THE SECOND LIFE

 

In college I lived two lives. I wasn’t the only one, of course. Most of my friends spent their days studying macroeconomics or Russian history or theoretical physics and their nights drinking themselves blind or dropping acid and running through the woods, giggling at the flashing, liquid stars.

I took part in some of that, too, but my main thing was betting on sports. I did it first among friends, then in an underground campus pool, then with an illegal bookie on the east side of town. I studied scores and statistics and worked out my own system of odds. And for a while I did well. But the elation of winning was secondary to the excitement of getting out of class and driving to a sagging duplex where a middle-aged woman with a ragged scar on her chin opened the door a crack, squinted at me, and then shut it again to undo the chain lock. I loved the sparse room with its rickety card table and peeling wallpaper. I loved the smell of the bookie’s cigarillos. I loved the exchange of bills and the small talk and the way the bookie blew smoke out of the corner of his mouth and said things he might have heard in a movie: “You’re either a fan or a gambler. You can’t be both.” Or: “No one can see the future, but anyone can read the odds.”

What I really loved, I suppose, was the thrill of doing something forbidden and dangerous and unexpected. I’d grown up in the suburbs. My mother was a gynecologist, my father a vice president of finance. My childhood was safe and bland and predictable, and I could coast through life easily enough if I wanted to. It made me giddy to think that most people saw me as a passably good student, a dependable midfielder on my club soccer team, a committed member of Hillel who showed up regularly to monthly Shabbat potlucks, while in truth I was an outlaw of sorts, a character out of an old folk song, someone who lived on the edge, or at least close to it, though far enough not to risk pitching over into the abyss. Only I saw the full picture. And God, if He was watching, though I had my doubts.

And how dangerous was it, really? The bookie’s name was Leonard. He was so obese he had to sit on a loveseat behind his card table, taking up all but a corner of cushion. He wore Hawaiian shirts and filthy slippers. The woman who let me in was his wife, and though she was morose and mostly silent, the scar on her chin a hint of the ugly life she might have led, she was always drinking herbal tea, peppermint or raspberry or chamomile. After I’d visited a dozen times she started offering me a cup, and I always accepted. Neither of them were terribly menacing, and if any fear entered my consciousness, it was only a fear that I’d no longer be allowed to come, that Leonard would decide I didn’t belong there and tell me to stay away.

I didn’t feel any less giddy when I started losing. It was all part of the thrill. Even when Leonard began to remind me how much I owed him, saying around his cigarillo, “You don’t want me to have to tell you too many times,” it still sounded like something out of a movie, harmless, well within the bounds of how much I was willing to risk.

But then, in early March of my junior year, a few weeks after I turned twenty-one, Leonard’s associate showed up at my apartment at two o’clock one morning. He didn’t threaten to break my knuckles or kill my family. He was very polite, a short, round-faced guy in a blue suit, his tie decorated with little peacock feathers. He shook my hand and introduced himself—“Roland. Me and Leonard go way back”—and said he was sorry to bother me so late. He hoped he hadn’t woken me. I’d been up, I told him.

“Studying for midterms?”

“Writing a paper.”

“English?”

“Philosophy.”

“I always hated English papers,” he said. “Trying to figure out what-all Shakespeare was talking about.” He smiled and apologized again. He was sorry to hear I’d had a bad run. It happened to everyone. I shouldn’t let a few losses discourage me. Then he reminded me how much I owed Leonard and suggested I work out a payment plan. He said he was sure he wouldn’t have to visit me again. “Not that I don’t enjoy chatting,” he said. “But it’s best for everyone if we don’t see each other more than once.”

He shook my hand again, his fingers blunt and hairy, much thicker than mine, and wished me good luck with the paper. But by then I knew I was done with Plato and his Republic for the night. I closed the door, smoked half a joint, ate six Oreos, and threw up in the kitchen sink.

*

In the morning I called my older sister, who’d been living in Berkeley for the past two years. If anyone would sympathize, I thought, Allison would. She’d lived two lives of her own in high school and had seen her own share of trouble: a DUI arrest when she was seventeen, a boyfriend who’d gone to juvie for selling coke, an abortion my parents didn’t know about. All the while she’d been a straight-A student, starting pitcher for the varsity softball team, lead in the school play her senior year. Now she was in graduate school, studying Renaissance fresco painting, with summer stipends for travel to Rome and Florence. Her new boyfriend was also her academic adviser. My parents raved about him after their most recent visit, though they’d met him only in passing, at Allison’s apartment. He and Allison hadn’t made their relationship public yet and didn’t want to be seen out together by his colleagues or her fellow students. But he was so smart, my mother said, with such good manners, and very accomplished at thirty-nine. He was only a year away from tenure. He adored Allison. I didn’t remind her that Allison was only twenty-four.


Allison told a different story about him whenever we talked on the phone. She told me how stunted he was, how immature and insensitive. “He’s an overgrown child,” she’d say. “He doesn’t know what it means to connect with another human being. Intellectuals are all narcissists. They just want to be told how wonderful they are. Why else date a student?” When I suggested she give him the heave-ho, she scoffed and said, “Jesus, Michael. You haven’t heard a word I’ve said. I’m in love with the guy. That’s the problem. If I could just dump him, none of this would matter.”

The morning after Roland made his visit, it was Allison’s boyfriend who answered the phone. His name was Peter, and he had a sharp, nasal voice and a chummy way of talking to me, calling me Mike and saying things like, “Man, I hope you got your sister’s looks but not her temper. She can be fierce, can’t she? Good thing I’m well trained.” Today he wanted to talk to me about basketball, lamenting Syracuse’s most recent loss. I was a fan, too, wasn’t I? A shame they couldn’t pull it out. “But you can’t expect to win with so many turnovers.”

Basketball was the last thing I wanted to think about, especially a game that had dug me deeper into my hole. It was true that I’d rooted for Syracuse, but only because I’d liked their odds. Fans were nothing but chumps, I wanted to tell him.

Instead I said, “Look, Pete,” hoping he felt the same about me calling him Pete as I did about him calling me Mike. “I’m in a hurry. Is Allie there?” When she came on I said, “Why does he always stay at your place? Isn’t he the one with a salary? Doesn’t he have an apartment or something?”

“We’re trying to keep a low profile,” she said quietly, and I could picture her cupping a hand around the receiver and moving out of Peter’s earshot. “Until we’re a more established couple.”

“Whose idea is that? Yours or his?”

“Hey, did you call just to make me feel like shit?”

I took a breath, held it for a second, and then told her how much I needed and why. She didn’t answer. “Allie? Are you there?”

“Unbelievable.”

“Look,” I said. “I know. Don’t you think I know? But it’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s not like I killed anybody or anything.”

“Fuck you, Michael.”

“I wasn’t talking about that. I’m not trying to make you feel like shit.”

“I was hoping stupidity wasn’t genetic.”

“No luck there.”

“You didn’t tell Mom and Dad, did you?”

“Are you kidding? Why do you think I’m talking to you?”

“At least you’re no stupider than I am.”

“I’ll pay you back by September,” I said. “I’ll get a second summer job.”

“You can get a second job now. You can get a first job.”

“Allie. He said he’d break all my fingers.”

“Jesus. You know what this means, don’t you?”

“I know. Your stipend. Can’t Petey float you a trip to Rome?”

“I’ll be lucky if he takes me out to dinner.”

“You deserve better,” I said.

“At least I get to choose an asshole boyfriend. I’m just stuck with an asshole little brother.”

“September,” I said. “I promise.”

“Shit. Don’t you know I gave up believing promises when I was like sixteen?”

That afternoon she wired me three thousand dollars. I paid Leonard the twenty-five hundred I owed him, put a hundred on St. Johns over Villanova, bought a bag of pot and a bag of groceries, and stuffed the remaining three hundred in a sock at the back of my closet.

*

A few weeks later I was another seven hundred in the hole. I borrowed a hundred from Emily, my girlfriend—telling her I needed it for my car insurance, that I’d pay her back at the end of the month—and lost it. I worked a friend’s weekend shift at a breakfast dinner, pocketed ninety bucks in tips, and lost it. I told myself if I could just win enough to pay Allison back, I’d get out for good. But the truth was, I no longer thought much about winning. All I really wanted was a reason to keep going back to that sagging duplex with its rickety card table and smells of cigarillos and herbal tea. The alternative was excruciating: being an ordinary college kid with solid if not stellar grades, playing mediocre midfield, bringing nothing but store-bought brownies to Shabbat potlucks, occasionally drinking myself silly or dropping acid and running through the woods.

I told Leonard I’d have his money any day, that he didn’t have to send Roland again. He blew smoke over his fat shoulder and said, “Sorry, kid. You don’t get to make the rules.”

I knew it was only a matter of time before the dapper little man showed up again and knew, too, that he wouldn’t be so polite the second time around. I considered asking my parents for money, but they’d just paid for a trip Emily and I were taking to Europe as soon as finals were over, and they wouldn’t fork over any more without some serious interrogation. I considered selling my car, but the title was in my father’s name. I called Allison again, several times, but she was never home, and I wondered if Peter was finally letting her stay at his place. In any case, she didn’t call back.

By then I’d stopped sleeping. I missed classes and soccer games and Shabbat dinners. My roommate must have recognized something was wrong, and so must have Emily, and as cover I talked a lot about homework and stress, saying I couldn’t wait until the semester was over.

It wasn’t surprising that my roommate, Quinn, didn’t question me further. He’d been part of the original betting pool and had even accompanied me to Leonard’s a couple of times, though he’d quit after losing only a few hundred. He’d also been addicted to pain killers since straining his back skiing a year earlier, and there was an unspoken agreement between us to stay out of each other’s business and withhold judgment even when it was clearly called for.

From Emily I expected more. We’d been together nearly seven months by then, and though I hid things from her, I wanted to believe she was really coming to understand me, that she could read my gestures and moods and know what was on my mind, or at least know that I needed to let something out. I waited for her to give me a serious look, a look of concern and acceptance, and ask what was really going on. I wished for it, even, ready to spill everything, to break down crying and beg for help.

And maybe in fact she could read me and was just holding back, waiting until I was ready to talk. Or maybe she didn’t want to know the truth. Ignorance was safer, after all. In either case, she didn’t press me, and those nights she stayed over I watched her while she slept, the soft curve of her shoulder rising to pale neck, the masses of dark curls she usually had pinned on top of her head spread down her back and across her pillow. It felt strange to sit there naked beside her, longing for a deeper intimacy after we’d just made love, when we were planning to travel to Spain and Greece in a month and then move into an apartment together in the fall.

It’s true that I was in a panic, and sleep-deprived, but during those long nights I became convinced that she didn’t really want to know me, that she preferred to keep her distance. I was a temporary way-stop for her, before she moved on to more serious undertakings. She was a biology major and was already talking about graduate school. For the past year she’d been assisting one of her professors with his research into the social behavior of crows and ravens. I’d always believed she was more mature than I was, and though she, too, drank herself silly on cheap wine and occasionally took acid, hallucinating crows and ravens on the walls and ceiling and carpet, she did so with a certain aloofness, only shrugging and smiling mildly when her friends talked about it afterward, as if she knew how trivial it all was, how in a few years she’d remember this time fondly, but also with a touch of embarrassment.

After our trip to Europe, she was accompanying her professor—who, she’d told me, was going through a difficult divorce—to southern Utah, to study a raven population in Canyonlands National Park. Several other students were going, too, but now I was sure the professor’s interest in her was more than professional, and that she saw in him an equal, with the potential for the adult relationship she’d always craved. The idea depressed me more than it angered me, and as I watched her sleep I was heartbroken, on the verge of tears, as if I’d already lost her.

One night I actually did start crying, and Emily woke, stirring slowly, blinking and pushing hair out of her face. I wiped my eyes and cleared my throat, but my nose was clogged, and I couldn’t hide my distress if I wanted to. “You’re awake?” she said groggily, squinting up at me. Her face was puffy and innocent, a child’s face, and it struck me how irrational I was being, how unfounded my jealousy. What would a middle-aged professor want with her? I was the mature one, I thought now, the one burdened with responsibility and consequence.

“Can’t sleep,” I said.

She propped herself on an elbow. “Something wrong?”

She was looking at me with the expression I’d been hoping for, full of genuine care and concern, and I felt pretty certain she’d do whatever she could to help me. But now I decided I wanted to spare her, to keep her from having to share my burden. “Just stressed,” I said, and muttered something about the next philosophy paper, due in a few days, and a political science exam coming up the following week. “Not sure how I’m going to get it all done.”

“You always manage,” Emily said, stifling a yawn. “And we’ve only got a few more weeks. By the time we get on that plane, you’ll have forgotten all about this. None of it really matters.” I pretended to believe her. For a few minutes she talked about what she wanted to see in Barcelona and Athens, and then she was drifting to sleep again, her hand on my knee. I watched her shoulders rise and fall and thought how vulnerable she was, how blind to the danger around her.

And until dawn I listened for a knock at the front door.

*

That morning I called Allison again. With each ring I found myself growing more and more furious. Not only because she was avoiding me, but because she was dating her adviser, a man fifteen years her senior who called me Mike without asking. It was her own fault if he treated her badly, I thought. And if Emily left me for her raven prof, that, too, would be Allison’s fault, for setting such an outrageous precedent.

Remember, I was exhausted. I was panicked. I don’t say this to excuse myself, only to explain my state of mind.

The message I left was curt and unfriendly. This was the last time I’d call, I said. I just wanted to remind her that we used to look out for each other. Had she forgotten the hundred bucks of bar mitzvah money I’d given her when she needed help with that little problem in high school? If she didn’t want us to have each other’s backs anymore, that was fine with me. A change of policy. “I guess I’ll just have to tell Mom and Dad,” I said. “And while I’m at it, maybe I’ll tell them about that thing of yours, too.”

I felt cruel and pure as I said it, entirely justified. Who was she to judge me, I thought, after all the things she’d done?

But as soon as I put the phone down, a bout of nausea made me shut my eyes. I couldn’t believe I’d sunk so low. This wasn’t the real me, I thought, the one who wrote papers and played soccer and took Emily to the movies, the one who sent his mother flowers on her birthday and volunteered at a homeless shelter one Sunday a month in summer. That person wouldn’t have blackmailed his own sister. Only he just had, and now the shame made him swoon.

But thirty seconds after I hung up, Allison called back. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” she whispered, and only then did I realize she’d been in her apartment all along, screening her calls, and that Peter was there with her. I was happy enough to let shame be replaced by insult and indignation.

“I can’t believe you’ve been listening to my messages and not picking up,” I said. “I’d never do that to you.”

“You won’t,” she said.

“I always answer when you call.”

“You won’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“I need the money,” I said. “I have to tell them something.”

“I mean about my thing.”

“Why would they even care?”

“Michael.”

“It’s ancient history.”

“You can’t tell them.”

“Maybe it’d be good for you,” I said. “I mean, you’ve been carrying it around for what, eight years? You could finally let it go.”

“Michael. You promised.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in promises.”

You asshole,” she said. “I’ll send the fucking money.”

*

By late afternoon I had a thousand dollars in hand and was ready to head to Leonard’s. but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’d crossed one line too many. Not only had I manipulated Allison, but I must have hurt her, too, and I felt awful about it. I knew she’d never forgiven herself for the pregnancy and abortion, no matter how many times I told her she shouldn’t be so hard on herself, that she’d made a mistake and done what she had to do, and now she could move on.

Doing stupid, reckless things was a rite of passage for upper-middle-class suburban kids like us, and coming through them unscathed was our privilege. I understood this even in my early teens, though I couldn’t have put it into words. But Allison couldn’t shrug off what she’d done. The more time passed, the more she felt its weight. She didn’t suddenly become a pro-lifer or decide she had blood on her hands. The consequences were more abstract and momentous than that; she felt as if she’d messed with the general order of the universe, and now she could never really turn into the happy, well-adjusted person she wanted to be. Something like karma, I suppose, though she wasn’t a Buddhist or even a practicing Jew. One night during her first semester at Columbia, she called me, drunk and weeping, inconsolable, making me swear I’d never be as stupid as she’d been, that I’d listen to our parents and do whatever they asked. It was too late for her, she said, but I still had a chance.

And I did believe she would have felt better if she told our parents, though I had no real intention of telling them for her, not even if she hadn’t given me the money. If they’d known about the pregnancy at the time, they would have been upset, sure, but they also would have supported her, paid for the procedure, sent her to a therapist who would have relieved her of the guilt she’d been carrying all this time.

But Allison didn’t want them to judge her for having slept around, for being so lazy about birth control. She didn’t want them asking whether she’d been tested for STDs. She wanted them to see her as a girl who was a little wild in high school but who hadn’t done herself or anyone else any harm. She’d settle down in college, continue to get good grades, make thoughtful choices. She wanted them to praise her, to believe that the bland childhood they’d given her had paid off, that she, too, understood the appeal of a secure, stable, predictable life—though one perhaps guided more by passion and less by the promise of lucrative salaries than a gynecologist’s or an accountant’s.

Now I wanted to send her money back, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that, either. In the afternoon I played my soccer game, had a couple of beers with my teammates afterward, went back to my apartment and ate dinner with Quinn. Then I worked on my philosophy paper until Emily came over. She was tipsy. She’d been working in the lab, and then she and Daniel—her professor—had stopped at a pub across from campus for a bite to eat. Daniel had bought a bottle of wine. “He’s really struggling, the poor thing,” she said. His divorce was getting even uglier. Custody battle and everything. Now his wife, according to Emily, was making false accusations of infidelity. “What a burden,” Emily said. “But you’d never know it in class. He’s always so put together.” Her eyes were sparkling. She kissed me. “You work too hard,” she said, and pulled me to bed.

When she was asleep, I got up and returned to the living room, where Quinn was watching TV. His eyes were glazed. He was up to a dozen Vicodin a day. After a while he dragged himself to his room, and I went back to working on my paper, re-reading Leviathan, jotting down useful quotes on note cards. And I found myself nodding along with Hobbes, agreeing that people were too stupid to exercise their own free will, that without someone to tell us how to act, our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Particularly short, in my case.

The knock came at two-thirty. Roland was in a gray suit this time, his tie red, decorated with little pineapples and coconuts. He was just as polite as before. He shook my hand. He called me Mr. Radler. He apologized for the lateness of his visit and asked if he might come in for a moment. I offered him a drink. Beer, water? Coffee, tea? “You got herbal?” he asked.

“Peppermint?”

“Perfect.”

I asked him to have a seat, and he did, on the filthy couch that Quinn and I had found abandoned in an alley and dragged twelve blocks and up two flights of stairs, proud of ourselves for saving the fifty bucks we would have spent in a thrift store and for giving the old beast another chance. Roland glanced around while I heated water in a saucepan. I wondered what he made of the psychedelic tapestries on the walls, of Quinn’s Bob Marley posters, of the battered furniture and enormous TV. Was this the sort of apartment he normally visited on his late-night rounds? For lack of anything better to say, I asked how long he’d been working with Leonard, and he answered, with a weary sigh, “We go back a long ways.”

I handed him his tea, and he thanked me, smiled, and blew steam from the surface. I dropped into the chair across from him and felt oddly comfortable, sleepy, even, though I knew I was supposed to be terrified. We sat in silence for a few moments, and then I asked, “So what happens now?”

“That depends on you,” he said.

“I’ve got the money, if that’s what you mean.”

“That makes it easy, then.”

“But I can’t give it to you.”

“Then we’ve got a problem,” Roland said. His smile was sad, or maybe disappointed. He took a small sip of tea and set it aside.

“Listen,” I said. “I want to settle up with Leonard. Really, I do. But I’ve got … extenuating circumstances.”

“I’m sure you do. But I doubt Leonard would be interested in them.”

“My girlfriend,” I blurted, before I knew what I was doing. “She’s … she’s pregnant. We’re trying to figure out what to do.”

Roland took a deep breath and let it out. He nodded slowly, pursing his lips. “That’s a big decision.”

“It’s been keeping me up at night.”

“I bet it has.”

“I mean, I know I’m not ready to be anyone’s dad,” I said. “But we don’t want to regret something for the rest of our lives.”

“Kid’ll change things, that’s for sure,” Roland said, and picked up his tea.

“You’ve got one?”

“Two.”

“How old?”

“Twelve, fifteen.”

“You were pretty young when you had them,” I said.

“Not much older than you,” he said. “Believe me, it ain’t easy.”

“But you don’t regret it.”

“Not for a second.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I figured.”

“I’d respect your decision either way,” Roland said. “And either way, you’ve got to make peace with it.”

“Either way,” I said, “I need the money.”

“You’ll have to find it somewhere else.”

“I can’t give it to you.”

“Then I guess we’re done talking.” Roland set his tea aside again and stood with obvious reluctance. He looked worn out, as if our conversation had exhausted him. I stayed in my chair. There was clearly power in his small, compact body, his blunt, hairy hands. I’d never taken a beating before and doubted I’d be able to stand it. I started shaking. I may even have whimpered. It wasn’t a dignified moment.

And then my bedroom door opened, and Emily came out, wearing one of my T-shirts, which came down only to mid-thigh. She rubbed her eyes. Her hair was sticking up in back. She looked so much like a little girl that I felt guilty for having just had sex with her. Roland backed off a step and touched his forehead, tipping an invisible hat. “Evening,” he said.

“Hi,” Emily said.

“Emily, Roland,” I said. “Roland, Emily.”

“Sorry to wake you,” Roland said. It was hard to tell for sure, but I thought he was looking at her belly. What little energy he had appeared to abandon him completely. His shoulders slumped, and his suit suddenly seemed too big for him.

“Just getting a glass of water,” Emily said.

“Roland was just leaving,” I said.

“You better talk to Leonard tomorrow,” Roland said. “Otherwise it’s out of my hands.”

“I appreciate you stopping by,” I said, and saw him to the door.

When he was gone, Emily asked who he was. “Gangster,” I said, and she nodded, as if she’d known all along what sort of person I was, as if I hadn’t fooled her for a second.

*

After a few restless hours’ sleep, I called Allison once more. This time she answered. Before she could say anything, I apologized, told her I’d been out of my mind, that I’d never tell Mom and Dad anything, that I was sending the money back. “I can live without my fingers.”

 “Keep it,” she said. She didn’t care about the money. She didn’t care about anything. She was crying.

“Allie? What is it?”

“I’m cursed,” she said. “Plagued by assholes for the rest of my life.”

It took a while, but eventually I got it out of her. She’d found out why Peter didn’t want their relationship to go public, why he didn’t want her in his apartment. He’d been sleeping with a colleague for the past six months, telling her, too, to keep it under wraps. This other woman had found out about Allison and begun telling everyone in the department, threatening to file an ethics complaint with the dean’s office. Without even apologizing or explaining himself, he told Allison she had to deny everything. “He’s afraid he won’t get tenure.”

“You didn’t go along with it, I hope.”

“What does it matter now?”

“How could anyone be so heartless?” I asked, though I knew the answer. It was the easiest thing in the world.

Allison said she was leaving school. Studying Renaissance fresco painting seemed utterly pointless now, the most absurd way possible to spend a life. She’d live with our parents, get some dull office job and forget any dreams she’d ever had. “I shouldn’t have bothered,” she said. “I blew my chance a long time ago. I should quit trying already.”

“That’s bullshit,” I said, surprised to find myself angrier than I’d ever been. “The world doesn’t work that way. There’s no such thing as karma. No one’s watching over us. Do the people who really deserve punishment ever get it? Don’t you know Peter’ll walk away from all this with tenure and some new grad student in his bed? Actions don’t have consequences. One thing happens and then another. Nothing leads to anything else. Nothing fucking matters.”

By the time I finished, my voice had gone high and whispery, and my anger was gone. Instead, I found myself dizzy with despair, realizing I believed my own words. But Allison might not have heard them at all. “Pay off your debts, Mikey,” she said, and hung up the phone.

I went to class, and then to soccer practice, and when I got home I dug the thousand dollars out of my sock and drove to Leonard’s. On my way across town I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d said to Allison, wondering how long I’d lived this way, without an ounce of purpose, without meaning behind a single thing I did. How unfair, I thought, that I didn’t really get to live two lives, one mean and selfish, the other pure and dignified and full of good works. It made me want to cry to know that this was the only life I’d ever have, and that it was so muddled and shameful, my wild adventures as half-hearted as my attempts to live honorably. What if you didn’t like the life you were stuck with? What if it really would be nasty, brutish, and short?

For the first time I thought about the child Allison might have had, and the imaginary one I’d told Roland about, and felt sorry for them both, their brief, sad existence, the only one they’d ever have. I had to sit for five minutes, wiping my eyes, before getting out of the car and knocking on Leonard’s door.

After peering at me suspiciously, as if she only vaguely recognized me, Leonard’s wife unfastened the chain and let me in. Leonard was upstairs, she told me, and would be down in a minute. Her scar was even more ragged than I remembered, ending in a deep dimple below the corner of her mouth. She might have gotten it in an innocent fall in the shower, or in a car accident, or in a childhood tumble down the stairs. There was no reason for it to seem as sinister as it did. The apartment smelled of orange and cloves, and the TV was tuned to a Cardinals game on one side of a split screen and a Cavaliers game on the other. Leonard’s wife handed me a cup of tea and told me to have a seat. Was there some other game I wanted to watch?

I didn’t want to watch a game—any game, ever again—but I only shrugged and said, “Whatever you want.” She sat beside me on the sofa, picked up the remote, and flipped through channels until she found a Star Trek rerun. Then she killed the split screen and put her bare feet up on the coffee table.

“I like the old ones better,” she said, but she seemed perfectly content to watch the one in front of her. I snuck a glance at her and tried to decide whether she could have ever been attractive, despite her lank hair and heavy neck, her ashen skin and sullen mouth. Her ankles were swollen, and the two smallest toes of her right foot were bluish-green. In comparison I should have felt fortunate for the life I had, but I didn’t. I felt like the most unlucky person in the world. I tried to focus on the TV, but the show’s plot escaped me: something wrong with the ship, alarms going off, people running through hallways, but the source of the trouble was invisible or elusive or nonexistent. After a minute I lay my head back against the sofa cushion, the mug of tea propped on my belly, warming my middle. The envelope with Allison’s money in it crinkled in my back pocket. No consequences, I thought. If you had a stack of bills, you could get away with anything.

“He’ll be down any minute,” Leonard’s wife said. But for some reason I didn’t believe her. I didn’t think Leonard would come down at all. I’d just sit here for as long as I needed and then get up and go back to the world I knew. I’d take the envelope with me. Or maybe I’d slip it to Leonard’s wife and tell her to keep it for herself, a tip for all the tea she’d poured me. On the TV, the ship’s crew members were talking about a computer malfunction, but every other word was gibberish, and I could make little sense of their conversation. My eyes had closed without my noticing, but when I realized it, I kept them that way. The smell of orange and cloves filled my nose and mouth and throat, and I had a terrible urge to let my head fall onto Leonard’s wife’s shoulder. I had only one life, and every minute that passed brought me closer to its end. And still I sat there wasting one after another.

I might have let them all pass, let the clock wind itself down while the Star Trek crew struggled with its ship and Leonard’s wife sipped her tea, if, after a few more, I wasn’t woken by lumbering steps sounding on the stairs.


Scott Nadelson is the author of three story collections, most recently Aftermath, and a memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress. His work has been cited as notable in both Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays.