It’s a Sunday afternoon in July and they’re sitting in the backyard when Daphne tells Rob that her long-ago ex-boyfriend will be in town on Wednesday. Rob is reading the opinion section of the newspaper, Daphne has just set down the arts section, and she says it off-handedly, in a way that initially gives Rob the impression that Theo happens to be passing through St Louis.
“Obviously, he won’t come inside the house,” she says. “I assume we’ll just catch up out here.”
“If he’s here for dinner, I can grill.”
“We haven’t nailed down the timing yet, but great. I was thinking about if there’s anyone else from college to invite, and I realised I’m the last one still here from my friend group. Isn’t that weird?”
“It’s a testament to your stability.”
Daphne laughs. “Or my boringness. By the way, I think it’d be nice if I give Theo a hug. I hope that’s OK with you.”
Rob, who is in a lounge chair across the table from Daphne’s chair, squints at her. “It would be nice?”
“He said he hasn’t touched another person for four months. He’s clearly having a hard time.”
“And that’s your responsibility?”
“Actually, yes,” Daphne says. “In the sense that I’m a human being and he’s a human being and we’re all part of the brotherhood of man.”
“Hmm,” Rob says. “That’s an interesting way to describe the guy you almost married.”
Daphne’s expression is more perplexed than concerned. “Are you acting like this because of jealousy or germs?”
They have been quarantining since Saturday, March 14, when they discussed it all day and decided against attending the 50th birthday potluck for their friend Leah, and that’s the last date on the calendar Rob can remember with clarity. As a freelance web designer, Rob has worked from home for more than a decade; Daphne usually goes to an office but has been able to do her job, which is payroll and accounting for a non-profit, remotely. At first, everyone they knew was also quarantining — they live in the racially diverse and left-leaning neighbourhood of Tower Grove South — but the protests in early June seemed to break the seal and now they see their neighbours hosting barbecues, or play dates where kids go in and out of each other’s houses. And these are their fellow liberals, not the Missourians who made news over Memorial day weekend by cramming into seedy-looking resort pools a few hours away. Meanwhile, Rob and Daphne’s only child, Olivia, who is a junior at the University of Minnesota, has remained in the off-campus apartment she shares with two friends, finishing her spring classes remotely and volunteering at a canned good and diaper distribution centre and, in her down time, cooking vegan meals that she texts photos of to Daphne and Rob because neither of them is on Instagram.
Rob has not yet answered Daphne’s question when she adds, “Theo’s driving if that makes you feel better. He’s not getting on a plane.”
“He still lives in Montana?”
“And Bozeman must be, what, 30 hours by car.” Rob pulls out his phone, checks, and when he sees that it’s closer to 20 hours, does not correct himself. “So he stops six or seven times, and I assume he plans to stay overnight in a hotel.”
“I’m not saying it’s risk-free, but I know he’s being incredibly careful. He’s actually kind of a hypochondriac.”
“Why is he travelling now anyway?”
Daphne shrugs. “He’s lonely.”
“Wait, he’s coming to see you?”
“He’s going on a road trip. Here first, and on the way back he’ll stop in Denver to visit his cousin.”
“Hell,” Rob says in a fakely high-spirited tone, “in that case, why don’t we join him? We could all rent an RV together.”
“If this reassures you, we’ll wear masks if we hug.”
“You’ve certainly given a lot of thought to this long, soulful embrace.”
“There’s nothing romantic about the situation. Theo is a person in pain.”
“Are you saying he’s suicidal?”
“If he was, would it make hugging him OK? I don’t think he’s suicidal, although I’m sure he’s clinically depressed.”
“Everyone is clinically depressed right now,” Rob says.
When Daphne stands, her irritation is palpable. “I’m going to put the recycling out,” she says. “Do I have your blessing to do that?” He doesn’t respond, and she adds, “I’m confident hugging Theo is lower risk than a haircut.” The comparison is not a coincidence; Rob got his first haircut of quarantine last week, at a place that took his temperature before he entered, maintained distance between clients, and had so-called enhanced cleaning protocols.
“Here’s the thing,” Rob says. “When your father and stepmother came to visit, you didn’t want to hug them.” This was in June, on Father’s day, after they’d driven from Jefferson City for an outdoor lunch.
“Of course I wanted to,” Daphne says.
“Well, you didn’t do it. The fact that this is what you want to take a chance on, after we’ve been so careful — that Theo’s what you want to take a chance on — forgive me if that raises some questions.”
The truth is that Rob is not clinically depressed. He’s doing . . . better than usual? Indeed, he’s lost eight pounds since March. In the past, he’d have a couple of beers or a glass or two of wine each night, and he decided, as a pandemic experiment, to restrict his drinking to weekends. He started taking a pre-dinner walk, in lieu of the pick-up basketball game of middle-aged men he used to erratically join. For years, Daphne has been the one who plans their social life, and though they now occasionally have distanced drinks (for him, sparkling water if it’s during the week) in their yard or someone else’s, it’s with one of two other couples they’ve known forever. That the more arbitrary get-togethers he used to find himself part of have fallen by the wayside — the first birthday of the child of one of Daphne’s co-workers or the restaurant dinners with a group of six, half of whose names he’d get to the end of the night without having fully registered — is such a relief that he understands he never enjoyed them. He actively misses Olivia in a way he hasn’t in the two years since she left for college, wishes she were around to accompany him on a walk or to do a puzzle with. But the reality is that she’s probably happier with her peers.
In their Craftsman brick house, which is neither large nor tiny, Rob and Daphne have developed a routine that prevents being in each other’s presence all the time: she wakes before he does and does yoga in the back yard; she is finishing a smoothie when he enters the kitchen, showered, to make coffee. Early on, they ate lunch together, then, and he’s pretty sure this was intentional, they began staggering their lunches. He eats a peanut butter sandwich and an apple around noon, then she comes in a few minutes after one — he’s long gone by then — and eats a mug of sauerkraut with a dollop of either sour cream or Thousand Island dressing on top. He finds this meal repulsive, akin to consuming a mug of nothing but relish or jelly, though actually more disgusting than either of those would be. In the beginning, he couldn’t identify the memory evoked by the smell of the sauerkraut, but eventually, with repeated exposure, realised it was from Olivia’s babyhood, when she’d awaken on some mornings with diapers so soaked with urine, so bulging and heavy and warm, that they seemed almost sentient. The first time Rob saw Daphne eating her mug of sauerkraut, he said, “You’re having that straight?” and she said something about probiotics, and he dropped the subject.
Rob does not, in general, find Daphne disgusting. After 22 years of marriage, she looks much as she did when they met, except now her hair is grey: a petite woman with a pixie cut and piercing blue eyes who favours flats, black slacks, and short-sleeved pastel sweaters. Every day, she wears small gold hoop earrings given to her by her parents at her college graduation; a thin gold necklace with Olivia’s name carved into the pendant; and her plain gold wedding band. When Daphne’s hair began to turn grey about 10 years ago, she asked once if he wished she would dye it and he said truthfully that he didn’t care. They still have sex, which feels like either proof that their marriage remains intact, the reason their marriage remains intact, or both. Just as they agreed without discussion to a schedule of eating only dinner together during quarantine, they have for many years without discussing it had intercourse after going to bed every Saturday night — no more and no less. When Rob hears that a couple they know is divorcing, this habit is always the first thing he thinks of, as a form of reassurance. Then he thinks about a conversation he had the night before their wedding in 1998. As he and his groomsmen were leaving the church to go to the rehearsal dinner, his cousin Nick, who was a few years younger, grinned, leaned over and whispered to Rob, “You’re really ready to swear off getting laid by anyone else for the rest of your life?”
Rob replied, “I’m just glad I’ll be getting laid for the rest of my life.” He can still remember Nick’s expression, which turned from jocular to a little sheepish. Rob thought, and still thinks, that he’d accidentally said something perfect in that moment, not because he was trying to be clever but because it was true.
At dinner on Monday, Daphne says, “I’ve listened to your concerns, and five or six days after Theo visits, I’ll get tested. Until then, I’ll sleep in Olivia’s room, and I’m happy to wear a mask when you and I are together in the house.”
“Jesus,” Rob says. “You really want to hug this guy, huh?”
“The chances of getting Covid from him are very low. I’d be taking the precautions for your peace of mind.”
“Or you could just not have your passionate embrace.”
Rob grilled chicken thighs and zucchini, and as Daphne cuts into her chicken, her nostrils flare in irritation. But her voice is calm as she says, “Is it possible that you don’t care if I hug Theo but you drew a line in the sand and now you feel like you have to defend it?”
“Is it possible that you’re still carrying a torch for your ex and trying to conceal it by pretending to be worried about his mental health?”
She looks at Rob directly, her blue eyes intense. “I’m not still carrying a torch for Theo,” she says, “but would you like to discuss your fear that I am?”
After hesitating for only a split-second — Daphne has been in therapy, but Rob never has, and this feels like a moment where that discrepancy is manifesting itself in an annoying manner — Rob says, “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t, although maybe it’s a discussion you should have with yourself.” Even to his own ear, however, he sounds petulant. Plus, he has long suspected that if Daphne nurses any private crush, it’s on a co-worker named Mark, a man who seems to Rob unremarkable physically and intellectually but in whose presence, at retirement or holiday parties, Daphne has always giggled atypically. Rob doesn’t think anything has ever happened between Daphne and Mark, more that Mark is not ridiculous in the vague way that Theo is.
Daphne dated Theo when they were undergraduates at Washington University and for a few years after. Before moving away from St Louis, Theo was the guitarist in a band that once played at Blueberry Hill, and was supposed to hit it big, but never did; perhaps not unrelatedly, Theo is from a wealthy family in Chicago, and, as far as Rob knows, he’s barely held a real job in the last three decades. When Daphne and Theo were 24, she accidentally got pregnant, even though she was on the Pill, and, although she’s pro-choice, she felt ready to have a baby. She thought she and Theo should get married and become parents. Theo wanted her to have an abortion — he was nice about it, not bullying, Daphne emphasised in describing this time to Rob — but then, before they reached a resolution, she miscarried. Their subsequent break-up was mutual. The tenor of their relationship had changed, and though they weren’t angry at each other, they’d both learned things about the other that made it impossible to stay together. Daphne’s description to Rob of these events was matter-of-fact rather than distraught, as if she were recounting a break-up in which she had not been directly involved. The year after the miscarriage, Daphne and Rob met at an Oktoberfest pub crawl organised by a mutual friend. While Theo wasn’t invited to Rob and Daphne’s wedding, he returned to St Louis for a few other weddings around that time. Before meeting Theo in 1999, Rob felt some combination of nervous and mildly hostile, but when Daphne introduced the two men, Theo held out both of his pointer fingers and thumbs like revolvers and said, “My rival!” Then he stepped forward and hugged Rob — the irony of this gesture is not, in retrospect, lost on Rob — and said, “Only kidding, man. I’ve heard a ton of good things about you.” At some point later in the evening, on the dance floor, Theo pulled off his tie, shirt, and jacket to reveal a massive black octopus tattoo sprawled across his back — this was before massive tattoos were commonplace — and watching from the sidelines, Rob had to admit, if only to himself, that there was something goofily endearing about Theo. As far as Rob knows, Daphne’s contact with her ex over the last 20-plus years has been infrequent, perhaps an annual email or two and a Christmas card. Theo himself didn’t marry until he was in his forties and divorced just two years later, but he always sent a Christmas card, usually a photo of him in some faraway location: in front of a temple in Bali or a pyramid outside Cairo, feeding a koala bear at a sanctuary near Melbourne. More than once, Rob was compelled to mock these cards — besides the ostentatious travel, wasn’t the point of photo Christmas cards to show friends what your children looked like? — and Daphne would defend Theo but not very vigorously. After Olivia was born, Theo had sent them baby cowboy boots (cowgirl boots?) that probably would have fit Olivia for about a month, well before she could walk, and that Rob is certain she never wore.
But what if this interpretation of Theo as a sweet, distant fool is a misread on Rob’s part? Or what if it once was accurate but, now that the world has been turned upside down, what if a wealthy fool from the past looks more enticing?
Carefully, Rob says, “I trust you. Of course I trust you. But given that there’s not much difference between hugging him and not hugging him, how about not doing it?”
From across the kitchen table, Daphne furrows her brow. “If there’s not much difference, why are you making such a big deal of it?”
The anger he experiences in this moment is surprisingly visceral, an immediate heat in his face and neck. “Then can’t you just not because I asked you and I’m your husband?”
“Touch deprivation is a real thing,” Daphne says. “You can Google it.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Rob says. “Let him hire a prostitute.”
Daphne has just taken a bite of chicken, which she chews and swallows. When she speaks, her tone is pensive rather than defiant. She says, “It’s interesting, because before 2016, I think I might have felt like I needed your permission for this. I’d have preemptively given you the power to tell me I couldn’t do it, or maybe I’d have bought into some idea that it wasn’t allowed in a marriage. But, as despicable as Trump is, he’s made me see that so many of the things I thought people couldn’t do were just things people usually don’t do. They’re just norms. They aren’t laws.”
What’s Rob supposed to say to this? Congratulations on your feminist awakening? Fuck you? What he says is “Comparing me to Trump is a pretty low blow.”
“No,” she says calmly. “In this scenario, I’m Trump.”
On Tuesday, they’re not not talking, but they don’t talk very much. At dinner, as if by agreement, they both avoid the topic of Theo, whose visit, assuming it’s still happening, is less than 24 hours away. Instead, they talk about the anti-racist book Daphne is reading for her upcoming Zoom book club, then about two restaurants that have just permanently closed (one of them is where they ate a six-course meal on their 20th wedding anniversary), then about who Biden will select as his vice-presidential candidate and when. After dinner, they watch the first two episodes of a show about a female detective investigating the murder of a 16-year-old girl in South Dakota, a show Rob heard is good that Daphne said she’s willing to start though she suspects it’s probably too dark for her. As the credits roll on the second episode, and a haunting violin melody plays, she says, “Yeah, I can’t do any more of that.” She stands and, as usually happens, she goes upstairs to use the bathroom while he starts the dishwasher and switches off the lights.
Their room is dark when he joins her in bed, and he can’t tell based on her breathing if she’s awake or asleep. Within a few minutes, her breathing becomes louder and he realises she probably was awake before but is asleep now. She is lying on her stomach, her face turned away from him, and, beneath the covers, he reaches out, pushes up the hem of her nightgown, then pushes down the waistband of her underwear. He runs his palm back and forth over her bare backside. This is never the way sex starts between them — also, it’s Tuesday night, not Saturday — and the sound she soon makes is one he has never heard, not in what must be well over a thousand couplings. She is . . . purring? Instead of flipping over and facing him, she rolls on to her left side and backs into him. Neither of them speaks for the entire encounter. Is this not impressively hot? Are they not keeping things exciting?
But late the next morning, while he is working in his basement office, she comes down and says, “I’ve decided to meet Theo in Forest Park, and I’m going to pick up sandwiches first from Fattore’s. Do you want me to pick up something for you and drop it off here?”
In the brief amount of time it took for her to start and finish those sentences, he thought she was about to invite him to join her and Theo, and he planned to proudly decline. Realising this was not the offer she was making, he hesitates for a second or two. Then he says, “I’ve tried to make it very clear what I want, and it’s not a sandwich.”
But actually, it’s also a sandwich? Or at least, a little absurdly, her mention of Fattore’s gave him a craving for their corned beef, and a half hour after he saw the wheels of Daphne’s car recede through the basement window, he calls in to place an order of his own. The temperature today is in the high eighties — not bad for St Louis — and after he’s procured the sandwich, he eats it in the backyard, washing it down with a beer from the refrigerator because why not?
After he’s finished, he returns to the basement. He’s creating a website for a new client, a real estate agent who left a big company to work for herself and who told him, contrary to what he’d have imagined, that many people are buying and selling houses during the pandemic. But it’s difficult to concentrate, and he decides to take his afternoon walk a few hours early. The loop around Tower Grove Park typically takes him about an hour — a podcast or audio book seems too ambitious today given his distracted state so he listens to Bruce Springsteen — and when he’s finished, instead of heading home immediately, he sits on a bench off Magnolia Avenue and texts Olivia. “Hi honey,” he writes. “How’s everything going?”
Three minutes elapse before she texts “R u OK dad?
Wondering if Daphne has mentioned to their daughter the recent conflict, he types, “Good overall. How are you?”
“But u never text me during day.”
Is he really such a creature of habit?
Another text from her arrives: “Did mom tell u what I told her about donations? Local mutual aid societies way better than big orgs that spend a lot on marketing etc.”
He texts back, “Have you cooked anything interesting lately?”
The three dots of her imminent reply appear, then disappear, then don’t reappear. After a minute, he stands and walks home.
Daphne left for Fattore’s around 11:30 and when he gets back to the house, three hours have passed and she hasn’t returned. He goes inside, uses the bathroom, drinks a glass of water, and is setting the glass in the dishwasher and trying to decide on his next move — work work? Yard work? Shower? — when Daphne enters the house through the back door.
The first thing he notices is that she’s not wearing a mask. Before Rob can remark on this oversight, as per her suggested protocol after seeing Theo, she says, “I didn’t hug him.” Though it’s not that hot outside, she seems spacey, almost dazed.
He’s genuinely surprised. After a few seconds, he says, “Well, I appreciate that.”
“I didn’t not hug him for you.”
He has the impulse to reply sarcastically, though she didn’t speak in a sarcastic way. And she continues to sound bewildered as she says, “It wasn’t because I had second thoughts. I would have hugged him. But he obviously didn’t want to hug me. The really stupid part of this argument you and I have been having is that Theo and I had never discussed hugging. It wasn’t a plan we came up with together ahead of time. I’d just assumed that he’d want to because he’s a touchy-feely person and because he’d mentioned his lack of contact with other people. And I thought it would seem cavalier if I told you after the fact. It would be more respectful to give you a heads-up beforehand. And then it turned into a whole thing this week. But it was very clear that the idea of our hugging had never crossed Theo’s mind. He wanted us to be 10 feet apart instead of six, and I’d taken those chairs we used to sit in at Olivia’s soccer games, but he wouldn’t sit on one. He used a towel from his car.”
Rob isn’t sure if he’s joking or not as he says, “You could have told me it was because you had second thoughts.”
She looks at him intently, focusing on his face for the first time since she entered the house. “You’d have preferred that I lie?”
“I’d have preferred that you did have second thoughts.”
In the ensuing quiet, the sink drips twice and a neighbour’s dog barks. Then, reverting to that subdued, spacey tone, she says, “I really don’t have romantic feelings for Theo. I certainly don’t wish I’d married him. He’s so flaky. But the same thing that would have made him terrible to be married to, his neediness and his neuroses — there’s something endearing about that in small doses. And before seeing him, I was thinking, well, he’s very in touch with his emotions. So we’ll have a connection, we’ll reflect together on how strange life is during the pandemic. Instead, he delivered this two-hour monologue and asked me literally nothing. I know he’s been on his own and I’m sympathetic to that, but first it was a tirade about processed meat — after he’d texted me that he wanted a salami sandwich — and then it was his dispute with his neighbour in Bozeman who uses tons of lawn chemicals and then it was his opinion about Trump and Biden and Bernie and Pete Buttigieg and how Democrats are as complicit as Republicans and how we as Americans should take our cue from Scandinavian countries who are so much happier because they embrace the outdoor lifestyle and just on and on and on. I felt like I was a trash can that he was dumping words into. It was the opposite of feeling connected to another person. If I met him today, if he were the friend of a friend, I’d think he was self-centred and boring and just weird.”
In a ratio Rob is unsure of, though it’s probably about 10 to one, this information is gratifying and depressing. “I’m sorry,” he says. After a pause, he adds, “Would you like to talk to me about how life is strange during the pandemic?”
Her laughter then is disturbingly bitter.
“I wasn’t kidding,” he says.
Her expression is hard to read as she says, “You know what I sometimes wish? I wish that either I liked you too much to eat sauerkraut around you or you liked me too much to find it gross that I do.”
He is both amused and mildly insulted, and it’s in this spirit that he says, “We don’t need to like each other. We love each other.” It occurs to him that he might have just uttered another true and perfect rejoinder like the one he made all those years ago to his cousin Nick, but when he glances at her for confirmation, he realises he didn’t.
“Oh, Rob.” If she doesn’t sound angry, she also doesn’t sound amused. Possibly but not definitely, she sounds sad. If he were a different kind of husband, a different kind of person, he’d ask what’s inside those two words. That he doesn’t ask isn’t because he doesn’t care.
He says, “Come here.” But he is the one who walks toward her. He slides his arms around her ribs, below her armpits, pulls her body into his, and squeezes her torso. There are a few seconds where she is simply standing there, neither resisting nor responding. Abruptly, he realises that they don’t really embrace much apart from sex. He’s pretty sure they used to, a long time ago.
Of course he cares. But he doesn’t think asking what she means by Oh, Rob will lead them to a better place. Engaging with a fleeting emotion doesn’t necessarily serve a purpose.
Several more seconds pass. The sink continues dripping. Finally, she raises both her arms and he feels them tighten around him. She hugs him back.