Cut to Victoria Burbidge at her safe, butterscotch house with all its grandeur and soil on the edge of Grand Marais. She watched her father clean the pool, which was the deal after his last argument with her mother, and the red algae evaded his aluminum skimmer. It was sixty-five degrees, and he was in high spirits, gut hanging over the chlorine and feet clapping wet brick.
“You got your suit on?” he asked her. “You gonna jump in?”
“It’s not hot enough,” said Victoria.
“Do some jumping jacks,” he said. “Take a lap around the driveway. You’ll warm up.”
Her mother came out of the screen door, all dark hair, in a Minneapolis sweatshirt and puka shell necklace. She leaned against the side of the house with a blue melamine mug, looking off at the Sawtooth Mountains. Behind the pool and its brick deck were rows of aspens and firs; beyond them were the concrete paths and vast stone shores of Lake Superior, where the water came up like six thousand tongues. There was a lighthouse on stilts, white up to the deck, where Victoria had birthday parties as a child with pink cakes out in the cold, surrounded by all those shivering brats and their mothers.
“You jumping in?” she asked Victoria.
“It’s not warm enough,” said Victoria.
“Then what are you cleaning it for?” she asked Mr. Burbidge.
“You asked me to clean it,” he said.
“I thought she was going to go in,” said Mrs. Burbidge. Then to Victoria, “You could go in with Jesse.”
A custom polyvinyl chloride pool inflatable of Jesse McCartney was on its back in a white wicker chaise.
“Mom,” said Victoria.
“I’ll toss him in for you,” said her father.
“Stop!” said Victoria.
She picked up Jesse, carried him past her mother, through the screen door and the black leather living room furniture, to her bedroom. At nineteen, Victoria had only ever had this boyfriend, with whom she did everything, went everywhere, and made all sorts of adult promises. Her parents were told to think of it as a transitional object and a sign of a great imagination in a highly functioning adult. For Victoria, it was much simpler.
Jesse McCartney posters, CDs and figurines were strewn over her padauk bookshelf. She’d framed the CD inserts from Beautiful Soul (2004), Right Where You Want Me (2006), and Departure (2008) and had written: To my dear Victoria, Love, Jesse in permanent marker on each one. She’d cut him out of magazines and taped him to the purple geometric wallpaper. Lined up by the baseboard were two pairs of plush slippers with the initials ‘JM’ on the toecaps. He was four feet long and wide enough to take up half of her full-size bed. Carefully, she swung a leg over him, but didn’t rest its weight.
She had taped concert tickets from past years to the basketweave stitches of a medallion tapestry. Scrapbooks made toppling piles by the closet door, where she had transposed cutouts of her face over those of Jesse’s mother and sister. In some, her floating head was made to look like it was resting on his shoulder.
The pool inflatable itself took the likeness of a 2006 red carpet look, where he wore a red and black striped sweater over a white collared shirt, with a red tie underneath, and dark wash jeans. The printed image on the float cut off at the tongues of his sneakers, and it said gettyimages across his knee. Mrs. Burbidge had it made for Victoria’s nineteenth birthday months earlier, in anticipation of the summer months.
Mr. Burbidge made chive scrambled eggs, thick-cut ham, and sourdough toast for a mid-morning breakfast. He set it out on off-white ceramic plates, on crocheted placemats, then pinched Himalayan salt out of a miniature wooden bowl. His beard was a mess of smoking wires down his chest, and smelled like moss, as if Superior’s petrichor had dampened into its follicles.
Mrs. Burbidge put out paper towels for napkins and poured hot water from the kettle over a tortured, halved lemon. Romania had made a spectacular forest of her brow, which she waxed down the middle toward the bridge of her nose. She often said to Victoria, “You’re lucky,” and “You look like dad.”
“Vicki,” said Mr. Burbidge, “is Jesse eating, too?”
“Not right now,” she said.
“Very well,” he said.
Victoria didn’t know if Jesse was hungry or not; he must have been, but she just wasn’t sure how he would eat. She considered jamming their daily meals into his nozzle, as if anally, but its placement on his lower hip made this rather peculiar to imagine. In the end, she was certain this was something neither of them would enjoy. She propped him up in the dining chair next to hers by scooching him all the way in, so that he was pinched there. Mrs. Burbidge ran a hand over Victoria’s head, skewing the base of her ponytail, then blew on her lemon water, rippling the surface.
“Any plans today?” asked Mr. Burbidge.
“Me and Jesse are gonna go to the water,” said Victoria.
“To the lake?” asked Mrs. Burbidge. “Dad cleaned the pool.”
“Do what I’m told,” said Mr. Burbidge. He sat, and the ends of his beard touched the eggs on the way down.
“That’s disgusting,” said Mrs. Burbidge.
“What was?” he asked.
“We planned on going down to the water,” said Victoria.
“Your beard went in the eggs.” Then, to Victoria, “Dad cleaned the pool.”
“How could I have known that?” asked Mr. Burbidge. He combed through his beard with his fingers, feeling for evidence.
“Just from being a person,” said Mrs. Burbidge.
“Can I take the cooler?” asked Victoria.
“Just from being a spatially aware person,” said Mrs. Burbidge.
“Are you going to be able to carry both Jesse and the cooler?” asked Mr. Burbidge.
“Just being aware of your own body,” said Mrs. Burbidge.
“Yeah,” said Victoria. “I’ve done it before.”
“What are you going to take in the cooler?” he asked. “This guy doesn’t appear to eat.”
“Don’t pick on her,” said Mrs. Burbidge.
“Probably just whatever’s in the fridge,” said Victoria.
“Drinks?” asked Mr. Burbidge. “You drinking?”
“No,” said Victoria.
“Lay off of her,” said her mother.
“What?” asked Mr. Burbidge. “I’m not doing anything.”
“When has she ever even had a drink?” asked Mrs. Burbidge.
Mr. Burbidge looked at Victoria over the ham on his tines. They did drink, all sorts of things—ales, gin and tonics, martinis, hard cider—when her mother went to her pharmacology classes or to the lake with her flock of hens.
“Well,” said Mrs. Burbidge. “You’ll have a nice time.”
“Be careful out there,” said Mr. Burbidge. “You know what they say.”
“Cut it out,” said Mrs. Burbidge.
“You know what they say,” he said. “Superior doesn’t give up her dead!”
Victoria turned Jesse over on his front while she put on her bathing suit, followed by jeans and a tie-dye sweatshirt. Outside, it had not warmed up, and the sun went in and out of clouds. She passed the neighbors’ modular cabin, which had a view of the lake, and its sloping porch caught the wind perfectly. She often saw the couple out there, picking salami off of charcuterie boards and sucking down grails of Muse Joose, escaping to their marriage from the clips of Minneapolis.
When she came up on the shore, Victoria saw Serenity, a girl who’d been unkind to her in grade school. She did not hate Serenity, but was glad it rained on her birthday, and reveled when she fell down on a sixth-grade fieldtrip to the lighthouse. Their teacher had knelt beside her on the volcanic stone and lamely said, “Our anger is just our sadness in disguise.” Now, Serenity was with a boy. They were on their sides on a mudcloth blanket, facing each other, and she was pushing her face into his chest. He had a boyish hand on the ass of her cream cotton shorts. While keeping their chests flush together, Serenity turned her head to look at Victoria, then turned back and kissed the tan boy on the mouth.
Victoria opened the cooler and took out a carton of blueberries and a hard cider. She sat with Jesse between her legs, facing him toward the lake. Despite being in season, the blueberries were cockled and soft, and she crushed them between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. She spit their flesh and pips onto the rocks.
“Hi!” the boy called out. Serenity smacked his arm and laughed.
On every adjustment, she stirred the volcanic stones. Jesse was cold to the touch, so Victoria took off her sweatshirt and pulled it over him. It was tight, and he didn’t have arms for the sleeves, but his head poked out the top, cutting off the top of his smile. Victoria burrowed into his back and breathed into his ear, kissing it every so often. A Rottweiler went by, pulling at its purple leash. Its owner, a middle-aged woman, carried a pink plastic bag, which hung from her grip, weighed down by excrement. The sky, still smeared with clouds, moved right to left. At the end of its long, narrow walkway, which angled like a trapezoid into the lake, the lighthouse stood hard and cold. Behind her, the quiet bustle outside the trading post trilled, where she’d worked in the stock room a few months after high school, then had been fired by the floor manager, Serenity’s mother.
“Hello!” the boy called out again.
“You suck!” Victoria yelled.
“What?” the boy said, laughing.
“I said,” said Victoria, “you suck!”
She opened the hard cider and drank half of it quickly. She felt herself choking and held her breath as not to cough and cause further embarrassment. Serenity was laughing now, full throttle, like a witch. The boy was asking her what he should say next, and she said, “Oh, oh, oh,” touched his arm and said it in his ear.
“Burbidge!” he yelled. “You suck!”
Serenity lost her mind. Victoria’s face was hot, stinging with vessels, and she wished Jesse would beat the shit out of both of them, put them face down in the lake and float them toward the lighthouse. The Rottweiler barked at a car outside the trading post.
“You suck,” Victoria said.
“What’d you say?” the boy called.
“Wasn’t talking to you!”
“No, tell me!”
“You suck!” she yelled.
The boy stood up and extended both hands to help Serenity to her feet. Still laughing, they rolled up the mudcloth blanket, threw an empty Pepsi can toward the water and started back toward their car.
“Burbidge!” the boy called out at a low, distorted octave. “Grow some balls!”
Victoria drank the rest of the hard cider and placed the empty bottle in the cooler. Jesse was quiet in her sweatshirt, rattled from the interaction.
“I’m sorry,” said Victoria. “Didn’t mean to freak you out or anything.”
He stared out at the water, its reaching peninsulas and sowed pigments and algae.
Victoria squeezed tighter, then put him on his back on the stone beach and swung a leg over him.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I love you.”
Jesse kissed her under yacking seagulls. She worked her tongue over his plastic smile, which was mostly teeth. She pulled on the collar of the sweatshirt to lick down his chin to his neck, where she desperately sucked, then came back up and said, “Thank God. I thought you hated me.”
Hours went by and the blueberries got warm, bulging from their blossom ends. Victoria squeezed one between her fingers and wiped the juice on Jesse’s mouth as if to feed him, staining his teeth. More dogs passed with owners carrying their bags of dung. Jesse played it cool when seagulls swarmed the berries, and when two kayakers came in close, breathing heavily like there’d been some sort of emergency. The dusk was filmy and sweet, sweating over the top of the lake, and swallowed the cupola of the lighthouse.
“That’s where I had parties,” said Victoria. “They were awful.”
They started back toward the house. They went by where Mrs. Batten used to live with her family, and after her divorce, learned to candy walnuts, and had even had another son who looked nothing like the other one. She moved to an apartment in Michigan where she lived without many windows, and all her beauty came peeling off of her like grief had won. They went by the Hortensens’, whose Great Dane had killed their Bengal kitten in some unimaginative way. And then by the aging widow, who was always holding up her little, squashed terrier and saying, too proudly, “She’s from a puppy mill!” They went by the part of the road where her mother hit a red fox with her car, and where, weeks later, Victoria swore she saw a fox kit, swirling around in despair.
“I don’t know about it here,” she said to Jesse. “Maybe we should move. Do you ever see
yourself going back to Los Angeles?”
She took her shoes off before her parents’ driveway and balanced them on top of the cooler. Jesse was still wearing her sweatshirt and she was cold. Her father was by the pool, evaluating his work from that morning. He drank a porter and his beard dripped with it.
“Come hang!” he called out.
“One sec,” she said.
She brought Jesse to her bedroom, put him on the bed and straddled him while she took the sweatshirt off him. She went for his neck, then leaned in to kiss him like before, but something seemed off and she said, “Don’t be lame.” She leaned in again, this time going for his ear, which had a white scuff, and she pushed her tongue against it. Still, she got no reaction.
“Come on,” she said.
She turned sharply to face the medallion tapestry so he wouldn’t see her eyes. She stood, peeled off her jeans with embarrassing trouble, and went for the door. She said over her shoulder, “I made this room a shrine.” She left him on the bed and went out to the pool in her swimsuit. She walked past Mr. Burbidge with his beer and went to the edge of the water, sat down, and put her calves in.
“Everything all right?” asked Mr. Burbidge.
“Yeah,” she said. “Jesse’s being weird.”
“Makes sense,” said her father.
He sat next to her and put his big, red legs in. Gulls and grackles made turns overhead and chose trees by the pool, cocking their heads at Victoria’s strawberry print bathing suit. The smell of Mrs. Burbidge dyeing her hair came through the open bathroom window and hung like pothos in the yard.
“I’m not sure about that guy,” he said.
“You’re not?” asked Victoria.
“Nah,” said Mr. Burbidge. “Big city boy comes to small town. Same old. Can’t adjust.”
“Do you think?”
“Same old story,” he said. “Big popstar. Can’t handle the pressure.”
“Oh,” she said.
“You want a beer?”
“You jumping in?”
“Dad,” she said. “It is not warm.”
When he stood, foils of water came out with his calves, splashing the brick and Victoria’s hip. He pulled a pale ale from the cooler next to the white wicker chaise. The cooler’s handle wasn’t secured well to one side, so he had to carry it by the bottom. He cracked it open for her and as he handed it to her said, “For you, princess.” Mrs. Burbidge came out the screen door with her hair in a towel.
“Is she drinking?” she asked.
“I thought you had to leave that stuff in for a while,” said Mr. Burbidge, pointing to his own head.
“I didn’t like the color,” she said. “It looked too red.”
“Ah,” he said.
“I thought it’d be the same,” she said. “It wasn’t.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Can’t just switch brands,” she said.
Victoria held the beer between her knees, so its bottom was submerged, tucking it out of view. Mrs. Burbidge, who, years earlier, had broken all the toes on her left foot, still complained that they ached through Tylenol, even in comfortable shoes.
“They’re hurting,” she said.
“Worse today?” asked Mr. Burbidge.
“I think it’s the worst it’s ever been,” she said.
“My poor ol’ lady,” said Mr. Burbidge.
“Where’s Jesse?” she asked Victoria.
“Don’t ask me that,” she said.
“Is he liking the North Shore?” asked Mrs. Burbidge.
“Yes,” said Victoria. She picked her beer up and drank.
Mrs. Burbidge looked at Mr. Burbidge. She raised her eyebrows, and he shook his head.
“We should talk about Jesse,” said Mrs. Burbidge.
“Is that really necessary tonight?” asked Mr. Burbidge.
“We don’t like how he’s been treating you,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” asked Victoria.
“He doesn’t talk,” said Mrs. Burbidge. “He doesn’t pay attention to you.”
“You don’t really know him, I guess,” said Victoria.
“We wanted to talk to you about it when he wasn’t around.”
“But he’s always around,” said Mr. Burbidge.
“Don’t you want to be with somebody who looks at you while you’re talking?” asked Mrs. Burbidge.
“I hate when people look at me,” said Victoria.
“Vicki,” she said, “don’t you want to be adored?”
“Loved,” said Mr. Burbidge.
“Don’t you want someone to love you?”
Victoria looked away. By the edge of the house, starflower squirmed in breeze. The wet brick smelled like a cave, and didn’t dry, but got cold. Right about now, she thought, the neighbors would be stepping out on their porch with folded prosciutto.
“Well,” said Victoria, “what kind of example are you setting for me?”
“What are we—”
“What kind of example are you setting for me anyway?”
“What are we doing that’s wrong?” asked Mrs. Burbidge.
“You hate my boyfriend!” said Victoria.
“Well,” said Mr. Burbidge, “we just hope that you’ll think about—”
“You hate Jesse!”
“Jesus, Vicki,” he said.
“Not necessary,” said Mrs. Burbidge.
“You suck even more!”
Victoria went back to her room, where Jesse had not moved. The room with all its purple and romance closed around them, and she traced his bottom lip with the nail of her pointer finger. The quilt warmed under her, and she pulled her bathing suit down, and did not turn him over.
She scooched up so that one of her breasts stuck to his plastic face. Victoria had big breasts, but nobody liked to think about that. It wasn’t the same as anybody else having big breasts. In fact, they were ugly. They were not nice. They were roseate with pores large enough to breathe through, and in the summers, spider-bitten from sleeping in her cousin’s finished basement, all those times she bled into the toilet as if to laugh in girlhood’s face. She ran a drunk, sticking hand down Jesse’s polyvinyl chloride and started singing one of his own songs to him. Pink Christmas lights flashed on top of the doorframe.
“Because you live and breathe,” she sang. “Because you make me believe in myself when nobody else can help.” She got closer to his ear, making her breast get closer to her face. “Because you live, girl, my world has twice as many stars—”
“Victoria?” Mrs. Burbidge called through the door.
“What?” she called.
“Did you call me?”
For Victoria, it wasn’t all drama. It was denial and distraction, suppressed pain, then order and routine. It was “I want you to die but I’m not gonna kill you” and “I want you to bleed but I’m not prepared to stab you.” She got on her back next to Jesse, resting her hand on gettyimages, and went over every impossible reason for being in Grand Marais, alive, blooming in her pubescent castle. From an earring tree across the room, a paper Christmas ornament dangled with their faces printed on either side.