Thomas sits on her couch like it is theirs. Sleet lands softly against the balcony door of her apartment. His feet are folded and he is watching Karen make coffee. Her head tilts just enough that her black hair falls more on one shoulder than the other. She taps her foot against the wooden floor and waits for the cup to fill. She stirs in sugar and creamer. He smiles to himself.
“Here you go. It’s hot,” she says, handing the mug to him.
“Thanks,” he says. Then he asks, “What else is new?”
“It’s just the usual,” she says, grabbing her cup and sitting beside him on the beige living room couch. She smiles at him and blows a small swirl into her coffee. He asks her about work and she groans. There’s a lot going on there, and none of it is worth thinking about on a Saturday like this. She tells herself that, but she thinks about it in her spare time anyway when she’s not entertaining him.
“Well, how about this weather, then?” He asks.
“I love it.”
“Me too.” He says. The TV is on an idle music station to which neither of them pay much attention. They’re both dividing time between each other and the dangerously warm cups in their hands. At one point, Thomas sinks far enough into the cushion that Karen slides closer and their legs touch. Neither of them bring it up or bother to move.
“I went out to Castlewood Canyon with Lucas,” He says.
“How was that?”
“Beautiful. Really beautiful. I thought we were being stalked by a mountain lion for a while.”
“Jesus,” she says, her eyes widening.
“No, no. It was fine, just my imagination. And anyway, the fear of that kept us on this trail that ended up on the back-end of the canyon. We were on loose rock—like eroded riverbed. The river was long gone, but the trail of it went to the end of the canyon and from it you could see everything flatten out toward this valley."
She’s leaning in closer because he’s been slowly lowering his voice. He looks her over.
“Well, so anyway, it was something else. There was this valley before us and we were at the edge of it, level with these two houses in the distance. Beyond them sat a giant hill. The sun was setting over the mountains far off in the horizon, and the light was cast on these little houses, and it all looked like a postcard. I tried to get it with my phone, but the pictures didn’t come close to how it actually looked. I wish you had been there. It was beautiful.”
She wished she had been there, too. They sipped on coffee and listened to rain fall for a while. When he was finished, she offered to take his cup for him. She placed both mugs upside down in the sink and thought she heard him stand up and wondered if he would hug her from behind. She felt her heartbeat and smelled coffee.
“It’s so dreary outside,” he says, staring out of the balcony door.
“I love it,” she says. She turns and stares at him.
There’s an older man on the street. He’s walking with his hands stuffed into his coat. His head is down, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s miserable or just slightly displeased. The zip of tires on wet asphalt rips this way and that. Maybe the man is walking home from work, or maybe he’s clearing his head. He probably isn’t out there for fun.
“Hey,” Karen says.
“Let’s have a drink.”
“That’s an idea I can get behind,” he says. They grab their coats and work their way downstairs. There’s a little place just a few feet from the entrance of Karen’s apartment called the Morgan's Pub. Before they make it into the street, he asks her for another hug. She turns, smiling, and obliges.
He traces along a scar that trails over the back of her hand. They both watch his hand idly draw on her skin. She holds her breath. He notices but doesn’t say anything. Tires churn the fresh slush outside; it’s begun to snow. He presses his finger against the black hair tie on her wrist and spins it slowly as he talks.
“Any other ones?” he asks.
“Yeah. I’ve got one on my chest from when I was a kid,” she says.
“How’d it happen?”
“It was a bike accident,” she says.
“And it’s still there?”
“It’s still super obvious, like right here,” Karen says, pointing. She’s wearing a thick flannel. He wonders aloud what the scar must look like nowadays. She smiles and shakes her head.
A waitress sets down another round and takes their empty glasses. They’re both drinking Coors. They tap their glasses together, smiling, drinking, enjoying each other. The pub they’re in is one of those lived-in looking places: old and cozy. There’s brass coat hangers on the walls by each table. When they walked in, she offered to take his coat for him and hang it herself. The booze behind the bar is lit by backlights. The display looks heavenly. There’s a staircase that winds around the corner by the restroom on the back wall and leads to where the owners live.
There is an image in her mind of old, smokey bars like this one in faraway lands. She pictures the streets of Dublin and all of the drunken splendor that Joyce wrote about. Cobbled streets and warm layers; the smell of chimney smoke and coming rain. It was a distant, unspeakable feeling that she felt only in the evening and often when she was alone.
“I want to live here,” she says.
“Your liver may have a problem with that,” he says.
“Maybe I have a problem with my liver.”
He laughs and presses his leg against hers. She doesn’t move away. He isn’t certain, but he thinks she is, ever-so-slightly, pressing back. He goes back to tracing her hand as he talks.
“I have a bike scar, too.”
“I tried kicking out the stand while riding down a hill way too fast when I was five. Instead of stopping, I flipped over and the kickstand went right into my shin. Still a gash there even now.”
“I think something was wrong with us as kids, Tommy. We couldn’t even ride bikes right.”
“At least we’re fully functioning adults,” he says, raising an eyebrow. She smiles and drinks more of her beer.
They’re sitting together at a high table near a window with the bar’s name painted on it. There is a tree outside with bras strung through the branches. You have to be paying attention to notice them because it is cold and gray and monotonous outside, and the bras are worn and damp and stick to the branches. The sky looks like soft concrete, and heavy snow falls on the damp downtown asphalt.
They laugh at the tree, together. He says, “you ought to throw yours on there, too.”
“I should,” she begins. She pauses, then continues, “oh, but I’m not wearing one.”
“What a shame, Karen.”
The waitress asks if they would like another round. Karen looks at him, and he looks at her. He breathes in deeply and asks, “one more?”
“One more,” she echoes. The snow is falling heavy over the wet downtown outside. It looks like the thick snowflakes that would fall in a torrent over the endless rolling hills that surrounded his home growing up. He would rest his chin on the window sill and watch the snow. First it could cover all of the dried out yellow grass. Then it would rise above the low bushes that lined his family’s yard. Then it would form an unending white field where nothing moved and the ground looked just like the sky.
“Cheers!” She yells, clinking his glass. She laughs at her own joke, and then he laughs at her laughing.
“Cheers, cheers. I’m glad we got to hang out today, Karen.”
“Me too.” She loves the taste of beer. He never drank it before he met her. He was used to drinking liquor with people he barely knew. They watch each other drink, and they watch as his fingers brush up against the fold of her sleeve to reveal her tattoo. It’s a blooming flower.
“I like this.”
“Will you get more?”
“Yes, some day. Maybe when I’m not so poor,” she says. She asks if he has any. He says no. He planned to at one point, but the plans fell through.
“My family would be against the idea,” he says.
“They say I couldn’t be buried in the family cemetery.”
“Well, they’re kidding, mostly. It’s not allowed, but it’s not punishable, either,” he says, nodding. She nods with him. She bites her lip and looks at the wall, at their coats hanging together, at falling snow outside the window. She looks at the waitress who is wiping the bar down for no reason.
“I wish we would have met earlier.”
He can all but feel it. There is an unapproachable moment that, at various points in one’s life, seizes everything. It is hard for anyone to address directly, and it is always fleeting. There, just beside the bar, are roads that cross old earth and stretch out in every direction. Those roads press through the mountains and across the plains. They end beside cold coasts where one can stand and grimace at the sound of waves crashing against wet rock. They end where one can sit beside another underneath a parasol and talk about the confusing pleasure of sand between toes. It could all be so easy, but of course it wasn’t. She sees his eyes bear down on her tan skin. She wants to tell him something, but she doesn’t. He begins to trace her hands again. They are a few beers in. They both feel it all. He avoids the ring on her finger.
His boots are placed neatly by hers near the doorway. Two cups and a fork are in the sink. The curtains are drawn. Snow hangs off the metal of the balcony rail. A pale light from a sky full of clouds and snow presses into the apartment and washes over everything.
She is sitting on the couch and messing with the remote. She says something about a show. He walks through the hall and sees her. She motions for him. He stumbles onto the couch, conveniently landing against her.
“You’ll love it, I promise,” she says.
“I believe you.”
“Really, you will.”
“Hey, when am I going to hear you play guitar?” He asks.
“This side of never.”
“You’re terrible,” she says. She touches his shoulder and says, “Okay, you have to watch it.”
They sit together. The movie begins with a voice-over that he doesn’t pay much attention to. He makes a joke about something on the screen and she laughs. He feels his heartbeat. For half a second, he wonders about all of the hypotheticals. He could see the green fig tree Plath wrote about. He could see all of the choices. He must have picked the right one, because as he sat here he realized that all the rest of those figs slipped from his mind without so much as a thought in that half-second.
“My hands are cold,” she says.
“I don’t believe it.”
“It’s so true.” She looks at her palms. She asks, “you know what they say about cold hands?”
“It’s definitely not true.”
“I don’t believe it,” he says. He takes her hands and rubs them for a second. He tells her they really are cold, and she laughs and nods. He plays it off and makes a joke about what’s on the movie. He makes another joke, and then he realizes she isn’t paying much attention to the movie. She looks at his hands around hers. He feels his heartbeat—no, he feels hers. It is loud. It is the only thing he hears. She smells like warmth, like comfort. He breathes in as deeply as he can. Nothing happens at first, and then everything happens all at once.
There is a kissed temple. Kissed necks. Petals brush against warm skin. He can taste beer. It is bitter; it is sweet. It is everything he wanted, and none of it feels wrong. He is lost to a sea of white light washing against everything. A soft ringing. There is darkness, closed eyes—opened to see the fuzzy outline of a familiar face. There is the warmth and the dark pressure of parted lips. The weight of a body in the arms of another. Months of intimacy and friendship and love slip away into the forgotten chapter of another story. Everything is happening at once, but time must be flying. There is a distant ringing. The peculiar feel of fingertips on stubble. Warm breath washing over the stomach. A rhythmic knock against the door. The moment is pale. Words are forgotten. Everything is forgotten. Everything is.