Up until her fortieth year, there hadn’t been a season of Marian’s life she hadn’t had to grovel and beg, send off invoice reminders couched in manic cheer: Just checking in! At forty, an unexpected windfall changed all of that. She bought a house in a town in the Hudson Valley that seemed occupied solely by arty people, and made a hobby of overpaying for furniture. She spent $5,899 on an antique chest of drawers, laughed as they loaded it into her car.
“What’s funny?” asked the guy with the dolly.
“Where to begin?” she said.
The children adjusted instantly. They shrugged off their old lives like winter coats on the first real day of spring. Marian never caught them pining or calling the friends they’d left behind. She bought them anything they asked for, and they asked for a lot. Sophie wanted a horse and Dan wanted a BMX bike.
“It’s not exactly fair, is it?” she said to them. “Horses eat tons of grain and have to be boarded. BMX bikes eat almost nothing.”
She loved them equally, so she got them each one of each. The horses lived ten minutes away in a stable surrounded by green grass. The BMX bikes lived in the garage.
One afternoon the children’s father came to visit. He walked around peeking into rooms and doing that low whistle of his. The house was huge, simple, and old, everything that impressed him. He pointed at different features and pronounced their names. “Wainscoting. Crown molding. Antique mahogany tallboy.” And at the stable: “Steeds.”
“They’re Mort and Zombie,” Sophie told him. The children had found the horses’ original names unsatisfactory. Marian had always let the children do whatever they wanted, and in return they worshipped her. But since the money appeared, they’d been thinking bigger.
Their father laughed. “Zombie?”
Marian reached out and touched the horse’s velvety nose. She was afraid of him, of his shuddering animal intelligence, but it seemed important to demonstrate that they were all together on one side against the children’s father.
“What’s wrong with it? Dan chose it. He’s seven.”
“I know how old he is. Don’t insult me. Why does a seven-year-old need a horse?”
“He’s gone this whole time without one,” said Marian. “And without other things too. The amount of Batmobiles he wished for and didn’t get could fill a truck.”
“How could notional toys fill a truck?” asked the father, whose name was also Dan.
You had to use words like ipso facto with the children’s father if you wanted to him to pay any attention.
Marian felt like divorcing him all over again. Zombie sneezed. The air in the stable was filled with particles of blond dirt floating around in beams of light. Marian took in a lungful and explained that the children adored the horses and were very sweet about brushing them and shoveling their dung and such, which proved, ipso facto, that they deserved them. You had to use words like ipso facto with the children’s father if you wanted to him to pay any attention.
Dan Senior laughed again and said, “If you say so.”
“Do you want to see me ride?” asked Sophie.
“Why not?” said Dan Senior.
They got the stable manager to help take Mort out. Sophie rode him around, while the rest of them leaned against the split-rail fence. She wore her round black helmet and sporty jodhpurs. Beyond the dirt enclosure, a field extended to the tree line. Heavy clouds inched in over it. It was a spectacle—the churn of muscle, the blue creep of thunderheads. Sophie with her cruel posture and shiny boots, like the officer of a preteen cavalry.
“God, she’s a natural,” said Dan Senior.
Now that he mentioned it, Marian could see it was true. She had an inborn lightness that seemed suited for horseback. Possibly they’d found her calling; they’d only had to vault about three social classes to do it.
The wind picked up and it was time to get Mort back inside. Dan Junior ran ahead to say good-bye to Zombie. Marian zipped up her new summer-weight jacket, pleased to have discovered its purpose.
Dan Senior strode along next to her. “So, you’re—what?—going to live in that big house with the kids and do nothing?”
That had been her plan, but she could tell from his tone what he thought of it.
“Hardly,” she said. “I’m volunteering with Holocaust survivors.”
The statement caused her mild horror. She wondered how the Holocaust had ended up in the part of her brain she mined for self-serving lies.
His face showed admiration. “Really?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “It’s the least I can do.”
“Well, that’s nice. That’s really worthy.”
He was silent after that. She had found the one brand of moral superiority that actually worked on him. She wondered why she had never thought of it before.
They went home and hauled the BMX bikes out of the garage and rode them in circles around the driveway. Marian even took a turn, and so did Dan Senior. Fat raindrops fell at intervals, dotting the pavement.
“I don’t get it,” said Dan Senior, pedaling. “How’s it different from a regular bike?”
Marian realized that he was jealous, that he wanted a gift of his own. He wanted the boring adult equivalent of a horse or a BMX bike. Like a midsize SUV in a muted color. It was in her nature to let them all have everything, to treat money like a cold river flowing over her palm. She had always been like that, even back in the city. It had been part of the problem.
“They’re for doing tricks,” she said, and attempted a wheelie.
She fell off backward and bashed her skull on the row of raised bricks that lined the driveway. Unconsciousness flared up like a black flame and filled her with deep relief. How wonderful to lie in one’s driveway for a moment, feeling nothing.
When she came to, they were all in the house. Someone had laid her sticky, bleeding head on the arm of the sofa.
“You’re ruining it,” said Sophie, pointing.
Marian sat up and looked at the spot—dark red on the light blue upholstery, and spreading.
“We’ll get ten new ones,” yawned Marian, touching her gashed head.
“You shouldn’t be so reckless,” said Dan Senior. “You’re forty years old.”
“Is that all?”
She felt sixty, at least, achy and wise. Modestly triumphant. Like she’d won a fight she’d been reluctant to join in the first place.
“You’re setting a bad example for them.”
He had a point. She turned to the children. “Don’t do wheelies after the age of thirty-nine.”
Dan Junior went into the kitchen and brought back a damp wad of paper towels.
“Press this against it,” he said.
“Finally, a caring Dan,” said Marian. “Thank you, baby.” She held the paper towels to the wound.
It was like the clouds parting and revealing, instead of the sun, a giant peony, or a spinning record, or the face of God. It was that swift and unforeseen.
“You shouldn’t call him that,” said Dan Senior. “When boys are coddled by their mothers, it messes them up for life.”
“And when elephants are raised without fathers, they go on to rape rhinos.”
“An article I read.”
He pinched his eyebrows together until they became almost one.
She explained, “The males get poached. It throws the whole thing out of whack.”
“You’re really something,” he said.
“Breaking news,” said Sophie, and they all laughed because she sounded exactly like Marian. It was cozy in there for a second—the bloody sofa, the rain outside. Everyone bickering like they used to.
“I suppose you need to go to the hospital,” said Dan Senior after a while. “You lost consciousness.”
Marian scowled. “No.” Then she remembered they were insured now. “Yes,” she said.
They went back out into the rain and got in the car.
What had happened was this: More than ten years ago, Marian had worked at a start-up. They had offered her stock options, which she had accepted and promptly forgotten about. A number of things had occurred in the interim, all of them messy. Children were born, and someone had to keep them from running directly into the street. The rent needed to be paid, twelve times a year, if you could believe it. She’d had to chase down invoices for all the websites she designed for people’s misguided business ventures. Then there had been the marriages to worry about. Just the one marriage, actually, but it had seemed like more. It had seemed like eight with its grasping, tentacled misery, its endless suck.
Recently, the stock had become extremely valuable. Her financial advisor, enlisted years before by Dan Senior, called her up and told her to cash out. Marian could see no reason it had happened. It was like the clouds parting and revealing, instead of the sun, a giant peony, or a spinning record, or the face of God. It was that swift and unforeseen. That wild.
Marian was up on the examination table, shifting around on a crackling sheet of paper. No one had done anything to help her yet, except to hand her a fresh wad of paper towels.
The nurse cleared her throat. “What happened?” she asked again. “To your head.”
“Oh,” said Marian, embarrassed. “BMX accident.”
The nurse left, and Marian and Dan Senior were alone. The kids had stayed back in the waiting room. Marian had left Sophie in charge.
“What would you have done if I hadn’t been here to give you a ride?” asked Dan Senior.
Marian’s head started to hurt. It felt like a pump back there, with its rhythmic throbbing, though Marian knew it had mostly stopped bleeding.
“I’d have hitched,” she said. A wave of nausea hit her, and she hung her head between her legs. “Please, a little serenity while I wait for my two stitches or whatever it is.”
“There’s something I want to talk to you about,” he said. “We want shared custody. We want every other weekend and some holidays.”
She winced. “We.”
“Come on. She’s in their lives,” said Dan Senior. “She wants to hang out with them.”
“Buy them things. Take them to museums. Cook them dinner.”
What could she buy them, Marian wondered? They already had horses.
“I don’t want to go back to court,” said Dan Senior, quietly. He sounded tired.
Marian agreed. No one wanted to go to court. It was exhausting—the endless postponements, the meetings with lawyers, their brusqueness with the knotty matter of your life.
“I hear she left the restaurant to start a jewelry line,” said Marian, still between her knees.
“She’s a third-year law student. Where’d you get that idea?”
“I was only guessing. She seems like the type.”
“What type would that be?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Marian. “She’s got that difficult haircut. She wears three rings on a single finger. I bet she’d attempt an ambitious hat. A bowler or something.”
“Marian,” said Dan Senior.
“These are compliments. I can’t compliment her?” She paused, swinging her legs against the exam table. “So, what kind of law is she interested in? Jewelry law?” Marian nearly laughed as she said it; it was almost too stupid to be offensive.
The doctor came in and barked, “Lying down! You should be lying down!”
Marian eased back onto the table. There wasn’t a man alive who wouldn’t reprimand her the moment he entered the room. He checked her out, told her, scoldingly, she’d need an MRI.
His demeanor softened as he sewed her up, his voice lowering to the notch above husky.
She thought of the horses, how Sophie whispered to them softly, reassuringly, so they wouldn’t freak out, so they wouldn’t go bursting through the wall of the stable and out into the blue-green yonder.
“I’m not going to freak out,” she said, mostly to herself. The doctor and Dan Senior exchanged glances.
After, they idled in the parking lot of the pizza place, waiting for their pies. The rain had stopped, and the puddles reflected the streetlights. Marian had six black stitches and had been told, for a second time that day, to be less reckless.
“I’ve been thinking about the survivors,” said Dan Senior.
She looked at him blankly.
“Your volunteer work.”
Of all the things she’d ever told him, this was the one he’d paid attention to. She glanced at Sophie in the rearview mirror. Sophie caught her eye and then looked down, a mop of light-brown hair hanging over a phone.
“Oh?” said Marian.
He wanted to hear more. He wanted faded numbers on wrinkled forearms, snowfall through a barbed-wire fence. His interest seemed prurient. She felt protective of their stories, these imaginary victims.
“We’ve been getting to know each other slowly,” she said. “You don’t just dive into it right away.”
“What do you talk about, then?”
“Frederick Wiseman, cocktail waitresses, and the best time of day to take the George Washington Bridge, if it absolutely cannot be avoided.”
“It’s weird how they share your exact interests,” said Marian. “What accounts for that, do you think?”
“You’re going to have to stop being mad at me at some point,” said Dan Senior.
“Oh, I’m not mad. My volunteering has really put divorce in perspective.”
Sophie caught her eye again, cocking her head.
“Nothing feels important by comparison after you’ve brushed up against so much suffering,” Marian added, and the gates of hell swung open a little wider.
Dan Junior came out of the restaurant carrying the pizzas in front of him. He looked like a ring bearer: same gravitas, same gait. He always insisted on being the one to go in. Somewhere along the way he had gotten the idea that he should make himself useful.
He passed the pizzas to Marian and slipped into the backseat. “I tipped ten.”
“Ten dollars?” said Dan Senior. “On takeout? What is that, fifty percent?”
Marian addressed the Dans one at a time. “It’s nice to be a good tipper,” she said to Junior. “Don’t yell at him,” she said to Senior.
Dan Senior threw his hands up. “You guys are gonna be broke again in a month.”
Marian imagined it: A repo man riding the bikes down the driveway. Some other happy kids leading the horses off into the sunset. Returning to another tiny apartment with an odd layout: the dining room converted to a bedroom, the bathroom door you had to hold closed while you peed. The pendulum had swung this way, it could just as easily swing back.
“No one’s going broke for at least one calendar year,” she said.
The kids nodded. As goals went, it seemed attainable.
They ate the pizza milling around in the kitchen. Marian opened a bottle of wine, though they all chided her not to drink it. Dan Junior asked if he could play the trumpet for everyone.
“Who could say no to amateur jazz?” said Dan Senior.
The old fizz never went away. Time couldn’t change it; money couldn’t change it. You could loathe a person fully, and still the chemicals bubbled in their beakers.
Marian laughed. He was smart, poor, and average looking. All these years later, she still found his mediocrity stirring. Dan Junior wanted to play sitting on the chest of drawers, so they reconvened in the hall. Dan Senior helped him up, and he performed a honking, red-faced version of “Louie Louie.” When he had finished, they assured him that it was one of the all-time songs, that they couldn’t tell where his arm ended and the trumpet began. The kids excused themselves, and the adults were left alone, in front of the chest of drawers.
“I love this piece,” said Dan Senior, running a finger along a lacquered edge. The chest had slender legs and a deep sheen.
“Take it,” said Marian, almost shouting.
“I couldn’t,” said Dan Senior.
Marian forced herself to smile. “I insist.” There was no reason to stand between a person and something they wanted. It was as true for horses as was it was for new wives as it was for furniture. “Consider it a wedding present. Belated.”
“We don’t have room,” said Dan Senior.
“You’ll make room. Throw out that old bar cart and voilà.”
He laughed. “You hate that thing. You hate it because I like it.”
That was the short version. The long version was that Marian hated how it made him think of himself as a mixologist, the kind of person who muddles some mint. He hadn’t muddled mint a day in his life. He’d only ever pulled the same rocks glass off the cart and poured himself two fingers.
“I’d think of you every time I looked at it,” said Dan Senior.
They stared at each other. The old fizz never went away. Time couldn’t change it; money couldn’t change it. You could loathe a person fully, and still the chemicals bubbled in their beakers.
“You didn’t show me the upstairs,” he said.
“No,” said Marian. “Are you serious?”
They peeked around the corner into the living room. The kids sat in their separate cocoons, engrossed in their separate devices. They were here-but-not-here, adrift in the vast white expanse of the Internet.
“The rape of Europa couldn’t get their attention,” she said.
They crept past the living room and up the stairs. Marian’s bedroom was the biggest. The bed had a white duvet of fine cotton, and Dan Senior climbed up on it fully clothed. He even had his shoes on. He had the nerve to lie down.
“You seem awfully comfortable spending this money,” he said. “It’s almost like you were born to do it.”
Marian ignored the insult. In a way, he was right. Women existed closer to objects than men. Women needed things. Hair ties, Chapstick, tampons, something to wear to the party, maternity bras, diapers, birthday cakes, soccer cleats, toys for Christmastime, pH-balancing deodorant, whatever that meant. Things. Women spent their time acquiring and arranging, cutting off tags and biting into plastic packaging. It was easy for a man to live by the noble winds of poverty. To wear the same ratty blazer for ten years until it looked like it’d been ravaged by wolves. But for a woman, no.
Dan Senior sat up and examined his ravaged blazer, the hole that gaped in the elbow. “You got me this for my first teaching job.”
“Exactly,” said Marian. “You needed it, and I got it.”
He took it off and threw it across the room.
“Come here,” he said. “You’re all worked up.”
Marian wavered. Dan had met his new wife on a website for people seeking extramarital affairs. Then a year ago, the kids had gone down to the city clerk’s office in their stiff, cheap formal wear to see them married. Dan Junior had forked over the rings while Marian had been at home swiffering. It wasn’t that he’d fallen in love with someone else—that could happen to anybody. It was that he had sought it out. His life with Marian and the children had been that unendurable. He hadn’t even tried for custody then, out of guilt, maybe, or a belated sense of decency. Now he wanted shared custody. He wanted the same show all over again, minus Marian.
She slept with him. She didn’t know why until halfway through, when she was on top, stitches burning, surveying her new art, her new desk, her new window that looked out on her new tree. That tree would change colors, drop leaves, grow leaves anew. It was an endless loop that concluded never. She looked down at Dan’s chest, its two wings of graying hair. His right hand held her hip and his left grasped at air. She found she pitied him.
When it was all over, Marian cracked the window, and they lay there while a breeze trickled in, humid and smelling of the ground. He had his hand in her hair, working his fingers through the dried blood.
He said, “You should bring the kids with you sometime when you go to visit the survivors. Maybe we could all go. I think it would be great. Well, not great, but,” he motioned around for a word, “you know.”
He went on, “It’s just that they’re so lucky, all of a sudden. With the horses and the special bikes. And shouldn’t we be showing them that? That their existence is nonstandard? If we haven’t instilled that in them, then we’ve failed, haven’t we?”
Marian didn’t think Sophie and Dan needed a field trip to know that life was fearsome, bleak, and absurd. She’d told them outright lots of times.
“Like a character-building exercise?” said Marian.
“Yeah,” said Dan. “It’d be good for them.”
“You know we’re talking about the murder of six million Jewish people? Not getting an after-school job at a frozen yogurt place.”
He was quiet for a moment. Then he yanked too hard on a snarl, jerking her head.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m concussed.”
“You’re not actually doing it, are you? Volunteering.”
She considered indignation, but ultimately didn’t feel up to it. She’d had a head injury and some wine. “You know how you can post-date a check?” she said. “How you write it today and make good at some point down the road? Like, the funds will be there eventually?”
“Incredible,” he said. He got up and fished around in the damp sheets for his shirt.
Later, another weekend, Dan Senior and his new wife arrived to pick up the kids. The new wife wore a straw fedora, and Marian took a small amount of pleasure in picturing Dan Senior begging her not to. On the way out, she complimented the chest of drawers.
“How elegant,” she said.
“You like it? It’s yours,” said Marian.
The woman looked around for Dan Senior, but he was in the bathroom. “I’m not sure we have the space.”
Marian knew for a fact they didn’t: it was her old apartment. “It’s not really all that big. You could put it anywhere.”
The woman took a step back, assessing its size with a cocked head.
Marian added, “I’m getting rid of it anyway.”
They were maneuvering it out the front door when Dan Senior emerged. Sophie was directing them from a safe distance.
“How could you allow this?” he said to Sophie. She seemed to have a new authority in his eyes ever since that day at the stable.
Sophie said, “No one asked my permission.”
In the end, they had to strap it to the roof. It lay on its side like a third horse, its rigid brown legs extending off the car.
“What will you do this weekend?” Dan Junior asked Marian.
“Don’t worry about me,” said Marian. “I’ll keep busy.”
“She’s got her volunteer work,” said Dan Senior, smiling meanly.
She didn’t bother telling him that she’d actually gone like she said she would. The day after his last visit, she’d called around and found a special retirement home just for Holocaust survivors. They were always looking for volunteers, the woman on the phone told her. People to help serve food or read off bingo numbers or just sit there listening.
Marian had ridden the train to the home, which was in distant Brooklyn, right near the beach. When she got there, a party was going on, the spring fling. A function room was filled with tissue-paper flowers and old people who’d shown up to be flung. She tried to have a meaningful experience. She sat down next to a tiny, ancient man and struck up a conversation. But all he wanted to talk about was his grandchildren, his iPhone, and how dry the cookies were. The cookies, shaped like daisies, were dry.
“Are you single?” he asked her.
“Yeah, but,” she said.
An old-timey band began to play, and he pulled her onto the dance floor. She couldn’t, she told him. She didn’t know how to dance to that kind of music. Not to worry, he said, placing a hand on her back and guiding her into the very center of the room. It was easy, the waltz. It was the oldest dance there was.