This one time they had been swimming in the wide tidal river by his house and they’d been caught in the rushing current and though they were both good swimmers Carey was not as strong as he was and as he swam free she had been pulled farther and farther away. In retrospect, she wasn’t anywhere near drowning or anything like that, but still, in the moment, in his mind, he had seen her swept down the brown river, past the shipyard and the town, past her parents’ house, past the fort, past the beaches, and out to sea. Holy cow he remembered how scared he had been. And along with the fear he was also angry at her and blamed her. It would be her fault, not his, if she drowned. She just needed to put her head down and effing swim already.
Of course, he hadn’t said that.
Swim, he’d yelled, plus her name and then, he remembered, he’d seen that she too had become afraid and he wasn’t sure if it was his fear reflected or her own fear and he couldn’t believe he had just yelled at her like he was blaming her for drowning and then, in what, like thirty seconds, or probably less, everything was fine and they were toweling off together on the sunny rocks. As they kissed, he felt confused and then relieved and then grumpy.
Why was it so hard to apologize? he was wondering now, twenty years later.
First, he thought, you needed to know who you were apologizing to and then you needed to know what you were apologizing for. He had the lamp on and a fire in the stove. His wife was gone for the month. The cardboard box beside him contained colored paper, mixtapes, photos, letters, lists. He supposed some people didn’t miss childhood at all. He and Carey had spent whole afternoons in the warm mudflats with the tide out. Stood on their hands with the mud squeezing up between their fingers. Splashed. Drifted. Slid in the silty mud. Kissed with muddy faces. Even now, he could be sappy like that, and uncontrollably, irrepressibly happy, so happy it almost felt wrong, like unreasonable and irresponsible, like when he was walking along to get a coffee and smiling just because it felt good to walk in the sun for a coffee. Or even in the rain. And then, with this huge awesome-feeling smile, he’d get all self-conscious about it, like what right did he have to be so happy when other people were sad and suffering or just walking and not smiling? He just wanted to be good. A good human. A dork, slightly spectrum, literal: various women had at various times referred to him as these things, affectionately mostly, and he supposed all of these things were at least partly true. He thought that in general there were only partial truths. Which then that thought too must also be only a partial truth, which, whoa, yeah, try to wrap your head around that one, he thought. Whoever you are. His brain—all the thinking and feelings and stuff in it—he was thinking of it now like a pot of popcorn on the stove, like the oil spitting and the steam or whatever it was building in the kernels and the sudden rapid bursting and the pup pup pup against the lid and then these few strange airy forms jumping out and maybe spilling to the floor. He was not against eating things off the floor. He didn’t know if that was a metaphor or an analogy or just an image, but when he thought it, it seemed pretty stupid and young and dull, or maybe not, depending, but anyway there it was. He and his wife often ate popcorn for dinner. Was that OK? Was that normal? They did not own a microwave so they cooked it on the stovetop. He melted the butter, and she dressed the salad. Marriage was that easy. And not easy at all. He did not make popcorn when he was by himself. He was eating Cool Ranch Doritos straight from the bag. The wind outside smacked the house like the flat of a hand. Memories just arrived. He remembered once pooping in the river with a bunch of high school friends and referring to it forever after as The Group Poop. It had been hysterically silly then.
Now he was ashamed.
Now he was not ashamed.
Kids did dumb shit. He took a log from the pile on the hearth and pushed it into the woodstove. The first real kegger he’d been to was at an abandoned gravel pit so far out behind someone’s parents’ house that it wasn’t really behind anything. Carey was there. She was a junior and he was a freshman. He supposed he remembered it because it was the first time he’d been drunk and it was the first time he’d really made out with someone. There were trucks and cars and music and a big pyramid fire and black pointed spruce trees surrounding the pit and patches of disappearing snow lingering in what must have been the most shaded hollows. Was drunk something you did or something you got? He had seen kids making out in third grade. Under the slide. Frenching, they called it. He took the bottle from Carey, reaching across their bodies so as not to break the connection. He was holding her hand and she was holding his. In the bottle was Kahlúa and milk and it was sweet and creamy and warmer than the air. At first, the hand-holding how-tos had seemed mysterious, like who was supposed to reach out first? And did mittens matter? Or hot palms or cold palms or sweat or dirt? And should their fingers weave or wrap? He had always needed to do things right. He could have called his wife right then but he wanted her to call him. It was her turn. He remembered how Carey had made it a game, just touching his fingers with hers and then pulling away as he started to reach with his fingers or surprising him by changing her grip, or eluding his, her fingers scampering over his palm and around his wrist and up his arm. He and his wife had done that with their hand-holding too. And they had made each other mix CDs and written each other letters and he had them all in a box in the attic. Twelve years, a third of his life, they had been together. He and Carey had been together for about a year, twenty years ago. In high school! And yet here he was reading this fable she had written him about how they had become a couple, and as he read it, he felt it all over again.
He was two years younger than her and she’d always remembered him as being pretty tiny. But the more her friends talked, the more she started to watch him during practice. She realized that he had gotten a lot taller than her and was really good at swimming and it turned out that he was really funny and nice. One day it hit her that she really liked him. As soon as she realized this, she liked him more and more each day and then one day she decided and after about a half hour of staring at the phone, she dialed his number.
It was important for him to be prepared for phone calls. He was a nervous kid in general, and even more nervous around girls and so, like, if he was expecting a phone call, he would make a list of things to talk about. When Carey first called, he’d been unprepared, without a list, and she’d had this timid-at-first voice and he’d been like Wait, what? Wait, what? until he’d said What way too much and he’d had to resort to doing the phone-call equivalent of an affirmative head nod and there were whole sentences that he didn’t even hear, but apparently, they arranged to go see a movie. He couldn’t remember what the movie was. He wished he could remember, but also, who cared what it was.
The wood was wet and hissed in the fire. It hissed in the stove and it hissed in the gravel pit where the bigger boys kept dragging down dead limbs to throw into the flames. Julia was there, his brother’s girlfriend, and her twin, Emily. Though they were identical twins, they were not identically hot. Both were blond and probably hotter than Carey but Julia was definitely the hottest. They were all on the swim team together. Sam, his older brother, wasn’t at the party because he was captain of the basketball team and the team was having some kind of basketball event. Basketball, like football, was cooler than swimming. It just was. Had you ever seen a movie where the cool kids were on the swim team? No, you had not. One of his friends, Chris James (soccer, basketball, lacrosse), had gotten a blow job in sixth grade and he toked bongs on his roof and some girls said he danced like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and he made Speedo jokes and said that swimming was gay. Drinking, on the other hand, even if it was Kahlúa, was definitely cool.
He had a letter beside him from Carey that drove him nuts to think about. To read it now would only make him more sad. He wouldn’t. Not yet. Maybe he wanted to write to her instead. He didn’t know what he wanted. But a letter seemed inappropriate since he hadn’t seen or heard from her since around college and he didn’t know what he wanted to say, except maybe that he wished they were together again twenty years ago, drawing a beanstalk with markers. That, he thought, was a weird thing to wish for. At some level, though, he also wished he could still run around in the woods all day. Back then, before high school, he’d imagined that he was Robin Hood and Little John and Friar Tuck sort of all at once. He didn’t know how that worked exactly, like specifically, but he, as them, would be crashing through the woods, hooting, shooting arrows he’d fashioned from straight sticks at the sheriff—I mean, you know the story, which was all maybe pretty weird for a thirty-six-year-old man to wish. The beanstalk was black with colored leaves. The paper was the heavy textured watercolor kind. He was looking at it, the picture, holding it in his hands. Even though there were no beans among the leaves, he knew it was a beanstalk. He didn’t know how he knew. He wasn’t going to cry.
Did you know that Cool Ranch Doritos are gluten-free?
Did you know that in Europe Cool Ranch Doritos are called Cool American Doritos?
Let me tell you about the Cool Americans, he thought.
At the outer edge of the party, Julia and Jeremy Decker were in the middle seat of a minivan. They were both seniors and, remember, Julia was his older brother’s girlfriend. Jeremy went by his last name, which, though it was pretty badass, did rhyme with pecker. He was like a four-sport athlete. What they called a stud, with a huge bench-press chest and a buzz cut. Through the sliding door, he saw their mouths working hard, engaged in a kind of tug-of-war for something very urgent and squirming and alive, like a goldfish or something. He and Carey saw it together. Before Carey, he had kissed only Mary Montgomery with an open mouth. That was in eighth grade. They had been on her couch, with a bowl of popcorn, watching a movie he very much wanted to see called First Knight starring Sean Connery. He remembered the mixture of obligation and curiosity and aversion and pride about what they were doing. What he was doing! He could still taste Mary’s breath like lunch meat and feel the bits of sharp popcorn and the smoothness of her teeth and her tongue. In some cultures, tongue was a delicacy that you ate. He did not remember what Carey’s mouth tasted like, but it was fun to kiss in the cold. There were lots of things he did not remember. Obviously. He remembered arriving at the party, holding her hand, kissing her near a puddle, the ease with which they kissed, their mouths opening wider and wider, some huddled whispery conversations where maybe he was confiding something to her, to which she replied, Really? And he remembered realizing the power he had over her just because she liked him. He sort of didn’t know what to do about that, but he noticed how her attention followed him around the bonfire and how, feeling her attention, he wanted it to follow him everywhere. Throughout his life, with other women, he would try to engender that feeling by being aloof or flirting with someone else or pretending like he had very important things to do. He picked through the yellow chips in the bag until he found a nearly perfectly triangular one, which he dramatically turned to inspect, and then ate. After the party, he and Carey and Julia and Emily had all gotten a ride back to someone else’s house. There they ate microwave popcorn on these huge couches in front of a huge television and he remembered Julia crying about making out with Decker. Julia asked him why she had done what she had done and what she should do now and he remembered how important this had made him feel. He said what he thought was exactly the right thing to say, which was that she should just be honest and tell the truth, and then he had fallen asleep on the floor next to Carey feeling very happy.
In the spring and summer after the party, he and Carey picked strawberries and walked her German shepherd, Digger, and played Ping-Pong and read books on secret private beaches and swam and caught fireflies and ate so much cookie dough there were hardly any cookies to bake. They lived on opposite sides of the river, so his parents would drive him halfway to her house, to the post office, where she would pick him up and drop him off. She drove a navy-blue Isuzu and sometimes she let him drive. The Isuzu was a standard, and he admired that. He also liked that she called him by his full given two-syllable name, unlike his friends, who shortened his name or called him by his last name or used a nickname. His friends did not particularly like Carey. They thought she was mousy, and she sort of was. She had allergies severe enough to prevent them from seeing each other, which sometimes made him angry because he basically thought allergies were made up. He did not understand menstruation or hormones. She had more dark hair on her arms than he did. Brown hair. Brown eyes. A big freckle on her forearm. She said how she was feeling and what she thought and she was smart and he listened to her. Together, they made fun of the cool kids, and then, as best he could, he hung out with them. He told her he had to. She said that he didn’t. Once, she said that she was worried about another girl liking him, and he dismissed it, though he knew it was true, and he also knew that all of his friends wanted him to get together with that girl, Maggie, who they said was very hot. But that was later. When Carey’s family went to the Bahamas, he made her a cassette tape to take and she said she’d find him a shell. She looked and looked and she could not find a single shell and so instead she brought him a spice jar filled with the fine beach sand. He remembered being unreasonably disappointed by the jar of sand even though she’d written him a letter about it and he could see the particular agony she felt at the beach’s shell-less-ness. He didn’t know what had happened to the Bahama sand. In his hands right now, he was holding a card with the word resplendent on it. She had drawn the word. The letters were green and swoopy, like grass, and on the back of the card, in black pen, she explained that she had chosen the word resplendent because she wanted to give him a word that described him and that maybe he didn’t know the meaning of. Was he shaking? Oh man, that felt wonderful when she gave it to him. But then there was also confusion because, while he did not know the meaning of resplendent, he wished that he did. And actually, truthfully, what he wished was that he knew the meaning of every word. In general, at that time, he believed there were perfect people in the world, who knew everything and were never wrong or confused or sad and never lied or burped or had zits. He secretly thought he was one of those perfect people and now, when he thought about it, he was still capable of believing he was one of the perfect people, which (as you can imagine) could also lead to some pretty serious internal recriminations whenever he caught himself deviating from perfection, which, it turned out, seemed to happen a lot. Anyway, if you’re worried about him or whatever, I can assure you he’s, quote, working on it, and, in addition, I can assure you that he’s, quote, making progress. As evidence, I give you this image of a six-foot, three-inch man in slippers, jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt, sitting on a small antique chair by a fire in a sparely furnished room beside an empty blue bag of chips, head literally tipped back laughing out loud at all that resplendent joy he had once felt at receiving a card from a girl and how it had all been kind of immediately overwhelmed by the impulse to show through some ornate contortions of language and sincerity that he both knew and did not know the meaning of the word resplendent.
Would a resplendent individual lick Dorito crumbs from his fingers?
Would a Resplendently Cool American enjoy a full belch in his own living room?
He would. He did. Thoroughly. Too thoroughly? He had never been able to burp on command. He remembered once he and Carey had been down by the river in the dark and really kissing, and he had just suddenly burped and instead of moving away or whatever, he had pressed his mouth more firmly to hers like he was pretending there had not been a burp, like by force of will he could undo the fact of the burp. What he was sorry for wasn’t the stomach air but his inability to acknowledge the truth of what had happened, to laugh about it in the moment, or at least take it lightly, because who knew if maybe Carey had actually found it all funny and had just hidden her laughter out of deference to him. She must have known how serious and sensitive he was. Oh man. Teenage insecurity was real. Insecurity was real. If someone offered you the ability to read minds, would you accept? He thought he did not want the ability to read anyone’s mind but his own. And then he thought that maybe he didn’t even want that, at least not all the time, for it crossed his mind that he wasn’t always strong enough or brave enough not to be crippled by his own thoughts. The wind outside must have been gusting close to thirty-five. Right now, he just wanted to fucking French kiss someone, burp-free or not, it didn’t matter. He wanted to feel a woman’s mouth with all of his own mouth and also he wanted to feel the need from her mouth and also he wanted to feel his own need and he wanted to feel all that need grow and grow.
And then what?
Then who cared. Then didn’t matter.
Of course, being a teenager was also really awesome. Often, at night, they went for walks. He remembered the darkness on the lawn, the ecstasy of the grass and the stars and the black water nearby and lit windows to peep through and headlights to hide from and parents to hide from and each other to hide from too, and to find. At first, he was shy about his erection and he would turn away when it felt too pressing, which was basically all the time. Boner, he’d called it then. Or hard-on. Dong was a general term. His wife said cock. Carey was not afraid to examine a June bug. Just the slightest pressure from her hand, the slightest movement, it generated the most incredible warmth, more incredible somehow than anything he had ever done for himself, like the fiery satisfaction he felt scratching his mosquito-bitten legs or in the shower with the hot water scalding his armpits that were clogged with antiperspirant, except that under her hand the feeling was immeasurably more.
Carey had had sex before, with David Minot. David was in his brother’s grade, and he seemed nice, but not at all like him. When he asked her about it, she didn’t say much, like she didn’t say that it was fun or that she liked it or even that she wanted to do it with him. He didn’t even really learn any illuminating technical details like what position or what about parents or condoms or maybe anything else that would have been helpful.
He looked at his phone. He thought, hoped really, that maybe his wife had texted him without his noticing. She hadn’t. She would be at the artist colony for the next few weeks. Probably, she was right this minute having a wonderful time. Probably, she was right this minute not thinking at all about her past, which he knew hadn’t been perfect, but which she seemed to have sort of dealt with or come to terms with, and so, without the need to grapple with her past, she was probably engaged in all kinds of raucous and illicit and lovely things with all the other brilliant and attractive artists, probably in her cabin, probably right now. He spun the phone in his hand the way he sometimes spun a hammer. He had never thought of himself as someone who had hang-ups. Or issues. In eighth grade, he had been voted Most Outgoing. Popcorn wasn’t even good compared to a Dorito. Nobody was perfect. He knew the past wasn’t for anything. But at the same time, if you wanted, you could say that nothing was for anything and you’d be right. And at the same time you’d be wrong. The guys he worked with building houses worshipped a mighty and righteous god. They believed that God Has a Plan and that he needed to Find Out God’s Plan for Him. He liked a good plan. He liked his coworkers. Of course, not that it mattered, but he had no idea if they had all Saved Themselves for Marriage.
There were basically three things with Carey that sucked to remember. The first was all the stuff around this one night at the beach. They’d walked past the Civil War fort at the mouth of the river and around the elbow of sand where now he sometimes fished for stripers in the surf and then past the summer homes and past the sandbar that at low tide connected the beach to Wood Island. He couldn’t remember if the house lights were on or not, or even if it was spring, or summer, or fall, though because of the phosphorescence marking their steps he suspected it was late summer. He must have been barefoot. He’d bought the three condoms at the Rite Aid near the YMCA. He had already removed them from the box and thrown the packaging in a sidewalk trash can. It had somehow been important to do all of this casually. They kept walking. The urge was to pat his pocket to check on the condoms but he suppressed it. He did not remember if he’d tried to set the mood somehow with jokes or hand-holding or tickling or love talk or whatever, but he remembered that he was very nervous and finally, ready or not, a blanket would have been spread on the sand. They had a plan. This was a mutual thing. But in his memory it was as if she weren’t there. There was sand and the air was chilly and there was a towel half over him. It felt secretive. And damp. He had seen a headlight way down on the dark beach and he had lain extra still and quiet and scared. It was a four-wheeler. A park ranger. The first condom was covered in sand and unusable. He was aware of the quickening of his breathing, its thinness and variability, the rapid rise and fall of his chest, his heart, and then he was aware of her ear on his chest, feeling him heave, hearing his insides. He had always been good at disguising discomfort. If at work he hit his thumb with a hammer, he did not cry out but instead continued hammering. On the beach his entire body had shaken, which sucked because he did not want his body to shake and yet it was, uncontrollably, as if his body were out of his control and were not his or him at all, and, quickly, without thinking, he hated it.
And then there was the thing with his thing. Semi, they used to say. And chub. In his mind by the stove, he said, Fade. As in, And then you would fade. It hurt to even remember, which was, wow, a moment could really eff you up.
If you let it.
Had he let it?
To her he had said, I don’t understand. And he had said as much to the aspects of the universe he hoped might contain salvation, the aspects way past gravity and galaxies and light speed—those grand astronomical facts that at that time he thought were easy. He dropped another condom to the side. Or maybe he threw it. To his friends he would lie. To his brother also. He wished for the ranger to come back and arrest him. To make it stop. And then he felt her hand massaging and pulling and how miraculous it had seemed. When the third and final condom was on, though he had felt very excited, it was not in that hot terrific way, but more like in a way that was just urgent to get an ordeal done with and, I don’t know—I guess here I’m just going to jump in to say that I have chosen to skip over the few brief moments of actual intercourse because, frankly, I don’t remember it that well at all and, in addition, asking you to read a reconstructed teenage scene composed in a small room in the middle of the day just seems awkward. Also, and maybe this is closer to the truth, I don’t want to write that scene. Watch instead—as he watched in his memory, as he had watched many times before in his memory—his dad driving him home afterward. Watch him looking out the passenger-side window as they leave the post office parking lot. Watch through the dark, and of course the rain, as they turn onto the bridge and disappear over the river.
The sex itself and the aftermath, though it had been a big deal generally—the condom had fallen off, parents had been informed, a pill procured, tears, groundings—finally hadn’t been that big a deal for them as a couple. If anything, he felt closer to her and more respectful of her and then a few months later, he had split up with her. This was the second thing that sucked to remember. He was fifteen and he had been drunk and he had had sex. He had had sex on the beach with Carey and then they’d done it again, better, he thought, so that it was almost fun, in his bed, and then, in her Isuzu after school one day, he was breaking up with her. Swim practice would start in thirty minutes. Breaking up wouldn’t take five. As he told her, though, she seemed so confused and distressed that he’d nearly said he didn’t mean it and that he was confused too, about everything, which was true, but which was not as important as not changing his mind or being cool or being on time to practice, and so as she slowed down by the Winter Street Church with the traffic backing up behind, he directed her down the hill from the entrance to the Y and into the Rite Aid parking lot. There was no irony or cruelty in this act. She had both of her hands on the wheel. She kept saying, Why? She kept saying, I don’t understand. And he remembered trying to make her understand, just talking around and around, babbling really, about not wanting a relationship right now, which seemed so clichéd that it must have been totally obvious that he didn’t understand anything either, for really he didn’t. Really, he did and he didn’t. Cool Ranch Doritos were invented in 1986. At the same time he knew that cool was some lampoon-able bullshit, he also knew that it was more real than anything. He remembered the bong toker Chris James in biology class, nodding toward Maggie, who was leaning forward over the black-topped lab table, her feet spread so that her legs in her tight blue jeans made an inverted V. She was wide-hipped, slim-shouldered, blond, cheerful, smart.
Does she even know? Chris asked.
Know what? he asked.
Dude, Chris said. She’s asking for it.
In that moment, he of course knew what it was. It was just that he’d thought she was sliding her hips from side to side to get the blood circulating in her legs or to loosen her back or something.
What later happened, like how he perceived the memories of himself and Carey, had a lot to do with the third thing that sucked to remember and the letter she’d written him. It was like over the years the balance of emotion after their breakup had shifted from lightness and joy to heaviness and bad so that now, by the fire twenty years later, he felt almost entirely rotten, like he was literally decomposing inside with all the stink and slime and funk of maggots and worms and heat and off-gassing and the buzzing flies in the sun and the nighttime skunks and possums and raccoons waddling by to pick things over and probably like mushrooms starting to poke through the compost and a random bat to poach the flies and neighbors complaining because of the smell and the disease and for some reason lighting Tiki torches and then maybe one of the dumber local dogs comes over tongue-out panting to check out all that putrefaction and as it’s wolfing down one of the more rancid bits, it suddenly stops and cocks its head and blinks and then the foaming saliva comes and a little blood at the ears and the dog just keels over right there in his gut or next to it or whatever the metaphor or analogy is supposed to be and just as no one wants to be close to that kind of decay, with his mind and his attention he had always stayed as far from that part of himself as he could, and if you’re wondering why this is all coming up for him now, like right now, I totally get that curiosity and I want to assure you that I know why, and that he also knows why, like the minutiae of the specific and all that. I also want to say that I don’t mean to be coy or manipulative or dodgy by not telling you every heartbeat of detail. Privacy maybe has something to do with it, but also really, I think I’ve given all the necessary info, at least in general, which is: wife gone, marriage difficult, him beating himself up over marriage difficulty, blaming self, doubting self, feeling hopeless, sad, not just lonely but alone, etc., and now also this newly uncovered box of high school memorabilia including a letter implicating him in a borderline hashtag Me Too moment that has always dogged him, especially when he has felt down because then the incidents described in the letter seemed to confirm his soul-level ugliness like the burp and the suck of the current and the obsession with being cool at all costs and composting and all that in a super amplified way. So he has always avoided not just the breakup memories but also all, like really all, that old Carey stuff. He avoided it even though he knew that memories about more emotional or traumatic events are recalled more frequently and more vividly than others as a kind of self-preservation. A way to avoid similar incidents in the future. Trauma was probably overstating it. He didn’t need an ambulance. Also, he was well aware that just because you remembered events and emotions vividly, you didn’t have the right to just share them with anyone anytime they came up for you. In fact, he had hardly told anyone any of this stuff. I myself have just recently been able to start to piece it all together by writing it down, which started as like an abreactive or cathartic or therapeutic exercise and then kind of morphed into this essay or whatever this is, which I’m glad to share, though you should know that I’m conflicted about all the implicit attention-seeking or melodramatic or confessional aspects there are in my telling you these things and it doesn’t exactly feel all good for me either.
The letter was in a small envelope. It had been folded in half four times, was written in black pen, on two sheets of paper, front and back, and the print was neat and precise except where he could feel her rushing to get the words out, the words that were maybe more painful to write. It wasn’t dated. The event that had precipitated the letter had occurred several months after they’d split up, just as he and Maggie were starting to get together. It had been a miniature party at another swimmer’s house. Three guys, three girls, beer, pot, no parents. Like so many teenage things, in retrospect, none of it had been a good idea. He’d secretly had a kind of residual crush on Carey and he’d been eager to be there with her at Nick’s. And they’d had fun. He’d ended up rolling his sleeping bag out beside hers, which wasn’t part of any plan or anything, except that he did want to be next to her.
They lay there on their backs. The others were asleep. Like he had done when they were a couple, he walked his hand over her stomach and her sharp pelvis and between her legs. He remembered that his fingers had been very fumbling and that she had been very, he wanted to say, enduring, but really he didn’t know what she had felt. He did not remember if he had said Please or It’s OK or I want you, or if she had said Wait or Why? or Yes. It seemed likely that neither of them had said anything. Later, he thought that he had wanted her to know that he still thought she was great, like as a girl and as a human being, and that he had intended his fingers to say that to her. Oh man. And even later, it bothered him that he had somehow managed to excuse or validate or justify his actions with some trite plea to goodwill, like it was OK because he meant well.
In her letter to him, it was clear that she had not wanted what he had done and that she had acquiesced only out of her own desperate thinking.
I don’t know, this whole Nick’s house thing is really bothering me. You probably don’t want to hear about it, just because it’s kind of uncomfortable to talk about and you most obviously don’t like talking about uncomfortable things. But I don’t understand why you did that. Don’t you know that no matter how much you tell me you don’t want any relationship or whatever right now, I keep thinking there must be some attraction left? I don’t see how you could’ve done that if there wasn’t. What does that mean? I’m so confused! Can’t you explain it to me so I’ll understand?
And then, after writing about the secrets they had once had together,
Now we do have at least one more secret, even if it’s kind of a weird one. You and I were the only ones who knew what happened and that kind of made me happy. And now that I think about it, I almost didn’t care whether you liked me that way or not. You were acting in such a way that I really didn’t like that for once it didn’t hurt so much that you didn’t like me b/c I didn’t really like you. But I still love you and I still can’t seem to let go of you so I didn’t want you to stop.
I guess I’m writing this because maybe it’ll make you realize something that you didn’t realize before and you’ll act a little more like you used to. But if you can’t, then I’m just going to do my best to say fuck you and to try to forget about you.
Carey, he’d recently learned, was married now too and had a family and had built a house and had most likely forgotten about him, which was both a relief and not a relief in that moment as he knelt on the stone hearth in his living room. There were sticks of birch and maple and ash stacked neatly to his left. The letter was on the table. He had turned off his phone. In the years since Carey, it had always been so easy to forget that she had been two years older than him and had possessed perfectly competent mental faculties that he couldn’t exactly totally read and that also she had her own full powers of agency and on top of everything else both of them were really very young. And booze, and pot, etc. But he wasn’t trying to make excuses or shrug Whatever about anything. This wasn’t moral relativism. He thought that one of the reasons apologizing was so hard was that it involved a kind of self-forgiving. Right? Like it probably says exactly that in lots of famous places. The reason I’m even telling you all this is that I think I’m ready, like I’m starting to understand how hard I’ve been on everyone over the years, including and especially him, and it’s taken time, you know, for just his simple idiotic lovely selfish struggling existence to kind of seep into my own and remind me of something I think we all maybe know deep down, which is the meaning of resplendent. Is that too cheesy? Basically, while I think it’s important that you don’t dismiss or forget that you’ve fucked up and done dumb regrettable stuff, I also want you to remember that all the other wonderful stuff matters too. And I’m not saying I know how the scales between fuck-ups and fuck-yeahs work, like that every one good cancels four bads or anything, but hear me out here and just for this one tiny moment don’t worry about the scales or sadness or pain and, instead, in this very specific infinitesimal instance of now, allow yourself to recall the warm mud or her hand or the lunacy of the bong toker Chris James or just any one of many fucking feelings of pleasure. There—good. Take another second if you like. Cool Ranch Doritos are scientifically engineered for your enjoyment. And though I cannot say how it all ends for our protagonist and his wife, or Carey for that matter, I can say with a high degree of confidence that as he knelt before the little green woodstove, all the readable molecules and synapses and contents of his mind were very nearly blank or silent or at rest or whatever it is they are when you’re feeling OK. He opened the damper in the stovepipe and he opened the stove door. The door squeaked a little in the hinge the way it always did and he took a stick from the pile, ash, and with it pushed the orange coals rippling and ticking and almost fizzing, and he felt the heat on his face and also the cold rush of air sucking past him and into the stove and he heard it too, the rushing of air through and over and up and out and out.