Sunday Stories: “Pro/Con”

Champagne glasses

by Julia Meinwald

Good caviar was a vote against ending it all. When the night began, Sasha hadn’t known her own feelings on Royal Ossetra Caviar, but as the evening progressed, it emerged that she was a fan. She kept slinking back up to the counter, taking another of the small plastic espresso spoons the host seemed to have in endless supply, and dipping it directly into the jar, then side-stepping a few feet away to nibble the salty treat unnoticed.  Not that there was anything wrong with eating caviar by itself, directly from the jar, she thought.  And not that there was anything wrong with attending a party just to stand alone while people who knew each other trotted out stories about the time they ran into Maury Yeston at the opera but at first had not even recognized him. If she didn’t talk to someone in the next twenty minutes, Sasha decided, she would leave. 

She wasn’t sure if her mom would consider her attendance at this party “spreading her wings and soaring.” Sometimes Sasha’s mom had closed her eyes beautifically and spread her own arms wide, as if showing her daughter, this is what flight looks like, love. Of course, she hadn’t done that within those last few weeks. Everything about Sasha’s mom’s final days on earth had been as expected.  The timeline the doctors gave them, the loss of energy and appetite, the funeral service at the synagogue where Sasha presented a sincere but rote feeling eulogy; she was so tired.  

Sasha had been prepared to turn down the orchestra job in New York, her first big break professionally; there was no way she was leaving her mom’s bedside. She wouldn’t have even auditioned for it, had her mom not pushed her so fiercely.  Her mom though, putting Sasha first even in her last moments, had passed away two weeks before the contract was meant to begin. So, she had no reason not to pack up her viola, her favorite books, the rest of the miscellany of her physical life, and go. She settled herself in a small apartment in Harlem, from which she had dragged herself a full forty blocks south to attend a party on the Upper West Side. 

Caviar spoon in her mouth like a high class pacifier, Sasha watched a tall, broad-shouldered woman smoking on the balcony.  The woman was wearing a perfectly tailored green cargo jacket and perfectly applied, barely there make-up. Her casual attire made her seem higher status than anyone else at the party.  A tuxedo’d guy was standing next to her looking interested, but Sasha could tell even from ten feet away that the woman wanted more from him than he wanted to give. 

Sasha had thought there would be more people she knew here. The party was hosted by a donor to the orchestra who apparently collected taxidermied stunt animals, though none were displayed in the penthouse’s gleaming kitchen or living room.  Attendance wasn’t mandatory, but supposedly most of the wind section was going to be in attendance. So far, the only one she’d seen was Alex, an oboe player close to her own age. The general flakiness of humanity: a vote for ending it all.  

For years, Sasha had been quietly tabulating reasons for and against shuffling off this mortal coil, but until recently it had always been a purely hypothetical exercise.  She could never do that to her mom.  Now though, Sasha was unmoored.  Free to float away from anything that didn’t forcibly hold her. 

After what felt like a few eons of passive people watching, Sasha spotted the woman from the balcony coming towards her. “Are you a friend of Seth’s?” the woman asked, refilling her champagne glass and sipping the bubbles from the top.  Sasha couldn’t help but feel grateful to this luscious haired, movie-star looking woman, the first to approach her.  She decided she would stay, at least for another half hour or so.  The woman continued, “My grandfather and Seth’s grandfather have been playing bridge together for, like, fifty years, which is how I came to meet Sondheim when I was just, like, six years old, and sing him a song I made up.” 

Sasha, unsure who Seth was but eager to be in conversation, replied “Wow!” 

“Anyway when you’ve known Seth as long as I have, it’s hard to be impressed with him in the same way everyone else is.  Like, dude, I’ve seen you without half your teeth. You don’t scare me.” Here the woman tossed back her head and laughed, as if Sasha had just said something funny, instead of just stared straight ahead and nodded. 

“I’ve actually never met Seth,” Sasha ventured, not wanting her new party-friend to leave.

“Oh my God! That is so refreshing! Let’s definitely not talk about him anymore then.  Ha! What else should we talk about? Is that vintage?”

Sasha stared down at her dress, which she was pretty sure was not vintage. “I…don’t think so?” she replied.

“Well, it’s cute.  Vintage doesn’t look good on me.  I’m too tall.  Clothing from the past was made for short women with no boobs.  No offense.  Honestly I wish I were shorter.  It’s like, I can’t blend in even if I want to. I’d better not go into a life of crime. I could never get away with anything unnoticed.”

“I could be your accomplice.  You could distract all the businessmen while I, like, dynamite the vault.”  Here, the women laughed again, but since Sasha had heard the laugh seconds ago prompted by absolutely nothing, she couldn’t trust that what she’d said had actually been amusing.

“You’re funny. Yeah, I would rob a bank someday.  I wouldn’t mind going out in a blaze of glory like Bonnie and Clyde.  Are you just eating caviar by itself? That’s so cute! You’re adorable.”

Sasha had made the executive decision that swallowing was a lesser evil compared to standing with the half-full caviar spoon hovering between them, but now doubted her choice. 

“It’s good,” she said.

“Yeah, I love this stuff.  Seth’s dad must have ordered a boat load.  Like, dude, we get it, you like salt. I’m Marya, by the way. I think it’s so rude when people just assume that everyone already knows them, even if it’s true.” Sasha wondered why she was supposed to know who Marya was, but tried to convey deference when shaking her hand. She didn’t quite like this woman, and she didn’t quite want to be her, but she still felt drawn to her somehow.  

“Oo! It looks like Matthew is accosting Seth.  I’m going to intervene before he starts literally quoting poetry at him.  We get it Matthew.  You’re a poet.  Someday you’ll have all the respect and prestige you’ve ever dreamed of, but for now you could brainstorm, like, one or two other things to talk about.” With this, she strode across the room to two men in tuxedos, taking a generous swig of champagne en route. 

Poetry was an item on the “to live for” list. Sasha had read a lot of poems to her mom at the end.  She liked Rilke (Sasha did too), and Neruda.  The pretty stuff.  Now though, those same poems made her maudlin. Stray lines from “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes” had kept coming to her as she packed up her mom’s house, already now sold to a newer, more hopeful family. It seemed likely that her mother, like Eurydice, was now “inside herself…filled with tremendous depth.” Wherever she was, she was incapable of missing her daughter, leaving Sasha with nothing behind her but the echo of her own steps. Sasha hadn’t realized how comforting it was to be always watched, always thought of, until the copy of herself kept alive in her mother’s mind disappeared. 

 Thoughts about her mom felt overwhelming, and threatened to knock her out of commission at random occasions.  Now, for instance, she found her eyes welling up with tears thanks to a familiar song someone had started playing on the baby grand piano in the living room. She re-directed her grief to more practical considerations. All nice shoes, including the ones she was wearing tonight, tortured her feet: did this constitute a good reason to kill herself? 

She searched the room for Alex, the oboe player, and found him standing in front of the bookshelf with two other guys.  He looked out of place in a tuxedo, in a good way.  A better Sasha would join the group — ask what book they were talking about and introduce herself to the two guys she didn’t know. Actual Sasha just watched them. 

On the plush couch with the men Sasha assumed to be Seth and Matthew, Marya was speaking very loudly.  One of the men put a hand on her arm and said, “Yeah, you’ve told us that story.” Marya dropped a strawberry on the floor then kicked it under the couch, like a dog burying shit.  “Ugggh,” Marya intoned, “Seth, you make me want to die.” Sasha would never let herself get this drunk in the company of so many fancy strangers.  She’d never been a huge drinker.  Now especially though, she was avoiding intoxication.  Alcohol tended to amplify whatever mood she was already in, and lately, her thoughts and feelings were not anything she wanted more of. It was probably time to leave; Sasha headed towards the bedroom to find her coat buried beneath pounds of merino wool and fur. She was interrupted, though, by a commotion in the kitchen. 

Someone was trying to open a champagne bottle with what was either a large knife or a small sword.  After a few anti-climactic swipes, the bottle shattered with a terrifying crash.  Sasha caught Alex’s eye across the room, their first moment of contact at the party, and the two of them shared a raised eyebrow over the spectacle.  Perhaps, Sasha thought, this is my new person. She immediately scolded herself.  One moment of community wasn’t enough to cancel out all the very good reasons, previously enumerated, to give up on life.  But then, that was a lot of pressure to put on any single, non-verbal interaction.

Alex was leaning against the wall next to the bathroom.  He was alone, seemingly more approachable, but Sasha still couldn’t work up the activation energy to engage with him. For some reason, the only thing she could think to say was , “So, you have to pee?” An introduction so abysmal that she would probably sink through the fifteen floors of apartments and into the core of the earth, where she would perish in the eerie mine of souls.  She committed to staying for another ten minutes, though, in case he was going to approach her. 

Marya was back on the balcony now, clinging to another woman’s arm, trying to drag her somewhere — or maybe to hug her. Sasha couldn’t tell. This disrupted the glass of red wine the woman was holding, which spilled an embarrassing blood red (when wasn’t blood embarrassing?) on Marya’s jacket.  Marya laughed an isolated yelp of a laugh, then stumbled to the bathroom. Eventually, Seth started knocking on the door, and Marya emerged.  She took Seth’s hand, and led him down a hallway, where Sasha saw her pull him down to sit on the floor.  She couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but Marya kept touching Seth’s face.  He was smiling, not like he was amused, but like he wanted to project that everything was okay here.  To her horror, Sasha watched Marya reach to unzip Seth’s pants.  He pushed her hand away, then she moved in and planted a kiss on his neck. Seth took Marya into one of the rooms at the end of the hall.  The door was closed for less than 30 seconds, then he re-emerged. “Is she okay?” Sasha heard someone ask him. “She just needs a rest,” he said.  

“Hey, you play viola, right? Just started this month?” Like a watched pot, Alex had arrived just as Sasha had stopped focusing on him.   He too was indulging in caviar, though he was doing it the proper way, on a blini with mascarpone.  

“Sasha,” she introduced herself.

“I’m Alex,” said the guy. “I play oboe.”

“I know,” she replied.  Alex poured himself a glass of champagne, and offered one to Sasha, who accepted. 

“This place is wild, huh?” said Alex.  “Wanna check out the balcony? Sasha realized that she’d avoided the balcony all night, as if she needed special permission to step onto it.  She followed Alex out the sliding glass door.  A thrill of anxiety went through her as he leaned his weight against the railing, which seemed low to her. The view of Manhattan’s east side, illuminated, was a check-mark in the to-live column. 

Alex and Sasha talked about their orchestra’s conductor, and the repertoire for the season. He was funny, and self-deprecating, and after a few minutes Sasha felt herself relaxing into enjoyment of his company. 

“I honestly haven’t explored the Upper West Side very much,” Sasha confessed. “Outside of the Lincoln Center area, I mean.”

“I could show you around sometime.  After rehearsal one day.  If you’d like.” Sasha said she would like this.  They started talking about different cities then, about how long they pictured themselves staying in New York.  Sasha said that she didn’t picture her future-self anywhere, in particular.  She didn’t say that making a five year plan felt ridiculous when she wasn’t convinced she’d still be roaming the earth a year from now. Though true, that wouldn’t be good party talk.  

“I’ve definitely got a city time limit,” said Alex.  “Eventually, I want to move out to Ossining, or Beacon, or somewhere, and surround myself with chickens.  And maybe goats.  Alpacas. That sort of thing.” 

“It’s hard to argue with the appeal of alpacas.”

“Apparently they have strong herding instincts, so I’ll need at least two of them.”

“I mean, why stop there?” Sasha was hardly ever silly, but the single glass of champagne, coupled with an actual conversation, was making her feel buoyant. There were more bottles in ice on the balcony, and Alex refilled their glasses.  The two made a series of toasts to increasingly inconsequential things.  With each one, Sasha updated her mental chart.

“To the reliably soft fur of all the earth’s alpacas” (reason to live).

“To skies clear enough to make out full constellations” (reason to live). 

“To trains that arrive on time, without the support of a fascist regime” (reason to live, though referencing reason to die).

“To spiders and their webs” (reason to live).

“To ceilings” (neutral).

“To balconies” (neutral).

“To parties” (too broad a category).

“To you,” said Alex. (The least consequential of all).  There was a small, breathy pause.

“What are you thinking?” asked Sasha. Alex leaned in close to her, his breath hot on her ear. 

“I’m thinking, Sasha, that you need to be fucked.” 

Sasha deflated. The mirth of moments ago curdled at the rough language, the cheapness of it. She hated the sound of her name in his mouth. 

“Do you think you could be a good girl for me?” he asked.  Sasha swallowed.  No one called her a good girl but her mother. “Such a good girl,” she’d say, when Sasha brought her a mug of tea or re-upped her morphine.  Simple things that even an average girl would do.  

Sasha looked desperately around for an escape from this conversation, and not finding one, swallowed a sip of champagne too quickly and began coughing. “Could you get me a glass of water?” she asked Alex, who obliged, touching her hair in a way that was not quite predatory but also not welcome as he left the balcony. It was definitely time to go.  

Sasha was searching for a surface to abandon her champagne glass on when she caught in her peripheral vision a whoosh of green fabric going over the balcony.  Everyone didn’t go silent all at once.  The shock rippled, over maybe twenty seconds. There was no dramatic thump of a body hitting the ground – they were much too high up to hear the impact over the sounds of the city.

“Was that Marya?” someone said. “Oh my God, did she fall?” “Did she jump?” People were crying.  Seth stood shell-shock still. Sasha was afraid to look over the railing.  She felt trapped on the balcony.  She wanted to cry in her mother’s thin, strong arms. She wondered if in that first moment after Marya went beyond the railing she had run a calculation of the world’s pros and cons and the answer had been clear.

Someone had dialed 911 now, and a group of guys had run down to the street, while others crowded onto the balcony, craning their necks to see what had happened. Sasha couldn’t think of a way to be helpful. She wasn’t sure if she should stay or leave.



Julia Meinwald is a writer of fiction ( and musical theatre (, and a gracious loser at a wide variety of boardgames. She’s had stories published in Brief Wilderness and West Trade Review, with stories coming out in After Dinner Conversation and Bayou Magazine in 2024. Her work as a composer has been heard in productions across the US and in Canada, and the cast album for her musical The Magnificent Seven streams on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and elsewhere. She’s so excited to be included among the wonderful set of writers whose work she’s enjoyed so much on Vol 1 Brooklyn.

Photo: Deleece Cook/Unsplash

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