“It’s a good thing this pandemic is primarily an indoor challenge, because I’d be a shitty pioneer.” Frankie makes this observation while following Grace into the kitchen. Apparently it’s “Wednesday” at “seven p.m.” If everybody in the house is going to keep suspending disbelief and approaching each day as if it has a beginning, middle, and end, that means it’s time to figure out dinner.
“What would make you say that?” Grace asks wryly. She can think of a zillion reasons why Frankie would be a disaster at rustic prairie life, but she wants to hear what Frankie comes up with.
“Well, for starters, I’m very into HBO...and snacks that require a freezer...and smoking pot I didn’t have to cultivate myself.”
“And you have a terrible sense of direction. It’s just as well we can’t leave our house ever again.” It’s not just as well. It’s miserable. Even with Robert and Sol around, it’s so lovely to be back at the beach house, but it’s still awful.
“Not ‘ever again’—just not for the foreseeable future.” For a moment, Frankie looks far away, but she brightens soon enough. “I may lack outdoor survival skills, but damn it, I can provide for my family with a delicious pantry-and-freezer staple meal. Let’s do this!” She slams her hand down on the countertop. Across the room, Carl wakes up from his nap long enough to yelp.
Frankie pours Grace a glass of wine and leaps into action. She’s not a bad cook. When she puts her mind to it and plans a step or two ahead, she gets results. But tonight Grace watches knowingly as Frankie chooses a path that’s ruined her many times before. Instead of working in a sequence, she tries to do everything at once. With no outside consultation, she opts for breakfast for dinner, and suddenly there’s a skillet full of frozen spinach and hash browns and eggs simultaneously thawing and burning on the stovetop.
When it appears very likely that Frankie is about to use scissors to cut pieces of vegetarian sausage directly into the whole monstrosity, Grace knows it’s time for her favorite part, the part where she takes a long swig of her drink and steps in to save the day. Now she can boss Frankie around for as long as Frankie’s contrite enough to obey her commands. She turns the burner way down, then gets a second pan warming with a little butter so she can rescue the eggs. When the eggs are cooked enough to add the spinach, she has Frankie set the oven to a low temp so everything has a place to keep warm. She salvages the potatoes—a tiny bit more oil, a lid so the steam will help things cook—and adds the veggie sausage to one side of that pan while Frankie sets the table. Frankie does such a nice job that Grace generously allows her to grind pepper over the whole dish and select several hot sauces for the table.
“Grace, you’d have made a good pioneer,” Frankie says at dinner.
“Ha,” Grace says. “I was just sitting here thinking about how much I miss manicures.”
“No, you’d be the best of all of us,” says Robert. “You have the most patience for enduring subpar circumstances.”
Sol thrusts a hitchhiker’s thumb in Robert’s direction. “Case in point: your marriage to this guy.”
“And who needs manicures?” pipes up Frankie. “Last time you got one you told me it was like spending thirty bucks to be reminded that we’re all part of an endless losing battle to maintain our corporeal forms.”
Grace only vaguely remembers saying something that dramatic, but it’s true that things haven’t been the same since Sheree left the nail business. “Well, now it sounds fun.”
“Looks like you’re gonna have to take matters into your own hands,” Sol says, then laughs far too loudly at what he probably considers an innovative pun. No one else joins in.
There are worse things in the world than having ex-husbands around to take dish duty on the nights she and Frankie cook. As soon as dinner is over Grace goes upstairs to take Sol’s unwelcome but perfectly sensible advice. She trims her nails in her bathroom, but something tells her to head back downstairs with the polish remover and cotton balls and the bottle of shimmery pale pink she’s chosen from her dwindling collection. Lately there’s always an impulse urging her to do the opposite of whatever she’s planned. Since having to stay home all the time she gets lonely after practically thirty seconds of solitude, but then she can only take so many moments populated with Robert or Sol or both before she can hardly stand people, either. Since leaving Nick she’s never sure what Frankie is going to want to talk to her about, but she craves every conversation with the same wanting that suggests she ought to pick a scab or tear off a hangnail or open a bottle of vodka.
She’s learned there’s a space in between being alone and being surrounded by people, and that space is Frankie.
Grace removes her nail polish at the dining room table, the little pile of fluffy cotton balls turning red-stained and damp one by one. Despite the loneliness that prompted the relocation effort, she ends up alone at the table: Robert and Sol wander outside as soon as they’re done cleaning up the kitchen, and Frankie is probably out in her studio avoiding ancillary involvement in the chores. But when Grace finishes removing the old polish and starts to unscrew the cap on the nail polish bottle, Frankie appears.
“Let me paint your nails,” Frankie says, standing next to Grace’s chair. “I’m good at it.”
Grace smiles up at her. “Your canvases are usually a lot bigger.”
“I’m good at it,” Frankie says again.
It’s nothing like a nail salon. Frankie sits right next to her, one hand encircling her wrist to keep everything still, the other brushing the color onto each nail. She works slowly, painting in steady strokes. One thing at a time. Each move carefully planned.
“Why’d you choose this color?” Frankie asks when she finishes the first coat on the right hand. She gets up so she can move to the chair on Grace’s other side.
Grace doesn’t think she knows—why does anyone choose anything?—but she answers the question anyway. “Contrast,” she says, and realizes this is the real reason why. “The last shade was really bright, so I wanted something calm.”
She knows from the previous hand’s experience that Frankie will hold onto her wrist, but she isn’t prepared for Frankie’s fingertips against her wrist bones, then the pressure against her veins, so light it’s almost imaginary. “It’s a pretty color for you,” Frankie says. “The last one was too.”
“You are good at this,” Grace admits.
“I used to paint my sister’s nails a lot.”
“But not your own.”
“Not my own.”
Grace steals a glance at Frankie’s face while she paints. Frankie’s tongue sticks out of her mouth, just barely, and presses against her lower lip. Her brow is furrowed. This is nighttime-in-a-pandemic Frankie—the serious person who keeps getting into Grace’s bed now that she lives at home again, the serious person who takes shelter in Grace’s room and talks about death and poverty and melting ice and the next pandemic and the next and the next and the kind of world the grandchildren will inherit. It happened last night, and the Saturday before that, and on several nameless nights before that. No matter how many times it happens, Grace always feels nearly panicked as she tries to respond to the doom Frankie feels so acutely. She listens. She agrees with it. She suggests they can use the daytime to make it better. She prays her arm around Frankie’s waist will communicate everything she fumbles when she tries to comfort her with words. Then the morning comes and Frankie becomes okay again, becomes the funny person who makes coffee and sings in the shower and wants Grace to help her pick out a ridiculous Zoom background for when they call the kids.
Frankie returns to the right hand for the second coat as soon as she finishes the first coat on the left. She works slowly, applying each stroke of paint only when she’s sure. On the penultimate finger, the newly ringless finger on Grace’s left hand, she slips a little and smudges paint to one side of the nail bed. She takes one of the cotton balls and soaks its clean side in nail polish remover, then erases the error with a clean cold streak. She doesn’t apologize for the mistake, and why should she, when they both know she’s capable of fixing it?
When she’s finished and there’s nothing to do but wait for the nails to dry, Frankie lets go only long enough to screw the top back on the bottle of nail polish. Other than that brief moment, she continues to circle Grace’s wrist, and she strokes her fingertips across Grace’s knuckles.
“Um,” Grace says. “Do you think you’ll want to come upstairs and talk about death tonight?” She hopes it sounds like an invitation.
“Yeah, sure,” Frankie says casually. “I could probably give that topic a rest, even.” She grins. “You know, just for tonight.”
Grace imagines losing count of the nights Frankie interprets stay-at-home as stay-in-Grace’s-bed, imagines living through so many of them that time stops mattering altogether. They’ll use the sunrise to know they’ve made it past another night, and the sunset as a reminder to cook dinner. For once she’d like to lose track of everything but the darkness and light, until eventually her bed can be the place they go after a day out in the world. “Whatever you want,” she says.
Frankie gives her hand a squeeze. “We’ll go up as soon as your nails dry.”