Do-Over by Curtis Sittenfeld
23rd Mar 2018
Clay never seriously considered the possibility that Donald Trump would win the election, and around nine P.M. central time, when it seems likely he will, Clay texts his daughter, Abby, who is fourteen and at her mother’s house. He writes, I hope you are not too disappointed. Progress sometimes happens in fits and starts. I love you, Abs. Abby texts back, He’s gross, followed by the poop emoji.
That night, Clay dreams of Sylvia McLellan. He dreams with some regularity of boarding school—the classic dream that he’s unprepared for an exam, plus a more idiosyncratic one that involves a girl named Jenny Pacanowski waiting in her dorm room to have sex with him, while, agitatingly, he’s delayed by the task of putting away equipment for the entire lacrosse team—but he’s never before dreamed about Sylvia. And the dream Clay has of Sylvia isn’t sexual; in fact, within a minute or two of waking, he can’t remember what it was about except that it leaves him uneasy. Yet he’s not surprised when, four months later, he receives an email from her. They haven’t had contact since their graduation in 1991.
Hope you’ve been well, she writes. Super-random after all this time, but I’m coming to Chicago for work in April and I was thinking it would be fun to have dinner if you’re around.
After a few volleys, they have settled on a day, a time, and a restaurant near the downtown hotel where she’ll stay. She lives in Denver, she tells him, she’s an architect, her husband is also an architect but not at her firm, and they’re the parents of twin boys who are nine and a girl who’s five.
You didn’t go into politics, either? Clay types, then he adds the phrase the dirty business of between into and politics to convey that he’s kidding, then he deletes the entire question. Her trip to Chicago is three weeks away.
In the spring of 1990, when they were juniors, Clay, Sylvia, and three of their classmates all ran for senior prefect, which was the fancy term used at Bishop Academy for student body president. Their school was in western Massachusetts, and there were a total of seventy-six people in their grade. After Clay and Sylvia tied for first place, a runoff occurred. The exact results were never disclosed, but apparently they were close, so close that the dean of students met with Clay and Sylvia and proposed the following: Because Clay had been their grade prefect for the past three years, and because no girl had ever served as senior prefect—a fact mostly explained by Bishop having switched from all-boys to coed only a decade earlier—Clay would assume the role of senior prefect, but unprecedentedly, another role would be created for Sylvia, that of assistant prefect. Clay would show her the ropes with regard to running Monday and Friday assemblies and serving on the honor council, and in turn, Sylvia would help raise money for senior class activities, especially since, for the first time in Bishop’s history, there was a movement afoot to hold a prom.
Clay can still remember sitting in Dean Boede’s office, the warm New England afternoon outside the big window, his impending lacrosse practice; he can remember how qualmlessly he accepted this offer and how Sylvia did, too. That night, before everyone was released from Sit-Down Dinner, the headmaster announced the arrangement to the student body, and there was much applause.
Clay had been in a few classes with Sylvia over the years without ever talking to her much, and he thought of her as smart—she had at some point won a prize for an essay written in Latin—as well as quiet and almost definitely a virgin. He’d been surprised when she’d run for prefect. She was tall and thin and had long, straight blond hair, so that she looked hot from behind, but from the front you could see her jutting, rectangular jaw and aquiline nose; and besides that, she just didn’t carry herself like a hot girl. A week after being elected assistant senior prefect, she also was elected captain of the girls’ crew team.
Their senior year played out as Dean Boede had proposed: Sylvia stood on the auditorium stage with Clay during assemblies, she attended honor council meetings, they did indeed hold an all-school prom. The theme was “April in Paris,” and the centerpiece was a thirty-foot-high papier-mâché Eiffel Tower with which Clay personally never had physical contact. By the end of the year, his impression of Sylvia remained favorable. Then again, how much thought did Clay actually give her? He was a reasonably conscientious student, an even more conscientious athlete, and a decent boyfriend to a girl named Meredith Tyler, who was dark-haired and looked hot from both the back and the front; meanwhile, he occasionally had sex with Jenny Pacanowski, who also was hot from the back and the front, whom he’d lost his virginity to his sophomore year, who took Ritalin, who’d told him that in first grade she’d repeatedly gotten in trouble for humping the corner of a desk, and who had a boyfriend who’d already graduated from Bishop. Every two or three weeks, Jenny materialized in his dorm room in the middle of the night. There was a rule Clay’s mother had about dessert, which was that she couldn’t seek it out but if it landed in front of her, she could indulge; not that it would have made his mother proud, but Clay had the same rule about Jenny.
When he, along with Meredith, Jenny, Sylvia, and seventy-two other classmates, graduated on a Sunday morning in early June, Clay was handed his diploma not by the headmaster, as everyone else was, but by his father, who was a trustee of the school and also a graduate. In the fall, Clay started at Yale and Sylvia started at Williams, which made it slightly surprising that during college they never crossed paths.
Over email, Clay gave Sylvia a choice of three restaurants—a tapas place, a pan-Asian place, and a pricey American bistro—and she picked the bistro; like the others, it’s located a walkable distance between her hotel and the headquarters of the national bank where he is one of four executive vice presidents. When he checks in with the hostess, he already can see Sylvia waiting in a booth facing the entrance, a martini glass in front of her. She stands to greet him; she’s wearing a fitted black cocktail dress, sheer stockings, and notably high heels, possibly dominatrix-ish in style; the shoes are unexpected, but good for her. When they embrace, the heels make her as tall as he is, which is six-one.
As they sit, he says, “What a nice surprise.”
She seems slightly sheepish as she says, “I hope it didn’t seem too out of the blue,” and he says, “Not at all.”
In fact, he feels a genuine warmth toward her; he really did respect her intelligence, her steadiness and sense of responsibility. There was a controversial situation the winter of their senior year involving a group of popular juniors caught drinking together where some were expelled and some merely put on probation, and because of Clay and Sylvia’s roles on the honor council, a lot of ill will was directed toward them. Sylvia’s acceptance of the ill will, the way she acknowledged other people’s displeasure and didn’t make excuses for herself, taught him a lot. Sitting across the table from her, it occurs to him that in her present life as an architect, she’s probably very good at what she does, very reliable and professional. It’s also striking how well she’s aged. It is, of course, far more unusual to be tall and slim and blond in the world than it was at Bishop, far more unusual at forty-three than at seventeen. She still has that rectangular, almost horsey jaw, still isn’t beautiful, and, especially in her sheepishness, gives off an air of girls’ crew captain in uncharacteristically sexy shoes, but she’s solidly attractive.
After ordering a beer, he says, “You’re in town to meet with a client?”
“Actually, a prospective client. But the meeting finished a while ago, which means you’re saving me right now from, like, bad room service.”
“So why have you skipped all the Bishop reunions?” he says. “Don’t tell me it’s because you can resist the pull of nostalgia.”
“I actually went to the twenty-fifth, but you weren’t there.”
“That’s the only one I bailed on.” Their twenty-fifth was last May, less than a year ago. He says, “My divorce was being finalized and—” He breaks off. “I’m sure you can imagine. I didn’t feel too celebratory.”“Well, I hadn’t avoided them on purpose,” she says. “I’d meant to go before, but something always came up. I’m sorry about your divorce, by the way.”
He sighs. “Hopefully, the worst is behind us. It was fairly amicable, as these things go.”
“Have you been in Chicago all this time?”
“I did a stint in New York, but I’ve been here for fifteen years. How long have you guys been in Denver?”
“Eight years. My in-laws are there, and Nelson convinced me to move by saying his mom would babysit when one of the kids woke up on a random weekday with a fever, plus we could teach them to ski. I was like, Sold!” As the waitress delivers his beer, Sylvia holds up her glass, which is still a third full and contains two green olives on a toothpick, and says to the waitress, “Another gin martini?” Then she tilts her glass toward him and says, “Cheers.” As they clink, she asks, “Which of our classmates are you in touch with?”
“Do you remember Warrington Russell? Warry’s been trying to persuade a bunch of us to meet at his lodge up in Alaska some summer, have a week of fly-fishing, but we’ll see. Coordinating the travel logistics of five men in their forties is like herding cats.”
Sylvia takes a sip of her drink then says, “Did you hear that Dean Boede died?”
It’s still early, and it might be a little easier if Clay himself had consumed more alcohol, but this feels like the right moment. He clears his throat. “I want to say—I’m not sure if this is why you got in touch—obviously, if it is, I respect it—but after Trump was elected, in the past few months, I’ve been thinking about our junior year at Bishop, and I want to apologize.” The expression on her face is a little weird, as if maybe she’s amused, but he perseveres. “I guess we’ll never know the results of that runoff, but I’d be willing to bet I lost and you won. And even if it was a different time, even if I wasn’t the one who came up with the plan, what happened was completely sexist. I just want to say I recognize that now and I’m sorry.”
She’s watching him intently, still with that amused-seeming expression, and she says, “Is that why you think I suggested having dinner? To extract an apology?”
He hesitates, then says, “I’m not faulting you if you did. I get it.”
“Hmm.” She looks to the side for a few seconds, at other diners, and she seems to consider his comments, then she makes eye contact again. “I’ll tell you something about that stuff at Bishop,” she says. “In the first round, before the runoff, I voted for you. Frankly, I probably thought I’d make a better senior prefect, but I also thought back then that it was conceited or indecorous or something to vote for myself. Did you vote for yourself?”
“Yes.” He adds, “It was a competition.”
“No, I know. You should have voted for yourself. I should have, too. But it’s just funny because if I had, we wouldn’t have tied and I bet Dean Boede wouldn’t have come up with his boneheaded plan. He was your football coach, right? And he clearly favored you. At the same time, I learned an important lesson from all that, which was to be my own advocate and if I came off as immodest, so be it. And you have to figure that out at some point, right? Or at least if you’re a woman, you do, or not a white man. Architecture is totally an old boys’ field—the vast majority of partners at firms are men, and a lot of times if a woman is a partner, it’s a woman without kids.”
“Well, if that’s the case,” Clay says, “you’re welcome.” He can tell immediately that she didn’t like the joke—she raises her eyebrows and purses her lips in a sort of fake-pleased way—and he strongly wishes he hadn’t made it.
“Just to be clear,” she says, “I’m not brushing off what happened like it was no big deal and I’m so easygoing. It was appalling. It’s just that I worked through my issues about it a long time ago. For me, it’s appalling, but it’s also old news.”
“Fair enough,” he says.
There’s a silence, then, slowly, she says, “Out of curiosity, before our country decided to elect an unhinged narcissist over an intelligent, experienced, qualified woman—before that, had it really never occurred to you that the senior prefect thing was sexist?”
The narrowness of the margin of error allowed here, combined with the high likelihood of his screwing up—it reminds him of marriage counseling. He, too, speaks slowly. “If you’re asking if I was introspective about it at the time, no. I wish I had been, but it’d be a lie.”
“When the tape was released about grabbing women by the pussy and all these men suddenly said, ‘As a father of girls, I object’—was that how you felt? Like, I’m cool with him saying terrible things about Mexican people and Muslims, but this is a bridge too far?”
“I was never cool with Trump’s racism.”
“Are you a Republican?” Her accusatory tone, her clear antipathy—he’s simultaneously eager to move himself out of their line of fire and struck by a detached awareness of how different she’s become. He was initially lulled, misled, by her relatively unchanged appearance, but perhaps she’s hardly the same person at all. Because it’s not just that the Bishop version of Sylvia wouldn’t have directed this sort of hostility at him; it’s that he doesn’t believe such hostility existed in her.
“I’ve voted for people in both parties,” he says. “I take it you’re a straight-ticket voter?”
“I guess it shouldn’t surprise me,” she says, and she seems less angry than pensive in this moment. “If you’re not in the one percent, you must be close. So why wouldn’t you be conservative? If not you, who?”
Is Sylvia McLellan now a social justice warrior? That seems a bit preposterous, in her cocktail dress and her dominatrix shoes, staying in what’s probably a four-hundred-dollar-a-night hotel.
Evenly, he says, “I’d describe myself as an independent. I kind of liked Bernie.”
She raises her eyebrows again, and says, “Maybe that shouldn’t surprise me, either.”
Mercifully, the waitress appears to take their order. He asks for roasted chicken, and she orders braised beef, and when the waitress leaves, he says, “I know I’ll have entrée envy, but another thing about getting older is, I seriously think I get meat hangovers. With red meat, at least. But I salute you.”
And at first, he believes he’s successfully diverted her. They move on to talking about various diets, then about their respective exercise routines (he plays tennis a few times a week, while she tries to hike and ski but usually just works out on an elliptical machine in her basement), and she evinces interest in his Fitbit, which he removes and hands to her. Then they discuss where they’ve both traveled over the years. But just after the waitress has cleared their plates, then taken an order for a cappuccino from him and another martini for her, Sylvia says, “I’ll tell you why I really called you. You know, in the spirit of honesty you showed.”
There’s something both rehearsed-seeming and sarcastic in her tone, something not reassuring. But as she continues speaking, she sounds more sincere. “My husband was laid off almost a year ago. Even with Nelson out of work, we’re okay—we can pay our mortgage. But we’re careful about money in a way we never had to be before. We don’t go out for nice dinners anymore, we stop and think before we sign the kids up for activities, even as we’re trying to shield them from the situation, and who knows if that’s a good idea? But I digress.” Sylvia sips from her glass. “Given that Nelson isn’t working, you might think he’d use his time to, like, make healthy family dinners, or exercise, or clean the garage. You know, life gives you lemons. Instead, he spends every day wearing this hideous pair of black track pants with two orange stripes down the side and playing online video games. Maybe I should be grateful he’s not looking at porn, or maybe he is looking at porn and telling me he’s playing video games—at some point, I don’t know if there’s much of a difference.”
“I’m sorry to hear all that,” Clay says.
“We’re about to get to the part that has to do with you,” she says. “If you’re wondering.”
Again, this does not reassure him.
“When we were at Bishop, I had a huge crush on you,” she says.
“Which I assume you knew.”
In fact, he is stunned. He says, “On me?”
She laughs and then, perhaps in a parody of a southern belle, tilts her face up and bats her eyelashes. She says, “On little old me?”
But this really isn’t what he was expecting. He was wondering if she was about to ask for some sort of job referral for her husband, or for an investment in a business they’re starting. And never at Bishop, not once, did it occur to him that she was interested in him in that way.
In her normal voice, she says, “Of course I liked you. Think about it. You were this good-looking, confident guy, you were nice to me, and we were around each other a lot.” There’s a way she’s managing to make these remarks that feels less like a compliment than a confession, possibly a reprimand. “Sometimes after we had those evening meetings with Dean Boede, I’d go back to my room and lie on my bed and cry because I loved you so much. I wanted to touch you so badly, and I wanted you to touch me, and there was nothing I could do to make it happen. It was like flirting was a language I didn’t speak. Plus, you had your whole harem of girls. Not just Meredith but Jenny, too, right? And I knew I wasn’t in the same league with either of them, I knew that liking you was liking above my station. But here you were, this eighteen-year-old lacrosse player, and your hands and your forearms were so beautiful I almost couldn’t stand it. When I think of Bishop, I probably should think about my well-rounded education or my time rowing on the river, but mostly I just remember feeling desperate with longing.” Although she’s now smiling, he has the impression that the smile is not for him but for her own younger self. And it’s still unclear to him what her ultimate point is, so he waits, saying nothing.
“I didn’t really have a meeting in Chicago,” she continues. “I came here to go on a date with you. You wouldn’t know it was a date, but I would. I’d dress up, and we’d go to the kind of restaurant that Nelson and I don’t go to anymore, this kind of restaurant.” She gestures with one arm. “I’d drink a little too much, not that I’m three sheets to the wind or anything. I’m maybe one sheet to the wind. But I’d Google-Imaged you, so I knew you were still cute, and I also knew you were divorced.”
Is she finished? He waits a few seconds to make sure before saying, “Just so you know, I’m seeing someone. A woman named Jane.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Sylvia says. “This is a pretend date, a fake date. I wasn’t hoping we’d end up in bed. For one thing, I don’t think I could live with the guilt, and for another, childbirth wrecked my body. I can hide it when my clothes are on, but having the twins ruined my vagina, and having my daughter ruined my butt. Have you ever heard of anal fissures?”
Is this a rhetorical question? After a pause, he says, “Yes, I’ve heard of them.”
“Have you ever had one?” She’s as blasé as if she’s asking if he’s ever tasted coconut water.
He shakes his head.
“The comparison people make is to a paper cut on your asshole,” she says. “As for the rest of my parts down there, I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that other women sometimes tell me they didn’t know it’s possible to give birth to twins vaginally, and, having done it, I’m not sure it is.” She smirks, then holds her lowball glass aloft. “Live and learn.”
This, to him, is her ugliest moment yet—the purity of her cynicism, the unapologeticness of her vulgarity. Did she change gradually, little by little, or all at once?
“I was in the room when my ex-wife gave birth to our daughter,” Clay says. “I’m not some nineteen-fifties man who’s totally ignorant about the mechanics of the female body.”
She’s still smiling as she says, “Should I congratulate you for that?”
He takes care to keep his voice calm, not to match her antipathy, when he says, “At the same time, here’s a friendly tip for you, if you’re trying to reenter the dating pool. I wouldn’t recommend bringing up the topic of anal fissures.”
She doesn’t seem at all embarrassed; if anything, she remains amused as she says, “I guess I haven’t done a good job of explaining myself. I’m not planning to cheat on Nelson. This—tonight—it was an experiment, but I knew very quickly that it was a failed experiment. You’re still good-looking, I’ll grant you that. But you’re so boring! You probably found me boring, and I was boring tonight, but I was feeding off your boringness. Isn’t it weird how I was tormented as a teenager by a person who grew up into a banker who talks incessantly about his Fitbit?”
Their waitress is nearby, and he catches her eye and makes the check-requesting gesture. Then he extracts a credit card from his wallet, and, when the waitress brings over the small leather folder, passes her the card without looking at the bill.
“Did I offend you?” Sylvia asks. “I didn’t mean to. I was trying to be factual.”
He says nothing—what’s the point?—and after a few seconds, she adds, “For all his faults, Nelson does make me laugh. He’s very funny. And I think a sense of humor is the single most endearing quality a person can have. Do you agree?”
Apparently, this isn’t a rhetorical question, either. They look at each other, and he says, “Sure.”
“Sure? That’s it?”
“It seems like we’ve both said what we have to say to each other tonight.”
Another silence ensues, a long silence, while they await the return of the bill, and at last Sylvia says, “So your daughter’s, what, a high school freshman? Or a sophomore?”
“Abby’s a freshman,” he says.
“Is she athletic like you?”
This is how their last moments in the restaurant conclude, with a conversation that in tone and content is the one he’d anticipated having with her in the first place. It’s a reminder that, probably, nothing is wrong with Sylvia, nothing diagnosable. She just turned out weird and bitter.
On the street, under the dark city sky, before they walk in opposite directions, Sylvia says, “Thanks so much for dinner.”
Normally, he’d hug her again, or perhaps lean in and kiss her on the cheek. And it feels odd to do nothing—as odd as it would have to split the check, not to pay for her—so he extends his hand, and as they shake, she smirks again. She says, “Farewell to thee in the perilous storm,” which is a line from the Bishop hymn, a song that even now, maybe especially now, he finds deeply moving. Without question, his moral code was molded more by the ideals of Bishop than by those of his parents. This is why he doesn’t care how paternalistic, how sexist, how Republican he sounds to Sylvia when he shakes his head and says, as his parting words, “Is it really necessary for you to poison that, too?”
They exchanged phone numbers over email, and she texted him around noon, to confirm dinner. Therefore, her number but not her name are in the Contacts of his cell phone, and when his phone rings just after eleven, while he is lying in bed watching television, he has no idea at first who it might be. But, because he is a parent, he answers.
Immediately, Sylvia says, “Do you remember that kid Bruno in the grade below ours? The day after our prefect announcement, he staged a one-person picket outside the headmaster’s house to try to get them to release the final vote tally. And I thought he was a freak.”
Carefully—it’s difficult to discern whether her mood is more ruminative or combative—Clay says, “I do remember Bruno.”
“The truth is that when Dean Boede handed you the election, I didn’t think it was that weird,” Sylvia says. “At the time, I was good at not getting what I wanted. Plus, I was sort of shy. So I thought, Okay, this makes sense. I’ll be the sidekick. When I told my parents, they were confused, and I could tell they thought it was weird I didn’t know the final vote tally. But they didn’t push it, and they were proud of me for being assistant prefect. It wasn’t until I described what had happened to my college friends that anyone ever said, What the fuck? They were like, Why did no one protest? Why did no adults intervene?”
Partly to humor her and partly because he believes it, Clay says, “So it was all of us except Bruno who were the freaks.”
“Good old Bruno,” Sylvia says, and her voice sounds warmer than it did at the restaurant, though he’d be foolish to entirely trust her. “The other thing,” she says, “is that even though I made fun of you for not knowing sexism existed before last fall, I was shocked when Hillary lost and Trump won. I’m still shocked. Every single day, every time I see in the news what Trump has said or done, I literally can’t believe it.”
“Apparently, that’s very white of us—being shocked by the election.” They are both quiet, and she adds, “In general, I have no desire to ever have another conversation about Hillary Clinton, to debate the role her gender played. I’m not sure I want to have any conversation about sexism. If someone doesn’t see that gender played a huge role, why would I waste my time trying to convince them?”
“But I also can’t help seeing the election as a metaphor. It turns out that democracies aren’t that stable, and neither are marriages. And I’m so fucking confused! I didn’t think I’d be this confused when I was forty-three.”
“Well,” he says, “I’m divorced. It goes without saying that this isn’t exactly what I had planned.”
“I thought I had my act together,” she says. “I have my job, I have my family, we’re all, knock on wood, pretty healthy. There was this story I told myself, that growing up I’d been the awkward good girl, the responsible student, and I’d missed out socially but in the long term I’d come out ahead. So it was all fine, it all comes out in the wash, or whatever it is people say. I thought I was finished being the teenager who lay in her dorm room and felt racked with misery, wanting things she couldn’t have. But something came loose inside me, something got dislodged, and I am still that teenager. In a way, it started even before Nelson got laid off—it started when this dad at my kids’ school was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was awful. His children were in fourth and seventh grade at the time. And you’d think that would make me treasure my own family, make me grateful for what I have, but instead, it made me sort of reckless and crazy. Like, who knows what will happen to any of us, so why shouldn’t I enjoy myself in the way I’ve never been good at? Why shouldn’t I get to have fun, too? I’ve never done drugs, I’ve never even really seen drugs, but recently I’ve wondered, Should I try to find some cocaine? Or Ecstasy? Because I want a hit of something—I want some kind of lift, something to break up the monotony. What’s maybe weirdest about having reverted to my teenage longings is that this time around, I don’t know what they’re for. Back then, they were for you, but what am I so desperate for now? What can I get or do that will make me feel better instead of worse? That’s why I came to Chicago and pretended we were on a date. I just wanted something.”
“Have you talked to your husband about any of this?” Clay asks. “Or to a therapist?”
“I know I sound like a horrible wife, and maybe I am—the part of me that looks at Nelson and thinks, Pull yourself together. But at the same time, I am sympathetic and I recognize how much pain he’s in, and how, as a man, his self-worth is more tied up in providing for our family than mine is. It’s easy to pretend that if I got fired, I’d train for a triathlon and declutter our house, but I’d probably just sit around on my ass, too, being depressed.” She pauses. “I didn’t answer your question, did I? We sort of talk about it. And I went to a therapist a few times, but she wasn’t very smart.”
“This is just my two cents, but you don’t seem like a person who wants out of your marriage,” he says. “Maybe you will eventually, but you don’t now.”
“Really? Why not?”
He pauses, then says, “The anal fissure stuff—you put it out there that we were on a date, but you immediately followed up with that. It was like you were sex-proofing the situation.”
She laughs. “That’s an interesting theory.” They’re both quiet, and she says, “But there’s no version of tonight that would have played out with us hooking up, is there?”
“The possibility of two people becoming physically involved generally hinges on both of them being open to it.”
“Oh, come on. That’s such a cop-out. Would you have slept with me?”
He thinks, Based on your appearance, sure. Based on your behavior, no. Aloud, he says, “I know you’ll think I’m dodging the question, but it’s impossible to say. It’s like the butterfly effect.”
“I’d have been okay with making out, I think,” she says. “I never kissed a Bishop boy, not even once, so I’d be able to cross that off my bucket list at the ripe old age of forty-three. Can you believe I graduated from high school without kissing anyone? It seems like it shouldn’t be possible.”
“Like giving birth to twins vaginally,” he says, and she laughs again and says, “Touché.”
“For what it’s worth,” he says, “everyone feels weird about their aging body. It’s not a crime not to look like you’re eighteen. Anyway, you’re attractive. I assume you know that by now.”
She is silent, and he wonders if, again, he’s misstepped. If he has, well—fuck her. She didn’t need to call him again. Then she sighs, sadly rather than resentfully. She says, “I once heard that smart women want to be told they’re pretty and pretty women want to be told they’re smart. And the depressing part is that I think I agree. What did you say your girlfriend’s name is?”
“See?” he says. “You just did it again. I told you you’re attractive and you brought up my girlfriend.”
This time, she laughs so heartily and authentically that, in a visceral way, it takes him back to their senior year at Bishop; it’s a laugh he’d forgotten about but recognizes instantly. (Oh, the passage of time! The twenty-six years that have elapsed, the green afternoon outside Dean Boede’s office! The irretrievability of his youth, the Bishop hymn, the blow jobs he used to get from Jenny Pacanowski.)
He says, “For the record, I really had no idea, none at all, that you were interested in me at Bishop. Maybe part of getting what you want is asking for it.”
“Said like a man.”
“That doesn’t make it wrong.”
The pause that ensues is the longest yet between them. He thinks about the distance between Wilmette, where his condo is, and her hotel and how many minutes it would take to drive there at this hour. (Thirty?) The thought is mostly but not completely speculative, and it’s hard to imagine that she’s not thinking about the same thing.
What she says when she finally speaks is “Did you cheat on your wife?”
“We were both involved with other people.”
“Who did it first?”
“She did, although she’d say I was checked out of the marriage by then.”
“Are you relieved or bummed out that you’re divorced?”
She laughs. “Do you feel confused and desperate?” she asks.
She says, “Now that we’re friends again—we’re friends again, right?”
“I hope so.”
“Now that we’re friends again, have you ever had an anal fissure? Because they really are insanely painful.”
“I wasn’t lying,” he says. “I haven’t.”
“Nelson once had hemorrhoids at the same time I had an anal fissure, and he said we should start a band called Sylvia McLellan and the Buttcheeks.” After a pause, she says, “I guess you had to be there.” There’s another pause—some shift seems to have occurred, some definitive understanding that they will not see each other again tonight, which is allowing them both to capitulate to their own tiredness—and she says, “I shouldn’t have said you were boring. It was rude, but it was also untrue. I respect your psychological insights.”
Alone in his bedroom, he smiles. “Thank you, Sylvia.”
Knowing he’s not going to her hotel makes it easier for him to settle into an uncomplicated and nostalgic affection for her. Will they stay in touch? Will they ever cross paths again? Possibly at a reunion, but otherwise, it seems highly unlikely.
“Did my call wake you up?” she asks, and it’s the combination of how sincere her concern seems with how belated it is that amuses him.
He says, “I was watching TV.”
She yawns audibly. “What show?”
He tells her the name; it’s a cable drama that’s been airing for a few years, though he’s only halfway through the first season.
“Oh, I’ve heard that’s good,” she says, and her voice is now so drowsy, so intimate with impending sleep, that it’s as if she is lying in the bed next to him. She says, “Maybe that’s what Nelson and I will watch next.”
Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of five novels: ‘Prep’, ‘The Man of My Dreams’, ‘American Wife’, ‘Sisterland’ and ‘Eligible’. Her first story collection, ‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’, will be published in May 2018 (Doubleday UK, Random House US in April). Her books have been selected by The New York Times, Time, Entertainment Weekly and People for their “Ten Best Books of the Year” lists, optioned for television and film, and translated into twenty-five languages. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post and Esquire, and her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and Slate. A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is married with two children and lives in the American Mid-West.