May 19, 2022

June in Winter

by Brook Bhagat

You show up in the afternoon. She hasn’t done her hair, and shadows hang in triangles under her eyes. The gray robe that used to be so soft is pulled tight and held hard. She props open the frosted screen door with her bare foot. “Why would you bring a cake on a day like this?” she says.

You wouldn’t, of course. Maybe that’s why you did. “I don’t know. It was on sale.”

It was true. The cakes were on a little round table off to the side of the bakery counter in the grocery store. The dates had passed on most of them, but this one was still good.

You didn’t need anything. You were almost out of bread, yes, but you pretended that was important so that you could be someplace other than this cold doorstep. You went to the store to pretend it was the kind of day for remembering bread.

The sign said $5.00 each. It was a carrot cake with yellowish cream cheese and a frosting drawing of a bunny with glasses, eating a carrot, with Happy Birthday June! written in blue. The drawing was so bad it would have been funny on any other day. You wanted to pretend it was June, and that all the summer of sprinklers and fireworks and the State Fair stretched ahead. She likes carrot cake, and you wanted to pretend you were coming home with cake just because. You wanted to pretend you were coming home.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she says. “All your stuff is here.” Past her hard-closed mouth and frizzy ponytail is the living room. It’s real: liquor store boxes flood the coffee table and the floor and some of them are open and your clothes are on hangers draped over the brown corduroy couch. There are little white flowers on the strawberry plant you bought together and it’s in a box now. The rocking horse your father made. The neck of the Guitar Hero guitar sticks out of a box too and you remember how she would play it standing up and jump and make faces and how she said one day she would learn to play the guitar for real and you said you would be her groupie.

“I’m still me and you are still you,” you say. With your eyes, you try to say everything you can’t say, but you can tell by her face it’s not working. If you could get it right she would know this was all a misunderstanding, this was just a fight and now it was over and it was time to make up and get warm and lost together. “We are still us.”

The hate in her eyes wakes up all the voices in you who know you’re no good. “There is no us,” she says. “It’s you breaking everything I loved about me and me breaking everything I loved about you. It’s sick. It’s killing me. Killing me!” A shriek cuts through and her eyelashes are wet, eyes deep and bright. She clenches her jaw, closes her eyes, and staggers in a hard breath. “Get your stuff and get out of here. And don’t. Fucking. Call me. Ever.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, wait, I want—” You reach out to touch her but she jerks away and the screen door closes on your arm and it hurts.

“I don’t want you anymore,” she says through the door. “Understand? I’m going out so you can get your shit and that’s it. You always said I’d leave you one day, well, guess you were right. I want to be alone now. I want to be alone in my own house!” She spins around and grabs the car keys and other keys fall off the shelf and she pushes open the door so hard it knocks you off the step and the cake falls and you feel like you’re paralyzed, trying to walk in the ocean, but she’s full speed across the icy lawn in her robe and bare feet. You chase her but she’s slamming the car door and revving the engine. You bang on the window, yelling, but it’s too late, too late. She’s gone.

It feels like a dream. You sit on the curb with your hands on your jeans and shake. She’s not like this, squealing tires away from you. She’s smart and funny and kind and ticklish. You are going to die without her. Everything is caving in and there is no life anymore, just one nightmare minute after another. The hole is too big and you fall in. You are going to die without her. It’s so cold, alone at her house. You can see the sun behind the blanket of fog but it’s not trying to come out. It’s just being the sun, just being itself.

A jeep goes by and a redheaded teenager looks at you sitting on the curb in public. The sidewalks are iced over, and kids are walking home from school together in their hoodies and saggy backpacks, slipping on the ice and laughing. You don’t belong here.

You turn back to the house. The carrot cake is right-side up on the grass, safe in its hard plastic shell. Happy Birthday, June! This cake should have had candles in it, should have been part of singing and clapping but somebody saw that crappy rabbit and knew June deserved better.

You face the boxes like a warehouse worker, like a robot who doesn’t remember when you bought her that rainbow sweater, when you got that stuffed Mickey Mouse at the mechanical claw machine at Denny’s, when you took that picture with the sea lions in San Francisco. Drop a box in the back of the car, put the seat down. Another trip to the house. Another. And one last trip. You’re not going to walk through the rooms. You’re going to get the hell out of there.

You have less stuff than you thought. There’s nothing left but the carrot cake, still on the grass. You want to throw it, smash it, kill that stupid rabbit but the front seat is free and you are free now, unbound, a body let go to drift before sinking. What did you expect, she was just going to forgive you? That it’s such a fucking privilege to be with you that she should just let everything go and move on? What kind of idiot brings a cake to a day like this?

You already have a room at the Rainbow Motel across town. It was nighttime three days ago when you checked in, and the “b” light was out on their terrible 70s disco road sign, making it the Rain ow Motel. You hauled up your trash bag to the second story: clothes, a half-empty jar of peanut butter, a bread bag with two heels of multigrain, and a bag of Pirate Booty. She always liked the natural stuff.

The next three days ached through three channels. Coffee, Egg McMuffin and the forecast: rain. Did it have to turn out this way? Maybe if you hadn’t said no for going back to college. Or maybe if you hadn’t said it like, I know how you love being smarter than me, wouldn’t want to ruin that for you. Filet-o-fish, Coke and the Hallmark channel: Frasier. Maybe it was all the little things she was always complaining about. Why can’t you take a compliment? Why do you take everything so personally? Big Mac, fries and TBS: Fight Club. Why won’t you ever talk about your childhood? Why do you push me away? Coffee, Egg McMuffin and the forecast: snow.

You turn on your blinker at the motel but you can’t stand the sight of the broken sign or the thought of the junkie downstairs, smoking in her green lawn chair, or how she will watch you carry up the boxes. It didn’t have to turn out this way. You fucked it up, like you fuck up everything you touch. Just keep driving.

You don’t know this part of the city. Beer signs flicker over black-purple window tinting at Rudy’s Tacos and Sports Bar, one squat story between Happy Time Korean BBQ and Soggy Doggies Grooming. Good enough. You open the door to cigarettes and salsa music. The bar is empty besides a half-dozen regulars at the far end, hunched together over the bar. You sit on a stool, away from them.

The bartender’s wearing a white v-neck with a brown leather vest. Chest hairs curl out the v. You do a shot and feel it—she turned you into a lightweight. You do another and the bartender brings a third with a wink. “This one’s on the house.” There’s something real in his eyes, young but laced with smile lines.

You drink it, wince, and look at your hands. “I have a girlfriend.”

“If you say so. Wanna talk about it?”

“No.”

He pauses. “Just let it go by,” he says, “whatever it is. Just go home and watch TV for a few days.”

Hilarious. “Mmm.”

He finally shuts up. You can’t go back to that horrible room with the Pepto-pink comforter and plastic-framed posters of the beach. You do another shot and finally stand.

His gold chain glints in the fake stained-glass light. “Hey, wait, let me call you a cab.”

Who does he think he is? “It’s the middle of the day,” you tell him. “Give me one more for the road.”

He shrugs and does it. You toss it back, pay and shove outside. It’s almost dark. The sun’s going down early these days. The boxes are still in the car.

Fuck the Rain Ow. Head for the mountains instead. You can just drive, just drive. Just listen to music and drive. You have songs that will help you feel like you again. At a red light, you fish your phone out of your pocket, but the battery is dead. Of course. Whatever; must be something on the radio. The song you’re supposed to hear is waiting for you, somewhere, and it will be the song that tells you how to live without her. Snowflakes sizzle as they hit the windshield and you hit the highway out of town.

That song doesn’t come. It’s just love and dance and sex and Material Girl and then it’s all swallowed by static because of the mountains and you have another bottle next to you on the front seat, next to the cake. It’s a two-lane highway now, curving with a cliff on the passenger side. You drive and drive, hours of static. What a shame if you miss the turn; what a shame if some rabbit darts onto the road. It would just be an accident. Or there could be a deer and you’d swerve and there goes the car and all the boxes, head over heels off the cliff, and it would just be an accident.

You fishtail on a curve and feel a rush. You dare yourself to do it again. These guardrails don’t do much, you’ve seen them broken, twisted down. You do it again and feel the wave rush through your chest and head but then you see something—someone?

Your hands are slipping on the wheel, one over the other, try to stop turn stop and the car skids, slams through the ditch into a tree and snow dumps from boughs on the windshield and you’re breathing, breathing, you’re ok, you’re ok. Everything stops and you’re suddenly so clear, so clear. What the hell were you thinking?

You run your hands down your face. But what was it? Was that a person out here? Your chest hurts. You open the door and two guys are standing there, all bundled up in winter jackets and dirty jeans. “You ok?” one of them asks.

“Yeah,” you say.

He’s skinny with an orange ski hat. “Lucky you didn’t slide the other way,” he says. “You’da been a goner.”

“What the hell are you guys doing out here?”

“Just walking,” he says, blowing out cigarette smoke.

“We’re celebrating,” says the other. He’s older, potbellied with a braid and Lennon glasses sprinkled with snow. He lifts a brown paper bag at you. “It’s my birthday.”

“Well—wow.” It throws you. Then you say, “Hold on.” You breathe. You unbuckle. You get the cake and climb out, ankle-deep in the snowy ditch. Looking up, you hand it to him. “Happy birthday.”

“Oh my God! A freakin’ birthday cake, Dad! It’s really his birthday!” the younger one says to you. “Look at that rabbit. Holy shit, that’s about the funniest rabbit I’ve ever seen!” They laugh and laugh, and their breath swirls in the cold headlights.

The older guy’s grinning with a couple teeth missing. “I can’t believe it,” he says. “But don’t you need it? Who did you buy this for, for June?” He grabs your hand and you step up onto the road with them.

“No, there’s no June,” you say. “I guess I bought it for you.”

They laugh and clap each other on the back. “That’s Jesus for you!” says the old hippie.

“It’s the Universe,” the young one says. “That’s all your good karma, Dad. All your love.”

The old man hugs his son for a long time, one hand holding the cake out to the side.

Then they turn to you, still arm in arm. “Come join us, come on!” the older guy says. “We have a room at the motel in town. Where are you headed?”

“Can’t,” you say. “I’ve got to get home. Well, back to where I’m staying. I need to look through these boxes. They’re mine, but I don’t even know what’s in them.” You hear yourself say it and your voice sounds different, clean. You mean it. You can’t believe you don’t know what you have, and you want to sit by yourself and look. Then, at least, you can decide what to keep.

The dad hands the cake to his son, holds you by both your shoulders, and looks in your eyes. “I bet there’s something good,” he says.

You don’t say anything, but he can see it all. He hugs you hard and you hug him back. They help you get the car out of the ditch, and you drive back home to the Rainbow.