It’s cold up here relative to the crackling heat of the living room, and Benny pulls a blanket from the bed for me to wrap around my shoulders, and then grabs his green cashmere sweater. This is a Peak Benny moment—having enough money to buy cashmere but using it to buy a sweater that looks identical to the one he’s always worn.
Sitting in a rickety chair near the window, he motions for me to take a seat in the sturdier option—a wooden stool—and pushes his hair out of his face. “How’re you doing, Noodle?”
“In the grand scheme of life, I am great. Unemployed but healthy, and have a pretty amazing community, if you do say so yourself.” I pause, watching a bird land on a branch outside the small attic window. “But in the realm of romantic love, I am—how do I say it? Quite shitty.”
He laughs despite the dark truth of this. “Was it good while it lasted?”
“The blip of my romantic life with Andrew Polley Hollis? Yes, Benny, it was truly blissful.”
Benny’s smile tilts down at the edges and before I realize it, it’s turned into a full-blown frown. For years he’s listened to me pine hopelessly over Andrew. The summer before ninth grade, Benny caught me writing our names together on a receipt from Park City Mountain, and I was so embarrassed, I attempted to burn the evidence in one of Lisa’s scented candles. I ended up setting a pillowcase on fire. Benny sat with me through four hours of the online fire safety class my parents made me do so I didn’t have to be alone all day.
When I was nineteen, Benny was the first to run into the room after I’d gouged my forehead because I was supposed to be unloading the dishwasher, but instead was watching Andrew strum his guitar at the kitchen table. I stood up without looking, cracking my head on an open cabinet door. There are probably a hundred stories like this, and Benny has witnessed nearly all of them.
“I’m sad for you,” he says now.
“I’m sad for me, too,” I say, but swallow past the lump of genuine grief in my throat, “but I guess there’s a good lesson here: You can’t erase mistakes. You just have to figure out how to fix them.”
“Is that what we’re doing up here?”
“Actually,” I say, sliding my hands between my knees, “yes. But I’m not here to brainstorm the Andrew problem.”
His brows furrow, and he reaches into his bag for his one-hitter. “What’s up?”
“You said something in the diner about Spotify.”
He nods, flicking his lighter. The spark leaves a firework of light on my retinas that’s slow to fade. He inhales deeply and exhales to the side so it doesn’t cloud between us, before sitting back. “I did say something about that, didn’t I?”
“I realize this is incredibly intrusive, but it was a surprise to hear that you can pay a hundred dollars for my coffee when you don’t have smaller bills.”
“Yeah,” he says, nodding with his attention fixed to something just past my shoulder, “it’s been a surprise. A nice one.”
“When did—?” I start, and then try again, fumbling. “I mean, we had no idea.”
“Well, to be fair, I wasn’t being secretive; we don’t usually sully the holiday with talk of coin,” he says, grinning at me. “But truth be told, I only recently sold a chunk of my shares. You know me.” He gestures to his ripped jeans. “I don’t care about stuff so much. I’d rather use it up and wear it out. I’ve really had no idea what to do with all this money. Got a guy advising me now. He’s good. Smart. Trustworthy, I think.”
“Well,” I say, and my stomach gets all twisty and nervous even approaching this, “I’m worried about being a terrible friend cliché by doing this, but I was wondering if I could talk to you about helping me do something.”
Benny gives a hint of a smile. “I think I know where this is going.”
I blink. “Where is this going?”
He lifts his chin. “Go ahead.”
My shoulders are slowly hunching higher and higher on my neck in preemptive regret, but I wince it out: “I was thinking maybe you could cosign a loan for me to buy the cabin?” His expression shifts. I’ve clearly surprised him, so I rush to add, “I can probably cover the down payment—I’ve saved. And once I have a new job, I can pay the mortgage. I live at home, I don’t have any expenses really. I’m sure I’ll find a job relatively quickly, and it would just be cosignature, I swear.”
He’s still frowning, and I am mortified but push on. “You could live here rent free and just do your Benny thing. Play your guitar. Putz around. I’d pay the mortgage and as I save, maybe I can pay for larger things, too. It would be an investment. I also realize this is dependent on what they’re asking—okay, it’s dependent on a lot of things . . .” I pause to finally take a breath. “I just don’t want us to lose this place.”
“I don’t want us to lose it, either.” He studies me for a few quiet seconds. “It matters to you that you own it?”
I shake my head. “I mean, I know that owning a home— especially an old one, and especially in another state—isn’t easy. But if you lived here, maybe it would be easier? I don’t know. I realize this sounds crazy, and to be honest the details only occurred to me about a half hour ago. It’s not so much about me owning it as it is about all of us having this place to come together. I do ultimately think this is one of the things I was sent back to fix.”
He nods like he understands. “I see.”
“Think about it,” I say, quickly adding, “Or don’t. I mean, I have no idea if I’ve insulted you, or—”
“You haven’t in the slightest.”
“—or whether this is even something people do?” I grimace apologetically. “I feel really naive all of a sudden.”
“I’m sorry,” he says with a smile, and then leans forward, taking my hands. “You haven’t insulted me, and you don’t sound naive at all, honey. I wasn’t trying to let you flounder; I was trying to figure out your motivations and whether I would be taking something away from you that I hadn’t considered.”
“Taking—?” I shake my head. “I don’t understand.” “Taking your opportunity to own this place. I’ve already made an offer to Ricky and Lisa.”
My mouth opens, but nothing comes out except for a wheezy zombie creak. Finally, “An offer on the cabin?”
He squeezes my hands. “The first time you lived through this week, you didn’t know until the last day that Ricky and Lisa were selling it. And I mean, who knows? Maybe I would have stepped in later and made an offer, but I know myself. I’m hesitant to make commitments to big things. Maybe I would have just been sad like the rest of us, and briefly considered buying it, but by the time I got back to Portland I bet I’d have talked myself out of it. But you told me the very first day. So,” he says, and smiles again, “I was here all week, thinking about how much I love this place and trying to imagine never being here with all of you again. Knowing what was coming made it easier for me to get used to the idea of taking that leap. And it also let me pry a little with Ricky.” His smile turns wolfish. “Subtly, of course. Just a question here or there.”
“I’m sorry.” I hold my hands out, unwilling to unleash the euphoria. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I’m buying the cabin.”
I bolt out of my seat, tackling him in a hug. His chair cracks and breaks; we fall in a dusty tumble to the wood floor.
“I take it that’s okay with you?” Benny laughs beneath me.
• • •
I’m confident that my next conversation cannot top the perfection of how things just went with Benny, but I’m relieved that when Theo sees me come down into the basement, he doesn’t stand up to immediately leave.
In fact, he smiles.
He sits up at the small card table, wearing a Captain America Christmas sweater that looks at least one size too small and cupping his hands around a mug of coffee. “I was looking for you earlier.”
“That would make one of you,” I say, laughing as I sit down. “Most people in this house seem to turn the other way when I walk in.”
“Aw, it isn’t that bad, is it?”
I shake my head. “I’m just kidding. Everyone has been amazingly patient with my mental calamity, as expected.”
I laugh at this, unexpectedly loud. “Except you.”
“Look,” he says. “I was a jerk yesterday. I’m sorry. You know me—sometimes I just need a day to cool my head.”
I don’t think I realized how upset I’ve been about the fissure in our relationship until he says that, and I feel the tears rising like a wave in my throat. Of course I know that about him. I’ve always known that he is slow to anger and even slower to defuse. So why didn’t I ever give him the benefit of the doubt the first time around? In hindsight, he just needed to be left alone the morning after we kissed, to be allowed to dig out from his own mortifi-cation. All this time I’ve been upset with him for simply being exactly the person I always knew he was.
But before I can swallow them down, the tears are pouring over. He immediately jumps up and rushes around the table, kneeling to hug me. I’m sure he’s bewildered by my reaction, but he has no way of knowing how badly I needed to hear this apology—for something this version of Theo didn’t even do. It’s like being angry at someone after they behaved badly in a dream; it isn’t Theo’s fault that I needed days of emotional space from him.
His question is a low rumble against my shoulder. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
Even the idea of going through it all again feels, mentally, like running into a brick wall. I also know that it won’t help matters: If Theo was struggling with the idea of me with Andrew, the last thing he needs to hear is what happened in some alternate version of reality. Telling him won’t make me feel better, won’t help Theo feel better, and it won’t help anything between me and Andrew.