Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Standard Deviation

Described by publisher Knopf as a novel of love, marriage, infidelity and origami, Standard Deviation will delight readers  who fell in love with Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Katherine Heiny’s Audra has a similarly quirky and irrepressible personality, but here we witness her husband of 12 years as he watches in wonder (and concern) as this second wife seeks to connect with his first. Washington DC-based Katherine will appear on Saturday, May 20, at 4:15pm, on a Gaithersburg Book Festival panel. Then on Sunday, June 11, at 12:30pm, she will do a Columbia Book Festival reading. On Friday, June 2, at 7pm, she will be at Politics and Prose, and on Wednesday, June 14, at 6:30pm, she will be at Kramerbooks. Here is Chapter One of Standard Deviation.

IT HAD BEGUN to seem to Graham, in this, the twelfth year of his second marriage, that he and his wife lived in parallel universes. And worse, it seemed his universe was lonely and arid, and hers was densely populated with armies of friendsand acquaintances and other people he did not know.

Here they were grocery shopping in Fairway on a Saturday morning, a normal married thing to do together—although, Graham could not help noticing, they were not doing it together. His wife, Audra, spent almost the whole time talking to people she knew—it was like accompanying a visiting dignitary of some sort, or maybe a presidential hopeful—while he did the normal shopping.

First, in the produce section, they saw some woman with a baby in a stroller and Audra said, “Oh, hi! How are you? Are you going to that thing on Tuesday?” and the woman said, “I don’t know, because there’s that other meeting,” and Audra said, “I thought that got canceled,” and the woman said, “No, it’s still on,” and Audra said, “I wish they wouldn’t double-book this stuff,” and the woman said, “I know,” and Audra said, “Well, if we don’t go, will everyone say bad things about us?” and the woman said, “Probably,” and it wasn’t that Graham wasn’t paying attention, it wasn’t that he missed the specifics—it was that there were no specifics, that was the way they actually talked.

He took his time thumping melons and picking over grapefruit and was actually rewarded for being forced to linger by remembering to buy green grapes, which weren’t on the list.

“Who was that?” he asked when Audra rejoined him.

“Who?” She was peering into the shopping cart.

“That woman you just said hello to.”

“Oh, she has a girl in Matthew’s class,” Audra said, selecting an apple. “And a five-year-old and a toddler and that baby, if

Author Katherine Heiny. / Photo by Leila Barbaro.

you can believe it. But no more, because when the baby was only a week old, she had her husband get a vasectomy. Just made the arrangements and woke him that morning and said, ‘Guess what? You’ve got a doctor’s appointment.’ And he went!”

She took a bite of the apple. Audra was forty-one—a slender woman with a not-quite-perfectly oval face. In fact, Graham sometimes thought, all of Audra was not-quite. Her eyes were not quite brown but had stalled at hazel, her lips were not quite full enough to be lush, her eyebrows were not quite high enough to be called arched, her chin-length hair was not quite auburn, and its messy waves were not quite ringlets. She’d worn her hair this length for as long as Graham had known her. Apparently, if she cut it shorter, it curled up around her face and made her head look overly round, and if she grew it longer, the ends got too heavy and she had to have lots of layers put in. (This was marriage: you started out thinking you’d married the most interesting person in all the world and twelve years later, your head was full of useless hair facts. Of course, there was other stuff in there—some milestones, having a baby, buying a house—but that was basically the essence of it.) Audra was not quite beautiful but her liveliness kept her far away from plain.

One aisle over, in the breakfast cereals department, Audra suddenly stopped the cart. A young man behind them glared but Audra paid no attention.

“Oh! Hey!” Audra said. “Look! Hello! Hi! Whoa! How are you?” You would have thought she was greeting a whole soccer team instead of one lady in a T-shirt and jeans with her hair pulled back into a bun.

“Hello, Audra,” the lady said.

“So sorry I missed yoga this morning, Beverly!” Audra said. She cleared her throat. “Or, um, I mean, Maninder Prem. Sorry, again, I forgot that you go by your spiritual name now, right? Even in the supermarket?”

“You can call me Beverly,” the lady said neutrally. “But please remember that I have a no-refund policy for late cancellations and no-shows.”

“Of course,” Audra said. “It’s just that this morning we had a slight—well, I don’t know if you would call it a family emergency, more of a family situation—regarding my mother-in-law and an ancient jar of capers in her fridge and a trip to the hospital—”

Audra’s tendency to lie could still shock Graham. His mother lived in Ohio, and as far as he knew, she was perfectly healthy, although she did have a habit of leaving things in the refrigerator for a terrifyingly long time.

“I’m sorry to hear that—” Beverly said. There seemed to be more to say but she wasn’t saying it.

“Yes—” Audra said. There seemed to be more for her to say, too, but she wasn’t saying it, either. Finally, she made a fluttery little gesture and said, “Beverly, this is my husband, Graham. Graham, this is my yoga teacher, Beverly.”

Graham smiled politely and shook hands with Beverly, who looked him up and down, her eyelids flickering. He was fifteen years older than Audra and he could tell that Beverly was thinking, Oh, it’s one of those marriages. Graham wanted to tell her that it wasn’t one of those marriages, that his relationship with Audra was so special and unique even he didn’t know what it was, but he’d given up on trying to communicate that long ago. He was tall and in good shape, with the hair at his temples just starting to go gray, but he suddenly felt tempted to stand up straighter. (Was it just Graham or was Beverly awfully judgmental, especially for a yoga teacher?)

“So anyway,” Audra said, “see you next week, Beverly.”

They moved on, and as soon as they went around the corner and out of sight, Audra said, “I completely forgot about yoga this morning!” as though that hadn’t been as obvious as a bumper sticker.

“I think Beverly could tell that,” Graham said.

Audra sighed. “Maybe so. I don’t know why I ever thought yoga class early on a Saturday morning was such a good idea. I guess I must have been feeling particularly empowered when I signed up.”

They saw their appliance repairman, Brady Shannon, in the ice cream aisle, and Graham knew that Audra would have an extra-long talk with Brady because she believed that if you were very, very nice to repairmen, they responded very, very quickly the next time you needed something repaired. The fact that this theory had proved very, very untrue had not shaken her belief in the practice.

“Brady Shannon!” Audra exclaimed.

“Well, hello, Ms. Daltry, Mr. Cavanaugh,” Brady said. He was a slight, balding man wearing a gray sweat suit and those black padded kneepads that skateboarders wear. Every time Graham had seen him, Brady was wearing those kneepads, presumably because he was always having to get down and crawl around people’s refrigerators and washing machines.

“I was thinking of you just this morning,” Audra said. “In fact, I think of you every morning when I get in the shower!” Brady had recently fixed their shower head. “I think, This feels heavenly and I owe it all to Brady Shannon!

Brady smirked at Audra and rocked a little on the balls of his feet.

Not for the first time, Graham wondered if there was some sort of processing unit—some sort of filter—missing from Audra’s brain. She said things like this all the time without realizing how they sounded, and now here was poor Brady Shannon, getting turned on in Frozen Foods.

“Anyway,” Audra said, oblivious, “how have you been?”

“Oh.” Brady sounded disappointed. He probably hoped that Audra would go on describing what she did in the shower. “I’m all right.”

Audra touched Brady’s arm. “And please tell me how dear Ellen is.”

Okay, now first of all, Graham happened to know that Audra didn’t say things like “dear Ellen.” Except that she just did. Second, Graham would have bet that Brady didn’t like it when people said things like “dear Ellen.” But he had just liked it when Audra said it. Third, Ellen was a cat.

“She’s coming along, I guess.”

“Bladder infections can be very serious,” Audra said.

“Don’t I know it,” Brady said, shaking his head and tsking. Audra and Brady talked some more about dear Ellen’s urinary tract, and health problems among the elderly cat population in general, and the astronomical cost of veterinary care, and Brady’s aunt Linda, who had had a bad run of UTIs herself recently, and the time Audra drank cranberry juice nonstop for a week and turned out not to have a UTI at all and—

Finally, finally, they got to the checkout lines.

Audra said, “Now, let me see if Jordan’s working. Oh, yes, he is! Let’s get in his line. Come this way.”

“Who’s Jordan?” Graham asked, maneuvering their cart with some difficulty.

“The checkout guy.”

“Well, yes, but why do we need to be in his line?”

“Just a minute,” Audra said. “Here.” She pulled the front of the cart to a checkout line near the door. The customer in front of them was just putting the last of her groceries on the conveyor belt.

“Audra,” Graham said again. “Why—”

Audra squeezed around the front of their grocery cart so that she was standing right next to Graham and spoke in a low voice. “I thought I told you this but maybe not.” Her breath on his face was as warm and soft as clover. “I was here a couple of weeks ago and Jordan was ringing up this man’s produce and the man had bought some pears but Jordan accidentally hit the wrong button and rang them up as these superexpensive Asian pears and the man got very huffy—he really was the most awful man, Graham, very coarse and uncaring—and told Jordan to take the Asian pears off his order and Jordan tried but he’d never done it before and the cash register froze and they had to call the supervisor and the man hollered at Jordan and stormed off without even buying his groceries! I thought Jordan was going to cry. I honestly did. He can’t be more than twenty, and he’s so sweet and defenseless-looking. So, anyway, now I always make sure to go through his checkout line and tell him what a good job he’s doing.”

Perhaps this was the fundamental difference between them.

Audra was worried about Jordan’s self-esteem and Graham was wondering if Fairway still had the special Asian pears. If so, should he go get some so they could have Korean short ribs with pear marinade for dinner?

Audra edged back to the front of the cart and began unloading their groceries onto the conveyor. Graham peered around her to look at Jordan. He was a tall skinny African-American guy with neatly cornrowed hair and the large scared eyes of a deer. He was painstakingly checking out the purchases of the customer in front of them.

When they got up to the cash register, Audra said, “Good morning, Jordan!” so suddenly that Jordan fumbled the can of peas he was holding and had to lean down behind the counter to pick it up off the floor.

He looked at Audra cautiously. “Good morning.” He began scanning items.

“How are you, Jordan?”

Jordan paused, a bottle of ketchup in his hand. “Pretty good.” He scanned the ketchup and reached for a box of cereal.

“I was hoping you’d be working today,” Audra said. “You always do such a good job.”

Jordan stopped again. It was clear he couldn’t work the register and talk at the same time. Graham estimated that they had at least fifty items in their cart. So if each conversational exchange took thirty seconds—

“Thanks,” Jordan said finally.

He scanned a carton of orange juice and a box of pasta—Grham’s hopes rose microscopically—before Audra said, “You’re so efficient!”

 

Jordan stopped. Graham sighed. The man in line behind Graham sighed, too.

Jordan swallowed nervously. His neck poked out of the too- large collar of his tan uniform, narrow and vulnerable. “Thank you, ma’am,” he whispered.

“Audra,” Graham said quickly.

“Hmmm?”

“We forgot to get Parmesan cheese.”

She frowned slightly. “Did we? You want to run back and get some?”

That was the last thing Graham wanted to do, but at least Jordan had managed to scan another three items while Audra was distracted.

“I think we also forgot toothpaste,” he began again, but she had already turned back to Jordan.

“Excellent, Jordan!” Audra told him. “Look at you go!”

(Try to imagine having sex with someone so universally encouraging. It was, like almost everything about Audra, both good and bad.)

Graham sighed again and rested his elbows on the handle of the cart.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

They had left Matthew, their ten-year-old son, at home with Bitsy, and when they got back from the supermarket, they found that Bitsy and Matthew had built a domino line through every room in the apartment, including the bathrooms.

Bitsy had been living in their den for about three weeks. It wasn’t accurate to say a friend of theirs named Bitsy or even Audra’s friend Bitsy because Graham had never seen Bitsy before she moved in and Audra had only met her a handful of times at book club. Graham had thought the only people named Bitsy were bubbly teenagers, but this Bitsy was in her early fifties—with a long, narrow face and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and the sinewy body of a devoted runner. She looked more like a greyhound than like someone named Bitsy.

The reason (if you could call it that) Bitsy was living in their den was because about six months ago, Audra, who was a freelance graphic designer, went to deliver a mock-up of a menu to a restaurant client in midtown and when she came out of the restaurant’s office, she happened to see Bitsy’s husband—she recognized him from the time Bitsy hosted book club—having lunch with a twenty-something girl in a miniskirt. (Audra had described the girl to Graham at length and was apparently upset because the girl was wearing a pair of knee-high Frye leather boots that Audra had tried on once and had been unable to get zipped over her calves.) Graham had told her that there might be an innocent reason for Bitsy’s husband to be having lunch with a girl in a miniskirt, but Audra’d just given him a withering look, and then about a month ago, Bitsy’s husband had moved to Ithaca on a creative sabbatical. (“Creative sabbatical?” Audra’d said to Graham. “He’s a bank manager! I never heard of anything so suspicious in my whole entire life.”) Audra had felt so bad—so responsible in some weird way, she said—that she’d offered to let Bitsy move in even though Bitsy and her husband owned a nice brownstone in Brooklyn. Bitsy didn’t like to live alone.

“Hey, honey,” Audra said to Matthew now, carefully stepping over the line, “some kids are playing in the lobby. Why don’t you join them?”

She said this type of thing at least once a day, apparently not having realized in ten years that Matthew was not a social person, that he would never go and join some kids who were already playing. He probably wouldn’t go even if the kids came to the door and asked for him. He was like Graham, not like Audra, and Graham thought that sometimes they both frustrated her endlessly.

“I don’t want to,” Matthew said. “Me and Bitsy are going out to buy batteries for her camera and then she’s going to film it when I knock over the domino line.”

“Okay,” Audra said, and sighed.

“Thanks, Bitsy,” Graham said.

She smiled at him. “No problem.”

Bitsy and Matthew left. Graham followed Audra into the kitchen and began unpacking the groceries. “How’s it going with Bitsy and her husband these days?” he asked.

“Oh, he’s still feeding her all this nonsense about the creative sabbatical,” Audra said. “And she believes it! I honestly don’t think she understands that she and Ted are acting out this sort of cliché. I don’t think she knows that men have been making fools of themselves chasing around after girls in miniskirts for hundreds of years.”

“You seem to be forgetting that you were a miniskirt girl yourself,” Graham said. “My miniskirt girl, in fact.”

“Oh, I never forget that,” Audra said. “That’s how I understand about these things, insider knowledge.”

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

It was true that Audra had a lot of insider knowledge. And it seemed like everyone wanted to trade on it. Sometimes Graham felt like he was married to Warren Buffett. Well, a female Warren Buffett who knew about everything except finance. (Maybe Audra and Warren Buffett should be married to each other and have every possible base covered. They would be the most sought-after couple in the world.)

People came to Audra for advice—well, no, not advice, that was the wrong word. They came to her for secrets, for gossip, for connections—for intel, that was the term—about everything. Friends sought her expertise on their job interviews, on their children’s chances of getting into private schools, on marriage counselors, on hairdressers, on au pairs, on restaurants, on shops, on neighborhood watches, on gyms, on doctors, on internet providers. People asked her about local politics and she didn’t even know who the mayor of New York City was! (Well, she probably did know who the mayor was, but it wasn’t a certainty by any means.)

Right now, Audra’s friend Lorelei had called and said she was on her way up to ask Audra’s advice about a client meeting.

Lorelei was Audra’s best friend, had been her best friend since they were both twenty. She lived on the third floor of their building and Graham sometimes saw her in the lobby and about once a month Lorelei and her husband and Audra and Graham had dinner together, and they often spent Thanksgiving together, so Graham saw Lorelei fairly often, but it felt like he was married to her because for fourteen years now, Audra had been giving him Lorelei’s opinion on everything along with her own. “Lorelei thinks you’re too old for me, but I don’t,” she’d said when he first met her. Or “Lorelei and I both think you shouldn’t have given in to your first wife about those maintenance fees.”

Audra did this constantly, and not just to Graham. She even did it to people in shops and restaurants, saying, “Lorelei would never pay so much for a jacket, but I love it,” or “Lorelei and I both like scallops so I’ll try the special.” (Did people think she was schizophrenic and referring to some person only she could see? Graham wondered suddenly. Or did they think she had multiple personalities and Audra was the dominant self who spoke for both?)

The buzzer sounded and Graham went to let Lorelei in.

“Hey, Graham,” Lorelei said, and smiled. She was a petite, dark-haired woman with freckles and the greenest eyes Graham had ever seen.

Graham knew Lorelei’s opinions on everything from their bathroom tiles (too dark) to his mother (passive-aggressive) to his recipe for beef stew (beyond delicious), and all of that was very tedious, but he also knew some interesting things about her. He knew that she was saddened by the invention of colored contact lenses because now everyone assumed she wore them, and that her husband had made her cry once by making fun of the way she walked in high heels, and that when she was fifteen, she had made out with her boyfriend in a lake and when the boyfriend ejaculated, his semen had floated to the surface and followed them around like a jellyfish.

Of course, Graham realized that it must work the other way around and that Lorelei must know everything about him, too, but he had always sort of enjoyed that. How many people could have such intimate knowledge of another person and yet never really say anything beyond The salmon here really is excellent? It sometimes stirred in Graham a profound affection for Lorelei.

And yet, even Lorelei, who was a client service director with a big social advertising agency, was here, humbly seeking knowledge from Audra, a part-time graphic designer!

It was not the graphic designer bit that made it odd to Graham that someone would want Audra’s advice because he actu- ally thought Audra was very talented. And it wasn’t the part-time thing, either, because that was sort of necessary at least until Matthew went to high school (or possibly until Matthew got married, at age forty-five). It was more just Audra, who had recently wondered aloud to Graham where the fuse box was (they’d lived in their apartment for ten years) and had often said she considered herself privileged to live in the age of the hair towel.

But there was no doubt that Audra knew people, and she knew things about people, and often she knew things about people who knew other people who knew people who had brothers who worked in the State Department and it was very helpful when your passport got stolen.

Lorelei went into the living room to talk to Audra, and Graham went into the kitchen to make tea for all of them. He knew just how Lorelei took hers—a single Ceylon tea bag, steeped for four minutes, with one sugar and a dash of lemon. He even knew which mug she preferred—an old-fashioned turquoise one with white enamel lining—and that she liked gingersnaps with her tea, although they didn’t have any gingersnaps right now.

Graham liked making tea. He liked cooking, he liked baking, he liked food, he liked kitchens. In another life, he would have made an excellent owner of a safe house in the Underground Railroad. He would have always been happy to get up in the middle of the night and poke up the fire, listen to the fugitives’ tales while he fried ham steaks and made hot biscuits. And although Graham had been a teenager in the seventies and never attended a consciousness-raising group, the idea had always deeply appealed to him. Political activism while you stirred the spaghetti sauce? What could be better?

He had started out as a medical researcher—Graham liked routine and order—and now he was in charge of medical ven- tures for a venture capitalist firm. There was just no market for underground safe houses anymore.

“So this very junior person in our office,” Lorelei was saying to Audra, “basically the girl who makes the coffee, tweeted something without approval—”

“What did she tweet?” Audra asked.

“Oh, just something about how the clients’ shoes are guaranteed not to give you blisters,” Lorelei said. “She didn’t realize the word guarantee was legally binding language and now the clients are furious, and I have to meet with them tomorrow.”

“Who are the clients?” Audra asked.

“Superguardian Footwear,” Lorelei said.

“Just a sec, let me look them up,” Audra said, and there was the muted clatter of her laptop keyboard.

Graham tried to remember how conversations like this went in the pre-Google world and found he couldn’t, although the pre-Google world was only what, ten or twelve years ago? (Some people, like his mother, still lived there.) Before Google, it seemed to Graham, there was probably a great deal more topic changing. Or maybe conversations were just shorter. Maybe you said, Have you ever heard of a company called Superguardian Footwear? and the other person said, No, and you said, Oh. Well, anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow. 

“All right,” Audra said in that half-present, half-absent sort of voice people use when they’re looking at a computer screen and talking at the same time. “Let’s see. Here’s their website—wow, I really do not like that color blue.”

“Go to their company page,” Lorelei said. “Maybe you know the vice president or someone.” She sighed. “I wish you could go to this meeting for me, the way you broke up with Jeff Mayberry for me in college.”

Audra sounded puzzled. “I broke up with Jeff Mayberry for you?”

“Oh my God, yes, don’t you remember?”

“No, not at all.”

“I wanted to break up with him,” Lorelei said, “but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So you and I were doing a lot of role play and pretend phone calls, with you being me and me being Jeff, but whenever he called, I couldn’t quite do it, and finally you got impatient, and the next time he called, you pretended to be me and said, ‘Listen, Jeff, I’m just in kind of a crazy situation and I can’t see you anymore.’ ”

“Did it work?” Audra sounded amused.

“Yes!” Lorelei said. “That’s the most amazing thing about it.”

“Jeff couldn’t have been that attached if he didn’t even recognize your voice—”

“I can’t believe this,” Lorelei interrupted. “I have, for years—literally, for decades—been going around telling people I couldn’t do things because I’m in kind of a crazy situation. It’s been my all-purpose answer to almost every awkward question and now I find out you don’t even remember saying it.”

“Who all have you said it to?” Audra asked.

“Everyone!” Lorelei said. “I’m sure I’ve said it to people who were collecting money for UNICEF, and my mother-in-law when she asks why I haven’t had children.”

This was the pleasure of twenty-year-old friendships, Graham thought. Tracing a memory back to its source. Like following a stream through the woods and up a mountain until you find the spring trickling from a rock and you clear away the dead brown leaves of the intervening years and the water flows as sweetly as ever.

Audra’s voice came clearly from the living room. “Really, the only connection I have at Superguardian—and it’s not much help—is that their chief operations officer is a man named Columbus Knox and I believe I gave a man by that name a blow job once outside the Raccoon Lodge in, like, 1990.”

“What?” Graham said, startled.

“It was a long time ago,” Audra called soothingly. “And I didn’t know him terribly well.”

You know, actually, it was nothing like being married to Warren Buffett at all.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

The very next day, a woman ahead of Graham in line at the deli ordered a Reuben sandwich with French dressing instead of Russian, and Graham recalled that his ex-wife had often ordered that very sandwich, and then he realized the woman was his ex-wife. How could he not have recognized the back of her head? The long slender neck and smoothly gathered French twist? Her hair was the color of corn silk and Graham knew that it felt like corn silk, too—so soft it seemed to disintegrate when you rubbed the strands between your fingers.

“Elspeth?” he said. (“Stupid name,” Audra had once commented, she of the friends named Bitsy and Lorelei.)

The woman turned and yes, it was definitely Elspeth, same blue eyes, same pale face and delicate eyebrows. She looked older, but of course, she was older. Her skin seemed very slightly grainy, like the finest grade of sandpaper, like tiny calcium deposits on an eggshell. He realized abruptly that his eyes were crawling over her face and how unpleasant that must be. He forced himself to stop.

“Graham,” she said. She didn’t say anything else. He was glad she had her hands full—napkins, a can of soda, and a glass— because that prevented him from having to hug her or shake hands with her. He wasn’t sure which he’d do anyway. Did you shake hands with someone you’d been married to for eight years?

A silence spread between them like a puddle of oil, shiny and dangerous. Graham was certain that if he looked down, he would see his shoes beginning to blacken.

But then the deli guy slapped Elspeth’s sandwich on the counter. She turned to Graham. “Why don’t you join me?”

“That would be great,” Graham said. “You go find a table and I’ll order a sandwich and be right with you.”

He ordered his sandwich in such a slow, distracted manner that the deli guy kept sighing and rolling his eyes. Graham was busy trying to remember how many times he’d seen Elspeth since their divorce. Not many. Once he’d passed her going through the turnstiles at the Columbus Circle subway station—she was coming in and he was going out. She hadn’t seen him but he had glimpsed her expression and she’d looked so unhappy that he’d stopped and turned to watch until she was out of sight down the stairs. He’d told himself that she wasn’t unhappy about him. They’d been divorced for four years at that point. She could have been unhappy about anything. And then once when he’d gone to the funeral of a mutual friend. Elspeth had been sitting near the front of the funeral chapel, tall and slim and regal in a black suit. Somebody must have whispered to her that Graham was there, because she had swiveled her head—like a pale blond swan breaking formation—to stare at him. Then she’d looked forward again, and Graham, furtive as a poisoner, had slipped out before the service was over.

The deli guy handed him his sandwich—Graham was so flustered, he almost forgot to pay for it—and he joined Elspeth at a table in the corner.

She smiled when he sat down and Graham recognized the smile. It was a gracious, for-company smile that she put on sometimes, the way another woman might get out her Spode china or whip the dustcovers off the best sofa.

Graham smiled back and then took a big bite of his sandwich to buy himself some time.

“So,” Elspeth said. “How are Audra and Andrew?”

Now Graham regretted the big bite because he had to chew for a while before he could answer.

“They’re good,” he said at last. He didn’t bother to correct her about Matthew’s name because he wasn’t sure if she’d said the wrong name as some sort of passive-aggressive thing. “And you? How are work and—things?”

“Work is good,” Elspeth said, lifting her sandwich with long fingers. She was a lawyer at a midtown firm.

“Still at Stover, Sheppard?” Graham asked.

“Oh, yes.”

“And do you still live in the same apartment?” It occurred to him suddenly that he didn’t know her address or phone number or email. He had a moment of disconnect—was she even real? What tethered her to the world?

“Actually, I’m moving,” Elspeth said. “Or trying to. I want to buy a place in that building over on Seventy-sixth and York? It’s called the Rosemund. Do you remember that?”

Graham nodded, although he didn’t.

“Well, anyway, I want to buy there but it’s very tough—the board has to approve you.”

“I can’t imagine a better tenant than you,” Graham said sincerely, and then faltered for a second. He had been married to this woman, and the best thing he could say about her was that she’d make a fabulous tenant?

“I’ve heard they don’t like lawyers,” Elspeth said. “Too litigious.”

Graham had a sudden flash of how Elspeth would come across in an interview: cold, hard, perfectionistic. Her favorite drink was a gimlet, and she was not unlike a gimlet herself, in either sense of the word.

“Anyway,” she said. “What about you? Where do you live?”

Graham told her about his apartment and they compared mortgage rates.

There didn’t really seem to be anything to say but they both still had half a sandwich to go, so they talked about the privatization of workers’ comp in West Virginia and Nevada, and pretty much the only personal thought Graham had was that she was still the tidiest eater he knew.

When he told Audra that night that he’d seen Elspeth, she got so excited that she accidentally poured half a bottle of syrup onto the waffle she’d made for Matthew.

“I can’t eat that,” Matthew said.

“Sure you can.” Audra put it in front of him. To Graham, she said, “What did she look like? What did she say?”

“Is it going to be squishy?” Matthew asked. He wouldn’t eat anything squishy, or lumpy, or crispy, or spicy, or really any food that could be described by an interesting adjective.

“If it is, I’ll make you another one,” Audra said absently. “Tell me, Graham!”

“Well, she looked the same, only sort of older,” he said slowly. “She still wears her hair the same way.”

“And?” Audra prompted.

“And what?”

Audra made an impatient gesture. “What’s her life like? Is she happy? Why has she never remarried? What does she do for sex?” Graham glanced at Matthew, who was, amazingly, eating the soggy waffle.

“Well, I don’t think I want to know the answers to any of that,” he said finally.

“Then what was the point of even having lunch with her?” Audra asked. “You could have had a more meaningful conversation with someone at a bus stop!”

That was Audra’s view. But Graham was not so sure. He thought that sometimes just having a polite conversation with someone, just surviving thirty minutes in that person’s company, just realizing that that person did not dislike you enough to sit at a separate table—sometimes that was a major triumph all on its own.

In a way, it was very nice having Bitsy live in their den, because she was so good with Matthew. She was unfazed by Matthew’s picky eating, and patient with his slowness at homework, and gentle with his refusal to pick up his room. And she had endless energy for origami and paper airplanes and dominoes, which were Matthew’s main passions, and which Graham and Audra had tired of long ago.

And in a way it was not very nice having Bitsy live in their den, because Audra knew about the miniskirt girl and Bitsy didn’t. The trick was not to reveal it, but Audra felt they had this responsibility to bring Bitsy around to the idea, slowly and gently.

“I think that’s Bitsy’s husband’s responsibility,” Graham said.

“But he’s not doing it!” Audra protested. “He gives her all this nonsense about the sabbatical and she believes him. She’s in denial.”

And so they had long awkward dinner conversations with Bitsy during which Audra tried to bring Bitsy around to acceptance—a process akin to steering a river with a spatula.

“Tell me more about Ted’s sabbatical,” Audra would say.

“I don’t really know,” Bitsy would answer placidly. “He says it’s very private. He does a lot of yoga.”

“What else?”

“I think it also involves massage therapy.”

“I’m sure it does,” Audra would say and Graham would bite back a groan.

Or Audra would say, casually twirling spaghetti with her fork, “Is it, um, common for bank managers to take creative sabbaticals?”

“Ted’s the only bank manager I know,” Bitsy said. “His company has been very generous.”

Twirl, twirl. “Where does he live in Ithaca?”

“A very small studio,” Bitsy said. “He sleeps on a futon and uses a board on sawhorses for a desk.”

“That sounds like a young person’s apartment,” Audra said.

“Yes, it does,” Bitsy agreed calmly.

“It sounds like, well—like an apartment a girl in her twenties might have.”

“He’s subletting from a college student.”

Audra made interested eyes over a mouthful of spaghetti. “A female college student?”

Bitsy nodded. “Yes, her name is Jasmine.”

“Jasmine what?”

“I don’t know,” Bitsy said, cutting her spaghetti. (You sort of knew ahead of time that she was a pasta cutter the way you knew Audra was a pasta twirler.)

Audra looked disappointed. Graham was sure she’d hoped to do some pleasurable Jasmine cyberstalking. He cleared his throat to indicate a change of topic, but Audra was not so easily diverted.

“You should go visit Ted,” she said to Bitsy.

“Oh, no,” Bitsy said. “I don’t want to intrude on his creative process.”

“A surprise visit!” Audra said. “Think how romantic—”

“More garlic bread, Bitsy?” Graham asked. “More wine? More water? More butter? No? Matthew, what about you? Well, I know you don’t drink wine—that goes without saying—but water? And tell us about school! What happened today?”

And on and on, until his voice rasped.

Later that night in the bathroom, he said to Audra, “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

“Do what?” she asked, clipping her hair back.

“Have those conversations with Bitsy.” Graham began brushing his teeth and then stopped. “What if she actually agreed to go to Ithaca and surprise Ted? Think of the mess you’d make.”

“I can’t help it,” Audra said. “She’s so delusional!”

“You know that business about leading a horse to water,” Graham said, rinsing his toothbrush. “You just can’t make it drink.”

“But you can pop an ice cube into the horse’s mouth!” Audra protested. “You can moisten the horse’s lips with a wet wash- cloth! That’s all I’m trying to do here—just prepare Bitsy ever so slightly for the inevitable.”

She turned on the taps in her sink and began soaping her face.

There were other questions about Bitsy, lots of them. Was she really so blind when it came to Ted? Would it, in fact, be better for her to know the truth? What if she didn’t want to know the truth? What if they told her and by some miracle, Ted actually was on a sabbatical? How long was Bitsy going to live in their den? Why was Bitsy here if Audra didn’t even like her? Why did someone from Brooklyn belong to a Manhattan book club? Was it true that she could run an eight-minute mile?

Don’t ask Graham about any of it. He didn’t have a fucking clue.

To be totally honest, Audra wasn’t the only one who enjoyed a good cyberstalking session. Right now, right this second, Graham was the one settling down at the dining room table with his laptop and that first magical whisky of the evening, preparing to devote half an hour—thirty minutes of his life that he could never ever reclaim!—to cyberstalking his ex-wife. And yes, he was looking forward to it.

Again, he wondered, what exactly did people do before the internet? Oh, all sorts of studies existed about how people used to read more books or watch more TV or make more telephone calls or snowshoe or keep bees or make marmalade, but Graham was not sure he believed those studies. It seemed to him that people still read a lot of books and watched a lot of TV and talked on their cellphones all the damn time, especially in restaurants when you were trying to read the newspaper.

Maybe, before the internet, people just lazed around pointlessly more, or threw tennis balls at the wall to hear the pleasant thwock! thwock! sound, or wondered idly what kind of mileage their friends’ cars got. It didn’t seem to Graham any sort of great loss. Not when he could sit here and snoop on his former spouse without even leaving his own living room, and no awkward questions about what you were doing watching the neighbors with binoculars, either (which was what they did instead of searching the internet when Graham was a teenager, now that he thought about it).

Graham took his first sip of whisky and typed Elspeth’s name into the search engine.

“What are you doing?” asked Audra. She was sitting on the couch with her own drink beside her, sewing a badge onto Mat- thew’s Cub Scout uniform.

“Just looking something up,” Graham said absently.

Elspeth didn’t have a Facebook page, but that wasn’t really surprising. If someone asked her if she was on Facebook, she would probably say, “Why do I need to be on Facebook?” (She had always been a conversation-stopper kind of person.)

She wasn’t on Twitter or Instagram, either. Graham had to content himself with going to Stover, Sheppard’s website. There she was: Elspeth Osbourne, partner, mergers and acquisitions. Elspeth’s photograph had been Photoshopped so aggressively that it didn’t even look like her. Maybe it wasn’t her, Graham thought suddenly. Maybe it was just a stock photo of a blond lawyer. He read the little blurb beside her picture: Ms. Osbourne practices in the Mergers and Acquisitions Group. She advises U.S. and international corporate and private equity clients on a full range of transactions . . . 

This was so boring that Graham was beginning to wish he’d spent the last ten minutes throwing a tennis ball at the wall. He took another, bigger drink of whisky and tried to remember the apartment building Elspeth had said she wanted to move into. The Roseland? No, that was a ballroom. The Rosemund, that was it.

And here it was, the Rosemund website, at his fingertips. Graham clicked on some floor plans and photos—chrome, glass, marble, stainless steel. Everything as bright and hard and shiny as the sidewalk after an ice storm. No wonder Elspeth wanted to live there. She had an intense dislike of carpeting—or anything soft, really. Graham clicked on the “Amenities” page. Billiards Room, Concierge, Fitness Center, Heated Outdoor Pool, Parking Garage, Starbucks. Did that mean there was an actual Starbucks in the lobby? Audra would never leave the building if they lived there. He clicked on the somewhat ominously titled “Our Application Process” page and scanned the building’s board of directors.

Then he glanced over at Audra, still sewing in a little pool of lamplight, the auburn in her hair glinting like tinsel.

If you were married to Marie Curie, you might ask her what the atomic weight of lithium was from time to time. Not to keep her on her toes, but just because you could. And now, in that same sort of spirit, Graham said to Audra, “Do you know any of these people?” and he read her the list of board members:

Francis Ray Gordon Richards John Palmer Marco Luxe Connie Sharp

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Audra said. “Marco Luxe is the doctor who delivered Matthew.”

Graham frowned. “I thought that was Dr. Medowski.”

“It was supposed to be Dr. Medowski,” Audra said, holding the shirt closer to the light and then putting it back in her lap, “but he was grouse hunting! Don’t you remember? I called his office to say that my contractions had started and to ask him to meet us at the hospital and his receptionist said, ‘Oh, Dr. Medowski isn’t here, he’s grouse hunting in the Adirondacks,’ and I said, ‘Why on earth does he want a house in the Adirondacks?’ and she said, ‘No, grouse hunting,’ and started telling me about grouse or partridges or what have you, and I’m like, ‘Fine, whatever, but I’m having a baby here and I need Dr. Medowski,’ and she says, ‘Well, you can have Dr. Luxe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want Dr. Luxe, I want Dr. Medowski,’ and she says, ‘It is the first day of grouse season, you know,’ in this very blaming sort of voice, like I should have planned better—”

“Do you think Dr. Luxe would remember you?” Graham asked.

“Oh, I’m sure he would,” Audra said serenely.

Actually, Graham was sure he would, too. Audra had talked nonstop during labor and even through the delivery. He remembered the doctor (apparently it was Dr. Luxe) saying to the nurse, “The epidural has really thrown her for a loop,” and the nurse saying, “No, that’s just her personality.”

“Do you think you could call him?” Graham asked. “And ask him a favor?”

“What sort of favor?”

“For Elspeth.”

“I don’t see why not,” Audra said. She sighed suddenly. “I think I’ve sewn this shirt to my jeans. God, I hate Cub Scouts. Get me another drink, will you?”

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Matthew wanted to join an origami club that met on Sundays at nine in the morning on the Lower East Side that Bitsy had helped him find on the internet. Was it fair to blame Bitsy for this? Would it be fair to ask Bitsy to take Matthew to the club meeting every Sunday for the duration of her stay in their apartment, and possibly years beyond that? No, probably not. Graham sighed and called the number on the website.

Later Graham would tell himself that he knew just from the way Clayton answered the phone that there was something not really—not exactly—not quite—normal about him. But the truth was that he wasn’t really paying that much attention and he didn’t pick up on anything until they were at least four or five exchanges into the conversation.

“Hello,” Graham said. “Can I speak to Clayton Pierce, please?”

“This is Clayton speaking.”

“Well,” Graham said. “I’m calling about the Origami Club—”

“All right, all right, just hold up a second here,” Clayton said. “First, how old are you?”

“I’m calling for my son,” Graham said. “He’s the one who wants to join.”

“And you?” Clayton said. “Do you fold?”

“No,” Graham said, and there was a small frosty silence on the line, the same kind of silence that might follow someone at a swingers’ party asking if you swing.

“I see,” Clayton said. “How old is your son?”

“He’s ten.”

“Mmmm-hmmm,” Clayton said, obviously writing something down. “And his name?”

“Matthew Cavanaugh.”

“Is Matthew aware that we are an invitation-only club?” Clayton asked.

“Well, no,” Graham said, startled. “We didn’t know that.”

“Now, look here,” Clayton said. “This isn’t the YMCA, where any sort of riffraff can walk in and join. We have standards. We’re exclusive. Like White’s in London.”

“Or the Marines,” Graham said. The few. The proud.

“Oh, hey now, I don’t hold with any sort of military action,” Clayton said hotly. “I’m a pacifist and the club is strictly non- political.”

“Yes, of course,” Graham murmured, wondering if it was even possible for an origami club to be political. What were they going to do—fold a fleet of paper airplanes and invade Libya?

“All right, before we can even consider Matthew as a member, I have a few questions,” Clayton said.

Graham, like all parents of special-needs children, had a range of stock phrases that he used when talking about Matthew to other people. The phrases ranged from polite euphemisms (“We prefer to think of him as reserved”) to gentle sidestepping (“He can be very independent in the right circumstances”) to outright lying (“Matthew loves new experiences!”). But the odd thing was that, in this conversation, Graham didn’t need to use any of those phrases, not a single one.

“I assume Matthew can do a general swivel fold,” Clayton said.

“Oh, yes.”

“An open sink?”

“Yes.”

“What about an open double sink?”

“That too.”

Clayton made a reluctant impressed sound. “And a closed sink?”

“I think so,” Graham said, frowning. “He spent weeks learning something called an unsink, or maybe a closed unsink. I can’t remember.”

“Well, there’s a tremendous difference,” Clayton said tartly. “We’re not talking about making omelets here, where you can by guess and by golly. A closed unsink is a very difficult fold.”

“I believe he was making something called a—a tarantula?” Graham said. “Lang’s Tarantula?”

Silence on the other end of the line, except for a slight noise that could have been a pencil tapping. “Is Matthew free this Sunday?” Clayton said at last. “We’d like to meet him.”

“Yes, he is,” Graham said.

Clayton gave him his address and told him to have Matthew there by nine.

Graham hung up feeling absolutely confident that Matthew would dazzle them. He would never admit it, not even to himself, but it was a wholly new sensation.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

War is hell, yes; but so is Cub Scouts. Or at least being the parent of a Cub Scout is. A subtler kind of hell where the people have no sense of irony, and they make you go camping in cold weather, and you have to carve small race cars out of blocks of wood, and sing songs that have a lot of verses, and attend den meetings, and help your child obtain all sorts of useless (and nearly unobtainable) badges. And then, after years of encouraging your kid to like Cub Scouts, you have to quick discourage him from liking it around age twelve so it doesn’t adversely affect his social life. Plus, they ban alcohol.

And now Audra wanted to attend the Cub Scouts party!

“It’s not an official Cub Scouts party,” she said to Graham. “It’s just for adults.”

“Why would we want to go if Matthew isn’t even invited?” Graham asked. Matthew wasn’t invited much of anyplace. It was something that worried him.

“Think of it as networking,” Audra coaxed. “Almost everyone there will be the parent of a boy in Matthew’s class. This is a great way to get to know people and make him feel more a part of things. Besides, I already promised Matthew’s Akela we would go.”

This was another thing about Cub Scouts: you started out using all these scouting terms ironically—Akela, Webelo, woggle, camporee, Okpik—and you ended up using them sincerely. Before you knew it, these words had crept into your vernacular and you said them to prospective clients or sex partners.

So they went to “network,” leaving Matthew with Bitsy, and walking over to the Akela’s very nice eight-room apartment on 108th Street. (The Akela was married to an investment banker.)

The Akela herself answered the door. She was a tall, large-boned woman with sharp blue eyes and blunt-cut blond hair. Graham was used to seeing her in the ill-fitting and unbecoming khaki Scout uniform, but the long red velvet dress she wore now was no more flattering. And what’s more, she had the slightly sweaty, shaky look of someone hosting a party. Graham’s heart went out to her at once.

“Graham! Audra! Welcome!” she cried, and Graham realized he had no clue what the Akela’s name actually was.

“Maxine,” Audra said. “Thank you for having us.”

The Akela was carrying a wineglass—the sight of it lifted Graham’s spirits like a scrap of paper tied to a weather balloon; alcohol wasn’t banned at this party!—which she used to gesture vaguely down the hall. “Just help yourselves to a drink . . . we have, you know, whatever . . . and I’ll introduce you . . .” She trailed off as the buzzer sounded again and took a big swallow from her glass before she answered.

Graham and Audra walked into the living room in search of drinks. Indeed, alcohol was in abundance; in fact, there wasn’t even food. The long white-clothed table in the living room held a huge punch bowl of ruby-red rum punch swimming with raspberries, a tray of frosted tumblers filled with mojitos as cool and green as a shady lawn, another tray of sugar-rimmed cocktail glasses of margaritas garnished with mint, a dozen pineapples cut in half and filled with creamy piña coladas, three fruit-clogged pitchers of sangria, long lines of bubbling champagne glasses, and a towering pyramid of small plastic cups of red Jell-O with a small sign that read Vodka Shots! in a cheerful handwriting propped in front.

Audra helped herself to a margarita and squeezed Graham’s arm. “Network,” she whispered, and slipped away into the crowd. Graham took a glass of champagne and backed up until he was standing against the sideboard. A large man with wide flat hips was standing there, too, talking to another man about how his GPS was getting frustrated with him.

“So it’ll say, ‘When possible, make a legal U-turn,’” the man said. “And if, for some reason, I don’t make a U-turn, it says it again, but with, you know, this little pause, like, ‘I said, when possible, make a legal U-turn.’ It sighs at me.”

The man stepped forward to get another champagne glass and Graham gasped, because the man’s midsection had completely hidden another bar set up behind him, which featured the largest bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky Graham had ever seen in a private residence.

Graham set his untouched champagne aside with a brief apology to the poor starving children in China (or whoever suffered when you wasted alcohol) and filled a cut-glass tumbler with ice. It took both hands to lift the Johnnie Walker bottle, but Graham held it steady as he poured the whisky into the glass. It glowed a soft amber, as fine and warm as your best childhood memory. His respect and admiration for the Akela was growing by leaps and bounds.

Graham took his whisky glass and began to circulate. He approached people standing alone or in groups, introducing him- self, asking about the names and ages of their children, comparing teachers and classroom experiences. He talked to fathers about tuition costs and to mothers about cafeteria food. He talked about math homework and reading logs. It was intensive labor, similar to panning for gold—patiently sifting through sediment and muck while your back ached and cold river water numbed your ankles. The whisky helped, but only so much. Graham didn’t find a gold nugget, but much patient conversation shifting revealed a tiny gold flake: one woman told him that if Matthew wanted to play an instrument in the band, he should choose the trumpet or the French horn because the music teacher sprayed saliva when he talked and it was hard on the woodwinds up there in the front rows.

Graham poured himself another whisky, thinking briefly of the fairy tale where the man’s servant drinks an entire lake, and went in search of Audra. He found her sitting at the kitchen table drinking with the assistant cubmaster, a short burly man with thick gray hair. Graham circled close enough to hear their conversation, and found that she wasn’t networking at all. They weren’t even talking about children or scouting!

“Now, the man who owns the liquor store on Ninety-seventh Street is very kind,” Audra was saying earnestly. “Very caring, very friendly. He always waves at me when I walk by, although once he waved at me when I happened to be walking past with my neighbor Mrs. Gorsky and Mrs. Gorsky said, ‘I don’t think it reflects well on the building’s reputation for you to be so chummy with the liquor store owner,’ and I said, ‘If you’re so worried about appearances, maybe you shouldn’t put a million empties out every Tuesday.’ ”

A bell clanged suddenly in Graham’s head. He hadn’t known this conversation had taken place, but he discovered he was able to pinpoint exactly when it must have occurred: last September, when Mrs. Gorsky had suddenly turned silent and squinty-eyed when he met her at the elevator bank.

“Mrs. Gorsky sounds extremely unpleasant,” the assistant cubmaster said, stretching his arm across the table to add more Don Julio to Audra’s margarita, which was now so strong it was nearly transparent.

“The liquor store on Seventy-fourth is owned by a Serbian couple,” Audra continued. “They aren’t quite as compassionate but they often have better prices.”

The crowd shifted, pushing Graham back out of the kitchen. He talked to someone about furnace maintenance and blocked air vents. He had another whisky and talked to someone about traffic and how at first audiobooks seem like the solution to your commuting nightmare but they’re actually not. He talked to someone else about the Whole Foods and the difficulty of finding kosher M&M’s.

Then he had a long boring (that is to say, even more boring than the previous conversations) discussion about diabetes research with a woman who had what Matthew would call “angry eyebrows,” and at the end, when he said innocently, “Now, whose mother are you?” she got even angrier-looking and said, “You don’t have to be anyone’s wife or mother to have an identity,” and it turned out she was single and from out of town.

He decided it was time to go and went to find Audra, who was still sitting at the kitchen table.

“Wait, wait,” she was saying to the assistant cubmaster. She had a little froth of margarita foam on her upper lip. “Exactly what is the difference between Tinder and Grindr?”

Graham sighed. “I think we should be going,” he said loudly.

Audra and the assistant cubmaster gave him twin looks of annoyance, but he stood firm. Audra shrugged slightly, and the assistant cubmaster pushed back his chair reluctantly.

“It has been my sincere pleasure talking to you,” he said to Audra, clasping one of her hands in both of his.

“Mine—too,” she said warmly, with just a little bit too much space between the words. “A sincere—pleasure.”

It took the combined efforts of Graham and the assistant cubmaster to haul Audra to her feet, and then Graham led her out of the kitchen. He propped her against a bookshelf the way you’d lean a broom against a wall while he checked his pockets to make sure he had his wallet and phone. He waved a hasty good-bye to the Akela across the room and propelled Audra out the door.

In the elevator, Audra pressed the button for the lobby with great concentration.

Graham regarded her silently for a moment. “Did you talk to anyone besides the assistant cubmaster?”

“Hmmm?” Audra peered at him, her eyes beady with tequila.

“I said, did you talk to anyone? Did you network?”

She looked thoughtful. “Well, yes, there was a woman at the beginning of the party. I can’t recall her name, but she had wild frizzy black hair. Did you talk to someone like that?”

Graham shook his head.

“I must say, I found her quite—intrusive,” said Audra, who had once interrupted a complete stranger on a crosstown bus to say that the symptoms she was describing sounded like bacterial vaginitis. “She kept asking what Matthew’s issues were, what medications he takes.”

When the elevator came to a stop, Audra swayed in an alarmingly loose-jointed way, like one of those spring-loaded string animals that collapse when you push the button in the base. Graham took her arm and led her into the street.

He had planned to take a taxi home, but it was no fun having a driver holler at you because your drunken spouse had vomited in the back of his cab. (Graham knew this from experience as bitter as raw aspirin.) They would have to walk. But the weather was fine, and the whisky had stoked a red-hot sort of pleasure-furnace deep within him. Now that he was out of the party, Graham felt like he could walk for miles. He linked his arm through Audra’s.

All hail the Akela, he thought.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

The next morning, Bitsy took Matthew to an origami demonstration at a mall in Garden City and Graham and Audra got to sleep in, which was good, considering Audra’s hangover. Graham got up eventually and walked down to the corner and bought some brioche and two coffees and a hair magazine for Audra.

Audra was pleased by the hair magazine, which she took to be a sign of his love and affection for her, although actually Graham had bought it for the amusement of watching her devour it. She was like a stock analyst studying the big board. He thought Audra had great hair already.

“Any developments with Bitsy and her husband?” he asked. He had to ask once more before she heard him and then she still didn’t take her eyes off the magazine.

“Oh, no, same old, same old,” she said, folding over the corner of a page.

Graham had been wondering lately if it was a good idea to let Bitsy have so much access to Matthew. What if she found out about her husband’s relationship with the miniskirt girl? For all he and Audra knew, Bitsy could decide to run down her husband with their SUV while Matthew serenely folded an F-16 in the backseat. But before he could say anything, the phone rang.

“Oh, hi, Maxine!” said Audra.

So Graham read the newspaper while Audra had a fifteen- minute postmortem of last night’s party. Clearly there were a few blanks in Audra’s memory—“I’m so sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet your husband . . . Oh . . . Did he happen to mention what we talked about?”—but, in general, Audra was very supportive and told the Akela that it was a fabulous party; and no, the Jell-O shots were retro, not vulgar; and Audra was pretty sure everyone there was too old to be posting drunk selfies on social media this morning, so don’t worry about your judgmental colleagues. Then she said, “Tuesday would be super!”

When she hung up, she poked Graham and said, “That was Maxine, wanting to know if Matthew could come over for a play-date with Joey this week. I told you it would pay to network.”

Graham did not know what to say. He wanted to tell her that eventually Matthew was going to have to do this on his own, that she could not get him through life on the force of her own personality. But she was too happy. And she wouldn’t have believed him anyway.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Sadly, Graham was not home when Audra called Dr. Luxe, and so he had to imagine how the conversation went. All Audra told him was that Dr. Luxe was “delighted” to hear from her, that he remembered her “vividly,” that they had a “marvelous” time catching up, and that Dr. Luxe was “tickled pink” to be able to do them the small favor of recommending Elspeth to the Rosemund board. Graham didn’t believe that anyone under the age of seventy—and possibly no male of any age—used the phrase tickled pink, but he supposed that was about the gist of it.

In fact, Audra and Dr. Luxe were now such good friends that Dr. Luxe had invited Audra (and Graham and Matthew, even) to his son’s wedding the next weekend to bulk out the number of guests—something to do with a lot of guests canceling at the last minute.

“I don’t want to go to a wedding where I don’t know the people getting married,” Graham said. “I don’t even want to go to weddings where I do know them.”

It seemed to Graham that one of the benefits of getting older was that your friends stopped getting married and having expensive boring weddings that wrecked your budget and ruined your weekend. (There aren’t a lot of benefits of getting older, but that was one of them. Also: you don’t have to pick up cans and bottles for beer money; and if you stay out late, you don’t have to sneak back into your house through the basement window to avoid waking your parents. That’s pretty much it.)

“You’re the one who wants a favor from him,” Audra said mildly. “Besides, we can give them those horse-head bookends that my cousin Susie gave us as a wedding present.”

“We still have those?”

“Oh, yes,” Audra said. “Somewhere. I didn’t feel right giving them to the thrift store, but I didn’t want to give them to someone we actually liked, so they’ve been hanging around forever.”

And so, a week later, they drove out to Long Island on a perfectly good Saturday, all three of them (or five of them if you counted the horse-head bookends). Audra wore a short pale blue dress with a matching bolero jacket and a big white bow at the collar. This dress had always struck Graham as vaguely pornographic—it looked like a man’s fantasy of what a librarian would wear—but it was very pretty. Matthew was wearing khaki pants and a white shirt with one of Graham’s ties knotted at his throat. He had the same almost-auburn hair as Audra but much thicker and not as curly. Matthew’s hair was Audra’s delight—she said it was so perfect she didn’t even have to brush it.

Graham allowed himself a grudging approval of the wedding venue as he parked the car in the gravel parking lot of the church. The reception would follow immediately in the stately home next door—no drive, no re-parking the car, no waiting around. Ten minutes from wedding vows to a drink in every guest’s hand. Just as it should be.

“Tell me the bride’s and groom’s names again,” Graham whispered to Audra as soon as an usher had seated them.

“Bryant and Michelle,” Audra said in her normal speaking voice. “Bryant went to law school at Georgetown and now he works in multisomething finance in Boston.”

“And Michelle?”

“I know virtually nothing about her,” Audra said, “except that she gets very wet during sex. Don’t fidget, Matthew.”

An elderly couple in the pew in front of them suddenly sat up very straight, and the woman snapped the clasp on her purse shut with a startled click. Graham sighed. Perhaps Audra had once had a filter, but gossip overload had destroyed it.

It turned out to be an old-fashioned wedding with a receiving line, and Graham had to shake hands with the bride and wish her every happiness, all while trying very hard not to think about the only thing that it was really possible to think about now, or probably ever, in her presence. Audra seemed blissfully untroubled by this and hugged Bryant enthusiastically, saying, “Welcome to the world of marriage!” and then hugged the bride and said—actually said—“I’ve heard so much about you!”

The elderly couple were right behind him in the receiving line, and the man gave Graham a sort of sickly smile when he heard that.

Graham shook hands with the bride’s parents, and then Mrs. Luxe, a large woman in a battleship-gray dress, from which her satin-covered bosom protruded like the prow of, well, a battleship.

Next in the receiving line was Dr. Luxe. Now Graham remembered him—a big olive-skinned man with a large nose and abundant silver curls brushed back in what Graham’s mother called “finger waves.” His wife, clearly the second Mrs. Luxe, was much younger, blond, and timid-seeming.

“I’m sure you remember my husband, Graham,” Audra said to Dr. Luxe as Graham shook hands with him. “His ex-wife is the one who wants to move into your building.”

“Ex-wife?” Dr. Luxe looked startled. “I thought it was a friend.”

“Friend and ex-wife,” Audra said smoothly. “We’re extremely close.”

(This was possibly the biggest lie anyone had ever told in that particular church. Elspeth had refused to ever even meet Audra.)

“I admire that,” Dr. Luxe said.

“I didn’t want us to be one of those acrimonious couples,” Audra said. “That’s so hard on everyone. Actually, we enjoy Elspeth’s company immensely. We all go to lunch together and sometimes the movies. She even helped us with our kitchen renovation.”

“How refreshing!” Dr. Luxe said.

“Often Elspeth goes on vacation with us,” Audra said, completely carried away now. “Not if we’re going somewhere roman- tic, of course, like the Bahamas, but more like long weekends and things. You know, like if we’re going to the Berkshires, then we think, Why not take Elspeth? She’s so much fun! And so knowledgeable about nature and hiking and bird-watching.

“That is the most civilized arrangement I’ve ever heard of,” Dr. Luxe said. “I think it’s marvelous.”

The second Mrs. Luxe’s eyes were huge. She was obviously terrified that she would now have to go mushroom hunting with the first Mrs. Luxe.

“But perhaps just maybe don’t mention my name to Elspeth,” Audra added in a soft rush, touching Dr. Luxe’s arm. “She’s terribly independent. She would want to think she got the apartment on her own.”

“My lips are sealed,” Dr. Luxe said.

“Anyway,” Audra said, “this is our son, Matthew! Matthew, Dr. Luxe is literally the first person who ever held you.”

Graham closed his eyes. Sex, divorce, lies, obstetrics—would this conversation never end?

But Dr. Luxe seemed delighted. He shook hands with Matthew and exclaimed over how tall he was while Graham shook hands with the second Mrs. Luxe. By then, there was such a traffic jam of wedding guests behind them that a kind of crowd surge pushed them out of the receiving line and into the bar, where Graham grabbed a glass of champagne from a waiter’s tray and drank it in one swallow.

But the rest of the wedding was okay, even more than okay. The manor house had French doors opening onto the grounds. It was a beautiful summer day, and teenage girls had been hired to organize all the children. Most of the children happily ran out onto the lawn, but Matthew stayed sitting at the table. One of the teenage girls—a pretty brunette in a soft lavender dress—sat next to him and Matthew made an origami tree frog that had 101 folds out of a cocktail napkin. The brunette ruffled Matthew’s hair and asked him to fold something else, and Graham thought perhaps there might be an upside to this origami business after all.

Graham and Audra even danced a little, and it was as they were dancing that it suddenly occurred to Graham to wonder how Audra had known anything about the bride’s sex life.

“Hmmm?” she said sleepily, her head resting on his shoulder. “Oh. Because it turns out through some weird coincidence that Bryant knows Doug’s old roommate and he told Doug and Doug told Lorelei, and she told me. In fact, Lorelei thought she and Doug might get invited, too, but they didn’t.”

Graham held her closer, and saw that Matthew was alone now. The brunette had wandered off. Still, it had been a better day than expected. Graham was relieved that Lorelei hadn’t come to the wedding, because if she had, she and Audra would have devoted the whole day to the most intensive type of conversation imaginable (they once talked so much they blew out the candle in a restaurant) and then he wouldn’t have had Audra to himself.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Graham’s and Audra’s were not the only universes. There were also other universes—hidden ones, secret ones. Little pocket universes scattered around and you slipped into them unexpectedly, like when you stopped into a bodega for milk and discovered a cardboard display stand of Sucrets or Love’s Baby Soft perfume or some other long-defunct product. Origami Club was in one of those pocket universes, and Graham and Audra had to take Matthew there on the day after the wedding. (At nine o’clock in the morning on the day after the wedding, to be precise.)

Origami Club was held in Clayton’s apartment, and the first unusual thing was that Clayton’s apartment building was on a street Graham had never heard of and he thought he knew every street in Manhattan. Walter Street? Where the hell was that? On the Lower East Side, as it turned out. And although the building looked like all the other low red-brick buildings around it, it had a bright green door, which made Graham think of enchanted forests. There was no doorman and the hallway had black-and-white hexagonal tile and smelled deeply of cabbage and rent control. Matthew gazed around curiously, as though they were on the set of a play.

They rode a creaking elevator up to the fourth floor and pushed the buzzer for apartment 4A. A thin, excitable-looking man in his late fifties answered immediately, giving the impression he had been crouching right behind the door.

“Come in, come in!” he said. “I’m Clayton Pierce.”

They shook hands with him and then he led them down a hall through a cluttered apartment. The doors to the rooms that opened off the hallway were all open, and glancing in, Graham saw that every single object—every bedspread, lamp shade, picture, curtain, hand towel, tissue box, wastebasket, vase, throw pillow, candleholder, hamper, and doorknob—either was made out of origami or had a picture of something made out of origami on it. It seemed that possibly the only thing not made out of origami was the white-haired woman who popped out of the kitchen to greet them, although she was wearing earrings made out of itty-bitty origami cranes.

“Hello,” she said cheerfully. “I’m Clayton’s wife, Pearl. You must be the Cavanaughs. We’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”

“We’ve been looking forward to this, too,” Audra said. “Matthew especially.”

In the dining room, two other men, also in their fifties, were seated at the table. Clayton made a sweeping gesture and said, “Everyone, welcome Matthew!” He glanced at Graham and Audra. “And . . . non-folders.

“Matthew,” Clayton said. “This is Manny and Alan.”

“Hello,” Matthew said in his soft clear voice.

“Is it true you folded Lang’s Tarantula?” the man named Manny asked.

“Yes,” Matthew said. “But I couldn’t do it the first time and got all frustrated and cried a long time.”

Graham closed his eyes. He remembered that evening well.

He would have preferred Matthew had been up all night with the croup or whooping cough.

“That happens,” Manny said. “Did you try it again?”

“Uh-huh.” Matthew pulled out a chair and sat down. “But the creases weren’t sharp. I like the creases to be sharp.

“Well, naturally,” Clayton said.

“That’s neat paper,” Matthew said.

“It’s imported from Thailand,” Alan said.

Matthew hauled his backpack onto his lap and unzipped it. “I have some regular paper. Should I get it out?”

“He does have very small fingers,” Alan said to Clayton. “That might be useful when we do Kamiya’s Wasp.”

“We can use tweezers like we’ve always done,” Clayton said testily. “We accept new members on the basis of skill, not finger size. Otherwise we’d have a roomful of—of—I don’t know what.”

“People with very small fingers,” Matthew said softly.

“Exactly,” Clayton said. “Now, Matthew, today we’re going to be making Ermakov’s Mantis Shrimp and that has box-pleating collapses. Do you know how to do those?”

“Yes,” Matthew said. “Will you help me if I get stuck?”

“Of course,” Clayton said. “Well, within reason.”

Something was wrong here. So obviously wrong that Graham almost could not figure it out. But he glanced at Audra and saw she felt it, too.

Normally, Graham and Audra (especially Audra) had to act as a sort of lubricant for any social interaction Matthew had. And not just a mild lubricant, like Vaseline or butter—we’re not talking about anything as minor as a stuck zipper here—but a heavy, industrial lubricant, like motor oil or axle grease. Oh, the play-dates and lunches Graham had sat through with Matthew and another child, while Audra said things like, “Matthew loves the Wiggles! Don’t you, Matthew?”

“Yeah.”

“He especially likes the red one. Murray, I think. Who’s your favorite, Jimmy?” Or Tommy. Or Zachary. Or Ross.

“I like the yellow one.”

“Matthew likes him, too! Right, Matthew?”

“Not really.”

“Well, he sort of likes him. I mean, he doesn’t dislike him. But I guess he probably likes the blue one best. And he really loves that song about fruit salad. What song do you like, Timmy?”

“The one about the car.”

“Matthew, too! Right? Toot! Toot! Remember, Matthew? Listen, maybe after we finish lunch, you guys could watch The Wiggles together? What do you think, Matthew?”

And on and on. Until you understood—truly understood, on an emotional level—why simultaneous interpreters have the highest suicide rate of any profession. And now here was Matthew, chatting away, holding his own, while Graham and Audra stood there, as superfluous as the leftover screws that roll around on the floor after you assemble a bookcase.

As if realizing this, Pearl turned to them and said, “Now, you two run along and enjoy your day. Matthew will be just fine here. You can come back and pick him up around four.”

“Four?” Audra said, glancing at Graham. “But what about lunch?”

“We’ll give him lunch here,” Pearl said calmly.

Oh, well, now that was a problem. Matthew did not eat lunch at other people’s houses. It had been tried; it could not be done. It led to tears, often on the sides of both Matthew and the hostess. Other people’s mothers didn’t understand that Matthew would not eat their brand of ketchup, their flavor of potato chip, their variety of cereal, their make of apple juice. It had to be utterly and completely familiar or he wouldn’t touch it. No sandwiches cut in triangles, no generic Oreos, no off-brand grape jelly. And then there were the people who actually expected Matthew to sit down with their families and eat meat loaf or chicken pot pie. (The world is full of reckless fools—Graham had not realized that before Matthew began trying to eat meals at other people’s houses.)

“It would be better if we stopped back and picked him up before lunch,” Graham said.

“But I don’t want to leave early!” Matthew said. Honestly, this day was full of surprises.

“Well, maybe we could come back and bring you something to eat—” Audra began.

“I’m sure we can manage lunch,” Pearl said, obviously unaware that Matthew’s past was littered with the corpses of women who said “I’m sure we can manage lunch.” “I always make the boys something to eat.”

“It’s just—” Audra said, biting her lip. “It’s just—he’s really terribly fussy.”

“All the boys are fussy,” Pearl said calmly. She began to list their meals off on her fingers. “I usually make Alan a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off. Manny has already told me he wants plain rice and a banana cut in slices and a glass of whole milk. Clayton, of course, will have pancakes because it’s Sunday. I also have both creamy and crunchy peanut butter, and saltines.”

Oh, at last, at last! These were Matthew’s people! They spoke Matthew’s language! Why then did Graham feel so sad?

“Well, if you’re sure you don’t mind,” Audra said. “And if I could just take a quick peek at your pancake mix and syrup and make sure it’s a brand Matthew likes?”

“Of course,” Pearl said graciously. “Just come on into the kitchen. And be sure to tell me if there’s some particular way he wants the pancakes made.”

Audra stepped into the kitchen to give Pearl a crash course in the way Matthew liked his pancakes—milk instead of water in the mix, syrup served in a separate cup, no butter ever—while Graham watched Matthew and the other members of the Origami Club begin folding sheets of green paper so thin they were almost transparent. Graham had thought the shrimp would be folded out of coral-colored paper, but evidently not. Alan was complaining about his mother, which was reassuringly normal.

“So my mother’s having her garden club over to lunch,” Alan said, “and she wants me to fold all their napkins into hydrangeas, and I say, ‘Fujimoto’s Hydrangeas? You want me to make six Fujimoto’s Hydrangeas? Out of napkins?’ and she says yes and I say, ‘Napkins that these ladies are all just going to shake open and wipe their mouths with?’ and she says yes and I say, ‘Do you have any idea, any real idea, how difficult it is to fold a tessellation?’ and she says, ‘Do you have any real idea how difficult labor and delivery are?’ ”

“I think we’re all set,” Audra said, coming out of the kitchen. “Matthew, sweetie, call us if you need anything at all, okay?”

“Okay,” Matthew said, not looking up. His tongue poked out to touch the middle of his upper lip—the sign of his greatest concentration.

“Goodbye, everyone,” Audra said. “It was so nice to meet you!”

The folders sort of nodded and grunted, and Pearl walked them to the door. “Don’t worry about a thing!” she whispered, squeezing Graham’s arm. “Matthew’s going to fit right in!”

Well. Yes. So much had to go unsaid there.

In the elevator, Audra wrapped her arms around Graham and leaned against him. In these dingy surroundings, she smelled as fresh as a bar of soap just broken in half.

“Promise me we won’t let Matthew turn out like those men,” she whispered, “and if he does, that we’ll still love him anyway.”

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Elspeth sent them a change-of-address card. It was just a mall white note in a plain envelope with her name and new address at the Rosemund.

Graham stood in the lobby of their building, drops of summer rain glinting like diamonds on his overcoat, and tapped the card against his palm for a long time. He wondered if she would ever know he’d helped her get that apartment. Probably not. Bad deeds—even anonymous bad deeds—came home to roost eventually in the form of a speeding ticket or a court summons, but anonymous good deeds generally went unacknowledged forever. Unless the person you had done the good deed for was extremely resourceful and tracked you down via Craigslist Missed Connections.

He brought the card up with the rest of the mail and handed it to Audra in the kitchen.

“Oooh,” she said eagerly when she saw the return address. She pulled out the card, scanned it, and looked at Graham expectantly.

“What?” he asked.

“After all this time, she finally writes to you and it’s this?” she said, exasperated. “Not even a written message. It’s so—so unforthcoming.”

“That’s sort of her personality,” Graham said. “She’s not a forthcoming person.”

“But it’s still sort of a window into her life,” Audra said, her cheeks pink with indignation. “She may as well send everyone blank pieces of paper, because this says nothing about her.”

“Well, actually it says a lot about her,” he said. “It says everything about her, in fact.”

And didn’t it say a lot about Graham, too, that he used to be married to such a person? That such a person (oh, involuntary but still-so-disloyal thought!) had suited him much better than Audra?

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Friday afternoon, and Graham was in his study in the apartment, waiting for a phone call from the Origami Club.

When Graham and Audra had picked Matthew up last Sunday, Clayton had given them a somewhat pompous speech about how the club would have a special meeting during the week to discuss potential new members. He said this in a way that simultaneously implied there were many potential new members to discuss and indicated that Matthew was the first new potential member, ever.

Anyway, Clayton had said he would call Graham and let him know their decision on Friday, and Graham had been so certain of Matthew’s success that he’d gone out and bought a bottle of sparkling cider, which was now chilling in the back of the refrigerator. (Graham would have liked to celebrate with real champagne, and even let Matthew have a sip. But last May, Graham had removed a tick from Matthew’s scalp using Bombay gin and a pair of tweezers and Matthew had told his science teacher he got drunk over Memorial Day weekend, so now Graham tended to err on the side of caution.)

Graham’s cellphone chirruped and the screen read clayton pierce, origami. Graham had programmed the number into his phone—that’s how sure he was.

“Hello?”

“Graham Cavanaugh?”

“Yes.”

“This is Clayton Pierce,” Clayton said. Then he cleared his throat and continued grandly, “The members of the Origami Club would like to extend a cordial invitation to Matthew to join our organization and help us maintain the high quality of life that origami allows us to enjoy. We are a dedicated group who meet each Sunday for origami and fellowship.”

The word fellowship gave Graham a post-traumatic Cub Scouts–related flashback, but he just said, “Matthew will be very pleased.”

Then Clayton said in his regular voice, “Oh, and we’re updating the website, so tell Matthew to wear a red T-shirt on Sunday for the group photo. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” Graham said.

He left his study, intent on finding Matthew, but the first person he bumped into was Bitsy. She was wearing running clothes, and her cheeks showed hectic spots of color like a teething baby’s. Her breath was ragged and loud, as though she were just returning from running instead of just starting out.

“Bitsy?” he said uncertainly.

He reached out to touch her shoulder, but she brushed past him as though he weren’t there and thumped out of the apartment.

Graham started toward the kitchen and met Matthew coming out of the bathroom. “Hey, Matthew!” he said. “I just got great news. You made the Origami Club!”

“Okay,” Matthew said. So much for him being very pleased.

Graham sighed. He went to find Audra. She was in the kitchen, opening a bottle of wine.

“Oh, God,” she said as soon as she saw him. “Can you make fettuccine Alfredo tonight with full-fat cream and all the butter? Maybe even double the cheese?”

“I guess,” Graham said. “Why?”

“Bitsy!” Audra said as though this was an obvious answer. “Didn’t you see her?”

He nodded. “What’s wrong? She seemed upset.”

“Upset?” Audra said. “Jesus, Graham! She found out about Ted and Jasmine like one minute ago!” She saw his alarmed look and added, “No, I didn’t tell her.”

“How did she find out?”

Audra pushed her hair back from her forehead. “She was just here in the kitchen with me, doing her prerunning stretches and talking about hip flexors and round-the-world lunges, and I said that round-the-world is also something men ask prostitutes for, and she said, ‘How do you know that,’ and then her phone rings. So she digs it out of that little running belt she wears, and it’s Ted, and right away Bitsy says, ‘If it’s about that insurance claim, I still haven’t been able to find it,’ and then he says something and she says, ‘Can we talk about this later because I like to have my mind calm before my run,’ which was kind of a surprise to me because I thought calm was Bitsy’s baseline—”

Yes, oral history is a wonderful practice—a powerful way to preserve traditional customs and confront contemporary problems. Graham firmly believed that. But he also believed he knew what it was like to be married to a tribal elder whose storytelling is a bit on the long-winded side.

“—and then Ted says something and then Bitsy says, ‘Yes?’ in this very sharp voice and then he says something else, and suddenly she pulls out a kitchen chair and sits down and then she says, ‘I am sitting down,’ and she listens again and then she says, ‘Yes, someone is here with me,’ and she looked over at me, and I thought something was wrong with her eyes for a minute. But then I realized that her pupils were so dilated that her irises looked black. She looked like—like a shark. And she listened for a longer time and then she said, ‘I will never forgive you for this, Ted.’ And then she hung up and tucked her phone back into her belt.”

Audra leaned back against the refrigerator. Its blank whiteness made her look like a riot of color—burnished hair and red blouse and flushed cheeks. Like a winter sunset.

“I said, ‘Oh, Bitsy, that sounded awful,’ and sort of held out my arms, but she just stood up and she still had the shark-eyes and she was moving like a shark, too, sort of—of cruising. It was like she was swimming through the air too fast and might crash into the wall. And she said, ‘I want to go for my run,’ and I said, ‘Bitsy! Your mind’s not calm at all! You’ll be hit by a car or at the very least pull a hamstring!’ and she said, ‘Just two miles,’ in this faraway voice, and then she left— Oh, Graham, I thought I would be relieved, but I feel so bad for her.”

Graham sighed. “Me, too.”

He did feel bad for Bitsy, more than he had thought he would. He realized that he, like Audra, felt responsible for Bitsy. She was a member of their household, and she was in pain. And the fact that Graham and Audra had inflicted this same pain on Elspeth all those years ago did not make them hypocrites.

And yet—and yet—he could not help wishing it hadn’t happened on the same day they were celebrating Matthew’s accep- tance into the Origami Club. Because Graham had come to believe that people were only happy when they could feel one emotion at a time. That was the reason that things that had provoked such pure joy in childhood—fresh chocolate-chip cookies, a sweatshirt warm from the dryer, a perfect sand castle—did not offer the same joy in adulthood. You were too busy having all these other tiresome emotions about income tax and drunken texts and varicose veins and how much money was in the parking meter. People in love were happy because being in love blocked all the other emotions out. And righteous anger felt so good, for a few minutes anyway, because it burned so hot that all other feelings were cleared away. And now Bitsy’s heartbreak would overshadow Matthew’s triumph and in the ten years of Matthew’s life so far, triumph had not come easily—oh, my, no.

“Hey,” he said, trying to make his voice enthusiastic. “At least I have some good news. Matthew made it into the Origami Club.”

“Really?” Audra smiled shakily. “Then we should be opening the sparkling cider, not the red wine. Matthew! Come here!” Matthew came into the kitchen and stood there shuffling his feet while Graham popped the cork on the sparkling cider and filled the three champagne flutes Audra lined up on the counter. “To Matthew,” Graham said, lifting his glass.

“Cheers,” Audra said.

They clinked glasses and all took a sip. Graham allowed the sparkling cider to roll around on his tongue for a moment. Nope. Absolutely no mystic rejuvenating power whatsoever. It just wasn’t like champagne.

“Sweetheart,” Audra said to Matthew. “I am so proud of you.”

Matthew glanced down, and when he looked back up, his expression was radiant. Only Audra could bring that out. It was as though Matthew’s face had been dipped in sunshine, Graham thought—and Graham was not normally a person who gave himself over to mawkish metaphors.

The apartment door banged open. That would be Bitsy, back from her run. (Evidently, she really could run an eight-minute mile.) They would give her lots of red wine and Graham would make fettuccine Alfredo using full-fat cream. It was the most they could do for her. It was, unfortunately, the most anyone could do for her right now.

“Bitsy!” he called. “Come on into the kitchen and join us!” Graham looked at Audra. She was looking back at him, her eyelids so heavy with gratitude that her blinks were long, sensual movements, like a cat’s stretches.

It occurred to Graham suddenly that whatever happened with Bitsy tonight—if she decided to leave Ted, or murder Jasmine, or just stay up very late listening to Luther Vandross—Graham would actually be right there while the drama was unfolding. He wouldn’t have to hear about it later.

He did not feel, at that moment, standing there in the kitchen, that he and Audra were living in parallel universes. Or, if they were, she was at the very nearest edge of her universe and he was at the very nearest edge of his, and they had found a thin spot in the fabric of their worlds, a meeting place, and a way to stay there, touching, floating, together.

Katherine Heiny

Excerpted from Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny. Copyright © 2017 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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