Detail of Robert Longo's UNTITLED, FROM THE SERIES "MEN IN THE CITIES," 1980. Charcoal and Graphite on Paper. 96 X 60 inches (243.8 X 121.9 centimeters). Copyright © 2019 Robert Longo.

The cross-eyed nurse in Cleopatra makeup was amused, and maybe scandalized, by the fact that I’d been admitted to the hospital with coital migraines. She was probably supposed to be impartial, but when she picked up my chart and read my diagnosis, I saw her shaking her head, trying not to laugh at me.

It was Halloween, and about a quarter of the people walking past my room in Harborview’s emergency department were in a costume of some kind. My IV drip included an anti-migraine medicine, which kept shoving me asleep. I’d struggle awake to see a werewolf in scrubs wander past, and then I’d be out again. Waking up yet again, it’d be that Filipina nurse in Cleopatra makeup checking my blood pressure, but I’d conk out before she finished.

The doctor—an affable surfer dude with one of those gag arrows through his head—saw me briefly, ordered various tests, and then left for many hours. When he finally returned, he said that my CT scan seemed to indicate that my brain wasn’t bleeding. A blood vessel in my brain had ballooned from the pressure, yes, but it was probably intact. This was the brain, so there’d be a lot of uncertainty, he said. The headaches were probably harmless; however I should try not to have orgasms for a while, just in case. He could order a spinal tap, he said, but they didn’t typically do that.

My mistress, a public health official who specialized in chronic pulmonary disease, asked the doctor what the “adverse event” would be if I didn’t have a spinal tap.

Apparently harshed by her awareness of medical jargon, he said, “Well, if his brain is bleeding and we don’t detect it, it’d be catastrophic.”

She leaned close to my face and said, “You’re getting a spinal tap, okay?”

I nodded. “Ouch,” I said. I felt like a child, because I was like a child.

“If you’ve got blood in your spinal fluid, you could die,” she said slowly. Her name was Leigh, and I had never loved someone as much as I loved her. She was exactly the person you’d want to accompany you to the hospital when your brain might be hemorrhaging.

“This is from having sex?” I said, dubious.

“No honey,” she said, “it’s from having sex with me.”

Before they’d sent me into the CT scan, someone observed that I was not entirely conscious, and that my next of kin hadn’t been notified of my whereabouts, so they called up my wife, just in case. They told her I’d had a “brain event,” and was undergoing tests. She came in, leaving her mother—who had come to town to support her during the divorce—with our daughter.

I was barely conscious when my wife arrived, but I was very aware that both my mistress and my wife were present. They had not met before. It was not an ideal scenario for introductions.

“What happened?” my wife said to Leigh.

“He experienced a sudden onset migraine and called his GP, who recommended he come here,” she said. That was, strictly speaking, true.

“This is for a headache?” My wife was not prepared to traffic in very much bullshit at the time, understandably enough. Of all the people you might betray, she was not an ideal candidate: lots of moral certainty, with sturdy towers of anger and outrage already in place before I’d begun my affair.

“They’re going to draw some fluid from his spine, and if it’s pink then he probably has a cerebral bleeding and will need brain surgery. Or not. I don’t know. But it’s serious. If the fluid is clear, he’s going to be fine.”

She shook her head, annoyed. “This is just—did he hit his head?”

“No, he didn’t. I’m Leigh, by the way.”

“I know who you are,” my wife snapped. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

The nurse, who had been busying herself with the IV drip during this exchange, sighed and looked at me, wide-eyed. I blinked at her in recognition.

*

My wife stood in the hallway during my spinal tap, but Leigh remained with me. While they prepped, she held my hands, her face close to mine. To distract me, she asked me to tell her the plot of Star Wars, a movie she claimed to have never seen. So I told her all about Luke, and the rebels, and Old Ben—no relation to the rice. Or was the rice not old? Maybe the rice was uncle, but in a racist way? Then I talked about the droids for too long, and got lost.

Then my back hurt and went hot, so I stopped talking. The pain was deep. She stood and looked. No one spoke. Then she groaned slightly and sat down again, rubbing my shoulder.

“Is it bad, Doc?”

“They need to test it,” she said, in a way that indicated it was bad.

My spinal fluid had been pink—tinged with blood from a little hemorrhage in my brain, caused by my aneurysm. All caused by the force of my orgasms, apparently. The sex really was that good—that would’ve been the humble-brag joke we’d have told at cocktail parties for years to come if we’d landed right, but we never managed to get there. It was all too heavy, the moral fallout, even when we were out from under it.

Some months later, I realized that Leigh had probably saved my life. That was something I would think about when I looked at her. When I pointed it out to her, she said, “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have been in danger to begin with.”

*

I woke up in a different hospital room, daylight streaming through the window. My eyes were sensitive to light, so I asked if someone could close the curtains, and someone did. Leigh held my hand as I squinted. She told me that I was going to have brain surgery. The surgeon would be by soon to talk.

I was confused. I had spent the night there, maybe. “This is not ideal,” I said.

“I know.”

I told her to be sure my obituary mentioned the cause of death.

I felt her damp lips touch my forehead. She kissed wet. She had such wonderful lips. In some part of my broken mind I was aware that I should be scared, but I couldn’t light up the necessary circuit boards. Everything stayed dark.

*

It would make sense for me to tell you about Leigh. And I should also tell you about my ex-wife, and my kid. Most of all my kid! I haven’t talked about my daughter at all, and we’re a quarter of the way through this story. You know what this says about me. I know, too. And I agree. See, it’s not just that I’ve made really bad choices. People do that. Everyone does that, I dare say. The difference with me is that maybe I’m a bad person—and I know that sounds melodramatic, or like a plea for pity, but it’s true. There are a lot of people who would agree with me, and they know me much better than you do.

Sometimes, I wondered if maybe we—those of us who’ve been harmed by me—could get together and share our stories. We’d meet in a basement of a church like they do in those 12-step programs, and we’d all nod along in agreement with whoever was speaking, consoled by the common wound.

*

Another time I woke up and it was dark. A different room, I thought, but I really couldn’t tell. How many rooms had I—my memory wasn’t doing well, and time was incomprehensible. All this lifting up into consciousness and then plunging away, like bungeeing in slow motion, down and up, in and out of the world. Maybe this was a death preview? Some post-existence existence where time is nonsense…here in this dark room, I didn’t know it yet, but the surgery had already been completed.

Someone had shaved my head, and someone else had sawed a window into my skull so that a neurosurgeon named Dr. Mary Moonwise—the name had to be made up, I’d thought when I met her during a brief visit to consciousness before the operation—could repair my leaking blood vessel.

High on some very impressive drugs, I watched the rain hurry down the dark window in thick rivulets as a woman explained to me that I’d experienced a cerebral edema. She whispered, as if hoping I wouldn’t awaken; but I was awake, of course. I turned to her. Cerebral edema? I had no idea what that meant. She had her hand on my arm, and was attractive with smoky eyes, and lots of chestnut hair falling all around. Part of my brain had swollen, she said, and was likely damaged.

The person talking to me was, it turns out, Leigh. But I didn’t recognize her anymore, and I didn’t know her name.

I did recognize my wife, who showed up during another brief expedition into the waking world. Didn’t remember her name anymore either, but I knew she was close to me, similar to family, and I knew we weren’t getting along, and it was my fault. So tenacious was my shame that it was one of the few things my mind salvaged.

My daughter visited me while I was unconscious, I gather, but they kept her away when I was awake, out of concern over what I might say. I didn’t see my mother-in-law, either, although I wouldn’t have recognized her, even though she was very memorable. She looked like Sigourney Weaver: the structure of her skull was so apparent beneath the stretched skin, and she was terribly stylish in an off-kilter way (she favored this winter coat that looked like a peach sleeping bag, which sounds ugly, but she pulled it off). Her charm had a brutal tinge that I admired—she’d left her husband for another guy, who’d promptly left her, and she had this almost European self-acceptance about it, like, yes, obviously she’d hurt people, but life is rough and short and she liked who she was, nonetheless. I’d known from the start of my affair, which was out of control from day one, that losing my mother-in-law would in some ways be harder than losing my wife.

My ex-wife had severe features like her mother, but was all brittle nerves inside. Or, this was what I told myself during my affair, when I needed a story to help explain what I was doing. The story went: she was an expert at getting things done, but it turns out getting things done is not a very fulfilling lifestyle. Or: being married to a taskmaster is a miserably intensive way to ensure tasks are accomplished. Yes, sometimes she’d fire off a wildly funny remark and my heart would swell, but not often. Also, I’d tell myself (although it wasn’t true), the sex was what you might expect from a humorless taskmaster. But it is true that I care more about sex than I do about almost anything else.

Except my kid! Okay. Sorry, I forgot to tell you about her again.

Lottie—that’s my daughter’s name—she’s the person I love the most in the world, but now I’m protesting too much. Honestly, she’s not my favorite person to spend time with, but she is the person I love the most. Nearly five years old at the time of my brain event, she’d get furious when she saw candy in the store but wasn’t allowed to eat it. Not a lot going on in the frontal lobe, the realm of self-control. I could sympathize, but it was exasperating.

Before I blew up my marriage, my life seemed mainly to be devoted to the deadening labor of parenting: lots of cooking, washing, and driving, the processing of those interminable emails from teachers (in wacky fonts!). At wildly discordant music recitals, the other parents, pleasant and weary, sat dutifully in tiny chairs, knees at their shoulders. They had stains on their clothes, too. Your genitals more or less fall off at some point. But certain people appeared genuinely delighted to be there, and I worried about them. If my mood was right I worried about myself.

It turns out parenting is a new word—Leigh sent me a think piece about this that really stuck with me. A generation or so ago that verb did not exist, apparently. There were parents, yes, but they didn’t verb the role—they were more comfortable as nouns. There’s still no such thing as sistering, or daughtering, and those words will hopefully never exist. At some point this parent relationship became a goal-oriented vocation. Being chased into every corner of life by different kinds of work is exhausting, and what, exactly, are we after in this new job? Trying to craft a person? Not letting a person grow under our care, but actively forming the person by hand, as if such a thing were possible? We can’t even craft ourselves; how are we supposed to do it to someone else?

*

When I first met my future ex-wife, I got the impression she was also avid about sex, but it turns out that’s just how people are when they’re initially dating. Somehow I didn’t realize that her enthusiasm was temporary. By the time we got married, I’d had a year-plus of evidence that she was not like me in terms of sex, but I didn’t want to see it. My version of this story is about how she doesn’t like sex, but she probably does like sex if you go about it in the right way. You can imagine her version is all about my many failings, so maybe we’re both right.

Six years and 3.5 blowjobs later, I met someone who said I could just text her the word “lollipop” at more or less any time and she’d meet me wherever for a blowie.

My brain was, evidently, unprepared for this experience.

Talking to my neurosurgeon Dr. Mary Moonwise after the surgery, I tried to ask about her name, because I recalled some of what had been stored in my short-term memory bank. Couldn’t remember Leigh at all, but knew I was meant to ask Mary Moonwise, whom I’d only met once, about her name. My executive function, never a strong suit, was impaired, and I was unable to resist the temptation, “It’s—the name,” I said. “It’s the name I wan wan, I—ah fuck—”

I fought on like this, slurring and befuddled, until I got the disassembled question in front of her in such a way that she could assemble it. I’m grateful for her patience.

She said that her name was, in fact, made up.

“Why?” I said. I was in yet another hospital bed. My mouth tasted terrible. And this room was full of beige and that terrible pale green. Life was all ripped open, and my head had a window in it, now, so someone could see in, or I could see out. I don’t know.

“My family was not great,” she said. She was a cool lady, quite butch, with a chiseled jawline, short hair, and a stern but frank demeanor. Kind of rockabilly, maybe.

“Your name—” I stopped, because I was maybe going to vomit, or my face hurt.

“I didn’t want their name,” she said. “I didn’t want anything to do with them. My parents were completely useless.”

“Oh.”

She shrugged. “Is that enough?” The way she said it, she meant she was done talking about it.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m also arn—ang a bad parent.”

She paused for a very long time, looking at me. I kept expecting her to say something, but she didn’t. It was disorienting to see a doctor who was not in a hurry. At some point during this long pause I realized she was probably assessing my brain. That’s what she was doing. We weren’t just chatting. At last she said, “Well, you’re alive.”

“Bad parent, but alive,” I summarized.

She nodded at me for a while.

“I’m alive thang-thanks to you . . . ” I sucked a deep breath, aware I was sweating from the effort, “I slurry my words, sorry.” Speaking was like tiptoeing across a sheet of ice, skipping across the sentences hoping I’d land right, but I usually skidded.

“Your brain is sick. But it’s healing.”

“Share, the sto—dammit! Will it be the same?”

“Your brain? No. I don’t think it will ever be the same, but I am surprised so often in this job that I would hate to claim anything.”

I looked at her hands. Hands I trusted, still, even after she’d run blades through my brain and now I was a mess. I looked back at her severe and nonetheless empathic face. “Maybe that’s good?” I drew a deep breath.

I remember smiling, and maybe I had warm tears on my cheeks, or maybe that’s just my memory connecting with my imagination, as it so often does, because they’re old friends and have been helping each other along for as long as I can remember.

*

I had this twitch for nine months after my surgery. It was a kind of jolt in my body as if I had been startled—more like when you’re falling asleep, and it feels like you’re actually falling but just before you hit the ground you snap awake.  But it would happen sometimes up to five or six times an hour, or it wouldn’t happen at all. Days passed without a jolt, and then I’d have a day full of them. I figured out that it happened a lot when either Leigh or my future ex-wife was present. It happened when certain unpleasant thoughts crossed my mind.

“Do you love her?” my wife said at some point. It was maybe three weeks after the surgery, and I was about to be discharged from the hospital. I was walking again, but needed a cane.

“I do love her,” I said, still baffled by my reflexive honesty. As a result of the strange nature of my brain damage, I had essentially lost the ability to lie. Moonwise explained it wasn’t actually that uncommon. She also said that it might be somewhat permanent, and I blurted that I hoped it was.

“Do you love me?” my wife said.

I twitched. “Yes.”

“Would you leave me for her?”

“Yeah, I think.”

She squinted, no doubt intrigued by my candor. “Would you leave her for me?”

“Yes. Probably. Yes, I definitely would.”

“You will just do whatever the person in front of you wants.”

“I think so.” I had a mini-twitch, and then said, “Was I like that ba—before? When my brain was before my brain—fuck!”

“You were like this.” She seemed deeply exhausted when she said this. “You have no idea what you want, and you need people to help you see.”

“I want sex. I’m a sex maniac.” I had never quite admitted this to her, although I don’t imagine it was a major surprise.

She nodded. “Maybe you do know what you want?”

“I don’t want be yelled at so much.”

“Because you’re a wimp?”

“That’s true.” I twitched. “Ang ang—no.” I had taken to reprimanding myself sometimes when a sentence got jammed. “I want to stop lying.”

“There should be a support group for people who’ve been hurt by you.”

“I thought of this!” I said with genuine glee. And then the joy was gone, and I said, “But I’m still lying.”

“In this state? That’s impressive.”

“No, I want to. I’m tran—I’m trying to lie, but it’s always too late, and then I don’t know how to do it.”

“I wonder if maybe a lot of the time you’re just lying to yourself, so I’m getting it secondhand?”

“Probably.” I had no idea. My mind was a debris-filled hurricane. But yes, in hindsight, that’s how it often works. Or else it’s a reflex when I’m scared. That second option is the more dangerous one, and it’s the one that my brain damage disrupted. Then I said, “I wan-warn—want to hate myself more, take over the anger so you won’t leave me.”

“If that’s your goal, I have some bad news.”

I smiled. “You can be funny sometimes.”

“I was optimistic,” she said, as if thinking it through for herself, not for me. “You’re quick-witted, and capable of such intense love, even if you’re terrible at taking care of people. You’re there. I thought you’d learn—there’s so much heat coming off of you, it’s wonderful right up until it’s scary.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t find any words.

*

Shortly before Christmas I was discharged from hospital and moved directly into a small, furnished apartment in the Fremont neighborhood, far below a massive bridge spanning Seattle’s ship canal. Cars roared past so loudly on the bridge that with the balcony door open, you had to yell to be heard. Lottie stayed with me a couple nights a week—there was no parenting plan yet. She’d get the bedroom, and I’d take the foldout sofa. I made grilled cheese or cheerios.

Leigh sometimes snuck in after Lottie was asleep, left before she woke, but the way Lottie gazed at my couch those mornings I figured she knew.

Lottie had started kindergarten early and was the youngest in her class, but she had friends, and we talked about them. We also talked about the decor of my strange apartment, which aspired to look Spanish. Ochre walls, and exuberantly colored tiles in the kitchen. It wanted to be something it could not, but Lottie loved the vintage bullfighting posters. She’d mentioned several times that she wanted to be a police officer when she grew up, and one day I asked why.

She shrugged. She was obsessed with running, jumping, karate, biking—inside she was all attack. Didn’t care much for books, to our horror.

“You’re going to be a detective?”

“No,” she said, “I want to arrest people.” She was sitting on a heavy wooden barstool at the kitchen counter. There were a lot of cheerios beneath her.

“Like, you’ll chase people down and tackle them?”

She nodded. Looked at my warily.

“What? Are you going to arrest me?”

“No, your hair looks strange, Dad.” She used to call me “Dada,” but now that I’d moved out I was “Dad.”

“Oh, because it’s shiv shin—shaved on one side?”

She nodded. “It’s growing back.” She touched the side of her own head.

“People get better, you know. They change. You are changing eb—every day. Even those people you arrest, they can get better.”

“I’m not going to arrest you.”

I snorted, shook my head. “That wasn’t what I meant.”

She looked away, inscrutable already.

“But what if I break the law?” I said, testing her.

She thought about that for a moment, and then plucked a dry cheerio from the crimson bowl in front of her. “Just don’t break the law.”

*

Seven years later my ex-wife checked into a hospital a few blocks away from the one where I’d stayed, but hers was nicer. It was called Swedish, because white people with money are reassured by a Scandinavian connotation.

When I visited, my clothes still draped off my body. I hadn’t tried to lose weight; it simply happened the previous year, when Leigh left me. I’d assumed that I would put the weight back on, as I had after our divorce, so didn’t buy new clothes, but a year later I was still skinny. My ex-wife—now my first ex-wife—had also lost weight, but she had cancer, which is a far better excuse. So we sat together in baggy clothes, like kids who’ve raided their parents’ closets. Lottie was twelve, in middle school. And she was doing well, all things considered. She’d grown out of the jock phase, and was getting bookish, at last. Was also turning out to be a lesbian, thank God.

The first six years after our divorce, my first ex-wife just hated me, and six years is a long time to hate someone. I guess “hate” is a blunt word, but she disliked me, and didn’t respect me, and didn’t trust me.

Then one brisk spring day, when the sun was out and the wind was in from the north, Leigh called her up sobbing and told her that she was leaving me because I’d fucked one of my younger colleagues in the economics department at the University of Washington. The delicate tension between my first ex-wife and me just snapped, and she unleashed on me—yelled at me in front of Lottie’s school the next day. The kids were all inside, fortunately, but I will never dislodge that memory.

Two days later she called to apologize.

The following morning we sat down and talked like two people who’d made a human being and were not going to be able to ignore each other forever, although we’d done a reasonably good job of it so far.

I listened to her describe what I’d done to her, and I helped furnish her story with details. And she heard it then—that I had also kept a close tally of everything I’d done. The time I missed Lottie’s second birthday? Yes, and I knew exactly what I was doing that day, and it wasn’t good. The threatening messages I’d sent her during our divorce, claiming I’d use photographs of bruises on my arms—bruises fairly won during rough (and hot!) divorce sex—as evidence of her abusive tendencies.

There was so much. With every item she introduced, I’d end up packing out the story, explaining how it was actually worse than she’d thought. Or I’d tell her how there were similar crimes that she hadn’t known about. My bombed out mind is a mess. I can’t remember anything, but I do remember those things—I remember it all. So I recounted everything as honestly as I could. I agreed with her, and I listened.

When she saw that I was as enthusiastic about hating me as she was, she backed off. We couldn’t be on the same team, could we? We were at a coffee shop. Some chain that had tried to stand up to Starbucks, and was now in the process of losing that battle. The windows fogged as a heavy rainstorm pelted the world outside. We whispered across the table at one another so as not to scandalize the patrons sitting nearby.

She looked at me with pity, or was it kindness? I didn’t recognize the expression.

“What is it?” I said.

“You’re not who you think you are.”

“Oh?” I shook my head. Though still in the early stages of my divorce from Leigh back then, I’d already lost fifteen pounds, so there was a lot less of me there with her. I’d been forced to stab a new hole into my belt.

“Really, you’re not who I thought.” Some old gears within her were shifting. She shook her head, not looking at me. Then she said, “You have to give yourself a break. For our daughter’s sake.”

I nodded at her, although I had no idea how to do what she was saying. The way she looked at me, I thought, maybe she could read my mind. Sometimes I wonder if, ever since my skull got its window, people can see the thoughts inside my brain.

My brain is a lot better, but I never did quite recover the ability to lie, although not for lack of trying. For example, I didn’t intend to tell Leigh that I’d had sex with my colleague, but it had been so remarkable—we fucked in her office and she was lactating all over the place while we did it. It was so surprising! Nonetheless, I managed to avoid blurting out anything incriminating for a day and a half.

After my first ex-wife and I talked in that café, it seemed as if our relationship might change, but that’s not how things go. By then, we’d learned our positions, our boundaries; we knew them so well it was hard to imagine another possibility. So much strife is just about a failure to imagine something else—or the imagination is busy with our pain. Maybe she felt differently after that talk? I like to think she did. She didn’t act differently, even when she was diagnosed with cancer a couple months later.

Now, here she was at Swedish Hospital, and the cancer had progressed. We were both skinnier than we’d ever been, sitting together in her room.

I’d brought her three super-plump, delicate peonies. We’d had peonies as the centerpieces for the tables at our wedding, but I wasn’t trying to be passive-aggressive. I was maybe trying to be sweet. I don’t know. I was also aware that they’d shed their pinkish petals all over. I knew they’d drop all this lovely debris and she’d have to watch people sweep the mess up with their hands, and she’d be forced to think of me in some way. So I guess I was trying to be passive-aggressive.

Her hair had fallen out, and she wore this turban thing for a while. This was then, before she stopped bothering to hide her baldness. Her skin was waxy and yellowed, strangely shiny. She reached out and took my hand in hers and looked at my knuckles, as if they were a rare and precious thing.

Surprised to find my vision blurring with tears, I said that I was so sorry, and I meant I was sorry about her sickness, but I guess it attached itself to the rest of it. “I’ll take care of our girl, you know?” I said, my voice seizing a little with the onrush.

“She loves it when I leave a note in her lunchbox,” she whispered, still looking at the back of my hand. Her voice was very hoarse and dry. “I also usually include a hard candy, one of those cheap ones. It matters to her.”

I nodded. I never did anything like that. And I considered my allegiance to “parent” as a noun, never a verb, and how maybe that’s just an excuse for not working at it. Is it really so static? Hopefully not.

“What else?” I said.

“She doesn’t think she should be on the basketball team because she’s too timid with the ball, but the coach thinks she can learn to be more confident.”

I nodded again, felt a hot tear slide down my cheek. I wondered if I should be taking notes. But no, I was not that useless—I could do this. “I understand that I have to take care of myself if I’m going to take care of Lottie,” I said. What I meant was that I had to love myself if I was going to love her.

Exhaustion swept over her face and her eyes went out. It was eerie, like a preview of death. Still, she spoke, muttering, “I just want to go home and continue—” She stopped and just breathed, and I thought maybe that was the end of it, but then she said, “I want to hang out with her when she’s an adult.”

Neither one of us spoke for a long time. I couldn’t tell if she was awake. Then, in a croaky and quavering voice, I said, “There will be a picture of you on the fridge. And I will listen to her.” I wiped my eyes. “I’m sorry about these flowers. That was shitty, I—” but my throat closed up.

Gazing at the flowers, she smiled smallest smile. Then was asleep, mouth open.

Her name was Hannah. I should have said that earlier. But she was never there until she was gone, and then she was everywhere.

*

Nine months later I hugged Leigh in the parking lot behind the funeral home. It was an appropriately overcast day, but in Seattle it’s always a good day for a funeral. Leigh hugged Lottie, too, who was now my exclusive charge. No more shuttling back and forth. No candy in her lunchbox, either, but I did write her notes sometimes. Once in a while I’d print out a funny classical art meme and put it in her lunchbox. The shrink said this was going as well as could be expected.

Leigh and Lottie had been so close, and their relationship was still good even though Leigh had married this guy back around the time Hannah checked into Swedish. Now that Hannah was gone, I thought maybe Leigh and Lottie might grow closer, but that’s probably just my damaged brain being hopeful. Things aren’t like that. It’s all on separate tracks, which are, if anything, gradually moving apart.

Adam, Leigh’s new husband, is an affable Jewish guy who wears this red baseball cap a lot. She told us that Adam was at Café Vita around the corner with his kids and the baby. She had given birth the previous month. We were in our mid-forties. I don’t know. Yes, she’d wanted a kid, we’d talked about it, but I thought she’d decided against it. Apparently not.

Lottie went back and sat in the car, too sad to stand around for this conversation. I glanced at her there in the passenger seat, her lower lip quivering, her eyes welled and shimmering. She was thirteen. She is thirteen. This was a couple weeks ago. My mother died when I was ten, so I know a bit about this. Like, you don’t ever really recover.

Leigh gazed at her, clearly worried, and said, “Is she going to be okay?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “I want to think she’s a warrior, that all of this shit made her that way. But that would be—well, a nice story for me to tell myself, wouldn’t it?”

There were other people arriving in the parking lot. Every single person I recognized was someone I didn’t want to see.

“How’s your brain?” Leigh asked.

“I gather it will forever be on the verge of exploding. Until it does.”

“And then what?”

“Oh—” I shrugged. “I’ll probably die. Hopefully. Lottie shouldn’t have to take care of me.”

Leigh glanced over at her again. “No one should have to take care of you.”

“But you did such a good job of it! I mistook ability for enthusiasm. Tough gig, I know. You inherited a toddler with a boner.”

She snorted. “You know, I don’t dislike you.”

“Well—” I smiled, hoping to seem grateful.

Reading my mind, she said, “No one actually hates you.”

I nodded as if I agreed. But I’m the one who runs into these people at the grocery store, the mall, and so on, to say nothing of funerals. I see the way they look at me, or don’t look at me. How they feel is understandable. But the thing is: I’m not as bad as they think. It’s not actually that simple.

Leigh glanced around. “These people don’t exactly love me, either, I guess. The slut who ruined her marriage.”

“Some of us love you,” I said.

“Two of you love me.”

“Two is good.”

“It is!” She nodded energetically, wanting to seem sincerely pleased.

I laughed, wishing I could kiss her, or hug her, or marry her all over again. From the top, ladies and gentlemen! I squinted and said, “You know, the best things in life aren’t easy. They’re horribly difficult. They’re exhausting and miserable.”

She smirked, tilted her head at me. “Sometimes, I wish Moonwise had taken a different part of your brain.”

“Oh sure.”

“No, really—it’s over here.” Leigh pointed at the left side of my head, where there’s no window. “Maybe everything would be different? We’d have arrived here together, would be leaving together. Lottie wouldn’t be alone in that car right now.”

“Who would I be?”

She shrugged. “Who are you now? Who were you yesterday?”

I wanted to point out that today I’m a person who is improving. And I was yesterday, as well, even if she didn’t know about it.

The thing is, we were not yet old, but we were also old, and were going to be dead pretty soon in the grand scheme of things. So I was trying to get myself to believe in this—it had to be okay, because it was inevitable.

And we had a life to celebrate! That’s why we were there. We were there to pay tribute to this woman, whom we had ruined and loved and hated and ignored. We were there to think about what she’d left behind—which was us, of course, as well as a lot of things we couldn’t see, or didn’t care about because we weren’t looking. Because our minds were frail, troubled by old wounds that kept calling for help, and we were forever confused and looking in the wrong direction.

Peter Mountford

Peter Mountford is the author of two novels: A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, and The Dismal Science. The Dismal Science was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award in Fiction, and was named a New York Times Editor's Choice. A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism won the 2012 Washington State Book Award in fiction, and was a finalist in the 2012 VCU Cabell First Novelist Prize. In 2016, Peter received the Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award for a fiction writer in Washington State. He is currently the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle's writing center, where he also teaches. He is also on faculty at the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, and at the University of Washington. Peter's short work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, Conjunctions, Southern Review, Salon, Slate, and Boston Review, where he won second place in the 2007 contest judged by George Saunders. A fellow of Yaddo and Bread Loaf, Peter's work has been awarded grants from The Elizabeth George Foundation, the city of Seattle, 4Culture, and others.

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