Champagne, Part 3
[Continued from last week]
I discovered the prepaid bottle of champagne in our room when I got back. Strawberries. Chocolate fondue. My first thought was wondering how long the burner had lasted, going unattended.
The message indicator was blinking. I washed my face, steadied myself in the mirror. Kicked my shoes off into the wall and dialed the front desk. They answered on the first ring, telling me my wife had called.
If they were the least bit conflicted or confused as to who I ordered the honeymoon package for, they didn’t show it.
Middle of the night, back home, but Kitty answered straight away. “I love you,” she said.
She yawned. “How is it?”
“Unless you hopped a flight to Alaska.”
I smiled a mayfly smile: it died before it lived. “I ate tacos. Saw music.”
“I’m really happy you went.”
I peeled off my socks, hunching over the side of the bed. “How did the meeting go?”
“We don’t have to talk about that.”
She sighed. “It was a mistake not coming.”
I dug my toes into the carpet. “What happened?”
“Over as quickly as it started. No figure to buy-in. Just. Hello and goodbye.”
“I’m sure there was more to it.”
“Seriously, Nolan. I don’t know whether to double down harder or just say screw it. Move to some beach town with you. Sleep in every day.”
“You’d last about five minutes.”
“It just feels like it never stops,” she said. “I’ve been driving and driving and maybe it’s time to slow down. Whatever happens, I’ll be happy so long as it’s you and me.”
“It’s your dream,” I said, “and you’re so close.”
“I know, just.” She paused. “You were so excited to fly us down there.”
“What’s the doctor’s name?”
“Okay, well when — not if — Dr. Fuller calls, he’s going to offer to bring you on as his partner. He’s going to give you a figure to buy in, and we’re going to make it work.” I hardened my voice. “I believe in you.”
“You sound so sad,” she said.
Dialed it back. “I’m not.”
“No bullshit between us.” A non-silence. “Puppy?”
Goosebumps, from the air conditioning. “I saw music tonight,” I repeated.
“You said, that’s great.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “It didn’t feel like me, watching. I didn’t feel inspired. I wanted them to suck.”
“You’re just upset.”
“It’s more than that,” I said, words tumbling out. “It made me realize that I haven’t felt inspired in a long time. I haven’t touched my guitar. I have nothing I want to write about.”
“It hasn’t. And I don’t think it’s going to.” I rose to my feet. Paced the room. “Maybe that’s how it is now. Not everyone gets to be —”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“No bullshit between us. You know me better than anybody.” Dry mouth, trembling hands. “I don’t have the fire that I used to.”
She sighed. “I have noticed that you’ve been a little…”
“What?” I asked, stopping by the window.
“Absent?” she said. “Or, distant, I mean. It feels like a while since you’ve really been here.”
Looking out, it occurred to me how flat Austin was. “Neither have you, you know.”
“Sorry?” she asked.
“Even if I felt what you’re saying, you’re never home to talk about it.”
“I just watch TV until you get home, then we watch more of it.”
“Why don’t you use the time I’m at work to play guitar, then?”
“That’s not —”
“Don’t put everything on me,” she said, edge creeping back into her voice. There’s nothing stopping you from finding an open show, or, or —”
“Open mic,” I said.
“You’ve always been the artistic one. Express whatever it is you’re feeling.” Someone passed outside my door. “You still there?”
The rustle of her shifting the phone to her opposite shoulder. “I’m here right now, okay? I’m listening. What have you wanted to talk about?”
I pictured her alone in our bed, alone in our apartment, alone a half country away. The weight of it made me feel like a fraud.
“Please?” she asked.
“… It’s been awhile since we talked about kids.”
Silence on her end, then: “I thought we agreed.”
“No. We didn’t.”
Another silence. “Are you saying that you want kids?”
I dropped back onto the hotel bed. Stretched out like a corpse. “I don’t know.”
“How do you not know?!” she asked, exploding.
I sat up.
“What is all this about if you don’t even know?!”
“I don’t know how I feel about anything,” I said, coming back over the top. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, but everytime…” My voice breaks off.
“Everytime, what?” she asked. “Say it.”
I took a breath. “When we’re together, the words don’t come. I just want to hold you and forget.”
“That doesn’t work for me,” she said. “If you’re feeling something, you have to talk to me. You have to find a way, because right now? Over the phone? This is not the way to do it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, losing all steam.
“I’m not…” She sighed. “I’m not looking for an apology, okay?”
“I shouldn’t have brought this up.”
“I love you but you need to be honest with me,” she said. “We can’t figure out how to make things better if you won’t even tell me the situation.”
On the other end, choking back sobs. I wanted to reach through the line to hold her, fly home that instant, never leave again.
She said, “I love you to the fucking stars and… to hear you say… that I’m not there?”
“It crushes me that I can’t make you happy.”
“If anything’s clear about this conversation.”
“Shhhh,” I said.
“Well, if it’s not me and it’s not kids, necessarily,” she said, “what is it?”
“I just…” I closed my eyes. “I don’t know what I’m driving toward anymore.”
There was a long pause on her end. In a slow, measured voice, she said, “I don’t know if I can help you with that. Because for me, it’s us.”
I searched for the right words, for some answer, but nothing came.
The clock on the bedside table. “It’s late there,” I said.
“Did you tell them you’re working tomorrow?”
“Go to sleep,” I said. “Don’t worry about any of this.”
Another gust of cold, manufactured air.
Mustering an upbeat tone, she said, “Willie Nelson, tomorrow night.”
My stomach turned and I damn near cried on the spot. “I might come home.”
“No,” she said, with force. “You hear me? I forbid it.”
I drew back the cover. Stared at her usual side. “I really wish you were here.”
“Me, too.” Another non-silence. “Puppy?”
“I want to say something but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.”
I braced myself. “What is it?”
“Well,” she said. “We’ve always talked about getting a dog.”
After we hung up, I stuck a finger in the chocolate and licked it. Popped the champagne and threw away the cork. In the background, Austin flickered in short supply.
This piece appears as part of a serialized fiction experiment by Nathaniel Kressen for At Large magazine. New installments are published weekly, each based around a different liquor.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels — Dahlia Cassandra (named Best of 2016 Fiction by Entropy & Luna Luna Magazine) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store) — as well as the co-founder of Second Skin Books and the leader of the Greenpoint Writers Group. He was commissioned by At Large magazine to publish his third novel in serialization — now available, with new chapters publishing weekly — titled My Life on Rye. And, as one half of the wife-and-husband team Grackle + Pigeon, he’ll be publishing a tome for modern living this fall — Blanket Fort: Growing Up Is Optional (HarperCollins/Morrow Gift). You can find his work at nathanielkressen.com.