Shortly after they moved from their own house in Darien, Connecticut, into a retirement home near Fort Myers, Florida, Lucinda announced that she didn’t want to be married anymore to Fred, her husband of fifty-nine years. When she told her children this they were first horrified and then dismissive. She could not mean it, they said to her and to each other. She could not possibly be serious. They interpreted it as a sign that she was becoming senile, that her mind and judgment, which had until then remained very sharp, were becoming impaired. They took her to get tested for other signs of reduced cognitive function, but the doctors they spoke with found Lucinda to be lucid and competent, her memory of recent and distant events remarkably intact for someone of her age, which was eighty-three years old.
“But what about this idea that she’s going to leave my father?” her son, Harry, asked the gerontologist who administered the battery of tests. “If that doesn’t count as crazy, I don’t know what does.”
The doctor looked at him and shrugged.
“I can’t comment on whether your mother is making a sensible choice in this matter,” he said. “But she is able to talk about her decision with perfect clarity. Being sane is in no way related to being wise.”
“But what do you think we should do about it?” her elder daughter, Karen, asked.
“There isn’t anything you can do,” the doctor said. “I suggest you take her home.”
So they did and for a while they didn’t hear anything further about Lucinda’s plans to leave her husband. They decided among themselves that her desire must have been a passing fancy, a phase, a strange fit that she was going through as a result of her recent move.
But it was not. About a month later, with the reluctant help of her younger daughter, Cynthia, Lucinda moved her belongings out of the apartment she and Fred shared in the Golden Years Retirement Community and got her own apartment in the same complex. She petitioned for a legal separation. She spoke to a lawyer about filing for divorce.
Her children were furious with her. One after another they came to see her, her two daughters and one son, and they told her how angry her decision had made them, how selfish they thought she was being. How could she leave her husband now? Their father, they said, was old and not very well. He’d been through treatment for cancer a couple of years before, which no one thought he would survive. But he had survived it and recovered, although he never gained back all the strength he lost during his chemotherapy. Every day during that difficult time, Lucinda had gone with him to the hospital, where he would be wheeled down the corridor to the treatment room by the same strong and friendly nurse with long blond hair and peppermint-pink lipstick. Then Lucinda would wait while he was given the dose of chemicals, and afterward she would accompany him home. In all that time she never faltered, never expressed impatience with him, was as steady and devoted as it is possible to be. When the doctor reported his tumor gone, she celebrated with the whole family, and since then none of her friends or relatives had detected anything significantly wrong or altered between her and her husband. Why, then, was she leaving him now?
Lucinda did not answer them, at least not in the way they wished to be answered. She merely said that it was what she wanted and she was sorry if it hurt them but she had to do what made her happy with what she had left of her own life. Then she smiled and changed the subject to something trivial and pleasant: the flowers she was planting in her window boxes, the outings that she took with her friends to go shopping and to the movies. She seemed content.
For his part, Fred was extremely upset and bewildered by Lucinda’s decision to leave; he could offer his children no insight at all into what had happened between himself and their mother. After Lucinda moved out, he remained living in the apartment they had shared, surrounded by the belongings they had acquired through their long years together: the many souvenirs from their trips abroad, the photographs of their children, the gifts they’d been given by friends, a hundred daily reminders of his wife’s vanished presence. After his initial shock, he settled into a solitary routine: he would breakfast alone, then spend the morning reading the paper. Then he would go down and swim slowly up and down the pool in the recreation center until he was tired. Then he would have dinner with other people from the retirement community or sometimes one of his kids. He rarely had to dine alone. Sometimes he would run into his wife in one of the restaurants in the complex or in the community center where classes and lectures and musical events were held. When he did, he would turn away in anger or pretend not to see her.
Then one day, when he came back from supper, he found a note that had been slid under the door of his apartment. It said: Come and meet me by the lake. It was in Lucinda’s handwriting. He read it over, surprised, and then decided to follow its directions. There was an ornamental lake in the grounds of the retirement complex, and he put on his coat and went down in the elevator and walked over to it. He saw Lucinda waiting on a bench looking out over the smooth surface of the water. She was half-lit by the lamps that stood on posts alongside the footpath, and something about the way she was sitting made him remember how she had looked when they first met: tall and slender with an upright, formal posture and tidy movements and gestures. He came and sat beside her on the bench; then he could see that her face was not the face of the young woman he remembered; it was lined, the skin delicate and fissured with veins. She turned to look at him.
She said: “I found the letters.”
For a moment he couldn’t think of what she meant.
“What letters?” he asked. She didn’t reply. Then it came to him.
When he’d been a young man, shortly after he was married, he had developed an infatuation with a woman at the insurance office where he worked. There had been letters exchanged; a brief affair conducted in hotel rooms around town; then contrition and a return to his marriage, from which he had never strayed again. Shortly after the affair, his former mistress had moved to another state. Lucinda had never even suspected anything as far as he could tell, and he had not felt compelled to confess to her because the affair had never meant very much to him and was not a sign of any deep unhappiness at home so much as an accident of circumstance and immaturity; in other words, a mistake.
But for some reason he had kept the letters. He did not know why, but he had kept them in the locked top drawer of the desk in his study through all his and Lucinda’s subsequent years together. And sometimes when they were fighting or when they were at odds with one another, he would come into his office and touch the handle of the drawer where the letters were and this would make him feel stronger, separate from his wife, a person with a secret. He felt the need to do this less and less as they aged until he almost forgot about the letters altogether. Sometimes he would think of them and say to himself that he should really get rid of them, but he never got around to actually throwing them away: it just never seemed that important. In fact, the letters and the affair they chronicled seemed so insignificant that when they moved the last time and he sold the desk, he had not felt it necessary to take any special steps to hide them anymore: at their age, what did it matter? It was so long ago that he could not remember the woman’s face, only that she’d had dyed red hair and a birthmark down near her collarbone; sometimes he could not even recall her name right away. So he put the letters in a box along with books and other papers; he had not thought of them again until this minute.
“Is that what this is all about?” he asked. “That’s ridiculous.”
Lucinda shrugged. “I knew that would be what you’d say. I knew the children would say that too. That’s why I didn’t tell you until everything was arranged for us to separate.”
Fred persisted: “But don’t you see? It doesn’t matter now—it didn’t even matter at the time. Why didn’t you tell me that was the problem? Are you really that angry at me for something that happened so long ago?” He paused from speaking and an idea came to him: “Are you angry with me because I didn’t tell you? Because I kept the secret all this time?” he asked.
“No,” Lucinda said. “That isn’t it, either. I was unhappy to find that you’d had a love affair, of course. And I was also upset that you kept it secret for so long. But those things I could have forgiven, I think.
“It was when I saw that you had stopped trying to hide the letters from me that I knew that you no longer thought that I was a person capable of jealousy. You had stopped thinking about me as a woman and had begun to see me as just an old person who shouldn’t feel the same things as other people. If that is true, then what is the point of being married?”
“For companionship,” Fred said. “To keep us from being alone. Because it’s better than nothing.”
Lucinda looked at him but didn’t answer. Then she stood up and smoothed down her skirt with both her hands. Without speaking another word, she turned away and walked along the lakeside path back towards the apartment building where she now lived, and she did not turn around to look at him again.
Karen and David were considered by their friends and families to be as close to a perfect couple as any of them had ever known. Both attractive but not so beautiful that it overwhelmed their other qualities, both clever but not unbalanced by a particular extraordinary talent or passionate calling, they had met in college in New England, where they were students at a prestigious private school with a reputation for its programs in foreign languages and literature and for its proximity to wonderful ski resorts to which the students often went when they weren’t busy studying. They met in a class on Russian literature in translation. They dated during their final year as undergraduates and found that they had many things in common. They both liked hiking and tennis; they both had studied French and liked to travel. After they graduated they went together to do a year of social service work in a school in rural Senegal, then moved to New York, where David began law school and Karen got a job in the editorial department of a women’s magazine. With help from their parents they bought an apartment in Park Slope. They married the fall that David took the bar and got his first job working for a big law firm headquartered in Midtown.
They lived like this for several years, David working at the law firm and Karen editing articles about interior design and fashion and women who ran nonprofit organizations in countries in the developing world. They had lots of friends in the city who had gone to the same college as they had and whom they often met for drinks or dinner and with whom they went away for long weekends at the beach or up to Vermont to ski. They visited with Karen’s parents, Lucinda and Fred, at their house in Connecticut; David’s parents, who lived out in Colorado, did not like New York and did not come to visit much. David worked longer hours than he would have liked, and Karen felt from time to time that her job did not provide enough of an intellectual challenge for her. But generally they considered themselves to be very happy. They talked in a noncommittal way about starting a family in a few years’ time.
One day, Karen was at home in their apartment by herself. She was looking for a page she’d forgotten to bookmark on the browser of the computer in the second bedroom, which they used as a home office/exercise room when they didn’t have guests staying with them. The page she was looking for had the pattern for a sweater she was going to knit for David for his birthday, and she couldn’t remember the name of the site where she had seen it. She was scrolling through the history file when she noticed an address that made her stop her search. The name in the URL was so strange and unexpected—www.pleasehitme.com—that she clicked on it before she thought about what she was doing. The screen winked and shifted and the site began to load, background first, then rows of images popping into view one after another.
What she saw upset her right away. The page was filled with pictures of men and women, naked or nearly so, displaying various kinds of injuries on their faces and their bodies: black eyes, split and swollen lips, torn skin. Some of their injuries had obviously been inflicted by other human beings—bruises the size and shape of fingers, the parallel gouges left by fingernails—while others were just maps of unexplained damage. Some of the men and women wore handcuffs or were tied with rope. But the pictures she found herself looking at most intently showed just expanses of blued and purpled flesh, lacerations and incisions in the smooth sheet of the skin, pictures in which the faces of the subjects were not even visible, only the pale or dark angles of their bodies with their hair and creases, the shapes of the flesh and the bone beneath and the saturated colors of the wounds.
Karen stared in disbelief. She was not naïve about the existence of pornography online, and she would not have been especially shocked to find a link to a site showing posed and naked women that her husband had been looking at. She would not have been pleased, exactly, but she would not have been surprised; in fact, she would not have cared about it very much at all. She might have closed the window feeling mild annoyance or disappointment; she might have forgotten it by the time David came home later that evening.
But this was different. This she would not be able to forget, not only because the images were appalling in and of themselves but because there was nothing that she knew about the man she lived with that could help her understand what she was seeing. In all the years she’d known him, David had never shown any propensity for physical violence towards himself or others; the most forceful thing he’d ever done in her presence was to slam a heavy book down on a table when they were arguing once; he’d certainly never raised his hand to her. He did not like grisly films; did not play video games involving gruesome violence or slaughter. He even found piercings and tattoos distasteful because of the association that they had with pain.
She sat at the computer with the mutilated bodies and ecstatic-looking faces illuminated in front of her, and for several minutes she had no idea what to do. She could not un-see what she had seen. She stood up and walked around the apartment in a circle, then decided to go out for a walk to try to clear her head. She shut off the computer and picked up her purse and took the elevator down to the street and walked in a daze in the direction of the park. She was so distracted that she didn’t look carefully where she was going and, crossing Seventh Avenue, she stepped off the curb and into the path of a taxi that was racing through a yellow light. The driver swerved trying to avoid her but he did not change course fast enough and the left side of his fender collided with her legs.
She felt the impact of the car as something personal, malicious, a giant force that seemed to come out of the air and shove her whole body angrily up and forward. Then she felt the pain of impact as she hit the ground. Her consciousness seemed to splinter, and after that she remembered only fragments of what had happened, flashbulb instants: the paramedics cutting off her clothes, people shouting, the stretcher she was lying on being loaded into the ambulance, the siren starting up as they began to move. Later she learned that she had broken her jaw and one side of her collarbone when she hit the ground. In the ambulance she lost consciousness altogether.
When she woke up in the hospital, David was there. He was sitting beside her bed, holding her hand. He saw she was awake and stood up so that she didn’t have to move her head to look into his face. He was staring at her with an expression of anxiety and tenderness more intense than any she had seen before, and for a moment she was flooded with simple relief at seeing him and gratitude that he was there. Then she remembered the events that had led up to her accident, and the bruised and bloodied faces from the screen came into her mind as vividly as though she had seen them only a moment before.
She looked up at her husband, his gentle, rapt expression, and her stomach turned. Was he looking at her or at the damage she had suffered? She could picture how she looked right now; her face swollen up and lacerated where she had fallen on the pavement. She closed her eyes and tried to swallow but the muscles in her throat ached when she tried to move them and her mouth was dry as paper. Her head was throbbing and her jaw ached and her whole body felt like one gigantic bruise. She closed her eyes, wanting the world to go away.
“Sweetheart,” David was saying somewhere above her. “I’m so sorry.” But she knew he did not mean that he was sorry for anything he had done, only that he regretted what had happened. Then he bent to kiss her on the forehead. She opened her eyes and saw his face lowering towards her, his eyes sorrowful and his lips pressed together, and she tried to tell him not to touch her but found it hurt too much to speak. She made a noise in the back of her throat that sounded to her like the shapeless noise a drowning person might make.
“The doctors said you shouldn’t try to speak until your jaw has had time to heal some,” David said and looked at her and bent again to kiss her. She shrank away from him to the far side of the narrow bed but she couldn’t move far enough away to avoid him. When he kissed her she felt his lips linger on her skin. She found that her left arm moved all right and she raised it even though it hurt and pushed him away. He looked bewildered and upset and she knew he didn’t understand. When he tried to kiss her again, she managed to roll over so that she was facing away from him towards the wall.
“What?” she heard him say. “What’s wrong?” but of course she couldn’t tell him.
Through the weeks of her recovery, whenever he would try to touch her, she would pull away. Even when she was well enough to speak and walk around, as her bruises began to heal and turned from red to purple to black to green and yellow, as her cuts began to heal, she still found that each time he came near her she would think of the pictures she had seen and wonder: does he find me more beautiful now than he did when I was well? She would shy away from him, upset and revolted by this possibility. David, for his part, responded to her coldness with solicitude and careful, gentle attentiveness, which might have been caused by simple pity for her condition but which seemed to Karen to show that in fact he actually cherished her more in her damaged state than he had before, and this made her avoid his touch more assiduously than ever. Each gesture he made to demonstrate his affection therefore had the effect of putting more distance between them, more strangeness and silence, until she could hardly stand his presence anywhere near her: she would flinch when he touched her; she could not look into his face without crying. And she felt too upset and ashamed to tell him what she’d seen on the day before her accident. Too much time had passed, she thought, and she’d caused him too much anxiety by her behavior to tell him now what had occurred; it seemed both too small and too vast to have been the seed of their estrangement.
Even a patient husband could only endure so much of this treatment. By the time Karen’s face and body were entirely healed they were barely speaking to each other. When she was recovering, he’d moved into the spare room so she’d be more comfortable at night and he remained there, moving more and more of his belongings out of their old room. It was around this time that his firm took on a big new case which required that he work longer hours. This meant they didn’t have to dine together, either. Soon, this became normal for them, an established routine; he would come home late to find her already in bed. He’d look in to say good night to her before retiring to his own small room. Sometimes he’d linger in the doorway, but usually he wouldn’t come inside, not wanting to be pushed away one more time.
They inhabited the same house but moved around each other like flotsam caught in opposing currents. It seemed at a certain point that at any moment one of them would say out loud what they both knew and then they would separate. But then sometimes Karen would come across David unexpectedly in a room where she had not known he’d be. She would remember what it had been like between them before. She wondered if that feeling could ever come back and she would imagine it returning as if it had always existed and had only been away on a long journey. Or he would arrive back at night to find her fallen asleep with her book still open and the bedside lamp still on, and, coming in to switch it off, he’d notice the dark storm of her hair on the pillow and think how beautiful it was. And for this reason, they would put off for another day saying that they thought that one of them should leave. And another day. And another. And another.
Cynthia met Kris online during her second year of residency after medical school.
She had decided to apply for a residency in surgery even though this meant a longer training period, even more lengthy hours, and greater stress, because she didn’t want to settle for one of the specializations that were considered “mommy track,” like dermatology or pediatrics; she wanted to attain the highest level of prestige and skill in her field, and when she was accepted to surgery she had felt both thrilled and terrified. She moved to Madison, Wisconsin, in the summer when she finished her exams and started her internship at the university hospital there in the fall.
Of course, she had very little time to socialize or to pursue any interests outside work. She’d loved to cycle during college and had taken several long bicycle tours, including one around the coast of Ireland; she played the piano well enough that she’d considered going to conservatory to study composition and performance; she liked to garden and to cook; but all these things went by the wayside now. She had expected this. She had no time for anything that first year except work and it was thrilling and exhausting.
Dating, too, got difficult. When a man she was on a date with learned she was going to be a surgeon or when, after a few meetings, he found he had to see her when her work allowed, which was not often, he would begin to withdraw. Sometimes she could tell the exact moment when this process started. Something in the man’s posture changed or in his facial expression. The duration for which he’d look at her would shorten until at last he didn’t look at her at all. Then she would get the call or, worse, the email, or once even, to her horror, a text message, telling her that he didn’t think it was working out between them and he liked her but was sorry, etc.
Then her elderly parents split up, to her and her siblings’ great surprise. She had thought that Fred and Lucinda were happy together or, if not happy, at least content, at least comfortable with one another. Their separation really shook her up. What other model relationship did she have? Her brother, Harry, was on his second bad divorce. Her sister, Karen, occupied a marriage that had seemed great at the beginning but then lost all the air inside it; she and her husband, David, seemed more like ghosts haunting each other than like spouses. Was that the point of all this effort at romance, to end up trapped with someone in a set of small rooms, unable to either leave or be fully present in your own life?
So Cynthia stopped trying. She focused on her work, and when she was working she was happy. There was so much to learn, so much to take in; sometimes she thought she could feel the new pathways of understanding being driven through her brain like roads. She was coming to see the body in ways that she could not have imagined before, to understand how well it could recover from damage and disruption, how adroitly it could compensate when it encountered some unexpected obstacle to the fulfillment of its functions and goals; it seemed to her that this capacity to adapt was its particular gift, its magic. Sometimes she thought she could see through the people around her, through their seemingly inert flesh and into the fizzing, busy miracle of blood and bones and cells, remaking and renewing themselves.
She finished her shifts exhausted, and most nights or mornings she would come home and crawl into bed and drop into sleep like a stone into a pool of water. But sometimes she was still full of the feverish energy, the adrenaline that had sustained her through the many hours on her feet, and then she could not sleep.
On these insomniac nights she poured herself a drink and sat down at her computer and clicked through pages of brightly colored ephemera: news stories about the latest film star to be stopped for reckless driving and ordered into rehab; pictures of children in faraway countries rescued after floods and earthquakes; quizzes that told her which Beatle she would be if she ever had been or ever could be a Beatle. And sometimes she chatted with people whom she’d never met and never thought she would.
In the chat rooms, she introduced herself to anyone who was already there and described herself a little. She told who she was and what she did, though never exactly where she lived. She talked for a while with the mostly male interlocutors who came her way, and they were variously dull or interesting, intelligent or stupid, charming or crass, and she liked each of these qualities or not depending on her mood. Some evenings she was pleased to find herself communicating with someone erudite and cultured about the works of art they both loved and the books they’d read. Other times she was glad when the person typed some blunt obscenity about her tits or cunt. She replied in kind or closed the window on her screen depending upon whether the explicitness turned her on or bored her. Eventually, she started to get sleepy and could go to bed and rest.
This was how she first encountered Kris. The name came up in a chat room that Cynthia had been to on previous occasions, but she had never seen this user before. Hello, she typed. After a moment, the mild reply came: Hello.
Who are you? she typed.
My name is Kris, said the screen after a pause. I live in Norway in a little town north of the capital. Who are you?
I’m Cynthia. I’m training to be a doctor. I grew up in Chicago.
There was another delay and then: Chicago? I have been to Chicago several times to perform. I used to play the violin in the symphony in Oslo and we went on a number of tours in the United States.
What do you do now? Cynthia asked.
A few years ago, I left musical performance so that I could develop and run an organic farm. I thought how hard can that be after learning to play Shostakovich? Serves me right! Farming is so much harder than I could ever have imagined when I started out. It took all my time. Finally, though, it is beginning to turn a profit and I have hired a manager to help me run it so that I can go back to the city almost every weekend. Which is good because I can see my kids more often.
You have children?
Two. A boy and a girl. They live with my ex.
That must be difficult . . .
Well, we are relatively lucky. She’s a wonderful parent and we get on well as friends, we just weren’t so good at living together in the end. We were too different. Perhaps you know how that can be . . . There was a blank on the screen, the cursor pulsing as it waited. Then Kris typed: But I’m sorry, I’ve talked a lot about myself. Please—tell me about you and your work. Being a doctor must be fascinating . . .
They continued chatting, and when Cynthia finally glanced at the clock she had to excuse herself and go to bed. Several hours had passed in what felt like much less time. She had been enjoying the conversation so much that she had not noticed. This was not only because they had so many interests in common, although that seemed remarkable enough: Cynthia felt as though she were talking to someone who had taken up all the discarded threads of her own life and made another life out of them. But there was also an ease between them, shared humor. When Kris made jokes, which were mostly gently self-mocking, she found herself laughing in spite of her exhaustion. She liked the slight formality of the way Kris wrote, the sign of someone who had learned English as a second language and knew its grammar too well to be a native speaker. Before they signed off at last, Kris asked if they could meet again the following evening. Cynthia checked her schedule and agreed and they set a time and said good night.
The next night they met again and the conversation was just as interesting. She wrote about her decision not to pursue music and her work at the hospital. She told Kris things that she had told no one else: how upset she’d been by her parents’ late divorce; how she felt she had to work twice as hard as other people to compensate for being shy and serious and awkward. Again, the time flew by. For the next week they chatted every night and their rapport grew flirtatious. They swapped photographs (she spent some time and effort choosing which one she would send), and she was pleased with what she saw: a picture of a blond man with high cheekbones, a prominent nose, and slightly craggy brows. His skin was creased around the eyes and mouth; he looked capable of both laughter and great concentration. She printed out a small version of the picture and put it in her wallet in the space with the clear plastic window where other people put pictures of their spouses or their kids. She would take it out and look at it whenever she wanted to feel a little burst of energy and pleasure.
All week she flew around as though the force of gravity had been temporarily diminished and she was lighter than she’d been before. Her work went particularly well and she was praised by the attending physician in front of the other second-year residents. She felt the two things must be connected: her late-night chats with Kris and her good performance at work. She thought that she must work up the courage to ask about whether a visit would be possible: she could go to Norway or Kris could come to Wisconsin. That evening, she typed the words: I would like to come and visit you. But, then, suddenly she was overcome with shyness and deleted them. What if Kris rejected the idea of visiting so soon? It would cast a pall over their evening conversations, which she was coming to look forward to all day. They had only known each other (was known even the right word to use?) for a week and a few days. She did not want to seem too forward or too pushy. She was slightly surprised to find herself thinking: isn’t the man supposed to ask for the first date?
She decided she would wait; if things continued, there would be time for visits later. Perhaps Kris would make the suggestion to meet first and in the meantime there was the pleasure of the words up on the screen each night and the person she imagined writing them. That night, she had her first dream about Kris. It was not overtly sexual. They were sitting together on a mountainside, green and bare of trees. Kris reached out and laid both hands upon her knee, and this was what she remembered when she woke: how beautiful those hands were, how distinct, with long fingers, strong and elegant, but not unscathed. She woke up with them still before her eyes, imagining what it would be like to be touched by them.
One evening the next week, Cynthia was having dinner in a Chinese restaurant across the street from the hospital with a couple of the other residents after their shift. When it came time to pay, she opened her wallet to take out her debit card and left it lying unfolded on the table beside her while she looked over the check. The woman sitting beside her, whose name was Sonya, glanced over and said:
“Why do you have a picture of Kroll Eilertsen in your wallet?”
“What?” Cynthia said, confused.
“Kroll Eilertsen, the actor. That’s a picture of him.” And she pointed to the photograph behind the plastic window.
Cynthia felt her stomach plummet. She felt as though she could hardly breathe. “Oh,” she managed to say. “It’s a joke. My sister gave it to me. I used to like him when I was younger and she’d tease me about it and so, you know . . .” She trailed off and smiled in a way she hoped covered over the turmoil inside her.
Sonya said: “He was always on TV when we would go to Sweden to visit my grandparents, but hardly anyone in this country has even seen anything he’s been in, since he hasn’t done many films. What did you see him in?”
“I can’t even remember. It was so long ago . . .” The waiter was handing back the checks and she took hers and absorbed herself in signing it, figuring the tip. She didn’t look at Sonya, because she thought that if she did, she might start to cry. When the checks were brought back to the table, she said that she was feeling completely exhausted and excused herself to go. She was already halfway to her car when she heard someone behind her call her name. She turned around and saw Sonya coming after her holding Cynthia’s purse in her hand: she’d departed in such a hurry she had left it on the back of her chair.
When she arrived home it was nearly midnight, the hour when she usually spoke with Kris—or whoever that was, she thought now. She understood suddenly, sickeningly, that the words on the screen could have come from anyone; she had no way of knowing whether the person in whom she had become so quickly and intensely interested even lived in Norway, or had been a musician or a farmer or a parent. The shared interests had seemed genuine; Kris had known more than she did about music. The descriptions of journeys by bicycle had seemed so real, that they couldn’t be entirely made up . . . could they? Also the things they did not share: Kris’s way of talking about being a parent, and about the frustrations and triumphs of running a small business, showed humor and deep affection. Last week on a whim she had looked up the brand of organic produce that was supposed to come from Kris’s farm and it was real enough; but of course anyone could have looked up that website, used its details. The fact that the farm was real proved nothing.
A pang of sadness and disappointment burst inside her chest. Their affinity had seemed so genuine. But the face of the person she had thought she was falling in love with belonged to someone else entirely, some actor she’d never seen.
Why would someone do that, create a whole persona that was not their own? What possible motivation could anyone have for doing such a thing?
She considered simply vanishing, never logging into the chat room where they met again, blocking email messages from Kris’s address. But she decided that she couldn’t simply leave things unresolved. She poured herself an extra-large glass of bourbon, sat down at the computer, logged into the chat room, and waited. When the name Kris appeared on screen she left the initial greeting sitting on the screen unanswered, until the words Hello? Are you there? appeared beside it.
I know that photograph isn’t you, she typed. Then she sat back away from the keyboard and waited. For a minute nothing happened.
Then the words flashed up: I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. Everything else I told you has been perfectly true.
How do I know that? Cynthia typed. How can I believe anything you say?
Again, there was a pause. Then: I understand you must be very angry. I am truly, truly sorry. I thought that if I sent that picture you would continue to talk to me. I did not realize that it would matter until it was too late.
But why did you send me a fake picture at all? Why not just send a real one?
Would you like me to send you one now?
Yes, Cynthia typed, then hesitated and deleted it. No, she wrote instead. How would I know the one you’re sending now is real?
There was a moment in which the screen stayed blank. Then some more lines of text appeared.
I understand I have no right to ask you this, the text said, but I’m going to be coming to New York in two weeks for a conference. I was going to ask you to meet me there, before this happened. I was going to explain in person why I sent that picture. Will you please consider coming anyway? I would just like to meet you, once.
Cynthia hesitated. Then, quickly so she could not change her mind, she typed: Yes. I’ll come. And then hit send.
Thank you, came the answer. I will reserve a ticket for you tomorrow.
All right, Cynthia typed. I’m going to go now. Goodbye.
Goodbye, Kris said.
The airline ticket came the next day to her inbox. She looked at it, then filed it away. She could decide later whether she would use it. For a week, she did her work and did not contact Kris at all, nor did Kris try to contact her. She felt a growing curiosity about this person she had found so captivating. She was not interested so much in what Kris had hidden. Obviously, the person she would meet with in New York was different from the picture she’d received; perhaps disabled in some way, perhaps much older or much younger than herself, maybe even a different gender or a different race. What interested her more was whether she would feel in his or her presence any of the excitement and delight she’d felt so strongly in their writing. Had she just been talking to herself? Or had she experienced something real?
She decided that she would go to New York. She wrote to Kris and they arranged to meet at LaGuardia when Cynthia’s flight came in. She told her supervisor she was going out of town just for two days. She packed her bag for two nights away. She told herself that if something went wrong she could call Karen and stay with her and David for a night or two.
On the flight, she slept a little then woke up as they were starting to descend. After they’d landed and taxied to the terminal, she walked slowly with her bag past the rows of gates towards security. Kris had promised to meet her on the other side and had described the clothes she should look for at the airport: a blue jacket, black trousers, and a gray wool scarf. On the far side, there were people lined up waiting for arriving passengers. She scanned the faces of the crowd, searching for something at once familiar and totally unknown.
She saw the woman standing over to one side of the concourse. She was leaning on the wall and had one leg crossed over the other. She was peering into the stream of arriving passengers, but she had not yet seen Cynthia, so Cynthia had just a moment to observe her unobserved herself. The woman had high cheekbones and a kindly mouth and fair skin a little burnt from working out of doors. Her sandy hair was tied in a long braid down her back and she looked nervous. Cynthia stopped walking and stared at her, and then the woman caught sight of her and stood up straight. Cynthia found herself walking toward her, leaving her suitcase where it stood, holding out both hands to her. The woman reached out her hands, too, and Cynthia saw that they were fine, long-fingered hands, a violinist’s hands, but weathered and marked by other kinds of work, and that she recognized them because she had dreamt them. She reached out and took them in her own.
She stood in the fluorescent lighting of the airport concourse holding hands with this stranger while people passed them by on either side.
“It’s you,” she said, and then again: “It’s you.”