The carriage roads were still muddy in spots, despite the recent stretch of good weather. It made for slow bicycling. Joanie would have struggled to keep up with Carol in any case, for the scarcity of snow the previous winter had limited her to a handful of outings on her skis, and she felt fat and out of shape. “How much farther?” she called out to her partner’s back. It was a rhetorical question, for Joanie knew these paths intimately. But this small incline had not seemed so steep last fall, the last time she had been out here on a bicycle.
Carol threw a glance and a sympathetic smile over her shoulder. “Not too far,” she said, and slowed so that Joanie could pull even with her. They hadn’t seen another soul since setting out two hours ago. Carol carried their lunch in the small cooler strapped to the back of her bike. Joanie’s burden was the much lighter blanket they would spread out once they reached their favorite spot: a flat ledge with a view out to sea over the Cranberry Isles and the distant Duck Islands on the horizon.
The day was seasonably warm. Joanie had taken off her light jacket a few miles back and tied it around her waist, but despite the moderate pace she had still managed to work up a decent sweat. It felt good to get out, before the arrival of the bugs and the tourists. She loved the “shoulder seasons,” the spring and the fall, when the locals had the beauty of Acadia National Park to themselves, save for a few visitors from nearby parts of Maine and people with no kids. Winters were fine, too, though the past few had brought more rain than snow. Summers she put up with, accepting the hordes of visitors as part of the price she paid to live in this beautiful place.
She geared down and strained to propel the bicycle over the last uphill stretch before the dirt road emerged from the woods and the view over the ocean opened up. Carol had already dismounted and taken off the bungee cords around the cooler. Joanie pulled up beside her. “Whew,” she said, removing her helmet. “That’s more of a workout than I remember. I guess I should’ve put in more time on the treadmill this winter.”
Carol laughed easily. They had purchased the treadmill two years ago and installed it in the spare bedroom, but a visitor to the house would find shirts hanging from the handlebars and gardening magazines stacked along its length. Carol never chided Joanie about not using it. She stayed thin without seeming to try. They made an odd couple in public; Carol half a foot shorter in her long skirts and business suits, Joanie favoring blue jeans topped by loose-fitting flannel shirts in the winter and tee shirts in the summer. But they were completely comfortable with each other, and Joanie supposed that was what had kept them together for 15 years.
They laid the blanket out on the pink granite slab that had been warmed by the sun, and Carol took out sandwiches and dried apricots and trail mix and plastic bottles of lemonade. “What a lovely day for a picnic,” she said, handing Joanie a sandwich as they sat down. Joanie began untying her shoes, and seeing this, Carol did the same. Soon they were sitting barefoot, their legs stretched out toward the sea beyond and below them, the sun sparkling off the water.
Joanie was ravenous, but she forced herself to nibble the sandwich, chewing each bite thoroughly and pausing before the next one. She had read in one of her magazines that this was an effective way to reduce food intake, to be satisfied with less. She paid attention to what she ate. It had been years since she’d been inside a fast food restaurant. She avoided fried food, and even commercial pizza was only an occasional indulgence. Also, unlike her siblings and her mother and stepfather, she didn’t drink alcohol, outside of an occasional glass of wine or two with dinner. Still the pounds accumulated stealthily and came off slowly. In high school she had compensated with athletics. On the softball field no one had wanted to get in her way on the base paths; she had been a thunderous presence on the basketball court, muscling her way for rebounds and layups. But now that she was in her forties, staying in shape took a greater effort of will. She felt like she had to exercise twice as hard to get half the results. She was destined to be a fat old lady, the jolly aunt to her siblings’ kids and grandkids, and she did not like the image.
Carol would still love her, though, and that was what mattered most. In all the years they’d been together, she couldn’t remember Carol uttering a critical word to her. Though she held a doctorate to Joanie’s high school diploma, Carol had never made her feel stupid or less than significant. She had introduced Joanie to her colleagues at College of the Atlantic functions and accompanied her to park ranger parties where the atmosphere was decidedly more raucous. She had even managed to be relentlessly nice over the years to the bunch of critics that comprised Joanie’s biological family.
Joanie loved that Carol seemed impervious to the little digs her family members dished out, unflappable in the face of put-downs disguised as humor. Paul had once asked her what whale meat tasted like, and Carol had replied that it tasted something like elephant, only fattier. Annabelle was cordial but distant. Her sisters seemed intimidated by Carol’s education and their shared impression that she was prettier than any of them, which of course tied back in to her sexual orientation. Carol and Jeremy had met only a handful of times, but there was some unease there, too; Jeremy had come of age at a time when it was still okay to make gay jokes. He had accepted his sister’s homosexuality gracefully – they all had, really – but he had tormented her in childhood, and thirty-odd years of acceptance had not entirely erased the wounds he had inflicted, teasing her about her weight, her tastes in music, her choice of friends, her failure to be the little brother he wanted. He was nicer now, thankfully, and he seemed to like and accept Carol. They had science in common, after all, which had come in handy on a few holidays when Paul got going on politics. But Jeremy had been gone so long that he seemed more like a distant cousin than a brother. Of all of them, only Everett – dear, sweet Everett – treated Joanie’s lover and life partner like a full-fledged member of the family.
Yet she remained close to her sisters, for Joanie was nothing if not loyal. Her relationship with Carol came first, of course, but blood mattered, too, and Joanie had been silently trying to decide what to do or say since the day, nearly a week ago now, that she had surprised Mike Murphy and his girlfriend outside the store in Winter Harbor. Carol had seen something in her face when she came home that night, and asked her what was wrong, and Joanie, for reasons she did not entirely understand, had brushed it off as a headache. She couldn’t remember the last time she had lied to Carol like that. Maybe never. It had been bothering her ever since.
“How’s your mom?” Carol spoke up now. “Any news?”
Joanie turned to her partner. “How did you know I was thinking about my family?”
“I could tell you were thinking about something.”
“She’s doing a little better each day, I guess. Walking more. Talking about wanting to go home. I told you Jeremy’s here from California, right?”
Carol nodded. “You said you’d seen him. And Pilar? Is she coming home, too?”
Joanie shrugged, and looked out at the ocean. “Who knows what Pilar’s doing? Sometimes I don’t think she even knows. But she’s not that far away. A day’s drive, at most.”
“She should come down,” Carol said. “All six of you in the same place at the same time is a rare event.”
“Thank God,” Joanie said. She laughed. “It can get pretty intense, when we’re all together.”
“Well, you’re intense people. Most of your family is, anyway. Except for Madison. Nothing rattles Maddie. She’s always calm and happy. It must be all the pot she smokes.”
Joanie said nothing, but Carol caught the cloud that passed over her face.
“What? Did I say something wrong?”
“No,” Joanie said quickly. “It’s just… You mentioned Maddie, and I’ve been thinking about something.”
“Something that happened a few days ago.” Joanie sighed, and gathered in her surroundings of ledge and woods and ocean, so uncomplicated, so far away from the world of people and their tangled webs of emotions and deceits. She turned to her partner and said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course, love. You know you can always ask me anything. What’s on your mind?”
“Well,” Joanie began, “suppose you knew that somebody was doing something bad to someone you cared about, only that someone didn’t know it?”
Carol flashed a thin smile and said, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more specific than that, my dear.”
Joanie took a deep breath. “Okay. It’s Maddie.”
When she didn’t continue right away, Carol said, “What about Maddie?”
“I don’t know how to tell you this.”
“Well, usually the direct approach works best. Just tell me.”
“Her husband’s fooling around on her.”
“What? How do you know this?”
“Remember that day last week I went to Winter Harbor?”
Carol nodded. “You seemed upset about something when you came home,” she said. “What happened?”
Briefly, Joanie told her the story. When she finished, Carol said, “Joanie, are you sure? We both know Mike’s not the most upstanding guy in the world, and I wouldn’t put it past him to have an affair, but are you sure there isn’t some other explanation?”
Joanie shook her head. “He was guilty as hell,” she said. “The minute he saw me, he acted like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. And that girl was all lovey-dovey, too. Until she saw me.”
“And you’re asking me if I think you should tell Maddie about it?”
Joanie nodded. “I’d hate to have her find out from someone else, and that I knew about it and didn’t tell her,” she said. “At the same time, I don’t want my sister to be hurt. She’s already been through two divorces. She may seem happy-go-lucky on the outside, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t suffered pain in her life. But if I don’t tell her, am I sparing her feelings, or am I letting her walk toward the edge of a cliff without shouting out a warning?”
Carol looked out at the ocean, and Joanie followed her eyes to the spot beyond their feet where the ledge ended, plunging steeply into the trees. She hadn’t had to look far for a metaphor. The thought briefly amused her.
“Does anyone else in the family know, do you think?”
“No, they wouldn’t say, would they?” Carol said. “No one in your family really talks to one another.”
“We talk,” Joanie said. “Well, maybe except Jeremy. He’s always been a little bit out of the loop, out there in California. But the rest of us keep in touch. I talk to Gretchen all the time. You know that.”
“You talk, but not about the big things,” Carol told her. “When you all get together it’s a regular gabfest, but it’s always about hockey, or somebody’s job, or something that happened when you were kids. It’s never about anything intimate. You’re all close but distant at the same time. That’s why I think you’ve got to tell Maddie.”
“What should I say to her, though?”
“Maybe you should just mention that you ran into Mike in Winter Harbor, and let her take it from there. But I think you’ve got to tell her. What she does with the information is up to her. But she deserves to know.”
“And the girl, too? I’ve got to say something about her. ‘Hey, Maddie, who’s Mike’s cute little friend in Winter Harbor?’ Can’t forget that little detail. Although she isn’t all that cute, if you want my opinion. Kind of scrawny, actually. Maddie’s much more attractive than she is.”
“Asshole,” Carol said, in solidarity.
“What is it with men, anyway? He’s got a good wife at home, who works her ass off so he can live in the woods and grow pot and not have a responsibility in the world, and he has to have a little something on the side, too? Men are skunks.”
“Come on, Joanie, just because your brother-in-law’s a dick doesn’t mean that all men are.”
“Why does he have to pull this shit while Mom’s in the hospital?”
“Yu don’t have to say a word to your mother,” Carol said. “Maddie’s a strong woman. She can handle whatever happens. Hell, from what little I know that farm would sink without her.”
Joanie wiped tears with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “Some family I got,” she said. “Do you know that out of all of us, you and I have been together the longest?”
“I do know that,” Carol said. She gave Joanie a soft kiss on the lips. “And we’re going to be together for a long, long time. You aren’t responsible for your brothers’ and sisters’ relationship problems.”
“Sometimes I wonder if things would be different if my father had lived,” Joanie said. “I don’t remember him at all. I should. But it’s all bits and pieces, like fragments of a dream that slip away after you wake up.”
“You never talk about your father,” Carol said.
“I think about him sometimes, though. I remember losing him, but not having him. I only remember what he looked like from pictures.”
“I’m sorry, Joanie,” Carol said softly.
Joanie felt foolish all of a sudden. She sat up, and dried her eyes. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “Going on about a man who’s been dead for forty years. And my sister and her problems. I have so much to be thankful for. Sometimes I forget. Thank you.”
Carol squeezed her hand. “I’m glad you told me,” she said. “And your sister will thank you, too, eventually. She’ll be grateful that you cared enough to protect her.”
“Poor Maddie,” Joanie said.
“Personally, I hope she takes him to the cleaners,” Carol said. “I never cared much for him, to be honest. She could do better. A lot better.”
“Mom wants to have a big family gathering, down on the point, after she gets out of the hospital,” Joanie said, once more in control. “I think she thinks in the back of her mind that it could be the last one.”
“Nonsense. She’s not even eighty yet.”
“She’s going to have to do something about that house, though,” Joanie said. “I don’t see her getting all her mobility back, no matter how much physical therapy she does. At some point she’s going to have to live on the ground floor.”
“We’ve talked about that,” Carol said. “But it has to be her decision.”
“I know.” For several years, Joanie and Carol had been depositing extra money into a savings account against the day when Annabelle could no longer live in her vertical home. They had discussed building a small ranch house out by the road, where her mother would not be able to enjoy the view but Paul would not have to plow the long driveway in the winter, and ambulances could get in and out easily. Another alternative was the purchase of a small house in Blue Hill or Ellsworth. Joanie wanted to find a way for Annabelle to keep the property, but if she couldn’t live there, the house and the land on which it sat would have to be rented or sold. The final option was an assisted-living facility. Perhaps they could subdivide the property so that something remained in the family after Annabelle’s death, but that would depend on a lot of things. How much medical care would Annabelle need in her later years? What did Paul want? How would her brothers and sisters react? Everyone would have an opinion, but how many of them had been saving money for the day when they would have to decide what to do about their mother? Gretchen would have made inquiries; she knew lawyers and real estate people on the peninsula, and she had the planning gene. But she didn’t have any money, and she also had Calvin to think about. Maybe Jeremy could help. They would have to discuss it, the six of them, and soon, even though hers was a family that avoided serious discussions. But her mother’s latest hospitalization was a wake-up call. Gretchen had hinted about having a family meeting to discuss “the future,” as she put it. Even Jeremy had sensed the tension, all the way out in California. Annabelle wasn’t going to live forever.
They soaked up the sun for a few more minutes, then packed up the remains of the picnic and strapped their stuff back onto the bicycles. “Want to head back, or do the loop?” Carol asked.
“Oh, let’s do the loop,” Joanie said. It meant several more miles of bicycling, but Joanie felt refreshed by the food and the act of unburdening herself. It was a beautiful day, and she needed the exercise.
Sometimes on long rides she went into a sort of trance, comparable to what long-distance runners must experience. At those times she’d chant some sort of pneumonic, the same short phrase over and over again, perhaps one of the mantras she’d learned in yoga class. Her mind would go blank, and she didn’t have to think about anything, including her family. She wanted to go to that place now.