Illustration by Brooke Bourgeois

Fiction Objects of Desire

Clare Sestanovich

 

The two of them live in a small apartment, small enough that it is impossible to ever be truly out of sight. In the room that is both the living room and the bedroom, there is a lofted bed. They have learned, faster than they anticipated, to navigate the ladder in half-sleep, when one of them needs to pee or retrieve a glass of water or confiscate the cat’s rubber toy, which squeaks each time it’s chewed. Lately, they wonder if having the cat in such a small space is ethical. Unlike the apartment, the first important thing they have shared, the cat is Jon’s and has been for many years: since the days when he did not expect, or perhaps even want, other companionship.

This was a private and intense time in his life — a dark time, or at least a dim time, but the kind of dimness that can be soothing in its muted constancy. Now that it’s over, it has also become, in its way, a sacred time. Leonora does not believe in this sacredness, but she understands why it’s useful to Jon and takes care not to violate it. To become truly happy, she tells one of her friends, is to betray the unhappy person you used to be. The friend disagrees. No, the friend says, it is to liberate that person.

Leonora is cautious around the cat. He is named Buddy, which Jon thinks is unfairly considered a dog name. If, when Leonora comes home at the end of the day, Buddy is curled up in Jon’s lap, she does her best not to startle them, speaking quietly and gently — out of something like respect.

 

The man Leonora once believed she would marry, Julian, has recently become something of a political sensation. A few weeks ago, he was elected to Congress. His district is across the country, on the opposite coast. Julian’s victory surprised many people, and this surprise has produced nationwide fame. He is known for his youth, his charm, and his refusal to wear a tie. His clothing is taken as a sign of sincerity. Several commentators observe that the Pope, a radical man, also dresses casually — humbly. Leonora happens to know that Julian is self-conscious about the thickness of his neck, which the knot of a tie can seem to accentuate. (He is, as many have noted, exceptionally handsome. In reality, his neck is a nice neck.) It will be a month before Julian is sworn in to Congress. For now, he tweets messages of thanks and hope, and appears on late-night TV.

On Election Day, Leonora and Jon had not spoken of Julian for many months. Early on in their relationship, he came up often, and always painfully. Leonora and Julian never lived together, but there were other things that made their love for each other seem fierce and true and somehow inviolable. They had exchanged love letters and endured a few pregnancy scares. Once, they had been accosted at knifepoint. They had gone to funerals together. Most of all, they had fought passionately.

Leonora and Jon speak kindly and judiciously when problems arise. They have never written each other letters; when they met, they were both relieved to agree that even text messages were distracting and prone to miscommunication. Pregnancy has never been a possibility, much less a fear. In the current political climate, Leonora, like many of her friends, decided the wisest thing was to get an I.U.D.

When the exit polls started coming in and it became clear that Julian would win — by a landslide, the headlines said — Leonora was sitting at the desk underneath the bed. Jon was above her, meditating. She waited for the gentle chimes on his phone to indicate that he was finished and then she said, without emerging from under the bed, “Julian won the race.”

Several seconds passed, and then Jon’s face appeared over the railing.

“Are you glad?” he asked.

He looked concerned, which irritated Leonora more than it should have. When Jon is concerned, his expression is always the same. His forehead slackens, his eyes look deeper than normal. It is an open and profound expression, and in times of great need, many people have been moved by it. On lesser occasions — in times of small need — Leonora is exasperated by it.

“Of course,” Leonora said. “Julian has excellent politics.”

At the same time, a friend texted her. In general, Leonora’s friends believe she has been too tolerant of Julian’s failings. Now that the relationship is over, they encourage her to criticize him. His ego, they tell her, is large and getting larger. This doesn’t make Leonora immediately angry, but she wants to please them. The more passionate her displays of anger, the more gratified her friends are. Admirable politically and abhorrent personally, one of them likes to say about Julian — visibly pleased with this formulation. The same friend, Leonora notices, responds enthusiastically on Julian’s private Facebook — the one without his last name, where he posts vacation photos and songs he likes.

“Right,” Jon said. His forehead furrowed for a moment, and he touched it reflexively, as if to smooth it into serenity. From the corner, Buddy’s rubber mouse squeaked. Jon looked at the cat and Leonora looked down at her phone, where two more friends had texted. They wanted her reaction. She wrote something funny and a little unkind, then copied it to all three friends.

 

In the first week of December, Jon’s band plays a show in a concert hall made to look like a warehouse, because the fans love warehouses. The people in the audience are five or ten years younger than the people in the band. Backstage, there’s a case of bad beer and a plastic tray of raw, dried-out vegetables. The baby carrots are more white than orange. Jon dips one into a pool of ranch dressing. The lead singer drinks a shot of ginger and chases it with beer. The other singer — the only woman in the band — applies pink eye shadow and nibbles, birdlike, on a bar of fancy chocolate.

“Ranch is very retro,” she says, to no one in particular.

Leonora declines a celery stick and takes a walk through the assembling crowd. She waits in a long line for the bathroom, even though there’s a smaller, cleaner one backstage, in hopes of eavesdropping on interesting conversation. The girls in front of her tilt their phones toward each other, scrolling and laughing conspiratorially, saying nothing. The boy behind her sucks silently on a black vape pen. When he exhales, it smells like fruit, or ChapStick. Leonora abandons the line.

“Your fans are all vaping,” she says to the lead singer.

“Yeah,” he says. “They’re the future.”

“You mean, they’re kids.”

He ignores her, licking ranch off his paper plate. Unlike Jon, who hunches over his guitar during shows, disappearing behind his limp hair, the lead singer is the face of the band. The face is not obviously handsome, but its features are sharp. He is often glaring, which makes them even sharper. At one point, the name of the band was his name.

“Are cigarettes uncool now?” Leonora asks.

She starts and stops smoking every winter. As soon as the temperature drops and seeing her own breath seems like a mean joke — a charade of substance, mocking her. Once, she had tried to explain the habit to Julian. I want to actually expel something, she said. I think I want, she added. Julian had smiled, as if this idea were one he had entertained briefly and long since outgrown, like a taste for sugary cereal, or overcooked meat, which betrays none of its slippery animalness. Now this mortifies her: not the thought itself — she still thinks it — but having said it out loud.

“Cigarettes aren’t uncool,” the lead singer says, “but they aren’t new.”

“I liked old things when I was a kid.”

As a teenager, she had collected records and stamps and books with pages that crumbled into fine yellow dust if you turned them too quickly. Late at night, when the house was asleep, she had sipped shoplifted bourbon, because it smelled the way she imagined grandfathers did.

“They’re not kids,” Jon says, examining a piece of raw broccoli intently, as if uncertain how to go about eating it.

“Like, nostalgia for things I hadn’t lost,” Leonora continues. “Because loss seemed adult.”

The female singer does a short line of coke and eats another square of chocolate. They are summoned onstage. Jon gives Leonora’s shoulder a little squeeze before following the drummer through the door. She lingers in the room for a few minutes, surveying the vegetables and the drugs, listening to the muffled sounds of the first song. Eventually, she makes her way into the crowd. The music is unbearably loud. She can feel it inside her body, as if this is where it had originated all along, where it is desperate — pounding — to escape. She stands next to a boy and a girl locked in an embrace. Sweat forms in fat drops on their arms. The girl’s ponytail looks wet. The songs crest and diminish and crest all over again, big waves of ecstasy that might have moved her, except that they exhaust her — an unwilling body, tossed around in noisy surf. The boy and the girl sway with the music, sometimes opening their eyes and sometimes closing them. During the chorus, they claw each other frantically, as if one of them is about to be snatched away.

 

“He doesn’t seem like a rock star.”

Leonora walks across the Brooklyn Bridge with her friend, a professor. A man on a bike speeds past, music blaring from a speaker strapped to his backpack.

“Rock star?” Leonora says. “Nobody says rock star anymore.”

The friend would like to be a professor of Victorian literature, where she says all the wildest passions have been secreted away, but in reality she teaches whatever English classes are available. She complains that her students expect everything to be on the surface; they don’t dig into the text.

“What I’m saying is that Jon is very understated.”

“You love understated things.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t love him.”

They stop in the middle of the bridge. The sun reflects off the tall buildings on either side of the river, turning them solid white with light.

“Have you ever made a crowd go wild?” Leonora asks.

Her friend laughs. She has a pleasant laugh that puts people at ease, but her face is prettier when she is serious. To Leonora, this seems like an injustice — that joy does not automatically create beauty.

“With my lectures about Middlemarch?”

The shadow of a plane appears on the river, but Leonora doesn’t look up.

“What do you think it feels like?”

They listen while the sound of the plane’s engine fades away.

“Sometimes my classes are one hundred percent women,” the friend says. “Skinny girls who email three times to confirm deadlines. They’re smart, but mostly they’re tired.”

“Don’t,” Leonora says.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t say something like, they just need to relax.”

They begin walking again. The sun slips behind a skyscraper, and Leonora feels her eyes widen, though she had not been aware of them narrowing.

“Every couple of semesters, a boy registers. It might be an accident, or a joke.” The friend grimaces. “And the horrible thing, but the true thing, is that those are the best classes. Suddenly everyone performs.”

Another man bikes past. He wears a cycling jersey and shorts that cling to his thighs, hunched over as if he is part of some invisible race.

“The girls start writing better papers. They start washing their hair more.”

“Does it matter if the boy is attractive?”

“They even start interrupting each other!”

They reach the end of the bridge. Buildings loom above them now. A tour group has assembled nearby, matching blue T-shirts visible here and there beneath sweaters and unzipped coats. A woman stands on a bench in front of them, brandishing a blue flag and speaking energetically in a language Leonora doesn’t recognize. Her face makes big, eager expressions. Leonora looks away, embarrassed by the nakedness of her enthusiasm.

“The boys themselves have mediocre ideas.”

“When are you supposed to stop calling them boys?”

“This year I took it a step further,” the friend says in a confessional voice. “I went to the dean and I requested a boy. I said, any boy will do.”

“I guess it’s more important to stop calling them girls.”

The tour guide finishes her speech. She raises her flag high in the air, and when she lowers it, she points it directly at Leonora. The tourists turn, staring. The flag seems accusatory. Leonora isn’t sure what to do, so she stares back.

“The dean looked at me as if he’d won something, as if it were a victory.”

A couple in the group bend their heads toward each other. One of them whispers something, the other one smiles a secret smile.

“And for you?” Leonora looks at her feet. “Did it feel like defeat?”

“Of course.”

Abruptly, the tour guide climbs down from the bench. The group begins moving again, shuffling slowly as a single organism. They don’t look back. For a few minutes, Leonora and her friend sit down on the vacated bench. The wind coming off the water is sharp against their unscarved necks. Her friend rolls each of them a cigarette, and they smoke quietly. Leonora finds a strand of tobacco on her tongue. She imagines it inside her body, and then she imagines many of them inside her body — like worms, wriggling past her crowded organs. She feels unclean, but solid. When she says goodbye to her friend, Leonora is glad to be rid of her, glad to be alone.

 

There are only a few weeks left in the year. The rest of Jon’s band goes to California, where there is more space and more sun, where nobody worries about noise complaints and garage bands actually exist. Leonora encourages him to join them. Jon takes this encouragement to mean she is indifferent to his company — possibly even eager to be free of it. Leonora denies this. If it were her, she explains, she would go.

“If I had the chance,” she adds.

Leonora’s voice turns bitter when she says this. She is getting dressed for work, zipping up a skirt that is cheap and ugly, that leaves a red line across her waist at the end of the day. There are many aphorisms she isn’t willing to say out loud. Seize the day, she could have said to Jon. Live life to the fullest. Leonora does not endorse these worldviews, but ingratitude makes her impatient, and unkind. In California, she thinks, she could drive with the windows open. She bends down to put on her boots, the soles white with chemical salt. She never gets a seat on the subway. By the time she arrives at the office — there are unsalted, uncomfortable heels waiting under her desk — her feet already ache.

“It’s been months,” she says, “since I drove a car.”

Leonora’s explanation only wounds Jon further: she does not care if he stays, and she herself longs to escape.

She can tell he is sleeping poorly. Several times, she wakes up in the middle of the night and he is sitting against the wall, staring at the mounds of his knees beneath the blankets.

One morning, Jon announces he is planning to attend a march. They have become accustomed to small protests organized and advertised on various social media platforms. This one is expected to be large. There are several others planned in cities across the country at the same time. Leonora is at the office when the march begins, and she’s still there when it ends. Once or twice, she thinks she hears chanting from the street below, but the windows are sound- proof. She texts Jon that she’s glad he went. The implication is: on our behalf.

He finds more marches. Big ones she’s heard about and small ones she hasn’t. He stands in front of a congressman’s office. Later, in front of a congressman’s house. John tells Leonora these are called actions. He gathers in densely packed squares and stops traffic on wide avenues. He comes home with sore feet and signs other people made — slogans she has never heard him speak.

When Leonora asks if the band has been rehearsing in California, Jon comes close to getting angry. He retreats to bed, even though they’ve just finished dinner. Buddy stops licking his front legs while Jon climbs the ladder. Leonora washes the dishes and Jon pretends not to watch. The water is warm and soothing on her hands. She arranges the items in the drying rack carefully, to fit as many as possible. A ceramic bowl perches precariously, but doesn’t fall. Jon’s face is to the wall, so she goes up and lies down beside him. For a few moments, she stays on her back, and the unnatural fact of the ceiling above her, close enough to reach out and touch, fills her with panic. When she is calm again, she turns and wraps her arms around Jon, pressing her chest against his back.

“I shouldn’t have made you do the dishes,” he says.

“You didn’t make me.”

“The guitar is frightening me.”

“Okay.”

“When I play, people don’t hear what I hear.”

He has explained this before. Leonora can’t remember the exact details: it has something to do with sound waves, or with the special molds he wears in his ears during shows.

“It’s like that for everyone,” she says, reassuringly. “Does anyone really know the sound of their voice?”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Buddy scratches the wooden ladder, which might be a message, or might be a habit. In general, he isn’t a plaintive audience.

“The ear is too close to the mouth, right?” Leonora rolls away from him and looks over the railing at the cat. “The sound can’t be trusted at that distance.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Buddy continues scratching. Fine white lines in the yellow wood. As defacement goes, Leonora thinks, it’s rather elegant.

“Stop it,” Jon says suddenly — sharply — still facing the wall.

She is taken aback when Buddy looks up and meets her eye.

Leonora’s boss sits a few feet away from her desk, behind a thick glass door that requires two hands to slide open. After lunch, he knocks on the glass to get her attention. She is in the middle of writing an email to his teenage children about their upcoming vacation. They go to the same island every year, but all they’ve ever really seen is the hotel. She writes the email from her boss’s personal account and signs it Dad. He knocks again.

The boss has six sheets of paper arranged on his desk. On each piece of paper is a single tweet.

“This is the last straw,” he tells Leonora.

The woman who has been tweeting works down the hall, in a cubicle with a stack of mugs stained coffee brown and lipstick red. Kelly is young, but no longer young enough to be considered promising. Her job is boring and essential. She lives alone, which Leonora knows isn’t pitiful — it might be relaxing, even liberating — but sometimes, watching her brush her teeth at the bathroom sink or nibble on the pink-grey end of her pencil, it is. The tweeting started nine months ago. The symbolism is not lost on Leonora. What has she been gestating?

It was innocent enough, at first. Lions befriending birds, quotes from Rumi, selfies in mirrors. She made friends. Eventually, she found trolls — but who didn’t? When Kelly first began complaining, her grievances were small, relatable. She hated winter. Summer, too. Airplanes were over-air-conditioned. Her office, too. There were a few jokes among coworkers — someone get Kelly a cardigan — and for a day or two Leonora thought the tweets might even be a good thing. A morale boost, a shot of team spirit. The office was cold. But Kelly didn’t stop there. Did you know, she tweeted, that men and women have different optimal temperatures? That men wear collars and jackets while women suffer? The better you dress — strappy shoes, cute necklines — the colder you are. Workplace misogyny, she wrote.

One morning, dozens of likes became hundreds, which became thousands. Leonora watched the numbers tick up, second by second. She tried to visualize the crowds behind the numbers — a bus full, a room full, a stadium full — but it was like trying to picture big sums of money in piles of dollar bills. She couldn’t keep track. There was a meeting with Kelly’s boss, and for a little while the tweets turned mild again. A picture of her niece covered in pink yogurt traveled fast, but not too fast.

Within a few days, it was back: the exclamation points, the hashtags, the strangers clamoring for more. Her company, Kelly wrote, was run by patriarchs. She called them moneybags, meat necks. She alluded to private planes. She didn’t name names, but she didn’t really have to — her job was right there in her profile, underneath the photo of her and two curly-haired white dogs. In the middle of the night, she tweeted that she had reason to believe the gender pay gap was alive and well. The likes came in from London.

Leonora and her boss stand silently with the tweets between them. Enlarged, the font is pixelated — absurd. Her boss has big, fleshy earlobes, which he pulls when he’s upset.

“Enough is enough,” he says. “You’ll have to tell her.”

“What?”

“Enough, I said —”

“Me?”

He lets go of his ears.

“She can’t stay.” He sits down in his chair, a huge, ergonomic thing — black padded armrests, a leathery cushion for the back of his head — which reminds Leonora of a gorilla.

“Because of the tweets?”

“Keep it general, like a divorce. Irreconcilable differences.”

“You want me to fire her?”

“Never say fire.” He leans back in the chair and sighs heavily, an exhale meant to convey the weight of being powerful.

“What do I say? Let go?”

Leonora’s phone lights up with an email from one of the kids. Dibs on the king bed.

“You just say, Best of luck.”

She and Kelly meet in a conference room, because neither of them has an office. In the center of the table, there are bottles of fancy sparkling water, which Leonora has never dared to try.

Kelly doesn’t cry or rage, doesn’t say much at all. Leonora is startled to remember that it has been months since they spoke in person. Kelly is quiet in the office, sputtering apologies at the copy machine, avoiding eye contact at the bathroom sinks. There is an awkward pause while Leonora wonders what else there is to say.

“You’re a whole different person online,” she says at last.

Kelly shrugs. “Not really.”

“Don’t you want them to know this person?” Leonora points at Kelly, then realizes she’s pointing, and drops her hand, embarrassed.

Kelly opens her mouth to speak, then starts coughing. Leonora looks away — is this the polite thing to do? — but the coughing doesn’t stop. Kelly’s face turns blotchy pink. When she reaches for a water, she looks at Leonora, as if for permission. The look fills Leonora with shame.

“Oh God. Of course.” She does a wavy thing with her hand that means something like, Help yourself.

The bottles are made of dark blue glass and arranged in a triangle, like billiard balls. Kelly takes the one at the very top and gulps deeply. Eventually, the coughing stops, but Leonora can’t help glancing at the ruined triangle.

“Have you noticed,” she says, “that whenever one of the bottles disappears, it’s always been mysteriously replaced by the morning?”

Kelly’s face has returned to its normal color. She looks confused.

“Why is that a mystery?” Her voice, for the first time, has an edge. The bottle looks elegant in her hand. “It’s just somebody’s job.”

 

The day before Leonora’s boss leaves on vacation, he keeps asking her to check the weather on the island. The answer never changes. Six days of cheerful yellow suns; a seventh with a cloud but no rain. Outside the nearest window — Leonora reminds herself it is a privilege to be so close to her boss’s window — it has been snowing on and off all morning.

Through the glass door, she sees her boss pick up the phone on his desk at the same time that the phone in her pocket starts vibrating. This is disorienting, and for a few seconds she is immobilized by her confusion. When she picks up, a stranger with a frantic, high-pitched voice explains that Jon has been arrested. The woman says Jon’s name with affection and desperation. There’s a loud noise, followed by many muffled noises. The phone being fumbled, then dropped. For several seconds, there is silence, which makes it feel to Leonora that she is literally inside the phone. She is the thing that has been overturned on the sidewalk or lost inside a purse — knocked back and forth among a wallet, a paperback, a pencil that stabs the blind hand trying to find her. The lostness is unexpectedly peaceful. Leonora wonders, calmly, if the woman is in love with Jon. Or maybe Jon is in love with the woman. Then the voice returns, apologizing. The phone slipped out of her hand. She’s wearing mittens. The voice is too loud and too clear now. Leonora holds the phone away from her face and says something sympathetic. Yes, it’s so cold out.

She agrees to come to the precinct where Jon is being held. Her boss is off the phone now. He gnaws on a stick of beef jerky and stares intently at the screen in his palm. Leonora sends him a text and watches him swipe it away impatiently without reading it.

She calls a cab to take her downtown, because this seems like the proper response to an emergency. Instantly, the car is locked in traffic. The money accumulates on the meter in neon red numbers. Leaning her forehead against the car window — cold, greasy with other foreheads — Leonora tries to persuade herself that she’s a tourist. A visitor, at least. That the people on the sidewalks are not the same crowds she observes every day from the office window, when bodies and bikes and cars are just shapes moving at different speeds.

The desire to speak to Julian appears. Leonora knows it will eventually subside, but with her face pressed against the window, pressed toward so many strangers, it seems to her that there will be a kind of ecstasy — at least, a kind of honesty — in seizing the desire as it swells.

Leonora has not spoken to Julian in three or four months. She wrote a polite email of congratulations after the election. The politeness, so incommensurate with the old intensity of their emotions, was in its way a kind of rudeness. He wrote her back right away to say he’d call her — soon — and he never did.

The phone rings for long enough that Leonora becomes aware of just how near her desire is to despair. Then he picks up, and his voice is full of surprise, which is easy to mistake for happiness. She says where are you instead of how are you, because it’s a more manageable question.

“I’m at IKEA,” he says.

“I’m in traffic,” she says.

He is sitting in a simulacrum of a child’s bedroom. The rug, he says, looks over-vacuumed. The pillow is dented with the shape of a stranger’s face.

“How many people buy this exact room?” he wonders. “How many people come in and say, I’ll take the whole thing?”

Leonora pictures him looming over the miniature furniture. He sits down in a small chair and it vanishes underneath him. Leonora clenches her jaw, as if she, too, must bear the unfamiliar weight.

“Who would say that?” she asks.

The cab inches into a large intersection, its front half blocking the crosswalk. A man in an elegant overcoat pounds on the hood and mouths something profane.

“I’ll tell you the secret of a good campaign,” Julian says, in a voice that is probably supposed to sound conspiratorial. He has always been good at saying things as if he has never said them before.

“Okay.”

He is quiet for longer than she expects, and in the background she can hear the sound of small children — the sound of a playground or a swimming pool, a sound that is so generic it is neither ugly nor pure, but always not quite real. When he speaks again, Julian’s voice has lost the shiny sound of performance. It’s sad.

“The secret isn’t getting people to want you. It’s telling people they want you and then getting them to forget you told them.”

The stream of pedestrians separates when it encounters the cab, as if the car is a heavy rock in a river, and merges again on the other side. The light turns green, but still the car is stuck. Two women walk around the cab in opposite directions. When they reunite, they exaggerate their delight, laughing.

“I’m happy for you,” Leonora says. It seems possible this is what she has been calling to say, but once she has said it there is no release. What she had hoped for was the feeling of something coming into view — the feeling when you find the constellation someone has been pointing at, or when you understand the optical illusion someone has been trying to explain. The feeling when it becomes impossible to unsee what before you could only imagine.

“Thanks.”

At last the car begins to move. There is not much more for either of them to say. When they hang up, Leonora imagines the effort it will take him to stand up from the chair made for a child. Her phone buzzes with a message from Jon.

They let me go.

Maybe Julian sways a little as he gets up, his balance not quite lost or found, his head momentarily weightless. Or maybe he stays where he is, knees pressed close against his chest. The car inches forward out of the crosswalk.

Clare Sestanovich is an editor at The New Yorker. Her story collection, Objects of Desire, will be published in June by Knopf.

Copyright © The Drift 2021