From what I can remember, the first time they tried to teach me pattern recognition was in sixth grade. My opinion was and is that only serial killers and mormons pay attention in sixth grade and as a result I find my skills lacking. I think that if I had a proper concept of pattern recognition, I wouldn’t have woken-up laying face-down in my best friend Jordan’s bed last New-Years. I could have been micro-waving some left-over stir-fry and watching the New Year’s parade; satisfied with having survived another year. However, rather than settling into my own well-established couch groove, I found myself struggling to get comfortable in the one Jordan’s body had imprinted into her bed. Naturally it was my best friend’s husband, Nate-- Nathan, whose skinny body was settled on the other-side. The pale blue eyes my friend used to blush just talking about were turned towards the wall, towards an ugly abstract painting Jordan had bought the year before. Even though I couldn’t see his face the irregular rise and fall of his chest gave away that he was only pretending to sleep. It sounds stupid, but it was laying there; staring at the hairy back of my best friend’s ‘first love’ that I realized I could have avoided my position. Had I been able to really understand the events leading up to that morning and my own part in them, I could have saved so many people so much grief. It’s strange to take pause and consider the people who could still be in my life, had I learned fractions and long-division rather than how to kiss with tongue and steal from teachers.
I’m sure it’s not an issue, but don’t pity my situation. It isn’t as though it snuck up on me. Despite my poor sense of prediction, I was fully aware of what Nathan and I were doing. The part I should have recognized sooner was exactly how it would impact the people we loved the most, which is to say Jordan and my brother, Tim. It was selfish of me, but I honestly didn’t think about them for a second until they were forced into my mind by the sobering light of the morning after. It wasn’t for lack of time or opportunity, I barely had to do a thing other than follow Nathan’s lead. It was a thing of beauty, the way he lead me that night. I was aware of where the evening was going from the moment he called me up, the alcohol had already made his voice sweet and heavy, but I still found myself surprised by every twirl or hesitation in his box-step. “Nadine? You doing anything?” He’d asked me over the phone, his voice wearing it’s dancing shoes, making it lower and more confident than normal. I told him I wasn’t. “Great,” he replied, “want to come over and watch the New Years countdown with me? If you don’t have any plans for later, I mean?” In fact the only plans I’d had for the night were to watch ‘Sixteen Candles’ again, cry and resolve that I wouldn’t spend the next new years alone. “Sure, of course. Do you want me to bring anything?” Who could blame a girl for choosing to dance?
I still remember the details of that night pretty clearly, considering the volume of alcohol that was in my system. We stuck to the events Nathan had proposed over the phone for the first hour or two. We drank modest glasses of champagne and watched the count-down, danced the even box-step of drunk friends. We probably sat there on his couch for a good thirty minutes after midnight passed, just exchanging banalities about the weather and music and whatever it is that people like us talk about when we’re drunk together. Eventually we’d lowered our guards enough to allow for the kind of talk that the evening demanded, “Are you making a resolution this year?” He asked, finishing off his festive glass of champagne. I replied too quickly to be convincing when I said, “Oh, you know. Gain weight, drink more, pray less, take up smoking again...” He laughed but moved closer, “No, seriously, what’s your resolution? I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.” He was treating me like a kid but his baiting wasn’t working, I responded as casually as I could, “Sorry, it’s private.” He stood up and put his hands on his hips mock-sternly, “Well then, if you won’t tell me your real one let me help you with one of your others.” He piped cheerfully, stepping out of the living-room and into the adjoining kitchen. When he came back he was holding an oversize bag of nachos in one hand and a magnum of wine in the other. “How perfect,” I thought, “how couldn’t I sleep with him now?” I stopped. It was the first time I’d actively let the thought process pass through my mind that maybe I wanted to have sex with Nathan. Up until that point every come on and flirtatious movement had been accompanied in my head by an insincere commentary of “I hope he realizes we’re just friends, I could never do that to Jordan.” Naturally, it was me who suggested we opened the wine first.
An hour later a quarter of the bottle was gone and we’d come back to the topic of our New Years resolutions. My feet were sitting in his lap and he was massaging them with the palms of his hands. It wasn’t a sensual thing so much as the result of my complaining about the way the shoes I wore killed my feet. It was pleasant in a clumsy way. With my feet resting in his lap I was reminded of just how thin Nate had gotten over the past year. Even though he was holding my feet up I could feel the lack of substance beneath his dark jeans. The animals battling through his body had left no loose skin in their wake. The familiar devastation of his chemotherapy was draped like crop-dust on the cancer destroying his body. He’d kept his hair but his body had thinned out rapidly, at least thats what Jordan had told me, this was the first time I actually experienced his skeletal new figure first-hand. It was unsettling to think about how quickly his body had taken it’s new more severe shape. He’d been muscled before, not incredibly but enough that when it disappeared you noticed. His body was whittled down by the chemicals to a sad coat of skin draped on a mess of angular bones.
“What are you thinking about?” He asked, breaking a silence I hadn’t noticed. “Work.” I said bluntly, pulling my mind away from the skeletons under his clothes. “I’m no fun that way.” He stiffened up a bit, sliding his back further up the arm of the chair which he was laying on. “Jo gets back from her business trip tomorrow, right?” I asked spontaneously. “Yeah, around two or three.” He mumbled, probably a little bit ashamed to be talking about his wife in such a precarious situation. He stared at the foot he was still absently massaging in his lap and took another small gulp of wine. He cringed slightly at the taste and I pulled my feet back in, curling my knees to my chest. He looked at me curiously and I spoke, “I don’t want to be alone anymore, Nate. That’s my New Year’s resolution…” It sounded even more pathetic uttered to someone other than the mirror. “Sad, huh?” I smiled weakly up at him but he was staring down at his hands. “No, I know what you mean.” He said slowly his voice sounding audibly strained,“Maybe it’s unfair to say, but I think marriage is it’s own kind of loneliness, you know?” “No, not really but keep talking.” I insisted. “Well, it’s just that… not to sound ungrateful, but ever since I got sick everything changed. Jordan isn’t my ‘wife’ anymore, she’s become this person who has to take care of me, you know? Like I can’t talk about the disease honestly with her or she gets worried, I can barely even complain about a headache without her calling 911.” He sipped some more wine and sighed, “But I understand it all and she’s completely justified in being afraid, but it makes it hard to feel close to her… Sorry for--” he hesitated, unsure what he was sorry for but I cut him off “No, don’t be sorry. I’m just being a dick. Sitting here, complaining about my life when I’ve still got so much going for me-- not that you don’t have a lot going for you-- but I can’t even imagine having to deal with something like what you’ve got...” He sighed and shook his head, “Yeah. It’s a mess.” I picked my wine glass back up off the table it was sitting on and threw the rest into my mouth, seeing this, Nate followed suit. Eyes squeezed shut, adam’s apple bobbing he emptied his glass down his throat.
“I’m going to get healthy, Nat. That’s my New Years resolution.” I stared at him, unsure whether to laugh or just smile. The humor came from the blunt way in which he stated it, as though by doing so he had eliminated every cancerous cell in his body. He picked up the now half-full magnum of wine and lifted it over his head, “and maybe once I’m healthy, I’ll be able to have sex with my wife without crying.” He toasted before he knocked back the wine and drank several deep gulps while I stared at him incredulously, partially because of the blunt candidness of his statement and partially because of the insanity of his actions. “Nate!” I protested, starting towards him. But on hearing my voice he eased the bottle off his lips and back to the table, a few stray drops falling from it’s mouth and onto the dark couch cushions. He turned his eyes to me and I was paralyzed, something in the way he looked completely destroyed me right then and there. Maybe it was the small, imperfect tears forming in the creases of his eyes, or the dark red and purple stains on his lips and tongue, but something in it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.
That was when he kissed me. I mean really kissed me. His face was coarse and salty from the now obvious tears and his mouth tasted like wine and champagne and nachos but I kissed him anyways. He was crying and I was crying and we were both drunk and sick and alone so we kissed until our faces were sore and our bodies aches and we were panting on our backs in his and Jordan’s bed. “We have to promise not to tell her, okay? I need you to promise me that.” He whispered, both our breathing still slightly uneven whether from the act itself or the terror of realizing what we’d just done. I nodded in agreement and turned on my side towards Nate. “Shake on it... and cross your fingers.” He said with a tone of severity I’d never really heard him use before. I did it immediately, there was something desperate in his voice that hadn’t been there earlier, a kind of fear he hadn’t anticipated. First we went to do a traditional handshake, but our crossed fingers were in the way. I began to undo mine, but he stopped me. “No, just use your other hand. Keep them crossed, please.” We switched to our bad hands and shook, our fore and middle fingers crossed on one hand while the others clung together and rocked clumsily. He pumped my hand twice weakly then let it go with a sigh. Simultaneously we rolled onto out opposite sides, facing the wall rather than each other.
It was still a few minutes before my heart had slowed enough to allow myself to sleep, so I found myself staring out the window and into the sky. Even though it was New Years most of the city’s lights were already out, replaced by the ever-present glow of street-lights and the moon on the river. I looked up at the vacant space where the stars should be and sighed internally. Maybe it’s ugly to say, but I didn’t feel guilty while I laid there, staring at the new year’s sky. Despite the fact I’d just set in motion the events that would destroy me and my closest friends, the only thing I could think was “it wasn’t supposed to feel so wrong…”
Post-Script:: I'm toying with the idea of themed weeks. How do you feel about this? Would you participate?