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'Leaving: A Novel' by Roxana Robinson | An Excerpt

Roxana Robinson •
Feb 12nd, 2024

In Roxana Robinson’s latest novel, a chance meeting between two former lovers reignites a passion. Since their parting decades ago, Sarah and Warren have each built up marriages, families, and careers. But when they run into each other at the opera – the chemistry they once had is still there. This sparks an intense affair threatening the foundations of the lives they’ve constructed for themselves.

"This lithe novel engrosses. Robinson’s storytelling is classic, page after page of swiftly moving scenes and writing as precise as rows of tilled earth. Robinson proves that writers can still evoke the silences and renunciations that thwart desire, and that stars still cross. The ending is a bombshell, eminently discussable." — New York Times

“An impassioned portrayal of desire and loyalty, of romantic love and family duty, and an exploration into what we owe to each other—and to ourselves.” — Oprah Daily

“LEAVING navigates the chasm between responsibility and desire when two long-lost lovers reconnect. This beautiful book will sweep you away.” — People Magazine

"A study of the complex joy and pain of late-life love, LEAVING is a tour de force — unfailingly clear-eyed, and packed with psychological insights — a novel that compels readers to care passionately about the characters. LEAVING stands as a wondrous feat, and its final impact shatters." — Washington Post

This excerpt is taken from Leaving: A Novel by Roxana Robinson. Copyright © 2024 Roxana Robinson. Printed with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

“I never thought I’d see you here,” Sarah says. Then she adds, “But I never thought I’d see you anywhere.”

They’re at the opera house, on the second floor, near the head of the grand staircase. He’s facing her, leaning his hips against the railing, hands set lightly on either side. Beyond him, in the high open space of the atrium, hang the glittering crystal chandeliers, frozen starbursts. Below, people move up and down the broad red-­carpeted staircase, hurrying but stately. They are mostly over fifty, this is the second intermission, and there is only so much time left to meet someone, eat something, drink something, void, before the caped ushers begin playing their little xylophones, the bright tuneless melodies announcing the last act.

She had known him at once. His younger face is still visible within this older one, though this one is creased now, hollowed here, fuller there. The same square shape, same bright brown eyes and wide brow. The same thick light-­brown hair, though now not so thick. The same fierce vitality in the gaze.

“I always thought I’d see you somewhere,” he says. He looks directly into her eyes. He’d always done this, looked straight into her, as though she were important. It had always unnerved her. “You look just the same.”

She smiles but shakes her head.

“You know what I mean,” he says. “You do. Your eyes.”

They had been close at one time.


After the last curtain call—­the dark-­haired soprano curtsying deeply and charmingly, kissing her fingertips to the audience as plastic-­wrapped bouquets thud onto the stage, before the swirling gold curtain is finally drawn for good—­Sarah stands, putting on her jacket. She buttons it as she inches her way across the row of seats to join the slow scrum in the aisle. She glances around for Warren, though he’d told her he was on the other side of the house. Almost as soon as they’d met, the little xylophones had begun their atonal melodies, and they’d had to part. He’d asked her to come out for a drink afterward but she’d said no. She’d said it would be too late.

Actually it had been too sudden. She couldn’t decide, in that moment, if she wanted to sit across from him again, letting him look into her. He asked for her email address but he hadn’t written it down; she thinks he’ll forget it. It’s so easy to forget those addresses, which seem in the moment so obvious, so unforgettable, clara38@whatever, but they’re also obvious in all their other iterations, too, was it clara39@somewhereelse, or clarab38? Hers is simple and obvious. She thinks he’ll forget it.

Out in the lower hall the crowd moves slowly toward the wide stairs up to the lobby. Near the base of the staircase is a small white-­haired woman in a red coat. She stands stock-­still, like a rock in the current. Her feet are slightly apart, braced against something. Anxiety fills her; Sarah can feel it as she approaches. She stops beside the woman.

“Would you like my arm going up the stairs?” Sarah asks.

The woman looks up. She has a pleasant lined face, withered cheeks, small bright blue eyes. Relief floods from her like mist from a mountain. “Oh yes,” she says. “Thank you so much.”

She takes Sarah’s forearm and they begin the climb. The woman leans against her, clasping tight. She’s desperate about something: pain, or fear. The panicked grip makes Sarah think of someone drowning, how you should never let them touch you, because they’ll take you down with them. She’s never known what you were supposed to do instead. You can’t simply watch. But this tiny frail woman can’t pull her down, Sarah is stable enough for them both. They go slowly, step by step.

“I had surgery on my foot,” the woman explains, apologetic. “Weeks ago. I thought I was pretty much healed, so I didn’t bring my cane. It wasn’t so bad when I came, but now I can hardly walk. Stupid of me.”

At the top of the stairs they continue; Sarah can’t simply walk away from her. When they reach the heavy glass door Sarah holds it open and the woman shuffles through. The audience pushes past, bursting from the building, striding off quickly across the plaza, toward cabs, cars, subways. Sarah and the woman pause at the edge of the vast plain. It’s clear that she can’t manage this on her own.

“I’ll take you to Broadway,” says Sarah, “and put you in a cab.”

“You’re very kind.” The woman takes Sarah’s arm again and they begin the slow trek. “I should have brought my cane, but I was determined I’d be all right.” She shakes her head. “Stubbornness,” she says, “and vanity.”

Sarah wonders if it’s only women who apologize for everything. Would a man blame his physical helplessness on his own character flaws?

It’s January. The night sky is dark and dense, bright with the reflected glow of the city. In the center of the plaza the fountain pulses, low illuminated jets moving to a mysterious rhythm. The woman grips her arm hard, shuffling fearfully. Sarah matches her steps to the woman’s and wonders if this will happen to her: If you’re hale it’s hard to imagine being helpless. The worst of it must be being alone.

Sarah looks around again for Warren, but he must be long gone by now. The opera is still shimmering in her mind, the music surging behind her thoughts. Tosca’s death lies within her like a single piercing note.

At Broadway they move slowly north until Sarah steps off the curb, her arm raised, to hail a cab. When it pulls over she comes back. The woman’s feet are braced apart again, her face taut with anxiety.

Sarah helps her into the cab. Settling against the seat, the woman looks up at her. “I can’t thank you enough,” she says. “So stupid of me.”

“Happy to do it.” Sarah means it: a woman alone, near-­helpless. She wonders if the woman has children, and where they are. When would you call your child for help? If you found yourself at the opera house after the last act, unable to climb the stairs? How bad would it have to be? Her mother would never have called her.


He hadn’t forgotten her address.

His first message is short. I was glad to see you. She doesn’t answer at once. It’s the tone that concerns her. He’s married, she knows that. What does she want? But she was glad to see him. She’s allowed to be a friend. Finally she writes back, Yes. Me too.

He writes again. He’s coming to New York on business next month; will she meet him for dinner? She thinks about it. The speed of email telescopes time, so that thinking about it for a few hours seems like days. Coming into the city for dinner is complicated for her: she lives in northern Westchester, over an hour away. It really means spending the night. She doesn’t like driving home late, alone, her head fumed with wine. But she has a friend with a spare bedroom, who always offers it. She writes back, Yes.

They meet at the restaurant, a fancy one on the West Side. Along the street are big plate-­glass windows. As Sarah walks along the sidewalk, her little suitcase trundling behind her, she sees him inside. He’s at a table in the middle of the room, very upright. His elbows are set elegantly on the table, hands clasped. He’s watching the door.

As she comes in he smiles at her, spreading open both hands in celebration.

The restaurant is modern and expensive. The latter is evident from the heightened awareness of everyone in the room, the slightly hostile deference of the headwaiter; the attentive, slightly condescending waiters, the sharp sidelong glances of the diners. The glitter of earrings and bracelets. Along the inner wall, more plate-­glass windows give onto the kitchen, where chefs in white coats move swiftly, chopping and stirring and slicing, among white tile and stainless steel, pots and knives, steam and flame. The kitchen is like a silent movie, the workers framed, frenetic, soundless.

Warren stands to greet her, smiling.

“Thank you,” she says, sliding onto the banquette. When he sits down their faces are close, and he looks directly into her eyes.

Unsettled, she speaks to break the silence.

“I don’t think men stand up for women anymore,” she says. “Do they? When we were kids, my father would say to my brother, ‘Stand up when your mother comes into the room.’ Do you remember? No one does that now.”

“The culture of our youth,” he says. “Gone.”

“Good riddance, most of it,” she says. “All those rules.”

“It’s good to see you,” he says.

Thirty years, anyway. Nearly forty.

Excerpted from Leaving: A Novel by Roxana Robinson. Copyright © 2024 Roxana Robinson. Printed with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Like what you've read? Check out LEAVING by Roxana Robinson.

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