Everything that summer felt like an exercise in etiquette. The publisher of the Maple Leaf Press, the meager community newspaper that operated out of a crumbling barn in southern New Hampshire, decided to handle their financial losses by cutting the staff. Eleanor was the first to go. She sat in front of her editor’s desk watching Jane’s chin double as she spoke. Jane’s face looked tugged. Her hideous orange hair spat out in all directions. They both fingered cups of chamomile tea and Jane prattled on about how the Maple Leaf Press wasn’t a lone soldier. Print journalism was being slammed all over.
“You have a future,” she told Eleanor, pitching forward over the desk. A lock of frizzy hair dipped into her tea.
Everyone has a future, Eleanor thought, but she just said, “Thank you.”
She had worked at the paper for exactly one year, and because she still did not feel attached to the job, she did not feel upset about leaving.
Eleanor had spent 2008 driving from school board meeting to library commission meeting, from fourth-grade play to Veterans Day memorial ceremony. Sitting at her final selectman’s meeting in the whitewashed town hall, Eleanor took diligent notes. She propped her voice recorder on an empty chair. She liked to be thorough and precise, over-prepared. She liked to whittle through the ums and likes of speech. The Maple Leaf Press did not merit the trouble, but it kept her focused and engaged. She jotted as the three selectmen bantered on in front of an audience of five, about a dead raccoon that waste management had neglected for three months to scoop off of the main road, about the location of this year’s annual golf ball drop, and how they might remedy the problem of ducklings toppling down the sewer grates, breaking their necks. The two oldest selectmen, Harvey Daniels and Heather Perkins, both wizened and nearing eighty years old, fervently disagreed with the newest and youngest of the three on nearly everything.
“We need to think about efficiency,” Alec Rimmon liked to say, standing and planting his hands in a wide triangle across the table. His fingers spread wide and turned white with force. “A corporation would do it this way. We need to think. We need to run this town like a business.”
“A town is not a business. It is town!” The two dinosaurs rebutted in unison.
Eleanor knew little about Alec. He was glossy to the point of grease. In a past life he was a high-powered businessman. His thick white hair swept severely to one side and didn’t move as he spoke. His sharp blue eyes and upright posture, his waxy care was unusual in small-town politics. He was at least as absurd as the two dinosaurs.
Eleanor’s stomach hurt and acid burned in her throat as it gripped its way up from her gut. The inside of her body always worked this way, now. She dressed professionally for these meetings. A blazer, a clean sweater, a collared shirt. She wore her only pair of high-heeled shoes, though she stumbled in them and picked her heels out of them when she sat. She sat stiffly in the almost-empty room, jotting mechanically. Her green eyes flipped up to the selectmen, down at her notes. She had a strong jawbone and deep brown hair. She wore no makeup. Strangers and acquaintances sometimes called her beautiful, behaved as though beauty were something valuable. She felt as though at any moment, she would turn sour, rot, let these people down, be at fault, but she just said, “Thank you” when they said it. At the meeting, she smiled or furrowed her brow at the moments when these gestures seemed appropriate.
The three-hour meeting came to a close. The five townspeople stood, ambled, small-talked. Where would they go now? Eleanor scanned her notes for the phrases she had circled or underlined, bits of information that needed clarification or better quotes. She waited until a last lonely townsperson shuffled out the double door, then approached Alec Rimmon. She could have approached any of the selectmen, but Alec had a way of encouraging communication. He returned her calls and was rarely sarcastic. He smiled when he answered her questions.
“Well, thank you,” she said, and pushed her recorder and notebook into her purse, pulled an arm through the sleeve of her coat.
He watched her. “It’s a shame to hear you’re leaving us.”
She agreed it was a shame.
“I’ll tell you what. Why don’t I take you to lunch to thank you for your good work?”
“That would be nice.”
“Wonderful. Are you a pickup truck or Mercedes girl? I could get my wife’s Mercedes for the day.”
“I’ve never ridden in a Mercedes before.”
“Okay, kiddo. Mercedes it is.”
After the Maple Leaf Press hired Eleanor, she and her boyfriend Nicholas moved into a cottage on the banks of Sunrise Lake. The cottage was zoned as a seasonal vacation home but Eleanor and Nicholas lived in the cottage even during the iciest months of the year, when the single wall heater couldn’t warm the cottage’s one main room. Besides the combined bedroom and living room, the kitchen held a half-size oven and a half-size refrigerator. The bathroom resembled a one-man space capsule. Nicholas worked nights attending to a halfway house. Eleanor spent the time alone reading and drinking wine until she had consumed enough to fall asleep. Other nights, she drove out to the Main Street convenience store, picked up bags of chips, ice cream, microwave dinners, and individually wrapped snack cakes. She unwrapped the first cake in the car, continued unwrapping in the house. Later, she vomited in a trash bag. Sometimes, on Nicholas’ days off, they took their cross-country skis across the lake or drove out of town to see a movie. Some Saturdays, she visited her mother, Mary, at the Deerfield Assisted Living Center. Days Nicholas did not work, he stayed buried in the blankets of their bed until noon, his wiry body stretched flat. He woke and strummed a guitar, belted his own songs. Eleanor paced and looked out the windows. She looked at Nicholas and looked away, and looked at him again. She told Nicholas she was going to the library to work. She drove to fast food restaurants to order off dollar menus and vomit in the bathroom stalls. She came home sedated and hurt.
Eleanor enjoyed living on Sunrise Lake. The town was manageable, contained. People recognized and greeted her when they saw her. It could have been that Sunrise Lake was becoming a kind of home.
Two months before the Maple Leaf Press gave Eleanor her notice, Nicholas found a new job as an employment specialist at a refugee resettlement agency headquartered forty minutes north, in the city where they both grew up. Nicholas’ parents, Martin and Dawn, still lived there. He suggested the couple move into his parents’ home to save money.
“It’s closer to my work,” he said. “It makes sense.”
“It makes sense,” Eleanor said.
Nicholas and Martin renovated the damp basement. They rewired and hung drywall and painted. They rolled carpet over cement and hung curtains over tiny windows. Eleanor helped Dawn attack the basement’s clutter, the remnants of Nicholas’ childhood, stuffed into cabinets, piled up and dusty. Grade school assignments and hand drawn cards. Participation ribbons and basketball trophies. Scratched CDs and tangled cassettes. Dawn giggled and gushed, thrusting each relic towards Eleanor, who was expected share in the delight.
Eleanor made an agreement with herself to stop throwing up. It would be a courtesy to Dawn and Martin. It would be too difficult to hide. Some days, Eleanor stayed in the basement bed for hours, salivating over imagined feasts. Others days, when fantasy failed, she shook with anxiety. She smoked cigarettes and left her desk to take long runs through the suburban streets lined with identical McMansions. Or else she forced herself to concentrate on the pain of deprivation, sweating, telling herself to fall in love with the void. Some mornings, she was still half asleep when Nicholas kissed her on the forehead before leaving for work.
“Promise to be good?” he said.
“I promise,” she said.
“Do you promise?” he said, and she said, “I promise.”
The day before her lunch arrangement with Alec, Eleanor took the back roads to the Deerfield Assisted Living Center. The back roads calmed her. She liked rolling over the hills, through the trees, textured with cinematic light and shadow. She listened to the radio, smoked cigarettes, rested her arm on the window.
She was suddenly horny. She was pleased with herself for feeling horny. It was rare. She could finally be the one to instigate sex with Nicholas.
She texted him: I want sex!
He texted back. Wait!
She parked her car in the near-empty lot in front of the center, told herself to keep her temper. At the front desk, the fat, bored high school student put down her cell phone and signed Eleanor in. Eleanor walked down the yellowing hallway, pressed open Mary’s door.
The room smelled both sterile and sour, like Lysol sprayed across a urine stain and left to dry. Mary sat stiffly on a twin-sized bed caged by aluminum rails. Her mother stared at the wall opposite the bed. Her knotted hair formed a nest above her head. Eleanor wondered how she came to look so old. A pretty nurse pushed open the door and placed a set of towels on the room’s unused armchair. Her gait mimicked the movement of the residents, heavy and sedated.
Mary’s right leg was wrapped in medical dresses. She had slipped on the bathroom floor and snapped her femur. Eleanor picked up the towels from the chair, sat, kept the towels on her lap. She forced herself to look at her mother.
“How are you feeling?”
“They put a twelve-inch titanium rod in there.” Mary pointed to her leg.
“You’re part bionic,” Eleanor said. She pictured Mary’s metal rod years after Mary had died, shining and strong in the ground. They sat for many moments in silence.
“You look stressed,” Mary said, alert now, peering at her daughter.
“I’m not stressed. You always say that.”
“Don’t worry about losing your job. You’ll find another. You’re so young, and you have skills! You have so much more opportunity than I’ve ever had. Are they doing anything nice for you at the paper before you go?”
“I can tell you’re stressed.”
“I’m not stressed. Stop saying that.”
“You look it. I can tell you are. What do you have to be stressed about? Twentysomethings, trust me, have no reason. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have worried about anything.”
Eleanor stood, replaced the towels on the chair, pulled up the window blinds. She tried to slide the glass up, but it wouldn’t move.
“They don’t let you open the windows?”
“Nuh. Thing. At. All to be stressed about!”
“People don’t just stress out over nothing,” Eleanor raised her voice. “That doesn’t even make sense. If I’m stressed there’s probably a reason for it. There are reasons people get stressed.”
“You have it easy. You’re lucky. When I was your age, think of it, evacuating Kaiserwald, walking along those terrible train tracks. The Nazis firing at us. Starving us. We walked naked! They had us all marching completely naked, four-by-four like a pack of animals.”
Mary began to twitch. Eleanor picked up a watch from the table and wove it around her fingers.
“Marching four-by-four. Without shoes. Barefoot. Stripped bare. You don’t know humiliation like that. You have something to stress about?”
“Please, just stop.”
“You’re lucky I survived to have you.”
Eleanor put down the watch and faced her mother. “You weren’t at Kaiserwald. You weren’t even alive back then. You’re not from Europe. You’ve never even been to Germany, or Latvia once in your life. You’ve never even left North America.”
“But you learn to adjust. Amazing, the will to survive. It’s supernatural, really.”
Eleanor opened her purse, rifled for her keys. “I need to leave.”
“Already? Oh. Okay. You just got here.”
“I’ve been here a while. I have to go to work.”
“Okay. Can I have a hug before you go?”
Eleanor did not want to hug her mother, but she placed her arms lightly around her.
Mary whispered, “Are you still doing that thing?”
“I told you I wasn’t.”
“I don’t want you doing that thing.”
Nicholas arrived home late, exhausted from a day sales-pitching unemployed Bhutanese refugees to dismissive businessmen, grocery store and fast-food chain managers. To Laundromat owners. To convenience store clerks. He spent the day driving his beat-up Volkswagen around the city, insisting that refugees were hard workers, that they wanted to be in America, so they would care about their work, that many of them had higher degrees in their home nations. He sweat and stuttered. In between, he made home visits to the refugees’ apartments.
“You should see the shit holes we find them,” Nicholas said. He hunched forward on his parents’ couch, pulled off his shoes and socks with effort. “The cheapest places in the city. Roach infested, moldy, disgusting. There’s usually like ten of them living in a one-bedroom, whole families. It’s disgusting.” Eleanor sat beside him. She kissed him three times. She thought this was the right amount.
Dawn sat on another couch in the living room. She had the television on and her laptop on her thighs. Eleanor thought her dyed black and permed hair looked fried. Her bangs were cut at an adolescent angle across her forehead. She wore fake nails, a gaudy mix of gold and silver jewelry. Nicholas had once told Eleanor that his mother, a real estate agent, prided herself on looking young. Eleanor could sense herself judging Dawn’s superficiality, which made her feel ashamed of herself.
“We stock their kitchens,” Nicholas went on, “but sometimes they don’t know what to do with the kinds of food we buy. Chips and two-litres of soda. We should be buying fresh produce, food they know. One of my coworkers found a family sitting around a fire they made in their living room. They caught a squirrel and were cooking it.”
Eleanor put her hand on Nicholas’ thigh and thought about making him feel good that night. She thought about what she would do. She would pull off his clothes, kiss his neck, his collarbone, his nipples, she would wrap her hands around his cock.
Martin prepared dinner in the kitchen, burgers and rice pilaf. Nicholas fell asleep on the couch. Dawn tapped at her keyboard, looked up at the television, laughed. Backed up the show. “You have to see this,” she said. “Look, look!”
When dinner was nearly ready, Eleanor microwaved a veggie burger for herself. They thought she was a vegetarian. She could choose not to eat Martin’s rice or burgers. It was important to be able to choose.
She helped Martin set the table, brought food into the dining room. Framed photographs of Martin’s side of the family hung on the walls, generations gathered for holidays and reunions. Martin, Dawn and Nicholas posed in a beige Sears studio. A portrait of a dog and a cat sitting tensely side by side.
“I’m sorry you don’t like your job, honey,” Dawn said at the table.
“These people are so frustrating,” Nicholas complained, “They say, ‘Why would I want to hire immigrants who can’t even speak English in this economy? People born in America can’t even get work.’ They think the Bhutanese are Muslim, and they don’t want to hire Muslims.”
“That’s terrible, honey. The same thing happened to me! I’ve been working with this poor, adorable young couple, just married, buying their first house. I brought them for what was supposed to be their final walk-through this morning. Oh, they were so excited. But when we got there we found the place smashed to bits. Walls beat in, banisters snapped. Staircases totally destroyed. Windows broken. The former owner, the man who lost the place, did it all. He took a hammer and demolished the garage. Oh my lord. It’s such a mess.”
“This one refugee, Ram. He’s got one long thumbnail.” Nicholas held a finger two inches away from the top of his thumb. “That long, and curling. Getting all moldy and yellow. I tell him he has to cut it if he’s going to get a job and he says, ‘I’m waiting to cut it until I get a job. For good luck!’ I’m like, ‘No, you have to cut it now.’”
“All the wires were pulled out of the place too. I thought, not again. It wasn’t the first time this guy came back to make trouble. He thinks if he can’t live in the house, no one should. “You know what I found in the storage space? Your old Ninja Turtles figurines. You used to love the Ninja Turtles. Remember when we used to watch the show together? You’d watch it while I folded laundry. You sat in the laundry basket. We still have the same one. ‘Teenage mutant ninja turtles. Teenage mutant ninja turtles. Heroes in a half-shell! Turtle power!’”
Eleanor studied the photographs on the wall.
“There we are,” Dawn said. “The whole family.”
Where were the photographs of Dawn’s parents and siblings?
“Do you see your side of the family much?” Eleanor asked.
“Oh, not much. Most of them are dead now. My parents were pieces of work. I have a brother out in California, but he’s a heroin addict. I don’t speak to him very often.”
Eleanor thought she might want to eat the rice, but she did not eat any rice. After dinner she went to the basement while Martin and Nicholas jammed upstairs, Martin on his keyboard, Nicholas on his guitar. The music and Dawn’s television mingled through the house. Eleanor typed a couple sloppy sentences about the selectmen’s meeting. She tried to make sense of her notes. She thought about finally being one to instigate sex. She thought about Nicholas coming downstairs, of seeing an eager look come across his face when we found her there, waiting for him naked.
Nicholas came downstairs and went immediately into the bathroom. He came out yawning. He undressed and sat and then lied on the bed. He squirmed out of his clothes, showed his thin, hairy legs. Eleanor sat beside him. He turned on the nightstand lamp and got out his book. She got out her book and lay next to him and stared at a page, read the same line five, six times.
“Are you tired?” he asked.
He kissed her forehead and rolled onto his stomach, pressed his cheek into the pillow. Eleanor watched him. She stared at the ceiling and out the pointless basement window. She looked at Nicholas, out the window, at the dark wall. She waited for Nicholas to reach for her, to scrape his fingers across her stomach, to move them lower. She heard his breathing shift into low, deep, sleep.
She slipped her hand beneath the elastic band of her sweatpants, and then the band of her panties. She crawled her fingers through the small hairs and worked them there, untangling the hairs, pulling them straight and letting them settle back down. She slipped her fingers lower. She closed her eyes and tried to think up the men she sometimes imagined when she was alone, the rough men who swore and pulled girl’s hair, who knew how to turn a girl into nothing, and take away all of her responsibility. Lying next to Nicholas, the private men could not work.
She did not want to resort to tiptoeing upstairs, to the small liquor cabinet. Taking Dawn and Martin’s alcohol made her feel like a drunk and a freeloader. She did not want to risk waking anyone by unlocking the back door to smoke a cigarette in the dew and moonlight of the back porch. It was likely she was hungry, but if she ate even a bite of an apple, she might not be able to stop. She might empty out the kitchen, then the cupboards, then the city, the state. She might eat up the world. She told herself to focus on her breathing, to understand that there was nothing she could do. Why bother, she thought. She thought it until she felt as though there wasn’t anything important in the world, nothing to have and nothing to want.
She woke with a vague sense of anger. She found a note on the nightstand:
Be Good! Love N.
Eleanor left the note on the table. She dressed and left the house. At the gas station down the road she bought a dusty bottle of wine. She uncorked it in the basement, drank it from a mug, waited for Alec’s wife’s Mercedes. Upstairs, Martin worked in his office. The office’s window faced the road, and she did not want Martin to see the car. She drank the wine quickly, and let herself begin to feel warm and more relaxed. What did Nicholas know about being good? What did good behavior have to do with feeling good? Couldn’t anything ever just be nice and stay nice?
When the Mercedes pulled into the driveway, Eleanor thought stay in the car. Alec stepped out of the car and stretched his body. Eleanor pulled on a sweater, found her purse, shoved her feet into her shoes and found herself standing in front of him. She did not give him time to ring the doorbell. Alec wore shiny leather loafers, a pressed shirt tucked into pressed slacks.
“Hi kiddo,” he said. “Good to see you.”
He reached for her and she hugged him quickly. He opened her door. She presented a closed-mouth smile, one that she thought was the right smile. The car smelled of leather, of burl wood, of coffee. She could have offered to meet him at the restaurant. Would that have been more appropriate? He pulled onto the highway and headed east down Route 101.
“What do you think of the car?” he asked.
“It’s nice. It’s bigger than I thought it would be.”
“That’s real wood trim.” He ran his hand over the dash. “Was that your house?”
Eleanor sometimes had trouble mentioning Nicholas to other men. She did not want to upset them. Men were fragile, overt about their fragility, palpably disappointed. So dismissive when they received the smallest unintended blow. But she wanted to practice honesty. Maybe Alec would surprise her.
“I’m staying with my boyfriend’s parents right now.”
“Oh. Great,” Alec said. He gazed at her quickly, then into the rearview mirror. “What does your boyfriend do?”
“He resettles refugees. Mostly Bhutanese, but some Iraqis. He’s an employment counselor. Helps them find jobs.”
“Resettles refugees, huh.” Alec paused. “That’s really something. That’s commendable. He must be a really great guy.”
“He is. It’s difficult though, finding refugees jobs.”
“I’d imagine most folks don’t trust Muslims right now. I can see it being difficult.”
Eleanor asked Alec questions about himself. His job, his childhood. He was retired. He owned beach vacation properties that he spruced up and rented out in the summer. They dotted the streets of Hampton Beach, not far from the seaside restaurant where they would have lunch. He talked about his wife, the teacher. He told a story about growing up in the woods of Northern Canada, scouring the forests for spirits and hunting, being a boy.
“I had a guru. An old Aboriginal man who lived in the woods and didn’t tell you anything. You just had to follow him if you wanted to learn.” he said.
Alec had run for the selectman position because he had too much time on his hands.
“I wanted to give back to the community. I’m doing the job, but only for one term. I won’t run again. Someone else ought to step in and do their civic duty. I’m not like Harvey or Heather, those old windbags. They’ll be selectmen until they die. No, I won’t run again.”
Eleanor looked at the trees whirring by, at Alec, down to her knees. She looked at each of these the appropriate amount of times. She sat appropriately straight. She crossed her legs at the ankle. She liked the blur of landscape, the way everything else seemed to be moving while she stayed still.
“When I was consulting,” Alec said, “I tell you, I traveled just all over, across the globe to transform these mammoth corporations, make them efficient. In Japan it was always a whirlwind. They would usher me into a car the second I stepped off the plane and swoop me off to the hotel where the employees teared up if you didn’t let them do their jobs. The elevator man teared up if I didn’t let him push the elevator button. The room attendant cried if I didn’t let him turn on the showerhead. It was just surreal. I thought about moving there but despite the culture, despite the beautiful women everywhere, it was just too different, especially the divide between the treatment of men and women.”
“I can imagine,” Eleanor said.
“I was hoping you could be my niece. I could do nice things for you, take you shopping.”
“Don’t you have any nieces?” Eleanor asked.
By the time they reached Sanders Restaurant, thick rolls of clouds blanketed the sky. Alec opened Eleanor’s car door. The dining room of the restaurant was window lit, wood-paneled, and nautical-themed. Eleanor half-expected a fat fiddle player to jump through the kitchen door.
“Where would you like to sit?” Alec asked.
Eleanor scanned the wide room overlooking the water. A mahogany bar lined one wall. Two middle-aged women with outdated, feathered hair and eccentric jewelry gossiped on bar stools. Otherwise the room was empty.
“We can sit here in the bar, or in the nice dining room, just over there.” Alec pointed to a hallway.
Eleanor did not know what to say. “I’d be fine wherever.”
“Let’s go into the dining room. It’s less stuffy in there.”
“Okay,” she said.
A short, stumpy waitress with a girlish ponytail seated them by the long row of windows. Alec suggested Eleanor try the signature martini. He ordered a black and tan for himself. He ordered the appetizer platter of crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, bruschetta, bacon-wrapped scallops, baked bread.
The martini felt good. The buzz of the morning wine had begun to dwindle into lethargy.
“On the scale of one to ten, you are an eleven,” Alec said.
The waitress brought the appetizer platter.
“You are the kind of girl who eats?” Alec asked.
“I eat. I eat a lot.”
“Good. You’re so thin. I can never tell.”
It began to rain. The harbor’s sailboats and yachts rocked on their moorings. Alec cut the crab cake and slid half onto Eleanor’s plate. She ate the crab cake. She ate shrimp cocktail and a scallop. Alec took small, deliberate bites and chewed slowly, rolling the flavors over his tongue. When the waitress came with another round drinks, she smiled and Eleanor thought she must have been constructing an embarrassing narrative of the couple.
The crab cake and the shrimp, the scallop and bruschetta crept into her stomach. She felt the food pressing back up, tight like a bear hug from inside her gut. Their entrées came. Eleanor ate her pasta in large bites. She chewed quickly and followed each bite with another.
Alec pointed out the window. “See that?” A tethered sailboat. “I’d like a boat like that. A beautiful seventeen-foot sailboat with a cabin large enough for a bed and a deck big enough to lie out on. No speedboat for me. I just want a nice leisure cruise.” He reclined and clasped his hands in his lap. “I’d go everywhere.”
Eleanor imagined Alec with a young woman in a string bikini, Alec dressed in airy summer slacks, an expensive cotton shirt. She imagined him walking over to the women, crouching down, the woman pulling her body up to him, Alec pulling her close with one arm.
Alec’s eyes and lips surprised Eleanor by turning sad, almost mournful. “You know. You really don’t know what this means to me, you coming out here. I spend so much time by myself. I’m always by myself. This has really been the best day I’ve had in a very long time.” He pressed his lips together and tried to smile, but he only managed an achy, distorted frown. He looked sad and vulnerable, as though Eleanor could hurt him.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just happy.”
They left Sanders Restaurant and drove south towards Hampton Beach. In the summer months, it was the most crowded part of the state’s minuscule coastline, thick with preteens following each other like puppies. But it was off-season and boards covered the souvenir shops, fried dough stands, arcades. A few lonely tourists huddled under dripping awnings.
“Why don’t I show you one of my rental properties,” Alec said. “I’d love to show you how I decorate them, while we’re in the area.”
Her stomach felt burned from the meal, and she felt uneasy about the proposal. She thought she should tell him she needed to go home, but she just said, “That’d be nice.”
“Why don’t I reserve a weekend this summer for you and your boyfriend? There are still quite a few weekends open.”
“That would be really great, actually.”
“You and your boyfriend can have a nice vacation.”
“We could definitely use a vacation.”
They arrived at a whitewashed apartment with a white-picket fence and a clean slatted porch. Alec checked the mail and spoke briefly and jovially with a neighbor before he led Eleanor up a set of stairs, opened the door and directed her into the kitchen.
“This is it,” he said. He spread his arms in a show. He opened up the cupboards to illustrate that he took care of his guests, stocked his guesthouse. “I keep Goldfish and fruit snacks for the kids. Liquor and beer in the fridge, too. I tell them, ‘Use anything you want.’”
He toured her through the small, typical beachside apartment. Two bedrooms, bunkbeds against the wall of one, paintings of coastal landscapes. Shelves displayed conch shells and model boats. Eleanor tried not appear anxious about being in Alec’s guest house or being in pain. Acid tore at her throat.
Alec reached for a bottle of vodka from one of the shelves. “Shall we have a drink before getting on the road?”
Nothing can ever just be nice and stay nice, Eleanor thought. “I should be getting home,” she said.
“We could just have one drink,” he said. Then, “It’s all right. I understand.”
She gave him an appropriate faint smile, and felt grateful.
“Come here,” he said. He tugged Eleanor by the waist, pressed her body into his chest. He anchored one hand on her shoulder and another on her waist. She shut her eyes and froze. He lowered his head and when he kissed her cheek his eyelashes brushed her face. She sucked in her gut so Alec wouldn’t have to feel her swollen stomach. “An uncle can kiss his niece,” he said. “An uncle can do that.”
Eleanor searched the room but she did not know what she was looking for. She settled on the clean linoleum floor. Alec hooked his fingers around her jaw and wrenched her face back towards his.
He said she had lovely hair, asked Eleanor to touch it. She did not tell him no. They drove northwest, back towards the city.
“There are some nice outlets across the bridge in Kittery. Do you like to go shopping? I was thinking I could take you there sometime.”
They drove in silence. Eleanor looked out the window, but she didn’t see anything and her mind felt blank. Alec coughed a few times. Nearing Nicholas’ parents’ house, he turned to her. “You have a boyfriend? You have a boyfriend. I suppose this can’t work, can it?”
“I don’t think so,” Eleanor said.
“Okay, kiddo. No hard feelings.”
In the driveway of Nicholas’ parent’s house, they shook hands and she waved goodbye as he pulled the Mercedes away. He winked back at her. She went in through the garage and heard jazz music and unfamiliar voices wafting down from the first floor. She took a deep breath and headed towards the noises. In the living room, Bhutanese refugees sat reclined on the sofas and chairs pulled from the dining room. Women dressed in multicolored clothes who had dots in the middle of their foreheads sat quietly, smiling, observing their children. Young men with bare feet and white shirts crossed their legs at the ankles. Two silent children stretched out upside-down in women’s laps. The children flipped around and sat up, pressed their faces into their mothers’ bodies.
Nicholas sat sandwiched between two of the men on the couch. He put the half-eaten plate of food on the table and met Eleanor at the stairs.
“Hi. How was your day?” He touched her arm and Eleanor produced a smile. He seemed more awake than he had in days. “These are my friends, some of the refugees I’ve been helping. Everybody, this is Eleanor. Eleanor, this is Deepak, Pema, Bibek.”
They lined up to shake her hand.
“Purna, Tika. This is Ram.”
She took Ram’s hand and glanced down at his fingers. His long nail been snipped to the flesh. The coffee table was spread with half-eaten plates of hot food, lentils and rice, flat breads, curried chicken. Women in the kitchen chatted and worked to fry and boil more food.
“Have a seat,” Nicholas said. “They wanted to cook for us.”
A woman entered from the kitchen with a plate of food and handed it to Eleanor. Eleanor thanked her, sat, took a bite. She watched the refugees watch her eat. The food was rich and hearty. She felt nauseous. The group studied her face as she brought her fork to her mouth.
“Delicious,” she said.
“Mr. Nicholas,” Ram said, “You think we may find work?”
Nicholas returned to the seat the refugees were saving for him. “Well, there may be some jobs at supermarkets. You could work in produce. Do you like produce? Vegetables?” Nicholas said.
“Yes,” Ram said, “Very much.
The women fed the children. They talked to each other in Nepali and laughed often. When plates were empty, the women refilled them, bringing out more hot curries and samosas.
“There may be some jobs at fast-food restaurants opening up. You might work in restaurants. There seem to be possibilities in dry-cleaning.”
“It’s very good,” Eleanor said to a woman standing next to her, watching her eat. She stood in the posture of the refugee women.
The men were saying, “Mr. Nicholas is so good a man. Mr. Nicholas. Very good friend.”
Eleanor stood and thanked the refugees for the meal. She walked to Nicholas and whispered she was going to bed.
“Is everything okay?” Nicholas asked.
“Everything’s fine,” she said. “I’m just tired.”
“It was a long day.” He kissed her forehead.
She passed the basement bathroom and went into the bedroom. She pulled off her pants in the dark. She lowered herself onto the bed and clutched her belly and lay very still and did not pull up the covers over her body. The noise persisted above her. She swallowed food and acid that pushed into her mouth. Her throat burned and her stomach ached. She lay in bed and dug her head into the pillow and fell asleep.
When she woke Nicholas lay next to her, on his back. She lifted herself out of bed and slid her hand along the wall to find the bathroom. She closed the door, turned on the light, the fan.
She pulled off her shirt so she wouldn’t dirty its collar, moved the rug out from around the toilet and put up the seat. She took a deep breath and contracted her stomach, to push its contents up and up against her throat. She slid two fingers into her mouth, past her teeth, past the ridges of her hard palate, between her tonsils. She heard Mary’s voice floating above her, are you still doing that thing? She removed her fingers from her mouth, squeezed her eyes shut and let out a deep, helpless moan. She turned off the fan and the light, found her way back to the bed.
Eleanor woke tangled in damp clothes and sheets. She pulled herself out of them, sat up, found the shape of Nicholas lying next to her.
Her phone beeped, and she reached for it. The text message from Alec read: Still friends?
Nicholas began to wake, shifted slightly and pressed his eyelids closed until they flittered open. He looked confused in the mornings.
She touched his arm. She smiled at him a little, and he smiled back.
“Who was that?” Nicholas asked.
“No one,” she said. “How did you sleep?”
Nicholas looked happy, relaxed. Perhaps it was the result of the refugees’ show of gratitude. He lifted his body onto his elbows. He kissed her on the cheeks, then the lips. Eleanor watched his hand move under the covers, felt it touch her leg. He kissed her again. His hands crept to her thigh. She stopped it with her hand and looked at him.
“I have something to tell you,” she said. “It’s about last night. Something happened with Alec.”
“He tried to kiss me. He did kiss me. I didn’t want him to.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Is that all that happened?”
No, she thought. She looked him in the eyes and said, “No.” Then she told him about the rape.