“How is it?” the voice on the other end said immediately. “Is there a sex dungeon?”
“Shadi?” I guessed. I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder as I unscrewed the cap from one of my gin bottles, taking a swig to fortify myself.
“It honestly worries me that I’m the only person who might call you to ask that,” Shadi answered.
“You’re the only person who even knows about the Love Shack,” I pointed out.
“I am not the only one who knows about it,” Shadi argued.
Technically true. While I’d found out about my father’s secret lake house at his funeral last year, Mom had been aware much longer. “Fine,” I said. “You’re the only person I told about it. Anyway, give me a second. I just got here.”
“Literally?” Shadi was breathing hard, which meant she was walking to a shift at the restaurant. Since we kept such different hours, most of our calls happened when she was on her way into work.
“Metaphorically,” I said. “Literally, I’ve been here for ten minutes, but I only just feel that I have arrived.”
“So wise,” Shadi said. “So deep.”
“Shh,” I said. “I’m taking it all in.”
“Check for the sex dungeon!” Shadi hurried to say, as if I were hanging up on her.
I was not. I was simply holding the phone to my ear, holding my breath, holding my racing heart in my chest, as I scanned my father’s second life.
And there, just when I could convince myself Dad couldn’t possibly have spent time here, I spotted something framed on the wall. A clipping of a New York Times Best Sellers list from three years ago, the same one he’d positioned over the fireplace at home. There I was, at number fifteen, the bottom slot. And there, three slots above me—in a sick twist of fate—was my college rival, Gus (though now he went by Augustus, because Serious Man) and his highbrow debut novel The Revelatories. It had stayed on the list for five weeks (not that I was counting (I was absolutely counting)).
“Well?” Shadi prompted. “What do you think?”
I turned and my eyes caught on the mandala tapestry hanging over the couch.
“I’m led to wonder if Dad smoked weed.” I spun toward the windows at the side of the house, which aligned almost perfectly with the neighbor’s, a design flaw Mom would never have overlooked when house shopping.
But this wasn’t her house, and I could clearly see the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the neighbor’s study.
“Oh, God—maybe it’s a grow house, not a love shack!” Shadi sounded delighted. “You should’ve read the letter, January. It’s all been a misunderstanding. Your dad’s leaving you the family business. That Woman was his business partner, not his mistress.”
How bad was it that I wished she were right?
Either way, I’d fully intended to read the letter. I’d just been waiting for the right time, hoping the worst of my anger would settle and those last words from Dad would be comforting. Instead, a full year had passed and the dread I felt at the thought of opening the envelope grew every day. It was so unfair, that he should get the last word and I’d have no way to reply. To scream or cry or demand more answers. Once I’d opened it, there’d be no going back. That would be it. The final goodbye.
So until further notice, the letter was living a happy, if solitary, life in the bottom of the gin box I’d brought with me from Queens.
“It’s not a grow house,” I told Shadi and slid open the back door to step onto the deck. “Unless the weed’s in the basement.”
“No way,” Shadi argued. “That’s where the sex dungeon is.”
“Let’s stop talking about my depressing life,” I said. “What’s new with you?”
“You mean the Haunted Hat,” Shadi said. If only she had fewer than four roommates in her shoebox apartment in Chicago, then maybe I’d be staying with her now. Not that I was capable of getting anything done when I was with Shadi. And my financial situation was too dire not to get something done. I had to finish my next book in this rent-free hell. Then maybe I could afford my own Jacques-free place.
“If the Haunted Hat is what you want to talk about,” I said, “then yes. Spill.”
“Still hasn’t spoken to me.” Shadi sighed wistfully. “But I can, like, sense him looking at me when we’re both in the kitchen. Because we have a connection.”
“Are you at all worried that your connection isn’t with the guy who’s wearing the antique porkpie hat, but perhaps with the ghost of the hat’s original owner? What will you do if you realize you’ve fallen in love with a ghost?”
“Um.” Shadi thought for a minute. “I guess I’d have to update my Tinder bio.”
A breeze rippled off the water at the bottom of the hill, ruffling my brown waves across my shoulders, and the setting sun shot golden spears of light over everything, so bright and hot I had to squint to see the wash of oranges and reds it cast across the beach. If this were just some house I’d rented, it would be the perfect place to write the adorable love story I’d been promising Sandy Lowe Books for months.
Shadi, I realized, had been talking. More about the Haunted Hat. His name was Ricky, but we never called him that. We always spoke of Shadi’s love life in code. There was the older man who ran the amazing seafood restaurant (the Fish Lord), and then there was some guy we’d called Mark because he looked like some other, famous Mark, and now there was this new coworker, a bartender who wore a hat every day that Shadi loathed and yet could not resist.
I snapped back into the conversation as Shadi was saying, “Fourth of July weekend? Can I visit then?”
“That’s more than a month away.” I wanted to argue that I wouldn’t even be here by then, but I knew it wasn’t true. It would take me at least all summer to write a book, empty the house, and sell both, so I could (hopefully) be catapulted back into relative comfort. Not in New York, but somewhere less expensive.
I imagined Duluth was affordable. Mom would never visit me there, but we hadn’t done much visiting this past year anyway, apart from my three-day trip home for Christmas. She’d dragged me to four yoga classes, three crowded juice bars, and a Nutcracker performance starring some kid I didn’t know, like if we were alone for even a second, the topic of Dad would arise and we’d burst into flames.
All my life, my friends had been jealous of my relationship with her. How often and freely (or so I thought) we talked, how much fun we had together. Now our relationship was the world’s least competitive game of phone tag.
I’d gone from having two loving parents and a live-in boyfriend to basically just having Shadi, my much-too-long-distance best friend. The one blessing of moving from New York to North Bear Shores, Michigan, was that I was closer to her place in Chicago.
“Fourth of July’s too far off,” I complained. “You’re only three hours away.”
“Yeah, and I don’t know how to drive.”
“Then you should probably give that license back,” I said.
“Believe me, I’m waiting for it to expire. I’m going to feel so free. I hate when people think I’m able to drive just because, legally, I am.”