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IN A TWO-BEDROOM APARTMENT on Sutton Place, Esme Swan crawled naked on all fours—desperate to find her engagement ring before her husband Grant discovered she’d lost it. She was turning ninety in five days, and even though Grant was already ninety, she felt she couldn’t afford to make any mistakes in front of him. The carpet grated her bare, damp knees. Her finger felt empty with only her gold wedding band. It was nine-thirty in the morning, and the vacuum, wielded by her elderly cleaning lady Janice, roared in the living room, making it hard to concentrate. Esme felt unprotected by the door several feet from her bottom. Grant might burst into their bedroom at any moment. He might yell. She knew she shouldn’t care so much about his approval. Her hands trembled. Not caring was as unattainable as living in another dimension.

She glanced up at the cactus-shaped ring tree on her bedside table, wishing she could conjure the ring with the force of her desire. She always put her ring there before showering, always. Its outstretched arms were empty. She couldn’t understand what was happening.

Groping the nubs of the carpet, she thought about how Grant had called her crazy throughout their almost seventy-year marriage. He had a repertoire of stories that he doled out like soup. She used to go to a happy-clappy church with her parents where they sang about the blood of Christ! She marched around the reservoir with no hat in the driving rain! She asked me if I wanted to bathe in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon! Esme usually smiled and tried to strike a pose somewhere between good-natured and serene. She had to work hard to prove a negative. His criticisms increasingly felt like a prison, because the older she grew, the more credible Grant’s claims sounded. She couldn’t understand why he spent so much energy trying to knock her down. He acted like she was dangerous, when all she wanted was to please him.

She slipped a hand under their bed. What had always bonded them was sex. They laughed before sex, during sex, and after sex. They had secret codes and jokes and pitied people who didn’t. They used to guess which of their friends were still doing it and which weren’t. She could calculate to the minute how long the postcoital glow between them would last. Even now, she marveled at how soft the skin along his hipbones felt. No matter how tired she was, he could almost always transport her. But he hadn’t touched her since he’d turned ninety in February. She didn’t know why. Over the course of their marriage, they’d made love five times a week, then four, then three, then two, then one. She saw the trend, but zero wasn’t acceptable. It made her feel like she was disappearing. Without sex, what was left to bond them? Please, please, please, she prayed, remembering from her childhood faith that God could answer even her most inarticulate groanings, the thoughts she was afraid to utter.

Her fingers caught on a spiderweb behind her bedside table. Janice was losing her touch, she thought, rubbing off the stickiness on the sheet beside her shoulder. Fatigue washed over her, and she debated whether she should confess.

Grant was already in the kind of bad mood that took up all the room in the apartment. When she’d cooked breakfast for him at seven-thirty that morning over the ancient stove in their tiny kitchen, she was on edge and smiling. He sat at the bistro table by the window, alternately glaring at the Post and frowning at the partial view of the East River. It still bothered him that only the living room and bedroom fronted the water. His eggs solidified in hot butter. His bacon crackled in its own grease, speckling her bathrobe. The antiquated ice machine groaned, as if indignant that it still had to churn out ice. She could feel Grant’s displeasure mounting and resisted the impulse to apologize. I haven’t done anything wrong, she told herself, but the false guilt remained.

“I told you I only wanted toast,” he said.

She remembered him asking for bacon and eggs but decided it wasn’t worth fighting about. He was growing forgetful, and she didn’t want him to feel badly about it.

“Sorry,” she said.

“I might as well eat it. Since you went to the trouble.”

He was still a marvelously handsome man, with perfect bone structure visible
beneath the ruins of his skin. Throughout her marriage she’d seen people glance between the two of them. Esme had always felt ashamed, sure that they were wondering what such a spectacular man was doing with such a plain woman.

She saw him for a moment as he was: shoulders stooped, hair silvered with yellow ends, blue button-down shirt billowing over sticklike arms, belted khaki trousers tight in the waist, loose in the legs. Immediately this image was replaced by the man he’d been when she first met him at age nineteen: six foot four, firm bodied, intense green eyes, saucily snarky.

She hoped his brain did the same for her, that he saw her as she used to look: tall and lithe, full of humor and fun. Never beautiful. Maybe sometimes, a little like Katherine Hepburn, in profile, when her hair was rain-curled and she wore a white wool fisherman sweater. Her greatest weapon had always been her humor. They used to make each other laugh so hard they almost wet their pants.

Putting the eggs in the oven to keep warm, she remembered how her breath had literally caught in her chest when, as a freshman at Radcliffe, she spied Grant at a Harvard party that a friend’s brother had taken her to. Her date left to fetch drinks, and Grant leaned in. She’d been scared and exhilarated—she the ungainly girl from the concrete part of Long Island, he the loose-jointed scion of a family from the Gold Coast who’d earned their money so long ago hardly anyone remembered how. He drawled when he spoke, holding his lower jaw still, as if mocking everything and everyone just for her. She felt like he put them in a bubble, a safe place where they could judge the world together from a shared viewpoint. He told her a crazy story about sailing alone in a hurricane off Nantucket. She told him she hoped he’d set course for home and lashed himself to the mast like Odysseus to keep himself from following the siren song of the storm. He laughed delightedly, and she thought, I’ve got him now, as if he were a fish she’d hooked.

Now, sliding bread into the toaster, she said she had to go to the loo. Down the hall she went to the powder room, her bare feet feeling pleasure in the softness of the Oriental carpet.

What are your legs? she asked herself, quoting some long-forgotten movie.

Springs. Steel springs!

What are they going to do?

Hurl me down the track!

“Gallipoli,” she said out loud in the powder room, relieved and proud to remember the name of the movie. It had been about two gifted sprinters whose lives were cut short by the war to end all wars. She smelled burnt toast. She’d been burning toast for almost seventy years. Perhaps he’d find it endearing today.

“Again?” he asked when she scurried back and exclaimed in dismay. “I’m getting you a blow torch for your birthday. Faster.”

She laughed. His jabs made her feel noticed and gave her what she sensed was an unhealthy kind of meaning. “You’d think I’d learn,” she said, throwing out the blackened toast and sliding in two more pieces. She wondered why he hadn’t moved. He must have smelled it.

Only the crust was left for her: the ends, the part no one wanted, she thought. The self-pity puffed her up like helium.

This would never do.

She summoned a bright tone. “Are we still going to Long Island on Saturday for my birthday lunch with Arthur and Ashleigh?” Their son, Arthur, was fifty now, the child she’d had at age forty when she finally gave up trying. Ashleigh was his nineteen-year-old daughter. Esme rarely saw them, and it made her sad. She didn’t know why they stayed away.

Grant nodded. “He called me yesterday.”

“I was thinking of swimming in the sound,” she said, trying to ignore the painful pricks in her skin at the fact that their son called his father every day and never her. She couldn’t understand it. She was the nice one.

“In May? Are you nuts? You’d freeze to death.”

“Cheaper than cryogenics.”

His chuckle felt like a victory. Coffee gurgled in the throat of the percolator.

She tried again. “Don’t you think a spring swim would get the juices flowing?”

“You wouldn’t catch me dead in the sound.”

“You used to love the sound.”

“That was before Jaws came out.”

“Grant, for heaven’s sake. Jaws came out forty years ago.”

“And when was the last time you saw me swim in that shark-infested sea?”

She suppressed a grin. “You know there’re only sand sharks in our part of the sound. The great whites are miles away, in Montauk.”

“Sharks can swim, can’t they?”

They laughed together. Sparring with Grant felt as smooth as slipping down a waterslide at Splish-Splash, like she did when Ashleigh was a child. His laugh made her risk opening her New York Times in front of him instead of waiting until he fell asleep in the den.

“How can you stand that liberal rag?” he asked, as he did every time he caught her.

“Oh, look! The toast is ready!”

She’d endured a procession of labels over the decades from Grant about her forgetfulness: Flighty. Spacy. Now he said she had ADD, a term he’d learned from Ashleigh. She told herself she had to work harder to keep her circuit boxes switched on. “Honey or jam?” she asked in a voice she hoped was cheerful enough for two.


She could hear the disparity between their tones, like a sharp note striking a dissonant chord.

“Where are my teeth?” he asked.

She fetched their dentures from where they lived, floating in adjoining glasses on the sink. “We’re like Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head,” she said, as they set their choppers in place.

He didn’t laugh. He ate without talking, snapping open the pages of his paper. He left his plate for her to clear and shuffled to the den.

She supposed she’d spoiled him, she thought, scraping globules of bright yellow egg into the trash. She reminded herself that love could find tenderness in tedium. She remembered how once, when changing Arthur’s diaper, he’d aimed a stream of bright yellow urine straight into her eyeball. She hadn’t minded, not one bit. Love had literally blinded her.

Fox News blared. Grant, like most of their friends, was losing his hearing and played the television on high. It was May 1, 2017, and the Dear Leader was threatening to boost North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to the max. President Trump was warning of a major major conflict. Esme wished the two men would stop fighting. She wished that Mr. Trump had never run, never been elected, wasn’t her president. The sight of him depressed her. She believed that he disregarded the poor and disenfranchised. He didn’t respect the rule of law. He said one thing before breakfast and another after lunch. Esme saw herself as a woman of truth, and so she had only contempt for liars. Everyone agreed that President Trump was a caricaturist with a knack for noticing and enlarging other people’s foibles. She felt there was no grace in him. He had one line, the same as on his reality TV show, that he said to anyone who disagreed with him: you’re fired. She couldn’t understand what Grant saw in him.

She lingered in the kitchen, hand drying the plates. A snore sounded from the den. The light streaming through the kitchen windows took on that soft, sweet quality it had when she was alone. She settled down with the paper and poured a fresh cup of rocket fuel from the percolator.

Half an hour later, Grant appeared in the doorway, making her jump. He asked her in a sharp tone to get gussied up by ten so he could take her to Madison Avenue to buy a birthday present.

She was hurt he hadn’t bought her a gift yet. She told herself she was being silly to care: he hardly ever bought her presents. For some reason, she was always surprised when people didn’t change. Her parents had told her the Bible said a leopard couldn’t change its spots. It always confused her, because she thought the Bible was supposed to teach people how to change.

Maybe, she thought, as she put her coffee cup in the sink, she’d forgotten how God worked. Grant was a Christmas-Easter Episcopalian. They went to a neo-Gothic church where ministers with English accents told them to try harder to be good. Her old church had said that if you thought you were good, you weren’t trying hard enough. It taught that nothing but the blood of Christ could wash away your sins. She felt a pang of longing for the call and response of her childhood: the laughter, the tears, the passion. Grant said that no self-respecting Episcopalian mentioned the blood of Christ. He said it was a class thing.

He followed her out of the kitchen. She felt his gaze on her back. Her tread felt ungainly. She became aware of how thin her white hair must look, how gaunt she’d become, how red the veins were on the backs of her calves.

The lock clicked in the front door, and she turned, grateful for the reprieve. It was Janice, thanking her for letting her come in early, explaining to Grant that she had to leave in the afternoon to buy her grandson a wheelchair. Grant beat a quick retreat. He despised any mention of weakness.

Janice had cleaned for them for the past fifty years. She must be almost eighty, although Esme didn’t dare ask. It seemed rude. Esme considered herself fond of Janice, with her frizzy hair, her doughy body, her five useless children and twelve grandchildren who, to hear Janice talk, depended entirely on her—especially the ten-year-old with the degenerative disease. Esme asked after the grandson.

“Brave,” Janice said. “So brave. He never complains.”

Tears welled in Esme’s eyes. She hated the thought of a child being trapped. She told Janice she needed to shower and shut their bedroom door with relief. She’d always loved this room, a carefully curated sanctuary with its celadon fabrics and mahogany furniture. Grant used the second bedroom as his dressing room. This bedroom was her domain, except at night.

Two large windows overlooked the river, six stories below. Between the windows sat her vanity and slipper chair. Her walk-in closet and bathroom were spacious and full of her precious things.

Her bottom sank onto the middle of their bed, cocooned in celadon satin. She had to wrench off her engagement ring before showering, because Grant complained if he spotted the sheen of soap scum. He’d given her a ten-carat marquise-cut diamond surrounded by twenty-eight smaller diamonds. He often bragged that the ring had been in the Swan family for centuries, ever since they owned a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Esme always wished he wouldn’t mention the word plantation. He still called it “Moo-Moo’s rock,” as if his great-grandmother owned the thing from the grave. The way he spoke made Esme feel as if she wore it as a placeholder for someone worthier.

The ring lodged on her age-swollen knuckle. Pushing the ring over the boniest part always hurt. She made the ugly mouth of a professional weightlifter and twisted the ring. She couldn’t—she couldn’t—she had. She gave a tiny cheer, hip hip hurrah. She believed in encouraging herself.

Leaning over to her bedside table, she dropped the ring onto the arm of the ring tree that Grant had picked up in the Phoenix airport to make up for skipping their fiftieth wedding anniversary to play golf. The ring made the soft chink of a coin changing hands.

Her shower came over her in a rush of warmth. Stepping out with care, she rubbed herself with lavender lotion, wishing it could erase her lumps and bumps. She left the bathroom wrapped in a towel. She sensed something was wrong even before she realized what it was.

The ring was missing. Water dripped down her thighs.

She knocked into her chest of drawers, a bat with broken sonar. The ring was gone, so she had to think as if the fundamental perceptions of her brain weren’t true. She told herself she needed to retrace her steps, which reminded her of the job she’d worked at for four years, until Grant became embarrassed about having a working wife. She’d assisted the woman who’d designed the first airport signs, Jane Doggett. Jane had pioneered what she called the wayfinding system, using the same color and typeface to lead travelers all the way from highway to flight. The signs of where Esme had gone wrong, she thought, must have been there from the beginning—probably in primary colors. She wondered if burning the toast was where she’d gone wrong. Each mistake led to another, she thought, wishing she could be perfect.

Trying to be methodical, she searched the bathroom first, its surfaces slick, the mirror foggy. It seemed like a place of danger, for a ring. She looked inside her walk-in closet, examining the Chanel suits, Pucci dresses, and two hundred shoes she hardly ever wore anymore. Her stomach pinched with worry. Grant was complaining they were short of funds. He often said the ring was worth a million big ones. She knew he hadn’t insured it. He liked to brag that he knew the odds better than insurance companies.

Back in their room, she braced a hand on the bed. The mattress was soft but supported her weight. She put another hand on it and spread her hands apart, bending her right knee, then her left, and easing herself onto the floor. Her towel unfurled. She realized she couldn’t tell Grant about the ring because she wasn’t sure what he’d do. And that was how Grant found her, crawling naked on all fours. Like a dog, she thought, and hoped he didn’t think that.

“You’ve got to fire Janice,” Grant announced, before looking down. “Are you all right?” He sounded scared.

Her heart gave a ping of joy that he cared. She launched herself up to the bed, grabbing the towel to cover her. She felt that crouching made her breasts sag in non-alluring loopy arcs.

“Just looking for my hairbrush.”

“You mean this?” He walked past her and picked up the monogrammed silver-backed brush from her vanity.

“Silly me.”

“She couldn’t even find her hairbrush,” he said, as if rehearing for an invisible audience.

Lavender-scented steam drifted from the bathroom door, and she felt nostalgic for her unsuspecting time in the shower. “What’s wrong with Janice?” she asked, hoping he’d leave so she could find the ring.

“She woke me going great guns with her vacuum—for no reason, because she can’t clean.”

“Shh, she’ll hear you,” Esme said, stricken, even though she knew it was true.

“She can’t even see the dust, Esme. It comes up in great clouds around me.” He lifted his arms. “It’s biblical—a plague of dust! I’m being choked to death in my own home.” He gurgled and let his tongue loll. “Everyone gets fired when they’re old,” he added. “Except me.”

“But you hated it when they stole your seat out from under you.” He often bragged that he’d still be working if he hadn’t been forced to sell his seat on the New York Stock Exchange when it had gone public eleven years earlier. She sensed it made him feel unsettled that his job no longer existed.

“I adapted.” His milky eyes narrowed. “Why aren’t you ready yet? I said I wanted to leave at nine-fifteen.”

“You said ten.” This time she couldn’t keep the snap from her voice.

“What happened to your brain? You used to be so smart.”

His tone made her feel dried up. “I don’t want to argue. You know I’m not good at remembering numbers. I’ll be quick.”

Instead of leaving, he settled into her slipper chair. “So you’ll fire Janice today?”

She scooted her bottom around the corner of the bed to face him. “We’re the only job she has left.”

“I wonder why?”

She snorted with disloyal laughter, covering her mouth with her left hand.

“Where’s Moo-Moo’s rock?”

Even though she’d dreaded him noticing, she was surprised when he did. She rationalized that he was hyper-focused on the ring.

“I don’t know. I left it on the cactus.” Her mouth had a bitter taste.

“Please don’t tell me you lost my family’s ring.”

“I didn’t! It disappeared while I was showering.” She hated that she sounded whiny.

It seemed too quiet in the room, except for her hammering heart. The vacuum had stopped. She wondered if Janice was listening.

“Think, Esme. Where could it be?”

“Well, I, I mean, I put it there.” She pointed behind her.

“You’re losing your mind.”

She felt as if she’d been struck by a blunt object. Her parents had always said that being nice was contagious. She thought her parents might have been wrong.

A white butterfly landed on the sill of the open window, its wings beating as furiously as her heart. She felt as if nature was still in tune with her. It was the world of men that had grown out of step. She wished she were Catholic. They had saints for lost things. Anthony, she thought. Saint Anthony. Or was it a different saint who was in charge of the lost and found? She hit her temple so hard it scared her.

“It must be a false memory,” he said. “Like those adults who suddenly claim they were abused as children.”

She didn’t think those memories were all false.

She’d read that everyday routines had a way of becoming lost, that people only remembered things connected with extreme emotions like pleasure or pain. It seemed to her that she remembered the wrong things.

She told him how she’d emerged from the shower and sensed immediately that something was off. “Like on our honeymoon in Kauai,” she said, hoping the memory of that sweet time would soften him. “Remember how I sensed a shift in the room even before I noticed our money was stolen?”

“Are you saying someone took it?”

“Of course not. The only ones here are you and Janice.” For a moment, she let herself consider that Janice might have taken it. She couldn’t imagine it.

“I’m worried about you,” Grant said.

“Everybody loses things.” She was tightening up inside. She worried that Grant would tell Arthur and Ashleigh about the ring. Maybe Grant’s stories had already poisoned them against her and that’s why they stayed away. Or maybe, she thought, they were using her as the scapegoat to keep Grant from criticizing them. The taste in her mouth grew ashy.

“Have you ever thought…” He didn’t meet her eye. “Of joining Rosemary?”

“In her nursing home?” Her brain stuttered, trying to make sense of something that made no sense. Rosemary was Esme’s younger sister who’d moved into a vibrant retirement community in New Jersey over twenty years ago after the death of her husband. Rosemary danced, sang, acted, and had had three boyfriends, all of whom had died.

“You might love it,” he said, making jazz hands.

“You always said you’d leave our apartment feet first.” She felt disoriented, almost dizzy.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said smugly.

Her face squeezed into a painful ball, her eyelids shut, her lips braced against each other. She would not cry. “Why are you being so cruel?” she managed to ask in a terrible voice.

“This is how it starts. First you lose your ring, then you forget to turn off the gas, and the next thing you know we’re flying over the river with blackened faces.”

“That’s not funny.”

He extended and released his large jaw like a drawer. “Also, you seem depressed.”

“I’m happy as a clam,” she said, although this conversation was depressing her. She tried to evaluate whether what he said was true. She didn’t think she was depressed. Perhaps depression was one of those things that could creep up on you, like dirty windows.

The vacuum started up again, farther away now. Esme fought the urge to zigzag through the room like a scared bunny, looking for the ring. “Unless Janice…?” She broke off, feeling ashamed. She didn’t really think Janice had taken her ring. Then she thought about how Janice had doctor’s bills to pay. Esme believed that people could do anything, given the right circumstances.

“Unless Janice what?” He stared at her with the fierce expression he adopted when reading anything complicated.

“Unless perhaps it’s possible, that, do you think Janice could’ve taken it?”

He looked sad for a moment and shrugged.

“She must have,” Esme heard herself say in a voice she didn’t recognize.

He nodded, as if taking this in.

She hoped he’d be happy with her now. He’d gotten what he wanted. Janice would be gone, and his capable wife would stay.

But he was gazing at her as if she were his enemy, as if she were keeping him from something. She bit her lip. The pain wasn’t enough to distract her from the sharper ache in her heart. It seemed to her in that moment that Grant had no use for her. She wondered for the first time if perhaps he didn’t love her anymore. Or maybe he’d never loved her. She wondered what the past seventy years of trying to please him had been for.

She imagined Grant dying. She didn’t want him to die. It just sometimes seemed it would be easier that way.

The thought horrified her. What was wrong with her? She would fight his cruelty, his suggestion she leave. She had nothing to lose. She had to unleash her mightiest weapon, to engage in a major major conflict. What she thought of as their lives depended on it.

She hurled her towel away. She stood statue-still and tilted her chin, daring him to be enticed by her sagging breasts, rounded belly, skinny thighs. Fire blazed in her eyes. She held aloft her wedding band. “You lashed yourself to me, Odysseus, and I’m not going anywhere without you.”

“You’re crazy.” Admiration shone in his eyes.

“I am crazy—for marrying you.” She forced herself to speak his language, the language of criticism.

He laughed, low and delighted.

She smiled. She had him now.

He stood and pretended to unbuckle, as if he wanted to take her, then and there. “You know what you need?”

“The treatment.” She relaxed her guard and beamed.

His face hardened, like pudding settling into place. He walked out, his shoes crunching the carpet. “You better find that ring,” he said. “Or else we can’t go shopping. What’s the point of buying something new if you can’t keep what you have?”

He shut the door behind him. The smell of his sweat lingered. With a sinking heart she realized that if she didn’t find the ring before Janice left at two, she’d have to fire her. She pictured the hurt in Janice’s eyes, the catch in her voice, the tremor in her hands.

She crumpled. She put an ear to the carpet to listen for the ring. She had a childish irrational sense that it could sing.

She heard the squeal of bus brakes, the idle of a parked car. The carpet was rough against her cheek. Lines of pain ran down the back of a neck that refused to turn the way it should. A horn honked once, futilely, for when has sounding a horn ever done anything except increase irritation? She wondered how she’d ever get up. A truck gave the backing-up warning, a series of high quick beeps, gentle, as if saying, I can’t see what I’m doing. Please be careful around me. Light streamed in, then darkened, clouds creating a chiaroscuro in the room. Cords were tangled and bent, all leaning to the source of electricity. She wondered if Grant could hear death coming for him. She wondered if he’d given up.

She turned her head. There under the slipper chair something glinted.

It was the lost ring.

She crawled toward it, letting the towel drop again. She couldn’t believe it. She closed her fist around the ring. The tiny sharp points pierced her palm. Perhaps she’d put it on the dresser and knocked it off. Apparently she couldn’t control anything anymore, not even her mind.


She stopped herself. The moment felt private.

Bracing herself on the slipper chair, she rose and lifted one knee, then the next, and sliding a hand to her thigh, she straightened. She held the ring up to the window. Light draped her breasts. Tiny rectangles blinked in and out of the diamond—red, orange, green, blue, indigo, violet—as if an entire universe were caught in its depths. She felt as if she’d never looked at her ring before.

A sea of tranquility spread out before her, and she imagined that she could float over the river, larger than life. She pictured the ocean beyond, the whales breaching. There were no whales before. Dolphins rose from the water, diving and surfacing again, as if leaping from ancient mosaics. The dolphins were new too. Beyond them she saw fishing boats, cargo ships, oil tankers. Turning in the air, she could see water towers, antennas, sold air rights, and over the top of the Empire State Building she saw the skyscrapers built in the shadow of the Twin Towers, taken down by the enemy, and beyond that the airports, planes lifting and lowering, the farmlands, gone, and around them the highways that had taken down houses in their wake, houses that in turn had defiled sacred lands. She could see the railroads crisscrossing the country, steam billowing, huffing and puffing, and her breathing was labored, and the sky was Virginia blue, and she forced the ring over her knuckle and there was blood on her hand and the guilt wasn’t all false, she saw, and she thought, what have I done? She fell to her knees, banging her jaw on the slipper chair. And that was how Grant found her, crawling naked again with the ring on her hand and tears streaming down her face. “The blood,” she said. “Oh, Grant. The blood.”




Caroline Coleman is the author of the picture book If I Were a Tiger (Waterbrook) and the historical novel Loving Søren (B&H). She earned her fiction MFA from Brooklyn College and has law degrees from Oxford and Columbia. “The Lost Ring” is the first chapter of a novel in progress. She teaches English literature at Hunter College.




Image courtesy of Noah Negishi, via Unsplash.

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