Fresh-cut broccoli on a gray tea towel
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Hud told me he didn’t love me anymore around one or two in the morning, just after the television in our bedroom hit its sleep timer and shut itself off. I was typically awake when the shutoff happened. My body liked to keep me up most nights, just to see the screen go dark and the low-volume audio fuzz finally cut out.

“What did you say?” I lifted my head, blinking my eyes.

I could just barely see the silhouette of his shoulders, a sharp black outline against the velvety walls. Hud made a slow, deliberate intake of air that I thought I could hear travel down into his chest, raising his ribcage. Before he’d spoken, I was about to tell him that he’d taken his CPAP off again and was going to have to put it back on. Hud snored like someone was murdering him.

“I’m done,” Hud said. “I don’t love him anymore.”

“Love who?”

“My boyfriend,” Hud said.

I stared at the point in the blackness that I guessed was the back of his head. Then I reached up, found his shoulder, and pulled him to me. The moonlight hit his face. I saw — when his eyes finally came into contact with mine, not blinking, staring straight through me — that Hud was asleep.

“Sorry,” I told him. “Can you just say that again?”

“I’d really like to tell him,” Hud said. “Tomorrow. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

“Hud,” I said, putting my fingers through his hair, a smooth, clean stroke of my hand that came to rest at the back of his neck. It was the best way to comfort him. “Do you know where you are?”

“I’m in bed,” he said, yawning. “I just needed to talk.”

He laid back down, reached off to his left where the rubber mask lay on the sheets, attached by a cord to the box on his nightstand. He fumbled it over his head.

“Thanks for this,” he said, his nose plugged. “Night.”

“Hud — ”

He turned onto his shoulder. The soft compress of air that the machine made started again: a steady, peaceful pace that matched the rise and fall of his chest.

I had a new gig with the transportation department. We met up in one of the new stations at the end of the line: me, two others, and a representative of the Port Authority. The four of us huddled in the cold waiting for the next train to roll in. I said something to the effect of having never been to the end of a subway line before, with little metal bumpers on the tracks that signaled that the train couldn’t move any further down. It could only reverse its direction and go back the way it came.

“It’s a special station,” the representative told us. Of the other two guys, I was the only one that wasn’t hitting a vape pen. We heard the screech before we saw it. A second later, the first car rounded the corner and into view.

Hud had already left by the time I woke up that morning. There was a time when he’d leave notes, sometimes on my sink, or by the coffee maker, or rolled up in the pocket of the pants I’d left at the foot of the bed the night before. My boyfriend — with a name like the branch of federal government, who spent the majority of his life in a suit, had no social media, and watched movies without either laughing or crying — would write the clumsiest, most endearing things: Going to miss you today. I love the way you don’t wake up when I’m getting ready. Hope your day is good. He hadn’t written me one in three months. I was almost thankful. It might have been his way of telling me to expect the worst. That he might have been planning the end of our relationship for months.

I thought he was going to break up with me once before, on our first anniversary. That was the year we’d spent slingshotting between our two places before I moved in with him. I’d taken him downtown to a pasta shop built into the wall of a former yarn factory. I think he liked it, he told me he did, but sometimes I couldn’t tell if Hud liked things. On our way home, I wanted to walk him through the neighborhood. The weather had finally cooled down. We’d gone a block when he checked the time on his phone.

“Can we head the other way? Subway’s over there.”

I stopped in the path of an Uber Eats delivery guy riding his e-bike down the sidewalk. He swore, swerving around me.

“Why?” I asked him.

“Aren’t we done?” Hud looked confused.

“I wanted to take a walk with you,” I said.

“I want to get home before nine. Otherwise I won’t sleep through the night.”

Hud worked a lot harder than me. It had a tendency to swallow up his life in ways my work — all of the jobs I had and tried to keep but usually couldn’t — didn’t. It was the reason he made triple what I did. He’d paid for dinner that night.

“I don’t accept that,” I said. “It’s eight-thirty. It’s Friday. It’s our anniversary.”

He shook his head, not a gesture of disagreement but one of pure surrender.

“I don’t know what you want me to say. I don’t want to be up all night. The machine said I had two hours with my mask on last night. I’m tired.”

It was, most likely, the way he’d parroted the same rhythm of my words back to me that made me turn around and tell him to fuck himself before taking my own train back home.

He sent me a text goodnight an hour later, then a good morning about an hour before I woke up. How many hours did the CPAP mask say you slept, I texted. Four, he wrote back.

* * *

The representative of the transportation department was a thin guy with almost no hair around the crown of his head, and a brown suit with a bright reflective vest over it to match the ones we’d had to put on. The train slid in front of us and opened its doors. We were led inside.

“You’re all here, voluntarily, to assess the random pre-catastrophic motion-stop risk of the R211 pilot cars that the city is expected to roll out mid next year. You have, the three of you, signed waivers releasing the Port Authority of any liability for bodily harm sustained during these tests including but not limited to sprains, bruises, fractures, concussions, in-test emergency medical episodes, and death.”

“Um, dude?” one of my test-mates, the one with a SpongeBob sticker on his vape pen, turned up the end of his sentence like a question. “I responded to a Facebook post?”

The representative glanced down at his phone, which was clipped to the front of a board piled high with yellowing papers.

“We’ve been seeing that. Third parties pretending to be Transit, offering compensation, even sending a faulty W-9. Schemes that should lead you anywhere but here. No idea what to tell you. You may go. Be aware that this station is still closed to the public.”

“Am I getting paid?”

“Not by us.”

SpongeBob Vape popped his tongue and walked off down the platform. My remaining test-mate sucked on a pen he’d modified with 3-D printed steampunk parts that had been painted to look like bronze.

“Follow me,” the representative said. “The R211 pilot cars are a substantial overhaul of the city’s existing standard cars. We’ve eliminated extraneous seating. We’ve also flushed the handholds closer to the walls, which has freed up almost 6 percent more floor space in each car. We will be evaluating, with your help, the first three stations of this line. While in the car, you are to remain standing. We ask that you not attempt to support yourself along any of the handholds, bars, or walls of the interior car. The train will move at 40 percent of the standard speed, then up to 60 percent after we reach the first station. I’ll see you there.”

“Question,” I said. The representative had already placed his foot out the door, onto the concrete platform. “Are we getting paid at the first station? Or after three?”

“Stipends are mailed within four weeks after completion. Good luck.”

The doors closed behind him. The two of us were quiet. We hadn’t been told when the train was going to start moving.

“This beats delivering sushi to bank fucks,” my test-mate said. “Cars actually swerve to try and hit me.”

“You think?”

“You ever do Uber? Postmates?”

“I’ve done some deliveries for Caviar. Before they got bought by DoorDash. That was back when I was driving, though, before I moved to the city.”

“DoorDash is for motherfuckers,” he said, as if in agreement.

“Could I ask you something?”

He coughed into his elbow and started pacing around the new, pristine car. The floors were blue for no reason, freshly buffed, ready for thirty-five years of urine, both human and rodent.

“So, your boyfriend gets up, still asleep, and tells you that he doesn’t love you anymore and is just waiting for the right time to end things. But he doesn’t seem to remember saying it in the morning, or maybe he does and just hasn’t found the right way to tell you. What would you do?”

My test-mate snorted.

“I’m not gay, dude.”

“I know you’re not,” I said. “I am. Imagine it’s a girl. Imagine it’s your girlfriend who did that.”

The train lurched into motion. The two of us bashed sideways into one of the upright poles dotting the open space. The train was building up speed. We steadied ourselves, our hands in our pockets. There was a turn coming up.

“I’d probably ask her about it instead of some stranger I don’t fucking know.”

We hit the turn. I was shoved into the wall, banging the back of my hard hat against the metal. He fell into me, crushing the wind out of my lungs.

“I just can’t tell sometimes,” I wheezed, rubbing my chest. “I don’t like putting stuff on his plate.”

“So you haven’t even talked to him about it?”

“It just happened last night. He’s got a full-time job. Finance. Probably ordering sushi as we speak.”

“Those motherfucking dickheads order the nastiest things,” my test-mate said, steady enough to take out his vape as we reached a nice and easy straightaway on the tracks. “Like, sea creatures and shit. The smell. Yes, Indigenous coast people have probably been eating raw fish for centuries and yes, it’s like, sacred to them. Still smells like ass.”

He held up his vape. “Want some?”

“I don’t smoke.”

“Neither do I.”

We heard a crash as the train came to a full stop, each car banging against the last in a chain until it came to us, at which point the two of us were thrown down almost the length of our car. A pole stopped him midway. I was not so lucky, sliding a few yards on my stomach as though the polished blue floors were a bowling alley lane.

* * *

Hud was home early that night. His trainer had pushed their session to the late evening. I didn’t have a trainer. I couldn’t decide what I’d prefer, someone to hold my hand and applaud me for the bare minimum or someone to threaten punishment if I didn’t live up to their prescriptions. I actually didn’t know what kind of trainer Hud had, but he was his most mature when being yelled at, especially by me, which led me to believe a drill sergeant type.

As I took my shoes off, he turned his head from where he was sitting on the couch and gestured to the paper-wrapped deli sandwich on the table. He didn’t cook and had stopped fighting me about my making or preparing most every meal we ate together. It was one of the things within my control, something I could do for him rather than the other way around, and I continued to have a hard time giving it up. Today, however, I said nothing, just sat and wolfed it. He might have gotten something nicer, I thought for a moment, takeout from one of the places he went to with clients. But eating a nine-dollar footlong for dinner was one of the ways he kept his money as effectively as I spent mine.

“What news from the department of transportation?”

“Bad tidings,” I said, between bites. “People are going to die on those trains. Unless they hold the pole.”

“Hold the pole,” Hud repeated, more to himself. I sat next to him and pulled up my shirt to show him the wicked scrape I’d gotten on my stomach.

“What the fuck?”

“I had to stay on for three stations.”

“And they told you that you couldn’t hold onto anything?”

“That’s the point of assessing random pre-catastrophic motion-stop risk.”

Hud felt my stomach with his fingers, carefully.

“How much were they paying?”

“Thousand. It’s coming in four weeks.”

“You could fight that,” Hud said, “Why don’t you call them tomorrow and say that you got hurt so badly that you need the check early?”

“I signed a waiver releasing the Port Authority of any liability for bodily harm sustained during these tests including but not limited to sprains, bruises, fractures, concussions, in-test emergency medical episodes, and death.”

He pulled my shirt down over my raw skin.

“You’ve got an answer for everything.”

He said things sometimes that might have made me mad if he weren’t the one saying them. As though he were a text-to-speech program, removing the affect from words, leaving only the most literal meaning. A glass of bourbon gathered moisture on the little table beside him.

“Do you remember what you said last night?”

“When? Before bed?”

“After,” I said. “You told me you didn’t love me and that you were going to tell me you can’t do it anymore. Tomorrow. Today.”

“I said that?” He blinked.

“You did. You were asleep.”

“Okay, so you dreamed it.”

“You were asleep. I was awake.”

“How could I have said something like that if I was asleep?” He flicked through something on his phone. “Look, I got seven and a half hours last night with the mask on. That means I didn’t even take it off. I can’t talk when I have that thing on.”

“I’m just telling you what you said.” I stood, getting myself a glass of water because I didn’t know how much Hud had paid for the bottle of bourbon in the fridge and I wasn’t prepared to know. He liked bourbon more than me, anyway. He got up to join me.

“You don’t seriously take stock in me having said something like that while I was asleep?”

“You tell me,” I said, not looking at him.

I didn’t move when he took the glass out of my hand and laid it carefully down on the counter beside us. Just inches away from me, he wiggled his toes under mine until I stood on his feet, raising myself up an inch higher toward his face. He didn’t like shaving for work but built up his rebelliousness as the week went on. Today was Thursday and therefore he had a mustache.

“You know I don’t sleep well,” Hud said. He was silent for a while. “Is this because of the money stuff?”

That’s what he called the fact that, because of him, I had reliably dry clothes, hot water, and — now — a few hundred dollars — a thousand more in four weeks — in savings for the first time in my life: ‘The money stuff.”

“Not everything is explained by the fact that you make more money than you know what to do with.”

“Oh, I know what to do with it,” Hud smiled, “I spend it on us. I take you out. I buy you the hot fudge because you’re a cheapskate and won’t admit that your life loses meaning when you eat your ice cream without it.”

“I could get a job,” I said. “A real job I have to go to every day. That gives me bonuses, and raises, and a holiday party.”

“You don’t like having a job like that,” Hud said. “You like gigs. You also like having your time.”

“Maybe it’s time to do something different,” I said. “Would that make you change your — ”

Hud waited for me to finish, but I’d run out of steam. After a while, he rolled his eyes.

“You’re being silly.”

* * *

That night, Hud slid over to face me in bed. I blinked, in near-darkness, and saw that he’d taken his mask off again. It was tangled around his wrist, making a bright, urgent hiss as air sprayed through it.

“I hate that he won’t try to have a better life,” Hud said, all at once breathy, exasperated. He said it like he’d been waiting for the right words to describe how he felt.

“Okay,” I said.

“I don’t know,” he sighed, “he’s gotten comfortable with the way things are and has worked out that he doesn’t really need to work hard to sustain it because I do it all for him. And it kills me. I need to be with someone ambitious. Someone who challenges me the same way that I challenge him.”

I rolled onto my back, facing the ceiling.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Hud said. He sounded ready to cry. If I could see his face better in the dark, it might have scared me even more. Who was this person who felt so deeply? Not Hud. “I’m going to tell him tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” I repeated, slowly. “What time?”

“After dinner. I want him to have one last, good day. He’s better suited for someone more similar to him.”

Hud said something else that I didn’t quite get. I turned my head. “Put your mask back on.”

He freed the hissing plastic tube from his wrist.

“You take such good care of me.”

* * *

Hud was gone again the next morning. From bed, I called the number of the Department of Transportation and held my phone up on speaker. A robot with a man’s voice answered and asked me to summarize the reason for my call.

“Just wondering if I can be paid earlier,” I croaked, still shaking sleep from my head, “for — ”

“Are you an employee of the Department of Transportation?”

“No. Well, contractually yes.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that. Are you an employee of the Department of Transportation?”


“One moment.”

A robot with a woman’s voice took my transfer.

“Hello. I hope you’re having a good day. Please confirm your employee ID, so that I may assist you further.”

“I don’t have one.”

The robot woman seemed to catch on a lot quicker than her coworker, because she hung up without another word. I listened to the tone of the dropped call before I rolled over, dug my arms under my pillow, and found a piece of paper wedged between the sheets. I sat up, uncurling it, squinting down at the tiny handwriting. I am always thinking of you. A little threatening, but the intentions were good. Hud had dated it six months earlier. I’d left it in my pillowcase all this time and never noticed.

I sent a text to my brother, who might have gotten up by now on the West Coast.

Could I talk to you about a problem I have?

He started typing, then stopped.

It’s not that big of a deal. It can wait if you want.

He started again. I scrolled upwards. Our last conversation had been a few days ago. I’d sent him the waiver the Department of Transportation had emailed me. My brother practiced law in a three-level office building just twenty minutes from the ocean. He owned a convertible sports car that he often said was not worth the money he paid for it. He’d written back: this sounds like a bad idea.

They’ll pay me a thousand dollars.

Yeah, and what if you die?

Nobody dies in subway cars.

Plenty of people do. They get shot, stabbed, punched in the face. People die in them, under them, on top of them pretending to surf and recording themselves for the internet.

This is a controlled space. They wouldn’t do it if it meant I was actually in any danger.

They would. That’s what the waiver’s for.

Beat (see note)

What’s up?

I got out of bed and pulled our blanket back over the top of the mattress, arranging the pillows. It was always the nicest thing, to have them ready. To fall into them with Hud and to take off each other’s clothes, slowly, until it was just us on the uncreased linen. Making the bed was one of the things I did to be useful.

I’m worried that the subway people won’t pay me for the tests I did yesterday.

Are you kidding me? You did that thing?

I put on some underwear and opened the blinds, letting in the light.

I needed the money.

You don’t need the money.

What would be the best way to get in touch with them? Do you think I could go to the office and just ask someone? I tried calling.

My brother didn’t respond for five minutes, during which time I brushed my teeth and made myself a coffee.

I think you need a job.

I frowned, read it a few times, and waited for him to elaborate. My brother didn’t talk much except to let me know all the ways I could be happier. “Finding a job” was an expression he was using, it seemed, in place of “being a more valuable person personally, professionally, fiscally, emotionally.” If I had a job, I might wake up earlier and find more hours in the day to learn a new skill. I might become more interesting, more endearing. More challenging.

I’m worried Hud’s about to break up with me.

He didn’t respond. After ten minutes, I set my phone down, got dressed, and left the apartment. I walked until I reached the water. It was a breezy day, and the river was choppy, and the whipped air felt good around my head and neck. I’d recently started to worry that I was sleeping wrong on my pillow, and that a stiffer, sturdier support under my neck might help me sleep better. It was hard work sometimes, staying asleep while Hud’s machine hissed all through the night.

In an hour, continuing down the edge of the city, still close to the river, I passed the concrete municipal building where I’d filled out my paperwork and signed the Department of Transportation’s waiver. The doors were open. I could see people milling around inside, and a security guard at the desk swiping through his phone. I made a step, carefully, in the direction of the doors.

* * *

That night, I made dinner in the all-purpose pan, chicken with rice and, at first, pre-mashed frozen broccoli florets that you were supposed to use in soup or for game day dip. Halfway through cooking, though, I’d gotten fresh broccoli from the grocery down the block. I’d thought, panting my way to the produce aisle: why didn’t I just use fresh from the beginning? I left the pan covered to simmer and waited for Hud to come home. Which he did, eventually, shaking dirty rainwater off the bottoms of his shoes in the hallway, then taking them inside.

“That smells really good,” he said, with a little smile.

I brought it over on plates and we ate, not saying much. I’d gotten the sense early on that he didn’t enjoy telling me about his workday, so I’d stopped asking. Typically, I had something interesting to tell him, but I wasn’t comfortable explaining that I’d walked thirteen miles around the perimeter of the entire city and had just gotten home an hour ago with my shoes soaked through and blisters on the balls of both feet.

We had come to the moment that at least one of us was waiting for.

“Are you going to do it now?” I asked him. He chewed, slowly, frowning.

“Do what?”

“You said last night that you were going to break up with me,” I said. “Tonight. Now. After dinner.”

He waited, saying nothing.

“And,” he made an attempt, “I said this while I was…”


Hud made a noise with his throat that sounded to me like he was about to laugh.

“Why didn’t you say anything today?” he asked.

I stood up, taking our empty plates before I realized that I didn’t quite need to. I set them down, fidgeting with my hands.

“I was asleep,” Hud said, for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Doesn’t that mean anything to you? I don’t remember.”

“You’re not the one who has to hear yourself,” I said. “You didn’t have to hear about how miserable I make you or how you wish I was somebody different.”

I always cried when we fought. Always. It didn’t matter who was talking, or who had started what. It was one of the worst things about me. I’d feel it in the back of my throat and not know what to do except keep talking and let my eyes get wet. I was doing it now and it was doing what it always did to him. Hud stood and put his hands on my shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he told me. “I need you to know that I don’t mean it. How could I? There’s nothing I need from you, more than what you already give. And still, you sat around all day thinking about it and not telling me? We’re too old for this.”

We weren’t, but this didn’t feel like a good thing to say to him. I felt him falter, and he lowered his head to rest it on the little divot below my neck.

“I hate that you’re upset. I’m so happy with you. You need to know that.”

We stood together for a few minutes. Then, he picked his head up.

“It’s the CPAP,” he said, “It’s doing something weird to me. I’ll stop using it.”

“That’s not healthy. You need it.”

He didn’t wait for a response, just padded over to the freezer and took out a half-finished pint of butter brickle. I watched him scoop a few spoons of fudge from the dairy shelf of our fridge and blast it in the microwave for half a minute. He brought it over and poured the hot fudge into the pint for us like an experienced waiter. We ate it, together, without speaking.

That night, he went to bed first, stripping down to his underwear. He coiled the mask and tubing around the machine on his bedside table and left it shut off. I got in beside him. He kissed me, briefly.

“Just relax,” Hud said. He turned off his light.

I lay there, listening to him breathe. I could measure pretty accurately when the moment came, when his lungs started those deep, automatic expansions. His mouth opened. I raised a hand and snapped my fingers in front of his face. Nothing.

I propped myself on an elbow, looking at him, trying to make out in the darkness the outline of his face.

“Are we okay?”

Hud didn’t answer me.

“Hud, are we okay? Did you change your mind?”

My phone buzzed behind me. I moved, carefully, slowly, and picked it up. My brother had texted me back.

What’s going on? Did something happen?

I waited. Something had happened, actually. I’d gotten home, soaked through with rain that afternoon, and found a check for a thousand dollars made out to me from the city. I’d signed the back, taken a picture of it with my phone, and waited for the alert to appear in my bank app. Check processed, amount available to cover balances within two business days: fresh broccoli.

Hud moved his head, moaning slightly, and left his mouth open. I waited another minute. The sound came from deep inside his throat, low at first, and then at last the vibrating, guttural roar.

Jinwoo Chong

Jinwoo Chong is the author of the novel Flux, a New York Times Editor’s Choice. His short stories and other work have appeared in The Southern Review, The Rumpus, LitHub, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Electric Literature. His second novel, I Leave It Up To You, is forthcoming in 2025.