Necessities

By Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

They came to an end on a rainy Tuesday evening at a Japanese restaurant neither one of them had been to before. Oliver’s miso soup grew cold while Christine brought the spoon to her lips again and again, grateful for the earthy scent, the saltiness filling her stomach so she would not have to recognize the uncertainty expanding between her ribs. Behind them the waitress hovered with the teapot. As she stepped forward to refill their cups, she briefly met Christine’s eyes, smiled; Christine half-expected her to wink. Perhaps this was where people came to dispose of their dead relationships, the waitress a wraith in chic black and white, ready to usher them over to the other side.

Christine had not intended to break up today. She’d known the end was coming, that such an ending had been inevitable since the beginning, but she was going to bide her time a little longer. Oliver had pushed her. He hadn’t notice the way she grew stiff when he cupped her ass on Chambers Street. He simply prattled on, the way he always did. She’d noticed that sometimes when she spoke, his expression became startled, as if he had forgotten what her voice sounded like or that she was capable of speaking at all.

“Wait,” she said, and he sucked in his bottom lip, sealing off the flow of words. She could hardly believe her power, and that power stirred a forward movement. She leaned into the rain as the next sentence came out and then the next, until she had taken the past two years and cut off their ends, spilling the contents on to the speckled pavement.

They came to the restaurant to escape the rain and because they still cared for each other enough to find ending a romance on a street corner unseemly. After an hour they had run out of things to say. Clichés slipped off Oliver’s tongue. Christine stared at the red paper lanterns above the tables and felt her heartbeat slowing. She placed her hand on Oliver’s thigh, fingered the slick fabric of his pants. After a moment, he placed his hand on top of hers.

“No regrets,” he said.

She saw his face for the first time as someone with no attachment: his pale blue eyes were washed out, the skin around them cracked, his nose too hooked, his mouth too thin. What he had claimed was true – he was not a handsome man.

She wondered how she fared now, under the harsh light of retracted intimacy.

“Well,” Christine said, “one or two.”

“Which ones?” he said.

“Does it matter?”

She wished for more soup. She wished to be home, showered, wrapped in her bathrobe, eating oatmeal while she sat on her bed and listened to the news on the radio. She felt out of touch, with herself and the world, and she feared that she had been for a very long time.

The waitress approached with the teapot, and Oliver asked for the check.

Outside they faced each other underneath the awning. They had only one umbrella, his umbrella. Christine expected him to hand it to her, but he didn’t.

“I’m just letting you know,” he said. “I won’t come knocking, but if you crack the door, I’ll barge right in.”

She could see that these words gave him satisfaction. She had only a short time left. As he opened the umbrella and stepped away, she placed her hand on his shoulder.

“I won’t crack the door,” Christine said.

“I’ll call you.”

“Don’t call me.”

“We’ll need to set a time. I’ll need to come over.”

She had no idea what he could mean.

“My things,” he said.

“Your things?” As she looked at Oliver standing there, holding his umbrella with both hands, squinting like a mole just squirmed from its burrow, she felt a resurgence of anger; the time she’d wasted, she would never get back. “How important is a sweatshirt to you?” she said. “How important is a sock?”

“Honey,” he said. “I don’t know.”

The rain pattered against his umbrella.

“Don’t call me,” Christine said.

Later that night, as she sat on her bed, the bowl of oatmeal forgotten in her lap, she wondered if she had broken Oliver’s heart. She had never been good at hearts. As a child her mother had tried to teach her to cut valentines from pink and red construction paper, but Christine’s hearts always came out lopsided, with holes in the middle, the point cut off. Her mother praised her anyway and taped the deformed hearts above the kitchen door. Christine had learned early the embarrassment of blind love.

She was much more careful with her own heart; she kept her love wide-eyed and well hidden. Oliver never found it, although she had to admit that he hadn’t looked very hard, hadn’t even noticed what he was missing.

But all of that was behind her now.

*   *   *

She hadn’t expected to miss him, but she did, especially in the mornings. Just after waking, the apartment in half-light, she slid easily into a dream of what had been hers – their bodies connecting before consciousness, her leg over his hip, his fingers in her hair. Alone, she listened to the birds. She heard the neighbor’s high heels on the stairs, the front door opening, banging shut. She reminded herself that she had seldom slept well next to Oliver. He snored, held on too tightly. He woke whenever she got up to go to the bathroom. Now she could roll over without guilt.

In the kitchen she made tea but drank too soon, burning her tongue. She dumped the tea into the sink and unpeeled a banana. Each movement seemed a grand gesture put on for the sake of someone else, a performance to prove that Christine was going about her daily life, just fine.

She flung the banana peel at the opposite wall. It fell short, landing next to the table. Beneath her bare feet the peel felt squishy and surprisingly rough.

On the way to the shower, she bent over her desk and checked her email. Jordan had sent a revised list for that afternoon. Christine had her usual four – Ms. Lopez, Mr. O’Malley, Mrs. Goddard, and Mrs. Olsanbu in Crown Heights – plus a new client, Mrs. Compton, all the way in Long Island City. I know it’s not your usual turf, Jordan wrote, but take her until Andrew’s back from vacation.

Andrew, Christine suspected, would never be back. Hers was a line of work that rubbed away at you; sometimes by the end of the week she felt as thin as an old piece of cotton, nearly translucent when held up to the light. To get to Long Island City, she would have to take the A train to the G, which was always slow. The trip would add at least another two hours to her work day, but what else did she have to do?

She opened her closet and surveyed her options. Last week Mrs. Olsanbu had complained that her skirt, which ended right above the knee, was too short. Christine looked for her jeans but didn’t find them on the shelf. She dug through the laundry bag, extracted the first pair she found. She was out the door before she realized that they were the ones she had worn when she said good-bye to Oliver. In the sunlight she could see a faint miso stain on the knee. Too late to turn back, she continued to the subway, where she spit on her palms and tried to rub the stain away.

Part Two

Ms. Lopez and Mr. O’Malley needed their usual groceries, but Mrs. Goddard’s daughter had visited the previous night and brought Tupperware containers of macaroni and cheese, egg salad, sugar-free banana pudding. “But,” Mrs. Goddard said, leaning forward in her faded yellow armchair and pressing a twenty into Christine’s hand, “she took my cigarettes.”

When Christine returned from the corner store, Mrs. Goddard had the television turned up to its highest volume. At the side of a dark, deserted highway, a woman hunched over, speaking into a cell phone. Ominous piano chords played as the camera panned away from her, to a man watching from the woods.

“You really shouldn’t have those,” Christine said as Mrs. Goddard opened the carton and placed a cigarette between her maroon lips. Mrs. Goddard always wore the same color lipstick, leaving marks on the coffee mugs and spoons Christine washed.

“Look.” Mrs. Goddard pointed at the TV. “That gal’s pregnant with that man’s baby, and he’s going to try to off her. But she’s going to get away. They always do.”

Mrs. Goddard was eighty-four, diabetic, recently diagnosed with emphysema. She and Christine shared many secrets: cigarettes, bottles of red wine, containers of pink frosting and bags of Dove chocolate bars. Christine had no problem going against the rules when they got in the way of happiness. She saw herself as a relief worker, bringing in dignity along with the necessities, remembering the humanity that everyone else seemed to have forgotten.

She perched on the arm of Mrs. Goddard’s chair and watched until the credits rolled. Nothing had been resolved. The girl was still worried, and the man was still lurking.

“He’ll try to get her tomorrow,” Mrs. Goddard said, lighting another cigarette. “They drag out the suspense. It’s good for ratings.”

Christine picked up her bag, and Mrs. Goddard paused long enough in her reach for the remote to offer Christine her cheek.

“Hide those things,” Christine said, pointing to the cigarette pack, “or you’re going to cost me my job.”

*   *   *

At Mrs. Olsanbu’s brownstone, Christine’s buzzing received no answer. She stepped back and peered up at the second floor apartment; the lights were off, the shades drawn. She took out her cell phone and dialed Mrs. Olsanbu’s number. From the street she could hear the ringing echo above.

On the subway Christine rested her notebook on her lap and tried to keep her hand steady as she filled out the day’s forms. She wondered if Mrs. Olsanbu’s grandson had taken her out again without canceling her appointment. The grandson had his own set of problems, vacillating between deep depression and manic episodes. Sometimes he heard voices, and once he showed up at his grandmother’s apartment late at night and held a gun to her head. But Mrs. Olsanbu and her grandson shared a special bond. He had been born the day her husband died; she believed that in him lived her husband’s soul. Her husband, too, had been volatile, but she had loved him deeply. Recklessly, Christine thought, with admiration. At seventy-three Mrs. Olsanbu was quiet, nervous, and self-righteous, despising the soap operas Mrs. Goddard loved. Christine searched for traces of the young girl who had thrown away caution, and her parents’ approval, to marry a handsome older man with a natty dress sense and dark, unsmiling eyes, but Mrs. Olsanbu would say little about the mysteries of the heart or the passion that remained decades later, causing her to risk her life all over again for her grandson, her husband’s reincarnated soul.

Throughout her relationship with Oliver, Christine had searched her clients’ lives for markers to which she could measure her own love. Time and again she’d found herself coming up short, although she was never sure where the disparity lay, what exactly she or Oliver was incapable of doing, of feeling. They both seemed underdeveloped, and at times she’d been grateful for their stunted nature. It was a deformity they shared. Now she wondered what life would have been like if they’d each been whole, if they’d been willing to become fully formed for each other.

Oliver had viewed Christine’s dedication to her clients as misguided, bordering on masochistic. Last year when Mr. Edmund died, he had talked her out of going to the funeral, reminding her that she was not related and so had no obligation to suffer through the grief. She admired the way Oliver could compartmentalize the world so easily; he erected his lines boldly, leaving the space within open and clean. On the afternoon of the funeral, she let him get her drunk on whiskey. Across the table, his grin served as a sturdy anchor holding her in place as the rest of the room began to swim.

When she threw the whiskey up, he knelt beside her and wiped her mouth with a wet washcloth.

“The joy of the living,” he said.

She kissed him so hard, her lips felt bruised.

Part Three

“You’re the girl? From the agency?”

Mrs. Compton stood in the doorway of her basement apartment, staring up at Christine with large, liquidly blue eyes. She pulled her pale green cardigan around her shoulders. Beneath she wore a white flannel nightgown. Her feet were bare.

“That’s right,” Christine said, making her voice as friendly as possible. “May I come in?”

Mrs. Compton’s eyes darted to the concrete stairs, the street beyond. “You’ve come,” she said and stopped. She looked down at Christine’s scuffed tennis shoes. “You’ve come?”

“To see if there’s anything you need.”

“I don’t need anything.”

“What about groceries? I bet you need groceries. Why don’t we go inside and make a list?”

Mrs. Compton shook her head.

“I’m sure there’s something you need. What about bread? Milk?”

“I don’t drink milk.”

“Coffee then? Tea?”

“You can’t come in,” Mrs. Compton said, her neck snapping back, her jaw set. “I don’t let anyone in.”

“I won’t stay long. I’ll just see what you need, and then I’ll go.”

“No.” Mrs. Compton reached up and grasped her white curls. A gold barrette clattered to the ground as her hair fell over her shoulders. “Oh, now I’m a mess,” she said. “I’m a mess, I’m a mess.”

“Here.” Christine picked up the barrette. “Let me fix it.”

Obediently the old woman turned around. Christine swept back Mrs. Compton’s hair, which was soft and silky, as fine as a baby’s.

“There.” Christine fastened the barrette into place. “Perfect. You have lovely hair.”

“I know,” Mrs. Compton said.

She stepped away, her fingers curling around the barrette, testing its security. She began to close the door.

“Mrs. Compton,” Christine said.

Mrs. Compton paused. “You want a list,” she said slowly. “I’ll get you a list.”

The door closed. Christine leaned against the cinderblock wall and watched the street above. The buildings were a dismal collection of residential and commercial; the air pungent with curry spice, greasy pizza, car exhaust. A workman walked past, his muddy boots at Christine’s eye level, carrying a ladder and whistling a tune that was familiar, something she had heard on the radio. She tried to remember the name of the song, the chorus, but all she could come up with was “you’re not the one, baby, you’re not the one.” Or was it “we’re not the ones?”

Mrs. Compton barely came up to Christine’s shoulder. She held out a list written in all capital letters lightly in pencil on the back of an envelope.

BAKING SODA. BLACK OLIVES. HONEY.

“Are you sure this is all you need?” Christine said.

Already Mrs. Compton had stepped back into the apartment. She had her hand on the door, her chin tucked into her neck.

“Just leave the bag out here,” she said. “Don’t keep knocking.”

*   *   *

Christine had difficulty finding a supermarket. She passed Chinese and Indian take-outs, two pizza parlors, a bodega with faded soda and beer ads obscuring the windows. Finally she came to a Key Food. She put the items on the list into a dirty red plastic basket then added the necessities: toilet paper, soap, bread. She wondered about Mrs. Compton’s abilities, if she was capable of cooking an egg. Instead Christine bought a jar of peanut butter.

As instructed, she placed the bags beside Mrs. Compton’s door and knocked, but she couldn’t walk away. She decided to ask Jordan who had referred Mrs. Compton to the agency. There must be someone – a son, a daughter, a neighbor – who worried, the reason Mrs. Compton hadn’t been lost yet.

Christine became aware of a soft rustling, like tissue paper, behind the door.

“Mrs. Compton,” she called. “I’m going now.”

At the top of the stairs she turned to see the door open a crack and a veined hand slip out, grasping for the bags.

*   *   *

Christine photocopied Mrs. Compton’s file and brought the papers home, spreading them out on the kitchen table, where she read and reread the basic information. The details were unremarkable. Her first name was Beth. Seventy-four. A widow. No children. She’d lived in the building for two years, and a few months ago she began having “off days” – not recognizing her neighbors, mail piling up – which “concerned” her landlord.

Christine thought “concerned” too tender a word. The landlord didn’t want a dead body stinking up his property.

The name Beth suited Mrs. Compton. Betty would have been too gregarious; Eliza too elegant; Liz too modern. Beth came off the tongue softly, almost not even there.

Christine had had difficult clients before: the paranoid, the grouchy, the lecherous. But she’d never been so resolutely refused entrance. The denial intoxicated her. As she lay in bed replaying their conversation, her body prickled. She pictured Beth Compton at that moment, dressed in her threadbare nightgown, sitting in the dark basement, brushing out her white hair with purposeful, even strokes. Christine imagined the basement to be cold and shivered.

She got up and looked over the paperwork again, repeating the details aloud until they became a chant, one she wished could be imbued with magic, a spell to open Mrs. Compton’s door. Only Christine didn’t believe in magic. She trusted practicalities. From her notebook she tore a sheet of paper and wrote down the basic facts of her own life. The simplicity startled her. She could be anyone.

Who would become “concerned” about her?

Part Four

The next week Mrs. Compton came to the door wearing a plain black dress and black slippers, her hair pulled back into a ponytail and held in place with a large black flower. Her eyes focused on Christine.

“You did a nice job,” she said. “With the food.”

She held out an index card. All the items Christine had purchased the week before had been recorded, the words standing in careful capitals along the blue lines.

This new clarity gave Christine hope. “Do you cook?” she asked.

Mrs. Compton smiled, transforming. In her youth, she must have been quite the coquette. “I used to. It’s been a while.”

“What did you like to make?”

But Christine had pushed too far. Mrs. Compton’s lips bunched. She shut her eyes, and when she opened them, her gaze passed over Christine’s shoulder.

“I don’t know,” she said, her voice small and frightened, as if suddenly noticing the vast world beyond the stairs.

“If you’d like,” Christine said, “we could cook together.”

“No. I don’t even know you.”

“Another time then. After we know each other better.”

When Mrs. Compton slammed the door, Christine felt the impact in her chest.

*   *   *

The groceries left outside became a personal failure which Christine carried with her back to Brooklyn. Arriving home she tossed her bag in the corner of the living room, where it landed upside down, sending the neglected paperwork sprawling across the floor. She sprawled across the futon. Her head fell back against the armrest. As a child she used to spend hours staring at the ceiling with her legs in the air, pretending she could walk across the ceiling, walk across the sky. Now she raised her legs and took one step, two steps, three. Dirt from the soles of her shoes dropped into her eyes.

What she needed was bravery. She needed the anger that had propelled her forward into the rain and so she thought about Oliver. She thought about the way he had touched her without feeling her, his hands aware of the texture of her skin but not the tension of the muscles underneath. She’d often wondered what he felt when he was inside her and imagined a smooth, passive surface, like the inside of a shell.

A month had passed, but he had never called to get his things.

From the bathroom, from the bedroom, she gathered his belongings and laid them out on the living room floor. The assortment was meager: a red toothbrush with a bitten head; an almost empty container of Old Spice deodorant; a pair of white briefs with a small tear at the waistband; two pairs of gym socks; a paperback copy of Rabbit, Run.

That was all two years came down to.

She picked up the red toothbrush and twirled it between her fingers.

Christine’s parents had been married for twenty-seven years when they divorced. Christine was away at college, studying for a biology test she knew she would flunk, when her mother called with the news. Her mother’s voice had been matter-of-fact, and so Christine had adopted the same attitude. Later she tried to remember facts about her father, but she came up with little. She couldn’t recall his favorite movie or his favorite author or his favorite ice cream flavor even though she could have named any of her mother’s favorites with ease. When she pictured him, she saw his bulky form across the dinner table, chewing slowly as her mother talked and gestured, her expansiveness a net cast out to lure him in, forever falling slack.

When Christine returned home that summer, she found the house cleared of her father’s possessions, yet she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was missing. The real change wasn’t material. The difference hung in the air, realignment at a molecular level. Her mother went about the days as usual, making Irish breakfast tea and toast with seedy strawberry jam, going to work at the library, coming home and singing James Brown as she cooked dinner. And so Christine went on as well, surprised by how inconsequential love could be until one day, years later, she realized that love wasn’t actually love if it existed in name only.

Early on in their relationship, Oliver had asked her why she’d lost contact with her father.  She was watering a basil plant on the kitchen windowsill and turned too quickly, pouring water on to the floor.

“I guess neither one of us cared enough to keep in touch,” she said.

“That’s it?”

“What did you expect?”

“Catastrophe.” Oliver laughed. “Never mind. You’re not the catastrophic sort.”

At that moment she had seen herself through his eyes: a pretty, carefree young woman in cutoffs and an orange tank top, blond hair lit by the sun. An easy answer.

Why not?, she thought. Who doesn’t love an easy answer?

Christine tapped the red toothbrush against her palm, three quick strikes, as if delivering a punishment.

She carried Oliver’s belongings out the door, down the stairs, to the garbage cans in front of the building, where she tossed them in on top of a bulging black trash bag and a child-sized bicycle helmet. The lid fit on tight.

Part Five

Christine threw out her leg, catching the door on her shin. It landed on the bone with a dull thud.

“Mrs. Compton,” she said, but the old woman had receded into the darkness of the apartment. Christine pushed the door shut behind her.

The hall ended abruptly at a curve, which Christine followed into a large room divided in half by a pink flowered bed sheet. Mrs. Compton, dressed in her white nightgown and a purple satin robe that tied with a ribbon at the neck, stood in the corner behind a wooden stool. A small, barred window close to the ceiling projected shadows on to her folded hands, which rested on the stool’s seat.

“How dare you.” Her voice quavered, but she stood very straight, her chin lifted regally. “I didn’t say you could come in.”

Christine tried to hold on to her courage, but her certainty slipped, forced out of position by what she had just done, what she was seeing. Despite its size, the room looked like a cell, with the bars on the windows and cinderblock walls. The center of the room stood open, yet the perimeter was crammed with the dusty detritus of three quarters of a century. Furniture jutted out at odd angles: armchairs with unraveling cushions, wicker rockers with caved-in seats, low benches stacked one on top of another. To Christine’s right a Tiffany lamp with a cracked shade sat unlit on top of a rusty metal nightstand. A cheap silver picture frame lay face down beside it, the sticky price tag still attached to the back.

A collage of rugs – Oriental, faded rag, jagged squares of pile carpet – covered the floor. Christine could only look down for a moment before the disorder of color and design made her dizzy. Mrs. Compton remained in place, erect and indignant. Behind her beige filing cabinets, like those found in a dentist’s office, lined the back wall. Christine wondered what might be secreted away inside, carefully cataloged and separated out, kept safe from this surrounding chaos.

From underneath a hulking armoire crawled a skinny orange car. It glanced at Christine before jumping onto the stool in front of Mrs. Compton. Without looking down, Mrs. Compton opened her hands. The cat nuzzled her upturned palms.

Christine set the grocery bags on the floor. “I didn’t know you had a cat,” she said. “I would have picked up cat food.”

“You’re trespassing.”

“I had to come in. It’s my job.”

“Bullshit.” The word erupted, unexpected from Mrs. Compton’s demure lips. “You were curious,” she said. “I’m a curiosity.”

Christine’s throat itched. She picked up the grocery bags. “I’ve brought ingredients for dinner. Do you like chicken? It’s my mother’s recipe.”

Mrs. Compton scratched the cat’s head. “You must be crazy,” she said, “to think I’d eat your food.”

Christine tightened her grip on the bags, but scanning the room, she saw nothing that resembled a kitchen. She stepped around the pink curtain. Planks of wood leaned against the wall; sawdust lay in piles on the cement floor.

“Are you building something?” she asked, but Mrs. Compton made no reply.

At the far end Christine spotted a microwave on a small wire shelf and beside it a refrigerator like the ones designed for dorm rooms. A toilet stood a few feet away beside a bathtub filled with old clothes and blankets. Christine picked up a wool vest, decorated with Christmas trees and sparkly red balls, most of the sequins missing. She had never seen anything so depressing.

Behind a pile of roughly cut pine, she uncovered a sink and a stove top splattered with red and yellow stains. Cockroaches crawled quickly away. There was no oven, which complicated her plans, but she could improvise. Underneath the sink she found cast iron cookware, which at one time must have been expensive. Someday, when they were on better terms, Christine would clean these pots and make them shine.

As the chicken sizzled, the cat raced into the room, its nose up and twitching. Mrs. Compton followed and sat down on the edge of the bathtub, balancing precariously, her ankles crossed and her hands folded like a school girl.

The cat meowed, ending in a long, shrill note.

“Ama,” Mrs. Compton said. “Hush.”

Christine cut off a piece of chicken and squatted, offering the morsel to the cat. Its pink tongue tickled her fingers.

“What’s the cat’s name?” Christine said.

“Amadeus. I found him on the street. A car ran over his mother.”

“That’s awful.”

Mrs. Compton shrugged. “That’s what they know. But he’s a good kid. He’s good company.”

They watched as the cat licked its whiskers.

“Do you have a salad bowl?” Christine said. “Any bowl will do.”

Mrs. Compton pointed to a cabinet near the sink. When Christine opened the door, a blue plastic mixing bowl fell onto her head, bumping off her nose and landing by the cat. Tail aloft, the cat skittered away.

“A booby trap,” Mrs. Compton said. She looked at Christine and then gripped her knees and laughed with her mouth wide open.

“Very funny,” Christine said.

From the mess in the cabinet, she extracted a glass bowl for the salad and small china plates decorated with yellow ducks for the meal. Cautiously the cat ventured back in and perched next to Mrs. Compton on the bathtub. As Christine worked, she was aware of their eyes following her movements and felt a sudden elation. She was doing what no one else was willing to do. She’d get rid of the wood, clear out the furniture, create for Mrs. Compton a real home. With that foundation in place, Mrs. Compton’s mind would begin to clear and Christine would be able to get her the medical or psychological help she needed. She’d give Mrs. Compton her life back, for however long she had left to live it.

When the food was ready, Christine pushed aside the pink bed sheet and pulled a small breakfast table with intricately turned legs into the center of the room. Mrs. Compton watched passively as Christine set the table with the china plates and selected two chairs, wobbly Queen Annes. Christine sat down. The cat wound around her legs, purring loudly, but Mrs. Compton did not join her.

“Mrs. Compton,” Christine said. “Please.”

“How do I know the food’s not poisoned?” Mrs. Compton rose from the bathtub, gripping the wall to help herself up. “You broke into my house.”

“I didn’t break in. It’s my job to -.”

“Liar.”

The cat jumped onto the table and began to eat off Mrs. Compton’s plate.

“Don’t eat that.” Mrs. Compton raised her arm, swatting at the air. “You’re going to kill him. Don’t let him eat that!”

She pitched forward, and Christine sprang up, knocking over the chair, reaching out to catch the old woman. The weight of Beth Compton hit slack against Christine’s chest, and they fell together, narrowly missing the sharp corner of a chest of drawers.

Christine held on tightly. She pressed her face against Mrs. Compton’s neck, searching for breath, a heartbeat. She inhaled the woman’s scent – stale sweat, unwashed hair, and, faintly, lily of the valley.

“Mrs. Compton,” she said. “Beth.”

The old woman stirred. Groaning, she rolled away from Christine and propped herself up on her elbows. They stared at each other.

“Go,” Mrs. Compton said hoarsely.

Christine looked at the table, where the cat was feasting on chicken. Its stomach bulged.

Mrs. Compton covered her face with her hands. “I don’t want you here,” she said. “Go away.” Her voice rose to a screech. “Go away!”

“I didn’t mean,” Christine began but did not know how to finish.

She left Mrs. Compton on the floor and walked toward the subway. The sky had clouded over, rain just beginning to fall.

As the train jerked toward Brooklyn, Christine pressed her head against the smeared window and closed her eyes. She anticipated the call from Jordan tomorrow morning, the questions and answers that would not suffice, the inevitable apologies, on both parts, neither one of them genuine. She wouldn’t be able to tell the truth: that she’d only wanted to test her heart, to see how large and beautiful it could be.

“I don’t have a choice,” Jordan would say, and that would be the end of it.