My old boyfriend Ralph’s rented house sits beside a cornfield, the edge of the pumpkin farm we visited on field trips as kids. The corn maze, the pumpkin carving, the kernel of fear I felt every Halloween—the fear I feel now. Through the dark, I can make out the shapes of brittle stalks frozen and bent by the icy wind, the snow drifts, the silhouette of a scarecrow picked apart by birds and squirrels that have gotten used to its presence. Around here, we acclimate.
It has been a long time, and likely, no one out here would recognize me. Still, I pull my car all the way into his gravel driveway, hurtling over potholes, and mounds of ice and debris the winter has dragged from the woods. I turn the headlights off and sit, moving my hands in front of the heater, letting the slow song on the radio play out. When I’m away, I dream about this place—home, or the parts of home a boy on his four-wheeler represents—but once I’m here, I want to run again, or maybe just hang in the balance of this moment—I’m here, but nothing has happened yet, and all the possibilities are frozen like the ice crystals in the air.
But I’m already in motion, taking carefully the slick wooden steps to Ralph’s back door, steps I’ve taken, once or twice a year, for six years. I hear muffled voices on the TV inside and feel warm air escape from the poorly insulated windows. On the stoop outside, a pair of boots sits in a muddy heap, their soles wet from recent wear. The sight of them sends something sharp through my chest, and I nearly pick them up and carry them back to my car and drive off, eight hours back to Ohio, where I live now.
Ralph opens the door before I even knock. Neither of us can remember the last time we stood face-to-face, and it doesn’t matter how long we stand exposed in the cold because nobody knows I’m here, and we have all night. Our visible breath mingles in the -20 wind chill. We look at each other, and then at the moon, which hangs like a white boulder overhead, almost tipping toward us, and I remember what Ralph used to say about the moon when I still lived here, how it shone over both our houses, and the twenty miles of road between, and really, we could be right next door to one another when you thought about it, couldn’t we?
Now we’re looking at the moon from the same stoop in the same state, and when our eyes meet again, I know there’s nothing between us not charged with intimacy. It’s like my mother said: There are some men with whom you can never be friends.
“So, boss,” Ralph says, “I don’t get a kiss hello?”
“Show me what you’ve done to the house,” I say.
He holds the storm door open, and I duck under his arm into the foyer. Except for the living room, where he keeps the TV, the house is dark, but I can tell he has recently shellacked the hardwood floors, and even though it’s old and has bad windows, it’s spacious, nothing like the double-wide he grew up in. There’s a metal folding table pushed against a drapeless window in the dining room, and beside the computer on top I see a thin stack of bills. I think of how hard Ralph works, fixing other people’s cars like his father, to pay those bills.
“What, you don’t like my new décor?” he says.
I look up and see the high, arched doorways, freshly painted eggshell white, then down at the tiny wooden magazine rack stacked with his small collection of books. Among them I see The Great Gatsby, the copy I bought him when we were seventeen. He used to quote it on long drives around the switchbacks, sad passages about East Egg that Ralph thought had everything that mattered. It broke my heart to see that faraway look come over his face as he spoke, the green light of Daisy’s dock something that would never reach his little stoop, not even in a memory.
“I love your house,” I say.
Ralph turns his head, waiting for me to elaborate. My quick approval of his life seems to unnerve him, because he doesn’t offer me a drink or ask any questions. He just walks into the living room, and I follow him, and we sit on the couch in front of the TV. We pretend to watch the show—something on PBS about antiques—but our eyes keep drifting to each other until finally we give up, start laughing and looking without embarrassment. This is the longest I have ever been away from here.
“It’s terrible,” he says. “You just walked in, and I’m already thinking about grabbing you.” His fingers inch toward mine on the itchy blue couch until our fingertips touch in a crevice. The freckle in the crux of his thumb makes me want to blurt out that I think I’m in love with someone in Ohio, which is both terrifying and true: a man with a southern accent, who hasn’t kissed me yet. But I didn’t practice the lines enough before I came, so instead, I wrap my fingers around Ralph’s, and we sink into the cushions and let our heads softly collide. We watch TV in silence for almost an hour, smelling each other’s hair and the snow outside.
We hurt each other best, Ralph and I. We made epic misery together. Maybe we shared a grudge against our home, maybe we lived too similarly here. We cheated and lied and manipulated and broke up. And then, almost as soon as we stopped saying I love you, we started sleeping together, just sometimes, and that seemed to fit. When we were still kids, we met in the backseat of whoever’s car was running, in parks after hours, in our parents’ bedrooms when they were out of town. Then Ralph rented this house, and I went to college, then graduate school, and we took our grown-up selves here to be children again. To have sex like teenagers. For all I have tried to recreate in my life, this is the only place I’m successful.
It’s after midnight when the show ends, and like a cue, Ralph shuts off the TV and pulls his arms around me. He’s gained a little weight from his all-star wrestling days, and I like the feel of his stomach pushing against the inside of his sweatshirt, the warmth he gives off. Sometimes a man that has hurt you feels like he hasn’t, and all the years of separation can’t erase the body’s memory of such particular warmth no matter what drove you apart. When Ralph touches me, I know that as long as we keep doing this—meeting in the middle of the night, meeting occasionally, when we’re missing something that is not us—he will continue to feel good, and I see for the first time all the ways we fool ourselves into thinking this can go on forever.
Maybe you can understand, then, why I let him kiss me and put his tongue at the hollow of my throat. Why I run my teeth along the outer rim of his ear. Why it’s so easy to slip out of my shirt and bra. Because I know this is the last time, and I’m locked in that strange sublimity at the end of something, throwing myself down into all this gorgeous grief. When it’s over, he’ll ask me to stay and sleep. We’ll drift together a while on his stiff twin mattress without pillowcases, and then I’ll gather my clothes and drive home in the slate winter dawn, and the next day, I’ll drive back to Ohio to see about a man whose voice fills my head even as I’m about to sleep with the one I loved last.
Ralph stands and pats his shoulders, sending me a sly grin. “Hop on, boss.”
I loop my arms around his neck and breathe his woodsy scent, shuddering with a decade of remembrance. Just like how, in the middle of an upstate New York winter, sometimes the ice thaws a little, and you can almost smell the grass that died off months ago. I picture those muddy boots outside on the stoop. Ralph’s work boots that he probably wears every day, battling the elements of this place. These small, small things give us something back of ourselves, the lovely scent of earth and leather, turpentine and aftershave, and there we go, discarding everything but one thing we know, one thing we can define the rest by, in order to tell the story that will end well and still break your heart.