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The Girl Most Likely To

Chapter Text

Beat my brow
Beat my chest
Beat the ones who love me the best
Oh how could they be liars?
They assure me health, life, and fire

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, from "Beat (Health, Life, and Fire)"

--

Frankie and Teddie have an early flight to New York tomorrow, and Frankie’s barely started packing her suitcase. It’s hard to motivate herself to pack for a literal trip down memory lane, but she should really get up from where she sits sprawled on a chair eating Triscuits and watching Grace unpack a box from their storage unit. But when Grace pulls out a high school yearbook—Hartford Owls, 1962-1963—Frankie tosses the crackers aside and dives onto the couch next to her. “Senior year?”

“Yeah,” Grace says. Grace probably looks wary or annoyed or both, but Frankie can’t be bothered with any of that right now. She wipes her hands on her caftan—can’t get crumbs on a historical artifact—and grabs the heavy hardbound book, spreads it out on her lap, tilting it so Grace can see it too. She flips frantically to the senior section. “Palmer,” she mutters. “Palmer, Palmer.” Frankie’s pretty sure her heart’s beating a little faster: Grace met Frances Mengela a couple years ago, has called her Frances off and on ever since, but Grace Hanson doesn’t talk about Grace Palmer, and Frankie’s never seen her old photos.

Frankie gasps when she finds her nestled between Page, Susan and Peters, Ralph. She brushes her fingers across eighteen-year-old Grace’s close-mouthed lipsticked smile, the dark blonde sculpture of hair framing her face, the barely-exposed shoulders rising from the scalloped neckline of a dark dress.

When she and Grace first met, they were closer in age to the girl in this picture than they were to seventy-four. The Grace she encountered then was sharp, dismissive, and while the photo of Grace Palmer doesn’t contain evidence of those qualities, the construction of her smile is familiar. Frankie used to see only artifice there—a face to meet the faces, she’d quote to herself under her breath at the law firm’s annual holiday party—but now she recognizes the wry awareness too, an ability to participate in the world and judge it at the same time. Even at eighteen, Grace had it, an unbelonging Frankie loves her for. But when Frankie looks at the photo, she remembers the darker side of that judgment: a time before Grace smiled at her easily, open and amused. A time before Grace liked to lean against her on the couch, reading until her eyes start to close.

Grace huffs. “Look at all that baby fat,” she says, dismissing the photo with a flick of her index finger. “That girl got up at 4:30 every morning just so she could cover herself in makeup and make her hair look that stupid.”

“Hey, be nice!” Frankie says. She wants to push Grace’s accusatory finger away from the defenseless girl trying so hard to smile up at them. “She’s beautiful, okay? Not as beautiful as you, but she’s—she’s still becoming you.” Grace looks away; Frankie doubles down. “Wow,” she says. “Look at you. Had it all ahead of ya, huh.” Grace squirms.

Seniors get more space than the other kids: larger photos, and beneath each photo, a list summarizing four years of activities, with a defining quotation beneath. Frankie learns that during the 1959-1960 school year, Grace had a classic case of freshman overextension: as if Pep Squad, Yearbook Committee, and Fine Arts Society weren’t enough, she was secretary of both the Literary Society and Young Republicans. But Grace seems to recover from her overeager missteps by the time J.F.K.’s presidential campaign heats up. She starts to resemble herself in Fall 1960, settling in to Student Council 1960-1963, Prom Committee 1961-1962. Honor Roll 1959-1963. Salutatorian 1963. Of fucking course.

“Who beat you out for valedictorian?”

Grace doesn’t skip a beat. “Harold Shields. He was a brown-noser, and a boy, and I got an A- in Chemistry first semester of senior year.”

Frankie smirks. “Harold sounds great.” She continues to read, taking in each part bit by bit. “Oh, Grace, look at your quote.”

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald

“God,” Grace says. “I haven’t looked at this in years, not since—”

Not since the divorce, Frankie assumes, or maybe years before. Some of the boxes they’ve gone through this week stayed packed away the whole time they lived at the beach. The beach house had so much space that they could afford to move their old stuff there without having to look at it, had stored boxes sight unseen in the attic and a spare room. But after leaving Walden Villas in a hurry and making a hasty landing in this apartment, everything’s gotten muddled, and they’ve ended up with some everyday items in storage and some boxed-away keepsakes in the apartment. It’s responsible to know what we have, Grace has been saying all week, going darker almost immediately: Somebody’s going to have to sort through these. Might as well be us.

The exercise has resulted mostly in daily drop-offs at Goodwill, the library book sale, the ReStore. Some of Grace’s old clothes wait for new lives in consignment shops, and the employment center where she used to volunteer. A lot of Frankie’s have ended up in a thrift store bargain bin. But some of the unearthed items start and end with only Grace, or only Frankie, and have to stay right here.

Their lives have changed so much, over and over, Frankie’s thoughts stuttering from the murky pleasure of childhood to losing Robin to leaving home to marriage to Bud and Coyote’s adoptions to learning to paint to the divorce to the beach to Grace to Jacob to Santa Fe to Grace to this apartment in central San Diego. She thinks that’s the right order, the right markers, give or take some people, some adventures. But has she ever really started over? Has Grace? No matter how much times and circumstances have changed, they’ve still ended up here, sitting among boxes full of their oldest possessions.

Frankie doesn’t think it’s possible to be someone other than you are. Whoever you want to be. But has Grace believed differently this whole time? Is she disappointed with what she has, with the way change seems to layer new life on top of old selves, never seems to wash anything clean?

“You kinda cursed yourself with that quote, didn’t you,” Frankie says quietly.

“What? No—” Grace looks alarmed.

“I’m just kidding,” says Frankie, but it’s weak. She attempts to flip to the back of the book. “So, what superlative did you get? Class Sweetheart? Prettiest Girl? Future Entrepreneur? Or wait—Most Likely to Succeed.”

Grace laughs, puts a hand on Frankie’s wrist to stop her from turning the pages. “Have you met me?”

“I’d like to think so.”

“I didn’t get a superlative. In high school I—I studied a lot, and sometimes I snuck into parties with my friends. I barely dated anyone until I was seventeen. I was just—me. I wasn’t the most likely to do anything.”

“But you were on student council. You were the voice of the people, especially after you quit Young Repubs!”

“I was never even an officer.”

“Well, you made up for it later.” And how—founder and CEO of two companies, and she bounced back after the divorce, and she’s so stubborn and smart and a total badass. Sometimes Frankie almost forgets the animosity that used to burn between them, forgets there was a time when she didn’t respect Grace very much. I hope you have the strength to start all over again. “Hey. You’d tell me if—”

“If what?”

They’re sitting so close together. The yearbook rests on both their laps. “If there was something else you wanted. Out of, um. Life. You’d tell me?” Even if it meant Grace leaving, leaving Frankie behind. Frankie wants to know.

Grace seems far away as she glances around the living room. It’s a small room, well-lit during the days but a little dim at night. The furniture they chose to keep fits well. Frankie barely remembers who bought which pieces now, although she knows most of the furniture from the beach house was Hanson in origin. “This is life now,” Grace says.

It’s not quite as definitive as Frankie would like Grace to be. It sounds like the edge of the truth, like she’s looking at something real, but from a strange angle. At least she doesn’t sound resentful.

“Don’t forget to eat the lasagna I left you,” Frankie says. “Half of it’s in the freezer, and—”

“Half in the fridge. I know. Thank you.”

“‘course. You know, if you can’t think of what to eat. Just pop a slice in the microwave.”

“That’s how it would work, yes,” Grace says, sharp like she used to be. Or still is. Then she grins. “Travel safe, okay? And call me? Just if you have extra time.”

“Oh, I’m going to need to vent about Teddie to somebody. Her memories are going to be the best memories, and her restaurant picks’ll be the best restaurant picks, and her family stories’ll be the most accurate family stories, and—” Frankie stops herself. Grace can only handle about three clauses of parallel structure before she gets mad. “I’ll call you every day, promise.”

Grace opens her mouth, perhaps to say that every day is a bit much. It’s only a weeklong trip. She sighs. “Good.”

Grace is going to drive her and Teddie to the airport tomorrow, but now it feels like they’ve already said their goodbyes. Frankie doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know why she feels awkward. She shifts the book entirely to Grace’s lap, stands up with an exhale. “Okay, Ms. Palmer. I should go pack.”

Chapter Text

The atmosphere of Frankie and Teddie’s sleek, impersonal hotel couldn’t be more different from the brick and asphalt and blue skies of their youth. Their lives began only a couple miles away; Teddie suggested this hotel because it's an easy walk or subway ride from nearly every stop on the Mengela family history tour, but after dinner each night they return to their room and get culture shock. The room is twenty floors up, and even though they’ve been in the city for a week, Frankie hasn’t gotten tired of pressing her face against the plate glass window and looking down. From this angle, so far from the ground, so far from home, the whole city stretches before her, glittering with an effortlessness she knows is all act.

It’s their last night in New York: in the morning, Frankie and Teddie will head back to the sunny home they've each independently chosen for decades. It’s strange, being home but going home, although it’s felt natural to spend so much time with Teddie this week, just as Frankie hoped it would. They’ve not gotten used to spending time together in California, but it’s different here where they're familiar to each other.

All week, a little voice has told Frankie she might not ever return to New York after this trip. She resents the question of last times that nudges her every time something notable happens, and tonight she decides to focus on probable unknowns instead of the fear of an ending. Still, even if she comes back to New York once or twice or three more times, it probably won’t be with Teddie. She’ll be with the kids and Faith, or with Grace. Or both, and this thought bursts through her like happiness. She chooses to take the sensation as a sign it'll happen someday.

Frankie moves her head slightly, finds a cool spot on the glass and presses her forehead against it. Up here, the city is made of rectangles, her vantage point too zoomed out to detect the curves of life that trouble even the most sharply architected shapes. Frankie can't paint rectangles no matter how much she feels for them. She’s ready for the trip to be over, eager to get back to painting, although in the weeks before she left she wasn't able to paint much of anything. She paints a curve and calls it a hip bone, calls it a wrist. Can't go on. Or else she has it reversed, keeps painting hip bones and wrists and pretending they're curves, abstractions, when in actuality they're lively but rigid things.

It’s only 7 p.m. back home. She imagines Grace perched at the kitchen island, reading a book, glass of red wine accompanying a serving of Frankie’s vegetarian lasagna. She’s totally alone, a slight smile on her face as she turns the pages, the sound of the ocean relaxing her without her even realizing it. Except—oh. They don’t live at the beach anymore. They lost their house—Frankie’s managed to hold onto her purse all week but they lost an entire house—and Grace is probably in their apartment right now, sitting at the dining room table with her book and her wine and her lasagna. If she’s even eaten any. Or maybe she’s sitting on the couch, no point in bothering with a table at all. Frankie wants Grace to sit at one of the tall white and blue chairs, wants to march up to her and bother her and say something charming, but those chairs are in storage. What if they never again live in a place with room for them? How do you start over if you don’t know what needs to change?

She disengages from the window and glances at Teddie. Teddie still wears her clothes from the day (Frankie changed into pajamas the moment they got back to the hotel) and sits on her bed reading a magazine, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Frankie walks across the room, picks up her plush hotel robe from where it rests on the bed, wraps it around her, takes her phone from the nightstand. For Teddie’s benefit, she gestures at the bathroom. “I have to call Grace,” she says. “You need in here first?”

Teddie shakes her head no. She frowns, opens her mouth, shuts it again in a rare display of restraint. Opens it again. “What am I missing about you two?”

Instant sweat under her arms, the prickle of nerves. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve called Grace every night of this trip, and apparently you can't risk me hearing even your side of the conversation.”

Frankie gasps, indignance an easy mask for anxiety. “We’ve been gone a week! She’s my best friend.”

“I have a best friend, and I’ll tell her all about our trip when I’m back home.”

“It’s different,” Frankie says. “We live together. And what’s wrong with having a best friend you want to talk to all the time? Since when are romantic relationships the only ones that require a commitment?” This is the Mengela way to argue—avoid a topic for weeks, or even years, hence the need for a sisters’ trip to reckon with history before it’s too late—then swoop in with a hastily constructed argument and defend it to the death. Frankie nearly misses the way Teddie rolls her eyes as she storms into the bathroom, but she catches a glimpse at the corner of her vision.

Frankie sits down on the closed toilet seat, but instead of calling Grace she sets her phone down on the edge of the sink. All day, she’s processed the things that have happened to her by silently composing stories, saving each one to tell Grace. She does the same thing at home, too—whether she ends up telling the story or not, Grace’s imagined reaction is something like an extra brain. She doesn’t know when that happened, or when she started using it for everything. Frankie frowns at herself in the mirror and picks up the phone, dials the only number she’s called recently. Her text chains are as varied and numerous as a Robert Altman cast, but she only calls Grace.

“Hey,” Frankie says when Grace picks up. “Am I interrupting your dinner?”

“No, I ate early.”

“Cool.” Her tone is so casual she sounds suspicious. “What’d you have?”

“That couscous thing with golden raisins.”

“Ugh, I hate that couscous thing with golden raisins.”

“Exactly. Getting wild while you’re out of town.” Frankie swears she can hear the ironic smile on Grace’s face through the phone. “And before you ask, yes, I’ve kept at it with the damn lasagna.”

Frankie grins. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s the best one you’ve ever made. But twenty servings is way too much for one week—you can have some of what’s left in the freezer, enjoy the fruits of your labor.”

They’ve officially talked about lasagna too many times, but now that they’re on the phone, Frankie feels trapped. This keeps happening, and she forgets to prepare until it’s too late—she waits all day to talk to Grace, collects story after story, but when she finally gets to talk to her, she feels tongue-tied, sticks to the mundane even though they’re about three years past needing small talk to survive each other. And yet she doesn’t want a quick call, either, would rather be on the phone than off even if she ends every call before she’s ready. Luckily, Grace is better at this than she is, holds up her side of the conversation and more.

“So,” Grace says when Frankie doesn’t fill the silence. “How was the last day?”

“We went back to our old stoop one more time. Shared a cigarette and toasted Robin with Ne-Hi sodas.”

“Oh, Frankie, that sounds—”

“Teddie was afraid the people who live there now would come out and yell at us, but I’m pretty sure no one was home.”

Grace chuckles. “What’d you do with the rest of the pack?”

“Gave ‘em to a homeless lady who asked me if I had a light.”

“Is Teddie still getting on your nerves?”

Frankie smiles and leans forward, outstretches her arm so she can fiddle with a bottle of Teddie’s perfume that sits on the sink. “Oh, yeah.” Grace is good at asking yes-no questions; it’s made it possible for Frankie to give her a pretty full picture without having to actually say anything about Teddie while she’s within potential earshot. On the first night, Grace even made up a multiple-choice quiz about the trip, leaving Frankie free to simply say “D” in response to “A. Teddie is driving you crazy. B. You’re driving Teddie crazy. C. You’re glad you’re on your trip. D. All of the above.”

“It sounds like today was pretty good though, right?” Grace asks. “Pretty meaningful?”

“It was,” Frankie says softly. “It really was.”

“I’m glad. And this time tomorrow, you’ll be home. Oh, before I forget—I’m going to park and come in to the airport tomorrow. Every time I go to one of those cell phone lots, something ends up going wrong.”

Absurdly, Frankie imagines herself on an escalator, Grace standing at the bottom with a Welcome Home sign. A bouquet of flowers. She’s totally losing it. “Great,” Frankie says. “Well, I should really hit the hay. But I’ll, um, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Oh, okay. Sure. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Frankie ends the call and stares at the call history screen. Barely any time has passed at all.

Chapter Text

Frankie feels better in the morning. Healthy. Calm. She spends a few minutes awake in bed, thinking pleasant East Coast-West Coast thoughts. She’s as grateful to have been here as she’s excited to go home; if her thoughts were any more perfectly balanced between New York and San Diego, she’d be in Nebraska right now.

When they’re all packed, she wants to take the subway to the airport, but Teddie insists on a cab. The driver, Malik, bobs and weaves through traffic like it’s an obstacle course. Frankie doesn’t say anything during the ride, tries to enjoy the thrill of putting her life in a stranger’s hands. She doesn’t understand why, if you’re in a city with an extensive rapid transit system, a set pattern of tracks and traffic operated by professionals, you’d opt for the open road with its drunk drivers and vulnerable pedestrians and complicated entrance ramps. But she figures they’ll be okay: it’d be a little too on-the-nose if the universe made them die in a highway car accident at the end of a trip to remember Robin. She avoids making eye contact with Teddie.

Malik makes such good time that once they get through security, they have over an hour available to idle at their gate with coffee and unsatisfying blueberry muffins. As soon as they sit down, Teddie pulls out a book and starts to read, but Frankie still feels observed. She keeps her phone in her lap, pretends to be absorbed in Instagram so it won’t be as obvious when she receives a text from Grace, or quickly sends one back. When they board their nonstop flight from JFK to San Diego, Grace is still engaged in the text conversation, sending short separate messages that have turned a little frantic:

Don’t forget to get up and walk at least 3 times during the flight, okay?

Sorry

But don’t forget

Frankie can feel Grace’s thoughts coming through the phone: genuine worry about the health risk of flying, though Frankie got clearance from her doctor before she scheduled the trip. Resentment about the impulse to apologize. The inability to stop herself from sneaking in one more little reminder. Frankie reads the texts as she follows Teddie down the narrow aisle to what’s nearly the back of the plane. Once Teddie folds herself into the middle of the row, Frankie settles into the aisle seat she chose a month ago when she booked the flights, Grace peering over her shoulder at the laptop screen, offering commentary as she dithered. (“Even Teddie doesn’t want you to get a blood clot,” Grace had said when Frankie worried Teddie would be mad about getting the middle seat on both flights. “Just take the aisle.”) When she’s fastened her seat belt and stowed her carry-on bag beneath the seat in front of her, she texts Grace back. She’s about to say goodbye for six whole hours, but she’ll make it in one piece, will get the comfort of home as the reward at the end of the long day. The thought makes her feel expansive, radiant.

wont forget, promise! airplane mode commencing now!

3 airplane emoji followed by 3 kissing face emoji

Frankie stares down at her phone in horror, fingers scrambling to navigate away from the text window as quickly as possible. Instead of selecting airplane mode from her settings options, she powers down entirely, shoves the phone in her pocket. The flight attendant's still in the middle of her safety presentation, but Frankie shuts her eyes for a cross-country nap, one that’ll hopefully last for six hours and erase her short-term memory.

No such luck. Frankie can sleep anywhere, but this special skill is no match for what’s just happened. At first, she tries to ignore the biggest, most obvious problem with her emoji text, focuses instead on the regrettable narrative inaccuracy. As prone to exaggeration as she is, a blatant disregard for reality’s another issue entirely. She’s not taking three airplanes today; this is a direct flight. She doesn’t intend to give or receive three kisses upon her return. And while she’s pretty sure Grace doesn’t expect that—want that—either, what if Grace now thinks that’s what Frankie wants? She's probably drinking her second cup of coffee right now, trying to figure out how to turn down an offer Frankie didn’t mean to put on the table. When Frankie turns her phone back on, will it be worse to find Grace has ignored the text, or worse to receive the rather polite, appropriate, evasive rejection she’s come to expect by now?

The only thing Frankie knows for sure is that she’s once again proved she’s messy and sloppy and should really learn to think before she texts. It doesn’t matter how many casual kiss emojis she’s sent out into the universe over the years; this text is a detonation, and now she has to ride it out.

Mentally composing a more ambitious yet accurate emoji story of the trip is the thing that finally calms her down and sends her to sleep. Before she drifts off, she imagines something pretty close to perfect:

Woman waving emoji, airplane emoji, Statue of Liberty emoji, skyline emoji, walking emoji, softserve emoji, star of David emoji, cigarette emoji, soda emoji, taxi emoji, airplane emoji, woman waving emoji

She only sleeps for an hour or so, gets up and walks four times, drinks a ginger ale, eats her Biscoff cookies and Teddie’s, too. When she flies she ordinarily wants to get lost in the universe of the airplane, enjoy the magic of existing in a floating room that might—might—be the only tangible thing left, the only thing that isn’t a cloud. But today she doesn’t want to be alone with these strangers and her sister and billows of beautiful vapor. She wants to be taken home, not in this dramatic way, thousands of miles above planet Earth, but with smaller, more perfect motions, sitting shotgun in Grace’s car.

When they land, Frankie turns her phone back on. “We’re a little early,” she tells Teddie as soon as her phone reveals the time. “I’ll let Grace know we landed.”

Teddie nods. “Your legs feel okay?”

Frankie warms. “Yeah, thanks. I’m fine.”

She’s received just one text in the time they were in the air. It’s from Grace, and when she reads it she feels relief she didn’t know was possible. She beams down at the phone, not caring if Teddie sees. No words, just a single picture, and Grace has chosen well:

Home emoji

Grace doesn’t bring a welcome sign or flowers, but she gives Frankie a big hug, shakes Teddie’s hand. To Frankie, a handshake is awkward and unnecessary—it’s so much easier to hug—but the others seem to appreciate it. Grace waits with the luggage while they visit the bathroom, and Frankie hurries to wash her hands, rushes back outside to wait with her.

“You had an okay week?” Frankie asks. She mostly knows the answer; she’s gotten bits and pieces of Grace’s week all along.

Grace nudges her with her shoulder. “I did,” she says. She tilts her head in acquiescence to what she’s about to say. “Made at least three unilateral business decisions while you were gone. And some unilateral furniture decisions. Drank a little too much.”

“The usual,” Frankie says tightly. But when she looks over, Grace is smiling. She has zero angst about her confessions, which aren’t confessions but—compliments, somehow. She wraps her arm around Frankie’s shoulders, jostles a smile out of her, and Frankie remembers a day years ago, the day Madison was born, the day they re-lived when they went to sign the divorce papers and got stuck in the elevator. The trouble with your socialist dessert is it’s very rich. She can still see the way Grace smiled after she made the joke; faint, self-amused, lacking expectation. She wishes she could go back in time and laugh.

But she does the opposite. They only have a few seconds left until Teddie emerges. Teddie won’t say anything about the way they’re standing, won’t make a joke like Frankie would, won’t stare intently like Grace. But she’ll look, and her face will show that smug little glimmer of knowledge, and Grace will see. Frankie doesn’t know which would be more disastrous: Grace recognizing Teddie’s expression and pulling away, or the tension remaining a foreign language, a code she doesn’t need or want to crack. Either way, it’ll be awful, and Frankie doesn’t want to think about why it’ll be awful, so she shrugs out of Grace’s grip, tries to ignore the stabs of regret as she watches Grace take her arm back. Grace busies herself sorting the luggage, and Teddie comes out of the bathroom, and the moment passes into the next.

Teddie takes shotgun for the ride home. She pauses outside the car as Frankie climbs into the backseat. “Your candy,” Teddie says, handing a ziploc bag to Grace.

“Oh,” says Grace. “Frankie’s candy.” She clears her throat. “I’m sure you can have some...I didn’t know what you liked.”

Teddie hands the bag back to Frankie without opening it. The small bag is full of gummies, little cherries on stems and coke bottles and sour bears and raspberries that look like raspberries, the kind of gummies you buy in bulk bins. “Thanks, Grace,” Frankie says. Objectively speaking, a bag of candy shouldn’t make her feel like crying, but Grace has written a PLU number on the bag with waxy pencil, the kind of pencil they have at Frankie’s favorite grocery store. Lots of stores have switched to scales equipped with price stickers you can print out yourself, but here’s Grace’s handwriting, and a little smear of wax where she must have tried to get the pencil to write well on the plastic surface.

Grace and Teddie talk the whole drive home, the easy small talk of professionals. “I’m sure you’re tired,” Grace says as she takes the highway exit that leads to both their neighborhoods. “But you’re welcome to come for dinner. I learned to make ramen this week.” She glances at Frankie in the rearview mirror. “Frankie always says there isn’t enough vegan ramen in San Diego, because, you know, a dozen options aren’t enough.”

Teddie needs to decide quick—one more street and Grace has to turn left to head toward their neighborhood or right to turn toward Teddie’s.

“I am tired,” Teddie says. “But I’d love a raincheck?”

“Of course.”

At Teddie’s house, Frankie gets out of the car, stands uselessly to the side while Teddie collects her suitcase from the trunk. When they hug, Frankie can’t help it—she squeezes harder, feels a tension in her chest loosen when Teddie returns the pressure. “Thank you,” Teddie says. “This was such a good idea.”

“Yeah,” Frankie says when they finish hugging. “I’m glad. And hey, come for dinner soon? Please?” She wanted to ambush her with invitations once, remembers the way Grace tried to talk her down.

“I will. I promise.” Teddie looks at the car. “Ramen and gummy bears,” she says. “That’s quite a homecoming.”

Frankie leaves the candy in the back seat when she gets into the front for the ride home; that’ll force her to save some for later. “Okay,” she says, half word, half sigh. “I’m gonna need you to describe every second of ramen-related activity in great detail.” They’ve got about fifteen minutes left in the drive. She’s travel-tired, content to spend a quarter of an hour moving through the dusky light. She feels like being quiet, wants Grace to tell a story, wants to soak in the happiness of being so close to home.

“Um,” Grace says, raising her eyebrows. “Okay. Should I start with the broth?” She clicks the turn signal, glances over her shoulder as she gets back on the road. When she redirects her gaze forward, the tiny smile is back, so void of expectation it’s almost inward, almost something Frankie shouldn’t see.

“Yes,” Frankie says emphatically. “Or actually, start with the cookbook. Or with the idea. Start with the moment it occurred to you.” She can be quiet now. She adjusts her seat to a greater incline, leans back and closes her eyes, not to sleep but to listen.

Chapter Text

When they walk into the apartment, Frankie doesn’t quite register that because the bookcase lives at the far side of the living room now, she can open the front door all the way without dislodging a book. She can’t fully take in the art on the walls, hers and other people’s, rescued from the storage unit and the hall closet and her bedroom. Barely sees the bright plum and marigold blankets that used to live in her studio and are now neatly folded along the back of the couch. The only thing she can truly absorb is the kitchen. She walks straight there, dropping her suitcase along the way, because Grace has brought back the tall white and blue chairs.

“Oh my God,” Frankie says.

Grace is a step or two behind, but she hurries past Frankie, stands in the middle of the kitchen where the chairs flank a small table. “I only brought two of them,” she says. “But we don’t really need more. And there obviously isn’t room for an real island, so I got this standing desk at IKEA and clamped these butcher blocks to the top.” She points to a crank sticking out of the end of the desk nearest Frankie. “Try it. You can raise it for sitting down, lower it for chopping vegetables.”

It takes effort to raise and lower the desk, but not too much. “You’re a genius,” she says, and Grace beams. On the phone, Grace didn’t mention going shopping, or visiting the storage unit, because—this much is clear now—she wanted to surprise her, wanted this moment of gift-giving. Frankie wants to know if Grace went to IKEA with anyone, if she had help getting the chairs out of storage, moving furniture around. They’ve started to see the kids again, just a little; maybe Bud helped, or Mal. Maybe she went alone, loaded the car herself, or with assistance from someone on staff, then from a neighbor in the complex who saw her with the back seats folded down in her car and a full load to carry inside. Or Sheree went with her, or Arlene—a bittersweet errand. Not Nick, surely. Frankie’s weeklong absence wasn’t nearly long enough to undo a change Grace promised was permanent. Frankie isn’t exactly worried, but she wants the story anyway, wants what it would tell her about where Grace is with other people, where she is in the challenged and half-reconstructed relationships that surround her. “I missed these chairs,” Frankie says instead of asking.

“I did too.” Grace glances at the fridge. “Wanna try one out while I assemble the ramen?”

Frankie sits. Grace pours her a glass of red wine, launches herself into motion as she works on dinner and periodically sips from her own glass. They don’t talk much—in the car, Grace explained what she’d prepared, and they both seem content with quiet proximity. Grace has done a lot of the prep in advance, and now the mushroom broth needs to reheat, the noodles need to boil, the tofu needs to cook. She sets these items on their course, then pulls from the fridge a ziploc bag containing soft-boiled eggs marinating in soy sauce and mirin. She breaks a minutes-long pause in conversation to ask if Frankie wants to turn her vegan ramen vegetarian, and Frankie says yes, of course. She loves those perfect eggs in restaurants, knows Grace’s will be perfect too.

Quite a homecoming, Teddie had said. Frankie would like to lose herself in the sensory haze of being the eye of the kitchen hurricane, the comforting salt scent of the room, the controlled clatter of pots and pans, but she keeps turning homecoming over in her mind, and the word prevents her from sinking pleasantly under. It’s a word for any return to the safety of a familiar roof over your head, a roof that makes your head feel familiar, too. But it’s so often used in the context of high schools and colleges, and Frankie already couldn’t stop thinking about the Hartford Public High School class of 1963, and Grace’s place in it.

She imagines the past all the time lately, Grace’s unknowable history mingling with the memories they actually share. Every vision is troubled with untapped potential, other paths worth traveling. At Walden Villas, Frankie often imagined herself back at the beach house with Grace, cooking together in a way they had rarely done. In the retirement home they were hardly allowed to use a stove by themselves, and Frankie regretted that they hadn’t used their previous independence to cook more boisterously. Given another chance, maybe Grace would show her how to prepare elaborate meals using dangerous techniques. In one daydream, they made crème brûlée, caramelized the sugar with a propane torch.

Frankie spent the first few weeks after Walden Villas bringing home armloads of vegetables from the farmers’ market. She dragged Grace to the grocery store, wanted to walk down every aisle until Grace complained about her knee. Frankie wasn’t a spectacular cook, but in her regained independence she made use of the stove-top, the broiler, even attempted veggie kebabs on the communal grill at the park near the apartment. But their escape from densely-populated cafeteria-style eating was so recent, and it was a mistake to offer Grace a cornucopia of options. Before long, Frankie learned to make finite, manageable suggestions: “I have carrots. Let’s roast ‘em.” “Why don’t you put the chicken in the Crock Pot this morning, and you can eat it with whatever I make tonight.” “Remember that black bean soup you made two years ago? Can you make it this weekend?”

Now Frankie watches as Grace turns the disparate ingredients that cover most of the kitchen surfaces into artful bowls of ramen. This, she realizes, is the adventure she longed for in Walden Villas—not dangerous for the sake of danger, but ambitious, intricate. Another gift, in what’s becoming a long line of the sorts of gifts Frankie most loves to give and receive. Grace ate and appreciated the lasagna, had candy waiting in the car, has learned ramen, and this combination is even more exciting than a dessert finished off with an open flame.

Restaurant ramen is richly layered, all silk and salt, and Grace’s comes pretty close. They eat quietly together at the makeshift island, and Frankie is so happy that she crosses past happiness and into sadness. “You all right?” Grace asks, probably because Frankie has paused between bites.

“Robin’s really gone,” Frankie surprises herself by saying. And with that sentence, tears blur her vision. This week, Teddie cried at Robin’s grave, misted up each time they visited the old neighborhood. The corners of her mouth twisted with feeling as they uttered old prayers, old stories. Frankie was hardly stoic, but she didn’t cry once. Now everything she felt but didn’t express in New York is here, sobs tightening her throat.

“I know,” Grace says in a low voice. “It isn’t fair.” She sets down her spoon, rests her hand on Frankie’s wrist.

“Will you stay with me tonight?” Frankie asks, unable to look up from her ramen. It’s not quite right, to ask from a place of such emotion, to ask because she doesn’t want the lonely part of sadness, but she'd rather die than dial back her request.

Grace sighs. “Okay.”

With the shortening days, it was already fully dark outside by the time they started to eat dinner, and they go to bed not long after they’ve cleared the dishes. Grace eyes Frankie warily as she enters the bedroom. “I changed the sheets right before I left for New York,” Frankie says. “I upgraded mattresses when we moved. I mean, you saw that witchcraft firsthand.” Grace had helped Frankie liberate the giant roll of memory foam from a miraculously small cardboard box. It was so cool, and Frankie could tell Grace thought it was, too.

Grace flashes a half-grin. “I need to read for a little while, okay?”

Frankie turns out the light on her nightstand, stretches out as close to the middle of the bed as she thinks she can get away with. She doesn’t fall asleep until Grace shuts off her own light and lies down, and even then, with sleep nudging at the edges of her body, she feels on the verge of more tears like the ones she cried earlier. She doesn’t sleep for a long time, not until the energy in the room shifts because Grace has fallen asleep.

In the morning they wake up closer than they were the night before, and in the partial darkness of the room Frankie makes a conscious effort to keep her eyes closed, to stay right where she is, feeling Grace’s arms brush hers. Frankie’s slid down the bed a bit, almost off her pillow, and when Grace whispers “Hey” Frankie realizes her head is situated so Grace’s words land in her hair.

“Sleep well?”

Grace shrugs against her. “Pretty well. Should I go make some coffee?”

“Mmm,” Frankie says. She opens her eyes to Grace disentangling from the bed. “Come back.”

“With coffee!” Grace says. It feels like a save. It’s a good one.

Save or not, Frankie’s sure Grace will come back, and in the meantime she flops contentedly into the space between their pillows. With a frisson of delight, she realizes she can smell Grace’s perfume. She slides her hand along Grace’s side of the bed, smoothes the still-warm sheets. The warmth of skin improves fragrance, but fabric has a similar effect. Now that she’s home, in a bed that smells like them both, it feels like she was gone longer than a week, and she can't imagine how she got through it. She’s still sleepy, but she takes in the comforting whir of the coffee grinder, closes her eyes and waits for the smell of coffee to reach her.

The coffee aroma never comes. A couple minutes later, the shower turns on in the bathroom next door, and she keeps hearing plastic-y banging, which—considering her challenged hearing abilities—means Grace must be interacting with the shampoo and conditioner bottles really loudly. Frankie feels a sudden wave of nausea. One night in her bed, shared scents, shared warmth, and Grace has to wash it right off.

Frankie could finish making the coffee, have it ready by the time Grace gets out of the shower, but she’s frozen. She gets up only when Grace leaves the bathroom and has to walk past Frankie’s bedroom to get to her own. “Hey,” Frankie says. “What’s the matter?”

Grace’s hair is soaking wet. She’s pulled the flaps of her robe up practically to her ears, and tied the sash tight. “Nothing,” she says. She grimaces. “Oh. The coffee. I’ll finish making it after I’m dressed.”

“No, why didn’t you, um. Why didn’t you come back?”

Grace tries to smile. “I wanted to take a shower. My hair smelled...different.” I smelled like you, she means, and cannot say.

Frankie laughs, fake and tense. “So the neroli oil picked a fight with Chanel No. 5 and won. Is that so awful?”

“I don’t wear Chanel No. 5.”

“It was a joke.”

“Of course it was.” Grace turns to keep walking down the narrow hallway, but she doesn’t walk away. She puts a hand on the wall opposite where Frankie’s standing, as if to steady herself, turns back to look at her. “It’s always because you’re scared of a burglar, or you miss Jacob, or you’re sad about Robin, isn’t it? You always have an excuse.”

“Grace, no—”

“I can’t.” Grace walks away, but she doesn’t duck into her bedroom. She heads toward the kitchen instead, and Frankie visits the bathroom, tries to get ready for the day.

The vent’s on, but the air in the bathroom is humid from the shower. Frankie thought the perfumed pillow and sheets were a potent reminder of Grace, but this room is full of the even stronger scent of freshly-used shampoo and conditioner. Unusually, Grace has left the sink counter strewn with products; she must have left the room before she finished using them, either figured she’d return soon or couldn’t bring herself to care.

At the still-steamed mirror, Frankie lines up her reflection so it fits in the small window Grace carved into the fog with a hand towel or a swipe of her fingers, looks at her face in the spot Grace cleared to look at hers. As she brushes her hair, she thinks, with the strangeness and resilience of an intrusive thought, I’m a woman, I’m a woman. Until she lived with Grace, Frankie didn’t spend a great deal of time in contemplation of her own womanhood. She was one, and she was glad to be one, though she often thought of herself as a woman through the lens of being adorably surrounded: by husband, by sons, by the former prisoners who took her art classes. Being a woman informed her art more than her life, and she embraced her womanhood through cultural moments (a march, a voting booth, a lecture hall), not private ones. But observing Grace over the last few years—and what option has she had but to observe her, to find her face wherever she can, to think upon it, to think upon her own?—has forced Frankie to consider the nexus of choices and compulsions that aren’t the same thing as womanhood but are nonetheless inseparable from the experience.

Frankie has seen Grace with her hair wet from the shower and slicked back against her head, not just this morning, but many times. She’s seen her style it quickly and routinely, or put effort into a special look. She’s seen her affix the hairpiece she sometimes wears to get extra volume; she doesn't understand why she wears it on certain days and not others, but she feels unbothered by the mystery. She’s known Grace to not shave her legs for a few days, and has seen the used waxing kits and empty tubes of shaving cream in the bathroom wastebasket. She’s seen Grace ready to leave the house, makeup pristine. Has left the house with her and marveled at her beauty while they were out in the world together. And so many nights, Frankie has puttered around the living room or lingered in the kitchen, almost ready to head to bed, only to have Grace come and find her seconds after she’s washed her face because—this must be it—while the water ran over her skin she thought of something she meant to say. Hasn’t wanted or needed to wait for morning. Frankie’s felt grateful for her beauty then, too.

There’s no plurality: Grace has one body, one face, altered by decisions and time. Frankie sees it all, and likes it all. She's stopped thinking in terms of “real” and “unreal.” Grace is the girl in the yearbook. She was her before the photo was made, and has been her each day ever since, although when the photographer took her picture, when she chose her quote, she had no way of knowing how much the world would ask her to change. Now she does.

But she did know some things on picture day: she knew to wear makeup, knew how to succeed at her smile. And when Grace once told Frankie how much Robert focused on having a beautiful wife who understood how to achieve presence, Frankie realized Sol did his self-congratulatory, pseudo-progressive version of the same thing. Early in their marriage, Sol would sometimes compliment Frankie for being beautiful without makeup when in fact she was wearing makeup, “natural” and light and designed to blend in. When she went without it, he asked her if she was tired, if she was okay. And Frankie has been in yearbooks. And Frankie has had to present herself, has had to make her own endless decisions.

Before they moved in together, Frankie thought Grace was vain. Then she believed she was less vain—less guarded, less solidly made-up—at home with Frankie because Grace thought she was prettier than Frankie, that her confidence in this truth allowed her to relax. Frankie was wrong about that; she knows that now. There’s no resolution to being a woman, but with Frankie (a specific person, a specific woman) Grace is able to breathe. She can adorn her face or leave it bare, the bareness its own kind of adornment. Grace needs their home: site of decisions, site of rest, site of nourishment. Frankie’s a safe witness not because she doesn’t matter, but because she does. And she has done more than witness, understands now what it might mean to participate. Until now, it’s been easy to talk and tease from within the safety of her surroundings, even when her surroundings haven't felt very safe at all. Now it’s time to reach for what she’s pretty sure she needs more than any of the things she’s spent her life trying to want.

“Grace,” Frankie calls when she’s finished getting ready. “Where are you?”

“Kitchen,” Grace says, in a voice Frankie can barely hear.

Grace has made the coffee, and sits at the makeshift island with a nearly-full mug. Her hair’s starting to dry, the unruly ends hanging at odd angles that tease the collar of her robe. “They weren’t excuses,” says Frankie. “Being sad about my brother. Being scared of burglars. Or, um, they were excuses, but only because I thought I needed them?”

Grace arches her eyebrows.

“You’re the most,” Frankie continues. “The most—the most everything.”

“Frankie. What do you want?” There’s nothing accusatory about Grace’s tone. The question is open as a door.

For so long, Frankie has wanted to know what Grace wants, what Grace thinks, what Grace feels, how Grace would react to every action. What did she mean by “too much”? What did she mean by “I can’t”? Does she have one foot out the apartment door, maybe, even if there’s no evidence to support Frankie’s fear other than the senior quote Grace chose in 1963? Frankie loves information, wants all the information about Grace she can fit into her brain. But she wants something beyond answers to her own questions. Frankie wants to know all about Grace. Frankie wants to know Grace. But she must distill it further, find the purest form. Frankie wants Grace.

She walks closer to Grace’s chair until she’s standing next to her, touches her back, scratching gently at the smooth fabric of the robe. Grace tilts her head like she knows what needs to happen too.

Most answers don’t have the power to evaporate the question, to entirely replace wonder with certainty. But the kiss—soft, strong, a homecoming—does just that.

Chapter Text

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?”

“Yours too?”

“Okay.”

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.