Read More: A brief interview with Cady Vishniac
Elkie trusts Don absolutely. He’s a cross between a boyfriend and a father, though Elkie knows boyfriends and fathers aren’t supposed to be the same thing, and he’s not at all like a regular client. But then one Sunday he doesn’t show up. She knocks on the door of his usual room at the Radisson by John Glenn International and doesn’t hear the familiar plodding of Don’s feet, his gravelly voice telling her to hold her horses. She texts him, Are you here? I have that spring break thing at seven. She counts to ten, then twenty. She is sweating into a bustier and panties set by Agent Provocateur. Don fails to appear.
She tries his cell, which rings four times before going to voicemail. Elkie looks up and down the beige hallway. No maids, no bellhops. She needs to do something mindless, clear her head, so she uses the Verizon app to pay her mother’s phone bill, then she looks up and down the hall again. Still nobody. She leaves Don a message. “Hello? It’s Crystal. Are you okay?” Crystal is what Don calls her, even though he—alone among the men with whom she spends her afternoons and evenings—knows her real name.
She examines the door. A Do Not Disturb sign is tucked into the keycard slot, which could mean Don doesn’t want to be disturbed and could mean he hasn’t checked in yet. His wife could have discovered Elkie and Don’s emails, their texts, could be listening to Elkie’s voicemail right now. She could threaten divorce, threaten to take the kids. Don always tells Elkie his wife is the worst kind of golddigger.
She checks her phone. After five. She really does have to meet with the Ohio State Spring Break Service Club at seven tonight, at her house with her mother and grandmother, her friend Brie who is the club’s secretary, and the other members: young people looking to pad their CVs before applying to med school or law school. They’re going to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation this March to build straw bale homes for indigent Oglala Lakota. Elkie is the club president.
She knocks on Don’s door again, then she presses her ear against the peephole. She closes her mascaraed eyes and wrinkles her nose and concentrates, not sure what she expects to hear. Don may or may not be on the other side, snoring in one of the cozy Radisson armchairs. He may or may not have his face planted in the red Radisson rug, his body twisted in some freak fall. Don has young children, but he’s no longer a young man. He’s sexy the way George Clooney is sexy, with greying temples. Sexy, but when she’s riding him he’s been known to growl, “Try not to blow out my hip,” in a way that’s both playful and serious.
She pulls back from the peephole, then she texts Brie, because she texts Brie after each appointment to make it known that she’s fine. Only this time, instead of texting, I’m fine, Elkie writes, Don’s a no-show, and Brie writes back right away: Men.
Elkie’s phone says it’s five-ten. She’ll call Don later.
Brie sends a second text. Come home early? I made cookies. Brie is forever plying Elkie with carbs, which Elkie can’t have because she’s watching her weight. Her clients always tell her how skinny she is, how sexy and skinny.
She walks back down the hallway. The heels of her new Manolos drop with each step, the leather straps chafing. A pair of identical blisters have sprouted up on the inside of each arch, which is a problem. She has an appointment tomorrow with a man who likes to lick her feet. She stops at the elevators and presses the down button, and just as the button lights up, her phone vibrates again. This is normal because Brie is one of those people who sends a bunch of short texts in a row. Because Elkie receives an awful lot of texts from an awful lot of men.
She looks down at the screen and sees a message that is not from Brie, not from a horny stranger, but from Don, who’s probably stuck in traffic, or he forgot his son had a Little League game, but he’ll make it up to her next week.
Only it isn’t Don. It can’t be. Someone else must have his phone, someone with a bad sense of humor. Someone who has written: My husband passed this weekend.
Don’s wife is named Monica, but she also goes by Mona, and Don will use either name depending on what mood he’s in. Lately it’s always Monica, which Elkie likes because that sounds more formal, detached, like his wife is really more of an acquaintance, or even a coworker. She and Don haven’t made love since their daughter was born. Don told Elkie a month in. He took her to TGIFridays, not a nice place, but only a block from the Radisson—an impossibly slow walk for Elkie, who insisted on wearing her regulation heels from the Pussycat Club. Over dinner, he handed her a black box containing a Tiffany watch, then he burst into tears.
Monica once jumped out a window, just because Don wouldn’t take her to the Bahamas that winter. She feeds the kids Cheetos for breakfast and lets her boyfriends drive them to school. She cheats, but had the nerve to get Don fired one time when she showed up in his office and accused him of having an affair with his boss.
This woman would do anything, so Elkie decides the message about Don’s death is fake, probably. But she’s still worried about how Monica has accessed Don’s phone. She walks to the hotel parking garage and finds her car and drives it home. She wants to ask someone for advice, but she has to wait until she’s in her cramped living room, until she’s kicked off the Manolos and kissed her grandmother’s tissue paper cheeks and greeted Brie with the words “Hey loser, what are you doing on my couch?” Until she’s entered the kitchen and made her mother promise not to go overboard making food for the Service Club members, since Brie already brought the cookies and most of the girls are on diets anyways.
“Five kinds of hors d’oeuvres, max, and remember we’re underage. No Dom Perignon, none of your finest aged Glenlivet. I mean it.” Elkie pulls three hundred-dollar bills from her back pocket and hands them over. “Here’s rent.”
“Thanks,” her mother says. “You sure know booze, considering how underage you are.” She pulls a bag of popcorn from the microwave. “How about this and a veggie platter with ranch? And how was your day? And didn’t you pay rent last week?”
It’s Don—that’s how Elkie knows booze. Don bought a bottle of Perignon and a lap dance from Elkie when they met at the Pussycat, with its rusted billboard advertising GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS. Don’s the one who poured Glenlivet into a bulb-shaped glass on her last birthday. But Elkie’s mother doesn’t know about Don, and Elkie herself is reciting a pack of lies. She stands by the counter and swears she did not pay rent last week. She tells her mother she’s getting good at espresso art, the customers tip well, and she’s learned to enjoy the smell of coffee grounds at the campus cafe where she’s a barista. Then she goes back to the living room and plops down on the couch next to Brie, who’s watching Bob’s Burgers.
Elkie’s grandmother croaks from her easy chair in the corner, “דו װאַקסט אַזױ שײן, קײן עין-הרע.”
“I love you too, Grandma,” says Elkie. One of the underwires on her bustier is pinching. She tries to adjust it through her shirt.
“You don’t even know that’s what she means,” says Brie. “You need help with that thing?” She’s eating one of the cookies, her cheeks full. In moments like this one, Elkie is intensely jealous of her friend’s uncomplicated relationship with food. “These came out so great.” Brie’s tank top is cut low, her shorts so short that her thighs make sticky sounds against the imitation leather of the couch.
“Can you tell me what this is?” Elkie hands her the phone, open to the message from Don’s wife.
Brie looks, then she launches herself across the couch, looping her strong arms around Elkie’s back. “I’m so sorry.”
“קענסטו מיך העלפֿן?” asks Elkie’s grandmother, then she whispers, “איך דאַרף פּישן.” She’s leaning forward in her chair, like she wants to get up and hug Elkie too.
“Don’t worry Grandma. Brie’s overreacting.”
Brie pulls back. “You’re always talking about this guy. You’re not like the tiniest bit sad?”
“She must have caught him, right?” Elkie’s stomach growls. She’s earned a cookie. She reaches over to grab one, which has the added bonus of forcing Brie to release her.
Brie gives Elkie her serious look. “Most people don’t make up dead husbands.”
“She’s not most people. Don’t make that face.”
“אָט איז אַן אמתע נויטפֿאַל!” says Elkie’s grandmother.
“It’s wild how your grandma can only speak German now,” says Brie, but Elkie doesn’t think it’s that wild. For starters, her grandma’s German is terrible. “Das” becomes “dos,” and all Ls have been replaced by a terrible swallowing sound. Elkie tries to look up her grandmother’s phrases in German dictionaries and can only pick out words here and there.
“Don’t try to change the subject. Should I wait for him to call me?” Elkie says this and chews her cookie at the same time. It’s so good. Brie put in M&Ms instead of chocolate chips.
“Just write like, ‘Sorry for your loss,’” Brie says. “Because her husband is dead.”
This is when Elkie’s mother speaks up. “Who’s dead?” she asks. On the TV, Bob is having an allergic reaction to lobster.
“All the characters on this show. I read about it online.” Brie never misses a beat. She’s a film studies major, so internet forums about random cartoons are her homework. “Didn’t see you there, Miss Clark.”
“You mean like a fan conspiracy theory?” Elkie’s mother sniffs. “I was just poking my head in. I made you girls some chicken for after your meeting.” She sniffs again. “Mom?” And this is when Elkie notices her grandmother is hanging her head and panting. Elkie’s mother, all business, pats down her own mother’s moist lap.
“Christ, Miss Clark. We didn’t understand she had to pee,” says Brie. “We can like help you clean up.”
“איך בין עקלדיק .איך האָב פֿײַנט װערן אַן אַלטע,” says Elkie’s grandmother.
“It’s not a big deal,” says Elkie’s mother. The example she’s set Elkie’s whole life, that of a woman who barely notices the world on her shoulders, a woman who never gets angry, who is proud of Elkie without asking questions, no questions at all, not even the sort of questions that might prove she’s paying attention. A woman who doesn’t know how much money she has or what she’s spent, who doesn’t know what baristas really make.
At least they own the house outright. Elkie’s grandma made the last mortgage payment in the seventies.
“Are you, like, sure you got her, Miss Clark?” Brie fidgets on the couch. She’s not trying to be invasive, Elkie knows. She’s just bad at watching other people handle things. She’d rather help.
Before Elkie’s mother can answer, the phone vibrates again, long and insistent. “Pick up, that might be your friends,” she says. She drapes Elkie’s grandmother over her shoulder like a wet dishrag and staggers toward the bathroom.
Elkie watches them go, then shuts off her phone. It’s no one she knows.
“You okay?” Brie asks. “Like would you be okay if it turned out he really did die?” She is using another face Elkie can’t stand: a deep frown of concern.
Don did not die. To hear Brie say it is to know it can’t be true; his dying would be too ridiculous. He might have had an accident, or his wife might have thrown a fit, locked him in the basement. But he wouldn’t go and die. Each Sunday they meet at the Radisson, but in-between, they text. They email. It’s Don who would rescue her if anything went wrong, who would run to the Radisson or the Sheraton or wherever else in his tight jeans, shoulder down the door without caring if the maids or bellhops saw, loom tall over any threat in her hotel room, tell a violent man to hold his horses.
Don can’t just drop dead.
She’s going to explain this to Brie, but then they hear knocking at the door. The Service Club. The conversation is tabled for later, for a whisper session on the green of the Oval, between classes. Or maybe tonight, after the shuffling noise of Elkie’s mother lifting Elkie’s grandmother into the bedroom. Sometime when they’re alone.
Elkie dreams, except the dream is something that really happened. The one time she and Don spent a whole night together. She had a cold with a sore throat and runny nose, but came to see Don anyway. He took one look at her and said, “Honey, why?” then he swaddled her in the hotel bed. She had her call her mother to say she was spending the night in Brie’s dorm.
He didn’t ask for sex, even though Elkie wouldn’t have minded. Instead, they lay down facing each other, breathing into each other’s faces. Elkie said, “But you’ll get sick too,” and Don said, “Worth it.” He could be cute like that. He even went out and got her cough drops and Vicks, later that night.
Her dream flashes forward to last winter break. She spent most of her days holed up in the hotel with Don, who told his wife he had to travel for a work thing but really helped her study to place out of 100-level chem and bio. Don would ask her for a definition of Dalton’s Law or a chemical equation for methane, and when she got these wrong, he’d toss all her cards up in the air and tell her to take off her shirt. Sometimes she’d forget an answer on purpose.
They did not mention his wife once, not all week. They did go down to the hotel’s pool, the hot tub, the sauna, where the tan skin of Don’s legs turned a brick red.
Elkie dreams about Don because he’s fun, because she loves him in an uncomplicated way. She doesn’t dream about her mother, because supporting an adult human being is not fun, because it’s complicated loving someone who can’t tell you’re lying, dressing way too nice to make coffee. She doesn’t dream about her grandmother. Ever since Elkie was born, all her grandmother ever did was read the newspaper front to back, then a magazine from the supermarket, Time or People or a specialist publication for builders of model cars, then another, then another. Toward the end of the month, she’d run out and read things over again.
After Elkie’s grandmother stopped speaking English, Elkie’s mother ordered some magazines in German. But Elkie’s grandmother didn’t like these. She threw them across the room. “איך װעל נית קײנמאָל לײענען דײַטש!” she said.
So Elkie can’t think too hard about her grandmother, stranded with no reading material. She certainly can’t dream about it; she won’t let herself.
She wakes up with her milk-white toes pressed to Brie’s chin. They fell asleep like this last night, after Brie looked up from her laptop and said, “Fuck me, is it really midnight?” Elkie looked up from her epigenetics homework, a review of histone modifications—or no, she’d been online again, paying the cable bill—and said Brie could crash here. It’s weird, but they never got around to talking about Don again. Elkie was waiting for it, but Brie just stared at her computer. Elkie figured she had a paper due soon. Brie writes most of her papers the night before they’re due, but she gets As anyway.
Elkie disentangles herself from the sleeping Brie, making as little noise as possible. Her Manolo blisters are so red, she thinks she might have to lance them, but the meeting with the Service Club members went well—one of the pre-law guys has a cousin who works for Greyhound, so maybe they can get a discount on a charter bus to North Dakota. She’s going to build homes, build her resume, build her leadership skills and a documented history of community service. In under four years, she’s going to be a medical student, then someday a resident, then a doctor. Don is going to call her soon. He might have done so already.
Elkie reaches for her phone, which she always leaves on the shelf next to her bed in front of a vampire novel Brie got her. She slips out and pads toward the bathroom, where she locks herself in, flicking on the light and the vent. She yanks up the rusted shower valve, then runs hot water. Then turns the phone on.
Three voicemails. A client rescheduling from three to four next week. Two calls from men who want to set up first meetings. The emails are: six new appointments, almost thirty inquiries, and a dozen missives she deletes after reading. Bored kids, men with no intention of following through, obvious serial killers or cops. They write things like titties aren’t even that big, and can i hide near while u fk another man and its a dangerous world out there, if you worked for me id protect you and I Hope someone Jams a Samurai Sword up your Pussy and Elkie’s personal favorite: Is your fridge running? A newsletter from the pre-med office at school, and still nothing from Don. His wife must have him in a real bind. In the peace and privacy of her bathroom, Elkie tells herself she can wait for him.
Even with the vent on, the running shower steams up the whole room so that a fog rises between her eyes and the screen. She goes to texts, expecting at least a dozen, but there are no new ones. This is so odd as to be unthinkable. Is her phone broken? Hacked? She checks deleted messages, because maybe a hacker would delete all her messages as some sort of prank, and that’s when she spots it: Brie’s betrayal.
Don: My husband passed this weekend.
Crystal: I know this is weird but my friend thinks you’re faking.
Like you’re faking your dead husband.
She’s in denial.
Don: Who is this?
Crystal: Sorry for your loss.
Is there some way to prove it? Like an obit?
Tell your friend she should be ashamed of herself.
Elkie does not read the rest of her deleted messages. She does not take her shower. She turns the water off, leaves the vent on, unlocks the door, and thuds back down the hall. She doesn’t care about making noise, waking her mother and grandmother. She doesn’t care. She opens the door to her bedroom and yells, “You’re so fucking nosy! What’s your problem?”
Brie doesn’t get up, but her eyes snap open. She wasn’t really asleep in the first place. “You’re gullible. Some dude tells you his wife is a bitch and you’re like, all over it.”
How unfair, how stupid. Brie’s life is ordinary: dorm, class, friends her own age, out-of-state parents mailing giant checks. She’s never understood Elkie’s adult existence, the adult relationship with Don.
“You think you’re so much smarter than me,” Elkie says, “but you’d be broke if your dad wasn’t a lawyer. You’ll probably go broke anyway. Film studies.”
“At least I’m not a hooker.”
“Get out. Go find a bus back to your stupid dorm. Don’t even talk to me.”
“Fine.” Brie finds and puts on her socks and shoes and bra in the early morning stillness of Elkie’s room, sunlight streaking in the window. There are no sounds but Elkie’s mother and grandmother waking up, making their slow breakfastime procession to the kitchen.
Brie’s only been mad once before, when Elkie asked her if they could be gym buddies, or maybe do a juice cleanse together. She sulked for a week after that, pouting whenever she thought Elkie wasn’t looking. But this morning, Brie is beyond sulking. She throws her laptop in her bookbag and looks Elkie in the eye and says, “Fuck you. I don’t even know why I hang out with you,” and Elkie pretends that’s not the most hurtful thing she’s ever heard. Her only friend stomps away and out of the house before Elkie can understand what happened, what they’re really fighting about.
When Brie is gone, Elkie’s mother shouts, “What’s with the yelling? Grandma’s upset.” Elkie meets them in the kitchen. Her grandmother is strapped into the special old-person highchair, and her mother is flipping pancakes over the stove.
“איך פֿאַרשטײ אַז מײדלעך שלאָגן זיך, אָבער דו זאָלסט דײַן באָבע לאָזן שלאָפֿן, נו?” asks her grandmother. A drop of maple syrup dots the corner of her mouth. Elkie wipes it away with the sleeve of her nightshirt.
“What happened?” says her mother. She points the spatula at Elkie. “You want a pancake?”
“Brie hates my boyfriend,” Elkie says. “Just one. Butter, no syrup.”
“The butter’s in the fridge.” Elkie’s mother scrapes the pancake from the bottom of the pan and plates it. “You have a boyfriend? I haven’t met a boyfriend.”
“He works at the cafe. But he didn’t call me yesterday because he’s so busy.” Elkie takes her plate to the table, then she remembers the butter and gets back up again. Then she decides she doesn’t need butter after all, sits back down, and takes a bite of plain pancake. The truth is she’s never dated in her life, not unless spending time with Don counts as dating.
“Well if this boyfriend is too busy for you, I don’t want to meet him. He’s a shit.” Her mother pours one last dollop of pancake batter onto the pan. It hisses and steams because she’s got the heat too high, like always. She’s been burning breakfast Elkie’s whole life.
“דײַן מאַמע איז ריכטיק, אַלע די מענער זײַנען קאַק.” Grandma cackles.
Not using butter was a mistake. There is a dry ball of dough in Elkie’s mouth, and when she swallows, it lodges in her throat.
It was stupid to talk down about film studies. Elkie met Brie because she used to also be a film studies major. They went to the same freshman seminar and had the same work study job in the photo lab, and neither of them were in the Spring Break Service Club because it didn’t exist yet. Brie founded the Friday Night Documentary Club–it’s still got twice as many members as the Service Club, and Brie is still its president. Each Friday the club maxes out its budget on popcorn, which Elkie used to bag and pop. After the documentary was over, the one about legal marijuana for people with chronic pain or the death of American manufacturing or those bubbly drag queens from Texas, she and Brie would talk about how they would have done it better. Brie wouldn’t have taken the chronic pain angle, because she thinks marijuana should be legal for everybody, for any reason. Elkie wouldn’t have made the documentary about manufacturing in the first place, because who cares about manufacturing? The government should just pay people to learn new jobs.
They don’t have these sort of conversations anymore, not in the several months since Elkie switched her major, and she worries she and Brie are growing apart. It’s not that Elkie hates the couch, the Bob’s Burgers marathons, not that she doesn’t want to talk about documentaries.
“I have to be realistic,” she told Brie, when she announced she was quitting the Documentary Club. “My mom’s plan is to sit in that house with Grandma until we run out of money.”
This was true. Every time Elkie asked her mother what came next, what they were supposed to live on, she’d rub her forehead and say, “Not this conversation.” Like Elkie was the problem. She wouldn’t tell Elkie how much she had saved up, but the forehead rubbing said it all.
Meaning Elkie needed to take control. Meaning she could not, cannot follow her heart, find her path, explore possibilities for the future, whatever it is people are supposed to do in college. Following the heart is for children, but Elkie cannot be a child anymore. She has dependents. She has to work hard for the next decade, and maybe then she can catch a movie.
Mondays are her slowest days at college, not that days matter for Elkie. Each period is just another step toward becoming Doctor Clark. Each class exists only in the sense that she can wrest an A and a letter of recommendation from the instructor. She didn’t move from Miami or Beijing to go here, she doesn’t live in a residence hall, and she can drive away whenever she wants. She hasn’t noticed how she’s any different from the person who majored in film—or if she is different, that’s Don’s influence. She has not been transformed by spending time in labs, but her whole world has been rearranged by the way Don emails her his favorite articles—a profile of an MIT mathematician who also plays pro football, essays explaining deep time or slow food.
This morning is her bio lab, a calm two hours during which she streaks eight yeast strains across eight plates using eight sterile toothpicks. Then it’s off to epigenetics, her favorite elective. Don sends her articles about epigenetics from time to time. Most people don’t understand how it works, that a human being’s genetic code is a list of potentialities rearranged by their lived experience, that a person can pass on that experience in their DNA to children and grandchildren. A Holocaust survivor, for instance, might have a grandchild with a flat affect, someone who makes reckless decisions. It wouldn’t be the grandchild’s fault, and it’s also true that not everybody likes to talk about this.
At least, epigenetics as they apply to human mental health was the topic of the lecture her professor gave on the first day of class. But it’s only the beginning of the semester, so for now she’s stuck on eukaryotic methylation, chromatin remodeling. She doesn’t even pay attention to today’s lecture because she’s busy moping. Should she text Brie? But who goes into a friend’s private stuff like that?
Something has to give, so she digs out the phone and opens her messages and ignores the several dozen men who are trying to get in touch with Crystal from the ad on BigDoggie. She undeletes the conversation with Don’s wife, moves it back to her inbox. Writes a response.
Crystal: I’m not ashamed. Just don’t take the kids away.
Don: What kids?
Who is this?
Do I want to know who this is?
Crystal: You cheated on him first.
Don: I never cheated on my husband.
Who is this?
Crystal: Just please don’t take his kids. He loves them so much.
Don: We have no children.
Who is this?
Why don’t you understand Joe is dead?
That throws Elkie, the name Joe. Maybe this is all a misunderstanding, and Don had to get a new phone number. Maybe she’s texting Joe’s widow while Don rides out of the aftereffects of some catastrophe. This sort of thing happens to people if they forget to pay their bills for too long.
Crystal: I don’t know a Joe.
Maybe this is all a mistake? Did your husband just get this phone?
Don: No mistake. He had this thing for years. You’re in it. It says your name is C.
This is him.
The picture she sends is one Elkie has seen before. In it, Don wears a leather jacket and holds a little boy with blond curls. His son. They took this photo at the harvest fest in Stowe.
Crystal: I thought you said no kids?
Don: That’s my nephew’s son.
Monica has fully committed to the dead husband thing. Elkie is not fooled, not even by the twist of the fake name. She turns her phone back off again. She has to stop by the Recreational Activities Office to fill out a request form for a faculty chaperone to Pine Ridge. And she works this afternoon, this evening, one to six: she’s scheduled four men back-to-back, hour-long appointments with fifteen-minute intervals. A Sheraton three blocks from the bus station. […]
Subscribers can read the full version by logging in.
Cady Vishniac is an Endelman/Gitelman fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her stories have also appeared in Glimmer Train and New England Review.
“Girls, Girls, Girls” originally appeared in Salamander and won the 2018 Editor’s Reprint Award (fiction/nonfiction).
Read More: A brief interview with Cady Vishniac