Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press); a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books); and three collections of fiction. Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers, The Washington Post, and the Literary Hub, and she’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. She's the editor-in-chief of the literary weekly jmww and lives in Southern California, although she will always be a Baltimorean at heart.
Jonas wonders when the fireworks will start, how close it is to midnight. It feels like he walked outside of Mark’s New Year’s party hours ago, but it’s probably just the beer, the case of opened Straub near his feet, that is expanding and contracting the hours and minutes in his mind. The bonfire, echoing his condition, ebbs low before roaring to twice its size.
“You avoiding me?”
Jonah looks down into the mouth of his beer, thinking it’s his wife speaking. When he looks up, though, it’s Julia, Mark’s sister. She lights a cigarette, leaning over the deck and looking down at him. A white plume of smoke rises upward into the darkness from her lips, cloaking her face for a minute. When it disappears, she’s smirking at him.
“Are you?” She’s wearing one of Mark’s lined flannel shirts, the one he used to wear snowboarding in the Poconos, and on Julia it looks like a wool trash bag. He watches her bound down the stairs of the deck in oversized duck boots, also Mark’s—she’d flown in for the holidays from LA and apparently either greatly underestimated the cold front that had been predicted or just hadn’t cared.
“Of course not—I didn’t even know you were here,” he says when she joins him by the fire. He pulls a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of Mark’s flannel shirt and fingers out a cigarette. “How long are you in town?”
“I don’t know. Mark said I could stay as long as I wanted, but I don’t know if I’m feeling the East coast vibe.” Her hair, the color of a dirty penny, flows out from Mark’s Philadelphia Eagles skullcap. “Or my brother.”
“But you’re wearing all his clothes,” Jonas answers. “Isn’t that kind of feeling him?”
“You’re such a fucking dork,” she laughs. “How’re Karen and Mia?”
“Karen’s inside, Mia’s at a friend’s,” Jonas answers, lighting the cigarette. He’ll get shit later from Karen about smoking, he’s sure. They stand in silence for a minute, maybe more, the fire crackling. Jonas’ cheeks burn, but he stays next to Julia.
“I heard your dad died,” she says finally. “I’m sorry.”
“It was a long time coming,” he answers. “But thanks.”
“Mark said he had some cabin in Bedford or something.” She flicks her cigarette into the bonfire.
“Yeah.” He rubs the side of his neck, the stubble almost electric on his palm. “I guess we’ll keep it for vacations or something, although Karen wants to sell it, use the money for Mia’s college.”
He had wanted to go to the cabin for New Year’s Eve, the three of them, some familial orbit, one that they’d all been drifting in and out of for some time. But Mia had insisted on spending the night at a friend’s house. A girl they hadn’t even met. I don’t even like pot, Dad, Mia had preempted his speech about sleepovers a few days before at dinner.
“How old’s Mia now?” Julia taps out another cigarette, glancing back at the house.
“Thirteen—can you believe it?” Jonas smiles. “She’s as old as you were when I went off the college.”
“You were always so nice to me.” Julia glances at him, wrapping her arms around herself. “You know, I had a little bit of a crush on you.”
Before he can say anything, the French doors open and Mark appears on the deck, wearing a top hat, which doesn’t match his ski parka, and holding a bottle of Winchester scotch.
“People from my childhood!” Mark yells. “Where have you been?”
Jonas looks toward Julia. He wants a glance, an acknowledgment, something, that they will continue their conversation but she is already heading toward her older brother. On the deck she stuffs the pack of cigarettes into Mark’s pocket as she takes a gulp of his Winchester.
“Happy new year, Jonas.” Her words are slurred as she goes back into the house with Mark’s whiskey. Her face, older and sharper but still delicately etched, burns in him hotter than the bonfire.
“Brat,” Mark calls after her, looking at his empty hand, before looking down at Jonas. “Any Straub left down there?”
The last year Mark had seen Julia, he’d just turned eighteen. He’d stopped by the house to see Mark, who was still at hockey practice. Only Julia was home. All of thirteen, imprisoned by braces and glasses with lenses the size of a periscope, her hair uncombed, Julia stood at the front door and didn’t seem willing to let him in.
“What are you doing?” He asked her. He didn’t want to go back home, where his own family, loud, suffocating, festered—his father in the recliner, watching Penn State on television in the living room, his mother watching some shopping channel in the den on the smaller portable. What passed in their house for family.
“Why?” She looked as if he might kidnap her, and the ridiculousness of it had made him laugh out loud.
“I’m bored.” He shrugged. The house had been quiet, he remembered. It smelled faintly like dust. The floors were hardwood and reflected light. Its sparseness seemed like a truth in some way, one that he hadn’t even known existed.
“You can come upstairs.” She stood on the bottom step, arms by her side, as he moved toward the sofa. “I was just reading.”
In her bedroom he slouched awkwardly into her denim beanbag and leaned over to look through her cassette tapes as she sat on the edge of her bed, bookmarking her paperback.
“This is a good tape.” Jonas held up The Cure. “I didn’t know you liked them.”
“It’s Mark’s,” she answered. “I like it okay. He was getting rid of all his tapes when he bought CDs, so I took them.”
“You’ll like it better when you’re older,” he shrugged.
“What does that mean?” She picked up a Care Bear near her pillow and shook it. She then frowned at it before throwing it into the corner, near her dresser.
“I mean you’ll have more experiences and stuff, and the songs will mean something.”
“I have a life—I’m going roller-skating tonight,” she answered. “With Tricia. Ronnie is going to be there.”
“So you like Ronnie?” Jonas raised an eyebrow. He tried to remember when he was 13, what he thought of girls like Julia back then. Probably nothing, he decided, and that would have been a kindness.
“I just said he was going to be there.” She wrapped up all her hair and piled it on her head before letting it fall down onto her shoulders. “That’s all.”
“What are you going to wear?” He asked, and she gave him that look again. Like he was a perv or something. “I mean, I was just wondering. I always get freaked when I have to figure out what to wear on a date and stuff.”
Without speaking, Julia went to her closet and spread the double doors. She pulled a green sweater off the hanger and a pair of dark denim jeans. She laid them out on her bedspread like an empty version of herself. He hopped up and stood beside her.
“That’s a great color,” he agreed of the sweater. He watched as she took a deep breath, and her proudness made him continue. “It plays well off your eyes.”
The door had slammed downstairs, and Jonas took a step toward the hallway. Julia blinked at him, her face pleading without words for him to stay. He could feel her hunger for kindness, for attention. It crackled through his flannel shirt like static. But what more could he say to her about her date with another 13-year-old? He heard Mark making his way through the house, equipment banging against the furniture, each bang exploding in his lower spine.
Jonas glanced at the paperback on Julia’s dresser. It was Camus’ The Stranger, and he knew she wouldn’t begin to understand that, either, until later. He barely understood it when he was fourteen. Even at eighteen, he didn’t feel he had lived enough to really understand anything.
“Hey, have fun roller-skating.” He patted her shoulder and stepped out in the hallway, toward Mark.
But maybe she already had understood. Years later, when he was at grad school in Michigan, she wrote him long, angst-filled letters from Berkeley, half-suicidal, cut up over one thing or another. He had wondered in his more panicked moments whether she was depressed or crazy, in and his more reasonable ones, just figuring it all out.
I just want to walk into the bay, she wrote in one letter. Like that mother in “Interiors.”
You should really watch Ingmar Bergman, not Woody Allen. He had written back.
There was one boy, Patrick, who’d she’d been particularly upset over. They’d dated for a year. One night they had a fight in the lobby of the Castro Theater, which was hosting a Hitchcock film festival. She accused Patrick of being gay, she had explained to Jonas, and Patrick left her in the lobby. She hitchhiked back to Berkeley with a man, she said, who looked like Stephen Stills from Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
I sound like such a whiny creep, she’d written back. What’s wrong with me? I should become a lesbian to get back at him. I watched “Persona” and loved it, by the way—when are you flying out so we can talk hours and hours about it?
He’d never flown out or seen Julia in person. He’d been dating Karen, who also was working on her Masters at Michigan, and at the time they both thought about staying near the Great Lakes forever. But he’d thought about that day in Julia’s bedroom over the years. Something had nagged him about it. He’d been so young himself and had little insight into the nuances of his emotions. He knew, at least, he had felt profoundly sad for some reason.
It wasn’t until years later, when Julia began writing him out of the blue, that he’d understood what he’d been feeling was regret. That Julia would one day be smart and beautiful—there has already been hints of it in her soft, curved lips and upturned nose, her long legs, like a colt—and that he might love her. And maybe she might love him. But she was five years younger, and those feelings would never overlap, like sunrise and sunset. At least not until much later. Life suddenly seemed full of endless moments like these, to trip him up, to disappoint him, to complicate his life to paralysis.
After he proposed to Karen, he wrote Julia one last letter. You should watch Wild Strawberries, it said. And listen to Lloyd Cole. He writes songs for girls like you. He put the letters she’d written in a box along with his high school ring, a few medals from high school track, a Neil Young pin he’d worn on his denim jacket as a freshman. Things that had mattered, had defined him, once, before the foundation of his adult personality solidified completely, allowing no superfluous matter to take root.
It’s after midnight, that he knows, because the fireworks have exploded and the smoke has drifted away, although still faintly on his clothes and he is inside the house, which feels dim, maybe because of the brightness of the exploding cakes, snapdragons, and jumping jacks, or maybe because he is drunk. He moves steadily, careful of his equilibrium, up the stairs and down the hallway to the bathroom. Inside he grips the windowsill with one hand as he pees.
“It’s occupied,” he says when someone knocks, his voice somewhere around the vicinity of his body as he flushes and scrubs his hands, wets his face. When he opens the door Julia is there, and before he can stop her she pushes him back inside.
“Everyone’s still in the yard,” she says, as if she can read every one of his thoughts before he can speak them. “Why did you stop writing to me at school?”
“I’m sorry—I proposed to Karen. I had other things on my mind,” he answers. He can feel the water still on his face, or is it sweat? He’d been careful not to ask Mark about Julia in the years between the letters and now, only nodding when Mark offered an update on Julia appearing in some cable drama or commercial out in LA, where she worked as an actor.
“I thought we were friends,” she says. The bathroom is dark. He reaches over her to turn on the light, but she grabs his wrist.
“We are friends,” he says. “But you didn’t need my advice. Then or now.”
“I didn’t want your advice.” Her voice is barely a whisper, and the floor of the bathroom suddenly feels like a funhouse underneath his boots. He bends, feeling for the ledge of the tub on his left to sit down and steady himself, but he misjudges and falls in, taking the shower curtain with him, his heading hitting the tiled shower wall.
“Are you okay?” Julia leans forward. But instead of helping him up she kisses him, her breath strong and oily from the whiskey, her tongue quickly searching his mouth. He puts both of his hands on her cheeks and turns his head, gulping the air between them. His head is throbbing from the wall. It feels damp, maybe with blood, maybe sweat.
“Whatever ever happened to Patrick?” He asks. He doesn’t know why, but he thinks of him, Julia’s boyfriend who left her at the Castro. Julia’s letters had kept coming, two or three, after he’d stopped writing, but he’d never even opened them. Don’t encourage her, Karen had warned him, almost diplomatically, back then, when Karen viewed such things as nuisances and not threats.
But Julia is already standing up, away from him, talking to someone in the doorway. When he looks up, it’s Mark. He’s still wearing his top hot.
“You okay, buddy?” Mark’s expression is somewhere between, as best as Jonas can judge, amusement and concern. “You all right?”
In the morning, swaddled in bed like he has the flu and not a hangover, Jonas wonders if Julia had been toying with him. He doesn’t remember much about last night, except Mark’s sweaty body over his in the tub, pulling him up, his top hat falling off and hitting Jonas’s own neck softly, like a sad trombone to the evening. He hears voices downstairs—Karen and Mia watching a movie—and wills himself out of bed toward the bedroom closet. He goes through the boxes on the top shelf. The letters from Julia will change nothing, he thinks, even as he sifts through old cassette tapes and letters from friends, other girlfriends, his mother. He remembers the jolt he felt when he’d see Julia’s letters in his post office box, her penmanship showy and sometimes urgent, all capped or underlined in the middle of paragraphs. He’d often wondered whether she had wanted to impress him or just someone.
He empties out the last box. The letters are gone. Had Karen gotten rid of them? Had she known him better than himself, that his future self, rattled by some McGuffin, would retrace his steps in the trail to the point where the paths in his life had diverged, looking for answers?
He puts everything away where he found it and calls Mark.
“I think I owe you a new shower curtain,” he says. “I’m sorry about last night.”
“It’s all right, man,” Mark coughs. He sounds hoarse. “We were all pretty fucked up.”
“How’s Julia?” He tries to sound casual.
“Probably as hung over as you, buddy.” Marks laughs. “What were you two doing up in that bathroom, man?”
“Didn’t Julia tell you?” Jonah asks after a pause. He wonders if they have a story—if hers matches his.
“I’m just kidding, man. She left this morning—made me drive her to the fucking train station so she could see some friends in New York.”
When he hangs up, he doesn’t know whether he feels sorry for himself or for Julia. It’s as if something has been taken away from him, but he doesn’t know what it is. Something wonderful and awful at the same time. By the time he’d proposed to Karen, they’d been dating for five years. Although he wasn’t sure Karen was the one, he couldn’t think of any reasons not to. She was smart and level-headed. Her eyes were like amber, her laugh loud and spontaneous. If someone had had asked him what he’d wanted in a relationship, Karen’s composite was his answer. But he hadn’t fallen head over heels in love; those electric years of sex and feelings that marked the start of relationships had never ignited for him and certainly wouldn’t now. Instead, their relationship grew on him like a spare tire, one that he couldn’t work off. He thinks of his father in those later years when he visited him at the cabin in Bedford, looking through a packet of photos from his years in the Navy.
You spend forever, staring at the ocean, waiting to go somewhere, he’d said of trips to China, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific. But then suddenly you wake up and you’ve landed, and it ain’t that much different from where you left.
“Find what you were looking for?” Karen asks from the couch when he joins them in the den.
“No.” He opens a bottle of water and sinks in next to her. “It probably wasn’t important, anyway.”
“Don’t tell Mom—not yet, please?” In the passenger seat, Mia burrows her chin into her shirt. Jonas has come to school early—he hadn’t meant to, but he'd gotten through his work early and figured he’d sit in the parking lot, listen to NPR, and wait for Mia to get out of swim practice. He’d seen them—Mia and another girl—at the loading dock behind the cafeteria. Mia was standing—although she was facing the dock he recognized her LL Bean parka—and the other girl was sitting on the dock, her legs hooked casually around Mia’s legs. Mia held the girl’s face in her hands and then began to kiss her.
“I won’t.” When he turns off the radio, he notices his hand is shaking. “It’s our secret.”
“Are you mad at me?” She looks at him from underneath the collar of her shirt.
“Why would I be mad?” He turns in his seat toward her.
He’s only a little surprised, and only surprised that his suspicions had been correct. Like last summer, when Mia shaved her head. She said it was for swimming, but Jonas wasn’t sure. Mostly, he’d thought about 13-year-old Julia’s room, the posters of Justin Timberlake and ads of shirtless men with Stonehenge stomachs selling perfume. Mia’s room had none of those things, only a poster of Rosie the riveter and one of the solar system. In addition to one of Jonas’ Lloyd Cole CDs, Mia has downloaded Sleater-Kinney and The Butchies from iTunes. And although incessant texting was something girls did with their friends, Karen and Jonas have yet to meet the girl friend Mia has been obsessively texting.
“I don’t know—maybe you wanted something different.” Mia stares out the window. Her hair has grown back in some, but she’s shaved one half of it again so that one side is whitish-blond peach fuzz, the other spikey and tussled.
“I did want something different,” he hears himself say. “But I wouldn’t change a thing about you.”
“What does that mean?” He feels her looking at him.
“It means.” He thinks of Julia. “It means nothing. There are always choices you do and don’t make. It just means there’s always something you’ll be disappointed about in life.”
“Her name is Sophie,” Mia says after a minute. “I love her, Dad.”
He wonders how she’s sure. He thinks of telling her she’s too young to know. But the realization has been creeping over him for years that he doesn’t really know anything. He leans over and kisses her head.
“I’m happy for you.” He starts the car. “I hope that, when you’re ready, you’ll bring her around and introduce us.”
Karen does the dishes that night, even though it’s his job. Later, she joins him in the den, where he plucks the opening notes from Lloyd Cole’s “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” on his Stratocaster. It’s one of those songs he can’t remember all the notes to anymore, but just enough to amble through.
Karen sits on the couch and closes her eyes, her head against the back of the sofa, still holding the dish towel from the kitchen. He puts the Stratocaster down by his chair and joins her.
“I like hearing you play,” she says, eyes still closed, as he kneads her shoulders. “It reminds me of Michigan.”
“We need to talk.” He stops and rests his head on her shoulder. He thinks about the unread letters Julia had sent him. Even if Karen had thrown them away, even if they were gone forever, even if nothing about them would have changed anything, they’re important somehow, important evidence in the trajectory of his life. A place marker on the map where the paths in his life began to diverge. He needs to revisit the scene, figure out how he got here. Where he’s going next.
“About Mia?” Karen opens her eyes. Of course she thinks he’s talking about Mia. She knows everything, or seems to.
“She’ll be all right,” he answers. Mia’s a lot smarter than he was. He hopes. Karen’s looking across the room, like something is there, but all Jonas sees is an old concert poster. It suddenly occurs to him he never watched the fireworks at Mark’s party; he’d been aware that they were happening, but he was too drunk, too distracted by Julia, too worried about why Mia hadn’t texted yet to wish him and Karen a happy new year, and all that was left was smoke curling through the dark.
“Are we?” Karen glances toward him. “Okay?”
“The letters,” he says after a minute. “Why did you take them?”
Karen’s eye widen as she shakes her head: “What letters?”
Mia’s sleeping; he knows she’s not pretending because there’s a glistening wet of drool on her pillow, underneath her lips. He sits on the edge of the bed and looks around the darkness; he can barely make out her laptop on her desk, an outgrown stuffed Grover doll on a rocking chair. He wonders where she’s keeping his letters. He wonders if she’s opened the ones he hadn’t, whether they surprised or disappointed her.
And what would he say to her if she asked? That she thinks she’s in love now, that she’s happy, but that she probably won’t stay with Sophie forever? That there would be someone else she’d wind up with, and Sophie would just be that memory that Mia went to, years later, whenever she was unhappy, like an Eden from which she’d been banished?
But he can’t keep Mia from heartbreak, from regret. It seems, as a father, a cruelty he hasn’t expected. As he gets up to leave, his eyes have adjusted some. He can see Mia’s pale, round face, her wide-set eyes, the curl of her fist on her pillow. He can see everything now, as he makes his way to the door, even though they are still in the dark.