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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.

Chapter Text

Frankie doesn’t tiptoe around the matter of Grace’s eighty-first birthday. Grace doesn’t really mind the fuss; this birthday easily beats last year, when her daughters rightfully accused her of lying about her age via a birth certificate cake presented in a public setting. She used to put a lot of energy into avoiding birthday celebrations and refusing to graciously accept any birthday-related comments—even the complimentary ones—about the number of candles on the cake, about her looks, about the promise of many happy returns. Maybe it’s a sign of her age that she doesn’t have the energy to protest the inevitable anymore, but she’s pretty sure the attitude shift has more to do with circumstance than inertia.

When November 9 inevitably arrives Frankie wakes her up with breakfast in bed, and she looks so hopeful and focused and keen as she sits perched on the edge of the bed with the tray that Grace pushes right past her lack of appetite and makes it through half a waffle and all the strawberries.

After breakfast they take a walk on the beach. “Ernest is very glad you were born,” Frankie says. She rolls her eyes at Grace’s puzzled stare, points at a seagull craning its neck in all sorts of awkward directions for no discernable reason. “That seagull’s had a crush on you for five years,” she explains, “and you can’t even remember his name is Ernest?” Grace is relatively certain Ernest is just a random seagull they’ve never seen before, but with Frankie you can never tell for sure.

After the walk it’s time for mimosas on the patio, boys begrudgingly allowed. “To Grace Hanson,” Frankie says, champagne flute raised to the heavens. She opens her mouth again, presumably to make some grand proclamation, but she and Grace lock eyes before she can get any more words out. They’ve got to be thinking about the same thing: the last time Frankie toasted Grace (and Nick) with this beverage, on the bitter morning after the weddings. Frankie screws her mouth into a smile. “Our weirdest, oldest, and most beloved friend.”

“Grace, I only wish Nick could be here with us,” says Sol after everyone takes a drink. “It must be hard to celebrate the joys of life while he’s—in there.” Robert clears his throat, and Sol flinches. “Not, of course, that you ought to spend the entire sentence in pious suffering.”

“I’m glad he isn’t here,” Frankie says, each word a hard stone. Her mimosa glass is already empty. Everyone waits around for her next line, the gentle joke that’ll make it all okay, but she doesn’t say anything.

Grace kind of enjoys the moment of uncomfortable silence. She appreciates any statement that Robert and Sol can’t latch onto and bicker over and ruin. She smiles down at her drink, then flashes a bigger grin at Frankie. “Me too,” she says, and tosses her hair. Robert’s eyebrows raise. “No follow-up questions.”

In the early afternoon Brianna swings by the house to pick up Grace for a Frankie-arranged mother-daughter excursion which turns out to involve strip-mall frozen yogurt. “Sorry,” Brianna says as she pulls into a parking spot. “I took the afternoon off, but then Frankie told me we weren’t allowed to go out for drinks.”

“And you took that seriously?”

“Well.” Brianna pauses and thinks. “Yeah.” Once they get their yogurt, she only complains about Mallory and Taneth and San Francisco and Trust Us Organics subsidiary Say Grace for about ten minutes before she loses steam and Grace convinces her to share more details about the engagement and not-wedding and not-marriage. Brianna is—in her way—as settled and happy as Grace has ever seen her, although it's a little strange that she's so convinced her efforts to share more leftover takeout with Barry equate to impressive emotional growth.

Before too long they toss their half-full, half-heartedly enjoyed froyo cups and head back to the car.

“You seem fine,” Brianna says when they're both buckled up.

Grace watches Brianna regard her. “Should I not be fine?”

Brianna shrugs. “I wouldn’t expect you to sit at home and pine for Nick. I’d like to think you’d know I approve.”

Something happens then that often happens when she talks to her daughters. She sees the idea she wants to convey, but when the words come out they're in a totally different shape. “The same thing that's wrong with you is wrong with me. The thing where you just can't give yourself away.”

Hurt flashes across Brianna's face. “Did you not hear me earlier? I love Barry.”

“I know you do, I didn’t mean that—”

“You’re not the person you were when you were married to Dad. I wouldn’t think you’d have married Nick if you didn’t love him.”

“I loved him, but I shouldn’t have married him,” Grace hears herself say.

“Loved?”

“Love, loved, I don’t know!” Grace wishes Brianna had been there for the mimosas, because she’s clearly missed the memo on follow-up questions. “The problem isn’t that he hid his crimes from me. Well. That isn’t the number one problem.” She’s got her purse cradled in her lap and she fiddles with the buckle on the strap, then with the ridge of leather the buckle’s rubbed smooth. “I can’t fault him for being secretive. I was secretive too. And that day you had to bail me and Frankie out of the seafood place? Because my cards stopped working? Frankie and I had just talked about wanting to live together again. I had no idea he was about to be arrested.”

“Even though you really should have.”

“Even though I really should have. After the agents took him away Frankie came over and helped me figure out what to do and got me out of there and took me home.”

Brianna nods. She pushes the button that starts the ignition. “So you’re fine because you’re back at the house.”

“Yeah, and I know I should be all torn up about Nick. It’s not that I don’t care about him—I suppose I wouldn’t wish prison on anyone, or almost anyone, even fancy rich person prison. But I wanted to be home and now I get to be.”

“With Frankie and Dad and Sol.”

“It’s unbelievable. Frankie and I have had to stop announcing when we’re running errands because they always want to come with us and everything takes eight years. We just grab our purses and run. I mean, what did they do all day before they lived with us? And they fight about the stupidest things. We keep telling them to communicate—”

Brianna smirks. “Like you communicated with Nick.”

“No, like I communicate with—”

“—Frankie. I get it. And speaking of Frankie, which is something we’ve done in every conversation we’ve had for the past five years, she’ll kill me if I keep you out past three o’clock because that’s when the pre-cocktail hour communal siesta begins in the living room.”

“Oh, God.”

“Hey, you signed up for this,” Brianna reminds her as she pulls out of the parking space. “You could be alone in a penthouse spritzing your perfume onto a handwritten letter. So let’s stop talking about feelings and get you back. I'm not staying for siesta, by the way.”

“Fine,” Grace says. She spends the drive home imagining what the rest of the afternoon will entail. Maybe Frankie’s turned the living room into a pillow and blanket fort, or maybe everyone will just find a couch and close their eyes while Frankie unveils her latest recording of positive self-talk. Maybe she’ll get some rest. She already knows she won’t get any sleep.

Grace wakes up alone on a stack of blankets in the Tent of Eighty-One Cosmic Affirmations. Well, almost alone. Within seconds of waking up, Frankie slithers in and stretches out next to her.

It must be nearly sunset. The light through the tent—an old family-sized camping tent Frankie’s dug out of a closet and draped with colorful scarves—feels rosy. Sleepy and soft. “Hey, honey,” Frankie murmurs. Her tone is the aggressively inoffensive hum of someone carefully addressing a person very recently sound asleep and still growing used to the world. It’s a tone not unlike the one she used when she recorded the eighty-one affirmations. “You conked out!”

“I don’t know how this happened,” Grace says. She blinks a few times. The light stays dim. “I probably missed at least sixty affirmations.”

“Oh, you’re good! They absorb while you’re sleeping. And the tape’s not going anywhere.”

“I didn’t think I was going to fall asleep. It’s probably all the sugar.”

“Well, if I’d wanted you to stay awake, I wouldn’t have spliced in thirty seconds of whale song and fifteen seconds of silence after each affirmation.”

“Great strategy. Hey, where are the others?”

“Robert very wisely pointed out that you probably wouldn’t want to wake up lying next to your ex-husband and his husband, so they skedaddled right after you fell asleep. I did too, but I took some birthday pics first. They’re really good.”

Grace sighs. “Of course you did.”

Frankie barrels ahead, forgetting her sleepy-person voice. “I’m here because the tape’s over and it’s almost time to leave for cocktails, then wandering, then dinner.” She pulls herself onto her hands and knees and crawls back to the opening, glances over her shoulder to look back at Grace. “Robert’s taking us to a gay bar, so you should decide if you want to move forward with your current sweater or not.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Frankie flashes a beatific smile, and Grace notices then that she’s changed out of the t-shirt and overalls she wore earlier into a dark green dress. “We’re leaving in five.”

Watching Robert in a gay bar distracts Grace from her slept-in sweater, which may or may not be too gay or not gay enough and may or may not have some other flaw totally unrelated to homosexuality.

“This place gets packed at night,” Sol says, “but we’ll be out of here before it gets too clubby.”

“Spoken like a true regular,” Robert says, settling onto a bar stool next to his husband. He turns to Grace and Frankie. “He’s not a regular.”

Robert orders the first round, and Grace can’t take her eyes off his relaxed shoulders, the way his stagey voice retains that quality but becomes something natural and free, the little smile flickering in the corners of his mouth as he gives the young bartender his order. The bartender smiles back, grins at them collectively, and it creates what feels like a meaningless spark. Except it’s not exactly meaningless, even if it’s borne of the blur of a night out, a temporary joy.

Grace watches Robert watch the bartender prepare their drinks, watches him appreciate his tight black t-shirt, curved biceps, the showy little shimmy of his hips as he darts from station to station. Robert is home, she realizes. This Hillcrest bar isn’t necessarily the ultimate landing place, but there’s something here that makes it home for him.

“You four are the cutest double date I’ll see all week,” the bartender says as he sets the drinks down.

Frankie laughs her warm real laugh, and Grace sees a clear picture of the four of them lined up at the bar, sees the natural interpretation of the way they’ve paired off. Frankie’s done so much. She first said she wanted to plan a busy day because Grace wasn’t sure if Nick would be able to call, but this isn’t a distraction from a quiet phone. This day is a million phone calls, a million connections. A spell Grace would be cruel to break.

“It’s her birthday,” Frankie says. There's pride in her voice, like Grace invented something incredible just by having a birthday and Frankie gets to show her off.

“Hell yeah!” says the bartender. “Her next one’s on me.”

Chapter Text

It’s times like these that Grace wishes she lived alone in a secluded cottage, subsisting on coffee, vodka, and nutrition pills. If she lived alone in a cottage, unencumbered by the tired old needs for food and human interaction, she’d never find herself in a situation like the one she’s currently in: Frankie, home unexpectedly early from the art supply store. Grace, crying over a cookbook on the living room couch.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat wasn’t a birthday gift, although Frankie bought it for herself during the wandering part of Grace’s birthday evening. They’d strolled through Bluestocking on the way to dinner, and Frankie loudly proclaimed in the middle of the crowded store that she’d fallen in love with Samin Nosrat and there was nothing to do about it but buy her book and carry it around for the rest of the night. Frankie has spent a decent amount of time with it since, but Grace hasn’t opened it until now, the Friday afternoon four days after her birthday. Robert and Sol had gone back to their house to meet with a contractor, and Frankie had driven to Blick for paint. Grace needed a distraction after her belated birthday phone call with Nick, and happened to notice the cookbook lying patiently on the kitchen counter. For the first time, she took a careful look at the little drawings on the front cover. Frankie probably appreciated them. She sat on the couch to read. The tears started almost immediately.

She’s seated in plain sight, no hiding place to escape to as Frankie sets her canvas shopping bag down on the floor and bolts toward her. “Grace!” Frankie exclaims. She sits right next to her on the couch, their bodies nearly touching. “Did something happen when you had your call with Nick?”

“No,” Grace says automatically. She swallows more tears. “Well, yes, and I’ll tell you all about it, but that’s not why I’m—” She gestures at her face and tries to smile. “I thought you’d spend at least an hour deciding on paint.”

It’s times like these that Grace realizes she’d rather Frankie know the actual insane reason why she’s crying than think she’s crying about Nick.

Frankie shrugs. “I only needed blues, and what was I thinking, going on a stupid errand and sacrificing time at the house without the guys?” She smiles, then screws her forehead into a discerning wrinkle. “Oh, I know. You’re crying because you’re in love with Samin too, and you just don’t see a way out of this triangle that won’t end in heartbreak?”

“Ha, ha,” Grace says thickly. She points down at the page. “It’s the first line of the introduction.”

Frankie reads. “‘Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious.’ Yeah, that’s—that’s lovely. That’s a lovely way to start a book.”

Grace sniffs. “It is.”

“I don’t, like, one hundred percent know why you’re crying,” Frankie says. “Obviously. But I want to know.”

“There’s a formula. Well, not a formula, but a—a combination of four elements that just works. I was flipping around, but one of the pages I flipped to says to read the book front to back, so I went back to the beginning, and, and she says ‘Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious’ and just lays out how it works right there. Like it’s supposed to be so obvious.”

“But she didn’t know about it either, not at first. Isn’t that why she wrote the book?” Frankie reads the next lines: “‘Whether you’ve never picked up a knife or you’re an accomplished chef, there are only four basic factors that determine how good your food will taste: salt, which enhances flavor; fat, which amplifies flavor and makes appealing textures possible; acid, which brightens and balances; and heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food.’”

“I’ve kept you from salt,” Grace says, not repentant, exactly. Just thoughtful.

“You’ve tried. Not worth crying about. Besides, my sodium’s fine, my blood pressure’s fine, and there’s a canister of Morton and a box of kosher salt and those fancy Maldon flakes in the pantry and I’m not afraid to use ‘em.”

“Salt enhances flavor.”

“You’re a great cook, you know.”

“I’m a competent recipe-follower,” Grace scoffs. She closes the book. “I’ve never thought about any of this.”

“Maybe not consciously,” Frankie says, gentle but certain. “But why do you think you like olives in your martini? And when we go out to breakfast and you get à la carte bacon and à la carte fruit salad, why do you think you say yes when I offer you bites of my waffles-and-hot-sauce? Why’d you have a spiritual experience with that burrito in the holy land? And why did your life get so much better when you stopped microwaving chicken in favor of superior sources of heat?” Grace’s hands rest on the cool smooth cover of the book. Frankie gathers them in hers. “If you’re gonna cry about flavor, don’t cry about me and salt. Cry about everything you kept yourself from.” She glances down at their hands and smiles. “Or don’t cry, and go be anyone.”

“Okay.” Grace nods, like it’ll be easy. And maybe it will, in a way—sometimes there’s a forcefulness to Frankie’s speech that makes her feel like half the work is already done.

“Pop quiz: Saltines.”

“Huh?”

Frankie sighs. It’s the sound she makes when she isn’t frustrated, exactly, but aware of her brain moving faster than everyone else’s. “Fine, I’ll do more. Saltines, avocado, orange juice…”

“...baked in an oven?”

“Yuck, exactly! All right, another: anchovies.”

“Butter.”

“Apple cider vinegar.”

Grace laughs. “The grill. And serranos.” She lifts her chin to show how well she’s getting it. “Two kinds of heat.”

“That is a truly disastrous combination,” says Frankie. “See? The formula isn’t foolproof. Nothing wrong with sticking to a recipe.” Frankie lets go of Grace’s hands and taps the cookbook with her fingertips. “Luckily this book is full of them.” She brightens. “And hey, it might help with affirmation, um, thirty-two, I think. No, thirty-four. ‘Grace Hanson will enjoy everything she puts into her mouth this year.’”

“Were Robert and Sol still there during that affirmation?”

Frankie thinks for a minute. “Yes. Yes, they were.”

By the time Robert and Sol return, Grace has read the first few sections under Frankie’s quiet supervision. She remains on the couch while they take over the kitchen, engaging in a loud, circular argument about their home reconstruction. She smiles serenely when Frankie jumps up from her seat and tells them to shut up or take it to the guest bedroom. Emphasis on the guest.

Sol sits on one of the tall chairs at the kitchen island, the one Frankie usually occupies. Robert has Grace’s. “Frankie,” Sol trills, and Grace just knows he isn’t about to apologize. “You and Grace had a pretty heated conversation about who was gonna eat which yogurt this morning, and we had to listen to that.”

“You ever heard of a love language?” Frankie retorts. Grace closes the book. “You have to spice up yogurt somehow. Neither of us are that into it, but damn, those live active cultures. Anyway, you’re really arguing about who has to supervise the hot construction workers repairing your beautiful house? Why don’t you both go, like all day Monday, or all of next week, and give us a moment’s peace and quiet?”

“You lost your peace and quiet privileges when your toilet exploded," Robert says.

Frankie storms to the pantry and emerges seconds later with a lumpy tote bag. “Come on, Grace,” she says. “We’re running away from home.”

“Fuck,” Frankie says when they get to her studio and she opens the tote bag. “I’m going to need more quizzes on the four fundamental elements. We don’t have a salt, a fat, an acid, or a heat.”

“Well, what do we have?”

“Three-year-old Melba toasts; a granola bar, but it’s neither of our brands, somehow; and two room temp Gatorades.”

Grace laughs. “Come on,” she says. She walks over to the partitioned-off area where Frankie sleeps and sits down on the bed. It’s made up, surprisingly enough.

There’s a Thai restaurant that delivers this far out, and Grace pulls up their website on the phone. “Choose one entree, and then we’ll discuss apps,” she says, holding the phone out to Frankie. “We’re sharing.”

“You,” Frankie says, plopping down next to Grace, “are the absolute best.”

“Robert and Sol are driving me crazy, too,” Grace says while they wait for the food to show up. “But we’re not going to waste our time complaining about them tonight.” The ideas form as she speaks, the promise of making Frankie happy spurring her on. “We’re eating dinner in bed—on the bed—and watching a movie, and—”

“And you’re staying out here with me tonight? Just in case the boys are still being obnoxious?”

Grace grins. “Sure.” One night won’t hurt. It’ll be nice not to be alone.

“Will you tell me about your call with Nick before the food comes? For some reason I’m nervous about it.”

“It was—” Grace searches for the right words. She’s already told Frankie something happened, but she can’t exactly articulate what it was. “It was fine. He was pretty quiet.”

“He wished you a happy belated birthday, right?”

“He did.” He’d wanted to hear everything about the day, and she downplayed how wonderful it was, tried to make it clear she had a good time without giving him all the details of the breakfast in bed, the adventures, the nap in the living room while Frankie’s voice set endless intentions for her joyful life. The double date that wasn’t a double date but looked like one, because how could her actual husband, so far away, understand the nuance there? “I told him some stuff about how we celebrated, and then he went even quieter. I think it’s driving him really crazy that he can’t just do whatever he wants in there. He’s lived his whole life so he’d have so much money that the rules wouldn’t apply to him.”

“Turns out they did.”

“Yeah. He shouldn’t have been so greedy. I wish he wasn’t. But I do feel for him.”

Frankie nods, suddenly very focused on the wall opposite the bed. “And the stuff we talked about that day? Before I said it’d be easier to fake your own death or his? You’re still kinda...doling that out?”

“I’m trying to,” Grace says. “Just like I tried before he left, and I’m pretty sure he knows we might not be able to stay married, but he keeps making it about him, about his mistakes, about what he can offer me.”

“Of course that's what he's doing.”

“Frankie! Do you want me to tell you everything or not?”

“Sorry.” She doesn’t sound sorry.

“Anyway, he keeps thinking this is about him, and I think he sees the prison sentence as, as something outside of time, almost, or at least something that isn’t actually happening to him.”

“Does he realize you’re still experiencing time?”

“Well, we had that very awkward conversation about my birthday, so I’m gonna assume yes.”

Frankie bites her lip, looks Grace in the eyes. “You don’t seem super excited about being married to him. I’m just saying.”

“I’m not.” It’s nice that she’s already admitted this, that it no longer feels like a confession to say it. “And there are still 718 days of this.”

“You’re counting down the days ‘til he’s free? Should we make a paper chain?” There’s bitterness in Frankie’s voice.

“No,” Grace says. “I don’t think that’s what I’m counting.”

“Then what are you counting, Grace, because I thought you wanted things to change for real—”

“I do. I think I’m counting my own days. All this time that I get to be free, and he doesn’t.” On the phone just this morning, Nick told her he didn’t consider her accountable for what happens while he’s locked up. That he didn’t need to know what she was spending, who she was seeing, what she needed to do to feel like she was living life to the fullest. It was—in Nick’s way—a thoughtful and generous offer, but she’d responded with indignance. I have my own money, she’d said. The first thing I did was separate myself from your accounts. The only thing left is the thing we talked about, um, the rise up from the couch thing, and even that’s still untouched, and if it needs to stay untouched, you or Miriam or somebody needs to talk me through it. They had an exchange about money, then, instead of talking about the other part. The people part.

It was not a good phone call.

The phone rings. The displays lights up with a number she doesn’t recognize, but she picks it up anyway, grateful for the diversion. It’s the delivery man from the Thai restaurant.

“I’ll go get the food,” Grace tells Frankie when she hangs up. “You should pick out a movie.”

“Okay,” Frankie says, her voice still tense. The simple word takes up less space than it normally would.

“I’m taking care of everything,” Grace says. “So don’t worry about me.”

It’s hard to sleep in the studio. The light is different, and the shape of the shadows. Frankie offered her something comfortable to sleep in, apparently taking very seriously the decision that neither of them would return to the house that night for any reason. She offered to let Grace use her toothbrush. Payback, she called it. But Grace brushed her teeth with her finger, used Frankie’s face wash but dried off with a fresh towel from a clean stack, kept her clothes on.

Now she’s trying to sleep on her back, aware of Frankie doing the same thing. She keeps wondering if they’re staring at the same spot in the ceiling, but it feels rude to talk after the long contrived silence. At least the whole evening hasn’t been silent. They had a good time once they moved on from talking about Nick—easy eating, easy talking, an easy movie to watch, the pleasure of a Friday night stolen away from everyone else in the world.

When Grace is certain she won’t fall asleep this way, she rolls onto her side and lies with her back to Frankie. Frankie mimics the motion, curling up faced in the direction of Grace’s body, and she pushes the covers down past their waists like she’s too hot. Grace is cold, but she doesn’t yank them back up. The air hits her, and it makes Grace notice that her button-down shirt has ridden up a little bit, maybe a few inches, taking her camisole along. It’s dark; she doesn’t bother to fix it.

“Can’t sleep?” Frankie murmurs.

“Obviously not.”

“Me either,” she says.

“You usually go to sleep fast.”

Frankie chuckles. “Pretty fast.” She scoots a little closer. “Hey,” she says, like she’s just noticed something new. She reaches out, strokes the bare part of Grace’s back with a single fingertip. Then the explanation arrives: “My eyes are adjusting.” She must be able to see the way the hem of Grace’s shirt has folded up. “Is it okay if I rub your back right here?”

“Okay,” Grace whispers. She’s almost lazily curious how it will feel, although it’s hardly her first back rub from Frankie.

For some reason, Frankie pauses before continuing the back rub. She mutters something to herself, just quiet enough that Grace can’t hear. The word feels like okay, like an echo of Grace’s own confirmation that she’d accept her touch.

Frankie’s fingers are slightly cool, but the touch warms. She swirls her fingers against the strip of exposed skin, and Grace feels herself relax. She touches her for a long time, and eventually she expands her reach, stroking the area just above Grace’s hip. The skin she leaves feels cool against the air again, and the new spot tingles a little. Frankie rubs with her thumb, and her fingers start to skitter against Grace’s stomach. “How about this?”

“Okay,” Grace says again. She’s never liked men to touch her stomach, and it’s softer now than it used to be, the skin a little looser, like the muscles are all still there but cushioned. She feels possessive of it, almost protective, and usually wants to hide it away. This is different. It’s Frankie, and she isn’t making a conquest or trying to elicit a particular sort of interactive reaction. She’s just soothing her, making it possible for her to rest in a strange place. She’s giving her something that feels good simply because she wants to.

Frankie moves her fingers against Grace’s stomach more slowly than when she touched her back. She flattens her hand against Grace’s belly, goes inside the shirt a little. “Your skin is so beautiful,” she says.

Grace can’t say anything. No matter how much Frankie’s eyes have adjusted, the room is still dark. Feels beautiful, Frankie must mean. Grace wriggles backward until her body is flush against Frankie’s and she feels Frankie gasp a little bit. “Sorry,” Grace whispers. “Are you—”

Frankie presses more firmly against Grace’s stomach. “Stay right where you are, honey, stay right here,” and that’s good, because Grace is warm enough now that she’s tucked against Frankie’s body.

As Frankie gets to know her skin better, her touch grows more delicate, more complicated. She runs two fingers around Grace’s belly button. She plays with the softest parts of her, the saggy puffy places that have felt like secrets. Grace leaves her own hands where they are, folded together in front of her, arms outstretched enough to give Frankie space, but she has the strange thought that she wants to touch herself where Frankie’s touching her.

Frankie moves a little higher, to the inward curve just below Grace’s ribs, then nudges her fingers farther beneath the shirt until they’re traveling her ribcage. As before, the new skin feels the relief of getting attention, and the old skin feels cooled and left but not jealous. “Still okay?”

“Yeah,” Grace says. As soon as she says it, Frankie pulls her a little closer, slides her hand high enough so she’s touching one of her breasts through her bra. Everything fractures. Everything is no longer okay. Grace grabs Frankie’s arm and pulls it back down, pushes it away from her. She rolls onto her back, scrambles backward until she’s halfway to sitting up, propped on her elbows. “I’m not—” she gasps. Her mind doesn’t contain the end of the sentence. “I’m not—”

Now it’s Frankie’s turn to recoil. Grace glances at her, and apparently her own eyes have adjusted too—enough to see Frankie sit up and drop her face into her hands. “I’m so sorry,” Frankie says when she finally takes her hands away. “I made you so uncomfortable.” Even with the you, it’s like she’s talking to herself, admonishing herself.

“It’s all right. You shouldn’t feel bad. Really,” Grace says. Watching Frankie feel pushed away makes her want to be sick. “But Frankie, what possessed you—?”

“I’ve had a crush on you for five years. I’ve loved you for five years.”

The words hang in the air. Grace knows she has to respond, but she takes a moment first. Since Nick’s arrest she’s tried and failed to put her relationship with him into narrative form. The pieces don’t want to add up, don’t want to form an order she can work with. She keeps taking out the pieces and then pushing them to the side in frustration, preferring to be right here. Wherever here is. Right now here means being sprawled alone with Frankie in the almost-dark, the pieces of a different narrative crystallizing into a string she hadn’t seen. And here means hurting Frankie for it, even though she doesn’t deserve to be hurt. For years, and in no year more than this one, Grace has thought it was so wonderful to have a friend like Frankie. There was no pressure (except, says a little voice inside her, when there was). Mostly there was just the happiness of her presence, her understanding, even her touch. The need to always have more of it, because it was so different from what either of them had managed to achieve in their romances. Frankie’s had several romances in the past five years, and Grace has witnessed her investment in them, has even—she can admit it—felt jealous of the time and energy they’ve taken up. And yet the sentences still suspended between them are absolutely true. Grace feels Frankie’s pain in trying to say it plainly—with her hand and with her voice—after spending such a long time asking the universe and a seagull and jokes about bathtubs to carry the burden for her.

“Do you need me to go?” Grace asks.

“Please don’t.”

Grace lies back down. She pulls the covers up nearly to her chin, and Frankie does the same. “I’m not going anywhere,” Grace whispers, glancing over at Frankie.

Frankie smiles, the expression only a tiny ripple against the sadness on her face. “Me neither.”

This time Grace stays on her back. She starts to adjust her shirt—starts to pull the hem back down and smooth out the wrinkles—but changes her mind halfway. She decides instead to rest her hand on her bare stomach. To see if she feels anything Frankie felt, starting with her skin.

Chapter Text

Grace wakes up sad. The moment she’s aware a new day has started, the feeling shivers into her, heavy and cold. She’s lying next to Frankie in a warm bed with soft sheets, but the sadness is sharp as a plunge into a freezing cold body of water. She turns to look at Frankie, who’s rolled farther away from her in the night and is curled onto her side facing the edge of the bed. Frankie stirs and turns until she’s looking back at Grace.

“Hi,” Grace says. She wonders if an apology—for pushing Frankie away, for having to reject her—will get her some relief. Over and over Grace has thought, all through the night and within seconds of being awake this morning, that even if she can’t accept what Frankie has offered, the most important thing is for Frankie to understand she didn’t do anything wrong. But an apology isn’t quite right: beside the intricacies of Grace’s thoughts, nothing has changed.

Last night she laid awake thinking about how Frankie is bisexual or queer or maybe even a secret lesbian, thinking about how she now realizes it’s possible that a person who is one or more of those things, and who knows Grace the way Frankie does, could experience that knowledge as love. Could interpret her skin as beautiful and soft. Could interpret her reaction to a simple touch between friends as desire for more. Could remember their long past and still want her—could even go into their history and recall the quick-witted meanness that shames her to this day and interpret it as intelligence that needed a better home. Frankie’s said as much before: “You’re smart, and with your kind of smart there’s always a danger that you won’t choose to put it in the right place.” At the time Grace had taken comfort in the words—the blunt honesty, the relief of seeing herself accurately reflected back—and in Frankie’s unwavering belief that there are always choices. But she had no idea that Frankie’s willingness to be understanding about one of Grace’s worst qualities stemmed at least in part from being in love. Now she knows, and it’s such a massive thing to try to comprehend. She wonders if she’ll ever be able to look at it all at once.

“Hi,” says Frankie. Her voice sounds hoarse and unrested. She rolls back over, and Grace has to strain to hear her next words: “I’m pretending to be asleep, all right?”

There’s no way not to smile at that, but it’s a dive into colder water and they’re going to float away from each other if she doesn’t find something to hold on to. “All right.”

Grace gets up as quickly as she can. It’s what Frankie wants. She’ll go back to the house, back to her own space. Tonight she’ll fall asleep there, surrounded by familiar shadows.

She’s nearly to the door when Frankie speaks again. “Grace?” She turns around. Frankie is sitting up in bed watching her make her retreat.

“Yeah?”

“I thought I had your consent. You know. When I changed things up.”

“I know,” Grace says. Last night Frankie kept checking in with her, kept asking sweet and thoughtful questions. It’s obvious now that Frankie experienced each response to her questions as an escalation. For all that Grace wants to apologize, Frankie’s urge to do the same is probably a thousand times stronger.

“Doing something non-consensual like that is basically my worst nightmare.” Frankie bows her head. “It’s not an excuse, and I’m so sorry. I just need you to know that I wasn’t, like, trying something, or being my usual impulsive self. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it was something you wanted.”

Grace nods. “I know. I’m not upset with you. Promise.”

“Okay, but if you realize later, even like ten years from now, that you’re upset that it was non-consensual, just tell me how you feel and I’ll understand.” Frankie looks small sitting up in the bed with the covers pooled around her. Her hair is a mess, and Grace realizes she didn’t pull it back or braid it last night. They might not have spent endless nights together, but Grace knows her routine. Last night she didn’t even notice that particular way Frankie had broken it.

“Frankie. It’s okay.” Grace tries to smile at her again. “Hey, aren’t you asleep?”

Frankie’s mouth lifts at the corners. “Very deeply.”

“Can we hang out later?” As she makes this request Grace hears herself a few months ago, just married, begging Frankie to talk to her—Share with me! Bathe me! Feel your feelings with me! “Please?”

“You got it.”

It doesn’t occur to Grace to worry about running into anyone in the house until she walks through the kitchen door and finds Robert feeding bread to the toaster. She wonders if she’ll be able to sneak past him and up the stairs without notice, but Robert immediately smiles in her direction, amused like he’s caught her in a secret. Grace looks down at herself. Her wrinkled clothes from yesterday probably look thrown back on.

“So,” Robert says lightly. He jerks his head in the direction of the studio. “How long has that been happening?”

Grace takes a moment before she answers. She knows what Robert’s implying, of course. In a second she’ll dispel the notion he probably only half believes is an actual possibility. But for a strange silent moment before she says anything, it’s true. Because it could be, maybe, until she says it isn’t. Until she speaks, she and Robert are the same: Still afraid of being lonely. Still more easily hurt than either will let on. Still the people who married each other despite knowing—or maybe because they knew—they didn’t want to explore each other’s hidden depths. Didn’t want to jump in to anything. Grace usually feels like the person she was back then stopped existing a thousand years ago, but here in this kitchen with her ex-husband, she could call her back in a second flat—not to be her again but to remember her. It was dangerous to live in a marriage with all that untouchable space. Robert kept his secret there, tended it alone and then with Sol, kept her away from it for as long as he could bear to. In the kitchen, they’re the same kind of person again—the tended secret still the biggest mystery between them, even now that they both know what it is. Until Grace speaks, their history is a kinship.

“It’s not happening,” Grace says. “Can you believe that before last night I’d only slept out there once before?” That night—the contractor had stolen the copper pipes and there was at least one rat running freely through the house—she’d stayed on Frankie’s couch, and in the morning felt three eyes on her, Frankie’s and the phone camera’s. She’d let Frankie photograph her, both of them pretending it was nothing. She wonders now what Frankie does with all the pictures, if she looks at them often, if she’s ever—just the start of the thought makes her face warm.

Robert adjusts a setting on the toaster, then looks up at her and smiles. Grace thinks she detects a knowingness in his expression, a hint of something he thinks he knows that she doesn’t. “I was mostly teasing,” he says.

“Right.”

“She was so excited for your birthday, you know. Even the parts she had other people plan—they were all her. There was a secret Google spreadsheet, which, you can imagine—”

“Spreadsheets really aren’t her strong suit.”

“Exactly. And she couldn’t ask you for help.”

The cold water feeling intensifies, and Grace remembers she hasn’t come up for air yet. Not since waking up this morning and realizing how sad she feels. “It was a perfect day.”

“She’s been worried about you with Nick gone. I know things are a little”—Robert wiggles his fingers like he’s warming them up before playing the piano, imagining what the keys will feel like then deciding not to play at all—“with him right now. She really loves you.”

“Okay, yes, Robert and the entire universe, I get it, Frankie loves me, I’m very lucky,” she snaps. She immediately regrets it. Robert’s the one who keeps talking, but she’s the one who’s suddenly said way too much.

Robert seems nonplussed. Grace supposes she did spend multiple decades barking at him half the time they actually talked. “Yes,” he says. “You are.”

“I know,” Grace says, softer now. The toast pops like a meaningless epiphany. But she can’t just change into what Frankie wants because Frankie loves her. She’s done that before. She’s done that with Nick, so hungry to be loved that she nearly lost herself, and even now can’t make the explanation that she needs something different sink in through the telephone. She can’t do that to Frankie—of all people—and she can’t do that to the real Grace, either.

She starts for the stairs. “Don’t you want coffee?” Robert asks, but she’s already on the way up. “Don’t you want anything?”

In the early afternoon, Frankie finds Grace and they drive downtown to a new coffee shop she read about in the Reader. The shop is very Frankie: dark wood paneling shiny with lacquer, a floor of turquoise tile, light from a big picture window splashing sun on everything. They wait in a long queue for their coffees, and then it takes a few minutes of sipping coffee standing up before two seats open up at the bar overlooking the street.

Crowds aren’t typically a comfortable place for Grace, but it’s good to be in one today. She needs to talk to Frankie in a location completely different from Frankie’s bed, or any other place in their house. Their house is too them; they’re everywhere. And even if trying out this coffee shop feels like visiting a noticeably clean annex of Frankie’s studio, it’s a new place for them both.

As she slings her purse across the back of her barstool and settles into her seat, Grace listens to the noise of all the conversations happening behind them, only a word or two distinct enough to rise above the din. She looks out the window. The street sounds are muted, then louder every time someone opens the door. She reminds herself they’re only adding to an already noisy place, only layering in one more conversation. Despite all the small talk about parking and what to order and where to sit and the temperature of coffee, when she blurts the words that have pressed on her forehead and ached in her jaw all day it feels like the first thing she’s said since yesterday. “I’m bad at relationships.”

Frankie looks up from her coffee. Conflict flickers across her brow. “You sure about that?”

“Of course I’m sure.” Grace bites her lip. Since the incident last night she and Frankie have an unspoken agreement not to touch each other. It feels unnatural not to reach for Frankie’s hand; the presence of the held-back touch is like a ghost teasing her skin.

Frankie’s frown deepens. “And that’s because…you spent forty years with a guy who wasn’t attracted to women? Then you dated a guy named Guy and you ended up, like, playing golf? Or watching him play golf? And he ate his best friend, so I was always very nervous if you were out with him longer than a few hours—”

“You’ve really gotta let that go.”

“Then you found a guy who obviously loves you, and I saw the goddamn chapel video. I know you love him. But you felt yourself changing into someone you’re not and you realized you didn’t want to be married to him. So that’s what relationships feel like to you.”

Grace nods. “It’s what being bad at relationships feels like to me.”

“I think it says more about shitty luck than it does about your talents.” Frankie turns away from Grace to look out the window. There’s a small brown dog tied to a bench who looks at every passerby with curiosity, presumably searching for their person. They seem—if not patient—willing to wait. After watching the dog a while, Frankie returns. “Grace,” she says. “Every person you’ve been with has asked you to change, even if they didn’t know you well enough to realize that’s what they were doing. I didn’t mean to be yet another person who does that to you.”

“I know you didn’t, Frankie.” Grace feels light-headed, like she’s going to confess to something, or like she’s building the most important argument of her life out of toothpicks and cards and a gust of wind is about to come. “I love our friendship. I love how comfortable it feels, how we can talk about anything and have this, this…”—she gestures between them—“connection between us. I meant what I said that day: whenever anything happens you’re the first person I want to call. It just—it just doesn’t feel like a relationship. Like that kind of relationship.”

Frankie smiles sadly. “Wishful thinking, I guess.”

“Oh, Frankie. I’m sorry.”

“Me too. But also, of course our friendship doesn’t feel like a relationship to you. Not if relationships are supposed to feel bad.”

Grace wishes she could peer into Frankie’s brain and see whether it’s intentional, this refusal to distinguish between being bad and feeling bad. “They aren’t supposed to feel bad, exactly; I’m just bad at them.” Grace sighs. “Although a real romantic relationship has to involve sacrifice, and that doesn’t feel so great. Sacrifice is the part I have to get better at—”

“You gave up your gun for me.”

“Difficult sacrifice,” Grace says, amending her previous statement.

“That wasn’t difficult?”

“No, it wasn’t.” Grace remembers the night she agreed to get rid of the gun like it was yesterday, the way everything lifted as she told Frankie the truth and Frankie opened the door to let her back in. She’d rushed to kiss Frankie’s forehead and she couldn’t stop smiling, and for the rest of the evening she’d had the distinct feeling Frankie couldn’t stop smiling either. Until Frankie, she’d never been the reason that happened to someone else’s face. “It wasn’t difficult at all compared to the thought of not being able to live with you.”

“You moved to Walden Villas because you thought I was losing my mind.”

“I know you’ve lost your mind.”

“It was a huge sacrifice. Getting rid of the gun was probably a little scary, even if you only used it once, and Walden Villas was really depressing, but you never made me feel bad or acted like you resented me.”

“Of course I didn’t, Frankie, because I didn’t resent you—”

“There it is,” Frankie says.

“There’s what?”

“You’ve resented everything you’ve given up for men, but you don’t resent me, and I guess I’m just asking you to really consider whether you might just think romantic relationships are supposed to feel bad. Maybe you don’t even recognize a good thing for what it is.”

The question sits in the air between them. Grace breathes that air in. She thinks about what Frankie’s asking her. Really thinks. On her birthday she told Brianna she couldn’t give herself away, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t tried. She thinks about the anxiety of preparation, the anxiety of trying to line up her brain and her body and her heart even when she knows it’s futile because those parts so rarely match up. The inevitable disappointment when something slips and she realizes she’s been eating lies, fed to her by a man or by herself. Nothing soothes that disappointment—success doesn’t soothe it, drinks don’t soothe it—except for spending time with Frankie.

Frankie goes on. “If you’re truly straight—like you kissed that girl in college but you’re honest-to-God straight—then I’ll nurse my broken heart and deal with it. But please, please don’t turn this down just because it doesn’t feel bad enough.”

She might be the bravest person in the world.

Grace—not brave—glances to her left at the stranger in the barstool next to hers, half-expecting to find him looking at her and Frankie. He’s not; he’s absorbed in his phone. “I have to think more about what you just said.”

“Okay.” The two syllables come from an otherwise restrained mouth. The word sounds like it fought its way out.

They drink their coffee in silence for a while. They watch the happy reunion as the brown dog’s owner emerges from the shop next door, then watch as he scoops the dog into a minivan and nearly gets into a car accident leaving the spot where he’s parallel-parked.

When Grace got home from Nick’s sentencing, she’d felt so relieved to be able to stay at the beach house without any external pressure asking her to be somewhere else. She could sleep at home every night, spend as much time with Frankie as she wanted. But almost immediately, the joy of “every night” turned into the countdown of the time left in Nick’s sentence, the comfort of a night at home tempered by the stress of the knowledge that there would be only 731 of them before Nick would be free and available and might still want her, might become that external pressure again. The anxiety of preparation. The constant possibility of more sacrifice, the fear that she might choose to sacrifice herself again despite knowing that isn’t what she actually wants to do.

When they’re done with the coffee, Frankie busses both their mugs, then comes back for her purse. She forgets herself or makes the conscious decision to extend a hand and help Grace hop down from her stool. Grace takes her hand for the dismount and is aware of letting go too quickly. She tries to make up for it by hurrying so she can hold the door for Frankie, a guiding hand at the small of her back to indicate she should walk through first, but the gesture makes Grace feel even less like herself and a whole lot more like a chivalrous gentleman on an awkward first date.

“Does 717 days feel like a long or short time to you?” Grace asks on the walk back to the car.

“It feels like a finite amount of time,” Frankie says.

They’re on the next block before Frankie says anything else. “It feels like a very long amount of time to attempt to break up with someone. And like a very short amount of time if everything goes back to the way things were at the end of it.”

There’s no going back, Grace thinks. She’s made this decision a dozen times, but this time it will stick. Prison will change Nick, even if he can’t realize it, just as Nick going to prison has changed her. Just as marrying Nick has changed her. The divorce might take a long time, but the breakup should take only one day—or a few minutes, on whatever day she can talk to Nick next. “I’m going to try to stop doing the countdown,” Grace says when they make it to the car.

“Cool,” Frankie says. “Numbers are very compelling, though, so—you know. Do what you have to do.”

Grace hears the way Frankie’s steeling herself for a different outcome than the one she wants. She wants to tell Frankie she won’t disappoint her, won’t let the countdown stress them both out any more than it already has, but she keeps her mouth shut and starts the drive home.

Frankie goes out to dinner with Joan-Margaret that night. When it’s nearly ten o’clock and she still isn’t back, Grace considers heading up to her room and going to bed, but something tells her to wait downstairs a little longer. She continues to alternate between diversions—drink, book, phone—without focusing on any of them. She listens for Frankie, half-afraid she’ll head straight to the studio when she gets back even though she almost always stops by the house first. She thinks about how she often waits around if Frankie has gone somewhere without her, and tries to identify whether the nervousness she feels now is a new addition. It seems normal to feel anxious for someone to come home, but the current sensation isn’t one that will dissolve with Frankie’s arrival, with the proof she’s fine and back where she belongs, and that is new. She wonders how long it will last.

When Frankie gets home she sits next to Grace on the couch, pulling on the blanket that covers Grace’s lap so it covers hers, too.

“How was dinner?” Grace asks. “How’s J-M? How was the traffic?” She just barely manages to stop before she comes up with a fourth inane question.

“Well, Ms. Gross—Terry—I’m so glad you asked,” Frankie says. It’s a charitable reference, considering all of Grace’s questions were boring. “Everything was pretty okay. J-M might stop by tomorrow.”

“Sure,” Grace says. Joan-Margaret hasn’t been around very much since Grace has been back home. It’ll be good to see her, if a little awkward considering everything Frankie’s probably told her tonight.

“You’re gonna read a little longer?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.” Frankie kicks off her clogs and pulls her legs up onto the couch, then stretches out on her back so her head rests on the far side and her feet press just barely against Grace’s thigh. She takes the blanket with her.

“I wasn’t using that blanket or anything,” Grace says, smiling down at her book.

“Oh good, then you won’t mind that I’m using it now.” Frankie bunches the blanket up around her chin and sighs a happy sigh.

Grace takes the edge of the blanket and starts to pull, intending to cover Frankie’s feet and reclaim a little blanket for her own lap in the process, but she stops mid-motion, distracted by the bright pink handknit socks on Frankie’s feet. Frankie wears billowy black pants with cinched cuffs, and there’s an inch or so of ankle exposed between the cuffs and the start of the socks. It occurs to her that these are the ankles of her favorite person, her best friend, and that she should touch them because if she touches her favorite person’s ankles and it doesn’t dismantle the structures of their friendship everything will be okay and return to how it’s supposed to be.

She doesn’t reach out with her fingertips, choosing instead to use her whole hand to gently grip the exposed skin of one ankle and then the other. Frankie’s ankles are a little cool to the touch, and it’s normal—surely she’s touched Frankie here before? Hasn’t she?—but with something extra. Normal plus the knowledge that Frankie loves her in a way that’s still so freshly articulated, the fact of it still so raw. Normal plus the nervousness that—as she expected—hasn’t dissipated even now that Frankie’s safely home. She pulls back a little, nudges at the cuff of the right pant leg with her index and middle fingers. The fabric is soft, and the skin beneath it—fine, soft hairs, smooth skin.

“This is some pretty kinky Victorian ankle shit for a straight person,” Frankie says with a smirk. “Takes me right back to 1899.”

Grace could respond in kind: she could ask Frankie how old she was in 1899 and give her ankles one last squeeze and steal back some blanket and return to her book. If Grace wants normal, then here’s Frankie’s gamely making normal a possibility. Instead, she stammers, “Don’t sell me short.”

When she manages to look at Frankie’s face, Frankie is looking into her. “You’re still thinking,” she says softly. The sentence lacks the lilt of a question, but it’s clear she seeks confirmation.

Grace nods. “Still thinking.”

“Robert and Sol went to bed already?”

“Yeah.”

Frankie pulls the nearest couch cushion from the back of the couch, then hoists it over herself and onto the floor. She reaches forward to do the same with the middle cushion, and Grace pulls the final one onto the floor, too. Frankie scoots over to lie on her side in the spot the cushions have vacated, giving Grace more than enough room to lie down. Grace lies down on her back, careful to keep her arms at her sides. When she’s settled, Frankie hands her some blanket, which Grace smoothes over her own body. Then Frankie returns her hands to herself, bundled in front of her chest.

“What did last night feel like to you?” Frankie asks. “Before I ruined it.”

Grace smiles up at the ceiling. “I don’t normally like to have my stomach touched, but it felt good when you touched it.” She’s not insane enough to ask, but she almost wants the same touches again. “Everything felt all warm and hazy and soft.”

“But not sexual—?”

“I wasn’t prepared, but I didn’t feel unprepared. I felt comfortable.”

“That was the goal,” Frankie says. “You sounded happy, and you were pressed up against me, and—what do you mean, ‘prepared’?”

“Well, you have to be prepared for something, um, intimate to happen, otherwise it’s even more nerve-wracking. Until you surprised me last night I thought it was different with us. Because we’re friends.”

“Sex doesn’t have to feel nerve-wracking. I actually learned that working with you on Vybrant.”

“Then why does it? Why is it always stressful? Why is everyone always having not enough of it or too much of it or the wrong kind of it or the right kind but with the wrong person?” Even the memory of the moment Frankie’s touch changed into something sexual frustrates her, makes this present moment with the couch and the blanket and the end of a long day into something uncomfortable.

“I don’t know,” Frankie whispers. “I’m sorry.” There’s no pity in the words, no danger that Frankie in her wisdom will abandon Grace in her uncertainty. She’s as here for this problem as she’s been for every other problem Grace has had, ready to drop everything and roll up her sleeves and get to work on a solution.

Except this time she’s the reason they’re here. Grace wonders for the millionth time since last night why Frankie doesn’t seem afraid to introduce something sexual—something so foreign and intense—into the good thing they already have. This time, an answer starts to form. Grace gasps. “Frankie,” she says, already blushing at what she’s going to have to say. “It was sexual for you before you touched my breast, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Frankie says hesitantly. “I just wanted to make you feel good.”

“You did,” Grace says. She rolls to face Frankie. “I didn’t know that’s what it was for you.”

“I don’t want to do anything scary to my favorite person.”

Grace isn’t scared, and she realizes she wasn’t scared last night, either—not really. She’d responded on instinct to what felt to her like a sudden shift but for Frankie was a gentle escalation on an already-traveled spectrum. Frankie’s right: She’s always thought sex was supposed to feel sacrificial and challenging, something to train for and achieve. In Frankie’s shorthand, she’s always thought sex was supposed to feel bad. She couldn’t comprehend allowing that bad presence into her friendship with Frankie, but Frankie had already let it in, already felt that it was good.

“Let me touch you where you touched me,” she says. “I want to,” she adds when Frankie looks skeptical. Grace reaches for Frankie beneath the blanket and finds the curve of her waist. She takes the fabric of Frankie’s t-shirt between her fingers and lifts it up. Frankie’s eyes close as she makes contact with the skin beneath.

“Don’t pretend for me,” Frankie says without opening her eyes. “Stop if you don’t like it.”

Grace answers by not stopping. She’ll have to stop eventually—the downstairs lights are still on and they’ll have to get up to turn them off. She hasn’t talked to Frankie about how Nick gave her permission to be unaccountable; now she has to find the words to explain how accountable she wants to be. Until that happens, there are so many things she’s not ready for. But for now, she brings herself back to the very near future, to the simple path across Frankie’s skin. She strokes her fingers against Frankie’s back, touching the places where she imagines Frankie’s nerve endings want her most—the base of her spine, the contours of her shoulder blades. Frankie rewards her by yanking her t-shirt farther up her body, giving Grace more room to move. Frankie’s lips fall open and her eyes stay shut, and Grace can’t take her eyes off the way every touch makes Frankie’s mouth move almost imperceptibly. She slides her hand back down Frankie’s side, lets herself slip down to press her palm against Frankie’s stomach, prepared and unprepared for both the firmness and the give, finally able to start to feel what Frankie felt.

First thing in the morning, Grace calls Nick’s attorney and tells him she wants Nick to get in touch as soon as he can. Not knowing how long that will take makes her feel nearly faint. She silently practices the words she needs to say, repeating them to herself over breakfast with Frankie, alone in the shower, with Robert as they drink coffee on the patio. She’s still with Robert when her phone rings with a call from the prison system and she heads for the upstairs immediately. She wonders if Nick pulled strings or found a way to pay to jump the queue, relying on his resources to get what he wants even now. Maybe there was bribery involved, or maybe it was just his turn to use the phone. She’s standing in her bedroom with the door shut by the time the call goes through and she hears Nick’s voice.

“Hey,” Nick says. The usual jovial timbre is there in his voice, but there’s a tension too.

“You haven’t been listening to me,” Grace says, and the whole room echoes with the sharp bright strangeness of finally saying the words out loud. Everything slows into something she’ll remember forever: Her bed, perfectly made up and unslept in for two nights. Her couch-sore muscles. The feeling of having to conquer only one last fear, already able to feel the freedom on the other side. “I need you to listen to me now.”

Chapter Text

Your heart beats hard
Like the pounding of the sparrow
On the window that faces the yard
And you are far but not that far
I can feel you push your fingers
Through the fabric of all of my thoughts

Hand Habits, “yr heart [reprise]”

When Grace hangs up the phone, the light in her bedroom seems impossibly bright. The sky’s been clear all morning, and the sunshine can’t have brightened even further so quickly, but now that the phone call is done every surface seems lit up with a glare that would hurt her eyes if it weren’t for the lack of tension in her temples, the remarkable looseness in her skull. It’s the opposite of being drunk, when the thing right in front of you is sharply important and everything else blurs. Everything is important right now. Everything, periphery and all, bursts with color, like her entire life is the After segment on a home improvement show.

In a darker room Grace would probably worry at least a tiny bit about whether it was tacky to break up with your husband by phone and immediately go find your best friend and partner so you can kiss her, but tackiness and tackiness avoidance are Before problems that don’t even cross her mind. Grace tosses her phone onto the bed and trades the bedroom for the radiant hallway, the radiant hallway for the dazzling stairs. She has to remind herself to grip the railing on the way down.

Frankie’s in her studio—the painting part, not the partitioned-off bedroom. She stands at a small table, her back to the door. As far as Grace can tell she’s sorting tubes of paint, the sort of busywork a person might take on to occupy their hands while their mind wanders.

“Hey,” Grace says, stopping at the doorway.

Frankie turns around right away, and Grace feels the same spark of gratefulness for hearing aids that she feels every time she manages to get Frankie’s attention without having to shout.

“What’s up?” Frankie asks. She leans to one side, her right arm braced perfectly straight against the table. Her stance is overly casual, like she’s auditioning for a job modeling pastel-colored polo shirts for Lands’ End; she already knows she won’t look good in the clothes, but she needs the money so she gives it her all.

Grace feels silly, the sensation sudden as a ray of sun. “Nick called,” she says. “I did it. I ended it for good.”

Frankie’s eyes widen. “Already,” she says, a slight quaver in her voice. She looks more startled after speaking, as if she’d expected to say something else.

“Yeah,” Grace says. “He called as soon as he got my message.” She bites her bottom lip and cants her head to one side. “Can I—”

Can I kiss you, she’s about to ask, but Frankie speaks at the same time.

“Are you sad about it?” Frankie stands up straight, visibly prepared to take any answer head on.

“No,” Grace says. “I’m not.” She’ll probably feel flickers of sadness at sporadic points in the future, like if she unexpectedly runs across the Italian loafers Nick swears he left at the beach house but that she could never find. For now, though, and ultimately forever, she doesn’t feel sad about Nick. She’s already put in that time. The preemptive sadness she felt the morning after the wedding, watching Frankie cry at the video of the ceremony and knowing the hurt would continue. The sadness of a brief marriage spent lying and being lied to without fully realizing it, all those sins of omission, the sadness of knowing she didn’t have enough to give. The scrambled thoughts on the drive home from the courtroom the day of Nick’s sentencing, and how the mixed-up story gave way to an empty-headed melancholy even though she was so glad to be able to go home. She’s let go of Nick piece by piece, and any residual sadness—even in appropriate, understandable quantities—seems evaporated now.

Last night she and Frankie kissed on the couch after they’d touched for a while. They were tentative but good kisses that seemed to say it’ll be okay and you’ll be okay and you’ll be okay, too and this is okay and this is also okay, each kiss an encouragement traded back and forth. They fell asleep almost close enough to keep kissing, and before she drifted off Grace spent some time thinking about what the kisses had meant. Her thoughts turned into sleepiness and she slumped against Frankie, who in turn sunk into the back of the couch where they’d removed the cushions. She felt very certain the kisses were something she wanted. She didn’t need to form a construction project within herself to enjoy them; she required neither a wall to keep other feelings out nor a moat to keep the moment in.

“Okay,” Frankie says carefully. “Not sad. So what are you feeling right now?”

Grace realizes, slightly aghast, that while Frankie has spent the last couple days making herself very clear, she hasn’t quite returned the favor. For all Frankie knows, the touches and kisses—as mutually enjoyable as they were—remain experiments. Results still processing. And until Grace makes herself plain, Frankie doesn’t know who to be right now. Is she the roommate and friend supporting Grace through the stung heart of a mostly self-inflicted breakup, ready to soothe her with a shaker of martinis, a pint of dark chocolate ice cream, an array of Katharine Hepburn movies? Is she the victorious new lover? Is she the woman she always is, the partner, Grace’s match in all things—intense, sometimes discordant energy; affectionate ribbing; entrepreneurial adventure; a home, made first of leftovers and then of love?

Last night’s kisses said maybe we can have this. Now Grace wants a kiss that doesn’t have to ask a question. A kiss that simply is.

“I feel good. I love you,” Grace says. Her voice shakes and she wills herself to stay unembarrassed, to trust Frankie doesn’t hear the unsteadiness as uncertainty. “I want to kiss you.” It doesn’t get much more plain than that. She steps closer, and so does Frankie. The kiss they share is fierce, her shoulders gripped in Frankie’s hands, the wet warmth of their mouths noticeable mostly because it’s still such a new way to interact.

Eventually Grace pulls away, smiling at Frankie but utterly terrified by the freedom she feels. She doesn’t know what to do now, and from the look of Frankie’s shiny eyes and slightly open mouth, she hasn’t thought that far either. They’ve spent hundreds of days together, but this one is so different. They’re already at home in the same place, and who knew that could feel strange? This isn’t a date, and Frankie isn’t going to invite Grace over at the end of it, and Grace isn’t going to have a conversation with herself about how far she’s willing to go, and they won’t faux-casually decide to do it again the following weekend. They’ve lived in the same house for years, and have already seen a lot of bests and worsts. It’s way too late to be coy, yet she has no idea what the next moments are supposed to be.

“Wanna go out to lunch?” Frankie asks.

The relief could knock Grace down. “Oh my God, yes.”

Frankie swoops in for another kiss, flirty and light but possessive, not at all like a gal cheering up her pal after a bout of heartbreak. “I’ll choose the restaurant and you can pick up the bill.”

“It’s a date.”

Frankie beams. “You’re damn right it is.”

“You took off fast this morning,” Robert says. He sits on one of the big chairs in the living room. All at once it’s still strange to see him in the house and it feels like he might have been there forever. Mostly it’s strange.

“Nick called,” Grace explains. She’s on her way to meet Frankie at the car so they can head to lunch, but she wants to take this moment. She rarely catches Robert totally alone, and now it’s happened twice in two days.

“I figured.”

“I ended it.” It’s odd to stand in front of him and look down. She feels a queasy blend of the ways she used to feel around Robert: like a kid approaching an armchair patriarch, like the boss looming over a guy who always let her down.

Robert nods, thoughtful, staring straight ahead until he’s processed the information and is ready to look up at her. He clears his throat. “I’m sorry it wasn’t what you wanted it to be.”

“Me too,” Grace says. Now it’s her turn to performatively stall with a false cough in her throat. “Sort of.”

Robert raises his eyebrows. When the tables were turned, Frankie and Sol were there, and for the first time ever Grace wonders what would have happened if Robert had come out to her while they were alone. Would she have erupted in anger? Would she have cried or would she have refused to cry, each option a little bit cruel? Would she have asked him to stuff the truth back in, pretend he’d said nothing, and give her a few final moments with their good enough life?

“I just want to be with Frankie,” she says. It’s a luxurious sentence, each word a crush of velvet. She isn’t nervous about what Robert will say in response.

This time, Robert doesn’t look away. The grin on his face is a slow dawning. “In—various senses?”

“Yes.” She smiles, the expression small and tight, compressing the joy she can’t wait to heave in Frankie’s direction. She wonders if Robert will give her a hard time, point out that just yesterday morning—how was it only yesterday?—she emerged from the studio and swore nothing was going on between them. But he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even hint at challenging her on what she’s told him. That makes sense, given their history, given who Robert is. If anyone can understand trying to move in one direction but needing to go another, it’s Robert. “Can you give Frankie a chance to tell Sol? I think she’ll do it soon.”

“Of course,” Robert says. His blue eyes glitter with both mirth and a more serious joy. “I’m happy for you, Grace.”

“Thanks.” Two different people—for instance, the Bergsteins—might fling themselves into each other’s arms, a miniature Pride fest right in the living room, but Grace hoists the strap of her purse more securely over her shoulder and heads for the door.

She’s almost there when Robert speaks again. “I’m here for you if you need help with the divorce,” he says. “It’s the least I can do.”

The afternoon fills, and living it makes Grace forget the fear that it wouldn’t. The world exists. San Diego exists. They eat sandwiches at a café table outdoors—grilled salmon for Grace; Tempeh, Lettuce, & Tomato for Frankie. They watch each other over their twin grips on the sourdough rolls they’ve both chosen, amused at nothing, or at each other. Amused at the place they’ve ended up. Frankie says she plans to buy Sally Ride postage stamps next time she’s at the Post Office. Grace complains about construction on a new roundabout that slowed down her errands a couple days ago. Frankie updates Grace on their latest Madame Clairevoyant horoscopes. “According to Claire,” Frankie says, “‘your body speaks its own silent language.’” Grace almost chokes on a sip of water.

They head to the grocery store after lunch so Frankie can buy portobellos for dinner. She wants to try to replicate the cheese-filled portobello burger at Shake Shack. If she does it correctly, she explains, the burger will slap you in the face with melted cheese when you bite in.

The entrance to the store has automatic motion-sensor sliding doors, but Grace feels the same burst of chivalry she felt when she guided Frankie through the coffeeshop exit the previous day, this time with none of the nauseating awkwardness. The sliding doors here are slow to open and quick to shut, so she speeds up a little, makes sure the motion-sensor detects her, then lingers in the sensor zone so Frankie can walk through without a care. She doesn’t mind that Frankie doesn’t seem to notice—that might even be the point.

“The cheese won’t slap you in the face if you eat your burger with a knife and fork,” Frankie says.

“I think I’ll live,” says Grace.

They’re alone sitting side-by-side at the dining room table, alone in the house. Grace is certain Robert hasn’t told Sol what’s going on, but she’s also certain he nonetheless maneuvered to give her time alone with Frankie tonight.

Frankie tilts her head to the side and goes quiet for a while as she watches Grace eat. “You okay?” she finally asks.

“I’m fine,” says Grace. “I didn’t want to get cheese on my face.” She looks pointedly at Frankie.

Frankie wipes herself from forehead to chin with her cloth napkin. It’s pretty effective. “No, I mean, it’s a lot of change.”

Grace nods. “Yeah. Are you okay?”

“I am,” says Frankie. “But I’ve had years to think about this, and tell myself it would never happen, and hope that it would, and find distractions, rinse and repeat. I’ve been on this rollercoaster for a really long time. You’ve only been on it for a couple days.”

“Yes and no.” Grace slices another bite of her burger but doesn’t bring the fork to her mouth. “Even if I wasn’t on your specific rollercoaster, my own feelings were pretty intricate.”

A kind of peace settles into Frankie’s face at Grace’s words. “Yeah,” she says. “I know.” When Grace doesn’t say anything, she continues. “It feels like there’s no script.”

“There’s never been one with us,” says Grace. She’s loved Frankie for years, and has known it, even if she didn’t explicitly connect that feeling to anything sexual or romantic. She put everything into compartments and carried on with life, all the while feeling almost-but-not-quite guilty about how much joy she got from Frankie, wondering sometimes if she was cheating herself out of a fulfilling relationship with a man every time she gave her energy to Frankie instead. When she tried to rescue Frankie from the seafood place and they exchanged declarations, calling each other their first phone call—first person—it was like a confession. Nothing, not even the endless logistical nightmares that came after, could touch how good it felt to say those words and to hear Frankie’s version echoed back. She sets down her utensils and twists her fingers into the napkin in her lap.

“I’ve always felt like a reactor,” Frankie says. “Like the people around me had an agenda but I didn’t, and all I was doing was choosing my own responses.”

“This is different.”

“Yeah, this is the first time I’ve gone after what I wanted.” Frankie smiles. “I mean, I’ve created lots of things, things I wanted to create—I wanted to adopt the boys, and to paint, and to do Say Yes Nights and go to protests and join the groups I’ve joined and figure out my own style and tastes. I’ve gone after all kinds of things.” She looks at Grace. “But I’ve never asked for something like this from another person before.”

“Well, hopefully you won’t regret it when you get what you ask for.” Grace means the words to sound light, almost teasing, but the words are leaden. The napkin is so twisted it might be a permanent fixture, woven irrevocably around her fingers.

“Grace,” Frankie says, almost stern. “How could I regret that?”

“This time yesterday, I didn’t even think this was something I wanted.”

Frankie finds Grace’s hands, loosens her fingers from the napkin and sets the napkin on the table. She squeezes the nearest hand in hers. “You can have whatever you want,” she says. “Whatever it looks like, however long it takes.”

“You too.” She really means it. She means it so much it calms her.

“Besides, I’ve squatted you before, and it worked out great.” Frankie wipes her face again for good measure, then sets her napkin next to Grace’s. “You’re wondering what happens next, aren’t you—how we get from two BFF-slash-soulmates who sleep in the same bed only when there are burglars and fireworks on the loose to two BFF-slash-soulmates who are really good at boning each other.”

Grace grins. “Never say that again, but yeah. In so many words.”

Something shifts in Frankie’s expression. “I just got an idea.”

“What?” She’s seen the love in Frankie’s eyes thousands of times before. There’s something new—or previously undetected, or previously misinterpreted—at the edges now. It isn’t just the you’re-my-favorite-person shimmer; it’s a glint, focused and sharp.

“You’ve been hanging out with me all week,” Frankie murmurs, dropping her voice half an octave. “You probably need to unwind.”

“Uh.”

“I think—I think we should start with a place we’ve already been. We’re already good at taking care of each other after sex, and—”

“We are?” Grace squeaks.

“Yeah! Remember the breakfast you made the morning after the Ménage prototypes arrived?”

“Sure I do: orgasms and pancakes with all the fixings.” The bright kitchen, the knowledge of what they’d each spent the night doing, the indulgent breakfast—all part of an extended afterglow.

“And remember how you didn’t realize Jacob and I had started sleeping together at first? It was because I kept kicking him out afterwards, or leaving the farm to come back here, because I was really enjoying being with him but I also wanted to hang out with you. And when you were first sleeping with Nick and wouldn’t let him spend the night, I was obsessed with spending the rest of those nights with you. Knowing you’d gotten something you wanted, and just—” Grace has rarely seen Frankie visibly embarrassed, but she’s blushing now. “—feeling you relax next to me.”

“Because I could let my guard down with you.” It’s a wild memory now. Frankie would make sure there was food and drink if she needed sustenance, an ice pack for her knee, a stack of blankets on the couch. A soft place to land. Grace would snuggle into it and convince herself the pleasure she felt was about another good night with Nick. In hindsight, it’s so obvious that the time with Frankie was its own kind of pleasure.

“I’m so glad you could,” Frankie says. “And that’s why I think we should start there. Or keep going from there, or whatever.” The low murmur returns to her voice. “If you need to go to your bedroom and take care of yourself, I’d understand. I’d more than understand. And then—if you want—you could call me when you’re finished, and I’d take care of you.”

“Tonight, you mean.” She prays Frankie means tonight.

“If you want.”

All the furniture at the beach house is pretty comfortable. There are no death traps, no sofas that hold her hostage or chairs that trick her into thinking she can get up again if she sits down. But she feels Frankie’s suggestion—the promise that she can let go of some tension and that Frankie will be there after—like an uncontrollable pulse in the pit of her stomach, like a sinking in both thighs. It makes her lose track of her center of gravity. “Help me up, please,” Grace says.

Frankie stands up without letting go of her hand. She uses her other hand on Grace’s back for leverage and pulls until Grace is able to stand, too. “I’ll load the dishwasher,” she says. “I’ll have my phone on.” She seems to think twice about sending Grace upstairs alone. “You’ll be okay on the stairs?”

Grace nods. “I’ll go slow.” Her cheeks burn at the double entendre.

“Take all the time you need.”

“I’ll call you after.”

“Call me whenever you want.” She presses a kiss to Grace’s cheek. “I’ll be there.”

Grace makes a beeline to her nightstand the second she gets to the bedroom. The urgency is another reminder of the day they got the vibrator prototypes. She was so involuntarily shocked when she thought Frankie wanted to test them in the same room. As soon as she said so out loud, they’d both backpedaled almost immediately, the idea so ridiculous that it’s still difficult to imagine, even now that so much has changed.

She moves quickly, pulling her Mini Ménage and jar of lube out of the drawer and setting them on the bed. She yanks down the comforter and top sheet, stacks her pillows against the headboard, unbuttons her jeans with clumsy fingers and shoves her jeans and her underwear down her thighs. But when she’s propped up in bed and the only thing between herself and relief is time, she slows down. The room stops spinning. The hum of desire quiets enough that she can hear herself think. This moment is a precipice, the space between an end and a beginning. She isn’t losing anything—including the ability to touch herself in a room with a shut door—but it feels like this is the last time she’ll be alone in this particular way. The last time she’ll touch herself before she lets Frankie touch her for the first time. The last time she had sex with another person, she was losing Nick. Even while they were together in bed she fast-forwarded to being home with Frankie. Now she’s here.

“Frankie,” she whispers. Even though she’s alone, she’s too self-conscious to say the rest of what she’s imagining out loud, but her thoughts form the words she wants to say. Frankie, please touch me, she thinks, and hears herself asking for it in a tiny voice. Please make me feel good. Please go inside me. Her face flames. She opens the lube and carefully preps the vibrator, then coats her fingers with more and starts to touch herself, very gently at first, lubricating the area around her clit and down to her entrance. With her shirt still on, it’s a little too warm in the room, but it’s too messy and too late to do anything about it now. She enters herself with her fingers, everything slow and gentle and wet, everything melty and comfortable. Lube drips onto the sheet between her legs and she thinks happily about how Frankie will be in the room with her before the sheet has time to dry.

Frankie, please make me feel better. I need you to make me come. She curls her fingers upward, relishing the surge of pleasure the motion brings her, the way the intense pressure makes her wetter. She pulls her fingers out and grabs the vibrator, touches the tip to her entrance as she presses the button that turns it to a low speed, rolls her hips as she gradually pushes it in. When the Ménage is inside her, she holds it with her left hand and touches her clit with her right until the rocking of her hips and the toy and her fingers are all in sync.

She stays gentle. Frankie is always pointing out that she doesn’t have to be so unequivocal in her actions, that it isn’t a weakness to slide around and try things and see how things feel. Grace lets her mind wander, finally unafraid of where the wandering might lead. Although the eventual orgasm will make her hotter, she imagines it as something cool and refreshing. She remembers an almost-forgotten night years ago, when she had the flu and Frankie kept barging in even though Grace didn’t want her to see her sick. Frankie placed cold cloths on her forehead, wrists, belly, changed them out every hour on the hour, a generosity Grace had never experienced nor given to anyone else. The sense memory is as vivid as anything happening now—the relief of the feverish old washcloth being lifted and taken away, the cold shock of the new one, then the cool spreading of an even greater relief, the hours lining up until they started to loop.

The Frankie in her head is beautiful and warm and cool and has her hand buried as far into Grace as it will go. Can you take more? she keeps asking, and Grace says yes every time, increases the speed of the toy every time. She’s getting closer and closer, and she imagines lifting Frankie’s hair from her shoulders, kissing her neck, a mist, a breeze, a moan—then her own moan lurches into the quiet reality of her bedroom, no time to bite it back down her throat. She doesn’t worry about the sound—she and Frankie are alone in the house. She comes and comes, happy and wet and free, everything Frankie has made her.

It takes a moment to pull her underwear and jeans back on, to find her phone where it’s tucked between the sheets. It takes another moment for her tired hand to figure out how to call Frankie. “It's after,” she says when Frankie picks up, her voice foreign and soft.

Frankie doesn’t joke or tease. She doesn’t make a crack about how little time has passed—although Grace has no idea whether it’s been mere minutes or an hour—and she doesn’t feign misunderstanding at Grace’s shorthand. “I’ll be right there,” she says.

The door creaks open just a couple minutes later. “Hey,” Frankie says, her face is so full of feeling that Grace can’t read it all at once. She wears pajamas, and everything about her looks soft and flexible and comfortable. Her hair flows around her face, but otherwise she seems ready for bed.

Grace starts to tremble. Other than the warmth of her button-down blouse, she’s hardly noticed her own clothes since she’s been upstairs, but now her jeans feel stuck to her body, thick and harshly seamed and almost too tight even though they’re one of her looser pairs. Her shirt clings to her, its floral print suddenly too loud. Her bra bites the skin beneath her breasts.

Frankie sits next to Grace in bed, on top of the covers even though Grace sits with the covers tangled around her waist. Now that Frankie’s here she doesn’t know why she got back into bed in preparation. Grace leans against her and Frankie puts her arm around her shoulders, seems to notice the shaking, rubs her hand gently along Grace’s right arm. “Do you feel better?” Frankie asks.

“Yeah.” She does feel better, even like this, with the awareness of her clothes a near pain. She still aches, not for an orgasm but for what Frankie can give her, but Frankie has helped her give herself something she needed, and she feels better than she has before.

“I'm so glad you feel better, baby, I love you so much—” Frankie gathers Grace to her, kisses her head, rocks her in her arms. Grace can’t stop shaking, but she can breathe all the way in again. “You need to be more comfortable, don’t you? You keep saying you’re okay sleeping in your clothes, but this is different.”

Grace nods.

“Can I help you change into pajamas?” Grace nods again, and Frankie gets up and walks to the chest of drawers. She seems to know where everything is: underwear in the top drawer, cream-colored pajamas in the third, a plain grey t-shirt grabbed from the second drawer after a moment’s hesitation. “Get up for me?” she asks.

Grace gets out of bed, still a little shaky but steady on her feet. With the covers pulled back, Frankie’s eyes go straight to the wet spot on the sheet, the soaked vibrator lying nearby. “Oh, wow,” Frankie breathes.

“I didn’t clean up yet,” Grace stammers.

“Good.” Frankie sits down near the wet spot, her legs hanging over the side of the bed. “Come here,” she says gently, and motions for Grace to stand in front of her. She reaches up to unbutton her blouse and slides it off her shoulders. She has Grace turn around so she can see to unclasp her bra. She removes it and Grace turns back to face her. “You’re the most beautiful person,” Frankie says. Grace can’t speak. Frankie reaches for the button on Grace’s jeans, unfastens and unzips and pulls until they pool around Grace’s feet and she can step out of the legs. She hooks her thumbs into Grace’s underwear and pulls them slowly down until Grace is free of those, too. “The most beautiful,” Frankie repeats, sounding a little dazed. She helps Grace into the clean underwear, holds her steady as she steps into the pajama bottoms. “T-shirt or pajama top?” she asks. The pajama set is long-sleeved, and heat still pulses in Grace’s core and radiates through her limbs. She points to the t-shirt, and Frankie stands up slightly to pull it over her head.

“Okay,” Frankie says, a little nervous. “All set.” She tucks a tendril of hair behind her ears. The motion causes the sleeve of her pajamas to slide up her arm, revealing a stretchy hair tie tied around her wrist.

“Let me braid your hair for bed,” Grace blurts.

Frankie’s expression emits pure delight, a welcome look since she’s being so much less chatty than usual. She turns so Grace can reach more easily, slides the hair tie off her wrist and hands it over. Grace hasn’t braided anyone’s hair since Mallory’s final dance recital circa 1988. She takes a long time on purpose, standing at Frankie’s back with her fingers gently scratching her scalp. She uses her fingertips to comb even parts into Frankie’s hair, dividing it into thirds. The final result isn’t the neat tight braid Frankie’s taken care of herself a hundred thousand times; Grace’s braid is wavy and loose but still practical.

“I’m gonna get ready for bed,” Grace says when she’s done, letting her hands fall to Frankie’s shoulders. “Please stay.”

Grace takes her time in the bathroom. The pajamas feel soft and loose against her skin, and the relief of that feeling echoes in her face as she removes her makeup and washes with cool water. She cleans the vibrator and sets it on a clean towel to dry. When she walks back into the bedroom, ninety percent of her conscious being is happy and calm. Frankie lies under the covers watching Grace approach the bed, the lamp on her nightstand already out. Ninety percent happy and calm, but there’s something Grace still has to say.

She climbs into bed and situates her pillows for sleep. Turns off her lamp and plunges the room into darkness. “Hey,” she whispers, scooting closer to Frankie until she lies on her side facing her.

Frankie takes her hand and flattens it against the smooth sheet, laces their fingers together. “Hey.”

“When you touched me on Friday, I said—well, I don’t remember quite what I said, but I think it was ‘I’m not—’.”

“Yeah. That’s what you said.”

“Well, I am,” Grace says. “I’ll find the words. I promise.” Frankie squeezes her hand. Grace hears Frankie’s breathing change as if she’s about to speak, but she doesn’t say anything. “I’m sorry I had that reaction.”

“Grace,” Frankie says. “It’s okay. I know.”

Grace lets go of Frankie’s hand and finds the dip of her waist, runs her fingers up and down the length of her torso. She wonders how far her hunger might go now that it’s starting to have a name. Where it might lead them tonight—an entire night ahead of them, and an entire day to follow that, bookended by another night, and on and on. There’s no way to know what the hours will hold. For the first time in Grace’s life, that feels like a blessing.