Chapter 4 – William‌

Hello Beautiful

November 1982–march 1983

William adhered to a daily routine. Breakfast, then he food-shopped for Julia or did any other necessary household errands. He

was trying to please his wife, to make up for ground he’d lost through a miscalculation. He’d assumed Julia would appreciate the fact that, after Charlie died, he asked to be released from his teaching-assistant position for the rest of the semester. The department was understanding; after all, they had plenty of graduate students to fill his spot in the classroom. But Julia had looked panicked when William told her—she didn’t like surprises—and he realized he’d made a mistake. Julia depended on more than just his love and attention; she needed him to make money, even though they had enough in savings from wedding gifts to last the rest of the semester. His wife also didn’t know about the uncashed check that was hidden in his dresser drawer; he had no intention of using it, ever, but it existed in case of an emergency. Julia didn’t need William at home to have company either; Sylvie had moved in, and it was usually to her that Julia turned when she was feeling mournful. This made sense to William, of course, but he was dismayed by how he’d gotten the math wrong on every count.

After William had washed the breakfast dishes and asked if there was anything else he could do, Julia shook her head and held the door open for him to leave. Thankfully, she kissed his cheek on the way out, to let him know her disappointment was temporary. He

walked to the Northwestern library, where he studied for his evening classes. On his way to his favorite study carrel, William usually passed the elderly history professor in whose class he’d met Julia. The old man appeared not to recognize William, but William didn’t take that personally. He suspected that this would be the professor’s final year of teaching. The old man’s eyes leaked tears when he spoke, and his nose wept too. William wondered if the professor still cared about the subjects he lectured on. Did he have new thoughts on the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 or the capture of Berlin? Or were these just words the old man recited, like lines from a play?

William took a break from studying at lunchtime and walked to the athletic building. He sat in the bleacher seats, with the basketball court before him, and ate his packed lunch. Sometimes there was a gym class going on, with an array of students of all shapes and fitness levels being coaxed through calisthenics by a teacher. Sometimes a few of the team’s shooters were there for extra practice. William knew all the players except the freshmen, and once or twice after finishing his sandwich he let the guys convince him to take a few shots from the corner. He knew his knee couldn’t take pivoting or even jogging from one spot to the other, so he stood still and drilled one long shot after another while his former teammates hooted with pleasure. When the ball swished through the net, William’s breathing slowed to normal, and he could pretend that he still inhabited a recognizable life.

With the basketball in his hands, he could forget that his father-in-law had dropped dead, his sister-in-law slept on his couch, and every time he saw his wife he was startled. Julia wasn’t obviously pregnant, but she no longer looked like the woman he’d married. Her hips flared dramatically, and her cheeks were often flushed. She was beautiful, gorgeous, heaving with life, but on a fixed journey from conception to birth that William found hard to locate on any map. Where are you? he wanted to ask her. Do you know where you’re going? Are you sure it’s the right way?

He was embarrassed to admit the truth even to himself, that he’d never given thought to having a child. William had fallen in love with Julia—he still swam in an ocean of gratitude that he went to sleep beside her every night and woke up with her every morning—so marriage had made perfect sense. But creating a new person, and raising him or her, was an entirely different proposition. He’d told Julia that he was happy and excited about her pregnancy, because he knew that was what he was supposed to feel, but William was unable to imagine himself as a father. When he tried to picture himself with a baby, the image was blurred. Perhaps he should have voiced some hesitation over Julia’s plan, but his wife had suggested they get pregnant, and for the next month, every time he walked into the apartment she seemed to be waiting for him, naked. William was unable, and unwilling, to talk through the pros and cons of parenthood when Julia wasn’t wearing clothes.

Now he lived with a pregnant wife and a sister-in-law who swept guiltily in and out of the apartment. He no longer sat on the couch, because it was Sylvie’s bed. He read textbooks over his meals and reviewed his notes, trying to memorize all the moving parts of a particular year in American history. When William woke up in the middle of the night, Julia’s side of their bed would be empty, and he’d find her asleep in her sister’s arms. Watching them, William felt a strange loneliness. They looked like they belonged together, and when he walked back into his bedroom, he had the thought that perhaps it was he, and not Sylvie, who was the intruder.

After lunch at the gym, William returned to the library to read about the Panic of 1893. William’s graduate adviser was a bright-eyed professor who always wore a bow tie and had a hard time sitting still, presumably because everything excited him so much. During their initial meeting, in the first month of the program, the professor had asked William what he really, really loved about the period of American history he’d chosen as his focus. With this question, William had felt everything at motion inside him—his blood,

his lungs, his heart—slow almost to a stop. He was mortified; it had never occurred to him that he was supposed to bring love to this endeavor. Finally, he managed to say something about the great changes the country had gone through between 1890 and 1969—the Gilded Age, two world wars, the civil-rights movement—but it was too late. There was confusion in the professor’s eyes, and he seemed to be thinking: How strange, I don’t feel any historical passion coming from this young man at all.

Most days, William stayed at the gym later than he intended to after finishing his lunch. He needed to review chapters for his evening classes, but he delayed returning to the library. It was on one of those afternoons that Arash saw him while crossing the court and came to sit beside him.

“How’s the knee?” he asked.

“Fine.” This was William’s standard response when asked about his knee. He thought it was the correct answer, since the knee functioned and allowed him to walk from place to place. It always ached—the pain was worst at night—but it seemed unmanly to admit that. And who cared? He no longer needed a pain-free knee. Professors could sit, after all. His body was now more or less irrelevant.

Arash studied him. “I heard you’re in grad school here.


William was surprised. “How did you hear that?”

Arash smiled. “We track you boys. I track my injuries, so you’re on my list. But we like to keep tabs on all our players. We’re not heartless, you know. We can’t send a nice note in celebration of some achievement if we’re not keeping tabs.”

William considered this. He hadn’t been prepared for kindness, and it made him think of Charlie. His father-in-law’s funeral was the first William had ever attended. He’d listened at the wake to the stories of how generous Charlie had been to people in Pilsen and at work. After a trio of drunk men tried to explain how Charlie had

helped them appease an angry landlord, William had the urge to stand up and tell the room that his father-in-law had been an excellent driver and that he had hidden his competence, or perhaps it had been ignored by Rose and their daughters. How much else did Charlie feel like he had to hide from us? he wanted to ask. Instead, he watched Rose harden, hour by hour, and watched panic and grief etch his wife’s beautiful face.

After the casket was lowered into the ground, Julia had brought William to visit Cecelia and her baby girl. The infant was placed in William’s arms with no warning. He’d never held a baby before, but his wife and Izzy’s mother turned away from William casually, as if they trusted him to somehow know what to do. The baby stared up at him and her face quivered; she was considering tears. She was unbelievably tiny and wrapped up in blankets so he couldn’t see her limbs. She seemed very warm. Did she have a fever? Were the blankets necessary? William sat down in a chair, so that the baby would have less far to fall if he dropped her, and then slid down to sit on the floor. Julia and Cecelia laughed at him, but with affection in their eyes, and then the two women sat on the floor with him, as if to say that what he’d done was perfectly fine.

“Nice finish!” Arash said, his eyes on the court. “That freshman there, the power forward? He’s been an excellent replacement for Kent. Good first step.”

“Who’s replaced me?”

Arash scanned the floor. “There’s a new guy who rebounds well. He’s all elbows, though; he’s not an IQ guy like you.” Arash nodded, as if agreeing with his own assessment. “Have you read The Breaks of the Game?”

“The what?”

“It’s a book about smart players like you, how they play and think the game. Run through film in their mind, understand how to use space. The greats are always playing chess out there. You should read it.”

William tried to absorb Arash’s words; he knew immediately that he would replay this conversation later, when he was alone. These felt like the words, and sentences, he had been waiting for. William committed what felt like tiny failures and disappointments during every hour of his current life; he wished that he was still a basketball player with positional intelligence, who was part of a team. A memory flashed into his mind: He was standing on the park court as a ten-year-old, watching the boys who had just welcomed him into their game run away to get home in time for dinner. Come back, the young William thought.

Arash clapped him on the shoulder. “Got to get to an appointment. Maybe I’ll see you here again?”

“I’m here most days,” William said, and was confused by the feeling in his chest—was it longing?—as the man walked away.

william a d julia spe t several weeks that December repeating the same argument every time Sylvie was out.

“We should move into the other apartment before I get huge,” Julia said. She and William now qualified for a two-bedroom apartment in married housing, because they were expecting a child. “I want to get organized,” she said. “We’re going to have to put together a crib and a changing table, at least. You’ll go back to teaching next month, so we should use this window to move, while you have a little free time.” She paused. “Why do you keep looking at me like that?”

William tried to make his face neutral. “Like what?”

“Like what I’m saying is shocking. You realize we’re having a baby in April, right?”

“Of course. I’m just saying that we’re comfortable in this apartment. You’ve always said that you loved this place. Let’s stay here until the end of the school year. We can move in the summer.”

Julia looked at him with wide eyes, annoyed. “It’s too small, with Sylvie staying with us. If we move now, she could sleep in the baby’s room. I don’t understand why you’re arguing with me.”

William didn’t know what to say, how to explain that he simply wanted to push off moving for as long as possible. Nothing inside him would make sense to his wife. He thought dumbly: If we don’t move, then the baby won’t be born, because he or she won’t have a bedroom. The larger apartment was in a nearby campus building, so it wouldn’t be a big change, but now, with Charlie’s death and Julia growing and Sylvie on his couch, everything felt uncertain to William. He needed to wake up in his bed in his current bedroom, and eat two pieces of toast with strawberry jam, and then walk to the library. He needed to sit in his favorite study carrel and spread his books out in the precise way he liked. He needed to take a break from studying to eat lunch in the gym—sometimes with Arash—and remember what it used to feel like to run the court in front of him with a basketball in his hands. At the end of each day, after he attended classes, William returned home to the woman he’d fallen in love with only a few years earlier. The beats of this exact routine gave William an infrastructure, and the idea of any alteration made him stare blankly at his wife, even though he knew she was being reasonable and he was not.

several days a week, Arash brought his soup and small brown roll

—his lunch never varied—and sat beside William in the bleachers. Arash talked to William like he was a colleague, which was a kindness William appreciated.

“I have concerns about Paterson,” Arash said, nodding toward the sophomore shooting guard who was bouncing up and down on the court, waiting for his turn to shoot.

“He has a nice stroke,” William said. “Don’t you think?”

“Good technique in his shot, yes. But pay attention to how he lands.”

William watched the lanky kid dribble around three cones and then shoot. “I don’t see a problem.”

“Try to slow your vision down while you watch. Watch him in slow motion for his next three turns.”

William had no idea what Arash meant by this, but he watched carefully for the next twenty minutes. He tried to pull apart the different parts of Paterson’s movements: the angle of his body when he ran, the rotation of his knees when he pivoted, the abandon with which he leapt toward the basket. On the fourth viewing he noticed Paterson’s torso twist while he shot, which caused him to be off-balance when he landed. He tried to explain this to Arash, who nodded.

“That’s right. I think he might need to work on strengthening his ankles—there’s possible ligament weakness there. Your experience made me rethink my work, you know. I want to find out about the players’ prior injuries. If I have that information, I can help build them out. I’m concerned they’ll lie to me if I just ask them about the injuries straight up, though.” He made a face.

“They won’t want you to think there’s anything wrong with them. They don’t want to be viewed as damaged and get less playing time.”

“Exactly,” Arash said. “Goddamn knuckleheads.”

William nodded and put a hand on his weak knee. “This semester

—for the next month, anyway—I’m not teaching,” he said. “I have some free time. Would you mind if I watched you work sometimes? Shadowed you?”

Arash turned in his seat to look at William. It occurred to William that he knew very little about this man. He’d been a physio at Northwestern for more than a decade, but did he have a wife? Kids? Did he live on campus? Where was he from? Studying history was about scope, about understanding the terrain that surrounded the

critical event. Nothing and no one existed in a vacuum. Charlie in his armchair in his house had been only one slice of his terrain. The wake had revealed the woman at the bus stop, the friends he shared drinks with, fellow poetry-lovers, nice men at his miserable job. Bitter relatives, stunned daughters.

“Aren’t you in graduate school full-time?” “I can get everything done,” William said. Arash looked back at the court.

“I won’t get in your way.” William cringed because his voice sounded desperate, but also because he realized he was desperate. Something opened inside him in this gym, as he watched the players. He wanted to be here more. He needed to be here, to have any chance of feeling okay.

“That would be fine,” Arash said. “I could use your help.”

william reGretted Givi G julia his book the moment he handed it to her. If Charlie hadn’t died, he never would have caved to her repeated requests, but he couldn’t bear to make her more unhappy than she already was. Also, William felt like he owed her something in return for her reluctant agreement to stay in their current apartment through the end of the school year. He said, “It’s not in a readable state yet. You’re not going to know what to make of it. This is a draft, a messy draft.”

“I understand that. I’m so glad you’re letting me look at it. Thank you.”

The next morning William saw her reading the pages at their yellow kitchen table, but then he never saw her reading again. A few days later he saw the manuscript on the couch, wrapped in the paper bag, and he flinched to see it out in the open. He felt like he’d handed his wife the muddled insides of his head, or perhaps his soul. He’d been writing the book for almost five years, but he’d done

so in fits and starts. He didn’t actually think of it as a book—that’s just what Julia called it. For William, it was something he worked on because there was a silence inside him that sometimes frightened him. Basketball was noisy—the game took place at tempo, with ten men jumping, shooting, guarding, cutting at every moment—and writing about it masked William’s internal quiet. He could listen to the thumping of the basketball, in the gym or on the page, and imagine that it was his own heartbeat.

He used to return to his dorm room after a hard practice and recreate a famous game on the page. When he wrote about the signature moves of great players—Oscar Robertson’s head fake, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s glorious skyhook—he felt the ripples of those moves in his own body. Those ripples were the only times the stillness deep inside him broke, and he’d experience some relief. But because of the way William wrote, the narrative in the book was convoluted and followed only the fitful path of his enthusiasms. He knew it would make no sense to his wife, and having the pages out of his hands made him feel like he’d lost part of himself. Days went by without Julia mentioning the book, and she seemed to go to great effort not to meet his eyes. The fog that had arrived with William’s injury returned to his peripheral vision, like cloud cover circling a mountain. The book was terrible; he was terrible.

Finally, one night at bedtime, Julia handed him the stack of pages and said, “It’s good!”

He closed his eyes so he couldn’t see her bright, forced smile. “You don’t have to say that. It’s not true. It’s just for me. I’m sorry it won’t get me a job after graduate school.”

“You won’t need a book for that,” she said. “We’ll get you a job.”

Fog nipped at the edges of him, and he felt bad for his wife. She had to pretend she thought he was better than he was. She had to pretend she wasn’t worried she’d hitched herself to a bad horse. This wasn’t the first time William had seen this kind of strained smile on

Julia’s face, and he hated that he’d put her in this position. A dark mist saturated him.

She said, “The footnotes were very interesting. Very unusual.”

“I need a glass of water,” he said, and climbed out of bed. He walked fast into the living room and then reared back, his heart racing, at the sight of Sylvie on the couch. He’d forgotten she was here; he’d forgotten everything.

“I’m sorry,” she said. He’d frightened her too.

“It was my fault,” he said. “Rushing into the room.” “Are you all right?” she asked.

There was something in Sylvie’s voice, some knowing, that made William pause. He pictured his wife and Julia sleeping side by side on the couch. The two sisters were careful and kind with each other; he’d always admired that about them. One of the things he loved most about Julia was how she treated her family. The sisters were so close that, in reality, his wife never operated alone; the four Padavano girls shared their lives, celebrating and utilizing one another’s strengths, covering for one another’s weaknesses. Julia was the organizer and leader, Sylvie the reader and measured voice, Emeline the nurturer, and Cecelia the artist.

William’s wife wasn’t much of a reader anymore. Of course—he realized—Julia would have asked Sylvie to read his book. Not as an act of betrayal but as a way to bring her best self to the task. Julia’s love and ambition plus Sylvie’s critical-reading skills.

William stood still at the edge of the living room in the dim light while this knowledge unfolded inside him. He could feel Julia, anxious, behind him. William had always known that he’d married not just his wife but her family too. At the start of their relationship, Julia had brought her three sisters to his college basketball game to make it clear that she came as part of a unit, and he’d accepted that. Julia had legally changed her last name to his, but for all intents and purposes, he’d joined the Padavanos. The deepest union in this

apartment was between the two sisters who fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Sylvie was sitting upright on the couch now, as if she were a visitor and not a woman wearing a nightgown with her hair down. She gave William the same worried look his wife was directing at his back.

William walked away from both women, into the kitchen. He needed to be alone. He needed to wrestle his breath under control. He leaned against the refrigerator and rested his hands against his thighs. He panted as if he were running the court, an hour into a game that his team was losing by a landslide. No matter how many minutes remained on the clock, there was no chance of victory.

i ja uary, whe the new semester began, William resumed teaching, on top of attending classes. Julia was clearly relieved that he was earning a salary and made a small fuss when he brought his first paycheck home. William was pleased she was happy, but he now found his days so long and demanding that he had to manage his energy to get from one end to the other. The history program believed it was beneficial for the graduate students to teach outside their area of focus, so William was now the teaching assistant for an undergraduate class called The History of Ancient Egypt. Each class meeting required an immense amount of preparation on his part, and William was always tired, even when he slept well at night. He developed a habit of shaking his head sharply, once, before walking into a graduate lecture, and this turned on an internal motor that allowed him to nod and smile and take notes while the professor spoke. A more powerful motor was required when William was the TA in front of his own class. His heartbeat revved up, and the minutes seemed to fly out the open window, winged with anxiety. He had to constantly check his watch to make sure he wasn’t covering

the material too quickly. He felt like he was doing time wrong; a better professor would pace himself to finish just as the class ended, lining up the minutes with some internal clock that William lacked.

When he arrived home late at night, William tried his best with Julia, and he could tell she was trying her best with him. William knew, though, that reading his manuscript had permanently damaged Julia’s opinion of him. For her, his “book” had loomed large through their entire relationship: In the beginning she’d been thrilled by it, because she saw the project as a sign of William’s maturity and ambition. Over the years, she’d used the idea of it to paper over any worries she had about his lack of personal plans and goals. Julia had been counting on his book to prove that he was the man she’d chosen. And now that she’d read it, she knew he wasn’t. William had dreaded this happening; it felt like stepping off a cliff, and he didn’t know in what state he would reach the ground. He wondered, every day, if he should tell her that he’d understand if she wanted to leave him. But Julia was pregnant—visibly now—and so she was trapped. They were trapped: He was becoming less of the man she’d married by the day, while their family was only growing.

Julia told him about a doctor’s appointment she’d had that afternoon and asked if he wanted to rest his hand on her taut belly. William placed his hand where she pointed, but he knew he didn’t have the right expression on his face—some of his fear must have showed through. Julia sighed and turned away, saying she needed to go to bed. William was relieved on the nights that he arrived home and Julia didn’t try. She just waved to him from her seat on the couch next to her sister but didn’t stand up to get him dinner or ask about his day.

“You’re not excited about the baby,” Julia said to him once, as a statement of fact.

It took William a moment to recall what excitement was, and then he said, “I am.” But he knew he’d failed to sound convincing. “I’m sorry.”

“Please stop apologizing. Sometimes, William, I feel like I’m having the baby with Sylvie, and you’re just some guy who lives here.”

Julia challenged him with her eyes. She wanted a response, she wanted him to push back, to be insulted, but all he could come up with was another expression of regret.

late o e eve i G, william was walking home from class when he noticed, through the darkness, a woman sitting on a bench. He blinked in her direction for a moment, not understanding why she held his attention, and then realized it was Sylvie. William’s heart gave a quick rattle in his chest. He might have crossed the street or turned a corner before his sister-in-law could see him, but it was too late. She’d noticed him too.

For weeks he’d been avoiding Sylvie. Every time he was in the same room with her, he thought, You read my ridiculous footnotes. This made him want to drop through a hole in the floor; he knew Sylvie must have been horrified at what she’d read. He hadn’t removed the manuscript from the paper bag since Julia gave it back to him; this was the longest he’d ever gone without adding to its pages.

“I left my apartment keys at the library,” Sylvie said, from her seat on the bench.

William noticed that she looked tired and remembered that she also took night classes. He looked at his watch; it was almost ten o’clock. “What were you going to do?”

She shrugged. “I was trying to figure it out. It’s too late to phone, because Julia needs her sleep, and I wasn’t sure you’d be home. My guess is that I was going to sit here for a little while longer—it’s not too cold—and then get a bus to go sleep at Mrs. Ceccione’s place.”

William sat down on the edge of the bench, next to her. “Well, problem solved, because I have keys.”

She smiled. “I was also admiring the stars.”

“The stars?” At first he didn’t know what she was talking about, but then he tipped his head back. There they were.

“Are stars not your thing?”

This is a strange conversation, William thought. But he’d stepped outside his daily routine, and he felt less nervous with Sylvie in the shadowy darkness than he did inside the apartment. “I guess not?” he said. “I mean, I have nothing against them.”

They were quiet for a few moments, with their heads leaned back to take in the sky.

“I miss my father all the time,” Sylvie said. “I keep thinking it’s going to get easier.”

William looked over at her, and there were tears on her cheeks. He could see tears trapped in her eyelashes, and he lost his breath. He could see her sadness traced across the lines of her body, overlaying her arms and legs and the oval of her face. This struck him; he’d never been able to see so clearly what another person was feeling.

Sylvie had been hurt by Charlie’s death; Julia had been shipwrecked too. Charlie Padavano had felt essential to his daughters, as if he was part of their own construction. William missed his father-in-law as well; he remembered Charlie asking him to explain basketball. William had found himself drawing the court on a piece of paper and explaining the actions of the five players on a team, the older man nodding in concentration beside him.

William said, “That kind of loss…must be hard.”

“I didn’t expect”—she paused—“for it to be part of everything, every minute. I didn’t know that you could lose someone, and that meant you lost so much else.”

William considered this. “Like it’s all connected.”

She made a small noise next to him, neither a yes nor a no.

He shifted his weight against the wooden slats of the bench. His body felt odd, like blood was rushing though it at a faster pace than normal. He watched a policeman stroll down the sidewalk on the far side of the street.

Sylvie said, “You look tired.”

William turned toward her and found himself looking directly into Sylvie’s eyes. He had the strange sense that she was looking inside him, to the truth of him. He hadn’t known this was possible. When Julia gazed at William, she was trying to see the man she wanted him to be. She couldn’t see, or didn’t want to see, who he actually was.

William thought of Charlie again; his father-in-law had seemed interested in knowing him. And then, briefly, he thought of his parents. Had his mother or father ever looked straight at him? He didn’t think so. He imagined that his mother must have held him as a baby with her face turned away. Maybe this was why he had a hard time picturing himself as a parent, because his own parents had wanted to leave every room he was in.

William took a jagged breath. Why was he having these thoughts? It felt like Sylvie’s attention had revealed him to himself. And the stars were so bright overhead. Aggressively bright.

“I’ve been very tired lately,” he heard himself say. “Me too.”

“You lost your father and your home.” He hadn’t considered this before, but he knew, as if the air between them were stacked with answers, that this was the truth.

“Yes,” she said, and her voice wavered.

Something wavered inside William in response, and he was afraid—for a split second—that he might cry. But he couldn’t do that in front of his wife’s sister; too much had already passed between them. He stood up and said in a brusque voice, “Let’s get inside.”

A few days later, Julia told him, upset, that Sylvie had found a place of her own; she was moving out. William felt a stab of

something sharp in his chest and thought, That’s my fault too. Something had happened to him on the bench, and since then he’d found his daily routine even more difficult to power through. He’d almost wept in front of his sister-in-law, and he never cried. Not since he was a child, anyway, and William had few memories of tears even then. His unstitching must have looked distasteful to Sylvie. Understandably, the combination of reading his embarrassing footnotes and that moment on the bench had been too much—too much what, he wasn’t sure—for Sylvie to take.

a mo th later, rose announced she was moving to Florida, and the sisters gathered the following evening at William and Julia’s apartment. William wanted to be helpful but didn’t know how. He sat in the armchair and watched the four sisters roam the living room. The women shared the same crease between their eyebrows and the same need for movement. They passed Izzy back and forth among them, even though the baby kicked and wriggled in their arms.

“She’s working on crawling,” Cecelia said in apology.

“Of course she is.” Julia spoke as if she were running out of air. She was so pregnant she had a hard time filling her lungs. “Izzy’s brilliant.”

None of the women smiled, because Julia wasn’t joking and they all agreed with her.

“What can we do?” Emeline said. “If Mama wants to leave, we can’t stop her.”

“She might not like Florida. She might come back,” Sylvie said.

William had made eye contact with Sylvie very briefly when she arrived. They exchanged a nod that felt like shorthand for: I saw you that night, and you saw me, but we’re fine. Since Sylvie had moved out, William was careful to never be alone with her. He’d finally

regained some sense of momentum that allowed him to get through his days, and he didn’t want to lose it. Also, he’d seen Sylvie’s emotions as if they were drawn all over her body, and that seemed alarmingly intimate, as if he’d seen her without clothes. William didn’t understand what had happened between him and his sister-in-law on the bench that night, but it felt dangerous, like a shining dagger that could cut through his life as if it were made of paper.

He scanned the other women in the room. No one here had ever been to Florida or even on an airplane. Rose already had her ticket. William had looked in the local real estate section of the newspaper that morning and seen that her house was on the market, for far more than he would have thought it was worth.

“I can’t believe she’s leaving now,” Julia said. “She’ll probably miss the baby being born.”

Izzy was passed from Sylvie to Julia. Julia kissed the baby girl’s cheek and then nuzzled her face into her neck.

The three other sisters looked distressed, their eyes on their oldest sister; Julia was their leader, and she didn’t have a plan. William felt a surge of annoyance at them for expecting Julia to fix this. His wife was having a hard time sleeping, and her back hurt all the time. “I feel like the baby is crowding me out,” she’d told William that morning at breakfast. She looked uncomfortable and swollen every minute of the day.

“Older people often move south when they retire,” he said, and noticed that his deeper, male voice sounded odd in the room. “It’s very common. This isn’t bad news necessarily…you just weren’t expecting it.”

There was a beat of silence. No one met his eyes. He wondered if he had no credibility on the subject because his own family tree had shriveled so prematurely. Or did he lack credibility simply because he was a man in his armchair, like Charlie had been?

William looked down at his weak knee.

“Would anyone like something to eat?” Julia said. “We have pasta. Or eggs?”

“This has been a hard year.” Emeline sounded like she was delivering a speech she hadn’t written and didn’t fully believe in. “But we’ll be fine by ourselves. We’ll take care of one another. I arranged my college classes to be at night, so I can work full-time, and I got a raise at the daycare. Cecelia and I will be able to move into our own place soon.”

“I’m painting murals on the walls at the daycare,” Cecelia said. “And if that works out, I’ll do the same at other daycares and maybe schools.”

“You two”—Emeline gestured at Julia and William—“are doing wonderfully. Sylvie is about to be an official librarian, the best one in the city.”

“We’re still lucky,” Sylvie said tentatively, as if testing out the twins’ hypothesis.

“We’ll make it through this,” Julia said.

William walked into the kitchen to boil water for pasta and to hide the fact that he was moved by how the sisters had just knit themselves back together in front of him. He felt alone, in front of the sink, with a rickety knee and a palpitating heart. He cooked the pasta, added the refrigerated marinara sauce Julia had made earlier in the week, and brought the bowl to the table. Emeline jumped up to get plates and utensils.

“Thank you,” Julia said, and he saw the gratitude in her eyes. “I’m just going for a walk,” he said. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

The four sisters regarded him, and the baby gave a sudden happy shout, which made the women smile in his direction before turning to Izzy. William left the brightly lit apartment and closed his eyes with relief to find himself alone in the purple twilight. He thought for a moment of his book, but it was behind him, indoors, and he didn’t want to return until everyone but Julia was gone.

He looked at his watch; there would be a pickup game going on at the gym or perhaps a late team practice. He crossed the campus in long strides, gulping the night air. He would take his regular seat in the bleachers and scan the gaits, leaps, and landings of young men, looking for future injuries. Every weakness he was able to spot on the basketball court could be fixed.

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