Single, Carefree, Mellow
Single, Carefree, Mellow
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
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First published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate in 2015
First published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC in 2015
Copyright © Katherine Heiny 2015
Katherine Heiny asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material: ‘Once Was Love’, music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson. Courtesy of Cabin 24 Records © 2009.
Selected stories in this work were previously published in the following: ‘The Dive Bar’ in the Saranac Review; ‘How to Give the Wrong Impression’ in The New Yorker; ‘Single, Carefree, Mellow’ in the Chariton Review; ‘Blue Heron Bridge’ in Narrative; ‘That Dance You Do’ in the Saranac Review; ‘Dark Matter’ in the Greensboro Review; ‘Cranberry Relish’ in the Chicago Quarterly Review; ‘Thoughts of a Bridesmaid’ in the Nebraska Review; ‘The Rhett Butlers’ in The Atlantic; ‘Grendel’s Mother’ in the Alaska Quarterly Review; ‘Andorra’ in Ploughshares.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9780008105556
Ebook Edition © January 2015 ISBN: 9780008105563
TO MY MOTHER,
for more reasons than I can count
And you don’t feel you could love me
But I feel you could.
So picture Sasha innocently sitting alone in her apartment on a hot summer afternoon and the phone rings. She answers and a woman says, “This is Anne.”
“Who?” says Sasha.
“I think you know,” Anne says.
“Well, I don’t.” Sasha is not trying to be difficult. She honestly doesn’t know. She is trying to think of possible Annes whose voices she should recognize. Is it someone she missed an appointment with? Is this the owner of that camera she found in a cab last month and kept—
“I’m Carson’s wife,” Anne says.
Sasha says, “Oh!” And even if she sat around from now until eternity saying Oh! every few seconds, she would never be able to inject it with as many layers of significance and wonder again.
“I was thinking we ought to have a drink,” Anne says. And to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Sasha does not know quite what to say. Should she meet her for drinks? Now what should she do? Well, what would you do if your married lover’s wife asked you?
After the phone call, Sasha finds she is too agitated to stay in the apartment, so she calls her roommate, Monique, at work. Monique is just leaving, so they decide that Sasha will walk down Broadway from 106th Street and Monique will walk up Broadway from Thirty-sixth, and they will have a drink in whichever establishment they happen to meet in front of.
Because Sasha is anxious, she walks faster than Monique and they end up meeting in front of a Taco Tico on Sixty-fourth Street, but they cheat slightly and go into an Irish bar next door.
“Wow,” says Monique when Sasha tells her about Anne’s phone call. “That must have been so humiliating for her when you didn’t recognize her name.”
Sasha frowns slightly. Isn’t Monique supposed to be on her side about this? Besides, it wasn’t that she’d forgotten Anne’s name, it was that Carson never used it. Always he said my wife.I have to go, my wife is expecting me. Let me call my wife and tell her I’ll be late.
“And how did she know your name?” Monique asks.
“I guess Carson told her that when he told her about me,” Sasha says.
“So when are you meeting her?”
Monique looks startled. “That’s a long way away.”
“I think so, too,” says Sasha. “But she was all sort of businesslike and obviously flipping through a calendar, saying, ‘Now let’s see when can I fit you in,’ and next Wednesday was evidently the first opening.”
“Do you think she’s planning to murder you?” Monique asks, finishing the last of her beer.
“No, because we’re meeting at a bar on Amsterdam and Ninety-ninth,” Sasha says. “It’s not like she’s luring me to some remote underpass.”
“Not to change the subject,” Monique says, digging into her bag and pulling out a brochure. “But will you come with me to this singles volunteer thing tomorrow? We’re refurbishing a brownstone for a needy family.”
“I thought you were doing that singles grocery night thing,” Sasha says. “On Thursdays.”
“Well, I was until last Thursday!” Monique says, looking all het up. “When I had this long intense talk with a man in the checkout line and it turned out he works for Lambda Legal and was just there because he needed salad stuff.”
“They should limit entrance to the store on those nights,” Sasha says.
“So will you come with me?” Monique says. “Or, unless, I guess, now that Carson has left his wife, maybe you’re not single anymore.”
This sounds vaguely insulting, and more than a little negative, so Sasha says, “I’ll see.”
After meeting Monique, Sasha takes the subway down to Carson’s club, where he’s been staying for the past two weeks. Sasha loves his club—the threadbare stateliness of it, the way the staff flirt with her, the masculine rooms. She doesn’t care if he lives there forever.
She happens to meet Carson in the lobby, where he is collecting his mail, and in the elevator, she tells him about the phone call.
He looks startled. “She called you?”
“Yes, and asked me out for a drink.”
“Well, I don’t think you should go,” Carson says. “She’s not a nice drunk.”
The elevator stops and some other people get on, so Sasha is left to digest this piece of information in silence. Anne is not a nice drunk. She can add this to the only other two details Carson has ever revealed about Anne, which is that she works as an administrator for a nonprofit charity for the homeless and that it drives him crazy the way she never empties the fluff out of the dryer filter. Sasha wonders if it’s some sort of flaw in her character that she was never more curious about Anne. Shouldn’t she have been fascinated, eaten up by jealousy, followed them on marital outings?
Once they get to Carson’s room, she says, “How is she not a nice drunk?”
Carson is flipping through his mail. “She just repeats herself endlessly. But she repeats herself endlessly when she’s sober, too.”
Another piece of information! Maybe Sasha should have been asking questions all along. “But why do you think she wants to meet me? Is she going to murder me?”
“Ha,” says Carson, dumping his mail on the desk. “She might bore you to death, but otherwise you’re pretty safe.”
The fact that Carson finds Anne so boring is slightly shocking to Sasha. It seems to her that Carson is interested in everything. You could tell him a story without one single redeeming feature, like that the man at the bodega gave you Canadian money for change, and he would say, “Really? Which bodega was that?” (This actually happened to Sasha last week and she put the coins in her wallet and keeps accidentally trying to buy stuff with them and being yelled at by street vendors all over Manhattan.) The idea that Carson could be bored by anyone, let alone someone who maybe loves him, is distressing.
“And why did you tell her my name, anyway?” Sasha asks.
“She asked,” Carson says. “The night I told her about the affair. She said, ‘Tell me about her, I want to know about this person who’s so important to you.’”
Sasha says nothing. Carson told his wife about the affair two weeks ago. He said he hadn’t meant to do it, but they were discussing their marriage and she was being all nice and sympathetic and told him he could tell her if there was someone else, that she would understand. Since then, he has said, somewhat cryptically, that her attitude seems to have “undergone a change.” Even just thinking about this, it is hard for Sasha not to shake her head at the universal stupidity of men.
Sasha and Carson go out to dinner, just like a married couple. Well, maybe not a married couple, but a legitimate couple, at least, not caring anymore if anyone sees them. During dinner, he asks about the book Sasha is writing and Sasha is suddenly conscious of being boring. Should she be talking about Syria, or global warming?
It’s only due to Carson that Sasha writes books at all. He was the one who encouraged her when an editor approached her about writing young adult romance novels, who told her, who cares if it’s YA, you’re still making a living by writing, and he was the one who sent her two dozen salmon-colored roses during the weekend in which she had to read two dozen young adult romances so that she could write the next one in the series. (She did it, too, though sometimes she feels she was never the same afterward.) And now Sasha, who never even had much of a job before, has a career, of sorts, and is offered four-book contracts and gets to stay home all day in her pajamas and really loves what she does. Also, Carson has proven exceptionally good at trouble-shooting plot issues. The only person better at it is Monique, but she gets upset if Sasha doesn’t use her ideas, and Carson doesn’t seem to care. He can reel off a dozen possible solutions and doesn’t mind if she rejects them all.
So she tells him that all the characters in this book live on an island and she needs to find a way for all of them to miss the last ferry home, and they discuss that for the rest of dinner.
Then they go back to Carson’s room and get ready for bed, brushing their teeth together (another married couple thing!) and Carson spits in the sink and says, “I’m going to go apartment-hunting tomorrow, and I was hoping you’d come with me.”
“I have to go to this volunteer thing with Monique,” Sasha says, without planning to. “I already promised.”
Sasha and Monique show up at the brownstone for the singles volunteer day, along with about thirty other people. The renovation is being run by a short and short-tempered redheaded man named Willie, who seems ready to shout at any of them with the slightest provocation. Sasha can understand why he’s so grouchy, though: he has to oversee a bunch of volunteers who are all busy checking one another out instead of doing home repair. She almost feels a little sorry for the needy family who is going to move in, picturing the very low standard to which their new home will be refurbished.
Willie assigns them partners of the opposite sex and sets them to work on various tasks. Sasha’s partner is a tall blond guy named Justin and their task is to remove the wallpaper in the living room. Every fifteen minutes, Willie blows a whistle and you can switch if you don’t like your task (or, more likely, your partner, Sasha suspects).
Sasha and Justin mainly ignore each other and get on with their task. Even after the whistle blows four times, they’re still working together. But when they finally take a break and go to the water cooler, Justin looks at her for a moment and Sasha suddenly knows, with an instinct born of long experience, that he is about to tell her that he has a girlfriend or to ask for her phone number. Or both.
And sure enough, Justin says in a low voice, “I have to tell you something. I’m not really single. I just came here because my friend Paul didn’t want to come alone.”
“Me, too,” Sasha says. She hopes they are not going to have some long discussion about their respective relationships.
But Justin doesn’t mention his girlfriend again. He only says, “I’m thinking maybe I should have a singles volunteer day at my apartment. It needs repainting and a whole bunch of other stuff.”
“All my apartment really needs is a new door,” Sasha says. “Or, actually, a new lock, because we left the coffeepot on a few weeks ago and the fire department had to break in and they damaged the lock and if we don’t fix it eventually, the landlord will take it out of our security deposit.”
“So you need to have a singles volunteer thing open only to locksmiths,” Justin says.
“Well, everyone else could just hang out and have a few beers,” Sasha says.
And then she is suddenly aware of trying to charm this man, and stops. Why should she charm him? She doesn’t really like him. Who is he, anyway? He’s not Carson.
When they say good-bye an hour later, Justin introduces his friend Paul to Monique, and maybe in an alternative universe, Paul and Monique would fall in love, but in actuality, Paul only smirks and says, “Yeah, I know you. You’re the one who started painting before we’d primed the walls.”
And Monique bristles and says, “Well, at least I didn’t—”
But they are spared having to hear whatever she didn’t do by the sound of something crashing upstairs, followed by a string of swearing from Willie.
Justin holds out his hand to Sasha. “Maybe I should give you my number in case you have that party,” he says.
“It’s for singles, remember,” she says, but she shakes his hand.
She and Monique walk out into the baking August heat and Sasha thinks, as she always does when phone numbers are exchanged or nearly exchanged, about the time Monique shared a cab home from a party with a man and she wrote I’d love to get together on the back of one of her business cards and slid it in with her half of the cab fare and the man didn’t call her but the cab driver did. It is among Sasha’s fondest memories and she laughs out loud as they walk down the steps of the brownstone.
Sasha and Monique decide it is too hot to go back to their unair-conditioned apartment and so they go downtown and watch two movies in a row and eat a whole big box of popcorn and nearly an entire package of malted milk balls.
Then they walk very slowly uptown in the evening heat and go to the bar across the street from their apartment and start drinking Sea Breezes. After the first Sea Breeze, the man next to Sasha says that the man next to him is some sort of drunk migrant worker and buying everyone drinks. Sasha is fascinated: There are migrant workers in New York City? What exactly does he pick? But the migrant worker, if that’s what he is, doesn’t speak English and only gestures for Sasha and Monique to order more drinks, which they do and which he pays for, and Sasha feels a little bit bad about this but not that much.
After the fifth Sea Breeze (they are keeping track by folding the straws into triangles and poking them into the holes of the drainboard in the bar), a man smiles at Monique and she smiles back and then is swept with the horrifying realization that he’s actually one of the guys who works at Broadway Bagel. So then Sasha and Monique have a long whispered discussion, wondering whether they are snobs for not wanting to socialize with him, and would they feel differently if he was, like, six inches taller, and since she smiled at him will Monique have to talk to him if he comes over, and does this mean they can’t go to Broadway Bagel anymore? (The answer to all these questions, they decide, is probably.)
But after that, things pick up a bit, and they keep drinking and annoy the hell out of everyone by playing “Rescue Me” on the jukebox five times in a row. Then they walk home and Monique throws up in the lobby wastebasket and feels a little bit better, but Sasha doesn’t and has to lie in the whirling pit of her bed with the box fan in the window set on high and blowing on her full blast, which is sort of like lying under the rotor of a Chinook helicopter while it tries to take off in a high altitude, but she’s too drunk to get up and turn it down, and really, it’s just a great day, a great evening. Perfect, in fact.
Oh, there is no limit to the things a real couple can do! They can call each other at any time of the day or night, without a lot of letting the phone ring and hanging up first. They can go out to brunch, which Sasha and Carson do on Sunday morning, as soon as her hangover recedes enough to allow movement. Somehow brunch was never a possibility when they were having an affair—the timing was all wrong. And Sasha doesn’t have to debate endlessly whether to wear her new white crocheted blouse because if Carson doesn’t see it today, he’ll see it tomorrow or the day after.
They can go to a bookstore together, they can wander up Lexington, they can go to Starbucks, they can go back to Carson’s club for aspirin for Sasha’s headache, they can go meet a friend of Carson’s for drinks, and the drinks help Sasha’s hangover even more than the aspirin. The friend they are meeting is a man from Carson’s office, and he is nice enough, although when they are discussing the heat he says, “Imagine living through this without air-conditioning.”
“My apartment doesn’t have air-conditioning,” Sasha says. “Actually, I’ve never lived in an apartment that does.”
The man stares at her for a long moment, and Sasha wonders what he would say if she told him that in addition to not being air-conditioned, it’s an unwritten rule in their building that all the neighbors take turns buying Budweiser for Mrs. Misner in 3C so she doesn’t get all aggressive and shout things at their visitors.
Real couples don’t have to decide whether to have sex or dinner, and after the sex and during the dinner, they can talk about going on vacation together, and Sasha can keep a nightgown and a toothbrush at Carson’s club, whereas previously, anything of hers had to be small enough to fit in a locked drawer at his office. They can spend the night together, they can even spend two nights together. Time, which used to be their most precious commodity, they now have in abundance.
But they don’t spend that second night together. When Carson asks why, Sasha is suddenly too shy to tell him that Monique has a first date with a guy she met at the singles volunteer day, and that Sasha would no more let Monique come home to an empty apartment after a first date than she would leave a small child outside crying in the cold. So she says she needs to look at a manuscript her editor sent and do her pages for the day, which is true, anyway.
So Sasha travels back uptown, sets up her laptop on the kitchen table, turns on the fans, makes herself some iced tea, and begins working.
She is still typing away when Monique bangs into the apartment, slams her bag on the table, and says, “If I were a cat, my ears would be straight back right now.”
This tells Sasha everything she needs to know about the date, and also makes her laugh hard enough to spit iced tea all over the keyboard. She gets up for some paper towels and also to grab them each a beer out of the refrigerator, and she wishes, not for the first time, that life did not have to be a continuous series of eliminations, a constant narrowing of your options, a long series of choices in which you were always unhappy that you couldn’t choose two things at the same time.
On Tuesday night, Sasha and Monique decide to go to the bar where Sasha is supposed to meet Anne and scope it out. It is a shockingly seedy place, even for this high up on Amsterdam Avenue, with decaying wood walls and a dank unpleasant smell.
“Oh, gross,” says Monique as they walk in. “Why do you think she wants to meet here?”
“I don’t know,” says Sasha, but deep down she suspects she does know. Anne must think this bar is Sasha’s counterpart, her equal in some way. She probably asked some of her homeless people where they go (or would go, since homeless people don’t go out for drinks a lot).
“What can I get for you ladies?” the bartender says, startling Sasha because she hadn’t actually seen him until that moment. He is a tall, alarmingly thin man, and standing still in the dim light, he is nearly invisible.
They start toward the bar, but the bartender waves them off, saying, “Sit at the table! I’ll bring your drinks over! What would you like?”
They both ask for Coronas and go sit at the table (there’s only one), which has a scarred top; Monique’s chair has one leg shorter than the others so she has to sit at a slight angle.
“Ew, he’s putting the limes in our beers with his finger!” Monique whispers.
“Oh, it’ll be fine,” Sasha says. “The alcohol will kill the germs.” (Won’t it?)
The bartender walks over eagerly with their drinks. He seems to have a lot of energy for such a skinny, dried-out husk of a person. “There you go, pretty ladies,” he says and then retreats back to the bar, where he watches them. He looks like an animated skeleton.
“So did Carson have any idea why Anne wants to meet you?” Monique asks.
Sasha shakes her head. “He knows nothing about it.”
“Well, clearly she has some sort of agenda,” Monique says, drinking her beer. “It’s just that you don’t know what it is. You’re like Neville Chamberlain going to the Munich Conference.”
“I guess,” says Sasha, whose knowledge of world history is a little vague.
“Maybe she’s going to ask you to give him back,” Monique suggests. “Maybe she’s going to say, ‘I come to you in sisterhood and ask you to return him to me,’ or something.”
“Well, he’s not really mine to return,” Sasha says uncertainly. “And besides, he says that she doesn’t act like she wants to get back together. He says she’s very frosty.”
“Oh, surprise!” Monique says. “He has a yearlong affair with a twenty-six-year-old blonde and his wife is frosty about it!”
Sasha blinks. She wishes she could shake the feeling sometimes that Monique sympathizes with Anne entirely too much.
“So, can I ask why you’re going?” Monique says. “Why didn’t you just tell her it wasn’t a good idea? You could still call and cancel.”
“I don’t know why I agreed,” Sasha says, and at the time of the original phone call it was true. But now she supposes she agreed to go because it was interesting. Life is full of good things—buttered toast, cold beer, compelling books, campfires, Christmas lights, expensive lipstick, the smell of vanilla—and Sasha is by no means immune to them, but how many things are just flat-out interesting? How many things are so fascinating that you can’t stand not to do them? Not many, is Sasha’s opinion.
“Well, what are you going to wear?” Monique asks. “I think you should wear your green blouse and your black pencil skirt.”
Sasha knows that this is what Monique would wear. They are the same height and weight and even have the same hair color, but everything about Monique is sharp angles, including her hair, which is cut in a perfect slant toward her chin. Sasha’s hair is long and unruly and she wears jeans and T-shirts almost all the time. And sometimes when she is finishing writing a book, she wears the same jeans and T-shirt for days on end, for good luck.
“And definitely your Egyptian earrings,” Monique says.
Sasha smiles. “Okay, definitely those.”
The bartender, who by now is really giving Sasha the creeps, does his springy walk again and brings them two more beers. “These are on the house,” he says.
So they drink the beers and Monique notices a sign above the bar for cream of potato soup and says she’d rather shoot herself than eat anything served here, and Sasha says it’s so disturbing that the word potato is in quotes, like maybe it’s not made from real potatoes, and Monique says it almost certainly isn’t, and they discuss the new tailor shop that opened near them and put up a sign saying FOR ALL YOUR TAILORING “NEEDS” and what are those quotes supposed to signify? And they talk for a while about when they moved into their current apartment and one of the movers turned out to be a guy that Sasha had started to give her number to at a bar but at the last minute changed her mind and gave him just a bunch of random digits and how that made moving day so much more hellish than it already was. This actually happened three years ago, but they still discuss it fairly frequently.
Sasha does not know what this kind of conversation is called. It is not small talk, and it is not gossip precisely, nor is it deep and meaningful discussion. Dialogue, meeting, palaver, visit—none of them seem quite right. If there is a term, Sasha is unaware of it. She only knows she never wants to be without it in her life. Never, never, never.
Sasha is twenty minutes late to her meeting with Anne, because she tends to be ten minutes late wherever she goes and also because she spent an extra ten minutes looking for her Egyptian earrings.
So she has to hurry into the bar, feeling sweaty and rumpled, and right away she regrets her visit here last night with Monique because the cadaverous bartender says, “Well, hello, again!” making her sound like a regular.
Anne is sitting at the lone table (is in fact the only person in the bar) and though Sasha supposes it could be some random woman and not Anne, she’s very sure it is.
She hurries over and pulls out the chair opposite Anne. “Sorry I’m late,” she says. “I lost track of time.”
Anne is regarding her coolly. Maybe she doesn’t like the idea of Sasha losing track of time before their big meeting. Finally she says, “You’re younger than I thought but not as pretty.”
Sasha wipes a little moisture from her upper lip. “Well, all my life I’ve wanted to be this cool elegant beauty,” she says, “and in reality I think I’m more a friendly blonde a lot of men have wanted to have sex with. Though that was pretty nice, too.”
If Anne looks shocked by this, it’s no more than Sasha is. (Imagine Neville Chamberlain saying such a thing!) She resolves to think before she speaks again. Although she has no intention of saying so, she thinks that actually the reverse is true of Anne—she is older but prettier than Sasha had imagined. Anne has very pale skin, though to Sasha it looks strangely devoid of pores, and black hair cut in a short bob. Her eyes are pale blue with dark lashes. It’s a Snow White kind of pretty and completely the opposite of Sasha, who has quite a few freckles. Also, Anne is wearing a dark blue suit, with an expensive-looking patterned silk scarf tied around her throat. Sasha can never wear scarves. She always takes them off and stuffs them in her purse after half an hour.
There is a long beat of silence and then Anne says, “Perhaps we should get a bottle of wine.”
“I don’t think they sell it by the bottle here,” Sasha says. “Only by the glass.”
“Two glasses of wine, then,” Anne says.
They both look at the bartender but he is sitting behind the bar, avoiding eye contact, and showing no signs of coming over to them. Evidently that’s something he does only on rare occasions, or for two girls in their twenties.
“I’ll have red wine,” Anne says, as though Sasha is the waitress. Sasha feels a sudden flash of compassion for Carson. Is this what their life together was like?
But she doesn’t really see a point in arguing, so she crosses the bar and orders two glasses of house red from the bartender, who becomes spookily animated again and says, “With pleasure, my lovely!” and Sasha is really starting to wish they’d gone somewhere, anywhere, else.
When she returns to the table with the glasses of wine, Anne says, “I hear you used to be a receptionist and now you’re a writer.” She says this the way someone might say, I hear you used to be a junkie and now you’re a prostitute.
Sasha has a sudden bad-tempered urge to tell Anne how supportive Carson is of her writing, how if she hasn’t finished her pages for the day, he’ll sit in her living room, reading fashion magazines or watching Unsolved Mysteries with Monique, even on nights when they have only an hour or two to spend together.
Perhaps Anne senses her misstep because she says, “I hear you write children’s books,” in a slightly friendlier tone.
Are they not supposed to mention Carson’s name? Why does Anne keep saying I hear as though she and Sasha have some large circle of mutual friends?
“Well, young adult books,” Sasha says. “More for teenagers.” Perhaps Anne thought she illustrated children’s books and was picturing some large friendly girl who dressed like Raggedy Ann and had a sunny outlook.
Then they enter into quite an extraordinary period of conversation, lasting through this glass of wine and the next one (which Sasha also has to go get), during which they discuss publishing, romance writing, and whether or not anyone actually reads poetry anymore. Sasha, who is drinking her wine in big nervous gulps, wonders if she should tell Anne about the time she got very drunk at a publishing party and explained to a famous poet what slant rhyme is. (This is an extremely funny story, but not everyone seems to appreciate it.)
And it is at precisely this point that Anne leans forward slightly and says, “You know, Carson won’t stay with you.”
Sasha blinks. She had almost forgotten who Anne was.
Anne smiles grimly. “He’s just cunt struck, is all.”
The writer in Sasha rushes forward to examine this sentence. Cunt struck. The term is so ugly, yet so arresting, that she almost admires it. Maybe she could use it in a book someday. But the rest of Sasha is cringing. Cunt struck hangs before her like it’s written in an angry black scrawl. Does Anne really think it applies to her, to Carson and her?
“You think you can just take whatever you want, whether it belongs to you or not,” Anne says, and now her voice is shaking. “You’re a home-wrecker, and you have no morals at all.”
Two things occur to Sasha at this instant. One: Having morals is not something she’s ever aspired to. Successful writer, loyal friend, pretty girl; those have been goals, but she can’t say moralperson has ever made the list, and that’s kind of startling to realize. Two (and this possibly should have occurred to her quite a while ago): She doesn’t have to sit here and listen to this. She can leave.
So she does. She pushes back her chair and walks right out of the bar. Does it worry her that she’s left Anne to settle the bill? No. Does it bother her that Anne may be molested or harassed by the world’s scariest bartender? Not at all. Is she even a little concerned that Anne may come out of the bar and not have enough sense to walk toward Broadway instead of Columbus and be murdered for the money in her pocketbook and her pricey scarf? Not one bit. In fact, Sasha feels like right now she herself could walk toward Columbus with impunity. She has no morals, right? The muggers and murderers would see her as one of their own, and stay out of her way.
Sasha walks almost twenty blocks downtown in a sort of daze before she thinks to use her cell phone. She paws through her bag and is relieved to find her phone (suppose she had to go back for it!). Maybe she should be calling Carson right now, but that’s not who she wants to speak to. She calls Monique at work.
“It’s—me,” Sasha says, and her voice breaks so harshly between the two words that it sounds like a badly spliced tape.
“Oh, my God!” Monique says. “How was it? Are you okay? Is she holding you at gunpoint? If you need me to call the police, just say the word leopard in your next sentence.”
Sasha leans against the side of a building. She feels as though the world has come back into focus. “I don’t need you to call the police,” she says. “And if I did, how I am supposed to work the word leopard in unobtrusively?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Monique says. “I was trying to pick a word you wouldn’t say accidentally, like street or bagel. And you just did say leopard.”
“Yes, but I don’t need you to call the police,” Sasha says. “I just need you to meet me somewhere.”
“Okay, all right, just a minute,” Monique says, apparently thinking out loud. “I’ll tell them I’m working from home—hardly anybody’s here anyway. Are you on Broadway? I’ll start walking up.”
Sasha is on Broadway so she keeps walking downtown. She does not want to think about Anne, so she thinks about Monique and the code word leopard some more. They will have to come up with a foolproof one. Monique is right, it should be something that they wouldn’t say accidentally. She wonders what the top ten words they use are, anyway. Let’s think: street, bagel,bar,guy,book,sleep,write,rent,shower,beer are probably all up there. So possibly leopard was a good choice, or maybe zygote or plankton. Sasha and Monique also have a contingency plan in case one of them is ever wanted by the police and has to go on the run. They will meet the first Monday of every month in the Au Bon Pain in Times Square, and exchange money or messages or whatever is needed. They once spent a long and very pleasurable evening working this out, and what Sasha thinks most people don’t realize is that they would actually do this for each other, indefinitely, no question about it.
Sasha looks up and sees Monique down the block, and has that thrill you get from seeing someone familiar on the streets of New York, like looking through a box of old paperbacks at a garage sale and finding a copy of a novel you love. And this time the pleasure is intensified because Sasha is not just running into some random acquaintance. Monique is hurrying straight toward her, a look of concern on her face. Her roommate, who has left work early, and who would have called the police if need be.
She doesn’t need to wonder anymore. Monique is on Sasha’s side, that’s whose.
Now here is something interesting: Sasha doesn’t tell Monique about the term cunt struck but it never occurs to her not to tell Carson. It is the kind of detail that Monique would remember, though she might never bring it up again, where it seems like Carson ignores everything about Sasha that doesn’t fit with his perception of her. She can tell him anything.
She is in Carson’s room at his club, sitting in front of the air conditioner in her nightgown, drinking a very small bottle of whiskey from the minibar, while Carson rubs her feet. She went out for Indian food with Monique and had several more glasses of red wine.
“First, she said I was younger than she thought I’d be but not as pretty,” Sasha says, loudly, because of the air conditioner.
Carson laughs. “Well, you don’t know whether that’s a compliment or an insult,” he says, “because you don’t know the known parameters.”
But Sasha doesn’t want to get drawn into a mathematical discussion. She tells him the rest of it, and when she gets to the cunt struck part, it doesn’t seem so awful to her anymore, not really, but Carson squeezes her foot tightly, almost painfully. She looks at his face and his expression is harder, stonier, than she has ever seen it before. She realizes suddenly that although Carson has said from the beginning that his wife didn’t understand him (you cannot imagine Monique’s scorn at this phrase) it is actually true. Anne does not understand him, or does not understand him well enough, to know that saying what she did would make Carson angry. But Sasha knew, she realizes. That’s why she told him.
Sasha shakes her foot gently so he will release it, which he does and reaches for his own drink.
“Monique said Anne had an agenda,” she says. “And evidently it was to tell me what an awful person I am.”
Carson smiles. Whatever he feels about what Anne said, he’s apparently going to keep to himself. “I like the way you not only tell me what happened to you, you tell me what Monique thinks about it.”
Interestingly, Monique feels almost the opposite about this, and never wants to hear what Carson thinks about anything. Sasha wonders if this makes Carson a nicer person than Monique. Monique would argue that no, someone who cheats on his wife is by definition not a nice person. How would the four of them—Sasha, Monique, Anne, Carson—rank from nicest to least nice? A sudden alcohol-induced yawn makes her jaws ache and Sasha finds she is too tired to worry about it. She gets out of her chair and crawls into the bed.
“Where did you meet her, anyway?” Carson asks, beginning to get undressed.
“Some bar on Amsterdam,” Sasha says, yawning again. “If it had a name, I don’t remember it.”
“I saw an apartment today that I liked,” Carson says. “I have an appointment to see it again on Friday. Will you come look at it?”
Sasha nods, but is not paying attention. She thinks of all the bars and restaurants along Broadway between 106th and Thirty-sixth and how she and Monique have met for dinner or drinks in almost all of them (this could be the reason they never seem to have any money) and she realizes that Anne could have picked one of those places and then Sasha would have felt bad every time she walked past it, and it would have ruined whatever happy memory she had of being there. But instead Anne chose a bar Sasha had never been to, where she wasn’t known, which she didn’t even like. Sasha never has to go there again.
Sasha probably would have slept right through the appointment with the real estate agent on Friday except that Monique called and woke her to say that she’d just talked to the Brooklyn branch of her office. When they were all on the Upper West Side two weeks ago and went drinking and then had slices of Koronet Pizza with her and Sasha, they all got severe food poisoning, with two of them ending up in the hospital.
“But it can’t have been from the pizza,” Sasha says, “because we all bought slices, and you and I didn’t get sick.”
“Exactly!” Monique says. “Apparently we’re immune because we eat there so much.”
“I don’t know whether to be excited or worried,” Sasha says.
“Excited,” Monique says definitively. “We’re like some new super-species!”
After that it’s impossible to go back to sleep, so Sasha gets up and gets dressed and goes to meet Carson and the real estate agent. She’s only fifteen minutes late, which is really only five minutes late for her, but she can see as she approaches that the agent is tense, though Carson looks relaxed.
“Hello,” Sasha says, as she walks up to the building’s entrance, where they are waiting for her.
“You must be Sasha,” the real estate agent says. She’s a woman in her thirties with spiky brown hair and Sasha can tell from her expression that she was expecting Sasha to be different somehow, more sophisticated, maybe. She wonders if that’s going to be her life from now on if she stays with Carson, people expecting her to be something she’s not.
The apartment is on the third floor of a building on East Sixty-seventh Street, directly across from an ice cream store called Peppermint Park. These are both strikes against it because Sasha has always felt she doesn’t belong on the Upper East Side, and besides, how much weight would she gain with an ice cream parlor right across the street?
But she and Carson and the real estate agent go up and tour the apartment, and Sasha decides that the main thing wrong with it is that there’s nothing wrong with it. She and Monique concluded long ago that you’re not really living in New York unless there’s something wildly negative about your apartment, like the one they lived in where the shower was in the kitchen, or the one in the building The New York Times dubbed “the house of horrors” because so many people committed suicide there. In their current apartment, you can roll a marble downhill from the front door to the back of the kitchen.
The real estate agent says, “I know Carson especially liked this place because it has a room for you to write in. It’s just a little hidey-hole, but I think you’ll like it.”
The real estate agent leads her to an extremely small sunny room with a perfectly square window, and just enough space for a desk and a writer. Currently, Sasha has no desk, she has to use the kitchen table after she clears Monique’s breakfast dishes off it, and the only view is across the air shaft into their neighbor’s kitchen. This has never bothered Sasha, though. She does not even know where she is ten minutes after she starts typing.
She walks over and looks out the window of the hidey-hole, wishing that the stupid real estate agent had not called it that because now she doubts she can ever think of it any other way.
Carson comes up behind her and puts his arms around her. “Do you like this room?”
“I love it,” Sasha says. But really, she is thinking that Monique would love it. She would love that Carson chose an apartment with a room for Sasha to write in. Finally, he has done something Monique would approve of and this thought gives Sasha a little stab of sorrow, as sharp as a splinter.
Carson rests his chin on the top of her head and Sasha leans back against him. Across the street, a man and four children have come out of Peppermint Park, and the man is holding four cones and some napkins, while the children jump up and down around him like pigeons around a picnicker.
“They look happy, don’t they?” Carson asks.
“Yes,” Sasha says softly, but she is wondering how anyone else can think they are happy at this particular moment, when she alone knows the meaning of happiness. She holds it right now in the palm of her hand.
You never refer to Boris as your roommate, although of course that’s exactly what he is. You’re actually apartment mates and you only moved in together the way any two friends move in together for the school year, nothing romantic. Probably Boris would be horrified if he knew how you felt. You’re a psych major, you know this is unhealthy, but when you speak of him you always say Boris, or, better yet, This guy I live with. He may be just your roommate but not everyone has to know.
You buy change-of-address cards with a picture on the front, of a bear packing a trunk. You send them to your friends and your parents. After some hesitation, you write “Boris and Gwen” on the back, above the address. After all, he does live here.
You help Boris buy a bed. This is a great activity for you, it’s almost like being engaged. You lie on display beds with him in furniture stores. Toward the end of the day, you are tired and spend longer and longer just resting on the beds.
Boris lies next to you, telling you about the time his sister peed in a display toilet at Sears when she was three. You glance at him sideways. He looks tired, too, although the whites of his eyes are still bright—the kind of eyes you thought only blue-eyed people had, but his eyes are brown.
A salesman approaches, sees you, smiles. He knocks on the frame of the bed with his knuckles. “Well, what do you folks think?” he asks.
Boris turns to you. You ask the salesman about interest rates, delivery fees, assembly charges. You never say, Well, it’s your bed, Boris, in front of the salesman.
When your parents come through town and offer to take you and Boris out to dinner, you accept. But this is risky, this all depends on whether you’ve implied anything to your parents beyond what was on the change-of-address card. You think about it and decide it’s pretty safe, but you spend a great deal of time hoping your father will not ask Boris what his intentions are.
Boris, love of your life, goes to the salad bar three times and doesn’t stick a black olive on each of his fingers, a thing he often does at home. On the way out, he holds your hand. You are the picture of young love. Boris may make the folks’ annual Christmas letter.
You always have boyfriends. You try to get them taller than Boris, but it’s not easy. Sometimes after they pick you up, they roll their shoulders uncomfortably in the elevator and say, “Gwen, I think Boris is going to slash my tires or something, he’s so jealous.”
Snort. “Oh, please,” you say. Later, during a lull in the conversation, you ask casually, “What makes you think Boris is jealous of you?” One of your boyfriends says it’s because Boris found six hundred excuses to come into the living room while you two were drinking wine. Another one says it’s the way Boris shook hands with him. This is interesting. You were still in your bedroom when that happened.
Whatever they answer, you file it away and replay it later in your mind.
You always encourage Boris to ask Dahlia Kosinski out.
When he comes back from his ethics study group and says, “Oh, my God, Dahlia looked so incredibly gorgeous tonight,” you do not say, I heard she almost got kicked out of the ethics class for sleeping with the professor. You say, “I think you should ask her out.”
“Noooo,” Boris says, drawing circles on the kitchen table with his pencil.
“Sure,” you say. “Just pick up the phone.” In fact, you do pick up the phone. You call information and get Dahlia’s number. Say, “Want me to dial?”
Boris shakes his head. “Let’s go get something to eat,” he says. He puts his arms around you and dances you away from the phone. You think that Dahlia Kosinski is probably too tall for Boris’s chin to rest on her head like this.
You didn’t write Dahlia’s phone number down on the scratch pad by the phone when you called information, because you don’t need Boris looking at it and mulling it over when you’re not around. This whole procedure is nerve-racking, but not to worry—he’ll never ask her out, and it’s always, always better to know than to wonder.
In Pigeon Lab, you name your pigeon after him because the two other women who work there name their pigeons after their husbands. You spend a lot of time making fun of Boris when these two women make fun of their husbands. This, as a matter of fact, is not hard to do.
You tell them about how he keeps a flare gun in the trunk of his car. Ask them how many times they think his car is going to break down in the middle of the Mojave Desert or at sea.
You tell them that he has this thing for notebooks. He keeps one in the glove compartment of his car and records all this information in it whenever he fills the gas tank. You say, “I mean, there can be four hundred cars behind us at the gas station, honking, and there’s Boris, frantically scribbling down the number of gallons and the price and everything.”
They are so amused by this that you tell them he has another notebook where he records all the cash he spends. You say, “If he leaves a waitress two dollars, he runs home and writes it down.” You add, “I’m surprised he doesn’t also record the serial numbers.”
Because this last part isn’t even about Boris, it’s about your father, you worry that you are becoming a pathological liar.
You never act jealous in front of Linette, his best friend from undergrad. She spends the day at your apartment on her way to a game she’s going to be in. She plays basketball for some college in California.
She is as tall and slender as you feared and not as coarse and brawny as you wanted. You had hoped she would lope around the apartment, pick you up, and chuck you to Boris, saying, Well, Bo, I guess we could toss a little thing like her right through the hoop.
Actually, Boris and Linette do go play some basketball, and when they come back, you all sit on the couch and drink beer. Linette puts her hand on Boris’s thigh, which is lightly sweating, and you hope it’s just from basketball. You resist the urge to put your hand on his other thigh. You imagine yourself and Linette frantically claiming Boris’s body parts, slapping your hands on his legs, then his arms, then his chest. Only knowing how much pleasure he would get out of this keeps you from doing it.
Instead, you finish your beer in one long swig, anxious to show that you can drink right along with any basketball player, and you rise. You say, “It’s been nice to meet you, Linette, but I have to go, I have a date.” You don’t have boyfriends anymore, just dates.
“Yes,” you say again, “I have to go get ready.” You say this so Linette will believe that you are looking the way you normally look around the house, that you are actually about to go make yourself better-looking. She does not need to know that you’re already wearing a lot of makeup, that this is about as good as it gets.
You pretend you don’t want to kiss him. He calls from a bar on Halloween, too drunk to drive, when you are home studying. You drive to pick him up, wearing sweats and your glasses. You wear your glasses only on nights when you don’t plan to see him.
He sings on the ride home, pulling on your braid. Wonder why he’s in such a good mood. Was Dahlia Kosinski at this bar?
In the kitchen, he drinks your orange juice out of the carton. You say, “Put that back.”
Boris says, “Too late,” and holds the carton upside down to demonstrate. Three drops of orangey water fall on the floor.
“Damn,” you say and throw the sponge on the floor. This is a good indication of how irritable you are, because the floor was already sticky enough to rip your socks off.
“I’m sorry, Gwen,” Boris says. “I’ll go get more tomorrow, I promise.”
“Forget it,” you say, rubbing the sponge around with your toe.
“If you forgive me, I’ll kiss you,” Boris says.
Now you don’t even have to pretend you don’t want to kiss him, because, you have to face it, that was pretty obnoxious.
“Oh, spare me,” you say, and cross your arms over your chest. Boris leans over and kisses you on the eyebrow. Don’t in any way change your posture, but you can close your eyes.
He touches your lips with his tongue. Wonder why you have to suffer this mutant behavior on top of everything else. He must look like someone trying to be the Human Mosquito. Does this even count as a kiss? This is a very good question, and you will spend no small amount of time pondering it.
Boris cuts himself shaving and leaves big drops of blood on the sink. You approach cautiously; it looks as if a small animal had been murdered.
You consider your options. You could point silently but dramatically at the sink when Boris returns. You could leave him an amused but firm note: “Dear Boris, I don’t even want to know what happened in here …” Or you can do nothing and assume that he’ll eventually do something about it. That is probably your best option. But what if he thinks you left it there? What if he thinks you shave your legs in the sink or something? Best to clean it up and not mention it.
This you do, pushing a paper towel around the sink with a spoon.
You take Boris home for Thanksgiving dinner. All goes smoothly except for your grandmother glaring at him after the turkey is carved and announcing, “The one thing I will not tolerate is this living together, and I say that aloud for all the young people to hear.”
Boris looks up from his turkey drumstick like a startled wolf cub, a spot of grease smeared on his cheek.
Later, when you are walking back toward the train station, he says, “What did your grandmother mean by that?”
Hoot. You say, “I don’t know, but the way she said ‘all the young people’ made it sound like there were a whole group of young people, drinking beer or something.”
Boris is not to be distracted. “The thing is,” he says, “we aren’t living together in that way.”
You try not to wince. You do shiver. You take Boris’s hand as he bounds along on his long legs, your signal that he has to either slow down or pull you along. He tucks both your hand and his hand into the pocket of his jacket. You look up at his face out of the corner of your eye. In the cold, you watch him breathe perfect plumes of white that match the sheepskin lining of his jacket. You think how happy you would be if Boris thought you were half as beautiful as you think he is at this moment.
You walk this way for a few minutes. Then he tells you that your hand is sweating, making a lake in his pocket, and gives you his gloves to wear.
You take to going out with Boris for frozen yogurt almost every night at about midnight. You are always the last people in the yogurt place, and the guy who works there closes up around you. Tonight Boris says, “Gwen, you have hot fudge in the corner of your mouth,” and wipes it away, hard, with the ball of his thumb. Wonder if you feel too comfortable with him to truly be in love.
But then he licks the fudge off his thumb and smiles at you, his hair still ruffled from the wind outside. He is the love of your life, no question about it.
For Christmas, you buy Boris a key chain. This is what you had always imagined you would give a boyfriend someday, a key chain with a key to your apartment. Only it’s not exactly a parallel situation with Boris, of course, in that he’s not your boyfriend and he already has a key to your apartment, because he lives there. Okay, you admit it, there are no parallels other than that you are giving him a key chain.
Still, you can tell the guy in the jewelry store anything you like. Go ahead, say it: “This is for my boyfriend, do you think he’ll like it?”
For Christmas, Boris gives you a framed poster of the four major food groups. You amuse yourself by trying to think of one single more unromantic gift he could have given you. You amuse yourself by wondering if you can make this into an anecdote for the women in Pigeon Lab.
When people ask you what Boris gave you for Christmas, you smile shyly and insinuate that you were both too broke to afford much.
The girls in Pigeon Lab have a Valentine’s Day party and invite you and Boris. Probably you shouldn’t show him the invitation, since his name is on it and he might wonder why you and he are invited as a couple. Just say, “Look, I have a party to go to, want to come?”
“Sure,” Boris says, and the best part of the whole thing is that this way you know without asking that he doesn’t have plans with someone else.
You don’t have boyfriends anymore, and these days you don’t even have dates. You tell Boris this is because you have too much work to do, and often on Saturday nights you make a big production of hauling your Psychology of Women textbook out to the sofa and propping it on your lap, even though it hurts your thighs and you never read it.
Instead, you talk to Boris, who is similarly positioned on the other end of the sofa, his feet touching yours. Sometimes he lies with his head in your lap and falls asleep that way. You never get up and leave him; you stay, touching his hair, idly clicking through the channels, watching late-night rodeo.
One night Boris wakes up during the calf roping. “Oh, my God,” he says, watching a calf do a four-legged split, its heavy head wobbling. “This is breaking my heart.”
This thing with Dahlia Kosinski reminds you of a book you read as a child, Good News, Bad News.
The good news is the ethics study group has a party and Boris invites you to go. The bad news is that Dahlia Kosinski is there and she’s beautiful in a careless, sloppy way you know you never will be: shaggy black hair, too much black eyeliner, a leopard-print dress with a stain on the shoulder. You know that her nylons have a big run somewhere and she doesn’t even care. The good news is that Dahlia has heard of you. “Hello,” she says. “Are you Gwen?” The bad news is that she makes some joke about a book she read once called Gwendolyn the Miracle Hen, and Boris laughs. The good news is that Dahlia has what appears to be a very serious boyfriend. The bad news is that they have a fight in the bathroom, so maybe they’re not really in love. The worse news is that in the car on the way home Boris says, “I don’t think Dahlia will ever leave that boyfriend of hers. Everyone I’ve talked to says they’re very serious.” Which means that he’s looked into Dahlia’s love life, he’s made inquiries. Wonder how there can be bad news followed by worse news. Does that ever happen in the book? Bad news: You’re pushed out of an airplane. Worse news: You don’t have a parachute?
Boris tells you that one night he stopped by the frozen yogurt place without you and the guy behind the counter made some sort of pass at him and wanted to know if you were Boris’s girlfriend.
Ask, “What did you tell him?”
“What choice did I have?” Boris says in a tone that crushes you like a grape.
Linette stops by again. This time she spends the night, disappearing into Boris’s room with a six-pack. You hear them laughing in there. Whatever else you do, call someone and go out that night.
When you are in the kitchen the next morning, Boris wanders out. You ask him how he feels. “Tired,” he says. “Linette kept me up all night talking about whether she should go to grad school or not.”
Wonder if he’s telling the truth. Say, “Should she?”
“God, no,” Boris says. “She’s such a birdbrain.”
“Oh,” you say loudly, over the banging of your heart.
You clean the bathroom late one night after Boris has gone to bed. You wear a T-shirt and a pair of Boris’s boxer shorts that you stole out of a bag of stuff he’s been planning to take to the Salvation Army. It gives you immense pleasure to wear these boxer shorts, but you wear them only after he’s gone to bed, and you never sleep in them. You do have some pride.
Your cleaning is ambitious: you wipe the tops of the doors, the inside of the shower curtain; you even unscrew the drain and pull out a hair ball the size of a rat terrier. It is so amazing that you consider taking a picture with your smiling face next to it for size reference, but in the end you just throw it out.
You are standing on the edge of the tub, balancing a bowl of hot, soapy water on your hip and swiping at the shower-curtain rod with a sponge when Boris walks in and says, “Well, hello, Mrs. Clean.”
You smile. He yawns. “Do you need some help?” he says.
You let him hold the bowl of water while you turn your back to him and reach up and run the sponge along the shower-curtain rod.
“I never knew you had to clean those,” Boris says. “I can’t believe it’s one in the morning. I feel like we’re married and this is our first apartment or something.”
Your throat closes. Until this moment you had not thought about the fact that this was your and Boris’s first apartment, that once the lease is up there might not be a second apartment, and you might not see him every day.
“Hey,” says Boris. “You’re wearing my boxer shorts.” He puts the bowl of water on the sink and turns the waistband inside out so he can read the tag. “They are!” he says, delighted.
You freeze. Clear your throat. “Yeah, well,” you say.
Even standing on the edge of the tub, you are only a few inches taller than Boris, and he slides an arm around your waist. He brushes your hair forward over your shoulders and traces a V on your back for a long moment, as though you were a mannequin and he were a fashion designer contemplating some new creation.
Then you feel him kiss the back of your neck above your T-shirt. You remember Halloween and think about saying, Boris, are those your lips? but you don’t. You don’t do anything. You still haven’t moved; your arms are over your head, hands braced against the rod.
“You’re so funny, Gwen,” Boris whispers against your skin.
“Really?” you say. A drop of soapy water lands on your eyelid, soft as cotton, warm as wax. “Me?”
You could sum it up this way: Maya’s dog was dying, and she was planning to leave her boyfriend of five years. On the whole, she felt worse about the dog.
“God, that’s horrible,” said Rhodes, Maya’s boyfriend. “I don’t know if I can stand it. There’s really nothing we can do?”
He was talking about the dog dying, because he didn’t know that part about Maya leaving him yet. Though if he had, he might well have said exactly the same thing. And then Maya would have had to say, No, there’s nothing we can do. It’s like that song: You just can’t be here, now that my heart is gone.
Yesterday morning, Maya’s dog, Bailey, a yellow Labrador, had refused to eat breakfast. This behavior was so extremely out of character (Maya could in fact never remember it having happened before) that both Maya and Rhodes were immediately concerned. Maya made some scrambled eggs for Bailey, and while she was doing that, Rhodes examined Bailey and discovered a marble-size lump in her cheek.
Maya had felt a hot ember of resentment about the fact that Rhodes had found this lump before she did. Bailey was her dog, had been her dog since she was eighteen, had been her dog for exactly twice as long as Rhodes had been her boyfriend. Maya should have been checking for the lump instead of scrambling eggs as a displacement activity. She felt marginally vindicated when Bailey ate the eggs, though, and then she drove Bailey straight over to the veterinary clinic.
The vet had done a biopsy and had called to tell Maya that Bailey had an extremely aggressive form of cancer, and would most likely not live more than six or eight weeks.
Maya hung up with the vet and immediately called Rhodes. Because the problem was, of course, that although sometimes Maya’s heart was gone, sometimes it came back. Sometimes she could actually feel it thump back into her chest so hard it made her rib cage rattle. And then she would have to see Rhodes, would have to put her arms around his thin body and kiss him, even though he was too tall to kiss comfortably, would have to touch his face and brush his hair out of his eyes, and hear his voice, even if he was saying something unbearably boring about computers to somebody else, like, “NFS keeps timing out and locking up my whole system.”
There were times when nothing but Rhodes would do.
That night, Maya and Rhodes had dinner at Rhodes’s parents’ house, which was just across town. They did this about once a week and Maya had always been grateful that she and Rhodes were not required to give up their weekends, just one weeknight. Rhodes’s family was accepting and relaxed, and for the most part, it was easy to be around them. As opposed to her own family, who lived across the country and when they were there for Christmas last year, Rhodes had hugged her mother and her mother had asked if he was drunk (which he had been, incredibly so, but that was not the point).
But today Rhodes’s mother, Hazelene, rushed up to Maya and embraced her so fiercely that Maya wondered if there had been a terrorist attack or natural disaster in the fifteen minutes it had taken her and Rhodes to drive over.
“My dear,” Hazelene said. “You must be devastated. Rhodes called me in tears as soon as you got the news about Bailey.”
“Oh,” said Maya, understanding. “Yes, well, it’s horrible.”
She was a little shocked to learn that Rhodes had called his mother, called her in tears apparently. She tried to think if she would have done this if things were reversed. Rhodes did not have any pets but he did have a lumpen sixteen-year-old sister named Magellan (they all had idiotic names, the whole family; there was a brother named Pegasus). Would Maya have called her own mother in tears if Magellan were given six weeks to live? In all honestly, she wasn’t sure she would have. But then Bailey lived with them (Magellan, thank God, did not) and Bailey loved Rhodes with a devotion, which, in a human, would border on the insane. Whereas Magellan, apart from a brief period of infatuation two years ago when she painted Maya’s fingernails dark blue, did not seem to like Maya all that much.
Like later, during dinner when Rhodes’s father, Desmond, said, “Can someone explain to me who the Jonas Brothers are and why they wear chastity belts?” and Maya attempted to catch Magellan’s eye to exchange a look of commiseration and Magellan said, “Why are you staring at me? Do you want me to pass the butter?”
What could you do with a person like that? Maya was an only child and she had always hoped she would be close to her boyfriend’s sisters, that they would become like her own sisters. And right at that moment, during dinner, she realized that this still might happen. Not with Magellan (obviously) but with some other boyfriend’s sister, the boyfriend after Rhodes. The idea of this filled Maya with a feeling so sparkly, so effervescent, that she could only gaze around the table, wondering why everyone did not sense this about her, why they could not see she was poised for flight.
Maya worked two days a week as a collection management librarian at the university, and the other three days a week, she worked from home as a website designer, mostly for schools and libraries. The director of the library was a man named Gildas-Joseph, who had a very faint French accent and the first glints of silver showing in the hair by his temples. Maya found him wildly attractive, although she knew that if she were actually single and started dating him, she would quickly find something about him highly annoying, most likely the fact of his wife and children.
Maya told Gildas-Joseph that she had to leave early, for personal reasons, and didn’t add that the personal reason was taking Bailey to the vet.
Gildas-Joseph just looked at her with his dark eyes, and said, “Of course, Maya,” and Maya thought again how sexy he was.
She took Bailey to the clinic, and this time they saw a different vet, Dr. Drummond. He was tall, with a short, almost military haircut, and very light blue eyes. Maya found him attractive, too. This was part of why she felt she should leave Rhodes, this business of finding all sorts of other men attractive.
Dr. Drummond sat on the floor, petting Bailey and stroking the unswollen side of her face while Maya said, “She’s not eating very much, and when she does, sometimes her mouth bleeds a little. Also that thing on her cheek looks bigger to me.”
Dr. Drummond gently pried Bailey’s mouth open and shone a light inside. “The tumor is invading her mouth,” he said. He paused. “I think we may be talking about two weeks or so now.”
Maya did not think she would cry but when she tried to talk, her voice was all wobbly. “Two weeks? That’s all?”
Dr. Drummond nodded. “I can give her a shot, a painkiller, but I’d like to see her again in a few days.”
Maya said nothing. Dr. Drummond gave Bailey the shot, which made her whimper, and then he broke a dog biscuit into tiny bits and fed them to her slowly.
Then he glanced at Maya’s face. “Let me walk you to your car,” he said.
Maya went to the receptionist, but was just waved away (evidently when your dog was dying, they billed you later) and she and Dr. Drummond and Bailey walked out to the car. Dr. Drummond helped Bailey climb in and then he stood next to Maya.
“Are you okay to drive?” he asked.
She nodded, and he held her hand. There in the parking lot, he held her hand.
In just a few days, Bailey had gone from an old but healthy dog to a sickly frail animal who panted with the slightest exertion and coughed when she barked. And the tumor in her cheek was now the size of a golf ball and distorting her face. She wouldn’t eat dog food anymore, or even scrambled eggs. Now the only thing she would eat was raw hamburger mixed with bread and milk.
They were out of milk, so in the evening, Maya and Rhodes and Bailey walked down to the convenience store on the corner. Even this walk of two blocks left Bailey wheezing.
“I’ll wait outside with her,” Maya said.
Rhodes went into the store and Bailey flopped down on the sidewalk. A little white fluffy dog was leashed to the bike rack, but Bailey didn’t go over to sniff her.
Maya knew that dog by sight, as well as the dog’s owner, a fiftyish woman, who was presumably in the store. They lived in the neighborhood, and could be seen going for walks and running errands in all sorts of winds and weathers. Maya thought the dog’s owner was probably single because she had never seen the woman with anyone else (or without the dog).
The dog’s owner and Rhodes came out of the convenience store at the same time, and the little white dog danced around happily.
The woman looked at the dog, and said, “I love you.”
She didn’t say it in high, excited dog-speak. She said it exactly the way a woman might say it to her husband or lover. Maya and Rhodes looked at each other.
On the way home, walking slowly, slowly, for Bailey, Rhodes put his arm around Maya and she leaned against his side.
“At least,” she said, “I’ll never become that kind of person now.”
Rhodes was thoughtful. “I wouldn’t mind being that kind of person,” he said.
That was Rhodes. He honestly wouldn’t mind; she would. Did they complement each other or were they doomed? Maya could never figure it out.
Rhodes was gone on Thursday nights, so he could attend the project status review in Arlington for his department on Fridays (he worked with computers, and was an assistant professor, but that was actually as deep as Maya’s knowledge of what he did went). This Thursday, Maya took a bubble bath and put on her blue kimono with the design of flying black gulls.
Then she sat at her computer, and Bailey curled up under the desk, where Maya could bury her bare toes in Bailey’s fur. Maya drank two glasses of red wine and searched iTunes for songs about dying dogs, but all she could find was a track of Grandpa Jones singing “Old Blue.” She downloaded it and put it on continuous repeat on the iPod docking station and sat on the couch, drinking a third glass of wine and stroking Bailey’s head, which rested in her lap.
The doorbell rang, and Bailey made the sad coughing sound that was her bark now. Maya held the top of her kimono closed and went to answer it, still carrying her wineglass.
It was her boss, Gildas-Joseph, holding a heavy-looking nylon bag.
“Hello, Maya,” he said. “I brought the tent we talked about.”
Had they talked about a tent? Yes, she supposed they had. She and Rhodes wanted to go camping.
“Well, thank you so much,” she said. He was obviously waiting for her to take the tent, but Maya didn’t want the top of her robe to fall open, so she had to direct him around in a lady-of-the-manor sort of way, saying, “Just put it there in the corner, please,” and gesturing with the hand that held the wineglass.
Gildas-Joseph put the tent down and then petted Bailey. “How is this old girl?” he said to her. “Hmmm? How are you?”
Maya blinked back tears. She suddenly felt very close to Gildas-Joseph. “Would you like a glass of wine?” she asked.
“I can’t,” Gildas-Joseph said. “My wife and children are in the car.”
His wife and children were in the car! Maya suddenly felt like she’d offered him something illegal, or at least immoral. She reverted back to her regal mode, and said, “Well, thank you for stopping by,” and balancing her wineglass with some difficulty on top of the shoe rack, she shook his hand.
He left and she imagined him getting into the car and saying to his wife, Maya said she was too busy to write the Libri Foundation grant and there she is getting drunk in her bathrobe!
Well, let him say that. Maya found she didn’t care.
She drank the rest of the bottle of wine and most of another and passed out on the couch. When she woke up in the morning, she had a crick in her neck, her tongue felt like it had grown fur, and she thought she might have low-grade brain damage from listening to Grandpa Jones all night. But Bailey was licking her hand, and Maya realized that she did, amazingly, feel a little bit happier.
Hazelene stopped by at lunchtime with two Middle Eastern platters from the deli and a marrowbone from the butcher. She and Maya ate the Middle Eastern platters but Bailey only sniffed the marrowbone and then lay down next to it, thumping her tail against the floor a few times.
“I’m afraid she doesn’t feel up to eating much,” Maya said apologetically. She thought of how Bailey used to devote herself to getting every last bit of marrow out of bones, how she would spend all afternoon maneuvering the bone around with her nose and scraping with her teeth, making that particular clunk-clunk sound of a dog with a bone. Nothing else makes that sound.
But Hazelene was made of sterner stuff. She got a teaspoon from the kitchen and lay down on the carpet next to Bailey and fed her tiny spoonfuls of marrow. “Here you go,” she said softly, encouragingly. “Isn’t that good? Aren’t you a lucky dog?”
When Bailey wouldn’t take any more marrow, Hazelene still lay next to her, stroking her softly. Maya carried everything into the kitchen and threw the teaspoon in the trash because even though it could be put through the dishwasher and sterilized, she did not want to wonder every morning as she ate her yogurt whether she was using a spoon from which a dog with mouth cancer had eaten.
Then she realized that Hazelene and certainly Rhodes himself would feel the opposite. They would be proud to eat yogurt with Bailey’s teaspoon, probably even before it had gone through the dishwasher. This thought made Maya cry (very quietly into a dish towel) because Rhodes, his mother, Bailey—they all deserved someone so much better.
Dr. Drummond called while Maya was in the shower, and left a message, saying he was calling to see how she and Bailey were. Maya knew that Dr. Drummond did not call all his clients and ask after their well-being, and part of her found this message meaningful and flattering, and part of her just felt impatient. She wanted to call him back and say, Look, my dog is dying and my relationship may be ending, so if you want to get involved with me, let’s just tell each other our stories and see how we go.
Because Maya had a theory that everyone had a story that somehow defined them, both the good and the bad, and that these stories should be shared early on in relationships. If the other person appreciated the story, that meant you could proceed with the relationship, and if the other person failed to understand the depth of the story, or were judgmental, then there was basically no point in further contact. She thought of them as litmus-test stories.
Maya’s own such story was that when she was twenty, she had an affair with an overweight economics professor and the one time they had sex with him on top, he was so heavy he actually bruised one of Maya’s ribs and when she cried, “Wait! Stop! I think you just broke my rib,” the economics professor said, “I haven’t finished yet.”
It was a short anecdote, but Maya found it rich in nuance and meaning. She had once told this to a man she was dating and the man had attempted to explain the story to her, saying, “What he meant was—” and Maya had nearly shouted, “I know what he meant! It’s the fact that he said it!” (Needless to say, she never saw that man again, and she never saw the economics professor again either, outside of class.)
Rhodes’s litmus-test story, which he had told Maya about six weeks into their relationship, was that in high school, his friend Vince Brandigan had slept over and the next morning while Rhodes was in the shower, Hazelene had come up to the bedroom to see what they wanted for breakfast. When she knocked, Vince had shouted “Come in!” and when she opened the door, he was on the bed, masturbating, and obviously had been waiting for her. And although Hazelene had requested after this that Vince no longer visit, Rhodes remained friends with him through most of high school, and had in fact only stopped being friends with him after Vince made the football team and they didn’t have much in common anymore. (A fascinating addendum to this story was that Vince was not only Rhodes’s friend but a neighbor and his parents still lived about four blocks away from Rhodes’s parents. Vince himself presumably still came home to visit his parents, but sadly Maya had never seen him even though she made Rhodes drive slowly past the Brandigans’ house near major holidays.)
Really, this story said everything about Rhodes, didn’t it? Why Maya might want to leave him, why she might stay forever. And actually it also said quite a bit about Hazelene, and made it literally impossible to think about anything else when you saw her after you heard it the first time.
Maya had her recurring nightmare about marrying Rhodes, the one that made her wake up, gasping and panicky. Nothing would calm her except to wake Rhodes, who didn’t mind. He didn’t need much sleep and he said he liked being awake in the middle of the night.
So she shook Rhodes’s shoulder, and said, “I had a bad dream.”
“Again?” Rhodes said sleepily. He never asked what her bad dreams were about, which was just as well.
But he came around quickly and made them cups of tea and they sat up in bed and watched Jeopardy! on the television. At one point Alex Trebek said that the three occupations who did best on the show were lawyers, teachers, and librarians.
“Hey, maybe that’ll be me someday,” Maya said.
“You!” Rhodes hooted. “I can hear you now. ‘I’ll take Curling Irons for four hundred, Yeast Infections for a thousand.’”
Maya laughed and they put the TV on mute and discussed her potential top Jeopardy! categories, which also included Scented Candles, Stephen King, True Crime, and Naps, with a daily double of Famous Women Scientists (that last one was a bit of a surprise, but she had once designed a website for the Women in Science wing of a museum).
By then Maya was calm again, and she and Rhodes made love, and Maya slid back under the covers while Rhodes got up and worked on his laptop. She felt happy, and secure, and relaxed. It was somewhat counterintuitive, considering her dream. But Maya had never really, consistently, thought her relationship with Rhodes made the least bit of sense at all.
Maya took Bailey back to Dr. Drummond, because Bailey would eat nothing now but a mush made of bread and milk, and the tumor in her cheek was almost the size of a grapefruit. Maya sometimes thought she could actually see it getting bigger.
Dr. Drummond sat on the floor with Bailey again and opened her mouth to look in with his light. Bailey struggled, so Maya sat on the floor, too, and helped hold her still.
Dr. Drummond examined Bailey’s mouth for a long time. Then he snapped off the light and looked at Maya. “The tumor is obstructing her throat now,” he said. “She can’t swallow very well and soon she’ll have trouble breathing.”
Maya tightened her grip on Bailey’s collar.
“I think in the next day or two, it will be time,” Dr. Drummond said.
“Time!” Maya said. Her voice squeaked. “But I thought you said two weeks! Before that they said six weeks!”
“I know,” Dr. Drummond said quietly. He didn’t seem to mind her blaming him. “It’s more aggressive than we thought.”
“But forty-eight hours …,” Maya began. It was such a short time. She wanted to argue him out of it.
“Think about it,” Dr. Drummond said gently. He put his hand between her shoulder blades and let it rest there. “Tomorrow or the next day. After that we’re into the weekend, and she won’t make it through until next Monday. I know you don’t want Bailey to suffer. I can come to your house and do it there, if you think Bailey would like that better.”
Maya nodded because she didn’t trust herself to speak.
Dr. Drummond gave Bailey another painkiller shot and some sort of very soft dog biscuit. He told Maya to call when she’d made a decision, and offered to walk her to her car again, but Maya shook her head.
She went out to her car and helped Bailey into the passenger seat. Then Maya got in on the driver’s side, but she did not start the car right away. She was thinking that someday, possibly very soon, she would be a single, carefree, mellow, dogless person, able to date full professors and vets and whomever else she wanted. She wished this thought made her happy. She wished she could feel anything other than the purest, most leaden, darkest gray kind of sorrow.
That night, Rhodes’s parents and Magellan brought over a homemade lasagna, some salad, and a bottle of wine. “I figured you probably didn’t feel up to cooking much,” Hazelene said.
Maya looked at the food, and then at their expectant faces. “You should join us.”
Rhodes was walking through the kitchen, and he stopped, scratching his stomach beneath his T-shirt. “Doesn’t it, like, counteract the helpfulness of bringing us dinner if you stay to eat it?” he asked. Rhodes said this kind of wildly negative thing in front of his parents all the time, which they either didn’t get or were used to by now.
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