September was Louisa’s turn to host. Even though her pregnancy, entering its seventh month, had begun to be burdensome, she was determined to give her friends a proper home-cooked meal, and she heckled the butcher for his freshest and most tender lamb. He lifted a maroon lump from the case and held it out to her, his thick fingers sheathed in latex gloves tight and translucent as sausage casings, but she rejected it and also the next one and sent him off to the back of his shop to get another, not because she really suspected him of hoarding superior tenderloins but because she wanted to make the extra effort. Her friends always announced grand culinary plans for their months, but then they complained they had no time to cook or to clean their apartments and ended up choosing a restaurant. Louisa resented their laziness and their refusal to treat girls’ night as a serious ritual. In restaurants, under the calculating eyes of aproned waiters, she felt they could never fully recreate the leisurely, intimate conversation that had been so abundant in college, back when they believed in the endlessness of talk and time and when any given night seemed capacious enough to hold everything they might ever want to say.
Mimi, small and square in jaw and shoulders, pugnacious and with a thin red mouth and a neat cap of dark hair, was the first to arrive. Then came Gretchen, delicate and pale with hooded, sly eyes and a long fall of Renaissance curls. They stood together in Louisa’s kitchen, drinking the wine Mimi had brought and waiting for Hannah, their great Nordic beauty, to arrive. When she did, immaculate in a gray suit, she made no apology for her lateness. “Hello, hello,” she said, dropping a box of expensive chocolates on the counter.
“How did you know I’ve been craving chocolate?” Louisa said.
Hannah took the drink Mimi poured for her. “I didn’t.”
“I would have brought something, too,” Gretchen said, “only we’re saving up for a trip this winter. To somewhere warm.”
“I think about chocolate all day, every day,” Louisa said, untying the box’s ribbon and lifting the lid. The brown lumps lay like sleeping toads.
“I think about Dr. Hornblum,” said Mimi. “All day and all night.”
“Who’s Dr. Hornblum?” asked Louisa.
“He’s a neurologist,” Gretchen said. “Mims has him in her sights.”
Louisa ate a truffle and felt a familiar muted elation steal over her, brought on by the presence of her friends, the taste of chocolate, the anticipation of shared confidences. If she could have drunk the wine, her senses might have been fooled completely into believing she was back in their dorm room drinking from a glass filched from the dining hall and not in her own kitchen.
In college she had imagined her future self leading a high-powered, unfettered life, striding through airports with a wheeled suitcase nipping at her heels, shoulder-slung briefcase heavy with the 8.5” × 11” excelsior of a vague profession she thought of simply as business. She would date a series of besuited, besotted men but would not settle down until she had made her mark. The idea that she and her friends, all Easterners by birth and inclination, would, through various miracles of serendipity, wind up together in Chicago would have seemed ludicrous. Hannah, at least, would surely be living somewhere exotic: Cape Town or Hong Kong or Rio. Hannah was an investment banker, Gretchen a professor (or almost), and Mimi a surgeon (or almost). Louisa told people she was an ex-career girl and a soon-to-be mommy. She was married, pregnant, homeowning, settled, content, responsible. Her lamb was perfectly cooked. Setting aside the last Friday of every month as a girls’ night had been her idea. They were so busy, her friends, that without a strictly enforced schedule they might never see each other at all. When they were all at the table, Louisa tapped her glass with a fork. “I’ve been thinking about when we met,” she said. “Four girls with bright futures, a little naïve, maybe, if we’re being honest. And now look at us. We’ve traveled the world, fallen in and out of love, built careers. What’s more, we all look better than ever. Cheers.”
A brittle chiming of glass, and Louisa drank down her club soda. Her friends made exploratory incisions in their lamb, probed their potatoes, sifted through their microgreens. She could tell they wanted to exchange glances. A second was all they needed, less than a second, but she never could catch them. They were too kind, too practiced. Hannah, without interrupting the work of her cutlery, said, “Your toast was sweet, Lou, but I don’t know if it applies to me today. I got laid off.”
“Hannah!” Louisa said, grasping Hannah’s forearm to still her knife. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know. Something else.” Hannah flexed her wrist slightly, and Louisa released her. Only then did Hannah look up. “Truth be told,” she continued, “it was a terrible job with ungodly hours. I couldn’t leave even if I didn’t have anything to do. I’d sit at my desk until midnight on a Saturday, shopping online.”
“You should have gone home,” Louisa said.
“People would look at me funny.”
“That’s not much of a reason.”
“If they looked at her funny,” Gretchen said, “then they’d start talking about her, and then it would only be a matter of time before they found some reason to get rid of her. Academia’s like that too. There’s always someone hungrier.”
“At least there aren’t any thirty-six-hour shifts,” Mimi said, carving her lamb precisely into ribbons.
“In the end I guess it didn’t matter,” Hannah said. “I should have gone home.”
“You’ll land on your feet,” Louisa said.
“At least you have savings,” said Gretchen. “And a severance package.”
Louisa saw that the others had already known. She wondered what kind of savings Hannah had, what kind of severance package.
Hannah ran a long, pale strand of her hair through her fingers, an old habit. After any setback, her way was to languish in doldrums of inaction until some rare and auspicious opportunity fell into her lap. “You just have to be savvy and assertive,” Louisa said. “Decide what you really want, research how to get it, and then do it. I know what it’s like to be at the top of your field and have things change suddenly. But you can’t just sit around waiting for something to fall into your lap. Not in this job market. I’ll help you make a plan.”
There they were again. The unexchanged looks. A barometric shift occurred in the air above and around the table, invisible but pervasive, experienced by Louisa as an obscure internal tremor. “I’m okay for the time being,” Hannah said.
“Maybe she doesn’t need a plan,” David said later, in bed.
Louisa swiped at her thumbnail with a file. “Everyone needs a plan.”
“What’s your plan?”
She pointed the nail file at the nightgowned hummock of her belly until he looked up and snorted in appreciation. “Hannah won’t be able to coast on her looks forever,” she said. “Beauty fades.”
“I am aware. But I think someone can be beautiful and also meritorious.” He was lying on his side and inking in one of his strange British crosswords, working through the clues with the relentlessness of a thresher. He was not British. He had grown up in Illinois and was an accountant for a natural gas company. She suspected he preferred those puzzles because their cryptic anagrams impressed her but also left her so baffled she would not read over his shoulder and try to help. That he should be so good at snooty wordplay didn’t seem fair. He had partied his way through college, not a good college, and had never read the classics.
“I’m not saying she’s not deserving,” she said. “Not at all. Sometimes I just worry that her beauty has lulled her into a false sense of security.”
“All I meant,” he said, “was that she might drift for a while, and that might be okay.”
“Drifting makes people unhappy. It’s a waste of time.”
“Not always. And I think it’s possible that you like Hannah better when she’s locked up in an office, rolling a boulder up and down a mountain of money.”
“That’s not true,” Louisa said.
He shrugged and filled in a word that ran almost the width of the grid. She picked up Bleak House. After a moment she said, “It’s just that it must be awful to be so ungrounded. Back in college, I almost looked up to her, but now I feel sorry for her. I don’t think her life can be very fulfilling. She needs to meet a man.”
“Really? It seems like she meets men all the time.”
“She needs to commit to someone.”
He was half-listening, his pen poised over the paper.
“She never takes any risks. It’s not fair. She’s managed to avoid the consequences of being fully alive.”
“Maybe she’s happy that way.”
“She’s not happy. She’s shallow.”
“So, if you’re going to be shallow, you should at least have the decency to worry about being inadequate.”
“Gretchen is the smart one,” Louisa had told her dates in college. “Mimi is the disciplined one, and Hannah is the sexy one.” The This One. The That One. As though adjectives could be parceled out among any group of people, one apiece. “Sexy” was not quite right for Hannah, though. Sexy implied effort, contrivance, tight clothes. But Hannah wore no makeup, no jewelry. Her clothing was conservative, even austere.
Louisa had often lain awake on her bottom bunk under the downward drift of Hannah’s breathing and tried to puzzle out the mechanics of sex appeal. She wondered if Hannah ever felt herself being pulled apart by all the lust reaching out for her. Did the atoms of her body gravitate toward the many phantom selves engaged in lewd acts in the minds of men? She showed no sign. Hannah’s allure was powerful but apparently accidental, the product of nature and nothing else, and she seemed to view its results (a stream of suitors thick as the Pied Piper’s rats) with a detached neutrality.
But Louisa told her dates that Hannah was the sexy one and left it at that. Whenever a boy asked which one she was, she would say, coyly, “Which one do you think I am?”
Usually they said she was the best one, or the all-of-the-above one, or their favorite one. One boy, Michael something, said, “You’re the approachable one.”
Chance had deposited them in the same freshman suite: Louisa and Hannah in one room and Mimi and Gretchen in the next, coupled by a shared bathroom. When Louisa staggered in on the first day with a laundry basket full of bedding and her mother panting behind with a duffel bag in each hand, Hannah was lying on the top bunk reading the course catalog. An enormous pair of bare and hairy feet protruded off the end, hanging in the air like a hunting trophy. With shocking slowness, Louisa realized that, on the other side of Hannah, there was a boy. A man, really, lying flat on his face. At Louisa’s mother’s loud cluck of surprise, he stirred and lifted his head, gazing at them sleepily before he slid down the mattress and dropped to earth. He passed close by Louisa, drawing her into his wake of electric possibility. The room took on the redolence of a historical site. There had been sex in this room, recent sex, and it had not been had by parents or actors in a movie but by the girl who was now coming forward with her hand extended, unashamed, and the boy who had almost touched Louisa on his way out the door.
In the first weeks, Louisa hoped Hannah might be the best friend who had always eluded her. “You look great,” Hannah said when they went out to parties. “You look hot. No one will be able to resist you.” But the bond between them, an attachment Louisa expected to grow tighter over the year and on into an intimate future, was instead stretched open to make room for Mimi and Gretchen. Louisa tried to welcome them—she had, in fact, also always wanted to be a part of a close group of girlfriends—but she could not ignore how they siphoned off Hannah’s attention and distracted the boys who might otherwise have taken an interest in her.
Still, Hannah’s male leftovers were plentiful enough to provide a sudden windfall of attention and opportunity that compensated somewhat for the disappointing chasteness of Louisa’s high-school years. She started taking boys to bed in the same off-hand way Hannah and the others did, and weekend mornings she reported back with the promptness of a cub reporter. “The sex,” she said to their doubtful faces in the dining hall, “was amazing. I touched the stars.” That phrase had come to her once when she was leaving a boy’s room, and she had repeated it to herself as she walked to breakfast, glad to have found an expression of enjoyment that also skirted her uncertainty over whether or not she had ever had an orgasm.
“Did he make it worth your while?” Gretchen asked one conquistadorial morning, hungover, her hair a heap of frizz. “Did you get off? Did you come?”
“A lady never tells,” Louisa replied, trying to conceal her panic. She had thought she was doing well enough. When she was with a boy she deemed handsome or cool, her feeling of being flattered took on an erotic mass, buoying her into a state of pleasure. But still she could not have described the cataclysm that was the source of so much hullaballoo, and the others suspected her ignorance. Their questions were accusatory. She was not a real woman. She was not liberated. She was prudish, immature, unsexy. Somewhere she had read the phrase “little death,” and she had to guess that, like death, she would know an orgasm when she experienced it. So she started saying she had touched the stars, until Gretchen stopped asking if she’d gotten off and started asking if she’d touched the stars. Then it was time to abandon the phrase.
David was supposed to go straight from work to meet her at Parenting Preparation Class. She waited outside the community center for him, leaning against a planter of dying marigolds and studying her swollen ankles, wondering if the skin would simply burst open. At five-after she went in alone and took her place in a semicircle of folding chairs. The instructor wheeled in a television and spent a long, silent minute poking at its buttons. “Here we go,” she said when the screen burst to life. “The moment you’ve been waiting for!” She turned out the lights. The video spared them nothing—not the horror of the episiotomy, nor the alien protuberance of the baby’s head, nor the intrusions of the doctor’s gloved hands, nor the final, dreadful push. After the worst seemed over, the placenta slid out and plopped like a cow’s heart into a silver pan. Louisa wondered who this woman was, why she had allowed her vagina to be filmed during its time of greatest duress and shown to classrooms of strangers. The woman wore white ankle-socks with dirty bottoms. There was cellulite on her thighs. Not too bad, just a few innocuous dimples. Louisa told herself she should not have noticed. All her attention should have been absorbed by the yawning Charybdis from which the scurfed and aubergine baby was pulled at long last. She felt like someone looking into the face of a mortally wounded soldier and seeing only his acne.
The instructor flipped on the lights. They practiced breathing. The couples sat on yoga mats, the women nesting like tobogganers between the legs of the men. “Practice on your own, dear,” the instructor said, and Louisa, crabbed on her blue mat, obediently hissed and puffed to herself. Her pregnancy, now entering its final weeks, had been relatively easy. She had experienced little nausea; all the stretching and swelling and the compression of her guts had been noticeable but not so extreme as to detract from her happiness. “She has that glow,” she thought, examining herself in the mirror, pinching pink blossoms into her cheeks.
They had decided not to learn the baby’s gender. In the beginning, David called it “the salamander.” She did not like the joke. The baby’s early fluttering had not felt so different from the tickling claws of a scurrying lizard. Now she imagined the salamander grown huge, curled into itself, sleeping in the red light of her womb. She had begun to experience sudden terrors. The first came in her second month, when she flew to New Jersey to visit her mother. Usually she prided herself on being an experienced and unflappable traveler, but at the first bump of turbulence she found herself bracing against the armrests, face averted from her cup of orange juice as though it were the reaper himself. The second time was when she saw a cat get run over by a car. The third was when she dozed off in front of the TV and was awakened by the ringing phone. The voice at the other end had only turned out to be a recorded message advertising home insurance, but she listened all the way through, clinging white-knuckled to the receiver. She could not have said what she was afraid of—yes, it was the birth, the pain, the possibility of her death or the baby’s. Yes, it was the irrevocability of a child, but the fear was also a rootless sensation, an entity all its own that required no explanation to thrive.
“Hee, hee, hoo,” she breathed. “Hee, hee, hoo.” David’s face appeared in the door’s narrow window, and she smiled at him, focusing her glow in a concentrated beam through the window like an arrow through a casement.
Hannah didn’t answer the next few times Louisa called. Mimi answered only to say she was busy. Mimi was always busy. She used her busyness as an excuse to be sharp with people. “Well, she is a surgical resident,” Gretchen said. Louisa explained that she was more concerned about Hannah. Hannah wouldn’t take her calls. Hannah was drifting. Gretchen said, “I think maybe she just wants you to give her some space. You shouldn’t push her. She doesn’t want to be managed.”
The way Gretchen said “managed,” Louisa could tell she was quoting Hannah. “I’m only trying to help,” Louisa said. David encouraged her to expand her circle of friends. Her mother agreed—branch out, she said. “Well,” Louisa told both of them, “with the baby coming, this isn’t the best time for that. The baby will be my friend anyway, right?” “Ideally, friends don’t change each other’s diapers,” said her mother.
Louisa invited a woman from Parenting Preparation Class out to lunch. The woman didn’t seem to have much to say. She ate pasta and listened while Louisa told her about Hannah, Mimi, and Gretchen.
“To be honest,” she told David later, “she was kind of boring. I don’t think she has very many interests.”
“But you’re both going to be mothers,” he said. “Couldn’t you talk about that?”
“We did. I asked her if she was nervous, and she said yes. Then she asked me, and I said no. Then she didn’t seem to have anything else to say.”
He looked up from his puzzle. “You’re not nervous?”
She was going to birth a lizard. She was incubating a ball of fear. She moved closer to him, her head on his shoulder, watching the black-and-white squares of the puzzle fill up with the correct answers.
According to Hannah, the self must be taken strictly as it came. If one was born homely and awkward, one should remain that way, but proudly. Girls who lacked faith in their appeal were the objects of her most tender pity; girls who tried too hard were subjected to venomous scorn. Everyone should be happy and confident exactly as they were. But how could they be, really, when women like Hannah existed? Maybe that was what she wanted, to be certain there would always be thick-waisted, small-breasted serfs trailing along behind her, picking through her chaff.
At the end of their senior year, Hannah accepted a job with a bank in New York. Hannah would be the one striding through airports; Hannah would sit at conference tables; Hannah would have the desk, the briefcase, the perfectly tailored suits.
That same summer, Louisa decided her failure to get a job was a sign she should enter into a free-spirited phase. She struck out for California and became a waitress. Through a woman who worked in the kitchen, she came to know a group of people who lived communally in a sprawling yellow house that smelled like yeast and pot and who all seemed to have sex with each other but never get jealous. They shared their bodies in the same way they shared their television set: generally on a first-come-first-serve basis, with good-natured accommodation made for occasional passions/favorite shows. With her friend, Louisa attended a workshop where the group sat cross-legged in a circle around a naked woman who looked exactly like her Aunt Phyllis while a man in a bathrobe demonstrated the techniques they were each paying $40 to learn. “Find the heartbeat of your inner goddess,” Phyllis had said at the beginning, lying on her back with her legs apart and indicating with a slow sweep of her hand the craggy region where the goddess could be expected to be hiding. Louisa had wanted to giggle or cry, but everyone else was very serious, their eyes fixed on Phyllis’s grimacing face, the contortions of her toes, the turquoise rings on the man’s indefatigable fingers.
“Wasn’t that beautiful?” her friend said as they left. “It’s gratifying that there are people in this world devoting themselves to the appreciation of women.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it appreciation,” said Louisa. “Don’t you think they just want to show off? It’s like they need everyone to know how much they like doing it.”
“So what? It’s good to enjoy sex.”
“But does sex need to be a performance?”
“I can’t help it if I’m a skeptic by nature.”
She stayed for dinner and then had a beer on the porch with Clement, the only man in the house without long hair. He had hands of a pinkness and softness that Louisa found unpleasant, but the women said he was something special, that he had a gift. He asked her about the workshop, and she said it had been very informative, very liberating, that it was gratifying to know there were people in this world devoting themselves to the appreciation of women. “But what did they teach you?” he wanted to know. “On a technical level.”
She looked away, uncertain how to explain. Taking a sip of her beer, she felt uncomfortably aware of the bottle: its glass mouth against her own, the slippery void too small for her tongue. Later Clement led her through the house to his bedroom. The others did not look up as they passed. Probably everyone who came around often enough was initiated in this way. Between his sheets, on his creaking futon, she thought of words to describe what was happening: earthy, uninhibited, free love. But Clement was not satisfied. “No, you’ve got to be free,” he said. “Get loose. Get free. Take your pleasure.”
“I thought I was being free,” Louisa said. “I was making noise.”
“You’re pretending to be someone making noise. Freedom isn’t a sound. It’s something from here.” He thumped his soft, pink fist against her sternum. “You have to let go.”
Louisa’s eyes welled up. “I am letting go.”
“You can’t force it. It has to come naturally.”
“But what if it doesn’t come naturally? What am I supposed to do then?”
He shook his head and put his hands on her shoulders with managerial kindness. “We should stop here,” he said. Eventually Louisa quit waitressing and got a job with a company that sold leather-bound books by mail, fat doorstops in red or brown or blue, their spines latticed with gold and their texts interleaved with a dozen or so glossy color plates. She sent one to each of her friends for Christmas. Hannah sent back a polite thank-you note for her copy of the works of Alexander Pope. Gretchen called to say the books were bourgeois. She said they were a misguided conflation of material possession and the possession of knowledge. Her disdain would have hurt less if Louisa had not liked the job. But finally she had suits, high heels, business cards. She marched through airports, briefcase full of ad copy. She studied the newspaper until after takeoff, when she set her computer on her tray table and tapped away, radiating power and purpose.
“Moby Dick,” she wrote. “Melville’s epic tale of the high seas.” Or, “Oliver Twist: Dickens’ classic story of hard luck in the back alleys of London.”
She was working on Wuthering Heights when she met David. He was in the middle seat and was plowing through a crossword. “Wuthering Heights,” he said, gesturing at the paperback in her lap. “Is that any good?”
She informed him that Wuthering Heights was a windswept tale of violence and passion, a classic, and of course it was good. But soon he got her to admit that the characters and setting repelled her, and, no, she did not like it. He read lots of newspapers and magazines, he said, but he had never been able to get through books and was impressed by people who could. Amid the hydraulic whines of the final approach, he asked for her card and she gave it to him.
Chicago was David’s city: broad-shouldered, full of upward zoom, a steel rebellion against the oppressive horizontals of plains and lake. He was a large man, tall and burly with a head that was enormous even in relation to the rest of him, and Louisa discovered she liked the sensation of being dwarfed. His weight on her, bending her ribs, pinning her to the mattress, made her feel safe. Sex for David was a blind and joyous flinging of his bulk against the receptive elasticity of a woman, and with him Louisa found a privacy she had not known she was missing. As Aunt Phyllis had under the turquoise digits of her bathrobed attendant, she found the heartbeat of her inner goddess. For his part, David was delighted to have happened upon a woman who appreciated his gifts as a lover. She wondered what they would have said, that room full of clitoral acolytes, if she and David had demonstrated their method: the grunting leviathan, the docile woman lost beneath him.
Finally Hannah called to accept an invitation Louisa had left on her voicemail to celebrate the final burst of Indian summer with a trip up along the lakeshore and into Wisconsin. They would rent a boat and a cabin on a small bay. David’s friend from work, Max, would come too.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so out of touch,” Hannah said in the car. “I’ve been drifting a bit.”
They were sitting in back. David drove and Max rode shotgun, the two of them bobbing their heads to an old Dire Straits CD and the subsonic beat of male friendship. “I’m sorry,” Louisa said.
“It’s fine. I like to drift.”
The sensation of drifting was a welcome one, she said. She felt serene and open to all possibilities. Louisa should try it sometime. Then she asked if Louisa had heard from Gretchen yet, because Gretchen was too busy to host the next girls’ night.
“Well, can you or Mimi do it then?” Louisa asked.
Hannah gave her a careful look. “We just won’t do it this month,” she said. “It’s no big deal. There’s always next month.”
“Next month I’ll have a baby.” Louisa was embarrassed to hear her voice rising, unbidden, into a tremulous and woebegone register. “We have to do it this month. We never see each other.”
“I just saw Gretchen and Mimi,” Hannah said. “They’re fine. Nothing important is going on.”
“You saw them? When?”
Hannah held Louisa’s eye. “We had dinner. Last week. It was nothing. Completely last minute. We wanted to call you, but we thought you’d be busy. It was really nothing.”
“I wish you had called,” Louisa said.
“Girls,” said Max, turning around, “are you fighting back there?” He made a noise, the sound of a cat yowling.
The men wanted to water ski. Max went first. He preferred a wakeboard to skis and carved along behind the boat like it was the most natural thing in the world to stand atop a piece of fiberglass and skim over a rippling, insubstantial plain. “Woo!” David howled from the driver’s seat. “Woo-hoo!” Carelessly, Max pumped one fist in the air.
Louisa basked on the cushioned bench at the stern, reclining with her dress hitched above her knees. Hannah knelt beside her in a bikini, leaning out over the wake like a backward figurehead. Her stomach was flat and childlike. The skin around her bellybutton was thin and folded at its corners like an eyelid. Louisa placed her hands on the firm hemisphere of her own belly. She was pleased that her pregnancy precluded the usual question of whether or not she would join in the skiing.
On other trips she had allowed herself to be cajoled into a wetsuit and then into the water to bob, waiting behind the idling boat, ski tips poking out of the water like bits of wreckage. Then came the roar of the motor, the surge of whitewater, the weight of the lake piling into her lap before she was dragged to vertical and then past it, the water flying up at her. She disliked falling. She felt lumpy in the wetsuit and ungraceful even when she managed to keep her feet for a few seconds. The boat always seemed to take a long time to circle around. She would bob in her life vest and think of the last reading she had seen on the depth sounder. The water might be fifty feet deep. It might be four hundred feet deep.
“But you know there’s nothing in there that would hurt you,” David once said when she admitted her fear. “No sharks. Maybe a grouper. The mussels don’t bite.”
Zebra mussels had infested the lake. Zillions of the tiny filter feeders carpeted the bottom, cleaning the water of all grime and specks and cloudiness. In shallow water the mussels bunched together in massive bivalvate continents, the collective blackness of their open mouths mimicking the nearby depths, forming portals to the underworld.
If Louisa did not ski, then she would not have to fall, to float, to look down and see her feet dangling above diagonal bands of sunlight that descended into the abyss. The volume of lake water was less the problem than its clarity, a crystal transparency turning to black somewhere below the pale, treading nubbins of her toes.
Max gave a thumbs down, and Hannah called out, “He’s ready to stop.”
David cut the engine and circled back. Louisa realized she was dreading her husband’s turn on the skis, the way he would cannonball into the water, raising a geyser. He never seemed aware that he was too big to look graceful and sportif on the skis; he was towed along like a wayward mooring, his face full of happiness. She didn’t want Hannah to see him, to compare him to Max. She didn’t want Hannah to get up on the skis. She didn’t want Hannah to sleep with Max. But of course Hannah would sleep with him. Louisa had made it so easy for them, inviting them to frolic in the lake, to sleep in a cabin that hummed with insects and vestigial summer.
Max pulled himself into the boat and leaned over Hannah to shake his head, spraying her with cold water. She did not giggle or recoil but only studied the droplets on her arms and then flicked them away one-by-one. Louisa wondered, not for the first time, if part of what men found so exciting about Hannah was that tightrope suspense, well known to the brotherhood of mantises and certain spiders, of not knowing whether they would be embraced or devoured.
Max peeled his wetsuit down over his torso. “You want a turn?” he said to Hannah.
She was working the rubbery legs of a wetsuit up over her knees when David moved from the driver’s seat to take a beer from the cooler. As he passed, he touched the naked small of Hannah’s back with his fingertips, a light tap, a polite warning of his presence, even a chivalrous suggestion that were she to lose her balance, he would be there to help. Louisa noticed the touch, and though she disliked the idea of David’s fingers on the taut, goose-bumped skin above Hannah’s bikini bottom, what bothered her more—much more—was the way Hannah’s eyes shot around, seeking not David but Louisa. Her look was sympathetic, forbearing, reassuring. Don’t worry, she telegraphed. I wouldn’t.
But Hannah had it all wrong. David wasn’t copping a feel. He was being courteous. That was who David was. He was Louisa’s husband; he had chosen Louisa, placed her above all others. He wasn’t one of the million rats trailing after Hannah. But Hannah must think that any man would prefer her. Years ago, when Louisa had lain awake wondering if the substance of Hannah’s self was pulled apart by all the fantasy Hannahs gyrating in the ether above boys’ beds, it had never occurred to her that such a process might erode her friend over time, drain her away like lost wax from a mold.
Hannah barely made a splash when she stepped into the water. Max tossed her the skis. “I’m going to drive,” Louisa said.
“Sure thing,” said David.
“Do you know how?” said Max.
“Yes, I know how.”
Louisa subscribed to the notion that there was something sexy about a woman controlling a powerful piece of machinery, and she took her place behind the wheel with a bit of swagger and rested one hand on the throttle. Max dropped into the spotter’s seat, his brown, hairy legs propped on the back bench. David sat next to Max’s feet and waved to Hannah.
Louisa powered up the boat, feeling its hull dig into the water, the slick gathering of momentum. Glancing back, she saw Hannah up on the skis. In the wetsuit she looked fragile, like a skating waterbug, and David and Max watched her in silence, as though they knew their shouts of encouragement would be unwelcome. Louisa thought of Hannah with Max, and then she thought of her friends out to dinner without her. She saw them clearly, sitting at a square table with wineglasses and a bread basket, lit from behind like a diorama or a crèche. She had struggled for so long against her place in an outer orbit, trying to get closer to Hannah’s light and gravitational force, and instead all these years she had been moving away, out past Neptune, out past Uranus, out past Pluto, which was not even considered a planet anymore but a chunk of ice.
Slowly, she eased the throttle forward and looked back. Hannah was still on her feet, though she had begun to bounce and was curling into a crouch.
“Careful there, hon,” David said.
Inching the throttle up again, Louisa turned the boat toward the mouth of the bay where the water was choppy. The sound of the engine turned shrill. Hannah was bouncing more and more, straining to stay on her feet. Louisa tapped the throttle one last time and turned the wheel hard, watching over her shoulder for Hannah’s tumble and splash, but Hannah simply released the rope and glided on, following a trajectory at a right angle to the boat, until she was standing almost completely still. Then she bent sideways to meet the lake, dipping under and coming back up with her hair smooth against her head. Her face was a pale spot, growing smaller and smaller as Louisa inscribed a long curve over the water.
A few weeks later, Hannah called to offer Louisa a baby shower. They had not spoken since their return from Wisconsin. The gesture stank of condescension, a feeble attempt to make up for the girls’ night they had held without her, but still Louisa could not resist having Hannah throw her a party. She would go and be dignified, a woman preparing for a birth, not a frivolous girl anymore. She would get her hair cut and her nails done. She would look great. “Do you have any other friends you’d like me to invite?” Hannah asked, and Louisa gave her the number of the boring woman from Parenting Preparation Class.
The evening of the party, Louisa sat on a bench in a park near Hannah’s apartment for fifteen minutes after she was expected. A man ambled over the grass with a bulldog on a leash. Louisa wanted a dog. Her baby should grow up with a dog. Gretchen and her fiancé had a dog, but they would probably never have children and therefore needed something. They were the kind of people who, when they were old, would make jokes about how it had simply slipped their minds to have children. Louisa wondered what they would give her unborn child, these friends of hers. She thought maybe a gift certificate, maybe to the restaurant where they had gone without her. Or perhaps something beautiful and useless, like one of those fancy German teddy bears, stuffed to hardness and too expensive to be entrusted to a child.
“I called your friend,” Hannah said when she opened the door, “and left a message, but she never called back.”
“Her due date was before mine,” Louisa said, not knowing if she was telling the truth. “She might be giving birth.”
The apartment was as sleek and Scandinavian as its mistress. A wall of windows looked to the east, into sky and lake. The view was spectacular in its simplicity. No life intruded except distant tankers and sailboats, and the effect was of an enormous minimalist painting that changed color by the hour. Gretchen and Mimi were sitting on Hannah’s snowscape of a couch holding wineglasses. There was a tray of Chinese dumplings on the steel coffee table, and a large box, tied with white ribbon.
“You look great!” said Mimi.
A glass of club soda stood waiting on the table. Hannah handed it to Louisa. She said, “Do you think the baby will come early or late? Or right on time?”
“Isn’t it strange,” Gretchen said, “how we say the baby is coming? As though it’s flying in from somewhere and not just getting bigger and bigger at the same address.”
“Have you chosen a name?” Mimi asked.
“We have names we like. Cedric, Arthur, Henry. Elizabeth, Jane, Violet.”
“Is the baby going to be English?” Gretchen said. She ducked her head after she spoke as if acknowledging a mistake and busied herself with the dumplings. Louisa wondered if they had all agreed not to snipe at her.
“I like Jane,” said Hannah.
The sky and the lake were a wash of blue, cantaloupe, and electric purple. They talked about other things, normal things. Hannah had turned down two job offers. Gretchen had taken up kickboxing. Mimi was conducting an affair with a fellow doctor. “I touched the stars,” she said.
Louisa expected another cringe of apology but none came. That old chestnut had been around so long they had forgotten they were making fun of her. She reached forward and pulled her gift across the table. “I’m going to open this.” The white ribbon, smooth and heavy, fell away, and she lifted off the top. Inside was a quilt. She unfolded it on her lap, hundreds of squares and triangles, all different colors and textures.
“I put it together,” Hannah said. “I had the time.”
“You can sew?”
“Yes. See—the pieces are all from things we wore in college. David gave me some of yours. See, here’s your sweatshirt.”
There it was. A soft square of navy blue with the cracked, white piece of a letter—an A or an M—in one corner. Then they were all pointing and touching. Do you remember this dress I had? I only stopped wearing these jeans last year. There’s my T-shirt. There’s my scarf.
It was glorious. It was an apology. It was a severance package. They were sorry they did not like her, but there it was. They loved her—love after so many years was unavoidable—but they did not like her.
But, no, no. They would not have gone to so much trouble for someone they did not like.
“Oh!” she said, tears welling up, clutching the quilt. “Thank you. Thank you. This is a wonderful symbol of our friendship.”
They smiled. They did not look at one another. The sun had fallen into the suburbs, and the sky, drained of color, stooped to meet its pale reflection on the lake, filling Hannah’s windows with a perfect silver fragility, so still and glossy it might have been painted on the glass. The sight lasted only a moment—Louisa wasn’t sure anyone else had seen—before a breeze blew steel ripples across the water. Stars punctured the eastern sky; night seeped through. The lake sheltered its silent multitude of mussels.
Louisa thought of the baby sleeping under the quilt. She thought of the birth but was not frightened.