Wyatt and Nina were at Nina’s ex-boyfriend’s wedding reception in the Grand Ballroom of the Drake Hotel. The groom worked at a law firm that competed with Nina’s, a friction that hadn’t been the source of their split, she’d told Wyatt, but hadn’t helped, either. The bride was quite high up at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Lillian had explained to Wyatt that her group did some of its own lending, but mainly functioned as a contingency office, meaning they were perpetually preparing to take the reins in the event of a “No New York Scenario.” How morbid was that! He loved it.
This was the second ex-boyfriend’s wedding of the summer. Wyatt had only ever had clean breaks with his girlfriends, but Nina’s exes were often around, picking her up from the airport or accompanying her to the college film society to watch long foreign movies—the kind that bored Wyatt to sleep, often literally. Nina’s favorite was Greg, the groom, whom she’d dated the longest and who’d helped her quit smoking with long-distance running. Wyatt’s favorite was Rico, the sculptor, because Wyatt had never met anybody like him.
“I’ve met a million Ricos by now,” Nina had said, when he’d mentioned it. “You can have that one.”
In addition to a full bar, the wedding guests were encouraged to order a Greg, which was wine floated on a Manhattan, since Greg was from New York; or a Lillian, which was vodka, triple sec, and egg white served up with a key lime garnish, since Lillian was from Florida. The ingredients were joyfully lettered on a pair of medallion-shaped chalkboards alongside out- lines of champagne bottles bubbling over with hearts. In Wyatt’s opinion, this was a great wedding, and he had been to many great weddings in the past couple of years, most notably his and Nina’s own. The celebrations ran the gamut. There was the one in Kentucky where they all sat on hay bales. There was the giant Indian wedding at the Yale Club of New York—another of Nina’s exes. There was the one on New Year’s Eve where the two grooms kissed right at midnight. There was the one during a Minneapolis blizzard where everybody silently hoped the electricity would go out, for the sake of a good story. That ceremony had looked a little strange to Wyatt because the people on bride’s side were mostly Black and the people on the groom’s side were mostly white, and it was uncomfortable to see a church split down the middle like that, but of course everyone came together for dancing, and the more Wyatt drank, the more the reception struck him as a really nice metaphor.
Greg and Lillian’s was classic from start to finish. The ceremony was at St. Michael’s, which the card next to the hymn book listed as just one of six buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire; a propitious history for a wedding venue, Wyatt and Nina agreed, in light of the divorce rate. Lillian’s father walked her down the aisle to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and Greg’s brother read from Corinthians 13, including the part about the noisy gong, which not everybody included. The newlywed’s first song was “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and the entrée for all but the vegetarian guests was salmon. Wyatt appreciated this appreciation for tradition. All of these choices were timeless for good reason.
That said, Wyatt also loved when people got creative: when couples wrote their own vows, or when the bride wore yellow, or the groom wore Chuck Taylors. The fact was, he just loved weddings.
He wound his way through the numbered tables, careful not to spill the Greg he’d brought for Nina or the Lillian he’d gotten for himself. He liked fruity drinks, and Nina preferred hers alcohol-forward. As often as not, they needed to switch when the server who brought their orders turned away.
He’d barely had a chance to talk to Nina since the cocktail hour—had barely even seen her, since the sprays of Queen Anne’s lace in the extensive floral centerpiece had screened her from his view. Their table was composed of four couples, all seated apart, though the pairs were shifting and reuniting now that the main course was over. In Nina’s place was a round-faced British girl whose frequent laugh distorted her face like a sob or an orgasm. Even from across the table, she seemed like a lot of fun. Her boyfriend was finishing a story—“I’m serious, he thought it was a real word!”—and she leaned on his shoulder and laughed like her heart was breaking.
He set the drinks down. Nina’s purse was still at her place, its silver chain reflecting the light of the many tea candles. He pulled it over to save the seat next to him, then stood with a hand on the back of his chair. They’d rented the same ones for their reception: gold-painted wood shaped to give the impression of bamboo. He gazed over the table’s post-meal disorder, pleasantly tipsy, until his eyes drew together on his place card, which was set in a notched pewter pawn. His name looked briefly unfamiliar, such that for a moment, he wasn’t even sure it was spelled correctly. In the elaborate calligraphy, it was like a knocked-over tree, the large W a system of flared, denuded roots, the y and t’s like splayed branches. He tilted his head until the tree was right side up.
“Hoot, hoot!” The man two seats down was hooting at him. “You look like an owl with your head like that.”
“I’m Wyatt,” said Wyatt. “I think I had the pleasure of sitting next to your wife.”
“Connie! Where is Connie?” The man turned in his chair until he located her a few tables over, chatting with another couple. “Look at her. Isn’t she just the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?” The man was red in the face, and Wyatt couldn’t tell if he was naturally ruddy or had been over-served. He finished his Lillian while he considered the question.
When the man introduced himself, Wyatt instantly forgot his name and tried subtly to get an angle on his card, which was set in a rook.
Over dinner, Constance had described herself and her husband as a doctor-philanthropist couple, and Wyatt wasn’t sure if the red-faced man was a doctor, a philanthropist, or if both were both. They were older than the others at the table, and he knew that Nina would say this meant she and Wyatt had been at the bottom of the guest list, like lone socks at the bottom of a drawer. She’d said something to that effect at another wedding, when they’d been seated with two family friends and a grab bag of miscellaneous colleagues. This would bother her more, though, as she and Greg were close friends, an intimacy she described as informed by, but separate from, the one before.
Nina had a lot of ex-boyfriends; at least two were at the wedding. They weren’t short relationships, either, but rather had been packed efficiently into her life, with little space in between. Most surprising to Wyatt, besides the high number and the fact that she’d maintained good relations with almost all of them, was that the men were all wildly, undeniably unalike. While Wyatt’s girlfriends all felt very different to him, he acknowledged that from an outside perspective, they might come across as very similar. “I guess I have to hope I’m the apotheosis of your type, and not the latest in a series,” said Nina, the first time she scrolled through his old photos. She then explained that she found comfort in giving things a teleological shape.
“So, are you the doctor or the philanthropist?”
“A little of column A, a little of column B.”
The man thumped his chest with a loose fist. “I’m a heart guy.”
“I have a cousin who’s in fellowship for pediatric cardiology.”
“See, that’s good. Even if you take the most cardiological of pediatricians, you end up with a pretty nice guy, or woman. Unlike your average cardiologist. People tell me all the time, ‘John, you’re the only cardiologist I know that’s not an asshole.’”
John! Wyatt held onto the name like bus money. “So, John, how are you enjoying the party?”
“It’s spectacular. Of course Paul and Jackie are going to throw little Lillian a good one. This is a good place, too. A lot of history, I’m sure.”
Wyatt had read about the venue beforehand, and he remembered things. “The mob was based here for a while. The chef is one of three who claim to have invented Thousand Island Dressing. There’s one famous ghost, The Woman in Red, from the twenties. She found her husband cheating on her after a New Year’s party and killed herself.”
“Just one?” asked John.
Wyatt took a sip of Nina’s Greg and revised his assessment: he remembered things he learned when he was sober. After only a few drinks, information like people’s names was free to come and go.
John went on. “I’m surprised a place like this isn’t more haunted. Have you ever seen a ghost?”
“No,” said Wyatt, “but I’d like to.”
“They’re beautiful and diaphanous.”
“So you have?”
“All the time. We had this old house up in Winnetka with this one teenager in particular who was pretty active. She scared the babysitter one night. Connie had to chase the kid down to pay her because she ran right out the door when we came home. And I go upstairs and there’s this ghost floating between the girls’ beds—we have two girls—and she’s just looking at them, because she’s curious, right? And I told her, ‘You can hang around, but you can’t go scaring the babysitter.’ And she listened, she settled down after that.”
Wyatt couldn’t tell if John was earnest, drunk, or messing with him, but he really liked the guy. “What did she look like?”
“Kind of shimmering. Wearing flapper stuff: beads and feathers and all that.”
“It’ll happen for you. If you want it to happen, it will happen.”
Wyatt thanked him. “Can I ask you something personal? Have you ever seen the ghost of one of your patients? One that, you know, didn’t make it?”
John looked off in thought as if the answer wasn’t immediately available. “You know, I haven’t. Most people don’t even want to come to the hospital when they’re alive. That’s part of the problem.”
“One other question. Is it bad if my heart sometimes feels like it actually skips a beat?”
“You wouldn’t believe how many patients come in asking about palpitations. Most of the time it’s totally normal. Every once in a while it’s a prob- lem. Every once in a blue moon. So where does this Lady in Red haunt?”
“The tenth floor, I believe.”
“Then that’s where I’m headed,” said John, and his eyes flicked to the pawn. “Wyatt, it was nice to meet you. I’ve got to go see about a girl.” He paused to kiss Constance on his way upstairs.
Wyatt enjoyed the Greg more as the ice melted. He scanned the crowd for Nina. A research psychologist he’d gotten to talking with at a retirement party had explained that within split seconds of birth, babies react more quickly to human faces than any other stimuli, and it had changed the way Wyatt looked at people. It felt like a superpower how quickly you could spot a face.
Recorded music played during dinner, but Frank Wonder and the Good Time Players were back now, fiddling with the microphone stands and pulling the straps of their instruments over their heads. Each member wore a splash of purple, and Wyatt pictured a rainbow stack of fedoras in Frank Wonder’s closet to accord with any palette.
The father-daughter dance was a winsome jitterbug to “Isn’t She Lovely.” Lillian and Paul had clearly practiced; they were chatting and laughing as their feet moved in sync. The bride’s expression, made visible at a distance by her dark makeup, was at turns sunny, sentimental, and girlish, and it occurred to Wyatt that this was the first time he’d seen her with her hair down. The photographer came right up close and snapped pictures.
Greg and his mother joined them for “God Only Knows.” These were tricky songs to choose: Wyatt remembered from his own wedding. Often a single romantic lyric would nix an otherwise winner from the list. He’d seen one mother-son pair dance to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a pretty innocuous choice, but at a stray “baby,” the whole audience had rippled with Oedipal discomfort. Or maybe it was just Wyatt.
If you should ever leave me, though life would still go on, believe me...
The mortality stuff in this song had kept him from selecting it, though it was on several mother-son dance lists.
Greg’s mom was little. Nina had mentioned that in passing before, but she was, she was really little, and she had a great face, crinkly, with every line expressing joy. Her son could scoop her up and put her down if he wanted to. He could tuck her into bed like a daughter.
Wyatt wanted to be the kind of son who took care of his parents. As an only child, he would have to be. Still, when he was being honest with himself, or with Nina, he admitted that he didn’t want to. She felt the same way, and the plan was that they’d switch: Nina would take care of his parents when they got older, and he would take care of hers. The plan was a joke, but he hoped they did it anyway.
Now the in-laws joined hands, and the bride and groom fetched their other parents. Wyatt took another Lillian from a passing tray and sat down to enjoy it, watching the crowd go up by factors of two as dancers split and recruited new partners from the crowd. The low yellow light of the first two dances gave way to pink and purple gels, and a machine in the middle of the ceiling threw bright patterns across the room.
A woman near Wyatt sighed loudly through her nostrils. She’d angled her chair towards the dance floor, and her foot was bobbing erratically,completely independent of the music’s tempo. Her unstrapped satin heel bounced in half-sync below it. She watched one couple in particular, pushing her hair back and sweeping her dangling earring behind her ear along with it. A caterer circled the table, bearing wine. He spoke up over the music to offer her merlot from his left hand or chardonnay from his right, to which she responded, “Please.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied.
“I have merlot or chardonnay.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Would you prefer red or white?”
“It makes absolutely no difference to me.”
“There are two options...” he pleaded.
At last, she thrust her glass at him and said, “Here, red, I don’t care.” The band played on.
Wyatt tactfully averted his eyes from the exchange and observed the woman’s leg, which stopped moving as she spoke. The dark roots of her hair were visible through the pale skin of her calf, and a small patch behind her ankle had escaped the razor altogether. Wyatt loved stubble on women’s legs for a couple of reasons. The first was that he’d never felt the texture on his own body—facial stubble being a whole other species—and all his formative experiences with it had been in a sexual context. His high school girlfriend was Greek and never quite smooth, and when he first ran his hand over her leg the whole thing felt so real he thought he was going to lose his mind. And the appearance, too, was intimate, especially an imperfect job like the one on his table neighbor. It made him imagine the woman—any woman—in a state of preparation, expectation even, a record of a private moment displayed like it was nothing at all.
“Merlot or chardonnay?”
Wyatt shifted his mouth as he considered. He liked red better, but he’d had white with his salmon and his glass still had the dregs. He’d drunk Nina’s Greg and thought he’d get her some consolation wine. She’d been gone for some time now. A little turned on from his leg reverie, he thought vaguely of being inside her, a desire that was only partly localized, or even sexual at all, since there was an opposite and equal urge to enclose her. He decided that what he was really in the mood for, though physically impossible in three dimensions, was occupying the exact same space as her, molecule for molecule.
“Sorry. Red for me, and white for the glass—” he squinted like the mark he was pointing at was far in the distance, “—three seats down. And then pass it over here, please.”
He drank half of his, then covered each glass with a cocktail napkin and went to find his wife. His chair tipped over when he stood.
First stop was the men’s room, where he relieved himself for what he knew to be the first of many times that night. He washed his hands, then his face, then drank water by the palmful. Clean and hydrated, he surveyed himself in the elaborately beveled mirror. He’d reached the age where people started to look...not like older versions of themselves, which would have been alright with Wyatt, but rather like worse versions of themselves. He’d stayed vigilant. He’d developed a small belly when his metabolism first slowed down, but he’d been quick to reel it back in. His hair had thinned, but judging from his uncles and cousins, it had reached low tide and would recede no further. He stuck his tongue out. It was blue-black from wine. He looked better in a suit than he used to. He loosened his tie and popped his top button.
He held the door open for a man who was entering the bathroom and saw that it was Austin, the other ex, Nina’s sophomore boyfriend from ten-plus years back. Austin knew Lillian from a postgraduate year at Cambridge, completely independent of Nina. He hadn’t even made the connection until he saw Nina and Wyatt at the welcome party the night before, living, as he did, off the grid as far as social media went. It was a small world, they all agreed.
One by one, some passing comment had rendered each of Nina’s exes irreparably three-dimensional. In Austin’s case, it wasn’t that he’d had a sick mother, or that he wrote plays, or that Nina had spent a summer with his family in Eagle River. It was that he’d made Nina feel “feminine,” a remark that Wyatt wished he could unhear as soon as she said it. That Austin wasn’t obviously hunky only made it worse, because that meant he possessed some other je ne sais quoi animal magnetism. Usually when Nina spoke favorably of a former flame, Wyatt listened for the implied request of him. But what could he do with that?
He said hello and asked if Austin had seen her.
“Wyatt!” Austin clasped Wyatt’s hand, which was still wet. It was a good handshake. How many things like that added up to make someone feel feminine? “I did actually, out in the lobby. I think she was on her way back in to find you.”
Austin had a geometric tattoo that extended onto the back of his hand, which, to Wyatt, implied that Austin knew what he would be doing for the rest of his life. There was no hedging in case of future employment.
“I’d love to catch up with Nina while I’m in town. It’s been a minute. Maybe the three of us could get coffee.”
“That would be nice,” Wyatt said, and he meant it. As uncomfortable as Austin and his ambiguous masculinity made him, Austin had worked on an oil rig for a year, and Wyatt had a lot of questions about that.
“I won’t keep you in the bathroom,” said Austin.
“And I won’t keep you from your business.”
They shook hands once more.
Back in the ballroom, Nina was nowhere in sight. He checked their table, finished his wine, and was considering making his way to the second-floor balcony for an aerial view when Frank Wonder called, “Now we want everyone on the floor!” The Good Time Players looped the same few measures as he spoke. “Every single person in this room. Grandma, Grandpa, you too. If you don’t know the dance that’s just fine because we will tell you the moves.”
The female singer spoke over the ambling bass. “If everybody fits on the dance floor, it means we’ve got too many wallflowers. I want spillover. I want to see people on the rug.” There was a touch of elementary school teacher in her cadence—the kind who’s not afraid to cancel recess—and the remaining holdouts filed obediently onto the floor and loosely arranged themselves into rows.
Wyatt followed the bare feet of the teenage girl in front of him. After two quarter-turn hops, he was in front, and presumably it was his feet that were watched now. The couple times he messed up, he made up for it by owning his mistakes: smiling and shrugging and doubling down on his own enjoyment. He glanced around for Nina.
The song ended, and with the singers’ implied permission, half the dancers returned to their seats and conversations. Not Wyatt, though.
First, he liked dancing. He’d been at the center of the dance floor at his fraternity parties and at bars after college. A normal floor would often become a dance floor just by virtue of Wyatt’s presence. Then there were the fallow years, when everyone he knew—himself included—turned into a homebody. But now people were getting married, and he could get down once a month, twice during summer. Nina said he danced like Jerry Lewis, and when he asked if that was a compliment, she said, “Oh yeah.”
Second, Wyatt liked Greg, and had a great rapport with Lillian. It was all good. He knew that. Nina knew that. Greg and Lillian knew that. But the other guests didn’t necessarily know that, and he wouldn’t pretend it hadn’t crossed his mind that people might be glancing to see how he was doing.
Third, eventually Nina would appear, and she’d either find him loitering around the table or having a great time on his own. Which kind of husband would anyone choose, given the choice?
There was nothing like a live band. True to form for Greg and Lillian, most of the selections were fun-for-the-whole-family classics. Now Frank Wonder was singing “More Than a Woman” in admirable falsetto, and in speculating whether he himself could hit those notes, a bright yawp escaped from Wyatt’s throat. The timbre was nothing to write home about, but he’d hit the pitch. High notes were easier to reach as the day went on; he’d learned this from an opera singer he’d met at a gallery opening. Well, case in point.
He made it his mission to dance with the very young and the very old. He rescued a sulking niece from her own tantrum during “Build Me Up,Buttercup.” He supported a matriarch through “Let’s Stay Together.” He instigated a conga line for “Love Train” and accepted no one’s excuses for sitting it out.
He was so happy. He was so happy! This was what he wanted his funeral to be like: a celebration. Who could he tell? Who put this thing together? How could he include instructions in his will for the party planner of this event without spooking her? Or “him,” of course. Men could plan parties, too.
But probably “her.”
He loved thoughts like that: little let’s-be-honest asides between him and himself.
He would ask the man and woman of the hour, who had just swirled into view. Funny how little time a person got to spend with their new spouse at the reception. It was probably funny to this bride and groom, just as it had been funny to him and Nina.
“Greg and Lillian. Gregory and Lil.” Wyatt made two finger guns, one for each. “Is that ring titanium, Greg? Mine too.”
“It’s tungsten carbide.”
“You’re a dancing machine,” said Lillian.
“Fire on the dance floor,” said Greg. “Hot! Literally and figuratively, my man. Maybe you should cool down a little before you get back out there. My brother will help get you some cold water and the best seat in the house, won’t you, Stephen?”
Wyatt felt himself propelled into the best man’s arms. “The Great Chicago Fire on the dance floor. That’s me.”
“That’s you.” Stephen looked like a tall version of Greg.
“I am hot,” Wyatt admitted.
“You’re burning up, big guy,” said Tall Greg.
“You’re the big guy. Look at that wingspan. You ball?”
“That’s a good sport. Easy on the knees. You can do it your whole life.” They were at the bar now, where the bartender filled a plastic cup with soda water from a nozzle.
“I love fizzy water. It’s like breathing and drinking at the same time,” Wyatt told them, then decided it was time to escape from Stephen.
The curtains behind the band had been opened during dinner, and he remembered being curious about the view. When Stephen turned away, Wyatt set a course for the south wall. He ducked and dodged and picked and rolled through chairs and tables and people. He passed through the loud cone of sound in front of the speakers into the relative quiet behind, found a part in the gold drapery, and insinuated himself into the folds.
It was snowing outside, and night. The street was a glassy obsidian, lit white and red as cars passed casting wet, beige piles aside. He rolled his forehead from side to side on the cool pane. The script on the awning across the street read The Grand Ballroom. “If you’re there, then where am I,” he wondered, then remembered that he was at the Drake Hotel, looking over Walton Street at the Knickerbocker.
Wrapped in the curtain’s white plastic backing, he was reminded of hiding in round racks of clothing as a child while his mother shopped.
The parallel ballroom was hosting its own wedding. On the curb, a man smoked while a woman stood apart from him, shivering in a thin wrap. They looked off toward separate places until she spoke as animatedly as possible in the cold, gesturing with her elbows still locked against her body. He smiled, took one last drag, and stamped out his half-finished cigarette. They went inside. Another woman, this one in a coat and voluminous scarf, looked from her phone at the passing cars. During a break in traffic, her eyes moved across the Drake, up to the second floor, meeting Wyatt’s. She laughed; she waved. It took him a moment for him to figure out how she was able to see him, but of course, he was on her side of the curtains. She confirmed her ride with a driver and disappeared. He’d been too slow to wave back.
He still went to the department store with his mother. That’s how she did Christmas: she’d fill a stocking with knickknacks and then take him to Bloomingdales.
How many more Christmases would he spend with his parents? His mother was a spry sixty-six, and the Moores had long lifespans. His father was sixty-two. It could be as many as thirty, even thirty-five Christmases. That seemed like too many. Numbers like five or ten, however, were unequivocally too few. He tried to locate the sweet spot—sixteen? twenty-two? seventeen? twenty-one?—until he realized what he was doing, and he shifted his attention back to the Knickerbocker. A woman in a tight dress and miraculously tall heels passed the main entrance in chilly, mincing steps. The doorman watched appreciatively, then snapped for the valet’s attention to share the experience.
From the world he’d left behind, Wyatt heard the long diphthong of an “O” buttressed by arpeggiated chords. He loved this song! His eyebrows lifted as high as they could go. The corners of his mouth and tops of his ears perked up, too. He unwound himself from the drapery and made his way back to the room.
I’ve hungered for your touch, a long, lonely time.
Frank Wonder crooned, fedora pulled low over his eyes. The female singer oohed in the background, tambourine slack at her side. Wyatt looked through the dark crowd. People were holding each other close and moving in their own personal circles. Some kissed. A few women looked asleep standing up. It must be what they looked like in bed together, when they were at ease and alone.
He was sure that the dancers would part and Nina would be there. He envisioned the two of them, spotlit, approaching each other from opposite sides of the floor. He swayed side-to-side like they were already together.
I need your love. I need your love.
He was almost crying. Needing love was the purest feeling in the world. Everybody needed love. He was having a profound aesthetic experience, and his knowledge of that did nothing to diminish it.
The song ended and Nina hadn’t appeared. Instead, there was Lillian.
“How are you feeling, Wyatt?”
The Good Time Players transitioned into an uptempo song, and Wyatt’s mood transitioned with it. The lights in the room brightened. Everybody was bright pink.
“Lillian! Let’s find the photographer and take a picture, you and me. The beneficiaries of the Greg-Nina split.” He tried to take her by the hands.
“I don’t know that we need to document exactly that.”
“You’re the best, Lillian. Without you there’s no me.”
“That’s very sweet.”
“I mean it! I owe you so much for the right of first refusal thing. How that whole thing worked out. I lay my life at your feet.”
“Oh, Wyatt, stand up. What are you talking about?”
“The right of first refusal.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.” She looked down at him like he was speaking nonsense.
“You know, you know, when Nina called up Greg and said, ‘Greg, I’m at a point in my life when I’m ready to get married, and I’m giving you the right of first refusal.’” Wyatt held his thumb and pinky between his ear and mouth, then remembered an actor he’d met at a fundraiser had explained that a more professional telephone pantomime was to grip the air as if holding an invisible receiver. He switched.
“Stop that for a moment. What?”
He got to his feet. “Oh, you know, he thought about it and got back to her and said, ‘No thank you, not right now,’—because you two were dating—and next thing you know she meets me and the rest is history.”
“After you but before me. So, three years ago? Three point five?”
“He never told me about that.”
“He never told you? In a way you’re the hero.” He added the last part because Lillian looked perturbed. It was a happy sequence of events, and he worried that he’d mistold the story. “Heroine. If it had been the other way around, and Greg had right-of-first-refusalled Nina when we just started dating, I don’t know what would have happened. You guys were rock solid from the beginning, is what I’m getting at. You’re a special lady, is what the story means. Your love story made my love story possible, is the point.”
“Who told you?”
“Nina did.” It was a funny question. He liked Greg, but it’s not as though the two of them had heart-to-hearts.
Lillian shook her head for so long that Wyatt almost giggled. “Lies of omission are that man’s specialty.” Then she nodded for just as long and said, “But you’re right, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not a big deal. It’s not a big deal.”
“Excuse me,” said Lillian.
“You’re excused,” said Wyatt gamely, and they parted.
Where was Nina? At least three songs had just played that they always made it a point to dance to: “September,” “Shout (Parts 1 and 2),” and he couldn’t remember the third.
Now the music stopped and Greg and Lillian were cutting the cake while everybody, including Wyatt, cheered. Now Wyatt was at his seat, resting, eating a piece of that very same cake—or a piece from a larger, cheaper sheet cake in the kitchen, if they did it like he and Nina did. Now he was back on the case.
“She was out to the lobby, but that was a while ago.”
This was fun, like he was on a quest.
It was confusing that the lobby was at once brighter and quieter than the ballroom. It seemed like it should be one way or the other. How could a place with a chandelier that sparkly and a plant that big be so still? Even his footsteps on the blue carpet were muffled. Nina wasn’t there, but Wyatt saw a friend of Greg’s that Nina had briefly dated, pre-Greg, holding one of her green strappy shoes and speaking with the receptionist.
“So she’s close!”
“I’m seeing if they have something for this,” said Chase, showing him where the heel had detached from the sole.
“You’re the guy to fix it. The guy!” Wyatt turned to include the receptionist in the conversation: “This guy knows all about glue. But where is the woman that belongs to that shoe? That rhymed.”
“She went that way maybe fifteen minutes ago.”
“Glue, shoe. Thanks for the clue.”
“Are you alright, Wyatt?”
He turned down the hallway. Like anyone, he often considered the ways his life could have gone differently. Sometimes he imagined what it would have been like if he and Nina had met earlier: what it would have been like to know her in college, or high school, or even childhood; what if it had been her at all those points instead of Emily, or Sasha, or Hannah, or nobody. Rarely did he think about what it would have been like to have not met Nina at all. They’d been seated together on an airplane; it would have been easy.
Vertigo spun up from his stomach. It was like he was looking at the bridge that connected his life before they met with his life after they met, and seeing for the first time how narrow it was and how steep the drop was below. He almost fell over in real life, but he steadied himself by remembering that they did meet and by pressing his hand to the wall.
There she was at last, outside the glass door of the Business Center.
“Taking care of business?” he asked, approaching.
He could see now that she was crying, but it didn’t matter because they shared everything—legally and spiritually—and soon she would share his happiness. She had a million ex-boyfriends but only one husband, and that husband was him: Wyatt. Wyatt the knocked-down tree. Wyatt the dancing machine.
He tried to restrain his expression into one of concern, but a smile spread heedlessly across his face. He was a dog, that, in wagging its tail, wags its whole body. He waved at her and she kept crying.
It was simple. He loved her more, and the realization thrilled him. Nina loved Wyatt more than she’d ever loved anyone, and yet still he loved her more, because he was good at love. He was expansive: he could fit the entire Drake Hotel into his capacity for love. He could take in the whole city of Chicago, large and looming, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man of love. He vomited benevolently onto the floor. The lemon buttercream and the raspberry jam, barely digested, were still sweet. A little dill-imbued acid fol- lowed. He rested against the millwork and watched the liquid settle on the carpet, which was brownish-yellow and composed of abstract, tessellated shapes anyway. They could buff that out, no problem.
“You missed the cake. I haven’t seen you in—” He scrutinized the hands on his watch. It was either eleven thirty or twelve thirty. “Hours.”
She drew her ring fingers along the bottoms of her eyes, more or less smearing her mascara back into place. She’d been crying daily for months: in the mornings, in the evenings, after sex, on the phone from the bathroom at work. Wyatt had almost forgotten it was unusual. “Hours?” She took his wrist to confirm. “Not hours. I’m sorry, though. Something about the music made me flip out. I kept starting to come back in, and then I’d hear it and flip out again. We should do something about this,” she said, of the pale, fragrant patch on the carpet.
“Tomato, to-mah-to. What’s up?”
“It’s not even worth talking about.”
“I vomited. Now I want you to vomit.” He reached for her face but undershot and swept the air.
“I don’t know. I just feel so lost lately, and then tonight especially.”
He knew about the lately, so he asked about the especially: “Are you sad about Greg?
“It feels like that a little, but I know that’s not really it.”
Wyatt waited for her to gather her thoughts.
“I feel like a drag,” she said.
“You’re not a drag.”
“I experience myself as a drag. I just feel so bad lately. It’s something different every day."
He nodded. He knew this.
“Tonight, I’m jealous. Not jealous of Lillian being with Greg: more jealous of Lillian being Lillian. She’s so fucking successful, and I peaked in law school. And I wouldn’t compare myself to her except for Greg, and so I get angry at him, and myself, and even you. But tomorrow it will be something else. Do you love me, even when I’m like this?” Her red cheeks and nose greened her hazel eyes. Mucus in various states of evaporation rested on her upper lip.
“Would you love me even if I were always like this?”
He knew this wasn’t the first time she’d asked someone this question. It wasn’t even the first time she’d asked him. She wouldn’t always be like this. He knew she’d had periods like this during every one of her relationships, and he could see each boyfriend saying yes, one after the other, just as he was doing now.
She brushed something off her dress. He blinked, and at the end of the blink it was morning and he was in bed.
Nina was still wearing mascara, and a small slash of black marked her pillow. He watched a small hair go in and out of her nostril for a while until she breached consciousness with a long, lugubrious groan. They regarded each other. Nina spoke first.
“If I have a hangover, you must be dying.”
But he felt fine, which meant he was probably still a little drunk, and consequences were still to come. He said as much.
Lying on her side, her top breast hung like a paisley swirl. He reached under and pushed it up a little.
He responded with a Nixon growl: “I am not a perv.”
They hadn’t pulled the shade down, and the flat winter light made their bedroom unfamiliar, like the comforter and the bookshelf and the fiddleleaf fig belonged to other people. He rolled toward his night table to check his phone. At the first bit of pressure, sparklers of pain burst all down his right side.
“Why do I hurt?” he asked.
“You ate it hard when we walked out to the car.”
What percentage of broken hips occurred from dark ice on dark sidewalks outside winter parties? Orthopedic surgeons probably made their quota for the year during the holidays, he thought, just like retailers. “What else did I miss?”
“I had an existential freakout and you said we should have a baby, like that would solve it, and I got mad at you for being sexist. You threw up a few times. You also apparently told Lillian about that time I tried to get back together with Greg. He just texted me.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Wyatt rubbed his eyes. “I remember that one, mostly. Totally inappropriate, but I did think she already knew.”
“That’s Greg for you.”
They gazed at the light from their phones until Wyatt spoke. “Can I ask you something?”
He was embarrassed to look at her and kept his eyes on his screen. “If it had been the other way around, if Greg had come to you when we first got together and said, ‘Leave him for me,’ would you have done it?”
“You asked me that last night.”
“What did you say?”
“Among other things, I said I would only answer that question once.” He looked at her. She was pleased with herself.
“Please, Nina, I can’t remember.”
“You’ve got to drink less at these things, Wyatt. You don’t want to end up like your granddaddy.”
The hangover was settling between his eyebrows like snow. Jealousy, too. He found himself growing petty, earthbound. He wanted equality. He wanted to go back to the night before, when it didn’t matter.
“I think you would have done it at the very beginning, and that’s okay. My revised question is: what is the last date you would have done it? After what point would you have definitely said no?”
She shrugged as though mystified.
“After that Yellowstone trip we were probably in the clear. Anytime before that? Like that June? We had a great June.” He watched for any reaction, but Nina’s poker face was airtight. “Nina Nina Nina Nina. Nina Nina Nina Nina.”
“That’s not going to work.”
Nina had it, whatever “it” was: some trade-secret proportion of need and gratitude and intelligence and who knows what else that made him do terrible things, like feign illness to get out of friends’ birthday parties, or log onto an ex-girlfriend’s email in front of Nina to show her that, no, Lauren didn’t disparage her in her biweekly notes to her mother.
“What about Austin?”
“Austin who I dated for nine months when I was twenty? That Austin?” She talked about her exes all the time but darkened at any mention of his, saying, “No, go on, I’m interested,” but with an unmistakable clip.
She went to the bathroom and called to Wyatt over the sound of the faucet. “I look like I escaped from a mental institution. Please tell me I’m pretty.”
He loved her more; she needed him more. Was that, then, equality? The patience, the commitment, the stability. Without Wyatt there would be no it. He held the means of production, so to speak. Or was it the other way around? Was he the labor? It had been thirteen years since Sociology.
The toilet flushed.
“You look unsettled. You look like you need coffee,” she said from the doorway. She was pretty.
“Coming right up. But first I’m going to belly-flop on you,” and she did, naked and graceless and warm.