Authors: Claire Lombardo
It felt like that, except she wasn’t tired.
“How was your day?” she asked him, leading the way to the kitchen.
“Oh, you know,” he said. “I cut the grass. I walked the dog. Twice.” He was quiet for a minute. “How was
day?” he asked finally, and she hesitated.
It had started to feel sort of uncomely, countering his Eeyore monologue with a chirpy account of the hardware store’s thriving profit margin, her funny teenage employees, the delightful moments of existential introspection she’d been having lately during lulls between customers. You couldn’t respond to
I’m depressed and inventing home improvement projects to combat my despair
I’ve never been happier!
“Just fine,” she said. “You going to help me with dinner?”
When they were first married, living in that haphazard green house in Iowa City when David was in medical school, they’d relished the opportunity to make dinner together, trailing each other around the kitchen, making out against the counter while they waited for water to boil, sometimes forgetting the meal entirely and having to fan the smoke alarm with their discarded clothing. Something in his expression now tugged at a sinewy part of her heart; something about the defenseless flop of his graying hair made her go to him and twine her arms around his middle and kiss him. Needing and wanting were different animals entirely.
“I thought you had a cold,” he said, pulling away for a second.
“False alarm,” she said, slipping her hands into his back pockets, impelling his tongue to engage with hers.
“I can cook,” David said, coming up for air. She kissed him harder and felt a flicker of something southward, a gentle reminder of the fact that she loved this man more than solitude. She pushed her hips into his, trying to draw out the feeling, keep it going, but it was gone as quickly as it had come, replaced by stillness, a little ache in her jaw.
Grace remembered hearing somewhere that small envelopes didn’t necessarily mean bad news, but that had been her experience thus far, so when she saw the letter-size in her mailbox alongside a card stock advertisement for dental veneers, she threw both unopened on the table, numb by now to disappointment and numb, as well, to the interior of her apartment, which was the precise color and consistency of shredded wheat. It had a minifridge instead of a regular fridge. The bedroom had cinder-block walls. The shower released a shy stream of lukewarm water that turned to ice if anyone in the building’s other units so much as rinsed a plate.
But it was
. That had been her rationale: tough it out in a cheap hovel for a year (some would argue that sparseness was good for productivity and enlightenment), figure out the logical next step, advance forward at the completion of her lease. She’d kept reminding herself of that over the course of this last year as her college friends, one by one, moved away; as her LSAT scores came back with results she thought must surely be typos:
this is only temporary and everything is going to be fine.
Everything was going to be fine and soon she would find her place in the world, the job she was meant to have and the man she was meant to marry and the little (or, who knew, perhaps not-so-little) plot of earth she was meant to inhabit. All of this, of course, had sounded great at the time. Catch her breath, save a little money. Jolly, pragmatic Grace, the belated and treasured child of her doting parents.
But now it was nearly April, and her faraway friends were busy with med school and MFAs, with moves to New York or Seattle or Singapore, and her own rejection letters kept rolling in, one after another, and so she continued to be employed for $9.50 an hour as a receptionist at a nonprofit that provided free legal services to woodwind musicians, not herself a woodwind musician and so utterly friendless. Thus she was spending a lot of time in her janky apartment, which was fucking with her morale.
It had been a year since she’d graduated from Reed. The University of Oregon—whose small and unpromising envelope lay on her kitchen table—was her last hope. Not quite a safety, apparently, given the resounding
she’d received from everyone else, but definitely lower-tier than the other places she’d applied. It would be ideal, an easy move across the river to the city proper. But it seemed she was destined to remain here with her tiny fridge—which, despite its size, remained embarrassingly empty, containing only a bottle of chardonnay and a few sticks of string cheese.
She lived a little bit like how she imagined murderers lived: sparsely, and with shame.
Her phone rang, and when she saw it was Liza, she grabbed her cigarettes and went out on her balcony. The balcony was theoretically a perk of her apartment, but sitting on it felt like sitting in a playpen, or a jail. Sadistically, she preferred talking to Liza over her other sisters lately because Liza was scads more boring than Wendy or Violet, not married or parenting or haunted by dramatic ghosts from her past, not loaded or adventurous or outstandingly successful. Liza, with her beige home and her seemingly dead-end academic job and her miserly boyfriend, was arguably the third least interesting Sorenson child, beating Grace by only a single slot, and there was a comfort in that.
“Goose,” Liza said. “I’ve got— I have the best news.”
She leaned hard against the bars of the balcony and shut her eyes.
“Guess who’s a tenured professor?”
She considered making a joke—
—but Liza’s joy at the moment outweighed her own malaise. “No shit. Lize, that’s awesome.” Of course this meant that Liza would begin to inch away from her on the interesting scale. She could typically rationalize that her sisters, so much older than she was, had had more time to accrue life experience, but it was tough to minimize the glaring achievement of getting tenure at thirty-two.
“Thank you.” Liza was breathless and giddy; it made Grace smile, a surging of sisterly accord. She’d forgotten that your family could occasionally make you forget about the stupid confines of your own dumb life. “I was completely caught off-guard, Gracie. The dean made me a cappuccino. Himself. In his
“You’re adjusting well to this change in standard of living.”
Liza laughed. “I’m— Christ, I feel
. I’m so fucking happy.”
high. You should be celebrating.”
“I’m on my way home. Or, well, I’m—I’m in the Binny’s parking lot.”
“Where dreams are made.”
“Ryan’s going to be happy about this, right?” Liza was the only one of her sisters who spoke to her in this way, as though she might possess knowledge beyond theirs.
he is. Don’t be nervous. Be fucking ecstatic, Lize. This is so dope.”
“Stop bragging.” Then, tentatively, because she wasn’t sure she’d ever said the words to anyone, let alone one of her older sisters: “I’m proud of you.”
Liza’s voice, when she replied, was full: “Thanks, Gracie. I’m— God, I’m so
about this. I don’t think I’ve felt this way since—like, ever.”
“Can you hook me up with stuff now? Like, office supplies? Or emotionally mature undergrads?”
“That’s why I signed the contract.” Then: “Wait, Goose, what about your applications? Did something happen?”
For some reason, she didn’t answer right away. She glanced ruefully, through the door, at her kitchen table.
“Actually.” The optimistic lilt of the final syllable happened spontaneously. “The letter from Oregon just got here before you called.” Technically true. Technically not a massive lie.
“Goose! God, talk about burying the lede. Oh, that’s— Gracie, that’s fantastic. Oh, I knew you would— Oh my
my little sister’s going to be a
. You know I used to change your diapers, right?”
“Yes, it’s been brought to my attention before.” The feeling of having leveled the playing field a bit was definitely not unpleasant, especially after Liza had invoked diapers to highlight their nine-year age gap. Technically she had still not said anything untrue, despite what her racing heartbeat might suggest. Liza had made the leap herself.
“I’m so proud of you, Gracie. Have you told Mom and Dad yet?”
She paused. Then: “Just figuring out the best way to break the news.”
“What a great day this is,” Liza said. In addition to being the third-least interesting sibling, Liza was also hands-down the kindest, and Grace felt a momentary barb of guilt. “Listen, Goose, I should get home. But we’ll talk soon, okay? Mom and Dad are going to flip. You should go celebrate too. I promise not to make you start calling me Professor if you won’t make me call you Your Honor
I love you.”
“Do what you have to do. I love you too.”
When they hung up she rose, creakily—her body suddenly seemed to be rapidly aging—and went back inside to her kitchen table, staring down at the envelope. Perhaps her lie of omission would be validated. Sometimes good things came in small packages; that was something her mom would say. People in Oregon were eco-friendly and mindful. It could just be a couple of sentences.
You’re in! Check out the rest on our website.
She took a knife from the kitchen drawer. Her father had raised them all to open envelopes with dignity, not just tear at the flaps like savages. Her parents were full-throttle optimists as far as her life was concerned; there had never been a doubt in their minds that she would go to law school, buoyed by impressive scholarships, progressing efficiently all the way to the Supreme Court.
She slit the envelope with the knife and pulled out the paper. She read it quickly, with trained eyes, and she dropped it into the garbage. The chardonnay was shitty gas station wine called Hodnapp’s Harvest. Though the labels on the backs of trendier and more whimsical wines might say something like
PAIRS WELL WITH DELICATE GRILLED FISH AND SPRING RISOTTO
—none of the labels ever mentioned complementing string cheese, she noted—this one featured a photo of what was apparently the Hodnapp family crest. She squinted to read the calligraphic inscription below the surname:
THIS WINE PAIRS WELL WITH FRIENDSHIP
She poured a third of the bottle into a coffee mug and went by herself onto the balcony to mourn her future.
iza had gotten lucky, she supposed, nearing her house, psyching herself up. Wendy had paved the way for them by dating a bunch of terrible douchebags, blond American Psychos with popped collars and vacation homes on the Cape. She started this processional in junior high and ended it with her comparatively normal, albeit exorbitantly wealthy husband, Miles. Violet’s college boyfriend had trouble making eye contact and seemed to be viewing them all as potential lab specimens. By the time Ryan came along, Liza’s parents were desensitized, barely batted an eye at the tattoos on his forearms. But she wondered how they would handle his less visible shortcomings: his crippling anxiety, his bouts of severe depression, the way that sometimes she came into a room and didn’t recognize him, saw only a man-child with such a despondent expression that she began to question every single happy moment they’d had together.
It had started to get bad last year, when they moved to Chicago from Philly so she could start teaching in the psych department at UIC. Soon, there were days when he wouldn’t get out of bed, days when she had late classes but would be up at six and by the time she left the house at two she would have finished grading an entire section’s worth of papers and he would still be sleeping. There were the evenings when she would come home late and find that he had eaten toast for dinner and watched six episodes of
and she would curl against him on the couch and he would say things about how he felt hopeless—
was a real, actual phrase that her real, live partner had legitimately used—and she would make gentle suggestions that he call an old colleague or one of his friends from grad school. And then, of course, came his excuses: Steve Gibbons lived in L.A. now; Mike Zimmerman had never really liked him; he hadn’t turned on his computer in two months.
Eventually she’d stopped suggesting. At some point she’d started coming home and making herself toast for dinner and joining him on the couch. Yet frequently, repeatedly, she found herself seized with the desire to take him by his bony shoulders and tell him to snap out of it.
Stop sleeping so much,
she wanted to say.
Start sleeping a normal amount like a normal person and wake up at a normal time and go make something happen
. It wasn’t the lethargy of his depression that she didn’t understand: it was her instinct, most days, to sleep through her alarm as well. She loved their bed more than she loved just about any other place in the world. Left to her own devices, without the outside pressures of a mortgage and a classroom full of entitled undergraduate people, she would have stayed in bed all day many days. She would cave, indulgently, to the cloying siren call of instant Netflix and take-out crispy rolls from Penny’s and the sweet satisfaction of ignoring her phone every time it rang. That part she got, because she knew what it was like to be tired.
The part that bothered her was his lack of desire to
anything of himself. She was bothered by his potential, sitting latent but resoundingly reinforced by a number of intelligent professionals as being a rare and promising thing. She was bothered by his excuses, by his carelessness, by his inability to see in himself what she saw in him.
“You’re so smart,” she said to him one night, when she insisted that they make a real dinner and eat at the table. “You’re brilliant, and there are a thousand things you can do that other people can’t. Don’t you see that?”