It was the morning of New Year’s Eve, and a dull light confessed the start of another winter day. In Vermont this time of year, the days were short. It was dark when Brian woke in the morning for work and dark when he drove home from the office. It was the time of year Vermonters did their best to survive by taking vacations to the Caribbean, talking to their therapist, and drinking.
The night before it was snowing when he went to sleep, and Brian dreamt that the roof was covered with two feet of heavy snow. In his dream, he could feel the house sweating as it tried to hold the weight, could hear the rafters cracking under their burden—pop, pop, pop, like the last kernels of corn on the stove.
In reality, only a few inches had fallen, and much of that had blown away. Still, he started a pot of coffee—six cups, not the full pot he used to make—and went outside in sweats and a parka to shovel the roof. He pulled the garage door open and assembled the long metal claw of his roof rake, the coarse threading of the aluminum poles groaning as he twisted them together. Then he walked the circumference of his home, reaching toward the peak of the roof and dragging the shovel down to the eaves. Little cadres of snow fell to the ground, some of it landing on his boots. Soon his feet were aching with cold.
Inside, he poured a cup of coffee. He thought about carrying the wet socks downstairs like Amy would have done, draping them over the utility sink to dry. Instead, he balled them up and threw them at the door to the basement. His phone was beeping. Test messages were popping up.
They were from his friend Charlie. It was porn. All of it.
He deleted the pictures. The kids were coming over tomorrow, and sometimes they played with his phone. And, of course, they would tell their mother. He could just imagine how Amy would react. “Courtney told me what she saw on your phone,” she would say. And then she would criticise his behaviour from every possible angle. It was an inappropriate use of his work phone. Did he forget that his children knew his pass code? Was he really okay with this sort of exploitation and objectification of women?
It was different for Charlie. Charlie was divorced, and his relationship with his ex was reduced to parent-teacher conferences and weekend hand-offs. “It’s great,” Charlie said. “It’s the best we’ve ever done. Even when we were dating, we fought, but now we’re like bff’s.”
Brian and Amy were separated but not divorced. They hadn’t said much to the kids, except to reassure them that they were working on things. And they were. At least, they were going to weekly counseling, an ongoing reminder that they had a lot of history together (in fact, they had been together now for half their lives), that they still cared about each other, and that they couldn’t seem to stop fighting.
A couple nights before, after their last counseling session, he met Charlie at the bar. Before the separation, he didn’t spend much time with Charlie outside work. But now, it was as if he was moved to a new group, a new team.
“How was it?” Charlie asked.
“That good, huh?”
They ordered drinks. Beer for Brian, martini for Charlie.
Brian said, “Every little thing gets turned into some huge issue.”
Charlie put his index finger on the napkin under his glass and spun his drink around in a circle, a full three-sixty.
“Let me ask you something: when is the last time you got laid?”
“Two-thousand-six,” said Brian. “Roughly.” Ten years was an exaggeration but not ten months. He couldn’t remember the exact date but the dry-spell was definitely approaching a year.
“This is the problem,” said Charlie. “You’ve got all of this pressure built up inside, and it makes you very irritable. I’m sorry I have to tell you that, but I feel like I need to. As a friend.”
Brian was staring at his drink, watching the bubbles rise to the top of the glass and thinking about something Amy had said during their session. It was after an argument died down, and she was looking at her shoes. She said, “If something doesn’t change soon—I just don’t know.” She pulled back, but Brian knew exactly what she was threatening. After all, there was only one lever left to pull.
Charlie said, “You need to relieve some of this tension or you’re going to blow.”
“She can’t separate things. If there’s anything wrong, then we don’t have sex. And there’s always something wrong.”
“I’m not talking about Amy.”
Charlie raised his eyebrows and took a sip from his glass. Brian followed suit. It wasn’t as if this hadn’t occurred to him. He had all the privacy in the world, and it was Amy who left him, taking the kids and into a co-workers rental property on the other side of town.
“Listen,” Charlie said, “Ted’s New Year’s Eve party is coming up. We are going to go to that party, and we are going to get laid.”
Brian looked sideways at his friend and took a long drink of his beer.
“Whatever happened to dinner and a movie?” he said.
He met Charlie at the mall for lunch. It was not his turf. For seventeen years, Amy had supplied Brian’s wardrobe, combining suits, shirts, and ties for work, even composing casual outfits for the weekends. Charlie was the only man Brian knew who dressed himself, even when he was married. He wore tailored shirts and suits. He even tied a better knot than Brian. And women, he noticed, were always commenting. Commenting and touching.
They walked along the mall’s main thoroughfare, falling into the flow of traffic. Everywhere Brian looked he saw couples. Old couples, middle-aged couples, young couples. How does a person end up like this—forty and single and hanging out in a mall with his only friend? Of course, he knew the answer. But it was a reality he’d been having a hard time accepting. He had always succeeded in life: in sports, in school, in career. And when he married Amy, it was another victory. And then the kids came along. But now it was as if all of that had been undone.
“So what’s the plan?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Charlie was walking past storefronts without a glance, dismissing one after another.
“The plan for tonight. Meeting women.”
“Oh, you know, looking good,” he said.
“Hence the clothes.”
“Yes, the clothes. And then saying things—words—mostly in English.”
“Charlie, I’m serious.”
Charlie pointed across the hallway and headed for the J. Crew. Standing at the entrance, he turned and looked at Brian. The two men stood eye-to-eye. They were the same height, each six feet tall, though they were otherwise entirely mismatched. Charlie was slender with a full head of dark hair. Brian, on the other hand, was thick, from his trunk-like legs to his broad chest, and all the way to his large round head, which was topped with thinning, blond hair.
“How did you meet Amy?” he asked.
“Physics,” said Brian. “We were assigned a group project.”
Charlie pursed his lips. “So you’ve basically never done this?”
Charlie pointed at a shirt—green with a thick gold thread punctuating the seams.
“This one,” he said.
“I don’t know,” said Brian. He looked at the price tag. The shirt was sixty dollars.
Charlie took the shirt off the rack. “Sorry. You don’t get to decide.” He handed the shirt to Brian, who walked to the register and paid.
They went to the food court for lunch. Brian hung the bag with the sixty-dollar shirt on his chair.
Charlie said, “Here’s the thing you need to realize: at a party like this, you’re not going to be the only one looking to hook up. There are a lot of lonely women out there.”
There was a din of noise in the food court. Speakers in the high ceilings tweeted out pop music; kids shouted; workers at the restaurants banged and scraped as they harvested food from ovens, dug with metal spoons, refilled empty containers.
“You sound like a predator,” said Brian.
“You know what I mean.” Charlie was half-listening and trying to open a packet of duck-sauce.
“If it’s that easy,” Brian said, “Then I guess I don’t have to worry about it.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “Just wear the shirt, okay.”
Brian had a couple of hours to kill, so he went home, watched football and drank a beer. He couldn’t find his slippers, and his feet were cold, and he felt tired. It was always this way when the kids weren’t around. He wanted to sink into the couch and stay there. And if it weren’t for Charlie, he would have.
He texted Amy. “Can I drop by?”
“Sure,” she said.
It wasn’t that long ago when he would have been playful with her. He would have asked her what she was wearing, or told her that he needed help adjusting his lower back, or told her that he picked something up for her at the store, and when she asked what, tell her it was a sausage. They used to laugh together.
He got dressed and brushed his teeth. He was going to splash cologne on his neck but decided, instead, to bring the bottle, along with a handful of necklaces his marketing firm designed for the city’s First Night celebration.
Amy was in sweats. Her cheeks were pink with exertion, and though her hair was pulled back, flyaways had escaped her ponytail and danced over her head.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Cooking.” This meant she was cooking multiple meals at the same time, stashing a week’s worth of food into the fridge and freezer. In Amy’s world, cooking was an event. Prepping a single meal was just getting dinner ready.
“You remember you have the kids tomorrow?” she said.
“I’ll be hung over,” he said, “but as long as they’re quiet.”
The kids surfaced from the basement, heading for the kitchen, but stopped when they saw him at the door. They watched him, still unsure how to react to visits from their father. Courtney was twelve, and though she pretended she was fine, she had become fidgety. Dirk, three years younger, seemed less affected, though Brian still worried about what all this was doing to him.
Reaching into his jacket pocket, Brian brought out three of his necklaces. He demonstrated how the magnetic clasp snapped together at the neck and lit the star. It was Brian’s idea to incorporate his client’s logo into a light-up necklace. It was his biggest client, a large regional bank, and they were thrilled with the idea.
“We saw them,” said Courtney. “We went downtown with Grandma, and they’re everywhere.” Dirk took one and started playing with the clasp. Brian hung one around his daughter’s neck.
“Next time,” said Courtney, “gold would be nice.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
The kids headed for the kitchen, and he found himself once again alone in the foyer with Amy. He leaned back against the door. He was still wearing his jacket, and he felt a drop of sweat on the nape of his neck.
“What about me?” she said.
He held a necklace in his outstretched palm, and Amy picked it out of his hand. It was all wrong—the separation, visiting his kids on New Year’s Eve. They should be together, watching a movie and waiting for the ball to drop.
Amy said, “This was a really great idea, the way it lights up.”
He unzipped his jacket.
“Thanks.” Unfortunately, his problem had never been smarts. What Amy kept saying was that he was emotionally unavailable, an accusation he had a hard time arguing. But how was he supposed to be more available when he didn’t see her, when their only real conversations were in front of a therapist? And how could he feel close to her when she was so angry with him?
“New shirt?” she asked.
“Yeah. What do you think? I’m not sure.”
“I like it.”
She didn’t say anything, but he knew she was wondering where he was going in his new shirt. Probably she had already guessed it was Ted’s party, which was somewhat infamous.
The kids headed back to the basement. Amy watched them, pivoting her shoulders and craning her long neck. How many times had he kissed that neck? Touched it with the tips of his fingers? Again, she faced him.
“Yes, tomorrow. I’ll be here.”
Downtown, people were everywhere, appearing like ghosts from darkened streets and shadowed doorways, materializing under the effervescent gleam of frozen streetlights. The green stars—his green stars—rode the necks of practically everyone he saw, little green burning embers.
Brian stopped his car and waited for a group of college students to cross the street in front of him. The girls wore parkas and skin-tight leggings. He watched their long legs prancing across the street. His phone beeped. Another text message from Charlie. “Coming,” he typed and pulled forward.
Charlie stood in the middle of the living room with a woman who, in heels, was nearly as tall as he was. She wore a short skirt over tight leggings. Her top had a low back and openings for her shoulders. Subtle.
“Here’s Brian,” said Charlie. “This is my friend, Leggy.”
“Celine,” she corrected. She pretended to punch Charlie on the arm, but Brian suspected she was pleased to have her legs mentioned.
“Can I get you a drink?” she offered.
He nodded. “Looks like I’ve got some catching up to do.”
She trotted away, touching the shoulder of an acquaintance with one hand and holding on to her skirt with the other. Amy would never even have considered a skirt like that.
Brian shifted away from Charlie and took in Ted’s loft. A curved, oaken balcony swooped through a vaulted living room that must have been thirty feet high.
“A friend of Ted’s,” said Charlie, meaning that she was not a client or connected with a client, meaning she was fair game.
“This is pretty sweet,” said Brian.
“Bachelorhood ain’t so bad.”
“Yeah, but who’s got this kind of money?”
“Me – you,” said Charlie, and then he gave a snorting laugh.
Celine returned with a pair of martinis and another woman. Her name was Donna—a red head, fresh-faced, one of the younger women in the room, somewhere in her early thirties, Brian figured. It didn’t take ten minutes before Charlie and Donna left the conversation, heading for a darkened spot underneath the stairs.
He said, “Hey, I’ve got something I want to show you,” and they laughed and walked away. When Brian looked again, a few minutes later, the two were standing close, Charlie’s hand resting on Donna’s shoulder.
“Were we that boring?” he asked.
Celine said, “Tell me about yourself.” She touched her bare shoulders. Brian thought she was trying too hard, but maybe he was making it too complicated. Maybe it was just a straightforward situation that called for a straightforward response.
Brian talked about work. Successful account manager sounded better than forty-year-old divorcee. After a few minutes, Celine went for more drinks.
“And you’re not married?” she said, when she came back. She pointed at his hand.
“Divorced,” he said. “Two kids.”
“Me, too,” she said. “Divorced. No kids, though.”
“Kind of a long story,” she said, “and not particularly uplifting.” She swept her dark hair behind her ears, and Brian watched her black eyelashes flicker, noticed the tender skin at the corners of her eyes. She was pretty, more so than he’d recognized at first. Of course, it could have been the martinis, but he didn’t think so. He felt clear-headed.
“I’ve got a secret,” she said. She leaned toward him, and he could smell her perfume. “I’m kind of nervous. I haven’t really done this. Not since. You know.”
Brian smiled. “Me neither.”
“One double-date,” she added, “but it was a disaster.”
“Now that sounds like a very uplifting story.”
She adjusted her skirt, straightening the waist and tugged lightly at the hem. “There’s not too much to tell. He was a jerk.”
“Not like me.” Brian raised his glass.
“You do seem nice,” She sidled closer and put her finger on the fringe of his shirt. “I like this,” she said.
“I’m known for my fashion sense,” he said. But she didn’t laugh. Instead, she tilted her head slightly, a motion he recognized as an invitation. He reached out and put his hand on her hip. Now he did feel drunk, though he wasn’t sure if it was the drinks or the adrenaline pouring into his bloodstream.
“Maybe a beer this time?” she said.
Brian pulled away and climbed the stairs to the bar. He found two beers, held them by their necks, and looked over the railing. Everyone had been paired off. It was like Noah’s Ark in reverse, pairs of humans exiting Ted’s apartment two-by-two.
“Hey.” It was Charlie. He took one of the beers from Brian, twisted off the cap, and took a sip.
“How about a daddy double date tomorrow?” he said. “I’ve got the kids.”
“Sure, if I can convince the natives,” said Brian. He saw Donna waiting by the bar. “Find your soulmate?”
“Something like that. What about you and Leggy?”
“I like her.”
“Then what are you doing up here?” asked Charlie.
“I don’t know,” he said and walked away, heading back down the stairs toward Celine.
The last thing he would remember clearly from that evening was his conversation with Charlie on the balcony. There were other things that would come back to him as he wakened and his mind cleared. But these revelations were fuzzy and indistinct: phrases, short-circuited thoughts, scenes that lurched through time. Celine taking his elbow as they walked to the car. White dashes on black asphalt. Spindly tree branches reaching out like angry arms. Dull green lights flashing like winter fireflies.
He was lying down, and his body was stiff and sore. He shifted, trying to isolate the source of the pain, but it was everywhere: back, neck, arms, shoulders, abdomen. And his head ached, too, in such a way that made him wonder if it was possible to bruise the tissue in your brain. Amy was there.
“You dumb ass,” she said.
Brian thought about speaking, but the process of selecting words and pushing air through his throat felt overwhelming.
“Do you even understand what a dumb ass you are? Is it even possible?”
He tried shaking his head, but even a subtle movement in one direction caused his head to swim. His temples throbbed with every pulse, thumping in his head.
“You–” she said, and she took his hand in hers. Brian closed his eyes and squeezed her hand. Her hands were always cold. She had terrible circulation.
“Do you know what happened?” she asked.
“No,” he whispered.
“You crashed into a tree. You destroyed your car.”
Sometimes, in his dreams, he would see something important, something he had been looking for, but then find that he was unable to reach out and take it. And that’s how he felt right now, like there was something he should have been able to grasp but couldn’t.
The next time he opened his eyes, Amy was gone. He saw the white walls and the fluorescent lights overhead and he knew he was in a hospital. And then it started coming back to him: Amy holding his hand, some of the events of the night before. He had a massive headache.
When Amy returned to the room, she was holding a large coffee in a paper cup.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She stood at the end of the bed, and even though she was only a few feet away, when he tried to see her it was like trying to find the borders of a cloud. He was having a hard time with edges, with definition. It was difficult to see details but he did notice one thing: her hair was flattened on one side of her head. And even with the fog in his brain, he was able to put the pieces together. Amy was cooking when he last saw her. She would have watched the ball drop with the kids and showered before bed. Then, sometime during the night received a call from the police, thrown on some clothes, and in the middle of the freezing night, driven to the hospital. She would have been terrified. She would have been angry and exhausted. But still she waited.
“Amy,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“You said that.”
Amy tipped her head, and that’s when he remembered Celine. They left the party together, holding hands as they walked the short distance to where he parked. He’d opened the door for her.
“Is she okay?” he asked.
Amy nodded. He didn’t say anything else about her, and neither did Amy, and after a few moments, his wife sat down in a chair at the foot of his bed. She placed her coffee on a tray table and started crying quietly.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m tired,” she said. “And I was scared. You were unconscious, and they didn’t tell me anything.”
He reached out his hand, and she scooted her chair toward him and took it. She stroked his hand from his wrist to the top of his index finger, and then she let it go. They were like a drawbridge. Sometimes they were separated by an unassailable distance, and then, sometimes, the two sides came together, and they were reminded why they were perched on opposite banks of the river.
The more time passed the more he was able to understand. He had a concussion, and the doctors wanted him to stay another night. He was going to have to live without a driver’s license, at least for a couple of weeks. He needed a lawyer. He would have to tell his boss. He would have to find Celine’s number so he could call and apologize. Those were the basics—a growing list of tasks and consequences. But none of that compared to what could have happened. If his car had struck someone. If Celine had been injured. Or, conversely, if he had made it home with Celine and spent the night with her.
The next day, Amy drove him home. After what had seemed like weeks of clouds and intermittent snow, it was bright and sunny, the overwhelming light glaring off the ice and snow. He kept his eyes closed against the stark light. He didn’t have his sunglasses, and a headache was already coming on.
He followed Amy into the house, and it was when he was taking his shoes off that he remembered the kids. “Oh man, I was supposed to have the kids.”
“You were,” she said.
“That’s what you’ve been saying.”
It was late morning, the second day of January. More snow had fallen, and it was melting in the bright sunshine, making icicles from the roof.
Amy insisted on staying. “You’re under surveillance. Doctor’s orders.”
He sat down and rubbed his temples.
Amy sat down next to him. “I should be pissed at you,” she said. “I am pissed at you. But I should be more pissed.”
“Maybe it just hasn’t hit you yet,” he said.
She fished in her purse and came out with a hair-tie, which she used to pull her long brown hair into a ponytail. “When I got that phone call from the police, for a moment, I thought you were gone.”
Brian rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands, and a memory returned from the night before. Three people were crossing the street. They were wearing the pendants. He saw them—those silly green lights—and then swerved off the road. He remembered pulling the steering wheel hard to the side and then waking up in the driver’s seat, his body stiff and cold, hearing Celine groan, and watching big snowflakes land on the broken windshield. It was the fact that he saw and recognized the pendants, even in his drunken state, which saved him from leveling three people with his car.
Amy went to take a nap, and he watched his wife walk down the hall to her old bedroom and her old bed. It was rife with meaning: the car crash, Amy’s presence in the house, the sun and the snow, but he wasn’t sure how exactly to put the pieces together.
He lay down on the couch, but he couldn’t sleep. Water drops landing on a piece of hollow drainpipe barked like a cowbell. He found a pair of sunglasses and his boots and went outside. He moved the drain pipe, and then he picked up a branch that had fallen in his front yard and started knocking icicles from the eaves and watching them land in the wet snow. There was something profound about the icicles, so hard and yet so easily broken, their sharp points rendered useless as they disappeared into the snow.
He felt dizzy, and he sat down on the concrete steps. The headache, which had been on the wane, was now surging.
Amy opened the door and looked outside, blinking at the brilliant snow.
“What are you doing? Come inside,” she said.
“Just a minute.” He didn’t feel like he could move, though he wanted to get out of the light.
Amy took him by the arm and led him inside, depositing him on the couch. He kept the sunglasses on his face and leaned back. He could smell coffee brewing. He could hear Amy moving around the house: doing dishes and picking up. He heard her go downstairs and understood she had taken care of the wet socks he’d left on the floor. Finally, she poured two cups of coffee and sat down next to him on the couch.
He considered saying something about Celine. At some point, he would have to tell that story, and, of course, Amy would be angry. And who could blame her? But there was no reason to get into that now.
“Charlie called,” said Amy. “He said you were supposed to have a double daddy date.”
“Guess I screwed that up, too.”
“He said you weren’t going to make it as a divorcee. He said he tried to help, but you’re just not coming around.”
She went back to the kitchen. She was wearing an old bathrobe, one that she used to wear years ago when their kids were little and this house was littered with toys and smelled like diapers.
“Hey Ame,” he called. “Are you cooking?”
“No, just getting some lunch.”
He stood up. His head hurt and the concussion affected his balance, but he was able to lurch his way into the kitchen. She must have known he was there, standing in the doorway, but she didn’t turn to look at him. She was working, sliding drawers and opening cabinets. Every time, her hands found what they were looking for and she worked quickly in her old kitchen. Brian hadn’t changed a thing.
Over the years, a river of disappointment had been building up between them, and it was as if it had been digging out a canyon, deeper and deeper. Sometimes, it felt impassable. She was disappointed. He felt abandoned. They were both angry. But now he wondered if the distance—the canyon could out between them—wasn’t, at least in part, an illusion. Maybe if they just started moving toward one another.
Even leaning against the door, he felt wobbly, and when Amy finally turned around to look at him, she told him to sit down. She set down a large metal spoon she was holding and took him by the arm.
Walking back to the couch, he said, “Thank you for staying with me.” He lowered himself back onto the couch, his head resting on the arm and his feet on the floor. Again, it occurred to him how lucky he was. If it weren’t for the pendants . . . he couldn’t imagine.
Amy was looking at him, staring at him like a cat looking at its owner: half affection and half disgust. He saw a hint of a smile when she shook her head and walked back to the kitchen. He heard the spoon scraping against a saucepan, more cupboards opening and closing, and then, at some point, the sound of his wife humming quietly to herself while she worked.
Kevin Fitton is a graduate of the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He is the author of the children’s book, Higher Ground, with Caldecott-winning artist, Mary Azarian. He has published short fiction in several literary magazines, including Limestone and Jabberwock. His short story, “Crashums,” was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
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