’t know where she came from. Me and her dad both like junk food—oh, onion rings.”
“Is he with you in Kennebunkport, or in the city?”
“Who knows where he is. We’re divorced.”
Sam offers this information dismissively, with the cadence of somebody for whom a wound has long been scarred over. For Lena, it’s as if she’s lobbed a basketball straight into the middle of her chest. She’d been meant to catch it and pass it on, she’s sure, but instead she’d stood mutely and let it hit her.
Noticing the silence, Sam crinkles her brow. “It was a couple years ago.” She amends, as if that were Lena’s concern. Lena opens her mouth to give a response, hopefully something normal and not driven by the engine of her own impending marital implosion, when she hears her name.
“Gosh, hi!” It’s Kara. She’s standing to the side of their table. Another woman is with her, looking politely disinterested with straight dark hair and a sleeveless top. She’s beautiful. Lena feels the back of her neck beginning to heat up looking between her face and Kara’s smile.
So, Kara’s on a date. This town is small but Kara is beautiful, and strong, and gainfully employed, so probably women were lining up from Portland to go out to dinner with her. Lena had never thought about that before, that Kara might date, or that she might date beautiful women.
She’d only ever thought about Kara in relation to herself. Kara texting her. Kara planting violets in her yard. Kara showing up at her door, sopping wet—
“Oh, Kara.” Lena forces a smile onto her face. She sees that Kara’s eyes are darting between her and Sam, and Sam’s eyes are going between Lena and Kara, and that Kara’s date keeps looking over her shoulder as if waiting for somebody else. Rude. If it were Lena, she’d be— “How are you?”
“Good! Great.” Kara’s head bobs up and down in some sort of imitation of casualness. “Sorry, this is my sister-in-law, Kelly.”
The woman, Kelly, nods in acknowledgement and says hello . Just then, Alex Danvers comes bursting into the crowd holding the hand of a little girl, knee-high. Kelly finally smiles sincerely when she sees them, touching the little girl’s head and kissing Alex hello.
Lena is dumbstruck. First of all, this is the first time she’s ever seen Alex Danvers smile. Second of all, Kara’s sister is also—she’s—they’re—
“Oh, Lena.” Alex finally notices her. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Lena says, for want of anything else. And then they’re all just staring at each other. Sam, at least, looks a touch amused by the situation. Good for her.
Kara, who’s face has ripened into a borderline unflattering shade of red, is the first to break the uncomfortable silence: “Well, we won’t interrupt your dinner—” After which everybody begins speaking, a volley of polite it was so nice to meet you’ s and the yard looks great, thank you both so much! Stretching until the foursome leaves to a back corner of the restaurant.
Sam starts laughing as soon as they’re out of earshot, a low chuckle muffled by a straw she’s tucked into her cheek. “What the fuck was that?”
Lena drops her head into her hands, groans. “I don’t know. Kara’s my old landscaper.”
“She’s your—” Sam does a double take back over her shoulder, eyebrows high on her forehead. “Is that what landscapers look like out here?” She whistles low, takes a sip of her water, then sets it back on the table. “She’s super hot.”
If Lena weren’t already sitting down, she’d need to take a seat. She can feel her face turning rosy with the effort she’s putting into thinking of an adequate response to Sam’s comment. The idea that Sam finds Kara attractive is all at once affirming and extremely disturbing.
Most of all, Lena wants to agree. She pinches her lips to keep the edifying words sitting in her mouth. Sam studies her for a moment and frowns.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize that you two were—”
Oh, this is even worse. The appropriate response to this is like a buoy that Lena is swimming out to but can’t seem to reach. Maybe a month ago, saying something like we’re not or I’m not gay would have sufficed and been at least most of the way truthful. Now she struggles to think of even one tangentially related fact that won’t incriminate her completely.
“I have a husband.” Is what she settles on. Even that’s barely true. Sam’s eyebrows remain settled high on her forehead.
“Oh.” She says.
“We’re getting a divorce.” Lena hastens to add, suddenly deeply embarrassed by her own half-truth. If her aim had been to confuse Sam out of remembering what she’d just asked, it seems to be moderately successful. The other woman squints and takes a sip of her water, saying nothing. “That’s sort of why I’m here. In Maine. At the vineyard.”
“Tom said that you were interested in having a go of it on your own.”
“I just never have, you know? Had a go of it on my own. I thought I should at least give it a try.”
“So why not let me help you give it a try?” Sam offers. She’s leaning back in her chair now, back to looking relaxed and unruffled. “It would still be your business, Lena. I would just stop by every now and then to try the wine and tell you if it’s awful. And you’d be doing me a favor by giving me a reason to stay in Maine—see, charity work? Two birds, one stone.”
Lena realizes that she’s going to say yes, formalizing this business deal in a dingy pub before they’ve even ordered appetizers. “Do you have any advice for getting through a divorce?”
“Tons.” Sam nods. “But it costs extra.”
That night, Lena wakes with a suddenness that she hasn’t felt since she left New York City. Her bedroom is pitch black and, for a blissful moment, completely silent. She takes a moment to absorb everything that had happened that day. Sam had left hours earlier, with promises to reach out to Tom and finalize the details of their plan.
The rustling comes quickly and interrupts her train of thought. It’s far way—probably outside her living room window—but loud enough to clearly be the sound of footsteps and perhaps somebody’s arm brushing against her nice, new hedges. Lena clutches her chest like an old maid and rolls out of bed.
“What the fuck?” She whispers. She finds her phone tangled up somewhere between her sheets and her comforter and unlocks it frantically to see that it’s 2 AM.
Outside, the sound of people talking, laughing. Lena’s heart is pounding and her head is soupy with thoughts floating around at random. She latches on to the first one that surfaces, the first one that isn’t fear or panic, and opens her phone again, scrolling through her contacts and pressing the call button.
Kara picks up on only the third ring. “Lena? Is everything okay?” Her voice is textured and fogged over.
“I think somebody’s trying to break into my house.” Lena whispers, then opens the door of her bedroom and begins to walk down the landing to the stairs. Through her closed shutters, she can see what’s obviously the beam of a flashlight and hear the voices more clearly. It sounds like teenagers.
“What?” There’s rustling on the other end of the line and Kara’s voice has cleared up into something urgent. “Have you called the police?”
“No, I—I think it might just be teenagers.” The voices sound young and jovial and there’s been, so far, a distinct lack of anybody rattling her door handles or trying to crawl in through one of her windows. Lena moves to a shutter and opens it, peeking through. “I might be able to scare them off.”
“Lena, please don’t do anything—”
Lena cracks the window and shouts. “Hey, get out of here!” And the sound of about five nervous teenagers scattering with haste follows, flashlights bobbing and sneakers crunching against grass.
Kara squeaks in protest. “Are you crazy? They could have been murderers!”
“They’re gone.” Lena shuts the window and turns around, leaning heavily against the door with one hand clutched to her heart. She can feel it racing, pumping heavily with adrenaline. “Jesus, I feel like I’m about to have a heart attack.”
“Do you want me to call the police?”
“No, no, I—” Everything comes crashing down on her at once. Calling Kara instead of the police could probably be described, in gentlest terms, as a lunatic move. But when she’d tried to think of the person who was most likely to protect her, Kara’s face was the only one in her mind. “—they left.”
For once, Lena doesn’t let silence settle between them. She feels suddenly exhausted by it. “Do you want to come over?” She asks, running her tongue along her bottom lip. “I mean, do you mind? I’m a little shaken up.”
Like everything else, it’s a little bit truth, a little bit lie.
Kara’s car comes noisily up her driveway 20 minutes later. Lena is on the couch with a glass of whiskey clutched in her hands. When Kara knocks, she looks over her shoulder and calls “Door’s open!”
“This should absolutely be locked. I swear to God—” The door rattles closed behind Kara and she wipes her boots against the welcome mat. Lena pivots her body so she’s leaning over the back, arms folded on top of each other.
Kara is comfortably but smartly dressed in joggers and a hoodie and her left hand is gripped around the handle of a baseball bat. Lena pinches her lips together to hide a smile at the sight of her. “What are you going to do with that?” She asks, gesturing with her head to the bat. Kara rolls her eyes.
“You’re the one who called me instead of the police.” She mutters, craning her head around. “Figured I shouldn’t show up empty handed.”
Lena’s chest clenches, feeling tangy and sharp with fondness. People always compared this sort of thing to butterflies, but to her it seems more like being non-lethally stabbed.
“I can check the house, if you want.” Kara offers. Lena sits on the urge to point out that her original question—what on earth is Kara going to do if she finds somebody?—has gone unanswered.
“I’ll pour you a glass of wine.”
“What happens if I find somebody?”
“They can have one, too.”
In the kitchen, Lena listens to Kara’s footsteps above her head. It had made her so nervous before, but that feeling in this moment seems distant. Now it’s like being a sheet of paper underneath a paperweight, or having somebody else’s hand pressed flatly into your chest. The weight of her upstairs, the sound of her taking a few steps, pausing, then taking a few steps more.
By the time Kara comes back downstairs, Lena has settled on the couch with a re-filled glass of whiskey and a glass of wine on the coffee table. She stands in the living room, shifting from foot to foot, hand clenching around the handle of her bat.
“Did you find anyone?”
“A few people, but they seemed nice so I let them stay.”
“Funny guy.” Lena responds drolly. “Do you want to sit on the couch?”
Kara’s eyes flick between Lena and the empty space next to her. She sucks her top lip, nods, then very gently leans the baseball bat against the coffee table. The couch dips under her weight.
It’s not a very big couch. Small, really, for a three-seater, because of all the throw pillows. Plus, Kara’s a leg spreader. The blond woman leans forward to grab the wine and takes a few large, skittish gulps.
“I was thinking.” Lena leans a little toward one of the arms of the couch, whiskey cup in hand. “Maybe you could spend the night tonight, if it’s not too much trouble?” Kara chokes on her last gulp of wine. Red-clear liquid dribbles from the side of her mouth and she swipes at it before it can stain her hoodie. “Just in case. They might come back.”
“Yeah. I guess they might.” There’s something tremulous underneath her statement. She’s looking at Lena now with an expression that Lena has come to catalog but not to identify. For somebody so broadly likable, so expressive, Kara could be so cryptic that it sometimes gave her whiplash. “Did your friend leave?”
Whiplash. Lena takes a sip of whiskey. “Sam?” Kara shrugs and nods her head at the same time. “She left after dinner.”
“I don’t recognize her. She lives around here?”
“Kennebunkport.” If Kara is fishing for something, Lena is dodging her bait. Nobody could beat her aptitude for decoding and deflecting doublespeak—especially not a landscaper from Maine, of all places. Whatever the real question is, Kara is just going to have to ask it. “She just came down for the day. Are you implying that you recognize everyone who lives here?”
“Well, I’m sorry if we interrupted your date.” Ah! Lena works her jaw and clenches her teeth together, hiding another smile. “Alex can be a little standoffish about seeing clients in public. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”
“It wasn’t a date. Sam is going to work with me on the vineyard. It was lovely to meet Alex’s family—what’s her daughter’s name?”
“Esme.” Kara shifts on the couch, sitting up a little straighter. Her face pinkens. “So you and Sam aren’t—?”
“Dating? No.” Lena resists the urge to over-clarify. She’s not sure what she would say, if there was anything she could say, to put them both at ease. At the same time, she senses another question lurking somewhere in the shadows. “Last time I checked, I’m still married. Technically.”
Lena says it with too much softness to really be a rebuke, and Kara doesn’t seem to take it as one. She takes another large sip from her wine, nearly draining the glass. “But if you weren’t married…”
“Would I be dating? Probably. Eventually.” Kara huffs out a little, self-deprecating laugh. Her mouth twitches. Lena leans forward and starts to refill the wine glass from the bottle she’d brought to the living room.
“Would you be dating a woman?” Lena’s hand shakes. A little wine spills over the lip of Kara’s glass and onto the coffee table, puddling next to the edge of a magazine. Kara’s eyes follow it, but she doesn’t move.
Lena considers how the answer to that question has changed in the span of a few short months. She sets the bottle back down and leans back to look at Kara’s face, not really knowing what she expects to find there. Her features are still handsome. Her hair still blonde, her eyes still blue and wonderfully kind.
The stabbing feeling returns to her chest. But this time Lena calls it by its scientific name, a crush.
She realizes that she wants Kara to kiss her, so that it can happen and not be Lena’s fault. The desire is rattled loose from her against her will, like a stubborn piece of candy stuck to the bottom of a container. “I’ve never done that before.” She says evenly.
“Doesn’t mean you don’t want to.” Kara volleys back. Her cheeks are wine-pink. Lena, still reeling, laughs.
“You’re astute.” She licks her lips. “Sam’s not my type. She did say she liked you, though.”
“Mm-hmm. She’s divorced, too.”
A startled laugh erupts out of Kara. “What’s that got to do with it?” Lena shrugs, playing coy. “You think that’s my type?”
“Do you have a type?”
Kara’s silence creates fertile ground for Lena’s imagination. She touches a strand of her hair, turning it between her forefinger and thumb. She’s never wanted to be somebody’s type before, and never particularly worried about whether she was or not. Men were attracted to her or they weren’t, and more often than not they were. Either way, it was of little consequence.
But this—Kara on her couch, Kara’s opinion of her—is of high consequence. “I haven’t dated in a long time. I haven’t thought about it in a while. I mean, I guess it doesn’t really matter.”
“But when you think about yourself dating?”
“I think about doing it with somebody I like.” Kara’s body has tensed up. Her shoulders are stiff and her posture awkward. She sets her wine on the coffee table and runs her palms up and down the thigh of her joggers. “I mean, is that a thing? My type is somebody who I really get along with.”
“We get along.” Lena points out. She plays stupid about the substance of the words, says it just because it’s true.
Kara turns toward her. Her body relaxes by a degree, her face easing, her shoulders slouching. She moves herself into the sliver of empty space between them, then she moves her hand to Lena’s face.
Lena tries to remember the last time she’d taken a full breath in. Whenever it was, that air is trapped in her lungs now, creating an almost pleasurable pressure against her heart.
Kara’s hand tucks a strand of hair behind her ear then brushes against her cheek, cupping it. Lena feels like she’s just swung to the very top of a swingset, a metal bar close above the top of her head, and catapulted her body out. She’s flying in an arc through the sky, arms and legs pinwheeling.
She exhales that last breath like she would a scream. It tickles the heel of Kara’s hand and Kara’s eyelashes flutter.
“I think you’ve had too much to drink.” Kara says. A smile tugs at the corner of her mouth.
Lena huffs and pushes her body back as far as it can go in the small space. “You didn’t answer me. We do get along, don’t we?”
“We do. That’s why I’m agreeing to spend the night tonight.”
“You really will?”
Kara nods, lips folded over a smile as if trying to keep it a secret.
Lena had made sure to tell Jen to stock the linen closet with spare blankets and pillows. They were more ornamental than anything else, serving Lena’s inborn desire to put image over actual utility. The linens were pillars that upheld the idea of a cozy home, lived-in, holding more than one person at a time.
Every day, it seemed that the idea of that home took one more step into Lena’s reality. The blankets were more than just for show tonight, anyway.
She brings down four; three too many for what any normal person would need on a midsummer evening, even in Maine. Kara doesn’t tease her. She just chooses the one from the bottom of the pile, an afghan with a yawning knit, and leaves the other three on the coffee table.
Before she departs to her own bedroom, Lena turns to look at Kara one last time. The couch obscures most of her body, but she can see the other woman’s sock-clad feet dangling off one arm, and the baseball bat leaning against the other side. Ready for easy access. Lena’s heart bangs against her ribcage like the shutters of her windows in a rainstorm, about ready to unlatch itself altogether.
The smell of pancakes wakes her up the next morning. Lena checks her phone clock to see that it’s 9:30—she’s slept in.
Downstairs, Kara stands at her stove and scrambles something in a pan Lena wasn’t previously aware that she’d had. A plate of pancakes sits on the counter next to her.
“Since when do I have eggs?” She asks, taking a seat at the island. Kara turns over her shoulder.
“Since I bought them for you this morning.”
“Kara, you didn’t have to do that.”
“I did, actually. You had nothing in the fridge. You really need to start grocery shopping.”
“I went grocery shopping when I got the new trash can.” Lena rubs some of the stubborn sleep from her eyes, yawning. “I’m just not much of a cook.”
“Clearly.” Kara spoons scrambled eggs onto a plate with a pancake and sets it in front of Lena. She’s in her clothes from last night, still sharp-looking although more ruffled than when she’d arrived. A dish towel is thrown over one shoulder. “Voila!” She says.
“Alex called a few minutes ago. She needs me to go through a few things with her before we leave for Portland.”
“Oh.” Lena’s stomach drops into her feet. “That’s—”
“Tomorrow morning.” Kara picks at a little spot of nothing on the island. Lena, again, feels adrift for want of something to say.
She feels a claim over Kara without really having a right to one. She wants to demand that she call, or text, or write, but finds nothing to substantiate her request. She wishes again, selfishly, that Kara had kissed her last night when it seemed like she might’ve.
At least that would have given her something to hang her desires on, as opposed to the amorphous blob of nothing and something all at once that sits between them.
Instead of protracting the painful moment further, Lena picks up her fork and begins to move the eggs around on her plate. “Let me pay you for the groceries, at least.”
Kara flaps a hand. “It was my pleasure.”
“So you come, guard my house, and make me breakfast, all for free? Full service.”
Pink tinges Kara’s cheeks. “Listen, I should—”
“Of course.” Lena nods once, steadfastly. In a fit, she stretches her hand across the surface of the counter. Kara looks at it stupidly for a second, as if Lena has offered her a dead fish, and then reaches out to take it. The pink on her face turns rosy. “Thank you, Kara. For everything.”
Kara’s mouth works with some unknowable emotion. Then she smiles, eyes glassy, and squeezes Lena’s hand. Lena’s body traitorously transmits the sensation directly between her legs. She swallows. “You’re welcome.”
Sam calls her later that morning. Lena picks up on the first ring, desperate for something to take her mind off Kara.
“So, I talked to Tom Mooney.” She doesn’t waste any time on introductions. Lena likes her more and more every time they talk. “And he says that he’s meeting with the rest of the board tomorrow, but he thinks it’s going to be a formality.”
“You’ve got money, a lot of it.”
“Oh, Christ.” Lena releases a long, shuddery breath. Feelings zig zag around her body at random—elation, fear, nervousness—so quickly that she can barely recognize one before another replaces it.
“I can start getting tastings set up.” Sam says. Her attention is clearly being dragged in a few different directions. Lena can hear the tapping of computer keys in the background. “I’ll want to go to Cellardoor, Prospect Hill…hey, think about the botanist, okay? And the fruit wine.”
“I will.” Lena laughs somewhat manically. “Yeah, I will—oh my God.”
“This is actually happening.”
“Do you need to sit down?”
“I already am.” Lena runs a hand through her hair, staring at the wall across from her. It’s all suddenly becoming very real—she has an investor. She has an employee, a partner. She has money that she’ll be expected to spend.
She can’t go on existing in her previous gray area. Her maybe I’ll go back to New York City safe space, the dreaded safety net that had always been underneath her, ready to catch her. Dread settles low in her stomach. “Listen, Sam—I have another phone call to make. Can we meet sometime next week?”
Lena puts it off for so long that day bleeds into afternoon and afternoon bleeds into night. She feels like she’s waiting to sever a blighted finger, one that’s been slowly blackening over weeks. It begins to rain at some point, and then properly storms. She thinks about what Kara had said to her that first night, we just don’t usually get a big storm this early in the season. Bad luck, huh?
Bad luck. Lena internally agrees as she dials Jack’s number.
When Jack picks up the phone, his voice is thick and muddy. He’s drunk. It’s not very late in the evening yet, so he must be off work early.
“Hi, Jack.” Sitting on her bed, Lena angles the receiver away from her mouth so she can exhale a long-held breath without being heard.
“I was just thinking about you.”
“Hmm?” Lena picks at a bit of lint on her duvet cover. “Thinking about what?”
“Just you.” He says again, sounding somewhat distant. “When you’re going to come back.”
“Jack…” A long silence settles between them, telegraphing what Lena is about to say. She feels almost like she doesn’t need to say it at all.
“This is silly.” Jack isn’t the type of person who often gets drunk, only when he’s trying to impress his friends or upset. Lena leans over and puts her head in her free hand. “I’ve been really patient, Lena, but it’s been weeks and weeks. I need you to come back to New York.”
“I’m not coming back to New York.”
“God, you are so selfish.”
Lena laughs bitterly and wipes at her cheek with the back of one hand. “I told you I wanted a divorce. I told you that I was buying a house out here. What made you think I was coming back?” She pauses. “It’s not silly.”
“It’s not silly.” She repeats, firmer. “It’s what I want.”
“It’s just a house, Lena, it’s silly to put that over a marriage.”
“It’s not just a house.” Lena feels hot tears streaking down her cheeks. “It’s—” It’s so many things. “It’s a winery. A vineyard, too.”
She hears Jack’s lack of understanding on the other end of the line. “I don’t—”
“I bought it. I’m going to run it.”
He laughs, and it doesn’t hurt quite as much as Lena expected it to. It makes her angry instead, which is a relief of so many different colors. Outside, rain begins to hit the glass of her bedroom window. “You are so—”
“So what? Choose your words carefully.” He doesn’t say anything, which is the carefullest he probably could be. “I want a divorce. I want a divorce! Are you listening to me?”
“I want you back in New York.”
The sound that Lena expresses is somewhere between a wail, a gasp, and a laugh. It’s sticky with the snot gathering in the back of her throat. She considers screaming, but how would that be different from what she’s doing already? Screaming over the phone with Jack day in, day out, has gotten her nowhere except for alone and crying.
But in person? With divorce papers in hand? The thought tugs at her.
“Fine.” Lena says, sniffing.
Jack pauses. “Really?”
“Yeah, really.” In a daze, she stands, wrapping one arm around herself. Jack is chuckling in a relieved sort of way, as if this whole conversation had all just been one big misunderstanding.
“Thank God—listen, I’m sorry for—”
Lena hangs up the phone without waiting to hear the rest of what he’s saying and tosses it onto the bed. She drifts down the stairs toward the kitchen, the house bellowing around her so loudly that she almost misses the knock at her front door. It’s nearly 10 PM. Sam is back in Kennebunkport, and—well, Sam is the only person she knows here, other than—
“Kara.” Lena blinks at the other woman. She’s standing, swaddled in a rain jacket, clutching some papers in one hand. They haven’t fared well in the rain, transparent and running with ink. Kara smiles sheepishly.
“I’m so sorry, I thought I texted you—”
“I was on the phone.”
“Oh.” Kara’s eyes are searching her face. Lena realizes that she must be something of a sight—at the very least, there must be mascara running down her cheeks. Kara’s brows pinch together and she frowns. “What happened?”
“Nothing. Do you want to come in?”
She steps aside and Kara follows her into the house, shaking some water from her body. “Just leave your jacket on the floor.” Lena says, walking toward the kitchen. She needs a drink.
“Seriously, Lena, what happened?” With her back turned at the liquor cabinet, Lena can only hear the wet slap of Kara’s rain jacket as it hits her floor. Her hand wraps around a bottle of whiskey. “Is it about the vineyard?”
“No. Do you want a drink?”
“No, thank you.” There are no footsteps, indicating that Kara is just standing in the living room. That’s for the better. Lena needs her far away, for now. Without turning back around, she reaches into the adjacent cabinet and pulls out a single glass. “Was it your husband?”
Lena wonders if she’s imagining the way Kara’s voice darkens when she says the rotten word, husband. She pours the glass nearly to the rim and takes a sip before turning around.
She was right, Kara is just standing in the living room. Her jacket is on the floor next to her, creating a puddle on the hardwood. Her face is pulled tight with indignity. And the papers—
“What are those for?”
Kara looks down as if she herself had forgotten. “Oh, these are—”
“Why are you here?” Lena takes another hard swallow. “I thought you were leaving.”
“Tomorrow morning.” Kara says. She looks suddenly unsure of herself and clears her throat. “Your signature didn’t quite go through on all of the copies of the contract.”
Lena laughs. She can’t help it. “What?”
Kara looks positively mortified now. “Uh, when you signed off on the work earlier—”
“Am I supposed to sign those with a waterproof pen?” Kara holds up the papers, now wet to the point of almost falling apart, and looks at them. Her face turns scarlet. “So, you came to my house at—” Lena glances at the microwave clock. “10:15 the night before you move to Portland for a month to…ask me to sign some paperwork?”
“Yes. It’s…” Kara swallows. “...a very important contract.”
“Oh, it must be.” Lena slides around the center island, dragging her hand over the surface all the while. Kara takes an instinctive looking step back. She clutches the papers so hard that she actually does tear a soggy clump off. “Why are you really here?”
“Look, this obviously isn’t a good time. I’ll just—”
“No, it’s a perfect time. But why are you here?”
“I don’t think it’s the paperwork.” Gears and cogs are turning furiously inside Lena. She’s found something to wither under her focus, this transparent lie. She feels so full to the brim with anticipation that it’s splashing over her edges. “I think you just wanted to see me.”
“Is that true?” A little desperation comes crackling out of the edges of her words and she hates herself for it. “Or am I crazy?”
“You’re not crazy.” Kara’s voice is almost a whisper.
“Okay. Now ask me what I want.”
“What?” Kara shifts from foot to foot, glancing around the room nervously.
“I asked you. Now you ask me.”
Lena wonders what Kara is frightened of. There are so many things—that Lena could tell her a lie or, worse, that Lena could tell her the truth. That Lena could say something so honest that Kara couldn’t bear the weight of it without folding. That is , probably, what she’s scared of.
Lena isn’t feeling so adverse to it anymore.
Kara licks her lips. “Okay.” She says slowly. “What do you want, Lena?”
There’s no thought behind Lena’s next words. “I want you to kiss me.”
Every square inch of breath in Kara’s body comes rushing out in one exhale. The space between them suddenly becomes important—from the kitchen island to where Kara stands is probably about a yard, give or take. Kara could probably close it in three healthy strides.
“I don’t think that’s—”
Lena frowns. “You don’t think it’s what?”
Lena glances to her left hand. She splays it out, looking at the ring, then she slides it off her finger. She holds it up for Kara’s inspection, and then she sets it aside.
“That doesn’t change anything.” Kara’s voice is trembling. She takes one step forward. Lena inhales sharply with anticipation.
“You asked me what I wanted.”
“Yeah, but I—”
“Everybody wants to know what I want, but nobody ever wants to give it to me. Why is that?” The wind whistles outside, rattling the shutters. They tremble, flutter, still, and again. “Just kiss me or leave my house, Kara. Give it to me or don’t. It really isn’t that—”
In actuality, it only takes two strides before Kara has her pressed against the edge of the kitchen island. She’s dropped the wet papers somewhere along the way and her arms have hemmed Lena in, close enough that she can see the tensing muscles around Kara’s wrists.
It suddenly takes real effort for Lena to remember to stand up straight on two legs. She’s finding it difficult to keep her nerve, especially when she can smell Kara’s breath.
Kara is breathing heavily, clearly trying to come up with something to say. Lena can see her brain working. At first, she wishes she could crack it open and pick through the thoughts. But she realizes after only a second that she probably already knows what’s going through Kara’s mind.
Lena reaches up and takes Kara’s face in her hands, one on each cheek. Her thumbs rest against the skin underneath her eye and at the corner of her mouth, her fingers at her hairline. She can feel bone and cheek fat and, underneath her pinky, a small mole.
She gently urges Kara’s head toward her own, just a small tug. Almost experimental. But it’s enough, because a moment later their lips are pressed together.
At first, the kiss is still and chaste. The shock of it disperses Lena’s thoughts like an explosion and she has to pick them up, one by one. Her body is warm all over and she feels, inexplicably, like she could cry at any moment—has any kiss ever made her feel like this? Even the big ones, the open-mouthed ones, the secret ones? Her blood is molasses and there’s a throb pinned between her legs and that freshly stabbed feeling is back in her chest, only achier now.
Everything bubbles over until Lena has to open her mouth to let out a sound, something between a moan and a dry sob, something broken and pleasured all at once. Kara returns it with equal force and licks into her mouth.
The kiss shifts from dry and close-mouthed to wide open and desperate in one beat. Lena wonders, distantly, how she could have been so stupid when the little stone nestled in her gut all this time had so clearly been desire. She feels tricked—who had told her that what she’d been feeling before was what it was supposed to feel like? Who had hidden this from her, and why?
She thinks that if it weren’t for Kara holding her against the edge of the counter, she would simply float away.
She runs her hands through Kara’s hair and grips, scraping her nails into the other woman’s scalp, and Kara moans again. Kara’s arms go to her waist and hold her, almost pinning her back into the kitchen island. Their bodies are moving, twisting and pressing against each other, frantic to get closer even as there’s no space left between them.
Lena pulls her mouth away, gasping for a breath, and Kara simply moves her attention down to her neck. For a woman who had previously seemed so controlled, so self-possessed, she’s become completely unspooled in only a short amount of time. Lena can feel her mouth wet at the crook of her shoulder and neck and her hands, needy and insistent, at her hips and stomach.
It all drips down and pools between her legs until the soreness there is urgent. Lena finds that she has no experience in patience, not this kind. She reaches down and grips Kara’s wrist, dragging her hand so it rests on her lower stomach. She tries to urge it further down, underneath the waistband of her pants, but Kara becomes very still.
They stand for a moment still and pressed completely together. Lena cradles Kara’s head against her neck with one hand and keeps the other wrapped around her wrist. She doesn’t press it any further than she already has, waiting for Kara to make up her mind either way.
But when Kara’s hand starts moving of its own accord, slipping underneath her pants, Lena guides it. She wants to be an active participant in every step of this process, wants to feel every inch of what’s happening to her. Kara rubs her palm over the front of Lena’s underwear and they both gasp, Lena’s evolving into a fractured sob at the end. Her other hand clutches again at Kara’s hair, keeping her close.
There’s not enough space in Lena’s head or her heart to even be in shock at what’s happening. What bandwidth is left is spent trying to urge Kara under the next layer of fabric, to complete the sudden thing that they’ve started. The rubbing feels incredible—the friction of Kara’s hand dragging her underwear back and forth across her pussy, the way it sticks to her where she’s—
Lena cuts the thought off at the root. Kara’s hand goes to the waistband of her underwear, pauses, then slips underneath. Her fingers run through the hair at the center of her thighs, then lower, until—
They both gasp again. Kara grunts, Lena’s brain spins out. There’s a moment where she can’t really puzzle out what’s going on. The pleasure has fogged her brain and made thinking beyond the immediate feelings in her body impossibly difficult.
But Kara speaks it out loud. “God, you’re so wet.” She gasps, running her fingers through and across Lena’s clit, causing Lena to jerk.
Those words bring everything crashing down on Lena like a bucket of cold water. Feelings start to bleed in, feelings of surprise, of panic, of joy. She’s suddenly too sensitive to be touched like this. One hand pushes suddenly against Kara’s shoulder and the other grips her wrist and pulls her arm from both layers of clothing. Kara doesn’t resist—she just peels her body away, takes her head from the cradle of Lena’s shoulder.
They’re staring at each other, each breathing heavily. Kara’s eyes are foggy and unfocused. The house is alive around them, the sound of wood tapping, of beams creaking. Slowly, Lena brings Kara’s used palm to her face. She keeps their eyes connected as she presses it to her cheek, feeling the slick of her fingers on her skin. It makes her shudder.
“I’m sorry.” Kara breathes. Lena licks her lips.
“I’m not.” She says, and then: “Thank you.”
Kara chuckles, low and sultry. She lets her head fall to Lena’s shoulder and, on instinct, Lena runs her fingers through her hair and scratches her scalp again. “I should—we should—”
“I know.” Lena sighs and curls her body a little more into Kara’s. The countertop is pressing uncomfortably into her lower back, but it barely matters. “Can we just—”
Lena strokes her hair more, nuzzles into the crown of her head. The moment feels surreal. “Are you excited to go to Portland?” Against her, Kara shrugs. Says nothing. “Will you text me?”
She feels Kara’s body stiffen. “I’m not—” She pulls away a little so that they’re looking at each other again, Kara wearing her internal conflict plain on her face. Her eyes flick over Lena’s shoulder and Lena knows immediately what she’s looking at.
“It doesn’t have to be…” Lena licks her lips and smooths her hands over Kara’s shoulders. She considers telling her about going to New York, but wonders what use it would be. Stumbling over herself to make promises about a future that feels, in this moment, completely unknowable to her, seems futile. “I’d just like to hear from you.”
“Okay. Okay, I will.”
Before Kara leaves, she pauses at the previously broken shutter on Lena’s living room window. She runs her fingers over the new screw. “This looks like it’s held up okay.” She says.
“I had to fix it again.” Lena says. Kara looks at her, and her expression is opaque again. She looks surprised, and pleased, and something else—Lena can’t quite put her finger on what. But, oh God, it makes her want to kiss her again and not stop. “Drive safe, will you?”
“I will.” Kara puts up the hood of her rain jacket. She lingers, standing in the puddle of water that it had left on Lena’s living room floor.
And then she’s gone, swallowed up into the night and the wind and the rain, and Lena is alone in the house again. But, for the first time, she doesn’t feel so alone—like the house is pregnant with something. Kara’s blankets stacked on the coffee table, two glasses of iced coffee in the sink. A baseball bat leaning against the coffee table.
Full of sounds and recent feelings and ghosts. Lena sighs, looking at the four corners of the room, and then she makes her way upstairs.