Total Communion

Total Communion
Dell began exchanging letters with Lonnie, her best friend Regina’s husband, as the result of
a hurried email she’d sent thanking them for a 31st birthday gift of heather gray cashmere gloves. At
the time, Dell had been working 70-hour weeks at the Internet company she’d founded with two
friends from business school, and hadn’t the energy to mail Regina a proper handwritten note. Of
course, Regina always penned thank-you letters on monogrammed stationery, in her swirling,
ebullient script, but she had the time for such quaint niceties, Dell thought, because Regina didn’t
really work (unless you considered part-ownership of a “children’s lifestyle boutique” in a handsome
Boston suburb work, which Dell did not) and because Regina took great pleasure in mannerly tasks,
which Dell also did not. So she’d just sent an email about the gloves, and Lonnie happened to open
it before Regina, because they were the sort of couple who shared an email account.
His email back had surprised her. They never communicated directly anymore – only with
Regina’s mediation – but he’d written, Delly, how nice to see your name on the screen – I miss you! Glad to
hear you're doing so well – though frankly you’re starting to intimidate me these days, whatwith all the media coverage.
( : Then again, you always did. At any rate, big congrats, and glad you liked the gloves – I’ll let Reggy know. Love,
Lon.
Dell had smiled at his use of “media coverage” – a rather grand way to describe her single
appearance in a group photo on the cover of Fast Track magazine – and had quickly written
back,Lon – Thanks for the kind words. I miss you guys, too. Someday I’ll get my act together and send a proper
thank-you letter, though by now I may have forgotten how to write by hand altogether…
It was on her second reading of Lonnie’s email – after she’d already sent her reply – that she
detected the odd intimacy about it. For example, how he said I miss you, instead of we, when he and
Regina usually expressed opinions and emotions collectively (we loved the movie, we’re so sick of Boston
winters) and then the bit about her having always intimidated him. It was sweet, admiring. Boyish. It
reminded her of the way it had been between them in college, long before the rhythms of marriage
and family life set in. Back when sexual possibility could be anywhere, when the briefest interaction
with a man might portent desire. Back then, she and Regina would have interpreted the hell out a
message like that. These days, inside the clean geometry of their thirties, Dell knew interpretation
was often a waste of time. Still, she liked the email from Lonnie, and did not delete it.
He hadn’t written back – there was no need, of course – the polite thread was complete. But
a week later, an envelope appeared in Dell’s mailbox, with the Blue Air Foundation logo printed in
the corner. She recognized the organization as Lonnie’s – he was an environmental lawyer – and
assumed he’d added her to some solicitation list. Inside, though, was not a donation request but a
handwritten letter in tidy print on college-ruled notebook paper. She hadn’t seen a letter on
notebook paper since one was passed slyly across a junior high classroom to her. The experience of
opening it was nothing like opening a holiday or etiquette card. The instant she caught sight of the
black ink cluttering the white sheet and felt the raised imprints on the backside of the page (Lonnie
must push hard with his pen) – before she had even read a word of the letter, a small thrill of
anticipation bloomed through her. Like the moment before the first bite of a shared dessert on a
date. The shy intimacy of it.
Surprise! Lonnie wrote. Had some downtime at work this week and thought I’d test out my own small
motor skills… The letter had a casual immediacy about it – most was devoted to amusing anecdotes
illustrating the earnest idealism of his co-workers (because of legal practicality, he explained, he’d
had to oppose the “100% Paperless Workplace Initiative” circulating around the office, thereby
earning himself villainous status among a particularly humorless clique of cloth-tote-bag wielding grant-writers
down on third floor. That description made Dell smile. There was also a section on his new routine of
running on a riverside path in the morning, and a mention of taking the girls to a puppet show that
weekend. Dell had written back right away, ending with a paragraph about an interaction with a
stinking, homeless-looking man on the subway. He’d looked aggressively into her eyes, lids heavy
with liquor, and begun to recite Pound’s first Canto. And Lonnie had answered with more with more
observations from his week, and so on, and as the envelopes flew back and forth between New
York to Chestnut Hill, they became more and more freely associative, dipping in and out of
anecdote and reflection, skipping transitions and grammatical corrections, letting their sentences run
on and handwriting go sloppy. They wrote on minutiae – Delly, so much pleasure this afternoon in eating a
tomato sandwich alone on the roof deck – and on larger, abstract topics, too – an entire three pages on a
memory of Lonnie’s father catching his mother in a lie; Dell on her frequent feeling floating through
the city like something indeterminate [TODO: WC] and airborne, though in actuality, she was
elbow-to-elbow with the workaday throngs in the sour air of the subway, or under the chilly lights of
her office, scribbling on a whiteboard. Trying to explain exactly how that felt somehow took up two
full pages. Lonnie made only brief mention of Regina and the kids, here and there, and Dell
occasionally mentioned men she’d been on dates with, but without specifics. Dell liked to think of
the whole exchange as a swapping of journals. There was a confessional, indulgent quality, yes, but a
certain innocuousness too, the sort you associated with the phrase Dear Diary. Months passed and
the letters piled up; five from Lonnie, and then ten. Then twenty.
Dell knew the routine was problematic. She was familiar with the idea of emotional infidelity, as
one chirpy women’s magazine labeled it. And yet, she did not stop. A sixth sense told her the letters
would not ultimately endanger Lonnie’s marriage, or her friendship with Regina, or even her own
sanity. And she was right. In February, just before she turned thirty-two, she flew to Denver for a
conference on venture capital and met Jerome at a networking dinner on the first night. There was a
solidity about him that made Dell’s anxiety evaporate. His sentences were free of um’s and uh’s but
not overly-polished. He could build furniture and fix computers. He was smart but devoid of
arrogance. Self-doubt did not occur to him, because there were too many other things to do. Like
mount shelves or climb on an indoor wall of fake rocks or see movies. Or invest in real estate, which
he’d already made a lot of money doing. “I’m an emotional pragmatist,” Dell remembered him
telling her in the bar of the Denver Marriott that first weekend, leaning out of his barstool toward
her, olive skin smooth under the low lights and shoulder muscles just detectable beneath his shirt.
His body was flinty from a decade of mornings at the gym. Dell couldn’t get over the way it felt –
she’d never pressed against that sort of man, never been so aware of the softness of her own body.
She wanted to touch him constantly – it started right away in Denver, when she barely knew him –
Dell, who was not a toucher of even her close friends, found her hand on his shoulder, her fingers at
the back of his elbow. They blew off the rest of the seminars and luncheons and holed up in his
hotel room for the next two days, sweating over and over into the high-thread-count sheets and
calling out “No thanks, no thanks!” to the housekeepers who rapped on the door in the morning,
and drinking mimosas in bed.
And in her next letter to Lonnie, Dell explained Jerome in two sentences, and he wrote back
once – I’m so happy for you, just as long as this guy is worthy of Dellness – and then never again. Dell
remembered the disbelieving sadness behind a larger relief when the Blue Air logo ceased to appear
in her mailbox. Almost the same way she’d felt just after cutting her long hair down to an inch off
her scalp. She was 20 when she did it and up until then, she’d let her coarse reddish curls had hang
down past the middle of her back in no particular style. It was “difficult” hair – unruly and prone to
frizz, but she’d loved the mossy feel of it on her bare shoulders, how most days she woke with it
shrouding her face, as if buffering her from the first hard blinks of morning.
Then summer came, and Jerome moved to New York, and bought a condo in Brooklyn with
wide views of Manhattan glinting across the East River, and Dell moved in.
***
Dell met Regina during their sophomore year at Duke in an Ethics class full of earnest
philosophy majors and opinionated women with short hair. Dell generally belonged to the latter
category, though the class’ indiscriminate zeal for debate over anything from Aristotle to Peter
Singer embarrassed her. It felt so, well, collegiate – as if everyone in the room was just learning to take
“ideas” seriously and determined to flaunt it. Dell had been taking ideas seriously for some time now
– more so than she wanted to, frankly. Which is why she was drawn to Regina, who practically
floated into the classroom, long skirt and silk scarf breezing around her, oversized purse (of which
she owned several variations, Dell noticed, each in a different shade of soft, expensive-looking
leather) on her shoulder, suggesting to Dell the possibility of a spontaneous overnight trip. Settled in
her desk, Regina always extracted from the large purse a bottle of Perrier water, a cloth white
napkin, and some sort of food item – usually a croissant or some other pastry, which made Dell,
who avoided white flour and saturated fats, both jealous and disapproving. Regina usually made a
croissant last for the entire seventy-minute class, thoughtfully peeling off buttery layers one by one
with her French-manicured nails. Sometimes she’d hold an inch of pastry close to her lips for long
moments while she listened to the class argue about utilitarianism or euthanasia, as if too riveted to
eat. Watching from a few rows back, Dell thought Regina looked as if she might be sitting in her
own living room, engaged in a good drama on TV. More than once she’d had the urge to call out to
Regina, “Hey, are you going to eat that, or what?”
Despite the abundance of supplies Regina perennially had in tow, Dell noticed she never
appeared disheveled or flouncy. Rather, her lips were plummy with fresh gloss, her skin creamy and
blushed expertly at the cheekbones to exude sunny health, her dark hair blow-dried to a thick, glossy
cape. She never dropped any pastry crumbs. And though she never spoke in class, she nodded at the
professor regularly, took extensive notes with a black-and-gold pen that looked heavy. Dell could tell
she was enjoying herself – that she was learning. It was endearing to witness. Regina seemed to take
the course perfectly seriously, and yet not seriously at all. Dell wanted to be like that. To look and
move as though life were merely ruffling her hair, not seeping into her bones. When she and Regina
were both assigned to the Teleology Team for a mandatory oral debate, she found that Regina’s
classroom habits matched her social style – half-amused, half-fascinated, with a mind for comfort
and nicety in all settings. The space around Regina reminded Dell of a sunny café at midmorning.
Cheerful, leisurely, fragrant. Her favorite words werelovely and silly. Dell wanted to be around her.
Regina had lucked out in the campus housing lottery and lived in a single dorm room, where
she’d painted the walls avocado green (without bothering to get permission from anyone) and hung
white organdy curtains that billowed indolently all through the warm months of spring semester. At
first, Dell visited only to prepare for their Ethics assignment (their team had lost narrowly to the
Ontologists and earned a B+, which infuriated Dell) but when the class ended, she found herself in
Regina’s room – number 206 of Pomeroy Hall – more than ever, seated on the narrow bed with
Regina’s plush lavender duvet folded back (never sit on top of down, silly! Regina had said), legs
drawn up Indian-style, back propped against the wall, her hands wrapped around a mug of some
delicious specialty item, perhaps from a care package Regina’s mother had sent, or something she’d
bought herself at a gourmet food shop in Durham. Almond vanilla hot chocolate, orange
cappuccino. In May, strawberry lemonade. Fresh flowers, in a blue glass vase, always, on Regina’s
desk. She’d once said to Dell, with a completely straight face, “An extra ten dollars should always go
to either tulips or a manicure – period.”
But it wasn’t just the ambience of Regina’s room, or her unselfconscious charm that Dell
liked. It was the way their conversations moved. Dell knew plenty of smart, interesting women at
Duke who liked to talk – and talk – but with Regina it was different. Rarely did they begin a long
conversation intentionally. Instead, the starting point was usually some sidelong, banal, topic
(deodorant, for instance – she remembered a particularly memorable night that started there.) They
might start with deodorant, and their preference for the smells of particular brands, and then
meander into the associative power of smell, and then into how their mothers smelled, and then into
the vast and recondite subject of their mothers, and then to motherhood at large, going back and
forth, back and forth, steering each other while the night lapsed into morning, until Dell realized she
only had three or four hours to sleep before her first morning class. She remembered the short walk
from Regina’s dorm to her own, especially the ones in late spring, when the moonlight through the
dogwood trees was margarine-colored and the stars burned high over the wide, empty quad like
cigarette tips. Any number of years later, she could remember precisely how she felt on that walk
from Pomeroy 206 to her cramped double in Severance Hall: mildly transformed, a little closer to
genius.
Junior year, they moved off campus together, to a tiny rented house with slanting floors a
dirt back yard that Regina transformed by laying sod and planting rhododendron. They met Lonnie,
who lived directly across the street, on a sun-dazzled morning in early May. He’d knocked on their
door to borrow – of all things – maple syrup. Regina and her boyfriend Casius, the arrogant
architecture student, weren’t awake yet, so Dell had gone to the door, still in her tank top and
pajama bottoms. Lonnie stood on the front steps in cutoff blue jeans and a short-sleeved, threadbare
shirt with cowboy-style snap buttons, his curly hair bushing out from under a baseball cap. The ten
a.m. light was already strong, and he looked down at her with both hands visoring his eyes, shifting
from one leg to the other as if he’d had too much coffee.
“Morning,” he said, without introducing himself, grinning while biting his bottom lip, as if to
suppress a nervous laugh. “Normally I wouldn’t march over and demand a precious commodity like
syrup, but it’s just, I’ve made,” he pretended to flip an invisible pancake with an imaginary spatula,
“the most amazing pancakes. And I can’t really stand the thought of eating them without syrup, and
if I go to the grocery store, I’ll have to microwave the pancakes when I get back and the whole
experience just won’t be the same.” He gave a little startled jump all of a sudden, which made Dell
jump too. “Oh, God – I forgot” he said. “You must think I’m a sociopath. I’m Lonnie, your new
neighbor.” He stuck out his hand.
Dell burst out laughing and pushed open the screen door. “Come in,” she said. “We’ve got
plenty of syrup – the real Vermont kind, too.”
And that’s how it began – with Lonnie and Dell at the kitchen table eating pancakes (they’d
gotten to talking and he’d run home to grab a plateful), the clean morning light spilling through
Regina’s sheer curtains, the air tinged with maple and coffee, gypsy jazz low on the kitchen stereo.
When Regina emerged from her room in a pink bathrobe, Casius yawning and tossing his hair in
step behind her, Dell and Lonnie had already issued miniature biographies to each other and were
companionably reading the paper. Dell watched the surprise cross Regina’s face when she saw
Lonnie – a man Dell had not brought home last night, sharing breakfast with her as if they’d done it a
hundred times. The perfect arcs of Regina’s eyebrows twitched up, and in that instant, Dell imagined
that Regina was glimpsing the future – Dell’s and Lonnie’s – the sweet domesticity their lives would
become.
And that indeed was the future, in a way. Except that Lonnie had fallen in love with Regina,
not Dell. It stung at first, white-hot, all the time. For awhile, Dell couldn’t get that first scene out of
her head – how she and Lonnie had stepped into her kitchen as if there were a cushion of many
years between them. How rare that felt. She replayed it over and over – the vanilla-laced taste of the
pancakes, the swell of the breezed curtains, how he’d helped her figureCossack into the Times’
crossword puzzle. But the tenor of that morning was precisely the problem with it: Dell was too
familiar to him. Brainy, mildly neurotic, a little mean-spirited where humor was concerned. He
admired her intellectually, she knew, and listened to her analysis of articles she'd read, and laughed at
her jokes, but practically from the moment Regina stepped into the kitchen that morning, sleepy-
eyed but humming, Casius trailing her like a haughty basset hound, and said in her bell-bright
voice Well, good morning, Delly and strange gentleman – well, it was clear Lonnie needed Regina, not Dell.
And in his fast desire for her best friend, Dell began to understand what she could never offer men:
levity. She wasn't depressive by nature, or even particularly cynical, but she was serious. And
seriousness was not sexy.
And soon, Dell also began to understand the clichéd pairing of fall and love. Because that's
what you did: hurtled toward one other person and away from everyone else. And away from a lot
of your old ideas. Away from most of your old life, really. You fell and fell, and you didn’t have
much choice in the matter. It was all very simple, Dell thought, as she watched Lonnie take Casius’
place in Regina’s bedroom within the span of a month. Women – all women – devoted so much
energy to theorizing and speculating about the science of mate-finding – women clustered around
tables with wine glasses, or yapping into cell phones, swapping stories and sympathizing and
conjecturing over the great enigma of romantic union, – well, Dell thought, when you got down to
it, there was very little mystery in it. It was a formula of chemistry and timing, and there was little
you could do to will or avoid it. After Lonnie and Regina became a couple, analyzing men ceased to
interest her. After the initial pangs of rejection dulled, the outcome seemed inevitable: of course
Lonnie didn't want her, would never want her. Why challenge, why explore what the body made so
clear? So many women insisted on probing at the worthless question ofwhy not — they’d practically
turned it into its own discipline. It was embarrassing. There was no mystery between Lonnie and
Regina, no matter how few books they had in common, no matter how simply and optimistically she
viewed the world. They simply were. And so Regina had fallen away from Dell and into Lonnie, with
startling velocity, and the value assignment changed: Lonnie became number one. Period.
If there was ever any wobble in this hierarchy, Dell had sensed it only once. Several years
after college, when Lonnie and Regina were married and living in Boston, Dell visited for the
weekend, and they’d thrown a dinner party for a half-dozen friends. (Regina had spent two days
making the osso bucco, Dell remembered). They all drank a lot of wine (Regina usually held a twoglass limit, but this was one of the rare occasions Dell had seen her break it), and someone was
passing a glass pipe of weed around, and both she and Regina smoked some. And at some point,
everyone went out on the deck, except Regina, who wanted to make headway on the dishes, and
Dell, who stayed to help, but before they’d rinsed a single dirty plate, Regina had pulled off her pink
rubber dish gloves, tossed them onto the counter, and declared, “God, I’m so stoned I can’t stand
up.” Then she wandered through the French doors into the adjacent living room, and laid down
right on the oriental rug in the middle of the floor. Weary and mildly dizzy herself, Dell had
followed, stretching on her back beside Regina, staring up at the pressed-tin ceiling.
They were quiet for a long moment, and Dell thought Regina might have fallen asleep. But
then, she said suddenly, in a tone that sounded wistful and bare as a lone clarinet, "Delly, sometimes
Lonnie seems sort of worthless, compared to this.”
And Dell had felt a rush of companionship so intensely (“What do you mean, this?” she’d
wanted to say but the pot had left her tongue incapable) that for an instant she'd truly wanted to kiss
Regina, and had to fight the urge to lean over and do it. She hadn’t done it, thank god. But thinking
on it later (mortified by the impulse, frankly), she came to understand there was no sexuality in it.
She’d wanted to kiss Regina because her clouded brain recognized the moment as the closest she'd
ever be to her old friend again. And her instinct, in a moment of low inhibition, had been to defy
that limit with a kiss.
Platonic love was limited by design, Dell thought. You could never give yourself over to it
entirely, no matter how much intersection of heart and mind you felt with a friend. At some point,
you had to take some tangible steps together, or your closeness plateaued. It was just hard, structural
fact: at some point, you had to have sex or get married or have a kid with someone in order to merge
further into each other. You needed to wake up next to them day after day, and know just how dark
to make their toast, and know just how they’d smell, and how the skin of their face would feel
against yours when they walked through the front door and into your arms on any average evening
after work in the wintertime.
***
The trip to Greece was a wedding present from Regina, planned immediately after Jerome
had proposed on Dell’s thirty-third birthday. It was just mid-May, but hot already on Samos, the
island Regina had chosen – a little bump of land somewhere off the coast of Turkey, furrowed with
mountains at the center and lined with slender beaches at the edges. The landscape felt lush and
dried-out at the same time. Dell thought everything was too bright: the whitewashed streets and
terraced cliffs, the buildings that reminded her of igloos. The music that pulsed from the beachside
bars until the wee morning hours. The flocks of preteen Greek girls everywhere, chittering nonstop
at high pitch, like caffeinated birds. The relentlessly-sparkling Aegean behind all of it.
Dell stood on the balcony of their waterfront hotel in a town called Kokkari, dragging a
brush through Regina’s mass of shiny dark hair. They were reviving a ritual from their college days:
Dell brushed, and then Regina walked across her knotted back. Eyes closed, Regina gave an
exaggerated exhale and scooted her body down further in the plush armchair.
“Mmmm. Am I dead? This is too lovely.” As if on cue, a fresh breeze swirled up, tingeing
the air with salt and traces of grilled meat from the taverna downstairs.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dell said, placing her hands at the base of Regina’s neck and lifting the
hair high off her head. “It doesn’t quite strike me as a plausible afterlife. It’s lovely indeed, but
where’s everyone else? Are Lonnie and Jerome in hell? And where are your kids?” She knew she was
saying the wrong thing as she was saying it, but that’s how she’d felt on this trip so far –irritable, and
unable to reign it in. “If we’re dead,” she went on, “We might be in a hell masterfully disguised to
look like heaven.”
Regina twisted around in the chair to look up at Dell. Dell dropped her hands to her side,
letting Regina’s hair fall like a heavy curtain. “It wasn’t a real question, Delly,” Regina said quietly. “I
just meant I’m having a good time.”
“Me too,” Dell said, louder than she meant to. And then more quietly, again, “Me too.”
The Greek sun was peaking in the sky and Dell badly wanted to slather on more sun screen.
They’d just finished a short hike down the length of a large rock outcropping that jutted like a
deformity from the shoreline, finishing their careful, arduous walk over the rough terrain with a
swim in the sea. Dell had been reluctant, squatting on the rocks as Regina floated on her back and
turned somersaults underwater and sang “Come on, Delly come on!” – until she finally jumped in,
and for a moment, as the chilly water engulfed her, zapping her breath for a second, everything felt
perfect. She splashed water at Regina, turned a somersault of her own, felt the zing of water in her
nose.
Back on shore, they settled into pair of thick-cushioned chaise lounges on the outdoor deck of a
taverna flush against the water’s edge with daiquiris and reading material (a Bronte novel for Dell, a
magazine of innovative household ideas of Regina). The sun was peaking overhead, and the intensity
of color everywhere – cobalt sky, clear green sea, gold-brown hulk of mountain backdropping their
tiny crescent-shaped town – was almost too much to bear. Dell fought the urge to lie with her arm
over her eyes.
Their waiter at the taverna was English and young – 28 tops, Dell guessed – and confident in
a way that unnerved her – as comfortable at work in his uniform of flowing white cotton pants and
shirt as he would be home in pajamas. He was not tall, but well-built with a delicate jaw line. He
made Dell shy.
“And what’s our occasion for being on holiday?” he asked in a voice just on the cusp of
teasing. He’d taken their lunch orders without writing anything on his pad, a practice Dell disliked.
Regina nodded toward Dell. "This one’s getting married," she said, using her hand to shield
the sun as she smiled up at him. "We've been friends since college. So this is our pre-wedding
celebration.”
"Ah," the waiter said. "A stag trip. A last go at it, before she turns into a pumpkin and the
fun ends forever?" He sounded bemused. Stirred air caught the bottom of his loose shirt and lifted it
up, revealing his hairless, burnished stomach. Dell wanted to reach up and press her hand to the
smooth skin. Instead she shifted her gaze out to the shimmery water, which had begun to buck
gently in the breeze, and pointed at Regina with her daiquiri straw. "She's been a pumpkin for ten
years. I was her maid of honor when we were practically still in college.”
“It was a full year after graduation, thank you very, much, Dell,” said Regina, sticking her
tongue half-out. “And anyway,” she smiled up at the waiter and fluttered her lashes dramatically. “I
may be a pumpkin, but I’m a fun pumpkin.”
The waiter laughed, pushing his sunglasses to the top of his head. “Well, fun or not, you’re a
lovely pair of pumpkins.” He produced a business card from his pocket and handed it directly to
Dell. Not to Regina. Aquarius Books. Calvin Packard, Proprietor. Dell’s mood lifted abruptly, as if she’d
just set down a heavy backpack. A wave of good will toward the vacation engulfed her, and she felt
suddenly fond of Greece, right down to the beach pebbles that lodged in her sandals and the
oversweet daiquiris.
“That’s my shop,” Calvin said. “Well, mine and my mate David’s. We’re having a little party
there tonight. You two ought to come round. Might even be a few other Americans there.”
“How nice of you,” Regina teased. “Now, will you be inviting all your patrons, or are we
special?” She made a sweeping motion toward a large table nearby, clustered by attractive,
minimally-clothed twentyish women speaking what sounded like Italian. The flirtation in her voice
sounded too brazen to Dell – shut up, Regina, she thought. Regina leaned back on her chaise and
stretched her legs straight out in front of her. Dell noticed her toes, which were lacquered cherry
red, and wished she’d remembered to get a pedicure. “
“First tell me if you’ll come,” Calvin answered. “Then I’ll know whether I’ll have to resort to
the B-list.” He smiled, flashing snow white teeth, and tucked his pen behind his ear. He was looking
squarely at Regina now – Dell felt his eyes lift away from her. What did he think of the two of them?
Did they look old? Did he notice the difference in their bodies – how Dell’s held none of the
slackness that two childbirths had granted Regina? Reflexively, she touched her lower belly and felt
the springy muscles just below the skin for reassurance. Yes, it was still taut.
“I think we’ve got a prior engagement,” Dell answered for Regina.
“We’ll have to check our calendar,” Regina said to Calvin.
“I’ll take that as a probably,” said Calvin. “And now, girls, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got
others to service.” He winked at them and then reached down to scratch Dell lightly on the head as
he moved past, the pads of his fingers pushing into her scalp like a tiny massage. She went tingly,
rubbed her thumbs and forefingers together.
“God,” Dell said, when he was out of earshot, “He’s trouble.”
“Nah,” said Regina said, singing the word, leaning back into the orange cushion and closing
her eyes. “That’s just what he wants us to think. He’s harmless.” She yawned daintily, covering her
mouth with two fingers. “Plus, we’re married.”
A near-full moon was blooming over Samos. Back in their hotel room, not bothering to
draw the curtains across their broad window facing the sea, they dressed for the Calvin’s party. Dell
marveled at how they’d transformed over three days on the island – skin browned and even, eyes
clearer and brighter. They put on sundresses, sandals that left most of their feet bare, dangly
earrings, rubbed lotion into their skin. Dell sat on the bed and painted her toenails with her foot on
a newspaper while Regina finished her makeup. They photographed themselves, giggling as if on
their way to prom. Outside in the periwinkle twilight, last bands of sun fading off the sea, the
mountains just beyond the brink of town reminded Dell of huge, slumbering bears.
Aquarius Books consisted of two tiny, scooped-out rooms at basement level downstairs
from a bakery. With sloping walls and small windows up near the ceiling, the shop was cave-like and
redolent of honey and crisped phyllo dough. Full bookshelves lined both rooms from ceiling to
floor. Dell loved it. Bottles of wine and ouzo and bowls of glistening olives and sliced sausage were
arranged on a card table draped with a tie-dye tapestry. Just fifteen or so guests made the place feel
packed, electric. Dell poured a glass of ouzo; Regina filled a plate. Greek music played on the stereo,
full of bouzouki and violins, folky and sensual at the same time, making Dell nervy with anticipation.
The ouzo was sweet at first and then burned her throat.
“American ladies!” Calvin swooped across the room, two tanned, sultry young women in
step behind him. “I knew you’d turn up!” He looped one arm around Dell and the other around
Regina, pulling them in to his chest. Dell could smell the licoricey anise on his breath, mixed with a
spicy cologne and something smoky – maybe cigars? She wanted to balk at his hug – it felt brazen,
presumptuous, but when Regina reciprocated by slinging her arm around him, as if he were an older
brother, Dell relaxed.
“Are we eating enough, are we drinking enough?” Calvin asked them, clearly full of ouzo.
Without waiting for an answer he unhooked his arms from their necks and panned his hands toward
the two girls standing patiently beside them. “Americans, meet Paola and Penelope!” he declared.
Dell recognized them as part of the neighboring table at the taverna that afternoon. “They’re from
Portugal – perhaps you’ve heard of it.” Then he cupped his hand at the side of his mouth and stagewhispered, “I can’t decide who I love more!”
The girls laughed, and the taller of the two reached out and shoved his shoulder. “You’re a
drunk,” she said. “Let’s dance.”
Calvin bounced in place. “Brilliant!” and pulled each girl by an elbow toward a clearing in the
corner. Dell felt the apprehension dissipate from her body, replaced by faint disappointment. Even
though she disliked dancing as a rule, it might have felt nice to dance with Calvin. She watched him
weave between the Portuguese girls, his hands on one of their hips and then the other’s. They both
wore high heels and low-slung jeans and at more of a distance, reminded Dell of gazelles. They
couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. Dell looked at Regina, who was eating olives daintily with
a dreamy expression, probably from the wine. Although she certainly looked pretty in a loose white
sundress, she also seemed solid and vaguely matronly to Dell, compared to the Portuguese willows
shimmying in the corner.
“Why’re we here, again?” she leaned toward Regina’s ear.
“Oh, because it’s a lark,” said Regina, swaying her hips lightly along with the music.
“Somewhere we’d never be with Lon and Jer, I guess. And because we’re on vacation and it’s just us.
We can leave whenever you want. We’re not supposed to be doing anything that’s not fun,
remember?”
“Never mind,” Dell said. “I just meant, I feel…old.” She breathed deeply.
Regina laughed, sounding sparkly. “Delly, that’s because we are old. Now let’s go dance. I’m
going to force you.” She grabbed Dell by the hand and pulled. The ouzo sloshed in her stomach,
and she nearly gagged, but let Regina pull her along.
It was nearly two in the morning when the last bottle of ouzo emptied and the party began
to break up. At some point, a joint of something that may have been hash (that was what they
smoked in Europe, wasn’t it? Dell thought, but was embarrassed to ask) had been passed around,
and she and Regina had both taken a little, at Calvin’s exuberant insistence.
Outside, the air was still warm, but a tousling breeze had picked up as they began the short
walk back to the hotel. The moon had swelled and marbled, illuminating their route despite the
absence of streetlight.
“Regina?” Dell had the sensation of floating above the night, of having observed the past
four hours from a high-up vantage. Something had happened during the party. Maybe it was the
ouzo, or maybe the hash, but just after Regina convinced her to dance, just after she’d stood
watching Calvin weaving between the incandescent Portuguese girls, she’d been struck with the urge
– a clear, burning urge – to tell Regina about Lonnie’s letters. It had been too loud, too pulsing and
distracting inside the party, to bring it up, but now, in the quiet of the night, the time was right.
“Regina?” She was careful to sound lucid, unslurred by the booze and chemicals hazing her
head.
“Mmmm?” Regina leaned into her as they walked in step, and Dell leaned back. Progress
was faster that way.
“I want to tell you something, and I don’t even know what my motives are, but it seems like
I have to tell you now, like if I don’t I never will and it will leave a little bit of a hole between us.” She
sensed she might sound rambling, but didn’t care – an urgency she couldn’t rein in was propelling
her.
“I’m intrigued, Delly,” Regina said. “But if you tell me you want to leave Jerome for Calvin,
I’ll kill you.” She giggled and then hiccupped, which made her giggle more.
Dell dragged the cool night air into her lungs. “No, this is serious. Listen.” She slowed her
stride, and Regina did too. “Okay, so, this was years ago – well maybe two – and it was when I was
working all the time and my whole life was just working, and sleeping, and fretting over why I wasn’t
having any fun, and somehow Lonnie and I began writing these letters.” She spoke very rapidly now,
not giving Regina a chance to interject. “But you have to understand, they were a certain kind of
letter, nothing private or personal, really, just stuff that we liked to write down, sort of like telling
each other stories through the mail. And it wasn’t a big deal, and it didn’t last long. But I just wanted
to tell you. Before I get married. I’m not sure why. I just do.” She ran out of breath.
Regina stopped walking and stood still. Dell braced herself. But then Regina turned and took
both of Dell’s hands in her own. “I know about those letters, Delly,” she said, sweetly. “I’ve known
about them for a long time.”
“You have?” Dell felt planted to the spot and off-balance at the same time. She felt the
alcohol souring in her stomach, small tugs of nausea. Don’t throw up, she chanted silently to
herself. Don’t throw up.
“Of course,” said Regina. “Lonnie told me. We worked through it a long time ago.”
“You did?” Dell managed. Then she lowered herself carefully onto the cobblestone street, gathering
her legs up Indian-style and folding her torso over them, hoping to quell the unease in belly. “Do
you hate me?” she asked, running her fingers over the knobby surface of the ground.
“Of course not,” Regina said. “Maybe at first, but not after Lon let me read them.” She sat
down in front of Dell, facing her, knee to knee.
Heat flooded Dell’s face and her throat constricted. “He let you read them?”
“Well,” Regina hesitated, and rolled her shoulders, as if in a yoga class. “I kind of made him.
I needed to see for myself exactly what was going on.”
“And?” Dell’s head had begun to ache, and she rubbed her temples with both hands. What
did you think was going on? After you read them?” Her queasiness accelerated.
“Well,” Regina said, “I could tell you were lonely. And I know you and Lonnie have always
had this sort of, um, intellectual similarity? that I don’t have. And, well, I thought you might have
been…” Regina trailed off and fell silent.
“You thought that I might have what?” Dell pressed.
Regina exhaled. “Might have been jealous that he married me,” she said softly. “Or just
might be jealous of me, period.”
“Jealous of what?”
Regina linked her ten fingers with all of Dell’s, reminding Dell of the school yard game that
began this way, the one where you tried to bend each other’s fingers back until it hurt. Mercy, it was
called.
“Look, you can’t take this the wrong way Delly, but it was really obvious you were jealous of
me getting married and having babies way before you did. I hope I’m not offending you, but the way
you acted sometimes back then, it was just so obvious. You wanted what I had. It’s a common thing,
between women, I bet.”
A faraway part of Dell wanted to laugh – oh, Regina! – she would think that – but when she
opened her mouth, a strange sound came out. Nothing like a laugh. More like a stifled sob.
“Oh, Delly!” She unlocked their fingers and scooted to Dell’s side, hanging an arm around
her. “I’m so sorry. I wish I hadn’t said that! It just came out. It doesn’t matter. It’s all such old news.
None of it matters now. You’re getting married. You’re a superstar. We’ve all moved on.” Regina
hugged her tightly, warming Dell’s neck with her breath. “Let’s go,” she murmured. “Let’s go get
some sleep. Come on. It’s so late.” She squeezed Dell once more, then climbed to her feet and
extended a hand to help Dell up. “Let’s go, sweetie.”
Dell didn’t want to go. She wanted to lie down on the knobby street and stare straight up at
the sky and the hard white stars until morning bled through. She wanted to breathe and breathe until
her body felt cleared out, swept clean. She wanted to float far out in the Aegean, face up to the
Hellenic sky, all the ancient gods staring down at her. She wanted to call Jerome.
“No, you go on,” she said, not budging from her seat on the ground, looking up. “I’ll be
there soon.” Above her, Regina seemed magnified by the moonlight – a zoomed-in, giantess version
of herself – and yet insubstantial at the same time, her white dress and raven hair drifty in the
restless sea air.
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