I stare into the cabinet and wait for the ache in my throat to go away.
When it does, I grab the pasta and close the door.
Daniela drinks her wine.
The moment passes.
“Where’s Ryan’s party?” Daniela asks.
“That’s your bar, Jason.”
She comes over, takes the box of pasta out of my hand.
“Go have a drink with your old college buddy. Tell him you’re proud of him. Head held high. Tell him I said congrats.”
“I will not tell him you said congrats.”
“He has a thing for you.”
“It’s true. From way back. From our roommate days. Remember the last Christmas party? He kept trying to trick you into standing under the mistletoe with him?”
She just laughs, says, “Dinner will be on the table by the time you get home.”
“Which means I should be back here in…”
“What would I be without you?”
She kisses me.
“Let’s not even think about it.”
I grab my keys and wallet from the ceramic dish beside the microwave and move into the dining room, my gaze alighting on the tesseract chandelier above the dinner table. Daniela gave it to me for our tenth wedding anniversary. Best gift ever.
As I reach the front door, Daniela shouts, “Return bearing ice cream!”
“Mint chocolate chip!” Charlie says.
I lift my arm, raise my thumb.
I don’t look back.
I don’t say goodbye.
And this moment slips past unnoticed.
The end of everything I know, everything I love.
I’ve lived in Logan Square for twenty years, and it doesn’t get any better than the first week of October. It always puts me in mind of that F. Scott Fitzgerald line: Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.
The evening is cool, and the skies are clear enough to see a handful of stars. The bars are more rambunctious than usual, jammed with disappointed Cubs fans.
I stop on the sidewalk in the glow of a gaudy sign that blinks VILLAGE TAP and stare through the open doorway of the ubiquitous corner bar you’ll find in any self-respecting Chicago neighborhood. This one happens to be my local watering hole. It’s the closest to home—a few blocks from my brownstone.
I pass through the glow of the blue neon sign in the front window and step through the doorway.
Matt, the bartender and owner, nods to me as I move down the bar, threading my way through the crowd that surrounds Ryan Holder.
I say to Ryan, “I was just telling Daniela about you.”
He smiles, looking exquisitely groomed for the lecture circuit—fit and tan in a black turtleneck, his facial hair elaborately landscaped.
“Goddamn is it good to see you. I’m moved that you came. Darling?” He touches the bare shoulder of the young woman occupying the stool beside his. “Would you mind letting my dear old friend steal your chair for a minute?”
The woman dutifully abandons her seat, and I climb onto the stool beside Ryan.
He calls the bartender over. “We want you to set us up with a pair of the most expensive pours in the house.”
“Ryan, not necessary.”
He grabs my arm. “We’re drinking the best tonight.”
Matt says, “I have Macallan Twenty-Five.”
“Doubles. My tab.”
When the bartender goes, Ryan punches me in the arm. Hard. You wouldn’t peg him as a scientist at first glance. He played lacrosse during his undergrad years, and he still carries the broad-shouldered physique and ease of movement of a natural athlete.
“How’s Charlie and the lovely Daniela?”
“You should’ve brought her down. I haven’t seen her since last Christmas.”
“She sends along her congrats.”
“You got a good woman there, but that’s not exactly news.”
“What are the chances of you settling down in the near future?”
“Slim. The single life, and its considerable perks, appears to suit me. You’re still at Lakemont College?”
“Decent school. Undergrad physics, right?”
“So you’re teaching…”
“Quantum mechanics. Intro stuff mainly. Nothing too terribly sexy.”
Matt returns with our drinks, and Ryan takes them out of his hands and sets mine before me.
“So this celebration…,” I say.
“Just an impromptu thing a few of my postgrads threw together. They love nothing more than to get me drunk and holding court.”
“Big year for you, Ryan. I still remember you almost flunking differential equations.”
“And you saved my ass. More than once.”
For a second, behind the confidence and the polish, I glimpse the goofy, fun-loving grad student with whom I shared a disgusting apartment for a year and a half.
I ask, “Was the Pavia Prize for your work in—”
“Identifying the prefrontal cortex as a consciousness generator.”
“Right. Of course. I read your paper on it.”
“What’d you think?”
He looks genuinely pleased at the compliment.
“If I’m honest, Jason, and there’s no false modesty here, I always thought it would be you publishing the seminal papers.”
He studies me over the top of his black plastic glass frames.
“Of course. You’re smarter than I am. Everyone knew it.”
I drink my whisky. I try not to acknowledge how delicious it is.
He says, “Just a question, but do you see yourself more as a research scientist or a teacher these days?”
“Because I see myself, first and foremost, as a man pursuing answers to fundamental questions. Now, if the people around me”—he gestures at his students who have begun to crowd in—“are sharp enough to absorb knowledge by sheer proximity to me…great. But the passing on of knowledge, as it were, doesn’t interest me. All that matters is the science. The research.”
I note a flicker of annoyance, or anger, in his voice, and it’s building, like he’s getting himself worked up toward something.