In the Vines – Shannon Kirk

It was the note that led us here, in the dark, trembling. Bloodstained. Hiding. It was the note. It crinkles in my hand, wet with sweat, in the fortune-teller’s creases of my palm. Although I didn’t write it, I can recite it, here in this hole in which we hide, in my head. I am the mistress. Say it. Say it. I am the one sleeping in your bed. The nights you’re there, I’m there, a whisper. My body snakes in your sheets, swimming in his head. He doesn’t say “I love you” anymore, not without the stick of me in his throat. The sob you hear in the shower through the walls, that’s your delusion, draining down the pipes. I am the mistress, know it, know it.

I am the one sleeping in your bed. I found the note in Aunty Liv’s guest room. I wasn’t supposed to be at her near-seaside house in the first place. For two years now, ever since my mother, her sister, launched herself into the ocean just beyond Aunty’s house, she has kept a lid on, blocked us out of her life. Yet here I came, her twenty-five-year-old, still-grieving niece, breaching all her literal barriers and boundaries as if they never existed. I needed her help. And I found that damned note one week after first arriving two weeks ago, when we lived aboveground, like most humans, not hiding in a hole. As shocks go, the note is tame by comparison to the other shocks that crashed like asteroids in the last two weeks. Now I’m in the basement remains of a burned guest cottage on Aunty’s property, hiding. I hear a woman who wishes to kill me—or rather, wishes to kill me and my companion.

She’s scraping and scratching, clawing and hacking her way through the otherwise impenetrable tangles of five-foot-high hedges and tornadoes of oceanside brambles. Her skin must be ravaged like a savage’s, the thorns, the heavy dead sticks off twisted trees, the relentless vines that wish to hold you firm for their forest friends, the nettles, to slice skin. All around us topside is a New England jungle, as if nature wishes to coil vegetation into a barrier between inland and the glorious roaring ocean it protects. And the goddess ocean, she’s angry tonight, yelling at us mortals in the middle of a personal war. Her thundering waves warn of the coming hurricane. In the last two weeks, I’ve come to view my world in dramatic terms, and as this night is either a magnificent resolution or our climactic end, I find comfort in anthropomorphizing nature as Earth’s army, the Atlantic as Earth’s one goddess, and the sky her faithful servant. I must consider something greater than the woman who hunts us, focus on something more forceful than her murderous evil. Because this is the literal last ditch: we have nowhere else to run. Like lab mice in a glass box. No clear, safe escape.

If we try to exit from where we entered, out through the hidden hinged board among other boards that cap this burned basement, she’ll hear us and hack us. Again. I lost too much blood before I tied the kerchief tourniquet around my wounded shin. I’m weakened and pale, slouching in a lean against a dirt wall. My companion is even worse. Nature now is our only hope. The woman above who hunts us, she treats the boundary of nature’s twisted knights like trash. A thwack, thwack returns, her slicing through vines and overgrowth, cutting a path with a hatchet she took from the barn. “You bitch,” she screams. “You biiiiitch,” she screams again—the word bitch is a bat’s sonar, sending out waves of sound to detect us, her insects in this hole.

CHAPTER TWO AUNTY LIV Two years ago—Boston This is the story I’ll have to commit to memory and live with, forever. This is my story now. I will never, I cannot, forget the details. Even as I watch the facts unfold and I burn this story, the one I’ll tell if asked, I am confused at my current reality. It’s like the emotional delusion I felt upon Daddy’s death and my two miscarriages, but this is not delusion. This is not delusion. Watch, listen, burn these details to your mind. Everything is wrong, everything is of . This is not delusion. This is real.

I watch her, because, I admit, I want to watch her disintegration. I am not an evil person—at least, I thought I wasn’t. I am, I was, happy. I have a great family. I live in a pink house, a shade of light rose, by the sea, on a large parcel of land that neighbors Haddock Point State Park. The brightest blue morning glories crawl up my outer walls, netting the creamy rose like blue crocheted lace. It’s possible I am insane now. I should maybe get professional help; I sometimes don’t recognize myself. But I don’t think any medical intervention would clear my mental plague. What I suffer is the insanity of being in love.

The type of insanity for which there is no cure. I trailed her all day, and she led me here, to Proserpina’s, the oldest Italian restaurant in the universe, but somehow regular vintage in Boston. The walk down the alley to Proserpina’s, the buildings we pass, all made of bricks. It’s early June, so it’s friggin’ cold one minute and hot the next. I say spring is like a menopausal woman. Mop, my lovely nerd niece at Princeton, is more giving in how she describes spring. Last night in a phone call, she said, “Boston weather is bipolar: hot one day, cold the next, high, bright sun one minute, biting chill the next. Spring is a selfish bully, clawing to hold more time away from our beloved New England summers.” So that’s one way to put it. I responded by telling Mop I love her, and to go on and finish up for the semester with her nerd poetry and philosophy courses so we can enjoy the damn beloved summer—which, as of now today, I’m almost certain is lost forever.

For me, however you describe New England spring, this weather sucks. Brings every strain of cold and pneumonia to Saint Jerome’s, where I work, one block away. I’ve taken off and put back on my green cashmere sweater fifty times while trailing h e r through Boston Common. The pink flowering trees are in bloom now, so the scent of sharp sugar and a dusting of pollen lingers in my nose. We enter the restaurant. She sits in a circular booth with padded walls with another woman. I’m in the likewise circular booth adjacent them, the barrier between us high, so they don’t see me. The woman I follow, she doesn’t know me. Doesn’t know the impact I’m about to make on her life. I have no clue who this other woman is, and I wouldn’t care, except for what I heard and what I did see and what I didn’t see, as I expected to see, in the park.

Nothing made sense about her path here. My simple intention was to follow her until she met up with him and watch from afar as he told her about us. Simple. By now, she should have returned to Danvers, a forty-minute drive north of Boston, to their big Victorian across from the baseball fields. She should be sitting in her car in her perfect-paved, suburban driveway, her head on the wheel of her ridiculous minivan, the color of drab and dated yet evil, like her, maroon. She should be burrowing her etched face, etched of her madness, into her steering wheel, grappling with accepting what he should have told her. But this did not happen. Instead, I followed her following another woman. If she knew the truth, she’d be following me. Do I know everything? Am I the sucker? Is he making love to this other woman too? No.

We’re in love. He’s meant to tell his wife today. He was supposed to tell her, his wife, in Boston Common, where I waited and watched. But he never showed, despite her being there, and she waited under a flowing willow, and I across the pond, watching. Then she saw this other woman traipsing through with a Lord & Taylor shopping bag, and she followed her, so I followed her following this other woman. A total twist to my intended spy session. Who is this other woman? I wondered. I continued following. The wife I follow cornered this other woman at the edge of the Civil War cemetery on Tremont, across the street from Suffolk Law School, a half block out of the park. With one hand wrapped around the black iron of the cemetery’s fence, and one foot away from a cracked, gray grave, I caught only fragments of their heated argument, but pieced together enough: this other woman is a neighbor friend of the wife I follow, and the wife thinks this neighbor woman, whose name is Vicky, is having an affair with him.

But she’s wrong. No. This Vicky is not sleeping with him, my love. MY love. Out there, aside crumbling graves, a cool wind swooped in and swirled Vicky’s hay-bale hair, washing out her words to me. When the wind slowed, I heard Vicky deny the wife’s “false accusations.” Oh, little Vicky with the twitchy nose, she was pissed, but she must empathize with the wife, or hold some diabolic ulterior motive: she convinced her to calm down and join her for a late lunch at Proserpina’s. I followed, and now we’re separated by the curved booth wall. All staff of Saint Jerome’s, where I work with him, come to Proserpina’s to unwind. My place of employment takes up the entire block behind.

The other regular inhabitants of Proserpina’s are law professors and law students from Suffolk Law, and, of course, Freedom Trail tourists, who are obvious as the only ones wearing the “Paul Revere Rode Here” and “Wicked Pissah” T-shirts they purchased down at Faneuil Hall. With the law school on the same block and the hospital behind, this is our regular spot, us nurses and doctors, us hospital workers, us budding lawyers and professors. Hell, he could walk in any minute, still in his white doctor’s coat, stethoscope around his thick, muscled neck, the one I’ve sucked after getting too liquored during Proserpina’s happy hours. I scan the crowd with furtive eyes but find no one I recognize. The bloodred paintings of Tuscan poppy fields litter the dark paneled walls. I hide my face behind the extra-large menu. The tension in Proserpina’s, for me, is like a plaza held captive by a backpack bomber. I had pulled the waiter aside upon entering and said with a pleading smile, “Please don’t interrupt, please. I need to finish this book. Please bring me still water and the penne Bolognese, thanks.

” This way, the waiter won’t interrupt my eavesdropping or call too much attention to my presence next to her and this Vicky. At first, her and Vicky’s conversation in the adjacent booth was inaudible. All I captured were excited whispers. But now I hear the wife, because I calibrated my hearing to the cadence of their conversation, and she’s just opposite me. I note how the restaurant’s music forms a barrier between her voice and the sparse inhabitants far away at the bar. The bar folk are further insulated from her talking, given how they conduct their own loud conversations by leaning in to one another for better hearing, what with the television squawking mindless drivel about the Red Sox game tonight and the outfits a state senator dressed her two daughters in to tour Boston on vacation. The wife I follow shoos the bow-tied waiter away. He snaps a basket of bread on their round table in retreat. “I’m done with this. He’s been saying he wants to talk to me tonight, and I know what he’s going to say.

I thought you were my friend, Vicky. He wants to leave me for you,” the wife says to this Vicky. No, that is not what he is going to say to you tonight. Not the plan at all. He was supposed to tell you in the park today, where I was to watch, he’s leaving you for me. Me. Me. Me. Not this Vicky. And you have no clue who I am, Cate.

Cate, your name tastes of metal in my mouth. Like a metal pin in my mouth . like the metal shirt pin that cretin shoved in my mouth when Daddy tried to save . no, stop. Stop. Don’t go there. Don’t think in the past. You’re here, now, in the present, in a restaurant. You are forty-some fucking age, not fourteen. Listen.

I need to spit just to think your name, Cate. Everyone thinks Cate is an innocent, best-friend name, so yellowy and pristine, untroubled by problems and poverty, the epitome of sanity. But that’s not you, Cate—foul, I spit your name. You are the opposite. You don’t deserve your own name, much less him. He never showed in the park, and instead you saw her, and you followed her, and now here we are. Where is he? And who the fuck is Vicky? I know a panic attack is closing in on me. I force a cavernous inhale and push the air around me with flat palms. I drop my head, close my eyes, and breathe. No.

Heart, stop. Stop going crazy. Listen. You must listen. Relax. Five . four . three . two . one .

breathe. The waiter is back, timid in his approach to Cate and Vicky’s table. “Madams, I am sorry to interrupt, but my shift ends in five minutes and I could expedite your order now, before shift change, please.” Cate grunts and orders “spaghetti and meatballs,” because she’s an obstinate child. “And ensure the chef places exactly, ex-act-ly, three meatballs, not two, and not four,” she adds, because she’s a fucking psycho. I flip a page in the book I swiped from a park bench, sticking my nose to the cracked inner spine, appearing enthralled in this thriller—although it could be a romance novel, I don’t know. Mop would know. She’d be able to read and listen. But I couldn’t possibly hear the real world around me if I were reading. I suffer consumptions.

I need consumptions, for safety. For sanity. Right now, I’m in Proserpina’s, pretending to read a book of questionable genre, while listening to Kent’s wife, who just accused a woman named Vicky of sleeping with him, my love. Fortunately, I minored in drama in college, to lift the burden of premed, so I believe I’m pulling off this reading act. Proserpina’s night shift filters in, so too, the night ambience, and so the late lunch classical is replaced by an upbeat jazz through a plug-in CD player behind the bar. “In ten minutes, turn the volume up,” Proserpina’s manager shouts from within the music moat between our booths and the bar. I know restaurants. He wants the music change for the lingering late lunchers to be an ease into a warm swim, rather than an abrupt cold jolt reminding them they’re still eating and drinking here, late in the afternoon. Before they know it, they’ll be ordering the happy hour specials the bartender is chalking on his blackboard, and they’ll be begging for one more hour out with friends in cell-phone calls to wives and husbands. The whole world is socially engineered.

As he was socially predestined to marry her and expected to stay married to her until death did them part, even though he no longer loves her and she has become morose and hypercontrolling in every sense of the term. And evil, serious evil, a truth I can’t dwell on now. I’d shudder and lose focus to think on what she holds over him, and thus, us, and specifically, me. Instead, I concentrate on the superficial awfulness of her. How she doesn’t clean clothes or their home, only barks at him to press his pants with deeper creases and fold her underwear in three folds, not two, like she’s demonstrated for him “numerous times.” He’s Saint Jerome’s chief surgeon, yet he does this laundry charade on Sundays to keep the peace. It’s sickening. It repulses me. He tells me of the routine every Monday morning over coffee in the break room, or after a good solid fuck at the Kisstop in Back Bay. Cate could fold her own underwear, and underwear can be fist-shoved into a top drawer in a lump, because underwear doesn’t wrinkle and it doesn’t matter.

He owes her, she says, because he shoots blanks and can’t plant her with kids. Which is absolute, 100 percent horseshit. Why do I hate her so much when I’m the mistress? I should hate myself, true. And I do. But I hate her more. I have a profound and frightening reason, a validated example, but I won’t, I can’t, return my thoughts to real reasons now. I stick to these facile underwear reasons. I need to listen. This is insane. I should leave.

I should move on. I should return to the person I was before him. I am a dif erent person now, a person I never wanted to be. Who am I? What have I become? I can’t return to who I was before. Things are dif erent now. My life will be very dif erent now. I’m stuck here, transfixed. Listening. This is dangerous. I’ll listen and then leave.

I’ll talk it over with Johanna tonight. Thank God my sister’s staying with me this week and not coiled up in her stifling estate in Rye, New Hampshire, our family home, the one she agreed to take over when Mom died. I don’t understand how Johanna can live in Rye with those awful memories in the walls. I guess I’m the only one with the awful memories; she skated them, because she’s blessed. I’m not. Everything will get better after I talk to Johanna and confess to her what I’ve been hiding. I can’t believe I hid this af air from Johanna. We’ll cuddle up in the guest cottage behind my rose house, the cottage I had built for her, decorated just the way she likes, “beach elegant.” I’ll feed her a bottle of bordeaux. I’ll confess that I’m sleeping with a married man, that I’m unfortunately struck by a disease of love, I’m sick with it.

I’ll give her all the details about the state I’m in, too, and my sister will still love me regardless. She’ll soothe my heart with her hand on my hair, and we’ll figure it out, like we always do. Best friends. Sisters. Soul mates. We’ve always been. She’ll fix me. She’ll listen. She’ll smack me with tough love. And we have time to ourselves before her daughter, Mop, my beloved niece, returns from Princeton for the summer.

I’ll tell Johanna tonight. This is insane. I need a fucking cigarette. I don’t smoke. Who am I? Shit. This Vicky woman orders. “I would like a plain breast of grilled chicken with nothing else on the plate, please. I have allergies.” The waiter is in a hurry to end his shift and doesn’t inquire as to what allergies, which I think the new law requires, or at least common sense and basic decency. “No problem, madam,” he says and shuttles off to the kitchen.

Vicky must turn to Cate. Her voice is more audible, facing Cate, and thus, facing my ear. “I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back,” Vicky says. “Cate, you need to calm down. We’ve been friends ten years. We live across the street from each other, for crying out loud. So I’m going to forgive you and talk—we’ll talk this out. But you need to stop this. I hope you didn’t say anything about any of this to my husband.

I didn’t sleep with Kent.” The last sentence doesn’t sound very convincing to me, but then again, my antennae might be up and misfiring. If someone accused me of sleeping with a married man, out in the open, I wouldn’t stick around. So I’m presuming Vicky sticks around for this volatile conversation only so she can control the messaging, the neighborhood gossip, and, likely, save her marriage. Vicky reappears after a good long five minutes in the bathroom; I thought maybe she fled. She doesn’t sit, says she needs to make a phone call if they are going to continue talking, and she leaves again, back out to the black-and-white-tiled foyer. Cate gruffs and grunts and says, “Whateva,” in a heavy Boston accent, which grates and grinds my nerves, so I cringe. My shoulders are up around my neck. It’s WHATEVERRRRRR! Enunciate, you lazy bitch! As Vicky slips away, their waiter slinks up like a shadow creature in a Dracula film with their food. I continue to pretend I’m reading my absolutely amazing, enthralling thriller or romance or whatevER.

The waiter disappears to the kitchen, and Cate, the wife, is alone. I hear her unzipping what must be her purse. I hear crinkling of plastic. I hear a crushing, a rolling crinkle, and a slight rip of something. I do not stand to look over this leather wall. I cannot allow her to see me, or me seeing her, can’t give away my listening post. But these noises compel me; I am riveted. What is she doing? It takes all I can to not kneel on the cushion and periscope over the booth. Vicky returns. The jazz music is still soft, but I know I only have a few minutes before the volume is cranked to happy hour.

I need it to remain a steady sound wall. My ears are adjusted on this side of the rhythm. I need to listen. Cate and Vicky say nothing to each other. I hear forks on porcelain plates, some knife slices. “So do you eat here with him, then? Is this why you’re downtown today, Vicky? The hospital’s just behind us. Is this why you know this place?” “Cate, good grief.” Vicky pauses to cough. “I’ve never”—cough—“ugh, been here before”— cough. “What then, after you eat here with him? Do you go to the Kisstop and fuck after your shitty chicken? I bet he orders the veal.

He loves veal. Is that your routine?” Cate says and puffs loud and swallows into a drink. I hear the swish of the liquid. “Of course he would go fuck some loser with allergies. He likes his women weak.” I’m not weak. He likes his women weak? Am I weak? No, I am not weak. I accept I’m crazy at this moment in my life, but I am not weak. I need to get up and leave. Tell my sister.

Johanna, help me climb out of this hole! I am not weak. And yes, Cate, yes, indeed. He does order the veal, and then we fuck at the Kisstop, we, he and I, not this Vicky. Vicky clears her throat, doesn’t speak. She keeps clearing her throat, a low, constant gurgle. I set my ear over a pocket in the puckered leather. Vicky has not spoken. I don’t believe she has scraped her fork across her plate since she took her first bite. She clears her throat again. Vicky is now clearing her throat in a desperate blizzard of rising coughs.

The bartender doesn’t notice; he’s moving over to the volume knob on his CD player. And when he’s one step away from blocking the voices behind me, I hear Cate’s virulent whisper. “Whoopsy, are you having another one of your anaphylactic reactions, Vicky? Gee, I’m a nurse and all; I should have an EpiPen on me, but I don’t. What? There’s one in your purse? Oh darn, your purse is over here, under my jacket. How’d that happen?” Cate says, without an iota of alarm and with uncut sarcasm. Cate stands and shouts for help. “Help, help, my friend is choking.” The bartender shatter-drops a glass mug. The people at the bar jump from their stools; one stool tips back and crashes in a deafening bang on the floor tiles. The chef, opposite our tables and in the open kitchen, throws a steel bowl of salad in the kitchen, sending lettuce shrapnel to spin midair.

The waiter flings a tray of saucy ziti and ravioli to the side, landing the pasta missile in a miracle on a table, before velocity takes over, splattering the table’s seats with murder sauce. The waiter and the chef and the bartender and two Saint Jerome’s doctors, who just walked in, surround Vicky. Her face is a bulging bubble of welts and hives, her throat swollen to the width of her jawline. Cate stands off to the side, acting the part of a shocked woman. I stand behind Cate, strategically so. “She has a peanut allergy,” Cate is saying in such a high, forced, phony fluster, I wonder if any of the fools in this restaurant appreciate good theater. Can’t they tell she’s acting? “There are no peanuts on her chicken!” the chef is shouting. “I think just peanut dust can kill her,” Cate says. So this is how this will go down. There will be an autopsy.

The cops will investigate the contents of Vicky’s food, her medical history, the makeup of Proserpina’s kitchen. They’ll question Cate by visiting her at her home; no doubt by then she will have burned her purse with all the evidence. Nobody will suspect murder until much later. Nobody will be thinking about preserving any evidence in the critical first minutes, hours. Just another allergic reaction in a restaurant. There are no hidden video cameras in this joint; it’s an old-school hangout for lawyers and doctors and also some of the politicians from Capitol Hill, which is behind the Civil War cemetery. It is quite possible this restaurant fed some of those dead Civil War soldiers. No wiring for cameras, and no enterprising owner would dare drill into the original wood paneling to retrofit modern technology. No one will be able to connect any dots beyond a reasonable doubt. No one but me, that is.

I’m the only one who heard. The sound of plastic opening, Cate crushing something, only one thing that could have been: Cate, Kent’s wife, her, crushing a bag of peanuts, so as to dust Vicky’s chicken. And with no surveillance and the cops not here yet, Cate has plenty of time to play the part and hide the minuscule evidence. Stop. Don’t do it. Leave. Stop! No. I don’t know why I do this—it is so counter to self-preservation. Cate’s murderous act must take over my reasoning skills, which are blotted anyway given my heart’s misfortune, my mind’s weakness in love. My rage is unstoppable.

Passion controlling my moves. I walk up behind her; she doesn’t see my face. I hiss in her ear, “You killed the wrong woman.” I slip my green sweater’s hood over my head and turn, slipping between the swarming crowd, before she can see who spoke. Why don’t I out her? Why can’t I scream to the cops to look in her purse for the remainder of her crushed peanuts? I can’t. She would soon uncover the dirt she holds over Kent is dirt she holds on me, and I must return to being invisible. And this dirt is not our affair, nope. Rather, it is the type of dirt that’d get me fired and my reputation ruined, my Mighty Mary charity obliterated, and I’m not quite sure but maybe some jail time, I don’t know. I don’t need to nurse for the money—far from it. I have more family money than all the Kennedys ever had, combined.

The Vandonbeer riches go back centuries. We’re the wealthiest New England family by several digits on the balance sheets, and to make money matters even more insane, that fortune doubles when you consider the fact that Johanna married into the second-wealthiest family, the Pentecosts. And maybe we’ll go and triple all this lunacy, since it looks like Mop is about to marry into the fifth-wealthiest family. I suspect my neighbor boy, Manny Acista, is going to propose to her when she gets home from Princeton. La-de-freakin’-da. Because none of it matters. You can’t buy sanity, and I need to nurse to stay sane. I need my occupational consumption. I can’t lose my license, can’t lose my job, can’t lose my hold on reason. The dirt Cate has keeps me up at night, but it was all an innocent series of mistakes and misjudgments before Cate got involved.

She caught Kent, my love, with the evidence, the very dirt in his hands. In pushing through the clotted crowd, I consider my options: send an anonymous note to the police commissioner or handle the justice for her crime myself. Cate’s a nurse at my competing hospital, Mass General; I’m a longtime nurse at her competing hospital, Saint Jerome’s. There are ways to wage this war that don’t involve the authorities. I slip out among the clatter of chaos, and I know Cate hasn’t followed. She can’t. She has to stay and play her part in all this, her fictional, malicious, awful part. Away from the hell of Proserpina’s, I’m back on a green bench in Boston Common. My shift at Saint Jerome’s doesn’t start for another hour. All I want to do is go home and talk to Johanna.

But I have to put in a half shift tonight—I promised to cover for another nurse. I have to, and maybe that’s good, so I can get distracted in my consumption. They’ll bring Vicky to Saint Jerome’s now, and I don’t want to go there while they confirm her body dead, so I need to sit here, sit tight in the park, and wait out this excruciating hour. And this is the worst time, time when I’m stuck and can’t move and am forced to do nothing but think. To fucking think. I’m anxious to go on and get my shift over and get home and hash this all out with Johanna. Why—and I don’t understand why—have I allowed myself to be alone in all this? Why haven’t I said anything yet about my affair to Johanna, who would love me regardless? Or Mop, my niece, who is more like an adult daughter? How can I connect so well with her, and with Johanna, my love, my sister, and yet neither of them knows about him? Mop came home from Princeton a few months ago for Easter, and there was a moment on a silver platter, a perfect moment in which I could have admitted to my affair, admitted out loud to my imperfections. We were at our family estate in Rye, New Hampshire. The Rye chef had made a traditional Catholic meal of ham and peas and predictable mashed potatoes, all of which we ate after saying grace, so as to be respectful to Johanna’s sister-in-law, the former nun Mary Pentecost, the only one who actually celebrates the resurrection of Christ. Full and finished with our family obligation, Johanna’s husband, Philipp, said he had business to finish in his study, so we three —Johanna, Mop, and I—returned to my rose-hued house by Haddock Point for a girls’ night.

Each of us got hugs and kisses from Philipp when we left, and we gladly gave them back to him. Former Sister Mary nodded to Johanna and Mop, and nodded to me, and I returned the gesture, but neither of us could meet the other’s eyes. The Easter night was unseasonably warm, and a sea breeze carried salt to us as we got out of the car. Crawling her wistful eyes up the clapboard siding, Mop asked, “Some ‘Die Rose,’ Aunty, in the rose house library?” referring to the Schubert classic “Die Rose,” and the color of my home in one. Seeing as Mop’s boyfriend, Manny, was committed to his own family Easter dinner, that meant we had the night to just us three. And so, comforted in knowing we had a night in our own curated bubble, we entered my rose house in a practiced choreography. Mop and I went to the Mermaid Library. Johanna hummed her way down my bird-wallpapered hallway to the kitchen, to cut us some coffee cake and make us chai tea. I refuse to have servants in my home. As I started Schubert’s “Die Rose,” set low for ambience and not to disturb, Mop lit all my battery candles, twenty in total, so that our reading haven became an “ancient tomb of glowing amber”—that’s what Mop calls it, at first in eternal drama, only to reject drama with, “I mean, a nice, soft light.

” Mop propped three books open on her crisscrossed legs, sitting on the middle cushion of one of two leather couches in the center of the library. She skipped from one book to the other; I’m not sure of her reading methodology. I took the middle cushion on the couch facing Mop, choosing a nonfiction travelogue on Chinese restaurants, because I had no appetite for any additional drama in my life. Johanna entered the library with a tray of cut cake and three cups of tea, humming her favorite Paul Simon song and click-clacking into our subdued, amber solace like a bumbling, sparkling fashion rainbow. “You girls, already reading, my nerdy loves,” she sang. She plunked down the tray on the coffee table between Mop’s and my reading couches, kicked off her shiny Christian Diors— silver, of course, on Easter—grabbed her tea and cake, found an old Vogue, and plopped in her tullelined, polka-dot Easter frock into a puffy turquoise armchair in the corner, behind the couches. I set that chair there for her, because she said she’d join us in our reading if only the library’s wood and leather had a little “happy pop.” Such was born this routine we embarked on for the umpteenth time this last Easter. Mop smiled from her leather couch to Johanna in her upholstered chair. Mop’s smile was wide and her eyes sentimental, revealing she was not bothered by her mother’s intrusion on her concentration, nor troubled by the white reading light Johanna flicked on to read her Vogue, thus shaming a corner of the room’s amber glow—a bright reminder of grounded reality. The unstated message being It is not practical to read by candlelight, my lofty loves. Johanna blew Mop, and then me, several air kisses. The operatic lyrics of Schubert’s “Die Rose” gave way to calm instrumentals, and this was the perfect lull, the moment at which I could have confessed to my closest confidantes. But, in that same moment, Johanna looked down at her Vogue and gushed, “Oh my goodness, this is the one where they featured classic Valentino! Valentino!” She dived into the magazine’s pages, while Mop looked to me with a mocking but loving eye roll about her mother, my sister, all of which confirmed, for the thousandth time, that my niece might see perfection in me, might identify with me, even more than the mother she loves to distraction. So I couldn’t break Mop’s trust in me by admitting to the room of my affair. And breaking Mop’s trust—where would that lead? Would that lead to other ugly truths about me to her, and indeed, to myself? I won’t think on it further.

.

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