Tuesday morning, I was the only one awake. My spouse was asleep upstairs; Roger was asleep on my couch. Again. Third night in a row. Our house was, as always, his haven.
He and Desiree had been doing this same thing, over and over, for years now. Eventually, I mused, they'd have to either break up or learn to get along. What would it take? Drinking my coffee, I sat and watched Roger snore. My heart hurt for him. There was a dark red scrape on his cheekbone where Desiree had hit him with a shoe.
A text message made my phone buzz against my hip. It was Pete.
Ayo mith im off work come hang out with me?!
Why not? I said sure, I'd be there soon.
It was a typical Pete text. No reason for me to think that anything unusual was going on. But when I met him an hour later at the front door of his and Lou's ranch house out in the suburbs, I could immediately tell that something was off.
"What's up," he greeted me.
He wasn't grinning or even smiling. Dressed for his day off in Nike sweats, mismatched socks, a wrinkled orange polo, and his nerdy black-rimmed glasses, he stood there looking cold and somehow achy, uncomfortable.
I replied, "You tell me."
"Just awake. Nico's down for a nap. And Lou's still in bed." His eyes flicked toward the hallway, in the direction of the bedrooms.
"I thought the doctor said she could get up and move around now? It's been over a week, right?"
"Yeah, but she's still tired. I told her to take it easy. She's pissed."
Lou was seven months pregnant, and she'd recently suffered a bout of flu that coincided with spotty bleeding and abnormal cramping. The doctor had ordered bed rest. But, as I'd just pointed out, this was not news; and Pete had been steady through it, holding together like a champ despite Lou's understandably bad moods. No, whatever was bothering him today, it was something else.
"So what's going on with you?"
He's not one to keep secrets. The sadness on his face was uncomplicated, unself-conscious.
"C'mon. I gotta show you something."
I followed him through the busy white-and-yellow kitchen of their ranch house, out the swinging storm door into the cool, cut-grassy suburban morning air; down one step into the shaded concrete car port where his and Lou's cars stood parked, clean and jarringly new. Pete's was a silver Prius. He popped the trunk and bent forward to dig through the crapload of rubbish inside: wadded-up clothes, a plastic teething ring toy, a sombrero, empty Naked smoothie bottles, a Sharpie, a lone drumstick wrapped with duct tape. The cardboard box that a baby bathtub had come in, a second Sharpie, a pair of Nico's baby sneakers with Elsa and Olaf on them. He shoved all of these aside, muttering curses. I smiled. He'd made a lot of changes in his life over the years, but he was still Pete.
There was an old, sagging blue duffel bag shoved way in the back, apparently empty. I watched Pete seize it, unzip one of its side compartments, and take something out. It was a book. A journal—a black Moleskine. I was confused. He closed the trunk. Then he held the journal in both hands, gazing down at it for a moment before he looked back up at me, his un-gelled hair dark blond and soft-looking.
"This's got me all screwed up, Mith."
"Today's March sixth. It's two years since—"
I cut him off, because I remembered now, and I didn't need to make him say it.
Unlike Roger and Desiree, Pete and Lou are great together. The dream couple. Perfect complementary opposites, personality-wise, but totally Barbie and Ken: extroverts, tan, thin, blond, helpful, and optimistic. They'd been middle-school sweethearts, their first kiss under a disco ball at a school dance.
But they broke up right after ninth grade. Too many spats. They still loved each other, and stayed close friends, but didn't get back together as a couple for another nine years. And those nine years contained a good deal of drama.
Pete's had more romantic partners than anyone will ever be able to count. Most of them nameless, just for fun. Some of them, he truly loved. Lou has always been his one and only. But second to her—and this is a name you must never mention in Lou's presence—his most significant love was this art student named Devon Carr: a very conflicted young man, clever and devout but deeply angry. The relationship lasted two years. Two years of Pete trying over and over, with the obsessive insanity of an addict, to lavish unconditional love upon someone who seemed afraid to accept it.
What is it, I wondered, remembering, that makes a relationship work, or not?
Pete used to bring Devon around to hang out with us at the house we were all renting then. The kid hardly ever spoke. I remember he was stiff, slight, and sallow with glaring gray eyes, and if you happened to get close enough before he flinched away from you, he smelled faintly of turpentine, soft leather, and something medicinal. Pete was so stupidly devoted to him, it hurt to watch.
Because Devon kept secrets. Like his heart condition. Apparently he had a chronic heart problem, hyper-something-or-other, that made him ultra-vulnerable to physical exercise or excitement, and for which he'd had two surgeries and was taking a zillion meds. And somehow, he kept this all a secret from Pete for two years. Until one night they were out at a club downtown and Devon suddenly got woozy and just dropped to the floor, unconscious, and an ambulance came and brought him to the ER where he almost died.
He never told me, Pete had said in a high, choked voice on the phone at four in the morning, when he called to let us know where he was. Why didn't he tell me?
It was shortly after that that Devon cut Pete off entirely, with some vague comments about how it simply could not work out between them. Pete grieved for months. He went out of his mind, sick with depression—behaving completely out of character. We were all worried about him. But he slowly got better. He reconnected with Lou, and their relationship blossomed sweetly. They had a picture-perfect wedding in early May.
Is it willingness, is that the key? Mutual willingness: is that all?
Three years went by, Pete and Lou had a kid, and they were living happily ever after. Then one day Pete got a random Facebook message from Devon's older sister Mab. Devon had died. His body had rejected a heart transplant. He had just turned twenty-four. Date of death, March sixth.
That was two long years ago. Ancient history.
"I dunno why I'm so screwed up about it right now," said the older, cleaned-up, present-day junior-executive-director Pete. He laughed weakly and looked down at the Moleskine in his hands. "I'm married. I love Lou and Nico and the baby. It's not like I… but, like, I can't stop thinking about—you know what I'm saying?"
"Well I mean, you never really got to process it. When you found out, Nico was still just a newborn. Things were so hectic. I remember when you got that message. But then it just kind of blew over."
"She didn't even message me until September. He'd already been dead for six months." He made no attempt to mask the pain that this still, evidently, caused him.
I confess I'd had no idea that this had been on his mind at all. He was so devoted to his family, working overtime at his new position, and things were so perfect; how could he still secretly be in mourning for a dead ex?
But, it occurred to me: maybe, with Lou so unavailable, physically and emotionally, right now, and all their recent hospital visits and the ensuing stress…and today, March the sixth…
"Are you gonna be okay?"
"Yeah, I guess, I just—"
"What is that?" I referred to the journal in his hands.
He exhaled slowly.
"So, I never told any of you guys. I can't believe… God, I feel like shit! Okay. When Mab messaged me, she was like, what's your address, 'cause I need to send you something. She was like, we've been going through his stuff and we found this and we think he'd want you to have it. I should have just said no, don't send it to me, I don't want it. But I didn't, Mith. I told her my address, and…"
He opened up to a random page and stared down at it like it was sacred scripture. I saw lines and lines of immaculate handwriting in fine black ink. The fingertips of Pete's left hand stroked the length of the page, shadow and light glinting on his platinum wedding band.
I asked, "What is it?"
"It's letters. He wrote me letters. This whole… he was writing this while he was sick in bed and all the operations were going on. Look. He didn't finish it. The last one's March fourth, twenty-sixteen." He flipped toward the end and showed me the thin stack of blank, clean pages that remained. I looked at it, and then back up at his face. Behind his glasses, his eyes were wet and shining. "Shit. This is so messed up, right? I shouldn't be looking at this. I shouldn't ever have—I mean, I have a wife. I'm like… And I've been hiding it in the trunk of my car. I'm as bad as he was!"
I had to laugh a little. It was funny because it was true.
He handed me the book. I let it fall open in my hands, and in a glimpse caught fragments of what was written: time we were walking in the park and you said … wish I had just said that, you never … sunlight. That irritated me, but I just wanted to… At the bottom: I love you always.
Pete's hand reached out and slapped the cover shut.
"I need you to get rid of it," he said.
I paused. "You want me to? Why?"
"I can't do it. I tried. I pulled it out of the trash. Like, ten times. I need you to do it. I can't tell Lou, and Roger wouldn't get it. Do whatever. Burn it, I don't care." He sniffled and raked his fingers back through his short hair, collecting himself. "I can't have it here anymore."
I was dumbstruck, feeling the living presence of the dead boy emanating from the cool leather object in my hands like radio waves. I wanted to tell Pete, it's okay: don't be so hard on yourself. Of course you can love two people at once. It's not as if one depletes the other. Love isn't on or off, black or white.
But all I managed to get out was, "It's confusing, isn't it?"
I was thinking about Roger, asleep on my couch.
"It doesn't have to be perfect, you know. It's not, like, either-or." I was talking about love. "It's perfect because it's not. It's just, what are you willing to do. Right?"
"Philosoraptor," Pete accused me with a small grin. "Just get that thing out of my face."
"Are you sure?"
Before he could answer, the storm door opened behind me with a metallic clack and creak. Lou was standing there in the open doorway, her pregnant stomach in a ratty t-shirt protruding from her fuzzy bathrobe, which was patterned with smiling kawaii ice cream cones. Sleepy-faced Nico, in pink pajamas, was holding her mother's hand and staring up at me.
"Hi, Mith," Lou said. Then, to her husband: "What are you guys doing out here?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Talking," he said. His sadness had evaporated, and he beamed at Lou with his whole expression wide open. "How're you feeling, babe?"
Lou just made a disgusted noise and retreated into the kitchen with Nico. Pete followed them inside, scooping up his daughter and kissing her, mmm-mwah!, and I followed after them. But I sensed that it was family time now, and my visit was over, so I didn't stay. Pete was too busy to say goodbye, helping Nicolette in the bathroom—she's potty training. Lou was shouting at him from down the hall, something about they were out of baby wipes and she'd asked him a million times to get more from the store; Pete was tuning her out, was singing to Nico, off-key, some dumb little song about sitting on the potty, and Nico was laughing. I left quietly out the front door.
When I pulled up in front of my apartment, Roger was sitting on the front step, smoking a cigarette, slouching with his elbows on his knees, in the same frayed jeans, the hood of his hoodie up. He watched me park and get out.
The journal was sitting on my passenger's seat beside my purse. Seemingly seething, as if alive. I had a traitorous thought: I could open it. I could read it, cover to cover. I had the sick idea that I could turn it into a novel, and unleash it upon the world with all its angst and tragedy.
But, no. I would not. I carried the dead kid's Moleskine across the parking lot, and unceremoniously chucked it into the massive, stinking blue Dumpster.
Then I paused. I took out my phone, snapped a photo of the Dumpster, and sent it to Pete in a text message; no words necessary.
"What was that?" Roger asked as I approached.
"Nothing," I said. "How's it going?"
"Desi texted me."
"Yeah?" I sat down next to him, my body descending through the cloud of his cigarette smoke.
"I guess she says I can come home."
He sounded gruff, even pissed off about it. Things weren't easy for them, I knew that. Far from perfect. I felt like putting my arm around him. But I didn't.
Instead, I said, "That's good." I felt empty and calm inside, like it was my own garbage I'd just thrown away. "I'm glad. Let me know when you're ready. I'll drive you back over."