Two

Adrienne was back in her own driveway by nine o’clock that morning, sitting behind the wheel for several moments after killing the engine. On the dry wind rode the creeping burn of the day. An all-nighter — sleep in her office notwithstanding — and still she found something decadent about dragging wearily in at this hour. Only the motivations had changed over time. Fifteen years ago it would have been the inevitable final surrender after a binge. Now, just more overtime devoted to a classic type-A personality’s drive to alleviate the sufferings of humanity. By fifty, her lock on sainthood should be clinched.

She left the car, started for the front door.

Adrienne called it home, but after two years it still took some adjustment. Two floors of stucco topped with red-tile roofing, on a lot whose lawn was suitably sparse, as per desert climes, and at least one palm tree visible from nearly every window. Each time she came rolling down the street she expected to see a burro tied up out front.

Adrienne’s own tastes ran more toward colonial and Victorian, but upon first setting foot inside when they’d looked at it, Sarah had loved it, and felt instantaneously at home here in that impulsive, predestined way she had about her sometimes. Adrienne figured, in her heart, that her own love would grow.

Still waiting. By now, she was probably up to at least an amiable affection for the place.

Sarah was in the front room when Adrienne came through the door, looked up from her book and brightened immediately. Uncurled from her cross-legged perch in the cushioned rattan chair that hung in one corner.

“Hiya,” she said, and met Adrienne halfway to kiss hello, good morning, whatever they had skipped the night before. “Guess who missed you last night.”

“You got my message, didn’t you?”

Yes, I got your message. I was just feeling needy.” Sarah gripped her by the shoulders and steered her gently toward the sofa. “C’mon. Sit, sit, sit, sit.”

Adrienne shut her eyes and smiled and let fatigue overwhelm her, began to feel tired all over again. Let Sarah take charge — some indulgent pampering now and then was good for body and soul. Sarah stayed behind her, reaching across the back of the sofa and down to the shoulders that felt cramped and unnatural after sleeping on the office couch, and maybe from all that residual tension from her first encounter with Clay Palmer. With this one she wanted very much to tread wisely.

“Let it out, let it out,” Sarah said, then nipped her on the ear. “Can you come out and play tomorrow? I think it’s in your own best interests, you’re looking too serious this week.”

“Tomorrow being, what… Saturday?”

“Gasp — she’s in touch with modern timekeeping after all.”

Adrienne made a show of inner debate, but a day out on her day off sounded like a tonic she would be wise to self-prescribe. “Since it’s you, and since you asked,” she said. “What do you have in mind?”

Sarah was digging with strong and nimble fingers for each and every muscle at the base of Adrienne’s neck. “I was thinking Swiss coffee and a French film and Greek food. It’ll be very multicultural and don’t you dare say no.”

Multicultural? You know you’re showing a definite centrism toward Western Europe.”

“Shut up. Who’s the anthropologist here?”

Sarah wrapped up her ministrations and slapped each of Adrienne’s shoulders simultaneously, as if swatting the bottoms of newborns. Her shoulders sang, they hummed, they throbbed with vitality restored, and Sarah crawled over the back of the sofa to drop beside her.

Sarah was so physical sometimes, she came close to being overpowering — not by intimidation, more that to be around her was to risk either exhaustion by proxy or feelings of inadequacy. She had entirely too much life-force to contain; would throw herself into anything and everything that drew her interest and contend with the bruises or broken heart later.

Sarah was slim and straight above the waist, with lushly curved hips below. She had a round face almost too small for her eyes, and mismatched lips that somehow went with her body: the top one thin, the lower, heavy and ripe and delicious, the both of them bracketed by smile lines that inscribed her mouth like soft little parentheses. Her full black hair she brushed irregularly, and she scuffed around on wide peasant feet, a legacy from a barefoot childhood. At twenty-nine, Sarah still distrusted shoes.

They molded together well, Adrienne four inches taller, and when they embraced, every gentle swell in one seemed to meet with a corresponding hollow in the other. Side-by-side they looked to be complementary opposites, Sarah very much the child of a fecund earth, while there was something mildly Teutonic about Adrienne…  in the fine blond hair, so very straight, and the murky blue eyes; in the height that once caused her to slouch until the boys caught up, then began to surpass her. But it worked; together they worked, and Adrienne had recently decided she loved Sarah enough that it ached.

She supposed that was a good thing. To gauge the quality of life, there often seemed no better barometer than the measure of its pain. I’ve seen the highs, I’ve seen the lows, now how about I linger upon the middle plateaus awhile and sort it out?

“I came up with another maybe for my thesis this morning.” Sarah beamed with the enthusiasm that inevitably came when something dawned upon her, its avenues of possibility yet to be explored. “Want to hear it?”

Adrienne laughed. “How many will this make, anyway?”

“Five. Want to hear it?”

“I’d rather hear that you’ve made up your mind.”

Sarah jabbed out and pinched her along the ribs. “Do you want to hear it or not?”

Adrienne slid down onto the sofa and flung off both shoes. “Dazzle me.”

“Retention in American society of old world customs by Asian immigrants.” She frowned. “That’s still too simplistic for the final approach. But I think it’s something I could really devour. Plus it’s something that feels contemporaneously relevant, you know… not just something I can get eggheaded about that doesn’t address anything going on right now in our own backyard.”

“Asian immigrants,” said Adrienne. Nit-picking, but sometimes that’s what Sarah needed; she tended to view panoramas at the expense of details. “You know Fishbine will make you narrow your focus.” Her faculty adviser in the doctoral program at Arizona State University; generally easygoing but he tolerated no shotgun approaches and had no patience with indecision. At least he was not prone to imposing his own research needs on the agendas of his students; Sarah was fortunate in that respect.

“I know he will. Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai… I have no idea which one I’d end up preferring.”

“You wouldn’t prefer one above the other, that’s why you can’t make up your mind.”

Sarah leaned back and probed Adrienne’s thigh with her toes. “We only get one full life… if that much. Is it my fault if it all looks so interesting?”

“You and your experiential smorgasbord.” Adrienne smiled, grabbed Sarah’s foot, and began to massage it, digging her thumbs into the arch where she knew Sarah liked it best. “I wish I could extract that mania from you and inject it into about half the patients I see. We’d cure thousands from depression.”

“And make millions.” Sarah shuddered, froze, held her foot still. “Right there… yes. Yes!” She hurled herself backward along the length of the sofa and threw both arms across her face with a satisfied groan. “What would you inject into the other half?”

“Probably your hedonism.”

“Rome fell,” she said, and groaned again, “but what fun it must have been at the time, you know?”

A few minutes later Adrienne got up to change into shorts and a T-shirt. They breakfasted on the back patio, grapefruit juice and day-old muffins from a favorite bakery. When Sarah returned to her chair in the front room and her book — an autobiographical account of a Japanese woman’s transition and adjustment to life under the thumb of American culture — Adrienne showered away the last of her night’s shift. Let her at least make a clean break before it all began again at four o’clock this afternoon.

Sarah had left the bedroom blinds down after rising, to keep the sun out, so the room was still cool. The unmade bed sat in a low frame, and Adrienne crawled into it, set the alarm for two-thirty, although she might not need it at all; how one human body could be so tired but not sleepy still made little sense to her.

Staring up then, focusing on the slow hypnotic revolution of the ceiling fan, whirling, whirling, as if to lift the entire room away. Like Dorothy, cast on the winds toward Oz. It beat counting imaginary sheep.

Alone in the bedroom on days like this, sleep could never be too quick in claiming her; days warm outside and cool in, the sun glowing brightly around the edges of the drawn blinds, and filling every crack until it became more than light, it was a luminescent presence trying to assert itself and intrude.

And did it ever take her back.

Three years and chump change ago, she had been a different Adrienne Rand. In fact, she’d not been Adrienne Rand at all, but Adrienne Wythe, a name now entirely foreign to her. Marriage had been, well… adequate, certainly. She recalled relishing the assurance of someone being there to come home to, and in turn to be there for someone else. In that sense her marriage was certainly secure; but then again, so are prisons, so there you are.

Why, with all the training and fieldwork to hone those skills in pinpointing everything wrong with a stranger’s life, was her own inner vision confined to hindsight? The paradox of the trade, she supposed. She and Neal never should have married; went through six months joined by love, and the rest by inertia alone. Like a pair of asteroids that never once touch, yet still hurtle through the black voids in tandem, linked by their own peculiar gravity.

In those days even her base of home and career was different. She had been born in San Francisco, and it seemed perfectly reasonable to expect she would eventually die there, or at least across the bay in Oakland. In the meantime, S.F. General was apt to provide all the therapeutic and research opportunities she could want. She showed a particular flair for handling violent types, and S.F. General indulged her; there was no shortage.

Adrienne had never put much credence in fate. Fate was just a convenient, catchall term for moments of truth when the laws of probability met in random collision, and left people to pick their way through the wreckage. And so it had happened, over a week’s time, that the staff of S.F. General fell by the dozens to a nasty strain of summer flu. Long hours, lowered resistance — enter the virus, stage left, and her turn came. Simple cause and effect, but how tempting to believe the universe that day was plotting. Whether to try to crush her in disillusion, or liberate her at last, Adrienne had yet to decide. The universe was funny that way.

No matter. In the long run, she was glad it had happened.

She timed her commute home between bouts of wretched upheaval and pulled into the driveway in time to christen it with bile. Ahead of her was Neal’s car, the Nissan sitting there alone — what’s wrong with this picture? This time of day? Perhaps he had fallen victim to the same viral prankster, and she decided she’d best enter as quietly as possible. Neal ill was Neal near death, to hear him moan on about it.

As it was, such consideration became quite unwarranted. Once in the house, Adrienne had tiptoed halfway up the stairs to the second floor and the bedroom before her ears conceded the obvious: Neal was not alone.

They had no idea Adrienne was there, apparently no idea she could be there, ever. Their abandon was total, and for at least a full minute Adrienne watched from the hallway. Who the woman was, she didn’t know, and even after she had the name days later, it was no one Adrienne had heard of. Healthy, though, and even Neal seemed possessed of a certain robust exuberance that he otherwise lacked in their own bedroom encounters. They were on their knees, the woman lowered to elbows as Neal coupled with her from behind, the both of them golden and glowing in shafts of sunlight that pierced the room through drawn blinds. They looked like an ad for vitamin E.

My bed. That’s my bed, Adrienne had thought. Perfectly calm, ungodly calm, every thought and impulse under control. Shouldn’t I at least hate them and start screaming?

She left the hall, quietly, and eased down the stairway and back out the front door and stood for a few moments overlooking a lawn so green and smooth a golfer could have used it for putting practice. She disconnected a hundred-foot coil of garden hose from the lawn sprinkler, then reattached the regular nozzle head. Went back in the house, trailing the hose after her like some snake that just kept coming, sliding through the doorway and up the stairs.

Neal and the mystery woman still didn’t notice she was there, not until she unleashed the fury of the hose upon them. It was the most humiliating form of coitus interruptus she could devise on the spur of the moment, wetting them down not like husband and mistress, but rather a pair of mongrels rutting on the front lawn.

After that day, she refused to see him without having first consulted a lawyer about it. And whenever, in the ensuing battle over communal property, she was prone to despair with frustration over Neal’s own legal firepower, one recollection of him on his side, legs kicking impotently, screeching apologies and clutching his privates from the bruising force of the spray, was usually enough to bring a smile. And perspective…

Still more of which came later when she realized that the whole of northern California had a taint, and might for years to come. Too lush, too hilly, too many secret enclaves in the land itself where she might run to contemplate the changes wrought in her life, only to find she was hiding from herself, as well.

She wanted — needed — a simpler, less cluttered environment for a while. The austerity of the desert beckoned, clean and wind-scoured, like a cleared foundation on which to rebuild. Arizona would do nicely, and if she wasn’t yet convinced she wanted to die here, she nevertheless owed this place debts she could never pay.

Here was where she relearned that love need not stifle, nor grow complacent; that passion need not grow stale. That you really could link hands and hearts with another, whose life became a precious complement to your own. As long as there was love, there was life, and Arizona was just fine that way.

Sarah was from here, after all, and that counted for much.

The ancient Middle East wasn’t the only place where saviors walked in the desert.

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