Debbie told me to make a list of all the things I want—to focus on making plans rather than beating myself up about the past—and to start finding a way to make each of them happen. Some would be easier than others, she said. Some would take more time. The goal, of course, is to just keep working on making my life what I want it to be.
So, a week later, with a “bonus” from my work on New Spaces, I bought a house.
It’s better than anything I ever pictured myself living in, let alone owning—a beautiful wooden three-bedroom house in Alpine, just outside Jackson. It has green shutters, a sharp A-frame structure, and a long gravel driveway off a small country road. My closest neighbor is a quarter mile away. Out back there’s a wide porch, and a creek big enough to swim in is only fifty feet down a steep grade. I love it more than I think I’ve ever loved anything in my life.
Debbie did her best to congratulate my impulsive purchase and not look like she was questioning every bit of advice she’d ever given.
Contentment comes in a trickle, though. It’s like a faucet dripping; slowly, my bucket is filling. I talk about Melly and Rusty a lot in therapy. I’ve started a tradition of Sunday dinners with Kurt, Peyton, and Annabeth. Sometimes Rand comes, if he can peel his backside from the bar and come drink beer at my house instead. Sometimes Kurt’s best friend, Mike, comes, too. I’m no James in the kitchen: I make spaghetti or tacos, and no one ever complains that we eat my shitty cooking on folding chairs in an empty dining room. The irony of my life at the moment is my complete inability to decorate my own home.
I’ve met with a financial planner who told me I have enough saved for private insurance premiums and treatment and can take a year to figure things out and still be fine. I don’t want to take a year to figure things out, but I don’t know what I want to do, either. I’m slowly building those personal connections I’ve been missing—and although I don’t want to date Mike like I think Kurt hopes I will, I can actually imagine a life where dating would be possible. Meaning, I have time to myself. Turns out I like to sleep in, stay up late, exercise midday, and sketch over my morning coffee. Turns out my hands do much better on this schedule, too.
But every time I start to think about a career, I get that drowning feeling of stress rising inside my chest, so I push it aside. My first instinct is to call James to talk it out, but for obvious reasons I haven’t. Instead, I call Kurt, or Peyton, or Annabeth, and we go for a hike, or they come over and we sit on the floor in my living room and do nothing but look out at the view of the thick, craggy trees and jagged mountains.
I might not be ready to think about work, but after three weeks of doubled-up sessions with Debbie, I sure think about James all the time. I think about his voice, and the way his eyes clocked nearly every one of my movements—with interest and, later, adoration. I think about his ambition and his brain and wonder what he’s doing now that Comb+Honey has effectively dissolved. I think about how easy he was to talk to, and how I wish I had that with someone else.
Sometimes I think maybe I’ll find it if I just keep looking, but part of me knows that what we had was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I’m lucky to have had it at all. I think about his laugh, and his sounds, and yeah, I think a lot about his body, especially at night. But I also think about what happened at the very end, what sort of bullshit nontrust we had if he could listen to all of my truths but couldn’t tell me that he’d found a stairway to the top and was happy to leave me on the ground floor.
He left the police station at some point that day, I’m sure, but I don’t know if it was before or after me, because I didn’t see him after my interview. I didn’t see any of them. No one was charged with a crime. I assume the Tripps paid for the enormous damages the fire had caused, and the whole thing was swept under the rug.
By now, my brother correctly interprets my lost-in-space expression. “Is James coming tonight?”
I stall. “What?”
Kurt looks across the dining room. Though I have them over regularly, I’m attempting an actual cocktail party and have managed quite a spread: cheese plates, veggie trays, and assorted drinks. They’re arranged on the lone piece of furniture there—an enormous handmade table delivered by Rusty himself two days ago. He brought it to the door unannounced, with two burly examples of Wyoming’s finest behind him holding the mammoth piece. There was a novel’s worth of words to share—about the fire, how were they doing, was Melly really searching for the girl she used to be, were they staying married—but our interaction was characteristically simple:
They set the table by the giant window in the dining room, the one that overlooks the downslope of a hill carpeted in green conifers. With a kiss to my forehead and a simple “Been thinkin’ ’bout you,” he left, and my heart seemed too big for my body.
The walnut gleams in the late-afternoon sun; the top is the most beautiful cross-section of wood I’ve ever seen, with vibrant striations in golds, reds, and deep browns. I was with him when he found it at a lumberyard in Casper, nearly five years ago. I remember standing there with him, staring at the slab of lumber, wondering if we were trying to create the same thing in our head—a piece worthy of it.
He’s had so many chances to transform it into something breathtaking for the entire world to see on television, but that’s Rusty, I guess: waiting for the perfect reason to use it. Never rushing and never caring about impressing anyone. Because I know he used to love to hide messages, I knew to look: on the underside, the words We love you, Carey-girl are inscribed in Rusty’s unmistakable carving style.
Kurt rephrases the question to bring my attention back: “Was James invited?”
“No—what? No.” I chew my lip, ignoring my brother’s pressing gaze. I’d much rather let my mind wander than discuss the party I somehow decided I was ready to host.
I’ve planned a lot of cocktail hours. You’d think I’d have this down to a science, but my stomach is a rolling boil of nerves. I wonder if it’s a good sign that my first reaction to the thought of having James here is a pulse of relief because I know he would step up without question and help. But the truth is … “I’m not even sure he’s around here anymore.”
With these words, my relief is doused with a flush of dread. What if I’m right? After all this work I’ve done to process things in sessions with Debbie, have I missed the real window to talk to James about what happened?
I think my brother might be setting up to drop some wisdom, but he just lets out a “Huh,” scratches his belly, and heads to the kitchen.
Peyton and Annabeth arrive at six exactly—I get the feeling they were sitting in their car, excitedly waiting for the hour to turn over. I’m a lucky woman, I think. Then immediately: At twenty-six, that might be the first time I thought of myself as a woman.
Annabeth bursts inside, pulling me into a hug. Peyton waits a few beats for Annabeth to let go and finally just makes do with putting her arms around both of us. I notice they’ve brought gifts: flowers, a set of wineglasses, and a tablecloth—none of which they bothered to wrap. And now I feel both lucky and tragic, because my two friends just saw me two days ago and here they are, embracing me with a tight, lingering warmth that tells me they weren’t sure I’d ever be in my own place, throwing a party.
“Okay, everyone,” I say into Annabeth’s shoulder, “I’m getting the sense that you were starting to worry about me.”
With a laugh that doesn’t dispute this, they step back and look around expectantly. I’m grateful they don’t point out that I have made very little progress on the décor, even for the sake of a party.
Kurt emerges from the kitchen and hands them their preferred drinks: a gin and tonic for Peyton, and a pilsner for Annabeth. With mumbled thanks, they each take a sip and silence swallows us.
For a tiny beat, I miss Melly’s exuberant hostessing skills.
“It occurs to me that I have more liquor bottles than furniture,” I say to no one in particular.
“And you’re not even really a drinker,” Peyton says.
“You’d think for someone with a design background, decorating your own house would be the fun part.” Annabeth looks at me. “And yet.”
“And yet,” I agree.
“Why do I get the sense that you’re dreading it?”
I shrug, even though the answer isn’t really a mystery. “I only ever had a bedroom to furnish and was never there to enjoy it anyway. This feels … bigger.”
“It is big, but it’s so bright,” Peyton says. “This would be my dream home.”
Because I don’t want to start the party off with an admission that, until recently, I didn’t really have dreams of my own, I say, “I have to figure out what’s next, I guess. Design-wise. Life-wise.” I move closer to the window and feel them follow. The four of us look out over the steep grade of the mountain. I love the craggy rocks and the way the trees struggle up through the unforgiving earth. There’s something creative in there, pushing itself into formation; the rich woods and modern lines that used to inspire me no longer get my brain buzzing. But these rocks do.
“Do I want it to look the way all my stuff has looked for the past ten years?” I ask the view. “Or is there a new style waiting to come out of my brain?”
“In case anyone is wondering,” Kurt says pointedly to my friends, “James isn’t coming.”
I turn to stare at him. “Well, that was random. Thanks.”
Annabeth’s dark eyes turn to me. “You didn’t invite James?”
“I don’t even know if he’s around anymore,” I say.
“He is.” Peyton sips her drink.
I gape at her. “How do you know that?”
“Saw him,” she says. Her casual shrug is totally maddening.
“How do you even know what he looks like?”