The three of them were having a dinner party in honor of Sarah’s fiancé leaving her, eight months ago that Monday. It was the first cold night in November, and Max and Tessa wore doubled-up socks inside their apartment. He cooked steaks on the stovetop, in a frying pan, using a fork to turn the big pieces of meat. She tossed potato wedges with cream and cheddar cheese.
“What can I do?” Sarah sat with her chin in her hands at the table. She was five years older than Max, and the fine lines around her eyes were the only things that made her look her age, which was thirty. She was tall, even taller in tight jeans and big, gold clogs. They’d already had two or three glasses of wine. Tessa saw that Sarah was being quiet, so she showed instead of told how she wanted the tomatoes cut.
They sat down ceremoniously at the table, which was missing its large center leaves, clinked glasses, and toasted. “To cold nights and warm sheets,” Max said.
Tessa kicked him under the table. Sarah looked at the ceiling and gagged herself with her pointer finger. In the quiet while they ate, the radiator clanged. Max ate with his left hand and grabbed Tessa’s thigh, just above the knee, with his right and squeezed. She laid her hand on top of his under the table. Gently, because his knuckles were already cracking and dry.
Sarah took a long drink of wine. “This is my first steak in ten years.”
“Is it delicious?” Tessa said.
Max opened his eyes, blinked to un-stick his contact lenses. “It’s from a farm cooperative in Lancaster.” It was 2005 and he, like everyone, was getting more concerned about where his meat came from. On Saturdays, he and Tessa waited in the long lines at the farmer’s market, where he chatted up the farmer and she stood a few steps behind, watching his hands move, watching him lean in. They were both enthusiastic people, and he in particular got fanatically interested in things. She was not as outgoing. While he talked to the farmer, Tessa loitered around the flower people and tested her knowledge by trying to match the varieties listed on a chalkboard with the bunches standing upright in buckets of water.
“It’s a little overdone, in my non-expert opinion,” Sarah said. “But good.” She had separated the onions from her chopped tomato salad into a neat pile on the edge of her plate. She played with them, poking one tine of her fork into the exact centers of the chunks.
To break the silence Tessa leaned out of her chair across the table and pushed some long pieces of Sarah’s bangs away from her eyes. Sarah fluttered her long eyelashes. “I need a haircut.”
Max and Tessa had been together for a year. As Tessa sat back down, she saw his hand resting on her chair out of the corner of her eye, fingers up. He smiled secretly, waiting for her to land on it and make a surprised sound. This was his new thing. Tessa always sat lightly so she didn’t crush his hand, but tonight she was annoyed. Sarah was looking at them from across the table. Tessa wanted to protect her, somehow, from seeing them this way, and Max didn’t seem to understand that.
The air in the apartment felt stifling suddenly. Tessa got back up and opened the window, stuck her head out and breathed deeply. On the fire escape, dark, dead basil, cilantro, and mint moved a little in the wind. It was Max’s mother who’d gotten her into growing herbs, and in the late summer she had taken pictures of her little plants and sent them to Nancy, along with questions about aphids and sunlight. Looks like they’re thriving, she’d written back. They were not thriving now. Behind her, Sarah asked Max about Thanksgiving, and who was bringing what. He said he wanted to make this banana cream pie like the one at his and Tessa’s favorite restaurant in Tivoli, which was where they’d met.
“I don’t know if you’re ready for graham cracker crust,” Sarah said. “Tess, you’re going to have to help him.”
Instead of flying home to Dayton, Tessa was going with them to the Goldman Thanksgiving in New Jersey. This was the first she’d heard of the pie. “It would be better if I just made the pie,” Tessa said. “It won’t be as good as Café Luna’s, but…”
Sarah nodded and looked away, into the living room. “Are you prepared for our extended family?” she said. “They are sort of loud. They used to tell Jake there was no money in photography, unless, had he thought about taking school portraits?”
Tessa made a terrified face at her. “I can be loud,” she said.
Sarah stood up and went to the living room window, at the front of the apartment, and watched cyclists fly past on their way to the Pulaski Bridge to Queens. She rested her head on the glass, swaying very slightly. “One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to see him ride by, and I’m going to spit on him. Did you know that this is his route?”
“It’s a million people’s route,” Max said. “Come back in here, where it’s more rational.”
Sarah was pining. When Tessa visited Max’s family for the first time, in June, Sarah was home too. Tessa had never met her, but she ran down the hill to meet them as they got out of the car, flung her skinny arms around both of them, her chin resting on the place where she’d pushed their shoulders together. “It’s you!” she said, to Tessa, or to Max. Tessa couldn’t tell. On the drive up, Tessa felt anxious, and talked Max into stopping for soft serve in the Catskills. “Debrief me,” she said, while she was picking a red rainbow sprinkle out of his beard.
He told her his sister was home for an extended visit, a rehabilitation. He told her that the fiancé had fallen in love with his roommate, a person named Elliot. During the week they’d spent up there, at the green homestead that had been a farm once, Sarah lay on her back, in the grass, on the living room rug, on her bed. She sat very still in an Adirondack chair by the pool, her hands on her browning stomach, her eyes closed. Everyone else gave her a lot of space, so Tessa did too. But she thought a lot about Jake and Elliot, and how so many things she thought she understood were much more fluid and slippery. Like sex. Did the little tick she felt, the tiny electricity between her legs when she could see so much of Sarah’s lanky body, mean she could change her mind too?
On the third day, Max and his father went fishing and Sarah found Tessa reading on the couch. “Do you want to go for a walk?” Sarah said. She lent Tessa old running shoes and a big men’s work shirt. Tessa matched Sarah’s long strides and tried to hide that she was out of shape, and that she felt stumpy next to the taller woman. Sarah asked where she was from.
“Ohio,” Tessa said. She was shy.
“My brother is pretty good, right?” Sarah pumped her arms, one hand holding scissors. Every few minutes she went into the roadside weeds and snipped Queen Anne’s lace and Black-eyed Susans.
“Do you know the story?” Sarah said. She was in the weeds with her back to Tessa.
Tessa assumed she meant the story of what Sarah was doing here, or the story of her sadness here, but she said she didn’t know.
“I’ve been left,” Sarah said, climbing out of the ditch. “He changed his mind about everything. Don’t ever get engaged.” They walked uphill. The shadows of the trees in the road were leaf-shaped and spotty.
“Oh,” Tessa said. “I’m so sorry.”
At the top of the hill Sarah stood still, holding her elbows. Her head nodded, slowly at first, then faster and faster, as if she’d lost control of her neck muscles. Tessa was worried that she was going to pull something. Sarah’s face was changing shape too, and Tessa ignored the sweat in her armpits and took the two steps towards Sarah, reached up and pulled her in. Sarah stopped nodding, and rested her cool forehead on Tessa’s shoulder. After a minute she straighted up and they continued walking.
In the warm kitchen Tessa collected plates, moving silverware and balled up napkins to the top of the pile. Her vision was very clear, but it seemed out of sync with her hands. Sarah left the living room, finally, walked slowly back through the kitchen, and climbed out the window onto the fire escape to smoke. She had to do it in stages, first straddling the sill, then lifting her other foot through. She let herself down roughly and sat on the wrought iron with her knees up.
“It’s so cold,” she called. “It’s already winter out here.”
“Save some of those for me. I’ll do that greasy one.” Max was learning how to cook steak because he thought he needed more protein—a few nights a week Tessa came home to him bent slightly over the stove, looking down at something sizzling. “You’re a keeper,” she said to him, because it could be true. Maybe it was because of their potential that she had grown suspicious of his closeness with Sarah. When he was around her he was softer, more malleable. “Why is he so attached to his sister?” Tessa asked her friends. “He’ll do anything she says. He won’t do anything I say.” Her friends always said they thought it was nice. For the last few months Tessa had been waiting for him to roll his eyes behind his sister’s back, or shake his head impatiently when she said things like a year ago today Jacob and I were in Vermont holding each other in a hammock, but he didn’t, and yes, it was nice.
He came up behind Tessa and wrapped his arms all the way around her waist, dropped his nose to the base of her neck. “Good job on the dinner.”
“Good job, you.” It was hard to concentrate on the washing, with his breath on her skin. She lathered up the sponge. “Is your family going to give me a hard time at Thanksgiving?”
“They’re going to like you.” He breathed in. “This is a great neck you have.” There was no sound from the fire escape.
“I think you should go check on your sister,” she said.
When Tessa came to the window a little while later, the two of them were sitting close together on the fire escape, passing a cigarette. Sarah’s back shook slightly, and Tessa knew what her face looked like, red and wet, even though she couldn’t see it. Sarah had been doing a lot of crying. Max put his arm around her shoulders, which she hugged towards her body, and their two narrow outlines looked like one. Maybe because of the wine, or the way the condensation on the window made it hard to see them clearly, Tessa felt like crying, too. She took small, light steps backwards, away from them, before they noticed her.
Max told Tessa stories about Sarah. One summer, when they were five and ten, they stayed at a family friend’s ranch in Montana, on Star Lake outside of Missoula. Sarah was impossible that summer—she was turning eleven, and this was old enough to notice that family friend’s son, who was fourteen, but not old enough to understand why. It was afternoon. They were sunburned from being in the lake all day, and their parents were calling them for dinner. He can’t remember what they were fighting about; probably the corner of Max’s sleeping bag had wandered into her area. She pushed him and it caught him off guard—he fell backwards and she was on him, pinching the delicate skin of his belly quietly, furiously, digging her fingernails in. He squirmed backwards, kicking, feeling his feet connect with soft and hard parts of her. And then, suddenly, she was laughing like she had lost her mind, until she was crying. Max laughed too, uncertainly, and sat there with her until she calmed down. They didn’t fight much after that. Later, when they were older, they said they could suddenly see how ridiculous it was for them to try to hurt each other.
Privately, Tessa was skeptical of two little kids’ ability to get such perspective, all of a sudden. Out loud she said, “Wow, well-adjusted.” He told her these stories more and more often. It was hard to know how to be around Sarah, because Tessa knew things. That Sarah was mercurial, prone to rage, but also generous and affectionate. That she had given their father a black eye as a five-year-old. She was very protective of Max, which scared him, which moved him.
Tessa let them sit on the fire escape. She wiped the table, swept the pieces of potato peel and breadcrumbs into a pile on the floor. Sometimes, from the fire escape, you could see into the adjacent building’s bathroom. The woman who lived there was older, with a big dimpled ass that flashed by the window, pale and round. They’d been out there so long Tessa wondered if she was putting on a show. She rubbed at the lipstick stains on wine glasses. In the bathroom, she flushed waterlogged cigarette butts down the toilet. She patted the sides of her face and looked at her teeth. She walked to the living room to put some books away, and she looked out the window that faced Eagle Street, watching the single bike-headlights approach and move past.
No one talked about the fiancé. At the farm, the family sat in deck chairs with cushions that felt like vinyl. It was early summer and cool enough for long sleeves. Light came from the picture window in the empty living room, and from citronella candle wicks burning all the way down. Sarah was slumped in her chair, quiet, and the rest of them talked about grilling fish and trimming the spruce hedge. The flowers Sarah picked were in a big pottery vase on the table.
Max’s father drank whiskey with three big ice cubes. His mother was letting her hair go gray. She was embarrassed about it—she kept touching it and saying it was a weird color. She said she’d show Tessa her herb garden in the morning; she had a recipe for mint pesto that she had to try. Max held Tessa’s bare feet in his lap. He pressed his thumbs gently into the tough skin of her heels. Once she had overheard him tell someone that this place was where he hoped to end up someday. Max’s parents smiled at each other quickly and privately over their heads. Tessa could tell that they liked her. She was warm from the inside, a little drunk, loving all of them. A cell phone rang in the house, and Sarah got up quickly, letting the screen door slam behind her. The window of her childhood bedroom looked out over the deck, and Tessa could see her shadow moving behind the yellow seersucker curtains. Her father’s glass made a loud sound when he put it on the table.
“Tell us about the new apartment.”
“It’s nice. It’s small, but it’s plenty of space for us,” Max said. They had just moved in together, maybe too soon.
“It’s a railroad,” Tessa said, using her hands to demonstrate how the kitchen led to the hall, which led to the living room, which led to the bedroom. “And it has a fire escape, which is similar to a deck.”
His father laughed.
In the quiet they could hear Sarah talking from her bedroom, a soft, angry monotone. Max pinched the bridge of his nose, which he did when he was feeling tense in his face, and yawned. They all yawned. They shifted in their chairs. Tessa felt the vinyl imprints on the backs of her legs.
Sarah’s voice, suddenly loud, said, “I don’t know who you are. Who is this?”
No one moved.
“Who? Who?” They might not have even been words, just intakes of breath. Then a certain muffled kind of sobbing. Max’s mother stood up suddenly and walked around the deck, blowing out the citronella candles. Tessa stood up, too. Max’s mother handed Tessa the vase of wildflowers. She carried them into the kitchen, and she heard their mother go up the stairs and knock on Sarah’s door softly, persistently.
Later, in Max’s bedroom-turned-guest room, Tessa touched him with her cold feet.
“Your poor sister,” she whispered.
“I know. It was pretty unexpected, for her, at least.” They were lying on their backs, arms straight down by their sides.
“What is he like?”
“Jacob? He’s a nice guy, takes himself a little bit seriously.”
“Were you guys close?”
“We got along.” Max shrugged.
“Maybe in a few years you’ll all be friends,” she said.
“No, I don’t think so. I hate him.”
He laughed at this, but she understood that he was not kidding, and she understood that she could be in Jacob’s shoes, someday. Tessa lay very still, thinking about them all sitting on the deck, not mentioning her name. She thought of herself somewhere far away, or very close, a seersucker shape with a pillow jammed in her mouth.
“On a happier note,” he turned his head so his lips were near her ear. “I was eyeing you all through dinner.”
She didn’t respond. She felt strange, and sad, and she was thinking about the flimsiness of everything. He kept trying, kissing the back of her neck, reaching around to touch her, until finally she softened. He held her hips lightly, pulled her into his long body. She lined up the backs of her thighs with the fronts of his, her back against his chest. He worked her underwear off slowly, in increments. They stayed around one of her ankles, and by then she had to struggle to keep quiet. Afterwards, they slept like that in the deep darkness.
Another Sarah story: The day Max moved into his college dorm, Sarah met them at the train station in Rhinecliff. She had been in the city for the summer, doing an internship and staying with an older cousin. They were in Max’s dorm room, on the sunken ground floor of an ugly building, while their parents were at Target getting hangers. Max was trying to stuff all his running shirts in the bottom drawer of the dresser.
“Where’s your roommate?” Sarah said. There were five piles of folded black t-shirts on the other bed. They were big shirts, Max noticed.
“I don’t know. I’ve haven’t seen him. I called him once, over the summer, but he never called me back.” He shrugged. This was more upsetting to him than he wanted to admit.
Sarah could tell. “What do you mean he never called you back?”
“I left a voicemail, and then I tried a few more times in case he hadn’t gotten it or something.” He was forcing the drawer closed. “Anyway, who cares.”
“I care. That’s not a nice thing to do.” Sarah was up now, walking around the little room, inspecting the roommate’s stuff. Most of the shirts were band t-shirts, Pink Floyd and Guns N’ Roses. There was a small guitar amp in the corner, and some black jeans draped over the back of the computer chair. “His mom probably folded these shirts for him.”
In a quick movement, she pushed one of the wobbly t-shirt piles onto the floor, hard enough so that they all unfolded, limp and faded. Then she kicked the amp and it tipped and rocked on its side, yanked the folded pants off of the back of the chair. The chair fell, it was back-heavy, and the noise of it hitting the floor seemed to surprise her. She looked at him, her eyes big for a second, and then she shrugged, shook her arms out by her sides. She would say later that she’d had some kind of fierce, maternal-feeling instinct and it had made her lose her mind temporarily.
Tessa would notice this about Sarah, these jerky, impulsive movements and then a sort of surprise that she had made them, in the months after the visit to the farm. When Sarah came back to New York eventually, in late August, she dropped coffee mugs and slammed doors, but Tessa was never sure if she was doing these things on purpose. She slept on their couch for two weeks. On Tessa’s days off she and Sarah went to coffee shops, or ran the loop at the park.
“I’m like your pathetic, surrogate sister,” Sarah said, as they passed the lake.
“It’s nice to have a sister,” Tessa said. She was an only child, and now that she was mostly finished with comparing her short legs to Sarah’s long ones, her softish middle to Sarah’s taut one, it was. Now that they were friends it seemed silly to think Tessa had ever been attracted to her. Sarah was talking about something Jacob had said to her recently, which was that he respected her anger, but he needed her not to call him.
“It’s hard to hate him when he is trying to do the right thing. He does everything by the book.”
“It’s okay to think he’s not doing the right thing,” Tessa said. “It’s okay to think he’s a shit.”
“It is amazing,” Sarah said. “How you think your stuff is so intertwined with someone else’s, and then you realize it’s not.” She took a deep breath through her nose. “He might as well be dead, but he’s not, unfortunately.”
They didn’t always talk about him. They made summer potato salads, went to the farmer’s market and inspected the raspberries for mold or tiny insects, sometimes with Max and sometimes not. He didn’t like the beach so Sarah and Tessa took long subway rides to Far Rockaway without him, talking about the funny, stilted houses and balancing their bikes against the center poles.
“It makes sense that I would like you,” Sarah said. They liked to go near Beach 60th, where the surfers were, because there were fewer people and more attractive guys in wetsuits. “You are kidding me,” Sarah would say periodically, moving her chin in the direction of wet muscled chests. Tessa always looked and whistled or let her eyes bug out. They read magazines. They tried to keep the sand out of their deli sandwiches. When they were tired they got back on the train, standing around forever on the platform waiting for the shuttle with everyone else.
Sometimes, when Sarah was sad, the apartment felt especially small. She lay on the secondhand velvet couch, on the living room rug in various yoga poses, running the air conditioning, then taking long, hot showers, even in the last humid days of August. “Could you maybe pick up some toilet paper?” Tessa said. And when Sarah made a joke about not being the one who used the most TP around here, Tessa laughed, even though she didn’t get the joke, and she didn’t ask again.
On a Friday night Max came home tired and upset and blew past Tessa where she stood at the door, which she had opened when she heard him fumbling with his keys. He went straight to the sink and washed his hands and stood very still there, looking at the tile behind the sink. “What’s going on?” she said. It seemed like something had happened at work. “It would be helpful if you could talk to me.”
He didn’t turn.
Sarah, on her way to the bathroom, slowed down when she saw them, ready to back up into the living room. But first she looked at Tessa secretly, just some raised eyebrows and pressed together lips, and Max turned and saw her do it. Everyone stood still. Then Sarah walked past, closing the bathroom door, and he went into the bedroom. Tessa stayed at the sink, washing dishes that were already clean.
“It’s too much,” Max said to Tessa, later that night. “It makes me uncomfortable that you two are suddenly best friends.”
“I’ll tell you what’s too much,” Tessa said, keeping her voice low. “That your older sister is sleeping on our couch. That she and I are playing house. Did you think about how that might make me feel? Doesn’t she have friends she can stay with?”
He leaned forward. His mouth made an ugly, involuntary shape. “She is my sister. You want me to ask her to leave? We don’t do that in this family.”
“I don’t care how you do things in your family,” Tessa said. “This apartment is half mine.” She said this more and more often, because the things outside of the apartment were losing their defined edges. “We live here together,” she said. “You, and me.” She was embarrassed because she was crying, which she couldn’t help.
He turned away and got into bed, facing the wall. “When you cry like that, I feel like I can’t say what I really mean.” And that was the end of the conversation. He fell asleep.
She refused to get in bed with him. She sat in the computer chair all night because she didn’t want to feel him curl around her in his sleep.
Sarah left on her own, a few days later, for a room share in Clinton Hill. “Thank you for everything,” she said, and kissed them. They didn’t see her for some months.
Tessa looked up from drying the frying pan and suddenly Max’s whole body was pressed up against the window out to the fire escape. His nose flattened against the glass. She went over and put hers against his, from inside. She crossed her eyes and studied the smudge his pancake nose was leaving on the window.
“T, are you in there?” he said, muffled. “We need you out here, immediately.”
Tessa climbed out the window while he re-organized himself, cross-legged, next to Sarah, tucking her chin so she didn’t catch the back of her head. Tessa lay back across their laps.
“It’s freezing,” Tessa said.
Sarah put her icy hands on Tessa’s cheeks, and Max slid one of his under her shirt. They smelled like meat, onions, and smoke. Sarah was calm, her eyelids pink and puffy. Whatever happened on the fire escape seemed to have dissipated, this particular bout moving up and out. Tessa looked at the sky, where there were a few pale stars. Her body kept its heat for a long time.
After a while Sarah checked her watch. “I’m heading home.”
In the kitchen, Max and Tessa stood with crossed arms, shivering in the draft from the open window, while Sarah wound her scarf around her neck and reached her arms back into her pea coat. The dishes were precariously piled in the drainer, and there were spots of grease on the stove and on the wall nearest the stove. Max and Tessa put on their shoes to walk her down, six stories to the street, single file, holding onto the rickety railing, quietly past the landlady’s door. Outside, on Eagle Street, it was dark and quiet. The smell in the air had changed to winter. They stood on the sidewalk, watching headlights move quickly up and onto the Pulaski Bridge a block away.
Sarah was a few steps in front of them, her hands in her pockets, her head turned at a sharp angle. Tessa realized that Sarah was watching the bike lane, again. There was something worrisome about the way she leaned forward, her neck and her head in its red hat straining, her eyes adjusting to the dark. Max, whistling and holding Tessa’s hand loosely, didn’t notice. Then, in a second, a delicate bike with strong, rhythmic legs pedaling moved past a streetlight, where it was briefly lit up. The rider was shorter than Max, and stockier, with dark jeans and a roll-top backpack. Sarah’s body thinned out and tensed up. She seemed to know how long it would take him to get to her. The man on the bike moved fast, oblivious, and Tessa saw her extend one gold clog into the bike lane, its rounded tip in line with the center of the oncoming handlebars.
Tessa heard how it would happen—the sudden stopping of the thin bike tire, the sound his plastic helmet and the fragile things in his backpack would make when they landed near the gutter just to their right. Later, she would imagine she looked like a short-limbed spider, the hairy, jumping kind, the way she crouched and threw herself at Sarah.
Jessica Langan-Peck grew up in upstate New York and received an MFA from the University of Arizona. Other work has appeared in the New England Review and New Ohio Review. She lives in Tucson.
Elinora Westfall is a British writer of stage, screen, fiction and poetry. Her work has been selected by The British Library and shown in London’s West End and on Broadway. Her full-length poetry collection and her collection of short stories are forthcoming with Vine Leaves Press in 2023 and 2024.