I discovered David was cheating on me a week before the family reunion. The reunion was a culmination of a year’s worth of Mom and Auntie Pat’s planning and most of our extended family intended on coming. That included significant others.
After dating David for five years, I’d moved back in with Mom two weeks before the reunion. Now, I’m sitting on an ugly couch with extended family leaking in through the doors and rushing to their upstairs rooms while Mom and Auntie Pat pull their hair out over last minute details, including the newly vacant bed.
“The entire bedding arrangement is thrown off now,” Mom says, as if that were the greatest travesty of my and David’s breakup. The disarray of her bedroom blueprints was a crowbar in the gears of her mind.
“It’s an extra bed,” I say, pulling at a loose string on the throw blanket.
Her wrinkled face flushes crimson and she rubs a hand through her thinning blonde hair. “I had this down to a science, Julia, and now I have no excuse for telling Betty there weren’t enough beds.”
“Oh, Betty would have spoiled the whole thing,” Auntie Pat says. “She wouldn’t have brought a damn thing, and she would’ve drunk every last drop of your Kahlua.”
The two of them chirp like chickadees as they shuffle around the downstairs area, leaving me on the couch.
The screen door screeches open then and the sound of wheels against hardwood floor echoes against the high ceilings of the cabin. “Guess who made it?” a singsong voice calls.
“Chris!” Mom calls. Mom and Auntie Pat make to rush to her side but stop short when they notice the tall man beside her. He hovers nearly a foot over Auntie Chris and has dirty blonde hair that’s just a bit too long for his age, sweeping past his sunken cheek bones and framing his tannish face. His eyes, dark and probing, rest below heavy, narrow eyebrows. He dresses nicer than any man Auntie Chris brought back since her messy divorce, with a smooth button-up covering a body that holds the shadows of a muscular form but gradually slimmed with age. He still looks fit, though, like a runner. He holds his hands in his pockets and walks with his one bag draped over one shoulder. There is something oddly handsome about how his thin lips formed a small smirk and his shoulders sloped, relaxed, a stark contrast to the tense, scrunched appearances of my Mom and Auntie Pat.
“You brought a guest,” my Mom says through her teeth.
“I meant to tell you, but things were just so fast.” For Auntie Chris, things are always “just so fast” since her divorce. “I didn’t think Matt would want to come but at the last second he offered to join me, saying he couldn’t spare a weekend without me! It was like a proposal, how serious he got about it!” She throws her head back and laughs, swatting his arm for added affect. “And don’t worry your little heart about the bedding arrangement for a second, Maggie. We’re fine sharing one. We’re adults, and we’ve both been married-”
“There are no exceptions to our bedding policy,” my Mom says. “But lucky for you, David cheated on Julia so his bed is open.”
“Thanks, Mom.” I duck my head and turn from the man.
“Oh, Julia!” Auntie Chris gushes. She shifts as though she might come to my side, but halts and lingers beside Matt, their arms brushing together.
“Well, at least your bed chart is perfectly balanced now,” I say to Mom. “Betty can’t feel excluded after all.” The scratchy fabric burns back of my legs as I rise from the couch. As I escape up the stairs I wonder if my calves glare red against my pale skin and if they all, including this new man, can see.
Mom and Auntie Pat never stops fluttering around arranging things just so and even long after dinner they were still cleaning up something or adjusting something. My dad and uncles sit on the porch sipping endless bottles of beer. Auntie Chris hangs off of her boyfriend Matt most of the night, parading him around the dining and living area for everyone to see. Her mouth grows with each drink until her voice seems to consume the entire room. Matt lets her stumbling body dangle off his arm and smiles at each stranger cordially. Every now and then, one of his chapped hands grazes her slumped back.
I don’t drink much. When I first dated David, he’d been sober for two years. Early in the relationship, when I came home with the taste of it on my breath, he never told me to stop drinking with my friends. I hated the way he shrunk from my kiss though, and how he tensed to my sloppy touch. I remember the day, almost four years ago, when I took David and my last bottle of moscato to our third-story apartment window. We watched together as I poured the white wine into the overgrown bush below. He’d kissed me hard after and never shied away from my lips again. Even when I found out about her, he still gravitated toward my lips as if searching for some lost piece of me he could consume.
Auntie Chris stumbles toward me through the living room, unleashed from Matt’s grip. Over her shoulder I see him watching us, hovering by the stairs with a few of my boisterous relatives, a relaxed smile on his thin lips. I steady Chris as she slurs about Matt, gesturing over to him conspicuously as she speaks. “You know, he’s the best one I’ve had in a long time! Better than the last one, for sure!”
I know the last one isn’t my former uncle. “The plumber?”
“No, that college boy.” I hadn’t known about that one. “You know,” she says, leaning in. I smell whiskey in her breath as it tickles my ear. “I’ve only dated Matt for a month, but I think I’ll keep my talons in him for a bit longer.” She throws her head back and roars with laughter. I reach out to stop her from falling backward.
Matt appears behind her. He holds onto Chris’ back and his calloused fingers meet my cool ones on her shoulders. “Is she talking about me?”
I pull back from the warmth of his touch, hiding my hands in my pockets. “I think it’s bedtime for her.”
“I think you’re right,” he says, winking at me. With that, he guides her off toward the stairs. I watch as they wrestle against each other up each wooden step, Chris giggling and clawing at Matt’s shirt the entire way.
Night falls and the day feels like a waste. It’s as though I sat and watched each second, each particle of sand fall in an hourglass just to discover that that’s all it would ever amount to: a pile of sand.
Matt’s bag is on the lower bunk when I come into our room. Reluctantly I crawl to the top bunk. Now if I need to leave for the bathroom in the middle of the night, he’ll watch my legs swing down each step, my entire body exposed before, at last, my face reveals itself. I pretend I’m asleep when he comes in and ignore the patter of two pairs of feet.
Within twenty minutes the aged bunk is shaking. I close my eyes and pretend I’m bobbing up and down on a merry-go-round until I hear a low, sultry groan and one of my aunt’s dramatically high-pitched yelps. I want to place my pillow over my head but don’t want to draw attention to myself. I realize my consciousness is unlikely to halt their fun but don’t bother putting on the pillow anyway.
Instead I listen to the squelch of wet bodies and the heaving of tight, raspy breaths. I smell their sweat mixed with the linger of his cigarettes and relax my muscles until my body shakes with the bed.
I’m often asked if I could tell that David was cheating on me. I couldn’t, of course, but I don’t think there’s always a reason behind it. He wasn’t unhappy with me. It wasn’t that. It never was.
The day before I found out about her, it snowed heavy. I wore a pair of my favorite black flats and, as the snow collected, their soft fabric absorbed the water and chilled my feet. Clutching my thin jacket around my shaking shoulders, I complained and attempted to leap over the larger clumps. I skidded across the damp pavement, and David caught my arm, steadying me. A pink flush softened his sharp cheekbones and he looked like a boy as he laughed, pulling me to his side. His blue windbreaker was puffy around his arms, and he felt soft and warm, his body blocking the cool breeze from me.
“Remind me why we decided to walk to the store,” I said, pressing my forehead into the crook of his neck.
I felt his smile against the top of my head. “Because you have no regard for the weather when you plan for the day but always, always complain about it once you’re outside.”
I continue forward. “I hate New England. I can’t believe my mom and aunts decided to hold the reunion in New Hampshire. Driving up there is going to be hell.”
“I’m driving,” he said. “Your road rage will give me a heart attack in this weather.”
I shot him a grin over my shoulder. “You always say that but I haven’t killed you yet, have I?”
Just as he cried out for me to look forward, I slid again, the smooth bottoms of my flats failing to steady my footing. This time he lifted me right off my feet, knocking the air out of me as I screamed and laughed. “If I died, who would look out for you?” he said, toting me down the sidewalk. “You’re too clumsy to do this on your own.”
He’d carried me to the end of the sidewalk and we’d walked the rest of the way hand-in-hand, bickering about the weather and the reunion.
David loved me the whole time. That wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t that he lacked anything, being with me. He didn’t cheat for a reason. He cheated because he could.
It’s all strangely reminiscent of the first time I caught my father watching soft-core porn. He did it right on the living room TV in the early evening on a Saturday. Mom was just down the hall in their room, folding their laundry on their bed. I was nine and heading back to my room from the kitchen with a glass of juice when I saw the woman on the screen, dressed in damp, pink bikini and bending over the hood of a truck while men in baseball caps and plaid shirts stood around laughing and watching. Her eyelashes were big and heavy like her breasts, her firm nipples pressing against the damp fabric of her top as she gasped for breath and bent further, exposing the tight stretch of skin on her upper thighs.
My father called me over to him, slapping the leather of the seat beside him on the couch. I rushed into his arms so I could feel he was still there, still here in my house with me and mom. He kissed the top of my head and made some sweet comment about my report card. His eyes flicked up absently to the screen once but that was it. I sat right in his lap and, looking back, I now understand what the flatness of his pants meant. He wasn’t even hard, watching it. He wasn’t watching it because he missed something or needed something. He nuzzled against my hair I watched the woman expose the crease of her behind and slap it as the men onscreen laughed. Now I realize he watched it because he could. Just because he could.
By the time I arrive downstairs the next morning Mom is unfolding clothes over the wooden dining tables and Auntie Pat is clipping the stems off an assortment of flowers. Spotting me, Mom calls for me to set up lights down at the dock, in case anyone decides to visit the lake after our big dinner. I accept the rolls of lights, trekking off through the back screen door and onto the porch.
The dock is at the bottom of the bushy slope that stands before the porch. Between trees and bushes I vanish from the men’s view and find privacy for the first time since my arrival. I drop the lights on the edge of the dock by the first post. I head straight to the edge of the dock and kick off my sandals, dipping my foot into the clear yet deep blue water of the lake. Two geese squawk and cry as they splash about, one chasing the other, their wings splashing against the water’s surface in their struggle.
The smell of cigarette smoke wafts toward me, the same smell from below me last night. “Am I interrupting anything?”
“Not at all,” I tell Matt. “But if my Mom or Aunt asks, I’m setting up those lights.”
Matt stands behind me, stripping his faded grey tee from his body. He reveals the hollow shadows of a former six-pack and the greying tuffs of hair on his chest, stretching up to his collar. He moves beside me, stretching his leanly muscled arms over his head. The water trembles beneath the dock.
“Where’s Chris?” I ask, unsure of what else to say.
“Sleeping off her hangover, I’d bet.” He rubs a hand down his face and I notice he has yet to shave. “I came down for a swim,” he says, “but it’s lucky you’re here. I wanted to apologize for last night.”
He knew I was awake. There is nothing I can respond with, so I ask, “How did you and my Aunt meet?”
“The way everyone does,” he says. “Right place, right time. Care to join me?”
I imagine Chris, alone in her bed with her pillow tucked over her head, hiding from the sunlight while Matt exposes himself to it. “I think I’ll stay dry for now, thanks.”
Our eyes meet and he smiles. The dock rocks beneath me as he leaps from it, diving his long body through the water.
Mom doesn’t have a moment to sit down during the big dinner. Even though it’s catered, she finds work for herself. Dad sits across from me at the table and eats in silence, excepting one coughing fit when a scrap of chicken catches in his throat. My second-cousin asks how it is living with my parents again even though she knows the answer. I eat about half my meal and pretend to take a long phone call upstairs. I burrow under my blankets and listen to the bustle downstairs. The drunker they get, the louder they get. I close my eyes and pretend I’m pouring the moscato out the window again. The memory vanishes before the bottle empties because that David never existed. He lived inside the white walls of my mind, a human isolated from the world and his own body.
That man doesn’t exist here.
By the time I drag myself back downstairs my family is a swarm of swaying bodies. Auntie Chris can barely stand; it’s even worse than last night. Her eyes are swollen and glazed, her cheeks flushed and puffed. Her lips are slick with salvia and a drop of wine dribbles through the wrinkle in her chin. She swings her arm as she speaks and smashes her hand into a nearby lamp, sending it crashing to the hardwood floor.
“Did I do that?” she cries. “Oh, shit. I didn’t mean to do that. I just- I talk with my hands…” She runs her hands through her hair, sending the sweaty, blonde strands upright. “God, did you see that?”
My Mom rushes to her side. “This is a place we rented, Chris! You can’t just smash furniture when you see fit. You need to go to bed, now.” As if she is Chris’ mother, too.
She ushers Chris up the stairs. Chris almost falls back as she looks over her shoulder. “Where’s Matt? I want Matt to come.”
Matt is at the edge of the stairs. He sips a bottle of beer but appears sober. He sighs as he places it on the tabletop beside the broken glass. Our eyes meet, and he raises his eyebrows as though we are exchanging an inside joke. Then he drags himself up the stairs.
I don’t hear either of them return and assume Matt is staying with Chris. The bunk is still and I almost wish he was there to rock me to sleep. I drift in and out of a light sleep for about two hours before I crawl down the ladder and head downstairs to use the bathroom.
When I reach the edge of the staircase, still lit with Mom’s lights, I see him sitting, alone, on the couch below. The dim glow from the lights illuminates the scruff on his chin, prickly and rough. His shirt is unbuttoned at the , and he sits with his thighs parted in from of him. He holds a half-full glass. He leans back into the couch.
“Julia,” he says. His voice is low but seems to echo against the walls, echo through my body in the silence of the night. He smirks and asks, “Don’t tell me you came looking for me when you saw the bed was empty.”
I hover at the end of the stairs. “I assumed you were with Chris.”
He shakes his head, his overgrown, light brown hair swaying around his sharp jawline. “No. She passed out hours ago.” He swishes his drink in his glass before taking a deep sip.
“Have you seen her like that before?”
“We’ve dated for just about a month,” he says. “So yes, of course I have.”
She wasn’t like that before the divorce, I think. “That’s…a lot. On you, I’d bet.”
He breathes out a shaky laugh. “It was fun at first.” He doesn’t need to say anything more.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I explain.
He lifts his glass. “Care to join me?”
I nod. Mom and Auntie Pat cleaned most of the room but a few stray Solo cups litter the floor. A small, misplaced shard of glass cracks beneath my slipper as I approach him. I sink into the seat beside him. The couch seems to embrace me. I smell cigarettes and his arm brushes against mine as we sit, side by side, and I don’t pull away. Like the night before, our fingers find each other, my pinky grazing the steep curve of his knuckles. He breathes in heavily, his chest rising and falling. The small lights around us cast a glow around the curled hair on the exposed gape of his neck and chest. His hair is pushed behind his ear, exposing a smooth expanse of tanned neck.
His fingers lift and weave into mine for a moment before he reaches for the bottle of Jack Daniels. “So, Julia,” he says, his voice smooth and warm and just raspy enough that it both loosens the stiff muscles of my shoulders and sends a tingle deep past my stomach. “Would you like a drink?”
And I do. I want to go back in time and lick each drop of wine off of the bush outside my window. I want David to watch and know I didn’t choose him. I want to do that before he does it to me. And now, with Auntie Chris’ boyfriend, I want nothing more than to feel the whiskey burn down my throat until water pinches against my eyelids and I, too, can breathe fire.
“I’m sober almost four years,” I say. And I float from my body, float from the heated fireplace and the pending sensation of his chest hair scratching against me, float from the clink of the glass and away from the white room in my mind where David left me.
Briana McDonald is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She has served as literature editor-in-chief of The Bridge Fine Arts Journal, as literature editor for Aegir Magazine, and will be a reader for the next issue of The Literary Review.