Sick Puppy

As if she were butter on bread

Amy Giovanna Rinaldi, Untitled. 2015, rubber flooring, cement, enamel, nylon, cotton, acrylic on panel. 10½ × 10½". Courtesy of the artist.

For several months at the start of the 1990s, when she was not quite out of her teens, Anna Offenbach failed to see the point of getting out of bed. Her father had died, her classes didn’t interest her; neither did eating. Anna soon dropped out of college and moved to New York. In the back pages of the Village Voice, she found a studio sublet in an ugly brick building on First Avenue for five hundred bucks a month. She also found a job as a barely paid intern at a production company called Blowfish Films, which occupied a drafty loft in the Flower District.

At that time, Anna knew very few people in the city. But she made some new friends at a bar called 7B. One night, a tall, striking girl named Nadine who studied interior design at Parsons and did catalog modeling in her spare time leaned across the table, one eyebrow raised, and told Anna, “You can tell if a guy is doing heroin by the size of his pupils. If they’re dilated, then you know.” Anna was captivated by this strange piece of information. How did Nadine know these things? Anna wanted to be the kind of girl who just knew things, too. From that moment on, with every guy she met, she’d look deep into his eyes. Just to be sure.

On weekdays, Anna would sleep until eight-thirty and then, upon waking, drink a glass of grapefruit juice and smoke a cigarette. Anna had grown up in a town with one traffic light. And smoking Rothmans of Pall Mall, even though they made a considerable dent in her budget — and even though she’d never been to London — would make her feel worldly and in control.

Also out of control. At that hour, the same habit would make her head spin and feel as if it had become detached from her body. It would also make her have to shit.

Bowels emptied, she’d drape her head over her knees and sit like that for a while, listening to the radiator sputter and the traffic whooshing by below and feeling vaguely aroused by her own concavity. Sometimes, her hands would tremble, causing her to distribute ash on the tiled floor, which she’d wipe away with toilet paper. Though if the ash got in the grout, she wouldn’t bother. (It was gray anyway.) Then she’d get dressed for work.

On warm days, Anna would wear army boots, a skirt that barely covered her crotch, black tights with runs on the thighs, and a tiny tank top with no bra or a bra that was really just a few strips of lace and therefore served no function apart from aesthetics. She enjoyed watching people (men, mostly, but also women) watch her and seeing what effect her appearance had on them. If it was a flimsy kind of power she wielded on account of her youth and beauty, it was still power — and therefore better than nothing.

En route to the subway, Anna would mingle with the crowd at a popular breakfast and lunch café and slip a lemon poppy seed muffin into her bag. Walking out with her stolen breakfast, her heart would race and thump. Then she’d feel as if she were teetering on the ledge of a balcony whose railing might give way at any moment.

Anna’s job was to assist with the production of a documentary about jazz legend Django Reinhardt. If all went well, the show would appear on public television the following year. Anna wasn’t even remotely interested in jazz — although she thought Django was a cool name — but she was immediately interested in her boss, even though, or maybe because, she knew it was a terrible idea to flirt with him. Judging from the gold ring on his third finger, he was married. He appeared to be at least fifteen years older than she was. He was also in a position to fire her. And it had taken Anna scores of letters and trips to Kinko’s to print out résumés and cover letters to find anyone willing to pay her to do anything. Her only work experience before then was as a waitress at a fried fish restaurant.

Anna’s new boss also struck her as arrogant. Which was probably why she walked over to him on her second day of work and said, “So, what do you actually do here?” Brazen, she knew. She stood there staring at him and staring at his pupils, which were small and nearly the same color as the rest of his eyes. (It was hard to say where the one ended and the other began.)

“Who wants to know?” he asked. But he had a smile on his face. As if he already knew what she had in mind.

“Me?” she said.

“And who’s me?” he asked.

“I’m Anna,” she told him. “The new intern.”

He was Tall, Dark, and Handsome, just like the egotistical, brooding heirs that arrived on horseback in the Jane Austen novels that Anna had read. And he was wearing blue jeans, loafers with no socks, and a dark purple button-down shirt, two or maybe it was three of whose buttons he’d left unbuttoned. Around his neck was a leather string with a silver bead at the base of it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Curt Closter, lingering — it seemed to Anna — on the word pleasure.

They shook hands. It was an extra second before either one let go.

Curt would give Anna menial tasks to do around the office and outside it as well, from picking up his dry cleaning to checking out books for him at the Lincoln Center music library to dropping off filming permit applications at City Hall.

And then she’d do more. One day, she brought him a cookie in the shape of a guitar — in honor of Django and his three-fingered gypsy jazz.

“Where did you find this?” he said, turning the cookie over in his hand.

“I just did,” said Anna.

“Let me pay you back.”

“You don’t need to,” she said. “I stole it.”

Curt looked startled. Then he started to laugh. “You’re such a little tramp,” he said.

Anna didn’t argue. In fact, she was happy to be thought of in that way. Back then, every girl she knew aspired to be “bad.” The worse, the better.

Returning to her desk, she could feel Curt staring at her as if he wanted to eat her, not the cookie. Somehow, despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever, Anna imagined that, when Curt Closter wasn’t busy doing whatever it was he was planning to do to her, he’d want to take care of her.

The first time they had sex, he didn’t ask Anna if she wanted to. But then, he didn’t have to. He came up behind her, put his hands on her waist, and kissed her neck. She could feel Curt’s chest rising and falling against her back and his cock against her tailbone. Then he pulled away — went over to the door and barricaded it with a chair. When he came back to where she stood, he muttered, “You’re so ridiculously sexy.” And it made Anna feel so wanted and therefore so happy to hear those words that she held her breath.

Curt lifted up her miniskirt and, rather than pulling her tights down, tore a larger hole in them. After moving her underwear to the side, he put himself inside her and thrust so vigorously her head kept banging into the hard plastic carapace of his off-white Mac Plus desktop computer. He pulled out only just in time and, with a barely audible gasp, came on her ass.

While his cum dripped down the back of Anna’s thigh, Curt zipped his pants, wiped his brow, and — after he caught his breath — said, “I should really get back to work.” As if she were some anonymous contractor who’d come to service the photocopy machine. Anna might have objected, but she saw no reason to do so. Already it seemed that her bond with Curt Closter transcended language. “Me too,” she said.

Before Anna left Curt’s office, she balled up the remains of her tights and put them at the bottom of the trash can under his desk.

She went bare legged for the rest of the workday, all the while wondering if any of her new colleagues had noticed the alteration to her outfit. But no one said anything.

No one else in the office seemed to know she was alive.

The next morning, Anna woke early. She went straight to the bathroom, where she sat on the toilet smoking and fantasizing about what Curt would do to her that day. She was too excited even to eat her usual lemon poppy seed muffin.

The door to his office was ajar when she got to work. But he didn’t call her in. He didn’t even look up. It was a game that Anna thought she knew how to play.

They began going to hotels and sometimes Anna’s apartment at lunchtime or in the late afternoon. The first time she took him home, he said, “This place is a fucking hovel.”

She told him, “What do you care? You get to fuck me in my fucking hovel.”

“I’m not going to catch any diseases here, am I?” he asked.

“Fuck you,” said Anna.

“No — fuck me,” he said. “Right now.” He picked her up and lifted her on top of him. As if he couldn’t survive another minute without being inside her.

Curt always pulled out just before he came, not just because, presumably, he didn’t want to get her pregnant, but because he seemed to like to rub his cum into her stomach, breasts, ass, and even her face. Until her whole body, her whole being, was coated in him and until he owned her. At least that was how it felt. As if she had no choice but to relent to Curt Closter. And he had no choice but to pin her against every wall, bend her over every vertical plane, and spread her out over every horizontal one. As if she were butter on bread, and he was the knife.

To be the clandestine object of Curt’s desire — to seemingly have that much control over a grown man’s mind and body — filled Anna with something like joy.

The only time they ever really talked was after sex. Most of their conversation revolved around humdrum matters, like what was going on at the office. Anna wasn’t even sure if he remembered where she was from. Then again, maybe she’d never told him. In truth, she wasn’t sure where Curt was from, either. For a while, it didn’t matter.

But then, one day, it did. One day, all the secrecy and all the sex got to Anna — got under her skin, climbed into her rib cage and lungs, and could no longer be expelled along with the smoke from her Rothmans of Pall Mall. One day, Anna discovered that she didn’t want to be anonymous so much as known, cherished.

“My dad died last December,” she told Curt one afternoon in a taxi to Midtown, as his octopus arms wound themselves around and in between her limbs.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. But he didn’t ask how. He said, “Come here.” Then he lifted her into his lap, slid his fingers into her underwear, and whispered, “You’re very wet today.” Before very long, Anna found she couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight.

It was when Anna was alone in the evenings in her studio sublet that her problems began to resurface, along with an ever increasing thirst for access to Curt’s life. She didn’t merely want to know where he lived. She wanted to know who his mystery wife was; and whether she knew about Anna and Curt; and if he pined for Anna when they weren’t together in the same way that Anna had begun to pine for him. She also wanted to know that she meant something to him, even though she meant almost nothing to herself. But the only reassurance he offered was more sex, which somehow failed to reassure her except in the moment they were having it.

One afternoon, they were at a hotel off Gramercy Park with ugly chintz curtains and tiny rooms. Curt had just fucked Anna on all fours. Now he was flat on his back and appeared to be half-asleep. Not Anna. She felt this bursting sensation in her chest and licorice taste in the back of her throat that made her want to swallow the whole world in one gulp. And she wondered if that was what being in love was like, because she’d never felt that way before. So she said, “I love you.”

His eyes still closed, Curt reached over and patted her head as if she were a dog and said he was “very flattered” and “very fond” of her, but he didn’t tell her he loved her, too. Instead, he reminded her that he was “married” and she was “young” and his “employee” so it was “complicated,” which somehow confirmed for Anna that she was just a body to him, always had been, and always would be. Therefore, she was a nobody. Therefore, it didn’t matter what happened to her. No one cared, least of all Anna.

That evening, Anna found herself on an actual balcony. She and her friends from 7B were at a party on the Bowery. A few minutes earlier, Anna had gone to the bathroom with Nadine, where they’d sniffed lines of cocaine off the top of the toilet tank with a sticky dollar bill rolled into a cylinder. Anna had never tried cocaine before, and the drug made her heart beat fast and then faster. Now she stood gazing down at the traffic — at the cars, trucks, and taxis gliding by below — and daring herself to lean over the railing. Then she did so and felt the wind pushing her forward, the wind talking to her, telling her to keep going, to open her arms and give in. She scared herself so badly that she ran back into the apartment with sweat dripping down her face.

She didn’t get out of bed the next morning, or go to the office of Blowfish Films.

But when Curt called at lunchtime to find out where she was, she was too ashamed to tell him the truth. (Even though she wanted him to take care of her, Anna also wanted him to think she was tough and capable and not some dumb baby.) So, she told him that he paid her so little, it wasn’t worth going to work. She told him that, on the shitty salary he gave her, she could hardly even afford to buy cigarettes.

He said, “Maybe you should smoke less.”

Then he said, “If I give you a raise, will you give me a blowjob first?”

“You’re hilarious,” she said.

A few mornings later, Curt agreed to increase her salary by fifty dollars per month. “It’s the best I can do,” he said. “This is documentary film, not investment banking. Plus, you don’t have much experience — I mean, not the kind that matters here. Though you’re certainly a quick learner, or at least a flexible one.” He smiled.

Anna got so angry that she accused him of treating her like “some hooker on the West Side Highway!”

“You need to calm down,” said Curt.

But Anna found she couldn’t do anything of the kind. And when, a short while later, he handed her a stack of VHS tapes and asked if she would messenger them to “the archives,” she hurled them at his chest and said, “Fuck you — do it yourself.”

One of the tapes hit Curt in the arm. As he nursed his imaginary wound, his face tensed and torqued in anger. “Jesus Christ, Anna,” he said, in a sharp-edged voice that she’d never heard him use before. “What the hell has gotten into you?”

He’d never used her real name, either. Not until just then. (His usual nickname for her was L.T., which was short for Little Tramp.) That was when she knew things had changed. And it terrified her — to think that Curt Closter might be going cold on her.

It excited her, too. Because the more they fought and the angrier he became with her, the rougher the sex got, until there was no longer any question in Anna’s mind about whether Curt loved her — not when he was yanking her hair backward, or grinding her knees into the carpet, or pushing her head into the pillow and holding it there, while he rammed into her. The secret truth was that, as much as it hurt to be hurt by Curt Closter, it also came as a relief — that the charade of her being lovable was finally over — because Anna considered herself to be not just a “bad girl” but a Terrible Person.

That he didn’t love her — that he’d lately developed a fondness for coming in her ass — confirmed everything she’d ever suspected about herself: that she had no more value in the world than a pile of shit.

Maybe that was why, at a certain point in time, the pain Curt inflicted on her no longer sufficed. Surely, Anna thought, she deserved more. If her misery became visible, then maybe everyone would finally understand that she wasn’t OK. Moreover, to be mistreated was to be a victim, which rendered you blameless and not responsible for the mess you’d made out of your life. And while Anna had never considered herself to be a rebellious person, being safe felt more and more like a boring convention, just as being hurt indicated a grander and more extravagant attachment than merely being loved.

In the back of her mind, Anna also had this idea that the more Curt harmed her, the sorrier he’d someday feel, binding them together forever — just as he’d taken to binding Anna with his belt — both of them hostage to the dark secret of his brutality. So she began telling him to fuck her even harder, and then to hurt her, hurt her like he really meant it, since that was what he obviously wanted.

And Curt seemed happy to oblige in the difficult task of crushing, striking, biting, scratching, and half suffocating her. For Anna’s efforts at self-abnegation, he even awarded her a new nickname: S.P., which was short for Sick Puppy.

Afterward, while she lay there recovering, he’d say, “You’re tiring me out, S.P.” Or, “Did you get your fill today, S.P.?” As if it were all for her.

It seemed only fair that Anna receive some kind of compensation. And so, when Curt wasn’t looking or was in the bathroom, she began removing twenties from his wallet, then more. Because she could. Because as a middle-class optometrist’s daughter from the suburbs, it gave her a little thrill to do so. Because she felt cheated by the world. And because that was how Curt made her feel. Did he notice his missing money? He never said. But increasingly, Anna could feel him eyeing her from his office less with desire than with weariness.

Anna had also begun to sense that she was no longer wanted at Blowfish Films. And so, one morning, she walked into Curt’s office and said, “I quit.”

“So you’re just leaving?” he asked petulantly. “You’ve had your fun, and that’s it. Fuck the film. No notice, nothing?” Finally, she’d elicited an emotional reaction from him. But the note of injury in Curt’s voice was just as baffling to Anna as, moments ago, his indifference had been.

“Nothing — exactly,” she said. “That’s how much I matter to you.”

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Well, I guess you know best.” He was glaring at her. But he didn’t argue otherwise.

She thought he’d call after her. Or at least call when she got home. But he didn’t do either one.

Curled up in the fetal position on her bathroom floor, Anna cried so hard she no longer even knew why she was crying. For hours, or maybe it was three days — she lost track of time — she lay in a puddle of tears and drool.

It was Nadine who finally got her off the floor. She said, “You can tell if a guy is a complete asshole if he doesn’t call within forty-eight hours of your having a fight.”

Curt Closter never called again. And Anna never told him about the abortion she got a few weeks later. It turned out that he hadn’t pulled out in time, after all.

Eventually, Anna went back to college, lost interest in documentary film, graduated, applied to law school, was accepted — and did her best to bury the memory of Curt’s body above and behind her as she thrashed below.

The task proved difficult. For years after their affair, she avoided eye contact with men. They asked her on dates, told her they were in love with her, even had sex with her, and still she wouldn’t look at them, couldn’t look at them. It felt too intimate and as if, were she to do so, she’d end up on the bathroom floor again.

But then, one day, she willed herself to look up, met the man who became her husband (also a lawyer), fell in love, went to work at a public interest nonprofit devoted to employment discrimination, was recruited by a boutique firm, made a family, bought real estate, passed 40, then 45, was astonished to discover that she and her husband were, by most definitions, rich, began to do more pro bono work, contemplate mortality, color her hair.

Even so, Anna still carried around with her the sensation that she was only playing the part of a well-off lawyer, wife, and mother of two — and that a part of her real self lay elsewhere. Underneath it all she was a feral animal who, by some fluke, had been returned to civilization.

In February, a few weeks shy of her 48th birthday, Anna left for LA on business. When she ran into Curt outside a glass skyscraper in Century City, she felt as if she’d willed him back into existence. He was remarkably well preserved, if more hollow in the cheeks and with silver, not black, hair. Even so, it seemed almost impossible to Anna that he was still alive in the world, still breathing and walking. He was apparently talking, too. “Anna?” he said.

“Curt Closter,” she said quietly. She didn’t know if she’d ever said his full name out loud before — not even to someone else.

“Wow,” he said. “What a nice surprise.” And he was smiling as if he were genuinely happy to see her, the corners of his eyes crinkling. Anna stood there, trying to maintain her composure. “Do you live in LA?” he asked.

“No. New York,” she told him. “But my firm has a satellite office here. I’m a lawyer.”

“Oh. Good for you!” he said. “Sounds like you’ve done well for yourself. I’m actually here seeing my own lawyer. I live over in Venice.”

“Funny,” said Anna.

“I’m — sorry we lost touch,” Curt said after a pause.

Liar, she thought, as blood rushed to her cheeks and forehead. “Are you?” she said quickly.

Curt released what sounded like a nervous laugh. “I get the feeling you aren’t — that happy to have run into me.”

“What makes you think that?” said Anna.

“Well, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this,” said Curt, “but you still look beautiful.” Then he fixed his black eyes on Anna’s blue ones, and, despite her better instincts, she found herself pathetically grateful.

“Thank you,” she said. “You look well, too.”

“Married? Kids?” he asked.

“Both,” she answered. “And you? Still married? Kids?”

“Remarried,” he said. “We have two boys. One’s finishing high school this year, the other is a sophomore.”

“And are you still making documentaries?”

“Mostly unscripted TV. Youthful idealism gave way to having to pay the bills.” Curt smiled again, this time with a look of irony and resignation. Then he glanced at his watch — an expensive-looking gold one, suggesting he’d done well in his second act. “Listen, I should really run,” he said. “But if you’re willing, I’d love to get your email address. It would be nice to be in touch. Or at least to know how to reach you — before another twenty-five years go by. At which point I’ll either be in a nursing home watching Dr. Phil or — God willing — dead.”

Actually twenty-eight, thought Anna, because apparently she’d never stopped counting. She met Curt’s eyes again. His chest was going up and down as if she still had something he wanted access to. “I’m willing, yes. It would be nice to hear from you, too,” she heard herself say.

“Excellent,” he said, pulling out his phone, so he could type in her address.

Before Curt disappeared into the revolving door, Anna thought she saw him glance back at her.

Anna climbed into the driver’s seat of her rental car feeling light-headed. While she drove, she wondered if Curt Closter was still thinking about her, as she was still thinking about him — and if she’d misread their affair of decades before.

Maybe her grief and self-loathing at the time had been so deep and distorting that she’d been unable to see that this man had actually cared about her.

Or was Anna so susceptible to a single dumb compliment, a single ingratiating smile, that she was willing to whitewash what had been, if not a textbook case of workplace harassment, then surely one that involved a certain measure of abuse?

Although Anna had long since quit her Rothmans of Pall Mall habit, she still smoked the occasional cigarette late at night on the fire stairs of her apartment building. When they were young, her children had made her sign a contract promising never to do so again. From then on, she made sure to keep the habit well hidden. But she was all alone in LA.

On her way back to her hotel, Anna stopped at a gas station on the 405 and bought a pack of Benson & Hedges.

Back in her hotel room, she removed a minibottle of sauvignon blanc from the minifridge and then another one. The party went on all hours, though Anna was the only guest. That was the night she stopped sleeping. She was too drunk. She was too addled. She was too aroused. Every time she closed her eyes, she imagined Curt bending her over, ripping open the crotch of her black tights. Or else she was on her back and Curt was going down on her, which he never did when they were together. Then again, she never him asked to do so, if only because, at 19, she hadn’t actually known how to come.

Only twenty-four hours earlier, Anna had been happily married. Maybe that was an exaggeration. Though if she struggled in her marriage it was mostly because she found domestic life to be, while a source of sustenance and calm, also one of relentless tedium. There were always new camp forms and permission slips to sign. As much milk as she put in the house, it was somehow never enough.

There was also a way in which the smooth surfaces of her comfortable existence slid in and out of her consciousness without always making an impression. Yet those surfaces had been good to her. She found fulfillment both in her career and in the patient, mutually gratifying sex she had with her husband. Only, what if it turned out that Anna had never actually desired the gauzy cocoon of a lasting commitment? For reasons she couldn’t entirely understand, now she was the one who struggled to say the words I love you, even though she cared about her husband more than she’d ever cared about another man.

And now, even though Curt was older and less handsome than he’d once been, another part of Anna wanted him back. Suffering may have been a negative emotional state, but it was still the one that she felt most able to fully inhabit and experience as her own. Or maybe she was only trying to pin a happy ending to a sad story. (Over the years, Anna had had a recurring dream in which she and Curt escaped to a pine forest where, lying together in a bed of needles, he told her that he’d loved her all along.)

It seemed only right that Curt should make Anna come — and have his own breath obstructed — once before they both died.

When Anna woke the next morning, she felt both physically and emotionally spent. In search of insight into her malaise, she texted Nadine.

“You won’t believe who I ran into yesterday,” she wrote. “My ex from a billion years ago . . . Remember Curt Closter?! He was almost bizarrely nice.”

Nadine responded almost immediately.

“I can’t believe you’re referring to Curt Closter as your ‘ex’!!!! And ‘nice’??!! He was violent with you, Anna! I seriously considered calling the police.”

“You did?” Anna wrote back. Shock, shame, confusion, and a kind of disembodied fascination filling her already heavy head.

“You’d come back covered with cuts and bruises and cry for three days,” Nadine replied. “The only reason I didn’t call the cops was because I didn’t want you to lose your job.”

She’s exaggerating, was Anna’s first thought. Her second thought was that Nadine was jealous of Anna’s success in life, and it must have gratified Nadine to envision Anna as having been more of a “victim” than she’d ever actually been.

Or was Anna in denial?

A day after she returned to New York, Curt’s name popped up in her inbox. “Dear Anna,” he’d written. “How are you this fine morning? It was a treat to run into you last week.”

Anna felt her heart swell. “Exhausted,” she wrote back. “Couldn’t sleep, but thanks for asking.”

He responded immediately. “Bad dreams?”

“Something like that,” she wrote. “Or maybe they were good dreams. I can’t remember . . . Do you still like jazz?”

“Yes,” he wrote. “A lot. I know it’s uncool. Please don’t tell anyone. :)”

They began emailing every day or two — mostly trivial banter, but always with a subtext. At least it seemed that way to Anna, for whom Curt’s messages were something to look forward to. They were also a secret she kept from her husband, which made her feel guilty, even as it somehow comforted her to think that no one knew her too well, not even her own family.

A month into their correspondence Curt mentioned he was coming to New York on business. Because the dates coordinated — and because the event provided her with cover for her own amorphous desires — Anna invited him to a benefit for a small nonprofit on whose board she sat. She told herself that it was just a bizarre coincidence that she was inviting the ex-lover who had left scars on her knees to attend a cocktail party for an organization that offered aid to victims of domestic violence. But maybe she was also looking for proof that Curt wasn’t like that, never had been, and that everything that had happened between them had been fully consensual. “The minimum donation is one hundred and seventy-five dollars,” she wrote. “But you get to feel good about yourself afterward!”

Curt replied that he’d be “delighted” to attend and also to donate not one hundred and seventy-five, but three hundred bucks for the privilege of supporting a worthy cause. “And of getting to see you in a little black dress,” he wrote.

Reading his reply on the way out of her office that evening, Anna felt those same knees begin to buckle. She steadied herself against the side of the building. “Excellent all around,” she wrote back, trying to reestablish a neutral tone, if only to contravene the sudden onslaught of anxiety that followed her excitement. There was no longer any pretending that she and Curt hadn’t resumed some version of their demented romance.

The night of the event, Anna took extra care getting dressed and groomed. She had bought a new black dress for the occasion. Though she expressed disappointment, she was secretly relieved when her husband announced he had to work late and couldn’t make the benefit.

Curt showed up just as the director of Shelter Us was mounting the podium to welcome the assembled guests. He looked as well turned out as ever in an expensive-looking black suit jacket and jeans.

Anna downed half her champagne in a single sip. Then she walked over to him and said, “Curt.”

“Hello there, Anna Offenbach,” he said. He kissed her on one cheek, then the other. He smelled like chalk and flowers. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said.

“No worries,” she told him. “I’m happy you’re here.” Had she really just said that?

“I’m happy to be here, too.”

No sooner did their eyes meet than Anna longed to close hers and lie beneath him.

They talked about the weather, the Political Situation — his kids, then hers. Then Curt said, “So, if you don’t mind me asking, how did you get involved with this charity?” But before she could answer, he added, “I hope it had nothing to do with — us. I was just following instructions.” Then he smiled conspiratorially at her. Anna felt a blast of heat on her face.

“Nothing at all,” she began in a low voice, her heart now pounding in her throat. “Though for the record, you weren’t just following directions. And you injured me — not just emotionally, but physically. I’m happy to show you my scars sometime. You also drove me out of your production company. And got me pregnant. And in case you forgot, I was 19 when we met and your employee.” The more Anna spoke, the more she realized how furious she was — had been, really, for decades.

Anna’s outburst seemed to shock and unsettle Curt. And at the sight of his now stricken face, a part of Anna — the part that still understood men’s wills and wishes to be her own — felt guilty for having upset him, and wondered if she was exaggerating her trauma for effect. But didn’t he deserve to be held accountable? “I didn’t know you got pregnant,” said Curt. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“We’d already broken up, if that’s the right phrase,” said Anna.

“That’s very sad news for me to hear,” Curt went on. “But I guess it wasn’t — an ideal time for either of us to be bringing a baby into the world.”

“I guess not,” Anna shot back.

Curt swallowed before he spoke again. “For what it’s worth, it wasn’t the easiest time in my life, either. I was in a vulnerable place when we met. My marriage was on its last legs. Our affair was pretty much the end of it. Not that I’m blaming you in any way. Though I admit you were hard to resist.” He glanced in Anna’s direction, then looked away. “But I was clearly looking for trouble. And I take full responsibility for having found it and then for losing control of the situation. I actually spent a lot of years in therapy trying to figure out how I let things progress to the point they did. I never came up with a good answer. But I want you to know that I had never behaved that way before you, and I never did again.” He turned now to face Anna. “It’s not who I am. I’m a loving father and husband — to my second wife, that is. And it’s hard for me even now to hear what you’re saying.” He appeared suddenly to be on the verge of tears. “Anyway,” he continued in a shaky voice. “Hopefully, we both recovered.”

“Hopefully,” said Anna, incredulous. We both recovered? The idea that Curt regarded himself as having been equally wounded by their affair made her dizzy with disbelief. But from the pained expression on his face, it struck her that he fully believed this to be true. In his mind, Anna had seduced him. And he’d suffered for it. Somehow, this possibility — that their affair had been nearly as self-destructive for Curt as it had been for Anna — had never occurred to her before. “Except maybe not entirely,” she told him. “And possibly never.”

“I’m sorry for you too, Curt,” she went on, “but I’m probably not the right person to comfort you.”

“I realize that,” he said, touching his hand to his forehead.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Anna said. In search of fresh air, she directed the lower half of her body toward the far end of the ballroom. There, she unlatched a set of French doors and found herself on a fourth-floor balcony overlooking Wall Street.

Although it wasn’t remotely cold outside, Anna’s teeth were chattering. She moved closer to the ledge and looked down. The traffic below was thin: a few taxis, the occasional delivery truck, some noisy tourists in T-shirts from a Broadway show. She scanned the water towers on the tops of the buildings and imagined diving into their black depths. She could feel the wind on her forehead, whipping back her hair. She thought of that night on the Bowery, long ago, when she’d wanted to give in, give up. She felt not unlike that now. But this time, there were others who surely did care, others who might not recover if it came to that.

While reviewing the recent donation rolls to Shelter Us, Anna discovered that Curt hadn’t sent the $300 he’d promised, after all. It occurred to her that the sum he’d failed to donate was comparable to the one she’d accrued decades earlier by raiding his wallet. Anna made out a check to the organization for the same amount.

She was in mediation with a client when a message from Curt flashed across the screen of her phone. “Dear Anna,” it read. “I still have passionate memories of our time together. I know you have some other memories, and I hope you can find a way to forgive me for them. CC.”

Curt’s words: they weren’t everything Anna had ever hoped for, but they were better than nothing. And how many years had she waited to hear something akin to them? A wave of unsorted emotion passed through her body. She blinked back tears.

But in the middle of the night, after checking that her husband and children were asleep, she walked into her closet, pulled all her perfectly folded sweaters off their shelves, and flung them onto the floor. Then she lay facedown in a heap of them and, buffeted by softness, allowed herself to weep.

Some time later, when Anna had stopped crying, she had a familiar reverie in which her chest was transformed into a box filled with three-dimensional letters of the alphabet. The letters completely filled the available space, pressing up against the edges of the box, and, in doing so, summoned a blissfully expansive feeling inside her. But there were gaps where the letters curled and bent. And try as she did to jostle them so they were closer together, they never matched up. The failure caused Anna an equal amount of agitation and, finally, agony.

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