Eve waited for Riley, her niece, to arrive at the cottage for their yearly week together. The wind braced her when she remembered she would have to sell this beloved cottage on the shores of Lake Gaston in North Carolina, which she’d purchased in her early forties, or her car. A few years ago, she’s renovated the kitchen and the bathroom, putting more money in the projects than she ought to, and she shivered in the chair, thinking of what she might lose—more money and property because she’d decided to retire at sixty-three. She was unwilling to admit the folly of that choice.
Now that she’d vacated her office and packed her things—the rows of hefty books and stacks of papers, the misaligned brass frames and their faded photographs, and the large spider plant that had birthed countless potted gifts for colleagues and neighbors—she felt both free and discarded. Her young successor had slipped through the ranks of tenure like a yolk blown through the needled end of an egg. Perhaps she could have stayed at the university a few years, or ten or twenty, longer.
While her energy for publication waned and her numerous accolades seemed years old, she signaled to colleagues that administrative politics plagued her decision to retire, yet they couldn’t fathom why she’d been in such a hurry to leave. That mystery remained between Eve and Aidan Pitcairn, the university chancellor. No one had caught the pair in their claustrophobic trysts—wedged between her filing cabinets, hunched over her desk, hanging, yes, hanging from the ceiling chain that leveraged her bountiful plant—and, while moving the last of her boxes to the hallway, she thought of screwing in black lightbulbs in the two wall sconces to show the department just how often she and Pitcairn had managed to be together. She imagined the soft young professor flipping the switch.
Pitcairn had humiliated her by threatening to have her arrested for assault and battery because she’d slapped and kicked him after discovering his involvement with a Norwegian graduate student. Pitcairn said he might marry the girl. She was thirty-six years his junior. Eve had laughed at him: “Money and a green card, you old coot.” Then, she’d secreted a few things from his office, and she revered these objects as talismans to ward off his evil: the daguerreotype of his great-grandmother, his only portrait of her; the Roman coin with the effigy of Caligula; and the silver ashtray she’d so often admired.
And here she was, waiting for Riley—hours late. Eve loved her gypsy features and olive skin. Both tall and wide-shouldered, their dark, thick hair grazed their elbows, though Eve’s was maintained by boxes of dye. Eve had one brother, Roger, and Riley was his youngest daughter. Eve hoped Riley would mend the hurt of having been discarded. Sometimes she wished the Norwegian would fly home with a suitcase full of her own souvenirs.
Riley arrived late in the evening in her mother’s car and parked next to Eve’s old Mustang. That car was her prized possession. Eve walked from the water’s edge at the back of the property to greet her niece. She yelped when she saw Riley, whose hair was now cropped to a few inches. Riley’s torn jeans, her piercing in her nasal septum, and her plum-painted mouth reminded Eve of all the coeds who had streamed through her classes in the late eighties and early nineties, first with their oversized Doc Martens and then with their velvet chokers and butterfly hairclips.
“Evie,” said Riley, opening her arms to embrace her. “I’m late.”
“Riley. Oh, my Riley.”
Riley steered Eve toward the passenger side of her mother’s car. “I’ve got one hell of a surprise for you.” The girl’s words sounded like those of a stranger. “Meet Braverman,” said Riley, waving to the passenger door. “I call him Brave.”
A man in his late twenties stepped out of the car and held out his hand to Eve. She shook it. She’d not expected him, and he irritated her simply by being there, so stupidly standing like a tree in need of pruning. What did the kids say nowadays? Basic. Yes, Braverman was a basic boy with a three-day-old beard and faded haircut. His arms were covered in tribal tattoos, snaking into the sleeves of his black t-shirt.
He pointed to them. “That’s my way of working through my privilege. You know, the beauty of it. I accept all cultures.” He said this while kicking the driveway gravel and looking around like an ornithologist in search of a rare bird.
“He’s such an eloquent ass. You’re going to love him. I know you will.” Riley put her hand on Braverman’s shoulder in a gesture that was territorial. This gorilla is mine to keep and to comb of nits. “He’s smart, too. Dropped out of Harvard.”
“Rye likes to brag,” said Braverman.
“You two look cold and hungry.”
Patting the hood of her car, he said, “That’s one hell of a Shelby you got there.”
It is, she thought. She led them to the house.
Braverman asked to use the bathroom, and, once he was cooped up behind the door, Eve sat her niece on a kitchen chair and whispered, “Why?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why’d you bring a boyfriend into our girl plans? This was our week together.”
“Mom and dad hate him already. I thought you’d be different, that we’d have a grand time the three of us.” Riley unlaced her boots and tossed them under the table. “He’s really great, you know.”
“How long have you known him? How long have you been with him?” She was grappling with the image of Riley the previous fall, as a high school senior, her pretty hair down her back.
“Two months. I met him at a party. My hallmate Inez knew him. They were together when he was at Duke.”
“I thought you said Harvard.”
“Harvard then Duke.”
“So he graduated?”
Eve opened the pantry and took out a box of orzo. “I’ll make you a bowl of your favorite pastina.” She worried about Riley and the man she’d brought into her home. “I’m sorry, babe,” she said into the hollow of the pantry, staring at boxes of dry goods and stacked cans of vegetables. They had called each other babe for years.
“Babe.” Riley smiled.
“What’d I miss?” asked Braverman to no one in particular. He was still like a long-lost scientist, caught in the throes of discovery and disappointment. He picked up a box of oolong tea from the counter, read the ingredient list with myopic interest, and put it down. He repeated his inspection with a pencil, a souvenir spoon, and the box of orzo.
“Sit,” said Eve.
Braverman obeyed and sat next to Riley. “Need help?”
“No. Pastina’s a five-minute affair.”
“Ain’t it always. That’s what she said.” Braverman held a little milk glass saltshaker to the light.
Riley whacked him on his shoulder. “Brave.” She was blushing.
Eve had a vision of the two of them in the guest bedroom, under the worn pinwheel quilt, twisting their bodies to hold each other deeper. How she’d loved the sound of paper when Pitcairn toppled back on her desk. She wondered what spell the graduate student had conjured, what Norse rites she’d performed to secure him, whether the burning of evergreens in prayer or a fine dusting of reindeer antler powder in his drinks. These thoughts plagued her often.
After dinner, Riley and Braverman retired to bed. Eve, fragrant with soap from her shower, a blue scent of ocean, sat on the reclining chair of her living room reading nineteenth-century poetry. She couldn’t sleep. In bed, she’d listened for sounds in the room next to hers. None came. She’d moved to the living room with its bay window and distant sights. A sliver of moon trembled ever so slightly on the water’s skin. She fantasized about talking with Riley all night to the violet hours of morning. She saw the image of that little girl, wet hair patted down and braided—a fishtail, a waterfall—the mermaid’s hair now gone. How could she have thrown away the darkly beauty they shared?
Eve heard footsteps behind her. She knew it was Braverman before she turned her head.
“Can’t sleep.” He picked up Pitcairn’s silver ashtray from an old tea table. “You smoke?”
“I did. Occasionally. Before,” she said, putting down her volume and the lines about the Sea of Faith and its melancholy. “Be careful with that.”
“Let me guess. Lucky Strike?” He turned over the ashtray. “Wow,” he said. “These are the marks of William Bateman.” He looked closely. “Impressive.”
She was surprised and said in a pointed voice, “Oh, you studied English antiques at Harvard?” And then: “You have the habit of inspection. That’s a good thing.”
He put down the ashtray with unnecessary care and sat down on the couch opposite the bay window. “I like the idea of smoking more than the smoking itself.”
“Your generation can’t even do that right,” said Eve. “Oh, that vaping craze and those little pens and vials. I’d like to see you hipsters bring back snuff boxes. That’d be something.”
Braverman laughed. “What can I say? I’m a sucker for good silver.”
“Let me guess: you spent your youth rummaging friends’ drawers for plated utensils and candlesticks?” She thought he flinched.
He drummed the arm of the sofa with his fingers. “Instead of playing Nintendo, I plundered household treasures. Grandmothers’ leather Bibles, embroidered napkins, Georgian ashtrays. Every boy’s dream.”
“That ashtray belonged to the man who broke my heart,” said Eve, “and I stole it from him.”
He smiled at her with what she thought was a youthful excitement, yet his eyes were lined with crow’s feet. “The price of a heart for a few pieces of silver.”
Eve saw the moon through the window. “I can’t tell if I’m Jesus or Judas in this story.”
“Mary,” he said. “Your long, dark hair.”
“How did Riley find you?”
He sighed with flourish. “She followed the path of constellations. I am one lucky bastard.”
As if summoned, Riley walked into the living room. “What’s going on?”
“We couldn’t sleep. Your boyfriend here is quite the purloiner of hearts,” said Eve.
Riley stood between them. “The what?”
Braverman patted her on the hip. “Your aunt thinks I stole your heart. Why else would you be with me?”
“And he’s quite the existentialist. Heidegger?” Eve asked him.
Braverman rolled his eyes at Eve and ignored Riley’s legs, partially blocking his view.
“Goodness, no. Really, Evie? If you pick a German, go for Kant. I’m an idealist.”
Riley tried to interrupt: “I have—”
“Indeed,” said Eve. She finally looked at Riley. “You should go back to bed.”
“Indubitably,” replied Braverman.
“Just like that?”
“You’ve been driving today for quite some time. You should rest.”
Riley didn’t argue. She huffed like a schoolgirl and left the room with long-legged strides. Braverman followed her, pausing to curtsy in front of Eve before walking away.
Each morning Braverman came to Eve, eager to help her with the tedious tasks of maintaining the house. They were both early risers. Eve thought Braverman needed something to do to occupy his hours because Riley had grown moody and slept until noon. Perhaps he felt uneasy about Riley’s immaturity. There was a restlessness about him, an energy both contagious and consuming that Eve could only attribute to his age.
They were winterizing the small garden at the back of the cottage. Riley watched them from the bedroom window, and when Eve motioned for her to come out, she turned away. Braverman said, “It’s all right. Just let her be.”
They wrapped burlap at the base of a few sapling bushes to shield them from frost. He assisted her with the tomato plants and suggested ways to counter the heaviness of clay in her soil. “Tomatoes will survive just about anything. Except for clay. That’s what you get for being so close to the lake.”
Eve wiped her brow with the back of a gloved hand. “What can I do? The yield’s been poor here year after year.”
“A little sawdust will go a long way.”
He put his hand on her shoulder and she felt the heat of it near her neck. “Trust me.” He looked into her face in earnest. “I come from good farming stock.”
“I don’t even know where you are from,” she said.
“Oh, here and there. I am…,” he paused, “a citizen of the world.” Bowing, he said, “My lady, let’s go to the store. We’ll get sawdust. Got a tiller?”
“Add a tiller to our list. Next year, you’ll be up to your ears in tomatoes.”
“I don’t know what to say.” She touched his arm. “You’ve been great. Wonderful, even.” There was mist in the air, a damp coolness on her cheeks. She breathed in. “I wanted to be with Riley.”
“She should come along. I feel as though she’s slept through the week.”
“Nah. Let her sleep. You and me, Evie, we’ve got some things to do. This house needs better tending.”
The cottage was like an animal with special needs, like the dog Eve saw on television who could only eat while sitting in a contraption, beloved by its owners who slid a feeding tube down its throat. So the house needed work to stand: rotting fascia boards to be replaced, windows to be insulated, gutters to be cleaned of leaves. The list was never-ending and ever-growing. How nice it was to share the burden with someone like Braverman, someone who could appreciate that all these little nuisances were worth the investment of time and money, that to love a house or a dog or a lover was all that happiness required of life. She shivered. Braverman told her not to bother with the Mustang. The sawdust would spread through every crevice. They borrowed Riley’s mother’s car without telling Riley.
At the store, he chose a box of long screws for the deck to fasten curling boards. He tested the push tiller, lifted sawdust bags for the tomato plants, and added masking putty to their cart, for the back edges of the kitchen counters, which he claimed hadn’t been installed properly. She picked two new lighting fixtures for the front and back porches, coppery carriage lights to offset the wood of the cottage. She longed for dark plantation shutters, but she couldn’t afford them. He said he could build them for her. He sounded as though he meant to stay when he and Riley would be gone the next day.
“Is there anything you can’t do?” asked Eve as they made their way to the registers.
“Too much to name.” He paused. “I can’t knit worth a damn.”
Eve laughed. “Well, that I can teach you.”
“Wait for me here?” He nodded toward the end of the aisle. “Bathroom. Be right back.” Leaving her, he pulled out his cell phone from his back pocket and his wallet fell to the floor. Eve picked it up and called out to him. He was at the bathroom door already and passing through the jamb. The wallet was thin and made of soft brown leather. She opened it. There were credit cards, his driver’s license. He was born in June. A Gemini. Twenty-seven years old. Alistair J. Braverman. No wonder he went by his last name. She pulled out two credit cards. These were in the name of a David Johnson, as was a 2001-2002 library card from Amherst College. She panicked and pushed them back in their slits and closed the wallet.
When he returned, she handed it to him. “You dropped this.”
“Thanks,” he said.
When Eve and Braverman unloaded the car, Riley scowled at them from the porch. “Hey,” she shouted. “That’s my mom’s car. Where the hell have you two been?” Braverman walked to the back of the house heaving sawdust bags on his shoulder. He didn’t answer her.
“You could have texted us,” said Eve. She carried the screws, the putty, and the carriage lights toward Riley, who blocked the front door.
“Oh.” She crossed her arms. “Us. I see.”
“Don’t be a brat.”
They walked in the house and Eve placed her purchases on the kitchen table.
Eve turned to her. “What?”
Eve stared at her. “You’ve been sleeping day in and day out since you got here. You foisted your boyfriend on me. He has nothing better to do while you sleep.” She opened the boxes of the carriage lights. “And I’m grateful for his help,” she said.
Riley poked Eve above her left breast. “Bet you like that foisting.”
“Excuse me?” Eve was yelling now. “What the hell happened to you? Who the fuck are you?”
Riley stood there, in front of Eve, and her eyes reddened. She stormed off, retreating to the guest bedroom with a slam of the door.
Braverman entered the kitchen a few minutes later. Eve was sitting at the table, her head in her hands.
“You all right?” he asked.
Eve thought of confessing her spat with Riley but reconsidered. She wouldn’t alienate Braverman. She enjoyed his company, his conversation. She wanted him with her. It was he who was salvaging her wounds, he who was making the space of her loss brighter and airier.
He smiled at her. “Cheer up, Babe.”
“Babe is our word.”
“After all this work, no initiation for me, eh?” There was a small pile of books on the table and he began leafing through the pages of a poetry book. “Hopkins. I like him.”
“He’s easy to like.”
“So, why I’m sorry, babe. Where does that come from?” he asked, sitting down next to her. He scooted the chair closer to Eve.
“Once, when I was visiting Roger’s family for the holidays, I’d gone shopping with Riley at the big mall in town, the one with the fountains and glass box elevators and overly jazzy jingles. Have you been there?”
“No. Rye knows me better than that.”
“You’ve been to Roger’s?”
“No. She knows them too much for that.”
“She told me they don’t like you.”
“Cat’s out of the bag, Evie.” His smile was wan. “I kind of thought it, so don’t worry.”
“It’s not my place to say. She’s young. Her new look’s not great. You haven’t graduated—.” She stopped herself.
“That’s woolen bullshit.”
He played with the pages of the book. “What about that mall?”
“Out of nowhere comes a boy from Riley’s science class, and he says to me, ‘Whoa, Sexy Mama.’ He was small for a middle-schooler and he was slightly retarded. I didn’t think too much of it until the boy’s father placed a hand on my hip and told me, ‘I’m sorry, babe.’ Before I could put him in his place, he disappeared in the thick of the crowd, holding the boy by his elbow.”
“I remember the father’s breath on my neck and the warmth of his hand through the fabric of my skirt. I nearly lost my footing. You know, something about that—the casual hand, the compliment—the whole goddamn Christmas scene and the crowd, something there was both comfortable and uncomfortable and I hated feeling the anger—the righteousness of it—and the arousal that I didn’t want to feel. Still, it was there.”
“Girls my age never talk like that, being aroused.”
“I’m not a girl anymore,” she said. The blouse she was wearing opened at the neck. “We made it into a joke between the two of us. It removed the sting of that man thinking that he could, and that I would. Riley was too young to understand.” She felt the power of her speech. She said, brazenly, “I was a true child of the Sixties. I read Anais Nin for the first time in 1968. I was fifteen.” She continued. “I pity your generation and your sad, sanitized porn. That slick baldness. Those inflated breasts.”
“She wrote great erotic fiction. An iconoclast of her time.” Eve got up and pulled from the living room shelf a paperback book. “Here. Give it a go.” She handed it to him and brushed her leg against his as she sat back down into her chair. She shuddered at the touch.
“Thanks.” He looked at the cover, the black and white photograph of a young girl, a fringe on her forehead. “I’ll go rest a little now. We’ve been working hard. I can feel Rye stirring. I know how she sleeps—or doesn’t sleep. Her napping skills are legendary, the stuff of Sedentary Olympics.” He wouldn’t turn his face to her. He stood up, the book in hand.
“Well, you know where to find me,” said Eve more to herself than to him and she watched him go to the bedroom. She wondered if Riley was indeed sleeping or if she was waiting for his return to her bed.
Braverman approached Eve as she sat in her chair by the lake. “Rye’s showering,” he said. “Here. I bought you these.” He handed Eve a pack of cigarettes wrapped in cellophane. She took the gift, a woman dancing in a curl of blue smoke. They were Gitanes.
“How did you know?” she asked. She was puzzled. He’d caught her by surprise, and she felt both the excitement of knowing he thought of her and the wonderment of his discovery. “Where in the world did you find them?”
“Magic.” He opened his hands like a bygone Cabaret performer. “Ta-da.” He raised his head toward the horizon and watched a bird flitter on the shore.
Always observing, she thought.
“In the book you gave me, I found a pressed carton. A bookmark long ago?” He put his hand on her shoulder. “I like the smell of them, you know, rich. I liked the book, too. Some of it at least. It’s a bit out there. I stopped at the story of the guy balancing on the chair over the children with his dick hanging out. And those boarding school boys. Christ, that’s a bit sick, don’t you think?”
“I’d forgotten that part. Sorry. She was commissioned to write those stories. For a lot of money. You can’t blame a woman for her survival. Those were different days.”
“We all try to survive one way or another, with our vices and our secrets.”
“Thank you for this pack.” She turned it over in her hands. “It’s been a long time since anyone gave me something with a bit of meaning.” She looked at him and knew she hadn’t imagined the kinship between them. She was flattered by the attention of his gift.
After a long moment, Braverman sat down in the browning grass next to her chair, his forearms resting on his knees. “It’s nice here. Peaceful.”
“Yes,” she said. The air was full of sharp fall scents: the burning of leaves, a hint of coming rain, and something else Eve couldn’t place that was both mineral and vegetal. She considered the vastness of the lake. The sun dimmed. She looked at his face. “I think I might lose this place.”
He waited for her to continue.
“I speculated. What a word.” Her tears welled. “I resigned and retired and took a second mortgage and made some unwise investments. I think I’ll have to sell the car.” She paused. “It’s worth quite a bit. It’s a 1968 King of the Road.”
“How much is a bit?”
She hesitated. “Oh, one hundred thousand, maybe more at auction.”
“Holy Mother of God.”
“It will come down to choosing the cottage over the car. I’m thinking of moving here. For a little while.”
He patted her on the arm. “I didn’t go to Harvard. Or Duke. But I did go to Amherst. I hung around. People want things, and they’ll believe anything for the sake of appearances. That much I know.”
“Things.” Eve understood. That was her relationship with men: they’d wanted things, and she’d given them what they’d wanted. She’d been the victim of appearances.
“The truth is that I was a bit of grifter. Riley caught me off guard. I felt like she saw me, you know, really saw me.” He turned to Eve with the wide-eyed look of a man in love. “She changed me. I know that sounds ridiculous. We’ve been together two months, but it’s true. I’m a new person with her.”
“She’s lovely in many ways.” For the first time, Eve no longer wished for her relationship with Riley to be restored to what it had been. Here was an opportunity to start fresh and, inhaling the sharp air, she was washed over with relief.
“Here’s one more secret: I’m thirty-two,” he said. He dug the heels of his boots in the soft earth.
“Holy Mother of God,” she said, imitating him. “She’s eighteen.”
“I’m sorry, babe.”
“Who’s David Johnson?” she asked.
He looked at her, quite sadly, and said, “I am.”
Overhead, a flock of wild geese flew in a V. She wanted to recite lines of poetry and tell him, You do not have to be good. Yet she wouldn’t. The evening was perfect, unmarred by an abundance of words. They understood each other, and there was beauty in that clarity. They both sat there for a while in silence. The lake, overcast by a fine mist, reflected nothing on its surface. Then, breaking the spell of their shared communion, he said, “You know, Riley was right: You really are a cool old lady.”
He would have hurt her less if he’d hit her, just as she’d hit Pitcairn. There it was, the truth of what she was to him served cold.
Eve had been anxious in waking, knowing that Braverman and Riley would leave that morning. She had dreamt terrifying images she could not remember, and what remained was a foreboding sense of vengeance in her body, as if her spine was tethered to the evil of nightmare. She recalled her conversation with Braverman and his confessions. Her stomach soured. Old lady. She thought of the library card from Amherst she’d seen in his wallet. If he was David Johnson, why had he been a college student in 2001? He was surely lying about this name. He was Braverman, and he’d stolen credit cards and identification from a David Johnson, someone whom he might have conned in the past. She imagined a body rolled into a rug, slowly dropping to the bottom of a river, of a lake. And she was filled with apprehension at the thought of being a victim. Pitcairn had done this to her, had made her fearful of men’s intentions.
The phone rang. At the cottage, she still had a telephone on the wall, its long coiled bungee cord woefully hanging. She didn’t answer. The ringing continued for some time and then ceased. She didn’t care to know who was calling her. On the counter, her cell phone pinged. She stood to look at the screen. It was her brother Roger. Call me. Please.
Riley, as if summoned, walked out of the bedroom toward her aunt, her hair matted on one side of her head. “Jesus, you’ve got to cut that landline,” she said. “That ringing. No one has phones anymore.”
“Is he in bed?”
Riley kept her distance. “Brave went out to run errands. I thought he’d be back here with you already.” Her eyes were half-open.
“He’s not what he seems.”
“Was Dad on the phone? He called me and told me to get you up and leave the cottage. He’ll tell you Brave is really a thirty-seven-year-old former convict, that he sells drugs. Don’t believe him. You know him better.” Riley sat at the kitchen table and stretched out her arms.
Eve took her hand. “I had a feeling like there’s something off about him. He probably is thirty-seven. His real name is David Johnson.”
“So they say?”
“He told me his name.” Eve waited. “You don’t seem disturbed by this.”
“Evie—I already know part of his story. He’s been helping you with the house and you’re buying into this?” Riley began to cry. “I’m the one who’s fucking everything up. I’m failing my classes. I cut my hair and it looks like shit.”
“Oh, Riley. My Riley,” said Eve. “I thought he was real, too.” And she felt foolish for having thought of wasting herself on yet another gasbag of a man. It was Riley she should have shielded from the hurt of the world.
“I think he overheard Dad and so he left, but I know he’s coming back for me.” She watched through the window the small spot of driveway she could see.
“You don’t need him, Riley,” said Eve. “You have me.”
“Don’t turn him in. Please. They’ll put him away for things he’s done before.”
Eve searched the spot on the wall by the telephone. Her car keys were missing. Of course they were missing. Was this the feeling that had engulfed her all morning? Not the lingering effect of his insult and the loss of her love, but a need for revenge against a wrong she now understood? Braverman had taken her car, one of the many impulses of her life. How Pitcairn had admired its body, its perfect construction. A ride in her car was the one thing she’d refused him. He hadn’t earned it. Braverman hadn’t earned it either.
Eve told Riley to pack her belongings. She would text Roger and tell him to be there soon, for his girl, to brace her for what was to come. She kissed her niece’s forehead and closed the door gently. She looked down at her phone and tapped an icon. Instead of replying to Roger immediately, she found in her contact list the number of the local police station. She promised Riley not to turn in Brave, but what promises were truly worth keeping? Not the half-truths of life, the wild dares, and the precarious choices. There was no kindness to be gained in obeying the wishes of others, only folly.
She rummaged in a kitchen drawer and took out a disposable red lighter. Then she grabbed the pack of Gitanes from the cupboard, lifted the corners of the cellophane, and drew out a cigarette, which she put between her lips. She walked out to the yard, her Georgian silver ashtray in hand. She flicked the little gas flame and took a drag. While she watched the surface of the lake, she heard the familiar rumbling of her car’s engine in the distance. He was coming back, as Riley said he would. She thought of the song of sirens, mere minutes away, and of the men in blue who would take him from her home. When Braverman slowly drove on the gravel toward her, she turned to smile at him through a ring of smoke.