Every year, when we left the cabin, I’d bury some small object beneath the frozen ground. I don’t know why I did it, only that I wanted to leave pieces of us here—an earring one year; then the ace of hearts, later; sheets of song lyrics scribbled out by hand. It was always early in January, when layers of ice clung in sheathes, and I would crack open the ground with whatever I could find and submit the data of us to this earth, these north Georgia roots. In the months we were away, I imagined the tokens mixing with the soil, music and rivalries and shiny surfaces rising up from below.
When we dispersed, the six of us, signaling the end of the holiday season and a return to our newly-minted adult jobs and graduate courses, all I wanted was to stay put. I was working as an archivist in Brooklyn. The rest of the year, I could feel the distance viscerally—an internal dateline ticking between us like a cartoon map of bandit’s tracks, scuttling across geographies and timelines.
Sam and I drove up to his family’s cabin together, as we had every year since we could drive, north on the interstate to the mountains. Groceries were packed into the back of his forest green Jeep, boxes of liquor in the trunk. We were meeting the others up there, but they’d all arrive in separate cars. Even after last year, Sam and I still rode up alone, just the two of us— faithful to the ritual if never officially to each other.
This year, Sam told me, his older brother might make it up for a couple days, if he could swing the time off. Whenever Sam spoke of Percy, his voice grew wistful with sibling reverence.
I took in this information without reacting—there were always a few strays who came to the cabin for New Year’s, some visiting roommate or temporary boyfriend, and I was the only one who seemed possessive of our time together, wary of newcomers—the others were more open to change. Later, in pictures, the outlier’s presence became the only thing that allowed us to decipher one year from the next—the year it was, the year it would be.
And Genevieve, is she joining us? I asked, relaying how okay I was with the idea of his new relationship. Well, six months new. We hadn’t kept in touch as much this last year, his first in med school. Their first.
She’s with her folks, he said, briefly meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror. I knew he hadn’t seen her in a while because his face sported the scruffy five o’clock shadow that in two days would be a full beard. From what the others had told me, around Genevieve he was always clean shaven.
The lanes dropped down from six to four to two, the stretches of trees wild and blurry. A milky winter light suffused the grey afternoon, reflected through the smudged windshield glass. Sam cracked the window and lit a cigarette, sending ribbons of icy air through blocks of linty heat pumping up from the car vents.
Want one, Ruby? he asked.
I nodded, leaned towards his outstretched Zippo as he snapped it alight without taking his eyes off the road. I cupped his hand to enclose the flame and cranked the window down. He drove with one arm and let the other rest on the ledge, gently tapping the beat of the song we could barely hear over the roar of the highway. The wind played crazy hairdresser games on my head as I exhaled, watching the evidence of my breath take shape and disappear.
As we pulled off the interstate, Sam turned up the radio, whose frequency was shot through with static and air pockets blocked by the mountains. The air smelled mossy and bright. The familiar scenery played out before me: pastures and stone churches, filling stations and fast food. The roads twisted under thick patches of trees, which cast shadows, then parted to reveal strips of cold open sky.
The driveway was a mile uphill, steep and winding, the gravel softly mulching the path. Sam took the corners sharply, the Jeep grinding its wheels and bumping us over the rocks. Even though we’d done it countless times, I still closed my eyes at the switchbacks, gripped the handlebars tight, and prayed modest prayers for our survival. The Jeep slowed and I heard Sam’s door open and click shut and then the sound of the trunk unlatch, cool air laced with pine needles drifting in. Back on solid ground, I clamored up the stairs.
The inventory that year was much the same as it was every New Year’s at the cabin: three sleeping dogs, their tails beating the rhythms of unknown songs, passed down through collective doggie-unconscious dreams. Six humans, we who had known each other since the middle of middle school, some of us longer than that. Bags of bulk groceries filling up cabinets and cupboards, spilling out onto the countertop for snacking. Boxes of sparklers, stacks of DVDs. Three beds, so we would have to double up. Acres of woods outside.
I catalogued these provisions, the quantifiable indices of our endless days, took comfort in arranging the bags of Bisquick and boxes of cheese crackers and stacking six-packs on the ice-boxed back porch, switching VH-1 to I Love the 90s. Unlike the rest of “Real Life,” as I’d come to think of it—between air-quotes—the cabin, for a few brief days at the dawn of each new year, wrapped us up in the great mirage of adulthood, that golden fallacy where we all want to stay, caught between the beginnings and endings of things: the shimmering illusion that nothing ever changes.
After dinner, the long walnut table disappeared under poker chips and a Trivial Pursuit board, fielding the flips and re-flips of a little plastic timer and all its tiny grains of sand. We mixed drinks in the kitchen and brought back beers cold from the porch. The dogs swiped for scraps and slept by the light of the fire, which turned on with the crank of a knob.
Draped across the couch and slumped deep in the wide cushy chair, the electric fire fizzing in the fireplace, we railed on the world. Colby called it Hot Talk!, a term he took from talk radio. Now, whenever our conversations wandered into controversial territory (a healthcare debate, the middle-east settlements, who among us would be the first one eaten on a desert island), anything with two sides really, he would jump in with Hot talk!
I’d be more into Occupy if it weren’t so damn cold out there, Kassia said. Those tents are not insulated.
How very 1% of you, Colby replied.
I’m 1% douchebag, true. But a furnace, I am not.
Hot talk, Colby said, literal and metaphorical.
It’s all a little silly, Sam said, surprising us, lately, with his gradual slide toward centrism. Like what specifically are they out there fighting for? What leaders have emerged? What policies are they advocating?
I don’t think it’s silly, I said, nudging Sam in the ribs from beneath his arm.
It’s not about the old models, Summer replied, her voice trailing off.
Who wants to play Psychiatrist? Kassia offered, not wanting to let the chasm grow too wide.
We sat, all of us in a circle, where Kassia was trying to guess the psychological ailment the rest of us were afflicted with. We were sending her clues, but she wasn’t catching them. We’d call out Psychiatrist!, as the game dictates, and then all of us would stand up and switch seats. And over it would start again until she got the riddle. Like musical chairs for the DSM.
The affliction we were trying to get her to guess was that we were all answering as if we were the person two to the left. She’d ask us questions, the more personal the better, and we answered not as ourselves but as the person sitting two down from us. If someone got our facts wrong, we’d yell Psychiatrist! and switch seats. That was our fictional affliction. Though, in reality, we were all probably a little bit afflicted.
I was answering as if I were Sam, as he was two to my left.
Ruby, Kassia asked me, not knowing I was Sam, and it was easy for me to assume his posture, his easy charm. It was a position I’d spent far too much time considering.
How old were you when you lost your virginity?
Fifteen, I said, a dead giveaway I was not myself, as I had been the last of the group. Sam had been the first.
Fifteen? Kassia paused, looking at me suspiciously. Is the affliction I’m trying to guess, she asked, that you only believe revisionist history?
No, try again.
Summer, Kassia asked, not knowing Summer was actually me. Who do you love with undying ardor?
Sam, obviously, Summer deadpanned. It’s been this way for years.
Summer had a long-term girlfriend who was curled up next to her on the couch.
Hot talk! Colby piped in, as himself.
Hot talk! Sam said, as Colby, graciously avoiding my eye-contact.
I shot Summer a how-could-you look, though I didn’t mind as much as I pretended to. What, her facial expression asked. Old news.
Psychiatrist! I shouted, which you were only supposed to do when the person answering as you got the facts wrong, in this case suggesting that I didn’t, in fact, love Sam with undying ardor.
Bullshit, Summer challenged, but we didn’t want to confuse Kassia anymore. So everybody got up and switched seats.
After a while it started to sound like a code, a prophecy, a frightening refrain—Psychiatrist! Psychiatrist! Psychiatrist!
Kassia’s frustration was mounting. She tried to brace it with the mystical craziness she was practicing back then—twirling her braids around her finger and twisting her rings and bracelets, so that each of her movements carried the sounds of soft chimes. But with each new question and fake response from us, her face gave way to pure, decimating rage.
Watch out, Colby joked, breaking character. She’s off her meds.
Easy, I reminded him. We don’t want a repeat of New Year’s 2005.
Kassia rolled her eyes. Ever the archivist, she said.
Sam was, in fact, the one I loved with undying ardor for the better part of the decade, which was a lot of VH-1 episodes; a couple presidents; the fading color of my favorite pair of his jeans. The easiest of us to love, he’d always had girlfriends, every year except last year, and he had one now, I reminded myself—the enigmatic Genevieve, back in L.A., where they lived.
Mostly, I could manage it—the love you sustain for a friend who you often caught yourself thinking about as more than that. More than a one-off. More like a code written into DNA. Occasionally it still surfaced in the form of his shoulder next to mine, when we’d be sitting side by side on the couch. An almost insuppressible urge—this need so strong, to fit oneself into the crook of someone’s neck, to fit and to stay.
Briefly, the image of waking up naked in Sam’s arms flashed before me, exactly a year ago, upstairs. If someone had asked me what had happened, I would have said that after years of buildup, we finally got together at the cabin, and it had been the best week of my life. And then, when we got back, faced with the prospect of long-distance and everything getting complicated, I became trigger-shy, claiming to need more time to sort things out.
But twelve months later, there in the warmth of that room, as the fire gathered and gave heat and the hours rolled over into morning, I wasn’t so sure the order of things, what had really happened to whom and when. In the early morning lull, everything grew hazy. It was starting to feel like here was the only place I could ever really love anyone.
As if here was the only place love made sense.
By the next afternoon, we were fully operating on cabin-time. We almost didn’t hear the door open and clank. The dogs scrambled up and raced to see who it was. We put down our Scrabble tiles.
Greetings, all, Percy said, with the older-brother formality older brothers have. I’d all but forgotten it was technically his house, or his family’s house, anyway, and not ours. He hadn’t visited us since our third year together, I noted to myself—a wild year that was. Percy had gone to bed early while the rest of us played strip poker, sharing pans of edibles.
Sam untangled himself from the doublewide armchair we’d been sharing, our legs occupying the same ottoman like peaceful border countries.
What’s up, Bro, Sam asked, his voice suddenly sheepish with Percy here, at the cabin, looking down at the rest of us in pajamas and still draped over couches at five in the afternoon. Percy wore a crisp polo shirt with a guitar strapped across his shoulder and an overnight bag patched with foreign country stickers on his back. A freelance war correspondent, Percy’s childhood genius, consistently tested and periodically measured and assessed in follow-up studies, seemed to have driven him to an interior space all his own, as if he spent his lifetime peering out at the rest of us from across a wide gulf.
The brothers exchanged an elaborate sort of handshake and slapped backs. Percy was older than us by ten years—almost thirty-eight, his voice a little lower, his jeans ironed and creased—these carryovers from a bygone era of manners and aftershave. Once, when I was home recovering from college heartbreak, he’d been in town, visiting family. The brothers arrived at my parents’ house in their mom’s beat-up VW, and without explanation or fanfare, they kidnapped me from the couch and drove us to a superhero movie, playing at the sad little drive-in off the highway. It ended up being the best night of the whole miserable break: that band of mutant outcasts, their bodies and faces painted bright, primary colors, while the planets they protected spun away in their orbits, oblivious to the imminent risk of their complete obliteration.
So, Percy asked, cracking open a beer and settling into the red corduroy Papasan, what’d I miss?
New Year’s Eve, and we lit sparklers that crackled into Y-shaped sparks, like forked pegs from an ancient childhood game. They simmered and burned before fizzing out dryly. The singe of champagne, ice of bare feet on the second-floor wraparound porch. Cold air like a shock to the ribs: pay attention. The champagne was turning everything soft around me—a blurred carousel ride of the people I loved best in the world. Percy and Sam started playing something on their guitars, smoking cigarettes in the freezing dark, and Summer and her girlfriend kissed deeply under mistletoe. Colby and I kissed like cousins, and he said, Hot talk, and wrapped me into his coat with him. Kassia danced under the moonlight with scarves like Stevie Nicks.
Happy New Year, I said, over and over again, to everybody—a wish, a question, a kissing game, a mantra, as if repetition would ensure we would always be exactly here, these precise people on this precise night, for the rest of our lives.
We piled back into the house still wearing our party hats to shoot pool, play cards, dance to the clubby music performed live on TV. The first couple of people filed off to bed, against my protestations, before we could sing drunken karaoke or play another game of pool. Were we getting old? Was the cabin becoming not-fun anymore?
I went outside, letting the sound of the screen door clang behind me, and listened to the brothers play music. Their notes were imperfect, and occasionally they forgot the lines, but the songs poured outwards, their voices blending together like grains of Tennessee whiskey, more in step together on guitar than they seemed in real life. I bummed a cigarette, closed my eyes, hugged my knees to my chest beneath a thick picnic blanket, and sung softly with their harmonies.
Sam got up to get more beer, and while he was inside, I asked Percy what it was like to be an embedded journalist.
Well, he said, his face shading over, letting a cigarette trip across each knuckle of his hand, you’re attached to a military unit, so you get a strong sense of the command, the infantry. It’s almost impossible to travel these days with the kidnappings, so embedding reporters to move around with one caravan makes sense, but it also means that for any given story, you’re only ever seeing things through that one vantage point.
But you’re always only ever seeing things through one vantage point, I countered, not exactly sure what I meant.
When he didn’t say anything, I felt my cheeks heat up. Where the hell was Sam?
What about you, he asked, his eyes trained on me for the first time in what seemed like years.
How’s life at the historical society?
Oh, you know, I said, archival. Epic. Passé.
Compared to his, my job seemed a little fusty. A parasol at the county fair.
He chuckled and studied me some more.
Almost anachronistically, the world of my job appeared before me in greater detail, intruding on my cabin-time like modern technology in a period piece. Compared with the people at the cabin, my coworkers felt like oddities I’d known for twenty minutes. Even at age twenty-seven, telling people what I did for a living still caught me a little by surprise, a kid you humor who wants to be an astronaut. And while there was nothing wrong with what I did, I had that orbiting feeling you get on getaways, a feeling that refuses to admit you’re ever going back.
You have an archivist’s impulse, he said, after a while. I wonder what the archives will say about this war when it’s all said and finished. Pretty fucked up.
From the television inside, we could hear “Auld Lang Syne” played in slow, wistful duets.
Did you know that “Auld Lang Syne” is also meant for funerals and graduations, I said, I heard it on NPR.
Percy strummed a few notes of the song on his guitar, his voice sounding like a wheezy, grassroots revolution reported from close range.
This song, he said, swiveling in his chair to face me, it’s asking if we should forget everybody we used to know. Should we remember our old haunts or never let them come to mind? That’s some PTSD shit right there.
I read somewhere, I replied, that the word nostalgia comes from the roots of two Greek words: pain upon coming home.
Percy nodded, making a small noise of unspoken agreement, suggesting pain and homes beyond my reach.
Still, it pleased me that I could teach the boy-genius new words in ancient languages. I thought about how all the old words—friend, nostalgia, lust, love, desire—become new words, take on new meanings, in the presence of a new audience.
What there should be, I continued, is a word that means, pain upon losing something that hasn’t left yet. That’s still here, but fleeting.
That word is called existence, Percy said.
Then he lifted his shoulders, shifting his guitar, and stared out over the banister at all that separated us from the wide, brazen world.
Sam was still inside—on the phone wishing Genevieve a happy new year in the Pacific Time Zone, though I couldn’t make out anything beyond that, and he had been gone a while. We went in to escape the freeze, and some time later Sam took the house phone with him up to bed. Same words in different time zones.
And then there were two.
Percy and I stayed up watching Time Square revelers until the credits rolled and even they, it seemed, had gone home for the night.
Do you want to stay up with me for a while? he asked, finally. It was nearly 4am.
The clarity of this question landed me right in the eye. Was this really happening—would Percy ever propose such a thing? Did I want to stay up with him? I couldn’t even begin to imagine. He always seemed so buttoned up. That old feeling with Sam—redirected someplace else—given new meaning in a new form.
He moved closer to me on the worn couch, so we were side by side, but not looking at each other, watching our faces on the blank TV. Beside me, I could feel where his hip grazed mine, the rhythmic rise and fall of my ribcage: in, then out.
Quietly, he said, I like you.
And all I could think of was: your brother. This house. Light of the world. A city on a hill.
I meted out each word, carefully, as he stroked the crevices between my fingers: I can’t. It wouldn’t be right.
But nothing came out.
You know, I said, finally, taking a soft inhalation of breath as he tipped up my palm, Sam and I have a—a history. Did you know about that?
Percy did not know. He waited for me to tell him what that meant, a history—that word conjuring languages and scribes and mythologies. He wanted to know if Sam and I had ever been together. And I considered it, considered unburdening myself with the whole pathetic story, how Sam and I had finally had the now-or-never sex at the cabin last year. I thought we would break the bed or the floor or the ceiling or our bones, worried we were keeping the others awake. The talk Sam and I had early in January, when we got back to real life, and how I had balked, insisting I needed more time, unrecognizable to myself as I wondered about platonic realities like time differences and insufficient vacation days and his med school obligations. Then I spent months wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t waffled, afraid of things changing and afraid of things not changing.
But then, of course, they’d gone ahead and changed without me, anyway, as they do.
But I didn’t say any of this to Percy. It was too late. I would not halt the speed of this thing that had started happening here, its force already in motion. And desire unfurled itself ahead of me, the moment unspooling like wound up thread.
No, I said, recovering. Nothing happened. Bad timing. We just never figured out a way to make it work.
Which, in a way, I supposed, was partially true.
I see, he said.
That make a difference to you, I asked. Do you care?
No, he concluded, I don’t care at all.
But Sam would care, I knew. For the lying, if nothing else.
And he would care because it was his brother and I was like family and the whole thing was too much, some biblical parable, when all we wanted was the Christmas and New Year’s of our younger years. His brother and all of us when we were younger, before we became real adults. And in a way I’d been home with him more than this absent brother, these last ten years. While Percy had been off covering the world with a voice recorder and a laptop, I’d kept Sam close, made him elaborate birthday cards and sent mix-CDs in the mail, kept vigil with him at his aunt’s funeral when Percy was off somewhere dutifully filing reports from Kabul and Kandahar and Basra.
It was wrong what I was doing now, with Sam’s brother, I knew this; the things I was considering, what the soft mouth tonguing the blue veins of my wrists was making me want to do. Beneath the lamplight, he was kissing in the dark.
So I kept quiet as he kissed the life-line up my arm, trailing his clean shaven cheek over my skin. And then the indecision gave way like unwanted layers—the thinking subsumed only by doing, and then all you can do is keep doing, to keep the mind at bay: catch and friction of new Christmas sweaters.
I whispered over and over how I had to go upstairs, but I stayed and stayed and stayed. He nodded each time and continued.
Kiss me, he said, each time I tried to leave. And I did, every last time.
After the first, I stopped wondering if brothers kiss the same.
I considered, as he moved swiftly down my stomach, what a life without desire would look like. I ran my finger over his closely shorn hair. What pristine sheets we’d all have in the absence of longing, unseen windows of the sky at dawn, how branches emerge from the darkness, smudged out by smoky clouds, the spaces between them like powdery fog. All these forgotten histories. All of this we would never know.
As daylight filled the room, his legs looped in the couch and me on the floor, I came in his mouth and cried out, his head bent down low to drink me in. After, in the arch of his arm, I measured the dimensions of ghosts.
Finally, hoping no one could hear us, we padded up the creaking stairs to separate twin beds. I collapsed at last, trying not to wake Kassia, Percy just across the hall, letting sleep dissolve the last few hours like the soft shake of an etch-a-sketch, in love with this feeling and in love with its eventual, inevitable erasure.
New Year’s Day came in the late afternoon when I woke up, and I was badly in need of fresh air.
They were gathered in the main room, drinking Bloody Marys and nursing hangovers. Summer and her girlfriend and Colby were cooking the big annual supper in the kitchen, and the smells of fried chicken and garlicky onions wafted over, my stomach riding a wave of nausea.
Kassia was channel surfing and lingered on a travel show, where the host was sipping a cocktail on a Croatian beach.
Maybe next year, we should do New Year’s there, Sam said. Genevieve says Croatia is the most beautiful place she’s ever seen.
Sure, if you’re picking up the tab, Kassia said.
We could always check out some places closer to home, Summer called out. Mix things up a bit.
Don’t even joke about these things, I called back, but nobody laughed.
Anybody want to throw a football? Sam asked, by way of greeting me (as was the New Year’s Day custom), but I couldn’t face him. Sometimes at dusk we’d tell ghost stories on the footbridge straddling the creek. But this year it was too cold, and the others had stayed close to the fire all day, bathed in the glow of nostalgia TV.
I was afraid someone would be able to read it on my face: it wasn’t enough that I’d almost taken Sam, the perennial golden boy, last year. Now I’d gone and fucked his brother.
Percy offered to join me as I laced up shoes for a walk, though I hadn’t asked him to. I caught Sam looking sidelong. The others were beginning to notice us, too—us alone, us again. I could catch scraps of speculation in the moments before I entered a room. But nobody asked me outright, which was just as well. Nervously, we set off down the steep driveway with the dogs, just the two of us.
My head was pounding. My blood felt thin, watered down, the edges of my peripheral vision blurring. We walked to a spot in the distance, a patch of light in the winter branches, passed beneath it, showered in gold, and kept on. I didn’t know how to carry myself around him, if I was supposed to be coy or contrite or moony or what. This was Percy, and inscrutability was part of his makeup. I wasn’t even sure that had been me last night, operating without foresight, without consequence, riding purely on feeling alone.
Now I fell a step behind him, my body tired and slowed. We passed a mail box—Jesus, The Reason for the Season. I’d never ventured this far outside the grounds except drunk and en masse. He started in tentatively with some small talk. Chit chat was the thinnest layer of connectivity, and I wobbled out from the edges, skirting away.
The pavement was cold and the light was watery, the crunch of grass in a cow grove. Three white-tailed deer darted around a man-made swimming hole, its circumference perfectly round, too seamless to have come from any God. Personally, I preferred my swimming holes muddier around the banks.
Now how is that good for evolution, I asked, watching the whites of their tails. You can see them all across the woods. No camouflage.
It’s for mating, he said. Mating, which I guessed is itself a blending into blankness and brush.
I reminded him that the night before he said he would embed me in the woods: my decorated embedded journalist.
He laughed without recollection, a little hammered last night was he.
I remember the idea, he allowed. Not the wording.
Oh, but you said it, I told him. And I quote, dress warm.
But no embedding occurred right then.
So, how come nobody else wanted to come out on the walk with us? Percy asked.
Too tired, I guess. When do people start getting less fun?
What do you mean?
Like, first it’s going to bed early, then nobody wants to get up off the couch—what next—people give up drinking, or smoking, or kissing at midnight? I mean, when we were in college, we would go all out and do stuff. Steal bait from the general store so we could go night-fishing and then end up skinny dipping under the stars, setting off fireworks—with real ammo—from the ditch and then run races to see who was fastest when they were drunk, or try and find the most ridiculous porn in the Adults Only shop and see how far we could watch together before it got too uncomfortable and then we’d debate the gender politics of porn—
And would that be so bad, to give up some of the debauchery? Percy asked, and I reddened.
We’re still young, I said, trying to chase away the specter I had raised, that things weren’t what they used to be.
You’re how old? He asked.
Twenty-seven, I said.
He paused, surprised, and what I heard in the silence was something of a reproach: not that young.
People may get a little tamer, it’s true, he said. But there’s good stuff, too, about getting older.
Oh, yeah? Does time make you bolder, children get older? I asked. I’m afraid, perhaps, that time is merely making us blander.
I’m not so sure, he said, cocking an eyebrow.
I’m glad we did this, I offered, finding eye contact for the first time all afternoon.
I liked last night, he agreed, liked all the little interruptions.
He said it smoothly, all the little interruptions, like something one could imagine sanded into headstones. When in reality, last night I’d startled at every sound in the old house that might have resembled a person waking up and wandering in for a glass of water. We’d pause, caught entwined like teenagers, and then go at it again.
What do we do about Sam, I ventured, testing the waters. Say something?
Percy didn’t reply right away. As a general practice, he didn’t disclose more than he had to. And this, I knew, was part of why I wanted him: he could keep a secret.
Instead, he talked about how, when he had a problem out on assignment, something classified, he’d take out his guitar and give himself a musical puzzle, just start playing, fingering out the logic of a sequence on the neck of its echo. Sam had taught me what it means for a guitar to get good action, the placement of the strings high or low. Echo of necks. Percy had the kind of guitar from the ‘70s that gets boys all excited, like keys to a Harley.
And if that doesn’t work, I asked.
There’s always Jesus, he said, the reason for the season.
So this was a one-night thing. Something nobody would ever need to know. Sam would never find out. The others. I knew that out here, beneath the day-lit sky, we were making a silent pact. Longing begets longing, I reckoned.
When I reminded Percy that last night he called me delectable and how he’d already forgotten, he laughed and said, And it’s still the truth.
Softly, trying not to appear desperate, I asked, What else is true?
Later, after we got back, I called my parents from the basement rotary phone, ostensibly to wish them Happy New Year, and because New Year’s Day is my parents’ wedding anniversary. My grandmother had brought over her honey-cake, and even though it was far too sweet alone, they’d all dip it into Mexican spiked coffee and toast the new year. Actually, I just needed to tell someone. Unless you circulate it, a secret withers and dies on the vine.
Happy Anniversary! I cried into the phone. Traditionally, on the thirtieth anniversary, you give pearl.
My mother said, Thank you, Darling. Are you having a good visit?
I asked her if it felt like a long time, thirty years married to my dad.
Actually, she said, sometimes I think meeting your father has made me younger.
I told her I think I’m in love with brothers.
She told me that only happens in the movies when soldiers go off to war.
She and my dad were war-protesters. It was easier to fall in love, then.
She told me falling in love with brothers is like trying to heal a contact wound with a hand grenade.
New Year’s Day was a special dinner at the cabin, different than what I ate with my parents or back in my apartment with the roommates. Fried chicken, a penny slipped into black-eyed peas, collard greens. All evening I kept knocking over things. A water goblet, a noise blower, a spiced orange. Kassia gazed at me from across the table, as if trying to divine my celestial whereabouts. We discussed our resolutions for the year: levitation, slam-dunking on a regulation hoop, mud runs, scavenger hunts. And yet, something was off.
Kassia suggested that Colby not leave so many empty glasses lying around.
Colby reminded her that he was the one doing most of the cooking—he could use some help with the dishes—and then he looked at the rest of us, though we all felt we were already pitching in our fair share.
My mind filled with the memory of where we were this time last year, the scent of Sam’s skin as we slept, the house full of people feeling whole, connected, in sync. When Percy and I had gotten back from the walk, Sam cornered me as I made for the stairs, Something going on there? But I’d shaken him off, unable to meet his gaze.
God, I silently prayed, the tectonic plates are shifting, here. Help me. Keep this place intact.
We were polishing off slices of pie, refilling water glasses and pouring more wine, when the doorbell rang. Until that moment, I don’t think I even realized the cabin had a doorbell. The dogs were roused from slumber. Kassia went to answer it, even though it wasn’t her house any more than it was mine.
No way, Kassia exclaimed. You’re here!
And then there was the unfamiliar voice that still seemed familiar because I’d imagined it so many times. Surprise… And Sam rose from the table.
Baby? What are you doing here? I heard Sam say.
I flew in this morning and rented a car, wanted to surprise you, she said. Summer gave me directions.
And in through the threshold, beneath Sam’s arm, walked Genevieve.
I waved hello and got up from my seat to greet her. We’d never formally met, and I nodded as Sam made introductions.
I turned toward the kitchen to help clear away the last of the dishes. Summer took my elbow before I reached the door. Hey, she mouthed. You okay?
Sure, I said, shrugging her off, feeling ridiculous, and also sort of stunned she hadn’t told me Sam’s girlfriend was coming. She’s Sam’s girlfriend, I said.
Colby was setting up by the fireplace—Risk, it appeared. You in, he asked.
Not tonight, I said, too hungover for world domination.
It was true. I felt spent in all kinds of ways, bent on the binges of excess; my head, my legs. Before last night, I hadn’t had sex in months, not since Sam, and my body buzzed with felt remembrance. Sleep felt so far off I could have mailed it a telegram, waving it goodbye from a loading deck.
I got this, I said, motioning toward the dishes. Kassia nodded and I nudged open the kitchen door with my hip and went in. I stood over the sink with a dishrag, waiting to understand what I was going to do next.
Genevieve, I now knew, was blonde and thin, her hair braided and pulled back off her face. Her tailored pants and the way she checked her cell phone, one hip cocked, wrist flexed, suggested a sort of young professional, the nature of which I was not familiar with at our age. From the heels of her clicky boots to the delicate filaments of her jewelry, she radiated someone who was infinitely capable, someone who just got off work, someone who had never been stopped. It felt out of place here, her precise amalgamation of accomplishment and upbringing in our house of history, surrounded by all our analogue, archival objects, but it also made us sit up straight and look around a little, suddenly, sheepish.
Now she was setting up her armies, I could hear through the door, telling Sam to prepare for invasion.
I’ll invade you, he might have whispered back, though I couldn’t hear exactly, only a small, shared laugh and the smack-talking of the others, all suddenly activated by the presence of this beautiful stranger.
The door to the kitchen opened, and it was Percy, standing crooked with his head tilted toward the back porch. He smiled a Mona Lisa smile, blinked a few times but didn’t say anything. It felt like the wrong brother, then: Sam was the one I wanted, not him. Who did I think I was, imagining I could move on? Not with his brother, whose clothes were all accounted for and whose posture seemed immune to the hits inflicted by hangovers and poor judgment. I opened my mouth as if to tell him this, to bare all and tell him everything, that he’d only been a proxy-fuck, but nothing came out.
Instead he slowly came up to the sink and encircled my waist with his hands, pushing me against the counter. Briefly, he left them there before turning my hips around to the sink, aligning them with his so that if someone were to walk in at a certain angle, I’d be imperceptible, this man engulfing me, whose brother most likely had his girlfriend on his lap, good-naturedly piling on insults with the others. Oh, they can never know, I thought, resolve melting, as Percy dipped my hands into the sudsy water, in whose depths the two of us slowly began to clean the plates. Rinse the glasses. Scrub down every last surface until there was nothing left.
On the back porch we rocked beneath giant pines, me straddling Percy as he moved up and down inside me beneath our puffy jackets—the Smoky Mountains in the distance, stars riding their backs. The crescent cling of sickle moon. The air was cold and clear in my lungs. I could see my breath rise as wet steam when I kissed his ear. I ground my hips down, pushing him deeper into me. This wasn’t proxy. This was love, or something like it. I didn’t want it to end. I was finally ready to move on, to let go.
It was from over Percy’s shoulder that I saw Genevieve, peeking out from the kitchen window, caught in her act of catching us. I knew she knew about Sam and me when I saw her pause there for a moment too long, when our eyes met, briefly, before she quietly made her way back to the others.
This is how it unraveled.
It had all come out by the end of the night—Sam and me, and Percy and me, and the lies I’d spun like silky dimensions.
Sam, Genevieve, and I were in the main room, and Percy was off on the porch, but he could hear some of the louder exchanges. The others were in the kitchen, and they could hear through the door.
I can’t believe you’d do this, Sam began. He crossed his arms, and this was the hard part. There were things I wanted to say, to him, but only to him. Things like I love you, I know that now. Or, I think I might be in love with your brother.
Because I couldn’t, instead I said, Can we talk about this in private?
How could you do this? I can’t believe you fucked my brother.
It’s just. After last year. I didn’t expect you to move on… so fast, I sputtered.
You disappeared on me for months. I had assumed you moved on, too.
At that point, Genevieve went upstairs to bed.
It’s just, I was afraid—afraid of us getting together for real and finding faults with each other and ruining this thing we have. I didn’t want things to change. I just needed more time.
Always about you. Your rituals, your precious archives. You feeling left out. Other people have things going on in their lives, too, Ruby, that have nothing to do with you. We’re not all just here to pretend like it’s still college for you.
Percy walked through the door, then. I’m out, he said. This isn’t what I signed up for.
No, I said, you stay. This is your house.
The next morning, after I’d packed up Summer’s car, I said to Percy, I wish I were a surgeon or a seamstress or a shoemaker, someone who knew how to tie things up. Someone who, if they had to, could break strings with her teeth.
He didn’t reply, but his shoulders softened in what felt like acknowledgement.
I was leaving early, borrowing Summer’s car until she returned in a few days. I’d never left the cabin early before. I wanted to flee, cringing each time I looked up to see a different face say goodbye, but also I wanted to take it all in, let my eyes trail over every last detail. No one was asking me to stay.
Summer squeezed my shoulder, told me she’d see me when they got back, and went inside.
Colby hugged me and muttered, Hot talk, with a sympathetic shrug. Kassia kissed both my cheeks and draped a string of rose quartz over the mirror and told me it would ward off negative spirits.
That was the first year I didn’t bury anything, but I saw things as they were. I’d be back, years later, but it would look different. Even the same people would be other people by then. This is how we all grew up. This is how you let go. In drips and drabs. In denial, refusing to believe the writing on the wall—until you’re the last one left, showing up year after year and waiting for the old magic to return. Wishing yourself into what you were before, what you must have been—a hot, live, wire.
On the driveway down the mountain, country music from the radio soared out over the gravel, down the treacherous slope of unpaved road that ridged first to one side, a canyon of rocks to the other. Slippery erosion of soil and shape. Feathered paths like scars down its face. I had never driven it alone.
Then a paved road. A filling station. The roundabout out of town. The street spilled into highway, and each mile I drove away felt crueler than the last. In my mind I was Penelope, un-sewing the hours so I could be with him again—him and his brother and this odd collective family. A box of mismatched ornaments that can anchor something felled and fill it with light.
After they all got back from the cabin, I flew back to the city with the disconcerting jetlag of lost sleep, lost years. The internal dateline of crossing over, there to here, drifting somewhere above distant cloudscapes.
I wasn’t good at leaving; it cleaved me in half. I was good at being left behind. I was good at marking time and space and charting the distances since last measured, the beauty of a clean read. As the landmarks I’d dutifully marked off with Sam caught me on the reverse side of the highway, I told myself the cabin wouldn’t last forever, and I would be right. People got married, got sober, got wised-up, got kids. We’d be lured by other sirens, other songs.
Though eventually Sam forgave me and we all still saw each other when we were home for holidays, it wasn’t the same.
I tried to learn how to press forward. But there’s comfort in rummaging the ruins of ritual, even though you can never recreate it. Ritual is a kind of renewal, a reinvention before storing away, receding into the slipstream of memory. The expression “clean break” is beautiful because there has never been such a thing.
Even now, I can still see it, still see us, and the cabin as it was, as we were, then, when the air starts to crisp like first snow. The sky dipped in granite smoke. When the trees shake themselves loose and bare and lonely and bold in their sparse limbs. When the light from the day diffuses into lamps by a window, a corner chair and a book, a board game. Lit up with all the ecstasy and terrors of youth, waiting to be swallowed whole and transformed anew; and yet, still burning through the frame anyway. This landscape, this light.