So take me back outside
I don’t want to hear the sound of buzzing lights
Bring me back to my old house
I wanna see the tree that I used to climb
Back when I was small
I don’t want to be that
What if I can’t calm down
And I don’t have that in my bloodline?
And what if the faces of the holy
Are just faces from a fantasy and I
I can’t see it through their eyes?
Although that I try
“can’t calm down” by Hand Habits
There was this big oak tree in the backyard. I could shoot up that sucker faster than any boy in the neighborhood. The best part was getting to the tippy-top and looking down at the world...When I was up there, I thought I could do anything.
Grace Hanson, Grace and Frankie episode 3.7, “The Floor”
The marmalade is thick, with suspended bits of rind visible through the glass jar, and Nick plunges into it with the same knife he used to butter his toast. He smears some on only one corner of the buttered bread and places the knife back in the jar. He eats the prepared section, returns to the marmalade, and distractedly prepares his next bite. He’s got his iPad open to the Wall Street Journal, and he scrolls as he chews. Grace can only assume he’ll continue this way until the toast is gone, or—she peers into the jar and sees there’s not much left inside—until the marmalade is.
Grace is having a satsuma for breakfast, but she likes marmalade, and although she wishes Nick wouldn’t cross-contaminate the marmalade and the butter and the iPad, she’s happy, and the happiness prevents her from saying anything. The not saying anything makes Grace feel like a good person, like the person Nick loves, even if he loves her particularity as much as her permissiveness. They’ve been married three days. She likes marmalade, and jam if it isn’t too sweet. Right now it’s enough to be near it and to peel another segment of satsuma away from the rest of the fruit, to enjoy the sweet-sharp burst of actual orange.
(In her early days living with Frankie, she mistook Frankie’s homemade yam lube for jam, spread it onto a rare piece of toast and ate it, suspecting something was off without being able to put her finger on it. She’d made it through countless mornings of yogurt or fruit or overnight oats or too much bacon or nothing, and the moment she let her guard down and switched to toast—like a normal person, she’d thought at the time—she ended up right in the middle of one of Frankie’s projects. In the weeks after Frankie and Jacob broke up last year, Frankie made no effort to procure yams from a new source, and finally Grace had to ask her if she was ever going to—)
Nick stops eating before the toast is gone. He sets it down on his plate, lets the iPad screen go dark. He looks up and flashes Grace a newlywed grin. “I wanna tell you something,” he says. “I feel kind of guilty.”
“There really is a first time for everything.” Grace’s sarcasm—Nick loves that part of her too. She takes a sip of coffee, bitter now that she’s started to eat her orange, but the pained look on Nick’s face makes her set her mug back down.
“Ha, ha,” he says. “But really—I really feel guilty. I was sitting here trying to decide if I was going to talk to you about it, and—I am.” He looks surprised at himself.
“Okay,” says Grace, tentative. She loves him, but she’s not sure she wants to know. What if he’s bungled a deal and needs to travel overseas to fix it, or what if his investors have seen through the latest Buff McDougal, the latest made-up figurehead to end up on the chopping block. Spousal privilege is a thing, but it’s a hell of a moral quandary to present someone three days in.
Nick fixes his mouth into a straight line. “You miss Kooky,” he says, with some effort. “I know you miss her.”
Grace picks up her coffee mug and takes another sip. It does the trick: Nick goes on.
“When I asked you to marry me, it was because—because I knew it was my only chance. You’d broken up with Frankie, and I could see in your eyes you thought that was a permanent thing. You’ve always been a package deal, and the second you weren’t, I swooped in, and, and—”
Grace swallows. “—you married me.”
“Well, I said yes. Do you regret marrying me? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“No!” Nick exclaims. “I could never regret it. I just. I don’t want you to think you have to stop being with Frankie, just because we got married.” He sighs. He looks miserable. “I wanted to have you all to myself—I mean, my blood is red—but it makes me too guilty. You’re so much more you when Kooky’s around.” His eyebrows travel up his face. “I know,” he says when Grace doesn’t say anything. “I’m being remarkably contemplative. I don’t love this feeling, I don’t mind telling you—”
“‘Break up with Frankie’? ‘Stop being with Frankie’?” Grace repeats the words as if that will make them make sense.
“Well, yeah. When she made that video, I know you said that wasn’t how it was between you, but—”
“Nick, have you thought Frankie and I were, were sleeping together this whole time?”
“Not for the last three days. Well, probably longer than that, since things were pretty shaky for a while. Although you’ve seen her every day for the last three days, haven’t you?”
Grace nods, trying not to panic at the realization Nick thought she was lying about her and Frankie, trying not to panic at the thought of a day without her. She and Frankie made it through their married lives (the first time around), and Santa Fe, and even the Maldives. So many days apart. She doesn’t want any more separations, and she feels no need to lie about it.
“She’s my best friend,” Grace says, right as Nick asks, “What is she to you?”
The question shocks it out of her. “My soulmate,” Grace says, even though she doesn’t believe in soulmates. “But it’s not like that. We’re best friends. We’re—platonic.” It sounds weak, like a line she’s repeated so many times it’s worn out. Except she’s never said “platonic” out loud before. She’s never had to. If this were a pitch, Nick would laugh her out of the boardroom.
This is a conversation between a husband and wife. A different kind of negotiation.
“You know, Grace, if I met my actual soulmate, I’m pretty sure I’d want to sleep with them even if they were, I don’t know, a biker with a bushy beard or someone else totally not my type.”
Grace isn’t Nick’s type either. It used to scare her, being that anomaly, though it’s started to feel like security. She’s different enough to stay interesting. “Oh, stop,” she says. “Why would you have to sleep with them? Wouldn’t it be enough just to—to know them?”
Nick looks at her like she’s insane. “Sex is the best thing ever. Obviously. Everyone knows that. And wouldn’t it be wild to have sex with someone who knows your actual soul? I’d be too curious not to try it.” He looks young. A little anxious. “Aren’t you curious too?”
The question sits perched on the table between them. She doesn’t want to look at it. She doesn’t want to answer it. “So now you regret marrying me because I don’t know your soul?”
“No!” Nick is frustrated now. This is his desperate side. This is the man who wanted to buy all of Walden Villas, wanted to marry her the second it seemed like he could. The man who wanted to fix the beach house, and when she couldn’t see that working, suggested a Craftsman for her with a basement for Frankie. Ideas are the way Nick responds to conflict, real or perceived. “Grace,” he says. “I know you love me, and I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone. But I’d be kidding myself if I believed that alone was enough for you. I mean, I’m not an idiot.”
He reaches across the table, and Grace meets him there, gives him her hand. Her hand is older than his. He holds it like it’s the most precious thing in the world. He always does. Whenever she slows down enough to let him reach her, he touches whatever he can find—her hand, her mouth, her uttered thoughts, the presence of the unuttered ones—so carefully.
Frankie isn’t always so careful, and Grace isn’t always so careful with her. They’ve struggled to learn each other. They know how to hurt each other. But if Grace had to choose one person to depend on in the entire world, she’d choose Frankie. When Frankie has flirted with her, Grace has imagined giving in, saying yes, calling Frankie’s bluff. She never gets further than the moment of surprise. But now, sitting at the breakfast table with her husband, Grace thinks not of the maddening flirtations but of the way Frankie holds her hand, the way Frankie looks at her like she sees the world that lives inside her, like she knows something important about what’s there.
The biggest thing Grace feels is relief. Nick loves her, and she loves him, and they both know they aren’t each other’s only perfect person, and there might be a solution to the feeling she’s had lately: the feeling that she can balance everything only if she rations Frankie, that there won’t ever be enough.
Except there has to be a catch, even an unintentional one. “Why would you—” Grace’s mouth is dry. “Why would you ask for an extra complication?” She wrestles with whether or not she should bring up the possibility of other women for Nick, too—there’s a whole world full of potential soulmates and potential playmates, on pause because he’s married an old woman who can’t get over her almost perfectly platonic life with her best friend.
Nick takes his hand back and looks down. He sticks his thumb inside the cuff of his sleeve and wipes a visible thumbprint from the iPad screen. “Like I said, I’d feel too guilty if I didn’t say something.”
“You don’t like Frankie. You think she’s annoying. You don’t want to spend more time with her.”
“I like her,” Nick insists. “She’s ridiculous. But I like her.”
(Three days ago, sitting side by side on the beach, Frankie’s thoughts tripped and stumbled and spilled out onto the sand. She predicted what would happen if Grace moved out and started to act like a guest in their home. She made Grace promise never to knock on the beach house door. To text ahead only if she’d have texted the same thing before she married Nick. Frankie said she’d rather risk Grace finding her doing something embarrassing, or eating bad food, or making bad art, than to feel like she lived alone and Grace was only a visitor. Grace promised, and they’d looked at each other like they were doing something impossible. Like they were going to try.)
“Okay,” Grace says.
“That’s all I’ve got.” Her throat threatens a nervous laugh. “For now.” It used to be that being alone with Nick was like being away from the world—away from Frankie, away from work, away from complexity. Now that they’ve had this conversation, the room is already unsealed. Will they mourn that someday? Or—the thought rushes through her involuntarily, and so quickly, like a thrill, good or bad—will Nick return to the string of young girlfriends and Grace will get Frankie and that’ll be that? “I know there’s more to say, but—” She stops abruptly and stands. Although Nick keeps telling her she doesn’t have to, she begins to clear the table of the breakfast remains.
That afternoon, when Nick will still be at the office for awhile yet and Grace has pretended to focus on Vybrant long enough, she drives to La Jolla. She doesn’t text first. She doesn’t knock on the door when she arrives. She walks into the house, which is still partly hers, still full of things that are hers, and finds Frankie in the living room. Frankie isn’t doing anything embarrassing. She’s sitting on the couch reading Fates and Furies. Grace read it around the time she had her knee surgery, and she’d suggested Frankie read it when she was done. She never did; Grace suspected it reminded her too much of Jacob and Winnie and the book club in Santa Fe.
“Hey,” Frankie says. She sticks a bookmark in the book and looks up. “Turns out you, Jacob, Jacob’s girlfriend, and Barack Obama have pretty decent taste in literature. Lotto’s an asshole, though.” She holds up the book and shakes her head at it, as if Lotto can see her.
“He really is.” Maybe Grace is more suggestible than she thought she was, but now that she’s here all she can do is picture herself filling the space on the couch next to Frankie. She wants to put her arms around her and tell her she missed her and sit quietly in that warmth. She wants Frankie to want to hold her in return, to tip them backward until the couch cushions are doing all the work to keep them in place. She’s brightly awake, uncertain how to say what she wants to say, but imagines herself drifting away with Frankie in the sleepy sun. She sees this whole prospect for what it is: something she’d regret not doing. Or not trying, anyway. Frankie’s her own person, with—Grace remembers this at the last possible moment—her own yeses and noes.
Grace sits down on the couch, preserving a safe distance between herself and the person she’s here to disrupt. “Frankie,” she says.
Frankie looks at her, curious but almost studiously patient. “Yes?”
Grace breathes out. “I need you to be creative.”
San Diego gives you the weather you’re most supposed to want. Not much changes from winter to spring to summer: the high temperatures increase by about ten degrees, the rare rain dries up nearly entirely, the daylight nudges each day longer and longer—as it does anywhere, though the effect is more mild and languid and golden in San Diego than in other places. Not much changes between Grace and Frankie, either. Not quickly. Not tangibly.
It’s late winter when Grace asks Frankie to consider a different way forward than the bleak path Frankie saw when Grace told her she had married Nick. Grace spends the rest of the waning season in conversation. She feels almost unspeakably selfish, spilling her half-baked emotions everywhere, or, if not everywhere, in front of the two people she loves.
She talks to Nick, who confirms that he really doesn’t expect monogamy from Grace—so long as Frankie’s the only other person in the picture. When Grace asks him if he expects monogamy of himself, he’s quiet for a long time. “Frankie was already in this relationship,” he says. Grace presses him: she wants to know about the possibility of other women, young women with less of every kind of baggage. “Not right now,” Nick says. “Really. We married each other monogamously, and I knew that meant Frankie, too. Maybe non-monogamy isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s just you and me and you and Frankie. Whatever that word is.”
You and me and Frankie, Grace thinks, the construction grammatically incorrect but perfectly accurate in another more important way. She’s the hinge. She’s in the middle.
She talks to Frankie, who stops joking about sex the moment the actual possibility—however tentative and shadowy—is on the table. She stops joking about almost anything for awhile, still tender and hurt and afraid to follow Grace deeper into it.
“Aren’t we here anyway?” Grace pleads, more desperate than she’d like to be. At first, Grace had thought Nick’s observation was all about sex, that maybe she was supposed to be embarrassed she and Frankie weren’t sleeping together when it was so obvious to Nick that they should have been. But it isn’t just sex. It’s the way she and Frankie have always felt big emotions about their friendship, emotions ill-contained by its structure. Nick called it sex. Grace doesn’t have her own name for it. But whatever he saw—as soon as Nick pointed it out, it existed, not because of Nick but because he uncovered it, showed her what had always been there. It doesn’t have to change anything, but it will. She’s starting to realize how much she wants it to change, because every time she tells herself she’s being ridiculous and frivolous and chasing something she doesn’t need and shouldn’t want, some adamant force inside her tells her that line of thinking is wrong. “Isn’t it better to acknowledge it?”
Their first kiss is in spring, on the last day of rain for months, not that they know that when it happens. Grace has brought a stack of sweaters to store at the beach house, sweaters of a weight useful for a sixty-degree day but unnecessary for a day in the seventies. Frankie helps her with the door, and Grace, ever so slightly winded, smiles at her as she sets the plastic-lidded box down onto the ledge that runs along the entrance to the kitchen. “I’m making peanut soup!” Frankie says in lieu of a hello. “It might be a disaster.”
“Lucky me,” Grace says, and Frankie kisses her briefly on the lips, the sensation somehow as familiar as banter and arguments and promises.
Later, Grace will wonder what made Frankie do it. The why is obvious, but not the when. Was it the way she smiled at Frankie? Was it her reaction to the prospect of a soup-exploded kitchen? Was it something that happened earlier in the day, some private decision Frankie made in a moment alone?
At the time, Grace doesn’t wonder about any of these things. She walks into the kitchen, picks up a sponge, and begins to clean the messiest of the countertops. The kiss didn’t feel like a first kiss, she decides as she scrubs. It felt like something needed, like the water level was rising and someone reached in with a big pot and scooped some of the water out, returned everything to safe levels. The kiss meant something, and—just as she’d told Frankie and is relieved to have finally confirmed—it didn’t mean anything new.
That night, alone in the car on the drive from La Jolla into downtown San Diego, Grace keeps smiling like a fool. To show you what you need to live, her brain singsongs when she thinks about the kiss—the one she traded the sweaters for, yes, and then the second one, the longer goodbye one at the end of the evening. She can’t place the lyric right away, has no idea why her mind has shared it so insistently, but remembers it’s from the old Zombies song just seconds before she parks.
As are many of the customs born—like she was—in the United States of America, the Fourth of July is too sweaty and loud and enthusiastic for Grace to want to join in, but she always participates anyway. There’s always a default family function, and no matter what she tells herself about staying home and taking it easy and not doing the stupid stuff she doesn’t want to do, she ends up drunk beneath an exploding sky.
This year, the default family function is an afternoon cookout at Mallory’s. Grace invites Nick to attend on the Monday before the Fourth, nervous enough to squeeze the invitation in right before he leaves for work, when they won’t have much time to talk. The nervousness is unnecessary but not inexplicable: Frankie will be at the cookout, and the three of them haven’t spent a lot of time together recently. Grace might live in the world of Nick-and-Grace-and-Frankie, but for Nick, the new version of Grace-and-Frankie is mostly an idea.
“I wasn’t planning to take that day off,” Nick says with a cringe.
“But you’re the boss.”
“I know. No getting out of it.”
“My family’s going to forget you exist.”
“She’s already going. And you aren’t off the hook just because we have Frankie," Grace says, the sentence unexpectedly serious once it’s out of her mouth. "Because I have Frankie, I mean."
Nick coughs. “Aren’t I?”
He doesn’t mean it, he doesn’t mean it. “You’re unbelievable.” She walks closer and plucks an invisible piece of lint from the lapel of his suit jacket. Nick keeps her close once she’s there: a hand against the small of her back, his other hand light against her neck, a long kiss. Grace smiles up at him, warm beneath the kiss. She’d worried he’d be able to tell when she started kissing Frankie, that it would make her less attractive to him. He knows—because he’s asked how things were going, because she’s willingly told him—and the knowing hasn’t changed the way he looks at her.
“Have fun at the cookout,” Nick says when the kiss breaks, like it isn’t only July first, like the festivities will start any minute. “You’ll have more fun with her than with me. Bring her up to the roof when it’s over, and we’ll watch the fireworks together.”
Frankie wouldn’t miss Mallory’s cookout or any other default family function, not in a million years. She brings tofu dogs in her purse even though Mallory’s been adding them to her shopping list ever since Coyote parked his house on her property. She drinks the perfect amount of beer. She doesn’t pretend to be the grill master. She doesn’t pretend to want to do a damn thing but tell stories and listen to stories and laugh at everything that happens. And this year, she holds Grace’s hand practically the whole time, the act of affection seemingly simple for her, though in private Grace is on the receiving end of so many questions and worries, so many stairsteps they have to solve to get to where they’re going.
Today, though, it feels simple and loud and easy. Still, the new love—the new expression of love—is invisible to their families, who can’t see past the cloaks of age, of friendship, of longtime familiar intimacy. It makes the chorus of nothing new echo louder in Grace’s head. They parked halfway down Mallory’s block and made out in the car until Grace said “The wine’s getting warm” and Frankie said “and the tofu dogs.” They separated long enough to walk into the cookout together, and now that they’re here Frankie grips her hand and keeps snaking her fingers past the cuff of Grace’s sleeve and onto the waiting skin, and they can’t stop looking at each other, and still everyone asks “Where’s Nick?” in the tone of voice Grace remembers from when they all used to ask Mallory about Mitch.
When Brianna asks Frankie takes over the answer with a merciful deflection, a comedy that only pains her and Grace. “Ah, yes, the Chief Executive Officer of Grace’s heart. Where is he, indeed?” She squeezes Grace’s hand tighter. Frankie’s a trooper, Grace thinks, and the thought makes her hate herself with a sharpness she hasn’t felt since before Frankie kissed her for the first time. But Frankie keeps holding on, and it hasn’t been easy for anyone, and the hateful feeling fades.
Later that night Grace drags Frankie to the penthouse and up the elevator, and they arrive to a pitcher of margaritas and a kiss on the lips for Grace and a kiss on the cheek for Frankie. The ladder to the rooftop pulls out of the ceiling. Nick goes up first, and they hand the three drinks up to him, leaving the pitcher behind in the kitchen. Then he jumps back down and spots Frankie, then Grace, as they make the careful climb.
“I thought ‘fancy futon’ was an oxymoron,” says Frankie, her comment directed at Grace as Nick makes his way up to join them. “But you weren’t kidding.” The futon is huge, already set up sofa-style but with a significant recline. There’s some patio furniture up here, but the futon’s size and location makes it the only real option for viewing fireworks.
Nick extinguishes the tiki torches in the too-quiet minutes before the fireworks start. They’ll have an unobstructed view—and, it seems to Grace, they already have an unobstructed view of themselves. The uneasy arrangement. She sits in the middle, mirroring the grammatical construction they use to talk about themselves. Time stutters a bit, not because she’s drunk (she’s not drunk, she realizes—she never even got her own drink at the cookout, nor her own plate, because Frankie kept giving her sips of her beer and bites of food, going so far as to carry around a burger she wasn’t ever going to eat, just so Grace could have some), but because she can’t entirely believe this reality is her reality. At first there’s something almost chaste about the three of them together. If she were alone on this roof with either of them, she’d be held and kissed, and they’d laugh at the fun of it. But sprawled between both of them, she can’t stop thinking about how she and Nick have sex and Frankie knows it, and how she and Frankie haven’t had sex yet and Nick only half believes that could be true.
The first burst of fireworks—red Roman candles and streaky gold willows—startles a laugh from all three of them. By the time the explosion quiets, Nick’s hand is on Grace’s left thigh, and Frankie’s moved closer to place her hand on Grace’s sleeve, right at the inner crook of her elbow. There’s a moment of brief panic in Grace, the crossed wires of Nick and Frankie’s attention such an unfair thing to want. But what do you think? Grace asks herself. It’s a trick she adapted from Frankie, who often stops to get in touch with her feelings. Grace is never going to take the time to gently caress and coax her own subconscious from where—Frankie says—it lodges behind her heart, but the adaptation works pretty well. Stop and think. What’s your actual reaction to this moment?
It feels good: the recline; the soft mattress; the noisy sky; the margarita sweating in her hand; Nick pressed warm against her side, his body an antidote to the cooling air, his hand rubbing her thigh, bringing her right to the boundary between excitement for more and satisfaction with the moment; Frankie less close but somehow closest of all, her hand on Grace’s arm continually leaving to flirt with touching her hip, her stomach, her untouched thigh. It even feels good to silently ask for more, unsure what it would look like to get her wish.
All three of them have watched this fireworks display for years. It’s bigger than ever. They mistake at least three sections of the show for the finale, and when the finale finally comes, its bombast is almost embarrassing.
Frankie grazes the side of Grace’s breast with her knuckles; Grace can feel the bravery radiating from her, almost audible now that the fireworks are over.
“America is so fucked,” Frankie says.
“America is fantastic,” says Nick.
Grace closes her eyes. The quiet in the wake of the fireworks still rings with remembered sounds. “America is not really okay,” she says.
Nick falls asleep not long after the fireworks end. Grace thinks it’s a defensive sleep: if he’s awake, he has to ask them both to stay or suggest without saying outright that Frankie should leave by herself and hope she takes the hint. His grip on Grace’s thigh goes slack, and Grace rolls out from under it so she faces Frankie, who smiles and takes her glass, sets it on the ground with hers. Frankie reaches out and touches the top button on her blouse. Yes, Grace nods. Frankie unbuttons her but doesn’t remove the shirt. She parts the front, and scoots quietly and carefully forward until she’s close enough to touch Grace’s lace-covered breasts for the first time.
Grace thinks for a moment about what would happen if Nick woke up and decides it would be okay. Nick’s seen her breasts dozens of times and has spent a lot of time on them, and aside from Frankie’s presence—which Nick invited—there’s nothing new. Nothing new to Nick, nothing new to Grace. Nothing except Frankie’s touch warming her evening-cooled skin. Frankie brushes her thumb over the fabric of her bra until Grace’s nipple presses back against her. Frankie changes breasts then, and elicits the same reaction from the other. Frankie looks up at her, and Grace’s lips twitch into a smile.
Something about Grace’s reaction—her happiness, the evidence of her arousal—makes Frankie focus on her with an intensity Grace has never witnessed before. She’s seen Frankie this focused, but always in hurt, in anger, or in enthusiasm too circumstantial to be anything but fleeting. This is joy. She looks down at herself being touched, and suddenly her breasts are new. Because they’re new to Frankie, because everything about this moment feels new. She thinks about her bed at the beach house. It’s magical to be this high up, exposed to the air but hidden in the dark, but she wishes she was in her room with Frankie, tucked away, found only by the breeze coming off the ocean and into the open window.
She indulges in that line of thought—the same touches, the same person, a safer, more restful place—only briefly. If she’s not careful, she’ll waste this moment, and she doesn’t want to do that, not when so much has coalesced here, pleasure rushing out of her nerve endings like golden streaks across the sky.
They fell asleep on the roof, so it follows that they’d wake up there too. Grace’s eyes open to a still-dark sky barely tinted with with paler, brighter blue. Frankie’s slumped closer in sleep, her hand hooked around Grace’s thigh. Nick’s moved closer, too. Grace’s first awareness of the morning is the feeling of being surrounded by their breathing. She locates her body in relation to their bodies, identifies the fresh rooftop air, remembers her open blouse and idly wonders about sight lines from other neighbors in other buildings with rooftop access.
She looks for her customary fifth of July hangover, but it isn’t there.
Grace picks up Frankie’s hand and removes it from her thigh. Frankie’s eyes snap open. “Hey,” Grace whispers. “Shhhh.” She squeezes Frankie’s hand, rubbing their thumbs together. When she lets go, Frankie curls into herself and closes her eyes again, as if unready for the world.
It’s difficult to get up from the futon without disturbing anyone further, but Grace manages it. She sneaks across the roof, buttoning her shirt as she walks. She pulls open the door to the apartment and backs slowly down the ladder, remembering to take in the beauty of the early dawn only when three quarters of her body are back inside the penthouse. When the whole of her is back inside, she wanders like a nosy visitor. The half-drunk pitcher of margaritas sits in a pool of condensation on the counter. She pours the contents into the sink, rinses the pitcher with water, and leaves it there.
She’s emerging from the bathroom, still in yesterday’s clothes but with refreshed makeup, when the roof entrance creaks open again. Grace stands in the hallway to watch Frankie emerge bit by bit. Frankie can’t see her face, but Grace grins up at her anyway. When Frankie dismounts and turns to face her, her expression is serious. “I think I’m gonna go,” Frankie says softly.
“Let me just freshen up first?”
“Use my bathroom.”
Grace starts the coffee and cleans up the condensation on the counter while she waits for Frankie, who finds her eventually and gives her a minty kiss. There’s no proof, but Grace has the distinct feeling Frankie borrowed her toothbrush. At least the end result is nice. Grace trails her fingers down the soft skin of Frankie’s neck, is about to pull her in for more, when Frankie speaks.
“You know, Grace, just because Al Capone was good at tax evasion and murdering people doesn’t mean it was good that he did so much of it.”
Grace thinks about how weird Frankie is, how even when she knows what Frankie is going to say, she never knows how she’s going to say it. She thinks of last night, how Frankie touched her with such sincerity, the soft scratch of the lace of the bra against her skin, how unequivocally she wanted—
The thoughts do nothing to propel the conversation, but Frankie manages it on her own. “You’re probably wondering who’s the Al Capone in this scenario. Well, it’s not Nick Skolka, even if he is a crime boss.”
“It’s me,” Grace says. It’s obvious now. This is about drinking. But she didn’t even drink yesterday, not really. She has a lot going on right now, and she doesn’t want to have this conversation today, or ever, not when there’s so much happening, and she’s trying so hard and is already so self-conscious about her selfishness.
“That’s right. You’re the Al Capone of heterosexuality.” Frankie shifts her weight from one foot to the other. “Well. You’re more consistently competent. I was thinking about how to segue into this topic while I was in the bathroom just now, and Al Capone was the first thing I thought of, and I should’ve, um, workshopped it with myself a little more first. Can I start over?”
“Sure,” Grace says, the syllable tight with her last reserves of patience.
“I just—I keep thinking about the Say Yes Night, way back in the day. Remember those guys who bought us the whiskey flights?”
“You were so good at talking to them. You always know how to talk to men. How to keep them interested. You’re much better at it than I am. But being good at something doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
“I went home with you on Say Yes Night. And Nick’s not ‘men,’ Frankie. Not in the generic sense.”
“And you love him.”
“Yes.” And I love you, Grace thinks, but it would be so unfair to say it now. She’s already had the middle spot in the futon. She’s already received so much affection and adaptation.
“I’m gonna go,” Frankie says, like maybe she could circle back around to the start of the last ten minutes and leave before they happened. Her face falls. “Except I didn’t drive.”
Grace sighs. “Wait right here.”
Nick stirs when Grace sits next to him on the edge of the futon. His eyes pop open when she presses her palm to his bicep. “Morning,” Grace says. “I’m gonna drop Frankie off at home.”
“Okay,” Nick says around a yawn. He presses his fingers against his eyes.
“Don’t stay up here and get sunburned, all right?”
“Will you be back before I have to leave for work?”
She probably will. It’s early, and surely a lot of the normal contributors to rush hour will have taken this post-holiday Friday off. “Depends on the traffic,” she says lightly. She leans down and gives him a kiss to soften the resistance to his small request for commitment. “See you soon.”
There’s something else, something that’s eaten at her since last night, though she’s been too distracted to feel it all the way until now. She’s halfway back to the ladder before she convinces herself to turn around. When she does, Nick’s still looking at her. “Frankie’s right about America,” she says.
“Well, sure,” Nick says.
“Okay,” Grace says, not agreeably, and leaves the roof.
Nick knows and he doesn’t. He can apply an intellectual understanding to current political circumstances, not that those circumstances motivate him to change his approach to business. He doesn’t know—and how could he, when she hasn’t ever told him—that last fall she had a panic attack watching Christine Blasey Ford testify at the Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. She can still hear herself gasping No! when Frankie offered to turn off C-SPAN and read the transcript later. We’ve all been to parties, Grace had said, and Frankie said Yeah and rubbed Grace’s back and told Grace to match her breathing to hers, and they made it through the whole hearing that way.
Nick can read a newspaper or watch a video on his phone and understand that the news is bad. But he doesn’t know what it felt like when, just over a week after Ford’s testimony, the news of Kavanaugh’s successful Senate confirmation buzzed its way into her phone while she was in the Target parking lot with Frankie. Frankie slammed their cart into the corral, and they walked back to the car silently, angry tears in both their eyes.
Frankie might return often to the memory of the Say Yes Night, might dwell more frequently than Grace realizes in memories of Grace's interactions with men. But she doesn't realize how much Grace thinks about the times Frankie has gotten her through adversity, all the times their breathing matched up.
Grace spends most of the day out of sorts. She isn’t entirely sure why—she’s not fighting with Nick, she’s not fighting with Frankie. For once, she isn’t fighting with anyone, not even herself. Yet she keeps catching herself thinking someone is angry with her, that she’s done something wrong. She feels it when she gets stuck in traffic heading back downtown after dropping Frankie off at the beach house—she’d decided she really did want to make it back home before Nick had to leave for work, but she arrived too late. She feels it when she has to call Frankie about Vybrant and knows if she hadn’t left the beach house so quickly, they could have had the conversation in person.
That evening, too soon after Nick walks in the door, she says, “Let’s bring Frankie dinner.” She wonders if he’s mad at her for skipping over “How was your day?”
“Should I bring my overnight bag?” Nick asks wryly.
After she and Nick got back together but before they got married, Nick used to spend a lot of time at the beach house—some weeks he was there almost every night. Grace misses her bedroom there, but she keeps imagining herself alone in it with Frankie. Until there’s space for that to happen—to sleep alone with Frankie, sex or no sex—she doesn’t want to return to her old room, no matter how much she misses it. She wonders when Nick will go out of town next. It’s been an unusually long time since his last trip, but she doesn’t want to ask him and risk seeming overly eager for his absence. And besides, none of that makes a difference for tonight. There’s a guest room on the first floor with a king-sized bed. “Might as well,” Grace says lightly. “We shouldn’t drive back if we drink.”
There aren’t many cuisines that the three of them like equally or nearly equally well, but Vietnamese is one of them. Nick and Grace stop for takeout at a pho place not far out of the route to the beach house. Nick drives, and Grace’s phone vibrates with text after text. Nick waits in the car at the restaurant, so Grace answers the texts—all from Frankie—while she waits in the pickup queue at the restaurant. Frankie wants easy, mundane things: disposable chopsticks because she’s misplaced the real ones (“Have you checked in your hair?” Grace would say if they were face-to-face), extra chile oil on the side. The pho comes in two big plastic tubs—one beef, one vegetarian—and a separate bag heaped with basil and mint and bean sprouts. They get tofu banh mi to share and spring rolls with sticky-sweet dipping sauce. Grace finds the chopsticks while she waits, and asks the cashier for the extra chile.
The texts start up again during the second leg of the journey, although Frankie knows she’s back in the car, knows it’s too late to add anything to the order. Grace keeps her phone in her purse, smiles at Nick and then at the open road.
“Just answer her,” Nick says tersely. He can obviously hear the buzzing, too. “Tell her we’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Grace pulls the the phone from her bag. Seven new texts, all Frankie:
Are you staying over?
Are you and Nick staying over?
I don’t want to sleep in your bed with him
Guest bed might be fine
Yr clothes as optional as you want em to be!
I’m just telling you how I feel
No, Grace thinks. You’re telling me what you want. There’s a difference. She texts back:
We can talk about it when we get there.
She figures she’s spent about a minute reading and writing.
We’ll be there in nine minutes.
When they arrive, Frankie opens wine right away, and they don’t wait to break into the food. “I liked last night,” Grace says once they’ve been eating for a while. The sentence is nothing short of inappropriately abrupt: most of the meal has centered around such thrilling topics as deciding whether to leave the soup containers on the dining room table, making sure everyone has an even number of spring rolls, and discussing basil-leaf tearing methods. Frankie likes to tear her basil into smaller pieces than both Nick and Grace. It’s very illuminating. Grace senses her tablemates’ discomfort at the subject change and remembers making the leap from osteoarthritis to masturbation during the first and only Vybrant focus group.
“I did too,” Nick says gamely, though the sentence breaks a too-long pause. “Under rockets’ red glare with two lovely ladies.”
“Yeah, well,” Frankie says, and for a second Grace thinks she’s going to tease Nick about how lucky he is, but she doesn’t say anything else.
“We could stay tonight,” Grace says.
“First floor,” says Frankie.
“Sure,” says Nick.
After that, the dining room is just a waiting room.
When it’s late enough to get in bed—the king-sized one in the guest room—Nick and Grace each pull down the covers on one side, and Frankie waits awkwardly for Grace to climb in, nothing to do with her hands. “It’s weird to sleep in the guest room in your own home. I guess this is what our guests experience,” Frankie chirps when they’re all settled and the light’s turned off.
Grace laughs. “I don’t think it is.” She’s glad now that they suffered through a stilted discussion of boundaries at the dinner table, because it means they don’t have to suffer through it in bed. They’ve decided: no full nakedness, and Grace and Frankie won’t try anything new together, not here in the pressure of a three-personed dynamic, and Nick can watch Grace and Frankie kiss, and Frankie can watch Nick and Grace kiss, and Grace won’t have to watch Nick and Frankie do anything together because it would never happen, not in any version of any universe, and if anything more than kissing and casual touching happens while they’re all in bed together, they have to talk about it, check in about it, and surely there are more rules, surely there are instructions somewhere, but in the absence of those everyone has to try to be decently honest and patient and kind. Everyone has to try.
The middle feels good—better than last night, even, because a bed in a bedroom is such an expected location, and there’s something generous about its obviousness. Grace is turned toward Nick, arm flung across his middle. Her back is to Frankie but she doesn’t feel turned away from her because Frankie’s cradling everything she can touch. For a few minutes, quiet and still, it seems like they might fall asleep that way, all the careful conversation for nothing. Or for next time. But then Frankie says softly, “I’m going to touch your back,” and her hand is inside Grace’s pajama top, her fingertips trailing every inch of skin she can reach. The words she murmurs land in Grace’s ears and make Grace hum, and the words and the sounds land in Nick’s ears too—beautiful, your skin, here, honey, here here here. Grace doesn’t know she’s shut her eyes until she opens them, and Nick’s looking right at her, still lying on his back with his face turned.
“Grace,” Nick says.
Grace freezes, ready to hear Grace, be quiet or Grace, please stop.
“Please,” he says, and this time she hears the syllable as intended.
“I’m going to touch Nick,” Grace says. “Is that okay?” She promised she’d say it out loud.
“Okay, honey,” Frankie says. She pulls her hand from Grace’s shirt and wraps the arm around Grace, touches the soft skin on her stomach.
Nothing new, Grace thinks.
“I’m right here,” Frankie says, her tone comforting, not indignant.
Grace stays technically true to the promise of no nakedness. She pulls down the waist of Nick’s pajama pants just enough, makes sure the bedclothes are situated so they won’t expose him even though the dark itself is a pretty good cover. She pulls him out, strokes gently at the length of him, mindful of the lack of lubricant. She finds the reliable places, and those places are reliable even in these unusual circumstances.
“Is it okay that I’m right here?” Frankie adds, uncertain, and Grace realizes she didn’t respond before.
“Yes,” she says emphatically. It’s a yes for both of them, for the touching and being touched.
Frankie kisses the back of Grace’s neck. “Right here,” she murmurs again, as insensible as if she were the one being fucked. “Right here.” It doesn’t take long to bring Nick off, and his grunt—joyful as always, if a little subdued—coincides with more kisses from Frankie.
Nick leans away to grab a tissue from the nightstand, and Frankie releases her, too.
“Are you okay?” Frankie whispers, the question for Grace alone, and Grace nods yes for her, a small response considering the size of the question.
“Do you want me to touch you?” Nick asks. The question for Grace alone.
“No,” Grace whispers back. “I’m okay.” She’s worked up enough she doesn’t know how she’ll sleep, but she can’t imagine doing anything about it right now. Not with Frankie here watching, not when she feels Frankie aching next to her.
Nick kisses her mouth, and a flood of warmth ripples through her. Frankie kisses her neck again, and it’s flint striking the steel of her spine, a shower of sparks.
When Grace wakes up, she’s alone with Nick and has moved into the space Frankie occupied the night before. It’s a big bed, but she feels Nick stir. She keeps her eyes closed for a few minutes and lets last night come back to her. Nick fell asleep first, like he did on July Fourth, but unlike that night she didn’t turn away from him and toward Frankie. She stayed right where she was, Frankie wrapped around her giving her arrhythmic kisses at the base of her cervical spine, and she pulled Frankie’s arm against her, held Frankie’s hand close enough to kiss her palm, the pad of her thumb, the delicate bones in her wrist. She kept imagining they’d stolen Nick’s afterglow, but it wasn’t his. It was theirs only, a hushed preglow, touch the only way to communicate in the silent dark.
She opens her eyes. Nick lies on his side facing her, a smile on his face. He clears his throat with the brief low rumble she’s heard dozens of times. “I love the way you sounded last night. When the three of us were together.” Grace cringes. “Don’t be embarrassed,” he says. “Come here.”
He reaches; she shifts. It takes a few moments to maneuver, but eventually she lies on top of him, his arms folded peacefully over her lower back. She expects a kiss, or the easy flirtation of so many mornings at the beach house, filling up on the simple acts of togetherness until they wander off to find Frankie and breakfast. Instead, Nick’s eyes dart to the side. Guilt.
“I have to go to Tokyo for ten days,” he says. “I leave Wednesday.”
“Oh,” Grace says. “Why’d you wait so long to tell me?”
“I know you’ll spend the whole time here with Frankie,” he says. She realizes this is his answer to her question.
Ten entire days. She’ll sleep in her own bed every night, and for the first time since the start of the year, her time with Frankie won’t require all the complicated little negotiations. They’ll have enough time, even if enough already feels like the wrong word for only ten days. Until Nick told her about Tokyo, she'd been sleepy and nostalgic for seven hours earlier; now her stomach flutters with pre-sex anticipation.
“We’ll spend every moment together before you leave,” she says. She puts her hands on his chest, the touch and the landing place solid and firm.
After she and Nick leave the beach house on Saturday morning, Grace doesn’t see Frankie in person, not even for Vybrant. Frankie tells her she understands and that she’ll have the house ready for her on Wednesday, though Grace can’t get a good handle on how Frankie feels about the prospect of a ten-day vacation from Grace and Nick’s marriage. She resigns herself to decoding that one when she’s back with Frankie, because in the meantime, she’s promised to spend every moment with Nick.
Every moment: an easy promise early on a Saturday morning, a difficult concept to implement in practice. Grace spends the four nights before Nick leaves alone with him. They eat good meals. They watch good movies and hold themselves back from working during them. They have good sex. But they still work during the days, and there are still phones and notebooks and bathrooms and appointments and thoughts, so many countless privacies.
Frankie is present in those privacies.
On Tuesday afternoon waiting at the doctor’s office, Grace scrolls Instagram, lands on a post from Mallory, photographer unknown, of Mallory and Brianna and a group of female friends Grace wasn’t sure they still had. The caption: #hotgirlsummer.
Below the photo, Frankie’s commented “Hot Girl Summer!?!? I’m participating this year!” with a row of rainbow flag emoji. She’s tagged someone with the handle @gracehamilton.
Mallory’s responded with “Haha Frankie, you’re always participating. Did you mean to tag Mom?” and a pair of eyeballs.
Grace doesn’t think about how Frankie should be more careful when looking up usernames to tag. She doesn’t question how Frankie could accidentally tag a stranger instead of Grace, who, soulmate status notwithstanding, has been her Instagram mutual for several years. She’s too busy beaming at her phone like the cliché of the girl twirling a spiral telephone cord around her fingers. Whatever #hotgirlsummer is, when Frankie hears about it she thinks of her. Thinks of it as a participation. The little rainbows shine up at her. Thinks of it as something to be proud of.
Every time Grace starts to believe she’s doomed to disappoint and dismay everyone she knows including herself, she tries to remember that she’s well-acquainted with having to learn that the things Frankie wants aren’t stupid. Frankie always wants Del Taco, and after years of choosing the healthiest thing on the menu, picking at it, and sneering at the rest of the options for being utter poison, Grace understands that a Del Taco burrito is a very good thing to eat. Frankie wanted Kenny Loggins to notice her art career, but then it turned out she really wanted something very sensible, which was to feel her loved ones’ pride in her work. Frankie used to beg Grace to smoke with her, but Grace didn’t want to cough too much, or find the wrong thing funny, or find nothing funny, or have nothing happen. Now she knows pot is like a slightly silly, very warm cocoon, and she’s an absolute pro.
In the post-divorce years Grace has watched Frankie’s never enough, never quite right attempts to connect and disconnect from Sol, to find her way with Jacob. Grace realizes now that Frankie has made similar attempts with her, successful if volatile. Now Frankie wants Grace, loves Grace, and one of Grace’s many jobs is to understand that it’s not stupid of Frankie to feel that way.
On Wednesday night, it's almost difficult to recognize the reality of getting what she’s spent so long imagining. Although the room is Grace’s, Frankie leads her there, pulls down the covers from a bed she’s made, welcomes her.
“Let me take care of you?” Frankie says. She sits on the edge of the bed, looking down at her hands where they’re splayed across her lap. “The other night, when I held you while you touched Nick—I was so jealous and so transfixed.” She gets back up and walks around the bed to where Grace still stands taking in her room, her aloneness with Frankie. “I wanted you to be okay.”
“I was okay,” Grace says quickly.
“Good,” Frankie says. She sounds like Nick did when he agreed with Frankie’s take on America.
“I want to touch you.” Desire keeps opening Grace’s mouth and pulling words from her throat.
“At some point. Some point soon.” Frankie smiles, the expression like a subject change. “Let me take care of you,” she repeats, this time a demand.
The first time with a new person, it takes awhile to find a rhythm—the way to undress yourself or be undressed or undress your partner or watch them take off their clothes, what to do with the lamplight, the invisible line between foreplay and sex, the literal rhythm of hands and mouths and genitals and accessories. On the first night of the ten days and eleven nights they have alone together, Frankie kisses Grace hard, undresses her slowly, insists on leaving the lights on. Grace lies on her back and Frankie, still wearing her pajamas, pulls the covers over them. Frankie finds all the places she hasn’t touched directly before: The curve of her hip, finally skin against skin. The part of her abdomen usually covered by the waist of her jeans. The thinning patch of trimmed hair between her legs. Every touch is ephemeral, a small and precious agony.
There is no afterwards. But when Grace has come—and having an orgasm in front of Frankie is the epitome of new, being everything she is in front of her, her entire self bare in the sharp sweet moment—and Frankie has made her feel every possible aftershock, Grace says again that she wants to touch Frankie.
“Not yet,” Frankie says simply. “Soon.”
It’s not a rejection, and it doesn’t sting to honor it.
“So. I have ten days,” Frankie says the next morning. She’s lying on her back, staring straight up.
“No,” Grace says with her newly-loosened mouth. She scoots close to Frankie. “We have the rest of our lives to keep figuring this out.”
Frankie sighs. “Well. It feels like I have ten days.”
Frankie has more plans than can fit into the time Nick’s gone.
One afternoon she runs an errand and comes home to interrupt Grace reading on the couch. Frankie is the bookmark sliding between Grace and the world of the novel. She pulls the glasses from Grace’s face, fucks her while she’s half-blind in the afternoon sun. Another afternoon, she does the same thing but leaves Grace’s glasses on.
There’s a night early on when Frankie drinks with Grace but stops before Grace does. Frankie says it’s okay if Grace wants to get drunk, so Grace gets a little drunk, and Frankie fucks her with her fingers on top of the covers, sloppy and warm and lazy. Grace starts to apologize for how long it’s taking her to come, but Frankie won’t have it. Her only response is “Does it feel good?” From the warm wrappings of drink and pleasure, Grace says yes. When she finally comes, the orgasm reaches her as if through layers of cloth. The sharpest feeling of the night is later, sitting up in bed, when Frankie brings her ice water and says “I love you” as she takes the first cold clean sip. The love is the quenching. Grace swallows and says it back. They stay up late talking and hydrating, and by the time they go to sleep Grace is sober again.
Frankie fucks Grace while they’re watching TV, pretends the sex is an afterthought. The only thing she says is a casual “This okay?” before she starts to touch her. Grace wants it but is afraid she won’t like it this way. She doesn’t want to feel ignored. But she feels loved, lying in front of Frankie on the couch in the darkened living room, the images from the screen washing over their skin. Later, when the TV’s off and the room is pitch-black, she whispers in Grace’s ear that they’re the only people on the entire planet.
“Do you want me to touch you?” Grace asks. “Will you tell me if you do?”
Grace tells Frankie when she wants to be touched, asks for it whenever it occurs to her, asks for it so often that the days lose their structure. Frankie asks for it in return on the sixth night, an ordinary Monday night except for its status as halfway point. She wants Grace’s hand to soothe and excite and soothe. Then she wants their vibrator, wants Grace to control it but tell her everything she’s going to do before she does it. Frankie’s quieter than Grace expected her to be, and Grace listens to every breath she can hear over the gentle rumbling hum of the Ménage. She exults when her sighs intensify. When she holds Frankie while she’s coming down from her first orgasm with Grace, she wants the moment to last forever.
After that Frankie wants every scenario. She wants to see what it’s like to fuck while they’re both stoned, the sex a brief eternity. She wants flawless crystalline sobriety for both of them, perfect focus, arousal the only drug. She wants silence. She wants Grace to talk, wants to hear everything Grace feels. She wants to talk about what it’s like to fuck Grace when she’s made up and perfectly coiffed and ready to be in the world, and she also wants to talk about what it’s like to fuck the home-softened Grace when her guard’s down and she’s makeup free.
Their days take on a new frame, but life’s linear footfalls continue around them. A college friend of Grace’s dies; Grace didn’t even know she was sick. Frankie stirs love from her grief, and they spend an endless orgasmless afternoon together in bed. Faith takes her first steps. Bud sends the video of her second steps to both Grace and Frankie’s phones. They’re in bed when it arrives, trying to convince themselves to get up and make dinner. Frankie plays the video four times; after the second time, Grace doesn’t bother to watch and kisses the crown of Frankie’s head instead.
On the last morning Grace wakes up early, leaves Frankie asleep, and heads for the bathroom. When she comes back from getting ready, Frankie is sitting up in bed, and has opened the window to let in the salt air. A mug of coffee steams on each nightstand. Frankie pulls Grace back to bed and undresses her, goes straight for the nerve endings the way she’s done to her for decades, one way or another. She helps Grace get wet, with lube and kisses to the spine and whispered foreplay—sweet girl, brave girl, show me what you need, let me give it to you. She touches her until Grace comes hard against Frankie’s hand. Then she keeps going, keeps her in the realm of pleasure, puts Grace’s hands on her own breasts and belly, goes inside her, uses her free hand to brush away tears almost faster than Grace can realize she is crying them.
After she comes a second time Frankie leaves Grace’s body slowly. She brushes against every millimeter of sensitized flesh, kisses Grace’s temple, licks delicately at the tracks of tears that escaped her fingers. “Do you want—” Grace asks, the moaned sentence unfinished but obvious. “What do you—?”
“That was for you. It’s okay.” Frankie smiles sadly. She finds Grace’s fingers at rest where she planted them, pulls Grace’s hand away from her stomach and puts it where her own had been, as if she wants her to feel for herself how wet and swollen and loved she is. “I’m gonna, um”—she gestures toward the bathroom—“and what I really want is to take a shower and know you’re in here playing with yourself.”
“Oh,” Grace says. “Okay.” She readjusts her head to wedge more of the pillow beneath it. She’s hot where she’s touching herself, cool everywhere else. Frankie stands, neatening the covers and pulling them to Grace’s shoulders, the warmth and weight something Grace hadn’t known she wanted but does. Frankie scoots the lube jar closer, but Grace can’t see herself using more, can’t see herself trying for anything beyond a little continued pressure. These touches are for Frankie, to make Frankie’s shower better—she can’t possibly come a third time, not now.
She circles and strokes, careful to be slow and gentle for the sake of her wrist, her tender skin, drifts to the sound of the shower and the thought of Frankie washing her hair, Frankie’s hands working through the curls, water sluicing down her shoulders. She listens to her own breathing, the sighs she makes when it feels good, the distant, comforting sound of the shower. Her other hand continues to rest on her breast, and she touches herself there more purposefully, thinks about how she’d held onto herself when Frankie was inside her. After ten or fifteen minutes, she hears Frankie turn off the water, hears the squeak of the slightly loose dowel on the towel rack. “Damn it,” Frankie mutters, voice muffled by the shut door. She’s puddled water, maybe, or dropped her towel. Just a tiny fuck-up, a dime a dozen with Frankie, and yet imagining her makes Grace’s heart swell. And then she’s there again, her touches collecting into enough. She’s torn between wanting Frankie to come out of the bathroom to see her and wanting her to stay where she is.
This orgasm is kind, almost but not quite gentle—a squeeze instead of a storm. She whimpers when it hits, then instinctively bites her lip as she rides it out. When it fades, she opens her eyes to see Frankie walk back into the bedroom, nestled in her big terry cloth robe, her wet hair twisted into a towel turban. Frankie’s face is red—from the steam from the shower, maybe, or maybe she’s gotten herself off in the shower, and even the thought of that makes Grace not jealous but happy, a flare of happiness—
“Hey,” Frankie says with a knowing smile. “Did you?”
Grace glances away. She grins against the empty feeling of knowing this is the last time she’ll be here for awhile. “Yeah.”
“Good.” Frankie rushes back under the covers, the movement causing the towel wrapped around her head to fall open. Wet hair splays across her pillow, a few strands hitting the side of Grace’s face. She finds Grace’s hand and pulls it close, kisses her knuckles, kisses her sticky fingers.
“It’s been really good,” Frankie says against Grace’s fingers.
Grace chuckles. “That’s like saying Bill Gates is slightly affluent.”
“Or Nick Skolka is slightly affluent.”
Nothing new. Everything new. “Frankie,” Grace says. The earth should start to spin faster. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time.”
“I know, baby,” Frankie says. She delivers another kiss, follows it up by pulling Grace’s fingertip into her mouth. “You love both of us.”
“I do. I love both of you. But—fuck, Frankie.” She’s surprised she isn’t shaking; her whole body is one big shiver. “I didn’t know what it was until just now. I didn’t know what being in love felt like. All this time I just thought—I thought I had a lot of opinions about you. Like: ‘Frankie is pretty.’ And ‘I want to control all of Frankie’s major life decisions.’ And ‘Being away from Frankie makes me feel physically sick.’”
“Best roommate ever,” Frankie says, but she’s starting to cry. She takes a deep breath and gets some control back. “You’re right. Being in love is a whole different thing. I—I’m in love with you, too.” She sighs, the exhale nearly laughter. “I thought that’s what we’d been doing here.”
“It was,” Grace stammers. “It is. I just—” In some ways, Grace is good at words. She knows how to banter, how to debate, how to at least show up for the big conversations. She knows how to advocate for a business initiative, knows how to pitch a product. But how often has she advocated for her own memories—how often has she consciously decided to put those into words? She told Frankie about her climbing tree, and about her mother crying on the train back from New York. It’s time to share a memory that’s far more recent. “I heard you swear while you were getting out of the shower,” she says. “It did something to my heart. I knew it was different, that it’s been different. Fuck.”
“What are you—” Frankie shakes her head. “Never mind. That’s too big. You just went through an earthquake; you don’t deserve a tornado, too.”
“Okay. When things happen to queer people—like, when things happen because someone’s queer. When things happen to the LGBTQ community. It feels like those things are happening to me.” She chuckles. “When Robert and Sol came out, it felt like gay people were happening to me, and my reaction to that will always be part of my autobiography. But I’ve evolved. And—whatever label I land on, I’m part of it. You know? I was gonna ask if that’s how you feel about it, too. But this might not be the moment for that.”
Grace thinks about it, aware she’s letting the question hang middair. Her brow furrows. “Yes,” she says. “That is how I think about it. I mean, I still put Robert and Sol in a class by themselves. But you’re right. Whenever something bad happens to the community—and not just bad things, good things too—I think about it like it’s mine.”
“Wow.” Frankie beams. “Did we just come out to each other?”
Grace nods, and her head’s barely moved before Frankie’s smile grows impossibly brighter.
“It’s very convenient,” Frankie says. “This room has seen some things.”
Grace glances at the digital clock on the nightstand. Somehow it’s already 9:45. The most inconvenient thing. “Frankie, I have to pick Nick up from the airport really soon. I promised.”
“Fuck,” Frankie says.
“You're not here,” Nick says, and as soon as he says it, she is. She’s in the bedroom she shares with her husband. She’s tucked into her side. He’s tucked into his. There’s a book on each nightstand. Glasses of water. A place for everything.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
They’ve talked a lot already. When she pulled up to the arrivals lane this morning, Nick already stood at the curb. Grace’s hair was wet, her clothes hastily chosen. She was a post-sex probably-lesbian dervish, and he could tell before he pulled open the passenger door. “I do know you, you know,” Nick said at one point in the meandering, maddening conversation. “I do pay attention. This is why I felt guilty in the first place.”
Tonight Nick fiddles with the edge of the light summer comforter. “I knew everything would change.”
“Well,” Nick says. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“I don’t want to lose you, either. Not from my life. The problem is that I’m always mid-sentence with Frankie. We’re always talking about something. I always feel this, this need to find out what the next sentence is.”
“You don’t feel that way with me.”
She shakes her head. “I love you. But I don’t feel that way.”
“Yeah.” It’s her turn to pick up the edge of the comforter and smooth meaningless wrinkles. “When you told me I didn’t have to stop sleeping with Frankie, I hadn’t even started. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like there were all these things that I might regret not doing. But it turned into more than that, not just what I’m doing, but who I am—”
Nick nods. “Okay. We’ll decide what changes.” He stiffens. “The three of us will decide what changes. Probably a lot.”
“Probably a lot.”
“Right now, though, my body thinks it’s 1:30 in the afternoon tomorrow, and my brain has had a very sad day.”
Grace agrees. There's not much more to say anyway, not until she can talk to Frankie again. “Nick?” she says.
“Thank you.” She wonders if he'll ever know he saved her life.
His smile is only a little pained. “Maybe it can still stay complicated sometimes. You can bring Frankie up to the roof.”
“I'd like that.” She means it.
Grace sleeps fitfully, and she can tell Nick’s full of wakeful exhaustion too. She assumes no one in the world can sleep right now, and that includes Frankie out at the beach, lonely in Grace’s bed. Grace knows Frankie’s whereabouts because she used her phone to check the time and saw a new text from Frankie:
Very very sad yet grateful times alone in your bed!
As early as Grace can sensibly call sleep quits, she gets out of bed and walks down the hall to make coffee. She prepares a travel mug and tiptoes back into the bedroom to tell Nick she has to go to the beach. He’s finally asleep, sprawled to take up some of the space she’s left, but he wakes up long enough to murmur a few syllables and make her believe he’s heard where she’s going.
Last time Grace made a big decision about Nick, she drove to the beach and drank until she hallucinated a life without truly knowing Frankie, a life in which Frankie was on the miserable periphery of her miserable life. The nightmare of it startled her into lucidity, if not clarity.
Now she sees not the horrible alternatives but the life she could have. The life she does have, in so many ways.
There’s hardly any traffic, but it feels like she’s crawling north on the 5 to La Jolla. To the beach house, where Frankie probably hasn’t had any coffee yet, where she’s probably just now starting to think about getting out of bed. Grace makes the drive so often and knows it so well that she can do it on autopilot. Today is different: she feels every inch of every mile. When she’s parked, she hears her own car door slam. She watches herself walk the path to the kitchen door. Frankie’s inside, visible through the windowpane. Grace pauses to watch Frankie make a decision at the refrigerator, then cross to the sink so she can pick up the coffee carafe that’s done filling with water. Grace puts her hand on the doorknob.
As soon as the knob starts to turn, Frankie looks up. Grace walks into the house. All that time on the road, and Grace hasn’t formulated any questions. She’s here to offer her whole life. A smile blooms on Frankie’s face. The words will come, but the answer is already here.