– Fiction By Aaron Clark –
When Nick arrived at home, he latched the screen and left the door open. Late afternoon light drifted in lazily through the kitchen’s only window. It was two hours before Lana had said she would be there, so he estimated that he had at least three to kill. He hadn’t seen her in three years, but he guessed that she was still on her own time. He set down the paper bag filled with groceries—pizza flour; olive oil to supplement his dwindling supply; candles; two bottles of wine, one white and sparkling and one dark red; buffalo mozzarella; pistachio gelato; and a fresh loaf of focaccia, wrapped in parchment paper and smelling of heat and salt and rosemary—on the counter, and replaced the credit card in the drawer by the sink where he’d taken it from. He selected a rocks glass from his father’s bar cart and mixed an aperitivo. He didn’t want to feel bloated when it was time for dinner, he told himself, though he hadn’t eaten all day. He took middle-shelf vodka from the freezer, poured it, almost frozen, in slow, syrupy ropes over ice and rubbed the rim of the glass with a lemon twist. The ice cracked loudly. His stomach tightened with anticipation.
He tipped the glass back and rolled the drink over his tongue, imagining subtle flavors beneath the spirit’s medicinal burn. He thought he tasted, below the acidic kiss of lime, a trace of iron: he envisioned sprawling, rolling eastern Russian fields of winter wheat buried under mountains of snow, seeds cracking and forcing their way up through ice-hard soil, infused with decades-dried blood and discarded, rusting bayonet steel. He held the glass up to the light and looked through the clear liquor around his parents’ kitchen—his kitchen—at the distorted pale yellow cabinets and vintage, faded green range and recessed shelf of worn cookbooks. He wanted to sip slowly, reminded himself that he was cutting back, but it was crisp and clear, and before he even swallowed, he felt the heady rush of alcohol. He drank greedily and set the cup down, ice rattling against the glass. Outside, the cicada buzz and barking dog and sounds of traffic from the main road faded to a dull roar. The waning western light, bruised orange and violet by a late-summer mountain sunset, wandered into the room and stirred up a host of memories that had been lurking in the unswept corners of the kitchen, and the house, since he’d come home a month ago.
He picked up one of the cookbooks and leafed through it. Broccoli casserole, Cornish hens, honey-marinated salmon, rosemary roasted potatoes, breaded baked chicken breast, whole wheat pancakes, biscuits and gravy, rice pilaf, triple layer coconut cake, and more—a thousand meals from his childhood that he doubted he would ever eat again. In between the pages, he found supplementary recipes and modifications his mother had left behind, some typed, some printed out from the Internet in more recent years, still others scribbled in slanted, barely legible handwriting on loose leaf sheets of notebook paper. Nick had seen this book, with its coffee-stained pages and ripped and torn beige dust cover, open on their wooden counter more times than he could count, but he had no memory of ever looking inside it. He left her annotations where they were and shut the cover, pressing her words back into the book’s darkness like dried summer ferns. He leaned against the range and closed his eyes, feeling the heat of the pilot light warming the stovetop.
The pleasant lift of the vodka tempted him to wander into the living room, through the den, and up the stairs to his bedroom to lie down, just for a moment. He pictured Lana at the door, ringing the bell, peering through the latched screen to see the gelato melting and the bottle of prosecco sweating while he lay upstairs asleep on his lumpy childhood bed, his father’s copy of The Master and Margarita tented on his chest. She would shout NICK! through the house and shake her head and probably not even leave a note before turning to go. He would wake with a start and run downstairs, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and unlatch the door just in time to see her car at the stoplight. He needed to stay sharp.
He filled the percolator with espresso grounds and cold water and placed it on the stovetop to boil. He washed his hands, tied on an apron, slung a clean hand towel over his shoulder, and wiped down the counters. He placed the prosecco in the refrigerator—he didn’t know if Lana was a drinker these days, but she certainly wouldn’t be if he tried serving her warm wine—and opened the freezer to pull from it the end of the tomato sauce his mother had made last summer from the vines in the garden. He set it on the counter to thaw and, hearing water spill over and sizzle on the hot metal, removed the coffee from the burner. He poured it and drank slowly, feeling the counter-attack of caffeine charge in to repel the half-hearted siege of the vodka.
Opening a few cabinets, Nick found the rest of what he’d need and set the items beside the bread flour and olive oil. Though people tended to make it more complicated than it needed to be, Nick knew, from a post-graduate summer spent lounging in a Neapolitan seaside villa with an Italian family, to whose children he’d taught English and basketball (not necessarily in that order), that you only need six ingredients for really good pizza, or at least for really good dough: bread flour, all-purpose flour, dry active yeast, sea salt, extra-virgin olive oil, and water.
He poured the yeast into a bowl of warm water and let it dissolve. He mixed the bread flour and all-purpose flour and some salt in a separate bowl—he had opened another of his mother’s cookbooks, this one with a flour-stained teal cover, and was following its instructions as best he could as it lay open on the counter.
She tried to speak to him through it, but though he could hear her voice, tenor and sharp, but rich and not unkind, he couldn’t quite make out what she was trying to say. She had crossed out some steps of the book’s recipe, underlined others, and made marks that looked like comments or instructions in the margins. He couldn’t read them—her penmanship really was atrocious—but he had done this before, and, like dancing, remembered the basic steps. He added the water/yeast solution to the flour mix and stirred vigorously. When it was blended, he took it from the bowl and kneaded gently, steadily. He felt the flour collapse then stiffen under his fingers, and drizzled olive oil on top, though not too much. He lifted the yellow-white blob, sunk his fingertips in, pulled it apart. It wasn’t quite dough, yet, though it wasn’t just flour-yeast-water-salt-olive oil anymore, either. It was warm and moist and elastic and it could stretch for miles before breaking.
As he played with the dough, Nick recalled his mother, barefoot on the same linoleum floor, nodding along to Suspicious Minds and asking him to set the table. There she was, in a flour-dusted red apron, a long strand of brown hair falling out of her ponytail to cling to her face, rolling biscuits flat onto the counter. His father was there too, though he didn’t speak, merely whistled an elaborate accompaniment to the radio in the living room. He wore tan single-pleat slacks and a green and yellow pullover. She bought all of his clothes. He trailed behind her, washing the dishes she dirtied and wiping down surfaces.
Nick shook his head to dispel the memory. Wiping his hands, he opened the bottle of red wine and poured a glass. He liked to drink while he cooked. Maybe he just liked to drink. But he set the glass aside to let it breathe and continued to knead. After about five minutes of pressing, stretching, folding, and rolling, the lumpy, glutinous mass was transformed into a beautifully smooth ball of pizza dough. It looked heavy and dense, but when he hefted it in his palm, it was light as a cloud. He split it in two and dropped the two balls in two separate greased bowls, covered them, and set them aside to rise.
He set the dirty mixing bowls into the sink and filled them with warm water. Hands dripping, he walked to the living room, setting the oven to pre-heat to 450 degrees as he walked by. He switched on the power to the turntable he’d bought his parents two Christmases ago and dropped the needle on the B-side of Chet Baker Sings. As the record started to play, he heard a knock, and the screen door rattling. “Nick!” Lana shouted.
He did a double take—she was an hour early. Still on your own time, he thought. He looked down at himself, wearing gym shorts, Birkenstocks and white, ankle-high socks, a long-sleeved navy tee shirt, now partially covered in flour, and a red apron. Feeling positive his hair was in even worse condition than the rest of him, he was thankful he had found his father’s baseball cap (of Nick’s own high school baseball team; his father was decidedly not a baseball player, though he watched every one of Nick’s games from the right field line, far enough that he could swear when Nick struck out without anyone hearing a deacon of the church take the Lord’s name in vain) and stuck it on his head when cleaning out the attic before heading to the grocery that afternoon.
He went back into the kitchen and, opening the door and glancing down at his outfit, grimaced apologetically. “Lana! I wasn’t expecting you for another hour! You look great.” And she did. She wore navy flats, dark jeans, and a loose-fitting white blouse that, rather than obscuring the shape of her body, accentuated its curvature. His mind briefly flashed to the snow-drenched, hilly plain where the vodka had begun its life. Her hair, dark brown, almost black, spilled in shining curls over her shoulders and down her back. There was a thin gold chain around her neck, braided leather and banded gold bracelets with varying degrees of intricacy wove their way up her right arm, almost to the elbow, and she wore a thin, round-faced watch on her left wrist. “Come on in.”
“You look great too—I hear socks-n-stocks are in these days up in New York.” She grinned. “It’s good to see you, Nick.” She spoke with a slow mountain twang that he’d always secretly felt was exaggerated.
He laughed, taking her purse and hanging it on the back of a chair. “I seem to remember you being late to parties. Back in the day.”
“Is this a party?”
“I suppose that depends on one’s definition of ‘party.’”
“I was hoping it would just be us tonight,” she said, standing on her tiptoes and kissing him on the cheek.
Taken off-guard, he felt heat rise on his neck. “I’ll have to consult Evelyn Waugh. He might be able to clear it up for us.”
“No one. Could I offer you a glass of wine? We don’t have to abandon the fun bits of a party just because the crowd’s a little small.”
“I think the crowd’s the right size. Do you have anything stronger? It’s been a day.”
He smiled and pointed to the bar cart. “What you see is what you get.”
“That’s new,” she said. “Thought your parents strongly disapproved.”
He shrugged. “Times change.”
“Looks like it.”
“Are you craving anything in particular?”
“Dealer’s choice,” she said, “as long as it’s got whiskey in it.”
He splashed a couple of fingers of Dewar’s over ice and filled the glass with club soda, stirring it with the handle of a bread knife. He wrapped the already-sweating glass in a napkin and handed it to her. He poured himself another glass of wine. He still hadn’t eaten, and the caffeine’s defense was crumbling. “Do you mind if I pop upstairs and throw some actual clothes on?”
“Looks like you’ve got clothes on to me,” she said.
“You know what I mean.” He looked down, pulling on the elastic waist of his gym shorts and shrugging. “I’m not exactly dressed for company.”
“I didn’t mean to rush you. The babysitter showed early and I figured what the hell.”
“Don’t worry about it; you’ve seen me in worse.”
“Or at least in less.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Fair enough. Let me at least put on a clean shirt and comb my hair.”
“I like your hat, though! Is it the same one from high school?”
“Nope. I left that one in an airport in Milan about three years ago. Infuriating. This one was Dad’s. Found it earlier today.”
“He never seemed like much of a hat person to me.”
“He wasn’t. Which I suppose explains why this one is so clean.” He shook his head. “Academics.”
“Well, go change, if you want. But nothing fancy. It’s just us.”
“I’ll try to restrain my more flamboyant impulses.”
“Much obliged,” she said, in an exaggerated Dolly Parton accent.
He tipped his cap ironically and turned to half-run up the stairs. “Why don’t you flip through and see if you can’t find another record to play after this one?” he said over his shoulder.
In his room, Nick kicked off the sandals and opened his suitcase—he hadn’t been able to bring himself to put his things into the drawers yet. A month ago, he had half-convinced himself he wouldn’t be staying for long, that he was just here for the funeral and the estate sale and then it was back to New York. If he unpacked now, it would signal (to whom? it was only him in the house) that nostalgia had beaten him. He pulled on black jeans and a plain grey tee shirt, then thought better of it—between the wine and the summer evening heat and Lana’s overtly flirtatious attitude, he was already warm. Dark grey stains under his arms would be far worse even than socks-n-stocks. He changed the grey for a black shirt and decided to go barefoot, figuring that it was his house, after all, and it was summer, and she’d said nothing fancy. He kicked the suitcase closed and hung his hat on one of the bed’s four posters and went into the bathroom. He splashed water on his face and ran his damp fingers through his hair, trying to work it into some semblance of presentability. He looked at the week’s growth of patchy beard critically and wondered if he had time for a quick shave.
Downstairs, Lana glanced over the albums in the crate under the turntable, and, remembering enough about his and his parents’ musical taste to know that she was not really interested in looking, had chosen to simply flip the record that was on back over to the A-side. She turned the volume down a bit and heard Nick upstairs, bustling back and forth between his room and the bathroom. She walked slowly through the living room with its high ceilings into the foyer, where a light brown upright Kawai piano stood, its mahogany surface littered with pictures of Nick—as a toddler in a baseball uniform on his father’s shoulders; a middle schooler with a Spelling Bee medal (second place) around his neck; standing in a red cap and gown with an arm around his grandfather; laughing as he emerged, soaking wet, from the Grand Canal in Venice, where he’d fallen out of a gondola and had to swim to the bank, fully clothed. She was actually featured in one photograph: their senior year prom. He wore a clean, old-fashioned tuxedo with wide lapels, cummerbund, and black bowtie, but the classic look was somewhat disrupted by the scraggly goatee clinging to his teenaged chin. She was draped in a satiny yellow floor length dress, flowers braided into her hair. They stood with a conspicuous gap between them. She remembered the night well. It was the last time they’d been together in this house.
His mother (at some point when they were younger he’d started calling her ‘mother,’ instead of ‘mom,’ knowing the mocking formality drove her crazy) had made them all—she, Nick, and a group of 6 others, all of whom had been friends since kindergarten and had coupled off in the last two years of high school—a pre-prom dinner at their house. The best restaurant in town at the time was a Texas Roadhouse, and none of them had wanted to drive the hour and a half necessary to go to the closest Olive Garden, and she’d offered to make whatever they would have there better, and much cheaper. She prepared fettuccine alfredo and a tossed salad and crème brûlée. None of them, even Nick, had ever tried crème brûlée before, and they’d been skeptical, bordering on nervous, when she lit the sugary surface on fire.
The entire group (besides Nick, who stood uncomfortably to the side during the discussion) lobbied his parents, at first jokingly, then in earnest, for wine to be served with dinner. They argued that, thanks to the fact that another mother in the group had hired them a limousine for the night, they wouldn’t be driving. Nick’s parents had not even entertained the idea. Several years later Nick, trying to be witty, told her that his paternal grandmother had cried when Prohibition had been lifted, saying that it would be the fall of the Republic, and he theorized that that sort of thinking sometimes seeps down through the generations. Times change, Lana thought to herself, sipping her increasingly ice-flavored whiskey. So, despite their generally good nature, at the suggestion of serving alcohol to minors his parents had turned positively chilly.
After dinner, though, while his father cleared the table and they waited for the photographer to arrive, Lana had asked his mother to play the piano. She’d resisted at first, but eventually sat down and lifted the cover. Expecting a church hymn, or at best a lively gospel standard, she’d surprised them by playing Great Balls of Fire. Nick’s father—his professorial, stern father—had surprised them even more by leaning into the room and breaking into a startlingly accurate Jerry Lee Lewis impression, using a baguette as a microphone. Nick covered his face in embarrassment, but eventually Lana pulled him out of his seat, and they’d all danced together while his mother played. She smiled, remembering his awkward dance moves—his already inflexible frame flatly refused to bend in his cheap tuxedo, and though his rhythm was acceptable, he was about as fluid as the Tin Man.
That had been the high point of the evening, and things had gone dramatically downhill from there. Lana left the group after taking pictures, promising to be back in time to catch the limo to the actual dance, to have a pre-prom drink with her boyfriend, Peter. He was 21, in his third year at the local university, and very jealous of Nick, with whom she’d admittedly been cheating for the past several months. She and Nick had been close since childhood, and best friends since eighth grade, when her mother had died of cancer. Their relationship had been riddled with a deadly combination of genuine tenderness, mutual attraction, and terrible timing. Throughout high school, they’d both suffered through a staggered series of on-off relationships, neither of them single at the same time, and both relying on the other for emotional support. The resulting friend-zone, by their senior year, was a razor-thin bridge over a hungry abyss of teenage lust and angst. About five months before the prom, her car had broken down on a freezing mid-December night, and instead of calling Peter, whom she’d then been dating for 6 months, she called Nick. It was well after midnight, but he answered the phone on the first ring. By the time he got to her, her teeth were chattering, and he’d given her his jacket and wrapped his arms around her. After that night, in stolen, secret moments around school grounds, driving on country roads, and even in his parents’ church, they hadn’t been able to keep their hands off one another. They’d been promising to go to prom together since freshman year, and, since Peter, at 21, was wary of the optics of attending a high school dance, he decided that, despite his misgivings, he was “allowing” them to go together as a show of his trust in her. These misgivings likely stemmed from the rumors, which she categorically denied, that she had given Nick a blowjob after the last basketball game of the season (it had actually been before the game, for luck).
She’d gone to meet Peter at his basement apartment before the prom to go over the ground rules. Dancing, fine. Holding hands, not fine. She had argued this point: what if they were crowned King and Queen? Ok, holding hands, under certain circumstances fine. Pictures together, fine. Kissing, not fine. Drinking, only at the after-prom bonfire, with their friends around, but fine. Blowjobs, definitely not fine.
The discussion, which involved an enormous amount of reassuring on her part, and much cuckolded hand-wringing on his, had gone on longer than she thought it might. When she checked the time, she realized that she’d missed the limo and likely the grand entrance. She had him drop her off at the entrance, where Nick was standing alone outside, ruining his rented tux by smoking a cigarette. She later learned this was his first, and that he vomited shortly thereafter. He was surprisingly polite. Though obviously drunk—their friends had smuggled a bottle of whiskey into the limo and, on account of being stood up to his senior prom, he’d drunk more than he probably should have—he’d thanked Peter for dropping her off and even shaken his hand. Peter tried to smile and said, “You kids have fun,” before driving off, looking nauseous.
He needn’t have worried. The dance was dreadful. She was torn between wanting to prove her renewed loyalty to Peter after their conversation, and the desire to continue to explore her feelings for Nick, and consequently she avoided him, ducking his attempts to pull her onto the dance floor. Near the end, they were crowned King and Queen, to boisterous applause and no one’s surprise. But by that time in the night Nick, who’d been surly and pouting since she’d refused to skip upstairs to an empty room with him once the lights went down, had been wasted and angry and tried to kiss her in front of everyone. She dodged with as much grace as she could summon, but he landed one on her cheek, just as a camera flashed. At the bonfire—which he’d insisted on driving to in his old Toyota Tacoma, nearly getting them both killed about 6 times along the way—he’d gotten progressively drunker and, after several more failed passes, eventually passed out.
She shook her head to clear it of the memory. Wandering past the foyer into his father’s study, she flicked on a light, holding her drink in one hand and running the other over the spines of books whose names she didn’t recognize: The Power and the Glory, Confessions, The Blind Assassin, A History of Europe Since 1945, The Human Condition, Of Love and Other Demons. She couldn’t remember the last time she had read a book that wasn’t Thomas the Tank Engine or Where the Wild Things Are or, her son, Sam’s, favorite, The Little Prince (which had, in fact, been an unexpected present from Nick that came in the mail on his 3rd birthday). She suddenly felt dead tired—she had worked the night shift at the hospital—and, though she worried she would fall asleep, she liked the idea of sitting down to read in the study while she waited for Nick to come back downstairs. She selected a slim paperback volume she had never heard of, Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, and sat down in the reclining leather chair. Opening it to a random page, which was split into Spanish on the left and English on the right, she read: Córdoba. / Far away and alone. // Black pony, big moon, / and olives in my saddle-bag.
Though the record scratched on in the background, the house was almost eerily quiet. Her own home—a small, second story, two-bedroom apartment one town over—was filled with more or less relentless noise. At home it drove her to distraction, but its lack here made her almost uncomfortable. Nick’s parents had not even had a television, it seemed, or he’d removed it when he got home; at her house, on the other hand, her son watched and re-watched Adventure Time and Spongebob so often, and at such a loud volume, that she sometimes felt that Finn, Jake, Squidward, and Patrick were part of the family. The only books in her house were children’s stories and nursing school textbooks, and, rather than being packed neatly onto bookshelves in a quiet room, they were strewn, along with stuffed animals, Legos, dog bones, letter blocks, and action figures, carelessly around the vinyl floor, beneath the couch, shoved under rugs, and stacked haphazardly on the kitchen counter. She had not always been messy or disorganized, in fact had prided herself on order and tidiness, but being a full-time nurse and single mother severely limited the energy she allocated to cleaning.
With an effort, she pulled her attention back down to the book. Although I know the roads / I’ll never reach Córdoba. // Through the plain, through the wind, / black pony, red moon. Looking around the room, she saw the door to a tiny closet in the corner behind the desk. A memory came back to her of a furtive Sunday morning sometime before the night of the prom. Nick’s parents had gone to church and he’d asked her to come over. They had been naked on the floor of the study when they heard the front door open; his father had come home unexpectedly between Sunday School and the main service (to make an additional cup of coffee, it later turned out). Panic-stricken, they kicked their clothes hastily into the cramped closet and squeezed in to hide, their naked, trembling bodies pressed close together. He hadn’t found them, thank god, but Lana did not risk coming over again until the night of the pre-prom dinner party.
After the disastrous prom night, they’d finished high school on relatively good terms, with only a few isolated, but harmless, intimate moments, and life had gone on. For a few summers afterward, they would meet for a drink when he was in town visiting, if they both happened to be single, and spend a few nights together before he left again. But even that eventually tapered off when she began dating Tom, a mutual friend. Before a month ago, she hadn’t seen him since they’d both been in the wedding party of their friends, high school sweethearts finally tying the knot, a couple of years ago. Lana, by then, was married to Tom, and they’d had Sam, their beautiful baby boy. The silence between her and Nick had made their friends uncomfortable, but, not knowing if something had happened between them, no one tried to breach the gap. They couldn’t know that the last time before that had been in Charleston, where Nick was aimlessly stumbling through his senior year of college.
It had not been a good night. She and Tom were already engaged, and she’d been in town for her bachelorette party. Sometime after midnight, she and Nick had slipped away from the bar where they’d been with their other high school friends in town. They’d walked to the Battery and drunk cheap wine from Harris Teeter under the live oaks and he’d taken her on an impromptu ghost tour through the streets, smelling of sea wind and jasmine, of the Spanish moss-draped French Quarter. Back at his house, where he told her she was more than welcome to sleep if she didn’t want to drive back to her hotel, he put his arm around her on the couch. She reminded him that she was engaged, but he’d leaned in anyway, and she, after hesitating for a nanosecond, pushed him away. The night had ended with her leaving at 4:00 in the morning with him standing on the porch calling after her to stay. They hadn’t spoken since. Until a month ago.
After graduating, Nick had dipped his toes into marketing, tending bar, and even working in construction. Eventually, after moving to New York and, between jobs, pitching a few stories (he wasn’t a bad writer, but she suspected that his good luck was at least partially related to his father’s literary connections), he landed a job as a reasonably successful magazine editor. She, on the other hand, had gotten a nursing degree and, along with Tom, Sam, and the puppy they adopted, Rico, stayed in their small mountain town. About a month ago, she was leaving her night shift and did a double take when she saw him pacing through the halls of her hospital at 7:00 in the morning, flowers clutched in his fist. She was so surprised that she’d actually called out to him, breaking nearly six years of silence. He looked like hell. Over coffee in the cafeteria, he explained that his parents had crashed on their way home from a concert in Asheville late the night before. Lana, being on the maternity ward, had not heard. He’d borrowed a friend’s car and driven the twelve hours home as soon he got the call, but by the time he arrived, the doctors were performing surgery and wouldn’t let him in the room. His father died in the night, and his mother was in critical condition.
She passed six hours later. Nick, orphaned in a single stroke at 27 years old, arranged the double service. Lana attended with Sam and what seemed like half the town’s population. In his speech, Nick had remembered his father’s uncanny whistling ability, perfectly pitched and capable of scaling heights Mariah Carey only dreamed of; and reminded the attendees of his mother’s famously difficult relationship with the referees of his high school sporting events. People smiled, recalling her ejection from a seventh-and-eighth grade basketball game over a missed double dribble call. He lamented that he couldn’t even buy a decent black suit in this shitty little town to mourn his parents properly. People laughed. He complained that he’d had to get the funeral catered by Subway, the nicest restaurant for 40 miles. People shifted in their seats. He lashed out at the hospital’s ineptitude and the winding mountain roads that had killed his parents, and at that point his grandfather, an enormous, famously jovial man wearing all black, stepped up to the podium and escorted him back to his seat, both of them weeping bitterly.
In the weeks since, he’d been back to New York only once, to return the car and get a suitcase full of clothes. Lana hadn’t seen him, but knew from town gossip that he’d been at the bar across the street from his parents’ house most nights, wearing a black armband and watching baseball or typing away on his computer or reading his father’s books. She’d gotten a text from him a few nights before, thanking her for coming to the funeral, and asking if she and Tom wouldn’t be interested in coming over for dinner later in the week. She hadn’t told him that they’d been separated for a year, only that Tom wouldn’t be able to make it, but she’d love to drop by. And here she was, dozing off as she wandered through a swarm of memories in his father’s study, drinking his parents’ whiskey, and flirting with Nick like they were 17 again.
She heard Nick half-running down the stairs and jolted upright in the chair. She saw him pass the door to the study on his way to the kitchen, ruffling his hair. “That was quick,” Lana said.
He stopped and changed course, coming into the room. “Was it?”
“Might have been.” She gestured around the room. “I haven’t been here in forever. I was a little lost in thought.”
“What’re you reading?”
She told him.
“Haven’t gotten around to that one yet. Been stuck on Borges.”
He looked at her, as though amazed. “Borges? Jorge Luis Borges? He’s this incredible writer and poet from Argentina, he wrote this amazing book called…” He trailed off when he realized she wasn’t listening. “Anyway, he’s good.”
“I like this one,” she said, pointing to the poem she’d just read.
“What’s it about?”
“Riding a horse, I think. But it seems sad.”
“Will you read it to me?” He leaned against the desk and she put her feet up on his knees.
“Córdoba. / Far away and alone. // Black pony, big moon, / and olives in my saddle bag. /Although I know the roads / I’ll never reach Córdoba.” He winced as she pronounced Córdoba as ‘Qdoba.’
“I like it,” he said when she finished. He looked at the book in her hand. “Do you want it?”
“The book. Lorca.”
“What? No, no way! It’s your dad’s. I can’t,” she protested.
“Take it. Or borrow it. Whatever. It’s yours.” He smiled, looking around the room. “I’ve got plenty of other shit to read. I’ll ask for it back if I ever desperately need it.”
She looked uncomfortable, but didn’t say anything, instead taking a small sip of her drink. It was still half full, but the liquor had changed from dark brown to faintly rusty, and the ice was almost gone.
“You hungry?” he asked.
“I’ve got some focaccia in the kitchen if you’d like a snack. Pizza dough needs to rise for a few more minutes.”
“Salty Italian bread.”
“Sounds fancy. Where’d you find that around here?”
“Food Nation, of all places. Couldn’t believe it. I guess the bakers made it and no one knew what the hell it was so they were basically giving the stuff away before it went stale.” He walked through the kitchen door and she followed. He cut up the bread into manageable pieces and poured a ramekin olive oil and set both on the table. He took a bite of a slice before gesturing with it at a cabinet. “Wine glasses are in there if you’re interested.” He pulled the prosecco from the refrigerator and uncorked it.
“Don’t mind if I do.” She tipped the watery remainder of her first drink in the sink, pulled two fresh glasses out, and poured the wine.
“Sweet Christ I was hungry,” he said. “Haven’t eaten all day.”
“Drinking on an empty stomach?”
“It’s cheaper this way.”
She laughed. “How’ve you been, Nick?”
“Oh, you know. Town like this, there’s plenty to take my mind off things.”
He tried to smile, but only managed to bare his teeth. “It’s been a tough few weeks. No one’s biting on the house.”
“Think about it. Who wants to buy a hundred-year-old Victorian in a town with a population of 5,000 people and a median income of like, what? $15,000 a year?”
“I don’t think you really want to sell the place.”
He lifted the glass and took a long drink. “Yeah, well, it’s only been a month.”
She nodded. “You planning on sticking around?”
“No way. Can’t afford to keep an apartment in New York that I’m not even going to live in.”
On an impulse that she didn’t fully understand, she laid a hand on his arm. “Get rid of it. Come back here.”
He tilted his head back and pretended to think about it. “Yeah, why not? I’ll just skulk around this mausoleum of a house and work my way through dad’s Criterion Collection blu-rays and wait for the bank to come foreclose on the place.”
She didn’t laugh. “Don’t you work for a magazine? You can work from home. Why not work from here?”
“Sure thing, I’ll just drive 12 hours back and forth from New York once a week and squeeze all my meetings into a 2-hour timeslot before turning around and coming straight back.”
Lana threw up her hands. “Ok, ok. It was just a suggestion.”
“Or I could fly out of JD’s private airport up on the mountain, that shouldn’t run me more than about $2000 a trip.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I’m a little tense, I guess.”
“Nervous about what?”
He looked directly at her. “Tell you over dinner.” He shook his head, then, “How do you feel about working for your meal?”
“There are a few basil plants in the garden that haven’t wilted yet—how about you nip up there and pick off a bowlful of leaves while I get things ready?”
“I might do. Fair work for fair pay, I suppose?”
“If you feel that pizza’s not enough compensation, I have gelato that I can throw into the bargain.”
“I think you’ve got yourself a deal.”
She walked up to the garden and he put on his apron again, turning his attention to the dough in the bowls. He dusted the counter with flour, coated the dough, and worked it into 2 infinitesimally flat disks with raised edges. When she came back in, he was spreading on them a thin layer of tomato sauce. As she tossed the basil in the colander, he laid slices of mozzarella in judicious heaps over the sauce. He slid the pizzas onto his mother’s baking stone and stuck them in the oven. For the next 15 minutes or so, he and Lana made small talk, gossiping back and forth about their high school friends and where they all were now. He didn’t ask about Tom, but she told him anyway. He didn’t react; he’d guessed as much when Tom hadn’t shown up to the funeral. Around that moment, he noticed that the edges of the crust had begun to blacken. He whipped the stone out and sliced the pizzas. Lana sprinkled the torn basil leaves on top. He grated the parmesan and cracked the pepper and poured fresh wine and they sat down to eat.
She raised her glass. “A toast.”
“What are we toasting?”
“You tell me.”
He hesitated for a moment, then clinked his glass against hers. “To time and tide.”
“Time and tide,” she repeated.
As they ate, they continued chatting. They remembered basketball tournaments they’d gone to on the AAU circuit as children, where their fathers had done double duty as coaches and fans. They cringed at the memory, previously repressed, of Mrs. Davis reading aloud from the notes they passed back and forth under the desk in their 6th grade civics class. She told him, when he asked about Sam, that, despite her best efforts, Sam was definitely not going to be a basketball player. He was a golfer, always swinging his tiny clubs around the house, and already sinking 20-foot putts from the kitchen across the chaotic living room floor into a cup set up at the door of the bathroom. “I wish your mom could’ve seen him.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, and his composure slipped briefly before he smiled again. “He’s going to be a prodigy,” she finished.
His mother had been the golf coach at their local university for several years, among other things. “She would’ve been over the moon,” he said. “She never managed to get me to pick it up.”
Lana sipped her wine. “Weren’t you on the golf team one year?”
He winced. “Eighth grade. God, what a mistake.” Laughing, he told her about flipping a golf cart down the fairway and ripping divots in the green with misplayed sand wedges.
“You’re awful,” she said.
He shrugged. “It turned out my gifts lay elsewhere, I suppose.”
“Like making pizza?”
“You like it?”
“It’s different,” she said. “Definitely not Pizza Hut.”
“But not bad, right?” He sounded worried.
“It’s good! Just different.”
After they’d eaten and the conversation lulled, Lana sat back, sipping her wine, and looked into his eyes. They were brown—his dad’s—but she knew that in the sunlight, specks of his mother’s muted green leapt out of them. She thought of Sam, who had her hazel eyes and none of Tom’s blue. She couldn’t decide if she were more irritated or concerned by Nick’s easy, flippant manner. She didn’t know what she wanted from him, and knew even less of what she wanted for herself. God, she was exhausted. Her lingering anger with Nick’s behavior over the years mingled confusingly with tenderness and affection for the person Nick’s arrested development, and the tragedy that threw it into such sharp relief, brought back to her now. She wanted to take care of him; wanted to scream at him to grow up. Wanted to save him; wanted him to save himself. Wanted to go home to bed; wanted to go to bed with him. She wondered if this was what Sam felt like all the time: pinballing from one impossible desire to its opposite extreme in the space of a single moment, unable to express any of what he really wanted, and even less able to fulfill it.
Despite their past, or rather because of it, she felt that something was still unsaid, unexplored, between them. She was entertained by Nick’s attempts to impress her, but she was bored with the banter. “So, what were you so nervous about earlier?” she asked.
As she locked eyes with him, Nick looked back at her, trying to really see her. He lifted the wine glass to his nose, inhaling deeply—he smelled pears and sandy soil and dry heat and saw leafy vines parched by the Northern Italian sun, sending tangled roots streaming downward through layers of terrestrial memory, soaking up ghosts and infusing them into this slightly fruity, bubbling package. He set it down again without drinking. The edges of his vision were fuzzy, and he fought to stay above the alcohol drifting sluggishly through his blood stream. The sun was gone entirely, and the only light came from the over-stove lamp and the long, thin candles between them, flickering lazily in the gentle breeze floating in through the window. He could barely make her out, but layers of remembered features, built up over a lifetime and buried just beneath the surface, filled in the gaps: he saw in her 27 year-old face the triumphant smile of the sixth-grader who’d beaten him in a mile time-trial; the crying eyes of the motherless eighth-grader whose brother had just been arrested for breaking and entering; the sensuous lips of the 17 year-old as she leaned in to kiss him under the blinding winter moon; the heavy eyelids of the tired, young, working mother dressed in black satin at his parents’ funeral. He felt the clinging, grasping weight of their shared past hanging between them, as well as the knowledge of all the things they hadn’t shared, and would never share.
“It’s hard to say, exactly. I’m not as nervous now.”
“You’re not as sober now.”
He smiled. “Touché.” He rubbed a finger around the rim of the glass and took a breath. “I guess I’ve just been thinking a lot since I saw you in the hospital, and at the funeral. For years, I’ve felt this paralyzing combination of shame for the way I’ve acted with you, and a desire to act even more shamefully.” She tried to interrupt him, but he held up his hand. “Let me finish. For a while, especially after Charleston, I wanted more than anything to call you, to write you, to apologize. I never did, and you got married, and had Sam, and still I didn’t say anything, and eventually I learned to live with that regret. And it took a tragedy, but now you’re here, in this house, and it’s just us. It feels as though we’ve stepped back in time, and I’m nervous because I still don’t know how to say all of the things I need to say to you.” He realized it sounded like a rehearsed speech, which it was, but resisted the urge to qualify it by saying something clever.
She sat still for a moment. “I was angry after Charleston.”
“I’m still angry, when I think about it.”
“I can’t blame you.”
She sighed. “Well, maybe it’s not anger. Something just clicked for me that night. It took me a while, but I finally figured out what we were—it wasn’t friends, anymore, and it wasn’t lovers, either. Even then, it’d been a long time since we’d passed notes under the table during class or talked about our futures or dreams or even our present. On top of that, I realized I didn’t want to tear your clothes off in the bathroom at the library anymore. Or at least not as badly. If we couldn’t confide in each other, and the physical stuff was fading, too, it was going to have to be nothing.”
“But here you are.”
“But here I am.”
“So what now?”
She shook her head. “That’s the question, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure myself until tonight. Until just now, I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I wanted to believe that it was different. That you were different. That this,” here she waved her hand around the kitchen, “might have changed something. But you’re still the same old Nick—still drunk, still charming, still admittedly hot, socks and sandals be damned.”
He smiled. “Backhanded compliments notwithstanding, I am a little different,” he said, holding his finger and thumb close together. “You may have noticed that I’m an orphan now.” He said it without blinking, but swallowed hard.
“I had noticed, Nick, and I’m so sorry.” Her voice broke. “I loved your mother. I never knew how much she knew about us, but even after Tom and I got married, she never lost touch. She even babysat for Sam once or twice.”
“She never told me that,” he said. He sounded surprised.
“I came over here a few times after you went to college, you know.”
“I didn’t know.”
“We had a little reading group. Us and some of the girls from Zumba. She had us over for dinner a few times. Your dad would hide in his study while we talked.”
“That sounds like him.”
“She always talked about you.” She went on. “‘Nick’s trying out for the basketball team this week,’ ‘Nick’s talking about finding a ride home for Thanksgiving break,’ ‘Nick made the dean’s list his first semester.’”
“I barely squeaked on that semester, to be honest.”
“It’s been a long time, but do you remember when my mom passed?” He nodded. Tears were streaming down her face now, and he reached over and took her hand. She gripped it tightly. “It was in eighth grade. I had a beauty pageant about two weeks after the funeral; my dad wanted me to go because he thought it was what she would’ve wanted. I was a mess. I’ll never forget that your mother made you and our friends come.”
“She drove us,” he said. “In that goofy green minivan. She made us late taking us to Food Nation to get you flowers.”
“Roses. And she sat in the back with my dad, and you and Katie and Drew and our other friends sat in the front row.”
“You won, if I remember correctly.”
“Small mercies, I guess. Afterward, she made us take about a thousand pictures. I’ve still got some of them somewhere. We were so young then, Nick. You still had braces. I needed her, and I needed you. And I want to be here for you now, but I don’t know how. I can’t exactly buy you flowers for winning a beauty pageant.”
He looked at her and felt his own tears bubble up. He pushed them down, knowing that if he fell apart now, it would take him the rest of the night to get it back together. “I know,” he said. “It means a lot that you came tonight.”
“But I can’t stay,” she said softly.
“Not even for dessert?”
She laughed and pulled her hand away from his and wiped her eyes. “You said ice cream, right?”
“Pistachio.” Then, as she wrinkled her nose, “Don’t bash it until you try it!”
Though she was skeptical at first, she told him that she loved it. He wasn’t sure he believed her. He finished before she did and got up, clearing the table and wrapping leftovers in tinfoil. “Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked.
“No way. I don’t mind cleaning up. Reminds me of being a kid. And this is nothing,” he said, pointing to the dishes in the sink and putting on an apron. “You can’t imagine the mess my mother used to make in here.”
She didn’t respond. After a few minutes of watching him, she said, “Thanks for dinner, Nick. But my babysitter is going to kill me.” She stood up, and he dried his hands on the apron.
Though she protested, he pushed the leftovers into her hands as he walked her to the door, along with the book she’d been reading earlier, and said, “I’ll be around for a couple more weeks at least—we’ll see how long my boss will let me work from home.”
“Maybe we could have coffee sometime? I want to make sure you’re doing ok.”
“There’s no good coffee here. Drives me nuts.”
“How about just breakfast then?”
“I’ll consider it,” he said.
She laughed, and kissed him on the cheek, her body lingering close to his. Her hair smelled of jasmine and he let his hand fall on her arm as she turned to go. “Good night, Nick.”
“Night.” He closed the door behind her.
He finished cleaning the kitchen as his father might have done, even drying dishes by hand in defiance of a vow he’d made upon leaving home, that he’d never dry a dish again (his reasoning being that dishes, left to their own devices, dry perfectly well without any help). He corked the wine and put what was left of the gelato back in the freezer.
In the living room, he sat on the floor, bracing his back against the couch. He looked around: thick green carpet they’d meant to tear up to get to the heart pine beneath; a cavernous fireplace that they’d never used; a mantle full of pictures and embroideries; clean, wispy summertime drapes his mother had hung just before their trip to Asheville. He waited for the tears he’d held back at dinner to come, but they didn’t. All around him he felt the disconcerting, unmoored sensation of weightlessness he’d been avoiding. He couldn’t stay here, though it had taken until tonight to realize it; to let it go. He went upstairs to his room. It was late by now, and he lay down on the ancient, creaking bed, fully clothed, head spinning slightly. He opened his father’s book and propped it up on his chest, but didn’t even finish the first sentence before closing his eyes and drifting off into an uneasy sleep.
Aaron Clark is an urban planner and creative writer—not necessarily in that order—based in Norfolk, VA. He studied English at the College of Charleston, and owes tremendous debts to W.G. Sebald, for memory; Virginia Woolf, for consciousness; and P.G. Wodehouse, for joy. He enjoys riding bikes and spending time with his cats, Seymour (pictured) and Sylvia.