Main Three Women

Three Women

Desire as we’ve never seen it before: a riveting true story about the sex lives of three real American women, based on nearly a decade of reporting.

It thrills us and torments us. It controls our thoughts, destroys our lives, and it’s all we live for. Yet we almost never speak of it. And as a buried force in our lives, desire remains largely unexplored — until now. Over the past eight years, journalist Lisa Taddeo has driven across the country six times to embed herself with ordinary women from different regions and backgrounds. The result,Three Women, is the deepest nonfiction portrait of desire ever written and one of the most anticipated books of the year.

We begin in suburban Indiana with Lina, a homemaker and mother of two whose marriage, after a decade, has lost its passion. She passes her days cooking and cleaning for a man who refuses to kiss her on the mouth, protesting that “the sensation offends” him. To Lina’s horror, even her marriage counselor says her husband’s position is valid. Starved for affection, Lina battles daily panic attacks. When she reconnects with an old flame through social media, she embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming.

In North Dakota we meet Maggie, a seventeen-year-old high school student who finds a confidant in her handsome, married English teacher. By Maggie’s account, supportive nightly texts and phone calls evolve into a clandestine physical relationship, and he promises that they’ll skip school on her eighteenth birthday and make love all day. Instead, he breaks up with her on the morning he turns thirty. A few years later, Maggie has no degree, no career, and no dreams to live for. When she learns that this man has been named North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, she steps forward with her story, turning their quiet community upside down.

Finally, in an exclusive enclave of the Northeast, we meet Sloane — a gorgeous, successful, and refined restaurant owner — who is happily married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women. He picks out partners for her alone or for a threesome, and she ensures that everyone’s needs are satisfied. For years, Sloane has been asking herself where her husband’s desire ends and hers begins. One day, they invite a new man into their bed — but he brings a secret with him that will finally force Sloane to confront the uneven power dynamics that fuel their lifestyle.

Based on years of immersive reporting, and told with astonishing frankness and immediacy,Three Womenis a groundbreaking portrait of erotic longing in today’s America, exposing the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire with unprecedented depth and emotional power. It is both a feat of journalism and a triumph of storytelling, brimming with nuance and empathy, that introduces us to three unforgettable women — and one remarkable writer — whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.
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Three Women

For Fox

Looking from outside into an open window one never sees as much as when one looks through a closed window. There is nothing more profound, more mysterious, more pregnant, more insidious, more dazzling than a window lighted by a single candle. What one can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what goes on behind a windowpane. In that black or luminous square life lives, life dreams, life suffers.


Author’s note

This is a work of nonfiction. Over the course of eight years I have spent thousands of hours with the women in this book—in person, on the phone, by text message and email. In two cases, I moved to the towns where they lived and settled in as a resident so I could better understand their day-to-day lives. I was there to experience many of the moments I’ve included. For the events that happened in the past or at times when I wasn’t present, I’ve relied on the women’s memories, their diaries, and their communications. I have conducted interviews with friends and family members and followed their social media. But for the most part I stayed with the point of view of the three women.

I used court documents and local news articles and spoke to reporters, judges, attorneys, investigators, colleagues, and acquaintances to confirm events and timelines. Almost all quotes come from legal documents, emails, letters, recordings, and interviews with the women and other individuals in the book. The important exception is the one case in which the text messages, physical letters, and some emails were unavailable. In this instance, the content provided is based on multiple retellings from the subject, which have been disputed by her correspondent.

I based my selection of these three women on the relatability of their stories, their intensity, and the way that the events, if they happened in the past, still sat on the women’s chests. I was restricted to speaking to women who were open to telling me their stories, on the record and without ho; lding back. Several subjects decided, halfway through my research, that they were too fearful of being exposed. But largely, I based my selection on what I perceived as these women’s ability to be honest with themselves and on their willingness to communicate their stories in ways that laid bare their desire. Others lack a distinct voice in this text because these stories belong to these women. I have, however, elected to protect those whose voices are not featured by changing almost all the names, exact locations, and identifying details in the two accounts that have not already been the subject of public record. In that third account, I have changed the names of the individuals who did not play a public role or who were minors during the period of time in question.

I am confident that these stories convey vital truths about women and desire. In the end, though, it is these three specific women who are in charge of their narratives. There are many sides to all stories, but this is theirs.
























About the author


When my mother was a young woman a man used to follow her to work every morning and masturbate, in step behind her.

My mother had only a fifth-grade education and a dowry of medium-grade linen dish towels, but she was beautiful. It’s still the first way I think of to describe her. Her hair was the color of the chocolates you get in the Tirolean Alps and she always wore it the same way—short curls piled high. Her skin was not olive like her family’s but something all its own, the light rose of inexpensive gold. Her eyes were sarcastic, flirtatious, brown.

She worked as the main cashier at a fruit and vegetable stand in the center of Bologna. This was on the Via San Felice, a long thoroughfare in the fashion district. There were many shoe stores, goldsmiths, perfumeries, tobacconists, and clothing stores for women who did not work. My mother would pass these boutiques on the way to her job. She would look into the windows at the fine leather of the boots and the burnished necklaces.

But before she came into this commercial zone she would have a quiet walk from her apartment, down little carless streets and alleys, past the locksmith and the goat butcher, through lonely porticoes filled with the high scent of urine and the dark scent of old water pooling in stone. It was through these streets that the man followed her.

Where had he first seen her? I imagine it was at the fruit stand. This beautiful woman surrounded by a cornucopia of fresh produce—plump figs, hills of horse chestnuts, sunny peaches, bright white heads of fennel, green cauliflower, tomatoes on the vine and still dusty from the ground, pyramids of deep purple eggplant, small but glorious strawberries, glistening cherries, wine grapes, persimmons—plus a random selection of grains and breads, taralli, friselle, baguettes, some copper pots for sale, bars of cooking chocolate.

He was in his sixties, large-nosed and balding, with a white pepper growth across his sunken cheeks. He wore a newsboy cap like all the other old men who walked the streets with their canes on their daily camminata.

One day he must have followed her home because on a clear morning in May my mother walked out the heavy door of her apartment building from darkness into sudden light—in Italy nearly every apartment house has dark hallways, the lights dimmed and timed to cut costs, the sun blocked by the thick, cool stone walls—and there was this old man she had never seen, waiting for her.

He smiled and she smiled back. Then she began her walk to work, carrying an inexpensive handbag and wearing a calf-length skirt. Her legs, even in her old age, were absurdly feminine. I can imagine being inside this man’s head and seeing my mother’s legs and following them. One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.

She could sense his presence behind her for many blocks, past the olive seller and the purveyor of ports and sherries. But he didn’t merely follow. At a certain corner, when she turned, she caught a movement out of the side of her eye. The stone streets were naked at that hour, in the toothache of dawn, and she turned to see he had his penis, long, thin, and erect, out of his pants, and that he was rapidly exercising it, up and down, with his eyes on her in such a steady manner that it seemed possible that what was happening below his waist was managed by an entirely different brain.

She was frightened then, but years after the fact the fear of that first morning was bleached into sardonic amusement. For the months that followed, he would appear outside her apartment several mornings a week, and eventually he began to accompany her from the stand back to her home as well. At the height of their relationship, he was coming twice a day behind her.

My mother is dead now, so I can’t ask her why she allowed it, day after day. I asked my older brother, instead, why she didn’t do something, tell someone.

It was Italy, the 1960s. The police officers would have said, Ma lascialo perdere, e un povero vecchio. E una meraviglia che ha il cazzo duro a sua età.

Leave it alone, he’s a poor old man. It’s a miracle he can get it up at his age.

My mother let this man masturbate to her body, her face, on her walk to work and on her walk back. She was not the type of woman to take pleasure in this. But I can’t know for sure. My mother never spoke about what she wanted. About what turned her on or off. Sometimes it seemed that she didn’t have any desires of her own. That her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father.

My father loved women in a way that used to be considered charming. He was a doctor who called the nurses sugar if he liked them and sweetheart if he did not. Above all, he loved my mother. His attraction to her was evident in a way that still makes me uncomfortable to recall.

While I never had occasion to wonder about my father’s desire, something in the force of it, in the force of all male desire, captivated me. Men did not merely want. Men needed. The man who followed my mother to and from work every day needed to do so. Presidents forfeit glory for blow jobs. Everything a man takes a lifetime to build he may gamble for a moment. I have never entirely subscribed to the theory that powerful men have such outsize egos that they cannot suppose they will ever be caught; rather, I think that the desire is so strong in the instant that everything else—family, home, career—melts down into a little liquid cooler and thinner than semen. Into nothing.

As I began to write this book, a book about human desire, I thought I’d be drawn to the stories of men. Their yearnings. The way they could overturn an empire for a girl on bended knee. So I began by talking to men: to a philosopher in Los Angeles, a schoolteacher in New Jersey, a politician in Washington, D.C. I was indeed drawn to their stories the way one is drawn to order the same entrée from a Chinese restaurant menu again and again.

The philosopher’s story, which began as the story of a good-looking man whose less beautiful wife did not want to sleep with him, with all the attendant miserly agonies of dwindling passion and love, turned into the story of a man who wanted to sleep with the tattooed masseuse he saw for his back pain. She says she wants to run away with me to Big Sur, he texted early one bright morning. The next time we met I sat across from him at a coffee shop as he described the hips of the masseuse. His passion didn’t seem dignified in the wake of what he had lost in his marriage; rather, it seemed perfunctory.

The men’s stories began to bleed together. In some cases, there was prolonged courting; sometimes the courting was closer to grooming; but mostly, the stories ended in the stammering pulses of orgasm. And whereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm, I found that the woman’s was often just beginning. There was complexity and beauty and violence, even, in the way the women experienced the same event. In these ways and more, it was the female parts of an interlude that, in my eyes, came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.

Of course, female desire can be just as bullish as male desire, and when desire was propulsive, when it was looking for an end it could control, my interest waned. But the stories wherein desire was something that could not be controlled, when the object of desire dictated the narrative, that was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain. It resembled pedaling a bicycle backward, the agony and futility and, finally, the entry into another world altogether.

To find these stories, I drove across the country six times. I loosely plotted my stops. Mostly I would land somewhere like Medora, North Dakota. I would order toast and coffee and read the local paper. I found Maggie this way. A young woman being called whore and fat cunt by women even younger than herself. There had been an alleged relationship with her married high school teacher. The fascinating thing, in her account, was the absence of intercourse. As she related it, he’d performed oral sex on her and didn’t let her unzip his jeans. But he’d placed manila-yellow Post-it notes in her favorite book, Twilight. Next to passages about an enduring bond between two star-crossed lovers, he’d drawn parallels to their own relationship. What moved this young woman, what made her feel exalted, was the sheer number of the notes and how detailed they were. She could hardly believe that the teacher she so deeply admired had read the whole book, let alone taken the time to write such insightful commentary, as though he were conducting an advanced placement class on vampire lovers. He had, too, she recounted, sprayed the pages with his cologne, knowing she loved the way he smelled. To receive such notes, to experience such a relationship, and then to have it abruptly end: I could easily imagine the gaping hole that would leave.

I came across Maggie’s story when things were going from bad to worse. She struck me as a woman whose sexuality and sexual experiences were being denied in a horrific way. I will be telling the narrative as seen through her eyes; meanwhile a version of this story was put before a jury who saw it very differently. Part of her narrative poses for the reader the all-too-familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed—and when and why and by whom they are not.

• • •

Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way. They love them or half-love them and then grow weary and spend weeks and months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into their doorways, drying themselves off, and never calling again. Meanwhile, women wait. The more in love they are and the fewer options they have, the longer they wait, hoping that he will return with a smashed phone, with a smashed face, and say, I’m sorry, I was buried alive and the only thing I thought of was you, and feared that you would think I’d forsaken you when the truth is only that I lost your number, it was stolen from me by the men who buried me alive, and I’ve spent three years looking in phone books and now I have found you. I didn’t disappear, everything I felt didn’t just leave. You were right to know that would be cruel, unconscionable, impossible. Marry me.

Maggie was, by her account, ruined by her teacher’s alleged crime, but she had something that the women who are left rarely have. A certain power, dictated by her age and her former lover’s occupation. Maggie’s power, she believed, was ordained by the law of the land. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t.

Some women wait because if they don’t, there’s a threat of evanescence. He is the only one, in the moment, whom she believes she will ever desire. The problem can be economic. Revolutions take a long time to reach places where people share more Country Living recipes than articles about ending female subjugation.

Lina, a housewife in Indiana who hadn’t been kissed in years, waited to leave her husband because she didn’t have the money to exist apart from him. The spousal support laws in Indiana were not a reality that was available to her. Then she waited for another man to leave his wife. Then she waited some more.

The way the wind blows in our country can make us question who we are in our own lives. Often the type of waiting women do is to make sure other women approve, so that they may also approve of themselves.

Sloane, a poised restaurant owner, lets her husband watch her fuck other men. Occasionally there are two couples on a bed, but mostly it’s him watching her, on video or in person, with another man. Sloane is beautiful. While her husband watches her fuck other men, a coveted stretch of ocean froths outside the bedroom window. Down the road, Cotswold sheep the color of oatmeal roam. A friend of mine who thought ménage à trois squalid and nearly despicable in the context of a group of swingers I met in Cleveland found Sloane’s story illuminating, raw, relatable. And it’s relatability that moves us to empathize.

I think about the fact that I come from a mother who let a man masturbate to her daily, and I think about all the things I have allowed to be done to me, not quite so egregious, perhaps, but not so different in the grand scheme. Then I think about how much I have wanted from men. How much of that wanting was what I wanted from myself, from other women, even; how much of what I thought I wanted from a lover came from what I needed from my own mother. Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have greater hold over other women than men have. We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful. In the end, it all comes down to fear. Men can frighten us, other women can frighten us, and sometimes we worry so much about what frightens us that we wait to have an orgasm until we are alone. We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need.

Men did not frighten my mother. Poverty did. She told me another story; though I don’t recall the precise circumstances of the telling, I know she didn’t sit me down. The story wasn’t dispensed over water crackers and rosé. More likely it was Marlboros at the kitchen table, zero windows open, the dog blinking through the smoke at our knees. She would have been Windexing the glass table.

The story was about a cruel man she was seeing right before she met my father. My mother had a number of words that intrigued and scared me. Cruel was among them.

She grew up very poor, peeing in pots, dotting her freckles with the urine because it was said to diminish the pigment. There was a single room for her, two sisters, and their parents. Rainwater came through the ceiling and dripped onto her face as she slept. She spent nearly two years in a sanatorium with tuberculosis. Nobody visited her, because no one could afford to make the trip. Her father was an alcoholic who worked in the vineyards. A baby brother died before his first birthday.

She eventually got out, made it to the city, but just before she did, in the maw of February, her mother fell ill. Stomach cancer. She was admitted to the local hospital, from which there was no coming back. One night there was a snowstorm, sleet smashing against cobblestones, and my mother was with this cruel man when she got word that her mother was dying and would be gone by morning. The cruel man was driving my mother to the hospital through the storm when they got into a terrible fight. My mother didn’t provide details but said it ended with her on the gravel shoulder, in the heavy snow and darkening night. She watched the taillights disappear, no other cars on the frozen road. She didn’t get to be with her mother at the end.

To this day I’m not sure what cruel meant, in that context. I don’t know if the man beat my mother, if he sexually assaulted her. I’ve always assumed that cruelty, in her world, involved some sexual threat. In my most gothic imaginings, I picture him trying to get laid the night that her mother was dying. I picture him trying to take a bite out of her side. But it was the fear of poverty and not the cruel man that stayed with her. That she could not call a taxi to get to the hospital. That she lacked agency. Lacked her own means.

A year or so after my father died, when we could get through a day without crying, she asked me to show her how to use the internet. She’d never used a computer in her life. Typing one sentence took a painful few minutes.

Just tell me what you want, I said, at the end of a day spent in front of the screen. We were both frustrated.

I can’t, she said. It’s something I need to do alone.

What? I asked. I’d seen everything of hers, all her bills, notes, even the handwritten one she meant for me to find in the event of her sudden death.

I want to see about a man, she said quietly. A man I knew before your father.

I was stunned, and even hurt. I wanted my mother to be my father’s widow for all time. I wanted the notion of my parents to remain intact, even after death, even at the cost of my mother’s own happiness. I didn’t want to know about my mother’s desire.

This third man, the owner of a vast jewelry empire, loved her so much he’d gone to the church to try to stop my parents’ wedding while it was under way. A long time ago, she’d given me a ruby-and-diamond necklace, something she seemed to be giving away to belie how much it was cherished. I told her she could try to figure the computer out herself, but before she could, she got sick.

I think about my mother’s sexuality and how she occasionally used it. The little things, the way she made her face up before she left the house or opened the door. To me, it always seemed a strength or a weakness, but never its own pounding heart. How wrong I was.

Still, I wonder how a woman could have let a man masturbate behind her back for so many days. I wonder if she cried at night. Perhaps she even cried for the lonely old man. It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn. Because it’s the quotidian minutes of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us. This is the story of three women.


You get ready that morning like someone preparing for war. Your war paint is makeup. A neutral, smoky eye. A heavy lash. Dark rose blush, and a nude lip. Your hair is loosely curled and huge.

You learned how to do hair and makeup, by yourself, in front of mirrors, with Linkin Park and Led Zeppelin in the background. You are one of those girls who innately understand contouring and accessorizing, who plant bobby pins to good and buried use.

You wear wedge boots, leggings, and a sheer kimono top. You want him to know he is not dealing with a child anymore. You are twenty-three.

Of course, you also want him to want you still, to lament what he lost. You want him to sit at the dinner table later, meditating on the smiling bone of your hip.

Six years ago, you were smaller, and he loved your little hands. Back then, his own hands fluttered inside you. A lot has changed. Your father is dead. In August, he slit his wrists in a nearby cemetery. You used to talk to him about your dad, about the problems with your parents. He knew how one would go to pick up the other from a bar. Both drunk, but one worse than the other. Now you feel he’d understand, how you are worried about rain pattering on the ground above your dad. Is he getting wet down there, and wondering why you have left him in the cold, bucketing dark? Doesn’t death supersede the stuff that happens in a courtroom? Doesn’t death supersede all this other bullshit, even the cops and the lawyers? Isn’t it, somehow, somewhere, still just the two of you?

You drive to Cass County District Court with your brother David, sharing a few cigarettes on the way. Part of your perfume is clean shower smell girdled with smoke. He hated it when you smoked so you lied. You said it was your parents’ smoke, getting trapped in your hair and in the fibers of your navy hoodies. At a Catholic retreat you vowed to quit for him. He deserved all of you, including the parts that you did not want to give.

You could have made it so that he didn’t show up today. Even though he had a right, the lawyers said, to be in there. Anyway, a small part of you wanted him here. You might even say one of the reasons you went to the police was to get him to show you his face again. Because most people will agree—when a lover shuts down, refuses to meet you, doesn’t want his Oral-B back, doesn’t need his trail shoes, doesn’t return an email, goes out to buy another pair of trail shoes, for example, because that’s better than dealing with your mousetrap pain, it’s as though someone is freezing your organs. It’s so cold you can’t breathe. For six years, he stayed away. But he will come today, and he will come also to the trial, so in a way, it can be said that one of the reasons you’re doing this is because it means you’ll see him about six more times. This is an outlandish notion only if you don’t know how a person can destroy you by the simple act of disappearing.

You’re worried that you’re going to want him. You wonder if his wife is worried. You picture her at home, disengaged from the children and watching the clock.

You park the car and smoke some more before going in. It’s about three degrees outside but it’s nice to smoke in the cold. Fargo sometimes feels like new beginnings. The silver trucks whooshing by on the highway. Trucks have defined destination points, coordinates that must hold up. Only trains you find to be more beautiful, freer. You inhale, and ice fills your lungs.

You get to the room first. Thank God. You and David and the prosecutor, Jon, and the co-prosecutor, Paul. You think of all these men by their first names and address them that way. They think you are overstepping your boundaries. They aren’t actually representing you; they are representing the state of North Dakota. It’s not as if the prosecutors have your back. They have your shadow, is more like it.

A court reporter walks in.

Then He walks in. With his lawyer, a somewhat sleek fuck named Hoy.

He sits across from you. He’s wearing what he used to wear to school. A button-down shirt, a tie, and slacks. It’s weird. Like, you were expecting him to be in a suit coat. Something more dressy and serious. This outfit makes him feel knowable again. You wonder if you have been wrong these last few years. You took his silence to mean indifference, but perhaps he has been wallowing in otherworldly dread, just like you. He had a third child, you heard, and in your mind you pictured swing sets and his wife rosy-faced and everybody gestating life while you sat shivering in ice baths of self-loathing. You grew heavier and your makeup grew heavier, more layers. But all that time he was dying, maybe. Missing you. Consigning himself, like a poet, to decades of brokenness. The swing set is rusted. The middle-class fence marks the boundaries of his prison. The wife is the warden. The children, well. They are the reason; it is for them that he chooses to remain unhappy, without you.

For the briefest of moments you want to reach across with your small hands that he loved—Does he still love them now? Where does the love of hands go when it dies?—and hold his face in them and say, Oh fuck I’m sorry for betraying you. I was terrifically hurt and angry, and you stole several years from my life. It wasn’t regular, what you did, and now here I am. Look at me. I put this war paint on, but underneath I’m scarred and scared and horny and tired and love you. I’ve gained thirty pounds. I’ve been kicked out of school a few times. My father has just killed himself. I take all these medications, look in my bag, there’s a shitload of them. I’m a girl with the pills of an old woman. I should be dating boys with weed breath but instead I fully personified my victim costume. I’m hanging by a fawn hanger at Party City. You never wrote back.

Almost, you almost reach for him, as much to say you’re sorry as to beg him to take care of you. Nobody is taking care of you the way you know he can. Nobody is listening the way that he did. All those hours. Like a father and a husband and a teacher and your best friend.

His eyes come up off the table to meet yours. They are cold and black and dead. Little agates, gleaming and stern, and older than you remember. In fact, you don’t remember these eyes at all. They used to be filled with love, lust. He used to suck your tongue into his mouth as if he wanted another tongue.

Now he hates you. It’s clear. You brought him here, out of his cozy home with the three children and the wife who will follow him into sepulchers. You brought him out into the demon slush of January, into this dingy room, and you are forcing him to spend all his earnings and all his parents’ savings on this slick and joyless attorney, and you are fixing to ruin his life. All that he has built. Every Fisher-Price learning desk he has switched to On in the airless expanse of seven A.M. He sold one home and bought another because of you.

In North Dakota right now, Aaron Knodel is Teacher of the Year; across the whole state he is deemed the absolute best in the business. And here you are, you vagabond freak, you spawn of alcoholics, you child of suicide, you girl who has been with older men before and gotten them into trouble, army men, upright men of America, and here you are again, you destructive tart, trying to take down the Teacher of the Year. He exhales at you pungently. Breath of eggs.

The other thing that is abundantly clear—you must stop caring. Immediately. If you don’t, you might never get out of this room. You search for the end of your heart and, unbelievably, you find it. Your gratitude to yourself and to God is dizzying. How many days have you felt you were doing the right thing? Today is one. Maybe the only one.

You thought you’d still want to fuck him. You’d stalked him online. It’s not even stalking these days. You open your computer and ghouls pile up. You can’t avoid obsequious write-ups in local papers. Or Facebook will advertise a link to the store where your former lover’s gloves are from. The recent pictures you saw made you still tingle, and you smarted from bygone lust. But as you sit here now, there’s nothing. His tight, petite mouth. His imperfect skin. His lips aren’t sensual but dry and distracting. He looks sickly, as if he’s been eating muffins and drinking AA coffee and Coca-Cola and sitting in a drafty basement scowling at the wall.

Good morning, says his lawyer, Hoy, who is a terror, with his mustachio of wiry, wizard hairs. He has made sure to announce to the press that his client had taken and passed a polygraph test, even though the prosecutor said it was unlikely to be admissible in court.

You can see the judgment in Hoy’s whiskers. He’s the type that makes you feel like a poorly educated piece of shit with a car that won’t start on winter mornings like this one.

He says, Would you please state your full name for the record.

The court reporter taps the keys, your brother David breathes with you in unity, you say your full name out loud. You say, Maggie May Wilken. You swish your long, thought-out hair.

The first round of questions is to loosen you up without your catching on. Hoy asks you about the time you spent with your sister Melia in Washington state, Melia and her husband, Dane, who is in the army—these are the relatives you also visited in Hawaii—but for now he is asking about when they lived in Washington. This was after Aaron. Because your life can be divided that way. Before Aaron and After Aaron. It can also be divided into before your dad’s suicide and after it, but Aaron was the kickoff for everything if you want to be honest.

He asks about the dating site PlentyOfFish. You did meet a few guys there while you were in Washington. But this lawyer is acting as though you were selling your body for a Coors Light. You know that men like him have the power to make the laws you live by. Men who talk as though dating sites were Backpage ads. As though you are a girl who takes pictures of your face peeking out from between your own thighs.

In reality you met a few guys from the site who were losers. It was sad and you didn’t sleep with anybody or even enjoy free drinks. You feel embarrassed. This was before people were posting Instagrams for the purpose of arousing envy. This was the early and slow time of the new age. Hoy also asks about a site that he doesn’t even know how to spell. You go, What’s that, and he goes, I don’t know, but have you ever been on it, and you go, No, I don’t know what it is. And you are thinking, Neither do you, you prick. But his formality makes you afraid to contradict him. You bet his wife and children have learned to lie to him regularly, to escape the kind of needling criticism that can wreck a soul.

He asks about the fighting between you and your father. Your dear dead dad, under loam and rain. Back then you two fought a lot and you say so. Fighting over what, says Hoy, and you say, Anything. You are not holding back, no matter what it means, or what it allows them to think.

He asks about your siblings, about how they all left the family home early. You didn’t know it then, that a discovery deposition is exactly that. They are building a case against you with your own words. Showing how hardscrabble you were. What a loose girl, maybe, you were. On all these dating sites, with all these siblings; your parents were copulating drunks who made all these kids and then let them scatter about the country, creating complications and surfing them like waves to new states. You don’t live on the nice side of West Fargo, you live on the lesser side, unlike Mr. Knodel, North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, who lives in an attractive, neutral-colored house with a hose that coils up and grass nobody forgets to water.

You look at him, during this. And you think about back then. And you think, What if time had never gone forward? And you could be back there again. When everything was clean and everybody was alive. What if your hands and his hands were still friends. And Hoy says, You indicated that prior to your junior year, that you’d been close with Mr. Knodel before that.

You say, Correct.

How did that come about? says Hoy.

You think, hard, about the answer to this. You close your mind’s eye. And just like that, there you are. Out of the black death of your present, and back in the considerable heaven of the past.

Maggie’s destiny arrives one afternoon without a clarion call. It comes on cat feet, like everything else in the world that has the power to destroy you.

She had only heard about him. Some of the girls were talking about how hot he was. Slick dark hair with a little front wing, like it had been gelled into permanent salute. Charming, dark eyes. The kind of teacher who makes you want to come to school, even on cold North Dakota mornings. His name, in the hallways, had become the kind of name one whispers, because of how much excitement it conjured.

Mister Knodel.

Maggie is not the type to take someone’s word about someone else’s hotness. And she won’t go along with popular opinion, just to fit in. Her friends say she has no filter. They laugh about it but secretly they’re happy she’s on their team. She’s the type to tell a man he isn’t going to step outside so he might as well not say, Do you want to step outside?

Finally, this one day, between second and third periods, she gets a look at him in the hallway as he walks by. He’s wearing khakis, a button-down, and a tie. It isn’t some meteoric moment. It rarely is a big deal the first time you meet the next VIP of your life. She says to her friends, Well ya, he’s cute, but he certainly isn’t all he was cracked up to be.

There aren’t a lot of hot male teachers. There aren’t any, actually. There are two other young male teachers, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Krinke, who together with Mr. Knodel are the three amigos. Beyond being close with one another they are also connected with the students in all sorts of ways like text messaging, especially with the kids they coach; Mr. Murphy and Mr. Knodel coach student congress, and Mr. Krinke and Mr. Knodel coach speech and debate together. They hang out after school at restaurants that serve beer flights, like the Spitfire Bar & Grill. Applebee’s. TGI Friday’s. They watch games and drink a few lagers. During the school day they eat what they call a guys’ lunch in Mr. Knodel’s room. They discuss fantasy football and take large, unapologetic bites out of club sandwiches.

Of the three amigos, Mr. Knodel is the catch. Five foot ten, 190 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. Not a catch in the traditional sense—he’s married, with kids. A catch meaning he is the most attractive of the under-forty teachers pool. If you can’t go to Las Vegas, you go to Foxwoods.

By the second semester of her freshman year, Maggie has Mr. Knodel for English. She’s interested in the class. She sits upright and raises her hand and smiles and is mostly on time. They talk after class. He looks into her eyes and listens, like a good teacher.

Everything is clicking into place. When West Fargo plays Fargo South in the girls’ soccer semifinals, the coach calls Maggie up and she begins to shake all over like a small bird. He tells her they need her muscle out there. They lose, but it’s because of her that they almost don’t. The air is crisp, the day sunny, and she remembers thinking, I have the rest of my life to do this, and anything else I want.

Posters of Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach are pinned to her bedroom walls. Her mother paints a net to act as the headboard of her bed. Maggie is in love with David Beckham. From the most confident ventricles of her heart, she pictures getting a full ride to college. Thinking ahead, past boys and prom and rumors, to the large stadiums where people would come just to see the girls play. She is at that precipice, possessing, still, the dreams of a child, but now able to press them up against the potential of an adult.

Homecoming night of freshman year, Maggie and some friends sneak alcohol into the game in soda bottles, and afterward they go to the house of a kid whose parents are out of town, where they drink some more. They get the drunk munchies and drive out to Perkins, which looks like a soup kitchen. It’s wan and the customers have red faces and the waitresses have cigarette coughs but when you’re young and buzzed it’s good for a late-night snack. When you’re young you can do almost anything and it won’t be sad.

There’s a train that chugs in the distance. Maggie is animated, thinking of future train rides, one-way tickets out of Fargo, into careers and sleek apartments in glassy cities. Her whole life stretches out before her, a path of imprecise but multiple directions. She could be an astronaut, a rap star, an accountant. She could be happy.

Hoy asks you about other people in your English class, plus your main circle of friends. You name Melani and Sammy and Tessa and Liz and Snokla.

Snokla, he says, like she’s a frozen dessert. Is that a girl?

That is a girl, you say.

And that’s the one you think her last name is Solomon?

The way that Hoy says this is condescending. Then Aaron speaks, for the first time. Here the man who put his mouth all over you and then one day not only stopped that, but stopped acknowledging your existence, speaks to you for the first time in six years.

That’s wrong, he says, shaking his head. He means Solomon, the last name, is wrong. The way he says it and shakes his head, you know he’s right. It’s more than intelligence. He’s the sort of man who will never contract an STD, no matter how many filthy women he sleeps with. At a state fair he will not leave without multiple cheap stuffed animals. His arms will be pink and blue with victory.

Hoy says, And that’s the one you think her last name is Solomon?

Apparently it’s not, you say. Your face gets hot. Once, you loved him, but he is still and has always been an authority figure. Once he said he’d manscaped for you and you felt so dumb because you had no idea what that meant.

I don’t understand, says Hoy.

I’m saying clearly your client says it’s not her last name, so—

When you’re angry and cornered, you turn catty. Hoy says, Okay, you guys don’t need to engage in that. Just answer my questions.

Later you will ask why nobody thought it was strange that Hoy was acting more like a friend putting the brakes on a fighting couple than a lawyer defending an innocent man.

But it’s not Hoy who’s crazy, it’s you. You are a crazy girl. You want money, is what people think, and for this man to pay for something he didn’t do. You are crazy and broken, along with your car and your mental health. As always, the bastards win. Aaron is still bigger than you. This causes not pain but something cancerous, something that whines deep within you, that only wants its mother. You shrug your shoulders.

Then I don’t know, you say.

Maggie remembers that a girl named Tabitha was in the freshman English class. She remembers because Mr. Knodel divulged during the course of a class that he’d had testicular cancer. It’s funny and nice and only mildly creepy when teachers share intimate facts about themselves. It makes them less teachery. You can relate better to teachers who walk the earth with you, who catch colds and want things they can’t afford and don’t always feel attractive.

So Tabitha asks Mr. Knodel if that meant he had only one testicle. In fact, she didn’t say it this politely. She said, So, does that mean you only have one ball?

Mr. Knodel was less than pleased. Sternly he said, We can talk about it after school.

Maggie felt bad for Mr. Knodel because she knew Tabitha had embarrassed him. What a terrible thing to ask. Who would even think to ask such a thing? Maggie is brash and loud, but she is not cruel or unthinking.

Sometime thereafter, Mr. Knodel—as though, some students joke, to show he was not terribly handicapped by the missing testicle—takes a paternity leave. His wife has given birth to their second child. Mr. Murphy subs for him during this time. When Mr. Knodel returns, fresh from fatherhood, he seems to have been opened up. He’s become revitalized and accessible in a new way—a gleaming, avuncular oyster.

Maggie doesn’t remember exactly how she started to talk to him about her life in those after-school sessions. She’d linger after his class, or he would ask her a question when she was on her way out the door. Maggie, he’d say, with incredibly earnest eyes, and she’d hang back. Eventually, she started to tell him bits. Her dad being too drunk to drive home from the bar. That they’d had a fight last night, and she didn’t want to listen to him, because how could you listen to a father who asked you to buy him a six-pack?

If she hadn’t brought him a morsel in a while, he might prod her. He might say, Hey, everything okay at home? And Maggie would hang back and tell him whatever was new. He was a good teacher, and he cared. Sometimes there’s nothing better on earth than someone asking you a question.


There are two kinds of fifteen-year-old girls, Lina knows, and she belongs to the kind that does more sticker-collecting than French-kissing. In her bedroom she closes her eyes and imagines falling in love. Lina wants that more than anything else. She believes that girls who say they want to be successful in their careers more than they want to fall in love are lying. Downstairs her mom is cooking meat loaf. Lina hates it. Specifically, she hates the way the smell lingers. The whole house smells like meat loaf right now, and for days afterward the dust on the banisters will hold on to the browned stink.

On her forehead she has a pimple, the center of which is the color of a blood orange. It’s Friday, which doesn’t mean anything because her Fridays are pretty much like Tuesdays and if anything Tuesdays are better than Fridays because at least on Tuesdays you can be sure everyone else is doing nothing much, just like you. Some people are doing nothing much in modular homes or trailers. At least Lina lives in a decent home. There’s always something worse, though of course there’s also always something better.

But this Friday is going to be different. She doesn’t know it yet, but this Friday is going to change her life forever.

A few weeks ago, Lina’s friend Jennifer, who makes out a lot, started dating this guy Rod. Rod is best friends with Aidan and Lina has the kind of crush on Aidan that any unpopular girl has on any popular boy. He’s strong and hot and extremely quiet so that every time he opens his mouth it’s exciting. It’s only a medium crush because she barely even sees him. They share one class and have never spoken. He dates girls with blow-job lips and big breasts and a certain kind of straight, soft hair. He dates hot girls.

Lina doesn’t have dysmorphia. She doesn’t look in the mirror and see an ugly girl. She looks in the mirror and sees exactly what is there to see, wavy blond hair to her shoulders and gray-blue eyes and reddish skin that grows little rows of pimples along the hairline. She’s a normal height, five-four, and her body is normal to good: her thighs don’t touch too much and if she skips dinner she feels okay about her stomach.

But she’s not beautiful. For example, if she were suddenly to become Aidan’s girlfriend, she could not imagine another boy saying, Man, Aidan’s chick is hot.

And she’s realizing, lately, that nothing in the world could possibly be more important. Nothing else matters. Or rather, everything else would matter, because when you are hot, you have the freedom and liberty to concentrate on the rest of life. You are hot, so you don’t need to take an hour in front of the mirror to look decent. You are hot, so you don’t have to try to make someone love you. You are hot, so you never have to cry, but when you do, it is because somebody has died, and you will look hot doing it.

Anyhow not only was she not hot but she wasn’t even getting the kind of attention she knew was easy to get. Like the guys who worked at the 7-Eleven and the Tastee Freez. Guys with yellow zits and chains connecting their wallets to their belt loops. Not even those guys.

But now with Jennifer dating Rod, it’s become a possibility. It’s almost that the only thing between Lina and having this popular boyfriend is a little bit of strategy. And to have a good strategy, you must have a practical obsession.

So in a matter of weeks Lina gets to know everything about him. Man, if guys only knew, she jokes to Jennifer, how much we think about them. Lina is always honest about things like that. But Jennifer is not willing to admit she’s ever done anything similar. Like finding out every single thing about someone to whom you have never spoken.


Phone number by heart. And in two weeks you have dialed the first six numbers about a thousand times, and your heart explodes right before the seventh number and your finger pulses on it, but you never press it. Doing this stretches the same muscles that heroin does.

Parents—their names, what each of them does for a living, and where they do it.

Pet—its name, and when it gets walked. On what street route so you can go with your Walkman and you can pick out an outfit for the walk every day and you turn every corner with a heart full of mosquitoes.

Jersey number.

First girl he ever kissed. And then you create a story about how she sucks. You create stories in the shower about how the girl sucks and how he will not even want to talk about her because she’s not worth the breath. How he’ll almost forget her name. Even though you never will.

Favorite bands, favorite movies, everything that Lina admits you should probably wait until you get to know a person before you know.

His schedule of classes and where exactly to sit in the class you share and how to get there earlier than him so that he won’t think you’re trying to get close.

All of this becomes more important than breathing. Because Lina knows that if she can just have this one guy who is so perfect, then every thing else will be okay. Even not being hot. Everything will be okay and shitty stuff won’t matter.

Like Lina’s mom, who makes her feel like an idiot for wanting more than what she’s got. Who says things like, That’s a silly idea, Lina, and Where’d you get that in your head, Lina?

Like Lina’s dad, who goes duck hunting and she’s dying to go with him but her mom crosses her arms against the idea. She wants Lina and her sisters to be girls. Ladies.

And Lina’s mom asks too many questions. She is always in Lina’s face. She is around all the time. Lina thinks, Get a fucking life. Get your own fucking life. I have never come home from school and been alone in the fucking house.

She wouldn’t care about stuff like that, or she would tolerate it at least, if she could go over to her boyfriend Aidan Hart’s house and watch a movie in his basement room with all the lights off and make out exuberantly but quietly as they snuggle under the scratchy Colts blanket and care about nothing else because they’re so totally in love. Oh man, the word boyfriend. It’s like something she can’t even conceive. It’s this faraway thing and she knows if she ever got it, she wouldn’t ever take it for granted because every day she would wake up and say, Holy shit, I have a boyfriend.

And if he only knew how perfect she was for him. He would stroke her face and say, Kid, I hate that we wasted so much time. We have to make up for it. I have to spend every minute of the rest of my life touching your body.

And she would just put her fingertip to his lips, the way she once saw a hot girl do in a movie, like, Shh, buddy, and then she’d kiss him.

This Friday night, that is precisely what she’s doing. She’s in her room with the lights off and she’s under the covers in her white panties and she’s moving her legs together like a deli meat slicer and she’s imagining her life in movie scenes and she’s kissing him in the rain, at his football practice, in the movie theater, on the white bench at the ice cream shop. She’s in just a bra and panties in her bed right now and he is beside her and his big arms are around her pale waist and his thumb is inside her belly button and she’s full-on French-kissing him. Their tongues are wetter than water slides, and she can feel every single bud.

Then the phone rings and her mom screams Lina from the base of the stairs and it’s six P.M. and Lina picks the phone off the receiver.

It’s Jennifer.

And when Jennifer says, Hey Lina, Aidan thinks you’re cute, and we’re gonna have us a double date tonight, this whole world with all its Fridays that feel like Tuesdays and its meat loaf and bullshit dies and a whole new life begins.

Everything that happens on this night she will hold on to forever, the feeling of finally getting what she wants. The idea that it is a real thing that happens, that a dream can come true.

They are going to meet at the movie theater on this warm and windless September evening. Jennifer’s parents are dropping them off. In the car Lina’s shaved legs are shaking. She’s wearing jean shorts and a pink shirt and her blond hair has fallen perfectly around her shoulders, for once.

The car pulls up to the theater and there are the two boys and she can’t believe it, that this is happening. She looks down at her feet as she exits the car because she’s afraid about the look on his face, she’s afraid of his face looking at her face and not finding it pretty enough. And then something pulls her eyes up, something melts the fear.


There he is, standing there, looking like the man he is turning into quicker than all the other boys.

She’s in love with him right away. But this time it’s real. There’s a chemistry. It’s like her bones are magnetically drawn to his bones. He seems shy up close.

Nice to see you, Lina, he says.

Nice to see you, she says.

Aidan holds his hand out to her. Seeing it there, she almost faints. This is suddenly no longer a faraway dream. She didn’t actually will this. She couldn’t have willed it, and that makes it beautiful. She would remember thinking, I didn’t realize my life might be happy.

Lina takes his hand with the confidence of someone who knows her hand is suddenly good enough, too. He smiles and breathes out.

Rod and Jennifer, who have already French-kissed and probably a good bit more, are less romantic with each other. Lina always thought Jennifer was prettier than herself but tonight she doesn’t.

The boys have already purchased the tickets so the four of them walk into the theater. The two girls sit next to each other and Rod goes to sit on the other side of Jennifer and Aidan sits beside Lina. She feels the heat of his body beside her and she has to concentrate very hard on acting normal. She is grateful that they arrived late at the movie, that the house lights have already dimmed, so that he won’t see her red face, her pimples, her exultation.

Seven is not Lina’s kind of movie. It’s bloody and carnal and at the scene where the man who’s guilty of Lust is forced to have sex with a woman wearing a strap-on that will mutilate her, Lina can’t take it. Her discomfort is greater than her desire to be sitting next to Aidan, so she rises from the seat and, wordlessly, he does, too.

She walks outside with the very triumphant feeling that this boy is going to follow behind. It’s never been like this for her before. She has been a gray mouse in her bedroom. She walks faster and hears him picking up his pace. And then he calls her the name that will haunt her dreams.

Hey. Hey, Kid, wait up. You okay?

She turns. They are under the light of the marquee. Suddenly it feels like 1957. Packards are pulling up and Cary Grant is saying, Hello, gorgeous! And Bette Davis is saying, Yoo hoo, lady. Over here. He catches her arm. She turns to him.

Did you just call me Kid?


We’re in the same grade.



So, you don’t like it?

No, she says, smiling wide. I like it. I like it, so much.

And that’s when it happens, the most romantic kiss in the history of the world. He moves his palm to her cheek, slowly and unsurely, like the boy that he still is even though he’s more of a man than anyone else she knows, and she gets hot across her whole face. She sees a thousand images the way it’s supposed to be when you die and not for your first kiss. She sees her mother at the foot of the stairs calling her lazy and she sees her father walking out the door, he keeps walking out the door and the door keeps closing behind him and her mother is saying, Lina clean up your filthy mess, Lina what are you going on about, Lina where are you up there, are you still in the damn bathroom, and she sees her sisters narrowing their eyes at her and she sees her pet rabbit that died in the night and in the morning her mother made her scoop it out and she wanted to bury it but she sees the trash bag with the twisty ties, and she sees her father walking out the door and then all of a sudden this beautiful man’s lips are on her lips, she feels his tongue slip inside her mouth and it’s something she’s only imagined and read about in a book she and a friend shared called How to Kiss which talked about tongues moving around like goldfish, but her tongue and his tongue are not like goldfish, they are not tongues at all but actual souls, moving against the wet bone of teeth. Lina feels that she could die right now, that if she did her life would be complete.

Aidan, she breathes into his mouth.

What’s up, Kid.

For some women, preparing to meet a lover is nearly as hallowed a time as the actual meeting. In some cases, it’s better, because at length the lover leaves, or someone loses interest, but the tender moments of anticipation remain. Like the way Lina can more easily remember the beauty of snow falling than the gray slush that lingers.

Lina stands naked and pale behind a yolk-colored curtain in a recessed rectangular shower stall, holding her mouth open to the stream, pushing her wet hair back the way that girls in movies do—one thumb over each ear and both palms at the top of the head, then smoothing the wet hair back. She shaves her legs and her pubic area, leaving what she’d heard some older girls call a landing strip. She soaps herself with Camay, taking care to deeply clean the areas his mouth might kiss, scrubbing these areas harder, perhaps, than she should.

She times it perfectly so that her sister would be heading for the bathroom just as Lina is on her way back to their shared room, so she could be alone. Naked on her bed, on top of her towel, she caresses pink lotion into her skin, not missing a single spot. Then she applies makeup but not too much because he had once made a comment about overly made-up girls, how they were trying to look older but they succeeded only in looking whorish.

She blows her hair out in large sections so that it will lie straight but full of body, so that it might bounce across her back and shoulders as she walks.

She applies perfume behind her ears, at the backs of the knees, and on the insides of her wrists. It’s a lemony floral scent evocative of beach house afternoons, of iced tea with mint leaves, and clean breezes.

The perfume is the final thing to go on, so that it lasts. Lina will be silently pissed if she passes a smoker along the way. Aidan is a smoker and yet she wants to come to him clean, not smelling of cigarettes, even though the chances he’ll be smoking when she approaches him are high.

There is a nervous, weightless feeling in her bowels, as if she hasn’t eaten in days. She has, in fact, been eating less, because that is what love does, Lina has begun to see. It feeds and eviscerates you at once, so that you’re full but you are also empty. You don’t want food or the company of others. You want only the one you love, and your thoughts of him. Everything else is a waste of energy, money, breath.

The secret place is a river, but it is more than a river. Even now, nearly two decades later, Lina thinks of the word river when she thinks of the secret place but it doesn’t fit. The problem is, there’s no better word for it. Like even the most perfect things in life, it is what it is.

It wasn’t that either of them had ever called it the secret place. Never aloud. It was just what Lina called it in her head. In fact, it had a much simpler name, simpler even than river.


I’ll meet you there.

See you there at ten.

Get off the bus, and there it was, only a quarter mile away, into the woods not too deep, off the two-lane highway that ran through the flatland.

There was a sort of path into the woods, not a real path but demarcated enough, a narrow clearing where the twigs and leaves were crushed by Keds and Timberlands.

Lina in her white sneakers wondered how much of the path she’d created, and about all the people before her who’d made the first dents.

There it was. There in a clearing where the wheatgrasses overgrew, a thin, snaking river in the half mist. The greatest part was seeing his pickup, old and beat-up and so gray as to be invisible, which made Lina’s heart thump like a bounced ball.

It was fall when they started meeting there but winter would come soon, so he said they should invest in blankets because it would be too expensive to keep the car running. That he had said this in September, when winter was so many weeks away, made Lina’s eyes water, that he foresaw his future with her in it. For a very long time, that was enough, that the object of her love even considered her a beating heart, a living thing, in his orbit.

Seeing his car already there, hearing the birds in the branches and the crunch of twigs underfoot. Smelling the wet earth and the exhaust and getting lost in a hologram of mist. Tucking her hair behind her ears the way she had practiced in front of the mirror, the precise way she looked the prettiest. All these sounds, smells, routines. It was her foreplay.

And there, in his car, staring straight ahead into the trees and ringed by a halo of his own smoke was this mythological man who was going to be hers, who was right at this moment waiting for her, so that the very entirety of her being was validated. He was the whole point of her existence, her mother and her sisters and the posterior side of her father be damned. There he was.


One day Aidan is going to drink too much, he is going to have kids and a job that doesn’t pay enough to buy the propane for the grill for the birthday parties in the summer. One day Aidan is going to have a big gut and a good deal of regret. He will not be a marine or an astronaut or a ballplayer. He will not sing in a band or swim in the Pacific. Outside of his kids and his wife and the things he will have done for them (which count, but they also do not, in that way a man needs something in outer space to count) he will not have done anything anyone will really remember. Except for who he was to one woman. He was everything.

Dear Diary,

I’m in love with Aidan Hart and he’s in love with me!

And I swear I know this to be true. Nobody on this whole earth has ever been happier. I feel I could explode from the second I wake up. I am so happy I could die. I finally know what it means when people say that. I could die.

As winter approaches, the bucking ride of their love story decelerates. It makes Lina hate the season. She feels any loosening of her obsession as acutely as she would feel one of her limbs snapping.

School and its obligations weigh on her. Her mother’s nasty remarks fall more sharply. She doesn’t like her winter coat and she doesn’t feel like reading books or learning anything new.

Around this time, she hears that a friend of her older sister has a crush on her. It surprises her at the same time that it does not. It’s as if suddenly, because of Aidan, she is visible to the world. She’s popular. She knew it could happen this way. She’d always known. That realization is not calming but the opposite.

The friend is not terribly good-looking, but he is older and has many friends and goes to all the parties. In the hallway he comes up to Lina while she is at her locker. She feels his hot breath at her nose. The way he is looking at her doesn’t feel like a crush. It doesn’t even feel that he likes her that much.

He tells her about a party that weekend. Asks her if it sounds like something she’d be into. She feels her head bobbing. She’s afraid of not saying yes. She doesn’t think it’s a date but she does like the idea that someone else finds her attractive. It’s like being a display lamp in a lighting store that wasn’t plugged in but now is: suddenly customers are slowing down and going, Hey honey, how about this one?

She’s in love with Aidan but she figures this will be a fun night out and she thinks he might be out, too. That’s the trouble, actually. She hasn’t been able to account for his evenings lately. Actually, she never has, but she’s suddenly realizing that hasn’t changed. They haven’t morphed into an actual couple, leashed to each other, the way Jennifer and Rod are.

Lina says to herself, It will be nice to be taken out to a party. To get out of the house. But really, if she is being honest, she’s going because Aidan hasn’t called her in a few days, and at school he’s smiled in the hallway but he’s been distant and Lina is not letting her mind go there just yet. But it’s in her subconscious, like the will of her mother.

Her memory is blurred. The guy who picks her up, the one who allegedly has a crush on her, is not one of the ones. That much she knows.

He takes her to a friend’s house where there isn’t really a party. It’s four guys just drinking. She remembers thinking, When are we leaving to go to the party? Then suddenly the friend of her sister, the one who brought her there, is gone, or he’s gone from her memory. Now it’s just a room with three guys drinking, and Lina.

One of the three guys, the first one is how she remembers him, gives her a drink in a red Solo cup. She’s not sure if it’s alcohol. It looks purple inside the cup, or dark ocean blue. It doesn’t really taste like alcohol. It tastes dark and gross and warm. Lina has never really drunk alcohol anyhow so even if it were liquor, she wouldn’t one hundred percent know.

I remember him the most, she will say later, when she’s older, and I know he was the first one. I remember the first one the most. We were doing it. I wasn’t really aware of how it was happening down there. I just felt someone on top of me and I knew it was sex. Next thing I remember is him rolling me over, so I’m on my stomach. Then there’s another guy on me and I hear him say, Oh no this is Abby’s little sister, I can’t do this. And he quit. Then there was a third guy, but my memory is awful by that point. I wasn’t fighting, that much I remember. I was just chill about it. I think I thought that I didn’t want to say no to anyone, that I wanted them to like me. I just didn’t want to give them any reason not to. Like me.

The next day and all the days that follow the rumor is that Lina fucked three guys in one night.


Sloane Ford has very long, very beautiful hair the color of chestnuts. An improbably warm tone of brown, but she doesn’t dye it. She’s thin and in her early forties but her face is like a sorority girl’s; it has the look of making out. She goes to the gym more often than she eats lunch with other mothers. She both does and doesn’t look like a woman people gossip about. She appears genuine, if sly, and says things like, I am intrigued by the politics of service. She means the way a dining experience is a microcosm for the dynamics of familiars and strangers coming together, under conditions in which one side of the encounter is somewhat indentured to the other, at least for the course of several hours.

She gives the impression of not knowing she’s being looked at. In certain light she can appear so self-assured that it can be frightening, and one might be very aware of setting her off. At other times she’s very giving, so as to appear almost small, so that friends might endeavor never to upset her. The confluence of both is striking and has the result of drawing one to her.

Sloane is married to a man named Richard, who is not as handsome as she is beautiful. They have two daughters, equine and vibrant like their mother; and a third child, Lila, Richard’s daughter from his first relationship. As a family they are bound very neatly and yet there is also a porousness, the sort of friendly distance that enables each member of the family to be his or her own person.

They live in Newport, on Rhode Island’s Narrangansett Bay, where great Georgian houses line the rocky coast, on a crowded but lovely street where summer people buy bluefish pâté and Carr’s and lobster from the fish market. Richard and Sloane own a restaurant a few blocks inland from the boats that knock quietly in the harbor. He’s the chef and she’s the front of the house. She’s perfect for the position, the sort of woman who can wear ankle-length dresses and not get lost in them.

Their summer is busy, as it is for everyone on the island. Summer is the time to make all the money they can because the colder months are seedless. In January and February the residents must batten down the hatches, stay inside with their family and their earnings, eating the kale pesto that they have preserved.

During the colder months the residents are also better able to concentrate on the children, their routines, school and recitals and sports. But Sloane is a woman who doesn’t talk about her children, or at least not in the same way as some other women, whose lives revolve around tiny schedules.

When Sloane is not around, people talk about her. In a small town it would be enough that she goes to the gym more than she stops to talk by the bags of baby greens. But that isn’t the reason why people talk.

The salient bit, the gossip, is that Sloane sleeps with other men in front of her husband. Or she does it down the street, or on another island and records it, and shows her husband the video later. If she isn’t with him, she texts with him throughout, to let him know how it’s going. Occasionally she’ll sleep with another couple.

Hers is a trajectory that is not immediately tenable. She’s living in this place year-round, which is strange in itself. Families like hers come for two-week stints in the summer. Occasionally they will spend the entire summer, or the mother will, and the father will come on the weekends. But to be here full-time, in the winter, one can go crazy. There are no malls, no large stores to get lost in. When you leave for the day, you make a list of all the errands you need to run out in the world.

The road to her adult life began with a Christmas party at the home of her father’s boss. One of the richest men in New York City. The house, in the Westchester suburbs, had columns and Persian rugs and gold-edged crystal. Women with low heels.

Outside, the tree branches were swollen with ice. The streets shone. Sloane was her father’s date and her date was a boy named Bobby. He was good-looking, like all the boys she dated. Sloane was twenty-two and taking a break from the restaurant business. She wanted to explore theater. She was going out almost every night and her social calendar was full with a range of events, from warm beer in dank music venues to chilled martinis in homes like this one.

Her father’s boss’s wife, a prim, silver woman named Selma, said:

We should get Keith and Sloane together.

She said this somewhat in front of Sloane’s date, Bobby. It was like an epiphany. Keith, their son; and Sloane, their right-hand man’s daughter, beautiful, well-bred, thin. Deific and, like two horses, ready to reproduce. They lived two blocks from each other. How had they not thought of this before!

Sloane wasn’t so interested in money but all the same this young man, Keith, had a lot of it. His family name was at the top of most of the programs in the art world.

A few weeks later, Sloane went out with Keith. She was happy to do it for her father. That her sexual energy was somehow usable in his business world made her feel powerful.

Keith asked her where she wanted to go for their date and Sloane said, Vong. The next place she wanted to go was always on the tip of her tongue.

That’s funny, Keith said, my best friend is the manager there.

Sloane wore an olive turtleneck, velvety cigarette pants, and a pair of boots. They were seated at the best table, a banquette in an alcove. It sat six, but that night it was reserved for the two of them. Sloane was used to being a special guest. She had on small earrings. The restaurant was buzzing with the energy of being the spot of the moment. Servers were walking quickly, seamlessly weaving around one another like half of them were ghosts. Plates were artful—white and gray rectangles of fish cresting atop pyramids of vegetables, glazed in something slick and sweet and tanned. The smell of acid and heat. Radiators warm with sparing no expense.

The manager, Keith’s best friend, came by to let them know the chef would be sending out a special tasting menu. Before dinner, Keith and Sloane had smoked weed. Sloane always did the perfect amount of every drug. Sometimes the perfect amount meant overdoing it, and so that was what she’d do. Alcohol, for example. Sometimes, she knew, it was appropriate to be a little too drunk.

Five courses were sent out, each more interesting than the last. But it was the final one before dessert that impressed Sloane the most. A whole black sea bass with Chinese long beans in a viscous black bean sauce. She kept saying to Keith, This is fucking amazing. And Keith would smile and alternately gaze at her and at the servers going by. He seemed amused by the rapid flow of the world. Sloane knew that inside the mind of boys like these was the casual appreciation of another nice dinner out with another pretty girl. One day he would have a billiards table in a downstairs room, cigar smoke, and sons. This sea bass would become halibut or seared tuna. Sloane would become Christina or Caitlin. But Sloane, in that moment, in most moments, was not like the water that waved around her. This sea bass, she said, touching Keith’s wrist. This fucking fish! There was something about food—there always had been—that connected Sloane to a different world, one where she didn’t have to be pretty and poised. A world where juices could run down her chin.

The chef came out at the end, when Sloane and Keith were nearly through with the bass. The bones lay picked clean on the plate. They were giggling and full. Sloane told the chef his food was wonderful, but she wasn’t enormously gregarious. Mostly, she was stoned. She didn’t tell him, for example, how the fish had warmed her. Her eyes sparkled at him, but she didn’t connect to him with her eyes the way she knew she could if she wanted to.

He didn’t make a huge impression on her, in his white toque. But he was smiling and friendly and she’d enjoyed his food. The whole experience had been ideal and being with Keith felt very much like exactly what she should be doing with her life.

Back in the kitchen, the chef sent a dessert out. Chocolate mousse and gingersnap cookies, with a sake berry sauce. Keith and Sloane drank coffee and digestifs. Sloane was conscious of eating food that most girls her age did not eat, would not eat, in fact, until they were in their late twenties or early thirties and getting engaged.

On their way out the door, Sloane turned to her date and said, If I ever worked in a restaurant again, it would be a place like this.

Keith had just learned at dinner about Sloane’s restaurant past. The word past, of course, was silly; using that word was like lending credence to the idea that, for a young woman like Sloane, it could almost be seen as a curiosity, the fact she’d worked in restaurants. She’d come from an upper-class family in a suburb of New York City, been schooled at Horace Mann, where future governors and attorney generals go. But even though she didn’t need money for things like clothes and lip gloss, she’d nonetheless taken a job as a waitress when she was fifteen. She filled out the one-page application and for previous work experience she wrote about the hours she’d spent filing papers at her father’s office, and the evenings of babysitting for neighbors’ children.

She’d been drawn to restaurants because she liked the atmosphere. She liked serving people. She liked wearing black pants and white oxfords and being in charge of a table’s experience. She saw the way other young men and women went from table to table, bored, irritated, nervous. Mostly, she knew, they weren’t engaged. They were not present with the role they were performing. Because it was a role; as a server you were a master of ceremonies. You were the table’s liege, and you were your kitchen’s representative on the floor. Of course she liked the money, the numbers followed by dashes, whole, sweet numbers that were mathematical compliments on how well she’d performed. Or the cash tips, generally left by tables of all men, several twenties folded and tucked lasciviously under a rocks glass.

Sloane tried it, first, the correct way. She’d applied to and been accepted at Hampshire, she’d gotten a dorm room together, she’d worn riding boots as she walked on bridges past the icy ponds and sharp hedges of New England academia. She went on dates, pledged a sorority.

She dropped out of Hampshire, then she went back. Then she dropped out again. None of these moves was entirely painstaking. She was young and unsure. She had a brother, Gabe, who was like that, too, so while one of them was doing the right thing, the other one might be doing the wrong thing. Their parents could be mollified on one side, and concerned on the other.

Sloane took some classes while she was working in restaurants, but she would always feel restless. She looked at the other students in the room; the way they seemed to really be listening was exotic to her. It was a state of mind that seemed unavailable. She felt more comfortable on her feet. So she had always returned to the buzzing floors, the clinking glasses.

Even so, this night felt different. She felt drawn, as though by a magnet. It had been several years since she’d waitressed. She was back in school and looking at theaters downtown, thinking she might be good at producing shows. She knew how to talk to people, how to get the rich and boring interested in something new. Like her father’s friends, for example. She looked them in the eyes and told them they would be remiss not to get involved in this person’s art show, or that person’s golf wear. She used her hair and her smile and who she was in the world. She was not someone to overlook.

And now she was with Keith, the boss’s son. This was utterly what her father would have wanted. Her mother, too. Monogrammed sheets. Picnic baskets in the trunk of a Range Rover. Twins with Peter Pan collars. The word ecru. Saint John. Christmas in Aspen. Telluride.

If I ever worked in a restaurant again, it would be a place like this.

She may have said it loud enough for the manager to hear her.

The following week the manager called and offered Sloane a job, which she eagerly accepted. She hadn’t realized, until now, how much she’d missed the restaurant world, the thrum and noise and the relevance. It was nearly like politics.

Even though her position was at the front of the house, Sloane had to spend a day in the kitchen as part of her training. The idea was that all the employees should be well-rounded, so that a patron could ask a hostess how the sea bass was prepared and she would have intimate knowledge.

Normally the kitchen training involved the chef taking the new hire to each station—the cold station, the hot station, dessert prep, and so on. But on this occasion, the chef, Richard, was not interested in following the rubric.

He met her in the dining room. He was wiping his hands on a damp rag. He had a sharp, angular face and the sort of light eyes that could be warm or roguish.

Richard smiled and said, How about if we make matzoh balls?

Sloane laughed. Matzoh balls? She looked around at the French-Thai restaurant’s dining room. There was faint music in the background. She looked down at the rug, at its shapes and colors. It made her think of pyramids in sandy countries she’d never seen. Sometimes she felt that she was a nowhere girl, that whatever place she was in could be any other place. That nobody would miss her at home, at school. And yet she knew that she was often the life of a party. She knew that people would say, Where’s Sloane? if they had not see her by ten P.M., in a room she should have been in. She had a faint idea that one day other women would say, I wish Sloane were my mommy, after she threw a lavish soiree for a third grader’s birthday party. And yet, here she was, standing in this restaurant, feeling that she inhabited the body of someone she didn’t entirely understand. Partly this was born from a fear of not having an identity. Because she had never quite known who she was, she tried very hard to concentrate on, at the very least, not being boring. And sometimes she had done exciting, out-of-character things to ensure nobody would call her boring. But sometimes those things made her feel loveless, tainted, and cold.

And here was Richard. The chef of this restaurant, older than her but not in an older-man kind of way. He was neither rich nor insane. He didn’t have a jet or something corrupt about him. He was not any of the kind of men Sloane hung around. Especially during that time, when she was into bad boys, bassists, dark messy types who rode motor cycles. Richard, by contrast, was a clean-cut chef with his white toque, with his job that he went to, that he needed. At home, she’d heard, he had an infant daughter.

He led her into the kitchen. A long stainless-steel table shone and she could see her strong chin reflected. She had never been upset by a reflection of herself. She was somewhat aware of how lucky she was. In the sense that she had friends who didn’t like their reflection, who either stayed away from it or sought it out, obsessively. Sloane did neither. Catching sight of her reflection in a shopwindow, or in a steel tabletop, merely reinforced what she already knew. She had been told throughout her life how beautiful she was. As a child, it had begun. Aunts, strangers. People absently caressing her hair, as though she were a retriever on a lawn, part of the castle of good fortune.

Richard took out boxes of Streit matzoh. Another thing Sloane loved about restaurants was the quantity of items. Boxes and boxes of utilitarian items, anonymous and neat. Tomato sauce, in particular. She liked how you could line the perimeter of a room with the same can of sauce, repeated in perpetuity.

They crushed the matzohs to make meal. He had already brought out the garlic, the salt, the baking powder. He put these ingredients into a large bowl. In another he began to mix the eggs and the schmaltz. He had already minced the dill. She realized he had not expected her to say no to making matzoh balls, and she liked that. In general, Sloane respected decision-making. She liked it when decisions were made for her. She wore an apron he’d given her, something standard-issue and beautiful.

He poured the wet mixture into the dry mix bowl, instructing her to use the fork to blend the ingredients, but not to overmix them. Next, he showed her how to form the balls using a cold spoon. Their hands and arms brushed against one another. Sloane felt the heat of his attraction. But she also felt something new. She’d felt lust and explosion before. She’d been thrown over beds and felt she was in church and in hell at once. But this was a new feeling.

They placed the balls on a tray and slid them into the refrigerator to set. While they waited, they talked. They moved around his kitchen and told each other their stories. There was nobody else, in the sense that other employees walked in and out but none of them registered. Richard told her about his Jewish heritage. Offhandedly she realized that the matzoh balls might have been his way of saying, This is who I am, where I come from. He told her about his daughter, Lila. Like most young women her age, Sloane could not imagine having a child at that time. Whenever she had pregnancy scares she would look around whichever room she was in, a dorm, or an apartment she was sharing with a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and she would try to envision where the crib might go. She would glance past holiday bottles of Grey Goose and stacks of Vogue, and feel airless and dark. She was not even an aunt.

When the matzoh balls were ready they brought them out of the fridge and began to lower them into the boiling broth. It was a taupe, bready smell. Sloane liked it. It smelled of home. A home she’d never known, but home all the same.

She felt Richard look at her, peeking, through the twist of their arms by the boiling pot. She felt sure that he would not let her get burned, that if the pot were to suddenly tip over, he would swipe it like a ninja in another direction, or even assume the burn himself, let the broth wash through his thin black pants, scalding his legs the hurt color of raw pork.

When the balls were cooked they added them to the rest of the soup and the staff ate it for family meal. Sloane looked around the table at the servers and hosts and the manager, all of them less experienced, it seemed, in both the highs and the lows of life, than she was. Or at least she felt that way at the time. She felt like a small, red god. Unique in that she could not be sorted. Benevolent and cruel at once. Beautiful and tawdry. Rich and poor, religious and godless. She was a balance of contradictions, like all subversive girls with rich, cool daddies and crisp, scarved mothers. She was nowhere she was wanted and yet she was everywhere she was desired. For most of her two decades she’d been a ghost in light linen, drinking orange juice at elegant tables, being exquisite on Easter. But for the first time she felt that if she left this room, she would be plainly missed. This was where she should be, she felt it in her knees. She ate the soup, which warmed her wholly.

After that day in the kitchen with the matzoh balls, Sloane settled into her role at the restaurant. It became her, and she became the position. It took over her whole life. All jobs do, to an extent, but when one works in a restaurant, because of the nature of the work, because of the hours, because it consumes the evenings and weekends, it becomes one’s social life. It became the fulcrum on which the rest of her life pivoted. She spent the most time on her hair when she had the longest shift at the restaurant, so that it would be clean and straight for ten solid hours.

Around sunset one evening she felt that she was being watched. She looked up and saw Richard in the kitchen. She was wearing mod checked pants. They were very tight. She felt long and pretty and useful. Moving slowly, she crossed the floor to refill the jars along the restaurant’s railing with votive candles. She knew it would give Richard the best view of her rear. She bent over the railing in such a way. She didn’t look back to see if he was watching but her skin tingled with the heat from his eyes.

Sloane also had a morning gig running a coffee shop—Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. It was not so much that she needed the money but that she felt more capable when she was diffusing her energy. She enjoyed learning different business models. She liked having tentacles. College kids would come in between classes at NYU. They would eat granola and yogurt and Salvadoran corn cakes. They would be hungover and moody or bright. She would listen to them and watch them and scan the room. It felt better to manage their experiences than it had to sit beside them in classes and wonder at how they were absorbing all that information.

Someday, Sloane wanted to run her own place. There was a colleague at the bookstore with whom she talked of buying a space they might turn into a restaurant and club. It was her dream, at the time, to combine food with music at a cutting-edge venue. A one-stop location for a group’s entire evening. After eating steak frites and stuffed artichokes, a table of friends would stay to drink and dance and watch a band play.

She was looking at West Broadway below Canal, which back then was parking lots, smoke shops, thick shakes, Rollerblades. Now that part of the city is doorman buildings with rooftop gardens, boutique markets selling hydroponic butter lettuce, and boys in Ray-Bans taking selfies in front of Hook and Ladder Number 8. It was typical of Sloane to see the promise of something before everyone else did.

In the slender strips of time when she was not working, Sloane would go and see an ex named Judd, or a young woman named Erika. Judd had dark eyes, pale skin, and a motorcycle. Sloane liked how her hair felt dirty in the morning, after she’d been with him. He didn’t always call her back as quickly as she’d have liked. With Erika, it was a little more predictable. Even when there is tumult with women, there is a baseline of certainty. They call more, respond more quickly. Erika wasn’t Sloane’s first woman. There’d been a girl at Hampshire named Lia. They dated, as much as one can date in college. On a winter evening, Lia said she needed a penis. They called up a young man they had each seen, individually, in the past. As a trio, they did more laughing than anything else. It was a blur of messing around. She was turned on by the multiple trails of saliva on her thighs. With Erika, in New York, it was more serious; plus, Erika wasn’t at all into men. Sometimes, Sloane saw, there could be an imbalance in a relationship between two women, when one also likes to sleep with men and the other doesn’t. Sometimes the one who doesn’t can feel that the other woman is a betrayer. She might worry that the other woman wants more, not just the penis, not something a dildo can’t sate, but the idea of a man, the idea of someone who is larger, the idea of being ecstatically subjugated by masculine energy.

Sloane didn’t want or need a man in that way. But she did want more from life than what it seemed one person could give her. She wanted bigger experiences. She always wanted an evening to evolve into something more complex. She brought Erika over to Vong to work as a server. Sloane had always mixed her worlds. She didn’t fear contamination; if anything, the potential chaos was exciting. After work they would all get together and drink and go over the failures and successes and, being in thrall to the energy of the place, they would discuss how to make the experience better for the patrons the next evening. There was a sexual vim involved. Table-setting a world made Sloane feel alive.

When occasionally the biosphere of the restaurant felt small and stifling, when she felt Erika pulling closer, Sloane would disappear for a few nights to go to Judd’s. With Judd, she drank a lot, did drugs, fucked in the pitch black. Judd was like a loft apartment, stark and cool. Often the Sid and Nancy of it was appealing. She never knew if he was her boyfriend, or if she wanted him to be, but she liked the way she worried about whether or not he was going to call her. She liked getting ready to go and meet him. Mascara, straws in clear liquid. For several months it was a whirlwind; they broke up and got back together and lived together and left each other and came back. He was crazy and she acted crazy around him.

And eventually there came a third relationship, with Richard the chef, even though at first it didn’t feel like one. There was no grand fuck, no night of Scotch and weirdness that kicked it off. The chemistry between Richard and Sloane was hot but it was also clear. He was not a child. He had an eight-month-old daughter at home, by a woman with whom he was still close but no longer romantically involved. And though he was a father, Sloane did not really think of him that way. Mostly he seemed like something healthy. Sloane felt she needed to grow up. Or rather, she knew that she needed to grow up. Though she didn’t entirely know who she wanted to be, she had always known the benchmarks she needed to hit. It was a by-product of coming from her type of family.

She never actually told Judd it was over. They sort of fell away from each other, in tiny increments. The trick, she’d learned, was never to be honest, and also never to actually lie. She began to stay later at the restaurant, drinking at the bar while Richard brought out experimental dishes for Sloane and the lingering servers. Beggar’s purses filled with piquant pork and cinched with strips of scallion. Then the night came when she didn’t go to see Judd at all, and he called and he called, as much as and more than she’d ever wanted him to call. Then the next night came, when she went home with the chef.

The following morning, Sloane opened her eyes and his were already open and looking at her and it felt utterly distinctive and contained and so she said, somewhat jokingly, Do you think that we should be exclusive?

There were a number of children’s toys neatly placed on bookshelves. In the kitchen there was rice cereal in the pantry, Medela bottles with mushroom nipples drying on a rack.

Richard had his head propped up with the heel of his hand. A wide bar of sunshine lit up the dust on the floor.

I thought, he said, that we already were.

The beginning of their relationship was not dramatic, as almost all of Sloane’s previous connections had been. Right away it felt like something she had under control. She didn’t have to chase after the portion inside Richard that in other men, like Judd, had seemed under lock and key. It wasn’t love, that portion, but stasis. It was the core of another person, staying still long enough for her to match her own parts against his. He was confident and strong and powerful. He was never jealous or mean. He was talented and self-assured and gave orders to his staff in a manner both kind and resolute. On top of all that, he wanted her so much, he wanted her all the time. She wanted him back, of course, but his near-rabid insatiability for her made her feel like the most coveted woman in the world.

They also shared the same life goals. They both wanted to open a restaurant but, even better, he was kitchen and she was front of the house. It was too good to be true. Seven months later, in July, Sloane brought Richard to Newport, to her parents’ summerhouse on the water. Richard was impressed in the way that all newcomers were. The crowds in the town and on the beaches fell away when you drove down gravel driveways to brilliant white homes on private rocky shores. You could buy eggs and fiddlehead ferns from little farm stands, leaving money in an honor box. But it was also off-putting in the way that overloved spots could be. It was the height of the season and they couldn’t get in anywhere to eat. Chefs and waiters were overworked as tourists crowded into the best restaurants on the water.

When they finally got a table, they found that the tablecloth was stained, the linens not having been changed in between patrons. Over a bowl of linguine swimming in a thin clam sauce the color of beach water, Sloane looked at Richard and he looked back at her, and a decision was made in the middle of that gaze.

By September, they had a purchase and sale on a lovely spearmint house in the center of town, with a restaurant attached. It was reckless, perhaps, she agreed with some friends, but she insisted that it wasn’t stupid. She knew there was no better chef than Richard. She’d known as much since the black bass he prepared that first night. She wasn’t quite sure there was no better partner, but she was willing to find out.

This is how you deal with watching your husband with another woman. You need to have a buzz but you cannot be drunk. If you are too drunk, then you will get irrationally jealous. You will stop making sense of things. You will not have the part of your brain that says, No, he loves you, he is just doing this for fun.

Your husband must concentrate on you. Yes, something is happening for him, but that is a physical sensation and he needs to feel it, experience it, enjoy it, but in his brain he must be concentrating on where you are. Where you are in the room, and where you are in your brain.

As for the girl, she can do what she wants. You can’t control the girl. She has to be very attractive—but not as attractive as you, in either your eyes or your husband’s.

It cannot be a porn scene. This is something you’re choosing to experience together, as one lobe of your loving relationship. You have to check in with each other, you have to be aware.

Awareness. You may think you understand the word, but you have to absorb the word. Your husband must be aware of you as though he is in your brain. This is about turning you on, and not the other woman. So even if he is fucking this other woman, he needs to be fucking you, in his mind. Each pump is going through this woman, and into you.

It’s been a long while of swinging, if you could call it that, because it is not actually swinging. Swinging is a word that belongs to another time, to people who are not Sloane. She is refined and so are her world, her bedsheets, her brain.

It is more like sexuality without boundaries, but not in a hedonistic, hipster sense. If you were to liken their sexual life to the setting of a dinner table, the table itself would be long and thick, decorated with antlers and other bones and flowers. To drink, there would be wine and port, and the guests would eat their dessert and salad at once. There would be velvet chairs and simple wooden bar stools, but guests could also sit on the table, naked, or in baroque dress.

It all began on her twenty-seventh birthday. The first week of July, over a decade ago. The restaurant had been open for two years. White cornices, sunshine. She was pleased with what she had built. She felt that everything she had done up until now had a reason.

It was hot and Newport was humming with the force of the holiday weekend. The Fourth of July is the first lucrative weekend of the season. The summer people buy up the flowers from the farmers’ market. They carry dripping stems back to their air-conditioned beach cars, their green station wagons, and their vermilion antique convertibles. The rust on the undercarriage is a statement. Long-haired girls in their early twenties wear bikini tops and soft pants. Every year there is one kind of sandal that is favored over another.

In the morning Sloane went to the restaurant to fill out some paper work. She ran her hand along the stainless steel in the kitchen, admiring the refrigerator full of cold summer vegetables. All the machines, the industrial blenders. She owned these things. She could feed hundreds of people a night.

A noise startled her at the other end of the room. She looked up and saw Karin, a server who also worked on the restaurant’s books. Sloane knew little about Karin, only that she had recently graduated from college. And, like many young women who weren’t sure what they wanted to do or where they wanted to live, Karin had come to work in Newport, where her friends’ parents had vacationed. She had come as a preteen several times and learned what to covet. She had very dark hair and dark lips. They were vampiric, almost. As though full of congealed blood.

Sloane, who was known for being both thin and sexy, immediately, there in the kitchen, began to list the ways in which she was better than Karin, and the ways in which Karin was better than her. Sloane was thinner. Karin was younger. Sloane owned the restaurant, and Karin merely worked in it. But that could also be reversed. It could be better that Karin was an employee, a pretty young thing obeying orders. Is that not a man’s dream? thought Sloane. But no, Sloane was confident, alpha, abundant yet reserved, partied but went home early enough to be missed. Karin was a child, she was probably insipid to talk to, good only at concerts and in the bedroom for the first fifteen minutes before you grew weary of the switching of positions. Because this was a girl, Sloane could tell, who moved about often, who displayed her whole deck, grinning. Enough would be enough, sooner than a man might imagine. Sloane, on the other hand, long-haired, yogic, fearsome, had ever more layers. Eventually any man in the world would go to her, and stay there.

Hi, Karin said. It was an unusual hello, warm and spiky.

Hi, said Sloane. She has a way of saying hello that is at once inquisitive, judgmental, and a little bit sensual.

Isn’t today your birthday?

Sloane nodded. She could feel a smile forming. Is it so simple? she thought. For someone to say it’s your birthday, and your guard falls. Like you are seven years old, wearing your new dotted swiss dress.

What Sloane didn’t know was that a few days prior, Karin proposed something to Richard. She said, What if I join you and your wife in the bedroom? Of course that was not the actual question. Unless the moment has been recorded, you can never know what the actual question is. It’s impossible to answer. You couldn’t be honest about exactly how something like that is worded. Utter honesty, Sloane knew, had no place in threesomes—in any kind of sex, for that matter.

Sloane imagined Richard raising his eyebrows, imagined him feeling shy and nervous. His wife wasn’t around. He was a devoted husband. He said, You can propose that to Sloane, if you like. Then he went back to what he was doing, preparing food for hundreds of people.

Karin suggested they take off the rest of the day. She didn’t know Sloane well enough to suggest such a thing, and yet it was precisely for this reason that she was able to. Let’s bring a bottle of champagne to the beach, she said, taking Sloane by the hand.

They drove to Napatree Point with the champagne and Sloane’s dog. The two women laid out towels. Their toes were painted and their legs and feet were tan. The ocean was rough yet quiet; the way a snowfall blots out the world with its blanket, the ocean will do the same with its white noise. The two women played music from a little wounded boom box. They drank the champagne and ate grapes and Sloane felt like a girl. Something about Karin made her feel not just young but childlike. Also, Karin was somewhat in charge. Perhaps because Sloane had allowed it, but in any case, it was nice, that she could rely on someone else’s personality to outweigh hers for a change.

Around sunset they returned to Sloane and Richard’s home. After a day of drinking on the beach, walking into her home with this stranger felt foreign. It smelled acidic, like decaying roses. The taste on Sloane’s tongue was pink and ashy. She was burned from the sand and the sun, her skin felt at once coarse and moist, and the night looked as if it could go anywhere, though of course the path was much more knowable. It was, in fact, immutable.

The two women were, at first, alone in the house. Sloane thought of sending Karin home before Richard returned. But something stopped her. The alcohol, for starters. But also the way that sometimes doing something bad can feel homeopathic.

Within the hour they heard a car pull up. Richard joined them on the deck. He hadn’t brought a cake. There wasn’t one in the house. Sloane’s birthday was several days after the Fourth of July, and she owned a seasonal restaurant in a place where the Fourth of July was the most important holiday. She didn’t remember having had a birthday cake in a very long time.

The three of them drank cocktails and wine. Drinking was important, Sloane knew, for this kind of event. It was almost more important than the people involved. She knew she had to be the perfect kind of inebriated. Wine was good, a soft white. And in addition to alcohol, Sloane would say there is one other component involved in how a threesome begins. It is these words.

One thing led to another.

The individuals involved can rarely tell you the precise moment. That’s because it’s impossible. One would have to admit seeking something that feels unsavory, alien. A husband who desires to enter another body, to hold another breast. A wife who wants to see her husband want someone else, so that she may want him as much as she’d like to. A third person who is not frankly loved in the world, who enters a room as a cipher in a tank top. A husband who makes the first move. A wife who closes her eyes to the first move. A third person who has eaten nothing all day. Someone turns on the music. Someone pours a drink. Someone reapplies lipstick. Someone positions her body in such a way. Someone is less hurt than he should be. Someone is afraid of her carnality. Someone is worried about not being sexual enough. Someone lights a candle. Someone closes a French door. Someone’s stomach drops. It is everything to do with bodies and it is nothing at all to do with bodies.

One thing led to another, and Sloane was messing around with Karin. The phrase messing around means making out, feeling up, b