We go to the beach house every summer, some combination of my mother, father, March, and me. March and my mother have been best friends since college, and when I was a girl I often referred to her as "Aunt March," because she always went on vacation with us. Once, when I was six, March said she couldn't come to the beach house that summer, and I threw a tantrum so ugly, March rescheduled her whole life to appease me. When I stopped calling her “Aunt,” she became my dearest friend and supported me in my every endeavor, regardless of how outlandish some of them seemed. March was the one who suggested I grow my own vanilla in the coconut grove just behind the beach house.
My mother regarded the project with skepticism. "Will it really grow in this climate?"
"It should. It's humid enough."
I nodded brightly, explaining that the vanilla we know today is harvested in pod form and extracted primarily from a single species—the planifolia, genus Vanilla of family Orchidaceae—pollinated in nature by a bee found in Mexico and only Mexico. It gave them a natural monopoly on vanilla cultivation for centuries—until the French finally broke through, perfecting a means of pollinating the vanilla by hand as I planned to. “This is the perfect climate: we’re right across the Gulf from Mexico.” As I explained this, my mother tore at a head of lettuce, tuning me out in the same way she does when my father the architect delivers one of his long, involved lectures about the New York City skyline.
March nodded patiently as she said, "How long before we strike oil?" She began dividing the salad into bowls, one with golden raisins and one without (for my mother, who hates grapes). When I said it would take six years for the first vanilla beans to grow, March blinked.
"Of course, we'll get vanilla every year after that,” I said.
My mother wiped her hands on a dishtowel, considering the salads in their separate bowls before calling my father down to lunch. He arrived some minutes later, having been hard at work in his office. He looked then as he always does in summer: very clean—his skin pink, his clothes made out of seersucker and linen. He dropped his sunglasses on the counter, and then went to the fridge to pour himself a piña colada. Meanwhile, my mother leaned on the counter, looking very chic in a coral-colored caftan. Her voice was flat and dry as she said, "We've just been discussing your daughter's plan to grow her own vanilla.”
He popped a raisin into his mouth. "Sounds like a worthy enterprise. When do we start?"
To begin, we procured some thirty coconut saplings and a cutting of a young vanilla vine, which we would bury in the roots of a tree and let wind its way up from the soil. March and I had already gotten a good start on digging holes for the little saplings by the time my parents decided to join us. They wore sharp linen shirts and brought a platter of Long Island Iced Teas, which my mother had prepared. Seeing it, March leaned her shovel against the trunk of a tree. She lifted her glass in thanks, drinking deeply as she peered at my mother with a sly expression.
"May I ask why you're staring at me?"
"Are you actually going to get your hands dirty?"
This received only a lifted eyebrow in response.
March snickered as my father clapped his hands together, preparing. "You two stand back and take a breather; let the man handle this." He began swinging his arms, grunting and thrusting his chest forward until we were half in tears. He glanced around at us, wounded, until my mother waved a hand at him and told him to dig.
"This is a good spot," I said, patting the dirt with my foot.
With that, he finished off his tea in a single gulp and then set about readying the holes for saplings, taking care to get them just right. He spent hours spacing the saplings and spreading the mulch, which made my mother's nose wrinkle. "This isn't manure, is it?" She pinched the corners of the mulch bag, sniffing it, while I explained that it was just wood ash and compost mixed with forty-five grams of Nitrogen, twenty-six grams of P 2O5, plus approximately eighty grams of K2 0, which would feed the vines while they spread.
"We should throw in some of these coconuts," my father said, then started cracking them, one by one, over glasses emptied of their tea, using the handle of a shovel to dole out a good hard whack. As he did this, March and I pruned the vine—a fine specimen: three feet long, with seven leaves, which we trimmed down to nodes.
March asked what would happen next.
"I'll have the caretaker stop by in a few months to reapply the mulch," I said. "If it lasts a year, we can plant a few more cuttings."
"And if not?"
I shrugged. I'd always been a fickle child, and I lost or destroyed half of the presents she'd given me, often without apologizing or thanking her. When I was a child, March would make me a dress every few months, and I'd wear it all day, every day, until it got snagged on a branch or it lost a button, and then it wouldn't be my favorite anymore. Once, March went so far as to buy me an orchid: a rare albino orchid, very frail and probably very hard to come by in those days. I can't imagine where she got it. All I know is: it died. Withered under a lamp, and this after she brought it as a special gift, something to repair her to my good graces, after some silly offense I no longer remember or care to. Since then, she's given me only inanimate gifts, such as imported chocolate, bottles of sand, or a pair of earrings fashioned out of onyx—a souvenir from a trip to Greece. She seems to know just what I want even before I know myself. I've come to love her because of this, though I don't believe that was her original intent. She was just being March, which was all there was of her attachment to the vanilla, at first.
When the first buds flowered, that summer between junior and senior year, March made a point of being there, in our coconut grove. It happened that I was the last one to arrive to arrive at the beach house that year, having wasted some time interning at a greenhouse my advisor owned, and when I finally arrived, it was after midnight and my parents had already gone to bed, leaving March to wait for me. I recognized her distinguished silhouette from the end of the driveway: her perfect posture, the lightness of her shoulders under her exaggerated collar, her over-large blouse tied around the waist, a half inch below where her trousers hung. Her arms were open to me even before I reached her, and we embraced warmly, selfishly, as the taxi driver went about unpacking the trunk.
By the time March found her purse, I had already paid the driver and transferred all of my luggage into the foyer. When she asked how much I owed, I waved away her money, saying, "He was a nice guy. He's having a fight with his wife, so I told him what flowers to get. He was going to get her roses."
"How silly of him." A smile lined the corner of her mouth, the soft curves under her eyes. Together, we settled on the couch, where she wrapped her arms around her legs and said, "It's far too early to imagine marriages falling apart," voice thick with sleep.
"I suggested she might appreciate a Xanthosoma mexicanum."
March nudged me with her foot. "It's also too early for Latin."
I laughed but cupped one hand in the air, pressing two fingers into my palm, to show how the stamen wore the petal as a cowl. "It's called the Elephant Ear—always listening, never forget. It seemed a more thoughtful gift," I said, because I knew she'd like it. Her smile was brilliant and easy. When she stretched her legs fell into my lap, where I slid my hands over her feet, their cool blue tendons. "Will you be able to sleep now?"
She shook her head. "I'll nap in the afternoon. It's the only way to get through this heat."
"Has it been hot?"
"Unbearably." March leaned back, resting her arm over her face.
Together, we listened to the sounds of my parents stirring: brushing their teeth, unlocking their door. I heard my father slap wet hands on his cheeks, and wondered briefly what my mother wanted with the linens. My father was the one to find me. "Did you sleep at all on the plane?"
"No, but I did sneak some scotch while the woman next to me was asleep."
"That's my girl."
My mother walked in and gave March a bemused little wave. "Everything okay?"
March hummed; their exchange was quiet and murmuring and reminded me of how close March was with my mother. As they spoke, my father drifted toward the kitchen, where he stared helplessly into the fridge, looking for something he was allowed to eat. "Your mother has him on a diet," March said, stage-whispering behind their backs.
My mother called out from the sink, "It couldn't hurt."
My father mouthed to us, "That's what she thinks." Their diet incorporated protein shakes and almonds and required that both of them exercise three or four times per week, mixing weight training and cardio in the form of running on the beach at dawn, when seagulls flapped around in the shallows. March and I watched them run off, their figures disappearing into the sunlight, then turned to each other, exhausted.
March rubbed her hand between my shoulder blades. "Why don't you get some sleep?"
I nodded, slipping out of my chair. At the foot of the stairs I said, "What will you do?"
"I'll think of something."
Food came later, then water, and a hot shower. It was well past noon by the time I went to check on the vanilla, and later still when my father and I hauled my luggage upstairs to my room. "You never used to bring so many clothes," he said, unlatching a black hard-shell suitcase, which unfortunately held my underthings. Quietly, I pushed another suitcase toward him, exchanging it. I'd bought a great deal of lace and hosiery that spring, in the throes of an unexpected love affair. I remember the garters being my favorite. My girlfriend used to unhook them one-handed and kiss me on the neck while I shivered. I couldn't tell my father this and was forced to wait patiently for my blush to recede. While I hung my sundresses in the closet, he lifted a layer of towels to reveal forty petri dishes. "What's this? Have you been smuggling contraband?"
"I don't think it counts as smuggling if you don't cross the border."
"What is it?" He tilted one of the dishes to the light.
"Germinated orchid seeds."
"It looks like mold."
"Well, that is unexpectedly gross."
I hummed, thinking of how full my closet was. "Where am I going to put these?"
His head dipped, quietly considering the petri dish in his hand. "You could use my office. It's not a big deal." I knew, from the way he said it, that he was struggling with his big skyscraper design and might not finish. His process was slow and meticulous and he didn't like talking about his blueprints, instead shutting himself in his studio for weeks at a time, sketching under the light of a single incandescent bulb—like a professional artist's, his studio remained dark and brooding, even in summer, and it frightened me as a child, with its thick black shade and hard drawn edges. I think he sensed my reluctance to join him in his studio, because he shut the lid of my hard-shell suitcase and carried it down without a word.
Soon after, March came in from the beach, complaining of the heat. My mother followed, heading straight to bed without bothering to say a word to me or to anyone, just shaking her head like a thermometer about to burst.
I showered to pass the time.
When the heat broke, March suggested we walk to the beach, where the air was briny and the sand warm and luminous. My mother set an entire vase of magnolias on the porch to sweeten the air, and I opened a third bottle of wine—a plummy merlot from a decade in which none of us were born. My father stretched himself out on the grass beyond the porch, near the place where it gave way to sand and sea, then watched the waves rolling in with one hand behind his head and a glass of wine he was twirling by the stem. My mother's hand was settling and sliding and settling on his chest as I walked the wet line where the tide could push itself no farther.
March called out, "The water was lovely earlier. You should've come."
My father said we should go skinny-dipping.
My mother chided him, not because she didn't like the idea.
"We're all adults here," March said, shrugging prettily in the dark.
My father lifted his head. "That's right. She's been to a nude beach before."
France. 1986. I was fifteen. I remembered wishing I had brought more sunblock.
I sensed an argument coming and staved it off by stripping, tossing off my blouse and my bra. Naked and cold, I walked into the ocean, skimming one hand over the reflection of the moon on the crest of a wave.
When March joined me, she said, "How can you stand it?" Her lungs were still in shock.
I treaded water very carefully, peering back at the shore. "What's taking them so long?"
March turned her head to watch them testing the water. "They're afraid."
Later, she asked, "Think anyone's watching?"
I said my mother was always watching, but March meant the people on shore, the doctors and lawyers with their beachfront houses; their lights gleamed like checkerboards in the distance, becoming increasingly remote as I bobbed along in the waves, wondering what had become of us and whether or not this adventure would wind up being our last—already I could hear my parents fighting, splashing and charging each other in the water half in jest, half in fury; their accusations were like barbs pricking against my skin, testing my sensitivity. Stop, I wanted to tell them, as on her back March began swimming circles around me, her slender arms lifting icy curtains of water with each stroke. "Your skin looks so pale," I said.
She turned onto her front. "How's your breaststroke?"
"Better than you think."
We swam a while, giving my parents space, until my father shouted, "I've been stung!"
Jellyfish had never been a problem before then, and rarely since. We tend to worry, when we worry at all, about rockfish or sea urchin or those tiny crabs that claw your toes wherever you go. Our nearest neighbor, a retired physician, treated jellyfish stings and first-degree sunburns for free in his living room, if you didn't mind the smell of kitty litter, but when I reminded my father, he'd already hobbled onto shore and collected his shorts. "I don't trust him; he was a foot doctor," he said, the screen door clattering shut behind him.
My mother warned me not to follow. "You'll drip all over the hardwood."
"Should we call the hospital?"
In response, my mother slicked the water from her limbs and began carefully to wring out her hair. When we finally went back inside, my father said, "You three sure took your time," then waves a hand at his ankle. "I'm swelling up here." March examined the wound intently and found he'd been stung twice—once on his ankle and once on his shin, where the burns crisscrossed over his flesh as if the jellyfish's tentacles had been tangled, its long arms like hairs or threads that had frayed inevitably in the shallows. March soaked a dishrag in plain white vinegar and pressed it to his leg, keeping it elevated on a bar stool in order to prevent the spread of poison. My father said, "Did you pick this up in Brazil?"
Brazil. Rio. I'd never heard of the trip and still don't have all the details, but I do know the reason that March flinched at his question: Jan—her lover, a photographer, a woman I never met, because while I grew up Jan walked in and out of March's life too many times to ever do it again. I remembered that night at the New York house when March and my father sat on the back porch and tried avoiding the subject of Jan, instead discussing the weather and politics and if the Giants and Yankees would make it to their respective championships, until finally they'd exhausted their other avenues of conversation and my father asked March, "So—how long's she going to be gone this time?" March didn't answer. She drew her legs up, rubbed her ankles. When I put both hands in her shoes and failed several times at doing a handstand, she bent down quietly and smoothed a wrinkle in my skirt. I thought about this memory as I swept the beach, collecting the wine bottles and empty glasses they'd left behind. I thought about March's sadness when she heard Jan's name and how long it had been since she last had a girlfriend. March has had a few partners, in the past decade, though no one serious and no one she's spoken with me about. My mother tells me; that's her role now. Myself, I don't think I need to know. March has her flings, of which I know little to nothing. She and I have better things to do when we're together than talk about her affairs.
For many years, we spent our summers doting over the vanilla vines, going from one vine to ten and from ten vines to twenty, until we had enough vanilla to keep us in ice cream and fresh baked things for the entire year. It became our favorite ritual: walking out into the coconut grove, sitting down by the trees, then waiting for each individual bud to flower. Each vine had twenty or so flowers, and each flower opens just once yearly, and, if one were to miss its small window for pollination, there would be no vanilla beans at all. Once the flowers opened, of course, it was just a matter of reaching in with a thin rod of bamboo and lifting the pale membrane that separates its anther (or male organ) from its stigma (or female organ). It was easy enough to bypass manually, and left us many hours in a day with which to pursue our other interests. March's line of designer sportswear, for instance, was making a name for her in Manhattan. Meanwhile, I'd been wrapped up in my research, attempting to crossbreed two kinds of orchids from Madagascar to incite them to self-pollinate, and hadn't much been paying attention to my mother, who'd started a new health food diet, or my father, who'd fallen into a creative funk of some years and been unable to sketch without extraordinary effort. Things had deteriorated between them such that they were only ever together on the beach.
March and I liked to sit under a bright coral umbrella while my mother sunbathed and my father built baroque sandcastles beside her, pausing occasionally to sip his dry martini (both were invariably sloshed by day's end). I would stretch out on a towel and find racecars in the sky while March laid back with a book, a bottle of water, and a glass of ginger ale; this last when garnished with a mint leaf was March's favorite drink. If I teased her enough, usually she'd go swimming in the ocean with me, but more often I'd have to wait until she finished her chapter or her crossword before she tilted her hat back and regarded me. One day I drifted half to sleep waiting for her and only started when I felt a hand touch the skin of my back. It felt surprisingly cold.
"Are you wearing sunblock?"
I shook my head.
March moved quickly to remedy this, sliding down the towel and kneeling in the shade of the umbrella. She said, "You should really be more careful," her hands smoothing sunscreen over my ankles and calves, before moving quietly toward the hollows of my inner thighs. "Turn over," March instructed, and I obliged, propping myself high up on my elbow while she squeezed a thin line of sunblock on my torso.
Her fingers dotted sunscreen on my cheeks, nose, under the hollow of my throat, and then proceeded carefully to my chest, pausing discreetly at the hem of my bikini before slipping softly over, as she always had before. I was lucky, she said, to have such a lovely complexion. "Always take care of it. Your skin is your greatest asset."
Then, when she went quiet, I opened my eyes to find her face turned.
"Your mother's watching."
Sure enough, her book was held aside, and her sunglasses were halfway down her nose as she peered enquiringly over the lenses. March curled into herself at this, calm as a bud against an ill spat of weather, and began to rub sunblock into her arms, neck, cheeks, all the while regarding me kindly but not unselfconsciously' finally, my mother returned to her book, and March relaxed into an ocean breeze, taking the time to fix her hat upon her head before dropping her hands back to her knees. "See? No harm done."
Later, I joined my father, who'd been conducting a novel "experiment in density" with his daily sand castle, wherein its foundations were dark and square and its towers pocked with heavy coffering, like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle missing its most important pieces. I kneeled down, pretending to peek in the windows, then shook my head, straightening. "I hate to say it, but you're becoming very theoretical."
His snort was both a grimace and a sigh. "I've been offered a tenured professorship." He'd been offered such positions periodically throughout his career, but had always either turned them down or converted them into guest lectureships and master classes, in order to preserve the purity and autonomy of his designs. I remember him saying that academia was the death of the architect and that he'd prefer never to give lessons in his gift, even if it was fairly lucrative. So it came as a surprise when he shrugged as if to say, yes, I probably will take it.
"What does Mom have to say about this?"
I turned to her, amazed, as she lifted her sunglasses to the top of her hair. "It's his career." Then, with a shrug: "The city's gotten kind of tiresome, anyway."
There was some debate over whether or not to sell the house on Long Island, with both of them saying maybe and me staring incredulously at them, as if they'd just retroactively destroyed my childhood. It's true that I delayed growing up longer than most. I can admit that much; but we all did our part: me and my parents, and even March, all attempting to prolong my childhood, for reasons we know now but never discuss. I've had to accept that this is who we are. My father has his teachings, his theory; my mother, her cooking; me, my orchids and March. She's a permanent fixture in my life now. We call each other sometimes, when we're not at the beach. We talk about fabric, flower petals, flights. It's easy.
I never used to think of it that way. In fact, when my father told me about that job offer, it felt like our fragile understandings were all coming apart at the seams. I kept thinking, what if he hates it? What if he wakes up one morning and realizes he doesn't want this to be all there is? He had more or less settled on the idea by the time he told me about it. He formally accepted it later, by phone. But for that day, at least, he pretended to be undecided. He stood in the surf and let the water tug at his ankle where he'd been stung. A knot of kelp washed up beside him, tangled up in stiff cracks of driftwood, plastic, shells; I think there was a live crab in there. He was this close to putting it on his head before my mother made him stop.
"You don't know where that's been," she said, gesturing for him to put it down.
He shrugged, then laid the knot down on the castle. He stood back. "It needs something."
"Maybe some shells," I said, pointing to a tower. "Here. And here. Here."
He liked the idea. "Why don't you go collect some?"
I walked around with a ludicrously large bucket, considering the little bits of shell I found washed up on shore. There was only one large one: a big, swirling thing like a conch, broken in a few places, but still beautiful. I had to wade up to it, because it kept rushing in the waves, skittish with some sort of sea life. When I had it at last, my first thought was of March. She was sleeping, her book beside her, her hat shading her face. If my approach woke her, she gave no indication. I knelt down beside her and rested the shell over her belly button—too close, perhaps, to the dip in between her legs.
She shot up, grasping at the sudden weight. It took a moment, but she did smile. "For me? What a lovely present." She pressed it to her ear, hearing nothing.
One evening, I sat sipping grenadine on the porch while March put a load of whites in the wash. I imagined her fingers lingering over her shirts, her dresses. Inside, I could hear my mother making dinner, plates and spoons clattering against each other as my father went around securing the windows: the weather forecast had predicted a Category 2 hurricane, and the sky was already wringing itself in anticipation of the storm.
"You shouldn't be out here," March said, stepping out onto the porch. "It's a bad one."
"I'm not scared."
This seemed to please her. "Will you be dressing for dinner?"
"What's wrong with this?"
March titled her head, amused: my bathrobe was uncinched, revealing a strip of skin from my clavicle to my navel; her hands meanwhile were tucked in her pockets and her damp hair was dripping onto her collar. "I think it would upset your mother."
"She's already having some sort of culinary fit in there."
March smirked. "She's pickling."
March paused, then held out her hand. "Come. Let's find you something to wear."
In silence March began perusing my wardrobe, picking an outfit from the many that she'd either purchased or sewn on my behalf. I noticed the deliberate care she took with my things, and this particular tenderness with which she folded my underthings back into their drawer. On top of my dresser was a small stack of photographs, which she nudged apart, lingering over one. "These are from last Christmas," she said, lifting the one of us, bright with tinsel and wine, hugging each other in front of the giant Christmas tree. I've often longed to relive that moment, in all its luxury and purity. It seems now that March wanted this, too. She said, "May I have this?"
"If you like."
In exchange, she handed me the clothes she wanted me to wear.
I changed in the bathroom, where I could hear only the sound of my own breathing and of my father's door opening and closing again. March had selected a top, light blue, and a maxi skirt with white shoes and a silver bracelet that glinted in the light. I wondered at the selection: the top was thin yet modest and the skirt reached my ankles, sweeping along the floor like a gust of wind between my legs. March had lain herself on my bed to rest. I didn't want to disturb her, so I crept quietly onto the bed, stretching beside her, then reaching out to touch that little hollow below her ribcage. Her eyes were calm and serene when she said, "Your mother wants you to set the table."
In the kitchen, my mother was stir frying bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, ginger, garlic, and water chestnuts in a wide-rimmed wok. "I need you to take the extensions off the table," she said, informing me that the Gladwells had changed their minds and would not be joining us for dinner. Their loss, I thought, sniffing appreciatively—a whole salmon, head to tail including its eyeballs, was roasting in the oven, along with a honey mustard glaze, pink peppercorns, and cross-sections of orange that decorated its side.
"Do you want me to get the big serving platter?"
"Please. And the cloth napkins."
We set a family-style spread, with the salmon in the center, a plate of steamed rice beside it, stir-fry, wine, gin, whisky, plus several store-bought freesias, their decapitated blooms floating in a bowl. This last was my mother's addition—we rarely go a meal without some from of flower on the table, whether it be the tubular roots of fringe lilies, a chilled and candied rose petal, or the vibrantly tinted granules of dried hibiscus incorporated into one of my mother's exotic spice rubs. In my more fanciful moments I like to say that we have gardens for stomachs, but I refrained that night and instead watched my father scoop the salmon's eye out of its socket.
March came down just then and said, "I didn't realize your diet allowed you to eat eyes."
"The diet is no red meat, no butter, no pop. I can eat all the fish I want."
He'd balled the eye between the cheek and his teeth, prompting my mother to tell him that he had more than enough on his plate already—my mother had given him the collar, his favorite. In the course of the meal, he would scoop out the eyes, lift out the brain, then dig into the cheeks, eating each of this with a pickled peach relish my mother had made especially for him in order to balance the rich fat of the filet.
March lingered with every bite. "I keep telling you to open your own restaurant."
My father nodded. "You've really outdone yourself this time," he said, right as my mother poured herself a second glass of wine; this made him nervous. He tilted his plate, lifting it for her to see as he separated the flesh with his fork. "Look. Isn't that beautiful?"
My mother shrugged. "I just tried to respect the ingredients."
We all agreed: dinner was perfect.
I began moving food around on my plate. My mother eyed me as I did this.
"Your skin looks a bit pink," she said. "Did you burn today?"
"Just a little on this arm." I touched the burn, its dull and constant heat. "It doesn't hurt."
March leaned forward to get a better look.
My mother sat back, regarding us. "You two are silly," she said.
March dipped her head. I glanced quickly at the hurricane.
My father was the first one to speak. "I have a burn." He pointed to the bridge of his nose. "Right here. Front and center."
March touched the rim of her glass idly. After a moment, she said, "That's going to peel."
In the middle of the meal, the chandelier began to flicker, and the high winds snapped the fronds of a palm tree against the side of the house; but soon enough the storm subsided, swerving up the coastline before dying out in the Mid-Atlantic. These days, my mother puts her head down after a drink and a half, but back then she started early and continued steadily; she was wasted by the time the skies cleared and my father helped her climb upstairs. "Honey," she kept whispering, hitting him repeatedly on the shoulder. "Honey, I have a great idea: let's go skinny-dipping."
March's forgiving laugh said she thought it wasn't a bad idea. "Should we?"
"I think the water's still churning."
March hummed and sank back into her drink. In the silence, I thought she was very pretty and very dangerous and decided not to sit with her but instead to gather up all of the wine bottles, then drain them out in the kitchen sink. March and I were drinking white wine, Sauvignon Blanc, and I lingered over what little remained, turning it this way and that to catch the light. As I stood, contemplating sweetness, March slipped into the kitchen, nicked a black splendor plum out of an oblong dish, then disappeared into the night. I dried a plate sitting in the dish rack and glanced up at the microwave's digital clock, confirming that it was midnight, as I'd suspected. March had left the sliding door open behind her, and through it I could hear waves crashing on the shore like big fists pounding on a counter—one, two.
Soon, I set aside the glasses and moved into the shadows of the porch, watching as March bit into that plum's carmine flesh. Her skin paled in the chill, but when I asked if I could get her a blanket she said no. "The wine's keeping me warm." She reached down for her wine glass only to find that it had fallen off the step somewhere; I found it the next morning. "I'm celebrating."
"Did you sign the lease?"
March was opening a boutique in Tribeca. Her business partner Peg had called that day to tell her their bid had been accepted. "It's finally happening." She sounded so relieved.
I settled beside her, hugging close against the cold. "Have you picked out the name yet? I was thinking: March. Just March."
Her lips twitched, and for a moment she stared down at her hands and at the bare stone of the fruit before lifting her gaze up to meet mine. "You know, I never liked that name until I heard you say it. March," she intoned, both reprimand and command. "March, will you come play with me? March, I got a boo-boo."
I shivered. "I was just a kid."
"I never liked kids, either."
"March," I said, surprised at her. But she just smiled and shook a hand through the hair at the tender nape of her neck. It seemed a complicated gesture at the time. It would be easier to say that I didn't understand what I was getting into when she kissed me lightly, and on the mouth; but I knew well what I was doing. I knew that if the kiss lasted any longer, and if my fingers traveled any lower, then she'd have to take them and decide whether to use her room or mine; but first she pressed my hand to her chest and held it still, letting herself breathe a moment, while she worked her thumbs underneath my palm and guided me to her lips.
In her room March took the time to make me comfortable and fold down the thin sheet on her bed. It took four folds, one tucked neatly over the other, and left little question of what would happen: March held out her hand and bade me to climb up onto the mahogany chest at the foot of her bed and walk out onto the mattress, until I stood naked at the center. If I were to lift my arms, the ceiling would be just barely out of reach; there would be rafters behind it, and insulation, and then the roof, worn smooth by wind and rain. It was unexpected—all of it: how I found her at my knees. How I cooled under her tongue, the lick and blow of breath pealing over my skin and then stopping, as if to test my sensitivity. I learned so much that night.
In the morning, we were still awake at a time when my parents usually went jogging. The house was very quiet. The windows were closed, but the curtains open. It was going to be a clear, bright day. I threaded my fingers into March's hair and felt it move over my palm (the wispy hair behind her ear, the tip of the lobe, then her cheek, then her mouth). She traced my hand shyly, up each finger and down, along the lines of my palm, as if to confirm that I belonged to her, and that every inch of me could be drawn toward her fingertips then held there as long as she liked. I have certainly had more adventurous lovers since then, but nobody quite as demanding as March—she required all of me when we were together. Then she asked me to sit up, to gather my clothes, and leave her no more or less than the night before and the day before that. I managed to steal a quick kiss before being ordered into the shower, but when I snuck out of her room, March shut the door fast behind me, and I was alone.
Later, I waited in the coconut grove, thinking March would join me for the opening of the last vanilla flower (the baby, the shy one). When it bloomed, I closed my eyes and refrained even from touching it, afraid that it would take my love and then fruit one day when I wasn't around to harvest it. Meanwhile, my mother walked up beside me and pressed her hands against the bark of the coconut tree, folding them one over the other like a pillow. I heard her lips part and rested my head against the tree's thick trunk. "March said I should talk to you about something. Your father theorizes it's about the birds and the bees."
That made me laugh: the birds and the bees. It was true enough. "I'm gay."
She exhaled carefully. "Now I understand: you went to March for advice."
I found it disappointing then not to be understood. March had lied to her.
She hesitated, worried by my silence: "Would you like me to tell you father?"
No. It wouldn't matter to him anyway.
Inside, I found March and my father in the kitchen, discussing the renovations she needed for the store. March was very tired and listened with half-hooded eyes to my father's suggestions, nodding where appropriate and nibbling at a celery stalk. To me, he explained, "I told her I'd take a pass at the space and let her know what she was in for."
I sat at the island. "Are you going to design something for her?"
"I'm not an interior decorator. Not that I don't respect what they do."
"I didn't mean it like that. I thought you could build something cool, like rotating hangers that fold into hidden closets in the wall."
He turned to me. "I think you think that made sense, but I don't think it did, ultimately."
I tried to mime what I meant with my hands, but failed. "Anyway."
"Anyway. I've been making Bloody Marys. Do you want one?"
March was making a big brunch to cure him of his lingering hangover. In the oven, bacon was baking on a sheet pan, its individual strips laid flat and overlapping so they'd cook down into a single continuous layer like a mat. Meanwhile, March was caramelizing onions and tomatoes in a pan, browning and salting the half dozen eggs cracked into baskets of thick Italian bread. While these cooked, March juiced a bagful of blood oranges that had been delivered that same morning, in the same box as the fruit my mother sliced and the coffee roasting in the pot. Ours was a large, glass juicer, domed and ridged, with a spout for pouring and a thin, looping handle. Something in its design incited my father to begin sketching, and as he drafted, dulling down woodless pencils, March cut the sheet of bacon into wide, symmetrical rectangles that fit neatly on top of the bread. Seeing this geometry on our plates, my father and I lifted our bacon strips, turning them back and forth in the light. Upon realizing what we'd done, we saluted each other. "Bon appétit."
March leaned back, stirring her Bloody Mary. To me, she said, "How are you feeling?"
"Fine." I lingered over the question. "I think I sweated out the booze."
March nodded, patting her lip with the side of her finger.
If my parents understood this exchange, they didn't let on. I've often wondered how much my mother knew then and if, when she sat perched at the island, working a spoon through a bowl of yogurt she was deeply uninterested in, she thought of the trust that she'd placed in March or of their enduring friendship, which dated back to their time at Radcliffe, when they roomed together in an all-girls dormitory. I think, too, of March's surreptitious attempts to hide her orientation and sneak lovers into their room when the residential marm wasn't looking. I knew that this happened and that my mother decided quickly not to mind it—but if she still minded me, and if she'd heard the door closing when March and I went to bed, I can't say. March had offered her a plate of eggs and left it in front of her on the island, where my mother moved the baskets around with her fork, grimacing. "I'm sorry; I can't eat this," she said, pushing it toward my father, who bent happily to dip his bacon in her yolk.
With a smile on her face and my parents in the dark March asked if I would help her with the clean up. "It'll go faster," she said, not meaning it as an invitation, though that was how I took it. Without thinking I wrapped both arms around her waist and pressed my cheek to her shoulder, breathing in the soft scent of the perfume brushed into her hair, the way I liked it. I could feel her tense, relax, tense, relax, her worried glance cutting to my mother, where she leaned back against the fridge, trying again with the yogurt.
She took the spoon out of her mouth and shook it. "You're being awfully touchy."
I whined in my most childish and innocuous voice, "But I love her."
This seemed to ease the tension. My mother chuckled, "Of course you do, dear," and then my father chimed in with: "It's only natural."
March and I were left to finish the dishes while my parents disappeared upstairs, readying themselves for a day at the beach. March didn't mind this arrangement and periodically lifted one soapy hand to take a long, gratifying drink of my blood orange juice. When she finished the glass I told her that the last vanilla flower had opened. "You missed it."
Her mouth turned down for a second before she said, "I'm sorry about that."
"Mom came out to talk to me."
"Did it go well?" Her eyes were on the skillet she was setting in the drying rack.
"I think so." I've never liked having to deny her that way. Sometimes, it seems she'll blurt out our secret if she has just one more sip of wine or if I say another word. Sometimes, I feel like she'll crush me with the force of her longing. That morning after, when she finished washing our dishes, she crossed her arms, wrapping her desire into a tight little ball. I had to stop myself from comforting her, and from crying.
Finally, she said, "They'll be wondering what's taking us so long."
Upstairs March fetched fresh linens from the closet and remade her bed while I lay prone, half on, half off my bed, with my arms stretched out beside me like a weightlifter exhausted after a workout. If I closed my eyes, I could hear the water running in our bathroom, smell the jasmine of her lotion, listen to the pitter-patter of her feet as she hurried into her room—had she forgotten her bathing suit, I wondered? Was March naked but for the towel wrapped around her body? As I lay there, imagining it, first my mother and then my father passed by my door, the latter doubling back when he saw me. "Did you want to help with the sandcastle? I have an idea I want to try."
He winced when I turned to look at him. Probably, he thought I'd been crying. "Have you drawn up blueprints?"
He tapped his head. "It's all up here."
"I want to see schemata before I agree to anything."
"Fine. Have it your way." He stepped back, lingering a moment before shutting the door.
In the bathroom, I checked my body for small, visible signs that March had been there: an unintentional hickie, an impression of her teeth. What of that kiss on my neck, I thought, and that bite around my belly button? What of her nips between my thighs? I was disappointed not to find them again the morning after but at the same time felt sure I'd find traces of me on her if I looked closely under her swimsuit—that dark, modest swimsuit; I saw it from a distance, bobbing over a wave. I sat down on her towel to wait. My mother was in her usual spot, and my father was there, too, sketching her feet and their high, shapely arches. I squeezed a coin of sunblock into my palm and thought again of March's appreciation of my still youthful skin. The burns I already had were light and would soon break, leaving pale, geometric shapes on my body. I remember tracing their outlines when I grew bored.
When March returned she took a spare towel from her tote, then pressed it (still folded) to her forehead. Her skin was flushed, and she was breathing vigorously. I realize now that she was, without a doubt, waiting for me to make the first move; then, when she grew tired of waiting, she knelt and readjusted the umbrellas on either side of us to make an enclave—a little shadow grotto where she kissed me and where, in a low, furtive voice (one that wouldn't carry), she asked me if I was coming to her room that night.
And of course I did, and of course I still do. But for the moment I had to reconcile myself with the fact that it was to be clandestine, an always affair that nevertheless only spanned about a month or two of life, when added together. A few hours, every few nights, for a few weeks out of most years—but not every year—for the last seventeen. I've done the math. But on that afternoon I just sat back. I stood up. Then I said, "I want you to bury me."
"Bury you?" March tilted her head, attempting to process it.
"In the sand. I want you to bury me." I waved her over. "Right here."
It was slow going, at first. March kept trying to make eye contact, to ask if we could stop, but I wouldn't let her. I was enjoying it far too much. That feeling of taking root, like a perennial; of having to be coaxed and pampered to open, even if I would have anyway. I made March cover my thighs—I made her love to. My parents saw what we were doing and decided to let it happen, to turn their heads and return to their castles, their magazines. Sometimes, I wonder what our life would've been like if one or the other of us had said no, somewhere along the line; but I think for that we would have to be entirely different people.