Almost fifteen years ago, Lane bought a lake resort with her sister, Elsa. It was a wild thing to do. It was the sort of thing you did when the world was blaring around you, when everything seemed too real and impossible anyway and danger was familiar enough that you were tired of being afraid of it. Maybe some people would do drugs or cut off all their hair or go out dancing and bring home a stranger. Lane took out an enormous loan and bought a row of housekeeping cottages on 400 feet of lakeshore.
Lane had gotten married young, to some guy she had dated all through high school. Elsa was older, Elsa had warned her. But Elsa had still been there at the courthouse when they married. And she was there when it was all over four years later. “Well, that’s that,” Elsa had said when she picked Lane up. She was not being sarcastic, she was just stating the fact. Lane hadn’t been able to say anything in response. She hadn’t said anything for the last three days, she hadn’t slept or taken off her sunglasses. Sometimes you could see to the bottom of things and then all you knew was that you were going to die, that the world was not what you thought and it didn’t matter: you were going to lose it anyway.
Elsa drove the car up to Wisconsin, all the way to the peninsula. She drove them along the entire length of it, the water right beside them the whole time. The water was sometimes green-blue, like the color of a tea cup Lane remembered from her grandmother’s house. Sometimes it was gray, nearly black, shining, and sometimes it was so pale at the horizon you couldn’t tell it from the sky. It was all those different colors in a matter of hours, depending on where the sun was and how thick the clouds. They started out in the morning when the sunlight was cool and when Elsa turned the car around to drive back down the coast, there was a giant harvest moon low in the sky. It was luminous, orange at first and then yellow, then white. It seemed to follow over them like a living creature, like some cross between a spotlight and a stray dog. Lane kept looking up at it, thinking surely it understood this.
The thing she loved most about Elsa was that she hadn’t said more than a word the whole time. They just drove. They did not even turn on the radio. Only occasionally would Elsa talk to other drivers. “Look, buddy, I’m over here,” she would say. “See? And you’re over there. You’re going to stay there because I’m going to pass you.” Lane had said something then, she had said, “Maybe that guy needs a boundaries workshop.” Elsa had laughed. She believed in therapy. Lane had wanted to laugh too, but she really couldn’t. She felt happy though, to make someone else laugh. It seemed like a long time since she had done it. When they got back down to the northern end of the peninsula, it was very dark and she felt better; somehow the two things were connected in her mind. Tonight she could sleep and when she woke up, everything would be restarted, some new everything.
When they got into the hotel room Elsa looked at Lane’s face. She caught Lane right as she was coming out of the bathroom, the glasses off, the make-up washed away. She stood in front of Lane with her hands covering her mouth.
“You should see the other guy,” Lane said after a moment.
Elsa shook her head.
“Don’t do that,” Lane said, stepping around her sister. “It’s over now. Just laugh at my stupid joke.”
“Goddamn you sometimes,” Elsa said, turning around to look at her.
Lane got into bed. She said, “That’s better.”
They ate breakfast at an old candy store that had been turned into a fancy market for tourists. Then they walked straight out of town, past the golf course, and down a gravel road. As they walked Lane kept remembering that there was nothing left to worry about. Her job at the medical office, her husband, the friends she had known with him, they were all gone; it was all of them she had left and they were far away already—as if they had never existed. It didn’t occur to her to worry about what she was going to do now.
The road was canopied by trees and brush and the only thing showing at the end was water and sky. Once they passed a clearing, an old piece of farmland going back to being wild. The whole field was grass and trees just beginning to seem like trees, everything was yellow and green and straw except for a blooming rose bush growing right in the middle of things. Lane and Elsa stood there and looked at it until a horse fly found them and they got annoyed. They started running to try and escape it. Lane closed her eyes and really ran and when she opened them again Elsa wasn’t beside her anymore. She had a flash of panic, a feeling of shame, as if her sister were a child and she had lost her in a city. She turned to look back and Elsa was bent at the waist, her hands on her knees, looking at something on the ground. Lane jogged back to her, feeling the same wash of relief she had felt at least thirty times that day already.
“It’s a mood ring,” Elsa said picking it up. She put it on her thumb and it turned blue immediately. “Huh,” she said.
“Is that the good one or the bad one?”
“I don’t remember. I always tried to get mine to the middle.”
“To green,” Lane said, remembering too.
“The best color.” Elsa took the ring off her finger and blew on it. It turned black.
“Maybe it’s broken,” Lane said.
“Or I am,” Elsa said and laughed at her own joke. She flapped her hand in the air and put the ring on again.
The closer they got to the end of the road, the more it looked like they were headed for a public beach, a boat launch or a pier. But when they reached the end they saw that they were wrong. The place appeared suddenly, at the abrupt ending of the trees. You never would have known it was there at all. Seven white cottages with green shutters were lined up to face the lake and at the end of the line, closest the road, there was a white house, maybe twice the size of the largest cottage. It had a sign hanging from its porch; all it said was Lake Resort, in black capital letters. Whoever made that sign was not interested in fooling around. In front of the house, turned to face the road, was a for sale sign. Lane walked onto the grass and stepped past the sign. She looked out at the place. The lawn between the cottages and the water was broad and almost rolling. At other end of it was a large flower garden and behind that a small grove of old cedar trees, ragged at the edge of the water.
Elsa didn’t need much convincing. She had been talking for a while about starting a business with the money she’d gotten from her divorce settlement a few years ago. She was the one who dismissed Lane’s fears about the price. “A million dollars isn’t what it used to be,” she said. It occurred to Lane then that her sister would be an excellent business person, good at marketing and judging the worth of things, making people pay up. And this had turned out to be the truth. Elsa was good with the books; she was good with strategy. There was this part of her that always surprised Lane, something about her that seemed like kindness, but was really nothing more than plainness and honesty. Even when Lane was a teenager and Elsa was in college, Elsa would come home on breaks and harp on various philosophical topics. She would get off on a rant and say stuff like, “Nice and good aren’t the same. Actually, the Greek etymology of ‘nice’ is foolish,” and everyone around would look away and roll their eyes, trying not to giggle. Elsa and Lane’s husband would get into arguments about this sort of thing. He would take the opposing stance, no matter the issue. He would say stuff like, “Society won’t work if people aren’t nice,” or “Why do you always have to divide people into ‘good’ and ‘bad?’ That’s so judgmental.” It was strange to remember him. He had disappeared from her mind so completely that when he played an arbitrary role in some necessary memory, she was stunned to find him there at all. Oh, that’s right, him, and then he would be gone again. He would be washed out by the green of the grass, the blue of the water.
The first couple of years at the resort were a blur. They painted signs for the gravel road and tacked up brochures at businesses in Bailey’s Harbor. They redecorated the cottages and their own house. They bought croquet sets and beach balls and new lawn chairs. They became members of the Chamber of Commerce. They baked cookies for what few guests there were and drank Bloody Marys with them on the beach. Every night they ate dinner sitting on the dock and most days they went out in a row boat. Elsa wanted to learn how to row and Lane was trying to teach her. “It’s just a backwards circle, half in the air and half in the water.”
Elsa tried it. Her concentration was immense. She looked like she was going to bite through her lip. “This is ridiculous,” she said after a while, as the boat started turning in a slow circle, floating on the slight wake of a motor boat long gone.
“Haven’t you ever used that machine at the gym?” Lane said.
“Yes,” Elsa said. “That machine is nothing like this. This is ridiculous.” The oars skimmed the water and splashed them both.
“Here,” Lane said. “Stand up.” Elsa stood up and almost tipped over the boat. She held on to Lane’s arm. She clutched it. She held on to Lane’s shoulder as Lane sat down in her place, leaning back, spreading her legs. “Okay, now you sit down here.” She pointed to the bench in front of her.
“You’re sitting there,” Elsa said.
Lane scooted back a little farther. She touched the bench between her legs. “Right here.”
Elsa sat down. “This hurts my butt,” she said.
“It hurt my butt too, but do you want to learn to row or not? Hold the oars.” Elsa took the oars and Lane put her hands over Elsa’s hands. She started rowing.
“I feel like you’re some creepy tennis instructor,” Elsa said. “Remember that one guy. With the blue shorts, the little ones? With the horrible voice.”
“There you go,” she said, trying to channel the voice of that tennis instructor. “That’s it. Good girl. Yeah, right there.”
“Okay, enough,” Elsa said, she stood up, laughing. “Now I feel like you’re trying to teach me how to masturbate.”
“Jesus, Elsa,” Lane said. She tried to pretend to be disgusted but she was laughing too hard. “I taught you how to do that a long time ago,” she could barely get the words out.
A voice called to them from the shore. It was strange how far, how loud everything carried. “Hello?” the voice said. Elsa jumped and almost tipped the boat again, she sat down in Lane’s seat and Lane started rowing for the shore. It was Mr. Ramsey from number 7. You could see everything so clearly, you could read the logo on his t-shirt. Their weird little life was all there, looking like a post card. Except for Mr. Ramsey, who had started waving his arms. “We’re coming,” Elsa called. Her voice echoed. She put her hand over her mouth. “He probably heard all of our jokes,” she whispered.
“They were your jokes,” Lane whispered back.
Elsa made a face at her and then turned back to Mr. Ramsey. “What’s the matter?” she yelled.
“My toilet’s clogged,” he yelled back.
“There’s a plunger located directly under your sink,” Elsa replied immediately.
“Oh,” Mr. Ramsey said. His shoulders seemed to fall a little. “Okay.” He stood looking at them for another moment and then called “Thanks,” just before he turned away.
“They don’t call them housekeeping cottages for nothing,” Elsa said under her breath and Lane laughed so hard she had to stop rowing and float for a while.
Things went on like that, mostly good. There were bad times. Times when nobody came or, worse, times when everybody came and it rained all week. The guests seemed to hold you responsible for this or take it personally, as if you’d chosen that week specifically for them. The work was constant in the summer and the winters were slow and quiet—if you had the money you could have done whatever you wanted. But their taxes were more than their accountant had anticipated and they barely paid the bills those first two years. So they advertised more. They courted reviewers from all the guidebooks. They made a website. They sent Christmas cards to their guests from the summer before. Elsa insisted on handwriting them, adding a little message that said, “Hope to see you this summer!” Some of them actually came back.
Lane met Paul at the resort. When guests first met her they were often surprised; sometimes they mistook her for hired help. Lane didn’t know what it was about her that made her seem so out of place, maybe she seemed too young to be tied down in such an elaborate way. When she told them who she was they would say, “Oh, you’re the owner,” and turn red or laugh. “My sister and I,” she would answer or sometimes, “I’m not the owner, I’m just the one who pays.” But Paul hadn’t said anything like that. He had only said, “God, you have the most gorgeous place,” and stopped to take his shoes off as they walked across the grass. One of his socks had a hole in it, a huge hole right at the big toe. He must have forgotten the hole had ever existed because he seemed genuinely surprised to see it there. “Oh,” he said and then he looked up at her, “there’s my toe.” He lifted his foot to show her. She laughed and said, “I hate that,” but she also thought he was a bit ridiculous.
Maybe it was the place he had fallen in love with. Maybe she had fallen in love with him because he loved the place as much as she did. On the night he arrived, she walked out to the dock farthest from her house, at the end of the row of cottages, just past the cedar trees. She always went to that dock; its view was the best, the most complete. It was also the dock least likely to be visited by guests. She walked out to the end and sat down on the edge of it, her legs dangling just above the water. The water was smooth and silent and sitting on that dock felt like being suspended above the end of the earth. It felt like being connected to enormity itself. She could imagine what it was like when nobody lived here, when nobody lived anywhere.
The sky was full of stars and the longer you looked up at it, the more you saw. There was the Milky Way, there was Orion, there was one she didn’t know the name of. She sat at the end of the dock until she got cold and then she stood up and moved a little closer to the shore. When she turned around, she saw him sitting in an Adirondack chair at the edge of the water. He had a glass in his hand. She nodded at him and he nodded back, but that was all. She had no idea how long he had been there. She wondered if he had been there when she walked out in the beginning. Now she tried to ignore him though she knew it would be impossible. The only thing to do was wait a few minutes, so he wouldn’t think she was leaving because she’d seen him, and go inside. She lay down on her back in the middle of the dock, just as she would have if he hadn’t been there. She looked up at the stars and after a while she knew that he was gone; she didn’t feel his presence intruding. She stayed out on the dock until she got too cold to stand it because this was the sort of thing she found difficult to step away from; it felt like a waste. When she stood up she saw that he was still there and she walked down the dock quickly, not even pausing to say hello, only whispering hello as she went by. “Evening,” he whispered back.
He seemed to want to spend his entire vacation helping her with the work. He would appear from time to time and start doing whatever she was doing, striking up some tiny conversation. “Do you ever order those big bags of ladybugs?” he asked once. Yes she did. She loved them. She would open the bag and stick her hand in and let the bugs crawl all over it while her sister, Elsa, looked on shrieking. When she told him that, he said, “Gross.” It didn’t seem so strange when he helped her fix a dock that was starting to drift, but when he was cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors she felt a little funny. She said, “You know, this isn’t a Siberian resort.” He had laughed. Paul had come back three times that summer. He stayed two weeks in the fall. In the winter when things were slow at the resort, she visited him in St. Louis.
That night Lane saw him out by the dock she told her sister, “The guy in three is kind of strange, huh?”
“He’s in love with you,” Elsa replied.
“No,” Lane said. “Maybe he’s interested in me, but he’s not in love.”
Elsa shrugged. “Well if he’s interested in you, he’ll be in love with you soon enough.”
Lane had kissed her sister on the cheek then and they watched part of some old movie starring Humphrey Bogart. They turned it off when he appeared in a sailor suit holding a broken bottle. “He was kind of an ass,” Elsa said.
The next time Paul came back, Elsa seemed glad. They joked about the color Elsa had painted the kitchen. It was called cheesecake. “Isn’t cheesecake white?” Lane asked, glancing at Elsa and then at Paul. They both laughed and looked at each other like they knew something about Lane that she didn’t know about herself. “Hey,” she said like she was almost mad, but she didn’t feel mad; she felt how they both loved her. “Between yellow and white,” she said and then added, “you jerks.”
At dinner, Elsa asked questions about Paul’s job at the research lab in St. Louis. “You probably get a lot of hate mail from PETA,” she said.
Paul laughed and shook his head. “I do in vitro.”
Elsa made a face. “Test tubes.” she said.
He nodded. “I used to work with rats, but it was just too sad. You feel like a Nazi at first, but then it gets worse,” he said. “After awhile you stop caring about the rats and just start to feel like you’re going to catch something.”
“Then you, like, really are a Nazi,” Elsa said.
“Exactly,” Paul said and he looked happy.
Lane knew it wasn’t that Elsa didn’t like Paul or that she didn’t want Lane and Paul to be happy together. Maybe it was just that, when Paul arrived on the scene, their weird little life became two separate things quite instantly. Paul’s presence made Lane’s life a little less weird. Maybe it made Elsa’s life feel even weirder.
When Lane decided to go to St. Louis for the week, Elsa seemed concerned. She was getting ready to go cross country skiing with their only neighbor, Harold Wall. He was some kind of ghost writer. “Isn’t St. Louis the murder capital of the world?”
“I think that’s New Orleans,” Lane said.
“Whatever,” Elsa said, “Just be careful. Don’t let him hit you.”
“What did you say?” Lane felt like she couldn’t blink her eyes.
Elsa wrapped her scarf around her neck one more time. “You heard me,” she said.
Lane left without saying goodbye.
When Paul quit his job and came to live at the resort, everything went wrong. Lane and Elsa had discussed it all beforehand. Elsa had said oh that’s fine, just fine, plenty of room in the house for everyone. But at dinner that first night, Elsa seemed frozen and uncomfortable, she spoke softly when she spoke at all. After dinner, she went out for a walk and Lane didn’t see her again that night; she must have slipped into the house and gone straight to bed.
“Maybe I should go,” Paul said. “Maybe I should rent a house in town.”
“No,” Lane said. “She said she was okay. We discussed it.”
“It must be a big adjustment.”
Lane shook her head. “She’s my sister. This is where we live. She’s turning herself into an old maid.”
Apparently, Elsa had canceled all the reservations in cottage one without telling Lane, because the next morning Lane saw her rolling one of her suitcases across the lawn. The wheels made long ruts in the grass and Lane caught herself worrying it would die.
“There is plenty of room for all of us,” Lane told her, running to catch up. But she held the cottage door open as Elsa lifted her suitcase onto the stoop. “You don’t want to live in one of these cottages, do you?”
“I do,” she said. “This is my favorite cottage.” Elsa smiled at her.
“You hate this cottage.”
“I hate to clean it. I never said I hate to live in it.”
After that, Lane could never get Elsa to talk about any of it. “I know this must be really weird for you,” Lane said once when they were out in the row boat.
“What’s weird for me?” Elsa said.
Lane shook her head and rowed back toward the shore. They never once argued about Paul or the marriage, they never even mentioned it. After that, it was just like they weren’t even sisters, like they’d never been close. It was like Lane had betrayed her. Had Lane betrayed her? Was it ridiculous for Lane to think she would just stay here? She started treating Elsa like a guest. She didn’t know how else to treat her.
When the winter came, Elsa moved to Madison. “I’m tired of this,” Elsa said. “I want to open a tea shop.”
Lane hadn’t ever heard Elsa mention a tea shop before. She shook her head.
“I want to make some money,” Elsa said.
“Yeah,” Lane said. “The real money’s in tea.”
Elsa shrugged. “Well, we know it’s not in lake resorts. We can check that one off the list.”
Lane cried for weeks after Elsa left. Paul kept saying, “I’m sorry. It must have been an enormous adjustment.”
“Not that enormous,” she said when she finally stopped crying. She wrote Elsa a letter. Elsa didn’t answer, but at Christmas she sent a card, a special thing with old fashioned glitter snow of an ice blue color. Lane thought it was beautiful and she kept it on her desk all year. She even caught herself thinking about having it framed, hanging up in the downstairs bathroom. The glitter would bring out the blue undertone in the wallpaper and the blue ribbon that edged the best towels. And so they sent things, taking turns. Once Elsa sent Lane a package on her own birthday: homemade cupcakes accompanied by a tub of grocery store icing. The tub had a note taped to it which asked, “What are you up to?” This was followed by a tiny drawing of a heart and the letter E. There was nothing else in the box. Lane sent her sister postcards from other tourist places in the town: the candy store market and the drive-in theater. She wrote things like, “Thinking of you,” and “Hope you are enjoying Madison.” But she wished she could writer other things. Once she tried; she wrote, “Hey you. I’m still here (Come visit),” but she knew that Elsa wouldn’t come visit and she didn’t know what it would be like if she did.
They never really responded to each other. Every time Lane got something in the mail from her sister she felt glad, but the gladness became confusion and the confusion became anger. She still didn’t know how all this had happened. She’d think about what Elsa had sent— how to respond, what to send in return—for months, until she had nearly forgotten what it was she was responding to. And then, in a panic, feeling it was almost too late, she would send her sister the most extravagant card she could find, or the postcard Lane knew she’d like best, or a book or a scarf or a cake, anything she could think of, only hoping that there was still something strong between them. Something she could save.
“Do you ever think about something else?” Paul was lying on his side, behind her with his arm around her waist. The way he said it, she knew it was a question he didn’t mean to ask, it had just come out, unavoidable.
She didn’t wonder what he meant. She knew. He didn’t mean, do you ever wish you were sleeping with someone else or that you were someone else. He meant do you ever think about selling the place, do you ever wish you had a different life. “No,” she said because she didn’t. She never wished for a different life. She sat up and looked at him.
“No,” he said as she sat up. He lifted his head off the pillow and dropped it down again. “I was just asking.”
“Well, do you?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“What do you mean, yeah?”
He laughed. “I mean yeah. I don’t know. I think that’s normal.”
“That people don’t always like their lives. It doesn’t mean that any other life would actually be better.”
“Why are you asking that now?”
“I don’t know.”
She sat up again and turned around to face him. “You do too. You don’t like your life right now.”
“And you’re saying you never feel like that?” He leaned on his elbow and traced the pattern on the sheet. Thin straight lines. Pin stripes.
“I start to feel like that by the end of the summer, just when fall comes and everything changes. By the time I’m bored with fall, winter’s here and everything’s different again. It’s not that I never think of anything else. It’s just that anything else would be impossible.”
“Because that’s the way it is.”
“That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
She lay down again, took his arm and wrapped it around her waist again. “I don’t know that I can explain it,” she said and she almost felt like that was that.
“Because of Elsa,” he said and it was not really an accusation, but she felt the way she did at a doctor’s office, sitting on a cold table in one of those paper gowns. Because of Elsa, she wanted to say, but it seemed so obvious, so transparent. She didn’t answer him.
The room was quiet but neither of them were sleeping. Sometimes you could hear a boat knocking against a dock. His arm started to feel heavy. She tried not to think of Elsa. She tried to think of him, of what it was, why this would be on his mind now.
“This lab in Omaha offered me a grant,” he said after a while.
That was why.
A few days later, Lane and Paul were weeding the big flower garden. Usually Lane did this by herself. Over the years business had picked up significantly and there wasn’t time for both of them to hang around, doing things together. They each did the jobs they liked best and the jobs the other one couldn’t stand. That’s how they divided it up. Paul usually mended screen doors and washed the floors in the cottages, repaired docks and hauled garbage, but, lately, since that talk about Omaha, he had been wandering around behind her again, helping her with whatever she was doing. He felt guilty, she could tell. And why shouldn’t he feel guilty? She felt guilty too. She started to feel like the whole thing had already been decided. That their life had split into two, that he was going to Omaha and she could come if she wanted. But the reverse was true also, she was staying here and he could stay if he chose to. They were both to blame, there was no possibility of winning. He had signed up for this, though, from the beginning. Nobody had ever mentioned anything about Omaha.
She was standing in the center of the garden, between the daylilies and the irises. The wind was blowing, waving the daylilies back and forth, and the orange petals of one of them kept brushing against her leg. It felt like skin might have felt if it wasn’t connected to anything, soft and strange. It gave her the creeps and she had to get out of the garden; she stepped around the plants and came out onto the grass next to him. “I hate daylilies,” she said. She looked at him.
He stood up, brushed off his hands. “Yeah, I always wondered about that. What your deal was with all these daylilies.”
“They were here when I bought the place. They never seem to die.”
“They’re not very pretty.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Flowers are supposed to be pretty, right?”
“I’d say so.”
She dug her toes into the grass. This place had the softest grass she had ever stepped on, she pulled on it with her toes and she could feel the thin roots ripping. His baseball cap was turned to one side and on him there was no way it could look intentional. It looked like someone had thrown the hat at him and through some strange coincidence it had landed on his head. It was kind of perfect, actually. He looked perfect. She kept looking at him and after a moment he moved the hat. He took it off and put it back on again, this time carefully, firmly, the way people tie roller skates.
“I liked it the way it was,” she said and part of her was about ready to start crying.
“Really?” he said. “I thought you didn’t like it. I thought that’s why you were looking at me like that.”
She shook her head. She took off her glove and touched the pale side of his arm. Slipped her hand up to the inside of his elbow. He took her hand, but it was uncomfortable. She could see that he understood how she was asking for something, but he didn’t know what. She didn’t know what either. She pulled away and stepped back into the garden.
“What if we had a baby?” she asked him after a while. She was pretty sure the idea appealed to him.
He stood up straight. “In Omaha?”
She shrugged. “Or here.”
“Do you want to have a baby?” He was holding up a tiny clump of roots and dirt and green.
“That’s not the kind of question you can just answer,” she said.
He laughed. “Whatever,” he said. “That means you don’t want to have a baby. Especially not in Omaha.”
She ignored this, kept weeding, and accidentally pulled up a daylily that wasn’t blooming. She swore and said, “Now I’m pulling flowers.” She held up the plant for him to see. It was long, like some kind of reed that might grow in the water. Its roots were brown. They looked like tiny tree roots.
“It’s like a Freudian slip or something. Maybe we should just pull them all out. Plant something different.”
She stood up straight and looked at him. Maybe he was totally crazy. “No. That would leave a big hole. We need something tall there.”
He shrugged and went right back to weeding as if now he had a passion for it. He started to whistle. That really bothered her. How could you whistle now? She dropped her gloves in the garden and walked away. The grass in the shade was cool on her feet and after she passed through the shade she stopped and stood in the warmer grass. She looked up at the sky, which was so incredibly blue, and the sunlight was coming down the way it does in postcard photographs. The tops of the trees were shaking in the wind and they were really beautiful, the way they twined together and pulled apart. There were moments like this that hit her, just out of nowhere, and reminded her why she had wanted to do this in the first place: buy this silly resort, this row of cottages on 400 feet of lakeshore in a part of Wisconsin where they would always make enough money to live, but never enough money to do anything else—not to take real vacations of their own, not to buy new cars, not to retire. But it was such a nice dream, even now, and on a day like this there was no way you could deny it.
“Lane,” he called then. “What about hollyhocks?”
She walked back over to him. Hollyhocks would work just fine.
After that Lane started to panic. She couldn’t think about leaving the resort. When she tried to, her mind went back to the place she’d come here to escape and she had to start moving. She ripped all of the daylilies up, planted the hollyhocks, sanded the docks, starting drawing up plans for a gazebo near the edge of the water. “We could build a new cottage,” she told Paul when they were lying in bed one night. “We could put in better trails through the woods, for people who like to hike. Why couldn’t you work in a lab in Oconomowoc?” She didn’t mean for this last part to come out, she meant to say that other stuff instead, not in addition to. She rolled over to get away from him, didn’t wait for him to answer her. She closed her eyes and tried to convince herself that they were both asleep.
He put his arms around her. “There aren’t any labs in Oconomowoc.”
“Have you checked?” she asked him, rolling over again to face him.
“Well, no, but I just know—there aren’t any labs in Oconomowoc.”
“But you haven’t actually checked so you don’t really know,” she said. She knew she sounded bitter. She lay there, thinking about the sounds of the lake. What did other people hear when they were falling asleep?
“You should take a vacation,” he said, wherever he was, in the darkness. “You should go somewhere else. You haven’t been anywhere else in a long time.”
It was true. They had gone to Chicago for their anniversary a few years ago. They’d spent a weekend in Florida the winter before last. That was all.
“I don’t want to go to Omaha,” she said then.
“I know,” he said and started laughing. “I really do.”
Lane laughed, too. “Don’t laugh at me,” she said and then she found his arm and squeezed it.
At first Paul laughed more, but then he said, “Hey, that hurts,” and the room got quiet for a long time. She thought he had fallen asleep. The boats creaked and the water sloshed against the docks. The wind seemed to call her, tonight saying something in particular. Her mind drifted far from her and she couldn’t tell the difference between awake and dreaming. Out of nowhere Paul said, “You should go see your sister.” It made her jump. All she could say was, “God, you scared me.”
So Lane went to see her sister. She drove to Madison on a Sunday afternoon, straight to the teashop. The whole drive there she kept trying to keep her expectations realistic. She tried not to worry that Elsa wouldn’t want to see her. She told herself that Elsa probably would not want to see her. She just tried to imagine what Elsa would look like now. She would be pale. She would wear a flowered apron, one of those retro aprons everyone was selling. Elsa didn’t like printed fabrics though. Maybe she would have a solid-colored apron. A plain white apron with her strings crossed around her waist twice. Once in front and once behind. That was the sort of apron Lane imagined real bakers, French bakers, wore. But, she reminded herself, Elsa didn’t open up a bakery. She opened a tea shop. Maybe she didn’t even wear an apron.
The display in the window of the tea shop was gorgeous. Lane drove by it and knew immediately that this was Elsa’s place. It was an old fashioned shop window and its false bottom was covered in piles of white feathers, like someone had cut open a pillow. A giant teapot sat on a mound of them. It was very round and smooth looking, painted a pale yellow with white trim. The porcelain was matte like a tightly woven piece of fabric or the surface of an old photograph. The spout curved like a hook and the handle was exaggerated, seemed almost the size of the pot itself. Above the teapot hung small purple birds. Their bodies were lavender feathers and their wings were covered in indigo glitter. They had false blue eyes and bright orange beaks and they swung on their invisible strings whenever the door opened.
A woman about her age went into the shop and Lane followed her. The inside extended the theme of the window. There were birds hanging from the ceiling: blue birds, yellow canaries, love birds, drab purple martins. Lane thought the bird thing could have gotten out of hand. If you hung too many birds they would all swing in opposite directions at the same time, it would look like birds attacking. But Elsa had placed the birds thoughtfully, there weren’t too many. The effect was charming. The floor was covered in black and white tile and there were café tables placed carefully here and there. Lane walked up to the counter and saw her sister sitting in a folding chair just behind the pastry case. She was asleep. The woman who’d come in ahead of Lane reached around the case, tapped Elsa’s shoulder, and then deftly pulled her arm away and straightened up.
“She does this all the time,” the woman said softly to Lane. “She sleeps sometimes in the afternoon.”
“Why?” Lane asked.
The woman shrugged. “She must be tired. Nobody seems to mind.”
The woman felt compelled to add, “I think she’s from the North East or somewhere.”
Lane nodded again. She saw the tiny flutter of Elsa’s eyelids. She saw Elsa sit up straight and run her hands over her hair before she sprang to life.
“Oh my God, Terry, I can’t believe I did it again. I should have opened a coffee shop.”
The woman ahead of Lane giggled. She ordered a specific combination of tea, smoke road and rose hips, Lane thought she said. Elsa folded up the chair and fixed the tea quickly, slipping from one place to another, getting this little jar here, this cup there, this spoon from over that way. She was wearing a white half apron with an appliqué strawberry on its pocket.
Elsa brought the tea over to the counter and said, “You saw me asleep, you get your tea free. That’s the deal here.”
“Oh, no,” the woman said. “I’d be asleep too.” She held out a twenty.
“No way,” Elsa said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The woman giggled again and dropped the twenty into the tip jar. Then she waved goodbye.
Lane stepped closer to the counter. Elsa and Lane stood looking at each other. Elsa waited for the door to shut behind the woman and then she lowered her eyes to the jar. She smiled. “Keep the change,” she said.
“That’s your sting?”
Elsa made a face. “Come on. Just because I know it might happen, doesn’t mean it’s my fault if it does.”
Lane tried to think whether or not that made any sense. Whether it was supposed to be some kind of comment on their situation, some kind of jab. She tried to think about it, but found she had already forgotten the all words, couldn’t even remember now what Elsa had said.
“This is a great place,” Lane said. “It’s darling.”
“Thanks,” Elsa said, leaning against the counter. “You look wonderful. So tan.”
“Well, you remember how it is. It’s like being a day laborer.”
Elsa smiled. “Yeah,” she said. “I remember.”
Not even six months later, Lane stumbled on an article about Elsa’s tea shop in Travel magazine. They had done a feature on Madison. Elsa was there, standing beside her shop window in a blue dress and that white apron with the strawberry on the pocket. She was smiling and the sunlight was pouring down on her face. She looked beautiful and glowing.
The next time Lane and Paul were in Madison, they stopped by the famous tea shop to see Elsa, but the place was empty. The windows were covered in newspaper. There was no for sale sign and Lane told Paul she would have put a little money on Elsa not having sold the shop at all. “She’ll just keep it up her sleeve,” Lane said.
When they finally decided to leave the resort, Lane still couldn’t sell it. She hired a caretaker, a young woman named Mikila. She was Russian. She looked to Lane like a gypsy, if only because she wore a silk scarf around her hair when she was cleaning. That’s a stereotype, Elsa would have said, and in her mind Lane said something to excuse herself.
Lane gave Mikila a picture of her sister. If you ever see a woman who looks like this walking down the road, you let me know. Mikila nodded gravely, like she understood completely, and Lane figured she probably did.