In 1959, Vivian Bell, a 35-year-old English professor at Columbia University in New York City, travels to Reno to establish residency in Nevada (a process that takes six weeks), in order to obtain a quick divorce. She stays at a guest house ranch for women who are waiting for their divorces to be finalized. The ranch is owned by Frances Parker.
Soon after her arrival in Reno, Vivian meets Cay Rivers, a young, free-spirited sculptor. Frances was the longtime mistress of Cay's late father, Glenn, and raised Cay after her biological mother (Glenn's wife) abandoned her. Cay is employed as a change operator at a casino in Reno, and is ending a relationship with Darrell, her controlling boss, saying that she was "attracted to his attraction" to her. When Vivian arrives, Cay takes an immediate interest in her; the proper, elegant Vivian is taken aback by Cay's lack of concern for what others think of her, as Cay has had relationships with women in the past. Frances, dismayed by Cay's lesbianism but frightened by the possibility of Cay leaving her alone, becomes resentful as Cay and Vivian grow closer.
After they attend an engagement party for Silver, Cay's best friend and co-worker, Cay takes a mildly inebriated Vivian to see Pyramid Lake at twilight and kisses her. Vivian returns the kiss passionately, but then becomes apprehensive and asks Cay to take her home. When they return to the ranch early the next morning, Frances angrily kicks Vivian out and accuses her of seducing Cay. Deeply hurt, Cay leaves the ranch immediately as Vivian transfers to a hotel near the casino for the rest of her stay.
Later, Cay arrives at Vivian's hotel room, where they initially clash but ultimately consummate their love after Cay removes her clothes and invites Vivian to bed. With the impending finalization of Vivian's divorce, the two struggle with the future of their relationship. At Silver's wedding, Cay attempts to reconcile with Frances, stating that Vivian "just reached in and put a string of lights around my heart," directly quoting Frances's own description of how she fell in love with Glenn.
After Vivian's divorce has become finalized, she packs up and boards a train to return to New York City. Cay still refuses to commit to leaving Nevada, but boards the train at the last minute as it begins to move away, agreeing to accompany Vivian until they reach the next station.
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