by Jane Futcher
Kate tumed onto the live-lane freeway, heading south for Turkey Run. Three weeks had passed since the strange evening in Mill Valley with Ellie and her friends. Despite the dazzling house and the sexual innuendos, seeing Ellie again – so suburban and even matronly – had been almost anticlimactic. But since that evening something inside Kate had shifted. Kate’s energy and concentration increased as she painted. She’d begun a new Gina painting from photographs, a Rousseau-like dream portrait of both of them standing side by side, a jungle of birds-of-paradise, bougainvillea, and tiger lilies closing around them.
When Ellie called, Kate put her off, then finally agreed to have dinner with her in Turkey Run, spend the night, and go riding in the moming. If nothing else, Kate supposed, the evening would be an interesting escape from the studio.
The air cooled as Highway 280 curved around the long bluereservoir at Crystal Springs. Hay-covered pastures had replaced the rows of houses of Daly City; the sweet smell of grass, horses, and the country emanated from the far ridges of the Coastal Range mountains. Kate’s curiosity about Ellie and her married life increased as she drove. What would Nicky Webster, Ellie’s childhood sweetheart, be like after all these years? Would her house be a glass castle like Hope and Raphael’s?
On the surface at least, Ellie appeared to have followed most of the rules laid down by Miss Downey and her successors. She had married, had children, lived in a posh suburb of San Francisco. Miss Downey would not have approved of the ménage with Hope and Raphael, if that’s what it was, but, on the other hand, Miss Downey allowed the rich and well-connected certain…eccentricities.
Glancing into the rearview mirror, Kate brushed a hand through her spiked hair and wished she did not look so much like she’d spent the last three weeks indoors, which is exactly what she had done. “To be rather than to seem” had been the motto of Miss Downey’s School, but in actuality the school’s philosophy was the opposite – the appearance of goodness and propriety was at least as important as the real thing. Kate had not lived by all of Miss Downey’s rules, but she knew them well. Six years at the school plus six years of ballroom dancing classes and Sunday dinners with her aunts and grandmothers had taught her the cardinal rule of polite society: Keep your deepest feelings under wraps.
Kate obeyed. In seventh grade, when she first met Ellie Sereno, she realized with dismay that she was not “growing out ol” her crushes on teachers and upperclassmen, as conventional wisdom suggested she would; her crushes were intensifying. In ninth grade, with the arrival of glamorous boarding students from places like New York and Califomia, she struggled hard against her unruly impulses. While her classmates held hands, hugged, and groomed each other as unself-consciously as gorillas, Kate remained apart. An act as neutral as sharing a hymnal with her seatmate, Claire, at moming prayers made her hands sweat and heart race. More intimate contact was out of the question. As far as she knew, no girl in the history of Miss Downey’s School, perhaps even the world, had such attractions. And then came the weekend in New York with Ellie.
As different as they seemed now, she and Ellie had had some things in common. They were both day students, both good athletes, both artistic. Kate’s love was painting; Ellie’s, music. They waited in the same parking lot for their car pools, attended the same stuffy ballroom dancing school in Georgetown, served on the board of the school literary magazine. But the three-year difference in their ages was a chasm they never crossed until New York.
Kate’s heart raced as she entered the postcard-perfect cowboy town of Turkey Run, which she’d illustrated years ago for a story on Bay Area riding stables. Many of San Francisco’s wealthiest families had built summer homes here after the earthquake of 1906 and had later escaped there to avoid San Francisco’s cold, foggy summers. Today the town looked like a carefully crafted stage set from the Wild West. The local bar had swinging saloon doors; the Wells Fargo bank belonged in Gunsmoke. At the hitching posts by Edward’s Store, the rarefied grocery patronized by former debutantes and horse trainers, barefoot adolescent girls straddled their horses, sipping Diet Pepsi.
On the trail flanking the road, Kate watched a teenage boy, a dead ringer for Dylan on Beverly Hills 90210, rein in an enormous Thoroughbred; a palomino bearing a woman in full rodeo gear came from the opposite direction. A mile beyond the town, beneath the lush overhang of oaks and bay laurels, Kate ascended, passing horse bams and long drives that led to hidden houses. At the top of the hill, paddocks bordered both sides of the road. On the left a low red-shingled ranch house stood at the top of a fence-lined driveway, framed by a flower bed of marguerites, daisies, purple asters, lavender, and orange nasturtium.
Kate was surprised to see several cars in the driveway. Ellie hadn’t mentioned any other guests, said it would just be them. Were her flip-flops, jeans, and blue-striped jersey nice enough?
“Hello’?” Kate stood on the brick steps in front of the open door.
Dotty Henry, the blond bouncy cheerleader from Kate’s class at Miss Downey’s, hugged her. “Hey, Katie. You know Charles, my husband.” She introduced a man as blond and cheerful as she was. “Ferguson, Andy, say hello to Kate Paine.” Two cheerful five-year-old boys in sailor suits dutifully extended their hands.
Kate tumed. Ellie kissed her on the lips and looked inside her paper bag. “Diet Cokes. How divine! Kate doesn’t drink,” she said to Dotty. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Super,” said Dotty.
“What can I get you?” Ellie was wearing a jumpsuit, this time an orange one, and her Mexican sandals.
“You didn’t tell me this was a party,” Kate whispered.
“It’s not a party. It’s a Miss Downey’s reunion.”
Kate rubbed her forehead, aware now that until she talkedprivately with Ellie about what had happened years ago, shewould feel uneasy in her presence. A tall man in khaki pantsand a pink Brooks Brothers’ shirt came out of the kitchenholding a bottle of red wine. His graying hair was swept backoff his head and slicked down in a European, sort of Claus vonBulow way. No doubt about it. This was Nicky Webster, theformer crew star from Saint Paul’s and Yale.
“Nickers,” Ellie said, “do you know Kate Paine? FromDotty and Claire’s class at Miss Downey’s.”
“Pleased to meet you.” He pumped Kate’s hand warmly.
“Would you like some wine?”
“Thanks. I’1l have a Coke.” Kate took a seat in front of thefireplace, across from the blond family on the sofa. The housewas furnished simply – wicker chairs and sofa, brass lamps,and a few antique chairs that looked like they might havebelonged to somebody’s great-aunt. Redwood beams staineddusty white stretched across the ceiling. Above the fireplacewas a stuffed tropical bird frozen in a dramatic, predatory posewith wings outstretched.
Ellie saw her staring. “That’s Pilar, our cockatoo. Nicky hadhim stuffed.”
“He looks dangerous.” Kate pinched one of his talons.
“I know. The taxidermist misrepresented his personality. Hewas utterly adorable. His only words were ‘I love you.’ ” Elliemimicked the bird’s funny lisp. “My son Simon let him out oneSunday, and he flew up into the redwood tree by the bam andwouldn’t come down. We tried everything. Even had the firedepartment. He just sat there for days saying ‘I love you’ untilhe starved to death and fell to the ground.” Kate found herselflaughing at the macabre story. Ellie was still very funny.
“Ellie? Nicky‘?” Claire and Jamie Ramsay were at the door.Kate was glad. Claire had been her seat mate for two years atMiss Downey’s. They rarely saw each other in San Francisco,though Claire made a point of coming to Kate’s shows andevery now and then invited Kate to one of her fancy SanFrancisco dinner parties. Claire was an attorney, had hugebrown eyes, and was dangerously thin; Jamie owned radiostations.
“Thank God, you’re here,” Claire said, pulling Kate into abedroom off the living room. “We never know what to expectat Ellie and Nick’s.”
“Why?” Kate followed behind her.
“They’re both a little” — Claire puckered her lips in themirror — “unpredictable. Nicky’s latest enterprise is a crystalmine in Arkansas. Keeps wanting Jamie to invest in it. Itmakes no sense, and he’s exhausted his trust fund trying tomake it work.” Claire sat down on the bed. “Which is too badfor Ellie. They live on a shoestring.” Having four horses and ahouse in Turkey Run was not the kind of shoestring Kate wasused to. “And you know how Ellie is.”
“I really don’t.” Kate searched for the source of the children’s music she heard playing in the distance. “I haven’t seenEllie since Miss Downey’s.”
“Well, she’s exactly the same.”
“But what was she like then?”
“You knew her better than I did,” Claire smiled, squinting ata cracked tile in the bathroom floor. “She’s a party girl. Likes
to have a good time. I love the fact that she and Nicky smokepot.” It always surprised Kate that her old friend, an ambi-tious, high-achieving San Francisco socialite, loved nothingbetter than to get stoned and listen to the Grateful Dead.
A child’s laughing voice seemed to come from the doornext to the bathroom. Claire removed a joint from her pocket,lit it, inhaled, held her breath, offered it to Kate, who declined,then rubbed it out in the sink. “Ellie’s,” she exhaled, “largerthan life. I can’t explain. You know about the little boy, don’tyou?” She pointed to a photograph on Ellie’s dresser, a snap-shot of a skinny smiling child of about six, ready to dive into a swimming pool. “He’s retarded, I think. It’s terribly sad. She
puts him away when company comes.”
Kate glanced at the room off the bathroom. The little boy was in there, she realized, listening to music tapes.
“We only see them once a year at the most.” Claire headed for the door. “I’m totally starved. Ellie doesn’t have any help. Insists on these picnics. I hope we don’t have to wait for hours. I’m trying not to drink.”
Ellie offered no food, and Nicky poured more wine, lecturing them good-naturedly on the business of harvesting and selling crystals.
Without waming, Ellie jumped up, pulled the little boys off the sofa, and announced she was taking them riding.
“Now?” Claire pushed her black Dior jacket up her thin arms.
“Come with me, Kate,” Ellie said. “Help me saddle up.”
Kate knew nothing about horses, but getting outside in the fresh air might help relieve this tension. She watched Ellie expertly saddle a calm red quarter horse named Monkey, leading him across the road to a ring where Dotty and her boys were waiting. The view was tremendous: San Francisco Bay before them, the mountains behind, the sun just now dropping in the west.
Ellie hoisted the younger boy up on the red horse, guiding him around the ring in her bare feet. As Kate watched she was startled to see for the first time a glimpse of the beautiful, fearless athlete she’d known at school. Ellie trotted alongside the horse, delighting the children, looking young and happy and pure. She was Artemis now, goddess of the untamed wilderness, at ease with her body, at home on the earth. Kate ran to her car for the old Pentax she kept under the seat. She photographed Ellie lengthening the stimlps for the older boy, trotting him around the sandy ring, hoisting up the other child.
“Don’t waste your film,” Ellie grinned.
Away from the others, Ellie was charming. Kate liked the fact that she wanted the kids to ride, to enjoy their trip to the country more than she cared about feeding the adults.
“Can I help you with dinner?” Dotty called, seeing that Ellie was about to take the younger boy around a second time. It was almost completely dark.
Ellie seemed surprised. “Are you hungry‘?”
“Very,” Dotty said politely. Ellie and the children put away the red horse while Kate returned to the house, which was dark and very cold.
“Where is she?” Claire whispered.
“They’re unsaddling the horse.”
“Unbelievable.” Claire shook her head. “Is she planning to feed us?”
Nicky passed around a hunk of raw crystal as his guests stared dismally into the unlit fireplace.
At 10 P.M. Ellie pulled a roast chicken from the oven, stirred some noodles into a pesto sauce, and dressed the salad “Dinner,” she called, sticking a loaf of warm French bread in a basket. She hadn’t needed to shout; all the guests were hovering beside her, plates in hand.
On pillows around the fireplace, the men discussed jamie’s new antique motorcycle. Dotty leaned toward Kate. “Are you doing another book of photographs?”
Kate sliced her chicken. “I’m painting again. Not taking pictures right now.”
“I bought her book in Palo Alto,” Ellie said brightly. “It’s fabulous, Dotty. Have you seen it? All women. Some of them are kissing.”
Suddenly the room grew silent. Nicky sighed audibly.
“I’ll show you,” Ellie said, disappearing into the bedroom. She returned with the large paperback, holding up the pictures Kate had taken of lesbian couples across the country.
The other guests were silent. “Lovely,” Dotty said. “Are they. _
“All lesbians,” Ellie smiled.
“Your friends?” Dotty asked sweetly.
Before Kate could answer, Nicky steered the conversation away from lesbians to Jamie’s new transmitter, then to Maine, where Ellie’s parents owned a house, and on to the price of real estate in the Ozarks. The women pored over the book. “Oh, God,” Ellie leaped up. “The dessert’s on fire.” Kate watched her pull two pies, black and smoldering, from the oven.
Jamie stood above Kate, offering her his hand. “Let’s play Ping-Pong.” On the terrace, by the swimming pool, they slapped the little white ball across the low green net. Just doing something made Kate feel better.
Ellie approached, eating pie with her fingers. “I’ll play the winner.” She winked at Kate.
Kate accepted the dare. Spinning the ball into the corners, she surprised Jamie by beating him with drop shots and backhands that pulled him out of position. “Your tum, Ellie,” he surrendered.
In the half-light by the pool, Ellie and Kate rallied. How many times, Kate wondered, had she watched Ellie play hockey, basketball, tennis, admired and cheered the athlete with the drop-dead body? Now here they were, two middle-aged women who had loved each other as girls, meeting again at a Ping-Pong table. It was the first honest moment she had had with Ellie since their meeting three weeks ago. As they began to play in earnest, their small talk stopped. Kate felt an unbearable tension building in her chest; she was fourteen, on the field, close to Ellie Sereno, feeling that longing, wanting Ellie Sereno to notice her. Kate hoped the others couldn’t see how nervous she had become, couldn’t hear her heart pounding.
As Kate looked up, Jamie snapped their picture with Kate’s camera. Ellie took the lead. Kate caught up, smashing a shot to the corner of the table that bounced wildly, out of Ellie’s reach, into the swimming pool.
“You win,” Ellie cried. The dinner guests clapped as she put down her paddle, wrapping an arm around Kate’s waist.
The sudden warmth of Ellie’s touch sent a jolt through Kate’s legs.
“You should play Ping-Pong more often, Ellie,” Nicky said, patting Ellie’s back. “You look happier than I’ve seen you in ages.” Jamie took their picture. Ellie drew Kate closer. Nicky poured more wine.
“I only lost because I’m drunk.” Ellie pushed her bangs from her face. “Who wants coffee?”
The others had had enough; in minutes the living room was empty. At the front door Nicky extended his hand to Kate. “Nice meeting you.” He’d forgotten her name.
Kate swallowed. “Actually, I think I’m staying here tonight.”
Nicky glanced at Ellie, who was clearing glasses from the living room. “Kate’s riding with me in the morning,” she said coolly.
His hopeful expression changed. “Well, I’m going to bed.”
“You might at least help clean up the —”
“Do it in the morning,” he said, loosening his tie. “Too tired now.”
“Too drunk now,” Ellie hissed to his retreating back.