When the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables underwent renovations, Margo was one of several high school volunteers who ended up on scaffolding along the tower, applying a coat of the hotel’s signature terra-cotta color. Her photograph appeared in the “Neighbors” section of the
After I handed over a check for $200, which committed me to the team for one twelve-week season, I left the tennis center and stood on the sidewalk outside the fence that enclosed the courts. The air smelled of gardenias and was filled with the hollow popping sound of balls hitting rackets, and I was suddenly, overwhelmingly satisfied with myself. Not until I arrived home and was unloading groceries from the car did I remember that the following Saturday—the day of the team’s first practice—was already consumed by one principal activity, an activity to which I’d given surprisingly little consideration: this was the day when we would pack up the station wagon, drive north for six hours, and drop off my daughter at her new college.
After returning from the Biltmore, I went to the garage to look for my old tennis racket, and it was there that Dennis found me half an hour later, elbow-deep in a box marked ATLANTA, a porcelain-faced doll in one hand and my old wooden Wilson in the other. He gave me a look but didn’t ask any questions. “Is she all packed?” he said.
“I doubt it.” I turned off the garage light and followed Dennis back into the kitchen. He was just in from work, slightly sweaty; I could smell the dry cleaning of his suit. That evening, Dennis’s parents were throwing a farewell barbecue for Margo, and as usual it would be a struggle not to arrive late. I took my old racket down the hallway and knocked on Margo’s door. “We’re leaving in half an hour,” I called. There was no answer. I knocked again and opened the door. Margo stood on the far side of her bed, sorting through a heap of clothes and shoes. She was tan and freckled from a month spent fishing with Dennis in the early mornings, and from driving our car around with the sunroof open. She looked up. “I heard you,” she said. She gestured toward the pile on the bed. “I have no system.”
Why hadn’t I made certain she was packed before now? “I’ll help you tonight, after the party.”
She pointed at the racket in my hand. “What’s that?”
“Nothing. A tennis racket. There’s a team at the Biltmore.”
She looked dubious. I hadn’t been one for joining teams in her lifetime. “Is Marse joining, too?”
It hadn’t occurred to me to rally Marse, but I didn’t think it would be her cup of tea. She’d started teaching aerobics at her health club. I’d gone to a few classes and left exhausted, with a bruised ego. “No, just me,” I said.
“Nobody uses wooden rackets anymore, Mom.”
It always surprised me when my daughter seemed to think I noticed nothing. “I know that,” I said, “but this is what I have.” I picked up a pair of old gym shorts from the pile on her bed. They were printed with the insignia of her high school. “I don’t think you’ll need these,” I said. “Or this.” I picked up a straw hat she had not worn in years. I separated the gym shorts and the straw hat and a fringed leather jacket from the heap.
“I guess not,” she said.
“You need to get dressed.”
“I am dressed.” She moved out from behind the bed so I could see her. She wore a long patchwork skirt that she’d bought in Coconut Grove, a white peasant top, and a wide leather belt. “Should I take this?” She held up a stuffed dolphin she’d had since childhood. I remembered buying it for her at the Seaquarium gift shop. “Or this?” She pulled a Miami Hurricanes baseball cap from the pile; Dennis had given it to her the first time he’d taken her to a baseball game. I looked at the faintly dirty cap, which evoked a whole afternoon’s memory, and I wondered which was preferable: clinging sentimentally to the unending stream of items that flow through our lives, or letting them go as if they had no relationship to memory, no status.
“Don’t take them,” I said.
“What if I want them?”
“Then I’ll send them.”
“You won’t throw things out? I think you’re going to throw things out.”
“I promise,” I said. I made a mental note: do not throw things out.
In my bedroom, I pulled on a sundress and briefly worried that Dennis’s mother would think we had not dressed up enough. When I was ready, I found Dennis and Margo in the living room. Margo was in Dennis’s arms, crying. “What’s going on?” I said.
Over Margo’s shoulder, Dennis said, “She’s sad.”
Margo said something into Dennis’s shirt, which was not yet buttoned. His hair was wet and uncombed. “What?” I said.
“I don’t want to go,” she repeated.
“Margo, your grandmother’s worked hard. She’s invited all her friends—”
“No!” she said. “I don’t want to move away.” She cried harder.
It was a situation we alone seemed to face. Margo had graduated from high school two years earlier, and at that time all her friends had been itching to get away. And maybe if she’d been accepted at one of her top choices—Chapel Hill or University of Virginia—Margo would have been itching as well. She’d applied to six colleges, and her school counselor had seemed to think that with one or two she was reaching, but the others were within the realm of possibility. “You never know,” the counselor had told me. “Margo is very bright, yes, but her grades are not stellar. In that situation they’ll be looking for something extra.” She’d left unsaid the fact that there was no obvious something extra. Margo had been a reporter on the newspaper staff and in the chorus of a few school plays, but she hadn’t really committed herself to anything. She’d floated from activity to activity, competent but uninspired. When she’d given up competitive sailing, she’d said it was because the regattas monopolized all her weekends. When would she get to Stiltsville? she’d said. Dennis had been proud.
We’d taken a road trip in the spring of her junior year. We packed a cooler and three small suitcases and looped through the dreary, damp eastern seaboard. We hit the Carolina schools, then the University of Virginia, then the D.C. schools, then the Boston schools. On the way back we spent a night with my mother, then stopped in Hilton Head, where Dennis played a very expensive round of golf. We sidetracked to the camp where Margo had gone for three summers. The grounds were closed. The air was cool and smelled of wet clay and spruce. We stepped over a chain that crossed the main camp road, and Margo led us to a cluster of one-room wooden cabins with rickety screen doors. We stepped inside the cabin where Margo had been assigned her last year of camp, when she was eleven years old. The room was claustrophobic. The bunks had no mattresses—they were in storage for the season—and there was a sink in one corner with rust stains in its bowl. Margo walked to one of the top bunks. “This was mine,” she said, and I pictured her there, writing letters on the stationery we’d sent with her, her hair wet from swim time. We’d left the cabin and wandered through the campgrounds, past the locked dining hall and the still waterfront, until we were spotted by a groundskeeper, who asked us kindly to leave.
As it turned out, Margo had been accepted only at the University of Miami, her safety option, and had continued to live at home because of the school’s high cost. Beverly Jovanovich had gone to Swarthmore, and Margo’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Peter Sanchez, a tall boy who wore tortoiseshell eyeglasses and had excellent manners, had gone to Davidson. For two years we’d encouraged Margo to transfer so that she could move away, too, but when the time came she’d lacked the heart to repeat the entire application process, so she’d applied only to the University of Florida. She’d been excited, at first—she’d talked about decorating her dorm room and eating in the dining hall. But in time her excitement had morphed into anxiety. Then she’d been informed by the school that before starting her junior year, she needed to take a summer class to satisfy a math requirement. So not only was she now moving away—which I simultaneously wanted for her and did not want at all—but she was leaving at the start of the summer instead of at the end. What did it matter, though, really? Those extra weekends together, luxuriating in free time with Margo, would have been merely a stall, and soon enough we would have found ourselves in the same position we were in now: packing her up, driving her away.
“Margo,” I said, pulling her from Dennis to face me. “This is a whole new ball game. New people, new classes. You’ll like the dorms. No mother hovering all the time.”
Margo scowled. Was this an adult, I thought, prepared to go off and live on her own?
“Your mother’s right,” said Dennis. “Free at last.”
“I guess,” she said. I wondered how often, over the course of her life, she would desire something only to feel ambivalent once she got it. I thought of a young woman in Margo’s high school class, a girl with grades worthy of the Ivy League, who had gone to the University of Florida because her father had given her the choice between an out-of-state education and a new convertible. Somehow, a reporter for Florida Public Radio had gotten wind of the story and the parents had agreed to be interviewed on the air. Callers had phoned in to rail against the family’s values and praise the benefits of an excellent education. The father had said—very reasonably, I thought—that one does not have to be a plane ride away from one’s family to read books.
“The thing about going away for college,” I said to Margo, “is that you can start over, be whoever you want to be.”
“Who else would she want to be?” said Dennis.
“I just mean you can make new friends without all the history mucking it up.”
Margo nodded solemnly. The sixth grade had left wounds—she was a skittish friend, slow to bond. Over the years she’d let go of early friendships just when I’d sensed that they were growing, as if afraid of what might happen next. And she’d never become preoccupied with romance or heartbreak or drama the way other girls had. Her only boyfriend in high school had been Peter—every so often, during her junior and senior years, he had come to the house after school and stayed for dinner, or picked her up on a Saturday morning for a day at the beach. For a few days he’d be in her conversation or plans. But then weeks later I’d realize I hadn’t seen him and he hadn’t called. It had been three years since Margo had asked me to take her to get birth control pills—a task I’d completed with surprisingly few tears—and since that time Peter was the only boy who had come to the house alone, without a group. I used to try to get her to talk about him, but she would just say banal, complimentary things like “He’s a very kind person” or “It’s not serious, but he’s a good friend.” From what I could tell, this was true: he was a nice person. When he’d left for Davidson, Margo had seemed genuinely happy for him and not at all possessive. There had been no pretense that I could surmise that they would not date other people while he was away. But during her two years at the University of Miami, Margo had made few new friends and hadn’t dated at all.
“We need to get a move on,” I said. Margo’s eyes were pink and swollen. Dennis looked as if he’d forgotten where we needed to be. “Wash your face,” I said to Margo. I kissed her warm forehead before she left the room.
“I hope we did the right thing, encouraging her to transfer,” said Dennis.
“I was just thinking that.” The Oriental rug beneath our feet was threadbare and faded; we’d bought it new on vacation in Asheville a decade earlier. I told Dennis about the tennis team. “But it starts Saturday morning,” I said, “so I’d like to go before we get on the road.”
Dennis held tight to the belief that road trips begin before dawn. Practice started at eight a.m.; I promised we would be on the road by eleven. He nodded and rubbed his face. Margo returned, wearing fresh makeup—a little too much, considering Gloria’s distaste for young ladies with painted faces, but I stayed quiet. “Kiddo,” said Dennis, “your mother has something to do Saturday morning, so we’re going to leave a little later.”
“Good,” said Margo.
“We can spend tomorrow night at Stiltsville. We’ll swing home in the morning and pick up Mom and get on the road.”
I was reminded of one reason I didn’t take up activities: because then I missed things. “As long as you’re packed,” I said.
“I shouldn’t take so much anyway,” she said.
“I thought the last time at Stiltsville was the last time,” I said. We’d skied and Dennis and Margo had fished off the dock. It had been five years since the state of Florida had declared Biscayne Bay a national monument and began pushing for an end to private ownership of the stilt houses. Marcus Beck, a trial lawyer, had negotiated a deal guaranteeing that current residents could keep our houses until the year 1999—after that, Stiltsville would belong to the state. Since the decision, we’d gone out every possible weekend.
“There’s no last time,” said Dennis.
We’d never had a graduation party for Margo—at the time, she had been so glum about her plans that a party had seemed inappropriate—so when they heard she was transferring, Grady and Gloria had seized on the idea of throwing a farewell party. The theme of the barbecue—BON VOYAGE—was printed grandly on a banner that hung over the backyard patio. Gloria had staked tiki torches around the pool; they smelled powerfully of citronella. Grady had made rum punch, and Gloria ladled it into crystal goblets. The party was for their close friends, mainly, and a few of ours. My mother had wanted to come but had planned a cruise with friends the same weekend, so she’d called Margo to schedule a time when she could visit during the fall semester and take her out for a proper meal, as she put it. Grady and Gloria’s friends were spry, seemingly unhindered by age, and they wore expensive clothes; the ladies looked as if they’d just come from getting their hair set. They were warm and doted on Margo and seemed genuinely interested in her plans for the future, which left me wondering if they’d never met a grandchild before.
Gloria had specified on the invitation—which had a drawing of a girl at the prow of a cruise ship, waving to shore—that gifts would not be welcome, but Margo had a few checks thrust into her hand anyway; and Gloria’s bridge partner, Eleanor Everest, presented her with a small brass-handled hammer with a bow around its neck. “It’s seven tools in one,” she said, demonstrating how the handle unscrewed to reveal a screwdriver, which in turn unscrewed to reveal a smaller screwdriver, and so on. “My granddaughters are very handy,” she said. I could see Margo wondering when she would ever use such a thing, but I could also see that this gift would remain among my daughter’s possessions for many years.
Marse gave Margo an expensive portable radio for her dorm room and a gift certificate to a hair salon in Gainesville. Bette gave her a large woven floor pillow, and Bette’s girlfriend Suzanne, a real estate agent who spent part of the evening smoking marijuana around the side of the house, gave her a Dr. Seuss book. Bette promised to visit Margo that semester, to take her off campus to do some shopping, and Marse hugged her and told her not to party too hard, but not to neglect to party at all. Then Marse and Bette and I took the gifts into the kitchen and stood watching from inside. Bette took off her large dangling earrings and Marse stepped out of her heels. Their faces were reflected in the kitchen windows, superimposed over the backyard. Marse, who had recently taken up with a boat salesman named Ted, wore a string of expensive-looking pearls. Bette’s hair was whiter and shorter than ever, a silver swim cap. She’d never colored it. I’d begun highlighting mine when I’d turned forty. One morning I’d been backing out of the driveway, and when I’d looked in the rearview mirror I’d seen one unmistakable silver strand rising above the rest. I’d turned off the ignition and gone inside to call my salon.
“How are you handling all this?” said Marse to me.
“I’m completely unprepared,” I said.
“Better buck up,” said Bette. “I hear it gets worse before it gets better.”
Later, Grady gave a toast thanking everyone for coming and telling Margo how proud he was. “You are thoughtful and smart and gracious,” he said, choking up. “And we love you.” When his speech was through, he and I stood watching the party from the far side of the swimming pool. Margo was across the water from us, making conversation with a woman from Grady and Gloria’s church. Her dark wavy hair reached past her shoulders and she bit her bottom lip in concentration, as she had a habit of doing. She’d been asked a dozen times what she planned to major in, and each time the answer was different: political science and history, then political science and art history, then art history and biology. I’d even heard her say that she wanted to take dance classes.
“Ah, the nest,” Grady said, clinking my glass with his beer can.
“Empty,” I said.
In the torchlight I saw, as I often did, the shadow of Dennis in Grady’s curly mop of hair, mostly gray now, and the scattering of freckles across his nose. I hadn’t allowed myself to think much beyond the coming weekend, when Dennis and I would leave Margo in Gainesville. I hadn’t thought about returning to an empty house. Two years earlier, I’d left my position at the bank for a part-time job as the bookkeeper at a small medical practice in downtown Coral Gables—I thought now that maybe I would take on more hours, keep busier.
Grady said, “Of course Bette stayed home, but she wasn’t around much. Dennis was off in the dorms and came home on the weekends. It was quiet. We didn’t know quite what to do with ourselves. Gloria started with the bridge club then, and she’s still at it. I started fishing more.”
“Dennis has been running a lot,” I said. He’d been getting up before dawn, then returning to make a big breakfast before heading to work. He’d done this two or three times a week for six months.
“Go with him,” said Grady. “You might like it.”
I’d gone twice, and both times I’d felt a little sick from the early hour, and Dennis had to slow down when I cramped. “I joined a tennis team,” I said.
“Now that’s something,” said Grady. He put an arm around my shoulders. “My granddaughter is moving away from home. I’m an old man.”
“You are not,” I said. He was sixty-eight that year, but he looked much younger in the red-gold light of the tiki torches. His hair was thick and tousled, and his face was flushed.
Gloria came up behind us and slipped an arm around Grady’s waist, then took a long drag from her cigarette and blew a thin line of smoke over the pool. “My lovely,” said Grady.
“Isn’t this a success?” said Gloria. “Margo’s charming.”
“We were just discussing the empty nest,” said Grady.
“You should travel,” said Gloria. “Go on an archaeological dig in Egypt. They teach you everything you need to know.”
In twenty years, Grady and Gloria had never seemed to understand that their means were not our means: we could not afford to travel, at least not to Egypt. To say this aloud would have ruined their vision of us, not to mention the conversation.
Across the swimming pool, Margo had started what seemed to be a serious conversation with Ed Everest, Eleanor’s husband. Margo was using her hands to make a point, and he was nodding and asking questions. The torchlight accentuated her planes and contours—her fit upper arms, her collarbone and jawline, the dark waves of her hair. I had no idea what my daughter would have to discuss with Ed Everest, who was the pastor at Grady and Gloria’s church, but Margo had a way with adults and always had, even when she was a little girl and had sat quietly with clear, wise eyes at our dinner parties, answering questions in complete sentences and offering to help me clear the plates. I suppose as an only child she’d had little choice in the matter. After a moment, Ed laughed heartily, and Margo put out her hand to shake, and the success of the interaction, the maturity of it, struck a chord in me, and I felt a little dizzy.
That night, Margo took my car to meet girlfriends, and at three a.m. I awoke to the still house, my heart pounding. I was certain that when I opened the door to her bedroom I would see an empty bed, but I was wrong: Margo was sleeping heavily with an arm across her forehead. She’d done more packing after getting home: there was a row of three suitcases just inside the room, facing the door like eager dogs waiting for it to open.
Dennis woke Margo early the next morning, and after an hour they departed with only a large tote of food and a change of clothes each. I went through the house straightening up, and in Margo’s room I made the bed—she would not sleep there again before we left—and cleaned her little bathroom. I took her suitcases to the car, then returned for two boxes of books she’d packed up that morning. I stood a long time in her closet, then spotted four shoeboxes on the highest shelf: all were filled with paper confetti, which Dennis and Margo and I had made when Margo was fourteen. Dennis had come home with half a dozen reams of multicolored office paper his firm was going to throw out—I have no idea why; perhaps it had been ordered mistakenly—and Margo had decided that instead of wasting it we should make confetti, which one day we would use to celebrate something. The next day, Dennis had brought home three-hole-punch gizmos, and after dinner every night that week we’d sat at the breakfast table and made confetti. One shoebox was filled with pastel pink and green confetti, another with yellow and orange, another with baby blue and red, and another with all the colors, which Margo had called tutti-frutti. When I removed the lids from the boxes, several pieces floated up and onto Margo’s bedspread. I got a large freezer bag and filled it with the tutti-frutti, then returned the boxes to their shelf and swept up the leftover confetti with my hand.
Later I drove to the department store and bought Margo a red bathrobe and matching slippers. I was struck with a momentary sense of regret that I had not thought of this earlier, so I might have had the bathrobe monogrammed. I added matching towels and left, having spent more than I should have. On the way home, I stopped at a sporting goods store in South Miami and looked at tennis rackets. I didn’t care about the aluminum or the lighter weight, but it seemed to me that an oversize head was a wonderful idea. A salesman told me it improved play by enlarging the so-called sweet spot. I left with only a can of tennis balls and that evening, after leaving the new bathrobe and slippers on Margo’s bed, I popped open the can, letting loose a cloud of thick canned air that smelled of spray paint and rubber, and I took my old wooden racket outside to hit against the garage door. It was a clear, quiet evening. Fireflies darted around the gardenias in the side yard, and the air smelled of key limes and barbecue. The next-door neighbors waved as they went out, and then the street was empty. I aimed for the flat parts of the garage door and tried to avoid the beveled paneling, which skewed the ball in the wrong direction and sent me running after it. After a while I managed to hit many more than I missed. I was sweating and felt a blister starting to form on my palm. I kept it up until the ball was difficult to discern in the blue evening, and when I stepped up onto the porch I was surprised to find myself winded and my legs aching a little, as they did after Dennis and I swam laps around the stilt house.
I was early for the first practice. I asked in the pro shop and was directed to a court on the far end of the property. Jack stood at the baseline, serving one ball after another over the net. Each hit the opposite fence with a heavy thud. I stood watching his form—the light toss, the full range of his swing, the powerful follow-through. His legs were long and thick. If I’d been trying to receive those serves, I thought, they would have knocked the racket right out of my hand.
I stood on the sideline, under a gazebo between the courts, until he noticed me. “Frances, right?” he said. He motioned to my racket in my hand. “That’s a relic.”
I smiled and nodded, a little flattered that he had remembered my name. A man and two women—twins—came through the gate onto the court. Jack marked down their names on a clipboard and asked the man—Rodrigo—to collect the balls on the court using a red wire hopper. Rodrigo jogged off and one of the twins put out her hand for me to shake. Her name was Twyla. Another woman came through the gate and approached the gazebo—she had short gray hair and prominent cheekbones, and she was familiar to me but I couldn’t place her—and within ten minutes there were two dozen players assembled around Jack in the gazebo. I shook a few hands but there were too many people. I wondered if the group would thin out as the weeks passed.
Jack explained how the team would work: he would pair us up to get a sense of our game, then at the next practice he’d assign us a practice partner. Each practice would start with half an hour of hitting, then continue with drills for an hour and a half. “I encourage you to stay afterward to play matches,” he said, “and it’s mandatory—this is not negotiable—to play at least one full match per week.” He looked down at his clipboard, then up at me. “Frances,” he said. “Beginner, right?”
“Definitely,” I said.
“You two”—he pointed at Twyla—“take court three. Show me what you’ve got.”
We walked together across one court and onto another. “I’m not much for taking orders,” said Twyla.
“He’s just being coachy,” I said.
“Take it easy on me,” she said. We separated at the net and when I turned around, Twyla said, “Ready?” and I nodded. She bounced the ball once, then hit it far over my head. I raised a ball to signal that I would start the next one. I dropped it and hit it and was pleased to see it sail elegantly away from me, and bounce a few yards in front of her. She swung at it and missed. It went like this for another fifteen minutes—she served out and either missed mine or hit them into the net. It was humid and bright; my sunglasses kept sliding down my nose, and after only a few minutes my racket started to feel heavy. I began to run for Twyla’s balls even when they were going out. I caught them in midair and swung hard to get them all the way back to her baseline—this at least kept the ball in play for a moment more. Soon Jack blew his whistle from our sideline, and Twyla looked over at him mid-swing, and missed the ball. “You,” he said to her, “court four. Swap with Jane.”
She trudged off and Jack walked over to me. “You need more of a challenge,” he said. “Jane might be out of your league, but she’ll bring out your best.”
“I’m not sure about all this,” I said.
Jack smiled. There was a tiny chip in his front tooth, and it looked like he hadn’t shaved that morning. The hair on his arms was thick and dark. “You have a lot of power but not a lot of control,” he said. “Let’s see your serve.”
I stepped to the baseline and pointed my feet the way I remembered I should, then tossed the ball and slammed it into the net.
“Don’t chase your toss,” he said, then came up behind me and positioned my arm. I tossed several times without swinging, and then when I served the ball went long. He said, “We’re just taking stock here, don’t worry.”
Jane—this was the woman I knew from somewhere—jogged over in white shorts and a pink polo. She tapped the net with her racket and moved into position. “Ready?” she said, and before I could respond, she jackhammered a serve over the net. It flew past me.
“Good luck,” said Jack as he moved off the court.
I did my best to return Jane’s shots but they were streamlined and swift. After hitting against her for fifteen minutes, I was demoralized, but then we ran drills as a group and I managed well enough. By the end of the practice I was sweating through my shirt. Still, there was something calming about the tennis center itself, about simply passing a couple of hours on the groomed clay courts, leaving marks in the clay with each lunge and turn. Over the mesh-lined fences rose the tops of wide banyan trees along the golf course, like gentle monsters keeping watch. I simply wasn’t used to spending time outside other than at Stiltsville. I had missed it.
When I got home, Dennis and Margo were on the front steps, drinking orange juice out of the carton. They looked windblown and relaxed. “How was it?” said Margo.
“Like riding a bike,” I said as I went up the steps past them.
Margo’s things took up the trunk and half the backseat, and she wanted to drive, so I spent the trip wedged in back beside a portable television and a box of framed photos. Margo turned the air conditioner on high, but it was a tiny trickle in the heat. The turnpike offered a bleached, changeless journey unbroken into parts. Almost every billboard we passed advertised a men’s club called Caf
This was very amusing to both Dennis and Margo, and once they started laughing they couldn’t stop, so I settled back in my seat, thinking: they don’t realize what can happen. I had the feeling that very soon there would be a tear in the fabric of my life, an enormous divide. On one side would be the time I moved through and things I did and the people I saw, and on the other side would be a great expanse of black time where Margo lived her life, and she and I would move parallel to each other like cars in different lanes, allowing only passing glimpses. I had to remind myself that, strangely enough, this was the way it was meant to go. They grow up, they move away.
It was still hot but the sun had waned as we navigated through campus to the dated, boxy Rawlings Hall, where Margo would live for the summer semester with a roommate assigned by the university. We parked and Dennis and Margo headed toward an entrance, but I stayed behind. There were two other cars in the drive, both open with boxes and bags inside. When Dennis and Margo came out of the building, blinking in the sunlight, Dennis handed me paperwork. “Room 105,” he said. “First floor—only one flight of stairs.”
“No elevator?” I said.
“No elevator, no air-conditioning.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. My blouse stuck to my back.
Dennis and Margo exchanged a look. “We will not melt,” said Margo.
Her room was divided symmetrically, and the two sides looked like before-and-after photos: one side was bare, with a thin mattress on a metal bed frame and an empty desk and gaping dark closet. The other side looked as if it had been staged for a photo shoot: the bed was covered with a pink plaid duvet and white dust ruffle—it hadn’t occurred to me to buy Margo a dust ruffle—and there was a neat stack of glossy textbooks on the desk. I opened a box and started to unpack, and Dennis and Margo shuffled out to get another batch of things from the car. Margo’s new twin-size comforter, a gift from Gloria, was sky blue with white clouds on it. I made the bed with great precision, thinking it might be a long time before Margo had neatly pressed sheets again. If this is all I do, I’ll do it right, I thought. Dennis and Margo came back and left again, and I dug through the boxes until I found a bright red-and-pink tapestry Margo had packed; I spread it over the desk and placed a notebook on top of it. I put a handful of pens in a ceramic mug with the logo of Margo’s old camp on it. I unrolled Margo’s SAVE THE MANATEES poster and when she came back upstairs asked her where she wanted it.
She gestured toward the bare wall above the desk and looked around, at the neatly made bed and the colorful desk. “I like that,” she said quietly.
I taped the corners of the poster to the wall. “Does this look straight?” I said, but when I looked over my shoulder she was looking away, at the other side of the room, the anonymous side, and she didn’t answer.
Dennis lay on the bed while we futzed. Margo lined up her shoes—sneakers and flip-flops, primarily—at the bottom of her closet. There was a knock at Margo’s door, and when I turned around, there stood a boy about Margo’s height, completely bald, with large blue eyes and a wide, expressive mouth. He wore a T-shirt covered with streaks of paint. “Margo, is it?” he said, reaching out to shake her hand. He introduced himself as Joshua, her resident adviser. He explained where his room was located and invited Margo to call on him if she needed anything.
“Alopecia,” said Dennis after Joshua had left.
“I think that’s just the style,” I said.
“No, that’s alopecia, I can tell,” said Dennis, and Margo shushed us.
Dennis had gotten the name of a fish place just outside town, so we got back into the car to go for dinner. This was something he did—he tracked down hole-in-the-wall restaurants and planned ahead to visit them when traveling, and sometimes he bought their T-shirts. Afterward, when we dropped Margo off at her dorm, the light was on in her room, and the next day at breakfast, she told us about her roommate, Diana. Diana was from Chipley, a town in the Panhandle that I’d never heard of. Since Diana hadn’t brought a stereo and Margo hadn’t brought a hair dryer, they’d agreed to share. I could tell by Margo’s description that they wouldn’t be friends but they would get along. After breakfast we crossed a main quad dotted with date palms and bicycle racks and half-clothed girls tanning on blankets, and we toured the gym, which was humid and busy with kids who seemed, for the most part, very serious about the business of getting fit. Outside, there was an empty track. I mentioned that I hoped Margo would run in this bright, public spot instead of along back streets.
“Mother, you worry too much,” she said.
“That’s true, babe,” said Dennis.
We continued on to the student union, a clean, chilly place peppered with egglike orange chairs and recycling bins. We were stalled by an enthusiastic young man at the summer orientation table; he gave Margo a packet and led her through it piece by piece. When she told him she was a transfer student, he rushed her away to get a student ID, and Dennis and I sat down in the orange chairs. Lack of enthusiasm for sports was not, I gathered, common at the University of Florida. Everywhere I turned I saw a cartoonish orange alligator emblazoned on a T-shirt, a sign, a duffel bag. Dennis read from a brochure, then looked at me. “This is the ninth-largest school in the country,” he said.
“She’ll be swallowed whole,” I said.
Margo returned and we left the air-conditioning to wander through campus. Gainesville, I realized with difficulty, would become Margo’s home, filled with places she liked to go hiking and neighborhoods she preferred over other neighborhoods. We walked her up to her room and lingered at the door. Diana was out. Dennis kept it light. “You can still hightail it home with us, pronto,” he said. “We’ll flatten that bald boy if he tries to stop us.” Margo laughed and remained, for that moment, clear-eyed.
“Wait here,” I said, and slipped past them into the room. I fished in my purse for the freezer bag of confetti and sprinkled a bit on Margo’s bedspread, and a little more on her desk. Then I stepped out and told her I was proud of her and hugged her good-bye. I kept my tears in the back of my throat, and on the long drive home Dennis and I tried to make conversation, but it didn’t come. The car felt so empty that when we spoke I almost expected to hear an echo.
After we returned from Gainesville, I fell into a routine of driving over to the Biltmore most evenings after supper to hit against the backboard. This was in addition to twice-weekly practices and a match every other weekend. To my surprise, I did not find reasons not to go to practice—in fact, I stayed late more often than not to hit with other members of the team. Also to my surprise, I quickly became a better player. The games I played took on an air of serious competition—I was truly heartened when I won, truly disheartened when I was defeated. I lost ten pounds. My legs took on a firmer shape, and all that time outdoors gave me a deep tan, with sock lines. Every so often when I missed a shot that I should have made, I cursed under my breath. “Easy,” Jack would say. “Next time, Frances.”
Another player who took the team seriously was Jane. After only a few practices in, as I watched her lunge for a shot near the net and grimace when she didn’t make it, I realized how I knew her. She had aged, and her hair was shorter with more prominent streaks of gray, but Jane was Bette’s ex-girlfriend—her first girlfriend, the one with whom she had gone diving all those years before. Jane had been married then, but now she wore no wedding ring. She wore almost no jewelry at all, only small gold posts in her ears. There was something distinguished about her features, something noble. I could see, vaguely, what had attracted Bette.
“You’ll never guess who plays tennis with me,” I said to Dennis one evening when we were getting ready for bed. But when I told him, he didn’t remember Jane. At that time, Suzanne was living in Bette’s house in Coconut Grove. They’d found an abandoned black lab puppy and were devoted to him; every night they took him for a three-mile walk. Bette had sold her dive shop to a franchise and spent her days sailing or tending her backyard. When Dennis and I visited, they served curry and good wine. They listened to folk music I knew I’d like if only I knew more about it. They had season tickets to the opera. Suzanne was a real estate agent and drove a Porsche and wore fine, draping tunics and wide-legged pants. They spoke German together—Suzanne’s father had been in the service and her family had lived briefly in Hamburg—and Bette had taught Suzanne to scuba-dive.
Jane tended to outplay the rest of the team, along with Rodrigo. His wife, Twyla, was one of three women on the team who knew each other socially, all of whom were a little on the bawdy side and very pretty in the blond, well-coiffed way of many Coral Gables women. They wore tennis skirts with grosgrain ribbon waistbands and matching tops. One morning they passed me on the stairs as I went up to the lounge for an iced tea—I knew they liked to congregate there after practice, usually with mimosas—and Twyla said, “Oops, it’s the teacher’s pet,” and sidestepped to let me pass.
“Ha,” I said. “Hardly.”
Jack was sitting in a leather club chair by the windows; I sat next to him with my iced tea. “You’re hustling out there,” he said. He clicked his glass against mine. It wasn’t the first time he’d let me know I was doing well. That morning, in fact, I’d gotten several points off Jane, though she’d mentioned afterward that she’d been up late with her sick cat. Jack gestured toward my racket. “You need an upgrade,” he said. “It’s time, Frances.”
I’d mentioned to Dennis that I needed a new racket, and he’d told me to go ahead and buy one, for goodness’ sake—he didn’t like it when I pinched pennies—but I’d been holding off. Jack took my racket and pressed his palm against the strings. Physically, there was much about him that reminded me of Dennis: the scattered gray in his hair, the freckles on his arms, the light-colored eyes. But Jack was larger in size, broader and taller, and his hair was black. His eyes were a little close-set. He crossed his legs when he sat down, which was a move with just enough femininity to enhance his masculinity. When he did this—as when he put his hand flat against my back while I was serving, or when he stood at the sidelines with his sunglasses on and his clipboard against his chest, watching me and interjecting a coaching point every so often—I felt a distinct longing.
“I know,” I said to Jack, and took my racket back.
“Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you try out a few? See what you like, and I’ll buy it here with my discount.”
My face got hot. “I can’t let you do that.”
“Don’t be so sensitive, Frances.”
I was caught off guard. It was an intimate thing to say, and his tone was disarming. I thought of my clothes—there was nothing wrong with them, nothing shoddy. In fact, my clean white tennis skirts were both new, and I’d been wearing the diamond earrings Dennis had given me on our fifteenth anniversary, because they stayed out of the way and looked sporty when I had my hair pulled back. I thought also of my car, which was in good shape, the better of our two. “Of course you’re right,” I said, gathering my things to leave. Jack stood, too, and we walked out together.
“Well,” I said as we walked. “What do you recommend?”
“You should try out a few, see what suits you.”
“They’ll let me do that?”
“They have to. Everyone’s different. Spend some time with each. Don’t forget to show your left shoulder on your forehand.”
“I’ll try to get to it this week,” I said.
“Why don’t I go with you?”
We reached my car and I opened the door. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “Really, I’ll get a new racket. I promise.” I slid into the driver’s seat, and when I did my skirt pulled high on my thighs—thighs that had, along with my waistline, tightened a bit in the past weeks. He stood in the door with his hand on the hood. I caught a whiff of his scent—sweaty but clean, with a ghost of the cologne he’d applied that morning. “Frances—”
“No, you’re absolutely right,” I said. It had been years since I’d blushed, and now it seemed I couldn’t stop. I looked at my watch without registering the time.
“You don’t want company? I’m a professional.”
I shook my head. “I’ll figure it out.”
He shut my door and leaned down to talk through the window. “I know I’m pushy,” he said.
“You are pushy,” I said. “I needed a push.”
He stepped away, and I sat still for a moment. In my peripheral vision Jack walked across the parking lot toward the tennis center, and his figure diminishing in the distance had the power of a person standing squarely in my vision, staring me straight on. That night after dinner, I brought three rented rackets back to the Biltmore to hit against the backboard, and within half an hour had decided which one I would buy.
Margo came home for July Fourth weekend, and we went to Stiltsville to watch the fireworks over the skyline. From the porch we could see several small pockets of them sweeping from downtown to the Everglades. When Dennis stepped inside for a moment, Margo turned to me. “I have a request,” she said. In the reflection of her eyes, tiny blooms of red and white light burst and fell. Her hair was damp and kinky from the saltwater and she smelled of coconut oil.
Her request was this: when the fall semester started, she wanted to move out of the dorms and into an apartment complex off campus. “It’s only a couple of blocks away,” she said. “It’s practically student housing—they pair you up if you don’t have a roommate.”
“What’s the rent?” I said.
“It’s about the same.”
Dennis returned to the porch and sat in the rocking chair between me and Margo. “Margo wants to live off campus,” I said.
“What’s this?” he said.
“It’s not so different from the dorms,” she said. “Except I’d have a kitchen and no adviser.”
“How is Joshua?” I said.
“He’s fine.” She touched her cheek. “I went out with him.”
“Alopecia?” said Dennis.
“Yes, Dad. We saw a play. His friend was in it.”
“Are you going to see him again?” I said.
It was clear to me that this was disappointing.
“Why not?” said Dennis. “Is it because of his hair?”
“Of course not,” she said. “I think he’s cute.”
“Then why not?”
Margo started to speak, then stopped. The bursting of the fireworks reached us in waves, a second after their lights had started to fade. “Because he doesn’t like me,” she said.
Dennis waved a hand. “Other fish. Where did this apartment idea come from?”
I assumed the two topics were at least loosely linked, but Dennis didn’t need to know that.
“I know some people who live there,” she said.
“You wouldn’t need a car?” said Dennis.
Margo shook her head. “Tons of people do it. Especially upperclassmen. There’s not enough room in the dorms for everyone.”
“But it’s only your first year away from home,” I said. “Can’t this wait?”
Margo ignored me and explained the costs: the rent was a little more expensive, but she wouldn’t have to buy the university’s meal plan, which would make up the difference.
“You’ll cook?” said Dennis.
“Sure,” said Margo. She had never cooked much, but I didn’t see any reason why she couldn’t start.
“We’ll think about it,” said Dennis. “And sweetheart, don’t worry about the boy.”
Kathleen Beck’s twin daughters attended the University of Florida. I had the notion that I might call Kathleen—whose husband, Marcus, had recently left her for his high school sweetheart—and ask her if she’d heard anything about living off campus, or about the apartments where Margo wanted to live. Margo went inside to brush her teeth and Dennis and I ferried the mattresses from the bunk room to the porch, and while I was tucking the sheets under the corners, fighting a bit with the rising wind, Dennis said, “I’m not inclined to go along on this one.”
I remember it so clearly, with an ache in my gut: he was not inclined. And because I was the mother, I felt the nudge to fill in for her. I said, “The dorms don’t really seem to suit her.”
“Who knows what suits her?” he said. He was exasperated. No matter what we provided for Margo, it seemed, there was always something more she wanted. Kathleen Beck would be no help: her daughters were willowy, complacent things. He said, “It just seems like I’m constantly having to shift my expectations.”
“Parenthood,” I said. “If you don’t want her to do it, then she won’t.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “If you think it’s fine, it’s fine.”
“I think it’s probably fine,” I said, and when Margo returned to the porch, I shuffled away to the mattress nearest the outside railing and Dennis went inside to sleep in the big bedroom. The water beneath us slapped against the pilings. I asked Margo to remind me of the name of the apartment building where she wanted to live. She answered: Williamsburg Village Apartments. I remember thinking that this was a bland, nondescript name that I would likely forget. Moreover, I did forget, and a month later when she moved in (without us, with the assistance of a friend who owned a truck) I asked for the name again. And every time I forwarded mail or addressed an envelope for Dennis, who had a habit of cutting out newspaper articles and sending them to her with a greeting scribbled along one side, I had to work to recall it.
Jack noticed my new racket as soon as I stepped onto the court. I was late, and he was already running a volley drill. He paused only a second when I arrived, time enough to nod at me as I pulled my new racket out of its cover. I got in the back of the line, behind Jane.
“New racket?” she said. “It’s about time.”
I felt bold. Maybe it was the bright day, the breeze that had returned after going missing, or the image I’d caught of myself that morning in the hall mirror, my strong tanned arms and legs, my pretty face. How had I forgotten, for so long, that I was attractive? “You know, Jane,” I said as we shuffled forward in line, “I know you.”
She frowned. “How is Bette?”
This threw me. “She’s wonderful.”
“She always worshipped you.”
“We worship each other.” She was next in line, and started to bounce a little on the balls of her feet, shifting her weight from side to side. You certainly take yourself seriously, I thought. “How’s your husband?” I said.
“I’m divorced,” she said. “How’s yours?”
I didn’t have time to answer. It was her turn to hit, but instead of rushing up for the volley as the exercise required, she hit high and long, and then it was my turn. After practice, Jack and I headed toward the parking lot together, and as we walked he reached over and took my new racket from my hand and in the same motion handed me his racket. The back of his arm brushed briefly against my stomach, but he didn’t apologize or smile awkwardly like a person without a certain level of intimacy would, and when we reached my car he handed my racket back. “Good choice,” he said.
It was a week later that Jack and I had lunch together. He’d been frustrated that day—several players had not shown up, and the heat was stifling, making us sluggish—and afterward I’d offered to buy him a soda, and he’d said, “I’m hungry. Are you hungry?” It was Wednesday and Dennis was at work. We went in his car to a Cuban restaurant in Little Havana and ate beans and rice and eggs with hot sauce and drank
“Whose idea was it?” I said. “The team, I mean.”
He pointed to himself and rolled his eyes. “I’d had a few clients who’d asked about it, so I thought it might get a good response.”
“Sure, but it’s waning now. Their hearts aren’t in it.”
I blushed a little and looked away, out the window toward the midday traffic, the pedestrians with their grocery bags and trailing toddlers. We talked about our spouses. He’d met his through a friend; she didn’t play tennis. I told him that I’d met Dennis on a visit to Miami, that I’d never before thought of moving here. He told me he’d grown up in the Keys, on Islamorada, and had moved to Miami after a run on the pro tour.
“Did you go to one of those schools where the bus drives on the beach?” I said.
“I walked to school,” he said. “And you’re not the first person to ask me that.”
He picked up the check, and when we were back in the hot car, he said, “I’m free the rest of the day. I was thinking of going to the beach.”
“It’s a perfect day for it,” I said.
“Come with me?” he said.
Of course my first instinct was to decline, but at that moment I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do. I directed him to my house and he waited in the car while I ran inside. Dennis had shut the curtains to keep out the heat during the day, and the house was still and shrouded. I put on my bathing suit and a cotton skirt and flip-flops, then put some sodas in a small cooler. I grabbed a magazine and sunscreen and towels and threw it all into a bag.
“Nice house,” said Jack when I stepped back into the car. It was nice enough, certainly—a good-size ranch with creamy yellow stucco and a terra-cotta roof, not the nicest on the block but holding its own. We drove to Key Biscayne with the windows down. Along Virginia Key, windsurfers dipped and meandered just offshore. “I used to know how to windsurf,” I said. “Once upon a time.” Years before, after Marse taught me, I’d windsurfed every so often, to jog between stilt houses or take a quick run down the channel, but it had never become second nature and eventually I’d given it up.
“You should get back to it,” he said. “You have good balance.”
This was something Jack did—he made pronouncements about a person, like he’d been studying up. “Maybe I will,” I said.
The beach was not crowded. I looked away while Jack wrapped a towel around his waist and changed into his swim trunks, then we headed toward the sand. There was a Cuban family having a picnic and some surfers doing very little with the meager waves. We laid our towels on the sand and Jack took off his shirt. He went straight to the water while I applied sunscreen, but then after a few minutes the heat found my lungs and hair, and I went to join him. When I was waist-deep my nipples hardened from the chill of the water, and out of embarrassment I dove under, and came up near Jack.
“I love Miami,” he said. “Paradise.”
“You sound like my husband.”
We swam out another twenty yards, to a shoal where we could sit in the low water and look back at the beach. The Cuban family started packing up, and the surfers paddled south, away from the point. “It’s amazing how rarely I actually come to the beach,” I said. It had been a year, maybe more. When Margo had been a little girl, once a week we’d bring sandwiches and sit on an old blanket and maybe Dennis would go for a swim or we’d all wade around in the surf, then head back home at sunset.
“Do you work?” he said.
“Part-time.” I was still considering increasing my hours. The fact that I was at the beach on a Wednesday afternoon seemed a good argument for it. I asked Jack what his wife did for a living, and he said she was the creative director at the science museum. “I haven’t been there in ages,” I said. I’d chaperoned a field trip when Margo was in second grade, then again when she was in seventh. I remembered Margo’s silhouette fading from the shadow wall. I remembered a cyclone-shaped drain where she had sent a penny spinning and spinning until it dropped. “You don’t have kids?” I said.
“Never did,” he said.
“My daughter will be a junior at UF in the fall. She transferred there. It’s her first time away from home.”
“Big adjustment,” he said.
We were reclining in the shallow water, propped up on our elbows. The exposed part of my bathing suit dried quickly in the sunlight; the mix of cool and hot was delicious. I felt magnetic and aroused—not by Jack exactly, or by Jack only, but by the heat on my suit and the smell of the air and sand, by Jack’s strong legs and the dark hair that covered them, and by my own body, even. There was no question I was attracted to Jack, and I knew in that moment that he was equally attracted to me—there was a pull between us. But all at once it was too much. I knew that if I waited another long moment he would touch me. Alarms in my head sounded distantly, then grew louder. Without thinking, I scooted to the deeper water. “I’m going in,” I said. He moved forward as if to reach for me, but I turned away and started to swim, then dove through the water until the beach rose up and I could stand.
In the Biltmore parking lot, Jack kept the car running while I gathered my things. “Next time we’ll try windsurfing,” he said, and I said, “Sure.” As I climbed into my car, my hands trembled, and I had the thought that there was a great doorway opening to me, with all kinds of pleasure waiting on the far side. I wondered if I had either the necessary courage or the necessary foolishness to pass through.
That weekend Dennis and I drove down south and picked blueberries and blackberries, but it was late in the season and they were good only for preserves. We shared a milk shake in the car on the way back and stopped at a nursery owned by Dennis’s old friend Paul, but Paul wasn’t there and we didn’t buy anything. I rolled down my window even though Dennis had turned on the air conditioner. He followed my lead and rolled his down, too. We passed fields dotted with migrant workers, and roadside stands advertising key limes and tomatoes. “You’re not here,” he said to me. “Where are you?” At home, he watched football while I jarred preserves, and when I was done I put five tightly sealed containers in the cupboard. That night I led him to the bedroom and had sex with him, my eyes closed.
One Friday night in early August we went to Bette’s for dinner. She and Suzanne served seared tuna and sake, and after dinner we lay on lounge chairs in the backyard, watching the kidney-shaped swimming pool. Bette had bought the house when she’d sold her business. It was a one-story bungalow nestled in a wooded part of the Grove, with a carport and heavily textured stucco walls painted earthy colors—taupe in the kitchen, butterscotch in the living room—and the rugs were all kilim. “Bette,” I said to her when Dennis and Suzanne were engaged in conversation. “You’ll never guess who’s on my tennis team.”
She smirked. “I can’t believe you’re playing tennis,” she said. “You’re so suburban.”
“I know, but guess.”
“You said I’d never guess it.”
“I’ll just take one guess, then.” The pool bubbled quietly. Dennis and Suzanne were discussing real estate, and Suzanne was saying that South Beach was
I looked at her. She wore an ankle-length batik sundress and gold chain earrings. “How did you know?”
“I ran into her the other day at the dry cleaner. I see her every so often, around.”
I lowered my voice. “You see her?”
“Oh, Frances. For a while there she was dating my friend Tina. You know Tina, with the art.”
“I can’t stand her,” I said.
“Jane? Really? She was saying what a good player you’ve become.”
This surprised me. “She’s the best on the team.”
“She said that, too.”
Dennis and Suzanne were arguing lightly about property taxes, whether the cap was good for Miami in the long run. I felt a little sleepy from the sake and the food. Bette said, “Jane said you’re pretty tight with the instructor.”
Bette’s face was a mask. “I wouldn’t say we’re tight, no,” I said. “He’s a good coach.”
“And handsome, Jane says.”
I didn’t answer. She got up to refill our drinks. Suzanne was speaking intently to Dennis—“There’s more money in Florida real estate right now than in tourism and citrus combined,” she was saying—and over her shoulder Dennis looked at me. His eyes lingered for a moment and I felt a small stirring inside, and then thought of that day at the beach with Jack. I lay back on the lounge chair and thought again of what might have happened if I had not swum away. This was my new private pastime. Dennis and I had been having the best sex we’d had in a decade. This alone, if not something else, would give me away, I thought. And then I felt a rush of gratitude for myself, for the me who’d backed away at the beach, for the me who’d made the right choice.
Bette returned and handed me a glass. “You know what I’ve always liked about you and Dennis?”
“We bring dessert,” I said.
“You stay up late. All these couples we know, they’re in bed by nine.”
It was after midnight. A car alarm was going off nearby. Bette and Suzanne’s dog had come outside and was standing in the water on the top step of the swimming pool, looking around warily like a self-conscious woman in a bathing suit.
Before we left, Bette handed me a poinsettia in a copper pot. “Someone gave it to me,” she said. “I thought of you.”
It was compact, its flowers immature but bright. “I’m not sure I have a place for it.”
“You’ll find one. Be strong, woman.”
In the car, Dennis said, “What was that about? Being strong?”
“Your sister is strange,” I said. “Drive carefully. You’ve been drinking.”
I balanced the plant between my knees. I didn’t want it, and I knew I would eventually let it die. Bette knew it, too—I realized this in a rush—and that’s why she’d given it to me. She’d seen the flow of plants through my household over the past two decades. It was easier for her to give it to me, which she knew meant certain death, than to keep it and watch it die on her own. If she’d kept it, she would have rescued it from near-death out of guilt, then let it subside, then rescued it again. This could go on for years. “Stop the car for a second,” I said to Dennis.
He pulled over. We were at the corner of LeJeune and Barbarossa, in front of Merrie Christmas park, which I knew had once been a rock quarry. It now was a grassy basin filled with craggy banyans and a jungle gym. As a little girl Margo had swung from the vines. I took the plant, walked into the dark park, and placed it in the middle of a picnic table. I wanted to write a note—TAKE ME—but I didn’t have a pen or paper.
“That seems ungracious,” said Dennis when I got back into the car.
“Maybe,” I said. “But it’s exactly what she would do if she were me.”
Margo came home for a week before the start of the fall semester. She was settled into her apartment by this time—she’d been assigned a roommate, Janelle, whose boyfriend more or less lived with them, which concerned me—and we’d planned to spend some time shopping for kitchen necessities. As soon as she got off the bus, she said she needed to find a pay phone. She’d left the oven on, she told me, or thought she might have. Janelle’s boyfriend answered and she asked him to check. We waited. It was a muggy night, starry and bright with moonlight. She’d gained some weight since July Fourth weekend; her face was rounder, her jeans tight against her stomach. She caught me staring. “Stop looking at me, Mom,” she said. “So I put on a few pounds, so what?”
“So what, indeed?” I tried to sound breezy.
Margo spoke into the phone. “God, I thought so. Why do I always do that?”
“You really left it on?” I said. My breath caught. Would my daughter burn down her building?
She hung up. “I made toast this morning,” she said to me. “I left the broiler on.”
I hadn’t known Margo to use the word
She threw up her hands and walked off toward the car. We’d been together ten minutes and already we were bouncing off each other like we did sometimes. “Are you hungry?” I said, and she said, “Starving.”
We went to a Mexican restaurant in downtown Coconut Grove, an area that at this hour was busy and frenetic. I paid to park and took her arm as we walked down Grand Avenue, past a pair of unwashed teenagers playing guitars on the sidewalk, then past a man wearing a JESUS SAVES sandwich board. At the restaurant, we slid into a corner booth and Margo dove into the tortilla chips and salsa. I ordered a margarita on the rocks and Margo said, “The same” and the waitress wrote it down without even looking at her.
“Well!” I said when we were alone.
“It’s OK, right?” she said. “I mean, I can drink.”
“I guess I don’t see why not.”
I avoided the chips and ordered my enchilada with no sour cream. “Are you on a diet?” said Margo.
“I mean, you look good.”
“It’s the tennis.”
“I’ll come watch tomorrow,” she said.
It hadn’t occurred to me to bring Margo to practice—would she even enjoy it? “That would be wonderful,” I said.
That night I checked the oven before going to bed, then in the middle of the night woke with the thought of Margo burning down her apartment, and couldn’t get back to sleep. In the morning I found her and Dennis in the kitchen, drinking coffee. The newspaper covered the breakfast table. “We were talking about heading down south,” said Dennis, “maybe taking a ride on an airboat.”
I felt a rush of relief that Margo wouldn’t be coming to practice with me. “Sure,” I said. “When will you be home? Should I make dinner?”
Dennis looked at me strangely. “You don’t want to come?”
“Of course I do. But I have practice.”
“You can miss one, can’t you?”
I felt my jaw clench. It wasn’t an unreasonable request, I told myself. I was probably the only one who had never missed. “I’d rather not.”
“We’ll come with you to practice, then we’ll all go,” said Margo.
“Sounds good,” I said. I asked Margo where this idea—the Everglades, the airboat ride—had come from.
“I was thinking about it the other day,” she said. “I remembered that place down Tamiami Trail, with the frogs’ legs.”
“You wouldn’t eat them last time we went,” I said.
“I’ll eat them now.”
At the club, Margo and Dennis followed me to the gazebo between the courts. Jane and Rodrigo were hitting and Jack was sitting in the shade with a cup of coffee, his visor pulled low on his forehead. He stood up as we approached. “Visitors!” he said. He put out his hand to Dennis, and I introduced them.
“Is my mom going pro?” said Margo.
“She’s on her way. The new racket helps.”
Margo had admired my racket in the car. She’d commented on the scratches and dings it had accumulated—I’d noticed this, too, and felt the pride of ownership that comes with using something hard.
“Mind if we stick around?” said Dennis.
“It’s OK with me if it’s OK with Frances,” said Jack. “We’re going to work on ground strokes,” he said. “Frances? Want to fill that hopper?” Jack touched my elbow briefly, a gesture of familiarity. I saw Dennis notice the gesture, and wondered if Jack had done it on purpose. I took the hopper two courts away to pick up tennis balls. Jack had probably been working on his serve before practice started. I’d caught him at it half a dozen times by now, and each time had watched his strength and control during the toss and follow-through, the power of his body. From across the courts I could hear the cadence of Jack’s and Dennis’s voices—and every so often Margo’s—but I couldn’t hear their words. The men stood facing my direction, both with their arms crossed against their chests. Margo sat Indian-style in a chair. When I returned to the gazebo, the hopper full, Dennis was saying, “I saw him play once,” and Jack said, “Yeah?”
“The man is a tree,” said Dennis.
Jack laughed. “He’s a big boy.”
“Who?” I said.
They looked at me. “Boris Becker,” said Jack. He took the hopper. “Was that ’eighty-six?” he said to Dennis.
“I believe so,” said Dennis.
Dennis didn’t care about professional tennis. Years earlier, Margo had worked as a ball girl at a tournament on Key Biscayne, and Dennis had enjoyed watching her sprint across the court for the ball, then snap into position at the edge of the net. When he’d clapped, he’d clapped because she had made a good ball-girl move, like managing three balls at once while Jimmy Connors barked at her to get him a different one.
Jack lined us up at the baseline for a drill: we each took a turn hitting three rapid-fire shots. I’d never hit the third shot before, but this morning I did. Jack called “That a girl!” and then it was the next player’s turn. I couldn’t resist glancing over toward the gazebo where Dennis and Margo both sat watching from behind sunglasses. Dennis gave me a thumbs-up and Margo waved, and I felt ebullient.
After an hour of drills, I was paired with Jane—we were expected to play at least one set at the end of each practice—and as we walked together to a court several down from where Dennis and Margo still sat, looking a little bored by this point, Jane said, “Your daughter is lovely.”
“How nice of you to say so,” I said.
“She’s in college?”
I explained about her transferring to the University of Florida and the summer class she’d taken, how she would be a regular student there in the fall. The fall, as it were, started in a week. Summer was almost finished. As for the tennis team, there were only four weeks left, but I was leaning toward rejoining. During the year the teams traveled and played in tournaments against other country club teams: Delray Beach, Bal Harbor, South Miami, and as far north as Naples, West Palm Beach, even Sarasota.
“I went to UF,” she said. “Where’s she living?”
We’d reached the court and were standing at the net. She was balancing a ball on her racket strings, bouncing it evenly.
“Off campus,” I said.
She cocked her head at me. “For her first year there?”
“Are you ready?” I said.
She turned toward her baseline. “Right, not my business.”
I regretted immediately the tone I’d taken. “It’s just that there are so many little battles,” I said.
She nodded. “Want to serve?”
She won the set 6–4, and when we finished I found Dennis and Margo in the lounge—they’d wandered away mid-game—drinking iced teas at a table in a corner.
“We can see you from here,” said Margo. “You lost?”
“I never get more than a few games off her,” I said.
“Your coach said to tell him before you leave,” Margo said. I thought I noticed a look on Dennis’s face—slightly peeved—but it vanished. I looked around—Jack wasn’t in the lounge, though he might have ducked into his little office. “I’m going to clean up,” I said. “Give me fifteen minutes.”
I showered quickly in the ladies’ locker room. Despite my loss to Jane, I felt a sense of calm pleasure. It was a feeling that often came after exercise, a feeling that I existed in a bubble of peace and leisure, and there was much good ahead. In the hallway outside the locker room, I ran into Jack. From where we stood, all that was visible of the lounge was one side of the bar, where the bartender sat on a stool reading a book. I could not see Dennis and Margo, who were presumably still seated in the far corner of the room.
Jack had changed from his whites into a navy polo shirt, open at the collar. He was a man I could imagine wearing a gold chain, though on most men I found jewelry unseemly. “Nice work,” he said.
“I only won four games,” I said.
“You’re getting there.”
He had a way of staring that glued me in place. “You’re interested in the Thursday night team, right?” he said.
“Probably. I’d like to play some doubles.” The Thursday night team, I knew, assigned doubles partners, and then the players split time between doubles and singles. Every team played on Saturdays, too, but each was known by the evening when they met during the week. There was a Tuesday night team, which was for little old ladies—this was Jack’s assessment—and a Friday night team, which was more or less composed of young moms.
“It’s a good choice for you,” he said.
I took a small step to my right, the start of a move to end the conversation, but he shifted almost imperceptibly to his left, and though he wasn’t blocking me by any stretch, I paused. I said, “We’re off to the Everglades. Margo wants to try frogs’ legs.”
He nodded distractedly. Then he did something that I thought—even in the moment I thought this—was incautious and at the same time uncertain: he reached up and brushed a lock of hair from my shoulder, and then his hand trailed down my arm, and with a look that was both sad and very sexy, he stepped away, through the door of the men’s locker room. There, standing several feet behind where Jack had been, was Margo. Our eyes met. She spoke immediately, which was good because for a split second I feared neither of us would speak. She said, “Are you ready?” and I smiled my most easygoing smile—that smile was, in the end, one of the most duplicitous acts of my marriage—and said, “Yes! This is going to be fun.”
We took an airboat ride through the swamps of Coopertown, population eight, and stopped to watch a family of alligators sunning in the shallows. Water lapped quietly at the tin edges of the boat—it was a flat-bottomed, lightweight vessel with a cage over the propeller, which I knew was standard at least in part because Dennis’s great-grandfather, Grady’s grandfather, had fallen into the blades of an early model and died from his injuries. I had the thought that even though all the gators were at the moment uniformly still and silent, they could burst into frantic, terrifying motion at any moment. And then all at once, the largest one did just that—his tail whipped first, then his gigantic jaw, and he scurried not toward us but away, into the sawgrass. I gripped Dennis when it happened, and Margo gripped me, and we clung to each other, laughing uneasily, as the two smaller alligators followed their leader. Back on land, we shared a basket of frogs’ legs and chatted with the mayor of Coopertown, a salty man in his seventies who wore a silver alligator ring and a trucker cap, and who owned both the airboat company and the caf?.
If Margo was suspicious, she didn’t say anything, and I convinced myself that what she’d witnessed was nothing a person would find inappropriate. Jack had been blocking me from view, and she might not have been able to see when he’d touched my arm. The rest of Margo’s visit was easy and relaxing. Except that when I drove her to the bus station—this was her preference, though I’d offered to drive her all the way back to school—I gave her a brief lecture about locking up at night and not bringing strange men back to her apartment, and ended with, “I don’t want you to be scared, sweetheart, but I want you to be safe,” and she’d responded by saying, “I want you to be safe, too, Mom,” and then kissed me quickly on the lips—it was something we did sometimes, on special occasions—and stepped out of the car.
Jack followed me to my car after practice the following week. I knew he was behind me, but I didn’t turn around. In the lounge, we’d both gotten drinks to go at the same time, and I’d gone into the ladies’ room to brush my hair and apply lip gloss, and when I’d come out, Jack was standing on the exterior stairs with Rodrigo. I’d walked by, and our eyes had met, and I’d known he would follow me. At my car, I looked back at him.
He kept his voice low. “Want to go windsurfing?”
I scanned the parking lot—there was no one close by. “We could just watch,” I said. I followed him to his car and he opened the passenger door for me. That day at practice he’d stood at the sidelines while I’d served, and every time I’d sliced one perfectly over the net he’d clapped or said, “Nice one,” or—this was the thing that made my stomach pitch—“Good girl.” With each serve I’d felt myself getting brighter and hotter, as if channeling a great energy into each toss and hit, until he was called over to another court. My serves had grown messy and uneven then, and I’d had to sit down.
We drove through Coconut Grove toward Key Biscayne. We passed my first residence in Florida: the apartment over Main Highway, where I’d lived with Bette before marrying Dennis. I knew I jeopardized my marriage by even being in Jack’s little sports car, both of us in tennis clothes, his knee next to my knee, his forearm next to mine. I’d spent hours thinking about what it would be like to really touch him, to run my hand over his chest or along his arm. But I didn’t believe that until that day I’d done anything Dennis should have known about.
We passed the giant moving billboard for the Seaquarium, its circling mechanical shark like a restless zombie, and Jack handed a dollar to a woman in the tollbooth. Then as we started again on our way, the blue bay stretching out on either side of the causeway, I moved my hand just an inch, and the back of my fingers met Jack’s arm. He glanced quickly at me and shifted gears, then touched my knee with his fingertips, then shifted again. My heartbeat quickened. We pulled into the long asphalt strip of parking lot that ran parallel to Virginia Key beach. Before Jack turned off the ignition I knew that I’d made only part of a decision and could still change direction. I thought that another woman’s fantasy of Jack might involve candlelight and music, whereas mine involved tongues and fingers and a certain roughness I wasn’t used to. We looked at each other quickly before getting out of the car. Jack’s jaw was set—he was nervous, I realized. This was discomforting; if something was going to happen, it had to happen because he made it happen. He opened the trunk and pulled out the towel he’d brought on our last trip to the beach. In my memory the sunlight that day had been clear and white, whereas on this day the light was golden and thick. The two beaches were very different: Bill Baggs Park, where we’d gone the first time, was wide and white-sanded, clean. The slender strip of sand where we stood now was wet and dark, laced with seaweed. Rickenbacker Causeway, where cars raced to and from Key Biscayne, was a stone’s throw.
Jack closed the trunk and we took off our shoes and moved toward the water until our feet were wet. The windsurfers were all there, as if they’d come beforehand to set up. They wore brightly colored shorts and their hair dripped onto their shoulders. They were all men. They were muscular and confident, even when they fell, even when climbing back onto the board and lifting the sail out of the water. Jack walked away from the shoreline toward a short, fat date palm. He spread out the towel. I followed him, and we sat down with a foot of space between us. The view of the windsurfers, the breeze, the warm air—it was all lulling. I hugged my knees, then rested back on my elbows. My ankles were pale; my toenails were painted light pink. Jack got up and went to his car and came back with a sweatshirt and another towel, and he balled up the sweatshirt and handed it to me, so I could use it as a pillow. When he sat down again he was closer to me. We lay back. The traffic was only twenty yards away, but I felt invisible to the passing cars and to the men windsurfing, who were absorbed utterly by the task of staying afloat. I felt Jack’s body next to mine, parallel, untouching, and I closed my eyes and concentrated on the heat between us. It felt like a blanket, but like a blanket when it’s being pulled slowly off of one’s body, the slither against the skin. Jack’s forearm lay over his eyes. “Are you sleepy?” I said softly.
He looked at me, at my eyes and forehead and lips. “Yes. Are you?”
I nodded. My mouth was open. My body was still but pushed to the limits of stillness—I was poised on the edge of moving, toward him or away from him, I wasn’t sure. He, too, was on the verge of moving, I could sense, but we stayed still and I closed my eyes again, waiting for either his mouth on me, or his hands on my body, or for nothing at all. He might have been waiting, too. We ended up dozing on the sand, and as I half-slept I felt the shade of the palm fronds moving over my body, back and forth in the breeze like a hand.
We slept for just under an hour. When I woke, Jack was sitting up with his legs crossed, facing the water. I touched his back and smiled when he turned around. A look briefly appeared on his face—a cross between fear and desire. I was hot, sweating along my brow and behind my knees. I got up and walked to the surf while Jack shook out the towel and folded it up and put it back in his car, along with the sweatshirt and towel we’d used as pillows.
“My body feels like Jell-O,” I said when he joined me at the shoreline.
“You’ll be sore tomorrow,” he said. He was referring to practice that day, to the dozens of serves and volleys.
“I can feel it starting already,” I said.
All of a sudden he’d moved behind me and pressed himself against my back, his mouth in the hair at my neck. His hands pulled against my hips. I felt off balance, like I might fall, but he was solid on his feet and held my weight. He hardened against my back. His breath on my neck came in bursts, like he’d been running. He made a sound like a soft grunt and his hand slipped under the front of my shirt and pressed against my stomach. I put my hand over his and his breathing in my ear slowed. I felt his mouth and nose move against my neck, his hot breath. Then he moved away. By the time I turned around he was walking back up the beach toward the car. He stopped at the door on the driver’s side and looked back at me, and I followed, still catching my breath. He got in, and I got in, and for a moment we sat there, not saying anything. “I’m sorry,” he said.
I wanted to say, I’m not. But then I thought that if I wasn’t now, I would be. “Don’t be,” I said.
“You do something to me.”
“We do it to each other,” I said, and I knew that by saying it aloud we’d cut the taut line that ran between us, and it would fall.
Marse’s brother, Kyle, married his second wife in late August in the Church of the Little Flower, down the street from the Biltmore Hotel, and the reception was held in the Biltmore’s main ballroom. Kyle had been there the day Dennis and I had met, and we’d hired Kyle’s contracting firm when we’d built the addition on the house, and so I suppose he’d felt obligated to invite us even though we hadn’t seen each other socially in years. Or maybe Marse, who was in the wedding party, added our names so she would have someone to dish with.
Bette called while I was getting dressed for the wedding, and I answered the kitchen phone in my panty hose while fishing with one hand through my purse for lipstick. “Suzanne wants to move,” Bette said. I pictured her rolling her eyes, her tight-lipped grimace. “She thinks the house is too small. She wants a garage, for crying out loud.”
I loved her house, which is what I told her. “But if Suzanne’s not happy there . . . ,” I said.
“She’s concerned about the investment.” She exhaled loudly. “She says we need to put our money where it can grow.”
“It is growing.”
“She said something about closet space.”
“Well, she has a point there.”
“And she says she’s tired of Miami.”
I put down my purse. “What does that mean? Where does she want to go?”
“I shouldn’t have told you. I knew you’d panic.”
“I’m not panicking,” I said. She’d never mentioned moving away before, not even once. It had never occurred to me that this was even possible.
She said, “Maybe what I need is a new girlfriend,” but she didn’t sound convinced.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I guess I have a decision to make,” she said before hanging up. “I hate that.”
Later that night, I found myself huddled with Marse on a divan in the corner of the Biltmore ballroom, a plate of hors d’oeuvres between us. Marse was telling me about the bride, a management consultant with very fresh-looking breasts and heavy white-blond bangs. “She’s not quite as young as she looks,” she said. “Kyle was drunk at the rehearsal. He was saying all sorts of crap. He said women our age are bitter, so he steers clear. He said he hoped she didn’t get bitter. I told him it was inevitable.”
“I am, he said. Single women my age are. You get to a certain point, he said.”
“Men shouldn’t use that word.”
“No, they shouldn’t. I didn’t mention that there’s a word for men his age who live in condos and buy black leather furniture.”
“Loser?” I said, and she nodded. Kyle wasn’t exactly a loser, but he had grown untidy with age; his hair was unkempt, and he didn’t put much thought into his wardrobe. But he’d made some money and drove a very silly car—something sporty and expensive, which I assumed younger women liked. His first wife, Julia, was a potter with a studio in Coconut Grove. Over the years I’d bought several of her pieces as gifts. She was at the wedding, too, and from where Marse and I were sitting, I could see her having what seemed to be an engrossing conversation with a man I didn’t recognize. She wore a light peach tunic and pearly white slacks. “Julia looks great,” I said.
“Kyle said she couldn’t be happier for him.” Marse pulled at the top of her dress, smoothing it out. “I’m too old to be a bridesmaid. I’m too old to have other people pick out my clothes.” She wore a garnet-colored, strapless organza dress with a sheer, cream-colored slip that showed at the hem, and a ribbon of the same color around the waist. I thought the outfit was pretty, but it didn’t agree with Marse, who was more comfortable in a fitted suit or a short tailored dress.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
“It might even fit me now,” I said.
“You look good. I’ve been meaning to mention it.”
I was wearing a dress I’d bought more than a year earlier but had never worn, because it had never fit right. It was a black-and-white plaid taffeta sheath with a low neckline. It hit just below my knees. Truth be told, I didn’t think it was dressy enough for a wedding, but I’d wanted to wear it—it finally looked good on me, after all—so I’d added patent leather pumps and jangly crystal earrings and swept my hair up. “It’s the tennis,” I said.
I knew it was hard on Marse, going to wedding after wedding, year after year. At some point the weddings had tapered off—when we were about thirty, I suppose—but a decade later the divorces had started, and then the second marriages. In the meantime, Marse had dated a dozen handsome, emotionally unavailable men. I didn’t think she wanted to get married per se, but she wanted something. “What’s happening with that guy?” I said, thinking of Ted, the boat salesman.
“Do you want to get some air?”
I scanned the room for Dennis and saw that he was talking to Julia. I caught his eye and waved as we went out. At some point since the brief wedding service, it had started to rain. We stood under an awning in front of the hotel among guests who had come outside to have the valet get their cars. “Don’t we all look handsome,” mumbled Marse. She turned to me. “You’ve been absent lately. Is it possible you’re playing that much tennis?”
“I know. I don’t know what it is.” In the past week, I’d baked two loaves of bread and taken a nap every day. I’d been to the grocery store three times and painted two bookshelves that had been in the guest room since we’d moved into the house. They had been white, and now they were yellow. It was a modest change, but it made me happy—if not because they now matched the wallpaper, then because painting them had been on my list for so long and now was done. I hadn’t been to practice since the day at the beach with Jack, but I’d planned to return the following Wednesday and pretend nothing had ever happened.
“I thought with Margo gone you’d be a pain in my neck. How is she?”
“Fine. Apparently starting a new semester involves a lot of parties,” I said. “She’s enrolled in a class called Harbingers of Evil in Postmodern Literature. I keep meaning to ask for a copy of the syllabus. I could be one of those mothers who reads along with her child’s class.” A woman left the hotel and stepped into a black Lincoln, turning to wave as she did. I waved back. “Is that Eleanor Everest?” I said to Marse.
“Oh, God, I know—they botched her face-lift.” One of Eleanor’s cheeks drooped considerably, and the eyelid on the same side drooped as well, as if she’d been stuck with something and deflated. “She’s going to that guy in Naples to fix it, but they can’t get her in for six months. You’d think this would qualify as an emergency.”
“How did you hear all this?”
She waved a hand. “Around.” Marse’s social life had always been a bit of a mystery to me. When she was with me, when she picked me up in her Wrangler and we ran out to Dadeland mall or she came over with a movie (usually a movie she’d seen and wanted me to see), or we took her boat to Stiltsville to watch the sunset, then came back to my house to make dinner—during these times, she referred to the activities that comprised her week, often mentioning people I knew casually or men she’d dated and broken up with before I’d even heard about it. Mostly, though, she remained close with people I considered acquaintances, women from our days in the Junior League, people whose families her family had known for decades. In so many ways, Miami was a small town.
Did I think Marse had made a mistake, staying single? Did she?
When Marcus Beck had first left Kathleen, Marse and I had gone to Kathleen’s new condo for dinner, and Marse had asked her more or less the same question. “Do you miss him?” she’d said, and before I could stammer a protest—Marcus had left
I said to Marse, “Margo is living in an apartment, did I tell you that?” The rain was coming harder now, spattering the tops of my feet and ankles. Marse and I huddled closer together.
“Why would she want to do that?”
“I think it might have something to do with a boy.”
“A man,” said Marse. “She’s in college. They’re men, and she’s a woman. That’s what they want to be called, anyway.”
“I don’t think quite yet,” I said.
“You’re not ready.”
“I suppose not.”
“Who does she live with?”
At that moment, under the canopy outside the Biltmore’s stately main entrance, I could not recall her roommate’s name. “A girl from Tampa,” I said. “And I guess the girl’s boyfriend is pretty much a third roommate.”
“Have you met them?”
As a matter of fact, Margo and I had made plans that afternoon for me to come up for a weekend in October. “Not yet, but I will. Next month.”
“Do you know anything about this man?” said Marse.
“You’re interrogating me,” I said. “Margo is fine. She was paired with a roommate and she says they’re very compatible. Janelle—that’s the girl’s name. Margo gets along with the boyfriend. The apartment is right off campus—lots of kids do it, I guess. It’s common.” Even as I spoke, I felt uneasy—it had struck me as overly mature, this live-in boyfriend situation, but I’d told Dennis that I felt comforted knowing a boy would be around.
The wind was picking up, blowing around the royal palms that rimmed the Biltmore’s circular drive. Marse said, “I still think of her as thirteen years old, that brace face. Let’s get a drink. We’ll toast her independence.”
We’d had a couple of drinks each already. The bar inside the reception was serving wine, beer, and several flavors of daiquiris, which Marse had noted said a lot about the bride, and possibly about the promise of everlasting happiness. Marse didn’t want to go back to the party, so she headed to the hotel bar while I stopped in at the reception to tell Dennis where I’d be. I found him in a corner with Julia, standing close and laughing. His daiquiri was peach, hers was strawberry. Before I left them alone again, I said, “I won’t be our ride home,” and Dennis raised his glass and said, “We can take a cab.”
The hotel bar was walnut-paneled and dim, with burgundy chairs grouped around low glass tables. Marse ordered us whiskey sours, which was her drink of choice, and one I enjoyed when we were together but never once without her. “Julia is flirting with Dennis,” I said when I sat down.
“Ha!” said Marse. “Good for her.”
“Good for him,” I said. “She’s very pretty.”
“Kyle told me he was disappointed when I RSVP’d for one. That’s the word he used—he was
“Is he trying to prove that he can make a person bitter?”
“Apparently.” She drank a piece of ice, then spat it back into the glass. “Hey,” she said, “let’s swap outfits.”
We took our drinks into the powder room, which had an anteroom with chaise lounges and a wall-sized mirror, and she unzipped me, then pulled her dress over her head, revealing her lean torso and sheer, nude-colored bra. I could see the outline of her dark nipples through the fabric. I stepped out of my dress. On Marse, the bridesmaid dress had been floaty and flowing, but no matter how much thinner I’d become, I was still a good deal larger than she was, and though it zipped without a problem, it was not floaty. Where on her it had been a sort of princess dress, like something you’d find on a young girl’s doll, precious and not sexy, on me it was—well, it was
When we returned to the bar, the bartender gave no sign of noticing that we’d swapped outfits, but he did glance briefly at my cleavage, I noticed, and seemed if not impressed then at least not appalled. Marse was ordering another round when I heard a deep voice from behind us. “Well, well.”
Marse and I both turned. Jack stood there with a wiry, gray-haired man who was familiar to me from the tennis club—another pro. “Who’s this?” said Marse, not rudely but with an air of not caring about the answer to the question—an air I assumed was affected.
“Marse, this is my tennis instructor, Jack. Jack, this is my dear friend Marse.” I gripped Jack’s outstretched hand. We shook hands in the way that you do with old friends, where you don’t pump so much as just hold tightly. Jack introduced his companion as Adam. They were both wearing navy button-down shirts with the hotel’s insignia on the pocket. “Are you working?” I said, motioning to the insignia.
“More or less. There was a dinner for the board.” He gestured upstairs, where the dining room overlooked the lobby, and I wondered if he’d seen me and Marse cross the lobby, and if that was what had drawn him downstairs. He said, “We thought we’d stop for a beer before heading out.”
“We were given drink tickets,” said Adam.
“Drink tickets?” said Marse.
“It’s a bribe,” said Jack. He sat on the stool next to mine. “They’re afraid we won’t come, or if we do, we won’t schmooze. Tennis is this club’s cash cow.”
“What about golf?” I said.
“Golfers,” said Adam, rolling his eyes. He sat on the far side of Marse.
“What are you drinking?”said Jack.
“Whiskey sour,” said Marse.
“How is it?”
“Delicious,” said Marse.
I tipped back so Marse and Jack could see each other. “So Marse,” said Jack, “how’s that spelled?” Marse spelled it for him. “What do you do, Marse?” he said, and she told him, and for a moment they spoke about a man they both knew—a partner at her firm—and when Adam joined the conversation, Jack turned back to me. “I have a confession,” he said. “I knew you were in here. I saw you from upstairs. But I believe you were wearing that.” He pointed discreetly to Marse. “Very nice, either way.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I realized from the way I said it—encouragingly—that I was fairly drunk. In the mirror behind the bar, I could see the entrance to the room and most of its occupants: if Dennis arrived, I would be prepared.
“You shouldn’t stay away,” Jack said. “You don’t need to do that.” He spoke softly, but I was aware of Marse sitting beside me, her uncanny ability to read my mind, and I thought of the first day we met, at Stiltsville, when she’d known even before I had that I’d won Dennis and she’d lost him. I turned toward her, to try to pull her into the conversation, but she wasn’t there. She’d stepped a few feet away and was intent on the television behind the bar. Adam was standing, too, chatting with another man who had come in. The bartender was watching the television, and he had—I realized this without having registered it at the time—turned up the volume a moment earlier. I had the thought that maybe Marse was going to flirt with the bartender, and that Adam was occupied, and Dennis was with Julia, many steps away. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll be there Wednesday, I promise.”
“Let’s not trash your tennis career over one afternoon at the beach.”
“No, of course. Of course not.”
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
“Frances?” said Marse. There was an edgy timbre in her voice, a shiver of hardness. I turned toward her, and she crooked her finger. “Come here,” she said.
“Excuse me,” I said to Jack. Had our flirting been so obvious, so terrible, that I was being scolded? When I reached her, Marse said, “Watch this,” and put her hands on my shoulders to turn me toward the television. On the screen was a newswoman in a yellow blazer with large gold buttons, and behind her was a white front door in a low brick building cordoned off by yellow police tape. There were officers milling around, and in the corner of the screen, an ambulance with its back doors open.
Did I recognize the building, in that instant? In the bottom third of the screen was the story ticker: GAINESVILLE STUDENTS SLAIN, it read, and then: TWO DEAD AT WILLIAMSBURG VILLAGE APARTMENTS.
I had no trouble placing the building’s name. The newswoman was saying, “
“Dennis?” I said to Marse.
“Your friend’s getting him,” she said.
“When did I talk to her?” I said.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure she’s safe.”
“You’re sure?” I said.
Dennis rushed into the bar with Jack as the newswoman closed her segment, saying, “
“Give me the phone,” said Dennis to the bartender, and after some maneuvering, the bartender was unable to pull the phone away from its spot beside the cash register, so Dennis went around the bar. He started dialing, then stopped and looked at me. “Is it 5269 or 6952?” he said, then without waiting for an answer turned back and finished dialing. Marse and I watched him. After a long moment, he spoke into the phone. “Call your parents,” he said urgently, then put the phone down and reached across the bar for my hands. “Just the machine,” he said. “She’s not in, that’s all.” My chest was tight. “We’re going home—we’ll be there in ten minutes—and she’ll have left a message. If I know Margo, she’s already on a bus.”
I nodded. Home seemed a long way away.
“I’ll walk out with you,” said Marse. She collected my purse and took my arm, and the three of us headed together toward the parking lot. Only later did I consider that I hadn’t said good-bye to Jack, and that I owed him a word of gratitude: not only did he retrieve my husband when I needed him, but he also must have paid for our drinks.
Today, with cell phones and the Internet, the whole event would have unraveled differently. But then, the only people I knew who had cell phones were a secretary at Dennis’s firm whose husband was rumored to be a member of the Cuban mafia, and a doctor I knew from my office, who preferred it to a beeper in case of emergencies. We knew several people who had car phones, and indeed our next car would have one, but at the time we did not, and so we drove in silence, Dennis squeezing my knee. As I’d watched the newscast at the bar, my mind had been cloudy with panic, my vision had narrowed, and I’d had difficulty viewing the screen as a whole—instead I’d seen the ambulance in the corner, then the words on the screen, then the newswoman in her yellow jacket. But in the car, looking out at the clear bright night, I grew calm. Not this, I prayed. This is not going to happen to me. To someone else, this is happening, but it is not happening to me. One thing I felt, beyond the fear and frenzy, was love: for my daughter, for my husband. When we turned into our driveway, I said, “If there’s no message, we’ll call the Gainesville police, and if we can’t get through, we’ll get back in the car. We can be there in six hours.”
Dennis paused. “We’ll check the machine,” he repeated. “Then we’ll call the police. Then we’ll drive.” We were people who needed a plan, and he seemed to consider this a good one. But when we rushed into the kitchen, I saw the red light on the answering machine blinking, and I cried out in relief. He hit the play button, and then there was a woman’s voice—but it wasn’t Margo, it was Gloria, and she said something about a picnic at the beach before Dennis hit the delete button, and the machine sounded a long beep. And then—finally, like wheels touching down after a turbulent flight—it was Margo, saying, “Are you there? You’re going to see the news. I’m all right.” She paused. “Those girls—they lived right next door to me.” There was the soft, wailing sound of my daughter crying, and I started to cry, too. Dennis replayed the message and we listened again. He dialed her number, frowned, and handed the phone to me. I got the tail end of a recorded message, and then it repeated:
“The world is trying to get through,” he said. “Those poor girls.”
“Their poor parents.”
He pulled off his tie, and we moved together to the living room and sat on the sofa. After a long time, he said, “Frances, why was Jack at the wedding?”
I closed my eyes. It seemed ridiculous to talk about this now, but I didn’t have the energy to refuse. “He wasn’t. He was upstairs, having dinner.”
“Were you with him? At the bar, I mean?”
“No.” Then I said, “No more than you were with Julia at the reception.” This seemed a nod toward a confession, and it was the only admission I would ever make.
“Will you see him when you switch to this new team?”
“No.” This wasn’t exactly true—he would be around, even if he wasn’t my coach—but I knew I would not join another team at the Biltmore. I would play somewhere else, if I kept playing at all.
“Thank God for that,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a jealous guy . . .”
I took his hand, and pulled his palm toward my mouth, then kissed the warm soft space at the base of his thumb—this was something I did when I wanted to express my love, though I knew it wasn’t a gesture he particularly understood. “I love you,” I said, and the tears came again, along with the specific feeling of being at the end of something long and difficult, like a marathon, or in this case short and difficult, like a sprint, or both.
Dennis was partially correct: Margo had gone to the bus station, but after waiting an hour and a half had been unable to get out of town, even though Greyhound had added two buses to its southbound service. We continued trying in vain to get through to her, and finally, at midnight, she called. Dennis was watching the news in bed and I was in the bathroom, staring at myself in the vanity mirror. “Are you coming home?” said Dennis when he answered the phone. I rushed to the kitchen to pick up the other line.
“Mom? Isn’t it horrible?” she said. “A policeman threw up on my doorstep.”
“Lord,” I said.
Dennis groaned. “Don’t think about that, sweetheart.”
She explained the situation at the bus station. “I’m not at the apartment anymore. I’m at the dorms, with friends. There are five of us sleeping in one room. We’re on campus. We’re safe.”
Gainesville seemed a very small town. In my mind the place was dominated by the presence of a roaming monster, like the flashing red dot on a radar screen, blinking closer to its target. He could be a student, I thought. He could be one of the students Margo was with right now.
“I’m coming to get you,” said Dennis. Over the line I heard a dresser drawer in our bedroom opening.
“Daddy?” said Margo. “I’m going to stay. The semester’s just starting, and I don’t want to miss anything. I won’t be able to catch up.”
“I don’t think that matters, sweetheart,” I said. “Aren’t other people leaving?”
“Some,” she said. She sounded stern when she spoke again, even though her voice was shaking. “I think I’m going to stay. I’ll be safe. I promise.”
Dennis breathed into the phone. I said, “We won’t sleep until he’s caught.”
She was crying again. “They lived in One-Thirteen,” she said. “I live in One-Twelve.”
“I know, sweetheart,” said Dennis. Again he insisted that she come home, and again she refused. Then, after giving her cautionary tips—don’t walk alone, don’t go out at night, lock the doors, and for Christ’s sake, lock the windows—and after getting the phone number of the dorm room where she was staying and repeating it twice back to her, he reluctantly said good-bye.
The following morning we woke to learn that the Gainesville police had found another body, a student named Christa Hoyt. She was found in her apartment, two miles from Williamsburg Village. Again, the killer had pried his way in through a sliding glass door. (From this time on in my life, I’ve disliked sliding glass doors, and have wondered if the tragedy would have occurred without them. I’d let my daughter live on the first floor of an apartment complex, never thinking to ask whether there was a solid barrier between her and the outside world. The Williamsburg Village Apartments had a swimming pool—of course there were sliding glass doors.) The reports said only that Christa’s body had been mutilated; we learned later of the rapes, the decapitation, the gruesome poses. Gainesville officials urged students to be careful, to not go out at night, and to stay in groups whenever possible. All the murders had happened during the daylight, in the victims’ homes, but still this was the advice given. A press conference followed: the president of the University of Florida, John Lombardi, answered questions about precautions being taken. They’d added thirty more campus police (again, I thought: but this killer could be a member of the campus police!) and were opening up unused dorm rooms to students living off campus who wanted the extra protection.
It hit me, as I sat in bed watching television: this was not even a danger I’d thought to fear. The notion that I had let this happen, that my daughter had been asleep while on the other side of her wall two girls were raped and murdered, sent me into a panic. I reached for the phone and the piece of paper with the number Margo had given us, but the line was busy again, that goddamned automated message. Dennis wrapped his arms around me. One of the many things I felt at the time was anger—at myself for letting her move off campus in the first place, and at both of us for letting her stay in Gainesville while this killer continued to choose new victims. Of course I understood that living next door to a murder is not a fate equal to the murders themselves; I’d never felt a stronger sense of gratitude. But I knew that this experience—her proximity, her unbelievable luck—would haunt Margo. The knowledge that this might have happened to her would change her life. This was not the carefree college experience we’d wanted for our daughter. “It’s my fault,” I said to Dennis, because I’d approved of her moving off campus, and he said, “It’s not your fault.” But I’ll always remember the tone of his voice as he said it—weary, guilty, and impatient—because in that moment, if not after, I think Dennis might have agreed.
We heard from Margo again that afternoon. She’d moved with friends into a vacant dormitory suite, which meant she now had her own bed. We continued to insist she come home—Dennis packed a bag in anticipation that she would finally relent and he could go get her—but she was determined to stay. It was as if she had seized on staying as the only way to get through it all intact. She reminded us that she was twenty years old. Twenty! How old this seemed to her, and how young it seemed to me. The next morning Dennis left for work as if it were a normal day, though I stayed home. I got dressed and straightened the house, but left the television news on in the bedroom and the living room, and whenever the coverage shifted to the murders, I sat down and watched, and it was many minutes before I could return to my feet. I called Margo in the morning, then twice in the afternoon, then Dennis and I called together when he got home from work. “It’s like a ghost town,” said Margo when we finally reached her. The university continued to remain open—President Lombardi explained to the press that many students couldn’t reach their homes, and the university was better equipped to ensure student safety by continuing business as usual. We watched the news together that night: stores were selling out of Mace; Southern Bell was begging people not to call Gainesville unless absolutely necessary; pizza joints were losing money because of a rumor that the killer might be a delivery man; gun shops were reporting record sales; hardware stores had run out of deadbolts and door chains.
And the following morning, August 28, there were two more victims, which brought the total to five murders within seventy-two hours. This time, the killer had varied the profile. One victim was a petite twenty-three-year-old brunette named Tracy Paules, but the other was her male roommate, Manny Taboada. Manny was—these details were included in the reports—six feet, two inches, 200 pounds, and a former football player. Again, the killer had entered through a sliding glass door by jimmying it with some kind of tool. These killings had happened in the middle of the night, when Tracy and Manny had been sleeping. When I reached Margo on the phone, Dennis grabbed his packed bag and headed to the kitchen to get on the other line. “Don’t let her talk you out of it,” he said to me, and I nodded. But again she repeated what she’d been saying: that she was safe on campus, that she was with people all the time, even at night, and that she knew the university was forgiving tuition for anyone who needed to leave Gainesville—this is when Dennis picked up the other line—but she really didn’t think it was necessary, and besides she really liked her American history class. Her professor wore a tunic and took off his shoes when he came into the classroom. “Don’t let him sell you any baloney about the ‘good’ war,” said Dennis, who had always had, in my estimation, an enviable talent for switching focus. “If he does, ask him about the internment camps.”
Before she hung up, Margo reassured us again. “They gave us whistles. If I get in trouble, I just blow on it and someone appears in the blink of an eye.”
“They gave you whistles?” I said, thinking of the tools this killer had: a knife, obviously, and duct tape, and cleaning products of some kind—there were reports that all the bodies had been cleaned up before being staged for discovery. And of course he had something unnameable and unknowable, something Margo and Dennis and I could not understand: a force. I found it amusing and terrifying, this fact: the university had issued my daughter a whistle.
Dennis reluctantly unpacked his suitcase. In the face of Margo’s determination not to let us rescue her, I realized that the transition we’d been so worried about had come to pass. She really had left home.
Despite the fact that a man had been killed, I was reassured by the roster of Margo’s bunk mates. In one suite, there were two rooms and three kids sleeping in each room—the housing division had hastily made space and provided cots—and four of the six kids were young men. Normally, I would’ve been appalled to learn that the university was allowing my daughter to room with boys, but in these circumstances, I think the administration showed an admirable willingness to depart from tradition. They did what they had to do. We can go on about the benefits of equal rights, but when a killer is loose, you want a man—or men, plural—looking out for your daughter.
Several times when we called Margo’s suite we reached a young man named Stuart, whose name we’d never heard before. “Margo kicked ass on her biology assignment,” he would say to me. Or, “Yesterday we rode out to Hampton Lake for a swim.” By the third time we’d talked, I’d developed the sense that this boy and my daughter were close, in no small part because of the speed with which she reached the phone whenever he passed it to her—physically at least, geographically, they were together. Once, Dennis asked him bluntly how tall he was, and Stuart said, “I’m not tall, but I’m fast and strong. You don’t need to worry about your daughter. We’re taking good care of her. We’re taking care of each other.” This was something I’d seen stressed in televised interviews with the university’s director of psychological services—students relying on each other not only for safety but for comfort. Dennis choked up when Stuart said good-bye. He wanted to be the man protecting his daughter.
A day passed with no news—no leads on the killer, no new victims—and then another day passed, and then it had been a week. Five thousand students had left campus. There was a lot of nonsense in the Gainesville student paper, the
“Boys?” said Kathleen. “She lives in an
“Not anymore,” I said, but then I ran out of patience with Kathleen, and said good-bye. That evening, Gloria called—she’d called daily since the murders—and after I’d reassured her that yes, Margo was still insisting on staying on campus, and still being very cautious, Gloria said, “You know, with all the hubbub I’d forgotten what I wanted to ask you.”
“Yes?” I was putting away groceries, leaving out ingredients for a stew. I had a bag of black beans in my hand.
“Eleanor Everest said she saw you the other day at the beach with a man.” I put down the beans. The tone in Gloria’s voice was one I’d never heard from her before: not accusing exactly, but stumped and oddly intimate, as if she were saying:
I didn’t say anything. I suppose I was deciding whether to lie, or how much.
“Was that you?” she said. “Are you not working anymore?”
“Actually, it was me,” I said. My voice was loud and unsteady. “I’m still working—I’m working more, in fact, as of this week—but I’ve been playing tennis at the Biltmore this summer”—Gloria knew this—“and after practice one day a few of us went to the beach. It was just so hot . . .”
“Who was the man?” said Gloria.
“My coach, Jack.” And then it occurred to me that the best lie was a stretching of the truth. Don’t deny, embellish. “There were—let’s see—four of us? Plus Jack. The women are wild about him, but he’s married—and so are they, to be honest.” I used a gossiping tone, as if I were as interested in the tidbit as she might be. “We’ve gone to lunch together a few times, several of us girls, and that day someone—I don’t remember who—invited Jack along. We ended up at the beach.” The story was fine, depending on when exactly I’d been spotted by Eleanor Everest: was it while we were standing at the car, closest to the road—this was most likely, I thought—or in the brief moment when we’d stood together at the shoreline, where we would have been recognizable only by people on the sand? I didn’t recall there being anyone close by. A betrayal of Dennis was a betrayal of others, of Gloria and Grady and Bette, and even Marse. I felt a little sick, lying to my mother-in-law. I felt lesser for it, and I suppose I was.
“Eleanor said you were picnicking—I thought maybe Dennis had played hooky. Maybe you should do that sometime, kidnap him from his office in the middle of the afternoon. That would be pretty, wouldn’t it? Take slacks for him so he doesn’t ruin his suit, and a nice fruit salad.”
“That would be nice,” I said. “It’s a great idea.” It was something I vowed to do, in that moment—sweep by his office in the middle of the day and abscond with him to the beach—and also in that moment, as Gloria said something about how they used to go to Key Biscayne as a family when the children were young, I heard Dennis’s key in the door, and I said, “Gloria, I’m sorry, I hate to interrupt, but Dennis is home and I just have to—”
“Go on, dear,” she said. “I just wanted to check on you.”
“Love you,” I said. I said it only every so often.
“You, too,” she said.
Dennis appeared in the kitchen doorway. His hair was wet, and I could see through the window that it had started to rain. He wiped his cheek with one hand and asked me about my day. I took his briefcase and set it down on the kitchen table, and although I really wanted to apologize for betraying him—never again, I would say, I don’t know what I was thinking—I couldn’t do that, not exactly. So instead, I said, “Do you want to fool around?” and he nodded and we went together down the hallway, past Margo’s room and the guest room that so long before I’d wanted to turn into a nursery. We went into the bedroom with its outdated furniture and the alarm clock that didn’t work very well but we’d never replaced and the clothes on the bed that I’d folded but not put away. And while we took off our clothes, I turned away from him, so he wouldn’t see that I was keeping myself from crying.
That week I joined a tennis team at the YWCA. I was matched with a doubles partner named Carolyn Baumgartner, who became a friend. Shortly afterward, I ran into Jane Brevard at the grocery store and told her about the team, and then she joined, too, and every couple of weeks she and I had lunch together after practice. She asked once if I knew that Jack wasn’t coaching at the Biltmore anymore—she might have been checking to see if we were in touch—but she didn’t say where he’d gone and though I wanted to, I didn’t ask. Carolyn and I won more than we lost, and though a few of the pounds I’d dropped crept back, tennis continued to be part of my life. Sometimes while I played I imagined Jack standing on the sidelines, watching me from behind sunglasses, calling out pointers: Don’t chase your toss! Show your shoulder on your forehand! In September, Dennis and Margo ran together in the Conch Classic 5K in Key West, and Dennis placed third in his age group. I’d had no idea, but that summer, while I’d been improving my tennis, Dennis had become a serious runner.
The Gainesville hysteria dissolved. No more bodies were found. The police arrested a disturbed teenager, but then let him go because he had an alibi. It would be a year before they charged the real killer, a Louisiana native named Danny Rolling; even then he would be arrested first for robbery, and only afterward would confess to the murders. Apartment 113 at Williamsburg Village would become a model apartment, the one management showed to prospective renters. Security alarms would be installed and extra locks added to the sliding glass doors throughout the complex. I know this because I called the management office to ask.
Margo changed dorm rooms again, this time with Janelle, who had by that time broken up with her boyfriend. She pledged Alpha Chi Omega but by the end of the semester went inactive. She brought three girlfriends home on break, and we took them all out to Stiltsville. She continued to live on campus. That year, Gloria and Grady decided to downsize, and they bought a condo and gave us their house—just gave it to us, no strings attached, nothing to pay but the property taxes. Then when we sold our home—our first home, where we’d raised Margo—we made enough to pay off Margo’s student loans and have a little left over for savings. When Gloria and Grady handed over the keys to their house, along with the paperwork transferring ownership, Gloria said to me, “You don’t get sentimental, now. You make it your own.” I stripped the wallpaper from every room. Bette, who at this point had sold her own house and was preparing to move away with Suzanne, helped me paint: butter yellow for the kitchen, chalky blue for the living room, deep red for the dining room. Still, in the months after we moved in, the house felt stolen—from Gloria, who’d left the linen closet smelling of cedar, and from Grady, whose tools still filled black silhouettes along the pegboard walls of the garage.
Eventually, their ghosts faded. Dennis let our lease expire at the marina, and we moved the boat to the slip behind the house. One night just after we’d moved in, while there were still unpacked boxes on the kitchen table, Dennis dragged me outside in my pajamas, and we opened a bottle of champagne and sat on the boat drinking it out of paper cups, looking up the lawn at the house, which was lighted and still. I half expected to see a figure moving past a window—someone like me but not exactly me, someone who lived among us quietly and didn’t notice much when we came and went, but was always there lurking when we were gone.
I saw Jack again one time, a year later. I was waiting to board an airplane to Atlanta, for my father’s funeral. Jack was with his thin, red-haired wife at the gate opposite mine, and when their plane was called, I watched as they stood and gathered their things, and Jack put out a hand so his wife could walk ahead of him. And then maybe he felt me watching him, because he turned and looked at me, and after a moment he waved a half-wave, like he wasn’t certain he should, and I smiled without waving, and he turned away. I miss you, I thought—these were the words that came to mind: I miss you. Even as I wondered how it was possible, I knew it was true.