Every person is entitled to decide one day that they require nothing more from other humans. Though Morgan realizes this late, just past her forty-second birthday, she does understand it at last. Soon after, she breaks up with Mitchell, who has become a drain on every source in her being. And she stops calling her best friend Cass, who has never really cared about her, Morgan can increasingly see, except as some sort of pet failure.
Morgan’s life, free of these entanglements, feels not richer but broader maybe, more possibilities within reach. She clears time to do some actual writing, signs up for the improv class she’s considered. Free of pressures, she’s better able to better herself. Without Mitchell nagging and counting the wine bottles in her recycling, she actually starts drinking less. With Cass no longer pushing her to stand up for herself at work, Morgan starts doing just that, takes an entire long weekend without answering even the “urgent” emails from Tom.
“You look different,” says Parvati at the stand where Morgan buys her pre-work coffee. And though Morgan is careful not to ask the girl to elaborate, she feels quietly satisfied. Of course she would look different, probably looks different to herself in the mirrored windows of the buildings she passes. Though it’s no one’s business but hers, this difference, her own secret to nurture and protect. This must be, she decides, a little what it feels like to be with child.
“I just want you to know I’m not dropping everything anymore every time you call me with some crisis,” Morgan tells her mother on the phone, and though the timing of this pronouncement is perhaps wrong, it feels good, makes her break out in a cool sweat like she’s just finished a workout. “I know you’re in your own little solar system over there with all your problems at the center. But I don’t need to live there too.”
Morgan’s mother says nothing, only sniffles. Morgan wonders again if she should have waited until the next little emergency, when her mother is actually guilty of what she’s charging. But it’s enough to take this first hard step.
I can do this, Morgan thinks to herself one evening, sipping wine on her patio under a quarter moon as she deactivates all of her email accounts except her work one, as she empties the contacts from her phone. While she’s taking down her social media accounts, she glances with chagrin at one old post, a scarf crocheted last winter, stretched between her fingers for appraisal. Did she actually give a shit about this, read and analyze the likes and the comments? It feels pathetic now, an artifact from some dead civilization.
Mitchell comes by for the last of his things, stands in Morgan’s foyer by the antique hall rack he helped carry in last year, picks up then puts down his final box of books. He weeps then until he’s wheezing, until Morgan’s fox terrier Blob paws his shins to console him.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Morgan says.
Mitchell keeps making that same broken sound, somewhere between a cough and a sob, that same ragged intake of breath. He’s maybe having an asthma attack, Morgan thinks, but stops herself from telling him to lie on the couch. She has been so conditioned to fret about Mitchell’s suffering body, his allergies, his migraines, his tricky back. It feels good to be clear of all that.
“It would help,” he manages, “if you could give me just one reason I could understand.”
“I could give you reasons. But they won’t help. Trust me.”
Morgan blows out her cheeks. “Okay. This is kind of random. But I don’t like the way you say self-deprecating things then get mad when people agree with you.”
“What?” Mitchell blinks at her.
“You know, like how you kept telling anyone who would listen how your last collection didn’t hang together. But when Evie Zhao said pretty much the same thing here at dinner, you got furious. Seething. Talking shit about her ever since.” Morgan sighs. “Okay, I can see from your face it was a mistake telling you that.”
“I’m just trying to process what you’re saying.” Mitchell closes his eyes. “I’m trying to listen and not react.”
“This is why I didn’t want to give reasons. Now it’s some big deal. And it’s not even something I give a shit about. It just popped in my head. And what’s the best-case scenario? I tell you something wrong. You fix it. Then someone, your next girlfriend, tells you something else. You fix that. And so on. But does it make you a better human in sum, all these corrections? And how does it even matter?” Morgan has begun to feel dizzy, has been speaking too long and fast without breathing in the right spots. She’s been having this problem lately. Eating too hastily as well, gulping meals over her kitchen sink. The irregular heartbeat is back, the woozy flutter beneath her breastbone, the “premature ventricular contraction” that doctors always say is harmless though it never feels that way.
“I’m worried about you, Morg. The way you’re acting.”
“Could you just leave? Take your books and go?”
Mitchell does go, though he makes a show first of patting Blob farewell, of glancing forlornly around her living room. He will write a poem about this, she’s certain. And though it will mostly be about an old railway trestle or a heron, Morgan will figure in it obliquely, a wounding voice, some malign refrain. She hopes to god she never hears him reading it in some coffee shop.
When Cass drops by a day later, she’s more mad than mournful, blue eyes blazing. She won’t even come in the door.
“You unfriended me,” Cass says.
“I deactivated my account.”
“You unfriended me before you deactivated.”
“What difference does it make?”
“You wanted me to know.”
“Okay. That was shitty. And I’m sorry.” Morgan nods. “Do you have what you came for now?”
Cass squints at her, mouth working. “What?”
“If not, what would give you what you need? What would satisfy you so we can stop talking?”
“I don’t understand.”
“If I say I’m a screw up, is that enough? If I say I don’t deserve your friendship, does that do it?”
“You’re not giving me a lot of choice here, Morg.” The quaver in Cass’s voice could go either way, tears or even greater fury, something apocalyptic. Morgan’s never seen her this upset. And though it should scare her, she feels strangely uninvolved, like she’s watching a volcano erupt into the sea on Nat Geo.
“I think I’ve been pretty clear.”
“We don’t come back from this. You understand that, right?”
Cass leaves then, quietly and with less dramatics than Morgan expected, just slaps the roof of her Subaru before climbing in and driving off.
Blob watches from behind Morgan, ears flat, hovering near his empty dish.
“What’s up, hombre?” Morgan laughs. “Does somebody have needs?” She fills his dish, and he gorges, looking back at her uncertainly now and again.
When her mother calls a few hours after Cass’s visit, Morgan lets it ring through, does the same with later calls, lets the messages stack. She listens to them in succession late at night, all beginning with that same, timid “Just Mom, babe. Just wanting to talk.”
It’s that tone that bothers her most, beneath the meekness something calculating, disingenuous, little reminders of unpayable debts.
When Morgan finally does answer her phone a few days later, stuck in traffic, her mother seems surprised, starts with small talk and news, safe preliminaries, before getting to the point. “Cass called me. She seemed very upset. She’s been talking with Mitchell. He’s worried too.”
“It’s not that complicated. Mitchell and I broke up. And Cass, we’ve agreed to disagree. Disagreed to agree. Whichever.”
“Babe, do you remember that summer back in college when you started feeling down? When you came home and told us you’d been having bad thoughts?”
“I remember,” Morgan sighs. She certainly does recall the summer -- though not the last name of the guy that dumped her and touched it off -- that she came home to Canton and told her parents she was depressed, maybe even showed them the scabs from shallow cuts on her ankles, and her mother took her to the family doctor, who put her on Prozac, which turned her into this unrecognizable thing for six months, this motormouth slut who sat in guy’s laps at parties. It took her a year to wean herself off the pills, to stop going to the useless health center counselors.
“Mom, back then my problem was I had no perspective. Once I had some, it got better. My problem now is I have too much perspective. I just want to live my life without measuring, feeling like I’m failing or falling behind. And a big part of that perspective, that measuring, comes from you. Which isn’t your fault. It’s just who you are to me. And maybe what grandma was to you. Does that make sense?” Morgan feels dizzy again, reminds herself to slow her speech, to leave space to breathe. She feels again the hesitation in her heartbeat, the stuttering resumption.
Her mother is silent a moment. “I don’t want to upset you. Maybe I’ll call later. Or you can call. Any time, baby.”
“I appreciate what you’re doing, that you mean well. But it has the opposite effect. Which isn’t your fault, but it’s something you should recognize by now.”
“Okay.” The sniffling again.
“I’m good, Mom. I’m trying new things, working on a screenplay, going to that improv class finally. Maybe mindfulness meditation too. I think it will be good, help me be more present. Which I know is the bullshit people say when they sign up for improv and meditation classes, but maybe it’s true.”
“It all sounds fine, honey. Whatever you want sounds fine to me.”
Again, it’s the cloying sweetness, the deference, that bother Morgan most, that makes her feel something sour and curdled in her guts long after she’s hung up.
The improv class meets at an old church downtown, in its small fellowship hall halved by a rolling divider. Morgan joins the beginner’s group in the circle of chairs, tries not to dwell on the fact that the others are exactly what she feared, a gaggle of fidgety millennials in flip-flops. Most of them know each other, which is worse. Morgan sits quietly through the self-introductions, endures the icebreaker exercise where they’re asked to pretend they’re all slow-motion samurai. Morgan survives long into the melee only because the kids are so busy slo-mo murdering one another that they ignore her until a smiling dude with an ironic puka shell necklace spears her apologetically through the side.
Morgan sits in her chair to watch the final duels, only spots Mitchell then, in the gym’s other half, the other circle of chairs. He’s seen her too, she’s fairly certain from his stiff spine, from the way he keeps his head turned.
After that, Morgan can barely pay attention. When Glen, the teacher, asks her what she does, and she says systems integration consulting, and he says, “do tell more,” she doesn’t even realize it’s a joke, starts talking about metadata until the giggles halt her. Glen’s young too, a little smug, a seasoned veteran at twenty-four or whatever with his unkempt hipster’s beard, his cute little beer gut, his appraising glances at the little chick in jorts who sits closest.
During break Morgan sees that the other group is breaking too, makes her slow way over. Mitchell is talking to the kids beside him, doesn’t acknowledge her at first.
“What are you doing here?” she whispers when he does turn.
“I’ve been coming for a while.”
“So, I’m not saying this is your fault, but it’s making me uncomfortable. Both of us being here.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea you’d actually go through with it.”
Morgan snorts. “Same here.”
The kids near Mitchell have gone from looking discreetly away to full on spectating.
Morgan shrugs. “But it’s fine. You can do what you want.” She wheels and heads back to her own group, sees a few of the kids there have been watching too. She tries to remember, when she was their age, how she considered people like her, if she noticed them at all. That middle-aged woman in her undergrad fiction workshop who burst into tears one class apropos of nothing, recovered and apologized but bummed out everyone. Megan doesn’t remember wondering what brought on the tears, just resenting the imposition, the woman bringing her ugly, middle-aged sadness into view like that. She doesn’t feel any more sympathetic today, wonders what business the woman thought she had there, wouldn’t fault these kids for feeling the same about her.
After break Glen organizes their first actual group improv. Morgan enters when prompted, does her best to play along, though she keeps losing the thread, scenes changing too quickly, the dentist’s office becoming a medieval banquet hall becoming a mall food court. Then the next participant, the jorts girl, skips into the scene, tugs her braids and peers at Morgan with a cocked head.
“Hey, Mommy,” the girl says. “So I really need like twenty, no make that forty dollars, for a Julius. Okay?”
The group chuckles.
“I think you’ve got the wrong person,” Morgan says.
The girl stares, confused. “Oh, Mommy. Why you acting so --”
“I’m saying I’m not your mother. That you’re talking to the wrong person.”
Glen intervenes, stepping from the wings. “Maybe you decide to go with it. Accept what Darla’s offering and keep it going.”
“But I don’t want to be the mother,” Morgan says. The scene has ground to a halt, the others staring. “To be honest, I kind of resent being slotted into that role.”
Glen nods. “I hear you. But since it’s happening, maybe you just go with it. Maybe don’t think, just respond. Maybe you’re a bad mom. A mean mom. That’s funny, right? Give her shit.”
“I think I made a mistake,” Morgan says. “I better go. It’s not any of you. You’re all fine. I just imagined this was going to be different.”
“Sure,” Glen says. “Sorry it didn’t work out.” The regret in his voice, to Morgan’s surprise, seems genuine. As does the lingering look he gives as she puts on her jacket. Though it’s Mitchell who chases Morgan down in the parking lot, slowing as he catches her.
“You don’t have to leave,” Mitchell says. “I’ll quit.”
“It’s not you. It just wasn’t what I thought. I guess this is preposterous, but I didn’t think a lot about the whole ‘being funny’ part. I guess I’m not a funny person.”
“Well, that’s not all it’s about.”
“No, I’m done. You should keep at it though. You’re a lot funnier than me.”
Mitchell looks shyly pleased. “Not really.”
“No, you’re like naturally funny.” Morgan thinks of not continuing, but it comes, unbidden. “Even your poetry readings. Forget it. You probably don’t want to hear this.”
Mitchell laughs. “What about my poetry readings?”
“It’s just the way you read, you know. How your voice goes all low and weird.” She imitates the breathy quaver. “And how you roll around on the balls of your feet, kind of like you’re hula-hooping. At that faculty reading last spring, these kids beside me were killing themselves.” Morgan blinks, sighs. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”
Mitchell doesn’t look as stricken as she might have expected, only nods, says he’ll see her around, doesn’t look back as he heads off.
The thrill of it, of the cruelty, of being cruel, lingers through Morgan’s drive home. She can’t deceive herself that her main intention was anything else. And it was pointless. If she’s hurt him, he won’t learn the real lesson, which is not to let such things hurt. Instead, he’s going to feel self-conscious the next time he reads, modulating his voice, gripping the lectern to still his body. She hopes he’ll realize in time how little it matters. If the poems are good, as his often are, then who cares what he looks or sounds like? That part of it is lost on him, she’s fairly certain. That’s his own failing.
Morgan’s boss Tom calls her in after lunch, and as it often does the conversation begins with small talk, shifts to mild criticism. After that it takes a direction neither of them foresaw. Even at the point Tom’s telling Morgan she’s fired, she can see the flat astonishment in his face. And then he’s still talking, even after she’s risen from her chair.
“Tom, I get it,” she says.
“I just need you to understand that I can’t accept that kind of behavior. That I work very hard to make this a respectful workplace.”
“No, I understand. And I feel like you’re talking now just because you’re uncomfortable. And because people are watching.” She points through the glass at gawking Rachel. “But it’s okay to just be quiet. Probably better, right?” Morgan’s never been fired before, is surprised at the serenity she feels.
Tom nods, stares at her, bewildered.
Morgan thinks about clearing out her cubicle but doesn’t, leaves everything, even the framed photo of Mom and Dad she’s always meant to scan, the skinny pair leaning on each other in some misty campground, Morgan just a lump in her mother’s guts.
On her walk to her car she passes some kids playing soccer in the lot before her garage. In some terrible movie, she would jump in with them, hoof the ball downfield. She imagines the reality of that, some clumsy stumble or fall, the kids’ horrified expressions. Just once she would like to see a scene as honest as that in a movie. Just once.
Morgan’s more than a little surprised when Glen, the improv teacher, phones, asks if she’s thought about returning.
“Sorry.” She laughs. “I mean, you must have had people quit before.”
“They usually just stop coming. They don’t make a grand exit.”
“It wasn’t that grand,” Morgan says and laughs, and Glen does too, and she wonders if they’re actually flirting. Her body seems to think so, the flutter in her throat. She lets Glen go on for a time, talking about his basset hound and his day job building theater sets, before she stops him.
“Hey, Glen. Sorry, but you might want to just move along, okay? Look elsewhere.”
He laughs. “What?”
“I mean, I’m sure you do pretty well for yourself down there. It’s like a buffet of fucked up theater girls.”
“I don’t do that.” His voice is humorless suddenly. “Shit where I eat.”
“I don’t imagine anybody would care.”
“I would care.” Whether it’s real or feigned, she likes the indignation in his voice, the wounded pride.
They talk on, talk late, Glen apologizing finally. “Sorry. You probably have to get up for work tomorrow.”
“Nope,” Morgan says and laughs. “All clear.”
Glen comes over that night, comes over a few times a week thereafter, usually late, often a little drunk. She never turns him away. The sex is fine, like a conversation that picks up easily where it left off. And he seems pleased enough with her even in the rare times they’re not in bed, when they watch bad movies or walk Blob. It’s all good fun.
The lunch invitation came from Morgan’s mother, though Morgan’s not surprised when she arrives and sees Cass at the table too, back stiff, purse in lap. At least Mitchell’s not here, Morgan thinks in the instant before she spots him returning from the restrooms, drying his hands on his jeans.
Morgan sits in the chair they’ve left for her, the one they’re all facing, orders a gin fizz because she’s never had one.
Her mother begins. “Baby, we know what this seems like, and though it kind of is that, it really doesn’t need to be. We just want to talk. We don’t want you to be mad or feel like we’re ganging up or –"
“No, it’s understandable,” Morgan says, calls their server back and orders a goat cheese and arugula salad.
“We’ve just been noticing the same things, the same changes. We’re not saying these changes are bad, just that we care about you, and we want to understand.”
“It’s honestly not that interesting. Not to me. If it’s interesting to you, I’m not sure I can give you any insights. It’s just things that have always been there being there a little more, I think.”
“See, babe, you keep talking like that. In circles. It makes it hard to have an actual conversation.”
“Maybe just go ahead and each say your piece, and I’m going to eat my salad because I’m actually really hungry, and I will listen, I promise, though I don’t think I’ll have much to say. The only thing I’d like you to consider is that if the problem is that I don’t need you anymore, then maybe it’s more your problem, your needs. And if it’s that, then maybe we could all save each other some trouble and time.”
“Unbelievable,” Cass mutters, already shouldering her purse. Mitchell fidgets uncertainly.
Morgan’s mother leans in, eyes a little panicked now. “We just want you to be happy. But things keep happening. You lost your job, baby.”
“I’m happy I lost it. And that doesn’t mean you need to be happy too, but it should mean something. I understand what this looks like from the outside, some kind of tailspin. I understand why you’d see it that way. And I know it’s intolerable, the way I’ve been acting towards you all. I mean, you shouldn’t tolerate it. And believe me, I’m not trying to make my shittiness forgivable by showing you I’m aware of how shitty I’m being. I hate people who do that. I mean, when I really think about it, there’s no reason why you should put up with this. No reason at all. So don’t.”
“I’m out of here,” Cass says, is standing. Mitchell too.
Only Morgan’s mother remains, her mouth working, trying to form new words, looking to Morgan like a caught fish in a bucket on a dock.
Morgan is walking her garden in espadrilles, squeezing through the space between shed and fence, doesn’t see the bit of jagged siding protruding from the shed’s corner. The gash, just above her anklebone, is bloody but shallow, and she bandages it then doesn’t think about it. It isn’t until a few days later that she first sees the pink around the bandage’s edges, first notices the tenderness in her throat and the fact she can’t quite swallow the sip of cabernet. Then the fever comes on hard, not budging after four ibuprophen.
Morgan sweats and squirms most of one evening, Blob circling her anxiously, before she calls Glen.
“Cool,” he says. “Can I have your car?”
“I’m serious. I’m having a little trouble breathing too.”
“Oh. Shit. Maybe call an ambulance.”
“Right. I’m just not sure about my insurance situation right now. If this is just strep throat, I don’t want to rack up a $10,000 bill.”
“A cab?” Glen still hasn’t turned down the music in the background, the thumping bass.
“I might need a little more help than that. I’m having trouble standing.”
“Oh, definitely call an ambulance then. I don’t think they charge if it’s a legit emergency. I can call if you want.”
Morgan thanks Glen for the suggestions, hangs up, cross but unsurprised. She books an Uber, doesn’t tell the driver she needs help until it’s clear she does, until she’s started to slip down in his back seat. The driver is Nigerian and helpful, half-carries her into the emergency room, waits until she’s signed in, even wishes her luck. Morgan gives him a five-star rating on her phone before they wheel her back.
“I thought no one got tetanus anymore,” Morgan croaks a few hours later to the nurse who’s come to check her IV.
“It’s rare. It’s still bad news though. We’re glad you got here in time.”
“But I’m going to be okay.”
The woman bites her lip. “Well, it’s those secondary infections we’re concerned about now, that we need to keep an eye on.”
Over the next few hours the fever mounts again. Morgan can barely reach the phone where it sits by its charger. She calls Glen maybe just to ask him to feed Blob. He doesn’t answer. She didn’t expect him to – some kid who probably hasn’t been in a hospital since the one he was born in. Morgan hesitates a while longer before dialing her mother’s number.
They bring Morgan home from the hospital, Mom and Mitchell and Cass in Cass’s Subaru, take turns watching her, caring for her, trading shifts. Morgan appreciates it in a way, the bowls of soup, the warm blankets, the baths. She mostly doesn’t mind how they discuss her like isn’t there, the invalid, how they move freely through her home. If she had the strength to be angry it would be at her own traitorous body, at the conspiracy in her blood. One night when the fever comes back strong she’s in someone’s arms, a wet cloth on her forehead, and she doesn’t even know which of them it is who cradles her, who strokes her hair. But she’s grateful to whomever is holding her, making her feel this wretched love, feel both outraged and safe.
“Daddy,” she says once, humiliatingly, waking from some half-dream, though it’s only Mitchell, shushing her, offering her more ice chips.
Glen come by once. Morgan’s mother tries to shoe him away, only relenting when Morgan rises from the sofa, hobbles over to where he stands stiffly in the doorway. He’s actually holding a Frisbee.
“You can go, dude,” she croaks. “Really.”
“Just wanted to check on you.” The fright in his eyes is almost comical.
“It’s fine. Just go. You literally have a foot out the door.”
Glen laughs wryly, sadly, tells her to take care of herself, is off then, hurrying a little, the Frisbee tucked up under his forearm.
The three of them are all there, assembled around the couch where Morgan lies with a blanket and Blob across her knees. Morgan listens to them chatter about the farmer’s market Cass and her mother have just come from, readies herself, sets her half-drunk smoothie on the coffee table. It’s as good a time as any.
“So I’m feeling better,” she announces.
They turn to her, the three smiling faces.
“And I want you to know I appreciate how you’ve been here for me.”
The three sets of eyes, watchful, tender.
“And so I can’t think how to say this without it sounding shitty. I guess there’s no way not to.”
They’re still watching.
“I know while I’ve been sick you’ve all taken on certain responsibilities here.” Morgan clears her throat. “But I’m getting better now. So I don’t need those things anymore. I don’t need you anymore.”
She sees her mother’s eyes, wet in an instant, sees Mitchell’s mute, open mouth.
“I know while I was sick, you decided you had certain rights. To come here without asking. To make decisions for me. I hope you understand that has to stop. That this is my place. My life. That you don’t belong here. Do you understand?”
Her mother sniffles, Mitchell still gaping.
Cass’s squares on Morgan now as if for combat, her eyes narrow. “You cunt,” she says. “You miserable, impossible cunt.”
Morgan nods, has been called that word in jest but never in anger, in earnest, like this. It’s a little thrilling. “Sure,” she says. “But do you understand?”
Then they’re gone, the three of them, even her mother leaving without argument. Morgan’s surprised at how quickly they disappear, was expecting more of a fight, guesses she’s finally gotten through. And afterward, though she feels the little tugs within, the urge to call them back, to apologize even, she knows these feeling won’t last.
The house is so quiet now that the voices of the departed still seem to sound. This is what it must feel like for a mother whose child has grown, has gone off into the world, Morgan thinks, a parent left in a haunted house. And like that empty-nester, Morgan will have to learn to live here by herself, with herself. And she can do this, she knows.
Blob watches her across the room, makes a rasping whine. He’s looking for the others too, she guesses, has grown accustomed to their presence, spoiled by it.
“It’s just me now, hombre,” Morgan says to him. “Just you and me.”
Blob still looks uncertain, as if he would like to be convinced but isn’t, stares beyond her toward the front door and the world beyond, ears pricked, listening intently in the distance. He pads back to the patio door and whines again.
“What? Does somebody have needs?” Morgan sighs, forces her weakened body up to let him out, then, since she’s risen, gets back to routine, laundry and lunch and weekend cleaning, needing to rest after each little task, though it’s progress. The stairs are hard, but she forces herself up and down, takes them needlessly, gasping for breath on the landing.
Blob’s muffled bark then, his staring face through the fogged patio door glass.She’s forgotten he was out there.She should let him in, Morgan knows, but she forces herself to sit instead, to watch him bark and whine.And she hates him.Like she hates the people who have left.Hates the bacteria in her blood that drains her strength.Hates all of needful nature maybe.Morgan sits and closes her eyes, shuts her ears to the yelps and whines, simmers in that hate, and only then, for the first time in a long time, feels content.