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Song For the Asking

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Donna is twenty pages from the end of last month’s book club pick when she hears Josh’s familiar tread on the creaky third-floor stairs of the brownstone. He knocks softly on the bathroom door, then doesn’t wait for an answer before easing it open, handing her a faded Santos McGarry mug full of cabernet.

“Thanks.” Donna smiles, a little ashamed of the secret part of her that was hoping he’d leave her to her book and her bath and her solitude for a little while longer. “All quiet?” she asks, lifting her chin in the direction of the hallway.

Josh nods. “For now,” he says, sitting down on the edge of the tub and dipping his fingers into the water. “I made popcorn. They’re watching some monster thing in the den.”

Donna tries not to grimace. Noah’s ten and old enough to handle the odd creature feature but Alex has been climbing into their bed every other night as it is, bad dreams about earthquakes and fires and floods. “When will the world end?” he asked the other night—matter of fact, casual even, like he expected her to be able to point to it on the school calendar in between the virtual science fair and Silly Hat Day. Donna slipped into the pantry and cried for three minutes, then came out and made PB and Js. “Scaring the pants off themselves?”

“You want to hear scary?” Josh segues immediately. “Have you seen the latest polls out of—"

“Don’t,” Donna says, holding her hand up.

Josh frowns. “Don’t what?”

“You know what.” Donna presses her foot against the side of the tub, toes flexing. She hasn’t had a pedicure since Christmas. “If I wanted Nate Silver anywhere near my naked body, I’d apply to work as his beleaguered deputy for seven years.”

Josh‘s mouth opens in surprise, then closes again. “Beleaguered?” he repeats, lips quirking. “Beleaguered.”

“You heard me.”

“Beleaguered.” He shakes his head. ”Seriously, though, the voter suppression situation in Texas—“


“Sorry!” Josh holds his hands up, but she can tell he’s disappointed. His appetite for every corrosive crumb of news is insatiable as it’s ever been, the blue light of his phone reflected in his glasses when she stirs awake in the middle of the night, but more and more Donna finds herself fighting the instinct to clamp her hands over her ears as the world’s collective pain and heartbreak reaches its hideous, shrieking crescendo. She loses herself in recipes for whole wheat muffins, in spreadsheets for her job as COO of a fair housing nonprofit in DC, in the futility of trying to finish a novel for a discussion that occurred over Zoom three weeks ago. She worries it’s weakness, that something fundamental is cracking deep inside her. She’s worried Josh thinks so, too. “I’m just saying, that pestilent Neo-Nazi boil on the hindquarters of huma—“

Donna sets her wine down on the edge of the tub, pulls the plug, and stands upright.

Josh startles. “Wait, what are you doing?” Then, his dark gaze flicking up and down her body, suddenly alert: “Hi.”

“Okay.” Donna rolls her eyes, gesturing at the back of the door. “Will you just--?”

Josh, to his credit, has the decency to look abashed. “Did I ruin it?” he asks, handing her a bathrobe off the hook—his, a blue and green plaid number the kids got him for Father’s Day a few years back. “I just ruined it, didn’t I.”

Donna shakes her head. “You didn’t ruin anything,” she promises, cinching the sash at her waist and padding past him out into the dim, tidy bedroom. She means it, too. It’s not him. It’s just...everything. “The water was getting cold.”

“I’m sorry.” He lingers in the doorway, leaning against the jamb and scrubbing a hand through the thick, shaggy silver of his hair. He’s barefoot in jeans and an ancient Whalers t-shirt, the soft gray cotton stretched over the barrel of his chest and belly. “I’m a jackass.”

“Well.” Donna sits down at the edge of the bed, holds her hand out. “That’s hardly breaking news.”

Josh hesitates for a moment like he isn’t entirely convinced he’s going to be welcome, his face gone uncertain and young. Then he pushes his shoulder off the doorjamb and crosses the room to stand between her knees. His hands go to her scalp, scratching gently, his careful fingertips sending shivers along her neck and jaw and backbone. Donna rests her forehead against his heart.

“Was this your plan the whole time?” she murmurs, breathing in the coffee and detergent smell of him as she slips her palms up inside his t-shirt. She sifts her fingers through the hair on his chest, tracing the tough white ridge of scar tissue that runs down the center of his ribcage--worrying it like the edge of a shard of beach glass, a reminder of what she might have lost. “Bully me out of the tub, and then…?”

Josh huffs a laugh into her hair. “Oh please.” He tugs at the placket of the robe, sliding one warm hand inside and stroking his thumb along the jut of her collarbone. “Have you ever, at any point in the last twenty years, known me to have a plan about something like that?” His hand drifts lower, palm brushing her nipple. “Wait, was this your plan the whole time?”

“Maybe,” she lies, tilting her face up. “Keep doing that.”

Josh presses closer and ducks his head to kiss her. Donna exhales against his mouth. For two people who’ve barely seen anyone else since the spring they haven’t been doing this very much at all, a strange, nameless gulf opening between them; she’s lonely, though in practice she’s rarely alone. It’s like everything in her life has worn thin lately--soft around the edges, waterlogged like a book dropped into the bathtub. Donna never felt old until this year.

“Shh,” she warns even as she’s pulling him backward, legs falling open to give him access. His mouth is a hot, familiar brand against her throat. His body has changed in the last few years, the thickness of middle age finally catching up with him; “I look like Jewish Santa Claus,” he muttered last fall, shuffling grumpily off to the tailor, but the truth is Donna likes the new weight of him on top of her, the feeling of him tethering her to Earth. “We have to be quiet.”

Josh pushes the robe from her shoulders, catching the tip of her breast in his mouth. “So,” he murmurs, voice muffled against her still-damp skin, “we’ll be quiet.”

Donna arches, shocked by the sudden ferocity of her own desire. Josh smooths his palm down her side. He hooks her ankle over his shoulder and works his way downward, rough beard rasping her ribs and her stomach and the inside of her thigh where the skin is thin and vulnerable. Outside the darkened autumn window, the city holds its breath.