The squeal of the old wooden chair under her grandmother’s weight as she turns toward Marianne. “Aren’t you always alone with her? This is what I hear.”
Marianne puts on her gloves, eyes on her fingers slipping into the fleece. She says, “How much is Kate here, telling you all this?”
“Well, if you’d ever call, I’m sure I’d get it from you.”
“There’s no phone out here for you to take my calls.”
“She’s having an awful time with him anyway, but all couples go through this.”
Marianne turns, says, “I’m going in the house.”
“Are you going to stay for lunch?” her grandmother asks before her other words are drowned out again by her husband’s saw. She says, “Whatever you do, don’t tell Kate I said anything about that.”
When her grandfather sees Marianne at the door, pulling it open and stepping out into the snow, he cuts again the power, says, “You need money?” But the door closes behind her without turning to acknowledge him. He looks back at his wife, pulling his goggles down from his forehead, and says, “Now there’s a girl on a mission.”
Inside the house, Marianne finds the only change is that the TV is on. It is loud enough for her grandparents, perhaps, but much too loud for an empty house. When she walks across the room, she forces her eyes down, away from the bedroom doors, but then gives in and checks: both are open. She lowers the volume, reads the theme of the talk show, “My First Time,” and feels the wind coming from an open window before she finds the white curtains blowing like ghosts on patrol. If her grandfather knew it had been opened, he’d have thrown a fit. She knows him that well, these non-blood relatives, knows what pushes their buttons.
With the window shut to the wind, she can hear their voices. They are quiet, whispered, one more forceful than the other—more resigned. Kate and Julia are in the kitchen tucked away in the far corner of the house. Marianne stands still, trying to make the sounds form words she can understand, like she will once settled in Berlin. She hates herself for not looking up into the windows while she crossed the backyard, having lost her chance to witness the one thing she has been most curious about: the image of Kate and Julia alone. Once, in her apartment before she arrived home from work, Marianne went through Julia’s bookcases, her photo albums and old shoeboxes, looking for evidence of this, what they did or where they went, who they were with, the facial expressions, body proximities. She wanted to know what was captured, what was kept and preserved as mementos, remembrances, by Julia. She was convinced it existed, convinced for months, but found only a picture of what could have been Julia before dreadlocks, before the extensive collection of tattoos, kissing a brown-haired woman in front of the Harvard Square train station. Marianne’s faced burned, eyes unfocused, but then decided it was worthless once taking in the brown-haired woman’s size, her jewelry, the shape of her hands. Marianne found nothing.
She wants the image of them, undisturbed by the sounds of her coming closer, rubber soles on hardwood, available to her whenever she closes her eyes. She would use this as a key to grade Julia’s performance in their relationship: size of smile, intensity of gaze, quickness to touch. She would use it to remind her of what is now and what could have been then, to help her better identify when worlds were colliding, when lines were crossed.
And before she takes the turn into the kitchen, she thinks, At least I still hear talking.
But what she finds feels worse than Kate’s hands working Julia’s belt buckle or Julia’s face in Kate’s hair. She finds Kate mere inches from Julia, whispering words with such force that, to her, they come in no sensible order. Kate’s face wears a deep pain, one deeper than Marianne has ever seen, so the word devastated hangs where she once hoped the picture of this moment would be forever. There are tears, but tiny ones, so Marianne replaces devastated with crushed, and somehow manages to feel temporarily relieved. But it is Julia, arms folded and body leaning back against the cluttered counter tops in a perfect backslash, that ruins this. The first to notice Marianne, her face and eyes, no longer casual and unaffected (?), show unhappiness, remorsefulness. It feels like minutes before Kate stops and notices that Julia has refocused, and when she turns Marianne watches her chest moving with air, her hand brought up to first wipe at her nose and then hold her chin as if to force her mouth from speaking. Her other hand is on her waist. Kate has removed her jacket, her scarf, and Julia as well, but the sweatshirt remains, zipped tight to her chin, its cuffs resting low over her knuckles.
Kate brings her hand from her chin to her waist to mirror the other, opens her mouth to no sound.
Marianne wants to think of nothing: no pictures or words. She wants the seat by the window on the train ride back to the city. She wants Julia’s apartment, her front door, the blankets that smell of her, of them both. She wants that free plane ride with free peanuts.
Kate reaches for her coat left splayed on a kitchen chair, her scarf on the kitchen table. There is a sudden movement toward Julia that Marianne only catches the end of, quick enough for Kate to have spit or punch or kiss—Marianne is elsewhere—but Julia puts a hand over her mouth as though she has received all three.
When Kate passes Marianne in the doorframe, her eyes are wet but cheeks dry, and there is a clash of shoulders that Marianne wins. That is her game.
She waits for Julia, still wrapped around herself, to speak. She enters the kitchen with hesitance, on light feet, feeling still uninvited. This forces Julia to turn her back, rest her elbows on the counter. Marianne can see the white paper menu, pizza and submarine graphics in black and red ink, that Julia flips with delicacy, as though touching an ancient text. Marianne stands behind Julia, motionless, and Julia says, “You were right. There is nothing for us here.”