There was nothing Lena did at her job that could have made her forearm ache. She didn't have to type, or lift heavy objects; gesturing and pointing were her only habitual movements. She was the Executive Director of an institution called the Museum of the World, which celebrated human evolution from the Big Bang to the present. Her job was to design special exhibits showcasing important developments throughout history. She was in the middle of supervising the dismantling of an exhibit about the invention of penicillin when Gretchen phoned and said she had news.
"What, are you going back to Betty Ford?" Lena asked. Gretchen fell off the wagon as soon as she got home.
"God, no, never again."
"Never say never."
"Shut up," Gretchen said. "I don't drink nearly as much as before."
Lena watched two workmen carry away an enormous model of a hypodermic needle. "There's something wrong with my arm, I don't know what," she said. "It throbs, you know? I think it's getting worse."
"Oh, boo hoo," Gretchen said. "I'm seeing someone new."
"A man?" Lena asked, because there had been a brief time not long before Betty Ford when Gretchen had been buddies with a hard-drinking lesbian, and decided that she was gay, too.
"You're so funny I forgot to laugh. Yes, a man. He's an artist, a painter. I met him at the DMV yesterday when I was renewing my license. He was sitting next to me, and the line was taking forever, so naturally we talked. I told him I'm a ceramicist, which maybe I shouldn't have done."
"A what?" Lena said. "You took one pottery class at the community center last summer."
"Yes, and I was the most talented student in the class. Anyway, I want you and Henry to have us to dinner this weekend."
Lena and Henry lived in a big, creaky colonial that dated from the late eighteenth century. They bought it in ninety-one for a song, and slowly restored it as their two sons grew up, and though they weren't rich by any means, the beauty and size of the house made them seem so, Lena knew. Gretchen liked to bring her boyfriends there to promote the idea that she was from a wealthy family. In fact, she and Lena were raised in Bridgeport, in a house that was now an empty lot between a corner store and a brothel. Lena went to Yale on a scholarship--she and Henry met there--while Gretchen bounced around the country working jobs that Lena went to college to avoid, and ended up on Lena and Henry's doorstep in Connecticut just shy of her thirtieth birthday. She'd never married or had children, or established a career, and even though she was the older sister by three years, she had depended on Lena's financial largesse for the better part of two decades. Lena had paid for Betty Ford, and helped Gretchen with the rent on an apartment in a dreary complex near I-95. At the moment Gretchen was working at a car wash, vacuuming the insides of customers' cars, which Lena thought was her saddest job yet.
"An artist?' she said. "How does he live?"
"Family money I think. He's from Stonington."
"Ahh," Lena said.
"Don't 'ahh' me," Gretchen said. "He's very handsome and intelligent."
"I'm sure he is," Lena said. "I can't wait to meet him."
"He wants to meet you, too. I told him all about you and Henry. The thing is, don't say anything about Betty Ford."
"I wouldn't," Lena said.
"It's a private thing," Gretchen said loftily, as if Lena hadn't flown out to Betty Ford for family week and listened to Gretchen sob for five days.
Lena put on a pair of earrings, simple gold hoops, and shook back her blonde hair. She was dressed in wool pants and a pink turtleneck sweater; Henry wore brown corduroy trousers. The kitchen was steamy and cozy, terracotta tiles and dark-paneled walls. "Gretchen told him she's a ceramicist,'" she said. "I don't know how she's going to manage that."
"I suppose we're loaded, as usual," Henry said.
"Rich as Croesus," Lena said. That fiction never changed. "But this guy is supposed to be wealthy."
"Wouldn't that be great," Henry said. "Maybe he'll pay for the next rehab."
"She says we're not to mention Betty Ford," Lena said with mock sternness.
"God no," Henry said. "We don't want to chase the guy off."
She looked at him fondly. He had been a basketball player in high school, and was taller than her by a foot. She stood on her toes and kissed him, planting her hands on his broad shoulders. "You're always so great about Gretchen," she said, not for the first time.
"She's alright when she's not completely pie-eyed." This, too, had often been said. Every aspect of Gretchen had been discussed and argued so many times that they hardly needed to speak about her anymore. Henry hadn't wanted Lena to pay for Betty Ford; it was equally his money, after all. But Gretchen had become such a drunkard she was barely functional. They would have ended up paying for her anyway, Lena reasoned, if she stopped working and fell completely to pieces. Gretchen still drank, but, as she said, not as much, though Lena could tell holding back was an effort. There was no reason for it, but Lena felt guilty that she had a home and a family and a good job, while Gretchen had almost nothing. Though they'd been raised by the same parents in exactly the same way, she nevertheless believed that Gretchen had been dealt a bad card. Henry knew this and thought it was rubbish. "You can't blame yourself for turning out well," he often said. Yet she couldn't keep from hoping, unlikely though it was, that Gretchen would one day turn out well, too.
She stirred a beef stew that burbled pleasantly on the stove. Her forearm ached all the time now, and an itchy red spot had appeared midway between her elbow and wrist. She diagnosed it as a spider bite and spritzed it with Benadryl spray. The house was old, and spiders got in; it wasn't the first time she'd been bitten.
As she took a sip from a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, cold air from outdoors whooshed around her legs. Gretchen called hello and came into the kitchen. She wore a beige cotton skirt, long and full, and leather clogs on her feet. Her lumpy white sweater looked as if it had been just sheared off a sheep, with mysterious dark bits entwined in the weave. She always wore makeup, foundation and mascara, and a different hue of lipstick every day, but tonight her face was nearly bare. She was trying to look like a potter--a "ceramicist"--Lena realized, and she had done a pretty good job.
"What is that?" She peered into the stew. "It looks like vomit. I thought you were serving steak."
"Changed my mind," Lena said. "Interesting outfit. Goodwill?"
"Oh, fuck off. Come meet Nash." She picked up Lena's wine and finished it. "Is there any more of this?" Lena got another glass and filled it. She followed Gretchen to the living room, where Henry was talking to a very thin, balding man who wore jeans and a sweater and running shoes. Lena thought he might have dressed up a little more, but she supposed artists didn't pay attention to that sort of thing.
"Nash went to Yale," Henry said.
"Is that right? Gretchen didn't tell me."
He turned to her. His eyes were deep brown, nearly black. "Well, I didn't tell Gretchen until she mentioned that you two had gone to Yale too."
"True," Gretchen said. "He's very humble."
There was something scruffy about Nash that Lena didn't like. He stood with his hands jammed into the front pockets of his jeans, his shoulders slightly hunched beneath a grubby gray sweater. Never mind that he was an artist: he could have dressed up a little at least for Gretchen's sake. She guessed he was about forty-five, maybe a young-looking fifty. "Gretchen tells us you're from Stonington," she said.
He smiled eagerly. "I am, born and bred."
"I guess you sailed a lot. I love that lighthouse on the point there. You must have run up to the top of it all the time when you were a kid."
"Oh, sure, all the time."
"What's that saying that's painted on the wall there? You know, about the lonely sea ..." She looked at the ceiling, as if trying to remember. "Da da da ... to the sea again--something, something, the sea and the sky ... Oh, you know it, Nash. What is it?" She'd been to the top of the lighthouse once and never forgotten the words: I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
Nash shook his head. "I don't recall."
"You know, on the wall above the windows that look out to sea. You must have read it a hundred times."
"Right, but I have a terrible memory," he said. He looked at Gretchen. "Say, Lena, do you have any of Gretchen's pottery here? Talk about humble, she won't even show me pictures of it."
Henry shot Lena a wide-eyed look. "Oh yes, of course we do," Lena said. "How about I show you after dinner? Gretchen, would you help me out a second?"
In the kitchen, the sisters poured themselves fresh glasses of wine and looked at each other without speaking. "At some point you're going to have to tell him you're not a potter," Lena said.
"Show him the bowl you bought in Sedona," Gretchen said.
"Then what?" Lena said.
"Then something. I'll take another class at the community center. I don't know. I wish I hadn't told him that. We were just chatting at the DMV while we waited. I thought it made me sound more interesting. I honestly didn't expect things to go this far."
"How far is this far?"
"You know, far."
"Where? Not at your place."
"No, at his beach cottage in Watch Hill."
"That's a long way to go for sex."
Gretchen nodded. "That's what I thought. He said it would be romantic. But it was snowing, and the lock on the door had frozen so he had to break a window to get in. Then he made a fire in the fireplace, and we drank champagne. I guess it was romantic, in a wintry sort of way."
Lena put down her wineglass. "Are you sure it was his house?"
"Obviously, who else's?"
"Well. Have you seen where he really lives yet? How much do you really know about this guy? He doesn't look rich, that's for sure. He says he's from Stonington, but ..." She shrugged. "Everyone knows that poem in the lighthouse, it's famous."
Gretchen stepped back and stared at Lena. 'A poem? You're judging him because he couldn't remember a stupid poem? My counselor at Betty Ford warned me about this. He said you're co-dependent. He said I play the role of the loser in the family, and you play the winner, and you'd want things to stay the same, you would try to sabotage my recovery. That's exactly what he said, and he was right. He said you'd discourage me from making healthy choices."
"What recovery?" Lena said. "You started drinking again an hour after you got off the plane."
"For once I'm dating a guy who's a catch, and you're jealous."
"I'm not jealous," Lena said. "What would I be jealous of?"
Gretchen downed her wine and poured another glass. "God, this is fucked up."
"Oh, come on, Gretchen. I would love you to be with a wonderful man. I'd love to see you married and happy and taken care of. I want only the best for you; you know that."
Gretchen pointed in the direction of the living room. "Nash is a wonderful man."
"How so? Because he took you to a freezing beach house to have sex? What else have you two done together?"
Gretchen looked at the floor, her jaw working. Abruptly, she grabbed the bottle of wine by its neck, and clopped out of the room on her clogs. Lena massaged her aching arm and thought of all the better things she could have done with the money she spent on sending Gretchen to Betty Ford.
Henry talked to Nash about art during dinner, and Nash seemed to know a lot. Lena began to doubt herself; maybe she didn't want Gretchen to be happy. Gretchen had always been a screw-up, and Lena a studious goody-two-shoes. Had she enjoyed it when Gretchen got into trouble when they were children? No, she was just glad she wasn't her. She'd been glad she wasn't Gretchen ever since she could remember, but she never consciously wanted Gretchen to fail. Yet the dynamic between them was as comfortable as a pillow: Lena gave and Gretchen took; Gretchen fell and Lena offered a hand. She thought about how she would feel if Gretchen did finally pull herself together, if Nash was everything Gretchen said he was, and they had an honest relationship. Gretchen would ruin it somehow was Lena's immediate thought. She simply could not imagine her sister being any different than she'd always been, and wasn't that what Gretchen meant when she accused her of being co-dependent?
She picked at her stew, which now did look like vomit. Gretchen drank two glasses of wine, one after the other. Lena could tell by the slack expression on her face that she was on her way to being drunk. She pursed her lips and gave Henry a look, cocking her head in Gretchen's direction. Henry moved the wine to the other side of the table. Gretchen moved it back. Henry shrugged at Lena and continued chatting with Nash. He was enjoying himself. He smiled excitedly and rose from the table.
"I want to show you something," he said to Nash. Lena knew immediately what he was talking about.
"Not now, Henry" she said. "Later, after dinner."
"It'll only take a minute," he said.
"For Christ's sake let him do what he wants," Gretchen said. She looked at Lena through narrowed eyes. "Show something to Nash, Henry."
Henry left the room for a moment and came back carrying a small framed drawing carefully with both hands. He put it on the table in front of Nash. "My uncle was an art collector. He left me this. Do you know what it is? It's a Picasso drawing. Mother and child. How about that? Go ahead, take a look, it's a beauty."
"Oh, Henry," Lena said in a voice of exasperation. The drawing was the only truly valuable thing they owned, but they rarely showed it off. Rather, they worshipped it with a quiet depth of feeling that was as spiritual as it was aesthetic. Lena never passed it without stopping to admire the ease of its lines, so minimal really, only a few dashes and curves, yet satisfying in a pit-of-the-stomach way: she was in the presence of genius, she knew. She was the first to admit she didn't understand art, but she loved the drawing, and would have loved it no matter what its value. "It's my favorite thing in the world," she said as Nash looked at it. "It gives me solace, somehow. I can't explain it."
"I understand," Nash said. 'Art is our defense against the chaos of the world."
Lena smiled. "I couldn't have said it better."
"Solace!" Gretchen said. "What do you need solace for?" She stood up and clopped out of the room and came back with a big, roughly glazed ceramic bowl that Lena had bought on a trip to Sedona. Its cobalt and pinkish-brown glazes combined had reminded her of the Arizona desert at midday and its brilliant twilight sky. It sat on a table by the front door where it was handy for holding their keys. She could hear the keys rattle inside the bowl as Gretchen held it up.
"I made this," she said to Nash. "With my very own hands."
"Wow, Gretchen, it's beautiful," he said. It was obvious he was more interested in looking at the drawing.
"Oh, I can do better than this," she said. "This is just something I knocked off." She put the bowl on the table next to Nash and picked up her wine glass. Her frizzy brown hair was coming loose from her braid, haloing her florid face. "You and I know what it is to be real artists, Nash. Anyone can own art, they just need money."
"We didn't buy the drawing, Gretchen, it was left to us," Henry said.
Gretchen left the room again, and brought back an elegant celadon vase that Lena used for roses in the summer. It was as different from the bowl as Gretchen was from Lena. "I made this, too," she said.
"You did?" Nash said. "It's quite a departure from the bowl."
"Oh, stop it, Gretchen," Lena said. Suddenly she was angry. She stood up and reached for the vase, but her hand refused to grasp it tightly enough, and it fell with a thump to the carpet. She looked at her hand and forearm. The red spot had swollen to an egg-sized bump, and her skin was swollen and tight. "I can't feel my arm," she said.
"Oh sure," Gretchen said. "Your poor arm. You've been grousing about that for days."
"Let me see," Henry said. When he pressed the lump with his thumb, yellow pus oozed out of it. "It's some kind of abscess." He turned to Nash. "I'm sorry to cut the evening short, but I think we better go to the emergency room."
'Absolutely," Nash said. "That looks terrible."
They all got their coats and hustled out the door. Lena held her arm to her chest as if it hurt, though she couldn't feel anything at all. Her fingers were too puffy to wear a glove, so she covered them with her other hand. The driveway was icy. She baby-stepped to Henry's sedan.
"Shit, it's freezing!" Gretchen said. "I'm going with them," she told Nash, who was getting into his car.
"Do you want me to go with you?" he said.
"No, don't waste your time. Lena's always having some crisis or other."
"That is completely untrue and you know it, Gretchen," Lena said. "Stay here, why don't you, and sober up. Or go with Nash. You're drunk."
"I am not," Gretchen said, and got into the back seat.
"Be well, Lena," Nash said before he drove away. The rest of them followed behind him.
"When we were kids, Lena was always running to Mom with an ouchy," Gretchen said to Henry. "A stubbed toe, a paper cut, every little thing. I swear she got hurt on purpose so Mom would coddle her."
'Again, not true," Lena said. It was so cold in the car that her breath was a cloud.
"Gretchen," Henry said.
"She got all the attention, it was ridiculous."
Lena turned around and gaped at Gretchen. "I got all the attention? I didn't get any more than you did. In fact, I got less attention because you were always getting into trouble." She looked at Henry. "My parents were called into school practically every week."
"Well, this isn't your first trip to the emergency room by a long shot. One time, she went over the handlebars of her bike," Gretchen told Henry. "She opened a gash in her chin. What a drama that was. Remember, Lena?"
"Of course." She touched her chin. "I've still got a little scar."
'And she used to fall down the stairs a lot." Gretchen cackled. "We were constantly picking her up."
"Once!" Lena said. "Maybe twice. Those stairs were steep, and I was just a little girl. For goodness sake, Gretchen, don't be so mean. You're acting like I did this to myself." She looked at her arm. "Ugh, it's still oozing."
"Hypochondriac," Gretchen said under her breath.
"I am not!" Lena said. "You're the hypochondriac. So needy. You constantly think you're coming down with something."
"Jesus, you two! Give it a rest," Henry said.
"It's probably nothing," Gretchen said.
"You don't know that," Lena said.
"Just please stop fighting," Henry said. "Everything will be fine."
The overhead lights in the emergency room made everybody look sick. Henry and Gretchen huddled around as a pimply-faced young doctor explained that Lena had most likely been bitten by a spider, and the bite had gotten infected. She was injected with antibiotics and given a prescription for more; her arm was bandaged and put in a sling.
"See, I told you it was nothing," Gretchen said.
"It's not nothing," said Henry. "But it's not the end of the world."
Lena slid off the examining table and gathered her things, Henry helping her unnecessarily. They walked out to the brightly lit hospital parking lot and got into the car.
"Well, it hurts again now," Lena said. "So that's probably a good sign."
"Thank goodness it's not serious," Henry said. "I was worried it was one of those awful staff infections."
"The flesh-eating kind?" Gretchen said.
"No, of course not. Don't be gruesome."
"Listen, I'm sorry about what I said about Nash," Lena said to
Gretchen once they were in the car.
"You're such a bitch," Gretchen said with mild resentment.
"I thought I was co-dependent."
"Yeah, that too."
"Maybe you're right, I really don't want you to change."
"Good, because I'm not going to."
Lena shook her head and chuckled quietly. "God, what a waste of money that place was."
"I'll say," Henry said.
"What, Betty Ford?" Gretchen said. "Oh, yeah. Colossal."
It started to snow, and the rhythmic swish of the windshield wipers soothed them all into silence.
After a while, Gretchen said, "I think I'm going to tell Nash that I've given up pottery."
"Because?" Henry said.
"Because I'm tired of it. That's a good enough reason, isn't it?"
"Tell him you're no longer challenged by the medium," Henry said.
"But then she'll have to take up something else that supposedly does challenge her," Lena said. She turned and asked, "When are you seeing him again?"
"I don't know," Gretchen said. She gazed ahead at the snowy road, hunched forward between Henry and Lena. "Do you think I should wait for him to call, or can I call him first?"
"If you've had sex with him, you can call him," Lena said. "Don't you think so, Henry?"
"Please leave me out of it," Henry said. Gretchen and Lena laughed.
As they turned into the driveway, ice growled beneath the tires. Henry helped Lena into the house, and Gretchen stayed to clean up, carrying plates from the dining room to the kitchen for Henry to stack in the dishwasher. Lena sat at the kitchen table, watching her sister come and go, listening to the clatter Henry was making with the dishes, and drinking the dregs of the wine. Gretchen replaced the Sedona bowl on the hall table, and retrieved the celadon vase from the floor. She came into the kitchen with a fistful of cutlery.
"You know, I was actually jealous that Nash was more interested in that drawing than in me," she said.
"You were drunk," Lena said. She rubbed her arm through the sling. "And it's an amazing drawing."
"Maybe I'm a cretin, but I've never understood why you think it's so special."
"Well, let me show you why," Lena said. She went into the hallway where the drawing usually hung before remembering that Henry had left it in the dining room. She went to the dining room; it wasn't there either. "Henry," she called. "Where did you put the Picasso?"
"It's on the dining room table," he called back.
"No, it's not."
Henry came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. Gretchen followed behind him. "It's right there." He frowned at the table. "Where is it?"
Lena looked at Gretchen; Gretchen put her hand to her mouth. The truth was suspended between them, a delicate bridge to cross.
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|Publication:||The Carolina Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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|Next Article:||The Fires of Dismemberment.|