A short story

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The Atlantic

The women were drinking peach schnapps, telling stories about the worst things they’d ever done. They had already skimmed through the missing years in haste, as though the past were gruesome, the two decades of lost friendship something untouchable and rotten. Maybe it was, Nic thought. Melodie had said she was a real-estate agent in San Luis Obispo, still playing the field. Her face was so artificially plumped and frozen that it resembled a Greek-chorus mask that had slid between genres and settled on tragicomedy. Sammie was overripe, a bruised apple. Five kids with Hank, she had said with a sigh, all seven of them packed into the little house her mother had left her, in the same little town where the women had all grown up. Birdie was dying, the reason they’d all been summoned. She had only her friends and her parents these days, because she had been a freelancer, working alone, and her boyfriend had taken off at the first diagnosis, stealing the cat. Only Nic was the same as she’d been when they’d last seen her, just a little more droopy and wrinkled now—a law professor, one kid, divorced, chunky jewelry, the whole shebang. In this room, she was hyperaware of how boring her life was, but also that she was the one who was clearly managing the best. A surprise; fortune favoring the brittle.

Snow hissed against the window. The hospital moved in its mechanical intricacy behind the door. The three old friends were perched near Birdie, who lay pale and skinny from the neck down, though her face was unreal in its puffiness, as if covered by a floppy creature sucking on the bones of her skull. Only those darting blue-black eyes were hers.

Melodie was now saying that the worst thing she had ever done was at an awful party she’d catered in the hills, just after some bigwig cornered her in the pantry and touched her under her skirt. I threw a bottle of olive oil at his head and burst out into the dining room, she said. And then I realized that I no longer had to take any of this shit, and that I was done trying to charm this room full of rich people, and for what? A nonspeaking part in a movie never released in theaters and a cruddy little efficiency with a rodent problem way out in Encino? No, thank you. So I stole a $20,000 mink out of the coatroom and took off. I don’t even feel bad, because I’m like, if you have $20,000 to park in a coatroom, you have $20,000 to throw away on me. And I still have it in my closet. I mean, it’s ugly as sin. But sometimes when I’m sad I get naked and wear it, fur side in, and I feel at peace with my life decisions for, like, a hot minute.

They laughed, and then Sammie said in a sort of fast whisper that her worst thing ever was terrible and they were all going to hate her if she said it. And when they said, No, no, Sammie, come on, she got tears in her eyes and admitted quaveringly that she’d had an abortion.

That’s your worst thing ever? Melodie said. Christ, Sammie, I’ve had two abortions and I feel great about them. We don’t need to let men spawn in our bodies.

I’ve had one too, Birdie said. A quarter of the women in this country have them. Abortion’s morally neutral, I think.

I’ve had three, said Nic, who hadn’t even had one, but solidarity seemed the right call in this scenario.

Always one-upping us, Nic, Melodie said with a smile that, on her frozen face, was all teeth.

A series of emotions passed over Sammie’s face, but she finally settled into a large, tight solemnity, and they could see her judging them from behind it. Then the women were all looking at Nic, so she took a swig of schnapps and steeled herself and said, The worst thing I ever did was, I guess, what happened that summer just after we graduated, right before we all left home. I was babysitting for a couple who lived out on the lake, about six miles north of town. They worked at the opera. He was a set designer and she did costumes.

She was about to go into the whole story—the delicious old winterized camp that was painted a green-black, and its crisp white modern interior, the husband and wife like sleek seals, the toddler she loved like her own child, who slept with his hands curled near his ears—when she saw the other three exchanging looks and repressing their smiles, and that old whip of their judgment snapped out of the darkness of time and stung her. Nic cried out, What? What?

Oh my God, Melodie said. We were right. We totally knew it. We totally knew you were having an affair with the little boy’s father.

That’s actually why we stopped talking to you, Sammie said. We were so mad at you! You sexy little home-wrecker! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Birdie put her swollen, dry hand on Nic’s and said, I am sorry about the way we treated you. You were just a kid, not even 18. And we were so cruel to you that summer. We’re so sorry.

You were cruel to me? Nic said. I had no idea. I just thought we were all busy that summer and couldn’t hang out.

There was a long pause before Melodie said, Well, I mean, we three hung out. We just never called you. You were kind of persona non grata. We called you Nick-hole.

Yikes, Nic said. Wow.

I mean, in our defense, kids are pretty morally rigid, you know? Sammie said. I mean, it wasn’t right, what you did, or anything, but we definitely should have been nicer to you or, like, made some kind of attempt to understand or whatever. I mean, my oldest is only a few years away from that age, and I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure she’s having sex? Probably not with married men, but who knows anymore? She doesn’t tell me anything, and all these kids have this whole separate life online nowadays. Oh God! she cried, and looked off into the distance, blinking.

Nic tried to remember feeling left out and lonely that summer, but all that returned to her now was a kind of fullness, a warmth and smoothness and a sharpening of all the beauty that had surrounded her until the pressure inside her became so intense, she could hardly recognize anything beyond the confines of her own body. That summer still dazzled her with its light. She hadn’t even noticed her friends ignoring her; she had been too happy within herself.

In any case, we’re sorry, Birdie said. Her breathing had tightened and her eyes had narrowed to slits; she was clearly in pain, and she fumbled for a button and pressed it with urgency. They all watched, helpless before the enormity of their old friend’s suffering, but soon the drugs washed into Birdie and she smiled again.

Anyway, the worst thing I ever did is something I think about all the time, Birdie said. This is why I asked the question. When we were in middle school, there was this friend of mine who would come over to my house to escape a pretty awful situation at home.

There was a lot of that in our town, Melodie said. An entire town made out of bad situations.

Still is, Sammie said. The stories I could tell! Just give me another drink and I will, she said, and she gulped the schnapps and coughed, but before she could give them the gossip, Birdie said quickly, Anyway, I both liked and didn’t like this girl. There was this extreme sweetness but also such awkwardness, it made me want to run away or cringe or lock the door and pretend not to be home whenever I saw her walking up the hill to my house. And my parents kind of knew what was going on at my friend’s house, so even though they were super strict usually, they let us have all the sleepovers we wanted. At one point my friend shared this pretty heavy secret. I kept it for a little while, like a year or so, but then one night, out of some kind of irritation—I think I had wanted to go to someone else’s house for a birthday party but couldn’t because I had to have a sleepover with this little hanger-on who just seemed so drippy and lame that night—I became furious. So I got up in the middle of the night and wrote an anonymous letter to my friend’s parents, telling them everything that I knew about their daughter. And the punishment was severe—like, the parents would be called by child protective services nowadays, it was so bad—and after that there were no more sleepovers, not for a long time. The worst part was that my friend never even blamed me for it. But I saw that some of the light inside her had dimmed. I knew that I was the one who had done it. And you can’t get that innocence back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. I couldn’t forgive myself. I still haven’t. Birdie’s mouth had gone dry and she was making clicking noises.

Oh, you need to forgive yourself, Sammie said gravely. Holding grudges is where cancer comes from.

They all looked at Sammie, who seemed confused at the sudden attention; the wind shrieked against the side of the building. The door opened and a doctor stepped in. He was good-looking in a wispy, middle-aged-runner kind of way, and Melodie’s face became alert.

What do we have here? he said. Birdie’s bevy?

The cancer cabal, Nic said, and the doctor flicked his eyes at her in recognition: another joker in the room.

Birdie introduced each woman and said, In high school, we called ourselves the E’s. Our names all end in i-e.

The doctor looked at Nic and said, But not Nic, and she said, Nope. They tried to call me Nickie but I would never answer to it, and they finally gave up.

So, Nic and the E’s, he said. A bad cover band. Nice to meet you. I regret to tell you, he said, putting his hand on Birdie’s shoulder, it is time to say goodnight. Birdie needs her rest. You all can come back to visit in the morning—9 a.m. sharp.

The women stood, feeling unbalanced, and one by one they kissed Birdie’s swollen cheek, unconsciously holding their breath, as though not to take her pain into their bodies. They grabbed their roller bags from where they’d parked them in the corner and fled the room.

There was more air in the hallway, or they could breathe now, and they relaxed a little as they walked. I took a cab here, said Melodie. Me too, said Sammie. Nic sighed internally and said, I rented a car. I’ll drive us to the hotel. In the hospital’s lobby, they stopped to look out the enormous windows into the wildness of wind and snow, and it seemed so astonishingly huge and fearsome, some dark beast roaring at them, that nobody moved until Nic reluctantly said, I’ll go out and get the car and pull it up here for you. Both of the other women said, Great, thanks!

Nic felt a shock of pain in immersing herself in such cold. Then again, after seeing Birdie in her bed, it seemed right to be scoured by ice and darkness, to be stripped back to the animal body. Nic wanted to cry, and obligingly the wind bit at her eyes and made them water, then froze the tears to the corners of her eyes. The rental car smelled like plastic and sadness, and she put the heat on full blast and drove back to the entrance, where the women were waiting in the warmth and the golden light. They threw their bags into the trunk and climbed in, shivering. Nic moved slowly through the parking lot and out onto the highway, filled with snowbanks and the brave little red taillights of other cars, barely visible before her. Where tires had worn the ice down to the black asphalt, the wind of the passing cars was blowing snow in writhing snakes that the headlights caught, making them glow. It was hypnotic to watch. The other two women were talking, but Nic was driving carefully and barely listening until Melodie turned to her said, You’re awfully quiet, Nic. Ignoring us?

Just trying to keep us alive, she said.

Is that some kind of joke? Sammie said. Because Birdie is dying? Because if it is, it isn’t funny.

No, I’m literally trying to keep the wind from swerving us into a semitruck in this miserable fucking blizzard, Sammie, Nic said.

Oh, Sammie said, and started to weep. Sorry. I’m just really on edge all the time these days. I can’t even tell you how much I needed this weekend. The two other women tried not to smile at this, until Melodie gave up and snorted, and Sammie said defensively, Wait, I know how that sounded, and it wasn’t what I meant. I know this isn’t, like, a girls’ weekend at a spa or whatever, but you try having five children.

Never, Melodie said. Kill me first.

One child sometimes seems like too much for me, Nic said, and thought of her weird little girl a thousand miles away, falling asleep right now to whale song. Instead of being with her, Nic had chosen to be here, handmaiden to death, reliving high school with these so-called friends of hers she wasn’t sure she’d liked even in their heyday. Birdie had been the good queen to Melodie’s wicked one; Sammie had been the rook, stout and square and locked into her rigid right angles; and what was Nic? The knight. Leaping around in panic, edging in from the side. There had been no pawns—or rather, the entire rest of the world had been pawns, disposable and in the way. Why was she making chess metaphors? She hadn’t played chess in decades. She had never felt more exhausted in her life.

The lights of their hotel slid up the windshield, and they parked as close to the glass doors as they could. They dragged their bags through the snow and inside. A plate of fresh hot cookies sat at the hotel desk. While they waited, Sammie took three. Meet in my room at seven for drinks, ladies! she said at the elevator through a mouthful of cookie, but Nic begged off, saying she would have to call her daughter, though this was a lie. Her daughter was already dreaming, far away.

For a long time, she sat on the side of the bed in the hotel robe, weary, letting the light of home-renovation shows on the television wash over her. She called down to reception for room service, but the nice girl named Dagmar, who’d checked them in, laughed at her. What you take this place for, the Ritz? No room service. Is the restaurant, pizza delivery. But through this big storm, eh, she said doubtfully.

Dagmar, Nic said, if I have to spend any more time with the women I came with, I will go absolutely bonkers.

Understand, Dagmar said. Blond one is in the bar talking now to the businessmen and drinking pink wine. And, oof, now here comes pretty one out of elevator.

Pretty one? Nic said.

No, correct, not pretty, Dagmar said diplomatically. Sexy one. I do not understand these fat lips. Like a duck, no? How to speak with duck lips?

Oh, they’re not made like that for talking, Nic said.

They laughed, and then Dagmar said, Listen, they sit now beyond the bar. You sneak in on other side, you sit far from your friends, in shadows behind a wall. All I can say.

Perfect, Nic said, and hung up.

Nic dressed again, in all black, like a ninja, and pulled her hair back severely. She slipped in the way that Dagmar had said and hid behind her menu. When Dagmar came over from the desk to take her order, she laughed. You look like spy, she said.

You have to be a waitress too, Dagmar? You’re a woman of great capabilities, Nic said.

Is only three workers who come in the storm. We share jobs, Dagmar said with a shrug. She had applied a pale-pink lip gloss that made her mouth seem almost unseemly in its wetness. Nic looked away. Just give me your cheapest bottle of red wine and your fastest meal to go, she said, and the girl, deflated, sped off.

As Nic waited, she heard Melodie and Sammie talking on the other side of the bar, but couldn’t make out their words. At last, the four businessmen who’d been chatting with them stood and threw down their money and went back up to their rooms. Now only a few people were left in the bar, all loners, and the women’s voices came clear.

I’m, like, really worried about her, Sammie was saying, blurry with alcohol. She seems bad. Like, poor thing!

Nic smiled, because a person dying of cancer could certainly be called a poor thing.

Right? She seems so unhappy that it just, like, radiates off her, Melodie said. She was never so dour and grim and jumpy when we were young, right? She was the kind of kid who was always telling goofy jokes and doing things to make other people happy. I was so jealous of how she got all the good parts in the plays! And she didn’t even want to be an actress; I did. How bad must her life be to, like, emanate such hatred toward everyone?

Thank goodness she at least has her daughter, Sammie said, and this is how Nic knew for sure they weren’t talking about Birdie.

One of the men at the bar took his gently chiming bourbon over to the women and said, Ladies, would you mind terribly if I bought you a drink?, and Sammie’s giggle was so delighted, Nic could see how her night would unroll, how starved she was for exactly this kind of adventure.

Nic grabbed the soup and wine that Dagmar held out to her, signed the room-charge slip with a ludicrous tip for the girl, and scuttled off, her heart going fast in her rage. Her life was unhappy? The other two were so desperate for love that one mutilated her face and the other couldn’t stop pumping out babies. Back in the room, she burned her tongue on Dagmar’s soup, and finally she cried and cried, for her poor burnt tongue, for her poor lost youth, for poor Birdie, who had once been so pale and tall and slender and redheaded that she’d reminded Nic of a lit candle.

Just before nine, as she was drifting off to sleep, the hotel phone rang, and Nic picked it up, thinking of her daughter, catastrophe, a house on fire, but it was Dagmar. A little pulse stirred in Nic’s gut and then Dagmar said, Your friends, they make me call. They say, Ask if is all right? So I ask.

My best friend is days from death, I’m stuck in a mid-range hotel in a blizzard, hiding from the two biggest bitches known to man, and I’ve already seen this episode, so obviously I’ve never been better, Nic said.

She heard Dagmar say, Being sarcastic, seems fine. Then, to Nic, They say meet for breakfast at eight in the a.m.

Sleep came crashing down on Nic, and she woke with a dry mouth at six to find that the wind had abated and the sky was going pink over a field swept white with fresh-whipped snow. She considered going to the gym, but was sure she’d find Melodie there, refining the beautiful muscles of her body. Instead she lay in the clean, giant bed, luxuriating in the silence and calm. Her daughter would have been awake for an hour already, and would now be tapping Nic’s face or making the music robot play that same damn song about sharks that all the children were obsessed with and dancing around the room, saying, I’m starving! Feed me! until Nic got up and made her eggs.

She watched the clock slip forward until she was afraid she wasn’t ever going to get up. But at the last minute she took a swift shower and packed her things, and was at the wan buffet of hard-boiled eggs and assorted packaged carbohydrates before the other two women. She drank a coffee and ate an apple with peanut butter. Dagmar had been replaced by a stout man with a busy expression, and Nic laughed at herself a little for feeling disappointed. The elevator opened to Melodie, her makeup perfect, moving in a haze of perfume so strong that Nic imagined the ficus trees in the lobby wilting as she passed. She looked at the buffet with a grimace and took a black coffee, and sat down opposite Nic. But instead of saying something mean, as the old Melodie would have, she put a hand on the table palm side up, and looked at Nic until Nic put her own hand in hers. At the touch, Melodie’s eyes filled with tears that slowly fell down the taut skin of her face, and Nic lost her appetite, and had to close her eyes and breathe. When she opened them, Sammie had arrived, and was holding a bowl of sugar cereal, her eyes darting back and forth between the other women’s faces.

Melodie blotted her cheeks with a napkin and sighed, then squinted at Sammie and said, Is that a hickey?

Sammie turned a lurid pink and said, No!, but Melodie had already unzipped her makeup case from her bag and was dabbing the bruise with a wand of concealer.

Don’t tell, Sammie said. Oh my gosh, you can’t tell. It’s just that—I just needed something. I just needed something, anything else in my goddamn little old life.

What is there to tell? Nic said. Your neck ran into a doorknob.

Plus, you know, your body, your choice, Melodie said.

You two are such jerks, Sammie said with admiration.

The highways were plowed and clear of cars, and they were so early for visiting hours that they went to the cafeteria and got more coffee, which was surprisingly good. When they went up to Birdie’s floor, Birdie looked worse, and if Nic had been a superstitious woman, she might have said that behind Birdie’s shoulder, death had taken another vulture-step nearer.

The doctor came by briefly and squeezed Nic’s shoulder as he left them for his other patients. Melodie clocked the gesture and grimaced, but Nic would have given him to Melodie if she could have; she had no need for a moderately good-looking doctor a thousand miles away from her life. They chatted about nothing, about people from the town who had ceased to be real to most of them decades ago, and Sammie glowed as she spoke, and Melodie painted Birdie’s nails a color she called Whore Red.

It was finally time for the others to leave. Nic could have gone to the airport a few hours early to deliver the other two in time for their flights, but she was finished—finally, for good—with trying to please people she didn’t care about. She said maybe it would be best if the other two shared a cab. Sammie hugged them all, and sat with Birdie and kissed her temple and whispered something long and fervent, weeping. Melodie squeezed Birdie’s hands, and when she turned to Nic she said, in a quick, low tone, If we both keep mellowing out, I think we’ll be the best of friends when we’re 90.

Oh good, Nic said. Let’s make plans to meet up then.

Melodie barked a laugh and hugged Nic, forcing her perfume into her nose, and said, Don’t worry, I see through all the crustiness. I know you’re a softy deep down. And then the women were gone.

Alone now, Nic and Birdie smiled at each other, and Nic kicked off her shoes. She lay down next to her friend and put her head on Birdie’s pillow.

All those years were a canyon between them, the lost years when they spoke on the phone only twice a month; the other years were shot through with blazing intensity. Though their bodies were touching, there was no way to leap back to the other side.

I realized, Birdie said, we never actually let you tell your story yesterday.

No, Nic laughed. Your version was kind of imposed on me.

I’ve been thinking all night about your story. It didn’t happen the way we said, did it? Birdie said. I could tell when you started to wear that sly look of yours. You were going to let us live with the wrong idea.

I guess I realized I didn’t want Melodie or Sammie to have my story, Nic said. It felt too precious to give to them.

But to me? Birdie said.

You know I’d give you anything, Nic said.

Please do, Birdie said.

Nic took a deep breath, and she told Birdie the long version of the story, parceling out all the details she’d so savored these years.

She had met Richard and Deanna at the farmers’ market the weekend after she’d graduated from high school, she told Birdie. She was selling her father’s flowers. Gladioluses, that week. Red and yellow and pink. They’ve always seemed wildly sexual, nearly embarrassing, since then.

Then the couple walked in, and they were unmistakably alien, shining and beautiful, both dark-haired, in sunglasses, which in that town was seen as an affectation. Each held a hand of their little boy, swinging him between them, and he laughed, slightly hysterical. Already, without knowing him, Nic loved him for his sweetness, his sharp little face. She crouched and handed him the tip of a yellow gladiolus that had broken off, and he took it with a scream of delight, and when she stood again, the parents had taken off their sunglasses and were looking at her. She had never been looked at so minutely or with such interest. Later, she understood that they looked at all the world as though they were eating it up and it was the most delicious thing they’d ever tasted—that it wasn’t just her, that they were interested in everything, they were artists—but at the time she felt all parts of her body tingling. They were in town for the summer festival up at the opera house, they said. They were looking for a babysitter.

Well, that’s interesting, she said. I’m looking for a job, and she felt her blush rising hot out of the neck of her T-shirt, up her jawline, into her cheeks. She already had a job lined up at a baseball-cap store, but it was minimum wage and not the kind of thing she felt, even then, was worthy of her. They looked delighted and said they would give her $10 an hour, which was twice her normal babysitting rate, and for only one little boy. She scrawled her address and phone number on a slip of newspaper, and they said they would pick her up on Monday morning at eight.

After the farmers’ market closed and her father had collected the money and the leftover flowers, she went to the computers in the library and looked the couple up. This was the dawn of the internet, when information on everyone was scarce, but she did discover that both were well known in their fields, and she printed out blurry photos of them, which she kept in her nightstand at home. She didn’t sleep at all that Sunday night.

The car that came up the lane on Monday was a gray Jaguar, so beautiful that she felt unworthy of riding in it. Richard was dressed in a tight navy polo shirt that surprised her; it seemed too preppy for an artist to be wearing. As he drove, he turned to smile at her. They loved this area, he said. They’d been coming since college, and just last year had bought an old wreck of a camp and hired men to fix it up over the winter. This was their first summer living there, and so far, only three days in, they adored it.

The old camp was a stunning hunter green in morning light and black in the shadows of the afternoon. It was set on a small peninsula of land so that views of the lake filled its three windows. When she was inside she felt as though she was standing in water. They had kept the wooden interior, but painted it white and removed walls, opening it up into a great, vaulted downstairs room with a kitchen, bathroom, and master bedroom beneath the upstairs, where the little boy’s room, a bathroom, and a guest room were. She had never before been in a place where every detail had been carefully selected, from the blown-glass light fixtures, to the handmade wrought-iron cabinet pulls, to the walnut furniture her parents would have called ugly but that looked ravishingly sculptural to her on the bare wooden floors. When she walked in that first time, she felt the way she had when she was little and walked into church on Sunday, before her logic caught up with God. Deanna hugged her, smelling like lotion and also like the lake from her morning swim. She was in a sheer black-linen dress, and had saved cinnamon pancakes for Nic. The little boy climbed into Nic’s lap as though she were his old friend. Deanna had written out the boy’s schedule and now gave her the keys to their Volvo. Then the couple kissed the little boy and left together in the Jaguar. Nic was so happy to be in this house—with its delicious food, its cleanliness and quiet and books—and to have the lake to explore all day.

She felt strange, alone with the little boy in the house: She was the 18-year-old misfit ready to leave this tiny part of the country but frightened of the world, and at the same time she was her future self, living her own ideal life, in this quiet and peace with her child and her beautiful things all around her—a place where people treated one another with gentleness, and there was no sudden danger, no violence, no sharpness.

On good days, Nic said now to Birdie, whose eyes were blinking rapidly in her swollen face, my life is not that far from this early vision of it. It’s funny that even then, I didn’t see a partner in the picture, she said, laughing. Birdie pressed her hand and she went on.

On Friday of the first week, Richard drove her home as usual, but her parents were having one of their parties, and the lane was full of trashy cars, and he couldn’t park until way down the block. She must have sighed or something, and he turned to her and said, Are you going to be okay?

I think so, Nic said, but she had tears in her eyes. She could cope with her family, with any test thrown her way, with the bitchiness of high-school girls and the meatheadedness of high-school boys, but when any adult outside her family asked her if she was doing well, she always wept. And then the next second, Richard was leaning over the stick shift and kissing her. She’d been kissed by boys, but never by a man, and from the first time she had seen Richard, he had stirred something in her. But also, Nic said to Birdie, girls were different then. She was trying to raise her own daughter so that she’d sock a grown married man who did something like that, but she had been conditioned to want to please men. With real lust and hunger to please, she kissed him back. And it felt disgusting, as though she was a bad person—because even after only a week, she loved Deanna—but, Nic said now, oh, Birdie, it was so unbelievably hot.

I bet, Birdie said. You were unbelievably hot then.

They laughed, and Nic said, So that’s how it began. Never before work, but usually after, and sometimes he’d come back to the house during the little boy’s nap. It was like every part of me had just woken up. All my nerves, all my perceptions, even my sense of taste. A tomato was no longer just a tomato but something much bigger and more beautiful. Every hour of the day and night was nearly unbearable in its depth. Every time I saw Deanna, I felt such tremendous grief, because I knew what I was doing. I understood that I was harming her.

And then one day, Nic said, she heard the Jaguar come up the drive to the camp during the little boy’s nap, and her body responded. But Deanna, not Richard, walked in the door. Nic was pretending to read on the couch, and Deanna looked at her for a long time from the doorway, wearily, then smiled and said she had wanted to swim so badly, she just took off from her meeting and came home. Then she tossed a bathing suit at Nic and grabbed one herself and said, Come on. Nic was pretty sure Deanna was going to lead her out into the middle of the lake to drown her, but she went along because deep down she knew that she deserved it. They swam out far, but not so far that they wouldn’t be able to hear the baby monitor on the dock, and Deanna turned to Nic, and Nic bowed her head, waiting for harsh and unforgiving words or hands pressing down on her head.

Then she kissed me, Nic said.

Birdie gasped. I mean, I saw it coming, she said, but damn.

In retrospect, here was a 35-year-old woman whose husband was obviously sleeping with a child, and here was a way to try to become the master of the whole situation. On the other hand, the kiss was the most beautiful Nic had ever had in her life.

And it awoke that old sleeping thing in you, Birdie said quietly.

It did, Nic said. And then I essentially moved into their guest room. The next two months, with both of them, and the little boy to sweeten the whole day, were the very happiest of my life. I think if there is such a thing as heaven, I would be returned to those months in an endless loop. Waiting at night in that bed, trembling when there was a step on the staircase, not knowing who the step belonged to, breathless to see, wanting both of them at the same time, always feeling inordinately confused and yet constantly in a kind of rush of wind. But then the time ran out, and I said goodbye and went off to school. I left everything behind, my entire previous life, the town and my friends and these people I loved so much. I didn’t mourn for any of it, because you can’t mourn for a dream. But I did find out that they separated later. That’s the worst thing I did, driving those good parents apart. Making their little boy sad.

They thought in silence for a while, and then Birdie slowly said, It’s funny. Now I think you wouldn’t have been able to see us that summer even if we’d wanted you to. I think I knew all about what was going on, deep down, and it drove me a little crazy. I know you know that it came from me, the ostracizing. Not Melodie or Sammie. It was me. I was murderous with jealousy, I think.

I know, Nic said.

Of that couple, though. For having you, Birdie said.

I know, Nic said.

What I think I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry for what I did to you. I’m sorry I wrote that letter to your parents in middle school and that your dad—well, I’m sorry that he hurt you. I’m sorry we couldn’t be friends the same way, not even in high school. I’m sorry I killed that beautiful thing in you for so long.

Birdie was crying, but Nic laughed a little and said, Oh, Bird, it’s okay. I was a drippy little hanger-on back then. And it’s not like we really knew what we were doing to each other in your My Little Pony sleeping bag, anyway. It was all kind of abstract, right? It just felt good. And I definitely agreed back then with everyone—with my God, and your God, and my parents, and with you after you wrote that letter about how perverted I was—that there was and would always be something grotesque in me for wanting to have sex with literally every human being I saw. Only when I met Richard and Deanna did I understand that it could be good.

Birdie said, Tell me you forgive a dying woman.

Nothing to forgive, but I forgive you, Nic said. I forgave you the moment you sent the letter. You were 13. Everyone’s an asshole at 13. I forgave you in high school when we were finally friends again and you kissed me at Lucky Smith’s party and then turned around and hooked up with Lucky. Of course I forgive you now.

There was a knock, and Birdie’s parents came in, wan in their snow-dusted peacoats. Their one night off from their daughter’s deathbed, the true reason for the friends’ visit, had obviously been spent in lamentation. Nic hugged them and backed away, because with them here, the past was too heavy. Not even a week later, Birdie’s mother would call with the news, and Nic would thank her and clutch the phone to her ear long after the call ended, unable to move in the waves of grief and rage, until slowly the grief faded away, and only the rage remained. Because she hadn’t lied to Birdie; she had in fact forgiven her friend. But the friend she had forgiven was that unspeakably swollen, nearly dead woman in the hospital, and also the young Birdie of the silky, warm skin so close to her own in the sleeping bag on the green-shag carpet of her room, the taste of her in Nic’s mouth, the happiness between them. There were only two forgivable Birdies. All the Birdies in between, all those bitches, still had something to answer for.

In the hospital, Nic had stayed on and on until she looked at the clock and saw that she should have left long ago. She kissed Birdie on the cheek lingeringly so that she could remember the warmth of her, then flew through the halls of the sick and the suffering, drove wildly to the airport, threw the keys at the rental-car valet, and bolted to the gate. She rose into the flight, that gorgeous liminal moment that is a respite between lives, and descended again into the grind of the quotidian, collecting her daughter from her estranged husband’s house, opening the briefcase full of first-year family-law papers, identifying the strange stink as emanating from the garbage, ignoring the desiccated peas on the kitchen tiles, the bills, the attention-hungry cat that wouldn’t stop rubbing herself against Nic’s ankle. She sat up at her desk and did not work, but pretended to, and felt the cat circling and circling and pressing herself into Nicole’s skin, as though to tell her what words could not, as though these poor mortal bodies of theirs were ever nearly enough to express the terrible depths of love.