This is a piece from our online issue, FALL OF MEN, inspired by the New York Review of Books.
CONTENT WARNING FOR FALL OF MEN : Despite the conclusions of the bad men falling in the end, some of these pieces may have sensitive or explicit content. (That said, it might be real cathartic to read a thing where the bad men get thrown into volcanoes or eaten by alligators. Either way, your mental health is really important to us. Take care of yourself!)
BY DANIELLE EVANS
Everyone had heard that the genius artist had gone to some deserted island, to finish a project, or to start a project, or to clear his head, or get away from some drama; it was unclear exactly why, but people heard he’d gone, and then no one heard anything for long enough that first it became boring to speculate, and then it became curious again.
The running joke about the volcano started when a reporter asked The Model/Actress Who Dated Him A Long Time Ago what she thought the artist was up to, and she said “Who knows? I hope he fell into a volcano”. At cocktail parties that spring, someone would ask where he was and someone else would say “Guess the volcano got him”, until it was summer and the artist had been gone so long that people started to wonder if he had, in fact, met some violent and tragic end, and whether someone should be looking for him. Once upon a time any woman in his life would have swum to an island and hiked through lava for him, but by the time he left he had worn out his goodwill to the point that it would have been asking a lot of any one of them to so much as go run him an errand at the corner store.
When the apologies began, they were public and simultaneous. The High School Sweetheart’s apology came over the PA system at the grocery store where she was buying bread and cheese, because her husband had promised to take care of shopping for the week, but had, for some reason, come home with only deli meat and marinara sauce. The Model/Actress’s apology came on billboards downtown in the city where she lived. The Longsuffering Ex-Wife’s came as a short film, projected on a giant screen in the park nearest the house where she lived with their daughter. It played in a loop until the city took it down. The Daughter got her own apology, posted on Instagram. The On Again Off Again Ex of His Wayward Youth walked out of her apartment one morning, and by the time she returned at night, found that the abandoned storefront next door had opened as a pop-up bar named after her, with her apology painted on the walls.
The apologies sounded like him and they did not sound like him. They used correct and known-only-privately pet names. They contained details the wronged parties had carried quietly for years. They used phrases he would use. But they were unlike him in that they were, in fact, actual apologies, and in that way bore no resemblance to his previous efforts at making amends, which had all gone more or less like this:
To the Longsuffering Ex-Wife, a three-page, typewriter-typed letter which used the words “I’m sorry” exactly once, in its conclusion, in the context “I’ve done the best I can here and I’m sorry if even after my attempt to apologize, you are unable to forgive me, although I have, clearly, forgiven you for giving up on me in the first place.”
To The Former Personal Assistant, two apologies, first, in the middle of everything, a terse email that she knew even then to keep in her inbox forever, reading: “It was a mistake to have sex with you again and I’m sorry you got hurt”, and then, years later, well after she was no longer anyone’s personal assistant, and shortly after she’d turned down working with an event because he’d be one of the presenters, a second apology, via The Soon to Be Shortsuffering Second Ex-Wife, who cornered her at a gala and said “He says to tell you he’s sorry about whatever’s going on in your life, but you need to stop making shit up about him when he barely remembers you and never touched you”.
To the Shortsuffering Second Ex-Wife, just before the divorce, in a chain of text messages:
The Artist: I do concede that I owe you an apology for the way that I phrased things. There was probably a kinder way to express my frustration with your unreasonable expectations than to say that you just didn’t understand why so many women I had history with were still in my life because you’d never known what it was like to be as successful as I am, and, as a woman, in order to understand it, you’d have to imagine what things would be like for you if you were beautiful. But it’s unfair of you to accuse me of being cruel to you in public, when we were not in public. We were, for the record, in a crowded bar.
TSSEW: WTF? A crowded bar is literally the definition of public. How can that not be public? If you were making a book about places to have fights, “a crowded bar” would be the textbook definition of “in public”.
The Artist: Well, I was hoping to leave things amicably, but if you’re going to be childish and condescending like this, then we clearly can’t have a reasonable conversation.
To The Daughter, a note slipped under the door she’d locked herself behind while visiting him for the summer. It read, “I understand it was upsetting for you to find out this way, but ‘SAT Tutor’ is not a proprietary relationship; she is not your SAT tutor in the sense of belonging to you, and there’s no reason for you to be so upset about our relationship, or to compare it at all to Shannon, who I’m sorry is no longer your friend, but, I remind you, was redshirted in kindergarten because her parents didn’t want her to mature late, and is a year older than you, and was 18 when I asked her out, which I’m sorry made her uncomfortable, but reasonably assumed was what she wanted at the time.” It was signed Love Dad, and had a smiley face.
Now, he was sorry without caveat or redirection. He was sorry without taking the opportunity to tell a long story about what had brought him to this point, thus making the person he was supposed to be comforting comfort him instead. He was sorry in specific and concrete ways. He was sorry about the time he cost the Former Personal Assistant a job by off-the-record calling her a crazy bitch, and sorry for lying to her face about it. He was sorry for telling the Not Yet Shortsuffering Second Ex-Wife that things were over all but in name the with the Longsuffering Ex-Wife, when in fact he was still fucking her most nights and fighting with her most mornings. He was sorry he’d said that thing about the Model/Actress’ mother, and also sorry he’d said that thing about the left side of the Model/Actress’ face, which was really exactly like the right side and perfectly lovely. He was sorry for telling the Longsuffering Ex-Wife that she was lucky she’d met him when she had because she had never been good enough for him, and if they’d met a year later he would have already known that. He was sorry for thinking it would be enough to treat The Daughter herself well, whether or not he was part of a world where anyone else would. He was sorry about the time he’d playfully squeezed a hand around The High-School Sweetheart’s throat and kept it there well past the point where her eyes showed a flicker of real fear, just because he could, and then removed it and laughed and said “What, you don’t trust me?”. He was sorry for the time he argued with the On Again Off Again Ex of His Wayward Youth and gripped her arm so hard he left a bruise, and sorrier still for insisting, when she pointed to it the next day, that the bruise wasn’t there and she was seeing things. He was sorry for everything.
The Longsuffering Ex-Wife thought that perhaps the apologies were his latest art project. It made her nervous and upset to think of him watching for a reaction. She hired a private detective to see if he had cameras on her somehow, but nothing turned up.
The High-School Sweetheart went home from the store and hugged her children and kissed her husband who had forgotten all the important groceries on the mouth, and tried to remember what being dramatically wounded by the artist had felt like, but found that she could not, that when she tried to find the words to explain to her husband the things he’d said and done to her and now finally apologized for, she was describing some other person’s ugly life, a life that did not belong in her kitchen. She left the groceries sitting on the counter and went to have a glass of wine in the living room. When she came back, her husband had put the groceries away, and had lasagna in the oven, and their teenager was at the table doing homework and humming along with her headphones, and she almost cried at how stupid she’d been all that time ago, feeling bereft when the artist went off into the world without her.
The On Again Off Again Ex of His Wayward Youth spun in circles in the pop-up bar to read her apology and wondered if it would have meant something to get it two decades earlier, if she would have been a different and kinder person if she hadn’t believed it when he told her that she was too smart to want kindness over honesty and she would never have both, if she hadn’t learned so young then you could wring yourself out on someone’s front lawn, and even after everything he’d said about you being the muse, the spark, the reason for it all, he could shut the window and move on, could not just not love you, but not even really see you. She thought if the artist could make amends then anyone could, so she called the married man she was sleeping with and canceled their vacation, then called the man she’d once left for the artist years ago and said she owed him an apology, at which point he reminded her that she’d already apologized specifically and profusely years ago, and he did not forgive her then or now. She texted a paragraph of urgent feelings to the man she’d wished she’d left the artist for, who had moved on by the time the artist left her, and he texted back “Who is this?”. The next day she called back the married man and told him to uncancel their vacation, which he’d never canceled in the first place.
The Model/Actress called her marketing people to see if her makeup line could get a volcano-themed fragrance and makeup palette in stores for the fall season. Once they covered the obvious reddish and orangey and brown colors, they rounded things out with a near black shade called molten, a light grey called ash cloud, and a shimmery white which was renamed Rhyolite, after the team decided Pompeii was too morbid.
The Shortsuffering Second Ex-Wife wanted to commiserate and compare notes, and so reached out to the Longsuffering Ex-Wife, who did not take her calls because in her mind The Shortsuffering Second Ex-Wife would always be The Mistress Who Was Dumb Enough to Actually Marry Him and Deserved What She Got.
The Daughter took The Shortsuffering Second Ex-Wife’s call and met her for coffee. The Daughter called Shannon and invited her for a drink at the bar that didn’t card anyone. Shannon didn’t come. The Daughter had many drinks and took a car service to the home of the Shortsuffering Second Ex-Wife, so her mother would not see her, and passed out on the couch. Why are you like this, The Daughter wanted to ask everyone involved, but she sensed on some level that the question would be hypocritical, that she too was like something, and just didn’t know what yet.
The Former Personal Assistant holed up in her penthouse apartment and summoned her own personal assistant to bring her good bourbon and ripe oranges, and wept, and read and read and read her apology, which was in the form of one of those mindless point-and-click phone app mystery games she used to play when she was bored during travel. It gave her a new apology for every hidden object she found. When she was certain she’d found them all, she turned her phone off to resist the temptation to write to everyone who’d ever met her account of him with even a flicker of doubt and say “Did you see it? Did you see I was telling the truth?”, because what was this whole life she’d built, if not already a way of telling anyone who’d ever doubted anything about her to fuck off?
Once the artist got through with the women he owed extensive apologies, the apologies grew in number and degree of precision: The Girl He Did Know Was Blackout Drunk Because He Was Actually Mostly Sober, and The Girl Who Was So Stunned By Her Apology that it Sent Her to Therapy Because She Had No Recollection of Meeting Him, Let Alone Sex With Him, and The Girl He Knew Was Only Pretending to Like it Rough Because She Wanted to Make Him Happy But Said Nothing To Because He Liked Making Her Pretend to Like It, and The Girl Who Really Did Like it Rough, Who Was Annoyingly Undiminished by Her Pleasure Until He Told Her Nobody Would Ever Really Love Her Because She Was Such a Whore, and The Guy He Made Homophobic Jokes About in College But Still Asked to Suck Him off Sometimes, and The Closeted Friend He Never Touched But Whose Longing He Nevertheless Made as Much Use of As He Would Have Any Woman’s, and Shannon, and The Intern Who Left the Art World After Their Summer Fling, and The Woman He Asked to Back Out of a Grant They Were Both Up For and Ended Things With As Soon as She Did, and The Model Whose Breast He Grabbed Once as a Joke, and The Girl Who Wondered All Those Years What to Call It Had Happened Between Them, Because Yeah She Had Intended to Have Sex With Him But She Hadn’t Intended it to Hurt Like That and She Hadn’t Expected Him Not to Notice or Care or Stop.
After those apologies were done, he doubled back on the first round of apologies, the latest revelations having made necessary some addenda. He was sorry for the year he’d driven the Longsuffering Ex-Wife to experimental therapy for delusional anxiety, after convincing her that her insecurity was making it impossible for him to love her and she’d entirely invented his flings with The Intern and The Girl He Knew Was Only Pretending. He was sorry about the time he told the Former Personal Assistant she was stupid and bad at her job when she correctly accused him of making her calendar his dates with The Girl Who Really Did Like it Rough and pretending they were work events. He was so sorry.
He was sorry and he was sorry and he was sorry, and then he was back. Maybe he’d never gone anywhere. No one could remember anymore why they’d all been so certain there had been a deserted island. Now there was a gallery. No one knew quite what was in it. The apologies, they guessed. But what else? The show was called Forgiveness. He invited the critics. He invited everyone he’d apologized to.
The Longsuffering Ex-Wife felt vindicated by her suspicion that this had been some kind of publicity stunt, and refused to participate. The Daughter was embarrassed by the thought of being in a room with her father and a cloud of women he had treated badly, though she couldn’t say for certain whether she was embarrassed by him or for him. The On Again Off Again Ex of His Wayward Youth was on her uncanceled vacation in Paris with her lover’s tongue between her legs. The Shortsuffering Second Ex-Wife thought it would be embarrassing to go if the first wife wasn’t going to bother. The Model/Actress intended to show up late and make an entrance. The Former Personal Assistant imagined feeling forced to hug him in front of a crowd and swore not to go, and then imagined the feeling she’d have hugging him, especially if he looked into her eyes and said he was sorry, and thought she might go after all, and RSVP’d, and then, standing in the mirror looking at herself in a cocktail dress the day of, remembered that when he’d left her for the last time— brokenhearted and unemployed!— he’d left her curled up sobbing in a ball on her kitchen floor, remembered that whole horrid year after, before she clawed her way out of that life and into this one, and so took off the dress, and called a friend, who also remembered that year, and so sat in The Former Personal Assistant’s living room for hours blocking the front door of her apartment in case she got it in her head to change her mind.
The gallery was three large rooms. Two of them contained the apologies: the films played on a wall, the pop-up bar was reproduced in miniature, and served drinks, the app was available on a touchscreen, the billboards had been photographed in context so that the pictures could be mounted. In the bathrooms, in case anyone become overwhelmed by their personal apology and needed a minute, there were thoughtful but generic apologies carved into the mirror glass and printed on the tissues.
The third room contained the mouth of a volcano. It looked to be made of ice, but gave off real smoke. There was a short staircase leading to a platform at the volcano’s lip. The artist stood on the platform. The point of the Volcano room, said a sign at the entrance, was that if anyone was unsatisfied with his apology, he would keep trying. If anyone came in the room still wanting him inside of a volcano, he would not leave until he got it right. If he made it worse, he should be pushed in.
There were more critics and arts and culture writers in the gallery than apology recipients, and those who bothered to show up had mostly made their peace. The artist stood quietly on the platform near the volcano for nearly an hour. Shannon came into the volcano room and yelled at him and he consoled her; it was easy, he had, after all, known her since she was a child. The Model/Actress’ limo circled the block, waiting for the right moment of entrance while her people debated which angle of entry had the best natural light for her to walk in. The Girl Who Was So Stunned By Her Apology it Sent Her to Therapy walked in and out of the gallery several times, trying to find the right words for her question, but never did and left without asking it.
The Girl Who Had Wondered All These Years What to Call It watched the artist apologize to Shannon, and when Shannon left, she came up to the platform. It took the artist a moment to recognize her, and when he did he was soft with her, but he could not explain what he had done to her and neither could she, and it felt unfair to her that she should have to find the words. He had apologized already for causing her pain. He had apologized already for ignoring her pain when he knew it was there, because he’d been an ass and his pleasure existed independent of it. But now he fumbled for what was left to be sorry for. He was sorry he hadn’t been kinder the morning after? He was sorry he’d been too kind the night before, and made himself seem like a different type of man? He was sorry she didn’t get what she wanted? What had she wanted? She had the same feeling she’d had when he unceremoniously handed her back her underwear. Like it was a technicality that she hadn’t specifically told him she wanted to be treated like a person. She came closer. She pushed.
When he fell, everyone waited for his reemergence. It did not come. Security ushered everyone out of the gallery. An ambulance came. The volcano had a pit of hot liquid. No one but the artist had known exactly what was inside. It was not literally lava, but might as well have been. They tried to pull him out. It was too late. It had been too late immediately.
The On Again Off Again Ex of His Wayward Youth thought it was carelessness, that the artist always been more about vision than details, that, truthfully, some of his art was brilliant but much of it had always been sloppy, and he’d probably been more concerned that the lava look right than that it be safe to fall into or give him time to get out. The Longsuffering Ex-Wife thought he’d planned it this way, to go out on his own terms and still make it someone else’s fault. The Girl Who Had Wondered All These Years What to Call It did not know what to think, and did not face charges, but spent the next few years in and out of hospitals. The High-School Sweetheart never thought of him again. The Shortsuffering Second-Ex Wife thought maybe he’d been supposed to find a grip foothold on the inside somewhere, and had slipped. The Daughter thought he might have staged it, that there might have been a trick exit somewhere. Quietly she waited years, well into her adulthood, for him to come back and tell her how it worked.
The Model/Actress had it right: the volcano was dangerous because he’d never actually expected to be in it. He had always counted on being good enough in the end. He had counted on absolution. He had counted on love. He had never expected anyone to be as careless with him as he’d been with other people. He didn’t think there was anything he couldn’t talk his way out of or anyone he couldn’t charm if he put his mind to it. He thought the Forgiveness was his to declare given before the whole event even started. It was right there in the title. “Thank you,” he was going to say when everyone was appeased, and he stood on the platform and dramatically revealed the volcano’s violent core. “Your generosity tonight has saved my life again.”
The Model/Actress called her marketing people about canceling the Volcano product launch and figuring out how to repackage and rebrand the makeup that was already in warehouses. Marketing called back and said that preorders were actually up, and they could take the loss if she felt sentimental about it in light of recent events, but as a limited-edition line it was poised to sell out. The Model/Actress went to the memorial service in a tasteful smokey eye. They were going forward with the launch because what better way to honor the man who taught her how to really see color, she said. Plus, marketing said, everyone could see now the makeup was tearproof.
It sounded calculated, but she really had cried. Afterward, someone asked The Model/Actress why she’d ever said volcano in the first place, and whether she felt at all responsible for planting the suggestion. The Model/Actress said she had said volcano because it was what she thought to say. The Model/Actress thought she had probably said volcano because sometimes when she thought of him she thought of burning. The local opera had been doing Dido and Aeneas the winter they were last together, and after he left her, and after the after, when she asked him to say sorry, and he said he was sorry they’d ever met, she thought all the time of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her funeral pyre. For months she dreamed of showing up at one of his shows to light herself on fire and make him clean up the mess.
The year they were together, back when he was only moderately famous and she was nobody, he had asked her what she wanted out of life and she told him, because she didn’t yet know any better than to say the truth, which was that she wanted everything. He kissed her forehead and said “My little lady of ruthless ambition”. Sometimes after that he would curl an arm around her and say “How’s conquering the world going, my sweet ruthless girl?” in the delighted dumbed-down tone you would use to tell a housepet it was ferocious, and she would curl into him and know that she was beginning to understand that just because he didn’t see something in her didn’t mean it wasn’t there, know that there was still some freedom in the way he did not fathom yet how real and how necessary her ruthlessness would be.
Danielle Evans is the author of the story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, winner of the PEN American Robert W. Bingham prize, the Hurston-Wright Award, the Paterson Prize, and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 selection. Her stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Paris Review, A Public Space, American Short Fiction, Callaloo, New Stories From the South, and The Best American Short Stories. She teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.