Our Time Is Up

A woman wearing a light blue coat is reflected in a window
Illustration by James Lee Chiahan
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Clare Sestanovich reads.

The mirrors reveal when it’s time to clean again. A thin layer of dust on the one in the bedroom, toothpaste and fingerprints on the one in the bathroom, which doubles as a cabinet door. All the windows become mirrors at the end of the day, when it takes a subtle adjustment of the eyes to look through yourself instead of at yourself. But the windows will never be cleaned; the most that can be hoped for is a hard, purifying rain. There’s a yellow streak of bird shit on the glass in the living room, crusted over now, and the kitchen window still bears the ghostly pattern that Angela once traced on the fogged-up surface while waiting for something on the stove, she can no longer remember what: a pot to boil, a formless egg to acquire edges and turn opaque, a single drop of oil to escape its pan and scald her out of her thoughts.

Since when does Angela care about cleaning? The other day, at dinner with a friend, she found herself extolling the virtues of a certain type of mop. She recently learned several methods for removing stains from supposedly stainless steel. She has even wished, on occasion, that she owned an iron.

An iron! More symbol than tool at this point, and Angela doesn’t like what the symbol stands for. She’s not a housewife. For one thing, she rents. True, she’s married, but there wasn’t really a wedding, because she’s opposed to weddings. She’s employed. In theory, empowered.

The thing about the mop is that it’s satisfying. Under the supervision of a therapist, Angela and Will have been talking a lot about satisfaction. How to define it, where to find it, whether they can feel it—have it—at the same time. Each swipe of the mop proves its usefulness, a glistening arc on a floor that a second ago looked O.K. but now is revealed to have been dusty and dull all along. The water in the bucket turns gray.

Angela doesn’t like the therapist. Why are they talking about satisfaction when they could be talking about happiness?

When I was your age—

Angela has heard this sentence completed so many times, in so many ways, that by now she can line up her mother’s entire life beside her own entire life (thus far) and compare them year by year. She can try on the other life as you might try on a dress forgotten at the back of the closet: with no hope of it fitting, and yet with some perverse desire to see exactly where the seams stretch or the zipper catches, where two pieces of fabric refuse to meet.

At age six, Angela’s mother watched the apartment building where she and her parents lived burn to the ground. At age six, Angela moved into a new house, with her very own bedroom. She was afraid to fall asleep in it, her heart beating wildly in the dark.

At eight, Angela’s mother lost her father. Something to do with the smoke that had got into his lungs. At eight, Angela lost her asthma inhaler. She knew it was expensive, so she didn’t tell anyone for weeks, wheezing loudly through gym class.

At eleven, Angela’s mother worked all afternoon in her stepfather’s laundromat, where he occasionally slid his hand under her shirt or, in the summertime, up the loose openings in her shorts. She started wearing pants all year round. At eleven, Angela tried to pretend that her nipples, which had puffed up and made two tiny tents in her T-shirt, did not exist. Once (but only once), a boy in her class pinched the left tent between his thumb and his index finger, and then it definitely existed.

At eighteen, Angela’s mother did not get to go to college. At eighteen, Angela did not want to go to college. She wanted to live on a farm in Italy, where she could turn grapes into wine with her bare feet. She had saved nine hundred dollars of her hard-earned wages for airfare.

At twenty-two, Angela’s mother married Angela’s father, in a church. He was more than a decade older than her, but, if anything, she considered that a good thing: he had more experience, and also more money. At twenty-two, Angela, having never been to Italy, having been reminded that her mother did not receive a single cent of her own hard-earned wages until her stepfather died, graduated with a degree in American Studies. Degrees were also said to be earned, but other than a large amount of debt, which could not possibly be paid off by crushing grapes between her toes, Angela didn’t think there was much evidence that she deserved hers.

At twenty-five, Angela’s mother had Angela’s brother. At twenty-five, Angela took Plan B: once for a broken condom, once after unprotected sex with a man who was married, and once because of a nameless, baseless feeling that there was something inside her that needed to be expelled.

At thirty-one, Angela’s mother had Angela. At thirty-one, Angela went to her first baby shower. Gifts everywhere: clothes that would fit for only a few months, a stroller that cost as much as a used car. She vowed never to go to one again.

At thirty-nine, Angela’s mother threatened to divorce Angela’s father. An affair. She eventually reconsidered, but not before she told Angela all about it. In the end, she said, pity won out: he didn’t even know how to use the washing machine.

Here Angela’s desire for comparison flags. She will be forty at the end of the year. Thinking about her mother’s life is tiring, though not as tiring, she reminds herself in her mother’s voice, as actually living it. The dress is harder to take off than it was to put on. Having tugged it over her hips, she leaves it there, the empty top flopping in front of her. Her stomach is soft and her breasts are heavy and she has no children to blame for either fact. None of this—her painless upbringing, her pointless degree, the money she finally spent on a vacation to Tuscany, which she could have spent on a thousand other things or, better yet, saved—would matter to Angela’s mother if there were children.

The therapist suggests that they talk about what matters to Angela instead of what matters to her mother. Will nods. He agrees with the therapist because he’s agreeable, which is part of why Angela married him, which is why she can’t object to the nodding, even though it irritates her. She wishes she were agreeable, too. Like the therapist, Will is full of good suggestions: more intimacy (physical), less inertia (existential). He wonders aloud if they should get a cat.

Whenever her mother calls, Angela nods to prove she’s listening. They live four hundred miles apart: Angela by the beach, her mother in the desert. They used to talk every Sunday afternoon, but lately her mother has been calling on any day, at any time, even late at night. In the middle of a conversation, she accuses Angela of having hung up, and Angela has to remind herself that nodding means nothing on the phone. The only person she’s proving anything to is herself.

The summer heat arrives and Angela opens all the windows, relieving herself of her reflection. The dust that accumulates during this time of year is no more visible than dust at any other time of the year, but, when Angela wipes the surfaces in the apartment with a microfibre cloth, the cloth ends up not the usual gray but a more alarming black. They live on a busy street. The dust is probably more like soot. They could close the windows, but Angela doesn’t like the artificial cold of air-conditioning.

“Plus, refrigerants are bad for the planet.”

“But pollutants are bad for us,” Will says.

As a compromise, they turn on the A.C. only at night. In some ways, they’re too good at compromising. Every morning, the air is dry, their eyes crusty.

Early one Monday, before leaving for the office, Angela removes the eye crust and applies mascara in front of the bathroom mirror—clean but streaky. She works at a talent agency, where her job is to believe that her clients’ big break is about to come, or else to refuse to believe that it has come and gone. All the clients, mostly actors and models, put a lot of work into their appearance, and so do many of the agents. In front of the mirror, Angela ignores the way her eyelashes clump together unattractively, because in general she doesn’t try very hard to be attractive. Her halfhearted makeup is, in its way, a point of pride. Unlike her apparent affinity for mops and irons and microfibre rags, her disdain for the rules and rewards of feminine style is a small triumph of principle.

Half an hour later, stopped in traffic, Angela watches a driver in the next lane apply lipstick, then brush a fine powder over her face. The cars start moving and the woman keeps brushing. Dangerous! (But as dangerous as refrigerants? As pollution? As turning into your mother?) Behind her, the other cars start to honk. The woman snaps her compact shut and, without turning her head, raises a middle finger in the air. Triumphs of principle are everywhere, Angela thinks, now doubting her own. Is the woman more or less attractive than her? She tries to get a better look at the woman’s face, but the other car speeds up and is soon out of sight. In traffic, Angela somehow always chooses the slowest lane.

Attraction, related to satisfaction, is another one of the therapist’s big themes. After eleven years, Will still says Angela is beautiful. The therapist suggests the word “sexy,” which makes Angela recoil. Will notices, of course. He’s disappointed, of course. They don’t have as much sex as he would like.

His disappointment is a wide, finely meshed net—hard to wriggle out of. In her efforts, Angela is tempted again toward principle: what is this, the nineteen-fifties? Haven’t we agreed that husbands are not the only ones who get to have desires? These questions sound pointed when she practices them behind the steering wheel—when she’s impatient or aggrieved, when she’s alone—but they don’t lead anywhere good.

At the office, Angela sits at a desk that’s hers on some days and Carrie’s on others. There’s a sticky note from Carrie on the computer screen. Remove crumbs from keyboard. Mortified, Angela tears up the note and throws it in the trash.

“Don’t you see? You were never an ugly duckling. You were a beautiful senior administrative analyst.”
Cartoon by John McNamee

No, Angela can hear the therapist say, husbands are not the only ones who get to have desires. Wives (another word to recoil from) get to have them, too. Angela can see Will nod. But what does she desire? As she extracts crumbs from between the keys, a string of letters, utter nonsense, appears on her screen.

Will and Angela started therapy because of the kids question: whether they want them, what it would mean to have them. For years, they’ve avoided answering it by discussing it—long, looping conversations that are never finished, only abandoned. Afterward, they cry or fall asleep or order an elaborate takeout meal, which makes Angela feel guilty: all that plastic. Now they’re running out of time to answer the question, but they’ve spent at least half of their sessions arguing over a different one: whether Angela’s mother needs to move out of her house. It’s Angela’s father’s house, too, but Angela never thinks of it that way. He bought it, but her mother chose it. He left it early in the morning and returned to it late at night. She decorated it and redecorated it. He called from the top of the stairs when he was looking for something he couldn’t find.

At first, Angela and Will were in agreement about the house: things were getting out of hand; alarm bells were ringing. But Angela lost the argument with her mother, and after that her only choice was to bury it someplace inaccessible, practically unrememberable. To see Will dig it up again was enraging—more enraging, somehow, than the original dispute.

“How can you ignore it?” he asks. He’s incredulous, but never impatient. “It’s right in front of our eyes.” The therapist smiles at him encouragingly.

Will means the plastic bags, the stacks of magazines, the clamshell containers, the shelf in the pantry where her mother keeps all the complimentary snacks she’s received on airplanes: miniature packages of pretzels and cookies, squat cans of tomato juice. (She protests if the flight attendant tries to open the can.) Admittedly, these collections are fastidiously organized. The plastic bags are stored in the sleeves of Angela’s father’s old dress shirts, which dangle from hooks all over the kitchen like severed limbs.

And not all of it, as Angela’s mother and then Angela herself have pointed out, is trash. Her mother is a talented ceramicist, a hobby that she practiced in moderation for the many decades that she had a job, and then in a kind of ecstatic frenzy as soon as she didn’t. At her job—first she was a secretary and then she was an administrative assistant, though the work itself never changed—she didn’t get to produce anything. Now every surface in the house displays her wares. Empty flower vases and stacks of cereal bowls, mugs that chart her progress at the wheel, their slouching posture improving until they are all in perfect, proud proportion. She makes teapots and gravy boats, despite never making tea or gravy. On a high shelf, Angela once found half a dozen egg cups, each one painted with a baby chick. She stood on a stool, eye level with the chicks. Why doesn’t her mother give these things away?

The therapist tries to steer the conversation back to bigger, harder questions.

“Put aside, for a second, who you’re attracted to,” she says to Angela at the start of one session. “Do you believe that someone could be attracted to you?”

The therapist looks about the same age as Angela’s mother. A second-waver, probably. (Not that Angela’s mother has ever heard of the second wave.) She wears sensible shoes but expensive sweaters. Over the course of their sessions, she’s been letting her hair gradually go gray. Angela can picture her in one of those consciousness-raising groups in the seventies, where all the women were given mirrors and instructed to look at their vaginas—presumably for the first time. The idea, as Angela understands it, was that once you saw yourself you could know yourself. Be yourself.

Sounds nice! The mirror stuff seems quaint now, but Angela isn’t totally sure why. Was everyone supposed to have done their own self-exploration—self-realization—long ago? She certainly hadn’t. In adolescence, the approved period for such exploring, the only suitable mirror in her parents’ house would have been the full-length in the hall closet, next to the winter coats and the umbrellas. And anyway, back then, Angela had a different scale of exploration in mind: Italy, the Alps, something vast and impersonal. The sticky, unfamiliar folds of her vulva grossed her out. By the time she could appreciate the point of more local knowledge, it seemed too late. Plenty else had been down there: fingers, tongues, a whole clove of garlic (for bacterial vaginosis), various buzzing rubber toys (for fun). After all that, to admit that she hadn’t fully seen what she had let many people touch would have been too embarrassing.

Now is the time to admit it. Here is a paid professional, a licensed therapist, who has been asking for their admissions. But Angela is pretty sure she’s seen enough. You don’t really need the mirror. The clitoris is a raisin flattened by a shoe. One of her labia, slightly larger than the other, droops like a lazy eyelid. It’s not the vivid, secret pink of the body’s interior. Like any exterior, its original color has been weathered a worldly gray.

When Angela’s father falls and breaks his wrist, it’s been a few months since Angela and Will last argued about the house. Her father is eighty-one, with a history of minor hospitalizations. This time, he slipped, or tripped—the story is vague. He tried to brace his fall. It could happen to anyone, her mother keeps saying, which means: it could happen to someone young. He’s still in the hospital, for some reason; his blood pressure, her mother says cryptically. Or maybe his blood-cell count? Her uncertainty is alarming enough that Angela and Will book a hotel with credit-card points and fly from Los Angeles to Phoenix. Angela makes certain compromises on the plane. They’ll fix up the house. The junk can go, but the art will stay. Or fine, not all of it: just the essential stuff, the not lopsided stuff.

Will has made an informational call to a retirement community. There are tour guides who can show them around. Angela doesn’t want to talk about it.

“My mom is barely seventy.”

Will doesn’t say anything, because he knows she knows what he will say: age is always relative. He scrolls through the facility’s promotional materials online, tilting the screen in her direction.

“Is there any harm in looking?”

There’s a dining room, a rec room, a man-made pond, a hair salon. There are art classes and therapy groups. One wing is for what the Web site calls independent living. How could anyone object to independent living?

“They’d be able to stay together,” Will says.

“Who said anything about them splitting up?”

In the tense silence that follows, Angela, in the middle seat, becomes aware of the woman to her right—younger than her, but not by much, staring studiously out the window. From this angle, it’s hard to know what the woman really looks like; she might look very different if they were face to face.

“It can’t be cheap,” Angela says.

With the therapist, she and Will have planned to discuss the cost of children. They haven’t said anything about the cost of parents. Angela follows the younger woman’s gaze out the window, but the view is obstructed by the wing of the plane. She closes her eyes and listens to the engine, to remind herself that there is something keeping so much heavy metal aloft.

When Angela pictures her mother, the image that appears is decades out of date. Dark hair and unspotted skin, a bony frame that would be called petite, not fragile. This image feels like something she’s remembering rather than inventing, but it’s hard to tell the difference. When Angela opens her eyes, the flight attendant is handing her a paper napkin and a flimsy cup. Soda crackles over ice. She splits open a package of almonds and pours them straight into her mouth.

They buy a seat for the shower and put a plastic bag over her father’s cast before turning the water on. He’s still not entirely steady on his feet.

“See,” her mother insists. “He’s going to need plastic bags.”

Patiently, Will tells her that she can keep one shirtsleeve’s worth. He unstuffs the rest, pulling the bags out one at a time, until there are a dozen limp arms on the counter. He looks around for his next task.

The kitchen’s elaborate architecture of detritus—towers of dishwashered takeout containers, a whole skyline of empty salad-dressing bottles—turns out to conceal a simpler, uglier landscape: mold, moth larvae, grease, something sticky, cobwebs, crumbs, pencil shavings, more mold. Angela’s mother does not avoid the evidence. While Angela herds mouse droppings into a dustpan, she hovers behind her, enumerating all the treasures that she’s saved over the years: swim-team trophies, letters from summer camp, red-eyed photographs with elaborate captions written on the back. When she says “saved,” what she means is “rescued.” Angela’s prom dress is shrouded in dry-cleaner plastic and kept, inexplicably, in the hall closet.

“This is your past,” her mother says, sweeping her arm grandly around the house. “Your history.”

Back at the hotel, Will takes a long shower. Angela consults the minibar prices, turns the TV on and then instantly off. Listening to the shower spray the shower curtain, Angela considers whether to repeat what her mother said. “History” is a weighty word. Will might think she’s telling him in order to pick a fight, or at least to make a point, but she would be telling him only to—well, just to tell him. She has no idea what the point is. The water turns off. The shower rings slide along the rod. This is the unbidden intimacy of routine: to know exactly what he is doing on the other side of a closed door. In her head, she can see him turn his towel into a rope, then shuttle it back and forth across his back. At what point, she wonders, does routine become life? He opens the door an inch: steam, heat, a vaguely floral scent. Next, he’ll smear a circle on the mirror, stick his neck out to get closer to his reflection. He’ll look with special scrutiny at the stray hairs on his neck and shoulders. They’re hardly noticeable, pale and delicate—almost elegant in their alienness, Angela thinks—but they distress him. As a kid, Will says, he dreaded his father’s bare torso, pale and lumpy clay from which misplaced hairs just like these seemed to be constantly multiplying, his body newly confused about where and what to grow.

The bathroom door opens all the way. Angela can tell that Will is surprised to find her there watching him—instead of watching the TV, say, or whatever it is on her phone that makes her smile the faint, enigmatic smile he no longer asks about. (What’s so funny?) In this room that looks exactly as they expected it would, surprise saves them. They smile at each other and their smiles are at least a little bit enigmatic. They kiss each other. His chest still wet, his neck and ears steamed pink. His hair, dripping onto her forehead, makes her think of dew. The way desire can feel brand new every time. She takes one of his errant shoulder hairs between her teeth and tugs.

But the sound he makes is not the right kind of pain. Not enlivening pain. Not sexy pain. It’s the sound of ordinary displeasure, the quick-drying disappointment of bodies that no amount of steam and soap will transform. Instinctively, he pulls away. Angela looks down at her shirt, at the Rorschach imprint of Will’s damp chest. Is this shame or anger? Her mistake or his? He’ll insist it’s O.K.; he’ll try to recover, because their therapist has taught them the importance of resiliency. Even the not young, they have been assured, can bounce back. Will touches Angela’s shoulder, which should feel comforting, even arousing, but instead feels like nothing. She thinks about the bedspread getting wet under his towel. She multiplies fifty-two by eleven. Five hundred and seventy-two weeks of on-average weekly sex, plus another hundred for the early weeks (the sexy weeks), minus twenty or thirty for some of the later weeks (the worst weeks).

“What are you thinking about?” His hand is still on her shoulder.

Angela goes to the bathroom and closes the door. The room is still full of moisture, the toilet seat damp under her thighs. She lingers at the sink. Holding her wrists under cold water, she can see the outline of the circle he wiped on the mirror. She leans in, so that the portal perfectly frames her face, and then she looks away.

In the morning, her mother has brought the trophies up from the basement. Plastic figures caught in the act of achievement: tennis racquet in mid-swing, cleated foot in mid-kick, toes curled on a ledge, ready to dive into some unseen body of water. Angela remembers these trophies clearly. Before each competition, they were lined up by height so that everyone could compare them in advance: from impressive pedestals all the way down to mere platforms. Each extra tier made the thing easier to grip, more satisfying to hoist in the air the way real athletes do. The trophies meant nothing after that, once they’d been brought home and clustered among all the others of similar height.

But now here they are on the carpet, insisting on their prowess even as their gold coating chips away, exposing the dull surface underneath. Scurrying up and down the stairs, her mother seems younger than she did yesterday. Will picks up a trophy, looking back and forth between the figure and Angela, as if searching for a resemblance.

“You never told me you played softball.”

“I didn’t, really.”

The faces on the trophies look like they’ve been melted off, shiny and blank. Angela’s mother shouts from the basement, “Of course you did!”

She emerges clutching an outfielder’s androgynous torso. The story she tells is something out of a movie. A championship game, a home run destined to break the tie, until Angela, backed up against the center-field fence, grabbed it right out of the air. Robbed!

Angela is about to object, but Will beats her to it: “No way.”

He’s found a cardboard box and is stacking the trophies on their sides, which makes them look like a pile of corpses. As always, his incredulity is mild; her mother may not even have noticed it. She hurries over to the box, waving her hands above it ineffectually.

“Wait—wait a minute.” Bending down over the stack of trophies, she seems to lose her balance, lurching forward before catching herself. She stands up quickly, fear and pride vying on her face. Will reaches for her elbow, but she jerks her arm away. “When I was your age. I mean, when I was that age”—she gestures at the trophies—“we didn’t play sports. The boys played and we watched.”

“Didn’t you like tennis?” Angela says.

“That was later.” Her mother snatches a figure from the box. “Too late.”

Multiple figures, actually. There are three girls on top of this trophy, arms around one another’s shoulders. They look exactly the same: matching uniforms; featureless, indistinguishable faces. Their chests are gently rounded, one mound instead of two. The metal plaque below them says “Participation.” Pressing the trophy into Angela’s hands, her mother repeats the story of her heroics: her outstretched glove, reaching, waiting. The crowd was full of mothers holding their breath.

“Robbed!” she says for the second time.

The more Angela thinks about it—the climactic moment of the climactic game, the ball sailing toward her, its perfect, inevitable, downward arc—the truer it seems. Surely it happened to someone.

Will is struggling to close the box. The flaps keep springing open. Angela bends down to help him, because she’s good at this—the box thing. Getting one end of the first flap under one end of the second flap at the same time that you get the other end of the first flap over the other end of the second flap. She can feel her mother watching her, but Angela keeps her eyes on the box. It’s satisfying when they’re finished, the flaps coerced into their flat, unnatural shape. It’s easy to ignore what’s inside.

Will shows her parents the retirement community online. They’ve agreed to take baby steps: first the Web site, then—maybe—the tour. Will is the one who says baby steps. Angela says, Don’t infantilize them.

The images flick by on the screen: the buffet line, a smiling receptionist, the pond with two gray ducks. Her father makes vague sounds of curiosity. Her mother sits very still, straight back and stony face.

“Don’t breathe in my ear,” she says.

Will schedules a tour. He puts the box of trophies on the curb while Angela’s parents take a nap. (Angela didn’t know they took naps.)

The tour begins in independent living, passes through assisted living by way of the pond, and concludes in the memory wing. A savvier guide, Angela thinks, would have reversed the route, turning inescapable decline into an illusion of defiance: life could end with your very own kitchenette, figure-drawing classes, bread crumbs tossed to the ducks, enough strength to stand up from a chair after you sit down.

They have to stop a few times during the tour, sometimes right in the middle of the hall, so that her father can catch his breath. Angela’s mother—still stony-faced, silent—ignores this, so Angela is the one to put her hand on his back. She feels the air go in and out of his lungs. His body expands and contracts.

When the tour is over, they’re invited to meet the residents in the dining room. There are crisp white tablecloths and brown plastic trays, windows that look onto the parking lot. Only four o’clock, but dinner is being served.

“Look,” Angela’s mother says. “All the servers are women.”

There’s an awkward pause, in which the tour guide surveys the room, as if in search of evidence to the contrary. But Angela’s mother is right. The women are all ages, in matching button-down shirts and not quite invisible hairnets. A teen-ager with bad posture ladles soup, a middle-aged woman with a weak chin tosses salad. One of them seems old enough to live here herself. The tour group watches the women in silence for a moment, and then the guide—she, too, is a woman, not the youngest but certainly the prettiest—clears her throat and changes the subject. She assures them that the residents are all very impressive people: former artists, former teachers, former entrepreneurs. Will notes that Angela’s father was an entrepreneur, too. He’s using his most agreeable voice. The guide smiles gratefully at him, but Angela’s father doesn’t seem to have heard.

While the rest of them wait their turn at the buffet, her mother stands by the windows, squinting out at the view. Angela accepts a bowl of soup. Up close, she can see that the teen-age server is wearing too much makeup: bright lips, caked-over pimples, eyelashes with an unnatural upward curl. Who is she wearing it for? The question embarrasses Angela, even though she hasn’t said it out loud—a question a mother would ask. She takes the soup to the window.

“If a tree falls in the forest but plays it off as a dance move, does anybody buy it?”
Cartoon by Sofia Warren


Her mother accepts the bowl, still staring out at the parking lot. There are only a handful of cars.

“How many people here are still allowed to drive?” her mother asks.

At the far end of the lot, a boy and a girl are taking turns pushing each other in a wheelchair, as fast as they can. Someone’s grandkids, probably.


When the wheelchair reaches the edge of the asphalt, the girl gives it one last push and lets go. It knocks across the uneven ground for a few feet, then tips over. The boy jumps out in plenty of time, laughing.

“All children eventually take away their parents’ keys,” Angela’s mother says, without turning away from the window.

“She doesn’t want to go.”

They’re back at the hotel, lights off, under the covers.

“But is that a good enough reason?” Will asks.

They’ve spent only one night here but already the sheets have been changed, the new set tucked tightly under the mattress. Angela feels a little trapped.

“It’s not a reason at all,” she says. “It’s just a desire.”

She stares up at the ceiling, dark but getting less dark. Or no, the same amount of dark—she’s just getting used to it. Will falls asleep before her, as he always does, snoring softly. He tosses and turns a lot, and this, too, has become routine. When he flings his arm across her chest, jostling one breast against the other, she doesn’t really mind. Their bodies are blind and dumb. In the partial dark, in her dimming mind, for right now but possibly also forever, she is all alone. His arm slides down, pressing against her bladder, which makes her realize she needs to pee. The bathroom seems far away. She shakes her legs to loosen the sheets but doesn’t get up.

When she finally falls asleep, an ordinary dream turns into a sex dream. At the beginning of the dream, Angela is supervising some sort of field trip—a bunch of teen-agers packed onto a school bus. She’s not the teacher, just the chaperon, and she’s too afraid to enforce any of the rules. When a game of spin the bottle starts at the back of the bus, she pretends not to notice. The bus is met at its destination by a team of nurses in monochrome scrubs, who lead all the teen-agers into a building that looks exactly like the main building of the retirement community. Unlike Angela, the nurses are good at getting the kids to be quiet. “You have a lot to learn,” they say sternly—to the kids, or maybe to her.

The sex starts in the dining room, and, as in most of Angela’s sex dreams, she is not the one having it. The room is crowded, old people and teen-agers all mixed together, chatting, helping themselves to seconds, eating off one another’s plates without even bothering to ask. At some point, Angela realizes that they’re naked. Is her mother in there? Watching from the far side of the buffet, holding a plate she hasn’t yet filled, Angela is pretty sure that the young are having sex with the young and the old are having sex with the old, but the longer she watches the less certain she becomes; all the bodies, actually, seem to look the same. She doesn’t look down at her own.

In the dream, she’s a little afraid and a little turned on. When she wakes up—the room is its darkest dark again—she still is. Will is on his back, breath flapping through his mouth, arm over his head, as if he were waving to someone. Angela squeezes a hand between her thighs, to feel herself respond: the crackle of a not quite near-enough radio station, the creak of ice under the weight of a shoe. But she doesn’t keep the hand there. It’s the beginning of masturbating she likes, that first exploratory touch. To see if anything’s there. The rest of it, the dutiful search, too often disappoints. Does she even know what she’s looking for?

Will rolls toward her, his open mouth beside her open ear. She presses gently under his chin and his jaw gives in easily. The noise stops. She stays awake for a while, the dream half dissolved, the static in her crotch half gone—that is, still there.

When it’s time to return to California, they still haven’t decided anything. But they’ve cleaned. Angela has swept, sponged, Dustbustered. She’s sorted glass from plastic, plastic from cardboard. Her hands smell like rubber gloves.

“Look how much more room there is,” she says, opening closet doors with a magician’s flourish. The winter coats were moth-eaten. The prom dress is gone.

“Room for what?” her mother asks.

She wants to drive them to the airport. She wants to give them half a dozen ceramics. A soup bowl, a serving bowl, a mug. At least two egg cups. She’ll pack them carefully. There’s bubble wrap in the basement.

“There isn’t,” Angela says. “Not anymore.”

In the end, they compromise: a taxi to the airport, just a mug. The one Angela chooses is slightly off balance—she pictures the wet clay wobbling, the momentum of the wheel briefly taking over—but she likes the color: blue that looks black, the deeper color visible only in a certain light.

“That one?” Her mother laughs. Maybe the laugh means, I knew you would choose that one. Maybe it even means, I love you for choosing that one. Angela wraps the mug in several layers of underwear and stuffs it with a sock before putting it in her bag. She wonders if her mother will see it again.

On the plane, Angela and Will are seated behind a baby who whimpers feebly from takeoff to landing. Would it be better, Angela asks, if he really, truly cried?

“Better for whom?” Will wants to know.

It’s only when they get home—the mail clogging the mail slot, the stale smell of rooms left by themselves—that they realize they’ve missed their therapy appointment. Angela opens the windows and throws a softening onion in the trash. She imagines all the things they might have said to the therapist. Not the usual things: the careful criticisms, the qualified complaints, question after question. Is this normal? What’s normal? They are almost forty. They still don’t know. Haven’t they always wanted to be exceptional?

No, instead of questions: confessions, accusations. It’s a strange, sour sort of satisfaction to hear them in her head. She may be beautiful, but she is less beautiful than before. He calls her sexy because he wants sex. There are other people, you know, who want it, too. Sometimes makeup shows you still care. There’s a woman at the office (eyeliner, earrings) who makes him feel—well, what? Desired? Empowered? Something other than agreeable. At what point should they agree to disagree?

Will is already unpacking his bag, because the longer you wait the harder it gets. Angela unzips her suitcase and removes the ceramic mug. She holds it up to the light, tilting it until black reveals blue. The blue of water under the surface or blood under the skin. Then she tilts her hand a little farther and the handle breaks off the cup. Or is it the other way around—the cup breaks off the handle? There’s a crack and shards on the ground and Angela is left holding the pointless piece.

For a moment, she just stares, unable to think of what to do next. But it isn’t really a decision. She gets a broom from the closet and sweeps everything into a small, efficient pile. When she looks up, Will is watching her. She laughs, so he laughs, too. They don’t really know what they’re laughing at—what it means. Does her laugh sound like her mother’s?

The cup didn’t break into that many pieces, actually: four big ones, each as sharp as a knife. But there are probably smaller ones she can’t see; they can travel farther than you’d think. Days from now, at the other end of the room, a tiny, blue-black shard might pierce the sole of her bare foot and make her call out—the pain of surprise, which can also be pleasure. Angela looks at Will and her vision briefly blurs. She won’t find the pieces now, but she might later, when she’s stopped looking, when she’s bending down to pick up some other delicate thing that’s slipped from her hand. ♦