Ginny woke in the passenger seat at a gas station, chin slack, slick of drool. She’d fallen asleep hours ago, hooded sweatshirt wadded between head and car door, hair matted, breath sour. Her mother, Margot, pumping gas. Ginny jerked down the visor mirror, licked a finger, rubbed at mascara adrift in the purple hollows below her eyes. Margot had arrived early at her dorm room, and Ginny had had to claw upward from a royal hangover, flailing sheets aside and shouting through the door that she needed twenty minutes. “Wait for me downstairs!” she commanded, voice a rasp scratching in her throat.
The guy she had met last night was stirring, peeved. He was pulling on jeans, stepping into flip-flops, coaxing his eyes awake with the dull heels of his hands. “Uh, see ya, Jenny,” he muttered, half laughing as he lurched to the door. Ginny half-laughed too —a frog croak. She stood pinching a blanket around her, one hip cocked, “Yeah, see ya,” then penguin-shuffled to the mirror to check her reflection. Her concealer had dried on her cheeks in a pattern that looked almost organic, like finely cracked earth.
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” Margot said as she nestled back in the driver’s seat with two Styrofoam cups of coffee. She had a way of digging into car seats with her butt that Ginny found annoying. “You missed most of the new book.”
Margot always listened to audiobooks—books on tape, she still called them— when they drove to the cottage.
Ginny smacked her lips. “Water.”
“Behind you. Were you out late last night?”
“Yeah. With the girls.” She chugged, then excavated crusts of sleep from her eyes with a pinky fingernail painted ‘vixen violet.’
“Where are we?”
“I don’t know your university friends like I knew your St. Andrews’ friends. Do you see them anymore? Lucy? Claire?”
“Where. Are. We?” Ginny repeated slowly.
“We are very close,” Margot said, choosing to let it slide. She rolled her window down, exaggerated her inhale. “Smell that air.” She had that self-satisfied look she used to have when she’d take Ginny to a pickyour-own apple orchard or poetry reading.
Ginny turned her head away, letting it fall against the glass and watched the landscape scroll: blasted boulders and pine trees with scab-like bark. The sky thickly grey—a sludgy sponge heavy with dishwater. When she’d last been awake they’d been in central Michigan, past the suburbs of Ann Arbor, where the mustard fields blazed yolk so yellow they stung her eyes. Faded brick farmhouses so ancient and hot with sun she imagined they’d be soft, like a tomato left out in the heat if she touched them.
Then they’d neared the fringe of cottage country (where they usually spent their summers) with its affluent towns all dolled up for tourists—flowers in the front yards like swipes of lipstick and blush, electric purple eyeshadow, glistening in the humidity. Then they’d passed through that familiar territory and carried on north. Here, she saw no houses in any direction and the air smelled like dirty pennies.
Ginny realized she had been hoping her mother was not serious about cottaging somewhere new this August. For the past five years, they had been going to a cottage on the west coast of Michigan—the pretty part—in a town that butted up against Sleeping Bear Dunes. They had stayed with Josephine and Cici, and sometimes Mark. But this summer, they were not.
They had long driven past the turnoff for Sleeping Bear Dunes, and were now at the northern crust of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, or the U.P. as locals called it. When her parents were still together, when she was really young, they’d made the long drive to the Upper Peninsula as a family once. Ginny had forgotten it, but Margot would talk about this area as though it were some sacred wilderness where poems were born.
Ginny roused. “I just don’t understand why we aren’t going to Josephine and Cici’s like normal.”
Margot’s fingers tripped over the iPod. Ginny leaned forward automatically to press pause for her. “A change of scene is good for the soul,” Margot said, once the narrator had gone silent.
“My soul?” Ginny’s lip lifted. “It’s ugly here.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. It’s just a different kind of beautiful.”
Margot breathed into her Styrofoam coffee. “You didn’t have to come if you didn’t want to, dear daughter. You are no man’s captive.”
Ginny studied her, then looked back out the window. She pictured her mother with her Virginia Woolf and her chamomile tea, alone. “Josephine emailed me, you know. She wants us to come.”
Margot’s eyes were steady. “Did she now?”
They were curving off the highway onto a pebbly road. It jagged around a sparse stand of pines; stones clacked under tires. Ginny’s mother stopped the car when a mud brown cabin with flaking dark green trim appeared in the shadows. Behind the cottage, the lake was the colour of black tea. Margot was emerging from the car, stretching her arms out, unfurling like a gangly, tall bird —an ostrich or flamingo. She wore a print skirt and it ribboned around her shiny white ankles in the damp wind. There were no other cottages in sight and she turned to Ginny triumphantly: “We have the whole lake to ourselves!”
The first summer Ginny had cottaged at Sleeping Bear Dunes, her father, Eric, had been with them. The dunes were a 1000-foot drop, an almost-vertical cliff of crystalline sand plunging into the turquoise coastline of Lake Michigan. There was something almost tropical, exotic, dangerous about the dunes. Ginny felt like they could have been anywhere: Costa Rica, Treasure Island. She felt magnetized to the cliffs, to the water. She begged her parents to take on the plummet.
They went flying down; mother, father, and daughter one gangly, six-legged, airborne, newborn insect, striding, landing in the soft sand, their feet sinking as though into warm wax. And with each spring of the knee upward, Ginny sailed a moment, a winged thing, with only shades of aegean, sapphire, and cerulean beaded in crystal and light, before her. The lake spread out as far as she could see and to each side as far as she could see, and it appeared as though someone had crushed glass and scattered it across the lake’s surface so that it blinded her. Every star had been pulled down for her and sewn onto this silk. It was her last happy all-together-family memory.
They swam and then her parents dozed at the edge, their legs tangled together in the water like some kind of iridescent sea plant, their upper bodies beached, sun-burning, vanilla ice cream turning strawberry. Ginny collected delicate violet seashells, small as a baby’s pinky toenails, that tinkled together in her palm, calm and sure that life would always be so.
On the ascent Ginny’s family met up with the woman two-thirds from the top. (By then they were parched, cramping. It took ten minutes to fly down, an hour to climb up.) She was alone and for a moment, Ginny saw that her father’s gaze was stuck on the perfect behind, bobbing its way slowly up the hill. The woman wore a tiny, neon pink bikini and her long, tan legs were shiny with sweat and tanning oil. Then she turned around and they saw the distress on her face.
“Watch her,” Eric called to Margot, who was straggling behind, breathing hard, and he gestured at Ginny. He fumbled up the slope and offered the woman his water, which she took and then immediately passed out. “A little help here!” he called. Ginny watched a chain reaction ripple all the way to the top, where someone used the emergency phone to make the call of the summer.
Ginny learned later that the locals were usually disdainful of those who failed the climb, bristling at the cost to the state and pointing out the clearlyposted warning signs, but that year, as the stretcher reached the top with a goddess laid out on it, there was a different reaction. People parted and the emergency team had no trouble getting her into the back of the ambulance. She woke up just then, just as she was about to disappear from view, and the crowd actually cheered. She gave a weak wave—a sassy little salute.
Ginny was hungry and her back felt like it was beginning to burn, but her father insisted they wait.
“Maybe she’ll need a ride home or something,” he said to Margot.
Ginny’s head swiveled from her father to her mother. Her mother was frowning. “I think the emergency team will take care of that.”
In the end, Ginny’s father won and when the woman was sitting up, chatting with the emergency crew, an ice pack held to her forehead (she made it look jaunty, Ginny thought, like a French beret), he went to her. Ginny stayed with her mom as he leaned his arm against the frame of the ambulance and laughed with the woman. Margot jerked a t-shirt over Ginny’s head and nudged her back into her sandals.
They walked behind her father and the woman. Her mom was staring straight ahead; her father was telling a story, his hands moving in a wild, unfamiliar way, and the woman was laughing a deep, head-thrown-back laugh. Her hair swished along her shoulder blades, the blonde highlights darting like silver minnows in dark water. Ginny was stuck on the muscles in the woman’s back — delicate, but firm, such a pretty curve to the shoulders. She’d never noticed these on women before. Then again, she’d never seen a woman so naked before, unless you counted the senior citizens in the pool locker room—which she did not, suddenly. She’d seen her mother naked, but Ginny’s mother had almost pinky-white skin, the colour left from a pencil eraser rubbed on paper, and no hint of the hot, charged energy this woman’s taut arms and legs promised.
The woman was walking smoothly along, her hips sliding as though they were fastened with honey. Her mother, beside Ginny, seemed to be staring at the single, loose knot, holding up the woman’s bikini top.
Ginny had been watching her mother watch the woman, when she felt suddenly, violently nauseous. Her mouth surged with saliva; someone was squeezing the inside of her head. She wheeled to the side and vomited along the trail that led to the parking lot. Margot snapped to action, rubbing her back and herding her towards a garbage can. Ginny started to cry and whispered, “I want Dad.”
Margot shouted to her husband: “She wants you, Eric. Let’s get to the car and you can sit with her in the back.”
“No, I’ll drive, hon.” He smiled an I’ve-got-this-under-control smile, glancing at the woman. The woman turned and seemed to notice Margot and Ginny for the first time—as though Eric had failed to mention them. From the side, Ginny could almost see one of her big, tanned breasts in the full. The shape of a nipple protruding like a little green pea made Ginny feel funny again. She tucked her head against her mother.
“But of course,” the woman said. She had a creamy voice and an accent that made the words sound like a song. “She wants her father. We women will ride in the front so she can sit with you.” And she put her hand on Ginny’s father’s arm to steer him back toward his puking daughter, and remarkably, he moved in that direction and Margot stepped forward to walk with the woman. She extended her hand: “Josephine,” she said. “I have a daughter, Cici.” Then she smiled at Ginny, soothing as a nurse. “Just about your age.”
Ginny held her cellphone to her ear and marched to the lakeshore. Reception was swampy.
“Thank God,” she said as her friend answered. “Ceese, it’s freaking freezing here. I’m wearing a sweater.”
“Like a cotton sweater or wool?”
“Wool, Cici! It’s not, like, a cool evening at the beach; it feels like winter.”
“Then get down here.”
Ginny slapped a mosquito against her thigh and it belched blood. “I can’t. My mom would be all alone.”
Margot came out wearing her ratty bathrobe. “I’m jumping in!” she called. “You brave enough to join me?”
“Well, I’m going for it.” She flung her robe to the rock below her and, after surveying the water, took a flailing leap from the lip of the rock, screaming as she flew through the air, her body all cocked angles and crooked lines in the moment before she plunged below the surface.
Ginny went to the cottage with Cici still on the line, and found some potato chips to lick the salt from. When she glanced back out the window, she saw her mom floating on her back in the water, kicking her pale legs out like a water strider to skim along the surface.
Ginny huffed. “You’re so lucky. Your mom would never drag you to a place like this. Your mom’s cool.”
Cici just laughed. “Whatever. Moms are moms.”
“Yeah, but you know what I mean. My mom’s practically a spinster, I swear. I mean, I know what she’ll want to do all weekend: play Scrabble and watch movies from the eighties.”
“I thought you liked that.”
“Yeah, when I was fifteen. I want to go out, have a drink, you know what I mean.”
Cici was quiet on the line.
“I mean, I’m in university now, I’m not some little girl in braids making brownies with my mom on a Friday night. I bet you and your mom can swap clothes, go out for cosmos together, that kind of thing. My mom is always thinking of the educational angle, I swear. You know what she asked me to do with her last weekend? March in a parade for equal pay or something.”
“We don’t wear the same clothes,” Cici said.
Cici had made a scrapbook for Ginny last year, for her eighteenth birthday. Photographs of the two of them as young teens in their swimsuits on the beach by the cottage. There was a photo of their mothers standing knee-deep in the water, marinating in discussion. Margot with her long, dull, brown hair that swelled in the humidity and lay limp the rest of the time. She wore it in two braids down her back. Her paper-bag brown eyes disappeared into her face, thin lips revealed slightly crooked canines the colour of old pearls. Maybe if she wore make-up, Ginny thought. Josephine, on the other hand, looked stunning. She wore a Bond girl red bikini with the side buckle and over-sized Jackie O. sunglasses and lipstick the colour and shine of a race car.
After their first meeting, Josephine and Margot had exchanged numbers and kept in touch, then, when the next summer rolled around, Josephine called to ask Margot if they were coming back to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
“Come stay with us. We have this giant castle and Mark is never here. It’s just Cici and me and I get lonely. Come. Please.”
Margot had had to explain that she and Eric were going through a separation.
“All the more reason to come,” was Josephine’s reply.
That was the first of five Augusts Margot and Ginny spent with Josephine and Cici, and sometimes Mark, in the big cottage by Sleeping Bear Dunes. Ginny thought it was good for her mom, an English professor at York University, who could be addicted to her books and was often frustrated with her attempts at poetry, to be around new people. Josephine often had other friends over for drinks on the deck or got Margot dressed up in her vibrant clothing and took her out to one of the town bars, leaving the girls to watch movies and eat ice cream at the cottage. Ginny could see them now getting ready up in Josephine’s bedroom: Margot had a way of buttoning up what Josephine would leave undone, or pulling a cardigan over a low-cut tank top. Then Josephine would study her and say, generously, “Much better. Maybe just a pair of earrings.” And Margot would wear them and act a bit differently—sillier or younger, Ginny thought. Like she was playing dress-up.
Over the years, Josephine had introduced Margot to plenty of decent, age-appropriate men. She’d find some reason why a couple of guys should stop by, just a quick hello, a chance to see the woodwork inside the beautiful cottage, and Ginny would feel fizz in her body those evenings as though something wonderfully, terrifyingly grown-up might happen.
Ginny remembered the men: tanned and eager to make the women laugh, thirsty for a drink. She’d watch Josephine introduce them to Margot and then she’d watch the men orbit Josephine, in a gauzy dress with a slit up to there, for the rest of the night. Josephine always shone, but she was a supernova in a crowd. After trying to drum up some deeper conversation, Margot seemed relieved to be left on the sidelines, nibbling on the olives from her drink, observing. Ginny, watching with Cici from the upstairs landing, would see her mother standing alone and feel the fizz go flat. It was replaced with a strange cocktail of things: disappointment, relief, something like pride, and something like loneliness—the kind you feel in your own body so that another person doesn’t have to.
One night at the cottage, Ginny was awakened by a thunderstorm. A rumble of thunder came up so sudden and deep that Ginny felt it bang on the drum of her stomach. Another flash: she rolled out of bed, slid to the window. The entire, great black body of water flashed white—as though a giant light bulb under the surface had been switched on. The power and the beauty of those storms! Light came again, a magnificent bolt lighting up the dark clouds in the black sky above and skittering down in a thick, crooked vein of sheer white energy. It illuminated the beach, where Ginny saw Margot and Josephine, pulsating there at the edge of the fierce waves, their clothes thrown to the sand, jumping back with glee when the water swelled unexpectedly and threatened to swallow them, the air around them crackling with electricity. A sonic boom strummed every nerve in Ginny’s body; she was a tuning fork, struck and vibrating.
“Let’s have some tea and play Scrabble,” said Margot, slick as an otter and breathless from her swim. Ginny was curled up on the couch in the living room, thumbing through texts on her phone.
“This couch is scratchy.”
“Are you tired? Are you sure you don’t want to jump in the lake? It might refresh you.”
Ginny watched her mom fish their old game box out of her embroidered bag and plop it on the table. She had pulled a t-shirt over her head which read ‘nice women don’t make history.’ (Ha, Ginny thought. Her mom was the epitome of nice.) She opened cupboard doors looking for mugs, found two, rinsed them out. “Go ahead, Ginny. Have a swim. I’ll wait,” she said over her shoulder.
“Obviously,” Ginny said, only half-meaning for her mom to hear.
But Margot did. She filled a plastic electric kettle with water from the tap. “Obviously what?”
“Well, who else are you going to wait for?”
Margot just looked at her.
“I mean, if you want to play a game, what other option have you got?”
After her parents’ divorce, Ginny and Margot had moved into a two-bedroom apartment on York campus. On the first night, though she knew she was too old for it, Ginny dragged her sleeping bag and pillow into her mom’s room and curled on the floor, hoping.
“Come on up here, Virginia Woolf,” her mom had said, waking in the night and seeing her there.
From that night, Ginny would arrive in her mother’s doorway, wait for her mom to pat the bed beside her. She’d fall asleep to the sound of her mother reading to her, the crown of her head snug in her mother’s armpit. (She smelled like Dove soap.) Her mother never asked her to go to her own bed and even when she was in her teens, she’d wake up with her mother’s arm velcroed across her chest, the feeling of being loved a sewn together, warm, sleepy thing.
Ginny had gone to an all-girls private school, kindergarten through grade twelve. She had liked it. Liked her blue and green plaid uniform skirt, liked the sharp lemon smell of the shiny floors, liked Mr. Kerr, her English teacher. She’d been good at math in the beginning; her dad said she took after him. Margot would make jokes, soft ones, about losing Ginny to the dark side. She’d read poems to Ginny and it became a ritual, a comic routine, between the two of them: Ginny’s raised eyebrows and shaking head, like nope. Makes no sense. Margot would clap the book shut and peer into her daughter, feign deep disappointment. ‘Really? Not even Whitman? Oh! How can my own flesh and blood not be moved to thrills by the body electric?’ They would laugh—they knew how to lean into each other and laugh then, at all things that were out of place for them, a mother and daughter on their own, no man in the house, no nuclear family shape to their life. Then right around the end of high school, it was like the tidal change of hormones swept in a new brain chemistry. She hated math, found it frustrating, pointless—and started liking poetry.
She hid it, and hid from it, at first. Mr. Kerr assigned them to write a poem and she’d scoffed, spent her weekend on a biology project, then late Sunday night, snapped a piece of blank paper onto her desk in her mint green bedroom, clicked her Hello Kitty pen and started writing. Almost immediately, something began to trickle out of her that she had not known she contained. It was like some part of her had been incubating for years, waiting for this silly little assignment.
She wrote a poem. A decent one. She liked it. She pushed back from the desk. Her mother wrote poems. Not her. She was math and science, field hockey, boy bands; read fast-paced, addictive, flashy young adult novels. She didn’t like the poems her mom read to her.
But then, she did. It hit her like how a wave washes over you, shockingly, all-consuming in its slosh, tipping your centre of gravity. She realized she had come to crave those moments when her mother read strangeness to her, a scant, holey paragraph flashing gauzy images through her mind like sheets rising and snapping on a clothesline. A picture slowly appearing as on a Polaroid, the tones all brownish-yellowish, edges hazed.
She began trickling poems on the regular tucking them inside her biology textbook when her mother walked by her bedroom. (Mr. Kerr, the English teacher, was devouring them. “You’re a regular Margot Pearson,” he said, full of praise. “Your mother must be so pleased.”) Then the last year of high school was over and it was time to go to university. Life sprinted. She was out of her mom’s apartment and into a dorm room with a roommate who blared Beyoncé, seemed thirty to Ginny’s eighteen, and was alarmed that Ginny hadn’t had sex yet. “Like one hundred percent virgin?” She asked. (“Just twenty-seven point three percent,” Ginny wanted to say, but recognized she was now in a situation where she was suddenly uncool and had to watch her words.)
The other girls in her dorm had serious boyfriends, or sometimes girlfriends, who they’d had all kinds of sex with or they were dramatically, heart-wrenchingly, breaking up with because they were throwing themselves into some hot and messy thing with someone they’d just met at school. Ginny’s friends back at St. Andrews, her all-girls school, were far less experienced. They’d been into sleepovers with Rice Krispie squares studded with gummy bears, recording themselves singing Taylor Swift songs on Garage Band. At university, some of the girls had done things Ginny thought only girls on TV shows set in California did: blow jobs in the bathrooms at bars, threesomes, kissing other girls just to try it.
Ginny hadn’t even talked much about boys with Margot. Neither of them dated, really. Ginny had had a couple crushes, and that had been enough to sustain her until now. Watching her roommate stuff condoms into her purse before heading out to a party, Ginny felt a cramp of anger toward her mom that at first she couldn’t name.
But the cramp sometimes turned into an ache: she was suddenly surrounded by girls her own age who were far more experienced in everything it seemed, but these girls didn’t love their mothers the way Ginny loved hers, she could tell. Didn’t cuddle into them anymore, didn’t know their smells anymore. Their mothers didn’t swing their daughters’ legs up onto their laps while they read e. e. cummings in a voice a girl could crawl into, like a tiny thing sheltered in the down of a milkweed pod.
About the time she moved into the dorm, she’d had a conversation with her dad she found hard to forget. He’d had a series of girlfriends, nothing too serious, and he worked downtown for an insurance company, which he loathed. This was his third career change since Ginny’s childhood.
She saw him once a week; that had been the arrangement, and he’d always honoured it. Both she and her mom recognized that consistency for what it was: his only one.
He’d taken her shopping for dorm room accouterments: throw pillows, potted plants, a plug-in kettle. (It had been fun, she and her dad gliding around on a shopping cart in the big-box store, suggesting ridiculous items to each other: “You need a bunion remover? A sparkly hula hoop? Bladder pan?” “Da-ad,” she’d wailed gleefully.) They arrived back at her dorm room after burgers at their favourite steak house (a place Margot would never go) their bellies full, still lobbing teasing remarks at each other.
“This is interesting,” her dad said, pausing at the doorway of her dorm room where a life-sized poster of Britney Spears at her pig-tailed, belly-button-baring peak gazed at them from under drooping eyelids. Ginny, distracted, didn’t answer.
“Isn’t that a little anti-feminist for you? I mean, I always thought you and your mom were two peas in a pod in that regard. Not interested in catering to that kind of form and all that.” Her dad stood scratching his neck, still examining the poster.
Ginny looked up. “Oh. That’s my roommate’s. She says Britney is her hero.”
Her dad gave a confused, slightly concerned laugh. “Explain, please.”
“I think she means it ironically. Sort of like a younger Madonna figure, except we all know how Britney turned out. She wasn’t afraid to, you know, look like that, do…what she does, but then she crashed and burned—I think that’s supposed to be ultra-feminist, or like ironic-feminist. You know, how like people triumph sex workers now.” She jumped up suddenly and swung the door so that Britney was left thrusting her exposed hips out to the hallway.
“Uh-huh,” Eric said, his eyes now roving the roommate’s half of the room.
Ginny turned slowly, mulling, going quiet. “What do you mean, ‘not interested in catering to that form?’”
“Oh, you know,” Eric picked up a textbook from the roommate’s desk and turned it over, scanned the back. “Like you don’t try to be all flashy, like a Britney.” He held up the book. “Women’s Studies?”
“What do you mean ‘flashy’? Like…pretty?”
“What?” Eric glanced up, saw Ginny’s face. “No, of course not. I mean, you don’t try overly hard. You’re more natural, like your mom. You’re beautiful, Hon.”
Not ‘trying overly hard’ could mean she was a sloth, Ginny thought. But said: “You have to say I’m beautiful because I’m your daughter.”
“I don’t have to say anything. I do really think you’re beautiful, Ginny. I have since the moment you were born.”
Ginny felt her throat thickening. She slumped onto the edge of her bed, something bubbling over. “I’m dumpy,” she said softly. “And plain.”
“Feminine,” Eric said, crossing the room and putting an arm around her in one quick motion. “And natural. Where’s all this coming from?”
Ginny blinked her eyes rapidly. “Dad, why’d you leave Mom?”
His head reeled back. “Wow. Curve ball, Ginny.” He scratched his neck. “Is this what’s really bothering you?”
Ginny wasn’t sure, but she nodded vigorously, sniffled.
Eric looked panicked for a moment, then let out a rush of air and shrugged, stared at a spot on the beige carpet.
“I don’t know, Ginny. It’s complex. I guess…if I’m honest…I don’t know, somewhere along the line, I stopped being attracted to her.”
Ginny flinched. You never want to hear your parents talking about sex, even a lack thereof.
At first she thought that it didn’t make any difference to her. But then she found herself replaying what her dad had said in her head, often. It was uncomfortable—like a scab she’d picked, almost by accident, and now had to suffer the grossness of the wound underneath. There’d been a time when she had felt protective of her mother, stung, on her behalf, by her dad’s departure. Slowly, that sting turned into something else. Embarrassment maybe.
On weekends when Mark, Josephine’s husband, came to the cottage at Sleeping Bear Dunes, the first thing he would do was pour himself a drink. Scotch on ice. The mossy smell of it still made Ginny think of the shift in the house when he arrived. Mark added a certain measure of structure that the mothers didn’t necessarily adhere to when he wasn’t there. Meals would happen around normal meal times, for example. Their mothers would become more attentive, instead of being mostly in their world of two, giggling, engrossed in conversations that were just a bit too low to hear. And they were less likely to run to the water in the middle of the night when Mark was around.
Mark had a soft paunch, a dignified face. He was much older than Josephine. He taught economics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When he first arrived he would look at his wife in a hungry way, as though he had just seen her for the first time. Ginny sometimes watched with discomfort and sometimes with fascination, but he would be restrained and stay downstairs to ask Margot how her drive was and hear about the girls’ adventures. Josephine would be cooking and not talking for once, letting everyone else chat, then she would walk slyly by Mark with a platter of food in her hand and brush against him, or lean down low over him and ask if he would like some.
Later, when Ginny was older, she watched this mating ritual in a more studious way. How Josephine made him wait. Just when Mark would stand up, stretch, and announce he’d had a long day, a tiring drive, she’d suggest they all go to the porch to watch the sunset and Mark would always concede. And then the drinks would stretch out longer than the sunset, and you would notice outside that Josephine’s dress was sheer and she smelled sweaty in a good way, like spices in a dark restaurant, and she was sitting so close to Margot, turning to whisper something in her ear, moving Margot’s hair aside gently, and then laughing privately, and then all of a sudden Mark would just stand up and go inside, and Josephine would set her drink down and follow him, a little smile pulling at the corner of her lips. Ginny could still remember the feeling of watching Josephine slide that piece of hair behind her mother’s ear. She could feel it—the tip of Josephine’s long fingernail against the smooth, sensitive skin behind her ear and it made her shiver.
The next morning, Mark would come down spritely, refreshed. Margot would already be up, the early bird of the cottage, and she and Mark would start talking about writers they both admired or the politics of a university career, and it would pick up speed like a tennis match, this conversation, volleying back and forth, with only the sound of Josephine, once she woke later, in the kitchen, whacking a spatula against a frying pan or kicking the fridge door shut with the heel of her sandal.
The next morning Ginny slept til eleven. When she shuffled out to the living room, Margot was just coming in from outside. She had on a shapeless, dark brown rain jacket with the hood up; her hair was wet around the edges and frizzing as though she were wearing a bird’s nest for a cap. She carried a soggy paper bag of groceries with a box of Cap’n Crunch peeping from the top.
“Mom, I don’t eat that anymore. Too many calories. I want to go to Sleeping Bear Dunes.”
Margot froze mid-unzipping. “Well, I had a good sleep, thanks. And you?”
Ginny knotted her arms over her chest.
Margot was pulling items out of the grocery bag, slowly, carefully. “You can go if you want to.”
“No I can’t,” Ginny said. “Then you’ll be here all alone.”
Margot turned around at this. “I have no problem being alone,” she said.
Ginny shook her head. “Sure,” she said under breath, then jumped up, stomped into her room, began picking up the clothes she had flung out of her duffel bag the night before. She folded them in one at a time, glancing into the living room.
“Okay, I’m going,” she said a few minutes later, her bag slung over her shoulder. “I’m going down to Cici and Josephine’s.”
Margot sat on a musty plaid couch on the screened-in porch, reading Jan Zwicky. “Drive safely.”
Ginny felt a little fountain-like surge of annoyance. “I wish you hadn’t dragged me up here. I should have just gone straight there and not wasted two whole days.” She was surprised at a small choke in her voice. It made her sound angrier, or more hurt, than she meant to.
Margot neatly placed a worn bookmark between two pages and looked at her daughter.
Ginny put a hand on one hip. “And what? You’re just going to sit here and read books all August? By yourself?”
Margot was looking at her, calm as milk. “I have some planning to do, actually, for one of my courses. Don’t worry about me.”
“Okay. Fine. Then I’m going.”
Margot took a deep breath. “Virginia,” she said, and Ginny thought, now she’s going to let me have it. But Margot said evenly, “you must make your own choices.”
Ginny blinked. That’s it? She hesitated a fraction then whirled around. “I don’t want to stay up here with you because it’ll be too boring. At least Josephine is an interesting person.” The flash of satisfaction gave way almost immediately to a horrible, sickening blob that took great effort to swallow. She hurried to the driveway. For some reason, at that moment, she recalled the sensation of leaning against her mom’s shoulder when she was in a deep laugh, the warm vibration of it, the hum. She decided it was better to not look back when her mom said: “I’m here if you should change your mind.”
As Ginny drove the four hours down to Sleeping Bear Dunes, the sickening feeling hardened and sharpened. The further she drove from her mother, the easier it became to be angry at her. She felt charged, hurried. A storm was rolling in over the lake and she left the window down, let it whip her hair in lashes.
Her body had changed this year; a conscious need to break from the past. She’d taken up Zumba, ate sparingly, trying to carve out a new figure. One that she believed would make her feel differently about herself. And, to her surprise, it had worked. She felt attractive for the first time—it was an exciting, powerful feeling—sometimes a bit unwieldy. A few months ago she’d noticed guys were looking at her. From there, it was simple. Flirting tumbled so quickly into making out, which hurtled—she was surprised to discover— into sex, if she wanted it. And she did, mostly. She was amazed at how something she’d thought was so elusive was actually too effortless. She’d had sex with four different guys now, each one a little easier than the last.
It was late when she got to Cici and Josephine’s cottage and she found Cici on the couch eating a bowl of ice cream.
“I thought we were going out,” Ginny said. She hadn’t even set her bag down yet. She’d get like this sometimes now, her body vibrant, impatient.
“I thought you’d be tired.”
“Come on, Cici.”
After tugging on a pink dress and smearing on some lipstick, she was just about ready. Cici came into the bathroom in a pair of jeans with holes in the knees and a tank top that she had twisted in a knot at one hip. Ginny glanced back at her own reflection and applied mascara until it looked like broken insect legs were stuck to her lashes.
“You’re dressed up,” Cici remarked.
When they reached the front door of the bar, they had to pass through a tight cluster of guys with baseball caps and pre-faded jeans. “Hey there,” one of them said to Cici as they passed. Cici glared at him. Ginny tossed him a look over her shoulder, dropping it so that the strap of her dress would fall as she knew it would. Felt a little current run through her. Cici pulled her strap back into place for her.
They had just started on their beers when the guy from outside came shouldering his way toward their table, a friend in tow. He pulled a chair up without asking and looked back and forth between Cici and Ginny.
“So,” he said and grinned.
Ginny smiled back. “Who’s your friend?” she asked. She said this at the exact time Cici said, “Do you mind?”
He looked at Cici. “Sorry. Is this a private conversation?”
Ginny leaned forward. “Maybe it is.” Then remembering the way Josephine always did it, leaned back again and looked away, as though she had better things to do.
Cici wasn’t having any of it. “Look, I’m out for a drink with my friend. I don’t know where you guys rolled in from, but—”
“Lansing,” he answered. “Just for the weekend.” He was good-looking in an unexciting way—nice build, planned amount of stubble. “My friend here is Cody. I’m Kyle.”
“Excellent.” Cici rolled her eyes at Ginny. “Think you could leave us alone now?”
Kyle pulled his hands back from the table and held them up. “Hey, okay, if that’s what you want. I’ll see you guys later,” and he winked at Ginny before moving back into the crowd.
“Cute,” Ginny said to Cici.
“Cocky. He thinks he doesn’t even have to try.”
“So? What else are people here for? He’s just cutting to the chase.”
“Some people are here for the music—or the company.”
Ginny laughed. “Yeah. Right,” she said, catching Kyle’s eye as he slid onto a stool across the room.
Cici stood abruptly. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
Ginny took a swig of her drink and made herself look away from Kyle, though she could feel his eyes on her. This was the crucial part, she’d learned, look just interested enough, not too much. A few minutes later, Kyle was in Cici’s chair.
“Hey Ceese,” Ginny said, her voice a little silkier than usual, when her friend returned. “Want to go to a party?”
“We just got here.”
“Kyle wants to show us his place.”
Cici looked away. “You know what? You go. I’m going home.”
“Ceese,” Kyle said in a pretend pleading tone, and Ginny giggled.
Cici glowered at him, then looked at Ginny. “Can I talk to you in private for a sec?”
Kyle raised his brow and he and Ginny exchanged glances. “I think I’m in trouble,” Ginny mouthed at him and lurched a bit as she stood. She had opted for high-heeled sandals instead of flip-flops.
They stepped away from the table and Cici leaned close so Ginny could hear her without shouting. “What’s gotten into you? I thought you wanted to go out and have a drink—we haven’t seen each other in forever. This guy’s a total frat boy. He just wants to get laid and then forget you.”
Ginny could feel Kyle’s stare and she turned so that her ass was sticking out, with the skirt creeping up her legs. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
“What?” Cici shook her head; she couldn’t hear her. The band had just kicked it up a notch. Ginny looked over her shoulder. Kyle was looking at her, not at Cici but at her. The way Mark used to stare at Josephine when they’d be out on the deck, watching the sunset. She could make him keep waiting, or she could make it fast. Ginny pressed herself close to Cici and slowly moved a piece of hair that had escaped her friend’s ponytail. She leaned in to whisper something, but Cici jumped back.
“What are you doing? God, Ginny.”
Ginny felt her stomach drop sharply. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, and meant it, but Cici was shaking her head, her eyes hard.
“What’s with the new look, Ginny? It’s a bit obtuse, you know. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with rocking a mini-skirt, but don’t do it for that loser—or any other guy.”
“I’m sorry, Cici, I just thought—”
Cici shot her an incredulous look. “I know what you thought. You’d go home with him? Some stranger? Seriously, Ginny, what’s gotten into you? I mean, if this is what you’re going for these days, I’m out.”
Ginny opened her mouth, but didn’t know what to say. Cici, of all people wielded the power to get any guy whenever she wanted to. Or so she thought. But now that Ginny thought about it, Cici didn’t talk about sleeping with guys much. She’d had a serious boyfriend for a while, then nothing. The band suddenly shot into high gear. “I don’t know how to do this!” Ginny shouted.
Cici was shaking her head, pointing to her ear. “Can’t hear you,” she mouthed.
The music swelled even louder; Ginny knew it would swallow her words. “I wasn’t ready. Everybody else was just doing it whenever, like no big deal. I didn’t know what I was doing! My mom didn’t, like, prepare me. Didn’t show me how you’re supposed to be with guys.” She kept yelling, knowing Cici couldn’t hear her. She shook her head thinking of what she had known: the crackle off her body, intensity reflected in their stares, urgent playfulness, then the feeling of waking up in the morning, the electricity lost. Embarrassment.
The crescendo of music relented. There was a vacuum of quiet in the bar. Cici was still looking at her, watching her mouth.
“You’re just doing it for the wrong reasons,” she said, after a moment. She turned to go, then looked back at Ginny, her face stern.
A flash of lightning woke Ginny a few hours later. She rolled over in bed to see Cici, still dressed and on top of the sheets in the bed, asleep with her arm pillowed under her head. They’d fallen asleep talking.
Ginny went to the window as a great pop lit the sky. In its flash, she saw Josephine in one of the Adirondacks by the water, alone. She hesitated, then went to the door, walked through the dark cottage hallway, down the stairs.
Ginny felt a vibrating growl of thunder as she stood at the screen door, looking out at Josephine’s silhouette. She felt nervous suddenly, but couldn’t name why. It seemed important to talk to Josephine, right now, though she couldn’t think of any logical reason for it. She sucked in a breath, walked across the wet sand. The air was thick with humidity.
“Do you want a drink?” Josephine asked as Ginny approached, and then without waiting for her response pushed a plastic wine glass into Ginny’s hand. “Come. Talk to me.” She gestured at the other chair. “I’m glad you came to the cottage. I haven’t been good company for Cici. Mark has been cheating on me. I may have to leave him. Cecilia doesn’t know yet.”
Ginny froze with her hand reaching for the pitcher. “What?” She was suddenly acutely aware of everything. The cluster of gnats around the porch light. The smell of jasmine in the perfume that Josephine wore. A curl of wave spiraling down hard into the sand at the water’s edge before collapsing.
Josephine shuffled in her blanket. Her face looked tired, sculptural, her long hair snaking around her face.
“It’s someone at the university. A professor of literature.” She said ‘literature’ in a fake British accent, slow and with her deep voice. Then laughed roughly and a vapour of vodka rose from her mouth. “Of course.”
Ginny swallowed, not sure what to say, and feeling meek, asked: “Do you think you can work it out?”
Josephine gave her a hard look. “How do I work that out?” She snorted. “And why should I?” She took a long drink. “One thing you need to know, Ginny, about men. One thing I can tell you.” She was a bit slurry, but she looked Ginny in the eye steadily. “It’s not enough to attract them. They might think so at first, but they want more. The whole package. And you know what else? If you think sex might trump everything else, which you might,” and her drink came smacking down, slopping over the edge, “It doesn’t.” She took another slurp. “What does he mean, he wants someone he can really talk to? I can talk!” She looked at Ginny. “I am the whole fucking package. He just never seemed interested in what I had to say.” And then she was quiet for a long time and Ginny sat awkwardly, wishing she could get out of the chair and crawl into her mother’s bed.
“Your mom and I could talk a blue streak,” Josephine said, as though Ginny’s thought had been aloud. Josephine held up her glass and aimed her pointer finger at Ginny. “I was always trying to figure out from your mother how to be alone so well. I mean, how to be alone and like it. It’s a very attractive quality.”
Ginny didn’t know what to say.
Josephine studied her, a skeptical look creeping over her face. “I don’t know what I’d do without Cici.”
Ginny felt a seasick sensation in her stomach and closed her eyes. If she could just be transported back to her mom’s room tonight she’d apologize for everything, stop sleeping with guys she barely knew, she’d start writing poems again and this time, she would read them to her mother.
“Let’s go for a swim!” Josephine cried. “Come. Look at those waves. Let’s have a thunderstorm swim. Last one of the summer.” She stood up and peeled back her silk robe, revealing a black bikini underneath.
“I don’t have my bathing suit on,” Ginny said dumbly. Josephine just grabbed her hand and pulled her. They went running across the wet sand and towards the waves, black in the night, and Josephine plunged in without slowing down, dragging Ginny with her. She wasn’t ready for it and the waves had a pull to them and she sucked in water and came up choking. Josephine was already back under, her bathing suit off, her naked body rising to the moon. Ginny spat water, gasping. She grasped for her bearing, then found a small centre of gravity.
She took a deep breath and dove under, peeling her dress off in one motion, feeling the cool flow of water over her naked body and pulling with her arms, kicking so that she went out farther. She came up triumphantly, turned to place Josephine.
“There’s nothing like this!” Josephine shouted to her. “Swimming naked in a storm.” Then she laughed, her body shiny, reflecting the flickering light in the sky. Ginny saw something she had never seen before: the power and the beauty of a woman’s body —not as a way of attracting men, but just as a way of being, in its own right. Just a phenomenon of nature. She plunged back down, grabbing a fistful of sand and using it to scrub her face clean. The way Cici and her had done years before, giddily explaining to their mothers that they were exfoliating—back when that was a new, funny word to them. Back when there was nothing to scrape off.
Photo by Flickr user Jim Sorbie