After the ceremony, Anna stood alone, searching the crowd of two hundred or so wedding guests strewn across the Coopers’ lawn overlooking the crashing Maine sea for someone familiar. She felt this wedding was a test, and as the late afternoon sun blasted down at her she had the pathetic thought that as long as she kept drinking she’d be okay. When she spotted Walter, the father of the bride, making his way toward her, she felt relieved. Sweat dripped down her torso and she pulled the chiffon bodice of her pale yellow dress away from her body, hoping the damp wasn’t showing through.

“Come with me into the shade,” Walter said by way of hello, took her by the elbow, and guided her into some shade beside a clutch of fir trees. He looked uncomfortable hemmed into his tuxedo and patted his face with a white linen handkerchief. It occurred to Anna that formal summer weddings were one instance where men were worse off than women, on account of the clothes.

Walter leaned his heavy torso toward Anna and spoke in a conspiratorial half-whisper. “You know I’ll deny it if you ever repeat this,” he said, “but there are lots of times I wish I wasn’t married.” Walter always jumped right in, got to the heart of things. No pleasantries with Walter. Anna thought it an alluring way to be.

“Probably not something you should be saying at your own daughter’s wedding.” Anna smiled. “It’s also what married people say to me when they want to make me feel good about the divorce.” How it truly made her feel even now, two years after the fact, was that she was a failure for giving up.

“Marriage is long,” Walter said, “though I’m not telling my daughter that.” He laughed.

“Yes, so you’ve said before.” Anna finished the glass of white wine she’d sipped throughout the ceremony and Walter signaled to a waiter for another.

“Have I?” He asked.

“I asked you once if you’d ever cheated on Charlotte and you said, ‘Marriage is long.’” A lock of hair came loose from her bun and Anna tucked it behind her ear. “I think we’d had a bit of scotch,” she said.

They’d all been living in Beijing then and Anna’s husband, Tom, and Walter’s wife, Charlotte, were both travelling. Anna had seen Walter sitting alone at the lobby bar in their apartment building. After her children were asleep, Anna invited him to her apartment and they stayed up late talking and drinking. Walter was unthreatening—too old to be a peer, too young to be her father—and she remembered feeling a type of freedom that night, alone with a man who was not her husband. At the time, her world had become so small— her two children and other expat mothers and their children, filling time shopping and having lunch, not working.

She’d opened a bottle of Château Margaux and called up for a half-full bottle of scotch from the lobby bar. Walter emailed her the next morning: What did you do to me? Anna responded: Hurting. Anything more would’ve led somewhere she wasn’t prepared to go.

“You almost killed me that night,” Walter said, laughing. Anna loved the intimacy of his laugh, like they were sharing a private joke.

Anna spotted Charlotte now across the lawn and Walter waved his wife over. Anna loved Charlotte, the realness of her. She had aged well without pretending she hadn’t—her face softly lined and dignified. She looked regal now in a royal blue silk sheath, her curtain of silver hair falling straight to her shoulders. She was cooler than Walter and more rooted. You knew where you stood with Charlotte. Charlotte wasn’t a flirt.

“Anna, dear. You look wonderful,” she said and embraced her. “I have to say I was thrilled when Tom said he already had a trip planned with the children this weekend so you could be our guest, not him.”

Anna smiled. Most of their friends hadn’t wanted to take sides and invited them both to dinners, events. Anna accepted it but still avoided going to parties where Tom might be. Her social life had compressed.

“I always felt you were more my friends than Tom’s anyway, no?” Anna said.

“He got Elise and Max quite a nice gift, a signed photograph of Bob Dylan by Danny Clinch,” Walter said.

“Sounds like Tom,” Anna said. She felt a twist of jealousy that she hadn’t been as creative as Tom and simply ordered a gift off the registry.

Anna and Tom had met the Coopers eight years before, not in Beijing where they were all living as expats, but at a thousand-dollar-a-night lodge in the center of Bhutan. Arriving in the intimate, darkened lounge for a drink before dinner, Anna and Tom saw Walter lying on a window seat looking out; The Painted Veil was spread open, page down, across his belly.

Anna walked to the wall of windows. Far below, on the valley floor, were hundreds of the black-necked cranes that flew up from Tibet to winter in this tiny valley. Above the cranes, a long, narrow cloud poured through a break in the eastern side of the valley, floating above the earth, expanding and filling in the space above the resting birds. “My god, this country,” Anna whispered to herself.

Walter spoke. “Incredible, right? I thought I’d sit here and read but these birds and sky are absolutely mesmerizing.”

“Do you mind if we sit?” Anna asked.

“Of course not, I’m just waiting for my wife.”

Walter and Charlotte were the only other guests at the hotel. They too were living in Beijing, in the same apartment complex as Anna and Tom, no less.

“Wow,” Tom said, barely feigning excitement at the coincidence, smiling tightly and rubbing his shaved head.

When Walter asked the waiter to set a table for four, Tom gave Anna a look that said, I wanted to be with you alone, not have dinner with another couple. With Tom, nothing was ever enough. They’d spent the previous four days together, alone with their tour guide. Their children, Samuel and Grace, then three and one, had been left in Beijing with a nanny who didn’t speak English. The day before, Tom had caught Anna texting their Beijing neighbor for updates on the children and told her to stop being so anxious about them. Anna was ruining their trip—the children, Tom said, were fine.

At dinner they’d talked mostly politics. Afterwards, Tom walked down the teak-clad breezeway several yards in front of Anna, silently angry.

“You shouldn’t talk politics with strangers, Anna,” he finally said, turned away from her in the vast platform bed, the thick feather duvet pulled tightly around him.

“It was a conversation,” she said, “no one was getting upset.” Anna thought Obama would win not only the nomination but also the presidency and had said so; Tom didn’t agree.

“You were too strident,” Tom said. “It was embarrassing.”

At a victory party for Obama nearly two years later, Tom was there when Walter said to Anna, “You called it before anyone, very impressive.” Anna felt vindicated, though Tom would have forgotten his scolding of her that night. Tom always forgot.

“So listen, Anna,” Charlotte said now, placing a hand on her arm, “I realized when I was doing the tables you don’t really know anyone here…”

“Oh God, Charlotte, who’d you seat her with?” Walter asked.


Walter laughed. “Don’t sleep with him, Anna.”

“Don’t be crass,” Charlotte said. “He’s the only single man here who’s not Elise  and Max’s age. It’s just because of numbers.”

“Is there anything I need to know?” Anna asked and looked from Charlotte to Walter, who was smiling.

“He’s Walter’s friend; just be careful,” Charlotte said.

“Don’t sleep with him, Anna,” Walter said again and winked. He squeezed her arm and Anna and Charlotte watched Elise and Max greet their guests, haloed by the hazy fading sunlight streaming through the pine trees. Specks of pollen were suspended in the light. Elise wore a simple dress of pale pink tulle, fitted in the bodice with full skirt. Anna liked that it wasn’t white. Max, with his full head of dark, wavy hair, stood right up next to her, his hand resting on her lower back.

“You didn’t always think Max was the one for her,” Charlotte said.

That’s when I believed there was ‘the one,’ Anna thought. “She looks very happy,” Anna said. “She wouldn’t have married him if she didn’t want to.”

Anna knew Elise well and it was true; she had loved someone else more and had confided this to Anna. Elise had come to visit her parents on a break from law school and wanted to see a remote, rustic part of the Great Wall. Anna had volunteered to take her. As they hiked, Anna learned that Elise didn’t think she loved Max as much as she had another boy. But that had been six years ago, and things changed. Anna did know that. Things change.

“I love the sculpture,” Anna said to Charlotte and motioned across the grass to the circle of twelve bronze animal heads set on metal poles twelve feet high. The poles looked like vines growing out of the bronze lotus leaves at their base.

“Isn’t it fabulous? When we became friends with Ai Weiwei in Beijing I asked him if his studio could do a smaller version of his Chinese zodiac for us. I doubt his hands even touched it, but I don’t care.”

Anna had watched Charlotte and Walter become obsessed with Chinese art and antiques in Beijing. When they sent a forty-foot container filled with their plunder back to America, Anna had asked Walter where they could possibly fit it all. “I have the biggest house in Maine,” he’d said, smiling. The sprawling four-story gray-stone and white-shingled home stood south of them down the lawn, set back from the bluff. Walter’s comment might have been hyperbole, but not by much.

Charlotte reached past Anna and tapped Walter’s arm. “Come, we need to mingle,” she said, and off they went.

A word floated up into Anna’s mind, a word Tom had used to describe Walter. Pussy-whipped. Often, after they’d seen Walter and Charlotte, Tom would be in a rage and threaten Anna that if she ever ordered him around like Charlotte did to Walter their marriage wouldn’t last. Tom could somehow be angry with her for things she hadn’t even done.

Anna looked out at the sea and thought how restful and peaceful it would be to lie floating on the swells, carried by currents. But no, she knew it wouldn’t be calming like that. It would be cold and hard to breathe and exhausting trying to stay afloat. So often, one’s ideas of things slammed up against their reality, leaving ruin.

Anna started walking towards the zodiac heads, the rhythmic, rushing sound of the ocean carrying her across the lawn.

That first year after she’d left Tom, Anna had told people the truth. She’d found the love of her life, Johan. She said, “I’m in love,” as if she was blessed. Love was the reason to leave. That perfect love was six months gone now, an embarrassment, and Anna wanted to forget that Johan was ever a factor in her divorce.

She’d met him at a yoga class, and he was spiritual, whatever that meant. Each morning at 5:30 he meditated, claimed he hadn’t missed a single day since he’d been twenty-two. That was forty years; it was as long as Anna had been alive.

A few months after she’d left Tom, they visited Sweden to visit Johan’s ailing father. They drove north from Stockholm to Mora. Anna was surprised they didn’t even listen to music in the car. Johan had a book by Roberto Calasso, Ka, about Indian gods, and asked Anna to read as he drove. She happily obliged; Anna was constantly obliging. She still remembered one line for being tragic and true: “A delicate halo of mourning surrounds every desire achieved.”

A few days later, she accidentally left a candle burning on Johan’s grandfather’s old wooden dining table and the brass candlestick left a black scorch mark. “Stupid fucking girl,” she heard Johan mutter under his breath.

It was the week of the winter solstice and the sky never seemed to lighten and all she could think about was how far she was from home.

Anna had left her family for what she thought was love for Johan, but he was never able to become more than an idea, never able to become real. Nothing, ever, was real enough to hold onto.

Anna walked clockwise now in the middle of the circle of giant animal heads, breathing with the rhythmic, rushing sound of the ocean. Rat. Ox. Tiger. Rabbit. Dragon. Snake. Horse. Sheep. Monkey. Rooster. Dog. Pig. Her son, Samuel, had been obsessed with the zodiac when he was in kindergarten in Beijing, constantly asking people their birth year and telling them their sign and personality traits. He told Anna that rat and snake—her sign, and Tom’s—were a bad match. “It’s a silly superstition,” she’d told him. Yet here she was, looking at the lifeless, empty eyes of animal heads, hoping for deliverance.

“Quite a piece of art, isn’t it?”

Anna turned toward the voice, British, male.

“I hope I’m not interrupting,” the man said. He was wearing a dark gray suit and a light green tie with a pattern of tiny doves.

“Not at all.” She held out her hand. “I’m Anna.”

The man’s name was Charlie and he knew Walter and Charlotte from London, where they’d lived twenty-five years before. He looked as if he was in his sixties, Walter’s age, but in better shape and with more hair.

“You looked like you were praying just then,” he said.

“Just killing time before dinner,” Anna said. “I don’t really know anyone here.”

“Weddings are bloody brutal, aren’t they?”

Before Anna could answer, a gong sounded for dinner.

“Shall we?” Charlie said.

They walked up a stone path towards the tented tennis court, away from the ocean.

A woman, flushed and blond, came up beside them. “There you are,” she said, “I thought I’d lost you.”

“Samantha, meet Anna. She knows the Coopers from Beijing.”

Anna nodded hello and saw the wedding ring on Samantha’s hand. It still surprised her how men didn’t act married until their wives were around.

Inside the tent was dark, lit by low candles scattered across the white tablecloths with vases of pink and white peonies. Peonies were no longer in season, but Charlotte must have flown them in from somewhere. Anna and her new friends all were at table eight and when they found it the other five people were already there, standing at their white slipcovered chairs, waiting. Trevor, the man Charlotte had mentioned, was seated on Anna’s right. He had a white goatee and wore dark framed glasses. His thick, salt-and-pepper hair skimmed the collar of his tuxedo at the back of his neck. He pulled Anna’s chair out for her.

“Well, I am the lucky one tonight,” Trevor said.

Anna smiled stiffly and smoothed her dress beneath her as she sat.

“Walter’s told me all about you,” he said.

“Well, he warned me about you,” she said in a teasing tone and saw his face wince in the candlelight. “I’m kidding,” she said quickly. “He didn’t say anything bad.”

“Walter helped me through a very tricky personal and legal matter a few years back. Charlotte didn’t approve but I found Walter to be one of the few people who didn’t judge me.”

“You don’t need to explain anything to me,” Anna said.

“I’d like to tell you,” Trevor said, “It relieves me to talk about it.”

He had been crazy about his wife, Rebecca, since they’d met in college but felt she didn’t love him. As each of their children were born she became more distant. He’d vowed to never get divorced—his dad had left his mom—and resigned himself to living with an ice woman.

Of course, Anna thought. She’s the ice woman.

A display of shellfish arranged on plates of crushed ice around a pole was placed in front of them. Trevor served her a crab claw.

He didn’t think he’d ever cheat on Rebecca and didn’t for a long time. Then he did. “It was only a few times,” he said, following his rule of only far away and no repeats.

Hookers, Anna figured, and watched him pour pink mignonette dressing on an oyster and suck it off its shell. Vinegar dribbled into his goatee.

Eventually, he broke his rule with a woman in his neighborhood. “Her husband got a disease. I still don’t think it was from me. You have no idea how common that shit is. But the guy knew I had money.” He poured red wine into her glass, then his own. “I called Walter at that point. Our youngest boy was ten. This shit was in the papers, the guy was suing me. Walter thought we could have won the case in court, but the publicity wasn’t worth it. The guy wanted three million; I paid him one. It was extortion, basically.” He stared down at his plate as he spoke, slowly spinning his wine glass by the stem. His fingers were short, blunted. His hands, Anna thought, gave him away.

Later, he learned in counseling that Rebecca had been clinically depressed throughout their marriage and that she did truly love him, but had been unable to express it.

Anna lifted a lobster claw from the ice and cracked it over her plate. “And so your spreading this disease was really your wife’s fault?” Anna couldn’t help herself.

“Listen, I take responsibility for what I did. I’m just saying, there were reasons,” he said, and held his hand out towards Anna for the claw cracker. “For a long time, I thought I’d never be able to forgive myself for breaking up my family and I’m still not sure I have. But I am familiar with my dark side and have learned denying it doesn’t make it go away.”

Anna nodded. Now she wondered if she was any better than he. “Well, it sounds like it was a terrible time. All around.”

Trevor set his empty oyster shells face down on the crushed ice and sat back. “What about you? What’s your story?”

She laughed. “Oh, I actually fell in love with someone but didn’t sleep with them until I left my husband. Tom was like you, I guess, but didn’t cheat, as far as I know. He thought he loved me too much and I didn’t love him enough. I felt suffocated.” She moved to the side to make room for a busboy to clear the picked over shellfish tower. “I suppose that I was depressed in some way, just like your wife, and I’m sure in your opinion that would be my own fault.”

Trevor pushed his seat out. “I’m going to the bar for a scotch.”

Anna watched him go and felt a tap on her arm.

“Sorry,” Samantha said, leaning across Charlie, “we didn’t want to interrupt your conversation, but we figured out why you look so familiar.”

“Do I?”

“We saw you in Beijing. Brunch at the St. Regis? We were with Walter and Charlotte. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Investment Banker,’ we called you and your husband.” They both laughed, Samantha and Charlie, not Anna. “You were sitting across the room from us. Your nanny was there and took your children outside. Your husband was on his BlackBerry while you drank champagne and picked at crab legs. I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but you looked absolutely miserable.”

“We got divorced two years ago.” Anna heard the edge in her voice. Her head was still in her conversation with Trevor. Across the room, Anna saw him talking to the young blond female bartender.

“I’m sorry,” Samantha said. “I didn’t mean to be rude. That must’ve been awful.” She looked genuinely upset about laughing at Anna’s misery.

“I wanted it.” Anna always had the feeling people didn’t apologize to divorced men; to divorced men people said, “I should set you up with my friend.” Anna sipped her wine, wishing she’d asked Trevor to get her something stronger.

Gold-rimmed plates with sea bass, asparagus, fingerling potatoes and blistered cherry tomatoes were set down at each person’s place.

“Can I ask what happened?” Samantha said.

“I found a journal recently from when we left Beijing to move back to New York. I’d written then, ‘I don’t know how this will go. I don’t think I can stay married to him.’ Funny thing is, I don’t remember having written it or being that unhappy.” Anna cut into her seabass with the side of her fork. “You saw it though.” She laughed.

“How are the children? You have just the two?”

Women, no matter what age, always asked about the children.

“I miss them more than I thought I would when I’m not with them.”

Each time she became pregnant, Anna had thought that her children would fill something inside of her. But they hadn’t. Her marriage hadn’t. Her divorce hadn’t either.

“But it’s OK,” Anna continued. “We’re all happier.” This was always her line. And in some ways it was true. In others, despairing.

“Even if you’re happier, it’s still hard,” Samantha said.

“It’s life,” Anna said. What else was there to say? When she first left Tom she felt as if she could finally breathe again. The wreckage had been worth it.

The clinking of silverware on a glass. Walter stood at the microphone with Charlotte’s arm looped through his. Anna thought how she would now never have this—toasting her children with her husband at her side in a grand tent filled with their friends, family, candles, flowers, darkness.

As Walter spoke, Anna thought of a temple she, Tom, Walter, and Charlotte had visited together in Bhutan the morning after their dinner. An old monk showed them 15th-century writings of the lama who had founded the temple—gold lettering on large sheets of crumbling paper. The monk had placed a few of the papers on each of their heads in turn. Being under the words, the monk said, even if you couldn’t understand them, had the power to clear out negative energy. With the paper on her head, Anna had prayed for her marriage to improve, prayed for Tom to be kind. Anna felt so discouraged then she even tried to imagine being like a monk, celibate for life. She would have preferred celibacy, at that point, to Tom.

Walter’s toast ended to applause and Samantha excused herself to the bathroom.

Charlie leaned across the empty seat and touched Anna’s hand. “I’m enthralled by you,” he said.

Anna felt adrenaline shoot through her body. She’d had too much wine; she knew this road. Too often, she lost track of what she wanted, couldn’t say no.

“You don’t even know me,” she said, a half-hearted attempt to rebuff him.

“God, I would love to kiss you,” he said.

“You’re married.”

“We’re English.”

“Your wife will be right back.”

Charlie stood. “I’m going to get a drink; do you want something?”

“No, thank you.”

The band started and everyone else at the table got up to dance. The cake, three tiered and white, covered in yet more peonies, was being wheeled towards the dance floor. I should go, Anna thought. I should go and tell no one. She didn’t trust herself to stay.

She stood up and walked directly out of the tent towards the gravel drive in front of the house and took out her phone to call an Uber.

“Anna.” She heard a woman’s voice behind her.

Anna turned and in the dim light of the path saw a woman in a silver lace dress, thick wavy brown hair just past her shoulders, skin luminous and tan. “Saskia?” Anna felt her face flush and wanted to move but felt paralyzed, rooted to the earth. “Have you been here the whole time?”   Saskia was English, an art consultant for expats in Beijing. Anna had met her at a gallery in Caochangdi while looking for a painting for Tom’s birthday.

“The Coopers hired me after you left Beijing. I helped them buy that,” she said and gestured to the zodiac sculpture whose shadows lay in strips across the moonlit lawn. Saskia stepped forward and touched Anna’s arm. “I heard about you and Tom.” She dropped her hand. “I was debating whether or not to talk to you, but I saw you leaving alone so I followed you.”

“I’m glad you did.” Anna felt Saskia’s touch on her arm, ghostlike, and pressed her own hand there.

The last time Anna had seen Saskia, they’d been to an artist’s studio east of Beijing. On their way back into the city, the traffic had been at a standstill and Saskia directed the driver to a jiaozi restaurant on the outskirts of the city. Saskia knew everywhere to go. With Saskia, Anna felt like she was with a local, part of a richer world than the modern-day colonialist one she spent most of her time in. While they were eating, Saskia got a phone call from the avant-garde photographer, Ren Hang, who was meeting some other artists in a nearby park to take pictures. Anna texted Tom asking if she could stay out longer, hoping he’d be happy she had the opportunity to see real art being made. He’d said, “Take your time.”

“Can I show you something?” Saskia asked now.

Anna nodded and followed her through the feathery darkness back down the  stone path past the Coopers’ house and around the back to a wrought iron gate surrounding the pool, which lay between the house and the ocean. The full moon, tinged orange, hovered above the sea.

Saskia and Anna walked the length of the patio towards a pool house. Saskia said, “Walter wanted it in his study, but Charlotte refused to have it anywhere in the house. She let him hang it here though.”

She opened the door and turned on a light which shone on a photograph of two naked girls lying backwards over thick, low branches of an oak tree, their arms outspread. Black hair, black eyes, red lips, brown bark, white skin, pink nipples. Behind them, darkness.

“It’s from that night in the park,” Anna said.

Saskia nodded.They’d stayed at the park until nearly one. Saskia insisted on taking a taxi home with Anna. Beijing taxi drivers never knew where they were going, and Anna’s Chinese wasn’t good enough to manage if she got lost.

In the back of the taxi, speeding down the Third Ring Road, Saskia leaned over and kissed Anna. Anna kissed her back. It was only kissing, but in Saskia’s soft lips and her skin and the sweet almond smell of her hair Anna felt both in and out of her body, weightless and floating, her heart pounding everywhere at once.

The next day at brunch, Tom waited until the bottle of champagne was half gone to unleash his fury at her for staying out so late. He attacked Saskia. “She’s a bitch. She’s using you to make money for her own art business. You’re obsessed with her, Anna. It’s unhealthy.”

At the time, Anna had been terrified of losing her marriage and acquiesced to his anger. She avoided seeing Saskia, made excuses. The kids were sick, she had school events, work dinners with Tom, out-of-town guests. Eventually, Anna stopped returning Saskia’s calls and texts altogether. When Anna and Tom moved back to New York a few months later, Saskia wasn’t invited to their leaving party. How cowardly Anna had been.

“Saskia, I’m so sorry,” she said now.

Saskia stood still, her finger on the light switch, waiting.

“Tom was so angry at me, so jealous of our friendship…”

“I thought you hated me.”

Anna shook her head. “I was scared. He was…”

“You know that Bob Dylan line, ‘I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul?’ It makes me think of you and Tom. He wanted all of you, Anna. He was relentless.”

Saskia shut off the light. They stepped out of the house and Saskia unzipped her dress, letting it pool around her feet. She wasn’t wearing a bra and Anna felt the urge to run her fingertips, lightly, all over her body.

Anna watched her dive, soundlessly, and glide beneath the surface. Moonlight jumped on the tiny swells Saskia’s dive had made.

Anna’s hands faintly quivered as she took off her own dress and placed it on an upholstered bench next to a stack of white towels. She hesitated for a few seconds before removing her bra and dropping it on the ground.

Walking into the pool was like walking into space; the water was the exact same temperature as Anna’s skin. She pushed off the bottom step and turned onto her back. Saskia floated next to her on the surface of the water, their fingertips and toes lightly tapping into each other.

Anna stood up and Saskia did the same, the water was up to their shoulders.

Saskia placed a wet palm on Anna’s cheek. “I forgive you if that’s what you need from me, but I never blamed you.”

Anna took a breath and slipped down into the water. She wrapped her arms around Saskia’s waist, pressed her cheek against her belly, and exhaled.   

Erin Branning is a fiction editor for TriQuarterly, Northwestern’s literary journal, where she has published interviews with Ben Fountain and Lily King. Erin has also been published in The Manifest-Station. She has recently worked with Ben Fountain, Peter Ho Davies, and Susan Minot in juried workshops at Aspen Words and Lan Samantha Chang at Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.