Peter is on the other side of the room, bent over a pile of papers on his desk. He does not see Elissa looking at him from her spot on the stool; he is absorbed, he is nearly late for work. He spent too long in the shower this morning, she noticed, almost 15 minutes. Neither of them said anything about it.
They are in the studio, her favorite room in the apartment. Where she does her painting and other assignments, where he will sit in the evening and finish up work left over from the day. Two thick bay windows are set into the front walls, windows for which Elissa picked out the curtains — a sheer turquoise linen that sometimes bathes the room in a soft blue glow, making her feel like she is in a cave or a lagoon — and when the sun started pouring through them last week with the spring solstice, Peter moved his desk to the back wall so that Elissa could sit with her easel in the light. He knows she likes the sun on her skin, knows she dresses in layers even in winter so that she can shed them in the sun. The studio is the only room for which the outside view is not blocked by an adjacent apartment complex, but the view is still depressing: a few square yards of dead grass closed off on one side by a fence with early signs of rot, on the other by a concrete barrier separating their street from a six lane highway that roars and honks and wails nonstop, even on weekends, even in the dead of night. There’s a row of potted plants along the bottom of the fence belonging to their above neighbor, a woman in her 30s who sometimes comes down into the yard wearing long, shapeless canvas dresses and moves down the line, wetting the dirt with water from a cracked plastic can. Elissa does not know what kind of plants they are; she has never seen them bloom.
It’s fine, though; all she has to do is focus on the few inches of sky she can see from their position on the first floor. Look above the concrete and the dying plants, the dead grass, the never-ending pleas of sirens on the highway.
She tries to make out Peter’s face through the shadows as he bends over his desk. His spine is a straight line pressed through the back of his shirt. She almost asks if he wants to move back into the light: There’s room for both of us, she could say, but instead she watches as he gathers the papers into a neat stack, packs them into a folder and the folder into a backpack, the same one he used for all four years at college. When he finally turns, his face is cautious; he walks over slowly like a zookeeper approaching a pregnant animal. Bends down and kisses her, softly and on the cheek, his gaze searching out hers, and Elissa immediately thinks of her mother’s eyes on the day she left Trout Lake on the interstate bus three and a half years ago. Their pleading tenderness as the bus pulled away, how Elissa turned her head from the window and stared at the seatback in front of her. It was the first time she had seen anything of the sort in her mother’s expression — a cruel thing to do, Elissa thought. A last-ditch attempt to make her feel guilty for leaving, to plant in her the idea of a love that had never really existed between them, perfectly timed so that Elissa would remember it for the rest of her life. Her mother was good at that: dropping hints of affection that were never seen through to their end. A touch on the shoulder, a quick glance of approval at a highly graded school paper; but the next moment, always coldness, always criticism.
Have a good day, Peter says, after pulling away. He is smiling faintly; that’s good, she thinks. She says, Yeah, you too. When she smiles it’s with her lips pressed together, and she knows how disingenuous it must look because her eyes aren’t playing along. Her mother once told her, in a voice that would make one think she had just caught Elissa eating her boogers or smearing her shit on the bathroom walls, that she should never smile like that. That it looked sarcastic, snarky, ingenuine. Elissa had just thought it looked humble and innocent; she had ignored her mother’s advice.
I’ll see you tonight, Peter says on his way out of the room. A routine statement, one he has come to say every day, but Elissa notices how strangely he says it now, with a certain emphasis on the second syllable of tonight, as if it were a question and an assurance all at once. Looking straight at her as he said it, too, trapping her there inside the word before slipping out the door. Tonight. She already knows what tonight will look like; she already knows what the rest of her life may look like if it goes on like this. Last night, Peter asked her to be with him, permanently. Or, at least for the rest of his life, which, as they know now, could very well end up being significantly shorter than hers. It wasn’t a marriage proposal, not exactly. There had been no ring, no getting down on one knee. In December he had seen a doctor, who tested his blood and found four out of the five alleles necessary to guarantee that he inherited the disease that had killed his father at the age of 58 just two months before. It wasn’t a sure thing, but it would be something close to a miracle if it didn’t happen. The doctor’s words.
At his old house after the funeral, to which he went without Elissa, wishing to spare her the stress of missing several days of school, Peter’s mother confessed that his father had been diagnosed when Peter was in middle school. That’s when the restlessness started, the tremors that he would hide by sticking his hands in his pockets, things Peter couldn’t believe he never noticed. It was a rare form of dementia, clotting the brain with proteins that caused physical and cognitive decline — memory loss with the added bonus of hallucinations, dizziness, gradual failure of basic motor skills: eating, drinking, walking. By the end, Peter’s mother had confessed, his father had not been able to sleep for even two hours at a time.
Peter did not tell Elissa when he got tested, but he showed her the results three weeks after receiving them, after he had absorbed what they meant. What he said to her was more technical than romantic: I want to know. If you can stay with me through this. If you want to. An arrangement; that’s what he was asking for, Elissa decides, looking thoughtfully out the window, still perched on her stool. I don’t want to do what my mother did, he said. To keep it from you. His lower jaw was tense and jutted out, like it hurt him to have to put her through a dilemma like this, but there had been something else beneath it, too: a hint of self-congratulation, the knowledge that he was doing the right thing, the noble thing, to come right out and be honest with her when he had the power to keep everything a secret. If I had waited, he said, soon, it would have been too late.
Too late for which one of them? she wondered.
She loves him; that is what she told him last night. What she had not said out loud was that, often, her love for Peter feels like her love for Eggbert, her pet turtle back in Indiana. A fond love, a love of affection and care. But with less weight to it than she sometimes thinks ought to be there. Instead of attempting to verbalize this to him, Elissa said, It doesn’t change the way I feel about you. And she looked at him with a kind of tragic admiration, an innocent sweetness that makes her chest feel as though it were filling with hot gasoline when she remembers it now. It was the most honest thing she had said to him in a while, in the way of her own feelings. But it was the opposite of a promise.
And then something in his gaze had shifted, stabilized, like water settling after a ripple across its surface. He looked down at her with clear eyes, his hesitation gone. I would take care of you. You would be able to go to grad school, we could keep living like this. He kissed her forehead before she could respond.
It was unclear whether Peter had meant this to be a reassurance or a threat. Peter had always brushed aside her concerns about his paying rent for the both of them; he would shake his head and scrunch up his face when she protested, like it was completely ridiculous for her to suggest working a part-time job to contribute half of the $900 every month. You just keep painting, he would say. I want you to be able to do that. I can take care of us. She knew it was true; he could support both of them easily with his new salary, even though it was his first job out of college. Everyone in his program, too, had graduated into jobs that paid three times what she could expect with a studio arts degree. Soon, Elissa will run out of the only money she has left, the payout from her grandfather’s will, when she sends in her last tuition payment two months from now.
A cloud covers the sun in the window and Elissa stops thinking. Her first class doesn’t start for another 40 minutes, but she starts grabbing her things anyway. Two weeks into the final portfolio for her senior seminar, she takes advantage of any and all free time to paint: stolen minutes between classes at the studio, between meals at home, the half-hour between running the dishwasher and brushing her teeth at night. This means, too, dragging everything with her daily from the apartment to campus and back: three sets of paints, her cluster of brushes held together by one stringy rubber band, a Ziplock bag stuffed with sponges of various sizes and shapes, a stack of two or three canvases sandwiched between foam boards to protect them from scuffing. On her way out, she glances into their bedroom, at their bed she made only half an hour ago, and runs back in to tuck under the mouth of the bedspread Peter’s old beloved pillow, with its stiff yellowed fabric and brown age spots, as she does every morning. Just in case they have someone over in the apartment later, as they sometimes do: Beatriz, Elissa’s first-year roommate; Peter’s old suitemates, although she doesn’t think Peter has seen them in several months now; even the landlord, who pops in occasionally unannounced to walk each hallway, each room, scanning the walls for cracks or chipped paint, a moist cigarette dangling from her lips.
The walk from the apartment to campus takes only seven minutes, closer than any of the upperclassmen dorms, which are spread throughout the surrounding residential streets in Edgewater. The short commute is the main reason Elissa jumped at the idea when Peter showed her the listing on his laptop six months ago in her old dorm room. It was the summer after he had graduated, and he was back living with his parents in their house, barely 20 minutes out from campus. He had already started his job, an entry-level position as a data analyst with an architecture firm, and he would drive directly from work every Friday to stay with her. She had stealthily acquired free housing for the third summer in a row, this time because a professor had agreed to take her on as a mentee. More often than not, though, the professor ditched their biweekly meetings for her beach house upstate, and Elissa ended up spending most of her time painting in the senior studio or on the lawns when it was sunny, buying avocado sandwiches and iced teas from Schulman’s Deli with the money Peter left her every so often. It’s right around the corner from the senior art studios, see? He said, and the screen pulsed where his finger pressed into it. It’s beautiful, Elissa said, but I can’t pay for it. Though I do want to live with you. His eyes had grown wide then, like a puppy’s. You won’t have to pay for it. He smiled, hopeful. I make enough already to pay the rent. And in a year, you’ll have graduated, too. Then we can both chip in.
The campus as she walks through it is bright and green, the picture of early spring and cookie-cutter college adverts, the lawns cluttered with students lounging on blankets and bath towels in groups and drinking Pimm’s out of fruit-stuffed water bottles. It’s exactly what she had in mind when she came three and a half years ago, this kind of languid freedom. Maybe she’ll call up Beatriz and Poppy after class. Maybe they’ll want to get dinner, too. Suddenly, despite all of Peter’s soft kisses and sympathetic glances since last night, she dreads the thought of sitting across from him, alone, for a meal.
The senior studio, reserved for visual arts majors working on their final portfolios, is on the highest level of the Schwartz art building, the only place on campus with floor-to-ceiling windows over a view of the river. She has loved the building ever since touring it her first year, after which she promptly sent in an application for the major. The fact that she had not painted anything since middle school art class was irrelevant; she had always been a fast learner. Before she moved in with Peter, she had lived for two years in the dorm for freshmen and sophomores right behind Schwartz and would set an early alarm so she could go in right when it opened at 7:30 and sit in the studio — sometimes to paint, sometimes just to sit, watching the sun over the river and the skyline beneath it. Trout Lake, Indiana, her hometown, had been so dark, all the buildings made from industrial gray concrete, and so humid that even spring warmth was unbearable. She hated being inside, she hated being outside; she just wanted to be somewhere else. In the studio, she felt like she was waking up from a long, silent dream.
There are only three other people in the room when Elissa walks in. She’s early, so the spot she likes best is still free, the one at the corner where the walls meet and spit little shards of concentrated sunlight onto the floor. The other students nod to each other as they unload their supplies and set up. It’s still early, and no one wants to speak yet, scared of abusing the quiet, the kind that mourns when it’s broken.
Most of the majors here are people Elissa has studied with for at least two years now, people who don’t particularly intrigue her anymore. There’s Sally Muller, always grabbing the spot closest to Professor Lytle’s podium, nearly asleep on her chair. She’ll perk up as soon as the professor walks in. Behind her sits Josephine Bordeau, whose mother attended the college in the’70s then married a man who made tens of millions in cryptocurrency and loudly donated a quarter of it to the school. Josephine’s paintings are amateur, borderline childlike, and sometimes when Elissa glances over at her during class, Josephine is sitting on her stool with her head in her hands, gazing out the window as if she were Rapunzel in her tower. The other students glare at Josephine, shoot her down when she ventures misguided opinions on Miró or tribalism, but Elissa feels bad for her — her inability to separate her identity on campus from her mother’s infamy, her father’s gross accumulation of wealth. And it’s not like Elissa’s paintings are masterpieces; she just enjoys painting them. But Elissa knows better than Josephine how to hide what she has — her grandfather’s inheritance, her boyfriend’s rent payments. Nobody knows these things except Peter. Peter, who, a month ago, found her stash of MFA brochures in her drawer of the nightstand, all programs she could only afford with full fellowships.
Hugh Sims, the new major transfer, wanders into the room and takes the spot behind her. Professor Lytle introduced him to the group a month before, two weeks into the new semester: an ex-computer science major who had changed at the last moment, having “seen the light.”
Good morning, he says.
She turns and catches his eye, his easel set up to the right and slightly behind her own. She looks at him for a second, questioningly, before nodding back. He smiles. If he knows he has broken an unspoken rule, a collective commitment to silence, he is not embarrassed. Elissa pulls her hair into a ponytail, suddenly warm.
* * *
The class moves along quickly, despite its lasting three hours. Elissa doesn’t find it unbearable, as she does some of her other required classes; the colors absorb her and she forgets herself, distracted by the way the light changes the pigments as the sun moves up in the sky, twisting itself into different configurations on her canvas until what she has in front of her looks completely different from whatever she had in mind when she began. This happens most days. Occasionally, Hugh grunts quietly in frustration behind her, rushes to the rear of the room to refill his water bowl, and the noise pulls her momentarily out of her stupor. She wonders what he is painting, why he has chosen to switch into the class, but it’s a fleeting curiosity and she doesn’t really care enough to find out.
When the professor dismisses them, Elissa begins to pack up. She can feel Hugh looking at her, aware of his gaze moving across her shoulders and down to the tender spots behind her knees. She bundles her brushes back together, scrapes dried paint off her hands with her fingernails and brushes the chips into a trash can. When she turns to leave the room, she can still feel him there, a blotchy presence in her periphery. She does not look at him as she walks, but swings her tote slowly over her shoulder, extending one bare arm to free a chunk of hair from beneath the strap of her bag. And then, just as she’s about to place a hand on the door:
She stops, still facing the doorway, and her lips bloom into a smile: wide, toothy. She hasn’t felt it in a while, that satisfying rush, like luring a fish into a net.
When she turns back around, she is composed.
I’m Hugh, he says. His hair reminds her of a porcupine’s spikes: jet black and sharp, like they would draw blood if you placed your hand flat on the top of his head. But his eyes are soft, his face doughy. He reminds her of nothing, of no one she already knows. So when he asks her to the coffee shop on the ground floor of the social work building, she says yes. And yes again when he asks if she wants to come up to see his room in the newest senior dorm, the one everyone wants, with big suites and lounges with hardwood flooring.
She would be lying if she said, after last night, that she hadn’t thought about it. Not about Hugh, specifically, but it was Hugh who presented her with the opportunity: not an exciting or a passionate one, but a way out nonetheless. A valid reason to present to Peter. Because leaving behind safety, love, security, for no reason at all, is completely irrational. She knows this. And she knows that Hugh will not be persistent or go around asking for her afterward. In his room, as he pulls the heavy blue shades closed, Elissa thinks about Peter, about his pillow, and about a life full of the noises of the highway and her neighbor’s row of dead plants, and she knows, just as she had known about Trout Lake, that there are certain things she just cannot do.
She lets him start to pull down the straps of her top, and then she moves his hands away and does it herself.
* * *
Most of the people who live in Trout Lake, Indiana, are couples without children and people who grew up there and never left, existing quietly in unrenovated mid-century homes. For most of her life, Elissa knew of no one else her age who lived nearby. Her mother homeschooled her through middle school. Afterward, she had to take the commuter bus 11 miles in order to catch a school bus to the nearest high school, the only one in her county and in another town altogether. It was called Trout Lake because the main industry was fishing, and the only fish in the lake were trout. Every restaurant, pub, and bar served the trout. The grocery store sold it frozen and breaded; the fish fry stewed it in pans of oil every Saturday and served it at the community center, all-you-can-eat for five dollars. Elissa stopped eating it by the time she was 12; she found it dull, mealy, and tasteless, like old tofu. But her father said the trout was in her genes; he co-owned the company that cleaned and processed it for widespread distribution across Indiana, and as the other owner was a 65-year-old widower with no children, Elissa was expected to take it over some day.
Despite the fact that there was nothing much to do in Trout Lake, Elissa’s parents kept her on a strict schedule; what started as a weekly rotation of extracurricular activities soon became a forced routine, not to be broken. The purpose of these activities, if she was destined to run a fish processing plant, was unclear to her. Every day after school for an hour was Faith Studies, an extended program for children of parents who felt that the standard Sunday-morning class was not enough. On Mondays, there were piano lessons, and on all other days designated practice hours at the Steinway in the living room, with her mother surveilling from the armchair, pretending to read a women’s magazine and listening for mistakes. Tuesdays and Thursdays were Girl Scouts, with a troop of girls several years older who never spoke to her outside of meeting times and only put on a show of friendliness for the troop leader. Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays she worked with her father at the processing plant, breathing through her mouth to mute the hot, salty smell of dead fish. Sundays were spent at the church in a rotation of various activities hardly worth recalling, better completely forgotten. Any free moments were for doing schoolwork.
Even though she hated piano and she hated those girls in the troop, she savored the moments outside of her parents’ watch: when her piano teacher would send her mother out of the living room to help her focus, or when the troop leader took the girls camping. Elissa understood that her life had been structured for her, and this resulted in a deeply rooted cynicism, a conviction that she would not grow up to live a happy life, that she would spend her years living and breathing dead fish and attached to her parents’ lives by an invisible thread. It became part of her, something that lived inside her, latent, immobile. When she did end up leaving — escaping on the interstate bus at age 17 after mailing off a college application without telling her parents, and with new access to an account left to her by her grandfather who had quietly passed the previous March — she met Peter, who seemed to have been spared the cynicism, the complete lack of faith in the world that she felt defined by. During their first date at a local café where they drank watery coffee and pretended that it didn’t taste like road water, she complimented his hair, brown and fine and so neatly cut behind his ears, and he confessed that he had routine appointments scheduled for the first week of every month at a barber shop in Plainfield. His parents had wanted him to study some place farther away from home, but he had insisted on their school, claiming that it had everything he needed: good funding for research, a strong computer science program. She had basked in his sweetness, his compliments, had marveled at his unconditional love for his parents and his lack of resentment toward his hometown, toward everything that made him.
Only after they moved in together did these things about him that she had loved so much manifest in less desirable ways. He had a habit of referring to his parents’ house as “home,” rather than their own apartment, which he simply referred to as “the apartment.” He thrived through structure, and suddenly, Elissa’s life was, at first without her realizing it, organized around Peter’s nine-to-five: they woke at 7:30, had breakfast at 8 and dinner when he returned at 6:30. Sure, she could do what she wanted outside of her class schedule, but these were small freedoms, and not really her own. Peter notified her whenever he was leaving the apartment, where he was planning to go and why, and she realized that he expected her to do the same; not because he wanted to control her activities or keep tabs on who she was seeing, but because he seemed to feel safer, more comfortable, when he had a full and complete understanding of the world he lived in. And so, once again, Elissa found herself committed to a routine, an invisible force shaping her daily activities. It was perhaps because of this that she threw herself into her art even more, rarely following the guidelines laid out by her professors, instead painting whatever she wanted — mostly vibrant surrealist works that were at best slightly disturbing and at worst nearly incomprehensible.
And now, Peter’s illness. It almost doesn’t matter, she thinks, sitting at the kitchen table 20 minutes before Peter is due home, that it is unconfirmed. It already exists between them. An invisible door. She could go through it, but does she want to? She wouldn’t be able to go back. It would be the biggest commitment of her life, precisely the thing she thought she had left behind in the gray haze of Trout Lake. She doesn’t think Peter expected her to throw herself into his arms last night, but she knows he must have had some hope. She knows he must have been desperate, or else he would not have gone so far as to hint at funding her entire graduate school career. That’s what kills her, what drove her to Hugh. Not to save herself, but to cut the thread that still connected her and Peter to each other.
The thing is, they are not unhappy together. They are not a bad match, and this complicates it all. She has known for a while that her love for Peter is more convenient than anything else, but that alone was never a good enough reason to hurt him. She could leave her mother because her mother was not a kind or attentive person. Her mother gave her plenty of reasons to leave.
* * *
She sits at the table alone, skin raw after scrubbing it with an itchy loofah in the shower, worried Peter would notice something different in her smell or her clothes, even though the plan is to tell him anyway. He comes home with Ethiopian takeout, a large bag filled with sweet-smelling injera and spiced vegetables. He says hello, sets the bag on the table, and busies himself at the sink for longer than necessary. When it came down to it, Elissa had left Eggbert even more easily than she had left her parents, even though he had been with her her whole life, sitting happily in his cage, looking up at her with sweet appreciation when she came to feed him. These days, she rarely thinks of him.
Her voice comes out pitiful and small. She automatically clears her throat, disgusted with her sudden lack of spine in this critical moment that she herself planned.
Hmm, he mutters, not even pretending to wash the dishes anymore. His hands hang impotently over the sink. He picks up the towel hanging from the cupboard handle and dries each finger slowly.
Finally, he turns, and she can see it in his face that he knows — not about Hugh, but about her, and what she has decided. She sinks into her chair, avoiding the eye contact he has finally granted her, feeling foolish about her little show at the studio, which now feels completely unnecessary. It occurs to her, for the first time, that she has not given Peter enough credit. He has figured her out. His comment about grad school rushes back to her, and it seems less like a threat and more like a plea.
The food is meant to be shared, picked at together, but they open the boxes and spoon it all onto two plates. They have had this same meal more times than she can count, from the place across the street. She knows what it will taste like and misses it already, a bitter feeling she knows will not take long to fade.
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