Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Toby Fleishman awoke one morning inside the city he’d lived in all his adult life and which was suddenly somehow now crawling with women who wanted him. Not just any women, but women who were self-actualized and independent and knew what they wanted. Women who weren’t needy or insecure or self-doubting, like the long-ago prospects of his long-gone youth—meaning the women he had thought of as prospects but who had never given him even a first glance. No, these were women who were motivated and available and interesting and interested and exciting and excited. These were women who would not so much wait for you to call them one or two or three socially acceptable days after you met them as much as send you pictures of their genitals the day before. Women who were open-minded and up for anything and vocal about their desires and needs and who used phrases like “put my cards on the table” and “no strings attached” and “I need to be done in ten because I have to pick up Bella from ballet.” Women who would fuck you like they owed you money, was how our friend Seth put it.
Yes, who could have predicted that Toby Fleishman, at the age of forty-one, would find that his phone was aglow from sunup to sundown (in the night the glow was extra bright) with texts that contained G-string and ass cleavage and underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob and all the parts of a woman he never dared dream he would encounter in a person who was three-dimensional—meaning literally three-dimensional, as in a person who wasn’t on a page or a computer screen. All this, after a youth full of romantic rejection! All this, after putting a lifetime bet on one woman! Who could have predicted this? Who could have predicted that there was such life in him yet?
Still, he told me, it was jarring. Rachel was gone now, and her goneness was so incongruous to what had been his plan. It wasn’t that he still wanted her—he absolutely did not want her. He absolutely did not wish she were still with him. It was that he had spent so long waiting out the fumes of the marriage and busying himself with the paperwork necessary to extricate himself from it—telling the kids, moving out, telling his colleagues—that he had not considered what life might be like on the other side of it. He understood divorce in a macro way, of course. But he had not yet adjusted to it in a micro way, in the other-side-of-the-bed-being-empty way, in the nobody-to-tell-you-were-running-late way, in the you-belong-to-no-one way. How long was it before he could look at the pictures of women on his phone—pictures the women had sent him eagerly and of their own volition—straight on, instead of out of the corner of his eye? Okay, sooner than he thought but not immediately. Certainly not immediately.
He hadn’t looked at another woman once during his marriage, so in love with Rachel was he—so in love was he with any kind of institution or system. He made solemn, dutiful work of trying to save the relationship even after it would have been clear to any reasonable person that their misery was not a phase. There was nobility in the work, he believed. There was nobility in the suffering. And even after he realized that it was over, he still had to spend years, plural, trying to convince her that this wasn’t right, that they were too unhappy, that they were still young and could have good lives without each other—even then he didn’t let one millimeter of his eye wander. Mostly, he said, because he was too busy being sad. Mostly because he felt like garbage all the time, and a person shouldn’t feel like garbage all the time. More than that, a person shouldn’t be made horny when he felt like garbage. The intersection of horniness and low self-esteem seemed reserved squarely for porn consumption.
But now there was no one to be faithful to. Rachel wasn’t there. She was not in his bed. She was not in the bathroom, applying liquid eyeliner to the area where her eyelid met her eyelashes with the precision of an arthroscopy robot. She was not at the gym, or coming back from the gym in a less black mood than usual, not by much but a little. She was not up in the middle of the night, complaining about the infinite abyss of her endless insomnia. She was not at Curriculum Night at the kids’ extremely private and yet somehow progressive school on the West Side, sitting in a small chair and listening to the new and greater demands that were being placed on their poor children compared to the prior year. (Though, then again she rarely was. Those nights, like the other nights, she was at work, or at dinner with a client, what she called “pulling her weight” when she was being kind, and what she called “being your cash cow” when she wasn’t.) So no, she was not there. She was in a completely other home, the one that used to be his, too. Every single morning this thought overwhelmed him momentarily; it panicked him, so that the first thing he thought when he awoke was this: Something is wrong. There is trouble. I am in trouble. It had been he who asked for the divorce, and still: Something is wrong. There is trouble. I am in trouble. Each morning, he shook this off. He reminded himself that this was what was healthy and appropriate and the natural order. She wasn’t supposed to be next to him anymore. She was supposed to be in her separate, nicer home.
But she wasn’t there, either, not on this particular morning. He learned this when he leaned over to his new IKEA nightstand and picked up his phone, whose beating presence he felt even in those few minutes before his eyes officially opened. He had maybe seven or eight texts there, most of them from women who had reached out during the night via his dating app, but his eyes went straight to Rachel’s text, somewhere in the middle. It seemed to give off a different light than the ones that contained body parts and lacy bands of panty; it somehow drew his eyes in a way the others didn’t. At five A.M. she’d written, I’m headed to Kripalu for the weekend; the kids are at your place FYI.
It took two readings to realize what that meant, and Toby, ignoring the erection he’d allowed to flourish knowing that his phone was rife with new masturbation material, jumped out of bed. He ran into the hallway, and he saw that their two children were in their bedrooms, asleep. FYI the kids were there? FYI? FYI was an afterthought; FYI was supplementary. It wasn’t essential. This information, that his children had been deposited into his home under the cover of darkness during an unscheduled time with the use of a key that had been supplied to Rachel in case of a true and dire emergency, seemed essential.
He returned to his bedroom and called her. “What were you thinking?” he whisper-hissed into the phone. Whisper-hissing still did not come easily to him, but he was getting better at it every day. “What if I’d gone out and not realized they were there?”
“That’s why I texted you,” she said. Her response to whisper-hissing was eye-rolling glibness.
“Did you bring them here after midnight? Because I went to sleep at midnight.”
“I dropped them off at four. I was trying to get in for the weekend. There was a cancellation. The program starts at nine. Give me a break here, Toby. I’m having a hard time. I really need some me-time.” As if all her time weren’t completely and totally her-time.
“You can’t pull this kind of shit, Rachel.” He only said her name at the end of sentences now, Rachel.
“Why? You had them this weekend anyway.”
“But not till tomorrow morning!” Toby put his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “The weekends begin Saturday. This was your rule, not mine.”
“Did you have plans?”
“What does that even mean? What if there had been a fire, Rachel? What if there had been an emergency with one of my patients, and I ran out without knowing they were here?”
“But you didn’t. I’m sorry, I should have woken you up and told you they were there?” He thought of her waking him up, how it could have been catastrophic to his progress in understanding that she was no longer part of his waking up.
“You shouldn’t have done it at all,” he said.
“Well, if what you were saying last night is true, then you could have predicted this would happen.”
Toby searched his bleary brain for their last hateful interaction and remembered it with the force of a sudden, deep dread: Rachel had been sputtering some nonsense about opening up a West Coast office of her agency, because she was not busy enough and overwhelmed enough as it was. Honestly, it was a blur. She’d ended the conversation, he remembered now, by screaming at him through her sobbing so that he couldn’t understand her until finally the line went dead and he knew she’d hung up on him. This was how conversations ended now, rather than with the inertia of marital apology. Toby had been told all his life that being in love means never having to say you’re sorry. But no, it was actually being divorced that meant never having to say you’re sorry.
“This hasn’t been easy on me, Toby,” she said now. “I get that I’m early. But all you have to do is drop them at camp. If you have plans, ask Mona to come. Why are we even still talking about this?”
How could she not see that this wasn’t a small deal? He actually did have a date that night. He didn’t want to leave the kids with Mona—that was Rachel’s solution to everything, not his. He couldn’t seem to convey to her that he was a real person, that he was not a blinking cursor awaiting her instructions, that he still existed when she wasn’t in a room with him. He couldn’t understand what the goal of having all these agreements in place was if she wasn’t going to even pretend to adhere to them, or apologize when she didn’t. He’d given her a key to his new apartment not to pull shit like this, but so they could have something that was amicable. Amicable amicable amicable. Did you ever notice that you only use the word amicable in relation to divorce? Was it because it was so often used for divorce that you didn’t want to poison anything else with it? The way you could say “malignant” for things other than cancer but you never did?
The kids were stirring and it was just as well because his boner was gone