“Fine, I guess.”
“What’d you do?”
“We went to the movies and out to dinner. Then I hung out with Joel and Angela.”
“Girlfriend?” He blushes in the firelight. “So I’m dying to know—did you pass your driving test?”
He gives up a small smile. “I am the proud owner of a learner’s permit.”
“That’s great. So did he take you?”
Fuck. That hurts.
I pull the sheets and blankets up to Charlie’s shoulders and kiss him on the forehead. It’s been years since I actually tucked my son into bed, and I try to savor the moment, to slow it down. But like all good things, it goes by so fast.
Charlie stares up at me in the firelight, asks, “Are you okay, Dad?”
“No. Not really. But I’m with you guys now. That’s all that matters. This other version of me…you liked him?”
“He’s not my father.”
“I know, but did you—?”
“He’s not my father.”
Rising from the sleeper sofa, I toss another log on the fire and trudge back through the kitchen toward the other end of the house, the hardwood floor cracking under my weight.
It’s almost too cold to be sleeping in this room, but Daniela has stripped the beds upstairs and raided the closets for extra blankets.
The walls are wood-paneled.
A space heater glows in the corner, filling the air with the smell of scorched dust.
A sound is coming from inside the bathroom.
I knock on the hollow-core door.
I hear her catch her breath.
“Can I come in?”
She’s quiet for a moment.
Then the lock punches out.
I find Daniela huddled in the corner against an old clawfoot tub, her knees drawn into her chest, eyes red and swollen.
I’ve never seen her like this—physically shaking, breaking right in front of me.
She says, “I can’t. I just…I can’t.”
“You’re right here in front of me, and I love you so much, but then I think about all those other versions of you, and—”
“They aren’t here, Daniela.”
“They want to be.”
“But they’re not.”
“I don’t know how to think or feel about this. And then I wonder…”
She loses what little composure she had left.
It’s like watching ice crack.
“What do you wonder?” I ask.
“I mean…are you even you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“How do I know you’re my Jason? You say you stepped out our door in early October, and that you didn’t see me again until this morning in the police station. But how do I know you’re the man I love?”
I move down onto the floor.
“Look in my eyes, Daniela.”
“Can’t you see it’s me? Can’t you tell?”
She says, “I can’t stop thinking about the last month with him. It makes me sick.”
“What was it like?”
“Jason, don’t do that to me. Don’t do it to you.”
“Every day I was in that corridor, in the box, trying to find my way home—I thought about the two of you. I tried not to, but put yourself in my place.”
Daniela opens her knees, and as I crawl between them, she pulls me in close against her chest and runs her fingers through my hair.
She asks, “Do you really want to know?”
But I have to.
I say, “I’ll always wonder.”
I rest my head against her.
Feel the rise and fall of her chest.
She says, “To be honest, it was amazing at first. The reason I remember that night you went to Ryan’s party so vividly is because of how you—he—acted when you got home. At first, I thought you were drunk, but it wasn’t that. It was like…like you were looking at me in this new way.
“I still remember, all those years ago, the first time we made love in my loft. I was lying in bed, naked, waiting for you. And you just stood at the end of the bed for a minute and stared at me. It felt like it was the first time you had really seen me. Maybe the first time anyone had ever really seen me. It was the hottest thing.
“This other Jason looked at me like that, and there was this new energy between us. Kind of like how it feels when you come home after a weekend at one of your conferences, but way more intense.”
I ask, “So with him, it must’ve been like the first time we were together?”
She doesn’t answer right away.
Just breathes for a while.
Then says finally, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“After a couple weeks, it hit me that this wasn’t a one-night, or even one-weekend, kind of thing. I realized that something in you had changed.”
“What was different?”
“A million little things. The way you dressed. The way you got ready in the morning. The things you talked about at dinner.”
“The way I fucked you?”
“Please don’t lie to me. That, I can’t take.”
“Yes. It was different.”
“Like it was the first time again. You did things you never did. Or hadn’t in a long time. It was like I was something, not that you wanted, but that you needed. Like I was your oxygen.”
“Do you want this other Jason?”
“No. I want the man I’ve made a life with. The man I made Charlie with. But I need to know you’re that man.”
I sit up and look at her in this cramped, windowless bathroom in the middle of nowhere that smells faintly of mildew.
She looks at me.
Struggling onto my feet, I give her a hand up.
We move into the bedroom.
Daniela climbs into bed, and I hit the lights and crawl in beside her under the freezing sheets.
The frame is creaky, and the slightest movement bangs the headboard against the wall, which rattles the picture frames.
She’s wearing underwear and a white T-shirt, and she smells like she’s been riding in the car all day without a shower—fading deodorant tinged with funk.