A Marriage as Bleak as a Beach Town in Winter

"The Cape" from THE ISLANDS by Dionne Irving, recommended by CJ Hauser

Introduction by CJ Hauser

I think I have been confused about the nature of limbo. 

I once thought of it as the place I would go, as a heathen. Which is not to say I’ve done an inadequate amount of lovely things or gotten up to an inadequate amount of mischief. Merely, that I was never baptized. That no decision was made about whether I might need a ticket to ride. Maybe this is why I’ve always found limbo a tragically boring concept. It seemed static—like something I had no control over. 

Dionne Irving’s story, “The Cape” changed my mind about all that. It’s a work of funny-dark realism which follows a woman, Mina, and her recently fireworks-wounded husband, Neel, as they hide out from their lives in a summer house on Cape Cod. We find them in the limbo of the Cape’s wintery off-season as Mina tries to get Neel to discuss how they will live now, post-accident. 

Irving’s elegant prose and eye for the just perfect-unexpected detail pulled me in, but the true marvel of “The Cape” is how, just as the reader thinks they’ve got a grasp of all the variables at play in Mina and Neel’s lives, Irving introduces another complexity. And another. Like a juggler smuggling more pins into her performance, so deftly you hardly notice . . . until suddenly they’re all airborne.

In the house on the Cape, Mina moves through her days as if everything is very normal, as if, eventually, she and Neel will be able to decide what their lives will now look like. Mina thinks she is waiting for Neel to be ready for them to make a decision. But the reader sees through this. 

It’s not that Mina hasn’t yet decided—it’s that she has, but is refusing to look into the corner of her mind where the decision is camped out. 

As if not looking at a thing will delay its being true. 

As if this isn’t a terribly familiar tactic. I know it well. I suspect many of us do. 

This is Mina’s limbo—and it is so tense and riveting, I held my breath as I read. What I understood reading “The Cape” is that meeting a character in limbo is not to find them floating in-between worlds, but rather, in a moment of accumulating the energy and will to shift places, to change their lives. Limbo is a runner at the top of a cliff on a summer day, a shady pool of unknown depths below. Meeting a character as they gear up for a cliff jump. Peer over the edge. Joke they maybe won’t leap after all. 

But we are not fooled. Because we’ve met them here, trembling in a bathing suit. The decision has already been made. The question is not if, but when. But, how? 

Reader, I hope you will stand with Mina, with Irving, in that energetic place. And if you enjoy the thrill of the plunge, that you’ll read The Islands, Irving’s collection, which I will be rooting for all November long. 

– CJ Hauser
Author of The Crane Wife

A Marriage as Bleak as a Beach Town in Winter

The Cape by Dionne Irving

The Wellfleet house had been empty for nearly three months when they drove up after Neel’s accident. Mina wasn’t sure how long they were going to stay on the Cape, so they rented their apartment in Boston to some of Neel’s graduate students. She’d been like them once, one of Neel’s adoring acolytes who stayed after his graduate seminar on modern European history, then on into his office hours, and then into the evening for drinks and tapas on Newbury Street.

Summer season was over and the traffic minimal. Mina drove the whole way, missing three cops and saying one of her little prayers under her breath while she was going ninety miles per hour in a sixty. Her sister Patty had used the house last, driving up from DC, with her three kids, the new baby, their toys, and their dog. Patty had married a Hawaiian man and was one of those people who had sent an etymology of her new offspring’s name along with the birth announcement: royal child, heavenly blossom, star of the sea, beloved. Back home in Cambridge, Mina had hung the cards on her refrigerator before deciding that two weeks was quite adequate to celebrate a royal child and threw the whole thing into the trash where Neel dumped coffee grounds on it only an hour and a half later.

Signs of her nieces and nephews were scattered over the front yard. Twin dolls’ heads and matchbook cars hooked on a piece of fishing line swirled off the leafless bushes. “I asked them to tidy up before they left,” she said as she watched Neel take in the toys, the chipping paint, the overgrown lawn.

“And what about the boy you’re paying to look in on the house when we aren’t here?”

“I don’t pay him much,” she said.

“And how much isn’t much?”

She didn’t answer him but turned off the car instead. They sat there for a moment, unaccustomed to seeing their summer house in the winter, looking weathered and defeated. She brought the bags inside and put on music while Neel turned on the TV.

She made dinner and they drank wine in the living room with supper and didn’t talk, just listened to the stereo playing Billie Holiday songs about stardust and love. And while they did, Mina noticed everything that was wrong.

The pictures in the living room left by the previous owners looked more warped and cracked than they had before. Prints of butterflies, neither her taste nor Neel’s. In the past they thought they were funny and added kitsch value. Now they felt haphazard: the squirrel figurines on the mantelpiece, the spatula that was missing a quarter of its handle and the poorly painted watercolors that lined the stairwell. Why had they bought the house furnished? And why had they kept all this junk?

During other visits, there had been so much to do that the decorating had been the last thing on either of their minds. They spent their time at the pond, bought things in galleries in Provincetown, and ate Wellfleet oysters, slippery and salty.

This visit, getting the house in order felt critical. It would calm her. It would make the small cottage feel like home. Unable to stand being cooped up inside, she started working on the porch and yard. It was difficult at first. She had always depended on Neel to do everything at the Cape. He had mended the roof, patched the screen doors, and cut back the beach grass. He had never been particularly handy, but he knew enough about the way things worked to try to fix them. But now . . . well, now she had brought along a list of YouTube videos to watch and a stack of do-it-yourself books she had checked out from the library.

The first week there, she’d discovered that the books were a waste of time. They were so old there were no pictures showing her the things she was supposed to be looking for, and they used terms that Mina had no idea about. When she asked Neel, he just shrugged.

He shrugged all the time now. Shrugged when she asked him what he wanted for dinner, when she asked if he was tired, when she asked if he wanted to play cards or drive into town to see a movie. For the first time, he looked old. She noticed now that he was not thoughtful, not wise, not sophisticated. Just old. He gave up shaving and showering often, and he looked less and less like a college professor and more like the stooped and bent homeless man her parents paid to cut their grass at the community where they’d retired in Florida.

She worked all day. After they ate dinner in silence using the chipped plastic dishes that came with the house, she went walking, looking at all the other empty summer houses, waving at the locals who didn’t know her. They gave her the kind of smile she guessed they reserved for tourists. At least that was what she told herself. During the season, there were other Black people here: nannies and cleaners, employees at the oyster shacks, and out-of-towners. She hadn’t realized in the off-season how white it would feel.

Sometimes she walked until it was dark and watched the local families through the windows when the lights went on. Watched them eat dinner, or talk. Watched them turn on TVs and put away leftovers. Sometimes she would stay out until her hands got numb and her nose ached from the cold until it ran.

Then she went back to her own house where the only light she could see from the road was the eerie blue glow of the television where Neel sat, his leg raised to increase the circulation to the newly toeless foot. She waited until he went to bed. Only then did she crawl into bed next to him, his back already facing her.

Twice a week, she drove him to Hyannis for physical therapy. He switched from music to the Boston NPR station as they got down the Cape, and the voices that echoed through the car reminded them that they’d hardly spoken in days. She dropped him at the doctor’s office and then went to buy an ice cream that she ate near the bay, watching the gray-green waves hitting the dark sand.

Her father’s people were one of the first Black families on the Cape, the Jamaican grandchildren of freed slaves who came on Captain Lorenzo Dow’s banana boats in the 1870s. Who settled in Wellfleet and taught their sons, who taught their sons, to cull the fish in the northern Atlantic the way they had in the Caribbean. To make a living out of what the ocean provided. They were Cape people, locals who lived there all year-round.

Her mother’s family were those who summered there, like it was a verb. They were the white people who ate the fish her father’s family caught. They owned places—not houses—mostly in Hyannis and sometimes farther up, near her grandmother in Yarmouth. They could map back lines to England. Until her mother had met her father in the sixties, two people finding each other and rejecting the way they’d grown up. How pleased her parents had been, each in their own self-righteous way, when Neel bought her the Cape house. He’d bought it for her, yes, but also for her family, who hadn’t been able to afford their own place there anymore. When the taxes got too high, they sold their place and bought something in a gated community in Florida.

Her parents had been the last to go. Her aunts and uncle and cousins had already fled to Providence or New Orleans or Texas. Places with central heat and air where they could afford to live comfortably. The purchase of the cape house had been a way for Neel to iron over the rough edges of their seventeen-year age difference. A way to help her parents forget that before he’d been her boyfriend or her husband, he’d been her professor. The house was a promise to her parents that he would take care of her by wrapping her in real estate. And for a while they all thought it had worked.

But when she’d called them in Florida the day after the accident, her mother said, “He’s still like a child, isn’t he? Why in the world would he get fireworks? He’s a grown man for god sakes.”

“I don’t know,” Mina said. She was still stunned, unable to put together the pieces of what had happened in any logical order, even as she said the words over and over again.

Her mother clicked her tongue. “This is what happens when you marry an old man,” she said. “You end up taking care of them and wasting the best years of your . . .”

Mina hung up the hospital pay phone, laid it into the receiver, and hadn’t called back.

When her fingers felt numb, she drove back to the clinic to pick up Neel.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“Better today,” he said.

But he didn’t seem to be getting any better. In the evenings he asked her to build a fire. She dragged wood in from the small shed in the back, stacking it in the tine fireplace. Mina lit a wad of paper under the logs, hoping it would catch. He sat in front of the fire while she pretended to read in the nearby armchair. Really she was staring at the place where his foot used to be. What was left was covered in scar tissue and looked more like a leftover piece at the butcher’s. One night in bed the stump brushed up against her and she felt like her heart was going to stop, like she couldn’t breathe. She waited until he quit tossing and turning and lay still again. And then she went downstairs, feeling guilty, and made herself a cup of tea and poked the fading coals a few times.

That December, their third month on the Cape, the water heater broke and they were reduced to taking cold showers or heating water up on the stove for baths. Neel disappeared for a day with the car and instead of getting any work done, Mina paced the floor, worried something had happened. He was smiling when he came back; he’d bought a solar-powered generator and a book on water heater repair. He handed the things to her, one at a time, almost shyly, and ducked back into the house.

The silence was probably the hardest thing for Mina to take. She was a talker. They had been a couple who spoke endlessly, sometimes until late at night when they would both fall asleep in mid-conversation and wake up the next day ready to start over. He always told her that he loved the sound of her voice and she had loved his. But now words sounded unfamiliar, as if each of their voices had gone up an octave, the house filled with helium instead of oxygen.

But now words sounded unfamiliar, as if each of their voices had gone up an octave, the house filled with helium instead of oxygen.

The previous July at his family’s place in Little Compton, Neel had had the idea to get the fireworks for Bastille Day. His brother’s house in Rhode Island was always where they celebrated Independence Day. His family called the place a cottage, but the house on Beach Drive was more akin to a mansion. Neel’s brother, his wife, their three children, and an assortment of cousins who came through periodically from New York or Pennsylvania or New Jersey were always there to stay most of July and sometimes into August. It seemed like they were all medical doctors except for Neel whose PhD was the punch line of almost every joke about work.

Neel thought it funny—a historian’s idea of a joke—to celebrate French Independence Day instead of July 4th. Mina had never liked fireworks. Not since one of the boys in sixth grade had put a cherry bomb in the toilet at St. John’s Primary School and the whole toilet cracked, sending putrid water all over the floor. Anything but sparklers were illegal in most of New England and she wasn’t sure where he’d bought them. Later she learned he’d conned his eighteen-year-old nephew into a road trip while everyone else was at the beach. Four hours, through Massachusetts and into New Hampshire, the Live Free or Die state, where you could get almost anything you wanted.

He had set up the display in the center of the backyard and his family gathered around.

“I’m quite impressive with these things, you know,” Neel said, stage-winking for his audience. “Childhood expertise.” He pulled out one of the long matches they used to light the grill. “Now there, you, the stunning young girl up front. Why don’t you pick which one we do first,” Neel said, pointing at Mina.

Mina smiled, a true professional, and picked the one she knew he wanted her to choose, a collection of ten or twelve Roman candles bundled together in metallic rainbow-colored paper with the words FIVE SHOT PYRAMID POWER printed on the side and an image of electric silver flames shooting off a glowing gold cone. She would remember this later, when they were at the hospital.

“Good choice, dear. Good choice.” He set the pyramid on the ground, struck the match against the strip with a practiced hand, and lit the fuse. The paper crackled for a moment, and then Mina’s eyes followed as the trajectory of howling orbs burst into the sky and a mashup of colors exploded in the night, lighting up a haze over the wide expanse of lawn. And then Mina was startled by four or five rapid-fire explosions. She was confused. They sounded much louder than the cherry bomb she remembered. She wasn’t sure where the sound had come from, and as the color began to dissipate, she stared at the sky, still seeing the image burned into that place right above her head. She wasn’t sure if it was the wine or the colors, but she felt so calm. So calm that at first she didn’t understand that Neel was screaming, or why. By the time she did, someone had already run into the house for a towel. “My foot,” he said over and over again. “My foot.”

The towel quickly turned red and someone called an ambulance. There was screaming and crying. She knelt on the ground next to Neel and they both avoided looking down.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, stroking his back.

The sirens blared at the end of the street and she held on to Neel more tightly.

The medics came into the backyard and immediately unwrapped the towel. Red. More red. When she looked, she saw a pulpy mass but nothing that resembled a foot. Neel turned his head, gagged, and then vomited into her hair.

They loaded him into the ambulance quickly. Mina jumped in behind him and the paramedic slammed the door. She’d never seen her husband cry, but the tears streamed down his cheeks and he said “sorry” over and over again. At the hospital they rushed him into emergency. She sat in the waiting room, her tube top stained with his blood and bits of chocolate frosting. After a while she couldn’t tell the frosting from the blood and she let herself cry.

Summer was coming again, they’d been at the Cape house nearly eight months and the trees had just started to flower with tiny, tight pink buds, and she broached the subject of returning to Boston.

“How long can you continue on leave from the university?” she asked, poking at the broiled fish she’d bought at the dock that morning.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “They’ve brought in someone to cover for me while I’m recovering.”

By the start of April, the disability payments from the university had stopped. She asked if they had asked him to come back to work in the fall and he wouldn’t answer. Without discussing it with him, she dipped into their savings to pay the mortgage on the Wellfleet house and called the graduate students in the city and extended their lease. She took a job at the public library across from the pond and walked to work twice a week. She learned to bake bread, planted a garden, painted the rooms in shades of blues and greens and grays. Neel spent most of his time watching television. He had never had an interest in TV before, but now she would come in from a swim or from pulling weeds in the yard and find him perched on a stool in the tiny cubby of the kitchen watching soap operas. Every once in a while, the old tone would return in his voice when he asked her about one show or another, but when she gave him an odd look, he would shut her out again and turn back toward the television.

As the months wore on and she cleaned and she cooked, she also muttered asshole and fucker under her breath when he gave pointers while she scrubbed the bathtub and cleaned out the pans underneath the burners on the stovetop.

And just like that, it was summer again and there were tourists everywhere. The New Yorkers invaded, making their drives down the Cape to Hyannis take longer and longer. They navigated gridlocked traffic on I-195 all the way down to Providence. The town was clogged with sandy-haired families in Sperry Top-Siders and polo shirts, little Daisy Buchanans and Kennedy knockoffs everywhere.

One hot and lazy day, when neither of them seemed to be able to sum up the energy to say much to the other, they sat on the porch drinking sidecars. She felt heavy. Weighed down. Anchored.

“Where did you learn to make these?” he asked.

The politeness startled her, the way he asked so plainly.

“When I was bartending in Boston,” she said. “Right before I met you.”

“Bars,” he said, holding the glass up to the light and inspecting the liquid. “Disneyland for alcoholics,” he said with a laugh.

And she laughed, too, even though it wasn’t that funny, relieved just to laugh. “Would you like to cook out tonight?” she asked.

His face brightened. He was almost all gray now, but she could see pleasure in his smile and around the corners of his eyes. “That sounds great,” he said. “I think my mother left a recipe for her chicken in one of those boxes.”

It would be July soon, nearly a year since the accident and neither of them had talked about going out to the compound on Little Compton. Nor had he discussed the nieces and nephews who wrote emails or texted, or the brother who called every week to see how he was doing.

Eleven months, and there were still boxes stacked in every room. Things from Boston that had come out a little at a time when she’d gone into the city to get new clothes, to move their life out there bit by bit. Inside, she dug through piles of cardboard to see if she could find the recipe. It was in the second box that she opened. She stood up, clutching the tattered recipe card written in her mother-in-law’s old-fashioned slanted handwriting and saw her husband trying, futilely, to drag the grill from the garage. She was out the door before she had thought the whole thing through.

“Here,” she said, sprinting down the back steps. “Let me help you.” Her legs were lean and strong from her time outside.

He was slick with sweat and breathing heavily. “No. I’ve got it.”

She reached forward, easing the grill out of his hand. “No,” she said. “Just relax. I’ll do it.”

He let go of the tiny kettle grill and it clattered to the ground much louder than she thought it would. “Fine,” he said flatly, and went back over to the deck chairs.

She marinated the chicken and lit the coals as the whole sky slowly darkened—the sun dipping low, the night moving in, the stars glowless. Mina waited for the coals to crumble and turn red. The marinade was an odd combination of salad dressing, turmeric, and curry powder. When she pressed the chicken against the grill with the tongs, little bits of fat popped and sizzled onto her arm. “The days seem to last so much longer,” she said, almost without thinking.

“I know what you mean,” said Neel. He turned the pages of the magazine lying open his lap. “There is something to be said for winter, for being able to hide away from the day.”

“It won’t be like this much longer,” she said, and flipped the chicken. “Summer is almost half over.”

Saying that made her feel relieved all of a sudden. By the time the chicken was cooked the sun had set entirely. She mixed him another sidecar.

“Thank you,” he said without looking up. He had been staring off into the blackness of the night while she lit a citronella candle, finished the chicken, and got plates and napkins.

“You’re welcome.”

They sat in silence for a long time while she ate and while he stared down at his plate. He still hadn’t started by the time she finished eating. “When I was growing up, they tried to force you to write with your right hand,” he said suddenly. “They said it was some kind of learning disability, that there was something wrong with you if you weren’t right-handed.”

“Did that happen to you?” she asked.

He threw the fork into the yard and Mina heard it land with a soft thud on the unkempt lawn. “I used to get so frustrated, I always wanted to find some way to just make my right hand work like everyone else’s.”

Mina wanted to ask him what happened eventually, if that had changed, if it made him love his right hand all the more. But instead she stayed quiet.

He picked up the plate of food and turned toward the house. “I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She didn’t turn to watch him but she listened to the thump of his heavy steps as he strained to keep his balance while he navigated the plate, the railing, the new familiarity of his body. When she finally went inside, he was asleep on the couch in front of the television. She cleaned the kitchen and then took a beer out onto the deck. The can was cool and she shivered, feeling for the first time the crisp bite of the cool summer night.

“I love this porch,” he’d said when they first bought the cottage. “It’s my most favorite thing about this house.” He pulled her close, he kissed the top of her head and behind her ear, which she loved. “Let’s make sure we sit out here when we get old and gray.”

She remembered thinking—even then—that he was already old. He’d been a teenager when she was born. And he had already started to go gray around the temples. “Let’s hope we’re not in this house when we’re old and gray,” she’d said, turning toward him.

“Hoping for bigger things?” Neel said.

“I’m not sure,” she said. And she meant it.

Later, when they talked again and again about that night on the porch, they’d said maybe that was the apex of their happiness and that things could not get better. Her parents had warned her against marrying him,

“He’s Indian,” her father had said, ticking things off on his fingers. “And he was your professor.”

“And older,” her mother added. “Much older. Three strikes by my count.”

Back then she laughed at their hypocrisy. She told them that they had no idea what they were talking about. She told them that their love was all posturing and that they were failed idealists and middle-class sycophants. But she had forgiven them and they’d never mentioned it again until that night in the hospital. But drinking beer on the porch of their Cape house seven year later, her husband inside, asleep, disfigured, and angry, she wondered if they hadn’t been right. Now she was thirty-four and that conversation seemed like a dream. She reached underneath one of the rocking chairs for her secret stash of cigarettes. She lit one and watched the smoke she exhaled billow into the night and then fade away.

She told them that their love was all posturing and that they were failed idealists and middle-class sycophants.

She spent her evening looking at her phone on the porch, reading articles about a reality television star’s divorce and what Hollywood starlets wear to the airport. She read a story about a dating site for divorcées and clicked on the link to find page after page of men who looked so much older than her. Men struggling to style lofty wisps of hair. Men posed on motorcycles or fishing boats. Men leaning on granite countertops, their shirtsleeves rolled up to expose a swath of graying arm hair. But then she realized they were all Neel’s age. This would be him when she left. That is how she’d thought it. When, not if. Not if she left Neel he would meet someone. Not if she left Neel she might end up dating those men, too. But when . . . When she left him would she still be young enough to start over? When she left would she find someone with no past, and only a future?

It rained steadily into the next day and the roof started leaking from last summer’s bad patch job. Mina collected water in the pots and pans all around the tiny kitchen as the water dripped steadily into the house, breaking the silence between them that had become the norm. She went into the basement, pushing aside the boxes and the albums, all the detritus of their lives. To remind them of happier times, Mina had brought boxes of things from Boston to the cottage. But it wasn’t ever unpacked and, like everything else, the moisture had caused the books and the photos to start to mold. Soon, they’d begin to rot. Water always wins. She sat on an old milk crate thumbing through the water heater book. She didn’t understand any of it. There was no way she would be able to finish the job on her own. She wondered how much it would cost to hire someone. Money was getting tighter and tighter.

She heard the phone ring upstairs.

“Can you get that?” she called out. She heard it ring two more times before she raced up the stairs. But the line was dead by the time she reached the phone. It had finally stopped raining, and when she looked out, she saw Neel down at the pond. His cane on the shore, he waded into the water, and her heart seized, worrying he was trying to hurt himself. She ran out of the house down to the pond and waded into the water. He knelt there, the water hitting him at his waist, and when she got closer, Mina heard him singing softly, and when she could almost touch him with her outstretched arm, she recognized it as a Whitney Houston song, one she remembered her parents singing when she was a kid:

So I’m saving all my love for you.

She almost laughed for a second. She didn’t even know he liked Whitney Houston. Who liked Whitney Houston? But when she thought about it, really, it was sad. She dropped to her knees and matched her voice to his, chiming in:

Yes, I’m saving all my love for you.

She wrapped herself around his waist, pressing her face into his back. The pond smelled stale and old. There was something dank about it, not like the liveliness and salt of the ocean.

“I love you,” she whimpered.

He didn’t answer and they stayed there like that, singing, the water gently lapping against them, until her knees got sore and she had to stand up and get out. He stayed there, though, kneeling, singing the song over again from the beginning.

That night he climbed into bed next to her and she felt his breath on the back of her neck. Mina shut her eyes tightly and heard his breathing become shallow and rapidly paced. She thought he was sleeping. But he slid his arm around her and slipped his hand underneath her shirt and cupped her left breast.

“Sing for me,” he said.

Quietly she sang a part of an Italian opera about a woman who accidentally kills her own son and takes another man’s son and raises him as her own.

“That is beautiful,” he said when she stopped. “What is it?”

“Verdi,” she said.

She wished her voice was thick and raspy instead of high and light. She thought that if she could sing Neel the blues, belt out a Bonnie Raitt song or some Muddy Waters, he would understand better what she was feeling.

Mina leaned over and switched off the lamp, and when she did, he pressed closer. After the sex, quiet and passionless, she drifted into sleep.

It was dawn when Mina realized she’d barely slept. She lay in relative darkness for a moment until the sun crept into the room, lighting up first the collection of family pictures that Neel had arranged atop their bookshelf. Their wedding picture hung next to a portrait of his parents on their wedding day. Theirs was less formal and Mina was giggling and shielding her face from the camera.

The night of the accident, the hours in the hospital waiting room crawled along. Mina spent her time wanting a cigarette, a sweater, a cup of coffee. But she stayed folded into the plastic hospital chair, waiting to hear that her husband wouldn’t die. And that was all she thought in that moment: Neel can’t die. That thought was the clearest thing in her head and she repeated it over and over again. Because she loved him, he wouldn’t die.

Hours later, after the surgery, when she had rubbed off most of her eye makeup with the backs of her hands and she was shivering, the doctors came out and told her the surgery was a success, that Neel could have lost the whole leg, but didn’t. That they had saved most of the foot was a miracle, especially with the amount of blood he’d lost. She’d kept her face still.

“Thank you,” she said to the doctor. “Thank you.”

How had she been that naive only a year earlier? How had she been so naive that when she heard “in sickness and in health” in their wedding vows, she’d thought it meant nursing each other through a bad cold or food poisoning.

The fact of the matter was that they could abandon each other in a million different ways—because of a preoccupation with work, or boredom, or an ill-timed phone call with a grad student or a flirtation with a colleague. She had thought of a million different reasons to go. And only two to stay. Love and guilt. And when she repeated these things in her head, they didn’t sound like real reasons but rather abstract concepts that had nothing to do with what she was feeling, which was that her life was over and by the time Neel did die, there would be nothing left for her. Her life was over at thirty-four, before it had even really started. And if she was honest, really honest with herself, she wished more than anything that Neel had died that night. That the blood loss and the nerve damage would have been too much. Then she could have wrapped it up neatly, grieved him, and at some point, moved on. And she hated herself for wishing it was true.

She got out of bed as quietly as she could. At first she thought she would just make coffee, maybe even eat a bowl of cereal. But instead she pulled out bread and lunch meat. She went to work assembly-line style, putting a slice of cheese, a slice of tomato, and one tender slightly wilted leaf of butter lettuce on each piece of bread. When she was done, she wrapped the sandwiches in wax paper and labeled one for each day of the week. Then she hid them behind a tub of potato salad. That way, he wouldn’t find them right away.

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