Evan Burton shut his book in bed and stared over at Rebecca. She wore reading glasses to study an article in a magazine. He could smell that it was Vanity Fair.
She glanced up. “Need to sleep now?”
“No.” Evan smiled. “You looked so serious, like a librarian, that’s all.”
“Uh-huh.” Rebecca’s mouth twitched and she went back to her article.
Evan wanted to share a vivid scene in Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson but restrained himself. Reading from a Vietnam War novel would trouble her dreams. After ten years of marriage, Evan considered Rebecca somewhat fragile, like a sensitive university professor shell-shocked from departmental intrigues and combative students.
"He suddenly felt like a time traveler marooned in an era that held nothing for him."
The years following the 2016 Presidential Election had been traumatic for both of them. While Evan coped through Saturday Night Live skits and New Yorker cartoons, Rebecca said, “I can’t stand to hear his voice. No more CNN, MSNBC, and especially Fox News.”
They cut the cable and streamed their television shows through a Roku device. Still, a gloom hung in the air, a despair that couldn’t quite be articulated, or dispelled. Five years ago, multiple doctors determined they couldn’t have children. It was nobody’s fault, really, but some elusive spark of shared joy snuffed out then to be replaced by logic and introspection.
“Okay, I’m done.” Rebecca switched off her lamp and slipped into the bathroom.
Evan assumed she would brush and floss, then perform the before bed facial rituals most cosmopolitan women did at night, as opposed to their morning facial rituals. His knowledge, and perhaps curiosity, ended there. For although Evan knew his wife intimately, the freckles on her shoulders, the mole on her back and stomach, the wisps of soft brown hair that descended in front of her ears, a vast amount of details about Rebecca he would never know. Evan accepted this. Ten years together had created routines: repetitions of conversations, similar arguments, identical silences. Complete knowledge could only exacerbate the side-effect of boredom that came with the stability and beneficial order of marriage.
When Rebecca climbed back in bed—face aglow with a waxy moisturizer—and turned on her side to sleep, Evan kissed the nape of her neck.
She inched away. “Night.”
It was Monday, not Thursday. With her museum work, as well as painting, and Evan’s copywriting job, his male drinking buddies, and his historical novel that hadn’t progressed beyond a thirty-page introduction in italics, they scheduled a weekly date night. Thursday.
He let the Manhattan traffic symphony of diesel horns, car alarms, and ambulance sirens lull him to sleep.
Evan returned after work to their two-bedroom, walk-up apartment on 10th Street between First and Avenue A. Neighbors walked dogs, while couples ambled with small children in tow. Evan first experienced the East Village in 1990 as a Columbia freshman. The entire neighborhood didn’t seem livable back when dealers sold drugs openly on stoops in Alphabet City, when condemned buildings had squatters camped inside. Those who actually rented apartments around Tompkins Square Park were artists, musicians, and freaks whose greatest creation was themselves.
Now, the East Village had become another expensive, residential area of Manhattan, bustling with prosperous young families. Upscale bars and restaurants sprouted everywhere. Each month, Evan signed his rent check in shock over the staggering amount, and imagined the rest of America—save San Francisco—laughing at him.
He tapped on Rebecca’s studio door. Norah Jones music sounded. “Hon, I’m going to that vodka account party.” He paused. “Do you, uh, want to come?”
“Go ahead,” she replied. “I’m in the zone.”
Evan rarely ventured inside. Rebecca specialized in still lifes of tables with flowers, fruit and wine glasses. He believed in her talent, but still lifes bored him. In museums, he hurried past them. They seemed an exercise, not a finished work to be displayed in public. However, even in unguarded moments, Evan never voiced his opinion. Their marriage, like many other marriages, relied on little lies and deliberate silences.
At the party on 16th Street and Sixth Avenue, a dark-haired, Italian-looking woman smiled at him across the room. Amber? Andrea? She held her wine glass up in toast.
Evan’s marriage had slid into a trough. He loved Rebecca and didn’t yearn for random hookups, but missed the flirtation, the chase. Wanting someone and them wanting you. At least that involved intrigue, a chance to put on your best face, suck in your gut, and stand tall. More electric, more alive than sprawling across the couch in pajamas to watch Stranger Things while farting with impunity.
After glad-handing clients and chatting up his boss, Evan navigated past guests talking projected figures and revenue enhancement.
“Good to see you again. Andrea?”
She smirked. “Angela. Glad I made such an impression.”
“Your drink looks like slush, Evan,” she said. “You need a fresh one.”
“Well, I usually… Maybe you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right.” Angela’s gleaming white teeth emerged between glossed scarlet lips.
Evan was reminded of first dating Rebecca, when she acted mysterious and saucy, baring her teeth in a manner that seemed erotic while also hinting at a deeper hunger to devour him.
After snagging another drink and after Angela squeezed his arm, Evan said, “You know, we’re both involved in this account. Shouldn’t I have contact information in case we might help each other?”
“Business goes so much better with collaboration.” Angela pressed her card into his jacket’s breast pocket. “Text me when something comes up.” Her brown eyes widened.
“Definitely. I have to leave now.”
“No reason for me to stay at this dull soiree. Can I join?”
Evan hadn’t expected such rapid escalation. “Sorry.” He displayed his wedding ring. “Commitments can be restricting.”
“Restricted relationships have benefits too,” Angela said. “You know how to reach me.” She stroked his chin with her finger then marched to the bar and began talking to a tall black man in a suit.
Evan tossed her card in a trash can outside on Sixth Avenue. Tonight’s little game had been an ego boost, but he never intended to call Angela or any woman. Nor would he bring their cards home to be discovered by accident.
Evan walked to 14th Street to catch the L Train to First Avenue. At the corner, he spied a Latino vendor wheeling a cart. Something smelled delicious. Dripping cooked meat encased in melted cheese on a grease-soaked bun. Everything about it was wrong. Horrible. Toxic. Rebecca helped in maintaining Evan’s diet, which allowed chicken or turkey, but frowned on red meat, much less this sweaty, gray-brown slab of mystery meat. Normally, Evan would have passed it by, but the second drink loosened him up. Flirting with no follow-through left an aching void, a desire to break rules, to be bad.
He devoured the glistening sandwich in its paper wrap. The taste was incredible following the vegan finger food at the party. Only after the subway ride did the concoction hit his intestines like a depth charge.
“Minor food poisoning,” Evan told Rebecca as he rushed to take turns squatting then standing jackknifed over inside their bathroom.
“Did you break your diet vows?” she asked from outside.
“I blew it. I’m sorry…” Wallowing in food guilt felt better than flirtation remorse.
“Don’t apologize to me,” Rebecca said. “You let yourself down.” She paused. “But maybe sleep on the couch, just in case.”
On Wednesday nights, Evan met with his old buddies: two married, one perpetually single. They visited favorite local bars without suffering long waits. Between Thursday and Sunday afternoon, the East Village got overrun with students and twenty-somethings. And not just from NYU. Every college in Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island sent their best and brightest down to what they considered a binge-drinking theme park. Doing anything in the neighborhood became impossible.
Evan knocked on Rebecca’s studio at eight. A falsetto voice sang from her Pandora feed. Bon Iver, maybe. “Honey?” He tried the door. “You there?”
Rustling sounded. “Just a second.” She eventually unlatched the door. “Heading out?”
“You lock your studio now?” He stepped inside. A canvas sat on an easel by a still life table. Several stretched canvases stood facing the wall. Artists never liked their work judged in progress. Tarps covered the floor and one lay across her desk.
“Didn’t know you were still here,” Rebecca replied. “I get nervous alone. If someone broke in, I could get out my window and down the fire escape.”
“Sure.” Evan stared at her current painting. “Thought I saw this months ago. Seems pretty dry.”
She gave him a funny look. “Acrylic paint dries really fast. That other piece had a blue background, this one’s blue-gray.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” He rubbed her shoulder. “Be back by ten.”
“Seriously, though,” Rebecca said, “watch the greasy foods.”
Evan met Tom and Chris by the secret telephone booth entrance to Please Don’t Tell speakeasy. A cluster of people milled about, Manhattan winter gusting all around them.
“Ninety-fucking-minute wait,” Tom said. “This place was really cool three years ago.” He touched his graying beard. “Now it’s so touristy.”
A young Chinese couple in line glared at him.
The men walked onto 8th Street and headed downtown.
“Where’s Andrew?” Evan asked.
“He canceled,” Chris replied, his stocky body encased in a down jacket. “Had a date on Tinder or Match.” His face sagged. “I feel bad for single people.”
“Is marriage that much better?” Tom palmed his dark hair back.
“No, but there’s consistency.”
“Consistency of what?”
“I don’t know,” Chris answered. “But you have a shared history. And married men live longer statistically.”
“Wives must love that…” Evan said.
At the entrance to Death & Company on 6th Street, the doorman ushered the trio inside. A vacated and still messy table in the far corner magnetized them over before any competition snagged it. They soon ordered a round of ridiculously expensive cocktails.
Chris admitted to watching Internet porn, which peaked on Tuesday nights while his wife attended her book club. This coincided with learning how to delete his browser history.
Tom mentioned that two years after the birth of their second child, he and his wife had sex on a monthly basis.
Evan regaled them with his card-gathering adventures.
“Seems pretty lame,” Chris said between sipping his Maker’s Mark. “So you get their cards, wow! But you don’t know if anything would’ve happened. Maybe they were networking.”
“Sounds like those losers who friend old girlfriends on Facebook thinking there’s a chance for some reunion nookie.” Tom chuckled, but cut it short when his companions maintained a grim silence.
“No one uses nookie,” Chris finally said. “Who are you, Rodney Dangerfield?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t want to actually score,” Evan interrupted. “I just wanted…” he lowered his voice, “to be desired.”
Two acne-faced young guys at the next table momentarily stopped arguing in Russian and turned with curiosity.
“I feel invisible,” Evan continued. “Women don’t even look at me when I walk by anymore.”
“Listen,” Chris said, scooping beer nuts. “There’s this game, Adult Chicken. You take a woman out and see how close you can get. Ladies are more selective.” They laughed. “So they might stop things on the first date. Then you win. If they don’t stop, then you make an excuse, chicken out and lose.” He grinned. “But actually you win. Because you didn’t cheat on your wife, and you know you were wanted.”
“That’s crazy,” Evan said, but Googled adult chicken on his iPhone. Images of grown chickens showed, and links to adult cases of chickenpox, but nothing about dating games. “Doesn’t exist.” He tilted his glowing screen toward them.
Chris sighed. “It’s not a thing yet. Adult Chicken isn’t the official name. Anyway, sounds better than your stupid getting-business-cards deal.” He finished his whiskey. “Hell, I don’t need it. Been married three years—”
“In your third marriage.”
“With your Internet porn deal.”
“Whatever…” Chris signaled to a server in a bow tie and suspenders for another round.
“I need to get home,” Evan said later. “Rebecca gets nervous alone in our apartment after ten.”
Date night passed quietly. When Evan and Rebecca pressed together beneath the sheets it was not with animal abandon but a polite thrusting. The event more of a relaxant before sleep, like taking Unisom or drinking warmed milk.
The following Tuesday, Evan went solo to a party at Empire Merchants in Brooklyn, a wine distributor considering an ad campaign. Once he’d finished schmoozing the owner and managers, Evan approached an attractive wine pourer. She looked thirtyish, with a bohemian air disguised under white button-down shirt and black slacks.
“Hate these events,” he said. “Everyone acts nice because they want something.”
“Don’t you want something, from me?”
“Am I being that obvious?”
“I mean, you want more wine,” she said. “And if you tell me I’m beautiful, I might pour you a big glass.” She half-smiled. “People come to these deals to get buzzed on free wine, then cab over to Peter Luger Steakhouse.”
“Not me, and I’d never call you that,” he said as she winced. “Plastic dolls and trophy wives are beautiful because they don’t think. You’re cute and smart and read books, no, graphic novels. Your older brother or last boyfriend got you into The Cure or The Smiths, and you can’t believe you only just discovered the Velvet Underground, or was it Nina Simone? Your gig here is just so you can sketch, or sing, or direct short films.”
She laughed. “That’s part true.”
“You’ll have to find out. What’s your name?”
She turned, noticing other partygoers approaching for a refill. “Stephanie, and I’m done in a half-hour.”
They nestled together in a nearby dive bar’s back booth. “I’d like to see the graphic novel you’re working on,” Evan said.
“It’s at my apartment.” Stephanie flashed a knowing smile. “Over in Williamsburg. You paying for the Uber?”
“Of course. By Metropolitan?”
“I live in the East Village.”
“Perfect. I’m near the L Train.”
Stephanie tried to kiss him during the ride, but Evan demurred, not wanting lipstick or her scent on him. “I’m old-fashioned.”
“No, just old.” She ran a hand through his hair. “I mean older than me. I don’t have a daddy thing, you know.”
Stephanie tensed up when they climbed to her building’s third floor landing. A television blasted sports from inside her apartment. “Listen, I’m sorry, but my roommate’s home early.”
“I won’t scare her.”
Stephanie looked stone cold sober, suddenly aged. “It’s a him.” She stood by her door, barring the way. “We, uh, just broke up, but rents are high so… Anyway, it’s complicated. I have to say goodnight, Richard.”
“Wait, are you playing the game too?”
Stephanie’s face showed confusion. “What?” She shoved him. “Was this just a stupid joke, pretending to be interested?”
“Is that you, Steph?” a voice asked through the door. Locks began to click.
Evan bolted down the stairs but overheard the man. “You okay? Who was that?”
“The Uber driver,” she said. “Some creepy old guy.”
Evan rode the L Train to First Avenue and walked south. A ping sounded. Rebecca? He pulled out his iPhone.
You never texted, so I did. Angela.
Evan skipped Wednesday guys’ night out to meet Angela. Initially, he’d assumed she liked him, but felt different when they spoke by phone.
“I wanted to discuss the account,” Angela said, “and copywriting opportunities for you.”
They met at Blue Smoke on 26th Street. Evan talked and talked, company business jabber vomiting out of him. Angela didn’t widen her eyes, smile with bared teeth, or touch his hand. Signals Evan remembered from Rituals of Seduction, a book he studied during his bachelor days.
Outside, Evan debated whether to catch the Second Avenue bus or grab the downtown local on Park Avenue.
“I’d love to share some ad ideas,” Angela said. “My office is right around the corner.”
“I should get home…”
They entered a small building and took the elevator to the sixth floor. Angela opened a door with her key.
“This isn’t an office.”
“Home office.” Angela surprised Evan, kissing him on the lips. “I think we’ve covered our business,” she said. “Relax on the sofa. I’ll change, then fix us a drink.”
Evan sat down trembling with nervous energy. Leave. Yes, he would lose the game, but enough already. Angela desired him and his marriage remained uncompromised.
“Bacardi, right?” Angela appeared in a one-piece, black mesh, see-through number.
Jesus. Evan jumped up. “Sorry, I have to get back to my wife.”
“Just stay awhile.” She blinked her long lashes. “You know you want to.”
Evan wracked his brain for an excuse. “I didn’t take a pill. I can’t, you know, without medication.”
“No problem.” She padded barefoot over to the kitchen.
Evan tip-toed toward her front door.
Angela returned with a jar of brown capsules. “I found these at Organic Health Pharmacy. They kept a seventy-year-old man going last year.”
“What?” Evan felt blindsided over her preparation and vaguely disgusted. “No. I’m leaving.” He dashed for the elevator. Where the hell were the fire stairs?
“You asshole!” Angela yelled from outside her apartment. She threw a stiletto-heeled boot that clanked against the elevator door. “This isn’t over.”
Neighbors’ voices sounded. Thankfully, the elevator arrived and Evan escaped. He trekked home on foot in the brisk March weather to calm his ratcheting heart.
Everything returned to normal once safe inside his apartment. Rebecca painted in her studio and he watched Black Mirror on Netflix.
“How were the guys?” Rebecca asked as they fell asleep spooning.
“No greasy meats?”
She laughed. “Night.”
Evan’s boss called him into his office at ten a.m. “Someone from the vodka account wants to drop us because of your ad copy.” Gerald Murphy worried a hand through his curly red hair. “I said you’d rewrite it, a complete do-over, but got nowhere.” He waved a piece of paper. “Here’s her number. Handle this.”
Gravity pressed down when Evan saw the familiar digits. “I’ll get on it right away.”
Back in his cubicle, Evan rested his head on his desk. He was done. Game over. Marriage may have lost its excitement, his wife might be a tender soul, extra-sensitive, and unsuited for this harsh city, but they had something. A union. Shared beliefs. Even an economic dependency caused by astronomical Manhattan rents.
He heard a ping and shuddered. Call me. Rebecca never contacted him at work.
“What’s up, honey?” Evan asked minutes later.
“I’m at the museum.” Rebecca worked at MOMA in the archives’ holdings department. “This woman Angela who does business with you called. Asked to meet me tomorrow. She claimed it was urgent, about our financial situation…” That’s insane.” Evan struggled to maintain a steady voice.
“She mentioned you were playing something. Evan, you still there? I didn’t understand. Have you been gambling?”
“No,” he said, face drooping. “I’m not sure you should—”
“I agreed to do lunch with her tomorrow. Anyway, have to dash. See you later.”
Evan hid until five, then crept toward the elevator bank.
Murphy lunged from his office. “Did you clear everything up?”
“I’ll rework the copy tonight.” Evan smiled. “It’ll be settled by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Let’s hope so.” Murphy frowned and retreated.
Evan texted Rebecca. Can we postpone date night? My boss wants to review accounts.
No problem, she replied. When are you coming home?
By ten. Love you.
Evan cloistered himself at Napkin Burger, a loud, bright joint on the corner of 14th Street. It symbolized everything wrong with the new East Village. Overpriced and impersonal, a waiting lounge where millennials sat texting before venturing to wherever the real party was.
Evan barely tasted his turkey burger. He lingered, yet still departed before nine. Time to confess; break it gently and head off Angela’s information dump. Rebecca wouldn’t throw him out, but tears and depression could follow. Their date night taken off the calendar for God knows how long. Her mother was South American, bold and brusque, but Rebecca seemed so delicate, so sensitive. A Mediterranean woman would just slap his face, spit on him, and yell “Bastardo!” But not internalize. Not shrink into herself and slowly wither away.
He opened their front door. Dissonant music blasted down the foyer from the living room. Evan recognized his old Sonic Youth CD. Rebecca’s studio door hung wide open and she sang along. “It’s the song I hate…”
Evan lowered the stereo’s volume.
“You’re back early.”
He stood in her doorway facing the floor. “I’m sorry, I screwed up,” he started. “I was bored. It’s just a game, to flirt with women. Never went through with anything, never cheated. Angela wanted to tell you. But I swear, nothing happened between us.”
“Yeah, I know.” Rebecca collected her brushes, seeming indifferent to his speech. When she took dirty paint water to dump in the utility bathroom, Evan advanced inside.
Canvases previously hidden under tarps were now displayed. One showed a nude and tattooed female couple kissing. Another featured a naked Latino man smiling defiantly. Their superintendent, Victor? Books on philosophy, Pagan witchcraft, and feminist pornography lay scattered around. A half-burned joint smoldered in an ashtray.
Evan took a deep breath. Ten years together with a Rebecca he’d created in his mind. A connect-the-dots image that suited his reality, his vanity. The stranger he married emerged from the bathroom, hair messy and wild, face flushed. She wore paint-spattered jeans and a tank top.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It was the game…”
“Chicken for Adults.” Rebecca smirked.
“You know about it?”
“Sure.” She sighed. “I played it six months ago.” Rebecca’s expression showed infinite annoyance. “I’m way beyond that now.”
Evan recoiled and rushed outside—as if he’d forgotten something, as if he’d mistakenly entered the wrong building. He wandered south through an East Village no longer familiar, a bitter headwind piercing him. Swollen gray clouds overhead promised messy weather. Neighbors’ features blurred as his body went numb; his cheeks stung from the cold and his eyes teared up.
At Bleeker Street and Bowery, Evan confronted the John Varvatos and Patagonia stores where CBGB had once been. He suddenly felt like a time traveler marooned in an era that held nothing for him. Snow descended and the wind blew wet flakes against his face. Instinctively, he flagged a yellow cab. After ducking into the cloistered warmth of the back seat, Evan defrosted in silence, without the vaguest notion of where he wanted to go.