Ashley Cowger


Jess is wearing that sweater I like, the green one that matches her seafoam eyes. It’s taking all of my willpower to keep myself from telling her how pretty she looks. I could play it off as a female thing—one woman empowering another or whatever—but Ryan is already suspicious, Jess says, and we have to be more careful. And anyway, I’m not in the mood for Ryan’s homophobic humor right now, not that I ever am. It’s Saturday, and I’m exhausted from another week of Zoom. I just want to relax, have fun.

Her bangles spin around her delicate wrist as she lifts her wine glass. “Cheers to breaking the law.”

We stand up and clink our drinks and then take a sip. Whether it’s the pregaming, or the release from a long week, maybe the sight of Jess’s glossy lips as she takes a drink, I feel almost giddy as the wine washes over my tongue. I laugh, and everyone looks at me. “Sorry,” I say. “It’s just funny. You know? Breaking the law.”

“Amanda’s right,” Geoff says. “We oughta be more careful.” He steps to the window and peaks through the crack between the curtains.

“Ryan might be working undercover right now,” I say.

Ryan grabs Geoff’s wrists and pretends to handcuff him, which is Ryan’s go-to move when someone jokes about him being a cop.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been looking forward to tonight all week,” Jess says.       

She doesn’t look at me as she says it, but I know I’m the one she’s been waiting to see, and I take another finger of wine to hide my smile.

“We’re so glad we have you guys,” Ryan says. “Glad you’re not afraid to get together like this.”

We cheers again before sitting back down—Jess, Ryan, and me on the couch, Geoff on the easy chair.

“Same,” Geoff says. “I mean, we already spend time with the people we live with. What’s the difference if you extend that to a few people outside of your house?”

It’s a bubble, or a pod. That’s how I describe it to my sister, anyway, when we do our Facetime check-ins. Really, it’s an excuse to hang out. I know it even when I say it—my quaranteam, as I call them, and the word tastes sour because I know it’s a lie, or at least, it’s not all of the truth. The whole truth is Ryan still works outside of the house, and neither of them are taking the pandemic very seriously.

It’s just, it was too fucking lonely, those first few weeks in lockdown. We were going crazy, me and Geoff, trapped in the house together, just us two. Cabin fever doesn’t even come close. His voice is different when he Zooms in to work. He changes. And he leaves dishes lying around, and he wears a button-up shirt with basketball shorts and Adidas slides. That sort of thing. We were probably at risk of divorce if we hadn’t agreed that we couldn’t take it anymore; we had to get together with someone, lockdown be damned. It just happened Ryan and Jess felt the same.

“I’d go crazy if I didn’t have you guys,” I say, and I look at Jess.

She looks into her wine and swirls it around.

The thing between me and Jess just started recently. All four of us were drunk, and the boys were playing PlayStation, and me and Jess were in the kitchen, and it just sort of happened. Jess and I were friends in high school—not besties or anything, but we were part of the same circle. It was the kind of friendship that probably would have decayed over time had it not been for social media, but here we are, five years out of high school and still going strong.

When she was fifteen, I gave Jess a ride to an abortion clinic in Philly. It’s not like we were that close, but I was the only one in our friend group who had a license. She didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, and she didn’t tell me who the father was. Didn’t tell me much of anything, really, just what I needed to know: her parents couldn’t know, and neither could our friends. It was to be a secret that just she and I would share. She fiddled with the strap of her seatbelt the whole way there, and we didn’t talk much. Listened to the new Adele and kind of circled around what she was on her way to do. Said things adjacent to but never right on the topic. Things like, “How long do you think it’ll take?” and “Do they validate parking?”

It only took about half an hour. When she came back out to the waiting room, her eyes were puffy, but I didn’t know if it was from sadness or pain, and I didn’t ask. We didn’t talk at all on the drive home, except she asked me to stop at the outlets on the way. She needed a new pair of Skechers. All these years later, we’ve still never talked about it. I don’t know if she ever told her parents, told Ryan. Don’t know if she plans to have kids. Ryan does, someday, but when the subject comes up, Jess doesn’t say much, just kind of nods and shrugs, checks her nail polish for chips.

A few weeks ago, Jess and I were drunk in the kitchen reminiscing about old times. “Remember Kevin Hostetter and how he would carry his drumsticks everywhere?” “You think Miss Grayson was having an affair with Mr. Baldwin?” And then, just like that, we were kissing. Since then, every time the pod gets together, we find an excuse to steal away somewhere and press our lips and bodies against each other. It isn’t that I don’t love Geoff or that I think marriage is stifling or anything like that. I mean, we haven’t even been married a full year. I think we’re still figuring it out, this whole sharing your life with another person thing, but it’s fine. Marriage is fine. I don’t know what it is about Jess. I don’t know if it’s the boredom or the loneliness or what, but it’s the most exciting part of life right now. It’s the only exciting part of life right now. I think Jess feels the same.

I take a sip and tilt my head back to let the wine settle in my throat before I swallow.

“Uh-oh,” Geoff says as red and blue lights stream in through the window. Our townhouse is on a busy street, so it’s not like this is unusual. There are cops everywhere around here. Still, no one speaks until the lights disappear down the road.

Ryan breaks the silence. “We could get in major trouble,” he says, even though it’s not like cops go door to door to check who’s in your home. They’re not Nazis. “I could get in trouble,” he adds.

“We should at least be wearing masks,” Geoff agrees, but he makes no move to grab one.

“Well, if it weren’t for the goddamned mandate,” Ryan says.

“No politics.” Jess touches Ryan’s elbow. He looks angry, but he lets the topic drop and takes a gulp of beer.

“All I know is I can hardly breathe,” Jess says. “And they fog up my glasses.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Geoff says and raises his bottle of homebrewed IPA. Geoff always wears his mask, complains incessantly about anti-maskers. But only in private. Only to me.

Jess and Geoff clink bottle to stemless wine glass. “I’ve tried all kinds of hacks.”

“Shaving cream?” I pretend to spray shaving cream into my hand.

“Doesn’t work. Dish soap either.”

“Here’s what I wear.” Geoff leans forward and pulls his anti-fog mask out of his back pocket, hands it to Jess.

She turns it over in her hands and shakes her head. “Nothing works. My glasses fog up so bad I can’t see.”

Geoff and I make eye contact. He won’t say anything, not to her. Later, to me, he’ll let loose. How much of a Karen she is. How she complains about the most trivial things. But now, in front of the entire group, he stays silent, pulls on his beer and looks away before Jess notices the moment we just shared.

But Jess isn’t a Karen, I want to tell him. She can’t distinguish her first-world issues from real problems is all. Even so, she’s smart—smart enough to know better.

“Oh! We got a cheese and cracker tray,” I say. I get up and carry my wine glass into the kitchen.

Jess follows. “Need help?”

I watch over her shoulder as the kitchen door swings closed, and then I set my glass down, place my hands on either side of her face, and kiss her. Her lips soften but don’t part. I pull back. “What is it?

She takes a slow sip of wine, then sets her glass on the table. “It’s nothing. It’s just.”

“Ryan?” I look again at the closed door.

She shakes her head.

“I missed you,” I say, caressing the top of her hand. “You look absolutely beautiful.”

She chews her bottom lip. “I missed you too.”

“But,” I say. “It’s over, isn’t it?”

She tilts the palm of her hand up and entwines her fingers with mine. “No.”

I give her hand a squeeze.

She releases her hand from mine and lifts her glass to her lips, takes a sip. Finally, she says, “I’m going to leave him.”

My stomach twists into a knot, and for a second, I’m pretty sure my heart stops beating. “Yeah?” I ask because I don’t know what else to say.

“I already packed a suitcase. I’m leaving in the morning. First thing.”

“Where?” I drain the rest of my wine glass, then grab the bottle and refill it.

She shrugs. “A hotel, I guess. Until I figure out where to go next.”

I press my palm into the wood grain of the table’s surface. “Are you sure?”

She nods. “I’ve never been more sure of anything.” She touches my cheek, kisses me again. “Come with me.” It’s a statement, not a request. 

“Where’s that cheese?” It’s Geoff, standing in the doorway.

I take a step back, even though it’s already too late. He saw how close we were standing. I grab the tray, then pick up my freshly filled wine glass with my free hand. I carry them into the living room, Jess and Geoff following behind me, and set the tray on the coffee table. I sit on the ottoman in front of the easy chair. Geoff takes my old place on the couch, and Jess sits between Geoff and Ryan.

“Thanks, Amanda,” Ryan says, leaning over the food tray and building himself a cracker sandwich.

“Thank you guys for coming,” Geoff answers for me.

Jess is looking at me, but I avoid her gaze and take another sip of wine.

“Did you hear about the Phillies?” Ryan asks Geoff.

I tune out, picture a quiet life in a cottage in Florida, near but not directly by the beach. Saturday mornings, Jess and I’d sit on the front porch drinking southsides and holding hands. I’d say reading, but Jess isn’t much of a reader. We like the same shows, though, and both listen to the Killers and Vampire Weekend. It might be nice, that kind of life, where you don’t talk current events because she doesn’t keep up with the news anyway, and you don’t have to bear the weight of a sweaty man with homebrew breath on top of you. No more half-hearted blow jobs. No more backed up bathroom sink after he shaves.

I look at Jess. She is still looking at me. My cheeks burn.

Ryan takes a big bite of his double-decker cracker sandwich, and cracker dust sprays on Jess’s lap. She brushes it off.

“You guys are so cute together,” I say.

They both look at me like I’ve said something strange, and I wonder if my words are starting to slur. I’m kind of a lightweight, and I can go from zero to unintelligible in two glasses of wine flat. Including the two I had before Ryan and Jess got here, I’m on my fourth. “I mean it,” I say. “You make a good couple.”

Jess tilts her head at me, and I look at Ryan and take another sip.

Ryan puts his arm around Jess and draws her to his side. “We have our moments.”

“Proof that Tinder isn’t just for hookups,” Geoff says.

Ryan laughs. “Well, it was supposed to be a hookup. But I couldn’t get rid of her.”

Jess shakes her head. “I would’ve been fine with a one-night stand, but you wouldn’t stop texting me.”

Ryan shrugs. “Well, when you know, you know.”

“Well, I’ll have to let you know about that if I ever find the One,” Jess says.

Ryan sighs. “She’s been waxing all philosophical about marriage lately. About, like, whether it should exist.”

“It’s a fair question,” I say.

Geoff lifts his eyebrows at me. “Oh? You wish you never married me?”

“Don’t get excited,” I say. “It is kind of a phony thing, vowing to be together forever and all that.”

“Exactly,” Jess says. “Doesn’t really mean you’re never going to fall out of love.

“Or get bored with each other,” I say.

Jess nods. “And when you do, then what?”

Ryan shakes his head. “For fuck’s sake. It’s not like we’ve fallen out of love.”

Jess looks down.

“I just wanted to say you’re a cute couple,” I say. “Didn’t mean to stir the pot.”

“Jess is just sick of quarantine is all,” Ryan says.

I nod, and Geoff nods. Jess takes another sip and says nothing.

“How did you two meet?” Ryan asks. “Don’t think I ever heard the story.”

“Mutual acquaintance,” Geoff says.

“He slid into my DMs,” I say.

“She had a boyfriend at the time too,” Geoff says.

“You sly dog.” Ryan high fives Geoff.

“It was totally fucked up, if you think about it,” I say.

“What was?” Geoff asks.

“You pursuing me even though I had a boyfriend. And the fact that I was open to it. Totally fucked up.” I try not to look at Jess, but I can see she is looking at me in my periphery.

“Well,” Geoff says and shrugs. “He was a dick, anyway.”

“That doesn’t make it okay,” I say.

“In a perfect world, maybe,” Jess says. “But things are a lot more complicated, don’t you think?”

“Nah, Amanda’s right,” Ryan says. “Cheating is always wrong. No matter the situation.”

“But they ended up together,” Jess says, motioning to me, then Geoff. “It wasn’t just a meaningless fling.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ryan says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Some things are just wrong. Cheating on your spouse is wrong.”

Jess taps her fingernails against her wine glass. “Your boyfriend.”

“Right,” I say. “Yeah. That’s what I meant. Cheating on your boyfriend is wrong.”

“Cheery topic for a Saturday night,” Ryan says.

“Nah, Amanda’s right,” Geoff says. “Cheating is always wrong.” The way he looks at me makes my stomach turn cold. He’s kind of squinting, and though his lips curve into a smile, the smile doesn’t reach his eyes.

My pulse beats in my ears. I look from Geoff to Jess, and they blur together into one amorphous form. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out, and I think I’m going to be sick. I stand up unsteadily, race toward the bathroom, reach the toilet just in time.

Geoff calls out to me, “You okay?” I drop my forehead to the cool porcelain.

“You good?” This time it’s Jess. She’s kneeling in the doorway of the bathroom and reaching out to pull my hair back.

“Yes,” I mumble. “I’m good. I’m good.” I close my eyes and listen to my own breathing. It sounds like waves crashing against the beach. “I’m good,” I say one more time and try my best to believe it.

It isn’t until the next afternoon that we find out Jess has gone missing. She isn’t there when Ryan gets home from work, and her side of the closet has been cleared out. “She didn’t even leave a note,” Ryan texts Geoff. “Thought maybe she was with you guys.”

Do I know where she’s gone, Geoff wants to know. “You must,” he says. “She must have told you.”

But I don’t have any idea where she could be, and it bothers me that I don’t. “It’s not like we’re that close,” I tell Geoff, and later, Ryan, when he stops by.

“Then text her and ask,” Ryan says.

“I don’t even know if she’d respond,” I try.

“She will.” Ryan looms over me, still in his uniform, and for the first time I’m aware how tall he is, well over 6 feet. How commanding his presence. I wonder what it must feel like to be on the other end of a confrontation with him. Wonder if he’s ever used force against a suspect.

“Amanda,” Ryan pleads, “you’re her best friend. She trusts you. Please.”

“Do it,” Geoff says. “She’ll respond to you.”

I pull out my phone and stare at it for a second before I type, “Did you do it?” The wait for a reply is excruciating. Geoff and Ryan are both watching me watch my phone. My hands feel clammy.

Finally, three little dots appear, and then a message. “Yes,” she says, and then, “I’m at the Q. Room 115.” A third message comes through within seconds: “I’m pregnant. Don’t tell Geoff.”

Before I can even process what I just read, Ryan snatches the phone from me. “What the fuck?” He presses the phone back into my hands. “She’s been drinking.”

“Ryan,” I say, but he’s already on his way out the door. “Fuck,” I say, and type out a quick warning to Jess: “Ryan knows. I’m sorry. Think he’s on his way to the hotel.”

“What just happened?” Geoff asks.

“She’s,” I say, but my mouth feels dry and I can’t push the word out.

“Did you tell her he’s coming?”

I don’t answer.

“What the fuck, Amanda? This is none of our business.”

“She has a right to leave if she wants,” I say.

“He has a right to an explanation.” Geoff’s voice is clipped, heated.

“She doesn’t owe him anything,” I say, but it isn’t true, and I know it.

He laughs, but it’s an angry laugh. Mean. “She married him, didn’t she? You don’t just leave like that. You don’t just—” he waves his right hand in the air, “step out.”

I look down at my phone again. Three dots appear on Jess’s side of the screen, but then they disappear again. I look back up at Geoff. He’s watching me.

“You don’t know how she might be feeling,” I say.

“You don’t know how he feels.”

“No,” I agree. “But. Maybe it’s not about him.”

“Then what’s it about?” Geoff asks.

“Maybe it’s about lockdown,” I say. “Maybe it’s about the whole world crumbling and dying around us, and we can’t even shake hands or hug or just, I don’t know, smile anymore because no one can see that you’re smiling anyway. Maybe she’s sick of only seeing his face and she’s wondering why, of all the faces in all the world, this is the only one she gets to see. Maybe she just wants it all to be over.”

“The pandemic?” he asks.

I shrug. Silence fills the space between us for a moment.

Then finally, he asks, “What did I do?” His voice is calmer now, defeated.

“You didn’t do anything,” I say. “It’s not anything.”

“Then,” he says, twisting his hands in and out of each other. “Then why?”

I open my mouth, but there is no answer, and my phone begins to sing. I look down, expecting Jess, but it’s my sister on Facetime. Geoff looks at me, waiting. He thinks it is Jess, too. I answer.

My niece’s left eye and half her forehead fill my screen. “Aunt Manda,” she says. Her words spill out of her mouth so quickly, I have to replay them in my head to understand: “You never told me how the story ends.” She holds a picture book up to the camera, too close. I can just make out the image of a princess on the cover.

“Oh,” I say. “I forgot.”

“You forgot how it ends?” she asks.

I look at Geoff. He cocks his head at me, lifts an eyebrow.

“I’m a little busy right now, Michelle. Can I call you later?”

“But how does it end?” 

“All stories end the same, don’t they?”

“Happily ever after,” she says.

It isn’t the ending I had in mind, but I like her ending more than my own, so I nod and force a smile. “That’s right,” I say, because some lies need telling. “Happily ever after. That’s how all stories end.”

Ashley Cowger is the author of the short story collection Peter Never Came, which was awarded the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. Their stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Feels Blind Literary, Oyster River Pages, and Hippocampus Magazine. They hold an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and work as an Assistant Teaching Professor at Penn State Harrisburg. Learn more at about Ashley’s work on their website.