“What is wrong with me? Do I even deserve to be happy?”
Twilight seeps toward the horizon. The sound of leaves scraping over sidewalks can be heard from blocks away. Susan’s hands are growing numb. Plastic bags filled with bottled liquor sag from the joints of her fingers and add to a sharp pain around her knuckles. Tonight Leah is going to introduce her to Marcel. She takes a deep breath. The air tingles her nose and moisture rises over her eyes. She is expecting a call from Steven. Her teeth begin to chatter and she clenches her jaw. I need a new scarf.
Upstairs she puts on water for tea and stands by the window. At the edge of the neighborhood’s light, large snowflakes begin to accent the sky. She watches them rock, gently, side to side, through layers of air and then disappear into the still unfrozen ground. “The first snow,” she whispers to herself. The sight stirs a spirit of celebration. For a moment she senses a spell of tranquility. The kettle begins to rattle against its burner. Her phone lights up as it vibrates against the kitchen table.
Susan is taken back by the vulnerability of Steven’s tone. “I’m sorry, I know I’ve been a jackass through all of this but…” Susan sits in the nook of her large bay window. She holds her hand next to the glass and can feel the cold emanating from its surface. “I’m not going to see her anymore. I want to be with you…” She watches the snowflakes cling to the windowpane and melt into streaks of water. “More than anything I want us to be together.” Silence. Steven’s voice takes on notes of desperation, “Remember, this, and I know I’ve been a jackass, but remember, this was the idea, the whole idea was to give each other a chance to see other people but we always said we’d come back together.”
“Whose idea was it Steven?” She can feel him trying to compose himself. Her emotions seem suspended above her. A sense of empowerment plays counterpoint to her bitterness. The snow outside is growing thicker.
“Yes, things got more complicated than I expected, and I know that you’ve been seeing someone else too. It’s just that, look Susan, I miss you and…”
“You know that I love you.”
The words take her by surprise. “Steven, you can’t just blurt things out like that.” Her instinct is to curse at him. She wants to punish him for the ways he’s made her feel but she’s afraid. She thinks of Michael and feels a sting of pity.
“It’s true,” he continues, “for a while I thought I didn’t, but I do.”
“Steven,” her voice is harsh, “just because things didn’t work out with your other little girlfriend doesn’t mean we can just start up like nothing has changed.”
He answers immediately, “No, that’s not what I meant, I know things have happened, but what I mean, what I’m trying to say, is that we can have something even better than before because… we won’t have any doubts. The only thing I’ve learned from the past few months is that I want to be with you.”
She rests her head against the window. Snow is beginning to build on the branches of barren trees. She slides the palm of her free hand across her thigh. She wonders what Michael would want her to say. Anxiety builds on the back of her neck. She remembers standing at dusk during a first snow as a child. She held her mother’s hand and laughed when the flakes melted on her face. She fears her distance from the beauty around her.
“You know it’s snowing? I’ve always loved the snow.”
Steven is slow to answer.
“I remember. We were together last year for the first snow of the season.”
“We made angels in front of the Cathedral.” The memory is still vivid.
Steven is relieved to be talking about something other than the last few months, “When we were laying there, you said something. We were in the imprints of our angels and we were watching the snow appear in the light of the Cathedral and float down to us, and you said something, what did you say it was like?”
Susan remembers the feeling of the snow melting underneath her body and seeping through her jeans and how she didn’t care about the cold, “I said the flakes were like ashes from heaven.”
Michael is seated facing the slanted wall of his attic apartment with a seaweed green blanket draped on his shoulders and wrapped over his feet. He is trying to start on his paper for Faraday’s class but he’s distracted. His mind feels giddy at the thought of Susan’s party tonight. Ever since breaking up with Kelsey he has sensed the components of his life aligning. He is destined to be happy in love.
Last night he dreamed of being together with Susan. Their touch brought light to the corners of they sky. They found themselves suspended above a field of even snow. “I,” she whispered, “love you Michael.”
Susan regrets inviting Steven to her party for Leah and Marcel. She stands at the door of her kitchen and blankly surveys the apartment. Sections of the morning’s paper lay scattered on the coffee table. Dried out teabags sit on tea stained paper towels. A pair of coffee mugs sits on the floor by the couch. She sees an image of Michael and Steven standing side by side. In the kitchen, dishes pile above the rim of the sink. This is going to be a disaster. Two strong knocks at the door shake her from her daze. The door swings open and her friend Lillian steps into the apartment.
“Susan!” she says and thrusts out her arms. A bottle of wine hangs from each hand. Drops of melting snow fall from her arms. Susan takes the bottles and Lillian braces herself against the wall to pull of her shoes. Her socks are grey and wool. “Can you believe the snow out there?” she asks.
Lillian has dark skin, large eyes, and a heart shaped face. She has been friends with Susan and Leah since freshmen year but since then she has spent as much time out of the country as she’s spent in Pittsburgh. Susan has always envied her sense of adventure and wondered at her ability to make people feel comfortable the moment she meets them. When Lillian’s around it seems the whole city reaches out to see her but she always makes time with Susan a priority.
“I know,” says Susan. Her voice sounds detached.
“Susan, what’s wrong? You sound like someone just strangled a kitten.”
Leah’s energy is bursting. When Marcel opens her door she springs from her seat to the sidewalk and jumps into his arms. Marcel pulls her against his chest and spins. Her toes carve waves into the sheets of falling snow. Leah feels transcendent. She can’t wait to introduce Marcel to Susan and Lillian. Marcel’s arm drapes around her shoulders and he pulls her close as they walk.
“Are you looking forward to meeting my friends?”
“Of course,” he says, “I want to know everything about you.”
“How did I get so lucky?” She tickles Marcel through his jacket.
“I thought it was because you were the most beautiful person in the world.”
“That’s right. And don’t you forget it.”
She presses her cheek into Marcel’s jacket. Susan will be happy for me.
Michael takes the bus from Oakland to Squirrel Hill. Looking out the window he sees his reflection projected onto the bright storefronts and newly white hills that pass by. A group of girls across from him are on their way to a frat party and are laughing loudly. Two of them have elaborately curled hair and heavier eye makeup than the rest. They talk about liquors they’re going to stay away from. The scene strikes Michael as vulgar. He’s happy to not be jockeying with frat brothers for the attention of girls like these. He remembers waking up with Susan at their Bed and Breakfast. Her cheek glowed in the morning light. Tonight he will debut as her boyfriend.
Leah has trouble processing the somber mood she finds when her and Marcel bound into Susan’s apartment. Lillian sits with her hand on top of Susan’s and they both turn long-faced toward the door. Marcel is beaming. He tracks snow across the floor as he strides toward them with an extended hand.
“Susan…Lillian,” her tone trying to stir a spirit of celebration, “this is the Marcel I’ve been telling you about!”
Susan takes his hand and smiles. “Oh, Marcel, I’m so glad to finally meet you. I’m sorry about the mess.” She turns abruptly and begins to clear the coffee table. “I completely lost track of time.”
Lillian gestures to her opened bottle of wine, and a bottle of vodka. “Who wants some drinks?”
The bus stop is a few blocks from Susan’s apartment. Michael exits along with three other people. One of them, a shorter man with a slender frame, crosses the street in front of him. Cars slow their pace to a crawl and the snow fractures the light from their headlights. Michael becomes nervous. The slender man from the bus turns onto Susan’s street a few steps in front of Michael. Michael pulls his hat down over his ears, and wipes his nose with his coat. The two of them end up standing together in front of Susan’s building. When the door buzzes they step inside.
“Are you a friend of Leah’s?” asks Michael.
“Yeah, and Susan too,” he replies. There is nothing friendly in his tone.
Their two pairs of boots approach but never quite reach a steady rhythm as they thud against the stairs up to the third floor. They are shoulder to shoulder when they knock at the door.
Susan refills her glass of wine. She watches Leah stare adoringly at Marcel. He is friendly and handsome but Susan fears that Leah is giving too much of herself to this stranger. Maybe she’s just jealous. Susan doesn’t like to admit that there has always been a competitive streak between her and Leah. Again, there is a knock at the door.
Susan stares dumbstruck. Her gaze seems to halt just before the plane of their faces. They stare back innocent and impatient in snow-dusted jackets. Michael holds his hat in his hand.
“Um… Steven. Michael. I guess you two have met.” They turn their necks toward each other, just enough to see the other in the corner of their eye. “Come in. Come in. We have drinks.”
Michael and Steven offer Susan wobbly one-legged bows as they bend to pull off their boots. Neither one seems eager to talk first. She feels disoriented. Suddenly Marcel is in front of her holding his phone between both hands.
“Some friends of mine from France,” he says, “they’re at a bar around the corner and I was wondering if I could invite them over here.”
Her response seems to come from a voice standing behind her. “Of course. Of course.”
Leah is frustrated with Susan. Doesn’t she realize how important tonight is to me? All I wanted was for her to take time to get to know Marcel. Instead she has to go and make herself the center of attention.
She needs a drink. Steven is already by the liquor topping off his glass of vodka with a splash of sprite.
“You know,” says Leah, “you have a lot of nerve coming out here tonight.”
“Susan invited me.”
“Well, I wish she wouldn’t have.”
“Cheers.” He taps his glass against hers and walks toward Susan and Lillian.
Michael is lost in a haze. People arrive in a steady stream while, across the room, Susan talks with Steven. Michael tries not to stare but he can’t seem to look away from them for more than a few moments before his eyes settle back to their corner of the room. Steven is smaller than he imagined, even slightly shorter than Susan. He is tempted to be angry but he tells himself he just needs to be patient. At the end of the night he will be alone with Susan.
Over an hour passes without any contact. He watches her finish with Steven and disappear into the bathroom with Leah. Marcel’s friends arrive with more bottles of wine. At one point Lillian appears beside him to assure him that Susan is “horribly torn up about all this” and, “she knows it’s unfair to put you and Steven through this” and, “it’s really her fault for not knowing what she wants.”
“So she invites both of us to the same party and tries to keep from looking at me?”
“Michael. I know she cares about you.”
Michael realizes he has hardly moved since he arrived. He watches Steven poor another drink and throw a half-drunken glare in his direction. Leah emerges from the bathroom and whispers, “You’re my favorite,” before she passes by and leaps toward Marcel. Everyone seems to be speaking French. They laugh at words he can’t understand. The snow forms a perfect curve as it piles on the windowsill. Susan is still nowhere to be seen.
Susan stands before the bathroom mirror unable to look her reflection in the eye. She feels guilty yet oddly detached from the responsibility of souring the mood of her party. The tension has a sense of forced inevitability. It’s been hell trying to untangle her feelings for Steven and Michael; searching for names to put to her doubts and desires. She knows tonight will be decisive but for now she is paralyzed. She clings to the comfort of her indecision. She presses her fingers into her forehead and worries that Steven is getting drunk. Michael must hate her. Maybe Leah is right; maybe she is doing all of this just to steal attention for herself. What is wrong with me? Do I even deserve to be happy?
“I’m sorry love,” says Leah, “I was hoping tonight would be different.”
“It’s ok,” replies Marcel, pouring her another glass of wine, “I’m still having a good time.”
“Because I’m here?”
“Yes, because I’m with the most beautiful girl in the world.”
“From now on, to be happy, all we’ll need is each other.”
Marcel sets one hand on Leah’s hip and raises his glass in a toast.
“To us,” he says.
Michael has decided to leave. He puts on his shoes and grabs his coat from the closet. He hopes no one will notice him. When he closes the closet door Susan’s voice startles him from behind.
“I was just about to ask if you’d like to go for a walk.”
“I thought you’d disappeared.”
“I’m sorry. But. If you can wait a minute I’d like to take a walk with you outside.”
“I’ll meet you downstairs.”
She tries not to react to the coarseness in his tone; “I’ll be down in a minute.”
Susan moves quickly from the front door to the curb where Michael is standing and takes his arm. The streets are empty and thick with snow. Cars hidden by a blanket of powder offer a feeling of desertion. The trees glisten in the streetlight.
“I love this,” says Susan. “It’s so wonderful when the first snow can be a real snow.”
“It’s good to hear your voice.”
They begin to walk. There is a block behind them before either of them speaks again.
“I broke up with Kelsey.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“No, I did, it wasn’t right.”
“No I guess it wasn’t.”
Michael looks at his feet and then back to Susan.
“I was hoping that you and I…”
“I know… Me too.”
They turn away from the street and toward Schenely Park. Their footprints mark their path in the snow.
“So, what’s going on with you and Steven?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, I think he may be passed out in your bedroom.”
Susan laughs. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to let him spend the night.” Then, worrying he’s misunderstood, “I think I just need to be alone tonight.”
“Oh.” He sounds hurt.
“I’m sorry Michael.”
The light from a distant road marks the edge of the park. Michael wonders if Susan will want to turn back soon. He can feel the conversation weighing on her.
Without ever having decided Susan is suddenly aware of what is about to happen.
“So, I guess this is it,” says Michael, hoping that Susan will protest.
She rests her head against his shoulder; he feels stable and strong. “Michael, you’re one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.” Her voice is somber.
“But I’m not sure I’m ready for…”
“You’re not ready for us to be together.”
“But you’re ready to get back together with Steven?”
Susan stops walking and lets go of Michael’s arm.
“Maybe, I don’t know. I can’t get away from this feeling that things between me and Steven aren’t finished yet. Like we owe it to each other to try and make it work.”
“I understand.” His voice is bitter.
“Michael, remember, we never made any promises to each other. I never asked you to break up with Kelsey. You’ve always known that Steven is an important part of my life.”
Hearing Steven’s name is like salt in his eyes. “I guess I never really expected this to work out,” he says, wondering if it’s true.
They catch each other’s eyes.
“We’ve had something special.”
“I should probably head back now. Do you want to come?”
“No I think I’ll stay out here for awhile.”
Susan steps forward, kisses Michael gently on the cheek, and then turns away without looking back.
Michael walks on, taking notice of the blurred borders between snow and shadow. The freshness of the landscape borders on fantasy. As he walks, his mind sews a thread of inevitability through his memories of Susan. I guess love can never be true for very long. When he reaches the light from the road he turns and looks back at his tracks. The trail makes a gentle crescent. He traces it back until he finds the place where he continued on alone.
(This is an excerpt from the novel Pictures of the Sky. Here is a link to the full novel: https://www.amazon.com/Pictures-Sky-William-Minton/dp/0692423559/)