What Does Independence Look Like for a Woman?

Megan Mayhew-Bergman
·34 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Author Lorrie Moore once said, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.” With Sunday Shorts, OprahMag.com invites you to join our own love affair with short fiction by reading original stories from some of our favorite writers.

"I’ll give you four good Wife Days a week if you leave me alone the other three and let me do whatever I want."

That's the proposition—the "offer"—Farrah extends to her husband, a massively successful real estate agent. After some flirtatious negotiation, he relents, leaving Farrah alone for the rest of the day.

We follow Farrah over the course of this day as she tries to find freedom in small moments—flirting with her personal trainer, for one—but author Megan Mayhew-Bergman makes us privy to Farrah's innermost thoughts, and we find that no amount of physical liberation can unshackle her from the past, namely a previous mental breakdown and a strained relationship with her mother, who taught her so many of the wrong lessons of womanhood. "She’d heard her own mother say that the real instability—the craziness—would come when the currency of beauty faded," Farrah recalls.

With echoes of Mrs. Dalloway, Bergman's "Wife Days" is a stunning character study of a woman wrestling with the seeming stability of privilege, caught between the competing desires of containment and escape.

"Wife Days"

1988

Farrah walked into her grandmother’s closet. She loved the shadowy space, as if it was the secret heart of her grandparents’ lakeside mansion in the Adirondacks. The closet was where transformative magic happened. What affairs, promises, and deals had been made here among the fur coats, cashmere sweaters, and Italian loafers?

Farrah was drawn to the gowns sheathed in clear plastic, events and dates scrawled neatly on paper tags, a catalog of her grandmother’s feminine triumphs: Miss Lake George 1932. Coca-Cola Advertisement Campaign Portrait, 1935. Country Club Dance, 1942. There were shoes dyed to match: Children’s Hospital Board Gala, 1963. The carpet smelled like Guerlain, the shelves like cedar.

Farrah knew the dress she wanted, a Lanvin, 1934, with capped sleeves, a natural waist, and a full pleated skirt. It rustled as she loosened it from the hanger and slipped it over her head. Her grandmother had watched her first love die in this dress, or so her mother had whispered once, and the peach-colored dress spoke to a darkness Farrah could sense in the adult world but not yet name. She could feel it growing in herself.

She reached for the pack of cigarettes and a lighter she knew her grandmother kept hidden inside a glass jar of cotton balls. She locked the door, cracked the bathroom window, lit the cigarette, then climbed into her grandmother’s clawfoot tub, and smoked the way she’d seen the musicians on the Lovell Boys of Dixie tour bus do, dramatic exhales over one shoulder. Precocious, her mother had said of her. Ferocious, the lead singer Johnny Lovell countered.

Downstairs her mother and grandmother were screaming at each other. Farrah reclined in the dry tub, admired the salmon pink fabric of the dress, exhaled a blue stream of smoke, and looked out at the lake.

She wouldn’t hate it if a man died for her.

“You can’t expose her to these lowlife men and expect her to come out of this a lady,” her grandmother snapped. “She’s nearly sixteen!”

“A lady is the last thing I want her to be!” her mother yelled back. “What good did it do for me?”

“She needs structure and direction.”

“She needs me.”

You can't provide for her.”

“We’ve made it this far.”

“But her swimming –”

“She’s got a coach lined up.”

“What’s she going to do while you’re traveling with that band of junkies? Fix her own dinners?”

Farrah snorted. Her grandmother had no clue how bad it was. She’d already been alone for weeks at a time, and driven herself to a swim meet when she was fifteen. But at least her grandmother asked about the swimming.

The water had always called to her. A natural swimmer, it was the place Farrah was most at home.

When the cigarette was finished, she flushed it down the toilet, sprayed the Guerlain, and re-hung the dress. She crossed her arms and leaned forward out of the open, second-story window, looking at the water’s edge, the place where her mother had taught her to swim, perhaps not realizing it was Farrah’s way out, her ticket away from this life and into her next.

She knew the history of this lake; any local did. Across the bay is the place where the grand hotel once stood and burned. To the south, the place where the steamer sank. Due North is where Stieglitz photographed Rebecca Strand and Georgia O’Keefe, black suits clinging to their skin, full breasts rising from the clear lake water. And directly in front of the house, past the small rock jetty, is the place where Farrah’s grandmother liked to swim, the place her grandfather bathed her in summer as an infant.

But underneath it all is where she liked to be. The water filled her ears, and you could see many things in the lake light: a submerged boulder, a birch, and the reach of your own hand as you swam away from everything that troubled you.

*

2010

It’s 8 AM on a Monday and Farrah makes her husband Blake a deal. He’s the kind of man with whom you cut a deal, after all.

He’s just gotten dressed after a fast shower and is standing in the doorway, trying to say goodbye and get to the office. Blake leaves a trail of cologne that reminds Farrah of a walk in the woods, but also the way gasoline smells on your hands at the pump.

Farrah is lounging naked in their bed, which she does nearly every morning. Her body is lean and muscular. Soon her trainer will come to the house to lead her through a series of isometric movements to tone her muscles. She props herself up on pillows. The bedroom is spare and posh; Farrah likes nice linens—Farrah likes nice everything—and Blake can’t sleep with visible clutter, because his mother couldn’t. It is, Farrah thinks, one of those things people tell themselves and then believe dogmatically for no good reason. But, if anything, she can understand obsessive behavior.

“I’ll give you four good Wife Days a week if you leave me alone the other three and let me do whatever I want,” she says, her voice plain, almost as if she’s discussing a grocery list or necessary car repair. She stares at him, curious as to how he’ll react. She watches his mouth, which she has always found to be perfect, almost too perfect, precisely drawn. An actual cupid’s bow.

“What the hell is a Wife Day?” Blake asks.

“A day when I act like your wife. We can have sex and go out to dinner, drink coffee on the porch, see friends. But I can’t do that every day. I need some days for myself. I need days without rules.”

She means what she is saying. She also knows that it is one of the laws of seduction, to take away privileges, to make a man work for access when he begins taking it for granted.

“I don’t make rules for you.” Blake furrows his brow and walks closer to the bed. He wears pressed khakis and a crisp blue Brooks Brothers’ shirt. He has a thermos of coffee in hand. She notes the glint of his cufflinks, the small glob of hair gel just above his ear, which would embarrass him if he found it after going out in public. He’s a stickler for cleanliness, which Farrah chalks up to his mother and his Scandinavian roots. She finds her husband to be a very fresh person, but very controlled, and she’s always looking for the little openings, the places where she can get inside his feelings, get reactions, get messy. How else can you truly know a person? Or truly love them, for that matter?

He didn’t used to be as frigid, not when he was younger. When he was younger, he wanted to be a poet, or maybe a rock star, and those were dreams that Farrah knew humiliated him now.

“There are unsaid rules,” she said. “Admit it.”

Farrah has always been a strong believer in supply and demand. Too much supply and the demand goes away. Novelty is important. Give your husband too much sex and he’ll get bored. Keep him thinking about you. Keep him wondering.

“That’s absurd,” Blake says. He is so close now his thighs are pressed against the side of the bed. She enjoys the way he is towering over her. She likes to mess around with power dynamics.

“It’s my best and final offer.” She smiles. She feels dangerous and sensual.

“As far as I know it’s your only offer.” He turns on his corporate voice, which indicates he has the upper hand. He’s hired coaches in the past to help him project authority and close big real estate deals. At his core, Farrah thinks he’s probably too kind and too coddled to be a corporate success. They tell him to open up his chest, stand with his feet firmly planted on the ground, one just ahead of the other—power poses. They tell him to shake with a not firm but painful grip, then keep his hands still. He should speak in a low voice. Anger is okay; excitability is not.

“Exactly.”

“Well, I refuse. I’m not going to let my wife waste away in bed three days a week watching a weird video of a French woman washing her face.”

“You don’t have a choice.” Farrah is calm. She likes this about herself, her inherent coolness that comes from a lifetime of protecting herself. She’s angry that he’s brought up her obsession with the face washing video but she won’t show it.

“Oh yeah? Try me.” Blake takes a sip of coffee and stares at his wife over the thermos.

Farrah sits up in bed, gathers the luxurious off-white sheet to her chest. She realizes that they aren’t quite mad at each other yet and that whatever she says next could turn the conversation.

“I could mention your grandfather’s serial arson streak to the press,” she says slyly. Everyone knew Blake’s grandfather had torched some of the old hotels in order to buy the land cheaply and rebuild.

“You’re crazy! There’s no truth to that.”

“Don’t use the c-word. You know that’s not allowed.” She folds her arms.

“I’m sorry.” Blake’s voice is sincere; the c-word is out of bounds and always has been. “I know better.”

Farrah looks down at the sheets; the air of playful menace has fallen away, replaced by awkward silence. Her blonde hair is loose around her shoulders. The light freckles that appear on her face in summer are spread attractively across her nose and cheeks.

“I know. I’m sorry.” Blake eases his way onto the bed and wraps his arms around Farrah.

“Your shirt’s going to get wrinkled.”

“I don’t care.”

“I know you care.” She presses her forehead to his chest lovingly. The tone has changed, as she knew it would. This is all part of the narrative of sex and love, hers anyway.

“Not today.” He starts kissing her neck. She loves him in the mornings, freshly showered after his bike ride. Getting him out of his work clothes is a victory; it’s like having the best of him before he gets to the office.

“We were negotiating,” she says, running her fingers through his pale hair. “We were talking about the fires your grandfather started, the very root of your real estate empire.”

“It’s fucked up, the way we do this,” he says, pulling the sheet away from her body, pushing her into the mattress gently with his fingertips.

Farrah agrees; it is fucked up. She doesn’t know if it’s the c-word or the absence of kids or the enormous house, but they have ceased to communicate like normal human beings. Lately she has been testing the boundaries of her husband’s affection even more than usual. It’s equal parts recreation and research. How far can she push him?

As he moves his lips down her stomach she says, “you know this is one of your four Wife Days this week.”

“Mhmm,” he says, face pressed into her body. “Whatever you say,” he mumbles, tongue sliding across the inside of her thigh.

When he leaves to wash up again she stays naked in the bed. The sun is coming in strong through the window, heating up the room. Her heart rate is up, and not just from the sex. She’s been getting anxious after sex lately because Blake has been explicit about his desire to have a child and she’s still not ready. We’re running out of time, he’s said, which makes her feel old. But in addition to aging, she’s worried about the c-word. She’d heard her own mother say that the real instability—the craziness—would come when the currency of beauty faded.

Plus Farrah didn’t get off, and when she doesn’t get off she walks around all day feeling like a loaded gun, looking at other men, even the ones who cut the grass. She looks at men who could never give her what she wants in life. She masturbates while Blake’s in the shower because her desire is a problem and she’s solving it. There, she thinks, hiding her fancy chrome vibrator in the bedside drawer. Box checked.

In the past when she has hit lows she has chipped away at her depression the best she knows how: chemically. Drugs, endorphins from long swims, and orgasms. She’ll take ecstasy any way she can find it, in any dose.

What if I really am crazy? she wonders, stretching her arms, making an arc over her head with one and then the other, leaning over until something in her body says stop. Some days “crazy” feels like a textbook malady that one has or does not have, some dormant condition that’s going to rear its head again and fuck up her life.

“We choose our words carefully when talking about mental illness,” her counselor had said, eighteen years ago, after she had suffered her first and only breakdown in the wake of a trip abroad, and was institutionalized for a month. “You’re not crazy. You’re traumatized.”

“Bye, honey,” Blake says, dashing in from the bathroom to kiss her goodbye again before leaving. “I’m late for a meeting with Dave. We’re talking about the Hicks property.” Dave is his partner, a lifelong WASP-y friend whom Farrah all but ignores.

“Dave is vanilla,” she tells Blake, “and unimaginative.”

“He’s rich,” Blake says, shrugging his shoulders. “We can do more together than apart.”

Blake closed on the Hicks farm months ago, but doesn’t have the money to complete his project, a high-density, upscale community. “We’ll probably do a groundbreaking ceremony to drum up some publicity,” he says, re-fastening his cuff links. “Maybe during the Fourth of July celebration?”

“But that’s the day of my open water race,” Farrah says, suddenly angry.

“We can be in two places at once, can’t we?” Blake smiles. “It’s nearby. I need the symbolic effect. I’m going to call it Triumph Point Estates or something. No, Heritage Point.”

“But I like it when you watch me swim.” She crosses her arms.

“We’ll figure something out.” He blows her a kiss and walks downstairs.

Minutes later she hears the mechanized rumble of the garage door going up and then down. Blake is gone.

Sometimes he talks about “the first baby,” referring to the miscarriage that Farrah had when she was younger. “We should try again,” he says, massaging her shoulders.

“Don’t talk about it that way,” she tells him when he gets sentimental. It isn’t just that it’s a sensitive topic; it’s that he doesn’t know all the details, and she’d like to keep it that way.

Those early years were messy years. She’s been with Blake for over half her life now. It’s not that there weren’t other guys; he used to drive through the night from Princeton to see her at UMASS and she’d have to send whatever boy was in her bed out the back window of her dorm room, crashing into the boxwoods.

She hated the way men factored into her self-esteem. Sure, she had a talent with swimming, but she’d never turned it into a career, and now in her thirties, self-worth was getting trickier to manage. Some days she felt desperate for positive feedback. A cat whistle in a parking lot, a compliment in the grocery store, a come-on from one of her husband’s friends she could refuse. It all felt better than she wanted to admit.

In college, those nights when he’d be compelled to drive four hours north, Blake would stagger into her dorm room, cashmere sweater hugging his trim body, and cup her face in his hands, kissing her savagely. That was what she’d always liked about him, the animalistic way he was attracted to her. Or had been. She might still have the sweat of another boy on her skin, but he didn’t know, and those moments had electrified her, because never before had she felt so exalted and desired. And never since.

He’s the only person in the world that truly loves me, she thinks.

Not the girls she drinks wine with at the Sagamore or the estranged mother dying of cancer in Albany or the distant cousins. Blake may not be everything she wants, but he is everything she has.

Farrah reaches for her laptop on the bedside table, brings it to her knees and opens it. She starts the video Blake hates, the one she can’t stop watching, and the sound of water running from a sink instantly begins to soothe her. There, on the screen, is the French woman in her white silk pajama shirt, her blond hair pulled away from her dewy, perfect face. She stands at a sink in her chic, minimalist bathroom with white tiles and chrome fixtures. The lighting is dim. She cups her hands and brings the water to her skin, as if offering it something to drink.

I’m going to explain you the difference of French skincare, how to emoliate your face…your skin is delicate.

Her voice is elegant and soothing, her syntax strange and charming. She sprays her face with thermal water, then toner, so that the skin can “receive the product.”

You dab, you don’t rub; your skin is like the silk.

Farrah begins breathing deeply. When the video is done, she goes to her large, state-of-the-art bathroom and plugs the sink. She runs the water, cups her hands, and brings it to her face. She mists her skin with thermal water, dabs it with a high thread-count washcloth, then smears serum made from neonatal fibroblast—tissue grown from human infant foreskins—underneath her eyes. She looks at her face and asks herself two of the three questions that rule her life:

Do I look old?

Am I insane?

Then she pulls on one of her expensive, silver no-drag swimsuits, and heads downstairs to wait for the trainer. She pours herself a cup of coffee, black, because a tablespoon of half and half is twenty extra calories.

I have dick serum underneath my eyes, she thinks. I could feel bad about myself for this but I’m not going to.

Farrah still feels like an imposter in the house. It’s a McMansion covered in faux stone, full of overstuffed furniture with gold-flecked upholstery, and built on the lot where her grandmother’s home, Five Stones, used to stand. Blake had talked her grandmother into selling it to them on the cheap, never telling her that he’d take a wrecking ball to it a month after she died.

Blake can’t stand old things. “I’m dedicated to progress,” he tells clients. He hates antiques and mold-infested historic homes, or hokey diners with sports or lake memorabilia. The only old thing he loves is his father’s boat, which he’s had refurbished to the point where there’s hardly an old component. He’s impressed with what he calls prestigious locations, huge swaths of lakefront property, of which he has a map of in his office, a map his grandfather once owned and used to plot his own real estate holdings. There are a handful of parcels left with large acreage, two that stand out to Farrah: the White Pine Camp for Girls, and the Hicks family farm. He circles his ideal conquests in red marker. Farrah finds herself secretly rooting against his real estate deals. Just be satisfied, she thinks. You have enough.

At first her privileged life had felt like its own sort of rebellion, a way of pushing back at the childhood her mother had given her. Now Farrah thinks she can see what her mother had tried to avoid.

The doorbell rings, and Justin, a recent graduate student in exercise science who has a seemingly exclusive wardrobe of spandex and sleeveless shirts, raps on the door. Farrah opens it.

“Are you ready for me to kick your ass?” he asks, grinning with bleached teeth. She’s pretty sure he goes to the tanning bed. His eyelids are strangely white.

Farrah nods and walks over to the yoga mat spread across the living room floor, made of imported Macassar Ebony, the planks streaked with chocolate-colored graining. She lies on her back, submissive for the second time this morning. Justin kneels beside her and grips her knee, pressing it first to her chest, then using it to guide her leg in circles.

“Let’s open up your hips,” he says, brown eyes flashing.

“Yes,” she says, holding eye contact with him. “Let’s.”

She allows the sessions to carry a sexual weight because it’s one way of entertaining herself, of seeing if she still has an effect on men. She isn’t genuinely attracted to Justin—he’s too one-dimensional, too single-minded about fitness—and she finds traditional masculinity boring in its purest form. She likes complexity. She likes knowing that people are as fucked up as she is.

Justin, with his fingers on her knee, begins opening her other hip, exploring her body, pondering what it can do, how it can be perfected. She lets a groan escape her lips as Justin applies more pressure.

She and Blake belong together. They don’t need children. They just need each other. How can she help him see that?

*

At the end of each session with Justin, Farrah begins to feel like an elementary school student, bored out of her mind, watching the clock, tuning him out, going through the motions, distracted by the blue sky and bright sun. He has her doing lunges across the backyard with a giant red yoga ball in her arms.

“I-like-my-butt-and-thighs,” he says, timing his words with the rise and fall of her ass as she stalks across the grass. “I’m-tight-and-tough-and-hot-and-fast.”

“I get it,” she says, wiping her sweaty forehead onto her shoulder. “Tight and tough.”

“You know your competition is out there today,” he says, pointing at the lake, “getting a long swim in.”

“Of course,” Farrah says. She puts down the yoga ball, walks over to the picnic table, and grabs her pre-swim protein bar. She looks out at the water while she nibbles it, washing the glue-like chunks down with water.

“Thanks for opening my hips today,” she tells Justin, reaching for her neon green swim cap. There is the familiar pressure on her head, the familiar slap and sucking sound over her ears.

“Find the pain,” he says as she walks him to the door before her swim. “Make it hurt.”

She smiles but only half-listens as she warms up her muscles and stretches, rolling her neck in one direction, then the other.

Finally Justin pulls out of the driveway and her feet are on the wet stone, the one she remembers jumping from as a child, when her grandmother’s quiet mansion stood on the lawn behind her, ivy climbing the twin chimneys. Her blazer-clad grandfather would have been smoking a cigar on the back porch, reading the Boston Globe. Her grandmother would hover over the gardener’s shoulder, telling him where to prune the roses in her quiet, needling way. They were strangers to her. She spent more time at camp than their actual house. They hated her mother and she always assumed the disdain trickled down to her, and that her visits were some sort of charity act.

She starts her GPS watch so she can track her pace and dives into the clear, cool water, on its surface more black than blue as the clouds crowd the sun. She angles her head just north of her home and across the bay toward state land. The first part of her swim is her least favorite, as she glides past the other mansions and their boat docks, Chris Crafts bobbing in the boathouses, Adirondack chairs positioned at the water’s edge just so. In the shallower parts she has the sensation of drinking gasoline. But she finds her stroke and forgets about the danger of boats.

“Can we pay someone to kayak alongside of you with a flag or something?” Blake always asks, but Farrah hates feeling tethered to anything. She covets freedom.

Farrah’s always been amazed at her ability to swim. At first it was an accident, a realization that she was built for the sport, popping up lengths in front of other swimmers in relays at the Newburgh rec center. Now swimming serves one purpose only: it holds the crazy at bay. She’s convinced that swimming beats back the insanity, that exhaustion brings her clarity, and the only way to keep this clarity is to swim harder and longer. Years ago this took her out of the pool and into the lake.

Smooth it out, she thinks. Find your pace.

Farrah passes through the different temperature zones in the water. She looks up with practiced rhythm, keeping her eyes trained on a gnarled pine tree that juts out from a rocky cliff. In open water swimming, precision is critical. Today there is a headwind.

Pull harder, she thinks. Work smarter.

She can feel the wind moving over her back. Her polarized goggles cast the shore and sky in amber light.

At first she keeps her mind on her form as she fights through the first half mile, where inevitably she debates turning around. But the lazy self is the crazy self, she thinks, and she pushes through, heart pounding, ears ringing a little. Ten minutes into her swim she settles down. The mechanics of swimming become rhythmic and serene, the breathing less panicked. Her mind drifts. Pull, glide. Pull, glide, breathe.

If the lake is an ecosystem, then first she is an alien species, invasive, thrashing. Now she is part of it, something subterranean and mythical, gilled and beautiful, at home.

Home. She has always had some ambivalence about home. Perhaps that’s because of the years she spent on the road with her mother, a serial band groupie, a child of the sixties even when it was the eighties. When her second grade teacher asked the class to draw a picture of home, she drew the inside of the Lovell Boys of Dixie tour bus, and a picture of a girl sitting on a bed surrounded by blue smoke.

“What kind of smoke is this?” her teacher had asked, chin falling onto the neck of her floral turtleneck.

Farrah can still remember the taste of it in her mouth, the rich, aromatic mix of tobacco and pot. She can picture her mother rolling out of the lead singer’s bed, Johnny’s sitting up to smooth his ponytail. Her mother would stumble for a moment in the aisle, then climb up to Farrah’s bed, embracing her, both of them lulled to sleep in the fetal position, jolted awake by the bus’s brakes or shouting. The memory, she thinks, is rooted on a particular tour in 1987, en route to a southern rock festival in Texas. The bus was hot. Her mother never wore a bra and pinned her hair up during the day only to let it fall loose at night, because she said it was better for dancing. Always wear your hair down for dancing, she said.

Farrah filed that away as one of the few useful pieces of motherly advice she’d been given.

Now her mom was without her dancing hair, bald from chemotherapy.

The men in the band were never bad to her; they gave her rhythm eggs to shake as they practiced songs, and once even recorded her laughter and put it at the start of a hidden track. But they didn’t censor their behavior, and she’d seen her temporary father figures on the receiving end of hasty blow jobs. She’d cried as the medics hunched over the drummer after a heroin overdose. Though she knows it might be best if she suppressed those years, they contain some of her most vivid memories, and in those memories it is always dark, loud, and anything is possible. It was a lesson in how to watch and not participate, how to build an invisible wall between the world and yourself. Maybe that world is you pretending to read the same Anne of Green Gables book while the bus driver smokes cigarette after cigarette and watches over you until 2 AM. Maybe that world is a 32-mile lake, rich friends who’ve never stepped outside of their private school world.

She hits a cold spot in the lake, which must mean the depth has changed. The process of conduction and convection fascinates her, the idea that her molecules are mingling with the water molecules and there is an exchange of temperature. When she trained as a teenager, her coach had required a regimen of cold baths.

“The Korean divers,” she’d said in her thick German accent, enunciating each syllable separately, “they will be diving twenty meters down in fifty-degree water. The Haenyo divers are swimming in vinter. You can too.”

Sometimes when she hits a cold spot, Farrah thinks of these Korean women, most of them now in their seventies, plunging to the bottom of the sea for abalone. If only winning a race were as necessary as making a living, or feeding oneself. Then she might subscribe to cold baths and swimming before the ice sets in across the lake.

Farrah has always had an immediate dislike of authority figures, people like her coach. When she was younger she had longed for her mother to make rules, but after so many years of premature freedom she couldn’t take dormitory monitors, swim coaches, counselors of any kind. She didn’t crave their approval the way most girls her age did.

Her grandmother used to swim in front of Five Stones, but never great distances, only painfully slow laps early in the morning. There was something self-righteous about her figure in the water, her gaping mouth, the way she toweled herself off. She had been a great beauty in the forties and fifties, once appearing in an advertisement for Coca-Cola. Someone once told Farrah that her grandmother had been in love with a Cuban race boat driver who was killed in a fiery crash on the lake; this idea intrigued Farrah because it made her grandmother seem more human. But only a little.

This was a woman who kicked Farrah’s mother out of the house at 18 because she refused to wear a bra and wanted to form a band. “Whatever your grandmother thought she was fixing by booting me out of the house,” her mother had once said, dragging on a cigarette, “she made much worse.” She’d laughed as she said it, but it was a sad laugh.

Over the years, her grandmother had made gestures: money for Farrah’s college fund. Money for private swim lessons. And when she was fifteen, a trip to Europe.

Pull, glide. Pull, glide, breathe.

It’s hard for Farrah to think of her grandmother without seeing her on her death bed, but it’s what she thinks of now, that tiny woman scraping together all the dignity she could find. Her silver hair was done, swept up by the nurse in a chignon. She wore a pale rose-colored, quilted robe, and sat propped on her pillows. The nurse had called Farrah in to see her; she and Blake were twenty-five years old and living at his parents’ house, which meant interacting with her grandparents more regularly. This awkward proximity only underscored their estrangement. There had been quiet family suppers with steamed mussels and linguine, the formality of the dining room saving them all from meaningful conversation. Always so fucking mannered and quiet, scooping asparagus off of floral china underneath oil portraits. Farrah always had the urge to scream profanity at her grandmother’s dinner table, but never did.

When she’d entered her grandmother’s bedroom for the last time, Farrah sat in a stiff, chintz-covered chair next to the bed.

“I plan to leave a portion of my estate to the Garden Society,” her grandmother said. “And though your mother will get nothing I have set aside a little something for you.”

Farrah was still and silent, taking it in. As usual, when faced with an emotional situation she shut down. She became aware that she gave little in these moments, certainly no comfort. But she was aware of the anger inside her, and the fact that it wanted to get out. She was aware that her grandmother was expecting gratitude.

“Why do you sit there so quietly? Have you nothing to say? Not even thank you?” her grandmother said. She was the kind of woman who was easily appalled.

“Do you know what it’s been like for me?” Farrah had asked quietly, removing her large designer sunglasses. “Do you know what my childhood was like?”

“I knew you weren’t living traditionally. That’s why I sent you to Europe. To give you experiences.”

“Do you know what happened to me in Europe?”

Her grandmother turned her face toward the opposite side of the room. Her narrowed eyes focused on a window, where the wind gently moved the branches of the large Balsam fir. She did not respond as Farrah detailed the trip in a matter-of-fact tone. What it was like to reach a foreign country with only her older cousin Rebecca for a chaperone. What it was like to be in Europe with hardly any spending money, how she ate her cousin’s leftovers most meals and hoarded breadsticks and airplane food.

“We went out every night,” she said. “I was fourteen but I looked older, you remember. I didn’t want to be in the hotel room alone so I followed Rebecca out to the disco in Capri. She said, ‘dance with me!’ and I did. She gave me wine and I drank it. Then she went off with a man we didn’t know and I was all alone. A teenage boy approached me and asked me if I wanted to ride on the back of his motorcycle. He spoke good English. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I said yes.”

“I don’t want to hear anymore,” her grandmother said.

“It was a clear night and we drove up a winding road where you could look down and see the lights of the yachts in the water.”

“Stop.”

“He gave me a helmet to wear. And I wasn’t some idiot fourteen-year-old. I had been around drinking and drugs and men and I thought I could handle myself.”

“Stop. Please stop.”

And so she did. Her grandmother was dying. She knew the end of the story. She could feel it coming; any woman could.

“Thank you for the money.”

Farrah kissed her grandmother’s cheek and walked out of the room, then to the pale pink bedroom she’d used as a child before and after camp. She flopped across the firm mattress. She was not the kind of woman who cried. She’d dug out a pack of cigarettes from her black leather purse and lit one and smoked it there on the bed, stomach-down, savoring the first inhalation, absorbing the pain, embracing the feeling of almost drowning, filling her lungs with something other than air.

Conveniently, Blake followed up her visit with her grandmother that afternoon with his own, and a proposal to buy Five Stones.

“You said your grandmother would be a hard sell,” he said, winking at her afterward over a glass of wine, licking his lips after the first sip went down. “That was not a hard sell.”

Pull, glide. Farrah reaches the shore, sliding carefully over the rocks in the shallow water, cautious not to nick her knee or foot. The water is warmer here and the moss on the rocks is soft.

She always feels beautiful coming out of the water, the lake streaming off of her skin. Perhaps it’s because of the movies, all those melodramatic scenes of movie-sirens emerging in slow motion, or perhaps it’s the truth. Maybe it’s because she associates the motion with winning a race, which she plans to do in July. Winning is a product of and declaration of fitness, and Farrah believes in the biology of mate selection, and so she rouges her cheeks and wears red dresses and keeps her body taut. That’s where her interest in mate selection stops. She wants men to love her and look at her, but she does not want to bear their children.

She sits on a big gray rock, smooths her hair with one hand. It’s cold out of the water and she’ll have to get back in quickly or her body will cramp up. But she needs this moment alone, thinking of her dying mother, and what real love felt like washing over her in the berth of a bus traveling a lonesome highway.

They haven’t spoken in years, but Farrah is grateful that her mother taught her a few things about life, namely that love changes form. It moves from a balm to something suffocating, and back again. You can’t trust it. You just endure it.

After the assault in Capri, Farrah had stumbled back to her hostel room and locked herself in the bathroom, hyperventilating. When she rose, she saw her face in the mirror – streaked with tears and engine grease. She splashed water on her face. She scrubbed. But the engine grease remained. She spent an hour raking a washcloth over her cheeks until they were red and clean. She believed from then on that washing one’s face was a reset.

The old trees loom over her. The rock is uncomfortable. Light sticks to her wet skin. She slips underneath the waterline and screams. The imaginary gill slits open behind her ears and close. Her body exchanges molecules with the lake. She rises to the air, reborn. Again and again.

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