Memory settles over the house like salt blown in from the sea. Spanish moss wilts green over the drive. Windows arch like glass lungs, breathing in her husband’s reflection as he cuts across the yard and searches the perimeter. For weeks, she’s wanted to come home, and now she relaxes in the truck’s passenger seat. Absorbs the feel of the place mothering her. She may fail in so many ways, but her body can remember these pleasures. Already, the island brings relief.
It couldn’t have come fast enough. She’s missed the house where Olivia raised her. Olivia making Gullah rice in the kitchen, a mess of sausage and chili powder staining the counter red. Olivia bringing home work from her shop, threading charms from the den’s coral couch. Olivia disappearing around a corner, the flutter of pastel caftans over her dark arms as she called back: “I chose you, yeah child? So if you’re crying about some dance lesson ya want to take, I guess I chose your whining too. You’ll have it if it’s important to ya.”
Not that she’d known sadness then. After turning eighteen, she’d watched Olivia sink into the silence of brain tumors. She’d inherited Olivia’s savings and the house, cut fresh with death. Then fled St. Simons for college in Orlando, where she danced and met Dev and buried her grief in a new life. They’d studied at the library and shared breakfast at his uncle’s construction site, swapping stories. The eighteen-wheeler that, after crossing the median, blasted his family from the earth. Her childhood with Olivia, so lovely she didn’t mind that she couldn’t remember her first foster homes. She and Dev had married after graduation. Two people riddled with loss.
Dev approaches her window. Raps it with his knuckles. She rolls it down, letting in the June smell of the Georgia coast, stickier than Florida’s.
“You’ll stay in while I walk around back?” he says, worry weighing down his face. He thinks so much can go wrong here—wandering men squatting on the back porch, wild animals lurking at the lawn’s edges—believing death is always coming for someone he loves.
“I’m good,” she says. True for the first time in a while. She watches him turn away, his bunned afro and cargo shorts and work boots disappearing around the house’s blue side.
After a few weeks here, she’ll make her body hers. In January, her hips went weak. Pain streaking from her raised thigh all the way down her legs. A fluke, she’d thought, until every movement became less precise, the pain rippling through her pelvis. Until the director’s eyes measured her. Dev’s too, as he watched rehearsal one evening, early to collect her from the theater.
“What’s the point in pretending it doesn’t hurt?” he’d asked when they got home.
“Sacrifice for what you love, I guess.” She shrugged off her coat.
“Well, don’t.” When she froze, he added: “I mean, doctors helped the first time around, right?”
“I guess,” she said. But she crushed her coat against her belly. Went into the bedroom.
“What?” he asked, following. “What?”
The implication too much: Sex used to hurt you too. And you got treatment for that. Only she hadn’t. After the doctors failed to treat her during those college years, the pain striking her whenever Dev pushed in, she’d lied, loving him, and said sex felt good. Part of the way she’d clung to him then. And so did this mean this painful change in her dancing would persist too?
“I’ve—never taken care of it,” she said. “It’s never really gone away.”
“Never?” he’d asked. Then again. He let go of her wrists. “This whole time?”
They’d both needed space. Him to deal with her lying. Her to heal herself—from dance and sex—without the pressure of his presence. Not that moving out helped. She’d traded their life for longing phone calls, for a houseful of dancing girls whose bodies obeyed them. Who welcomed boys with shark-tooth necklaces into their beds. Who danced to house music thumping against her door. Those other dancers could slip on their white tulle dresses and make an audience gasp with the slow tilt of their bodies. In their final show, they’d mimed a clock hand, slowly turning across the face of the stage. Her dancing worsened. She’d only just survived this season. She had to get better before the fall.
As she’d cleaned out her stall, she’d known where to go. How else to get ahold of herself than to return to Olivia’s, her memory of childhood lush and restorative.
Dev returns to the truck. He shields his eyes, squinting through the sunlight. She’s always had to look up at him, his body like a wave suspended over her petite frame, but she feels herself rising as he approaches, as if it’s her body cresting. He’s given her so much. Agreed to help her move in. Even shaved for her, she’d noticed, when he’d picked her up that morning.
“Everything’s clear, far as I can tell,” he says. He scratches at his chin. “Guess it’s safe for you to go in alone, if that’s still what you want.”
At nine, she’d been a polyp at Olivia’s side. There’s not much she remembers from the first slice of her childhood—a stain in one foster home’s ceiling and a wooden banister in another—but she recalls the social worker bringing her to Olivia’s. The slow ride past the white retirees walking the pier. The wood house smaller than the others, though a fresh coat of blue paint suggested enough money for color. They’d stood on its porch, Mrs. Dawson holding her sweating hand. When Olivia opened the door and reached out, her fingers were warm on her shoulder. Olivia’s dark skin, rich as bark. Her own, light as butter browned in a skillet.
The women above her exchanged looks. “You understand?” Mrs. Dawson asked.
Olivia nodded, brushing her off: “C’mon in, Grace. Take your shoes off.”
Over the years, Olivia would say she behaved like a toddler during those early months. She hovered outside the bathroom while Olivia bathed. She hid behind the counters at the boutique, watching Olivia explain her sweetgrass designs to her customers, detailing how her ancestors had mastered silversmithing, replicating patterns in the earth. “Making dinner was impossible, girl,” Olivia said once. “Sticking your hands in everything. Calling yourself useful.” All Grace remembers is the longing—the hope that this woman would keep her.
Even at twenty-four, the desire doesn’t disappear. Dev waits on the porch steps as she enters. Through the layer of dust, her mind smells a sharp twinge of bay leaf. There’s the pastel couch covered in plastic. The hanging woven baskets. One of Olivia’s old customers, Mr. Jenkins, who’d often bought gifts for his wife, has kept an eye on the place all these years—cutting the grass, checking on the house after hurricanes, forwarding her the mail. “Anything I can do, Grace,” he’d said. “Such a shame.”
Upstairs, something shifts, low as wind. Irrationally, she thinks: Olivia. Then: Maybe Dev’s missed something? She climbs the carpeted stairs and turns left toward her old room.
She feels someone inside even before she opens the door—a bend in the air that bristles against her skin.
A woman sleeps on her bed. Black hair covering her face.
She starts to yelp, but her body catches it in time. Sucks back the scream, along with all she notices. The toenails glittering pink. The silk of flat-ironed hair. A silver charm bracelet. Not a woman then, but a girl. If she were a dancer, she’d be a cygnet.
Grace steps deeper into the room. It’s been a long time, but nothing’s been touched, she thinks. Her jewelry box—empty anyway—sits familiarly askew on her turquoise dresser. A tapestry of a rabbit outrunning a fox hangs undefaced. Even a scarf, with gold and blue threading, still hangs from her closet doorknob, abandoned when she left for college.
Olivia would bring the girl tea and say, “Well go on and tell ya story. Some of me in you, probably.” What if this girl has nowhere to go? What if, for God knows how long, Olivia’s home has been hers too?
Grace eases out of the room and pads down the stairs. Pushes open the front door and steps outside. When Dev spots her, he leans up from where he’s been resting on the porch railing. Already, sweat forms in the spots where his T-shirt brushes his back.
Afraid their voices will carry into the house, she mouths, Sleeping girl. Then: Don’t panic. Her husband, the worrier, who’d always insisted on driving her everywhere—rehearsals, grocery stores, restaurants.
He doesn’t understand, so she moves closer to him, wrapping her arms around herself.
“There’s a girl in my room,” she whispers, a little louder. “Asleep.”
He just blinks. Then he says, “A girl? You mean like a real person inside the house?” Then his hand is on her waist, guiding her away from the front door. His touch shocks her more than anything. The whole drive over, he’d only gripped the wheel.
In her surprise, she lets him pass, move into the house without her. Then she thinks: Follow him. That girl will be terrified to see him standing over her like that.
The thought comes too late. When the girl shouts, she’s only on the stairs.
They calm her down with a glass of water. Dev leans against the door while Grace crouches before her, murmuring, “Hey, hey, we won’t hurt you.” The girl’s brown eyes—she really is just a girl, fifteen, maybe sixteen—shift between them.
“I didn’t take anything,” the girl says. “I just fell asleep on accident.”
“How’d you get in?” Dev says. Between his fingers, he holds the girl’s sandals hostage. “If you don’t want police over here, you better make something make sense.”
“There,” the girl says, nodding toward the bay window. Of course. Grace can remember opening it on warmer mornings, curling on the window seat with a magazine splayed on her thighs, a glimpse of the Atlantic over the neighbor’s roof. “It was unlocked—.”
“This is the second floor,” Dev says. “What’d you do, climb?”
“There’s some woodwork,” Grace says. Some decorative paneling where Olivia had been planning to grow peppers. “That’s how you got in?”
The girl apologizes again, takes a long sip from her glass. When she speaks again, she says, “No one said other renters were coming. I never would’ve come in if I’d thought that.”
“We’re not renters,” Dev says. He unfolds his arms, letting the girl’s shoes dangle.
“No one’s been here,” the girl says. “How would I know you were coming?”
Dev motions for Grace, a certain cock of his head. As she crosses, she’s certain, somehow, that the girl won’t bolt out the window.
When her face is inches from his, he whispers, “You sure you don’t want to call the police?” His eyes glance over her shoulder.
“Not yet.” She rests her gaze in the dip of skin at his collarbone. Not so far up that she meets his eyes. “She’s so young. Who knows what she needs?”
The girl feels Dev’s silence, sensing a space big enough for her to ease into.
“I’m not a criminal,” she says. She slides off the bed, her arms raised to show the pale underside of one hand, the cell phone in the other. “I just hang out here. My parents don’t know I brought my phone on vacation.”
Dev scoffs, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” But the sound is lighter, almost a laugh.
The girl’s eyes slide up as if searching for another explanation. But then she looks down and works her fingers over the phone.
“My boyfriend,” she says. “My dad will lose his cool.”
She turns the phone to reveal a teenager photographing himself through a bathroom mirror. His body slim and dark. His face shy, uncertain of his handsomeness. What appears in Grace’s belly is vague and uncertain too, until she silently names it for what it is. Jealousy.
“We video chat here,” the girl repeats. “It’s quiet—and like I said, the window was open, and I can see if my parents are looking for me. And no one’s been here.”
Grace wishes she knew Dev’s thoughts. Don’t have a secret boyfriend, maybe. Or, Thank God Grace and I never made a kid. He’s gone silent beside her, so silent she doesn’t know if he feels this child’s insistence. Her willingness to work her body up a wall, over a porch landing, and through someone’s window. It makes their own love seem small.
“Look,” the girl says, her voice rising. She flops her arms. A burst of childlike tantrum against the curve of her waist, exposed midriff over denim. “I’m staying right there.”
Through the window, she points at the neighboring house, which Grace remembers belonging to an old white couple who’d passed away within days of each other the autumn she turned fifteen. “Hear me good,” Olivia had said then, sipping coffee as she stared at the couple’s grown children, dressed in black as they filed through the front door. “They’ll rent it out. No one protects a home.”
“See?” the girl says, pointing outside. Below, a Black man walks to a white convertible parked at the curb, his keys swinging. “That’s my dad. His name’s Adam Wright. And me—I’m Natalie.”
When they let the girl out the back, Grace studies the way she leaves. Natalie takes one step out into the yard, then another, peering around the corner to make sure her father’s driven away from the front. Then the girl slips her phone under her bra strap, right above her heart, and jogs across the lawn with her hand over the device, keeping it close. It’s a quick, purposeful jog, her feet nearly escaping from her sandals. She came all the way over here just to call him, Grace thinks. She’ll do anything for that boy.
“What you thinking?” Dev says. When she turns, he’s inches from her face again, his own soft and open.
“Nothing,” she says.
The day is getting away and it’s time to clean and unload.
The girl has made both of them quiet. It takes half the afternoon to get everything inside and unpacked, all her sweaters and tights and spices, things which seem oddly empty to her now, not enough to sustain life. Aside from mentioning where to put her boxes, the rolls of clothes she’s secured with twine, the conversation wilts. The whole four-hour car ride, they’d talked about the houses he was building, her hip therapy. Just stress, her physical therapist said. Rest. She’d tucked her feelings for him deep in her ribs, along with all the other questions about where he would sleep and how soon she’d be ready to be with him again.
And yet here he is, working himself into this house. Once they finish unpacking, he crouches near the den window, a man so absorbed in his work that it’s like she’s watching him through glass.
“Latches are a little damaged,” he says, leaning close enough to kiss them. “Probably just weak from erosion. Girl could have gotten in this way, to be honest. You don’t have much keeping these locked.”
She stands, fixed, in the square of sunlight passing through the window and stamping itself on the floor.
“Just need replacements. We can pick those up at any hardware store.”
He notes the chipping paint on the front door, the tiny holes in the hardwood floors where particles of sand have dug their way in.
“Could be in worse shape, all things considered,” he says, wiping his hands on his pants. “Lucky you’ve had no flooding the last six years.”
She knows she should worry on some level, but she thinks of the girl, her ease. She can draw everything into her.
She rests her finger on his back as he bends over a box. Having missed him so much, is her body capable now? It wants what it wants. When he’d touched her, it stored the memory of his hand, a nudging at her waist.
He goes still under her touch, his hands pausing. If this were a scene in a ballet, he would rise slowly and then lift her by the waist, and she’d straighten, prop her hands on his shoulders, feel him propel her overhead. It’s a relief when he reaches around to clasp her fingers in his own. He’s missed her too.
“You hungry?” she asks. She’s close enough to smell his wood smell.
“Starving,” he says. And though he’s not looking at her as he rises, she can trace his smile, an unwinding in his cheek.
Sometimes, she thinks, memory lodges in the body. She’s always suspected that people have been wrong about the brain, about the flashes of light and color sparking in its folds, compressed by hard skull. Memory travels down arms and legs familiar with the dance, under the arch of the spine or the foot. The body remembers.
Her first time at sex. A Thanksgiving holiday with the campus emptied, students home for roasted turkey and yams drowning in marshmallows. She and Dev had made grilled cheese, an easy find in the picked-clean supermarket. A glob of cheddar coated his finger as they’d stood in her kitchen, and impulsively, she’d slipped his fingers in her mouth. Up to the knuckle. He watched, and she saw herself going still, her jacket tied around her waist like a bow. So her body could do this too, hold a gaze offstage. “I want you,” he said. “I want you too,” she replied. They’d both been shy, reluctant to trust someone else’s body as home.
“You sure?” he said as he hovered over her later, his face flushed. “You’ve got this look.” She nodded, wanting his closeness. Of course, she’d been a little nervous, remembering the pressure of inserting tampons. Maybe she clenched a tiny bit.
But she hadn’t imagined this pain. Dull, then reverberating through her hips, as if he’d moved into bone instead of flesh. How could she be this wet and this closed? She gasped, and he mistook it for pleasure. He rocked against her—against, it felt to her, not into—and she yelped and he sighed and flopped his head on hers, releasing all his breath into her ear. Outside, someone drove by on a campus cart and the blue light shuddered over his closed eyes.
“Did I hurt you?” he asked.
She curled against his shoulder. “First time, I guess.”
Only, it kept hurting. Months of pain. In her dorm and his and the spare room in his uncle’s house where they spent spring break. They tried more lube. Longer foreplay.
Then: doctors. She let her body go limp as they examined her, the cool grind of the speculum. Spasms, they said. Here are exercises for your pelvic floor. Here is how he can slide in one finger and then three. Here are plastic cones to put inside yourself. Start with the smallest and move up until you acclimate to penetration. Sitting on her toilet, she’d pushed the thinnest penis-shaped object into herself. Detached from him, the cone only made her body resist. Two weeks later there was still no improvement.
“How’s it going in there?” Dev said through the door. “Better?”
She remembered him waiting in the clinic, his body bent awkwardly in the plastic chairs. When he saw her emerging, his eyes went: Am I going to have to live without this too?
“Yes,” she lied. “Much.”
When he said, “Thank God,” she returned the cones to the paper sack. Folded down the top and placed them in the cabinet below the bathroom sink.
She pretended. Relying on his tongue for her pleasure. Wrapping her legs around his waist as he entered her. Biting her lip in a semblance of ecstasy. Closing her eyes as if the stars behind them meant she was soaring. Out of her body. Beyond the rafters. Higher. By the night of their wedding, in a coastal bed-and-breakfast, a quiet room with blackberry wallpaper, she thought: Apart from this, he makes you so happy.
She still hopes she can make her body do what she wants. As they eat dinner on Olivia’s porch, she thinks, Oh this is so easy. This is what we needed. They’ve soaped and scrubbed the chairs and floors, and the wood holds rainbowing water in places where it’s uneven. She takes bites of her crab sandwich, picked up in town, and crumbs land in the tiny pools. Already Olivia’s house feels lived-in again, as if they’re scattering bits of themselves all over the place.
“This doesn’t hurt your hip?” he asks. He studies the way she sits sideways on the chair, turning toward him so their knees touch.
“I haven’t been dancing, so . . . ” She wonders if she’s making him uncomfortable and begins to face the right way. He stops her. Rests his thumb in the groove of her knee.
“I’m not saying—,” he begins. “I mean—I’m glad you feel comfortable.”
She nods. Already, this place, the space she needed, is working.
As they wipe butter from their fingers, a couple comes out of the neighboring house. The man’s Hawaiian-print shirt breezes around his body. The woman carries two foil-wrapped plates, and Grace thinks, How romantic, they’re going to eat on the beach. But the couple heads in their direction. When Natalie pokes her head out the front door, her expression reads: Please, please don’t tell them anything.
There isn’t time. The father, Adam, is already mounting the porch steps and introducing himself, and then she and Dev are standing, engulfed in a hug as if he’s kin.
“This is my wife, Sheila,” Adam says. The woman clasps Grace’s hand. Her blouse slips, brown shoulders gleaming with oil, promising a sheen all over. When Natalie appears behind them, shy and nudging the back of her calves with her bare toes, Grace feels as if she’s on the verge of shattering with shyness. Is she jealous again, of this girl who still has parents she can keep secrets from? Of this girl who can do so much for love?
“When your truck pulled up this morning, I thought, Yes! Two more of us on this island,” Adam says. He smiles to reveal teeth friendly in their crookedness. Behind her father, Natalie sucks in her bottom lip. She draws close to her mother, gesturing for her to give up the plates.
“Hummingbird cake,” Sheila explains when Dev peels back the foil to reveal the cinnamon-colored slice. “Natalie got the impulse to make some today, and since we’ve been watching you come and go all morning, we thought we’d share a little.”
“That’s sweet,” Grace says. A peace offering. Sheila pulls back her braids, a sweep of wooden beads sealing the ends, to reveal cheeks harder than Natalie’s. The girl murmurs a thanks, and Grace can feel Dev softening at her side, his hand gentle on the small of her back.
“Well, we try to teach her how to be polite,” the father says. He steps back on the porch, peers at a trickle of soap running down one of the posts, then peers into the living room window. “You know how it is with kids. Doesn’t always take.”
“Oh, I think it sticks to her sometimes,” Sheila says. She wraps an arm around her daughter’s shoulders and pulls her in. Natalie’s face goes vacant, a mask over her embarrassment. “That’ll be my side coming out.”
They’re from Atlanta, staying for the summer, Sheila explains, taking a break from practicing law, from all their devices. They’ll spend a few weeks on St. Simons because who gets to be a family the way they should when everyone is sucked into their phones or their jobs or just trying to process everything going on in the news? They need a break from all that noise. Grace nods. She gets it. She’s a dancer, she says, and she’s hoping that this sea air, this coming home after so long, will do her some good too. Sheila nods before she’s even finished speaking. Natalie’s eyes flick her way, curious.
“So like, New York?” she says. “You dance there?”
“Orlando,” Natalie murmurs, and Sheila says, “She’s thinking about colleges. Any place outside of Georgia grabs her attention.”
“Yeah, well let’s hope it’s the education doing it,” Adam says. He puts a hand on the girl’s shoulder and drops it. “No use going that far just to get in trouble.”
She’s surprised by the way Dev, perhaps moved by the girl’s cake and her parents’ warmth, suggests they all go to the beach in the morning. His eyes are on her, asking a quieter question: How long can I stay?
The Wrights nod. She does too. She feels lovely, imagining her body floating over the waves, brushing his.