“The Poisoners”

Lucy Ives

March 12, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Lucy Ives’ short story collection Cosmogony, about deception, infidelity, lost cats, cute memes, amateur pornography, and more. Ives is the author of several novels, as well as the editor of The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, The Believer, frieze, and elsewhere. She received a 2018 Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

There once was a man in his thirties. In fact, he seemed younger than this. He lived in the United States of America, which was a country he preferred not to leave, if at all possible. He was married, and he and his wife rented a medium-size apartment in a major city. They paid somewhat less for their apartment than it was customary to pay because the apartment was out of the way, in an inconvenient if OK neighborhood. They had no children and kept no pets. They owned a car but had no savings.

Article continues below

The man, whose name was Will, worked at a framer’s, and Will framed prints. Will’s wife, whose name was Ada, worked as a freelance fact-checker for magazines. They had fallen deeply in love, years before, in school. Every weekday morning Will rode his bicycle to the framer’s, where he had learned to mat and frame and where he now made an increasingly steady living. Ada stayed at the apartment and made use of the Internet.

Will was good at his work at the framer’s. His job was not difficult, and he was proud of what he did. Another person might have chafed at the required tasks: collecting measurements, pointing to a wall of samples. Will celebrated his ability to remain alert.

Will remembered that when he was very young he had often been unable to control himself and had done many stupid things. Also, in childhood there were experiences of great beauty. Will waited patiently for the life that was to come.

The framing business, as things turned out, prospered. The owner of the business, a septuagenarian refugee of ethnic cleansing and a late adopter of capitalism, hired a second assistant. The second assistant was a woman. Her name was Jamie. She was small, and she was exactly six months younger than Will. She had grown up on a farm on the other side of the country and possessed an earnest manner.

Article continues below

Jamie, like Will, was married. It was a joke and also a fact: Jamie was married to a man named Jaime. Jamie had taken Jaime’s last name, and therefore they were, at least on paper, all but identical.

Jamie and Will joked around at the framer’s. They joked about many things. They laughed about Jamie’s name. They got to know each other.

Life at work was good.

But life at home was not good for Will.

There once was a man in his thirties. In fact, he seemed younger than this. He lived in the United States of America, which was a country he preferred not to leave, if at all possible.

Could Will have spoken words aloud to tell another person what was wrong? It is certain that he could not; otherwise I wouldn’t be telling this story. No, for Will, as far as his wife, Ada, was concerned, there were no words to describe what was wrong. Ada worked industriously all day. I almost typed “industrially.” Yes, she worked hard. And she was successful and began to demand high hourly rates.

Article continues below

This was what everyone knew of Ada and Will: they worked hard and did well in their small jobs and were beloved by those who knew them. They were, to their friends, what is termed a “good couple.”

Ada and Will remembered the days when they had fallen in love. Those were the days when they were young. And they were still sort of young, but increasingly less so. And Ada kept house, but she did not like to cook because cooking dirtied the kitchen. In fact, Will found the house too clean. He often wished he had something to eat.

During this time, Ada and Will were becoming, unknowingly, exactly what they believed themselves not to be. This point is very important. (If you are reading this in a print format, it is suggested you highlight or underline this paragraph. If web, it is suggested you copy and paste the text into a browser plug-in, or other, for future reference. If you are reading this story for a class, please do not email me about it. I feel uncomfortable when I get these sorts of messages and don’t know what to do. I figure, however, that I may, without veering into the territory of unfair assistance, alert you here that something significant has come up. You’ll want to use your independent powers of deduction to figure out what it means.) And so:

At work, Will and Jamie joked a lot. Jamie told Will about the food she ate. She fed him easily, carelessly, from Tupperware she brought to the framer’s from her home. One of the things Jamie frequently did at home was to cook.

Will ceased wishing that he had something to eat. He ate the food Jamie brought to him. He was kinder to Ada. Briefly, he felt satisfied. Will and Jamie went out to drinks after work.

Article continues below

Ada, meanwhile, stopped freelancing and got an office job and was promoted. She, perhaps, was satisfied, too.

Ada gave a great deal to her job. Perhaps, indistinctly, to her it meant freedom. The job made others aware of her existence. She used some of the money she made to purchase a more expensive phone.

She sometimes, perhaps often, returned home late, after 9:00 p.m. She went to professional parties. She sometimes returned home after three o’clock in the morning.

Ada, Ada, blah, blah, blah. Other people, at the place where Ada worked and at other adjacent places, were interested in Ada. Ada this, Ada that. “Ada,” they said, “it’s you!” They said, “Your name is a palindrome, how funny!” They were hard to ignore, even in their senseless interest. They were interested, too, that Ada was so young yet had been married for so long. Ada attempted to smile with a certain mystery when she was asked about being a very young married person, who had for so long been married. “Sometimes you just meet the right person,” I believe she said, cultivating a kind of haze.

Could Will have spoken words aloud to tell another person what was wrong? It is certain that he could not; otherwise I wouldn’t be telling this story.

Will, meanwhile, was miserable but savvy. He stayed out late with Jamie, who had been married to Jaime at an even younger age than Will had been married to Ada. There was no question, between them, which is to say, between Will and Jamie, two colleagues at a framer’s, of the worth and normalcy of marriage, even in this city—where so many people had been married and divorced, or refused to marry at all.

Article continues below

In the day, the sunlight sifted attractively through the barred windows of the former knitting factory in which the framer’s business was located. Dust sparkled. It seemed to carry a promise of truth. It was pure and relevant.

Jamie told Will the story of how Jaime’s real first name wasn’t really “Jaime.” It was Ted. He had changed his name to “Jaime” in marriage.

“Legally?” Will asked.

“Definitely.” Jamie laughed.

Will contemplated her word. Perhaps he saw something there, I don’t know.

It’s hard to tell this story without feeling that every person included in it is incredibly, painfully simple. And yet, these are their real thoughts and actions, insofar as it is given to me to know them. Please don’t get on my case about it. These aren’t real people, and yet these really are the things they really say and think and do. All these things did happen somewhere. Amazingly, miraculously, the people to whom the things did happen barely thought about the things.

And do I even have to spell it out? Will and Jamie have fallen in love.

Here, a strange thing occurs, because there is a lot that you don’t know about Will. Allow me to explain:

Will was, of course, a kind of artist. He just didn’t know what kind. He believed that he did not know what kind of artist he was yet, but things were more complicated since they were not entirely narrative, in his mind.

Will might never know what kind of artist he was. This was something he allowed himself. He told himself that he was an artist, even if he never managed to make anything. He was an artist, he told himself, of life.

Still, Will was working on it. Will was living. He was constructing something.

The framer’s business was located in a rapidly gentrifying industrial area.

The other thing to know about Jamie was that her partner was not well. Jaime was ill. He suffered from a condition doctors had given up trying to diagnose. He was told to maintain a restful lifestyle. He had a temperamental heart. Or maybe it was an autoimmune disorder. I don’t mean to seem callous; I’m just not sure.

Anyway, Jamie cooked for Jaime. And there were many plants in their apartment. And Jamie cooked so much for Jaime that there was often extra food. And now when she came to work she brought with her two lunches, one for herself and one for Will.

It was easy to hide this from Jaime, who never went into the kitchen and busied himself with his record collection most of the time, whenever he was not lying down.

It’s hard to tell this story without feeling that every person included in it is incredibly, painfully simple.

Ada did not feed Will. In fact, all pretense of cooking had ceased with her. She purchased meals at overpriced locations near her office. And sometimes she did not eat at all. Thinness was valued in her industry.

Jamie told Will that she wished that Jaime were not sick. It was unfair, she knew, but she could not help feeling that his refusal to become well reflected poorly on her efforts. Jaime meanwhile did go to work and did know other people. His was not the life of an invalid.

And yet, said Jamie (if not in quite so many words), I heal him just enough that he maintains some modicum of independence. I do not heal him enough that he becomes truly well. I cannot heal him into a state of equity with me; I cannot create in him an equal partner.

I have, Jamie said, known Ted for too long.

Will was not sure what Jamie was trying to say.

Will was generally uncertain.

And now Ada traveled for work. She left for three or four days at a time. She did not think very much about her marriage. Ada was working.

So this is a pretty good summary of the lives and probable sentiments of these two women. Will was somebody who knew them both. He knew them both and felt a great number of powerful things where both of them were concerned! It’s so hard to say, at this moment, what exactly was happening!

And now at work, Will and Jamie ate. They sat down to lunch together. From her bag, Jamie brought forth small bluish containers. In the containers were carefully composed salads including grains and proteins. There was a set of four mini-scones baked without the use of dairy products. There was a vegan pudding and a lentil-based pasta dish.

They ate at first in silence. Elsewhere at the framer’s, others did not yet break for lunch. Still other workers were relatives of the owner.

Will and Jamie observed these people where they moved. Will and Jamie had lived through numerous points in time and each had grown up in a family, but they felt unprepared for what was occurring at this moment.

The world was attempting to recompose itself. It was no longer a scene. Now it had grown soft. It was a blanket. It rushed toward them, plush and ready to conform.

They were observing a slowly coalescing geometric shape.

Will and Jamie could barely look at each other.

Will took out one of his notebooks. Hey there Pony, he wrote at the top of a blank page.

Hi, wrote Jamie, circling the word. She must have been able to feel her heart floating in her neck like a pickled cherry. No one around Will and Jamie knew anything about what they said. They spoke without speaking and the world, the phenomenal world and time and chance, permitted this to happen. Nothing stood in their way. This was how they knew that they were doing the right thing.

Will took out one of his notebooks. Hey there Pony, he wrote at the top of a blank page.

In their writing, Jamie and Will recognized something. What they recognized was not a thing that could, per se, be seen. It was a feeling, and it was impersonal. It was a knowing that you had to choose.

Just as, before a line was drawn in black ballpoint on a page, there was no line; just as, at first there was nothing and later something did occur and in this event things were no longer the same; just so, Jamie and Will perceived that they no longer inhabited the worlds they had inhabited when first they met. They inhabited a single world, and it was new.

They were very, very much in love.

On the one hand, this was for them a beautiful and graceful thing. On the other, this meant that they had broken promises once central to their lives. And it was for this reason, the “other hand,” that they for many months did nothing.

They did nothing, that is, except that they began to make love. I’m saying, they had coitus, and really quite a lot of it, which they in turn documented for the usual reasons, using their phones.

On some level, it’s hard for anyone to say how it is, precisely, that sex changes things. It’s fun, and it reminds us that someday we will die, and it can make us inclined to feel more tenderly toward a given person—and, perhaps, more and more inclined to return to that person’s physical proximity.

Will and Jamie noticed what was beginning to occur. They wanted to be together all the time. For this reason, they decided to perform an experiment.

Will and Jamie resolved that they would spend more time alone together, as well as more time together with their spouses, alone. And they would also cause their spouses to meet, and all four of them would spend more time together.

It was an experiment. It was an experiment to see if Will and Jamie could understand their feelings for each other. Maybe these feelings, while strong, didn’t matter and weren’t significant. If so, they needed to know.

Will and Jamie were good people. They were people who were willing to find out if what they were doing was not good and therefore wrong. They were decent, thoughtful people and you could not fault them for not being thorough. They were performing an experiment so that they could be sure. They were hardworking. They wanted what was best.

And so Will and Jamie and Ada and Jaime, or, rather, Will and Ada and Jaime and Jamie, went out to a bar. It was a bar in a relatively remote part of the city, and it was also a bar Will and Jamie had visited together. Ada drove the four of them, in the car she owned with Will.

They all drank several beers together. They talked about the city and the choice all four had made to move to it. It was a choice that defined their lives and it was something they had in common.

For Ada and Jaime, this was an unremarkable night. They were with their spouses and spoke with their spouses’ unremarkable coworkers. Ada did not find Jaime, or Jamie, for that matter, particularly interesting. Jaime thought Ada was cagey, if tall. Who knows what Jaime thought of Will. Will and Jamie silently loved each other and did not let on. They did not so much as permit their eyes to meet. You could see this as a kind of comedy of errors, but in fact matters had already swerved a rather fateful swerve. Will and Jamie watched as their partners blindly took part. For it was far, far easier to do all this than they had imagined. Ada and Jaime trusted Will and Jamie. Ada and Jaime lived in the past. Only Will and Jamie knew this. Only Will and Jamie had managed to move on, to enter the present. God bless America.

In their writing, Jamie and Will recognized something. What they recognized was not a thing that could, per se, be seen. It was a feeling, and it was impersonal. It was a knowing that you had to choose.

But it wasn’t really so simple. Will and Jamie could not go directly on to triumph in their love and shared sense of justice, because Jaime was always slightly ill, and this summoned Jamie back to him. He needed someone to offer him soups and compresses, to listen to his complaints. Jamie went to him freely. Jamie didn’t seem to mind.

Jamie sometimes left work directly, in order to tend to Jaime.

Jamie is a saint, thought Will. She understands need. She does not ignore the real, true need of others. She is a good person in this uneven world and an authentic person, and this is why I love her.

Ada was not a good person. She wasn’t a bad person, either. She was just neutral. She wasn’t authentic. She went to her job.

On some level, Ada must have understood this about herself. Everything she did now appeared to be about working. Everything in the world appeared to feel so neutral to her.

Will wondered how he could love someone so beset by neutrality.

Will saw that without Jamie, he was completely alone. By this time a year had passed. It was even more than a year. No, by now two years had passed, and Will and Jamie had spent a great deal of time alone, together with their spouses, and with their spouses, together. They had also spent a great deal of time together, alone. They were also in possession of an extensive photographic archive of their love.

In some ways, it was a functional arrangement. Yet, both Will and Jamie had to wonder, was (is) it possible to live without lies?

They each, separately, thumbed through their digital images. They sent old images to each other, growing nostalgic, growing aroused. Things entered other things. Stuff was offered, held. They even created new images, in their joy. They wanted to be free.

It was for this reason, this desire on their part to learn if it might be possible to live without lying, that Will and Jamie decided to make a change. Believe me, by the way, that their confidants on both sides warned against it. Will and Jamie had told some people what was going on, of course, and those people, the aware people, the trusted ones, were warning them against this step. These people were warning them because these people saw that the current arrangement was a livable one. These people were realists. Some of them were even married. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, these sage people said, usually employing profanity.

It might seem remarkable that anyone would consider Will and Jamie’s situation a happy compromise, but there were actual people living on the planet who felt this way. Perhaps it says something about the sort of people Will and Jamie chose as friends, I don’t really know.

However, I should note that this was not enough for Will and Jamie. Will and Jamie didn’t care what their most trusted, wisest friends told them regarding balance and being happy with the life one has. They both wanted to know what would happen if they were to stop lying.

The other thing is, both Will and Jamie were also of the mind that they never wanted to stop lying, ever. And it was the fact that telling the truth, so called, was incompatible with never ever stopping lying, that tripped them up. It felt fresh to them and new, the idea of ceasing to conceal themselves. They wanted that piquant as-yet-un-experienced experience. They didn’t want to stop lying, but they were also greedy for new life and refused to be denied. They looked at each other and told each other that there existed an experience that should be tried, a sort of paradise, whee!

They were for a long time baffled as to how to do it. For, as time had gone on, as we have noted, the situation had become increasingly settled and tenable. It also felt right to leave things as they were. This was why Will and Jamie resorted to occult measures.

Ada was not a good person. She wasn’t a bad person, either. She was just neutral. She wasn’t authentic. She went to her job.

I know, said Jamie, a sort of spell by means of which we can allow chance to make our difficult decision for us. She didn’t, by the way, say this in so many words.

Will looked at Jamie. She was a brunette, with spindly limbs.

Just leave your phone out where Ada can find it, Jamie said.

Will understood what Jamie was saying without so many words. He understood that he and Jamie could allow others to make their decision for them. It would be possible to demonstrate that the reason he and Jamie were lying was not that he and Jamie were liars but that they were doing something that others were not willing to perceive, given the terrifying truth of his and Jamie’s feelings for each other.

And so, because of the ultimate hiddenness of truth, because truth loves to hide, as the ancient philosophers mutter damply into their beards, Will did as Jamie suggested. He left his smartphone lying around and he put a very obvious security code on it, one that even an extremely inauthentic individual would be able to guess. And he and Jamie waited for several months.

It took longer than they expected for Ada to consult the phone. The results of this consultation were predictable and we needn’t linger on them. Of greater interest is what was simultaneously occurring in the world of Jamie and Jaime, because actually very little was occurring there.

Will now lived alone. He had left the apartment he shared with Ada and moved to an even more remote part of the city. Here, the ocean exchanged colors with the sky.

Meanwhile, Jamie and Jaime lived together. Will and Jamie saw each other but they did not speak of Jaime. In truth, they did not really see each other much.

Will did not feel fear. Will felt only a calm confusion that approached a form of devastation or collapse. Again, Will was calm. He was calm as someone in the midst of a calamity is calm. Will waited. And he waited some more.

Will had done nothing. He had only done as Jamie had said.

All contact between Will and Ada had ceased. Will knew this was a permanent state of affairs.

Will went for walks by the ocean. He drank. He felt himself changing.

Will received a contract regarding his separation from Ada as well as information about their impending divorce. Later, Will received papers regarding the divorce.

Will signed these papers.

Meanwhile, Jamie was distant. Even without asking her about it, Will knew that Jaime, her husband, was sick.

On the day on which the divorce came through, a strange thing happened: Jaime died. I guess Ted died, too. His heart stopped, or there was some other systemic failure.

The upscale grocery store where Jaime/Ted worked posted a notice online and in its newsletter. Relatives paid for a few sentences in a major newspaper.

Will did not know what Jaime/Ted knew about Will’s relationship with Jamie, and now Will would never know.

I don’t know what Jaime/Ted knew, either.

Will continues to stroke the face of his dog. Jamie is speaking but Will lets the words she says accumulate at a distance.

Eleven months later, Will and Jamie got married and moved out of the city. They were finally going to start their new life. This is the sort of thing, in case you were wondering, that is possible.

More months have gone by and now, in the present, Jamie is pregnant. She stands by a window in the country in the home she shares with Will. This is really occurring, by the way. Dust spots the sunbeams and leaves rustle. It seems like there is always good light around these people! Songbirds are singing their hearts out.

Jamie says, “I always knew that I would have to leave Ted.” She calls him Ted these days. It turns out that perhaps this was the name she had always called him, after all.

“I know you knew,” says Will. He is interacting with a dog. “It became clearer and clearer,” Jamie continues. “I wanted him to go away. It’s not like it is with you. I wanted him to leave me.”

“I guess, in a sense, he did.” Will is solemn.

“You’re not listening to me. He shouldn’t have let me make so much food for him. He knew I grew up on a farm. Everyone knew.”

Will continues to stroke the face of his dog. Jamie is speaking but Will lets the words she says accumulate at a distance. The words take the form of soft, dark clumps. Will thinks about the brave dominion of man, the chaos of animal life in the absence of a master.

Will thinks.

Will begins thinking about what Jamie has said, moments ago. It never occurred to him until this minute that Jamie could have left Ted, but she could have. Yes! She could have left him early on, years ago, at the very beginning. She could have left him even before Will knew her.

But Ted is dead, thinks Will. No one has to leave a dead man.

Will begins to listen.

Jamie is saying, “He wasn’t strong enough. But now that I am feeding two people again, I can feel how I understand humanity better. It’s so important, what I learned.”

“You did the right thing,” Will reassures her meaninglessly. Will’s dog stares at him with melted eyes. “You knew what was the right thing to do. You always do.”

Will says these things and thinks he understands what Jamie says. He thinks that Jamie is saying that one must have standards. One cannot judge a bond, even of love, without a test. One is right to be suspicious, especially if one cannot understand a partner’s behavior. He is glad that he and his new wife are so well matched. He is glad they will bring life into the world.


Excerpted from Cosmogony, copyright © 2021 by Lucy Ives. Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull Press.

More Story
David Eagleman Gets In Your Head Welcome to Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Over the past 25 years, SVWC has become the gold...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.