Alice clicks off the radio on her desk. Her now-silent office on the 12th floor of an Art Deco skyscraper on Dearborn is mercilessly air conditioned, but beyond the plate glass of her windows, she knows the city is sweltering through another white-skied August afternoon. She cannot listen to the news on public radio any longer. The presidential campaign is stressing her out. Another four years of W seems impossible to imagine, but four years ago she wouldn’t have imagined the Twin Towers falling or her parents dying or Suzanne leaving her. Her capacity to imagine things has proven unrelated to their capacity to happen. Iraq continues in its conflagration. A hurricane season is heating up. A court in California has decided the mayor of San Francisco had no right to start marrying gay people. Alice knows she is supposed to be outraged about this fact but can’t muster the energy. She feels as if the world has tilted sideways and she can no longer tell the difference between personal catastrophes and geo-political ones. There seems to be no measure for how terrible something is, or what she is supposed to care about. Some of this is grief, she is certain, but she fears some of it is simply her. Back in February, when crowds were massing in front of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, half waving rainbow flags and half holding signs proclaiming God’s judgment on the flag wavers, Alice had asked Suzanne, “What’s the big deal over one stupid word? Let the straight people keep marriage if civil unions mean the same thing. Who cares?”
Suzanne had looked at her as if she, Alice, were briefly a stranger. “Really?” she had asked. Alice knows her instincts, political and otherwise, are not always as they should be.
Alice attempts to apply herself to the slickly produced grant proposal she’s supposed to be considering. Her department has millions of dollars to divvy and she is attempting to take the task seriously. She has the proposal spread out on her desk and the notes of two levels of junior evaluators and the organization’s funding history pulled up on her computer screen. She puts her head in her hands and stops her ears with her thumbs, a habit she reverts to when her concentration is flagging, which is why she doesn’t hear Stuart rap at her open door. He enters her office and touches her shoulder. Alice jumps.
“Jesus, Stuart,” she says.
“Whoa, hey, sorry!” Stuart holds his hands up like someone has just said stick-em-up. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Stuart works in legal. He’s the kind of person who smiles so frequently and so genuinely Alice has long assumed he’d turn up on America’s Most Wanted. He’s a decade younger than she is and always seems to be both freshly showered and freshly bathed in Patchouli. He smiles from the doorway, to which he has retreated. Alice and Stuart have little reason to interact in the office, but he has shown an unnerving level of concern for her since her parents’ death. He often asks her how she’s feeling, and his searching brown eyes telegraph his desire to really hear the truth. Alice doesn’t trust him for a second.
“Am I interrupting?” Stuart pockets his hands, leans a shoulder into her doorjamb.
Alice regards the documents on her desk. She sighs, picks up a pen to click, and turns in her swivel chair to face him. “What’s up?”
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry to hear about you and Suzanne.”
Alice clicks her pen. She has not talked with anyone at the office about her breakup. All of the sympathy that’s been heaped upon her since her parents’ car accident has been quite enough. But she has closed on a condo in Andersonville and is meeting her real estate agent there after work to get the keys. Yesterday, after signing all of the necessary documents at the escrow agency, she stopped in to change her mailing address with HR. She talked to Cherry, who drinks Cherry Coke and wears red nail polish in honor of her name. Word has, apparently, made the rounds. Alice represses the urge to whip her pen at Stuart’s face. She looks past him into the hallway. A summer intern sashays along, flip-flops slapping, chatting brightly into a cell phone.
“When it rains it pours.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“No, you fucking don’t, Stuart.”
Stuart’s ears go pink, but he recovers, maintains eye contact, furrows his attractive brow. “You’re right. My bad. Sorry.”
Alice glances at her watch. “Did you need something?”
“I just— Listen. Christine and I are on a committee at church. We bring food. You know, to families going through hard times. We were talking last night. We thought, maybe, we could bring you something.”
Everyone in the office knows about Stuart and his church. It’s not so much that he evangelizes, although Alice has had an eye on him for signs of some clandestine version of it. She wouldn’t put it past him. It’s that he and his wife are always up to some objectively worthy activity through their church. They sponsor refugee families and cook gallons of soup for shelters and throw a huge holiday bash for foster kids each Christmas. Suzanne had liked Stuart and Christine and had always made Alice donate to their various escapades. Christine is as young and attractive as her husband. They are a breed of young, hip Christians Alice does not understand. In her adolescence, Alice had thought the best thing about the church youth group her parents made her attend was the fact that there, at least, it was okay to be a misfit. Worldly success was suspicious. Popularity, bred of athletic and social achievement and the caprices of adolescent beauty, wasn’t something to be striven for. Alice liked the active social leveling of the youth group. And their version of capture the flag, which was called, unironically, Communists and Christians. Alice loves mentioning this at cocktail parties. She loves laughing sardonically over a dirty martini and saying, “Can you believe it? Communists and Christians? I shit you not. The things that go on in America.” She thinks it must be exhausting for Stuart and Christine to have to be Christians and hold impressive degrees—a JD for him, an MBA for her—and have successful careers and be young and attractive and have expensive taste in oxford shirts and watches and be good people and the all the rest of it.
“I’m not a family,” Alice says. “I live alone.”
“It’s just this simple thing we do. It’s just food. It’s how we say we’re praying for you. It’d mean a lot to Christine if you’d let us bring something by.”
Alice narrows her eyes at Stuart. “Okay. I’ll take a lasagna.”
“A lasagna,” Alice says. “I like spinach and Italian sausage, but go easy on the ricotta cheese. I know you have to put a little in to make it a lasagna, but I’ve never loved ricotta. It’s not really cheese, if you ask me.”
“It doesn’t…Usually we don’t…You don’t usually make a request.”
“You’d cut down on food waste if you did. I grew up Methodist, so I’ve seen my share of casseroles. Mostly inedible. The things I’ve seen church ladies foist off on the bereft and grieving.” Alice begins sorting all the various pieces of the grant proposal into their designated pockets in the portfolio. She is finished with Stuart and this proposal and the workday. She has just decided to get a drink at one of the plethora of bars in her new neighborhood before meeting Walter for her keys. She hasn’t looked at him, but she knows Stuart hasn’t gone anywhere. “Ham salad,” she says. “There is a food invented solely for funerals. I know they made it with love. I ate it after my mom and dad’s wake. I ate it, okay? But if I ever see another ham salad sandwich in my life I will freaking choke.”
“A lasagna it is, then.” Stuart is being patient with her because she is clearly a woman at the outer edge of her capacity to cope. He would probably be patient with her anyway, but it is especially noble of him to be patient with her in this state. “When can we come by?”
“I haven’t moved yet.” Alice rubs her eyes for a moment. “I’m between places. Can we talk logistics later?”
“Sure thing. No problem.” He does not leave. “One more thing?”
Alice takes her hands away from her face. She wonders if this might be workplace harassment. Is relentless and unwanted kindness an actionable offense? She’d have to ask legal, but that would mean asking Stuart. Or HR, but that would mean talking to Cherry. She will simply have to suffer.
“Christine wanted me to mention this group that meets at our church.” Alice suddenly feels as if Stuart and Christine spend most evenings discussing her. She doesn’t like it one bit. It’s an ambush. An intimacy ambush. It is not fair for people to become intimate with you without your knowledge and against your wishes. Who are these people? “A group for divorced women, or women going through a similar life transition.”
“You know I’m gay, right?” Alice asks. “Suzanne’s a woman. We’re both women. So we weren’t married. So we’re not getting divorced. So I don’t want to go to your divorce group.”
“It’s not my group. It’s for women. And you’d be welcome there. I think the pain of a failed relationship can be even more acute when you don’t have the rituals and protocols of a public dissolution, like divorce. It has to be unbelievably lonely.”
Stuart speaks as if reading from a pamphlet. He is also right. She would like to bash him over the head with a heavy book. With the exception of her sister after their parents’ funeral, Alice has never hit anyone. But in the months since, she has imagined hitting almost everyone she’s ever met. She can hardly pass a tree without imagining taking a whack at it with an ax. There is a version of herself walking about in the world, saying hello, doing her work, but inside that automaton, there is a version of Alice that could do almost anything. She’s been wondering when this feeling will pass. Stuart gives her the half-smile good dads on television give truculent children.
“If you don’t get out of my office this very minute I will not allow you or Christine to bring me a lasagna,” Alice says.
Stuart looks at her, unsure if she’s making a joke. Alice is unsure if she is making a joke.
“I’m sorry,” he finally says. “No pressure. I didn’t mean to offend.”
“Join the club.” Alice clicks her pen. “Sorry people are the only people I’ve ever met.”
When Stuart is gone Alice throws her pen. It skips off her desk, hits the window, and disappears into a crevice between a bookshelf and the wall. She’ll probably never get it out of there.
Alice has two martinis at Simon’s before meeting her agent, Walter, at her new condo. Simon’s is, as far as she can tell, the straightest bar in a heavily lesbian neighborhood. The last thing she needs, Alice thinks, is to be around a bunch of lesbians. And yet, here she is, having bought the first piece of property she’s ever owned in Andersonville. Eventually she will want to be around lesbians. Just not right now. Andersonville is very far away from Suzanne’s condo in Hyde Park. It will be like moving to a different city, Alice thinks. Almost. Not quite.
Walter is waiting for her outside the iron gate of the yellow brick courtyard building that will be her new home. She made an offer on the fourteenth condo he showed her. She does not like this one any more than she has liked the previous thirteen, but this condo had confirmed she would not like any condo he showed her. She is pretty sure she is going to hate her new post-Suzanne life. She did not know when she told Suzanne that she didn’t know if she loved her—in a Holiday Inn Express in Indiana, two weeks after her parents’ funeral, nine years after she and Suzanne got together—that Suzanne would break up with her. She’d only wanted to hurt her lover, not drive her away, which, she knows now, was reason enough for Suzanne to end things.
Suzanne had offered to temporarily move out when it was clear that their relationship wasn’t just careening out of control; it was over. This, in spite of the fact that their place was hers, not Alice’s, or even theirs, legally. Alice had made half the mortgage payments for the duration of the five years they lived together, but she refused Suzanne’s suggestion that they get a lawyer to figure out equity. “Think of it as rent,” Alice had said, which made Suzanne burst into tears. That hadn’t been her intention. She didn’t always know when she was being cruel, which was, of course, part of the problem. So Suzanne moved into a friend’s spare bedroom, telling Alice to take all the time she needed to find a new place. After two months, she told Alice to take another two months, but then to please get out. Alice had assumed she would be looking for an apartment to rent, but by the time Suzanne had given her sixty days, it was clear there would be money from the farm. Not tons of it, but enough for a down payment on a condo. That is when Alice engaged the services of Walter and began seeing three and four places a week. On the nights she hasn’t gone to look at condos after work, Alice has gone home to Suzanne’s, which is where she wants to live. She loves the sunroom at the front of the condo and the stained glass panels Suzanne hung in the windows. She loves the pale pine floors, and the bedroom they shared, even though its only window looks out over an alley and on every Monday of their lives together, the trash trucks woke her up. She does not love Suzanne the way Suzanne wanted Alice to love her, but when she wasn’t thinking about leaving Suzanne, Alice was happier than she’d ever been in her whole life in that condo. She has been packing her possessions slowly, one box a night.
Walter shakes Alice’s hand. He explains how the buzzer system works and shows her how to punch her code into the security box on the gate. He points out which mailbox is hers in the cool tiled foyer of her building and then leads her up to her new place on the third floor. Their footsteps echo in the empty rooms. In the kitchen, which will be flooded with light in the mornings but is dim at six o’clock in the evening, Walter pops open his briefcase and extracts a second set of keys with a flourish. Alice is uncertain that she, alone, will ever be enough to fill the emptiness of the rooms around her.
“I’ll bet you’re happy to be done with me,” Alice says. She has not made friends with Walter. He is absurdly young and wears his blond hair sculpted into a spiked fashion Alice thought went out of style in the early nineties. Walter smiles impassively and looks out the kitchen window. Wooden stairs switchback down to the alley below. In profile, Alice gets a brief glimpse of his contact lens floating in front of his blue iris. Alice has assumed since the moment she met him that Walter was gay, but it strikes her suddenly that hair gel and beautifully exfoliated skin do not now mean on a young man what they used to mean.
“I’m glad we found something that’ll work for you.” Walter crosses to the refrigerator, swings open the door, and grabs a bottle of mid-priced champagne. It is the only thing in the refrigerator. He smiles as he proffers it. “Congratulations, Alice.”
He is only smiling, Alice thinks, because of the commission. If he is gay, he will spend it on recreational drugs and alcohol. He will buy a shirt that brings out his icy eyes and go to clubs where he’ll meet lawyers and investment bankers even older than Alice, and they will vie for his affection. They will buy him things and take him on dates to the fanciest restaurants in the city, and it won’t matter what kind of commission he earns next week or the week after because there are always more lawyers and investment bankers looking to buy the attention of beautiful young men.
Alice takes the bottle from his hands. She runs a thumb over the label. “You’ve got to live somewhere, right?”
“You do.” Walter snaps his briefcase closed. He considers Alice for a moment and then says, “I hope things aren’t always this hard.”
“Oh,” Alice says, stung. “You think this is hard? My girlfriend kicking me out? Being single at thirty-five?” She has never said anything to him about the death of her parents. It is too macabre. Too close to a joke. “You’re what? Twenty-three? Twenty-four? I know it’s difficult to imagine, but life gets a thousand times worse than this, kid. It might even for you.”
“I’ll go now, unless there’s anything else?”
“No, there’s nothing else,” Alice says. “I can stay here, right? I can just, stay here, for a little bit?”
“You can do whatever the fuck you want, Alice,” Walter says. “You live here.” And then he turns and his leather-soled shoes click down the hall and then the front door opens and closes.
Alice’s ears burn. She’d wanted Walter to like her, not pity her. She feels idiotic. And betrayed. She doesn’t know the first thing about Walter. Maybe he’s not gay. Maybe he’s Mormon, for Pete’s sake. She hates Walter almost as much as she hates her new life. The person who would understand how Alice feels right now is Suzanne, and not only does she not want to love Alice anymore, Suzanne doesn’t even want to talk to her. Alice is not lonely. She is alone.
Maybe the problem is men, Alice thinks, as she pilots her Subaru down Lake Shore Drive. Lake Michigan is mirror-smooth and dotted with sailboats that glow in the last of the summer sun. Stuart and Walter and all the rest of them. She’s never been the kind of lesbian who got along with men. She doesn’t know what kind of lesbian she is, but she knows she’s not that kind. She turns on the car radio and pushes the button for an oldies station. The Subaru was Suzanne’s compromise. They bought it together in 1999, and it is Alice’s now, like the condo is Suzanne’s. She zooms past downtown and Soldier Field, exits at 47th and winds her way to Suzanne’s street. She parks in front of the building rather than in their designated spot behind it. That parking spot is for the owner. Alice stopped parking there when Suzanne moved out.
With her own condo across town, Alice truly feels like a strange guest letting herself into Suzanne’s condo. She drops her keys into the bowl on the sideboard in the hall. Boxes crowd the living room. She has packed clothes in trash bags like a college kid. Alice heads for the kitchen. She is glad Suzanne had somewhere to go these past four months. She’s known couples who break up and then go on living together for weeks and months and longer. That sounds awful. This is awful, but that sounds worse. Alice opts for cheese and crackers for dinner and a large glass of wine. She wanders into the half-bath off the kitchen with a hunk of cheddar perched on a cracker in one hand and her wineglass in the other. To avoid dropping crumbs on the floor, she stuffs the whole cracker in her mouth, everything, all at once. She considers herself in the mirror over the sink without turning on the lights. She has lost weight since her parents’ funeral, and not in a good way.
Her parents never saw her in this home. Before they were dead, Alice was glad of this. Alice tries to picture them climbing the stairs to Suzanne’s front door, crossing the threshold, sitting on the sofa in the living room, her mother nervously smoothing her slacks, her father holding a John Deere cap in his hands. Alice stands still, listening to the quiet of the empty condo. It is as easy to imagine her parents as ghosts, hovering somewhere close to her now, as it is to imagine them having come to visit when they were alive, and Alice does not believe in ghosts. Even though her parents were the only people she was still closeted to, she feels more closeted, not less so, now that they are dead. She will be closeted to them forever. There is now no such thing as not out yet. Alice goes back to the kitchen for another glass of wine.
By the end of the week, Alice has managed to transport most of her worldly belongings to her new home. Now, Alice stands sweating, surrounded by boxes, in her new kitchen. She had a site visit today at work, so she wore a suit, which she will now need to take to the cleaners since she didn’t bother changing before unloading the car. Her jacket lies in a rumpled heap on the counter. She unbuttons and slips out of her shirt, which she drops on top of the jacket. She feels better immediately in just her sleeveless undershirt. Blinds clatter at the windows in the kitchen and the living room as a cross breeze sweeps through. She will have to do something about those. She hates venetian blinds, but for now she will live with them, as she will live with everything she can’t fix. For now, it is enough to have the windows open, enjoying the way the suffocating heat of earlier in the week has broken. The city feels less like the reclaimed swamp it is and more like a place reasonable people might live.
Before beginning the process of unpacking boxes, Alice pockets her wallet and keys and heads down to a liquor store at the end of the block. There is a nicer one, a store that stocks quality wines and craft beers and an impressive selection of whiskeys up on Foster, but Alice doesn’t need anything special. Just a case of some not-awful beer. In Hyde Park, she had begun switching up where she bought her beer and liquor and wine, stopping by a liquor store one night, a grocery another, a chain convenience store the next. This is a development she has noted and decided to worry about later. She had decided she would worry about it once she moved into her new place. Perhaps she will.
Once back in her apartment, Alice removes one beer from the case and puts the other eleven into the empty fridge. She pries open three boxes before she finds a bottle opener. She thinks about ordering a pizza, but instead begins unpacking her half of the stoneware dishes she and Suzanne bought when Alice first moved in. They had eight place settings total, so they can now each begin their new lives with place settings for four. The last time these dishes were unpacked, she and Suzanne had worked together, Alice taking the dishes from the steaming dishwasher and drying them, handing them to Suzanne who had to stand on her tiptoes to place them in their high cabinets. Alice tries to remember what it was she was feeling that day in the kitchen of Suzanne’s condo, what she thought she was at the beginning of. Surely she loved Suzanne properly then, hadn’t she? Or at least she had planned to? Or had she thought even then, even in that moment of moving in, this is the beginning of something that will end? Alice honestly doesn’t know. She remembers that that night, the first night she slept in Suzanne’s bed not as a girlfriend staying over but as a girlfriend who lived there, she dreamed of Genevieve.
The summer before Alice met Suzanne, Genevieve broke her heart. Alice had taken the Amtrak from Chicago to Minneapolis to visit an old college friend. She was twenty-five, newly graduated from a master’s program, still mostly a kid, although she didn’t know it at the time. She’d just had a third interview for a job at the MacArthur Foundation, and she’d felt so good about it that she’d bought a ticket to the Twin Cities to go enjoy a little bit of the summer before she started what she hoped would be her career. Alice’s friend, Meg, had followed her boyfriend, Brandon, back to his hometown, and she swore she loved Minneapolis. Alice knew both Meg and Brandon would be at work when she arrived. They said they’d leave the back door open for her. Alice took a cab from the train station to Meg’s apartment. When she climbed the back stairs of the apartment block and let herself into the kitchen, Genevieve was slicing a mango over the sink.
“Hello,” Genevieve had said, the word tinged by her native French. The Cities were in the grip of a lethal heat wave. The girl’s dark skin glistened. Alice stood arrested on the threshold. It was ninety degrees outside, hotter in. “I am Genevieve,” Genevieve said, and slipped a slice of mango between her lips.
“I’m Alice,” Alice had said. “I’m here to visit Meg.” Meg had not said anything about Genevieve.
“I am here to visit Brandon,” Genevieve said, “but he is not, at present, at home. Would you like mango, Alice?”
Alice nodded and stepped into the sweltering kitchen. She was disheveled and smelly and wrinkled from a long train trip. Her short hair was sticking up at odd angles. She knew her skin was oily, not glistening.
“Yeah,” she said. “Sure. That’d be great. I’m going to change first, though. You know. I took the train. I’ve been on the train a long time. And it’s hot.” Alice felt completely dumb in addition to smelly.
“Minneapolis is hotter than Paris,” Genevieve said. “This surprises me. But it is not as hot as Abidjan. The Cote d’Ivoire? I am French, but that is where my parents are from. I have spent every summer of my life much hotter than this.”
Alice had wanted to die. She’d scampered off to the bathroom, cursing Meg for not warning her about Genevieve. She stripped to her underwear in the bathroom and washed up at the sink. She pulled a fresh pair of pants and a men’s seersucker shirt from her duffel bag. She ran her wet hands through her hair and hoped it looked attractively bed-headish rather than just messy. She rolled deodorant in her armpits. When she returned to the kitchen, Genevieve had retreated to the back porch with a plate of mango and two gin and tonics, condensation already beading each glass.
“I made you a drink,” she said. “Come and sit. If we are very still we will feel a breeze.”
They spent the afternoon like that, sitting languidly on the back porch, eating slice after slice of mango and drinking. Genevieve told Alice about herself, about life in Paris, about the politics of being a Black Frenchwoman. “The colony has come home, all over Europe,” Genevieve said with a grin, “and Europe doesn’t know what to do with us. People are forever asking me where I am from, and I smile and say, the 4th arrondissement. We will see. I think French-speaking Africa is better off than English-speaking. The British built railroads across their empire. The French built schools. My parents went to Paris for graduate school, and now a French passport is the only passport I hold.” Alice nodded and drank gin. She didn’t know what to say.
Alice learned that Genevieve was two years older than herself, that she’d met Brandon at Georgetown, that she’d completed her master’s degree in economics the previous year. She was wrapping up a year of traveling around the U.S. and would be returning to Paris at the end of the summer. She had a great deal to say about how being Black in America was different from being Black in France. She said Americans didn’t know what to do with her once they discovered she wasn’t African American, or Caribbean, or from Africa itself. “And American men,” Genevieve said, then, and whistled through her teeth. All the blood in Alice’s body had drained from her head. “They are different from French men. They don’t understand women who love women.” She placed a slice of mango on her tongue and smiled at Alice with closed lips. All of the blood in Alice’s body raced to her face.
By the time Meg and Brandon got home from work, Alice and Genevieve were drunk. They had walked to the grocery store and walked home with a watermelon, half a dozen ears of corn, and steaks and shrimp to put on the grill. Alice had paid for everything with her credit card. Meg arrived first and found Alice and Genevieve brining shrimp in a bucket in the kitchen. She called Brandon and told him to bring charcoal and lot more gin. Alice split the watermelon theatrically with a cleaver. When Brandon arrived with the charcoal and the gin and a bag of limes and a bag of ice, the women cheered. Genevieve put on CD after CD and sang along in French. They ate chunks of fruit with their fingers and charred everything on the grill and waited for night to bring relief from the heat, but it did not.
Before Meg and Brandon went to bed, Meg pulled sheets and blankets and a pillow from the hall closet and helped Alice make up the couch in the studio. The “studio” was really the living room, but Meg’s art supplies and canvasses and stray furniture collected from the alley so littered the room that Meg and Brandon hardly used it. Meg had to clear a path to the couch under the front windows. She was not entirely steady on her feet.
“You should have told me,” Alice said, as Meg wrestled a fitted sheet over the couch cushions.
“Oh,” Meg said. She sat on the couch and pushed her sweat-wet curls off her forehead. “We didn’t know she was coming. She just sort of showed up. I can’t tell how long she’s planning to stick around.”
“I might love her,” Alice said.
“Try not to.”
“Why? She’s incredible. She’s the most incredible woman I’ve ever met.”
“You don’t think she’s a little too good to be true?” Meg fluffed the pillow into its pillowcase and dust floated up. “I don’t even think she’s gay.”
“She’s been flirting with Brandon.”
“Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean she has to flirt with my boyfriend.”
“Brandon’s probably been flirting with her,” Alice said. “American men don’t know what to do with women who love women.”
“That sounds like something Genevieve would say,” Meg said. She whacked Alice in the shoulder with the dusty pillow. “Do what you’ve gotta do, Alice. Just don’t get your heart involved. Goodnight. Kisses. Thanks for coming to visit.”
Once the apartment was dark and silent, Alice lay awake on her couch, sweating through her boxers and undershirt. A window-unit air conditioner hummed from behind Brandon and Meg’s closed bedroom door. The studio was so hot Alice had begun to wonder if she should get an icepack to put on her feet. When she was a girl and her mother took her and Sara to the public pool, her mother never got in. She’d sit at the edge of the pool with her feet in the aquamarine water and say, “If my feet are cool, I’m cool. All your blood circulates through your feet.” This was what Alice was momentarily thinking about when she heard the guest bedroom door creak open and Genevieve whisper, “Alice?”
Alice sat up with a jerk. Genevieve giggled from around the corner.
“Yeah?” Alice whispered.
“Are you hot?”
“I have a fan in my room,” Genevieve said. “You will be cooler in here.”
Alice lay back for a moment, her pulse loud in her ears. She wanted to prolong the misery and ecstasy of life before Genevieve, now that life before Genevieve was about to end.
“Alice?” Genevieve asked. “Are you coming to me?”
“Yes,” Alice said. “I’m on my way.”
Alice felt as if she were dreaming as she stood up from the couch. Genevieve stood in the open door of the guest bedroom. She was wearing a white tank top and white panties, and her lean dark limbs were little more than a silhouette of herself in the dark. Alice’s legs went weak. Genevieve held her hand out, and Alice was surprised by how damp her palm was.
“Please don’t sleep on the couch.” Genevieve drew Alice into the room and closed the door behind her. “Sleep here, with me.”
Alice fingered the straps of Genevieve’s tank top. They were standing so close together that Alice could feel the corona of heat thrown off from Genevieve’s body. Genevieve touched her hips, her shoulders, her cheeks. She put a finger to Alice’s lips.
“I like this,” Genevieve said. “This way you are looking at me.”
Before Alice could say anything, Genevieve’s mouth was hot against hers. Genevieve pressed Alice to the door and wedged a knee between Alice’s thighs. Alice couldn’t breathe, but she didn’t think she would ever again need to breathe. When Genevieve applied her open mouth to Alice’s throat, Alice said, “Oh, please.” A box fan rattled in the open window and a ceiling fan whirled above them. Genevieve pulled Alice to the bed and then pulled Alice down on top of her. They made love until both of them arched and moaned and collapsed, sweating and laughing, into each other’s shaking arms. Alice lay on top of Genevieve, their naked bodies slicked together, until Genevieve said, “Lover, you are going to crush me.”
Alice rolled off and lay next to Genevieve. “Where have you been all my life?” she asked.
“Mostly in France,” Genevieve said, and they both laughed.
Alice and Genevieve lasted one week. They lived together like lovers in Meg and Brandon’s spare bedroom. They spent their days in art museums and parks and seeing matinees to get out of the heat. Genevieve was shameless, holding Alice’s hand on sidewalks in the heart of downtown with businessmen and suburban Minnesotans in for a day of shopping looking at them sideways. In the evenings they met up with Meg and Brandon for cocktails and dinner. One night, they all splurged on a fancy bistro and Genevieve flirted with their waiter in French. Once each day was finally over, Alice and Genevieve made love too loudly to be good houseguests and then slept late, only rising after Meg and Brandon had left for work the next day. Somewhere during that week, Alice checked her messages at home and discovered that she had been offered the job at MacArthur. Which meant she really did have to return to Chicago.
On their last night together, Alice and Genevieve lay facing each other in the dark, their foreheads and knees and fingertips touching.
“Oh, lover,” Genevieve said. “What will we do?”
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “We’ll work this out. This feels like who I am. Like what I’m meant to do.”
“Listen,” Alice said. “I love you.”
“Love,” Genevieve said, as if trying to remember what the word meant. “The world is bigger than two girls who just met in Minneapolis.”
Alice was pierced by both hope and fear. She didn’t know what to say.
“You will go to Chicago.” Genevieve ran her fingers through Alice’s hair. She watched her own hand at work rather than looking at Alice. “And I will go back to Paris. What else can we do?”
“I could come to Paris.” Alice stilled Genevieve’s hand. “Not right away. I know. I’ll need a visa or something. I’ll learn French. Not tomorrow, not immediately, but I could come live with you.” She meant it, too. She would leave her country for Genevieve. She could already imagine telling her parents. Just telling them. Straight out. She’d say, “I love a woman named Genevieve and I’m going to live with her in France.” She’d say it and then get on a plane.
“In America, you and I are lesbians. That’s what people see when they look at us, two lesbian girls, holding hands. In France, I am African and you would be American. I have to fight every day to be French.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Alice asked.
“I am not asking you to understand. I am only telling you. You cannot come to me in France.”
“Then live here,” Alice said. “Live with me in Chicago. I could take care of us.”
“That is the last thing I need, to be kept by an American,” Genevieve said. She said it so swiftly she must not have known how it sounded to Alice.
“I love you, Genevieve. I don’t care. I’ll do whatever you need me to.”
“Alice,” Genevieve had said, tenderly. She touched Alice’s lips. “What do we know of love? We are still just girls.”
Alice had cried at that. She’d simply lost it.
“Lover, m’amour,” Genevieve whispered. “Do not be sad. Do not cry on our last night. We do not know the future. Time will tell. We shall see.”
Alice and Genevieve exchanged addresses the next morning and then Genevieve went with her to the train station. Alice didn’t know what kind of goodbye they were saying and she didn’t ask Genevieve. In Chicago, she started her new job and then started running and then started lifting weights. She only let herself write Genevieve once a week. Genevieve answered her letters for several months, and then, without warning, Alice’s last letter was returned. Genevieve vanished, no forwarding address. Alice was sick with grief. And then she met Suzanne. Suzanne who looked at Alice the way Alice had looked at Genevieve. Suzanne who was so pretty and blond people turned to look at her on the street. For the first two years of her relationship with Suzanne, Alice had held out hope that Genevieve would show back up. That she would find Alice at her office and say, simply, “I have changed my mind. Come to Paris. Come to live with me.” And Alice knew she would go. She even knew how she’d tell Suzanne. By email. Like a terrible person. But it would not be her fault because love smashes the rules we are all supposed to live by. It is brutal and devastating and glorious.
In their nine years together, Alice told Suzanne almost everything, but she never told her about Genevieve. Eventually, she stopped hoping Genevieve would contact her. She thought about looking around on the Internet for her when the Cote d’Ivoire tumbled into civil war, but did not. The Cote d’Ivoire was not Genevieve’s country, Alice told herself. She was in France. Probably still in Paris. Alice decided Genevieve was pretty much a bitch. This did not stop Genevieve from showing up in Alice’s thoughts and dreams. Like the night she moved in with Suzanne. Like now. In her empty, echo-y new home.
Now, Alice is drunk. There are beer bottles piling up in her sink. Many of her boxes have been emptied, or are half-emptied, and many of her cabinets and closets now have things in them. But everything feels provisional. She doesn’t know if she has chosen the right drawer for her silverware or if the French press should live in a cabinet or just on the counter since she’ll use it every day. She doesn’t even know why she has chosen to buy this place and not some other, or why she felt she needed to buy at all. What does it mean to own a condo? You don’t own anything, really. Not land. Not something you can stand on. You own a few rooms suspended in midair, balanced on top of the rooms someone else owns. Things will be better, she assures herself, when her new furniture is delivered. The space won’t feel so provisional. She will fill these rooms with a new bed and dresser, a leather couch in “library coffee,” whatever color that turns out to be, a dining table and chairs. Her condo will not always feel like the home of a person who doesn’t know how to live in it. She wishes now she had kept some of the furniture from her parents’ house. Sara wouldn’t have minded. She’d asked her if she wanted any of it. But Alice had said no. She couldn’t imagine possessing her mother’s cherry rocker or her antique china hutch or the kitchen table they all shared for the eighteen years of her childhood. They hired a woman to oversee the donation of whatever from their parents’ lives was left over after the estate sale. Neither Alice nor Sara had wanted to know what objects no one wanted to buy.
Her cell phone rings and Alice jumps, whacking her head on an open cabinet door. She finds the phone on the floor in the hallway, beneath a pile of dishtowels she used as packing material. It is Suzanne. Alice flips the phone open.
“Hey, Suz,” she says.
“Hey,” Suzanne says. Both women breathe.
“What’s up?” Alice asks.
“I don’t know,” Suzanne says. “I… How are you? I guess that’s why I’m calling. To see how you are.”
“Okay.” Alice could cry. If she let herself she could cry, but she will not do that to Suzanne. “I’m at my new place. I’m unpacking.”
“Are you drunk?”
“What? No. Well, yes. Probably.” Alice sits on the floor in the hall. “It’s been a long week.” The bathroom door is open. The room reeks of the plastic shower curtain Alice has just put up.
“For me, too,” Suzanne says. “Look, I don’t mean to be pushy, but how close are you? To being out?”
It takes Alice a moment to realize Suzanne is talking about her condo. About Hyde Park. “Oh, close,” she says. “Super close. We could…I’m done, really. I could…We could do keys this weekend.” Alice’s furniture won’t arrive for another week, but she has a sleeping bag and one of the camping mats she and Suzanne bought one summer when they tried to go camping. Mosquitoes and a failed attempt at cooking over a fire and a thunderstorm had all driven them to a Quality Inn.
“Okay,” Suzanne says. “Can we? This is killing me.”
“Yeah. I know. I know.” They are quiet again. Alice smoothes a dishtowel over her thigh and folds it with one hand. “How are we going to get through it?”
“One day at a time,” Suzanne says. “And when that’s too much, one hour after another.”
Alice would like to say she loves Suzanne. She really does. Just not enough. And since she knows that, she doesn’t say it. She feels briefly proud of herself.
“Stuart asked me to go to a group for divorced women at his church,” Alice says.
“Right?” Alice asks.
Suzanne laughs. “That sounds like Stuart.”
“Yeah. He might bring me a lasagna. Will people bring you food? When you’re back at our place? Your place. Once you’re living alone?”
Suzanne seems to consider this. “I don’t think so,” she says. “They’ll probably make me go to dinner parties.”
“Sunday? For the keys?” Suzanne asks. “I’ve got to go.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sure,” Alice says. “Sunday. Hey, listen, Suz. Before you go…”
“I should have fucking come out to my parents. I should have told my mom. I should have just—God. I can’t believe I didn’t.”
“I know,” Suzanne says. “I know.”
Alice looks up at her ceiling. She’s glad she lives on the third floor and won’t have to worry about someone walking back and forth over her. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Sunday. Goodnight, Suz.”
“Goodbye, Alice,” Suzanne says.
Alice closes her phone. She stands, steadying herself against the wall. She walks carefully to the kitchen and drops her bottle in the sink. She kills the lights. She has a toothbrush somewhere, she’s sure of it. And she is probably drunk enough to sleep.