“I feel humiliated, naked, and vulnerable,” said Ingrid.
Hopper reached for her hand, which she accepted. They gently squeezed hands in a way that reminded her of the same way they had squeezed hands during marriage counseling before their divorce.
“That’s a good start, but let me be clear: this is not marriage counseling,” said Emerson, nodding their head on the screen at their hands. “I call this post-marriage counseling, or some people call it divorce counseling. Also, we will be using first names only.”
Emerson was a counselor recommended by Hopper’s mother, the noted author and screenwriter. “Emerson worked on Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin,” his mother had told him. “They are one of the founders of the conscious uncoupling movement, and are one of the best in Hollywood.” Ingrid and Hopper were located on the grounds of what his family had come to call the Tilley-Blandin Fortress, 10 acres near the Delaware Water Gap. Emerson, Hopper, and his ex-wife Ingrid were conducting this divorce counseling session on Zoom.
“I feel confused and a bit manipulated,” he said.
Hopper looked more closely at the screen, trying to figure out if Emerson was a man, woman, or transgender. He whispered into Ingrid’s ear, “Emerson reminds me of the John Lithgow character in ‘The World According to Garp.’” She just shrugged her shoulders. Hopper guessed that Ingrid had not seen the movie.
“Please don’t do that,” they scolded them. “We’re in a threesome now, and there will be no secrets or ganging up if you want me to play along.”
Ingrid and Hopper had been divorced for two years when the national emergency over the coronavirus had been declared seven and a half months earlier. Hopper’s parents had decamped from their apartment in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan for their country estate, offering refuge to their three adult children: Hopper, Olympia, and Silver. Hopper’s mother had also extended the invitation to Ingrid. That the grandchildren, Max and Alexis, would join them never seemed in doubt. Olympia’s boyfriend Huey joined them, but Silver had elected to stay in Washington DC. Ingrid had left her boyfriend in Chicago and joined the “Almighty Eight,” as they began to call themselves. Hopper’s father had designed a t-shirt, ordered enough for everyone online, and had the shirts delivered to the Fortress. No one wore the t-shirt.
“I would like to start with a pretty standard set of questions that I ask both married and divorced couples,” they explained. “And then we can go from there to see how I might be able to help.”
“Help how, exactly?” he asked.
“Help you achieve some clarity,” they answered. “You would be surprised how much misery in this life is caused by the lack of clarity. So, what are the biggest problems in your divorce? Ingrid, let’s start with you.”
“Everything was fine,” she said.
“Just for the sake of clarity, it was fine back in Chicago,” he said. “And then everyone moved in together last March. My mother made the argument that, since Ingrid is a medical doctor, her being here would be a benefit to the family.”
“Don’t forget, Hopper, that she also thought that our young and impressionable children would be reassured during these times by the presence of both parents,” she added. “I think it’s been good for the kids.”
“And how did that go?” they asked.
“It seemed to be going fine,” she said, “until Hopper’s sisters started to discuss our relationship on a blog.”
“A blog?” they asked. “Please explain.”
“It started when my sister Silver speculated from DC that Ingrid and I were engaged in a sexual relationship,” he answered. “Just Google ‘Silver’s Stimulus Check.’”
“Then Olympia reported in ‘The Secrets of Miss Olympia Tilley-Blandin’ that we were actually engaged in a sexual relationship,” she added. “And Hopper subsequently engaged in what I would charitably call a public self-study on the toilet called ‘Hopper’s 15 Minutes of Peace Amid the Pandemic.””
“So, I have to ask: are you engaged in a sexual relationship?” they asked.
Silently, both She and Hopper nodded onscreen. Emerson asked them to wait while she investigated the blog. They looked up and said, “So, this is a third-party writer who is gaining access to your and your family’s conversations and inner thoughts?”
She and Hopper nodded again.
“Are these blog posts accurate?” they asked.
They were greeted with more nods of affirmation.
“Interesting,” they said. “Let’s move on.”
What Ingrid could not bring herself to admit was that she was humiliated mostly because she and Hopper had been introduced by Michelle Obama, and that the Obamas had come to their wedding. Their divorce had come as a shock, even to those closest to them. Ingrid felt that she had let everyone down, including the Obamas. That she was being called out for having sex with her ex-husband during the COVID-19 pandemic was beside the point. Stories abounded of groups of friends forming communes in the countryside engaging in behavior not seen since the height of cults in the 1980’s. The Death by Nugent cult, along widespread police violence against peaceful demonstrations contributed to a national edginess. Congress was in session because of rotating groups of members allowed for a quorum, but no votes had been taken since the passage of the infamous PPE Act of 2020. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had died from COVID-19 three days earlier, creating additional unease about the direction of national leadership (even though pundits had written off his reelection chances after a series of questionable actions and statements made by him following the Fourth of July). She and Hopper sleeping together seemed trivial in comparison, but the shame Ingrid felt over her divorce still resided deep inside of her.
Ingrid had always viewed herself as a pillar of the community. She was born in Minneapolis 37 years earlier, the “way back there caboose baby,” her sisters called her. Her sisters were, respectively, 23 and 22 older than her. “I was in my forties and we hardly even had sex anymore,” her mother told her when she was 16. “It never occurred to your father or me that I would get pregnant. Silly me, I guess.” When Ingrid graduated from Harvard, her father was 72 years old and her mother was 66. Her father had worked as an administrator at the Mayo Clinic; he retired when she was a high school sophomore. Her mother did not really retire from her work as a realtor; she just stopped going to work after she gave birth to Ingrid. Ingrid felt as though she had been raised by grandparents and a couple of very smart aunts, one of whom went to Yale and the other to Princeton. The awkwardness she felt introducing her parents to anyone resulted in her just keeping them away from friends. Some of her teachers thought she was an orphan.
Emerson leaned into the camera. “So, is the problem that you are having sex,” they began to ask, “or that people know that you are having sex?”
“Both,” Ingrid and Hopper answered.
“You know that you can solve the problem by simply not having sex anymore,” they said. “Or we can talk about whether you have unresolved issues from your marriage.”
“Oh boy,” he said.
“I like the sex,” she said. “There, I said it. I like the sex and there are no other partners available. Hopper is good at sex.”
“Thanks,” he responded, “but you had a sex partner in Chicago. Ken, right?”
“Ken?” they asked.
“Ken is the man I was seeing last winter before all this started,” she responded. “Honestly, Ken and I…we were not right together. I didn’t know how to break things off with him. It was awkward and I hate awkward situations. To be honest, I am a coward. There, I said it. I am a coward. I couldn’t break up with him, so I left Chicago and told Ken that I needed to be with my kids. I also, maybe, didn’t mention to him that Hopper would be with us.”
“Sweet Jesus!” he exploded. “All of that is news to me. When were you going to tell me?”
“I guess that I just told you,” she said.
“And you are still stringing Ken along?” he asked.
“I am not sure that I would use that term, exactly,” she said.
“Let’s take a breath,” they interjected. “No one say anything for three minutes.”
Emerson noted that their body language had not changed. Ingrid and Hopper still both seemed relaxed. They made eye contact, smiled. Hopper gently punched Ingrid in the arm. She feigned pain.
“OK,” they began after the timeout ended.
“Ken is no longer in the picture,” she said. “He found out about Hopper from that blog. He told me that it’s over, which is the best for everyone.”
“I see,” they responded. “Anything else on this matter?”
“I am also seeing someone,” he said.
Emerson could tell that Ingrid was shocked by this announcement.
“Interesting,” they responded. “And?”
“The actress Charlize Theron,” he said.
“Charlize fucking Theron?” she thundered.
“Charlize Theron?” they asked. “She never mentioned you to me.”
“Is she another of your clients?” she asked.
“I can’t tell you that,” they answered. “Let’s just say that she and I know each other. Everyone in Hollywood is in everyone else’s pants. Sometimes they don’t even know it.”
Ingrid and Hopper looked at each other like they were strangers.
“My mother introduced us,” he said. “No one knows about our relationship. It was kind of new when this whole thing started. I am not even sure that we are in an exclusive relationship.”
“Why do you say that?” they asked.
“Just speculation on my part. For one thing, she will not tell me where she is living right now,” he answered. “She could be in Los Angeles or South Africa or Timbuktu for all I know. She says she doesn’t want me to impetuously fly off to see her. She has a point. I might have. I mean, she is Charlize Theron after all.”
“You sound like a starfucker,” she said. “Honestly!”
Hopper ignored Ingrid’s comment. “When we Zoom, she uses one of those Zoom backgrounds. I think they call it West Elm,” he said. “That’s all I know: she is in a Zoom background somewhere.”
“And?” they asked.
“She told me that she is fine with me sleeping with Ingrid,” he said, “just as long as we break things off when this is all over.”
“Oh, she is so totally fucking someone else,” she said.
“I am not sure that is a useful comment,” they said.
Because she was mostly left alone as a child, Ingrid became interested in child development in college. She drifted towards pediatric medicine with an interest in the issues affecting single children and latchkey kids. Ingrid was a brilliant student. The pre-med curriculum came to her easily, while it proved a grind to many of her classmates. She mostly remembered rowing and (mostly) losing with the women’s lightweight crew, binge drinking after races and regattas, and, as she related it, “enjoying my sexual emancipation from my parents, my sisters, and the state of Minnesota.” When she and Hopper were dating, and they came to the inevitable question of previous sexual partners, Hopper confessed that he had slept with only four other women. “I don’t remember,” she told him. “I can only give you a ballpark estimate because there was often too much alcohol involved.”
Until she started medical school, Ingrid did what she wanted, when she wanted, and with whom she wanted. On the first day at the University of Chicago, she walked through the doors, exhaled, and told herself, “It’s time to buckle down now, bitch.” And she did. She sparkled and charmed and excelled with a new sense of purpose. She and Hopper, then a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago, were invited to the White House for a conference on children and families. Michelle Obama, a former director of community affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center, introduced them. “The Three Maroons,” the First Lady remarked, instantly embarrassing all of them by the mention of the university’s athletic moniker. “Nerds,” the First Lady followed up. They laughed. Ingrid and Hopper were attracted to each other immediately. “The rest was kismet,” she said, when telling people about Michelle Obama the matchmaker.
“What I see is that you are both in an exclusive relationship with each other right now,” they said. “We cannot see into the future, but we can address the here and now.”
Ingrid and Hopper sat silently.
“I am going out on a limb,” they continued, “and say that I think you like each other and have an attraction for each other. However, that was not enough to sustain your marriage. So, I would like to hear from you what you think were the causes of your marriage to fail.”
It was as if Emerson had shot the starter’s pistol in a 100-yard dash of grievance:
“His aloofness from our family,” she stated, coming out of the blocks. “He was all about his students, his research, his books, and the adoration of his fans on the publicity tour for his book.”
“Ingrid’s ‘inner Martha,’” he said, pulling even. “She is a perfectionist who expects the same level perfection from everyone in the family.”
“If Hopper has a superpower,” she responded, “it’s his unconscious petty cruelty and meanness. I don’t even think he is aware of the effect of his words and actions on the people he loves the most.”
“Ingrid has taken over my family,” he said. “My mother likes her better than me. My sisters like her better than me. It’s like I have no agency in my own family anymore.”
“Hopper’s view of marriage is overly romantic,” she said. “His problem is that he is in love with another, younger version of me. He couldn’t grow and change to balance work and family and the complexity of marriage. All he wanted to do with me, quite frankly, was go out to dinner and have sex, like when we were dating.”
“Ingrid’s view of marriage is based on a business mentality,” he responded. “It was like we were colleagues, not romantic partners. There was no feeling left over for me after she worked so hard to meet everyone else’s expectations and demands.”
“Stop!” they demanded. “I am listening to you talk and airing your grievances, but you are talking across each other. I believe that you actually have no idea what’s on the other’s mind.”
After a moment, she said, “We have heard all those same words come out of each other’s mouths in counseling before we got divorced.”
“I agree,” he said. “I think we have a pretty good idea of the problems from our marriage.”
“And yet you are living together as if you were still husband and wife,” they observed. “And I still don’t know how that happened.”
While Ingrid, Hopper, and Emerson discussed some very personal and intimate issues, President Trump, Secretary of Health and Human Services Ben Carson, and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Sean Spicer announced that a vaccine for COVID-19 had been discovered and would be available for nationwide distribution in the second half of November.
“As I’ve been telling you all along, America has the best scientists in the world,” Trump said. “And I delivered on the promise that I made to save the American people from this scourge from China that invaded our country. We can look forward to everything returning to normal very, very shortly. Better than normal, even. Peace on the streets. Law and order restored. People going back to work. Our economy will boom like it’s never boomed. You will remember this day in the history books. I made American great again, just like I promised. What did that loser Sleepy Joe Biden do for you? I did this, not him.”
After he had finished the announcement, Trump smirked and called on CNN’s Jim Acosta. “What do you have to say for yourself now, Mr. Fake News?”
“Mr. President, where is Dr. Fauci?” Acosta asked. “What does he or Dr. Birx have to say about the vaccine?”
Trump looked around the room. “Who’s Dr. Fauci?” he laughed. “That loser left the building a long time ago. Those two don’t deserve any credit.”
Acosta left the room while Trump called on another reporter. Back in his cubicle, he called Fauci on his cell phone. “Jim,” Fauci said. “There are literally dozens of vaccines under development, but I haven’t heard anything about a vaccine that actually works. I have not seen one credible study result announcing a vaccine that is effective in preventing infection from COVID-19.”
“Then why would the president make such a claim?” Acosta asked him.
“I can’t speculate, Jim,” Fauci answered. “All I can do is ask the American people to consider any claim made by this president and weigh its credibility for themselves.”
A few blocks away, in the Logan Circle neighborhood, Silver Tilley-Blandin’s computer monitors lit up. In one of her roles with the Washington Post, she measured readers’ engagement with stories and breaking news that appeared on their website. She turned to her dog Fiona and started shouting. “They’ve done it, Fiona!” she screamed. “They finally did it.”
Silver was thinking about a conspiracy theory going around the Post’s editorial staff and journalist Slack; namely, that President Trump would announce a vaccine just before the election. The announcement would be timed to have maximum impact on the voting public desperate for a cure. However, the timing of the announcement would not give journalists, policy makers, and researchers enough time to verify the claim or the vaccine’s efficacy before the election. Silver had discounted the theory. She was supposed to be immune to the conspiracies floating around. After months of living alone with her dog in a death zone, she now she found herself living in a real-life Twilight Zone. Taped to one of her computer monitors: It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.
In the living room of the Tilley-Blandin Fortress, Olympia, her parents, and Huey watched the press conference.
Her father said, “This is just another con.”
“Gird your loins,” Olympia said.
Huey said, “Strap on.”
“I think we should have lunch,” her mother said. “We can have leftovers from that wonderful dinner Ingrid cooked last night.”
“Ingrid,” he said in another room. “Why did you move in with us? You had other options. Less complicated options, like either of your brilliant, well-adjusted, and unmarried sisters. You know that I was not going against my mother. I mean, when has that ever happened?”
“Well, Hopper, I have to admit that you have your charms,” she said.
“I think you should be very careful around these kinds of statements,” they said.
“Why?” she asked. “Why be careful? This is my life and my feelings and my wants and my needs. Most of the time, I liked being married to Hopper. Maybe not most, but a lot, or maybe just enough. I missed having him around. He may be a complicated, self-absorbed bastard, but I never stopped loving him. I wanted to see if there was anything left there.”
“I think you should be very, very careful, Ingrid,” they said. “Hopper, do you have anything to say?”
“Yes,” he said. “When I told you that I was confused, Emerson, this is exactly what I meant. I didn’t know why Ingrid agreed to my mother’s suggestion. However, I am feeling something of that clarity you mentioned. I feel like I was set up. Ingrid, honey, I still love you, too, but there is no chance for our reconciliation. I gave you my heart once, and you stomped it. I can’t give you another chance. That would be one of those ‘shame on me’ circumstances.”
Ingrid’s head dropped to her chest. She gasped.
“Ingrid, I think you should leave the room,” they said.
Ingrid silently got up and left without looking at Hopper. Emerson laid out the scenario to Hopper. Emerson explained that if Hopper was open to reconciliation, they would continue to work together while they cohabitated in the Tilley-Blandin Fortress. However, if Hopper did not want to reconcile, they advised him to leave the family and seek shelter elsewhere.
“Why do I have to be the one to leave?” he asked. “They’re my family!”
“The children need their mother,” they answered. “And Ingrid has legal custody of your children.”
“So, I’m supposed to just pack up my belongings and drive to an undisclosed location?” he asked. “This is not a rhetorical question, by the way.”
“Your sister Silver has agreed to host you for the time being,” they told him. “Your mother told me that the duplex she and your father bought for Silver has enough room for her and a guest and is located in one of the better Washington DC neighborhoods for younger people.”
“Silver?” He was incredulous. “When did Silver agree to this?”
“Your mother made an inquiry yesterday,” they answered. “When she and I first talked, I mentioned the possibility of you having to move out if you did not agree to pursue reconciliation. This current situation is simply not healthy for you, Ingrid, or your children.”
At that moment, Silver was Zooming with her boyfriend, Louis. Louis, a law student at George Washington University, also lived in the District of Columbia. He lived with two other law students. Since the PDE Act of 2020 had been passed in August, he had seen horrible, gruesome things that he had not imagined when he left New Orleans for Washington. [Editor’s Note: for partial reference, see “Louis Guidry Prevents Death by Nugent”] For months, he had been asking Silver to let him move in with her, but she had demurred even though the subject of marriage has recently been broached. Then she watched President Trump’s announcement. “The Interwebs are buzzing like I haven’t seen since the Fourth of July catastrophe. I don’t think it’s going to be safe on the streets for anyone for a while,” she said. “This could be worse than the summer. I don’t want either of us to be alone. The world feels like it’s coming to an end. I want you here with me. When can you move in?”
Louis had not heard this level of emotion in Silver’s voice before. She was not panicking, but there was an edge that betrayed her protective wall starting to dismantle itself. He recognized the same emotion in himself and his roommates, Duane and Jeremiah. Over a dinner of BBQ nachos that Duane had prepared, Jeremiah brought up the subject of the Bonus Army. “In 1932, people were dealing with the Great Depression, and veterans from World War I descended on this city to demand benefits promised them from a piece of legislation passed in 1924. Thousands of people camped out here until the U.S. Army drove them out. Today, it feels like another form of bonus army is arriving on our doorsteps every day, with masks, goggles, and their demands: racial justice, police reform, economic equality, a coordinated federal response to the pandemic, resignation of Trump, whatever. I literally saw hundreds of furries marching toward the White House yesterday. The violence they confront is terrifying, just like 1932. Thousands dead. And we have all seen what happens to the people who arrive without PPE, except for that one guy that Louis saved. And they keep coming, like armies of zombies.”
Louis pondered Silver’s question for a moment. “I can be there in an hour,” he answered. “Just so we’re clear on this. My moving in will be permanent-ish.”
“It means that you and I will be together at least until the real vaccine is flowing through our veins,” he said. “Hopefully much longer.”
“An hour works for me,” she said. “Still no fever?’
“No fever,” he said. “Great 10-mile run this morning, even with the mask and goggles. All systems functioning.”
Two hours later, Louis had moved his clothes and books into Silver’s apartment, had sex with her twice, showered, and was eating a banana. Silver answered her phone. It was Hopper.
“Silver,” Hopper said. “You have a new roommate.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “How did you know?”
“What do you mean you know?” he asked. “Who told you?”
“Told me what?” Silver asked. “Louis has been here only about an hour.”
“Louis Guidry. My boyfriend. I asked him to move in with me.”
“Hmmm. That complicates things, Silver. Do you remember agreeing to take me in if I could not work things out with Ingrid?”
“Vaguely,” she said. “Our mother told me there were issues between you and Ingrid. New issues, I mean.”
“Things have not worked out with Ingrid,” Hopper said. “And I have been kicked out. Of course, because everyone likes Ingrid more than me.”
“Fuuuuuuuuuck. Is this because of that blog?”
“It doesn’t matter, Silver. I guess you have two roommates now, Silver,” he said. “It’s just another manifestation of our family’s dymanics.”
“You did it again,” Silver said. “You said ‘dymanics’ instead of ‘dynamics.’ There is definitely something Freudian going on there.”
“Yes, well, we’ll have plenty of time to discuss my issues,” Hopper chuckled. “Is there anything I can bring you and Louis? I should be there before 10 o’clock tonight.”
“Oh my god, Hopper,” Silver said. “I love you so much and cannot wait to see you for real. How much hilarity can possibly ensue? It will be like that episode of ‘Arrested Development’ that mom wrote.”
“That episode was never produced, if I recall,” he said. “You sound strange, like you want to see me.”
“I do and shut up. Nothing is strange anymore. Bring all of Ingrid’s good food that you can steal,” Silver said. “And anything interesting that dad has lying around the basement. We’re about to have a civil war around the presidential election, but at least I will be with my two favorite guys and my dog.”
“I am not picking up after the dog.”