Get caught up from the beginning.
Darcy seemed to be contemplating the gash that he and Irvin had made in the wall. It was deeper than Thom had realized, exposing pink cottony insulation and the dark flank of a pipe.
Darcy straightened up. She was smaller than Thom remembered, her dark red hair smoother and fashionably cut. Signs of the old Darcy: a faded black military coat and Chucks so worn that her striped socks peeped through the toes.
Thom felt uncomfortably self-aware. He had gained fifteen pounds since they’d last seen one another, and his graying hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat. “No. No. I can’t.” He held his hands out in front of him, as if he thought he might fall.
“Cool your jets. I’m here on business.”
The last “business” Thom had known Darcy to be involved in was working at a convenience store.
“Six years is a long time,” said Darcy, as if she could read his thoughts. She held out the package. “I come bearing gifts.”
It was large and flat and wrapped neatly in brown paper. Thom tried not to let his trepidation show. “What is it?”
“That’s really nice, but –”
“Your girlfriend’s moving in today; consider it a housewarming gift. For your love nest.”
Thom recoiled at “love nest,” which Darcy had probably intended. For less-than-honorable reasons, he hadn’t wanted Darcy to know he had a girlfriend. He knew that was a bad sign.
He pushed against the impulse. “Come up and meet her. We can look at your art.”
“First, I gotta hug you.”
He stood there and allowed it. Darcy buried her face in his flannel shirt, linked her arms around his neck and hung there for a moment, shifting her hips back and forth. She smelled of peppermint tea. “It’s good to see you, Thom.” Darcy had always had this easy, meaningless physicality. It had been torturous for him in adolescence. Then, abruptly: “Let’s go! Introduce me to your girlfriend!”
She was fast, up the stairs before he could even start. Thom glanced out the window, down at the open U-Haul truck. Part of him hoped that people would come along and steal the rest of Nathalie’s things to save them the trouble of moving them. But this was Brookline; that was guaranteed not to happen.
He followed Darcy Winter up the stairs like a man headed for the electric chair, scuffing his big feet on the Oriental stair runner.
When he came into the apartment, Darcy had already seated herself on the living room rug and was nuzzling Kobe’s ragged-looking ear. How she had extracted the little cat from his hiding place without losing an eyeball was a mystery to Thom. Maybe strays had a way of recognizing one another. Darcy was in the midst of cheerfully informing an alarmed-looking Nathalie, “Oh no, we’re just old friends.”
“That’s good,” said Nathalie with rather too much emphasis. “I never heard about you. Are you from Vermont?”
“Yeah, we grew up together.” Darcy crossed her fingers to indicate ‘we were like this,’ but it looked to Thom like some witch-sign. Watching the subtle shifts of Nathalie’s face, Thom knew that she had just intuited the whole truth of the situation. All she lacked was proof, which didn’t matter. Girlfriends did not need proof.
“Thom, can I speak to you for a second?”
Thom found himself invited into his own office. With the door closed, it was so small that there was barely room for both of them to stand. He leaned against the closed door.
He could tell Nathalie was trying to stay calm. He had never made Darcy upset.
“Did you invite this person over?”
“No! No. She just showed up.”
“Have you been in contact with her?”
When Thom realized that Nathalie was already holding his Droid, which he supposed he’d left out on his desk, he said, “Jesus Christ.”
Turning away, Nathalie smoothed her mussed hair with one hand and scrolled through his phone with the other.
He went back into the living room, trying not to slam the door. “Darcy? I’m sorry. This just isn’t a good time.”
Darcy was sprawled on her back on the rug. Kobe stood uncertainly on her chest, tail twitching. She looked innocent. “Did I do something?”
“No. Just — the stress of the move.”
Darcy sat up abruptly. Kobe toppled amiably into her lap. “If I did something, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t. Really. But I need to catch up with you another time.”
He stood there, looking at the floor, until she got up and put on her coat. It felt like she wanted to hug him again but she just left. The door rasping shut seemed to contain some absurd, over-the-top, heartbreaking finality. She’ll be back, he told himself.
Yeah. Maybe it would take another six years. Or not at all. There were no guarantees in life, his father had always said.
Thom went into the bathroom, shut the door, braced his hands against the sink, and looked at his reddened face in the mirror. Who are you, part of him thought. The man in the mirror was a disheveled, upset stranger.
It was all silly, he told himself. His own deliberate choices had led him to this apartment, this life, Nathalie. This was a good life, and worth fighting for, as someone once put it.
He took a few deep breaths and came out of the bathroom. Darcy’s still-wrapped artwork leaned against the sofa, his name written on it in her familiar funky handwriting. He took it into the bedroom and leaned it against the wall on his side of the bed. Then he noticed Irvin sunk in his butterfly chair in the corner, calmly reading one of his Walking Dead graphic novels.
Irvin looked up. “Ready to move?”
Thom nodded, looking around for his hoodie.
“It’s getting dark.”
“It is dark,” said Irvin.
Fortunately, the rest of the work went without incident and seemed to be over in no time. After emptying the U-Haul, they drove it back to Brighton to get the rest of Nathalie’s clothes. Absurdly, it took them more than an hour to get there because of weekend evening traffic.
They found the apartment door inexplicably ajar and none of Nathalie’s soon-to-be-ex roommates seemed to be around. “Hello, hello,” called Thom as they walked down the brightly lit but oddly bare hallway. He thought only Nathalie was moving out. Maybe the bird prints that used to hang all along the hall belonged to her.
Standing in Nathalie’s nearly bare bedroom gave Thom a forlorn feeling, as if Nathalie herself were gone, or almost gone.
They gathered as many trash bags full of clothes as they could carry. Some were hiding in the closet. “Irvin, have you ever lived with a girl?”
“Not unless you count my mom.”
They carried a load out to the truck, stepping around a stranger smoking a cigarette on the dark porch steps. Irvin hurled the trash bags over his head, trying to hit the back wall of the truck. “My mom’s paraplegic. She has to use a wheelchair.”
“Not that my other siblings couldn’t help out. If there’s one thing I’ve got, it’s siblings.” Irvin swung the last trash bag over his head, round and round, and then threw it hard.
“Are you the youngest?”
“Second youngest.” Irvin made a face. “Anyway. Yeah. No serious relationships lately.”
“I feel ya,” said Thom, climbing back into the driver’s seat. “I had a long dry spell for a few years.”
Irvin gave him a sidelong glance as he pulled on his seatbelt. “That’s hard to believe after today.”
Before going home, they stopped at Dragon Star in Washington Square for moo goo gai pan. As Thom ate, the fatigue of the long day began to press down on him. He noticed that Irvin was quiet, too.
Irvin drained the last remnant of his iced tea. “So who was that girl? The redhead.”
Thom stared at his paper placemat. Grease had turned the Chinese calendar partially translucent.