Editor’s Note: We received 72 entries in our first ever (but we hope not the last) Short Story Contest. Our four judges chose this sharply observed story by Stephanie Gangi as a runner up. To learn more about Stephanie and the other winners, whose work we will publish soon, click here.
“Guys in polar bunkers, Antarctica. Space stations and submarines. They’ve studied them. The isolation.”
Stuart is reading and summarizing out loud again, another pandemic update. Diane hears him but doesn’t answer, which he won’t notice. She examines her face in the bathroom mirror. She goes for the handheld magnifying mirror again. With the magnifying mirror, there’s something new to see every day. The wrinkles, the way they reach further, dent deeper, grow tendrils. She accepts them; she’s in her mid-sixties; she has rationalized that wrinkles are feminist, and now the beauty industry has caught on and the advertisements say so too. She moves closer and sees an age spot and another, the crimped patch on her cheek, the upper lip today narrower than yesterday and the rose of her lips, faded, fading. Hair has sprouted in new places and disappeared from where it has always been. She’s missed a salon visit, and so the hair on her head, cut months ago to frame her face, has lost its layers; it’s lank, the silvery highlights gone squirrel-colored.
Diane lifts her chin up to tighten the jawline and tilts her head to her best side. Over the last three months, she has taken delivery of brightening shampoo and voluminizer, a teeth-whitening device, the red light skin stimulator, the hyarulonic mask. She is waiting for the microneedle, a bestseller, something to do with resurfacing the skin.
From behind her door Diane calls, “What, Stu? I don’t hear you.” He hates being called Stu.
“They’ve studied them! The isolation!”
S-T-F-U-Stu, she chants to herself, a singsong marriage mantra that gives her juvenile satisfaction. She doesn’t want him reading coronavirus news to her. She ignored that isolation article for a reason. Diane is cherrypicking her plague information and that’s called coping.
This morning she got UPS notification that the dog paraphernalia is almost here. She can track it on a live map. Crate, collar and leash, pee pads just in case, food, and treats. In less than a week Walter, the senior terrier mutt she rescued from the internet, will be handed over, contactless of course, on the street in front of their building.
Stu doesn’t know about Walter yet. Diane is in the pre-announcement phase. She window-shopped rescue dogs online for months before lockdown, so technically, plausible deniability-wise, the dog decision is grandfathered in. She brought it up again recently and her delivery was so casual it became background noise, and Stu didn’t protest because he wasn’t paying attention. Which Diane interprets as approval. She’s been playing the long game of Stu-management since they first got married and anyway, how else to endure thirty-six years with him? How now, in isolation?
Diane takes a breath to oxygenate her bad attitude. She leaves the mirror. She flips the bathroom light switch off. “Studied who? What? I couldn’t hear you.”
“Never mind. What are you doing in there all the time? Drugs?”
Inside she begs, Stop asking me what I’m doing in the bathroom. To Stu she says, “Don’t I wish,” which she really, really does. Diane can’t look at Stuart. His ample presence, the way he’s settled in, sets her teeth on edge. He’s in “his” chair which is actually her reading chair, the one she researched and tested in person and then purchased online at a better price. He has his laptop on his new laptop pillow-desk, an item that enrages her. It’s the middle of the day and he is wearing plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a Patagonia fleece half-zip, and slippers. She’s wearing almost the same outfit—probably everybody they know is wearing a variation—but an angry fizz starts anyway along her droopy jawline until she’s almost boiling inside.
“Stuart, go outside. Get some fresh air. Please.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me? Permanently?” Stu has had prostate cancer and his high-risk status informs his every move since the pandemic began. He has been cancer-free for ten years and/but has not stepped outside the apartment in twelve weeks. Diane does their food shopping during Over-60 Hour, the package-mailing at the UPS store, and takes a book to the park, weather permitting. She meets up with a friend a couple of times a week. They sit at opposite ends of a park bench, both masked. The friend is the same age as Diane and single and seems so relaxed that Diane resents her more each time. She needs a miserable married friend. Or a dog. Walter is coming, she remembers, and her heart lifts.
“It’s a beautiful day. It won’t kill you.”
“You don’t know that. Aerosolized droplets. Anyway, all you ever did was complain about me never being home. Now I’m home.” He winks at her.
Stuart was an untenured academic at Barnard when they met – a history teacher – who course-corrected in mid-life and became a vintner-entrepreneur. At the time, Diane assumed he was adding vintnering as a side gig, an old-hippie hobby to keep himself relevant. She was cautiously supportive until he announced that he had quit teaching altogether and invested their modest money in a Long Island vineyard. That didn’t work out, so after five hard years during which Diane had to step up, income-wise, he ended up as a high-end wine salesman, schmoozing the renowned restaurateurs and chefs and sommeliers of Manhattan. It was more work than he bargained for. He’d gotten to the point—the age—where he’d lost interest in sales quotas or carrying samples cases and wasn’t the least bit interested in the wine industry and its trends.
Now of course, bars and restaurants are closed. Diane tried to discuss it with Stu after coming across reports of places going under, establishments owned by people he knew well, but he seemed indifferent to the sudden deaths of dive bars and roadhouses and corner joints and five-star destinations, the many people out of work but also, the loss of a nice universal thing, dining out. Diane and Stu themselves had once traveled on Stuart’s company dime to visit a formerly-secret location after seeing it on an episode of Parts Unknown. They ate a spectacular meal cooked out of a home kitchen at a dining room table that had been dragged into a courtyard, and sampled wine from vines grown 100 yards from the table with six strangers who had also travelled many hours and had become their actual friends. On Facebook, but still. The flavors of cultures and climates, partaking with strangers, not drinking alone. What would happen to all that?
Stu couldn’t care less. Stu wasn’t going back to work, ever. Stu was retired.
Diane goes to the refrigerator which is too full. Since late February, they’ve eaten three complete meals a day, plus snacks, plus dessert, plus cocktails, plus more snacks. Diane put the scale in the back of a closet last March. Today the kitchen is sheathed in a film of olive oil and crumbs. Everything is sticky. “If you go out, I can clean.”
The apartment, two bedrooms, one bathroom, kitchen open on to the living room, with good light, was a place she used to love coming home to. All Diane sees any more is old paint on the walls, dusty moldings, grey grout, grime, too much furniture. Everything non-functional annoys her. Why is that decorative bowl on the table? When was the last time anyone looked at those art books? Why Persian rugs, two ottomans, all these pillows? Miranda, their Randy, had moved into a white-box studio in Brooklyn six months ago and when Diane saw it, her heart sank. It was featureless, charmless, expensive. Now, sheltering at home has given “home” new meaning. Or its meaning has changed. Diane longs for her own blank walls, her own non-shareable chair and Walter, whom she does not yet know but loves.
“Listen. Listen to this.” Stu bends to his laptop screen. “The research shows, there are phases. First is confusion and panic, then settling in and enjoying the novelty, and then intense agitation and conflict. Loneliness. They can chart exactly when the bad stuff happens. Third quarter.”
Diane picks up a grungy sponge by its edge and drops it into the trash, which needs to go out. She wraps a wad of paper towels around her hand. She sprays stuff on the counter and works her way across. “The third quarter? How do we know what quarter we’re in? Does it say where we are on the timeline? What happens during the bad part?” She can easily imagine, violence and suicide. It’s why she didn’t read the article in the first place. She is only feigning interest so she can soften him up for the Walter reveal. Diane sweeps the floor and pushes dirt into the dirty dustpan.
Their own phase of intense agitation and confict and loneliness began about ten years into the marriage, when they were living in the suburbs, and he became the vintner and lost the money. He couldn’t face the consequences and took off. He left Diane holding the bag, although it was actually an envelope with a note full of excuses and $1,500 in cash, not tremendously helpful since they had a house and a couple of cars and a kindergartner. The fear was that he was dead by suicide. The cops came and searched the attic. He finally called when he was ready to come home. In Diane’s memory, the phone rings, a landline. Randy hangs on to her legs. Her knees buckle when she hears Stuart’s voice. She hushes Randy. Baby, it’s your daddy! She lets the police know and the lawyer. Lawyers. She lets his mother know and his shrink. Alive!
Diane drove out to the airport and rode the people-mover to his arrival gate. She scanned every face, she watched for him, afraid to blink and miss him, but afraid to see him, her broken man. She could not wait for his arms around her, his explanation and his remorse. His assurances. She saw him before he saw her, gliding by in the opposite direction on the people-mover. Her face lit to greet him but he never looked up from his phone. He was chewing gum, as usual. She noticed he had gotten some sun. She called his name and he turned and saw Diane and smiled and shrugged as he moved in the wrong direction which was actually the right direction, towards the exit. When he shrugged, her stomach flipped. She stumbled off the people-mover and walked back. They went home. He cried and apologized in a way that sounded like he was blaming her for his bad decisions: she wanted a house, the cars, clothes, vacations. Once Stu’s crisis abated, for him, he never mentioned it again. Diane brought it up only when it was impossible to avoid—judgements had been handed down, and they owed a few people a lot of money—he went morose and uncharacteristically quiet and he sulked and ignored her.
She stayed married to him, which Diane still thinks was the right thing to do. Everyone deserves a second chance. However, as the years have proven, her decision to stay with Stu is complicated. Randy was the ostensible reason, yes. There was so much failed business fallout to deal with, partnerships to dissolve and agreements to undo, it took years and the rest of their money. Diane took on the project management of all that, and of course there was parenting, and then her actual job as an HR executive, where she was having some success. Alongside the basics, keeping a roof over their heads and the cabinets stocked and at least one car in the driveway, Diane was working overtime to camouflage the catastrophic reversal of fortune to the world, and restore the façade of their life. It became her vocation, and when she thinks about that time now, she thinks that she might have gone overboard; but also, that she saved them.
Years later, a few years back, they were in the fancy restaurant of Stu’s prized client, and after a couple of glasses of superior white burgundy, Diane got up the nerve to say, “Remember everything that happened? What did happen? I don’t think we’ve ever really come back from that.” She meant financially but also, as a couple. Stuart pushed his plate away. He sat back in his chair and glared at her. He hissed, because there could be no scene, “Is there a statute of limitations? Will it never end?” “It,” being, she guessed, Diane’s persecution of Stuart since their fall. Diane had to admit, the answer to his question was No.
When she thinks about that evening as she sweeps now, wow. They are still together. In lockdown. The burn and throb come as if summoned, and her left eye twitches.
“Anyway,” Stu says, “just clean around me.”
The burn, the throb, and since the 2016 election, which was also the year she turned sixty, the eye twitch. The election outcome and the unleashed misogyny emphasized a horrific truth that she had previously ignored but now could not: Men think women count, but not as much. Stu was what Diane’s mother called “one of the good ones,” the laughably low bar being that he was less likely to fuck other women or smack her around, for which she was meant to be grateful. In the olden days, the quid pro quo was “security,” but that reciprocity hadn’t worked out. Diane has a good job and she likes her work. Had, had a good job. Liked her work.
She’d been head of HR at a global media corporation for decades until she was offered the early-retirement option she knew she’d better take since the company-wide reduction in force, the infamous RIF, was orchestrated within two weeks of the coronavirus news. In the beforetimes, she was often the only woman in meetings about hiring decisions, performance and salary reviews, cuts to medical coverage, the killing off of pensions, and complaints of hostile workplace or sexual harassment, sometimes involving one of the VIPs in the conference room. Diane always came in overprepared, waited patiently, modulated her voice, tried to keep the focus on the data and next steps but invariably when her turn came the men sat back in their chairs, dropped their eyes to their phones or took a “bio break.” They tabled sign-off, put a pin in her ideas, could not muster the bandwidth or budgets for her recommendations. She knew it was happening, but it would have been career-limiting to call them out. She leaned in to it to protect her paycheck, their health insurance, Randy’s college money and a modest 401k, which was all they had after Stu’s vineyard setback.
During the days of the Kavanaugh hearing, her male colleagues laughed in a kind of unpleasant chorus and fell silent when Diane entered the room. She DVR’d every second of the four-day testimony and watched with Stu every night, and every night, he would turn to her with some asinine question, like a television talking head. “Let me play devil’s advocate. Why did she wait so long?” or “Just for the sake of argument. Why wouldn’t she tell her mother?” His fake inquiring tone incensed her. He wanted to put her on the spot, rebut, score points. He waited for her reply with aggressive courtesy, like a game show host. Diane would not respond. Stu re-crossed his legs, picked up the newspaper, and gave it a vigorous shake as if to say, I rest my case.
Since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Diane has been everything Stuart hates: argumentative, caustic, humorless, unfun. Difficult.
Just clean around me.
All this clarity hurts. Diane wonders if she’s getting sick. She tests her chest with a cough, focuses on her throat to see if it’s dry, think-feels the rims of her eyes to see if they are hot. She goes to her phone and checks the live map for UPS. She texts the dog rescue ladies whom she feels have become friends. They send today’s video of Walter, which she mutes before she plays in case he barks and alerts Stuart to his existence. There he is, an old stray, grey-muzzled, slowly loping along a Staten Island sidewalk. He turns to look at the camera, at Diane, with his milky senior eyes.
Stuart says, “Are you coughing?”
“Stuart,” she begins.
“Uh-oh. What now?” He’s not stupid.
“We’re going to have a guest.”
“Guest? No guests. Just do Zoom or whatever.”
“I’m not talking about Zooming. I’m talking about in person.” She puts the broom away. She comes into the living room and sits on the sofa. “How’s the chair?”
“You were in the bathroom doing whatever you do. You weren’t even in here. It’s a just a chair, Dee.” She hates being called Dee.
“I’m getting a dog.”
He lets out a snort like a laugh, like it’s preposterous, like she is preposterous. “A dog? No, no. No you’re not. A puppy? Seriously? With all this going on?” He waves at the deadly atmosphere.
“Not a puppy. A senior. Walter.” She stands and adjusts the blinds which are sooty, turns the potted plants which are wilting, chops at the pillows, which surely have mites.
“Walter? From where? Don’t you consult me? I might be allergic. It’s too much to take on. What about traveling?”
“I don’t need to consult anyone,” she says and adds, ominously, “You can keep your distance if you’re allergic.”
Diane goes to the mirror. She splashes her face and applies glow cream with SPF 50. She sprays revitalizer. She flips over and spritzes her hair to fluff it up. She dabs tint on her lips, even though the lower half of her face will be covered by her mask. She changes into jeans, too tight, and her favorite shirt and a jacket with big pockets, which will be perfect next week for Walter-walking. She doesn’t say, “I’m going out.” She doesn’t take the trash.
It’s glorious, almost spring, still chilly but too sunny to worry about it. Diane thinks it’s funny how now anyone without a mask seems hostile. With the stay-at-home order in force, there are so few cars she can walk down the middle of the street to the park. There’s her single friend, the relaxed friend, sitting on their favorite bench. She’s wearing shorts with her bare legs stretched out, getting some sun.
The friend sees Diane. She holds up a tote bag and says, “I brought sandwiches! And wine!”
“How will we do this?” Diane asks. The women slide bits of sandwich under their masks, and hold the masks up for fast sips of wine from Solo cups. They discuss the flattening curve, better odds, fewer sirens and regular things, too, the spring thaw, the funny ducks on the river, and where to buy age-appropriate shorts. They watch a lone young man washing down the tables and chairs of the little café in the park. A Sharpie sign says See You Soon.
The women sit under the same old sky in the same old park near the ever-flowing river. Diane’s phone dings: Randy with the Zoom link for later. She smiles and says, “My daughter.” Her phone dings: UPS. Walter’s supplies have arrived. She looks forward to unpacking, organizing, getting ready. A project. She scrolls through her photos and picks her favorite and shows it to her friend, her new good friend. They are both buzzed. “Look,” she says, waving the phone screen. “I’m getting an old dog. His name is Walter.”
Stephanie Gangi is a poet, novelist, short story writer and essayist living and writing in New York City. Her debut novel, The Next, was published by St. Martin’s Press and her second, Carry the Dog, from Algonquin Books will be published in November 2021 and has garnered early praise. Gangi’s work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Catapult, LitHub, Hippocrates Poetry Anthology, McSweeney’s, New Ohio Review, NextTribe, and The Woolfer. She’s at work on her third novel, The Good Provider.