“Jesus, I was not crying because of my ex-husband!” Ingrid explained on her Zoom call with Reese Witherspoon.
“Of course you weren’t,” Witherspoon replied. “But I still don’t understand the statement ‘Ingrid wept’ at the end of the last story about your family.”
“You have to understand that Hopper and I talked on the phone the whole way after he got kicked out and drove from Pennsylvania to our sister’s apartment in DC,” Ingrid explained. “When the pandemic is over, and if we survive, we’ll both return to Chicago and everything will return to normal between us. I’ll go back to work. He’ll go back to work. He’ll see his children. His books will get published. Terror will be replaced by ennui.”
“And you’ll both still be divorced and single, living less than 10 miles away from each other,” Reese responded.
“It’s not like that,” Ingrid said. “It won’t be life during wartime. Living and trying to survive right now is hard, and sometimes you shed a tear. How many tears have you shed?”
Ingrid Lillie-Blanton and Reese Witherspoon barely knew each other. When she was married to Hopper, Ingrid had attended some film industry events hosted by Hello Sunshine where Hopper’s book and research projects were discussed. His first book, a study of children whose parents were artistic or literary, had been optioned by Witherspoon’s production company. Greta Gerwig was set to direct. Hopper’s literary mother was writing the screenplay with the assistance of his artistic father. Ingrid’s conversations with Witherspoon had focused on kids, motherhood, and kids from Ingrid’s perspective as a pediatrician. Ingrid had been to one after-party, where she and Witherspoon had discussed the anti-vaccine movement.
Reese Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine had an investment in Hopper and his parents. Mostly his mother. Ingrid’s pain and frustration represented a threat to that investment. Ingrid understood that she could help the movie’s development or hinder its progress. He felt neutral about anything involving Hopper or his mother. “I just want to be an observer,” she told Witherspoon. “Let me do my work and raise my kids, and you do your work and raise your kids.” When the conversation ended, Witherspoon made a note to call again in a week.
In her mind, Ingrid divided the tear into three co-equal parts:
- The stress of living during a pandemic and trying to keep her children and her patients healthy and alive;
- The breakup with her boyfriend in Chicago, Ken, which she had viewed as inevitable since before the pandemic because he had started to bore her; and,
- The departure of her ex-husband from the Lillie-Blanton Fortress near the Delaware Water Gap, where she, her children, Hopper, Hopper’s parents, Hopper’s sister Olympia, and Olympia’s boyfriend Huey had sought shelter from COVID-19 since March.
Ingrid and Hopper had started to sleep together, and when this secret was revealed in blog posts here, here, and here, Hopper was asked to leave the Fortress and move in with his other sister Silver, who had decided to stay in Washington DC.
Ingrid wiped the tear away and turned her focus back to tasks for the afternoon. She had three hours of telemedicine appointments with children. She was drawn to pediatrics because of her own upbringing. She had been the surprise baby. Her sisters Heidi and Birgit were already graduated from Yale and Princeton, respectively, when she was born. Heidi was now a venture capitalist with Sequoia Partners in Silicon Valley and Birgit was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. Neither had married. While they were still living, their parents had hounded them about finding husbands. Birgit used the excuse of being a lesbian and stopped coming home to Minneapolis for holidays. Heidi brought boyfriends home for inspection, but she admitted to Ingrid that she was not interested in the marriage sweepstakes. “Boyfriends are fungible,” Heidi said. “When they get boring, you replace them. And when you have my kind of looks and my kind of money, you always can have a serviceable boyfriend.” Heidi had modeled in New York while studying psychology at Princeton. “I always intended to go into finance,” she explained to Ingrid. “Anyone can understand the numbers, but if you want to make money, you have to understand what’s going on in the mind of the person sitting across the table from you.” When Ingrid was 12, Heidi had told her that she would retire when her net worth reached $100 million. Heidi has blown by that figure 10 years ago, but stayed at it because, “I love beating these misogynistic bastards at their own game.”
Ingrid despised meeting her patients through the telemedicine portal. She missed the smell of the children’s innocence and her ability to catch the nuanced signals from their parents. The kids also laughed less at her jokes over video. But she hated more the thought of not being able to keep up with their lives and the progress they made. She also took seriously her charge to protect them from all the forces of the universe designed to kill them: the viruses and bacteria and genetic dispositions and accidents and general malfeasance, including random violence, racism, and the patriarchy.
In the 10 minutes before her first appointment, she rummaged through the kitchen to develop a menu for dinner. Before she gave birth to her sons, Max and Alexis, Hopper had given her a Christmas present of classes at Kendall College’s Culinary Arts Program. She took to the discipline and earned an associate’s degree. No one turned down an invitation to dinner hosted by Ingrid and Hopper. Though she shared cooking duties with Olympia and Hopper’s mother, everyone in the Fortress looked forward to Ingrid’s dinners. She had hoped to follow several recipes that Padma Lakshmi had shared on her Instagram, and smiled to herself when she realized that all the necessary ingredients or substitutes were in the kitchen, the pantry, or their garden.
Hopper’s departure, she realized, would give her freedom to pursue a hobby that she kept secret, which was learning Mandarin Chinese. She had never exhibited a facility with languages, but she resolved to use the pandemic to focus on one pursuit out of her normal regime. Only her sisters knew. “When people ask me what I did while hunkered down in rural Pennsylvania,” she told Heidi, “I want to be able to state, offhandedly, that I picked up Mandarin and then spew out a few sentences.” To Ingrid’s surprise, Heidi spewed out a question in Mandarin, which Ingrid answered. “Impressive, sis,” Heidi said. “Nerds of the world, unite!”
In Washington, Silver found herself adjusting to having her boyfriend Louis and Hopper move in with her in the course of 24 hours. Silver lived with a Shinba Inu named Fiona in a two-bedroom duplex in Logan Circle, purchased for her by her parents. She had liked living by herself in the vortex of pandemic danger and the accompanying civil unrest, but her sense of invincibility had started to crumble after the Fourth of July catastrophe. She acquiesced to Louis’ requests to leave his roommates in the Watergate and her mother’s demand that she grant refugee status to Hopper after he had been ejected from the Fortress. She and Louis shared the upstairs bedroom, while Hopper took the 10 x 10 bedroom on the ground-floor off the living room.
“I can do this,” Silver told herself. “Lillie-Blanton’s always power through adversity.”
“Let’s see how long this lasts,” Hopper told himself. “Be optimistic. Maybe the Lillie-Blanton gene will prove recessive this time.”
“This is not going to work,” Louis told himself. “It’s gonna be him or me.”
The first day together, then donned PPE to walk to 16th Street and watch the daily march toward the White House. Silver had learned to decipher the objectives of the marchers by focusing on the signs they women hoisted above their heads. Those signs used language that was to-the-point, whereas the men’s messages proved to be random ejaculations of intellectual masturbation. She has seen and reported on all the marches for her editors at the Washington Post. Though she was not, technically, a reporter, the editors had told them, “All hands on deck. Everyone is a reporter now.” Since the first protests following the late spring murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she had reported on about 100 marches along 16th Street. Black Lives Matter marches. Anti-Trump marches. Police brutality marches. “Mask” and “Anti-Mask” marches of people demanding that everyone wear a mask or people demanding that rules dictating mandatory use of masks be repealed. The marches she labeled as “tear down the statues” marches and the “Tony Fauci Fan Club” marches. The marches she feared most, with ample reason, were the “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” marches, which, inevitably ended in violence. After the passage of the PPE Act of 2020, however, even the anti-mask marchers uniformly wore masks. The few people who entered the District without masks risked summary execution by police, a protest labeled as “Death by Nugent.” Silver had witnessed half a dozen such executions in the last two weeks. Louis, to his credit, had intervened in one execution, saving the life of a man from Shreveport.
The three of them watched the marchers walk by them sullenly, with the occasional shout and pumped fist. Silver, by now an experienced crowd watcher, estimated about 5,000 people. “This is a ‘Stimulus Check March,’” she explained. “These are people who did not receive some or all of the $1,200 stimulus check they were promised. They aren’t going to the White House. They are going next door to the Treasury.” Hopper remembered Silver describing these kinds of marches to him. “They end up making a deposit on the mall in front of the Treasury while chanting Steve Mnuchin’s name,” she explained. “When I say ‘deposit,’ I don’t mean money, either. It’s very, very nasty.”
That night, Silver made dinner for the three of them and they played Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine who got to choose the Netflix movie. Louis won. He chose “Whiplash,” a drama about the conflict between a demanding music teacher and his student, a promising jazz drummer. Louis was from New Orleans and played piano in a Preservation Hall-style band comprised of fellow law students. He loved music movies. Silver hated the movie. Hopper loathed the movie.
By the third day, Hopper saw how things were going to go in Silver’s duplex: everyone on their own for breakfast and lunch, with Silver making dinner. Silver would sit in front of her three computer monitors, typing into the Post’s Slack, prepare dinner watch a Netflix movie, and then have sex with Louis. Louis was in charge of cleaning the apartment. He would go for a long run, log on to classes or go to class held in an open-air park near the George Washington Law School campus, study, Zoom with his former roommates, Duane and Jeremiah, watch a Netflix movie, and then have sex with Silver. Hopper was in charge of washing the dishes. He met with his graduate students on Zoom, met with his researchers on Zoom, met with his editor and publicist on Zoom, talked to Reese Witherspoon and his mother on Zoom conference calls, talked to Ingrid and his children on Zoom conference calls, read, finished proofreading the galleys to his second book, watched a Netflix movie, and listened to Silver and Louis have sex in the upstairs bedroom. On the second night, Silver had chosen “Contagion,” the pandemic movie that killed off Gwyneth Paltrow. Louis and Hopper had found it depressing. Silver seemed strangely thrilled by it. The next night, Hopper had chosen the old Woody Allen movie, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.” Hopper stifled his laughter. Silver and Louis hated it.
Hopper did not like how things were going to go with Silver and Louis, but mostly Silver. His sister had always held him at arm’s length. While she seemed sincere about welcoming him, it was just too easy for both of them to fall back on old habits. There was no one incident that proved to be the tipping point; rather, it was a lifetime’s accumulation of petty sibling competition and jealousy. They could stand to be in the same room for family celebrations of holidays. Weekends were a stretch. Three days was the longest they had stayed under the same roof since Silver had stayed with him in Chicago when he married Ingrid. There was alcohol involved. This time, there was not enough oxygen in the duplex for all three of them. He called his sister Olympia.
“Can I move into your apartment?” he asked. Olympia and Huey had shared an apartment in Tenleytown, about four miles away from Silver’s duplex. They had not abandoned the rental unit and kept up with the rent. “I don’t want to go all the way back to Chicago. I want to stay closer to family, but not too close, if you know what I mean.”
“You can stay there, if you don’t mind company,” Olympia answered.
“Huey,” she said. “I am breaking up with him. He is leaving and going back to Washington.”
“Damn,” he said. “Sorry about that, but, sure, I’m OK with Huey.”
“He’ll be happy,” Olympia said, “to learn that he won the pool.”
“We all bet on how many days it would take for you to give up on living with Silver.”
“Harsh, perhaps, but not the worst pool held by the Lillie-Blanton family,” she said. “Just remember that we still have a pool on how long it will take for Melania to divorce Trump after he leaves the White House. Oh, and that pool on when Ruth Bader Ginsberg will die. And the pool on Prince Andrew, you know, after the Jeffrey Epstein accusations.”
“Oh, right, Prince Andrew,” Hopper said. “We are bad human beings, aren’t we?”
Back in the Lillie-Blanton Fortress, Ingrid pondered the universe and how alone she felt in its vastness. Some people just don’t understand how alone a person can feel, even when they are surrounded by people. Even people they love and who love them. “It’s like you are the subject of an Edward Hopper painting,” her father once described the feeling. How cruel, she thought, that her father had insisted on naming his only son after Edward Hopper. It’s like dooming your progeny to life filled with depression. However, Hopper would be fine, she realized. Hopper could function if he were the last person on the planet. As long as he had books and reading glasses. He wasn’t naturally a hermit, but he was self-reliant. However, here she was, trapped in isolation with her ex-husband’s family and her pre-adolescent children. Hopper’s parents loved her, but, from her experience in her medical practice, she had seen how families have a tendency to circle the wagons in matters of divorce. They liked her better than Hopper. However, in the end, they would choose their love of their son over their like of her. She was close to Olympia, but neither of them could provide the other the kind of succor that they needed. She really liked having the kind of person Hopper could be: the ally hunkered down with her in the foxhole, protecting each other from harm while the universe conspired against them. Her ex-boyfriend Ken could be amusing, but she could never have imagined jumping into that foxhole with him. Hopper had been the only man who had taken that leap with her. And she knew that it was over with Hopper. Their future for them would be filled with banal discussions about meaningless topics, mixed in with the occasional emergency affecting Max and Alexis. And then the weddings, births, baptisms, etc., which would require the forced smile, the forced extended hand, the forced expression of solidarity. Ingrid realized that she was having an existential crisis.
The only solution that made sense to her was to grimly put one foot in front of the other until the task no longer seemed grim. She would have her patients. She would continue to refine her culinary skills. She would learn passable Mandarin. And she would raise her children. Her children.
At age eight, Max, who Hopper had insisted be named after the sociologist Max Weber (who had died almost exactly 100 years ago today), was by all appearances a normal and loving boy. Like most boys his age, he was indescribably dull in the sense that Ingrid could sense no hint of imagination, no hunger for the unknown. Max was a purely reactive creature, responding only to sensual stimulus. “Ouch!” seemed to be his favorite word. That, and “cool!” Ouch and cool. She and Hopper insisted that their boys take up a musical instrument and engage in sports or some physical hobby. Climbing trees or riding a bicycle around the block did not count. Max was shunted on to the violin at age 5. Three years later, he could play well enough to not engender complaints from the inhabitants of the Fortress during his Zoom lessons and solitary practice. Ingrid did not delude herself into believing that Max was gifted, but she saw that he was competent enough to continue being invited into youth ensembles and orchestras. This, she hoped, would allow him to interact with girls as equals and colleagues so that by the time puberty hit, he would not begin to view girls solely as owners of breasts and penis receptacles. Max also played soccer, so it was a (temporary) gift that Huey and Hopper could play made-up versions of sports outside with him and Alexis at the Fortress. They played tennis on the clay court that Hopper’s father had installed years earlier for visiting several clients who bought his overpriced paintings. They played basketball and wild variations on field hockey on the tennis court as well. Every day while Huey and Hopper lived at the Fortress, Max would show up for dinner coated in the dust kicked up from the court. Ingrid wondered how she could fill the void left by Huey and Hopper’s departure.
Ingrid and Hopper had agreed before they married that they would have two children. Any boy’s names would be the provenance of Hopper, while any girls would be named by Ingrid. Had she borne daughters, Ingrid would have named her first daughter Elizabeth, after Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Had she been blessed with another daughter, Ingrid would have named her Virginia, after Virginia Apgar, who developed the famed Apgar score, which is used to test whether newborn babies require urgent medical attention. In moments of reflection like these, Ingrid reminded herself that she was still in her childbearing years. If she wanted a daughter, her options were extremely limited, especially during a pandemic. She had considered ceasing birth control during her brief affair with Hopper at the Fortress. However, she believed that he would not consent, and she could not bring herself to trick him.
Her younger son, Alexis, age six, who Hopper had insisted be named after the 19th century French observer of American life Alexis de Tocqueville, could not have been more different than his brother. Like his father, he was self-reliant. Ingrid never had to tell him to do what was required, like brushing his teeth and combing his hair in the morning. He was reading at a fifth-grade level and had expressed an interest in taking up the Harry Potter series. He fully participated in dinner conversations, peppering the adults with questions until his grandfather would laugh and exclaim, “Enough for now, Alexis. Give the grown-ups a chance to ask some questions, too!” When he began watching his brother play the violin, Alexis demanded that he, too, be allowed an instrument. Rather than a single instrument, Alexis played with several. “I say played with,” Ingrid told her sister Heidi once, “because his fingers are still too short to achieve any competency.” He played with a keyboard, a variety of percussive instruments, a child-sized guitar, and a variety of devices into which a boy could blow air to produce sound. He could read music, and Ingrid and Hopper agreed that Alexis was the musician in the family. Even Max knew it, but he did not appear jealous of his brother’s gift. His physical activity was to accompany Ingrid every day on her 30-minute walk after dinner: 15 minutes out and 15 minutes back. Rain or shine. Cold or hot. Just not when the snow in Evanston accumulated more than 6 inches.
Ingrid adored Max for his physicality and his fearlessness. She adored Alexis for his thoughtfulness and compassion. Every day, she would designate one son as her “favorite” and the other as the “reject.” The following day, the roles reversed, no matter their behavior. Max could just as easily be the favorite on a day when he faced punishment for a misdeed, and Alexis could be the reject on a day filled with accomplishment. It was a trick Ingrid used so that her sons would never harbor the feeling that she loved one more than the other. Hopper refused to play along, telling her, “you are playing with fire. Family dynamics cannot be predicted or manipulated. These kids will tear your heart into a thousand pieces just as easily as eating a chocolate-chip cookie.” Her heart broke every time she considered the probability that the world would do everything it could to crush a sensitive soul like Alexis with the very same forces from which Max would not only be immune, but which would aid his acquisition of everything he wanted.
This is what I need to do, Ingrid told herself. I have to keep them alive until I can push them out of the house on their own. And I have to push them out even if they don’t want to go.
The first night of dinner without Huey and Hopper, Alexis asked what things would be like “after the COBID goes away.” His mispronunciation of the virus elicited a knowing chuckle from his grandparents, mother, and aunt.
“Alexis actually raises a serious question,” his grandfather noted. “How would each of you answer that question? I’m the oldest person in the room, so I will go first. I think that, a year from now, people will have only the dimmest memories of the pandemic and what happened on the Fourth of July because they will sprint to embrace the past that they knew, and which made the most sense to them. The technocrats will shake their heads and issue dire warnings, but people will believe what they want to believe. They will want to believe that it is actually 2019, or 2016, depending on your political leanings and whether Trump is reelected.”
“So saith my husband, the painter,” said Alexis’ grandmother. “He works primarily in the same medium that painters have used for centuries. In my work, as a writer, we are embracing the new technologies and business models. Right now, from rural Pennsylvania, I am collaborating on a screenplay with a Hollywood studio, exchanging notes on a new novel with my agent in the Hamptons, and providing mentorship to young writers in six states. The cat’s out of the bag, folks. We are going all digital, all the time. Fourth of July will be a digital celebration. We will watch movies in our homes, read on tablets, and interact from a safe distance. Sometimes far distances. Sad to say, but procreation will no longer require partners in the same room.”
“As a loyal daughter, I have to agree with both of my parents,” said Olympia. “My students are continuing to learn in ways they had not imagined before the pandemic. Their imaginations are being enabled to new technologies, and I see all generations accepting their ‘machine overlords,’ as some of my students ironically call the Internet. But the stories we study and share demand that we also embrace human intimacy. They will want some version of Fourth of July as a communal celebration. How can you not read Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott and not yearn for touch? How can we love and lose love and not want more love?”
Everyone smiled and reached out with their hands to one another. “Ingrid,” Olympia asked, “what do you think?”
“I think they will burn it all down,” said Ingrid without emotion. “No more Fourth of July.”
“Dessert anyone?” Ingrid’s former mother-in-law interjected into the awkward silence. She had made a peach pecan pie.
Later that night, after her sons had gone to bed, Ingrid sat alone in the living room with her laptop computer, finishing up notes from her day’s appointments. Out of his room, her former father-in-law emerged and walked to the kitchen. He joined Ingrid with two glasses of Pinot Noir, handed her one of the glasses, sat beside her on the sectional sofa, and crossed his right leg over his left. He had never sat beside her, not even at dinner.
The main room of the Fortress had an open plan, which included living room, dining room, and kitchen – all made possible by a vaulted ceiling. The house had been featured years earlier on one of the HGTV shows. Her former in-laws lived in Manhattan, but the house was in constant use from their network of friends, colleagues, patrons, and clients. They had rebuffed several offers from Airbnb. “Stop calling,” the painter told them. “We already have more money than you think.”
“I’m concerned that you think this will all end badly,” he told Ingrid.
“Do you honestly disagree with me?” she answered. “It’s not just the anger and weariness over the police treatment of black people. It’s not just the anger and weariness over the way this country treats people who aren’t white. It’s not just the anger and weariness we all feel because of the ‘COBID,’ as my dear son called it. It’s not just the election. It’s not just the inequality and unfairness. It’s not just climate change. It’s not just consumerism—”
“OK, I get it,” he said. “People have reached their breaking point. They are past being able to make sense of the world in which they live. Nothing’s working for them. They want a fresh start.”
“Maybe, but there’s no such thing as a ‘fresh start,’” Ingrid said.
“Well, then, what are you going to do, Dr. Ingrid?” he asked. “I fear your outlook is darker than black.”
“What do you mean?”
“When this is all over, and if you survive, are you going to take my grandsons back to Evanston and go on with your lives?”
“I haven’t thought it through yet,” Ingrid answered. “In truth, I don’t know anyone who has thought it through with any degree of confidence.”
“But you won’t have Hopper anymore,” he said, uncrossing his legs.
“I already didn’t have Hopper,” she said. “Even here, I didn’t have Hopper. I know that now.”
“But you liked having him around these past few months, am I right?” He didn’t sound fatherly anymore. Hopper’s father liked the role of patriarch of all in the Fortress. Usually, his tone of voice bordered on regal. Now, she thought, he sounded like a guy.
“Yes, it was nice having my kids’ father around,” Ingrid said. “I enjoyed having the four of us together.”
“And you? Did you like having Hopper around for yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
“It was nice having a man, was it not?”
“I don’t know,” she said. She did not like the direction of his questions. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I am still processing the whole ‘Hopper experience in quarantine.’”
“I think it’s nice for a woman to have a man around,” he said.
“What are you getting at?” She sounded accusatory, but he ignored her tone.
“You don’t have to be alone here,” he said. He finished off his glass of wine and rose from the sectional. “Just think about it. You know where to find me.”
Ingrid shuddered as he returned to his room and his wife.
She put her unfinished glass of wine down and exhaled emphatically. Her first thought was to wonder if she would ever tell Hopper that his father had propositioned her. Her second thought was to call Heidi. She would know what to do, or at least confirm the plan that was already forming in Ingrid’s mind.
Heidi ruled her empire from her home in Woodside, California. People who visited called it a ranch, as in “let’s go see Heidi at her ranch.” She kept some horses on the ranch, as well as chickens for fresh eggs. Three full-time employees kept the ranch running, while two full-time employees kept the house running so that Heidi could focus on her business. When Ingrid called her, she hung up on Google employee #8. Or maybe it was #7 or #9. Heidi did not attempt to keep track of the superficial signifiers in business. She focused on people who could make decisions in meetings or on the phone. But no one usurped her sisters Ingrid and Birgit in the pecking order.
“I need a favor,” Ingrid said.
“There is no such thing as favors between sisters,” Heidi responded.
“I need to pack Max and Alexis into my car, drive across country, and shack up with you for the foreseeable future.”
“What if I send my plane to,” she began to say as she Googled ‘Delaware Water Gap airports…’ “Lehigh Valley International Airport? Forty-one miles by car. Drive your car to the airport and just leave it. You won’t need it anymore. You can be here this time tomorrow.”
“I don’t know…”
“Stop faking at being coy!” Heidi shouted into the phone. “You know this makes sense. Say, what happened to your ex-husband?”
“I know you know,” Ingrid said. “It’s in the blog. We had to kick him out. He couldn’t stand living with Silver more than three days, and now he’s living with Olympia’s ex-boyfriend in Washington. He’ll be just fine. He always lands on his feet. Like landing on Charlize Theron.”
“That won’t last,” Heidi said. “I know her. She’ll just ghost him. He’s cute and charming, but he’s punching way above his weight with her.”
“I think I know what you mean,” Ingrid said. “Heidi, I know this might not be the time, but what happened to our country? What happened on the Fourth of July?”
“Whatever you read or heard about the Fourth of July,” Heidi said, “it’s not what people think. I think the truth is far worse than the fairy tales that have been floating around for the past four months.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll have plenty of time to talk about it when you get here,” Heidi said. “I will text you the flight information.”