I always wanted to be a weatherwoman. It was a simple and steady flight inside of me that encountered little turbulence. I liked being at the center of something so fundamental, something that affected everyone, and was thought about—however briefly—by everyone. Particularly dramatic weather can unite an entire region of the country, reminding us of our vulnerability, how much we need each other. I’ve never felt like someone who carried a lot of understanding around with them, no core of existential certainty, but I could give you a decent idea of what the sky would look like tomorrow. Every now and then, this was enough.
It was on a Thursday in December (snow showers, high of 27) when Maude, one of my closest friends in high school, died after her Volvo collided with a hummer. I wouldn’t have known if her mother hadn’t called to invite me to the funeral; Maude and I hadn’t spoken for nearly fifteen years. We’d gotten into different colleges, wrote a few letters to each other, that was it. But supposedly Maude had mentioned me repeatedly during her brief stay at the hospital, asking her mother to make sure I was invited to the funeral.
“I don’t think she ever had another friend like you,” her mother said, voice low and smoky. “She didn’t have that many friends at all, really.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated, because I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Hmm,” her mother muttered, as if my sorry-ness was questionable. “So you’ll be at the funeral?”
“Of course,” I said. “If she wanted me there, I’ll be there.”
“I just told you she wanted you there.”
“So you’ll be there.”
Over the next few days, the sadness of Maude’s death remained at a distance from me. I thought about her a lot; her feet stepping in rhythm with mine down school hallways, her voice rising over the surrounding din; the grounded mirth she carried herself with, floating above the everyday–holding close the sense that everything was, on some level, absurd, but at least we could laugh about it.
I mourned, intellectually, the tragedy of Maude’s death, but the fact of it couldn’t seem to break the skin, to become known to my body. Maybe it had just been too many years. Or maybe my insides were at sadness-capacity, additional sorrow unable to enter before some of it left. That’s a glib thought to think, I thought–but it was too late; I had already thought it.
There wasn’t enough precipitation for more snow to fall on the day of the funeral, but the temperature remained below freezing, so the 3 inches that had accumulated stayed put, an icy-blue sheen on top. The funeral chapel was a couple towns over, where Maude had lived, apparently. It was small and windowless, just seven pews on either side of the room. At the front, bordered by fake-looking plants, was a closed casket. A photo of Maude at our high school graduation was positioned before it on an easel. Looking closely, I recognized the photo as one that her parents had taken of both of us–you could even see my hand pressing into Maude’s gowned shoulder, pulling us together. It had been cheaply zoomed-in on Maude, the whole photo slightly pixelated now.
Maude’s mother sat in one of the front pews, alone. There were a couple more people behind her, whispering–in a way that reduced neither volume nor clarity–about what to bring up at an annual budget meeting. By the time the priest entered the room, it was still just the four of us in attendance. He scanned our underwhelming audience briefly, confusion flitting across his face, then cleared his throat and began reading from something on the podium. I heard only a few scattered words–beloved, age of 34, quiet, always someone who, her mother Helen, great empathy for, values and beliefs, called sooner than we…would anyone like to say something?
Maude’s mother sighed. The people behind her shuffled a little, one of them rummaging through a bag. The priest nodded and thanked us for coming.
“There’s a small reception waiting in the lobby,” he said. “Just bear in mind that we do have another funeral party coming this afternoon.” He stepped off the podium and left down the aisle, robe swishing as he walked.
The “small reception” was a plate of muffins and a platter of melon slices with a few pieces missing around the perimeter. It looked as if someone had run into a nearby continental breakfast and taken what they could carry.
The four of us stood in a circle by the largely empty banquet table, which the muffins and melon pieces only covered a small fraction of. An organ played intermittently from some other room in the church, starting the same tune over and over before stopping a few bars in. The organist practicing, perhaps. At least Maude would have liked that. Or would she have? Maude could have stopped liking organ music as she did in high school; she might have come to dread a here comes the bride. I wouldn’t have known either way.
I gave Maude’s mother an awkward hug and introduced myself to the others as Morgan, Maude’s friend in high school.
“She was the closest friend Maude ever had,” her mother clarified.
“We were Maude’s bosses,” one of the people I didn’t know said. “Have you heard of Oliver & Oliver stationary?”
“I haven’t,” I admitted.
“Oh.” The Olivers dimmed.
“Maude was their employee of the year for five years running,” her mother said. “Hardly missed a day.”
“It’s true,” one of the Olivers followed.
“Course it’s true,” Maude’s mother said, voice muffled through a bite of muffin. “Why would I lie?”
Outside, the sun cast a pale white sheen on the icy church parking lot, the few cars present huddled into a group near the front. Our tiny flock of Maude-mourners stepped cautiously across the slippery pavement, the Olivers holding onto each other by the arm. I offered my hand to Maude’s mother, but she waved me off.
“I’ve been walking in Minnesota for sixty-five years,” she said.
I got into my Honda and waited for the others to drive away, then made my way slowly back into the church, feet crunching on the ice. It was quiet inside in that particularly heavy church-quiet way.
I sat in the empty chapel, staring at Maude’s coffin. It was a handsome, dignified coffin—counter to the aesthetic of the day—made of dark cherry wood that exuded safety and grace.
I wondered about Maude’s everyday life, her small routines, if she said goodnight to anyone before going to sleep. The world had so many cracks to fall into, so many empty spaces to get lost in, to disappear in the stomach of. You had to cling to your surface for dear life and hope it didn’t break apart in your hand.
A week earlier, my partner of six months, Alex, had broken up with me to be with someone from Tampa he’d met online. I wasn’t sure I had loved him, but it had been a comfort to come home and kiss someone, to sleep next to them, to wake up and say I better get going and hear the groany waking noises come from them in response, the noises I’d been hearing myself make my whole life, every morning. Another person who doesn’t want to get up, who wants to rest a little longer, whose body warmth I could compliment with my own. Meat-sacks resting at their ideal temperature.
Alex had been starting to move his things into my place. He lived in a studio apartment and I in the kind of suburban house realtors called a starter home. There was plenty of room but I’d still cleared up some space before his stuff got there, thinning out my dresser, maximizing closet square-footage and the like. Could have saved myself the trip to goodwill was a thought I didn’t actually have, but imagined thinking; like, what a sad, menial, pointless thought that would be to have right now. Was that the same thing as thinking it, though?
I wondered if the hummer Maude hit had been significantly damaged. She would have liked to have gone out totaling a hummer.
Alex came by the day after Maude’s funeral to get the rest of his things. He was flying to Tampa that night, where it was 67 degrees Fahrenheit with 42% humidity. The exchange was formal, efficient; I had all of his possessions ready at the door.
“I’m gonna miss you,” he said. “Seriously.”
“I’m gonna miss you too.” I shrugged. “But just casually.”
Alex smiled. It may have been a pitying smile. Or it may have just been, given the situation, there was no other way his smile could have come off. I would never know for sure.
Typically I can only fully enjoy something when I can see its expiration date on the horizon, so maybe I’ll start enjoying life when I’m sixty. Relationships had always been the opposite, though; I wanted to sense their potential longevity as soon as possible. If I couldn’t see the chance of emotional intimacy, lighting up the images of an imagined future, then nearly every sentence spoken to the person was a strain, especially if alcohol wasn’t present.
The relational durability had been there with Alex, more often than not. The weight of imagined moments with him wouldn’t have crushed the body of actual. Though it might have broken a rib or two.
My brother Zach called and offered to stay with me for a while, to offer a live presence in the house that would wean me off cohabitation. But I declined. A part of me wanted to feel the stark aloneness of certain solitude, to sit in a dark living room, bathed in soft television-blue, and listen to the house creak against the wind. The meditative melancholy of this scene called to me like a drug.
But I didn’t do that. Instead, I drew a bath, poured a glass of wine, and logged onto the cam site I frequented when I was single. The man I used to watch was still on there, username HotforLA. Typically he would walk around his apartment naked, water plants, read, and at some point masturbate. Tonight he was hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree. The branches were mostly filled with generic red and green orbs, mixed in with some tiny sleighs and Santa figurines. HotforLA was finishing off the top of the tree now, giving the camera a good view of his ass as he reached up to the highest branches. Then he went to the couch and started touching himself.
Counter to the website’s purpose, watching cam shows had never felt like a sex thing for me, at least not primarily. I rarely got too excited while watching; a dimly glowing candle compared to the chandelier orchestra of partnered foreplay, or the crude floodlights of porn videos. It was as if watching HotforLA drape tinsel around his penis and fondle his balls—live, yet through a screen—was neither real enough nor fake enough to be truly arousing. I tipped him ten coins anyway—equivalent to twenty dollars—and closed my eyes, listening to the slippering rhythm of his wanking.
At around three a.m., Maude’s mother sent me a GPS pin of Maude’s plot in the cemetery. I brought tulips, a follow-up text read, so bring something different.
The snow had melted for now but there was another storm front closing in from the east. We’d be buried up to eight inches by the middle of the week.
I stood in front of a green screen and reported this to channel five viewers; get those mittens on, those sleds out of the garage, etc. Usually I stayed and chatted with the crew when my segment was over, watched Kelly and Mark finish the hour, but I didn’t want to mention Alex and see their pitying faces, wet-blanketing their discussion of holiday party plans or something funny their kid did. So I fled to my car, perhaps hoping it would lead me to new friends, people around whom I wouldn’t have given a second thought to talking openly with. But maybe that was on me.
My drive home took me past strip malls and apartment buildings, business parks and fields with chain-link fences around them. None of these sights did anything for me. Finally it was back to my neighborhood, with its well-kept homes and lawns full of blow-up reindeer. I imagined stealing all of these inflatables and stationing them throughout my house, watching the air slowly leak out of them until my floor was spotted with Christmas-colored puddles of nylon. People would wonder about the neighborhood-wide disappearance of décor, say things like the Grinch must have come to visit! and eventually the whole thing would sink into the annals of local lore. I’d bury the deflated Rudolph carcasses in my backyard, plant orange trees over them. Nobody would ever know.
I found my high school yearbook in the closet, on the floor next to my parents’ old scrapbooks and a waffle-maker still in the box that Kelly had given to me last Christmas.
The pages were stiff with age and made a thick warbling sound as they turned. The yearbook had a color palette of burgundy and black, which gave the layout a constrictive, suffocating quality, perhaps amplified by my sitting on the floor between walls of coats, reading by the pale glow of the closet light.
Maude’s picture was three rows up from mine. Her smile was lips-only, warm and melancholic. In the margin of the page, a real bitch had been written in sharpie, arrow pointing to Maude’s picture. It was, of course, in Maude’s handwriting (a sort of century gothic/bookman old style). Lower down, Jack Dawson’s side-piece captioned my picture. I couldn’t remember if that had been a running joke, or just something Maude had improvised.
Why hadn’t we reconnected at some point? Maude wasn’t on social media; at least I hadn’t thought she was. I hadn’t even known she lived close by. But still, I could have looked her up somehow. So why hadn’t I reached out? Because it would have felt awkward; because adult friendships weren’t prioritized in our culture; because the idea of leaving well enough alone can seep into any aspect of life with ease. But really, what bullshit. Connections from the past can’t keep you warm for long. The concept of well enough needs constant tending to.
I was eating a fresh salmon from the supermarket, its eye bulging up at me with immense confusion, when Zach called to ask how I was doing.
“I’m eating dinner,” I said, reaching for the graspable what in place of the amorphous how. I sat in the near-dark of my kitchen, eating by the glow of the oven light.
“How’s work?” Zach tried.
“Good,” I said. “Snowy.” Outside the sliding glass doors that led to my pointless, never-used half-deck, the approaching storm had begun to announce its approach in the form of tiny, swirling snowflakes–not sticking, just sending word of what was to come.
“We watch you every night, you know,” Zach said. “Sometimes I hear the kids brag that their aunt is on TV.”
“I always wanted to be a bragged-about aunt.”
In the background I heard the usual family sounds of Zach’s household: dishware clanging together, hurried footsteps, his husband Robert speaking over kid noises. Sometimes this sonic pastiche seemed immensely appealing, but I wasn’t sure if it was what I really wanted or if I just enjoyed dipping into the trappings of it now and then, briefly participating in its wholesome ambience before returning to my own world–a space much less defined, its terminal form still nebulous.
But life was still supposed to be more than this, wasn’t it? Even if it didn’t go the amiable domestic route? It was certainly supposed to be more than four people at your funeral and a blurry picture of you from sixteen years ago.
“Call if you need any rhubarb,” Zach said. “Even if it’s in the middle of the night. Doesn’t matter.”
I’d asked if they had any rhubarb for a jam I was making once three years ago and Zach had seized the opportunity for a running gag.
“I wouldn’t come to anyone else,” I said.
We said goodbye and I washed the one plate, fork, and glass I had used, then poured a glass of wine and went to lay down on the couch. I briefly imagined Alex’s new life in Tampa, pictured him on a sunny patio with his new lover, the two of them surrounded by flamingos. Alex was wearing a blue polo shirt and khaki shorts, Rachel a white blouse and matching pants. They were talking about something mundane–what to have for dinner that night, maybe, or how last Sunday’s church service had been (apparently this version of Alex was religious, or had been converted). In any case, they didn’t seem too concerned about the flamingos, which I’d read could be hostile.
I was going to run another bath and pull up HotforLA’s cam page, but then suddenly he was right there in front of me—HotforLA in Minnesota, hanging ornaments on my Christmas tree. I sat up on the couch, still holding the wine glass, which was empty all of a sudden. HotforLA looked at me briefly, smiled and nodded, then went back to the task at hand, pulling from the box of decorations I’d set out a couple weeks ago but hadn’t touched since.
I thought about offering him a towel or something to wear; it was too cold for nudity here. But I was just hallucinating, or dreaming, more likely—either way, he wouldn’t need clothes.
“This is a good tree,” HotforLA said. He never spoke during his cam shows, so this was the first time I’d heard his voice—soft, silky, low but rising at the edges; an artisan latte of a voice.
“It is, isn’t it?” I admired the tree’s fullness, its picture-readiness, its implication of a holiday movie family.
“You always pick out a good one,” HorforLA said.
“I’m not sure it really matters.”
“Of course it does.” He hung up the wreathe ornament that held a tiny picture of Zach and I as kids, bundled up at the door of our parents’ house, Zach holding a sled. I lay back and let my eyes sink shut as HotforLA finished with the tree and moved on to stringing garland along the walls, dipping it across the fireplace mantel with meticulous grace.
When I woke up on the couch the next morning, there was no naked man from the internet in my living room. The garland he’d strung was back in its box, only a handful of ornaments on the tree—the few I’d hung myself before losing steam and putting the rest off indefinitely.
The winter storm introduced itself with a courteous gentility, snow piling gradually. When I got to the station, Kelly and Mark were eating glazed donuts from a box on the break-room table.
“You might want to heat it up,” Mark said as I took one. He touched his thumb to his forefinger and arrow-pointed to the microwave. “I swear by 8 seconds for the optimum temperature.”
“I’ve always been a nine seconds gal,” Kelly said.
“Hmm.” I hit the express one-minute on the microwave and poured myself a cup of coffee, mind wandering to an image of HotforLA petting an inflatable reindeer in my living room, licking its ear as if to clean it. After about forty seconds I remembered the microwave and rushed over to stop it. Inside the donut was still intact but visibly gooey, sugary coating making a small puddle on the plate around it.
“That was like watching a car wreck,” Mark said.
“Poor thing,” Kelly added, and I couldn’t tell if she was talking about me or the donut.
All of us live here, in suburban Minnesota—this was the way I opened every weather report, a sort of grounding mantra before getting into the specifics of weekly climate. I hadn’t realized that every time I said all of us, I was including Maude. I wished this felt more significant than it did; it was an element of definition that I could see but not touch. Still, I tried to summon all the meaning it could hold; forcefully infusing pith doesn’t work all the way—not even close—but it can clear a small portion of the fog in front of you.
When I said my mantra that day, I followed it with: where a snowstorm will arrive in earnest this evening. I said several zippy things in relation to this news—today’s dusting was just an appetizer! Get that cocoa ready! We’ll be living in a snow-globe soon!
“Viewers, don’t you love how excited Morgan gets about a snowstorm?” Kelly said when I kicked it back to her and Mark. We would occasionally have a moment or two of folksy interplay like this after my report.
“Here I am, just dreading all the shoveling ahead,” Mark added.
The camera shifted back to me and I played into the show, exaggerating my glee.
“Dread death, Mark,” I said. “Not shoveling snow!” It was a big swing.
Mark chuckled. “Well, there you go.”
After work I consulted the pin Maude’s mother had sent me and followed it to a cemetery half an hour away. Maude’s plot was in the far left quadrant, below a spiny canopy of branches reaching out from the adjacent woods. Snow was beginning to pile up, concealing some of what was written on the graves. I read what I could of Maude’s: Beloved daughter, loyal friend, a source of–. Somewhere beneath the rest of this, tulips were being slowly pressed into the earth, flattened by the snow. I’d bring roses when the storm passed.
It wasn’t right that Maude had thought of me during those final moments in the hospital. She deserved to have other people to think of, people with whom she shared an up-to-the-minute intimacy. There was only so much we could grasp of each other at this point, only so much my presence here could mean.
I got home right as the wind picked up and the falling snow doubled in density. Zach’s car was parked in the driveway. He stood at my front door, rubbing his arms.
“I was in the neighborhood,” he said. “Going to that Asian market we like. Don’t think I should try and make it back home in this.”
I eyed his car. “Where are your groceries?”
“I hadn’t made it there yet,” Zach said. “Can we please go inside?”
In my living room the two of us sat on the couch and watched an old black-and-white Christmas special as the snow became a blizzard out the window. Zach called Robert and said hi to their kids, his entire presence changing momentarily into one that I couldn’t fully know—one that lived within the walls of his familial household and was only visible to me through one-way glass. After hanging up he commented on my near-barren tree, the box of ornaments on the floor. My instinct was to blame both on the Alex stuff, but that felt too easy, too one-to-one. Citing Maude’s death would also have a layer of insincerity to it; I hadn’t known her for years, and her dying was so much bigger than the non-decoration of a tree, echoing in recesses of feeling I’d lost the chance to access.
“I guess I just didn’t feel like it,” I said.
“Hmm.” Zach looked back at the television. I was grateful he let it go. His body of actual was so heavy; husband, kids, friends whose death would be an immediate sorrow, a consuming, sink-all-the-way-into sorrow, not just a muted melancholy with a time-tempered surface. How could he fully understand me, whose actual was so light? Was there even anything to understand? Or was I, at 34, as depthless as a frowny-face emoji?
“Were you really going to the market?” I asked.
Zach nodded. The television cast him in a smoke-colored glow, pins of grey light fizzing on his cheeks.
“Yeah,” he said. “But I might have timed it so that this was a likely outcome.”
“That was sweet of you.”
“Selfish too,” Zach said. “It’s nice to have a night of peace.”
Maybe that’s why people have kids–to feel the amplified peace of their absence. I knew this thought was shallow but allowed myself to fully have it anyway.
On the television, a grainy snowman wandered the North Pole in search of the middle ball of his snow-body, which had come loose when he got caught amidst a passing herd of ox.
“Do you remember my friend Maude, from high school?”
“Sure.” Zach yawned. “Whatever happened to her?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. “I’ve just been thinking about her lately.”
“She was sweet,” Zach said. “Always said hi to me when she came over—like, a real hi, with eye contact and everything.”
“I wish I was getting a drink with her tomorrow,” I said. “Like we were close enough that it was just a casual thing, maybe something we did every Thursday—just talk about our weeks, all the small things, maybe play a game of darts and then hug goodbye and say see you next week.”
“Darts?” Zach smiled gently. “Are we in one of those tacky faux-Irish pubs?”
“Lots of bars have darts.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Anyway it was just an example.”
Zach sighed. “It’s hard keeping up with people. No one’s fault, really.”
Though my vision of weekly drinks with Maude came irrevocably late, I was glad to have it. So many sadnesses remained vague to me—either attached to general unfulfillments or so global in their scope that my body could hardly know them. But the sadness of not being able to get drinks with Maude was right there, pressing into me.
Out the window, snow tide-pooled beneath the amber blush of streetlights. One of my especially resolute neighbors clomped down their driveway to pull in the recycle. When I looked at Zach again, he was asleep.
I stayed up and finished the Christmas special. The snowman found his torso in the playground of an elven school. Elf children were using it as a tetherball, having tied it to a giant candy-cane. Instead of giving it back they helped him make a new torso-sphere from tinsel, and then the snowman played a round of tetherball, his middle glittering as he swatted away at his former body part. That tinsel is not a long-term solution, I thought.
Suddenly I heard something crash outside. I went to the window, but the blizzard made it hard to see anything. The next thing I knew I was standing in the street, all bundled up with mittens, beanie, heavy coat. The houses were dark and dormant—not even any Christmas lights—and the quiet was dense; snow-thickened. I could see just far enough ahead to make out a hummer that had veered off the road and collided with a streetlamp. Clouds of smoke rose from all around it, hazard lights blinking slow and red. I hurried forward.
Getting closer, I could tell there was something off about the person in the driver’s seat; their head was too thin to be a head, and there were gnarled, nubby protrusions reaching up from their scalp, like twigs from the kind of forest people go missing in.
And then I was there, standing beside the hummer. I pressed my hands to the fogged-over window and peered inside at the driver: an inflatable reindeer with its neck tilted back, belly half-up, hooves just brushing the steering wheel. No wonder it got into an accident.
There was someone standing next to me, I realized.
“I think it’s okay,” said a voice that sounded like a fragrance commercial. HotforLA looked at me calmly. He was naked as ever, body coated in frost. “Doesn’t look like it was punctured in the accident,” he said.
I nodded. “That’s good.”
HotforLA stepped forward and opened the door. He pulled the reindeer out of the car and looked it over, squeezing it here and there to test for any air leakage.
“Good as new,” he said, holding it out between us.
I took the reindeer from him and returned to my front yard, where a hammer lay beside a baggie of nails on a perfectly round patch of shallow snow.
The blizzard had calmed, settling into a gentle, no-rush snowfall. The only light came from a street lamp hovering over HotforLA. He smiled warmly at me, standing there beside the smoking hummer—a strange, collage-like snow globe.
I took the hammer and began nailing the reindeer’s hooves into my front lawn. A few of the nails broke or went into the ground askew, and when I was done the reindeer kept teetering on its side as if about to fall over, but it seemed more or less secure— joined to the earth more than not.