Joyland

New York |

You Said “Always”

by Ester Bloom

edited by Emily Schultz

From the in-progress novel The Sex Lives of Other People​

“People don’t save people, Annie,” he says. It is the morning after and Alex is being gentle but firm with me, like he has been watching reruns of The Dog Whisperer on cable. I hate when he talks to me like that, like Cesar Millan. It is one of the many things I hate about him, along with the side part in his hair, the way he burps unapologetically, his under-tipping at restaurants, and nothing at all for baristas, like his coffee simply materializes because he rubbed two coins together.

“Who’s asking anyone to save anyone?”

I am standing on the doorstep of his century-old, Upper East Side co-op, poised to leave. Twelve hours ago, under the full moon of a streetlight, as an ambulance wailed down Seventy-Second Street and a dog on the curb wrestled with its own tail, I showed up on this doorstep, a clean pair of panties in my purse, pushing his buzzer and risking my pride. I knew that anyone could have been up there with him. Anyone. A student, his ex-wife, two underwear models and a euphonium, a whole marching band in various states of undress. I wouldn’t be surprised. I like that he likes sex, and I’m not sentimental about who he has it with. But nobody likes to be de trop.

Alex’s voice wafted through the speaker, a garbled but positive enough, “Hello?” In return, I made sure to sound cheerful and familiar, even as I blurred my name, like you do on the icing of your birthday cake for good luck. He buzzed me in, and we spent the night together, barely talking. I tried to focus on the good parts: he keeps extra bathrobes, soft warm ones, on the back of the bathroom door for guests; he is generous with alcohol and compliments; he knows how to use his hands. I think I love him, or at least he is the last man I fell in love with, and it comes down to more or less the same thing.

Now we are saying goodbye, or rather I am saying goodbye, and he is being cryptic. A few drops of real sadness dilute his voice, and rain, by the way, is falling on me, rather than on an umbrella, because I didn’t bring one. My sister Nona says this is my cardinal fault, that I never think far enough ahead to bring umbrellas or make reservations or sleep with the sort of person with whom I could grow old.

My hair is wet from his shower and now the cold, businesslike rain. I am confused by what is happening and why. I try to listen, because Alex is talking again, slowly, patiently. 

“I’m just saying,” he says, “you need to have your own life. You need to save yourself. That’s how it works in the real world.”

It is all I can do not to roll my eyes. This man pulls down $300,000 a year, in addition to the interest from his trust fund. That might not be rich-rich, but it is certainly rich enough, richer than I am, and I do all right. He sleeps on Egyptian cotton sheets that someone else washes for him. He buys art.

I think about taking a step forward into the vestibule so that we can actually have this conversation, but I don’t think I can stomach it. It seems abstract, and I need at least one more shot of espresso before I can handle pseudo-philosophy in the morning. While I’m making up my mind, he starts moving one of his hands in the air between us, disturbing clouds of smoke that aren’t there.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “Forget it.”

“No,” I say. “It’s okay.” I always say that when I mean the opposite. Then, because why not, I add, “But you should be honest with yourself too. You want to save somebody. Everybody does.”

“Annie,” he says.

“No, really. It’s okay. I don’t do it for you. I’m not your particular cup of, of … damsel-in-distress. Fine. Whatever. Don’t pretend you don’t want to be somebody’s hero.”

“I really don’t.”

“All right,” I say, shrugging. He is lying to both of us. My eyes start to burn with indignation. I do not want to cry in front of him. Tears would be a third kind of wet.

This all started because I had a weepy moment when I woke up next to him, and he asked me what was wrong, and I mentioned Chase and the divorce. He acted sympathetic then, and we still had breakfast together, but I know that my admission is what is behind this scene here in the doorway. Feelings make Alex uncomfortable. If ordinary people have the 36 Crayola crayon box of emotions, he only has the most basic eight-color set. More complicated or subtle shades are beyond his comprehension. I, meanwhile, have the 64-color set at least. Most women do. Apparently my getting the sniffles about my divorce from my husband in a post-coital conversation with my boyfriend is me drawing in Burnt Umber when Alex can only understand Brown. 

I turn to leave. Behind me, perhaps recollecting that we have been seeing each other for months and I deserve some sort of parting gift, Alex says, “Here.” He grabs a violet umbrella from the stand, tall enough to be a cane, its wood-colored handle slick. For a second I almost laugh, because what he is handing me is clearly some other cast-off woman’s cast-off umbrella, and he does not seem to realize, or to see the irony. His face shows only the single serving of sympathy he has allotted me. It is a distinguished face, though I would swear that his hairline has inched back and his nose poked forward even in the months since we met. Men get older too, though sometimes that’s easy to forget.

“I’ll call you,” he says.

He will not. When Alex is done with something, he is done with it. I will miss his nose. His nose has heft to it, substance, it anchors his face. In my family, noses are hills, not mountains. I think of leaving the umbrella, but that will not help the previous cast-off, nor will it help me. Instead I merge into the irritable, wet busyness of the city, holding tight to the slick fake-wood handle and opening up my own small violet sky.

*

Seven soggy minutes later, I enter the carefully curated world of my apartment building, muting the city’s tantrum behind me with a slap of the door. I cannot believe Alex and I are over, just like that, with so little ceremony or warning. Water rushes off of me, not onto the black-and-white tile of the lobby floor, but onto the dark rug Oscar the super has thoughtfully laid out over it so that we residents, with our delicate ankles and even more delicate shoes, do not slip.

I ride the jewelry box of an elevator alone, glad I do not have to commiserate with anyone about the weather. The sight of my door soothes me, reminds me that I have made it home. I lay the umbrella by my welcome mat (“Awasiwi Odinak: Far from the things of man,” an ironic gift from my friend Luke, who is now shacked up in the country with my other friend Ian) and, as soon as I close the door behind me, I realize that what I need to do is change out of yesterday’s clothes, now thoroughly damp, and slip on a sundress. That will make me feel better about life.

By the time I have showered and changed and am sitting at my cute vintage Formica kitchen table, browsing through the mail without feeling the need to open a single envelope, I am distinctly more serene. The thing to do, when your boyfriend rejects you, is to get back together with your husband. It is pretty simple, really, especially if you still love your husband and have no idea why he took the matching suitcases you bought together for your trip to Costa Rica and left you in the first place.

I put on some coffee and call Chase. He picks up on the second ring.

“Hi, honey,” I say. 

 “Oh,” he says.  His voice sounds weary, as though the sight of my phone number on the screen is enough to exhaust him. “Hi. Hang on, let me shut the door.”

Never call men, my mother told me when I was a teenager. They hate answering the phone and hearing a woman’s voice. Any woman, doesn’t matter.

But why? I asked.

Most men don’t like women very much, she said, and left the subject there.

“I picked up your pills,” I say, shaking my mother’s voice out of my head. “Yesterday, on my way home. I had to get a new razor anyway from the drug store so I figured, why not?”

“Thanks,” he says. “Maybe I’ll come by later if you’re out.”

“You don’t have to wait until I’m out.”

“I’d prefer to.”

After a moment of silence, I say, “All right! Your choice. How’s work?”

“Crazy,” he says. “Deadlines. How are you?”

“Oh, fine,” I say, since I can tell from his voice that he doesn’t really care. His flatness urges me on, makes me try harder. “I wanted to know if maybe you wanted to have dinner.”

“I can’t tonight.”

“Not necessarily tonight.”

“When, then, Annie?”

There is nothing sadder than talking to a man who has grown tired of you, a man who used to love you and who is now giving you about fifteen percent of his attention and begrudging you even that much. How did I lose him? What happened? Tears creep up behind my eyes again like guerilla fighters. I blink them away, smooth my coral-colored dress down over my legs, try to smile.

“I don’t have a plan. I just wanted to know if you were free sometime. I don’t want us to devolve into lawyers and schedules and business calls. I want us to have dinner, like people.”

“When you’re getting divorced, you’re not ‘people’ anymore.”

“I don’t think that’s true!”

“Well, it is,” he says. “I’m sorry. I can’t just have dinner and pretend everything’s fine—”

“We don’t have to pretend—”

“I can’t do it, Annie,” he repeats, his voice rising. “Don’t you get it? Is it not obvious to you? I can’t.”

We both pause. I pick at a spot on my thumbnail where the polish has begun to chip. I miss you, I think, but I cannot say that, even though it’s true. He will only get angrier.

“I have to go,” he says. “I have deadlines. Will you be out around 6:00?”

“Sure,” I say.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll swing by at 6:00.”

I sip my coffee, then walk to the sink and lower the mug into its depths. From the capacious, nearly empty fridge, I pull out a bottle of white wine.

*

Garrett hated when I drank, Garrett Weiss, my first husband. He frowned on substances in general, for either of us, since they made him feel out of control. Of course he was out of control, everyone is, but he preferred the illusion of a stable floor to the reality that we spend our lives trying to make our way across a skating rink without skates, and substances stripped him of that, left him panicking as the ice seeped into his socks.

At any rate, neither the insecurity nor the obsessive need to retain some semblance of control helped him: I met Chase while Garrett and I were still technically together, though at that point we had grown so far apart you could have built a house between us. Part of the problem was that I never knew the right questions to ask Garrett and he did not offer a lot of direction or assistance. If what I asked was dumb, or seemed dumb to him, he would look at the wall behind me and pretend I had not spoken. Once I met Chase I realized that another part of the problem was that Garrett barely asked me anything. To be fair, I chattered so much that he had no need to, but still, it would have been nice not to have to volunteer every opinion or fact about myself I thought he should know. Chase asked me questions all the time and I had never felt so flattered. He also bought me exotic cheeses tied up in ribbon, which, even though I am lactose intolerant, I found charming.

Chase is the man I think of as my real husband, though that might not be fair to Garrett. Garrett and I got married at twenty-four because we had been dating since junior year of college, and he had gotten a job in Chicago. He wanted me to come live in the city with him. “It’ll be more official this way,” he said. Compared to the other guys his age in our college town, the fact that he was so practical and serious made him seem like a grown up, especially in combination with his other attributes, like his disinterest in drinking to excess or watching cartoons. My father lived with my mom, my sister, and me for fifteen years and kept one eye on the door the whole time. The idea of someone reliable, even a little boring, seemed okay by me if it meant he would stay put.

Garrett let me go. I knew I had hurt him after I told him about Chase, I knew I had driven a stake through the most vulnerable part of him, and still, my whole body tingled for Chase, for the satisfaction of sleeping with a man who would welcome my initiating sex and who could laugh afterwards about the ridiculous things that sometimes happen, a man who rendered me so addled with lust I couldn’t be bothered with much else at the time. Certainly I couldn’t be bothered with Garrett’s feelings, not when he kept those feelings tamped down and stored away like compost. Yes, it was selfish. But Garrett and I were young, still virtually kids ourselves, and we did not have kids of our own. We had spent nothing on our city hall wedding: the amount folded into my father’s signed but otherwise blank Hallmark card, which he sent in lieu of coming, about covered it. I figured we could chalk the first marriage up to a youthful learning experience and not have much to regret.

For a while, Chase and I were as happy as any married couple we knew. But long before I started seeing Alex some months ago, I knew something was wrong. In fact, I started seeing Alex because I knew something was wrong, though Chase would not tell me what or why, no matter how many times I asked. Chase had stopped addressing questions to me by then, while his answers to my questions tended to be curt. He politely acquiesced to sex, or, under the right set of circumstances, politely invited it. But it had been ages since he bought me so much as a block of cheddar.

*

My sister Nona calls me while I am on my second glass of Pinot Gris, browsing airfares to Eugene and Portland, Oregon, from the computer in our home office. Twenty blocks downtown, in a fancy chrome-and-cream loft, Nona is making her baby daughter a breakfast smoothie. I can hear the contemptuous grunt of her $200 Japanese chef’s knife on the cutting board, punctuating the conversation like a third party.

“How are you?” she asks.

“Pretty rotten,” I say. “How are you?”

Huh! says the knife on the cutting board.

“Terrible,” she says. “I have a brunch today that I’ve had on the calendar for a month, but the babysitter had to cancel at the last minute, something about one of her classes, and now I have to cancel because God forbid Francis has to miss a squash game. He’s not even good at squash!”

“Have you asked him?”

“Annie, when you sleep next to a man every night of your life, you don’t have to ask things like that. You just know. I mean, maybe he’d say yes, but he’d be resentful, and pout all day, and mutter things about how I don’t understand, because I don’t ‘work’ during the week, and how it’s really hard for him to get exercise, and he doesn’t want to keel over like Caleb Whitestone did the other day on his boat, dead of a heart attack at forty-three, before he’d even gone gray … I’m getting a headache just thinking about it.”

This I can relate to. I am getting a headache too. I wonder if I should tell Nona about Alex. She never liked that I was having an affair. She thought it was cowardly of me to avoid my unhappiness by taking up with a boyfriend instead of continuing to work on getting answers from my husband. But I asked Chase, God knows I asked him, and I still do not understand what changed. If I knew, maybe I could fix it. Maybe there is nothing to know. Maybe Chase does not even know himself. When a peace shatters, is there ever just one cause, really? Do men simply fall out of love like autumn trees go red? Of course Nona is right. In what felt like a desperate situation, I made a cowardly choice: rather than be alone, I chose to be held.

The choice happened when Chase left me balanced precariously on what felt like a high and public ledge. It was at a crowded literary party, buoyant with smoke and gossip and self-satisfaction, and Chase’s anger touched down like a tornado; he shouted at me in front of a bemused crowd in the living room and whirled out. I stood there in the center of that party, teetering on my too-high heels, sunburned with shame and the heat of so many eyes on me, until Alex stepped forward and suggested we get out of there. He took me back to his place, and I was glad to go, to muffle my embarrassment in a faked orgasm in a king-sized bed, but I would have agreed to swim to Long Island had he suggested that, so grateful was I to have someone extend a hand when my fingers were flexing against the empty air.

Though Nona will be glad the fling with Alex is over, she is hardly likely to sympathize. You never plan ahead, she will say. What did you think would happen? On the other hand, she is my only sibling, and my heart feels pummeled, and if you can’t turn to your sister when you feel like butcher meat, what good are sisters at all?

“Nona,” I say. “We broke up. Alex and me. It’s over.”

“Oh,” she says, sounding off-balance. The knife hovers silently in the background. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

After a second’s hesitation I ask Nona if she wants to come with me on an impromptu trip across the country. I understand that she will probably say no, citing her responsibilities to her family, especially because saying No is how she seems to define maturity these days. Sometimes the word No by itself fails to satisfy her and she adds, Not everyone can just do whatever they want to whenever they want to, Annie.

“I’ve been pricing out plane tickets,” I say. “To visit Aunt Josie. They are pretty cheap right now, actually, but they get pricey in mid-May and they stay high all summer.”

“Well, sure. Who wants to go to Oregon in April?”

“We do! Spur of the moment. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Huh! says the knife.

“Have you even talked to Aunt Josie?” says Nona. “Do you know if she wants guests?”

“She’s always happy to see us,” I say, my determination to sound upbeat scraping my throat. “She’s always asking us to come visit more.”

“She’s lonely. She doesn’t have anyone,” says Nona bluntly, echoed by the knife’s huh! “Well, you should call. I can’t go now. I can’t. But if she’s amenable, maybe we can try to plan something for September or October.”

“Really?”

“Maybe. I do need a break. It’s been forever since I had some time to myself. But I would need to plan it, okay? I would need the time to pull everything together and make sure everything would be okay here without me.”

“Okay!” I say, so happy I could kiss the receiver. I hang up before Nona, repulsed by my excitement, can reconsider.

*

“Darling!” says Aunt Josie, when I reach her on the phone. “I can’t talk right now because my friend Dawnne is picking me up in just a second and we’re going to go shopping. You remember I told you about Dawnne, with two Ns and an E? We were in that Pink Ladies living wage protest together last summer? Oh, it’s so good to hear your voice! How are you?”

“Okay!” I say. The bottle of Pinot Gris sitting by the computer monitor, I notice, is empty. By contrast, the inside of my head feels full of pleasantly sloshing liquid. I have not yet found my hidden For These Situations cigarettes, for which I have been pawing through desk drawers, but I have not given up, either, since the nicotine will help me focus and I have been craving a cigarette to go with my confused state of affairs since the conversation in Alex’s doorway. (Ha! Affairs.)

“How are you, Aunt Josie?”

“Terrific. Can I call you back this evening?”

“Of course, whenever’s convenient.”

"Bye-bye, darling. So good to hear your voice.”

“Bye!”

I hang up still smiling. That Aunt Josie sounds happy is such a novelty. The people I spend time with are too busy to be happy, too serious, too stressed, though Chase and I were happy once upon a time. I would like to find my cigarettes. I would also like more wine. There is another bottle of white in the wine rack that I keep for when I am on my way to a party and do not have time to get a better gift for the hostess. It is not chilled and not open. Okay, here is the bargain: If the wine is a Pinot of some sort, and from the last few years, if I can find the corkscrew with reasonable speed and without destroying the kitchen, and if neither Alex nor Chase has called by the time I gather some ice, I will have a glass. Just one. Also I should probably eat something, even though food does not seem appealing and I do not have much of it around, at least not in any form that is ready-to-eat. Where are those cigarettes?

I pull open another drawer and come face to face with myself, my last contributor’s copy of mid-February’s New York Magazine. Until recently, I wrote a recurring feature for the magazine called “The Sex Lives of Other People.” I don’t mean to brag, but it was good. Certainly it was, by far, the most popular thing I have ever done. Every two weeks, I interviewed stars and starlets, as well as writers, directors, artists, even the occasional politician with a sense of humor, about their past, or, if they were brave, their present sex lives. My interviewees often approached the subject of sex abstractly or told self-deprecating stories about puberty. Some were bawdy and frank about more recent entanglements, though they withheld names and were coy with identifying details. The best stories used sex as a lens through which to explore the vagaries of contemporary society as a whole, and when those columns ran, I felt proud of myself, sure that I was creating something valuable, something more than another trendy Sex and the City knockoff.

It would never have won me a Pulitzer, but the column usually ran as the Most Viewed piece on the New York Magazine website and was considered required reading by the kind of reporters who might themselves, one day, win Pulitzers. My old journalism professors from Northwestern who reached out to me offered nothing but praise. Most importantly, I loved doing it. So why did I quit? Neither Chase nor Alex was thrilled by the column. It was Alex, though, who talked me into giving it up. Wasn’t it getting repetitive, he asked me. After all, I didn’t particularly need the job. Wasn’t I bored? Wasn’t I coasting? Didn’t I feel compelled to try something more serious, more real, more of a challenge? His questions worked on me like water, wearing me away. 

I gave up smoking when I quit the column, the same day. It seemed synergistic at the time, an opportunity to make better, more mature choices. Without cigarettes or the lowbrow pleasures of talking to and writing about the intimate details of famous people’s lives, perhaps I could embark on a healthier kind of existence altogether. Take up yoga! Jog in the park! Alex does both of course, with more energy now than ever, since his new therapist has him on a self-improvement kick. Perhaps I felt his attention waning and these overtures were intended to impress him. In any event, it seems laughable now. I quit the column, quit my favorite addiction, and what did I gain? My sports bras remain tangled in a clump in the back of my underwear drawer and all I have exercised is my capacity for anxiety and regret. Had I thought myself irreplaceable? My editor frowned at me when I told her I was going to leave, gave me an opportunity to change my mind, and then shrugged and handed the column over to a twenty-eight-year-old, a size-two UVA grad who will move on only when she gets an offer to work for the New York Times

“The Sex Lives of Other People” by Casey Laughlin is as popular now as it was when it was “The Sex Lives of Other People” by Annie Wilson Platt. Meanwhile Annie Wilson Platt has not so much as written a story idea in weeks.

The For These Situation box of Dunhills is there too, under the magazine. I pick it up and flick the lid open, then shut. What I would really like, I realize, is to get so stoned I forget my own name and wake up three days later in a haze, surrounded by empty pints of Häagen-Dazs and back issues of Consumer Reports, the way I did junior year of high school. That was the last time I recall being dumped: by George Ulicny, a tall, sad-eyed baseball player we called “Shady,” whom I did not even like, to whom I had said Yes in the first place because my sister had left for college and my father had left for good, because he was a boy who wanted me, because I was a girl who wanted to be wanted.

After three weeks of my acquiescing to his pawing at my front and moaning at my side, Shady caught me by my back pocket and told me one night, as I was leaving his bedroom to catch the last bus home, that he was still in love with his ex-girlfriend, but maybe we could still hook up in secret while he worked on getting her back. Okay, I said, releasing my grip on the shreds of my pride. When I went to college, I told myself I would never say yes to anyone I did not like again, no matter how lonely I felt.

Of course, what does a seventeen-year-old know of loneliness? You cannot understand loneliness until boys like Shady as well as the men they become look through you altogether in search of fresher faces, until your husband of almost a decade stops loving you, seals himself off, starts grocery shopping as an individual instead of as a member of a couple, leaving single-serve juice bottles and cups of yogurt around the kitchen for you to crumple in your hands, wondering what you did wrong and why, if he is so angry, he will not yell.

Sadly I do not keep weed around the house, have not had any for years. And, even if I did find some weed stashed away in the back of a drawer, what would I use to smoke it? I would have to follow teenagers and tourists to St. Marks Place to buy paraphernalia from a rickety table. Maybe I would get an ironic tattoo on the way: Je ne regret rien, wrapped around my ankle. Ha!

Focus, I tell myself. I put the cigarettes down and click the mouse.

Three open windows on my Internet browser offer three different ways to get to Aunt Josie’s comfortable, ’70s-era Portland bungalow, with a vegetable garden out front instead of a yard of grass and, speaking of drugs, an aura of pot smoke around the back porch. We could fly direct; we could fly to Seattle, where I have a couple of old friends I never get to see, and then drive up the coast; or we could take an ambling, seven-day train trip across the country. I believe it should actually take time to make a journey from Point A to faraway Point B. It is disorienting to go to sleep in one place and wake up where people drive on the wrong side of the road, or dip their fries in mayonnaise, or do not eat fries at all. By contrast, it feels so old-world, so stately and European and civilized to wind one’s way at one’s leisure from one side of the continent to the other, as long as the environment on the train is pleasant, and at these prices, surely “pleasant” is a given.

An ambulance zooms by on the street below, its siren belting out a chorus of “WhyWhyWhyWhyWhy” before shifting into a higher, wordless register of grief. The sound makes me think of children, of the child whose room this would be if it were not an office, if Chase and I had not agreed five years ago that procreation was not on the agenda. One of the older actresses I interviewed for my column had put the question in my mind, saying, in the languorous tones for which she was famous, “There comes a time in every relationship when you agree to either have kids or go to Montenegro, and we went to Montenegro.”

“Do you regret it?” I asked her, scribbling. I was thirty-five at the time, teetering on the precipice of my own fertility, trying to make up my mind on an issue about which I had always been ambivalent, desperate for any Delphic wisdom that might push me over the edge, either way, so long as I landed in the soft, warm mud of a decision.

“Regret? No,” she said. “Montenegro was fabulous.”

When I reported this to Chase that night, he asked, “Couldn’t you have a child and go—?”

“I asked,” I said, pulling out my notebook. “She said, ‘Darling, no. That’s where everyone gets into trouble, thinking they can, what’s that idiotic phrase, ‘have it all’? No, in the real world, it’s a simple choice, either/or, because when one tries to do too many things, one simply does more things badly. Better to do one thing well.’”

“And her thing is going to Montenegro?”

“Broadly speaking, yes,” I said, shutting the notebook and placing it on the nightstand. “Is that our thing too?” 

“She talks like she’s British aristocracy,” Chase said. “Isn’t she from Alabama?”

“Once you’ve been in Hollywood long enough, you’re not from anywhere anymore,” I said. “Anyway, she wasn’t being literal about Montenegro. It’s a stand-in for a lifestyle, for a certain set of choices.”

“I know,” he said, and moved his hand under my silk pajama shirt to stroke the plane of my belly. “Would it break your heart if I told you I think I’m a Montenegro person too? I keep waiting to want to be a father but the instinct hasn’t kicked in, and I’m 38. I’m beginning to doubt it ever will. Maybe I’m just not cut out for it.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I haven’t had the instinct myself, not really. I think I could be just as happy either way. I want whatever you want.”

“Really?” he said, the warmth of his fingertips pausing on my hipbone. “Because I don’t want to hold you back. Is it really okay?”

“Really,” I said, in my eagerness to please, and, as his fingertips slipped further south, my eagerness to be pleased.

It’s okay, I think now, remembering. I always say that when I mean the opposite.

*

After several hours, I am gloriously drunk, sitting on the floor of my bedroom in a slip, going through the shoebox of photos from my life with Garrett. Poor Garrett: so serious, so focused. It occurs to me I never entirely understood him, even in college. I teased him and flattered him and flirted with him and dragged him to concerts, movies, abstract art shows, beat poetry competitions; I taught him card tricks and once convinced him to fuck me on the lawn of the president’s house at 2:00 a.m.; I made his coffee for him in the mornings and curled up like a cat by his feet at night while he read, sometimes painting his toenails if it was the dead of winter and no one would ever see; and I did not think too deeply about any of it, specifically why he needed me to bring that kind of manic energy. It was fun! It was college. Why question it? He did seem to need me then, the way a man in a cave needs a bright, self-sustaining light. In Chicago, once he had his business suits and co-workers, he still seemed to need me, though slightly less. That need steadily decreased until one day he did not need me anymore, or, at least, not enough to fight for me. And anything you will not fight for, you do not need.

Where does love go, when it dies? There should be a cemetery somewhere the size of Manhattan and, with Edith Piaf crooning on repeat in the background, we should be able to visit and drop wilted flowers on the graves of our pasts.

The wine has made me maudlin. I would stop drinking it if there were any left to resist. Well, there are other bottles available from the liquor store downstairs, and I will not buy them, not even if I can remember where I put the corkscrew after I used it the last time. From the office, my phone rings, and I debate not answering it. I decide instead to stumble toward the sound and, if I can get to the phone before the ringing stops, to tell whoever is calling that I am having an Elizabeth Gilbert moment and they should call back later.

The idea strikes me as so funny that when I get the phone, I say, “Eat, pray, love!”

“Annie?”

“Yup,” I say, landing heavily in the desk chair. “But you should call back later. When I’m fifty. I’ll have everything sorted out by then, and all my friends will be divorced and back in Manhattan, where they belong.”

“Jesus. Have you been drinking?”

“Maybe. So what?” I say. “It’s still true. Midlife crisises. Crises.” The word presents a slight problem for my fuzzy tongue. “Everyone gets divorced around fifty. Change partners, do-si-do, try it again for the first time. I’m just ahead of the curve.”

“You’re going to fall asleep,” says Chase. The rough wool of displeasure his words are wrapped in has gotten as familiar to me over the past few years as his own skin used to be. “You’re going to fall asleep and then you’ll still be there at 6:00, even though we agreed you’d be out.”

“You agreed,” I say. “I was just being nice.”

All the same, he is probably right: I am feeling very sleepy all of a sudden in the desk chair, the one Chase bought when we moved into this apartment, shortly after that Montenegro conversation, a well-padded leather throne on wheels intended, in combination with the gleaming mahogany desk, to transform the second bedroom definitively and forever into an office. His office, it hardly needs to be said: his masculine space, his man cave. Did I begrudge him? No, I did not. I took two of the three bedroom closets and called it a day. That’s marriage.

“Anyway, if I’m asleep, what does it matter? It’ll be like I’m not here. I won’t bother you.”

“Jesus, Annie,” he says. “Okay, fine. Suit yourself. You always do.”

“You’re being petty,” I say, and then yawn so hard I hear my jaw pop. “And you’re not supposed to say ‘always,’ remember?”

A therapist friend of a friend gave us that piece of advice once at a party. Chase had asked her for the best simple tip she gives to couples who come in for counseling and she replied, “Stop using the words ‘always’ and ‘never.’ They make your partner defensive and irritable, and you don’t have a leg to stand on, because ‘always’ or ‘never’ is impossible to prove.”

That night, Chase and I had joked about it. “You always smell like mint after your brush your teeth,” he said to me when I slid into bed.

“How dare you,” I said, pinching his right nipple, pretending to chide him. “You never tell a lady anything negative about the way she smells.”

“I think you smell like French heaven,” he said, and lifted my nightgown up to my hips.

Starting the next morning, we did try to hew to the rule, because it seemed like a good one: no always, no never. Stick to specifics, not exaggerated generalities. Now that we are separated, apparently, the rule no longer applies. This thought hollows me out, leaving me as morose as I have been all day. Will we dismantle all of our rules of engagement one by one until there is nothing left to keep us civil?

“You’re right,” he says unexpectedly. “I’m sorry. Look, Annie, go to sleep. It’s fine. I’ll come by and be quiet.”

“No,” I say, thawed by his kindness. “It’s fine. I’ll go sleep at Nona’s. I told you I’d be out at 6:00. I should be out at 6:00.”

“No,” he says. “If you go to your sister’s, she’ll rope you into helping her with one of her endless, pointless projects. No way would she let you just go to sleep in the middle of the day. It’s still your home, and I have no right to kick you out of it.”

“Okay,” I say. “Thanks.” The leather of the chair feels sticky against my thighs because I am still only wearing the slip. Where did my dress go? I pull one leg up and enjoy the reluctant sucking sound the leather makes as it detaches. I leave the phone in the office, wander back to the bedroom, pitch myself on top of the covers, and fall asleep.

*

“Mm,” I say, half-awake, when I feel him stroking my hair.

“Shh,” he says.

The room is sufficiently dark, and I cannot see his face, which does not matter since the outline, the smell, the weight of him, the hands touching my hair, are all too recognizable. It is Chase, a very tired version that wants to unknot his tie, slough off his coat, lie down next to me, and sleep. I recognize the yearning, but he will not let himself give into it.

“Why are you leaving me?” I mumble into his leg as I curl up closer to him and lay my head in his lap.

“Oh Annie,” he says. “It’s for the best. We’re after different things.”

“How do you know?”

“You know it too.”

“You still want me,” I say, when I feel the familiar heat of him through his suit pants, the stirring near my head. “I can tell.”

He does not deny it.

“Did you meet someone else?” I ask, thinking of Alex. Did Chase find out about the affair, and was that what pushed him to pack up and leave? Could I explain that I needed solace—even the cold solace of someone as disengaged as Alex—after Chase disappeared into himself? Would it matter if I did explain, if I said the thing with Alex was a mistake, and it was over, and apologized? I could do that; I am still drunk, and bold as only wine can make me.

“It’s not about that,” he says. “I’ve been a terrible husband these past few years. I know I have, and I’m trying to do the right thing now. We’re after different things, and the longer we stay together, the worse off we’ll both get. Trust me.”

People don’t save people. It’s for the best. We’re after different things. I squint up at Chase in the half-light, trying to decode his expression. “Are you afraid of hurting my feelings?”

“That’s not it. We really are after different things, Annie. I’m telling you the truth. I promise.”

“Not the whole truth,” I say. “There’s good here. We’re good together. You know we are. Or we were, before. I don’t know what happened but we could try to go back, try to make it right. We were good.”

“I know.”

“Is it because I quit the column? I know you were disappointed in me.” Since he had never been enthusiastic about my writing the column, instead of using my journalism degree for something more admirable, I expected him to be pleased when I told him it was over. Instead he looked at me and said, “Really, Annie?” with so much weary incredulity that my excitement withered on the spot.

“No. I’ve told you ten times. I was surprised, that’s all.”

“What is it then? What’s so important that you’re after that I’m not?”

He hesitates for a second too long and then says, “Children.”

The silence that follows that word is a flood that leaves me stranded. I think of several things to say and do not voice any of them. How can I, when he is being honest? When I asked for it?

“But—”

“I know.”

“You told me—” I feel more betrayed, somehow, than I would if he had said he’d met someone else. I struggle to sit up, wishing I were sober and glad, now, that I am at least not high as well as drunk. Children?

“I don’t think I knew. Not until recently. I only knew I was unhappy, and taking it out on you.”

“How recently?” I ask.

“It doesn’t matter. I realized I want them and I know that you don’t.”

“But—”

“Go back to sleep, Annie. I didn’t mean to wake you up. You always look so peaceful when you sleep.”

“There’s that word again,” I say. When he seems confused, I add, “Always. You said ‘always.’”

“Ah,” he says. “Sorry.”

“It’s not fair. You didn’t ask again, and I told you I wanted whatever you wanted. Besides, I just turned 40. There’s still time if—”

“Shh,” he says, lifting my head off of his thigh and positioning it on the pillow. “Go back to sleep, Annie.”

Immediately I miss the warmth of him, the particular solidity of his body. “Stay with me?”

“I can’t,” he says, sliding off the bed.

“You didn’t ask me,” I say, struggling to hoist myself onto my elbow. “It’s not fair. You made this enormous decision without consulting me.”

“I didn’t need to. Come on. You know I didn’t need to. You’re saying these things now, but you know you. I know you. I didn’t need to ask. I just needed to decide how much it meant to me.”

He pauses in the doorway as though he expects himself to keep talking, or me to contradict him. I am waiting too, though I do not know for what. In the end, he only says, “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” I say into the pillow. He is already gone.

*

In the morning, bolstered by coffee and aspirin, one of the cigarettes I finally found last night and more adrenaline than I have felt in some time, I book a ticket for the train trip to Washington, DC, and then another from DC across the country to Portland, Oregon. The cost of both together is not inconsiderable, and it does seem silly to go south to DC only to go northwest to Portland, but there are no direct trains from New York and at the moment I am not inclined to care.

I call my sister. She answers as though she has been waiting for me. “Good morning,” I say.

“Maybe for you,” she says. “Jillian was up all night. I couldn’t get her to go back to sleep. I must have walked a groove into the carpet going back and forth with her, singing every goddamn kid’s song I know.”

“Where was Francis?”

“Asleep, the asshole,” says Nona. “Or maybe he was pretending. So it was just me, and I felt like I was lugging around a huge bag of wet sand through my apartment, like an existential punishment. Now of course she’s sleeping. In the high chair of all places. It’ll probably make her neck sore when she wakes up. Where are you now?”

“Heading to DC,” I say.

“What? Why?”

“Nona, Chase wanted kids. That’s why he left me.”

“You think?”

“He told me. Last night. He decided he wanted kids after all, and that’s why he’s leaving.”

“Oh, Annie. Did you ever tell him about … college? Because it means you can get pregnant, at least. Maybe that’s … relevant?”

Once in my life, in college, I found myself pregnant. I was with Garrett, not married yet, and young, and I did the reasonable thing: I took a long weekend, went home, had my mother take me to a clinic, came back to school, and never said a word about it. Uncharacteristically, my mother treated me well that weekend. She said little, but she hugged me with a certain fierceness that told me she was present in a way she very often was not. We ate ice cream and watched old movies on cable together.

“Please don’t say anything to anyone,” I had said, during An Officer and a Gentleman.

“Of course not,” she had said. “It’s your business. Nobody’s else’s.”

It was clear that, for once, she thought I was doing the right thing. The first major life decision my mother believed in enough not to question or criticize was my decision not to become a mother myself. That is what you might call bittersweet.

Later, after some deliberation, I told Nona, perhaps because I wanted her scorn, felt it right that somebody judge me, but she surprised me. She was only ever supportive about it.

“No,” I say to Nona now. “What man wants to hear that his wife had someone else’s abortion? What good would it do? Besides, he has these grown-up-in-Wyoming, heartland values that come out sometimes.” Though I was ready to be lectured about irresponsibility by my mother or my sister when I got pregnant by mistake and then dealt with the pregnancy as a mistake, the idea of Chase’s disgust has rattled something deeper inside me. I am not willing to risk incurring it. Of course Chase has gotten disgusted with me anyway, but how was I to know that would happen?

“I’m sorry, Annie,” says Nona.

“I feel so old,” I say. “I’ve never felt old before. And sad. Chase is filing for divorce, and now Alex …”

“What happened with Alex, anyway? How did it end?”

“Oh, nothing, it’s just over. It should never have happened anyway, you were right, it was a stupid mistake. I was so lonely. I missed Chase so much. I wanted to be in love with someone else. I wanted to pretend it all wasn’t happening, or that there was a happy ending somewhere else.”

I hear Nona exhale noisily and can tell I am exhausting the stores of patience she has reserved for anyone other than her baby or herself.

“So now I’m getting on a train! Spur of the moment!” I say. “Want to come meet me? Last chance! Ride west to see Aunt Josie? It’ll be fun. You could get away for a little bit. Come on, you deserve it.”

“You’re being manic. Anyway, I can’t get away right now, I told you.”

“Nona, you can. You can leave Jillian with a nanny. That last one was really nice.”

“That last one was a liar. She said she had her BA.”

“She was only three credits short,” I say. “And Jillian loved her.”

“I’m not leaving my kid with a liar,” she says.

Everyone lies, Mom would say. At least with this one, you know where the lies are. That line of argument is hardly likely to win over Nona. Instead I say, “You could leave her with Francis.”

 “Sure!” she snorts. “Francis.”

“Look, if you don’t want to come—”

“It’s not about what I ‘want’! God, Annie, you are so thoughtless. Do you realize how selfish it is of you to even ask?”

“It’s selfish to ask?”

“Yes!” she says, and I can hear her warming to the topic. This is not how I wanted to start a very long trip, fighting with my sister. Anger grows in and exhales out of Nona like toxic mold these days, it has ever since she quit her job and redirected all of her Type A energy to raising a child she loves but gave up too much for. I tell myself that the anger is not about me, but it can still be hard not to take it personally, especially in moments like this, when I am already feeling humiliated and vulnerable.

“Okay!” I say, before I start to cry. “Sorry I was selfish. I didn’t realize. Talk to you soon.” I hit “end” before she can reply and then turn the phone all the way off for good measure and stash it in the bottom of my bag. In doing so, my hand grazes the box of emergency cigarettes and I make two decisions: No more phone calls on this trip, and no smoking. I am going to focus. Like I used to. I am going to make good choices, choices that are good for me.  

As I toss the Dunhills into the wastebasket in the bathroom, I think about how Nona taught me to smoke ages ago in the woods behind our house. She was patient then; she did not laugh when I bent over, hacking into the soil. Nona used to be in pretty good spirits most of the time. Part of me keeps hoping she will turn back, in a hope-springs-eternal kind of way. You never learn, my mother would say. You kept hoping your father would come back too.

After packing in an untidy rush, I send Aunt Josie a copy of my itinerary by email with the subject line, “Surprise!” Even if Nona’s right and I am being manic, or rash, I cannot stay in this apartment. I cannot even stay in this city. I send the itinerary to Nona with a note that says, “I’m sorry I couldn’t wait. Love to Jillian.”

I hear my sister’s voice in my head: Not everyone can just do whatever they want to whenever they want to, Annie!

Yes, well, I can. For better and for worse.