“My husband is a criminal,” Grace says. She dumps her overnight bag out onto her bed at the beach house. Takes a deep breath. “My husband is a criminal. My husband is a criminal.”
Frankie makes a thoughtful sound. “To be fair, Nick is rich enough that we probably should have assumed he was a criminal from the start.”
“He knew he was going to get arrested and he didn’t tell me.”
“Yeah. Yeah. That’s… Yeah. That’s that.”
“I was stuck on the toilet and I didn’t tell him. Couldn’t tell him. He was right there, Frankie. He asked me if I needed anything.”
“Oh, Grace,” Frankie says, small. Sad. She brightens. “I know just the thing to cheer you up!” She kneels low, gingerly, and pulls a box of Cheez-its as big as her head out from underneath Grace’s bed. Grace isn’t surprised; Frankie has stores of Cheez-its hidden all around the house. She’s like a squirrel.
“Cheez-its do not cheer me up,” Grace says, at least as stern as she is fond.
“Oh, right. They’re for cheering myself up!” She spreads out on Graces’s bed, right in the middle. Full starfish. If starfish stuffed their faces with handfuls of Cheezits and talked with their mouths open.
“The crumbs,” Grace says in protest, but she’s far too late. She sighs.
“You’re too good for him,” Frankie says. “Way out of his league, way way out.”
“Frankie, he’s smart and rich and handsome. Not to mention younger.”
“Yes,” Frankie says, then scrambles up, dashes around the bed. “I remembered! What you need! To cheer you up.”
“Spoiler alert: it’s vodka.”
Frankie’s lips tip up into a little smile. At least as fond as she is exasperated. She wraps her arms around Grace, tight, tight. Grace tries to wriggle away, huffing, but Frankie makes a soothing sound, low in her throat, says, “Be still; I promise it won’t hurt you.” So Grace goes still. Of course she does. Lets Frankie hold her close. Breathes in the smell of her shampoo and weed and Cheez-its. Tries to relax, because she knows that’s what Frankie really wants, but she can’t, can’t. Stands, still and stiff. Lets herself be hugged.
Frankie breathes out, pulls away. She’s grinning. “I love you,” she says, both hands on Grace’s shoulders, eyes wide, sparking mischievously.
Grace groans. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, laughing. “Love you too. Now take your Cheez-its and let me unpack.”
Grace has forgiven Robert; she’s no longer filled with bile and rage at the sight of him and Sol together. She can even enjoy his company, most of the time; can enjoy this new friendship that time and honesty and sincerity has helped them to build.
None of that makes him any easier to live with.
One night, the four of them sit around the dining table, making stilted conversation. Grace is on her fifth drink.
“Hypothetically,” Frankie says, “How would two vibrant young women go about laundering several tens of thousands worth of illicit dollars?”
“They don’t,” Robert says.
“Hypothetically!” Frankie exclaims.
“No,” Sol says. “Not even hypothetically.”
“This is why everyone hates lawyers,” Grace says.
“I was thinking you could ‘pay’ us ‘rent’ while you’re ‘staying’ here,” Frankie says, making extensive use of air quotes, even for her. “That could wipe out ten grand, easy! Did I mention our desirable beachfront location?”
“We’re not paying you rent,” Sol says firmly.
“Sol, you’re really not picking up what I’m putting down.” Then, as an aside to Robert, “I guess that’s your influence, huh?”
Robert stands slowly; his entire being transforms from semi-relaxed elderly retiree into Very Important Man who considers himself to be Very Benevolent And Kind, and it takes Grace back to their married days so fast she feels nauseous. “I will help you,” declares Robert. “I will help you with your toilet and your money.”
“Oh,” Frankie says, breathy, grinning, clapping her hands.
“To the patio!” Robert says, then, hushed, “Bring the Starbursts.”
Frankie trails after Robert with the damn Starbursts, and Grace buries her face in her arms on the table top. Sol puts a hand over hers, gently, and she snatches it back, but when she glances up she can see that he’s not offended; he’s looking at with a quiet kind of understanding.
“He’s insufferable,” she says, almost pleading, bordering on desperate.
Sol nods. “He really is,” he says, with a small smile, wearing a look of mingled love and annoyance so familiar it makes her head spin.
Or maybe it’s just the alcohol.
Later, Frankie bursts into Grace’s bedroom, babbling on about income streams and taxes and this and that. “I’m almost close to being able to understand it,” she says proudly.
“That’s good,” Grace says.
Frankie gives her a sharp look. Crawls into bed with her, ignores her weak objections.
“Him living here,” Grace says. “It’s…”
“You don’t know, not really.” Because Sol had loved her, so much even if it wasn’t enough; she had Sol and Sol had her and Robert, and Robert had Sol. And Grace had had no one; hadn’t even realized it; was alone without knowing how or why or that nothing was the way it was supposed to be. Alone so long she might never figure out what it feels like to be loved, really loved, with truth and acceptance and vulnerability and all those dumb things that make unconditional love work.
“We’re together now,” Frankie says, as if Grace has spoken those thoughts out loud. “We’re together now and I love you and that’s important, too. Yesterday may suck, but I’m glad we have now.” She takes Grace’s hand and squeezes, hard, which is good, good, because it bleeds though the numbness; it’s a physical reminder that Frankie exists and she’s here, here with Grace and nobody else.
Grace breathes. Squeezes back. “Me too,” she says. “Me too.”
Grace remembers when Brianna was born. How proud everyone had been of her, even Robert, even her icy mother-in-law. Even herself.
She endured the pain of childbirth and she held Brianna in her arms and thought I have accomplished this, I have made this small person with wispy blonde hair and sharp fingernail and sharper eyes. But that was before she realized how hard it was to be touched all the time; how she loved her child but could barely tolerate her, how quickly she had to retreat to survive.
How little time it takes to be found wanting, to be less than enough, to be so incapable of this thing that is supposed to come so naturally.
“Barry and I are throwing a party to celebrate our engagement!” Brianna announces, flitting into the beach house in head-to-toe pink. Smiling. Happy.
“A party to celebrate an engagement,” Grace says dryly, “It almost sounds like you’re describing a--”
“But she’s not,” Frankie cuts in quickly, grinning, jumping up to give Brianna a hug. “It’s going a be a beautiful party. A celebration of love!”
Brianna makes a face. “Anyway. Guess who I saw when Barry dragged me to the farmers market? A very sad and very handsome farmer who looked very very sad and asked about a certain someone. Did I mention how sad he looked? Very sad.”
“Yes, I’ve fielded a few calls,” Frankie admits.
“Have you,” Grace says.
“Are you getting back together?” Brianna asks.
“No,” Frankie says. She doesn’t look at Grace. “If I still loved him, it wouldn’t have been hard to choose him.”
Brianna groans, disappointed. “I never even got to live vicariously through you juggling two guys.”
“It’s not as fun as it sounds,” Frankie says.
“Nick and I are separated,” Grace says abruptly. “Not just, not just physically. Legally separated.”
Brianna pours a double martini and says absolutely nothing; hands Grace her drink in blissful silence. The gesture is so kind and loving that Grace has to blink back tears.
Before the ex-husbands moved in, Grace made sure to negotiate for one thing: privacy on movie nights. The boys go to bed early and stay there, or they spend the night elsewhere. Maybe they could tell she was serious, because they haven’t made a single attempt to tiptoe over this boundary.
Grace is grateful when Frankie pauses the movie; it’s one of those interminable fantasy things. “I can’t believe we’re only halfway through this,” she says.
“I’m going to change my life,” Frankie says, head tipped back against the sofa cushion, hair spread out like a fan, palms out, fingers extended.
Grace swallows, heart pounding. She thought… but she’s been wrong before. She’s been wrong about Frankie before. Still, she tries to inject some enthusiasm into her voice. She can be supportive. That is, after all, what they do. “What’s the plan?”
Frankie exhales heavily. “I’m going to take my responsibilities with Vybrant and Rise Up more seriously. I want to be a more serious businesswoman.” Grace nods. Smiles blandly. She’s heard this before. Frankie continues: “I’m going to stop pretending to be vegan.”
Which is something new. Grace’s mouth drops open. “Oh?”
“Yes. And I’m going to stop driving at night.”
“Frankie, that’s… that’s great. I’m proud of you. I’m really proud of you.”
Frankie beams, and restarts the movie. Pauses it again thirty seconds later. “Maybe there’s something you want to change,” she says. Faux-casually. Avoiding eye contact.
Grace’s eyes go wide. She sits up a little straighter. Is this…? “Like what?”
Frankie is silent for one long moment. “Drinking,” she says.
“Excuse me,” Grace says.
“Not all of it! You know I don’t mean all of it, just some, like when you’re alone. The drinking alone part!”
“Is that what all this is about?” Grace snaps. “You say you’re changing your life, but really you just want me to change?”
“No! No, it’s not that at all. I promise, Grace. It’s just… it’s just that I love you, and I worry about you. That’s all.”
“What else am I supposed to do when I’m alone?” Grace asks, and it’s meant to be cutting but she’s the one who gets cut down; she’s the one who reveals too much, the one who gives it all away.
“You yell my name, or dial my number, or think my name really hard into the infinite abyss, and then you won’t be alone anymore.”
“Let’s just finish the movie,” Grace says, defeated.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Frankie says, presses play. “Regardless.”
Frankie slouches down to the floor, giggling. She closes her eyes and Grace could count her dark lashes and strands of hair and fingernails and ears and smiles.
“You’re never going to be able to get back up,” Grace says, but she feels a little slouchy herself. This is why she rarely smokes.
“What song am I thinking of?”
“I have… no idea. How would I know?”
“Double Sinatra,” Frankie says, like that should mean something.
“Hmm,” Grace says.
“A little incestuous, really,” Frankie says. “Incest Sinatra.”
“Okay,” Grace says. She’s definitely not laughing or almost laughing. “I think we’re past the point of diminishing returns here.”
“Oh, Grace, never, never, never talk about the diminishing returns of recreational drug use.” She shimmies closer, grasps Grace’s hand from the floor. “It’s there; it’s there every day, but we never, ever talk about it, like me eating Swedish Fish in your bed. And other things.”
“You eat Swedish Fish in my bed every day?”
“What else am I supposed to do in there?” She smiles and raises one eyebrow and suddenly she’s looking right through Grace, right through everything. But Grace’s head is wobbly and feelings and her nail polish is chipped so it’s time to beat a hasty retreat, time to back up, time to press pause for a few hours.
“Let’s nap,” Grace says. “You can bring the Swedish Fish with you.”
“Really? Can I bring Carl too?”
They wake up on opposite sides of the bed. Grace breathes in deep. It would be easy, so easy, to use that as an excuse, to slip out of bed and sneak downstairs and fix a snack and continue on, just as they are. Just as they have been.
She scoots closer, instead. Brushes her hand over Frankie’s cheek, her shoulder. Settles on her hip, fingers pressing in, hard but not too hard.
Frankie blinks awake slowly. “Hi,” she says.
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about things,” Grace says.
“But you-- I thought--”
“Like how it’s always us, us together but we never talk about it. Then one of us starts something new, and the other is supportive, and everything goes fine until--”
“Until the new person wants to be more important than you. Or me.”
“I can’t. I’ve been trying to tell you. But you don’t. Do you?” Frankie’s eyes are filled with tears, and Grace supposes she has been trying to tell her, hasn’t she? Maybe it’s time for Grace to be the brave one.
“We’re not allowed to keep chickens here,” Grace says. “Zoning regulations.”
“I looked for loopholes, but it’s ironclad.”
“What would you think of a canary? For us. A pet for us, together.”
“Grace,” Frankie says, and Grace sways in, too fast, presses their lips together, and they’re both smiling so hard it might not be the nicest kiss, but the intent shines through, shines through bright on both sides.
“I love you,” Grace says. Eyes closed. Hands clenched. Heart in her throat.
“I love you,” Frankie says. “I love you.”
They add their names to several wait-lists for rescue birds. Grace tries to cut back on drinking alone, and Frankie fails to become a serious business woman.
They dance together at Brianna’s not-wedding and Brianna whispers, “I’m so glad you’re both here,” and it sounds like I love you.
Frankie squeezes Grace’s hand and says nothing at all. There’s nothing left unsaid.