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  • The First to Leave Is the Winner
  • Becky Mandelbaum (bio)

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Photo by Anna and John Wilderson

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For a brief period in my late twenties, I lived alone on a horse ranch at 9,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains. The closest human heartbeat was thirteen miles away, the nearest airport two hundred. The altitude gave me vertigo [End Page 133] and headaches and months of spectacular, disturbing dreams, but it was worth it for the sky, which was grandiose and constantly changing, a lava lamp let loose of its goblet. Never had I seen a sky like that, and I haven’t seen one since. Granted, I haven’t been looking.

The ranch belonged to an ex-boyfriend of mine who was spending the year in Asia to find himself. From his itinerary, I concluded that finding oneself was best achieved in boutique hotels, five-star resorts, and spas named after rare tropical plants. To be fair, his beautiful young wife had just died from a brain bleed. One moment she was chopping a sweet onion, saying she felt funny, and the next she was dead. Just like that, an opening in the earth.

“I’m so sorry, Ellison,” was what I told him when I got there. I was in a mild state of shock at the beauty of the place. Not only had he left me for another woman, but he’d been out here, living with her in paradise. There were mountains and fields of desert lupine and, just across the gravel road, the Rio Grande, which shone in the sun like a great diamond necklace cast down by a jilted lover. This was autumn, the aspens dripping with pompous starlight. Not to mention the house, which was something from a page of Country Living. The kitchen was all blond wood and chrome, multicolored vases filled with dried baby’s breath and sage. My own kitchen, in the little apartment I’d left behind in Denver, had stacks of bills and boxes of Grape Nuts from 2004. The only decoration was a plaque above the stove that read live, love, laugh, a mantra that made me genuinely gag if I read it after having a bad day, which, at this particular juncture in my life, could be any day. Once, I smashed a pregnant spider on the plaque and the babies went everywhere; instead of trying to kill all one thousand of them, I went out for a cheeseburger.

I was surprised and a little annoyed to find that, despite his dead wife, Ellison looked as handsome as ever. He had always been like a human cinnamon roll, bronzed and sweet. Standing in the ranch kitchen, he wore his grief like a glaze that made you want to put your tongue against his neck and keep it there. I thought of the time, early in our relationship, when I was trying to decide what to eat for dinner and the thought legitimately crossed my mind that I was hungry for him, Ellison—that I wanted to put him in a bowl and eat him like soup. I made the mistake of telling him about it. “That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said and refused to kiss me for a week. It had disappointed me that he mistook my romance for cannibalism and also made me wonder if there was something wrong with the way I loved. [End Page 134]

“You don’t have to pretend to be sad,” he said. “I know you never liked Gloria.”

“To be fair, I never knew her—you never gave us the chance.” As far as I knew, nobody from our old life had met her. Their wedding was a small, Pinterest-inspired affair that took place primarily on Instagram.

“Maybe you would have liked her, then. Everybody liked her. She was one of those people.”

“Well,” I said, astounded that there was still a part of my heart he could break, “it’s possible she wouldn’t have liked me. But I guess we’ll never know now, will we?”

Once he was gone, without...


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