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And of course he was right, I agreed, although inside I knew differently. So when her texts grew more and more passive-aggressive, I decided to strike back with passive aggression of my own. Have pity on her. One day, late in her pregnancy, I ran into Farrah in our shared front garden. Rather than her usual scowl, she beamed a brilliant, toothy smile my way and I saw the old her, the charming brunette with the deep brown eyes who got whatever she wanted, including that massive belly.
I smiled back. As her due date drew nearer, she seemed to find this arrangement increasingly intolerable. I was in the shower when they rang. I think it might be just the thing! That explained her sudden upward mood swing. Fast-forward to two weeks later: Nathan and I were out in the city one Saturday, exploring the waterfront area, holding hands and sipping coffee and feeling positive that this time, this round of IVF had worked.
I felt pregnant-ish, I thought. For sure. My boobs were sore, and my very punctual period was at least a day late. All was well. Then my phone dinged with a text from Farrah. Just had to sign for another package of yours. Have you ordered the Virtual Doorman yet?? I felt remarkably calm. So I wrote, NO. Why not? It felt like we were circling each other, fists raised, flinging insults, even though neither of us had said anything remotely insulting.
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Some of us have work to do, I added. When Nathan read my text, he looked playfully shocked. We high-fived—blissful, triumphant team members that we were. We won! I kept thinking all day. Until late at night, when my period came. Nathan went behind my back and ordered the damn Virtual Doorman, as if we needed a remote service answering our door—as if we could afford it! When I confronted him about it, he shrugged his shoulders to say, It was fun being on your team while it lasted.
Is that when things between Nathan and me really began to fray? Or had it already begun, and this just accelerated our undoing? Why did nothing ever work? J was reserved in offering her condolences this time; she pursed her lips. Perfect, Ms. Do you smell that? As if he lived in a different building, on a different plane. I started carrying the bags out to the trash. Or How would I get by without you, neighbor? Needless to say, the text never came. Eventually Farrah just stopped putting trash bags in the hall, and that was the end of that.
Farrah and Dillon moved out just after Nathan left. She was hugely pregnant with their second child; I was dragging myself around like the newly risen dead. A spacious, three-bedroom, two-bath overlooking the river. The more kids you had, the more prosperous it meant you were. Meanwhile there I sat on the stoop: zero kids, zero husband, a woman-shaped shade.
I despised Dillon and Farrah, but their absence made the house feel even emptier. There seemed to be no sign of new people coming to fill the vacant duplex, either, which was weird, given the cutthroat rental market around here. There were always new suckers to lure in, people willing or desperate enough to pay an extraordinary amount of money for a small set of rooms they could run through like rats.
But nothing. No one. I imagined he was waiting me out. Now I worried that Charles would kick me out in March, when the lease expired.
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I stayed silent and tried not to think about it—about what I would do or where I would go when the building sold or the money ran out. Next March was still months away. She holds her baby loosely on her hip and walks at a leisurely pace. She smiles down at him, says something, goo goo ga ga, for all I know, and laughs at whatever sounds he makes in response. She seems completely relaxed, her smile real. Not the diamond-bright one she gives the cameras. The whiteness shows off her lightly tanned skin, gleaming from whatever weekend beach trip they must have taken recently.
The baby waves his arms and squirms against her, so she cuddles him closer, kissing his neck until he laughs. What on earth is more important or precious than this? I can almost hear her say for the ad campaign. She would look down at the babe with soft eyes, and he would reach up a chubby hand to pat her face. Nothing is the answer. Nothing is more important or precious on this earth. I nearly choke on my mouthful of mustard greens. It takes all my control not to backhand her across the face—with my left hand, the one with the wedding ring still.
What a hero I would be! She puts her hand over mine before we pay the bill. When I get home, I wriggle my finger free of the ring at last. Instead of tossing the ring out the window, as part of me would like to do, I set it in the corner of my top dresser drawer, under my overwashed underpants. As soon as the door shuts behind me, though, I look up and smile. I set a chilled can of Diet Coke down on the desk, and Bernardo, one of my most outgoing students, points at it.
He chuckles and shakes his head. The funny, friendly professor. It has crossed my mind to fuck one of them. Pulling someone aside—Bernardo maybe, with his dark eyes and extravagant lashes. Go freshen my lipstick in the harsh fluorescent light of the school restroom. Have a few glasses of wine at a nearby bar.
Touch his leg. Let him take me home and touch me all over. But that would not be appropriate for someone in my position. For a professor. My class, Survey of Western Verse II, —Present, a standard in the literature program, was so small that the dean almost axed it at the start of the semester; I had another that was cancelled due to low enrollment.
In the days just after Nathan left, when I veered from mania to despair and back again, I imagined using my extra time to take kickboxing classes at the local gym, transforming myself into a fighter, like the actress would do in one of her films. Aside from the financial blow, cushioned only by our still-joint savings account, all the class loss has done is make these days even emptier. After class, I come back to my barely maintained, barely still elegant brownstone alone. I climb the stairs, nearly wheezing by the end.
The wheezing is new—the consequence of reviving my grad school smoking habit after Nathan left.
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We always talked about moving when the baby came. To escape the entitled, ever-breeding bourgeoisie. It does more than grate on my nerves—it drives a spike into my side. Even worse is to look up and see a cherubic face close to mine, eyes blinking at me, curious and killing. And a middle-aged woman, alone with a cat, glass of cheap wine in hand. I never pursued money. I thought it would come to me. I did! That, in addition to being feted and admired as a scholar of great renown, I would have job security. Health insurance. Steady, and steadily rising, income. In grad school, Nathan and I would sit in the library with our heads bent over books, under the green glow of old-fashioned desk lamps.
At a corner table, away from the rabble. This is what matters. At the time, Nathan raised his eyebrows as he scanned the page, and when he finished, he nodded. Such passion for poetry I had back then! The life of the mind! FUCK the life of the mind. Past those, even, to the old warehouse district near the water, all the way down, once, to the waterfront park where enormous old cranes stand like sentinels over the few illegal fishermen on the pier. At first, going walking was just a way to not feel, after Nathan. Walking pushed the misery along through my body, distracting me from my grief the way a deep sleep can, though without the sharp pain of waking up.
Returning home at the end of a walk was much less horrible—it hurt, but in a dull, dry, mostly bearable way, that at least made me feel anchored in something, in my tired and aching body instead of my pulverized heart. I once stopped in a church—in the early, desperate days—and pushed into the dim, silent interior. Got awkwardly to my knees on one of the velvet-padded knee rests and bent my head, and prayed, or tried to pray. What if the actress could see me now—what would she think? I wondered, kneeling there. Would she study me, as if for a potential future role?
Take note of the angle at which I inclined my head? Or the way I clasped my hands together, like a child? The way my body shook with sobs, and shook harder, perhaps, at the thought of her watching? Or would she glance at me and simply shake her head? Always throwing themselves on the mercy of the divine. Nothing happened in the church that day. No angels descended on a wave of iridescent light. I struggled to my feet after a while, feeling, at least, wholly cried out for the time being.
What did I miss? I breeze right past my own building and speed-walk to number Our neighborhood is a kind of slow-trickle flea market. You can grab a board game from the steps of one house, then walk a block or two and find a cute handbag. Or a DVD collection. Or a Lego set. Nathan and I found this incredibly charming, not to mention useful, when we first moved here. As I get closer to the box, my heart pounding in my chest, I wonder if anyone beat me to this particular haul. The box is still there, but is everything in place? I wish I could present the actress with an inventory list so I could know for certain that I have it all.
Then a neighbor turns out of her own gate, right in front of me, and blocks my view of the box. I arrive just behind her, panting and sweating. This is a good haul. A very good haul. I finally look up at the neighbor. Move along. I watch tensely as she bends down and picks up the top screenplay, the one for Glengarry Glen Ross.
As she flips the pages, I stand there saying, Drop it. Drop it. In my head, over and over. Finally, she looks up, smiles awkwardly, and. I pick up the whole box and carry it home, feeling happiness well up inside me for the first time in days. This was after failed IVF cycle number four. Or five. They all blur together after a while.
I accused him of being cruel. Put up a playful border. Installed a crib with a mobile of black-and-white squares hanging over it. Put the crib closer to the window, then away from it to lessen the noise from the street. Pulled down one border, a girly one, and put up another with trains and airplanes. Then I replaced that with a gender-neutral one patterned with triangles, circles, and squares in grays and blacks—like the mobile.
Smoothed my hands over the firm dome of flesh. Sunk into the tacky calico-patterned glider and rocked myself to sleep. Later, I saw one pair of worn, thong-style Birkenstocks out in front of their house. Probably hers. Mary, an older woman with cropped gray hair, shook her head and tsked at him. My performance must have faltered somewhere. Was there a false note in my voice? Was my smile too big? I had to remember to wear my damn ring next time. And make sure it looked extra-shiny. We used to sleep spooned together all night long. If Nathan flipped over, I would flip, too. We were always touching: my belly pressed against his back, his back rooted to my belly.
Her husband will usher them all back to the safety of the car. Step into a tastefully furnished getaway cabin. Deep peace in the shade of trees. Sweet familial harmony. Anonymity at last! The actress will cast off her hat and laugh. If it were a certain kind of nineties movie, though, things would go horribly wrong. The children would huddle in a closet.
The ineffectual city dad would stand by the door, sweat beading his forehead, fireplace poker in hand. But no, the actress is still around—I run into her on the street the next morning. Of course, of course. As if her knowing about the terrible breakup could make the clenched sadness in me dissipate, at least for a little while. Nothing like that happens, of course. Water, I think, watching her move. Is she on her way to a hair appointment? A meeting in the city? A consultation about a script?
But I know she did. I stand and watch her all the way up the block. She was wearing our lipstick today, as usual. I wear mine everywhere, too—I put it on and watch it bring my face to life. He might agree with me now, if he could see the haggard woman who greets me in the mirror every morning. Later that same night, I pause by her house on my way home from work. Lights on in the kitchen. The actress stands at the island, opening a bottle of wine.
Children in bed. The husband upstairs somewhere. Alone with a bottle of wine, how luxurious. Hers is fuller: surrounded, swaddled even—an island on whose shores laps a vibrant, busy sea. Her aloneness is temporary; mine is infinite. Mine spreads out from the center like a puddle, muddying everything it touches. Even the cat shrinks back, slinks to dry land. When have I tasted wine like that? In the early days of our relationship, Nathan and I went to Napa for a long weekend.
I was presenting a paper at the MLA conference in San Francisco, so we rented a car one day and drove through the rolling golden-brown hills, stopping at every vineyard whose name we even remotely recognized. We were drunk within an hour. There was one wine, a red, maybe a Pinot Noir? We loved it. We bought a whole case and dealt with the hassle of shipping it home. But once we were back, sitting at the table in my sparsely furnished studio, trying the first sip from the first of the bottles, it tasted all wrong: vinegary, acidic. Not at all like it had tasted out there—full of warmth—a glass of deep, mellow, earthy richness.
Tastes gray. I have no idea what he sees in them, or why I bought six of these at the grocery store. Knowing I would hate them. Knowing I would take a single bite and throw them one after the other into the trash. Tough, unlikable women, women with attitude and chutzpah and strong moral beliefs. Women who could stand up to a school board or a corporate tycoon but who, privately, were addicts or bad mothers or engaged in minor fraud. Is that who I am? Do I deserve to be loved, or even liked? Nathan has said no. And now I hear the world repeat it after him: no, no, no, no, no.
Every day since he left. It echoes through the streets and against the walls of the buildings and comes back to me, smacking me squarely in the face: NO. My body, also, has firmly said no. You are not worthy of carrying life. You are not one of those women, the ones entrusted with sacred purpose.
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Or is it encrusted? Am I not worthy, even, of being encrusted with sacred purpose, with the life that clings and ages and erodes a woman from the moment it forms? So what made the actress turn from those roles, those admirable lives in the gray area, to those that exist only in black and white? Or electric blue, like the costume she wears in the new blockbuster. What made her choose to become fodder for bus-side posters? Middle age or close enough. Those kids. All those kids—they have to be fed. Does she dream at night of their gaping, hungry mouths?
Of falling, disappearing, into the void of motherhood? Not that she could ever disappear—but she might fear it anyway. Tonight in class we discussed a haiku by Buson—one of the ways I like to diverge from the strictures of the Western Verse curriculum. I thought of the actress falling, mouth agape, hands waving in air, white linen sundress billowing in the updraft, into nothingness. I would scream, reaching my arms down the well. But then I would linger, waiting for the distant splash. I saw him pull back into himself a tiny bit, and felt satisfied.
Simon had lost interest, was consulting his phone. Bernardo still looked puzzled. Not the brightest spark, Bernardo, but definitely the hottest. I had the newly polished wedding ring back in place. He grinned slyly. Flustered, I folded my arms over my chest and started class as breezily as I could.
Bright white teeth. The bastard. I hated watching my dry lips move. Do my students hate watching them move as much as I do? But I knew how to fix that—I scrounged in my purse for Divine Wine and applied it liberally. Blotted it, applied again. Great improvement. It even lifted my spirits somewhat. Because it made me think of the actress? At least, a little bit. She plays a detective wholeheartedly committed to her job—because the rest of her life is a mess. Or else I have it mixed up: as a result of her commitment to her job, the rest of her life is a mess.
I pick up my bag of popcorn and tilt the remains into my mouth. In the end, she catches the serial killer and finds a promising new love interest. Lucky her. Now she gets to go home to her immaculate, well-appointed brownstone and be a beloved mother, a gifted wife, and a rich, famous person. And me? I get to go home to one floor of an empty, neglected brownstone. And to Cat. I sit there for a long time in the half-light of the theater, watching the credits roll. I want to delay that moment when I walk through the lobby doors, smack into the wall of oppressive heat and sunlight.
Crowded sidewalks and blaring horns. And merge with the dark? Nathan used to sit with me as the credits rolled—he would never rush me out as people stood, gathered their coats and bags, and hustled down the aisle. He understood. Why should we rush back out there, to the complexities and letdowns of real life? It was one of the things I loved about him—his ability to savor the post-movie darkness with me. To sit as though the two of us were safe in a cave where no one and nothing could reach us. I think life must have been easier for early humans, crouching and sheltering in caves.
When the only form of entertainment was watching shadows move on the rock walls, in the firelight. When what mattered was shielding our tribe from saber-toothed tigers. Giant bears. Of course, in ancient times I would have been exiled for my barrenness. Out of the cave, woman, away from the fire. Into the snow with a spear perhaps and a bearskin coat, to wander the rocky terrain. Until I was eaten or fatally injured or froze to death. I admire the cleanness and honesty of such an expulsion; I would have been able to taste and touch an emptiness like that.
We lock eyes for a moment. I can tell he likes what he sees. He smiles, gives a nod, and takes off running up the street. On his way to the park, no doubt. At nearly 10 p.
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I suppose he can do what he likes. The kids are in bed and the actress is having her wine. Relax and reconnect? Watch a show? When he comes back, the air will have cleared. All that matters is that the husband and I had a moment. I rarely give him a thought, but. And strong, shapely legs. I like his hair how it is now, nearly down to his shoulders, though it was tied back for the jog.
Or with such a full beard. The feeling of our moment tingles at the ends of my fingers and toes. You do! I lift my wineglass and feel color rush to my cheeks. The aftereffects of my moment with the husband still linger, even into this new day. I stare down into my wine and smile. Shake my head so my hair falls charmingly into my face. She taps my hand triumphantly. What do I care what Shana thinks? Why have I maintained this friendship, built on the bonding that took place over a shitty admin job more than a decade ago?
Shana and I are strangers, really—she knows nothing about me and has nothing I want. Nothing I need. I smile coldly and take a gulp of wine as she patters on. The purchase of a new flat-screen TV for their living room. Cat greets me at the door with the same enthusiasm she used to show Nathan when he came home—pathetic creature. I have no use for the cat, though I go on keeping it alive.
I whisper things into her delicate pink ear I would never say to a human, cruel things about loss and the death of love. Stalks away. Kind and attentive. When I sit at my desk and the cat comes trotting to rub a figure eight around my legs, I pick her up and put her on my lap.
I scratch under her chin like Nathan used to do, where the fur is soft and white. She purrs. Brush the right side of my body, stoking a quick wave of heat. In the direction of her house. Want to come over? Now cue the grunting and groaning as we really start to move, cue the pots and pans shaking above us on their hooks. My hands are in his hair but I keep my eyes glued to a black-and-white photo of the five of them, tumbled up together on a green lawn, all sunglasses and grins.
When the husband comes, when he collapses against me and breathes hot air onto my neck, the picture drops from the wall. The glass shatters. Their collective gaze warms me—it fills my belly with something like pleasure, mirth, belonging. I love you, my dears. Chloe shifts in her seat and smiles as though she has heard me. But Bernardo seems to be sulking tonight.
He frowns during lecture, averts his eyes when I look at him.