The duplex experience is an outsized thing.

Its double current cooks the flesh off the commonplace. Its monarch girth—this and that too—cows the imagination.

Don’t come upstairs yet, she says.

Why not? he says.

Sex is a duplex.

It had better be. The species depends on it. This one-two cannot disappoint: the sweet thrill of cumming, the heady and barbarous intimacy that precedes.

I’m still changing.

I’ve seen you change a thousand times.

The Siberian gulag: a fine illustration of the duplex. The ultimate prison within a prison. Win escape and, congratulations, win freezing unsurvivable desolation.

Its doubleness famously crushed hope like no other scheme ever devised. Remember the Dachau survivor who, told he was being transferred to Kolyma, promptly hanged himself.

How was work?

Terrible. Work was terrible. Also the way you just tried to change the subject. That was terrible. I’m coming upstairs.

The death of a loved one is the ultimate duplex experience. Lose the person and lose also a swath of your own life. The years shared, the memories nurtured.

Whole decades are bled of meaning without the someone to remember them with. Or force-injected with a septic resin—one part despair (what could be the worth of something so contingent to begin with?) and one part despair (what I had I will never have again …)—until they blacken and fall away.

We should talk about it first.

I’m just coming upstairs. Not even the bedroom. I’ll just stay in the hallway. I like to be on the same floor as my wife when I talk to her. Crazy that way.

If your loved one dies (or leaves, but—for clarity’s sake—let’s assume here that every end is a death, which is to say, let’s assume the truth), you may recover. You may “get over it,” meaning paralysis turns merely to sadness like a harness. You may one day regain a life the pointlessness of which is not its most salient quality. This is not a sure thing. This depends, goes the conventional wisdom, on a welter of factors: the felt profundity of your relationship with the departed; the variety and poignance of other items in your life with perceived existential significance; your unparticular adaptability; your penchant for nostalgia. Whether you’re the sort for whom tears salt the wound or salve it, because there will be plenty.

Or you may not.

He comes upstairs. He does not stay in the hallway. He moves to the bedroom door and pushes it partway open. He watches her. It is the first time he has seen her naked, except bandaging, since the surgery.

She turns and sees him and screams.

Let’s put aside the embroidery. Let’s get to the truth of it. There is no welter of factors. There is one factor. Time. It is time that decides whether you survive the death that matters. Specifically: take the years you spent with your loved one. No. Take the years you lived in love with your loved one. Take the years, months, days you spent learning how the smell of the back of her neck reacted chesnuttily to sunshine. Add these. Be meticulous. Because it will take you equally long after the loss, precisely the same amount of time after she dies, until you breathe again and notice the sky and let yourself do something so small as worry.

Nick meets Seth on October 1, falls in love on November 1, and loses him forever in a funicular accident on December 1. (Nick watches from below—a fear of heights pairs well with a cup of concession hot chocolate—as the machine jolts to a stop, then gives a shiver, then drops decisively from the line overhead like an untreed apple. There is a reeling minute when, notwithstanding his yelps, and his forearms vising the sides of his head, the Brazilian tourists milling nearby believe Nick’s alarm is general and do not guess he is watching his boyfriend die.) Until December 30 Nick will be lost. On December 30 Nick will blink and look around and, though hurting yet, realize the mist was of his own making.

A real racket is what she puts up. Protests, a profanity. A conflagration of the face.

He walks steadily, inert to her noise. He moves with his hands folded behind his back, park-stroll-style. It is a weird mode of progress that can mean No Big Deal, and Couldn’t Hurt You if I Tried, and All the Time in the World. He does not stop until nearly he collides with her body, this new body that she holds concavely, that she keeps in a posture of begging pardon. He staggers down to his knees. His hands still behind his back, he kisses her stomach. He kisses her hipbones and their sidecar notches. He is careful about his head. He kisses her thighs, between them. He will not let his head graze the bandaging.

The corollary: there is always a midway point. There is always a point exactly halfway between the moment you fall in love and the moment you die. This fulcrum, this pivot, determines survivability. If the two of you make it past that point alive and together, then that’s the good news. The bad news: if the two of you make it past that point, and your loved one predeceases you, you’ll never recover. There is simply not enough time. This pivot, in short, is a cliff.

Will meets Eve, a friend of an invitee who abhors a train ride into the city alone, at his thirtieth-birthday party. Their love is near instant. (His: when at the restaurant she abruptly sits at the table and plants an elbow onto a fork and the pain bodies forth as a mutter: “Fuck me.” Hers: when, hearing this, he shakes his head smiling and horse-soothes, “Too soon.”) On Will’s sixtieth birthday he will choke on his cake and die. Actually, it will appear so to those present—ardent eyes, purpling face—but in fact it is a massive stroke he will suffer, the cake in his mouth of no comfort and indeed a positive terror to his guests for it will batter up his drool into a froth. His last thought might have been lacerating (serves me right for wishing selfish in a room full of grandchildren) but is instead another smiling shake of the head (of course I had to wish for health). Eve, a widow at fifty-eight, dies at eighty-seven. One year short of heart’s reprieve.

She takes his head and brings it against her.

His ear presses against her navel. If his own breathing is an ocean, then he hears the ocean. He does not hear hers. But he feels it. Her trunk is fitful against his face. He breathes in time with its ragged swells and capitulations. This is how crying becomes a sound like laughter.

Just like that, in the space of an afternoon, by a happenstance of the calendar, one of them has pivoted. One of them without knowing has lived the point of no return, leapt off the scarp, innocent of how she has condemned herself this day.

I will not tell you who will die first. I will not pretend it is this fact that matters most. But here is what I will tell you: Just like that, in the space of an afternoon, by a happenstance of the calendar, one of them has pivoted. One of them without knowing has lived the point of no return, leapt off the scarp, innocent of how he has sanctified himself this day.