The women waited for Olivia. Perched on their lawn chairs beneath the dogwood, which blossomed in leathery white bursts, Nel thought they looked more like they were waiting for their youth. Leanne had slathered on so much foundation she resembled an overripe tangerine, and Connie stank of French perfume. Nel regretted wearing new capris. The white pants had looked effortless on the pretty, child-like model in the catalogue, but they hung limply from her own middle-aged waist. What would Kevin call them if he walked into the backyard now? A gaggle, she thought. A gaggle of women, hoping for some mid-afternoon miracle that would transform them from mere sacks of marriages and motherhood into pristine girls again.
She was perhaps being melodramatic. They waited on Olivia, the childhood friend they had not seen for twenty-five years, ever since she’d disappeared with her new-found husband to Iran. Then Iraq, then Jordan, then God only knew where because they’d lost touch. Tajikistan, maybe. Somewhere unpronounceable that would make her friends back home twist their mouths ungracefully.
Olivia was late.
Leanne swatted at the yellow rain of pollen. “It’s hot,” she said. “Too hot to sit outside.” She’d foolishly worn mascara, although summer had arrived early in Durham. Now gunpowder splotches seeped from the corners of her eyes.
“Drinks.” Connie leapt from her seat. “Margaritas? Mimosas? Olivia loves mimosas.”
That Nel only had whiskey and gin did not concern Connie, who clattered through the sliding door into the house. The women had been inside each other’s homes and lives since they were girls; they treated each other’s houses as if any and all could be hostess, although today it was Nel’s turn. Nel’s house. Nel’s liquor cabinet Connie was raiding. Connie had begun the twelve steps to sobriety four times now. She never made it past step one. “One and three-quarters,” Connie claimed.
“Good Lord, I feel like Moses marching through the desert.” Leanne dabbed her cheeks. “The icing on your cupcakes is melting, by the way.”
“It’s lovely out here,” Nel said.
“You’re showing signs of sun damage, Nel. Building all those shacks…”
“It’s taking its toll.”
Over the years, Connie had found the bottle, and Leanne had found God, while Nel collected plywood and power tools and paint to rebuild houses that were falling apart. The Durham streets were haunted with the addresses of buildings she’d gutted over the years.
Nel placed a mesh fly cover over the pretty cakes and tea sandwiches she’d made. It was a little warm now that the sun had clipped the chimney, filling the gutter with light. But Nel would not budge; the garden was beautiful. Dandelions pushed through the soil. Leaves unfurled, thin-skinned and pale. At the bottom of the gravel path, the pond sparkled with the stars you couldn’t see during the day.
“Outside or in, Olivia will seat us wherever she feels like anyway,” Leanne complained. “She always gets what she wants.”
“The type of woman who goes to ladies’ night at the gun range…”
Leanne stared into the sky above the pond as if it might turn into a shell of wood. She was into her spirits. Water turning into wine. Women dissolving into salt. She saw salvation in the eye of every storm.
Olivia was in town to dispose of her mother’s remains. Nel had learned this from Leanne, who’d heard it from her pastor and had carried the news directly to the house Nel was restoring on Morning Glory Road. Nel had looked up too fast and slipped on the pitched gable, scraping her knee against the hip of the roof. That evening she’d sat beside her husband Kevin, who was counting his overtime hours till retirement, while he pretended to read his book. Nel did not mention Olivia. She watched the midges cluster around the porch light.
They heard her voice first, calling out to ask if anyone was home. Connie, who had returned with three tall glasses, loud with ice, snapped upright, and Leanne’s face tore unpleasantly into a smile. Then a shadow rubbed against the table, buffing the iron a tin-can blue. Olivia. Appearing as if summoned from the nastiness that had been leaking from their hearts.
Nel had imagined this meeting for years. She’d thought Olivia’s skin would be leathered from years beneath the Arab sun, her thin body cured into strips of tough salted meat, like jerky that had been well-chewed. Olivia herself would be shy at first, then grateful for being received. Nel had never settled on whether there’d be tears, and this uncertainty paralyzed her momentarily. She couldn’t say for sure, but when she turned, she thought she smiled politely and said “welcome,” or “hello”; at least not “where were you, you bitch?” This last, a surprise, since she had not been angry with Olivia before she arrived.
Olivia was thicker. She wore an exquisite floral print dress in satin and lace that wrapped too tightly across her wide hips and thighs. When they hugged, Nel’s body grazed the folds of her ample flesh, soft and lumpy, and smelling like modest mountains of cold cream.
They stepped apart. Leanne drew in her breath, exhaled, folded her arms. Connie grinned. Nel offered Olivia a sandwich. “Barbecue?”
Olivia hesitated. “You’re not vegetarian now, are you?” Connie said. Squawked. Her glass was already empty.
“I always have been,” Olivia said. Only lapsed at times.”
Such as the first seventeen years of her life, if Nel recalled right, setting the assorted pork and salmon-cream cheese sandwiches down among the cupcakes, speckled with bacon bits.
The booze, at least, sufficed. When Connie returned with a pitcher of straight gin, a plate of limes, and an extra glass, Olivia did not protest.
“You must miss alcohol,” Connie said. “Living among Muslims.”
“There’s no shortage of alcohol in Syria,” Olivia said. “Syria invented beer.”
“Still,” Leanne said. “It can’t be as easy as drinking in a Christian country. It can’t be as easy as drinking here.”
“I’ve had wonderful wine in Syria. It’s so close to Europe after all.”
Which North Carolina, with the vast Atlantic eating at its shores, was not.
“What’s it like…” Nel began.
“Glorious. A hassle changing anything when your streets are stuffed with history, but Syria has such a sense of place.”
Nel nodded, absently. She was trying to dry the sweat from her calf. Her husband had been right. The pants made her look old, exposing her ropey blue veins.
Olivia said, “Still, life is life everywhere, you know?”
They did not. They’d only ever lived in Durham.
“I meant, what’s it like to be back here after all this time,” Nel said.
“Little’s changed apart from the empty buildings. Half the town is boarded up.”
This was not true. The city was thriving. But as Nel was about to say as much, she noticed that the paint on the table had turned a jaundiced gray, and in places had chipped away. She saw the garden as Olivia did: the lawn a mean tangle of weeds, the earth beneath Durham, clay. Only the cruelest plants survived. Kudzu crept along the branches and strangled the telephone poles, as if squeezing out the last breath of spring. Even the pond water was warm and stagnant. Its surface shone as if coated in Vaseline.
That was Olivia, alright. She turned gold into sawdust. Because she’d lived in the Middle East, swum in the Mediterranean, though they were just names you could point to on a map, like anywhere else.
Nel had dreams of water. Not of vast ocean-blue stretches though. She dreamt that she melted, and melted, she made a small puddle of liquid that spread across the floor and seeped away, leaving nothing behind. Not even a stain.
“Blame Nel,” Leanne said. “She bricks up buildings to make shanty-towns.”
“I redevelop buildings to create affordable housing,” Nel explained. She tried to sound upbeat. “Durham’s experiencing a Renaissance. Of sorts. And the poor are being pushed out.”
“We’re bereft,” Leanne said, straight-faced.
“I rip open decaying houses, pull apart the loose felt matting on the roof, the skew nails, the rotten beams; then I stitch it all back together again, properly.”
Nel enjoyed what she did. She enjoyed sanding the floors, softening the strictness of the wood until the planks were pale and quiet, like the bones of a whale. She’d started fixing up houses a few years ago, driving the old roads while her son was in Iraq. He’d since returned from his final tour, all in one piece, thank God. But there were so many projects that still needed her attention. A house, of course, was not a child. Nel knew that. She knew that it would splinter and rot, and in the end would never be more or less than what she’d made.
“So you do all that work and then just give the house away?” Olivia asked.
Nel shrugged. “Sometimes I keep something to remember them by. An old pistol was left behind at the place I’m fixing now.”
The Morning Glory house sat behind a textile mill, abandoned except for kids and gangs and kids in gangs, who used it for sex and drugs and stabbings occasionally. “It’s one of those Remington Rands popular with the military.”
The women wanted to see the gun. Nel had hidden the pistol from her husband and son, who would have thought her guilty of some misplaced sentimentality, and was pleased to have the chance to show it off. In the bedroom upstairs, she felt between her underwear for the slim barrel and the case of cartridges.
“Good Lord,” Leanne said when Nel set the gun and box on the table. She held the pistol in her upward facing palms as if in supplication to some old God. “My pa had one of these.”
“My brothers, too, in Vietnam,” said Connie. “They taught me to shoot on M1911s, in case I got mixed up with the wrong type of man.”
Fat lot of good that had done.
The conversation turned to men. “A rather grand term for those ‘round here. Most are just boys who’ve gotten pruney skinned and started sagging in places,” Leanne said.
Connie agreed, spilling a little as she poured herself another generous glass. “Richard struggles with microwave meals. Well, I didn’t marry him for his brains.”
That much was true. Richard was good looking, but not so much so that many other women would wait on him hand and foot. He fooled around and drank. Sometimes when he drank he liked to fight. Often with Connie.
“I don’t know why you married him at all,” Nel said.
“Oh, Nel,” Olivia said. “We’re women. There’s always someone after us. We don’t want just someone, though, do we?”
“I thought you were happy enough with anyone,” Leanne said.
The pitcher slipped from Connie’s hands, spraying the sandwiches with gin as it fell into Olivia’s lap, then clattered over the patio. The women cried out and tried to dab Olivia’s dress with small squares of tissue paper, but their attentions would have been useless even if they weren’t half-hearted, and they quickly turned to simply surveying the damage. Connie dried the pistol with her hem, and racked the slide expertly.
Olivia laughed. Perhaps it was then, happy in her sticky dress, that they knew she did not resemble the tormented woman they’d created while defending her from gossip once she’d left, knew that she would not climb upon the cross they’d cobbled together for her, that she’d escaped because she believed their lives were wanting.
“Baptized with booze,” Leanne said.
Connie retrieved a bottle of gin from Nel’s liquor cabinet and plonked it down beside the crustless, now sodden, sandwiches.
“How lovely,” Olivia said.
The food, the little party napkins, the paper umbrellas in the kitchen cupboard Nel had bought in case the reunion turned rowdy, all seemed such a waste. Even the weather was turning; a cloud passed across the sun and the bricks began to darken.
She held her breath as Leanne picked up the pistol and aimed at the honeysuckle, squinting down the sight, though she knew that when triggered, the pin would only click. The pistol had rusted. Its machinery was ruined. With a thorough clean it might be resurrected, but she wouldn’t have it serviced.
“What I should have done before the lout left with my credit card,” Leanne said.
Nel shook her head. “You’d have had a line half-way to China looking for your help, and no time to pray.” Olivia smiled at Leanne and Connie and Nel, as if it were all a joke. Mostly, it was.
“You should have brought your kids,” Connie said, refilling Olivia’s glass.
“Just one son. Ardavan studies the cello in Berlin. Not that you’d know. All he talks about is the internet.”
Connie nodded, vigorously. “My son is the same. He’s in Afghanistan, but I just hear about the video games he’s played.” Her voice sounded strangled in the heat, thick with coming thunderstorms.
“My youngest buys and resells stuff online to pay for college,” Leanne said. She hunted in her handbag, found a pack of Marlboro Lights and passed them along. “The military’s not high-minded enough for Clayton. He prefers to sit around a table discussing how democracies are made.”
Which was obvious, to them, anyway: by guns, by bombs, by blood.
“Smart kid.” Olivia lit a smoke and washed the taste out with gin. “Ardavan’s a pacifist, too. Learned from the best, right? Lord, our fathers would have tanned our hides if they’d found us marching against the draft.”
“Which was why we didn’t,” Nel said. “The college girls in Chapel Hill did that. We were only fourteen.”
They’d trooped to church early Sunday mornings instead, before they’d washed the taste of toothpaste from their tongues.
“Leanne didn’t mean Luke was more useful than his brother,” Connie said. “She meant that Luke was willing to lose his life for us. For our freedom.”
Nel wanted to correct Connie. She didn’t admire these kids because of the danger they were in. A boy would throw away his still-unshaped life before he understood its worth. She was impressed by the cut of their collar, the stiffness to their shoulder blades, their obedience to order. You could imagine resting your head on such a body that would not flinch or falter beneath your great, invisible weight. Nel remembered how proud she’d been, seeing her son in uniform. His certainty thrilled, and she’d felt an immense joy that encompassed the sweating day, the hard bleachers, and every one of those cadets.
She’d loved her son when he looked lovely as a soldier. But then he came home from war and wasn’t lovely any longer. Wasn’t waking at dawn and performing his duty. Instead, he fell into disrepair. He sat before the television and God help her if she didn’t pray the fucking power would cut out one day and never turn back on. She avoided him. She accelerated her own schedule, combing the grass for nails, packing the shingles, rotted from years of neglect and shot through with damp holes, into tidy bundles that could be carted off for trash.
“We never marched against the Vietnam War,” Nel repeated. She didn’t know why she needed Olivia to admit she’d lied. Kevin said Nel would choke some day, swallowing Olivia’s tripe hook, line and sinker. Of course, he was jealous. He’d loved her once, too. But Nel had never followed Olivia, never wanted anything except to understand what was in her mind, which had been Nel’s as well, when they were young.
“No one supported the Vietnam War,” Olivia said with a slug of gin.
Leanne said. “You were obsessed with Vietnam vets.”
They’d hunted the boys being shipped away, stalked those who had returned. They’d lavished their affection on those poor souls, who were moved by their generosity. “You hussied up to every dick in uniform, married or not.” At fifteen, they’d tested boundaries they hoped they could not cross.
But they had. They had crossed those invisible lines in the sand and become women far too young. Olivia almost had the child to prove it. If Nel hadn’t driven her, slightly drunk, to the clinic, and waited, sticking uncomfortably to the felt seat while they did whatever it was they did, her boy would have been a year older than Nel’s.
Sometimes, through a wet windshield, Nel thought she saw the pale child swimming through the rain, across a street. His delicate spine, like a sea creature, seemed to have just uncurled. Only after a moment, she realized it was not Olivia’s son, but hers, painstakingly paddling against the current to go back to where he’d been and would not be able to return. And she wondered if it hadn’t been cruel to bring him into this world in the first place, if it would have been kinder to keep him a warm, safe secret of the mind.
“The things we did for love.” Olivia shook her head. “We were young and foolish then.What wonderful days those were. What heartbreakingly beautiful days.” She threw back her head as if to swallow the water in the atmosphere.
They were still foolish as far as Nel was concerned. Only now they were also old. Nel was disappointed in Olivia, in her lame surrender of the history that had tied them together all these years. Dirty clouds streaked white stripes across the Carolina blue, like burnt fat. Nothing would cool them that May.
Olivia upended the bottle into her glass. “The lengths I’ve gone to for love over the years…” She gestured vaguely a great distance. “I spent a week once floating in the Dead Sea.” She slurred a little as she leaned in and squeezed out the last lime juice from the leftover pulp.
Olivia and her husband Darius lived in Jordan then, and one evening were scheduled to attend a fundraising gala for the King’s Cancer Foundation—one of those dreadful events where, faced with microscopic bite-sized meals and emaciated flutes of champagne, guests mill about like parrots repeating the same few lines. Rarefied parrots, obviously, flashing fine silks from Shanghai, delicate leathers worked in Italy; furs from Moscow it would be too hot to wear.
Traffic was abysmal—in the summer a sheet of exhaust settled over the tops of the buildings like a cowl—so Olivia was to meet Darius with the tickets at the Opera House. But an hour before she was to leave, she realized the tickets were missing.
Darius had paid a handsome sum for the event. He was angling over some business deal and his presence at the party, she’d been made to understand, was vital. In search of the stubs, she ransacked the kitchen cupboards half undressed, upended the living room drawers, and shook free the important papers she stored in old library books from her youth, whose margins had been marked up with secret messages years before. Olivia was the type of woman who only appeared not to notice that she inspired unreasoned devotion.
While Olivia generally avoided entering her husband’s office—Darius was particular about his papers, which he placed in delicately balanced, right-angled stacks she feared upsetting—her options had run out, and she removed her slippers and slid the door aside to tiptoe barefoot onto a smart seal-gray rug she did not remember purchasing. The rug beneath her feet was cool and soft, and she shivered, maybe anticipating already what else she might find.
In plain view beside the missing tickets, for instance, a series of documents she knelt to read. Olivia had been under the impression she owned her apartment, but on the mortgage contract she found only her husband’s and son’s names were listed. The reason for the loan referred to a business venture she did not recognize. She took her time reading the fine print. Eventually, even the fancy rug began to scratch. Olivia collected the tickets then, returned the papers to their original position, and that night ate shrimp scampi the King had paired with a dry Austrian white wine. Before bed, she and her husband made love, as they generally did on Wednesdays, but with more vigor than usual. Perhaps inspired by the unusually excellent food, which had caused Darius to rub his paunch with pleasure. Perhaps because, after so many years, her husband could surprise her still.
But Olivia did not forget what she’d read. The papers preyed on her mind as she planned meals and settled the household accounts. She burnt rice thinking about The Oasis Club, which she thought sounded like an escort service. Finally, the power went out when she was blow-drying her hair because she’d forgotten to pay the electricity, and she lost her number one rank at the tennis courts after missing two consecutive games. That was when Olivia concocted a plan.
“I was kidnapped,” she said, gleefully.
Being kidnapped in a Muslim country was actually much harder than the women might have thought. Olivia secreted cash away over a series of months, skimping on imported groceries and allowing donations to lapse. Then she ran an advertisement in the university’s newspaper: Well paid short term work available for computer programmer. Discretion necessary.
She arranged to meet the boys (they were invariably men who’d applied) at Café Des Arts, a student bar her set did not frequent. Still, afraid of being recognized, she took little care with her appearance, not bothering to touch up her pasty skin or smooth the puffiness beneath her eyes.
She regretted her decision when she met Sami. He was a broad shouldered young man, with heavy eyebrows, and perfect skin she wanted to ruin. He glowered at her over the table and she stumbled over a question about his computer experience.
“What do you care? You won’t know what I’m talking about,” he said.
“Plenty of women know a thing or two about computers,” she said.
“Not your age.”
She’d walked stiffly away, wrecking a pair of sandals on the dusty roads when she couldn’t find a cab. The whole affair, she’d realized, had been a silly idea.
And that should have been the end of it. For a week she played bridge and tennis again. She even had the oven cleaned properly. But somehow she soon found herself in the same café, this time wearing stilettos and pants too tight for underwear. Sami sat in a corner, picking through a book.
“I need voice scrambling software and an untraceable phone line,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows, as if the act took real effort, and she breathlessly explained what she wanted him to do.
“We should meet to discuss the logistics.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Olivia did not recognize the pity in his smile. She only knew it was not kind.
A week later, she booked herself into a resort on the Dead Sea shore, even though it was February, and only tourists crowded the beaches and restaurants. She’d wanted nothing to do with the negotiations. Sami was to demand a million dollar sum and leave a message for Eleanor Smith at the hotel when it was done. A million dollars seemed a reasonable amount.
Did thoughts of the negotiations trouble Olivia as the skin on her back stretched and bunched beneath well-oiled hands? When she rinsed salt from her body in mint scented showers, did she wonder if her husband had contacted Ardavan yet? No, if Olivia thought beyond the edge of the pool that fell away to wave-damaged rocks, it was to think of the twist of Sami’s thin-lipped mouth, to bask in the tingling sensation that came from both waiting for and dreading to hear his voice, knowing they would then not speak again.
Olivia lay at the lowest point on earth. She covered herself in mud, set hot stones along her spine. When she rose from the waters washed clean, she swore it was as if she had been made new.
One hundred and thirteen hours after she checked in at the resort, her husband offered a five hundred thousand dollar ransom. She accepted—Sami sounded bored—and returned in the back of a fraying leather-seated cab, sun-tanned. She and her husband never spoke of the incident, and the ransom money never transferred.
“Five hundred grand,” she said proudly. And only a hundred and thirteen hour wait.
Leanne downed her gin in one long gulp. “What did you expect? You abandoned us all to marry a stinking Arab.” She leaned forward on the table and waved her empty glass dismissively. “And you know what? You’re not smarter, more dignified, more cosmopolitan for fucking a foreigner. You’re still Olivia Gauss of Durham, North Carolina. Nothing more. Just paying to go to fancier parties. That’s all. And you try to tell us about war…”
“We were evacuated from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq…” Olivia said.
“You know about broken houses and someone else’s blood. When your son listens to gunfire, not Bach, when he dies, you’ll know about war.” She stopped herself. Drew a breath. “It’s a crime the good Lord blessed you with a kid after what you did. It’s unjust. So don’t sit there looking so pleased with yourself. You’re just like the rest of us: old and dumb and fat. Only worse, because you don’t seem to know you haven’t won.”
Connie clasped and unclasped her hands. She did this so often, the skin between her long fingers had reddened into hot, secret sores. The color of the rashes they’d imagined their sons suffering from, chewing on the sand that got everywhere.
“I didn’t realize…” Olivia said.
Leanne shook the bottle at her side. “What kind of party is this? We’re out.” It had hurt her terribly, wishing it had been her youngest son with his money-making schemes and not Luke who’d died.
Connie rose unsteadily to her feet, still holding the bottle, and stepped toward the house, then halted suddenly, swaying where she’d stopped. From the driveway, they could hear Kevin’s truck brake, and the engine die. No one moved to clear the glasses from the table. A strange lassitude had settled over them. It was as if Leanne’s outburst had taken something physical, something muscular from them all. Nel couldn’t even bring herself to hide the gun.
Only Olivia seemed immune to this torpor, and she pulled from her handbag a long, dark blue piece of material, the color of the sea. Leanne and Connie watched, horrified, as she placed the cloth over her head and folded the fabric expertly around her face, securing the corners with bobby pins she pursed between her lips. A silk ocean slipped down her back.
Then the sliding door opened with a metallic squeal, and Olivia smiled widely at Nel’s husband.
“Hello, Kev,” she said. She’d always been fond of him. Even after she got rid of the kid.
Something creased in Kevin, folded in on itself as he studied each of the women in turn. Nel would be lying if she said that she did not imagine sometimes what her life would have been like without a son. Mostly, she imagined it wide open and glamorous. On bad days, it was just the same. They loved each other, Kevin and Nel, in their way.
Nel was not jealous of the large other world into which Olivia had vanished; she had a son who had served his country and survived, a caring husband, which was more than most. She built affordable housing for heaven’s sake! Her goddamn world burst from the tight seams into which it was sewn. If anything, Olivia’s world was not wide enough. They’d imagined so much for her. They were bound to be angry in the end that even she could not escape the disappointments of age.
“What’s going on?” Kevin asked.
“Get some whiskey for us, will you, love?” Nel lit a cigarette from the open carton and thought of all it must have taken for Olivia to place her faith in a single man, to tuck her incredible soul into a tiny corner of her husband’s heart. No matter how fat, how excellent the container, he would not be able to contain that trust. And why should he? Why should they covet such small prizes as a husband’s love when they’d compromised the rest of their lives away? It seemed such a silly thing to cling to.
“Nel, what the heck is going on?”
The house creaked. The hot wind shook the pipes, which shuddered and struck the wooden walls. In a few hours the sky would be dark as the inside of an oven, and the lightning would flicker like busted filaments. But not yet. Nel was ready now to talk.
“We are remembering,” she said, perfectly happy. They’d started to look back, started to pull apart the story they’d constructed to cover the desperation that gnawed in those dark, empty minutes at their lives. She could feel a new loneliness crack apart inside her, like an egg. There was no stopping now the kingdoms they could lose.