It’ll be fucking Christmas soon enough. Plastic snow, convoys of strollers, sweaty mothers hustling out of department-store sections like they stole something. And every year it’s the same goddamn thing. Pictures of gesticulating snowmen stuck to fast-food windows.
Tradition and ritual just other words for brainwashing. “That’s original,” she said over the phone. “Ladies and gentleman, the world’s first-ever Scrooge.” “See,” Cole said. “You said ‘Scrooge.’ That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”It didn’t help she had a rule: No sex between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Every year the same goddamn thing. Her own version of Lent. “New Year’s should be special,” she said, “and no little afternoon fuck you could fit in an envelope is going to ruin the first night of MY goddamn new year. I’ll tell you that for fucking shit sure.”
Drunk as a pickle she was. Later that night she threw a blender at him. Three years in a row she’d done this. First time she threw a fishbowl, second time a pint mug. The speech always came the Sunday after Thanksgiving, far enough away from New Year’s she felt you had fair warning. She abstained in December, and that was just the way it was always going to be.
And now, in year four, no sex wasn’t enough for her; now they couldn’t even see each other for a month. “It’ll be romantic,” she said, sitting sideways in her chair, watching traffic, violently chewing her salad.
“Like before a fucking wedding or something.” As a compromise, she’d given him enough money to stay at HoJo’s for a week. He lived on whiskey and fried rice. Fell asleep every night with his shoes on. Staggered around the office like he had malaria. At first he called her every day. She answered the phone, “What.”
She’d been pissed since Thanksgiving at her parent’s place, when a few hours after dinner she found him in the basement standing in front of the television, slurring at her two seven-year-old cousins about how bad cartoons nowadays suck. “I know it’s not your fault, per se,” he was saying, when she grabbed and dragged him out of the house by the arm. “G’night kids!” he said.
When they got outside she slammed the door. “That was a little vaudeville,” he’d said. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Cole?” “Okay, look,” he said. “There may be a few good new cartoons, I guess, but they’re no Loo — ” She slapped him. He walked behind her parents’ house, through the woods, across the highway and slept in a motel. Came home the next morning and they walked past each other all weekend without speaking. Late Sunday afternoon she started drinking gin and in the evening came the speech. So when he called she always said, “What,” and “That’s great,” in a tone of voice that made everything sound like, “Just die.” Second week he stopped calling and stayed with a friend, a thirty-five-year-old perpetual bachelor named Sten he’d gone to school with in Wisconsin. Every night they went to a bar and stared up at sports highlights, mouths open like fish. Four nights in a row without many words to each other beyond, “You want another one?”
Then, Friday night, Sten’s friend Trent showed up, a short guy in a suit. His head came up to their shoulders. Looked like a Little League agent and liked to talk a lot, explain the faults of every waitress: “Her face is too wide for her hair,” he’d point, or, “Mushy torso,” “You could cut cake with that chick’s nose.” There was one Trent liked, a tiny Filipina who spent most of the night avoiding her tables and leaning against the jukebox. She held the ends of her hair to the light and ignored him when he tried talking to her. He came back laughing, said, “That girl’s full of pussy.” They all sat there nodding and watched a German soccer player shatter his cheekbone on the back of his teammate’s head.
“Cole’s girl won’t let him fuck her till New Year’s,” Sten said. “No shit?” Trent said. “You miss it? What’s she fuck like?” Cole was ten drinks in and happy to answer. “She’s a slapper when you get her on her back,” he said. “She fucks like Rod Carew.” Trent said, “You fucked Rod Carew?” Sten looked back and forth between them. “Who the hell is Rod Carew?” “She fucks like Reggie Miller coming off a pick.” “Only one of the best slap hitters in baseball history.” “I thought Reggie Miller played basketball,” Sten said. “I’m confused.” “No,” Trent said, “You’re stupid. There’s a difference. ‘Course you wouldn’t know that, would you.” Lvater that night, Trent and Sten got in a fistfight outside the bar, a lot of rolling around on the ground, headlocks, stabbing each other’s necks with their cigarettes. Sten got arrested for kicking a bartender and Cole had to find somewhere else to sleep. He passed out under his desk at work. At six-thirty, blades of sun came from under the Venetian blinds in his boss’s office and sliced his face open. He panicked, smacked his head on the bottom of the desk, threw himself in his chair without taking off his jacket and pretended he was checking his email.
He looked down at his pants and remembered he’d dreamt of being caught in an awkward position in the bathroom, fucking the plumbing, and he’d come from sheer embarrassment. His first wet dream in ten years. He started sweating. He sat staring at his screen reading nothing for fifteen minutes before he realized it was Sunday. That third week he stayed at his Uncle Quinn’s apartment, left two messages on her voice mail and slept on the couch like a dirty blanket. His uncle worked for the MTA, sticking his head out subway windows and announcing stops over the PA all day. By the time he got home, Quinn didn’t feel much like talking either. Every night they’d drink rum and Country Time from enormous plastic jugs covered in hockey logos, and they’d watch the History Channel.
Every night America’s Team: the Nazis was on. Easily the most popular war footage on television, Vietnam running a distant second. Panzers covered in snow, a fallen log stack of frozen corpses, a foot soldier throwing a grenade in a trench door and rolling away from the opening. Hitler walking through the rain. Hitler on vacation. Hitler smiling, leading a corpulent man of high rank up the wide steps to his chalet, pressing a hand to the small of the man’s back. Even though he hadn’t asked, Cole felt like his uncle, too, wanted to know what his girlfriend was like in bed. Wednesday night he got up the courage to say, “She’s got double-jointed hips.” “Who,” Quinn said, “This chick?” pointing at the TV where they showed an Amazon Aryan skier smiling. She wore a swastika armband and a rifle slung on her back.
“My girlfriend.” “That’s cool.” “Not really. Kinda feels like you’re fucking a turnstile.” “I’ll take your word for it,” Quinn said. He smelled his lip and put a hand in his pants. They didn’t talk again until Friday morning, when his uncle led Cole out the front door of the apartment and into the hallway. “So you’re cool?” he said, “You got a place to stay and everything?” but he stepped back inside and let the door shut before Cole could answer. He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t thought of the basement storage room in his apartment building sooner. He spent the last week there, sleeping in a cocoon of blue padded moving blankets people had stolen from U-Haul.
He missed her. He spent Christmas sitting on a box with a pizza and a fifth, smoking cigarettes and listening to student radio. He had the week off work anyway, and he woke up every morning hung over, then wandered around gentrified Brooklyn with a steady static in his brain. He went to gourmet supermarkets where he couldn’t afford the food. He walked around with an empty basket, ate all the free samples and olives, gazed at expensive cheese, studied boxes that worked out to a dollar a cracker. Eventually he’d leave. In the deli windows next door they always had signs made with permanent marker and butcher paper that said things like $1.65 PER MEAT.
On the other side would be a video game store, all its TVs playing the same anime, alternating close-up shots of angular faces quaking with rage. He called and she finally answered with a hello that sounded halfway hopeful. When she recognized his voice she said, “You sound like shit.” “I don’t feel well.” “Hung over, I presume,” she said. “More of a cigarette hangover, really.” “Like the time you puked in your sleep and blamed it on the burrito.” “The chicken was sketchy.” “You pissed the bed.” “It’s the storage systems in those places,” he said, “Lack of refrigeration.” She actually laughed and gave him directions to the New Year’s party.
At the party she still wouldn’t talk to him, so he went in the guest room and slowly got drunk watching any black-and-white movie he could find, preferably one where a woman turned her back on a man mid-argument and he had to spin her around by the shoulders. He thought that happened in all these movies. But all he could find were people pretending to drive. Next thing he knew, it was 11:55, his girlfriend had just kicked the door open, and he rose from the chair loin-first.
Marc Nesbitt is the author of the story collection Gigantic. He received his master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s.