Authors: Elin Hilderbrand
“Hi,” Jake said.
“Hi,” Mallory said.
They fit their hands together. Jake took firm hold of Mallory’s back and they began to sway. “I didn’t want to bring her,” Jake said. “She invited herself at the last minute.”
“She’s very pretty.”
very pretty,” he said.
“It’s not a contest,” Mallory said. “She’s your girlfriend.”
“Yes,” he said miserably.
“Thank you for the book,” she said. “That was very sweet. You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“Every book I’ve read since I left Nantucket has reminded me of your cottage,” he said. “I was just waiting until I read something good enough to share with you.”
“Jake.” Her tone was almost chiding. Was it wrong of him to make such a romantic gesture when he’d brought Ursula to the wedding?
Mallory rested her head against Jake’s chest for one brief second, then murmured, “I know where there’s a quiet spot. Want to sneak off for sixty seconds and kiss me?”
“Yes,” he said.
She left first and he followed at what he hoped was a discreet distance. She strode down one hallway and turned into a second hallway that was definitely staff only. She opened a door and closed it. A second later, he followed. It was a supply closet. She locked the door behind him and turned the light off.
He got lost in her. He could not stop kissing her. He wanted to memorize how her face felt in his hands and the pressure of her lips on his.
She was the one who pulled away. “You’ll come to Nantucket Labor Day weekend?”
“No matter what,” he said.
When they were back in the car, Ursula—now in the driver’s seat—turned to him and said, “Who was the bridesmaid you were dancing with?”
Jake was ready for this. Ursula could be drowning in depositions, but if an attractive female came within five feet of Jake, she would notice. She didn’t want to spend time with him but neither did she want to share him.
“Cooper’s sister,” Jake said. “Mallory Blessing.” It was a relief, a joy, even, to say her name out loud to Ursula. “I’ve known her for years.”
“She seemed to have quite a crush on you,” Ursula said. “It was actually kind of cute.”
Labor Day is eight months away, then seven, then six. Still six months away. Then the spring arrives, cherry-blossom season in Washington, when the paths of the National Mall look like pink carpets, and time moves a little faster. Jake plays for the PharmX softball team and spends his spare time scheduling practices and games. Then June arrives; it’s officially summer and Washington is so beastly hot that even Ursula agrees they should get out of town on the weekends. They go to Rehoboth Beach twice and then Ursula does the unthinkable and takes a week’s vacation so that they can go to Paris.
“It would be such a romantic place to get engaged,” she says.
It is, in fact, romantic. They go at the beginning of August, when the Parisians are on vacation, so they have the city to themselves. Ursula splurges on a room at Le Meurice, which is the nicest hotel either of them has ever stayed in. Jake blanches at the prices on the room-service menu, then rationalizes that Ursula works so hard, they deserve a little luxury. They order breakfast in the room each morning. The coffee is rich and fragrant; Jake enjoys hearing his spoon chime against the sides of the bone-china cup. It sounds like privilege. He feels the same way about the French butter, which he paints across the flaky insides of the croissants. As doctors, Jake’s parents make plenty of money, but they’re too busy to spend it. Ursula is exactly like them, so Jake figures he should enjoy the luxuries while they’re on offer.
They stroll in Le Marais, holding hands, admiring the shops on the charming narrow streets. Ursula is drawn to the florists and wanders in to inhale the scent of the freesias and chat with the owners in her impeccable French. The women compliment Ursula’s scarf, her dress, her bag; they think she’s a Parisienne. Jake watches, amazed, feeling very much like a big dumb American; he stops wearing his Hopkins Lacrosse hat on the second day.
Ursula has picked the best brasseries in the city, where they sit in plush banquettes and feast on
moules et frites, frisée aux lardons, entrecôte avec béarnaise
. Ursula’s abstemious eating habits seem to be on vacation as well. One evening she polishes off her Dover sole, though she scrapes off the butter sauce; the next night she treats herself to six of Jake’s
. She counts them out.
She has intentionally saved Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur for their final evening. She wants to see the church all lit up and the view over the city. They buy an outrageously expensive bottle of Montrachet to drink from plastic goblets in the grassy park at the base of the church.
Ursula sighs. “I want to get married.”
“Right now?” Jake asks.
“No, but, you know…I want you to propose. Soon.”
Jake feels his throat constrict. He knows that Ursula has been expecting a proposal, or hoping for one, on this trip. There were a couple times in the past few weeks when Jake thought,
I should just go buy a ring
. But something stopped him. He wasn’t
If he bought an engagement ring now, it would be because Ursula wanted him to. And he’ll be damned if he’s going to let her railroad him into a decision that he’s not ready to make. “Will you just let me handle it? Please, Ursula?”
you handle it?”
“That’s not letting me handle it.”
“What are we
“I don’t know what you’re doing,” Jake says. “But I’m putting in the time. I’m trying to grow up. I’m trying to build a relationship that’s going to last for the long haul. And we’re just not there yet, Ursula. I’m sorry, but we’re not.”
When she stands up, her wine spills.
“You’re holding back to be cruel,” she says. “Or to show me how powerful you are.” She looms over him, blocking out the moon, and he feels all the Parisian magic drain away as though someone has pulled a plug. Of course this is how their week away will end.
“Don’t ruin this,” Jake says. “Let’s go to dinner.”
“You’re the one who’s ruining it,” she says, and she storms off.
When Jake gets back to Washington, he has a pile of work on his desk, and mixed up in his in-box are not one, not two, not three, but
phone messages from Cooper Blessing.
He calls Cooper at Brookings and is told that Cooper is out on personal leave.
He calls Cooper at home. Cooper answers in a broken, hoarse voice and says, “Krystel left me.”
Jake has to work late that night in order to catch up, but the moment he’s finished, he goes to Georgetown to meet Cooper at the Tombs.
Krystel, it turns out, is a drug addict and has been all along. Cooper knew she occasionally did cocaine with the other servers at work but he chalked it up to the restaurant business, the late nights, the double shifts. Then he found out that Krystel had been venturing over to Fourteenth and U to buy crack.
“She was smoking
” Cooper says. “Like a…like a…”
“Oh, man,” Jake says.
“I tried to get her in rehab,” Cooper says. “But she won’t go. She doesn’t
to quit. She moved back to her mother’s house in Rising Sun, she
—but honestly, I think she’s living in a flophouse somewhere.”
“Is she crazy?” Jake says. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to her.”
“She loves the drugs more,” Cooper says.
Jake nearly says he understands. Substitute the word
for the word
and that’s Ursula. But it’s not the same, Jake knows it’s not the same. Krystel is addicted to crack; Krystel has walked out on a marriage after less than nine months. It’s a problem so big that Jake is at a loss.
“What can I do, man?” Jake asks. “How can I help?”
Cooper says he needs to get away. He
to get out of DC, if only for a long weekend.
“Mallory wants us to come back up to Nantucket,” Cooper says. “She says we need a do-over.”
“Oh,” Jake says. “Really?”
Mallory picks them up at the airport. She’s tan and fit; her hair is sun-bleached to the color of golden wheat. She’s wearing her jean shorts and a T-shirt from someplace called the Rope Walk as well as her Wayfarers, her suede flip-flops, and half an arm’s length of rainbow-colored friendship bracelets. There’s a thin tattoo of a vine around her ankle.
Jake is smitten. He loves everything that’s familiar and everything that’s different.
Mallory hugs her brother first, long and hard, eyeing Jake over Cooper’s shoulder. Her expression is partially obscured and therefore hard to read. Here it is, one year later, and they’re together—though not under the circumstances they might have hoped for.
When Mallory and Cooper separate, she turns to Jake. “Hey, stranger,” she says. “Welcome back.” She stands on her tiptoes to hug him, grabs a hank of hair at the back of his head, and tugs.
His heart crests like a wave.
Jake is so deliriously happy when he climbs into the back seat of the Blazer that he feels like he could levitate—and he didn’t even have to lie to Ursula. He’s on Nantucket to console his brokenhearted friend. But brokenhearted Cooper is in good spirits. He flirted with the flight attendant and walked off the plane with her phone number. She, too, will be on Nantucket all weekend and they’ve made plans to meet up at the Chicken Box.
When Mallory drives them down the no-name road, dirt, dust, and sand fly up in a cloud. When the air clears, the cottage is before them, perched on the lip of the beach. The ocean is a blue satin sheet beyond. They’re here. They’re back.
The cottage looks the same; it smells the same. This year, Jake and Cooper get their own bedrooms. Jake quickly claims the one next to Mallory’s.
“Swim?” Cooper says.
“Hell yes,” Jake says, though he’s eager to talk to Mallory. He wants to know how her year has been, he wants to look at the new books on her shelf, he wants to paw through her CDs and play some music. This cottage, this stretch of beach, this island, has imprinted itself on his consciousness, like a watermark on fine paper.
“You guys swim,” Mallory says. “I’ll get the hors d’oeuvres ready, and in a little while we can light the charcoal. I made burger patties.”
“That’s funny,” Cooper says. “It’s just like last year.”
Rewind, repeat; it’s just like last year.
something different this year, however: an outdoor shower. Mallory shows it off, calling it “the mansion.” It is roomy and beautifully crafted, made of pressure-treated lumber that has only just started to weather to gray. It has a changing area with a bench and towel hooks that look like anchors. Jake is just tall enough that he can peer over the top—ocean to one side, pond to the other. The water is hot and plentiful. It’s the greatest shower in the world.
Then he notices a pair of men’s board shorts hanging from one of the anchor hooks.
He scrambles for a second. He was the first person in the shower; Cooper is in the kitchen, talking to Mallory. So these belong to…
Cooper grills the burgers while Mallory tends to the corn and tomatoes. Jake plays music—Dave Matthews, Hootie and the Blowfish, and then “Hard Headed Woman.” This gets Mallory’s attention; he can see her looking at him through the billow of steam from the pot of corn. Whatever they had is still there. Ursula doesn’t matter, and whoever the other guy is doesn’t matter.
Cooper comes in, holding the platter of burgers and grilled buns. “What is it with you and this song?” he says.
Over dinner, Mallory is direct. “Do you want to talk about Krystel or not talk about Krystel?”
“Not talk about Krystel,” Cooper says. He piles pickles on top of his burger, and Jake notices Mallory doing the same. Without warning, Jake thinks about Jessica—the diving contests they used to have at Potawatomi pool, the way she would flip her wet hair over so that she looked like Dolley Madison. He misses having a sister.
Mallory raises her wineglass. “Here’s to not talking about Krystel.”
They touch glasses and drink.
“I don’t understand love,” Cooper says. “How many times have I eaten out in my adult life? Hundreds. Which means I’ve had hundreds of servers, and half of them were female. Why did I fall in love with Krystel Bethune at the Old Ebbitt Grill? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“She’s beautiful,” Mallory says. “Was that it? Did you succumb to surfaces?”
“She wasn’t the most beautiful girlfriend I’ve ever had,” Cooper says. “Tiffany Coffey in high school was prettier. And Stacey Patterson from Goucher…”
“Yeah,” Jake says. “Stacey was hot.”
Mallory kicks Jake under the table and suddenly the night comes alive. She’s jealous!
“It was timing,” Jake says. “You were ready to meet someone and she was there.”
“I was wearing my Hopkins Lacrosse T-shirt,” Cooper says. “She mentioned that she knew a bunch of players from the ’87 championship team. I was impressed, I guess. But that’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. What if Krystel hadn’t mentioned Petro and Wilkie? Or what if I’d worn a different shirt? We wouldn’t have started talking, I wouldn’t have asked for her number, and I would not be sitting here on Nantucket a broken man.”
Mallory kicks Jake again, only this time the kick is more of a nudge, her bare foot on his shin. If she gets any more intimate, he’s going to pick her up and carry her to the bedroom, Cooper be damned.
“What about you, Jake? Do you understand love?” Mallory asks.
Jake sets about buttering his corn. “No.”
“You do, though,” Cooper says. “You love Ursula. You’ve always loved Ursula.” He looks at Mallory. “They’ve been dating since the eighth grade.”
“On and off,” Jake says. “There’s been a lot of off, actually.”
“But you’re together now?” Mallory asks. The light is fading. There’s only a single votive candle on the table, but even so, Jake sees the question in her eyes, which are green tonight. He prefers them green.
Mallory cuts her burger in half in a way that seems aggressive. “Will you marry her?”