Hands pulling white sheets out of a dryer.

“It’s not about you,” he said. 

“That’s what you said last time,” I reminded him. The phone was in the bend of my neck. I was adding sheets to the washing machine, coiling them in like a snake—fitted sheets, flat sheets, pillowcases, four beds’ worth—just like the manual had instructed, along the outside edge of the basin. All the kids’ sheets in one load. My husband, who was not the man on the phone, would be bringing everyone home in an hour, at five. This was my time, an hour between work and the family coming home. I used it to do housework. He, the man on the phone, knew this. 

“It’s not about you,” he insisted.

“Tell me then.”

“There’s this woman, and she can unzip from her current life and zip into other lives. Her home life, it’s domestic and basic, but she’s really into it. Kids, lots of them, too many, frankly. Husband, job. She runs a dance studio and puts on shows twice a year. Coordinates a monthly book club in her neighborhood. Makes homemade granola every Sunday. That kind of life.”

“Does she launder the family’s sheets every month?”

“Who uses launder as a verb?”

“Does she?”

“Of course.” 

“Okay.”

“She’s not you.” 

“Keep going.” 

“She unzips into New York City once, eventually. A one-bedroom apartment there, up near that Hungarian pastry shop we used to study at. Plants line her two windowsills. Furnishings are sparse, but cozy. Like this giant green velvet chair she can curl up in to read, to knit, whatever.” 

“And she hates it? This quiet, boring life?”

“She doesn’t. She’s in New York City. Did I say that part? She stays longer than in any other version of her life. She gets coffee at the pastry shop—you remember that place?” 

“I remember.” 

“Every morning. She runs around the reservoir, returns home, showers, gets her coffee, walks to the small publishing house she works at. Has a boyfriend. He’s older. Makes her nervous but she trusts him. He feeds her: bialys, puttanesca, the kind of city food she can’t get in Youngstown, Ohio. Stuff her kids won’t eat.”

“How’s the sex?”

“Well, what you might imagine. Different.”

“Different how?”

“He likes to hurt her. Push her around. Make her do things to him. She can’t get enough.”

“How long does she stay? In this life?” I switched the phone to my other ear. The washing machine started to fill with water. I pulled towels out of the dryer and folded them on the closed lid of the washer. 

“Two weeks.” 

“Why does she go home?”

“The kids.” 

“Of course.” 

“She loves her kids.” 

“Where does she go next?” 

“Nowhere. She stops unzipping. She stays in her life.” 

“Instead of granola, she starts making Sunday bagels?”

“That’s right.” 

//

“It’s not about you.”

“I don’t believe you.” I pushed an earbud into my ear, waited for the chimes, then his voice again but closer, in my ear.

“Do you want to hear it?”

“Tell me.” 

“Are you doing laundry?” 

“Making dinner. Kids have to eat before soccer.”

“What are you making?”

“Nothing fancy. Sheet pans with fish, potatoes, veggies and beans. Roasting everything. Lemon pepper tilapia. Just olive oil, some salt and pepper on the rest.” From the produce drawer in the refrigerator, I pulled out a bag of carrots, two zucchini, two tubs of white mushrooms, and a parsnip.

“Sounds good. Healthy.” 

“Tell me.”

“There’s this woman. Forties, married, two kids, and she’s a master’s level swimmer. Swam in college, DI scholarship, but burned out by the end. Had her kids. Tried skiing. Now she’s back in the pool.”

“What’s her stroke?”

“Breaststroke.” 

“Keep going.”

“In the pool, she starts having these orgasms while swimming.”

“Like in the middle of a lap?”

“But not right away. Like after she’s put in a mile or so. It just builds and builds.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is it ruins her. She can only orgasm in the pool.”

“But she’s in the pool a lot.” 

“Three to five times a week.” 

“I don’t see the problem.” 

“Her husband thinks she’s having an affair.”

“That’s dumb.” 

“He doesn’t think so.” 

“But they’re having sex? The marriage is good otherwise?”

“Great. Sex is fine. Regular. Everything is fine. She wouldn’t dream of having an affair.”

“She should see a doctor.”

“She does.”

“And.” I spread long strips of peeled carrots across half a sheet pan. The other half I’d fill with the parsnip and a few potatoes from the basket on the counter just as soon as I finished cutting them into chunky strips, too.

“The doctor has never heard of exercise-induced orgasms, but he imagines it’s like a version of the euphoria people feel from exertion. Like a runner’s high.”

“This just hits lower.”

“Exactly.”

“So what happens?” 

“What you might imagine. She tells her husband.”

“And his reaction?”

“He wants to watch her swim.” 

“Okay.” 

“That’s how it ends. He comes to the pool once a week to watch her swim. Sits up in the stands. Sometimes brings a snack.”

//

“It’s really not about you.”

“Sure.”

“Are you darning socks? Sweeping a floor? Stuffing toys into a closet?”

“When socks have holes in them, I throw them out. I buy new ones.” 

“So floors and toys?” 

“Laundry.”

“More laundry?”

“Always laundry.” I carried a basket of clean clothes upstairs, my phone resting on a stack of my son’s shorts, the speaker button glowing white. 

“How many kids do you have?”

“You know.” 

“Has anyone ever told you you have a lot of kids?” 

“What’s the story?” In my youngest son’s room, I moved my phone to the floor, sank to my knees. I pulled open a drawer, started laying in clean shorts that smelled like summer rain.

“There’s this woman, and she’s not feeling so hot. She thought she might be anemic, low iron stores, that sort of thing. Her runs—she’s a runner—feel okay for the first couple miles, then a wall, then sluggish, legs like weights, concrete like mud.”

“Sounds like an iron deficiency.”

“Okay, but it wasn’t. Her labs came back. Levels all in the normal range for everything. Spitting image of health. That’s what her primary care doc said. Spitting image.”

“What a weird term.”

“Like you could spit and hit it, that’s how close.”

“I get it. Just strange. A little old.”

“I’m a little old.”

“Are you? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Do you want to know why she’s suffering?”

“Tell me.”

“Well first, since she’s so healthy, she starts to feel better. A little placebo effect, maybe. She’s training for a race. A marathon. But two weeks later, the walls return mid-run. Then in her daily life. She can’t even put in a load of laundry without feeling this unbearable heaviness.”

“That tracks.” I stood up to take the rest of the folded clothes to the next room down the hall, my daughter’s. I switched off speaker phone, tucked the phone into my neck.

“She goes back to her doctor. Breathing is a bit labored. Eating is harder. She feels full after a few bites. Terrible constipation. The doc scratches his head. He orders another round of lab work and a CT scan this time.”

“Full body?”

“Minus the head.”

“Let me guess: nothing shows up. In fact, her innards are gold-star innards. Olympian innards.” Her room, my daughter’s, was a mess. Like her place had been ransacked while she was at school.

“Innards?”

“Whatever you can see on a CT scan. I don’t know. Innards.” Leaning in from the doorway, I stacked the clean clothes on the dresser, piles for shorts and t-shirts, socks, underwear, and stretchy, padless bras. She was old enough to put them away. Another year and she’d be washing and folding, too, like her two older brothers. 

“Fine. Innards. I might use that. She has her innards scanned the next day.”

“And?”

“It does show something. A lot in fact. The radiologist had read a case study about a similar presentation, but this was the first she was seeing imaging like this firsthand.”

“Alien cancer?”

“Her organs—her innards, if you will—were sitting a little lower and tighter in her body. Like she was being crushed.”

“Gravity conspiring against her?” 

“Here’s the part of the story I left out: at the same time she started developing symptoms, she also developed a crush on this co-worker at the office. They were on a committee together. Strategic planning. When he greets her, he uses her name, and she likes that.”

“So her crush was literally crushing her?” 

“She thought it would be harmless, maybe even productive. She liked going to work more. Was happier there despite the florescent lights, the brown carpet.” 

“What did her doctor say? Did he prescribe something?”

“What would he prescribe?”

“Ozempic?” I walked back downstairs, the clothes basket empty save two orphan socks and a dryer sheet.

“The doc read the radiologist’s notes and looked into the case study she cited. He did some googling. Called her in to talk.”

“And?”

“That’s where I’m at. The scene in his office. She’s in a padded chair. His diplomas are on the wall. He’s leaning forward, elbows on his desk, her patient file open before him.”

“It’s all on the computer now. There wouldn’t be a patient file.” 

“But I’m old. We’ve established that. Maybe this is happening ten years ago. Maybe yesterday.”

“Is it a death sentence? What she has?” In the laundry room again, I pulled the lint tray from the dryer, peeled a quarter inch of gray fuzz off the filter, so soft and whole. I usually didn’t let it build up so much.

“I haven’t decided.”

“Things that feel good shouldn’t hurt.”

“No, you’re right.”

“I don’t think I want to know how this one ends.” 

“It’s not you.” 

“I’m still doing laundry.”

“For today.”

“For today.”

//

“I know what you’re going to say. You don’t have to say it.”

“That it’s not about you?”

“Is it?”

“It’s not. You know that.”

I was sweeping the kitchen floor. The kids would walk in and bring with them the outside world—bits of grass and gravel, dirt—but I wanted for the next hour to not step on a single shred of parmesan cheese or fruity pebble. I wanted to boil water for pasta and stir together some alfredo sauce without feeling crumbs like sand in my toes. “That’s what you tell me.”

“I could tell you one about you, you know.”

“Boring.”

“I’m still working out the plot points, but I think I know how it ends. How I want it to end. Definitely not boring.”

“Something needs to happen.”

“I think I understand the trouble, the stakes.”

“But stories need plot.”

“Setting is easy. A house like the large suburban five-bed, three-bath you’re currently standing in. It starts there, anyway.” 

“What would a plot-less story even look like? Just talking? Just telling stories?”

“The characters are complicated, layered.”

“Likeable?”

“Do they need to be?”

“Readers like having someone to root for.”

“They’re rooting for these two.”

“But what happens?” I pulled the dustpan off the stool, held it in place behind my pile with my left foot.  

“So there’s this woman, forties, pretty and thin. When the story starts, she’s dusting the mantle with one of those dusting wands.”

“I told you this story would be boring.” 

“Patience.”

“Tell me.”

“She’s waiting for a phone call. The other character in the story, a man, he usually calls her around now, while she’s dusting or doing the week’s 87th load of laundry. She’s looking forward to talking to him. Her phone is tucked into her waistband. She already made sure the ringer is on, the volume turned up.”

“Nothing is happening.”

“I’m building character. I’m setting the scene.”

“Okay, so?”

“So he doesn’t call. The phone doesn’t ring. She could call him, she thinks. She could tell him a story. But she’s not the writer, he is. She could call him and demand a story. She wants to make sure he’s okay. He’s older and sometimes she worries that there might be something wrong with his heart.”

“She sounds nice. Sweet.”

“She’s very nice. Very sweet. She pulls out her phone, starts scrolling to his contact information when there’s a knock at the door.”

“This is a Hallmark story, then?”

“Or horror. Maybe it’s a man in a mask on her front porch, casually leaning against the wrought iron railing, a light breeze moving through his gray hair.”

“Or a Cortázar story. Is that where you are now? On my front porch, leaning against the wrought iron railing, about to knock?”

“Mask or no mask?”

“Are you aging well? Which is scarier?”

“No mask then.”

“Then what? She answers the door and then what?” I stopped sweeping. I leaned the broom against the island. I walked to the front door. 

“Are you at your front door?”

“Maybe.” I stood at my front door, looking out the tiny windows that framed it, out onto the front stoop, the front lawn, empty except for a single deer standing in the yellow winter grass, head bent to graze. “Where are you?”

“Here. I’m here. Trying to tell a story.”

“Tell me.” The deer looked up, looked right at me. “Tell me.”


Photo by Marco Verch, used and adapted under CC.