“I just want to sit on the beach and read,” he’d said, so that had been our plan for the last two weeks. We would finally swap our latest books and read them outside.
I was, of course, surprised he’d suggested it. While we both loved the view, I’d seen in the last year that Gus wasn’t lying about how little time he spent on the beach. He thought it was too crowded during the day, and at night, it was too cold to swim anyway. We’d spent much more time down there in January and February, walking out along the frozen waves, holding our arms out as we stood on the edge of the world, squinting into the dying light, our jackets rippling.
The lake froze so far out that we could even walk on it past the lighthouse my father had once ridden his tricycle into. And what was more, the water froze so high and the snow piled on top of it such that we could walk right up to the top of the lighthouse, stand on it like it was part of some lost civilization underneath us, Gus’s arm hooked around my neck as he hummed, It’s June in January, because I’m in love.
I’d had to buy a bigger coat. One that looked like a sleeping bag with arms. A fur-lined hood and rings of down-stuffed Gore-Tex all the way to my ankles, and still I sometimes had to layer sweatshirts and long-sleeved T-shirts under it.
But the sun—fuck, the sun was brilliant on those winter days, glancing off every crystal edge sharper than when it had first hit. It was like being on another planet, just Gus and me, closer to a star than we’d ever been. Our faces would go so numb we couldn’t feel the snot dripping down them, and when we got back inside, our fingers would be purple (gloves or no) and our cheeks would be flushed, and we’d flick on the gas fireplace and collapse onto the couch, shivering and chattering and too numb to undress and tangle up beneath blankets with any semblance of grace.
“January, January,” Gus would sing, his teeth clacking from the cold. “Even if there aren’t any snowflakes, we’ll have January all year long.”
I had never liked winter before, but now I understood. Sitting on a blanket on the sand tonight was nice, but we were sharing the sparkling waves with three dozen other people. It was a different kind of beauty, hearing shrieks and squeals rise between the crashing of water on shore, more like those nights I’d sat out in my parents’ backyard listening to the neighbor kids chasing fireflies. I was glad Gus was giving it all a try.
We read for a couple of hours, then staggered home in the dark. I slept at his house that night, and when I woke, he was already out of bed, the burble of the coffeepot coming from the kitchen.
We went back to the beach that afternoon and sat side by side, reading each other’s books again. I wondered what he would think of the ending to mine, whether it would feel too contrived to him or if he’d be disappointed I hadn’t truly committed to an unhappy ending.
But his book was shorter and I finished first, with a burst of laughter that made him look up, startled, from the page. “What?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I’ll tell you when you’re done.”
I lay on the sand and stared up into the lavender sky. The sun had started setting and we’d long since eaten our snacks. My stomach growled. I stifled another laugh.
Gus’s new book, tentatively titled The Cup Is Already Broken, was nothing close to a rom-com, although it did have a strong romantic thread woven into the plot and had come extremely close to a happy ending.
The protagonist, Travis, had left the cult with all the evidence he needed. He’d even talked Doris into leaving with him. They were happy, extremely happy, but for no more than a page or two before the world-ending meteor the prophet had been predicting hit the Earth.
The world hadn’t ended. In fact, Travis and Doris were the only two human casualties. It had missed the compound and hit the woods just off the road the two were traveling on. It hadn’t even been the meteor to kill them—it had been the distraction of it, Travis’s eyes skirting off the road he’d worked so hard to get onto.
The right tire had run off the shoulder, and when he’d cranked it back too hard, he’d hit a semitruck that was flying past in the other direction. Come to a screaming halt, crumpled like a stomped-on can.
I closed my eyes against the dusky sky and swallowed my laughter down. I didn’t know why I couldn’t stop, but soon the feeling hardened in my belly and I realized I wasn’t laughing. I was crying. I felt both defeated and understood.
Angry that these characters had deserved better than they’d gotten and somehow comforted by their experience. Yes, I thought. That is how life feels too often. Like you’re doing everything you can to survive only to be sabotaged by something beyond your control, maybe even some darker part of yourself.
Sometimes, it was your body. Your cells turning into poison and fighting against you. Or chronic pain sprouting up your neck and wrapping around the outsides of your scalp until it felt like fingernails sinking into your brain.
Sometimes, it was lust or heartbreak or loneliness or fear driving you off the road toward something you’d spent months or years avoiding. Actively fighting against.
At least the last thing they’d seen, the meteor streaming toward Earth, had distracted them because of its beauty. They hadn’t been afraid. They’d been mesmerized. Maybe that was all you could hope for in life.
I didn’t know how long I’d been lying there, tears trickling quietly down my cheeks, but I felt a rough thumb catch one and opened my eyes to Gus’s gentle face. The sky had darkened to a brutal blue. Seeing that color on someone’s skin would make your stomach turn. It was gorgeous in this context. Strange how things could be repellent in some situations and incredible in others.
“Hey,” he said tenderly. “What’s wrong?”
I sat up and wiped my face dry. “So much for your happy ending,” I said.
Gus’s brow furrowed. “It was a happy ending.”
“For them,” he said. “They were happy. They had no regrets. They’d won. And they didn’t even have to see it coming. For all we know, they live in that moment forever, happy like that. Together and free.”
Chills crawled down my arms. I knew what he meant. I’d always felt grateful Dad had gone in his sleep. I hoped the night before, he and Mom had watched something on TV that made him laugh so hard he had to take off his glasses and get the tears out of his eyes. Maybe something with a boat in it. I hoped he’d had a few too many of Mom’s infamous martinis to feel any worry when he crawled into bed, apart from that he might not feel so hot in the morning.
I had told Mom this when I’d gone home to visit at Christmas. She had cried and held me close. “It was something like that,” she promised. “So much of our lives were something like that.” Talking about him came in fits and starts. I learned not to press it. She learned to let it out, bit by bit, and that sometimes, it was okay to let a little ugliness into your story. That it would never rob you of all the beauty.
“It’s a happy ending,” Gus said again, bringing me back to the beach. “Besides, what about your ending? Everything tied up perfectly.”
“Hardly,” I said. “The only boy Eleanor had even thought she’d loved is married now.”
“Yeah, and she and Nick are obviously going to get together,” Gus said. “You could sense that through the whole book. It was obvious he was in love with her, and that she loved him back.”