The yoga class ran long. On a bench outside the studio, the Kuykendalls sat waiting with phones in hands and their breath billowing before them, Ethan thumbing through emails—there was, among the usual obscene glut of notes from his editor and producers, one brief but particularly concerning email that he had now reread several times since its arrival minutes earlier, his mood darkening each time—as his wife, beaming brightly beside him, read aloud the latest in a string of recent text messages.
“‘Eight pounds even, big blue eyes like his mom’s, totally bald but with the other kids’ coloring so probably a future blond.’ Still no picture attached,” reported Kristin, skimming at her screen with the conductor pad at the tip of her gloved index finger. “The suspense! Like we’ve never seen a newborn before. I immediately sent pictures of all our babies, coneheads and all.” After a pause: “Ugh, what do you think is taking so long? Shouldn’t Skylar be done by now?”
At a peek behind Kristin’s head and through the studio’s frosted-glass windows, Ethan could faintly see his half-sister, Skylar, a lithe dark silhouette leading her dozen-odd students in what did not appear to be the asses-up pose that marked the class’s near-end. His throat clenched involuntarily. Dropping his gaze back into his lap, he read the concerning email again: Kuykendall, old man—I will be in our nation’s fair capital on the dates indicated in the subject line. Professional commitments mainly, but I’ve been in extra time to see friends, most especially you, my treasured East Coast counterpart, at long last after all this. Alicia will join, and of course I look forward to meeting your better half. Where do good-looking middle-aged people go in DC for gin cocktails? Take us there and let’s bore our wives senseless lamenting the plight of the male advice columnist till dawn. Yours always, Wells.
Kistin’s phone chirped again; she scrolled to the newest update. “He came last night around eleven, after four—only four!—hours of labor. They’ll be ready for visitors next weekend, supposedly. Immediate family first, and, ooh, how soon can we come? Ooh, they want us to come! Wow!” Kristin squealed, vibrating violently beside him, shoving the phone against his face by way of corroboration.
“Wow!” echoed Ethan, peeling his eyes from his own screen. It occurred to him that the concerning email was of the sort to be reopened and considered thoroughly in privacy; and not panicked over here, in public, in the cold, and in opposition to the excitement of a new nephew. In an hour or less his wife and half-sister would be delivered to their respective destinations—Kristin to the Symphony Valley Luxury Mall to make a dent in the Christmas shopping, Skylar to her efficiency at the Symphony Valley Apartment Plaza a bit farther up the highway—and he’d be alone at his desk, the rest of the schoolday hours his to spend banking columns; or, deadlines be damned, to figure out what to do about Wells. He darkened his phone with a click and dropped the whole thing, concerning email and all, into the wide-mouthed pocket of his windbreaker. With the phone out of sight, the concern attached to the email receded somewhat. “Congratulations, babe. You’re an aunt again,” he said, wrapping his arms around Kristin’s broad shoulders. Beyond their golden reflections, faintly through the glass, he watched as Skylar dropped her hands to the ground and lifted her shapely behind into the air; several less graceful asses rose obediently skyward.
“I think we should go this weekend,” Kristin said, this being one of a generously small number of things Ethan had hoped she would not say. “Could we do that, with the kids? Could you get away for a couple of days?”
Ethan stiffened and considered her at arm’s length. “Kris, it’ll cost us two thousand dollars to fly to Montana on three days’ notice. You seriously want to spend that kind of money to visit a newborn?”
Kristin’s lip twitched, her sapphire eyes glittering in the cold. “Well, but newborns change so quickly.”
“From interchangeable to slightly less so.”
This was meant to make her laugh, and it did; but the laugh was dry and cold, like the wind that curled lazily around them as she gripped his hands in hers. “You’re being mean. I want to see my sister, and her baby, before the baby gets too big, or before Astrid beats us to it and Elin goes sour on the whole idea of having family visit. I strongly desire that.”
Another of the things Ethan had hoped she would not say. He sighed and replied mechanically: “My desire to not spend two thousand dollars traveling to Montana to see your sister and her baby is slight.” The studio door banged open, loudly, spilling forth chattering amateur yogis in leggings and jackets. Craning his neck, Ethan could see Skylar in the studio, alone now, gathering left-behind mats and tennis balls into her toned arms, never bending her knees as she reached repeatedly for the ground.
“Great!” huffed Kristin, lifting her volume to be heard over the crowd. “Well, I think that’s it, then, right? My strong desire wins out over your slight one.”
At this second, this exact second, to Ethan’s extreme chagrin, one of Skylar’s just-released students emerged from the studio wrapped tightly in heavy scarves and sweaters, overheard Kristin’s final sentence, and dropped her topmost scarf in a theatrical double-take. “Holy fuck,” said the girl, a dark haired twentysomething, planting her hands on Ethan’s shoulders. He could see that she was younger, even, than his half-sister, no makeup on her ruddy face, a piercing excitement in her eyes that he had begun to recognize—unpleasantly—as evidence of his mounting celebrity status among people this age. “Are you Ethan Koo-y-kendall?”
“It’s actually pronounced Kuykendall,” said Kristin.
“That’s me,” said Ethan.
“Okay,” said the dark-haired girl. “So, seriously, I’ve been reading you since I was a kid”—here the Kuykendalls exchanged glances—“and I LOVE you. Which is all I really want to say. I wouldn’t have even guessed that was you, but I heard her say the thing—the strong versus slight thing—and then I remembered your face from when you spoke on a media panel at my college, and I thought, that’s where I know that guy from. That is totally Ethan Koo-y-kendall’s face.”
As she chattered on, he considered it in the glass, his face that felt only familiar and therefore mediocre, and definitely worsening by the day; but that he knew objectively was the right sort of face to have. The thumbnail photograph that appeared online before each of his syndicated columns presented his face as downright Adonis-like, all powerful sharp lines, wavy blond hair slicked away from his high golden forehead, his chin firm and square beneath a radiant frontal smile (the Post had sent its most persuasive photographer to insist against Ethan’s preference for turning slightly away from the camera in these posed photos, as it implied a slyness that now ran counter to his brand). Kristin adored the picture, confirming that it did, indeed, give him the look of empathy and insight that was needed here; that his predominantly female readership would both fall in love with him and want desperately to lay its endless in-law problems at his feet. Skylar, on the other hand, had howled at the picture, saying he looked like he’d been dipped in honey. “Why would I want advice from some kind of male supermodel?” she had wondered, reasonably.
“I seriously love you,” the girl said again. “Your advice is always so genius. You must be a millionaire.”
“Ha!” said Kristin.
“Always nice to hear,” said Ethan.
“I’ve got this weird issue with my ex-boyfriend,” the girl continued.
Kristin gave Ethan’s leg a squeeze and rose to her feet, towering over the girl by several inches. “We’re running late,” she chirped brightly. “We’re just here to pick someone up and it looks like she’ll be out in a moment.”
Ethan stood as well, and wrapped a grateful arm around Kristin’s shoulders. “At the bottom of every column is a link to my inbox,” he said. “Lay it on me—write it out as soon as you get home. I’d love to be able to help, if I can.”
“Okay, but do you promise you’ll print it? Because I’ve actually already written this question to that guy Cary Wells, you know, at the San Francisco Chronicle? I don’t know if you know him, but his column is almost just like yours, but—I don’t know—like, less serious or something. More funny.”
Despite the powerful clenching of his throat, Ethan managed a smile, with teeth. “Absolutely, I know Dr. Wells. He’s a friend. The fact is, and this is true of both of us, as much as I’d like to answer every single letter that hits my inbox, I just get way, way too many to be able to do that. I have a few awesome producers who pick out the most representative ones and pass them along to me. I certainly hope I can help with your ex-boyfriend issue.” As pat as this answer felt on this, his thousandth-or-so utterance, it delivered: The girl grinned and nodded, almost certainly beginning a mental draft of the letter she would write.
“Here’s your sister,” murmured Kristin as the door swung open for a final time. “I have to get going,” said Ethan. “Thanks again for reading!”
The girl clapped her mittened hands, delighted, as if he’d just performed a magic trick. “This was SO cool,” she enthused. “You’re both so tall!”
Wells and Kuykendall, Kuykendall and Wells. Wells on the West Coast and Kuykendall on the East, separated the by width of a continent and much more—ideology (Kuykendall was unwavering in his dedication to the institution of marriage, his advice tailored always toward preserving harmony between couples; Wells routinely suggested separation, divorce, polyamory, and sometimes even—always treading the line of journalistic taste and subtlety, saying it without actually saying it—what amounted, plainly, to cheating), relevant credentials (Kuykendall had none, not even J-school, and had lucked into the gig by winning a Washington Post contest in his twenties; Wells was twenty years deep into the successful practice of clinical marriage and family therapy, with a house in tony Potrero Hill and a cluster of important letters behind his name to prove it, his Chronicle-based syndicated column pretty much a well paying hobby), and writing style (Kuykendall’s gentle and empathetic, generally taking even the most offensive letter-writer’s side; Wells’s more hard-nosed, objective even when the questions were not).
But in the pantheon of contemporary advice columnists, they were treated as analogues, their names linked in every discussion of the two. Even in the days when Wells was syndicated and Kuykendall wasn’t yet, Kuykendall had been hyperaware of Wells’s work, sometimes crafting his own columns in counterpoints to the other’s, sometimes paying it direct tribute. Finding his footing, and without any true expertise except the human-nature education that came from the towering pile of letters in his inbox, he had referenced Wells often with naked self-deprecation. You should probably be asking Dr. Wells, he often wrote. In the early days, he had rarely printed a column without a mention of Wells. Sometimes endorsing Wells’s hypothetical answer, sometimes respectfully rejecting it. Finding himself doing the latter more and more often as his own theories of human behavior took shape, as his began to recognize the patterns and redundancies in readers’ relationship challenges and in-law problems.
But no matter what, faithfully reading Wells’s columns, every single one, every Friday, a ritual that spanned decades. First the question, which Kuykendall would then challenge himself to answer twice: once in anticipation of Wells’s answer, and then again in an effort to distinguish his own. Next Wells’s answer, experiencing a little thrill whenever the three answers matched. The more often he was able to guess correctly, and the more often he found himself in agreement with Wells, the less utterly fraudulent he felt.
But Wells could do things he, Kuykendall, could not. Wells could open a column with a rich and deeply personal anecdote, sometimes letting it wander without a hint as to how the anecdote addressed the letter-writer’s question till some knockout punchline revealed its incredible relevance. He wrote about his family—a wife, Alicia, and two daughters he affectionately called Problem 1 and Problem 2—so frankly that it embarrassed Kuykendall, whose column never mentioned Kristin or the children by name or otherwise. Where Kuykendal answered only the most objectively answerable questions, and answered them with laser focus, appealing to principles that could not be shot down, Wells printed whatever the hell he wanted, tethered only loosely to the question/advice framework. Once a letter-writer wrote to Wells for advice about an in-law problem and received, instead, a scathing rebuke for her obvious bigotry (seizing on one tiny element of her question that Kuykendall, on first read, had missed entirely). And no in-law advice. Kuykendall was in awe. He could never have managed it; he routinely turned down opportunities to tackle issues too big to get his arms around. He felt himself plodding along for weeks after that, his columns dull and rote.
The syndication of Kuykendall’s column had come as the standout shock in the middle of a year full of shocks: an invitation to deliver the commencement speech at his alma mater, the reemergence of his half-sister after their long estrangement (the universe coughed her up, twenty-one and beautiful, on the Metro platform under Union Station, a little bit drunk and thrilled to recognize someone who could show her the way to the Green Line—she was not yet a Washingtonian, but would become one after college, encouraged by their shared father to try to find a job here near her brother), a handful of stalkers, the second of Kristin’s three unplanned pregnancies. Syndication had been, in sum, a good thing, conferring an unexpected degree of celebrity that Kuykendall actually enjoyed for a time. He was actually earning more money in newspaper’s darkest hour, a time when firings and forced retirements were a regular occurrence among his coworkers. He and Kristin were able to buy a house, with a surplus of bedrooms, in a neighborhood not too far from the area’s nicer suburbs; and then, when Kristin wanted to quit her job to be home with the kids, he was able to say yes without much resentment.
And then, amid everything else it had conferred, syndication had also brought him Wells. Someone submitted the same question to both Kuykendall and Wells (which happened a lot among syndicated advice columnists, no way to prevent it) and they both answered it, the columns appearing on the exact same day.
“Dear Kuykendall,” read the question (and “Dear Dr. Wells,” as it appeared in the Chronicle), “I need help, fast. I’m going to lose my girlfriend if I don’t marry her this year, which for lots of reasons I don’t want to do. How do I hold onto her without proposing? Signed, Happy the Way Things Are.”
It was a relatable but bland question, to which Kuykendall had offered a thoughtless, bland answer. “Few things are more meaningful, or more permanent, than marriage,” it began, drearily. Followed by three unimpeachable paragraphs making the case for talking openly to the girlfriend, insisting on patience, not rushing into anything, proposing when he felt ready and not a moment before. This was, notably, the exact opposite of how his own marriage had begun, but it seemed to be clearly the Right Answer.
Nearly 200 publications had gleefully printed Wells’s response within physical inches of Kuykendall’s, a juxtaposition that highlighted perfectly that Kuykendall was not Wells, would never be Wells. “Dear Happy,” began Wells’s answer. “Let me tell you about the time I almost lost the love of my life because, like you, I was a self-important idiot. It was the nineties, it was winter, and Alicia and I had been dating for seven years, which, because I was an idiot, I thought was perfectly fine.” Several meaty paragraphs later, Wells had laid bare a story full of his own cruelties and Alicia’s tears, a temporary breakup, and a rocky reunion that had led, somewhat shakily, to the engagement and marriage Alicia wanted. “Twelve years later,” it concluded, “Alicia still allows me to be her husband, and I live and die for every moment with her. If that idea doesn’t appeal to you, then you and I both know what you need to do.” And then a rare postscript: “Confidential to the future Mrs. Happy: Give him a year. Do not give him seven. Best of luck to you both.”
A day later, Kuykendall had found, in his inbox, an email from Wells, the first of many: Kuykendall, my fellow agony uncle—I hope this note finds you well. Sorry for the duplicative hiccup. Happens regularly in this business, and always this way, with contradictory advice. I once told a young man to quit law school and move to Morocco for love. A few days later, Hax told him to do the exact opposite. In this case as in that one, my advice was surely the less sensible. Although I do think I’m right about this particular jackass. (Don’t you wish it were OK to use “jackass” where appropriate? “Idiot” is so inadequate.) I appreciate your column, which I’ve only just started reading but will never miss henceforth, and more importantly I appreciate another male voice savvy enough to not be outshouted in this henhouse. A word to the wise: Banish the word “hormones” from your writerly vocabulary, forever. Sincerely, Dr. Cary Wells (SF Chronicle).
It was the year’s final shock, and by far the biggest. Resisting the urge to write back right away, Kuykendall had instead busied himself with several hours of obsessively rereading columns from his own archives, his face burning with vanity. Wells read his column! When he finally did write back, transferring the conversation from the column-affiliated email address to a private one (this marked the last time he would check his own professional email, the task thereafter left to a string of newly minted Northwestern graduates), he kept his answer restrained: Dr. Well—I am humbled. Your column has inspired me, as a writer and as a man, for years now. Your response here was perfect, as always. Ethan Kuykendall.
“Thanks again for the ride,” said Skylar. “Walking from the Metro is bullshit when it’s this cold. But I’m setting up a carpool with one of the Pilates teachers, so I shouldn’t need to ask again.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Ethan. “You and Kris are headed in the same direction; this works out perfectly.”
“Do they pay you extra when class runs long?” asked Kristin, slowly. She always spoke more slowly when Skylar was present, a fact Ethan had noticed during the grim year in which Skylar had lived, rent-free, in their basement.
In the back of the Sedona, Skylar had loosed her hair from its tight bun and was massaging her scalp with both hands, dark curls spilling over both shoulders and down her back. In the rearview mirror Ethan saw her frown slightly, her hands freezing in place. “Nope,” she said. “Class is supposed to go exactly ninety minutes, every time.”
“Oh,” said Kristin. “So then today…?”
“Today we started ten minutes late because I lost a pair of earrings before class. I wore them in, I left them at the front desk before my students came in, and then when I stopped at the desk in between classes, they were gone. I looked all over the place—didn’t find them. I guess somebody probably took them. So then in lieu of the fact that we started ten minutes late, we also had to finish ten minutes late.”
“Goodness! Well, did you call the police?”
Skylar uttered a little husk of a laugh. “Uh, I didn’t say I lost a pair of Harry Winstons before class. Calling the police wasn’t necessary.”
Ethan had never heard of a Harry Winston, but gathered anyway from Skylar’s tone, and from the way Kristin stiffened beside him, that some small aggression had been committed here. He increased his foot’s pressure on the accelerator. “Kristin’s sister had her baby,” he announced, catching Skylar’s eye in the rearview mirror.
“Which sister?” asked Skylar, holding Ethan’s gaze.
“Elin,” said Kristin. “She’s the one in the middle. This is baby number three for her, another boy.” At the word Elin, Skylar crossed her eyes and screwed her face into a grotesque expression, releasing it an instant later. Ethan choked back a laugh; Kristin shot him a quizzical look. “Fabulous,” said Skylar. “Give Elin my regards.”
“Turn here,” said Kristin, pointing. “I want to start at Nordstrom.”
“The other sister,” said Skylar. “What was her name?”
“Astrid,” said Kristin. Ethan sensed that Skylar’s face changed behind him, but he willed himself not to look.
“Right, Astrid. Any babies for her yet?”
“No, not yet. (Right here, Ethan—this door is fine.) Astrid is like you, Skylar. Still kind of in 30 is the new 20 mode, or whatever. She drives me and Elin crazy. By the way: In light of, not in lieu of.”
“In lieu of means instead of. You meant in light of, which means given that this other fact is true.”
Skylar was silent; Ethan could hear her uncomfortable shifts, the soft burps of leather beneath her.
“Right, Ethan?” Kristin watched him, her hand hovering at the door handle.
“Right.” Rolling her eyes skyward, Kristin gave the door a resolute push and climbed out of the car. “Don’t ask him—he’s only a nationally published newspaper columnist. Bye, guys!” This last she tossed over her shoulder with a wry smile before shutting the door. She fluttered her fingers slightly in the direction of the Sedona as she walked toward Nordstrom, the wind lifting her pale straight hair around her ears.
For years, emails between Kuykendall and Wells were frequent but light, mostly shop talk. Then somewhat less frequent but more intense, a volley of meditations on everything from the plight of modern journalism to their hatred of all things Kardashian. They returned often to an ongoing discussion of how difficult it could be to seem universally relatable despite their shared status as toothy blond WASPs, Wells repeating often that he preferred to just face that fact head-on, to apologize for it where needed, and to never let it shake his seemingly unshakeable confidence.
He seemed to read every single one of Kuykendall’s thrice-weekly columns (even Kristin read only half or so), and offered up criticism as regularly as he gushed praise. Kuykendall, old man, we’ve got to talk about this ‘strong/slight’ paradigm of yours, he wrote, following a column in which Kuykendall advised, as always, that one spouse’s strong desire toward one choice should override the other spouse’s slight desire toward the alternative. It had had become a cliche around his column, but one that his regular readers seemed to appreciate. Self-referential is fine, is encouraged, is how a community of readers is built. But don’t keep referencing yourself when the thing you said originally was asinine. Does strong/ slight work in your own marriage? I can tell you that it is obliterated, frequently, in mine, and that I advise against it to couples on my couch.
Ashamed, Kuykendall had dashed off some light reply: You caught me! Still on the hunt for my catchphrase; just trying to do a bit of light branding. And then changed the subject, ignoring Wells’s direct question.
At this point, in fact, though Wells regularly emailed about his home life in lush detail (the screaming match he’d had with Alicia over dinner plans, the vast improvement to their sex life now that they used separate bathrooms, the horror of discovering Problem 1 had started her period, his top-secret worry that Problem 2 would bloom into an uncontrollable slut the moment she grew breasts), divulging even more than he did in his column, Kuykendall now found himself withholding the same—even, sometimes, committing glaring omissions, or worse.
For example, though Kristin had not held a job since her second pregnancy, he let it be implied that she still worked in the English department at the local high school. (Even as he made a regular column practice of extolling the virtues of stay-at-home parents, who seemed to constitute about half of his readership.)
For example, he had not mentioned the birth of a third child, though there was one. Instead, he let it be implied that his was still a tidy family of four, amalgamating his second and third children into a single, fictitious boy who behaved better than any of the children did actually. (Even as he counseled letter-writers nervous about parenthood that the joys of additional children outweighed the difficulties.)
For example, he omitted Skylar entirely, though for one hellacious year between jobs and roommates she had lived in their basement, babysitting on command instead of paying rent. Leaving her long, coiled hairs everywhere. Clashing on an almost hourly basis with Kristin, who did not like the foreign smells of her lotions and hair products or the fact that she coached the children to call her Awnt Skylar. This was a full-bodied in-law problem the likes of which Wells was famous for tackling, and yet Kuykendall could not bring himself to present it. He had written her out of every story or else cast her, vaguely, as some sort of nanny, a nameless pair of helping hands that had helped smooth out the family vacation. (Even as he brought every column back to the same themes of the importance of family, of making everyone feel heard and wanted within a family.)
He had kept his activity on social media minimal for what were mostly Wells-related reasons. Occasional posts publicizing his column itself. No pictures of Kristin, of the children, of himself with either.
And then: Six months ago, spring turning to summer, Wells had written in a most excellent mood, bearing the good news that Problem 1 had made her final decision and would be headed to Stanford in the fall. One down (almost), one to go! he had written, the text of the email seeming to sing his elation. As you know, Stanford is Alicia’s alma mater. I know this is uncharted territory for us, Kuykendall, but I attach here a photo of the Wells women, of whom I have never been prouder.
Kuykendall, writing at his desk at Post headquarters, had hesitated long before opening the attachment on his phone, knowing that to see the face of Wells’s wife and children would somehow alter their years-long compact. But then there they appeared on the screen of his phone, the four of them, including Wells himself, posed in black t-shirts and crisp blue jeans, in a living room that appeared to be their own. Wells and Alicia seated on a plush olive-colored sofa with interlaced fingers, the Problems standing at playful angles behind them.
Kuykendall felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach. That Alicia was Asian, and lovely, surprised him, but not nearly as much as the realization that in decades’ worth of columns, and years’ worth of increasingly intimate emails, Wells had mentioned neither. Not even when this fact might have done wonders for his almighty credibility with the diverse audience. Not even in response to the letter writers who accused him of myopic white-male privilege, accusations he printed every few months, each time apologizing gamely, promising anew that he was doing the best he could to understand and connect with his audience. Kuykendall knew, without a doubt, that he himself would have mentioned the Asian wife within his first handful of columns. And the girls, whom Wells had painted for years as sticky, awkward, walking disasters, never breaking from the use of their demeaning nicknames—gorgeous, ridiculously so, with laughing dark eyes, their skin tanned like models’.
At home that evening, Kristin and the kids out getting ice cream, Kuykendall had made himself a heavy-handed gimlet and considered the email again on his desktop computer. Writing his reply quickly, while he had the gumption: Wells—congratulations on the Stanford news, and on the preternatural beauty of your tribe of women. Smart of you to keep Problems 1 and 2 a secret from the East Coast. And then, after a few deep, ginny swallows of his gimlet: By way of reciprocity, here is my lovely wife on Memorial Day (she asks that I not publicly share pictures of the kids, who are still too young to waive anonymity).
He had attached a photo not of Kristin, but of Skylar in a blue and white sundress with her wild hair everywhere, laughing at something one of the children had done just out of frame, and clicked send. The shame that assailed him as soon as he did so was overwhelming, a physical weight that pressed on the top of his skull and threatened to crush him like an anvil on top of a tin can. It was a shame beyond the usual shame. He had experienced shame at this level exactly once before: at ten, the first and last time he’d ever played hooky from school, sneaking home with his newly acquired latchkey to find the house unexpectedly not empty. Finding, despite the midday hour, his father stretched out on the velvet loveseat with a woman who was definitively not his mother. Who would, some years later, be Skylar’s.
Pulling away from the Nordstrom entrance, Ethan sighed and found Skylar in the rearview mirror again, frowning darkly. “Well, then,” he said. “Ready, Miss Daisy?”
Her face relaxed a bit; in a single movement, she climbed over the center console and lowered herself gracefully into the passenger seat. Even in her heavy coat, her hair big and wild around her, she looked tiny in the space Kristin had vacated. Her butterscotch skin still glowed from the exertions of teaching back-to-back yoga classes. “Home, please,” she said. “I need to take a thousand naps and then reflect on my life and how it’s wasted because I don’t have three babies yet.”
“Please,” said Ethan.
“Or study a dictionary or something.”
“Ha. She was right about that part, for the record. But you’re in good company. I get twenty letters a week that make that exact mistake.” Out of the Symphony Valley Luxury Mall’s expansive parking lot he drove, back onto one of the side streets that fed into the highway.
The traffic was noonday light, the highway almost empty, but he drove slowly anyway, beneath the speed limit. Beside him, Skylar slipped her feet out of her combat boots and rested them on the dashboard. Each of her toenails was painted a different shade of blue, from the palest powder blue on her left pinky toe to a deep blackish-blue on her right. “So I guess that means you’ll go to Montana for Christmas,” she said.
“Not sure. Kristin wants to see the baby sooner, like, this weekend. Negotiations are in the works as we speak.”
“Okay. Well, I’m not teaching this weekend, so I could babysit if you wanted. As a thank you for this ride.”
“Thanks, Sky. I think we’d take the kids with us. But, again, negotiations are in the works.”
The gray brick rooftop of Skylar’s apartment building crested the bare trees rolling past the highway. “Next exit,” she said, pointing. “Then two fast rights.”
“I remember,” said Ethan. “Before I forget—one of your yoga students recognized me this morning.”
“How famous you’ve become.”
“I hate when that happens,” confessed Ethan. “It feels like an encroachment. I need to stop saying yes to speaking engagements near the District if I don’t want that to happen more and more.”
“You’re a god among the fucked-up masses. Embrace it. You bring honor to Kuykendalls everywhere.”
“Seriously. She asked if I was a millionaire, and I thought, ha. Millionaires drive minivans, right?”
“Did you tell her you were my brother?”
“I thought it might come up, but it didn’t.”
“Ah, right. Well, they don’t put our last names on the studio calendars, because first names are friendlier. And I guess most people’s first thought, when they see some tall white guy hanging around the studio, isn’t I wonder if he’s related to Skylar.”
“About Christmas,” said Ethan, slowing the Sedona to a stop before the front door of the apartment complex. “Obviously, if we stay in town, we’d love to have you come over to be with us.”
“I already promised Christmas morning and an early dinner to Mom and Dad. I guess it’s out of the question that you’d come to that with me, right?”
“Right, no problem,” said Skylar, slipping her feet back into her shoes. “Thanks again for the ride.”
Exhausted suddenly, worn down by even the first tiny sliver of the day, Ethan stopped at a Starbucks between Symphony Valley and home. At the mercy of a sole slow barista, he stood helplessly at the counter, and felt himself sinking beneath the anvil weight as he stared into the screen of his phone. I will be in our nation’s fair capital on the dates indicated in the subject line, read the email, just as it had initially. The dates indicated in the subject line were three weeks in the future.
He began a draft of his reply. Meeting in person is long overdue, he typed slowly, one letter at a time, little novas of panic bursting behind his eyes. But of course, before plans can be made, I have to check with the management, though I’m sure she’s as eager to finally meet you as I am.
"Excuse me,” said a voice beside him. His gaze snapped to the left and rested on a woman, fortysomething and bundled in a sweater and thick coat, grinning broadly at him. “Are you Ethan Ky kendall?”
She gripped his hand in hers; and he could feel, from the warmth her fingers conveyed, that his own were icy. “So great to meet you,” she said. “I’ve read you for years. You answered my question back in, I think, 2011. It was about my mother-in-law. You had the best advice. You always do.”
She pumped his hand vigorously and then retreated, covering her smile with both hands. He watched, speechless, as she found her seat. He looked down at his phone and exited the draft he’d begun, opening instead a new draft to his wife, Kristin. Idea, he wrote, in light of your “strong desire” to see your nephew.
Less than a minute later, before the barista handed over Ethan’s drink, Kristin wrote back: Better not be a counterproposal. I want to see the baby.
I’ll buy tickets for all of us this weekend, wrote Ethan. And also for three weekends from now, so we don’t miss any scintillating changes.
She replied, twice. First a smiley face; and then, a few seconds later: But wait. Kids? Too much flying for them.
He climbed into the driver’s seat of the Sedona and took a long swig of coffee, unbothered by the heat on his tongue. As he sank into the deep leather of the driver’s seat, he felt the anvil weight lifting. Skylar, he wrote back. She’ll babysit whenever we go. She’d love to.