Staggerwing

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Will’s plane landed at Narita International Airport. At 6’6” he towered above most people, and sometimes his extreme height made him dizzy. It didn’t help matters that his fifty-eight-year-old knees were now a touch arthritic. In the Japan Air terminal he had particular trouble finding his stride. He stumbled and righted himself, a tipsy, giant buoy unmoored above a sea of inky heads.

His boss said his contact would meet him at the revolving baggage carousel.

“Not sure who it will be, but they’ll send someone to meet you,” Stewart said as they reviewed the final plans for the installation. “Usually it’s this guy Tashiro,” Stewart continued. “His English sucks but he seems to understand everything I say.”

As head preparator, Stewart usually did the overseas jobs but he had grown too fat. The Air and Space Museum would have had to pay for two airplane seats, or worse, a first class ticket to send Stewart to oversee the installation of the loaned Beechcraft C17L Staggerwing at the Tokorozowa Aviation Museum outside of Tokyo. Will, the only other preparator at the museum with enough seniority and engineering skill, was going in his stead.

Now Will scoured the line of men and women waiting by the baggage carousel holding little cards with Western names. Greyson, Kaufmann, Veerhoven, Schmidt. No Andrews. No him. Will worried he had botched the job already. Walked the wrong way. Gone to the wrong baggage claim area.

“Mr. Andrews?”

Will turned. The young woman stood inches away. She was at least a head taller than most of the other Japanese women there picking up luggage or guests. Tall, but not as tall as he.

“Yes?” he said.

“I am so very sorry. I am late and I have no sign.” She panted. Will noticed beads of sweat on her upper lip.

“That’s okay.” Will reassured. “I just got here. There’s no problem, no problem at all.”

Her brow furrowed for a moment then relaxed. “I am Mariko Hisheguro, assistant to Tashiro Tasegasei.” The woman bowed.

“William Andrews,” Will bowed too, and immediately worried it wasn’t the right thing to do, returning this gesture. How stupid of him not to study his book on Japanese Etiquette. Seventeen hours tucked away in his backpack in overhead storage, its spine uncracked. But the previous 48 hours with his wife, Isabelle, had worn him out. Her irrational, paranoid mutterings exhausted Will like repetitive jackhammering five blocks away, not quite abrasive enough to completely unnerve him, but stressful enough to send Will off with a dull, persistent headache and popping Zantacs like candy.

“Welcome to Japan, Mr. Andrews,” Mariko Hisheguro bowed again. Her dark hair fell in two unified sheets by her cheeks.

Will grinned, no bow. I should’ve read the book, he said to himself. He was usually quite diligent about these kinds of things. Instead Will had watched every movie Japan Air offered and dozed intermittently in a blissful drooling stupor.

“You had a comfortable journey?” she asked.

“Oh yes. Very comfortable,” Will nodded repeatedly, his head like a bobble doll on a trucker’s dashboard.

“We will take the tram to your hotel. It is not private like taxi, but it is fast.”

“The tram sounds fine,” Will said. “I like public transportation.” Mariko looked at him oddly. “Unless you want to go by taxi. Really, I’m easy.” Now Will was the one sweating.

“I’m sorry,” said Mariko. “My English is a problem. I have been told my accent is good, but my comprehension is not so good. What does this mean, ‘I’m easy’?”

“Oh, well, um, it means it doesn’t matter to me,” he shrugged. “That either form of transportation is perfectly acceptable. Tram or taxi, I am happy.”

She nodded. “Good. Good.”

They stood for a moment, almost eye to eye, so strange for Will, her tallness, and he assumed even stranger for her.

“So, which is it?” Will asked. “Tram or taxi?”

“I think tram,” she looked down and away. “It is more appropriate.”

Mariko escorted him all the way to the hotel. She insisted on wheeling his suitcase, and walked a few paces ahead of him. Will tried not to look too closely at her gangly and appealing frame from behind. Her outfit was not sexy or stylish. A navy blue blazer and knee-length skirt. Flat black shoes. She’s an attractive young woman, he reminded himself so as not to feel too guilty about this percolation. That’s all.

Mariko got the keycard for him from the concierge.

“To open with,” she said as she placed the flat plastic sliver in his palm like a gift. She bowed and said goodbye in the lobby, freeing the handle of his suitcase so he could finally grab it and stop feeling so incapable. She managed to communicate that she would pick him up in three hours and take him to the museum, where he would meet the installation crew and oversee the assembly of the Staggerwing. Will bowed—surely this was the right thing to do—and said goodbye in return.

His hotel room was small, clean, and odorless. He didn’t check on Isabelle. There was the time change, after all, and some degree of surety with Eleanor, Isabelle’s sister, caretaking in his absence. Will didn’t unpack his suitcase. He didn’t take a nap. Instead he took out Japan-Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture, sat in the ergonomically pleasing easy chair, and read the book from cover to cover.

The car ride with Mariko to the museum later that day afforded a richer exchange, if still awkward.

“So have you lived in Tokyo your whole life?” he asked.

Mariko continued to look out the front window. Traffic was heavy, but orderly. He appreciated her caution. “But for I went to University in Osaka,” she answered.

“And what did you study?”

“Engineering.”

“Ah,” Will wasn’t one to believe in signs, he trusted more in quantifiable equations, but this seemed like something to note. And the lurch in his gut told him so. “Me too. Aeronautics.”

She nodded and smiled. “We have a thing in comma.”

“Do you mean a thing in common?”

Mariko’s flat and smooth nose wrinkled around the bridge. “I hope I did not offend.” Her pink bottom lip pushed forward.

“No, no. Not offensive at all. Comma is a very benign word.” He patted her shoulder, a spontaneous gesture of reassurance. As soon as he did he remembered a particular passage from his guide book:

“Avoid physical contact at all times, such as slapping backs or holding people by the arm while talking, except perhaps during convivial, all-male drinking sessions.”

Mariko didn’t flinch. She continued the conversation matter of factly. “Comma means what?”

So no offense taken, but Will needed to be more cautious. “Comma is the name of the punctuation mark we put in sentences to show a pause.” He sounded stodgy. Too cautious, perhaps.

“I’m sorry,” she frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Will cleared his throat hoping to harness a more carefree, youthful tone. “I’ll demonstrate.” He raised his hand and air wrote, “Mariko is a very good driver comma, one who pays close attention to traffic comma, pedestrians comma, and keeps her eyes on the road period.” Commas were indicated with quick downward flicks of the wrist and the period with a dramatic frontward pop of pinched thumb and forefinger.

Mariko tittered at his gestures, like a tiny woodland creature gleeful at finding a stash of unsullied nuts.

Will laughed also, but realizing it had been decades since he’d let go with this sloppy type of belly-deep guffaw, he quickly shut himself up like a vise.

The 45-minute drive out to Tokorozowa Aviation Museum became Will’s favorite part of his seven-day stay. It was the only time he and Mariko were alone together. Their conversations thrilled him, and he wasn’t sure why. So much of their exchange was based on misunderstanding and backtracked explanation, like a horizontal spiral moving forward, and looping back around on itself before moving forward again. He was not sure if Mariko shared his pleasure with their conversations or the easy space between words. She might just be polite.

On day three she called him William, not Mr. Andrews, without any prompting on his part. According to the chapter on “The Use of Names” in his Etiquette book, “In general, Japanese people will address people by their last name if they are anything but good friends.”

They were standing next to each other, gazing up at the partially assembled brilliantly yellow Staggerwing. The body of the plane stood cocked up and forward on its tail and rubber wheel. It looked naked to Will, vulnerable. Like a giant bee stripped of wings. The crew was assembling the plane’s double set of wings in another area of the giant Tokorozowa hangar when Mariko touched his arm and said, “William. What is the meaning of Staggerwing?”

Will cleared his throat, and tried to forget the lingering sensation of Mariko’s warm hand on his bare forearm. “Well, in aeronautics we refer to ‘stagger’ as the horizontal positioning of wings in relation to each other when there’s more than one set of wings. When the upper wing is positioned behind the lower wing, as is the case with this beauty, we call it negative stagger.”

“Negative stagger?” Mariko pronounced each syllable of the words with a halt. They almost sounded Japanese.

“It’s not bad,” Will shrugged. “It’s just a very unsentimental use of engineering terms.” He looked back towards where the workers were fussing over the slightly askew, vital appendages. He really should have been over there, supervising.

On day four she invited him to dinner at her home.

“It would be an honor if you would go to my home for dinner this night,” she said then added, “Will?”

Will, the shortened version of his name, the most familiar. Or was it just part of the question, as in “will you come to dinner with me?” Either way he replied, “I would love to,” trying to bridle his joy.

“Very good.” Mariko smiled widely, revealing wet teeth and a flash of rosy gums.

“Very, very good!” Will agreed.

“I wait for you,” she said as she pulled into the hotel driveway. “Here in car. Do not rush. I am happy.”

Upstairs Will stood in the shower scrubbing, prepping for the evening ahead. His nakedness, an undeniable fact of bathing, now had new associations. Not that he hadn’t cared for his body, eaten sensibly, exercised regularly. But the sensation of the soapy washcloth rubbing his hairy arms and legs was almost too much to bear. He avoided his genitals. Just let the water trail down over his penis, washing away any smell, any sweat, any untoward thoughts.

Will hadn’t expected the parents. Or the dog, Sobuku, who seemed at first to be the least wary of him. He had assumed dinner at Mariko’s would be a pairing, a polite meal, sitting across from each other in what he imagined would be a tiny but neat kitchen in a tiny but neat apartment. But this was a family affair. He removed his shoes and put on the slippers he’d been provided, and followed Mariko’s kimono-wearing mother as she shuffled across the wooden floor.

Her parents spoke no English, so over dinner Mariko interpreted their questions.

“How is your work at the Aviation Museum proceeding?”

“What is your city of origin?”

“Is the Japanese cuisine to your liking?”

Each time Mariko looked at him, Will was sure he detected a special, secret twinkle. He would check his book when he returned to the hotel, but now he asked himself: For a girl like Mariko to introduce him to her parents? Well now, that must have more meaning than he could ever have hoped for.

Will offered appropriate compliments about the food, the Hisheguro home, the wonderful Sobuku. The Hisheguros smiled and laughed. Will felt almost relaxed.

When the questions got more personal, the air became charged in a different way. Chopsticks rested on little ebony platforms. Mariko’s perfect eyes averted. Sobuku panted excitedly in the corner.

“Are you married?”

“Where is Mrs. Andrews?”

He answered matter-of-factly, hoped the heat rising from under his collar would not cause him to blush.

After a flustered exchange with her parents Mariko said, “They want to know your intentions.”

“Intentions?” He had giddy feelings, that was sure. Desire, yes, particularly when Mariko threw her head back and laughed, her neck swan-like and exposed. But were those intentions?

Mariko frowned. “They wish to know the plan.”

“Plan for what?” he whispered. He was sure his cheeks were aflame.

“Plan for the Staggerwing.”

Will sighed. Plans were easy, intentions not so. He comfortably described the basic details of installation, how the Staggerwing was the perfect plane to lend. He mentioned how aside from its historical relevance in the “Golden Age of Flight” this bright yellow bird with black stripes, blunt nose and whirling sliver propeller set speed records and won many races. That a staggered wing arrangement, negative or otherwise, was not only practical but beautiful as well. Something it shared with much Japanese design.

“Take this for example,” he said, holding up the deep blue ceramic bowl he had just eaten a delicious noodly concoction from. “Simple, functional and captivating.”

There was much head nodding and smiling on the part of the Hisheguros. Everyone seemed pleased.

While exchanging goodbyes at the front door, Mariko’s mother suddenly grabbed her daughter’s arm and pulled her back towards the kitchen. All Will could make out was Mariko repeating a word which sounded like “Eye, eye,” followed by some other Japanese complications. He stood for an uncomfortable moment with Mr. Hisheguro by the front door, both men smiling and nodding, nodding and smiling until the women returned.

Mariko held the freshly washed blue bowl up to him. “A gift to remember us by,” she said, the twinkle back in her eye. “We hope it will find good use in your wife’s kitchen.”

Back in his hotel room Will Google-searched Japanese phonetics for words sounding like “eye” with only his American ears to guide him. After reconfiguring A’s and I’s and E’s, he settled on “Ai” and a link to “Japanese Terms of Endearment” gave him:

“Ai(愛)” can be roughly translated as ‘love’ in English.”

Lurching stomach. Beating heart. A bowl, a lovely girl, a two-letter word. The question of intention swirling among other thoughts in his brain, a flower among twigs stuck in a whirlpool.

For the remaining days Mariko watched Will intently from the sidelines while he worked with the installation crew at Tokorozowa. Their conversations no longer felt quite so circuitous. There was still much confusion, on Will’s part at least. But Mariko’s words felt unleashed. Like Will’s desktop toy, his Newton’s Cradle. Metal balls hanging inert until the end ball soared outward and starting a noisy volley with a satisfying smack.

The Staggerwing assembly proceeded with remarkable precision. Will powered through in full command, fueled by Mariko’s presence, thrilled when her creature-like giggles rose above the drone of screw guns and chop saws. While driving, she rested her free hand on to his shoulder while laughing at his jokes and unintentional faux pas. She lingered in hellos and goodbyes. On their final night together she became confessional over sake at the hotel bar. There was a boyfriend whom she no longer loved, who had betrayed her and broken her heart.

“Kobayashi is a bad man,” she said. “It takes me a long while to forget him.”

Will reached over and patted the top of her warm, white hand. “Poor Mariko,” he said.

She looked at him with a steady eye-to-eye gaze. “No worry, William. I am fine now. I am ready for love again.”

***

Once he was back in the states Will began revealing himself to Mariko through emails sent from a secret account and only from his iPhone, and only when he could steal time away from Isabelle. He wrote about his lonely childhood. His allergy to cats. His fallen arches. His inability to hold a tune. He lamented his failed ambition, never working as a real aeronautics engineer and settling instead for the job at the Air and Space Museum. How he was sick of restoring old planes and designing the exhibitions those old planes resided in. He told her about Isabelle’s mental instability, the decades of shifting diagnoses. The long line of fired shrinks. He told her about their recent move to a farmhouse. A place he’d hoped would provide Isabelle with peace and a sense of purpose. He told Mariko he wanted to escape.

One afternoon, three weeks in to farm life and barely settled, the weather conspired in Will’s favor. He was grateful for the dismal wetness, the heavy air, the impossibility of outdoor chores. Isabelle would be docile, easily placated. Rain did that to her. If Will’s luck held she would wander around the new house grazing cold fingers on bannisters, across countertops, calling out reminders, “Lovey, let’s not forget the green paint,” or seeking opinions, “Lovey, what do you think we should do about that broken window sash?”

Historically, sunny days were his enemies and rainy days his friends. Isabelle was a hothouse flower when the sun shone, a crazy hybrid rose. Will’s every word caught in her twisted prickly vines, providing food for Isabelle’s misguided thoughts and thorny miscalculations.

He had just sent one of his gushy emails to Mariko. A wash of guilt would likely soak him later that day, the way it did whenever he sent these secret missives. For now Will stared out the door of his newly purchased, structurally decrepit barn and felt relieved.

But hopes for a peaceful day were dashed when Isabelle raced in through the open barn door with blood pouring from her right hand.

“What happened?” he asked. The iPhone slipped easily into the back pocket of his stiff, but functional overalls.

“I was washing a bowl and it shattered,” she wailed.

“Oh Bunny Belle, I’m so sorry,” He stood with his hands turned outward.

Isabelle was tiny. The top of her greying, brittle-brown head barely even with Will’s solar plexus. She thrust her bloody palm under his nose. The metallic odor made him shiver. He grasped her wrist and held the hand further away so he could examine the damage. There were three deep cuts across her palm.

“It just crumbled in my hands. Cut me, goddamn it,” Isabelle snarled. “I hate blood, you know I hate blood, Will.”

An ancient claim, yet Isabelle had purposely cut herself numerous times in the past. Never on her palms though. Always discreetly; the hidden folds of inner thighs, the soft white insides of upper arms.

“I think we should have a doctor look at this,” Will sighed. “You may need stitches.”

Isabelle howled. Incoherent, inconsolable.

“I know, I know.” He could feel her pulse under his thumb. The blood in her wounds was clotting, but with any sudden moves it would ooze again. He tightened his grip in case she started to flail. With his other hand he stroked her hair and when she was less tremulous he leaned towards her. “Poor Bunny,” he cooed.

He calculated risks, estimated travel times, imagined and located car keys, wallets, eyeglasses. All this while covering Isabelle’s blotched tear-salted cheeks with gentle asexual kisses, slowly walking her towards the car, raising her bloody hand higher, above both their hearts.

Post-emergency room visit, Isabelle had once again, stopped paying attention and dropped her bandaged hand into her lap. She slumped forward against her seat belt, forgetting to keep her mutilated palm elevated.

“Keep it upright Bunny,” Will said gently, “Otherwise it wont stop bleeding.”

“Sorry,” she sighed, weakly lifting her forearm. She’d been relentlessly apologetic the entire drive to the hospital, a shivering nervous wreck pacing the ER, and an angry, irrational non-complier in the exam room. Now she was docile. Dull.

“No need to apologize Bunny. We’ll be home in ten minutes.” Will told himself to be patient. Isabelle had had a trauma after all, a legitimate accident. “I’ll make you a nice nest of pillows, and a bolster as a bridge for that arm.”

“Always engineering,” her words slurred, the sedatives having a last hurrah in her bloodstream. “So things work out for me.”

“Yes,” he sighed. “That’s my job.”

“I’m sorry I broke the bowl, Lovey. You brought it all the way from Japan. Just for me.”

He coughed, trying to hide the catch in his breath.

“Irreplaceable?” Isabelle whispered.

“No Bunny,” Will lied profoundly.

“I think it was defective,” Isabelle declared, also a lie. But loud and clear as a bell.

The destruction of Mariko’s bowl caused a different kind of lurch in his stomach, the desire to howl himself. Ai, he thought, repeating the word over and over in his mind. Ai, Ai, Ai.

When they got home he settled her in bed with the promised bolster, covered her up and kissed her on the forehead like a loving parent. Isabelle fell asleep instantly, her eyes restless under closed lids, her lips parted slightly, a tiny sour breath escaping with each sigh. Will left her and went down to the kitchen.

The indigo blue bowl was in shards, scattered at the bottom of the sink in a shallow pool of slimy dishwater. It must have been propelled with impressive force and speed. Will picked each piece out and placed it on the counter. He held them all, lining up the sharp edges, trying to put the bowl back together, but there were too many gaps, too many small slivers missing.

***

While Will’s gushing emails to Mariko were immediately deleted once he sent them, he couldn’t bring himself to erase the ones she sent back. He loved deciphering her phonetically awkward spelling. In June he learned of a childhood friend named Joji, who either lived or had lived in St. Louis. He wasn’t sure which. In July, he learned of Mariko’s desire to see the Grand Canyon and eat an American hot dog, though not necessarily at the same time. Or maybe that was what she wanted; To eat an American hot dog while staring down that beautiful American abyss. In August she was very happy because Joji-chan had returned to Tokyo. Or was returning.

He was certain each note from Mariko held a clue. Will poured over her sweet, stilted missives in the darkness out in the barn, squinting at the screen of his smartphone, paying extra close attention to her sign offs:

Your words fill me with hope and joy.

We are both ready for love.

I await your return with impatience.

***

“Can’t Stewart go this time?” Isabelle moaned, sinking to the kitchen floor, her skirt pooled around her like brown sugar.

“He can’t, Bunny Belle,” Will said, trying to sound disappointed. “He hasn’t lost any weight in the three months the Staggerwing’s been on loan.”

“I could come with you.” Will could see out of the corner of his eye that Isabelle had both hands in her lap, the right one clawing the palm of the left, where red welts reminded them both of the broken bowl.

“Don’t rub like that.” He turned to face her, his own hands covered in sloppy suds. “The skin is still recovering.”

Isabelle dropped her hands to her sides. She gazed up at Will from the wide planked wood floor, her eyes wild and wet. Barely focused. Quivering in their sockets.

“That’s okay. I know it’s hard for you,” he said.

“It’s all hard. Everything. All of it.”

“I know, I know.”

“I don’t think I can stand it. You leaving again.”

“It will be fine. You love this place, right?”

“I love it with you here with me. I don’t know if I love it without you. I don’t think I can do it.”

Will wanted to sink to the floor himself. All nobility and good-natured caretaking was gone. He could leave Isabelle. He would make this second trip to Japan, see Mariko. He would supervise the de-installation of the Staggerwing, something he could do in his sleep. It was easier to take a plane apart than it was to put it together.

Will left Isabelle, again with her sister, and a new prescription.

He got off the plane at Narita and found not only Mariko waiting for him, but her parents as well.

The Hisheguros greeted him with smiles and bows.

“We are all so happy you have returned,” Mariko told him. “My parents want you to share in their recent joy.”

“Okay,” Will said, overwhelmed that he could share anything approaching joy with the Hisheguros.

“I have told them of our communications,” she said. “They know of our connection.”

Will couldn’t speak, so filled with joy himself. Maybe intentions were possible after all.

They piled in to Mariko’s car, the elder Hisheguros insisting on the back seat, joking that “the two tall ones should have the honor of the front.” There was much animated chatter in the car, but not any Will could understand. Mariko looked over at him, and with a hand on his shoulder-in front of her parents no less-she said, “I have a special surprise for you. We will go to my home for you to see.”

When they pulled up to the Hisheguros there was a young man standing outside waiting for them. He ran to open the car door for Will.

“Mr. Andrews,” he bowed.

Mr. Hisheguro slapped Will’s back good-naturedly from the back seat, demanding him to get out, get out! As soon as Will did so the young stranger held out his hand. In impeccable English he said, “I’m Joji Kobayashi. Mariko’s fiancé. I’m totally stoked to finally meet you.”

Dinner at the Hisheguros was excruciating. Will was polite as ever, but he drank too much sake while listening without comment to Joji-chan babble on about his time in St. Louis at Washington University, his love of hot dogs and the Grand Canyon, that “Awesome American Wonder of the World.”

Will returned to his hotel room alone, with a splitting headache brewing. He sat in the ergonomically correct chair, annoyed now by how seductively comfortable and well-designed it was. He reviewed Mariko’s emails on his laptop with Google open, and Japan-Culture Smart! at his side, ready to probe even deeper.

“Chan- an endearment added to the end of a first name.”

Joji-chan, a lover not a friend.

“Ai- With different kanji characters, “ai(藍)” means, “indigo blue.”

Ai- Not love, just color.

For Will, the loveless color of a hospitable gift.

Will could only dig so far. He erased all of Mariko’s emails, every trace.

Will dismantled the Staggerwing in two days, working round the clock side by side with the Tokowozowa crew, adding solo shifts, declining daily dinner invitations from the Hisheguros, claiming false deadlines and pressures. Mariko brought “Joji-chan” to the museum to watch Will work, so proud of her American friend. Will avoided them as best he could, and worked hard to mask his private humiliation. He felt like a caged gorilla in a zoo, a simpleminded creature whose cluelessness landed him in the most woeful of circumstances.

***

“Three days early! You couldn’t bear to be gone from us,” Isabelle joked. “Me and my crazies.”

Will smoothed a loose curl behind her ear.

“Eleanor wasn’t too bad this time. You’ll be glad to know she got me to do a bit of yoga. I think it might be good for me, all that spiritual mumbo-jumbo.”

He nodded.

“It’s good to be back where you belong, isn’t it?”

He nodded again.

“Lovey, you’re so quiet. Are you feeling okay?” Isabelle reached high to place a dry cracked palm on his forehead. “You are a tad warm.”

“It’s just jet-lag. Such a quick back and forth. Hard on this old man’s system.”

“I’ll make us some supper. After some good home cooking you’ll be right as rain.” Isabelle’s full function mode might last a week, a month, two months.

Dishes done, sweet kisses laid on married cheeks, Isabelle went up to bed. Will wandered around his house with the fresh eyes of the newly jaded. His thirst was insatiable. He lurched towards the kitchen. While drinking from the kitchen faucet Will stepped on something sharp. It was a small stab, a splinter, a surprise. Will hobbled over to the couch and turned on the overhead light. He plucked the splinter out of his foot and saw it wasn’t a splinter after all. It was a shard, a sliver of blue. Indigo. Ai.

Photo By: Marie

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About Author

Alice Kaltman is a writer, surfer, and parenting coach. Her novel WAVEHOUSE comes out in August 2016. Alice's stories appear or are forthcoming in 34th Parallel Magazine, Storychord, Luna Luna Magazine,The Stockholm Review, and Joyland, among others. Her articles on Parenting can be found at Family Matters NY, Babble, and A Child Grows in Brooklyn. Alice splits her time between Brooklyn and Montauk, New York.

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