Margaret was not looking forward to the train ride back home. Before she left, she’d had lunch with a friend at an overpriced vegan cafe near campus. The friend, Yuli, had arrived late, so she’d ordered for both of them: avocado toast and Earl Grey tea. As Margaret waited, she watched the tea darken in Yuli’s cup and worried that it would be oversteeped and bitter by the time Yuli arrived. Throwing the bag away, however, seemed somehow unfair: she didn’t want to deprive Yuli of something that was rightfully hers. So she compromised, placing the tea bag in a plastic cup. She knew how ridiculous she was being, how very fretful and old-ladyish, but agonizing over the tea bag seemed preferable to agonizing over anything else.
Once Yuli arrived they talked about love.
“You’ve gotta keep busy,” Yuli suggested. “Doing nothing makes it so much worse. If you wanna get over him you have to do something besides mope.” Yuli had not commented on the tea bag.
“I’ll try,” Margaret promised.
After lunch, after the strange semi-permanent goodbyes for the summer, after getting on the train headed back home, Margaret saw a text from Yuli: Thank you. I love you.
Margaret took an Uber from the train station to her house. She let herself in and made coffee. The cat rubbed itself pleasantly against her, a physical show of memory, which was better than love. Her mother and little brother would be back from school soon and then they would talk. Margaret had been alone for almost three hours now and her solitude was starting to curdle.
At three thirty, Mom and Andrew got back from the high school. Andrew had grown since spring break, absurdly — not just in height but in breadth, in circumference, the kind of growth that comes from hours spent lifting weights and doing push-ups. He hugged her silently. He towered over her. His neck had grown as wide as his head.
Mom settled in to chat. About her idiot supervisor at work and how she’d been passed over for a promotion once again, in favor of a twenty-seven-year-old man.
“Penis or doctorate! You have either of those and Robert falls over himself to give you a job. Of course, I almost have a doctorate, but that doesn’t do me any good.”
Margaret nodded, agreed, raged at the unfairness. She’d written her college essay about her mother, and how she’d had to drop out of her PhD program when she got pregnant. It had been a very good essay.
After a while her mother asked her the question she usually asked once a year or so: “Any boys in the picture?” Usually, Margaret could answer easily with a curt, drawn-out “No” and an eye roll, but this time she sighed, perched on the arm of the sofa, and fiddled with her empty coffee cup. After a pause, she spoke.
“So… well. You’ll find out sooner or later. I went on birth control, and there’s a reason for that. I met a guy I really liked, and we were together all of last semester.”
Her mother was silent for a moment, and Margaret despaired. Mom had been raised by religious fundamentalists who believed alcohol was the devil and tampons took your virginity. These days Mom always had wine with dinner, but she still had some of the fire-and-brimstone in her voice.
“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. The pharmacy called about the prescription.”
Margaret started. “So you knew?”
“I suspected. You know, I imagined this conversation, and I’m actually even more okay with it than I thought I would be. What’s his name?”
“And are you two…”
“He’s graduating. And moving to Berlin.”
“I’m sorry.” She paused. “Well, I’m glad you had that experience. And, hey, at least it wasn’t a professor.”
Margaret laughed. Her mother laughed. In that instant Margaret loved her mother fiercely, wholeheartedly, and entirely of her own volition: it was a love separate from their status as mother and daughter, separate from the dutiful kind of affection she had to feel for the woman who had birthed her, raised her, given up so much for her. It was grown-up love, a love she chose to give.
Margaret knew small children were assumed to love their mothers almost as extensions of the self. She didn’t remember that feeling — she remembered viewing her mother as an alien creature, separate from herself, of mysterious origin, inscrutable and different-smelling. She had appeared to Margaret as a kind of custodian whom Margaret repaid with fawning Mother’s Day cards. Without the instruction of her preschool teachers and pastors, it would not have occurred to Margaret to love her mother, much less to thank her. Margaret’s primary memory of herself before the age of ten or so was not as a human being who loved but as a black hole that demanded, demanded, demanded, food and affection and entertainment, ceaselessly and impersonally.
But now, sharing a joke, they stood before one another as rational beings, and they chose to love each other. The mother had always loved the daughter, but it had been as impersonally as the daughter loved the mother.
“Have you always been like this?” Margaret asked.
“Well, I talk to you like a grownup now,” her mother answered.
Margaret would write a letter. She would send it to George, back in the city, preparing for graduation. She struggled with it. She’d left so much unsaid, the whole time they were sleeping together, and though she’d meant to tell him the truth their last night together she hadn’t quite been able to.
The first time they fucked had been the culmination of a weeks-long flirtation that introduced Margaret to the practice, if not the concept, of sexual tension. Margaret was eighteen and pretty: she was broadly aware of this but had no idea how to use it. George was twenty-six and a third-year law student.
The first time Margaret saw him, she went home the same night and told her roommate, “I’m in love with a law student I just met.” It was, perhaps, understandable. George was handsome and clever and seemed sad. He played guitar, spoke French, and had a burgeoning alcohol problem that struck Margaret as free-spirited and enticing. He was not particularly tall, not six feet, but well-built: sturdy and broad-shouldered, muscles unselfconscious under a layer of fat. His hair was thick, wavy, chestnut colored. It always stubbornly looked as if it had been styled, even when Margaret deliberately tried to mess it up. He flirted with everyone, and everyone flirted back.
One night there was a party at George’s apartment. Margaret was the last to leave. She understood, then, why the Bible called it “knowing”: she felt that George knew her body, knew her, more deeply and intimately than anyone else ever could. It hurt at first to feel him inside her. It was a gratifying kind of pain, though — the kind that gives someone else pleasure, and that promises future pleasure of one’s own.
They’d maintained their relationship without ever defining it for as long as they were both on campus. Margaret became helplessly infatuated.
Beginning the letter was harder than Margaret had expected: she didn’t quite know what she had to say, but even so she couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps if she said it in the most beautiful way possible a little bit of George would have to fall in love with her. The words came in spurts and gasps. She struggled over phrasing, structure, diction, even as she knew she was just making things pointlessly more complicated.
First, she wrote:
George, I have a confession to make. I was falling in love with you the whole time we were together. I don't have any expectation that you feel the same way, but I had to let you know. And so I don't expect you to love me back, but I do have to ask: how do you really feel about me? Could things have been different if the timing hadn't been so atrocious? Would you have wanted me more, if you weren't so ready to leave? Or am I just another girl who thinks I mean more to you than I really do, pretty and smart enough for you to be fond of but not a creature you could ever actually love?
She deleted the paragraph and tried again.
Why won’t you want me? Why must you be so infuriatingly, politely indifferent? Would you care at all if you never saw me again? Did you get tired of me? Did I bore you? What did you want, when you fucked me that first time? What did you expect?
A couple weeks ago I went to the overpriced boutique grocery on Broadway and spent $14.99 on tea to bring you while you studied for your last round of exams. A friend suggested that, and I was actually shocked at the realization that I could offer you something — call it emotional support, call it distraction — that wasn’t sex. And I offered to bring it to you late one night a few days before the exam, along with affection and conversation and who knows what else, and you didn’t want any of it. The tea sat on my desk, purposeless. I tried some. It tasted like shit.
She started over. Dear George,she wrote, and then she paused.
I told my mom about you yesterday. Not the whole story, of course, but enough.
Margaret bled. At first it was red, like you’d expect, except it was seventeen days too early. Margaret wondered if this could be a miscarriage — if this was how a dead embryo would manifest itself. She couldn’t figure out how that made her feel. If she had in fact been pregnant she would’ve had an abortion, easily, thoughtlessly. No, not thoughtlessly; the thought had been extensive but laid to rest ages ago. She would feel no guilt, no shame, no ambiguity. The offending mass of tissue would be removed and she would feel nothing.
And yet the idea of a real, physical result of her time with George — something they shared, inextricably, unquestionably — could not be dismissed so easily. It was a marker; it was proof. It was a symbol of a possible future cut short. Margaret made up her mind to call her doctor. If it was in fact a miscarriage, would she tell George? Was there any point in telling him? She wondered if the discovery and subsequent loss of what could have become their child would cause either of them pain, or if it would merely be a mildly unpleasant quirk to consider for a moment before moving on.
Then, gradually, the flow of blood shriveled into something dry and black and lifeless. It did not stop. Margaret called Dr. Qiu, her pediatrician. She still had a pediatrician. When was she supposed to stop having a pediatrician? A nurse answered the phone.
“Brunswick Pediatrics, Melinda speaking. How can I help you?”
Margaret hesitated. “I’m a patient, Margaret Heller. I wanted to speak to Dr. Qiu about a… women’s health issue?”
“Dr. Qiu’s not in today, but maybe I can help you?”
“Um… well, I started on birth control a few weeks ago, and lately I’ve been spotting. More than spotting. It’s been going on for a few weeks. Should I be worried, or is that normal?”
“That’s breakthrough bleeding, sweetheart. It should go away after the first couple of months on the pill. Perfectly normal, nothing to worry about.”
Margaret thanked her and hung up. She was vaguely disappointed.
Margaret’s mother asked her to pick up Andrew from lifting weights at the gym because he was still too young for a license. So Margaret slung on a dress and headed to the shopping center across town. She took her old car, the beat-up sedan with the nonfunctional air conditioning and the seats held together with duct tape, and went a little too fast with the windows rolled down, just like she had in high school.
It was one of those days where you could smell the heat rising from the asphalt, warm and heavy as brown butter. The sky was manically blue. Half past five, golden hour, light beginning to slant and turn the treetops amber. She pulled into the shopping center just as late afternoon began to shift to sunset. She could’ve waited for Andrew in the car, and usually would have, but today she got out.
She ducked into the shade of the heavy concrete overhang. More than half the storefronts were empty. It hadn’t always been like that, had it? She remembered a dance studio, a pizzeria, an ice cream shop. She circled around the sidewalk, counting the hollow windows. The “Retail space available” signs. Sat on a bench outside what used to be a coffee shop. Watched the shadows lengthen. She felt like a ghost in a ghost town.
George, too, was a ghost: all the weight and flesh and presence of him had been reduced to a voice at the end of a text. How are you? he’d asked, their first contact since she left, and she’d responded by sending the email. She wondered if he’d read it.
Truthfully, he had always been a ghost. She’d imagined conversations with him as she walked to class. And then he’d become real (had he?) and yet remained, somehow, just as opaque and inscrutable as ever, and she’d responded by being opaque and inscrutable herself. Sometimes she almost wondered if she’d made him up inside her head.
Eventually, Andrew emerged. They drove home wordlessly. Margaret was busy remembering an unseasonably warm day in March when George had driven her up a mountain in a half-broken convertible older than her parents. The road was narrow and twisted sharply, and on the way down he made a turn so tight and so late that for a moment the car was heading straight over the edge. For a moment, Margaret thought George had lost control, and they were going to tumble off the cliff and die. But then he righted the turn and Margaret laughed.
George wrote back. He said all the right things, more or less. He said he hadn’t realized how she felt, and would’ve stopped sleeping with her if he had; he said he’d been badly hurt before and wasn’t sure if he still knew how to fall in love; he said he was sorry; he said they should keep in touch.
If it had been a real, old-fashioned letter, folded up and stuffed in an envelope, it would lie flat on its own, Margaret read it so much. But it wasn’t. It was an email nestled between an Uber receipt and an order confirmation from an Indian restaurant. It was important, pathetically important, abjectly important, and yet there was no physical way to mark this. It would eventually be lost somewhere in her inbox, subsumed by petition requests and sale alerts and notifications from websites she hadn’t used for years. But it would always be there. Proof that their relationship had once been real. They could both delete the exchange, someday in the far-off future, maybe forget that they had ever had it, but for as long as the Internet existed there would be some trace, some sequence of zeros and ones that said, “Margaret once loved George, and he did not love her back.” Here was an ending that was not an ending. A closure that was ceaseless, infinite, continuous. A relic that neither of them could control.
Her mother called out to her from the kitchen. It was dinner time. Margaret went downstairs. They ate roast chicken and drank red wine, Margaret and her mother and Andrew and her father who was back, now, from wherever he had been.
Years later, Margaret would remember chicken with her family and bitter tea with Yuli far more vividly than she remembered anything about George. She never saw him again. One night in her late twenties, though, she slept with a man who smelled like him, and something sharp came back. She went to his bathroom and looked through every product, soaps and shampoo and cologne. Nothing looked familiar. Nothing smelled right. When she left the next morning she wondered if she’d imagined it.