The dark wooden table was littered with flickering candles and wine glasses—a trail of the conversations had tonight. Lily’s friends were scattered around the long table, some sitting, some standing, some with their arms around each other. They talked, joked, laughed. They tapped glasses together for Annie’s birthday, the reason they were all here, a few days before the year’s end. The spirit of the evening was festive. Hopeful.
Lily smiled at Annie and Fatima as her friends continued to throw out trip suggestions for the new year, discussing all the places they wanted to visit. Lily agreed with most, dismissed some as jokes.
“I really cannot see any of us at Burning Man,” Lily said, rolling her eyes at Fatima’s proposal. “Have you ever even been to a music festival?” They laughed.
Just then, Martín came back to the table. His movements were intentional: He picked up his jacket from the stool next to Lily. Sat on the stool. Lay the jacket on his lap. Took a sip of water. Set the glass down. Pressed his lips together. Looked straight ahead. The air around him was thicker, more opaque.
Lily trailed out of the conversation with Annie and Fatima. She spun her half-empty glass of white wine on the table before her, her fingers twisting the stem around and around, afraid to look up at Martín. She knew that people swirled their wine before they tasted it. Let it breathe, they’d say. Was that only for red wine? She couldn’t remember.
Minutes before, Martín’s hand had been on her knee under the table, giving her a squeeze every now and then. Now, no one else seemed to sense the icy cloud that surrounded her boyfriend. Lily let go of her wine glass and glanced at him through her lashes, head downcast. Like someone giving a polygraph, she searched for signals. He sat up straight. His fists balled in his lap. He ignored what remained of his wine.
“Ready to go?” she asked, thinking that she might add something playful as a way to gauge how angry he was—maybe he wanted a back rub when they got home? Or would he like to snuggle up away from the rain and watch the next episode of “24”?
His nod came down on her question like a hammer, and any frivolity died in her mouth. There was no eye contact. Whatever story he had built in his head while on his own in the restroom was swelling in his mind. A tightness in his lips. Lips that were bubbling to lay out everything she had done wrong, to make his arguments against her. To accuse her of acts that had never come into her head, leaving her speechless and gasping for a defense against an illogical allegation.
She tapped her phone that lay on the table, showing him she didn’t have notifications from anyone else; he and all of her friends were here, together, celebrating her friend’s birthday, and he was making it about himself. It was only 10:14. They’d stayed for nearly two hours, but that was early to leave a bar in Brooklyn on a Saturday night.
“I’ll close the tab,” he said, standing up and turning away, leaving her to brace for the questions as to why they were going now.
She took a final, too-big drink. The dry pleasantness of the wine turned metallic in her mouth, filled the back of her throat.
She began her goodbyes around the table, gathering her coat, scarf, and purse as the predictable questions ensued. Annie and Fatima gave her looks that were a bit too knowing. Looks that said: “Did he do it again?” She smiled back sadly; the same connection that held her to Martín prevented her from turning to her friends when he was difficult. The insulation of their relationship felt like a prison.
Martín returned, folding his wallet into his back pocket, giving Annie a strained smile and half-hug to serve as his goodbye. He led Lily to the door without touching her. He picked up his black umbrella from the bucket next to the entrance and pushed the door open.
Outside, the rumblings of the bar dimmed as the door closed. The air landed cold in Lily’s lungs and the rain came down around them in thick drops. Martín pressed the button on his umbrella. It opened like a gunshot. She waited, naively hopeful, for him to put an arm around her waist. To feel his warm kiss on her forehead. Any signal that her radar was off.
Instead, he looked straight ahead while his eyes slid toward her. The movements, the air, the unfinished wine.
“Are you okay?” she asked. An opening.
His neck twisted toward her. “Really?” he said, leaning into the word, venom dripping down his chin. “You really don’t know what you did?”
What she did. Her actions. Her fault. Rain splattered on the concrete sidewalk, against her leather boots. A rhythm that might otherwise be comforting. She shook her head.
“We’ll talk about it when we get home,” he said, taking a step forward, giving her little choice but to move with him as the rain bounced off the protection he held.
She shrunk to the size of her seven-year-old self, sitting on her mom and step-dad’s navy sofa. It was made of a glossy material that would turn light or dark depending on which way you ran your hand across it. Sometimes she drew outlines of pictures with her finger; others, she sat still, hands under her knees as she waited for her step-dad to deliver her punishment. She had been, by all accounts, a well-behaved child. But her step-dad, who resented her for not being his own, found fault. If she arrived at her mom’s three minutes later than the court-appointed time, she would be punished. That had felt like her fault too.
The rain darkened and dampened the sidewalk, creating cold reflections. From across the street, as she and Martín waited for the signal to walk, she glanced back at the bar. The gold haze inside was alluring—a warm buzz of light and clinking glasses and shoulders brushing shoulders. Lily wouldn’t know they were her friends in the front window if she hadn’t just been there, but now she could recognize Fatima’s shape, Annie’s bright yellow sweater. Among them would have been warm, safe. She thought that passers-by would find the scene, and the possibility of a drink, inviting.
The walk was five blocks, which seemed to extend to several miles in the silence, a quieting between the two of them only. The rain pelted the umbrella. The streetlights buzzed. Lily’s heels splashed in pools of water and crushed cigarette butts, keeping the tempo of her breathing. Making noise felt like a defiance. She wanted him to hear. To keep dry, she had to stay close. Their arms bumped; the umbrella was crowded with his anger. It took more effort for him to not touch her and still he didn’t. Another couple, or maybe best friends, tightly wound together under a striped umbrella, passed them; a laugh escaped one of them. Opposites.
Finally, they were at the open gate to his building—a church converted into apartments—and up the front steps. They were past the doorman, who said hello with his Polish accent, and into the elevator. A silent ride. Lily closed her eyes until the door chimed open. He exited first and went to the right, five doors down, to the apartment at the end of the hall, which he unlocked in one movement. She ran her wet shoes over the doormat. She both dreaded entering and wanted to know what her transgression could possibly be. She crossed the entryway and they began shedding their outwear in the quiet and darkness; storing the umbrella, hanging coats, stashing scarves, removing boots.
“You want to sit down.” He said it as a command, not a question. She stayed silent and went to the couch, pulling on the blue-and-cream stripes of her sweater’s sleeves over her hands. Martín pulled out his phone and turned on his new lamp, which he’d set up with a smart plug, from where he stood. Always in control. The black, arced lamp was a cold spotlight on her.
She had been there over the last year and a half as Martín filled his one-bedroom apartment, changed it. He was from Argentina originally, but had lived in New York for nine years. This apartment was bigger than his last, he said, and he wanted to furnish it to match his shiny new job at a PR agency in the city. The brown leather couch she sat on, she’d helped pick out, and he’d invited her over after it arrived. They’d watched a silly action movie and ordered in their favorite Chinese—Han Dynasty—and he’d kissed her and thanked her for her help.
Next to the couch, the drink cart stood the same as it had when she met him, although perhaps it now housed more fine bourbons. In the beginning, she would tell her friends, “He has a bar cart! He’s such an adult!” as though this were the marker of maturity. He was 33, older than her by five years. She had thought he would be smarter, more emotionally intelligent than guys her age.
Martín hovered in the kitchen, as though working up the patience to deal with her. The problem child. Slowly, he made his way across the dim apartment and toward the couch, tucking his hair into place. Black hair, black button down, black jeans, black socks. He sat down. Their knees turned toward each other but did not touch.
“So. Do you want to tell me what you did?”
As though she had been waiting for this cue, she burst.
“Martín, this is ridiculous. This is not how this—a relationship—works! Forcing me to walk home in silence”—she gestured outside—”and making me guess what I’ve done to upset you! If there’s something, please tell me what it is, because I genuinely do not know.”
His lips curved up cruelly. He wasn’t here to discuss or collaborate; he was here to prove that he was right and she was wrong. Her heartbeat sped, and she braced for whatever was coming.
“Really? You really don’t know that your little friend Fatima said she was inviting me to some trip for your thirtieth birthday that you didn’t tell me about?”
She looked around the room, as though for a clue that would give her a further understanding of his anger. Her eyes passed over his black Eames chair replica, his Restoration Hardware desk, his curated knickknacks on the shelves above it. Martín’s apartment was beautiful, like him, she thought. She took a breath and turned back toward him. His eyes were a light brown, framed with dark lashes. His smile was rare enough that it still sent a feeling to the bottom of her stomach. Right now, though, he was frowning at her.
“Martín, you know that’s just how my friends are.” She rolled her eyes as though also aghast at their wild ideas. “They’re always making up crazy plans we don’t follow through on. You just happened to miss the conversation when they were talking about places they want to visit next year, when Wyoming came up. You know, renting a big ranch house for all of our friends. And then Annie said, ‘Oh, it’s Lily’s thirtieth next year, that’s what we’ll do!’ And we all said, ‘Yeah!’ and that was it. I didn’t hear Fatima mention it to you, but I’m sure she was just trying to include you. And then you went to the bathroom and I never even knew you were upset.”
As she explained, she felt relieved. There was nothing else to say; it had all happened in less than a minute, just like that. There was no secret plan he wasn’t part of—although she had to admit that she had trouble imagining him in Wyoming with his gelled hair and all-black outfits and sneakers that he stored in boxes. She had actually wanted to brainstorm ideas for a birthday trip with him. She thought it would be an opportunity for him to make connections with her friends as they celebrated the thing they had in common: her.
Another unfriendly smile. “And what’s so special about Wyoming?”
She hated how he started questions with “and” like he already knew the answer.
“Literally nothing,” she said, shrugging. “I don’t even know who suggested it. I don’t think any of us has ever been there. That’s it.”
“So why would you want to spend your thirtieth birthday in a place you know nothing about that has no special meaning?” She took a breath to respond, to explain that she thought he knew she liked exploring new places, but he cut her off. “No, really. I’m really curious what’s in Wyoming that you’re making a secret plan to go there without me.”
Lily almost laughed at the absurdity. Was he actually suggesting she had a secret life in Wyoming? A clandestine lover?
She closed her eyes and breathed, thought through a different tactic. If she were him, how would she feel? If she had stumbled into a conversation of his friends planning his birthday party, she liked to think that she would’ve jumped in on the idea. But maybe he had been triggered by something she didn’t understand.
“Hey, I’m sorry if you felt left out of that conversation,” she said softly. “If we plan something for my birthday next year, you would obviously be included and part of the planning! It was truly a spur-of-the-moment conversation that everyone’ll probably forget by tomorrow.”
He didn’t even pause.
“It’s really interesting that you think everyone will forget when, tonight, they seemed really on board with this idea I never heard about before.”
He was fluent in English, but it was still his second language. She wondered if that could be at the crux of their disagreement—but no. The logic, no matter the language, continued to recede. Why, after she had explained to him the misunderstanding, did he not nod? Say he saw where the confusion was? Say he wasn’t upset, and that he’d love to support whatever she wanted to do for her birthday, whether it was riding horses in Wyoming or sharing wine with friends at a bar in Brooklyn? The more she explained, the further he carried his argument away from reason, using the adventurous spirits of her friends against her.
“You’re making this into a big deal when it’s not,” she said, one more shot at logic. “I’ve explained exactly what happened, and there’s nothing more to it. And,” she added, “if I did want to go to Wyoming for my birthday, you should be supporting me and offering to help plan it!”
Her volume was increasing, her tone sharper. She didn’t like when this happened, but he wouldn’t listen to her when she spoke rationally, either. Did he want her to scream?
“So you do want to go to Wyoming?”
She really did laugh this time.
“Martín, you’re not listening to me. You’re being an ass.”
That’s when he said it.
“If you really want to go to Wyoming for your thirtieth birthday, we should just break up right now.”
Her eyebrows rose. She leaned away from him. She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
“Yeah,” he said, as though he were encouraging himself. A what-do-you-think-about-that kind of yeah.
“Maybe we should,” she said, surprising herself. “Maybe I should just go now.”
She looked away as his eyes began to widen. She felt steeled, as though walls had risen around her. One of many devices under his huge television—Apple TV, PlayStation, or VR headset—housed a clock, which showed the time in cold, green lines. 11:08. Two straight lines, a square zero, a square eight. This is the time she would remember. This was the moment that a pathway opened in her mind. A route presented itself before her. She actually could break up with him. Not being with him was an option—not making every decision to please him, not buying clothes she hoped he’d like, not reading articles he might think were cool. It felt like a wooded route at best, a path overgrown with roots and vegetation, but the sun was there, streaming through the trees.
She imagined actually planning a trip to Wyoming for her birthday. She hadn’t cared about going to Wyoming before, but now she wanted to. This is what she loved about her friends; most of the time they were just ideas, yes, but sometimes they followed through, and those were her favorite memories with them. And if he didn’t want to come? Fine. After a year and a half of shifting her life around to suit his plans, agreeing to his restaurant choices because her suggestions looked too “hole in the wall”, letting the chores pile up at her apartment so she could spend more time with him—maybe this was really the argument that would change everything.
He pulled her back from her reverie.
“Lily, no, don’t go. I didn’t mean that.”
She looked back at him, his frown sad rather than angry, tears on the edges of his eyes. He scooted closer to her and put his arms around her, pulling her in for a hug that she accepted. More than anything, she wanted the arguing to end. It was never a discussion or a conversation, and she had no hope that a rational conversation would take place tonight.
“I don’t know why you said that then,” she said weakly, her chin resting on his shoulder.
He pulled back, keeping his hands on her shoulders.
“I was upset,” he conceded. “Look, we’ll figure out what to do for your birthday, okay?”
“Okay. But we obviously don’t agree on what happened here tonight.” She gestured to the space between them. “That was not okay. And these things keep happening. You always assume the worst of me.”
He pulled her back into a hug and said he was sorry again. But she didn’t think he knew what he was sorry for.
“Do you want to get ready for bed?” he asked with an encouraging nod. She could sense that, this time, he was the one who was worried about her reaction. Clinging on. If the conversation went further, he was afraid she might take his suggestion.
Lily shrugged, then went into the bathroom. She could feel him watching her walk away. She closed the door and looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was frizzy from the rain but her makeup hadn’t run—she hadn’t cried tonight.
She sighed. It was late. She would stay the night, she decided. She would take off her makeup, brush her teeth, put a glass of water on the bedside table. But tonight, a seed had been planted—this time by him. The soil was already rich. The rain was coming down. And she was too tired to keep fighting its growth.
Katie Knecht is a native Kentuckian living in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College in 2016 and works as a copywriter at a fintech company based in Manhattan. Katie has been published in Wraparound South, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and Mutha Magazine, and was featured in Upper Hand Press' anthology, She Will Find Her Way. You can find more of her work on my website: katieknecht.com.