GWEN LIVED IN LOS ANGELES and her brother Dan lived in Chicago. They sent each other spoof news reports, fake X-ray glasses, envelopes full of plastic ants. After the horrible-smelling flowers were delivered to her at work—“What is that, road kill?” asked her friend—Gwen gleefully bought a pound of chocolates, stuck her thumb through the bottom of every piece, and sent them to Dan. He had molested every box of assorted chocolates that came into the house when they were kids.
But on the occasions when she actually saw him, bald skin expanding across the back of his head and a lip of belly resting on his belt, dismay took root. The guy with the sense of humor always seemed to stay home.
In person, Dan frowned fussily at her distracted driving and folded his lips at the chaos of her kitchen. When he found the mouse droppings in the cabinet—embarrassing, yes, but not a crime—he took her car keys and returned with a box of D-Con. “Aren’t you efficient,” she said.
“Gwen, they’re disgusting. And unhealthy.”
“And you’re the public health service?”
Gwen knew that she was the one who appeared childish. The time had long passed for her and Dan to settle into the comfortable sibling relationship of middle age, that place of tolerance and forgiveness and well-upholstered memories. When she wasn’t in the same room with Dan, Gwen believed the two of them could go there. But a lot of their memories were the warped and rump-sprung recollections of booze, and that changed things.
Gwen had been sober for two years, Dan for eleven. He still liked to talk about his drinking days, and his stories grew more lurid as the years passed—more DUIs, more lost weekends, more lost jobs. When he and Gwen went to AA meetings together he related tales she’d never heard before, including one about a drinking game in high school that had left everyone except Dan passed out. Two of the boys wound up in the emergency room, but Dan drove to another party and picked up with vodka where he’d left off with rum.
“Oh, come on,” she’d said in the car after the meeting. “Who went to the emergency room? I would have remembered this.”
“Brian Thornton and Jeff Muller.”
“Never heard of them.”
“There were lots of guys you didn’t hear of.”
“Not guys who wound up with blood poisoning. Mom would have said something.”
“I’ve found that the longer I stay sober, the more I remember.”
Gwen glanced at her brother’s impassive profile. He had developed an almost uncrackable mien—distant, distracted, smugly detached from the world Gwen dwelled in, where people didn’t wake up every morning remembering fresh, gruesome stories. Now he was half-smiling. “What’s the joke?” she asked.
“Serenity,” he said. “No joke.”
“You and me, sober and serene? That’s the biggest joke in the world.”
He shrugged and let the conversation slide into its familiar sinkhole while she stared out her window and counted the bars and liquor stores they passed—an old habit that Dan probably had forgotten, even with his ever-sharpening sober memory.
Since the night eleven years ago when he had flown into LAX, touched her shoulder just as they passed the gate and said, “I am an alcoholic,” his life had become a small miracle of order and harmony. He divorced Estelle when she refused to stop drinking, then two years later married Linda the Mormon, who flinched from so much as a diet Coke. Their two children were pretty and mannerly and rarely asked for toys they saw on TV since they rarely watched TV. Around their house hung a few slogans—the serenity prayer in the downstairs hall, “Powerless” on a kitchen magnet—but the display was more or less tasteful, and certainly better than the apartment Gwen sublet from a Bruins fan, who draped every stationary object, including the chandelier, in blue and gold.
The longer Dan remained sober, the more refined his life became. The last time Gwen had visited, not a single magazine lay on any table or beside any toilet, and she felt self-conscious about the creased Vogue she left on the bedside table. Helping Gwen make the bed, Linda said, “It just got so we didn’t like the clutter.”
Gwen didn’t like clutter either, but she was less ruthless than her brother about walling it off. She still owned stationery and a paperweight from the real estate corporation where she’d been working when she stopped drinking. All her jobs had been in sales—furniture, houses, briefly cars. At the moment she was selling five-hundred-dollar suits in the Career Attitude section of Wilmot’s, a local department store that had stood on its corner forever, where she regularly spent a quarter of her paycheck on luscious jackets and shoes that she could almost afford.
She had moved back downtown so she didn’t have to drive so far to work, her fourth move in a year and a half. She had bought two used cars and driven them until they fell apart. Against Dan’s exquisite life, hers seemed loudmouthed and loose. But sober, every single day, which still amazed her. In her closet were silk blouses, in her window box a tangle of leggy snapdragons, and in her bed Thomas, who had studied Thai massage and knew quite a lot about pressure points.
She had spent, as advised, her first two years of sobriety in solitude as rigorous as a nun’s. “You need to concentrate on yourself,” people at meetings said, and, “You won’t make good decisions right now.” Flirting led to drinks led to waking up in a place she didn’t know beside a man she didn’t know—or worse, beside only a stained sheet and a second glass next to hers on the nightstand. She had accepted the solitary years as a purification ritual, calling Dan on the nights her empty apartment seemed to contract like a flytrap, with her caught struggling inside.
“I’m already thirty-two,” she had reminded him in one of those calls, panic snagging her voice. A TV star had said the week before that no woman could compete in LA after age twenty-five. The clip had been shown again and again.
“Don’t compete,” he said. “This is chess, not basketball. Wait for a man who buys presents for his mother.”
“You don’t buy presents for your mother.”
“So don’t wait for me. But wait.” His voice turned softer. “Give yourself a chance, sweetheart.”
“Do you promise I won’t wind up an unloved hag?”
“I promise that you know what you’ll wind up as if you make bad choices.” He paused, then said, “Ellen Kornicke.”
Together they shouted, “Claudia Peffer!” and Gwen felt the hot cloud in her brain dissolve. No one but her brother could come up with the list of girls from their high school who were total tramps.
It wasn’t long after that conversation that a man at a corner stand near her apartment sold her a sunflower, then leered and asked what she was doing that night. Two years earlier she would have flirted back, keeping the uncouth, ugly man in reserve like her second bottle of Dewar’s. Now she took her change and told him that he’d have better luck with women if he washed his face.
“Not Oscar Wilde, I know,” she told Dan when she called him that night.
“Finesse comes later. Keep the sunflower—it’s a trophy.”
She smiled at the telephone. “One dead flower to commemorate the day I didn’t come across.”
“Wait for somebody who’s worth you,” he said, a comment she knew he meant to be encouraging.
She waited until she came across Thomas, fingering expensive shawls on a table in Better Dresses. “I’m looking for something for my mother,” he said, and then, “Is that funny?”
His light brown hair stuck out around his ears, and his square-framed glasses had been fashionable ten years before. He was half a head shorter than Gwen. “I specialize in gifts for mothers,” she said.
He had started out as a landscape designer, a good employment option in a city where people redecorated their yards as often as their living rooms. But he’d gotten bored with irrigation and sightlines and clients who wanted their yards to look like Disneyland while they talked about Tuscany. Selling his lawnmowers and discharging his stone masons, he had returned to the love of his youth.
“Model trains?” she asked. They were hunched under a café umbrella in a mall food court, drinking coffee. Gwen kept finding herself staring at his wrists, which were tidy but strong, bristling with wiry hair.
“I teach recreational sports. Wind surfing, cliff diving, bungee jumping—things people might want to try on vacation.”
“I didn’t know bungee jumping required training.”
“It does if you want to do it more than once.”
His trim legs would be flexed, one arm wrapped around the waist of his client, the two of them silhouetted atop a spectacular crag. Her windblown hair tangling ardently with his. The music swelling. “Do you get letters from your happy clients?”
“‘Satisfied’ is the word they use. How often do you run into a happy person?”
“You did today,” Gwen said. Just as she started to blush, Thomas reached across the table to touch the corner of her mouth.
“What do you know about that,” he said.
The next weekend he showed her the cliff where he sometimes took clients, at the south end of the broad Santa Monica Bay. “It’s a thrill, because people think it looks dangerous,” he said.
“Dangerous? It looks insane,” said Gwen. Salty wind snapped at her hair as she gazed down eighty sheer feet. Dun-colored boulders knifed from the cliff’s sandy face, and a pile of rocks gleamed toothily on the shore beneath them.
“Don’t be fooled. The winds here are easy. The rocks look scary, but I wouldn’t let you go anywhere near them.”
“Accidents happen.” Her heart was jackhammering and her tongue felt huge and untrustworthy in her mouth. The feeling—the uncertain mouth, the dizziness—was an old friend, nearly forgotten, and she leaned into it. His hand on her shoulder braced her. She tilted her head to let the wind catch her hair.
“I would never let you hurt yourself. Though maybe I’d give you a little thrill.” He had a dimple.
“And I guess you think you know about thrills,” she said.
He deployed his dimple again, and the frenzy of Gwen’s heartbeat increased until it actually hurt, the muscle banging into lungs, ribs, whatever was nearby. She had been so sure she would never feel this kind of reckless chaos again. “I believe you,” she managed to say, although she could no longer meet his eyes.
“Let’s walk,” he said. “I’ll show you something interesting.”
They made their careful way along the sandy path, Thomas courteously walking on the outside, close to the crumbling cliff edge. Grayish beach weeds scattered across the path; they looked like trash but let off a piney smell when they were crushed. Gwen’s happiness surged, and she stopped to toss a pebble down the cliff, then a rock. A pelican flapped by, stately and droll. Watching its heavily hinged wing, she blurted, “I don’t drink.”
“Is that an issue?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Okay.” He touched her elbow with one hand and pointed down to the shore, where an outgoing wave sighed over rocks. Scattered among and on top of the rocks were metal scraps, dozens of them, rusted in stripes from bright orange to green. It looked as if a car had crashed into the bottom of the cliff, or several cars, the metal strewn exuberantly down the shore. One of the pieces, the size of Gwen’s thigh, was twisted like a ringlet.
“That’s the Dominator,” Thomas said. “It was a cargo ship that went aground. The crew all got out safely, but nobody ever could figure out how to move the ship. It’s been rotting there for forty years.”
“Great,” she said. “You took me to a shipwreck.”
“Are you superstitious?”
“What will you tell me if I am?”
“The surest way to avoid trouble is to look it in the eye,” he said.
“Race you to the bottom,” said Gwen, already scrambling down the soft cliff face. There was a bit of iron sitting in the water that looked just small enough to carry home and keep on her desk as a talisman.
When Dan called at his usual time, she asked him how his week had gone, and how the kids were, and about Linda. “How about you?” he finally asked.
“Big week. I made a new friend and we went to the beach.”
“Sounds fun,” Dan said. “Did you meet her at work?”
“Better Dresses,” Gwen said. She touched her hair, stiff with beach salt. After their walk along the cliff, she and Thomas had had coffee, and then dinner, and then ice cream, and then another walk. She supposed he was feeling the oddness of not going to a bar, but he kept a gentlemanly silence, and when he brought her to her door, she did not invite him in, although she leaned giddily against the door frame while his departing footsteps made a friendly crunch on the gravel. Dan kept asking her questions; sensing something, he was an interested dog sniffing at her hem. There was no need to tell him just yet about Thomas and her commendable restraint, particularly since they had made another date for Wednesday night, at a café close enough to her apartment that a happy couple could stumble from restaurant to bedroom in more or less a single gasp.
“The more people who are in your world right now, the better,” Dan was saying. “A lot of sober people think they need to turn into hermits; they get afraid that the smallest contact with the outside world will threaten their sobriety. But if the only way you can stay sober is by never talking to anyone or going anywhere—”
“—what kind of life is that?”
“Right,” said Dan, and Gwen could tell that she had spoken with too much enthusiasm. “Better Dresses?” he asked.
“We discussed shawls. American women never know what to do with them.”
“I hope you showed her.”
“She said I had élan. Listen, I’ve been waiting to talk to you. I’m going to have to lead a meeting soon. Want to give me some pointers?” Everyone who went to meetings was called on eventually. Not a lie: an anticipation.
While Dan talked about the importance of telling her own story, she stretched her toes. Thomas had given her a long foot massage at the bottom of the cliff. He pretended to chide her about her shoes, and Gwen told him that Wilmot’s didn’t carry hiking boots. “Guess I’ll have to take you shopping myself,” Thomas said.
“Guess you will.”
“For some people, it’s the first opportunity to be open about old secrets,” Dan continued. “I’ve seen grown men break down and sob.”
“Now, don’t go scaring me.”
“You don’t have so much to cry about,” he said. “Some of these guys—you know, they remember car accidents, broken bones, all kinds of damage.”
“Or they don’t remember,” she said. “And I’ve got my own share of damage.” Experimenting, the phone propped on her shoulder, she pulled on one of her toes until she felt the knuckle pop.
“We all do. That’s why support is so important. Say—when are you going to lead the meeting?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m in the rotation, though, so it won’t be long.”
“Why don’t I come out? I can arrange the time, and it might be easier if you’ve got the home team to root you on.”
“Oh, honey. I couldn’t ask you to do that.” She scrambled onto her tingling feet.
“You’re not asking,” he said. “I am. May I come? I’d like to be there.” His voice was not manipulative in the least, nor did it float on a cloud of irritating serenity. Her brother was asking her a favor.
“Of course,” Gwen said miserably. “I would be honored.”
Gwen scheduled her meeting date out as far as she dared, three months away, in November. Maybe Dan would be waylaid by Thanksgiving. Maybe weather would close down O’Hare. Maybe California would succeed in its threats and fall into the ocean.
“Explain the problem to me again,” Thomas said. It was Sunday morning, and in her kitchen he was stripping the spines off a pineapple. He was a careful eater, and Gwen suppressed her hamburger habit around him.
“He doesn’t think I’m ready for a relationship.”
“Is there a test you’re supposed to pass?”
“More or less. I’m supposed to be secure in my sobriety.”
“I don’t ply you with spirits.”
Gwen managed half a smile. “When he talks about being sober, he means more than just not drinking. It’s a whole life. Good driving habits are part of being sober. Not being in debt. Clean bathroom.”
“Really? He thinks your housekeeping is part of staying sober?”
Thomas was wearing what she privately called his DA face. In a minute he would tell her that he wished she wouldn’t exaggerate so much. “He thinks everything is a part of being sober. Either something makes you drink or it makes you not-drink. Period.”
“I don’t do anything to make you drink.”
Finished with skinning the pineapple, he was chopping the fruit into symmetrical chunks. When he was finished, he would cube two mangoes, toss all the squares together, and squeeze lime juice on top. It was a refreshing way to start the morning, and something Gwen would never do for herself. She said, “I look forward to you the way I used to look forward to wine. You take me out of my life. I get all giggly and woozy. Is that the way a sober person talks?”
“Plenty of songwriters have.” He kept his eyes on the slippery fruit and the slim knife. “Would you like me to keep myself scarce while he’s here? We don’t have to go into this leading with our chins.”
Gwen fished a piece of pineapple out of the bowl. The fruit’s sharp tang was a satisfying explosion in her mouth. “It’s time my brother sees that I’ve got my own way of being sober.”
“We don’t even go to restaurants that serve drinks. He can’t complain.”
“He’ll complain, all right. It will be a battle royal.”
She kissed his neck while he slid the knife down the mango skin. “That’s what you think.”
Dan arrived Thursday, the week before Thanksgiving, on the fifth day of a heat wave. “Did I land in Saudi Arabia?” he asked when they stepped out of the airport, the heavy air, sticky with exhaust, clinging to their skin.
“Chicago boy. I thought you’d like to feel some California sunshine.”
“It’s fifty degrees at home. Yesterday I was playing touch football with the kids. You ought to think about returning to the heartland.”
“I’ll think about it tomorrow, when I’m bodysurfing.”
“Aren’t you going to be preparing for your meeting?”
“It’s an AA meeting, Dan. It’s not a State of the Union address.”
He shrugged his garment bag a little higher on his shoulder. “What are you going to talk about?”
“Hard step,” he said.
“I made a realization that I was powerless over alcohol and my life had become unmanageable,” she recited. “Not so hard.”
“Took you a while to get there, even with my example,” he said.
“I didn’t drink as much as you did. I had less to realize.” Navigating the walkway to the parking lot, she pushed her damp hair away from her face. The oily air felt viscous.
“Alcoholism is not a competitive sport. You can be just as enslaved—”
“—by one drink as by twenty. I know my lines.”
“They’re not just lines. Sometimes I wonder if you understand that.”
“There’s the car!” Gwen said. “Let’s get that AC going.” Dan remained silent as she unlocked the car, got them settled, and gunned the accelerator out of the parking lot. He didn’t say a thing as she swung around the interchange, two cars honking as she slid to the fast lane. They were halfway home before she asked, “Are we fighting?”
“I don’t know. Are we?”
“Let’s say no.”
“Okay. Good.” He observed a pouty silence before he said, “It’s work, you know. Every day you have to recommit. Every day you need to think, ‘Just for today, I will not drink.’ Do you see that truck?”
“Yes,” she said as the moving van flashed past. “It isn’t that much of a struggle, if you want to know the truth. More a change of habits than anything else.”
“That just puts you more at risk. This disease is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It isn’t just about drinking. You need to get sober in all your behaviors. For one thing, you need to stop driving so fast.”
Not gently, Gwen pressed harder on the accelerator, seeing too late the highway patrol car on the right. “Crap.”
Dan folded his lips into an old-maidish expression and looked out the window, and all the air in the car seemed to vanish until the patrol car turned on its siren and jerked onto the median, in search of faster fish than Gwen. “Call that a warning,” Dan said, the satisfaction in his voice exactly balanced with the disappointment.
Thomas was not at home waiting for them, but signs of him were: his bathrobe on the hook, his blender beside the sink. Gwen could see her brother’s nostrils flare like a bloodhound’s when he spotted Thomas’s razor in the bathroom. Dan was waiting for Gwen to say something, and the longer she waited—through the coffee she made for him, through his presentation of the elaborate cookies Linda and the kids had sent—the more whatever she was going to say felt like a confession. Like a priest or a police lieutenant, Dan waited. She contemplated the crimp at the edges of his broad mouth, the way he carefully folded the Times so that it did not rest on his polo shirt, his remarkable knack for bleeding the joy out of life. Her happiness should make him happy, but she could see that it would not. Knowing that kept her from saying anything until the next morning, when Thomas called.
“How are you holding up?” he asked.
“Sagging badly,” she said.
“Have you told him?”
“Is he right there?”
“Do you want me to come to the meeting tonight?”
“Do I ever,” she said, although Thomas had never been to an AA meeting, and she winced at the idea of him trying to make sense of the rituals and sayings. If they had been having a normal conversation, she would have asked him if he were sure—there were plenty of more entertaining things to do on a Saturday night than hear ex-drunks talk, sometimes longingly, about their drinking days. But Dan’s presence, as he noisily turned another newspaper page, was clarifying. “Thank you,” she said.
“It will be interesting,” Thomas said. “I’ll see a side of you I haven’t seen.”
“You won’t see anything you haven’t already seen,” Gwen said, which might have been her first out-and-out lie of the weekend.
When she hung up, Dan asked, “Was that your boyfriend?”
“And he’s coming to the meeting?”
“Be sure to introduce us.”
“I will.” Gwen finished her coffee, poured another cup, and asked Dan if she should make another pot.
“No,” he said. “I’m trying to cut down.”
As the afternoon wore on Gwen talked Dan into going to the beach, which he usually avoided because of his mortal fear of stinging jellyfish. She even got him to dive into the waves a few times, until he misjudged one and resurfaced coughing and spitting salt water. Resting on the hot sand, he panted, “Linda will never believe that I was bodysurfing in November.”
“I’ll back you up.”
“We may need a statement from a disinterested third party. She thinks you and I always stick together.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Gwen had been in the water longer than Dan, and she was stretched out on the sand like a starfish, coaxing the heat back into her chilled bones. Even on a 90-degree day, the Pacific in November was no pleasure.
“It’s the drinking thing,” Dan said. “She feels left out. You and I—we’ve had this past and these experiences that she’s not part of. She hears the stories, but they’re not her stories.”
“Your stories aren’t mine, either,” Gwen said. “You keep pulling stuff up that I never heard before.”
“Don’t tell me that you’ve never awakened cold with embarrassment at some memory that just came back to you. You must have something.”
Gwen grinned, her cheek scratching against the sand. If she didn’t open her eyes and look at her brother, this could be a conversation on the telephone, the two of them aching with laughter. “I told some guy I was a professional dancer.”
“It was dark. He was drunk. I got on my tiptoes and waved my arms.”
“Not too embarrassing.”
“I fell off a table. The guy kept saying, ‘Don’t touch her! She’s a professional!’”
Dan snorted. “Another story I can’t tell Linda. She likes very serious sobriety.”
“Thomas is like that,” Gwen said. Instantly she was sorry.
Dan let a beat go by before he said, “I wondered when we’d get around to him.”
“I get to have a boyfriend. I’m outside the two-year no fly zone.”
Dan shrugged and flipped over, so he was lying on his belly, propped on his elbows. “The problem isn’t that you have a boyfriend.”
“Who says there’s a problem?”
“The problem is that you lied about him. That means you know that something’s wrong.”
“I didn’t lie about anything.” Gwen knew how she sounded. Face-down on the sand, lectured by her know-it-all older brother, she could have been fourteen years old.
“Does he drink?” Dan asked.
“We go hiking, and he makes me eat bananas instead of candy bars. He’s good for me.”
“And at night?”
“We watch TV. He has a hot-air popcorn popper.”
“No beers? Not even one?”
“You make him sound like some kind of liquor pusher, hanging around waiting to catch me in a weak moment. He likes that I’m sober.”
“I bet that’s true.” Greg swatted at a sand fly that kept landing on his soft, reddening shoulder. “But how long before he’s going to feel like having one, just to relax? Maybe he likes to tie one on from time to time. He doesn’t have to follow the same rules you do. How long before he resents having a house with no liquor in it? You can’t expect the impossible from him. No matter how many health drinks your guy whips up, you’re playing with fire.”
“You’re talking like a Moonie,” she said.
“I’m telling you the truth. I’ve been going to meetings a long time, and I’ve seen some things.”
She sat up so that she didn’t have to look at his bland, satisfied face. She wasn’t inclined to tell him that the pad of skin across his back was already the color of rosé. Herself, she never burned. “My life is coming together,” she said. “I’m happy.”
“No, you’re not,” he said.
“What do you mean, no? You don’t get to say no about my life.”
He fell silent, which she wanted, but as his silence lengthened, she became more and more uncomfortable. “What?” she finally asked, and heard his shrug without having to look.
“If the disease can’t take one path, it will take another. It knows how to give you something you think is happiness.”
“Just listen to yourself, Dan.”
“Wait a few years. You’ll see. Do you want to go back in the water?”
“No,” she said. “I think we should stay right here for another hour and soak up the sun. Restock your vitamin D.”
“We can come back tomorrow morning, before my flight.”
“The sun won’t be out then,” she said. “Get it while you can.”
Dan wore a T-shirt to the meeting that night over his blistered skin. Eventually Gwen would apologize, but not just yet.
Thomas was already loitering near the coffee urn. She walked straight to him, and when he held up his arms for a hug, she squeezed his hand. Couples didn’t hug here.
“You must be Gwen’s guy,” Dan said, extending his hand to Thomas.
“It’s good to meet you.”
“Big night for Gwen,” Dan said.
“For me, too,” said Thomas. “We don’t usually go out.”
“This isn’t exactly a night club. But you can see Gwen’s tribe.”
“Knock it off, Dan,” Gwen said. “You’re going to scare him.”
“I’m not scared,” said Thomas.
“You should be.” It was one thing for her and Dan to laugh on the telephone about the AA lifers expressing their new, sober individuality through homemade shoes and dusty dreadlocks. It was another thing to see Thomas glance at the bald man with the fuzzy beard and rainbow socks loading his napkin with enough gingersnaps to supply an elementary school snack hour.
“Hey, superstar. Are you ready?” Materializing between Gwen and Thomas was pretty Maureen, thirty years old and seventeen years sober. When she described her drinking days, she talked about slipping vodka into her milk carton at school. “First step, right? Hard step.”
“What’s an easy one?” Thomas asked.
“There are no easy ones,” Dan and Maureen and Gwen said. Only Gwen’s voice was weary.
“How can you tell you’re making progress?” Thomas said.
“Your life changes,” said Dan. “New doors open.”
“Gwen doesn’t need any more doors.”
“You’re right about that,” Dan said, smiling oddly.
“Don’t take all my fun away, boys.” Gwen’s voice was a touch acid, which she attributed to nerves.
She surveyed the multipurpose room of the Presbyterian church that hosted the Saturday night meetings. Grayish, tired paneling, a banner in the corner that said Rejoice, a sudden blare of laughter from nearby. Maureen liked to say that she came for the jokes. And Dan came to be reaffirmed, as if his sobriety were constantly under enemy fire. At this moment he was talking earnestly to Thomas. Gwen heard “DUI” and “fatality.”
“Wow,” Thomas said. “That must have been terrible.”
“When you’re that age, you’re immortal. You don’t understand that you can hurt people, or yourself.”
“I always understood that,” said Thomas. Gwen couldn’t hold back her sigh.
“Dan was Party Central,” she said. Right now Party Central was leaning against the wall, pulling at the neck of his T-shirt. “He got into fights in high school. He knocked up two girls.” Dan’s face, already blazing with sunburn, turned a more acute color. Gwen didn’t know if she was telling the truth or not. It was possible. Maureen’s face was mild and interested. “One of them was named Claudia. I forget the other one.”
“Good,” Dan said.
“Was it Ellen? She got an abortion. They both did.”
Dan paused for a moment. Gwen held her breath. She remembered with perfect clarity the flimsy sweep of Claudia’s skirts over her beefy thighs. He said, “I was seventeen years old and drunk at nine in the morning. I wouldn’t have been a good father to a parakeet.”
“It’s hard to look at you now and see the boy you’re describing,” Thomas said.
“You can see if you try,” said Maureen. “The drunk is never far behind.”
“What about you?” Dan asked Thomas. “Did you show up in your high school history class with a flask in your pocket?”
“I don’t like liquor.”
“You don’t drink?”
“Never acquired the taste.”
Embarrassment arced across Gwen like an electrical shock. A dozen times, more than that, she had carried on to Thomas about the pleasures of a sober life, certain she was telling him something he didn’t know for himself. The world becomes available in a new way! she had said, more than once. Was he bored then, or laughing at her? He could have given her a clue.
“So you must feel right at home,” Dan said.
“Not exactly. Everybody here feels like they’ve given something up.”
“Haven’t you heard? We’re not giving up. We’re getting happier and happier, every day,” said Gwen.
In the small, ringing silence, her brother and her boyfriend looked at her, then looked away.
“Happiness isn’t always joyful,” Maureen said. Gwen tried to remember; was that one of the slogans? It had the right bumper-sticker tone.
Dan said, “I still wake up sometimes breathing hard, convinced I’ve done something terrible that I can’t remember. My heart beats like it’s coming out of my chest. It’s like being pulled back from the edge of a cliff.”
“Thomas falls off cliffs for a living,” Gwen said.
“I never go out without safety equipment,” Thomas said. “I know the winds. If I’m not certain that I’ll be safe, I cancel for the day, no matter how many clients I’ve got. Safety comes first.”
“Stop! You’re making your glamorous job sound as exciting as accounting.” Gwen meant it as a joke, but her voice turned on her, and Thomas’s face tightened.
“It’s a reasonable way to make a living.”
“I never said otherwise.”
“There are real skills involved.”
“I know that.”
“No, you don’t. You like to think that I jump off cliffs with a fifty-fifty chance of ending up on the rocks. The part you like is the chance. You’re like a kid who doesn’t realize that she could die.”
“And what does that make you?” Gwen heard her voice, grown shrill. She heard Thomas’s voice, too, angry and petulant. Oh, no, I never acquired the taste.
“Figure it out, girlfriend.” He glowered at her. Even his anger felt small and tidy, a precious little emotion from a man who cut fruit into exact cubes.
In the boiling silence, Gwen said to Dan, “I could use a drink.”
He laughed. “Figured we’d get there.”
“We always get there,” Maureen said. “It’s what we do best.”
Thomas glanced at Maureen’s pretty face before he asked, “Are you allowed to say that here?”
“You hear it every night,” Gwen assured him.
“Then you should want to go where people say other things. I would.”
“I know,” Gwen said.
“She probably will, after tonight.” Maureen smiled and rested her hand on Gwen’s wrist. She’d seen people come and go from rooms like this for seventeen years. “It’s show time. Are you ready?”
“I’m making some last-minute changes.”
“People tend to regret those.”
Maureen was a beat behind; Gwen had finally arrived at her topic. The first step of any journey requires walking off the edge of a cliff. Sometimes you fall, but sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you fly over far-away islands, whole worlds you have never imagined, the sticky sea air against your face, and brilliant animals calling as you pass over.
Then you come back to tell the others, who are waiting.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.