It’s his fault, though. His desire.
“I didn’t mean — ” Lily begins.
“I know,” Nora whispers from across the table. Her concealer has begun to crease, and Lily notices how dark the circles are, how puffy the skin looks.
“Oh,” Lily doesn’t know what else to say. She thought this would be the bulk of the conversation, all her energy and intensity deflected to defend her honor. Lily isn’t sure why they’ve met anymore, what they have to talk about other than what happened.
“You can’t help it,” Nora says. Her voice is stronger, but emotional omission remains. She’s detached, robotic, brainwashed. Christ.
“How are you?” Lily asks, surprised by how genuine the words sound.
“Fine,” Nora says. She still hasn’t met Lily’s eyes.
Nora, who could disarm anyone with a glance, has found new power in restraint and distance. The old Nora would know this, would use it, sharpen it to a fine point. This Nora has no idea.
“Nora,” Lily says, “please tell me what you’re thinking.”
“It’s not the first time. Maybe the first time it wasn’t reciprocated, though. Maybe the first time in our house. Maybe.” Nora says.
“It never went that f— ” Lily says.
“Because I walked in, Lily. It never went that far because I ended it for him. ‘Wasn’t reciprocated’ is a coward’s way of saying my husband tried to rape you. I know what I saw.”
Daniel had cornered Lily in the master bedroom, one hand planted firmly on her left breast and the other approaching her thighs. Lily’s eyes had been wide and scared when she looked up and saw Nora, champagne glass in hand.
Daniel played it off like he’d tripped when he was trying to help Lily find the bathroom.
Nora and Daniel had lived in the house for eight years. Lily knew where the damn bathroom was.
“I won’t tell anyone, Nora. I won’t say a word. Not to the press, or our friends, or —” Lily can’t say the rest.
“I know you won’t,” Nora says. “I’ve thought about this for a long time. Longer than I should have. Long enough to where it makes sense, to where it’s the only thing that makes sense. I need to ask for a favor.”
Lily knows this world. There are things Nora can’t do, mostly innocuous, because they are political statements. Make any choice and it’s a political statement now. It’s the careful world Nora navigates daily, and Lily doesn’t envy her for it.
Lily nods. As Nora speaks, she feels like their own personal Pandora’s box has been opened and laid before them.
Nora’s asking Lily to devote herself to something base and distasteful. And for what? Nora throws around “commitment to her constituents” and “obligation to the legislative docket.”
Nora isn’t charismatic or special enough to guarantee anything. Constituents would love another bureaucrat. No one needs Nora’s vote, and their district is a solid, unwavering blue on CNN’s election coverage.
Nora asks because she’s proud and loves power more than family values, and Lily agrees because for Nora, she will do anything.
“Tomorrow, then,” Lily says, and Nora nods her assent.
Both women’s eyes fill with tears. When they say goodbye, they embrace.
Each woman tries to give the other strength.
Each woman comes up wanting.
Daniel’s studio is in the middle of the orchard, an oblong stretch of brush that once produced wild berries and tiny sweet apples. It is where Daniel comes when he wants to think and create, sketching the impossible worlds that have made him moderately famous. His book covers guarantee sales.
Lily didn’t sleep. She’s thought about what she will say to him since she left Starbucks. A tongue-lashing about how she’s only doing this for Nora. A diatribe about consent. A sad plea that his liaisons would destroy his wife’s political career.
Daniel’s hair has begun to gray, and for a moment Lily feels pity for the aging Adonis.
It comes to her then, how she will play this. Lily always wanted to be an actress, but she never quite got over the stimuli: blinding house lights, cameras that begged for eye contact. The affair will be her stage, her set.
If it’s obvious she’s doing this for Nora, he’ll feel the forgery, and his desire will wane. He’ll get smarter about hiding it from Nora, and dumber about hiding it from anyone else.
Lily is safe for all of them, but Daniel has to want it. He has to desire her, each day’s lust eclipsing the last. She has to coax that from him.
And instead of her tirades and begging, she walks into the studio and unbuttons her blouse. She doesn’t trust herself to speak, worried the truth will find its way out: My sister asked me to sleep with you.
Lily doesn’t desire him. She disassociates, lets her body find a rhythm. Her back arches. Her hips move with his. They are one, and she would feel sick to her stomach were it not for her fervent belief that this repays her big sister: Nora, who took the punches meant for Lily and their mother. Nora, who testified against their own dad.
Nora, champion of abused women.
When it is over, she rolls up from the floor. Years of yoga make the motion languid and smooth.
Outside the studio, two deer wander into the orchard. Lily watches them take nimble, timid steps. Fur stretches over ribcages. They starve together, even as they nibble patches of grass and the dried husks of fruit once ripe.
Daniel touches her calf, desire reignited. He wears a smarmy grin. Gravity does him no favors, excess skin drooping.
Lily does not want to frighten the deer.
Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Chris Boyles