When the kiss breaks, Grace picks up her coffee mug and takes a sip.
“So,” Frankie says, the syllable ludicrous as soon as it’s out of her mouth.
Grace’s eyes snap up, then return to the mug. She looks braced, almost angry. Frankie’s seen this expression before, on a rare occasion when Grace has been proven wrong about some small detail. This face is her response to “I told you so.”
Frankie reaches for the unoccupied chair, pulls it around the island so it's positioned at a right angle from Grace's. She pours herself a cup of coffee, then sits down. “Are you surprised?” she asks.
“That it’s mutual?”
“Yeah,” Frankie says. “Yeah, I think that’s what I’m asking.” Is Grace surprised at herself, or surprised at Frankie?
Grace shakes her head. “No. I knew it was. I think I knew that for quite awhile. But I thought—”
“What?” Frankie says when Grace stops talking. “What did you think?” She feels like she did in the hotel room, when Teddie interrogated her about her relationship with Grace. Except now she doesn’t want to evade or deflect. She’s going to sit immersed in this hot shaky feeling until it evaporates, turns back into breathable air.
“I thought you didn’t want to feel that way about me. About—someone like me.”
Oh no, Frankie thinks, the no so big it crowds out all the other thoughts. When she gets her words back, she says, “Someone like you?”
“Yeah, you know.” Grace sticks out her chin, sets her jaw, and smiles knowingly, a little sadly, as if to challenge Frankie to identify exactly what she means.
Frankie wants to say But you’re perfect even though no one is. “You mean, a member of the Young Republicans?” She knows, somehow, that Grace doesn’t mean “a woman,” that she’s been thinking about more specific traits.
Grace shrugs. “In so many words. Although that particular affiliation was for my father, and all it earned me was him making fun of me for being secretary of so many things.” She chuckles. “He pointed out it’d be a lot cheaper to send me to typing school than to one of the Seven Sisters.”
Frankie laughs with her, but it does nothing to dissipate the tension, because Grace may have landed on something. Teenage Republicanism isn’t an issue, and neither is bacon, or a facelift, or any of the other differences between them, past and present. The problem isn’t a difference, like Grace assumes, but a similarity: Grace has always done things for men, tried hard to please men. They both have. It’s a hell of a habit to break: even divorce didn’t break it. Even Vybrant. And while Grace has never done anything to make Frankie resent her own feelings for her, that drive to please men has stopped Frankie in her tracks about a million times. Because Frankie—who would have agreed to stay married to Sol no matter what, who moved to Santa Fe for Jacob—has only today been able to see the way she’s buried her own self, too. “It’s not who you are,” she says. “I love who you are. It’s that I thought you didn’t want me to feel that way about you. Didn’t want to get off track.”
“When have I made you believe that?”
When hasn’t she? Except now Frankie’s starting to see how they’ve fallen into a mirrored hallway, have projected and projected until the walls are all assumption. “You dated Nick.”
“That’s beside the point. You dated Jacob.”
“You practically begged me to date Jacob, to do whatever it took to keep him.”
“Because I was so afraid of what you’d realize you missed out on if you stayed with me. You really didn’t see how I felt about you?”
“I don’t know,” Frankie says miserably. It’s clear now—tangible as a gift, bright as the streaks of sunlight laid across the table.
Grace lets go of her mug with one hand, lays it down flat in a patch of light. It asks to be held. Frankie crisscrosses their fingers, and they finally look at each other.
“I did start over once,” Grace says. “I thought I did. I told Sol—remember that day he and Robert helped us with the labels?—I told Sol I was happy with you, and with Vybrant, that I didn’t need anything else. I don’t think Sol could have noticed, but it felt like a decision. And I barely had five minutes to enjoy it before we got that letter from Nick’s company, and Santa Fe came up, and everything changed.”
I hope you have the strength to start all over again. “Grace—I didn’t know—”
“I’m not sure if I’d ever said it out loud before. ‘I’m happy.’ And look what happened.”
“Everything immediately imploded.”
Grace gives a tiny nod.
“I didn’t know,” Frankie repeats. “I’m sorry I didn’t.” She curves her fingers to stroke at Grace’s, and even the light touch makes Grace shift forward, angle closer. There’s hunger in the slight movement, a longing Frankie will get to hold in her arms, and tend, and soothe. Will get to satisfy. There’s something in Grace’s expression asking Frankie not to break her, asking Frankie to give her what she needs, and in the right way.
The hunger in the room isn’t new. It’s intensified, but the source has been with them a long time. Frankie couldn’t always place it, but she knows she’s always felt it, a desperate incompleteness in herself, in Grace. When Grace and Arlene went to L.A. for a day trip, and Frankie opted to stay home and paint, and she spent the whole time miserably jealous and tried to pin the jealousy on LACMA. When, on a million different nights, Grace answered the question “How was your day?” and Frankie badly wanted to be a bigger part of everything Grace said, wanted all the narrative threads to knot themselves around her. When Frankie sensed anxiety at the core of their easy physical proximity, a wanting that disguised itself as fear. Frankie has a pocket full of tricks to convince Grace that hunger isn’t inevitable, that hunger is solvable and deserves to be solved, but now inevitability is manifest as hunger itself, has taken all the air from the room. But Frankie will get to touch her; it’s the only way to get the air back. The only thing she wants.
“Now you do,” Grace says, and in her face is the ghost of the way she looked the night Robert and Sol told them about the affair, a stricken, left-behind expression that hasn’t evolved with the rest of her.
What if Sol and Robert hadn’t left? It took them twenty years to tell the truth, and that might have hurt the most, except the extra time wove the four of them together. When they first lived together, Grace used to lash out, to try to shut Frankie down before they could connect on anything. They stood in judgment of each other, and when that changed, they had to tread carefully, had to choose their words. They answered questions out loud that some people could answer in silence: Are we friends? What do we share with each other? What can we talk about? Frankie had thought living with Grace would be like living with a stranger, but it wasn’t: they’d just needed translation, and the look in Grace’s eyes tells her they’ll always need to take that care with words.
“Now I do,” Frankie says.
“Are you okay?” Grace asks. She tilts her head, searching for something in Frankie.
“I think so. I was thinking of that night in the restaurant, when Sol and Robert told us they were having an affair. What if they chickened out?”
“Chickened out again?” Grace corrects. “I don’t want to think about that. That night I thought I could have gone on forever not knowing. I was so resentful that things had to change. But now it feels like I couldn’t have survived another day there.”
Frankie switches which hand holds Grace’s, uses her touch-warm hand to stroke Grace’s drying hair. Grace smiles so quickly it must be involuntary. “I’ve been really happy here,” Frankie says. “In all our homes together. I mean, I was depressed as fuck at Walden Villas, but I was still happy to have made the right decision.”
“A bad decision, but the right one.”
“Exactly.” Whenever she chooses Grace, she can breathe. A wrongness sat on her lungs her whole life, and she accommodated it. Named it compromise, or generosity, or a sign she could do better. It was the pressure of staying put after a youth spent running from pain. But with Grace, she’s felt it solely in separation, the pressure not compromise but conscience. “Grace,” she says. “Let me kiss you again?”
Grace inches closer. Frankie’s only touching her hand, and a few strands of hair, and just past the hair, the soft skin at her temple. Desire, brittle but unbreakable, radiates even from those safe touchpoints. The second kiss is deeper, more communicative, the question no longer if but how.
When it’s over, eyes wide with what they’ve done, Grace reaches out. She presses her thumb briefly against Frankie’s bottom lip, then against her own. Frankie thinks of the unmade bed, of Grace’s words in her hair, the way their bodies established the perfect temperature. It would be wrong to fear rejection now, to do anything short of asking plainly for what she wants. “Will you come back to my room with me?”
Grace smiles. “Is there a monster outside?”
“Yeah. So we should stick together.” She grins, almost out of habit, but lets her face slacken into seriousness as soon as she has. “The bad things in the world—” She swallows. “The bad things in our world. They do make me want you...but you specifically, not some more general experience of solace that you happen to be here for.”
Grace nods. It’s the effort to believe made physical. “I’ve been happy here, too,” Grace says. She looks around the room, looks at their beautiful things against the apartment’s plain features. “This place might be even more of a shelter than the beach house was. And”—it’s as if she’s reassuring herself—“I guess we can do whatever we want.”
“Whatever we want.” Frankie thinks she’ll stand up then, but something keeps her in her chair a moment longer. “Grace,” she says. “I want to be with you.” It’s the simplest sentence. The simplicity almost hurts. “And I’m glad that’s what I want...what we want. Okay? I don’t resent it. It’s not, like, a plot twist I have to learn to live with.”
“I know.” Grace takes a deep breath. “I’m glad, too.”
Grace stands up first, finds Frankie’s hand again as soon as Frankie’s standing up too. Frankie follows her into the bedroom. With the exception of times it’s natural to sit—to eat, to drink, to read—Grace tends to wake up early and stay in motion for the entire day. It’s a revelation, then, to slide back into bed mid-morning, to watch Grace shed her bathrobe and stand briefly before her in her pajamas, then join her under the covers.
The room is bright even with the lights off; there’s no lamplight to negotiate, no choice but to see. Grace lies down on her side, facing away from Frankie, and Frankie spoons up behind her, wraps an arm loosely around her waist. “Anything you want,” she whispers. “Anything.”
Grace breathes for a moment, presses her hand against Frankie’s arm.
“Anything you want,” Frankie says, trying again.
“Oh,” Grace says, the syllable barely a sound. “Something small?”
Frankie remembers, then, that she can’t hand Grace an entire grocery store, an entire market of options. Not yet. Maybe not ever. “Oh, honey—”
“I’ll say yes.”
Frankie’s right arm is pressed against Grace’s back, and the other remains draped around her waist. She lets go of Grace’s midsection and finds her wrist, brushes a finger against the inside. “I’ll put my mouth here.” She takes her finger away from the wrist, lays it gently against Grace’s hip. “I’ll put my hand here.” She’s tried to paint these places, and has always had to stop, unsatisfied with her efforts. It’s so obvious now—she’s spent months painting the places she wanted to touch. When Grace nods, Frankie traces the line from the rise of her hipbone to the dip of her waist and back again. “I want to paint this line.” She’ll be able to, finally. She’ll move past the pages of aborted curves, fill a canvas with flesh. Her paintings tend not to have a strong source of light, and tend to suggest an ample vantage point, but this painting will include the window, every sunbeam just for Grace, and the vantage point will be generous but personal, the exact spot where Frankie lies.
Grace shivers. “Okay,” she says, like she doesn’t even have to think about it. She rolls onto her back, wedges herself so close that there’s barely a seam between their bodies. Frankie reaches for her arm, brings the inside of the wrist to her mouth like it’s a meal.
“Oh, God,” Grace says. “That feels good.”
Frankie smiles against her wrist, increases the pressure of her lips. She can feel the pulse in Grace’s wrist hammering against the skin. She’ll paint this too, the lines of her wrist and somehow the pulse, will name the lines as she does: Grace’s hip, Grace’s wrist, Grace’s veins, pathways to the heart. She opens her mouth, runs her teeth against the skin. Grace moans, brings the back of her free hand to her mouth and moans again once she's muffled the sound.
Frankie’s face flushes. She’s never before managed to give a gift that overwhelms the recipient, that makes the recipient seem to need more and more. Frankie’s given men what she’s hoped they wanted, has tried to ask for what she wanted to want, and they have appreciated her in return. They’ve thanked her, and they’ve made her feel sweet and warm and shielded, and it formed a kind of happiness, and she could name it “in love,” and each time they left her she felt desolate, stranded on a strange shore. But this—her mouth, Grace’s wrist—is her whole self pressed against against a woman. Even this rationed gift, this small start, has cast her and Grace out to sea together, because you can ration an act, or slice a decision into smaller pieces, but her self refuses to cleave.
“There’s no going back,” Grace mumbles, a warning and a promise.
Frankie uses her nose to nudge Grace's hand away from her face, kisses her without letting go of her wrist. “No going back,” she echoes. To agree, to seal it.
But then Grace’s eyes cloud with thought.
“You okay?” Frankie asks.
“When we do this,” Grace says, and must take a shaky breath before she goes on, “and I want to, but when we do this, I’m not gonna be able to forget who I am. I didn’t know what it would feel like till now.”
“I wouldn’t want you to forget.” Frankie’s response is instant. She used to think it was foolish and a little sad that Grace would risk further knee injury for sex with Nick, that she ritualized and compartmentalized everything she did with him, confessed it to Frankie like the confession itself didn’t matter as much as the conversation. But Grace cleared that patch in the fogged bathroom mirror barely an hour ago, had used it to see herself, and Frankie had used it to see, too. And Frankie can admit now that she hasn’t been entirely honest in her own categorizations. She’d given some version of herself to Sol, and even to Jacob, hadn’t realized she’d kept another for herself until she found it over and over, at home with Grace, found that self wishing she’d gone to L.A. the second Grace’s car pulled out of the driveway, wishing she had an excuse to enter Grace’s bedroom, wishing she could match her thoughts to paint. That’s her. A woman angling for a clear glimpse. A woman remembering herself.
Grace swallows. “I know, but I used to need to. It seems funny now”—she huffs a sigh—“well, sort of funny. I’d never try to forget the man I was with, or make him into someone else. I’d let him be who he was and just put myself away. I wasn’t even a woman, I think, I was just—whatever shape I had to be, and I didn’t have to be old and I didn’t have to be me and I told myself that was the same thing as liking it.”
Frankie shifts her grip on Grace’s arm and encloses her in a hug. Grace needs it, but she needs it too, and when Grace frees her own arms so she can cling to Frankie’s back, Frankie has to close her eyes. “I know what you mean,” she says. It’s a slippery slope from shielded to hidden, even stunted. “Some of it, anyway.”
“Yeah.” There’s a hardness in the syllable, because—Frankie works to place it—there’s pride in survival. “Even with Nick, and I’m sorry to bring him up, but even with him, he really wanted to know me, and he really honestly liked me, and I still couldn’t figure out how to be me.” Grace slides her hand down to the hem of Frankie’s pajama top, plunges her fingers against the skin of her lower back. She’s had her face tucked into the embrace, and now she pulls back to look at Frankie. “But with you, forgetting myself isn’t even an option. Because I know who you are, and you know who I am.”
“I’m so glad.” The words feel too small, but she means them in their largest sense. She’s been glad about two-for-$8 pints of Ben & Jerry’s, glad to find a scribbled to-do list she thought she’d lost. But this is pure gratitude, coming at her with such force and heft that she feels dizzy even lying down. Their faces are inches apart, so close she almost can’t focus on Grace’s eyes, but she manages it. “Look at you,” she says, and hears herself last week. But this time she isn’t arguing the beauty of a photograph, or following a map of the past; she’s making an offering. “Can I undo some buttons?”
Frankie takes turns with the unfastening: one of her buttons, then one of Grace’s, and so on. Grace agrees and agrees and agrees, and finally there’s no fabric left except for the sheet still draped around them. Once they’re naked, it takes some time to settle back into their bodies, and just when Frankie thinks she has, she becomes aware all over again of something else new: the collision of their knees, or her shin against the side of Grace’s leg, or an arm brushing ribs. “Your breasts?” Frankie says, meaning the question of touch, and Grace gasps a yes, gasps again when Frankie brings her fingertips to one and then the other.
Grace arches her back a little, looks up at the ceiling as if to hold herself together. “You’re gonna have to take care of me,” she says. “Because I’m still here.” Still inhabiting her own body, as Frankie is. Still a woman, as Frankie is, with every year stacked inside of them.
They choose something simple, in the end, choose together for Frankie to lean away just long enough to grab lube from her nightstand, to nestle back in place with a hand between Grace’s legs, gentle and slow. “I missed you so badly when I was in New York,” Frankie murmurs once she’s been touching Grace for awhile, once touching her seems like something calm and good and natural. She has no idea if the words will stick, but it doesn’t matter—the words are like stuffing sewn into a quilt, and their essence will survive. “I wanted you there so much, so you could help us name the subway rats, and see where we lived, and make me remember even more, somehow.” She moves a little faster, barely a change, but it’s enough to make Grace cry out, enough to make Frankie’s muscles burn not only with exertion but with incredulousness. “I wanted to buy you soft serve, and stand with you on the sidewalk—”
“Um,” Grace says, like she needs to articulate what’s about to happen and can’t. “Frankie, um—”
“Baby,” Frankie whispers, and Grace’s eyes close. Her lips part. “Baby,” Frankie says again. The word makes her cheeks feel bright. She’ll say things like this all the time, won’t try to hold back, will call Grace sweet little names and say I love you and hold onto her forever. “You’re here.”
Just before Grace comes, the tension leaves her. She’s been working for it, back taut with effort, hips moving, and as the orgasm hits she stops working, sinks or floats into the mattress. When she exhales, she gives the room everything she has. Or gives it all to Frankie, who gathers the spare energy into a few final strokes. “We’re right here,” Frankie says, vaguely aware that I’m right here is a more typical pronoun-location combo. But I isn’t enough of a comfort, and neither is you. They’ve been everywhere; now they’re here. Here, and from her limpness Grace shudders. “Oh my God,” Frankie says then, stunned by the small push-pull-push of Grace’s muscles against her fingers, the way her exhale has turned into sobbed breath after sobbed breath.
When the orgasm fades, Frankie feels something very near to sadness. But Grace turns onto her side, facing Frankie this time, curls into her, repeating “oh, God” and “please” until she interrupts herself with a bite to Frankie’s shoulder. It’s not a snapping bite, not designed to pinch or prick, but a way to feed herself as tenderly as Frankie needed her wrist. Then they choose for Grace to give something similar to what Frankie’s already given: kisses, her hand, her voice sharing with Frankie the narration of what went missing, and then the inarticulate joy at the center of their bed. When Frankie comes, there’s nothing in her lungs but air. The only weight is Grace’s body against and above her.
“It’s good you’re here for the early days of this mattress,” Frankie says later, when they’ve caught their breath. She rolls to her side, facing Grace, and presses a finger against a patch of memory foam between their heads. The spot stays depressed for a second, then rebounds. “You know, for the memories.”
Grace rolls her eyes, but she grins. She doesn’t mention work, and Frankie doesn’t mention breakfast, and for awhile they do nothing but lie beneath the cooling air and smile.
That night, Frankie sits alone in the living room, darting from app to app on her phone without really looking at anything on the screen. It’s getting late, and she’s sleepy and still. She keeps drifting across town to the beach house, which bound them together with wounds, salt air, learned friendship. All irreplaceable. But she’s here, too. The apartment has its own ingredients. And a rearrangement she can appreciate (she hasn’t hit anything with the door all day, and the bright blankets really pop) now that she and Grace have done their own rearranging.
That morning, hand between Frankie’s legs, mouth against her neck, Grace had said, “Every time you go somewhere without me, I think ‘I should’ve gone.’ Even when I don’t need or want to go, like if you’re at CVS and I’ve already been. I can’t help it.” Frankie can hear it clearly as a recording. With a pang of hurt, she thinks of Santa Fe, same as she did this morning. But she came home, she reminds herself, and when they lost that home they dug another one, and her heart has been home for four years, wandering around until she found it.
Years ago, Frankie memorized the names of the layers of the atmosphere because her friend Molly convinced herself she could mentally transcend to the thermosphere, home of a great deal of solar energy and the International Space Station. The exosphere was only a matter of time. Frankie wanted to be supportive, but intellectually she knew Molly was stuck in the troposphere like everybody else. It’s a fine place to be—interesting weather, an impressive flow, a lot of human drama. And human destruction. And human growth. Frankie clicks on Messages, scrolls to the thread with Teddie. She starts to type a new message, then changes her mind and presses the phone icon instead.
“You were right,” she says when Teddie picks up. “About me and Grace.”
“Wow,” Teddie says, sounding suddenly like she needs to clear her throat. “That quick, huh.”
“Well, that’s a new tune from a rather old instrument. Day before yesterday—”
“Hey,” Teddie says gently. “Save it for your girlfriend. I’m happy for you.”
“Oh,” Frankie says, chagrined. “Thanks.”
When she’s off the phone, Frankie leans back against the couch and listens as the quiet of the apartment turns into the muted noises of Grace getting ready for bed. She’s never felt proud of the buzz of someone else’s electric toothbrush before, has never felt crazy pleasure at the sound of water rushing into a sink. Frankie’s already gotten ready for bed, and it occurs to her now that she’s doing what she’s done on countless nights in this apartment: hovering, hoping to be found.
The water shuts off and Grace walks into the living room. “Time for bed?” she says, and immediately laughs at some private absurdity. She’s still wearing her clothes from the day, which means she wants Frankie to see her change into pajamas. Or into nothing. Or some decodable combination of the two. She smiles at Frankie, half confidence, half hope, and Frankie stands to meet her there.