Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Lighter Than Air

Fiction: Learning to trust at 500 feet

Kelly liked hair because each strand was thin and because you could cut a hundred hairs with one snip of the scissors. And then you could cut more. You saw the difference right away. The face showed more. The head seemed lighter, was lighter, without the cut hair. Which was gone. You could always win against hair. You could always cut it faster than it could grow.

Kelly was cutting Michelle’s hair. Michelle wanted her hair short, well off her neck, more like Kelly’s, she said, with the bangs parted and “a little poofed out, so I don’t look like Alfalfa.”

Kelly laughed. “Aleesh loves that show,” she said.

Michelle asked about Alicia, and Kelly said, “She’s so funny,” and started in on how Alicia had gotten in the habit of leaving her Barbie dolls pinched between things—caught in a cupboard door, or stuck between the coffee table and the sofa. Kelly heard herself say this and then set her mind the task of explaining how this was funny, and then lost track of herself talking. When she checked up on herself, there was a silence around her chair.

Michelle seemed to want to ask something more personal, like was Tim making his payments or had she finally started dating again. Kelly could sense when someone was going to try something with her. Michelle was a friend, but it was the same with her guy clients. There was this certain pause before they started hitting on her. They asked about her hobbies, what she liked to do when she was off from work, as if they were going to ask her out to do one of those things. Kelly always played against type. If the guy was older or not in great shape, she said she liked to rock climb. If he looked athletic, she said she liked to read or watch TV or garden. This didn’t always work, though, and she was forced to bring up her daughter. That usually cooled them down, but not the most dangerous ones. They didn’t care if she had a hippopotamus back at her house.

“Your fingers are cold,” Michelle said.

“Are they?” Kelly asked.

“Don’t you feel cold? I can see goose bumps on your arms.”

“They always overdo the air conditioning in here.” Kelly laughed her nervous laugh and kept snipping Michelle’s hair.

“God, you’ve lost weight,” Michelle said.

“Have I? I’m not dieting at all. I’ve just been running around a lot.” Kelly glimpsed her arms in the big mirror over her station. She thought her arms had almost nothing extra on them. They were arms, pure arms.

“Girl, watch yourself,” Michelle said.

“I do.”

“Look, how about coming to the lake with us next weekend?”

“I don’t look that bad, do I?” Kelly paused in her cutting.

“Kelly? Honestly? Yes.”

Kelly cut Michelle’s hair, imagining that each strand was a thin blood vessel—a capillary, she remembered from high school biology—coming out of Michelle. It wasn’t the first time she’d thought of the head of one of her clients running with blood after a haircut. Kelly tried to get rid of such thoughts, but they always came back.

“Guys notice that sort of thing,” Michelle continued. “They know about it.”

“Michelle, you’re incredible.”

“What? I’m just saying, if you’re dieting to get a guy—”

“I’m not dieting to get a guy,” Kelly said.

---

Mike and Michelle pulled up in their silver Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Kelly, carrying the suitcase, led Alicia down the porch steps to meet them. Kelly finally had agreed to spend the weekend at a big house Michelle and Mike had rented on Lake of the Ozarks. Michelle had more money than Kelly, but Kelly was very pretty. Kelly knew that Michelle was drawn to her because of her appearance. Michelle had a long face with a long nose and hooded eyes; her shoulders were hung slightly to one side, as though her body had taken the shape of a reflection in a fun-house mirror. She was always overweight but, as long as Kelly could remember, had never been without a man.

Mike stepped out of the Jeep and opened the hatchback. Though it was hot out, he wore jeans and cowboy boots. He had his own software company but liked to think of himself as an outdoorsman.

Instead of getting in the Jeep, Alicia followed Kelly to the back, where she was stowing their things.

“There’s a man in there,” Alicia whispered.

“That’s OK,” Kelly said. “He won’t bite.”

Alicia rolled against Kelly’s leg.

“Go on,” Kelly said. “Get in now.”

Kelly wanted Alicia to get in first. To sit between her and the man. That way he’d know how things were. Kelly was very angry with Michelle, for a second, but then it blew over. It didn’t matter what the man was like.

By the way he was sitting, she could tell he was tall. He was wearing new high-top sneakers and shorts. His legs were covered in golden brown hair. He wore his hair very short on the sides and a little longer on top. It looked as if he got it cut regularly by someone good. His shoulders were broad. He wasn’t thickly muscled, but his arms looked solid. Everything about him was solid, as if he were made out of some different substance than Kelly, though his skin was not good. He was her type. He was her physical type. A thrill went through Kelly. Her eyes teared up. She was mad at Michelle.

The man’s name was Greg. His hand was large, solid, rough. He had his own plastering, tuck-pointing and waterproofing business called Sealmaster. As he told her about it over Alicia’s head, Kelly felt an edge to him. Like a saw. He could saw her in half, just by talking to her. He could snap her like a twig. There was something defensive, or aggressive, in his voice. He felt the need to explain to Kelly how a guy with a booming plastering, tuck-pointing and waterproofing business could afford to take a three-day weekend in the middle of the busy season. His crew could handle things. He mainly bid the jobs and then drove around helping out. He still did everything. He was the boss but he did everything anyway.

“That’s nice,” Kelly said.

Mike was driving, but he got Greg into a discussion about a crack on the west wall of his brick house that he had to patch every year or two. Mike didn’t talk much but he tended to perk up when he was trying to get something. Greg pinned Mike down on the fact that he was using a cement-based compound between the bricks. Greg recommended something with “a little more play to it.” He could fix Mike up, if he was interested.

“You know, I might be,” Mike said into the rearview mirror.

“Kelly’s got a brick house,” Michelle said significantly, and she smiled.

This was the sort of leading thing Michelle used to say back in high school when they double-dated. Michelle usually arranged things then, too. That’s how Kelly met the funny alcoholic, Tim. She had divorced him two years earlier, for sleeping around on her, for publicly groping her when he was drunk and, finally, because there had to be a finally, for passing out in an upstairs bedroom just before dinner was served at her mother’s Thanksgiving party.

Being humiliated in front of her mother helped her divorce Tim. It was her capitulation to her mother, who herself had capitulated to something, Kelly thought, because she had gotten very fat. Her mother had always told her she was crazy for marrying Tim. “You’re so beautiful, you could have any man. And so you pick one who drinks.” Her mother taught high school English and was galled by the fact that Kelly turned out to be a mediocre student; she rode her mercilessly about her homework until her junior year, when both of them just gave up. Her father had never seemed to care how she did in school. He called her his “princess.”

As things were ending with Tim, Kelly was having an affair, too, just to protect herself, with one of her clients, the son of a local supermarket mogul. Arnold Westerberg was married and had four perpetually tan, straw-haired kids. She had picked him carefully, from among the many possibilities, for her affair. He was so sweet. But he could also be a whiner—with his huge house in Ladue and the stores he got to run and would inherit and his beautiful stay-at-home wife. He had bad dandruff.

Still, she thought she loved Arnold and took him at his word about marrying her once they were both divorced. “How could I be so stupid?” was the formula Kelly settled on for thinking about all this. After Arnold dumped her, she took a cooking class to get out of the house. But when her hollandaise sauces broke or her soufflés refused to rise, she burst into tears. She became subject to sudden terrors, to the old metallic taste of panic. Her throat seemed to swell shut every time she tried to put food in her mouth. She threw out all the free groceries Arnold had given her: pounds of frozen shrimp, steaks, Cajun chicken breasts; tins of clams and caviar. She fed his Cheerios to the garbage disposal. She had been so stupid—with Tim, with Arnold. Stupid. And dirty. How dirty she had felt when Arnold hugged her for the last time! No more of that. Michelle knew she wanted to stay away from guys—yet here was Greg.

She was very mad at Michelle, but she wasn’t going to show it.

Turned sideways in her seat, Michelle took over the conversation, asking questions, making comments, talking about all the things they could do at the lake (a range of activities requiring expensive, motorized equipment). Kelly got quiet, and Greg did too, careful to profess as much ignorance as possible about anything unrelated to tuck-pointing, plastering or waterproofing. In spite of herself, Kelly liked his silence, liked his signs of insecurity. She caught glances of his powerful legs, his strong arms, foaming with beautiful hair. She liked seeing his strength and his insecurity at the same time. If she could have forgotten that Michelle was fixing them up, she might have relaxed.

---

The house was as big as Kelly expected it to be, right on the water. The kitchen had an island and overlooked the living room, which had a huge fireplace set in a wall of large stones, a view of the lake through trees, a fifteen-foot ceiling. Michelle and Mike, of course, would have the master bedroom suite. Michelle pointed out the rooms that Kelly and Greg could have, then took them through the rest of the house.

The floor they walked in on was actually the top floor. The floor below had a rec room with a pool table and a Ping-Pong table and a big TV and couches. There was a set-up for karaoke, another pair of bedrooms, a sauna. Then they had to go outside and down more stairs (Greg made profuse compliments about the cedar siding), the house crawling down the slope toward the lake, where there were two separate apartments with twin beds and their own kitchens and bathrooms.

Kelly knew that Michelle only showed these apartments so that everyone would appreciate the size of the house, but she said, “This’d be perfect for Aleesh and me.”

Michelle protested that they should all be together upstairs, but Kelly said that it was only for sleeping and that she wanted to share a room with Alicia but that they should have separate beds. Michelle hadn’t thought of this.

“Why not, though?” Greg said. “It’s nice down here.”

Kelly panicked when Michelle suggested that Greg could stay in the other apartment. Greg seemed ready to answer when Mike reminded Michelle that two other couples were coming. The Abernathys, who had a young girl, might want the other apartment. The Goffs would no doubt stay upstairs. So it was decided.

When Kelly and Alicia were settling in, Michelle came down with some towels.

“Did you see how considerate he was about you being down here?” Michelle said. “Kind of makes you wish you were staying upstairs, doesn’t it, you ninny.”

“Where’d you meet him?”

Michelle said he was a customer at the bank where she worked, plus she’d seen him at Bally’s, working out. “Sometimes he even does aerobics.”

“A real sweetheart,” Kelly said.

“A real sweetheart,” Alicia said, watching TV on the end of the bed.

“It doesn’t seem like you know him all that well,” Kelly said.

“Kelly? Hello? That’s how you make friends. You get to know them.”

Kelly was going to say something, but all at once she ran out of the energy necessary to resist Michelle. She smiled. “That’s true,” she said. “This place is great.”

When Michelle left, Kelly lay on her back on one of the beds. She found herself worrying about making an impression on Greg, even though her body did not want him at all. Something in her mind wanted him—maybe the memory that he was her physical type—but she knew her body would vomit him up. Instead, she would volunteer to make dinner. Since this had nothing to do with plastering, tuck-pointing or waterproofing, it was unlikely that Greg would try to help her. It would set her safely apart.

And when the Goffs and the Abernathys arrived she felt even safer—she could fade to the background, hold still amidst all the confusion. She had met them before at Michelle’s parties. Geoffrey Goff was a tax lawyer in Clayton, and Clare wrote brochures for a medical supply company. The Abernathys were also a nice couple. Janet was a certified financial planner and Bruce had his own online editing business. He wore little rimless glasses the exact shape of his eyes. Janet was petite, pretty and well dressed, though she had too many freckles. Kelly felt a little inferior, being just a hairdresser, but she worked at a pretty high-class salon. Her clients wore black kimonos over their clothes and the assistants gave shampoos and neck and scalp massages. Katie Abernathy was ten years old and very thin; she always had a pained expression on her face. Kelly wondered if she would play with Alicia or freeze her out. Alicia had just turned nine, but it was only last Christmas that she had finally admitted that Santa Claus was dead. Katie had a knapsack, probably filled with books, small rocks of information that she would hurl at Alicia.

It was late afternoon. Michelle broke out some chips and salsa and she and Kelly handed out drinks. There was talk of getting in a swim before dinner, but everyone was exhausted from the drive and congregated around the kitchen island, sitting on bar stools, praising the house, catching up with one another. All the women except Kelly did aerobics at Bally’s, and they talked about instructors. Kelly noticed that Alicia had managed to get Katie to go down into the rec room with her.

Greg was the newcomer and he had to field a lot of questions. Everybody seemed interested in him, except Clare. When Michelle introduced them, Clare smiled and said hi but she didn’t follow up with anything. Greg picked up on this and was especially nice to Clare, quickly turning away questions about himself and instead asking her about her job. He laughed hard at her jokes. It wasn’t a flirtatious interest, Kelly thought. In fact, Greg made a point of sitting by Kelly, of being in her vicinity.

The conversation was lame. Janet Abernathy was bent on talking herself down, describing things she’d done or thought of doing to find out what people thought of her doing or not doing those things. “Wasn’t that stupid?” she would ask. Kelly could tell that having so many freckles drove Janet crazy. Mike smirked and concentrated on his Corona, seemingly unaware of the two black hairs sticking out of his nose. Bruce was eating chips and salsa compulsively, dipping one chip while he was still chewing another. He wasn’t swallowing fast enough and soon his mouth would overflow. Everyone in the room had a body.

Kelly slipped away to a bathroom. She sat on the toilet lid, thinking she would just catch her breath, but it was uncatchable. Everyone has a body—so what? Not being able to handle this simple fact made her burst into tears. She got up and washed her trembling hands. What was wrong with her? What was wrong with her! She flushed the toilet, in case anyone was listening for the sound, though nobody could be listening for the sound, and washed her hands again. She wasn’t going to cry anymore. She wasn’t going to tremble. It was going to stop. She looked at herself in the mirror with her mouth open, trying to see down her throat, to make sure it wasn’t closing. This suddenly made her yawn deeply. She was going to keep breathing. She examined her face, and touched her hair, and told herself that she was getting control. She sat down again and closed her eyes and took large breaths, so that her face might return to normal. After another few minutes, she washed her hands, left the bathroom and walked into the living room, where everybody had moved. The fact that everyone had bodies was more easily faced, moment by moment—like getting used to a swimming pool that feels cold at first but then turns out to be a good temperature—and then everything was okay.

Clare had enlivened the conversation, talking about staging pictures for her medical catalogs. Once they painted an artificial butt with goo to make it look covered with sores and then photographed it to illustrate a disease some product could cure. Clare made everyone laugh. Kelly liked her, even though she was sort of disgusted by her. Clare had saggy cheeks and a strange body—small on top and wide on the bottom. She was sarcastic in a way that Kelly associated with feminism and political awareness. She caught Clare looking at her, accusingly.

Kelly offered to make dinner. Spaghetti with a red sauce, linguini with clam sauce. A green salad. A chocolate cake with white frosting.

There was nothing in the cupboards, so Kelly said she’d go shopping with Alicia. Everybody wanted to come with, but nobody really followed up. Michelle took Kelly aside and gave her some money. Kelly thought of protesting but didn’t. She wanted to get out of the house. The images from Clare’s gross story were stuck in her mind.

She had her head down, thinking about this, when she almost ran into Greg standing on the front walk.

“Aleesh, honey, you carry the list,” she called back to Alicia, who was playing hopscotch on the stone flags. She held out the piece of paper covered with Michelle’s loopy handwriting.

“I’ll help,” Greg said.

“I sure need it,” she said, giving up on Alicia, pocketing the list.

There was an awkward moment when they both went straight to the driver’s side of the Jeep. But Greg recovered quickly. He even went so far as to sit in the backseat.

The main drag was jammed with cars simmering in the heat.

“Michelle says you’re a hairdresser,” Greg said. “I mean, you’re a beauty specialist. What’s the word for it?”

“I do hair, basically,” Kelly said. Someone cut in front of her and she slammed on the brakes. She did not hit her horn, but Greg powered down his window and yelled out in a fierce voice, “Moron!” His voice boomed: it came from outside the Jeep, through her closed window, as well as from the backseat. The hot air he let in mixed with the air-conditioned air. Alicia seemed scared for a second, then slunk deeper into her seat, trying to keep from giggling. Kelly didn’t know what to say, and it was a while before Greg spoke in a strangled voice. “It figures, Arkansas plates.”

Kelly caught a glimpse of him in the mirror, rubbing his face with his hands.

At the grocery store, Greg got control of the cart. It reminded her of the way Arnold used to surprise her at Westerberg’s and escort her through the aisles. She wanted to grab the cart out of Greg’s hands, but he walked on strong and oblivious.

Alicia had evidently gotten over her shyness around Greg, because now she was trying to get his attention. She did a cartwheel into the cereal aisle, and after Kelly scolded her, she walked very slowly, lingering over the products. She fell behind and Kelly had to tell her to keep up. It was an old stunt she used to pull on Tim when she was four or five. They’d all be out at the zoo, or some place, and Alicia would walk as if she were wearing cement shoes until Tim would go back and get her and put her on his shoulders and let her take his sunglasses off so she could wear them. Greg didn’t seem aware that she was flirting with him, but Kelly was angry anyway because Alicia had no right to flirt with him.

“Aleesh!” she called back, very sharply this time.

Alicia paused and then came up, obviously stung, and Kelly almost regretted yelling at her. Alicia had never seemed especially interested in a stepfather before, but Kelly hadn’t dated in over a year. Maybe in the meantime something in Alicia had changed. But something in Kelly had changed, too.

“Help us pick out the noodles,” Greg said to Alicia.

Kelly told Alicia to choose two pounds worth. She grabbed two boxes of some spiral pasta, and Kelly had to gently talk her into exchanging one for a box of linguini.

“Do you think that’ll be enough?” Greg asked. Alicia, used to being in the middle of arguments, paused with the boxes over the cart.

“The rule is four dry ounces per person, and there’re eight adults,” Kelly said, amazed at the effort it took to say this with composure. “Aleesh and I’ll split a portion.” Kelly remembered Katie, but that didn’t make her change anything.

“That can’t be right. Four ounces? Uh-uh. You need at least half a pound a person. I’m a big eater.”

“All right,” Kelly said. She took the two boxes from Alicia and dropped them in the cart. She grabbed another box before Alicia could do it and proceeded down the aisle without another word. It was the “uh-uh” that really got on her nerves.

Greg hurried after her with the cart. “I don’t know why women want to be so skinny,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. Eat as much as you want and exercise. That way you don’t feel deprived but then you don’t really get fat either.”

What are you a fucking commercial for? she thought.

“It never made sense to me,” he added.

He touched the extra box of pasta. “This is all for you.” He smiled.

“Thanks,” she said. She was so angry her rib cage was going to burst.

“I’m looking out for you.”

“I’m flattered.”

Kelly wanted nothing more than to punish Greg and Alicia. She felt justified against them, against everyone. But as they checked out, she made herself smile and said polite things. She couldn’t wait to get into the kitchen where no one could follow her.

---

The red sauce turned out well and Kelly had some. She knew without tasting it that the cake was also good. When she saw other people eating it, she knew she didn’t have to have any. She had one beer and it made her drunk. Greg was drinking a lot in a controlled way. He simply drank beer after beer and didn’t seem to mind if the shifting of conversations left him sitting alone on a couch. Once he caught Kelly’s eye and raised his bottle to her and smiled a stupid boyish smile. Though he was otherwise different from Tim, they each had a capacity for alcohol like a well-developed muscle. Relief washed away the dregs of her anger: she had nothing to do with him. She didn’t have to divorce him; they were never married; they had never even dated. Michelle had fixed them up, but that was just Michelle.

After dinner, people drifted down to the rec room, to shoot pool and drink more. Greg seemed to have picked up on her annoyance over his tagging along to the grocery store, so he didn’t press himself on her as he had been. But the fact that he seemed to notice that he had gotten on her nerves made her responsive to him again. As often happened with Tim, remorse, even tenderness, took the place of her anger. She saw how awkward Greg was with everybody, how there was something in him that didn’t mix with these people. It wasn’t just the type of work he did; it was also a sort of constraint. It was as if he stuck to talking about his business because if he didn’t talk about that, something else might come up, or he would have to enter into things on another level. Kelly sensed that things were wrenched to the side and amiss in Greg, but she liked him for that. She got Alicia to go to bed, then asked him if he wanted to be her partner in a game of pool. His face lit up, and she could almost see the teenage boy he used to be and her heart got warm. Michelle gave Kelly a significant look, but Kelly knew that Michelle couldn’t understand that dating or being married wasn’t all of life; she could just hang out with someone. That’s how in control she was.

The first time it was her turn, Greg touched her arm—well, he actually closed his hand around her wrist to point out a shot. She jerked herself free and that gesture stopped everything in the room, but she quickly said, “Here goes” with a laugh and sank her shot, very neatly. She owed that to long nights out with Tim in the early days. Greg accepted the razzing he got good-naturedly, and the two of them took on all comers. They were a team. They won every game. Kelly granted herself a glass of wine—she was on a binge, which surprised her, thrilled her, scared her.

People were getting drunk enough to turn on the karaoke machine, and soon Geoffrey, with his shirt unbuttoned to show his hairy chest, was doing a surprisingly good rendition of “Margaritaville.” Even though she was tipsy, there was no way Kelly was going to sing. A long time ago, she had decided that whenever people got creative she would become the spectator. Greg had the same response. United with Kelly during the pool game, he had loosened up; thrown back into making his way with the group, he grew shy again. Kelly noticed that he had stopped drinking. She approved of that and stopped her own binge. He nodded his head or beat his hand on his thigh in time to the music and he applauded each singer, not ironically, like everyone else, but sincerely.

After a while, it became conspicuous that neither Kelly nor Greg had sung a song. Even Janet had done a hilarious “Send in the Clowns.” Kelly was surprised when Clare, who was solidly drunk, approached Greg in a flirtatious way to get him to sing. Kelly wondered if Clare’s earlier coolness had concealed a crush, and this made Kelly realize that she herself wanted Greg.

Amazingly, Clare got Greg to stand up. He seemed relieved to be asked by her in particular. They had barely spoken to each other all night, and it dawned on Kelly that maybe Clare with her sharp tongue was the person who made Greg most uneasy. He sorted through the lyric sheets. “Put this on,” he said.

It was Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He sang it really well. His awkwardness burned away. His voice had depths and feelings Kelly hadn’t imagined. The image of Johnny Cash singing in a prison mixed with the idea of Greg as a soulful outlaw.

“Love—is a burning thing,” he crooned.

“I told you so,” Michelle whispered in her ear.

Kelly acted as if she were absorbed in watching Greg, which she was, and though this was a poor way to ignore what Michelle had said, Michelle moved on.

“I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down and the flames went higher.”

Greg didn’t point at her, or wink at her, yet she couldn’t help but feel that he was singing to her. He didn’t do mock lounge-singer moves, as Geoffrey and Bruce and Mike had done. He sang the song as if he’d written it.

Everyone applauded Greg vigorously and he smiled a huge beaming smile.

Things wound down. When it came time to say good night, Greg seemed to want to hug Kelly or something. Instead he said: “You’re a great pool player.”

“You’re not so bad yourself.”

“All right, see you tomorrow, then.”

“All right, Greg.” Before she knew it she had used his name. He registered this and looked into her eyes. Kelly turned away and saw the TV. Change of Heart was on. A man flipped his card. It said “change of heart.” He turned to the woman sitting next to him on the couch and kissed her. The person he’d just rejected blew up her bangs with a stream of air. But then she flipped her card—she’d had a change of heart, too. Everyone looked happy.

Greg went upstairs to his room and Kelly headed to her own apartment. When she slid open the screen door onto the deck, she heard voices. It was Clare and Janet sitting on lawn chairs, beneath a yellow bug light, looking out over the water. When she came out, they stopped talking.

Clare looked at her and said, “Be careful.”

“Excuse me?” Kelly said.

“Good night, you guys,” Janet said, and she slipped off down to her apartment.

“I’m not trying to butt in,” Clare said, “but it’s about Greg.”

Kelly felt like saying “What,” but the word stuck in her throat. Instead, she stared at Clare’s sagging cheeks, trying to control a surge of contempt.

Clare said, “I know a friend of a friend who I think dated him.”

“You think she dated him.” She made her voice very flat, one of her mother’s techniques for putting people off balance.

“It was a tall guy named Craig or Greg, from Richmond Heights, with some blue-collar business. Just listen. My friend said that her friend, Kirsten, had a fight with him one night and sent him home, and he left, but he came back and threw a brick through her bedroom window.”

“Did she see him?”

“She didn’t have to see him. He’d pushed her once before. She just got the hell out of town. Got a transfer to Kansas City, I think.”

“He doesn’t seem like somebody who would do something like that,” Kelly said.

Clare sighed. “I know what you mean. But a lot of polite guys are really wound up. They’re uptight because they want things to be perfect and when things aren’t perfect, they just explode.”

“I guess so.”

“You could say I don’t know for sure,” Clare said, as if she were reading Kelly’s mind, “but there’s something about him.”

She should have thanked Clare for trying to talk her out of Greg; she knew that any thing with him would probably turn out horrible and dirty. But she kept thinking about Clare’s saggy cheeks, and how smart she was, and she just felt angry, generally, about everything.

“Who knows, maybe it’s not him.” Clare suddenly laughed and slipped into one of her sarcasm voices. “Just me speculatin’ and ruinin’ lives. Well, this has been fun. You’re welcome and good night.”

After Clare left, Kelly was afraid to go downstairs to the dark apartment. She went back into the rec room and sat down in front of the TV. The credits were rolling on Change of Heart, and everybody was standing on the set, bantering. The newly formed couples had one arm behind each other’s backs.

She had a glass of water for breakfast. She didn’t even go through the motions of putting something on her plate. Not even a cup of coffee. The others kept snacking until Michelle made sandwiches for lunch. During all this eating, Kelly felt very much alone and took many pointless trips down to her apartment. Alicia wanted to go in the sauna with Katie, but Kelly forbade it and Alicia cried. “Stop crying like a baby,” Kelly snapped.

When she came back upstairs, Greg was in a good mood. Instead of sitting hunched over on the couch or in a chair gripping the armrests, he slouched deeply with his feet way out in front of him. Clare praised his singing again, but he immediately turned it into a compliment on Kelly’s pool playing. He went on to make conversation with Kelly in a light and friendly way, but she suddenly needed to apologize to Alicia. She found her down in the rec room playing Ping-Pong with Katie. She took Alicia aside, and then, since everyone else was upstairs, she watched Alicia and Katie play until the day’s plan took shape: Michelle announced they were all going parasailing.

The fact that Kelly’d had nothing to eat all day was making her feel very good, very clean and strong. When she put on her one-piece swimsuit, she wasn’t as disgusted as she thought she would be. She wrapped a thin colorful fabric around her legs and tied it at her hip, making a wrap skirt. She put on a gauzy long-sleeved top and her sun hat.

Clare’s compliment on Greg’s singing made Kelly shake her head. If Clare could flatter him after stabbing him in the back, then, really, who was worse: Greg who maybe had a temper but was honest and passionate, or these two-faced West County types?

She looked at herself in the mirror and said, “Greg,” as if testing how the word matched what she saw. The answer came back immediately: “Stupid. Don’t be stupid.”

---

The launch was a beach facing a T-shaped runway of red buoys strung out across the water. You stood on the beach and some workers arrayed the silk sail behind. Then you stepped into a harness, which prompted some feeble bondage jokes from Michelle. They held the sail out behind you and the boat just took off and you had to run behind it down the sand and then jump in the air just as you reached the water. Every launch worked out, but it looked as if you needed training to do it right. The legs of some people went stiff with terror, but most seemed to enjoy it. The boat went straight out and then banked sharply to the left, working around the T. Whenever the boat slowed to turn, the people would sink down, some almost dunking their feet in the water. There were actually two launch sites, with fairly long lines for both. Michelle kept asking who wanted to go first, but nobody seemed all that eager.

Greg stood apart on the hot sand, in bare feet, swim shorts and a plain, worn white T-shirt. Kelly let the wind blow her hair across her eyes; through her hair, she looked at his legs. Alicia came over and took her hand. She quietly begged Kelly not to have to fly around. Kelly was happy to reassure her. She wanted to impress her daughter with what she was about to do.

The rest of the gang was lost in excitable chatter. Greg asked her if she wanted to sign up. They walked over to the table and paid twenty dollars and signed the list and the release form. She signed her name, then so did Greg. Eventually everyone signed up except Clare. “Someone has to call your next of kin,” she said.

“I wish it went on longer,” Kelly said, watching someone get pulled across the top of the T, legs hanging loose.

Greg said, “Yeah.” He shifted his feet, putting himself a half step closer to her.

“Are you sure you’ll fly?” Kelly said in a light tone, despite feeling an unpleasant charge from his closeness. “Guys like you eat bricks for breakfast, don’t you?”

Greg barked a laugh. The mention of bricks didn’t give him pause at all. “No, I’m totally hollow,” he said. “Here, knock on top of my head.” He offered her the top of his head.

“You’re nervous,” Kelly said.

“I am,” he said. He made an O with his mouth and rapped on his skull with his knuckles. It made a hollow coconut sound and he laughed and Kelly laughed.

The boat was finishing a run. It streamed straight for them, trailing the parasailor. All at once, the boat cut its engine and banked, sending a wave of water up onto the beach. The parasailor lost momentum, dropped from the sky and splashed into the lake.

When it was time for Kelly to slip off her sandals and her straw hat and her gauzy blouse and her wrap skirt, she felt Greg’s eyes on her. Hard shell, but hollow. Kelly understood him. She knew she did. She expected he would be impressed by her body, though for a second her own kneecaps seemed grotesquely large to her. There was a pleasant lightness in her head and butterflies in her stomach in a way she hadn’t felt for years. Her feet hardly sank in the sand.

Walking slowly toward the harness was the way she wanted everyone to see her, and for the first time that weekend, she felt as though she were taking her proper place in the group. As the workers clicked the straps on her she felt even better, confirmed, secure. Seeing the boat and the runway before her, with no one else in sight, she felt a stab of fear, but it passed. She was meant to be alone in just this way.

All at once the boat roared and she ran after it down the beach, her sail bouncing behind like a tin can on a wedding limo. When she got close to the water, she jumped into the air as if she were going off a diving board. She pulled her legs up into her stomach, realized she had risen quickly and lightly, then let her legs dangle. She ascended rapidly, in quick, accelerating jerks, like a kite on a very windy day. She remembered riding a roller coaster with Tim and how her stomach would clench as they careened down a big hill, and she expected those sorts of painful sensations now, but it was as if her stomach itself had melted away, as if she no longer had such a thing in her body. She had had nothing, not a thing, to eat since the glass of wine that marked the peak and the end of last night’s binge. The water and the landscape dropped away just as it had the time she’d taken that thirty-seater airplane to Springfield. The view was just like being in that plane right after takeoff, except she was surrounded by nothing, as if she had shed her body to become pure soul in the wind.

Her legs blew to one side and swayed further when the stiff wind gusted. Even when the boat turned, she hardly dipped toward the water as the others had. She was different, lighter, above them all. The boat, the silk snapping and billowing over her head, the bar she held onto—these were all incidental. They tracked her and framed her, but she was actually flying by herself. The moment seemed to trump every stupid thing she’d ever done—that’s how good it felt. The boat made another turn, then streaked parallel to the shore. The wind was coming from this direction and lifted her even higher. The updraft was exhilarating, not painful. She could see beyond the clumps of trees like broccoli, to the main drag and all the cars and low flat buildings and billboards. There were pockets of warmer and cooler air as she soared over the lake. She remembered the mix of hot and cool air from when Greg had yelled out the Jeep window. Clare was probably right about him.

But up here, she could face that. She was untouchable, unafraid of him. She knew him better and could handle him better than any Clare Goff or Kirsten Whoever could. That was the really tempting thing about him, beyond his body and his beautiful hair: maybe he had a certain problem, maybe he might be so angry with himself, or so fearful about something, that he might do things that he himself hated to do—but she felt she knew him.

This was a stupid temptation. It was an insane indulgence. But she couldn’t help being drawn to where the feelings were. “Feel something,” she said aloud, as if she were reasoning with herself.

The boat banked again and headed down the runway on which she had started out.

She was being dragged back toward the shore, heading right for Alicia, who was waving wildly, and Janet and Clare and Bruce and Katie and Geoffrey and Michelle and Mike and Greg. Just then the boat banked sharply and the tension on her harness stopped and she felt herself about to fall.

After descending a bit, she felt a strong gust of wind come and lift her again. She hovered for an instant, and then another gust struck under her left arm and raised her, pushing her away from the landing area, toward the other launch site. She laughed. Her whole body tingled in the wind that buffeted her and lifted her and made her hover. This force wasn’t the regular pull of the boat, but the elemental thing she’d been riding on the whole time. It was a raw and irregular thing, wind. She knew the wind! She was overjoyed to see the astonishment, the panic, in the faces of her friends, mixed with—was it jealousy or disgust? She was too light to fall! Fifty feet above them and sliding to the side. What if she weighed only fifty pounds? Or forty? What if she would never land?

Greg detached himself from the others and came splashing into the water, angling for where she was headed. The next gust couldn’t lift her as much, and he adjusted his running, so that it became clear they were converging on some jagged path. As the wind faltered, she began to shake with what might have been crying if she didn’t suddenly feel so absolutely like the dried husk of an insect—something her spirit had maybe left altogether. She drifted down, down, down, swaying sliding hovering over Greg. His face was determined, his eyes on her feet. His powerful legs thrashed the water as he tracked her. There were no words of comfort, no cries for help. Down. Down. His hand closed painfully on her ankle. She kicked once without loosening his grip, instantly lost all buoyancy and found herself landed in his arms.