“The Common Cold”

Christine Sneed

June 16, 2023 
The following is from Christine Sneed's Direct Sunlight. Sneed is the author of the novels Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos, Little Known Facts, and Paris, He Said, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. She has received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award, and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among other honors.

We were sixteen, twenty-six, and then, somehow, forty-six. I wasn’t sure where thirty-six had gone, and on bad days, I thought about it more than I knew to be healthy. Thirty-six seemed to me the ideal age: the drunken confusion and missteps of your twenties far enough behind you as to almost seem to have happened to someone else, but the soundness of your thirty-something body still permitted you to spring out of bed in the morning, if you had that sort of temperament. At 8 a.m., unlike at 8 p.m., you still believed you would clean the entire house and do every scrap of laundry and answer a hundred emails and not eat the rest of the sheet cake left over from the family reunion.

By the time we turned thirty-six, Greeley, my closest friend, had been married twice and given birth to two children. At forty-six, she was still married to her second husband, albeit barely. I’d never married, nor did I have any children. (As a woman, you knew these things absolutely, whereas a man could get by claiming ignorance, a child or two of his possibly floating around in the world, waiting to ambush him with accusations or requests for love and attention, possibly all of the above. I suppose this condition colored the lives of some men with a kind of suspense, and hope too, perhaps.)

It helped to be rich if you intended to marry, let alone divorce. Any indignities you might suffer would be attenuated by new cars and good views and well-equipped kitchens. Greeley wasn’t rich but she was brave, and I suppose in most circumstances bravery was as useful as money, if not more so.

Her husband, Hart, was often sickly. He was also depressed and obsessive about timepieces. I thought the two conditions were related, but for years Greeley scoffed at this, until she started agreeing with me, after he stopped being able to get out of bed before noon and began to lose one job after another.

Hart was a tall, bowlegged man with evasive, watery blue eyes and pale hair that grew in tufts on his head and the backs of his hands. He walked around the house in two pairs of socks, regardless of the season, and wore watches on both wrists. I knew from Greeley that he slept with his watches on, only taking them off when he bathed. His mother had raised him on her own and never told him who his father was. Greeley assumed the watches were an attempt at control after a childhood full of uncertainty. She was patient and kind, one reason why she put up with Hart, and with me.

Every room in their house, including the three bathrooms and the closet in the master bedroom, had at least one wall clock, often more. Many of these clocks didn’t work, Hart having let the batteries run down, and no one—not Hart nor Greeley nor their son or daughter—ever bothering to replace them. I didn’t go over to their house very often, but the year Greeley and I both turned forty-six, I was lovesick and desperately unhappy and began to go wherever someone familiar would let me in and permit me to talk about the man who was at the root of my misery. More often than not, it was Greeley and Hart’s house I went to, fleeing my apartment with its dying houseplants and rattling, leaky windows.

I should have moved out years ago but hadn’t yet been able to bring myself to do it. The ceiling appeared to have developed new cracks in the last few months, and I had new neighbors below me whose arguments I could hear through the floorboards most nights. On the four-lane road our building faced, ambulances shrieked by at all hours. Dogs barked disconsolately from behind the locked gate of the building across the alley, and irate loudmouths often shouted at each other by the dumpsters that were emptied by lumbering trucks before first light on Tuesdays and Fridays. Whenever I was home, and not preoccupied with cleaning or cooking or sleeping, I’d be seized by the ruinous urge to call the home of the man I was in love with and tell his other girlfriend, the one he took around in public, that he was a liar and a fraud, and she should know their relationship was doomed.

Hart and Greeley’s children, Liza and Matt, affably tolerated me when I showed up at their house, which was fourteen miles through city traffic from where I lived. Hart usually hid in the basement during my visits, watching old movies and playing online Scrabble. Greeley was planning to divorce him but hadn’t yet told anyone other than her widowed mother and me. She was waiting for both their kids to finish high school, she said, which was still a few years away.

One Saturday in mid-November, when the sky was hurling down dingy clumps of snow and Greeley was late returning home from taking her mother, who lived a few miles away, to the library, I found myself alone at her house with Hart. He answered my knock and after a moment’s indecision let me inside, and to my annoyance, he announced his intention to keep me company until Greeley’s return. I’d been the maid of honor at their wedding nineteen years earlier. Hart and I had liked each other for a long time, but somewhere in our early forties, our mutual goodwill had turned to apathy on his end, chafing forbearance on mine. Respect, sympathy, curiosity—whatever it was that governed our relationship—had apparently been exhausted. It was similar to how for years I’d found the Peter Sellers movie Being There hilarious, but then unaccountably, it began to seem tragic.

I sat down on their pumpkin-colored velvet sofa, with one of their two cats, the white one named Natasha, curled up on the cushion next to mine. Her green eyes opened halfway as she felt my weight settling near her. Hart sat in a matching armchair across from me, and I smiled at him tentatively, wondering what had gotten into him. It was possible Greeley had ordered him to keep me company while she finished the errand with her mother.

“So,” he said.

I peered at him, anxious and tired. I had no idea what he would come up with next. “Yes?” I said.

“So.” He laughed self-consciously.

We looked at each other some more. Natasha yawned, her throat emitting a tiny squeak.

“Did you know there are literally thousands of strains of the cold virus circulating among us every year?” he said.

“I don’t know if I did.”

“That’s why there’s no shot for the common cold. There are fewer flu viruses, and it’s easier for immunologists to guess which ones will cause the most trouble.”

“Interesting,” I said. This trivia did interest me. For one, I didn’t like colds, but I couldn’t think of anyone who did. “Do you get a flu shot every year?”


“I do,” I said. “But not yet this year.”

He looked at one of his watches. He had two on his right wrist today, one on his left. His and Greeley’s son looked like him—blond, tall, and blue-eyed, but Matt didn’t share his father’s obsession with clocks. Nor did he appear to be depressed. He was sixteen and good-looking and girls called him at all hours; Greeley had started to take away his phone after 10 p.m. His sister Liza, fifteen and less popular, took after Greeley; she was petite and dark-haired. She wasn’t interested in timepieces either, which Greeley was relieved about.

“I wonder what’s keeping them,” said Hart. “My mother-in-law must have wanted to go to the grocery store.”

“It’s okay,” I said too brightly. “You don’t have to keep me company. I brought something to read.” Matt and Liza were out with friends. The house was quiet.

Hart had a crumb at the corner of his mouth. I wanted to tell him but worried it would embarrass him. I hoped it would fall off on its own without either of us having to do anything about it.

“I don’t mind,” he said. He looked at one of his other watches, pretending to adjust it, or maybe he actually was adjusting it. If it was the kind you had to wind, he’d probably let it run down.

He hadn’t worked in over a year. Greeley was paying all the bills and resented this enormously. I’d told her the other day that I wished I could take us to the South of France for a month, where we might meet beautiful young Frenchmen who would sponge off us unapologetically while we used them for sex. “I can’t leave my mother for a whole month,” she’d said, thinking I was serious. “Hart could probably take care of the kids, but Mom needs me.”

Hart and I sat in silence, me petting the cat, who was now purring loudly, Hart glancing from his watches to the windows that overlooked the street. Greeley’s real name was Bethany, but she had always disliked it and as a joke had renamed herself after the novelist and Catholic priest Andrew M. Greeley, whose books had almost no sex in them despite their provocative covers, as we’d discovered, to our serious disappointment, when we’d read them in high school. The nickname stuck, but her mother continued to call her Bethany and her father did too, until he died two years ago from a heart attack at the dentist’s office. He was in the waiting room, looking at an old issue of People when he died, not in the chair with the drill whirring in his ear. He had gone quickly, the receptionist later assured Greeley and her mother. He’d stood up suddenly before falling down and dying, a look of terrible surprise on his face, as I imagined it.

“Greeley told me about the guy,” said Hart, his gaze lit by mischief. “The one you’ve been writing poems for.”

A truck rumbled by in the street, but it took me a moment to sort out where the sound was coming from. I should have known Greeley would tell him. Why wouldn’t she? They weren’t divorced yet and continued to sleep in the same bed, probably having sex in it too, once in a while.

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“It’s good you let him know how you feel,” said Hart. “As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Who says this? I thought, suppressing the impulse to roll my eyes. A second later, I felt like breaking into tears, but I suppressed that too.

“You could always ask him to marry you,” he said. “I bet that would throw him for a loop. And who knows, maybe he’d say yes.”

“That would not be a good idea,” I said, incredulous. “I don’t want to marry him.”

He tilted his chin at me. “That’s what you say.”

“And that’s what I mean.”

We were each taking the measure of the other, he having decided when he let me in, I suppose, that he had something to prove to me, that he was on an upswing or at least was frozen mid-decline. The crumb was still by his mouth.

I felt my own mouth twitch, sending an inadvertent signal that Hart failed to read. The man I was in love with was named Dawoud. He was extremely good-looking, morally protean, generous in bed, and promiscuous with promises. He was ten years older than I was, but still behaved like a college boy, with his cargo pants and blithe cheating and impromptu camping trips. This had been going on for over a year. I had never suffered so much in my life.

I had to make it stop. It was also feasible his girlfriend would murder one of us when she found out what we were doing, mostly on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings when Dawoud would sneak over to my apartment while this public girlfriend was in a water yoga class at the gym we all belonged to.

She had a silky blond ponytail and was purportedly only a few years younger than Dawoud, although she looked my age. She had much larger breasts than I did—I’d seen them in the locker room and tried not to gawk. I was excruciatingly jealous, but also thinner than she was. And I had thunderous orgasms, which Dawoud was very proud of, sometimes speechless over, as was I. We spent most of our time at my place naked and panting and laughing together. I hated when he left, never really sure if he would come back. He might get hit by a train or choke on a piece of apple or his girlfriend really would murder him before she came for me. He might change his mind about me and find someone else.

“But what if he proposed to you?” asked Hart. “Would you say no?”

I sensed something in Hart then that I probably hadn’t ever sensed before in anyone. What it was was this: he had once been a tree—most of the molecules in his body, I strongly felt, had belonged to a conifer in another, very distant age. I felt a wave of compassion for him and smiled tentatively, seeing him differently, more appreciatively. Did he have any idea what he’d once been? I doubted it. “I would say no,” I said.

Greeley came in the door a few seconds later, pausing when she saw us together in the front room. I went over to her and hugged her. She smelled like lavender soap and her cheeks were cold. Hart stayed in the chair. Natasha leapt down from the sofa and ran into the kitchen where her food and water bowls were waiting to be kicked over by the next clumsy human, often me.

“I want Trish to read us one of her love poems,” said Hart. “For that guy. You know, Dawoud.” He pronounced his name da-wad.

Greeley stared at him, appalled.

“Dawoud,” I said.

“Ignore him,” said Greeley. “I’m sorry, Trish.”

“It’s okay. I don’t have any of those poems with me anyway,” I said, trying to keep the peace.

Greeley was shaking her head. She took off her coat and hung it in the closet by the front door. “Have you had lunch yet?’ she asked.

“I haven’t,” said Hart.

“I wasn’t asking you,” she said.

“I haven’t either,” I admitted.

“You need to eat,” she said sternly. “I’m ordering a pizza.”

“No, no, don’t do that,” I said.

“I’d eat some,” said Hart.

She ordered a pizza—spinach and mushroom—along with a dozen garlic breadsticks. She knew this was my favorite order, especially the breadsticks. I wanted to move in with her. It was like this every time I came over. I had known her since we were nine years old, when she had enormous eyeglasses and so did I. The first summer I knew her, we’d put water balloons in the fronts of our bathing suits and stood in the backyard, her mother taking our picture, all of us laughing. Neither Greeley nor I had big boobs, though she did for a time when she was pregnant and she lorded it over me then, but not very seriously.

The pizza was delivered a half hour later. The delivery boy was a man in his seventies. I wanted to ask if he was doing this because he was bored with retirement. I hoped it wasn’t because he needed the money, but I had a feeling it was. I tipped him eight dollars and paid for the order, ignoring Greeley’s protests. I had more money than she did and much lower overhead. It was all a fluke, really. My father had left me some money when he died, the year before her father died. He and my mother had been divorced for years and I was his sole heir. He’d left money to PETA too, although he wasn’t even a vegetarian, and to the public library in the central Wisconsin farming town where he’d spent the last fourteen years of his life. He’d never remarried, but had gone on elderly singles’ cruises a few times a year; he’d said he didn’t want the “hassle” of commitment after he and my mother divorced.

Going through his papers after he died, I’d discovered he’d had relations with women who were probably sex workers. I wasn’t scandalized, but I did think about it fairly often. It was like knowing too much about your neighbors’ sexual habits, except, like it or not, I would never again have to look upon my father burdened with this knowledge.

While we were eating the pizza, my phone started ringing. When I took it out of my bag to investigate, I saw with a stab of alarm and desire that it was Dawoud. If he was calling to say he wanted to come over, I would feel both bereft and angry. Sometimes he did this—call out of nowhere and ask if I was free, always expecting that I would be, but sometimes I wasn’t, and he would hang up abruptly after saying, “It’s fine, Trish. It’s fine! Talk to you later.” It would take me a day to recover from this exchange, mostly due to my fear that he would never call again.

Greeley recognized this as the response of a woman with no self-esteem. And what exactly did I think having an affair meant? She’d say, “Why do you let him have so much power over you?” I’d tell her I didn’t let him, per se—it was just what happened when you were in love with someone who was trying to hide you from everyone else in his life.

I let his call go to voice mail. Greeley patted my hand when I put the phone back in my bag. “Good girl,” she said.

Hart perked up. “Was that him? The guy you write poems for?”

Greeley frowned at him.

“Yes,” I said wretchedly.

“You should have let me talk to him,” he said.

Greeley shook her head. “No,” she said. “Not funny.”

He looked at us, hurt. “What? It could have been a man-to-man conversation. I could ask him the kinds of questions Trish probably never has the courage to.”

I noticed the crumb was finally gone from the corner of his mouth, but he had a small smear of pizza sauce on his chin now. He looked like a giant baby—his face pink-skinned, his thinning, tufted blond hair nearly as delicate as an infant’s fluff.

I smiled at him and shook my head. “Dawoud isn’t big on revealing his hand. But it’s nice of you to suggest this.”

“Do you want to call him back?” asked Hart.


“It might have been important,” he said.

“It wasn’t important,” snapped Greeley. “He’s a selfish asshole. He’s only using Trish for sex.”

Her vehemence startled me a little. Even if what she’d said was probably accurate, I didn’t want to hear her say it aloud, especially in front of her unraveling husband who, the other day, had washed his blue jeans with Greeley’s new white bras and turned them all a grubby blue-gray. He had also run over a pile of rocks while mowing the lawn last month and ruined the blades. Their oven had so much food crusted on the bottom that every time Greeley turned it on, the smoke alarm went off, but she refused to clean it herself because Hart had promised to do it, and she was waiting for him to keep his word and swore she would keep waiting until he did.

I was afraid that, like Dawoud’s public girlfriend, Greeley had murder in her heart and would snap in some violent, irrevocable way if Hart kept bumbling along and ruining their expensive household appliances.

“How do you know that for sure? Have you met him?” Hart asked Greeley.

“Hart, honestly. Go away and let Trish and me talk by ourselves,” she said.

I really wanted him to leave us alone too, but I felt bad when he took his plate and went down to the basement without another word.

She squeezed my arm. “If you want to call him back, go ahead,” she said.

I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. Hart said I should ask Dawoud to marry me.”

She looked at me, her face grim. “He’s getting worse, Trish. I don’t know what to do. Yesterday I caught him in a chat room for labradoodle owners. We don’t own a labradoodle, as you know. But he was acting like we did.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I assumed he was either bored or delusional. I hoped it was the former. Greeley was crying now, her face suddenly wet with tears. I reached over and hugged her and soon we were both crying.

When we stopped, I shared with her what Hart had told me about the common cold. “He does know a lot of trivia,” she said glumly, wiping her eyes. “I’ll give him that.”

A second or two later, she whispered, “I have to divorce him. I’m not sure what will happen to him after I do, and it’s going to upset the kids very much, but I have to do it. I can’t wait much longer.”

I took her hand and we sat in silence, listening to the drone of the TV in the basement. “He seemed less depressed than the last time I saw him, at least,” I finally said.

She nodded. “Yes. But it’s unpredictable. He’ll be okay for a week but then without warning he’ll stop showering and picking up after himself and talking to me or the kids. He won’t exercise, even though on the rare occasions he does, he always feels better.”

“What about antidepressants?”

“He won’t take them,” she said. “Not regularly. Whatever you do, don’t ask Dawoud to marry you.”

“No, of course not. It’s never even crossed my mind.”

“Because if you did marry him, he’d cheat on you too.”

“I know.”

She put her face in her hands. “But I envy you,” she said, her voice muffled. “You have not chosen to marry the wrong man.”

“For a while he was the right man, wasn’t he?” I said softly.

She put her hands in her lap and looked down. I had a picture in my mind right then of her and Hart at Halloween six or seven years ago. He was dressed as a zucchini, she as a chef’s knife. I’d come over to help them hand out chocolate bars to all the kids in the neighborhood, dozens and dozens of them, red-faced and grinning and manic on sugar. One little girl who reminded me of me pointed at Hart and asked Greeley, “Will he get to be the knife next year?” And Greeley replied, “You’re a sharp one, aren’t you.” The girl blinked, not getting the pun, but Hart and I laughed. “I hope this woman will always be my knife,” he said to the little girl, his arm around Greeley’s shoulders. “And that I can always be her vegetable.” Greeley made a comical face. I could see she was very happy.

“Yes, he was the right man for a while,” she said. “But now he isn’t.”

Driving home later, I thought about Hart in the basement and Greeley on the first floor with the crusted-over oven and her ruined bras upstairs in the bedroom and the damaged lawn mower in the garage and all the other frustrations of her long marriage to Hart. I knew he deserved some compassion too—he wasn’t evil, just beaten down and sick and weaker than she was. They’d had some good years, and their kids weren’t jerks. Greeley liked her house too, but right now I knew it wasn’t much comfort when she thought of the failings of the husband she shared it with, a man who was not looking for a new job and had slipped into midlife depression and might not be able to pull himself back together anytime soon, if ever.

And at forty-six, what did I have? I’d tried to keep it simple, as Greeley purported to envy. I’d held myself back from binding attachments when they were offered—I’d turned down two marriage proposals, the first in my twenties, the second in my thirties. Both men had gone on to marry other women and have children. I didn’t regret this, though. You took your chances no matter what you did.

I believed I had been a tree once too. I had lived outside in all seasons, witnessing the comings and goings of birds and rabbits and wolves and people who were always arguing or feeling put-upon or who knew what—maybe not much of anything. I was responsible for the care and upkeep of my own bras and had no lawn to mow. To be honest, this was a relief.

Just before I’d left Greeley and Hart’s place, Hart had emerged from the basement to say goodbye. He must have heard us talking or else simply guessed I was ready to go home. Greeley didn’t care anymore if he heard her saying unflattering things about him. He was like a cement wall now, she said, nothing penetrated him.

He came up from downstairs and stood in the doorway, studying us for a second before he said, “Keep writing poems, Trish, and be sure to wash your hands with soap and hot water. You need to guard against the common cold. It’s almost winter now.”

“I will,” I said, smiling at him as kindly as I could.

I didn’t return Dawoud’s call that night after I got home. When he called again the next morning to confirm our usual X-rated Sunday gymnastics, I didn’t answer. I went out instead and stayed away all day. He called again. Again, I didn’t answer. It’s over, I typed into our ongoing text thread, though I couldn’t bring myself to hit send. I was going to sell my depressing apartment, I realized. I was going to take a leave of absence from work and travel for a while. It was something I’d been intending to do for many years.

The next morning, Greeley texted me a picture of her espresso machine with the caption, The latest casualty of my marriage. I sent back a frowning face, adding I’m sorry, G.

It’s over, I typed again, and this time I hit send. It wouldn’t be enough, but it was a start. I looked out the window, down into the alley, where a man in gray sweats was foraging in the recycling bins for aluminum cans, his bike basket already teeming with his finds. I watched him, drinking my morning cup of strong black coffee, ignoring the urge to check my phone. After the coffee was gone, I got ready for work and the drive to the high school where I was the assistant principal. It was Monday, after all. I was good at this job, despite the chaos of my private life, and liked most of the students and teachers, and my boss, Principal Brynne, who had the same birthday and hairstyle as my mother. At school I was organized and punctual and people came to me when they needed things, which I wanted them to do.

During lunch, I ordered a new espresso machine for Greeley. I didn’t include a gift message. She would quickly figure out who’d sent it, but I wanted it, at least for a little while, to be a surprise.


From Direct Sunlight by Christine Sneed. Copyright © 2023 by Christine Sneed. Published 2023 by TriQuarterly Books /Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. Originally appeared in The Literary Review

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