Ted and Nina lie in bed and watch the moon rise over the desert like a single brilliant thought. He says she'd understand if she'd only try, and she puts her finger to his lips because in the world they have left behind—the rolling farmland of upstate New York—that same moon is shining on Lake Dunston and she's restless, in a mood to reminisce.
So she tells him a story.
About a Sunday afternoon in the last Sixties, when she and her sister Ruth got stuck waiting outside a cocktail lounge at Newark Airport. Inside the lounge were her father and her Aunt Bip, drinking martinis. Bip was her way back to Florida, and her flight was delayed. Ruth was sixteen, Nina was twelve.
Bip and her father were talking about Ruth. Ruth was getting worse, and plans had to be made. She couldn't return to the same school because she tried to seduce one of her teachers and then pulled the fire alarm when he turned down her invitation, and Bip knew of a place in Vermont that catered to "sensitive students."
"Bip?" says Ted.
"Short for Barbara Penelope."
"I'd have changed my name."
Ted shakes his head. "Always the straight shooter. Always the hard line." In the glow of the moon his face is so handsome. She runs her finger over the hard muscles of his arms. Her kisses are quick, then slow.
"Show me," she says.
"The hard line."
He holds her close. After a minute he says, "You know I can't."
Nina turns away. "Then stop taking them, for Christ's sake!"
"We've talked about this."
"Maybe just go off them long enough for me to get laid."
"You'll get laid."
"He told us. After a couple of months." Loss of sexual interest is the most commonly cited side effect of anti-depressants. Nina remembers little else of that visit except the doctor's white coat and the pattern in the yellow wallpaper behind him—some sort of abstract petals that looked like fingers or tongues.
"What if I quit you before then?" she asks.
"Then you won't get laid."
"Not by you." She looks at the wall.
"Hey, come on. Finish your story," he says.
"Come on. I want you to." The moonlight washes over them like an uneasy dream.
"Oh, all right."
Suddenly Ruth clutched Nina's arm. Three black men stood a few feet off, looking tired and dazed, wearing afros and dashikis, with three guitar cases on the floor. The one on the end, Ruth hissed. That's Jimi Hendrix!
Nina didn't believe her at first, but Ruth said no, she was sure because she'd just seen a picture of him in a magazine. She rushed up and asked Jimi for his autograph, and he dropped the pack of cigarettes he was holding, he was so surprised. He picked it up and stared down at her until Ruth asked him again. He found a piece of paper in one pocket, and a pen in another, and wrote To Ruth, all my love forever, Jimi.
"Do you still have it?" Ted asks.
"Oh, no. It got stolen. It was in her wallet, and someone lifted her purse."
"Bummer! What a story it would have made—Ruth the groupie, Ruth the underage lover, and with him dead and that piece of paper, who could prove you wrong?"
Nina leaves the bed and goes to the window, where the saguaro lift their arms to the silver sky.
"Nina, look, I—"
"Come back to bed."
"In a minute."
Soon his breathing says he is asleep, and Nina remains by the window, remembering. Ruth wears a feather boa and races across their lawn. She sings an aria on the roof and her mother says, Oh, for Heaven's sake, Nina, stop telling us to send her away, she's not crazy, she's just high-spirited. Then she calls from Vermont where the snow falls even deeper than in Dunston and whispers it's like being trapped, sometimes I dream I'm stuck in one and can't claw my way out. Nina doesn't believe in spirits, yet for a moment she is certain that Ruth is out there in the desert, trying to find her way home.
Two years before the desert, while the low September light drops into lake, Nina stops by the Dunston Market. In the produce section a tall, attractive man in a tweed jacket stands with an orange in his hand. He considers it as if hoping it were something better, maybe a peach or an apple. He even lifts it up for a better look.
"Orange you going to buy it?" she asks. At 34 her affairs have become routine, shabby episodes that end within a few months and she sees nothing to lose.
Ted considers her blue cotton dress from the hem up before his eyes finds her face.
"Nothing rhymes with orange, you know," he says.
"Orange thief." He's put the orange in his pocket by then, making a lopsided bulge.
"You like looking at a man below the belt, don't you?" he says, and she blushes the way she hasn't since grade school.
They go for drinks and talk. He's in the History Department at the University, a junior colleague of her father's though he hasn't made the connection yet. She knew him right away. He had the attention of the whole room at the last cocktail party she went to with her father, a duty she performs to keep her father's social life alive since her mother seldom leaves home. Ted arranged the host's marble chess pieces to recreate the battle of Little Round Top during the Civil War, which he does again there in the bar using salted peanuts. The more he talks the more animated he becomes. His eyes shine, his fingers tremble.
"And the officer in charge, Joshua Chamberlain, used an esoteric maneuver, sending his men down the mountain from the side, like a gate swinging closed, making the Confederates think they were outnumbered," he says. He stubs out his cigarette. "He was a college professor, thrust into a brand new life. A much more exciting one, I'd think."
"You sound jealous."
"Who wouldn't be? To escape one's life and the drudge of making a living."
"In exchange for getting shot at?" She's aware that she's smiling, her head slightly cocked.
Ted regards her. "You've heard this before, haven't you?" he asks.
"You're a former student, making me look silly for not remembering you."
"I am a former student, you're right." Though his embarrassment is charming she lacks the heart to prolong it. "But not of yours, so don't worry." As she names her father his damaged reputation shows in the lift of Ted's eyebrows—his heavy drinking, a severely depressed wife, the one daughter's possible suicide.
"He's a first-rate scholar," says Ted. That's true. Whatever else her father suffers, his research skills have not.
Ted offers her a cigarette. She declines. She tells a story of smoking as a teenager, and setting her bedroom trash can on fire by mistake. She is home alone at the time, and smothers the flames with a quilt her grandmother made years before. The quilt is burned through its center and to hide the flaw, Nina keeps it folded neatly on the end of her bed, with its good side always up. Later Ted says she's like that quilt, folded up tight, hiding her flaws and always showing her good side.
He makes it hard to. During their first year together he is often moody or sullen. She keeps him going with good cheer, passionate love, steady support. He can't get promoted, can't publish a good paper, can't stand teaching to students who live completely in the present. Don't just memorize facts! Imagine what it was really like! Then he embarks on a project he says will move him up the ladder. He works in his study until late at night, pen to paper, the computer unused. After weeks of being curious, asking what he's doing, Nina enters the study when he's not there. She finds photo of a Confederate soldier bought for a dollar at an out-of-town flea market on their second date. And she finds something else, a leather journal full of Ted's handwriting. The first page says, Private Diary of Joshua Himes, 25th Virginia Infantry. The entries are dated during May and June, 1862. Joshua Himes is feisty, given to wild desires, inventive—there are several passages detailing an elaborate practical joke Himes plays on another soldier in camp, stealing personal articles like his straight razor and his pipe, then returning them by stealth until the soldier wonders about his own sanity. Himes talks about his superior officers, complains about pain in his teeth and right foot, describes the hard biscuits and tight jackets he must endure.
Nina has heard each story before. It's Ted, recalling his own time in military school after his father sent him there, then never called, never wrote, saying this would make a true man of him. Even the words are the same. When Joshua rebels against his own fictional father, and challenges his poor opinion of him, he writes I am one cocky son of God! I am filled with the purest wind! That's what Ted shouted one summer night when he lifted Nina from the soft grass and twirled her until her hair flew.
Nina is stunned. What are you thinking? she asks more than once. Were you going to pass this off as real? Don't you know how fast someone would see through it?
He denies wanting anything of the kind. He says it's just a symptom of his own frustration, a necessary outlet. The further I went, the more sense it made. And it was so easy to think my way into that place and time. Why can't you understand that, Nina? Why? Because she doesn't like what's fake or pretend, and never will.
The Arizona morning is soft and clear. The heat that will rise later in the day is not yet felt on Nina's bare skin. This is the calming time. No diary, no memories of Ruth. She lifts her arms to the sky, then bends to touch her toes, and when she is upright once more a man stands across the road, watching her. The home behind him has been vacant, cars on the road are heard long before they're seen, which has made Nina feel secure in being there early each morning, naked.
Her body is not beautiful. It's long and bony, and her posture, always poor, gives her a slumped, lazy stance. Even so, her breasts are firm, and the muscles on her arms and legs are hard. She watches the man watch her and doesn't blush or turn away. He calls, "Good thing it's too early for the rattlers to be up and out!" He removes his cowboy hat before he speaks, and Nina is surprised to see a fine, thick head of iron gray hair. She doesn't mean to smile, but she can't help being completely delighted at being found like that by a man she doesn't know, who is brave—or rude enough—to stand and grin right back. The embarrassment comes when she turns away, because she is particularly unhappy with the appearance of her small, boyish butt. The man's long, soft whistle sends a shiver down her knobby spine and at last she is blushing, and feeling warm, too, between her legs.
The toilet flushes down the hall, and Nina quickly puts on the robe she left on the kitchen counter. Ted appears, barefoot, in a T-shirt and shorts. He looks at the coffee maker which Nina turned on before going outside. She thinks again about the man across the road. She peeks slyly through the crack in the drapes. He's still there, taking things out of his pickup truck—boxes, a bag of golf clubs, a rocking chair.
Ted pours her a cup of coffee. The first sip burns her tongue.
"That story last night," he says.
"I've been wondering why it occurred to you."
"I don't know. I just think about her sometimes."
"Yeah, but why that particular story?" Nina brings the cup to her mouth, then remembers the burn and stops.
"Maybe because it was the last time Ruth and I did anything together. She left for school right after that."
Where she got even worse. Some days she refused to leave her bed, other days she'd leave the grounds at dawn, and roam around the little nearby town until someone went to bring her back. Or she'd be anxious, clingy, needing constant reassurance as she did that last day when she called home so much that Nina unplugged all the phones in the house. Grow up, Nina had thought. Learn to deal with crap on your own. Ruth's way of dealing was to sleep, so she took her pills and lost count of how many she'd taken. The family didn't learn of her death until two days after, when a police officer came to the door. Something must be wrong with your phone, he said. Nina had not put the lines back in their jacks, and her parents, always fairly reclusive, hadn't had to make a single call out.
"And then she died," says Ted.
"That first winter."
"Well, at least she got to meet Jimi Hendrix. Probably the highlight of her life," says Ted.
Ruth hadn't been quite as excited as Nina described. She'd held back, and Nina was the one to rush forward.
Ted crosses the room and pulls open the curtain. The room explodes with light.
"Another sunny day," he says. "Imagine that." Ted hates the desert. Arizona was Nina's idea, on the theory that a complete change of scene would return him to the here and now. So might any of the activities she's introduced him to there, golf, cooking classes, a membership at a gym, biking, horseback riding, even hot air ballooning. That was the worst. He held the rail in rigid silence and glared down at the receding ground as if it had no right to pull away like that. Nina had loved the freedom of drifting nearer the clouds, seeing their shadow lead them along like a wiser, silent version of themselves.
"You going to get that?" Ted asks when their phone rings.
It's Nina's father, and Ted is glad to hear from him.
"You're kidding," Ted says into the receiver. "He didn't get tenure. Oh, that's too bad. Helps my chances though, doesn't it?"
At the window Nina watches her neighbor take another box out of his truck and carry it into the house.
"Great, we're doing great," says Ted says.
The story they told was that Nina wanted a break from Dunston for a while, maybe to find a new direction, and Ted would take the semester off, come along, and work on a book he was writing about Union Troops in the Southwest after the Civil War, though he has yet to do any actual research.
"You sure can, hold on." Ted gives Nina the phone.
"How are you, Dad?" Nina asks.
"Old, Honey. Old." He sounds like his mouth is full of glue, which means he's on whiskey number three or four.
"Fine. Bit fuzzy around the edges. Covers the same ground a little more than she used to. Remember the ring? Got that one twice last week."
Bip once had a lovely diamond solitaire—marquise cut, one and a half carats, a gift from her wealthy husband before he did nothing but drink. Her story was that she lost the ring in a card game, which was true, but not by a wager as one would assume. She'd removed the ring from her hand that was swelling from salted nuts, the Florida heat, and liquor. Later it couldn't be found, although the house was searched high and low, and Bip knew her hostess quietly relieved her of it while Bip assembled her full house.
"What about Mom?" Nina asks.
"Still at it. Going great guns, in fact." She's begun a series of paintings adapted from family photographs. One of Nina and Ruth, when Nina is ten, is in the works. From the ones already completed, Nina knows her mother will change the background from winter to summer, and give Ruth a smile she didn't show the camera, and while she knows there's a lot to be said for staying occupied, she can't see the point of taking one reality and then inventing another. The conversation ends as it always does, with her father saying she should just hang in there, that everything will settle down and be just fine.
"So, my old lady, she says to me, she says, 'Jud, you don't have it any more, and that's all I can say about that.'"
Nina's neighbor sits by her on his patio, which is just a square of unset bricks big enough for two folding chairs and a plastic cooler. They are shaded by a large umbrella wedged between two used tires and held in place by two elastic cords which pull in opposite directions, the way trunks of newly planted trees are kept upright. The cords are attached to two cinder blocks. It's an effective device, if not particularly pleasant to look at.
Jud is on his third beer. "She wasn't talking about sex, that's for damn sure."
"Dunno. Whatever she needed to keep her in love, I guess." He belches softly. The lenses of his sunglasses are like mirrors, impossible to see behind, and Nina doesn't know if he's looking at her, or the hills beyond her. It's over ninety in the shade, and yet Jud wears jeans and cowboy boots. His one concession to the heat is a bright white tee-shirt whose collar doesn't quite meet the leather string around his neck, and the four brilliantly blue turquoise stones it runs through.
"So, you folks liking it here?" asks Jud.
"I do, Ted doesn't."
"Not too friendly, is he, if you don't mind my saying."
Ted has refused Jud's invitations, rejected his overtures. Jesus, Nina, the guy's got dipshit written all over him. Why can't he just leave us alone?
"He retired or something?" asks Jud.
"On leave. He's a professor."
"Huh. What do you know about that."
The hem of Nina's sundress lifts in a lazy gust of wind, and fine grains of desert sand rise and drop away.
"Can I ask you something?" she says.
"You ever believe something that isn't true?"
"You mean a lie?"
"Something made up."
"Like Santa Claus?"
Nina laughs. Jud is so real, so down to earth. He's talked a lot about his days with the Arizona Border Patrol chasing "illegals," staking them out, and waiting, always waiting, for the next one to try his luck.
The beer she sips has warmed in the bottle from being held too long. She sets the bottle on the brick beside her chair and watches a hawk circle above the peak before her. The sun is so intense on the hillside that the saguaro seem to tremble.
"No, something you made up yourself. A fantasy. A dream. Maybe just a tall tale," says Nina.
"Not me, but I'll tell you about this guy I knew, Raoul." Jud takes a long drink of beer, puts the empty bottle on the ground, clasps his hands behind his head. "Now, this dude came over on the sly like so many do, then managed to stay, get a green card, a job, and eventually became a citizen. Worked for the Border Patrol as a translator. Most of the agents spoke decent Spanish, but once in a while some young guy would go on duty who didn't know a single word, which is where Raoul came in. At first all he did was explain the arrest process, a very one-way conversation. But then he got chatty and asked people questions, like where they were from, and what they were leaving behind, and then telling the agents all about it. Now, there's this one woman, a girl really, coming in all on her own with nothing but this little bag of stuff—a rosary, a picture of a man on a horse, and a comb, that's it. Well, Raoul takes himself a fancy to that old gal, and he tells the agent on duty, 'We have to help her, she's under threat of violence if she returns home to her village, some man wants to marry her and says he'll have her whether they make it legal or not.'
"So, the agent, this big dumb guy name of Clyde gets a soft spot and says okay, he'll see what he can do with the INS, maybe go to bat for her. And Raoul takes charge, finds her a place to live, gets her a job as a maid in Scottsdale, where the Signora happens to speak lovely Spanish and quickly finds out that her Guadalupe wasn't fleeing anything of the kind, at least not the way Raoul described it. She was just looking for a better life, like they all are."
"Why did he lie?" Nina asks.
"He didn't really lie, he just stretched the truth a little. Yeah, there was a guy who had his eye on her back home, but there was nothing improper about it. Raoul was a romantic, is all. Likes to give everyone his own bit of drama. Made up tales about quite a few of them, I understand. Didn't get him in as much trouble as you might think, just a reprimand, and an unpaid vacation. Spent it back home in Juarez, and you know what? He stayed."
Again, Nina laughs. He's very charming. He's never mentioned seeing her naked that morning three weeks ago, and she's never raised it, either. It's there all the same, like his interest, which fueled by a little beer, makes him lean in and kiss her lightly on the cheek.
"You can slap me now," he says.
"I'm not the slapping kind."
"You the kissing kind?"
"Maybe. If the time is right."
The heat, the beer, and her bold words make her feel like a balloon that's rising away, out of sight.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that," she said.
"Hey, I kissed you and I'm not sorry."
"I have to go."
She stands, and gives him her empty bottle. She knows he's looking at her, because she can see herself reflected in his sunglasses—two tiny blushing Ninas.
"Come back anytime," he says.
She makes her way across the road in the blinding glare, then in the shade of the corrugated roof that shields the walk she passes the trash can. Ted has left the lid off again. She picks up the lid, and as she lowers it to the can she sees Ted's forged diary in the remains of last night's pasta salad.
Inside the house the cool air is startling. Ted is asleep on the couch, the television showing another soap opera. Tell me the truth, Jason, for the love of God a miserable old woman pleads to a much younger man. Nina turns off the television set. She sits and recalls Ted's quiet, anguished voice, I just needed to write it, that's all.
So he could walk out of his life and get a breath of fresh air. Now he has returned to himself and let go of Joshua Himes. How odd that it had happened while she was out drinking with Jud. Well, maybe not so odd.
She studies his face. It's calm, peaceful, the jaw line softer with the weight he gained when he quit smoking. He did that for her, at her insistence. And he came to Arizona because she thought was that was the right thing to do, too.
His eyes open slowly, and their light is clear. "Hey," he says.
"What time is it?"
"I don't know. A little after four."
He stretches. "Jesus, I had the weirdest dream."
"An orange. Or maybe a peach." He sits up and scratches his chin. She gets herself a glass of water in the kitchen, drinks it, and pats water on her face with a dishtowel.
"Hotter than hell out there," she says.
"What else is new?"
This time of year the breezes off of Lake Dunston are barely warm. The willows on the shore sway and rustle, as if to music only they can hear.
"You know what I'm thinking?" Nina asks.
"I never know what you're thinking."
"About going home."
Ted stares at her. "And leave your new buddy? He'll be crushed."
"Bull. I'm not his type. He likes Hispanic women. He's got one over in Globe, in fact."
Ted shuffles the deck he keeps on the coffee table, not well because he doesn't know how, and several cards drop to the floor.
"Let me do that," says Nina and joins him on the couch. She picks up a fallen card. "King of Hearts," she says, and kisses his cheek. She collects all the cards, takes a group in each hand, and shuffles them together quickly, and expertly.
He asks where she learned how to do that, and she says she once had a boyfriend who worked as a dealer at an Indian casino near Dunston.
"Is that true?" he asks.
She smiles and gives him the cards to lay out a new game.
"Forget solitaire, let's play Poker," he says.
"I don't know how."
"I'll show you. The rules are easy. It's the psychology that's tough."
"As in having a 'poker face?'"
"Right. Just keep your cool, build your hand, and don't show it until you have to."
In a year, or five, or ten, they might mention the diary and say it was Ted's flight of fancy, an expression of true creative genius, or they might call it something else they can't imagine now.
Because when he declared those things to her under the stars above the lake, he didn't know that Joshua would one day write them in his diary. And the day she saw Jimi Hendrix at the airport, Nina didn't know that she would later say Ruth saw him first and then begged for the autograph when Nina did both, because Ruth died alone, unable to reach home, and Nina didn't.
That autograph still lies in her jewelry box, under her bracelets and chains. To Nina, all my love forever, Jimi.
How easy—how necessary—to make right in stories what life makes wrong.
She will not go to Jud's again. She will tell Ted she understands, plan the move home, and ponder what she's discovered out there in the desert, that life invents itself over and over and so can we, if given a chance and a forgiving heart.