Authors: Claire Lombardo
At first all she saw was the back of a head. Presumably a man—and a young one—unless Wendy was going through an exploratory phase and had taken up with some gender-bending yogi from her chakra class. She felt strangely hurt. Of course Wendy couldn’t just ask her out to lunch, the two of them: this would, as she should’ve known, be some sort of look-what-I’m-up-to-now demonstration that would serve to reinforce what a snoozefest Violet’s life was, how mired she was in the status quo while Wendy was off doing tantric vinyasa with an androgynous gal Friday.
But then: no.
She would remember, in her car on the way home, after having tipped the valet for a third time, the swelling she’d felt in her chest, a crystallization of
It wasn’t that she recognized him. That was the wrong word. And it wasn’t anything poetic, no lightning bolts through her temples, no ice in her veins. She barely caught a glimpse of him, really, because he’d only turned halfway in his seat, so her field of vision included little beyond his left ear and the outline of his nose. But it was enough, apparently, on some molecular level, not like the biological recognition she felt when Wyatt and Eli were born but significant in its own right, a sharp uterine tug that almost made her double over. She didn’t recognize the boy so much as absorb him. And in her head, in the car, after she’d fled the restaurant and her sister and the person she’d given birth to fifteen years earlier—a boy who now had dark hair that flopped in front of his eyes—she would imagine all of the things she could have said to Wendy. Big things, cinematic things,
how dare you do this to me; you’re dead to me, you fucking psycho; how dare you, how dare you, how dare you.
All the reasons it was okay that she left before she really saw his face.
efore Wendy left for the Lurie fund-raiser she went onto the deck to have a cigarette with Miles. She let herself out the back door, Grey Goose in hand, dress hiked up to her knees because she’d settled on an ill-advised black mermaid cut, one Parliament in her mouth and another on the table.
“Today went as expected. Violet booked it before I could introduce them.” She lit her cigarette and sighed. “I need your absolution. I didn’t know what I was doing when I did it. But he’s actually a sweet kid. You’d like him.”
Miles didn’t reply.
“I’m wearing the dumbest outfit. Your mom would’ve liked it.” She leaned her head back. “I saw my dad yesterday. Retirement seems like kind of a disaster. He told me he was thinking about
Can you imagine? I can’t picture him sitting still for that long.”
She’d been doing it since he died. She would talk to him—to some ethereal indication of him that sometimes she felt but most times she didn’t. Today was one of the most times, so she just leaned into the side of her chair and smoked.
“Tonight will be a total shitshow,” she said after a minute. “The vultures are probably hammered already. Hopefully they won’t grope anyone. I, personally, make no promises.” She looked upward for some cosmic sign that he was listening to her. There was nothing to see; the sky was overcast and grayish and the stars weren’t out yet. Instead she held her cigarette upward, toward where she thought he might be, and exhaled a deliberate jet of smoke. “I hope you’re proud of me, dude,” she said after a minute. “Because I am really trying to keep on around here, okay?” Somehow she had been without him for nearly two years. She lit her backup cigarette. “I wish I could kiss the inside of your elbow right now,” she whispered, almost inaudibly because the people next door sometimes kept their windows open. “But instead I might have to find a Greek shipping heir tonight and let him ravish me a little bit. Not too much. I swear. Fucking fuck, my darling. Man, do I miss you.”
She took a few more drags, speaking to him in her head about all of the things she’d done that day, and then when she had one drag left she performed her ritual, which was to inhale as deeply as she could and exhale
I love you
over and over again until she ran out of breath.
A few hours later a man in a tuxedo had his hand on her left breast. She fitted her knee between his thighs and he staggered back, bumping into a table, upsetting a calla lily arrangement.
“Careful,” she said.
“My bad,” he replied. He was, upon inspection, perhaps more boy than man. He’d told her his name was Carson and she’d actually laughed but when he looked hurt she passed it off as nerves and yanked him down the hall by the lilies.
The man-boy’s sweaty hand had adhered itself to her nipple in a way that wasn’t specifically pleasant. He kissed her neck. She rubbed her leg a little harder against his groin. Maybe early to mid-twenties. He seemed pretty sure of himself.
“I didn’t get your name,” he said. Wendy stiffened a little, thought of Jonah across the table from her at lunch that afternoon, the blank innocence of his face, his bald confusion when they both realized Violet had fled. What if this guy wasn’t even
“How old are you?” she asked, and he pulled away and grinned at her.
She nodded and slipped a hand down the waist of his pants. Just cocky, then, pun acknowledged. An heir, perhaps, of someone who’d invented something that seemed like it had already been invented by someone else. Or maybe the son of a record executive or a spray-tanned Fox correspondent. A boy who would live a life of inconsequence, who would, one hoped, not kill anybody with his car and get away with it. He wasn’t a terrible kisser.
“How old are
?” he asked.
“Seventy-eight,” she said, unfazed.
“You’re funny,” he said.
She was suddenly irked. “What does your father do?” she asked him, removing her hand from his boxers.
“Your dad. What’s his job? Why are you here tonight?”
“What makes you assume that I’m here with—” He stopped, rolling his eyes. “He’s an engineer. Medical software development. Robotics.”
“Ah.” She’d check the guest list tomorrow, ensure they’d made a sizable contribution. Sometimes the more low-profile guys tried to get away with just buying tickets.
?” he asked, a little more hostile this time.
She sighed. “Wendy.”
“Like Peter Pan,” Carlton noted astutely, and it was her turn to eye-roll.
“Its origins have never been explained to me.”
Her mom and dad used to call her Wednesday as a nickname, and when she’d confronted her mother about it—just a few years ago—the response had been underwhelming.
“That was mean,” she’d said. “Like Wednesday Addams? I was skeletal, Mom; did that really seem like a good joke?”
“Honey, you were born on a Wednesday. Just a few minutes after midnight. I had no idea what day it was and your father— It was because of that.”
That was the story of her name, then.
You shattered my conception of the space-time continuum, First Contraceptive Accident.
She tugged at Carlton’s sleeve. “Come on. Let’s go outside,” she said.
“Wendy,” he said. “Hang on. As in—
She turned to see what she’d already known was there: a poster for the fund-raiser, complete with a photo of the cancerous spokesbaby, dotted at the bottom with
HOSTED BY WENDY EISENBERG OF THE CHICAGO PHILANTHROPIC WOMEN’S SOCIETY
. A robotics engineer would be exponentially less likely to donate if he discovered that the middle-aged organizer was making out with his pretentiously named twenty-two-year-old son. It was the sight of the
that really got her, though, the prodigious loop of the
. It still bothered her to see her name on its own. She backed away from her tailored little charge and tried to smile.
“Do I seem like the hostess of this event?” she asked.
“What’s your last name, then?”
“Sorenson,” she said without skipping a beat.
“Well, could I—can I text you?” he asked, and she smiled.
“I’d like that,” she said ominously. “But I’d better go.”
“I thought we were going outside.”
“Alas, no time. I’m ancient. I’ve gotta go. Coaches. Pumpkins. Life Alert.”
“Well—okay. This was—um—this was nice.”
Ah, he was a sweet one: her prize for taking the high road.
“Do yourself a favor,” she said, still flustered, tugging at the heel of her left shoe. “Next time you think a woman’s funny? Don’t tell her she’s funny.”
“What do I do instead?” Something about the way his perfect face crumpled in confusion tugged at a place deep in her belly and she couldn’t help but smile at him.
“You laugh,” she said, and before she realized what she was doing she was reaching to press a shock of hair away from his forehead. “The next time you meet a funny woman, you laugh at her jokes, okay, Conrad?”
“Carson. Good luck, kid.”
The room spun again.
made her think of her parents, suddenly, of her father bowing theatrically to her mother at Wendy’s wedding, hearing Otis Redding—“win a little; lose a little”—and declaring, “It’s our song, kid.” Every song belonged to her parents, it seemed; everything recorded in the last six decades had something to do with David and Marilyn, those two inexplicable people from whom she hailed. She’d thought, when she met Miles, that she’d finally found someone in the way that her mom had.
There were suddenly tears in her eyes, a familiar tightness in her chest. She wasn’t supposed to leave this early but she knew that if she stayed things would continue to go south. She left her coat in the checkroom and spun out onto the street.
Some people told you it took a year for everything to get back to normal; other people said things only got worse after a year. She was a member of this latter camp, she supposed, because Miles had been dead since 2014 but she still hadn’t cleaned out his nightstand; she still bought things at the grocery that he liked and she didn’t; she still operated exactly as she had before, as a member of a unit, as a person who was contingent on the active participation of another person. You couldn’t untrain yourself from that. She’d tried. She’d moved to the condo in River North, but she set it up a lot like their house in Hyde Park, and she’d taped up the drawers of all his furniture—his desk, his dresser, his nightstand—so that the movers could transport them intact, full of his possessions.
Some people took a year; it was probable that some other people besides Wendy were still complete trainwrecks after two.
t swept in with the spring like a melting. Quietude, a kind of solace Marilyn hadn’t known since—well, ever, honestly; in utero, maybe, but probably not even then, given her mother’s penchant for Tanqueray, given the laxity of the 1950s, whichever you wanted to blame. Life was good.
life was good. The hardware store was doing well, and she was sleeping better than she ever had, and her legs had nearly regained the limber give of her girlhood because she rode her bike to work, and her pansies were flourishing, a bright vermilion burst in the built-in box on the front porch.
She, for once, would have been flying high, were it not for the tethers of her family. Marilyn Connolly—who’d’ve thought? A business owner, a certified nonsmoker for nearly fifteen years, an occasional churchgoer, proprietess of the most beautiful rosebushes on Fair Oaks. She was wondering if perhaps she was in her
although she wasn’t entirely convinced that one was allowed to
a prime when one was the mother of four. She was, instead of flying high, like one of those giant kite people they flew outside of the gas station on Ridgeland Avenue, a big vinyl body swaying in the breeze, trussed to the ground by thick umbilical ropes. A few minutes of bliss and suddenly it was the irritating jangle of her phone and an
Oh my God, Mom,
or a knock at the kitchen window with a mouthed
Where’s the rake, honey?
She put her bike on the porch and stopped to pull some dead leaves from her potted plants. Loomis was waiting for her inside.
“Hello, my darling,” she said, rubbing deep behind his ears. They’d become those clichéd empty nesters who turned desperately to the Labrador the second the last kid shipped off to college.
“Hey, sweet,” David called from down the hall. She followed Loomis to the study, and she paused before she entered, watching her husband’s back, the vulnerable fuzz on his neck, the hint of a bald spot spreading from the crown of his head like a galaxy.
She didn’t need him: it bobbed around in her head, a tiny infidelity. It occurred to her at that moment, melancholically, as she watched him sitting at his desk before a few books of rare quarters and a pile of pistachio shells. He’d become messy, suddenly, after years of passive-aggressively swiping at the crumbs on the counter with a damp sponge, sighing heavily as he cleared long blond-brown strands of hair from the shower drain. He’d become messy and stagnant and extremely libidinous, and when he rose to kiss her, shaking paper-thin flecks of pistachio skin from his shirt, the thought materialized:
I don’t need you.
She moved for a peck on the forehead but he went full-on, running a hand through her hair, looping an arm around her waist, teasing her lips apart with his own.
“Mm,” she said, pulling away. “I think I’m getting a cold, love.”
It was clearly a lie; they had never cared about colds. They passed germs back and forth with abandon, sharing mugs of coffee, pieces of toast, occasionally toothbrushes when they were too tired to turn on the light and distinguish green from blue. David had an immune system like an alligator and Marilyn, way back when, was always low-level sick anyway, from the girls, their sticky hands and their dirty Kleenexes and their leftover macaroni she’d eat from their bowls after dinner. They weren’t afraid of germs. Standing before her, David looked wounded.
Of course she
him, on a molecular level, the deepest kind of human need. But she didn’t need his
. And she didn’t want his body, not really, in a way that reminded her of the times after each of the children were born, the times when the three eldest girls were small all at once, the times when the three eldest girls were
all at once, and she’d been too tired to desire anything that required even a fragment of conscious bodily attention.