Elizabeth Wagner

Lake Resort

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.

Elsa cack­led.

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.”
“What’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.”

Why 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.”

Lane nod­ded.

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.