I pick up the phone to call Peter because I don’t want to talk to anyone else. Because James has just left, this time for good. “Hey,” I say.
“Hey, you.” I hear the warmth of his voice radiate all the way from Connecticut. In the background I hear Cathy saying, “Is that Maura?”
Peter and Cathy are the kind of couple who get on the phone at the same time to talk to you. Even if I start having the conversation with Peter, eventually I’ll hear the click of the receiver, and five or ten minutes into a call, there’ll be Cathy: “Really, Maura, you need to hire an accountant,” or “Don’t you know that you are supposed to tip your mailman at Christmas?” or “Maura, you should come up here for a weekend.” And then Peter will agree, and I’ll be ganged up on. Now that I think about it, I rarely ever call intending to speak to her.
I don’t like Cathy. I was friends with Peter first in college. After he met Cathy, our relationship involved a small, squeaky suburbanite I’d no intention of befriending in the first place.
So now I am listening to Cathy go on about the weather, and the crime rate in New York, and whether or not I’ve been to the grocery store. I twirl the cord of the phone around my fingers. I live in a shitty walk-up on the Lower East Side that came outfitted with a phone that still has a cord. I moved there with my last boyfriend, James. Together, we found squalor charming. I curl the plastic tail tighter, so the top of my finger begins to turn white. This reminds me never to become too attached—because, inevitably, the result will be abandonment in a shitty walk-up on the Lower East Side.
“Maura,” Cathy says. “We think you should take the train up this weekend. Right, Peter?”
“Yeah, Mo. We think it would be really good.”
Peter calls me “Mo” to signify that I am, in his mind, equivalent to any other male friend he could have.
“Peter told me about James. We’re having a party Friday. It’ll be fun,” Cathy says.
“I dunno.” I twirl the cord tighter. James left. Some girl, some bar. So now I really am the pathetic single girl that Cathy always thought I was.
“We bought you a ticket online,” Cathy says. “Peter, forward the email to Maura.”
When I first met Peter, he was the sandy, floppy-haired intellectual type I always thought I would meet at college and fall in love with. Maybe my love solidified when he first started dating Cathy, or maybe it was when they got serious, after he stopped staying up all night to argue about books and drink whiskey. But it was still malleable then, wasn’t it? I still had a chance with somebody else? Or maybe it was when we both graduated and moved to the City. We lived a block away from each other and talked over Chinese takeout about how we wouldn’t give a crap about not having money or benefits or healthcare. Stability was the enemy of real life. Was it when I organized his bachelor party? Stood next to him at the altar? Was my love already a stone, settled in my guts? No, it was when he took a job at an advertising agency in Connecticut and left New York for good. The love I felt towards Peter was the lack of what I felt from other men who walked in and out of my life. My love at that point had become harder still, ossified. I love Peter most when he calls me up at two or three in the morning to tell me in low whispers about how Cathy can’t get pregnant, or that he thinks that work is slowly killing him, or that he misses staying up all night to finish reading a novel just so he can talk to me about it. That he misses the City, which means that he misses me. I love him most at these times because I am selfish, because I am a being denser than Earth, and his confessions make me believe that he never wanted Cathy, only me.
On the train, I press my forehead against the window and look out at the blanket of snow that makes Connecticut even more the perfect, clean place that New York isn’t. If I walked into the space outside, I would surely sink.
When the train pulls into the station, Peter is waiting for me on the platform. He looks the same as always. “Mo!” he calls out, a smile from ear to ear. He hugs me and plants a wet kiss on my cheek.
I instantly feel lighter. “It’s not my fault you never come to visit,” I say. I love his musty, sweet smell. Sometimes, when I leave fruit too long on the counter, I half expect him to walk into my apartment. I release myself from his embrace, and he picks up my bag, and we walk to his car, falling into the same rhythm of step.
“Did you get that article I sent you,” Peter asks. “About that bar off First that they’re turning into condos?”
“The neighborhood’s changing so fast, you wouldn’t even recognize it.”
“Remember that place we got kicked out of on the Bowery? When you insulted the owner and then threw a drink?”
“To be fair,” I say. “I didn’t know it was the owner. What about that time you lost your shoes after that concert?”
He laughs. “I never wanted to walk barefoot again.” He stops in front of a shiny blue Prius. “Don’t look at me like that,” he says.
I try to hide my smirk and get into the front seat. “So you’re a Prius person now.”
“Cathy thought…” he begins as he turns on the engine. “It gets better mileage, okay? And it’s good for the environment.”
I put my hands up. “I didn’t say anything.”
The shorthand of Peter is a relief after James who never seemed to understand what I was thinking. There were fights about what I said and didn’t say. Fights about Peter. “I don’t understand,” James would start. “You always want to talk to him first not me.” I’d respond the same each time: “He’s my oldest friend.” James would pace around the apartment, waiting to strike. “They call it emotional cheating, Maura.” James couldn’t read my mind, but he could see right through me.
“How is Cathy, by the way?” I say.
“She just got promoted. She’s a partner now. And her brother’s here,” Peter says. “He’s getting a divorce, so be nice.”
“So it’s like a pity party?”
Peter darkens. “Come on, Mo.”
“I’ll be nice,” I say, pressing my forehead to the cool window of the car. I see my reflection on the glass, looking at me, frowning. “I’ll try at least.”
We pull up to Peter and Cathy’s house, which looks like every other house on their street. I convince myself that Peter doesn’t—can’t—live in a place like this. I make myself think this each time I visit even though it has been years since they first moved in.
The door bursts open before I am even out of the car.
“Maura!” Cathy comes over and hugs me. “You’re too skinny.” She pinches my arm.
I wince. “A strong diet of stress and cigarettes.”
Cathy is round and blonde. She isn’t fat, though I wish that she was. Her body makes her seem nice and warm, even though I think her true demeanor is the opposite. Cathy frowns. “Peter told me you quit.”
I glance at Peter who is busying himself with my suitcase. “I’m trying,” I say.
“My brother’s here,” Cathy says, almost breathless. “You remember Clinton, don’t you? From the wedding? I always wanted to get you two together.”
I attempt to place him in my mind, but I was drunk for most of Peter and Cathy’s wedding. “Sure,” I say, remembering pictures, a clean-cut blond standing next to Cathy in her lace dress. The ceremony was beautiful. Even I had to admit that.
“He’s single again,” she grabs my hand and pulls me into the house. “A real catch, if you’d ask me. He’s a VP at an insurance company in Stamford.”
Cathy and Peter’s house is what every little girl imagines a grown-up house should be. There are fuzzy blankets lain over couches, framed pictures from vacations on side tables, a dining room where they actually dine.
Peter says, “He’s your brother. Don’t be weird.”
“You don’t understand how it is for girls like Maura. This is what women look for in their thirties: stability.”
Girls like me. We’re supposed to want dining rooms. Peter frowns. He’s upset at the thought of Clinton. Or am I reading into things? Lines form on his brow, the kind that I used to study when he was working out a particularly complicated metaphor. “Clinton?” Peter scoffs. “Unlikely.”
“You never know,” I say, looking at Peter. They call it emotional cheating. “Maybe Clinton was the one all along.”
“That’s the spirit,” Cathy smiles. “It’s really been too long, Maura.”
Clinton is staying in the guest room, so I am sleeping on the couch bed in Peter’s office. I’m putting my clothes into a drawer when I notice a picture of the three of us from college on the desk. Peter and Cathy are looking at the camera and smiling, while I am hovering towards the outside of the frame, looking at Peter. I recognize that look. Did Peter recognize it too? I try to remember what Cathy said to me when Peter first introduced us: “I like to know that a guy has friends that are girls. It means he’s sensitive.”
“Everything okay in here?” Peter asks from the doorway.
“Yes,” I say, startled and put the picture down.
“The good old days.” He gestures to the photo.
Peter’s office is the little girl’s dream of what a man’s office should be—leather tufted chairs; leather-bound books; Cathy had even used leather on the walls, which, in the cold winter light, seem to be embossed with constellations of veins. “I could live in here,” I say.
“I basically do,” Peter says. “So, what’s really up?”
“Well, it’s over with James, you know that already.” I hug my arms to my chest, and try not to look at Peter. To be honest, I’m not really that upset about James. I’m upset that my life is a mess.
“I never liked him,” Peter says.
“You don’t like anyone I date.”
“That’s not true. I liked Larry.” He flops down onto the pull out bed.
“I never dated a Larry.” I look at the white duvet on the sofa bed. Do I dare lay down next to him? Will I sink? There is a part of me that wants that to be my place. I sit on the edge of the bed and slowly move one leg on and then the next. I look over at Peter, but to him it seems like no big deal.
“Yes, you did. Three jobs ago? The indie press you worked at?”
“Larry was my boss,” I say.
“I knew there was a reason I liked him.”
With every word I feel myself getting denser. I imagine my body boring through the springs of the couch bed. “Come on, Peter. I’m supposed to be settling down, remember? Stability and shit.”
He laughs. “If you’re getting old, I’m getting old.”
“You are old.”
He gets up from the bed, and runs his fingers through his hair. How I want to do that to his hair. How I want to have an office with a library where we would spend all day arguing about books, and all night making love, and we wouldn’t even need a dining room. But someone would need to pay for it—that’s why it’s a fantasy. “Hey,” I say, softening. “I didn’t mean it like that.” I get up and walked back to the desk and there was a picture of Cathy and the blond man I assumed to be Clinton. I hold the picture up to my face and put on a robot voice. “We all… can’t be… people…who work… at… insurance companies.”
He laughs. “I missed you, Mo.”
I put down the picture. “I missed you too.”
“Peter!” Cathy calls from the hallway. “Where are you?” She appears at the doorway of the office. My heart constricts and I wonder if she looked at the indentations our had bodies left in the sofa bed and thought “what if.” I wonder if Cathy knew my look too. I wonder if she saw me and knew it as well as the lines of Peter’s brow, his smile, his laugh, his heart. “Can I steal Maura a second?” she says. “I need some help in the kitchen. For the party later.”
“Sure,” he says, reddening.
I wonder if Cathy thinks about what we could have done, or might have done. If she knows, as intimately as I do, the possible scenarios that pulse through Peter’s office, embossed into the air like tiny lines on leather walls.
Cathy sets me up in the kitchen peeling potatoes. She even gives me an apron. I can’t remember the last time I cooked. I’m a freelance writer, and I’m supposed to be writing this article about solar flares for a science journal. Earlier in the year, NASA predicted that two solar flares were supposed to wipe out all the electricity on the Earth. Can you imagine that? All the electricity. No computers, cars, traffic lights, heart monitors. We only narrowly avoided a direct hit by two coronal mass ejections. Bursts of energy sent from the surface of the sun. We’d be living without power not for months, but years. In seconds, reduced to nomadic living—hunters, gathers, Oregon Trail shit. Whenever I played that game as a child all my characters died of dysentery. I imagine my own tombstone: Maura Cahill: died of dysentery, 32 years of age. I wouldn’t die being brave, I would die of passivity. I would die waiting to reach Oregon. Maura Cahill: died of waiting, 32 years of age.
As I peel potatoes and listen to Cathy, I look around her state of the art kitchen and think about how it would be entirely useless if the flare had hit.
“I’m having some people over for dinner,” Cathy says. “Nothing fancy, just a little get together.”
“That sounds nice,” I say, because I am trying to be nice. Peter knows that when I am depressed I hate being around groups of people I don’t know. That I hate being around people I don’t know even when I’m not depressed.
“Some colleagues from work and friends from the neighborhood, the club.”
Cathy came from people who formalized belonging by joining a club. I came from New York City.
“Some people that we play tennis with,” she says.
“Peter plays tennis?” I ask. He never told me. I imagine him in tennis whites, glowing against a red clay court.
“I got him a new racquet for Christmas,” Cathy says. “Maybe we’ll all go tomorrow morning. I have some extra things, if you didn’t bring. We can play doubles. ”
“That sounds nice,” I say again. I wind my knife around the dusty skin of a potato. Underneath, the flesh is black.
“So, Clinton is really excited to see you later, he just went to drop some paperwork at his office.”
I just say, “Sure.”
“Listen, Maura, I have to admit it wasn’t entirely selfless inviting you up,” Cathy says. Is anything she does selfless? “If it’s about Clinton,” I start. “I don’t think I’m exactly ready for—”
She’s seasoning a large piece of meat and I watch the blood pool underneath, leaking onto the white plate. She wipes her hands. “I wanted to talk to you about something, Maura. Something about Peter and me. You really mean so much to both of us,” Cathy starts.
But before she has a chance to spit it out, the door opens and Clinton walks in, exactly like the guy a stable girl would want—business suit, briefcase. Like Cathy, he is fair and pink-skinned. “Hey, Cat,” he says. He looks at me and smiles. Open, earnest. Unlike Peter, his eyes don’t continually look like he is working out some problem. “Maura!” He comes over to me and looks like he wants to give me a hug. I have a knife in my hand. “Cathy and Peter said you might be coming, it’s good to see you—what’s it been like five years?”
“Seven,” I say. “Since the wedding.”
“Maura’s single now too,” Cathy says nudging in my direction with her elbow as she moves the bloody dish to the sink. Whatever she wants to tell me will wait. I rack my brain for signs. When Peter said that he lived in his office, did that mean that he and Cathy were sleeping in different beds?
Clinton blushes. It’s kind of cute. “Oh,” he says.
It’s silent in the kitchen except for the sound of running water. Luckily Peter comes in at that moment and says, “Mo, help me with this thing for a second.”
“What thing? Can’t you see she’s helping me?” Cathy says. “And catching up with Clinton?”
“A thing on the computer,” Peter says, his voice a little higher. His voice always gets higher when he lies. Cathy and I both raise our eyebrows. I look around the room and my eyes settle on one of Cathy’s shiny new ovens. Clinton looks at the ground.
“We know when you are lying, Peter. Just say that you want to rescue Maura from us, why don’t you?”
“It’s not like that,” Peter says.
“It’s fine,” Clinton says. “I’ll help you, Cat.”
“Just make sure she has enough time to get ready for dinner. People are coming at seven,” Cathy looks resigned.
My eyes light up like I am the teenager she’s treating me as, excused from chores. I hand Clinton my apron and put down the knife.
This is how Peter and I end up in his garage smoking pot. We sit next to each other on a workbench. Behind us, his tools are displayed on the wall.
Peter passes me the pipe. “Desperate measures,” he says.
“If Cathy finds out, I’m blaming you.”
“And you know I’ll blame you.”
I take a hit and pass it back to him and cough. “Cathy is going to kick you out of this house. What did she want to talk to me about anyway? Is everything okay?”
Peter looks up at the garage light, which bathes him in a fluorescent glow. “Do you ever wonder ‘How did I end up here?’”
“If you mean in Connecticut smoking pot in your garage with your Prius? Then: no.”
“I’m being serious, Mo.”
“I’m not good at being serious.” I am. Just not with Peter. I imagine the next words that will come from his mouth. He’ll say: “Cathy and I are breaking up” or “Did you ever wonder what it would be like if we had gotten together?” or “Don’t you know it was you all along, Maura?” But he doesn’t say any of those things, he doesn’t even look at me.
I rarely feel like I am about to cry. Instead, I get this feeling like there are worms moving behind my eyes. Sometimes I think it means I am rotten inside. Sometimes, I think one will finally find its way out, and then everyone will know.
“It’s like I keep waiting to feel like an adult,” Peter says. “Maybe that’s why I want kids.”
I actually bite my tongue to stop myself from making a joke about Cathy’s uterus.
“We’re trying in vitro. She had another miscarriage.”
I feel my cheeks warm and that feeling start behind my eyes. I’m rotten, I think. I’m rotten but comfort him anyway. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s just a lot for her. You know how she is. She thinks this means she’s not, you know, completing her duty or whatever.”
I want to believe that Cathy’s difficulty getting pregnant is a sign from the universe that Peter and me are the ones who are supposed to be together. Does the universe send out signs like solar flares? “You really want kids, huh?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “I do. I really do, Mo.” The light casts harsh shadow on his face, which makes him look older than I thought he was. “Do you?”
“I never thought about it.” This is the truth. In my fantasies about my life with Peter, the scenario never evolves from just the two of us together.
“Listen, I have something important to talk to you about. I’ve been thinking about it for while. You know how much you mean to me, right, Mo?”
“Sure, I do. Cathy started with this same speech.” He was saying everything I wanted him to. “You know you mean a lot to me too,” I say and play-punch him on the shoulder. God, why do I always revert to the pal? I think it’s my own fault I’ve ended up in this mess—that I never seemed like the datable one. I remember a time he asked me for coffee after class before he met Cathy. Did I mess it up before I had a chance?
He takes another hit and the buds flare and turn to ash.
“Get on with it,” I say. “If you’re asking me to sleep with Clinton as some sort of divorce cure, I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
He turns towards me on the bench and furrows his brow. “Do you really want to date Clinton?”
“If I marry Clinton I can move to Connecticut and do nothing all day but talk about tennis.”
“I’d see you more,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “You would.”
A solar flare is a sudden and intense carination in brightness, which occurs when magnetic energy that has built up in the solar atmosphere is suddenly released from the outermost atmosphere of the Sun. Coronal mass ejections originate from active regions on the Sun’s surface, such as groupings of sunspots, structural anomalies associated with frequent flares. Unstable magnetic plasma arches and spirals emerge from these sunspots in the form coronal rope. They cause enormous disturbances in the magnetic field, which result in a bright white light. The kind of light at the end of the tunnel.
You can watch a beautiful video of the surface action of the sun online. Sure, NASA has set the video to music and, in slow-motion, it looks like some sort of planetary ballet. But I am in awe of the shifting lights, the explosive surface—it’s like the sun is about to crack open, and I am the only one who notices.
When I’m sad or lonely, I just have to get warm. Sometimes, I’ll take four or five baths a day. Even when I’m sleeping in the same bed as someone, I feel this urge to be burned up like the sun.
Not that this angle is useful for my article.
Cathy is wearing a nice blue dress. I am wearing a black sweater and jeans with a hole in one knee. “I wish I had known what kind of party it was so I could have dressed appropriately,” I say untruthfully.
“Do you want to borrow something?” Cathy asks. But I won’t fit. I would look like a child who got lost in her mother’s closet.
“No thanks,” I say. She rushes around the kitchen, pausing only to pull out another bowl or glass from one of her cabinets and set it on the marble counter top. “So what was it you wanted to tell me?” I ask.
She looks flustered. “Now’s not a good time, Maura. People are arriving soon. Why don’t you find Clinton? I put him in charge of the bar.” Peter must have spoken with her, I think. Whatever they want to tell me has been put off for a time that’s more convenient.
I walk into the living room where Clinton is uncorking a bottle of wine.
“Want a glass?” he says, looking up.
“How about four,” I say.
He laughs. “You always were so funny.”
I shrug. I didn’t think I was being that funny. And I could count the number of conversations I’d had with Clinton on one hand. He hands me a glass. “Cheers.”
“What should we toast?”
When I look at Clinton, all I can see is Cathy. It isn’t fair to him. Nothing seems to be going the way I thought it would. “Friends,” I say.
The first people to arrive are friends of Cathy’s. Two couples—the women are dressed in polite knit dresses. The men are in variations of what I have come to recognize as the winter Connecticut uniform: corduroys and button downs. Some modify their garb with a sweater or a vest. Even Peter is wearing this style of dress. I wonder if Cathy has laid it out for him on their bed. I decide that Peter has been sleeping downstairs, but now he is putting on a strong front by moving back to the master bedroom while Clinton stays with them. But then I remember that they are trying to have a baby, so I must be delusional. Soon the party is full of people I don’t know and don’t want to talk to. No one else wears black.
Cathy is holding court among the women. When I look at her, I can’t help but think about how her uterus doesn’t work. “So, I said to Jack: ‘Listen, we both know we can go with the Yardly proposal, but I really think that we could get them to come up at least twenty percent on their offer.’ And Jack said: ‘If you can get them to come up that much, I’ll eat my hat.’ Well, ladies, I left a bottle of ketchup on his desk last week along with the signed contract.”
The ladies giggle. A woman in a pink dress says: “Oh, Cathy! You’re too much!”
I am hanging towards the edge of the party, looking at photos of Cathy and Peter in matching ski suits on a mountain. I can’t shake the conversation from the garage—Peter wanted to tell me something important. If the world ended now, I would die not knowing.
“Did you just come from a funeral or something?” One man asks, elbowing me in the ribs. He is wearing green corduroys and a plaid button down.
“I’m in mourning for my life,” I say, which causes Green Corduroys to burst out laughing. “She’s really a character, this one,” he calls over to Peter. “Where’d you find her? Can I get one?”
“She’s one of a kind,” Peter says and winks at me. There’s that worm feeling again, so I rub one of my eyes half expecting to see a larvae dancing on my finger.
The man says to Peter, “Cathy told my wife you got a new Prius. I had a question about the mileage.” He pulls Peter away towards the garage.
“I’ll be back,” Peter says to me. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
I roll my eyes to upset the worms.
Abandoned, I go to stand near Clinton who is still manning the bar. I tell him that this is an unfair advantage when you’re at a party you don’t want to be at. You don’t have to really talk to people, and you have an unlimited supply of alcohol. I ask for something stronger.
“I can manage that.” He hands me a tumbler of tequila.
I down the shot. “Do you know any of these people?”
Clinton frowns. “Well, when I was with my wife, Jillian, we used to...”
“It must be hard,” I say. “Breaking up a life.” I grab a beer from Clinton’s bar and pick at the label on a bottle. I have this thing where if there’s a piece of paper in my hands, I’ll tear it up into little pieces without even knowing. There’s probably a life metaphor in that.
“Another?” Clinton says, pouring himself a refill. I nod.
When I look up, Peter is making his way back into the living room. “So what did I miss?”
“We’re going to get drunk,” Clinton says. He hands a glass to Peter.
“Mo doesn’t like tequila.” The lines are back on his forehead, and he looks older, somehow.
“I like it alright,” I say.
Peter looks sour. Is he jealous?
“Dinner!” Cathy calls.
Cathy sits me between Clinton and Green Corduroys. Underneath Clinton’s blond hair, I can see the back of his neck getting even pinker. Or he’s drunk. He doesn’t smell like Peter.
“How you holding up, Clint?” Green Corduroys says.
“Just fine,” Clinton says and takes another sip of his drink.
“We saw Jillian the other day at the club,” Green Corduroys says.
Clinton nods. I feel uneasy sitting next to Clinton’s discomfort and try to divert the conversation. “So, you’re thinking of buying a Prius?” I ask Green Corduroys, which sets him off on a rant about gas prices.
Clinton looks at me funny. How are you supposed to feel when someone looks at you this way? This is a look I am familiar with giving, but rarely get. I want to ask him if he can see worms in my pupil.
“Cathy tells me you’re a writer,” Pink Dress says. She smiles politely. I instantly hate her.
“I am,” I say.
“What kind of stuff do you write?”
The potatoes are being passed around and I notice that Clinton is spooning food onto my plate. “Oh, you know,” I say. “This and that. I’m supposed to hand in an article on solar flares tomorrow.”
“She’s working on a novel too,” Cathy says from the end of the table.
“Well, trying,” I say.
“I do a little writing,” Pink Dress says. “For the community newsletter. I’ve never found it that hard, but what do I know?”
“What’s your novel about?” Green Corduroys is quite the asshole.
“It’s about this girl.” I am the only one who is drinking a beer and I keep picking at the remnants of the label, making a pile of shreds on my plate.
“Maura, stop that,” Cathy says. “You’re making a mess.”
“It’s very original.” Peter says. Everyone at the table laughs.
“Don’t be mean, Peter,” Cathy says. “Maura’s a very good writer.”
Was Cathy defending me?
“I’d like to read it,” Clinton says, looking at me.
“If she ever finishes,” Peter says. “It’s only taken her ten years already.”
The chorus of laugher emerges and I feel myself shrinking. I simultaneously feel small and hard enough to deflect anything and hot as the sun. “Excuse me, for a second. I’m going to get some air.”
“Maura’s trying to quit smoking,” Cathy says, looking sympathetic. She is the worst. I wasn’t planning on having a cigarette, but Cathy has given me the perfect excuse to escape the dinner table.
“I’ll join you,” Clinton says. Pink Dress raises her eyebrows and looks at Green Corduroys. I want Peter to be the one who comes after me.
“You don’t even smoke, Clinton,” Peter says.
Cathy gives Peter a look.
“Tell that to the box of cigars in my office,” Clinton says, and the table laughs again.
There is entirely too much laughing at superficial one-liners going on at this dinner party.
I didn’t have my coat so we went to the garage. “Thanks,” I say.
“They can be a tough crowd,” Clinton says. “Trust me, I know. Jillian—” he starts.
I sit down on the workbench. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
Clinton sits next to me. “She was having an affair with someone from the club.” He looks down at his hands. “Everyone’s feeling sorry for me, but I’m not that sorry. We weren’t happy. I think we’re supposed to try to be with someone who makes us happy.”
“I’m happy sometimes.” I want to say I’m happy when I’m with Peter, talking to Peter. But I’m not so sure anymore. Instead I say: “You can’t be happy all the time.” Is happiness all there is to love?
“I’m sorry for what, you know, Peter was saying about your book. I’d like to read it, though.”
“That’s nice of you,” I say. In the light of the garage, Clinton’s pink skin looks like it’s giving off heat.
“I think I need to get out of this town. Move away, search out the other coast,” he says. “California, maybe Washington.” He rubs his hands together. He looks sad.
I want to imagine a life with Clinton. We would be somewhere where the weather is nice. We would have a pool. I would slice grapefruit for him every morning for breakfast. We would talk to each other at dinner about our days. He would read my novel. I would lay out his clothes. We would be happy. This is stability. “Sounds swell,” I say, “As long as it’s not Oregon.”
I reach out to touch his neck and run my hands over the bristle of his short blonde hair. I tilt his face towards mine and kiss him because he is being nice and Peter wasn’t. I kiss him because I wish he were Peter. I kiss him because he isn’t. I want that warm feeling. Part of me wants a dining room and part of me doesn’t. I want stability. I kiss him because Peter makes me feel unstable, unwanted.
“Why’d you do that?”
“You looked sad,” I say.
He pulls me onto his lap and runs his hand up my back. I imagine myself becoming so hot that all the worms crisp up and die. “You look sad too,” he says, and tucks my hair behind my ear and kisses my cheek, then my temple, then my forehead, then my lips.
I hear the garage door slam and Peter says. “Cathy asked me to get some more wine.”
I jump. “We—” But Peter is already gone. When I turn to Clinton, I feel sick inside. “We probably should head back,” I say and go into house, leaving him in the garage.
We are in the common room of our dorm and we are studying. Well, Cathy is studying and Peter and I are passing notes and goofing off. “Quit it, you two,” she says. They have just started dating. She has been hanging around a lot.
“Sorry, Cathy,” I say and pick up my book. Peter picks his up too and starts making faces when Cathy isn’t looking.
“I’m seriously trying to study here,” she says.
“Sorry,” Peter says, then looks at me and sticks out his tongue. “Mo and I are just having fun.”
This is the first time he has called me “Mo.” This is the first time in my life that someone has given me a nickname. Maura is a hard name to shorten. Maura is a hard name to make cute. Before I met Peter, I studied in my room, I walked to class with my head down, I ate meals alone. His attention makes me feel bright, special. We are sitting close enough that our hips touch. I want to be glued to him forever.
“Peter and I were going to get some dinner,” Cathy says. “Do you want to come, Maura?”
“Yes,” I say. I say yes to this, and I will say yes over and over again—when he asks me to stand as his best man, when he calls me up late at night, when he asks for any favor. I say yes. But then I remember that I am supposed to meet a guy from my Economics class to do a project. “Oh, wait, I’m supposed to meet up with Adam.”
Peter frowns. “Blow him off, do it later.”
“I can’t,” I say.
“I’m going to get my coat,” Cathy says. “Would you mind grabbing my books, Maura?”
I roll my eyes and hand Peter Cathy’s books and start getting my stuff together. “She’s a bit presumptuous,” I say.
“I feel nervous around her,” Peter says. “It’s better when you’re here too, Mo. She’s hard to talk to. I don’t feel like that around you. Won’t you come?”
I didn’t love him then, but I loved feeling like I belonged to someone. So I say yes. I say yes. I say yes.
I peek into the dining room, but Peter’s not there. No one at the table seems to notice that guests have gone missing. I walk down the hallway to the office and Peter is standing by the desk, trying to pry a broken cork out of a wine bottle.
“If that happens, it means the bottle’s bad,” I say.
Peter ignores me and pries the rest of the cork free. Little bits are still floating in the wine, but he pours a glass anyway. “He has a wife.”
“He’s getting a divorce.”
“Why are you acting like this?” he says.
“You’re the one acting like you don’t even want me here. You invited me to come,” I say.
“It was Cathy’s idea.” He takes a sip of wine and I imagine the bits of cork getting caught in his throat.
“Just tell me already,” I say.
“It doesn’t matter, Maura. It’s not like you care anyway.”
It hurts because I care. Too much. I care too much about him and he cares very little about me. “I think I should go back to the City,” I say.
Peter says, “Maybe that would be best.”
It’s Cathy. She looks concerned. “I was wondering where you two went.”
“I have to go back,” I say. The worms are trying to get out, finally managing to crack my own coronal surface. I want to descend into a bath so hot that I’ll be red for hours. “I need to finish this article.”
“Sit down for a second, Maura,” Cathy says. I sit down at the desk while Peter and Cathy sit on the bed. “This isn’t easy for us, me,” she sighs. “It’s been really hard, trying to get pregnant. Part of me thinks that I like my job too much to have kids. Or that maybe Peter and I weren’t meant to.” She reaches for Peter’s hand and he’s avoiding my eyes. Cathy looks at me and I want to ask the unspoken question of our unstable threesome: What if Peter had picked me? If Peter had married me, he would have children, and we would be happy, the world would align. “You’d never guess,” she says. “But Peter was the one who wanted to move to Connecticut. Space for kids.”
I feel betrayed. I wanted to blame her for taking Peter away from me. But maybe Peter wanted to be away all along. Or maybe Peter wanted both: a Cathy in Connecticut and a Maura on the phone. An emotional mistress to call up whenever he wanted, whenever what he had to say was too hard to say to Cathy.
“I thought Peter had talked to you about it,” she looks at me and I can see tears in her eyes.
“I tried,” he says he takes his hand out of hers and rubs it on his corduroys.
“It’s really hard for us to ask,” Cathy says. “It’s hard for me to say.”
“So don’t,” I say because I want to make it hard. I’m rotten, I am.
“I have a structural abnormality, that’s why I keep miscarrying.” My eyes fall to the picture of us from college. I don’t want to feel bad for her. I can’t help but think about the solar flares—that they were anomalies too and the results were beautiful and dangerous. “We would pay for everything,” she says. “It would be like old times, all three of us hanging out.”
Cathy is presuming again. Presuming that I will say yes. I take a minute to process what she’s saying. Cathy is good for Cathy things and I am good for Maura things. Cathy has a broken uterus and I have a broken heart. The invisible cord that connects me to Peter would become an actual one inside of me. Don’t get too attached. The result’s always the same. What did she think I would do? Sit patiently with them for nine months and then disappear? Disappear when convenient?
“And now since you and Clinton are hitting it off, we’d be quite the group,” she says.
“This isn’t about Clinton,” Peter says. “Maura can’t be carrying our kid and shacking up with Clinton.”
Clinton. Did I want Clinton? Peter wanted me all to himself, just not in the way I wanted him.
“Maura needs to decide what she wants to do. Of course, we would be happy if you wanted to.” She gives Peter a look. “No matter the circumstances. Right, Peter?”
I search Peter’s face for a sign. I want to burn. I wish, at this moment, my heart could burst like the sun, sending out a coronal mass ejection that would leave the world around me devastated. I want to see a white light. I want to cause a disturbance. I want the ropes to break. It hits me all at once: “No,” I say, finally. “No.”