To keep things a little fresh around here while I continue work on Seeds of Doubt, here’s an older short story that I wrote back in 2011. It is part of the Golden Days collection.
All she needed to do was be friendly, that night two years ago. He knew that it was an easy threshold to cross, and she did. Over the course of an hour at a house party, she was perfectly amiable, and stole his heart.
Lee didn’t remember that night every day, but it popped into his head often and unfailingly. Even now, twenty-six months later, he still thought about it at least once a week. He was devoted, heart, mind, and soul, to the girl sitting across the table from him.
Jenna returned his silent smile and sipped at the glass of white wine next to her plate of fish. She brushed back a lock of dark blonde hair, but it only slid back over her eyes after a moment. He covered his amusement by taking a bite of the pasta in front of him.
It was a routine night for them: classy restaurant, nothing too expensive, but certainly nothing that the proletariat would frequent. They were both dressed appropriately; he wore a button-up shirt and a vest over it, with freshly-pressed jeans, and she was in a petite dress of a startling blue. Cloth-of-gold was sewn sparingly through it, throwing off the occasional glint from the lights above and making for a perfect complement to her light hair and crystal blue eyes.
Not for the first time, Lee considered how lucky he really was. He’d worked hard to get his Ph.D. and secure his job at the leading law firm in town, and the position paid much more than he needed to get by. He had a brand new Porsche in the parking lot outside, and owned—not leased—a penthouse apartment downtown. Most of all, though, he had as his girlfriend the brightest, friendliest, and most beautiful girl he’d ever met.
They were both twenty-eight, a fact that he thought appropriate. He’d never dated a girl older or younger than he by more than a year, so he thought that having found such a perfect girl who also happened to be the same age was, well, perfect. She was a physical therapist, an avid reader, and enjoyed playing tennis as much as he did. So, perfect.
So why did his brother always seem to insist on giving him a hard time about dating her?
Lee wanted to grind his teeth when he thought about Zak and his opinions, but he forced himself to instead take another bite of his dinner. It was delicious, after all, and helped take his mind off of family problems. They could wait the two weeks still to go before Christmas.
When he finished chewing, he met Jenna’s eyes and asked, “How’s the trout?”
She shook her head in wonderment. “Better than any time we’ve been here. I think they have a new seasoning.”
“Really?” In the five years he’d been coming to The Square Plate, they’d had the exact same recipe for every seafood dish. “Can I try a bite?”
Jenna cut off a piece of trout with her fork, speared it, and held it across the small table for him. He snatched it off her fork with his teeth and savored the flavor. It was indeed new.
“Mmm,” Lee enthused. “Lemon. That’s really good.”
Jenna nodded and resumed her voracious attack upon her dinner, punctuated with sips of wine and water. Lee understood her fervor, and looked down at his own plate of fettuccini with regret. It was good, but normal. He plunged his fork with forced gusto into the mess of noodles and ate.
Good, but normal. That was an accurate way of describing the evening. They had very few nights that weren’t good, but it was almost becoming rote that once or twice a week they’d spend a nice, classy evening together and she’d spend the night. At the beginning, those nights were how he stole her away from the hordes of drooling men who seemed to congregate around her in every social setting. He supposed that most of them were like him: normal guys who were irrevocably pulled in by her charm and witty amiability.
But I got her, he reminded himself, and grinned in silent triumph. Even after so long, he counted himself unabashedly fortunate.
* * *
Lee was excited. He walked, beaming, into his parents house with Jenna on his arm. They were visiting for Christmas, for the very first time as a couple. It was a crowded and festive house that they entered: the banister of the interior staircase was entwined with red ribbons and draped with evergreen garlands. His parents had outdone themselves on the Christmas tree, and it towered, glittering, almost all the way to the thirteen-foot vaulted ceiling of the living room.
His mother and father greeted them, the former in a green dress and white apron, the latter in khakis and a seasonal sweater.
“Lee!” Geoff exclaimed. “How are you? It’s been far too long! And Jenna!”
Lee shook his father’s hand and grinned while Jenna hugged him in greeting. He’d always been proud of how much his parents approved of her.
The real test, he knew, was beyond them. He cared what the rest of his family thought, and he was petrified that they would share the same less-than-thrilled attitude that Zak did.
Lee had little time to dwell on that, though. His oldest sister, Kara, and an entire family of cousins soon emerged from the kitchen. His Aunt Laura and Uncle Bill were wearing matching and garishly festive sweaters, complete with prancing reindeer embroidered across the chest. They both laughed when they saw the look of revulsion he cast at the pattern.
Introductions were in order, of course, and in only a few short minutes Jenna was acquainted with his aunt and uncle and their three children. He watched from the wings as they all moved into the more spacious kitchen and family room area, still chatting amiably with Jenna. His silent willing that they get along seemed to be working.
Only two steps into the kitchen, that all ended. Zak was standing before the stove, stirring a pot of venison stew, the rich aroma swirling through the room.
Oh, he was pleasant enough, smiling and hugging Jenna while his deep voice sent a booming welcome echoing through them. Nonetheless, Lee knew his opinion of her and could see the slight distance between them during the hug. He could hear the minute insincerity in Zak’s voice when he said “so good to see you.”
Lee ground his teeth, imagining Zak speaking to the rest of them in the kitchen before he arrived, turning them against Jenna. He knew it was a probably preposterous eventuality that that had actually happened, but at the moment his rational thought processes seemed to be in the backseat.
He had a hard time returning the genuine cheer with which Zak greeted him and wished him a Merry Christmas.
It was with an air of general happiness that they all sat down to an extravagant dinner, each course of which was prepared by a different member of the family. Zak’s venison stew—which was apparently the product of his most recent hunting trip—was the main course. Lee devoured it, and chewed the pieces of meat with much more emphasis than necessary.
When the dessert was brought out, conversation returned to its pre-dinner intensity. His cousins bickered and argued, mediated only by their parents’ intercession. His parents engaged Jenna in a lively conversation about tennis, and after a time Kara broke them off the topic by bringing up her most recent book.
Jenna seized the opportunity with alacrity; she’d never before met Lee’s older sister, but had been interested in her novel-writing since the moment she heard about it. The fact that Kara wasn’t yet published, but had two books slated for release in a few months’ time, did nothing to ease Jenna’s curiosity.
Watching the two of them engrossed in a conversation about the metaphorical aspects of Kara’s main characters, Lee felt a surge of—something—that brought warmth to his chest. His mother looked at him with raised eyebrows, as if she had been unaware of Jenna’s knowledge of writing.
When Zak gave him a similar glance, though, a flash of anger lit through his core. He could just sense the sarcasm his brother was emitting; Zak thought that Jenna was pretentious and even a little condescending. He could just tell, from the tilt of his brother’s eyebrow.
Something must have shown on Lee’s face, because Zak’s own expression faltered and he looked confused before turning back to the conversation.
Lee controlled himself for the rest of the night, but went to sleep with anger simmering in his stomach.
Christmas morning dawned bright and altogether too dry for the stereotypes. Not a flake of snow was to be seen, and the thermometer on the front porch read a balmy 43 degrees. He was comfortable standing there in sweat pants and a Christmas sweater, watching the sun rise and overpower the lights still glowing on the neighbors’ houses. A mug of coffee in his hand sent wisps of steam to tickle the side of his face, offsetting the minor chill of the air.
Another warmth touched him, from his left, and he smiled down at Jenna. She was wrapped in a flannel robe and the toes of bright red slippers peeked out from underneath the hem. She wrapped an arm around his waist.
“You’re up early,” she said, and her breath emerged as pale swirls of moisture in the dawn.
He looked back up at the sun and squinted before answering. “I didn’t sleep well.”
He felt her shift next to him, but didn’t look at her. He knew she was confused by his terse tone. It was some time before she spoke again. “Want to talk about it?”
He shook his head in answer.
There was another pause as they watched the sun creep above the rooftops across the street, and Lee satisfied himself with a swallow of coffee. It helped settle the churning in his stomach, and took his mind off of Zak.
Jenna squeezed him tight. “Don’t be like that,” she chided. “It’s Christmas, and we’re with your family.”
That’s the problem, he thought, but couldn’t say it out loud. He would suffer in silence, and let her enjoy the day as much as possible.
“Come on,” she said, and pulled him inside, into warmth and a scene of cheerful chaos.
His cousins were playing with shiny new toys among the remains of neat wrapping jobs, their raucous exuberance sending scraps of silver and red paper into the air, only to flutter back to the carpet and be upended again. His aunt and uncle were sitting on the couch in the family room, watching with bemused expressions. Zak, ever the chef, was in the kitchen making breakfast.
Lee wondered how long he’d been standing outside; he had been the only one awake when he opened the front door and stepped into the dim grey predawn.
“Merry Christmas, Lee!” his father boomed, coming down the stairs. Lee forced his eyes away from Zak and pasted a smile onto his own face.
“Merry Christmas, Dad,” he said, and let himself be led to the row of stockings hanging above the fireplace. Only his and Jenna’s still bulged with unopened presents. She smiled over at him as they pulled them down and, after seating themselves on the carpet next to the couch, began pulling out the small gifts they traditionally opened before breakfast.
Sitting there, his knee touching Jenna’s outstretched leg, he felt some of his bitterness wilt away and let a genuine smile grow on his own face. It felt good.
Lee let himself sink into the idyllic warmth of his family’s happiness. It reminded him of his favorite memories from childhood, with his family. It reminded him of that first spark, the first hints of love with Jenna. He even managed not to become angry every time he looked at Zak, across the breakfast table and in the family room when they opened presents. The insolent nonchalance with which his brother hid his feelings about Jenna—he acted as though nothing was wrong with her whatsoever—grated at Lee, but could not penetrate the bubble of goodwill that his family and girlfriend had established that morning.
Lee actually found himself having a good time.
They opened their presents, starting with the young cousins before moving to his parents. When they came to Zak, Lee made sure to bury any of his negative emotions beneath a façade of family camaraderie. Zak tore through his presents, unveiling several gift cards, shirts, and a new silk tie from Jenna.
Lee had to give it to him. His brother did a remarkable job of appearing genuinely grateful for Jenna’s present, even going so far out of his way as to get up and hug her in thanks. He patted Lee on the shoulder as well, before regaining his seat near the window.
Lee insisted Jenna go next. She opened gifts from his parents first—iTunes gift cards, a new scarf, some baking salts from his mother—and then moved on to the last gift, from him. He leaned forward in his position on the floor, legs crossed. She parted the wrapping paper with delicate fingers, careful not to rip it too much. She set it aside, intact, and stared down at the slim white box in her hands. Before opening it, she looked over at Lee. He could see the anticipation in her eyes.
The morning sunshine coming through the window glinted off silver links and diamond settings when Jenna lifted the lid off. Her hands shook, Lee saw, when she picked up the necklace and displayed it to the rest of the family. Her eyes seemed to be watering.
Lee, like Jenna, studied those gathered around to see their reactions to the present. His mother smiled in approval, his father nodded at him in respect, and his aunt and uncle were appropriately awed. When he completed the circuit of the room and his eyes fell on Zak, they found a confused expression on Zak’s face. It cleared up instantly, but Lee saw it, and placed it neatly in his memory.
Jenna drew his attention back by leaning over and enveloping him in a fierce hug, murmuring incoherent thanks to his shoulder. He felt the wetness of her tears soak through his sweater. Lee hugged her back, smiling at her joy. He made sure to keep his eyes closed, so he wouldn’t see his brother’s face again and have the moment ruined.
Propriety demanded they break apart after a minute or two, and Jenna wiped her eyes with a sleeve. The rest of his family pretended not to notice.
To take attention away from her, Lee hurried to open his first present. It was from Kara: a new dress shirt, striped blue and white. He made an appreciative noise and nodded thanks to her. Moving through the rest of his gifts, he avoided Zak’s and Jenna’s. Hers, he wanted to leave for last. His, he wished he could just ignore.
Inevitably, though, theirs were the two presents left in front of him. He reached for the small bag from his brother, resigned. He looked at Zak before putting his hand in, trying to gauge his brother’s expectation. He saw only hopeful excitement in Zak’s eyes.
Brow wrinkled in minor confusion, Lee pulled out a CD case with a “Merry Christmas” note taped to the front. He felt a tug in his stomach and a stab of annoyance at such a meager gift. He buried it, however, and moved on to Jenna’s gift. He grasped the box with enthusiasm.
Lee ripped the snowflake-encrusted paper off and felt Jenna lean close to hug his arm. He smiled at her, looked around at his family, and opened the cardboard flaps. Inside was a book.
He pulled it out; it was a hardback, and the jacket was off. The spine had only a few words written on it: My Triumphs, My Mistakes and Baltar. The author, Lee assumed. Other than that, it was entirely black.
One of his cousins piped up, voicing the question he knew must have been burning in everyone’s throat. “What is it?”
In response, Jenna reached over and opened the book. There was a note inside the front cover, which fell into Lee’s lap. The rest of the book was full of new pages, each one pasted over with pictures of Lee and her. She’d gotten them bound to the cover, somehow, replacing the old pages.
Lee felt a smile grow across his face, and he showed the pictures around to everyone. That tugging sensation was still in his stomach, though, and he looked down at the note draped over his leg. Jenna put her hand over his when he started to unfold it, though, and whispered in his ear.
“Not here,” she said, and kissed him on his stubbly cheek, like a warm breeze just touching his skin.
He surreptitiously slipped the note under his leg and acted as though he just needed to shift into a more comfortable position. The book of pictures was still being passed around, and his family’s attention was elsewhere.
Once the book made its way back to him, everyone dispersed for afternoon naps and preparation for dinner. While Jenna and Lee walked toward the stairs down to the privacy of his basement bedroom, the note clutched in his left hand and her fingers entwined through his right, he noticed Zak looking at them with a curious expression on his face.
* * *
Lee blinked his way awake and extricated himself from Jenna’s arms. A knock came at his door, and he realized that he and Jenna had fallen asleep, victims of a large breakfast and the warmth of each other.
Another knock came, this time accompanied by Zak’s voice. “Lee? Hey, you fall asleep in there?”
Lee grumbled loudly in response, fumbled his way to an upright position, and trudged to the door. He opened it and rubbed his eyes with his other hand. “Is it dinner time already?”
Zak shook his head. “Not yet, Aunt Laura said that it’ll be another hour or so.” He glanced over Lee’s shoulder at the still-sleeping Jenna and said, “I just want to talk, but we should probably go somewhere else. I don’t wanna wake Jenna up.”
Lee felt a surge of agitation, and he was much more awake. “Talk? What about?”
Zak made a hushing gesture as Jenna shifted on the bed behind them. “I’ll explain. We should leave her be.”
Lee agreed, reluctant but unwilling to wake Jenna and make a scene. He followed his brother back upstairs, with a brief detour at the pile of Lee’s presents still sitting on the floor in the living room. Zak asked him to grab the CD he’d burned for him before leading him up to the second floor and into his bedroom.
Lee closed the door quietly and turned to his brother. “All right, I’ll bite,” he said. “What’s with the CD?”
Zak hesitated before answering. He sat down on his bed, glanced out the window, and fiddled with the hem of his cuff. “I wanted to apologize. I guess I was wrong.”
“You and Jenna.”
Lee stared. Was Zak really pulling a complete turnabout of opinion? “You mean, about Jenna?”
Zak’s expression went from nervous to downright confused. “No, I mean about both of you. I thought you weren’t happy with her, anymore.”
“How the hell could you think that?” Lee asked, incredulous.
“Well, for one, I know you’ve always hated pretentious people. Don’t get mad at me, but even I could see that she was getting worse with that.”
“What do you mean, ‘even you?’ You don’t even like her,” Lee snapped.
Again, his reply seemed to stun Zak. “I don’t like her? What are you talking about? I’ve thought she was great for you since the first time I met her!”
This stopped Lee in his tracks. “Then what was all that during the last couple days?”
“All of the exasperation and dislike! I swear, you’ve had it out for her for months, now.”
Zak shook his head slowly. “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about, Lee. I think that if you’re okay with her little quirks, like her literature pretensions and high-maintenance needs, you two are perfect for each other. I assumed you were, but it sure as hell doesn’t seem like it right now. Not with the way you’ve been acting since you got home.”
“I’ve been acting? You’ve been doing nothing but giving me snide looks whenever she opens her mouth!”
“I’ve been doing nothing of the sort,” Zak retorted. “If anything, I’ve been pretty impressed by the fact that she actually knows what she’s talking about.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment; Lee didn’t know how to respond, at first.
“What’s with the CD?” he asked again, unable to think of anything else to say.
“It’s some songs that I know you like, songs that I thought would help you after a breakup. Since, you know, I thought that that was the direction you were going.”
“Dammit, Zak,” Lee burst out. “Even when you say that you like her, you’re still trying to get me to do this. To make me pick out the things I can’t stand about her.”
Zak shook his head. “No, I’m not. I told you about the CD because you asked. I didn’t give it to you and tell you right away. This whole thing is your decision…and I’m just trying to be the best brother I can.”
Lee spluttered into silence, and tried to rethink the past day, to re-analyze how his brother acted. Little by little, he thought that perhaps he’d looked too deeply into the occasional raised eyebrow, the sporadic glances.
It was almost as if Zak could see his mind working while he thought. His brother got up from the bed, stepped forward, and put a hand on his shoulder. “If you’re seeing these things, Lee, then maybe you’re trying to tell yourself something.”
* * *
Lee sat, legs stretched out before him and his back propped up against the side of his bed. Jenna was upstairs, helping Zak make dinner. He had as much privacy as he could hope for as he flicked through the fresh pages of the album Jenna made as his present. The note lay open on the floor next to him, covered with excruciating words of love.
He paused over pictures of the two of them at house parties, red cups in hand and arms looped over each other’s shoulders. He halted at the page filled with images of their one-year anniversary as a couple, taken by a waitress while they toasted 30-dollar glasses of wine. His heart nearly stopped when he saw the picture of Jenna from the previous Christmas, glowing smile on her face, as she held up a handmade silk lily; he’d had it made for her on commission by a seamstress in town.
He turned pages over, and as he went he felt an emptiness grow inside of him. He began to see little things in the pictures that annoyed him; those flashes of irritation descended into the abyss of his chest and did not rise again.
The final pages of the album passed by with only the bitterest sweetness. He could still see the girl he fell in love with, in those pictures, but she was faint and hidden behind a veil of exasperating habits and traits.
Lee did not feel angry toward his brother; indeed, he almost felt grateful. It would have taken much more time for him to admit to himself that he was unhappy with Jenna, and over that time he knew that he would have been frustrated at everything and nothing. As it was, he thought it was best that he knew now.
He gazed at the last page for a long time, unwilling to close the book; he knew that that action would be the end of things, for him.
At last, Lee flipped the page over and shut the book. He stared down at the blank back cover, and was surprised when no tears fell and stained the glossy black. The memories would always be with him: two of the most amazing years of his life, captured in color and paper. He cherished that, and yet he knew that he still had to cast all those yesterdays behind.