On their first date, Sigrid asked Marta which of Henry VIII’s wives she most identified with, and Marta choked on her white wine. Sigrid laughed and repeated the question, slowly, and with a dawning chill, Marta realized that she was serious.
“I don’t know much about that,” Marta said, and Sigrid pressed her lips together in what looked like a condescending grin. Marta didn’t know much about history. She didn’t know much about dating women either. She had recently broken up with a man named Peter when he had asked her to marry him and move to Belize. All through her relationship with Peter, Marta had been bothered by that feeling that prickles the nape of your neck when you leave your house and can’t remember if you’ve left the gas on. Every time he kissed her, she could feel a part of herself looking away from him, toward something else that she could not then make out. But when, after three years together, he had asked her to marry him, the thing resolved suddenly and sharply into focus—both that she had only been with him because being with him was easier than no longer being with him and also that she had been waiting for a moment when this would no longer be the case.
Sigrid lifted her glass and examined it, but she didn’t seem like she was in a rush to change the subject. She had the sturdy, upright patience of an elementary school teacher. Her eyes were very green, Marta noticed.
“You’re not much of a Catherine Howard,” Sigrid said, and the name darted through Marta’s mind like a swift, silver fish. There was something there, a glimmer of recognition, or no, maybe just a desire to have the conversation over with. She had not thought much about history in some time, in years really. She had studied chemical engineering as an undergraduate, and worked at a waste processing plant in Baraboo. She might have told Sigrid this except the look on Sigrid’s face, its precise concentration, wedged inside of her like a splinter. “Definitely not an Anne Boleyn.”
“I don’t know who they are, but I’ll take your word for it,” Marta said. The wine was too sweet for her. She didn’t much like wine. She preferred Coors or Old Milwaukee, beer of the pale, weak variety. It might have been the result of spending all her time around engineers in college. They had drunk shitty beer and leaned over their notebooks and parsed their calculations long into the night. She had often woken up on their couches smelling sour and raw with rulers stuck to her thighs. That’s how it had been in college. That’s how she had met Peter and fallen in with him. They saw each other so much that it had seemed natural that they should date, and when he asked her to the movies, she’d said okay, all right, sounds good. On that first date with Sigrid, she was sad about Peter still, and uneasy, and if this was how dating women was going to be, a series of increasingly esoteric questions, she wasn’t sure she liked that much either.
“This won’t work,” Sigrid said, and Marta felt a little pulse of fear.
“What won’t work?”
“This,” she said, gesturing wildly. “You retreating, falling into silence. It won’t work.”
“I’m sorry,” Marta said. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say or do. I don’t know anything about Henry VIII, or whoever.”
“That’s fine,” Sigrid said. “It’s all right.”
“You say that, except, I told you before, when you asked me, I didn’t know much about it. And you kept going, so, I don’t know. Is it okay? Is it all right?”
“It’s fine,” Sigrid said, and she leaned over the table and crossed her arms.
“I don’t know anything about any of this,” Marta said, making a circle with her hand to indicate Sigrid, Sigrid’s half-eaten $20 orecchiette, her own empty bowl which had contained a $15 Bolognese, and their table and their breadsticks. All of it. “I don’t know how to do it. These aren’t even my pants.” She had borrowed the wool slacks from her roommate Katie, and Sigrid had complimented her on them when the two of them first met outside of the restaurant. She had felt guilt then but also had felt good. It had been a long time since someone had complimented her. Even Peter, by the end of it, had stopped telling her that she was pretty. He used to say that right before he slid inside of her. He’d kiss her cheeks and say, “You’re so pretty,” and there he’d be, the blunt end of him, jabbing at the inside of her thigh, and she’d nudge herself apart to accommodate him, the way you might make room in the next chair for a stranger at the doctor’s office. But Sigrid, outside the restaurant earlier that evening, the blue veil of late winter’s twilight falling all around them, wind in her curly hair, had called her pretty and complimented her outfit. She felt itchy and anxious like a librarian dressed as she was in a cardigan and a nice blouse and the wool slacks, but she normally wore carpenter pants or stiff polyester to the plant. Sigrid had on leggings and a skirt and a magenta top. Marta had admired the slim, smooth column of her neck all night, the way the blouse fluttered open just a little revealing a dark mole on her chest, just below her collar.
But Sigrid must not have remembered complimenting the pants because she blinked once or twice and then burst into laughter. Marta felt a plunging sense of dread, which had also made her want to laugh, and so she did, and it was like something cracked open.
The rest of the night was easy.
Sigrid spent most of her time in the archives sifting through documents though she was not a trained archivist. She always added that part after she talked about her day, like saying amen after a prayer. Sigrid was hard to read sometimes. She never said I’m tired or My boss is being a real jerkhole today or Someone swiped my lunch from the fridge or My eyes hurt. Instead, Sigrid talked about the historicity of women’s diaries from the late early modern period. She said things like The only thing that hasn’t changed is how women are surveilled. Women were the first encryption devices. Marta did not know what Sigrid was looking for. Indeed, the whole objective of Sigrid’s work seemed to be a kind of pointless looking organized and formalized by the creation and dissemination of increasingly complicated blocks of text. When they spoke on the phone at lunch or after dinner, Marta listened to Sigrid’s smooth, warm voice as she explained to Marta why it was so important that she had found a recreation of a recreation of a recreation of some middle passage from a diary of some shepherdess in Scotland.
“That sounds great,” Marta would say, eating her sandwich on the grassy hill behind the plant. She could see the town, its gray, scraggly mass spread thin. It was cold in those early days, but she wanted to be alone to talk to Sigrid without being overheard. She hadn’t told anyone about dating women. She hadn’t wanted to explain herself to anyone—not to her roommate Katie, not to the boys at the plant, not to any of the other faceless people who made up her life. Marta felt for the first time in a long time like she had an inner self, a part of her that was hers and only hers, like there was some inner surface she didn’t owe to anyone. Before, with Peter, living had always felt like a constant mingling of the outside and the inside, and people had worn her out just as a matter of course, just in the act of living; but Sigrid, the quiet, small time they spent together, let her, for a moment or two at least, pretend she could be her own person in her own way. Even if she did not understand what Sigrid was talking about most of the time.
Marta always signed off by sighing and saying, “Well, kiddo, I better go.” Sigrid would laugh. She’d say, “Oh, I’m such a blabbermouth. I’m sorry. How are you. I wasted all of our time.” And Marta would say, as easy as anything, “I’m doing fine. It’s work, you know.” And they’d talk another couple of minutes, Marta looking up at the sky, taking in a bit of the pale light, enjoying being fussed over, being told to eat her vegetables and moisturize and get some good sleep.
They hadn’t had sex and had only slept together twice in the weeks they had been seeing each other. Part of that had to do with the fact that Marta lived in Baraboo and was only in Madison a few times a week. And part of it had to do with their roommates. Katie was always home, and Sigrid’s roommate, a tall law student named Thad, liked to have all his friends over all the time. It also perhaps had something to do with how Marta had cried the first time they had gone home together. She had not meant to, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself; the moment Sigrid kissed her, she’d started crying. Not because it was bad but because it was so good and so right. She’d been waiting her whole life for it and hadn’t even known it, and the moment she felt Sigrid’s lips on hers, she’d felt a jolt, a crack of white lightning in her body. She’d cried because she had expected it to be awful, and it hadn’t been. But she felt embarrassed about the kiss, and she’d asked Sigrid if she could just lie there next to her, if it was all right just to be in bed together, and Sigrid had said, Of course, of course which had felt both like an act of mercy and an act of contrition.
The first time Marta met Sigrid’s friends from graduate school in a downtown bar, she was surprised by how normal they looked. They weren’t in tweed and collared shirts and chinos. They weren’t dressed like miniature professors. They wore jeans and t-shirts and baseball caps with logos from minor teams from around the Midwest. They wore boots and sneakers. They spoke in the flat, clipped way she was accustomed to, and she at first fell right in with the rhythm of their conversation: the weather, the price of gas, the merits of cheap beer and free time. Marta, in her stretch-waist pants and scuffed steel-toes, felt at ease among them. She sat next to Sigrid along the bar, her arm loosely around her shoulders, Sigrid’s arm around her waist. Sometimes, they’d catch one another’s eye and couldn’t stop themselves from smiling. But then, at some point in the night, the conversation cinched in the middle like someone had tightened a belt around it so that all of their focus and energy funneled down through a point so small Marta could barely grasp it. Something about semiotics. Something about the nature of knowledge.
It was not that Marta was dumb. She had been an excellent student. In Indiana, she had topped the state exams in mathematics and science. She had been selected to represent her state in a national mathematics contest, and had won a blue ribbon. It was how she had paid for school. She had won herself a full scholarship. Yet in the bar that first time, she had felt out of her depth, out and behind everyone else as they talked and raced full-steam toward whatever thing they were arguing about. She’d stood there, her finger tucked through Sigrid’s beltloop, and Sigrid would sometimes look back at her with a smile, like checking on a pet. She hated that look. Its knowing, gentle easiness. She hated it when people treated her like some kind of unwashed beast that needed a long leash and a slow walk.
She and Sigrid fought over that look after the bar that night, in Marta’s sensible car, driving Sigrid back to her apartment on the wooly, hip side of town, where they ate vegetables and drank from mason jars.
Marta clenched the wheel real tight because she didn’t know where else to put her hands, and Sigrid waited there, her face puffy and red, drunk and tired and over it already.
“You think I’m dumb,” she said. And Sigrid laughed, a bright, barking laugh, and said, “Don’t put it on me, Marta. If you feel that way, it’s because you feel that way.” And Marta said, “No. It’s not me. It’s not. I do feel that way, but it’s not because of me, or not just because of it. You know that.” Sigrid leaned over the center console and kissed her and Marta pushed her away, “No, no, we are talking.” But Sigrid just smiled and kissed her once, twice, three times and, and she felt Sigrid’s hand sliding past the elastic of her pants and pressing flat against the outside of her underwear. Marta felt hot and suffocated, but Sigrid began to massage her there, and she felt loose and buoyed up on a wave of static. She rode that wave, the friction of Sigrid’s hand and the scrunching heat of her panties. Sigrid’s mouth opening, slick and warm, the gentle pressure of Sigrid sucking on her tongue. And then she realized that her hands were still on the wheel, still at ten and two, just like she’d learned how to drive in high school.
“Do you want to come in?” Sigrid asked.
“Is it okay?” Marta asked back, looking nervously at the prim, white house. The light in the living room was on.
“Come in,” she said, and got out. The air was not cold, but it wasn’t warm that night either. There was still snow on the ground, and the lakes were still frozen. It was early April. She could smell the beginning of spring in the air, could feel its thickening, damp embrace. But the snow was still there, a reminder that they’d only just broken free from the winter. In Sigrid’s room, the air had a pink quality to it. Sigrid had draped a diaphanous scarf over the top of her lamp, and her walls were a gentle shade of beige. She lay back on Sigrid’s bed with her clothes still on, and Sigrid climbed over her.
Marta was bigger than Sigrid, taller by a couple of inches, and broader through the shoulders. She had tough hands from the plant. But Sigrid smelled like sweat and work. Her forearms were firm, and her back had slender, excellent muscles. It was from the swimming, Marta thought. She knew that Sigrid swam five times a week, and had been, in her younger years, a competitive swimmer. But she’d injured something in herself. That’s when Sigrid had learned of her capacity for reading and remembering things. In those snowy days in her Minnesota town, tucked away in some dank library room, reading book after book, a cast on her arm or leg, Marta could not remember. Under Sigrid’s body, Marta was aware of how soft her body had become. She felt formless. Thick. But Sigrid unbuttoned her shirt and helped her out of it. When Sigrid’s fingers first entered her, Marta gasped because she had not expected their tips to be so hard and so kind. She gasped and Sigrid kissed her forehead and then her neck and then the space below her navel. She kept whispering kind things to Marta. She kept saying that she was beautiful, that she smelled good, that she was so soft, so good. Marta clenched her eyes and she knotted her fingers in the bed spread. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Sigrid. She tried to close her legs, but Sigrid opened them, and it was then that Marta felt most naked, most exposed. She wanted to cry again. She almost cried again. She put her arm over her face.
“What’s wrong?” Sigrid said. She could feel Sigrid’s shoulders under her legs. “What’s wrong, Marta? Do you want to stop?”
“No,” she said hoarsely. “I’ve just. I’ve never.”
“Oh Marta,” Sigrid said, laughing. Sigrid kissed Marta’s thigh and then her knee. “It’s okay.”
“I’m afraid I’ll mess it up,” she said. “I’m afraid you’ll see me.” Marta looked at Sigrid, who was looking up at her, those green eyes.
“I see you,” Sigrid said. “You’re wonderful.”
Marta did cry. She cried, but Sigrid didn’t stop. She seemed to know that the crying meant that Marta didn’t want her to stop. It hadn’t been that way with Peter, Marta thought. It hadn’t been like that. She had not cried with him. She had not felt nervous with him. Because with Peter there hadn’t been any room for her feelings at all.
Marta worked in a cubicle at the plant. The walls were thin and covered in a kind of coarse linen fabric. She had tacked up a picture of her parents and a couple pictures of herself from summer camp when she was a girl—she’d had thick glasses and a shaggy bobbed haircut. One of the pictures showed Marta as a smiling seven-year-old standing at the edge of a dock, the water a deep green, the sky over the bursting hills a smooth, tranquil blue. It gave her something pretty to look at when her eyes grew tired and the columns of figures and sums swam together. Her desk was tidy except for the inbox where people from other departments dropped their own reports, and Marta had to organize them and figure out what she was supposed to do with them. She had been working at the plant for about five years, and the work had adhered to her like the accumulation of calcium in a pipe, and she was no longer sure if she had always been suited for the job or if she had become suited.
In the plant, there was always the sound of dripping water and the dull, distant roar of surf. The hallways had flickering, green lights, and when she walked from tunnel to tunnel, climbing up the ladders to inspect the tanks and take down their measurements, it was like moving through an emerald dream. There were not that many people who worked in the plant, not on Marta’s shift. Maybe thirty others. There were of course the men who worked underground, who did the real work and sometimes were burned by acid or lye, who came up the elevators screaming because they’d gotten their hand caught in a hydraulic press. The men were the thick, blunted sort, whose lives had deposited them in the plant the way a sluggish stream accumulates debris. They wore gray coveralls and smelled like cigarettes and chlorine and something else, something sulfurous and dark.
When she had been with Peter, there had been a rigid, formal distance between her and the men. But after Peter, something had changed, like the center of gravity had collapsed or gone out of it, and their orbit around her became unstable. They spoke to her more. They’d stop by her cubicle and would stand there holding their reports rather than simply dropping them and going. They looked her in the eye, and she saw in their smudged faces something faint, flickering, like hope. At first, she thought that she was imagining it. She thought that it was nothing. But one afternoon, after Peter and before Sigrid, a man named Lenny came alongside the row of cubicles and stood at the edge of her desk. He was very tall and had the sullen posture of a small boy. He was blond and had freckles and kind, dour brown eyes. She looked up from her computer and waited for him to ask her what he needed. Sometimes the men did that. When they couldn’t make out something, when they didn’t know where to go, when the directions shuttled into their cubbies made no sense, they came to her, and she would set them on the right course. But Lenny had never done that. He’d always been one of the bright ones.
“Marta,” he’d said. “How’s it hanging?”
“It hangs, Lenny,” Marta had said, stifling a laugh. “What can I do you for?” Lenny coughed, turned red. The nape of Marta’s neck turned hot. “Not like that. You know what I meant.”
“Of course,” Lenny said. “Well, I was wondering…” He leaned against the cubicle wall, and it buckled under his weight. He stepped from it. Marta felt something tighten behind her eyes.
“Oh, Lenny. We maybe shouldn’t,” she said.
“You know, dinner would be fine, you know, fine, dinner, we could eat dinner, you know.”
“Lenny—” Marta began, but Lenny was looking at the floor, crumpling the paper in his hands.
“We could go to some place in Madison, some place real nice. We could, the two of us, go, we could.”
Marta drummed her fingers on the top of her desk. She glanced over the cubicle where she could see some of her office mates looking back at them. When she looked at Lenny, she saw him staring at her, waiting for an answer. She didn’t have it in her to say no, not with the whole world watching. So she said yes, and they went to dinner in Madison that weekend. They ate fried chicken and potato salad, and on the way home, Lenny put his hand on her knee while he drove. And Marta felt sick, flushed and sick and like she wanted to just fold in on herself. Lenny’s truck smelled like wet newspaper. His big toolbox rattled behind Marta’s seat. She hadn’t been in a truck like that in years.
At Marta’s house, Lenny walked her to the door though she told him it wasn’t necessary. She pulled out her key and put it in the lock, and she felt his stomach against her back, and he pushed against her. The world was dim under his shadow. His hand was on her arm, its coarse heat. She stiffened, like some stupid, frightened animal. She turned to him and looked up, and he was coming in for a kiss. She turned her head and his lips landed on her cheek, and she knotted her hand into a fist.
“Thanks for the evening,” she said. “I enjoyed myself.”
Lenny looked faintly stunned by what she had said. She opened the door and went into the dark of her apartment, and for a moment, just before the door closed completely, she was afraid that he would stop it with his hand. She was afraid he’d push his way inside. She was afraid of him.
“Yeah, see you around,” he said. And she heard his footsteps go down the walkway, thudding.
The next day, Lenny was at her cubicle again. He asked her to come back to his place for a couple of beers, knock a few back. He lived not too far from her, he said, it turned out. He was close enough that she could walk back if she felt like it. It wasn’t far at all. Or, hey, if she got too drunk, she could stay over. Marta said that it wasn’t a good day maybe, Lenny just put his thick arm on the top of her cubicle, stood there with his legs crossed and a look of smooth, pristine confidence on his face.
“Didn’t we have a good time last night? Didn’t we? Let’s do it again. Come over.”
She said she’d think about it. But Lenny kept coming back, and so she went over there. Just for a few minutes. She went over there, and she brought a six pack and she sat on his couch, which was so worn out that it almost swallowed her up the moment she sat on it. They watched a taped recording of the Daytona. They talked about the plant, about the boys. And Marta felt like she was in college again. She had not realized how few friends she had until that very moment. Or, she had realized it in small bits here or there, but sitting on Lenny’s couch, talking to him about things they both knew about, about the common matter that made up their lives, she was aware suddenly of how lonely she had felt after college. Lenny caught her looking at him in that moment. She could see his face change. It opened. His eyes widened. He stopped talking. His smile turned shy. He leaned in and kissed her, and she bolted up from the couch.
“No, Lenny. No. We can’t,” she said.
Lenny’s face turned bright red. His thick eyelashes darkened. He looked like he was going to cry. Marta sat back down. He shook his head hard.
“Why is it always like this,” he said. “Why don’t anybody want me back. Why don’t anyone ever want me.”
Marta sat there clutching her beer can. Nobody had ever wanted her either, except Peter. Except Lenny.
“You get used to it,” she said. “After a while, you stop noticing.”
Lenny laughed bitterly, “Hell, I don’t know about that.”
“You’re probably right,” she said. “You’re probably right.”
She did not sleep with Lenny. But she did sit with him until the Daytona was over, and then she went home. He had been right about the walk back to her place. It was easy, and it was beautiful. She walked along the street that ran parallel to the stream, over a small bridge. She stopped to look through the trees that opened over it, and high above everything, the moon. It was cool then, and she wrapped her jacket around herself. When she got home, she laid awake in bed for a long time, and then she made a profile on a dating website. She had been thinking about that feeling she’d had when Peter had asked her to marry him, that feeling of sudden recognition that what she’d felt all that time they’d been together, the reason she couldn’t with Lenny, the sharpening resolution with which she saw herself. When the website asked her what she was interested in, she put women and not men.
That summer, Sigrid wanted to rent a place up north for a few days. She wanted to get out of the city and wake up to birds singing and deer in the yard. She wanted to spend some time reading for pleasure and not for work. It was difficult for Marta because she did not have much money and she did not have many days off. Sigrid kept saying that capitalism was a crime, that it robbed people of their will to live, and Marta would shake her head and think, Someone’s got to pay for all that living.
They were thinking about moving in together. Marta’s roommate had cleared off with a boyfriend, and Sigrid’s roommate was getting worse by the day. Thad took Adderall to stay awake and to study. Sigrid had found him standing buck-naked in the kitchen in the middle of the night, staring out the window more than once, more than twice. She had also noticed that when she left her wallet on the coffee table, she came back to find money missing. Never a huge sum, five dollars here, three dollars there, but enough to notice and enough that could, after a while, turn into a large sum. Sigrid didn’t think about that. Sigrid didn’t think about the future, really, whereas it was all that Marta could think about.
She’d come to understand their work as opposite in that way. Sigrid looked back into the past, through layer upon layer of history, trying to excavate what had been. Her new project was a scale model recreation of the rooms of Matilda of Scotland, and she took what she could from books like De Gestis Regum Anglorum. From a series of petty facts, she tried, and sometimes was successful, in recreating lives lived and lives lost. She was almost always looking back, and she talked with a kind of lilting nostalgia of things gone by. Even when she talked about what she’d had for breakfast, she said it like she’d never again have oatmeal and toast. Marta worked in forecasting. Taking the current levels of fluorination in the water, what will it look like in ten years, in fifty, in one hundred. She worked to understand how the small, seemingly insignificant particles that filled their water and their air might accumulate over time into something dreadful and awful. Five dollars was never five dollars to Marta because it had already turned into one hundred, into two hundred. All she could see was trends, losses mounting every moment of every day.
“You’re like Anne of Cleves,” Sigrid said one day when they were in bed and Marta was trying to explain to her why she needed to confront Thad.
“Like who?” she had asked, annoyed.
“Anne of Cleves.”
It could be like this. Sigrid saying things that had nothing to do with anything. Marta had learned to wait it out.
She rolled onto her stomach and propped her chin up on her hand. Sigrid was on her back, reading.
“Are you going to elaborate?” Marta asked.
“Anne of Cleves was a wife of Henry VIII,” she said without looking up from her book.
“What does that have to do with your thief of a roommate?”
“Anne of Cleves was not very pretty, and she would have made a terrible queen, probably, but she was practical and stubborn.”
“Oh, this is about that stupid question you asked me on the first night.”
“It’s not a stupid question,” Sigrid said, and she sat up. “It’s an important question. It’s maybe the most important question.”
“What’s so important about it?” Marta asked. She was annoyed now. She had been trying to help Sigrid, and she’d been called ugly and bull-headed, and now also, stupid.
“The wives of Henry VIII were either murdered or discarded because of Henry’s capriciousness. They’re every woman in history. Their whole lives, everything they ever did or felt or thought gets winnowed down to this one thing about them, their marriage or association to a tyrant. Isn’t that awful? So when I ask, which one of them are you, I guess, it’s less about you, and it’s more about, how are we still reproducing the same awful, limited spaces for women.”
Marta thought about it for a moment. She did not see how it related to Thad stealing Sigrid’s money. She did not see how it had anything to do with her, either. It seemed the sort of thing that people did at parties. A game, a guessing game of the self.
“So if I’m Anne of Cleves, what does that mean?”
“It means you’re practical about your limitations, and you do the best you can.”
“And who are you?” Marta asked. Sigrid smiled and lay back down. She closed her eyes.
“I’m Catherine of Aragon.”
“And what does that mean?” Marta asked. She put her hand on Sigrid’s stomach, came close to her on the bed. Sigrid turned to look at her and shook her head.
“It means I’m mad as hell.”
They did get the place that summer. It was a small cabin near a river. It was more a shack really than a cabin, but Marta did not mind it. The air was fresh and clear, the clearest she’d breathed in a long time. The world had a deep, saturated hue to it, and the tops of the trees were so green that they were almost black. They fished but didn’t catch anything. They made too much noise, laughing and grabbing at each other. They waded into the edge of the river, where it was still and cool, up to their ankles, and they splashed one another. Sigrid cut her foot on a sharp rock, and Marta bandaged it and drove her into town where a local doctor, who had hair growing out of his ears, stitched it up for twenty dollars. At night, it was colder than Marta had thought summer could get. There were deer in the yard. There were birds in the trees. The sky was so vast that Marta felt small when she walked from the porch to the edge of the road. They drank lemonade on the swing, and Sigrid braided Marta’s hair for her, weaving in blue wild flowers.
It was the most beautiful place. The most beautiful time. On their last night, they laid outside on a flannel blanket and watched the slow progression of the stars, the smooth carapace of the sky like glass.
“I never want to leave here,” Sigrid said.
“You’ll have to take it up with the owners,” Marta said, but she knew what Sigrid meant. She wrapped her arms around her, and they shed their clothes and held each other tight as they touched one another. They didn’t get off. They tried and tried, stroking and touching each other’s bodies in all the ways that they knew, and as the pressure inside of them rose, it dissipated just as quickly so that by the end of it, they were frustrated and hot and damp. They just couldn’t get enough traction on their desire because every time it felt like they were cresting into the white-hot oblivion of orgasm, sadness drenched them. Sadness at leaving. Sadness at going back to their lives. The sadness of knowing that it would never again be this perfect and this easy.
They were cranky on the drive home, and mean, waspish to each other. They sniped and fought and insulted one another, until Marta pulled them over into a roadside motel where the sheets were scratchy and hard. And she pushed Sigrid onto the bed and pulled her pants off. She pressed her face between Sigrid’s legs, and kissed her against the outside of her panties. Sigrid was warm. She smelled like the field.
After that, it was easy going. They drove with the soft, blurry focus of people in love. Sigrid, who had gotten sunburned on the last day, drowsed. Marta played a Billie Holiday song and hummed along to it as they moved downward through the state. The trees gave way, turning steadily into flat fields drenched in yellow and green. The air grew thicker, heavier. And eventually, they were back.
One evening in the fall, Marta returned home to find Peter on her doorstep. He was tan and had filled out. He looked like a high-definition version of himself. He stood up the moment he saw her car. And as she got out of it, he walked over to her.
“Marta, it’s been a while,” he said.
“A year,” she said, leaning against her car door. “How long have you been here?”
“Here as in the country or here as in town or here as in on your doorstep?”
“All three, I guess,” she said.
“I got in yesterday,” he said. “I came over a little while ago to see if you’d be here. But then I decided to wait.”
She almost asked him what he was waiting for, but she didn’t. She almost asked him inside, but she didn’t. Peter seemed to be waiting for that, didn’t know what to do without the offer.
“Can we sit down somewhere?” he asked, looking back toward the house.
“The place is a mess,” she said. “Let’s just sit in my car.”
“All right then,” he said, and they got inside. Marta rested her hands on the wheel out of habit, stared directly ahead. Peter squirmed in the passenger seat. He had always driven when they were together.
“This is funny, being in here again,” he said.
“It is,” Marta offered. “Well, what’s on your mind?”
“Oh, well. That’s a great question, a real great question.” He was fiddling with the center console. He lifted it, stared into its maw of papers and pill bottles, then dropped it shut. “I guess you’re wondering why I’m back.”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” she said.
“My mother’s dying,” he said. “I came back to see her, and, well. I wanted to see you, too. I miss you.”
Marta clenched, both from the news that Peter’s mother was ill and from the fact that he missed her. Peter’s mother, Eileen, had always been so kind to Marta. She was well into her eighties, but she had the spry energy of a seventy-year-old. She spoke with a sluggish Russian accent, and liked to finish off her sentences with a Khorosho! which had endeared her to Marta. All through the three years that she had dated Peter, Eileen had sent her cards for her birthday and for Christmas, and more than once, she’d sent her a little gift too, something small and delicate, intricately carved from bone or stone so that they resembled small teeth. In truth, she had reminded Marta of her grandmother, a benevolent Finnish woman of robust health who had fallen dead at the age of ninety-nine with all the unfussy ease that had seen her through her whole life, through famine and fury and the unassailable tide of history.
“Oh no, I’m sorry Peter,” Marta said. “That’s awful, just awful.”
“She really loves you. You know. She thinks the world of you.”
“I care for her too,” Marta said.
“And for me?” Peter said wryly, but perhaps also seriously. Marta shook her head gently.
“Peter, you know that’s done. You know that, right?”
“I do,” he said. “I’m seeing someone.”
“And even if you weren’t,” she started to say, but stopped herself. “That’s wonderful.”
“Her name’s Katya. You know my mom always wanted me to marry a Russian.”
“I’m sure she just wants you to be happy,” Marta said. “I bet she only wants you to be happy.”
“I am. Now I am. I am happy now.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Marta said.
“And you? Are you happy? Are you seeing someone?”
If there was one thing that Marta resented, it was how those questions seemed to flow together: are you happy or are you alone?
“It’s possible to be happy and alone,” she said to Peter and to herself, to the voice inside of her.
“I get that, but you should have someone. You deserve happiness.”
Marta turned to him and nodded. “Thank you, Peter.” The leaves had turned bright orange and gold. All along her street, the trees were beautiful which meant that they were getting ready to shed their leaves. She wanted to say something about that to Peter, about Eileen and how the trees grew more beautiful right when they seemed to die for the season and how that was a sign of life. Only living things got to die, after all. She had not understood before, but now she did, and she wanted to say some of it to Peter, hoping he’d say it to Eileen. That dying meant you had lived.
“Well, I better go,” he said.
“All right,” Marta said. Peter did not move to get out of the car.
“I heard a rumor,” he said. “About you and…well, I heard a rumor that you’re a dyke now. Is that true?”
Marta flinched. It was such a hard word.
“Don’t be a dog, Peter. Don’t be ugly.”
“Wow,” he said. “I can’t believe it. No wonder. Wow.” He looked at her with pity and shock. He looked at her in a way that she did not deserve to be looked at, she thought. She swallowed thickly. She set her jaw. She turned to him.
“You do not get to talk to me that way,” she said. “You do not get to treat me like that.”
“I’m just saying, I had no idea. That whole time we were together, you just. Wow.”
“It was not about you,” she said. “It was never about you.”
Peter put his hand on the door and pushed it open. He shook his head sadly, ruefully.
“This will break Eileen’s heart,” he said. “This will just break her heart.”
When Peter left, Marta sat in her car very still for a long time. Her eyes stung. Her lip trembled. Her elbows ached. Her head hurt. She got out of the car and went into the house. She ran a tub full of water and got into it with her clothes still on. She was like that when Sigrid got home and found her.
“Baby, what’s wrong?” Sigrid asked from the doorway. “What’s happened here.” It was not chastising. It was not harsh. It was a gentle question.
“Peter came by,” she said. “His mother is dying.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” Sigrid said. She kneeled next to the tub and ran her hands through Marta’s hair. Her expression was concerned. Marta looked at her.
“He found out about me,” she said. “I don’t know how, but he found out.”
“Found out what?” Sigrid asked.
“About me. About us. He found out.”
“Oh,” Sigrid said. She looked a little surprised and a little perplexed. “I’m sorry, baby. I don’t understand.”
“He didn’t know. He didn’t know about us, and now he does. And he…well, he didn’t know.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
“I didn’t want him to know,” Marta said. The water had gone cold and her clothes were scratching up her skin.
“Well, now he does. But it’s okay.”
“It’s not okay,” Marta said, and she shivered. “He’s going to tell everyone.”
“Who is this everyone? Who?” Sigrid asked, kissing Marta’s cheek and her forehead. But Marta felt like a part of herself was streaming into the world, spreading all over without her permission. She felt as if something important were escaping.
“Everyone,” she said wildly, and she just kept saying that while Sigrid held her hand under the water.
Later that evening, she and Sigrid were in bed under the covers. Marta felt like it was the first time in her life she had ever been warm. Sigrid was reading. Outside, the wind was in the trees, their jagged, dark shadows gliding across the window. Their humidifier hissed.
“I’m sorry about before,” Marta said, but Sigrid wasn’t listening. She was preparing for her comprehensive exams. Marta watched her read, the slow, steady progress of her eyes across and down the page. The lamplight lit her hair and she appeared to Marta like one of those paintings in churches, where the head glows, denoting some minor divinity. “I’m sorry,” Marta said because she felt she had to try again, and she put her hand on the book to draw Sigrid’s attention.
“What’s that, baby?” Sigrid smiled a sleepy smile. Her eyes were a little unfocused.
“I said I was sorry about the before.”
Sigrid’s smile turned inward, but then she put her arms around Marta. She kissed Marta’s hair. Marta put her arm over Sigrid, put her face down against her stomach.
“Don’t be, that Peter’s a real jerk.”
“No, not that, I guess. I just meant. I’m sorry. For saying that. About everyone knowing,” Marta said.
“It’s okay if you don’t want anyone to know, though I think it’s a little late for that,” Sigrid said, laughing. It was true, Marta knew. They went around together everywhere. They held hands when they went to the park. They had gone to see Sigrid’s parents in Minnesota, and Marta had been welcomed by them as best they could with their tall, Norwegian manners. All there was to know was known by all whom were there to know it.
“It just made me feel funny, I guess,” Marta said. “Seeing him. Him knowing.”
“We never are who we once were,” Sigrid said.
“Did one of your dead ladies give you that one?” Marta asked.
“No,” Sigrid said. “I made it up.”
“I wouldn’t have known the difference,” Marta said. “You could have told me anything.”
“And who says I haven’t already,” Sigrid said, picking her book back up. “Now let me read.”
Marta lay there with her arm over Sigrid, thinking about that last bit, how Sigrid could have told her anything and she wouldn’t have known the difference. Sigrid could have made all of that up about the queens of England. She could have made up all of that with the diaries and her elegant dioramas. She could have told Marta anything at all and Marta would have believed her. But maybe that’s what love was, she thought to herself as she fell asleep. Maybe love was that you didn’t try too hard to tell the difference. Maybe love was just believing something to be true because you’d been told.
In the winter, they made latkes and borscht. They had grown vegetables in a little plot behind the house and pickled them. They opened jars of okra and peas and beans. They made their own kraut. Their house smelled like vinegar that winter, but it was the healthiest Marta had felt in a long time, maybe since she’d taken that picture at camp. Her body changed, but not in the way that she expected it to. She didn’t get skinny or tight all over. She didn’t feel like a strung drum. But little by little, the packets of fat under her arms shrunk. It was easier for her to run. She didn’t look all that different, she didn’t think, but when she caught sight of herself in the mirror after the shower, she did notice that there was color in her cheeks and the whites of her eyes were clear. The world had a vivid color to it, like up north, and she felt like she was moving through pure color.
After Sigrid passed her comprehensive exams, they started to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They became lazy and easy with one another. They made love at weird times of the day, sometimes when the sun was up, which felt especially daring to Marta. It was a strange thing to her, giving of her body so easily, sharing it with another person. It had been like adjusting to Sigrid’s vegetarianism—the way Sigrid would put a hand on her back or on her shoulder, not because she wanted anything but just because she was there. It had been the reason she had not wanted to share a house with Sigrid. All that touching. All that seeing. All that being seen. But it had become the best part of her life, she thought.
When they had been together one year, they celebrated by going to London. It ostensibly had been a trip for Sigrid’s research. But Marta had found a way to turn it into a trip for the two of them. She had promised to leave Sigrid her own time and her own space to be with her thoughts, to commune with history’s dead women. Marta just wanted to be with her there, to walk the streets of London holding Sigrid’s hand, carrying her bag if she needed it, offering her whatever support she could. It brought her happiness.
The day after they returned, Sigrid took from her bag a small deck of playing cards. Each card was decorated with a different woman from a different historical period. Sigrid handed Marta a queen of clubs. On it, a pretty blonde woman with close-together eyes and a wry, gentle smile looked back at her.
“Anne of Cleves,” Sigrid said.
“We meet at last,” Marta said, sliding the card back into the deck and shuffling. As she shuffled, Marta watched the faces whip by, a parade of anonymous smiling, smirking women, all looking back at her as if across the fanning waves of time.