That was the summer I fell in love with two men no one could tell apart. “The twins,” people called them, though they were not twins, were not even related, and also, they didn’t look that much alike. We were living—the twins and I and a dozen or so other artists—in a large house at the top of a small mountain. We’ d each won a moderately well-funded though mostly unimportant award, and part of our prize was an invitation to spend the summer in the mansion on the mountain, where we could work in our various fields on our various projects without having to worry about the various distractions of everyday life, like paying our bills and feeding ourselves. While living in the mansion, little was required of us except that we, every so often, wander down the mountain to the small and charming town below, where many aspiring artists traveled throughout the summer to attend workshops and lectures in hope of one day becoming actual artists, and where we were revered as gods.
Our first day on the mountain, we were given a tour of the grounds. Originally, the mansion had been owned by a wealthy industrialist who’ d made his fortune in copper mines, earning him the title of “Copper King” among his contemporaries. The Copper King had built the mansion for his wife as a gift for her twenty-seventh birthday, hoping, perhaps, that a multistoried, spire-roofed summer house with gardens and fountains and a bowling alley in the basement might distract her from her inability to bear children. Following its construction in 1902, the Copper King’s wife had, in fact, distracted herself in the mansion during the summer months, though it was not with gardening or bowling but with poets and painters and playwrights, shaggy-haired, sunken-eyed drifters with threadbare clothes and ink-stained fingers who otherwise slept in boarding houses and drank in the sorts of rank, rancid pubs that she, given her gender and stature and marital status, would have been forbidden from frequenting. The Copper King’s wife provided her vagabond guests with studios and work spaces, provisions, libations, gardens in which to walk and a lake in which to swim and bedroom upon bedroom in which to do whatever they pleased with whoever it was that pleased them. In turn, these artists—a few of whom would go on to be remembered as important—dedicated novels to her and drew portraits of her and composed operas about nymphs who bore her name.
At the end of our tour, we were taken into the drawing room and shown a portrait of the Copper King’s wife, who was not exactly beautiful, but very well put together in the way that people with great fortunes often are. The woman standing next to me, a painter named Zara, let out a small huff at the sight of the portrait, which I took to mean that it was not very well painted.
For many years, our guide explained, the Copper King’s wife spent her summers at the mansion with a shifting circle of artists, feeding them and funding them so that they might be able to complete their works of cultural significance there in her home, which they did until the Copper King’s wife contracted syphilis and, in 1912, died.
Because there were no children to inherit the mansion upon the death of its mistress, an endowment was made that the house might continue to be a refuge for working artists such as ourselves. Officially, the mansion had been given the surname of its original owners, but no one ever called it by the family name. Instead, the house became known as Copper Queen.
After our tour, we had dinner at a long table in a dim room with velvet curtains and crystal sconces and oil paintings in gilded frames of stern-faced men in smoking jackets and plump-breasted women sipping from silver goblets. They gazed over our table as we ate the food that had been prepared for us and drank the wine that had been purchased for us and exchanged bits of bland, basic information about ourselves—where we lived and where we’ d grown up and where we’ d attended college. As the Harvard people discussed Harvard and the Yale people discussed Yale, the man sitting next to me—a composer who’ d introduced himself as R.—leaned in and lowered his voice. “I feel a little deficient,” he whispered. “I went to a state school.”
“Me too,” I whispered back.
He laughed when I told him which one. “Oh,” he said, “you really went to a state school. I went to Berkeley.”
Across the table, Zara arched one mahogany eyebrow. If she had said where she went to school, I hadn’t heard. I’ d been distracted by the two dark-haired men sitting on either side of her, one of whom had been watching me throughout the meal in a way that made me feel clumsy and self-conscious. In Idaho, where I was from, there were three kinds of tableware—fork, knife, spoon—and you were free to use or not use them as you pleased. At Copper Queen, each plate was set with rows of silver utensils, crystal glasses, china cups and saucers. Before I even sat down, my heart had seized at the spectacle of it, and I deliberately placed myself at the farthest end of the table so that no one would see me fumble over my flatware.
Now, though, I noticed that the other dark-haired man was also staring, and I glanced down to see if I had dropped something in my lap or spilled something down my shirt or had inadvertently begun drinking from someone else’s glass. But when I looked back up, his eyes darted sideways to R., then back to mine, and he raised one hand, curling his fingers in toward his palm and jerking his wrist as though masturbating onto his fancy dinner plate.
Before I could contain it, a laugh sputtered up through my sinuses, causing me to choke on the sip of wine I’ d just taken and drop my fork in a wet clatter. As I rushed to pat up the little beads of mushroom gravy that had splattered off my plate, the back of my wrist knocked my wine glass, and an arc of red wine fountained across the table, splashing into several serving dishes and seeping into the white linen tablecloth while, down the entire length of the table, everyone turned to stare.
The dark-haired man whose mime had caused me to upset the dinner table covered his mouth with his napkin to laugh, and the other one leaned in and winked at me. “Well played, Emily Post.”
I was twenty-five and two years married to a man thirty years my senior who had once been my college professor. Back home in Idaho, I had a freelance job editing children’s math books. I knew very little about math and even less about children, but I’ d been hired to proofread for errors in grammar and punctuation and to make sure that the characters in the story problems represented diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The math books were written by a pair of elderly sisters in Minnesota who, I suspected, had never met an ethnically or culturally diverse person in real life and maybe never even seen one on tv. And so I would sit at night at the dining room table with a bottle of wine and a book of baby names from around the world, changing Jens and Joeys into Lings and Abduls and rewriting the story problems so that, instead of baking bundt cakes and planting rows of wax beans, they bought falafels and planned Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Probably, I would have fallen in love with anyone that summer.
In general, the cliques at the mansion formed first around disciplines, genders, and general ages—there were the crotchety male playwrights and the middle-aged female poets, the thirty-something composers who were maybe not gay, but probably bi. Caleb, Eric, Zara, and I were initially united not by our genres or genders or ages—Zara was at least ten and at most twenty years older than I was, and Eric and Caleb fell somewhere in between—but by our place at the dinner table. We continued to sit, as we had during our introductory dinner, at the far end of the table, though after that first night Eric crossed sides so we then sat two-facing-two, bumping R. down a chair. Among the rest of the artists at the house, the four of us quickly became known as “the smokers,” which was imprecise, considering that Zara smoked only alone, at night, in the privacy of her studio, and Caleb didn’t smoke at all. Eric, however, smoked manically, and though I had quit smoking two years prior, I started up again within six hours of arriving at Copper Queen.
Keeping in line with our new designation, our first trip to town was for the purpose of buying cigarettes. Because I had not arrived at Copper Queen as a smoker, I had brought no cigarettes of my own, and though Zara and Eric had so far been generous in sharing, Zara smoked cloves, which made me feel both physically overwhelmed and emotionally unfulfilled, and Eric smoked Marlboro Reds, which made me feel that I might at any moment drop dead of lung cancer.
There was a taxi service that would take us into town—Bob’s Taxi, which, it turned out, was just a man named Bob who drove people around in his Datsun for however much cash they felt like shelling out. The first time we went to town, though, we walked. This turned out to be a bad decision, partly because we hadn’t counted on it getting dark before we reached the bottom of the mountain, but mostly because Zara had worn high heels. The path to town was paved and winding, not too steep and not too long, and for a while Zara kept up pretty well in spite of her shoes. But halfway down, the sidewalk gave way to loose, rocky sand, and then Eric and Caleb had to take turns carrying her.
I was not the type of woman men carried down mountains, though I very much would have liked to be. I would, in fact, have liked to be everything Zara was—more attractive, sophisticated, accomplished; less impressed with everything. Also, from New York, where I had never been. I had, at twenty-five, never really been anywhere or done anything, except write one short story that had been published in one magazine, and though it was a very good magazine, I had since been unable to replicate the experience, had neither published nor finished anything. When notified that I’ d won a prize to spend a summer at a mansion on a mountain, I’ d felt certain it was the result of some clerical error that I now worried everyone else knew about but was too polite to mention.
Zara did not seem embarrassed about having to be carried. She didn’t fuss over Eric and Caleb or ask if they were all right or worry out loud that she weighed too much. She didn’t apologize.
I had brought only one pair of shoes with me that summer, black sneakers, the sort favored by boys who rode skateboards. Before I left Idaho, my husband had sat on our bed, watching while I filled my suitcase. Every time I started to pack a dress or a skirt or a nice pair of shoes, he would say, “What is that for?”
“We might go out to dinner,” I would tell him, or, “What if there’s a party?” And he would look up at me with his mouth open as though the mere suggestion of this—that I would go out to dinner or to a party—had driven a spear straight through his heart.
And so I’ d removed the dress, the skirt, the nice pair of shoes, returning them to the dresser or closet, where I’ d left them, along with almost everything else that belonged to me.
By the time we reached the bottom of the mountain that night, we’ d missed dinner at the mansion, and so after replenishing our cigarettes, we stopped at a local brewpub. I was excited to order a burger and French fries, food I could eat with my hands in a dark, smoky bar where no one would notice if I rested my elbows on the table or buttered my bread with a steak knife.
All around town were posters displaying the names and photos of each of us staying at Copper Queen that summer with brief descriptions of what we had done to deserve the honor, and so during that night—and all those that followed—we were given free drinks, and appetizers and desserts arrived at the table without our having ordered them. People wanted to meet us and talk to us and pay for our dinners. How were things up on the mountain, they all wanted to know, and what did we think of their little mansion? Copper Queen was a source of great pride in the town. Many of the locals, we learned, had been married in the rose garden.
Perhaps it was the fact that Eric and Caleb were so often seen together that first caused people to mistake the one for the other, or that they nearly always appeared in some configuration with me and Zara. In a sense, I could understand how it happened. The two men were similar enough in build, similar enough in coloring. They both wore glasses. What made them indistinguishable to most people, I think, was that one of them—Eric—really was a twin, and a sort of famous twin due to the fact that he and his brother both made notable, interesting art, and also because they were twins.
But that summer on the mountain, Eric was on his own, twinless. The larger world was incapable of seeing him as anything but part of a set, and in the role of his absent brother it cast Caleb, who was six years younger, four inches shorter, and, in general, not at all similar to Eric in expression or demeanor. And though I had during that first dinner at the mansion myself had trouble distinguishing one from the other, I’ d since come to see the obvious disparities. Caleb was open-faced and affable. He’ d grown up in Mississippi and, though it was clear he’ d tried over the years to shed it, still retained the silky drawl of a Southern accent. Eric hailed from the Pacific Northwest and was thinner lipped and longer limbed and colder in both his gaze and heart, with a meanness that lurked behind his eyes and curled on his lips like a serpent about to strike. Caleb called me “Darlin’ ” and held the door for me and always filled my glass before his own. Eric teased me and pinched me and sometimes pulled my hair.
At first, the public’s confusion regarding Caleb and Eric struck them both as riotous, and they played on it for days, appearing as each other at public events, wearing similar clothing, introducing themselves with each other’s name. But this compounded the problem exponentially, creating confusion in people who had not, initially, been confused. And while Eric and Caleb both enjoyed an occasional laugh at the befuddlement of others, they were each profoundly pleased with their own accomplishments, and neither could long tolerate the repeated bungling of his name on a stranger’s lips, the uncertain hesitation behind a potential fan’s eyes as she reached for his hand, the turning away—they’ d both seen this happen—of an otherwise eager admirer who, approaching with the intent of fawning, at the last instant doubted her ability to name him correctly and instead dropped her eyes and hurried past without speaking. Caleb, and especially Eric, grew increasingly bitter about the situation, until they declared that the drinks and admiration and free chicken fingers we received in town were no longer adequate compensation for the experience of feeling interchangeable. And so they declared a moratorium on town, preferring instead to stay on the mountain.
Most of the other artists at Copper Queen lived in major cities and were charmed by the towniness of town and by the towny people who lived there. But I had spent my entire life in a small town and, finding nothing about this one to be notably distinct, was just as happy to avoid it. Zara, too, put up no complaints, for though she lived in New York, she was, unlike the others, impervious to charm in general.
During our second week in the mansion, a bat flew into my bedroom window. It was well after midnight and I ran from my room through the dark hallways of the mansion in my bare feet and my husband’s boxer shorts. I don’t know how I found my way to Zara’s room—I’ d never been there before, and even if I had, the bedrooms in Copper Queen had an unfixed quality, as though the hallways and staircases were forever rerouting themselves so that you were never quite where you thought you were. Later, I would realize that to run from my bedroom to Zara’s I must have gone down at least one staircase that night and traversed the entire mansion from one wing to another. But in my terror, it seemed I ran from my room straight into hers.
Zara worked at night and was visibly irritated at being disrupted. Bats were completely harmless, she told me, and she was sure that if we just swept it toward the open window, it would fly right out. But when we opened the door to my bedroom, the bat swooped down from the ceiling, and though it was not swooping toward us, we both screamed and covered our hair with our hands and slammed the door shut.
“Well,” Zara told me as we huddled together in the hallway, “you can’t go back there.”
My room had originally been a maid’s. The space was clean and bright, with a twin bed and a small desk in the corner. Zara, meanwhile, had been put in the Copper Queen’s own bedroom suite, a palatial space with carved ceilings and stained-glass violets in the windows. She had a large private bath with a claw-foot tub and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. A smaller, adjoining room that had previously been used as the Copper Queen’s dressing room now served as a studio space. Zara usually worked until sunrise, she told me, and so long as I wasn’t bothered by the music she played or the occasional involuntary dialogues she had with herself when she was struggling with a painting, I would be able to sleep in her bed until morning.
The Copper Queen’s bed looked like something that would have belonged to a French princess, with four intricately carved wooden posts extending from the corners and billows of gauzy canopy. Never in my life had I slept in a bed so fine. I was aware throughout the night of Zara’s presence in the adjoining room, could just make out the low murmur of her music and the tick-tick-tick of her high heels across the wooden floor, for she wore them even while she painted. I was aware, now and then, of coffee percolating, the smell mixing with that of Zara’s paint and perfume and the smoke from her clove cigarettes. I woke up the next morning feeling happier and safer and more at ease than I could remember having ever felt in all my life.
A lot of people went crazy on the mountain that summer. It was unseasonably hot, for one thing. The mosquitos were the size of houseflies—they were bold and aggressive and DEET was nothing at all to them. Not that it mattered, for we were all afraid of DEET and had arrived instead with sprays made from mixtures of essential oils we’ d purchased at organic, locally owned grocery stores.
Sometimes there were workshops at the mansion to which visitors from town could attend for a fee that I thought was criminally insane but which many seemed nevertheless eager to pay. During these workshops, guests would gather in the drawing room and sit in a circle under the Copper Queen’s portrait, sharing their paintings or their poems or their one-act plays with whichever artist-in-residence was leading the workshop.
It was during one of these afternoon sessions that a buzz began to circulate through the mansion, a hum of interference that caused us to abandon our work (or lack thereof) and gather on the grand staircase just outside the drawing room. The staff was coming and going, not quite running or screaming, but walking very quickly and speaking very loudly. They wanted water! A cold rag! A banana! And then they were sending for an ambulance. It was the banana that threw us. If someone had fallen, say, or had a stroke or seizure or heart attack (which were among our best guesses at what was going on), we couldn’t imagine what role that banana would play in resuscitation.
What happened, it turned out, was that one of the workshop participants, an older woman in a neon pink fanny pack with a button that read Ask about my grandson! had suffered what would later be described as “an episode.” During her workshop, the woman had begun rocking violently and hyperventilating. At some point, they moved her from the drawing room onto the veranda, hoping the fresh air would settle her nerves and clear her thoughts. But it was so hot and humid and all this accomplished was that, in addition to rocking and crying and muttering to herself, the woman also began to sweat profusely.
One of the poets, who was newly pregnant and so regarded by the rest of us to be more sensitive, empathetic, and capable than we were, sat beside the woman, holding her hand lightly and speaking to her in a hushed voice. Had something happened in her workshop, she asked. Did someone say something that upset her?
Workshops, we all knew, could be blamed for all sorts of afflictions—tears and hyperventilation being among the very least of them—and this was a woman previously unexposed to criticism of her creative work, a person who had come to our mountain with nothing but hope and eagerness and good will. Perhaps, we thought, she’ d previously been a bland but mostly well-balanced person who, having experienced a creative writing workshop, went all at once mad.
Slowly, between gasps and hiccups and hysterical bursts of high-pitched laughter, the woman began to disclose: this was the first time she had ever shared her writing with anyone. Today, she said, was the first day in her entire life that she had been truly seen.
After the ambulance took her down the mountain, I scouted around the drawing room for a stray copy of her story. I was eager to read the draft that had revealed to the world the truth of this woman with the grandson no one ever asked about, and I took it off to a dark corner of the upstairs quarters where I knew no one would be during the hottest part of the day. The story was about a child who accidentally broke a Christmas tree ornament and got slapped by her mother for it and then grew into a woman who didn’t like Christmas. The story filled me with malaise, not because of the part where the child got slapped—short stories are full of children getting slapped, or worse—but because the story was not very good. It depressed me to know that the truth someone had spent their whole life hiding could, in the end, fit inside a short story.
I started lying early on that summer. I said the internet was down, that the line to use the phone was too long at the end of the night for me to call home. The internet was often down and the phone line was always long, but this wasn’t the reason I stopped writing home. It wasn’t the reason I stopped calling.
When I did speak to my husband, he was sullen and despondent. “Are you having fun?” he would ask in a tone that made it clear that answering in the affirmative would be a betrayal. I told him about the bat in my bedroom and the utensils at the dinner table. “I’m not getting any work done,” I said.
“Maybe,” he said each time we talked, rolling the words across his tongue as though they had only that moment occurred to him, “you’ d be better off just coming home.”
And then I’ d tell him, “I think I’ll give it a few more days.”
Though the bat had been removed from my bedroom the morning after it flew in, I continued to sleep in Zara’s bed. This happened without our discussing it. After our usual post-dinner drinks and cigarettes on the porch, Caleb and Eric had headed back inside to play a game of pool and Zara turned and said, “I’m going up now. You’re coming?”
Except, when she said it, it didn’t sound like a question.
I couldn’t imagine returning to my own room, which now felt to me as dangerous as any place on earth—the little twin bed with the country quilt, the little desk I’ d never used.
Zara lent me clothes. She was taller than I was, and slimmer, but she’ d brought a suitcase of loose, flowing dresses that made me feel small and delicate and light as vapor. She said it was a relief to see me in her clothes. Watching me waste my youth dressed like a twelve-year-old boy dejected her.
When she came to bed in the mornings, we would sometimes lie together and talk for a while before I got up and left her to herself. We met on the very cusp of consciousness, me rising out of sleep as she fell into it, and our conversations took on strange rhythms and non sequiturs.
We talked about our mothers (hers was in Queens; mine was in Idaho).
And about our fathers (both gone before we were five).
And about the men with whom we’ d had sex (aside from my husband, I’ d only been with one other man, a boy really, for we’ d both been nineteen, clumsy and confused about what we were doing; Zara used to have sex with men for money, she told me, when she was quite a bit younger).
We talked, a little, about art.
Zara had begun painting, she said, when she realized she would be stuck inside her body until she died.
The world, I told her, felt bearable to me only when I stayed apart, observing it from a distance like a scientist through a telescope.
One morning I woke up to find her sketching me. I cried out and pulled the covers over my head. “Please,” I told her. “I don’t like to be looked at.”
“How boring,” she told me. But she put her pad away.
It was both peculiar and entirely organic, the way we began to melt together. And it wasn’t just Zara and me—it was all of us, as though the very boundaries that contained us could not hold at Copper Queen. They blurred and ran. They fell apart. We began to touch each other in passing. We hugged and wrestled and kissed on the mouth, squeezed beside each other on sofas, and piled on top of each other in Bob’s Taxi when he came to take us into town, squeezing onto each other’s laps, jabbing each other with our knees and elbows, clutching each other with our fingertips every time Bob made a turn.
Growing up, I had not experienced much physical touch. I was the only child of a single mother and I’ d spent a lot of time on my own, reading books about babysitters and writing stories about girls who had magic puppies or magic horses or magic fathers who magically appeared to save whatever day needed saving. My husband had won my favor back when he was still my college professor by setting his hand on my knee. He had large, heavy hands and I felt the weight of him like an anchor on a ship. “Sorry about that, baby,” he’ d said when he pulled his hand away. It was the combination of the touch and the “baby” that did me in. That’s the price for which I was bought and sold back then. That’s how cheap my love was.
At Copper Queen everyone was constantly touching. We lounged on the divans in the drawing rooms and leaned against each other around the bonfires. At night, we swam naked in the lake, our limbs brushing against each other under the surface of the water. Sometimes, when we smoked, Caleb or Eric would sit beside me on the porch swing, arm slung across the back, and I would fit myself up against him or cross one leg over his or lie down and fall asleep with my head in his lap.
In spite of all that was done for us at the mansion, or perhaps because of it, we became petulant and hard to please. We complained about the heat and about the humidity and about the espresso maker, which often didn’t work. We complained about wasps in the garden and about the water pressure in our showers and about salmon again for dinner. We complained about each other: one of the playwrights regularly became drunk and oppositional and a few of the poets were cloying and mean; a composer from Munich frequently stole all the butter from the common fridge (did he eat it by the stick?); and R. never shut up about all the important people who had ever told him he was important.
Also, though, we had some pretty fun parties. We put on dance music and made kitchen raids, played wiffle ball on the great lawn and had scavenger hunts through the mansion. One night, for reasons I never entirely understood, one of the sculptors made a papier-mâché effigy of Krampus, St. Nicholas’s demon counterpart, and we paraded through the rose garden at midnight, chanting Krampus! Krampus! Krampus!, then burned it in a bonfire.
I’m not entirely sure when Charades started. At first it was just a small group—the choreographer, the animator, a few of the playwrights. We would hear them at night in the drawing room while we smoked on the porch, whooping and barking and flogging each other with insults. Little by little, the games grew in size as we gathered first to watch, whispering to each other that we would never join, until, one by one, we did.
Charades was a blood sport. Teammates screamed at teammates for making shitty guesses and for acting out such shitty clues that no one, anywhere, would be capable of guessing. Opponents screamed at opponents for breaking rules—“NO FUCKING TALKING!”—and for going over time—“TWO FUCKING MINUTES!”—and for writing down intentionally obscure subjects for each other to act out—“WHO THE FUCK IS CALVERT VAUX?”
“He was one of the architects of Central Park,” the architect told me.
“Why would I know that?” I asked. “Why would anyone know that?”
“Well,” R. said, “you really ought to. Calvert Vaux was a very influential figure.”
R. was on my team. I glared at him.
I had yet to draw a slip of paper containing a subject I knew, but the others were more inclined to attribute my ignorance to youth, and a member of the opposing team would take me each time into another room and explain to me who or what I was meant to act out. One had been a mayor of New York and one had been a building in New York and one had been an old, dead man with a weird name who used to take pictures of crime scenes in New York.
New York was not the only place on earth, I told them. It was a reflection of experience, not intelligence, that a person knew which neighborhoods were which and what restaurants were where and how every single subway connected to every single other subway, past, present, and proposed. I could tell them plenty of things about Idaho that they didn’t know, I said. But when they asked me what sort of things, I couldn’t think of any.
Zara didn’t make eye contact with me as I shuffled back to my place on the floor. But as the game started up again, she reached out and began to braid my hair.
Later, I would say that when it was Eric’s turn, I felt a kind of hum inside my body, a charge through my spine that made me sit up straighter. But the truth is that I felt nothing, that I only watched as everyone else watched while he swirled his hand in the bowl, chose a slip of paper, unfolded it, looked down.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” I said, and Eric’s face went slack.
He dropped the paper. He opened and closed his mouth. “How?” he said.
All the energy in the room poured into the space between us and everyone turned to stare. And then the playwright was on his feet, pointing and yelling and eventually spilling his drink and hurling the entire bowl of answers into the air so that slips of paper fluttered down like snowflakes. “Fucking cheaters!” he screamed. “You cock-sucking-piece-of-shit-motherfucking cheaters!” But I barely heard his words. I sat, staring up at Eric, who stood, staring down at me. I was only vaguely aware of Zara’s hand falling from my hair as she angled herself to turn and see me better.
They all wanted to know how I’ d done it, and they asked again and again, at breakfast and dinner and in the game room late at night. But I wasn’t aware of having done anything. The answer just dropped into my head, like a slide into a projector.
So certain was the playwright that Eric and I had cheated—though no one, including himself, could offer a viable explanation for how—he forbade us henceforth from being on the same team during any game of any sort, be it ping pong or kickball or Trivial Pursuit, which we sometimes played on the porch on rainy afternoons.
“But how did you do it?” Zara asked when we were alone together in her room.
I didn’t know.
She seemed irritated, and I worried she might have had her fill of me, which was something that sometimes happened with people. I tried to think what to say to make myself more likable. “Maybe I’m magic,” I told her.
Playing against each other in games caused Eric and me to fight throughout them. We challenged each other’s answers and objected to each other’s points and sometimes pinched each other or slapped each other or tackled each other to the ground. Afterward, I would show off my scratches and bruises to Caleb, who would whistle low and say to me, “Poor baby.”
The summer was nearly over the night Zara came up behind me in the game room and circled her arms around my waist. The windows were wide open, the screens speckled with constellations of moths. One of the composers was playing Cole Porter on the piano. I had been watching Eric and Caleb play pool and imagining they were playing for me, that I was the prize.
“I know why you don’t like to be looked at,” Zara whispered. “I know what you’re afraid people will see.”
Caleb raised his arms to celebrate a good shot. Eric cursed and took a swig from his drink.
“Tonight you have to make a decision,” she said. “Tonight you have to choose.”
Zara and Caleb began sleeping together shortly after, and he took my place in her bed. I’ d assumed that I could simply move into Eric’s room, that having been with me one night, he’ d want me every night thereafter. But Eric would disappear for long periods of time, going where and with whom I never knew. One minute he would be right there beside me, and the next he’ d just be gone. And though we often spent the nights tussling in different parts of the house, he never once invited me back to his bed.
My own room was strange and sterile after a summer undisturbed—the bed I hadn’t slept in and the desk I hadn’t ever sat down to work at. The clothes I hadn’t worn. I began sleeping in the drawing room, underneath the portrait of the Copper Queen, to whom some within the house attributed my knowing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A few of the poets reported having ghostly experiences themselves at the mansion, a chill of cool mist across their skin, or the sensation of their hair being moved while they slept. Maybe she’ d whispered the answer into my ear that night, they said. Maybe she had, for a moment, possessed me.
I would have liked to be possessed, I thought, or at the very least haunted. It would have been fun, I imagined, to be the Copper Queen’s favorite. But the truth is that I saw no ghosts that summer. And the only voice I heard was the one I always heard, telling me I was a liar and a cheater and a fraud.
Before Eric, I’ d thought I might hate sex, for I hated the weight of my husband’s body on my body, the hot garbagy smell of his mouth over mine, the great pinching crab of his hand forcing its way up between my legs. One night, in Zara’s bed, I had confessed to her that sometimes, when my husband was on top of me, I imagined I was smashing in his face with a rock, and Zara had stared at me for a long time before saying, “It might be time to get out of Idaho.”
Sex with Eric was the closest I had ever felt to being killed. He would pin me down, yank my hair, tie my hands behind my back with his belt. Within several days of our taking up together, my skin was stained with bruises and bitemarks. I stood backwards in the bathroom mirror and looked over my shoulder to see the lavender stains his fingers had left across my back, and I watched each day as they changed from purple to wine to mustard. Eric had thin hands and long fingers that he would wrap around my throat and squeeze until I felt the pressure build behind my eyes. Sometimes, even when he was still inside me, I would cling to him and cry to him and beg him not to leave me. But try as I might, I couldn’t hold onto him. Even at Copper Queen, where there was nowhere for him to go, still he slipped through my fingers.
Zara began to sit with the other painters at dinner. The night I was invited to read my short story at the local bookstore, Zara was the only person in the house who didn’t come. I longed to win back her favor, but the harder I tried to be interesting in her presence, the less interested she was.
People ran hot then cold, Eric told me. That’s how it always was at places like this.
We were lying together in the attic, my head on his shoulder, his hand gripping my hair at the roots.
“Are there other places like this?”
I asked the question to be dreamy and romantic. I wanted him to say that there was no other place like Copper Queen because Copper Queen was where he’ d met me.
But instead he laughed and said, “There are places like this all over the country. There are places like this all over the world.”
On our last day in the mansion, it rained. Caleb and I spent the afternoon in the garden shed, sharing a joint that a girl on the kitchen staff had brought for Eric, then gotten confused and given to Caleb instead. Without Zara to dress me, I’ d gone back to wearing my own clothes, my jeans and sneakers and black hoodie sweatshirt. We’ d not bothered to look for an umbrella before setting out across the garden, and we sat dripping water onto the concrete floor.
Earlier that morning, Caleb had finished his novel. He said it hadn’t hit him yet, but his leg bounced and his fingers twitched and here and there he would suddenly laugh out loud, though I’ d not said anything funny. Most of the time, he told me, he worked at a folding table in a corner with a window view of his neighbor’s trashcans. Within his family, he felt like a piece of shit because he could not stop comparing himself to his brother who had gone to a very good college for engineering and now taught engineering at a very good college. But every once in a while something like this came along—some invitation to stay in some fancy place where they gave him free shit and treated him like he was special and some famous painter would want to suck his dick.
“I wasted this summer,” I told him.
He smiled and said I wouldn’t know that for years.
Then he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees to look into my eyes. “Can I ask you something?”
In all my life I don’t remember anyone having ever looked at me that way, so kindly, so gently, so completely accepting of all he saw. He could have asked me anything, I thought. In that moment, I would have told him every story I had to tell.
But then, quite suddenly, his face lit and the question he’ d been about to ask vanished from his eyes. He leapt to his feet, holding out his arms to show me his black hooded sweatshirt, his blue jeans and black sneakers. “Look!” he said to me. “We’re identical!”
I never saw or heard again from most of the people at Copper Queen, though there were a few over the years with whom I kept in touch or ran into unexpectedly. Shortly after I left my husband, Eric stopped returning my calls and letters. At the time, I still had the marks of his fingers and teeth on my skin, the bruises fading into brown and yellow smears. One, just below my shoulder, a perfect oval of lines—his teeth—was so deep that I developed the habit in those early days of tracing my index finger around the purple ring, pressing until a sharp dagger of pain shot down my forearm and up into my shoulder. Such a habit did I make of this gesture that I continued the motion long after the bruise had wilted from deep-blooming purple into a smudgy blue, then greenish brown, then all together disappeared.
After I left Idaho, one of the poets reached out to me and invited me to dinner. Over the years, I watched the child with whom she’ d been pregnant that summer grow from a fat-bellied toddler who would cuddle in my lap to a long-limbed teenager who could play Chopin sonatas on the piano.
For a time, I saw Caleb every now and then. He occasionally came to the city to meet with his agent, and if his wife wasn’t with him, he would call me up and take me out. These were always boozy affairs throughout which we laughed uncontrollably, as though we hadn’t laughed in years, which was sometimes the case. Once, a waiter brought our check and held his hand to his heart to tell us, “It was so good for me to see the two of you together tonight,” and after he left, I burst into tears.
Nearly two decades after that summer came to an end, R. showed up at a reading, though at first I didn’t know him. He sat in the front row and held in his lap copies of my books he’ d brought from home for me to sign. He asked if he could take me for a drink after, and we sat in a corner of a dark bar and talked about our time at Copper Queen. He remembered every minute of our time together on the mountain, he said. It was the best summer of his life.
The version of myself from that summer he described to me was confusing. “A prodigy,” he called me, which might have made my heart swell with vanity if not for all the other details he got wrong. He remembered that I’ d lived in Iowa, not Idaho, and that I’ d been good at sports. Most strangely, though, he remembered that the night I read my story in the bookstore, I had moved a woman so profoundly that she’ d collapsed in a fit and been taken away in an ambulance. “It was the most remarkable thing I’ d ever seen,” he told me.
The memory seemed terribly important to him—his eyes welled with tears as he described it to me—and so I didn’t tell him that the only remarkable things I’ d done that summer were find a bat in my bedroom and make one lucky guess at Charades. I let him keep the memory. I didn’t tell him it was fiction.
Zara, I’ve heard, lives in Berlin now. There was a day, years ago, when I ducked into a gallery during a rainstorm and found myself face to face with one of her paintings. Her style had changed in the years since Copper Queen, but I recognized the work instantly as hers and I stood in front of it for a long time, as though she might somehow emerge and speak to me through the canvas. There are still days when I wake up with a kind of anticipatory shiver on my skin and I feel that I might run into her on the street, though I never have and I don’t know what I’ d say to her if I did. After so much time, I don’t suppose it’s worth apologizing for how little I knew of myself back then, for how much I took for granted, for, on that night when she circled her arms around my waist and said, “Tonight you have to choose,” thinking the choice was between Eric and Caleb.
In all this time, I’ve seen Eric only once. It was a warm winter day and he was walking across Washington Square with his scarf loose and his jacket open. His stride was long and his arms swung easily at his sides, but I remember thinking that time had been hard on him, that he seemed somehow diminished from the man I met all those years ago. Though, I’ve since wondered if the man I saw across the park that day might not have been Eric at all, if he might instead have been Eric’s twin. He was a good distance away at the time, and his head was down, his face angled slightly away from me. The truth, if I’m going to tell it, is that he could have just as likely been a stranger, any man on his way anywhere. By that point, they all looked more or less the same to me.