Pat and I sit across from each other at a dinner table in Aspen, Colorado. To the right of our table is an open kitchen, bustling with the organized chaos of a crowded restaurant. Copper pans hang from the ceiling, chefs in white aprons wipe the sides of large porcelain bowls, waiters glide to the counter to pick up plates underneath heating lamps.
We are in Aspen for a weeklong vacation, staying with my dad and my dad’s parents at their rental house near town. A few days into the trip, Pat pulls me aside during an afternoon hike. “Tomorrow I’d like to have breakfast with your dad, just me and him.” My stomach flips once, and I need to steady myself.
“Oh, okay. Great, babe.” My voice sounds like it should: casual, evenly toned, an average decibel.
One month ago, on a weekend trip to western New York, Pat leaves me with his mom for the morning to visit a jeweler. He comes back doting and happy, taking my hand and nuzzling my neck. “Did you get it?” I ask, my voice scratchy and low in his ear.
“Did I get what?” he responds, a coy smile on his face.
We press against each other, quiet, knowing, but when we return to the kitchen, a current of guilt emerges. He has the ring. My excitement mixes with a pebble of dread. He has the ring.
Now he’s taking my father to breakfast.
Still, despite the evidence around me, the evidence I have co-created, a proposal feels abstract, far off. Of course Pat would want to talk to my dad on this trip. We so rarely see my father. It doesn’t mean anything, I tell myself.
A year before this Aspen trip, on a hot, August afternoon, I gently slap Pat’s thigh as he dozes on the sofa.
“Come on. The sun is out. We need to get out of this apartment.”
I grab our dog’s worn pink leash from the hook near the door and hand Pat the apartment key to slip in his pocket. We’re silent in the elevator down to the lobby, groggy and tired, hungover not only from the drinking but also from the late morning sex, the greasy breakfast sandwiches, the early afternoon nap.
We emerge onto the familiar street of our DC neighborhood and stroll our usual loop: down Kenyon Avenue, left at the elementary school, another left at the pizza shop, back up 14th Street. I feel blood pumping through my limbs, clearing my haze, as we approach our apartment building.
“Let’s keep going,” I say. “It feels good to walk.”
We continue down 14th Street down the steep hill and make it to Dupont Circle. We’ve walked long enough to drift out of slow, small talk into more meaningful conversation.
“How are we supposed to know?” I ask. “How are we supposed to know when to take the next step?”
Pat is reflective, but he seems to have an answer lined up.
“I see it like this,” he tells me. “Each step with us is like a bucket. We began dating, bucket filled. We moved in with each other, another bucket. We got a dog, bucket. When a bucket feels full, I know it’s time to start a new one.”
I don’t respond. He’s tapped into my creative mind with this metaphor. He’s wooed me with the visual description of his process, but there is a pause in me I don’t know what to do with. I have been attached to others my whole life. My mother, my father, my brother; boyfriends, roommates. I’ve had no break, no time on my own.
Am I ready for a lifetime with another person?
“Let’s head back,” I say. “I’m tired.”
I yank the leash on the dog to turn around, and as I climb up the hill back home, I wonder if the bucket I’m standing in is full.
Pat comes into my Aspen bedroom early in the morning to kiss me goodbye. I sleepily reach up for him and wrap my arms around his neck.
“Have fun babe,” I say, my voice husky from the dry mountain air.
He leans over me, his hands pressing down the mattress on either side of my shoulders. He finds my eyes and I blink at him in the dusky-lit room as he speaks.
“When I get back maybe we can pick up lunch and take the gondola up the mountain? I thought we might have a picnic up there.”
An alarm bell sounds; I want to shake my head no. Instead, I say, “Mmm, that sounds great,” and turn on my side to go back to sleep. “I’ll be ready.”
He moves out of the room and I open my eyes, just for a second, when the door clicks shut.
He’s back an hour later and I’m still in pajamas, brushing my teeth in the bathroom.
“How’d it go?” I ask in a garbled voice, a toothbrush jutting out of my mouth. I suck in the toothpaste threatening to overflow and step to the sink to spit.
I try again, clearer this time. “Was it okay?”
Pat sits on the edge of the bed and sighs, maybe a little heavier than I would hope.
“It was good,” he admits. “Good, yeah.”
I finish rinsing, place my toothbrush in the cup, rest against the bathroom door frame.
“That’s it? It was good?” Pat had seemed certain of this next step, and he had been nervous to speak to my Dad. So why isn’t he relieved? Did my dad say something?
“I mean, yeah, you know, your dad was great. He was just like you think your dad would be.”
And how are you? I want to ask, but he’s already up, walking to his room.
“I’m going to change into shorts,” he says. “Then I’ll be ready to go.”
“You know, we already did the gondola,” I say to Pat while in line at the deli. I’m about to order my roast beef on white, heavy on the mustard. “I don’t really want to do it again.”
“It would be nice to go alone with you,” Pat responds.
“We can do something else,” I reply, and despite the disappointment I see on his face, I don’t relent.
The day moves on without event. We stop for ice cream after walking around town and spend a couple of hours at the house playing Scrabble. It’s restful and easy and I’m looking forward to our night. We have dinner reservations for the two of us at Brexi, a French bistro near the base of Aspen Mountain.
The sun is gone and the evening is in full swing when we arrive to a lively bar scene. I get a punch of excitement as I scoot my chair in, reaching under my seat to set my clutch on the ground, the gold chain hissing beneath me as it drops.
“I’m starving,” I say to Pat. “I should have had something after ice cream.”
We open our menus and Pat wastes no time.
“What if we share a seafood tower to start?” he suggests. “Maybe with some champagne?”
My stomach flips again, the same rolling of nerves I felt on the hike. Pat is orchestrating a celebratory night. It’s here in this appetizer order. There is an openness and glee in the way he looks at the menu and looks up at me from his chair, a brightness in his eyes I don’t normally see. I want to assume it’s the vacation, the night out in Aspen together, the relief from having spoken to my dad, but my insides betray this assumption. The center of me knows what’s coming, and my confession is a lump in my throat. I can’t keep swallowing down what needs to be said.
“Champagne sounds great,” I say.
I sip my drink and grab a lobster tail and it’s like I’m wearing a soft cashmere sweater with an itchy tag on my neck, distracting me.
We finish our seafood, order steaks, pick at fries from the plate set between us, and all the while Pat’s attention on me radiates. I scatter my gaze around the room to deflect his stare, hoping to hold down the revelation coming up my throat, but halfway through dessert I lose the battle and fumble around with an admission.
“I have to tell you something.”
He seems hesitant to agree to this, waiting a beat, a slight shift in his chair.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
“You don’t know the full story with Jake. I did more than you know. I feel like if you knew the truth, you wouldn’t want to be with me.”
Don’t propose, you’ll regret it.
He holds my nervous stare; he doesn’t waver. His focus disarms me and I start crying, quick tears swimming down my cheeks.
“Why don’t you tell me what you’re talking about.” His voice anticipates anger, but anger hasn’t arrived.
I put my face in my hands, hiding. Maybe I don’t have to do this.
“Callie, you need to tell me.” Now he sounds afraid.
I look at him and hurry it out: “I kissed him. It wasn’t just flirting. I kissed him on the mouth.”
He takes a breath in, takes a breath out. I go on.
“I’m really, really sorry. I don’t know why I did it, and I was so drunk, and I know that’s not an excuse, but I didn’t tell you because the thought of losing you is my worst nightmare.”
Pat’s fingers lay flat on the base of his wine glass as he swirls his wine around and around; he watches the liquid touch the sides, deep red brushstrokes against crystal clear glass. He leans back in his chair, a hair more relaxed. Maybe my kissing his best friend is not as bad as he imagined when he first heard I had something to confess. But he hasn’t spoken.
“Pat, you have to say something. Please.”
His face stays away from mine for a minute longer. I know he’s upset. But when he brings himself back to me, his resolve is intact.
“Listen, it’s part of the deal, right? You could hurt me, and I could hurt you.”
“Yeah…” I nod. But you would never hurt me.
Our waiter comes over. “Is there anything else I can get for you guys?” he asks, unaware of his intrusion. I’m hurled back into the dining room.
Pat kindly acknowledges him. “Just the check, thanks.”
“I love you,” I say desperately in the awkward stillness that follows.
“I love you too,” he confirms, “but I need to finish my thought here.”
“Okay, sorry. Go ahead.”
“Callie, you, and only you, have the ability to crush me. I know that. You could crush me.” He stops, just for a second, the anger in him a flash I almost miss.
“But I trust that you won’t.”
It’s the way he says it, venom on his tongue: I trust that you won’t.
Five words that mean only one:
The waiter sets down the check and Pat picks up the thick, cushioned case and stares at the bill, the brightness gone from his eyes. Already something is broken, a tiny tear in an artery.
He wiggles his credit card in the slot of the case, and I inflate my tone of voice, determined to salvage our evening. “Babe, you can trust me. That was a mistake, but it’s not who I am.”
I’m reckoning with an unnamable impulse I pray is dead—the impulse to wander, to cheat, to run away.
Pat nods his head. We can’t dwell much longer, so I finish with one more thing:
“I’ll never do anything like that again.”
I say these words because I want them to be true; I say them to ordain them.
But by the time my words travel from my end of the table to his we both know:
We push the heavy door out into the Colorado night, and I shiver. It’s dewy and cold; I wish I had a jacket. Pat pulls me into him and I stand with my cheek against his chest, his blazer jacket wrapped around my bare arms. He smells like the expensive cologne I gave him for Christmas. It makes me think that, as necessary as our conversation was, I’ve ruined the celebratory evening. My eyes are red and my heart is sore. Still, there is a tenderness between us.
He looks at me softly, with care. “Let’s go sit in the park together. We can walk in the grass.”
As we start to cross the street for the park, the sky opens with rain, and we turn and run to the car. I’m still shivering as I slam the passenger door shut and kick off my heels. I tuck my bare feet underneath me, curling into my body, trying to get warm.
Pat turns up the heat. It’s pitch dark. His face is illuminated by the neon blue light coming from the stereo. He isn’t putting the car into drive; instead, he’s looking at something in his hands.
“What’s up? Do you want to get a drink somewhere?”
“No,” he replies. “I want to show you this.”
He opens a gray felt pouch and pulls out a ring. It’s shiny and large; the diamonds flash like strobe lights around the dark dashboard of the car.
“Holy shit.” It keeps coming out of my mouth. “Pat, holy shit. Oh my god.”
He searches for me in my rambling. “Babe. Hey.”
I sit up on my feet to face him; I attempt to take a breath.
“I love you,” he says. “I will protect you, and us, at any cost.” He means it.
“Okay,” a whisper, on my exhale.
My hand trembles as the smooth, silver band of the ring slides down my finger. I move over the center console to crawl onto Pat’s lap and I listen to sheets of rain on the windshield, the hum of the heater, the clicking of the engine. Minutes later, rain clearing, I start to peel myself away from him and my eyes catch the top of Aspen Mountain. I stop mid-motion, struck by what I see: jagged peaks, high and looming, sharply shadowed by the night sky.