Lynn Steger Strong

 

Maeve flew in to St Croix on a Friday and a boy named Ortiz, who couldn’t have been older than sixteen, drove her, in a white van with the word Buccaneer in peeling pink paint across the side, to her cabana room down by the beach after she’d checked in.

He offered her a pink rum drink (the pink almost but not really matched the paint), spooned out of a large bowl in the otherwise uninhabited lobby, before leading her out to the van. It was May and the backs of her thighs stuck to the seat’s black leather; she’d regretted the shorts since the moment she arrived at JFK. It had been three years, she realized, since she’d left New York, and she’d forgotten, the too coldness of the airplane, the stale air. She’d felt an almost nauseating need to be more fully covered up.

Shorts in general had begun to seem to her like one of those things she might be supposed to give up now that she was almost thirty-six. But she had nice legs, thin, shapely, that she worked at, that had never been anything but what they were.

            “You here for the wedding?” Ortiz asked as they drove down the hill.

Lines of cabins ran along an incline that sloped down to the water, which was the exact color Maeve had in her mind when she thought the word Caribbean. The cabins were all pink with slant brown roofs and there were tennis courts further up the hill, a golf course ran the perimeter.

Maeve caught Ortiz’ eyes in the rearview mirror, large and dark; she averted hers, looking down at her bare legs, the garishness of all that skin. “No,” she said. She grabbed hold of her camera bag to reaffirm her purpose.

“They hired me,” she said.  

“The wedding?” asked Ortiz.

“No,” said Maeve. She wanted to ask him to please stop saying that word. “The hotel. I…” a former professor had done her the favor of passing along the job. The Buccaneer had recently been featured on a reality show Maeve had watched on her computer more than once when David was at work. The hotel wanted to Capitalize On The Publicity, print up new brochures. “I’m going to take pictures,” she told Ortiz. “I…” she stopped again, too exhausted for conversation. She ran her hand along her stomach, grabbed hold of her camera bag again. This wasn’t even real work, but she was grateful for it, relieved to not have to try to figure out what might be art.

Ortiz had turned his eyes back to the road as they looped down the hill and past the line of cottages. Maeve caught herself in the rearview mirror, bloodshot eyes and two distinct creases in her forehead, hair pulled off her face, no makeup, freckled, slightly sun worn skin.

Ortiz helped her with her suitcase while Maeve kept hold of her camera bag, which she held in front of her lower half; Ortiz unlocked the door to her cabana and handed her the key. He left, mercifully, without a word.

“Thanks,” Maeve said, too late.

The room was simple, a large king-sized bed that looked out a single room-length window onto a pool that sat just above the beach, a cabana bar in front, thatched roofed. There was something just shy of nice about the whole place. The faint stench of years of cigarettes, the duvet a faded dark blue with tiny, yellow flowers, too evenly spaced. The fixtures in the bathroom were the wrong sort of beige, the glass door to the shower covered in a thin film of something greyish white. Maeve found cigarette butts underneath the lounge chairs when she walked outside. The chairs were set close together, facing outward. Maeve pulled one apart, her back toward the other chair. She sipped her drink, and looked out toward the water. There was a small sign with large red arrows on it warning of sea urchins pointing toward the clearest path into the blue, that she fixed her eyes on, squinting through the sun’s reflection, as she drifted off to sleep.

 

When she woke up, her younger sister’s wide strong body blocked the sun.

“Em,” she said, a little shocked. They were fourteen months apart, and though there had been a brief period of time when Maeve was there and Emma wasn’t, it wasn’t any time that she could conjure in her head.

She’d seen her sister just three months ago, but still, every time she saw her, Maeve was shocked by the sameness of her sister—the way the shape of Emma’s face, round and soft with large features set a bit too closely, and the heft and hardness of her bones, sturdy more than any other adjective, immoveable, Maeve always thought—always made Maeve feel like she was looking at the only constant thing in her whole life.

            “Morning, Mae,” her sister said. She had on flip-flops, loose fitting dark blue linen pants, a size too big. Maeve stayed still and smiled, squinting at her sister.

“You forgot sunscreen,” Emma said.

Maeve felt the first sting of too much sun. She touched her fingers briefly to her forehead. Her sister pulled a tube of sunscreen from her bag and handed it to Maeve.

Maeve sat up, not acknowledging the tube. She spread her arms, gesturing toward the beach, “You’re welcome,” she said. “So glad you’re here.”

Maeve had meant to surprise David with this trip once she’d gotten the call from her professor. She’d bought his ticket using almost the entire sum of money she’d been offered for the work, but then he’d hated the surprise and couldn’t make it. He had to work, he said. He was an artist too, but, unlike Maeve, he actually made a living with his work. So then this extra ticket and a week in the Caribbean that Maeve didn’t think that she could stomach all alone.

She’d called her sister needing someone to talk to, someone who might be grateful for the trip. Maeve had no proper female friends. And there was always that moment with Emma, just before she spoke, when Maeve was calling and then talking, when she thought the word sister, but had yet to come up again against the fact of hers. In those moments, she thought maybe—she loved Emma, respected Emma, mostly—that maybe they had a sort of undeniable connection, no matter their differences, no matter the fact they’d never really gotten along.

But then her sister would respond to whatever Maeve was saying. You should leave him, she’d say about David. He’ll never marry you, she’d say. Your eggs are probably already autistic, she’d say. Mae, she’d say, you have to get a job.

“It’s great, Mae,” Emma said now, eyeing the cigarette butts. “Thanks for having me.”

Maeve couldn’t locate the sarcasm in the second phrase and so she took it, nodding.

“You’re welcome,” she said, standing up, reaching out to hug her sister, kiss her on the cheek. “I’m glad you came.” No sarcasm on her end either, that odd jolt of somehow, accidently, meaning what she said.

“Should we swim?” asked Emma, “Or drink?” She held up her own pink drink and took two big sips, finishing it, then walked out to the knee high wall along the edge of the deck. “Those are our choices, right?”

Maeve didn’t answer, just waited, taking in the full force of Emma here.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” said Emma.

Maeve came up beside her. There were low slung lush green mountains jutting out in patches through the water, dark bits of blue spotting the light, almost see through green closer to shore. “It is.”

“Bryan told me it’s the lesser island: the waters are too shallow and the cruise ships can’t dock.”

“I’d think that’d be a selling point,” said Maeve.

Emma shrugged, ran her left hand through her short-cropped hair. “Not if your largest industry is tourism.”

Maeve nodded. Bryan was the sort of person that knew just enough about nearly everything that he came off as brilliant in Emma’s small town circle of friends.

“Drink, I think,” said Maeve. Her sister stared at her, worried maybe for a moment, then took her hand and led her back into the room. Maeve caught her eye and willed her not to mention their last visit. She couldn’t, didn’t want to yet.

“Alright,” said Em.

“We should prepare though,” said Maeve. “For later, drunker swimming.”

Emma waited a beat too long again. “Sure,” she said.

They changed, neither bothering to go into the bathroom, bright sunlight pouring through the window.

Maeve marveled at the width and breadth of her sister’s ass, the cellulite bunching as her bathing suit caught briefly below her thighs, Emma yanking, unforgiving, the skin, folding, curdled, both revolting Maeve and leaving her a little envious somehow.

Her sister wrapped a sheer green cover up around her waist, and buttoned one of what must have been Brian’s shirts on top.

Maeve wore a bikini, a black bandeau, though again, she wasn’t sure if she was meant to stop. Her stomach was flat, none of her skin bunched or folded. She buttoned her own (David’s) loose linen shirt over top her suit; she wondered briefly if this was somehow another one of those accidental things they’d picked up from one another growing up.

“The bar then?” said Emma. She wore no makeup, a little mascara that might have been leftover from the day before.

“Sure,” said Maeve. “The bar.”

 

This was not something either of them would do in their normal lives: day drinking. Maeve had begun, in the past few months, to uncork her nightly wine a little early, to find the bottle empty before David was home, to sometimes hide the empty bottle—a gruner veltliner or a gewürtztraminer, they’d spent a year in Berlin on a fellowship for David, Maeve’s dinner party schpiel was that she’d analyzed the subtle variations the Germans could produce in sweet white wines—in her studio off the bedroom, in one of the drawers in the kitchen where she knew David never looked. But none of this felt even slightly alcoholic—it felt much more adolescent. Her vices, even, had turned out much less consequential than she’d meant.

 

They walked back up the hill toward the main hotel where the bar was. “We should have called that boy to get us,” Emma said.

Maeve turned back to her sister, who was sweating. “Jesus, Em,” she said. “The boy?”

“What?” Her sister’s whole face flushed from the effort of their walk.

 

There was no one in the bar but the lone bartender. He was portly, a prodigious beard. He had napkins down in front of both of them before they’d settled on their stools.

“Is there a drink menu?” asked Emma. Maeve stared at her sister. Emma’d only ever drunk red wine or gin since she was twenty-four.

Emma shrugged, nodding as the bartender passed her a laminated purple drink menu, a picture of a palm tree and a smiling bikini-clad girl on the front. “When in Rome?” she said.

            Maeve smiled without realizing. She looked over Emma’s shoulder at the list.

            “We’ll have two of the rum dream thing,” said Emma. She took hold of Maeve before she could speak. “Please don’t talk to me about the sugar Maevella.”

            While the blender ran Maeve looked past her sister at the water. There was a mass of dark clouds a few miles off shore.

            “Do you?” she tried to think of a trivial question that wouldn’t hurt her to say out loud to her sister, something to ask that wasn’t too high stakes. But they’d never been capable of small talk, Maeve nor Emma. They only ever talked about real shit or they fought.

            Her sister put her hand on her arm as the bartender set down their pink drinks.

            “Umbrellas,” Em said. She coughed out a laugh.

            “How’re the boys?” Mae asked. There was that at least. They could fill the space with that. Emma had three children, (the third being, in Maeve’s view, not just excessive, but proof of something about how one had taken to parenting, that it was not just one of many things they did, but the thing, the thing they wanted most of all to be).

            “They’re fine, Mae.” Emma said. “They’re too big.”

            Her oldest, Clayton, was twelve now. Her sister’d slept with almost everyone they knew in college. Emma and Maeve had gone to the State school, lived together, had sex with the same guy more than once.

But then all of a sudden there’d been Bryan. And just like that, Maeve’s sister had become all grown up.

            Maeve had met David before Emma had met Bryan. David had moved in with Maeve and Emma when Maeve was twenty-one. Except the shape of her life hadn’t been altered by their meeting. David hadn’t wanted to tie Maeve down or in in anyway. At the time, Maeve had thought of this as a selling point.

            “Honey,” said Emma.

            “Not now, Em.”

Her sister’d come to New York three months ago because Maeve was in the hospital. She’d frozen her eggs and hadn’t told David. The whole thing had gone terribly wrong.           

 

A guy climbed the steps to the bar. It was all open air with views that stretched out. A bird flew in, big and colorful up close. Maeve wanted to ask someone if parrots existed outside of zoos. The guy nodded at the bartender, who had a beer open for him before he sat down. He was either thirty or fifty. He had the sort of face and build that suggested either too much work or not enough. “Hey, Benny,” he said. The bar was long and concrete. He pulled out the stool two away from Maeve.

            “Tom.”

            His face was sun worn, up close. His eyes huge, a little red.

            “Hi,” Maeve said, desperate to talk to anyone but Emma.

            “Hey,” he said.

            “Where is everyone?” asked Emma. The bartender was close by. She seemed to be asking both of them.

            “Too hot,” said the bartender. “Our rush starts in the fall.”

            “Backwards,” said the guy drinking his beer. “Just like everything else.”

            “Bitter. Bitter,” said the bartender.

            “Ah, fuck you, Benny.”

            Both Maeve and Emma looked back and forth between the two of them.

            “Is it…” Emma started. She’d never been afraid to talk to strangers, remained a flirt even after baby number three.

            “The whole island’s gone to shit,” said Tom.

            “Don’t listen to him,” said Benny. “He’s just another sad drunk beached up with no better place to be.”

            “Double fuck to you Benny.”

            “Is it because of the cruise ships?” Emma asked him.

 

There had been times, throughout their lives, in public spaces, when Maeve had refused to admit she was related to Emma. Her sister was awkward, too forward, never willing to admit she needed to eat less and be less loud. But she had, in the moment that Maeve didn’t have another person, flown to New York overnight to hold her sister’s hand. She had come and done the thing she does: she had mothered, in the face of Maeve’s odd—too clinical, too solitary, too lacking in any actual life type production, too devoid of anything but fear—attempt at motherhood falling so short.

 

It had been a slippery slope of shitstorms: Maeve’s sort of friend from grad school, newly married, finally settled, was diagnosed with breast cancer and told she’d be fine, but she’d probably never procreate.

She’d been given two weeks, before the start of chemo, to harvest and to freeze her eggs. Another woman she knew only on Facebook, who was her same age, had had to adopt a kid from Russia, after China turned her down. After, presumably, her ovaries had refused to do their thing.

There was all that research in the Times about BPA.

And then another friend, who knew a great fertility doctor. An egg count that was fine, not great. Another article, this time in Salon, about the dangers of waiting too long and the risks; the smell of the new baby head of one of David’s friends.

 

“No one gives a fuck about the cruise ships,” said Tom.

            “I wouldn’t…” Benny started.

            Maeve sucked strong and quick on her drink’s straw.

            “HOVENSA, you know?” said Tom. “Oil?”

            Maeve and Emma shook their heads. Emma took out her straw and drank with her head tipped back.

            “Shutdown last year. 2000 jobs just disappeared.”

            All three of them drank again.

 “Asia, you know?” Tom said. “They’re smarter and they’re cheaper. Guys couldn’t keep up. Functioning at a loss, blah blah blah. 20 percent of the whole fucking island’s GDP, just shut the fuck down.”

            Benny shook his head, walked away.

 

It was supposed to all be straightforward. She shot herself full of hormones and for a few weeks she blew up and felt huge. She’d worried at first that David would notice, comment on her largeness, but then she’d realized they didn’t touch much any more. Her ovaries had freaked out, though. Massive Over Production, said the OB. Her uterus had ballooned to the size of someone six months pregnant in a matter of two days. She hadn’t meant not to tell him.

There’d been a time when both of them thought only about their greatness, when both of them were just as selfish, just as driven, just as sure.

            She had also sort of stolen the money from David’s trust for the procedure. It was their money, he always told her. Except they weren’t married. Except it was ten grand that he had no idea was gone. It was money he’d inherited from his grandmother, dead before he’d met Maeve, a slumlord of some kind in Western Mass. There were millions. It was maybe how certain she was he’d never notice that bothered her the most.

 

“Fuck,” said Emma. She had an awful mouth, Maeve’s sister. Each of the boys had, at some point early, been sent home from school for profane speech.

            “Yeah,” Tom said. “There’s hardly anybody left.”

            “Did you work there?” asked Emma.

            “Sort of,” Tom said.

            Both girls waited. Maeve’s slurping called attention to the bottom of her drink.

            “He’s a failed lawyer,” Benny said.

            “Right,” said Tom. He set down his beer and motioned toward all three empty glasses. “Refills?” he said.

Then, once Benny had left them, “I try not to lead with that.”

            Maeve thought briefly of her brochure. “What about the tourists?” she said, not wanting to believe that stupid boring Bryan was right about the ships.

            “Not a lot of reason for them to sue.”

            “No, I mean…”

Maeve’s greatest accomplishment as an artist was her thesis show: she’d done a live recreation of a lunch between Wittgenstein and Hannah Arendt. Even then, reading all that philosophy, engaging her mind rigorously, videoing the whole thing with David’s help, she had only been half-interested, she’d been interested in impressing David, getting a good critique, but she’d never known why she’d made the things she made.

            “Tourists have never really taken to the place,” said Benny.

            Maeve looked past him again: the water, the dark patches of green.

            “Why not?” she said, realizing, she was a little breathless. A little drunk.

            “Mass murder didn’t help,” said Tom.

“Please,” Benny said. “You overstate.”

They’d extracted all the eggs from Maeve over a period of a few days. Her fallopian tubes were infected. For weeks after she leaked puss.

Her sister stayed the whole time, rubbed her back, slept in the chair by her bed. Maeve told David she was visiting Emma in Minnesota. She’d had to take the phone into the bathroom and deride her sister and her husband as she spoke to him, make up stories of the stupid things Brian had done, all the ways the boys had grown. And that was mostly what she asked Emma to tell her about, the boys, Bryan, the palaver about her life that up till then Maeve had mostly been pretty sure she had no interest in.

Owen was her favorite, the middle child. He was quiet, already much more attractive than either his mom or his dad. When she had been to visit her sister—years ago, he was now twice the age that he was then—she’d taken him for a whole day of wandering the small town together. They’d hardly spoken to one another. They’d split a hamburger and fries for lunch. It was the first time she’d thought she might enjoy having children, she’d thought she might enjoy having a fully-grown boy who sat quietly beside her, letting her eat most of the fries.

She learned, in all those days with Emma by her bedside, desperate to not be grateful, hungry for stories that felt far enough from her life that she didn’t have to think of what it had become, that Owen was dyslexic, having trouble test-taking. That Bryan yelled sometimes, lost his temper, and Clayton, having inherited the temper, had, just one time, according to her sister, hit his dad. Her sister delivered all of this though as if it were just a part of all the joy that she’d somehow been given. She shook her head about the hitting. “Boys,” she said. Maeve had waited the whole time for her to start to cry and complain about her deeply rooted misery and boredom. But her sister had proven herself astonishingly content somehow, happy even, more than anyone Maeve knew.

 

“Murder?” Em said now. She’d managed to get Maeve hooked on Danish Murder shows when they’d moved to the hotel (also paid for by David) in the village that they stayed at the second week: Wallander, Annika Bengzton. They’d spent whole days speaking in awful Danish accents, laughing like they hadn’t laughed in years.

            “Forty years ago,” said Benny.

            “Travel agents don’t forget,” said Tom

            “I don’t think travel agents exist anymore,” said Emma, starting in on her third drink.

            “He’s still loose you know? He skyjacked a plane.”

            “Skyjacked?” asked Maeve.

            “You know.” Tom said. “Commandeered the thing.”

“Hijacked,” Emma said.

            “Who?” said Maeve.

            “Ishmael Labeet,” said Benny. He smiled as he said it. “Hard to beat the name.”

            “Who’d he murder?” asked Emma.

            “Golfers,” said Tom, laughing too now, nodding toward the empty golf course. “Eight of them. The massacre of Fountain Valley.”

            “And he’s still missing?” asked Maeve, a little nervous, a little sick.

            “He took his skyjacked/hijacked plane away.”

            “He’s still alive then?”

            “Oh, who knows?” said Tom. “Probably.”

            “He’d only be…” Benny stopped. He opened another beer for Tom, took a sip for himself before setting it in front of him. “65, maybe?”

            “He went to Cuba,” Tom said. “He was a vet. Did it with four other guys. They claimed to be black victims of white authority.”

            Emma had finished her third drink now and grabbed hold of Tom.

            “Double fuck,” she said.

            Tom and Benny laughed. “Yeah.”

 

One night at the hotel in the village: Emma’d crawled into the bathtub with her sister. They’d done this every night when they were little. They had no father that they knew of. Their mom had boyfriends, a sixty-hour a week job. Emma had settled herself into her sister then. Maeve had let the soft, full weight of Emma spread over top of her. Neither of them had spoken. They’d watched a violent crime be both perpetrated and then solved in the clean line of an hour on the flat screen that hung over the tub.

 

They walked back down the hill, holding onto one another. Maeve nestled herself easily into her sister’s heft.

“You know what I’m afraid of?” asked Emma.

            “Ishmael Labeet?”

            Emma shook her head. Serious, all of a sudden, looking sober when Maeve knew she couldn’t possibly.

            “I’m afraid I’ll never be able to be inside of anything again,” Emma said. “That there will always be layers of knowing, or past experience, or shit-I-have-to-do-when-this-is-over between me and what’s happening.”

            Maeve looked out toward the water, held more tightly to Emma.

“I was driving to the airport to get here,” said her sister. “Bryan couldn’t do it. It was too much trouble to pack up the boys.” Emma looked down, smiled, looked out. “Some Justin Timberlake song came on and I put down the windows and started singing.”

Maeve fixed her eyes on the different colors of the water, watched the white van loop up the hill.

 “And, it was like I was sixteen, you know?” said Emma. “Same highway, same quality of music, basically the same beat. But I couldn’t feel it fully, you know? I couldn’t get inside of it like I did then.”

Emma pulled Maeve into the grass as the van sped past them; Maeve caught Ortiz’s eye and smiled.

            “I kept thinking how funny the boys would think I was being, how you would scowl at me,” her sister said.

Maeve wanted to hold Emma then, to rub her back like Emma’d done for her those few weeks in New York.

“You hear that story and it’s interesting, right? It’s fascinating, but it already feels like just an anecdote to pass along. Like I can’t fully digest the fact that people died, that that Oil plant was like a real serious thing.”

 They walked around the back of their room and down the steps that led to the water. The wood creaked beneath them. Emma held the handrail; Maeve kept hold of her.

“The only thing I feel like that is the boys, you know? And only rarely. I miss it sometimes. Most of the time it’s after they’ve gone to sleep.”

At the base of the steps were a smattering of lounge chairs, towels piled on a wood table, no one there but them. Maeve looked at her sister, who kept her eyes fixed on the water, her steps more careful in the sand.

 “And I know I’ve been so inside of something for a while, so inside of something that had to do with them, that I haven’t been plotting or reconsidering. And I’m so grateful to them. And then so worried that I need their help to pull that off.”

Maeve and Emma both slipped off their flip flops next to a pair of lounge chairs; they unbuttoned their shirts, slipped them off their shoulders, folded them the exact same on their chairs.

 

When Maeve had finally come home from the three weeks away—traveling city blocks instead of hours on a plane—David had been so glad to see her. He’d wrapped himself around her for a whole day, going on about how she must never leave him like that, about how he loved her, needed her, all the things she’d thought she’d been desperate for for years. But every time he’d touched her she’d wanted to scream and yell and blame it all on him. His fingers on her skin had felt violent, foreign, wrong. She’d wanted to be alone, in the shower, in the bathtub, where nothing and no one could touch her, where she could be quiet, still, not lie.

 

Emma led her out into the water. They steered clear of the sea urchins then out into the blue. Caribbean, Maeve said to herself over and over, Caribbean, as she dove, as the rum and the warm blue green fell over top of her, until it didn’t just look and feel like that was where they were, but maybe, maybe, she was deep inside.  

 

Lynn Steger Strong holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, where she taught freshman writing. She lives in south Florida with her husband and two young daughters. Her novel, Hold Still, is available to buy now. 

Illustrations by Aurelia Lange.