by kathryn ward
Minnetonka High School
Highway 94 had no end. Above Robert, the sky was so deep that it was possible it didn’t either.
Through the open windows, the edge of November’s breeze married the smell of hay, fallen trees, and warm animal fur. In a field outlined in forest, a girl wove between trees on a brown horse. The radio wavered between stations, ceasing its static only when the car passed a clearing.
Robert breathed easy here, simply. He had been making the drive between Minneapolis and Chicago since he was a boy, but it had been years since he had found the time. Now he had reason.
He hadn’t seen Vince in over a year. They spoke on the phone occasionally; Vince worked in finances and had an apartment near Lake Michigan. He had offered to show Robert around for his newspaper’s culture article.
It was warm for November, Robert thought. Perhaps not. As he got older he found his memory of things like weather and affection was unreliable. He remembered being happier, but he wasn’t unhappy now. He remembered being cooler, but he didn’t shiver today.
As he drove he caught himself thinking once again of Amy.
On this road, years ago, they had been together, listening to a more melodic static.
He had been happier then.
But he wasn’t unhappy now.
It always caught him off guard. He was not a nostalgic person, but of late he was lonely. Perhaps that was why he was driving here again. Perhaps he didn’t care so much about the article. Perhaps he only wanted company.
Surely if that was the case, he thought, he was doing the right thing. Vince was the one who made him feel like a person. That was why he had chosen him so many years ago.
He tried to remember what Amy made him feel like. He wanted to ask her. She was the only one who knew how to put it into words.
The girl on the horse had stopped nearby and was watching Robert carefully. She had a hollow face, cool brown eyes like all the women Robert had ever loved. Robert raised a hand to greet her, but she stared, not out of shyness, but of self-assurance.
For a moment he closed his eyes tightly. Then he drove on.
The first time Robert had been to Chicago was when he was still a boy. Then, he had been awed by things like big cities, grand and cascading angles, mass movement, ephemerality. He had stood in the observation deck of Sears Tower and felt the city, not as a person, but as a storm. It made him taste blood in his breath.
Now, however, the city seemed mundane as he drove through its limits. The shadows of buildings made him tired. He was beginning to have a headache.
The newspaper had put him up in a hotel overlooking Lake Michigan. It was cleaner, colder, than was his taste, but he liked the wall of windows across from his bed.
For a moment he sat before this wall and stared. Chicago was gray, and there was fog rolling from the north. He felt an overwhelming urge to not call Vince at all. There was weight in his heart.
But it must have been the weather. He was not as unhappy as that.
He picked up the phone and dialed Vince’s office. Vince was very important at this firm. Robert was not certain what exactly it was that he did, but he knew he had a whole ring of assistants, none of whom ever knew where Vince could be reached. The third one he spoke to said that he was in a meeting but had left a message to meet at Baccio’s in the Loop for lunch.
Robert had forgotten this loss of control. It wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t called at allVince would have wound up at Baccio’s like clockwork anyways.
Another thing- Robert had been in the docile timeliness of the Twin Cities too long. When was lunch? He glanced at his watch: noon. He was hungry now. He also recalled the whole afternoons of eating that he and Vince spent years ago, where late lunch would linger far past the dinner hour. It irritated Robert. He knew it did not help that he had a headache and that the clouds draped over his windows seemed to be darkening.
He put on a clean shirt and combed his hair mindlessly. He decided to find Baccio’s on his own.
On the streets, he remembered the old Chicago easily. The way the pavement cracked, the sound of the breeze in the alleys, the soft edge of standing water on the corner of every scent- it ticked. Not like a heart, but like the rhythm of his watch.
It was bitterly cold.
On entering Baccio’s, Robert found that Vince was already seated by a window, his back to him. He was reclining, as he always did instead of simply sitting, with his eyes flickering from the TV above the fireplace to the digital billboard on the L bridge across from the restaurant. He did not notice Robert approaching.
As he drew near, Robert paused. Vince looked titanous, even sprawled against the booth as he was now. Robert felt a flash of desire to turn and leave before Vince saw him. But he was bored with escapism. He found his own lack of dedication disgusting.
“Vince,” he said uncertainly.
Vince turned, smiled, and rose. As they embraced, he saw he had been wrong. There was a sense of childishness in his friend, still, amidst all the weight of his wealth.
“Finally,” Vince said languidly, returning to his seat. “What the hell took so long?”
“I didn't know when we were meeting.”
“Didn't my secretary say? Dumb as dirt, all of them. Dumb as… as, well, secretaries.” With this, Vince laughed.
Robert smiled politely.
“Well, how are you? Still writing. I can’t believe it,” Vince went on.
“You can't? What else have I ever said I might do?”
Vince shrugged. “Well, sure, but we all said we were going to do something romantic back in school, didn't we? I was going to make movies, for Christ’s sake.”
This was true. At school Vince had won an ameutuer film contest. Robert had helped him write the script. They were all in it, all their old friends. Even Amy.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Make movies?” Vince smiled. Robert thought it condescending of him. “I grew up. You don’t make money off dreams. Except you, of course.”
“This isn’t my dream.”
The waiter came at last, and Vince ordered fish for both of them. Outside it was beginning to rain.
“But really,” Vince said. “How are you?”
“Me too. I moved, did I tell you that? I own a whole floor of that new apartment building right off the park. You can see everything from it, and no one can see you. You wouldn’t believe what it cost, but I’ve been working on a new philosophy. Want to hear it?”
“I’ll die no matter what, so why not?” Vince smiled. “Why not buy an apartment? Why not live large? Why not show my friend the goddamn best of the best before he disappears back to the tundra again?”
Robert smiled. “How nihilist.”
“Oh, God, Robert, you’re right.” Robert was surprised to see pain on Vince’s face. “I’m not well at all.”
This was a rare breach of character. “What do you mean?”
Vince took a drink. “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking too much is what it is. Lately I’ve been wondering… I ruin lives for a living. I make money off of people working too hard for too little and when they get smart I sue them into oblivion. I’ve built my whole life to get to one place and now that I’m there I don’t know if any of it was worth it. It was fine at first but after a while it gets so… How many suicides do you think I’ve caused? I bet you never think of that, do you?”
Robert hesitated. “Why don’t you quit?”
He laughed miserably. “Because it’s what I do, isn’t it? Ruin lives. It’s what I’ve always done. It’ll make me crazy.”
They had ruined Amy’s life together. Robert thought. But he didn’t say it out loud.
Vince cleared his throat authoritively. “Which is why I’m embracing materialism and nihilism. Why not? Hey, have you talked to anyone from school recently?”
With that he returned to his normal invincibility.
Vince lived in a storm of his own desire, invented wind machines to build bigger and bigger waves, took pictures of himself swimming just before he disappeared beneath the surface.
After lunch they set out to the city. Robert had had the idea of following tourist trends through the eyes of a Chicagoan. Vince agreed halfheartedly, and ordered a taxi to Navy Pier. Robert had felt that Vince’s understanding of the assignment was clear, but as soon as they stepped out of the car, Vince became bored, bitter, almost cruel as Robert asked his questions.
“The truth is there isn’t anything special about Chicago,” he said sharply when Robert asked about the lake. “It’s cold and it’s manmade like every other city in the world. This is where I’d kill myself, if I could,” he added, pointing at the end of the pier. “Just fill your pockets with rocks and it’s curtains.”
Robert played along. “Like Virginia Woolf.”
“I don’t know. It was Amy’s idea. She wrote about it in an essay at school.”
The icy wind above the water struck Robert punishingly between his ribs.
Vince threw him a sideways glance. “How is she?”
“I don’t know.”
He said nothing.
“You would have been a good father, you know.”
Robert glared at him. “He wasn’t mine.”
“It was a boy?”
Robert nodded numbly.
Vince was quiet. Then, abruptly, “Let’s leave.”
Robert looked up. There was pity in his eyes.
In the car Vince leaned back in his seat, quickly receding back to his standard passivity. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bring her up.”
Robert was silent.
“I mean, I did, I know, and I did it to hurt you, but I regret it. I regret everything. Do you?”
“I don’t know.”
Vince closed his eyes. “No one’s ever happy, are they? No, that’s not true. I’m happy. I’m fucking jubilant. That’s what makes me so sick.”
“Was it always like this?”
Vince glanced over. “Was it?”
“Forget about it. Cloud Gate?”
He laughed mundanely. “Sure.”
Robert was paralyzed by Vince. He had forgotten this, too. He made him feel helpless, dependent, fearful of everything, especially of the past. He was ghostlike, entranced, imprisoned mentally. And over time, as always, it began to have a numbing effect, began to feel good. He began to feel the city pass by him mindlessly, as if he were on a parapet floating just above everyone else. Apathy. Freedom.
They went to Sears Tower and stood on the observation deck in silence. Beneath them, Chicago was a dark and distant ocean.
“It doesn't matter,” Vince said quietly.
“I can see…”
“It's all so far away. Everything on Earth is so far away from me.”
Robert began to feel lightheaded. Vince continued on.
“Can they see us up here? Can anyone see us? Can you see them? Robert, can you?”
"Who do you see when you close your eyes?”
Vince was pleading for him to say his name.
A girl on a horse. Laughing. The sun was about to engulf her.
“No one,” Robert whispered. “I see nothing.”
“Take me home,” Vince breathed.
Outside, Robert hailed a cab. They drove to Vince’s suite in silence. At some point it crossed Robert’s mind that Vince might’ve been intoxicated one way or another, so gone from him was the princely ambition that Robert had come to expect.
The suite was even larger than Robert had imagined. Halls seemed to stretch into every direction, and as Vince led him in, he saw whole rows of room whose purpose was beyond him. It was sleek, dark, monotonous, exceedingly stylish. It had not dawned on Robert how much money Vince had made before this.
Vince collapsed to a sofa when they reached the living room at the end of the maze. Windows threw dark light in at every angle. Robert looked around uncertainly.
“Sit,” Vince ordered with his eyes closed. He gestured to the spot beside him.
There were other chairs in the room. Robert obeyed uneasily.
“Why did you do it?” Vince asked softly.
Robert had wanted desperately to forget everything. It was clear now that it was impossible.
Years ago he had chosen Vince over her. She was going to have a baby, and the timeline scared him. It might’ve been his. It might not’ve been. But he had listened to Vince, abandoned her, been led blindly into darkness.
Vince was trembling.
“You were right,” Robert said, on instinct. He had been repeating this mantra to himself ever since that November. It had been cold then too.
“No,” Vince whispered. “I think it was all a lie.”
Robert could not bring himself to respond.
He had chosen Vince for a reason.
What had it been?
Outside the rain rippled the city. It was distant beyond the glass.
“Why?” Vince said again.
Robert turned and took him by the shoulders, as if to shake him in love or fury.
He fell into his arms mechanically.
Robert woke from a dream.
In it he had been floating on his back in the Mississippi River. The water kept splashing over his mouth and nose. He had been sinking slowly.
Outside it was still dark. Thunder knocked on the windows occasionally. The dimly lit clock read 4:47.
Haunted by the memory of the night, Robert was sure he would not fall back asleep. Beside him, Vince shook beneath his blanket.
For a moment Robert was still. This was not the first time he had slept with Vince. That November, years ago, as well. Then it had been Robert in tears. Vince had made promises until there was nothing else to do. Amy had been on his mind that time.
She had been this time, too.
Was it so impossible to escape? He should not have come at all. What else was there here but pain?
He stood up suddenly, dressed silently. Would he be able to get out on his own? Where were they? He couldn’t remember anything from the car ride. He hated the city. He couldn’t breathe properly here.
Robert hailed a taxi to deliver him back to his hotel. The thought of his things in his room sickened him. Meaningless. He checked out in a hurry.
Luckily it was too early for much traffic. Chicago disappeared in a matter of moments.
After calling in sick again, Robert decided to go for a drive.
He had been sick for a few days. He had asked to take a different column at the newspaper. Vince had called him four times, and Robert hadn’t answered.
Winter had unfolded its petals overnight, dressing the streets and trees and wind in white. The air smelled clear and had an edge. It seemed to purify things. Robert enjoyed its sting on his face and hands.
He had preoccupied himself neatly, spending his days on a lengthy article about soup kitchens that he had gathered information on weeks before. It would be good enough for the newspaper. Anyways, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to stay on there. He had also written a story, for his own purposes. It was a memory of throwing snowballs with his friends when they had been young.
He drove north.
How long ago was it that he had been young? On a snowy day like this, it was easy to forget he was no longer a boy. When he was young he had loved everyone he met and collected poems in a black notebook. He had laughed too loudly at things. He had thrown snowballs.
But he did remember the day he stopped being young. He had been angry at Amy, then. Now he couldn’t imagine it.
Did he regret everything? Of course. Everything. Especially Vince.
How had he been so easily led astray?
He might have been the father of his best friend’s child. Amy was lawless, wild, natural, but the few instances of intimacy they had shared had been truer than any others. He had had ideas of marriage, of love. Then in November, afraid, she had told him. Vince had advised him to get as far away as possible to avoid the scandal.
It might’ve been his. It might not’ve been.
The road was slippery. Robert had fallen away from himself again. He was driving. Driving. Where?
He realized he had had the idea all along. But he didn’t know where she lived. He pulled over at the next gas station he saw and found a telephone book inside. Perhaps she had gotten married and changed her name. Perhaps she had left Minnesota. Perhaps she had left the country altogether.
But no. Amy Alexie, Minneagli. He copied down her address and set out once again.
The snow continued steadily. As he drove on, Robert felt the anticipation of desire, an individual type of nervousness reserved solely for Christmas Eve and the adored. Amy lived far from the Cities, interwoven with woods and water. She had had plans to move to New York when they were young.
The child had died; that was the last Robert had heard. A day after his birth, according to a friend from school. That was all he knew.
It had only been five years, but they had been so long.
Her house was small, brown, hidden in curtains of pine and now snow. A light was on behind a small window. There was an old black car beneath a tree.
Robert stopped the car and sat still for a moment. He feared upsetting her. She had been violently temperamental when they were in school. Worse, she was sentimental. If she cried, he would be able to do little else than watch.
The snow had muted everything outside. As he approached the front steps, the only things he could hear were the crunch of ice beneath his boots and the faraway roar of wind.
He knocked once.
The door opened.
Amy was taller than she had been before, and slimmer. She wore working clothes regally, the sleeves of a flannel rolled up to her elbows, her hair piled messily on top of her head. The forest behind him played its reflection in her dark eyes.
He smiled weakly. “Hello.”
To his surprise, she beamed and put her arms around him. She smelled faintly of spice. “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know.” It came more honestly now.
Amy opened the door more and invited him in. Her house was little more than a cabin. They stood in the living room, and behind the fireplace Robert could see a kitchen. There was a staircase, a mismatched array of overstuffed furniture, and a wall of books. From the kitchen, he could hear soft music. A saxophone. She had liked it in school, too.
“I’m sorry to drop in,” Robert said quickly.
“No!” she said. “I missed you. I’m glad you’re here. What should I make? Are you hungry?”
The sweet domesticity surprised him. “Just coffee, unless it’s much trouble.”
“Well,” she said from somewhere in the kitchen. He could hear water pouring. “It’s been a while.”
“Almost to the day.”
He winced, but she continued on.
“What have you been doing?”
“Oh, not much,” he said. “Writing a little.”
“Writing!” She was surprised, but not unkindly. “Like you always said.”
“Not quite. I work at a newspaper.”
Amy reemerged with two mugs of coffee. Her hand touched his as he accepted one. Cold. She smiled, not noticing the tangible nostalgia. “You don’t like it?”
Robert shrugged. He had never considered that.
“What would you like to do, then?”
“Just write, I suppose. Stories and poems. Whatever I wanted.”
Amy sat in an easychair beside him. “Why don’t you?”
He smiled. “It isn’t as easy as that.”
She was quiet.
Suddenly Robert could feel his own betrayal in the room like a ghost, perched next to him icily. “Amy…”
“Good,” she said, leaning forward toward him.
“I want to hear how you remember it.”
He looked at her. Her face was innocent, pure, but she must be angry. If she had some malicious intent, it was expertly hidden.
He tried to recall the exact conversation, her words, his first thought. But the same image was caught in his mind. “I remember hating the entire world. Me, Vince, everyone. I remember…” He couldn’t say it.
Amy looked down. She was still smiling, implacably.
The coffee was strong. It left little red puckers on the tip of Robert’s tongue.
"Let’s go outside,” she said suddenly.
He looked out the window. Snow had enveloped the forest. He had only been here for a few minutes, and already the tracks of his car were gone. “Now?”
Amy was already standing, searching for something on the desk. “I’m a photographer, did I tell you that? For a magazine. Nature photography.”
This might explain her isolation. Or perhaps she had picked the job to match.
Silence echoed through the empty woods. Robert followed behind Amy closely. She did not seem to mind the branches catching her hair or the cold on her bare face. She stopped only occasionally to photograph a snow laden branch or a bird overhead.
When they could no longer see the house, Robert stopped.
She hesitated, then turned to face him. “I was young and alone.”
“It was impossible to think clearly.”
“Then why do it at all?” Her eyes were glassy. It might’ve been the cold. “Why? You loved me, Robert. I know you did. I loved you. And I was so afraid! Why wasn’t that enough? What else was there?”
The quiet forest carried their voices. “I was afraid too. That’s why. I wouldn’t have been able to have a life-”
“I couldn’t either!”
It was still snowing. “I know. I know. I know.”
She tried to smile. “It could never be easy for you two. Never nice. Not for you and Vince. I suffered through my problems. You built yours.”
The vision of Vince, asleep, came to him. He thrust it quickly to the snow.
“I would’ve married you,” Amy continued. It was tears, not the wind. She was shivering with grief. “If my baby wouldn’t have died, you would’ve wanted to marry me back.”
Robert closed his eyes.
“I wanted to die, too,” Amy said. “I wanted to die for everything.”
“Why didn’t you?” Robert was afraid of her answer.
But she smiled. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”
Robert reached for her swiftly. She was shaking.
His car was engulfed in snow. It made no difference to him, because he had decided to cast the world off in favor of Amy. He doted on her new, quiet beauty, but for all the growing up, she was still the young girl he had loved years ago. He remembered it all now.
Her skin smelled like leaves, marred occasionally by tree scratches and oven burns. Her hair was still long enough to brush against his shoulders. Her eyes were cold and brown.
In the blur of snow and woods and renewal, Robert found that there was none of the dark mechanic magnetism that there had been with Vince. He was content, fulfilled by holding her, by kissing her shoulders. It was so easy to love her. She had made piles of quilts. They fell asleep before the fire.
He was happy then, but he was happier now.
In the dead of the night the phone rang. It woke Robert, and he let it run its course and return to silence. But moments later it began again.
He felt Amy unwrap herself from the blankets and stand. The fire was only whispering now.
He watched her. Her body was limp with fatigue. Her hair was uncombed. Her clothes were too big. He loved her.
He loved her.
He did not hear what she said.
Her eyes were wide.
Robert sat up.
"Thank you,” she was saying. She hung up the phone.
She stared at him. “Vince.”
The clock on the wall beat steadily. Robert felt sick. “What?”
Amy said nothing.
How many suicides had he caused?
“In the lake,” she said softly.
“No. No, I just saw him.”
“I know. His secretaries said he was talking about us ever since then.”
In the glowing heat of the dying fire, Robert was aware of the feeling of vengeance. The child was dead, and now Vince was too.
He stood. It was too hot.
Without putting on shoes or a coat, he opened the door and fled. Somehow it was still snowing, and Robert could not hear anything but his heartbeat. The cold burned his feet and hands. He ran. He ran past the cars and through the trees like an animal, flying, in desperate pursuit of freedom, hope. He ran and he did not breathe or think or feel anything but the earth beneath him, fading slowly away, disappearing in the other direction.
There was no escape.
Kathryn Ward is a senior at Minnetonka High School outside of Minneapolis, MN and will continue her education as an English and political science double major at Macalester College next year. Her work has previously appeared in the Blue Marble Review.