5.07 / July 2010

What the American Public Wants

Sylvia Pincus could not tell her daughter, Daphne, that she still watched Late Night with George Rockland, but she felt justified: It was a way of working through her feelings about Daphne’s recent divorce, and about Daphne’s now ex-husband, George Rockland. Every Tuesday and Thursday at eleven, she sat on her bed in her darkened apartment and watched George Rockland jog out on stage. As the audience clapped and the band noodled, Sylvia thought of all the things she had never gotten a chance to tell him: how her husband, Nathan, would call her up from the office five and six times a day, just to hear her voice; how he had once cut short a business trip to Pittsburgh and driven home all night through a snow storm, just to press his hand against her belly and feel the baby move.

Would George Rockland have understood? Would it have made a difference? On this particular night, the applause tapered off and he stood alone on stage, dressed in black pants and a shiny black shirt, talking about Dick Cheney shooting his hunting companion. “So now we know,” he said, giving his charmingly tilted smile. “The Republican alternative to social security is buckshot.”

The audience laughed, which made Sylvia glad—she worried that they weren’t laughing as much as they used to. She wanted to tell him that he needed to remarry Daphne, not in some quickie Vegas wedding without her mother present, like the first time, but on TV, with the whole world watching.

It would never happen, of course. George Rockland would not change and Daphne would not bend to fit him. She was too young to understand how easy it was to end up old and broke and alone.

The phone on the nightstand rang and Sylvia turned off the sound on the TV. It was too late for the collection agencies; it had to be Daphne, and Daphne would flip if she heard Late Night with George Rockland. But when Sylvia picked up the receiver the voice that came over the line was not her daughter’s—it was George Rockland’s. “Have you ever made a mistake so complete, so awful, that you wanted to put your life in reverse?”

Sylvia glanced at the screen, where he was silently bouncing on his toes—the show was taped in the afternoon. She hadn’t spoken to him since the divorce, but in a strange way she wasn’t surprised that it was him. It had the logic of a dream, and so much of her life was internal and dreamlike now that Nathan was dead.

“I’d like my husband back,” she said.

“Then you know how I feel,” said George Rockland. “I’ll do anything to get her back.” His voice quavered slightly, and then he stopped. Over the phone she could hear his show in the background—he was watching, too.

“You’ve got to get healthy, George.”

He had thought of that. “I’d sign everything over to her—the apartment, the summer house. If I fucked up again it would all be hers already.”

“I don’t know if she wants to open old wounds.”

“Is she seeing somebody?”

“Men always like Daphne.” In fact, her daughter rarely left her art studio, where she made wearable art of natural materials, tree branches and dried leaves. She was now making corsets out of long, muscular vines that wrapped around her torso, thorns pointing outward like claws. Some had matching helmets that looked like barbed-wire beehives with little windows for her eyes. Sylvia saw them as part of a general collapse.

“Ask her to meet with me,” said George Rockland. “Call her now.”

On the TV, another George Rockland from earlier in the day was trying to keep from laughing at his own joke. Sylvia looked at his handsome, slightly lopsided face, the big, bruised eyes, and thought of how desperately beautiful it had seemed to her once—the face of the man who was going to save her daughter.

She listened to the audience clap on George Rockland’s end of the line and then told him, “Take me to lunch.”

*                                                                                                               *                                                                                                               *

Sylvia moved to the dining table and sat at the spot she had arranged as a work space. There was a stack of Nathan’s thick stationary, the gold pen he liked to use, and the box of financial documents: bills, past-due notices, and collection letters. It was her nightly task to write to the banks and tell them what had happened: how Nathan had made so much money and spent so much money; how she could remember him standing at the answering machine by the kitchen counter, playing back messages from all the salespeople who had called that day, a strangely private look on his face: Mr. Pincus, the shirts you ordered are in….Mr. Pincus, we don’t have the XKE in gray, but we have it in silver with a sunroof….

Nathan had grown up poor, and he liked nice things, but she knew that these two simple facts did not really explain how he could wander into a car dealership on his way back from lunch and come out with a sports car. Over the years, she had come to accept that there was a hunger inside him that she would never be able to know or understand, and that it was there even when he slept with his head on her lap or sat beside her with his hand on her knee.

Sylvia had tried to explain this to Daphne when Daphne walked in with the email to Cyberkitten2000. Sylvia wanted her daughter to understand that a husband is nothing more than a story you tell yourself—that you must grip him tight or you will be left alone. But she had been too tired to find the right words, and, in any case, Daphne was in no shape to listen. So Sylvia was left with her letters, her last chance to explain. She lifted the topmost document, a rather astringent note from a Ms. Lavinia Biggs at Five Boroughs Credit Union, and began her reply:

Dear Ms. Biggs:

My late husband, Nathan Pincus, died last year of Alzheimer’s. He was a wonderful man, but also a compulsive spender and a liar. I never saw the bills because he had them sent to a P.O. Box. I found this out only because he fell in the post office one morning and was taken to the emergency room—he’d told me he was getting bagels for breakfast.

She was never sure how much detail to include. Should she mention that he probably had the symptoms for years and hid them as craftily as he concealed his thirty-nine credit cards? Or that after he got out of the hospital the disease got much worse? Within a month he couldn’t walk and she was pushing him in a wheelchair. Another three months and he couldn’t read the newspaper. By spring he was in diapers. Each morning, he had fewer and fewer words left to use, until only one remained to him: Sylvia, he would scream, as if someone were trying to push him from the wheelchair; Sylvia, as if she were the one who had taken his memories.

He died in the summer. At night she left the windows open, letting in the blue light of the street, and a sticky breeze that felt like the touch of a stranger’s hand on the subway. Cars passed, trailing wisps of radio. The garbage trucks came later, to bang the metal cans and announce the dawn. She lay naked on the cot beside his bed, listening to his breathing, which was tentative, fragile—the creak of a rusty hinge on a door he did not want to open but had to, again and again. Sylvia knew what this meant: he was forgetting the last of his earthly knowledge: how to breathe.

That forgetting took weeks, but she remembered it as if it were one long night. At one point she got up to check on him and found him awake, his eyes half open. He looked up at her as if she were the moon or clouds, his expression placid as an empty glass. His big strong hands, once so masculine, were curled against his chest like birds in the egg—an effect of the brain damage. When she tried to take his fingers he pulled away; she knew this was just a reflex, but a part of her felt the rebuke: she had been forgotten along with everything else.

*                                                                                                               *                                                                                                               *

It was just a couple of weeks after the funeral that Daphne brought her the email George had written to Cyberkitten2000. Sylvia read the four-word message—Wear the stringy thing—and then glanced up at her daughter, taking in the chalky face, the red eyes and wild hair. Daphne wanted to cry and scream and curse George Rockland, but Sylvia would have none of it. “How do you even know George wrote this?’ she asked.

“It was on his computer.”

Sylvia nodded briskly and then crumpled the paper. “It’s nothing. Ignore it.”

“How can you say that?”

Sylvia examined her daughter, wondering if she truly failed to grasp the magnitude of the other thing that had just happened to them. What could Cyberkitten2000 possibly mean next to that? What significance could it have compared to George Rockland’s dark eyes, or to the beautiful light passing through his penthouse windows? She wanted Daphne to understand this as deeply and intuitively as she herself did. “Brilliant men can be self-destructive,” she said. “Just look at your father.”

“Dad ran up his credit cards. George is fucking someone.”

“For all you know it could be about a skit on the show.”

“Then I’ll ask him and find out.”

Sylvia felt the same painful tightening in her chest as when she opened Nathan’s P.O. Box for the first time, the day after he fell. It was one of the big boxes, with a door the size of a coin locker, and the bills were packed in so tightly that she had trouble pulling them out. “Marriage is supposed to be based on trust, Daphne.”

Of course Daphne didn’t listen. She went home and found a diary written in a sort of shorthand, with entries like Cun 40 mins and Org 3X, and confronted George Rockland, who confessed in his strangely open and disingenuous way. There was no other woman, it turned out, there were lots of them, chance meetings that took place during the day, in his office or at the studio or in his car: 249 by his own count over the last eighteen months.

Sylvia held Daphne in her arms as she sobbed, stroking her hair and whispering whatever she could think of, just as she had whispered to her at the graveside. “Those women don’t even have names—they’re just numbers.”

“He says he wouldn’t mind staying married if I gave him free rein,” said Daphne.

Sylvia looked at her daughter’s flushed, wet face. She could not explain what it felt like to be invisible—the way nothingness flowed through her like cold air through an open window. “And what if you did?” she heard herself say. “What harm would that do, assuming he used condoms?”

Daphne stalked out. Sylvia called her and left a message on her voicemail, and then another and another. Between calls she walked through the apartment, running her hands over the traces Nathan had left behind—the suits still in his closet, the shoes in his shoe rack. She found a box of Nathan’s stationary and his gold pen, and decided to write to his creditors. She would show them that she was not invisible:

11 pm:

Miss Audrey Singh

Point One Visa

Dear Miss Singh:

Let me explain exactly why I’m not paying this bill. That $400 charge at Saks is for hand-stitched deerskin driving gloves. The $2100 at Executive Toys is for night-vision goggles.

1:20 am:

Mr. Randolph Crenshaw

Short Hills Financial

Re: Nathan Pincus account

You’re male, Mr. Crenshaw, so let me ask you this: if you kept a diary of your extra-marital dalliances, and you kept it in code, what do you think (#228) 9 pm stdo clst hndjb, cm on^^ might mean?   And why would you keep it in the magazine rack in the bathroom, where your wife might stumble across it?

3:50 am:

Mr. Jorge Figueroa

Beehive MasterCard

Dear Mr. Figueroa:

He always needed all the attention. He left this mess so that I would spend the rest of my life untangling it.

Dawn—a grayish light seeping through the windows:

Mrs. Vivian Pooley

InterCommerce Credit

Dear Mrs. Pooley:

Shame on you for robbing an old widow.

*                                                                                                               *                                                                                                               *

In the days that followed, Sylvia began taking the bus downtown to keep
Daphne company while she worked in her studio. The studio was on the second floor of a bent little building in the wholesale flower district. It was low and humid, and seemed to be creeping back into the state of nature, with heaps of branches pushed against the walls and droplets of moisture streaking the dirty windows. Sylvia sat on the mildewed couch by the steam pipe and listened as Daphne paced between piles of Spanish moss and colored leaves, describing the couple’s therapy she had begun with George Rockland. This seemed to consist of long, confusing arguments about the definition of adultery, whether it was the same as infidelity, and in which category oral sex might fit.

“He says he’s just seeking the source of his creative energy,” said Daphne. She gave a mirthless snort and then stopped to examine the corset that hung on a tailor’s dummy in front of the couch. It was made of tightly coiled vines—green and muscular, with elegantly curved thorns hooking outward in every direction.

“Isn’t denial the first stage in the recovery process?” asked Sylvia.

Daphne didn’t answer—she never responded to Sylvia’s hopeful pronouncements. Instead she circled around the corset, checking the seams. “Would you like to try it on?” she asked. “I find it incredibly centering.”

“Daphne, you have to forgive him.”

“He’s a power-maniac. He thinks I’m too weak to walk away.”

“But that’s what men are. Your father just assumed I would wipe his ass for the next twenty years and then eat cat food the rest of my life.”

It was the look on Daphne’s face that told Sylvia she had said something strange—that, and the heat rising through her body. She got up from the couch and stumbled out of the room, down the sagging staircase and onto the street. Climbing into the uptown bus, she pretended not to see her daughter running down the sidewalk toward her.

Later, when it was safe to look up, she watched the streets pass by and thought about George Rockland. George Rockland took Daphne to parties at the Seinfelds’ and the DeNiros’; he flew to Los Angeles to talk to movie producers. To be around him was to feel how spacious and lovely and exciting the world can be. There was nothing wrong with wanting to live, even though Nathan was dead.

At home, there was a message from Daphne. She erased it without listening and then stood in the silence of her apartment, feeling Nathan’s absence settle to the bottom of her being like a stone. “Damn you,” she said, very softly, testing the power of the words.

*                                                                                                               *                                                                                                               *

Sylvia’s neighbor, Jill Korn, came by later that afternoon to tell her that George Rockland was on the radio, a program called The Bobby Strauss Show. Sylvia thought it would be safer to listen in private, but she did not know how to use Nathan’s complicated German radio, so she watched with trepidation as Jill fiddled with the tiny buttons and George’s unmistakable laughter began to spin around the room. Deep down, she nursed the hope that the show might contain good news, offered in George Rockland’s sweetly intimate voice. He had always been so wonderful to her, so affectionate. He had come to the funeral and stayed at the house afterward while she and Daphne sat shivah.

“Bobby, you crack me up,” said George.

“OK then, let’s be serious for a moment,” said Bobby Strauss. “What’s this I hear about you getting divorced? Didn’t you just get married?”

“The problem is my wife doesn’t like me sleeping with other women, Bobby.”

Over the next ten minutes, George Rockland ran through a best-hits collection from his secret diary, with Bobby Strauss breaking in to hoot, and with sound effects, horns and gongs and wild sexual moans. George Rockland seemed eager to talk, and not in the least embarrassed.   “Absolutely, Bobby, the big open secret about celebrity is that everyone wants to fuck you. That’s why people want to be celebrities.” He then told a story about an elderly woman who gave him head in the bathroom of a restaurant. It had none of the air of a confession; rather, it felt public and important, oddly cheery. Millions of people were listening.

Sylvia watched Jill Korn take it all in, thinking how sad and small Jill Korn’s life was, being married to Marvin Korn, the actuary, how even Sylvia’s tragedies must seem impossibly glamorous to her.

“I didn’t know,” said Jill Korn, looking aghast.

“He doesn’t believe in bourgeois hypocrisy,” explained Sylvia. “He believes in a higher standard of honesty.”

“Is Daphne all right?”

“Never been better. She’s going to sue him for a fortune.”

Then Strauss said to George Rockland that he’d like to have Rockland’s wife on the show; they could discuss the question of whether men were more likely to fuck around than women. George Rockland said that his wife—he did not even use her name—was a very private person and wouldn’t want to speak on the air. He sounded almost wistful, thought Sylvia, and she wondered if that weren’t the underlying problem, that he knew Daphne wasn’t strong enough to be a celebrity wife, that she couldn’t withstand the spotlight. This made Sylvia want to reach out and shake him, shake him hard till he realized that Sylvia had enough strength inside her for Daphne too. When Strauss gave out the call-in number she reached for the phone and dialed. “Who is this?” asked Strauss.

“I’m the mother-in-law,” said Sylvia.

“Mrs. Mother-in-law, do you want to wring George’s neck?”

“George is brilliant but self-destructive. Maybe the two are linked, they certainly were in my husband.”

“So you don’t feel angry at him, even though he’s fucking other women and then going home and sticking his dick in your daughter?”

If Strauss meant to rattle her he almost succeeded; her face flushed hot. “I didn’t say I wasn’t angry at him, only that I understand it’s compulsive.”

“Has he ever made a pass at you?”

“I’m sixty-five years old, Mr. Strauss.”

“You’ve still got a pussy.”

She could hear George Rockland laughing appreciatively, as if the joke were about somebody else—not her, the woman he had sat shivah with.   “I’ve got other irons in the fire, thank you.”

She hung up, turned off the radio and sat for a moment, trying to still the trembling.

“Are you all right?” asked Jill Korn.

Sylvia realized she hated this woman—along with her fat husband and two married daughters and her little gifts of old magazines and paperback novels. What did she know of pain and disappointment? “Well, this was all very cathartic, wasn’t it? I’m going to recommend it to Daphne.”

“Is there anything I can do?” asked Jill Korn.

Sylvia gave a little wave of the hand, as if the thought were absurd. She could feel something sharp and cold move through her, separating the flesh from the bone. After Jill Korn left, she wrapped herself in Nathan’s old work shirt and sat at the table by the box of bills, watching the light die from the windows and the darkness fill the apartment. She had never been beautiful, she knew, not in the way that Daphne was beautiful, but she had been young once. Nathan had rushed home from the office in the middle of the afternoon to make love to her, unknotting his tie as he walked through the door, shrugging off his suit jacket. He had owned a market research firm that advised corporations on consumer trends, and they had paid him ridiculous sums to tell them what the American public wanted to buy. There had been so much money swirling around then, so much excitement at the possibilities. He would put a hand to her breast and she would shiver.

*                                                                                                               *                                                                                                               *

She met George Rockland for lunch the day after his phone call. He was already at the table, dressed in a luminous pink shirt and black cashmere jacket, looking beautifully disheveled—his thick hair uncombed, his cheeks bristly with stubble. Walking toward him, Sylvia forgot that she had been up all night writing a twelve-page letter to Yolanda Vigiano at ICB Credit, full of mean things about him and Nathan and Daphne—using her own ugliness to make herself suffer. Yolanda did not matter now: the world of handsome men and soft white tablecloths was still here, whole and inviolate, and Sylvia still had a place in it. She would soon be eating complicated bite-size things made of fragrant root vegetables and edible flowers, drinking a glass of wine that tasted of wood smoke and blackberries. The other diners would pretend to concentrate on their leek and truffle salads but would in fact watch them, Sylvia and George, working out their futures—Daphne’s future—in the golden light from the window.

George rose and kissed her cheek. She had not stood so close to a man since the funeral and it felt lovely and strange, like entering a memory. When she sat down at the table she was immediately enveloped in some residual essence of Nathan—his ease in the world and his pleasure in life, his love for expensive things. “It’s been nearly a year, hasn’t it?” she said.

“More, if you don’t count the Bobby Strauss Show.”

“Yes, let’s not count that.” She remembered what she had written to Yolanda Vigiano: that she was no fool, that she was going to lunch with boxing gloves in her purse and would pummel him until he licked Daphne’s feet. “The important thing is that you’ve had a change of heart.”

He looked hurt. “I’ve always loved Daphne, you know that.”

“You just didn’t love monogamy.”

“I’ve done a lot of work on myself since then, Sylvia.”

He looked serious, more humble than she had ever seen him, but she knew it would be a mistake to give in too easily. “What about that woman there?” she asked him, glancing toward a twenty-something in a lilac suit, seated two tables away with a couple of female friends. “She’s been eyeing you the whole time.”

The woman had high cheekbones and a long, elegant throat—a face built for wounded yearning. When she noticed Sylvia she went back to her salad.

George Rockland did not look. He leaned in toward Sylvia, his eyes latched on hers; she felt as if she were watching the camera zoom in for a close up. “You have a right to be skeptical. I hate myself for what happened, but you have to believe that it wasn’t completely my fault.”

“Whose fault was it, then?”

“The truth is that I was addicted to Viagra.”

It made so little sense that she gave a squeaky laugh, which she immediately squelched. “I’m sorry,” she said, and then took a long drink of her wine. She had only meant to push him a little, and now he had confused her. “Can you be? I mean addicted.”

“Not physically, no, but my antidepressants had pretty much ruined my libido. I felt flat, and it was affecting my work. Comedy is about connection.”

“You’re on antidepressants?”

“I got really depressed after I                       quit drinking.”

She blinked, trying to see George Rockland in this new light. She had always thought of him as overprivileged and spoiled, not frightened, not delicate.

George Rockland shrugged. “Somehow, at some point, I started to take the Viagra more than I should have—just to feel the old rush of aliveness. And then, well, you know what happened. First I couldn’t fuck anyone, and then suddenly I could fuck everyone. I think I became overly invested in the sense of possibility that it gave me.”

“I know what it’s like to feel invisible,” said Sylvia.

Invisible,” said George, leaning back and smiling that beautiful, lopsided smile of his, obviously grateful. “Love is the only thing that will make me visible again, Sylvia. I love Daphne. That’s why I’m willing to sign everything over to her, right now.”

“Aren’t you afraid of slipping?”

“This will keep me from slipping.”

Sylvia saw the logic in this. Daphne would save George Rockland, and in return he would save Daphne. “What do you want me to say to her?” she asked him.

“Tell her you believe in me. Ask her if she’ll meet me face to face.”

The meal went quickly after that: a warm goat cheese salad with papaya and Thai chilies; a second glass of wine, tasting of sunlight and shadow; occasional glances at the woman with the elegant throat, who became busy with what looked to be the pumpkin and chestnut wontons. George Rockland talked about his week at a spa in the Bahamas for people with trust and intimacy issues. Sylvia’s sleepless night began to catch up with her: the light from the big picture window dazzled her eyes, and she was filled with a dreamy lassitude. When they parted out on the street, in front of the restaurant, it was hard to believe it was already three o’clock.

“You’ll give me a call when you speak to her?” he asked.

“I’m going straight to her studio.” She walked a few steps to the corner, then turned around and saw him head back into the restaurant. She crossed the street to a Korean grocery and stood among the bundles of roses. In a moment she watched George Rockland reemerge with the woman with the elegant throat. The two of them climbed into a cab.

*                                                                                                               *                                                                                                               *

For the first month after Nathan got out of the hospital, Sylvia would take him back for cognitive therapy.   Maybe because the room was pink, the therapy sessions had the air of a strange and horrible children’s birthday. About a dozen brain patients would slouch in their wheelchairs, arranged in a semi-circle facing a whiteboard, while a therapist led them through a simple game: tic-tac-toe, or hangman, or a crossword. The outcome was always the same: they would stare at the board with heartbreaking puzzlement for a moment or two and then suddenly fall asleep or start struggling with the seatbelt on their chair.

Nathan would watch the game with the fierce look he used to wear walking into Saks Fifth Avenue. But he spoke only once. The therapist had written out an acrostic with dog and cat hidden more or less in plain sight among a few other letters. “Does anybody see an animal word?” she asked. “John, what about you?”

“Rabbit?” asked John. He was the youngest by about thirty years, which meant that he was probably a motorcycle accident.

“We do have an R,” said the therapist, circling the letter, “and yes, I see an A.” She circled that too, off at the other side of the puzzle. “But notice that they’re not next to each other. Can they form a word if they’re not next to each other?”

“No!” yelled an elderly woman—hardly more than a humpback and a pair of glittering eyes.

“Thank you, Marcia. So let’s take another look. Can anyone see three letters that spell a word?”

The old man beside Marcia leaned toward her. “Would you suck my cock?”   he asked.

The middle-aged daughter behind his wheelchair locked hands on his shoulders and whispered furiously into his ear. “Dad!”

“Bill,” said the therapist. “Keep it clean, please.”

“Well, then, what about you?” asked Bill, his face a mask of reasonableness.

“He’s always saying that!” cried Marcia, more triumphant than indignant.

In the end, no one found the words and the therapist had to walk the group through the puzzle. “See here, everyone? We have a C. And here’s an A, right, John?” John nodded, looking worried. “And what’s this here, Marcia? That’s a T, isn’t it? So what’s it all spell?”

“Dog,” said Marcia.

“No, that’s the other one.”   The therapist’s face clouded. “OK, we’re just about finished. Does anyone have any questions?”

It was then that Nathan raised his hand. Sylvia recognized the shifting in his seat and the pulling back of the shoulders from when he would talk to clients—simple physical gestures that had outlasted the drain openers and bleaches they had all worried about so much.

“Yes, Nathan?”

He spoke very slowly, as if each word were a coin he had to first pull from his pocket and examine in his hand. “Can you tell me what is being done to me?”

“Being done to you?”   asked the therapist.

“I need to know,” he said, slowing down even further, till Sylvia felt the seconds pulsing in her temples. “Because depending on your answer, I might be forced to take certain actions.”   It sounded as if he were threatening to sue.

The other patients looked at him with what seemed to be genuine curiosity. Sylvia put a hand on his shoulder, feeling the muscle there, still solid, still male.

Nathan blinked, looking as if his determination were faltering, the fright seeping in and filling him like helium fills a balloon. “The point is that I do not want to be forced down a path I do not want to take.”

*                                                                                                               *                                                                                                               *

Sylvia left her hiding spot among the roses and took a bus uptown to Daphne’s studio, where she sat on the mildewed couch, watching her daughter work on another corset. There were twelve of them now, on a row of dummies by the fogged-over window, with matching beehive helmets and ankle-length skirts. Daphne crouched on her knees beside the newest of the outfits, fixing the pink satin lining underneath. She worked with an exquisite sort of meditative attention, never impatient, never frustrated.

“I might as well tell you that I had lunch with George,” said Sylvia, unable to hold the truth in any longer. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to say about it—whether she wanted to cast it as a plausible step forward or a disaster.

Daphne did not look up. “Oh?”

“I know I shouldn’t have, but he pressed me and I gave in.”

“He’s very persuasive.”

“True.” Sylvia looked at Daphne, hunched beside the strange green skirt, and felt a terrible yearning for her daughter’s happiness balloon inside her chest. That was the awful thing: there was nothing she could do with the feeling other than feel it—just like missing Nathan. “He wanted me to ask you to meet with him,” she said.

Daphne stood and circled the dummy, examining it from various angles. “Should I?” she asked.

“Probably not.”

“That’s what I thought.” She took a few steps back and put her hand to her chin, taking in the whole line of dummies.

Sylvia got up and stood beside her. For all their scary green thorniness, the dummies looked like they were lined up at the curb, waiting for the crosstown bus to come and take them home.

She would declare bankruptcy, she realized. She wasn’t sure exactly what that was, but the word had a pleasing finality to it, the sense of hitting bottom and finding solid ground. She would sell the apartment and get something small and cheap, maybe near the studio, with its rumbling trucks and grimy old buildings.

She had been so angry at Nathan for leaving her alone, for making her miss him, but for the first time that hunger did not feel like a fatal wound. It felt like a force inside her. It felt like the wanting she had experienced in the early days of their marriage, when she would lay in bed, naked beneath the sheet, waiting for him to come and hold her—a desire so strong that she believed it could propel her out of her body and into the sky, even as it dug her deeper and deeper into herself.

She stepped behind the dummies and over to the window and wiped away the condensation with her hand, giving herself the world outside: the aluminum trucks loading and unloading pots of flowers that flamed red and yellow in the falling light. She was sixty-five and a widow and an aspiring bankrupt, but she still wanted all of what she saw, even if she would have to mourn for it.