Planets – Julian Castronovo

He found a porn video of a girl who looked exactly like his girlfriend. The girl was on her knees, whispering very softly into a lapel microphone she held pinched between the thumb and index fingers of her left hand. She wore a maid’s uniform and large pink headphones with pointed cat ears affixed on the headband. The phone filming her had been mounted vertically and at a slight downward angle, he guessed, on a tripod ring light in her bedroom. When at times her glance flirted up to meet it, each of her pupils would, like a solar eclipse, become circumscribed by a band of reflected white light.

The girl pulled her shoulder from the sleeve of her dress. Her resemblance to his girlfriend was unmistakable. There were easily identifiable physical similarities such as the shape of her face like an inverted teardrop and the simple, wide-set distribution of her features upon it, the fragile and birdlike appearance of her nose and brow, and the blunt way her medium-dark hair fell about her neck. Eerily recognizable too were more subtle features such as the triangular, aristocratic-seeming depressions that appeared above her clavicles when she inhaled, and how in her expression there was foremost a quality of total innocence that suggested, misleadingly, he imagined, that she was incapable of any guile, deceit, or violence. The girl loosened the dark ribbon securing her bodice. The video ended. He clicked backwards and began to navigate around the rest of the girl’s site with a sense of joyless calm. The clip had been a preview. There were about seventy other videos and pictures organized into folders or “packs” which were accessible only to paid subscribers. As he looked at these little blurred-out thumbnail images, he felt neither a forbidden thrill, as though he had discovered something he should not have, nor did the uncanny familiarity of the girl’s appearance stir in him any discernible feeling of shame, disbelief, or anxiety. He did not think of himself as someone who particularly valued the singularity of his own physical being or that of those in whom he was ostensibly romantically invested. Olivia, in particular, was an attractive but overall normal or plain-looking person, and it seemed to him pretty logical that someone else in the world should happen to look like her. He enlarged and studied the girl’s circular profile picture. It was an image of a rosy-cheeked anime character making a peace sign and winking. A number of slash-like lines drawn around her face and body seemed to indicate that she was flying or jumping or moving otherwise forward in his direction at great speed.

He was lying on his side on his unmade bed. At some point he became aware of how he had curled his entire body around his phone as if it were an object of immense gravity. He propped himself up and felt an acute knowledge that beyond his bedroom window there were lots of people doing various human activities in the hot sun. This external reality seemed to him surprisingly continuous with that of the contained, miniature-seeming world of the girl. It was late afternoon and he knew Olivia would be home soon. He roused himself and walked to the bathroom. He turned on the shower and took off his clothes. The water ran cold for a long time. He stood in the back of the tub and, as the water slowly warmed, he waited there like a large, obscene animal.

Olivia arrived as he was drying his hair with a towel. He walked to the living room and kissed her cheek. She seemed very happy and excitable. She was an entirely enthusiastic and positive person, and at times he was almost frightened by the fact that, despite having known her several years, he was yet to encounter in her even a hint of the apathy and loneliness that he supposed must lie at the center of all human beings. But this evening, as was generally the case, her presence immediately improved his mood. Her skin looked oily and she was smiling. She said she wanted to go get Thai food in Thai Town. He was hungry, and he told her that sounded like a good idea. He spent the next few minutes gathering the little items necessary for leaving the house. He put them in the front pockets of his pants and was pleased by the familiarity of their distinct, identifiable outlines. Then he and Olivia got in the car and left. The restaurant was in a busy strip mall. All the parking spaces in the center of the strip mall were occupied. Circling the lot, he felt frustrated and as though the entirety of his consciousness had condensed itself into a small area in the front part of his skull. Then he found a parking spot which was a particularly good spot and he felt accomplished and happier.

The Thai restaurant, which was very crowded, appeared to have put a number of young children in charge of the apparently complex process of seating customers. After several minutes of waiting in a small, forsaken-seeming group of people just inside the front door, he and Olivia were led to a table. A waitress materialized to take their order. She looked to be in junior high school. She had one earbud in her ear and was listening to loud electronic music. Eyes alight, Olivia asked her if she had a favorite thing on the menu. It was clear that she wanted to be recommended a dish that would, under normal circumstances, be unknown to white people. The waitress chewed on her gum and asked Olivia if she liked spicy food. She said yes. The waitress bent over the table and patiently explained some things on the menu. Olivia nodded animatedly and said that everything sounded great, but did she, the young waitress, have a personal favorite? The transparency of Olivia’s delight in her own extroversion was making him feel a little annoyed and as though it would take a lot of effort to match her energy and make pleasant conversation throughout their meal. However, he made a conscious choice to at least try to summon this effort. He wished Olivia could know the emotional lengths he sometimes went to on her behalf. Every little sacrifice, he thought remotely, is an immense act of tenderness. The waitress turned her attention to him. He ordered a beer and a red curry with duck. He tried to make brief eye contact with her, as if to say, I will not demand unnecessary affective labor from you, but she had already spun away and disappeared behind a beaded curtain.

Their food came out quickly and tasted good. He made a point of asking Olivia questions about some of their friends, who were primarily her friends and in whom he usually did not take any particular interest. He could tell this made Olivia happy. She talked about her friend that had a crush on her other friend. That sounds awesome, he said. The waitress came to check on them, and he ordered two more beers. He opened both cans and alternated his sips while Olivia continued in her explanation as to why the friend’s interest in the other friend was, in fact, socially forbidden. He was staring, several minutes later, at the brightly-colored tablecloth and trying to stifle a burp when he began thinking, as he sometimes did, about how he felt mildly bored by Olivia. He wished that she were slightly prettier or more mysterious. Recently he had been plagued by a suspicion that he could date someone more attractive than himself and, by extension, not inconsiderably more attractive than Olivia. His primary evidence for this belief was the fact of his own relationship with Olivia, who he thought of as slightly less attractive than himself, an arrangement which proved that individuals often dated people categorically beneath themselves in terms of physical appeal. He thought that a romantic partnership would be more stimulating and a greater source of happiness to him if he were its less attractive component. He knew, of course, that Olivia was a wholly good, kindhearted person, his best friend and life companion who was owed nothing less than total devotion, and he wanted to hurt and punish himself in some extravagant way for pursuing even for a moment this questionable line of thinking. Across the table Olivia had paused her small chewing noises and was looking at him because she was emotionally astute and could sense that he was preoccupied. Quietly she asked, what are you thinking about? He thought for a moment and, looking at her face and deciding it best not to lie, he replied, you. The waitress came back around with their check. As he paid for their meal, which he always did, he felt a tiny fluttering of self-consciousness or guilt.

The beer he had drunk made him suspect that he was extremely good at driving a car. He found his way from the 2 to the 134 and accelerated somewhat forcefully. As he looked straight ahead through the windshield, he intuited a glowing, orb-like presence from Olivia beside him. The freeway hugged the foothills and curved gently to the left. He guided the car by applying a soft upward pressure on the steering wheel with his knees. Reaching across his body, he touched Olivia’s forearm, and then, like a marionette puppet, withdrew his hand without looking at her. In a sort of waking vision, he felt for several seconds that he was a sailor upon a dark, glasslike sea, and that the small blinking lights of the valley below the freeway were those of the vault of heaven reflected in the water. He took the next exit and navigated home.

Olivia began her nighttime routine of using lots of beautifully-designed products on her skin and hair. He stood next to her at the bathroom sink and brushed his teeth. Then he went to the living room and watched a long compilation of best Shaquille O’Neal heartwarming and savage moments. Olivia was snoring lightly and semi-endearingly when he went to the bedroom. He lay down without disturbing her and tried to sleep. For a long time he felt very prickly and uncomfortable. Eventually he gave up and went noiselessly to the kitchen and opened and closed the freezer. He went through the screen door and stood outside on the little porch in his underwear. It was warm and quiet. He felt as if the whole world was a dark, nurturing womb full of a thick fluid in which he was nicely suspended. He watched two cats walking along the top of a low concrete wall across the street and in his brain he repeated the words “cat friends” over and over. After a while he went inside and got back into bed beside Olivia. He looked at her face and the narrow strip of blue light clinging to her profile like a piece of wet cloth. Lying very still, he listened to her measured breathing and toward her he felt nothing in particular.

Several hours later he awoke and made them toast with ricotta and roasted and crushed pistachios and a jam he had made from honey, blueberries, and russet apples. Olivia would be up soon. She often had to work on Saturdays. She was an assistant at a television development company and, depending on the month, she made between four and six times as much money as he did. She was sincere and ambitious about her career in a way that he found at times tasteless and irritating. The toaster dinged. Olivia emerged from the bedroom with her head cocked to one side as she put in an earring. She sat with him and apologized for having to work on a weekend. She was very conscious of her emotional vocabulary and she took pride in the clarity and forethought of her communication. Extending her arm across the kitchen table, she touched his hand and assured him, as if he were a naive, disappointed child, that they would get to spend quality time together the next weekend. He was, however, quite happy to spend his day alone and doing basically nothing. He nodded and responded by trying to act as though he was not disappointed in a way that was meant to read like a disappointed person who was overacting in an attempt to conceal their disappointment. He felt this strategy was deft and successful. Olivia ate the breakfast he had prepared and declared every so often that it was very delicious. She looked at her thin gold wristwatch and, smiling meekly, shouldered her tote bag to leave. She kissed him goodbye. Through the kitchen window, he watched her reverse into the street and drive away into the dazzling sunlight.

Most days he did very little. His family was wealthy enough that it was not particularly important for him to have a full-time job. When he was seventeen his parents had arranged for him to be extravagantly kidnapped and taken to a camp in the desert so he would not be depressed and kill himself. For a year he lived in a barracks with other teenagers with whom he did therapeutic exercises and chores like cutting up vegetables with a plastic knife. Despite the apparent success of this program and a subsequent decade of similarly expensive remedial efforts, he was now twenty-seven and still he was supported as if he was extremely fragile and incompetent, which in some ways he was. Intermittently he made gestures related to “wanting to open a restaurant,” such as organizing and cooking for supper clubs and pop-up events, but in truth he had thoughtlessly come to accept that the vague sadness of being a lot less special than he had once been led to believe could be reasonably balanced out by the simple pleasures of maintaining a routine of constant leisure. On this particular morning, for example, this leisure manifested in his slowly drinking two iced coffees, taking a 40-minute shit, and then laying on the carpet and looking up things such as rare weather anomalies caught on camera. Ball lightning, he discovered, is the unproven phenomena of small floating spheres of electricity which have throughout history been witnessed moving in unpredictable trajectories and at various heights. The day passed quickly like this, and by mid-afternoon he found himself thinking about the girl who looked like Olivia. He realized, indeed, that since his discovery she had been something of a constant, unconscious presence in his mind, as if she were a formless, tinted firmament through which all his other thoughts and sensory experiences had been slowly filtering.

He went back to the girl’s page. For nine dollars per month he could unlock all of her media. Somewhat distantly, he attempted to determine if his own level of interest was compatible with this price. After a moment he decided it was. He clicked the subscribe button. Then he selected the pictures of trains from a grid of transportation-related pictures in order to verify he was human. Upon the completion of this task, the site automatically sent him a precomposed message from the girl. He went to the chat area at the bottom of the screen and opened it. Its tone was casual and friendly. It informed him that for fifty dollars he could request specific content and that, for twenty dollars, he could send the girl a picture of his penis, which she would “review” and rate on a scale from one to ten. Neither of these things were particularly compelling to him, but shallowly in his chest he did experience the not-unpleasant, twisting sensation of jealousy as he imagined her fulfilling these requests on behalf of other men. Then he went to the main feed and began to look at the old videos and pictures that were newly accessible to him. He was tremendously turned on and excited. He watched the girl put her ring and middle fingers into her mouth until she gagged. He took off his pants. The exhilaration he felt could not, he thought, be located in any sort of ritual reveal of girl’s skin or body. Hers, after all, was a body identical to the one he had known for several years and which— he could scarcely admit to himself— had for some time ceased to possess for him any special power or intrigue.

Instead, his thrill seemed to primarily consist of a potent, contradictory sense that, on the one hand, he possessed a perfect knowledge of the girl and understood her better than anyone else on the planet, and that, on the other hand, she was an utterly impenetrable being whose actions and desires were too profoundly opaque and unpredictable. Heart beating in the base of his throat, he continued deeper into the girl’s archive. From Olivia the girl differed only in several minuscule physical ways— an appendicitis scar, a bruise-colored birthmark on her shoulder— and these differences seemed to have been created as if by a higher power such that he specifically would not conflate resemblance and oneness. He was not, therefore, tempted by fantasies of Olivia leading a double life or having an unknown identical twin; the girl instead seemed to be an Olivia from an alternate reality, a version of his girlfriend where some curtain within her had been drawn back to reveal not a flat plane of sincere goodness but, rather, a pure alterity, a dark pool of uninhibited performance and want. He tapped to the next image. The girl was pictured on her hands and knees crawling, seemingly, into a washing machine such that only the lower half of her body was visible. He reached down to touch himself and he experienced then what he had not for many years when it came to matters of human desire, which was the feeling of a wound, a rawness to the soft belly of his pathetic being that meant he was vulnerable, in a delicious way he knew he could not hope to resist, to the injuries of love.

The girl uploaded new pictures every three days or so. He had, for obvious reasons, not enabled the website to send him notifications, and he soon found himself manually navigating to her page and checking many times each day to see if she had posted anything. This quickly became an obsession. Whenever a new image or clip did appear, his heart would jump at the tiny miracle, and often even in the company of others he would have to excuse himself to the restroom to perfunctorily masturbate before scrutinizing the pictures. Every visible element of the girl’s content seemed to him to possess some hidden current of significance, no detail could go uninterrogated as a potential source of information. He agonized over trying to decipher the lettering on a crewneck sweatshirt crumpled on her laminate floor, over trying to identify even the brand of the graphing calculator on her desk. Over and over he found himself zooming in on her bedroom window in an effort to determine something of her climate or location. When it rained in Los Angeles for the first time in six months, a new image of the girl in a half-opened bathrobe was accompanied by the caption, what would you do to me on a rainy day? The little phrase provided sufficient evidence that the girl was geographically near to him, and this revelation put him into a new, enthralling relationship with his surroundings.

He was bewitched. He lived in a constant state of anticipation, searching for the girl’s face in crowded public places, in the windows of passing cars. Corners and doorways seemed to tremble with a novel energy or the promise of a chance, however slight, that the girl might at any moment be the next to come into view. It wasn’t exactly that he wanted to meet her, to be with her. It was enough that he had someone to think of, to call upon as one might their unknowable god. His desire enjoyed itself. Months passed. Outwardly the routine remained the same. Olivia went to work, he puttered around and used his titanium credit card. Sometimes as a couple they engaged in strategic-seeming activities like dinner dates or sex or spending a few nights in a rented cabin along a foggy coast. But effortlessly still the girl replaced Olivia as the center of his emotional life. To this he offered no true resistance. It was the girl he conjured when he slept or could not sleep or traversed otherwise his waking life. It was she who nursed him from petty injustice and boredom and plain unhappiness. The girl, bright improbable pinhole in the morning sky, was to him like an orphaned planet which, drifting by at a great distance, exerted always and nonetheless some untold influence upon his tides, his gravitational and magnetic fields. Never before had he experienced such an infinity of meaning. He ached for her in fits that bordered sometimes on terror.

With Olivia he became frustrated, impatient. He had long been passive and uninterested, but he found himself increasingly disgusted by certain aspects of his girlfriend’s personality. She was predictable, naive, completely void of anything interesting or meaningful to say. He was embarrassed by her pride and poor taste, how her attempts at cultivating some cool, worldly intelligence were always betrayed by effort. She was too quick to express nostalgia for her semester spent studying in Brussels, too enthusiastic in how she narrated her discoveries of independent musical artists who seemed, invariably, to make music that was not as good as the music he liked. Worst of all, Olivia’s very existence came to seem a threat, a gross bastardization of the girl’s spirit and mystery and singular power. Still, cowardice or twisted pleasure, he determined he had no clear course of action. He could not break up with Olivia because, first of all, his dissatisfactions were not necessarily grounded in reality, and, second of all, because without Olivia he wouldn’t have a girlfriend. So instead he acted distant and mean. Olivia, very fluent in a certain type of therapeutic emotional discourse, sensed  and  verbalized  this  shift  from  the  beginning.

Intermittently she sat him down and enumerated the seemingly-inexplicable little cruelties she’d suffered such that he might then be equipped to identify a reason or solution for his behavior. In this way Olivia’s capacity for concern and care was limitless. But this unconditional patience did not inspire in him guilt or regret or even pity. Indeed, the very fact that Olivia put up with him at all only nourished his resentment. He thought of the other girl, identical to his girlfriend only in appearance, unbridled and beautiful and lounging in her bedroom perhaps in a state of undress as she toys with the hue of her customizable LED strips. She, he was certain, would never tolerate such treatment. So that was the arrangement. Each day his hatred grew. He regarded this progression with a sort of cold objectivity such that he felt capable of locating his own sentiments at various “coordinates.” He often pictured himself, that is, as a lone transient pixel, blinking as if to say, here I am, on a curved mathematical function that is doomed to approach its arbitrary-seeming limit only in endlessly diminishing increments.

One day, negligible increment like all the rest, Olivia called during her lunch break to tell him that her friend Claire was hosting a dinner party later that night. All the attendees would be required to adhere to the theme of “French” attire, she said. Would he mind cooking something? And didn’t he have a long-sleeved shirt with horizontal black stripes? Maybe he could pair it with some type of cap. He told her he couldn’t remember about the shirt, but he was pleased with having tasks and a reason to cook something. He didn’t really want to make French food, however, because he wanted to chill black cod in miso and then sear it in butter. I guess that’s fine, said Olivia. So he went to a few stores and bought cod, miso, and special butter. Then he got tired and did nothing for the rest of the afternoon. Olivia came home after her fourteen-hour workday and began getting ready. She selected a black dress with short sleeves and a white peter pan collar. Then she found his striped shirt and told him to put it on. He did. I look like a little gay boy, he said. Yeah, that’s kind of the point, she told him. By the way, did he know where she put her beret? No. Did he get baguettes or cheese or anything? Also no. Olivia told him, as if he were an imbecile void of any cultural knowledge, that bringing baguettes was an integral part of any French dinner party. He was particularly irritated by this and for a second he wanted to scream loud or shoot himself in the head. But instead he told Olivia, OK, and then he left and walked to get baguettes. There was a tiny upscale market several blocks from their apartment. He entered the store and felt an irrational hatred towards all the food and bottles of cloudy wine. The prospect of asking for baguettes in his little gay outfit made him feel an incredible sense of shame. However, the bread counter worker, who had many small tattoos of objects such as dice on his arms and hands, did not seem to notice the francophilic excess. He paid fourteen dollars to the bread guy and then walked home with two loaves in their paper sheaths tucked beneath his arm.

In the bedroom Olivia had not made any perceivable progress towards being more ready to leave. She beckoned him and turned around so he could zip her dress. He considered the narrow triangle of her pale skin and the teasing hint of her cotton underwear. As an experiment he let his hand linger at the base of her spine. He found that this did nothing for him. He zipped the dress with a cursory motion and then sat on the bed while Olivia did her makeup. He observed this process for a few minutes. Then he took out his phone and went to the girl’s page. At the bottom of the screen was a red dot indicating the presence of a new message. He thumbed over to expand it. While all of the girl’s previous videos had been solo content, the message explained, she had recently filmed herself “fucking her guy best friend,” and the video of this encounter was now available to her subscribers for an additional one-time charge. As he internalized this information, he experienced such an intensity of emotion that he nearly vomited. He heard himself tell Olivia that he needed to pee. He walked to the bathroom. An impulse towards some extreme violence sort of ricocheted through him and dissipated into the furthest reaches of his being like the echo of a shout in a complex system of limestone caves. Though the girl’s existence consisted, as far as he was concerned, more or less entirely of her sexual presence, he had somehow failed to consider the possibility that her desire or pleasure might be directed towards or provided by somebody other than himself. He blinked. Watching the video, he sensed, would probably destroy the thing around which he had organized his emotional experience of the world. Could he simply ignore it? No. There was no choice but to watch. The clip cost forty dollars. He bought access to it without hesitation. On his screen a small padlock icon underwent a cute animation whereby it twirled and opened and was transformed into a green checkmark. He locked the bathroom door and pressed play.

At first there was only the girl, seen from shoulder up and in profile. Around her neck she wore a lace choker from which there dangled a small bell. Several seconds elapsed before a man sort of waddled into the frame. He had his basketball shorts pulled halfway down his thighs and his dick was out. The girl smiled and moved to it and began her clumsy work. A small blind spot in the center of his vision, he watched this action unfold and only then was he finally forced to confront the totality of the pathetic fantasy. He knew without a doubt that the girl— mistress of his thoughts, heavenly thing of perfect innocence and sexual cunning, his genius and dearest one of the fluffy headset and gaming chair and jeweled and haloed eyes— was now irredeemably lost to him. The video continued to play. The girl persisted in the act, her bell softly ringing when the movement of her head was particularly abrupt. From where he stood in the bathroom, he could hear Olivia rummaging around in the bedroom closet. With one hand he unbuttoned his pants and let them drop into a puddle at his ankles and immediately he weakly shuddered and came without so much as touching himself.

He cleaned his mess and tried to steady his breathing. He splashed cold water on his face and did not look at the mirror. Then he went back to the bedroom. Olivia had located her beret. It was the color of blood. We’re already late, she said. He numbly followed her to the car and then they sat in traffic the whole way to Claire’s in Los Feliz. Olivia expressed her disappointment in how they’d probably be the last guests to arrive. Being late, he informed her, was simply a part of his nature as a Frenchman. Then he let her out in front of Claire’s house and drove around in the hills for a while in search of a place where street parking was not strictly verboten. Eventually he accomplished this and, internally testing the depths of his dejection, he walked to the party.

The house was big and airy and all the remodeled thresholds within it were rounded white archways. His host found him in the crypt-like foyer. Claire was an actress who had recently been in a series playing a cyberbullying cheerleader who gets leukemia. She wore an “off-duty” ballerina outfit and had a shaved head. When she saw him she smiled and exclaimed, Bonjour! Then she said some more words to him in French. Bonjour, he replied. The only other thing I know is, uh, je suis Charlie. Like from the terrorist thing. Claire squinted and said, what? Everyone’s in the dining room. She led him to the others. A group of about twelve women as well as a few shiny-looking gay men had gathered around a long table upon which there were slender bottles of wine, dishes of olives and bread and cheese, macarons stacked on tiered mirrored trays, and an assortment of little smooth things like bulbous, spiral-shaped candles and elongated salt shakers which all looked to have been designed such that they might also be well-suited as pleasure objects. To the group he mumbled something by way of a greeting and then he told them that he ought to go cook the fish.

He proceeded to Claire’s beautiful kitchen and prepared his offering. It did not take long. He transferred the pieces of seared fish to plates and sprinkled some little edible orange flowers on top. He ferried the food back to the dining room. The girls made mildly-sincere approving cooing noises. Then he sat down at the table and didn’t talk for an hour. The candles burned low. He was thinking about how he wanted to starve himself to death so everyone would know the magnitude of his grief when Olivia loudly asked why he was being so quiet. He filled his mouth with wine and swallowed. Because I couldn’t think of anything to say. Claire’s face suddenly lit up. Wait, she chirped. He can’t talk since he’s dressed like a mime! Quel charme! Oh, you must do a mime performance for us, she pleaded. Everyone around the table agreed that his striped shirt demanded this of him. He shook his head in protest, but their minds had been up made up. He looked to his girlfriend for mercy. Hold on, said Olivia. Arrête! Put on my beret first! She tossed him the hat like a frisbee. Like a good boy he placed it on his head. The completed costume was deemed satisfactory. Olivia told him, well, go on.

He got up and, stumbling a couple paces back from the table, was surprised to discover that he was very drunk. Everyone swiveled to look at him. His performance began. He tested his palms against the walls of an invisible box. Miraculously within his box a door soon presented itself. He stepped through it and did a little curtsy. This, however, was not sufficient entertainment for his audience. As a second act, then, he placed his wrists together to signify handcuffs and, solemnly ascending a scaffold and bowing such that the noose could be secured around his neck, started kind of flopping around with his tongue out. OK, interrupted Olivia, these are too obvious. And sort of weird? Claire nodded and rubbed her smooth head pensively. In my old acting class, she announced, we did mime techniques in order to practice becoming pregnant with significant communicative depth. So maybe do a complex emotion and we’ll try to guess what it is. He frowned. I really don’t feel— Claire cut him off. Obviously, she said, talking betrays the integrity of the performance.

Because no alternative would present itself, he stood unnaturally still and attempted to think of an emotion. Shadows jumped on the indistinct and seemingly-disembodied faces around the table. His head felt hollow and blank. One of the faces opened its hole and from it there emerged a guess. A guy who’s paralyzed? It hasn’t begun, somebody replied. A long moment ripened and fell on the floor and passed. Then a tear slid down his cheek. The room was silent. He began to cry. Once he had started he could not stop. He covered his face with his hands. Somebody else ventured a guess. Sadness? No, said Claire. It’s more consuming than that. Just look at the fine thread of spittle hanging from the quivering bottom lip. The way the chest collapses inward towards the heart! Yes, here’s a greater affliction. This is misery, she cried. Misery! Misery! Misery! The ladies of the table murmured in agreement and then began to take up the chorus themselves. Misery! Misery! Misery! His crying grew and each sob shook his entire body. Everyone was now chanting. Mis-er-y! Mis-er-y! Mis-er-y! Finally they broke into applause, applause, applause, and in the embrace of the joyous sound he returned to his chair still weeping. Olivia looked at him. She wanted to know, had they guessed correctly? Yes, he managed, they had.

After regaining some control of his emotions and therefore ceasing to be the center of attention, he excused himself and went down a cream-colored hallway. He turned into a room which in his memory had been a bathroom, but was, bewilderingly, a child’s playroom. The unlit space was littered with toys and art materials of the same rounded and Protestant-seeming sensibility as the rest of the house, and this disturbed him. He sat on a tiny stool made of blonde wood and attempted to remember if any child could be associated with Claire. He was drunk and tired and sad. He slid down from the stool and assumed a curled-up position on the carpeted floor. The smoothness and slight concavity of the ceiling made him feel as though he was contained within a massive egg. As his eyes fluttered closed, he halfway dreamt that he was hatching, as punishment for being a bad person, into the world as a snake, new and blind and wet.

Olivia and Claire were standing over him when he awoke. Claire’s mouth was hanging slightly open, and there was a curious expression on Olivia’s face which he did not recognize. It was a sheepish look adjacent to a smile. Disoriented, he awkwardly sat up. The lower half of his body felt cold and heavy, and he realized that he had pissed himself. He had evidently drunk enough liquid to saturate a small area of carpet with urine. A little sound like, oh, floated from Claire’s lips. She turned her back to him, hesitated a moment in the doorway, and left the room. Olivia knelt down in his unfortunate radius, whispered his name, and lightly touched his shoulder. She was still grinning a little and her face looked like a mask of her face that was slightly larger and stiffer than it normally was. Quietly she asked, do you have the car keys? He did. He produced them from his pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She leaned closer to him and, placing her finger beneath his chin, tilted his head up such that his nose was nearly touching hers. Her eyes were black and unrecognizable. There was no harshness in her voice when she spoke. You hate me, she said. I don’t know why, but you do. Strangely it makes me want you more and all the time. But now I’m going to the car. You will wait. And I will decide. Either I will come back to get you or I will go home alone and pack some things and leave. Do you understand? He nodded. Then Olivia kissed him very hard on the lips and, draping his arm over her shoulders, helped him up.

Together they labored down the hall. They went past the dining room where the others sat newly informed of what had transpired. They crossed the foyer and staggered through the front door into the night. Olivia deposited his limp body on the porch steps. She told him, wait here. Wait here. He repeated this instruction to himself as if it were an important thing he ought to remember. Olivia looked down at him and pressed her mouth into a line. She turned away. He watched her walk down the sickle-shaped driveway. As she neared its end, he was struck by the impression that, upon turning onto the street and disappearing from view, Olivia would be somehow indefinitely suspended in her departure. A lifetime might come and go and still she would not have reached the car or determined subsequently if she was to retrieve him. He realized, indeed, that she had no idea where he’d parked. And, because he had resolved to wait here and also because by his own power he could not stand, he remained slumped in the surprising comfort of his vague abandonment until he felt, abruptly and with the startling clarity of someone capable of processing zero information, as though he had unlocked something or solved some long-confounding riddle whose answer he’d perpetually overlooked only because it had been so obvious. All his life he’d been shown endless support and sympathy and accommodation. Of this, he knew, he was utterly undeserving. He deserved nothing. But finally he’d found himself teetering at the exact point at which these resources, these undue acts of care, would be exhausted. This pleased him. So now he only had to do as Olivia had commanded. He would wait. He sunk then into a motionless acceptance, an idiot relief, and it was there, unimaginable luck or fated inevitability, that a quiet, unassuming something found him in the night stinking damply of piss and wine, and surely this quiet something wandering thus into the porchlight was love, was love, was love, was love, as it had, at present, entirely concentrated itself in the unimpeachable situation of Olivia’s journey to the car, in how she and the dark presence of the stranger that lived now within her would either return to claim him or they would not, and in how, despite the slow, luggage-carousel rotation of the universe with its vast clouds of dust and flaming gas, each of these outcomes involved him simply remaining, for a temporarily boundless number of minutes, precisely where he was already sitting like, say, a bug entombed in amber or, alternatively, like a pampered mop-haired lapdog who, upon finding itself inexplicably lost and paralyzed by fear, manages only to turn its button snout to heaven and call out in what seems to it a howl, but which is, of course, just a single, familiar, and short-lived cry: woof.