The Spare Room
I’ve chosen Amtrak’s quiet car, so I stifle the urge to sob, to scream, to whimper in exhaustion or screech in fear of the strangers around me.
It’s wild how quickly I got used to staying home. Now riding a largely vacant train feels complicated and draining, like navigating a foreign country. Virgo meows on the seat next to me, and I unzip the carrier to scratch her ears. Mike didn’t want me to take her—he even reached for her carrier as I headed for the door.Reach for
me. Fight for
I’m the one you should keep from leaving.
My breath hitches, and a sob plucks at my throat. I look down at the sandwich I bought before boarding, but my stomach has that hollow, wrung-out feeling from crying so much the past three days. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel hungry again.
While I sat in the cavernous belly of Thirtieth Street Station, the vibe was fearful, hushed, crackling with distrust. Masked travelers eyed one another warily. It seems like a lifetime ago that we moved freely and breezily breathed in the air, sucking it into our bodies like milk-drunk babies. I’d felt relieved to board the train, but then a man sat behind me and now he’s eating a salad, infusing the car with his hot breath.
Did I think this through? It’s been sixteen hours since I shelled out $59 for a one-way ticket from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. It might not sound like much, but my personal bank account isn’t bulging. Mike’s company funded our move; his new salary and signing bonus have been carrying us through my unemployment. The sandwich was another stupid $12.
But of course, my mental math is just a distraction, an anxiety more comfortable than the true problem that looms.
I gaze out the window, where pretty houses and church steeples poke out of the distance. Sabrina has a meeting at my arrival time, so her husband, Nathan, will pick me up from Union Station. I feel a squeeze of fear every time I remember this fact. I’m nervous enough to see Sabrina, and now I’ll have to start this bonkers open-ended visit by finding a stranger in a train station.
My phone buzzes in the seat pocket. Mike
. Hope crackles—has he changed his mind?
“Hello?” I keep my voice low. I shouldn’t have picked the quiet car; a woman a few rows up turns to glare.
“Kelly. Hey.” He swallows, and all the molecules in my body hold still. “Uh—I can’t find the laundry detergent.”
My insides drop. “What?”
“I’m trying to wash the sheets and—”
“Under the kitchen sink. With all the other cleaning products.” Everything about the image fills me with sadness: Mike helpless in the hallway, peering at the washing machine; the fact that he’s already cleaning our bedsheets, ridding them of my scent. I hear the clunk of a door springing open.
“Found it. Sorry to bother you.” Static fizzes and moisture coats my eyes.What happened to us?
I want to scream. We’re supposed to be planning a life together.
“The train okay?” he asks.
I whisk away my tears. “Yup. Text me if there’s anything else, okay? I shouldn’t be on the phone.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I hesitate. “I’m sorry too.”
“Look, let’s not—” He cuts himself off, clears his throat. I know I screwed up. I thought we could move past it, but now I’m less sure than ever. “Text me when you get there. Bye, Kelly.” He hangs up before I can reply, and I feel a plunge of despair.
This is not how I pictured year 34. It was supposed to be the best one yet, the year when life finally began: I had a fresh start in Philadelphia with my sweet, successful fiancé. A wedding planned, the real-life incarnation of a Pinterest board I’d been secretly updating since long before I met Mike, the invitations sent, the venue—a rustic barn near my parents’ house in Illinois—locked down.
Others have it worse. I’m not sequestered in a field hospital, a ventilator controlling my lungs. My body wasn’t shunted into the back of a refrigerated truck.
But this? It sucks. It really, really sucks.
I blame myself—Lord knows I’ve beaten myself up enough—but the caterer bears some responsibility too. Our other vendors were so understanding: We get it, no one’s holding gatherings.
But the farm-to-table eatery we’d hired wouldn’t stop blowing up my phone, demanding we secure a new date or lose our deposit. My future father-in-law was underwriting the whole affair, and Mike refused to call him about it. I attributed it to Mike’s overwhelm—or even his laziness, in my less-kind moments.
We fought about it. We fought about lots of things. And then, three days ago, he cracked my life in two, snapped it like a wishbone.
I catch myself worrying a nail over the gash in my palm. A gash of shame, a scabby reminder of the ugliness that poured out of me last week.
I snatch my phone back up, then reread the casual text that stopped me in my tracks yesterday. I still can’t believe it’s real, not something I hallucinated: “You should come stay with us.”
Heart pounding, I’d given the “ha-ha” reaction. But Sabrina doubled down: “I’m serious! We have a spare room. And Lord knows, we could use the company.”
That’s when my hands started shaking. I was alone in our bedroom in Philadelphia. It faced the street, with bars over the windows ostensibly to keep the riffraff out, but they made it feel like a jail cell too.
“That’s so nice of you!” I replied. “But I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
She began typing back right away. “It wouldn’t be an intrusion at all—honestly, Nathan is such an extrovert, he is DYING for someone to talk to who isn’t me. (And as an introvert, I am dying for him to have someone to talk to who isn’t me, lol.) No pressure but it’s a serious offer! Maybe for a week or two? Could be good for both of you.”Both of us.
Something my mom drilled into me, a lesson gleaned from forty-plus years of married bliss: You and your partner are a team. You make decisions together. When I floated the idea, he jumped right on it.
But I wanted him to fight for me. To beg me to stay.
Crying in a mask is disgusting. Even the thud-thud-thud
of the train over the tracks can’t cloak my shuddery breath. The fabric pulls as tight as a gag with every gasp, and tears and snot soak the inside. More people turn and glare. I hear my mother’s voice: Get it together, Kelly. Get a grip.
I send Sabrina an update: “Passing Baltimore!” I should be texting her and Nathan both, but I’m still intimidated by him.
It’s hard to believe that three weeks ago, I didn’t even have Sabrina’s number. We’d followed each other on Instagram for years, but for whatever reason, her photos rarely showed up on my feed. And then—bored with the pandemic that just wouldn’t quit, blissfully unaware that a grenade was about to blow up my life, I found myself scrolling through that roll of happy people. And the algorithm threw in a wild card: an update from Sabrina Lamont.She’s perfect.
I knew her as Sabrina Balzer in high school, a tangential friend in the same nerd-adjacent clique, though we never hung out one-on-one. I remembered her as mousy and quiet; she hadn’t crossed my mind in decades. But jeez,
I thought, look at her now.
Thick brown waves spilled like rapids over her shoulders. She had a Frank Lloyd Wright face, sharp cheekbones and a square jaw, with sculpted brows and leprechaun-green eyes. It was a selfie from an outdoor lounge chair, and behind her stretched a sparkling pool the color of sapphires.
That night, I let the world darken as I tapped my way around her online presence, feeling that grubby rush of indiscipline, the same waterfall of want that has you finishing the pint of ice cream or wrenching off a scab, exposing the ink-red underneath. I found old blog posts by her and news articles about her and read them hungrily. I unearthed images of her at a gala and clicked through all eighteen red-carpet photos.
We all have Instagram friends we’re obsessed with, right? I couldn’t get enough of her glory: her mansion an hour outside D.C.; hikes through the Blue Ridge Mountains; Throwback Thursdays to glitzy events with her husband, Nathan, who was tall and broad and more cute than handsome with his thick red-blond beard and aquiline nose. A power couple. And sure, he had some high-ranking government job she referenced in captions, but she was no trophy wife; she’s a goddamn New York Times bestselling author,
which, Christ. What? How