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Cynthia Stays

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As she stepped outside, Cynthia looked up at the window of a nearby penthouse. Exercise Girl was working out again. Granted, her exercise machine (stairstepper? treadmill? Cynthia wasn't close enough to see) was in the window, so that was the only thing Cynthia was likely to see her doing, but still.

Exercise Girl looked at Cynthia, giving her a cheery wave. God, perky people were revolting.

Cynthia faked a smile (she'd gotten very good at that) and took another drink. She and Exercise Girl were the poster twins for healthy and unhealthy behaviors, weren't they? Or, who the hell were those boys in that kids' magazine, Goofus and Gallant? She was Goofus. Not surprising, really. She'd been Goofus all over the place. She took a long drag on her cigarette, exhaling in Exercise Girl's general direction in a sort of salute. Not that Exercise Girl was watching anymore.

She was sad and lost and so, so tired. She took another step onto the balcony.

"Cynthia!"

That sounded like Annie. Was she imagining things now, on top of everything else? Cynthia gulped the rest of her drink, setting the glass aside as the drink burned its way down.

"There you are! Teresa let me in on her way out."

That was too practical. She wouldn't have imagined that. Cynthia turned around.

Turtleneck sweater, charcoal gray slacks, glasses, sensible hair and shoes--it was Annie.

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything, but I was thinking of you this morning, and I thought, why not stop by--" Annie stopped mid-sentence, frowning. "Are you wearing your fur coat over a nightgown?"

"I thought everyone did that now. Don't you?" Cynthia said, tossing off an arch smile but feeling too wobbly to really make it stick.

Annie gave Cynthia a searching look. "Are you all right?"

And just like that, all the pretense slid away. "No."

Annie opened her arms in silent invitation.

This wasn't part of Cynthia's plan, but she found herself flicking away her cigarette and walking back toward the penthouse, back toward comfort and home and her friend. She leaned toward Annie, who pulled her in close and hugged her tightly, and it was as if no time had passed at all. They might still be those girls from twenty years ago, if they shut their eyes and wished for it hard enough. Cynthia could almost wish that hard by herself.

"He married her," Cynthia whispered, and here came the tears again. "Even when he told me he was leaving, I didn't think he would."

"You're too good for him," Annie said loyally.

Cynthia hiccuped. "I'm not anything anymore."

Annie's voice was quieter when she spoke again, more worried. "What do you mean?"

Cynthia pulled back a little, trying to smile. "Who was I ever, really? The woman behind the man? Well. Now the man's found another woman, so I'm the woman behind nothing, and in front of nothing and in the middle of nothing."

"You're scaring me."

"I'm scaring me too," Cynthia said, perfectly honestly. Just because she'd been thinking about what she might do before Annie got here didn't mean she wasn't still afraid of it.

"Will you let me call my therapist?"

Cynthia made a scoffing sound. "Analysis, Annie? Really?"

"Nobody calls it analysis anymore. It's called therapy, and I really think it could help you."

It felt like Annie was holding out hope, and hope was dangerous. Cynthia'd had a lot of hopes for Gil and for their lives together, and that hadn't turned out so well. "What if it doesn't help?"

"Then I've wasted your time," Annie said. "What else is new?"

Cynthia looked at Annie, wondering if she was serious or not. "You never wasted my time."

Annie scoffed. "Not even with the newsletters? I know nobody reads them."

"I read them," Cynthia said. "And I--" Her voice shook, and she took a deep breath, trying to hold what was left of herself together. "You look so happy."

"Well, I try," Annie said brightly, but Cynthia didn't miss that flash of pain in her expression. "I'm trying."

It seemed ridiculous that Cynthia had always assumed Annie didn't have problems, but Annie was always so doggedly cheerful that Cynthia had assumed she couldn't have any. How could a person with problems move through the world the way Annie did? Annie was strong, of course--Cynthia had always known that--but this was a different kind of strength. Belatedly, it occurred to Cynthia that if Annie had a regular therapist, things were probably not as perfect as they appeared.

"What's wrong?" Cynthia asked.

Annie took a breath, clearly ready to say that nothing was wrong, everything was fine, and then she met Cynthia's eyes and faltered. "Aaron and I are separated."

Cynthia couldn't understand that at all. "Who would separate from you? You're the nicest person in the world. What does he want, a Jacuzzi?"

"I don't know what he wants," Annie admitted. "If I knew, I'd try it."

"You're too good for him, too, you know," Cynthia said.

Annie shook her head. "He's not a bad person."

"I didn't say he was," Cynthia said. "You can still be too good for him."

Annie smiled self-consciously. "Oh, well. We were talking about you."

"I'm tired of me," Cynthia said. "And this place, and these things." She let her fur coat drop to the floor. It was too hot to wear anyway.

"Come stay with me," Annie said. "Chris is at school now. Aaron's--not there. My mother's there sometimes, but--"

Cynthia had met Annie's mother a few times. She was memorable. "Your mother's there? By invitation?"

Annie ducked the question, which meant no. "Well, after all, she is my mother."

"Naturally," Cynthia said, being as tactful as she could manage.

"Oh, you're right," Annie said. "Everyone else thinks the same thing. But if you were there, maybe I'd feel more sure of myself. You know, with backup!"

Annie was making a terrible argument, but Cynthia still felt warmed by it. "You think of me as backup?"

"Of course," Annie said. "And we could, I don't know, go to therapy together--well, I wouldn't be in the room with you, but you know what I mean--and then we could talk about it--or not talk about it, if you don't want to, I'm not trying to intrude at all--"

It took Cynthia a moment to realize she was laughing. Not at Annie, exactly, but more at the thought that Annie was trying this hard because she really did want her around.

Annie stopped, looking self-conscious. "What?"

"Okay," Cynthia said. "I'll come with you."

Annie relaxed into a smile. "Good. Do you want to talk to Dr. Rosen before we go? They'll put you right through if it's an emergency."

"It's not an emergency," Cynthia said, trying to downplay what had nearly happened.

Annie wasn't fooled. "I think it is."

Cynthia nodded. "All right." The phone was beside the couch, which suddenly seemed difficult to get to, but Annie helped steady Cynthia until they were both there. Cynthia picked up the receiver and looked at Annie. "What's the number?"

Annie gave it, and Cynthia dialed.

The receptionist answered after one ring. "Dr. Rosen's office."

"Could I please speak to her?" Cynthia asked, glancing at Annie, who nodded her encouragement. "It's an emergency." The words were difficult to say.

"Of course," the receptionist said warmly. "I'm paging her now, and she'll be right with you. Can you stay on the phone with me until then?"

Cynthia nodded. "I can do that."

"Good," the receptionist said. "Can you tell me your name?"

Cynthia closed her eyes, tears beginning again. It felt like all she ever did was cry. "Cynthia."

"Hi, Cynthia. I'm Peggy."

"Oh," Cynthia said, wiping her tears away and searching for ways to make small talk--and to prevent this from becoming the most awkward conversation she'd ever had. "I had an Aunt Peggy."

"Really? What was she like?"

That was a good question. It had been a long time since she'd thought of Aunt Peggy. "Unique, I think. Fun. She had a lot of hats."

Peggy laughed gently. "Okay, Dr. Rosen is here, so I'm going to let you speak to her now. It was good to talk to you, Cynthia."

Cynthia tried to smile even though Peggy couldn't see her. "You too, Peggy."

There was a moment's silence, and then another woman's voice came on the line, firm and reassuring at the same time. "Cynthia? This is Dr. Rosen. I see this is the first time we've talked. Can you tell me what's going on?"

Cynthia's voice seemed to stick in her throat. She closed her eyes, mustering her courage, and then she felt Annie's hand rest on her shoulder--just a slight pressure, but enough to let Cynthia know she wasn't alone.

"Cynthia? Are you there?" Dr. Rosen asked.

"I'm here." Cynthia opened her eyes and said three words that she'd never used together in her whole life. "I need help."