Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
A photograph by Sarah Hadley from her Story Lines series © The artist

A photograph by Sarah Hadley from her Story Lines series © The artist


The day Aaron finished rehab, Cassie picked him up and drove him to New York City. Though they lived in Boston, and the facility was north, in New Hampshire, it seemed obvious to her that Boston was no place to celebrate, if celebrate was the right word. For one, it was Boston, and second, it was the site of Aaron’s most recent bout of trouble. Even if they would be returning soon enough, it seemed to her a kindness to prolong the time away as much as possible. New York, she knew, had its own “triggers”—even if Aaron claimed not to believe in the concept—but it still felt to her like the best place for them to be. It was where they’d met and spent their first happy years together, and besides, there was just so much more to do there.

“I think I might need to spend some time at that place again,” he’d said quietly. That was two months ago, as she drove him home from the jail. It would be his second time at “that place” since they’d been together, and his third overall. It made her sad, and weary, but she couldn’t quite summon anger. He was smart and kind when he was sober, and a weeping, pants-pissing idiot when he drank. They told most people, or allowed most people to believe, that he was going to an artist’s residency for a month—something he had, in fact, done in the past. Saying “New Hampshire” to their writer friends was like saying “New Haven” to a certain (overlapping) kind of person; they just assumed you were being discreet about your good fortune. It wasn’t that she was so afraid of judgment. It was no secret that Aaron was something of a mess—he wrote about it, quite successfully, though he assured those who were concerned by the material that it was exaggerated for effect. Sure, he’d embarrassed himself at a few parties, but he’d never actually, for example, blacked out while camping with Cassie, gotten lost in the woods, broken his ankle after falling into a ravine, and nearly frozen to death while passed out in his own vomit, as his avatar did in a story he’d published in a prestigious low-circulation journal last summer. (He’d only sprained his ankle, but the rest was, unfortunately, true.)

Okay, so maybe she was a bit afraid of judgment. People felt a certain way about charming ne’er-do-wells, but they often felt quite differently about lying alcoholics.

He was waiting on the little sidewalk behind the facility when she arrived to pick him up, his enormous rolling suitcase standing between him and the discharge nurse like a stout, unloved child.

“Hello, face!” he said. This was a reference to something; if she’d ever known its origin she’d forgotten it. It was what he always said when they’d been apart for a length of time greater than a day.

“Hey, you,” she said.

She’d ended up missing him even more than she’d expected to. For the first week he was away, she felt the relief and pleasure of not needing to answer to another person. She could take an edible as soon as she got home from work, watch gentle French comedies about amicable divorce, eat old olives and cheese from the fridge for dinner, masturbate. But this freedom soon became its own stultifying routine, and she missed the way she’d bent her life around Aaron’s. His mysterious excitements and longueurs provided a sense of event that she couldn’t conjure on her own.

After a few minutes of cheery, if not particularly edifying conversation (“The best thing about rehab is leaving rehab, that’s for sure!”), he fell asleep with his head wedged against the window. He’d started taking Zoloft again at the facility, despite which, he said, he’d rarely slept more than a few hours at a time, being in a strange bed, in, one might say, less than ideal circumstances. But now, relief plus Zoloft plus a steadily moving vehicle driven by his one (?) true (?) love (??) knocked him straight out.

He looked like he’d lost weight in the month since she’d last seen him. In one of their semiweekly phone calls from the approved landline—cell phones weren’t technically allowed, though the more obnoxiously entitled “guests” somehow managed to hold on to theirs, he told her—he’d been complimentary about the food. He’d been more or less complimentary about everything, certainly more positive than he’d been at home in at least a year, or maybe ever. She hoped this had something to do with “hitting bottom” (another thing Aaron did not believe in), but she suspected otherwise. His periods of sanguinity were most often the result of sex—actual, imagined, or immediately anticipated. This had, admittedly, not been much in abundance in any form through Cassie in the months leading up to or during his time away. It was hard, it turned out, to work up enthusiasm for sex with a very drunk depressed person. Though she had tried! She was hoping that, if he was now less depressed, and not drinking, they might be able to get back into it.

Sex had not been a particular problem with them, traditionally. It was likely what kept them together during the early years, their way of making up, of rediscovering a common language, after one or another of his voyages into the ether. These voyages not infrequently involved the romantic company of other women, and, on at least one occasion that she knew of, a man. (“Oh, it was platonic,” he’d said about that one, eyebrow raised. “Deeply so.”) He would usually confess that he’d “fooled around,” but for whatever reason—either because it was true or because it was a narrative structure he could not imagine his way beyond—he would always insist that nothing “more serious” had happened. Which meant, in practical terms, that they could continue having unprotected sex. There was a grim exultation in not quite believing him, in allowing him to “get away” with this, even at the risk of her own health, though after a couple of his more extended absences, she’d insisted, despite his protestations, that he get tested before she let him back into their bed. She’d had her own minor dalliances, in part to curb her resentment at his, though she had been extremely careful, for her own sake and, secondarily, for Aaron’s.

She wasn’t sure about the logistics of having an affair at an upscale rehab facility. The program featured “gender-separate accommodations,” but she knew that, at the very least, some meals and group therapy sessions were “mixed,” and Aaron needed, on average, about fifteen minutes to develop an infatuation, especially in an isolated setting. And the options were surely tantalizing—rich girls, too smart for their own good, addicted to drugs that made them thin and volatile. And he, an author (even if, by the odds, no one he met there would have read a word he’d written), attractive in his louche, overgrown-baby kind of way, deeply sympathetic to their stories, maybe even planning to write about them someday. His only type, he would tell them, was “interesting,” and if their particular malady did not qualify for whatever reason, they would find ways, she imagined, to make it do so.

He was snoring loudly and irregularly, with what she hoped was not sleep apnea. At home, it was so rare for him to fall asleep before she did that she genuinely didn’t know whether he usually snored or not. In the mornings, when she got out of bed (always before him), he was often so quiet that she was afraid he was dead. But he never was. She tried now to adjust NPR so that it covered up some of the sound he was making without startling him awake. A segment was documenting the travails of a wind farm on the U.S.-Mexico border run jointly by ex–border patrol agents and formerly undocumented Central American laborers. “We want to work, we are ready to forgive,” said a chirpy voice in English over what sounded like a much more complicated statement in the original Spanish.

Aaron was practically swimming in the pink-striped button-down shirt he was wearing. It had never fit him properly, and now that he was a little thinner, it looked like some kind of private joke. If she bought him an article of clothing, she had to be damn sure she liked it, because unless it fit so badly that he couldn’t physically wrangle it onto his body, or got lost or ruined in some misadventure, she knew she would be seeing it every other week for years to come. Cassie’s own style had emerged in her mid-twenties, after an athletic, sartorially indifferent extended adolescence. One weekend she accidentally borrowed a friend’s hot-pink leather jacket that had been left in her car, and wore it out over a ripped Rage Against the Machine T-shirt her brother had given her when she was twelve. It felt great. People assumed things about her. They imagined she was cool, literate, and a little strange, which was how she felt. It was that stupid, the thing that made her feel like herself.

Aaron woke up in Connecticut, a little past Hartford.

“Oh, hello again,” he said. He blinked at her, genuinely puzzled, it seemed, by the circumstances.

“Good morning!” she said.

“How long did I sleep?”

“A couple hours. You were a tired boy.”

“I guess, yeah,” he said.

He instinctively started hitting the radio presets on the dashboard. None of them yielded anything he wanted to hear, because they were out of range of the Boston stations they were set to. He started scanning and settled on some up-tempo jazz. Coltrane? She thought everything was Coltrane. She was often right.

“What are we going to do?” Aaron said. “In general. But also in New York.”

“So, okay!” she said. “I have a plan. We don’t have to go if you aren’t up for it, but: I got us tickets for the opera tonight. It’s supposed to be a good one, but it’s not, like, a buzzy one for whatever reason, so tickets were actually pretty cheap. So it’s fine if you’d rather skip it. But I thought it would be a nice treat.”

The tickets had, in fact, been quite expensive, and she knew (since he was the one who usually bought the tickets) that he probably knew this. But it was important that she give him a plausible out, even if it was more or less a given that he would feel obliged to act excited and grateful. She thought they needed to have the option of an activity that would occupy a significant span of time and take place in a zone that was familiar and comfortable. But she also didn’t want to throw him into the act of socializing yet. They were staying in a hotel that night, using a gift card they’d received from his father two Christmases ago but never had reason to use. It was for a moderately fancy hotel that allowed dogs, because they’d been planning to get a dog. Now of course she wanted to think about having kids, and they still hadn’t managed to agree on a fucking dog. Not even a cat!

The next night they were scheduled to stay with Mark and Gilberte, who were among the few friends that knew the true nature of Aaron’s “residency.” Also their only close friends who still lived in Manhattan. One of the side priorities of the trip was to stay out of Brooklyn, both because the rest of their friends lived there, and because there was nothing to do there but drink. She hoped they would spend Saturday like a couple of rich tourists—brunch at some bright, Instagrammable Israeli place in SoHo, book browsing at Housing Works and McNally, an afternoon at either the Met or the new Whitney (which was no longer very new). Was she being insane in her optimism? She thought it was all right to strive for an ideal, maybe, even if its realization was more or less impossible.

“The opera,” he said. “What a great idea, hon.”

She couldn’t tell whether the flatness was a sign of a new temperament or an indication that he thought it was in fact a very bad idea.

“We can see how we feel,” she said. “If we just feel like doing dinner and hanging out, we can do that.”

“No, no, it’s awesome,” he said, still without feeling. “What, ah, opera is it? That they’re doing.”

The Queen of Spades, by Tchaikovsky? I don’t think I knew he’d written an opera, so that’s kind of interesting. And the star is supposed to be this hot young thing everyone’s excited about. I mean, opera hot, I don’t know if she’s supposed to be like, hot hot.”

“I only leave my chambers for hot hot.”

“Right, so, here’s hoping.”

“I think it’s going to be great.”

“Well, we’ll see how we feel,” she said. She was driving herself crazy with the hedging but she couldn’t stop.

They got stuck in traffic in Connecticut, because Connecticut was designed, under its original colonial charter, to delay people traveling into New York from points north. She hadn’t wanted to stop to pee while Aaron was sleeping, but now that they weren’t moving, her need had gone from manageable to really quite urgent. She knew there had to be a gas station with a Dunkin’ Donuts in the next ten miles or so (thank you, New England), but how long it would be until they got that far was unknowable.

“I’m going to actually explode with urine,” she said. “This is how it ends for me.”

“Do you want to run to the side of the road? I can sit behind the wheel for a second.”

“Sit behind the wheel” was an acknowledgment that his license was suspended, and ineligible for reinstatement for at least a year. He was not legally allowed to drive, not even in Connecticut.

“I can wait,” she said. “It just sucks.”

“Here, let’s do it,” he said. “It’ll be okay. Nobody cares.”

I care. I don’t feel comfortable. I’m just going to fucking suffer.”

“Okay. As long as you understand you don’t have to.”

Right, so she was choosing unhappiness now. They inched along and her discomfort grew. They’d picked up a rap station and she listened to DaBaby explain for the hundredth time that he needed some isht with some bop in it. The fact that they still censored the radio was further proof that they lived in a doomed country with ridiculous priorities.

Her irritation with Aaron rose in direct proportion to how badly she needed to pee, which probably meant that she wasn’t being fair. It really wasn’t logistically possible for her to piss safely and unobserved, so their disagreement was mostly philosophical. But for him to be out of rehab for just a couple of hours and casually float that he do something illegal, no matter how briefly and inconsequentially, was upsetting to her. She gave him a lot of leeway, she thought, when it came to blame and guilt, but she wanted that to be repaid with some care for her feelings.

Finally, just when she had resigned herself to peeing into an empty coffee cup, the traffic let up a little and she used her training as a New Jersey teenager, weaving back and forth between the two lanes of traffic as fast as she could until, yes, a Dunkin’-themed service center materialized ahead on her right. She had, again, discovered inner resources she hadn’t been sure she possessed. She made it.

They pulled into the city a little after four, the sunlight already declining toward golden hour. It had been a mild winter in Boston, and it was even warmer here, hovering in the high forties in mid-January. She had declared herself a winter person at some point, possibly to be contrary at first, but the longer she kept to the position the more she felt it to be true. In the summer she felt doughy and slow-witted, unable to process the world mentally or physically without effort. But the cold activated her, encouraged her. She could harness its powers. She parked the car in the garage associated with the hotel. It would cost $45 a day, and she very much hoped that she would be able to cover it with the gift card. She decided to simply pretend to be sure that she would.

Re: money, it was complicated. Or maybe not that complicated. Aaron, in general, had money. His parents were rich, and despite his regular betrayal of their trust, they supplemented his sporadic writing and teaching income whenever they were called upon. In the delicate manner of such things, however, Aaron much preferred not to call upon them, and to instead rely on Cassie’s money when his ran low. She taught history at a Catholic prep school in a Boston suburb and made plenty for regular human expenses. She just didn’t make enough to pay for lawyers, fines, upscale rehab, thrice-weekly therapy not covered by insurance, etc. Plus, unlike Aaron, she was trying to actually save some of the money she made, just in case she, you know, lived past the age of forty. It was of course the marginal expenses, rather than the big ones, that created resentments—the assumption that she would pick up a dinner tab without thinking about how long it was until payday, his decision to purchase a vintage reading chair (with “his own money”) during an unusually freezing November, when the cost of heating the house (her responsibility) raised their rent by a third. He was careless rather than intentionally unhelpful, which meant that when disparities or expenses were brought to his attention he sometimes became emotional, if not dramatic. This is all to say: it often felt easier to quietly pay for the thing than to open herself up to the possibility of an unpleasant conversation, which would not, in any case, yield a different outcome.

The lobby of the hotel featured large statues of dogs, and there were small bronze dogs on the marble check-in desk, but she did not see (or hear or smell!) any actual animals. She wondered how many people would really think it was a good idea to come to New York City and leave their dog in a hotel room, even if it was allowed. Perhaps people with better-trained dogs than the ones owned by her friends and family? She checked them in and they took the elevator to the ninth floor.

“What are you thinking?” Cassie said.

“Um. I hope there’s enough time to fuck you before we have to go to dinner,” he said.

“Oh, is that something that’s been on your mind?”

“I don’t want to hope for too much,” he said.

“I guess it’s partly a question of what you’ve been up to since the last time I saw you.”

He checked her face to assess whether this was just banter, or something more. The answer, of course, depended on his response. He clucked his tongue softly, a default response that was meant to signal playful disapproval, but actually conveyed annoyance that he wasn’t willing to fully articulate.

You know what I’ve been up to,” he said.

The room was small, but clean and . . . “contemporary” was the word, maybe? “Boutique-y?” “Not explicitly corporate but not a shithole?” The theme of this floor seemed to be “New York in the Seventies, but not in a scary way.” There was a framed black-and-white photo of the outside of CBGB. There was a framed black-and-white photo of Debbie Harry. Sure. Cassie remembered when the height of modernity in hotel furnishings was a Bose radio with a built-in CD player, and then when it was the same thing, but with an iPod dock. This room had a suitcase record player with the first Ramones album on the turntable. The “record library,” a card on the desk said, could be browsed on the hotel’s website, and selections would be brought to the room upon request. She felt the deep sadness of being a human being at this moment in world history.

Aaron sat down on the bed and stared at his lap. Cassie wondered whether he was falling back asleep. If so, there was no way they were going to make it through the opera. Given the average age of the Met’s audience members, though, he would hardly be the only one sleeping through the middle acts. He lifted his head and met her eyes.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hello,” she said. “You sleepin’?”

“Certainly not.”

She took small, self-consciously seductive steps toward him. She noticed for the first time the bottle of wine on the cabinet, next to the TV, a gift from the hotel, presumably—a little card dangling from the neck. She wasn’t overly worried about Aaron being tempted by its presence. She was confident that he would earnestly try to reform himself for at least a month before the first hints of backsliding began to appear. Despite his posturing, he was a sincere person, one who tried to believe the things he was told, to swallow whatever had been suggested might help him to improve himself. The problem, he’d told her one night, drunk, was that he got bored. Everything was always the same, the same, the same, and he didn’t know how to change things. “I’m not the same,” she said. “I’m a human, I change every minute. Isn’t that interesting enough?” “I guess I need to try harder to notice,” he said. “That would probably help my writing too. I never know what’s actually going on.” What was funny was that he did seem to know what was going on in his writing, even if he evinced little of this knowledge in his daily life.

They kissed, gently at first, and then the full tongue thing. She thought there was something slightly tentative and unenthusiastic about his kissing—it didn’t seem as urgent as she thought it should given their time apart. There were many possibilities for why this might have been the case; she knew it wasn’t fair to assume he had gotten involved, or infatuated, or whatever. Was it, as her mother had suggested during an earlier iteration of this situation, that Cassie wanted him to lose interest in her so that she might finally be done with this whole repetitive cycle? Sure, of course. She was interested in other people, too. She was a person. Caleb, who taught English to the sophomores, had made it clear that he’d be willing to give up his life (which consisted of not much besides teaching and smoking weed, as far as she knew) to follow her wherever she’d be willing to take him. She was pretty sure she didn’t want to adopt Caleb, but did she think about keeping him under her desk for some after-school help with grading? Yes, she did. Did she eye the spoiled college girl on the T wearing bright white high-tops, a blue romper, and an obscene, goose-murdering puffy coat and imagine taking her home with the promise of . . . what could she promise such a girl? TikTok followers? Having sex with Cassie would probably not increase the girl’s TikTok followers.

Aaron was not a childish middle-school teacher or a BU brat, but she could treat him like one. She pushed his shoulders down so he lay on his back, pushed his hands up over his head. She unbuttoned his jeans and pulled them off with his boxers.

“Doesn’t seem like you’re ready for me yet,” she said. “Stay there.”

She took her vibrator out of her shoulder bag and lay down next to him. She turned it on at the lowest setting and pulled her tights down to her ankles. She closed her eyes, pressed down. It took her a couple of minutes, but she was getting into it.

“Is this what you’ve been thinking about, Aar?”

She opened her eyes. He was asleep.

They took the subway to the opera house. She had recently read, on Thelonious Monk’s Wikipedia page, that a black neighborhood known as San Juan Hill had been bulldozed in order to build the Lincoln Center complex in the 1960s. Of course, she’d never really thought about what had been there before the theaters, most of which were now emblazoned with the names of right-wing oligarchs. She remembered the time she’d gone canvassing for local candidates in Brooklyn, back when they lived in the city. She’d been assigned the Ebbets Field Apartments, a massive, run-down housing complex just past her neighborhood. Only afterward had it occurred to her that the echoing halls and stairwells she’d been trudging through were perched above the field where Jackie Robinson had played. For better or worse, she was past the point of feeling actively sad about these kinds of things. They just drove home the point that New York was a landscape full of ghosts.

Cassie didn’t want to wake Aaron up, so she decided to cancel the dinner reservation she’d made at a homey, old-school Italian place where they’d once been together, another attempt at nostalgic foundation building for Aaron’s new life of sobriety, or something. Instead they participated in what was, admittedly, an even more evocative ritual: finding the nearest pizza counter and wolfing down greasy slices coated in self-administered oregano and red pepper flakes, under the forbearing eyes of random half-smiling celebrities surprised into photos with the owners and staff. Between bites of “barbecue chicken” pizza (why, Aaron?), he apologized for being so exhausted. It must have been, he said, that his body finally felt like it was out of danger.

“Is there anybody from back in the, um, danger zone that you’re going to keep in touch with?” Cassie said. “Or you’ve had enough of them.”

Casual, casual.

“No, a few of us are going to meet on Skype or whatever once everybody’s back out in the world,” Aaron said. “I dunno, maybe it’s gonna be like summer camp where everybody promises to stay in touch and then you don’t. But I think people actually felt pretty connected.”

“Did you?”

“I think so. I mean, maybe as much as I ever do, I guess.”

“That Mary you mentioned on the phone, is she in the group?”

She had picked this person more or less arbitrarily. He had been pretty sparse with his information, but a Mary, an Amir, and a Laurel had come up in positive contexts during his brief calls. Cassie had spent a good amount of the past month trying to picture these people. She ended up with shadowy approximations of humans, like TV actors who sort of resembled movie stars.

“Yeah, Mary’s in it. This guy Christian—I don’t think I’ve ever known a Christian in real life before. Carlson, my roommate from the first two weeks. That girl Leonora I told you about.”

Had Laurel actually been Leonora? She felt like she would have remembered a Leonora, because of Leonora Carrington. He hadn’t hesitated even a little when he mentioned her, but still, her radar went up.

“What’s Leonora’s story?” she said. She tried not to italicize the name, the classic tell.

“Oh, she’s a mess. Like the whole gang, though maybe even more so. But she’s funny. Self-aware about it.”


“As the dickens,” he said. “A regular Little Dorrit.” The fact that he was making a joke of it was Not Great.

“Is she, uh, out? Or still there?”

“She left a week ago. It seems like she’s been really struggling. It’s a shame. She’s a cool person.”

Cassie didn’t push any further, but she, of course, noted all of this.

Now, at the opera, she felt overwhelmed by the sea of people, many of whom were dressed much more expensively and formally than she and Aaron were. When they had lived in the city, they’d come to the Met often enough that they were comfortable being there in whatever they were wearing. They usually sat way up at the top of the house, in the cheap seats, surrounded by other young people in street clothes who, judging by conversations, often seemed to be musicians, singers, and actors. She’d enjoyed the semi-backstage feeling of sitting among the regulars. To pay thirty-five dollars and not dress up made her feel like she was experiencing the true spirit of the art rather than merely basking in the social display that had, admittedly, been the main function of the medium since its invention. But the time away had made her self-conscious. The seats she’d bought were in the orchestra, among very old couples in tuxedos and black dresses, Russians draped in expensive furs, and families with embalmed-looking teenagers staring blankly ahead in doll-person outfits.

But once the curtain opened, she felt a rush of relief and pleasure. She’d been right! It was better, much better, to be closer to the stage, to see the trembling mouths of the singers, to feel the crashing orchestra in her body, to have the ornate ceiling towering over their heads. It was thanks to money that she was having this experience. She had successfully paid her way to aesthetic ecstasy. At least, now that they were here, she could stop worrying and be overwhelmed by the beauty of what was in front of her. The moment she thought this, she began to worry. Aaron seemed happy, sort of. Or, at least, he wasn’t asleep or looking actively miserable. She wondered if he was thinking about his phone, itching to check it and see what Leonora had said about her latest struggles. To be fair, he’d hardly been glued to his phone; she certainly would have been if she’d been away from it for a month.

But what if . . . what if Aaron didn’t need to look at it now because he’d had his phone the whole time? And he’d just told her he didn’t so he wouldn’t have to keep in touch with her?

Onstage there was a sung discussion of a secret card trick that could only be learned from . . . a ghost? She didn’t quite trust the translations that appeared on the backs of the seats, and she hadn’t had time to read the synopsis beforehand. This fellow really, really wanted to know the secret card trick that would help him win an incomprehensible card game.

The more she thought about it, the more she felt that Aaron wasn’t being truthful in some fundamental way. But maybe it was just the therapy and the drugs? Maybe this was what reformation looked like and she was, through her suspicion, imperiling his recovery. She would try not to do this. But what if his demeanor didn’t indicate a struggle for redemption, but was, rather, a sign of resignation? To being bored, to being lonely. Or just: to drinking. His face remained a rictus of vague pleasure.

At intermission they walked up to the highest floor, where they usually sat, so they could look over the bannister of the spiraling stairs and watch the ecosystem of operagoers from above. People drank $25 glasses of champagne from plastic flutes. They’d been at the opera once on her birthday, and Aaron had insisted they get champagne. She’d managed to talk him down to one glass for them to share, and the overlapping novelties—the expense, the venue, the shared glass—had tipped the frustrating experience into something pleasurable. But it was too wasteful; she vowed never to do it again.

“So is she as good as you hoped?” Aaron said.

“Oh,” Cassie said. The singer. “She seems solid, though she hasn’t really gotten to do much yet. I think her big number is in the next act.”

“I still feel like I can’t really tell,” Aaron said. “You could probably trick me into thinking someone who was just fine was really amazing, or vice versa. That means ‘the opposite’ in Latin.”

“I trust the Met not to fuck with me,” Cassie said. “Except for when they were doing all that Spider-Man the Musical shit with the Ring cycle. I don’t really need to see, like, machines on the stage to know it’s epic.”

Aaron smiled emptily at this. It was his riff; she was just covering it. He didn’t pick it up.

“You okay?” she said.

“I think so,” he said. He sighed heavily. “This is so, so fun, but I do feel pretty insane, you know? It’s just a lot. I might be losing it a little.”

Of course he was. Fuck. Of course it was.

“That was plenty of opera for one night,” she said.

“No, I’m fine,” he said. He widened his fake smile to a painful-looking aperture. “I want to see the big number.”

“I think I’d rather go,” she said. “We’ve barely even gotten to talk, you know? We can come back to the opera whenever. It’s not, you know, changing my life. It’s fine.”

He’d begun weeping while she said this, but she could see him trying to keep it together. He took off his glasses and pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not specific. I’m just feeling a kind of, um, general fragility, I guess.”

The intermission bells were dinging, and the lights had begun to flash on and off. A few months later, when it became clear that neither they, nor anyone else, would be going to theaters of any kind for a very long time, she remembered this moment. If she had known what was coming—the grief and the loneliness, the full banishment from the places that had sustained her for so much of her life—would she have insisted, against her better judgment, that they stay? She wanted, then, to hear the awaited aria almost as much as she wanted to comfort Aaron. Later, when the full scale of the loss became clear, she thought reproachfully that Aaron would have been just fine sitting through one more act, maybe two. He wouldn’t have been any worse in the audience, his hand on hers, than in the hotel room. It was fine to cry at the opera. It was perfectly natural.

“Come on,” she said. She put her arm through his, like a formal escort, and they descended the stairs to the front door, and then went out into the cold night.

She was woken from a deep sleep in darkness, in the unfamiliar room, by a harsh, insistent buzzing on the nightstand. She never set her phone to vibrate—it was on or off, damn it—so her first thought was that it was Aaron’s phone. Only a death could prompt a call this late. Or a selfish female alcoholic, desperate for words of solace.

Aaron had not been able to articulate his source of upset in the hours after they left the opera. His problem was “everything,” but also that he “didn’t actually have any real problems, and that was probably the problem, at the end of the day.” He hated himself, and he hated how other people made him feel, and he hated that he’d made Cassie’s life so difficult, and he knew that he had to be a completely different person now, but he didn’t know if he could be, and he was afraid of losing an important part of himself, and he was afraid of losing her. She sympathized with all of this, to some extent, but it all felt oddly abstract, like he was upset about concepts rather than real things. She couldn’t help but continue to suspect that he was pretending, on some level—maybe even to himself—to be overwhelmed, to avoid something else.

The buzzing against the nightstand continued. It was on her side of the bed. Aaron muttered something, only half awake. She reached over to pick up the phone and felt, instead, the bulbous silicone head of her vibrator, which was, seemingly of its own volition, turned to the highest setting and doing its best to fulfill its mandate. She pressed the power button but it continued to shudder, now pulsing in quick, discrete bursts. She didn’t know it could do that! She held down the button forcefully and the thing quieted. She tossed it on the floor and tried to go back to sleep.

She had just drifted off, or so it felt, when she woke to the sound again, the machine again on its newfound setting. As a message from the gods, it lacked both subtlety and tact, though it was nice that these gods seemed to have a sense of humor. This time the vibrator refused to be silenced. Every time she pressed the button it simply buzzed in a new pattern. Oh, this was what you wanted, got it. No? Oh, buzz every three seconds, got it. Oh, every five seconds, cool. Oh, never mind, you want me to buzz really softly but consistently. She carried it into the bathroom, wrapped it in a towel, then another one, and left it in the tub. She spent the next hour straining to see if she could still hear it, until she finally got up and took a couple of Tylenol PM. When she lay back down, her mind, blessedly, went blank, and then dark.

When she woke to the gray morning light, Aaron was not in bed. He was not, as far as she could tell, in the room at all. The bathroom door was closed, but he didn’t answer when she called, and she found it unlocked. Aaron’s toothbrush and toiletry bag were not on the counter. The vibrator was still in the tub, in its swaddling clothes. It seemed to have worn itself out.

She went back into the room and sat down on the bed. The bottle of wine next to the TV was gone. She had a text from the Bernie campaign and one from her friend Rachel, who was “just checkin in boo.” She had no missed calls. Aaron’s giant coffin of a suitcase was still leaning against the wall next to the closet but, she now noticed, the contents of her tote bag—a fat Italian novel about World War II, an empty contact lens case, sunglasses, a tampon—were piled neatly on top of it. She read her novel for a half hour, then set it down to look up the plot of The Queen of Spades and find out what she’d missed. Death by fright, suicide, dramatic card game, suicide. Didn’t anyone in an opera ever decide to just keep muddling through?

From a nearby room, she finally heard a real dog barking. It sounded celebratory, rather than fearful or aggressive. Someone had come back! Dogs, she thought, were very forgiving. They knew, at least, where the food was coming from.

| View All Issues |

March 2019

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now