Nina drove for fourteen hours, stopping only to pee and eat a hot dog at a roadhouse. All her life she thought the middle of the country had moose and blue trucks and men with tall hats. But it turned out to be limestone and crippled people with no jobs.
On the road she felt the desire to have sex clearer than ever. A virgin, Nina couldn’t determine the locus of the need. But when she found herself behind a truck carrying sections of gas pipe, she became transfixed by the bright, aggressive cylinders.
She’d been fingered, of course, by Ryan S., who had sustained the same pimple since freshman year. In his basement, with the Schlitz sign and the colored Christmas lights and the mom on the phone upstairs. He had this terrified look on his face the whole time, like he was waiting for her to blast off into space.
—Okay, that’s enough, said Nina, after two quiet minutes. She imagined a black and blue inside of her. A week later, by the time she felt untouched enough to masturbate again, it was the same day she got the news at school. Principal Field walked into her A.P. Spanish class. He had a green-hued face and looked like the Incredible Mr. Limpet.
—Nina, he’d said. Out in the hall he told her there’d been a car accident. A seafood truck. No turn signal. It was her mother who had no turn signal. It seemed important for the principal to inform Nina it was her mother’s fault that she was dead.
She was eighteen in one month and would go to college in four. Her mother, a widow with no close friends, had guilted her into staying close to home, so Nina had enrolled at Rutgers. She’d share a dorm room with a girl named Elizabeth. On the phone, Elizabeth sounded like a nerd who’d never suffered, or eaten lobster.
Nina inherited $47,000 plus the house to sell or rent. She was a virgin queen. Proprietor of flat sheets and a garlic press. The idea that she could have gone to Tulane, Pepperdine, McGill. Nights she sat in her Volkswagen in the parking lot of 7-Eleven and watched kids her age, washed in the fluorescent light of 11:00 p.m., emerge with Slurpees and frozen Snickers.
Days she packed up the house. Aunts and cousins came to help. Some pilfered silver candlesticks and cigarette cases. One outright asked for the gold leopard ring with the emerald eyes and the tennis bracelet from Macy’s that Nina helped her father pick out. Her father was dead, too. But his death suddenly seemed like a tornado in a far-off state. Now it was her mother’s handwriting in the margins of cookbooks that sent Nina to puke in the bathroom.
She’d saved the nightstand for last because it had been her mother’s private zone. There was no lock, and Nina didn’t remember having been explicitly forbidden to open the drawers as a child, yet it was the most prohibited space. For all its intrigue, there might have been her mother’s vagina inside—metabolized via death into a velvet change purse.
Two days ago, she’d opened all the secret drawers and emptied them. Then she shut them because open drawers were the mark of entitled slovenliness. She sat on the Persian rug. It was cream and sapphire, like jewels in sandy countries. She pulled at its tufts. The carpet was her mother’s prized possession. Nina could drop on it anything she wanted now. Pear nectar, nail polish. The death of one’s parents tendered an unholy freedom. But suddenly the rug belonged to her, and it was worth a lot. So the freedom was short-lived. She petted the tufts down and read all the emails.
There weren’t so many, but it took her a long time to absorb each one. It seemed likely they’d been in the nightstand like this even when her father was alive. The audacity was shocking. And yet none of it was effectively sinful; the emails predated her parents’ marriage.
The man’s name was Jon. Nina liked the name; the omission of the h was jaunty.
He started his notes out, Hey hey. He used ellipses with extra dots. At some point he’d gone to Peru, and when he told Nina’s mother he was back in town, she could feel the brightness in her mother’s reply, a schoolgirl exultation she’d never known.
Hey hey back in town . . . . .
its been a struggle getting back into the swing of things.
The trip was unbelievable, Peru is a beautiful country.
Rob told me you guys got pretty drunk the other night at back bar.
You have to be careful when Danny is pouring, he’ll light you up if your not careful.
Wisconsin, welcome back.
Not sure what other night you’re referring to, I haven’t been to harry’s in a while and the last time i met rob there, i didn't drink more than a few beers. But I did go to spring lounge a few nights ago, and I remembered about your hands.
Poor mother, thought Nina. Maxine had taught her how to read men. Partly, this was why Nina was a virgin. She could see through all the boys her age. Sleeping with one of them would feel like she were letting all of them get away with something.
Maxine had been so methodical in her teaching that Nina had expected to find a playbook somewhere. Among the many inconceivable things about Maxine’s death were the lessons she hadn’t yet taught her daughter, the balance of the dark arts.
What Nina saw now was that her mother had not been born with her wisdom. She did not come out of the womb unflappable. The rest of the emails between Jon “Wisconsin” and Maxine told a dark, slippery tale. Jon was married. He and his wife and their young son lived on the Upper West Side. Maxine had been writing a story about the men on Wall Street, back in what she called her former life, as a reporter for a small paper. The affair lasted a few months. From what Nina could tell, there were less than seven meet-ups during that time. Her mother had done most of the soliciting. Cloaked as they were in bravado—Going to Yankees game, have fun at work sucker! and Just back from Barcelona, feeling slippery—her mother’s words were so obviously steeped in desperation. A thin and lonely woman eating quinoa in a studio.
The thing that did not predate her parents’ marriage was the newspaper clipping of the married man’s dead son. A four-year-old who’d drowned in a Wisconsin ice-fishing accident. The paper was yellowed and soft. It had been handled a lot. The accompanying photo was a picture of the boy on a shining dock in red swim trunks. He had a ruddy and beautiful face. Nina thought of her mother running her hand across the clipping, crying about a child she had never met.
After thirty minutes on the internet, Nina knew the man’s address and seventy percent of his trajectory. Jon Dunham lived in a house on the banks of the Bois Brule, in Winneboujou. He was fifty-three. In a recent but pixelated picture, he was holding a trout the size of a corgi. He had a big, manly nose, blue eyes, and wavy hair. He was objectively even more handsome than Nina’s father, who had been hit on by many of Nina’s friends’ mothers.
Jon Dunham and his wife had split up shortly after the death of their child. She kept the apartment in Manhattan, and he withdrew to their summer cabin in Wisconsin. He competed in fishing competitions but otherwise lived the quiet, retired life of a suffering rich guy.
If his boy, Charlie, had lived, he would have been five years older than Nina. He would have been the kind of handsome that was in short supply. Not like the baby pricks her age who worked at Hollister and had boring, rippled chests. Nina had many feelings about the dead kid and the man who was clearly Maxine’s longtime obsession. But mostly she looked upon her parents’ meet-cute in a new light. The story had been spun like a downtown fairytale, true love dusted with cigarette ash. One windy but warm spring evening, Maxine walked into McSorley’s alone, the points of her heels a quarter inch deep in sawdust and peanut shells. Easy pickings, Nina’s father, Richard, had said. Every guy knows that when a girl goes to a bar by herself in high heels. They talked for hours, but some psycho hairdresser also tried to take Maxine home. He kept buying tequila shots and fruitily kissing your mother’s hand.
At midnight Richard picked up Maxine’s gray felt book bag and waited by the door. It had all of her Post-it notes inside, he said, so I knew she’d come with me. The McSorley’s story. It was all dartboards and sweetness and dark ales with creamy heads. An evil villain to boot.
That night, which they celebrated thereafter as their anniversary because of the love-at-first-sightness, coincided with the last email from Jon Wisconsin, which said something to the effect of, All we had is dead, as I am dead; Marry another.
A couple of months later Maxine and Richard tied the knot in an ugly church on the Gowanus. Maxine wore red, nobody important came, and they were pregnant with Nina by the chalky end of the summer.
The clouds of Wisconsin were fat dragons. There were silos and rainbows. As Nina neared the river, the farms gave way to whitetail deer and log cabins.
She’d called ahead. He had a house line. His voice was slow and twangy. She told him whose daughter she was. Said she’d be passing through the state on her way to college. He acted like her mother was a normal old friend. Probably, like everyone, he liked a nice mystery. For her part, Nina did not tell him that Maxine was dead.
Many times, over raw dough or garlic skipping in oil, her mother said to her, You will never be hurt by a man. I am making sure.
During one of these kitchen confidentials, a few days after her first period, Nina asked,—But what if I want to be hurt? She had just seen something on HBO, where someone
sexy said, Love hurts.
—What? Maxine said. No. This is about self-awareness. This gift I’m giving you, what I teach you every day, self-awareness, and awareness of everything around you, you won’t be able to eat a lunch with someone without knowing they don’t want to tip the waiter as much as you do.
—What if I never fall in love?
—You’ll be lucky. But it’s impossible. No, you’ll want to fall in love. There’s no life without it.
—You were irresistible to dad.
—Yeah, her mother said, like that. Maxine’s eyes were warmish but always looking out of windows.
It was early morning when Nina reached the town line of Winneboujou. Driving through the night made her feel like a warrior. Now she napped for a few hours in the backseat, leaving open the glove compartment where Maxine had spilled her Shalimar around Easter.
Jon’s house was off a dirt road rimmed with pine and white birch. Ten degrees cooler between the trees. The branches and the dark road looked wet. Nina wore a white tank top and jeans and the leather sandals her mother had worn two weeks ago. Her hair felt dirty but looked good. A mile away, she had applied mascara and poppy lip treatment. She played Carey, by Joni Mitchell, for the seventeenth time.
His driveway was circular and the house was no summer cabin. It was modern and imposing, many windows and dark fantastic wood. She wished she had a dog because she would turn to it now and say, What in the fuck am I doing?
She parked her little car next to his forest green Suburban. Her mother had always waited on stoops for her. They fought and she never gave her enough cash for a night out, but Maxine waited on stoops, dyed blond hair shivering in the breeze.
Here now was her mother’s former lover, waiting the same way, next to piles of neatly cut wood. He wore a fishing vest. His cargo pants were taut against his thighs. She didn’t try to stop herself from noticing that. She got out of the car and found her feet had fallen asleep.