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Authors: Katie O'Rourke

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction

A Long Thaw

Katie O’Rourke
was born and raised in New England, growing up along the seacoast of New Hampshire. She went to college in Massachusetts and graduated with a degree in gender and sexuality. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona with her boyfriend and a very noisy cat. She likes to read good fiction in the sunshine of her back yard. Katie is always working on her next book.

Also by Katie O’Rourke

Monsoon Season

A LONG THAW

Katie O’Rourke

Constable & Robinson Ltd

55–56 Russell Square

London WC1B 4HP

www.constablerobinson.com

First published in the UK by Canvas,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2014

Copyright © Katie O’Rourke 2012

The right of Katie O’Rourke to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication data is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-1-78033-694-7 (ebook)

Printed and bound in the UK

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Cover copyright © Constable & Robinson

Abby

It’s always hard for her to be quiet. She wants him to know what she’s feeling. Sometimes she lets herself say it, when it’s ‘Oh, yeah’ or ‘That feels so good’, but other times she feels herself getting ready to say words like ‘forever’, like ‘Marry me’. She knows better. She presses her lips together, wraps her legs tighter around his body, and holds them in.

In September, Ryan comes home from work and tosses the lease on the kitchen table. ‘It’s that time again,’ he says, as he removes his tie and hangs it over the back of a chair.

Abby stands at the stove, pushing the chicken stir-fry with a spatula.

After graduation, they had both taken jobs in Boston and neither of them could afford to live in the city without a roommate. Living together just made sense; it was about practicality. Love was incidental.

Ryan kisses her cheek and gets a pen out of the drawer beside her. He signs his name and holds the pen towards her.

They’ve shared the apartment for a year. She does most of the cooking while he does most of the cleaning up. They split all the bills, fifty-fifty. They never raise their voices to one another. They had renewed in March without much discussion. Their signatures side by side on a legally binding document had caught Abby’s attention, distracting her from the landlord’s monologue on snow ploughs. She’d handed the papers to him with a reluctance she hadn’t quite understood.

Abby sets the spatula on the counter and reaches out her hand. Then she hesitates, drops it back to her side. They look at each other.

‘What?’ Ryan says. His sandy hair curls at the edge of his ears, overdue for a cut.

‘I’m not sure about this.’ Abby’s as surprised as he is to hear herself say this.

‘What do you mean?’

The stir-fry is starting to smoke. Abby turns off the burner. Ryan waits, still holding out the pen.

‘What are we doing?’ Abby asks.

Ryan expresses his confusion with a shrug.

‘How many times do we renew this lease? Is this it? Is this all you want?’

Ryan turns his back and places the pen on the table. ‘I don’t know what you want me to say.’

Abby crosses her arms. ‘I don’t want you to say anything.’ Especially not
that
, she thinks. As if she could tell him how to act and that would fix everything; the fact that it didn’t occur to him naturally was irrelevant. ‘I’m not asking for anything. I never ask you for anything.’

Ryan turns around. ‘Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing?’

They look at each other without talking, locked in a silent battle of wills. Ryan blinks first. ‘Abby, we’re young,’ he says, as if this has meaning.

‘I know we’re young. I just need to know if you want this to work.’

He sighs then, a deep sigh that signals annoyance or defeat or exhaustion. Abby isn’t sure which. ‘Are we in this together?’ Abby asks. ‘Are you in this?’

‘I love you.’ Ryan steps closer, but Abby backs away.

‘Yeah, but what does that mean? You love me in this exact moment and possibly for the next six months?’ Abby gestures to the paper on the table.

‘I can’t see into the future.’

‘You don’t have to. You just have to want it.’ Abby studies Ryan’s face. ‘I need to know it’s a possibility, that you see us as a possibility.’

Ryan sighs again. Defeat, this time. ‘I don’t know what I see.’

Abby leaves him standing in the kitchen. She isn’t hungry.

Abby had been an easy child. Her parents didn’t believe in spanking, so if Abby misbehaved, she sat on the third step and thought about what she had done. She was asked to write apologies and express her anger with finger paints. She helped her mother cook dinner, wearing a painting smock that doubled as an apron. It was really one of her father’s old dress shirts, worn backwards with the sleeves rolled up. When her father returned from his job at the local paper, they played outside until dinner was ready. In the winter, they had snowball fights; in good weather, they played King of the Mountain. He would throw her onto his shoulders and they’d gallop across the lawn, then wrestle on the hill, pushing each other down, down, down. He used to let her win sometimes. She’d shout, ‘I’m King of the Mountain!’, then prepare to be dethroned.

Abby’s childhood home in New Hampshire smelt of wood stoves year-round. There was one on each of the three floors of their rustic, post-and-beam saltbox. The stove on the main floor, off the kitchen, was their main source of heat all winter. Abby’s father would carry the logs in from the backyard, pushing them into the mouth of the stove and stirring the glowing orange embers with a poker. When Abby came in from the snow, she shook it from her hair and laid her winter coat, gloves and boots to dry beside it. On particularly chilly mornings, she would lay her school clothes on the floor in front of it, and when they were warm enough, she’d get changed right there.

Every Christmas, Abby asked for siblings. She picked out their names. She wanted three, but would have settled for one – preferably a sister. Finally, her parents sat her down and explained that they were unable to have more children, that Abby had been a blessing and that the three of them made the only family there would ever be.

Abby went to college nearby and came home most weekends. When she brought home her freshman roommate – a girl with pink hair, three nose rings and thick black eyeliner – her parents didn’t blink, her father in khaki, her mother in a blue checkered sundress that fell to mid-calf. The girl found them so entertaining, sitting around the table at six o’clock with cloth napkins and potato salad and no TV. Abby’s mother remarked that her hair was the exact colour of cotton candy. It was a compliment, in both the offering and the taking. Abby’s parents were an anomaly, simultaneously ahead of their time and a throwback to the past. Progressive and traditional.

On Abby’s trips home, she and her father took evening walks by the marsh out back. In the late days of fall and early spring, they would dress in layers and blow into their fists as they walked, discussing Abby’s classes, her writing, her work-study job giving tours for the college admissions office. They talked about everything; everything except boys. There wasn’t much to say, those first few years at school. Abby was so serious, much more likely to listen to her friends confess crushes and heartbreak than to have any stories of her own.

Ever practical, Abby had made a list of qualities necessary in the perfect man:

1.   Wants to make the world a better place

2.   Has a shelf full of books that he’s read and a list of those he plans to read

3.   Talks about his feelings

4.   Knows how to carry on a conversation with a four-year-old

5.   Is taller than me

6.   Listens

7.   Gives flowers to celebrate random Tuesdays

8.   Loves dogs; tolerates cats

9.   Swims in the ocean; doesn’t mind sand in his swimsuit

10.   Makes me laugh

By her second year in college, Abby had had more than fifty items on her list and not one single date.

Brandi Carlile sings the last line of ‘Hallelujah’ and Abby’s apartment falls silent, broken by the sporadic ripping of paper.

This is her hobby. She pretends that it’s soothing to create collages on the covers of photo albums or journals. The truth is that she stresses over them, fitting the pieces together like a schizophrenic puzzle. A long triangle of a navy blue satin gown, the sun setting on a horizon, a pair of eyes clotted with mascara, a phrase usually from an advertisement for cosmetic surgery, something like
be your best
, disempowerment repackaged, out of context. She gives them as gifts, personalized.

Abby pulls her feet underneath her, sitting cross-legged on the living-room couch. She begins to shiver; she’s always so cold. Ryan’s so warm: the heat radiates from him. In bed, he always let her warm her icicle feet on his calves. She’d thought that maybe this was what people meant when they spoke of the way opposites attract, filling in each other’s gaps, two halves making a whole.

She has finished three of these projects in the last month and is currently working on a box with a rounded lid. It’s harder to get the pieces to fit together when there are curves and corners and hinges.

She tries to soothe herself by going over some of his worst qualities. Ryan could never plan ahead, which meant they spent all the holidays at home. All the decent airfares had been snatched up by the time he’d made up his mind. He liked to go camping and Abby preferred to stay in nice hotels. She liked everything about the experience: the miniature soaps, the hotel stationery, the little triangle that Housekeeping folded into the first square of toilet paper. Ryan would always complain that room service was a waste of money. The one time they had stayed at a hotel, a romantic overnight in the city, they’d ordered a pizza.

Perhaps it all seemed petty. Abby’s fear is that the worst thing about Ryan might just be that he wasn’t sure about her.

She tries again, this time thinking of his moodiness. His pessimism in contrast to her optimism. The way he would skip lunch and end up eating dinner early, making it impossible to schedule meals together. He would wake up chatty and was always forgetting that she doesn’t like to be talked to until she’s had her coffee, at least.

When they’d met in college, it had seemed they had everything in common. Ryan transferred in their junior year and suddenly Abby’s world was three-dimensional. They argued about religion and social conditioning, more in love with knowledge than with sleep. They could talk all night and go to class the next morning without being tired. They took naps in the afternoon and met up for dinner to do it all over again.

But now Abby wanders around their apartment, while he sits on the couch watching cartoons, thinking,
He’s amazing, he’s annoying, I love him, he’s a stranger to me.
It has been her constant inner monologue.

She holds a paintbrush between her teeth, picking a bit of dried glue from her finger. She holds the box away from herself, looking at it above the frames of her glasses. Blurring the edges made it easier to judge the composition.

If only she could erase all the good memories so that she can stay clear-headed instead of feeling this muddled panic, this sentimental self-torture. But her mind wanders as she recalls his hands, his sleepy smiles, the way he looked at her just before he leaned in to kiss her. She would swear his eyes glowed a brighter blue when they were making love. Once they’d got to know each other’s bodies, she came every time. He had never made her anything but happy.

She’d remembered how it had felt in the beginning so she knew how to say the right thing even when she didn’t feel it any more. She’d practised her face for when he came through the door. She knew how to look at him, smile and say, ‘You make me happy,’ whenever the silence between them became particularly dangerous. She also knew that he couldn’t tell the difference. It made her think he didn’t really know her all that well.

Ryan shuffles past her to get a glass of water before bed. He hovers over her shoulder, watching, perplexed.

She stops what she’s doing and looks back at him. ‘Goodnight.’

Ryan nods. He knows she will be up late.

There are two bedrooms but only one bed. They have had weeks to get used to sleeping next to each other without touching.

Juliet

This is fucking
, she thinks, as he shifts gears, moving at just the right speed. Fast. She wants to tell him, but all she can say is
this, this, this
. The word springs from her lips at every thrust and she keeps trying in vain to finish the sentence. He doesn’t even look confused, oblivious to her rambling at this point. He’s concentrating. Soon he’ll be coming with a twisted look of relief. It’s almost over.

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