Catholic girls are easy to pin. Theyâ€™re either buttoned to the chin (translation: donâ€™t bother) or they have a regular booty call programmed into their phones and visit confessional to repent every Sunday, religiously. I prefer the latter.
|Truth or Dare By C. Spencer|
Thatâ€™s what brought me to this campus. Her buildingâ€™s just ahead past another group of stressed-out undergraduates lugging North Face backpacks and travel mugs. The snow has just started to come down, and itâ€™s crunching with each step I take. Itâ€™s a decent beat given Iâ€™m still humming that tune I heard two days ago and wishing I could replace it with something better.
The main doors ask for a badge after hours, but theyâ€™re unlocked now. I pass the elevator and take the wide stairs, which impress me with their marble, exiting into a hall that echoes. Door after door touts a new name, each engraved in brown plastic and ending in PhD. Iâ€™m surprised I fit in. I expected this place to be all corduroy; itâ€™s not.
I hear her in someoneâ€™s office and theyâ€™re talking about a mass spectrometer. I go unnoticed and wait outside, wandering. Across the hall is a lecture, and itâ€™s brash like a loudspeaker.
The airs of academia: that idealism and disappointment.
As soon as her conversation enters the doorway and hallway, I get that lingering look. It means Iâ€™m glad to see you. It means Iâ€™ll be right with you. She looks amazing. Her hairâ€™s inelegant at the collarbone, and freckles flush that nude complexion left over from her stay in Barcelona. Iâ€™m picturing her in a bikini under a beach umbrella, feet tucked in heated sand. Itâ€™s a nice fantasy right now in twenty-eight degree weather.
As I admire her small build, we share too many distracted glances. Finally I catch their good-byes and I canâ€™t help but notice how soft her tone is when she greets me. â€œJessie Miles.â€ Itâ€™s not the same as the voice I heard a minute ago. â€œYour hair.â€
â€œI know. Itâ€™s a mess,â€ I tell her. â€œItâ€™s really starting to come down out there.â€
She takes me down a hall with walls covered in posters and ads for graduate programs. Sheâ€™s walking like we donâ€™t know each other. Eventually we reach her name plaque. She keys the door, and I follow her in. She shuts it.
Inside shades are wide open letting overcast shine its way through. Snow tries to cloak her mountain view.
â€œEarly day?â€ I want to know. With every other school in town canceled, Iâ€™m surprised higher education isnâ€™t as well.
She tugs the cord on a green lamp. That unusable desk squeezes into a corner.
â€œClass is canceled tomorrow. It screws up my entire lab schedule.â€ Itâ€™s more than uptightâ€”sheâ€™s bordering on irate. â€œIâ€™ll get my things.â€
The office has no floor space. Itâ€™s clean but paper littered with books and binders towering above us. Iâ€™m thinking it beats her bedroom with that crucifix staring down over the door frame.
She does this thing where she stands on tiptoe to reach for something. Iâ€™m watching the muscles in her calves flex. Itâ€™s up there with that librarianâ€¦When was that? Sheâ€™s kind of a contradiction like that, which is what I get into. I push into her, and she sinks down into my arms. Determinationâ€™s written all over her face.
â€œWhy do you do this to me?â€ I ask. Sheâ€™s just giving me this look of indifference. But this kiss is shameless, which is why Iâ€™m beginning to imagine that taste between her legs. Iâ€™d rather be there. Thatâ€™s where my hand goes.
â€œYouâ€™re hot, you know that?â€
And this look is why sheâ€™s naturally mistaken for pious, haughty. It doesnâ€™t matter to me. In fact, Iâ€™m pretty sure itâ€™s why Iâ€™m drawn to her. Besides, her touch is quite the opposite. Itâ€™s more timid, sensual. I donâ€™t have to understand her, do I?
Sheâ€™s exhaling thick and heavy between my lips as we make our way to that door and I back her up against it. I slide my hand up her blouse.
â€œIâ€™ll get fired,â€ I hear.
â€œThe perks of tenure,â€ I mumble. I love when she feigns virtue.
She seems torn or trapped but more overindulgent than anything else. She tends to do everything in excess. Drinking. Learning. This. Thatâ€™s how sheâ€™s always been with me.
When I hike her skirt, sheâ€™s not resisting anymore.
â€œI donâ€™t quite have tenure yet,â€ she tries to say.
The hem of this blouse untucks too easily and the arch of her back makes everything that much more accessible. Iâ€™m pinching around her back and thinking, Who wears this to work? Itâ€™s sheer, this mesh, and I let it fall aside and off her shoulder.
And Iâ€™m tracing tan lines.
The next time I kiss her, itâ€™s weaker but feverish. I move past the hem of her skirt and glide a palm under and behind elastic. Sheâ€™s too driven without me, too pent up, and Iâ€™m thinking itâ€™s been far too long (at least thatâ€™s how she feels) when I slip two fingers inside her. Sheâ€™s slick.
Itâ€™s always that first moan, isnâ€™t it, when she gets what she wants. Itâ€™s merciless. Itâ€™s the loudest one. Someoneâ€™s going to hear in the hallway, but sheâ€™s forgotten already.
Instead she glides against my fingersâ€”rigid, unyielding, oblivious. I like when she gets like this, warm and throbbing, legs parted, swelling and tightening around my knuckles. Iâ€™m using hips to push my fingers deeper. When I look over again, her cheeks are flushed, and I watch as she fades into soft, to serene, and then to absolutely uninhibited. Her breath like steam on my cheek and I need more and so does she. I want trembling. Shuddering. Disheveled. I want painfully spent and hunched over. Clinging to me. I want to bolster her up so she doesnâ€™t fall down. And Iâ€™m thinking about that small desk over there, but the wallâ€™s fine once I can get this off her.
By the time I head out, before I even hit the lot, I get a text. Make that two. I file both under maybe next month if Iâ€™m lucky. Because itâ€™s five at night and I need a bite before heading home. My cooking skills are, to put it mildly, sub-amateur. Thatâ€™s not to say Iâ€™m amateur everywhere. Trust me on that. Itâ€™s just that food prep was never a zone I could master. I do appreciate good food, though. Home cooked, take-out, gourmet, grill. Iâ€™m not all that discriminating. As long as itâ€™s a meal that someone else has prepared.
In fact, I have this nostalgic peculiarity about me. I recall people by the way they cook, what they cook, why they cook, how they cook. Sometimes I remember the food and not her name.
Take Elaine for instance. We lasted a pretty long timeâ€”four weeks. Elaine was a bona fide vegetarian, which conjures images of tofu to some. But she never used tofu. Ever. Despised people who automatically assumed she ate tofu just because she was vegetarian, so she stopped talking about it altogether. If you ask me, she was a culinary artist, her spices and sauces. She made a mad black-bean burger with sweet potato fries and, once in a while, Iâ€™m tempted to ring her up just for one of those meals. At least my stomach is. Her current girlfriend might not appreciate that. For anyone to convert a meat lover like myself into a proud bean-burger eater is extraordinary. She did that.
That breakup was tough. I mean, it was cruel enough losing the conversations, the Friday nights, and the sex. But I also lost her cuisine, and no two women cook quite alike.
And who doesnâ€™t like watching a woman cook? The flex of her forearm as that blade comes down. When the back of her wrist brushes her forehead because every fingertip is covered and untouchable. How feminine her fingers look when they pinch.
I met Sophia before I broke up with Elaine. Full disclosure, they did overlap a few days. But my short-lived romance with Sophia was bound to end if only for the fact that I could not eat the sheer quantity of food she served. Her enchiladas, though, with hot Spanish rice and her red sauce. Mercy. I donâ€™t know if anyone, even Sophia, couldâ€™ve maintained that body eating like that for the long term.
Lynn didnâ€™t cook. Not at all. Since I didnâ€™t cook either, we survived for two full weeks on deli sandwiches with a wide assortment of cheeses and crackers, fruits and berries, nuts and breads. Iâ€™m keen on those fresh bakery rolls and baguettes. Ciabatta. Cheese breads. With Lynn, I learned to appreciate the nutritional benefits of the almond and the vast diversity of applesâ€”from Gala to Empire. I heard she married a chef. Hats off to her.
I met Ella shortly after that split. She runs the bakery downtown, with partial credit to yours truly, and sheâ€™s in happily married bliss. Even with too many yearsâ€™ distance, Iâ€™m still not ready to resurface her. After Ella, I didnâ€™t get too serious with anyoneâ€”not that I was alone, mind you.
Then came Alicia, my last girlfriend. She made me lose interest in nourishment altogether, of the food variety at least. Take the time she greeted me in nothing more than her twenty-four-year-old splendor topped with a strappy tank top and loose-fitting boxer shorts embellished in teeny tiny red hearts. She fed me Swiss chocolate that evening, served the sweetest red wine, and the rest of that night could have gone down in history.
And that it did. I called it quits two weeks ago. Iâ€™m not sure if thatâ€™s registered with her yet, given her text bombs today, but it will.
Tonight, without a personal chef, Iâ€™m fending for myself. And Iâ€™ve decided to grab a quick bite out before the worst of this snowstorm hits and Iâ€™m holed up in my tiny studio, all by my lonesome. I know, woe is me.
To this end, I spot the perfect parking spot right up front at Hops Brewery and walk in, helmet in hand. I sit at one of those two-seater wooden tables. Itâ€™s packed wall-to-wall with regulars as well as plenty of unfamiliars.
This place is low lit and appealing, brightened by mini lamps and a few open laptops. The kind of lighting you pray for at two a.m. after a few pints too many. Bookshelves are filled with creased paperbacks that attract the geeked-up literary crowd from nearby colleges. A sunken section in the rear seats the see-and-be-seens in firm leather chairs where they sip cappuccino or tea or one of Hopsâ€™ infamous custom ales.
The wall beside my table is a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard with a menu written out by hand. All of that dusty script spans the entire length of the room, from the front windows to the bar in the far rear. A bar thatâ€™s always crammed, even on a slow night like this.
I rest my boots on the opposite chair. And I already know what I want.
After a glance at a new text that rattles my phone, I slip it back on the table without a response. Itâ€™s just Alicia. Again.
Hadley creaks the floor as she ambles over, Chapstick lipped, recently cropped Bobby Brady hair, black-rimmed glasses, cute plaid skirt, and a powder blue oxford shirt buttoned conservatively.
â€œI know. This is getting to be a bad habit. You look pretty thin staffed tonight. Why are you out here?â€
This is the only friendship I havenâ€™t ruined by taking things too far.
â€œIâ€™m down three servers. Of course it was three of my best. They couldnâ€™t make it, so here I am. On the floor.â€
And that prudence has earned me the ultimate best friend. Iâ€™m talking decades long. She and I go way back. Weâ€™re like glue.
â€œCould be worse. Job security.â€
â€œI know. Iâ€™m off in a few hours,â€ she tells me. â€œThe usual?â€
â€œStay for dessert. Look at you. Youâ€™re too skinny.â€
â€œHey, heyâ€”Iâ€™m working out.â€
â€œYeah, yeahâ€”youâ€™re working out.â€
â€œCan you give me some?â€
â€œSome what,â€ I ask, admittedly flirtatiously.
â€œSome of your appetite-sucking stress.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t need it.â€
She rolls her eyes, changing the subject. â€œLooks awful out there.â€
Sheâ€™s chewing cinnamon gum. I can actually smell it over the aroma of grilled burgers.
â€œThat would be why Iâ€™m in here.â€
And sheâ€™s not-so-subtly eyeing my dripping boots and the sopped jeans Iâ€™ve propped on a chair. I take the hint, settling my feet on the floor.
Then she asks, â€œThink Iâ€™ll get home?â€
â€œSo far, so good. I made it. On my bike at that.â€
â€œWhy on earth are you still riding that thing?â€
â€œMy truckâ€™s on its last leg. Not much good thatâ€™ll do me.â€
â€œTake it in.â€
â€œDude,â€ I say. â€œWe donâ€™t all make what you make.â€ Over my water glass, my gaze trails a twosome.
â€œShe stopped by the other night. I guess you had a late shift or something?â€
â€œIs that whoâ€™s texting you?â€
Hadley flattens a palm softly on the table and whispers, â€œYou know? Youâ€™re way too good for her.â€ Her voice is high, unassuming.
I lift my shoulders.
â€œI swear I just donâ€™t trust her.â€
If you only knew the half of it, I think.
The lady at the next table raises a finger, catching Hadleyâ€™s eye. â€œShouldnâ€™t be long,â€ she tells me. Itâ€™s not until she darts away that I realize I was distracting her from a busy shift, which is a tad embarrassing. After her quiet exchange a seat over, I watch those hips curve around the bar to enter my order.
Let me pause right here to say that the bar is wicked. Like the kind youâ€™d find at some gilded hotel or somethingâ€”carved wood and glass shelving. Iâ€™d probably eat here just for the atmosphere.
Thereâ€™s a takeout counter near the bar where a fidgety girl waits to pay and pick up, dark somber hair covering her eyes. Sheâ€™s hard to miss, like some eighties British transplant. A little Echo & The Bunnymen. A little Dr. Martens. She sports nothing now, though she canâ€™t be older than twenty.
I drop my head to thumb through messages, not because I want to but because I have to. Her last one reads, Miss you. That just angers me. Until I catch one from my professor earlier today.
A happy couple pushes in making a loud ruckus. They bring another gush of cold air in along with them, both hunched in laughter and slightly out of breath. I watch as one takes the otherâ€™s coat and hangs it. Then she pulls her own down over her wrist. They share a kiss. How cute is that?
Itâ€™s not. So I go back to my phone, which Iâ€™ve hidden under the table rim, shifting to an incoming text. I need 2 C U. Guess who?
â€œVeggie burger and sweet potato fries with a side of mayo,â€ Hadley announces, startling me for a second. I set my phone down, covering the screen. Okay, that looks suspicious but itâ€™s not meant to be. Sheâ€™ll just lecture me. She sets a tall glass of water in front of me and picks up the empty one. The water-stained coaster makes me smile. Keep Calm and Move On. How utterly appropriate.
Then Hadley puts a hand on mine for what seems an eternity. Sheâ€™s worried about me, I can tell. Itâ€™s a pleasant thought, I confess, but Iâ€™ll be damned if I look up. I feel more than a little wobbly after this fallout, and my heart thumps. I pretend not to notice, like itâ€™s nothing. I use the other hand to grab my napkin, glancing over at her gold ring. And Iâ€™m torn. Just when Iâ€™m ready to look up, she makes the decision for me, slipping her hand away.
â€œJust give me a shout if you need anything else.â€
I grab a fry, eating quickly. Iâ€™ve got to get home before the roads get too slick. I overhear my pal striking up a conversation at another table beside mine. I listen for a while, then I block it out.
Itâ€™s dark out, but the mere speed of headlights on the other side of that window tells me traffic has already slowed to a snailâ€™s pace. You know, blizzards are about the only time people drive reasonably well. For that reason, I wish storms like this would travel through these parts more often.
I scroll social media as I eat. #Snowmageddon. The general consensus: Bring it. That said, the governor has declared a state of emergency and a driving ban after midnight.
When I finish, I leave cash on the table to cover my bill plus some, make my way through a party of four, and use my body weight to shove open the heavy door. The wind cuts. Itâ€™s dropped at least ten degrees.
I use my glove to brush powder off my seat, swing a leg over, strap my helmet on. Then I weave my way into northbound traffic.
Handling a bike in the snow and slush is a feat. I focus on balance and swerve around patches left by tires and plows, taking it easy on the blacktop and keeping to the main drag where cars have already trod a pretty smooth path. My apartmentâ€™s right downtown, but five minutes from here in good weather.
I creep past the few remaining parked cars along the curb. Shopkeepers are flipping door signs from Open to Closed. Pedestrians are using mittens and hats to block wind. Two dash to their car, one in a long black coat, another wrapped to the nose in a rust-colored scarf. Holiday lights blink from trees, flashing across patches of salt-thawed pavement.
I make a spontaneous loop on a road that slants down past Ellaâ€™s bakery. You know, just to check up on it. Itâ€™s off the main drag but still humming with pedestrians. This townâ€™s relatively safe, and you can walk pretty much anywhere even at night and not be afraid in the least. I pull a stop. It looks like she closed early, which is expected. I hope she made it home okay, at least before it got too bad out here.
The townâ€™s installed a system of small blue lights that flash when thereâ€™s a parking ban. One casts a reflection on the front window signaling the impending storm, and snow continues to spit in my face. Iâ€™m not sure why I drive past here anymore. I guess itâ€™s just an old habit I really need to break.
Home is just around the bend. When I pull in, I take my usual spot in the lot right next to my door. Beside me is a half-full bike rack and a handicapped parking sign. As I cut the engine, my phone rattles in my coat pocket. Again. I roll my eyes and tap the screen mechanically, not really wanting to answer.
But itâ€™s not what I expect. Itâ€™s a text from Hadley, which hits my pulse firstâ€”then my brain.
car wont start want company?
* * *
Iâ€™m sunk in my chair watching television when I hear the feeblest knock on my door, happy that all of my appendages are thawed after kicking it weekend-style for two straight hours.
I almost hate to admit it but Iâ€™m psyched to see Hadley again. I mean, who wants to be company-less during a snowstorm? Not I. I just hope that hike wasnâ€™t too painful. In any case, I do have extra blanketsâ€”and the heatâ€™s cranked up to seventy-four.
Half self-conscious, half fidgety, I check my hair in the mirror. Then I get the door. The girlâ€™s red faced and drenched. Frost coats her specs to the point of opacity. Ice is caked on her hat and itâ€™s thick on her scarf. And thatâ€™s when guilt hits me. I shouldâ€™ve insisted, demanded she accept a ride. What does this girl have against my bike?
The least I can offer is an arm around those shoulders, which she gets. I shut the door.
â€œYou poor thing!â€ I snicker, hiding behind my hand. â€œYou shouldâ€™ve let me pick you up.â€
â€œIâ€™m not riding on that thing,â€ begins her monologue. â€œIâ€™m so afraid theyâ€™re going to tow my car.â€ She sinks in that chair, unlacing her boots, her thoughts. I stay where I am, just listening. â€œItâ€™s totally insane, I mean, I canâ€™t believe it didnâ€™t start. I just thought, why me, why now? Nobody made it in. And all night, why is everyone so angry all the time? I did my best and got atrocious tips. Iâ€™m just glad I donâ€™t do this thing full-timeâ€”you know what I mean, serving.â€
She slides one boot off. Her specs frost up again. She pinches the joints, lowering the frame to her skirt and clearing the glass before moving to the next heel.
â€œI tip well.â€
With a shrug, I make my way to the kitchen.
â€œYou do, Jess.â€ Sheâ€™s behind me, following.
â€œLetâ€™s see what Iâ€™ve got thatâ€™ll warm you up. Cocoa, coffeeâ€â€”I shove things around for a better viewâ€”â€œand chai. What do you say?â€
â€œArenâ€™t you the hostess?â€ She grins all smart-ass like, now close enough that I can take in her faded perfume. â€œTeaâ€™s delicious. Thank you for this.â€
I center that teakettle on a burner. She makes her way to the window. Though I wouldnâ€™t call it a view per se, it is pretty as a postcard right about now, icicles yanking at gutters. Trees weeping, limbs drowningâ€”even the stern and stubborn of them. She unwraps and unwinds and continues to liquefy.
â€œIâ€™m getting your floor all wet. Towels still over here?â€
â€œHall closet,â€ I say.
And the kettleâ€™s already shrieking at me. I drizzle it (steaming) into two huge mugs over bobbing bags. Iâ€™ve tied the strings around their handles. Then a spiral of spice: cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, clove. I set them on the kitchen table and pull up a chair, hers first. I motion with the milk.
â€œIâ€™m okay, I mean, just this way is fine.â€ She holds the mug with two hands, partially hidden behind it. I settle in my seat, and our eyes lock for a passing moment.
â€œIs it all right,â€ I ask.
â€œWhat, the tea? I mean, sure. Why do you ask?â€
She sounds drowsy.
â€œSo maybe we can pick up where we left off? You know, I mean, what gives?â€
I knew she wouldnâ€™t let me off easy, but still. Why does she have to harp until she gets every last detail? I slouch. â€œThings just suck.â€
â€œCare to elaborate?â€
â€œNot really.â€ I wink.
â€œI donâ€™t mean to pry, butâ€¦you two split up, didnâ€™t you?â€
â€œItâ€™s complicated.â€ I try to brush off the questions with a hasty blow on my mug.
â€œIsnâ€™t it always. But Iâ€™m usually the first to hear when things go south. It bugs me when you wall up like this.â€
None of my friends like Alicia. That shouldâ€™ve tipped me off. â€œI donâ€™t want to talk about it.â€
She peers over her mug as if to ask, What for?
I trace the seams between boards on the table. â€œShe stepped out on me.â€
â€œYou are joking.â€
â€œShe stepped out on me,â€ I repeat, frustrated. â€œA week ago. But, get this, thatâ€™s not even the best part.â€
She sits closed off yet open at the same time.
â€œShe slept with a guy.â€ I chuckle.
Then I get those eyes. That inquisitive stare. Deep. Sensitive. This girl could get secrets out of a CIA agent. She can get anything out of me.
â€œDude, you told me soâ€”go ahead and say it. The girlâ€™s straight and Iâ€™m her big experiment.â€
Aside from a hum of acknowledgment, sheâ€™s hush.
My knuckles crush my mouth. I glance outside. â€œShe doesnâ€™t even know what she wantsâ€”and the lies. Christ, the lies. This, thoughâ€¦â€ I start to recall a conversation I actually had with Alicia. â€œFuckâ€”itâ€™s nauseating.â€
â€œWhatever, itâ€™s for the best. Thatâ€™s behind me.â€
â€œSo,â€ she starts in. â€œYou back to playing the field?â€
â€œIâ€™m back to playing nothing.â€
Now Iâ€™ll get the lecture ending with, Oh come now.
â€œYouâ€™ll have three girls lined up before next weekend. You always do. Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™re texting you already. Word gets out, you know. Youâ€™re a catch, Jessie Miles.â€
My eyebrows jump. Sheâ€™s hit last name status. â€œWe all have our sins. But, no.â€ Because Iâ€™m not even going to mention my professor earlier. Sheâ€™d flip her shit.
Then she continues, â€œExactly why Iâ€™m glad we never went there. I donâ€™t like Alicia or what she did, but I tip my hat to the girls in your rearview mirror.â€
â€œBecause I want to be here. Not back with them in your history book.â€
â€œYou sound like youâ€™re trying to convince yourself.â€ I mess her hair. â€œYou look kind ofâ€¦â€ I grunt. â€œOut-of-the-shower hot like that, but here, Iâ€™ll get you a blanket. At this rate, youâ€™ll never dry.â€
In the closet, a few blankets tumble down on me. When I get back, sheâ€™s at the window again admiring the snowscape. Her mugâ€™s still frosting her specs. I flip the kitchen light off to watch as the storm takes over. Then I wrap a tartan blanket across her shoulders, leaning against the window myself until I zone out.
I feel eyes on me when she says, â€œItâ€™s pretty awesome, wouldnâ€™t you say?â€
â€œThat it is.â€
â€œHave I ever told you my blizzard story?â€
Sheâ€™s the best person to be around when I need to get out of my head. She talks and talks about anything and everything.
â€œWell, you were all intoâ€¦Who? I canâ€™t keep track. I was with April, so this was before the ceremony and we wanted to do something different for the New Year. Just the two of us. No ball drop, no Lang Syne. I booked a couple nights at this really, really sweet bed-and-breakfast.â€ And then she turns. â€œIs it okay to talk about her, you know, like this?â€
â€œOf course. Why not?â€
â€œI donâ€™t miss her or anything. Just for the record. I want to remember the positive, donâ€™t you think?â€
â€œSo we had three nights on the slopes. Night boarding under the stars. Itâ€™s incredible. Youâ€™ve never really lived until youâ€™ve night boarded in Stowe.â€
Iâ€™m thinking I have to do this one day.
Then she says, â€œMaybe you and I could do that. You know, one day.â€
Weâ€™ve got a lengthy bucket list by now, and it keeps getting longer. The French Riviera and Notre Dame and Versailles, thatâ€™s hers. Vatican City, thatâ€™s hers as well. I only seem to remember hers.
â€œNot there, though. Somewhere better,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™ll take you somewhere way nicer.â€
â€œIâ€™ll hold you to that.â€
Thatâ€™s a pretty nice smile I get.
â€œSo, you know me, I made reservations months and months ahead of time. Still, you never really know. Sometimes we donâ€™t get a flake by then.â€ She takes a drink, speaking as she swallows. â€œNext thing you know, this fantastic storm rolls in. You must remember. You got it down here. So like this.â€
â€œYeah, yeah, I was house-sitting for you, right? That morning, damn, I wasnâ€™t feeling too hot.â€
Her expression is more than mildly critical.
â€œSomebody made martinis, strong ones. I canâ€™t remember who.â€
â€œDude, it was New Yearâ€™s. Sorry, go ahead.â€
â€œOkay so we couldnâ€™t leave. Nobody could. The innkeepers just let us all stay two more nights. That probably happens a lot up there, right? But, anyway, we had nothing to do. So we all hung out in this common roomâ€”me and April with four other couples. Playing board games. Charades.â€
â€œYou rock at charades.â€
â€œI kind of do. So there we were, a room full of strangers stuck at this inn. And youâ€™d think weâ€™d all go mad. But we didnâ€™t. It was really cool. We just talked and listened and talked. And some of the stuff that came outâ€¦You look at folks every day and you never really know what theyâ€™ve gone through or what theyâ€™re thinking. Who they are. Youâ€™re too busy living. Why does it take some sort of disaster to slow us down like thatâ€”to look at each other?â€ She wonâ€™t turn away. She wants an answer. â€œI mean really look at each other.â€
I think about that for a millisecond, grateful sheâ€™s here for me tonight. She eventually turns back to the window. â€œI hear you,â€ I say. Her cupâ€™s empty. Iâ€™m about to take it and mine back to the kitchen when I hear a knock. She looks to me like I should know who this is.
â€œMaybe a neighbor needs help,â€ I say. â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ We donâ€™t get it right away, like maybe it was the wind or something.
Then comes another but, this time, a heck of a lot brasher. I sense her next to me as I make my way to the door.
â€œWho is it?â€ I want to know.
â€œItâ€™s me.â€ The voice is muffled, but I recognize it along with Aliciaâ€™s distorted features peering through the peephole. Shit.
I unlatch the bolt, and Hadley ducks to the dining room. I hang my head out the narrow opening. â€œWhat are you doing here?â€
â€œI was worried. I kept texting. Did you get them?â€
â€œWhy didnâ€™t you respond?â€
I think that answer is obvious. Still, Iâ€™m struck because, mercy, why does she have to have the most erotic voice ever, and Iâ€™m hearing it again, which is so different than a cold text on a screen. It drives me sort ofâ€¦I donâ€™t know, and she knows that. Smooth. Southern. As if she just lit her cigarette afterward.
â€œIâ€™ve been busy,â€ I lie.
â€œI havenâ€™t seen you.â€
â€œIâ€™m on mornings.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t wake you, did I?â€
Snow blows in through the door. Sheâ€™s shivering.
â€œWhatâ€™s with the questions?â€ Post-breakup conversations are so much easier by text.
â€œItâ€™s just thatâ€”it was dark. Your lights are out. Can I come in?â€ Sheâ€™s reaching for my fingers, which are curled around the door. But her face hardens when dishes drop in the sink.
â€œI kind of, wellâ€¦â€ Before I can think, my coatâ€™s on and Iâ€™m heading out in unlaced boots.
â€œThat was quick.â€
â€œWhat are you talking about?â€ I figure whispering will shroud this drama from the neighbors. â€œCan you please keep it down?â€
â€œWho is she?â€
â€œYou stepped out on me. Not vice versa. Youâ€™re not in a good position to be asking these questions.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t even understand.â€ Why is she touching my cheek? Maybe Iâ€™m just reading into this. â€œJessâ€¦I miss this.â€ Iâ€™m listening until it dawns on me that her words are slick as can be. â€œHow do I say Iâ€™m sorry? I know Iâ€™ve said this ad nauseam. I wish you could physically feel this remorse.â€ She wets her lips, guiding my bare hand behind her coat. â€œI canâ€™t breathe without you.â€ Nor can I, but Iâ€™m not about to bend.
â€œWhy are you doing this?â€ I ask.
â€œWhy are you? Why canâ€™t you believe me? That wasnâ€™t meâ€”it wasnâ€™t.â€
I hurt. And Iâ€™m starting to buckle, which is why Iâ€™m getting pissed. â€œHere you go. You fuck someone and regret it. Thereâ€™s your closure.â€ Iâ€™m about ready to lose it. â€œHead home. Get somewhere safe.â€
Still her eyes wonâ€™t let go and theyâ€™re welling up. â€œI didnâ€™t mean it.â€
â€œI know. Whatâ€™s done is done.â€ Iâ€™m relieved to sound semiconvincing, yet admittedly, Iâ€™m losing courage. â€œThat sort of thing, it canâ€™t be undone. You do know that, right?â€
And while we stop speaking in words, weâ€™re still having a conversation. Sheâ€™s saying, Remember? I button her coat, and I am remembering. I purse my lips, searching for that anger. Sheâ€™s saying, Let me in. And I want her just the same. Her hair glides between my knuckles. Iâ€™m saying, No, I canâ€™t. Her chin falls. We find our voices again.
â€œWhyâ€™d you go home with him?â€ And thereâ€™s that sting in my eye. â€œYou didnâ€™t think that would hurt me?â€
â€œI canâ€™t say what I was thinking. I wasâ€”â€
â€œNo, wait, I donâ€™t want to know.â€
â€œI really, really donâ€™t want to know.â€ Her cheeks look raw. Her eyes glisten. I wipe her tears off with one singular index finger. And I enjoy it. I like seeing her this way. I want to hurt her more. I want to dig into my arsenal of donâ€™t go theres. But Iâ€™m frightened by that side of meâ€”the side that wants to break her down to the ground until she grovels.
So I just say, â€œItâ€™s freezing,â€ and find that my tone is alas indifferent. â€œYouâ€™d better get off the streets before you canâ€™t. Isnâ€™t this your shift? What time is it?â€
She says nothing. I walk her toward the parking lot. We pause. She kisses my cheek. Itâ€™s a good-bye; it feels it. Then she turns, walking into the storm. And she gets smaller and more hidden in the darkness. It feels colder. My rage whips away in a gush. I feel deserted.
I donâ€™t go in right off. Instead, I watch as she makes that curve and vanishes, hair tangled in a twirl of flakes.
When I do make my way back, Iâ€™m greeted at the door. Itâ€™s a long, needy hug.
â€œAre you okay?â€
â€œIâ€™m fine,â€ I lie as I step out of my boots.
â€œI made you another cup of tea, chamomile. Here, have my blanket.â€ And she drapes it over my shoulder the way I did for her before. Her eyes are prying again. Theyâ€™re asking questions, but they donâ€™t push. We settle into the couch, and I scoot down to rest my head on her shoulder. She knows what just happened, and sheâ€™ll be the first to hear when I need to talk. But that wonâ€™t be tonight. Right now, we can just enjoy this silent cup of tea together.
* * *
I canâ€™t place this. â€œJessie. Jessie.â€
â€œJessie, the powerâ€™s out. The whole place is pitch.â€
I bolt up, still in bed and still in a fog. â€œHuh? Are you serious?â€
â€œNot really. I needed an excuse to slide into bed with you,â€ Hadley says. â€œOf course Iâ€™m serious.â€ But thereâ€™s a lag between her words hitting my ear and the time it takes to actually register with my brain.
I get out of bedâ€”a warm bed, a comfortable bedâ€”and I dog-ear the flannel behind me. A rush of cold jets up my pants and straight down my neck. Damn, I think. I was actually having a pretty good dream there. Canâ€™t I just go back into that?
But Iâ€™m wide awake the second I flip a switch up, as in on, and nothing happens. Iâ€™ve lived here for eight years, and Iâ€™ve never, ever lost power. Iâ€™m not even the least bit prepared for this.
I stretch my hands out sightless, finding that familiar door frame and then the front room. It never dawned on me how much light shines in from outsideâ€”until itâ€™s gone. I see Hadleyâ€™s silhouette against the window burritoed in a thick blanket she pulled from her makeshift bed on the couch, which is unmade. I make my way over.
â€œThe refrigerator stopped humming,â€ she says, brushing the hair off her forehead. â€œThatâ€™s what woke me. It doesnâ€™t look like anyone else is up.â€
â€œWhat should we do?â€ I ask dumbfounded.
â€œDonâ€™t look at me.â€
Then a memory hits, one of those dÃ©jÃ vu things. â€œRemember way back whenâ€”â€
â€œWhen you tripped the power off and freaked out because you thought you broke the house?â€
â€œYeah!â€ I chuckle. â€œYou were over at my parentsâ€™ houseâ€”just like thisâ€”â€
â€œWe had the whole humungous house to ourselves. They went away, right?â€
â€œThat was awesome,â€ I say with a nudge.
This was the era of slick new technology called CDs that played Dave Matthews and Nirvana. Itâ€™s when plastic handle bags at the grocery store were new and novel and not yet the environmental disaster they are today. Movies were just beginning to be affordable for purchase on VHS, so everyone wanted a home movie library, including me. And computers were at someone elseâ€™s house. Not your own. And we all wore bobs.
â€œYou built a bonfire,â€ she says with a far-off look.
â€œI did.â€ Iâ€™m a lumberjack, what can I say? Just hand me an ax and call me Paul Bunyan. I did wear flannel, and I do remember feeling rather rugged and scout-like when that flame sparked, even though that bonfire was a hibachi with grates removed. Hardly rugged. She didnâ€™t have to know that I had absolutely no confidence in myself up until the moment that orange flame lit. In reality, I went through two packs of matches as she wandered the yard gathering bits of sticks that had fallen from trees.
I wink at her rather smugly. â€œYou were impressed.â€ Her cheeks flush. I love toying with her.
â€œWhat, with your culinary finesse? We ate sâ€™mores for dinner.â€
â€œWe did. And you loved them, donâ€™t lie. All chocolaty and marshmallow gooey.â€
â€œI was sixteen.â€
â€œWas it really that long ago?â€
â€œWe were really young.â€
â€œI was still a virgin.â€
She laughs through her nose. â€œThat canâ€™t be right. I didnâ€™t even know you when you were five.â€
â€œThat was the best night, ever,â€ she says with a shoulder bump.
â€œWhat, losing powerâ€¦breaking the house?â€
â€œNo, we sat up in front of that bonfire and played truth or dare.â€
I chuckle. â€œYeah, the dangers of truth or dare.â€
â€œCome on. I told you too much that night. And that rainbow sunset. Remember?â€ I do remember that sunset. Fiery red melting orange, dissolving teal, smudging indigo. The air was wet, the kind that curls your hair. â€œAll those fireflies. You got that humungous bedspread out and we found the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper.â€ A smile curls up her cheeks as I duck under our blanket. â€œYou know,â€ she says, â€œif I could point to one moment when our friendship began, it was that night.â€
â€œYou could say that.â€ Iâ€™m not sure what came into me that night. As I recall, I think I tried to make a move on her. You know how it is when youâ€™re a teenager. Parents being gone is the best thing ever. Add an illicit sleepover with a hot girl and youâ€™re golden. And truth or dare got a lot out of her. One, that she liked girls, and two, she was sort of into me. Sort of, she told me with air quotes.
â€œAnd even when crazy bad shit happens in our lives, we still pull each other through. To this day. Thatâ€™s kind of cool.â€
I can see my pajama top peeking out from under the blanket along with a wee bit of cleavage. Hadleyâ€™s blessed in that department. I am not. Her wet clothes are hanging in my shower, and Iâ€™m pretty sure theyâ€™ll stay damp without that heat going. Whatever. Sheâ€™ll look way sexy in my clothes tomorrow. With her bedhead right now, she kind of looks like we just did the deed. I raise my eyebrows at the thought.
â€œNothing,â€ I lie. â€œListen, we canâ€™t just sit in the dark. Itâ€™ll get colder. I can actually see my breath. We need to call someone. See whatâ€™s up.â€
She shuffles to find her phone.
Thatâ€™s when I catch a flashlight moving around from room to room in the apartment across the way. Then one flashlight splits into two. And those beams bobble their way window to window. Itâ€™s pretty hilarious.
The snowâ€™s still intense. There were benches, but now those are buried, and taking a wild guess, Iâ€™d say we have about two feet.
â€œWhatâ€™s this, you rearranged?â€ Hadley asks, breaking me out of my drowsy voyeurism. â€œWhereâ€™s the phone book?â€ When I turn, sheâ€™s carrying her phone like our own flashlight.
â€œIn the kitchen drawer.â€ I hobble toward it. Under a box of envelopes, some click pens, a random loose cap, my wallet, and car keys, I find that thick bound yellow book. Do people use these, still? I use Google. I drop it on the counter with a thump and start flipping thin sheets of newsprint. Meanwhile sheâ€™s sparking her lighter inside a few pillar candles and carries one over to help me read, careful not to drain her phone battery.
â€œDonâ€™t tip it. The waxâ€™ll spill.â€
She leans in and Iâ€™m reminded again of how busty this girl is, pressed against my arm. For a second, I forget itâ€™s Hadley and get a little worked up.
â€œRheâ€¦Tsâ€¦W. Hereâ€™s W, and hereâ€™s the number.â€ She recites the digits, sliding a perfectly manicured nail down this shadowed page to bolded letters. I listen as her phone beeps with every number. A ring. â€œOutage,â€ she says, rolling her eyes. â€œReport an outage.â€
I get a fake smile before she presses that tiny receiver against my ear.
â€œWhy me?â€ I protest.
â€œItâ€™s your apartment.â€
I have no time to think before hearing the dreaded recording.
Sheâ€™s still pressed against me, and it takes more than a little effort just to focus on what the heck Iâ€™m supposed to do. I click through a string of options, choosing two then four then finally reporting the outage.
When I end the call, Hadleyâ€™s stare is more than a little nervous. â€œThis night canâ€™t get any weirder. First my car. Then your ex. Now this.â€
â€œAlicia showing up. Yeah.â€ I laugh. â€œIâ€™m glad you were here.â€
â€œWhy? Isnâ€™t that obvious?â€
She shakes her head.
â€œFor starters, youâ€™re an excuse to come back in.â€ I tip my eyebrow. â€œPlus youâ€™re my rock. You know that.â€
â€œAw, Jess. Look at you. Youâ€™re getting all sappy on me.â€
â€œSap Iâ€™m not. I justâ€¦I appreciate you, thatâ€™s all. You know.â€
We share a long comfortable pause, frozen with the same corny grins. Then she lets her head tip back as if unsure of her next move, which is when it dawns on me that itâ€™s kind of hot, her head tilted back like that. So when sheâ€™s not looking, I find my eyes dawdling down to her shirt again and I linger a little too long. Thatâ€™s when I sort of forget where I am and zone out.
When I look back up, sheâ€™s looking right at me. Which is why I dart my eyes away so quickly, but not before a dash of apprehension settles in the pit of my stomach.
Itâ€™s too dark, I tell myself. She didnâ€™t see.
â€œOn the topic of Alicia, can I just say I donâ€™t care who did what to whom. Do whatâ€™s right for you. Butâ€¦â€ She pauses.
I motion her to continue.
â€œWell, do you realize that something sabotages every relationship you ever have, and it always happens when you give a shit about them? The only exception being Ella.â€
If words could physically pierce my heart, the last one did. Donâ€™t even go there.
â€œAnd now with Alicia. Somethingâ€™s seriously messed up with that. I love you. But.â€
â€œSo this is my fault?â€
â€œI feel bad for her.â€
â€œWhy would you say that?â€
â€œShe wants you back.â€
â€œShe canâ€™t have me back.â€
Her eyes roll.
â€œWhy would you want me with her?â€
â€œIâ€™m not saying you should go back to her,â€ she tells me.
â€œThen what are you saying?â€
â€œIâ€™m just wondering.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Like, if youâ€™re afraid of commitment or something.â€
â€œNo,â€ I answer. She gives me her donâ€™t-mess-with-me face. â€œNo, Iâ€™m not afraid of commitment.â€
â€œIf youâ€™re over Ella.â€
â€œWhoa, whereâ€™d that come from?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Are you?â€
â€œOf course I am.â€
â€œSometimes I wonder.â€
Why is she so angry all of a sudden? Iâ€™m not quite following. This is a topic we donâ€™t speak of. What couldâ€™ve come of Ella and me had I notâ€”okay, had I not been such a commitment-phobe. Full disclosure, maybe I used to be. Maybe I fucked up there. Maybe if I hadnâ€™t, this might be our anniversary.
Do I care that sheâ€™s celebrating her anniversary this weekend? No. Ellaâ€™s an old habit. Weâ€™ve changed. That simply will never be again, even if we both wanted it. Which we donâ€™t.
I walk over to my couch and her bed of blankets topped with two pillows. Iâ€™m not going to spend the evening fighting with my best friend. Thatâ€™s for sure. Besides weâ€™re stuck together all night, like it or not. So we might as well get along.
I sit smack dab in the middle of her makeshift bed, kick my heels up (stocking-footed), and pat the couch beside me. â€œCâ€™mon,â€ I say, gesturing her over. â€œLetâ€™s make up.â€
She makes her way to my couch. â€œI guess the only way weâ€™re going to stay warm is bundling up,â€ she says as if surrendering. Then she binds herself using two hands to secure the top of that blanket. When she does, I think back at being caught peering down her shirt and have to wonder if sheâ€™s doing this deliberately to block my inappropriate view. Once she sits next to me, I prop my arm around her and yank her stubborn self to my chest. And here come those nerves again.
â€œGimme some of that, stingy,â€ I tell her with a tug. She breaks out of burrito mode and offers me a wee corner, which I graciously accept. Sheâ€™s never been the generous type, so I take what I can get. When I do, she reclines against me. I inhale and itâ€™s my shampoo. In the silence, a muffled whop of snow hits the ground.
I sit in this, the here and now, the faraway look in her eyes, the sleepy sultriness of her voice. But with some angst. With her body pressed against mine, I try to recall a time in my life when Iâ€™ve ever felt this much love unconditionally toward another human being, and I canâ€™t.
I hear her swallow. The building settles, and more snow crashes to the ground. Soon the moment passes and my drowsiness takes over. My body begins to collapse.
â€œLook. We canâ€™t sleep here,â€ I say. â€œWe can share my bed. But donâ€™t get any ideas.â€
â€œKeep flattering yourself.â€ Her hand rests on my knee.
At the count of three, we rise in unison, huddled and waddling clumsily to the bed giggling as if we were still sixteen.
Iâ€™m feeling more than a little something here. I donâ€™t think she actually thinks of me that wayâ€”at least not since that fated bonfire a good twenty years ago.
In bed, Iâ€™m tempted to reach over to her side and see where my hand might land. On a hip? Down the slope of her waist? Damn, I want to touch her skin, her lips, those curves that fill out my pajama top better than I ever could. If I did, though, then what?
â€œAre you awake?â€ That voice of hers jars me, and I drown in shame as if she heard my thoughts.
â€œYeah. I canâ€™t sleep. Itâ€™s too quiet.â€ A sleepy stillness envelopes us.
â€œMe either.â€ Itâ€™s an unnatural silence. â€œI was just thinking. Andâ€¦well. I wanted to say thank you.â€
â€œThank you? For what?â€ I ask.
â€œFor always being here for me, like even now when my car breaks down. I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™d do without you. Thanks for letting me crash here.â€
I roll over, but her backâ€™s to me. Then I put my hand on her shoulder. In my world, sheâ€™s here for me tonight. Sheâ€™s always here for me.
And I tell her just that. â€œIâ€™m the basket case. Youâ€™re doing me a favor.â€
Weak willed, I push my luck and scoot in, pressing up tight against those curves of hers and reaching my arm around the nook of her waist. She doesnâ€™t even flinch. Instead, she takes my hand in hers on the other side. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever actually held her hand. I feel her from my chest to my hips and knees, making it excruciating to resist going farther. Molding against her, I effectively eradicate any chance of falling asleep. But I wonâ€™t push it. I need to work through this, whatever it is.
â€œYouâ€™re such a tease,â€ she tells me.
If she only knew. â€œRight now, youâ€™re the only heater Iâ€™ve got. So donâ€™t go getting any ideas.â€ I grin at my little white lie.
Then I hear, â€œLove you, babe.â€
â€œLove you, too,â€ I say. â€œSweet dreams.â€
Chapter Two: Ella and Sam
This weekend was supposed to be epic. Like the first time I, along with hundreds of other bare-legged women, saw Melissa Ferrick play at Boston Pride. Or that time Ella stopped at that red, got out, and kissed me through the car windowâ€”right in the middle of that intersection.
I need that kind of epic.
Ella planned a modest celebration with a few of our good friends. A nice dinner. A couple glasses of cabernet sauvignon. And the kind of hilarity that only happens among those treasured few. Your confidants. Your compadres.
But things donâ€™t always happen as planned.
Which would be why Iâ€™m here at Whole Foods, wheeling past beat-up wooden crates filled with locally grown organic produce.
Because tonight marks the arrival of our first snowstorm of the season. And itâ€™s not just any old blizzard. Itâ€™s a norâ€™easter that has kept our meteorologists teenage-girl giddy for at least a week now. And this right here would be the closest grocer I could duck into on my way home from work.
I do enjoy blizzards. I mean, theyâ€™re par for the course for anyone who chooses to live in New England. But the unfortunate aspect of this particular storm is that it just so happens to collide into our five-year wedding anniversary.
So instead of relishing in romance this snowy anniversary eve, which is what we should be doing, itâ€™s been a mad dash, with lines backed up at every gas station, convenience store, and liquor store in town. Folks are scooping up potato chips and brownie mix and dog kibble so even their Jack Russell terrier has a full belly should we actually get snowed in for days on end, which is what theyâ€™re predicting.
Itâ€™ll be epic all right. Just not the kind Iâ€™d imagined.
Which brings me to where I stand right now, staring at the bulk bins under warm ambient lighting, immersed in the scents of spices and whole bean coffees on a day that repels and bonds total strangers who cross paths as they struggle to choose between dried mangos or apple rings.
I guess you could say that I fall hook, line, and sinker for all of that hype because I, too, am filling up this miniature cart with enough food to feed our family of two for weeks. Because that crushing snow could bury us. Or we could lose power. It has been known to occur. And if nothing catastrophic happens, no harmâ€™s done.
Besides, I figure as much as this storm would like to crush my weekend, as much as everything would, I still have tonight. And Iâ€™ve made some plans in that regard as well, plans that involve this little bottle of bubbly right here. So the sooner I get home, the better off Iâ€™ll be.
Which is why I push forward, determined. Solid 72 percent dark chocolate because, after this week, I deserve it. Smoked whitefish salad to help her recall that summer sunshine. And then I catch baby blue scrubs peeking out from under an unbuttoned navy pea coat with that silver woven basket dangling across a forearm. Of course Alicia has to be here. Just look at her, mindlessly thumbing her phone. Iâ€™m just thankful sheâ€™s preoccupied, for now at least, and didnâ€™t see my eye roll.
One day, just once before I leave this planet, Iâ€™d like to grocery shop without running into someone I know. This is why I buy tampons elsewhere. Not that it would matter if Alicia knew we bought tampons. She probably does as well.
And the closer I get, the clearer I see her more disheveled than usual appearance. In fact, she looks downright sleep deprived and dejected, the poor thing, and that alone tugs at my heart.
I cut off a cart inadvertently as I toss a polite greeting her way, but her eyes donâ€™t break from that gadget. So I follow up with a clumsy elbow nudge followed by a â€œHey,â€ which she notices, happy-exhausted and impishly cordial, turning to me with a swing of thick hair that billows from under that dark hat.
And she starts the conversation, slipping her phone in her coat pocket. â€œYouâ€™re storm-shopping, too, I see.â€
â€œThat I am.â€
â€œIâ€™m just picking up essentials before heading in,â€ she tells me.
I scan the contents of her basket. A bundle of kale. A box of frozen shrimp. A bag of trail mix. Cotton balls? â€œThat moment you realize a stormâ€™s heading in and your nail polish is chipped?â€
â€œLooks to me like youâ€™re living on champagne and chocolate. That lucky girl. Where are the flowers?â€
â€œOh shit! Thank you!â€
She has a vulnerable smile. â€œAnytime.â€
â€œSo theyâ€™re forecasting, what, a foot? More?â€ I ask.
â€œAnd hospitals never close,â€ she tells me. â€œSo a lot of accidents and highly pissed-off people.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know how you do it,â€ I say, parking my cart along the refrigerated wall of milk, goat and cow, non-fat and whole, strawberry, lactose free. I shiver, resting a forearm on the cartâ€™s handle.
â€œYou get used to it,â€ I hear as I dodge wheels and arms. â€œI love going in, gets me away from myself, you know. Iâ€™d rather listen to their gripes than think about my own.â€
Her eyes are pink, but even that canâ€™t diminish those goddess-like features. Not just the angle of her eyes but fingers that go on and on. Unapproachable if I didnâ€™t know her already. Aliciaâ€™s one of the lucky few whoâ€™ve made out in the gene pool. Albeit not as lucky as my own wife, who Iâ€™d love to get home to. But I digress.
I hear her ask, â€œStill meeting up Sunday?â€
â€œOf course,â€ I say. â€œWeâ€™re expecting you two.â€
She reminds me of a curious child the way she cocks her head, peering at other shoppers as if to stall. Which makes me want to say something, but I donâ€™t. I just watch her eyes think. Her hair and those fingers. The way these jewelry lights drop shadows across the angles of her face. Sheâ€™s lovely, even with worried eyes.
And thatâ€™s when I hear the sound of rejection as leisurely as thick amber honey down a dipper. â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ I canâ€™t figure out if Iâ€™m disappointed or relieved. I wonâ€™t miss Jessie. Still itâ€™s not like we have an abundance of replacement friends. â€œI donâ€™t know. Iâ€™m still trying to figure it all out. Maybe I can ask you something?â€ Then she wants to know if Iâ€™ve heard from her girlfriend.
â€œElla has in the past few days. Today, no.â€ But since she wonâ€™t look at me, I canâ€™t exactly read her. â€œWhy?â€
â€œIâ€™ve texted a few times. She was upset and, you know, feeling likeâ€¦Look, you never know how someoneâ€™s going to react. At some point in our lives, we just get ourselves into situations.â€ She chuckles, nervously. â€œShe was upset. Upset with me. And she just isnâ€™t responding anymore.â€
â€œYes,â€ I hear.
She tucks her chin. Even as I rest my palm on her shoulder, she wonâ€™t look up. Most people would, look up that is. And I have an inkling Iâ€™m thinking what sheâ€™s thinking and sheâ€™s thinking what Iâ€™m thinking, so I attempt to console. â€œAliciaâ€”â€
â€œNo, donâ€™t make me out to be the victim here. Iâ€™m not.â€
â€œI find that hard to believe.â€
â€œWell, believe it.â€
This is the beginning of another end. And how am I supposed to gently inform this girl that she needs to move on, that Jessieâ€™s not the one? I canâ€™t. Besides, I resent being put in this position in the first place.
â€œExcuse me, maâ€™am.â€ Iâ€™m blocking the aisle. â€œCan I just grab a carton ofâ€”â€
â€œHey, yeah, yeah,â€ I say. â€œSorry about that.â€
I donâ€™t even know if I want to get involved in this. Do I have a choice at this point? As we make our way toward the yogurt, I utter under my breath, â€œCan I askâ€”â€
She starts to read a label on some strawberry lactose-free yogurt tub. Then she puts three in her basket.
â€œItâ€™s Jessie, you know? She can beâ€¦sheâ€™s stubborn.â€ Her eyes search mine for answers.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t know.â€
â€œMaybe if I corner her. I could do that, swing by her place later.â€
â€œYou could do that.â€ My voice sounds compassionate enough, but I follow with a shrug and half smile just in case she needs some added reassurance. I do get the start of a smile back. â€œBut, listen, stay off the roads if it gets worse out, okay? Promise me that.â€
She all but assures me, though not verbally, and Iâ€™m relieved to say our good-byes and carry on, soon putting their problems on the shelf and redirecting my thoughts back to my life, my wife, my weekend. And I seize the last two remaining jugs of water.
My cart fills up with rosemary crackers then breakfast bars, a pint of my wifeâ€™s favorite ice cream. And, yes, a bouquet of flowers. I pass the meat counter, now swarming with a flurry of folks shouting at two white-coated staffers who slice and wrap and price-up packs of free-range chicken and grass-fed ground beef.
And in time I find myself staring blankly at floor-to-ceiling shelves of olive oil pretending to read a label. Gravity drains me. What is it with this week? I catch a gentleman peering, well-dressed, his glasses all but dangling off the tip of his nose. Everything about him screams Ivy League education. I nod and smile as I roll past empty-handed.
And I head to the checkout counter, where the guy just ahead refuses to place a bar behind his stuff.
I can hear the chill whistle past the automatic doors. Carts clank over rugs and crash into neat rows. I catch Alicia pushing on out and into it, waving before parted doors seal her exit. I take in the fragrance of patchouli and ready-made cafÃ© meals.
And I wait, eavesdropping on small talk and glancing outside occasionally at the drifting flurries that circle the lot. My items beep, hit the second belt, and one by one I place each packed bag into my cart.
Four bags and nearly two hundred and fifty dollars later, I, too, shove off into bitter whipping wind. Behind me, thin lines form a trail through the parking lot already layered in slush. It takes some muscle to ram the cart toward the car. But I need to get home to Ella. She should be home by now. And when I take too long, she freaks out.
* * *
Sam should be home with the groceries by now. She wanted to pick up a dozen eggs, a loaf of sourdough bread, fettuccini, and whatever else she needs for the next few days. Shouldnâ€™t be much.
She left work early to beat the storm, but now I question whether she shouldâ€™ve done so and if it mightâ€™ve been safer just to order a pizza for takeout instead. That is, if our favorite pizzeriaâ€™s open, which is doubtful.
I tie my boots and realize that this house is finally starting to feel like us. Even that eau-de-previous-home-owner is dissipating thanks to the earthy scent of woodstove. It gives off the fragrance of warmth and home-sweet-home this frigid evening.
In fact, it almost pains me to head out into the great outdoors to lug yet another batch of wood from the barn. The snowâ€™s drifting slowly but steadily, and a scattering of imprints follow along my path.
I push back a craggy branch heavy with snow and scratching the barn walls. Between that and this hissing wind, it sounds downright eerie, which makes me a little reluctant to be alone out here. Or maybe Iâ€™m just being ridiculous.
Thereâ€™s a hint of crisp and thick smoke in the air as strong as an old manâ€™s pipe. It takes me back to the day I met Sam, before I had my act together. When I was stuck in white-collar quicksand and weighted down with a useless degree and constantly complaining. When I was with Jessie, or sort of. Go back to school, Red. Hang a shingle. Youâ€™ll make a killing. Jessie, the eye candy relationship that always sours.
But she has a way of wearing you down, which is why I packed my bags and headed for Vermont. In a few short years, Iâ€™d have my degree in baking and pastry arts.
As far as trusting that our relationship would survive the distance, call me naÃ¯ve but I did. Thatâ€™s how love is. At least, thatâ€™s what chick flicks told me, and I believed them. I wanted that crazy reunion on the train platform like every other girl.
And in the interim, just for a few short years, Jessie and I would be apart physically and our phones would have to replace our hands, our entire relationship. I thought itâ€™d be fun, and so did she.
Jessie: Why donâ€™t you tell me a hypothetical?
Me: Whatâ€™d you have in mind?
It was interesting at first. I played along.
Jessie: Hypothetically, letâ€™s say, Iâ€™m a student and walk into class on the first day.
Me: You in a culinary class?
She and I both cracked up.
Jessie: Humor me.
Me: Well that would make it awfully hard to focus. We may need to practice after class.
Jessie: We could arrange that.
I was seeing a new side of her. I donâ€™t know why, but it felt bolder to talk about what weâ€™d do than actually do it.
When are you free?
How about evenings? Could you make that?
And it was always some sort of story weâ€™d narrate. Sometimes sheâ€™d start. Sometimes I would.
Being all alone with you in that empty class like that. Iâ€™m warning you: Iâ€™ll haveâ€¦thoughts.
Iâ€™m imagining thereâ€™s some sort of countertop in the room.
And Iâ€™ll want to give you hands-on tutoring. Maybe stand behind you and dip a spoon in some pastry concoction you made, and Iâ€™ll hold it out for a taste.
It was hard not to laugh sometimes.
Needs a bit moreâ€¦honey.
And thatâ€™s pretty much how it always went. I worshipped her and what she did to me.
Iâ€™ll need to try tooâ€¦and Iâ€™m not a fan of spoons myself. Maybe we could be a bit more, I donâ€™t know, creative?
I worshipped her, all right. I needed her. Until she dumped me. And then I wished Iâ€™d never met her.
I worked crappy catering jobs on the weekendâ€”mostly weddingsâ€”to pay the bills. And one day that autumn, there was this reception on the lake. A small wedding cruise. There were a few email exchanges with the coordinator, but we had not met face-to-face. I arrived early at the dock and sat on a bench, mustering up the mental fortitude to smile all evening though my heart was crushed to bits. The other side of the lake burst with maple leaves in peak oranges and rusty reds and yellows dancing in the breeze atop white birch bark. And there was a crispness in the air.
The same hint of burning thatâ€™s in the air right now, as I crash an armful of logs down heavy onto a steel rack in our three-season porch. The screen slams behind me. Under my sole, a nick in the white floor paint. Through the window, a cardinalâ€™s taking shelter in a pine tree tugged by snow and cones.
But there was no snow that dayâ€”just smoky air. The wedding party drove up, chauffeured in a string of Bentleys, all sparkling and freshly washed. The final one rolled up wrapped in streamers and shadowed by a cameraman. I glanced over, more focused on work than anything, and thatâ€™s when I saw that smile emerge. That perfect fauxhawk. There was a veil alongside and a billowing dress gushing for the photographer who crawled on his knees to get the shot.
I was in a trance. She was the event coordinator extraordinaire. Do this. Put that there. My cheeks grew warm as I connected this face with our emails. So self-assured. Centering vases. Counting silverware. One would think she was a professional wedding planner. But she was just the groomâ€™s sister.
And she had it together. I did not. I was still devastated.
As the sun set, and as I paused to marvel at so many reflective colors floating on the lake, a voice called my name with an uptick of curiosity. â€œElla? Weâ€™re going to put that right over here.â€ She put her palm on my shoulder, and my heart fluttered.
In fact, it made me so nervous that I nearly dropped the second layer of cakeâ€”a masterpiece that took hours to mix and bake and frost.
â€œLet me show you the cake table.â€ She grinned.
Sure, I thought, please show me whatever. And my name just rolled off her tongue as if weâ€™d known each other already, her voice low enough to command respect but softened with a tone of indisputable femininity. â€œThat looks perfect,â€ she said forefinger to lip, backing up to scrutinize placement. I inhaled deeply, enjoying the air dense with the scent of October.
As she drew closer to me, though, it was her fragrance that drew me in.
â€œThe cake looks amazing. And based on what my brother says about your pastries, Iâ€™m sure it tastes even better than it looks.â€ She winked at me and then lowered her head to comb her fingers through that thick hair of hers. I mirrored her smile as water crashed against the side of the boat and a fine mist cascaded over the railing.
And after that extremely fleeting moment we had, I lost her to a restless florist carrying armfuls of burlap-wrapped flowers. Where do you need these, honey?
From what my brother tells me, I thought. What else did she know about me? What did I tell him? I tried to recall everything.
As the night progressed, the volume rose. I served, still giddy from our encounter. â€œLemon pavlova?â€ Is she single? â€œCake pop?â€
The sky quite literally glowed that night as it shone down on the water, decorating waves in an enchanting shade of blue. The sun set without a fuss, and the flashlight of a moon beamed curiously from behind crinkled branches along the horizon. It hung low that night, but vivid.
Later, I caught her leaning against the railing looking down at the lake now sparkling like liquid glitter. She was far from that gregarious woman I met earlier. She was spent. I stood back watching for a while and basking in the sceneryâ€”and her silhouetted strength. There was a muted calm on deck paired with the sound of crashing waves. I wanted to curl my arms around her. Take care of her. I feared someone would whisk her away again, or worse that I might look like a stalker. So I broke the ice, asking but more joking, â€œCake pop?â€
She turned to my voice. â€œIâ€™d love one.â€ Her eyes sparkled when she smiled.
â€œYou must be exhausted.â€
â€œAm I! My feet are throbbing. Can you believe that? I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve spent a full six hours straight on my feet in decades. But itâ€™s worth it, you know, to see his face in there.â€
â€œItâ€™sâ€¦amazing. Very well planned.â€
â€œI tell you. My now sister-in-law in there, she insisted on having her reception at a facility. Thatâ€™s so cold, donâ€™t you think? You know, those banquet halls at hotels and conference centers? But I kept harping. Invite just a few of your closest and dearest friends and go all out on the little things. The cars, the flowersâ€¦and you. Catering. Something really nice. Not a large sterile hall with metal folding chairs and colored paper taped across tables. She ultimately, thankfully, gave in, and Iâ€™m glad she did. This turned out great. I mean, sheâ€™s got to be the most romantically challenged woman Iâ€™ve ever met,â€ she tells me, taking a bite out of her cake pop. â€œAnd my brotherâ€™s no Romeo. Theyâ€™re made for each other. But this turned out great.â€ I felt a breeze hit my hair. â€œSeriously?â€
â€œWhat?â€ I asked.
â€œThis,â€ she said, pointing to a half-eaten piece of frosted cake on a stick.
â€œShut up. Itâ€™s cake batter and some sugar.â€ Then I immediately regretted my modesty. Put on your sales hat, Ella.
â€œYes, really. Whereâ€™d you learn to make these? Bake these, I should say. You should sell these.â€ And we both laughed, her out of exhaustion. Me from flattery. â€œOh, wait, you are. Selling them, that is.â€
â€œI am.â€ I slid both hands in my back pockets, noticing her eyes drop to my chest.
â€œI could eat these all day, but then Iâ€™d have to up my gym time.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think thatâ€™s an issue for you.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t think?â€
â€œNo.â€ I smiled.
â€œDo you do a lot of these events?â€
â€œItâ€™s pretty crazy right now. I mean, itâ€™s the best season to be in Vermont, October. Everyoneâ€™s tying the knot. I had a wedding earlier today and one yesterday.â€
â€œWorking all weekend? Your, um, your significant other must really miss you.â€ She was trying to toss that one out rather innocently, raising an eyebrow in an oh-so-sexy way.
â€œNo significant other.â€
â€œAh, thatâ€™s goodâ€”right?â€
She seemed to be happy with my answer, even through her obligatory frown. I was smitten, enchanted. And our conversation went on, flowing as comfortably as if we were lifelong friends. You donâ€™t say! Yet the newness kept sneaking up on me, the flutters and the oops-whyâ€™d-I-say-that. Eventually she was whisked away again by a silver-haired woman. Samantha, where should we be putting these? Samantha, I thought. So Sam is Samantha. I went back to serving and smiling and enjoying the bells of bubbling champagne flutes as they toasted.
Samâ€™s speech came third, scribbled on a slip of paper that she pulled from a pocket. She slowly unfolded each crease, clearing her throat to speak, which sounded loud in the microphone. Her hands were strong, which Iâ€™ve always found incredibly sexy.
I took in everything about her. The tilt of her head, the way her mouth curved up in a crooked smirk. Her hair, I thought, was a few shades lighter than dishwater blond. When she turned to the side, I noticed her profile, her chin and the curvature of her nose and the flip of her hair over her forehead. I noticed the creases around her eyes, but only when she laughed. Until her brother lifted a knuckle to wipe a tear, and fizzy flutes were raised again above a sea of heads in unison. The speech was over, and I was back to work.
Two hours later, the boat docked back at shore. When the horn blew, passengers filed down the ramp, arm in arm, coats bundled over silk gowns. I tore down the banquet and packed up my truck, setting the last tray down, closing the rear, and flipping the latch. As I turned, she was leaning against a parking meter watching me. There were those nerves again.
â€œHey, there,â€ I said.
â€œHey,â€ she replied, dragging the word out into a low crackle at the end.
â€œLast one here?â€
â€œApparently.â€ She looked coyly around at the dark, empty parking lot. â€œYou were a hit. I wanted to thank you.â€
â€œI have the final payment here for you, too. The last envelope in my stack,â€ she said fishing through a manila folder.
â€œOh, I can invoice.â€
But she shook her head and wrinkled her brow in disapproval.
â€œI know Iâ€™m going on and you must think Iâ€™m a complete idiot. But Iâ€™ve never tasted anything soâ€¦debaucherous. Youâ€™ve got me hooked.â€
â€œI donâ€™t have you hooked.â€ I felt my cheeks go red. â€œThe buttercream has you hooked.â€
She winked at me again, and for a moment there, I thought she might be flirting with me. And thatâ€™s about when my imagination took over and I hardly heard her next ramble.
â€œWell, you made this event a work of art, exquisite, and Iâ€™m indebted. I was doubting myself this morning, not too sure if this would all come together. But it fell into place. And, well, you reallyâ€”not to be cornyâ€”topped the cake. Man, I was guilt-ridden just watching people bite in. It had to have taken hoursâ€”the details, the dots and bows, really impressive. Just soâ€”youâ€™re a class act. Do you know how many times,â€ continued her ramble, â€œIâ€™ve tried to make a cake? Each was an epic fail, and Iâ€™m referring to boxed SuperMoist Betty Crocker.â€ She took a few steps closer. â€œJust add some water, oil, and eggs, they tell you. One, two, three. I followed every step, mixed that batter, popped it in, and down she sank. The sides are black, and the frosting melts because I have no patience whatsoever when it comes to waiting for something I want.â€ She lifted her eyes to me almost bashfully.
â€œDonâ€™t knock yourself. Itâ€™s taken a lot of years and practice, believe me. I can create something in my mind and find a way to make that edible.â€ I caught myself talking with my hands. â€œLet it cool first.â€ My eyes dipped and lingered a little too long on her lips as she took slow steps closer.
â€œYeah, thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m told.â€ She stopped advancing when she was close enough to kiss me, and it was as if I jumped on a roller coaster that never stopped dipping. â€œI can cook, you know,â€ she said, finally. â€œPretty good actually. I just donâ€™t bake.â€
Thatâ€™s, I think, when I saw that signature smirk for the first time along with that singular eyebrow raise, an expression Iâ€™ve grown all too familiar with. By that point, I could see dimples in her cheeks that I hadnâ€™t noticed in the distance, and I was reminded again of her scent.
Then, taking her voice down another notch, â€œThanks for everything tonight.â€
I wanted to stand there with her under the lantern in that waterfront lot until the sun rose, even in its clumsiness and unease. But she was wrapping it up.
She kicked her toe gently into the pavement and thrust a rock into the grass. It tick-tick-ticked its way in the distance. Then I watched as she peered from under her eyelashes, seeming to hold something back. I mirrored her smile for the thousandth time until she looked away, shaking her head side to side. â€œDrive home safely,â€ she told me, handing me a sealed envelope with the check.
â€œYou, too,â€ I said, brushing windblown hair off my face. Still, her body language didnâ€™t tell me good-bye. She stood her ground, unyielding. Then came my obligatory sales pitch. â€œAnd if you know anyone planning an event,â€ I told her, â€œhereâ€™s a few of my business cards.â€ Okay, it was half sales pitch, half hereâ€™s my number.
She looked at my cards under the streetlamp, running her thumb over the embossed letters. â€œYou bet I will.â€
I didnâ€™t open that envelope until the next day when I discovered, clipped to a check, a small slip of paper that read: Iâ€™d love to see you again. Call me? It had her number.
* * *
I crash down my last armful of logs, spattering wood chips and dirt on the floor beneath. Then I yank my boots off and set them on the rubber mat, hanging my coat on a wall hook. Around is the sound of absolute silence for a fleeting moment followed by, â€œBabe, are you going to come get these from me?â€
â€œYouâ€™re homeâ€¦thank God, I was getting worried about you out there.â€
â€œItâ€™s nasty. The roads are awful. Our street hasnâ€™t been plowed at all, but the main routes are touch and go.â€ She stands on the rug next to two floppy fabric grocery bags. â€œHere, can you put these away for me,â€ she says, lifting and handing them to me. â€œIâ€™ll go get the others from the car.â€
â€œHow much more did you get?â€
â€œItâ€™s snowpocalypse, babe. We need to be prepared.â€
* * *
Iâ€™d like to tell her how much this weekend means to me. But I donâ€™t. I just give her a cocked smile over this candle, twirl my fork, and take another coil of this amazing fettuccini because we donâ€™t say those things. Not with words, anyway.
We used to tell each other lots of corny things, mushy thingsâ€”most of which makes me wish she had dementia. Things that were highly embarrassing. Why do I know this? I held on to those emails, for whatever reason I donâ€™t know. Maybe I wanted to reminisce one day when we were gray haired, but they just make me wish I hadnâ€™t tried so hard. Once in a blue moon an email pops up in my search and I reread it and have to wonder. Things between us are so natural now in comparison.
Except compliments. Those arenâ€™t at all natural. I thought that, when you married, the walls came down. Itâ€™s the opposite. A few weeks back, Ella was talking and I was listening and I interrupted and told her that I loved her lips because I always have but Iâ€™ve never actually told her so. How her bottom lip is so much fuller than her top. The way it tilts as if sheâ€™s always telling me whatever (even when she takes a bite of fettuccini like that). But she looked at me like I said something amusing or insincere and changed the subject. I know she appreciates it. But my compliments donâ€™t hold weight anymore, not like they used to. Maybe I just suck at timing.
In our normal weekly routine, we donâ€™t eat in the dining room like this. Itâ€™s too formal and constraining and uncomfortable. We donâ€™t use these fabric napkins, either. We use brown recycled napkins that we toss away. We eat in front of the television watching David Muir. But we try to do this dining room thing on special occasions. Or, I should say, she tries.
She made dinner tonight. She unpacked the table runner and her inherited china, lit these (inappropriately) scented candles, used the pewter vase as a centerpiece. I just got the fire going.
Sheâ€™s not talkative tonight. Iâ€™m used to her constant chatter about work. The only time she doesnâ€™t talk my ear off is when sheâ€™s ready for bed or on that iPad or when weâ€™re in the car and have her music up really loud. I should pop the champagne. Thatâ€™ll get her talking.
That car outside has been spinning its wheels for a while now. Maybe I should go take a look. Which reminds me, I need to take our car in for an oil change next week. And, while Iâ€™m at it, they can check that noise itâ€™s making. Itâ€™s probably just a belt, but it could be something really bad, and then what? Itâ€™s not like we can afford a major car repair right now.
â€œWhere are you going?â€ she wants to know.
â€œWhatâ€™s that noise?â€
â€œItâ€™s just a neighbor,â€ she tells me. â€œTheyâ€™re probably stuck.â€
â€œObviously. Donâ€™t you think we should help?â€
â€œTheyâ€™ll knock if they need help. The lightâ€™s on.â€
I suppose sheâ€™s right.
â€œPour me a glass?â€
â€œThat was my plan,â€ I say.
I use the same champagne flutes I bought for our engagement. Now theyâ€™re engraved with our wedding date. I set them on the counter.
The cork always startles me when it pops, even though Iâ€™m the one twisting. Sheâ€™s taking another spin of pasta. I pour one, then the other. I put a glass in front of her. And thatâ€™s when the lights dim. They dim and brighten and dim again. We both look up, but they donâ€™t come back on. I ask if she paid the electric bill this month, joking. Then I tell her, nonverbally, that itâ€™s nothing. But her face is already drained. Without the lights, the woodstove casts a strange shadow-light on the table.
I take my seat again and put my napkin back on my lap. I take a piece of bread from the center of the table. When I look up again, I catch those eyelashes of hers over that pewter flute.
Thatâ€™s when the lights come back on for good.
* * *
I wasnâ€™t always like this, I swear. I remember when I could let anything roll off my back. A deadline from my boss late Friday afternoon. That zigzagging line out the post office. Even a snarky service rep.
Except when it came to my sister. She always knew how to push my buttons. Still does, which is why I havenâ€™t spoken to her in a good year. Iâ€™m still waiting for her apology. That aside, Iâ€™ve never been panic-stricken in catastrophes like this. You should see me at work.
But at home, forget it.
I blame my better half for existing in a perpetual state of Zen. Someone needs to worry around here. So now the unexpected makes me ballistic. I go passive-aggressive, you know like those bickering couples who cloak jabs with a wink. Must you wear that? You didnâ€™t really just do that? Iâ€™m like that now, blurting stuff out I instantly regret. One minor irritation easily morphs into rage in a matter of seconds, and we play out our Ricky and Lucy moments. Maybe this is menopause. Sheâ€™s always the bigger one, and that only worsens matters.
Take this background music. She put it on. And itâ€™s a great song, so I get on my groove. The champagne helps. Admittedly though, Iâ€™m the worst dancer even if Iâ€™m drunk (more so if Iâ€™m drunk, which Iâ€™m not at the moment) and when I attempt to tap my foot or swivel my hips, it looks about as natural as blown-up, lit-up plastic snowmen do in the middle of actual snow. And she makes me stiffer when she looks at me like that. Itâ€™s put me in a mood.
Iâ€™m relieved when she makes her way over to the window to look out instead of at me.
â€œItâ€™s really coming down,â€ she says in a highly inappropriate tone that reeks of juvenile excitement. When I flip on the outside light, the flakes look more like winged bugs swarming.
â€œLovely,â€ I say, half in wonder, half in dread. But the power could go out again at any minute. So I tip the last drop of champagne. Itâ€™s warmed me sufficiently. â€œDid we finish that entire bottle?â€
â€œI think we did, babe.â€ When exactly did nine oâ€™clock become our staying up late, our big deal? Then I hear, â€œI forgot to mention.â€ Her voice follows me into the kitchen to the dishwasher. â€œYouâ€™ll never guess who I ran into.â€ I raise a brow, never a fan of prolonged drama. Which is why she takes no time to tell me. â€œAlicia.â€
I think I just felt my eyes roll.
Then she starts talking about trouble in paradise. And this news stirs up a mixed bag of emotions. Iâ€™m apprehensive. Iâ€™m satisfied. Iâ€™m elated. Iâ€™m intrigued. Iâ€™m bitter. Iâ€™m neutral. Iâ€™m ashamed. Iâ€™m thankful. Iâ€™m troubled. Itâ€™s not that I liked Alicia. But Jessie was actually giddy over someone.
As opposed to spilling too much of this response, which champagne tends to make me do, I resolve that there are some things best left unsaid if you expect to stay happily ever after for any length of time. So I tell her, simply, â€œI never liked her.â€
â€œI know you didnâ€™t.â€
â€œBut I thought sheâ€™d last longer. I really did.â€ Like maybe two months instead of two weeks. Whyâ€™d she even introduce us?
â€œDoes anybody last with Jessie? Think about that for a moment.â€ Sheâ€™s less than amused, offering me that I-wish-Jessie-didnâ€™t-exist look.
I head back to the window, where the porch lightâ€™s still on. And thatâ€™s when things get quiet. Her: likely excited about roughing it tonight, snowmageddon style. Me: dreading tomorrow. The cold, the shoveling. Itâ€™s going to take up most of our day. So much for time off. That snowblowerâ€™s sounding mighty appealing about now, even if weâ€™d need a home loan to buy it. Maybe I can palm shoveling off on her and do something useful insideâ€”like nothing.
Eventually she gives me one of those shoulder nudges. â€œSuppose we should hit the hay. Weâ€™ll need sleep if weâ€™re shoveling out tomorrow. Iâ€™ll go get the dishes and add a few logs. Go take your face off.â€
But sheâ€™s still mad at work on those dishes when I wrap and tuck my towel into my chest. I brush my teeth. I floss. I comb my hair. I skip the moisturizer. And when I open the door, itâ€™s not the most pleasant temp on the other side and Iâ€™m chilled in places I didnâ€™t even know existed. But I reach into the dresser, finding a little bit of nothing. Slip it up my hips and across my torso.
And thatâ€™s going just fine when I hear, â€œLet me help you with that, babe.â€
â€œItâ€™s freezing,â€ I tell her rather matter-of-factly.
â€œAnd youâ€™re still damp.â€
â€œDonâ€™t walk around with your hair wet like that.â€
But itâ€™s not my hair thatâ€™s an issue; itâ€™s my clothingâ€”or lack thereof. I donâ€™t know what I was thinking wearing next to nothing so I could seduce my wife tonight. Flannel would be more appropriate and just as effective. So I reach for my robe.
â€œYou donâ€™t honestly think Iâ€™ll let you cover up.â€ She wraps my towel behind her neck and flings my robe to the floor before I can tuck in. The folds of her shirt and the thickness of her jeans rub against me. I canâ€™t really form a proper response.
â€œStay damp,â€ she tells me. And I feel a tickle up my sides. â€œJustâ€¦likeâ€¦this.â€
Chapter Three: Brie and Ryan
Crap. Did I seriously just spill coffee down the front of me? Why do they always fill these cups so full? Even when you ask for half an inch on top, they never leave room for cream. The barista, though, what she lacks in latte-making skill she more than makes up for in personality. Sheâ€™s a doll, which is why I never mention it.
Besides, I usually see her at the table flipping textbooks. She reminds me a bit of myself not that long ago, and Iâ€™m always cognizant to leave a good tip in the jar just because. If anything, I know what thatâ€™s like.
I press the lid hard, slip on a cardboard sleeve, and grab a handful of napkins to clean up. At least it landed on my thigh, and this dark denim will camouflage. Stains only make jeans better. At least thatâ€™s my philosophy. Iâ€™m just grateful it didnâ€™t hit this expensive shirt, which wouldâ€™ve been destroyed. Maybe itâ€™s a sign that Iâ€™ve had enough. Caffeine, that is. After all, Iâ€™m starting to feel jittery from the pots of Sumatra Iâ€™ve consumed. Okay, slight exaggeration. But my stomach doesnâ€™t feel so hot. Besides, itâ€™s nearly dinnertime. At this rate, Iâ€™ll be up all night. Oy.
Ryan thinks I drink too much of it. â€œSo what,â€ I tell her. Itâ€™s my vice. We all have one. Food, alcohol, exercise. Or for her, sex. At least mine happens to make me highly productive. Hers, on the other hand, obliterates all productivity. Sheâ€™ll keep you up all night, and that is not the slightest exaggeration.
She says, â€œItâ€™s an Italian thing.â€ Maybe so, but you can get too much of any good thing, doll. I donâ€™t know how she functions without a wink of rest. I canâ€™t stay awake until three a.m. five nights a week and still perform on any job.
Instead of barking at me over coffee, she should be grateful I get as much done during the day as I do. Before I joined the ranks of the unemployed, I wouldâ€™ve given anything to come home after a crazy-long day to a clean house and hot supper. And that she will tonight. I spent a good four hours today just cleaning her house spotless before heading downtown to this home-away-from-home caffeine sanctuary to search jobs, send rÃ©sumÃ©s, and clear my own head.
Itâ€™s not even the drinks that I come here for. Itâ€™s the slice of privacy. I can tie my hair back, plug my laptop in, reflect on life, and escape Ryanâ€™s confining walls. It makes me feel like a reasonably industrious citizen again. With an emphasis on reasonably. Iâ€™m still unemployed.
Iâ€™m lucky, too, that this window seat is nearly always open. It has the best view of downtown. From my vantage point, I can see everything that happens out there. And while I canâ€™t easily see the cafÃ© door, I sure canâ€™t miss that cowbell just above or the boots pounding on the mat as people dislodge all those salt rocks.
Last summer, just outside, they lined the walk with two-seater tables shaded with seaside umbrellas. Still, I prefer working behind the cloak of windowpane. Less sun. Fewer bugs. Air-conditioning.
I click on a potential job opportunity, though well below me, for a paralegal (thatâ€™s how desperate I am right now) when an email alert glides across from my Notification Center: While your background and experience are noteworthy, at this time, we are pursuing other candidates who more closely match our needs for this position.
What a great way to end my day. My week. Ugh. Iâ€™m turned downâ€”even before an interviewâ€”for a legal secretary post. So much for that little Esq. tacked at the end of my name. Just this past week, I widened my search radius far beyond a realistic commute. I applied for smaller firms and one solo practice with not one iota of upward mobility. Iâ€™ve delved so far below my credentials that my pride may never recover. But, alas, I do have that tiny weekly unemployment check to get me by, right?
Letâ€™s just file this rejection letter and call it a week. An unproductive week, at that, with only three not-so-perfectly matched rÃ©sumÃ© en route. En route, that is, to law firms in Maine up by Mom and Dad. Not here. Maybe moving down here for a chance of a lifetime job in a gay mecca wasnâ€™t such a great idea after all. Maybe I wasnâ€™t meant to move on. Maybe Iâ€™m meant to stay a Portland girl forever.
As soon as my finger brushes the power button, one more notice settles on my screen. A state of emergency has been declared. Shelter in place. Yes, itâ€™s definitely time to head home. Pronto.
On the drive home, I try to get a handle on it all. Try is the key word here, because I feel like an absolute failure.
I pass the sign that reads Bridges Freeze Before Road.
Just past, at the end of this winding road, is that dagger-pointed intersection. My wipers struggle to lift their weight, and I can hear their motor over my music.
Speed Limit 30, another sign warns just before I reach the building. Snowâ€™s building up on wooden shutters and window boxes that are impeccably decorated along the first, second, and third floors. Evergreen. Red berries.
Thereâ€™s no oncoming traffic. Thereâ€™s no traffic at all. Itâ€™s desolate.
I turn into the parking lot, shut off my engine, and open my compactâ€”bringing it to steering-wheel height. I sponge powdered foundation across my forehead and then coconut lip balm. Clouds are making it murky and difficult to see. Itâ€™s getting so dark. I think I look all right even with brown coffee stains down the front of my jeans.
A deep inhale. An even longer exhale. I need a job, I think, as my truck beeps and the door locks. When I step inside, itâ€™s another season altogether. Itâ€™s stuffy. Condensation drips down their windows. Good music plays overhead but not obnoxiously.
The woman in back has a tank top on and khaki shorts. Sheâ€™s muscular. Sheâ€™s always making dough.
The counter girl greets me by name as I slide two fingers behind and pull up my wallet. â€œShould be two. Large,â€ I tell her. I unfold two twenties. She does this thing where she glances up at me sideways while putting my bills in the register. Itâ€™s cheeky. She has brown eyes. Sheâ€™s bronzed still from summer, which seems oddly out of place. Her hairâ€™s wavy and uncombed. Natural colored. No gray. Sheâ€™s not wearing a bra but young enough to get away with it. I reciprocate her smile thinking sheâ€™s too hippie for me. And short. Iâ€™m okay with short if itâ€™s not hippie short.
She does this all the time, eyes me. She doesnâ€™t look away, either, as if sheâ€™s worried I didnâ€™t catch on yet. As if she needs to be more obvious. It makes me more than mildly uncomfortable especially when I bring Ryan.
Like when we stopped in after painting her bedrooms and were encrusted in white, wearing matching baseball caps. Sheâ€™d waited for Ryan to get sidetracked and then settled on me even though that meant ignoring other paying customers.
Do I look that unhappy? Iâ€™m just hungry. Like those nights work ran late, when we drove in after three long days on the Cape, when it was too hot to cook, when we just wanted pizza. I donâ€™t come in for her. Iâ€™m not into her. I swear I must give off some sort of vibe, the unemployed girl needing rescue vibe. Even still, sheâ€™s just not my type.
That dough girl out back, though.
A man and woman walk in just as the cardboard lid closes on my order. Counter girl walks it over to me on the bench where Iâ€™m sitting. She even goes so far as to open the door for me. So dough girl takes the register instead.
Figures. Itâ€™s not like I could have brought that doll up front. Whenever I pay, sheâ€™s always busy spinning dough.
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