MEET OUR GUEST EDITORS FOR ISSUE 157, JUL-SEP 2019
(Submissions are open now through March 31 at Submittable)
Hedy Habra has authored two poetry collections, Under Brushstrokes, finalist for the USA Best Book Award and the International Poetry Book Award, and Tea in Heliopolis, winner of the USA Best Book Award and finalist for the International Poetry Book Award. Her story collection, Flying Carpets, won the Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention and was finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award. A fourteen-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, her work appears in Cimarron Review, The Bitter Oleander, Blue Fifth Review, Cider Press Review, Drunken Boat, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Poet Lore, World Literature Today and Verse Daily. Her website is hedyhabra.com
Stephanie Carpenter is the author of Missing Persons, winner of the 2017 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She was born and raised in Traverse City, Michigan. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. Her current project, a pair of novellas about professional female artists in nineteenth-century New England, has received fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. She currently teaches creative writing and literature at Michigan Tech University, in the northernmost reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The Apple of Granada
by Hedy Habra
Some say Eve handed a pomegranate to Adam, and it makes sense to me. How can the flesh of an apple compare to the bejeweled juicy garnets, the color of passion, hidden under its elastic pink skin tight as an undersized glove, a fruit withholding the power to doom and exile since the dawn of time. For a few irresistible seeds, didn’t Persephone lose sight of the sun for months? I mean, think of the mystery hidden in its slippery gems, of the sweetness of the tongue sealing the union with the beloved in the Song of Songs. And I succumb, despite how messy it is to crack the fruits open, invade that hive, oblivious to the indelible droplets splattering the sink, reaching beyond the marble counter all over my arms and face, as my fingertips delicately remove its inner membranes, until the bowl is filled with shiny ruby red arils. I add a few drops of rose and orange blossom water, the way my mother did, and my grandmother used to do, and her mother before her.
The Longest Night of the Year
by Stephanie Carpenter
Sex. That’s all Cameron had really wanted. Uncommitted, internet-facilitated sex and maybe a little conversation. But the woman he brought home—his online date, his supposed match—hasn’t emerged from his guest room since she went into it three nights ago, locking the door behind her.
She has access to potable water through the en suite. As far as he can tell, she hasn’t taken sustenance of any other kind since their dinner on Friday. She hasn’t touched the food he’s left outside the door; she hasn’t, by all appearances, raided the kitchen while he’s been asleep. Not that he’s slept much. Over the past sixty-some hours, he’s listened to her footfalls, to the toilet flushing, to tinny voices buzzing behind that locked door. The woman hasn’t responded to any of his attempts to make contact. “Are you okay?” he’s called to her and “I’m sorry.” No reply. “I’m tired,” she’d said before shutting the door on Friday night. That was the last thing she said to him.
“Isn’t this trespassing?” asks Laura, his ex-wife. He phones Laura on Monday morning, once it’s become clear that the woman will not be leaving in time for him to get to work. “Or maybe it’s one of those vampire situations? You invited her in, and now you’re screwed.”
Cameron snorts, though he’s considered both possibilities. He responds only to the first: “It would be trespassing if I asked her to leave and she didn’t.”
“Wait,” Laura says, “you haven’t asked?” Her voice rises to almost the same pitch as their daughters’, bright in the background on this, the first real day of winter break. A high school guidance counselor, Laura is off for the week too. “Seriously, Cam? Who is this woman, anyway?”
“I met her online.” He’s standing in the southeast corner of the dining room, at the farthest point from the guest room. He rests his temples against the two walls. Like a dunce, which is precisely how he feels. “You think I deserve this.”
“Don’t you?” But her tone is gentler. “You brought a total stranger into your home.” Laura hadn’t wanted the lake house; she’d moved the kids to town after the divorce. Still, he senses the “our” in “your.”
“We messaged for a week. She seemed great.” At least by comparison. Cameron had recently signed up with three different dating sites. He’d hoped to maximize his prospects, see all the singles who weren’t showing themselves in person. So far the local dating scene looked little better online. He matched with women who were too young or too old, with too many kids or pets or lattes in their photos. Women he knew professionally, whose profiles he swiped past, as if looking were tantamount to harassment. But this woman’s profile—Theresa’s profile—was clean of dependents or prior associations. He might have “liked” her just for that. In photos, Theresa had big, deep-set eyes and long, curly brown hair. A narrow nose and a reserved smile. She was attractive, not hot: someone he could bring without shame to his once-conjugal bed. Best of all, she would only be in the area through the holidays.
“Which site?” Laura asks. “I want to see.”
“She took her profile down. And you’d need an account to view it.”
“You think I don’t have one?”
“I think I would have noticed you.”
Cameron pictures Laura rolling her eyes. She’s not truly jealous. Her tone is just a reflex, a relic of the days when his outside interests still hurt her. They were together fourteen years, married for twelve; they’ve been divorced for three.
“I did ask,” he says. “I knocked on the door yesterday morning and said it was time for her to leave.”
“Then what? She ignored you, so you dropped it.” Laura sighs. “Cam, you need to call the cops.”
But Cameron does not want that kind of attention: a team of small-town police knocking down the guest room’s solid wood door, a gleeful write-up in the thin local newspaper. Whether or not Theresa spoke to a reporter, Cameron would seem culpable. How could he seem otherwise, in a story about his would-be hookup barricading herself in the guest room? He’s a financial planner, specializing in estates. It’s not in his professional interest to appear culpable.
“It’s very Victorian, Cam, having a woman locked in your attic. Maybe that’s her thing. Maybe she’ll call you Mr. Rochester . . . later.”
“I really don’t see this leading to a ‘later.’” It amazes him now that he ever did. Theresa’s manner had unsettled him even during the several hours of their date.
She’d asked to go back to his place the minute she finished her entree. “This scene is so fake,” she’d said, wadding her napkin between her long hands. “I can hardly breathe with all of the effort going on.” Her angular face did look a little clammy in the restaurant’s low light. “I mean, give it a rest with all the striving yuppie bullshit.”
“Of course,” he’d said, though he admired the Scandinavian simplicity of the restaurant: blond wood and white linens, walls of windows facing Lake Michigan. Maybe Theresa was objecting to the obscure and self-righteous language of the menu, all the local sourcing and fancy words for bacon. Fair enough—but if this ambience struck her as phony, what would she think of his place? He’d bought a couple of bottles of wine and some good chocolate; he’d stacked a big pile of birch logs by the fireplace and arranged white column candles on the mantle and coffee table. Would she scorn these obvious efforts?
“Do you want to follow me back?”
“How far? I should be okay to drive.” She’d only drunk one glass of wine. Theresa was thinner than he’d expected, but surely no grown woman could be incapacitated by one drink consumed with a full meal. Unless Theresa wasn’t supposed to be drinking at all. Maybe she was on medication; maybe she couldn’t metabolize alcohol. But whatever the risks of her driving, Cameron didn’t want her to leave her car in a parking lot fifteen miles from his house. He wanted her to be able to leave on her own—even then, before he’d grasped that she wasn’t going to go.
“Laura, how am I supposed to have Christmas Eve over here tomorrow if this person is still holed up in the guest room?”
“I can do it,” Laura says. “If you’re still having this problem at, say, noon tomorrow, give me a call and I’ll host. But you have to make the piggy pudding.”
“I can’t make the piggy pudding.” He beats his forehead lightly against the dining room walls. Last year’s leftover figs and dates are no doubt withering somewhere in his pantry, but he has none of the fresh ingredients at hand, not for that or for any of the other holiday foods the girls will expect. We WON’T go until we get some, he hears them singing, loud and off-key. His head throbs. “If I’m still having this problem tomorrow, I won’t be able to leave the goddamned house!”
“Maybe she’s the Mr. Rochester of this situation,” says Laura, slowly. “She could leave and you can’t. It’s genius, really—though I can’t imagine why anyone would want to keep you captive.”
“I’m not captive.” But he hasn’t even run the snow-blower since Saturday morning, when he’d cleared the drive and scraped Theresa’s car, then sat at the kitchen island until midafternoon reheating coffee. “Theresa?” he’d finally called, knocking lightly on the guest room door. In response she turned up the volume of her music. “Theresa? Can we talk?” She hadn’t answered, then or any time subsequently.
“I could come over,” Laura says. “Play the angry wife?”
“I already told her we’re divorced.”
“And when I appear, she’ll see that you were lying.”
“I wouldn’t lie about that.” He never had. Back when they were married, he’d always mentioned Laura up front. “I love my wife, but I need more,” he’d explained, twice to women in similar predicaments and once, disastrously, to someone unattached and searching. He’d learned then about the importance of establishing clear boundaries. Yet here he is, involved in a situation that he doesn’t understand and can’t resolve. He’s scheduled to have the girls from the twenty-sixth until the second. If Theresa is still in the house on Christmas Day, he’ll have no choice but to call the police.
“I’ll call you back if I need you,” he tells Laura. “I’d rather not involve you in this.”
“Tell her to get out,” Laura says. “Be firm for once, Cam.”
He nods at the phone: firm. There’s a big difference between firm and threatening—that’s important to remember. The idea of again frightening or threatening Theresa disgusts him. But firmness seems possible. Up there alone in the guest room, Theresa must know that she’s behaving strangely; she’s probably embarrassed. What justification could she possibly offer, after three nights and two days of hiding? His firmness will probably be a relief to her. It’s probably what she wants. No—don’t even think “what she wants.” Do not for a second think “She wants it.” Cameron pauses in the kitchen, wipes his sweating palms on a dish towel. The woman upstairs is no longer a romantic prospect. The woman upstairs is a trespasser. It’s time for you to leave, he must make himself say to her. I’ve been patient, but I can’t have you here any longer.
“I came up for the holiday,” Theresa had told him over dinner, just as she’d said in her messages.
“You have family up here?”
“It’s a good place to be right now.” She stared out the window, toward the dark bay and the lights curving along its shore. She was dressed in a style that Laura called “middle-aged dishabille”: a straight, blackish-green tunic over black leggings; a spidery black scarf looped around her neck; dark stone earrings and lots of silver rings. She told him that she worked in arts administration downstate.
“Well, the ski resorts are happy this year.” Cameron took a bite of his grass-fed, organic steak. Theresa had ordered the same thing and was eating it quickly. “Do you ski?”
“I suppose you do?” She raised an arched eyebrow.
“Mostly cross-country.” He actually preferred downhill but felt embarrassed to say so. “I could show you some trails later this week.”
“I need to go to the woods,” she said. She crossed her fork and steak knife on her bare plate. “Can we go now?”
Cam had asked for a doggie bag along with the check; he’d finish his meal later. Despite her odd remarks, her arrogance (or maybe because of these things) he’d still believed Theresa was eager to sleep with him. He’d thought this as he paid the bill, and he continued to think it, driving more slowly than usual so he wouldn’t lose her or overtax her winter driving skills on the way out to the lake house. Other women had admired the home’s modern lines, but it was obvious to Cameron that Theresa would not. If she liked anything at all about his home, it would be the tall pines surrounding the house and the small inland lake behind it. At least he hadn’t yet decorated the yard with white lights and nodding grapevine reindeer for his daughters. The homes he led Theresa past had such trimmings already in place, plus bright, fat trees in their front windows. Beneath those trees, kids were shaking their presents. Striving yuppie bullshit. He shivered atop his heated car seat. Would sex with Theresa be a disaster—or a revelation?
~ ~ ~
Cameron stands now by the coat cubbies, his call to Laura ended, his messages checked, his phone no help at all. He listens for movement above. The guest suite is over the garage, an addition to the original house, with its own set of stairs descending to the mudroom. He climbs those stairs slowly, keeping to the edge, so they won’t creak. Reaching the top step, he leans forward and presses his ear to the door. Nothing. Maybe Theresa is asleep. Or maybe she’s dead. She’s dead because he didn’t have the nerve to open the door and check on her.
He has the key in his pocket; he has the key in his hand—and then the sound of running water breaks the silence. The cataract flow of the soaking tub. That giant tub had been Laura’s idea. Her parents and sisters were the ones most likely to make extended visits; it had been a nice idea. Then the floor beneath the tub needed to be reinforced, which was less nice. The addition project had been stressful and expensive, another strain on their sagging marriage, and the finished suite eventually served as Laura’s bedroom, during those months when they were deciding what to do. Cameron can’t recall an invited guest ever actually staying there.
Now Theresa is drawing herself a bath. A relaxing soak, when he hasn’t dared to shower since Friday. (Then: a postgym, predate shower; a shower enlivened by mundane sexual fantasies. Hard to imagine, now). But not everything’s about you, Cam, and maybe Theresa’s bath is not intended as an affront. Maybe she’s freshening up, preparing to leave. Either way, interrupting her would seem intrusive. It would set an antagonistic tone for their interaction. And a bath offers as viable a timeline as any: he can wait until he hears the tub draining, then wait fifteen minutes more, so she can dress. And then . . . then he’ll come back upstairs and ask her to leave. He’s entitled to do that, at least.
“Can I take your coat?” he’d offered on Friday night, once they were inside the house. They’d removed their boots in the mudroom, together, and she’d pulled a pair of felted wool slippers from her giant handbag. He couldn’t decide whether this was endearing or overly familiar; he had friends who carried house shoes in the winter—but those were not friends he planned to sleep with. Theresa’s slippers were dark gray with big red poppies on top. Poppies: Georgia O’Keeffe: vaginas. Encouraged, he’d stepped behind her so she could shrug her long coat into his hands. “What is this?” he asked, stroking the kinked fabric of its sleeves.
She moved away, pulling the coat closer to her neck. “Persian lamb.”
“It’s lovely.” He extended his arms. “May I hang it up for you?”
“It’s the fur of fetal lambs,” she said. “I’ll keep it on, thanks.”
She’d shown herself into the kitchen and from there into the open dining and living rooms. The moon was full enough to brighten everything. It cast a long trail on the frozen lake, and Theresa crossed directly to the big windows, taking it in.
Cameron didn’t follow her, pausing instead at the wine rack, then at the stereo to cue up Miles Davis. There in his home, Theresa reminded him of an advisee that Laura used to bring over sometimes, a troubled tenth-grader. That young woman had worn black lipstick and all the other Goth accouterments, but she loved to play Barbies with their daughters. Not as a babysitter—Laura didn’t quite trust her for that—but almost like another sister, who dressed the dolls and moved them in mincing hops through the Dream House, as his daughters did. Whenever Cameron came in earshot, that girl’s Barbie went silent; if they had meals together, she answered his questions reluctantly and with scorn. “Daddy issues?” Cameron had asked Laura, after the first labored evening. “Everything issues,” Laura said. “She needs a space where she can just stop performing for a while.” And he’d felt ashamed of his comment—ashamed that he couldn’t help Laura make the kind of space a kid like that needed. “Just hang back when she’s here,” Laura suggested. “Be receptive, not pushy. Let her make overtures—or not.” In time the girl stopped cringing at his voice.
“I’ll light a fire,” he called to Theresa. “Warm things up.”
“I’ll do it.” By the time he’d found a corkscrew, she’d already kindled the logs. The small flames leaped, blue and green, smelling sharply of pine. Theresa sat on the wide bench of the hearth, feeding the fire. When he drew nearer he saw that her eyes were closed, her lips moving.
“Wine?” he asked, too loudly. He clinked the two glasses he held.
“Of course,” she answered, blinking. Smiling? He opened the Merlot at the coffee table, so she wouldn’t see him struggle with the dollar-store corkscrew. (The expensive, levered corkscrew had moved to town with Laura). He brought the bottle to the hearth and poured Theresa a taste. She took it like a shot, nodded.
“Cheers,” he said, after pouring two big glasses. Theresa met his gaze, and he took heart. Not making eye contact during a toast brought seven years’ bad luck in bed. Making eye contact therefore meant—
“To new beginnings.”
“To the goddess,” Theresa said. She took a big gulp of wine, then another, and dashed the dregs of her glass onto the fire.
Cameron did the same. “To the goddess!” He sat down beside her. “Which goddess?” he asked. “You?”
She stood up, swaying. “Where’s the bathroom?”
He pointed her to the powder room off the front entry. While she was gone, he refilled their wineglasses, lit the candles, arranged the fancy chocolate on a nice plate. At least one of the candles smelled like vanilla, heavy and sweet. Possibly—hopefully—an aphrodisiac. Cameron rubbed his stockinged feet across the rug and saw bright sparks.
Theresa returned wearing her boots, her coat buttoned. “Are you ready?”
He stood to meet her. “For what?” He held out her wineglass.
“To go to the woods.”
“Now?” He let his fingers brush her knuckles as she took the wine. “Look how nice this fire is. Can’t we take a walk later?” Theresa didn’t answer. But he placed his hand lightly on her forearm, and when he sat down again on the hearth, she sat with him. He offered her the chocolate, and she chose a square.
“Your earrings are lovely,” Cameron said. The dark stones caught the firelight.
“Star sapphires.” She licked her fingertips clean, then unfastened an earring and dropped it into his palm. “For healing and protection.”
The stone was warm from her skin. When he turned it, he saw the star flash inside, a pale asterisk. “Does it work?” He leaned toward her.
“Depends on your energy.” She let him slide the earring’s post into her lobe, then push the backing into place. She let him bring his face close to hers—but she drew away before his lips made contact.
He sat back, sweating. “Hot fire.” He pulled off his sweater, hoping that his button-down wasn’t damp at the armpits. “Tell me more about yourself.”
“Like what?” Her eyes narrowed above her wineglass. “Do I like to travel? What’s my favorite book? What are my unrealized dreams?”
“Sure.” He was still sweating. “Or whatever.”
“You read my profile.” Theresa’s glass was empty again. “Do we need to go over all of that?”
“No.” He smiled. “We don’t even have to talk.” He reached for her knee, but she shifted away. Maybe she wanted something else. “I would so like to touch you,” he said. The wine, the candles, the hot fire blazing—“Don’t you want to touch me?” He began to unbutton his shirt, holding her gaze again. He was in good shape for a guy his age; his trainer said so, and other women had, too. But Theresa just watched him with her big eyes, her mouth a wine-stained slash. When he got to his cuffs, she stood.
“I can’t drive.” She brandished her emptied wineglass. “Where can I stay?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” Standing, he caught her hand and drew it toward his ribs. He wrapped his other arm around her waist. He wanted her to feel him, feel how badly he wanted her. He thought that’s what they were doing. But she pushed him.
“No.” Her eyes moved over his bare torso, and she shook her head. “No.”
“No?” He reached for her again, caught her wrists in his hands. “Then why’d you come home with me?” He pulled her toward him, aiming his mouth for the unscarved strip of her neck.
“No!” She stomped her foot, crushing his toes with her boot. He let go, and she jumped to the coffee table. “Stop!” She gripped the cheap corkscrew like a weapon.
He tried to smile. “Seriously?” His toes smarted, but her pose was ridiculous. Had her profile mentioned rough play? “I could take that from you without even trying. I could f—”
“Stop it!” she shrieked. She jabbed the corkscrew in his direction. Her eyes were watering. Her chest was quaking.
“Oh, no.” Cameron’s stomach clenched. “No, no—I didn’t mean—”
“Stop it,” she said again, as if she was choking.
“Theresa, you’re fine. Everything’s fine. I’m sorry.” He sat down heavily on the hearth. “I’m sorry. I misunderstood.”
Theresa backed away until she hit the sofa, facing him, then dropped onto it. “I need to lie down,” she said.
“Okay. That’s fine. Just lie down.” She was still clutching the corkscrew. “Or—maybe you’d rather go up to the guest room?” And she’d nodded, then followed him at a distance with the corkscrew and her giant handbag. “This wasn’t what I expected,” he said, after putting clean sheets on the bed and setting out towels, giving her the Wi-Fi password and showing her where the bath salts were—all while apologizing again and again. “Based on everything I’ve heard about online dating, I thought sex was a given. I shouldn’t have—I’m so sorry.”
“I’m tired,” she said and closed the door. He heard the lock turn; he went to his own room. He brushed his teeth, spitting pink foam into the sink. He threw his sweaty shirt into the hamper.
Am I a rapist? he lay awake wondering all that night. It was cold in the master suite, as it always was after they used the fireplace. The chimney sucked all the warm air out of the house. Cameron shivered. He didn’t think he was a rapist. He’d assumed Theresa wanted sex. They weren’t kids; they both knew how things worked. It was fine for colleges to revise the rules of courtship—it was great. As a father of girls, he liked the idea that boys would have to obtain his daughters’ clear consent. Or girls would, he supposed. Or—and/or—his girls would gain the permissions of whomever they hoped to bed. But he and Theresa were long past college, grandfathered into the old rules. Surely a woman in her forties could be expected to read established signals. Theresa had asked to come home with him. In their shared language, didn’t that mean one thing?
“She was asking for it,” he said, into the darkness. It sounded even worse out loud.
Am I a rapist? he thought every time he dozed that night and woke up. Not lately, of course, no question about the willingness of his partners during and after his marriage. How many women had he been with, before Laura? Six girlfriends; ten or so hook-ups probably. He tried to count them, to conjure them, to make sure he hadn’t screwed up. But he kept drifting from those hazy memories into half-dreams. A bonfire, like back in high school; a girl he couldn’t quite see. The hot slipperiness of her—God, how he missed that. Everybody around them all up to the same thing, and he’d managed to get the tip in. Please, he was saying, or she was saying, and then his wife was beside them. Again? she said. We’re divorced, he pleaded. Aren’t we? The girl ground herself against him, moaning, and he tried to push her away. No, he said, No. You should’ve asked first, his dream-wife whispered in his ear, but she was rubbing up against him too. He felt a stirring in his midsection and made it to the toilet just in time to vomit.
~ ~ ~
Soaking tubs encourage long baths. Cameron tells himself this as he rummages around his garage, beneath the silent water pipes of the guest suite. Theresa filled the tub forty minutes ago. Long baths are the purpose of soaking tubs. Maybe he’ll take a bath himself, later, once his tub is finally free. In the meantime, the minutes will pass more quickly if he occupies them. He has plenty of tasks to accomplish before Christmas Eve dinner tomorrow night.
The indoor Christmas decorations are inaccessible, stashed in the guest-room eaves. But the yard ornaments are right here, on the top shelf of the garage storage rack. Standing on tiptoe, he topples down the musty boxes of the grapevine reindeer. He unpacks the doe, the six-point buck, two thigh-high creatures prickled with white lights. Tucking them beneath his arms, he tramps across the drifted yard. Every year they stand just outside the dining room windows, lighting up at dusk. His daughters have names for the reindeer; his daughters have posed in countless photos beside these things and will pose in the coming days for more. He buries the long tails of the electrical cords, sets the timer, and plugs it into the covered outlet.
The driveway needs to be cleared again if he expects Theresa’s little hatchback to make it out. It’ll be at least a twenty-minute job, but it’s better than her getting stuck or hung up on the berm of ice the plow leaves at the base of the drive. Back in the garage, he primes and pumps and pull-starts the snowblower. The motor’s loud pops must echo off the tub; hearing them, perhaps Theresa will grasp that it’s time to go. He pushes the machine down the long drive, craning his neck now and then to keep an eye on the house, then pushes his way back. When he’s made four passes, a lane more than wide enough for Theresa’s car, he brushes the snow from its windows. Of course she’s not huddled, frozen, inside the car—and he ought not to feel disappointed by this fact.
Cameron sheds his snowy outer layers in the mudroom, then once again climbs the stairs to the guest room. He knocks on the door, firmly. “Theresa, I’m coming in.” No answer. This time, he unlocks it.
“She’s gone.” He speed-dials Laura. “All of her stuff is still here.” The big bag is slumped by the bed. The poppy slippers are in the bathroom, beside the spa tub. A ring of twiggy foam shows how high it was filled, earlier, almost to the top. Did Theresa disappear down the drain? “She didn’t come down the stairs.” Or hadn’t while he was in the house. He touches one of the candles on the tub’s rim. Its glass is still faintly warm.
“Look out the window,” says Laura wearily. And he sees tracks in the deep snow. Theresa didn’t jump; she appears to have gone out the back door. Her tracks lead toward the frozen lake, then out of sight, following the shore.
“I’ve got to go,” he tells Laura. “Thanks.”
Cameron gathers Theresa’s slippers, the laptop and cord resting on the unmade bed. What else? Her rings, sitting in a dish on the bedside table. A pair of black underwear and some sort of bra-type top, both damp and hanging to dry in the stall shower. A phone charger. He shoves all of it into her big leather bag and runs down the stairs, through the mudroom and kitchen, to the living room. Locks the French doors leading to the back deck; checks the matching doors off the dining area. Locks the mudroom, for good measure, though the garage door is down. He pushes his feet into his damp boots and rushes out the front door to Theresa’s car. Locked! Deep in her giant bag, keys clank but don’t surface when he shakes the thing and gropes around. Finally he overturns the bag on the packed snow beside her car. Clicks open the doors, shoves Kleenex and tampons, wallet and make-up pouch, notebook and receipts, frozen underwear and everything else into the bag and drops it on the passenger’s seat. He runs back to the house, double-locks the front door. What else? He is climbing up from the basement, where the walk-out door was of course already secure, when he hears the dining room doors shaking. Something is trying to get in. She’s trying to get in. Is it cowardly to wait behind the partial wall that separates the kitchen from the rest of the first floor? (Thank God he and Laura ran out of money and matrimonial goodwill before opening up the floor plan!) Is it cowardly to shift positions as he imagines Theresa circling the house? Looking in through all the big windows, trying to make contact.
I got her out, he texts Laura.
☺, she responds immediately.
Then, the doorbell. Cameron used to tell his daughters they’d break the doorbell if they held it down. Apparently this isn’t true. Theresa is on his doorstep, pushing steadily. Outside, but not leaving. Why not?
Crouched beside the refrigerator, he opens his dating apps, pulls up his carefully wrought profiles. His half-smiling face, his irreproachable interests, his bare chest in a beach shot on the raciest site. Looking for: short-term dating, casual dating, casual sex. What did he do wrong? Would the night have progressed normally if he’d agreed to take a walk? He wishes himself back to that moment when he could have risen from the hearth and geared up for the snow. Led Theresa laughing through the deep drifts to the lake—and then what? Made snow angels, savored the stillness. Kissed her under the cold moon.
Now, if he times his breathing to the rise-fall of the doorbell, its blare is almost bearable. Ding-dong. In-out. Good job, Laura texts. Ding-dong. Ding-
“I put your purse in your car,” Cameron yells, facing Theresa through the front door’s three descending rectangular windows. “Purse.” He points. “Car!”
She continues to press the bell, staring at him. She’s wearing her long fetus coat, its hem white with snow, and her tall boots. She’s wrapped her spider-scarf around her ears and mouth. Her pink gloves belong to one of his girls—picked up, probably, as she passed through the mudroom.
“You need to go,” he says. “Or I’ll call the police.”
Theresa pulls the scarf away from her mouth. Her star earrings gleam, for protection. But her face seems thinner than it did Friday night, her big eyes more sunken. She may have eaten nothing in the past three days. How can she possibly be fit to drive? “Let me in,” she mouths at him. The doorbell sticks, suspended on the first note.
“No.” He shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”
She kicks the door, hard. “Let me in.”
“Sorry,” he says. “I cleared the drive for you.”
She turns away, keeping a finger on the doorbell. When she turns toward him again, her coat is unbuttoned. “Let me in,” she mouths, drawing the lapel open with her free hand. Beneath the coat, above her boots, Theresa is naked.
Cameron closes his eyes, his ears thrumming with blood. His groin buzzing. Or his phone. All good for tomorrow? Laura has texted. He swipes that message aside, turns the screen to show Theresa that he’s dialing 9-1-1.
She hits the door with her palm and her coat shifts back on her shoulders. He can see most of her body, pale against the coat’s dark satin lining. Pale and toned, as had been impossible to gauge beneath her shapeless outfit Friday night. Her breasts are full, her nipples erect in the cold. Her pubic hair is trimmed to a narrow dark strip. He lowers the phone, shakes his head.
“You need to go,” he tells her. “Go!”
“Fuck me,” Theresa’s mouth seems to say. He can hear nothing over the doorbell. In his hand, another new message from his ex-wife; on the other side of the door, this trespassing woman. His date, his match, now propositioning him.
Ready for adventure, he’d described himself online. He’d imagined parasailing, couples massage, hot-oil fondue. He had not imagined his home under occupation or the occupier changing tactics so suddenly.
“Fuck me,” Theresa mouths again, and it would be like the date starting over, his opening the door to her now. Inviting her in as though for the first time but bypassing candles and chocolate. He’d misread the situation on Friday night. There can be no misinterpretation of the signals Theresa is sending now, with her flesh bared beneath that open coat. She’s changed her mind. She’s ready—for what, he can only imagine. And will be doomed to only imagine, if he doesn’t open the door.
If he doesn’t open the door, his already months-long dry spell will extend past New Year’s, a holiday he will observe by falling asleep alone while his daughters and a clutch of their closest friends count down the ball drop in the basement rec room. Could he pay the older one to babysit, test his luck with another date? Someone less risky, a friend of a friend? No. Laura had been furious the one time he’d proposed such a plan, and not because she considered the girls too young to stay home alone. “You have them six days a month,” she’d chided. “You can’t plan around that?”
Well, he’d tried this time—and he’d failed. But if he opens the door now, surely he will succeed, at least in the most primal way. Theresa’s cheeks are pink with cold; she can’t keep flashing him and ringing the doorbell forever.
“Go away,” he tells her. His fingers grip the doorknob. He could open the door. He could pull Theresa into the foyer, fuck her, and push her back outside. And that would be okay, wouldn’t it, under these particular circumstances? That might even be what she wants. What does he want?
“In your car,” he shouts at the window. “Let’s fuck in your car.”
She blinks at him, then lifts her finger from the doorbell. “What?”
He cracks the door open—carefully, carefully—and puts his mouth to the gap. “I’ll f—have sex with you in your car. If you want.”
A long shudder passes over her. “Cloth-ing,” she says, over-enunciating. Somehow her mouth makes the same shapes as before. “Upstairs. In the closet. I’m not leaving without my clothes.”
“Oh.” Cloth-ing. “Right.”
Cameron shuts the door, locks it. He avoids Theresa’s gaze through the glass. He misunderstood, again. His whole body misunderstood. “Fuck me . . . cloth-ing.” Up in the guest suite, in the bathroom mirror, he sees all the differences his mouth makes. He splashes his hot face with cold water.
This time, he’ll be more careful. He will not let Theresa mislead him. Nor will he let her send him back endlessly for items secreted throughout the suite. He opens the dresser drawers, the bathroom vanity, the medicine cabinet; he drops to his belly and crawls beneath the bedskirt. He finds only her black outfit hanging, still damp, in the closet. He should’ve seen it the first time. Although—what kind of person takes a walk in late December, in the nude?
But if she’d been waiting for him to leave the house, what choice did she have? The snowblower had started, and she’d sneaked out the back door. If she’d returned to the house five minutes sooner, he would never have known she’d left. He would have unlocked the door to the guest room and found her there, naked, in the bath or the bed. And what would he have assumed then? What would he have done?
“I’m sorry,” he says, as he cracks the door again and passes her tunic and leggings to her. “I already put everything else in your car.”
She’s buttoned up the long coat, rearranged the scarf around her ears and nose. She is a pair of deep brown eyes, judging him.
“Could you give me back those gloves?” he asks. “They’re my daughter’s.”
Theresa peels them off and lets them fall at her feet.
“Thanks,” he says, drawing the door closed. “Safe travels.”
He turns the two locks and watches as she walks to her car. Beside the passenger door, she stoops to pick up something from the ground. Some detritus from her overturned bag, his fault, and he sees her glance back at him balefully through the dusk. Her car starts without trouble—a miracle!—but she keeps it in park. Letting the engine warm up and herself, too. He hopes it’s not cold enough for frostbite.
He checks Laura’s latest message. Not a vampire, Laura texts. She’s a witch! Attached is a link about the Winter Solstice, pagan practices. He skims the article, starting again to sweat. Purification, purging, meditation—is this what Theresa was doing while he fretted downstairs? Was she casting spells? Setting intentions? Cameron is not religious or even “spiritual,” in the parlance of dating sites. But that doesn’t mean he’s receptive to new-age witchery. Had Theresa disclosed any of this in her deleted profile?
Inside the hatchback, he sees Theresa’s arms rise, stretching, as she dresses. What was she doing, naked in the woods, alone? Cameron’s breath fogs the window; he wipes it clear. Theresa arches her back, writhing into her many layers. She straps on her seatbelt, and he watches as she makes a multipoint turn, edging onto the uncleared half of the parking pad. Finally the hatchback is headed down the drive.
Then Theresa pauses, looking toward the house. She taps her horn. Goodbye? No—she’s gesturing. Beckoning him.
Cameron opens the front door and steps cautiously onto the porch. Home base, in his daughters’ games of tag. On summer nights they throw themselves against the screen door, screaming Safe! and Not it! Theresa isn’t going to spring from her car and race him back here. And even if she did, if somehow she locked him out of his own home, he could unearth the imitation rock that holds the spare key. He could drive her car to town for help, if he had to.
He follows the shoveled path to the driveway, maintaining eye contact with Theresa as best he can in the falling light. The pines are already black spikes against a purple sky. When he reaches the driver’s side door, she rolls down her window.
“Here.” She extends her arm. In her palm is an oval stone, mottled pink and green. “This was on the ground.”
“Sorry,” he says. “It must have fallen out of your purse when I put your stuff in the car.”
“It picked you,” she says. “Take it.”
He does. The stone is rough and cool, bright patches of color against veins of darker green. “What is it?”
“Unakite.” She looks up at him, fish-eyed. “For emotional issues. It aids spiritual growth and self-awareness.”
Which of them has emotional issues? Before he has a chance to object, Theresa has rolled up her window. She touches her fingertips to the center of her forehead, as if she’s holding the stone there. Then she hits the gas.
“Hey!” he yells—but the little car is already trundling down the long drive.
Cameron weighs the thing warming in his palm. He deserves an apology, not a pet rock. He deserves a rent check for the past three days, plus other damages, too. He pulls back his arm, sighting the rusted body of Theresa’s car. He steps forward, releases.
The stone connects with a crack and ricochets into the snowbank. Theresa brakes, then accelerates, her tires spurting snow. She reaches the road and turns from view. Gone.
The date is finally over. That magic stone didn’t even mark the snow.
Beside the house, the timer clicks; the grapevine reindeer raise their heads. Cameron clenches his empty fist. Safe. His deer begin to nod, first one and then the other.