Olivia still had her red hair, although dyed, when I met her. I would have been nine or ten. Her flesh was just losing its suppleness; she hadn’t yet married her third husband. On cold mornings after we let the horses out she would press my hands up under her shirt, beneath the warm bulk of her breasts. It sounds strange, but the fleshy heat of the skin there, just beginning to droop and fold, was comforting. She told me that in Montana (on the sheep farm with her first husband, the father of her daughters) they would stand around talking with their hands nestled just inside the hind legs of their horses, where the hair lay thin and the heat of their groins spread. “It’s the warmest place on their bodies,” she said. She also said just standing there you could see the stars stretching out all around, and they whorled out like you were at the very center of their valley. I imagined the sharp division of the air between the crackling heat of the fire and the cold, cold night pressing in.
She was a different creature, coming from a long line of women—the first of four daughters, the mother of two more. She had one granddaughter with exquisite little fingers and breath and milky skin, who died a few days after her birth. Looking back on it, I might say that this was the point at which Olivia changed. She married, left the stable, moved to a different part of town. I saw her through her window, years later—she was trimming and ornamenting the Christmas tree, and her hair had gone all silver.
And the second period of our friendship began. She saw me through the window that day, and over the subsequent dinners and beers she began connecting all the myriad little, shining points she had given me almost carelessly, here and there, during the course of our old acquaintance at the stable. All these things—her first husband, Montana, the children and dogs and birds she had raised, her trips to New York art galleries and the mink coat she had owned and the things she had learned about sex as an art—all these grew out of and swirled around this long, great love affair she had had with Bruce, her first husband’s brother. Bruce, who sent her a tape in which he laughed and howled like a wolf—and her lips compressed and her hand on the wheel of the car trembled as we listened to it. No one, she told me, had ever heard this before.
I was probably eighteen then, and I embarked on a journey I told no one about. We had fallen into the habit of weekly dinners, and one night as I was lingering at the door she sat me down and asked for, as she called it, a huge favor. “It would be a lot of work,” she said. “It might be hard.” I must have had some idea as to what she wanted—and I was excited. She gave me boxes of letters and tapes to organize into a pristine record of their affair—one of his, which she had kept, and one of hers, which he had sent back. She cried as she spoke, this aging woman, gathering bulk and wrinkles about her, tilting her head to the side and catching tears as they formed with the tip of her pinky. I recalled the times I had seen her express emotion: once, brandishing a long clawed rake at a horse who ran madly, eye-whites reeling and flaring, and would not go in his stall; once, standing on the steps outside the tack room with a fellow rider, whispering and crying about a fight she had had with Kurt (the third husband) just before the wedding; once, drawing up tower-like beside the groceries she had bought for our dinner when I told her I couldn’t stay long. Each time I had pretended not to see. Now I had to express some sort of sympathy under the gaze of her unfathomable and yet very simple misery. But still, I was excited. I wanted to sift through these musty sexual intrigues and get to know the straight heart of someone.
The letters, as I saw, were a long and snarled prelude to a life together that Bruce simply would not, in the end, come to. They waited for months and long years; they divorced t heir spouses; they planned his move to Montana; there were plans to be made still, and loose ends to tie up, and delays became despair, and, quite simply and inevitably, he never came.
What did she say to me that day when she saw me through the window and invited me in? How were things, I wanted to know. How were things with Kurt? I had never seen them together, married. She showed me the slanted, attic-like upstairs where she kept her art studio and slept. Kurt’s bedroom was downstairs. Didn’t she want something more, I wanted to know. She described the calm progression of days, the routine of a husband and wife moving quietly around each other. “I have had my great, big, earth-shaking love,” she said. “And I never want anything like it again. I’m content now.”
(And then, later, sitting in the booth of a Mexican restaurant, after I had returned the letters: “I’m still in here,” she told me. “I’m ready. I’m just waiting.”)
Elizabeth Cameron was born and raised on the Oregon coast. She is currently in the MFA program at the University of Memphis. She has worked a variety of unrelated jobs, including pizza-making, book-shelving, and detailing the life of the Giant Pacific Octopus for tourists at the Seaside Aquarium.