A Short Story

BY DAVID MICHAEL KAPLAN

THE TWO YOUNG WOMEN FACED EACH OTHER IN their almost identical chairs and rocked. The early spring evening was warm, and they had opened the tall bay windows—the very reason they’d rented this apartment—to a small breeze and the scent of grass, which the landlord had just finished mowing. The chairs were white, wicker, and cheap. The young women had found them at a yard sale the previous summer, when they were furnishing the apartment. They’d joked then about drinking tea and rocking and growing old together by the bay windows, and so they had bought the chairs, in part to commemorate their friendship.

Their names were Laurie and Michaela. “Two good Irish lasses,” an old boyfriend of Michaela’s had called them. They’d liked that. Every now and then Michaela would break theatrically into “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" or “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” and they would laugh. Neither had any Irish blood at all. Laurie, however, considered herself at least mystically Irish. Listening to a Celtic folk lament, the concertina or fiddle stately and low, often brought tears to her eyes. She was the smaller of the two, with strawberry-blonde hair that curled in ways that she despised: she envied Michaela’s straight, almost Spanish-looking black hair, which still hung well below her shoulders. Laurie kept hers short in an effort to manage the hated curls. She thought of herself as small and clumsy—“graceless” was a word that occurred to her—whereas the one word she thought of for Michaela was “long”: long not only in body but in movement, “long” meaning languorous, sinewy, effortless.

They had met their senior year at Skidmore, and they quickly became friends, which surprised Laurie, since she was certain she had already found all the friends she would ever have. Neither knowing exactly what she wanted to do after graduation, they decided to linger in Saratoga another year. Michaela worked as an assistant to the director of the Visiting Artists Series, while Laurie clerked in a usedbook store. Michaela talked vaguely about going to New York in the fall to work for a theatrical producer or a talent agency; she also talked about traveling for a year in Europe. “You should make some plans,”Laurie would tell her, and then feel foolish, because she herself had no plans. Besides, Michaela’s waiting seemed more like a resting, a gathering of strength: it was all she wanted and needed for now.

“Maybe we should just take in men,”Michaela said once, to which Laurie replied that they would probably still be living together, spinsters, when they were eighty.

But this spring evening they weren’t thinking about any of this. To celebrate the heat they put on long dresses that clung loosely to their skin, drank Tom Collinses, and rocked and waited for Laurie’s mother’s boyfriend to arrive for dinner.

Her mother had called three nights ago from New York. Ted was coming to Saratoga to direct a television spot for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center: could Laurie possibly have him over one night, since he’d be all alone at the motel and would love to see her and have a home-cooked meal? Laurie was sure he didn’t care one way or another about seeing her—they hardly knew each other, after all—and as for home-cooked meals, she and Michaela never had any, being content to heat up frozen diet dinners or make quick salads with whatever vegetables were wilting in the refrigerator. But she agreed, and dutifully called Ted at the Plum Tree Inn. He sounded pleased to hear from her and accepted the invitation.

“IS THIS ONE GOING TO LAST?” MICHAELA ASKED, AS they rocked. She had always followed Laurie’s mother’s affairs with interest.

Laurie shrugged. “Who knows? It’s been going on for almost a year now. For Mom, that’s a long time.” She bit a fingernail. “Anyway, I hope so. She’d gotten real cynical before she met Ted. She didn’t see anybody for months.

“Who was before him? The Argentine?”

“No, the Conrail lawyer. Same difference. Both jerks.”

“She’s had an interesting love life, your mother,” Michaela said. She yawned, and draped her legs over the arm of the rocker. “I admire her for that.”

“To tell you the truth,”Laurie said, “I think she could’ve done without a lot of it.”

“But this guy’s good, huh?”

Laurie sighed. “He treats her well enough, I guess. She says she can talk with Ted in a way she’s never been able to before. She says it’s just comfortable with him.”

“Comfortable,”Michaela repeated thoughtfully.

“I don’t trust him, though,” Laurie said.

Michaela looked at her. “Why not?”

“I think he’d cheat on her. Maybe he does. He seems like the kind of guy who likes to play around.”

“Now what makes you say that?”

Laurie shrugged. “It’s just the way he looks at you.”

“Oh? At you?”

Laurie was uncomfortable. “I went to the shore with them for a day last summer. And I could feel him—looking at me. He kept it cool, you know. But I could see him sneaking glances.”

“Well, what’s so strange about that? He didn’t come on to you, did he?”

“Oh, no.”

“Did you want him to?”

“Michaela! He’s my mother’s boyfriend.”

“Listen—” Michaela sat up in the chair and crossed her legs in her lap. She was grinning mischievously. “Why don’t you try and seduce him? Just to find out?”

“Not a good idea, Michaela,” Laurie said.

“You’re such a prude.”

They both broke into laughter.

“On second thought,” Michaela said brightly, “it’s probably better that I do it. It’s less complicated that way.”

“That makes sense,” Laurie agreed.

“I’m always thinking about you.” And they laughed again.

“Wait!” Michaela held up her hand. “Friendship only goes so far!” She narrowed her eyes, a mock sleuth. “Is he good-looking? I gotta know before I commit.”

“Oh, positively,” Laurie said. “Positively good-looking.” She paused. “For his age, of course.”

“Well, that settles it then,” Michaela said with feigned relief. She glanced at her watch. “One thing’s for sure— punctual he’s not. He was supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.” She settled deeper into her chair, closed her eyes, and rocked.

She’s so calm, Laurie thought. If I came back next week, next month, she could still be here, eyes still closed. For a moment Laurie saw Michaela as a man might, could feel her calm almost as a sensuality that offered refuge yet promised nothing—and was the more exciting for that. She realized with both envy and pride that Michaela would turn out all right in life, that whatever she chose to do, she—unlike Laurie—would have an easy time of it. She had a grace and an ease, and that ease would command not only attention—especially from men—but also willingness. She will be served, Laurie thought, and she’ll never need to ask.

The buzzer rang.

“Him,” Michaela said.

Laurie nodded. “Him.” She rose.

At the door they embraced awkwardly, and he might have kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Ted,” she said. She could smell aftershave and soap. This is what he smelled like at the beach, she recalled, or in the car driving there.

“I’M LATE, I’M LATE,” HE SAID, GRINNING SHEEPISHly. His brown hair, cut in a way that “looks Roman,”as her mother put it, was still damp from the shower. He wore jeans and a blue chambray work shirt, and wasn’t wearing the gold necklace that Laurie had once seen, for which she was glad. Michaela would look down on that, and somehow, even if she didn’t entirely like Ted, she wanted Michaela to approve of him. He was, after all, her mother’s boyfriend.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He handed her a bottle of wine, much more expensive than the ones she had bought. “We were out in the boondocks scouting a mountain stream, and the art director didn’t like any of my locations, so we had to keep tramping around.” He put his arm around her shoulder as they walked into the room. “So—I was late to begin with, and then I got lost coming over. This town can’t have more than three streets, and I get lost!" He waved hello to Michaela. “I thought about calling, and then I thought, hell, by the time I find a phone, I could probably find the place, and—”

“It’s okay,” Laurie said. “We were just sitting here.”

Ted grinned at her. “Well, you look as gorgeous as ever.”

Laurie introduced him to Michaela, and they shook hands.

“Why a mountain stream?” Michaela asked.

“Because one of the shots in the storyboard calls for a violinist in a tuxedo to be fiddling in the middle of a stream,” Ted said. He shook his head and laughed. “You wouldn’t believe the nonsense I go through!”

Laurie brought glasses of wine. She and Michaela sat in the wicker chairs, with Ted across from them on the sofa. He stretched out his legs and sighed. “You don’t know how good it is just to sit,” he said.

“You know, it’s actually hot in here,” Michaela said. “The first time this spring.” She rose and stood by the opened bay windows; the scent of grass and trillium filled the room. Ted sneezed, and sneezed again.

“Hay fever,” he said. He took a tissue from a small pack in his pocket and blew his nose. “Grass. Every spring.” He sneezed again.

“They just mowed the lawn,” Laurie said.

“I’ll close the windows,” Michaela offered.

Ted waved his hand. “It’s okay. It’s really not that bad yet. Tramping through those damn woods probably didn’t help either.” He stifled yet another sneeze. “You can have the country, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Saratoga isn’t exactly the country,” Laurie said.

“To me it is. I’ll take the city any day. The best thing about concrete is that it doesn’t pollinate.”

Michaela closed the windows.

“So how’s Mom?” Laurie asked.

“Fine, fine. She’s fine.”Ted carefully placed his wineglass on the arm of the sofa. “She’s working really hard right now. Her company’s setting up that trade show in Westchester, you know.”

“Oh, she told me about that.”

“Do you direct movies, too?” Michaela asked. The wayshe holds her wineglass, Laurie thought. So gently. Almost as if she weren’t holding it at all.

“You mean like at the theaters?” Ted shook his head. “I do some industrial films. Business films. But mostly it’s TV spots.”

“Propaganda,” Laurie said.

“Sure.” He laughed. “I guess.”

“I think commercials are some of the best things on TV,” Michaela said. “They’re better than the shows sometimes.”

“Everybody says that,” Laurie said.

“Well, it’s true.”

“They’re still propaganda.”

“They pay the bills,” Ted said. “You wouldn’t have TV without them. You wouldn’t have business without them.”

“Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad,” Laurie said.

“Laurie, don’t sound like such a throwback,” Michaela said. “You sound like something left over from the sixties.”

“I just think—” Laurie began, and then fell silent. Why am I saying all this? she wondered. It was silly and it was stupid. She looked at Ted. He sipped his wine and smiled at her.

“It must be exciting to direct a film,” Michaela said. “Even a TV spot.”

Ted shrugged. “Not really. It’s a lot like the Army—you know, hurry up and wait. You’re either waiting around for things to get set up or you’re rushing to get a shot in before the light’s gone. Or before the crew has to go into overtime.”

“Could we watch this commercial being shot?” Michaela asked. “Could we get on the set?”

“I don’t see why not,” Ted said. Then he looked thoughtful. “Well, actually, it’s fine by me, but this art director—I’ve never worked with him before, and he’s a little wired. I better run it by him first.”

“I thought you were the director,”Laurie said.

“I am.”

“Well, aren’t you the boss?”

Ted smiled. “The art director is from the ad agency. He hired me. It’s his show, really. And he likes to get involved. But I’ll ask, if you want.” He looked at each of them in turn.

“Oh, that would be great,” Michaela said. “Wouldn’t it, Laurie?”

“Sure,” Laurie said, without enthusiasm.

They talked about other things then, and with her second glass of wine Laurie felt more at ease. Soon they all crowded into the tiny kitchen. Michaela steamed broccoli and cut vegetables for the salad, while Ted happily crushed garlic and basted the French bread. Laurie burned herself testing the pasta for doneness. The kitchen was filled with steam and pungent cooking smells. She opened a window, and Ted began sneezing again. He went to his car for hay-fever pills.

“He’s nice,” Michaela said.

“He’s smooth.” Laurie stirred the pasta. “He’s slick.”

“And he is good-looking.”

Laurie looked at her through the steam. “So you like him?”

“Sure,”Michaela said. “Why not?”

Laurie opened the cupboard and took out three dinner plates. “Whatever possessed you to ask about visiting the set?”

“I think it’d be interesting,” Michaela said. “Don’t you?”

“No.”

“Laurie!” Michaela laughed. “Aren’t you curious at all?”

WHEN TED RETURNED, THEY TOOK THEIR PLATES into the front room and sat on the rug. Michaela lit candles. As if this were her house, Laurie thought, and she were the hostess, and I were just another visitor. Ted entertained them with stories about disasters that happened on film shoots—trained cats that refused to respond on cue, crew meals that were delivered to the wrong town, spectacular sunsets that didn’t materialize and spectacular rainstorms that did. Softened by the candlelight, he seemed much younger, Laurie thought: his hair shone, and his skin glowed. He is good-looking, she decided. Michaela was right. They opened another bottle of wine. Laurie felt light-headed. Looking across at Ted and Michaela, she fantasized that she was a very young child and they were her parents. Somewhere a music box was playing. In a moment they would tell her it was time for bed, and off she’d go, trailing her favorite blanket—

Michaela’s laugh startled her.

“—but this art director,” Ted was saying, “insisted that a talking seal really existed—”

“Seals don’t talk,” Laurie interrupted.

“Laurie! Haven’t you been listening?” Michaela asked. “This one had been around people so much that supposedly it did,” Ted explained to her. He turned back to Michaela. “Anyway, so there I was, calling up every zoo and aquarium in the country to see if they knew anything about a talking seal. And do you know what they all told me? Each and every one?" He lightly touched Michaela’s arm. “Seals—don’t—talk!”

They burst into laughter, and Laurie joined in. For some reason she couldn’t stop. “The things—” she sputtered. “The things—” She waved her hand helplessly. Michaela and Ted smiled, urging her along.

“The things—you have to do—for Art,” she gasped. And laughed even harder. Michaela looked at her quizzically. Ted twirled his wineglass by the stem, stared into it, and then refilled it.

“Sometimes I don’t know why a grown man does these things,” he said quietly. “Talking to seals. Arguing which way bears should run around the cereal box. Left to right, or”— he pointed with his finger—“right to left.”

“It’s business,Ted—American business,” Laurie said.

“It must be exciting, though, too,”Michaela said.

Ted looked up. “Sometimes it’s just boring. And that’s all. Do you know what I mean?” He sipped his wine.

“Everything gets boring,” Laurie said. “Life’s boring.”

“Just ignore her,” Michaela said to Ted. “She’s going through some existentialist phase.”

“No, I’m not,” Laurie said. “Why did you say that?" She looked at Ted. “I don’t know why she said that.” Surprised by her anger, she rose and went unsteadily into the kitchen. She filled the sink with hot water and soap, too much of it. Bubbles rose in thick, foamy clusters. She thrust her hands into them and then began loudly piling pots into the sink. She tossed in some utensils and watched them disappear under the foam.

Michaela came in. “So—Laurie said, not looking at her.

“Get nice. Lighten up.”

“Look—just don’t talk about my existentialist phase, okay? Or my sixties throwback phase, okay?”

“What is wrong with you this evening?” Michaela demanded.

“Just don’t sound so—pompous,” Laurie said.

Michaela sighed. “Laurie, why don’t you give us all a break?”

“You and him both, huh?”

“Yes.”

Laurie saluted. “Okay, Mom.”

Michaela stared at her and then walked out. Laurie washed a few pots and emptied the sink. She took two deep breaths. Get nice, she told herself. She pursed her lips and then pulled her mouth into a tight, strained grin, the tendons along the side of her neck stretched taut. Water gurgled in the drain. She returned to the front room. Ted was sitting cross-legged on the floor beside Michaela’s rocker. They were talking quietly. Like old friends, Laurie thought. They looked up as she came in.

“Hi,” Laurie said. “I’m back.”She sat in the other rocker.

“We’ve been talking about where we’d go if we could go anywhere on earth,” Michaela said. “Ted was saying he’d go to Pátmos.”

“It’s a Greek island near Turkey,” Ted said. “It’s where John wrote the Book of Revelations.”

“Just imagine that,” Michaela said. She stretched, fingers interlocked and arms extended above her head so that her breasts were outlined against her dress. She draped one leg over the arm of the rocker; the skirt fell away, revealing a bare, brown leg. She delicately unstrapped her sandals and let them fall.

“When I was on Crete two summers ago,” she said, “I used to go to a nude beach and spend the whole day there. I’d only get dressed to go to the taverna. Otherwise I was naked all day.”

“I was at one of those beaches too,” Ted said. “Maybe I saw you.”

“Were you naked too?”

Ted laughed.

“Remember those little old ladies who rent you beach umbrellas?” Michaela asked. “Did they have them on your beach?”

Ted nodded.

“They were always dressed in black,” Michaela said. “Black dresses, black leather shoes. They must’ve been so hot.”

“They must’ve gotten a lot of sand in their shoes,” Ted said.

“Right!”

“I wonder what they thought,” Laurie said.

“About what?” Michaela asked.

“About all those naked bodies on their beach.”

Michaela looked puzzled.

“Their beach,” Laurie said. “Get it?”

Michaela looked at her. In the candlelight her eyes seemed like embers brushed by the breeze.

“They were probably glad to have somebody to rent their umbrellas to,” Ted said.

“Were they black too, Michaela?” Laurie pressed. “The umbrellas?” I’m sorry, she thought. I’ll stop.

“Yes. They were,” Michaela said slowly. “Black beach umbrellas. On white sand.” She held Laurie’s gaze. “With a blue sea. And blue sky. In case you’re interested.”

They fell silent. For the first time that spring Laurie heard crickets. Ted poured them all another glass of wine. Michaela considered hers and then put it down.

“I’LL TELL YOU ANOTHER STORY ABOUT CRETE,” SHE said. “I’ve never told this to anyone before.” She looked at Laurie. “Not even to you.

“It was one of those days when the wind blows hot early in the morning, but later everything gets real calm and quiet. I decided to bike along the coast and maybe go for a swim. After a couple of hours I stopped for lunch. I hid my bike behind some bushes and went down the hill to the beach below. It was a little cove, really, with rocks on either side. You couldn’t see the road from down there, and if you went over by the rocks, nobody above could see you. I spread out my towel, took off my shorts and shirt—I had my swimsuit on underneath—and went for a swim. Then I ate lunch. I remember exactly what I had: some figs, an orange, and a roll from breakfast.”

“I love those Greek figs,” Ted said.

“It was real hot and still. The only thing I could hear was these little waves lapping on the sand. I got sleepy. I took off my top. And then I thought, what the hell, nobody can see, so I took off the bottom too. And I went to sleep.”

“I could never do that,” Laurie said. “I’d be afraid somebody would see.”

“I had a dream,”Michaela continued. “I dreamed I was there on the beach, and it had gotten real windy. The waves were running high and white-tipped, even though the sky was still clear and blue. I looked out to sea, and, as I was looking, a white sailboat rose up out of the waves and came crashing toward me. When it was about forty yards offshore, it swung around, so that the sails were just flapping—”

“Luffing,” Ted corrected.

“—luffing. I could see that nobody was on board. And I thought, Now how could a boat sail by itself? But it just stayed there, bobbing in the waves. And then I realized it was there to pick me up. It was mine, somehow. I got frightened, and I woke up.”

She paused dramatically. “And there, not faraway, I saw a boy sitting on one of the rocks, looking at me—”

“Uh-oh,” Ted said, and Laurie tittered.

“I didn’t know where he’d come from or how long he’d been there. He was about twelve years old or so. He had black hair and the most beautiful olive skin, and he was wearing blue cotton shorts. His legs were smooth, almost hairless. He didn’t seem at all bothered that I’d woken up. He just kept sitting there, staring at me.”

“And you’re naked, right?” Ted asked.

Michaela nodded.

“Michaela, weren’t you embarrassed?” Laurie asked.

“No.”She shook her head. “I don’t know why. Maybe because he didn’t seem to be. He just kept looking at me as if I were something that had washed up on the beach. He didn’t say or do anything, and neither did I.”

She sipped her wine and then pulled her knees to her chin, like a child. “I mean, he was just a boy,”she said.

“So what happened?” Ted asked.

Michaela hesitated a moment. “He stood up, finally. I thought he was going to go. But he didn’t. Instead, he—" she looked at Laurie. “I’ve never told you this, you know—he pulled down his shorts—”

“Michaela—” Laurie breathed.

“—they were just elastic-banded, no belt, a boy’s pants. He pulled them down, and I could see that he was erect—”

“Oh, no,”Laurie said.

“—and he began to masturbate—”

“No!”

“—right in front of me. Staring at me the whole time, as if I’d disappear.”

Ted laughed nervously.

“I don’t believe this,”Laurie cried.

“It’s true,” Michaela said.

“So—I mean—what did you do?” Ted asked. His voice seemed thicker, harsher.

“I just watched.” Michaela rested her cheek against her knee and looked at him. “In a funny way, it was as if he were doing it for me, too. His hand just moved faster and faster, and then he closed his eyes, and moaned a little, and then he—you know—spilled, all over the sand.”

Ted grunted. Laurie closed her eyes.

“What happened after that?” Ted asked.

“Nothing. He pulled up his shorts and walked up the hill. Believe it or not, I fell asleep again. And when I woke up, I honestly didn’t know if I’d dreamed it all. So I went over to where he’d been standing, and yes, there was his—semen—on the sand. I put my finger in it and felt it. Just to be sure.”

Laurie’s head was swimming. Far down the street a car sputtered, coughed, came to life, and then died again, leaving them in silence.

“That’s an amazing story,” Ted murmured.

Michaela stretched languorously, and yawned. Laurie felt adrift, cast aside by a wave she had failed to catch, a wave already breaking farther in, ashore.

“Let’s call Mom!” she cried. “Wouldn’t you like to talk to Mom, Ted?”

He had been looking at Michaela, but now turned to her. “It’s late, Laurie,” he said.

“No—she’ll be awake,”Laurie pleaded. “C’mon. We could all talk to her.”

Ted shook his head. “Not tonight.”

“Don’t you want to talk to her, Ted?" A trace of panic was in her voice. She rose and stumbled against the coffee table, knocking over the wine bottle, still a quarter full. “Oh, no—” she moaned.

“Don’t worry,” Michaela said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Where am I going? Laurie wondered. She wandered over to the bay windows and stared out. “Stars,”she announced, and they seemed to be swirling, both outside and inside her head. When she turned again, Michaela and Ted were staring at her. They hate me, Laurie thought.

“I’m going to my room now,” she said thickly. “It’s late.”

She fell on her bed without undressing.

WHEN SHE AWOKE, THE APARTMENT WAS QUIET. She rose, still dizzy, her mouth dry. She groped for the bedroom door. The front room was dark: Ted was gone. Michaela’s sandals were still by the rocker. Laurie could smell the wine she had tipped over. She went into the kitchen and drank two glasses of water and then returned to the front room. From the bay windows she saw that a thick, fibrous fog had transformed the trees into ghosts and the streetlights into soft, haloed moons.

Michaela should see this, she thought. For one strange moment she considered waking her. And then from behind her friend’s closed door she heard Ted sneeze.

As quietly as she could, Laurie walked back to her room. She lay down. She wanted to think and she wanted to sleep. She slept.

When she woke again, the fog had disappeared and the sun was burning off the dew. The air smelled woody and musty. Her head ached terribly. She went into the front room: Michaela’s door was open now, and Laurie could see her—alone—curled in sleep, fist to her mouth like a child. Laurie softly closed the door and then picked up the glasses and wine bottles. She sponged where the wine had spilled. She filled the sink with hot, soapy water and took two aspirins. Then she returned to the front room and dialed the Plum Tree Inn.

“Mr. Ted Bremmer’s room, please,” she told the switchboard.

He picked up on the third ring. “Yes?” he said, groggily.

“Fuck you,” Laurie said, and hung up.

SHE FINISHED DOING THE DISHES AND THEN MADE some coffee, started to drink it, and thought she would retch. She ate an untoasted English muffin and felt better. Using the last of the milk, she made another cup of coffee. Michaela will want some when she gets up, she thought, and so brewed a fresh pot. She reread the previous day’s paper.

Later she heard Michaela enter the bathroom. The shower ran for a long time, and then Michaela came into the kitchen in her robe, her long hair stringy and wet. She grunted when she saw the coffee, and poured a cup, holding it with both hands as if it might fall.

“No more milk,” Laurie said. “You’ll have to drink it black.”

Michaela nodded.

“Hangover?”

Michaela shook her head. “Just tired. I can’t seem to wake up.”

“Ah,” Laurie said.

Michaela blew on her coffee. “Thanks for doing the dishes,” she said. “I would’ve helped.”

Laurie waved her hand.

“So—how do you feel?" Michaela asked. “You drank a lot last night.”

“Fine, fine,” Laurie said. “Thanks for asking.” She folded the newspaper and carefully put it beside the table. “Want to do something today?”

Michaela looked up from her coffee cup. “Like what?” Laurie shrugged.

“I don’t feel like doing anything today except sitting,” Michaela said. “And I wish there was some milk.”

“We can get some later,” Laurie said. She scratched her fingernail on the tablecloth, back and forth, over and over, deepening the line.

“So—” she said.

Michaela glanced up. “So?”

“So how was it? Ted and”— her voice caught—“and all?”

Michaela sighed. “He was so guilty. He kept making me promise not to tell you.”

Laurie laughed harshly. “Well, now you did, didn’t you? So much for that promise.”

“Laurie—you knew anyway, didn’t you?”

“Oh, sure.” She stopped scratching the tablecloth. “I just can’t believe it. You really did do it, didn’t you?”

Michaela didn’t reply.

“Was that true last night?” Laurie asked. “That story you told?”

Michaela smiled. “No—of course not. I made it up.”

“I thought so!” Laurie cried. “I said so, didn’t I?” She shook her head. “I could’ve told him. I could’ve insisted—”

“But you weren’t sure,” Michaela interrupted. “Were you?”

Laurie was silent.

“Laurie—” Michaela took her hand. “Laurie—listen. You wanted me to. We talked—remember?

Laurie pulled her hand away. “We were joking!”

Michaela shook her head.

“We were! Don’t say we weren’t.”

“You wanted me to,”Michaela repeated.

“I didn’t! How can—how can you twist this?” But Laurie was confused: she wasn’t sure now what they’d said before Ted came.

“Listen—if—if”—she felt she was losing her breath, as if her words might choke her—“if my mother—ever finds out about this—”

“Laurie, why should she?”

“—I’ll kill you.”

Michaela laughed. “Okay, sure.”

“No, I mean it,” Laurie said. “I’ll kill you. I really will.”

Michaela stopped smiling. “Laurie, how would she ever find out?”

“I know you,”Laurie murmured.

“Let’s go sit in the front room, okay?” Michaela suggested gently. “Let’s go have our coffee in there.”

They sat in the facing wicker chairs. Michaela began to rock, and Laurie watched her.

“Isn’t this nice? Michaela said. “I think this is all I really want to do today, don’t you? I just don’t want to think about anything else.” She closed her eyes. Outside, Laurie heard birds chattering, and from somewhere—although she knew she only imagined it—the sound of a receding sea.

“Well, now we know about him, don’t we?" Michaela said. “What we wondered about, remember?”

“Yes,” Laurie said.

“But we’ll never, never tell.”Eyes still closed, Michaela spoke as if to a child.

“That’s right,” Laurie said.

Michaela stopped rocking. “But at least we know, don t we?” She looked at Laurie, and her smile was dark and cold and triumphant. “That’s sort of a comfort, isn’t it?"