The following is from Danielle Lazarin's collection, Back Talk, which follows young women exploring their unexpressed desires and needs. Danielle Lazarin is a recipient of the Glimmer Train Family Matters Award and Hopwood Award, as well as grants rom New York Foundation of the Arts and the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance.
When Lev says “things” he means our marriage, and when he says “fail” he means a decision he has already made without me. When he says this, both of us are looking out the living room window at the neighbors having a piano delivered, piece by piece, through their window three floors below ours.
“We’re young,” he says by way of consolation.
“We are?” I lean on my wrists, bored of watching the piano’s precarious journey, but not wanting to leave Lev alone, even as standing beside him makes me angry. Neither of us feels young. Not old, either, but old enough to know we’ll pay for these choices, the one over a decade ago, the one today. I don’t want it to be true, for our marriage to be so easy to let go of, but I sense he is right. I understand him, after all, my practical, fair husband who suggests we split everything fifty-fifty, including the apartment that we both want to stay in but will have to sell, even though his parents provided the down payment, even though it is Lev’s job that pays most of the mortgage. If divorce can’t ever be easy, we can aim for quicker, kinder, cleaner than what it could be. No raised voices, no shame, no going back.
Lev has moles, handsome ones, on his cheek. The morning after we agree to divorce, I study them, deciding to miss them, these marks I first found a distraction. He needs more sleep than I do, and usually I am out of bed before he is, but this morning I linger because it’s the end, the last time we share a bed, a room. I don’t touch him. When I’ve had my fill of looking at him, I pick up his wedding ring from his nightstand, next to his watch and two bills folded into thirds, and slide it on my thumb, the only finger it fits on, loosely. He doesn’t wake up. I can’t remember if he always did that, slept without it, or if this is the start of relieving himself of me. I am wearing one of his T-shirts; every night, I pick one up from the floor where he drops them. I wonder what I will sleep in once we are apart.
When I tell people about the divorce, their faces fall. They say something kind about him, wait for me to contradict it, but I don’t disagree, usually, even if I don’t want to hear it. My friends like him. He is likable, lovable. Some of these same friends say they are giving us space, by which they mean they are taking space from our messiness, afraid it will rub off on them, afraid that if we can fall apart, they can, too, even if they aren’t married or even in love, even if they loved one of us more than the other all along. They’re afraid of the questions they might start asking, the questions I barely want to ask now that I have to, the ones that Lev has been asking himself, but not me, apparently, for months: How much and for how long and why?
“His honesty was a relief after years dating men who tried to stay one step ahead of me, as if not having mutual feelings was the goal.”
Someone asks if we tried counseling. Talking our way out. Fucking our way out. Vacationing or center-locating or finding a way out that isn’t out. I stop telling people. They find out anyway—they call; they e-mail; they send vague, useless text messages. How are you? Let me know what you need. At least, begins a hundred sentences, not one of which makes me feel any better. They take sides, though we don’t think there are sides to take. Mutual, mutual. The whole world splits.
Two weeks later I watch boxes—Lev, sending his files to his brother’s house in Connecticut, as though this is what I am after, evidence of twenty years of half-finished book ideas—being carried out the front door by two men who seem impossibly young and I wonder how many people’s lives they dismantle on a daily basis.
While they work, I clean the fridge of everything I do not like to eat that Lev does: bottled salad dressings, olives, tubs of cream cheese. When I take the containers to the trash compactor next to the elevator, there is Juliet, from 7H.
“Redoing the floors?” she asks. She puts a hand on her belly, and though it is flat, I know what that means.
“Separating,” I say, because I can’t bring myself to say “divorce.”
She cringes, moves her hand over her heart. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers, and then waits for me to respond. I nod at her, reluctant to express gratitude, even as I know it is the right thing to do. I wait for her to look for her keys, or for the movers to need something from me, but we stand there, my door wedged open with a folded cereal box, her eyes taking a quick accounting of the light that comes through the kitchen window. She moves her hand to her own door, which is unlocked already. I stand by the compactor, waiting for her to move.
“Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do,” she says before she goes inside.
Later, the apartment seeming no bigger absent Lev’s things—he barely took any furniture, leaving behind everything nice for staging purposes—I remember that 7H is a one-bedroom.
Within a week, we have an offer in our hands. In the handwritten letter they slide under the door, they address us both formally, as though we are ancient. Lev and I have been in the building for five years longer than they have, for sure, but there can’t be more than a few years between us. I work in landscaping, and I come home tracking mud. I wear dresses on the weekends, but my skin won’t recover from the sun; no amount of polish will hide the dirt under my nails.
They don’t mention the divorce. It’s clear they want to combine the apartments, to merge all the energy of a marriage that works, that is making things, to wash out the faultiness of ours. A once‑in‑a‑lifetime‑opportunity, they write in the letter, a restrained begging.
“We didn’t even have to die for their dream,” I say to Lev when I get him on the phone at his new apartment, a sublet he moved into not a week after we decided to go through with the split. He called the timing lucky. I sniff for someone else.
“That’s a good offer,” he says. I can hear him opening a drawer, the clang of silverware.
“We can get more,” I say. My half of the apartment sale is all I’ll have when we’re done.
“I don’t know,” he says, and pauses. “There’s no broker this way. If we put it on, it’s just so much hassle.”
“From them. We can get more from them.”
I hear him chewing on the other end of the line. It’s nearly eleven; he must be working if he’s eating this late.
“What makes you say that?” he asks when he’s done with his bite.
I think of Juliet’s hand on her abdomen, the ache she seemed to feel over the end of my marriage, a brand of sympathy, since all of this started, I’ve been working hard to shut out. Lev has always been practical. Before we bought our place, he made multiple spreadsheets; he wouldn’t let me say I loved any of the apartments we saw, because he thought it made the choice cloudy. I had always thought the clean workings of his mind were good to have on my side.
We’d been dating for less than three months when he said to me, “I could totally marry you.” By then I understood him enough to know that he wouldn’t have said as much if he didn’t mean it. “Yes,” I said.
“I wasn’t asking,” he said.
“I am,” I said back.
On the phone now, I tell him, “There’s real money there,” with the same false confidence I did that night a decade ago.
“Do you trust me or not?”
“Robin.” He says my name sharply, as though I have no reason to ask that question, as though I am the one who disappointed him. “Of course.” He takes another bite of whatever he’s eating. “One round,” he says.
“Okay,” I say, knowing it will take more, but that it will be easy to hide the negotiating from him till we get what we want.
I don’t tell Lev about Juliet’s pregnancy, or about how we are becoming friends, about the nights when her husband is working late or is away and I go over to watch television, which we end up muting, talking about our childhood pets and who we were in high school, our legs careful not to touch on her couch. “I always thought I’d be a journalist,” she says one night. Two days before, we countered their offer by 10 percent.
“That’s what Lev does.”
“Oh yeah? Does he like it?”
“I think so. I mean, the money’s crappy,” I say, trying to make her feel better, but she shakes her head indignantly.
“Yeah, but there’s more to it than money,” she says.
James, her husband, is some kind of banker. This explains the suits, the grimness that is mostly awkward and that I have to believe, for Juliet’s sake, conceals someone kind. Everything in their apartment is gorgeous, what my friend Angela calls “done.” I think of all the unfixed things in our apartment, the inside of which they’ve never seen. But they must have studied the floor plan; there must have been ideas, designs they drew on the back of unwanted mail, whispering at their marble counter while they ate dinner side by side. They must have imagined doorways, three bathrooms. The wall between the units coming down, how much they could get done before the baby arrives. Which one would be the child’s room. And for the second.
I look at her recessed lighting, the soft throws we each have gathered around our waists—are they cashmere?—and I think, Sure, easy for you to say. Easy the way Lev, for so many years, refused the safety net of his family’s money, till now, when someone has to keep up with the mortgage. I haven’t done what I wanted either—I thought, like Lev, I’d spend more time in a university—but I wasn’t smart enough to pick something else that made money, and whatever I married into was never mine to begin with. Juliet has done both; she, like her husband, works in finance—a smaller firm, she demurred, as if that lessens our difference.
With most of my friends, we drink, but at Juliet’s, we eat. She opens bags of pretzels, odd flavors of potato chips she picks up at the deli on her way home. She gives me beautiful cloth napkins on which to wipe my hands. I don’t invite her over to our place, nor does she have my number or e-mail. We run into each other in the hallway and we talk too long, and she motions me inside, begs for my company good-naturedly. At Juliet’s, I don’t have to tell the story I don’t yet know how to. It is easier to pretend to relate to her sober; maybe I actually do. She is sweet. She is even, sometimes, funny in a goofy way—unafraid to make herself ugly when telling a story—and she is good at carrying on a conversation about not much at all.
I name the flowers she remembers from the house she grew up in in New Jersey. I can do this by her descriptions alone. “It’s insane,” she says. “It’s a talent.”
I wave a blue cheese potato chip in the air with a flourish.
Busy, I say to my friends when they ask where I’ve been. Overwhelmed.
I put Lev’s name first on the negotiating letters, two more than he permitted me to do. I can do his signature in my sleep. In this way, Juliet and I pretend we are out of it.
“Where will you go?” she asks one night. “When?”
“I don’t know. Probably to a different neighborhood.”
Even if I could afford to stay here, it wouldn’t feel right, and though this is close to where I work, I’d rather disappear; I’d rather keep a distance between my failures and a second life that everyone tells me will be so much better.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Juliet says. “I’ll miss you.”
Neither of us mentions the possibility of remaining friends.
Lev and I used to live in different apartments in the same building. We met in the stairwell, under those horrible fluorescent lights, one of us going down, the other headed up. I always took the stairs because there was nothing more interminable than small talk in an elevator; Lev took them to stay in shape, because he sat so much on his couch, laptop warming his legs, that he set a timer to take walking breaks every few hours; some days, if he was on deadline, he’d just climb the eight flights in our building a few times. But one day we talked for so long I began to sweat in my winter coat, my neck slick under my scarf. “I’m keeping you,” he kept saying, but I waved him off; I was just running errands, just getting bread. I didn’t even need the bread but I was between jobs and had been inside all day and needed to see daylight from outside the apartment. By the time we separated dusk was ending and the streetlights were on. I bought the wrong kind of bread at the corner store, added in a bag of licorice, two oranges from the baskets up front. I needed to feel something weighty that night. I walked with my doubled plastic bags to the park afterward, wanting more air, wanting to not feel so alone from my encounter with Lev, whose name I didn’t yet know, who seemed then like the kind of man who was out of my reach, another life I had decided I wouldn’t have.
I like you, he said the next time he saw me. His honesty was a relief after years dating men who tried to stay one step ahead of me, as if not having mutual feelings was the goal. Come in, I said, leading him into my apartment that afternoon. We fell into a routine of being with each other that made sense. We weren’t careless.
We quickly dismissed the idea of children; neither of us had the instinct, but we’d never said the choice aloud to anyone else before. The first time we talked about it, we made a verbal list of what we’d gain if we let the idea of it go: money, time with each other. “Think of everything else we’ll be able to do,” Lev said, relieved. It became a joke to add to the list when we could: sleep, closet space, mugs with curse words on them.
When our upstairs neighbors, Kristen and Ethan, had their two very adorable children, we marked their births by delivering food and offering congratulations, Lev and I giving one another grateful smiles over the bullet we’d dodged. The kids weren’t yet in school full-time, and Lev was more than kind about it, all the thumping and the yelping while he worked from his home office, but the vacuuming got to me. So much cleaning. It was exhausting just to listen to.
“I hope they do it every time they vacuum the rug,” Lev said one Sunday morning as the overworked machine whirred and hummed above us. He pointed to the ceiling with the blue pencil he used for grading student papers.
Then we heard the sets of feet, the pounding.
“Unlikely,” I said, and laughed. Lev cupped my calf under my pants with his free hand. Hours later, after he vacuumed our living room, he insisted on fucking me on the couch in tribute, Kristen and Ethan’s family quiet above ours.
When Lev spoke about our hypothetical future—a second house in the Catskills, living abroad for a year or two, even throwing dinner parties (we threw plenty of the other kinds of parties, filled with people and noise; we would crowd the recycling room with our empties, tipping the porters the next morning for the large haul)—it never occurred to me to think about how much he wanted those other things. He was always a talker, and smart enough to see, plainly, how his ambitions didn’t match our reality; those fantasies of young adulthood seemed just another party game we played with our friends. I never thought Lev’s future wouldn’t be linked with mine, that my own contentedness with our present would backfire. Don’t you ever want more? he asked me in those last few days. I didn’t know I was supposed to answer yes.
Here is what we don’t talk about at Juliet’s: My divorce. Her pregnancy. Our husbands with any specificity beyond “him” or “he.” Our other friends, the ones who ask questions we still don’t know how to answer. The apartment negotiations, which end with a number Lev tells me is “pushing it,” the number I wanted all along.
“That was fast, wasn’t it?” Lev says when we meet for a drink the next week to sign the apartment contract, at a bar out of the neighborhood neither of us has been to before. The drink and the neutrality are both Lev’s idea. We did good, he wrote in a text message, and we should celebrate. The bar lighting is low—sad or romantic, depending on your mood.
He has that wild–eyed look about him that tells me he’s working, and happy about it. A new book, he lets on as he’s inking the date next to his name, in that slow, square handwriting of his that I know he spent hours practicing as a child. “It feels different this time. It’s really taking shape.” He smiles at me, and without thinking, I smile back, but I don’t ask him for details. I put my hands around my drink. I’ve ordered a bourbon, neat, which is not the way I usually drink, but I want to appear strong to him; I’ve never thought to before. I wince at a sip of it. Lev has a glass of wine.
I watch him look through the papers in his bag for some document for the building I need to sign, and understand that I don’t want to know what he will do with his half of the money, that whatever other life he ends up in will only be a reflection of the one he couldn’t have with me, a life I am too afraid to see for fear of wanting it after all. We can’t be friends.
Six weeks ago, when he was breaking up with me, he said, “It’s better than the alternatives.”
I knew he meant cheating, but I wanted to hear him say it. “Which are?” I asked, finally out of shock enough to raise questions.
“Fucking around on each other. Martyrdom. Lies. Take your pick.”
Years ago, with friends at the end of a long night of eating and drinking, we debated such a list, created our hierarchies of betrayals: a work girlfriend to flirt with or an alcohol-fueled make-out session in a bar, a stranger or an ex, a series of e-mails or crossing the threshold of a hotel room, a blow job or trading annotated books. I cannot remember which Lev preferred when we had this conversation: the emotional affair or the physical one; years of becoming strangers or the carelessness of a moment. Did I prefer any to divorce?
“It’s not about the object,” he said that night. “It’s about the existing happiness.”
“The unhappiness,” I jumped in with. We agreed. Our bodies touched under the table.
Should I tell him, now in the bar, after I’ve signed on the twenty-seven flagged pages, after my whiskey warms my insides to near boiling, about the phone calls from Sam, his friend since college, who had last year decided that I was the better ear than Lev when it came to discussing his own boundaries, which had been in question? “She’s destroying me,” he said once of his wife, without even saying hello when I answered his call on my lunch break. She had become combative, irresponsible with their money, and though I told him that to start up with some coworker who was showing interest in him was juvenile and wasteful, I did suggest he think long and hard about leaving her, which he did eventually, news to Lev but not to me. Sam, though, takes Lev in the divorce, our divorce.
Sam doesn’t call me anymore, and I don’t miss it, but fuck him, for making me keep his secrets, and fuck Lev, for insisting in the bar on picking up the bill.
Since Lev left I’ve started taking the elevator again, those fluorescent lights in the stairways depressing me in a different way. A week after Lev and I sign our papers at the bar, I get into the elevator with Juliet. It’s late afternoon, and she isn’t in her usual pressed pants and the blouses she has custom-tailored for her “freakishly long arms,” as she once described them to me. She has on a pair of sweatpants I’ve only seen her wear on the couch and a matching sweatshirt; her hair is in a low ponytail. Her diamond earrings are in, though. Traces of makeup—eyeliner, but no lipstick. The in-between of her world face and her home face. She holds her jacket closed with crossed arms. At her door she says, “Come in. Please. James is in Switzerland.”
At the end of the kitchen counter where Juliet drops her purse, a neat hook they’ve installed there, a shelf for keys, a dish for change, there is a package of giant sanitary napkins and a vial of prescription pills with her name on them: Hoffman, same as his. She does not hide them. I do not ask if she is okay. Neither of us is okay. She opens a bottle of wine from a fridge they have just for this, next to their other, larger refrigerator.
“I don’t think we can take the apartment anymore,” she says as she pours my wine. A drop lands on the countertop; she doesn’t wipe it up.
“I understand,” I say. “Things change. Things fail.”
She splits the plastic sleeve of a roll of crackers down the middle and pushes it toward me.
I tell her what it was like to have Lev say I didn’t love him, to offer his forgiveness for a betrayal I hadn’t yet considered, for me to watch his face as he watched it register on mine. I never meant to cause him pain. But it’s Lev who is always trying to divide things, to draw lines, as if everything and everyone has a boundary, and it’s just a question of figuring out where it is and how best to use it.
We get drunk standing in the kitchen, which we litter with cracker crumbs no one moves to sweep into the trash. Juliet opens a second bottle.
The apartment sale is the transaction that will legally, at least, unhook me from Lev forever. The signed contract, clipped behind Juliet and James’s deposit check, has been on my coffee table for nearly a week, but I haven’t sent it to our lawyer. I promise Juliet I will shred it.
“Will he be mad?” she wants to know.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. I did love him. I still do.
Juliet nods her head, her movements so small, but I see them.
I have to pee.
“Mmm-hmm,” she says, which is pretty much all she has been getting out as the alcohol gets into her, and as I leave for the bathroom I realize I should stop us, I should stop her. I don’t know what those pills are that she’s taking, after all.
I’ve been in this bathroom so many times by now, but never when drunk, and it lends it all a more comfortable familiarity: the Hollywood lights around the mirror, meant to look like something old and glamorous; the penny tile; the matching towels and line of little containers, free of fingerprints. A dear, flawed friend, the life I do not want because I never chose it. I have to trust in my own good sense, years ago. Now.
Before I sit, I notice that the back ridge of Juliet’s perfect toilet is rimmed with blood. I think of how one day a tampon hadn’t gone down with the first flush and Lev, brushing his teeth, shouted, “Shark!” spitting his toothpaste out in the sink before he did so he could say it as clearly as possible. He stuck his head out the door to make sure I’d heard, so proud of himself, his cleverness, his comfort with his proximity to womanhood.
In Juliet’s bathroom, I want to yell it, too, but I won’t. My period is a nuisance, but hers, this blood, is that old descriptor: a curse.
I listen for her while I open the medicine cabinet in search of something suitable. They’ve renovated this space, too, and these hinges don’t squeak when I open it, like the ones in our apartment do. It’s messy in there: jars of creams stacked sideways, dental floss containers, their jaws open, a puddle of oil; an eyeliner pencil rolls out and falls into the sink. No pill bottles, but what secrets could I want from here anyhow? I use a cotton ball and a dab of body wash from the shower, not worrying about the sucking sound the shower door makes as I open it. Ours rattles, a victim of the misalignment of our floors, which Juliet and James have remedied with demolition, contractors; it will settle, too, with time. When I’m done I wrap the cotton ball in toilet paper, but I know this building’s pipes, I worry about it coming back up after I leave. I squish the cotton ball into my pocket, sit down, pee.
“Fuck you,” I said to Lev that day in the bathroom, and he laughed. I reached past him to flush again. He kissed me on the mouth. Back when he wanted no one else.
From Back Talk: Stories. Used with permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2018 by Danielle Lazarin.