by Matthew Chacko

When Joel opened with, “Oh my god, do I have the craziest thing to tell you,” Ellie expected to hear of his roommates’ latest transgression, a topic they frequented on their dates. Last month, Joel found his roommates having sex in the living room, and two months ago, he found a line of cocaine on the kitchen counter. A voyeuristic indulgence. That’s what Ellie once called their rendezvous. They were eating oysters at a bistro that overlooked the East River, which was ridiculous because she didn’t like oysters. Even more ridiculous was that she knew the conversations to be bullshit, senseless fluff. But the rose helped. It made her laugh, as it always did. So when Joel announced that Mark and Jeff had split, Ellie was taken aback. Yet she wasn’t surprised.

“I don’t think Jeff wanted kids,” said Joel. “Mark did, but not Jeff.” Ellie nodded and sipped her sangria, a summer’s drink for a cool spring day. Dark clouds, pregnant with rain, were amassing in the sky. Joel looked at her quizzically, and she realized she hadn’t removed her windbreaker. Joel, impeccably dressed in a blue oxford and white chinos, as handsome and poised as always. She, in her dowdy gray fleece and waterproof chelseas, very practical but not beautiful. Perhaps she should have done something with her hair. She threw it in a wet ponytail as she raced out the door ten minutes late, almost barreling into one of her neighbors. She glanced at the menu, remembering why she hadn’t returned in several years. It was expensive, the portions conservative, and she was underdressed.

“I can’t blame them for ending it,” she said. “It takes a certain person to have kids. I was shocked that they were together for eight years, that they managed to last so long.”

“I could never do children. I don’t have the patience,” said Joel while eating a slice of baguette. “Thank god my sister has two so my parents have grandkids. My mom told me to consider surrogacy or even adopt, but that’s never happening.”

“My parents gave up on the idea that I’ll ever have any. I’m 36 and single, and in their minds, I should have a fifteen-year-old. Now, I don’t know if I want them at all,” Ellie said. But she had, at one time, envisioned motherhood. She was engaged at 24, back when the City felt fresh, before her youthful hopefulness matured into a lingering cynicism that now muted what was once a vibrant and colorful New York. On their first date at an Italian restaurant that was now long closed, she thought here was a man with whom she could have children. Even now, wisened after a dozen years, she knew it was a very good first date. He was handsome and successful—a fledgling hedge funder with a flat on the Upper East Side—and said exactly the right things. They both, for example, shared a mutual hatred of the Red Sox and preferred the Stones to the Beatles. And as the months passed by and the relationship grew more serious, Ellie began dreaming of a future in Connecticut near his parents, where there would be ample room and familial support for their children. She was disappointed when, two years later, the relationship dissolved.

“I just feel like we’re on different wavelengths,” he said during the breakup. “We don’t really know how to talk to each other.” Three months later, he found someone on his wavelength—a girl as different from Ellie as possible—with straight, blonde hair, dressed in haute couture (or some cheap knockoff, more realistically), beautiful. Everything Ellie was not, with her ambitions, her curly hair that couldn’t decide whether it was brunette or blonde, and her waist that stored the faintest of love handles that she would periodically touch out of insecurity. But Ellie moved on, and her priorities and expectations slowly shifted. She now felt fairly content with her life. She had a good career, one that blossomed after the breakup, and friends that stayed with her through the messiness of her twenties. And for her, that seemed to be enough.

Just then, a couple walked by, gay, she assumed, and trailing them a girl of five or so. The family greeted their party, another gay couple, who were already seated. The couples kissed each other on the cheeks then crouched to admire the girl’s attire—a white dress decorated with roses and finished with a pink sash around her waist. A white bow framed her black curls, and her nails were painted turquoise. The fathers were the picture of polish and class; the girl, exquisite.

“I never really liked Jeff,” said Joel. “I always thought he was pretentious. He’s gorgeous, but still. Mark is such a sweetheart, too. He’s just so caring and—,” but his unfinished sentence hung midair as their food was served. A tuna nicoise salad for Joel, and a salmon and avocado tartine for Ellie.  Joel looked at Ellie’s plate and said, “Your sandwich looks good, but I’m trying to stay away from carbs.” Ellie was mildly put out, sensing one of his usual covert criticisms. He continued, “Next weekend is my first at Fire Island for the year. You have to be ready for the beach, you know what I mean?”

“I get that,” she said but didn’t really. She looked at her plate with regret and, perhaps, resentment. But she knew how spartan Joel was when it came to food. She considered a piece of cake at their friend’s birthday party a celebratory indulgence. He, a mortal sin. But while she cared about her diet, she wouldn’t forego a slice of bread to attract stares at the beach. Nonetheless, she wondered if she should have ordered another dish, one that comprised less of flour and more of iceberg lettuce.

“Are you going on any more summer trips?” asked Ellie.

“I’m going to France for two weeks in August. One week at a villa outside Nice and another week in Paris. Mark and Jeff were going on the trip as well, but now, obviously, they’re not.” The waiter filled Ellie’s glass with water, and she asked for another sangria. It was Sunday, and she had a long week ahead of her. Joel spoke of his itinerary—of jaunts through Provençal lavender fields and excursions to Avignon and Versailles. He always depicted his trips artfully and lavishly, and Ellie was always enchanted by his vision of the world. He was compelling, someone to whom she felt an irresistible attraction for reasons she hadn’t yet known.

As he spoke, the little girl walked through the dining room, her hand enveloped in that of her father’s. As she passed, women craned their necks and halted their conversations, bewitched by this site of uncommon loveliness. They then turned to their dates in hushed excitement, urging them to look, or rather, to behold. They would then talk of their futures—of the girls they would have and the clothes they would wear and how beautiful they would be. Amidst the tinkling of cutlery and china, Ellie heard their admiring chatter bounce off the white subway tiles—a quiet, joyful din.

Just then, Ellie had the sinking feeling that she had, after all these years, done something wrong. It was a subtle, nagging suspicion, one she felt every day, that was now palpable and strong. She felt she had somehow missed the mark. She wanted to say this, but only managed, “So you think that Mark and Jeff split because they had different ideas about kids?”

“There could always be other reasons, but maybe they just needed to move on. They’d been together for eight years. Sometimes people just grow apart,” said Joel.

“That’s true,” replied Ellie and watched her avocado spread assume a brown patina. It began to rain, forcing people caught unawares to use whatever they had available—newspapers or jackets or backpacks—as protection.

“Yeah, they were unhappy with each other,” said Joel, breaking their silence. “And sometimes you don’t even know why you’re unhappy. But that feeling is always there, always lingering in the back of your mind, and you often don’t recognize it. You know something’s not right, that something’s off kilter. After you’ve lived with it for a long time, you do something. It’s often not intentional, but you fuck up. It comes out of the blue to everyone, including yourself. All those years suddenly in smoke.”
Jessica’s older sister, Lydia, divorced her husband after an eleven-year marriage—a protracted and painful affair for everyone involved. Lydia called Ellie in hysterics on three occasions, uncertain and scared. She doubted that the children would cope well with the custody arrangement and was lost as to what their lives would be when the dust finally settled. Lydia lived with her parents for several months, unable to afford a place of her own. She had been a stay-at-home mom, out of the workforce so long she no longer had any employable skills. She and her children took over their parents’ basement in Columbus, Ohio, sleeping on the sofa and a collection of air mattresses—an arrangement as chaotic as the rest of their lives. When Ellie finally asked her sister about the reason behind the divorce, Lydia’s response was, “A marriage can’t last if you’re not really saying anything to each other.” After pressing the issue further, she found out that Lydia had cheated.

For the first time in her three years of knowing Joel, Ellie understood what he said. His was one of those rare kernels of revelation, a deep mutual feeling you share with someone whom you least expect. It’s the accrual of small griefs that amass over many years, calcifying into something too solid and too impacted to be dislodged. It happened to Lydia, and her marriage collapsed. And Ellie believed this was happening to Joel and her.

“Oh my god!” he said, interrupting her thought, “I have to get to spin. I promised Ben I’d be there.”

“Oh,” she said, blinking, “I hope you have a good workout.” He failed to tell her he had another commitment.

“Ben is going to kill me if I’m late! And yes, I’ll try to have a good workout. We’ll talk soon.” He blew her a kiss and left. She was disappointed that he hadn’t blocked more of his afternoon for her like she had done for him. She then remembered that he had done this the last time they were together. Perhaps it was a trend. By now the rain had stopped. Alone at the table, she drank her sangria, now tipsy. She watched the passersby—some rushed to an appointment for which they were late. Others meandered, looking at their phones while their dogs pissed on piles of cardboard. The handsome family rose from the table and said goodbye to their lunch dates. The girl, not wanting to leave, showed her friends something on an  iPhone while her parents gently coaxed her to put on her coat, a navy mackintosh with white vertical stripes. She stomped her foot petulantly but was eventually persuaded. The family was soon out the door, as lovely in departure as in entrance.

Ellie finished her drink and checked the to-do list on her phone, which was more exhaustive than she remembered. She felt a budding headache, the effect of too much wine on a body that was now closer to 40 than 30. Perhaps, instead of chores, she would read one of the long-neglected books on her nightstand, carefully selected though seldom opened. Yes, that was how she would spend her afternoon. It was Sunday after all, and her week was going to be a long one. She would buy a few groceries first and then she would read—a good compromise between productivity and pleasure. She felt a buzz in her pocket, a text from Lydia. Ellie settled the bill and walked out the door, feeling not quite good but also not quite bad. She rounded the corner and approached the subway. Another vibration, another text from Lydia. Instead of descending down the steps to a train that would whisk her to the Upper West Side, she kept walking. Surprising herself, she took out her phone and called Lydia.

About the Author:

A native of the Midwest, Matthew Chacko now lives in New York City. Matt earned his BA from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI and his MA from Syracuse University where he studied early modern literature. Inspired by his literary studies to help effect social change and render the world a more equitable place, he now works for an education nonprofit in the City while working on a collection of short stories.