God . . . I’d been bored for a year. I hadn’t talked about myself in ages. Stuart was talking about me. He was paying attention. It felt foreign, a little embarrassingly intimate, but kind of great. My eyes filled up.
Seeing this, Stuart braced himself and opened his arms a little, as if inviting me to give up my efforts to contain myself. We had inched marginally closer together at some point, and there was an expectant energy. Something was about to give. I felt myself gearing up to start bawling. This made me angry. Noah didn’t deserve it. I was not going to start crying.
So I kissed him.
I mean, really kissed him. I knocked him backward. He kissed me back. A good kiss, too. Not too dry, not too wet. It was a bit on the frantic side, maybe because neither one of us had done the mental preparation, so we were both thinking, Oh, right! Kissing! Quickly! Quickly! More movement! Deploy tongue!
It took us about a minute to recover and settle into a slightly slower pattern. I felt myself kind of floating away, when there was a huge stomping and crashing and yelling from downstairs. Apparently, Debbie and Rachel had chosen this moment to tie up the sled dogs and return from their personal Iditarod through the streets of Gracetown. They tromped back inside in that ridiculously loud way you do when you come out of snow or rain. (Why does wet weather make you louder?)
“Stuart! Jubilee! I have special cupcakes from Santa!” Debbie was screaming.
Neither of us moved. I was still leaning on top of Stuart, essentially pinning him down. We heard her come halfway up the stairs, where she must have seen the bedroom light on.
Again, the normal parent reaction would have been to say something like, “You had better come out here this moment or I am releasing the tiger!” But Debbie was not a normal parent, so we heard her giggle and creep away, saying, “Shhh! Rachel! Come with Mommy! Stuart is busy!”
Debbie’s sudden appearance in this scene made my stomach turn. Stuart rolled his eyes back in his head in agony. I released him, and he jumped up.
“I should go down,” he said. “You okay? Need anything or—”
“I’m great!” I said, with sudden, insane enthusiasm. But Stuart was by now well used to my tactics, my attempts to make myself look sane.
Quite sensibly, he bolted from the room.
Want to know how long it took me to break up with my “perfect” boyfriend and make out with a new guy? It had taken . . . wait for it . . . twenty-three minutes. (I noticed Stuart’s clock when I first picked up the phone. It wasn’t like I had a stopwatch.)
Much as I would have liked to, I couldn’t hide upstairs forever. Sooner or later, I was going to have to come down and face the world. I sat on the floor in the doorway and listened as closely as I could to what was happening downstairs. Mostly, all I could hear was Rachel banging on some toys, and then I heard someone go outside. That seemed as good a cue as any. I quietly hit the stairs. In the living room, Rachel was noodling around with the Mouse Trap, which still sat out on the table. She gave me a big, toothy smile.
“Were you playing with Stuart?” she asked.
The question was loaded. I was a filthy, filthy woman, and even the five-year-old knew it.
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep some dignity. “We were playing Mouse Trap. How was the snow, Rachel?”
“Mommy says that Stuart likes you. I can stick a marble in my nose. Wanna see?”
“No, you probably shouldn’t—”
Rachel stuck one of the Mouse Trap marbles right up her nose. She extracted it and held it up for examination. “See?” she said.
Oh, I saw all right.
“Jubilee? Is that you?”
Debbie appeared at the kitchen door, looking flushed and well exercised and very damp.
“Stuart just went across the street to help Mrs. Addler shovel her path,” she said. “He saw her struggling. She has a glass eye and a bad back, you see. You two have a . . . nice afternoon?”
“It was fine,” I said stiffly. “We played Mouse Trap.”
“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” she asked, throwing me a terrible grin. “I have to go give Rachel a quick bath. Feel free to make yourself some cocoa or whatever you like!”
She stopped short of adding “ . . . future child-bride of my only son.”
She rounded up Rachel with a pointed, “Come on, we can go upstairs now,” leaving me to the hot chocolate and my shame and misery. I went to the living room window and looked out. Sure enough, Stuart was out there, lending a glad hand to his neighbor in her moment of need. He was just getting away from me, of course. It only made sense. I would have done the same thing. It was perfectly reasonable to deduce that I was only going to get worse. I would keep spiraling down, sinking deeper and deeper into a mire of rash and largely inexplicable behaviors. Like my jailed parents before me, I was a live wire. Best to go and shovel a few tons of snow for a glass-eyed neighbor and hope I went away.
Which was precisely what I had to do. Go away. Get out of this house and his life while I still had a shred of dignity left. I would go and find my train, which was probably leaving town soon, anyway.
I moved quickly as soon as I made this decision, running to the kitchen. I picked up my phone from the counter, smacked it around a little, and poked at the on/off button. I didn’t expect this to work, but there was some mercy. After a moment or two, it struggled back into existence. The screen was off center and the words were scrambled, but there was some life in the thing.
My clothes, coat, shoes, and bag were all in the laundry room off of the kitchen, in various stages of dryness. I threw them on, leaving the sweat clothes on the washer. They had a container of plastic bags in the corner, so I took about ten of them. I felt bad taking something without asking, but plastic bags don’t really count as “something.” They’re like tissues, except less expensive. As a last gesture, I reached over and nabbed one of their holiday return address labels from an organizer on the counter. I would send them a note when I got home. I may have been a complete lunatic, but I was a complete lunatic with manners.
Obviously, I had to take the back door, the one we had come in the night before. If I went out the front, Stuart would see me. The snow had piled up against this door, at least two feet of it—and it was no longer the slushy, wet snow of the night before. It had hardened in the cold. But I was fueled by the power of confusion and panic, which, like I said, is always ready and waiting to get to work. I threw all my weight against the door, feeling it wobble and strain. I was worried that I might break it from the force, which would have put an entirely different complexion on my departure. I could envision it all too clearly: Stuart or Debbbie finding the dented door off its hinges, lying in the snow. “She came in, ravaged the boy, stole plastic bags, and ripped off the door in her escape,” the police would say in the APB. “Probably making her way to bust her parents out of jail.”