I gather the rest of the contents of the envelope and try to put them all back. But, of course, some fall to the floor and others get caught on the edge, unwilling to be crammed in.
I pick up what’s fallen, including my ruby ring, put it all back in the envelope, and then throw it in the backseat. Only then do I see that I’ve left something on the center console between us.
It’s an almost four-year-old article from the Beacon.
“Local Man Jesse Lerner Missing.”
Next to the headline is an old photo of him standing in his parents’ yard, waving, his right hand perfectly intact.
I was still in LA when the article was published, but a copy of it made its way to me shortly after I got back to Massachusetts. I almost threw it away. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of anything with his picture on it, anything that bore his name. I had so little of him left.
I grab it and fold it back in two, the way it has lived in the envelope for years.
Jesse watches my hands as I do it.
I know that he saw it.
I put it in the backseat, with the envelope. When I turn back around, I open my mouth to tell Jesse about it, to acknowledge it, but he looks away and starts the car.
He doesn’t want to talk about it.
Do you ever get over loss? Or do you just find a box within yourself, big enough to hold it? Do you just stuff it in there, push it down, and snap the lid on it? Do you just work, every day, to keep the box shut?
I thought that maybe if I shoved the pain in there hard enough and I kept the box shut tight enough that the pain would evaporate on its own, that I’d open the box one day to find it was empty and all of the pain I thought I’d been carrying with me was gone.
But I’m sitting in this car right now and I’m starting to think that the box has been full for the past three and a half years. I’m pretty sure that the lid is about to come off and I’m scared to see what’s inside.
After all, Jesse has a box, too.
And his is packed tighter than mine.
Jesse’s family cabin.
I never thought I’d see this place again.
But here I am.
It’s about two in the morning. The roads to get here were so quiet, you’d think it was a ghost town.
The cabin, an oddly shaped house that resembles more of an oversized chalet, is warm and inviting—wood siding, big windows, a wraparound deck. It has the slightly mismatched sense that it used to be a tiny home but has weathered a number of additions.
There’s not a single lit lamp on the property, so Jesse leaves the high beams on in order for us to get our stuff.
I grab my bag. Jesse grabs a few things from the trunk. We head toward the front door.
“You chilly?” he says as he fiddles with the key. “I’ll get a fire going after we get in.”
“That sounds great,” I say.
The key turns and clicks, but the door sticks. Jesse has to lean into it to push through.
When it finally gives, the first thing that grabs me is the familiar woodlike musk.
Jesse walks through and turns on all the lights and the heat before I’ve even had a chance to put my things down.
“Settle in, I’m going to go turn off the lights in the car.”
I nod and rub my hands together, trying to warm them. I look around at the stone fireplace and the cabin furniture, the afghan blankets that cover most of the chairs. The bar is stocked with half-empty bottles of liquor. The wood plank stairs are so old you can tell they creak just by looking at them.
There’s not a single thing about this place that surprises me, not a single thing that feels out of place in comparison with my memory, except that I am a different person than I was the last time I was here.
I think I understand a little of how Jesse must feel coming back. I can see now what he meant back at my parents’ house, how it is equally weird how much things don’t change as how much they do.
Jesse comes in and shuts the door.
“This place should heat up in a few minutes, I think,” he says. “Although it goes without saying that I haven’t been here in years.”
“The last time we were here was—”
“Our wedding,” Jesse says, finishing my sentence.
I smile, remembering. Jesse smiles, too. After the reception, we spent the night at the inn so, in fact, the last time we were here was when we had sex—he in his tux, me in my wedding dress—on the kitchen counter that is currently just off to my left. I remember how romantic it seemed. Now, I find myself sort of cringing that we had sex on the counter. That’s where people prepare food! What were we thinking?
“So how about this fire?” I say.
“On it!” he says as he walks over to the fireplace. It’s dusty and bare, with a stack of old wood next to it.
I watch him as he moves. I watch as he selects the pieces of wood. I watch him stack them. I watch him strike a match.
“Are you tired?” he asks me. “Do you want to go to bed?”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m oddly awake. You?”
He waves me off. “I’m not exactly on Eastern Standard Time.”
“Right,” I say.
Jesse steps to the bar. “Wine, then?”
“Gin?” I say.
“Oh, wow,” he says. “All right.”
He pours me a glass of Hendrick’s. He pours another one for himself. I sit down and grab the afghan that’s hanging on the back of the couch.
Jesse ducks underneath the bar and grabs a tray of ice from the freezer. He has to hit it against the counter in order for any of the ice to pop out.
“It might have been months, maybe years, since someone made a cocktail in this place,” Jesse says. “This ice isn’t exactly grade-A material.”
I laugh. “It’s fine, honestly.”
He brings me my glass and puts his down. He moves toward the fire and stabs at it with the poker. It starts to build into a gentle roar. I straighten my posture and grab my glass. I gesture for Jesse to get his.
“To you,” I say.
I smile and we toast. I shoot back a quarter of the glass. Jesse tries to do the same and winces. “Sorry,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s actually been quite a long time since I had liquor.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, throwing the rest of the contents of the glass into my mouth. “I’ll get you caught up.”
Soon, the fire is warming up the whole room. Our sometimes stilted conversation grows more uproarious and loquacious as the alcohol hits our system. In no time, the two of us are reminiscing about how bad the cake tasted at our wedding and I’ve had three glasses of Hendrick’s.
Jesse is sitting at one end of the couch with his feet on the coffee table. I’m sitting on the other end with my feet underneath me. My shoes are off; my sweater is on the floor.
“So tell me,” he says. “What stamps have you acquired on your passport?”
I am sorry to disappoint him. “Uh, none actually. None since you left.”
Jesse is clearly surprised. “Not even to Southern Italy?” he asks. “You were up for that piece about Puglia.”
“I know,” I say. “I just . . . you know, life sent me in another direction.”
We are quiet for a minute and then Jesse sits forward, his torso leaning toward me.
“I’m sorry I took that job,” he says. “I’m sorry I left you. What was I thinking? Leaving the day before our anniversary?”
“It’s OK,” I say back. I want to add, “I’m sorry I got engaged to someone else,” but I can’t bring myself to say it. The apology would only draw attention to the most vulnerable and insecure parts of me, like a teenager wearing a bikini to a pool party.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like to wish for someone every day and then finally see yourself sitting next to them?” he asks me.
“Lately, it feels like that’s all I know,” I tell him. “I still have trouble believing that all of this is real. That you’re here.”
“I know. Me, too,” Jesse says. He grabs my hand and holds it in his and then he says, “You cut your hair.”