The sidewalk was wide enough for both of them, yet the man kept walking on Sasha’s heels. She’d picked him up two blocks ago and quickened her step, attempting to signal that he was intruding on her space. He was either oblivious or tailing her on purpose, neither of which was acceptable.
Sasha waited until they’d reached a more populated block and then turned around to face him.
“You owe me,” she said.
The man appeared flustered. He was wearing a suit that looked custom-made, and in her platforms, Sasha was slightly taller than him. He started grabbing at his pockets, finally pulling a $20 bill from his wallet and letting go of it before she’d even made contact, so that it floated on the air for a moment between them.
“This is too much!” Sasha yelled after him. And anyway, he should have paid through the app. He was already gone, crossing the street at the next intersection, careful not to collide with anyone. Sasha ducked into the nearest café and bought coffees for her co-workers.
At home that night, she told her husband the story.
“You charged him for that?” Dan asked. “Walking too close?”
“He was purposefully intimidating me,” she said, “or he was oblivious.”
“Maybe he was just in a hurry and thought it would be rude to pass you.”
The story had gone over better at work, where Sasha’s colleagues had commiserated with her, telling similar anecdotes of their own. They were a year into the system and tired of the everyday transactions. Their boss emerged from his office, looking for a moment like he might comment on their unproductive congregation, but when he heard the conversation, he moved along.
The first time Sasha’s husband paid her felt illicit. It was only $10, a minor offense. Still, that money was hers now. Dan had no choice but to give it to her; and, legally, she couldn’t have refused if she’d wanted to.
They laughed nervously as he opened the app on his phone.
“Here you go,” he said. “Ten bucks, milady.”
“Thank you, kind sir.”
Sasha bowed her head in what felt like a magnanimous gesture. She hadn’t had much occasion to perform magnanimity with her husband. Patience, yes. Courtesy. Affection. When she took his money, she felt she should be as chivalrous as a lord.
Some of the wives had a harder time accepting the payments than others. “We’re married,” they’d say. “Isn’t it all a wash?” Others argued that money was more useful than the usual offerings — flowers, jewelry, the occasional vacation when they’d really been bad. Once, a friend received a Havanese puppy as penitence; she didn’t even like dogs, and the animal lived 12 years. But certainly cash was more useful than vague apologies and pledges to do better — they could all agree on that.
Really, it was the range of offenses that seemed to bother these women the most.
Cheating? Fine. Buy me a condo. But missing his turn to do the dishes? Come on. He can’t be expected to remember. That’s just not how their brains work.
To these women, Sasha didn’t mention the early stages of the system, when she’d attended a focus group to assess feelings and complaints. Held in a middle-school classroom, the meeting had opened with talks of tiered payments for women of color, an opportunity to address both reparations and the intersectional pay gap, but a small contingent of vocal white women argued for starting simple so the government didn’t forego the system altogether. Sasha found it so obviously reminiscent of the suffrage movement that she was certain the oversight wouldn’t go far — an assumption she later regretted — and sat quietly until they got to the matter of specific grievances.
“If you could charge your husband for anything,” the moderator asked, “what would it be?”
The other women in the group were silent; their eyes darted around, eager to see who’d be the first to speak. Sasha raised her hand.
“My husband leaves standing water around the bathroom sink,” she said. “For years. Even though I’ve told him a million times how much it bothers me.”
“And how much would you like your husband to pay for this offense?”
All heads turned to Sasha in that moment. She made eye contact with several of the women, looking for a hint of understanding. For years she had mopped up the standing water on that counter; for years she’d asked him to notice. The number in her head was high. It was wavering between two and three digits, if she was being honest.
“Five dollars?” she finally said. The oldest woman among them shook her head and made a clucking noise in her throat, as if Sasha had disappointed her.
As newlyweds, Sasha and Dan used to spend hours talking about what they wanted their marriage to look like. They’d met at a march for reproductive rights, where he’d stood on the sidewalk, handing out bottles of water for passersby. Sasha had been surprised by how easily their small talk turned to flirtation; Dan had revealed a hidden thermos of bourbon, which Sasha had stealthily poured into her coffee, giggling like a teenager. Sasha rarely recounted this anecdote faithfully, embarrassed by their irreverence at a serious event. Instead, she told people that Dan had wound up beside her at the march and they’d chanted together for hours before finally exchanging numbers. Dan told the story this way too, either following Sasha’s lead or because it eventually became his real version of events.
Regardless of the details, their meet-cute had set the tone for their relationship. They weren’t going to do it like everyone else, they vowed. It was ridiculous to think Dan would do a smaller fraction of the household labor. Of course Sasha wouldn’t be the only one to notice when they ran out of toilet paper, or when they needed to buy a gift for so and so, or when it had been a few days since they had meaningfully connected. If their favorite dairy substitute was outed for particularly egregious practices, it would not fall on Sasha to decide which company they’d be giving their dollars to next. There were all sorts of labor, they knew, and they’d endeavor to divide each of them equally. Inevitably, they’d fail, but they’d discuss their failings and make an action plan to course correct.
When the system kicked in a couple of years later, they understood that it wasn’t created for people like them. It was for people like their neighbor Roger, who wouldn’t get off his ass to help his wife, Linda, around the house. And for single women like Sasha’s sister, Bec, who had to determine if potential dates were the revenge-porn type. Bec used to live in Jersey with four roommates. She had her own place in the East Village now. Sasha had a key to her apartment and she went there sometimes when she knew Bec would be out. She’d pull on Bec’s robe and make herself an espresso, then sit on Bec’s fire escape and imagine, for a little while, what it must be like to live this way.
The system wasn’t made for Dan and Sasha, but they were obligated to go along with it. And anyway, for it to work for the people who needed it — for Linda and Bec to get what they were owed — then everyone had to buy in. That seemed clear to them. So occasionally Dan paid her. They made a little show of it. If anything, it brought them closer.
Not long after the sidewalk incident, Sasha came home to find the place smelling like her in-laws. It was Dan’s turn to cook, and he tended toward the midwestern dishes of his childhood: pork chops and applesauce, the ubiquitous casserole. Sasha found him in the kitchen and wrapped her arms around his waist, rested her head in the dip between his shoulders.
“How was your day?” she asked.
“We lost Richie.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Dan knew, Sasha was sure, that she was not actually sorry to hear that. His work buddy, Richie, was a misogynist in his prime. He openly stared at his coworkers’ breasts, and if he ever spoke to them, it was either to be condescending, overtly sexual, or to take credit for their work. When the system first started, so did Richie’s conspiracy theories about heterophobia; in reality, the exclusion of queer couples from the new order was just another example of the government’s willful cluelessness. They couldn’t fathom the possibility of unfair labor division in same-sex households, let alone how to compensate for it — how could women, for one, be both payer and payee? Like considerations of tiered payments for women of color, the matter was quickly dismissed.
Dan told Sasha these stories about Richie, so she knew he was aware of his flaws. Still, they went to happy hour together at least once a week. They were the only two left from the company’s startup days, when everything was exciting and infused with a sense of purpose, and over the years they’d watched as their colleagues moved to Silicon Valley and the board brought in more diversity, including their new CEO, a younger Black woman whom Dan swore he didn’t resent, even after he’d had to pay her $30 for commenting on how tired she looked. The inflated sense of ownership they both felt over the company seemed to bond Dan and Richie, though Dan had initially disliked him.
“Did he move to the Sands, then?” Sasha asked. The Sands was the community at the end of the Rockaways. Once experts warned that beach erosion would someday make the area untenable, the government started buying up properties for displaced men to live. They received food vouchers and basic medical services. Some seemed eager to go, racking up innocuous offenses at home or standing on street corners to grope women and then happily pay them until they had nothing left.
And then there were men like Richie, who presumably didn’t want to lose their homes and livelihoods to live in a commune full of displaced men. But, as the system had made clear, some behaviors are too ingrained to be corrected.
“He went to one in Michigan,” Dan said. “Closer to family.”
“Well. I’m sure you’ll miss him.”
Dan ignored the passive aggressive note in Sasha’s voice and plated their dinners. They ate quietly and then moved to the living room to catch up on their shows.
Sasha found Bec at a corner table of the diner she’d picked, looking her usual combination of tired and glamorous. Sasha didn’t recognize Bec’s coat, which she kept perched on her shoulders, but she was sure it was expensive.
“How have you been?” Sasha asked.
“Honestly, I’ve been bored out of my mind since I stopped traveling. Just more time to read emails from the trolls.”
“Are they still at it? Even after the minimum went up?”
“If anything, they seem to feel more justified if they have to pay fifty bucks to do it.”
A busboy passed by and took Bec’s empty plate. Sasha tried to smile at him, but he didn’t make eye contact.
Sasha never knew what to say to Bec during these conversations. It was horrible what her boss had done, but if she handled her money well, she was secure for life now. As the older sister, Sasha felt comforted by that. Still, she knew better than to appear anything other than outraged on Bec’s behalf.
When they were girls growing up in Pittsburgh, Bec had always been what their mother called boy crazy. Beautiful and raucous, she’d attracted attention from the opposite sex before either sister was in training bras (Bec got to the training bras well before Sasha). As teenagers, Sasha was never without a boyfriend. Each relationship lasted a year or more, and the periods between only grew briefer. Meanwhile, Bec dodged dates left and right, preferring to hang out with friends or stay late at the school paper tweaking headlines. Sasha knew she was a feminist the day she realized that Bec was not boy crazy; boys were just crazy for her.
“How are things at home?” Bec asked.
“Fine.” Sasha didn’t want to say more, but she could tell that Bec wanted to move the conversation along. “Things have been tense since Richie went to Michigan. I can’t tell if Dan’s sad or angry.” Sasha had been complaining to Bec about Richie for years; she’d responded to the news of his ousting with an entire screen of applause emojis.
“Fuck that guy,” Bec said.
“I don’t know how to help.”
“There’s nothing to help. Dan lost his first shitty friend. Maybe now he’ll find a decent one.”
“Maybe,” Sasha said. Her attention had shifted to a couple at the register. They seemed to be arguing over whether or not he’d mansplained the economy to her. The woman was pulling in the cashier for her opinion; she was nodding in agreement, though it was hard to tell how wholeheartedly.
Bec liked Dan, or at least she used to. At the wedding, Bec had cried and told Dan she’d always wanted a brother. When Bec confided in them about her boss, Sasha had been impressed with how Dan had managed to express his support without pressuring Bec to file a report. Sasha’s first thought was how much Bec stood to gain financially. It felt crass, of course, but she convinced herself that she was only looking out for her sister.
Lately, Bec seemed less tolerant of men in general, her brother-in-law included. More and more, she stopped making the trek to Sasha’s place and they met out for lunch instead. If Dan noticed, he understood.
“How are things going, money-wise? Do you need a spot?” Bec asked.
“We’re fine! I told you, it was a one-time thing.” Sasha had hated taking money from Bec when she and Dan fell behind on their student loans, but that had been months ago. They had things figured out now; they’d reevaluated their necessities. A single streaming service, non-organic groceries, vacations limited to the tri-state area. Sasha wanted Bec to stop asking, but it felt ungenerous to say so.
“If you’re sure,” Bec said.
“Is he still flooding the bathroom counters?”
Sasha laughed. “I might have to talk him into a second bathroom.”
“Want me to rile him up so he calls me a bitch? That should pay for it.”
“Haven’t you heard?” Bec held out her phone so Sasha could read the newest emails. “I’m the queen of entrapment.”
On her way home from work, Sasha stopped off at their favorite Chinese restaurant and bought a little of everything. She liked to treat themselves here and there on her dinner nights. It felt like a nice way to give back to Dan—a small tweak to a system not intended for them. His payments never amounted to much: $10 for pee on the toilet seat, $40 for ending sex with his orgasm. The most he’d ever paid was $300, for going through Sasha’s phone. He’d said he was looking through her history for birthday ideas, and she believed him, but going through a woman’s phone was an inarguable offense, no matter the reason. On this one, the system was clear.
Bec would never understand that Sasha chose to use Dan’s payments on his favorite dim sum, so she kept it to herself. Everyone had their ways of making the system work for them. Some of Sasha’s friends donated their payments to public radio or climate crisis funds. Sasha sent small amounts to the YWCA, remembering her silence during that focus group, but she felt that she should do more.
When Sasha got home, Dan had already set out plates and silverware. The kitchen sink, she noticed, gleamed.
“You spoil me!” he said, grabbing the takeout bags.
They lined up all the cartons on the coffee table and sat facing each other while they ate. They talked about work drama, Linda’s new hot tub, their friends who were being audited. It was admirable, they agreed, that the couple had questioned the system, but foolish not to at least feign the numbers so as not to call attention to themselves. Now they’d have to endure the bureaucracy of a relationship audit, a well-intentioned but inefficient safeguard to make sure women had willingly opted out, and who had time for that?
Afterward, having eaten too much, Sasha slid to the floor and laid in corpse pose.
“I’m going to Michigan this weekend,” Dan said.
“What?” Sasha lifted her head to look at him.
“Richie’s having a hard time,” he said. “He’s lonely out there.”
“Don’t you think he just needs time to adjust?”
“How would you feel, exiled like that?”
“He hasn’t been exiled,” Sasha said. She got up and started gathering the cartons, ignoring the grease she was getting on her clothes. “He lost all his money being an asshole, and now he’s living in a glorified bachelor pad for free.”
“A glorified bachelor pad? He might as well be in prison.”
“Only a middle-class white guy would equate a subsidized apartment on the beach with ‘prison.’”
“You know what I mean,” Dan said. He started grabbing the cartons Sasha had left behind and assessing them for leftovers and leaks.
“I’ve just never understood your obsession with him.”
“He’s a little rough around the edges. We didn’t all go to grad school and read bell hooks.” (While they’d both gone to graduate school, Sasha had never read bell hooks, though she owned The Will to Change and was determined to read it soon.)
“I’m not having this fight again,” she said. “You don’t need a master’s degree to not be a dick.”
“So I’m the dick now?”
He dropped the last of the cartons in the trash. The smell of fried rice lingered.
Sasha wasn’t ready to bow out yet, but it was clear this argument was only going to escalate. If it escalated to yelling, he’d have to pay — at least $50 — which would only make him feel more put out.
“Ginsburg,” Sasha said, throwing her arms in the air. The safe word they’d established to pause their arguments. They didn’t like the idea of paying and collecting during moments of anger.
The room was quiet for several seconds while they both took a beat.
“Do you want your fortune cookie?” Dan said, thrusting one of them at her. She ignored the offering and left to congratulate Linda on her new hot tub.
When Linda heard that Dan was going to Michigan, she declared it a girls’ weekend. Ever since her best friend had retired to Tampa, Linda had given Sasha the role, a development that Sasha welcomed. It was nice to have an older woman to talk to; even nicer, when Dan was particularly put out by a recent payment, to have somewhere else to go. From Friday to Sunday, Linda and Sasha soaked in the hot tub until they pruned and then retreated to the air conditioning of Linda’s kitchen, where she made drinks with her Margaritaville blender and answered Roger’s bellowed requests for food. She never paused the conversation, just seamlessly began pulling ingredients from the fridge and putting everything together.
Warm yet no-nonsense, Linda reminded Sasha acutely of her mother. Both had been nurses, their caretaking skills not just finely tuned but professional. Linda had met Sasha’s mother once, on her mother’s last visit. Seeing the two of them together had a sort of trick-mirror effect. Occasionally, Sasha would hear their laughter from across the room and couldn’t tell which was which.
In the hot tub, the women staked out opposite corners, Linda in one of her new bathing suits, Sasha in a one-piece she’d owned for years.
“God damn,” Linda said, resting her head back and letting her legs float in front of her. She said this every time she got in the water. “I could get used to this.”
Sasha laughed. “You’ve earned it.”
Next to Bec, Linda’s life was the most dramatically improved by the system of all the women Sasha knew. Once Roger had gotten over his initial outrage, he’d simply begun to hand over the majority of his pension to Linda in exchange for a clean and stocked house, three meals a day, and not having to think beyond his day-long rotation of American Pickers and SportsCenter. Linda, meanwhile, looked more relaxed than ever: she scheduled massages, pedicures. She spent so much time in the spa’s hot tub that she decided to invest in her own.
On their third or fourth trip to the hot tub, margarita in hand, Sasha asked Linda if she ever considered leaving Roger.
“Why would I do that?” Linda said.
“Not right away,” Sasha said. “You could save up for a while.”
“Just when I’ve started getting paid? Roger wouldn’t know what to do with himself anyway. He’s not like Dan. You kids are doing things differently.”
Sasha let the subject drop. This is where Linda diverged from her mother, who had raised Bec and Sasha alone. She taught her daughters how to balance a checkbook, mow the lawn, jump a car battery. When the child support checks stopped coming not long after they’d started, she picked up overtime shifts.
You girls don’t need a man, got it? Bec and Sasha would roll their eyes, parrot back what she wanted to hear. Marry for love, they said. Leave if we please.
“Speaking of,” Linda said, “what do you do with yours?”
“My what?” Sasha asked.
Sasha pressed her shoulder against a jet while deliberating. She could trust Linda, she knew, but she still felt embarrassed somehow. “He doesn’t have to pay me much. I usually just buy us dinner. Gives me a night off from cooking.”
“I figured it was something like that,” Linda said. “You’re the only woman I know who still cuts her own hair.”
“Well, it’s like you said. We’re trying to do things differently.”
Linda sat up and looked Sasha dead in the eye, the expression Sasha’s mother had always used when she was about to set one of her daughters straight.
“You’ve earned that money,” Linda said. “If you don’t want to think of it as taking from your husband, think of it as taking from all the men you’ve dealt with for the past 30 years. Your husband is just a proxy.”
“That doesn’t seem fair to him.”
“But does it seem fair to you?”
Roger called out just then. “Excuse me,” Linda said, splashing water over the ledge of the hot tub as she climbed out.
When Dan got home that evening, Sasha was reading on the couch. He collapsed on the cushions and laid his head in her lap.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“For being so weird since Richie left.” He rolled onto his back and looked up at Sasha. “It was just scary, seeing him pushed out like that. I kept wondering if that could be me someday.”
“But you’re nothing like Richie.”
“Still. It feels like the little things could add up. The accidents.”
Sasha knew what he was referring to, but she didn’t want to get into it. Spending time with an ex without your partner’s consent is another top offense, even if you’d never planned to run into her. There’s certainly no getting around it when your sister-in-law spots you. Sasha might have found a workaround, but Bec didn’t give her a choice.
“That won’t happen,” Sasha said. “The system isn’t for us. You’re good. You’re a good man.”
They sat silently for a few minutes. Sasha wondered if Roger had ever laid his head in Linda’s lap.
“You were wrong about the glorified bachelor pad thing.”
“I expected it to be like a frat house. Male friendship and all that. But they’re bitter. They can’t blow off any steam.” Sasha played with Dan’s hair for a while, waiting to see if he’d say more. She knew little about those places, save one piece of gonzo journalism in which an undercover reporter had painted the Sands as an “Eden of men.”
“They have these bonfires at night where they get all ‘I am man, hear me roar,’” Dan said. “It was some Lord of the Flies shit.”
“Did I tell you he has a roommate? It’s so depressing. They literally share a room.”
“What’s the roommate like?” Sasha asked, imagining a younger version of Richie.
“A total alpha. I felt like he was memorizing my weak spots.” Sasha could imagine how insecure Dan must have felt; while he joked good-naturedly about being “soft,” she knew he sometimes wished to be more masculine.
“I think I need to give Richie some space,” Dan said. “He needs time to adjust.”
“That makes sense.” Sasha recounted her weekend with Linda, Roger’s incompetence and interruptions.
Poor Linda, they said. They wanted better for her.
Per tradition, Sasha and Bec went out for an expensive dinner on their mother’s birthday. They liked to eat and imbibe enough for three, sometimes more, and then they’d spend the night together and fall asleep in the same bed, a throwback to their childhood.
Since Bec had started footing the bill, the locations had gotten swankier, almost absurdly so. Sasha recognized this year’s spot from one of the more popular reality shows; Bec had dressed Sasha from her own closet so she’d blend in.
“Here’s to strong women!” Bec said, tipping her glass against Sasha’s. “May we know them, may we disappoint them, may we grieve them.”
“Oh please,” Sasha said. “You didn’t disappoint Mom. You were her favorite.”
“You’ve always been the delusional one,” Bec said. A woman across the room waved at Bec, and she smiled back in the way she did with strangers who recognized her from the court case.
“True,” Sasha said. “But look who’s the success story now.”
Bec scoffed. “You can’t be talking about me.”
“That woman is fawning over you. And this outfit probably costs more than I make in a month.”
“Yes, and what bought it?” Bec said. She was leaning away from the table now, holding her drink close to her chest.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Sasha said. “I’m just saying Mom would be proud of you.”
Sasha thought she caught a glimmer in Bec’s eye, but when she looked again, her sister’s expression was cold.
“Let’s break down that pretty outfit,” Bec said.
“We don’t have to.”
“No, let’s do it, since you’re so interested. That silk?” she said, pinching Sasha’s shoulder. “Feels good, right?” Sasha didn’t want to answer, but Bec seemed to be waiting for a response.
“Yes,” Sasha said. “It feels good.”
“That was for the time he kept his hand on my thigh during an entire meeting. Just kept running it up and down, so gently. So soft.” Bec was brushing her fingertips across Sasha’s forearm while she talked. Sasha wondered what they looked like to the people around them.
“And that skirt,” she said. “That leather is like milk, isn’t it? So goddamn silky. Fuck.” Bec was writhing a little in her seat now. Sasha tried to keep her face composed.
“I bought that while I was still working for him. Leather’s almost impossible to hike over your hips, you know?”
“I get it, Bec. I’m sorry.”
“You’re not fucking sorry. You think I don’t know that you sneak into my apartment? That you wish it was you who lived there?”
“I just don’t see why you can’t enjoy it a little. Of course I wish it hadn’t happened to you! But now you can take care of yourself. Is that so bad?” Sasha didn’t mention her own finances, or the shame of having to be dressed by her little sister. She’d planned to buy herself a new outfit for tonight, but their television had died and Dan had asked if they could spend the payments Sasha had saved on a new one, something a little better this time.
Bec wasn’t finished. “How do you like the shoes?” she asked.
“They’re perfect,” Sasha said. (In fact, they were unbelievable, but Sasha felt it was the wrong moment to say so.)
Bec smiled, the biggest smile Sasha had seen on her in years. Then she ducked under the table and took Sasha’s ankles in her hands, one by one. She emerged with the heels dangling from her fingertips.
“I’ll never work again,” she said. She said it so quietly that Sasha barely heard. And then she stood up and left.
Sasha didn’t look at the bill when it came, just handed over her credit card. Tiptoeing out of the restaurant was less humiliating than she’d imagined, and at least she was certain the floor was clean. At home, she stared at the front door for several minutes before going inside. She found Dan in the living room playing video games, Richie’s disembodied voice hurling from the speakers. He looked sheepish, but he needn’t have. There was no category in the system for this particular transgression, and Sasha was too tired to care.
The following weeks passed slowly. Sasha didn’t know what to say to Bec, so she said nothing and tracked her movements online. Bec had written an essay about the trolling, which had gone viral, getting her more trolls and inflaming the ones who insisted that was the entire point of the piece. Women, too, were piling on, calling out Bec for spending her payments on promoting her personal brand rather than donating to women’s groups.
“She’ll come around,” Dan said each time he found Sasha combing through her feeds.
“I’m a monster,” Sasha would say, and then Dan would pretend to be one too, clawing at Sasha’s hair and making pterodactyl-like sounds until she finally laughed and put her phone away. Occasionally the wrestling would lead to sex, the comfortable and equitably climactic kind that Sasha had grown used to. At first, the system had felt like an unwelcome party in their bedroom, giving Dan performance anxiety and making Sasha feel the need to generously fake a few orgasms. Clearly this wasn’t an isolated problem; before long, their physical and virtual mailboxes were stuffed with messages about sexual communication and the science of the clitoris. Though Sasha had laughed with Dan at first, she suggested they read them, just in case, and she had to admit that her sex life was now at peak satisfying, if not exactly surprising.
Sasha noticed, of course, that while she was obsessed with Bec’s online presence, Dan was tuned into Richie’s. One night, she walked in on him listening to an interview with a men’s rights advocate, but he quickly assured her that it was more of Richie’s nonsense and that he was only listening so he could build an argument against it. Sasha felt the exercise to be pointless, but she also admired Dan for accepting that particular Sisyphean boulder.
When Linda’s birthday came around, Sasha was relieved for the distraction. Linda had reserved half the dining room at her favorite restaurant in the neighborhood, a dimly lit Italian place decorated almost exclusively with faux antlers. As guests arrived, they surreptitiously piled gifts on a corner two-top. Sasha was admiring the variety of wrapping paper when she realized Dan hadn’t been carrying anything when they arrived. She found him at the bar ordering a bottle of champagne for the table.
“I thought it was your turn to get the gift,” he said.
“I bought the carafe set for your mom last month. And I put Linda’s on the calendar.”
“You know I never check the calendar.” He nodded at the bottle the bartender was displaying.
“This counts, right? Same price as a carafe set.”
“This is a sweet gesture. The gesture’s on top of the gift.”
“Ah,” he said, signing the receipt. “More rules.” He started walking back to the group; Sasha had to weave through tables to follow behind.
“What do you mean, more rules?”
“It’s just a lot to keep up with, on top of the system. I feel like you’re becoming a bit of a warden about it all.”
“I know this isn’t part of the system, but it’s part of our system,” Sasha said, lowering her voice as they got closer to Linda’s party. “We agreed on splitting gifts when we got married.”
“I just don’t know if that makes a lot of sense.” Dan paused briefly for the pop of the champagne being uncorked and Linda’s subsequent cry. “You know Linda a lot better than I do. I wouldn’t even know what to get her.”
“You’ve known Linda as long as I have! And I had ideas, if you’d asked.”
“If you had ideas, doesn’t it make sense for you to get the gift?”
“That’s not the point,” Sasha said. Linda came over just then and handed Dan a champagne flute.
“You’ve got a good one,” she said, squeezing Sasha close. Sasha nodded, inhaling Linda’s heavy perfume.
“I know I do.”
It wasn’t until later, as she emptied the dishwasher at home, that Sasha remembered why Dan’s phrase — warden — sounded familiar: It’s what Richie used to call their CEO, the woman who logged all his office offenses. Sasha was halfway through a text to Bec when she remembered they weren’t speaking. Her phone vibrated suddenly, and she hoped it was Bec — they often messaged each other in tandem — but it was just a payment.
For the present, Dan had written. Sorry, babe!
He passed by and kissed Sasha on the cheek. She opened a browser window, looking for something Linda might like.
Two months after Sasha’s fight with Bec, she woke to a text from her.
Party at my building tonight. Trolls theme.
I’m invited? Sasha typed back.
That was the point of the text, yes.
Later that night, Sasha’s fingertips still soft from the hot tub, Dan gave her a pep talk outside Bec’s building. They could hear music floating down from the roof, and Sasha realized that she still didn’t have an adequate apology in order. That she was dressed like an internet troll felt keenly appropriate.
“Bec loves you,” Dan said. “She wouldn’t have invited you if she wasn’t ready to bury the hatchet.”
“You know I hate violent idioms.”
They took the stairs to the rooftop and found Bec holding court, dressed as an actual troll doll.
“No one got the theme,” she said when she greeted them, skipping hugs. It was true: everyone was dressed for a night of prowling the internet, while Bec’s two-foot wig swayed precariously and shed glitter whenever she moved her head.
“I should have known,” Sasha said.
“Yes, you should’ve.”
That was the most Bec seemed willing to give. As Sasha caught up with their mutual friends, she tried to work out why she’d been invited at all. She watched Bec alight on group after group — never the one Sasha was currently in — and make everyone laugh before wandering off. Finally, a couple hours in and her stamina waning, Sasha spotted Bec tidying up at the drinks table.
“Can I help?” Sasha asked. Bec conceded with a mumble.
“I miss you,” Sasha said.
“I’m very missable.”
“I was a monster,” Sasha said.
“Would you say you were … a troll?” Bec was smirking now, which Sasha took as a good sign.
“Yes, but like, the Brothers Grimm kind. Totally grotesque.”
They moved off to the side and took in the party. Bec pointed out her internet friends and her support-group friends and her former work friends. Sasha smiled warmly at Bec’s ex-girlfriend, who’d left town for a while after getting multiple death threats. That Bec was bisexual had almost lost her the case, and she’d nearly disowned Sasha for saying that there were plenty of potential partners but only one chance for this sort of financial security. Sasha hated herself for saying it, though she still partially believed it.
Sasha hadn’t noticed they were standing outside Dan’s circle, and evidently neither had he. His voice rose to the top of the din just as he was explaining to a small group of men that Sasha spent his payments on takeout and a 50-inch TV.
“I’m not shitty enough to pay for a bigger screen,” he said. “Too bad she didn’t have Bec’s job.”
Before the men had a chance to fully appreciate the joke, Bec swiped the drink from Dan’s hand.
“Cute,” she said. “Now get the fuck off my roof.”
Dan’s face drained. He looked from Bec to Sasha helplessly.
“It was a bad joke,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” He made his way for the stairwell, and the men seemed to instantaneously disperse. Sasha felt, for a long moment, like dying of shame.
“Bec,” she started. She couldn’t think of anything to follow.
“Takeout?” Bec said. Her face looked like it had in the restaurant. “Seriously?”
Back on the sidewalk where they’d started, Dan looked torn between humility and winding himself up for a fight.
“I think you need to stop talking to Richie,” Sasha said.
“What does Richie have to do with this? I made a really offensive joke. It was all me.”
“I’d like you to stop talking to Richie,” Sasha said this time.
“So Richie isn’t to blame for how much you’ve been fucking up lately?”
Dan laughed at her then. His shoulders squared up and out, his tell that he was shifting into the offensive.
“Where’s the tally of your fuckups?” he said. “Why aren’t you paying me every time you snap at me? Or pretend you’re too tired to do the dishes? Or say something rude about my parents?”
“Because that’s not what the system is for.”
“What’s it for then? To give you all the power?”
Sasha noticed that a couple of women across the street had paused to watch. She tried to give them a wave to let them know they didn’t need to stay. She’d witnessed the same fights, though they were more frequent in the early days — they’d all known this would happen, the anger, but no one had listened to them. Still, Sasha didn’t feel physically threatened by her husband. Those women wouldn’t either, if they knew him.
Sasha realized she was swallowing compulsively, and then she realized it was bile she was forcing back.
“You have no idea what it’s like,” she said. “You’ll never know what it’s like.”
She left Dan there, confused or still angry, she didn’t know. She walked a few blocks before calling a car to take her home. The women, Sasha felt certain, were still watching.
Sasha spent most of the following day at Linda’s, her phone out of reach. She didn’t want a lecture from Bec about how she was a disappointment to feminism, nor did she want to hear the sound of money hitting her account once Dan had calculated a fair amount for the scene. Linda tried to feed her, then give her tequila, then she finally settled in and just kept her company in the hot tub. Sasha noticed that Linda didn’t groan anymore when she sank into the frothing water. She missed the sound.
“You know, that time I met your mother, she asked me the same thing you did,” Linda said. “About leaving Roger.”
“You never told me that.”
“I was embarrassed. The system wasn’t even around yet. I didn’t have an excuse.”
“What did you say?”
“I told her that I wasn’t as strong as she was.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘My god, Linda, strength has nothing to do with it. I’m just angrier than you are.’”
Sasha laughed. It sounded like her.
“I used to wonder if she would’ve lived longer, if the system had existed,” Sasha said. She thought of her mother’s 12-hour nights at the hospital, dragging herself out the door for holiday shifts that paid time-and-a-half and funded the girls’ prom dresses. Even after Sasha and Bec moved out, she didn’t slow down. They threw her a retirement party on the day before her sixty-fifth birthday, and then they threw her a funeral eight weeks later.
“I like to think she’d have her own hot tub,” Linda said.
“A whole spa,” Sasha said.
When Linda excused herself to make dinner, Sasha finally went home. She could hear Dan cooking in the kitchen, even though it was her night. He called from around the corner when she tried to sneak by.
Sasha paused and re-knotted the towel around her chest.
“Did Roger let her relax?”
Sasha watched as Dan tipped the saucepan over a colander and a cloud of steam obscured his face. She slipped away before the steam cleared.
Upstairs, in their bathroom, Sasha found her phone where she’d left it — face down on the counter — and now soaked in standing water.
The bulky phone case Dan had gifted her after the last time seemed to have done its job. Sasha picked up the phone and saw a text from Bec. You ok?
Sasha sent a thumbs-up emoji, then checked her latest balance.
Starving, she typed. Can I buy you dinner?