Judy Meyerson, a family counselor, had run her practice for over twenty-five years out of a converted townhouse on West Seventy-third Street. The place attracted her from the first, perhaps oddly because of the elevator cage that obviously had been installed some years after the building’s construction; the European aspect it lent the elegant old structure: she knew that, if she chose, she could ride that charming elevator every day, experiencing the vestiges of an era when change meant amiable embroidery rather than wrenching adjustment. On that day twenty-five years ago, however, the day on which she’d first seen the building, Judy chose to follow the rental agent two flights up the marble staircase to the small office suite she was considering leasing, a suite which at the time had been rented for decades by a general practitioner, Dr. Ruggiero, who was planning a well-deserved retirement. Her hand trailed behind her as she walked, fingers lingering on the cool stone of the banister.
Judy thought of him, of Dr. Ruggiero, occasionally, at intervals of years. If she spoke aloud of him, she would say something like, “He must be dead now,” or, if she were feeling charitable, “He’d be a very old man now.” He’d been in his office, tending to paperwork at the desk, when the agent had shown her through the suite. She’d thought of him as cute, charming as the elevator cage had been charming. She’d been thirty-three then. Now, having been in private practice for over twenty-five years, the couple from Brooklyn contacted her. It was the wife—it usually was the wife—who first phoned. Her name was Leslie Robbins, and she was in tears.
She said that while she loved her husband very much she’d become infatuated with another man, with whose child she now feared that she was pregnant, and that upon having been informed of what Leslie described as “the relevant details,” her husband, Alex, the designer of what she obliquely referred to as “a really good toothpaste for nonsmokers,” had locked himself in the attic of the couple’s brownstone and was refusing all nourishment. Feeling the need to adhere to procedure—the most stalwart defense of the sensitive practitioner, Judy had often thought to herself—Judy asked, in a calm and even tone, how Leslie had chosen her. “It’s your office,” Leslie answered matter-of-factly. “It’s haunted by the spirit of Archimede Silverbaum, the aristocratic refugee from Danzig.”
“I don’t know why we have to have Dr. Ruggiero.”
“Should it be Dr. Ruggiero’s ghost, perhaps?”
“I appreciate the blending of genres but I’m not sure this is working.”
“Well, if this is genre work I’d appreciate knowing about it so that I can draw on the proper critical apparatus.”
“Uh, I guess I’d just like to learn more about the toothpaste?”
“I personally would give him a normal job to be locked up in the attic with. Insurance,
coin collecting, so on.”
“A woman like Leslie married to someone like Alex? No way do I buy it.”
“The obvious response is Leslie is feeling the same way.”
“I don’t feel like we got to know Leslie well enough to speak to that with any authority.”
“Speaking of distracting. What’s all that about the elevator?”
“I think the voice is a little young for the character.”
“Ruggiero isn’t dead, he’s retired.”
“If this is some Twilight Zone thing I want to know right now. I insist on being told.”
Judith Meyerson washed her hands clean of the dirtily antiseptic feeling, the feeling of latex and antibacterial gel, that afflicted her whenever she met with the couple with the spookily false-sounding surname of “Robbins.” Immediately after her first session with them she had been overcome by the desire to wash her hands, to shower really, and this feeling had recurred each time they’d come in. The Robbinses were a couple who claimed to be traveling to her Upper West Side office from Brooklyn, although Judith Meyerson knew Brooklyn, she was from Brooklyn, she returned to Brooklyn frequently enough to know beyond a doubt that there weren’t any couples who looked like the Robbinses there. People who looked like the Robbinses lived on Mercer Street, or on Washington Street, or on West Eighty-first Street at Central Park West. They did not live on Clinton Street in Brooklyn. It was a fact of nature. She knew many fine-looking people, handsome people, even beautiful people, from Brooklyn; there were even movie stars, of a certain magnitude, living in Brooklyn, but none of them looked exactly like the Robbinses. The Robbinses glowed with their beauty; their problems seemed oddly canned—vaguely unspecific, putatively having to do with a “communications” issue, although this was belied by their almost joyful willingness to attend therapy together, their patience with one another, and the way that each tended to enthusiastically agree with what the other was saying, as if one had taken the words directly from the other’s mouth. Even their body language, the nearly imperceptible gestures that Judith Meyerson had learned to decode over the years, signified accord. Another couple (a mortal, a normal, a less stupefyingly beautiful couple) in possession of such evident equanimity with one another while claiming to be fiercely at odds would have had Judith Meyerson theorizing that the problem must be sexual in nature (a common enough hypothesis for her to form), but it was clear to her that the Robbinses were united in their ability to sexually provoke one another, at any and at all times; in fact, Judith Meyerson could sometimes hear their amorous gasps and groans behind the door of the small water closet in the hallway before and after their sessions, and despite herself she would stop and listen, imagining that she could hear the sound of belts being unbuckled, zippers working, clothing being thrown to the floor.
It was during one of the couple’s regular counseling sessions, after eight months throughout which Judith Meyerson had struggled to provide support and advice concerning the “communications issue” she had never even begun to discern, that she seemed to notice one of the Robbinses surreptitiously aiming a small electronic device at her, after which she felt lightheaded and disoriented. Soon after this strange incident, she happened to pass by the water closet one afternoon following a session and heard emanating from the little room not what she had convinced herself were carnally oriented sounds, but a grating, harsh language unlike any she had heard spoken before. Disturbed, even frightened, she had hastened down the staircase for a breath of fresh air to find standing there Mrs. Robbins, who greeted her with a smile and a pleasantry, although Judith Meyerson couldn’t shake the feeling that, for a fleeting instant, Mrs. Robbins had appeared in the form of a gigantic lizard.
“I feel like your way of being authoritative is to start listing things. How does this deepen my knowledge of the characters?”
“So they’re not really having marriage problems, is that what you’re saying?”
“I think the voice is a little old for the character.”
“Maybe if we were to get some detail about exactly what they’re doing in that water closet, the other times.”
“I think perfectly good-looking people live on Clinton Street. That’s why you can always get a cab there.”
“I circled ‘fact of nature.’ I think you’re getting into some pretty thorny bush here. I think you need a pith helmet and a swagger stick if you’re going to talk genetics. I don’t know if I’d go there if I were you. I just don’t.”
“What kind of lizard?”
“So, I guess what you’re saying is that they don’t come from Brooklyn?”
“I feel like we see a lot more of Mrs. Robbins than Mr. Robbins.”
“Did you actually interview anybody, a counselor or something, before writing this?”
The Robbinses were referred to Jude Meyerson in September, after Alex Robbins had confessed to her husband, Leslie, that she had been having an affair with one of Leslie’s senior colleagues. Leslie was an editor at the New York Observer and Alex had been wanting to “trade up” for quite some time, feeling as if her husband, all too happily (in her opinion) occupying the same middling position at the Observer that he had held for several years and stalled in the middle of his fourth novel, was too complacent and not nearly ambitious enough to suit her own aspirations, which—as she had comprehended with a start when she allowed the pudgy, waxy-complected man who’d worked beside her husband for three years to penetrate her anus—she was willing to realize with ruthlessness bordering on the sociopathic.
It would be Jude Meyerson’s unhappy task to identify this particular personality deficit in Alex Robbins, although, once she had, she wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Leslie, as Jude had come to expect, sat beside his wife with his perfectly composed look of anxious concern on his face, listening attentively as Alex ran through whatever issues she felt the day’s session called for—whether she was improvising or working from a rough script she’d memorized, Jude was never able to tell—before launching into his own rehearsal of his feelings and needs. It pained Jude to think that Leslie still believed that his marriage was salvageable, that Alex herself was salvageable, when Jude was perfectly aware that the world would be a far better place if Alex were to walk out of her West Seventy-first Street office one evening and be struck, fatally, by a bus. It also pained her to know that, ethically, it was none of her business if Alex was a sociopath; that there was no way that she could tell Leslie this while remaining within the bounds of her duties as Alex and Leslie’s “couples counselor,” and that even if she were to throw caution to the wind and take Leslie aside, he wouldn’t believe her.
“I don’t like the misogyny here. In fact I’m very disappointed here. If we’re going to hate a woman, I think we have to get to know her very well first.”
“Yes, you’re going to need to draw her using finer strokes.”
“I wrote that in the margin and circled it. I can’t agree either with the straw woman approach.”
“Not that I deny you your right to express your subject matter in your own way.”
“But it should be less hostile.”
“I wrote that in my comments in fact.”
“I just feel like you need to take other people’s sensibilities into account.”
“Aren’t marriage counselors supposed to not take sides?”
“I think the voice seems a little detached for the character.”
“Why anal sex? And could we get some more detail?”
“I think I know who you’re talking about at the Observer and you could get into real big trouble, I kid you not. Watch it, is my advice.”
When Alex Robbins’s father was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, giving Alex roughly four months in which to wrap up the business of over forty years’ association with the old man, the business of a lifetime, he went a little crazy—drinking to excess, taking drugs with a sense of abandon he hadn’t indulged since college, and having sex with any woman who responded to his clumsy overtures. Among these were several friends of his wife, Leslie, although he came on to many more, some of whom weren’t shy about informing Leslie about what Alex was doing.
Leslie hardly fit the stereotype of the “long-suffering” wife—she was beautiful and stylish, and held a high-powered job working as associate publisher of a wildly successful magazine that commanded women to buy things, but she understood that Alex was going through a period that made incredible demands on his delicate psyche. To make a long story short: Leslie knew that she had married a genius, a man whose poetry was wiping clean and redrawing the slate of American verse every day, and if exchanging her own creative dreams and ambitions (for Leslie was a dedicated practitioner of the personal essay) for a two-hundred-sixty-thousand-dollar annual salary, expense account, and chauffeured limousine was what she had to do in order to bring about this revolution in American letters, then she was prepared to do so. Even—and here things in our narrative go a little dark—even if it meant that little Alex, the prospective child of her dreams, remained alive only in potentiality, even if her (fecund, yearning) womb remained unused. Leslie felt this way through it all, overlooking both the actual infidelities and the possibly even more embarrassing failed attempts, heaving herself into the backseat of the Lincoln Continental that waitingly idled outside the couple’s Brooklyn home each morning no matter how badly she wanted to stay home and eat Oreos while listening to Alex read aloud to her from the newspaper, keeping herself childless, even though, as she was wont to say, “I’m not getting any younger,” and of course setting aside indefinitely her dream project, a memoir about growing up as a child of divorce. Then Alex met Judd Meyerson, the radical couples trainer, who happened to have been Leslie’s roommate—and clandestine lover—during their sophomore year at Wellesley.
“So, wait: Alex is a poet?”
“I don’t know if the point of view shift works. I was all used to the doctor and now I get the wife. I wrote that in the margin.”
“I’d like a little more about the lesbian affair. I mean, is Leslie confused at all about her sexuality?”
“Maybe if we could have one of Alex’s poems.”
“Or an excerpt from one of Leslie’s personal essays.”
“I really think we need the father.”
“I just don’t think it’s a realistic portrayal of what a woman under those circumstances would think or feel. I circled that.”
“I find that working in the free indirect style really helps me get in touch with my characters’ thoughts. Maybe if you could rewrite it in the free indirect style?”
“I think the voice is a little meta for the character.”
“I’m insulted that it comes back to wanting children. That’s not what women want necessarily.”
Alex and Leslie Robbins were among those farseeing couples who, prior to there being even a hint of discord in their relationship, bring themselves to see a couples counselor as a prophylactic measure—a delight for a burnt-out case such as Judith Meyerson-Shelly, who viewed such a couple as an opportunity in the middle of an ordinarily harrowing day to relax and to congratulate herself and her patients on work well done. For three years the two had shown up in Dr. Meyerson-Shelly’s office on Thursday afternoons, the three of them spending a pleasant hour chuckling over the bland difficulties the couple had overcome. The couple’s persistent inability to conceive a child was the nearest thing to an “issue” in the relationship, and even in that case the marriage had withstood and even, apparently, been strengthened by the problem. Imagine Dr. Meyerson-Shelly’s dismay when one day, while she was lunching at an outdoor café off Union Square, she spied Alex Robbins, a handsome book editor and former captain of the Yale water polo team, rushing down the sidewalk toward an adjacent sidewalk restaurant. His eyes were focused on someone or something at the restaurant, which is one reason why he didn’t notice his therapist of several years seated at a table and gazing fixedly at him as he passed, and Dr. Meyerson-Shelly didn’t even have to turn to know that, with his slightly desperate yet pleased look, Alex was arriving late for an illicit rendezvous. She checked her watch—it was one-seventeen—and then oh so casually turned in her seat to see that she had been correct: there was Alex, bending solicitously before a petite, incredibly shapely woman of about thirty-five, with cascades of blonde hair. That was all she could see of the woman from where she sat, Dr. Meyerson-Shelly. From where she, Dr. Meyerson-Shelly, sat, it almost looked as if the man was bowing to the slut, but then she could see that he was kissing her. From time to time Dr. Meyerson-Shelly would turn, her anger growing, to spy on the couple, her expert eye gauging (with superb accuracy, I might add) the duration (one year) and intimacy (extreme) of their relationship, their feelings toward one another (absolute, train-wreck love), their overall mien (furtive and tragic), and the stage at which they currently found their relationship (insisting on only public meetings, although Dr. Meyerson-Shelly was not surprised in the least when the two of them, seemingly as one, leapt up from their half-eaten meal and strode to the curb, where they hailed the first cab they could—no doubt to hasten to a private place where they could ravish each other). As Alex helped the woman into the cab, Dr. Meyerson-Shelly gasped when she realized that the bitch was at least six months pregnant. Dr. Meyerson-Shelly wasn’t sure how she was going to handle the counseling sessions, was certain that at the very least she had an ethical dilemma on her hands and that at most her uncomplicated self-congratulatory sessions with the Robbinses would now turn into sheer, backbreaking work, just like all the rest of them, when suddenly her cell phone rang: it was Leslie. “I’m pregnant, Doc,” she announced, happily.
“This seems to be more about the doctor than about the couple.”
“I think the inability to get pregnant would pose a real problem in the relationship, and you just gloss over it.”
“I circled that.”
“You know what this reminds me of? Pedro Almodóvar is what it reminds me of.”
“Yes, I think writing about a counselor and the problems she encounters in her practice should avoid being a soap opera.”
“I wrote ‘soap opera’ in the margin. And circled it.”
“Why is she burnt out? You don’t go into that at all.”
“Maybe the point of view should shift, and we could see more of Alex and his lover, especially once they get wherever they’re going after they leave the restaurant.”
“I think the voice seems a little formal for the character.”
“Maybe the story would work better if we learned a little more about what Leslie does? If Alex is a book editor?”
“And what is that about Yale and water polo?”
Leslie Robbins wrote prose that was so professionally unassailable that when Alex, his wife of seven years, abruptly awoke from the “coma” that she later confided had overcome her throughout that time, she found that she was incapable of articulating what was wrong with it even to her own satisfaction, let alone to Leslie’s. Let me take a shot at it: it was boring, smug, tense, unselfconsciously judgmental work, lavish in its use of an elaborately embroidered vocabulary to disguise its fundamentally pedestrian subject matter and even more banal language, precise to an absolute fault (and yet somehow inaccurate) with regard to the details of its settings, and always, always careful—consummately, flawlessly careful. It should go without saying that while this work was indistinguishable from that of many successful writers, it was equally indistinguishable from that of an even greater number of unsuccessful writers, among whom, it must unfortunately be said, Leslie Robbins had to count himself. Leslie would sometimes sit and read his work aloud to Alex—or, as Leslie might have put it in one of his stories, Alex would be obliged to enjoy a generous bout of recitation—while Alex would sit and plot his murder from behind the vacuous smile she wore on her face. It was when such homicidal thoughts began occurring to her that she realized it was necessary to get in touch with a professional, even if it did mean confessing to Leslie that she found his work reprehensible. The trick was to find the right counselor. Fortunately, Judi Meyerson had been a gifted book reviewer—even winning an award for her work—before she earned her Ph.D. in psychology. Alex provided her with copies of all of Leslie’s published work as well as with the seven hundred-page manuscript that, mirabile dictu, he’d had trouble selling, and Judi understood the problem right away. Together, the two women decided on their mission: destroy Leslie’s ego.
“I find it very perceptive that you feel like a book reviewer and a mental health professional might have something in common. Psychological insight and so on.”
“Who is this intrusive narrator? I find the meta thing really, really just takes me out of the story.”
“Yes, I wrote that in the margin. I really feel that it calls attention to itself in a bad way.”
“Maybe if we could have part of one of Leslie’s stories?”
“I don’t understand, was it a literal, like, coma? Or is that just a metaphor?”
“Yes, make that clearer. I circled it. If she’s just bored with his work, why not just say so?”
“You know, I’ve noticed that Brooklyn was such a vivid part of the earlier drafts . . . I really miss Brooklyn as a central character in the story.”
“I think the voice is a little Humbert Humbert for the character.”
“Nabokovian. That’s what I was looking for. In a bad way.”
“I’d be interested to know who’s earning the money in this family. We’d learn so much more about the dynamics here if it were clearer that Alex is supporting Leslie, or whatever.”
“Maybe if we could learn about their sex life?”
It was the towel habit, primarily. Les could understand the towel habit: Sandy’s alcoholic mother had been neglectful of all housework, including laundry, throughout Sandy’s childhood, and so as an adult Sandy felt compelled to throw out bath towels after only one use. It wasn’t exactly the cost of the towels that irritated Les, however, although that amounted to over one hundred fifty dollars each week. It was the cost of renting an apartment with sufficient space in which to store the towels, which generally were procured during semi-monthly spending binges at Bed, Bath & Beyond, a store, Les liked to remind Sandy, to which she had once claimed an acute aversion. Apparently not any longer; Sandy would return from her generous bouts of shopping there with salad spinners, garlic presses, steamer baskets, sets of nesting bowls, and, of course, towels: at least fifteen, thick, plush, bath towels that it frankly broke Les’s heart to throw out after one use. In fact, when he could get away with it, he would hang Sandy’s towel up to dry and use it himself before throwing it, with great, heartbroken, reluctance, into the large garbage can, intended, he knew, to be set outside the kitchen door of the home of a family of six, that sat in the bathroom of their loft, for the sole purpose of containing discarded towels. But between the six hundred dollar monthly towel outlay and the overhead of maintaining sufficient storage space for a rotating stock of as many as sixty thick, plush, oversize bath towels at any given time, Les and Sandy found themselves in a financial crisis, which they set about to resolve in a way to which their lifestyle in a spacious DUMBO loft uniquely lent itself: they took in, at a highly competitive rent, a professional couples counselor, the noted Judit Myersohn, founder of the “Myersohn Method,” whose fame for her unorthodox techniques was rivaled only by her reputation for her peculiarly nomadic existence.
“I am so totally put off by the italics.”
“More about the alcoholic mother, please.”
“I think the voice seems a little italicized for the character.”
“This just seems like you’re having fun. You have to ask yourself what your responsibility to your readers is.”
“A good story isn’t fun. Back up and start again. Rewrite from the point of view . . . of a towel, perhaps.”
“I really like the realistic touch of including the name of the store. It really put me into the story.”
“I did too. I circled that. That kind of verisimilitude has really been missing.”
“I have to ask, is this something you actually lived through? It just seems so, so real.”
“But in a totally over-imagined way.”
“Imagine it more responsibly.”
“Alex, hi, Dr. Meyerson here. You’d said, well, you’d said to call anytime, and I just happened to be taking a little walk after dinner and I thought I’d give you a buzz. I’m actually, uh, I’m in Brooklyn, in your neighborhood I believe, not that I’m an expert or anything, I’m on Smith Street, right near DeGraw, thought I’d get a drink, and maybe if you weren’t doing anything . . . ? Anyway, I’m here, for, I don’t know (giggles), however long a drink takes. (Sighs.) Okay, then. Bye. Oh. My cell is 646-541-5778.”
“Alex, it’s Judy. Thanks for dragging yourself out of your bed of pain to join me. Maybe next time in my neck of the woods? Anyway, really a pleasure to see you on an extracurricular, you could call it, basis.”
“Alex. That was fun. I really enjoy spending time with you. (Dramatic pause.) I hope you don’t mind if I tell you that I miss you.”
“I don’t know how to handle the sessions anymore, Alex. I can’t sit across from Leslie knowing what we’re doing. It’s unethical. I could lose my practice. And it’s just wrong.”
“I love you. I think I left an earring at your place. You’d better check the sheets. I love you.”
“Leslie, this is Dr. Meyerson. I’m afraid I have some inconvenient news. I find myself in a position where I have to pare back my client list and I can only retain the clients with whom I’ve been working for quite a while. I’d love to keep working with you and, uh, Alex, but I’m afraid several longstanding clients do have priority under these unfortunate circumstances. I can give you the names of several excellent counselors, all of whom have a great deal of experience and all of whom I can vouch for.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I canceled all my afternoon appointments and you call at the last fucking minute to flake out on me and now you won’t answer your fucking phone? (Voice rises.) You know how Leslie calls you a prick during our sessions? (Shouting.) You are a prick.”
“I’m standing across the street from your house right now. I dare you not to walk by the window and look out at me. I dare you. (Pause.) What did you just tell Leslie about the call? ‘Just one of my clients,’ I can hear you now, you fucking phony. (Long pause.) You know, you’re such a coward I know you’ll ignore the voicemail, so I’ll send you a text. ‘Across Street. Made you look.’ Here I am. Come and see. Hope you have dinner guests. Hope you’re sweating.”
“No, I did not ‘stalk’ Alex Robbins. He and I entered into a consensual relationship. He’s a grown man, for Christ’s sake. And a known adulterer. Why do you think he and his wife came to me in the first place? Charm? It’s not charm. It’s not a question of charm. It’s intensity. When he turns his attention on you it’s impossible to ignore him. It’s like being caught in a spotlight. He seduced me, pure and simple. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but not completely. I know my ethics, but the attraction was overwhelming. It was mutual. When you feel that you don’t say no. You just can’t. If you think you can, you’ve never felt it like that. The ‘stalking’ is his invention. Pure and simple. I became inconvenient. Leslie has all the money. He knew I wasn’t going to be able to support him. He wanted to stay home and write novels. Leslie was willing to do anything to get him back. She didn’t even, God, she had no idea who her rival was! She knew someone was out there trolling for her husband. And I sat across from her and counseled her. That’s the only thing I feel badly about. The whole thing was a huge deceit, but that was unforgivable. I hope she can forgive me one day.”
“Great, another story about a woman becoming an out-of-control stalker-bitch.”
“Yes, I really thought that you robbed Dr. Meyerson of all her dignity.”
“I had a female therapist for many years and never once did I feel like she wanted to sleep with me.”
“I feel like the voice seems a little hysterical for the character.”
“Maybe if we could see them, you know, being intimate . . .”
“I don’t like the point-of-view shift at the end. Who is she talking to? Where have you taken us?”
“Could you maybe put, you know, attributions? ‘Dr. Meyerson said,’ and so on?”
“Wait, is this all one conversation? It wasn’t clear.”
“I circled that. I circled the whole story, one big red circle.”
Sasha Robbins sat before her Apple MacBook Pro one morning, inspired to creation by the argument she and her husband, Leslie Caperton “Pally” Robbins, had had the evening before. She wanted to project an imaginary couple into imaginary space and time, although the couple did seem very like herself and Pally. She was familiar with how she and Pally seemed because of the occasional counsel she received from Judith Myers, the famed relationship guru who had been her neighbor when she and Pally had lived in Chelsea, before they had moved to Park Slope after finding on Fiske Place a beautiful, architecturally distinct townhouse with large bay windows.
Sasha was taking a creative writing class at The New School and had been encouraged by the feedback she’d been receiving from her instructor, Judah Myers, a respected novelist who also happened to be Judith Myers’s son. She worked at the story for three hours straight, enduring both the banging and crashing of the contractors who were at work on the third floor of the building and the small explosive sounds coming from Pally’s studio in the basement, where he spent his days recording his own songs. Sasha’s story had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It conformed rigorously to Freytag’s Triangle, the “rising action” theory of storytelling that Judah prescribed for his students, ending with the unhappy wife, Sandra, finding fulfillment at last in the arms of her lover, a creative writing instructor, while across town, speaking quietly in a darkened parlor room in Park Slope, a sagacious relationship counselor enumerated to the sobbing, forsaken, but somehow bluntly hostile husband all of the ways in which he’d been intolerably and irredeemably cruel.
Pow, from the studio.
She applied a nicotine patch to her upper arm and took an antianxiety tablet. She ate a salad and nine Oreo cookies. Then she returned to her work. She decided that the husband, Buddy, didn’t deserve to remain in the townhouse. She altered the ending so that he wept now in the relationship counselor’s office, “his two monogrammed bags, gifts from a long-since forgotten anniversary celebration, the last vestiges now of what had once been a viable, functioning, mutually beneficial relationship.” Meanwhile, the creative writing instructor, Lucas, gazed in happy astonishment at the airy, spacious room overlooking the verdant back garden, a room lately emptied of expensive recording equipment and sound insulation, that would become his study. The smell of fresh sawdust filled the air from the construction of the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that would hold the novelist slash mentor slash lover’s extensive library. Sandra would take for herself a more modest room upstairs in which to write, the two of them enjoying long and productive mornings and then sharing lunch together each day, reading over one another’s work and making insightful, constructive suggestions.
Class was at eight.
“Class is at eight,” Sandra desultorily announced to Buddy. Buddy rolled over on the couch, where he was locked in a fatal embrace with the Gibson Les Paul Sandra suspected he loved more than her. “What’s for supper?” Buddy said, tonelessly. “I was thinking we could try Blue Ribbon Sushi.” Sandra tried to sound chipper. Buddy never wanted to go out. He didn’t even like to call for takeout. He just heated things on the stove and ate them standing up. “I’ll just make some pigs in blankets” he grunted, yanking a frosty box from the freezer. Sandra took the subway to New York, sighing heavily. Removing herself from the underground leviathan at W4 St., she walked slowly and deliberately to Starbucks. Checking her reflection in the mirror she said “I look like shit” then drank off the latte she’d ordered from the African American teen. It would give her the energy she needed to gaze directly into the sunlike face of Lucas Mayday.”
“How about a little beef bourguignon for dinner, babe?” asked Pally. He was in the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator.
“I have class at eight,” said Sasha.
“Oh. Maybe I could meet you?”
Sasha walked along Seventh Avenue, heading for the subway. She had in her shoulder bag a notebook, a copy of The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, and a folder containing a brief character sketch (her current assignment) and a previous assignment that she wanted to draw out Judah’s opinions on. Frankly she couldn’t read his handwriting. It seemed to say, “I lile he hnginnij but three cre sone POV slfts that covcerm me—trp to naintnin tense. Also, do you tlink tle clarasters sunlnlen delisior tu firt a pistol intc thl cunopy of thl lot-air balloon is pharsilbe? If shc’s suicidal, you slould male it cheer. Othvlisl, lave ler kill ler lusbnd on ble grounl.” Maybe she should just tell him that it was illegible. She pictured him laughing, throwing his head back. “You should have been a pharmacist,” she’d say, throatily. “I’d fill your prescription,” he’d respond. Etc.
She’d ridden in the first car, so when she got off at Fourteenth Street she had to walk downtown, through the station. One man asked her for money. Another. It was 7:48, just enough time to stop at Starbucks. She got a tall redeye. She liked saying “redeye,” because it didn’t appear on the menu. The counterpeople would be impressed by her familiarity with coffee jargon. Before marrying Pally she’d worked as a barista in a San Francisco coffee house and had briefly been a contributing editor to a monthly journal, Javalogy, that had been distributed free to local establishments. You could say that’s where she got the writing bug. Writing about espresso machines and shade grown blends. Yes you could. Sometimes she’d contribute a poem. Yes. Then Pally had come along and she couldn’t help thinking that he’d ruined everything. He’d swept in with his Stanford sweatshirt and his crewcut and so much for the poetry. They’d gotten married at Grace Cathedral, lived briefly in Oakland while he finished up at Boalt Hall, then moved to New York where he’d become corporate counsel for a startup, ShitClick.com. Fertilizer online, why not. Big rollout after the v-caps were blown away by the company’s vision of millions of farmers ordering tons of manure with a click of the mouse. Pally had seen the end coming early, unloaded his shares as soon as the restrictions were lifted, cleared eleven million after everything. He’d “retired,” turning to his first love: Death-Noise Rock. At first he’d rented studio time at exorbitant costs, but then he’d decided that they needed to buy a house so that they could save money on studio time. Why, he could even rent out the studio—and himself, as engineer. They offered on the first suitable property they looked at.
Sasha hurried into the lobby of The New School building on West Twelfth. Checking the elegant watch around her left wrist, she saw that she had just minutes to spare before class began. Maybe she could catch Judah for a few moments before he began chatting with another student. He always seemed in such a hurry to go after class.
“You’ve blinded me, Chum—but now I can truly see.”
“What are you doing with that pistol? Sara? Sara!”
Blindly, Sara fired at the canopy overhead. With a whoosh like a resigned sigh the gallons of air began exiting the wounded balloon in a giant sough of exhalation. They began losing altitude, gradually at first and then rapidly.
“I don’t mind dying if it means I’ll be taking you with me,” said Sara. But Chum couldn’t hear her—he was screaming too loud.
“You should have been a pharmacist,” Sasha said, holding out the corrected story.
“Huh?” said Judah.
“I said, you should have been a pharmacist with handwriting like this.” Judah smiled faintly and took the story from her. They looked at each other for a moment.
“What was the question?” he asked, finally.
“I can’t, um, read your handwriting.”
“Ah.” He read his comments over. Then he flipped through the story, nodding as he skimmed it. “I’m telling you two, no, three things: first, try to maintain the point of view. Two, you’re still having problems maintaining tense. Three, I don’t buy that a blind woman bent on killing her husband would choose to lure him up in a hot air balloon on a flimsy pretext and then shoot the thing out of the sky. I just don’t.”
“What could I do to strengthen the story?”
“Those three things.”
“Could we meet to discuss it further?”
“I don’t see what more there is to discuss.”
“Okay.” She took the manuscript—which he’d shaken violently to punctuate each of his three points—and smoothed its slightly creased pages as she held it.
“How’s your mother?” she asked.
“Isn’t your mother Judith Myers?”
Judah shifted nervously where he stood and Sasha could see him as a little boy. “Yes. Are you friends with her?”
“Sort of. My husband and I.”
“Clients?” He’d regained his composure.
“Oh, no. No. Neighbors. Not that, you know. Not that we probably couldn’t have, you know.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Judah said clinically.
“No! I mean, just, couldn’t everybody use some relationship counseling now and then? Couldn’t everybody?”
“You know what?” said Judah. “I love my mother.”
“Oh, I do too.”
“I love my mother but her profession is a pile of bullshit.”
Sasha didn’t quite know how to react. It seemed, though, that a reaction wasn’t called for.
“Why would you want to be with a person and then want to turn into another person and have that person turn into another person in order to be with them? Isn’t that pathetic? Shouldn’t you want to be with who you’re with because they’re who they are or do you think you should want to be with who you’re with because you’re with them? What is all this learning to communicate crap? Am I communicating with you?”
“Yes!” said another student, a tall, leggy blonde whom Sasha had—completely unfairly, she knew—nicknamed “the bipsy.”
“If you don’t like it, you don’t like me. Simple. Why should I talk some other way?”
Sasha didn’t quite know how to react again, but this time Judah expected something. He leaned forward so that his face was four inches from hers. “Do you like me or not?”
The only thing Sasha could think about was the tunafish she’d had for lunch. Did her breath stink? She spoke out of the side of her mouth. “Yes.”
Four hours later Judah released her head and she let his rapidly shrinking penis slide out of her mouth. She rolled over onto her side and watched as he stood and began rapidly to dress.
“I have to get going,” he said. “There’s somewhere I have to be in about a half hour. If you just make sure the door is closed all the way when you leave it’ll lock automatically.”
This wasn’t at all what she’d had in mind.
Christopher Sorrentino is the author of four books, including, most recently, Death Wish, a critical monograph on the eponymous film. Recent work has appeared in BOMB, Bookforum, Granta, Open City, Playboy, and Tin House.
“Unhappy Families” was originally published in The Rogue Idea (TLR Winter 2011)