Phil stepped away from the sidewalk and down slightly into the snow.
It gave way stubbornly as he shuffled toward the fence rail, churlish
clumps forcing their way under the cuffs of his blue jeans.
The swing of a car’s headlights found an oak tree near the riverwalk—the heavy
trunk flickering electric-white, framing the last remnants of a waning moon
beneath its lower branches.
“Have you ever noticed how the person saying life isn’t fair is usually benefiting from that unfairness?” he’d asked when Nancy told him it was over, just a few hours before. “Have you ever seen a homeless person shrug his shoulders and wink smugly at you and say life isn’t fair?”
“Yes, I think I have,” she’d said. “Maybe if he wanted you to give him something.”
Now, at the river, it had seemed a hollow gesture. No. More than hollow. Self-effacing. He hated himself for it, the empowerment and dignity he’d given away—fighting another person over her decision to leave him. He should have shrugged and grinned at her and said something blasé like do what you have to do. He couldn’t have changed her mind, that much had been lost before he even knew what she was thinking—he should never have given her the added satisfaction of taking it hard. He should have asked her to leave, not to stay.
He set both of his bare hands on the cold railing and peered over the railing at the chunks of ice. They were as big as filing cabinets, sliding unknowingly toward the dam. The sound of the car had died away, up the long block toward central campus. Thin tufts of breeze rustled in the cedar tree behind him. Alone with the railing and the trees and the promenade and the fickle streetlights, he could hear the river, hulks of ice and snow roiling past him in its current.
There had been a time in his life when he could have walked home from a place like this, giddy with optimism for the unknown; when he might have expected to round that last street corner and find the lights on in his apartment, gleaming out at him from the end of the block; when he would have flung his books into the snow and sprinted up the sidewalk to her warm, syrupy breath against his earlobe. A time when they would have made love on the dirty all-weather carpet in the kitchen. There was a little boy in Phil’s life—a kind-hearted and skinny young kid who believed devoutly in the religion of liking everyone else in the world at first sight. The boy giggled halfway through his own jokes, sometimes forgetting the punchline, other times just laughing too hard to deliver it. He’d crossed rooms to offer boisterous, genuine hello’s to the silver-haired business acquaintances of his parents. He’d bought his mother lunch at a hamburger stand when he was only nine, paying for the dingy hamburgers and single order of fries with a strongbox full of loose change he’d been picking up from sidewalks for a year and a half.
Tonight, propped against the railing, as yet only half-heartedly testing its conviction to keep him safe, Phil understood that the skinny kid was gone—disappeared under the tangled hulks of ice and snow swimming by him; lost but for a few flickering memories of the promise he’d held. A carefully-placed twist of fate, a random encounter, two or three blunt-force traumas to the soul had been all the cheery little boy could withstand; he’d been beaten to death with six punches, his place in Phil’s life usurped by nothing more tangible than a thick shadow: the murky faithlessness of someone he could only barely recognize as himself, and was stuck with now, forever.