by Jackie Calhoun
A novel that takes you within two very contemporary, very real women…
Kate Sweeney, rejected by her husband for a younger woman, has taken her pain and rage into solitude at a lakeside cabin.
Lesbian Pat Thompson is renting a cabin on the same lake. She too is in the throes of an agonizing breakup.
Kate’s ego is somewhat soothed by the support of her grown children, and by a male suitor. And Pat has her close lesbian friends for comfort, her parents, and her teaching career. But mostly the two women have each other, drawn together by their mutual anguish, their understanding and support for each other. Then their friendship deepens into love…
Kate becomes reconciled with her brother Gordie, estranged from the family for years because of his gay lifestyle. When Gordie falls ill from AIDS, Kate learns painful truths about her world and the people closest to her. Suddenly every relationship in her life is strained to the breaking point—including her blossoming love for Pat.
You will find echoes of yourself in this story—because Lifestyles, set in America’s heartland, is about the authentic family connections in us all.
Originally Published by Naiad Press 1990.
Gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands, her teeth locked together as if she were in combat, Kate glanced in the rear view mirror just before turning off U.S. 41 onto the access road. She saw herself in the dawn light, frown etched between her brows, and forced herself to unclench her jaw. The dentist had warned, “You’ll grind your teeth down to stubs.” She bared her teeth in a grimace and ran her tongue over the enamel.
None of the gas stations were open, so she turned the car west on County Road E as the sun outlined the landscape in the new day. Fog hovered above the ground and floated across the road. Forty-five minutes later, when the blacktop curved and the hills closed in on it, Kate sighed and visibly relaxed against the back of the seat.
The core of anxiety nearly always at the back of her throat vanished. Kate had never understood the words You can’t go home again because she had always returned to the safety of her childhood retreat. She thought of it as coming home to her roots to renew herself—to the old farmhouse and small lake, the pine hills of her youth.
But never like this. The anxiety reasserted itself, and she swallowed a few times and breathed deeply to dispel it. The nightmare her life had become threatened to close in on her. She refused to think of it. She had turned it endlessly over in her mind, and there was no satisfactory solution. The best thing to do now was forget it, push it away from her, at least until she could get a different perspective on it. The only way she seemed able to do this was to remove herself from the source. Was she running? She shrugged in answer. At least she had somewhere to run.
The drive had seemed interminable as the ribbon of road had unrolled under the wheels of the gray Taurus, mostly through the dark of night. The Ford topped the last hill and turned into the narrow drive—hemmed in by towering white pines and ending at an old white house and red barn. The slope beyond led down to the sandy beach and circular lake.
Cramped from the long drive, she opened the car door and stretched, then let herself onto the back porch and unlocked the door to the kitchen. A closed and musty odor greeted her; no one had been here since the previous fall. She smiled as she went through the rooms—opening windows to let in the smell of pines and lake, occasionally running a hand over the furniture, touching her past. She sat in one of the front porch chairs and studied the lake, misty and quiet in the early morning, while the familiar feel of the place settled over her. Twisting her mouth at the irony, she recalled her wish to live here, now possible and now unwanted—not like this, not alone.
Then she hauled in her suitcases and unpacked in the front bedroom where she had always slept. With the quiet beginning to unnerve her, she put on her swimsuit and headed down the warm sandy path between Norway pines to the beach. Pier sections lay neatly stacked on the shore as if waiting for her. The lake glittered like a jewel in the early July sunlight. Dug by the last glacier to sweep over Wisconsin, it was similar to other lakes in the area, a product of glacial derangement—spring fed with no creeks leading in or out—and surrounded by pine-covered hills. A strange term for such beauty, Kate thought. She waded up to her knees in the cool water and stood surveying the expanse of blue-green before her. Cottages overlooked the water like silent watchers in the trees. When she was a girl, there had been only a handful of summer homes around the lake.
The sun picked out highlights in her reddish-blonde hair, styled to turn under but now pushed back behind her ears. Her eyes, squinting against the reflection of sun on water, were the color of the lake. A boat with a lone fisherman broke the flatness of the surface. Taking a deep breath Kate immersed herself to her waist and then dove in. Like a cool caress, the water enfolded her, and she swam out to the depths where she rolled over on her back and studied the shore. When the fisherman started his motor, she felt the vibrations in the water.
She’d put in a pier section today. That would do until someone visited. Her daughters? Anger threatened her, as their unjust accusations echoed in her mind. “What did you do, Mom? What did you say to him?” She shook her head to drive away the voices and concentrated instead on the flowers along the shore, which made her think of her mother. Feelings of grief and loss engulfed her as she remembered her mother’s love for wildflowers. The place was full of ghosts. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come. Maybe she should have gone somewhere without memories, but she couldn’t afford to do that.
After carrying one of the galvanized steel posts into the water, she inserted a rod in the matching top holes and began screwing the post into the sandy lake bottom. It went down easily. Pleased with herself she lifted the crossbar over the top to know where to start the second post. It fell to the bottom of the lake, which was all right since the water was so shallow. She screwed in that post and lifted and fastened the ends of the crossbar to both posts. Then she dragged a wooden pier length off the pile on shore and floated it between the posts, so as to know where to put the next set of posts at the deeper end.
A motorboat had twice passed Kate and created waves which rocked the wooden pier length, crashing it against the shore. Annoyed, Kate glanced at the boat as it rounded the lake and came toward her beach a third time. There was no skier behind it. Why did it keep circling? She had never been partial to speedboats because of the smell and oily slicks left in their wakes.
The craft closed in on Kate’s stretch of sand. “Need some help?” the woman in the boat asked after pulling the throttle back to idle.
Standing with a post gripped in both hands and frowning at the intruder, Kate was caught off guard. Who expected such a bold overture? How did you protect yourself against it? She felt the sun beating down, the cool water on her lower body. A slow smile curled the corners of her mouth.
The other woman grinned in return, displaying a perfect set of teeth. Her hair was a sandy color, short and curly, her eyes brown and friendly. Freckles were sprinkled across her nose, her cheeks were red, the rest of her very tan. She looked wholesome. “My name is Pat Thompson,” she said as she clambered over the side of the boat and jumped into the water.
“Kate Sweeney,” Kate said, alarmed by this unexpected offer of aid. How could she return such a favor? “I’m getting along,” she protested, somehow knowing she wouldn’t be able to fend off this woman and her good intentions.
Pat pulled the propeller out of the water and dragged the boat up on shore, then splashed out to Kate. “I’ve got nothing to do,” she said with a shrug and another white-toothed smile.
“Well,” Kate said, “if you’d driven past again, I might have thrown this at you.” She indicated the pier post still clutched between her hands.
Pat laughed. “The waves don’t help, I suppose. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
Together they quickly set up the first pier section. “That’s all I was going to do today,” Kate remarked.
“We may as well do the rest,” Pat replied and grabbed another post. “I need the exercise.”
She didn’t look it, Kate thought. The woman was maybe five foot-five, a little taller than herself, and in superb condition. Kate thought regretfully of her bike, which she had not brought with her.
They put in two more sections. The fourth section would be in the water over both their heads. They had had enough trouble with the deep end of the third section. “I’ll have to save the last one for someone taller,” Kate remarked as she stood on tiptoes and swayed like a weed, water up to her chin. “This was really nice of you.”
Pat climbed onto the pier with Kate, and as they dried in the hot sun, Kate wondered why Pat had bothered to stop and help. Kate leaned back on her hands, feet dangling in the water, pleased at this apparent new friendship. Wanting to repay Pat’s help, she asked, “How about dinner Wednesday?”
“How about it?” Pat asked. She lay on her back with one arm covering her eyes from the sun and one leg hanging over the edge in the water.
“That’s an invitation.” Kate turned to glance at Pat.
Pat stared at Kate and sighed. “I’m not alone. I’m staying with a friend,” she explained.
“Bring your friend with you,” Kate suggested.
Pat continued to observe Kate. “Thanks, I’ll bring the wine.”
“You don’t need to bring anything. It’ll be my thanks.”
Pat sat up and wrapped her arms around her legs. “Have you been here long?”
“Just got here this morning.” Kate felt as if she’d been awake forever and thought she probably looked it, too. She lay back on the pier and squinted at Pat. “How about you?”
“A week. We rented a cottage at the other end of the lake for a month.”
Reluctantly, Kate was placing Pat in her mind. “Do you own a sailboat with a blue and green sail?”
Pat nodded. “Do you like to sail?”
Sitting up, Kate met the friendly brown eyes. She had only sailed a few times. “I wasn’t hinting,” she said with a smile. “I was just remembering you.”
“Really? We’ve been renting for several years now. You’ve got one of the nicest locations on the lake,” she added.
The dykes, Kate thought unwillingly. That’s what Jeff had always called these women. Sometimes there had been four of them; maybe two others had visited. Suddenly afraid her thoughts might be readable, she glanced away from Pat. She recalled how she had watched them with fascination, when they were sailing or in their speedboat. The fascination had been tinged with fear. Fear of what, she wondered—herself? The easy comradeship with Pat was in danger of being dissolved.
Pat slipped into the lake. “Got to go,” she said. “What time Wednesday?” She turned and met Kate’s eyes.
“Cocktail hour begins at five-thirty,” Kate replied as she returned the look and smiled faintly. She pushed herself off the pier and helped shove the motorboat into deeper water. She waved and thanked Pat again as the other woman started the engine and drove across the lake.
* * *
Gail lay sunning on the floating dock as Pat idled to it, cut the motor and grabbed the raft ladder to hold the boat in place. “Want to go for a ride or ski or something?”
Gail raised her head and looked at Pat through strands of blonde hair. “Not really. Where’ve you been?”
Pat considered the question. If she answered it, she knew the response she’d get. “Helping someone put in a pier.”
“Is she attractive?”
Again Pat paused before answering. “Yes, very—nice, too. You’ll like her,” she added.
“I don’t intend to meet her,” Gail replied, nestling her head in her arms.
“We’ve been invited to dinner Wednesday night.” The boat rocked on its own wake. Pat studied Gail’s reclining figure, wondering what was happening to them and why. “You’re burning, babe.”
Gail sat up and clasped her legs, leaving white marks in the red. “You’re invited to dinner, and I’ll tend to my own body, thank you.” She stood, dove into the lake and swam to shore.
Feeling that empty loneliness Gail once filled, Pat shoved the boat away from the raft. She wanted to push the throttle to full speed and slam into the beach. Instead she drove to a secluded spot, took her rod out of the bottom of the boat and cast until long after dark. She hardly noticed the spectacular display put on by the setting sun.
* * *
Sipping wine and trying to read while the sun disappeared, Kate sat on the screened-in porch. The western horizon was engulfed in shades of purple, which faded to pink toward the east; the lake reflected the colors of the sky. A soft breeze, cooling Kate’s sunburned skin, rippled the water into tiny waves. As darkness fell, it gradually blurred out even the lightest objects, until only sky and lake were discernible. Bats swooped over the water.
The next morning Kate drove to Waushara early, before the heat became too intense. She went to the grocery store first and then to the telephone company to request the phone be reconnected. Returning to the house with grocery bags in both arms, she heard the phone ring—stridently, insistently. How could it be hooked up already?
“Mom? Dad said you were at the lake. What’s going on?”
Kate felt a twinge of irritation; she hadn’t heard from Jeff for several weeks. She wrote regularly; he called occasionally, usually when he needed something. “I’ll write to you, Jeff.”
“Some woman answered Dad’s phone, Mom. Who is she?”
Kate sighed. She couldn’t believe Jeff’s sisters hadn’t told him. “I’ll write, Jeff. How’s Florida?”
“Hot. Tell me, Mom. I’ve got to know.”
“Haven’t your sisters told you anything?”
“They said you and Dad weren’t getting along, that you might separate. I didn’t believe it, because you didn’t write me about it.” Accusing.
Why was she always to blame? Why didn’t they lay the guilt at Tom’s feet? But she knew she should have told him. “Jeff, I thought it might not happen.” Kate struggled to keep the tremor out of her voice.
“Who is the woman?”
“Ask your dad or her. I don’t know her.” Kate tasted the bitterness again. She couldn’t bear to talk about it, even to Jeff. It made her angry and then she cried and hated herself for crying.
“Are you moving to the lake for good?”
“Maybe, I don’t know yet.”
“What about our house?”
“It’s for sale.”
“I’m coming home, Mom.”
The alarm in Jeff’s voice brought out the mother in Kate. “I’ll be here,” she said, “and don’t worry, Jeff. It’ll all work out.”
Would it? She reveled in self pity for a few seconds after hanging up and then jumped when the phone rang again, the sound piercing the stillness of the house. She snatched up the receiver.
“Kate? What the hell is going on?” It was her editor, Dan Mills.
“Ask Tom,” she snapped.
“I did; that’s how I got this number. What about your column?”
“I took it in before I left town. I told your secretary I’d call.”
“How can you write a column from two hundred fucking miles away?”
“Why not? Just mail me the letters.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Her heart sank. “That’s okay, Dan. I know Tom got me the job, something to keep me busy and at home. I always wondered why you don’t carry Ann Landers. Now you can tell me.”
“Because we carry you. Why the hell did you leave like that?”
“I don’t want to talk about it now. Ask Tom.”
“I’m asking you, Kate.”
“I had my reasons.” Like not being able to face everyone.
“Tom’s fooling around, huh? He’ll come to his senses.”
“I think I came to mine,” Kate retorted. “Goodbye, Dan.”