The night my friends told me they were getting married, I walked down the hill to Farm Fresh with one of my mother’s sports bras tied around my face and I bought them a thirty-dollar bottle of champagne. Aaron and Lena had to make it official at age twenty-two because God was dead and death was real and the Michael Jordan documentary wasn’t going to cut it, in terms of reasons to live. He liked me before he liked her. I still couldn’t let go of that – even though we had all graduated from college and it didn’t matter anymore.
I texted a picture of the bottle to Eliza and wrote, my idiot friends are getting married lol. Eliza would know that by idiot I meant best and by lol I meant devastation.
Lena was in nursing school at VCU. Aaron was a barista at a coffee shop on Broad, but he wasn’t remotely hip. His outfits evoked spreadsheets. The two of them had their own paint-smelling, cockroach-infested apartment in Church Hill, close to where we’d grown up. I still lived with my parents, who had recently sold their house and were, at the end of May, moving to a one-bedroom condo across the river. They kept calling themselves ‘empty-nesters’ even though I was right there and had nowhere else to go.
I had also, a week earlier, been fired for trying to sleep with my boss’s husband. I got the idea from a book, or maybe every book. That if I came onto a man, especially one whose wife employed me, especially one whose wife had given up out of exhaustion, not feminism, especially one as physically flawed as this man was, cheeks too round and chin too narrow, everything would fall into place. What happened was he reeled back and said, ‘Whoa there,’ as if trying to placate a spooked horse. He looked toward the pendant lights I had under duress helped pick out during their kitchen remodel. My boss’s husband removed his bent-brimmed cap and drove his fingers through his thinning hair. He put the cap back on.
Did he shower hunched forward into the spray, one hand braced against the wall? Did he take off his shirt by reaching behind his head and pulling at the collar? Masculinity was a series of hollow gestures, but my own behavior had been way more embarrassing. I believed he already knew his lines.
‘Annie.’ He said my name like it was his last time saying it. ‘Don’t come to work tomorrow. Or ever again.’
‘What about Henry?’
‘We’ll find someone else.’
‘Are you sure? I don’t think any of this means I’m a bad babysitter.’
He squinted at the lights again. ‘Just a bad person?’
I laughed. ‘Okay, this is weird, but when Henry says his first word, promise you’ll tell me? You can send me a video of it. Mama or puppy or whatever.’
He had promised me nothing. He had sent me home with two weeks’ pay. Now, as I walked back up the hill carrying the champagne bottle by its neck, I saw him in his driveway with a girl I’d known in high school. I would have given anything for that girl to look at me back then. Even now I wanted her to turn and see me standing on the cobblestones, face brassiere and all. We could have rolled our eyes at my boss’s husband. One moment of commiseration with that girl might have saved me a lot of trouble.
The husband wore a blue mask. Hospital grade, though Amazon had been sold out for weeks. He kept pulling it down around his chin.
I stepped away from the streetlight and into the shadows, gripping the spoke of a wrought iron fence as I texted Eliza, saw the new nanny.
She wrote back, rough night for you baby girl.
Gonna walk into the river.
I wasn’t; I only wanted to feel that flop of infatuation in my belly when she said, don’t you dare.
Eliza was fourteen years older than me. We had met on Tumblr when I was a senior in high school and my post went viral. The post was: so the plan’s to grow up and get degrees in psychology and marry boys who call us champs after we push out their ten pound babies?? That’s the best we got?
Eliza messaged me to say, strictly optional, sweetheart 😉
Back then she was a freelancer whose posts were links to actual articles. She had a lot of experience going viral and coached me through the unexpected parts: the Frenchman who sent me pictures of everything he ate. The Yahoo Life reporter. My aunt sharing a screenshot of the post with my name cut off, not realizing I was the author. I thought maybe I would get job offers or a book deal and could skip the psych degree after all, but Eliza told me no, that was a myth, it had never happened to anyone.
In the five years we’d been friends, Eliza had been a journalist, a locksmith, a census taker, and now worked from home doing social media for Planned Parenthood. She lived in Greenville, alone except for bouts of cohabitation with men she found on the internet. It’s fair to say Eliza’s flings had a detrimental effect on my mental health – meaning I would demand a picture of the guy so I could zoom in on his pores; meaning I would refuse to ask Eliza about her boyfriend’s hobbies and sexual performance, the way I casually asked Lena about Aaron’s. Our text conversations would become sparse and strained until the man vanished as abruptly as he’d appeared. Airborne with joy was how I would feel.
A year earlier Eliza had come up to Richmond for a work thing. We had plans to meet in person which she canceled at the last minute – literally while I was pressing my hips into the bathroom sink trying to wing my eyeliner. The severity of my disappointment was never remarked upon by either of us.
Our texting had ramped up since March. Maybe because I had finally finished college and was no longer a child in Eliza’s eyes. These days she spoke freely to me about her past as a delinquent slut. About her baby-fevered present. About car shopping – how it took seven hours to buy a Hyundai for reasons no one could parse.
I understood I was in love with Eliza and that my love had no practical application. When I closed my eyes at night, after texting her for hours, the thought to which every fiber of my consciousness clung was: say nice things to me.
The next morning, my mother came back from her run looking lean and tan and taut. Dad perked up, like perhaps this was the point. Maybe all her exercising was for him, for their middle-aged sex life. He tested this theory by slapping her butt while she stood there hydrating, fat drops of sweat dripping onto the linoleum.
My mother was training for a marathon, even though all the marathons had been canceled and it was unclear marathons would exist in the future. She didn’t care. She had ordered personalized protein powder and gels and insoles and sweatbands. In October, she vowed, when it would be less than one hundred degrees outside, she would run 26.2 miles along the James River. My dad and I would meet her at an imagined finish line and dump blue Powerade over her head. Our picking her up was crucial. Out-and-backs were psychological torture, she told us. Specifically the part where you turned around.
My father was bewildered by my mother becoming a late-in-life athlete. Bewildered and betrayed. Hadn’t they always ridiculed people who exercised on purpose? Their common interest had been bingeing candy in front of the television. Real candy. Movie theater junk. Nerds and Whoppers and Sour Patch Kids, which they washed down with cheap wine.
His palm collided with her spandex shorts. Her abs flexed as she leaned away from him. My mother looked, not mad, but puzzled in a stern way. Her face asked, Why would you think that? Her face clarified, You are very wrong.
The animal shelter was open by appointment only. ‘Even though dogs can’t get the virus?’ I joked into the phone. By then I had forgotten about the tigers at the Bronx Zoo testing positive. Time had gotten weird. The person on the phone didn’t laugh. She said, ‘Just get here by 5 and bring photo ID.’
From browsing the shelter’s website, I knew they had only one dog: a six-month-old pit bull. I wanted the pit bull as an engagement present for Aaron and Lena, and I was prepared to answer a lot of questions – about the size of my yard, the size of my heart – but the lone woman manning the shelter had an ‘everything must go’ attitude. She wore a mask, a plastic visor, and purple latex gloves.
I texted a picture of the dog to Eliza, who wrote back, uh?
The dog’s fur was coarse on her back, velvet on her belly. Where her ears met her head she had no hair at all, just patches of pale pink skin. She looked compact and athletic in profile, a view that hid her enormous ass, which accounted for her slow, dutiful waddle. Riding in the car she sat back on her haunches, person-like. She smelled bad, really bad, as if someone had puked on her and the puke had dried and she’d gotten on with the business of living. By the time I turned onto Broad Street I was thinking, I would die for you. The thought was attached to the dog but it also wasn’t, it was also a thought I craved – a thought that the dog, with her quiet dignity and worried eyes, was helping me manifest.
I parked outside their apartment building. My friends were on the porch. I let the dog jump down from the passenger seat and Lena made a sound like someone had punched her in the stomach.
‘Congratulations,’ I said.
Lena dropped to her knees and made out with the dog. All had gone according to plan.
From the porch steps, Aaron said, ‘Annie got us champagne last night. That was her gift.’
‘This is my next gift,’ I said. ‘Each better than the last.’
‘Did you consider asking if we even wanted a dog?’
‘You think I don’t know what Lena wants? I loved her before you were born.’ Aaron was nine weeks younger than me.
‘If we wanted a dog,’ he repeated.
‘We do!’ Lena squealed through the assault of the pit bull’s teeth and tongue. ‘We definitely do.’
After a few minutes, the dog proved uncommonly relaxed, or maybe stressed. She buried her red nose in the crook of Lena’s elbow and fell asleep snoring. Lena named the dog Preacher because the snoring reminded her of her dad falling asleep in church. Lena’s dad had left her family when she was ten, and to cope she mentioned him only whimsically, painting us a portrait with offbeat details – he made his own toothpaste, he placed bets on celebrity deaths – so that we understood the man as a fool of little consequence.
Aaron said, ‘By that logic, you should name the dog Randy.’
Lena didn’t respond.
Aaron liking me first was a reference to a single afternoon in seventh grade, when I fainted during choir practice after a half-day flirtation with anorexia. Aaron and I, both tall, had been lock-kneed on the top row of risers. And then we were on the floor, me coming to and Aaron kneading my cheeks with his thumbs.
He said, ‘I thought you were dead and would never know I liked you.’
The choir director in her fetid tunic printed with zebras pushed Aaron aside and repeated my name with Grey’s Anatomy gravity until I said, ‘I can hear you.’ Aaron and I never discussed it. Lena and I brought it up constantly behind his back.
He went inside to get us beers. After drinking half, Lena mentioned that hers tasted like chicken.
Aaron went, ‘Oh no! My mom brought home a rotisserie chicken in the same bag. It must’ve dripped all over the cans. I’ll get you a glass.’
While he was gone we took turns kissing Preacher’s head. God, the dog needed a bath. Aaron came back and, gracelessly, dumped Lena’s lager into a plastic cup. The beer frothed and spilled over the sides.
‘My cupeth,’ she said.
Our shrieking woke up Preacher, whose bark turned out to be low and robust – sophisticated for such a young dog.
I saw my boss and her husband at the park, where I went to sober up. Henry wasn’t with them so I knew they had hired the girl from my high school. She would get to hear the baby’s first word. It was windy out and the husband, who didn’t smoke, was having trouble lighting his cigarette. My boss lifted up her skirt and gestured for him to crouch beneath it. Shielded, the husband lit his cigarette inches from his wife’s vagina. In public.
That my boss would think to do something so sexy was outrageous. And that her husband would fall for it, having witnessed the beleaguered breast pump contorting his wife’s nipples, having endured the mania of her postpartum kitchen remodel, was unreal to me. Rage burned low in my pelvis. I couldn’t text Eliza a picture; they were standing too far away. So instead I told her, just saw them again.
I said, seeing them makes me want to scream.
Nothing good is happening there, Eliza wrote. Come here.
I told my mother in the morning. She was perspiring. She was also embroiled in a debate on Twitter about whether runners should wear masks. Eventually she put down her phone and said, ‘I don’t approve.’
Her face was a mess of sweat and sunscreen. I had the problem of caring what she thought.
‘I don’t approve,’ she repeated, ‘but I am unbothered. Nothing matters anymore except the three of us are alive and I’ve never caused anyone real harm.’
I nodded vigorously.
‘But if you’re going to meet your e-friend, please get tested first. And make sure she does too.’
We had established intense eye contact. Her mustache was damp. I thought she was going to tell me my dad was not my dad, or that our nine-year-old guinea pig was really a succession of identical guinea pigs.
She said, ‘I want to run again.’
My bag was heavy on my shoulders. I had packed my high school yearbooks. ‘You just ran. You haven’t even stretched yet.’
‘I’m an addict,’ she said, looking through me. ‘I’m so far gone.’
The trip to Greenville took a half hour less than it should have because the highways were empty now. I stopped in Dinwiddie to get tested at a drive-through. The nurse told me I would get results in five to seven days, which left Eliza and me plenty of time to transmit disease. Still, nostrils burning, eyes leaking, it was impossible to feel I hadn’t done my part.
I was an hour away when Eliza texted, things are getting pretty bad.
I wondered if she’d read one of those sobering articles about the virus wiping out entire mafia families. Lately, my phone kept me alerting me to news stories suggesting life as I knew it was probably over. I sent back a question mark.
Let’s talk when you get here, she said.
Eliza’s house was on a four-lane road three miles from downtown Greenville and not what I had pictured. She owned an inflatable pool and a few acres of overgrown grass within spitting distance of a Pizza Hut. The shock of my life was when she answered the door in a hazmat suit. Yellow coveralls with a zipper running from her crotch to her throat. Plastic hood cinched tight over a gas mask, which resembled miscellaneous vacuum attachments strapped to Eliza’s face. She was taller than I’d guessed, with hulking shoulders. It was the moment I realized maybe the world really was ending. Maybe I would never become a speech therapist or have sex in a king-sized bed. Eliza said something I couldn’t hear through her mask or over the semi-truck idling at the intersection. She waved her arms and shut the door. Five seconds later, I got a text.
I need you to quarantine in the guest house until you get your test results.
My thumb hovered over the screen as I considered my options. I had driven six hours and had to pee. Then Lena sent me a picture of her and Aaron in the grass at the park, obscene sunset and Lucky Strike factory behind them. Stretched between their laps, Preacher grinned wildly, an infant crocodile.
Another text from Eliza: It’s out back. Was an Airbnb pre-pandemic. Nineteenth century log house! We can still talk all day . . .
She was a woman of her word.
The log house was canopied by red oaks and sugar maples. A dirty plaque on the door noted its historic significance. Inside, the house was like any other Airbnb: a bed that appeared luxurious but groaned at the slightest touch. An abstract portrait of Albert Einstein. A cheap couch with an oppressive number of sequined pillows. Dull knives. Clogged shower. The closets were crammed with Eliza’s personal records: report cards and tax returns and drafts of unfinished memoirs. I texted her pictures of the shit I found. Every crumpled blue ribbon and every birthday card from her grandmother, some with ten-dollar bills preserved inside.
Eliza would write lol or just Annie when she wanted to imply I was losing it. I would say, did you lock me in here? I’m scared to check. Her emojis were devilish, sinister, sexy.
The door was open. I knew because she left my meals on the porch – tofu stir-fries, lentil stews – along with cans of domestic beer, weed gummies, and muscle relaxants. It meant a lot to me knowing the edibles were from out of state, the pills precious, left over from a cycling accident. She cared. Sometimes I ran out of things to tell her and my heart beat in my throat as I stared at the screen, willing those three dots to appear. Losing her attention, even momentarily, made me feel lightheaded and embarrassed. I scrolled social media for things to send her. I took selfies in the bathroom mirror to remind her of my corporeal form.
One night, high as a kite, I wrote, did I tell you my parents sold their house?
I had told her one thousand times.
She wrote, you have told me one thousand times.
I’ll be homeless, I wrote.
I watched the screen until she said it. Not on my watch baby girl.
Another night, after trashing the place, emptying every box, drawer, and cabinet until the contents of the guesthouse were known to me, I embarked on a thought spiral that nearly did me in. Why was Eliza making me quarantine? The chances I had the virus were low. Her chances of surviving the virus were high. Was she not desperate to put her hands on me, to see what I looked like when I yawned? Suppose that hadn’t been Eliza in the hazmat suit, but her abductor. I had listened to podcasts; I knew the possibilities. Eliza was in pieces beneath the floorboards. Her scalp had been turned into a lampshade. Her abductor had studied our texts until he could imitate her flawlessly. He was poisoning me slowly. I obsessed over this scenario until it seemed likely. I tapped 9-1-1 into my phone and stopped short of placing the call. I drank a bottle of stale chianti I found beneath the bathroom sink and made my way across the long grass to the main house, sobbing, ready to demand answers. Evidence. Eliza with her face exposed.
I saw her through the kitchen window. She had abandoned the sink full of dishes and was leaning over the counter playing Candy Crush on her phone. Columns of radioactive candy shivered and shifted and burst beneath her touch. From the yard I asked her, are you still awake? and watched her flick my message away. Her broad shoulders were compressed and the bra beneath her T-shirt was thick-strapped, too tight. I had been calling the pharmacy in Dinwiddie twice a day. Now I crept back into quarantine realizing that if anyone had been abducted, it was me.
After a week, my negative test results showed up in my e-mail and Eliza summoned me to the main house for dinner. She had made butter-slicked steaks, garlic mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, chocolate cake. Neither of us knew what to say to each other. In the preceding five years we’d said everything. All of our secrets, all of our plans. Our bodies were a surprise insofar as they existed, insofar as they creased and squirmed and quivered, emitted smells, changed temperature. We got used to it. We listened to music from Eliza’s youth and she mocked me for not remembering the nineties.
‘Is your house always so clean?’ I was returning from the bathroom, on whose floor lay not a single coiled hair
‘No, never. I just cleaned.’
‘For me?’ I smiled with all my wine-stained teeth.
‘Actually, I have a guest coming tomorrow.’ There can only be one guest, I thought. ‘My ex lost his job and needs somewhere to stay. He’s driving up from Miami, like, now.’
‘Which ex? Alistair from Tinder? Jeffrey from hot yoga?’
Eliza looked me in the eye. I pretended there were no muscles in my face. ‘Someone from a long time ago,’ she said.
‘Is this why you wanted me to quarantine? Is he immunocompromised or something?’
‘He helped me realize this is all really serious.’
I waited until she said, ‘He wasn’t happy when he heard you were coming. He didn’t think it was a good idea.’
I was furious with her for having lived a whole life before the pandemic. She had worn a cap and gown to her graduation, whereas I had forgotten my password for the virtual commencement space. She had probably made out with a stranger on public transportation. She could have had a family. She didn’t, but she could have. Pushing back my chair I was concerned about the number of steps I had to take to get where I wanted to be, which was Eliza’s lap. I straddled her thighs and kissed her the way I thought my boss’s husband should have kissed me. Eliza’s lips were dry and the back of her neck, beneath her flannel shirt collar, was textured with oddly pliable moles.
‘I’m convinced I left the oven on,’ she said, gripping my left shoulder. We could see the oven from where we sat. I let her get up and she moved to the chair I’d been in before. Dropping dead seemed prudent, but I couldn’t manage it. Did she have to be so mean?
‘How’d you get the steak so juicy?’ I was drunk enough to say juicy.
‘Paid forty bucks for it.’
‘I want that meal on my deathbed.’
‘God,’ she said. ‘You’re so easy.’
‘Okay, except no one thinks that about me. No one thinks I’m low maintenance or whatever. My friends find me exhausting.’
Eliza refilled our wine glasses. She was very expressive. Cartoonish. She could have modeled for human emotion flashcards.
‘How much more low maintenance could you be? You drove four hundred miles and quarantined for a week just to have dinner with me.’
I laughed. Eliza was silent. Did she think I was leaving tomorrow?
She pushed the cake plate toward me. ‘Have more,’ she said. ‘I never eat leftovers. I don’t know why.’
The instant I got back to Richmond, I asked Aaron and Lena to meet me at the park. Aaron had on a polo shirt and unfashionably long shorts. Lena wore a plastic tiara. Preacher carried in her jaws a toy hedgehog whom she occasionally squeaked for emphasis.
‘We didn’t ask permission,’ said Lena, spreading a blanket on the ground. ‘So now we beg forgiveness.’
‘We eloped on Zoom,’ Aaron said. He sat cross-legged, elbows digging into his thighs. Hair curled into his ears and I understood that over the next two years he would let it keep growing, would tattoo Lena’s name in cursive on his biceps, would invent an app that found you street parking in New York and make a million dollars. All of this was crystal clear.
‘Fuck you,’ I said.
The night I tore Eliza’s guesthouse apart, I had found, in the back of a closet, a shoebox full of wedding photos. A skinny groom with frosted tips and pierced ears. Eliza with her hair bleached and cut short like a Dixie Chick. It was a David’s Bridal, church ceremony, golf club reception type deal. Eliza had told me about losing her virginity to a construction worker rebuilding the pool at her high school. She had told me about being raped by her college boyfriend, a sociology major whose father was the CEO of Bojangles. She had confessed to sleeping with one woman she’d met on Craigslist, one she’d met in a bar, and one at an artist’s colony in Maryland. But she had never mentioned her marriage to a man named Derrick, or maybe Justin. That the cake had been tiered, the flower girl mortified, the bridesmaids’ dresses a punishing shade of purple.
My plan was to never text Eliza again.
‘I want Preacher,’ I said, massaging the hairless strips of pink behind the dog’s ears. She smelled better now. Like matzo ball soup. Farther down the hill a family of three posed for portraits. The toddler wandered off and the photographer cracked a joke about social distance. They meant nothing to me. ‘I need her more than you do. Y’all have each other.’
‘You’re not wrong,’ Aaron said, ‘but you’re not getting her back.’
‘Would you die for her?’ I asked.
‘It would be an honor.’
‘Here’s what we can offer you,’ Lena said. ‘From now on. First, lie down on your back.’
I lay down. The sky was on fire.
‘Anytime you’re feeling sad or overwhelmed, come over to our place and do this.’ She pushed Preacher onto my torso. Willingly, the dog flopped into place, her front paws framing my neck. She panted and rattled my whole skeleton. Her panting and my laughter merged into a single piece of unstoppable machinery.
‘Isn’t this better than therapy?’ Lena said.
‘I’m in heaven,’ I admitted, knowing I belonged somewhere else.
I let myself into Aaron and Lena’s apartment with the key they’d given me in case they ever got locked out. It was four in the morning and their apartment was a mess of dirty dishes and Amazon boxes and plastic bottles oozing the off-brand sanitizer we would later learn caused cancer. I had worried Preacher would be snoring in bed between my just-married friends, but she wasn’t. She was curled like a croissant on their couch.
That Aaron and Lena had banished her from their bedroom was the only excuse I needed. Preacher’s tail thumping against the corduroy cushions was the best sound I’d ever heard. She did not bark her world-weary bark at me and she did not wriggle away from the leash in my hand. I had been sick with anxiety loading boxes into my car, but I felt fine now, pretty good now, as the door clicked shut behind us. I wanted to laugh at myself for having been afraid the dog would put up a fight. Hadn’t I ended her loneliness? Hadn’t I seen a picture of her face on the internet and known exactly what to do?
Image © ᴘᴏᴘᴏ 💜 (RL BUSY)