Lily Manheim has a new lover. Howard is slightly too young, too tall, and too nice, but he is, for the moment, hers. Lily’s daughter Natalie would not approve of him, her estranged husband Del would not like him, but her dog, Britney Spears, who actually shares her life and home, adores him.
And, Lily thinks, when she isn’t overanalyzing, she may adore him too. But such moments, when she is not overanalyzing, are remarkably few.
Her lover knows this. He knows that her ongoing divorce has left her uncertain and fearful, angry, and afraid. That Howard knows this and allows her to talk about it already makes him different from Del, who wants to talk about anger and uncertainty and fear, but only if they involve him.
Otherwise, Del isn’t all that interested.
All of which would make her lover “touchy-feely” as defined by Del. Lily hasn’t actually introduced the two men, but since Howard is only her third lover in 23 years of marriage — a list that includes Del, Howard, and a six-week fling with a Chestnut Hill coffee barista named Fred Willobee — her mind filters him through Del’s imaginary judgments. She doesn’t want to think about Del in relation to Howard, yet she can’t help but make comparisons: how Howard breathes (Del is a mouth breather), how he smells (Del smells of vanilla and toothpaste mint), how he strokes her body or her hair (Del strokes her with an intense care, as though he were molding her on the spot).
“Stop thinking so much,” Howard advises. Lily nods, but thinking too much is an occupational hazard, one that she cannot abandon. Thinking too much is her private nicotine, the drug that gives meaning to everything else, an addiction that doesn’t have a patch. She wonders if there might be a 12-step program to forget your old husband, or at least to stop expecting him to come into the room while you and your new lover are in bed. Or while she is with a client, practicing therapy.
“It’s too soon,” her mother Ruth rules over the phone. “What will your neighbors think?”
“Neighbors?” Lily asks.
“A new one coming in and out every other day,” Ruth says. “I hope you’re taking precautions.”
“What precautions?” Lily asks. Of course she knows what precautions, but it was worth it to hear what her mother might say.
“Don’t be coy,” Ruth says. She hangs up the phone.
On days she can stop thinking, Lily’s cells feel renewed. Today, a March Saturday, she moves around the rooms of her Chestnut Hill house infused with energy, tossing newspapers, cardboard, old refrigerator containers of Chinese food. She rolls throw rugs, pushes chairs against walls to damp-mop floors. She wipes around the edge of a picture frame and throws the gray paper towel into a green plastic bag and then repeats the gesture until a towel shows white. She works for two hours, scrubbing and shining, polishing and tossing.
At 3 o’clock, Britney starts to emit a long, low howl that Lily recognizes at once. To Lily’s horror, she looks up from her work to spot her estranged husband Del, nose pressed against the window of the front door.
“What?” she calls.
Del mimes opening the door, and though she suspects it is not going to end well, she lets him in. In the hallway, he raises both hands to greet Britney, who was originally his dog, but rather than leap into his arms, as was once her wont, the giant schnauzer stays splayed on the worn Oriental carpet, tail down, head pressed to her paws. Lily ties shut the last of the green plastic bags, makes a note to buy more, and only then turns to Del, who is staring at the dog.
“What did you do to her?” he asks.
Lily glances at Britney, who has not moved.
“She’s behaving,” Lily says.
“Something’s different,” says Del. He runs a hand through his crinkly curly hair. Dark circles round his eyes as though he has been missing sleep. This is a surprise: When he lived with Lily, Del had been an extremely sound sleeper; she was the one who traced cracks in the ceiling above their conjugal bed, counting his numerous infidelities.
Del leans over Britney.
“Are you my best girl?” he asks. Kneeling, he studies the dog. “You’re seeing someone, Lily,” he says.
Lily doesn’t answer. Instead, she takes in Del’s denim-covered back, once long and lean, muscular from his regular workouts, and notes that his shoulders show a little slump and his waist has thickened. Not a lot; not much. But little things, tells that he is no longer exactly young.
“Del, what do you want?”
“Who is he?” he asks. He keeps his eyes on the dog. “When you kiss him, do you think of me?”
He jumps to his feet, bends to rub his right knee, and then lifts his eyes to meet Lily’s.
“I came to talk about Natalie.”
“What about her?”
“She’s making a mistake. This Jonah. He’s not trustworthy. They’re too young.”
Lily sighs. A month earlier, their daughter Natalie had phoned with the stunning announcement that she planned to get married this June after she graduated from Bard. An uncomfortable dinner in Center City had followed, where it was clear that neither set of parents believed this was the best of ideas. But the young couple had stubbornness in their favor. They weren’t looking for blessings or anything else. They had answers for everything.
“A little late to get involved now,” Lily says. “They’ve already bought the rings.”
Del waves his hands. “Do you want them to get married? Is this something you desire?”
“We’re not talking about what I want,” she says with more confidence than she actually feels. “We’re talking about two grown people getting on with their lives.”
“I’m not ready for this,” Del says. “I don’t want to be the father of the bride. I don’t want to have grandchildren. I don’t want …” he pauses. “I’m getting on, Lily, ” he says.
Lily surveys the room. Fourteen bags of trash sit in one corner, and she has only begun. Six months ago, Del insisted that they sell the Chestnut Hill house they had shared for 23 years and split the proceeds. Lily lobbied to stay, and she lost; she and the house would be gone in a month.
“It isn’t how I imagined it,” he says.
Lily puts her dust rag down and walks around the kitchen counter. Del settles on one of the kitchen stools. When Lily reaches where Del sits, Britney starts to growl. How Britney has managed to change loyalties so quickly in the space of three months of Lily’s time with Howard she didn’t know, but the dog had.
“Natalie is happy,” Lily tells Del. “She’s not asking our opinion. She’s 22. She gets to make her own mistakes.”
“Why?” Del asks. His voice is plaintive as a toddler’s. “Can’t we stop her? Buy her off?”
Ignoring Britney’s growls, Lily steps closer. Del’s vegan diet has thinned his skin; she can trace a blue thread in his right cheek, pulsing. Once, years and years ago, she had gone into Del’s cardiology research lab at Penn, where he had shown her stem cells drawn from the heart, bumping rhythmically in tiny petri dishes. If left alone, Del said, they would evolve into heart muscles; each one capable of pumping blood through arteries and veins, powerful enough to sustain life.
Lily steps near. “Nothing lasts forever, Del.”
He looks at the dog who, seeing Lily close to her former owner, jumps to attention, tail up, teeth bared. “Don’t I know it?”
And then, with a bitter glance at both Britney and Lily, Del stands and pushes out the front door.
Amanda Rodgers has a new lover, an older married lawyer who works in the firm where she is also employed. Because his firm sometimes shows up in the newspapers and online, Amanda doesn’t think she should tell Lily, her therapist, his name. Lily has agreed; they call him Mr. X to protect his anonymity.
“Here is the thing,” Amanda says during her regular 5 o’clock Friday appointment with Lily. “I don’t really believe in men and women finding happiness. It seems racked by futility.”
In her comfortable chair, Lily nods. In the two years that she has been Lily’s patient, Amanda has had an ongoing problem with trusting intimacy, which is not helped by a predilection for married men.
“Why do you feel that?” Lily asks.
Amanda stares at the spaces between her fingers. “Where are the models?” she asks. “Who has a good marriage these days?”
Lily thinks. Amanda has the disturbing habit of asking rather than answering questions, which makes their sessions more like Ping-Pong than therapy. This happens a lot with patients who believe that really, they are smarter than their therapists; that they have little to learn.
“There are some,” Lily offers.
In the office, Lily has a patience she lacks in real life. Inside these four closely set walls, at times, Lily’s problems fall away. She doesn’t think about her divorce, or losing the house, or Natalie, who is probably making an awful mistake. Or even Britney, who had smiled when Del shut the door on Saturday, as though she too were glad to see him gone.
But today, for some reason, she does think of Mr. X’s wife.
“Why are we talking about marriage?” Lily asks, shaking her head to unleash the thought of Mrs. X, who, betrayed and most likely bereft, has no part in this conversation. “Do you think about marrying Mr. X?”
“Doesn’t every girl think about marriage?” Amanda returns.
The endless queries exhaust Lily, as does Amanda’s protective sarcasm. Lily decides not to answer, to let Amanda stew in her own question porridge. She wants to tell Amanda that she for one had never dreamed of marriage, that she had dropped into it with Del without a single logical thought. In the corner of her mind, against her will, Lily spies Del, young and spindly and dark haired, wobbling at the end of the wedding aisle on his parents’ backyard, his face turned toward the Philadelphia sky. Pale pink and orange, the sunset was glorious, but why was his gaze not on Lily as she moved toward him in her wedding gown, at that most momentous time?
“Here’s the thing,” Amanda breaks in. “What if Mr. X is the one?”
“Do you think he is?” Lily asks.
“No. I don’t, ” Lily says. The words spill out. What the hell was Del looking at? Turn your head, she wants to yell at Del. Pay attention to your bride!
She turns to Amanda instead.
“What about his wife?”
“What does she have to do with it?” Amanda asks, clearly puzzled by the path the conversation has taken.
“Everything?” Lily bites back.
The second the word is out, Lily realizes she is out of line. Across from her, Amanda’s face flushes, her lips tight.
Del has disappeared.
“We should stop,” Lily decides quickly. “We can pick this up next week.” Unsteady, she swings around in her swivel chair and fills out Amanda’s discharge sheet, ignoring her trembling fingers. “Same time next week?”
This time, Amanda doesn’t answer, question or otherwise. Before Lily can hand over the paper, Amanda rises from her seat, grabs the sheet from Lily’s hand, and barrels out the door.
Alone in her office, the air stills, the heater hums. Rattled, Lily rises and stands by the one-way reflective window in her office — you can see out but not in — and stares at the bleak landscape: the ever-present Mexican food truck and a single bare maple tree.
Then Amanda appears.
Embarrassed and annoyed, Lily prays for Amanda to move on, to go home, but Amanda stays put. At first, Lily thinks that Amanda might settle in for a smoke or buy a coffee at the gaily painted food truck, but before Lily fully registers what is happening, Amanda steps to one side of the window and, head bowed, begins to cry.
In the two years she has been Lily’s patient, Amanda Rodgers has never wept. Not about Mr. X, Mrs. X, or anything else. Lily’s first thought, as a therapist, is that tears may be good for Amanda; they may provide a cathartic release. But as Lily watches normally composed Amanda alone on the sidewalk, shoulders heaving, face crumpling, Lily is struck by doubt. She had no right bringing her private demons to the session; she didn’t know if her words had been meant for Amanda or Del. From behind her protective window, Lily considers heading out to apologize, but Amanda is outside. If there is one thing Lily believes it is that her jurisdiction, as a therapist, does not reach into the actual world. What happens out there belongs to the patient; the only things that Lily is privy to are what the patient shares with her inside.
Outside, Amanda’s life is her own.
Lily looks up; Amanda has stopped crying. Dabbing her damp face on her woolen sleeve, she slowly buttons up her coat.
And then, shoulders straightened, Amanda lifts her downturned head and stares straight into Lily’s face. Of course, she cannot see Lily. The window only goes one way. Still, Lily sits down at once, feeling exposed. Red-eyed and buttoned up, her lips chapped from cold, Amanda appears as though she might pose a question, and Lily realizes it might be a question that she wants to hear. Before she can change her mind, she grabs a sweater, opens her office door and rushes down the beige carpeted hallway and into the waiting room, past her next patient, who sits leafing through a WebMD Magazine, to find Amanda. She has a vision of the two of them standing in the chilly air, betrayer and betrayed, talking, maybe even embracing, but when Amanda spots Lily heading from the corner toward her, she turns on one heel and takes off.
“Amanda!” Lily calls. Amanda ignores her; she picks up her pace. Lily starts to run after her, but Amanda lifts a hand over her head and sends a middle finger into the air as she takes a right on the cross street and vanishes from sight.
Left alone on the sidewalk, poised before the mirrored window, Lily turns and catches her reflection: a tall, narrowly built woman with flyaway black hair and a reddened nose, arms crossed over her skinny chest against the early March cold. She wants to curse Del and the Mr. Xes of the world; look what they have done! And yet, at the same time, she wonders: What if Amanda is truly in love? What if Mr. X is the one? A taste of tin rises in Lily’s throat: what the hell does she know? To be in love is different than having a lover. To be in love is overwhelming, a state Lily had lived in for almost 23 years. But what did love have to do with marriage? And did love end when a marriage dissolved? If so, where did it go? Did it simply disappear?
“I have my own questions!” she cries.
After work, Howard meets her at the new skating rink at Dilworth Plaza downtown. Shaken by her afternoon, Lily considers canceling, heading home, and crawling under the covers, but, hating to disappoint Howard and thinking it might be good to be out in the frigid night air, that it might clear her head, she drives to the rink.
The last time Lily went ice skating, she was 8 years old. She had discovered her ankles were too weak to support her frame. That, unfortunately, hasn’t changed.
But tonight with Howard, her weakness turns out to be an advantage. Howard, born in Calgary, Canada, grew up playing ice hockey and is an excellent skater, with a grace that belies his size. He ties on his own skates while she loops on a rented pair, and then he offers her his arm. He wraps it around her waist, takes her into his hold and before she can decide how she feels about this public intimacy, he whisks her around the glittering rink at a breathtaking speed. In Howard’s large grasp she weighs nothing. He deposits her to cling to the railing where they started and says, “Be right back,” and heads for the center of the rink, where he does two figure eights and a fancy twirl, then returns for her like a summoned Uber car. The night goes on like that: a few swipes around the rink in Howard’s arms, then a few fancy moves by Howard alone.
Freezing yet elated, Lily strains to find Howard at the center of the rink while she waits his return. Graceful couples in colorful puffer coats block her view; newbies struggle to stay upright. Howard, seemingly oblivious to everything around him, dips and rises, sways and circles. Eyes closed, lips sealed, he looks like a man perfectly at peace.
Lights twinkle on the edge of her sight; overhead, the Decemberists sing about longing. If Del were standing beside her right now, watching Howard, what would he see? What would he say? A grown man practicing twirls? Del’s vision blocks everything; how can she take Howard seriously? But why is Del here? What does he matter? She closes her eyes to escape him, but all she sees is Amanda crying, Natalie insisting on getting married. We know what we’re doing, she told her parents at the dinner. As though anyone ever really did.
Stop thinking so much, Howard says. As though it were the easiest thing in the world.
“Hey,” Howard calls. Back from the center of the rink, he brakes and bends over to nuzzle her ear; his lips are ice. One gloved hand stretches toward her, he reaches for her waist, but for this moment, beset by Del and Natalie and Amanda, she ignores his hand and steps away from the rail. She lets go.
Howard hovers, a half smile across his happy face. She looks away from the lights, into the darkness around the edges of the rink. Everything in her wants to grab him, to lean on him, to make him hold her up. Lily knows if she pushes herself forward she is going to fall. She knows that there is a chance it will hurt, that she will break something — a wrist, a bone, a nose. She wobbles on her fragile ankles, and Howard’s hand shoots out, but before he can touch her, Lily pushes herself forward, caught between knowing and not knowing, every muscle and sinew in her body clutched against gravity and fear.