Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Where the Godless Folk Live ( Cont'd )

The Bermuda Triangle

            The world is sideways. Her head throbs; she feels it draining from her, pooling on the cracked vinyl upholstery of Frank’s shitty avocado green Capri: the reservoir of dreams that holds her every ounce of will, her every hope of escape from the prison of her life. It’s all tied up in the image of him, she knows. Not Frank—the kid. She’s known all along how dangerous it is to invest your whole world in an unerring smile, poreless skin, the flawless innocence of youth. Especially when the image has become a lighthouse far out of reach, your own crappy life a battered ship lost at sea. Especially when indulging that idealized perfection, letting it rule your world willingly, is a crime.

            North Hollywood had little to do with Hollywood, other than hijacking a name. Tinseltown was separated from its bastard stepchild by a mountain, for one; you had to take Cahuenga Pass or Laurel Canyon to get from one shitty side to the other. Coming west, from Burbank, you knew you’d crossed over into North Hollywood when your Dodge Polara began to rattle uncontrollably due to eroded asphalt and gargantuan potholes. No tax revenues coming in to fill them—only pollution and beating down sun to erode the gritty aggregate.
            From time to time, some government agency or other would repair the gnarlier faults with volcanic cinder. But the snaking tendrils formed only mingled with rampant graffiti, weaving some kind of soulless urban matrix. Crumbling curbs lined the shoddy streets, retaining buckling cement walks overtaken by yellow, summer-singed grass, knee high and rampant.
            This is not to say Hollywood was glamorous by comparison; its heyday had long since come and gone, leaving weary, shredded palms to bow mournfully over a gum-slathered littering of stars.
            In the late nineties, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce would market a ‘Noho Arts District,’ hoping the hip term would be confused with New York’s Soho. The ploy would eventually stick and transplants, straight off the bus from Michigan or some cornfield in Iowa, would buy into it. Wannabe actors and aspiring starlets would come to populate its street-side coffee houses, playing out their two-year plan or their five-year plan, convinced they were living the life but blissfully unaware of what all locals knew: North Hollywood was the furthest shitty thing from Hollywood.
            This development was a long way off; in the 1970’s, the vast stretch of San Fernando Valley known as North Hollywood subsisted under the radar, the seedy underbelly of an already seedy town. Block after block of residential lots vomited depressing architecture, or lack of it, humorless honeycomb cubes with horrid, off-color trim. Their lots spilled overgrown lawns strewn with broken-down, rust-splotched jalopies. Main drags ran east/west, sporting old record stores with outdated signage, head shops and pawnshops and run-down taco stands catering to scant foot traffic. Noho’s streets, like most of L.A., were a ghost town, eerily abandoned, except for stripped vehicles and the odd skate punk hoofing it to score a dime bag or an eight ball.
            Just before the eastern border at Clybourn, where coarse, bleached-out sandpaper gave way to smooth, obsidian-black pavement, a small white cottage peeked over tufts of yellow grass. Despite its conspicuous location—a deep lot on an oblique corner that thrust the tiny cottage out into traffic—it remained incognito somehow. Nondescript.
            A doughboy swimming pool parted colorless reeds in the backyard, essential for the dog days of summer. Fringing the triangular lot was a dilapidated wooden fence that jogged needlessly, as if to circumvent invisible obstacles. An avocado green Mercury Capri could be seen curbside, but only at night; the man of the house left for work at the crack of dawn and returned home just as the sun sank behind the Santa Monica Mountains to the west. Each day, not long after his departure, (after breakfast but before lunch,) his wife would emerge from the soiled white cottage with a toddler in tow.
            The woman herself appeared put-together, no doubt in defiance of her shitty circumstances. Her brassy copper bouffant, only slightly outdated, was sealed with a sheath of Aqua Net that bounced with each step as she escorted her towheaded daughter down the buckled sidewalk on foot. Her polyester Del Taco uniform had been tailored to her curvy form, tits that spilled out and stretched the synthetic fiber to its limit. There was no corporate dress code prohibiting spiked heels, and anyway, they jazzed up the uniform. A paper hat completed the ensemble, but only at the last minute; after dropping her daughter at the sitter a block from home, she’d pluck the folded paper embarrassment from her vintage handbag and smash it meticulously into place just before hustling in the back door of the fast food joint.
            The Del Taco was relatively new in the neighborhood; fast food was relatively new. The stigma of working for minimum wage in brown polyester was bearable, a necessary evil, given her husband’s ineptness. His inability to provide. The man was not disabled or mentally challenged; in her opinion, he just needed to grow a pair. He sorted mail at the Noho post office, but had yet to grow the balls to demand a promotion. Everyone knew mail carriers made considerably more than lowly sorters.
            “Patty!” the woman’s manager called out one Wednesday morning, mere seconds after she’d slipped in the banged-up rear door.
            She’d stopped off in the unisex restroom off the alley before clocking in, to make last minute adjustments to her paper hat under florescent lights.
            “Excuse me,” she called back through the locked door, “I believe I have two more full minutes before I’m required to clock in!”
            “In that case,” her superior called back, “You have my express permission to clock in early. We’re swamped up here! And we’re low on beef for the lunch rush!”
            ‘Beef’, Patty knew, was really fifty per cent oat filler made palatable with tons of seasoning.  She glared at her reflection in the buckled mirror, as if to chastise herself for her choices, for whatever horrible thing she’d done, or all of them, to put her in the hellhole that was her life.
            Splotches of God knew what obscured her reflection, milky white drips meandering toward the porous sink below that held the memory of every pathogen to ever collect in it. The words ‘Jane Guttierez’ had been scrawled at an odd angle in permanent marker across the colorless tile of the wall, but the conclusion of the graffito statement was smeared and illegible. It had been that way for as long as Patty had worked there, leaving her to fill in the blank: swallows? Gives good head?
            Patty freshened up her magenta lipstick, adjusted her tits, and spat a wad of flavorless chewing gum in the trash bin before exiting.
            Mr. Walton was right outside the door as she emerged, wiry moustache turned upward in a smirk. Made him look more like a beached walrus than normal, Patty decided. She brushed past him; his pink knuckles only lightly grazed the polyester slacks that cradled her left buttock.
            “May I help you?” Patty lilted through fresh gum once she’d logged into register three.
            The customer, a kid of fourteen, tops, continued to peruse the overhead menu, absently spinning the neon green wheel of his Grentec skateboard. A mop of sun-bleached curls accentuated a painful looking sunburn.
            “I’ll have two tacos and a combo burrito,” he slobbered at last, through root beer-stained braces.
            “That’ll be three sixty-nine,” Patty sang. She’d learned, or rather, been ‘strongly encouraged’ to liven up her default monotony with some kind, any kind, of human infliction.
            “Our customers come here for the cuisine,” Mr. Walton had informed her. “No one wants their Del Taco dining experience marred by whatever horrible thing is going on in your life this week.”
            Patty knew the man spoke the truth; it was always something. One week, a sick kid, the next, a repossessed appliance or a house darkened due to an unpaid utility bill. Almost always financial. Her husband, Frank, also spoke truth when he pointed out their money would stretch a lot further if she laid off the pot and the white stuff.
            Frank was five foot six, with a prominent nose and slicked-back hair. He was a humble man from modest means, who’d moved to California from the Midwest at seventeen to get away from an alcoholic father. Thumbed it all the way to Santa Monica, would have kept going had there not been an ocean to stop him.  He had five bucks and some lint in his pocket when he landed a job at a Tee-shirt shop on Venice Boardwalk.  
            It’s there he met Patty, nearly the moment she stepped off the bus from Iowa. On their first date, he referred to her as a turnip straight off the turnip truck. Apparently, she pointed out, several months in the sunshine state had made him a seasoned local.
            “I ain’t no turnip,” she assured him. “I been around the block. “
            Mixed metaphor or not, her claim was a profound understatement.
            Patty looked the skate punk up and down while counting change into his sweaty, pubescent palm. Hell, when I was his age, I wasn’t skateboarding to Del Taco with spit in my braces. I was thumbing it to Planned Parenthood.
            “Your number is here.” Patty pointed a scarlet Lee press-on nail at the triple-digit number printed feebly in blue ink at the bottom of the receipt.
            The kid sidled along the stained counter to the pickup station, where he continued spinning the wheel of his skateboard. The sound of it was grating to everyone but him, mingling with the faint elevator music that reverberated from some unknown source. The five or so other customers eyed the kid warily while waiting for their orders to come up.
            Kid’s harmless, Patty thought, wiping down the Formica counter while there was a lull.
            As if the braces weren’t unfortunate enough, a smattering of cinnamon-colored freckles punctuated the sunburn like a roadmap, from the kid’s upturned nose to his lanky, twig-like forearms. A stained Tee shirt read, ‘Hang Ten,’ the brand’s trademark cartoony feet embroidered just below the lettering on the boy’s puny chest.
            Patty leaned across the counter to retrieve an errant straw wrapper. The boy’s eyes flashed, giving him away as he attempted to follow the action incognito. Patty knew the effect her breasts could have, even through all that polyester. And there was no harm leaning forward—retrieving errant straw wrappers was a necessary task—to liven up the boy’s afternoon. No harm giving him something to remember. Maybe he’d even toss off to the image that night, surrounded by black light posters and dirty gym socks.
            The wheel spinning accelerated. A light sweat appeared on the kid’s upper lip, where newly sprouted peach fuzz had begun to appear.  When his number came up, Patty handed him a white paper bag, allowing a press-on nail to gently caress his asphalt-callused knuckle. Her smile was deliberate, as was the slightly cocked eyebrow. The boy rushed out so quick it made the other patrons’ heads spin, despite the hindrance of a raging hard-on.
            Patty thought of the kid that night, in bed. She would never follow through. But teasing certainly passed the time. And anyway, wasn’t she allowed a little fun? She shifted her gaze to her deadbeat husband, already snoring on the pillow beside hers. The man did work hard. For her, he’d say. For them. But his efforts weren’t getting them ahead, and the life they’d settled into was not what she’d signed up for when they’d tied the knot on Santa Monica pier eight years earlier. What good were all those hours at the post office if he couldn’t get it up at night? Couldn’t come close to satisfying his wife? Sometimes she was convinced he wanted it to end.
            The next day, Mr. Walton reprimanded her for chewing gum on the job. She explained she’d been diagnosed with an oral fixation. On doctors’ orders, she was to keep her jaw occupied; otherwise, there was no telling what she might do.
            The information shut him up.
            Patty took her half-hour lunch break at 3:30 PM, hustling her plastic tray to a corner table where she could eat her Nachos Supreme in peace. Moments later, Mr. Walton plopped down at a facing table several yards away. The man proceeded to pore over paperwork from the home office, calculating the occasional figure on a ridiculously large plastic calculator, or marking the corner of a buckled page with chicken scratch.
            Patty couldn’t help taking in the man’s appearance, knew his choice of tables was anything but random. His pear shaped physique was stuffed into a dull gray three-piece suit—overkill even for management. It denoted authority by the simple fact it was not polyester, that it did not include a paper hat. Walton had draped the suit’s jacket over the backrest of a swiveling orange chair, putting unsightly sweat stains on full display. A margin of blinding white calf peeked over each of his black nylon dress socks.
            Patty found the man repulsive, from the silver rug that crowned his sweaty cranium, to the gravity-prone belly that spilled well into his crotch. Still, it was essential to flirt, in the interest of job security. Not to mention that doing so was the language she knew best. She disbursed her currency with prudence, unlike the paper kind. A tactic here, a bone there, easily missed, to encourage the asshole and feed his pathetic fantasies. To ensure he’d keep her around for another week. And the occasional grope on his part, she knew, was collateral damage—something all women had to put up with in the workplace.
            All jobs had hazards.
            Today she’d employ the straw trick. Simply licking nacho cheese off of formidable fake nails would not cut it; throughout the meal, when she could feel him looking, she’d pretend to be reading the printed paper placemat on her plastic tray while strategically flicking the tip of her orange straw with an agile tongue. At bars, tying cherry stems was a parlor trick that worked best at last call. Never failed to seal the deal. Any broad could be bendy in the sack; an agile tongue put you a cut above.
            Patty knew just how and when to put the finishing touch on her oral striptease. Mid-flick, she looked up suddenly, as if locking eyes with Walton was a random occurrence, one the universe itself ordained. She pursed her pink lips around the orange shaft, holding his gaze insistently, and gave it a good, long suck. When the last bit of Mountain Dew had been vacuumed from the wax-coated paper cup, she stood and tossed it in the nearby trash receptacle without breaking the spell. She crumpled the paper place mat, gave it the same treatment, then set her tray in the spot marked ‘trays.’ With a decisive hip-thrust, she nudged it firmly into place.
            The real finale was completely ignoring the man as she swished by his table, making him question what he’d just seen. Even if he hadn’t imagined it, he’d mentally flog himself, he surely didn’t stand a chance at consummating. Wouldn’t even try. For one, the sap knew full well what kind of a sexual harassment suit she could bring. And he wanted her around, if only to give him something to beat off to at night. Cuckold probably revels in the fact he’ll never have the real thing, she knew. Gets off on the rejection.
            Patty smirked once she’d passed Walton’s table. The sense of power was exhilarating.
            Like a drug.
            She primped in the splotchy mirror of the unisex restroom before clocking back in. Even in a paper hat she looked fine, she knew. The assessment wasn’t boastful; it was a form of gratitude to the man upstairs. And she was well aware the gift wouldn’t last forever. Flaunting it, sharing what God gave her, was the most grateful thing she could do. Either that, or her strict Baptist upbringing had fucked her up more than she knew.
            Patty looked at her watch. Five more minutes ‘till time to clock back in. Surely it would be enough time for a quick toke or two. She rifled through her patent leather handbag, fishing out a tiny Ziploc baggie containing a half-spent roach. She fired up a cheap Bic lighter, quite expertly, considering her magenta Press-on nails were a good twenty millimeters in length. She hadn’t melted one yet. The beauty was, the synthetic nails doubled as the best roach clip money could buy. When the joint was nothing more than a tiny, useless paper triangle, she chucked it in the open toilet. A quick dousing of White Shoulders for her, a wider spraydown of Glade air freshener for the restroom itself, and she was good to go.
            Just before exiting, Patty caught her reflection in the cheap, buckling mirror.
            Maybe it was her buzz kicking in, but something about it was different now. She’d grown accustomed to pursing her lips or cocking an eyebrow, or both, when assessing her reflection; this chance glimpse was unguarded—vulnerable. Her eyes looked as steely blue as ever, maybe more so when bathed in the cold, florescent light that flickered subliminally from indifferent tubes. But the icy blue discs projected something altogether new when taken off guard—something unrecognizable. The steady, unblinking gaze used to project a confidence beyond her years. Now, for reasons she hadn’t the tools to fathom, what they projected was alarming. Nothing short of sociopathic.
            There’s a reason people blink, she told herself as the heavy door whooshed shut behind her.  And it has nothing to do with tears. Or everything.
            When she returned to register three, she noticed the boy was back. The one with the freckled sunburn and the spit in his braces. Only today, he was not alone; he’d brought a friend along, no doubt to check out the hot cashier with the enormous tits.
            The other boy was similar in height to the first, but thicker. Perfectly straight black hair hung well past his jawline, where it flipped up naturally in defiance of gravity. Olive skin—he looked to be half Mexican—was abraded with scabs, some old, some new, the product of compulsive risk taking and no elbow or kneepads.
            Even without the freckles or braces, this kid was only marginally cooler than the first. He appeared to be the same age, his own peach fuzz darker in tone but not yet requiring a razor. In place of freckles, an unfortunate arrangement of oily pimples looked to have recently exploded on his cheeks and chin. Whatever the two thought of themselves when ruling Noho’s deserted streets and backyard skate ramps, at school she knew they were relegated to the lowly freshman tables to endure spit wads and jeers.
            “May I help you?” Patty sang, jarring the new kid from his momentary trance. His eyes darted sheepishly from Patty’s bosom to her eyes.
            “Yes, ma’am,” he replied, willing his jaw to engage. And then, nothing.
            His buddy slapped him on the back, producing a cough, and finally an order.
            “One Nachos Supreme and one Del Beef Burrito with sour cream, please.”
            The first boy paid; it was clear the entire outing was his treat. Now it was Patty imagining things; could it be the reticence the boy had displayed yesterday was already morphing into cockiness? Before sliding down the counter to await his order, it was the sunburned boy who cocked an eyebrow.

            Patty looked over at her husband that night, boring into him with her eyes. At least he wasn’t snoring. He was watching the game on the small battery-operated black-and-white television set facing the bed. The one that hadn’t been repossessed.
            “I didn’t sign up for this, you know.”
            He turned with a sigh, not surprised. They’d had similar conversations countless times before. “You wasn’t born with no silver spoon in your mouth. It ain’t like you was raised in the Taj Majal.”
            “Maybe not,” Patty spat back. “But mama did what she had to. She married up, and we lived well.”
            Frank Boles chuckled. “And look how that turned out. Fucker put his hands all over you.”
            It was true. Patty’s earliest memories were fraught with lack, with sour stomachs and yelling, food stamps and hand-me-down clothes. When her mama married a well-to-do businessman, things did improve. The only tradeoff was mama was forced to look the other way when the man’s hands strayed.
            And inevitably, they had.
            The first time she’d attempted to run away, she’d been forced into court-ordered therapy at the Baptist church. The year was 1963, so discussing inappropriate touching was not something society was ready for. Instead, the pastor-slash-therapist had gently suggested “being touched takes our power away. Except by the hand of God, of course.”
            Patty Sinclair didn’t care about power. The thought meant nothing to her, nor did the word. Maybe if she’d stayed in therapy instead of running away that second time, she’d have more clarity, understand that the word power was not in her vocabulary because she’d learned to live without it. She’d begin to understand how she was already turning the tables.
            How the rest of her life would be devoted to turning the tables.
            When she married Frank, Patty Sinclair had become Patty Boles. She knew he was a good man who loved her. And she loved him back, if only due to chemicals beyond her ability to sabotage. The dopamine and epinephrine and adrenalin that flowed after a good orgasm, after flopping back onto his cotton pillows to cuddle, somehow managed to trump any demons that lay in wait. Eventually, she’d sabotage what they had together and trade up like mama. She and Emmie, still a toddler, would move in with the defense attorney she’d meet on her lucky stool at the end of a Noho dive bar. But along with the socio-economic boost, so, too would come the escalation of her disease.
            Marrying the mayor of Glendale, a few years later, would do nothing to keep it in check. Nor would changing her name legally, from Patty Boles to Stormy A. J. Callahan. In fact, the mayor would enable her in her odd tastes and inclinations, becoming a partner in crime.
            Long before any of this, Patty and her first love, her only true love, had settled into the tiny fixer-upper on that narrow, triangular lot on the edge of Noho. The corner was so oblique it was the equivalent of a peninsula surrounded by crashing waves. At first, the sound of the traffic was alarming, during the day anyway. At night, it was more like the lull of the ocean, heard through a seashell far from the sandy beach. But the feeling of vulnerability, exposure, never went away. When they first pulled up rotten floorboards in the kitchen, they discovered a hidden crawlspace, overgrown with albino fungi. Not the kind that got you high, the kind you used to numb and pacify demons. The sickly, colorless mushrooms had multiplied in darkness over days and years, unchecked.
            The image would haunt Patty long afterward, though she’d never connect it to the dark, uncharted basement of her own life.

            The boys were back. Three days since the freckled kid first skated up to the double glass doors, and just as many visits in as many days. There was a third boy this time. He strode in coolly, skateboard lodged under his arm, while the other two scrambled to hold the doors for him. This kid was clearly a junior or a senior, and someone to impress. What could possibly score more points than hooking a guy up with tits? And besides, she seems game, they’d probably told him.

            No freckles. No zits or even blackheads to mar the beauty of youth. Only poreless skin not yet taxed by the elements. The kid’s mesh AC/DC jersey had been cut off, exposing deeply tanned shoulders, neither wiry nor overly pumped. Equally brown calves strained against Converse high tops.
            No sooner had the three entered, when the cool kid zeroed in his protégé’s impromptu discovery. He smiled.
            No braces. Only ivory white, perfectly aligned perfection.
            Holy shit. Patty breathed.
            “May I help you?” she thought, but nothing came out.
            Patty tried a second time to wrangle her voice. “May I help you?” she managed. No lilt; it had made its way into the trash bin along with grated cheese and shreds of lettuce.
            “Yes, ma’am. I’ll have two chicken burritos with extra cheese and sour cream, please.”
            Please don’t call me ma’am. I’m Patty, she wished she could say. And please, Dear Lord, don’t let him smile again.
            No such luck. The wide grin was shared again, making her not just weak in the knees but wet. Down there. The perfect smile was not flaunted, but shared in the most guileless way, unaware of its effect. That’s what got her wet.
            She wondered at her own ability to be reduced, in an instant, to a schoolgirl with a crush. A slutty one in a cheerleader outfit, but still a schoolgirl. She was vaguely aware she was addicted to wielding the power, that she’d as much as devoted her life to the pursuit. Why, then, did this kid steal her power, her every ounce of will? In the coming days and weeks, she’d devote herself not so much to the mystery of the intoxicant, as giving herself over to it.
            The three boys seated themselves not far from the register, shooting straw wrappers across the booth while waiting for their order. She kept an ear out. Maybe profound immaturity, in the absence of zits or braces or freckles, would cure her. Maybe the kid would fart and the bloom would fall off the rose. Maybe a booger would appear and remain there, bubbling and lime green and he’d leave it be, whereas any mature adult would wipe it away. The universe was not so kind; it became immediately clear the kid was a big brother to the other two, a mentor. He did not encourage their rowdiness, instead acted as a calming force, grabbing one or the other by the nape of the neck and tousling oily hair. Turned out the freckly kid was Jason and the darker one Glenn. The hot one, the surf punk, was Zach.
            As she basked in Zach’s beauty from several yards away, the golden wings of feathered hair that flashed against caramel skin, the wide, shocking blue bedroom eyes with their lazy lids and obscene lashes, distant voices could be heard on her reverie. Something about society and its silly boundaries, some vague recollection of what was appropriate, some quaint, old-fashioned notion of ‘taboo.’ But the voices were little more than a distant hum to what overtook her like an obsession. She found herself mentally writing his name on a Pee-Chee folder, though she hadn’t held one or smelled its unmistakable scent for decades.
            It could have been that Mr. Walton was there to provide a physical antithesis to Zach’s taut, toned musculature, but Patty found herself pondering the cruelty of aging. The unfairness of nature and the survival of the fittest. Usually when an alpha male appeared, every other sorry slouch in the bar disappeared; such was the power of procreation. But in this case, the beauty of youth trumped all else. Everything in her body recognized the genetic superiority of this kid—the inexplicable sheen of skin that occurs only in youth, the dance of golden light, the fullness of shoulders and pecs coursing with blood, never again to be so vascular and pumped to capacity. It all spoke of virility; the kid was in the horny prime of his life. Everything in her surrendered to lust, willingly.
            And then, in a single millisecond, the glass door swung shut. Through its snot-smudged filter, she watched the boys mount their skateboards and disappear.

            Five minutes later, Patty found herself in the banged-up stall of the alley-restroom, panties around ankles. She had no say in the matter; her hand wandered south of its own accord. Getting herself off was as involuntary as the juices that had been flowing since she first laid eyes on the kid. And even if his image hadn’t made her gush, in more ways than one, the smell of the otherwise nasty restroom would have done it. The unmistakable strawberry-scented cleaning solution delivered in bulk from Smart and Final. She’d become the equivalent of Pavlov’s Dog.

            “Do you guys party?”
            Patty had stepped things up and devised a plan, was now expertly executing it. She’d asked to take her fifteen-minute break early, citing ‘girl stuff,’ (always a good way to shut her boss up) and timed it perfectly with the end of Jason and Glenn’s meal. Just as they’d crumpled their flimsy paper placemats and tossed them into the trash bin, scattering slivers of grated cheddar, she’d clocked out and headed to the back door and the alley.
            From experience, she knew they’d be mounting their ridiculously wide Grentecs, more like surfboards that skateboards, and grinding off across the coarse asphalt of Rose Avenue, the side street. She’d propped herself against the exterior wall and lit up a Virginia Slim from her clutch. Spotting her there between Del Taco’s back door and a dumpster overflowing with filth, Jason had slowed before he’d even picked up speed. Then, tucking the board under his freckly, no longer sunburned arm, he’d approached her.
            “Yeah, we party. You?” His eyes narrowed to slivers, as if to communicate not just coolness, but stoner cred.
            “What—you gon’ party us out?”
            “Sure.” Patty’s practiced look promised more than just a good buzz. “Why don’t you come by my place tomorrow afternoon? I have the day off.”
            She nodded toward the corner of Burbank Blvd. and Clybourn, where the cement peninsula thrust her tiny white cottage out into relentless traffic.
            “Sounds good.”
            Patty was already fishing a pen from her vintage handbag. Her fingers trembled, a surprise to even her. She found her eyes darting, eyeing the traffic on Burbank Boulevard, so much like the crashing of waves. Zach was not there to make her sweat; the reticence was more an awareness she was crossing, quite consciously, some kind of boundary. Part of her knew once you left the armada, there was no going back. She nervously wrote her address and phone number on a Del Taco napkin.
            “Can you cut school?” The look she forced was a dare. “My husband’s home in the evenings.”
            “Not a problem,” Glenn chimed in, as if it would be important later to claim some responsibility for the impending episode, the porno that was playing out in his mind.
            “Call if there’s a problem.” Here Patty stuffed the crinkled napkin into Jason’s eager fist. “Otherwise, how’s—say—three-thirty?”
            “Oh, and bring your friend.” Patty didn’t care if the look in her eye gave her away, reduced the two runts to wingmen.
            “No problem.”
            When they were halfway down Rose Avenue, Patty saw the two boys high-five one another; Mrs. Robinson had come to town.

            When the boys showed up, it was just Jason and Glenn; the cool kid was not with them.
            Patty did her best not to sound like the schoolgirl she’d been reduced to. “Your friend couldn’t make it?”
            Pretty convincing, she thought. As if she didn’t even know his name, as if she’d not been mentally writing it on Pee-Chee folders and planning their wedding invitations.
            “Zach?” Glenn answered, pushing straight black bangs from squinty eyes. “Naw, he couldn’t cut class today—Algebra test.”
            “And anyway,” Jason added, clearly attempting to reduce his much cooler friend’s perceived value, “Zach doesn’t party.”
            “Ah.” Patty fussed unnecessarily with the loosely tucked terrycloth towel she’d strategically positioned over her two-piece bathing suit before the boys’ arrival.
            She was tempted to ask why Zach did not party, but decided it was refreshing. Probably just focused on his studies. Still, inside there was a mourning. She’d imagined how things would go down, and in one fell swoop the plan had changed. She wouldn’t turn them away, claiming her husband was on his way home. She’d get in with them. Couldn’t hurt cementing the boys as wingmen. Her wingmen.
            “C’mon in.” She stepped aside, revealing an expanse of celery green semi-shag carpet strewn with toys and toddler panties and an enormous glass bong. She could have escorted her new friends to the back yard and the pool via the skittish wooden fence. But if the three of them were going to get high before jumping in the pool, best not to do it where nosey neighbors or Child Protective Services might see.
            ‘This is my daughter, Emmie,” she offered when the towheaded toddler appeared in the doorway to the hall.
            Neither boy knelt or cooed or even said hello; both swiftly averted their eyes, scanning the haphazard arrangement of dolls and girlie playthings. The reason was simple: the girl was stark naked. She stood on full display without so much as cupping her groin.
            Patty delighted in the boys’ discomfort, reveled in the darting eyes and the shifting of weight and the stammering. Oh, they’d seen a vagina before, no doubt. In print, if nothing else, huddled in the upstairs gable of a friend’s attic or in a pathetic alley somewhere, feasting their eyes on the buckled, waterlogged Playboy one of them had found while picking trash. But the centerfold had likely been furry as a grizzly bear. What she offered them now hardly qualified as a twat­, a hairless one at that. Somehow, she knew, the fact made for more awkwardness than a full rug or even a landing strip.
            “Bong hit?” Patty offered, saving the boys further distress, not out of decency but impatience.
            She offered them a seat around the low-lying coffee table, on a lumpy velvet couch with worn burgundy cushions. She proceeded to pack the bowl of the towering blown glass bong, then passed it to Jason with a gentle stroke of the shaft.
            “This Indica?” Jason snorted, doing his best to hold in his power hit for maximum effect.
            “You know it,” was Patty’s reply. “Look how packed those buds are.”
            Glenn examined the dime baggie on the table. The gargantuan buds were dense, like misshapen bricks, coated in a dried slime of iridescent crystals.
            “Dealer’s right around the corner,” Patty informed them. “I can hook you up, if you like…”
            “For sure,” Glenn replied, exhaling a turbulent shaft of smoke.
            Rudy, her dealer, did not need new clients. Least of all high school kids with parents. But she’d keep up the charade as long as need be to fit in the rest. The cat and mouse. The rush of power that came with each unplanned slip of the terrycloth towel, the engorged nipple that poked through bathing suit Lycra once exposed. The horny confusion as the boys wrestled unconsciously with respective Madonna complexes. When both of them sported hard-ons beneath their Bermuda shorts—she’d become expert at detecting them after years of crotch watching—she stood coolly. Her gait was aloof—dismissive and inviting all at once, as she made her way toward the sliding glass door to the backyard. It was smudged mercilessly with Emmie-sized handprints.
            “C’mon,” Patty called over a shoulder, sliding the wieldy door along its stubborn track.
            A moment later, the boys were stripping off Converse high tops and O.P. shirts, peeling sweaty tube socks from shapeless calves.
            Doughy as fuck, Patty couldn’t help but note. Arms and legs like prepubescent garden hoses. Zach had ruined her; amazing what a year or two could do to make a kid look like he’d lifted a finger in life. Zach was an altogether different breed, on the verge of manhood.
            As duped as she felt being stuck with runts, Patty still knew how to have fun.
            “Last one in’s a rotten egg!” she cried, throwing her towel to the deck and plunging into the turquoise fiberglass tank. The boys followed, doing cannonballs into the now choppy water.
            Emmie had been fitted with a Floatie vest and wedged in a Styrofoam life preserver.
            “C’mon, sweetie!” Patty coaxed the girl from her place on the deck.
            Once Emmie was bobbing contentedly in the chlorine-infused tank, Patty turned mischievously to her red-eyed adolescent guests.
            Without further invitation, the three began circling the midsized Doughboy, causing gallons of water to churn with them, to dip in the center toward some invisible suburban vortex. Emmie squealed joyfully, bobbing along in her cumbersome gear. When they emerged a half an hour later, fingers pruny and waterlogged, Patty motioned for the boys to join her on the wooden deck that elevated her, however slightly, above the singed yellow grass. Then she wrapped her waist with the hot pink terrycloth towel and stepped out of the wet bathing suit underneath.
            Her normally gravity-defying bouffant no longer flipped up on the ends; even the half-bottle of
net she’d used that morning could not repel the water. Her cherry red hair lay flat, clinging in strands to her neck and shoulders. Her makeup ran, what was left of it.
            The three of them discussed school, the boys with a sense of immediacy, her theoretically, as if through some foggy lens. For a brief moment, she was transported to a time before bills and unplanned toddlers, before paper hats and polyester. She admitted she’d hated school, and even more so, the chores she was forced to do around the house.
            “Childhood should be about freedom,” she said, with sudden conviction. “No one should take that away.”
            She’d been sitting cross-legged, pantiless, stroking the hem of the bath towel with a curved, magenta nail. But suddenly she stood, gazed off at the orange disc that plunged toward the horizon.
            “My husband will be home soon.”
            The boys dressed quickly, thrilled by the sudden danger. Maybe the man would burst through the door with a sawed-off shotgun, eyes red with fury, and run them off. As the boys stepped back into khaki Bermudas and sweaty high tops, Emmie continued to prance about the wooden deck, still naked as a jaybird.
            That night, Patty dreamt she was caught in a whirlpool of her own making. Only it was not compelling her toward the center of a fiberglass doughboy pool surrounded by stickery yellow grass. Its vortex was something dark and ominous, the whirlpool itself the churning of high seas. The night was dark and treacherous, the only light emanating from a lighthouse too far away to be any good. Suddenly she noticed—Emmie was there, bobbing on the tide in floaties and a feckless life preserver. And she was following mommy into the voracious pit.
            Patty cried out suddenly, thrashing as if against the relentless tide.
            Frank’s callused hand reached out, wordlessly. Its touch alone did the trick, calming the sea of sleep.
            In the morning, Patty wondered about the wisdom of letting her daughter run around buck-naked in front of company. At her own delight seeing the boys’ discomfort. Oh, she knew what her therapist would say, if she had one: that she was normalizing what happened to her. But she also knew therapists hadn’t the first clue about real life or messiness, that they dispensed advice from an ivory tower of privilege and self-protection. God forbid a broken heart or an uninvited hand shatter the illusion of denial, make all the bullshit advice crumble to the ground like the theoretical manure it was.
            She hated therapy, back in the day. Of course, it had been court ordered. Maybe she’d get more out of it now. But most likely not: normalcy seemed so far away, so unattainable. She’d as much written it off as the notion Christ himself might appear through a parting of clouds to redeem her. To escort her to the ivory tower himself. She should have stuck it out, she knew. The first time and the second time the court had ordered counseling through the church. But somehow, even then, she knew Father McAllister was doing double duty.
            Turned out even the hand of God wandered.
            Patty blamed herself, always had. Most people knew in their hearts they were good and kind, despite how they might sometimes appear. Knew they were just misunderstood. If only to sleep at night, they blamed any rough edges on the injustice of a cruel world, knowing themselves to be pure as Jesus himself when their heads hit the pillow at night.
            Patty was the opposite. For as long as she could recall, she knew she was a bad seed. Not rotten, per se, but…missing something. Over the years, despite external circumstances, or precisely because of them, the sense would only grow more acute. What she shared with the living would shrink, and the missing part would grow.
            Since starting the job, she’d often sit watching Del Taco customers chew their meat paste, cut with oat filler and disguised with seasonings, while ignoring one another. She’d wonder what it must be like to live with blinders on, to accept the matrix without question, never having glimpsed what lay beneath. The image had never left her: that of the pale, wriggling mushrooms that had multiplied exponentially under rotten floorboards. She could feel the chasm between herself and ‘most people’ widening, whether she wanted it to or not.
            Occasionally, a kindred spirit would stroll in the double glass doors of her workplace, and make eye contact while wolfing down a basket of fries. For a brief moment, the vast, illusory matrix would disappear completely, their shared secret consuming all and pushing it out. Half the time she’d end up toking out with the stranger next to the filthy dumpster in the back alley, or bending over for him in the unisex restroom before time to clock back in.
            She was no victim. She did it to herself, she knew. With every boundary crossed, the prospect of returning to the land of ‘most people’ grew more and more remote.
            Patty ran a Lee press-on nail across waxed tissue, scooping the last viscous smear of nacho cheese sauce from her tray. Man, she had the munchies. She rarely smoked a full joint on her lunch break, preferred to save half for the walk from the sitter’s to home once her shift was over. Today, she’d found it imperative to smoke the whole thing. Probably because she’d run out of Indica; this was the raspy, homegrown shit Frank brought home, the kind that was mostly shake and useless seeds. She was starting to forget what a good buzz was like, truth be told. How it made everything seem staged like a TV show, canned and remote. As she watched today’s motley crew of customers chewing absently, ignoring toddlers perched in plastic highchairs, a laugh track played in Patty’s head. It was incongruous. Absurd.
            Today’s familiar stranger was a biker. He strode across Del Taco’s terra cotta linoleum tile in Harley Davidson riding boots, his swagger the natural result of straddling not a horse, but a bike. His piercing blue eyes found Patty’s in no time, cutting through a shapeless fog like so much bullshit. They compressed, narrow and omniscient all at once. Patty knew why the others averted their eyes. She used to think it was lack of courage, weakness, that made most peoples’ eyes dart at the last millisecond before making contact, leaving the lucid to wonder at the impeccable timing of a suspended moment and the chartless subtext of human interaction. The meaning in a quick turn or the hostility in a gaze held too long. She’d always marveled at nonverbal communication, the narrow zone of behavior with which most were comfortable. She’d always been the one to stare too long, the first one at a cocktail party to down a drink and tell it like it is.
            Patty Boles no longer thought elusive eye contact was weakness. Or fear. It had to do with wavelengths. She no longer equated her invisibility with perceived whorishness, no longer thought herself unworthy of a glance. She now knew she was truly invisible, tuned in to another dimension. As she’d left the fray, like a boat that’s strayed from the armada, only others lost at sea could illuminate the night. They wandered some metaphorical squall, visible only to one another.
            The unspoken ritual worked; the biker made his way to the unisex restroom. The subtext of her glowering told him what was needed next. She’d made her way through the linoleum-tiled hall; he’d taken the circuitous back alley route. She’d lowered her panties in the stall, stretched them taut between spread ankles. She fingered herself in excruciating anticipation, thinking as much of Zach as the biker. One was pure alpha, the other pure beauty. Before boots sounded on asphalt just outside the banged up door, she had time to think.
            Oh, it wasn’t the first time she’d crossed this particular boundary.       
            She’d put Frank on warning, anyway. How many times did a trashy Midwestern cheerleader have to make it clear to her husband she was horny? Even rolling over in the dead of night and shouting fuck me had not done the trick.
            He’s probably fucking someone else, anyway. Some broad from the post office. Why else would he have been so depleted? He was only thirty-six, for God’s sake—should be able to get it up! If he weren’t cheating, that is.
            She knew she was rationalizing. But even as she prepared her arguments, as much for herself as for the imaginary Frank who might come to find out—or maybe she herself would blab in a desperate moment—she knew there was no need to justify her actions. Frank knew what he was getting when he married her: damaged goods. And he knew full well what that meant down the line.
            Frank was a good man. His nose was crooked as shit, and he used Vaseline to slick back that outdated pompadour, but he was a good man. He had more intact illusions than Patty, but not as many as most people. Every last boundary he’d crossed he’d crossed by choice. Never at the urging of another, or the hands of another. But Patty knew, gut-level, it messed with a person more somehow—call it guilt—knowing no one had a hand in moral destitution but oneself. That no one else was to blame.
            “Sin,” Father McAllister had explained to her a lifetime ago, “Is going against one’s self. What one knows to be right.”
            He went on to compare man’s innate moral sense to a compass God himself installed in our dashboard. A week later, he went off the map entirely. And any compass God may have implanted in Patty went entirely berserk.
            The memory came back to her now, as she listened for the sound of Harley Davidson boots outside the stall. She hadn’t always been a bad seed; the realization hit her like a ton of bricks: she’d once been pure, like Jesus.
            Rubber soles sounded on gritty asphalt outside the door, and it creaked open irritably. She heard a dead bolt click shut with finality, and the boots clopped across shitty tile. At the urinal, they stopped.
            She made her presence known with the tap of a spiked heel, the deliberate sliding of the stall’s deadbolt into the unlocked position. The man stepped in discreetly, began to unzip.
            Patty had no desire to be fucked. She got off on making guys come. Or more accurately, controlling how and when they came. Fingering herself while orchestrating the whole thing was enough for her, timing her own orgasm with a man’s shudder and release, the pulsing and the contracting and the quiet, stifled moaning that could give them away.
            The man convulsed one final time with a guttural moan, expelling proof of a climax. Patty reached for a length of toilet paper, waiting in the stall while the biker zipped up and washed his hands.
            “Take care,” she heard him say, turning the dead bolt.
            He stepped out into the alley.
            She washed her own hands in the porous sink lined with soap scum. She dried them with a paper towel from the dispenser and prepared to step out into the alley with utmost discretion.
            But there was a problem.
            Walton was there, leaning against the soiled stucco wall facing the alley.
            “You missed a spot,” he chided her, pointing to his chin as if to indicate her pearl necklace was showing.
            “Fuck you,” she came back.
            Without warning, in an instant, the man had thrown his weight on her, forced her back inside the unisex restroom.
            “Get off me!” she protested, feeling she should cry out but knowing she’d brought it on herself, whatever was to happen next. She used every instinct she had to size up the danger.
            He was serious, she knew, when he pinned her to the colorless tile, slamming the door shut in a frenzy. She could feel his already hard cock poking her backside through that ridiculous three-piece suit. He’d probably been stroking himself in the alley while listening to the biker’s muffled groans. Fucking cuckold.
            “I’ll scream,” Patty warned.
            “You won’t if you need this job.”
            The man was fumbling with his fly now, managing the task of pinning her to the wall with his walrus weight while trying to whip out his cock. All Patty could see was a sloppy, sideways scrawling of permanent marker. Someone had completed the phrase, retracing the smeared, faded letters with new ones, as if it were imperative the world knew: Jane Guttierez has no soul.
            Patty found it curious, almost comical, that having a soul or not having one constituted gossip. As if not having one were the worst thing you could say about a person.
            Suddenly, the door flew open. Walton had failed to turn the dead bolt with so much to manage.
            “Oh, sorry.” A voice pierced the dark, cool interior of the john, reverberating off linoleum tile. Patty recognized it immediately as Zach’s. He sounded surprised.
            She felt Walton release his weight and back up.
            “Oh, excuse us,” Walton improvised. “We were just doing our daily check.”
            Then, turning to Patty, who was now eyeing Zach in the spattered mirror. “Be sure to give this place a good once-over.”
            Walton handed his employee an absurdly heavy gallon jug of strawberry-scented Smart and Final detergent.
            “Yes, sir.” She played along.
            Walton attempted to turn coolly into the alley, patent leather dress shoes grinding on coarse pavement, but Zach grabbed him before he could make his escape. The kid balled up his fists and thrust the man against the stucco wall effortlessly.
            “You touch her again and you’re dead meat!”
            The look the two shared was one of mutual understanding. Walton wriggled out of the space between the kid and the wall, but only because the kid let him. He wandered on his way, dusting his slacks with pudgy hands as if it would return his dignity.
            “You all right?” Zach approached the still open door and Patty, who’d set the  gallon jug of detergent on the tile floor and begun reapplying magenta lip liner in the splotchy mirror.
            “I can handle Mr. Walton,” she replied nonchalantly, knowing it was a lie, that something in the man’s eyes was different this time. She continued applying her lipstick, as if it were important business. Mid-stroke, her eyes locked with Zach’s in the mirror.
            “I grew up on a farm; I know all about wrangling swine.”
            “Didn’t look that way to me.”
            Patty teased the ends of her fiery red bouffant, then doused it with a quick coating of Aqua Net.  She plucked a Virginia Slim from her clutch, pushing into the alley. She lit up, leaning casually against the mold-smattered stucco wall next to the dumpster. She blew a long, steady hit of familiar comfort into smoggy air.
            “Do you party?” Patty knew the answer; it was pure habit.
            “Naw,” Zach replied, flashing the relentless smile that gleamed even brighter in the afternoon sun.
            And then, edging closer, “You sure you’re all right?”
            Her hands were trembling, ever so slightly, causing her cigarette to bounce.
            “Sure you don’t wanna report this? There’s a pay phone one block from here.” The kid extended a burly arm, gesturing ambiguously toward Pass Avenue, one street over.
            “Please. No,” she insisted. Her eyes grew suddenly serious. “I need this job.”
            “No shit? You gonna stay on here after what that sleazy fuck pulled?”
            For all the kid knew, she was a willing participant. For all he knew, rape fantasies were their daily routine. None of his business, anyway. There was so much a kid his age didn’t know.
            “Of course I’m gonna stay on. It’s all I got, for now.” Patty glanced at her silver watch, mentally preparing to clock back in and put on a good face.
            And then, realizing her coolness might be mistaken for ingratitude, “Thank you, by the way.”
            The kid’s look said he understood her aloofness, that he understood everything. “No prob.”
            Patty’s look softened; she knew how to control the steely girders. “You wanna sit? I’ve got ten minutes before I gotta clock back in.”
            A moment later, the two found themselves sitting on concrete, eyeing the trash that had blown up against a crumbling red curb—the fiberglass cigarette butts smashed into unrecognizable shapes, the flattened Budweiser cans and the condom wrappers.
            “Most folks are good at heart,” the kid offered suddenly, apropos of nothing.
            Patty searched his expression for guile. Not a trace. She couldn’t help but smile. She’d resist smirking, though, shaming him for his dull reflection. She’d refrain from shattering his illusions here and now, forewarning him that life would only strip them away over time, sometimes painfully and sometimes like a thief in the night, leaving all of us derelict ships lost at sea.
            “Most folks are good.” Patty repeated the words, however theoretical. She knew he believed the mantra, but more so, that he’d been sent from the universe, from some ivory tower, to share it. He’d sensed intuitively it was something she needed to hear. She knew in that instant he was an old soul. She’d always believed in old souls, ever since she first learned about them on Donahue. After seeing the episode on reincarnation, she realized that she’d always relied on them, in a way.
            Numbers had never meant much to Patty, or ages. They meant about as much to her as the rest of society’s constructs, its arbitrary codes and laws. The first time she’d found herself attracted to an underage kid, a friend’s kid, no less, she’d told him as much when they were alone. She confessed she’d been attracted to him since birth. Sure as shit, she knew an old soul when she met one.
            “Don’t you think most people are tryin’ to do the right thing?” Zach pondered without further prompting. “I mean, most people. There are bad seeds, o’course.”
            Patty thought about it. When something so obtuse was asked of her, she knew it was God himself telling her she’d better take stock. Then all she had to do was separate the voice of God from all the other voices. The problem was, she hardly believed in him; Father McAllister had made sure of it. She pondered Zach’s simple question. Hard as she tried, she couldn’t come up with an answer; for some reason the image had floated in and hijacked her reverie—that of the pale, wriggling forest of mushrooms extending to infinity in the darkness of her basement. The rotten floorboards and the foul stench.
            “I want to believe it,” she said at last, wrenching herself from the image, her own disembodied voice like a whispered memory, even to her. The tear that formed in her eye refused to fall, but at the same time let the kid know his appearance in her life, his words, did not go unappreciated for the last chance they represented. Patty found herself wanting nothing more than to protect the boy’s fragile illusions at all costs, to keep them intact as long as they would float him.
            Maybe it’s possible, she thought. Maybe he’d run into fewer obstacles than her. Maybe he’d never run aground or go off the map or…sink.
            Despite her instincts, keeping the boy afloat became, in an instant, her reason for being.
            “You in school?” she asked casually, to combat the enormity of it.
            “Yep,” he replied, impossibly long lashes batting as he looked up from the litter and the shitty yellow grass. “I’m a senior.”
            “What are your plans?” Patty wanted to hear them, to be swept up in them. It had been a long time since she cared about anyone’s plans. Even her own.
            “For now, just surviving midterms,” Zach confessed with a laugh.
            Patty laughed with him. A real laugh, not something fabricated to effect an end game. Suddenly she was in that place called youth, where tomorrow was far away and the present moment expanded around you like it’s all there was.
            “I’m mostly enrolled in A.P. classes, so this semester’s a bitch. SAT’s are tomorrow. I’ll start applying for colleges in October.”
            “What do you want to do?” Patty could have ended the question, with your life? But her strong distaste for such pressure, for those who’d applied it in her own youth, kept her from it. What she really meant was: What are your dreams?
            “Depends where I get in,” Zach admitted. “I’ll probly just do GE to start, make sure it all transfers wherever I end up.”
            And then, as if the true intent of her question got in, he surrendered to dreaming. “I’d love to be a marine biologist.”
            His big eyes, like microcosms of a stormy sea, drifted from the cigarette butts and litter to somewhere far away. “Been trekkin’ down to the beach every weekend lately, to surf. Takes two busses to get there; transfer at Wilshire and Western. It’s nice to get away from them skate punks, clear my head. But I don’t get much surfing in lately. Spend all my time at the tide pools. Amazing how life can subsist, under such shallow water, with those waves crashing all around.”
            Patty felt her mouth curl into a grin, but it was the smile inside that spread through her like a warm sunrise. She wished she’d finished school, always had. She’d been in a hurry to get away from her stepfather and spite him by marrying Frank.
            “We didn’t have beaches in Iowa,” Patty said flatly before he could ask what she’d majored in.
            And then, her eyes retreated to somewhere far away. “In eighth grade, my grandmother moved to Hawaii. I’d never seen it, or even the beach for that matter. We were what they called ‘landlocked,” surrounded by cornfields and…flatness. But I dreamt about it, after seeing her postcards. I dreamt of the turquoise water and the white sands and the swaying palm trees. I would have given anything for her to take me with her.”
            Patty’s expression shifted suddenly, as though she’d dive into the sea of Zach’s eyes if she could and stay there. And then, all at once, her own eyes grew dark.
            “Grandma died there, in Maui. I never got to see her. Ma was bat shit crazy, never really…there. But Grandma was everything a Grandma’s supposed to be.”
            In saying the words, it suddenly occurred to Patty that Father McAllister was full of shit all those years ago. Your life wasn’t some dashboard and it certainly wasn’t Christ who installed your moral compass. They said ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,’ and Patty knew it to be true. It’s your mama, if she raised you right, who taught you right from wrong. Too bad she’d gotten the shit end of the stick.
            Patty hoped it was compassion, not pity in Zach’s eyes. She hadn’t meant to spill. If nothing else, she had self-control. Maybe it was that nothing was at stake with this boy. He’d already seen her at her worst, and straight out the gate. She knew he wouldn’t judge. Young people didn’t judge. Oh, in their twenties they did, and remorselessly, when their therapists encouraged them to dig in the dirt and blame their parents for every last thing that made them tick. But a kid Zach’s age was pure, free of judgment.
            Patty glanced at her watch, suddenly aware of the time.
            “I’ve gotta get back in there…”

            That night, Patty laid next to her husband, picturing Zach’s thick, feathered hair catching the light, his dreamy eyes and relentless, crushing smile.
            She’d never needed therapy; the school of hard knocks had taught her all she needed to know. Most slutty girls who’d been touched early on were wired from then on to seek attention from men—sexual attention. They got their self-worth and validation from it, like a drug. They were sentenced to a life of being re-victimized and even victimizing themselves. She was the exception. Though trauma had jump started her addiction, she was no victim. When you took the judgment out of it, being a nympho was just one more possible experience on the planet, and we weren’t all here for the same reason. Oh, hell no—she was no victim. What she had between her legs was the ultimate power. The boys and men she enlisted were one hundred per cent under its spell. 
            Until Zach.
            She hadn’t seen him coming, the least likely thief sent to steal her will.

            The next day, Zach stopped by and ordered a combo burrito.
            “I wanted to make sure you’re okay. After yesterday,” he as much as mouthed when he’d made his way to the register.
            Patty smiled, then eyed her boss several yards away as if in warning.
            “I don’t give a shit about that loser,” Zach made it clear.
            Patty shifted her gaze to the line of customers behind her new friend. “Can you hang around ‘till my break at three? It’s only fifteen more minutes…”
            They went for a walk today, her smoking, him bouncing his skateboard against a sinewy calf as they walked.
            “How’d your SAT’s go?”
            Zach smiled, flattered she remembered. “Won’t know ‘till tomorrow. Pretty sure I aced ‘em, though.”
            They’d headed east on Burbank Blvd, away from Clybourn and Rose Avenue, Del Taco and the soiled white cottage and even the babysitter where Emmie had been since the start of Patty’s shift. In a few blocks, they’d be in Burbank, where crappy, buckled pavement would give way to black velvet. All at once, Patty stopped in her tracks.
            “What is it?” Zach asked, following her gaze.
            She’d stopped just before the intersection, stood squinting across what was left of the valley, toward the looming silhouettes of the San Gabriel Mountains. Normally the smog obscured the range entirely, a gray filter that reduced it to the stuff of legend. Today the valley was clear as a bell, the distant peaks seeming closer than ever, not looming ominously over the flatlands but guarding them protectively.
The foothills were punctuated with haphazard rows of tract houses that meandered heavenward in snaking tendrils. But that’s not where her eyes were fixed. Higher up, midway to the undulating crest where radio towers and repeaters could be seen flattened against the stark blue, was a structure she’d not noticed before. It was iridescent white, like a pearl, a mansion or an estate of some kind, culminating in a glimmering abalone spire.
            “I’ve never noticed that before,” she said simply.
            Zach knew exactly where she was looking. “The Edendale Estate?”
            “Is that what it’s called? Is it a mansion?”
            “My parents said it was here before any of this was developed. Way back when Burbank and Noho and the entire valley were just orange groves.”
            “Really? Amazing I’ve never noticed it before.”
            “Probably the smog. C’mon.”
            Zach was darting across the street while the light was still green, into Burbank where the streets would not flatten your tires, where life was better. As if it were some kind of Promised Land.
            “Truth be told, I am a bit nervous about the SAT’s,” Zach admitted when they’d seated themselves at a picnic table in a tiny park beneath the shade of an enormous elm. As if to demonstrate his unease, he spun the wheel of his Grentec skateboard absently.
            “I’m sure you’ll do great.”
            “I just wish I could concentrate. On my studies. But it’s tough.”
            “I remember,” Patty said. She didn’t want to accentuate their age difference, but it was unavoidable. The fact that school was a lifetime ago to her. That his immediate reality was to her a foggy dream she’d tried to forget. Somehow, he made her want to remember.
            Zach waited for her eyes to settle on his. It was his cue. “My dad’s an alcoholic.”
            The simple statement conjured images in her, some of them memories, of flying words and shattering vases and secrets and shame. Of growing up too soon and shouldering what no child should.
            “They say they want me to do well,” Zach went on. “Won’t even let me get a job ‘cause I’d be distracted from my studies. But at the same time, it’s like I’m supposed to make up for them.”
            “I’m sorry.” Patty said simply, her eyes flooding with tears inexplicably.
            She’d always thought childhood should be left alone, should be about freedom. Not chores or responsibility—plenty of time for those later—or shouldering the cross that was his to bear. She was wrong about him; his benevolent view of the world was not a luxury afforded by calm, uninterrupted waters. It was the result of jagged rocks. Staying on course was a choice.
            “There’s a lot going on at home. That’s why I trek it to the beach every chance I get. Can’t wait ‘till graduation. ‘Till I can get out on my own.”
            “I remember the feeling,” Patty sympathized, without admitting she hadn’t waited; that she’d been on the first bus outta town the first chance she got.
            And then she heard herself say it: “I wish I could take you away from all that. To Hawaii.”
            But the moment she’d said it, she knew it was her own life she longed to escape.
            “What’s gotten into you?” Patty kidded, trying to push him off.
            Frank was suddenly in the mood, with no provocation. After weeks of nothing, not so much as morning wood or an unwelcome poke in the back, he was all over her, slobbering behind her ear, on her breast. Shoving his tongue down her throat on their queen sized bed.  She’d practically begged for his attention, but could take or leave it now. Oh, she’d do her wifely duty and let him mount her. She’d let him file away like an oil rig, even go through the motions herself. She wouldn’t be making out a shopping list while moaning, or counting the minutes; she’d be thinking of him. Zach.
            Oh, if she ever did touch him, if she ever got up the guts to put the moves on him, Zach would welcome it. If there was one thing she knew well, it was the mind of a teenage boy. Their own penises were the greatest thing since sliced bread, and getting off was essential. Hell, nine times out of ten they were the aggressors. It’s only when the parents found out that they changed their tune. It was the parents who ran out and got lawyers. And it was the lawyers who suggested things. What else was the kid going to do but cry innocence, claiming to have been victimized?
            Maybe she shouldn’t have made that comment about old souls, or being attracted to her friend’s son since birth. That was her real mistake. Oh, her girlfriend hadn’t taken it too far, but the two had certainly curtailed their coffee clutches after it all came out. Wouldn’t be doing Bridge any time soon.
            And the comment that had flown out of her mouth, about kidnapping Zach and whisking him off to Hawaii: the courts would call it ‘preening,’ this pandering to adolescent angst and saying exactly what he wanted to hear. All kids hate responsibility. All kids would rather not have chores. But if it was simple preening, as they were bound to say, why did she want it more than anything in the world? Why was it the most earnest thing she’d ever said, or would ever say to him?
            Their walks became daily. He got out of school at three, and her lunch break was almost always at three-thirty. They’d stroll the neighborhood, or sit in the park, or look to see if the gleaming spire was close to visible on a given day. On the rare occasion Jason and Glenn showed up, the boys hung back and kept their distance, but gave Zach the thumbs-up peripherally. She got good at ignoring them.
            “If we hurry and get over there now,” Patty said one day, nodding across Burbank Boulevard, “we could fit in a swim. I have a full hour!”
            Zach was already in nylon board shorts. Not his usual madras Bermudas, but Ocean Pacific board shorts. Might as well have been a bathing suit.
            “You sure?” He grinned.
            “Let’s do it!” Patty’s eyes lit up, as if it were a dare from the universe. “Emmie’s at the sitter for my entire shift, and Frank works ‘till sundown. It’ll be a blast!”
            She thought of Zach as a friend now. Their bond was so much more than just attraction. But somehow, as the two sat drying in the sun on the splintery deck, feeling the tickle of stickery yellow grass from below, her old instincts took over. He was right there next to her, so close, so within reach. Tiny dollops of water were clinging to his brown thighs, slowly evaporating and being replaced by goose bumps. Patty allowed her eyes to move upward to his taut brown stomach. Not a single roll, even hunched over.
            Her hand reached out of its own accord, stroked his spread out thigh, glistening with fine blonde hairs. His leg stopped swinging.
            His eyes skimmed the choppy azure water and settled on hers intently. “I…”
            He stopped.
            “I’m sorry,” Patty said, and meant it. Her hand ceased caressing, but remained there as if to assert her gesture had been a friendly one and nothing more.
            “I’m gay,” Zach said.
            He did not look ashamed, or proud, or anything but apologetic, as if his only thought went to sparing her embarrassment.
            “Please forgive me,” Patty heard herself say. Her hands reached for the Terry cloth towel that was only inches away but felt like miles. When she was wrapped up tight, Zach took her hand in his.
            “That’s why things have been tough at home. My parents just found out.”
            Patty felt suddenly sick. “They—”
            “They found a letter I wrote. I never planned on sending it; it was mainly for me. To work things out in my head. But my dad found it. The one and only time he tried to be a good dad and do laundry. It was stuffed in my front pocket; I forgot it was there.”
            “A letter to your parents?”
            “It was a letter to my uncle back east. Explaining everything. I only met him once; Dad doesn’t talk about him much. But I’ve always known he and I were the same.”
            “Your uncle.”
            “Yeah. The letter was very detailed. Like I said, I never planned on sending it.”
            “I’m really sorry.”
            “They handled it all wrong—both of them. Dad is not just an alcoholic; he’s a bigot. I don’t blame him. The world doesn’t understand my condition. I don’t understand it.”
            “It will get better.” Patty meant things. Things would get better. But she may as well have meant the world.
            “The thing is,” Zach explained, “Dad was out like a light when ma told me he’d found the letter. Shitfaced drunk, snoring like a baby. But she was all cried out. Said Dad was ‘sick’ about it. That’s not what a kid wants to hear. I wanted to run out of the room. To kill myself for run away or…”
            “If it were my son,” Patty assured him, overestimating herself, “I’d make sure he knew he was loved. That God made him just the way he is. That God loves him and so do I.”
            Suddenly it returned to her, like a riptide going in the wrong direction, the desire to save this boy from the world.
            “I want to take you to Hawaii,” she said. ‘Would you like that?”
            “Of course.”
            “We’ve gotta get you out of here.”
            “Haven’t been home since that night,” Zach said. “When Dad woke up from his drunken sleep I was gone. Called Ma once, but that’s it.”
            “I’m gonna get some funds together,” Patty assured him. “Just give me a few days. Where are you staying?”
            “At Jason’s.”
            “Do me a favor—give me two days. I’ll take care of the tickets and everything. We can leave this Friday.”
            “You serious?” The smile that spread across Zach’s face was full of the one thing Patty had learned, if nothing else, was essential: hope.

            Patty could have thought of herself, dwelling on her embarrassment, the feeling of uselessness. If she’d been more aggressive when she put the moves on Zach, his body would have responded. But even if she had, and it had, he’d never want her the way she wanted him. Still, somehow, none of it mattered. All that mattered was saving him from…she wasn’t sure what.
            Patty kicked it into high gear. The very next day, she paid a visit to a travel agent friend on Burb Blvd but further west, in the slummier, even shittier part of Noho. The woman’s name was Jessica. She found a deal, a good one. One-way, coach, but the two seats were next to one another and affordable. They’d worry about the rest when they got there. It had taken Patty half a day to find Frank’s stash and sell it back to their dealer, saying she was desperate and not to tell Frank. She’d hocked a few more belongings at the local pawn shop: no family heirlooms or wedding rings—nothing like that—only silver cutlery she never used anyway, a tacky Fabergé egg given to her by a dead aunt, and an antique Tiffany pendant.

            Friday came and went.

            Saturday, while taking a customer’s order, Patty saw Glenn and Jason through the side window of Del Taco, cutting across the parking lot toward Rose Avenue. Without explanation, she bolted out the side door and called after them.
            It was Jason who looked back first, then Glenn. Jason hesitated, slowed to a halt. A moment later, the two boys were hoofing it across the charred, uneven pavement, skateboards in hand. Patty didn’t have any specific plan with Zach, but hadn’t seen any need to chisel one in stone; she’d said Friday, and he’d been coming in every day anyway. Jason would know for sure what happened; Zach had been laying low at his place.
            “It’s not good,” was all Jason would say at first.
            “What do you mean?”
            “He was staying with me while his parents cooled off. But his dad found out where I live.”
            “And he showed up and kicked the shit out of him. Cops showed up, but there was nothin’ my ma could do about it. Zach’s dad took him home.”
            Glenn was looking at the shitty pavement, spinning the neon green wheel of his skateboard to divert himself from Jason’s play-by-play.
            Jason’s eyes locked into Patty’s, and suddenly he looked much older, not a squirt at all. “The services are Sunday.”
            Patty felt the pavement jolt, heaving the world askew. She reached out for the dumpster to steady her. But it was no use; the asphalt was spinning now, accelerating like a whirlpool on the high seas, whisking her and the two boys and their punk ass skateboards and Del Taco into its cheap, suburban vortex.     
            “They said he OD’d,” Jason said flatly. “But I don’t buy it; Zach didn’t even party. His pa had him holed up there, at home. His ma found him in the bathtub. Drowned. She was the one who called the cops.”

            Patty opened the avocado green door of Frank’s shitty Capri. She’d clocked out early and wandered home, in a daze. No need to stop off at the sitter’s; it was Saturday, so Frank was home with Emmie. Sure as fuck, when she’d arrived home he’d been crashed out on the couch, bong in hand, with Emmie playing unattended.
            Patty slid into the driver’s side seat of the jalopy, settling against its cracked camel upholstery. She’d made sure to lock the door to the garage.
            She started the ignition, laid her head gently across the brittle center console. There, she’d sprawl out just like this, get as comfortable as possible. She knew it was all bullshit, some story the two punks fabricated out of jealousy or to mislead her.  She knew he’d show up eventually, and they’d head off to the airport before Frank woke up. They’d be in Hawaii in a matter of hours, gazing between waving palms across white sands to azure lagoons and the open sea of the future.
            An hour passed.       


            He’s not coming.
            It’s dawned on her slowly, like the sun breaking the horizon of a once stormy sea now strangely calm. But the dawning is ominous, the brooding sphere of sun blood red, swallowing light rather than spewing it, the stillness more sickening somehow than the tossing that came before.
            He’s not coming.
            Her cheek is plastered to the shitty camel upholstery, split from the arid wrath of the San Fernando Valley. She can’t move, has no desire. She’s resolved to expire here, on a buckled vinyl seat in a shitty car parked in a shittier garage on an overgrown lot thrust out into traffic. She’ll drift off to carbon monoxide dreams, fuzzy images of what could have been. He’ll take her hand, telling her the world has it wrong, that numbers will never come between them, that he alone can take her away from her pain and deliver her to who she used to be. Her former self will greet her with open arms, so much like the arms of Jesus.
            It’s only his smile that has power over her, though it was dangerous to enslave herself to it, to the perfection of youth. His smile—the promise of it, the improbable, impossible beauty that proves meaning in all the randomness. His angelic countenance alone can deliver her, an empty shell, from the messiness and squalor.
            She pictures the turret of that glistening white mansion, towering over the seascape of her circumstances like a lighthouse. He’ll take her there, step by winding step, to the uppermost spire, where splendor lives.
            Take me away. Please, she begs him.
            Just as she’s consumed by the ether, the stark white nullness, she feels hands on her.
            “Honey! Wake up!”
            It’s Frank’s voice, and his callused hands, the only touch she can feel. The only touch she’s ever been able to feel.


            In the early morning hours, commuters strain to make sense of what they’re seeing in the celestial haze fifty feet over Interstate five. They circumvent the wreckage at a snail’s pace, the shattered glass and the errant bumper far from where it should be, the dismembered black SUV crumpled on the shoulder like a discarded pack of Marlboros. As they approach the overhead freeway sign, what’s happened becomes sickeningly clear, however inexplicable. Fire crews have ascended to the top of the cherry picker, past the lacerating prongs meant to keep pigeons and doves away. They’ve draped it in white linen, are now gingerly extricating it from the sign’s spiky ledge: the body that’s been flung through the air, ejected, then landed atop the Cal Trans sign announcing Glendale Boulevard a quarter-mile farther.
            What runs in the L.A. Times is the stuff of tragedy, mythic in proportion—how family members have repeatedly warned the promising, otherwise well-intentioned nineteen year-old about the dangers of speeding, how he’s shirked off their pleas. The details that emerge subsequent days only grow stranger, unfolding backward in time with prophetic irony. Observing Armenian tradition from home, the family performed a matagh only days before. The lamb was slaughtered as penance for the boy’s recklessness, a sacrifice to bless him and keep him out of harm’s way.          
            Well, he’s certainly safe where his is now, Hugh Neilson thinks, flipping to the sports section. Careful what you wish for…
            And then, after a moment: Where do you get a lamb in Glendale, anyway?

            Adrian Dolak prides himself on being ‘in the moment’; it opens him up to synchronicity—that space in which the universe reveals itself, reveals tiny hiccups that yield clues that yield road signs in the journey of life. Part of him knows it’s the future that punches the hole, time being what it is—a construct of man. And the omens are divine—bursts of inspiration or harbingers of doom, sent from above or below. What appears in his path one early-April morning is neither, or both; he only knows the moment is big, like a universe tugging him toward fate.
            And that things will never be the same.
            A stainless steel nib grinds to a halt, depositing tiny dollops of India ink on coarse paper, like onyx tears. Adrian can’t concentrate—the words come off stilted and repressed, as though they know better than to materialize, to join the ranks of endless clichés that fancy themselves archetypes but are as trite as they come. On a good day, his process is intuitive, flowing effortlessly from his subconscious—no, from the collective unconscious—to the page, undaunted by even the most obstinate ink splotch. Not so today—too many distractions.
            The brasserie he’s made his temporary office is tucked away incognito on a low-profile corner of the left bank, but it’s buzzing with patrons hip to the incomparable chocolat chaud and bohemian clientele. Normally, he could tune them out, could even ignore the attractive brunette who tosses her perfectly straight hair only yards away while waiting in line. A rolled-up yoga mat’s tucked under her taut, toned upper arm, but it can’t hide the braless splendor of firm breasts as yet untaxed by gravity.
            Adrian patiently restores his old school fountain pen to the inkwell even his French friends have labeled prétentieux, and surrenders sweetly to distraction. Best not to fight fate. The irony has dawned on him countless times, that of the sudden appearance of nubile young prospects only when he’s intent on getting an hour or two of writing in. More than that, the irony lies in the direct conflict of interests: whether to write about humans, a substitute he knows all too well, or actually connect with them.     
            Today’s distraction is over-the-top. Fit as they come, exotic, flawless ass clearly designed to throw him off his game. Not to mention the smile. She shares it freely when she catches him staring.
            “Daniela,” she offers, stepping ever-so-minutely out of line and extending a hand.
            He brushes errant dreads from his eyes. “Adrian.”
            She holds up a finger sheepishly, signaling to her friends she’ll be but a minute. They roll their eyes, one of them scolding her with a shake of her rolled-up yoga mat.
            “Let me guess,” Adrian smiles, defaulting to his M.O. of calling chicks out, “You’re not here for the hot chocolate. You’re more of an herbal tea kind o’ gal.” His assessment is a stab in the dark.
            “Bingo. Chamomile,” she specifies. Then she turns to her friends, who’ve advanced to the register.
            “Chamomile,” she repeats. “S’il vous plaaaaaaaaait.”
            More eye rolls, scolding. They order for her anyway.
            Daniela whisks her head back, tossing her thick umber mane so it settles between slender shoulder blades. She eyes the incongruous inkbottle.
            “Now let me guess,” she counters his earlier indictment. “You’re not here to meet people—just to write about them. To observe and judge them.”
            “Bingo.” Adrian smiles with a look that says there’s much more to it than that.
            “You’re not French,” he observes.
            “Italienne,” she clarifies. “ And you’re American, no?”
            He’s mildly disappointed the dreads have failed to distinguish him from the loudly dressed, tacky tourists that seem to lurk on every corner, intent on giving him away. Apparently the poverty chic Wolverine Oxfords haven’t exonerated him either, or the pseudo-intellectual Warby Parker frames positioned midway down the bridge of a lightly sunburned nose. He nods, admitting guilt.
            “What do you write about?” she earnestly wants to know, undaunted by the archaic trade tools.
            This? Oh—” He nearly topples the ink bottle. Man, I’m off my game, he thinks.  Adrian’s fine leading with his writing; it’s as good a conversation starter as any rescue dog would be back home, only less likely to cop a squat. Problem is, he’s not sure what he’s writing at the moment; the narrative has morphed, taken on a life of its own.
            “It’s sort of a modern-day retelling of Icarus,” he begins, doing his best to distill the ever-evolving concept, like ore. “No wings or labyrinths or human-animal hybrids, though. It’s more a technology era, character-driven look at bad blood.” His summary sounds less like a book jacket blurb and more like kitchen magnet poetry.
            Still, she’s unfazed. “Do we have daddy issues?”
            For the second time today—in his life maybe, Adrian Dolak is speechless. She’s hit the nail on the head. He as much as offered it up, but still he’s shocked at her talent for reading between lines.
            “What do you mean?” He plays coy, intrigued. He’ll see just how far her intuition extends.
            “Well, most people take the Greek myths independently. What jumps out at me when I analyze the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, is the subtext. Only when one looks at what comes before and after, can one see the true message in such tragedy. It’s not what puritanical scholars said in the dark ages: that we’re meant to know our place, flying neither too high nor too low. It’s not about temperance. Icarus was sacrificed for the sins of the father.”
            “Wow.” Adrian already knows he could love this girl. Flawless ass and a thought in her head!
            She goes on: “One must look at all the fucked-up shit Daedalus did before his son was even born; his was a career of trying to fix former mistakes. He pushed a competitor from a cliff in his youth but was never prosecuted for it. And that was just the beginning. When Icarus came along, Daedalus saw the boy as a chance to redeem himself, nothing more. It’s why he built the wings and planned their escape. It’s Daedalus who insisted he fly higher and higher. Yep, the sins of the father. You, mon ami, have Daddy issues.”
            Adrian is blown away, but can’t show it. He’s gotta get back on his game, get his power back. He looks her square in the eye.
            “Who’s judging now?”
            “Not judging. Just analyzing. There’s a difference.”
            “What you put out is chill.” Adrian can’t help himself. “But I’m not fooled by the yoga matt or the herbal tea.”
            “And I’m not fooled by the hipster eyewear or the Eurotrash props.” She motions to the fountain pen and the ratty notebook that looks to have been jacked from a Prague salon around the turn of the century. “You’re just another expatriate. We’re a dime a dozen. As such, that puts us on an even, how do you say, playing field?”
            The sparring is foreplay. They both know she’ll be sitting down once she has her Chamomile tea, that her friends will refuse reimbursement and leave her to her flirting, then judge her all the way home.
            What ensues does not feel like small talk; the exchanging of vitals feels earth-shatteringly profound to Adrian, like the start of something much greater than him or even the half-finished novel he expects to change the world. Turns out she’s settled into the Latin Quarter after falling in love with it during a dead-end internship. Since, she’s landed a gig teaching yoga just down the street from where the useless host company put her up. Just last week she transitioned from corporate housing to her own matchbook-sized, water-stained flat.      
            “And you?” She turns the tables. “What brings you to gay Paris?”
            He explains how he just finished undergrad studies in Aix-en-Provence—French lit, how the country was breathtakingly gorgeous but boring as hell.
            “Just graduated in Spring,” he goes on. “Thought I’d spend a moment in the City of Lights before figuring out what to do with the rest of my life.”
            Inside, Adrian can’t fight the feeling it’s beginning here and now, despite his best subconscious efforts to sabotage it via fountain pen. Can’t help feeling in every cell of his body that the creature standing before him with the smoldering almond eyes and arched brows, the perfectly straight, shimmering locks and the perfect derriere, could well be the rest of his life.

            Her beauty is timeless, Adrian decides, picturing her while lying on his lumpy futon that night. It’s the few Art History courses he was required to take that provide context: her wide-eyed countenance, so hauntingly agape, is Pre-Raphaelite. It’s clear she stepped straight out of an Alma-Tadema painting, or better yet, a Bougeareau—rose from some murky lagoon inhabited by sirens, swarthy, cascading locks parted just so and perfectly centered to frame a flawless forehead.
            She’s olive-skinned, with light, incongruous freckles; it’s the umber locks that render her skin flawlessly fair. Wide, steady eyes rarely blink, lids instead resting half-mast in steely confidence. Even so, expanses of rich, earthy brown display themselves flashingly due to sheer enormity.

            The sign’s been turned. Razor sharp pruning shears snip, shred indifferently, dismembering what’s not needed and leaving what someone, somewhere has decided is worthwhile. Stem cutters amputate with no remorse; the useless greens can’t register pain, can’t cry out no matter how they seem to wince. The stripping knife does its job in two fell strokes, glovelessly. Who needs gloves when the sign’s been turned and two old biddies are your last customers of the day?  He’ll be here any minute, Joan thinks.
            And they want baby’s breath. They always want baby’s breath. Souffle du bébé in French, she learned a week after opening. Twelve years later, she insists on calling them by their proper name: Gypsophila paniculata. Why must they always want baby’s breath? Or baby tear grass? To customers, her arrangements mean something. The trite beauty that remains after all the poking and prodding and stabbing represents renewal or a promise, or even hope. To her, it represents routine.
            There was a time the promise of a perfect rose was all that got Joan Neilson out of bed in the morning. It’s why she and Hugh took out the loan and found the quaint storefront in Montreuil. It wasn’t the Champs Elysees by any means, but rent was more affordable on the outskirts of Paris. She still saw charm in the world back then; it’s all she saw in Montreuil. The Moroccans with their jangling beads and mile-high headdresses did nothing to sharpen her ability to sniff out danger. A week in, someone was knifed just a block away.
            When a customer insisted that same week she leave the thorns intact on an arrangement of Damasks—Moroccan tradition—she obliged. She agreed, in her Francais limité, that they served a purpose, that poetry existed where least expected, and there was beauty in the sublime. Twelve years later, she has no feelings about flowers; she can no sooner engage in a discussion about the value of thorns than the obvious beauty of babies, breathing or not, or the less obvious beauty of dried flowers, lifeless and forlorn.
            “Voila!” Joan announces after tightening the synthetic silk bow, and holds up the arrangement for the ladies’ approval.
            Then she notices: she’s dripped blood on the Gypsophela paniculata.
            Un moment,” she qualifies, restoring the arrangement to the counter, out of view.
            It’s never happened before, with or without gloves. She didn’t even feel the thorn that’s pierced her thumb, the one she swept into the trash receptacle without a second thought.
            Once the baby’s breath have been replaced, white as snow, she passes the bouquet across the counter to the waiting geriatrics.
            It’s his fault, she stews. If he was on time, I wouldn’t have had to take that last order. She hates to be rushed.
            “Bon soir, Mesdames!” Joan calls after them with a forced smile as they exit to the jangle of Moroccan wind chimes that is the doorbell.
            She locks the dead bolt behind them, then dials her cell phone.
            Where in hell could he be?!

            “Get here, would you?” Joan gripes. “We’ve got to head out by 7.”
             Hugh Neilson has her on speakerphone, broadcasting her worry from the console of their BMW.
            “I’m doing my best, darling. I can’t control the traffic any more than I can the weather.”
            They call traffic circulation in French, Hugh muses. Problem is, it doesn’t circulate.
            Joan’s agitation borders on panic. “We can’t be late getting there; we’re the hosts!”
            Hugh cranes his neck, straining to see what obstruction could be causing the bottleneck. He’s never run into traffic leaving the research lab so early in the afternoon. It is a Friday, but making it to the suburb of Montreuil should be a breeze; most city dwellers are headed to their chateaux rurales in the south.
            “Chill, darling. I’m sure there’s a good reason I’m being held up.”
            “What on Earth could you mean? They’ll be waiting on us!”
            “We’ve been through this before. Don’t you believe in miracles of prevention?”
            Her sigh is grating on speakerphone. “I’m sure you’re going to explain it to me.”
            “Whenever something stands in your way, there’s a reason. You’re being delayed in order to avoid a larger catastrophe. It’s about surrendering to the bigger picture!”
             He’s thinking of the gruesome LA Times story he read years earlier in the states, how all the other drivers emerged unscathed while the Armenian kid’s SUV tumbled end-over-end, ejecting him through the windshield like bile. It dawns on Hugh that the underpass he’s stuck in is more than familiar. He’s gotten as far as Pont de L’Alma, found himself crammed in a lightless tunnel with nowhere to go. It’s the tunnel where Princess Diana died.
            When at last things begin to move, Hugh breathes a sigh of relief.
            His wisdom is affirmed when he passes the ten-car pileup he’d be tangled in had he been less patient. As he whizzes by, he can’t help but rubberneck, just a bit. They’re using the Jaws of Life; a tiny Peugot has become lodged beneath the tailgate of a delivery truck and been forced to a stop, its ceiling torn off. It’s a miracle the driver has survived, but the visor has scalped her.

            It’s about fucking time.
            The BMW is idling outside the meticulously dressed window of ‘Les Vivants,’ so named as a shortening of the Anglo colloquialism ‘Flowers To the Living.’ Unfortunately, the charming reference is lost on locals. Hugh honks a second time, as if she’s the one dilly-dallying. He’s singing along to the radio. He’s actually singing—not the least bit concerned they’ll be late; never mind she’s planned Coq au Vin for their guests and now will hardly have time to throw it together. The sign’s been turned for a half-an-hour, for Christ’s sake.
            As Joan locks the third and final deadbolt, she notices through dusty glass: her rhododendron is wilting, the one she brought from home twelve years ago when first opening. It’s the only one not for sale; it’s hers. But now it, too, looks to be on its last legs. What can you do? She thinks. She’ll give it some plant food first thing Monday morning when they’re back in town.

            Miles Dolak rearranges letters, attempting to form words in a sliding puzzle. The letters have nowhere to go, like cars stuck on an expressway. Nowhere to go but sideways or down or…up; nothing to do but rearrange themselves in their molded plastic prison. If only they could transform, Miles thinks.
            The plastic tiles have yellowed, making him feel like a relic by association. He got the thing in the early seventies, for his ninth birthday, but why does it have to look so…ancient? It’s the same feeling he gets when reminiscing over grade school reports, their corners blunted and yellow, scotch tape brittle. There was a time he’d mastered the puzzle, could reconfigure those plastic squares by rote, upside down and blindfolded. But all these years later, the right words evade him, the perfect configuration that gives meaning to the randomness.
            “Put that thing away and come on!” Fay scolds him. “Can’t believe you brought that along—never should have opened that box!”
            There’s some truth to the statement; it’s been a time-sucker sifting through ancient artifacts he’s lived without for twenty years and could continue to live without. He wouldn’t even know what was in that damned box—the one that followed them to the tract house when they’d first moved in after Adrian’s birth—had it not fallen from the rafters right smack onto the hood of the vintage Chevy he’s been tinkering with back home.
            “Go to hell,” Miles grunts, slamming the plastic mindfuck on the mahogany coffee table in the center of their tiny room. The yellowed tiles refuse to cooperate; the words to materialize. His ineptitude with words has only gotten worse over the years; he’s much better with an Allen wrench. Still, he’s glad he brought the puzzle along; Adrian will get a kick out of it, being a writer and all. Not much of a graduation gift; the real gift was all that tuition money the past few years, requiring Miles to take on extra handy work. Even now, two thousand miles from home, the concierge has swindled him into checking out the garbage disposal; apparently it’s gone on strike. He’s gotten it working again, but not before it belched grease on the shirt Fay’s pressed for him in their tiny room at the Bed and Breakfast.
            “Get out of that greasy shirt, would you?” Fay nags. “They’re on their way!”
            She’s ready to go; has been for twenty minutes; that doesn’t stop her from making last-minute adjustments. Miles watches his wife dab her primrose lip liner in the full-length Versaille-style vanity. Man, she’s gorgeous, he thinks. She may be a nag, but she’s a gorgeous one.
            “It’s Joan I’m worried about,” Fay goes on, smacking her lips to even out the pigment. “You know how she can be. And Adrian called; they’re on their way!”
            Miles chuckles. “You know Adrian; they’ll be at least ten minutes late picking us up.”
            “Not if she has anything to do with it. I want to make a good first impression on our future daughter-in law.”
            Miles stands, unfastening the button-down Oxford his wife picked out for him. “Bite your tongue!”
            Fay Dolak takes a break from primping, gives him a hard look in the mirror’s hazy reflection.
            “What?” he scoffs. “You know that kid’s far from ready.”
            “Is anyone ever really ready?” She smirks. “Were we?”
            Miles knows there’s been no talk of rings or even promises; Fay likes to build stories around things. Not to mention she’s chomping at the bit for a grandchild; it’s that mid-life biological clock. Being an only child, Adrian’s their one shot at propagating the pitter-patter of tiny feet.
            Miles throws the soiled Oxford atop his open suitcase in a crumpled pile. It’s now a preppy, pinstriped oil rag. Collar’s too stiff anyway.
            “Well, were we?” She grates.
            “What?” Miles has forgotten what they were talking about.
            “Were we ready?” Her look in the vanity is scornful.
            He doesn’t answer. Just invades her reflection, places thick, capable hands around her slender waist, rocking her gently. She tips her head back, wishing she could surrender to his touch, wishing there was time. Instead, she fixes on his fingernails in the mirror, the minute half-moon particles of grease beneath them.
            “And wash those hands before they get here, would you?”
            Her obsession with appearances is nothing new, nor is the fact she’s mildly embarrassed of him; it’s been going on for twenty-plus years. He’s okay with the knowledge she’s been slumming it all this time, wishing she’d married an intellectual like Hugh who’d never put up with motor oil beneath his manicured nails. He’s okay with it because he knows it takes two to tango and she’s right where she belongs. Or deserves to be; you earn a guy like Hugh.
            Fay catches the subtle pang in her husband’s reflection. “The Neilsons have been good enough to open their country home to us for our little reunion; the least we could do is be on time.”
            “Agreed,” he concedes, brushing her ear with stubble one last time before sliding into the alternate shirt she’s picked out.
            It’s true the Neilsons’ offer is gracious. It’s not their son who’s graduated college, after all. The plan arose out of pure convenience; Joan and Hugh’s country place is central for everyone. It’s in the tiny, crumbling village of Esclimont, not far from Aix-en-Provence where Adrian’s been studying.  They call it ‘Le Destin’; all vacation Chateaus have cute and forcibly clever names in France. Miles and Fay could have waited for Adrian to return home to the states to celebrate, but who knew if and when that would happen? And had their only son not graduated college, the Dolaks would never have splurged on such a getaway. It’s a pretext for distraction, one made more poignant by empty nest syndrome. Now that the rules have all changed, they can splurge, now that the future is as vague as a fog-shrouded horizon at sea.
            Miles strokes the sheath of platinum locks framing his wife’s soaring cheekbone. Her ice-blue eyes lock with his in the mirror. Still stunning, he thinks. After all these years. It’s those eyes that first got him, ethereal but glacier-blue like vast oceans. Their son inherited them, thankfully, not his earthy, simple brown eyes whose pigment stopped you right at the surface. The couple looked at him right there in the hospital and she suddenly decided. “We’ll call him Adrian. After the Adriatic Sea.”  How could he argue?
            Miles is sure the moment’s revisiting her, too, as they cling to one another, tossing about on waves of uncertainty. And not a buoy in sight. She folds into him, just for a moment, as if they had the time. She lays her cheek on the broad expanse of his chest, the safety of dry land. Her fingers find the unruly brown forest that dominates the landscape. But instead of exploring it, they button the top two buttons, smoothing wrinkles as though pushing them out to sea.
            The phone rings.

            “We’re right around the corner, but I want to gas up before we hit the road.” Adrian Dolak loosens the gas cap on the tiny rental car, cradling a cell phone to his ear with a crooked shoulder. “You said the Bed and Breakfast’s at Rivoli and Rue du Turenne? Yup, then we’re right around the corner.”
            Daniela watches from the passenger seat, grinning smugly despite herself. She’s never heard him interacting with his mom; it’s cute. Everything about him is cute. The dreads are longer than when they met two months ago, but just as unkempt. The carefully cultivated scruff is now a full-blown beard. His piercing, glacier blue eyes still penetrate you from beneath surly brows, equal parts confidence and inexperience, a recipe perfected only by youth. She does have five years on him, she’s learned. But she rarely reminds him of it; she knows better. She knows better than to mention the age gap to his mother this weekend, either.
            Adrian’s good-humoredly shaking his head while waiting for l’essence to make its way into the tiny tank.
            “We covered this, Mom. I told you I’m driving.”
            The sun has just set behind the Paris skyline, but twilight lingers like a nervous afterthought.
            “For one, the rental’s in my name. Secondly, Dad doesn’t even know the language. He won’t have the first clue what to do the first time we hit a roundabout in the country. Every little village has them, and if you don’t read the signs right, especially at night, you’re fucked. It’s very nerve-wracking! He won’t know centre ville from Le Mt. St. Michel. We’ll be circling till the sun comes up.”
            Daniela’s still smiling; she can’t help herself.  Adrian catches it, spinning the gas cap into place with a snap. He rolls his eyes, for her benefit.
            When he’s seated next to her in the car, cell phone lodged in the console and no longer squawking in his ear, he smiles.
            “You’re going to love them,” he assures her. “More to the point, they’re going to love you.”
            She smiles back, shrouding confidence with sheepishness. “I hope so.”
            She’s not worried; she has a talent for winning parents over. Come to think of it, she usually gets along better with the parents than the guy, who inevitably turns out to be a loser. Her last two relationships did not last, but the relationship with the parents did.
            I’m sure they’re perfectly charming,” she adds for good measure, as if they were the ones auditioning, not her. She folds a stick of gum into her mouth and offers one to Adrian.
            “I’m good.”
            She gives him a look that says he may want to reconsider.
            He starts the engine. “If anything, it’s the Neilsons I’m worried about.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “I dunno,” he concedes. “They’re a bit odd.”
            She searches his expression for more. “Hmmmm.”
            Just then, before Adrian can pull away from the pump, a dark figure appears from nowhere. It crouches outside the car window, silhouetted against the anxious purple twilight.
            “Whatup, yo?”
            “Raz!!” The couple shout in unison.
            A half-second later they’re out of the car, Adrian caught up in a bear hug and her rounding the vehicle for similar treatment.
            The man is Adrian’s Doppleganger, only darker all around. The dreads are darker; so are the eyes—more like cinders than glaciers—and his skin is swarthy as it comes. His ethnicity is ambiguous.
            Daniela’s never asked his origin or his nationality since Adrian introduced them to one another.
            “I’m a citizen of the world!” he’s made clear on several occasions.
            Adrian first met Raz on a backpacking trip through Nepal before starting college. They’ve kept in touch, run into one another in more countries than either can count.
            “Where you off to now?” Adrian asks, eyeing the military issue canvas backpack that’s surely overkill wherever he’s headed.
            Raz points to his overloaded jeep at the neighboring pump. “You remember that documentary I was working on? The one about our relief efforts in India?” His accent is as inscrutable as his appearance.
            “Of course,” Daniela assures him. Adrian nods.
            “It’s premiering this weekend. Can’t miss your own premier, right? I was just editor, but still…”
            “Congratulations,” Adrian offers.
            Daniela hugs him again. “Félicitacions! Where is it premiering?”
            “We’re doing the festival circuit with it,” he explains. “Hopefully that will lead to distribution. Our first festival is this weekend—Esclimont.”
            Adrian and Daniela look at one another in disbelief.
            “You’re kidding!” Adrian cries. “I think that’s where we’re headed.”
            “We should meet up!” Raz suggests. “Lemme make sure I got you in my contacts…"
            Raz scrolls through contacts on his cell phone.
            “Aha. There you are,” he confirms after a moment.         
            “Awesome,” Adrian says. “I hate to cut it short, but my parents are waiting for us. They’re at a Bed and Breakfast down on Rivoli.”     
            “No worries, man.”
            “Please do hit us up; It’ll be fun to hang out!” Daniela calls out the window as they inch away toward the gas station’s exit.
            “Fo sho!” Raz calls back.

            Fay and Miles are waiting in the lobby of Chez Nous now, at Fay’s insistence. It’s a living room, for all intents and purposes, a salon as the French would say. Opulent Versaille décor is made homier by an interwoven provincial motif. A casually dressed concierge manages the front desk, fielding sporadic calls on an antique telephone.
            Fay looks at her watch impatiently, her other hand thumbing the retracted handle of a roll-aboard suitcase. Miles presses his pinstriped shirt with thick, lightly clammy palms, loosens its starched collar with a stocky finger.
            “What’s this girl’s name, again?”
            “Daniela,” Fay reminds him. “Daniela Caniglia.”
            “You said she’s Italian?”
            “And what does she do?”
            “I don’t know. Yoga or something. So you are worried about making a good impression.”
            “No. I just want to make sure she ain’t mafia.”
            Fay turns to make sure the concierge hasn’t overheard. Even in jest, her husband’s coarseness tends to give him away.
            “Well,” she reassures him, “We’ll have several hours in the car to get to know her.”
            Fay’s eyes slide across the mahogany floor. The concierge has left the reception desk, is making her way toward them.
            “Je m’excuse,” the woman interjects.
            Fay looks up. The woman is about her own age, classy and distinguished despite the modest uniform. Her auburn hair is swept up into a loose bun.
            “Forgive me for interrupting,” the woman goes on in careful, deliberate English. “Did you say ‘Daniela Caniglia?’”
            “Yes.” Fay waits.
            “The Itallienne girl?”
            “I suppose.”
            “She has been in Le Marais for several months. Teaching yoga.”
            “Yes, that’s right.” Fay wonders where the woman is headed. By her expression, the girl may well be a Mafioso.
            The concierge pauses in deliberation, tempering queasiness with a feeble smile. “Again, forgive me, but fais attention.”
            “I’m sorry?” Fay is mildly annoyed, as much by the intrusion as the unsolicited warning.
            The woman smooths her skirt, preparing to abandon good breeding and French reserve. “If we speak of the same young lady, fais attention.” A pause. “She frequented—dated—my son.”
            The two women share a look that only two mothers would catch. “Ahhh.”
            “In French, we have an expression: ‘Mefies-vous du couguar.’”
            Fay knows the woman is being intentionally coy, cryptic. Still, she nods appreciatively. The modicum of high school French that returns to her avails her to the subtle warning: beware the cougar.

            The last remaining wash of flickering violet drains from twilight as the tiny Peugot rattles west on Rue Rivoli. They’re about to turn the corner at Rue du Turenne when Daniela puts a hand on Adrian’s knee and looks at him insistently, suddenly serious.
            “Before we get there…” she prompts.
            “Yes?” He pulls over; they’re already in front of the tiny B & B. Night falls suddenly; it’s pitch black.
            “What is it I need to know about the other couple? The Neilsons?”
            Adrian chuckles; maybe he’s over-prefaced. “Nothing sinister. Just, you know, there’s definitely water under that bridge…”
            Here he explains the two couples’ history—how his own parents were high school sweethearts. How they both managed to finish college, but barely, before getting hitched. How it was at their wedding the other couple met.
            “Hugh was Dad’s buddy from college. His best man at the wedding, in fact. Joan and Mom were friends from way back—junior high. Different high schools, though.”
            Adrian can’t help but notice her dumbfounded expression.
            “It’s all very incestuous,” he explains.
            “Sordid, one might say.”
            Adrian gives her a playful kiss on the lips, a luxury he knows he won’t have for several more hours. And then, he looks at her earnestly, matching her earlier seriousness.
            “Before we go up…”
            She can tell he wants the meeting to go well, that there’s air to clear. She waits.
            “There’s something that happened twenty years ago. I mean, there’s plenty of other water under the bridge too, but this was pretty big…”
            “What happened?”
            Adrian waits for a pair of headlights to pan across the tiny refuge of their rental car before he spills any secrets.
            “Joan lost a baby back then. And she blames my mom for it.”
            Just then, the stairs of ‘Chez Nous’ are aflame; the porch light has popped on. The screen door flies open and the Dolaks appear on the porch, luggage in hand.

            Adrian wonders if he should have said anything. His words hang on the air without context, like a swarm of flies. It’s too late to explain them now; his parents are halfway down the stairs and introductions are imminent; it’ll be all smiles. But the words are out there, words once confined to a lightless box with no room to breathe, sounding more sinister than they are, or maybe less, and he wonders what kind of destruction they’ll wreak. He knows how her mind can go.
            He only told her in case she picks up on something; she’s pretty intuitive. Better she understand the source of any bitchiness from Joan, and there surely will be bitchiness. If anything, he was hoping to garner sympathy for his mom, get Daniela to cut her some slack, maybe even like her.
            Instead, the isolated tidbit, without context, will have precisely the opposite effect. It will mold a filter Daniela will wear all weekend, one that will color her perception of Joan’s every benign pleasantry, sideways glance and utterance.
            It wont’ be conscious, despite her analytical nature. But the filter will remain unerring in the ashen, tarnished hues it casts. Even as the two couples meet on the stairs of Chez Nous, forcing smiles and hugging awkwardly amid a flurry of fireflies, the phrase runs through Daniela’s head and she can’t swipe it away or extinguish it: Babykiller.

            His temples have been graying for a while; it’s the first time Joan notices his entire hairline has gone silver. Hugh’s driving, squinting at the road through thick-framed spectacles as he hums to the radio. The silver is distinguished. Whether or not that’s a good thing is another story. Friends regularly tell her the fine lines that have appeared around his jowls only add to the ‘silver fox’ appeal, as do those glasses he now has to wear night and day. Joan usually dismisses the second-hand compliment, suggesting its giver is ‘looking for Daddy.’
            Kathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights would say her husband was not just a gentleman, but a milksoft. As different from her and Heathcliffe as frost from fire.
            They’ve passed Versailles; out-of-town traffic has dwindled considerably. Joan Neilson breathes a sigh of relief as shoddy pavement accelerates beneath the tires of their BMW. What’s bottled up is normal; who wouldn’t be stressed when you’ve made a commitment and your husband’s ridiculously late?
            Hugh’s explained several times he had no control over the traffic, but she refuses to exonerate him, as though he personally willed it into being. Joan wears her annoyance like an old worn-in house robe, threadbare to the point of transparency. At first, it was charming to others—how casual and confident to arrive at a dinner party in nothing but a house robe—but the subsequent layers that have stitched themselves into its fabric come off as eccentric now. Indulgent.
            What was once ‘spunk’ is now prickly and off-putting. Her entitlement is equally raw, ostensible, her world-weariness well earned. With all she’s been through—been robbed of—who wouldn’t have layers? Prickly ones, at that. She shears thorns for customers all day, every day, but they just seem to grow back. How refreshing when a Moroccan wants her bouquet of Damasks in its natural, thorny state.
            Joan Neilson is okay with thorns.
            Even now, she knows a deep breath would do her good. But she can’t bring herself to inhale, to relax her shoulders and her tense fingers and just…breathe. Hugh reminds her daily that every moment can be transformed with a positive thought, or action, or a conscious breath. But as often as not, his platitudes come off as empty and vapid as a Hallmark card.
            What does he know?
            It wasn’t his belly that cradled life, devoting every fiber to its nourishment. Only to be robbed of it, as though nine months of gestation were nothing more than a cruel joke.
            “You’ve got to move on,” he begged her the first ten years. “Leave it in the past…”
            Easy for you to say, became her mantra, reminding him in one smackdown he was a glorified sperm donor who’d as much as admitted he didn’t even want the kid. It usually shut him up. Until, that is, in the eleventh year, he decided to speak her language: “That which ceases to grow begins to die. Simple as that.”
            It was true to a degree. The rhododendrons and spider lilies and paniculata she’d become obsessed with learning about benefitted from daily watering, nourishment. But once snipped, the flowers she arranged when they finally opened the shop benefitted from water for only so long. After that, theirs was a terminal state of life-support.
            Opening the shop was an act of desperation; she’d hit bottom. As long as a perfect rose still held promise for her, why not make her obsession with it a daily distraction?
            Even now, her mind ruminates on the bittersweet past as Versaille’s silhouette fades behind them. Not on the dead baby per se, but on everything. Their shared history with the Dolaks. Her shared history with Fay long before ‘The Dolaks’ appeared on address labels and mailboxes. The two couples have gotten together regularly over the years, but now with the geographic separation, theirs is a four-way long-distance relationship. Joan really does want the weekend to go well, even if it was more Hugh’s idea.
            She knows the thirty-plus year history will soften her edges; it always does. The fond memories, a reminder of who she used to be, will not shear the thorns—only soften them for a while with familiarity. She’ll settle into their collective, unconditional bond like old, worn-out house slippers.
            Lord, if the bond were breakable, it would have broken long before now. Shattered like glass the first time Fay outright blamed her for stealing Tommy Herco in junior high, or the first time Fay drove her to the Planned Parenthood their sophomore year, then blabbed about it. Even Hugh didn’t know about that fiasco. No need to burden him with skeletons from a former life. And the policy extended to other skeletons, like the blink-of-an-eye marriage her senior year she’d been allowed to annul, thankfully. She knew, even at the time, that marrying a twenty-four year-old BPO skate punk was a bad move, but a good way to get out of the house. Away from an alcoholic father. The first time the punk blacked her eye, it was Fay who picked her up, stuffing her few belongings into the hatch of that copper Toyota Corolla she’d named ‘Penny.’ Despite the short duration of their union, the skate punk—they’d taken to calling him Lenny, as a tribute to Steinbeck—left her with a lasting gift.
            Abortion number two.
            And again, Fay acting as chauffer. Thankfully, she didn’t judge. Or so it appeared, until their first blowout.  It’s then Fay spilled the beans, setting the halls of John Burroughs buzzing with juicy gossip. Even then, Joan knew it boiled down to jealousy. There was a reason she’d been able to steal Ryan Herco and all those other boys. She hadn’t even tried. Tits, she knew, went a long way.
            The gossip mill was excruciating to endure. But thankfully Joan’s alcoholic father took her back, even rented a small apartment for her down the block from him so she could finish out her senior year. Not at Burroughs, of course—too painful. At ROTC. Night School. The equivalency exam would be as good as a diploma—better, maybe—at getting her into college. At night school, the time investment was minimal, the gossip less eviscerating.
            Years later, completing her degree in botany, she met Hugh. Withholding ancient history did not feel like deception; everyone had a past. And his willful turning of a blind eye was pure grace, his gift. Or maybe it was just that denial was an essential ingredient in any relationship. If she harbored any secrets back then, it was the fear she’d wrecked her body. She didn’t just fear it, she knew it, in every cell of her being. All that poking around—all that prodding and snipping and scraping—so much like the shearing of a perfect rose, had done irreversible damage.
            Which is why Renee came as such a surprise.
            Since she couldn’t name the boy second chance, she chose Renee. Reborn.
            She didn’t mean to invest everything in him; after all, the poor guy was nothing more than dividing cells, however miraculous.
            Hugh, she’d later learn, only feigned enthusiasm. Transitioning a PHD into a lucrative private practice was work, and all-consuming sacrifice. As much as he never wanted to be that guy—the one who blames his family for dropped-like-a-hot-potato dreams—he’d end up trading private practice for research. Allowing Joan her dream.
            In the same way Renee represented a second chance all those years ago, Joan knows this weekend is no different. Like a dying rose, their marriage is on life support. Sucking up stagnant, tepid water while waiting to die.
            But she knows the downside of second chances, of investing too much in a thing; instead of seizing the opportunity to resurrect their relationship, the weekend is to be a ‘last hurrah.’ One last fond memory before signing the papers on Monday.
            The appointment’s already made.

            Joan hasn’t said much, since berating him. Just stared out the window at passing wine country.
            Hugh knows the drill: let her decompress. Don’t say a word.
            He steals a look when her gaze drifts to the passing terrain. Her eyes are glazed; could be the vineyards she’s tracking, or the neat rows of cedar trees roadside, or just the pavement itself, whooshing by like so many fleeting memories. He wishes she could be her former self, but what remains is still beautiful. Her essence is in there somewhere, behind the brown eyes, so dark as to be pupilless, in the pale skin that makes her seem fragile and strong at the same time, in the sinewy neck so full of grace.
            It takes nothing out of him to give her space to decompress. He’ll never give up gently trying to sway her, though. He knows how things work. Just this afternoon at the research center—Cowell Center for the Study of Epigenetics, a breakthrough only further confirmed what he’s been saying forever: in a nutshell, we have the power to create our own reality. The means to alter our own brain chemistry, the one we’ll pass on to our children. The results of habits and lifestyle choices, even neglected depression, become encoded on our DNA and passed on. Methyl groups, they’re called, the agents that account for the expression or repression of genetic traits. We can change them through active visualization. She may think the mantras and affirmation are corny, but eventually, they stick.
             He also knows the power of a change of scenery. For brain plasticity. Which is why the weekend away is such a great idea. When The Dolaks said they were coming to France to celebrate their son’s graduation, the reunion was a no-brainer. And the past few years, other than coming up to buy the boat and stick it in the boathouse, they’ve hardly gotten any use out of ‘Le Destin.’ In fact, he’s been considering listing the getaway with a rental agency for extra cash.
            For the moment, it’s all theirs. And not a moment to soon. It’ll be just the thing to jumpstart her—them—to get their relationship off life support once and for all.

20 years previous:     

            “It originated here.” The arson investigator points to a telltale but cryptic smear of soot vaguely resembling the shroud of Turin.
            “It spread from there,” he explains, tracing the ghosted outline of cardboard boxes that have been annihilated but remain imprinted on aggregate-speckled concrete, like the shadows of Hiroshima victims.
            Hugh nods, pushing down the lump in his throat. Man, these guys know their stuff.
            The investigator has been friendly enough. And professional, making sure not to implicate anyone: accidents happen; he’s seen it plenty of times. But Hugh knows it’s common decency that compels the man to tread lightly. Considering the evening’s loss.
            “Linseed oil is highly flammable under the right conditions,” the man explains. “But those conditions are very specific. The trick is laying the rags to air out flat, with plenty of ventilation. Or to store them in an airtight container. The double-whammy here is they were trapped in a confined space with ventilation. The perfect storm.”
            Hugh considers the impossibility of it—spontaneous combustion—the sheer number of circumstances that had to align like puzzle pieces to result in such an act of God. When a thing is inexplicable, so willfully determined to arrange those intricate circumstances like molecules trapped in a confined space or rags in a cardboard box, reverse-engineering the chain of events is akin to fighting fate, and he knows it.
            ‘Thermal runaway,” Investigator Torrez calls that point of no return just beyond the ignition point.
            The warning’s right there on the label, Hugh thinks. He’s heard of it happening on the news—we all have—but never imagined it happening to him. If anything, it’s Miles who should have known better. He’s a frickin’ handyman, for God’s sake; why I asked him to help in the first Goddamned place. Just as quickly, Hugh curbs the mental finger pointing. Even the professional, whose job it is to be suspect of everyone—it’s right there in the title: investigator—has couched the horrific occurrence in the conventional wisdom that accidents happen.
            But when the smoke clears, when the surreal horror settles with it to aggregate-speckled concrete, Hugh’s own mantra will come back to him, the one he’s recited as long as he can remember:
            There are no accidents.

            The Peugot leaves centre ville and the only light that gives meaning to darkness, arcing into it like a stray ember. There are several more tiny, crumbling villages before Esclimont, each with a roundabout like the one that’s just nauseated the four of them before they found the right spoke.
            “I told you—we met at a café, Mom. Kitty corner from my hostel.”
            Fay leans forward in the back seat. “Tell me again; it’s so romantic!”
            Miles, sitting next to her, groans like a bear roused in winter. “Leave the poor kids alone.”
            He places a hand on Fay’s in the back seat, not because there’s romance in the air, but as a warning to go easy. To be someone other than herself.
            Daniela offered Fay Neilson the front seat back at Chez Nous, but the woman refused. False humility, Daniela knows. Falsa Umiltá, in Italian. Probably as controlling as they come.
            “Romance is lost on Miles,” Fay explains, leaning forward and confiding in Daniela’s reflection in the rear-view mirror. “Hasn’t got a romantic bone in his body. Me? I can almost smell the hot chocolate and buttered croissants. The Latin Quarter, no less!”
            Daniela smiles tersely. Then she makes a decision. I’ll throw her a bone. What could it hurt?
            “Café Bohem had such a great vibe; it’s true. Timeless, like an old salon in turn-of-the-century Prague.” That should do it, she thinks. She knows how to appease nosey parents, give them just enough to go on.
            Still, for extra measure: “Adrian looked right up at me, like we were the only ones in the place. Your son is certainly confident.”
            “Really?” Adrian smiles at her in the front seat. “Is that what you remember? Sure didn’t feel confident!”
            “Oh, yes. Cocky, some would say…”
            “First impressions are a funny thing,” Fay comments, lightening the mood just in case. She’s not familiar with their sparring; if she and Miles went at it like that, it would mean something quite different. At least their ribbing is entertaining.
            “There’s an idea that everything you need to know about a person is shown to you in the first encounter, the first moment,” Daniela offers. “It’s a microcosm.”
            “A micro-who?” Miles tends to shame others who use big words. To wear his distaste like a soiled shirt.
            Fay looks down, begins digging through her purse.
            Americans, Daniela thinks. If Adrian didn’t tell her the two attended college, she’d think otherwise.
            “A microcosm,” she repeats, as if enunciating the word percussively will make a difference in its comprehension.
            Easy, Adrian thinks. Please don’t condescend. Not yet. Until now, he’s assumed he was the sole recipient of her judgment. He was five years her junior, after all.
            “The idea,” Daniela clarifies, “Is that however a relationship will ultimately play out, whatever dynamic will be its downfall, it exhibits itself in the first interaction. Think about it.”
            Dynamic, Miles thinks. Microcosm. This is going to be a long weekend.
            After a moment, Fay leans forward again, waits for Daniela’s eyes to find hers in the rear-view mirror.
            “The premise assumes there will be an end to the relationship,” she points out. Her words are slow and methodical, neither reticent nor deliberate in their exactness. The highway ahead is free and clear, a lightless expanse of countryside unfurling to infinity. But suddenly it feels like they’re stuck in a dark tunnel, nowhere to go.
            Adrian cracks a window. She’s just being protective, he knows.
            “And anyway,” Fay goes on, “Is there ever really a single dynamic in a relationship? They’re much more complex, I would think.” There. The depth of her life experience—her twenty-plus years of doing the hard work to sustain a marriage—should trump the arrogance of youth.
            Daniela doesn’t back down. “That may well be,” she counters, “But there’s always a prevalent one.”
            “Perhaps,” Fay concedes. “But as first encounters go—” here she takes a different tack—“My understanding is there are many levels to any moment, any encounter.”
            Suddenly it’s a competition, about intellect, and Adrian, too, knows it’s going to be a long weekend.
            Daniela grabs hold of the rear-view mirror, swivels it for a more direct stare-down. Adrian’s life passes before his eyes.
            “Well,” Daniela patiently explains, as if to a five year-old, “this idea has to do with the energetic level. The most basic one. It drives everything else.”      
            The dumbed-down characterization is left hanging. Daniela knows there’s a reason the energetic level drives all. Most people are too dull, or too thick, or too American to see beyond the surface of things. PHD or not, why should Mrs. Dolak be any different? She’s just a therapist, not a practitioner. Clinical work is the bottom of the barrel.
            “With all due respect,” Fay Dolak begins, and Adrian can see the framed degree coming off the wall, “In twenty years of practicing family therapy, what’s clear to me is most people don’t have the first idea what makes them tick. The psychological level is the most elusive. The most mysterious.”
            Adrian sees his mother’s eyes compress, steely and determined. “Especially when it comes to one’s own issues. So hard to be objective.”
            Here comes the clincher, Adrian thinks. He squirms against leather upholstery.
            “Those who blame bad situations on something as ridiculous as protons and electrons or auras should probably take a look at their own neuroses.”
            All right, no more shop talk!” Miles shouts, not so much because he can’t contribute—he’s a man of few words and has no desire—but to head off World War Three at the pass. Fay’s eyes release the girl’s reflection, reluctantly. She opens her own compact, the one she’s been digging for, and begins primping platinum locks.
            She clears her throat, unnecessarily. “So what’s next for the two of you, then?” Her timber is pleasantly phony.
            “Dolphins!” Adrian blurts. It’s involuntary.
            “What?!” Fay cries, snapping her compact shut, as though offended by the very mention of aquatic mammals.
            “We’re going to swim with the dolphins. In Eilot.”
            He knows she means what’s next in the line of commitments or weddings or babies but something in him rebels, derailing the conversation or putting it on track.
            “Adrian’s never been,” Daniela states, taking over. Eilot’s on the Gulf of Aqaba, in Israel. You can swim with the dolphins.”
            Fay clears her throat. “I didn’t know you were licensed to scuba dive, Adrian.”
            “It’s his favorite thing,” Daniela informs Mrs. Dolak, rubbing salt in a wound. If they marry, what she’s privy to will only further trump the tip of the iceberg a mother can know.
            “The beauty of Eilot is you don’t need to be certified; you only go to a certain depth.”
            There’s silence for a long while, Fay wondering what the comment meant, Miles thinking it ain’t gonna happen on his dime and without him saying it Adrian defending himself in his mind pointing out he’s supported himself since graduation taking odd jobs hasn’t he and Fay just hoping to God this girl isn’t the one. And then, from nowhere, a tiny village appears in darkness, a swell of warm, incandescent lights. All at once, they’re circling a roundabout like the one before, and the one before that. This one has five possible directions.
            “Mom, get out that map. Please.” Adrian insists. Fay wrestles with the unruly folding map she’s been given by the concierge, while Adrian squints through the windshield at the dull glare of headlights skimming their possible destinations. It’s excruciating, circling endlessly, decoding each exit and comparing it to the crumpled map to make sure they take the right one.
            “We need Limours. The next exit is Limours.”
            Each spoke taunts with grim possibilities; only one will put them on the right track to Esclimont, and Le Destin.

            They’ve been on the right track for a good seven minutes, gliding slowly and steadily through darkness, when Daniela breaks the silence.
            “The water is where Adrian has always felt the most comfortable.”

            Adrian and Daniela are in line at Starbucks. Adrian’s got highway hypnosis, and jetlag is catching up with the Dolaks. Fay and Miles are picking up a thank you card for the Neilsons at the papeterie next door, while the younger couple do caffeine duty.
            “Can’t believe you’re going to give your money to the man. When there are so many great mom and pop joints.”           
            “Not on this stretch. I’m afraid corporate franchises are our only option.”
            He knows she’s making small talk. He’s thought about bringing up the Neilsons and clarifying his earlier, cryptic bomb, but decided he’d only be digging deeper. And truth be told, he’s too tired for anything but small talk. The women are at each other’s throats, for God’s sake. He’s always overestimated people.
            “Well, I’ll abide Starbucks just this once,” she concedes. “But let it be noted your capitalist ways are taking over my Europe,” she gripes good-humoredly, knowing he feels the same way. When she laments the appearance of not one but two McDonalds’ in Venice’s celebrated Piazza San Marco, he points out with a sigh, “well, at least they refrained from the telltale golden arches.”
            She sighs louder. “They’d never fly in Italy. They’d never stand for it.”
            It’s bad enough her espresso will be bland and tasteless. She knows it will have no bite, only vaguely resembling the resinous, brooding elixir downed, while standing, by well-dressed Italian businessmen back home. It’ll be homogenous, generic, obvious.
            “You can’t blame capitalism for everything,” Adrian defends. “You can’t blame Amerka for all the word’s ills! Things are changing all over; it’s a much smaller planet than it used to be…”
            It’s then that Adrian notices it—the low-level hum that’s hung in the air since they entered. It’s discordant, grating. A customer’s double chocolate chunk brownie is ready in the microwave; the grating sound is not an alarm but a timer, signaling its readiness. More disturbing than the low-decibel dissonance is the fact that no one notices it. It’s constant, anxiety producing, and suddenly all Adrian can hear, but it remains unnoticed by all: the flunky barista in the paper hat, the prepubescent, acne-prone manager, the screaming toddlers and their yuppie parents and the tourists loaded down with gear headed for the Pyrennes.
            “Do you hear that?”
            Of course she does.
            “I can’t take it anymore.”

            Adrian suddenly wishes he was underwater somewhere, floating gently in an invisible current, swathed lovingly by impeccable silence.

“Say something.”
            “To the manager. He’s right there.”
            “They’ll figure it out—let’s just go!”
            She nudges him back into the line his body would kill or die to escape.
            “My head is about to explode,” he groans, wondering what it means that no one’s bothered by the constant noise pollution. Customers continue yapping on their cell phones, competing with the frequency unknowingly.
            At a corner table, a woman changes a diaper.

            Joan scrapes. She scrapes so hard Hugh hears it from the library. Stale brie clings stubbornly to her best china; she wonders now why she bothered breaking it out.
            “Scrape a little harder, dear.” Hugh’s appeared in the kitchen door.
            She ignores him. It’s bad enough she planned the perfect dinner and timed it impeccably and now the Coq au Vin will be dry and overcooked. But the crackers are stale and the brie likely tastes more like the contents of the stuffy room than anything resembling cheese. Finally, the bulk of the residue has joined the graveyard of crackers atop the garbage in the plastic-lined receptacle. She shoves it beneath the tiled counter with her hip.
            “Have they called?” She demands.
            “Not since five minutes ago, dear.”
            Joan groans audibly. “She’s always been this way. She likes to appear so…put together…but she’s never been capable of being on time. It’s all that primping.”
            “I doubt it, dear. They’re not used to driving in the country. Remember our first trip out here? To meet the realtor?”
            Even during the day, the roundabouts had them at one another’s throats the entire drive. When they arrived, an hour late, the realtor was locking up. On seeing their exasperated appearance, she let them in. Even now, the memory is painful.
            “Don’t you remember the time Fay made us late for the christening? Or the time she made up that food poisoning excuse?”
            Joan’s been rehashing anecdotes the whole time she’s been scraping. Amassing ammunition.
            “Sweetheart,” Hugh whispers, edging closer, wishing he could talk her off the ledge. “That was twenty years ago. They’re our best friends.
            Hugh takes the knife from her clenched fist, counting his blessings it’s a butter knife, and lays it gently on the counter.
            “Shouldn’t we be reminiscing about the good times? We’ve done nothing but miss them since we left the states.”
            “I know,” Joan sighs, softening just a bit.
            She tries her hardest to breathe, to turn her mind to the affinity of the past. They were inseparable before the move, the four of them. She and Joan were like sisters, even before the men came into the picture. And when they did, Joan took to calling Miles ‘the other man,’ the two friends spent so much time together.
            “A few thousand miles—one little ocean—doesn’t change anything,” Hugh reassures her.
            She nods. Inside, she knows he’s right. It’s not geographic distance that changes things; it’s time. As life has its way with you, ­it skews your perception of the past. Turns lemonade back into lemons.
            “I want to have a good time this weekend. I really do.”
            Hugh looks her in the eye, raising a perfectly manicured hand to caress her cheek. She bristles, then does her best to relax. To breathe.
            “Then go into it with that intention, dear. Nothing is that important. Not even Coq au Vin.”
            She almost laughs.
            He raises her chin, placing baby kisses on her still pouting lips, her fluttering eyelids, her brow. Finally, it relaxes.
            “If you want something to work, you’ve got to go into it with the right expectations…”
            Oh, Lord. She feels a parable coming, some trite allegory from one of those self-help books he hoards, claiming they’re work-related. From ‘The Secret,” or “The Power of Now,” or worse, Deepak Choprah. Something about if you want your dream lover to appear what are you doing with a single bed or if you want Santa to come you’ve got to put out a stocking or something equally inane but claiming to be of unknown eastern origin.
            “Agreed,” she says, heading him off at the pass. “In a worse case scenario, we’ll have that frozen pizza in the back of the freezer.”
            “There you go.”        

            Without city lights to shroud them, the heavens sprawl from horizon to horizon, more prominent than the black expanse beneath it that’s supposed to be solid, tangible. The countryside is flat. Too flat, Fay thinks. As flat as that girl’s chest. Yoga can firm up thighs or buttocks or even bingo arm, but when it comes to breasts, you either have them or you don’t. That girl’s flat as a London choirboy.
            Fay’s mind is going mile-a-minute in an attempt to fill the deathly quiet of the cab. The four have been riding in tight-lipped silence since the last roundabout where they called the Neilsons.  Now Fay’s mind turns to formulating the perfect narrative; if the map is correct, she’s got four or five miles to finesse their excuse. Something about Paris traffic and not being able to make it out before it got really bad and then there was the roundabouts. She wonders if she can fabricate something about a road closure. She’s mortified, to say the least. It’s not like her at all. She even feels badly about it, truth be told. But the perfect excuse is apologetic without offering ammunition.
            Who’s she to judge me, anyway? Fay protests in her mind, as if Joan’s already accused her of something. Did I judge her the first time she got knocked up, or the second?
            Fay’s back there suddenly, in that Toyota corolla with the horrid copper paint job, driving Joan to the clinic. Not saying a word. Just being there for her friend. Rescuing her. Without holding it over her head or saying a word.
            Only to strangers.
            And how does she repay me? By flirting with my husband all these years, as if tits alone were enough to get his attention. If she only knew.
            Joan’s whole life’s been spent sweeping shame under the rug, overcompensating. Landing a guy like Hugh she clearly doesn’t deserve and keeping him in the dark. It’s his money that affords her the luxury of that hobby of hers, the one she calls a talent. Who couldn’t arrange a few flowers? It’s a trade and nothing more. She thinks she wants what I’ve got but if she only knew what it is to be married to a guy like Miles, always with dirt under the fingernails.  To be starved for some kind, any kind, of intellectual stimulation. She’s got it right there at home and takes it for granted. There’s nothing more arrogant than entitlement.
            Joan Neilson’s never been grateful for what she’s got.
            The thought formulates as distinctly as the galaxies that smolder outside the windows of the rental car. She doesn’t just mean the tits, or the guys that threw themselves at her or the aborted babies; she means him. Renee. She just doesn’t know it.
            Despite the PHD, Fay Dolak’s therapist’s eye has always proved less keep when looking in the mirror.
            The spray of gravel yields to the soothing grind of well-manicured cement; the circular driveway of El Destin hugs the tires of the rental car, carrying it in no time to the well-lit porch.
            They’ve arrived.

            “Please, park right in front!” Hugh says through the open car window, squeezing Adrian’s hand with genuine affection. He won’t mention how the boy’s grown, how he was knee-high to a grasshopper last time they saw one another. The rental car’s idling in front of the sprawling porch, in the circular gravel drive that separates the French provincial cottage from a sloping, grassy hill and the lake at the bottom.
            Even at night, in scant moonlight, it’s charming.
            “It’ll be easier to unload here,” Hugh explains. Besides, the carport’s got a tenant at the moment.
            He’s referring to his latest acquisition. His latest toy.

            The Coq au Vin is not a total loss.
            Joan’s apologized profusely throughout dinner, her guests reassuring her each time the meal is pure heaven. Adrian wouldn’t know; his meals in Aix-en-Provence consisted of jambon et fromage and pale ale. Since, Daniela’s got him eating vegan, so it’s most often organic produce picked up at the local farmer’s market and prepared in their tiny flat. He wouldn’t know Moule Frite from entrecote from duck liver paté.
            All he knows is that he’s queasy. No matter how tasty the cuisine, his guts would be still be churning from all the stress—the burdensome feeling he’s responsible for everyone else’s good time.  Speaking fluent French, he was the one to rent the voiture d’occasion and insist on driving, the one to discern centre ville from main street at every last roundabout. Nerve wracking, to say the least. Not to mention they nearly ran out of gas—tiny fucking tanks and no fucking stations d’essence in the country—and drove fifty kilos clutching the upholstery in silent prayer.  The requisite anxiety of that episode aside, the sickening feeling of responsibility comes with the knowledge it’s his graduation they’re celebrating; he’s agreed to it without a second thought.
            Adrian often overestimates people.
            The tension has diffused somewhat; in the car it was stifling, like being stuffed in an airtight box with nowhere to go. In the dining room of Le Destin, it’s only mildly oppressive, like the muck of afterbirth or the coating of soot after a fire.
            “How’s the flower shop?” Fay asks Joan over dessert—chocolate mousse. “What’s the name, again?”
            “Les Vivants,” Joan reminds her. “And it’s—you know—same old, same old. You’ve seen one corsage, you’ve seen them all!”
            Fay knows Joan’s being falsely modest, that she thinks highly of her own talent.
            “I’m sure your arrangements are stunning,” she exclaims.
            “Baby’s breath,” Joan sighs, scraping the last bit of mousse from inside of a fluted dessert cup. “They always want baby’s breath.”
            She looks suddenly far away, seems to be vainly searching for something at the bottom of her cup. In that moment, in the remote expression that makes Joan seem lost as much as anything, Fay sees the girl she once knew. The one with whom she skipped class and giggled in the girls’ restroom while puffing on clove cigarettes, before time and resentments stole fondness away.
             “I think what you’re doing is wonderful,” she says. The others turn, catching the genuine affection in her voice. “You’re creating beauty. Every day. And what a gift to your customers whether you know it or not. You’re offering them hope, or beauty or…promise  for one more day.”
            There’s a long silence. Joan stops scraping, looks almost injured.
            Fay really didn’t mean it to be hurtful.
            “So nice to be away from it all,” Hugh sighs, shifting the topic of conversation. “Listen…”
            Through open windows, a chorus of crickets can be heard on the otherwise soundless vacuum of night.
            “So nice to be out of the city,” he goes on, “Away from the lab.”
            “What do you do, Hugh?” Daniela wants to know.
            “I’m in research. Epigenetics. Have you heard of it?”
            Daniela looks astonished at the coincidence: “I just read an article about the latest breakthroughs in Popular Science.”
            “Then you must have read about Hugh,” Joan points out. “He’s at the forefront!”
            Hugh looks down humbly, suddenly interested in the bottom of his own dessert cup. “I’m not exactly the grandfather of epigenetics, but I will be on the pages of Popular Science. Hopefully soon. We’re on the cusp of proving what I’ve thought for a long time.”
            “And what’s that?” Daniela prompts, leaning forward and resting her chin on an eager fist.
            Miles sighs audibly.
            “Well, the premise of Epigenetics is that our DNA, as it turns out, is not set in stone. That we have control over the expression or suppression of traits. By repeating certain behaviors or mindsets during our own lifespans, an enormous part of who we are becomes encoded on the DNA strand, and therefore passed on. In essence, we create ourselves.”
            “Fascinating, isn’t it?” Daniela looks around the table at the others. Then she turns back to Hugh with an encouraging look, his cue to continue.
            Miles tosses his spoon so it spins to a riotous stop in his fluted dessert cup.
            “The problem,” Miles continues, “Is that until now studies have attributed the changes to Methyl Groups that squelch or trigger the expression of genes. Tiny molecules that attach themselves. The shortsighted, empirical contributors researches have focused on—it’s typical—are things like diet, exercise, exposure to chemicals or drugs. But my team is taking it a step further: those chemicals include the ones our own bodies create, and the most important ones in creating our reality: neurotransmitters. The implications are enormous! The chemical balances in our own brains are up to us. And therefore, so is our reality!”
            “That’s exactly what the article was saying!” Daniela enthuses. “Not only can a tendency toward depression be created within a person’s lifetime and passed on if left neglected, but so can a positive, productive thought process!”
            “Rose colored glasses,” Miles contributes. It’s all he’ll contribute.
            It’s here that Fay jumps in, unwilling or unable to be left out: “In psychology, we speak of ‘familiar neuropathways.’ Comfortable thought patterns that include negative messages about the self, even misapprehension about the world. They can be rewired.”
            “Through mantras and affirmations.” Hugh nods emphatically, thrilled to be unexpectedly surrounded by likeminded intellectuals.
            “Or through meditation,” Daniela adds. “In yoga practice we speak of limiting the mental chatter—”
            “Creating alpha waves,” Fay rewords.
            “—as a means of rewiring. Creating the space for new neuropathways.” Daniela grins smugly.
            “Yes, yes,” Fay sighs, as if the concept is old hat, and tiresome. “Brain plasticity, it’s called.” There. She’s turned the tables again.
            Miles gets up, his chair groaning irritably on Spanish tile, and throws his dish in the sink.
            “Have you ever seen the documentary, ‘What the bleep?’” Daniela asks no one in particular.
            Miles sighs louder than before; the grandstanding, the verbosity, is nowhere near finished.
            “It’s fascinating,” Daniela goes on, inciting primal fear in Miles she’s embarking on a word-for-word recap. “It talks about peptide balances. How we’re addicted to our own familiar, comfortable brain chemistry, and will maintain it at any cost. An internalized belief, that you’re a klutz, for example, will create the circumstances at a dinner party, with exact precision, that make certain you will spill a drink. It’s what makes a codependent find an alcoholic across a roomful of partygoers.”
            “I think it’s all historical,” Adrian asserts suddenly.
            The room hushes and everyone turns; he hasn’t said a word for the duration of the stimulating but competitive sharing of knowledge.
            “Historical?” Fay passes the invisible talking stick, placing her chin on patient hands as a subtle warning for Adrian to edit himself.
            “Cellular memory. DNA. We’re driven by not just the chemistry our parents have passed on—methyl groups or whatever—but forces much greater, from further back. Archetypes. They can be survival-based or instinctual—call it what you want—but they’re hardwired. You’re driven by your parents’ unfinished business, yes, but also your grandfathers’ baggage before that, and the dreams of his grandfather, and his grandfather, by your culture and your tribe and so much that’s invisible.”
            “That’s lovely,” Fay says, and she means it. “It makes sense, being such a gifted writer, that you see it that way. In terms of archetypes. I’m sure it makes for colorful characters in your…stories.”
            “It’s a novel, Mom.” Here Adrian joins Miles at the sink and deposits his own glass dish among the others in the shallow basin.  “I’m writing a novel.”
                        The remaining dishes are cleared and the visitors are shown to the guest suite over the garage-turned-boathouse. It consists of two adjacent rooms, impeccably decorated but rather small, that share a wash closet.

            Daniela’s settling in, folding garments from her travel bag and placing them in the small Versailles dresser in their guest room. Adrian’s crashed on the twin bed, spent.
            “He seems so educated...”
            For an American, Adrian knows is the conclusion of the sentence. She’s still on Hugh.
            “Why? Because he can hold a conversation?”
            “Joan, too. She’s quite refined.”
            Adrian knows she’s implying a direct contrast with his parents and feels the need to defend. Coq au Vin may not be her specialty, but his mom’s no slouch.
            “Hugh comes from money,” Adrian enlightens Daniela, as though the fact explains everything from the PHD to the boat to the stuffy library off the kitchen with its mahogany chair rails and saddle brown cigar chairs.
            She shakes the folds out of a crumpled blouse and refolds it, meticulously. “It doesn’t just take money to finish out a PHD. It takes follow-through. Discipline.”
            “So discipline and follow through are a sign of intelligence.”
            “Some people operate on the pleasure principle,” she educates him. “While others are capable of delayed gratification.”
            On the chance she’s just reduced his father to a lower primate, Adrian reminds her the two men were college buddies, however their paths would end up diverging, however differently their lives would turn out.
            “They were both biology majors,” Adrian reminds her, knowing he doesn’t have to defend, but doing exactly that. What’s missing in his father is not genetic; what’s missing is nothing more than privilege.
            “Hugh didn’t even declare pre-med until later. ‘Till after Dad had already earned his BA and married mom. I’m the reason he didn’t take his education any further.”
            Daniela eases the top drawer closed, stands over the bed. “So you were a surprise, too?”
            Here, she seats herself on the edge of the bed, strokes the perfect configuration of blonde hairs on Adrian’s bronzed calf.
            “Their happy accident. Their poor little, unwanted, perfect happy accident!”
            She needles him in the ribs, and the two fall into a full tousle, entangling themselves in white linen sheets.
            Adrian’s got a good sense of humor about the whole thing, always has. From the moment he forced his mom to say the word—unwanted—in family therapy after putting two and two together, connecting the distance he felt with his father’s resentment, even suspicion, of him, to the realization, in every cell of his being, that he hadn’t been touched or held enough early on and ‘bonding’ had failed. Adrian had simply connected dots. His mom said as much, for God’s sake—casually, too—as if it hadn’t molded his entire temperament and disposition: that he was such a self-sufficient baby, never crying or needing anything, that they’d forget he was there, leaving him to meditate silently on the dolphin mobile circling over his crib. What Fay Dolak didn’t know, couldn’t know, is what remains a mystery to even Adrian—that the imposed self-sufficiency stuck, that even now it drives him toward isolation. Whether peptides or familiar neurocircuits or something energetic, more soul level and basic like Daniela would say, it would always beckon him back, like a magnet, from any arrogant notion we can escape our makeup and create ourselves—the hubris in even trying—toward destiny, which (and this he does know) is really just returning to our essence.

            Miles drapes an arm around his wife’s bare midsection, caresses porcelain skin rimmed with steely moonlight. The cot creaks irritably, its groan amplified by the stucco walls of the tiny but charming guest suite over the Neilsons’ makeshift boathouse. Linen sheets entangle them like a squall on the high seas, undulating folds peaking in moon-drenched crests. Her upper body is exposed, breaking the tide like a buoy. Why shouldn’t he reach out, trace the rim of fickle moonlight with callused fingers?
            The cot groans with a shift of Mile’s formidable weight, louder this time.
            “Shhhhhh,” she warns, irritability swathed in a nervous giggle. “They’ll hear us.”
            It’s not the Neilsons she’s worried about; their own son and his—whatever she is—share a similarly flimsy cot on the other side of the thin adobe wall.
            Needless to say, responding to his touch would be bad form.
            Miles knows it’s more and less than that; she’s always cold as ice when he’s around, spouting Shakespeare or some shit. Always the cold shoulder. Like he doesn’t exist. He’s even showered in the adjacent wash closet. At her urging, of course. The light musk that’s remained should be a selling point. She used to like it, he thinks.
            He could take what he wants, he knows. Her flesh is as much his as the old Chevy he’s been tinkering around with. After all, they took a vow.
            “Is it true what that girl said?” Fay whispers suddenly. “About first impressions?”
            “What about them?” His mind is a steel sieve. “Remind me.”
            “That everything you need to know about a person parades itself in the first moment? Is that true in our case?”
            Miles wades back in time, to the first moment the two of them met. Junior year of high school. The bustling halls of John Burroughs were thinning, their classmates dashing off to beat the tardy bell. Errant papers littered the linoleum corridor between the auditorium and the bungalows devoted to production of the school newspaper. But it all disappeared for Miles—the swirling papers caught in the wake of delinquent youth, the gum-slathered, banged up lockers, even the square of bleached out light that rendered the hall dim and muddled by comparison. Their eyes locked, the way he remembers it, and there was no mistaking the smolder she did her best to disguise. He did not approach her until later; it’s not that he lacked confidence—only the right words. The look they shared would be enough to seal the deal until later, he knew.
            After tearing herself away and ducking into room 320 (he’d followed her there and stood waiting, wordlessly) the tardy bell sounded like an ear-splitting, blood-curdling reminder of the importance of time. Of sticking to a schedule. Of socialization.
            As if in defiance of it, he decided to be late for class, and ducked into the restroom at the top of the three hundred hall. They hadn’t exchanged a single word, but he whacked off to her all the same.
            When he reminds her of the fact, she groans.
            “I don’t think of that as our first exchange. Our first encounter.”
            For her it’s their first date, a week later. He scraped together enough money to take her to dinner at Bobby McGee’s, no small task when your part-time job is ringing up carburetors at an auto parts store on Magnolia Boulevard. He picked her up in the Chevy Capri he’d saved up to buy; thankfully it didn’t backfire in front of her house. They had a pleasant enough time, in her estimation, however stilted and silent. They exchanged a total of ten or so words over dinner, opting instead to cover the white paper tablecloth with inane scrawlings, using the Crayola crayons stuffed in a bathtub-shaped porcelain martini glass for that very purpose. When a throng of servers at last approached their table, serenading the couple at the top of their lungs, they were rescued from excruciating silence. The song Miles had picked out and secretly commissioned was ‘At Last,’ for no good reason at all. In four-part harmony, it sounded quite different from the version he’d heard on his parent’s warbly  phonograph.
            The servers, costumed as a pauper, a court jester, a medieval king and a wench, respectively, appeared from the kitchen bearing a tiny lump of green spumoni on an enormous tray. A birthday candle had been lodged in the amorphous lump, despite the fact it was no one’s birthday. When they came to a halt at the young couples’ table, the spumoni continued, diving from its elevated platform to the floor in a single leap.
            The servers continued their rendition of the incongruous jazz tune, gathering around the tiny dessert as though eulogizing a downed kamikaze pilot.
            “So what was our dynamic?” Fay speculates, twenty-plus years later.
            “No idea,” Miles confesses. Shouldn’t be any surprise to her that his head’s about to explode, despite ruminating on it the whole time she’s been rehashing the memory.
            He knows she’s thinking the worst. Thinking how charming it was he had so little to say—only a grunt here and there. How her attraction was undeniable but more physical, how she’d rather have been with the preppy pseudo-intellectual at the next table, or even the spectacled assistant manager who stopped by to see how things were going.
            The overcompensation was unexamined when he fucked her in the parking lot, that first night.
            “I don’t see much significance in it either,” Fay lies, rolling further away from him. “That girl’s theory doesn’t hold water.”
            The truth is, Fay Dolak sees something grim in all the randomness, something that settles in the pit of her stomach like an anchor. “Even so, that girl’s got to go. I’ve no idea what Adrian sees in her.”
            For once, Miles is not short on words. “His mommy?”
            There’ a momentary silence, a silence of creaking bedsprings and overly-conducive walls that magnify.
            “What?!” Fay stiffens, considers sitting up. But the idea is too loaded, too absurd, to pursue.
            “Well, be that as it may, she’s got to go, one way or another. She’s not the one…”

            “Are you awake?” Daniela whispers.
            Adrian’s crashed next to her. He’s been drained by all the responsibility, by absorbing everyone’s stress like a sponge.
            Stupid Americans, Daniela thinks, left to stew without a sounding board. Doesn’t she fucking know these walls are paper-thin?

­            Adrian wakes with a start, in the wee hours. Her leg’s been going for an hour, and he’s heard it in his dream: the scarcely audible but constant chirping of bedsprings. He can’t tune things out lately.
            “What’s bothering you?” He whispers. He knows letting things go is not her strong point.
            “I want to like your mom. I really do.”
            Daniela knows it hasn’t helped matters that she’s been picturing all kinds of things, the least grim of them being the woman pushing Joan down a flight of stairs.
            “ I have to know,” she admits. “How did Joan lose the baby?”
            “It wasn’t a miscarriage,” Adrian sighs, realizing he was right and the narrative has morphed in the absence of details, so much like cracks in a foundation.
            “What, then?” she insists.
             Adrian sighs, louder this time. “His name was Renee,” he starts out. He never talks about it; it’s like walking on brand new legs. “He’d be my age.”
            The witching hour is suddenly deathly quiet.  The only thing punctuating the unerring silence is the gentle, nearly imperceptible flapping of the synthetic shears.
            “The baby was lost in a fire.”

Twenty years earlier…
            The colonial beach house is sealed up tight as a drum. Scant beams of speckled light penetrate a stale interior, vaguely defining eclectic furnishings: a wingback chair, a pedestal table, an Ottoman. When keys jangle the front door open, it’s the lean silhouette of a young Hugh Neilson that appears on the threshold, skidding across blonde hardwood.
            “C’mon, guys!” he calls over a shoulder, and without further invitation all are crossing the threshold, arms loaded with luggage and beachwear and babies.
            “Beautiful!” Fay cries, her jubilant voice reverberating off a coved ceiling. She bounces Adrian on a jutted-out hip while Miles hefts their luggage into the empty foyer.
            “It’s even cuter than you described it!” Fay exclaims, turning to Joan. “Love the white! So suited to the ocean!”
            Everything’s white: the walls, the moldings and chair rails, even the shears that now breathe into the hermetically-sealed interior, fluttering and tinged with brine.
            “A bit stale,” Hugh remarks, “But it’ll clear out in no time…”
            Joan sidles next to Fay on the polished wood floor, bouncing her own infant. The babies are indistinguishable in age but polar in appearance, Renee swarthy and thick with a full head of hair, Adrian finer-featured and towheaded and angelic. The women have considered the timing fortuitous—from the sharing of pregnancy woes and maternity wear to the secret swapping of not-quite-right gifts the week both babies were born, to the comforting thought the two boys will grow up together. Maybe they’d even turn out to be as close as the two of them. And why shouldn’t they be on the same schedule? Even their cycles synchronized in junior high; should conception be any different?
            The weekend away is their first since bringing the babies home from the hospital; they’re more than big enough now, at five months, to venture out into the world. And the break from bottles and formulas and diaper changing is long overdue. Not that there won’t be plenty of it this weekend, but changing a stinky diaper to the sound of crashing waves is altogether a sublime prospect.
            “We need this,” Joan convinced her friend.
            Fay had clutched the bassinette all the way home from Saint Mary’s maternity ward, as though every car on the freeway was intent on crashing into their used Eclipse. For the first two weeks, she’d not allowed visitors to the house, considered them walking petri dishes. When she finally did have visitors, they were asked to wear hospital masks.
            Joan knew her controlling nature well. Convincing Fay to lighten up and step out for the weekend was the best thing Joan could do for her friend. She’d be saving her from herself.
            “Thank your parents for us, please, Hugh,” Fay says for the third time in an hour.
            “Don’t think twice about it,” Hugh shirks. “They’ve been spending all their time at the place in Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve nearly forgotten this little corner of heaven exists! They’ll be thrilled we’re here!”
            Halfway through Saturday afternoon, the elder Neilsons’ charity goes up in a puff of smoke.
            “They’re going to murder me!” Hugh cries when he sees the scratches.
            The immaculate blonde wood floors have been not just scuffed, but deeply scored—lacerated, right there in the foyer.
            “It’s the first thing they’ll see! Shit!”
            The portable crib the boys have been sharing has somehow scooted itself across the flawless grain—never mind how. Could have been Renee or Adrian, or both in cahoots, both having recently discovered the joys of standing on rubbery legs and bouncing while clinging to the crib’s railing.
            “No worries,” Miles assures Hugh. “ I know how to do spot repairs. They got hardware stores in Nantucket?”
            That’s how it goes down—the gentle stripping of planks over Saturday afternoon, the sanding, deep enough to remove the scoring but not so deep as to give them away, the stain cunningly applied to match. In the end, the men agree, no one will be the wiser.
            The women prepare dinner in the kitchen while Miles and Hugh clean up the foyer.
            “Thanks for the expertise,” Hugh says, “I’m just not handy—all there is to it.”
            He eyes the banged-up can of linseed oil, the broken stir sticks and the wadded newspaper and the rags.
            “Should we hide the evidence?” Hugh smirks. “ Put it in the garage so this place can air out?”
            “Sure,” Miles agrees. “When we head out we’ll throw it in the back. Look for a dumpster on the way home.”
            “Hurry up and get into a clean shirt,” Fay nags from the kitchen door. “Dinner’s ready!” Two years into the marriage, Miles is well aware of his wife’s controlling nature, her obsession with appearance. Keeps him on his toes. What he hasn’t the foresight to know is it will only worsen with time.
            “Yes, dear.” He kicks it into high gear.
            Boxes are thrown into darkness beyond the rolling door of the boardwalk-level garage. Fay rounds the corner of the garage, folding a checkered blanket. The sun is setting to the west; what’s visible over the Atlantic is charged with a deep, fiery crimson.
            “We’re eating on the beach so we can catch the sunset,” she announces. Won’t it be heaven?”
            “I thought the boys were napping,” Miles says.
             The crib’s been moved to the empty room above the garage; it’s carpeted with nothing to scuff. The room’s been converted to an impromptu nursery.
            “They are napping,” Fay says. “I told Joan to turn on the baby monitor. And we’ll be right…here!” She indicates a patch of sand several yards past the boardwalk, begins spreading the checkered blanket.
            “Plus, that whole downstairs needs to air out.”
            “I like the relaxed model,” Miles teases, grabbing her about the waist and planting kisses on her. It’s like she’s flaunting some newfound devil-may-care attitude, and he likes it.
            After dinner, the four sprawl out on the checkered blanket, taking in the heavens. Miles has lit up a joint and passed it around, something they haven’t done since college. They’re on their backs, all four of them, lost in the chartless roadmap of the Milky Way.
            “It’s amazing how small the stars make you feel,” Joan editorializes. “In the city, you’re not even aware of them. They’re invisible.  But you get out and away, just a bit, and they’re impossible to ignore. Like they’re trying to tell you something! Remind you how small you are.”
            “You’re stoned,” someone says.
            A shooting star catches the attention of all four, like a stray spark that’s escaped a forest of burning embers and forged its own route.
            Miles sits up suddenly. “Do you smell that?”
            Fay’s hand reaches instinctively for her purse, for the baby monitor.

            Hugh paces in circles, shaking his head, shaking the horror from stiff fingers like stubborn ash. He’s got to get it out of his system. It’s not real—none of it is real.
            The coroner’s van has peeled away, kicking up sand and disappearing with the charred baby and any recognizable past. Even the arson investigator has tucked the inconclusive clipboard under an arm and left; what remains is unfamiliar—scorched and disfigured.
            Just beyond the yellow tape sectioning off the garage, remnants of plumbing and electrical hang in tattered shreds against a cavernous interior, inverted headstones. What’s most ominous—what Hugh wouldn’t have expected—is the melting, the indecipherable fusion of one material with the next, each with its own melting point but none exempt.  Blackened rafters and copper slip joints and long-forgotten artifacts destined for storage—all meld inextricably, anonymous in their final bubbling, surprisingly organic state. A ceramic Pixie flower vase smiles incongruously from the wreckage, miraculously untouched.
            The roiling flames have marred the plaster walls with meandering trails of soot, tributes to the horror of the last several hours.
            Incredibly, the walls are intact. It’s the ceiling that’s caved, imploding in a perfect circle as if inviting the flames to engulf the second story and the makeshift nursery, no questions asked. To climb the seashell white drapes and set Berber carpeting ablaze, to swath the cheap folding crib and—
            At least Adrian survived. Somehow. They lost theirs, and his parents will never forgive the loss of property, but the Dolaks have their angel. It’s a miracle.
            Yards away on the concrete drive, they cling to one another desperately, cradling the infant that gives meaning to their union. Joan’s rocking inconsolably, shocked wordless by the inexplicable cruelty.
            Deep down, Hugh knows his part in all of it.
            He went into the weekend with reservations. He should have told his parents they were using the beach house. To say they’re sticklers for protocol is an understatement. He should have told them. And he should have told Fay not to unfold that cheap crib right there on the perfect pine floors. When the first warning fired it was just a scratch, a microscopic, forgivable scuff or two. He shouldn’t have magnified it—that’s what a strict upbringing will do—but he remedied the gaffe all the same by accepting Miles’s help. Mistake number two. As inept as Hugh knew himself to be, as handy as Miles had always been before, Hugh should have known better. No—Miles should have known better. It’s right there on the fucking label!
            His mistake was succumbing to fear. Starting with the fear of his own parents’ wrath. He remedied the situation, but it was a Band-aid. They stuffed the evidence in a box and threw it in the dark. What was it going to do but combust?
            Hugh knows he’ll have to turn it around, starting here and now.
            The night devolves into a sleepless slugfest, a pointing of fingers and slinging of should-haves and could-haves and outright blame. After all, the coroner and the detective have gone and there’s nothing practical or efficient to be done. Nothing that will bring a dead baby back.

            Morning light penetrates ivory sheers, setting the adobe wall of the guest room alight with rose-hued ellipses. Daniela stretches, looks out onto the lake through the lightly fluttering shears. Adrian’s already awake, scrawling something in that tattered notebook at the tiny mahogany bureau next to the window.
            She plants a kiss on his neck, steps out into the hall in her nightie, headed for the wash closet shared by the two guest rooms over the boathouse.
            Fay meets her in the hallway, only partially by coincidence.
            “What do you say we start all over this morning?” she suggests. “Bury the hatchet?” Her warm smile is almost convincing.
            Based on what Daniela’s overheard the previous night, she knows the gesture is disingenuous.  Still, she shakes the woman’s outstretched hand noncommittally.
            Fay bows her head in deference, almost shamefully. “I must admit, I went into this weekend with a preconceived notion.”
            “About me?” Daniela can’t hide her alarm.
            The irony is not lost on Daniela, but she’ll wait. She’s not about to confess, even in the interest of peacemaking, that the word babykiller has been swirling about in her own head since they met on the porch of Chez Nous.
            “What kind of preconceived notion?” She asks instead. Then, to lighten the mood, “What did that little stinker tell you?” She glances toward the closed door behind which Adrian sits.
            “Let’s just say—” here fay lays a firm hand on the younger woman’s forearm “—and I’m telling you this for your own good: you may be developing a bit of a reputation. In the Marais.”
            Daniela’s arm withdraws involuntarily, causing Fay’s to drop in its absence. “Really?”
            “Yes.” Fay’s eyes narrow deliberately. “Does the term ‘couguar’ mean anything to you?”
            Daniela turns away.  “Last night was a very long night. I’ll just go freshen up, and see you at breakfast.”

            “She shouldn’t listen to gossip,” Daniela says tersely, stepping out of the plush towel Joan’s laid out in the guest lavatory. She stretches in the morning light, examining her physique in the guest room’s full-length vanity.
            Adrian’s still at the bureau. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” he says simply, brushing off her concern.
            “It’s destructive. The Four Agreements says words can be poison. And I agree.”
            Without her saying it, Adrian knows she’s talking about the age difference, though he’s baffled as to where his mom might have heard anything; certainly not from him. It’s an open topic between he and Daniela; in the beginning they even joked about it, calling him a boy toy.
            “Please, let it roll off.” And then, knowing any advice from him will irk, her being the more experienced of the two: “I’ve always had faith the truth will prevail; you’ll be understood if you wear your heart on your sleeve. And anyway, you can’t control what people say.”
            He was right; she’s irked. She’s thrown on a blouse, is now staring him down in the mirror.
            “I could not disagree more. Even the Bible says gossip is a sin, and for very good reason!  It builds reputations, narratives that are manipulated for political gain, entire mythologies that can destroy careers and lives! Spreading poison is one of our basest drives. The closest thing I know to pure evil!”
            Her one is so emphatic, the tears forming in her eyes so genuine, that Adrian’s compelled to join her near the vanity. He wraps his arms around her, rocking her gently. He’s never been the victim of gossip; know suddenly he should count his blessings.
            “Let’s go to breakfast.”

            The tiny lake at the bottom of the hill is known as ‘Le Reve,’ so named by Esclimont locals for its silvery, dreamlike surface that reflects the world faithfully, creating a perfect illusion.  The flawless replication is fleeting, illusory, but the silver surface is very real; its mercury-like appearance is the product not of faerie dust or clandestine magic, but lime. The fallen leaves of indigenous trees emit it over time, collectively infusing the still, placid waters with a silvery sheen.
            After breakfast, the illusion is marred by a gentle, disruptive breeze, and the acute ripples punctuating the surface of ‘Le Reve’ catch morning light to infinity, refracting tiny halos. Miles and Hugh make their way from the porch to the neighboring carport that overlooks the lake eagerly from atop the hill. A big breakfast has taken off the former night’s edge. A full belly always makes things better, Miles knows. Makes the world seem like a kinder place.
            Hugh approaches the massive, splintery wooden gates that serve as doors. A rusty gate latch hangs uselessly from a busted plate.
            “Joan’s been nagging me to replace that thing,” he shares. “But no one around here’s bound to break in to our little makeshift boathouse. Except maybe a jackrabbit or two. It’s really just a glorified garage, truth be told.”
            Hugh throws open the swinging doors and announces, “You’re going to love it!” It’s more of a command than a prediction.
            He doesn’t mean to show off, Miles knows. It’s in the blood. Poor guy doesn’t know any different. Miles has known the elder Dolaks for ages and knows the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
            It’s not a yacht inside the makeshift boathouse, gazing eagerly at the lake below. It’s not a sailboat either. It’s a twenty-four foot monohull deck boat with red pinstripes. A speedboat.
            “She clocks 180 on a good day,” Hugh brags. Then his shoulders slump. “When she’s running, that is…”
            Aha. Like most of Hugh’s possessions, she’s strictly for looks.
            “I’ve hardly gotten any use out of her since hauling her up here. Bought ‘er sight-on-scene. Seller demo’d her when we were there, but she’s been landlocked since our first run on the lake.”
            Miles is more worried about the trailer and hitch than the motor. Before marrying Fay, he lived in Laguna and had a boat himself. He eyes the trailer; its bunks are not long enough to give the hull good support. Miles knows a poorly supported hull can sag, leading to stress cracks. He runs callused fingers along the old, dry carpeting on the bunks, the trailer tongue and its too-small hitch.
            “You keep her on the trailer most of the time?”
            “Twenty-four, seven,” Hugh replies. “No boat house. This garage is our boathouse. We just haul her down the hill to the dock, launch from there. Or we will, anyway, once she’s running again.”
            “Glad to take a look,” Miles hears himself offer. Pure habit, like a knee-jerk reaction or a Pavlovian response.
            Still, he does have plenty of experience with boat engines—all that time in Laguna beach.
            “That’d be great,” Hugh says. “I don’t need to tell you, I’m so not handy.”
            It’s a thirty-plus year-old pattern, Hugh showing off what he’s got and then somehow inevitably putting Miles to work. Oh, it’s Miles who always offers, but the words seem to tumble out of his mouth before he’s even aware they’ve formed on his tongue. It’s no sweat off; it’s his way of showing affection, feeling useful.  
            A man-crush, Fay took to calling it when she first noticed years ago.
            Miles bristled at the time, balked at the absurd suggestion with every once of his manhood. But the third and fourth and fifth time Fay told him to have a nice fishing trip with his ‘boyfriend,’ he let it stand. If he could let the pursuit of murdering trout or a Superbowl game trump family time, she could get in a few digs. A fair trade, all in all.
            Thankfully, Fay knew better than to tease him about it in mixed company; the man-crush, imagined or not, remained ‘their little secret.’
            “What kind of tools you got?”
            Hugh looks at his watch, pointing vaguely. “Right there—the cabinet over the worktable.”
            Miles looks around for a stepladder.

            “I found it at an estate sale here in Esclimont; I knew you’d love it the moment I saw it.”
            “So charming,” Fay agrees, not just earnest but brimming with an enthusiasm she hasn’t felt in a long while.
            Hugh flips through the sturdy pages of the enormous tome, steadying it for them both to see. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, its spine reads.
            A shared love of the written word has long been their bond; Fay’s touched by the gesture. Her delicate fingers trace the corrugated cover, the sensuous tactility of the slightly yellowed paper. “They really don’t make them like this anymore! Look at the hand binding, the ribbed spine. Amazing. Not to mention hand-tipped illustrations!”
            It’s from turn-of-the-century, at least; glossy illustrations from a variety of sources are tipped in to complement the soliloquies and three act plays.
            Hugh flips considerately through page after page of archaic, poetic prose, fingers nearly trembling at the thought she’s seeing them through his eyes. But she’s not tracing the blocks of type; she’s admiring his hands, how even a sinewy brown finger can denote intelligence, or a hairline just beginning to go silver, a stern jowl or a tragic brow cleaved by the most delicate furrow.
            He’s reached the center of the book. “Take a look at this,” Hugh prompts, enthusiasm bordering on giddiness.
            A full color illustration spans the gutter; it folds out to epic proportions.

“Dear Lord,” Fay sighs, taking in the image emblazoned on thick, quality paper.
            It’s Waterhouse’s rendition of Ophelia, the perfect accompaniment to the Hamlet section.
            “This has always been my favorite painting, hands down!” Fay marvels. Her eyes could explore the painting’s haunting details for the rest of time.
            Ophelia is submerged, gazing up from stagnant waters, her eyes fixed on some incomprehensible point far beyond the water’s surface. Her flaxen hair swims in levitating strands, waltzing with lily pads and the rigid stalks of lifeless willows. Her white gown is equally lyrical, animated by an invisible current. Full, youthful cheeks are flushed with surrender, rosebud lips relaxed in death.

            There is a willow grows aslant the brook,” Hugh reads, tracing the text with a sinewy finger.

            She joins in, the two of them navigating blocks of type in unison, as though reading is necessary and neither knows the words like his own soul:

There’s a willow grows aslant in the brook that shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream; therewith fantastic garlands did she make of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples that the liberal shepherds did give a grosser name, but our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.

Fay skips ahead. “This is my favorite passage by far,” she exclaims.

As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

            Fay’s voice grinds to a halt; she can go no further. Her eyes have suddenly welled up.
            “That part always gets me,” she confesses, composing herself. “The herb of grace. The world thinks the branch broke but the audience knows better, knows it’s the herb of grace that put her there.”
            Hugh’s hand finds hers on the page. His sinewy fingers cover hers. It’s a comforting gesture, nothing more.
            Still, when Joan’s grating voice sounds from the adjacent kitchen, the book slams shut. She’s digging for a serving plate in the overhead cupboard. She continues digging, none the wiser.
            It’s Miles who’s seen the interaction from his place in the hall. He’s halted in his tracks, not the least bit surprised but not pleased, either. He knows what his wife shares with Hugh is more than a minor in literature.

            “It’s called ‘resting bitch voice,’” Adrian explains to Daniela in the hallway. It’s secluded enough.  He rethinks the wording; the expression may not translate.  “Joan really is a nice woman; It’s just how she sounds.”
            He wonders if he should go into more detail about the baby, whether there’s the slightest chance of exonerating his mom from the enormous, looming myth that’s surely being created.
            “Renee was Joan’s pride and joy,” he begins.
            Adrian turns. “The baby that burned in the fire.”
            Suddenly his cell phone rings; he fishes it out.

             “‘Sup, brutha?!” Raz enthuses.
            He’s leaning against his jeep near Esclimont’s centre ville. The festival organizers have let participants park in the private lot belonging to a local wine seller. Even so, the portly man’s been standing in the dilapidated doorway all weekend giving filmmakers the stinkeye.
            Raz finds it charming; he finds all of it charming: the rolling green hills, the cypress trees, the crumbling block walls that are a dime a dozen, inviting teenagers to lean for a spell to smoke their hand-rolled cigarettes, taking their ancient splendor for granted.
            “It’s fabulous here!” he cries.
            “Agreed,” Adrian says. “Wish it was my parents who had the place here! How’s the festival?”
            “Our film went over very well! The audience seemed to love it. Lots of great feedback, too.”
            “Awesome! Any distribution contracts yet?”
            “Naw, man…we really just want to share our work with folks, you know? Get the message out. If anything results beyond that, so be it…the will of the universe!”
            “‘Course, should someone show interest, I got this handy little device here they call a ‘cell phone.’ Follow up later, if you get my drift…”
            Raz pauses, taking in the work crew who are erecting an enormous monitor on the edge of the vineyard. “Hey—they’re replaying my film tomorrow night, it went over so well. Impromptu. Why don’t you all come down and take in some art tomorrow night? Under the stars. With strangers…”
            Raz knows it’s one of Adrian’s favorite things to do, no joke. If the guy didn’t write prose, he’d write for film. It’s all just storytelling, they’ve agreed—the language of the soul.
            “Man, that sounds like heaven.” Adrian sighs, already looped in. “One of my favorite memories is Telluride. A ski trip during high school. But forget the slopes! My favorite moment was watching art with folks from everywhere, under the stars, cradled there in the San Juan Mountains like the Swiss fucking Alps.”
            Do it, man! Come join us!”
            “Hold on, brutha.”
            Adrian’s muffled, electronically distorted voice discusses the prospect with Daniela; she thinks it’s a great idea.

            “Little ingrate,” Joan stews.
            She smiled and nodded and said “of course” when the idea was run by everyone, saying Adrian should celebrate his graduation, no small accomplishment, exactly as he chose. And anyway, they had a fabulous evening the night before and would again tonight. He should have a wonderful evening with his friend Sunday evening, she assured him, before heading back to Paris.
            But now, it’s just her and Hugh in the study. “Couldn’t he put two and two together and imagine for a moment I might have planned dinner? That you might have spent an arm and a leg at the market?”
            “Sweetheart—” Hugh brushes her arm. “He’s young. Of course he didn’t think about all that. He didn’t mean anything by it. We’ll just bring out the cake tonight. He’s a good kid.”
            “I know.” She tries to breathe, to soften her shoulders. “But they let him. That’s what gets me. It’s bad enough they raised him that way; they could have forbidden it.”
            “He’s an adult, sweetheart. It’s not their place.”
            “Tacky, in my book. Tacky, tacky, tacky.”

            Miles is busy working on the boat and Joan’s preparing lunch when Fay steals another moment with Hugh in the library. She’s hefted that enormous tome from its high shelf, entreated him to join her on the saddle brown cigar couch with a gentle pat. They’re reading a passage from Titus Andronicus, his sinewy finger tracing type deliberately, and hers not far behind. Silently, she mouths the words he recites aloud. His paternal voice is steady, calming, edged with confidence and sensitivity all at once:

Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,

            Lavinia’s propped on a stump in an endless swamp, the way Fay’s always pictured it, the bog amorphous and bleary as it falls off to eternity. Branches are bare and withered, naught but writhing, twisting limbs that mirror tangled roots. Marcus Andronicus has stumbled upon his niece, unprepared for the horror. Hugh could play Lavinia’s uncle, Fay thinks. She’s nearly startled at the perfection of the moment. Marcus, or Hugh, or some combination thereof, has taken in the remains they’ve left buzzing with flies: the missing limbs and the tongue they’ve cut out, lest the girl speak of the horror she’s endured.
            Hugh turns the page.
            The tipped-in illustration has been taken from a turn-of-the-century stage production. The director has taken Shakespeare’s heartbreaking, impossibly poetic words literally, manifesting them in the material; Shakespeare’s referred to the missing arms as limbs—why not stuff the stumps with tangles of ivory driftwood, so surreal when juxtaposed against a stark, wretched sky? And when her mouth opens to speak at her Uncle’s behest, why should that sky not be flooded with crimson streamers? Shocks of red that dance like tendrils and expand to shocking proportion, consuming all? The effect is disturbing, but sublimely beautiful.
            “This scene always gets me, too,” Fay manages, minimizing the gravity of its effect on her. “Breathtaking.” Tears force themselves to the surface, involuntarily.
            “Beyond dark, and yet strangely redeeming,” Hugh agrees.
            “I’ve never seen Titus as a tragedy,” she admits, searching Hugh’s fair green eyes for affinity.
            “Really? That’s the classical take—it’s a cautionary tale. About revenge.
            “That’s what they say.” Fay looks suddenly far away, as though questioning the scholars. As if questioning academia, everything.
            “To me, it’s about remaining pure. Refusing to let innocence die no matter what’s…taken.”
            It’s an apology of sorts, a shrouded one. She’s thinking of Joan.
            “They say pessimists are just disappointed optimists,” she says for some reason, not sure why herself. “That their frustration is in clinging to hope because they want to believe in goodness.”
            The tear spills, the one that’s been pooling since the turning of the page, smearing her perfect maquillage.  
            Hugh sets the wrench on the fiberglass hull, wipes his hands on the tail of his shirt. He’s found the problem.
            He’s found a multitude of problems.
            First on the list is safety; before going any further he needs to talk to Hugh about the trailer. It’s likely the former owner who’s done it, but Hugh surely doesn’t know any better—put smaller wheels on the trailer. Usually it’s to lower the rig and make launching easier. Not to mention they turn faster. But it’s safety that goes by the wayside; they wear faster, shed their treads.
            Then there’s the bearings; they’re starting to go. Out of the goodness of his heart, he’s lubricated them, but it’s a quick fix.  Finally, the boat’s not secured to the trailer. He’ll have to tell Hugh to pick up a webbing strap with a ratcheting adjustment; what’s a few more bucks for a guy like Hugh?
            Miles wipes his hands again, preparing to go inside. He’s decided to give his recommendations now, before he forgets, along with a litany of other warnings, like not to tow the thing with the outboard motor still attached. First time Hugh hits a bump, the bracket will be torn from the transom, leaving chunks of boat and motor parts on the highway. Whoever’s behind him will not be too happy to see Hugh’s new investment bouncing down the road at them. Not to mention the insurance company.
            When Hugh reaches the library, he stops short.
            Fay’s leaning into him, practically throwing herself at him.
            Miles forgets why he’s come in, reveals himself in the doorway instead.
            “I want to talk to you.”

            Fay follows Miles toward the boathouse as though being escorted to the principle’s office, quickly dabbing globs of stray mascara.
            Miles wheels around once they’re safely out of range of the others. “Enjoying your foreplay?”
            His breathing is labored.
            “Oh, please.”
            “A good brain fuck? Is that what you need?”
            “It’s harmless and you know it. Why would you let it bother you?”
            “How about some respect, then. For me? It doesn’t look good.”
            “Since when are you concerned about appearances?” She’s eyeing the oil stains on his shirt; they’ve nearly joined together to form a single splotch from collar to tail.
            He looks down.
            This may be her chance to redirect the conversation, get off the hook. “Joan’s nearly got lunch ready; why don’t you change out of that shirt?”
            “What you do with him is more intimate than fucking. You know it and I know it.”
            Fay feels a twinge of culpability; she’ll need to turn it around.
            She eyes the shirt again. “You don’t always need to let him put you to work, you know. You’d think you were his slave.”
            Just then, Joan and Adrian and Daniela, forming a caravan, whisk trays of food past the boathouse window toward the picnic tables midway across the lawn.
            “Hurry up and get out of that shirt.”
            Fay reenters the cottage, knowing if she’s going to exhibit good form she’d better grab something—a salt shaker, if need be, and follow them down the hill. As she searches for just the right thing, the thought floats to her, only vaguely materializing, the recollection of a sociological principle she learned years ago during her undergrad studies in developmental psychology:
            When one demonstrates unkindness, no—when one recognizes unkindness in oneselfshe must still sleep at night. Must continue believing herself to be good and kind, and above all, right. For that reason, she’ll only grow more obstinate, dig her heels in. The next insult will cut even deeper, without fail, to rationalize the former transgression. It’s not exactly the “red dress” phenomenon, but a variation of it.

            Miles strips off the third shirt he’s turned into an oil rag in as many days.
            Suddenly, he’s embarrassed, sees what his wife must see. Maybe he is a boor; maybe she does deserve a guy like Miles. One who’d never get jealous or blow up about it even if he did.
            Miles follows his wife into the cottage, shirt balled up in a strong, apelike fist. With dirty fingernails, no less. He forgets to lock the Titan zinc-plated brake actuator Hugh’s been sure to point out.
            Lately, his minds’ a steel sieve.

            Adrian chews in relative silence. They’re all strangely subdued; could be the light cloud cover that weighs on them. It’s wafted in unnoticed, seems to hang mostly over the lake.
            “There’s a school of thought,” Daniela shares, “That the collective energy of a population can affect global events. That a negative mindset, for example, thoughts being what they are—energy—can produce molecular changes, even meteorologically speaking.”
            Miles takes the bait. “So negative thoughts can create bad weather,” he sums it up, between smacks of egg salad.
            “Think bigger. A hurricane or a tsunami or a cyclone. Even an earthquake.”
            The arrogance of youth, Fay can’t help thinking. It’s natural to think these things in one’s twenties, Fay knows. But to share every thought that pops into your head? As if it had value?
            “That mindset is problematic in an academic arena,” Fay counters, letting diplomacy fall by the wayside. “It reeks of blaming the victim. Like the red dress or Sodom and Gomorrah. If a tsunami hits, it was brought on by decadence. Please.”
            The girl’s entire belief system is based on rationalization and attribution, and Fay knows it. She’s learned not to wear her professional goggles in daily life, but when a person’s mechanisms are so glaringly obtuse, it’s hard not to.
            Daniela’s learning not to engage. Not being goaded by meddling potential mothers-in-law is an art one perfects.
            The sound of chewing is startlingly pronounced when juxtaposed with complete silence.

            It’s not his birthday, but still she’s put candles on it; the French opera cake with dark chocolate ganache and coffee buttercream is ablaze like a forest fire. Joan’s made it herself, Fay was sure to tell Adrian in advance. What was he going to do—insult it or spit on it while blowing out the candles?
            “Make a wish!” Joan cries cheerfully, setting the cake on the checkered tablecloth.   
            They’ve gathered at the stone picnic tables near the fire pit.
            Adrian knows he should wish for a bright future; it’s a graduation celebration, after all. He should wish for a lucrative job that will justify the monetary investment and make all the endless reading worthwhile. His father balked at his choice in majors—French Literature—griping the degree would not exactly put him in high demand in the job market. It had all been out of worry for his son, however misplaced. And he never made his worry known to Adrian; only bent his wife’s ear about it. But Fay had been good enough to relay the concern, of course, to widen the gap between Adrian and his father.
            “I can teach anywhere in the world,” was the argument Adrian leveled, hoping she would in turn relay it to his father. She’s spoken for him as long as he can remember. Adrian has no lack of vocabulary, but his words come off a pen rather than out of his mouth. In that way, he’s like his father, a man of few words.
            “And anyway,” he bookended the argument, “There are no jobs in the U.S. right now.” He knew she could not argue. All of his friends were struggling to pay off student loans, or deferring them while searching for work during an economic downturn. The grim state of the economy and the job market is not an excuse; it’s a reality, Adrian knows. What he also knows but does not say, is his generation could care less about the almighty dollar or contributing the economy, or doing the responsible thing. They care about contributing to the whole of humanity using one’s gifts.
            Adrian blows out the candles. He does not wish for a great job. Or a white picket or the American dream or a lovely wife and 2.5 children.
            He wishes to be happy.

            That night, Adrian rolls over in the squeaky cot he shares with Daniela.
            “Did you really see confidence?” he whispers, knowing it’s inscrutable.
            “That first day we met at the café. First impressions can be deceiving, you know.”
            She kisses him behind the ear. “If you weren’t feeling confidence, what were you feeling?”
            Adrian takes his time, not so much to choose the right words as to let it wash over him again.
            “Something much bigger than myself. The start of something. It’s like the universe tugging, trying to tell you something.”
            She’s flattered, but suddenly feels an enormous responsibility. She kisses the lobe of his ear one more time, then rolls away.
            She’s always despised the term ‘soul mates,’ hopes to God that’s not what he’s thinking. His mom’s as much as got them filing divorce papers before a wedding’s even planned. Daniela wonders if the woman might be right, whether she is in it for the long haul.

            Miles ignores Fay’s fingers lightly brushing the brown forest of his chest.
            “What did you mean by ‘his slave?” Miles stews.
            Fay’s got nothing to lose. “You’re attracted to him, too, you know. Don’t deny it.”
            He’s heard it before. He’s heard it for twenty years.
            “You’d do anything for him,” she points out now. “Even ruin the third shirt I packed with motor oil.”
            Miles turns the tables, throwing his weight on her like a sack of potatoes.       “Shakespeare may feel like foreplay.” He says it hot and heavy in her ear, brushing it with stubble to remind her he is, in fact, a man.  “A real man doesn’t just fuck your brain; he seals the deal.”
            “Don’t even think about it,” she protests. “That’s our own son just past that wall. And we’re in a guest bed, for God’s sake. A creaky one. I can’t imagine worse form.”
            Suddenly his hand is on her mouth, the other one forcing her head to the pillow. It’s no effort at all to shift, to throw his mass in a way that pins her to the mattress.
            When she’s stopped struggling, he sticks it in.
            It’s happened before, she thinks. Even that first night at Bobby McGees after the spumoni took a dive. What’s once more?

            Morning sun glints off scattered ripples on Le Reve’s otherwise still, glassy surface. The choppy striations appear randomly, scoring the glass as if the invisible current originates below. Daniela squints across the water’s silently animated skin, still-sleepy eyes assaulted by the deluge of morning light. The three couples breakfast on the sprawling lawn. Rough-hewn stone picnic tables are situated midway from the cottage to the lake. They’re loaded up with crepes and fresh melon and croissants from the oldest and best boulangerie in Esclimont, according to Joan.
            “You’ve done it again!” Fay raves as Joan places a steaming pot of French-pressed Turkish coffee on the checkered tablecloth. “You always were such a great cook!”
            Her compliments always sound like a double-edged sword, Daniela thinks. Privy or not to water under the bridge, she’d surely pick up on the disingenuous tone. You could cut the resentment with a knife.
            A blanket of fog curls across the still lake, a lingering remnant of night. Daniela can’t remember her last night’s dream, but she knows it haunts her silently, sticks like afterbirth. Suddenly the glassy reflections below, obscured by fog, are as real as what they reflect.
            Maybe Adrian’s mom’s more intuitive than I thought, Daniela can’t help thinking. I’m sure she’s proficiently astute on the job, but it’s possible she’s an iota less obtuse—less America—than I’ve given her credit for.
            She’s breaking up with Adrian.
            Fay’s words have sunk in; maybe she’s not in it for the long haul.
            She looks at Adrian across the stone table. He’s stuffing a melon in his mouth, smiling with rind-yellow teeth.
            It’s happened before: some girl once picked up on something in Daniela she wasn’t in touch with. Or something that was growing in her unaware; it was more like a premonition of what was to come. Before relationship bullshit gave her a sense of entitlement, someone called her ‘remorseless.’
            She dismissed it at the time, sloughed off the idea like an ill-fitting robe, thinking, Doesn’t one have to be guilty of something to have remorse? But the characterization stayed with her and she could not let it go. Only later did she realize the girl spoke a truth she just wasn’t in touch with yet.
            Since, she’s gotten okay with her relentless entitlement. She knows what she wants is all.
            And it’s not Adrian.
            At least she’s figured it out before they got in too deep. As cute as he is, as perfectly as those fine, blonde hairs might be configured on his thick, bronzed forearms, she can’t help seeing him as a child. He deserves better.
            She’ll break it to him Sunday night once they’re back in Paris; why ruin a perfectly good weekend?

            After breakfast, Miles wastes no time in getting back to tinkering on the boat. He never said anything about forgetting to pull the brake, even though it occurred to him in the middle of the night. Hugh would probably have used it against him, reminding him the last time he forgot something important a baby got killed.
            Besides, he’d have needed the key. The complicated steel-plated mechanism, the one that syncs with the brakes of the tow vehicle, keeping the two from crashing into one another on the road, requires a key to engage. Hugh was good enough to unlock it and edge the thing back, giving Miles room to work, but he took the key with him.
            Saying something now would be giving himself away.

            “That would be wonderful!” Joan enthuses when Daniela suggests leading yoga on the grass.
            Ten minutes later, she’s in yoga pants and Fay’s borrowed a pair and the three women are doing sun salutations on the sloping green lawn in the early afternoon sun.
            “This is heaven,” Joan says, exhaling the weight of the world. She’s forgotten what it is to breathe.
            “Yoga is all about the breath,” Daniela’s explained. “It’s good for flexibility, sure, but it’s really not exercise like some women think. It’s not for cardio or even fat-burning. It’s a spiritual practice, about the breath. Keeping it slow and steady and controlled. Finding that center even while in—” 
            “Excruciating agony?” Fay finishes. She’s done yoga on and off over the years, but it’s been a while. The old joints aren’t what they should be.
            “That’s one way of putting it,” Daniela agrees. “True faith deepens only through trials. Through suffering.”
            Moments later they’re seated in lotus position, palms upturned. “I like to end sessions with a little lesson, then a silent meditation,” Daniela informs them.
            She flips to a page in the tiny book she’s brought along.
            “This is about expansion and restriction. It’s from the Kybalion, an ancient hermetic text dating back to ancient Egypt. The Kybalion speaks of polarity. It says that everything is dual in nature—everything. That in everything exists its opposite, and differences are a matter of degrees. This is good news; all seeming paradoxes can be reconciled!
            “But what I really want to talk about is the ‘Principle of Rhythm.’”
            She turns the page.
            “The Principle of Rhythm tells us that everything is seasonal; that there is a natural ebb and flow, an expansion and restriction. We can think of it like a swinging pendulum. If the universe is withholding, the pendulum may be in a restrictive mode. The Kybalion teaches us to ride out those times, then to ride the pendulum swing into expansion when the universe is generous…”
            After the meditation, the three women are trudging up the hill toward the cottage.
            “That was wonderful,” Joan breathes, basking in the euphoria. “I so needed that.”
            “I’m glad,” Daniela reassures her. “My practice is primarily Hatha; it’s all based in Shiva Samhita texts. I brought in the hermetic philosophy myself.”
            Joan notices the gold charm hanging around Daniela’s neck.
            “Do you mind?” Joan asks, pointing.
            Daniela hands it to her as they walk. Joan looks at it closely, suspended on its gold chain. It’s a depiction of an eight-armed goddess in a pose similar to one they’ve just done during their session.
            “It’s the goddess Kali,” Daniela offers.
            “Kali? Fay interjects. They’re almost to the porch. “Isn’t she the one who eats her children?”
            Daniela laughs. “She’s largely misunderstood. She is often depicted in death poses, or vanquishing others, including her husband Shiva. She even appears to be gloating. And yes, she may have eaten a child or two. But Kali only conquers or devours what must die. Either for the circle of life, or in order to be reborn. In that way, she’s given a gift to the universe, facilitating death to make room for rebirth.”
            “Ah.” Joan smiles.

            Miles tosses his oil stained shirt into the garbage, rifles through his banged-up suitcase for a replacement. He’s completely forgotten about the yellowed relic of a word puzzle he brought along for Adrian, but there it is, peeking out from under a pair of faded jeans. He picks it up, heads for the picnic tables on the lawn. They’re about to head out for a film festival where some friend of Adrian’s is premiering a film, but it’s as good a time as any to present his graduation gift.
            Halfway to the door, he stops. He looks at the toy more closely, and suddenly the whole idea seems silly. Not because the puzzle is cheap, or even that he’ll have to compensate for the fact by gently suggesting the tuition checks he’s written semester-after-semester are the real gift. It’s silly because his son’s intellect so far exceeds his own—the boy’s gift for words nearly incomprehensible to Miles—that his gesture might go misunderstood. Sheepishly, he returns to his suitcase and tucks it back where it was.
            The card Fay’s picked out will have to do.

             The courtyard of Chateau d’Esclimont has been converted to an outdoor cinema, its great flagstones spangled with folding chairs in neat rows. Behind the packed seats, a manicured lawn mills with late arrivals. They spread blankets and fluff pillows as dusk settles, preparing to lounge under the stars and be moved.
            “Incredible,” Adrian marvels.
            He’s taking in not just the limestone courtyard, but the castle itself. It’s imposing, lined with battlements and punctuated with soaring lead-tiled spires. Neat rows of cypress trees flank an emerald moat spanned by narrow suspension bridges and buttresses.
            “Guests were arriving by helicopter earlier in the afternoon,” Raz informs his newly arrived guests. “Did you park at that wine shop like I told you?”
            “We got one of the last spots and walked over,” Daniela says.
            “C’mon,” Raz cries. “Saved you a spot on our blanket. Best seats in the place!”
            Several members of the documentary crew rearrange themselves on an enormous comforter, reaching up to shake hands with the newcomers. There’s a picnic basket stuffed with chocolate and wine and every cheese known to man.
            “This is going to be incredible,” Daniela predicts, settling onto her haunches and patting the blanket as a signal for Adrian to join her. “I’m truly excited for you, Raz.”
            Adrian seats himself and looks around. The evening is indeed magical, already. Dusk has begun to claim the landscape—the distant facades of the village with their peaked roofs, the dense wood that fringes the castle grounds like the border to a mysterious land. The moat joins a meandering stream; it’s here birch and cottonwoods shroud the outlying landscape. As night falls, a smattering of stars begins to twinkle tentatively.
            “I really admire what you’re doing,” Daniela says, referring to Raz’s time in India, the relief efforts, all he represents. “You’re really making a difference.”
            Raz smiles, revealing rows of iridescent pearls that flash against Sumatra-colored skin. His smile is infectious, always just beneath the surface and ready to be shared.
            Daniela reaches out and strokes his sinewy forearm—it’s emblazoned with monochromatic tribal tattoos. Each is iconic in its own right, but swirls together with the next to form a new shape, implying a sum is greater than the whole of its parts. The motifs are vaguely evocative, but elusive, neither Mayan nor Indonesian nor Mauri nor Aztec. Like the rest of him, their origin is ambiguous. The ink adorning Raz’ vascular flesh is as much an invitation to explore mystery as the deep-set eyes and the formidable brows that gird them.
            “Aren’t they amazing?” Daniela marvels, inviting Adrian to join her in exploration.
            Her fingers trace languid S-curves and mesmerizing spirals and jagged, repellant spikes, as though touch might transform the abstractions into something concrete.
            Adrian looks away, allows his eyes drift from one quilt to the next. They’re scattered on the gentle slope of a hill, like islands in a green sea. But together the blankets form continents, all of them interconnected but impossible to appreciate at close range. Adrian’s eyes move from Daniela’s exploring fingers to the lime green clumps of spongier grass interspersed among the finer blades of the lawn. The deposits meander like striations in the sedimentary layers of an archaeological dig. They trace the contour of the hill that seems suddenly to exist independent of all else, compelling Adrian’s gaze to the limestone courtyard below. Here, the stubborn crabgrass persists, forcing itself between enormous slabs.
            Every walk of life has come together in the communal space—families and young mothers with their newborns, widows and groups of old men with canes and wooden pipes and cheerful smiles. In Aix the past few semesters, Adrian’s noticed village elders playing chess or backgammon in the shade, riding bicycles to the local boulangerie for a morning baguette. In the states, we put our old folks in homes, he’s thought. Out of view. Here, they’re functional and vivacious and visible, still part of the circle of life.
            Adrian’s attention is drawn to an elderly woman nearby. She’s tuned out of the nearby conversation, too hard-of-hearing or weary to engage. Her cataract-shrouded gaze wanders, leaping over blankets and pillows and undulations of clumpy grass. And then they fix. A baby, maybe seven months, has crawled from the next blanket, gazes up at her unflinchingly. The woman smiles and begins to coo. A mother never forgets how to coo, Adrian thinks. The baby reaches up, agape, stroking the woman’s deeply lined face with a chubby, porcelain hand.
            “On commencera bientot,” a voice announces, amplified by a provisionary sound system. The film will be starting momentarily, the crowd is informed.
            Once the last sliver of fleeting warmth has left the sky, the formerly reticent stars pronounce themselves in no uncertain terms, eager to get things rolling.
            Festival organizers oblige, and all at once the silent, black screen comes to life, flickering with fragmented light. The projection is digital, high definition, immaculate in detail.
            Adrian is enthralled from the very first image that flashes onscreen. The film documents the relief efforts of an organization called ‘Healing Hands,’ whose  volunteers assist medical organizations like ‘Smiles Without Borders’ and even the Red Cross in providing service—at leper colonies, on the streets of Calcutta, in remote mountaintop villages far from the modern world. The documentary is not pedantic or preachy—not in the least. It doesn’t pander, as his Mom would say. It just is. The wordless montage, devoid of dialogue or narration, relies on simple humanity to connect dots. Oh, no documentary is truly unbiased, Adrian knows. Always an agenda. And there’s inherent bias in every edit, the sheer choice of what to include or exclude. Still, the images tonight are strung together in such a way as to bypass the intellect altogether, to cut to the chase in an inexplicably visceral way.
            Adrian is moved.
            Here are images of life in all its profound rawness and aching beauty: extreme poverty and opulent wealth, slavery and cruel, complacent freedom, grace and capitalist destruction and vast, untouched frontier land. A forgotten soul reaches for compassion with torqued fingers, only to be ignored; the toothless, unexpected smile of another defies hardship, opting for contentment despite circumstances.
            Suddenly Adrian feels like a hack, feels his love of the written word is misguided.
            Before he can formulate the thought and beat himself up with it, credits roll. A profound silence lingers; the audience have been moved, every last member, beyond words. End then, slowly at first, effusive applause begins to echo off quarried limestone in every direction.         

            “Ugh. I don’t want to go back.” Adrian sighs.
            The brief respite from the pettiness of Le Destin feels like more than a breath of fresh air; it’s more like rebirth. And to say the film changed him is not the least bit overzealous; Adrian’s made as much known to Raz several times since the festival crew packed up the enormous screen and reminded everyone to drive safely on their way home. Adrian does not think of himself as a sleepwalker, the term he and Daniela have come up with to describe most people. He’s lucid, introspective, incapable of wearing the blinders most people have surgically attached.
            Even so, Adrian feels he’s seeing everything for the first time. Or maybe he’s dreaming, and the tedium he’ll have to return to is waking life.
            Either way, he doesn’t want the feeling to end. He wants to ride it out, see where it leads.
            “Wanna go for a walk?”
            “Really?” Daniela’s equally excited.
            “You can leave your car as long as you like,” Raz explains. Left mine there all night last night; the festival organizers made a deal with the shop owner.”
            The three begin walking toward the fringe of birch and cottonwood just beyond the circle of light emanating from Chateau d’Esclimont.
            “And look what I’ve got!” Raz teases, drawing a small plastic bag from his waistband.
            “Shrooms!” Daniela cries.

            The circle of warm, amber light from Chateau d’Esclimont erodes, catching on only the tallest willows and blades of errant grass, until darkness claims it altogether. Three friends cross the ephemeral border, intent to explore what lies beyond. It’s a mystery, or a vast desert, undulating green hills rendered colorless by a pallid moon, sweeping knolls careening heavenward then plunging to sullen depths like the great dunes of the Sahara. Suddenly, amid the squalls, an outcropping of granite reaches for the moon.
            “Let’s hang here,” Raz suggests.
            They follow him, scaling the broad slab. Its top surface is fraught with fissures but flat, like a plateau or an altar. The silvery moat winds to infinity below, catching shards of moonlight on rippling crests.
            “Come.” Raz palms the coarse granite of the shrine’s final tier. They seat themselves next to him in the stark moonlight, completing a circle.
            “They’re not very strong,” Raz apologizes or warns, fishing the crumpled Ziploc bag from his trousers.
            The shriveled caps are divided up, the dried stems and shake that are the equivalent of garden mulch.
            “Wish we had O.J.,” Adrian laments.
            “Orange juice?” Daniela says. “Why?”
            “Makes ‘em less nasty, for one,” Adrian explains. “But it also speeds things up—something about the sugar or the vitamin C or some shit. You come on quicker…”
            “Aaaah.” Satisfied with the answer, Daniela bravely chokes down her third of the nasty mulch. Her face looks pinched.
            “All I’m sayin,’ Adrian laughs.
            Raz holds up a handful of earthy stems that likely matured under a cow pie somewhere.
            “Cheers!” He smiles, alabaster teeth catching moonlight.

            Twenty minutes later, they’re sprawled on the rock—it’s surprisingly warm, as though it’s harnessed the sun’s rays earlier in the day—waiting to come on. They’re growing inpatient.
            “Your film was incredible,” Daniela says for the twelfth time, to divert them and pass the time until the psilocybin kicks in. “Really makes you think. About all we take for granted. Puts you in a new space.”
            “Big mind,” I call it. Raz smiles, stretching his lanky, muscular arms so his knuckles graze the altar. He’s on his back, staring up at the moon; it emanates an otherworldly, iridescent halo.
            “We spend most of our time in our own little skulls,” he ruminates, “obsessing on our own egotistical wants and needs. But every now and again, we see beyond it to what truly matters.”
            “Peak experiences, Mazlov calls them,” Daniela clarifies.
            “We’ll be peaking soon enough,” Raz chuckles.
            “He calls them peak experiences because they’re just momentary glimpses. Of the universe. Why can’t the universe reveal itself all the time?”
            There’s a momentary lull, and the invisible breeze can be heard—only heard—knocking cattails in the moat below.
            “I don’t think we’re meant to see the face of God,” Adrian posits suddenly. “Do you?”
            He’s asking them both, asking the sprawling sky above and the splotchy galaxies that fill it with inscrutable meaning.
            “If by God, you mean the truth,” Raz answers finally, “No. We couldn’t handle the truth all at once. Only glimpses.”
            Raz’s arms are still outstretched, like wings. “To keep us going…”
            Adrian can’t help smiling. The words are washing over him, penetrating him.
            Daniela stands, suddenly anxious. “You weren’t kidding these are weak. Why aren’t we coming on?” Just as quickly, she’s looking down at her own suddenly rubbery legs. They jounce like rubber bands.
            “Speak too soon?” Raz teases.
            Daniela’s look says she eager to try her new legs. Without warning, she slides down the face of the rock, bolts across the grassy knoll toward the dark border of the dense wood.
            “Wait up!” Adrian calls after her, knowing better than to separate. And anyway, the impending forest looks suddenly menacing, inextricably gnarled.
            They catch up to her on the edge of the thicket. She’s stopped, gazes into lightless hollows crisscrossed by tangles of limb and branch. Dark knots pattern the pale trunks of birch trees, winking like a thousand eyes.
            “Go for it,” Raz teases her again. It’s an invitation to leave the known behind, to plunge into the mystery of the universe, however drug-induced the notion.
            She takes the leap; the men follow.
            They navigate leaf and limb, suddenly thorny briars.
            Bad idea, Adrian’s thinking. He knows she’s thinking it too. Still, he follows.
            She’s huffing now, as though getting to the thick of things is vitally important, reaching some destination bound to remain elusive. Adrian knows she’s not peaking yet, but has fully come on. He knows not because he, too, is feeling the effects of psilocybin, but because he can feel her feelings. And Raz’s. It’s what he loves about shrooms.
            Just as her insistence borders of panic, Daniela breaks through a hanging, shredded veil of lichen and stumbles into a clearing. It’s moss-laden but clear of brush; it breathes. The circumference of the glade expands as they step into it, advancing tentatively as trees hang back in reticence.
            “Wow,” Raz marvels.
            “I’m bleeding,” Daniela says.
            She’s not alarmed; it’s an observation.
            It’s Raz who runs a finger along her thigh, where she’s been lacerated by thorns. He dabs the blood with the hem of his coarse linen shirt.
            “Thank you,” she says.
            She throws herself on the incessant carpet of moss that’s overtaken everything from the floor of the clearing to the gnarled roots to the fallen tree trunks and piled-up rocks. She’s on her back, caressing the velvety moss with outstretched fingers.
            “Become one with the earth,” Raz chants.
            “You’ve got to try this,” Daniela sighs ecstatically.
            A moment later they’ve joined her, eager to feel what she’s feeling. They’re on their backs again, all three, an hour later or mere seconds later, gazing into the window to heaven above. It’s framed by fluttering, moon-drenched leaves; they scatter the light like the leading in a stained glass window, disseminating it in shards, as if all of it at once would be blinding.
            It reminds Adrian of something a million years ago.
            “What you said before was beautiful,” he says, retrieving the memory from eternity. “About glimpses. How they keep us going…”  
            Raz turns his head. It’s plastered to the rock, but when he turns to Adrian their eyes are parallel. The moon dances in Raz’s deep-set eyes and suddenly they’re not as dark as Adrian remembers them being. Adrian can feel his friend’s ribcage expanding; his does the same in sync.
            “Kaballah speaks of expansion and restriction,” Daniela says to no one and everyone, apropos of nothing and everything. “How in the beginning, light permeated darkness. How almost immediately it shattered, forming two columns: expansion and restriction.”
            Adrian can’t help smiling again. The image is beautiful: shards of light careening, modulating in hue, to be glimpsed in small doses over time, collected and pieced together.
            “It’s what we’re here for.” He breathes the words like a conduit from the universe itself, lost in the kaleidoscope of fragmented light that’s exploded above them. He’s breathed the words to no one and everyone; they’re one anyway, he knows. Just like the three of them are one with the birch trees and their winking knots, expanding and retracting with the universe.
            Adrian laughs, at nothing.
            The others, an extension of himself, meld into the frequency of his disembodied laugh, and all at once they’re laughing too, riding the wave, some unseen physiological wave.
            “You know, it’s a very narrow margin, reality.” Daniela offers.
            The others know she’s onto something; every molecule in the clearing, a microcosm of the universe, conspires. The winking knots are in perfect alignment as far as the eyes can see.
            “It’s only our brain chemistry that filters stimuli, discards what’s not needed.”
            Like a film, Adrian thinks. Like editing a fucking film. Suddenly Raz’s fingers are magic and he may well be God.
            “The reality we agree to is consensus,” Daniela goes on. “Nothing more. You alter the balance of chemicals even the slightest bit, and suddenly that wall is breathing or that dog is smiling or those trees are stacked in perfect alignment as far as the eye can see. You know it’s impossible, but that’s all you can see…”
            All at once, she sits up. “Hey! What time is it?!”
            “Does anyone really know what time it is?” Adrian attempts to sing it, but breaks out in peals of laughter.
            Nothing. They aren’t riding the wave at all.
            “Really? You kiddin’ me? Chicago!”
            “Time is just a construct of man,” is Raz’s way of putting it.
            “Joan said there’s a meteor shower tonight,” Daniela announces. “At ten.”
            Adrian looks at his watch. There’s heavenly light to spare, but the numbers dance under the glass, configuring and reconfiguring themselves ad infinitum. He lays back down on the fertile, mossy earth—they all do—and waits.
            They’re searching for a sign, for the first tiny stray ember to dislodge itself from the heavens.
            An hour passes, or mere moments, or an eternity. In the same way time is distorted, so is distance. The fluttering leaves could be miles away, Adrian thinks, or just within reach. Same with the moon and the stars. He can hear his own heartbeat and the creaking of restless branches and the barking of a dog in the village, miles away.
            “Time is the bane of man,” Daniela postulates, to pass the time.
            “Time is just mind,” Raz says, turning to Daniela. “It’s mind that’s the bane of man.”
            Words are the bane of man,” Adrian hears himself say. His voice is independent of his body, unfamiliar.
            “Words, thoughts—it’s all the same,” Raz says. “And thoughts are the bane of man.”
            Words and thoughts. Thoughts and words, says the voice in Adrian’s head, the one that narrates all his reverie.
            “What about pre-language?” he throws out. “We still had thoughts. They took the form of images, though. More like dreams. That’s why I write in archetypes. Pre-language, Jungian archetypes were the language of the soul. The way our higher selves spoke to us, or God.”
            “The higher self is just the subconscious,” Daniela argues. “It’s lower, not higher.”
            Suddenly, from nowhere, a meteor arcs across the sky. Its trail is long, unexpectedly bright. Its white light is exhilarating, impossibly beautiful, bathing the three in ecstatic wonder. But it burns out. Its decay is profoundly disturbing to Adrian, leaving him with the familiar feeling something’s slipping through his fingertips. Suddenly he remembers he’s just a hack, a hack who dabbles in the lie of words.
            As if at the command of his chastising thoughts, the portal above expands, pushing out its frame of leaves, the surrounding wood and the world beyond.
            Adrian feels his body separating from the others, his wavelength from theirs. It’s excruciating, like being torn limb-from-limb by wild horses.
            The dark void advances, consuming all. It’s just Adrian and the infinite nothingness. The others are out there—somewhere. He can hear them. But he can’t reach them somehow.  Suddenly he’s surfing the brink of a great whirlpool—a churning galaxy. At its center is a gaping void that expels hot breath, pulling him in like a magnet.
            Wanting him back.
            Adrian knows the swirling melee is a hole punched by divine revelation, but it’s revelation as tragedy, a sickening glimpse of the selfish side of the universe, the one that chews you up and spits you out in its dialectic, hungrily. The one that flings a body fifty feet above interstate five to catch on prongs meant to keep pigeons and doves away. The one like the hiccup he felt on first meeting Daniela, the feeling a visitation is anything but benevolent. Lately when the universe reveals itself to him, it’s unkind, ominous, breathing only chaos and entropy.
            Adrian reaches for something tangible.
            All at once, there is touch.
            His fingertips, or her fingertips, lightly grazing and callused, reminding Adrian he’s real. Making small raw-knuckled circles. There’s a strong hand enfolding his, and a nipple and a heaving ribcage. There’s synchronized breath and oneness. Hands are everywhere, too many of them, reminding Adrian he’s real but invading too, prodding and poking like sharp thorns. Can it be the trees are reaching from above, confounding all, caressing them with moonlight like shards of blinding truth?
            Adrian’s inside her now, feels her heart beating with her breathless contractions. But his mouth is on Raz’s. Lips press, proving some kind of shared humanity in a most primal way. It’s powerful. Adrian reaches for the crown of barbs, pulls Raz into him like a shadow self.
            Suddenly Raz is God and she’s the base drive of propagation and they’ve come together in the universe of a single moment.

            They’re headed back to the car.
            They’re coming down, thankfully; there always comes a point Adrian just wants it to be over. Wants to come back down to reality. Maybe that’s what’s meant by glimpses. Small doses.
            It’s gotten worse, more sickening: the feeling something’s slipping through his fingers like grains of sand. Adrian’s shroom trips always end this way. He’s got a theory that peak experiences, as Daniela calls them, cannot be recorded. They’re bound to remain elusive. Adrian vows to remember the fleeting glimpse he’s just had and carry it forward. He won’t mistake it for enlightenment. But he’ll be grateful for it, counting it among the things that keep him going, the mysterious, inter-connected dots that make up his faith. His certainty there’s more going on here than consensus.
            They’re out of the woods, crossing the series of knolls that earlier felt like the Sahara. The stretch seems small now, almost silly. But the winking knots behind them have never been so agape, never felt more like watchful eyes. The terrain through which they pass is not the Sahara, Adrian knows. It’s the garden of Eden.

            Daniela’s not ashamed; she’s wanted Raz for a while. And everyone was on board. Besides, they can blame it on the shrooms tomorrow.
            “Threesomes are the beginning of the end,” she’s heard. They only lead to hurt feelings, jealousy. The more highly evolved among us rise above base emotions like jealousy, she knows. But she also knows no matter how idealistic one fancies oneself, propriety exists for a reason. Jealousy exists for a reason, on an evolutionary theory level. It contributes to propagation, keeps the family unit together. The conventional wisdom is, when you reach outside the relationship, it’s symptomatic of a lack of intimacy within the relationship. Categorically. Without fail.
            Blab la bla. They’re breaking up anyway.
            “Shit!” Adrian shouts.
            They’ve reached the wine seller’s parking lot.
            It’s empty.
            “The car’s been towed! The fucking car’s been towed!”
            “No way!” Raz cries. “Ain’t no way! They said…” His voice trails off.
            “Fuckers are in cahoots with the cops!” Adrian knows. He’s not talking about the wine seller; he’s just an old man. He’s talking about the festival. “It’s a money maker!”
            “Well, they keep that shit up and word gets out, they won’t have any films to show,” Raz predicts. “This is bullshit!”
            Daniela’s suddenly sick. “What are we going to do?”
            The three of them pace in circles, then sit defeatedly, staring at asphalt.
            “Tomorrow’s Monday,” Adrian reasons. “I won’t even tell the rental car company. Just get it out of impound first thing in the morning.”
            “You want a ride back?” Raz offers. “To where you’re staying?”
            “I’m headed back to Paris anyway.”
            “You kidding?” Adrian can’t believe it.
            “Headed out to Nepal in a day or two. There’ a lot to do. Meeting up with folks early tomorrow. In Paris.”
            “There’s no way you’re driving tonight,” Daniela insists. “Come spend the night and head out at the crack of dawn.”
            Adrian smiles. “My folks would love to meet you.”

            The Neilsons and the Dolaks gaze into the smoldering remains of the fire. They’ve been gathered around the stone pit all evening, downing Heinekens for old time’s sake and reminiscing. But the anecdotes have grown fewer and further between, words thinning with the slow death of the fire. It barely smolders now, once white hot, leaping flames reduced to crimson embers that expel plumes of curling smoke.
            Miles stands.
            “I’ll go grab more firewood,” he offers.
            It’s piled against the side of the cottage in preparation for winter, in imperfect stacks.
            “Grab some kindling while you’re up there,” Hugh calls after him as he trudges into the night. “And that can of lighter fluid.” His words are only mildly slurred.
            “We’ll get this thing blazing,” Miles calls back over a shoulder.
            Once he’s gone, Hugh grumbles it under his breath: “Yeah. You’re good at that.”
            At once, the attention of all four is drawn to the highway. A pair of headlights zigzags through darkness, climbing steadily from the village.

            “Here. Park right here.” Adrian indicates the patch of gravel centered in Le Destin’s circular drive, right in front of the massive boathouse doors.
            “This is where Hugh had us park.”
            The three have no sooner spilled from the jeep into coarse gravel, when Daniela barrels toward the scarlet glow halfway down the hill; it’s waning but still enchanting, somehow.
            “Magical!” she shouts, then does a cartwheel on the slippery grass.
            “Hope that girl’s not still shrooming,” Raz laughs.
            Adrian shrugs. “My parents won’t know the difference. They’re pretty cool, anyway.”
            The boys don’t follow her. Instead, gravity gets hold of Adrian, compels him back instead of forward, so that he finds himself leaning against the jeep in the scant moonlight. It’s dwindled somehow with the shifting of the heavens. But the oblique angle of the moon does not render Raz’ teeth any less stark; the shimmer reflects as clearly as ever in his wide, glassy eyes.
            Adrian feels his arm reach out of its own accord, drawing Raz into him. He’s no longer God, or a shadow-self, but he is irresistible.
            They share a kiss.

            Miles is loaded up with splintery logs, both arms. He rounds the corner of Le Destin toward the boathouse and the newly arrived jeep.
            His boots grind to a halt in coarse gravel.
            What the fuck?
            He lingers in the shadows until the boys are halfway down the hill.

            “Nice to meet you all,” Raz says, seating himself on a sawed-off stump. He’s shaken hands, said a silent prayer the names would all stick, and joined his new acquaintances around the stone pit. Daniela’s next to him on a folding beach chair; Adrian flanks him on the other side.
            “How was the film?” Joan wants to know.
            Raz doesn’t know the woman from Eve, but her interest is genuine; the spark in her eye says so. And she’s not as drunk as the others.
            “It was incredible!” Daniela jumps in. “Raz is a magician! Had them spellbound!”
            Her fingers trace the swirls of ink on Raz’s forearms, showcasing them for all to see.
            “Congratulations!” Joan says.
            “We’ve had a very positive reception.” Raz tempers the enthusiasm with modesty. “ We feel very blessed. The whole thing’s been a blessed journey. Yuval, the director, has really tapped into something. I’m just the editor.”
            “Still—magic!” Daniela insists.
            “Yeah, we worked well together,” Raz says, wading back to a remote but fond period in his life; India seems a million years ago.
            He sighs, despite himself. He doesn’t mean to say too much, but knows it’s for Adrian’s benefit even as the words fall out. “We created something wonderful. We collaborated. But we just can’t work together; that much is clear.”
            Miles has returned from the cottage, a stranger to Raz. He catches some kind of dual meaning in Raz’ words; his eyes narrow. He tosses a large, dense log on the fire, along with the kindling, and reaches out a hand.
            “Miles Dolak.” The man’s voice is gruff.
            “Raz.” Raz does his best to put the man at ease with his smile; it usually does the trick.
            Fay leans forward in her chair. “Daniela says you’re taking them to swim with the dolphins in Israel.”
            “Oh…” Raz looks at them, grins. He’s a bit surprised by the news himself. “Maybe after Nepal. I’m doing some relief work there. Lord, that would be heaven.”
            Miles’s eyes narrow again. “That where you’re from, son? Israel?”
            The man douses the kindling carelessly with lighter fluid. His eyes search; Raz feels them taking in his dreadlocks and his tattoos and his caramel-colored skin. He’s used to it.
             Still, his easy smile won’t come; he shifts uncomfortably. “Guess I’m from all over.”
            Daniela steps in. “Raz is a citizen of the world!”
            Miles Dolak throws a wooden match into the pit. There’s a sudden flare, and the kindling ignites.
            “That what your driver’s license says? Your passport? Citizen of the world?
            Raz knows it’s a long conversation. But if there’s one thing he’s up for, it’s opening peoples’ eyes to their own presumptions. It’s a role he’s accepted long ago, with grace. But he never condescends.
            “Even in Israel,” Raz shares, refusing to be daunted by the man, “it’s nearly impossible to identify ethnicities. Let alone races. They’re really just an illusion, after all. The term ‘semitic’ refers to folks from that region, whether their faith is Judaism or Islam. Interesting, huh?”
            Daniela’s suddenly stimulated. Her fingers have been tracing the main spiral at the center of a large, Indonesian-looking mandala. But suddenly they stop their light grazing; she allows Raz’s forearm to drop of its own weight.
            “I just read a fascinating Times Magazine article called Race is an Illusion,” she enthuses. “It said that in 2016, an African-American shares fewer traits genetically with his African brethren than with a white American. That’s how quickly we adapt.”
            Adrian looks bothered; he’s stood and is collecting errant beer bottles from the circumference of the stone ring. “Some adapt more quickly than others,” he spits.         Some kind of resentment’s leaked out; Adrian clearly doesn’t like the direction things are headed, or the drilling of his friend.
            “There are a lot of misapprehensions about that part of the world,” Adrian adds, stuffing the Heineken bottles into a burlap shopping sack. He seems unable to stop himself. “Dating back generations, centuries…”
            “Misapprehensions?” Miles sighs. His motor skills are impaired; his tongue catches on the double consonants.
            “In the middle ages, Jews were accused of being vampires,” Raz explains, “who would steal your babies and suck their blood. But it’s because they were the only ones, during the plague, who would take in the orphaned children off the street and raise them.”
            Miles isn’t buying it. “They’re not just baby-snatchers; they’re Christ-killers, some would say.” 
            Raz knows Hugh’s playing host when he stands to divert the group’s attention.
            “I’m so glad to have been raised without any of that,” the man says, nonchalantly digging a heel into slick grass. “I was well into college before I learned about anti-Semitism. My father was raised Catholic and my mother Baptist, so needless to say, nothing was imposed on my siblings and I. We all searched on our own, and in my understanding of the Judeo-Christian mythology, all of humanity were culpable in Christ’s death; we’re all faulted. And anyway, had things not gone down the way they did, we wouldn’t be saved, according to the mythology. So it’s all good.”
            Raz doesn’t mean to contradict, only to add to the dialogue: “What I’ve learned is that idealism is wonderful, but it can be a form of ignorance. We’re all responsible for our own awareness. It’s no help to anyone to stick one’s head in the sand. Anti-Semitism is alive and well; Hitler really did rile folks with the phrase ‘Christ-Killer.’ And now Trump’s picking up where he left off.” 
            Miles groans.
            Daniela clasps Raz’ forearm again, but this time her touch is firm, reassuring. “Americans tend to be ignorant to world history,” she observes. “No offense, of course. Adrian even agrees.”
            Miles grunts more than groans, this time.
            Adrian catches the grunt, steps in to mediate. “Maybe we’re not ignorant to it. We just know better than to talk about religion or politics in certain settings. It’s called class.
            Daniela’s look is suddenly defiant. “And why would you avoid it?”
            “Because it can end badly.”
            “That’s exactly the problem with this mindset,” Daniela comes back. Raz feels her hand tighten around his flesh. “This insistence on avoiding conflict. Ignoring death. Sweeping things under the rug. In Europe, we debate and disagree and everyone’s fine with it the next day. It’s only by living through conflict that we grow, break new ground!  It’s okay to disagree. Or even for a relationship to…end. Life goes on…
            Daniela’s eyes have locked with Fay’s across the fire, involuntarily.
            Suddenly Fay stands, irritated, throwing what’s left of her wine into the fire so it combusts. Some kind of fierce maternal instinct has kicked in. Raz can’t piece it all together, but the subtext is as glaring as the alcohol-stoked fire.
            “A heart is never the same shape after loss,” Fay says. It’s her turn to educate. “You’re just too young to know.”
            Now it’s Joan’s eyes that find Fay’s through the dancing flames. Fay’s look softens, says she didn’t mean to hurt Joan with the statement but it had to be said. Raz has always had a thin skin; he’s always known things without having to be told. Still, he wonders what he’s stepped into. It’s too big to decipher, but whatever it is is about to combust.
            Miles has finished another Heineken, throws it not into the burlap sack but straight into the fire pit.  He stands, recalculates to gain his balance.
            “It’s all fine and good to mix Israelis and Palestinians and Jews and Arabs, but I do know one thing…” Here he approaches Raz with smoldering eyes. “—a guy like you would get his ass kicked in Texas!”
            Adrian’s beyond riled. “What the fuck, Dad?”
            The man is not nearly finished. He leans in to the uninvited guest: “You gay, son?”
            “Oh, Lord,” Adrian sighs.
            Before Raz can answer—he prefers the term fluid—Fay steps in and lets him off the hook.
            “What’s it to you?” she blurts. She’s shitfaced too, Raz can tell. Her words are slurred, one melding into the next like toasted marshmallows. “We’re all a little bit bisexual. Are you going to pretend you haven’t had a man-crush on Hugh for the past twenty years?”
            The women laugh.
            “That’s right!” Joan chimes in. “In our household Hugh’s known as ‘the boyfriend.’”
            The two women nearly fall into the fire.
            Miles stands, clearly agitated.
            He approaches Raz, and suddenly the words are in his ear, edged with stale alcohol and meant for him alone: “Faggot.”

            Hugh and Adrian wave goodbye as the loaded-down jeep disappears into the night, taillights trailing like molten streamers. Raz is headed back to Esclimont, and then Paris, ostensibly while traffic is light. And anyway, he insisted, he was still wide awake, so why not? Adrian knows he was offended, but is too classy to show it. Still, he’s sick about what’s gone down, hopes first impression aren’t damning and that damage control will prevail in a day or two.
            “Shall we go back?” Hugh suggests.
            “Do we have to?” Adrian jokes.
            They’re all down there, probably getting even more hammered.
            In the absence of the jeep, Hugh notices the doors to the boathouse are ajar; one of them has swung partially open.
            “Really need to fix this thing,” he says, jostling the rusty latch that hangs uselessly from splintered wood. He pushes the doors back into place.

            “I think I done pretty well with what I got,” Miles ruminates, slumped near the fire and speaking to no one in particular.
            The others look down; they’ve given him the silent treatment since he drove the poor kid off. And now, he clearly wants to exonerate himself somehow, let himself off the hook. The statement is supposed to explain something.
            Miles grinds a heel into the coarse gravel at the base of the stone ring, pulverizing regret. His words are slow, deliberate, and he wrings his hands in self-pity as he shares them.
            “Adrian don’t know this story,” he begins, catching Daniela’s gaze before she can look away. Suddenly she’s his captive audience. “They’ve all heard it before. When I was young, a real young kid, I found a newspaper article, all yellowed and crumpled. Wasn’t even old enough to read yet, so I brought it to my Pop. It was him in the picture. Thought he was famous, a hero of some kind. He sits me down and says it ain’t nothin’ like that; it’s the opposite, in fact. He’s a bad guy. A real bad guy. Says he was involved in a lynchin.’ I don’t know what a lynchin’ is so I ask him, and he explains it. Goes on to explain some nigger whistled at his wife so he did the right thing and lynched the bastard. Never got convicted for it; folks understood.”
            Miles is gazing into the fire as if into tiny halftone dots on yellowed newsprint, the elusive history bound to fade with the time and elements.
            “This was all before I was born,” he says. “Yep, I done a whole lot better than my pop. Pretty well for the hand I was dealt…”
            Adrian does know the story. Bastard doesn’t even remember blabbing it to me. The man’s hopeless. So far gone he thinks a story like that garners sympathy. Makes what he’s done forgivable. Makes bigotry and intolerance forgivable.
            Adrian’s body stands of its own accord. He’s got to get away. He can’t look at Daniela; to say he’s mortified would be an understatement. So much for first impressions didn’t begin to cover it; he said that to himself the first night in the car when the two women were at each other’s throats. It’s so far beyond that now; the sick feeling in his stomach says things have gone irreparably amiss; like something regrettable has been said that can never be taken back.
            He storms off toward the cottage.

            Daniela catches up to him on the moth-yellow porch. It’s lit by tentative, flickering light, as queasy as everything else. Moths dart uncontrollably in the unnatural, sickly glow.
            She places a hand on Adrian’s neck, wordlessly guiding him to the stone slab of the porch. She curls up in a ball next to him, draping her arms around slumped shoulders, capable but defeated.
            “It’s all right, Adrian,” she consoles. “I promise you, tomorrow everything will be fine. Let’s go to bed. It’s been a long night.”
            “He’s sick,” is all Adrian can say.
            “He’s just had too much to drink,” Daniela says. Diplomacy is not her fine point, but she means it.
            “Did you not hear what he said? That’s what I’ve had to walk around with. For seven years now. He told me that story seven years ago, and I’ve felt dirty ever since. Like that bad blood is in me. Coursing through my veins. Do you know what that does to a person?”
            Suddenly everything makes sense to Daniela. The water: it’s a cleansing, or a bath. Or a—baptism.
            ‘Carrying a thing like that around, knowing what your own flesh and blood is capable of, makes the world an unreliable place. A cheap place.”
            The crackling of the fire makes its way from below, punctuating the night.
            “What’s most twisted,” Adrian says, hardly able to say the words. “The joke was on me. I carried that shame around, unable to tell a soul, and the sick joke is they’ve known it all the time. Everyone but me. It’s nothing more than a drunken anecdote to be shared—a slip-up. So casually, too, not the least bit off color.  Turns out I’m the sucker.”
            “Whatever happens,” Daniela assures him, and even the sound of it is ominous, “I love you. I love every part of you, even your bad blood.”
            “I’m just sorry it had to come out tonight.” The secret that’s not really a secret feels like an uninvited tenant bound to overstay its welcome. “That man is still alive, his pop, and no one does a thing about it. He’s gotten away with murder. This world drives me crazy, sometimes. What it takes to live in it.”
            Denial. He means denial—the blinders they’ve talked about that most people surgically attach.
            “If it helps—” she’s massaging his shoulders now, trying to make him feel her closeness. “No one gets away with anything.”
            “Don’t tell me: God is watching.”
            “In so many words. Secrets eat away at people. That’s probably why your Dad has to speak about it. To cleanse himself.”
            Adrian’s shoulders relax. He can almost feel her touch. It’s not love, but something close.
            “He’s doing his best. He’s just not like you and I.  We’re cycle breakers. We were given the gift of clarity. Lucidity. The meta-self. We can visualize and self-create. Your father’s from a different generation. He just wasn’t given the means to rise above his DNA.”
            Adrian knows what she means. It’s like Hugh coming from money; it’s the luck of the draw. But if there’s one thing the long evening has taught him, it’s that all the mantras and meditations and affirmations in the world cannot rewire your destiny. Only the heart can do that.
             “It’s life that puts the past to rest, determines our future.” He knows he won’t be able to explain the epiphany, the one that came like a flash. “It’s engaging in life. Connecting.”
            She shakes her head. “Without active visualization, your peptides have their way with you. They drive everything.”
            “I don’t see it that way.” Adrian knows she’s going to win, no matter what. But his heart’s never been more convinced of anything.
            Daniela’s hopped from the porch to the wet grass below, propped herself between his knees. She leans in close, riveting her expression like a vice grip.
            “Have you really never connected your fascination with Icarus to your own life? Really? Why do you think it’s consumed you?”
            “It’s a universal story about man’s place in the universe.”
            “It’s about you and your bad blood. It’s about inheriting the sins of the father and being the only one who can redeem. It’s about feeling the responsibility of that and being told to soar higher, always higher, then crashing and burning as a result.”
            Daniela reaches out and strokes his cheek, lovingly. “The beauty of the story is, Icarus gets his cleansing. As the sea washes over him, in the end, he is cleansed.”
            Adrian pushes her away. He feels patronized. Belittled. She’s diagnosed him without anesthetic, as if the five years between them has made her an expert in life.
            “You know, you spend an awful lot of time in your head, analyzing. Over-intellectualizing.”
            Adrian uses words, lots of them. They’re a product of the brain, no doubt. But they’re figurative. And he uses them to transport, poetic and abstract. To speak to the soul through archetypes, the language of dreams. She uses them to manipulate. To belittle.
             Daniela touches his cheek; it’s a condescending gesture. “You’ve said yourself ‘An unexamined life is not worth living,’ Shouldn’t that apply to all of us?  I may be analytical, Adrian, but I never judge!”
            That’s it; Adrian can’t take any more. He leaps from the porch, plants himself in front of her, staunch and unmoving.
            “Are you fucking kidding me? You are the single most judgmental person I have ever met! And that includes Mom and Joan and Judge fucking Judy! You claim to be a freethinker, to see through socialization and think outside the box. As if you invented the new age movement and the hippies before that and the bohemians before that. What you don’t realize is: by thinking outside the box, you judge the box!”
            Daniela has nothing to say in return. It’s she who storms away this time. Not toward the fire pit, or into the cottage, but into the dark wood beyond the circle of frantic, moth-yellow light.

            Adrian rifles through his backpack, locates the inkbottle and ragged journal that look to be straight out of Prague. He storms back out of the cottage, ignoring his mother’s nagging pleas to come back to the fire pit. His instinct is to get away from the pettiness, from the war of words, from the psychobabble and the new age buzzwords and even Daniela. Maybe he doesn’t have ‘conflict resolution skills’ as his mom likes to say. Maybe escaping is easier. If it’s true he’s sensitive, reactionary, it’s because they’re fucking crazy. If they weren’t so crazy—so dysfunctional—there would be a hell of a lot less to react to. Having a low threshold for dysfunction is not a bad thing, Adrian knows. If more people did, the world would be a better place.
            The manicured lawn yields to unruly tufts of taller grasses that wave gently in an invisible breeze. A meandering cleft yields dirt; it grows moist as the trail jogs downhill to water’s edge.
            Adrian splays himself on the rickety dock that serves little purpose these days. He rolls onto his side, gazing into the silvery, lime-infused waters as if heeding the call of their gentle lapping. After a moment, he parts the pages of the ragged notebook and poises the black-stemmed calligraphy pen over its buckled pages. The feel of the pen in his grasp is familiar, as is the drive to purge his bottled-up feelings through prose. But he’s never been so direct about it; he usually stews for a day or two first. And now he knows why—you can’t force it.
            The words won’t come.
            It’s a familiar sensation, the stainless steel nib arresting itself in protest but hemorrhaging splotches of ink all the same, like onyx tears. Suddenly it dawns on him: it’s not the reservoir of universal truth that’s withholding; the well of ink, so fickle and veiled, is the pool of his own fears and apprehensions, the deep sadness that ever beckons like still, tepid water or the vague cellular memory of a womb. Why, then, can’t he access it? Why won’t it overflow sadness or vomit pain for the world to devour?
            Coaxing it is his duty, he knows; fate has willed it so time and again, nudging him toward water’s edge with every disappointment, every failed relationship and failure of the world. More than familiar peptides or their inescapable power, more than lazy synapses or mantras to rewire them, or any of that other nonsense they’ve been prattling on about. Instead of spilling over, the well of fate is drawing him in, away from human connection, to bathe in solitude, that familiar sea of gently rocking currents and perfect temperatures and profound, muffled silence.
            Adrian’s earlier epiphany returns to him: It’s not the mind that changes your peptides, your destiny; it’s the heart.
            The thought visited him unannounced, as through a parting of clouds. It’s not mantras or affirmations or any words at all that undo the past; It’s life: the friendly nod of a stranger, the smile of a baby, the caress of a knotted, torqued hand.
            It’s touch.
            Suddenly his whole life is a myth. Adrian Dolak wasn’t touched enough as a child. He was deprived of touch and now his skin is thick, callused, incapable of feeling. He gives love but can never feel it. And now here he is, devoting his life to its substitute, formulating words and rearranging them and manipulating them with the pathetic hope they’ll do the job for him, fly out of the prison in which he finds himself and somehow touch others. But he’s got it all wrong. His myth is not a technology-driven, contemporary retelling, full of words. It’s made up of ageless archetypes that have the run of the soul. The visceral montage he saw at the festival changed the shape of his heart, moved him inexplicably beyond words. All at once he knows he wants to do what Raz does and circumvent the mind—our biggest enemy. 
            The fountain pen begins to glide, of its own accord, to dance across coarse paper as though it were ageless papyrus. An hour later, his notebook is covered with mad scrawlings, every inch of it. Icarus has wings again. Daedalus has crafted them carefully over weeks, months, collecting bird feathers that chanced to drop on the sill of their tiny window to the outside world. He’s layered them lovingly, painstakingly, with wax. He’s strapped the apparatus to his only son, along with every minute hope of redemption. The boy is poised over the Adriatic, a scorching sun pounding from heaven, threatening to melt the wax if he doesn’t act. He tries his wings, flapping them tentatively, momentarily blinded by the searing disc.
            The stainless steel nib slows to a halt.
            The more Adrian wills it to move, the more obstinately it refuses.
            The myth of his life will have to conclude another day. He surrenders to the fact, lidding the inkbottle with a strange satisfaction. He doesn’t need, doesn’t necessarily want to know the outcome.
             What he does know, before even closing the buckled pages of his ratty notebook, is he’s going to Nepal with Raz. He’ll keep writing, but nothing heady. His real work is in the trenches, feeling things and being of service and experiencing life, not a simulation of it.
            He wonders how he’ll break it to Daniela.

            Joan squints through the licking flames.
            “That damn garage door’s fallen open again.” She turns to Hugh in accusation. “Did you pull the trailer brake?”
            “I pulled the damn door,” he defends. “That should be enough. Who the hell opened it this time?”
            “You know that latch is on its last legs,” she gripes with a chastising tone.  “Now that that boy’s jeep’s gone, you’d better get back up there and pull the damned brake; Do I need to remind you what happened last time you forgot?”
            Here Joan turns to their guests; alcohol has her hell-bent on humiliating him publicly. “The very day we bought the damned toy and got it up here, we had to chase it halfway down the hill! Thankfully this picnic table stopped it or it’d be history!”

            Hugh’s searching for the key in their bedroom, throwing clothes around in a huff, checking pocket after pocket. He’s been keeping the key solo, and Joan’s been haranguing him about it, questioning the wisdom in such an act. But the plastic’s broken and it won’t stay on the key ring. And since it’s got a computer chip in it, replacing it would be nearly a hundred dollars. Hugh’s got means, but he’s often accused of being a tight-ass. And therein lies the reason I’ve got means, he usually says.
            “Whew!” In the eleventh hour, in the pocket of the last pair of trousers in the wicker hamper, he’s found it.
            He stuffs the plastic key with its tiny computer chip in the front pocket of his pleated Dockers and heads back out.
            The boathouse is nearly pitch black; only scant beams of moonlight make their way between broken slats. He’s about to kneel and search around for the keyhole in the plate glass actuator, when a dark figure stumbles into him. He stands.
            It’s Joan. Her hand finds his chest in the dark. It’s trembling, but insistent, not reaching out to steady herself. Or maybe it is, in a way.
            Hugh clutches her hand in his own, sliding it from the collar of his polo shirt and placing it gently, still trembling, at her side.
            “I think we should be respectful,” he whispers firmly.
            “It’s not like we’ve been inappropriate,” Fay says. “It’s just Shakespeare, for God’s sake.”
            “In that case, no more Shakespeare.”
            Fay turns and storms out of the boathouse.

            She’s marching across the slick, dew-covered lawn, face flushed and furious.  She’ll just go back to the picnic table, or walk all the way to Paris. Or maybe she’ll pass the picnic table altogether and plunge into that dark, still lake. She identifies with Ophelia more than ever, suddenly wishing it was her under that violet-spangled water, stomach sour with the herb of grace. That it was her flushed countenance being caressed by an invisible current, her tears mingling with the stagnancy. They’re falling uncontrollably, like those of a brokenhearted schoolgirl whose crush has just given her her first broken heart.
            How is it possible, she wonders, that she’s as fragile as ever? More vulnerable? How is it life never gets easier? If anything, her skin’s grown thinner with age, not thicker, exposing capillaries and age spots, things her mother never prepared her for. Nor did her mother warn her that age only steals confidence. Oh, Fay knows it’s just an adjustment period; when she mourns the passage of youth entirely, the maternal wisdom and the inner peace will take over. But for now, stolen confidence only means one thing: despair.

            Hugh’s grappling for the key in darkness. When Fay bumped into him, came at him, it must have been jostled from where he stuffed it in his front pocket. It’s happened before, but he ignored the red flag: last time, the key was only superficially lodged in his pocket, sitting atop the wad of receipts and the eye drops and the chewing gum, ready to jump. It’s happened again. His outstretched fingers grope blindly—as far as he can reach under the boat, along the wall, under the splintery planks of the worktable. It’s no use—without a flashlight, the search could be an all-night affair. He considers flashing his cell phone light around, but they’re sure to see it, and Joan’s just as sure to ridicule him in front of their guests for losing the key in the first place.
            Probably just slid under the slats, Hugh decides, running his fingers one last time along the edge of the worktable. He’ll find it first thing in the morning.
            For now, a couple bricks should do. He hefts two midsized cinder blocks from a stack against the wall, positions them securely behind each wheel of the boat trailer, careful not to draw any attention by being too loud about it.

            Fay dabs her mascara with a handkerchief, preparing to rejoin the others at the fire pit. She hopes she doesn’t look flushed; her fair skin has a habit of giving her away, showing the slightest bloom. Her breathing’s nearly back to normal when she reaches the circle of crimson light and the now roaring fire.
            Ostensibly, she’s gone to the cottage to use the restroom; no one needs to know she’s been indiscreet, been rejected, on the way.
            Hugh follows a moment later, doing his best to look composed.
            “What time is it?” Joan wants to know. “’S gotta be past midnight.”
            “Quarter after,” Hugh says, glancing at his Rolex watch in the flickering light.
            “Is that girl still traipsing around out there?” Fay asks, of no one in particular. She’s gazing absently into the dark, tangled woods to the east of the cottage.
            “Apparently,” Joan replies. “Where’s Adrian?”
            “At the dock. Trying to write.” Fay hopes it will be left alone.
            “In the dark?” The idea is preposterous to Joan.
            Fay ignores her, but can’t help herself and wheels at Hugh vehemently. “What did you mean by, ‘he’s good at that?’”
            “Huh?” Hugh’s startled.
            Fay’s eyes are drunken slivers. “Earlier, when Miles went to get more kindling, you said ‘he’s good at starting fires.’ Didn’t you?”
            “You’re reading into it.”
            Suddenly they’re all staring into the flames, transported to a weekend in Nantucket twenty years earlier—one that’s been relegated to silence by the sheer horror of it. It’s been swept under the rug of denial, but continued to drive the past twenty years all the same.
            Fay composes herself, restoring a tone to her voice that’s diplomatic but smug: “I’m surprised, frankly. It’s clear to me alcohol brings out what Hugh’s good sense and temperance keeps at bay.”
            Hugh returns the acrimony with gritted teeth; Fay’s succeeded in riling him.  “Is that your professional opinion? Your diagnosis?”
            Joan moves closer to her husband, instinctively.  
            “Maybe he has had a bit too much to drink,” she defends. “We all have! Please, Fay, let it go. Can you blame him?”
            And then, from nowhere, tears spring into Joan’s eyes.
            “It was an incredible loss. Nearly too much to bear,” she manages, voice suddenly thick with raw, suppressed emotion. The roiling flames have her back there, wracked with an agony she’ll hardly endure. Her heart knew, even then, it would never survive more loss. And so she stopped taking risks, allowing herself to want things. She sentenced herself to a life of subsistence.
            “Unless you’ve experienced that kind of loss, you shouldn’t judge.”
            It’s Miles who comes to his wife’s defense now, sloughing off his self-loathing and sitting up in the rickety lawn chair. “Who are you to talk about judgment? As if  you’re the poster girl for grace?  You’ve worn your pain for twenty years and we’ve put up with it…”
            “You’ve…put up with me?!” Joan’s hand flies reflexively to her chest. It’s flushed now, blotchy and blood red.
            “You’re an open fucking wound!” Miles shouts.
            Joan’s injured look turns to defiance. “I may not put on a happy face every morning, but at least I’m honest…”
            Fay zeroes in on Joan, like prey. “Honest? Are you fucking kidding me? Instead of letting my husband take the fall—I know It’s been convenient all these years—let’s be honest about your part in that weekend!”
            Joan looks suddenly panicked, stands involuntarily. “Don’t—” Her body tries to flee.
            But Joan’s right behind her. “You didn’t want that kid any more than the first or second!”
            Before she knows what she’s done Joan’s slapped her across the face. Once. Twice.
            Fay takes it like a champ, continues her relentless assault. “That’s right! I drove martyr Joan to the clinic not once but twice!”
            Joan looks sick, turns to Hugh. “It was all before we met, Hugh. Don’t listen to her! It’s true: Renee was a surprise. But a miraculous one! A new start!”    
            Fay’s fierceness compresses between brows, preparing to crush coal to diamonds. “I know full well from my practice how powerful subconscious wish-fulfillment can be; if a person wants or doesn’t want a thing, they’ll find a way to make it appear in their life, or, conversely…go away.
            Joan targets Miles in her crosshairs. “Like Raz? Poor guy did not deserve that.”
            Miles feels implicated; his impulse is to turns the tables. He wheels at Hugh, taking the blame game to round two. “As long as we’re telling the truth, Hugh didn’t want the kid either. He wanted to chase the big bucks. Research was beneath him.”
            “That may have been true,” Hugh says, “Before he came.”
            Fay announces it, blurts it out: “Joan forgot to turn the baby monitor on. If she had, we might have heard something!”
            Joan’s never been maternal; Fay knows this. Joan’s the one who talked her out of her own instincts and insisted on taking the babies to the beach in the first place. Talked her into relaxing about it and getting stoned, for God’s sake. Fay stands behind her husband in petty solidarity.
             “Miles and I don’t believe in accidents.”
            Oh, the irony: Hugh’s heard himself say the same thing a million times. Suddenly he’s being called on his own logic, and the knee-jerk reaction is visceral.    Accidents?” he repeats, incredulously. “You don’t believe in accidents? You mean like leaving a bunch of oil-stained rags in a box when you know better? When it’s your vocation and it’s right there on the Goddamned warning label?”
            Miles shoots up from his lawn chair and clocks Hugh in his perfect, Ivy League jaw. They roll away from the fire, wrestle their way into dew-soaked grass. A brawl ensues, unlike any since college, or before.

            Adrian’s got it figured out—the solution to his writer’s block. Even the poetic, less narrative version of his novella feels off; Icarus can’t take the leap. The myth of Adrian Dolak’s life has come to a screeching halt. And it’s crystal clear why: he wants to do what Raz does: engage in life, not write about it. He’s already called; they’re leaving for Nepal from Paris in two days.           
            Now all he’s got to do is break it to Daniela.
            He’s vaguely aware an addiction to adventure is the perfect way to run from a broken heart, that the pattern could become his M. O. As much as he hates breakups, this time it will be different.
            They say the body has no memory for pain. The same goes for the heart, Adrian’s learned. It holds only the memory of the memory of once searing pain, like scar tissue. By grace alone, the heart’s memories grow hazy over time, detached, no matter how excruciating the loss: the long, sleepless nights replaying and replaying events, the withdrawal from an addiction to something that turned out to be illusory. The feeling of being duped by a cruel universe that gives and then takes away. The return to familiar solitude, tinged now with the soul-level sting of rejection, with feelings of abandonment—just a word, after all, but one that keys into the very real fear one just may turn out to be unlovable. The heart remembers its inconsolable state and vows never to return to it, should it not survive—the emptiness no one can fill—not the friends who come around with their empty touch and emptier platitudes, not the mockingbirds in the dead of night that have never mocked so relentlessly.
            Adrian remembers the moment, after his second break up, when he told himself he’d never survive another ending, when his heart decided for him to stop taking risks. His first love, when it ended, stole away with his ideals. He rebuilt them over time, knowing the process was a rite of passage. But the second ending was more disillusioning somehow. Maybe between the first and the second he just forgot how painful it was—all that scar tissue. More likely, he gave more of himself the second time around, so there were more pieces to collect when it blew up. Most people give everything to their first love and never love so freely again. He’s the opposite; as his world yielded blessings, he accepted them with open arms. Only later did he come to recognize the hubris in all of it, that some part of him imagined he earned what landed in his path.
            He only knows things will be different this time. There’s a reason for the empty platitudes. Move on, they say. Tear up photos and have a rebound. As if a Band aid could suffice as a tourniquet. It’s because they know the wound is bottomless, like an abyss, and that they just might see themselves at the bottom of it.
            Adrian Dolak’s only ever been left. This time, he’ll be the dump-er, not the dump-ee.
            Even as he makes the decision, it dawns on him: in either role, the universe is pushing him toward isolation, and away from connection. And it’s not for any grandiose purpose like his silly writings. They’ll be erased with the sands of time. It’s to fulfill something much greater.
            He just doesn’t know what.
            He hears her thrashing through brittle leaves, emerging from the dark, ambivalent wood where she’s been wandering.
            He palms the splintery dock beside him, a gesture meant to amend for his misplaced aggression earlier. She joins him, but her hands remain at her sides. Her form slumps, relaxes into his. Their breath synchronizes. Suddenly nothing needs to be said—words are overrated, anyway—they’re just two friends who love each other, even if one of them can’t feel it all the time.
            She breaks out a joint. “What do you say we chill—let all this craziness go?”
            Adrian says nothing, just smiles.
            When the blunt is spent, the two souls—friends—meld into comfortable silence, gazing across the dark waters. The lake is indistinguishable from night, but the sound of gentle lapping is evidence of its existence. The effect is peaceful.
            Go for a swim?” Adrian proposes, leaping suddenly to his feet like an excited child.
            He does want to drown it all out, like she said. The pettiness, the bickering, the war of words.
            “You sure it’s a good idea? You’re stoned.”
            Adrian’s already stripped off all his clothes.

            The men tumble to a stop on wet, tangled grass. Momentum has gotten hold of Hugh, flinging him over Miles’s shoulders where he comes to rest several yards away. Hugh holds up both hands, recognizing the lull as the opportunity for a truce. Miles is breathing heavily, eyes bloodshot and fuming beneath Neanderthal brows. But he’s able to control himself, resist lunging at the arrogant fuck a second time.
            “Easy, buddy,” Hugh cajoles.
            Hugh wipes blades of grass from his pleated trousers, examining the green splotches that are sure to stain. Miles gives him one last hard look, as if to establish dominance, then trudges away in a huff.
            The others watch, paralyzed momentarily by the melee that’s broken loose, continues to swirl like a regrettable tempest. On pure instinct, Joan goes after Miles. If there’s a thought in her head, it’s to apologize. Her husband can wait; she needs to fix this.
            Fay’s instinct is to go after Hugh. She follows him to the border of the wretched, inextricable wood on the edge of the sprawling lawn.
            “Please, Hugh,” she calls after him.
            Pale, snaking birch trunks bow, inviting Hugh’s tiny figure into a swarthy, cavernous hollow. In a hiccup, he’s swallowed up, ingested by the black void.
            “Wait up!” Fay calls, her voice nullified by the nothingness, the indifferent breath that flutters anxious leaves. She can hear him crunching fallen ones ahead, snapping brittle limbs as he penetrates deeper.
            Fay hesitates, surveying the front lines that stand in solidarity, daring her to follow. Black birch knots glower like all-knowing eyes.
            She plunges into the mystery, following the sound of crunching leaves.
            When she catches up to him, he’s seated on a jagged rock defined only by the most delicate rim of dappled moonlight. She seats herself beside him on the jagged rock, sitting on her hands should they be tempted to stray and get her in trouble again.
            Please forgive me, Hugh. I’m begging you.” She can’t bear what she’s done, nor the fact he can’t bring himself to look at her. “Please forgive what was said back there. I didn’t mean a word of it.”
            Hugh turns finally, and the dappled light reconfigures itself, making him look altogether different. It’s his hand that reaches out, strokes the sheath of platinum locks that frames impossibly pronounced cheekbones. He pushes the sheath aside, like a curtain, tucks it behind a flushed ear. Fay’s ice blue eyes catch cool moonlight, fill up with it like welling reservoirs. The ice is melting, glaciers dissolving to abject surrender.
            “Daniela said it’s only through conflict that we grow. That we grow closer,” she says. “Is it true?”
            “It can be.” Hugh gazes at the littering of fallen leaves, then returns his eyes to hers. “Please forgive me for being so cold earlier. In the boat house.”
            “I shouldn’t have thrown myself at you,” she admits.
            His arm is around her shoulder now, not gruff or proprietary like Miles’s. It’s capable, equally strong, but in a paternal way. Fay knows you get different things from different people in life, that one’s mate cannot provide all. Nor should he. She’s lucky to have chemistry at home; it’s no small thing. In fact, it may well be the most powerful thing in a marriage. She’s supposed to get conversation, or support, or fathering outside her primary relationship. She encourages it all the time in her practice, gives permission. She’s even cited an obscure folktale of unknown origin in making her point: Our enemies may riddle us with arrows, the tale concludes. But it’s never our adversaries who will remove the poison arrows. It’s another member of ‘the village.’ And we, in turn, do the same for someone else.
            “I want you to have the book,” Hugh says suddenly, referring to the enormous tome in the library that’s become their connection. He tucks an errant strand of spun gold into place.
            His gesture means more to Fay than any mistake they could have made in the boathouse earlier. The reservoir overflows, and tears are spilling again.
            “I’m sorry I’m such a mess,” she says, as if to explain her vulnerability. “Our marriage is in a strange place.”
            “I understand,” Hugh says earnestly, clutching her shoulder tighter with a firm hand, as if to lend strength.
            “Empty nest syndrome, they call it.” Fay giggles, dabbing mascara with the hem of her blouse.
            “This, too, will pass,” Hugh assures her. “And I’m here for you, no matter what. We owe each other that.”
            She collapses into him, allowing the solvent of her tears to spread mascara on his pinstriped polo shirt.
            “There’s fennel for you, and columbines,” Fay whispers faintly, nearly inaudibly.
            Hugh joins in. “There's rue for you, and here's some for me—we may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference."

            Joan’s rage seeps out every pore. If it’s true she wears her heart like a flaming house robe, or a bloody wound or whatever it is they’ve accused her of, they haven’t seen shit yet. The pain she’s worn is the tip of an iceberg, considering what’s been stolen from her. Considering Fay and Miles got to go on raising their son, thanking heaven for their good fortune, thanking heaven it was not their child that was taken and it was not the two of them who got the shit end of the stick. Oh, they got to go on to take birthdays for granted, to phone it in at soccer games and recitals, to attend graduation ceremonies as if it were a right and not a goddamn privilege. All the while judging her for her loss, blaming her for her own misfortune like the woman in the red fucking dress.
            She knows Miles saw the weekend as a chance to resurrect their marriage; it was obvious. But even if she wanted the same, it’s too late. The weekend’s combusted, gone up in flames. Even if she wasn’t filing papers tomorrow, the inferno has wreaked irreparable damage, leaving charred, bubbling, porous remains as unrecognizable as her heart.
            There’s no going back.
            Once words are out there, free of their box, there’s no containing them; they’re errant sparks or malicious embers—no telling where they’ll land.
            She’s made it up the hill; she’s stumbling through the boathouse to the kitchen door when she runs into Miles.
            He’s fumbling in vain with the unlocked but still stubborn doorknob.
            “I’m going to bed,” he grumbles when he hears her.
            But his motor skills are impaired; he can’t master the unlocked door in his drunken state. He leans on it, defeated.
            “I know a lot of things were said,” Joan says gently, “Things that can never be taken back. But we can live through this.”
            Miles remains turned to the door, his face plastered to its splintery, painted surface. His hands fuss ineptly with the brass knob.
            “We can get past this,” Joan repeats. She doesn’t apologize, knows they’re made of the same stuff and there’s no need.
            Miles ceases fussing and prying, and his hand falls listlessly from the brass fixture. And then, all at once, he’s collapsed into her. He’s not sobbing per se; they’re more like silent, drunken heaves of regret, long suppressed. Fay looks at him in the shards of stealthy moonlight that have made it through cracks. Suddenly he’s a child, or a—baby. An overgrown, drunken baby.
            She cradles his head to her bosom, stroking coarse, wavy hair. Running fingers through it like she knows he needs. But when his hands find the small of her back, they’re anything but those of a baby. They’re thick and capable.
            Suddenly all she’s missed out on returns to her—not the baby but everything else, and her maternal instinct is nowhere to be found. Man, what she wouldn’t give to be disgusted by a motor oil-stained shirt or a dirty fingernail; she’d trade it in a heartbeat for the repulsion she feels for Hugh. Can’t change a fucking light bulb. She has to admit, there was primal satisfaction in watching Miles pummel him. In the fantasy of a skull-crushing victory that never quite materialized.
            There’s a rip in Miles’s shirt. During the tousle with Hugh, it must have snagged on a rock or a branch. The gaping hole reveals the thick brown forest populating his broad chest. It’s just within reach; why not trace the trickle of blood that meanders between muscular pectorals like an uncharted river, the light sweat that coats the forest like morning dew. It could be the musk that accompanies the dew, but suddenly Joan finds herself exploring, tracing the thicket south toward the enormous gold belt buckle that flashes in patchy shards of light.
            There’s no harm in any of it. If her lightly tracing fingers tremble, it’s not due to regret. Only anticipation. For God’s sake, if she did Miles right here and now her cuckold husband would probably pull up a folding chair and take notes, not batting an eye. The only joy in it would be that maybe, just maybe, there’d be just a smidgen of jealousy. A twinge or a pang on her husband’s part. After all, he’s harbored a man crush all these years.
            The thought only motivates her, compels her fingers south.
            She has the upper hand, she knows. The two men may have had a mutual attraction for twenty-plus years as she and Fay have discussed; they may have gone on fishing trips and watched games together, sublimating it all the while. Doing things she could never be a part of. But she has tits—the home court advantage.
            Tits always win out. They were enough to snag Ryan Hercoe and all those other boys.
            In one yank, Joan’s stripped the buttons from Miles’s torn, lightly soaked cotton shirt, baring the thick-wooded expanse of his chest. It heaves nervously. His eyes dart.
            She presses her considerable rack against the frontier of his chest. She knows he can feel her nipples coming to life through the coarse linen of her blouse, beginning to coarse with blood. She brushes them against him lightly, just to be sure.
            Then she slides further south.
            She struggles with the ridiculous gold buckle, biting through denim.
            He’s responding. Or the man in him is responding, or the animal—whatever part that is that’s so easily tempted to stray, to tune out the others, nothing more than distant voices now, to forego vows and all the bonds of civility.
            She grabs his cock and looses it like a serpent from a cage. She leans over and bites the tip, just the tip, teases it with a flick of the tongue.
            Man, she got good at this once upon a time, before it was all lights-out and missionary only. Before it was routine.
            He begins to moan; she hasn’t lost her touch.
            He’s against the plaster wall now, the two of them wedged between it and Hugh’s ridiculous toy on its not-up-to-code trailer with shredded wheels. As Miles relaxes into the languid curve of the plaster wall, Fay drops to her knees, hoping they’ll hold out.               

Magnitude : 6.0
Local Time: 2016-08-24 02:36:33
GMT/UTC Time: 2016-08-24 02:36:33
Depth (Hypocenter): 4 km
Epicenter: 11 km outside Esclimont, France

            Fay stops, suddenly. She’s still latched on the head of his cock, but she stops the tongue-flicking.
             “Did you feel that?”
            “Hell yeah,” Miles groans. He’s surprised the verbal encouragement hasn’t signaled enjoyment.
            “That was an earthquake.”
            He’s about to make some joke about how a good blowjob can be earth-shattering, when a second jolt triggers an all-consuming bass rumble, and the two shoot to their feet. The problem is, his pants are around his ankles. They tangle up, refusing to cooperate with his panicked efforts to pull them up. Scrambling, he falls into her, and the two into the boat.
            Cinder blocks tumble, like butter.

            The boat’s been pushed off its blocks. Somehow. Splintery double doors fly open, rusty and unhinged, and the pinstriped motorboat torpedoes into the gravel drive. Raz’s jeep is not there to stop it; in a fraction of a second it’s leapt from the rig, no ratcheted straps to prevent it. It’s sailed into the air, landed on slick, dew-covered grass, and is now picking up speed.

            Hugh and Fay are headed back to Le Destin, making their way up the hill in no particular hurry other than it’s been a long night.
            All at once, Hugh’s eyes widen.
            Fay looks up.
            Without a moment to spare, he grabs her and they dive into the slippery grass.

            Le Reve is dark and still and…surprisingly warm, considering it’s one-thirty in the morning.  Adrian’s floating on his back, half submerged in the tranquil, soothing water.
            “I wish you’d join me.”
            Daniela’s still clothed, dangling bare feet from the edge of the dilapidated dock.
            “Too stoned,” she says.
            “You don’t know what you’re missing!”
            With that, Adrian stands in the waist-deep water. It’s then he notices it: the great, rounded stone that’s anchored to the floor of the lake. Its base, slick with moss, is buried in silt. Adrian’s fingers trace its rising mass in darkness; it breaks the water’s surface like a great breaching whale reaching for the stars. He wonders how they’ve not noticed it during the day, from the cottage.
            He scrambles atop the baleen peak and stands gazing back at Le Destin. A light breeze caresses his skin, every inch, forging tiny bumps. It’s exhilarating. His junk hangs free.
            In a way, he’s never felt more free.
            The still lake, invisible in the incessant shroud of night, makes itself known with gentle lapping. Suddenly, the lake is the Adriatic, heaven is heaven, and Adrian’s Icarus himself, perched on the brink of a high ledge, taking in an uncharted future from his prison. He arches his back, leaning into the breeze as if to invite destiny, spreading his arms like great, magnificent wings.
            “Adrian!” Daniela shouts.

            It comes out of nowhere, like molecules of black ether suddenly made material. Daniela screams.
            Before Adrian can open his eyes, before he knows what’s hit him, it’s mowed him down and pinned him to the bottom of the lake.

            It’s comforting, in a way. How crushing weight can take your breath, and with it, all your worries, trading sixty pounds per square foot for the weight of the world and the futility that comes with it.
            What’s more heavenly is the profound silence, so much like a womb, the gentle current like the rocking of a crib at a mother’s hand. Fallen leaves emit their lime, gently caressing with a loving touch; others rise up from the depths and sway in the current, cleansing, gently cleansing like a baptism.  
            Adrian Dolak has never felt more at peace.

            “Thank you again,” Daniela says, shaking the man’s hand for the fifth time.
            “The Dolaks will be in touch,” she says.
            “Yes.” The coroner knows they will, knows they’re in shock and don’t mean to be rude by retreating to the cottage. He also knows they won’t sleep a wink.
            He hops in his van and exits the gravel drive, turning onto the access road that will carry him toward Esclimont.
            Daniela watches the van become just one more shimmering light among the others of the village.
            Perfection. That’s what she saw in Adrian that first day at the café and never told him. Not just in the perfectly configured blonde hairs on his bronzed forearms, or the symmetry of a sturdy brow, but in every aspect. He was the ideal balance of mind, body and spirit. He had it right, the humanity thing. But Daniela also knows such perfection never lasts; the world makes sure to do away with divinity. Small doses, Raz would say.
            Even she’s belittled him in the glaring light of it.
            “Something much bigger than myself,” Adrian answered when she asked what his first impression of their meeting was. “The start of something. Like the universe tugging, trying to tell me something.”
            All at once, she knows it was not a future together he saw, nor a soul mate. The bigness of the moment, like a fleeting, temporal glimpse of the universe or the face of God, was a glimpse of his own fate. The beginning of the end. Some part of him knew the wheels were in motion.

            Fay’s on the saddle brown leather cigar couch, wide awake. Its brass upholstery tacks imprint themselves on the flesh of her cheek, but she hasn’t the will to move; she’s paralyzed. As if to compensate, her mind reels. She knows she won’t sleep a wink. She also knows she can’t be near him. He’s passed out, snoring like a drunk baby. Maybe the alcohol will be kind to her husband, numbing the pain and rendering the night’s horrific events nothing more than a bad dream. Or maybe she’ll manage to fall asleep herself, and when she awakes it will turn out to have been a surreal nightmare. She’ll have her son back and they can rewind to the past and go home.
             Fay feels her catatonic body stand of its own accord. It shuffles across the mahogany floorboards and the Persian rug, to the high shelf where the book’s kept.
            She wonders if it will mean anything tomorrow, the gift. Or the next day, or the one that follows. Right now, it’s her reason for being. The only thing that means a fucking thing. She returns to the couch. But instead of parting the book’s pages, she cradles it like a baby.
            She’s still curled up with it when scattered beams of morning light spill through colorless shears, illuminating the library floor in tiny dapples. She’s gone in and out of something resembling sleep, but it’s been anything but restful. Morning serves as a haunting reminder that the previous night’s horror has only been lying in wait. 
            Fay parts the book’s pages and it falls open, of its own accord, to the highly rendered Waterhouse painting. In it, Ophelia’s eyes are open, palms upturned, a deathly pallor marrying her with the water’s greenish tones.
            It occurs to Fay, maybe for the first time, that Ophelia’s eyes are not fixed on the surface of the water, nor the floating lily pads, nor even the swaying stalks of  deathly, ashen willows. They’re looking far beyond the water’s surface.
            Fay flips to Titus. Lavinia’s still tied to her stump, lunging toward her Uncle and vainly attempting to speak. Blood pours relentlessly from a gullet it seems will never stop hemorrhaging.
            Titus is not a tragedy.  Her heart knows it with more conviction than ever. A tragedy, by definition, is when nothing is gained. When neither a want nor a greater need is met. The play is not a cautionary tale, as they all say, about the shortcomings of revenge. It’s not about family vendettas or settling scores or even bloodlines or war. It’s about preserving innocence despite the horrors of war. Or returning to innocence amid the horror. She knows Joan’s remained true to herself, despite incredible loss. She’s always known it.
            She, on the other hand, turned her back on innocence long ago. Nothing can numb the realization, the knowledge in every cell that she’s betrayed herself with each deception—each outright lie and cunning secret, each and every excuse fabricated expertly out of pride. She’s spent her life manipulating appearances.  And her own son, whom she cradled in her very womb, who passed into this world through her own searing, bloody loins, has been sacrificed for it. But maybe, just maybe, she can still get down off the stump where she’s been left. She can stumble back from the swamp, tongueless and limbless and spouting blood, and beg innocence to take her back.

            Miles is packing his suitcase, stuffing worn garments in the spaces between those Fay folded and ironed before leaving the states. The suitcase is about half as full as before their departure, thanks to the casualty of all the shirts he’s turned into oil rags.
            “Thanks for taking us to the airport,” Miles says, preemptively, when Hugh appears in the doorway to the tiny guest room.
            “Of course. Our pleasure.”
            “And thanks for taking care of the rental.”
            Joan and Hugh have agreed to follow-up on getting the rental car out of impound and returning it to the agency in Paris. It was the least they could do, they said, considering the incomprehensible grief the couple must be experiencing. And considering Daniela left during the night, explaining in a note left on the kitchen table she’s Ubering back to Paris.
            Miles snaps the latch closed on his suitcase, and his eyes find Hugh’s across the tiny room. He can’t help tearing up.
            Their handshake is firm when they meet, wordlessly, in the middle of the room. It’s reassuring. Their friendship will not fall apart; they won’t let it. It’s amazing what can be said with a simple handshake, Miles thinks.
            But a moment later the men find themselves in a tearful embrace, holding tightly as if to something vital for existence, some buoy on the high seas amid a squall come without warning. Miles knows their bond is more than a man crush. Oh, they’ll let the women have their shaming, but it’s more than that. Their affection, their love, is not romantic or sexual; it’s much deeper.

            Fay knows she’s got to pack if they’re going to make their flight. But she can’t pry herself from the book, or the leather couch. Nothing else exists. Nothing but the peaceful surrender of Ophelia’s world far beneath the floating lotus blossoms and their lily pads—or are they levitating in an invisible stratosphere, high above? Hard to know, so little is reliable. Oh, Fay knows the silent world beneath the greenish, algae-choked water has become the only place that’s safe, knows better than to be seduced by it, as if by siren song, but there’s nothing she can do. The harsh truth beyond it is too painful, for now.
            Part of her knows, too, that she’ll die here. She’ll join her son in his silent, watery crypt. She’ll surrender to the herb of grace and all else will go away: the pain, the noise, the consequences of life. She welcomes the prospect, longs to be pacified so. She longs for him.
            A mother should never outlive her child, she’s always heard. The cruelty is too much to bear. But how could she know the pain would be eviscerating, poisoning every cell of her, no hope of an anecdote? That her face would be stiff with ache, the lump in her throat a permanent fixture intent to snuff out her own life? That the rocking would not help, nor the purging of tears, a vomiting of horror, that the touch of her husband would repulse when he tried to rouse her?
            All that exists is this blackness, this horrific dream with no beginning and no end, this crushing weight that gently caresses. Take my breath, she begs the lurid tide. She wants nothing more than to be with him, to be reunited with what’s been excruciatingly rent from her, yanked as if for a second time from her loins. She sees no escape from the searing pain. No way out but to succumb.
            The world beyond the water is cheap and horrible.
            Take my breath, she pleads. Suffocate me.
            But all at once, his voice comes to her on the current, breaking the eerie silence of the watery crypt.
            “Turn the page,” it says simply, so clear as to render all else yet more tenuous.
            She must turn the page.
            Her hand obeys. Moving forward is turning the page. Resisting the siren song, however seductive. The tranquil lull of silence.
            She turns, and turns, and turns.
            As if by Adrian’s hand, she’s landed on Lavinia.
            Red streamers fly from a bottomless gullet, a vain attempt to bespeak horror. But the girl hasn’t the voice to protest.
            Fay knows, in an instant, innocence will take her back. With or without tangled, driftwood stumps for arms. Unlike Lavinia, she has a voice.
            Her tear-stained hand closes the book with resolve.
            Fay finds the strength to rise from the inhospitable leather couch; it’s Adrian’s will that animates her, not her own.
            Joan’s already there, in the doorway to the library.
            They meet in the center of the room, on the tapestry rug that conceals hardwood planks. Joan’s arms enfold her without a thought, without a moment’s pause, stroking her platinum locks as if to smooth away thistles. Joan’s is the only touch that does not repulse, the only one Fay can feel.  It’s the only thing that could possibly sooth this ache. She can feel Joan’s tears falling to mingle with her own, being smeared into her bedraggled locks with each loving stroke. After what seems an eternity, Fay raises her head and fixes her red lined eyes on Joan’s.
            “I was touched,” she says softly. “Long before Miles raped me on our first date, I was touched.”
            She’s not sure why saying the words is so important—something about speaking her truth as a way back to innocence. Something about turning her back on the crafting of appearances. Something about Adrian’s will.
            “I’ve never told a soul, but I was touched.” Fay knows now, even though saying it is like walking on brand new legs, that it wired her for the rest. That being molested at nine wired her to freeze in the parking lot at Bobby McGees that first night, to squelch her own protests and go limp like a ragdoll. And as much as she resisted it, all Daniela’s talk of peptide balances and maintaining them at all costs make sense now. Not only did she accept the conditions of her perpetrator; she married him.  Doomed herself to repeat the pattern.

            Joan lays her friend’s head back down with a gentle hand, strokes honey locks wet with unruly tears. Joan understands now: in the same way she chose for herself a life of clean fingernails and country cottages and perfect bouquets to make up for her shame, Fay, too has been cleaning up her life all these years, in her own way.

            Joan waves one last time, then watches the Dolaks shrinking in the rear-view mirror of their BMW. They’ve dropped the couple at Charles deGaulle; they’re returning to the states. The body will follow.
            Joan will miss her friends, but mostly Miles. She watches him retreat, silently hoping his marriage will survive.
            Her own will, if she wants it to.
            Joan knows she and Miles are made of the same stuff. She wears her pain like a thorny robe, but he’s no different, wearing his distaste as an oily shirt—his resentment of pseudo-intellectuals or uninvited, racially ambiguous houseguests. Joan knows he can’t help it; he’s just built that way—can’t temper his DNA with socialization. At least the two of them are honest; even their roll in the hay was an honest act. She can’t filter her pain any more than he can rationalize—would be like a pig in lipstick.
            She knows her husband and Fay are from the same mold, too. But now she sees things for what they are: his deception is directed at himself, not others. And there are worse things than dressing up the truth—visualizing, manifesting, he’d call it—a kinder world. Fay’s deception is less forgivable. Manipulating appearances is unforgivable. Secrets always catch up with a person, no matter how long it takes.
            The Dolaks said it themselves: There are no mistakes.
            Fay’s changing her ways, Joan knows, trying to put less emphasis on the appearance of things, and more on the truth. Oh, she knows it’s all relative; there is no objective truth, only different perspectives on it. But it’s possible to be authentic about the truth as one sees it.
            Suddenly, Joan’s glad she has no filter for pain—no way to turn it into something else. Most people learned the tricks in kindergarten: how to keep their power by changing the looks of things. ‘Ego,” Fay would call it; too bad even with that degree she didn’t recognize it in herself sooner.
            Joan Neilson is glad to be free of secrets.
            She’s even gladder when she returns to ‘Les Vivants’ Monday morning. She’s decided to open up, keep busy. Nothing to be gained by dwelling on the weekend’s horror. She’s just unlocked the third obstinate deadbolt and thrown the door open to the jangle of Morrocan chimes, when she sees it across the room: the rhododendron. It’s survived the weekend, without water or plant food. Maybe she only imagined it was wilting Friday afternoon; it was a trick of the eye or the dusty glass. She’s worried needlessly.
            Still, she waters it for good measure.
            She’s about to restore the faux-rusted watering can to its peg, when the chimes sound and an old woman enters the store. She’s Morroccan, all jangling beads and mile-high headdress.
            “Bonjour,” the woman smiles. Her eyes are shrouded with cataracts, but lucid and sharp all the same.
            “A dozen Damasks,” she sings. And then, “S’il vous plais.”
            “Bien sur,” Joan obliges, knowing suddenly that coming back to work was the best idea.
            In her best Francais limité, Joan asks if the woman would like the thorns left intact. Moroccan tradition, she’s learned.
            ‘Bah, non,” the woman protests, explaining the arrangement is for a Scandinavian friend.
            In one fell swoop, the thorn strippers lay the stalk bare and thorns are scattered in the trash, atop the crumpled tissue paper and the frayed bows that didn’t curl right.
            Her movements slow with the realization.
            By wearing her pain, she really has stripped away thorns. All these years. And the perfect rose that remains after all her prodding and poking and shearing, really is hope or promise or redemption—call it what you want. To her customers, it’s meant the world.
            She picks up the phone.
            They’re expecting her at two-thirty, but she’s decided to cancel the appointment and hold her husband for a long, long time when she gets home.


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