It wasn’t until she reached the corner of Grove Street, where the sidewalk buckled and the pre-dawn smells of yeast and fabric softener perfumed the air, that Nora remembered it was her thirty-second birthday. She stopped abruptly, as if someone had yanked a leash around her neck, and let the information settle along her shoulders. Thirty-two. The number rolled around in her head, and she waited for the onslaught of—what was it exactly: relief? dread?—that was supposed to arrive at reaching the end of another year, but it didn’t come. Instead, the first line from a book she had once read occurred to her: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Nora could not remember the title of the book or even the name of the author, but the words themselves, strung like so many lights in the distance, felt as distressing now as they had the day she had first come across them. Maybe even more so.
A band of sky behind the rooftops ahead was turning a soft purple. The moon, a lopsided waxing gibbous, was so translucent as to appear glass-like there in the heavens. It would be another forty minutes or so before the sun rose, erasing all traces of the moon for the day. Now, though, it was hers. The September air was sharply cold, the imminent warning of a quickly approaching fall, and the streets were littered with leaves browning around the edges. Alice Walker, her chocolate brown retriever, nuzzled the stiff grass for a few seconds and then turned around, staring up at Nora. She barked once, and then again. It was unusual for Nora to stop during their morning walks, a daily ritual that had become so ingrained in their lives by this point that it was hard to imagine anything preventing it. Even bad weather did little to deter her; Nora made the trek in rain and snow, and once even in a hailstorm, during which she’d had to stop and take refuge under an enormous red-and- green-striped awning until things settled down again. Walking cleared her head in a way few other things could, and she never turned around until she reached the little grove of birch trees by the railroad tracks, where she would sit for a moment and rest before starting back again.
Alice Walker barked again, loudly, the sound reverberating through the stillness, and then cocked her head. The birch trees, her eyes seemed to say. Let’s get to the birch trees. Nora looked away from the dog and stared down at her sneakers instead—pale blue Asics with orange strips on each side. She pressed two fingers beneath her breastbone and took a breath as if to steady herself. A heaviness that was not disappointment or regret or anything else she could identify yet filled her nonetheless. And for the first time in as long as she could remember, she did not want to keep walking toward the birch grove. She just wanted to go home.
“Come on, love,” she said, turning around, tugging at Alice Walker’s leash. “Let’s go.”
The dog barked a third time, obviously confused.
Nora’s feet moved with a mind of their own, leading her back to the apartment they shared on Winslop Avenue. “Yeah, well, I don’t know either,” she said. “Come on, now.”