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to justify what you need

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Smell that, it's wet grass and smoke in my hair, I think I've had enough
But he wants a finale and I came prepared and we're not going back
And I've tried sharing and I've tried caring and I've tried putting out
But the boys boys boys keep coming on for more more more
And change change change is gonna come but when when when?

—Mitski, “Townie”

Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious.

—Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking

Nick gets two years. Sitting in the courtroom just after the sentencing, Grace adds 366 (Frankie’s very excited about 2020 being a leap year) and 365 in her head, then remembers February 29 won't impact the sentence length at all.

In 730 days she’ll be nearly eighty-three years old.

Grace is still a little shocked that she didn’t see this coming. When she filters through her relationship with Nick, she can recall dozens of jokes and offhand remarks about the SEC and attorneys and Miriam, the genius with fine print who’s always kept him out of trouble. His sudden trip to the Cayman Islands should’ve been more than a little suspect, but at the time she was just relieved to no longer have a conflict with FrankieFest 2020. The seemingly random decision to start selling his art collection left her wondering how she’d pull herself up from the toilet, not questioning why Nick needed cash. In hindsight, this mess wouldn’t have been more obvious if Nick had looked her in the eye and said “Grace, I’ve been caught committing securities fraud and tax evasion.” She had all the pieces; she just didn’t want to put them together.

Nick’s own shock that his indiscretions have caught up to him is the only thing that’s made her feel better about her obliviousness. Even here in the courtroom, next stop federal prison, Nick’s face bears genuine surprise. It’s there in his expression as he turns to talk to his lawyer, then looks up from that conversation to find Grace’s eyes. When he was home between the arraignment and the trial, he insisted over and over that everything would be fine, everything would get cleared up. He kept telling Grace that she didn’t need to worry, as if she were the one facing a prison sentence and he was going to pull some strings to get her out of it. (Grace double-checked with Miriam, just to be sure: there really weren’t any strings left to pull.)

Pre-trial, Grace saw Nick every couple of days, and she slept at the beach house every night. Nick didn’t try to convince her not to. He assumed—only semi-correctly—that she felt betrayed that he’d kept the truth from her and couldn’t handle being under the same roof for too long. He knew their marriage was in trouble, but he didn’t know how much of that trouble was her. Over the course of their dwindling days she kept trying to explain why she wasn’t right for the job: “I couldn’t tell you about the toilet thing. I mean, look, even now I don’t really want to go into the details—and I talked about the details on national TV!” “I can never give you as much time as you deserve.” “We rushed into this—I’m not cut out for this kind of life.” Every time she tried to tell him the truth, Nick shielded himself from what she really meant, pivoted into self-blame. He talked about the impact of his emotionally unavailable father, his mother’s obsession with money and status. He told her he was pretty sure he had undiagnosed ADD.

He didn’t ask Grace to stick by him forever, to promise their marriage would survive whatever twists and turns the upcoming months and years might hold. But he asked her to be there in the courtroom, asked for her support. He said it made him feel like he could handle whatever came his way if he could trust that Grace didn’t hate him. She doesn’t hate him. She can’t give him everything, and she’s pretty sure he gets that, but she can’t entirely shake the feeling that she ought to give him something.

They had sex last night, to mark Nick’s final guaranteed night of freedom. It had been a long time since they’d done it—since at least a few days before Nick’s initial arrest. The words one last time echoed in Grace’s thoughts as she followed him to the bedroom. Bondage would’ve been a little too on the nose, and not what she would’ve wanted, anyway. Instead they stuck to an approximation of missionary, vanilla and familiar and warm. Nick went slow for her benefit and looked into her eyes, looked like he was looking for something. Grace looked back, unsure what her face would have to do to give him what he wanted to find. She wasn’t certain she’d be able to come and was about to tell him to speed up so he could take what he needed when she thought suddenly about just an hour or two in the future: going home, getting into her own bed alone, falling asleep to the sounds of Robert and Sol and Frankie puttering around the house. She imagined Frankie’s laugh (the real one, not the performance) and thought about how she could get out of bed and follow the laughter to the source, could be the source of another round of mirth, at home in every room of that house for years and years, nothing compelling her to leave ever again—and then she asked Nick to speed up not for him but for her, and that tipped her into pleasure, and Nick followed her.

As they caught their breath she tried not to think about how she’d technically thought about Robert during sex for the first time in what felt like decades, or that any part of her brain and body could have a positive association with the sounds of Sol’s puttering. Instead she lay next to Nick thinking secret thoughts about how her orgasm was like a microcosm of their entire relationship. She’d been happy pretty much the whole time she spent with Nick, but what were the ingredients of that happiness? She’d been happy in front of Nick, happy spending time with Nick, even happy because of things Nick did or said, but her happiness wouldn’t have existed at all without the home she had at the beach with Frankie and the moments she felt strong and true and like a reasonably decent human being.

She said goodbye to Nick not long after, promised that she’d see him in the courtroom the following day. That she’d be there in whatever way she could. In the car on the way home, she again imagined the quiet of her bedroom and the noise just beyond it, again felt the inexplicable little thrill of those contrasts, but by the time she pulled into the driveway she remembered that Frankie had taken the boys out to dinner and the house would be empty for awhile yet.

Now, as she walks from the courthouse to her car, she’s hardly aware of her surroundings. She wouldn’t have minded a few distractions upon getting home last night, but as she prepares to leave the parking deck she’s glad she didn’t take Frankie up on her offer to be in-person moral support in court. “It’s not like I think you’re gonna faint after the judge does their thing, although that’d be dope as hell and very dramatic,” Frankie had said this morning. “But you might need a friend to lean on. If my presence in the courtroom itself would be too gauche, I could always wait in the car. Or at an agreed-upon location an appropriate distance away.”

But Grace had the foresight to know she’d want to be alone for a little while after the sentencing, at least for the car ride home. As she drives she tries to focus on what’s just happened, tries to imagine what’s happening to Nick right now. She wants to decide what she’s feeling, but everything is fuzzy and scattered and already far away. She attempts to tell herself the story of her relationship with Nick—its messy beginning, confusing middle, uncertain end—but only fragments come to her. The roast dinner. Running away from him to steal the balloon for Frankie. The yawn. Drifting to sleep nestled against his side on a private plane. The brightness of the Arabian Sea. Cords around her wrists, just tight enough to feel something when she strained against them, wanting to move but wanting to be held in place, wanting to want both.

It takes practically no time to get back to La Jolla. She’s made zero progress organizing her thoughts. She trudges into the house, already dreading its fullness. Frankie’s heard about the 730 days via text, and has promised to pass the news along to Robert and Sol, but she isn’t in the mood to entertain Robert’s witty platitudes or brush aside Sol’s aggressively genuine displays of concern.

As soon as she walks inside, it’s clear she won’t have to, at least not right away. The house feels something close to how it used to feel before she married Nick, before she and Frankie got toilet flood-induced housemates. Frankie stands next to the table, an expectant look on her face. “It’s really easy to buy off Robert and Sol these days,” she says with a grin.

“Oh?”

“I regifted an old movie gift card and told ‘em not to come back ‘til after dark. I think it’s got at least $4.14 on it.”

Grace’s internal clock calms—it’s barely 2 p.m. now. She’s not sure what to use the time on, but there’s lots of it. She chuckles. “Well-played.”

“You should look at your presents.”

There’s a whole stack of things arranged neatly on the table, a post-it note attached to each. A bottle of Grey Goose: Easy, girl! Not all at once! A copy of The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson: Your scandal is really not that bad! A bag of lavender bath salts: Happy to assist you in your use of this product at literally any time! A donut, chocolate-frosted with rainbow sprinkles, resting on a napkin printed with the Lucky Donuts House logo. The post-it hangs from the napkin like a giddy tongue: Just enjoy it!

Her vision expands: there’s coffee in the coffee pot and something savory and spicy simmering on the stove. The kitchen is without a doubt cleaner than it was when she left this morning. In fact, every room she can see looks tidy and welcoming. She doesn’t have to leave. There isn’t anywhere else she needs to be.

“Oh, Frankie. Thank you.”

“I think you should sit down with your donut and let me pour you a cup of coffee, and you can tell me whatever you want to about today.”

Grace’s eyes fill with tears. “That sounds like a good plan,” she manages. But before she can start to follow instructions, Frankie rushes up to her, arms outstretched, and hugs her for a very long time.