By Lauren Green
Michael leans over to flick off the heat, catching a whiff of Rick’s half-eaten apple in the cup holder. He had thought the fling with Rick would maybe last a night or two. Fifteen months later, they are driving home to see Michael’s ex-wife, Leslie, who is throwing herself an end-of-life party.
In the passenger seat, Rick extends his arms overhead and begins to spell out O-H-I-O, not for the first time this trip. Michael knows that Ohio means little to Rick, who has spent all twenty-four years of his life in New York City, where Michael met him at a tacky Chelsea bar called Rawhide.
“Did you know there’s a river here that’s flammable?” Michael asks.
“The Cuyahoga. It’s so full of pollutants, it once caught fire. Literally.”
Rick snorts, the way he always does when he finds something either amusing or lame. Michael is unsure which category his fact falls into. He sets his gaze ahead into the near-dark once more, where a sliver of moon lances through the lacy canopy of sycamores that flanks the side of the road.
Leslie had been sick once before, long ago. She had told Michael this on an early date—how she spent her fourteenth year propped-up in bed, teaching herself card tricks from a paper booklet while doctors pumped her body full of delphinium-blue poison. By the end of the summer, the whites of her eyes were tinted blue, like sky reflected in a corner of windshield, and she could levitate the queen of spades.
And now she is dying. Second cancer—that was what she called it on the phone. Not a recurrence but a separate entity altogether. Michael was in his office at the YMCA when she rang. As Leslie’s voice floated toward him, he imagined her in their old kitchen, worrying the landline cord into a coil between her slim fingers, crossing one slick, shea-buttered ankle over the other.
“Come,” she said. “I mean, if you want. If you still love me—” she said, but she did not finish the sentence.
The end-of-life celebration seemed somber and hellish to Michael, who had no desire to return to his former existence. “It’s not exactly like she’s ever been the life of the party,” he grumbled to Rick. Life of the party. The words were like tinfoil against his teeth. Jesus Christ, he thought.
But Rick had insisted he go, and had offered to accompany him, most likely in the hopes of purloining some medical cannabis. So, it was decided.
Michael casts a sidelong gaze to the passenger seat. A deep red nick dents the cove beneath Rick’s ear where he cut himself shaving this morning. His cheeks are unsullied, young. “Arizona,” Michael says.
Michael gestures to the license plate of the white semi-trailer that looms like a cloud in the reddening distance. “Arizona,” he says again.
Rick drapes his brown leather jacket over his lithe body and wriggles it up to his chin. His head lolls to one side. Blue-black twilight peeks through the lines on the window glass where he has fingernailed away the frost. “It’s so boring here,” he says, his voice husky with sleep.
“Welcome to Middle America,” Michael answers, with a small laugh. He waits for the reward of Rick’s quick snort, which does not come.
Nighttime bounds across the highway and far into the plains. Darkness spreads over the soybean fields and hoods the silver Camry. Michael lets his thoughts drift to Leslie. Leslie in the bed, late at night, waiting for him to come home. Leslie on the twig-littered drive, watching him pull away.
A car streams around them, blaring its horn, and Michael careens back into his lane. Beady red taillights glare out at him from ahead. “Maryland,” he says. “Did we already get that one?”
He glances over at Rick, who has lapsed into sleep. Outside, wintry currents howl. Michael reaches over, turns up the heat, and tries to think again of Leslie.
The rules to Leslie’s party, which she had emailed out to her twenty-five or so nearest and dearest, are simple:
- No using the words “death” or “dying” or “cancer” or “time.”
- If you need to cry, step outside.
- If I need to cry, you are not allowed to judge me.
The roads grow more and more familiar. Michael spots the Sunoco station he and Leslie frequented whenever they drove to the airport, the mossy bog they meandered around when spring fever spiked, the convention center where Michael got down on his knees for a man whose name he did not want to know.
He nearly misses the turn onto his own block, the one he took every day for twenty-two years. He passes the Claffeys, the Morgans, the Haberfields. He slows as he approaches the stone-and-stucco house that once belonged to the Fletchers. A “For Sale” sign gnashes its long, white fangs into the overgrown yard.
The Fletchers were a young couple who had perpetual, mystifying tans, which they emphasized by dressing exclusively in pastels. They lived in the house with their toddler, a flaxen-haired boy named Jacob. Michael and Leslie sometimes watched Jacob through the window as he raced his Tonka steel cement mixer up and down the drive.
“Why isn’t anyone out there with him?” Leslie would ask. “Someone should be watching.”
“You don’t know that someone isn’t,” Michael would counter.
One day, Mr. Fletcher strapped Jacob into his car seat and drove to the reservoir on the outskirts of town, where teenagers would venture in the gauzy days of July to get lucky. The reservoir was two miles long and sixty feet deep—lightless and shimmering as a black snake. Later, the skid marks would indicate that Mr. Fletcher didn’t even brake—he drove full speed ahead into the water, which swallowed the car in several large gulps, down into the belly of all that glimmering black.
For nights after the tragedy, Rachel Fletcher’s wails kept Michael and Leslie up at night. When they passed by her in the supermarket, her grief seemed otherworldly. Her eyes darted unsettlingly in their sockets, as if her pupils were an etch-a-sketch trying to erase what they had seen.
Michael and Leslie adopted Rachel Fletcher’s name for any pain that was too great to bear. When Leslie’s father died of heart disease: Rachel Fletcher. When Michael was laid off: Rachel Fletcher. On that final day, when his car was packed, and he drove away, watching her disappear in the rearview mirror: Rachel Fletcher, Rachel Fletcher, Rachel Fletcher.
Rick stirs and rubs the sleep from his eyes. “This it?” he asks, taking in the abandoned house.
“No,” Michael says, easing his foot down onto the pedal. “Next one.”
He pulls into the drive. A single light glows firefly-yellow through the kitchen window. “Maybe you should stay here,” he says.
Rick shrugs. “It’s not like she doesn’t know I’m coming.”
“I know, but—”
Rick palms Michael’s thigh. “Don’t,” he says, squeezing. “It’ll be fine.”
Michael stares into the nettled gulley behind the yard, waiting for his headlights to catch on a pair of gleaming eyes or the scales of a leaping fish. He is considering restarting the car and checking into a motel for the night when Leslie appears backlit in the doorway, a pilled cardigan sashed loosely around her middle.
“Hey, stranger,” she calls, as Michael kills the engine and clambers out of the car.
The air is crisp. The breeze smells of rainwater on pine. Leslie waits on the landing, staring at Michael with what he imagines to be painkiller-induced joy. He walks to her and wraps her in a hug. She is all bone beneath his fingertips. With her mouth still nuzzled into his neck, he gently cups the back of her wigged head.
He hears Rick behind him and pulls away. “This is—”
“Rick.” Leslie extends her hand. “So nice to meet you. Come on in. Ignore the mess. I’m still trying to get everything set for tomorrow.”
She leads the way into the kitchen, where moonlight pools on the ground beneath the French patio doors. Michael’s eyes flicker to the frames on the wall. Leslie riding the Raptor at Cedar Point, arms thrust into the air; Leslie at her nephew’s wedding, face dewy and wide. He tries to reconcile the woman in the photographs with the one who stands before him now, her pallid skin impressed with a filigree of purple veins.
“Long drive?” she asks, collapsing into a cushioned chair. She rubs the back of her palm against her forehead, smudging one penciled-in eyebrow to a long, brown streak. “Can I get either of you a drink?”
“I’ll take soda if you have,” Rick says.
“Pop,” Michael corrects. “I’ll get it.”
He pads to the pantry where they keep the drinks. The shelves are stocked for tomorrow’s party with foods the Leslie of his memories would be loath to purchase: chips and candy, soda and beer. Michael fingers the plastic rigging between the soda cans. Leslie always used to complain that the rings were an environmental hazard, liable to pollute the oceans and strangle sea turtles. But what should she care for oceans now?
When Michael returns to the kitchen, he finds Rick standing in the planetary blue light of the refrigerator, wielding a bulbous head of ginger.
“It’s for me,” Leslie explains.
Michael cocks his head. His wife is gone, but here is this woman sitting in his wife’s chair, wrapped in his wife’s freckled skin, wearing her same kind and weary face.
“Soda?” Rick asks.
Michael tosses him the can, and listens to the snap of the tab, the hiss of the fizz. He has forgotten how eerie the woodlands’ silence can be. Rick tips his head back and allows the brown liquid to stream into his gullet. Then, with alarming strength, he crushes the can in one fist and sets its flattened body down on the marble countertop.
Michael turns to Leslie, whose eyes are shut. “Do you need help setting anything up for tomorrow?” he asks.
“Mmm,” she says, “I think I’ve got everything. My mom’s been staying here, so she did most of the setup. I just need to finalize my outfit.”
“Can we see it?” Rick asks.
Leslie pauses a moment, then blinks her eyes open and labors to her feet. “Sure,” she says. “Just give me a minute. I’m slow going up.”
Michael watches as she shuffles across the hardwood floor. He waits for the open mouth of the hallway to devour her frail body before shooting Rick a savage look.
“What?” Rick asks.
Michael shakes his head. “Let me show you the rest of the house,” he says.
He leads the way from the kitchen, flicking on lights as he goes. In the dining room, he is overcome by the urge to yank open every drawer and catalogue all the objects she will leave behind. He reaches for the china cabinet, where he spots Leslie’s favorite vase sitting on the topmost shelf. The vase is turnip-shaped, the white-waves color of the Atlantic on a drizzly day. Michael grips it by the neck and uses his shirtsleeve to swab dust from around the rim. Then he sets it in the center of the dining room table.
“Look at this,” Rick calls.
Michael glances up and crosses the threshold to the living room, where Leslie’s mother has arranged a semi-circle of folding chairs. Streamers festoon every surface. Rick stands at the foot of a bridge table set off to one side, studying the objects neatly arrayed on its surface. A sign above, scrawled in Leslie’s trembling hand, reads “HELP YOURSELF.”
Michael runs his fingers over the keepsakes: Leslie’s porcelain hand-mirror; her camera; a set of scalloped, earthenware bowls; a watercolor of a lily. He is about to turn away when he catches sight of a familiar glass bottle, dangling from a silver chain. The bottle is the size of his thumb and filled with pink sand from the beach in Greece where he and Leslie honeymooned.
Michael pinches the chain and lifts it into the air, watching as the coral granules in the bottle tumble one on top of the other. He had given Leslie the necklace when they first married. He closes his fist around the glass and worms it into his back pocket. He can feel Rick’s eyes on him and looks up, daring to be challenged. They stare at each other, soundless and unmoving.
Just then, the patter of Leslie’s footfalls jolts them. “Where did you boys run away to?” she calls, and the kettle in the kitchen begins to sing.
Michael remembers little from the honeymoon. He remembers only the tract of sky at sunset: febrile, the color of a skinned tangerine; the sizzle of his feet over the hot cobblestones once walked by emperors; a donkey braying; the lassitude of the Mediterranean. He remembers the day he walked down to the beach alone. Leslie, sick with sun fatigue, had gone back to the whitewashed villa early.
Even now, Michael can picture the tanned face of the young man folding up umbrellas on the salmon-colored sand. The man, who couldn’t have been more than a boy. The man, whom Michael slipped a Drachma banknote in exchange for a blowjob. The man, whose flushed cheeks and vacant brown eyes tormented Michael every day for the next twenty-two years of his life.
When all was said and done, Michael sat down in a webstrap beach chair and regarded the young man with the disdain he reserved for the people who reminded him of his most monstrous self. The man finished folding his umbrellas and strode back up the path, whistling.
When Michael and Rick reenter the kitchen, the room is dark. In the silvery moonlight, Leslie’s edges are feathered and blurred, as though she has been done in crayon. She stands with her arms crossed, in a red silk gown that Michael recognizes. He and Leslie had squabbled about its exorbitant price two years ago; at the time, she had no occasion to wear it to. I just want to feel beautiful, she had said. Why was that not enough?
“Can one of you get my zipper?” she asks, walking toward them. She moves slowly, fisting her hair away from her neck. Rick steps forward and tugs the zipper up its track, his hand hovering at the clasp.
She spins around. “What do you think?”
Rick lets out a long, slow whistle of approval.
Leslie scans Michael’s face. “It’ll be better with makeup,” she says.
Michael swallows down the lump in his throat. He levels his eyes on Leslie. She suddenly feels very large to him, and far away, like a city glimpsed through an airplane window. “You look…ravishing,” he says.
He has the desire to say something more, but every word that comes to mind seems trite. They stand in silence until, at last, Rick clears his throat.
“It’s late,” he says. “I’m gonna turn in.”
Leslie nods. “I’ve set you up in the guest room, just up the stairs, first door on the left.”
Rick swings his backpack over one shoulder and slinks toward the staircase. He has a dancer’s physique, and his slim hips pendulum from side to side. After a few moments, Michael and Leslie tilt their heads up at the ceiling, where they hear Rick moving about in the room above.
“He seems nice,” Leslie says. She crosses to the sink to put away the last of the dishes, humming to herself a tune that is more breath than music, and impossible for Michael to place.
“I’ll get those,” he says.
“They’re already done.”
She shuts the cupboard and wipes her hands on a blotted, balding rag. “So, what’s he getting out of this?” she asks.
Michael opens his mouth, then closes it again. He thinks of Rick, of his youth, his boundless energy, of the rainbow-pride flag that hangs in place of a window curtain. He thinks of the night they first met. Michael had worn a too-tight paisley shirt, which pulled between his shoulder blades. Uncanny taxidermy fixtures jutted out from the wooden pillars overhead. Shot glasses sweated on the ebony bar.
Rick stood in the center of the room, pretending to rope the mechanical bull with an invisible lasso. At the sight, Michael felt a judder inside, and placed one hand over his heart; he had forgotten what this muscle could do. Later, the men kissed beneath the bristled snout of a boar, whose marble glare kept vigil over the crowd. Rick tasted of pizza. When he opened his mouth to speak, Michael was surprised by the faint Colombian accent that barbed his voice. Top or bottom, Cowboy?
Recalling the line, Michael feels the tips of his ears burn. At the start, he had liked how both he and Rick were, in some ways, beginners. He liked how Rick, at twenty-four, had never known a single person who had died, not even a grandparent. He liked how Rick called him Mi corazón—my heart.
Michael is about to ask Leslie what she knows about being someone’s heart, when he notices that her hand has paled on the countertop. Her shoulders begin to tremble. The fabric of her dress dimples in the concave shadow of her stomach as she doubles over in pain.
“Hey,” he says, stepping forward. He pries her fingers up one at a time. She yields to his touch, as though she is boneless, made of water. “I’ve got you,” he says, cinching an arm tightly around her waist.
For so long, the cheating had seemed almost too easy. Leslie never questioned why Michael decided to take up piano as an antidote to middle-age malaise, nor why he insisted on taking lessons twice a week with Jonathan Claffey, the neighbors’ son. She never questioned the underwear with the stain in the crotch that she found nearby the gulley, which Michael said must have belonged to one of the hooligans who egged the Fletcher house. She never questioned why her husband was so frigid at night, rebuffing her every advance. Or, if she did, she never expressed these worries to him.
Perhaps Michael could have kept the charade up had he and Leslie not run into one of his ex-lovers—a striking, Irish-sort—at the Cinemark, whose eyes widened when Leslie introduced herself as Michael’s wife. Leslie looked to Michael, her pupils dilating, jaw tensing, and in that instant, he knew that she knew.
In the car ride home, her hair smelled buttery, of popcorn. “I feel like my whole life—” she said. Michael waited, but she did not go on.
They pulled up to a stoplight, and Michael turned to face his wife, his throat gummed with excuses. Black trails of mascara coursed down her cheeks. Her expression was blank. She stared at him vacuously, as she would a stranger, and he wondered how she had so quickly secreted away whatever intimacy lay at her surface.
“What do you want me to tell people?” she said.
A car behind them honked, and Michael turned back to the road. “What?”
“I mean, do you want me to tell the truth?”
Michael sieved through the simple kindness of her question, hoping to catch something sharp lurking in its tenderness. “Tell them whatever you want,” he said, too scornfully.
Tears pricked at his eyes. He told himself this was what he had wanted all along. Leslie reached over and laced her fingers with his over the gearshift. Her touch was warm, loving. Michael did not know how a person could be so good.
Upstairs, Michael sets Leslie down on the bed they once shared. The sheets smell of rotted flesh. On the bedroom carpet, he notices the oval impressions her slippers have left, like tracks in snow.
“Will you get the light?” she asks.
He does. In the darkness, he fumbles to the bed, sits at its edge with his head hung and his hands clasped in his lap. He hears Leslie’s effortful breathing behind him. “Do you need me to get you anything?” he asks.
She runs her hand over the space beside her, smoothing the wrinkled sheets. “Lie down, will you?”
He climbs into bed, careful not to pull on the red silk of her dress. His body commas around hers. She is smaller than he remembers. The warmth that radiates through her back is shocking. He wonders for a moment if the doctors have it wrong, if she is not near to death at all.
“Wait,” she says. “Shut your eyes.”
“Are they closed?”
The mattress shifts as Leslie pitches forward. Michael hears a faint rustling and the clacking of bobby pins against the cherry-finished nightstand. He imagines her buzzed head, the down that frosts her skull.
She lies back down, closer to him, and he can feel her breath hot on his neck. “Hey, you have silver in your beard,” she says. “You know that?”
Michael feels her fingers tracing over the basin-like curve of his chin. Her hands stall. Then, slowly, she leans in and kisses him. He can feel the ridges on her chapped lips, the places where her skin is flaking. She pulls away and nestles her head into his chest.
Just then, Michael hears the floorboards creak and glances up, startled. A shadowy figure stands in the half-lit doorway. Rick.
“I should go,” Michael says, watching in his periphery as Rick turns around, making a hasty retreat.
“Wait.” Leslie prayers her hands beneath her head and opens her eyes. “Stay.”
Michael scratches at his beard. Groggy with exhaustion, he rolls from the bed. “Give me a minute,” he says.
He plods his way from the room and down the hallway. The light is on in the guest room. Michael imagines entering, only to find Rick repacking his toothbrush into his toiletry bag, slipping his feet into his brown loafers, readying himself to leave. Michael will take Rick into his arms, explain the gossamer-thread sort of love that sprouts in the corners of a lifetime spent together, where neither party thinks to look. He will ask why it should not be possible for him to love them both. But Rick will merely snort, shove Michael away, say he is nothing but a foolish, dirty old man.
When Michael arrives at the room, he is surprised to find Rick standing by the window, hands balled into the pockets of his jeans. “What are you doing?” Michael asks, setting one hand to rest on the doorframe.
“Thinking,” Rick says.
Michael strolls over to him, so that they are mere inches apart. Rick is a head taller, at least, and larger. Michael feels his heart quicken in his chest, the way it always does when he walks past someone on the street he knows could hurt him.
“How is she?” Rick asks. He is standing so close, Michael can make out the golden flecks in his brown, wrinkleless eyes, and the scar on his cheek where he scratched at a chicken pock when he was a boy.
Michael purses his lips. He waits, knowing that Rick will uncover the answer he cannot provide.
Rick nods and gestures to the window. “Look,” he says.
Outside, the world is lacquered a chilled pink. Clouds scud across the lightening sky. Rime cloaks the winterweed. A slender-tailed bird alights in the tree just beyond the windowpane and begins to coo.
Rick reaches down and takes ahold of Michael’s hand. Then, gently, he leads Michael back to the door. Michael suddenly feels very small. He remembers how, as a child, his father used to usher him to the bus stop at the end of the road each morning, where the other St. Jude’s boys constellated in their woolen gray uniforms.
Rick crinkles his eyebrows. He gives Michael’s hand a hard squeeze. “She needs you now,” he says.
On the day Michael was set to leave Ohio, two years before, he paused in the kitchen before the French doors, wondering how he got here. Just yesterday, it seemed, he was a teenager whose pinky inched along the church pew toward the pinky of the boy who sat beside him. The next thing he knew, he was standing at the altar, staring into Leslie’s eyes, and then, in a single blink, he found himself a middle-aged man, with back pains and a mortgage and a problematic hairline. The years were pancaked together, and he could not unflatten them.
The night before, Leslie had sunk down to the floor of their bedroom, wanting to know if it was her fault. He told her it wasn’t and asked why it needed to be anyone’s fault. But she was hurt, and he was hurt, and where there was hurt, there was blame. So he said, “No. I should have told you.”
They did not kiss, but they apologized, each of them saying, Sorry, I’m sorry, over and over again, until the words had lost their meaning. She cried, and maybe he did, too, though in his memory he hadn’t. In his memory, he held her, and she sobbed into his shirt, until two dark spots, the size of nickels, bloomed on his chest.
And now it was morning. In the daylight, Michael looked at his house, quiet and flooded with sun. He saw the kitchen as though for the first time, imagining what it would be like without him here. Leslie entered in her bathrobe, shaking him from his reverie. “Are you ready?” she asked.
Michael walked out to the car, lugging the last of his boxes. She watched him as he jammed the trunk shut. She said she wanted to watch his leaving for herself. Otherwise she would wake up in the middle of the night, expecting him to return.
“I’ll see you,” he said. He said it as if he were setting out for the supermarket. He turned the key; the engine sputtered to life. Michael waved, and then he drove away.
Exit signs studded the highway. At each one he thought maybe he would turn back. He drove and drove, until the world stopped looking like a place he knew. He drove until his body ached and he couldn’t drive anymore. Then he parked the Camry on a seedy corner nearby the Holland Tunnel, where the whir of cars travelling in and out of the city lullabied him to sleep.
When Michael gets back to the bedroom, Leslie’s eyes are closed. He crawls into the spot beside her and watches her lashes flutter as she drifts in and out of dream. Luminescence gathers in the folds of her red gown.
Beneath him on the sheets, a round object kneads into his back. He reaches down, and his fingertips land on a smooth, curved edge. Michael pulls it out and turns it over; the pink sand streams from one end to the other. He leans toward the nightstand and sets the bottle beside the wig.
Leslie stirs. “Everything alright?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says, “go back to sleep.”
She curls her legs up beneath her and reaches out, drawing Michael closer. Her eyes are wet and shining. Michael cups the soft of her shoulder.
“Are you in pain?’ he asks.
“A little,” she says. “The hospice nurse will be here in the morning.”
Michael’s stomach churns. “How bad is it?” he asks.
The room is quiet, save for Leslie’s wheezing. Michael waits, wondering if she has fallen back asleep. But then, at last, the corners of her dry lips curl. She does not say it, but the words hang in the space between them: Rachel Fletcher.
Leslie yawns. “Will you wake me if I fall asleep? I want to see the sunrise.”
Michael glances out the window. The first golden rays of morning have begun to dapple the sky, and pour into the room, swathing him and Leslie in ribbons of yellow.
“Thanks for coming,” she whispers. She reaches over and clings to Michael’s sleeve.
“Of course,” he says, aware of her pulse beneath his fingertips, steady but faint. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
Lauren Green currently lives in Austin, Texas, where she is a fiction fellow at UT’s Michener Center for Writers. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and Conjunctions, among others. She recently graduated from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts.