“Come on. Come on, come on, come on.” This marked the fifth time in three seconds Xiyuan had refreshed his text messages. They hadn’t changed. There was a moment at quarter-to-eight when he leapt to unholster his phone on the first vibrate, giving Bernard a taste of what phasing through a wall and yelling ‘boo’ was like for someone on the receiving end, but it turned out to be one of his patrons asking whether viewers preferred paintings with the subjects facing towards them or facing away from them.
“Claudia, pick up your phone. Dammit, what’s happening over there?”
Bernard spat into the sink. “Darling, I can’t speculate on the matter with a mouth full of toothpaste.” He stared at Xiyuan’s reflection. Making eye contact through the mirror was usually good for a chuckle, but only when one party wasn’t swiping his phone every split second. So there went his latest attempt to calm his buzzing husband. There’s an innate understanding between some couples that if one party is darting around like a trapped bee, the other has to ramp up the tranquility in case an adult is needed to handle the situation their S.O. is freaking out about. It’s like leashing a Chihuahua to a tree. Anyway—Bernard, ever the drier one, usually took on this role. Panicked running in an enclosed space is what got him killed. This morning he’d been drinking tea or reading the paper while Xiyuan followed him around and did sick donuts.
“She’s not responding to the group message. She’s usually up by now.” Talking didn’t stop him from picking at that screen. “Aileen hasn’t said anything in over an hour, either.”
“Remind me what Aileen advised her to do, again?”
“The same thing you did.”
“Generally a safe choice.”
“But it’s well past eight, so Hector should have left for school.” Refresh. “The longer it takes her to respond, the more likely it is that something’s already gone wrong.”
He’d placed his hand on Xiyuan’s back and was leading him through the hallway. “And what use is it to her if you work yourself up before anything happens? She’s probably handling it better than you are. Outwardly, at least, so as to not arouse suspicion. Mind the stairs.”
“I can’t help it.” Refresh. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
As chilling as it was to see the door close behind Hector, it was another step Claudia had to go through before this day could be over. The next time the door closed—in less than an hour, hopefully, or at least before 10 A.M. hit—she’d be nearly done. Play it right and it’d be the last time she’d interact with him. Or, she may have to interact with him again, logistically, but she’d have an entourage and could position herself where the jerk couldn’t stand between her and the door. She had to bring her friends up to speed for this to work, something she could manage remotely now that Hector was gone.
Claudia’s screen woke up and informed her that it was 8:38, and, by the way, underneath that in smaller text next to a cutesy-chubby speech bubble icon, she had 11 unread messages in a group text between her and 3 other recipients. She swiped to view said messages.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 7:02:03 AM): Hello, everyone! Given yesterday’s conversations with Claudia and Aileen, it’s probably best for us to discuss this as a group. Let me know if I’ve left anyone out. Claudia, whatever you decide to do, we’re here to support you. How are you doing this morning?
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 7:02:11 AM): Claudia, how are you?
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 7:07:14 AM): Sounds good.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 7:07:24 AM): Aileen, have you heard from her since last night?
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 7:08:03 AM): Not since yesterday afternoon.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 7:08:21 AM): As far as I know, she left your apartment and went straight home.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 7:08:28 AM): I don’t know what the plan is today.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 7:08:37 AM): Neither do we; she hasn’t contacted us either, as you’ve probably determined.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 7:18:54 AM): Claudia? Are you alright? What’s going on over there?
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 7:45:22 AM): Do you need us to come over?
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:15:31 AM): I’m quite concerned but would rather not head over without permission.
It surprised Claudia that she was able to crack a smile. From the dining-room table, she must have looked like she was a paragon of innocence, at least with respect to spousal dishonesty, scrolling through memes. They were thinking of her! It made the semicolons-in-text-messages crap forgivable that he’d already thought to gather everyone. And if any one of them doubted her or tried to talk her out of it, she wouldn’t have known what to do. She started typing.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:39:50 AM): Hector just left.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:39:53 AM): Claudia!
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:39:54 AM): I’m ok
Aileen’s phone sat face-down next to her mouse while she bargained with the blank space where her chapter introduction should be. It didn’t so much vibrate as rattle her glass desk each time Xiyuan sent another panicky text. She was unsurprised to see ‘quite’ in the last one: the more stressed he got, the sloppier he was with intensifiers. Stringing them was his version of punching a hole through the wall. It was a massive overreaction on his part, at least the frequency and content of his messages suggested, but also Bernard’s problem now. Not hers, thank god.
The desk shook again. If her computer clock was to be believed, it was well before the 30-minute-mark Xiyuan seemed to be holding to. Her computer wiggled as her phone made that satanic glass-clattering racket again. Either this was a true alarm or he’d finally lost it and she could expect a really-quite-extremely-very ill-conceived phone essay. She was about to pick it up when the third mini-earthquake started; it felt satisfying to absorb the tail end of that atrocious noise into her palm. Claudia was awake.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 8:40:04 AM): Alright! What’s the plan?
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:40:09 AM): I thought about what you guys said.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:40:14 AM): I’m leaving.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 8:40:19 AM): Good for you!!!
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:40:19 AM): Today.
It was the first time Claudia had put it so bluntly. Aileen and Bernard could spit those words with conviction. Claudia danced around them in the abstract, finding herself only able to conceive of the result and not the process itself. As little as she could take it anymore, after being on the sharp end of so many harmful actions, she couldn’t stand to imagine herself performing one. It was less of a conceptual mental block and more that the thought made her want to dry heave or burst into tears. But she’d be free after this happens.
After she leaves. She was getting out. Her friends would make sure of that.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 8:40:25 AM): Let me know if there’s anything I can do.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:40:27 AM): So you’re alone with him right now? Do you need backup?
(726)-555-2376 (Summer 11 8:40:40 AM): Say the word, and we’ll sacrifice a vacation day to the cause.
Of course Xiyuan had added Bernard to the group text. She didn’t object this time: Aileen and Xiyuan were effective cheerleaders, but having Bernard speak up for her felt like hiding behind a stone golem. She wasn’t used to these take-no-shit types directing their aggression at anyone besides her. Now she’d never be so bold herself, but she saw the appeal of teaming up with the kind of person who would interrupt the evil mastermind’s monologue with a bullet. Claudia added him to her list of contacts.
She reread their messages. Xiyuan, of all people, should know better than to offer that. Burdening her allies with extra inconveniences would only add to her existing guilt.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:42:23 AM): No, don’t do that for me.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:42:59 AM): I’m really quite serious, Claudia. This is more important than anything I’m doing today.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:43:12 AM): It’s really not necessary
Bernard Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:43:42 AM): Although it goes against your innate tendencies, we urge you to not prioritize our comfort while making this decision.
There was an odd logical progression in paragraph 22 that Aileen figured out how to fix, so she was only now discovering this waste of time. Ah, Yuan, it would be ‘really quite’ useful if a hypothetical sim owned a house catty-corner to Claudia’s and could monitor the entrance without leaving her bedroom, wouldn’t it. Since no one was watching, she felt like strutting to the opposite corner of her house—tense as it was, someone had to stay in good spirits to remind Claudia that today was a victory.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 8:44:03 AM): I already have the day off. I can watch from across the street.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:47:14 AM): Don’t come over.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:47:19 AM): If he sees you visiting so early, he’s going to get suspicious.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:47:25 AM): I’m not ready for a fight
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 8:47:30 AM): And after he leaves?
Bernard Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:47:31 AM): How did you know I intended to start a fight?
Xiyuan noticed his husband smiling to himself while typing. “She’s not going to appreciate jokes about challenging him to a duel.” Bernard deleted his message.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 8:47:46 AM): So what’s the plan?
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:47:55 AM): I have the day off
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:48:03 AM): He works from 10–5
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:48:15 AM): I was going to get my things and be out of the house by 5
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:48:27 AM): But you can’t show up before he leaves.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:49:33 AM): If I’m understanding correctly, the plan is for you to leave while he’s at work and, if you’re implying we should show up after he leaves, for us to be ready to confront him at 5.
Xiyuan Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:49:41 AM): I.e., you’re expecting Bernard and me to head over before 5?
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:49:48 AM): Yes, that works.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:50:00 AM): If you’re going, make sure you bring either Aileen or Bernard.
Xiyuan cringed. “Ouch.”
“After yesterday’s demonstration of your mixed sympathies, I thought you would expect her to doubt your judgement, and she’s right to do so. You know my feelings towards that underhanded ratbag and that bloody farce of a friendship.”
“Mixed? I’m backing Claudia one hundred percent. It’s more that speaking up against my first real friend is unpleasant, to say the least.”
“He was not a real friend. I choose to believe that man isn’t capable of seeing anything beyond his nose.”
“And yet he was still able to draw Claudia in, and me, and countless others who are going to take his words at face value after the divorce is finalized. If she can’t commiserate with someone who understands why she stayed for so long, she’s going to start believing it was her fault.” He placed his hand on Bernard’s shoulder. “We haven’t had the time to reflect that you have.”
“Even with that being the case, the opportunities for growth, while deceased, were few and far between. Nevertheless, I will make my prediction. You, despite believing Claudia is completely in the right, realize your obligation is to both parties, whereupon you become the caretaker and advocate for the divorcé by virtue of being the only sane person who is capable of tolerating him. On the one hand, with your involvement, that despicable tosser has less of a reason to seek out and bother poor Claudia. On the other hand”—this is where he waved his other hand, the phoneless one—“you’ll trap him here with me. That is to say, despite the outward appearance of misplaced benevolence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I approve of this course of action.”
“She said no fights, let me remind you.”
“Nonsense! She has already found herself caught in an ongoing battle, which does not appeal to her in the least, and she would benefit greatly from delegating the unpleasant work to a bloodthirstier associate.”
“If you mean to defend her, that I can get behind. Euphemism not intended. Stop looking at me like that. My point is, she doesn’t want to cause more grief than necessary, but understands that your ‘necessary’ is her ‘excessive,’ force-wise. The issue with holding no punches is knowing when to stop. That being said, if we handle this as a team, our intentions may be just divergent enough to keep each other in check.”
“Then what I want you to understand is that my strategy hinges on presenting myself as the more combative, and hence more dangerous target, in comparison to his passive victim. If he continues to bully her while refusing to confront me, he’ll out himself as a coward. Besides, I use words to serve as a clear warning. Not like you. I should much like to hear you proclaim to be ‘really very disconcerted’ mere seconds before ripping out a man’s throat.”
“I’m getting the sense that what Claudia wants is moot at this point; you just hate him.”
“How would you have me feel after hearing how he toyed with your affections for the better part of your adult life?” He sent the message he’d been typing. “There will reach a point where someone holds him accountable for his exploitative habits. I’d wager my eternal soul that I’ll be the one to do it.”
Bernard Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:52:06 AM): We should have no difficulty following that schedule. My workday ends at 3 PM, Xiyuan’s at 4.
The creaking to Claudia’s right had a metallic timbre but an organic rhythm, like a fork scraping against a plate. She began to type faster.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:52:11 AM): So there’s no need for you to take the day off. Just get here before 5.
Bernard Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:52:38 AM): Understood! Xiyuan and I will make our way over as soon as he gets home.
Bernard Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:53:04 AM): If needed, I can arrive at most an hour earlier.
Bernard Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:53:17 AM): Do not hesitate to request this.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 8:53:29 AM): Okay, I’ve started watching your house. If you need help but can’t get to your phone, place your palm on one of the front windows and I’ll be right over.
Bernard Shallot-Liu (Summer 11 8:54:13 AM): The same goes for you, Aileen, although I foresee no difficulties if the matter is in your capable hands.
Claudia Espinosa (Summer 11 8:54:19 AM): Ok
Thank the carpenter and architect that the wooden chairs slid across the floor with such an unpleasant squeak, or else Claudia’s phone may have gone in her pocket a moment too late and the whole thing would be ruined. The two characters were all she had time to type. Bernard and Aileen, meanwhile, had been bombarding her with whole paragraphs; the ones in Bernard English, she expected that a non-historian-or-Xiyuan person would need at least six hours sleep and two distraction-free minutes to decode. But the footsteps approaching her—proud, heel-heavy, even more iconic than the chair squeak—shook loose the final grains of sand in the hourglass. She checked that the screen was off and re-ruffled her blouse over the affected pocket area.
“Happy Wednesday, Miss Iron Lady.” ‘Miss Universe’ had gone through several iterations, many that were space words he could relate to his own experience as an astronaut; and this one, which originated as a play on ‘Iron Chef.’ And yes, it was traditional to end the greeting by singing an excerpt from ‘Iron Man,’ as he was doing now.
“Happy Wednesday.” She pretended that scooting to the end of the couch was a gesture intended for his benefit. “What’s up? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for work?”
“Just thought I’d say hi to my wife.” In order to sit down, the dirty plate had to go onto the table. No matter. He’d remember to bring it to the bathroom sink when the conversation reaches its dramatic peak. “I should be asking, what’s up with you? You seem a bit off.” His tone wasn’t accusatory. It felt gentle in its simplicity, apologetic for something that couldn’t be his fault, with a warmth Claudia still read as genuine.
“Nothing’s wrong. I just didn’t sleep very well.” And thus he should expect avoidant behavior; her eyes and demeanor spoke to that.
“Aw, come on, Miss Galaxy, Miss Nebula, Miss Pulsar.” To clarify, ‘Miss Red Giant’ and other heavy phrases were off the table as far as nicknames were concerned. “I know you. I know there’s something else.”
“I just feel like being by myself today. It’s not anything you need to worry about.”
“Ah, on the contrary, I can’t leave you alone when you’re feeling like this. If you’re unhappy, I’m unhappy. You’re unhappy, I’m unhappy.” Et cetera. On each repetition he improvised a different flamboyant way to point at the subject of each sentence; the delivery became more ermahgerd-adjacent, is the cleanest way to describe it. And heaven help her, she wouldn’t have made it this far without a genuine appreciation for this brand of ridiculousness, so that even today she obeyed a compulsion to laugh.
But what it meant for his mind to be distracted and for her demeanor to swerve toward pleasant compared to the depression rug she’d been two minutes ago, is that she could read the Bernard-y crap on her phone if she held it at the right angle. The phone’s gyroscope recognized that it was being pulled out of a pocket and decided that now, being held in her right hand with the screen facing left, was the time to wake up. Bing, mofo! You gotta text from a friend reacting to that Ok you sent earlier!
“Is that Aileen?”
Her right hand flew back into her pocket. This is why, despite metaphysics’s central role in belief systems, no one trusts gravity with their personal secrets.
“You just feel like being alone, huh?” That smile, Claudia could say for sure was genuine. His joy of problem-solving also extended to people. “Look, we’ve talked about this. You don’t need to worry about bothering me. If you need attention, why not just say so? My time is yours.”
“—Be necessary. I know where you’re going with this.” Another smile at having figured it out, then his face fell flat. “But seriously, I’ve noticed we haven’t been spending as much time together, and I can’t say it enough, but I’m still so sorry about Selvadorada. That was one of the worst things I’ve ever done.”
This wasn’t news and didn’t call for a response. She wondered whether Aileen could see them from across the street.
“I know I’ve never been the perfect husband. I know I’ve made mistakes. Give me the chance to make it up to you. Please.”
Maybe he’d seen her look toward the front door, or maybe it could be construed as her eyes wandering during an awkward moment. She looked at eight more things to make sure.
“You know much I care about you, right?”
“I already told you, I’m just tired today. I need some alone time.”
“Yeah, whatever’s going on, it seems like a rough day. Why don’t you go make yourself a bath, and I’ll take the day off work to help with the chores.”
“No-no, I know you’re going to say ‘it’s not necessary.’ Relax. I have like two week’s worth of vacation days and the planet isn’t gonna explode if I don’t show up. At least not today.” He said ‘it’s not necessary’ in her accent. He was already dialing his boss. “Plus I’ve missed my sunshine lately, Miss Sunshine.”
“But it’s not—“
“—‘Sup Miranda, I’m calling about today.”
It wasn’t having resisted the urge to snatch the phone out of his hands that bothered her; it was that she had that urge to begin with, so long after she’d convinced herself passivity came natural to her. But with the opposite of passivity being action—any one of hundreds of thousands of possible actions—there was no opposite side of the spectrum to deflect to, only the reassurance that deflecting, in the first place, counted as an action. Fleeing counted as an action. There wasn’t a rule that steps in the right direction needed to be badass or be performed when her husband wasn’t distracted or change anyone’s behavior but her own.
“Yeah, I’m going to use one of my vacation days.”
To the bar, where else?
“No, it’s not an emergency.”
No, it wasn’t going to raise any flags. For 9-A.M. Claudia, popping the cork on a bottle of Cranerlet Nuala raised the same level of suspicion as twisting the cap on a tube of toothpaste. Any self-pity she emoted couldn’t be seen from behind a glass bottle.
“Well, can’t you get Rob to do it?… Okay then, thanks Miranda. See you tomorrow.”
Fuck today. All of it.