Long Beach, California
Men are cowards, my aunt says to me. He’s not going to leave his wife. Their essence is just scared little boys. He’s afraid you’ll leave him someday. You think because you had the courage to leave your marriage, this guy does as well. He doesn’t and it’s not his fault. He’s not built for it.
He’s going to leave, I say quietly. He said before the holidays.
Are you really this stupid?
Countless times I’ve washed up on the shore of my aunt’s home in Naples and taken refuge. I even lived with her earlier this year, for a month, while finishing one of the drafts of my novel. She deposits me in a massive bed with Porthault sheets and brings me a massive glass of the cheap Chardonnay my uncle favors at 5:30 p.m. on the dot.
I sit with her and my uncle in the evenings and they tell me stories about California. Corrupt politicians, money-laundering schemes on Catalina Island, gossip about Gil Garcetti, famous cases they were briefly custodians of, all the ways the cops fucked up the O.J. trial. We sometimes argue about politics, then pull back before anything becomes hurtful. My aunt does my laundry, chides me for dressing like a kid and for wearing the same four outfits for the past year. Don’t you just want to burn these clothes?
This must be what people feel when they go home to their parents. I can’t talk to my friends about this affair anymore. I’m defensive, self-righteous, a tone I know from when I’ve been part of interventions. I speak hotly with denial and I don’t care. It’s a state of mind that is strikingly similar to faith.
My aunt, for whatever reason, from whatever bank of life experience, is kinder about this than about most of my alternative listeners. She actually remembers the Monster. I have no idea why or how, but when I told her I was seeing him, she wasn’t surprised. Oh, he was always in love with you. I could tell by the way he looked at you.
He was fourteen, I replied. She shrugged. It was plain as day.
I’ve never been able to see anything so clearly, I say. My life with him.
You see it clearly because you’re making it up.
I’m not stupid. Do you think I would be in this if I wasn’t sure?
She considers this. I see her imagining whether she’s going to have to have dinners like this with the Monster, see him on the occasional holiday. Or if this is going to be another painful story in my database. The odds, I’m aware, are not with me.
You’re going to be broken before you begin. It will all be uphill.
It cannot be harder than what we’re doing now. There will be peace. Peace is coming.
I’m staring into my Chardonnay glass. I haven’t spoken to the Monster in two weeks, allowing him one last time in therapy with his wife. But I feel him out there, circling me. We often said that we would have found each other earlier if I hadn’t been sent to Colorado. We often wonder why he walked into Union Square Cafe in New York City, just three weeks after I had gotten the job, with no idea I even lived in New York. These kinds of stories protected me from believing I degraded myself over absolutely nothing.
Do you ever wish you had stayed married? my aunt asks suddenly.
I guess it’s strange I never think about that. I wish I was the kind of person who could have stayed married.
I flash the snake ring at her. She smiles. There’s a fire in the outdoor fireplace. I can smell the sea. I recalled suddenly my first winter in New York City. I couldn’t afford to buy myself a dresser so I lived in a room surrounded by suitcases. She flew out and bought me a winter coat from H&M. She often appeared in moments of believing I had no one. And now . . . she’s pleased . . . She’s pleased I’m with her, I can tell.
You know, I never thought you’d move back here. Never thought you should go to graduate school for that gratuitous degree. I did not think you should leave your marriage. I don’t say this often, but I was really wrong about that whole thing.
What whole thing?
Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie Danler. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.