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“It’s a good thing this pandemic is primarily an indoor challenge, because I’d be a shitty pioneer.” Frankie makes this observation while following Grace into the kitchen. Apparently it’s “Wednesday” at “seven p.m.” If everybody in the house is going to keep suspending disbelief and approaching each day as if it has a beginning, middle, and end, that means it’s time to figure out dinner.

“What would make you say that?” Grace asks wryly. She can think of a zillion reasons why Frankie would be a disaster at rustic prairie life, but she wants to hear what Frankie comes up with.

“Well, for starters, I’m very into HBO...and snacks that require a freezer...and smoking pot I didn’t have to cultivate myself.”

“And you have a terrible sense of direction. It’s just as well we can’t leave our house ever again.” It’s not just as well. It’s miserable. Even with Robert and Sol around, it’s so lovely to be back at the beach house, but it’s still awful.

“Not ‘ever again’—just not for the foreseeable future.” For a moment, Frankie looks far away, but she brightens soon enough. “I may lack outdoor survival skills, but damn it, I can provide for my family with a delicious pantry-and-freezer staple meal. Let’s do this!” She slams her hand down on the countertop. Across the room, Carl wakes up from his nap long enough to yelp.

Frankie pours Grace a glass of wine and leaps into action. She’s not a bad cook. When she puts her mind to it and plans a step or two ahead, she gets results. But tonight Grace watches knowingly as Frankie chooses a path that’s ruined her many times before. Instead of working in a sequence, she tries to do everything at once. With no outside consultation, she opts for breakfast for dinner, and suddenly there’s a skillet full of frozen spinach and hash browns and eggs simultaneously thawing and burning on the stovetop.

When it appears very likely that Frankie is about to use scissors to cut pieces of vegetarian sausage directly into the whole monstrosity, Grace knows it’s time for her favorite part, the part where she takes a long swig of her drink and steps in to save the day. Now she can boss Frankie around for as long as Frankie’s contrite enough to obey her commands. She turns the burner way down, then gets a second pan warming with a little butter so she can rescue the eggs. When the eggs are cooked enough to add the spinach, she has Frankie set the oven to a low temp so everything has a place to keep warm. She salvages the potatoes—a tiny bit more oil, a lid so the steam will help things cook—and adds the veggie sausage to one side of that pan while Frankie sets the table. Frankie does such a nice job that Grace generously allows her to grind pepper over the whole dish and select several hot sauces for the table.

“Grace, you’d have made a good pioneer,” Frankie says at dinner.

“Ha,” Grace says. “I was just sitting here thinking about how much I miss manicures.”

“No, you’d be the best of all of us,” says Robert. “You have the most patience for enduring subpar circumstances.”

Sol thrusts a hitchhiker’s thumb in Robert’s direction. “Case in point: your marriage to this guy.”

“And who needs manicures?” pipes up Frankie. “Last time you got one you told me it was like spending thirty bucks to be reminded that we’re all part of an endless losing battle to maintain our corporeal forms.”

Grace only vaguely remembers saying something that dramatic, but it’s true that things haven’t been the same since Sheree left the nail business. “Well, now it sounds fun.”

“Looks like you’re gonna have to take matters into your own hands,” Sol says, then laughs far too loudly at what he probably considers an innovative pun. No one else joins in.

There are worse things in the world than having ex-husbands around to take dish duty on the nights she and Frankie cook. As soon as dinner is over Grace goes upstairs to take Sol’s unwelcome but perfectly sensible advice. She trims her nails in her bathroom, but something tells her to head back downstairs with the polish remover and cotton balls and the bottle of shimmery pale pink she’s chosen from her dwindling collection. Lately there’s always an impulse urging her to do the opposite of whatever she’s planned. Since having to stay home all the time she gets lonely after practically thirty seconds of solitude, but then she can only take so many moments populated with Robert or Sol or both before she can hardly stand people, either. Since leaving Nick she’s never sure what Frankie is going to want to talk to her about, but she craves every conversation with the same wanting that suggests she ought to pick a scab or tear off a hangnail or open a bottle of vodka.

She’s learned there’s a space in between being alone and being surrounded by people, and that space is Frankie.

Grace removes her nail polish at the dining room table, the little pile of fluffy cotton balls turning red-stained and damp one by one. Despite the loneliness that prompted the relocation effort, she ends up alone at the table: Robert and Sol wander outside as soon as they’re done cleaning up the kitchen, and Frankie is probably out in her studio avoiding ancillary involvement in the chores. But when Grace finishes removing the old polish and starts to unscrew the cap on the nail polish bottle, Frankie appears.

“Let me paint your nails,” Frankie says, standing next to Grace’s chair. “I’m good at it.”

Grace smiles up at her. “Your canvases are usually a lot bigger.”

“I’m good at it,” Frankie says again.

It’s nothing like a nail salon. Frankie sits right next to her, one hand encircling her wrist to keep everything still, the other brushing the color onto each nail. She works slowly, painting in steady strokes. One thing at a time. Each move carefully planned.

“Why’d you choose this color?” Frankie asks when she finishes the first coat on the right hand. She gets up so she can move to the chair on Grace’s other side.

Grace doesn’t think she knows—why does anyone choose anything?—but she answers the question anyway. “Contrast,” she says, and realizes this is the real reason why. “The last shade was really bright, so I wanted something calm.”

She knows from the previous hand’s experience that Frankie will hold onto her wrist, but she isn’t prepared for Frankie’s fingertips against her wrist bones, then the pressure against her veins, so light it’s almost imaginary. “It’s a pretty color for you,” Frankie says. “The last one was too.”

“You are good at this,” Grace admits.

“I used to paint my sister’s nails a lot.”

“But not your own.”

“Not my own.”

Grace steals a glance at Frankie’s face while she paints. Frankie’s tongue sticks out of her mouth, just barely, and presses against her lower lip. Her brow is furrowed. This is nighttime-in-a-pandemic Frankie—the serious person who keeps getting into Grace’s bed now that she lives at home again, the serious person who takes shelter in Grace’s room and talks about death and poverty and melting ice and the next pandemic and the next and the next and the kind of world the grandchildren will inherit. It happened last night, and the Saturday before that, and on several nameless nights before that. No matter how many times it happens, Grace always feels nearly panicked as she tries to respond to the doom Frankie feels so acutely. She listens. She agrees with it. She suggests they can use the daytime to make it better. She prays her arm around Frankie’s waist will communicate everything she fumbles when she tries to comfort her with words. Then the morning comes and Frankie becomes okay again, becomes the funny person who makes coffee and sings in the shower and wants Grace to help her pick out a ridiculous Zoom background for when they call the kids.

Frankie returns to the right hand for the second coat as soon as she finishes the first coat on the left. She works slowly, applying each stroke of paint only when she’s sure. On the penultimate finger, the newly ringless finger on Grace’s left hand, she slips a little and smudges paint to one side of the nail bed. She takes one of the cotton balls and soaks its clean side in nail polish remover, then erases the error with a clean cold streak. She doesn’t apologize for the mistake, and why should she, when they both know she’s capable of fixing it?

When she’s finished and there’s nothing to do but wait for the nails to dry, Frankie lets go only long enough to screw the top back on the bottle of nail polish. Other than that brief moment, she continues to circle Grace’s wrist, and she strokes her fingertips across Grace’s knuckles.

“Um,” Grace says. “Do you think you’ll want to come upstairs and talk about death tonight?” She hopes it sounds like an invitation.

“Yeah, sure,” Frankie says casually. “I could probably give that topic a rest, even.” She grins. “You know, just for tonight.”

Grace imagines losing count of the nights Frankie interprets stay-at-home as stay-in-Grace’s-bed, imagines living through so many of them that time stops mattering altogether. They’ll use the sunrise to know they’ve made it past another night, and the sunset as a reminder to cook dinner. For once she’d like to lose track of everything but the darkness and light, until eventually her bed can be the place they go after a day out in the world. “Whatever you want,” she says.

Frankie gives her hand a squeeze. “We’ll go up as soon as your nails dry.”

Chapter Text

There was a very good reason Frankie let the house get so cluttered after Grace moved in with Nick. It wasn’t just laziness and unadaptability and garden-variety despair that turned her into a slob. When every room was strewn about with stuff, Frankie could trip over something and fall into a memory. She could spend ten minutes trying to recall other toys from Coyote’s old Happy Meal collection or the better part of an afternoon leafing through back issues of Women’s Welding and kid herself into thinking those memories amounted to a life.

Every day Grace was gone, she pulled more pre-Grace possessions from boxes, unearthed the collections Grace didn’t want stacked in their living room and stacked them in her living room and every other room, returned to pre-Grace mealtimes and snacking habits. Sure, she’d run out of clean pants, and it didn’t feel fantastic to seriously contemplate buying 72 ounces of Cheez-its on Costco.com, but from within the pigsty-slash-museum of Frankie Bergstein’s entire life history she had the freedom to feel those bad feelings on her own terms.

Then Dana Marino swept in with her button-down shirt and her cute know-it-all face. Everything Dana wanted to sort through and clean and eradicate were the pre-Grace objects; apparently they all looked like trash. In a matter of hours, everything Frankie could lose herself in without thinking about Grace was gone, and then Dana Marino was gone, too. Objectively, the house looked great. Subjectively, a dark night surrounded it and it was empty and beautiful and haunted.

Frankie hated being alone at night. She hated feeling sorry for herself and she felt extremely sorry for herself. She opened the fridge and stared at the neat rows of unexpired food, then shut the door in disgust without selecting anything.

As soon as the door was shut, it became very apparent that Babe stood next to the fridge.

Frankie didn’t feel the impulse to gasp or blink rapidly or take a few steps back. Babe never startled her, never made her feel afraid. Frankie knew Grace felt the same way; they agreed there was nothing more natural in the world than Babe occasionally peering in from the afterlife.

“Hey, sister,” Frankie said with a smile.

Babe arched her eyebrows so high they almost disappeared beneath her turban. “She still needs you, you know.”

“Who?” Frankie said, then immediately regretted wasting even a second of a Babe visit on petulant density.

“Don’t be stupid, sweetie.” Then, because Babe was a benevolent ghost with an agenda, she added clarification, just in case Frankie really was too dense to get it: “Grace.”

“Well, I kinda thought she’d need me more than she has so far,” Frankie admitted. She bowed her head. “Then again, I’m the one who pushed her out of the house before she was ready.”

“I know.”

“I want her to like her new life. I think. But I want her to fucking call me sometimes.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I hate being alone.”

Flesh-and-blood Babe would have laid a hand on Frankie’s shoulder, but ghost Babe kept her slight distance. She softened her intelligent eyes. “Frankie, don’t you think there’s a reason for all this madness?”

“Wish I could tell you.”

“She’s hurting, too,” Babe said. “I would know.”

“I don’t want her to hurt.”

Babe shrugged. “It’s very tiresome of the universe, but it’s temporary.”

“You promise?”

“Go to bed, toots. Don’t take any more shit out of the closets.”

It seemed possible now that Babe had suggested it. There was no need to undo Dana’s work—or her own. “Don’t disappear yet, okay?” Frankie asked. “Let me make it to the studio first.”

“You got it.”

The thank you stuck in Frankie’s throat, but Babe kept her word. Frankie felt her presence as she walked from the house to the studio, as she brushed her teeth and changed into pajamas, as she crawled into bed. The feeling didn’t dissipate until she was nearly asleep. She slept deeply, and didn’t remember any dreams.

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

“You can watch Killing Eve with us,” Frankie says generously when Robert asks if he can sit down in the living room. “But you have to stay quiet the whole time, and you have to respect that we’re in a very different place in our Killing Eve journey than you, a person who’s somehow willing to board a train during season 3 episode 3 without knowing anything about the route or the train’s prior stops.”

From her spot next to Frankie on the couch, Grace shrugs up at Robert as if to say I’m sorry, but you understand. Rules are rules.

There are a lot of rules to living with Grace and Frankie. But after seven weeks of shelter-in-place orders, the shine is off all of Robert’s usual diversions, and hanging out with his ex-wife and his husband’s ex-wife is currently preferable to the most obvious alternative: joining Sol on a Zoom call with his friends from high school. The high school group is a rag-tag collection of scruffy old guys and one lady who looks like a retired gym teacher. You can see up nearly everyone’s nostrils. People keep muting when they’re trying to talk and staying unmuted while they holler questions and invitations to wives in other rooms. Robert had to get out of there as soon as he gave his obligatory hellos. “Quarantine is an opportunity to get creative about the ways we all connect to each other,” Sol keeps saying. He’s grown fond of phrases like “There’s a hidden blessing in this horrible time, and that’s the rekindling of old friendships we only thought we were too far away from.” Most of the time, Robert can’t believe his luck in life, but it isn’t easy to be married to a sentimental optimist during a global pandemic.

“I didn’t even know you watched this show,” Robert says as he settles into a chair perpendicular to Grace and Frankie’s couch.

“Every Sunday it’s on,” Frankie says. “Which is, tragically”—she pauses to count—“so far only nineteen Sundays out of our entire lives. Including this one.”

“Can I get the Cliffs Notes?” Robert asks. He knows he’s pressing his luck.

“Nope, show’s about to start,” Grace says. “You can read a synopsis on BBC America.”

“And that’s all anyone will say for the next hour,” says Frankie.

The music sounds like it was made by gorgeous people who took a break from smoking cigarettes and shopping for semi-ironic sixties clothes long enough to record perfect track after perfect track. An intriguing piano tuner—no, assassin—murders people with a piano-tuning instrument. A casually disturbed woman holds a meeting in the bath. Two Russian men have a tense conversation about money. Nothing makes sense, and it seems like a lot of work to try to catch up, so Robert turns his focus to Grace and Frankie.

It would be hard not to—they’re very distracting. Frankie, charming hypocrite, doesn’t follow her own mandate for silence. At one point she repeats “I don’t like this, Carolyn” about ten times. (Robert expects Grace to shush her, but she just smiles at Frankie and returns her attention to the screen.) She mutters “fuck” a lot. When the assassin pretends to be a British woman buying perfume that will make her smell like a Roman centurion turned emperor, Frankie says “Grace, you’re lucky I’ve never thrown my weight around at a perfumery. You’d be a goner.”

Watching TV with Frankie is always a full-contact sport, and in this case most of the contact is with Grace’s body. Robert watches Frankie—distracted and intent all at once—touch Grace’s knee, her thigh, even the top of her head at one particularly fraught moment. She responds to every scene change by picking up or letting go of Grace’s hands. Grace shifts to accommodate her, turns herself into the destination each time Frankie reaches or flails. In the months since he and Sol moved in, he’s watched Grace do this in all sorts of ways. She’s thoughtful and pliant now, her face full of love.

Robert is a little disappointed when sun-saturated Andalusia gives way to grey London, but things pick up for the spectators. It happens so fast: Eve and Villanelle meet on a bus, fight, kiss (!), fight again. Frankie says nothing, but her body pitches forward to the TV. Grace, too, is rapt.

The room—the living room in the beach house during stay-at-home orders—is different after the bus takes Eve away and Villanelle stands stunned on the street. Grace mutes the TV for the commercial break.

“Wow,” Frankie says.

“I know,” says Grace.

They stare at each other, frozen in wonder. It’s clear to Robert that this moment on the bus has answered a question. The nature of the question is less clear.

“You didn’t think it would happen this soon.”

“I know,” Grace says again. “I really didn’t.”

“Holy fuck,” says Frankie. “It was everything we wanted.”

For the eight-thousandth time, Robert wonders if they’re sleeping together.

The room ripples with dark delight through the end of the episode.

“Is it always so...intimate?” Robert asks during the credits, hoping he’s allowed to speak again. He’s thinking of the bus scene, of course, but also the tentative hug between mother and daughter, the nanny’s desperation, the plastic heart glowing in Eve’s hand.

“Until now, not like this,” Frankie says, breathless with joy. At the exact same moment, Grace looks him dead in the eye and says “Yes.”

Chapter Text

At nearly one in the morning, it’s too dark outside the train to see much of anything beyond the bright white blur of the snow-covered plains. It’s been a couple of hours since Grace and Frankie took turns getting ready for bed in the bathroom down the corridor, then converted their seats into the lower bunk where Grace will sleep tonight. They’ve spent the day and night on train things: wearing cozy socks, drinking from a flask, playing cards, embracing the uselessness of linear time, gawking out the window at the wondrous earth. It’s probably past time to unfold Frankie’s bunk from the wall, but neither make any effort to move from where they sit side-by-side on the bed, lights off, shoulders against the window that stretches nearly the length of the twin-sized mattress.

Until relatively recently, Grace had no idea that Frankie had dreamed her whole life of traveling by train to see the far northern states, some of which she’d never visited. She didn’t know she’d longed even more desperately—since childhood, since her first movies, since her first concept of romance—for the extravagance of a sleeper car. But that’s how it happens where Frankie’s dreams are concerned. One minute Grace stands in her kitchen as Frankie pitches a concept, and what feels like seconds later they’re eating burritos at Del Taco or auditioning for Shark Tank or it’s the middle of the night and they’re hurtling through North Dakota like a bougie Lewis and Clark on a forty-six hour train trip from Seattle to Chicago.

According to the Amtrak itinerary, their tiny private room is called a Superliner Roomette. In the several weeks after Frankie booked the trip—the flight to Seattle, the train to Chicago, the flight back to San Diego—and before their departure, she got the phrase stuck in her head and constantly inserted it into everyday conversation.

Delivering Grace an omelette: “Mushrooms, onions, cheddar cheese...and a Superliner Roomette.”

Rewriting Prince: “Superliner Roomette / Baby, you’re much too fast.”

Anticipating vacation: “I cannot, cannot, cannot, cannot wait until we leave, Grace. Just me, my unlawfully unwedded wife, and a Superliner Roomette built for two.”

Frankie loves to know the names of things. She’s always searching for what to call Grace, too, searching for which of the many secret names feels right. She calls Grace lover. Partner. GF. BFF. Unlawfully unwedded wife. Complementary independent being with a surprisingly squeezable ass. And “secret” isn’t quite the thing, if Grace really thinks about it. There’s no guilt. They’re too old for that; they’ve been through too much for that. There’s just the darkness of privacy. The stress of not knowing how to turn her own thoughts into words she could say in response.

On this trip, Frankie hasn’t called her anything. She’s gone quiet for long stretches of the train ride, watching Grace look out the window at the achingly green Pacific Northwest under swirls of rain, the sharp blue of the cleared-out sky, the staggering vastness of Glacier National Park. Now, in the muddy dimness of the tiny cabin, pressed against the sharp cold panel of moonlit snow, Frankie takes her hand.

“Let me lie down with you for a little while,” Frankie says. This is the same code they use at home. If Frankie says this and Grace agrees, they’ll have sex they won’t talk about in the light of day, hidden and vital and still almost new.

“All right,” Grace says, squeezing Frankie’s fingers.

There’s only barely enough room to lie down beneath the stiff white sheets, but they fit. They’re used to the big bed in Grace’s bedroom, the stillness, the white noise machine drowning out every sound but each other, the confidence that the headboard always faces north and the window always looks out at the ocean. Lying down in this rickety bunk makes the motion more apparent than when they were sitting up, makes them more aware of the steady forceful click of the train using the tracks. They lie with Frankie folded up behind Grace so they can both look out the window, the top of their heads pointing west. They’re so far north that west is only vaguely the direction of home, but Grace is conscious of the train pulling them away from it, yanking them eastward, feet first.

Frankie palms Grace’s breasts through her pajama top, one and then the other. She rubs her thumb across and around her nipples, lifts her breasts almost casually, although Grace knows Frankie and knows these touches are anything but. Grace breathes out louder than a sigh, lets go of a breath she didn’t know she was holding. Relief is supposed to be an after-sex feeling, but she’s relieved now. Frankie’s touch is the proof that this element of their relationship exists. The bedroom isn’t an alternate reality, an exception to a rule.

“We have to be quiet,” Frankie whispers. “Reminding myself as much as you.” They both know she’s added the second part only to be polite. She sinks her teeth into Grace’s neck, slow enough that the action isn’t a bite but an almost gentle application of pressure, and this time Grace responds with barely an inhale and a hand pressed against Frankie’s.

The window is almost too close to Grace’s head, but she doesn’t feel claustrophobic. The expanse of snow makes the cabin infinitely larger, and the frost is a good counterpoint to the mouth on her neck, the hand that’s escaped from hers to pull at her waistband and push her pajama pants down her legs. Frankie lifts her fingers to Grace’s mouth. “Lick these for me,” she says, quieter than Grace ever thought she could be. Grace complies, and doesn’t speak or gasp or moan when Frankie brings her wet fingers beneath her underwear and between her legs.

Grace looks out the window as Frankie moves against her. She silently tells North Dakota what they’re doing. Lets the still layers of snow see who they are to each other as the train takes them farther from home and Frankie brings her closer and closer to who she can be.

Chapter Text

The second Say Yes Night happens for the same reason as the first: Frankie is sad, and Grace wants her to be happy. It’s been years since their last one, and Grace doesn’t remember what had been bothering Frankie so much that she agreed to take part in the chaos of her very first Say Yes. She does remember starting the night thinking it was a bit of charity on her part, a gift to someone in need. And she clearly recalls dancing on a bartop, getting kicked out of said bar, the quiet moment on the curb waiting for a cab they’d forgotten to call. The gift for Frankie turned into something Grace needed, and she ended the night with a best friend.

It used to scare her how much she needs Frankie. The only thing that scares her now is the thought of losing her.

That fear makes it bearable to stay home for months as the pandemic steals life from so many. She and Frankie leave the house only to walk through the neighborhood or down the beach at odd hours when it isn’t too crowded. Very occasionally they put on masks and drive to the supermarket for curbside pick-up, but it’s more common for the kids to bring them supplies and visit for a while from the opposite end of the patio. Every month or so, Brianna wanders by with drugs: potent pre-rolled joints and gem-toned gummies and bottles of vodka that go straight to the freezer. Every two weeks like clockwork, Bud and Allison bring them neatly-packed cardboard boxes brimming with vegetables, eggs, lean meats and sustainably-caught fish, bricks of tofu packed in water. They bring Faith with them, hover to keep her from getting too close. Coyote and Jessica show up uninvited and seemingly at random with art supplies and chips and salsa and the good coffee beans from the bulk bin at the co-op. Mallory, homesick and anxious in San Francisco, video calls a couple nights a week, and the conversations are their own kind of fuel. Mallory actually listens to what Grace shares with her about business and parenthood, and the listening makes Grace realize how much she has to say.

Fear is the thing that makes Grace miss her old life without wanting to re-enter it. She has the people she needs, even if the forced distance is strange. She isn’t an ER doctor or a grocery store cashier; she can afford to wait in the quiet shelter of her home. The uncertainty of the future (how long is the wait, and what will the world look like at the other end?) is a small pain compared to the enormity of what she stands to lose. But as the weeks pass by it gets harder and harder to watch Frankie suffer in her cloistered, too-small life. There are many moments when isolation feels less like self-preservation than like being cursed to live an underpopulated life when everyone knows there’s power in numbers. In public Frankie often takes her hand or loops their arms together. In a crowd they’re a unit, linked together yet free to move around. During stay-at-home, navigating space only in relation to each other, they’ve started touching less and less.

One morning Grace and Frankie end up in the kitchen together first thing. Grace has barely had her first sip of coffee when Frankie starts asking questions.

“Tell me honestly,” Frankie starts, and Grace knows to gear up for a challenge. “Do you think we’re ever going to do anything meaningful again?”

“Yes,” Grace says. It had better be true.

“Are we ever going to be around a lot of people again?”

Maybe in two years. “Yes.”

“Are we ever going to go out somewhere without having to take a million obsessive precautions?”

Not if the MAGA crowd keeps politicizing masks and ruining it for everyone else. “Yes.”

Frankie smiles. “Thanks for saying yes.”

Grace smiles back. “We’ll get there eventually.” The saying yes reminds her: there’s a name for the thing she’s giving Frankie right now. “Frances,” she says, “I can’t believe I’m about to suggest this, but I think we need a Say Yes Night.”

Frankie’s eyes light up. For a moment she looks like a person who looks forward to things, who finds things engaging. A person who doesn’t have to pretend she isn’t crying when she tells Faith she’s sorry she can’t hug her, when Bud swoops Faith into his arms and cuts the visit short because it’s too hard to manage. A person who’d grab Grace’s arm and pull her through a crowd. “Oh, Grace,” she says. “That is an excellent idea.”

“Tonight, then.”

All day long, Grace wonders what the night has in store for them. Say Yes is like truth or dare. Truth and dare. She pictures staying up until 3 a.m. baking cinnamon rolls, wading into the ocean in her underwear, prank-calling Arlene. Maybe she and Frankie can plumb the depths of their closets and trade clothes again, or follow stage-makeup tutorials until they’re transformed. They’ll split an edible, they’ll sing old songs, they’ll embark on a laughing jag so long they won’t remember what was funny in the first place. Frankie will see that the indoors isn’t so bad—that even with all the current constraints, there are still new things to do. But when the dishwasher’s loaded with the dinner dishes and it’s time for Say Yes to begin, Frankie seems almost shy. She puts both hands palm down on the kitchen island, a self-deprecatingly expectant stance.

“Ready to see where the night takes us?” Grace asks.

Frankie sighs, looking around the kitchen. “...our house?”

“You still game?”

Frankie nods, and Grace realizes with a sinking feeling that Frankie isn’t feeling creative. She’s going to look to Grace to get things started. Everything Grace imagined earlier—all the Frankie-induced adventures and pranks and dares—fade from her mind and she’s left with a horrifying blank slate. She’s imagined a night of saying yes to Frankie, and she can’t suggest any of the things she’s pictured Frankie suggesting. “Let’s sit outside and watch the sunset,” she says after a too-long pause.

Frankie shrugs. “Sure. I’m your yes man tonight. Yes woman. Whatever.”

Grace mixes drinks and follows Frankie to the outdoor sofa area instead of their usual chairs. They sit side-by-side on the couch perpendicular to the horizon, a good cushion-and-a-half between them, their shoulders and heads turned to face the day’s pink-orange swan song. Frankie looks studiously at the sunset. The colors are beautiful, but it’s obvious she’s watching only because Grace asked her to. Still, they’re lucky, Grace remembers. Their backyard faces infinity. She tries to watch the sunset but keeps focusing on the back of Frankie’s head instead. Perhaps because they don’t usually sit here, invisible layers of memories seem to settle over this part of the patio. “Celebrating” her 76th/80th birthday. Bud and Allison’s baby shower. Afternoons with family members sprawled across the furniture in honor of no occasion in particular. The memories are extraordinary, simply because they happened before, in a time when those gatherings weren’t extraordinary at all.

The pink and orange start to streak into a silty grey. Frankie turns away from the darkened sky to look at Grace. “Why did you want to do a Say Yes Night?”

It’s not a yes/no question, but Grace feels compelled to answer. “I wanted you to be happy.” She should stop talking now. She should give Frankie a chance to tell her it’s a very sweet gesture and all, but that Grace of all people should know that you can’t just force someone to be happy. “I wanted to feel happy,” Grace says, realizing it’s true the moment she admits it out loud. “I wanted to show you we could have fun at home, like we used to, even if it’s the only thing we have right now.”

Frankie looks into her. “Tell me what you want to do tonight. I’ll say yes to anything.”

Grace can’t think past her own skin, which crawls with an almost molecular awareness of being untouched. Her skin isn’t asleep, sensation dampened—it’s awake and alone.

Frankie tries again. “What is it?”

Lying on Say Yes Night seems even worse than lying under normal circumstances. If she avoids answering, she can technically avoid the lie. She doesn’t want to throw out some innocent diversion she doesn’t actually want to follow through on. She just doesn’t want to have to say what she actually—

The couch cushion rustles as Frankie scoots closer, takes Grace’s hand from her lap and places it in her own. This small improvement is already so much better, but the relief in her hand makes her arm itch. There isn’t a neat ending; it’s too late to effectively stave off what she wants. “It’s not a Say Yes Night thing,” Grace says.

Frankie circles her wrist with her fingertips. “I’m pretty sure Say Yes Night can handle it.”

Grace looks down at their hands, already tangled in Frankie’s lap. “I didn’t used to like to be touched.”

“Well, that’s okay,” Frankie says. “People change.” The cuff of Grace’s sleeve is already rolled, and Frankie pushes it up past her elbow. She tickles Grace’s arm, a mirror of the touches Grace gave Frankie on their first Say Yes Night all those years before. “I hereby amend this Say Yes Night to You Can Say Yes If You Want To Night.” Like Grace, Frankie’s had her eyes trained on their hands, but she looks up now, looks into Grace’s eyes. “What do you think?”

“Okay,” Grace says, a little miserable with uneasy relief.

“What kind of stuff do you want me to do to you?” Frankie sounds delighted—a warm delight, with none of the lazy amusement of her more offhanded flirtations. This is the Frankie who, when Nick sold the bathroom statue, offered to come over every time Grace had to go to the bathroom to help her out. The Frankie who might be depressed and anxious and full of existential dread but always musters the energy to be there for her. When she asks. When she lets her in.

Grace swallows. It’s strange to try to translate the desire of your own skin cells into pronounceable words. Everything stills as Frankie waits—everything but her thumb, which continues to brush against the inside length of Grace’s arm. “I don’t want to be alone in bed anymore,” Grace admits. “I’m sick of feeling like we’re just two—”

“Goldfish? In a fishbowl? Betta fish?”

Grace chuckles. “Not exactly.”

“Two pals who don’t know how the fuck to handle being old during a pandemic.”

“Yeah.”

“We had uninvited roommates and you got divorced and a global pandemic arrived in California. It’s been a lot of feelings. And I—I haven’t wanted to, you know, invite myself in.”

“But that’s what you do best.”

“Not this time,” Frankie says. “I figured you needed space.”

Grace shrugs. “Maybe not this much space.”

Frankie leans in and throws her arms around Grace’s shoulders. “I’ll hold you all night,” she says. “Can we watch The Goonies?”

Grace is so relieved that right now, in this exact moment, she doesn’t have to try to articulate exactly what she wants. All she has to do is shake her head yes and sink into the embrace. “Sure, Frankie.”

Late that night—not 3 a.m. late, but post-Goonies late—Frankie settles in next to Grace in bed, all soft fabric and mint and heat. The solid relief of a body firm and real against her own. The joy of it being Frankie’s body. “We can have an actual Say Yes Night in a few days,” Frankie murmurs, rolling close to fold Grace in her arms. “You know, when we’re ready for an even more exciting adventure than snuggling 97% of the time.” She sighs happily. “It’s nice to feel something other than abject doom.”

“Yeah, let’s steer clear of that,” Grace says lightly. She knows it’s more likely that the best they can do is to navigate the abject doom together. To talk about it, to let it anger them and make them afraid, to try to keep it from stealing any more joy. For now she listens to the way her skin calms beneath Frankie’s touch like a pile of ceramic tiles finding a pattern and settling into the grooves. Like a throat releasing a long-kept breath. Like a long night of happiness.

Chapter Text

The playground is crowded. Grace sits on one of the benches at the perimeter and wonders if the average person here would be able to tell who she belongs to. She assumes it’s obvious she isn’t here alone. But is she here with the old guy tossing a football with his middle-aged son to the right of the little climbing wall, presumably killing time while the grandkids scale higher and higher? Is she the mother of the woman about Mallory’s age who stands at one end of the monkey bars, dodging kids’ swinging legs and talking frantically into a cell phone? Is she alone after all, taking a break from a solitary trail walk to indulge in a little nostalgia?

Grace’s daughters loved this park when they were little. Brianna and Mallory begged her to take them here nearly every weekend, and she usually relented once or twice a month. She remembers the boredom of waiting for her daughters to tire themselves out, remembers how she used to remind herself that her own mother never brought her anywhere just for the purpose of play. It was okay to be bored, she’d tell herself. She just had to do better than her own mother had done.

Amelia Purcell wasn’t a terrible mother. The early years of Grace’s childhood sounded like a constant refrain of “Go out and play,” which was fine, perfectly fine, except Grace never learned how. She was good at competition: climb the tallest tree, sell the most lemonade. When she became an adult with children of her own, children she took to the park, children who knew how to have fun even if they didn’t learn it from her, it was never enough, and somehow her mother was still part of the problem. Her father used to ask her why she couldn’t make more of an effort to be close to her mother. “Your brother rings us up all the time,” he’d say during a rare Sunday phone call, leaving Grace’s estranged sister out of the conversation entirely. “It means so much to Amelia.” But what was the point in trying to insert yourself into the life of the person who made you feel like the reason her own life had ground to a halt? Grace never found a proper answer to her father’s question, and she didn’t learn how to humbly ask to be part of someone’s life until Frankie squatted her, letting Grace know over and over again that she wanted to be part of hers. (“Why can’t you make more of an effort with Frankie?” Robert used to ask on the way home from office holiday parties and awkward potlucks.)

From the bench she’s chosen, Grace can keep an eye on both Frankie and Faith. Faith has spent the last few minutes spinning the same X in the big tic-tac-toe panel built into the side of the largest play structure, and Frankie keeps smiling down at her like she’s a genius. A small child in overalls joins Faith at tic-tac-toe, and a young man with curly black hair and a big beard—presumably the kid’s father—takes his place standing next to Frankie. Frankie laughs at something he says, then she leans in to say something that makes him throw back his head in laughter. She radiates enough energy for the whole world to have some.

Just then, Frankie turns away from the play equipment and looks over at Grace. She grins and presses two fingertips to her lips. The motion just manages to be a kiss. The man follows Frankie’s gaze and looks at Grace too, and Grace feels rather than hears the way Frankie starts to tell him about her. She smiles faintly, then turns away as soon as Frankie and the man turn back to each other and the showdown at tic-tac-toe.

They keep going farther and farther. It started out when she invited Frankie back into her bed for the first time since she left Nick. It started out as kissing in the dark and not talking about it during the day. Spending the long hot sunny days trying not to think about the way Frankie sighs into her kisses, or the way she whimpers into Frankie’s mouth. Now the days have become tunnels leading them through a series of obligations until it’s nighttime and they can go to bed again. Something’s stopped them from having sex—it’s the awareness of Robert and Sol asleep down the hallway, the temporary yet persistent feeling that their space isn’t entirely their own—but that’s where they’re going. In bed at night they take off each other’s shirts and kiss and scratch and bite and soothe everything they expose. They keep each other up for hours. They hold each other as they finally fall asleep. Grace has never received or given so many backrubs. She’s never had someone touch her more gently than gentleness, with such persistent detail that even the soft brush of Frankie’s knuckles against the side of her breast lights up every nerve ending, every pathway of feeling.

She's never been ready to have sex for this long without having it. She’s never lived so long in the before place, so long that it doesn’t feel like the before but like an enormous, overwhelming present.

This morning, when it was nearly time to leave for a long-planned weekend of babysitting Faith, Grace stood at the kitchen counter and sliced a grapefruit into bright pink wedges. “They’re so perfect,” Frankie exclaimed, and Grace’s heart bloomed in the glow of her praise. Frankie kissed her—kissed her vertical, in the kitchen, in the daytime, proud and intentional. “So perfect,” she said again, and Grace stood frozen in place as Frankie darted around the house collecting last-minute items for their overnight bag. Eventually, Grace had to put the grapefruit into a ziploc bag to eat later.

At Bud and Allison’s, Allison apologized for having made up only the guest bed. She’d stripped the sheets from the bed in the master bedroom, but the clean set was still in the dryer. Grace (proud and intentional) told her not to worry about it, that she and Frankie could share the guest bedroom, and Bud gave her a long, thoughtful look from across the room.

Grace doesn’t care if Bud and Allison spent the drive up to the vineyard talking about them. She doesn’t care if the people at this park see her walk up to Frankie and Faith, surprised that they’re her people. She stands up and slings the big tote bag—full of things Frankie’s sure Faith might need—over her shoulder, and walks over to join Frankie. She wraps her arm around Frankie’s shoulders and Frankie mirrors the gesture. She smiles, all that sun directed at Grace.

“Grace, Hector, Hector’s son Leo,” Frankie says by way of introductions.

“Hi,” says Grace. “Leo’s encouraging Faith to eat mulch.”

Hector and Frankie both cringe. “Snack time!” Frankie says.

Grace manages to lure both Frankie and Faith away from their new friends. They walk to a clearing not far from the benches. Grace spreads out the quilt from the tote bag onto a patch of grass beneath the shade of an expansive tree. Some of the benches and play equipment might have been replaced since she started coming here, but this tree has been around forever. Faith settles into Frankie’s lap and Frankie pulls a book from the bag: Langston Hughes for Young People. Faith holds a plastic cup full of Cheerios, her expression a look of faraway but focused snack-book-snuggle happiness. Grace stands to the side, uncertain, suddenly aware that she hasn’t sat down yet and now the blanket looks complete without her. Faith knows Grace well enough to feel comfortable around her, but Frankie is her grandmother in every sense. Faith wants Frankie to hold her. She squeals with delight when she sees her even if it’s only been a couple days. Grace starts to walk back to a bench. She can always blame her knees.

“Come down here with us?” Frankie asks. It isn’t polite; it’s what she wants. It takes a moment for Grace’s knees to cooperate, but she manages to sit right next to Frankie, who places an arm at her back.

She smiles at Faith, who smiles back. “Book,” Faith says.

Frankie opens up the book but doesn’t start to read right away. “Grace, you should eat something,” she murmurs. She turns her attention back to Faith. “Okay,” she says, using her free hand to flip through the pages as if in search of a favorite.

The contents of the bag have settled. The ziploc with the grapefruit is right on top. Grace pulls out a slice and takes a bite. Her mouth fills with the sour pink burst she’d expected this morning when she got something sweet instead. A breeze lifts the hair from her neck. She thinks about tonight, how she and Frankie will go to bed in a strange room with a baby monitor glowing on the nightstand. She thinks about right now, the way Frankie signals her belonging with an arm against her back. She closes her eyes as Frankie starts to read.

---

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Chapter Text

Grace hasn’t even opened her eyes when Frankie rolls closer in bed and says “Let’s go swimming! Ocean swimming.”

“What made you think of that?” She wonders what time it is. The room is pretty bright but the alarm hasn’t gone off yet. Maybe Frankie is finally adjusting to waking up at a reasonable hour after weeks of sleeping in Grace’s bed and acting absolutely appalled every morning when the alarm clock sounds.

“I dunno,” Frankie says, lacing an arm around Grace’s middle. Grace shivers happily into the touch. “Maybe it was something I dreamed.”

“Okay, but you’re getting your hair wet right away. I’m not listening to you shriek about how cold the water is for fifteen minutes.” Love softens some irritants, but it doesn’t smooth everything.

“Fine. I’ll expect the same from you.”

After breakfast they head down to the beach and straight into the water. Frankie shrieks only a little as she runs through the shallow waves and plunges headlong into the first one with any depth. Grace follows suit, her jaw clenched shut against an involuntary yelp; the water is fucking freezing, but she isn’t going to make a sound.

Once her body finally acclimates to the temperature, it feels nice to bob in chest-deep water, half standing, half floating. The sand around her feet feels almost liquid but the floor is solid and firm. Frankie chatters about Saturday plans, a Peruvian restaurant she wants to try, a cocktail recipe from one of her blog friends. She grabs Grace’s hands and pulls, playing around with their weightlessness, and the cold waves keep slicing at their skin, and Grace listens to Frankie but drifts into her own plans, plans much more immediate than dinner and drinks on a weekend night: getting out of the water, making more coffee, reading on the couch under a blanket, letting it turn into a nap with Frankie, finally warm.

Frankie gasps; Grace wonders if she’s lost her footing and holds on tighter. There’s a little smear of sunscreen at Frankie’s temple. It’s impressive the water hasn’t taken care of it yet.

“Grace, don’t panic. I repeat, do not panic.

Grace pulls back. “Ew, Frankie, if there’s something in my hair you need to get it out! Right now!”

But Frankie isn’t looking at her hair. She’s looking at the horizon past Grace’s shoulders. “It’s not your time of the month, is it?”

Grace rolls her eyes. “Not for the last thirty years.”

“Good, because sharks love blood. Now, I think we’re dealing with a loner, but he might have a family with him. Or, you know, a gang.” She glances briefly back at shore, then looks Grace in the eyes. “Should we calculate the distance to land in nautical miles, or go ahead and swim for it? It’s your call. I’m good either way and I’d prefer to get out of this alive.”

Grace smiles. They’re at most twenty steps from the shoreline. She turns to the horizon to see if she can locate what Frankie sees. At first there’s nothing but the ocean blue, the bright sky. Then movement, many yards in the distance—a fin darting above the surface of the water, its motion suggesting the happiness of the body still beneath the waves. “Frankie,” she says. It’s her turn to find Frankie’s hands, to pull her deeper. “It’s a dolphin.”

The dolphin arcs into the air as if in response to being named, the trajectory of the leap like tracing a perfect circle. “Oh,” Frankie says shakily. “Cool.”

The dolphin isn’t alone, it turns out. They watch in silence as the pod plays, and Grace thinks it’ll be fine to stay in the cold water a little longer.

Chapter Text

Frankie has to take a second to silently congratulate herself on her good fortune whenever Grace shows up to the breakfast table still wearing her pajamas and glasses. The combination makes her look like a genius who happens to be extremely chill. Of course, Grace is extremely not chill. And while she’s very, very smart, she isn’t a genius. Frankie thinks that’s probably a good thing. Who’d want that kind of burden, the responsibility of ownership over that kind of brain?

“That’s just regular jam on your toast, right?” Frankie says with a smirk as she approaches the table.

Grace narrows her eyes, refusing to dignify the question with a response.

The lube joke (and Frankie still wonders how Grace managed not to notice spending who knows how many days spreading yam lube onto her sprouted grain toast—how disconnected she must have been from the act of eating as anything but a rote requirement for sustenance) makes Frankie think of last night. And a lot of other nights recently. Best nights of her life, if a little startling to relive in the sharp light of morning.

Frankie clears her throat and looks around for something else to talk about. She lands on Grace’s iPad. “Whatcha reading?”

“An article in, um—” Grace scrolls. “Scientific American.”

“You genius!”

“Google suggested it to me—you know, it has all these suggestions like it knows you better than you know yourself, then you click one and the algorithm wins again. It’s a good article, though. It’s about Mars—among other things—and the life it might have sustained at one time.”

Frankie gasps. The whole world—her vision of the world, anyway, and maybe her vision of the entire universe—ripples for a moment. When it firms up again, she can speak. This is the question. This is the moment. There’s no way to casually follow up on a fundamental difference in perspective after thirty-nine years, but she has to try. “And you believe what you’re reading?”

Grace looks puzzled. “That there’s been water and micro-organisms or whatever on planets other than ours? Of course I do.”

Frankie can’t stop the enormous, delighted sigh of relief. “You really are the right person for me.”

Now Grace looks offended. “You’re figuring this out now?”

Frankie cringes. “That didn’t come out quite right. I just—you told me a long time ago you didn’t believe in alien life. And you’re, um, you’re obviously perfect for me, and you’re definitely 100% my soulmate, but I’ve never understood how the universe could give me a soulmate who doesn’t believe there’s life out there beyond our silly little planet.”

“When did I give you that impression?” Grace sounds a little harsh. It reminds Frankie of when they used to fight for real, when their disagreements used to end in hours or days or even years of quiet. Back when she’d never heard Grace giggle, or held her while she cried, or felt her having an orgasm—back when her life was the worse for it and she didn’t have any idea what she was missing out on.

“It was the firm’s holiday party in 1981. You were pregnant with Mallory.”

Frankie watches Grace’s expression, sees the moment the memory solidifies. “Frankie! You marched up and asked me if I was sure the baby was human.”

“Oh, well, that’s not great.”

“Then you quizzed me about my thoughts on little green men. I stayed in the conversation against my better judgment. If you’d told me the sky was blue I’d have found a way to take the counterpoint. And anyway, what a dumb thing to base compatibility on.” Now it’s Grace’s turn to cringe. “Or...you know...a really important thing.”

“A really important thing.”

“Your toast’s in the toaster,” Grace says. Grace, Frankie’s pajama-wearing, toast-loving soulmate who totally believes in aliens. “I just opened some strawberry jam.”

Chapter Text

The year 2020 is an epic battle between Frankie Bergstein, Pretty Cool Lady and Frankie Bergstein, Pandemic-Depressed Hypochondria-Riddled Politically-Enraged Socially-Isolated Human Disaster. She’s hardly alone in the less-than-ideal mental landscape, but the excellent, miserable company doesn’t make the battle feel any easier.

In the middle of the battlefield there stands a Nintendo Switch.

Coyote sends her Animal Crossing: New Horizons not long after she finally manages to get the Switch set up. She bought the Switch because she pictured herself revisiting the old-school Nintendo games her boys used to play after she and Sol finally broke down and bought them a system, but Coyote insists she try something new. “You need to chill on your own island, Mom,” he says over the phone after she wraps up an admittedly pretty substantial minutes-long rant about the United States of America. “You’ll love it.”

Frankie names her island Maui Wowie. COVID isn’t a thing there, the island is gorgeous no matter the weather, and—once she gets the hang of it—a big day consists of catching a few bugs, learning how to craft with shells, and chatting with her in-game best friend, Drake, who happens to be a warm-hearted Mallard in a sweater vest. Drake calls her “Cookie.” It’s kind of like if Babe were a duck.

She plays nearly every day for a solid two weeks before it occurs to her that she should create a version of Grace Hanson and make her live on the island, too. She spends a long time crafting the perfect Grace. As much fun as she has fishing and shopping at Able Sisters and building log furniture and planting every kind of fruit tree, it’s twice as much fun to pretend it’s Grace who’s doing that stuff.

Late one afternoon Frankie sits in her usual spot playing ACNH on the TV in the living room when she becomes vaguely aware that Grace is no longer chopping vegetables in the kitchen behind her. She turns around when the silence grows eerie. Grace is staring at the television. “Is that me?” she asks.

“Yeah!” Frankie says. “Look at how cute you are.”

Today the animated Grace Hanson of Maui Wowie wears a white blouse with a yellow sweater tied around her shoulders, dark jeans, and brown loafers. Frankie’s certain she could find the exact same outfit in the real Grace’s closet. The actual Grace working on salad prep in the kitchen wears a blouse bright with tropical birds, the same kind of jeans she’s got on in the game, and socks on her feet.

Grace sets her knife down on the counter and walks over to get a closer look. She doesn’t sit down, opting to stand next to the couch instead. “Why am I so chubby and short?”

“Well, that’s a matter of perspective,” Frankie says, a little sharply. “Everybody looks like this in the game.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m playing as you right now,” Frankie explains. “I only show up when I’m playing as myself. We could play at the same time, but only one person would really get to do anything interesting—”

“That’s all right,” Grace says quickly. “I’ll pass.”

“Hey, wanna see our houses? You just got a new spare room.”

“We don’t live together?” Grace sounds scandalized.

Frankie flashes a patient smile. Grace is no gamer, that’s for sure. “That’s not how it works. Each character gets their own house.”

“I don’t like it,” Grace says. She returns to the kitchen before Frankie has a chance to give her a tour of her house or anybody else’s.

Frankie works hard on Grace’s home. She buys her magical floors and rugs of every size from Saharah, makes sure there’s a bookcase in each room, orders floral wallpaper, and holds herself back from installing any of the ugly DIY lamps and tacky tschotskes. Frankie’s own house is an explosion of seasonal crafts. She still sleeps on a cot and there’s a toilet in the bedroom. Grace has a knife rack, specially customized blue pottery, and two coffee mugs always at rest on the dining room table, which matches the handcrafted bench seating, which sort of matches the side tables and double bed. Nook’s Cranny doesn’t sell vodka, but Grace-of-the-island has a moka pot and classy fake art from Redd and a stack of very official-looking paperwork, and Frankie hopes she enjoys it there.

One evening Grace joins Frankie on the couch while she plays. Frankie switches back and forth between the Frankie character and the Grace character a couple of times. Grace sips red wine and reads her book and—whether Frankie’s playing as Frankie or as Grace—mutters “good job” when one of their characters catches a Great Purple Emperor or a Zebra turkeyfish.

Frankie tells herself she doesn’t notice Grace’s thigh pressed against hers.

(She notices. She doesn’t move away, but she doesn’t inch closer either. She finagles a way to use both controllers to play as Frankie and invite Grace to the game, to maneuver them both to the beach where they stand awkwardly side-by-side. In the game, they can talk to the animals but they don’t have anything to say to each other. Still, they look pretty happy standing together near the edge of the water. She watches them for a while, then looks over to see that Grace is watching them, too.)

The world gets worse. Everything is sick, everything is wrong. It’s not hopeless, exactly. Frankie has never felt hopeless: not even when her brother died. Not even when she couldn’t get pregnant. Not even when Sol left her. Not even when she and Grace were stuck at Walden Villas. Not even when her entire colonized country reveals itself to be a racist shithole for the 413th consecutive year in a row. To Frankie, the world is always worth the pain. Always worth raging against, always worth mourning, always worth the journey to find a celebration. She thinks that’s how Grace feels, too, although Grace is quieter about it, more cynical.

Maui Wowie is supposed to be a home away from home, a great escape. But as the year drags on, each week more interminable than the last, Frankie starts to play a little less. She reads a beautiful book about twins whose shared lives split into two starkly different stories. She swims even when the water is too cold. She bakes terrible bread, and Grace eats just enough of it to confirm that it’s terrible. So much time passes that she finally manages to bake delicious bread, and Grace is generous enough to give her the compliment, too.

One night in late summer, Grace is the first one to the living room. Wine, book, everything right in that tiny portion of reality. Frankie approaches, suddenly aware of feeling shy. “Mind if I play for a bit?” she asks. “I’ll keep the volume down.”

Grace makes room on the couch, but only barely. She’s always cold, but Frankie has to sit close enough to experience how—for a cold person—she seems quite warm. Frankie chooses Grace’s character. When she starts to run through the usual routine, it’s already dark on the island and dark in La Jolla. It’s a little dark in the living room, too, like the lamplight’s energy is starting to drain away and remind them to go to sleep. Grace presses a fingertip to Frankie’s knee, then takes it away impossibly quickly. When she does it again a few minutes later, Frankie knows she has to take a stand. She makes island Grace walk home, past the front door, past the main room, down the little hallway to the bedroom.

“Grace, look,” she says.

Grace is already looking at the screen, but she nods slightly to show she’s paying attention.

Frankie clicks a button on the controller and the room dims. She navigates animated Grace over to the same side of the bed she sleeps on for real. Grace hops on top of the covers—Frankie wishes she could get under, get cozy—and lies down on her back, eyes shut.

“Pretend I’m in the game,” Frankie whispers. She looks carefully at the controller to make sure her fingers find the right combination for the photography setting. “This is a camera.” Click.

Maybe she can add the screenshot to her album of Grace sleeping, yet another memory—

Grace’s next breath is sharp, a little shaky. “There’s an empty space in my bed.”

Frankie swallows. “Yeah. It’s my least favorite thing about the game.”

“It’s my least favorite thing about my whole fucking life.”

At that, Frankie forces herself to set the controller in her lap and look at Grace. Her Grace. The actual one. “You need this IRL,” Frankie says, still whispering. She remembers to translate: “That’s ‘In Real Life.’”

“I’m aware,” Grace says. For a person who’s basically about to ask Frankie to sleep with her, she manages to look pretty annoyed that Frankie has assumed her ignorance of the acronym.

“Cool.”

“Wait, what was the ‘this’ in that sentence?”

It won’t be easy. Nothing ever is. But Grace won’t sleep alone tonight. Or ever, if Frankie has anything to say about it. “Someone—well, me—photographing you while you’re sleeping.” Frankie can’t stop a smile from spreading across her face. “It’s been a while since I did that.”

Grace smiles back, looks a split-second away from laughter. “Right,” she says. She angles her head a little, almost like she wants Frankie to take a picture of her right now. “That’s exactly what I need.”