Emma slid into the driver’s seat of her father’s old Buick and reflexively pinched her nose with her fingers as if she was diving off a cliff; the entire car stank like an ashtray – a warning to herself that she had been smoking too many cigarettes again. As she let the car warm up she reached over to the passenger side and rolled down the window, the stiff resistance of the lever aggravating her. A blast of cold air came through the window, disheveling her long brown hair. A dry leaf managed to rush in and tangle itself in the knots of her hair that she had not bothered brushing out that morning.
“Enough already!” she yelled to nothing in particular.
The grayness of the sky hung over her, the bare trees webbing dark patterns against the canvas. The weeping willows bowed to the wind, to the weight of the menacing pressure.
“Perhaps we can meet somewhere in between,” he had suggested.
She had not written him back right away, aware that her response would be absolute, unchangeable.
“Perhaps,” she had finally replied, and waited. And after checking her emails far too often, she wrote him again. “And what will you tell Amanda? Won’t she wonder where you are going for two days and why?”
She balled her fists to keep them warm. She looked at the red neon numbers of the digital clock – 9:45am. It would take at least four hours to get there.
He had written back right away. “I can tell her there is a convention of some sort – something work-related, and then when I return I’ll tell her I bumped into you and hadn’t seen you in over ten years. I hate to lie, but when I do I like to stick as close to the truth as possible.”
She had grown to detest this sort of reasoning, but hadn’t told him so. Equivocation – that’s what her college professor would have told her it was. It’s all rhetoric she would have said. Well, she certainly didn’t subscribe to it herself, and had told Matthew straight off, “I’m going to meet up with an old friend I haven’t seen in years.”
“What old friend?” he had asked. He was in the kitchen chopping vegetables for dinner and she was sitting at the kitchen table stirring her tea for too long. They had been engaged several months earlier.
“He lives in Maine,” she said. “We had the same mutual friends and I met him at a party years ago. We stayed in touch for a long time. Letters, marathon phone calls. He was wild. I couldn’t be.”
Matthew stopped chopping and raised his eyebrows. “And how come nothing happened?”
“How could it?” she answered. “The distance between New York and Maine was too much. And I knew he would never settle down. I mean, I thought he would never settle down.”
“So what are you supposed to do once you get up there?” Really, he was being incredibly patient, waiting to draw everything out of her before settling on the proper reaction.
“Obviously, we’ll stay in separate hotel rooms,” she said, feeling her face redden slightly.
“The whole goddamned thing sounds odd as hell,” he said finally, and went back to the vegetables.
“I know it is,” she kept on.
“I mean, Jesus Christ Em – if I was driving to the middle of nowhere to meet an old friend I think you’d have a lot more to say about it than all this,” he said. “And don’t say ‘at least you’re being honest with me’. Of course you should be honest with me.” Matthew had known her for so long, absorbed her too completely, and she knew with deep certainty that he understood who she was. He slammed the knife down so suddenly that the spoon jolted out of her hand and landed on the floor with a clatter.
“Are you driving all the way to fucking Syracuse to figure out whether or not you want to sleep with this guy?” His question broke the empty silence.
“Of course not,” she answered. She pushed her mug of tea away.
“Then why are you going?” he asked. “You should be able to tell me that much.”
“I don’t know,” she said, finally bringing herself to meet his eyes. “But it’s not for that or anything else it may see like.”
“You realize I’m being unbelievable cool about this whole thing,” he said factually. “You realize I’m putting myself in a position of being made a fool of.”
Elaborately, Emma rose from the table, pushed her chair back and went to him. He kept his arms folded and leaned his back against the counter stiffly as she hugged him. She kissed his cheek and held fast in her embrace against his folded arms.
“I love you,” she whispered. Matthew didn’t say anything. “Do you love me?” she asked.
“Well obviously!” he retorted and stepped away from her. “Why the hell else would I agree to such a ridiculous scenario?”
The two others before Matthew – Patrick and Anthony, successively, she would have lied to. She would have told them she was meeting up with some old friends, and then returned with the memory of some major indiscretion tucked away inside of her.
Emma pulled out the directions she had printed online from the hotel’s website. The creases of the paper were worn from use. As she pulled out of the driveway she kept one hand on the steering wheel, and stuck the other in her knapsack blindly searching for the fresh pack of cigarettes she had just bought. Once she felt the solid weight in her hand, the sharpness of the edges wrapped in the smooth cellophane she relaxed. She was waiting to open the envelope he had sent her, the contents of which he had advised her not to open until she was less than an hour away from hotel where they were meeting. It was a small padded envelope; the silhouette of a rectangular-shaped object suggesting a tape, containing what she had no idea.
She listened to nothing as she made her way towards the George Washington Bridge. She thought of the first time she had met David. It was at a party, just like she had told Matthew, and they did have mutual friends. But what she had spoken of to no one was that she had spent an entire evening alone with David in one of the spare rooms of the house she was staying in, and that for days and months she replayed that evening in her mind hoping the smaller nuances remained imbedded in her memory.
At first glance David seemed nothing extraordinary to Emma. In fact, their physical appearances were quite similar – large, dark eyes, shoulder-length brown hair and almond complexions. He must have noticed when she first arrived because within the first hour of the party he had approached her and said, “I’m David. You’re Emma,” and extended his hand. She shook it. He had overheard her introduce herself to someone, had sat quietly by the stereo smoking. He was twenty – only two years old than her, and yet seemed to carry himself as if he had been to too many parties, spoken to too many people and was no longer interested in any of it. Though somehow, he was there- at this party where Emma’s high school friend Catherine had moved to in the middle of their junior year. Emma on the other hand, had known about the party for weeks and had cleaned the house two Sundays in a row to earn the freedom of this weekend.
Moments after he had introduced himself she felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Would you like to have some wine with me?” David stood in front of her holding a bottle of wine he had just opened.
“Okay,” she said.
He walked out of the room and headed towards the staircase. Emma followed.
“Do you know the house?” she asked.
“Not really,” he said without turning around. It did not occur to her to not follow him.
As she merged onto Route 80 Emma realized she could no longer recall with precise detail what it was they talked about that evening.
“I’m so happy to be here,” she remembered saying to him.
“Because my parents are super-strict,” she had replied.
“Why?” he had asked and passed the wine bottle to her.
His questions irked her, until she saw that it forced her to find the source of things, the truth about herself.
“I ran away two years ago,” she had said.
He did not react like most people did. “Why?” he asked her again.
He was a canvas, clean and expansive, harboring no judgment.
“And why are you sleeping on so many people’s couches?” she had asked.
“Because I’m not comfortable sleeping on my own,” he had answered.
She had never surrendered so much about her life to another person, never knew the thrill of that reciprocity until David. Looking back, perhaps it was his truthfulness that had helped her leave her parents’ home only two years later. And he was wild, yes. He didn’t exactly have a home, but instead migrated from one friend’s living room couch to another. He had several part-time jobs, a few girlfriends or girls he managed half-assed relationships with (they all knew about one another), and he drank and smoked cigarettes in excess.
“Is this the Emily Resnicek I know?” was the first email she received from him. They hadn’t spoken or written in over ten years, and she had no idea how he had found her.
“Who else could it be?” she replied.
“How have you been?” was his response.
And from there they continued emailing, their replies lengthening with each exchange. He was married with two kids. He was unhappy. He missed having conversations with interesting people. It was as if they had swapped their sense of freedom. She always imagined him as a wolf, moving across land and resting where he chose, and she had been the caged one – going to a local college to appease her parents, obeying their ridiculous midnight curfew, until one day she had packed her things and left. She found a part-time job, finished her college degree in six years instead of four, completed her masters degree shortly after, and was shamelessly doing anything she wasn’t able to under the harshness of her parents’ tyranny.
“He’s married with two kids!” she had told Matthew that same evening when she had mentioned meeting David.
“I don’t care what he is,” Matthew had replied. “I know that he sounds unhappy enough to contact someone he’s seen once in his life.”
“But we wrote letters to each other.” It sounded like such a feeble protest. They were letters that made her mother so suspicious that she had cleverly steamed one of them open, read it and then re-sealed it. Emma had known as soon as she saw the letter. Even the thrill of having an unrealistic romance had been forbidden. Weeks before this conversation with Matthew she had found one of David’s letters.
“I must see this,” he had said in his email. “Would it be too much trouble to Xerox it and mail it to me?”
It was fourteen pages written on both sides. The letter was written like a diary entry; he would put the time and date before writing. “I love you,” he had written during one of his drunken episodes. “I wish you could be my girlfriend.” And two days after when he was sober he had written, “Dearest Emma, I am sober and I still love you and I still wish you were my girlfriend.”
When her friend Catherine found them the next morning they were lying on the floor holding hands. They were still talking, but their sleeplessness had quieted their conversation to a soft murmur. Emma had to leave that same afternoon. She had hoped he would have walked her to her car. As she shuffled through her backpack to make sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind he stood behind her.
“Leaving, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, her eyes burning from exhaustion, her stomach sinking at the thought of leaving him.
She walked to the front door and as she went to open it she felt his hand on her shoulder.
“I wish you didn’t have to go so soon,” he said, and pulled her towards him and kissed her quickly. In doing so, he slipped a piece of paper in the back pocket of her jeans.
She pulled over after driving for only one block, embarrassed to look at it right away for fear he was watching her through the window. He had written his address – nothing else. She wished she could taste his mouth again, the sweetness of the wine on his tongue, the lingering scent of cigarettes.
“I miss having sex with more than one person,” he wrote to her only a month ago. “I don’t think (and never have) that monogamy is part of human nature. If I could sleep with other people and be honest about it with Amanda, I would.”
Emma had never thought about monogamy as being or not being part of human nature. All she knew was that she had cheated on all her boyfriends before Matthew, and had realized years later that she wanted someone not only who she loved and who loved her, but that she would be able to gaze into someone’s face with the same ease in which she looked into a mirror every morning. Matthew was the face of her salvation. He had been her friend from the very start, nursed her through break-ups, stayed on the phone with her late at night after countless conversations she had had with her mother that had left her sobbing. Hell, they have even double-dated with other boyfriends and girlfriends years before they started dating each other. And although they had been together for five years she still felt the same tingling of anticipation when she heard the door open every evening when he came home from work. It was beyond being with a reliable friend she felt safe with. Matthew’s temper made her laugh, his passion for everything thrilled her. In all, they had known each other more than ten years, and he still felt so fresh and new in her life.
She had been driving for over three hours now. The envelope David had sent her was on the passenger’s seat, and before opening it she remembered promising Matthew that she would call.
The reception on her cell phone crackled.
“I’m almost there,” she said to him.
“Okay.” He sounded tired. “Just watching T.V.,” he said. “Call me when you’re settled.”
After hanging up Emma fumbled with the envelope, trying to keep her eyes on the road and finally tore open the package and extracted a tape. Nothing was written on it. How would he have known she could play it in her car? And then she remembered telling him not too long ago that she was still driving her father’s Buick – the same car she had driven in years ago when they had met in Maine. She inserted the tape and for an entire two minutes there was nothing but emptiness.
“Hey,” she heard. “I had to fiddle with this thing on my tape recorder to make sure it’s recording me. How are you?” he laughed slightly. It was so odd to hear his voice after so many years. The softness of his tone was eerie. “So if you’re listening to this you’re hopefully an hour or so away. It’s so weird speaking when it’s not a conversation. Weird.” There was a slight pause. “So we never talked about why exactly we’re meeting. I wondered what you ended up telling your boyfriend, I mean – fiancé. So strange, isn’t it? Me married with kids and you planning a wedding?” Another pause. “I don’t know how much I plan to say, but I have an idea of what I wanted to say. I had it all in my head and I’m so used to typing or writing a letter that this is strange for me.”
Emma lit a cigarette. It felt late in the day. The sky was darkening early, and the trees swayed furiously against the wind and the deep blueness of the landscape.
“Did I ever tell you that I’m not in love with Amanda? I married her because I liked her and she seemed very smart. I never entirely wanted kids, but they seemed to appear out of nowhere. If you’re wondering how I’m finding the time to write this, I will tell you: it is after eleven at night and Amanda and the girls are finally asleep. I’m in the basement. I found this old tape recorder. Hang on.” She heard a faint snapping that clicked several times until she realized he was lighting a cigarette. She looked at the one in her hand, and shook her head in amusement. “Okay, Emma. This is it: if you’re driving up to see me it must mean something to you. But maybe you’re not driving at all. Maybe you’re sitting on your bed listening to this tape, and aren’t meeting me. Maybe you didn’t have the heart to tell me in your email that you didn’t want to see me. Maybe I’ll be sitting in the lobby of a hotel waiting for you and you won’t show up. I guess what I want to tell you is – that night in Maine? When we spent the evening together? I have never thought of anyone as much as I have of you. All these years. And I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re driving right now and almost there then I must mean the same for you.”
Weeks after she had agreed to meet David she had fallen asleep thinking about what would happen once they did meet. Would the same evening in Maine present itself again? Would they talk until dawn, confessing their lives to each other? Nothing felt innocent anymore. Even the act of holding hands felt like a betrayal to Matthew, to their life.
“I should say right now that I want to be with you again. Sleep with you – whatever that may sound like.”
Emma gripped the steering wheel and abruptly pulled over. Cars honked and whizzed by her. It was dark now.
“Does that scare you? Do you have someone you can tell everything to? We didn’t have sex that night in Maine, but me telling you all about me was better, and I wish I had found someone at this point that I could have done that with. You probably don’t remember me telling you my secrets because I made them sound like facts and not the confession that it was. I told you everything.”
Without thinking, she reached over and ejected the tape. He had given her the ability to tell the truth, and as she sat in the darkness of her car on this strange, windy road she felt engulfed by the taunting distance between them now. She remembered his long dark hair, his aloofness to the world. “Is this the Emily Resnicek I know?” Well, it was and it wasn’t. And as Emma carefully pulled the old Buick back onto the road, she realized she had plenty of time – three and a half hours, to be exact – to make her way back and maybe think of a right answer to the question.
Halfway Down the Stairs – March 2010