From Spur Cross and Carefree
Surveying the pool, Rachel saw couples, women with men, lounging around the shimmering blue—most of them older, one mother about her age standing in shallow water, arms outstretched, coaxing a little girl who stood resolutely on the first step, arms circled by inflated orange water wings. No sale. Even the daylight here surprised her: brighter, whiter, it made everything seem starkly exposed. She stepped forward, tipping the brim of her cap down to block the glare, even though she was wearing sunglasses, and checked again, body by body.
“Can I help you?” A man in khaki shorts and embroidered polo shirt, holding a tray of used plastic cups, appeared beside her.
“Hi! I was just—I’m looking for a friend,” Rachel said, smiling, hating it. But in choosing Arizona, this was one of the compromises she’d expected to have to make. “She told me she’d be at the pool.” With two drinks, the note had said, though the sun was not yet directly overhead.
“Did she say which one?”
Multiple pools. The possibility hadn’t crossed Rachel’s mind.
“This is the main pool,” the waiter continued. “There’s one near the clubhouse, and then we have the spa pool.”
“The spa pool,” Rachel said, knowing her girl. Then, to be sure, “Do they have bar service there, too?” She laughed.
They did. He gave her directions, offered to call the bell desk for a golf cart if she wanted a ride.
“Oh, no, that’s ok,” Rachel said, with that same little laugh, a sound she made involuntarily. “Thank you, though.”
She had walked eight miles already this morning, so a few hundred more yards would have seemed inconsequential if not for the fact that the temperature was now nearly 100 headed toward a late afternoon high of 107, according to her phone, which was hot to the touch. This place they were staying was even more beautiful than she had imagined from the website, despite the shocking heat, which felt like a dry sauna set on Dessicate, and despite the fact that the distinguishing feature of the resort was enormous rocks. As Rachel walked the sand-colored cement path alongside a boulder as large as a fairy tale cottage, down around an immaculately groomed putting green, and between casitas laid out like some sort of idyllic, luxurious, pueblo village, lizards flashed in front of her, quail bobbed their question mark head ornaments, and one bold rabbit only a few feet away stopped chewing long enough to determine that she posed no threat. What made massive rockpiles surrounded by plants projecting hooks and thorns so appealing? What drew her to this, when the sane response would be to stay indoors, or stay away? Sometimes Rachel suspected she had a perverse streak, an attraction to anything that made life difficult.
Last night, when they had been driven to their casita—their first casita—in one of those golf carts, the bellman mentioned that a tarantula lived at the base of one of the path lights just ahead. “I call her Stacey,” he told them, “because—well, never mind.”
“She wants to see it,” Olivia had told him. “Do you mind if we humor her?”
Olivia was right, but still.
“Not at all.” He stopped the cart maybe ten feet short of the light. “Step softly—if she feels you coming, she’ll go back in her hole.” He seemed surprised when Olivia stayed in the cart, her arm across the back of the seat. “Did you want to look?”
“Not me,” Olivia assured him. “Just Nature Girl.”
Rachel squatted, silent. After a moment she reached out, held her phone above the creature, and took a photo.
“Want to see?” she said, back in the cart. Spiders terrified Olivia.
“No thank you,” Olivia sang, looking away from the phone.
The bellman, who wore khaki shorts and a buttoned shirt, as if they were on some sort of safari, was perfectly pleasant: he carried their luggage, pointed out the features of their room, and asked if there was anything else they needed without any hint of disapproval, or innuendo, or need for a tip—Olivia gave him one, even though it was supposed to be covered by the resort fee, along with the smile she used to enchant the unsuspecting—so Rachel felt guilty when Olivia started the inspection.
“This is really nice,” Rachel tried. That was an understatement, but she knew better than to demonstrate enthusiasm. Olivia would find something. The casita consisted of one massive room with a king-size bed on a log frame, a leather love seat and chair facing an adobe fireplace, a kitchenette, a patio looking out onto the dark desert, and an enormous bathroom with two sinks and a walk-in closet offering oversized robes. It wasn’t the most stylish room they had ever stayed in—there was the one in Chicago with the statues, and the one in LA with all the glass and its own tiny indoor/outdoor pool—but like everywhere Olivia took her, it was one of the nicest places Rachel had ever been.
“Aha,” Olivia said from the bathroom.
Rachel sat on the bed, playing with the tiny, flat flashlight with the hotel’s name on it that had been provided on the bedside table.
“Ok,” Olivia said, when she came back in. “Off I go.”
Rachel wondered how anyone made a light bulb so small.
“Aw, Rache. Don’t be glum. I just want everything to be perfect.”
“I appreciate that,” Rachel said. But it was the Grand Canyon all over again. “Go do your thing.” For all she had, Olivia seemed to focus most intently on what she didn’t have. Yet.
Rachel looked up; Olivia was hovering. She leaned down for a kiss, and kept kissing. Olivia pressed one leg between Rachel’s knees and held her head with both hands, smiling her devilish smile, the one that made Rachel’s heart catch.
“This will only take a minute,” Olivia promised. “Hold that thought.”
And of course it all worked out. Among the things Rachel had learned over the last two years were that a) the more money people had, the more free things (backstage passes, meals, seat upgrades) they got, and b) when people with money complained, they didn’t get threatened, or kicked out—they got gifts. The resort moved them to a standalone casita with a view of one of the boulders, and the concierge sent two bottles of wine and a plate of truffles along with the usual apologetic note.
Olivia’s father, of all people, had warned her.
Olivia’s parents were both trial lawyers, and Rachel had been terrified of them and their house. Even their German Shepard, Hector, had been aloof when they met, as if to respond to Rachel’s ear skritches would have constituted a breach in decorum. Weren’t dogs supposed to wag and play?
“If it isn’t because I’m a girl,” Rachel said when they left that first night, then caught herself. “If it isn’t because I’m a woman—if it isn’t because we’re queer—then they don’t like me.”
“Of course they do,” Olivia said. “As much as they like anyone.” It hadn’t helped when Olivia explained that trial lawyers were actors: everything they said, every pause they took, every look they gave, was calculated. The whole night, Rachel felt like she was living out one of the classic teacher nightmares: the one where you find yourself in a classroom with everyone staring, expectant, but you have no idea what you’re supposed to be teaching. Who did these people expect her to be? How long would they tolerate this intruder into their world? Rachel did best when she had goals to meet, problems to solve, a role to play. With Olivia’s parents, Rachel didn’t have much to work with beyond Don’t screw up. Impressing them was out of the question: nothing she had ever had or been or done, nothing she could ever do or be, would possibly impress them.
Even now, after half a dozen visits to their house, the weekend they all met in New York to see shows, and the wedding, Rachel had no clear idea where she stood with Olivia’s mother, who seemed to scrutinize the world from a distance in a way that—well, that reminded her of Olivia. Acorn, tree. But the night they announced they were getting married (“You are,” Olivia’s mother replied, absent of inflection, without evident indication of dismay or approval), Cartwright—his first name—made an elaborate show of inviting Rachel into his study for an after dinner drink. “You,” he said to Olivia, emphasizing what was already apparent, “are not invited. Yet.”
Despite the name, Cartwright seemed warmer, to Rachel, than Anna, his wife. The second time she and Olivia had gone to her parents’ for dinner, he announced after the meal that he and “the girls” had important work to do—then led them to the closet in his study specifically designed to hold his bourbon collection. “Let us determine,” he said to Rachel that night, with comic archness, “what sort of taste you have. Am I going to get away with pouring you some ten dollar rotgut?”
Probably, Rachel would have said, but her taste buds turned out to be more discerning than she would have guessed. Either that, or Cartwright enjoyed praising her preferences for reasons of his own.
“My dear Rachel,” he began, the night he took her into his study alone, reaching straight for the Hirsch Reserve 16 Year. Blue wax. “Long ago—long ago—I anticipated having some version of this conversation with an ambitious young man. Over time, I understood that if I were ever going to have such a conversation, it would likely be with a young woman.” He set their glasses on the small table he reserved for serious drinking. “I am particularly pleased to be having this conversation with you.”
Rachel thought she would throw up, she was so nervous. “That’s really expensive.”
Cartwright looked at her soberly. Then rotated the bottle so they could both examine the label. “This,” he told her, “is pretentious. Entirely too precious. But let us avail ourselves of the legendary nectar.”
Rachel did her best to imitate the ritual without seeming to imitate the ritual. Cartwright swirled the bourbon in his snifter. Raised it to his nose and inhaled, mouth open. Returned it to the table, still swirling.
Eventually, they drank.
Rachel made what she hoped was an appreciative sound. The Hirsch cost more than her first car—which hadn’t had an engine, but still.
Cartwright wasn’t particularly tall, he wasn’t overweight, he didn’t smoke cigars (though he did, occasionally, wear black suspenders), but he had the self-important man’s habit of waiting to speak, assuming that no one would dare invade the silence that prevailed during his thoughts, before his utterance.
“Money,” he told her that night, “is going to be an issue. My daughter is used to having it, and she enjoys what it allows.”
Rachel had assumed they weren’t going to be talking about sex, but she hadn’t expected this. “I don’t—I mean, my job doesn’t—“
“Not from you,” he assured her. “Not from you.” He squinted at his glass.
“Like drinking gold,” she said. “Or eating a Dodo bird.” She laughed.
Cartwright gave her a reappraising glance.
“Because rare,” she added.
Olivia’s father stood, went back to the closet, and returned with a water dropper and a squat bottle, the kind you might rub if you were in need of a genie.
“This is every bit as flavorful as the Hirsch,” he told her, “for a twentieth of the price. But tonight is a special occasion, and I wanted you to have something you’ll remember.” He poured new glasses for each of them, then added two carefully measured drops. Truth serum, Rachel suspected.
“I’ve been watching,” he continued, “to make sure that my daughter hasn’t bought you.”
She was certain she looked as confused as she felt.
“It’s not that Olivia would do such a thing consciously. But having sudden access to unexpected assets often has deleterious effects. A friend of mine makes his living helping young athletes recover from the unfortunate situations they find themselves in after they sign contracts for amounts of money beyond their comprehension.” He weighed his expression; then, finding it agreeable, repeated himself. “Literally, beyond their comprehension. And you know the story of Greta.”
She assumed he was referring to a fairy tale, or classical mythology. Something about a swan? Long before teaching, Rachel had trained herself not to shake her head, and to make her expression as blank as possible when receiving bad news, a confession, or a complaint. Assuming a listening posture encouraged people; and it provided a protective mask.
“Another time. But when there’s an imbalance in a relationship—and, given your work, your interests, Olivia is going to earn much, much more money than you—if you’d like, we can elaborate on the extent to which that’s an indicator of larger social ills, but no point in belaboring the obvious—when there’s any imbalance, it can be difficult for one person to say no to the other.”
Money was, in fact, an issue. At first, Olivia seemed to find it comic: she had enjoyed mimicking Rachel’s expression the night they went out to dinner and the check, which had been put in front of Rachel, came to over $200. “Like Eliza Doolittle, just off the street,” Olivia joked. Rachel was perfectly good at math, she had stared with something like horror at the elegantly printed numbers on the menu, and she felt sick about the indulgence. Her childhood had been punctuated by hounding bill collectors, by her mother’s confrontations with landlords, by being awakened in the dark and told to get in the car, now. When Rachel signed her first teaching contract, she felt rescued after years at sea. As soon as she had the money in her bank account, she bought Joey a computer, and paid for the brakes, struts, and tires he put on their mother’s Chevy.
When she had told Olivia about that, Olivia looked at her like an anthropologist studying a native of a primitive culture.
Rachel told Olivia’s father, “I guess there are always imbalances.” He was right—the second bourbon was better.
Cartwright conveyed agreement with his eyes alone. “Rachel.” He turned his glass with his thumb and forefinger, and for the first time she considered that he might be nervous, too. “You are a lovely, intelligent, and admirably serious young woman. Anna and I are both very pleased that you and Olivia have chosen each other.”
Rachel doubted the great majority of that.
“But I feel obliged to tell you something that might seem uncharitable, coming from a parent. About my daughter.”
A short list of possibilities came to mind.
“Olivia is not above embroidering the truth.”
“No kidding,” Rachel agreed. “I mean, Jesus.” She laughed. Embroidering was a good way to put it; Olivia didn’t lie, exactly, but she exaggerated, and…embroidered. Rachel had come to think of it as the equivalent of how other people might say I tried to call you a dozen times, when they meant three, or I thought I was going to die! when they meant they were embarrassed. Olivia’s exaggerations were just more specific, so harder to recognize. If she told you she had skipped lunch, but had scrounged and found two stale crackers in one of her desk drawers, all that really meant was that she was hungry. Once she recognized what was happening, Rachel told herself it was admirable: Olivia offered stories, vivid drama, in place of the abstract and mundane.
But there were also strategic omissions, as when Olivia chose not to mention that she was still seeing other people after Rachel thought they had reached the point of mutual monogamy—texting every day, sending each other goofy photos, no longer making dates but just assuming they’d see each other whenever they were both free. Some of the times Olivia wasn’t free, she was with someone else.
Cartwright took his time. Savored his bourbon.
“Anna said that if you hadn’t realized that by now, the relationship was a lost cause.”
He seemed to expect a response.
“And I sincerely believe that Olivia has her own well-defined code of ethics. That she has integrity.”
“Me too.” Rachel had been turning her glass, staring at it, without thinking. When a mutual friend mentioned that Olivia had spent the night with someone else—and when Rachel had worked up the nerve to ask, with feigned casualness, beer bottle trembling in her hand, “Are you seeing other people?” Olivia had confessed. Or more to the point, didn’t act guilty—but said only, “Now and then. You?” And Rachel felt so stupid, so embarrassed, that instead of getting angry she said, “I guess so.” Thinking, I had better. Because she assumed Olivia meant she was ready to move on.
“I don’t know that I’ve made myself clear.” Cartwright looked, she thought later, as if he were breaking bad news to a client. “If someone is going to get hurt in this relationship,” Rachel’s lover’s father told her, “it isn’t going to be Olivia.” Looking past her, at his bookshelves, his eyes narrowed, as if he were trying to find a particular title. When his gaze met hers again, he seemed, for the first time, like a kind man. She would remember this moment at their wedding, when he invited Rachel’s mother to dance. Quietly, he said, “Look out for yourself.”
Peter Turchi is the author of seven books and the co-editor of three anthologies. (Don’t) Stop Me if You’ve Heard This Before (and Other Essays on Writing Fiction) is forthcoming from Trinity University Press in January 2023. Turchi’s work has appeared in Tin House, The Huffington Post, Fiction Writers Review, Ploughshares, Story, and The Alaska Quarterly Review, among other journals. His honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and having a quotation from A Muse and a Maze serve as the answer to the New York Times Magazine Sunday acrostic. He currently teaches at the University of Houston, and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.