The phone rang but it was Mel, and Sara had no intention of talking to Mel. She relaxed and sank deeper into the steaming water of the bath. Candles flickered on the side of the tub. Pachelbel’s “Canon” played softly in the background. Mel had called twice before and Sara hadn’t answered either time. They had grown up together in tiny Howard’s Mill, Tennessee, and had once been as close as sisters, but that was long ago. They still exchanged Christmas cards and the occasional e- mail, but they hadn’t actually spoken for nearly twelve years, not since Sara’s daughter Nicky was born. Besides, Sara knew why Mel was calling.
Lola had reached her two days ago and in her drawling Alabama accent had invited her for a beach trip. “At my new beach cottage! For a week! No husbands or kids! Just the four of us together again for the first time since college. Annie says she’ll go. Mel says she’ll go if you do.” Lola had sounded even more spaced out than usual. She kept referring to her beach house as a “cottage” when everyone knew it was a beachfront palace on exclusive Whale Head Island in North Carolina. Lola’s husband, Briggs, had made a fortune by investing in a little start- up called the Home Shopping Channel.
“I’ll think about it,” Sara had said, knowing full well that she had no intention of going. She hadn’t even bothered mentioning it to Tom, although she was sure he’d tell her to go ahead, he’d take care of the kids.
The phone rang again. Sara sighed and checked the caller ID. It was an unknown cell number and she frowned, knowing that sometimes Nicky forgot her cell phone and used a friend’s to call home. She hesitated and then sat up to answer it.
“Okay, fly, why are you ducking my calls?” Mel asked. Fly. It was one of the nicknames they’d made up for each other as kids. A fly was someone who ate shit and bothered people.
“I’m not, fly.”
Sara sank down into the tub, flicking the stream of water with her toes. It didn’t matter how many years had passed, it didn’t matter how much heartache and disappointment had passed between them, she would always feel like she was ten years old when she talked to Mel. “I haven’t talked to you in nearly twelve years and the first thing you do is call me a liar.”
“Why is that?” Mel said, lapsing into a Southern accent. “That we haven’t talked in twelve years, I mean.”
“Because you never call me.”
“You never call me.”
“Well, I guess we’re even then.” Sara turned the faucet down to a trickle and sank deeper into the steaming water.
“Hey, I was at the last reunion Lola planned,” Mel said. “The trip to London. The one you never showed up for.”
This was meant to make her feel guilty so Sara ignored it. She could hear loud music in the background, some kind of blues standard. “It’s a little early for happy hour, isn’t it?”
“It’s never too early for happy hour. You used to know that. Before you became a Republican. Before you became a Volvo- driving soccer mom.”
“I would have called you back. Eventually. And don’t call me a soccer mom.”
“I suppose you’ll use them as an excuse to not go on the beach trip. The hubby and kids, I mean.” Mel’s voice had an edge to it despite her attempt at good humor.
“No, it’s not them,” Sara said quickly. “It’s just, I’m really busy at work. I’ve got a big case coming up.” Which was another lie, of course. The partnership had broken up last year and most of her former partners had ended up at various law firms around Atlanta. Sara, though, had decided to drop back to part- time and had taken a job as a child advocate for the Fulton County court system.
“That’s funny,” Mel said. “Lola said you’d left the firm and dropped back to part- time.”
Damn Lola. You never could be sure what she actually picked up when you talked to her. Was it all in one ear and out the other, or did something actually stick? Apparently, Sara’s news about becoming a part- time lawyer had stuck.
“How’s the new book coming along?” Sara asked.
“Don’t change the subject.” Mel had written a series of novels about a tough- talking Staten Island private investigator named Flynn Mendez.
“Did you read the last one, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead ?”
“Actually, I don’t read your novels anymore. I got tired of seeing myself as the villain.”
“Now you’re being paranoid.”
“Maybe you have a guilty conscience.”
Sara pretended she hadn’t heard that last part. Tom’s class ended at 3:30 today so he’d be picking Nicky and Adam up at school and taking them out to dinner. It was her day to do whatever she wanted. She could lie in the bathtub until her skin wrinkled or drink herself into a martini- fueled stupor. Or both.
“Let me guess,” Mel said. “You’re in the bathtub. Mozart is playing on the CD player. There are candles flickering everywhere.”
Sara turned off the water. “Actually, Pachelbel is playing,” she said.
“Mozart comes later.”
“Just like in college. Always using up the hot water so nobody else has a chance to shower.”
“I don’t remember you being all that fond of showers in college.”
“Very funny. So come on. Will you go on the beach trip or will you wuss out like always? You know Lola has a boat. Maybe we can do some deep- sea fishing.” Her voice held a clear challenge. No one had ever accused Mel of being subtle.
Sara put her head back and stared at the ceiling. “I’ll think about it.”
“You’ll think about it? What’s the matter–are you afraid I’ll push you overboard?”
“The thought has occurred to me.”
Mel laughed. “Water under the bridge,” she said.
She was still laughing when she hung up. Outside the window the gray Manhattan skyline rose against a pewter sky. Gray. Everywhere she looked. No wonder depression was rampant in this city. No wonder everyone was in therapy. She went to the kitchen and made herself a shaker of Cosmopolitans, thinking how good it had been to hear Sara’s voice. She had a large circle of friends in New York but there was something special about that childhood best friend, that person who’d known you before you could tie your shoes, who’d suffered with you through the awkward agony of adolescence. They were still friends despite the different paths their lives had taken. Despite everything that had happened between them.
The truth of the matter was, Mel was looking forward to the beach trip. It would be nice to head South again, to be in a place where the sun shone most of the time and life moved as slowly as people talked. She hadn’t been South since her last book tour, and that had been hurried and hectic except for the week she’d spent with Lola in her rambling mansion in Birmingham. The sun and the surf and the slow- moving lifestyle would be good for her depression. It would be just the thing to lift her out of the funk that always befell her when she was between books and between boyfriends.
It would be good to see her roommates again too, the four of them together for the first time in twenty- three years. Four girls who couldn’t have been any more different. Annie, private and reserved, the roommate who’d been most likely to get up in the middle of the night and polish the toaster. And Lola, sweet Lola, who had the bland, pretty face of a doll and a mind to match. Depending on her mood, she could be either charmingly funny or so vague you couldn’t understand a word she said.
And Sara would be there this time. Mel had thrown down the gauntlet and Sara had picked it up, just like when they were kids. Mel grinned, thinking about that.
Stevie Ray Vaughan finished playing on the CD player. She glanced at the clock and then poured herself a Cosmopolitan. She had a date tonight with Jed Ford, an editor at The New Yorker. She had met him a few weeks ago at a Black & White book party at L&M and for a while it had seemed like he might be the man she’d been looking for to fill the void in her love life. But then last night the inevitable had happened, just as it always did when her love life looked like it might be headed for tranquil seas. She had dreamed of J.T. Radford.
The dream contained one of those orgasms that seemed to go on forever. She spent the whole day thinking about it. It was pathetic that her adult life had been spent vainly trying to recapture the intense sexual relationship she’d once shared with her college boyfriend. The J.T. dreams came less frequently now than they used to, but they still left her with a vague sense of longing and regret and the depressing certainty that whoever the man in her life was right now, he could never be J.T. She wondered if he ever dreamed of her.
But this was fruitless thinking, she knew, and dangerous so close to the beach trip. She would make a conscious effort not to think of him again. What was it she had said to Sara?
Water under the bridge.
Annie was down on her hands and knees cleaning the refrigerator grille with a toothbrush. She had told her housecleaner, Waydean, to do it but Waydean was sick and had sent her daughter, Clovis, instead. Waydean had worked for Annie for nearly fifteen years and she knew the way Annie liked things done, but Clovis was always in a hurry and didn’t pay attention to details. And it was the details that mattered most to Annie.
She was down on her knees and elbows with her ass stuck up in the air. She finished the top row of grillwork and then moved on to the second row, trying not to imagine what she must look like in her Ann Taylor suit, Padovan pumps, and rubber gloves, groveling on the floor like a supplicant at the throne of Genghis Khan. She hadn’t planned on cleaning the refrigerator grille. She’d come in from a meeting of her garden club and had noticed a line of hairy dust balls, which Clovis had obviously missed, peeking from beneath the edge of the refrigerator. It had been more than Annie could bear. She put her purse down and went to work. She tried not to imagine what her garden club would say if they could see her now. They had given her the black rubber gloves with the faux diamond ring and the frilly polka-dot fringe that she was wearing as a joke, but she imagined that they wouldn’t laugh if they could see her now. They would just think it was sad.
Annie flushed and wielded her toothbrush with renewed vigor. Why should she have to apologize for liking her life clean and orderly? Why should she feel guilty for preferring routine and discipline?
She had once overheard one of the younger moms at her sons’ school refer to her as that OCD room mother with the two- by- four stuck up her ass. And this simply because Annie had sent home notes asking that all mothers send in homemade treats for snack time and not store- bought, cellophane- wrapped treats loaded with preservatives and carcinogenic food dyes. Also nothing with more than five grams of sugar per serving. Or peanut oil. Or any kind of tropical fruit. Or nuts.
You’d have thought she’d asked for the still- beating hearts of their firstborn children for all the furor it caused. After that the other moms would watch her nervously when she came into the school. They called her Q- Tip. Q- Tip’s in the house, they’d say, giggling, or You better run that by Q- Tip before you hand it out. Although why they called her Q- Tip, Annie was unsure, unless it was because she had short, prematurely white hair and walked with the ramrod-straight posture Southern girls of her generation had been taught to use. Annie was pretty sure the nickname had a lot to do with that woman who’d first called her an OCD room mother. She got even with her. She had her assigned to the calling- for- pledges committee for the annual school fund- raiser.
Annie finished the second row and started in on the third. Mitchell was home recovering from his fifth kidney stone and she could hear him moving around in the den. The boys had always been sweet when they were sick and she had hovered over them anxiously, but Mitchell’s illnesses irritated her beyond words. Especially the kidney stones. There must be something he was eating or drinking, or not eating or drinking, that was causing them. Annie figured anyone else would have gone through that first kidney stone and then figured out some way to keep from getting another one.
She sat back on her heels and looked around the gleaming kitchen. The boys were grown and away at college now, and it was just her and Mitchell rambling around in this big old house, but she wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Her dream house. As a girl she’d grown up in a small cottage in East Nashville, long before the area became fashionable with writers, artists, and musicians. On Sunday afternoons she would go for drives in the country with her parents to see the mansions and sprawling estates of the country- and- western stars, and pointing with a chubby finger she would say gravely, “I’m gonna have me a house like that one day.” Her parents thought it was cute.
And now here she was. True, the house wasn’t as big as their neighbor, Alan Jackson’s, and they only had fifty acres instead of several hundred, but there was a pool out back and a guest house, and more bedrooms than she and Mitchell and the boys had ever needed. Not that they were as wealthy as Lola and Briggs Furman, of course, but their Cluck- in- a- Bucket chicken franchise had done pretty well. They had stores all over the southeast, a Cluck- in- a- Bucket empire stretching from Miami to Little Rock, Arkansas.
No, she’d done pretty well in life for an East Nashville girl. And she’d done it by careful planning and by setting her goals out clearly in front of herself. Once she set her sights on something, Annie never wavered. Except for that one transgression her senior year of college, the one she tried never to think about, she had never been a spontaneous person. At twelve she’d been dragged to a Wednesday night fish fry at church and had listened as a blond- haired, blue- eyed fourteen- year- old named Mitchell Stites belted out “Lord, You Are My Fortress in a Time of Trouble.” The following Wednesday night, she was waiting in the car when her parents came out to drive to church. “Why, Anne Louise,” her mother asked in surprise, “have you found religion?”
“What she’s found,” her father said, winking, “is Preston Stites’s boy.”
“The one with the harelip?”
“No. The other one, who sings in the choir.”
The next week Annie invited him to come over to listen to music. Their house was small and lacked privacy but Mitchell was from a good, Godfearing family so Annie’s mother allowed them to go back to her bedroom and sit with the door open. They each carried a Coke and a plate of cookies. Mitchell sat on the floor and looked around in wonder and amazement at her room. Stiffly starched curtains hung in front of the spotless windows. Jefferson Airplane played on the record player.
“How come all your Barbie dolls are still in their boxes?” he asked. She had them neatly categorized by date of purchase and stacked on shelves beside a couple of open- faced fruit crates she had painted pink. Their tiny clothes were ironed and hanging on tiny hangers, arranged by seasons of the year, with the tiny shoes sorted in rows underneath.
“They stay cleaner that way,” she said.
He smiled and looked at her in wonder and admiration. “You sure are a funny girl. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you.”
“You’ll need a coaster for that drink,” she said.
Annie finished cleaning the refrigerator grille and then sat back to admire her handiwork, pulling off her rubber gloves. The grille sparkled. You could lick it, not that she would, of course, but it was comforting to know that she could. If she had to.
She could hear Mitchell breathing in the den. With each out breath he wheezed like an old generator. Not that he was in any pain; he’d taken enough OxyContin to bring down an elephant. He just liked the drama of being an invalid.
“Hon?” he called. When she didn’t answer he said louder, “Honey, can you make me a sandwich?”
“I’m busy right now. I’m cleaning the kitchen.”
“You cleaned the kitchen an hour ago.”
“Okay,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll just come in there and make myself a sandwich. I’ll just come in there and make my own big mess.”
Annie stood up quickly. “I’ll get it,” she shouted. “Don’t you dare come near my clean kitchen.” She could feel him smiling from the other room. Damn. She needed a break. She needed to get away from her life if only for a week. This beach trip would be just the thing. And she was looking forward to seeing Lola, Mel, and Sara again, to being with friends who knew her from before her Q- Tip days. Lola had promised Annie her own bedroom, and Annie had eagerly jumped at the chance. She and Lola had shared a room in London, and Annie had felt like she was babysitting a small child, one who wanted to chat all night, sleep all day, and couldn’t keep to a schedule if her life depended on it.
Forget London. This trip would be different. She had bought two new swimsuits and several trashy beach novels, had undergone a bikini wax, and had had herself sprayed with a fake tan.
Anne Louise was ready for anything.
Lola awoke from an Ambien- induced sleep. The room was dark. Her head felt thick and swollen, like it was too heavy for her neck. She would stop taking the sleeping pills no matter what Briggs said. She hated the way they made her feel, comatose and heavy, the way she couldn’t dream, as though sleep were a thing to be endured and not a release. She never took sleeping pills when she was with him. She never took any of her medication when she was with him. Briggs kept her as drugged up as a Saigon brothel girl but he never made her take anything.
She leaned over and pushed the button beside the bed and the automatic window blinds rose slowly. Bright sunshine flooded the room. She plumped the pillows behind her head and sat up slowly, letting her brain adjust to the new elevation, letting her eyes adjust to the light. Briggs’s side of the king- size bed was still rumpled where he had slept. He was an early riser. Early to bed and early to rise. No sleeping pills for Briggs.
There was a slight knock on the door and Rosa entered, carrying a small coffee service on a silver tray.
“Good morning, Meesis Furman,” she said, smiling and setting the tray down on a table beside the bed.
“Good morning, Rosa.” The girl’s aura was lovely, all pink and golden and standing out around her head like a halo, like a painting of some fifteenth- century saint. She had a Madonna’s face and an aura to match.
“Did you sleep well?”
The girl blushed but her eyes met Lola’s steadily. “Yes,” she said. “And I lock the door like you tell me to.”
“Good.” Lola smiled faintly and poured herself a cup of coffee. Briggs had a bad habit of abusing the help, especially those as young and pretty as Rosa, and Lola had given her a can of mace and had the deadbolt changed on her door the day she hired her. She had warned Briggs, too, and he had laughed and said, “What are you implying, my dear?” Lola had thought it was pretty clear what she was implying.
She lay back on her pillows with the coffee cup and saucer resting on her chest. Rosa went around the bed and began to smooth the sheets where Briggs had slept. “Meester Henry, he looked good,” she said.
“Yes,” Lola said, thinking of her only son with pleasure. He had come home from Cornell last week and brought with him the girl he planned to marry. Neither one had said a word but she had seen it in their faces, in the way their auras flared and flickered toward each other, drawn like smoke through a window. It had made her feel peaceful knowing that he loved someone else, that he no longer needed her.
She sipped her coffee and watched Rosa work. “You have a lovely aura,” she said. Rosa frowned slightly but kept working. She was used to Lola’s ways. It was the oxazepam that had first given Lola the ability to see auras, but now she could see them without the drugs. It was how she read people, how she knew whether their characters and intentions were good or bad. She wished she’d been able to do this as a young woman. It would have saved her a lot of heartache.
“Carmen thought she would make a shrimp salad for lunch,” Rosa said.
“Yes. Shrimp salad will be fine.” Briggs’s aura was dark. His whole energy field was dotted with thick black masses like tumors.
“Your husband, did you ever love him?” he’d asked her a few weeks ago. She’d looked up into his face and smiled. “It’s complicated,” she’d said.
“It shouldn’t be.”
Thinking of him, she was suddenly cheerful. Too cheerful to contain what she felt. Joy bubbled up from her toes to her fingertips, and she put her coffee cup down and flung open her arms exuberantly, wiggling her fingers. “Oh, Rosa,” she cried. “I’m so happy!”
Rosa, who was accustomed to Lola’s dramatic mood swings, came around the edge of the bed and hugged her. She patted Lola on the back.
“Good,” she said.
Lola hugged her fiercely. She was deliriously happy. In another week she would see her friends and everything would be wonderful, the four of them laughing and carrying on like crazy women, like they had in college, together again for one last time.
“Meester Furman, he say he’ll be back in a few days. He flew to the island to make sure the house and the boat are ready for your trip.”
Lola pulled away. She smoothed her hair off her brow and stared at Rosa. “What?” she asked.
“He say for you not to worry. He say he’ll take care of everything. Just like always.”
The day, which had seemed so joyous just a few short minutes ago, became suddenly ominous. Shadows moved across the ceiling like rain. Lola put her hand to her face and lay back against the pillows. Rosa rose and tucked the bedclothes around her.
“You want to get up now, Meesis Furman?” Rosa’s aura flared around her head like a corona. Lola closed her eyes against its brightness.
“No.” The joy had gone, leaving in its place a dull feeling of dread. Lola tried to decide what to do but her head felt heavy. She couldn’t think clearly. They had agreed not to use the cell phones for a while. She could leave a message for him at the marina, warning him, but he might not get it for days. Lola turned her face to the window. “I’m tired,” she said. She covered her eyes with her hand. “And Rosa?”
“Push the button for the blinds, will you?”