NATHAN KNEW sometime that afternoon this would be the last time.
He couldn’t take the feeling of drifting anymore, of being weightless, but not in the pleasant, content way. He felt more like something without substance, something to dismiss and ignore. Something being tossed around by the whims of others, and the back and forth made his head spin and his stomach lurch. He needed to see something beyond smears rushing past.
So he waited, trying to get some work done on his laptop but mostly watching the door to their Philadelphia apartment for Brian to get home. Part of him was anxious to finally get it over with, while the other part dreaded the finality and wondered if he could find the courage.
He was always being pulled in different directions.
Mostly he wanted to escape from the conversations in his head, the imagined responses he planned but inevitably grew too scared to say, swallowing them to ferment in his stomach as he spent another night watching Netflix on the couch until he fell asleep. But as he followed the trail of the powdery snow as it spiraled past the windows, he knew something had changed.
It was tempting to take out a notepad and write down all of his points, arguments, and counterarguments. He’d always been a list-maker by nature, liked the way giving form to ideas made them concrete. Concrete things could be dealt with, understood. But every time he went to his desk in the nook between the kitchen and dining room, he felt too pathetic spelling it all out like that. So he paced. He wiped down the counters and fed the fish. The snow fell harder, gathering on the windowpanes. The streetlights flickered to life, making the fat flakes glow against the darkening sky. Once it would have been the perfect night to light the gas fireplace and open a bottle of Cabernet. Once it would have been romantic, the sounds of the street muffled by the snow, the apartment cocooned and private like a candle in cupped hands.
Nathan tried not to look at all their possessions or relive the memory attached to each one. This had been his home for so long. When they’d bought the apartment twelve years ago, it’d seemed too good to be true—a place in Center City. How far they’d come.
Now it just seemed as cold and sterile as a hospital room. He didn’t feel like he belonged among the things they’d chosen and collected together; he felt lost beneath their high ceilings and cherry crown molding.
He didn’t realize he’d been sitting in the dark, mesmerized by the languid spiral of snowflakes and the tiny fairylike shadows they cast in the wedge of amber light coming through the window. Snippets of better days eddied past—painting, picking furniture, cuddling together on the very sofa where he now sat. So many plans. It all dissolved at the sound of the key in the lock, echoing back through the years.
Brian came in whistling. He turned on the light in the hall and set his briefcase down. In the kitchen, he grabbed a beer from the fridge, opened it, and took a few loud gulps.
In the living room, he glanced to where Nathan sat but said nothing. If Nathan let him, he’d go into the bathroom, shave off his five-o’clock shadow, splash on some cologne. Maybe he’d go into their bedroom and change his clothes. Then, without speaking, he would be gone again. It had been the same for the last two months.
But not tonight. Nathan couldn’t take it anymore. He wouldn’t be tossed around anymore. He’d find something to grab hold of, even if it cut his hands.
Getting off that couch was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. His legs shook with the exertion, and his hands trembled as he followed his husband into the room they’d shared for over a decade—as legal spouses for the past couple of years. As Brian stood before an open drawer in a snug white T-shirt and his boxers, Nathan considered saying something about the storm. Casual conversation between two people who knew each other so well.
But he didn’t know this man. He wondered if he ever had.
“Where are you going?”
Brian didn’t look up as he dug through his socks. “I’m going to go play some darts with Chris. I’d ask if you want to come along, but you never want to go out anymore.”
“I’m almost forty, Brian. I’m a little over the bar scene.” For the past few years, the social anxiety that had always lapped against the back of Nathan’s mind had grown, and now the roar of it drowned out almost everything else when he was in a crowd. When they went out, all he could do was try to keep it behind its dam so it didn’t break through and carry him away. Shame kept him from admitting it to his husband. That and the near certainty Brian would dismiss it. The man had never had much compassion for anything he considered weakness.
Brian lifted up a pair of socks with a smile like he’d found buried treasure and tossed them into a duffel bag that lay open on the bed. “You know, suit yourself. Maybe we can have dinner next Tuesday.”
“I… so can I expect this game of darts to last all weekend? Again?”
“Yeah, you know, some of us are thinking of going down to Baltimore. There are some bands playing at a club.”
“Are you serious?” The flood of anger was welcome; it washed away Nathan’s nerves. “And if I hadn’t asked, you wouldn’t have told me.”
“I knew you wouldn’t want to go.”
“You could’ve asked.”
Brian sighed out a gust of air. “You wouldn’t want to go. You never want to go. All you ever want to do is sit in this apartment.”
“I’ve been busy with work. You’re going to punish me for that?”
“I’m sorry, Nathan, but I’m not going to quit living just because you never want to do anything anymore. I’m just not.”
“No, you’re going to go out and get drunk and fuck Chris, because that’s your idea of living.” Nathan waited for him to deny it. After a minute, he said, “And you expect me to wait here and beg for whatever scraps are left over. Like dinner one Tuesday a month makes up for it. One dinner is supposed to be enough for me to ignore the fact that you’re with him every night, gone all weekend, and posting pictures of the two of you in Atlantic City? Or dancing shirtless in some club?”
Brian finally turned and faced him, holding a pair of black briefs tight in his raised fist. “Chris has shown me a lot of compassion lately. When I talk to him about the problems we’re having, he’s understanding. He doesn’t judge me, and he supports me. You haven’t been there for me in a long time.”
“What problems are we having?”
“Nathan, we haven’t been in love in a long time. And we both know it.”
“We do? I didn’t. You son of a bitch. If you weren’t happy, you could have said something to me.”
“There were signs. You ignored them.” Brian sat on the edge of the bed to pull on a pair of dark jeans.
“Signs? If you don’t love me anymore, you could have said something. I’ve been beside you fifteen years. I married you as soon as it was legal!”
“You’ve been distant.”
“You could have fucking said something! I don’t deserve even that? After fifteen fucking years, I get tossed aside for some younger guy?”
Brian stood and went to open the closet door. Apparently this conversation didn’t warrant a pause in his getting ready for his date. Hangers grated across the metal bar as he perused his options. “I probably could have. I… I guess I’m sorry if I hurt you. But I’m not willing to give up having a social life. I’m sorry, but I’m not.”
“I’ll lay off with him, but I won’t give him up completely. I’m not trying to replace you, Nathan. Maybe just… supplement you. With somebody who shares my interests. Chris likes seeing bands and going out clubbing, so we can share that, and—”
“And I get dinner one Tuesday a month? How long? Do I need to get tested?”
“I’m not an idiot,” Brian said as he slipped his arms into a salmon-colored shirt. “I wore a condom.”
“And… and you’re going to throw out everything we’ve built together? For this guy?” Nathan knew he was weak, and if Brian promised to call it off, he’d forgive him. Eyes stinging and mouth dry and gritty, he waited. Dammit, if Brian threw out that life preserver, Nathan would latch on.
“I have feelings for Chris. We can make it work, though. I’ll always love you, Nathan. I don’t want to lose that. But with Chris, I can do the things you don’t like to do. It can be beneficial for both of us. It’ll give you time to work without feeling guilty.”
“Fuck you. Get out.”
“I want to keep you in my life.”
“Get out. Go to Baltimore. I’ll be gone before you get back.” Nathan waited, waited for Brian to drop down and hug his knees, stain his pants with his tears, and swear he’d never do anything like this again, but Brian just nodded as he finished filling his bag.
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Brian walked out, and Nathan channeled all the things he wanted to yell at his husband into packing his things and arranging for a moving truck. Then he scrounged his phone out from between the couch cushions. He could only think of one place to go, and he hoped the offer still stood. If nothing else, it would be nice to feel some warmth on his face.
If he had to be lost, at least he could be lost in the sun and sea air.