Maya Lang was the winner of the 2017 Neil Shepard Prize in Fiction

 
 

Gaurav Gupta set his saxophone down and crossed the herringbone floors, pausing at the threshold to hear the women laugh gaily, Lilly’s the loudest of all. It was shrill, in its way, her nerves on parade.

He had been fingering his sax mutely from behind the door. “No pretending you forgot something in the living room. No ‘Oh, I’m just coming out to get a glass of water.’” Lilly had gone through these provisions like a lawyer walking through a contract, even asking him to place hand over heart and swear. “But what’s all this?” he’d said, hurt. “Don’t you trust me?” “Not one bit,” she’d retorted. “I know you, Gaurav.” A year of marriage and still it startled him, her southern twang and how it arched his name, stretching it like a rubber band. “You’ll come out and showboat, so help me.” “Showboat?” he’d repeated. “Showboat?” To show her how wrong she was, he’d cupped his left pectoral muscle. The soft lump of it surprised him: a generous B-cup. Lilly took his wince to mean he was weighing the promise, not his pecs, and nodded approvingly. It was one of her more brilliant strategies: She got what she wanted by goading him to prove her wrong.

He was, of course, sorely tempted to do precisely what he’d sworn he wouldn’t. He thought about letting a stray note slip from the sax, a squawk from the trapped goose. Not because he wanted to showboat—he bristled at the thought—but because it was ridiculous for him to be sequestered like this. Insulting, really. Besides, the women would be thrilled to see him. “Dr. G!” they’d coo. They’d envelop him in soft clouds of perfume, turning their cheeks so he could admire his handiwork.

They were his patients, after all. They were his. This was the real reason Lilly wanted to keep him away. She wanted so badly to befriend them, a desire she wore openly and almost aggressively. She went to the same hairstylists, got the same blowouts, wore similar clothes and accessories, a girl playing dress-up.

Twelve years his junior and not yet thirty, Lilly was young: enviously young, breathtakingly young. If she could only ignore the women, not care so much, the women would see her as he did. It was the funny thing about Lilly: She hid what made her best.

Around them, she spoke demurely. She tamed her accent and adopted their Upper East Side phrasing, dropping the words like coins into a well. She lightened her hair, wore too much make up, donned tweeds and minks and linens and silks. The choices were elegant, but they aged her. She wanted to seem more mature. She was, he told her with a chuckle, the only woman in Manhattan who felt that way.

She trilled her farewells now in a high voice. The exact words he couldn’t make out, only her anxious pitch. She sounded eager. She sounded false. Lilly—his Lilly—wasn’t like that at all. She was sultry and fiery and sure of herself. She was colorful and bold. She had rendered herself pastel for the women but it took work. Gaurav felt her eagerness to be free of them so she could relax and slump onto the couch. She’d spend the afternoon watching a silly movie and eating popcorn, her usual ritual after seeing the women, a sort of exorcism.

This was the real reason he stayed in the bedroom, not to obey his nonsense promise, not to appease Lilly or kowtow to her, but because he felt for her. She couldn’t come out and say it, but he understood: She wanted to belong. And so he paced, watching the ticking clock (the women were supposed to have left forty minutes ago), refraining from coughing or clearing his throat, all to give his wife the illusion she so needed.

*

He’d first met Lilly at a black-tie fundraiser. He’d spotted her from across the room: tall and slim with bouncy gold hair and blueberry eyes, a narrow waist and full breasts. She stood out not only because she was beautiful but because she was in a strapless magenta dress: a bold choice, perhaps even tacky, but that was Lilly. As tuxedoed men turned to admire her, Gaurav had the impression of watching dominoes cascade.

While others stared, he sauntered up to her. He was several inches shorter, less handsome than his competitors, but he was the only one in the room bold enough to approach. It was a perk of his job: He wasn’t intimidated by beauty.

A few minutes into their conversation, she explained that she was working the event. Quite charmingly, she confessed to being the party planner’s assistant.

“So you’re on duty?” He raised an eyebrow.

“I am. Sure doesn’t feel like it, though,” she said. She took a sip of her cocktail, her eyes meeting his over the rim of her glass. He felt the certainty of what would come next: He’d get her number, take her somewhere spectacular for dinner, and gradually woo her. It was exactly what he’d done.

Gaurav, no fool, saw his situation clearly. He was a short Indian surgeon with a more than slight paunch. No matter that he was American-born. Anyone who looked at him saw a foreigner. It made people say things like, “So how long have you been here?” and, “When did you come to the States?” Even his most loyal patients sometimes proclaimed, “Dr. G., you speak English so well!”

He didn’t mind. He had long ago accepted that life meant playing a part. You couldn’t be your whole self with people. It was impossible, like trying to fit too much in a suitcase. The trick was to be selective, figure out what to emphasize, just as he did in his work.

His ace—the personality equivalent of Lilly’s cleavage—was to casually mention his best asset. “You’re in a rock band?” she’d said that first night. “No way!” The piece of knowledge disrupted the image that too quickly formed otherwise of a nerdy, assiduous Indian. Mentioning the sax, along with a few choice references to gigs downtown, made the listener reassess him. He could see it, the change in estimation that took place. Trying to go about this any other way (by stressing that he had never been to India, for example) caused blank stares. “I’m in a rock band,” however, jolted life into their faces. How easy it was to then ask for a phone number, suggest drinks.

Wooing her was wonderful. A recent transplant from Georgia on a tight budget, living in a one-bedroom with two roommates, Lilly was not shy in gushing about their dates: the elegance of Jean Georges, the quiet power of Le Bernardin. She delighted in being wined and dined, loved the events and meals and galas that had started to feel, to him, tiresome. When she whispered, “Oh my gosh, Gaurav,” after sipping a four hundred dollar Mersault, he laughed happily. Her wide eyes gave him a newfound appreciation for his life.

Most men faltered around women like Lilly because they worked to impress them in all the wrong ways: talking too much, preening about themselves. Gaurav knew better. He listened. He’d learned over the years that beautiful women didn’t always feel that way. Even if they knew of their beauty, the awareness was vague. He let Lilly go on at length, learned about her family: the smart sister, the athletic brother. She had been a dancer until puberty made that impossible. She actually grew teary-eyed describing the arrival of her spectacular breasts. When he took her hand in sympathy, she wiped her eyes and said, “I’ve never told anyone that.”

Still, it was the night she came to see him perform at a downtown bar that he thought he won her. He felt her eyes on him during his solo, heard her join the crowd’s whoops when he pointed his sax at the ceiling and held his last note for an eight count. Three months later, he proposed during a gig, pulling her up on stage while the crowd went wild. She whispered in his ear, “Of course you had to make it public,” punching his arm lightly, but it was a good story—one he loved telling.

*

After they wed, he assumed they’d live downtown. His midtown apartment, though convenient for work, was lifeless. He imagined them moving to a cool loft in SoHo. He pictured them walking to his rehearsals or meeting for dinner after a long day of seeing patients. When they met with the real estate agent, though, Lilly surprised him. “The Upper East side,” she declared. “A classic six. Pre-war, doorman building.

Something historic, preferably.”

What astonished him more than the request was her delivery. When had Lilly ever said “preferably” before? And was he imagining it, or was her accent less pronounced?

The pink-suited broker whisked them to the East 70s and 80s, to several gargoyled structures where original details were pointed out with a manicured hand. Lilly nodded soberly as she took in each contender. Gone was her giddiness, her southern twang, any jovial punches to the shoulder. “Lovely, don’t you think?” she said, turning to him. Gaurav nodded, baffled.

At the stuffiest apartment, the one with the inlaid herringbone floors (the ones he now paced) and cracked crystal doorknobs, the hand-carved mantel above the fireplace with its hundreds of little teeth, Lilly bounced on her toes, excitement escaping her, and said, “We’ll take it!” Gaurav turned to her. “We will?” Seeing her face poised between hope and disappointment, he recovered. “We will!” he echoed.

They went to a bistro to celebrate. “I assumed you’d want something more modern,” he confessed over champagne. “Especially being younger.” He smiled, hoping she’d roll her eyes at him and say, “Girls can be traditional, you know.” Or, “I’m old-fashioned, silly, that’s why I married you!”

Instead, she frowned. “Pre-war Upper East Side apartments are the best. Everyone knows that.”

Staring into his flute, Gaurav felt a terrible realization dawn. “Lilly,” he said, “do you actually like this apartment?”

A waiter swooped in to top off their glasses. “I want this apartment,” she answered.

“Well,” he said, as though satisfied, “I’m happy to hear it.” Liking and wanting. Weren’t they close enough?

*

Though in possession of a certain elegance, the apartment reminded him of a patient in need of work, one of those holdouts who resisted Botox and Restylane out of a feeling of moral superiority. Funnily enough, they were the ones most pleased with the results. “I should have done this years ago,” they always said, turning their chins in the mirror, admiring their newly smooth faces.

When he proposed renovating the apartment, Lilly stared at him, horrified. “We can’t! The whole point of the place is the original details!”

Original. Charm. Character. These were fool’s terms in real estate, broker’s code for “old.” No woman ever pointed to her sagging breasts and proudly announced, “These are the originals!”

He’d thought they might compromise, brightening the place up—perhaps, say, hanging his sax above the mantle, or covering the old floors with a bright Indian rug. Lilly balked. She hired Catherine’s decorator and Sissy’s contractor, placed orders at Renee’s favorite antique shop. The result was a beige mausoleum.

“She has good taste,” Catherine and Sissy and Renee affirmed from his chair. “Of course she does,” he replied, injecting and dabbing, injecting and dabbing. “She married me!” The women obliged him with a controlled giggle. They knew how to laugh without moving a muscle, his patients.

Soon after the apartment was finished, filled with bulky antiques and equestrian art, heavy cream drapes blocking out the light, an assortment of mushroom-colored fabrics, Lilly was invited to join the book club. Each month they gathered at one of their off-white apartments under the guise of discussing a novel.

Really, they drank wine and gossiped. Lilly was thrilled. Here was access to the Upper East Side’s ringleaders, the poised and coiffed women who sat on boards and organized galas and appeared on page six. Lilly acted like a sorority pledge, nodding when they spoke, agreeing with their opinions.

Gaurav felt she took the book club far too seriously. When the first Saturday of the month approached, she acted as though she had a job interview, selecting a conservative outfit, studying book reviews online, jotting down words in the little tangerine notebook about which, strictly speaking, he wasn’t supposed to know.

He had discovered the notebook a few weeks ago after a fight, when she’d fled the apartment in tears. Seeking answers, he’d opened the book, thinking it a diary. Instead, the pages were filled with vocabulary words: litanies, diatribes, harangues, read one page. Paradigm, archetype, epitome, read the next. Gaurav thumbed through the gold-tipped pages, fascinated yet appalled.

He couldn’t remember what the fight was about, exactly. Something to do with filling her time. Ah. Yes. He had wondered aloud if she should be a pharmaceutical rep. She’d be good at it; she was social. She’d quit her job in party planning after they got engaged and was now trying to figure out what to do. “I don’t want to sit around all day,” she said.

Yet when he made his suggestion, she looked affronted. “I wasn’t looking to you for advice,” she said sharply.

“Lilly, dear, I was only trying to help.”

“I know, but you do this thing… it’s like you need to fix everything, like you think you can solve my problems for me.”

He laughed. “Darling, fixing women is what I do for a living.” He meant it as a joke, but the line didn’t go over well.

Lilly stared at him. “You’re full of yourself. You get that right?”

He winced. “I think you might be overreacting a bit—”

“There you go again! The problem is always poor Lilly, doing everything wrong! It’s… it’s… pedantic.”

Having not yet discovered the tangerine notebook, he didn’t know why she trotted out the word like a show pony. Had he known, he never would’ve roared, “Pedantic? Jesus, what is this, the SAT?”

Lilly’s eyes filled with tears. She turned on her heel before he could say another word, slamming the door behind her. The antique mirror in the foyer shook in dismay.

When she returned that night, they had an earnest talk in the formal living room. Or, rather, they didn’t talk. She did. He made himself sip his scotch and not say a word. This made her feel better, of course. It reminded him of their courtship, the way he used to listen and listen. He wondered why women liked this so much, hearing themselves go on. Wasn’t that a kind of showboating?

She said she wanted something that was hers. This apartment is yours, he wanted to object. The furniture, the horse sculptures, the clothes. Yours! And none of it had come cheap. But he merely nodded, hoping to seem as serene as the pensive liquid he sipped.

Distance was the point, he supposed. Lilly equated distance with respect. She wanted the book club to be in a room of her own, ha ha. And so Gaurav waited and paced, despite the late afternoon hour and the ticking clock and the fact that, with the lack of cabs, he was going to be late to rehearsal. When the women finally left, after their interminable dabbling in the foyer, he threw open the bedroom door, expecting her face to be as triumphant as his.

“I did it! I stayed away! How’d it go? Was it wonderful?”

Lilly bit her lip. “I think? Honestly, those women are so hard to read, I’m just not sure.”

“Oh.” He surveyed the room, its empty wine glasses and little appetizer plates. “Well, four bottles of Sancerre, that’s a good sign.” He pecked her cheek. “I have rehearsal. I have to run.”

He squeezed her bottom to try and cheer her up.

She braved a small smile. Lowering herself to the couch, she looked spent.

*

“Dude, you’re late.”

Gaurav set down his case and popped open its buckles. “Not my fault.”

Nick, the lead singer, glanced at him. “Work?”

“Wife.” He rolled his eyes in an attempt at male camaraderie.

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t complain if I were you.” Nick flashed a grin that had an edge to it—a rebuke.

Smiles, Gaurav often reflected in his work, couldn’t be faked.

Nick had been incredulous when he met Lilly, though typically laconic. “Dude,” he’d merely said, shaking his head. That one word, uttered with disbelief, tinged with disgust, summed up Gaurav’s situation. Gaurav had all kinds of things he didn’t deserve—a gorgeous wife, wealth, security. Nick didn’t want those things, yet he did. Maybe he told himself he didn’t until he saw Gaurav with them.

People’s desires were a source of constant fascination. Women wanted Angelina Jolie’s lips, Jennifer Garner’s jaw, J. Lo’s cheekbones, Kate Middleton’s nose. They came to see him with their magazine cutouts.

He listened patiently before explaining that the best work didn’t show itself. “We want to enhance,” he counseled. “Not transform.”

It was sound advice, easy to dispense from a surgical point of view: minimally invasive procedures were the new frontier. No one wanted to look worked on. The women failed to see that if their wishes were granted—if they had that nose, that chin, that jaw—they would look terrible. That he had to persuade them of this made him want to laugh. How could they not see it?

Yet in that dimly lit bar, faced with Nick’s smirk, the closed-off wall of it, Gaurav felt a twinge of his patients’ desperation. He wasn’t photographed at events, didn’t live in fear of being swapped for a younger wife, but he knew what it was like to feel hopeless.

The band—he had nothing in common with them. The Nick DeGraw Seven consisted of musicians who were all male, skinny, sullen, and broke—except, of course, for Gaurav. They reminded him of cacti, tall and thin and stubbly, islands to themselves. They didn’t shake hands. They didn’t tell stories. In his profession, as in his private life, Gaurav felt confident, but around the band, this confidence dissipated.

He did what he could. He stopped shaving on weekends. He had Lilly pick out his jeans, artfully distressed to resemble the worn look of theirs. He didn’t shower before rehearsal. He dropped all allusions to squash. He could only do so much. He could enhance, but he couldn’t transform.

Truthfully, he wasn’t even sure he counted. Was he one of the Nick DeGraw Seven? He spent more time thinking about it than he cared to admit. With his surgical schedule, he couldn’t make all the gigs. At first he’d thought this was why the guys were chilly. Only Nick made every gig, though. The other guys subbed in and out, came and went. Gaurav made sure he was the most regular of the non-regulars. He thought of himself as the spleen: not essential, perhaps, like the heart and lungs, but important. Certainly better than the appendix.

A different number of them might appear on any given night: five, nine. One night there were just three of them on stage. When Nick dryly intoned, “We’re the Nick DeGraw Seven,” the audience laughed appreciatively.

Artists were supposed to communicate, but these guys had little to say. They expressed themselves in monosyllabic grunts, at ease only when they had an instrument or a drink in hand. They were affected. They were withdrawn. After a show, at two in the morning, buzzed on whiskey and beer, riding high if the set had gone well, he felt a kind of fellowship with them. But at rehearsals, the young men hung over and only just waking up, the smell of the previous night’s fling still on them, he felt the gulf between them and wondered what he was doing.

He hated to think it, but there was a chance they kept him around for reasons unrelated to talent. Lilly had used her connections in event planning to land them a gig at the Mercury Lounge. His colleagues sometimes booked them for parties in the Hamptons. At these events, he was in the awkward position of showing up as an audience member, sipping his cocktail while they took the stage. Only later in the night did it feel acceptable to join them, and he sensed their tolerance of him—a grudging acceptance.

“Don’t sweat it, man,” a voice intoned. “You know how Nick gets.”

Gaurav turned. He was surprised to see Takeo Maxwell. Tall and stooped, Takeo occasionally dropped by to jam with them. He played classical piano, pedal steel, drums, guitar, upright bass. God only knew what else. He was getting his Master’s at Julliard. The band whispered he was a genius. A prodigy, they murmured.

Takeo was different from the rest. He wasn’t sullen. He didn’t drink. He had inky black hair that fell to his eyes, and when he played, he was utterly absorbed by the music, leaning into it, riding it, seeing notes, not faces. He and Gaurav were the only guys in the group who didn’t have nicknames. Gaurav knew it was for very different reasons. They called Takeo by his full name: Takeo Maxwell. They did so out of respect.

“Right.” Gaurav nodded vigorously. “I mean, you know. Thanks.”

Takeo smiled as he tuned his Rickenbacker, listening for a note. Gaurav waited a beat, not wanting to disturb him, but Takeo continued, “It’s cool that you come out and do this. Most guys your age wouldn’t have the balls.”

For the rest of rehearsal, Takeo’s words tugged at him. They stung—and not just because of the reference to age. On one hand, it was cool that he played in the band. Gaurav loved mentioning it to people, loved thinking himself a weekend warrior. “Keeps my hands nimble,” he told colleagues. He felt a thrill when patients said, “A rock star! So talented!” while he bent over them, their numbed faces in his expert hands.

Yet he’d never thought of the band as something requiring courage. He was a surgeon who played the sax. He liked to think these things came naturally. Takeo had meant to reassure him, but Gaurav felt unsettled. If being in the band meant that he was trying—worse, that his efforts were visible—how was he so different from Lilly?

More than once, he’d tried to reassure her about book club. “Don’t worry what the women say,” he told her when she stayed up late, cribbing notes from websites. “Just be yourself.” She ignored him.

Lilly’s appeal was in her differences. This was what he wanted to tell her. He liked that she was young and irreverent, liked that she had fire in her veins.

It dawned on him, though, that his attempts to comfort her might be like Takeo’s remark: well-intentioned but hard to swallow. Maybe she, too, wanted to believe that such things could come naturally. Maybe effort, more than age, reveals us. He and Lilly both wanted to come across as the opposite of what they were, and this—that they wanted to transform rather than enhance—was perhaps why they understood each other.

*

Gaurav stopped by his office on his way home, remembering the phone call he needed to make. He could have made it from the cab, but the Pakistani cabbie was bound to laugh if he overheard him. Besides, he liked a little privacy when it came to financial matters.

Gaurav handled his parents’ accounts. They lived in New Jersey, just outside of Edison, a place more Indian, his father liked to say, than India itself. His father was starting to show signs of memory loss and mild cognitive impairment, symptoms that came with the territory of being seventy-three, and though Gaurav wasn’t alarmed, though he knew the symptoms were fairly benign, still he felt a visceral pang when his father repeated the same questions. An email had appeared in Gaurav’s inbox from Citibank that morning asking if he was sure he wanted to cancel the credit card ending in -0528. It was his father’s account.

Occasionally he got confused about his finances and made calls, calls which Gaurav would then have to undo before his mother, alarmed, contacted him in a panic, the credit card failing to work at the supermarket.

As he went through the labyrinth of menu choices, repeating “Operator” at each prompt, he reminded himself that he didn’t need to actually sound like his father. As long as he supplied the proper birthdate and social security number, no one would care if he sounded Indian or not. The representative looking at the name on the account probably wouldn’t know if “Rakesh Gupta” was male or female. Sill, Gaurav had yet to place one of these calls without imitating his father.

“Hello, yes?” A voice finally interrupted the background music. “With whom am I speaking?”

“This is Rakesh Gupta,” Gaurav boomed. The Indian accent came out before he could stop it. “I am calling because I seem to have made a mistake, you see, a rather silly mistake.” It was exactly how his dad would have put it.

“Yes. What is this mistake?”

Gaurav frowned at the phone. The voice on the line sounded distant, and the phrasing was odd. When the realization dawned, he nearly laughed out loud.

Here he was, an American trying to sound Indian while, halfway around the world, some poor sap in Mumbai tried to sound American. He glanced at the clock. 6:49 p.m. It was the middle of the night there. Probably their B-team. He couldn’t imagine Saturday night was a popular call time for credit card companies.

“Hello, sir? Are you still being there?”

Gaurav bit back his laugh. Oh, the existential angst of gerund-filled sentences. “Yes, yes, I am here,” he said. In his father’s accent, he explained the situation. He had mistakenly canceled the card. He hoped it could be undone.

“Yes, sir,” the voice said. It was an earnest voice, eager to please. The young man explained that since the cancelation had not been completed properly, it hadn’t gone through. In the future, however, he should know that once a card is canceled, the company automatically issues a new one. “For your future reference,” he said solicitously.

“I understand.”

“And Mr. Gupta?” the voice said shyly. “Thank you for being a Citibank customer.”

It was rare that Gaurav heard his last name pronounced correctly, with a soft ‘th’ and a voluptuous ‘u.’

Goup-tha. The voice that had been trying so hard to disguise itself threw caution to the wind at the last minute. Gaurav liked this immensely. It was the baring of secrets that made us like people, he realized, not the shrouding of them. He nearly threw off his own cloak and answered in his usual voice, but realized it might alarm the poor man.

“Thank you,” he said. “Really. That’s very kind.”

*

Back in the building, he stepped into the elevator. Just as the doors were closing, a slender hand reached out to stop them. He winced. It was a long-running fear that one day his fingers would be crushed, ending his career. Elevators, cabs, subways—the city was filled with doors that closed too quickly, people risking themselves with little thought.

The woman who entered was familiar. “Thanks,” she said, breathless.

“Top floor, is that right?” he asked.

She nodded. “Good memory.”

She was in her early fifties or so, with auburn hair and prominent cheekbones. Perhaps of Eastern European descent. She and her husband were on the building’s board, he remembered. They lived in one of the penthouses. “I wonder how big,” Lilly had mused. “I mean, can you imagine?”

Yet the woman and her husband didn’t strike him as showy. Occasionally Gaurav spotted them walking hand in hand, exiting the building. Their children were grown. It was just the two of them now. He got the impression that they shared an easy tranquility between them.

“Violin?” She gestured at his case.

Gaurav looked down. He had forgotten he was holding it. “Oh,” he said. “Sax.”

“A hobby?”

Normally he would have gone on eagerly, a Nick DeGraw Seven card at the ready. Normally he would have been thrilled to tell her about their next gig, about how playing kept his hands nimble—but it had been a long day. The awkward rehearsal, his aging father, his morning with Lilly, hand on chubby heart: all of it weighed on him. “A hobby,” he repeated. Wasn’t that all it was? “Yes.”

The woman had a gentleness about her face. “It must be hard to fit that in around your practice.”

“I’m not the only one with the good memory, it seems.”

“Oh, the whole building buzzed when you and your wife moved in. The women were thrilled to have a plastic surgeon in residence. Though we fear you’re secretly assessing us, especially in this horrid lighting.” She laughed self-consciously.

“Never,” he assured her. Though he wondered, as the old elevator made its bumpy ascent, how many times he had done just that, surveying women for signs of age and wear, mentally erasing lines and filling in creases. Smoothing and plumping, as his expert hands could.

He glanced at her profile. She had an aristocratic quality to her face: the slender nose, the grand sweep of her cheeks. Her auburn hair was tied up in a knot. Her clear blue eyes reflected humor, intelligence. You look like you could have been a dancer, he wanted to say.

She had lateral canthal lines. Crow’s feet, in common parlance. At his office, he would grade the lines at rest and at maximum smile. He would mark them in ink. Yet it occurred to him that there was something lovely about them. They hinted at a smile, one that was real.

Did she know how many of the women in the building had come to see him? They were pleased with the results, always. Still, it was sobering, how many had caved to the pressure, trading their original details for something new.

No one was safe from insecurity. It didn’t matter what you looked like, who you were. You could be on the building’s board, perched in the penthouse, and still feel its long-fingered reach. The women at book club probably gazed at Lilly with envy. They didn’t know about the tangerine notebook, the constant fretting, the severe tweed dresses meant to conceal her slim body. Lilly herself didn’t know that he loved her most when she wasn’t trying.

The elevator chimed. His floor. He hesitated, wanting to say something. He stuck his saxophone case between the doors to keep them from closing.

“Even in this awful light,” he said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

She looked at him, startled, then laughed. “Thank you,” she said. The ocular lines bloomed, a peacock’s fan.

Gaurav headed down the hall feeling a little lighter. What a long day it had been, but Lilly, he knew (for he could hear the television through the door), was home. She’d be in sweatpants, no longer putting on airs, probably covered in popcorn kernels. The thought made him happy. She’d smile when he came through the door, wordlessly lift her feet so he could sit beside her. They’d order in and eat takeout on the couch. It was exactly what he wanted.

Silence sometimes bothered him. It made him jumpy, feel he wasn’t doing enough, that he should say something, do something, rather than just sit there—but it struck him now how lovely it was to sit with someone and not fret. So often when he spoke to Lilly, he wanted to shape her, change her, yet she didn’t say a word to him about the band. Never once did she challenge him, tell him not to worry so much or try so hard. Not saying something: Maybe this was the kindest form of support.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he’d told the woman. He imagined her carrying the compliment to the top floor and sharing it with her husband. Her husband would think the surgeon had gotten it exactly right. He imagined them walking to dinner hand in hand, in companionable quiet, not worrying about anything except the space between them.

 
 

Maya Lang

MAYA LANG is the author of The Sixteenth of June. She lives outside New York City and is currently at work on her second novel.

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