Although it was December, he had both windows down. He tried not to think about the unusually warm weather, a week before Christmas, as a symptom of the planet's long, tortured farewell, but rather as a hint of the weekend's celebratory potential. Midlife had been marked by the predictable and planned, and so something so out of the blue — an invitation to a bayside Christmas party from a friend he hadn't seen in twenty years — seemed in mysterious agreement with a fortune cookie he opened in his hotel room the night before: "Get ready for a life-changing event."
He cranked the music over the roar of the wind. Shuttered roadside produce stands, closed for the season, raced by, one after the other. Faded, weather-beaten signs advertised peaches, apples, corn, peaches, apples, corn.
"Did you take your pill?" his husband had asked him the morning of his flight, as Kent dumped the contents of his packed duffel bag on the kitchen floor in angry acquiescence at Darren’s earlier suggestion that, perhaps, Kent wasn’t well enough to go. He knew Darren said such things out of love, but that didn't stop Kent from just as suddenly stuffing the shirts and jeans and scattered toiletries back into his carry-on and furiously declaring his immediate departure, yelling back up the stoop at Darren as he retreated, "I'm depressed, not demented!"
It wasn't exactly true to say he hadn't seen James in twenty years. In fact, he saw James every day. He was there when James was living the single life in New York City, a new woman on his arm every month or two, after he broke up with Jen. Kent was also there to witness James' sensational career, a series of high-profile promotions that put him in the executive suite and, champagne in hand, the company jet.
It was a rainy summer Friday when Kent's therapist, a petite Asian woman who he guessed by their shared cultural references was in her early 50s like him, asked: "Do you think maybe social media is making you sicker?" It seemed not woke of her to refer to his depression as a sickness, rather than an illness, although the insult was too nuanced to bother with an objection. “I keep it in perspective," he had said. She jotted a note in a yellow steno pad.
As the hills gave way to the flatter coastline, the wind whistling off the Chesapeake made his ears go slightly numb, so he rolled the windows up, and lowered the radio. The rental car, a non-descript sedan, numbly glided through the surrounding autumnal countryside. Unable to feel the bumps and ruts in the pavement, the drive felt simulated, as if the windshield was a video game of a winding rural road snaking stealthily to the shore.
"James and Karen just built an incredible addition to the house," he said to Darren one night over dim sum at the place they liked in the city. "It's a really smart design, because it gives them a lot of open space and morning sun. And, of course, that view off the water. Spectacular." Darren took a long swig from his bottle of Tsingtao and said nothing. They both ate in silence for a few minutes before Kent added, "We should consider a sunroom like that for our place."
"We've been over this, Kent," Darren said flatly. "I'm supposed to tell you this is not healthy thinking and change the subject. So, do you want to go couch shopping tomorrow?”
They were in a better conversational place with the topic of James than they once were. There was a time when Kent had to defend himself against accusations that he was somehow in love with James; that they had an affair in grad school and that Kent's social media relationship with his old friend amounted to emotional cheating. "Which is patently ridiculous," he had told his therapist. "I only comment on his pictures, and he mine. We've never had a private interaction."
The GPS turned Kent off the main route onto a narrow, gravel drive leading down to the water. Despite it being December, a light canopy of brown leaves overhead clung to swinging branches, cracking and creaking in the salty air. He was determined to have a good time, despite his husband's cautious misgivings. "You don't know this guy anymore. Frankly, I think it's bizarre to post an invitation to a Christmas party on Facebook and tell everyone they’re welcome to come. Nobody really wants their ghosts from Christmases past to show up."
I am not a ghost, Kent thought now, as he saw the familiar yellow façade come into view. It was a 19th-century farmhouse and, although he had never been inside it, he felt an odd sense of homecoming parking behind the line of cars ringing the semi-circular drive. He saw the joy on the Taylor kids' faces when the pool they put in 10 years ago was finally finished; had felt sadness when they turned Harvard-bound Jack's room into a home office; had "thumbs up'd" the video of all of them eating Thanksgiving dinner in the gleaming, newly remodeled kitchen. "Amazing trip!" he had posted below a photo of the family in Paris one spring. "Epic!" he wrote under the news on LinkedIn that James was finally made CEO.
He grabbed the wine and presents out of the rental's trunk and made his way to the front door, the paint of which was cracked and chipping just above the rusty knocker. A hand-written sign was taped to the door's window, "Just come in."
Kent let himself into the foyer, and there were several people in the living room off to the right, standing around, quietly talking, with drinks in their hands. Down the hall in front of him, he could see more people in the kitchen. A woman he did not know in a Christmas sweater noticed him struggling to put the presents under the tree in the sunroom he loved to the left. She came over and grabbed two of the boxes from him.
"Looks like Santa Clause could use a hand," she said, as she flung her long gray hair behind her right shoulder. "Welcome, I'm Carol."
After they both situated the gifts, Kent stood to face her. "James' sister, right? The one from Ohio with the big orange tabby cat? Felix?"
Carol studied Kent's face in an obvious attempt to recognize him. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"
Kent suddenly felt anxious and folded his arms across his chest. "Um, not really. I've seen your posts on James' page over the years. I feel like I know you. You and your husband...?”
Carol looked down at the floor, inhaled deeply, and looked up at him again. "I'll tell my brother you're here. He's taking his daily nap upstairs."
Kent suddenly felt as if she was shutting down the conversation. His face grew hot, and his palms started to sweat. "Napping through his own Christmas bash? Party foul. Tell him that's not the guy I went to school with. Boy, oh boy, has he changed."
She let him suffocate in a silence that had set in for an insufferably long 15 seconds.
"Well, brain tumors tend to do that," she offered, before leaving him there, stunned, staring at all the silvery tinsel and pretty ornaments.