As the snow fell and covered the highway roads leading to and away from the Knights Inn of Rossford, Ohio, Athen sat at the edge of his hotel bed, handrolling another cigarette, waiting for Sylvia Pryor – the last person on Earth he ought to be trapped in a hotel room with – to re-emerge from the steaming bathroom wearing nothing but her Guia La Bruna undergarments. He pursed the unlit cigarette between his lips and clicked the dial on the nightstand radio just as the voice on the other end announced the level three winter emergency approaching Northwest Ohio. It was impossible for Athen to escape the thought of what would be happening in the parallel universe where his best friend and Sylvia’s sweetheart, Samuel, hadn’t been killed by a drunk driver on the shoulder of the Columbiana County Interstate, last July.
Sylvia’s bottle of prescription Vicodin sat half-filled atop the nightstand, a baggy of marijuana resting in the upper half. They were out of vodka and it was only a quarter past midnight. It took Athen the next fifteen minutes to finish his cigarette when, finally, as the steam rolled from under the bathroom door, he caught her in his crosshairs. Like a camera, he panned from her aubergine toenails to her gunmetal blue eyes. She leaned her hips against the doorframe, cracked a smile, and stood there with nothing to hide. Every ounce of morality within him screamed to look away, to be a gentleman. But he knew very well that she needed tonight as much him, because tonight could be an island. Tonight they could go nowhere.
According to the calendar it had been six months since the accident, although for Athen and Sylvia it felt like all history had collapsed on them and started anew. The accident, the funeral, the nine weeks in the hospital, the absence of a tombstone, the liquor and pills, the sleepless nights, the series of near overdoses; all may as well have never happened, or taken place centuries ago, in a separate lifetime. With Samuel gone, they found in each other a way to fill the void his death created. When she was in the Toledo Hospital, and they waited for her recovery to tell her Samuel was gone, Athen was the one at her side. He was the one who, against her parent’s wishes, wheeled her to the Urbanski Funeral Home to say goodbye. He was the one to answer her calls in the middle of the night. He was the one who would lie for hours in darkness with the phone to his ear, just breathing, because it’s all he could to help keep her sane. And in the eclipse of her agony, he was the one to help her remove the bandages and the engagement ring so that she could bare the small steps toward beginning again.
Athen never intended to fall in love with Sylvia. Samuel had been Athen’s best friend since kindergarten. They considered each other brothers. When Samuel started dating Sylvia during freshman year, she became a sister to Athen by association. With Samuel gone, it felt like a sin to have eyes for the girl he loved. Athen often recalled Samuel telling him that he wanted to marry Sylvia, and the many ways he wanted to propose. All it took was one too many whiskey sevens and a poorly installed catalytic converter to forge Athen and Sylvia together, despite their feverish guilt, alone in a hotel room for the first time with romantic intentions. Six months after the accident, it seemed that Sylvia was finally ready to shovel dirt over the past.
Magnetism drew her away from the doorframe toward the edge of the bed where Athen sat, his heart racing and the last of the smoke drifting from his mouth. The sway of her body struck him as a tigress gliding through the brush toward its prey. She sat next to him, took the baggy of marijuana, and rolled a joint for them to share. Lying shoulder to shoulder, they passed it back and forth, exhaling thick clouds, noting how the stain on the ceiling resembled the Milky Way. As the smoke filled her lungs and her heart-rate tripled, she was no longer afraid to lace her fingers with his, lean over him, and exhale softly.
The distance between their lips seemed to linger infinitely until – at last – the collision was irrevocable. Athen took an eternity to place his hand where Sylvia’s jaw met her neck. He held his eyes shut for fear of the regret that would sink in when they opened. This moment was all he had before it could no longer be blamed on the pills or vodka. Even though it was Sylvia who invited Athen to the hotel to get away for the holiday, even though they had spent many nights wrapped in each other’s arms, never had they flirted with their platonic affair becoming physical. Now the bridge had been crossed. Athen wondered if they could stand to live with what came next – whether a kiss would traverse or amplify the chasm between them.
Sylvia pulled back and gazed into Athen, her eyes drowned in pools of mascara.
“I’m sorry,” she said before kissing him again, contradicting herself. Her teeth dug into his lower lip at a rhythm with her palm, tightening around his.
She held him for a beat longer than last time and, unfastening the top button of his collared shirt, tore away from him to say, “I just can’t do this.” She rested her face against his chest, rising and falling with each breath. Athen wanted to tell her he loved her. But she stood and retreated back to the bathroom, the print of her mascara on his white shirt like a child’s rendition of a ghost, and the prescription bottle disappeared from the nightstand.
This was not the first time Athen would have to charm Sylvia out of a locked bathroom. Their relationship was built on conversations had from opposite sides of them. He sat with his back to the door, listening to the bathwater Sylvia ran for the mere sake of its soothing sound. Bathrooms had become her haven, like an oratory at church where she could confess her most intimate stories of Samuel. She could retrace the memories that were not quite memories, but images of events that almost came to pass, or may have come to pass if only she had said this differently or done that earlier. She could scream, pound her fists on the door, or drink her weight in vodka; no matter what she did on the other side of the door, Athen made an unspoken promise to always be there, to always protect her. He owed that much to Samuel.
With his eyes focused on the glowing digits of the alarm clock he tried to gauge how many pills were left in that bottle, and how much time he had before she would be too far gone. It had been twenty minutes since he had heard anything but running water. He wanted to break the door open, press her against the cold tile floor and kiss her from the deepest part of him. He waited for a sign, knowing it would be too much too soon. Instead, he turned his face flush against the door and, out of key, began singing:
“I’ll never be your beast of burden,” he lulled. “My back is broad, but it’s a’ hurtin’.”
He waited for her response. She took her time before singing with him, “All I want is for you to make love to me.”
As always, she took over the verse with, “I’ll never be your beast of burden. I’ve walked for miles. My feet are hurtin’.” And again they both lulled, “All I want is for you to make love to me.”
The song was Athen’s only call to arms. It was his way of letting her know that yes, he was concerned if she was still intact, if she was still holding it together. She continued with, “Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough?” tapping her knuckles against the door to the beat. It was just as she started to say, “Am I too blind to see?” that the power went off in their room. It felt like just the sign Athen was looking for.
The faucet squeaked off, and she opened the bathroom door to collapse in his arms. In the hotel’s darkness they entwined under the doorframe, half in the bathroom, half in the entryway. Once his eyes adjusted he was able to look into hers. He checked the dilation of her pupils. Soon the pills would be in full effect. When she buried her head in his chest he closed his eyes and breathed in the sweet scent of her hair – sugarplum – and caressed his palm along her shoulder blade, up to her neck. With each caress she let out a soft moan, and nudged his chin with her forehead like a kitten seeking affection.
Their solace was then interrupted by a knocking at the door. Sylvia didn’t hesitate for a second to answer wearing nothing but her undergarments. The hotel attendant at the door was as shocked as Athen to see her standing there, even in near total darkness, with the door wide open.
“Ma’am,” he said, “We are passing out candles for your inconvenience. We hope the power will return shortly.”
“Can we have two, please?” she said. “This room really calls for two candles, don’t you think?”
“Well, yes, ma’am. I suppose.”
“You’re a good man,” she said to the attendant. “You’ve always been such a good man.”
Then, after shutting the door in his face, she returned to the center of the room, lit both candles, and, taking a swig from the empty bottle of vodka, stood on the table between the candles. The glow cast an orange tint over her thighs. Athen, breathing heavily now more than ever, wanted to take her in his arms. But her show was just beginning. She flipped her hair across her face, hips swaying, and slowly kicked her legs while singing in her sexiest voice, “Yeah, all your sickness – I can suck it up. Throw it all at me – I can shrug it off.” As if she were alone in the shower or her car, she belted with conviction, “There’s one thing, baby, I don’t understand – You keep on tellin’ me I ain’t your kind of man. Ain’t I rough enough?”
The rest of the lyrics trailed off, her mumbles proof that the Vicodin had kicked in. Worried she would fall from the table, Athen held out his hand like a gentleman, presenting her the option to climb down. Once her feet hit the ground she folded into the dead center of him. He held her limp body up in a one-sided slow dance, whispering into her ear, “You’re a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty girl. Pretty, pretty, such a pretty, pretty, pretty girl.”
He pressed his lips to her forehead and breathed deep to hold the tears back. He rocked her back and forth in the silent room, as if there were music actually playing.
Her breath against his neck was finite, delicate. He opened his mouth to say – without hesitation – “It should have been me. You don’t deserve what you got. You’re so damn good and you got the worst of it. Don’t run away. Just be strong and one day it will all be okay.”
She pried her eyes open just wide enough for him to see her pupils, vacuous. With what seemed like all her strength, she put her fingertips to his cheek and said, “Don’t stop, Sam. Don’t you ever stop.”
Hearing Samuel’s name took the air out of Athen in one blow. Even though he knew how gone she was, he wanted it to be real. He wanted it to be him. It was obvious, then, that he had two choices. He could keep his mouth shut, hold her firm, slide her to bed, watch over her as she fell asleep – sit next to her, ride out the storm and, come morning, pretend as though nothing had happened. Or, aware of the fact that there would be no turning back, he could dig deeper. For just a little while longer, he could be Samuel.
“I’ll never stop,” he said.
“Oh, Sam,” she said. “It’s always been you. Remember when we watched Cinema Paradiso? I wanted to kiss you so badly.”
“I wanted to kiss you, too.”
“I’m sorry, Sam. I’m sorry about it all.”
“Sorry about what, Sylvia?”
“About all of it,” she said. “Every last bit of it.”
Tears flooded from her eyes. She repeated, “Sam. Oh, Sam.”
“Please tell me why you’re sorry.”
Between heaves she managed to say, “For the trip. And making you drive. And I never said goodbye. I never said goodbye because I didn’t know. How could I know?”
The truth grabbed Athen by the throat. Even though she needed him as a friend now – she needed him to relieve her guilt – he couldn’t resist letting out what he thought he felt, and what Sam surely would have said.
“You couldn’t have known, Sylvia. I know that. Don’t be sorry, Sylvia. I love you,
“Always and forever, Sam?”
“Always and forever.”
And as he stared down at her he reeled in to kiss her, and he never took his eyes from hers. She opened them, slowly, and before their lips could touch again she became aware of everything she had said – as if Athen were Sam – and Athen responding. Weak as she was, she pushed away from him and backed toward the door.
“Sylvia, please,” he said, trying to keep her there. “It’s not what you think.”
“You don’t care about this, Athen. You don’t care about me. Or Sam. Or any of it. You’re a damn liar. You’re a goddamn liar.” She opened the door and ran into the dark hallway. He chased her but she was already running toward the door that led to the parking lot. Calling her name didn’t stop her from escaping, in her underwear, past the red exit sign.
Passing the doorway, he looked the around the abyss but could only see sections of the parking lot illuminated by streetlights, snow seeming to hover. Knowing anything about Sylvia’s love for theatrics, Athen expected to find her in a mound of snow, holding her breath, openly praying for death aloud. But to his surprise there she was, flat on her back only a few feet away, fanning her arms and legs to make a snow angel.
“After half a bottle of Vicodin you really can’t feel a thing,” she said.
“That’s not funny,” he said. “Get up or you’ll hurt yourself.”
“Who’s gonna make me? You and what army?” She made herself laugh loud and it echoed across the lot. He dug his arms between her skin and the pavement, lifted her up, and made his way back through the exit door.
In the hotel room Athen set Sylvia down in the bathtub, before gathering the bedding off the queen-sized mattress. He returned with the sheets and comforter, spread them over Sylvia, and climbed in next to her.
“You’re wrong, you know,” he said. “I do care about this. I do care about you. And no, I may not know what to make of it but I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”
“You can’t say that,” she said. “You can’t say you’re not going anywhere and mean it, because how can you know? There is no way to know so if you say that you’re not going anywhere it’s a lie. One minute you’re here and the next minute you could be gone. The only thing you can know is what’s here, right now, at this very moment, and all the things that got us here.”
“All the things that got us here. If my dad had never made me get a job at the zoo I wouldn’t have met Sam.”
“If my parents never moved into the house on Eerie Street when I was five, I wouldn’t have met Sam,” Athen said. “It all goes back so far. Our friends, our parents. All of their reasons and desires and choices put together and we’re the sum.”
“And if Joel Marrington never stopped at the bar where he drank too much alcohol, he wouldn’t have been trying to beat traffic by swerving into the shoulder lane,” she said.
“Don’t do that, Sylvia. Don’t go there.”
“And if I never told Sam to take me somewhere for our anniversary, we wouldn’t have been broken down in the shoulder lane. And maybe if I was the one driving…”
“Sweetheart,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But doesn’t it feel like we’re meant to be here? Just think of all the things that were put in place in order for us to be living in this moment. There is no moment in history like this moment. And we’re alive in it together.”
“There is nothing else in the world I would ask for.”
Under the acrylic hotel blankets, cradled together in the bathtub, Athen and Sylvia lingered until morning, not saying a word more. Hours passed before they fell asleep, and when the sunlight came they hid from the day by retreating further under the blanket, still in each other’s arms.