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June & July
When Lottie Wilkes opened her eyes on the morning of June 13, she congratulated herself on passing the one-year mark without having had sex with her husband.
Ethan sighed softly in his sleep. He turned over, draping an unconscious arm across her forehead. He was so dear in his sleep—the sweet shallow breaths, the familiar humid smell, the flutters behind the veiny lids—Lottie couldn’t get enough of looking at him, so soft, so vulnerable. He grunted.
Lottie remembered that it had been a year because almost exactly a year ago—the day before their anniversary—she and her husband had managed to find it in themselves to “log some sack time,” as he used to put it. Lottie had felt a little overlooked in that last exercise, as if she could have been anyone, and asked, “Can you kiss me like you used to?”
“Jesus Christ, Lottie!” he’d replied, before flinging off the covers and storming out of the apartment. Lottie had forgotten for the moment that he didn’t like being asked to do things, and promised herself no sex unless there was kissing. A promise she’d been able to keep.
Ethan opened his huge brown eyes. “Hi, Mommy,” he whispered.
“Shhh, sweetie,” said Lottie. “Don’t wake Daddy.”
Ethan would turn four in September. This month he was three and three-quarters. He was precocious with fractions. He was not precocious about sleeping in his own bed.
“Come on, sweetie,” she told him in a whisper. “Let’s get up.”
It was 5:42 A.M., and this June 13 was the seventh morning in a row that would have been better spent asleep. Summer officially started in eight days and yet it was gray, dreary, wet, cold; animals would stay in their dens, birds in their nests, fish in whatever they slept in—reefs? Ethan, of course, was impervious to weather. He could be relied on to wake up between 5:30 and 5:47 every morning, after having gone to sleep—screaming, under protest—somewhere shortly before midnight. And running headlong into their bed between 2:37 and 3:04. Ethan, of course, could take a two-hour nap late every afternoon, and did. Lottie and Jon could not.
Sleep deprivation is what really kills you about child rearing. Not spending time with their little selves or pushing them in strollers or talking, seriously, about whether doorbells are magic. That stuff is gorgeous. The killer is the two- to three-hour-a-night sleep regimen, not just once in a blue moon, but night after night after day after night. Sex was collateral damage. And truly, Lottie’s life was easier without it. Less laundry, too.
Lottie led Ethan to the bathroom. He was proud of his Pull-Ups, but not so proud that he didn’t soak them just before daybreak.
“Good boy!” said Lottie enthusiastically when Ethan stood pleased and tall next to the potty, emitting nothing. “Good try!”
She adored him, and not just because they looked alike: curly-haired, wide-eyed elves. She was stunned by the words in his little brain. She was struck dumb by the determination of his solid body. She marveled every time he framed a new idea.
“Breakfast, Mommy!” said Ethan this morning, and Lottie was overcome, as she was every morning.
And as they did every morning, the early hours passed in a flurry of bananas and instant grits and Z100 and train videos on YouTube. Jon arose at 7:15 as he did every morning and got dressed in his striving lawyerly suit and boxed shirt and kissed them both on the cheek on his way out to work.
“Bye, little buddy,” he said to Ethan. “Happy almost anniversary, hon,” he added to Lottie as he headed out the door, almost as if he, too, remembered. But not enough to want to do anything about it. “I’ll be home on the late side.”
Whatever that meant.
Lottie and Ethan busied themselves getting ready for preschool. Four hours a day and twenty-seven thousand dollars a year. That was the thought she had every morning as she pushed the stroller up the slope to Happy Circle Friends. Twenty-seven thousand dollars a year that she didn’t make and Jon did and that neither of them could put toward their college loans. And Happy Circle was the cheap one.
This morning the twenty-seven thousand dollars seemed more punitive than usual. It would have been so much easier to do preschool at home. The weirdly warm rain pelted down in sheets from the leaden sky. Lottie didn’t have rain boots—or at least she couldn’t find them, again, on her way out the door—and her feet would be soaking before they got to Third Avenue. Ethan was kicking against the plastic sheeting of his stroller, loving his power over the raindrops, which he directed into rivulets from within his cocoon.
The parking lot of dripping strollers crowded the vestibule of the former church that housed both Happy Circle Friends and its tonier rival, President Pre. Lottie’s purple leggings were soaked from knee to hem. Most of the Happy Circle moms were not her friends, but Lottie tried to be friendly to everyone. She was the friendly type. Her hair was so wet she shook it out like a dog all over Ethan—he loved that—as she said good-bye to him.
“Good boy, Mommy!” said Ethan and patted her like a puppy. “Go now.” Once he was at the Lego table he didn’t want her around. “Bye, sweetie Ethie!” said Lottie, and even she knew she’d have to stop calling him that soon. She braced herself to start back out into the rain, picking her way through the soggy souped-up Maclaren strollers to the vestibule.
It was really coming down now. What was this, hail? The rain hadn’t let up since mid-May. Of course, soon they’d be begging for a little cool rain once the savage heat of August blew in. Lottie adjusted her slicker and put her hands in her pockets. Maybe a large skim latte would help.
As she turned to leave, something caught her eye: a new notice on the old-fashioned bulletin board by the front door. There, among “Our Beloved Nanny Is Leaving” and “Breast-feeding Coach—Beyond Pain to Lactation,” was one that read:
Little Lost Island, Maine.
Old, pretty cottage to rent, on a small island.
Springwater, blueberries, sea glass.
All at once she was aware of a sharp intake of breath just behind her.
“Is that because of the cottage?” Lottie asked. She didn’t even know whom she was asking.
“Was your gasp because of this sign?” She turned to see another mom—so different from her! Tall and Nordic with a square face and superpale blue eyes. This was a President Pre mother, a big-deal President Pre mother: Rose Arbuthnot, an actual genius.
The other mom quickly folded up a letter that Lottie could see was on President Preschool letterhead. Lottie had heard they were always sending parents letters—e-mail wouldn’t do for President Pre. President Pre was tough.
“Little Lost Island,” said Rose, not quite to herself.
Rose Arbuthnot was married to a writer, Fred Arbuthnot (she took his name!), who was famous in the Slope for being one of their two residents who had won a MacArthur Award. He was the genius, not her. Lottie recalled that he was also a genius at creating found art and running a hospice and weaving tapestries from hemp collected at City Island marinas. Or something. He was a success at everything he tried. Now he was working on a Major Novel, apparently, but certainly it hadn’t come out yet. Still, great things were expected of him.
And yet here was Rose, whose face up close looked even paler (her eyelashes were actually transparent), focusing on the note on the preschool letterhead as if it held her fate on its creamy surface.
“Hopewell,” Lottie said to her again. “We need to go there.”
“Rose? Shall we head back to my space?”
Rose was startled out of staring at the sign on the bulletin board by the dulcet voice of Patience, the aptly named head of school at President Pre. She was glad for the interruption; she wanted to get out of there before she could be assailed again by the other mom. She knew the subtext of every conversational gambit of this preschool parenting crowd. “Are all Ben’s teeth in?” meant “When will he stop biting?” “Beatrice and Benedick—what terrific names” meant “Wow, you are pretty pretentious, even for Park Slope.” And the ultimate, “How is your husband’s book coming?” which meant the thing she wanted most to avoid: “How in God’s name do you live so well when neither one of you makes any money?”
“Yes, absolutely,” said Rose. She knew exactly why Patience wanted to see her. The Arbuthnot donation to the annual fund, as massively generous as it was, may have been found wanting. The check had been cashed swiftly, though.
The other mother turned to her and extended her hand. The sleeves of her slicker dripped on Rose’s wrist. She had enviably curly dark hair and an expressive face. Harpo Marx’s kid sister. “I’m Ethan’s mom, from Happy Circle,” she said. Rose didn’t quite understand the sudden friendliness, but this woman was looking at her with sympathy, even solidarity. She was hard to resist. But Rose did. “I have to go,” she said.
“I know,” said the woman. “I think we should both go.”
“What?” said Rose.
“I’m Lottie Wilkes. Ethan’s mom,” said the mother again, enunciating clearly, as if Rose didn’t speak the language, “and I think we should try to go to Hopewell Island. Because we need to get away from this.”
“It’s Little Lost Island. Hopewell Cottage.” Rose was a careful reader. “But I don’t need to get away.”
“Rose?” It was Patience.
“I have to go.” She followed Patience down the narrow hall covered with cheery artwork and encouraging signs and Purell dispensers. She and Fred had moved heaven and earth to get the twins accepted here. Even with a MacArthur it was touch and go at admissions time, especially as there were the two children. But now that Bea and Ben were here, they’d be set till graduate school. Or so everyone said. She sighed and hoped that Patience didn’t pick up on it.
“Please, have a seat,” said Patience. Rose sat. Patience opened with chitchat about the school’s upcoming summer program and its benefits, which Rose was already aware of, as both the twins were enrolled. Then she moved to the miserable weather, vacation plans, the politics of the Park Slope Food Coop. Rose knew Patience well enough to recognize this phase of the conversation as the softening up.
“I’m sorry Fred can’t be here,” said Rose. Much as she liked the school, she did not care for Patience’s oversolicitous social manner. “That woman could sniff out cash in an abattoir,” said Fred when they got the note tucked into Ben’s stroller last night, requesting their presence in Patience’s “space.”
“Can you take this one for the team?” he had asked. Rose felt she took a lot for the team, especially where the twins were concerned. Luckily Patience did not grasp quite how much the Arbuthnots were worth, or she’d be all over them to break ground on a new building. This letter had a slightly different tone, though, so maybe Patience had new intelligence.
“I’m sorry too. But I’m sure you know why we asked you here,” said Patience.
Rose nodded. “I think I do.”
Patience folded her arms, looked her straight in the eye, shook her head, and said, “We’re very concerned about Ben.”
She continued to look at Rose, waiting. Waiting for what?
“What do you mean, you’re concerned about Ben?”
“We love Ben very much here at President Pre. He has a bright, creative mind and a very free spirit. But the academic year is almost over. And he continues to find it challenging to settle down.” Rose couldn’t speak. Patience shook her head again, each back-and-forth freighted with some sorry meaning. “We feel he may have special requirements. He is a marvelous boy, but we wonder whether he might need more help elsewhere.”
The overemphasized words hit Rose like a fist of ice to the face. What was she saying? Rose barely registered as Patience went on to tell her about excellent psychiatrists and highly recommended therapies that could aid Ben’s development.
“I can understand that you may not want to separate him from his twin, but we feel that might be the best thing for both Bea”—pause, significant pause—“and Ben.”
What was she talking about? Separate the twins? They were almost the same person. They didn’t want to be apart! They were hugging each other when she had the C-section. Maybe if she hadn’t had the C-section Ben would have come out different. Better. Her mind raced. He’s being kicked out of preschool?
Where was Fred? He’d slash this woman to ribbons.
Then Patience deployed her parting shot: “Ben is welcome to stay here for our summer program, which is largely nonacademic.” Nonacademic! “But in the fall_._._. I’m sure you can understand. It may not be a good fit. Of course, with the necessary support systems in place, we could see how it goes. For the first semester, perhaps.”
That was it. Meeting over. Patience got up and shook Rose’s hand. Rose could not believe that she found herself permitting her to do it. I want to kill you, she thought. You should never go near either one of my children. I hate you. You are a monster.
The strollers were like a barricade of SUVs against the door. Rose pushed through them, deliberately upsetting the oh-so-carefully calibrated hierarchy of whose stroller deserved which space, because everything in Park Slope was based on some kind of fucking self-righteous moral order.
She braced herself for the rain, now sheeting down, and called Fred from the shelter of a doorway. It smelled like cat pee. It took all her strength not to throw up. He picked up right away, even though he hated anyone to call when he was writing. “How’d it go?”
Rose told him. But as she talked, she couldn’t stop her anger from shifting. “Why weren’t you here? You should have been here.” I’m blaming Fred, she thought. Stop.
“You said it was fine for just you to go.”
“He manipulates us, Fred, even at three.” Oh, God! Now Ben! “We should have done more when he was younger. When he gets out of control it’s tough. It’s tough on Bea, too. He needs a stronger hand.” Was his sister already a victim? Was she an enabler? Ben was a pest at home. Sometimes he was. What must he be like at school?
“Do you think he’s worse at school?” Fred asked.
“What do you mean, worse?” said Rose. For Fred to say it was treasonous. “Are you saying he’s bad? Are you saying you want your three-year-old on medication?”
“Rose, I don’t even think they give medication to three-year-olds.”
The rain was so loud she had to shout to hear herself. “She said they do! She knows excellent psychopharmacologists! Is that what you want for him? I don’t even want him in the summer program there at this point.”
“Then what are you going to do with him this summer?” Fred said.
“What am I going to do?”
There was silence for a while.
“Rosie, we can’t have this conversation on the phone,” Fred said. “Come home. Let’s talk.”
She didn’t want to go home. She didn’t want to see Fred and she didn’t want to talk. She walked fast and hard in the pounding rain. Why couldn’t Ben be an easy child? Rose had been an easy child, her mother always said. Bea was an easy child. Teachers called her a joy. Even Patience was satisfied with Bea. Her stupid horse face had lit up when she’d mentioned Bea’s name. What had gone wrong with Ben? She should have stayed home with him another year and not gone back to work. Her salary as an itinerate adjunct was practically worthless in their household economy, worse than useless. Had the genius gene been turned on in Fred and shut down in Ben? Why couldn’t Ben just be like a regular kid?
Jesus Christ. Whose side was she on?
She turned a corner and saw that short woman, Ethan’s mom, through the steamy window of Maisie’s Coffees & Tease. Rose found herself walking through the glass door, picking her way through the damp sweatshirts and the slick Windbreakers and the burnt-coffee smell. Ethan’s mom looked at her with her enormous brown eyes, not at all surprised.
“Please, can I just look at that place in Maine?” Rose asked. “Lottie?”
And without a word, Lottie pushed a steaming latte in front of her, helped her off with her dripping jacket, moved her tablet so they could both see the screen. They sat in silence together as Rose Google-Mapped Little Lost Island and rain fell against the glass.
Rose got home ready for a lot of sympathy from Fred. She called up to him. “Are you here? Can you take a break for a minute? It was really bad with Patience.”
She went upstairs. The door to his study was open. He had his earphones on. He wasn’t writing. He was watching a video. From what Rose could see, there was a lot of naked skin.
He jumped and turned around. The headphones tumbled off. “Busted,” he said.
“You’re watching porn after your son was expelled from preschool?” Her blood surged. Fight or flight.
“He wasn’t expelled, Rose. It’s not porn. It’s a movie. Look.”
She didn’t want to look. “I was just completely crucified, Fred.” She actually felt her head trembling with the exertion not to hit him. “And you’re watching movies.”
“I thought you’d come straight home. Where were you?”
Later, Rose didn’t know whether it was that the whole school conversation had started on such a sour note; or that Fred loved his work more than he did her; or that Ben had suddenly gotten worse; or that Patience had made them believe they were a bad couple, so they became one; but by the end of the week, the idea Rose had nurtured at Maisie’s, that they would all go to Hopewell Cottage together, seemed absurd. By the end of the month, Fred was sleeping on the couch in his study. And by the first steamy days of July, even though she wanted to fall exhausted into his arms and hear him call her Rosie and say they would work it out together, they’d both agreed that she would quit her jobs and home-preschool the kids as of September. She’d give up her free time in July so he could finish his latest book. She could do whatever she wanted in August. She needed some time away from all this, he told her. She needed some time to think.
Rose found Ethan’s mom’s number on her phone.
Do you think we could still go?
Lottie texted back. I think we can.
It was odd, Robert SanSouci thought, the effect his tiny scrap of an ad had on people. He had never listed his family cottage with a real estate agent—not that one would, on Little Lost Island. He never rented the place out to friends. He just took his chances, and made sure the sign was in a spot where those who most needed it would see it. The Rule of Robert’s Sign.
“It has that effect on people,” he said, and the woman in front of him at City Bakery turned around. “Not you,” he added by way of apology.
He’d learned, over the years, that the only families or couples or women—in fact, mostly women—who would take the plunge to rent Hopewell Cottage for a month were those for whom the stakes were highest.
He insisted on one meeting face-to-face, he insisted on a month, and he set the price sky-high. It worked: His system had always found him tenants worthy of the place. Most of them adored it, but not in the way he wanted them to. Now he was about to meet Rose Arbuthnot. The name alone sounded as if it belonged on the island. He took his coffee over to one of the uncomfortable banquettes and sat down at a tiny table. From here he’d have a view of the door and could guess which one she was. He’d really wanted to order a pretzel croissant but the crumbs always got in his beard. Some women didn’t like beards.
Hardly anyone knew he had a place in Maine. It was crazy that he owned such a place. It was almost a cliche;: He got a call from a lawyer in Pittsburgh about ten years ago. An aged cousin “had passed” and her legacy was a cottage in Maine and just enough to pay the yearly expenses for a decade or more. Robert was still in college and didn’t even get there for the first two years. Then, when he finally made the trip—five hundred miles to the twisty peninsula, across a spit of water from Big Lost Island, up an exhausting hill to the place itself—he was overwhelmed. Stunned. He was born and raised outside Chapel Hill; his idea of a cottage was most people’s idea of a cottage: a snug little place with a fireplace and a tiny elfin bedroom and a thatched roof. The thatched roof he knew wouldn’t materialize, but this place? It was a castle. It was huge and—no other word for it—glorious. Also, it looked like it would blow away in a stiff wind.
The three women who walked through the door of City Bakery in a blast of humid air looked damp yet pleased with themselves. He didn’t think any of them could be Rose Arbuthnot. None of those women would have texted him, Tell me what to do.
“Oh, there she is,” said Robert, again not entirely to himself. He knew he was right when a woman not at all like a rose opened the door and swept the place with her pale eyes. She looked like a painting. But which painting? Her eyes lit on him and he nodded. This was the one. This had to be the one.
The woman came over to him. “Mr. SanSouci?”
“Robert,” he said, and extended a hand. She had a firm handshake, which he was glad of. Her hands were dry and cool. She looked maybe a few years older than he was. He liked the crinkles around her eyes.
“Why don’t you sit down,” he said, “and I’ll get you something. Coffee? Cappuccino?”
“I’d love a cappuccino,” said Rose.
It was when he came back with the coffee that he realized what painting she looked like. She was that woman in the Andrew Wyeth paintings—not the famous one in the cornfield looking at the shack; the other one. The strapping blonde with the pale eyes who was nude half the time. He blushed. If there ever was a sign that someone belonged in his cottage, this was it. “Is your husband going too? Your family, I mean?” Tactless, so tactless! “I’m sorry,” he said, wondering if she was divorced, or gay, or desperately single like he was. “You get to take whomever you’d like. That’s the rule of Hopewell. Whoever needs to go there gets to go there.” He sensed she would appreciate his use of who and whom, which he hoped he had gotten right.
“I’m taking the place with a friend—someone I know—Lottie Wilkes,” said Rose. “You may know her from Happy Circle Friends.”
“Happy Circle Friends?”
“Park Slope somewhere? Or President Pre?”
“Oh, the sign,” Robert said. “I asked the people who rented the cottage last year to put up a notice for me in Brooklyn this year.” She smiled, he noticed. “I have a stack of those cards. They’ve said the same thing for years and years.”
“Lost Island,” she said.
He hesitated to correct her.
“Sorry. Little Lost Island,” she said. “The people from last year_._._.” Robert could tell she was tentative. “They didn’t want to go back?”
Everyone always wanted to go back to Hopewell. But so far, Robert had had new tenants every summer. Hopeless, deluded, stupid romantic that he was, he was waiting for the one tenant who’d come back from Maine in love with him; one with whom he would want to live there all his life. He was pretty sure he’d found her right now.
“Um, Mr. SanSouci?”
“Robert, please,” he said. He was happy she was so formal. It was a rarity. “I like to share Hopewell with anyone who needs it.”
Rose Arbuthnot’s cheeks flushed the palest pink.
“It’s not that easy to get to,” he continued. “You can fly to Bangor and rent a car. Or you can drive up I-95 to Route One and down 286 after you pass through Ellsworth. Then it’s a pretty twisty route to the landing. Don’t follow GPS or you’ll find yourself on Lost Road in Dorset. We leave a boat at the dock for our guests.”
“It’s kind of you to call us guests,” said Rose, “when we’re renting. I hope you’ll write this all down.”
“I will,” said Robert. “And guests is a nicer word than renters.” Rose smiled as she sipped her cappuccino. She had a subdued smile, which he approved of. “The motor can be a little balky,” he said, “but the Whaler should get you over to the island just fine. It finds its own way by now.” He gave a little laugh to reassure her. “Or you can take the ferry across if you get there by six.”
“Is that how we get the car across?”
“No cars on the island,” Robert said, “just the island manager’s truck and the new mower.” He was delighted that she looked pleased and not put out.
“So it’s ours?” said Rose. “The cottage is ours?”
“It’s yours,” Robert told her. “And your friend’s.”
She shook her head as if she were remembering something. “Lottie was wondering if it could be a two-week stay.”
He wavered for a moment. A month was the rule and the price was the price. He hated to ask so much for the place, but it was the only way he could afford it, now that Cousin Joan’s money had run out. One August rental every year or two meant Robert could keep his rent-stabilized place on East Seventeenth Street, pursue his ill-advised early-music career (not much call for lutenists, but as a guitar player he eked out a living), and pay the expenses on the cottage. It was pretty much a money pit, truth be told. Plus he could visit Hopewell once a year, in July, and know that he’d make enough to hang on to it for a while. If he hadn’t had a wedding to play over the holiday weekend, he’d be there now.
What if Rose, despite the fact that she looked like she’d walked out of an Andrew Wyeth painting, was not right for the place? “If you think it’s not a good fit I can—”
She put up her hand stopped him mid-sentence. He’d touched a nerve. He hoped he hadn’t put her off entirely. “No, we’ll take it. I’ll write you a check this minute.” She looked in her leather backpack and took out her checkbook. Robert was surprised she’d brought a checkbook with her.
“We could do a third right now and the rest at the end of the month or even during August,” he said.
When she tore off the check, she handed it to him with a flourish. “There,” she said. “It’s ours. We’re the right fit.”
It was only after she had gone and Robert was back home and getting ready to practice the Dowland galliard that he saw that the check was for the entire amount.
And while he was thrilled—he could pay his rent for another year, maybe even put a down payment on a theorbo—he was not completely surprised. Robert mused on Rose’s clear pale eyes as he took down his most treasured lute. He cradled it in his arms and picked out an arpeggiated chord. “Hopewell Cottage works in mysterious ways,” he whispered, “its wonders to perform.”
“We only came up with two choices?” asked Rose. “One each?”
Rose’s big gesture at the City Bakery had practically wiped out the checking account in her name. She wanted to use her own money for this but her own money did not go very far. They had decided to find two more desperate women, which would mean a quarter of the rent apiece, which would mean they could all afford to go. (Lottie had a stock certificate and Rose had told her about brokers.) They both agreed they needed to abide by the Rule of Robert’s Sign. Hopewell Cottage: if you need to go there, they have to take you in.
“I know,” said Lottie. Now she was ordering double lattes. She had been checking her stock value every day and it was up another four cents that morning. “Maybe we should wait another week. We should have had a ton of people to choose from.”
“One of them can’t even be for real,” Rose said. “Caroline Dester would not be likely to answer an ad she found in a gym. Even if it was in Tribeca.”
Rose had put up her sign in the juice bar of an Equinox on Duane Street. She had gone into Manhattan to pick up a book on early childhood and decoding issues, which they were holding for her at a new kids’ bookstore. She’d passed by the place as the record June rain pelted against the steamy windows. Equinox didn’t even have a bulletin board, of course, so she put the card on a table in the juice bar and left. All those overarticulated worked-out bodies: she didn’t belong there anymore.
Lottie’s voice brought her out of her reverie. “Why did you put the sign there, though? I’m just curious.”
“The women at Equinox—they all looked so gaunt,” said Rose. She remembered them through the steaming, streaming windows. “One of them might need a little lost island.”
“Mine flew out of my hands.”
“What flew out of your hands?”
“My sign. The note card about the cottage. It flew out of my hands so I didn’t really obey the Rule of Robert’s Sign.”
“That’s how you got this Beverly Fisher? I thought you put it up in the Garamond Club.”
“I was going to put it in the Park Slope Coop, because everybody argues about everything there. But it sort of flew out of my hands on my way to a job interview—which got canceled, thank God, because if I’d gotten it I would have had to take it and then I’d have to cancel Hopewell”—she actually shuddered—“and someone picked it up and e-mailed me. Beverly Fisher, the Garamond Club.”
They Googled her. Not much there—some Beverly Fishers on Facebook but none of them seemed likely.
“Someone my husband knows is a Garamond,” said Rose. She didn’t want to tell Lottie it was someone from the MacArthur genius club. “Let me text her.”
The answer came almost at once.
BF—yes, for 30 years was unofficially Mrs. Samuel Gorsch tho very hush. Recently inherited all of Gorsch’s royalties so is now loaded but you’d never know. Harmless, knows everyone on Bway. could be a fun dinner companion. Why?
Rose sent a quick reply. “Beverly could be a brilliant addition,” she said.
“Beverly could be a grouchy old lady,” said Lottie.
“She sounds mysterious,” said Rose. “And with Caroline Dester, we’ll have quite the interesting household.”
“I don’t believe this is the real Caroline Dester, though,” said Lottie. “I mean I guess she could live in Tribeca but why would she work out at a gym where people could see her?”
“Her phone number is on the text.” They both looked at Rose’s phone. The number could have been from anywhere. Even Hollywood.
“She says to call her,” Lottie said.
Rose tapped in the number. It seemed awfully presumptuous, calling Caroline Dester. She was the American Dream—a leggy beauty from an old New York family and now one of those young Hollywood faces you saw everywhere. “I thought she went to ground after the Oscars,” said Rose. It had to be a different Caroline Dester. “It’s ringing.” They put it on speaker.
Even tinnily amplified by Rose’s out-of-date cell phone, there was that throaty, thrilling voice, which they both recognized with the first hello.
“Oh, hello, is that Caroline Dester?” said Rose, more tentatively than she’d wanted to. “This is Rose Arbuthnot.” Before Caroline could hang up Rose added, “You answered our little ad.” Why the diminutive?
“Oh, Hopewell Cottage,” said the tremulous voice. “Yes. I’d like to go there.”
Rose couldn’t even recall, afterward, exactly what they had said after that. Caroline Dester needed to go to Little Lost Island and they couldn’t say no to Caroline Dester.
“She’s going to ruin it for us,” said Rose once she’d hung up. She could see it—the island overrun by paparazzi, their pictures on some celebrity website. “We’re going up there to get away.”
“I don’t think she will,” said Lottie. “Ruin it, that is. She wants to get away as much as we do. Everyone wants a piece of Caroline Dester,” she added. “Except us.”
It was true that everyone wanted a piece of Caroline Dester. They had since she was very little. She was the Graff jewelry baby in their first, and most famous, conflict-free diamond ad. When as a child she starred in a forgettable remake of National Velvet, A. O. Scott called her “almost as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor.” She had a couple of relatively awkward years, during which she was sent to St. Andrew’s in Delaware to make friends with her rich-kid kind and score high enough on her SATs to be admitted to Brown. She lasted there a year and a half, after which she starred in a film by Richard Linklater that turned into his biggest commercial success, grossing $408 million in the U.S. alone.
That was the first Oscar she didn’t win.
“I hope they are not gawpers,” Caroline said to herself as she looked in the mirror before the arrival of her two visitors. She had the kind of face that looks good in every light, from every angle. Her graceful hand brushed a cascade of naturally highlighted hair away from her turquoise eyes. I hate my nail beds, she thought.
There was not a camera invented that could produce an unflattering picture of Caroline Dester. Her skin practically sparkled, as Jean Harlow’s was said to have done. Her body was lithe and obedient from years of personal training and just great genes. She’d had no work done and she was already twenty-seven. She was at the top of her game, until this past February.
The first time they’d run her through the traps of an Oscar campaign it was exciting and a lark. She wasn’t supposed to win and she didn’t. But this time, she was the front-runner. She’d wanted it very much. She killed it on the circuit: she’d picked up the SAG and the Golden Globe. And then she lost it on the night. She had played the humiliation over and over on YouTube, contributing to the four million hits it received within two days. “And the Oscar goes to_._._.” The elderly, out-of-it has-been who couldn’t or wouldn’t read the name after he’d fumbled open the envelope. Julianne Moore charmingly running up to give him reading glasses. The has-been squinting at the card with that grin on his face, looking up at the camera and saying, “Caroline?”
Her stomach lurched again thinking of it now. On the night, she got out of her seat and remembered to lift up her hem so she wouldn’t trip. “No, it’s Charlize! Sorry, darlin’! The Oscar goes to Charlize_._._.” She was still hugging everybody until her producer told her to stop. Her face twisted into a grimace and then the tears just would not stop coming. She couldn’t get herself back. She leaked tears all through Charlize’s gracious actressy speech. It was great television and #crybabycaroline became a meme within a nanosecond. A few people felt bad for her; most ripped her to shreds. Now she was Sally Field in reverse. At least Sally took home the statuette.
She would have put a paper bag over her head, but that was unoriginal and would have gotten her even more press. Instead she holed up in her mother’s house and she decided to quit. By the end of June, she started asking the universe for a sign. Then she found one, literally, on a table at the juice bar she’d ducked into because she’d been caught in the rain. She would go to this place in Maine as a regular person. It would be her first regular-person act—no, action—since she was a baby. It was exhausting to be who she was.
Lottie was the one who got in touch with Beverly Fisher about whether she’d really be coming to Little Lost Island. Apparently Beverly Fisher did not believe in the telephone, because she never answered texts or calls and she didn’t have voice mail. Lottie e-mailed her a couple of times before she got an answer:
Dear Ms. Wilkes,
I will be out of town till end July, after which time I will join you in Maine. I have reviewed the accommodations and they appear to be satisfactory, though I am not able to tell much about the blueberries and so forth, as I am color-blind.
My desire is not to be disturbed and to have one month of absolute rest. You need feel no need to entertain me. I have had enough entertainment for two lifetimes.
With some difficulty I have managed to wire the necessary money to the account you gave me. I will look forward to seeing you there, though only in small doses.
Beverly had indeed sent a wire transfer to Rose’s account, which bought Lottie a little more time. (She hadn’t managed to part with her stock just yet.) Rose apparently felt that inspired confidence. Lottie liked the line about having had enough entertainment for two lifetimes, so Beverly was their fourth. The last lost soul of Little Lost Island.
The Beginning of August
The drive to Maine was longer than either of them had imagined. Lottie and Rose had decided on renting a Subaru in a burst of enthusiasm about New England, but now, as Rose pounded along the endless grayness of I-95 North, she felt driving up together had been a very bad idea.
They had crossed the Maine border hours ago. She had done her reading about what to expect during August in Maine—good weather and fewer bugs, apparently—but how big could this state be? Lottie had been mercifully quiet for the past fifty miles—she had put Ethan’s bedtime music on the car stereo and honestly it was pretty soothing—so Rose had some time to think.
She thought about the twins, of course. Where had she gone so wrong? She was a lactating cow for the first year, pumping and expressing when she didn’t have the two of them latched on. She loved her two babies fiercely, of course she did, but they sucked her dry in every way. And those names—their private nicknames for the two swimming fishes in her womb—had somehow stuck. Now she was a stay-at-home mom with an unfinished, unpublished dissertation in poetry. A husband who was sleeping on the couch. And a problem child nobody knew what to do with, least of all her.
“Don’t cry, Rose,” said Lottie. “This music makes everyone sad.”
By the time they picked up Route 1 it was already starting to get dark. Rose couldn’t tell whether it was because there was rain coming or because it was getting so late. They had badly misjudged the time. As they passed the careworn businesses that lined the roadway, Maine didn’t look so hot. The sky was threatening and bruised. There was a smell of ozone in the air, even through the air-conditioning. Rose was a rusty enough driver as it was (Lottie had driven the first three hundred miles), and now, if it rained and roads were slick and it got dark_._._. She did not want to think about that.
Lightning flashed in the sky in front of her. “How much farther can it possibly be?” Lottie checked her directions, which were hard to read in the struggling light. Robert SanSouci had not done them any favors by writing the whole thing by hand on onionskin and sending it by snail mail. Why couldn’t they just follow GPS once they got off Route 1? Was the place that remote? Was the whole thing an elaborate ruse?