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“Do all lovers feel they're inventing something?”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Every time Grace and Frankie sleep together, their shared language expands. Whether careful or careless, they’ve always relied on words to tell each other what kind of friends they are, using more and more words to try to soothe the itchy ache of unuttered, unanswered questions. Now that they keep finding each other in the dark, words are supplementary—important but not everything. Night after night old words do new work for them, ordinary words like “okay” and “please” and “more” and “enough” that swell to accommodate urgent meanings.

Their bodies communicate, too: sometimes Grace squeezes Frankie’s upper arm because she needs more, needs Frankie to stay inside her longer, and sometimes she squeezes the same spot on the same arm because she needs Frankie to stop. The difference is in the context of her heartbeat, her breathing, the little sounds that fall from her lips, preverbal or extraverbal but articulate as a complete sentence. Frankie uses her hands to tell Grace’s fingers where to go. It’s not that she isn’t brave enough to speak—she would if she had to, and sometimes she does. But the pull between their limbs is speech. The plunge is the right word.

The nights help the days. The generosity of a long night creates the space for more giving interpretations of their upright sunlit selves. If Grace says “I need a drink,” Frankie is better equipped to understand that sometimes she means exactly that, and other times she might need to be left alone for a few hours, or she might need a hug, or she might need someone to make her something to eat. It’s a relief for Frankie to have an option beyond ignoring a statement to which she used to have no response. And if Frankie messes it up sometimes—leaves Grace lonely when she wants an embrace, or attends to the wrong kind of hunger—the effort is another kind of care, and Grace feels it. If Frankie loses something, Grace no longer wants to punish her into having a better memory. She simply helps her look.

Frankie slices up an heirloom tomato, shiny and speckled like a galaxy. She sprinkles it with sea salt and black pepper, and the first bite stings her mouth with a bittersweet sadness. She can barely trace the origins of the feeling, but her body knows she feels it because she loves Grace.

Grace drops a match while lighting a candle. It’s the effort of a single breath to blow the fire out, and the flame only has time to scorch a tiny circle into the dining room table. She wasn’t thinking about Frankie while she lit the candle, but for the remaining years they own the table she thinks of Frankie with pleasure every time she sees the burn mark. She never knows why. Eventually they give the table to Bud and Allison, replacing it with something rectangular. Weeks later, Bud hosts them for brunch and seats Grace right next to the small scorched place. She thrills, telling no one. What would she say?

When they’ve been together in the new way for a few months, Frankie spends a weekend clearing out one end of her studio and building Grace a reading nook. An intentional place, built in the light, a place neither will have to ask the other to search for in the dark. It takes only two visits to yard sales and three trips to Home Depot to get everything right. It’s the kind of window seat Grace longed for as a lonesome, bookish child—the seat itself is a wide, low bookshelf nestled beneath a big bright window. There are mustard-yellow cushions and dark blue blankets, a coaster-strewn shelf, enough space to sit up or lie down. They both assume Frankie will get a lot of painting done while Grace reads, and this industrious arrangement will eventually become marginally possible. At first, though, painting is so much less important than napping with Grace, holding onto Grace, waking up to talk and talk and talk.