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Sigrid Nunez


Whenever I travel I try to avoid getting into conversations with strangers I happen to be sitting with. There is nothing worse than being trapped for hours with a dullard or a chatterbox. Yet it is my experience that these types travel more frequently than anyone else. But with the woman on the train it was different. Partly it was her voice. You’re a teacher, she said (I had been grading homework).

I turned and saw an attractive woman on the cusp of middle age with an expertly made-up face and heavy coils of dyed black hair. She wore a tailored wool suit with a peacock-print scarf and several pieces of jewelry—all posh enough to light in me a spark of envy. Her scent—but this I’d noticed before, when she first took the seat next to mine—could have been called something like Dune Rose, or Ocean Blossom.

You’re a teacher. It sounded like four notes struck on a xylophone.

I said yes, I was a high school teacher. And just like that our conversation began, as mundane as such small talk usually is, and not worth repeating.

After a few minutes our train emerged from the tunnel we’d been slowly lumbering through and picked up speed, and in the sunlight that flooded our compartment I saw that she was in fact older than I’d guessed—older than myself by a good ten years, I thought (not without a touch of satisfaction)—but, in spite of this, even prettier than she had seemed. I did not think I’d ever seen a pair of eyes such an intoxicating shade of green, like the last drops of some French liqueur swirled at the bottom of a glass.

It turned out that she lived in the city of my destination. She was on her way home from a melancholy errand: a visit to a dying friend. But I was on my way to visit a dying friend! To me, the coincidence was remarkable. But the woman only nodded, as if this was something she’d known all along.

After a while she said, You know, I don’t usually drink this early in the day but I’d love a glass of wine. Care to join me?

Which is how we ended up in a booth in the café car.

You know that peculiar bond that can form between strangers whose paths cross on a journey, how seamlessly they can pass from small talk to confidences. Almost at once the woman began talking about her husband. In fact, it occurred to me that this was why she’d wanted a drink in the first place: to boost her courage to talk about her marriage. She drank quickly—big, unladylike gulps, it must be said—and as she spoke her entire bearing changed. Not that she became loud or unruly, but there was an urgency, an intensity about her that more than hinted at a soul in distress.

They had been married a long time. She had been just a girl when they met, and he old enough to be her father. He had always cheated on her, and she had always known it. At first they had fought about it; more than once she had threatened to leave him. But when she understood that her husband was simply incapable of fidelity and that there’d be no changing this, she learned to accept it. For she loved him, she said. He was a decent man, and in all other ways a good husband to her.

Naturally, however, she had looked forward to the day when age would slow him down. But to her baffled astonishment, the old goat was now womanizing harder than ever, and among his lovers were many young and very beautiful girls.

It was at this point that I began to feel sure that she was going to ask me for something. For a scary moment I thought of the famous movie: two strangers meet on a train.… And if it wasn’t coldblooded murder this stranger was asking me to commit it was nevertheless something shocking.

What gave her husband such power over women? She confessed that her obsession had reached such a degree that her life had become hardly worth living. Until she knew his secret, she would have no peace.

Why me? it seemed only appropriate to ask.

Well, she couldn’t ask just anyone, now, could she. She couldn’t ask one of her friends without seriously complicating matters. No, her informer must be a stranger. And you’re single, she said. (Was I drunk? I didn’t remember telling her this, but I supposed I must have.)

Besides, there’s something about you, she said. I sensed it as soon as we started talking. I thought, Here is someone I can trust.

And so the idea had come to her that, after hearing her story, I might be willing to help her.

Perhaps. Yet, to me, it seemed that she’d already planned everything out. She was quick to assure me that a tryst would be easy to arrange. Her husband had a business. I would visit his office, posing as a potential client.

Oh, you’ll have no problem, she drawled, in a voice that was not without bitterness. He has a weakness for redheads. He’ll invite you to meet him at a certain hotel….

The scheme of a desperate woman—a madwoman, perhaps. But one who had slyly infected me with her curiosity. In fact, I was dying to meet Grampa Casanova. Nor could it be denied that this woman with her sea-nymph scent and musical voice had her own mysterious power, something that made me want to please her and to become more involved with her. Then, too, God knows, I was frantic for a diversion. The friend I was on my way to see was someone I’d known since childhood, someone who was exactly my age, and whose mortal illness had struck me a crushing blow. And just yesterday I’d been given the news: This visit would be our last.

I stared out the window, pretending to think over the woman’s request. The world flew past: houses and yards and a shopping mall; houses and yards and a bright, boat-filled lake—like an illustration of how rapidly all things come and go. How long had it been since I’d had an adventure? My days were all routine, spent mostly in the company of adolescents to whom I was invisible except when they remembered to torment me. The thought of the expressions on their doltish, pimply faces if they could have known how I was about to sin bathed me in a warm current of pleasure.

The woman and I had just clinked together our second glasses of Cabernet when the lights in the car flickered out and, in the blink before they came on again, I had the illusion that her eyes glowed in the dark.


He entered the hotel room dressed in a dark suit and carrying a plastic shopping bag. To my surprise, he barely stopped to peck my cheek before shutting himself into the bathroom. In the brief time he was out of sight I considered leaving. Now that the moment had come, I couldn’t understand how it had happened. How had I ever agreed to sleep with this decrepit creature? He had palsied hands, a hunchback, and a face so deformed by wrinkles and folds that you couldn’t tell for sure whether his expression was happy or sad.

When he came out of the bathroom I saw that he’d changed into a robe. But it was not one of the two plush white Turkish bathrobes that were provided by the hotel. This robe (no doubt it was what he’d been carrying in the plastic bag) was made of some sort of thin, shiny, metallic-looking material, like Mylar, and had a capacious hood.

Very odd that he’d brought his own bathrobe. Odder still that he’d pulled up the hood so that he seemed to be peering at me from the back of a cave. Oddest of all that the robe now began whipping and billowing around him as if he were caught in a storm.

I barely had time to make these observations when the robe blew off entirely and there stood a youth as heavenly-handsome as could be imagined, naked and ready for love, which was what we immediately set about making, and making last (yes, that was part of his secret) for a deliciously long time.

I fell asleep—or swooned, it felt more like—and I could have sworn that it was not a dream but that he went right on making love to me.

When I awoke I found him sitting up, dangling his spindly legs off the side of the kingsized bed: an old man, all loose, parched skin, with sagging tits and a belly slopping onto his thighs and concealing so effectively what lay between them that he might have been an old woman. As he bent to kiss me, I shuddered at his old-person’s stinky breath. But when he asked me if I wanted to meet like this again I shuddered in a different way and cried yes!

If I tell her the truth, I reasoned, she’s bound to take action. If she gets her hands on the magic robe, she’ll hide it, perhaps even destroy it, thus robbing me of something I would sooner die than give up.

There was no secret. Nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Alas, I apologized, I tried, but I’m afraid I can’t help you.

I see, she said. And although she said no more, I could tell that she knew very well that I was lying. In my agitated state I thought I saw one of her coils of black hair lift a triangular head and wave it at me.

The next time the woman’s husband and I met, everything happened just as before. The same hotel, to which he again arrived carrying the same plastic shopping bag. The same immediate dash for the bathroom. The same young god emerging as if from a chrysalis to take me in his arms and transport me to paradise.

Again I appeared to pass out, but this time when, shortly later, I woke up I found the man still in godly shape and sleeping beside me. Night had fallen, but the room was not yet quite dark. I needed to use the bathroom.

The hotel was a grand one; the room was like a spacious studio apartment with a particularly luxurious bath, the walls of which were lined with so many mirrors that you could see yourself—you could not avoid seeing yourself—every inch, from every angle, multiplied at least a dozen times. And what I saw gave me a rude shock.

I suppose it had been a while since I’d made such a thorough inspection. I was no longer a girl, of course I knew that. But how had I failed to notice so much deterioration? All the care I’d taken over the years, watching my weight, body-sculpting at the gym—certainly, this had helped. But now, in the form of various bulges and puckers and creases and droops, I saw far less to please than to lament. I saw, with a horror that sent my hand flying to my mouth, a gray pubic hair.

I recalled what the woman had told me, about all the young and beautiful girls her husband was sleeping with, and it was like a hot iron pressed to my flesh.

Smarting miserably, I turned out the unforgiving light and headed back to bed. As I did so, I heard a murmur. The man was stirring. Though he seemed to be still asleep, I saw him reach out his arms for me and my heart turned over—only to be gripped in a terrible vise: what if he was really reaching for someone else?

Something crinkled underfoot. I looked down and saw the robe, lying on the carpet where it had blown, a gleaming dry puddle. And I froze, breathless with a question: How did the magic work? Only for him, the robe’s rightful owner? Or … for … anyone.

More rustling from the bed, and I heard him call my name. In a flash, I scooped the robe from the floor and threw it around my shoulders. Shooting my arms through the sleeves, I squeezed my eyes tight and stood, panting and trembling. I did not have to wait long before the robe began wildly billowing around me. I thought of the famous image of Marilyn Monroe standing atop the subway grate, and could not stop myself from giggling.

He was a decent man. He didn’t just leave me lying there. He called his wife. (Why did this not surprise me?)

She came at once, her scent wafting in the air as she paced the room, berating him.

I hope you’ve finally learned your lesson!

That she had known everything all along; that she had, indeed, planned every step of it; that it had been she, the witch herself, who’d given the wonderworking robe to her husband: these thoughts rose to my mind, but in a whirring and chaotic way, like panicked birds—thoughts of a disordered brain struggling to grasp what had happened.

I was aware of no specific injury but rather of overall pain and weakness—the utter helplessness of a newborn baby—and of the vastly diminished power of all my senses. Moving was out of the question. Even talking was too much: every ounce of my strength was required merely to breathe in and breathe out.

Quick, said the woman. Let’s go before the ambulance comes.

Poor thing.

Did she break a bone?

No, she’s just old. Doctor says she’s a hundred if she’s a day. She’s reached the end, is all.

Are you sure she can’t hear?

Can’t hear, can’t see, can’t speak.

God, I hope I never live to be that old. She looks like a mummy! Does she have any family?

Police are still trying to find that out. She was staying at a hotel, but no one seems to know what she was doing here. Anyway, we just want to make her comfortable.           

What’s this funny robe she’s wearing?

I don’t know, but we’ve got to take it off and get her into a gown.

Poor old thing. Looks like she put it on inside out.

About the Author

Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez has published six novels, including A Feather on the Breath of God, The Last of Her Kind, Salvation City and, most recently, The Friend, which won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Among the journals to which she has contributed are The New York Times, Threepenny Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Believer, and Conjunctions. Her story “Betrayal” was commissioned for a collection of new myths and fairy tales edited by Kate Bernheimer.

This story was published in Issue 11 of The Literarian.