“We all have to sacrifice ourselves, Daniela. That’s the only way it works out for you and Charlie. Please. Just let me make your lives in Chicago safe again.”
When we walk back inside, Charlie is at the stovetop flipping pancakes.
“Smells great,” I say.
He asks, “Will you make your fruit thing?”
It takes me a moment to locate the cutting board and a knife.
I stand next to my son, peeling the apples and dicing them and adding the pieces to a saucepan filled with simmering maple syrup.
Through the windows, the sun climbs higher and the forest fills with light.
We eat together and talk comfortably, and there are moments where it feels almost normal, where the fact that this is likely the last breakfast I’ll ever share with them isn’t at the forefront of my mind.
In the early afternoon, we head to town on foot, walking down the middle of the faded country road, the pavement dry in the sun, snow-packed in the shadows.
We buy clothes at a thrift shop and then go to a matinee in a little downtown cinema showing a movie that came out six months ago.
It’s a stupid romantic comedy.
It’s just what we need.
We stay through the credits, until the lights come up, and as we step out of the theater, the sky is already growing dark.
At the edge of town, we take a shot with the only restaurant that’s open—the Ice River Roadhouse.
We sit at the bar.
Daniela orders a glass of pinot noir. I order a beer for me, a Coke for Charlie.
The place is crowded, the only thing going on on a weeknight in Ice River, Wisconsin.
We order food.
I drink a second beer, and then a third.
Before long, Daniela and I are buzzed and the noise of the roadhouse growing.
She puts her hand on my leg.
Her eyes are glassy from the wine, and it feels so good to be close to her again. I’m trying not to think about how every little thing that happens is my last experience of it, but the knowledge weighs so heavy.
The roadhouse keeps filling up.
It’s wonderfully noisy.
A band begins to set up on a small stage in the back.
Not belligerent or sloppy.
Just perfectly lit up.
If I think about anything other than the moment, I tear up, so I don’t think about anything other than the moment.
The band is a country-and-western four-piece, and soon Daniela and I are slow-dancing in a mass of people on a tiny dance floor.
Her body is pressed against mine, my hand cupping the small of her back, and between the steel guitar and the way she’s looking at me, I want nothing more than to take her back to our creaky bed with the loose headboard and knock all the picture frames off the walls.
Daniela and I are laughing, and I’m not even sure why.
Charlie says, “You guys are wasted.”
It might be an overstatement, but not by much.
I say, “There was steam to blow off.”
He says to Daniela, “Hasn’t felt like this in the last month, has it?”
She looks at me.
“No, it hasn’t.”
We stagger up the highway in the dark, no headlights behind us or ahead.
The woods utterly silent.
Not even a breath of wind.
As still as a painting.
I lock the door to our room.
Daniela helps me lift the mattress off the bed.
We set it on the floorboards and kill the lights and take off all our clothes.
It’s chilly in the room, even with the space heater running.
We climb naked and shivering under the blankets.
Her skin is smooth and cool against mine, her mouth soft and warm.
I kiss her.
She says that she needs me inside of her so much it hurts.
Being with Daniela isn’t like being home.
It defines home.
I remember thinking that the first time I made love to her fifteen years ago. Thinking that I’d found something I didn’t even know I’d been searching for.
It holds even more true tonight as the hardwood floor groans softly beneath us and the moonlight steals between the break in the curtains just enough to light her face as her mouth opens and her head tilts back and she whispers, so urgently, my name.
We’re sweaty, our hearts racing in the silence.
Daniela runs her fingers through my hair, and she’s staring at me in the dark the way I love.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Charlie was right.”
“What he said on the walk home. It hasn’t been like this since Jason2 came here. You aren’t replaceable. Not even by you. I keep thinking about how we met. At that point in our lives, we could’ve crashed into anyone. But you showed up at that backyard party and saved me from that asshole. I know part of our story is the electricity of our connection, but the other part is equally miraculous. It’s the simple fact that you walked into my life at the exact moment you did. You instead of someone else. In some ways, isn’t that even more incredible than the connection itself? That we found each other at all?”
“What I realized is that the same thing happened yesterday. Of all the versions of Jason, it was you who pulled that crazy stunt at the diner, which landed you in jail, which brought us safely together.”
“So you’re saying it’s fate.”
She smiles. “I think I’m saying we found each other, for a second time.”
We make love again and fall asleep.
In the dead of night, she wakes me, whispers in my ear, “I don’t want you to leave.”
I turn over onto my side and face her.
Her eyes are wide open in the dark.
My head hurts.
My mouth is dry.
I’m caught in that disorienting transition between inebriation and hangover, when the pleasure slowly morphs into pain.
“What if we just kept driving?” she says.
“I don’t know.”
“What are we supposed to tell Charlie? He has friends. Maybe a girlfriend. We just tell him to forget all that? He’s finally happy at school.”
“I know,” she says, “and I hate it, but yes, that’s what we tell him.”
“Where we live, our friends, our jobs—those things define us.”