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Excerpt: 'You or Someone Like You'

It is 4:1 8 a.m. when I realize Howard has come home.

I watch his outline in the still, dark bedroom stripping off the trousers of his navy suit, stained with sand and Pacific salt water. After a moment, I ask, Who has the life he wants?

He says nothing, standing in the shadows. I say, Wystan Auden did, one could argue.

Howard cuts in, "We're not fucking talking about Auden, Anne."

I am, I say with a calm I do not at all feel, talking about Auden.

We wait in the dark, in the silence, and I realize Howard is crying, his shoulders shaking beneath his stained, unbuttoned dress shirt, the tie gone, his chin down almost to his hairy chest, bobbing up and down with every sob, his eyes closed, his fists clenched. I am so stunned I cannot move for a moment, this big man in his underwear, crying, but then I jump out of the bed. I take him in my arms. He is large enough that his jerky, rough sobs push me back and forth, as if I was grasping an oak in a storm.

Howard, I say. Howard.

He is wiping his nose on his sleeve. He turns away from me.

"It's bad," he finally says, his back to me.

I retreat the tiniest bit. What do you mean, bad?

"No," he says. "I mean it's really bad. I've thought a lot about it."

He fills his lungs, and he looks out and down over Los Angeles. The fury in his head and the pain that almost cripples him baffle me. He frowns, turns his eyes from L.A., and I watch him riding it out as they wash through him. They push him, shipwrecked, onto some distant mental shore. After a moment he manages to say, "I can't help feeling like I did something wrong."

I say after the briefest moment, You mean we.

He doesn't reply. Then he says, "No, actually I mean I."

Too small for a commercial flight, out the large dark windows the taillights of a tiny plane draw a dashed line across the sky.

I hear the "I." I feel something very cold start to climb. The suddenly strange man who is my husband says, "There was something wrong before, and now I see it." He raises a hand like Caesar and adds in a loud voice, "Don't argue with me, Anne." His anger is gasoline vapor filling the room.

I already know, of course, what the anger is: I am now, for him, a different kind of person. Howard discovered this only recently, when he picked Sam up at LAX after our son's flight home from Israel. Simply by telling him what had happened in Jerusalem, the boy made Howard realize that Sam, too, is a different kind. It was inadvertent—Sam, who is asleep down the hall, never intended to lead Howard to the conclusions that have brought him to standing here in the dark, covered in sand and half-naked and sobbing—but inadvertent hardly matters now.

I watch Howard get the suitcase down from the walk-in closet, go to the dresser, and start taking out the soft white T-shirts Consuela folded yesterday. On my bedside table I look at my Modern Library W. H. Auden: The Collected Poems. I was reading it last night as the hours ticked by and Howard didn't come home. I have selected it for my next book club—the studio executives—for one very specific reason: Unlike Howard, Auden, the adamant universalist, saw all people as the same kind. He called the human species "New Yorkers," and to him they were, otherwise, nameless.

I hear Howard murmur. I have to focus on it to clarify the words. "There's something missing, Anne."

I cast about for the thing to say. I say, as quietly as if I'm afraid of shattering something, There was never anything missing before.

He merely breathes for a moment, wincing. Then, "There is now."

He is walking to and from the suitcase in the shadows. The sun will be up in about fifty minutes. I hear his feet. Howard, I say.

(I can't bear the silence.)

Oh, Howard! I implore him, please talk to me.

"It's not necessarily rational," he says, his eyes on the things in his hands, and adds, his jaw tense, "To you that means it's suspect. I used to feel that way. Now I don't."

As he packs, he begins to speak about having left an island long ago and wandering in the wilderness but the little island never forgot him, about a home that he betrayed, about a man in exile (in exile? I ask; in exile from what, Howard? but he doesn't stop), and about longing without realizing he was longing—and my saying, How can you long without realizing it? and his digging in his heels at this, putting his head down, his voice rising by several decibels as if sheer willpower could win the argument.

He wraps some black shoes in felt. There is a suit bag. He is leaving our home.

Who will you be staying with? I ask.

He is struggling with the suitcase. "I'll be in touch," he says through gritted teeth, working on the lock. He snaps shut the case, hefts the suit bag. Glances heavily at the dresser to check that he hasn't forgotten anything.

Who will you be staying with?

It takes an instant for his feet to begin to move.

I hear his footsteps going down the hall. The kitchen door opening, a moment of auditory void, then the sound of it closing. An eternal period, and the car's powerful German engine wakes again, calm mechanical equanimity. I listen to the recessional down our driveway.

The faint sound of gravel crunching under tire comes through the open window, then the engine, the car leaps forward, and Howard vanishes into what is left of the night.

The movie cliché is the woman reaching out her hand, touching his pillow, and only then remembering. But I, when I wake again, find by contrast that my brief sleep has been entirely drenched in a blue distillate of his departure, such that even awake I confuse waking with sleeping and believe dreams to have become merely mundane. Unlike in the movies, there is never a single instant I don't know that he's gone.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chandler Burr