Stevie Mackenzie’s brother broke up the family. He emailed her a few days after Thanksgiving to announce it. He would no longer be coming home for Christmas. John Armstrong—the family called him Army—had decided to spend the holidays in San Francisco with friends. His friends didn’t try to shove him in a box and tape it shut. His friends understood his situation.

A year went by, and Army stayed away again. Stevie and her parents fought to keep him. Eva, the older sister, was strangely neutral. Fewer pieces in the pie? Maybe. Perhaps she had a problem with intimacy. Whatever the reason, Eva was willing to let him go.  She and Army had much in common: strong chins, advanced degrees, jobs in technology. They even attended the same gadget conventions in Las Vegas. At one of these, they lunched.

Phil is sitting in his office staring at his computer when his cellphone rings. It is his wife, Helen. He picks it up, punches a button. The call goes straight to voicemail.

“Tell it to your mother,” says Phil.

Then it’s the phone on his desk, melodic and eager. Phil watches the blue digits scroll across the caller ID display. It’s Helen. Phil turns back to work on his spreadsheet. He knows an email will appear on his screen within minutes, an apology from Helen. Her contrition will be touching, the way a green fly is touching.

Before Phil married Helen, his older brother pulled him aside at a family cookout and said, “Marriage is really hard. You have to work at it. It’s a lot of work.”