Fool Me Again, Part 2
At dinner they drank champagne. George found himself at the head of the table, in perfect view of where Kathy sat, the rim of her champagne flute smeared with red lipstick. He couldn’t help but watch her from across the table’s wide expanse, and whenever she looked his way, he held her gaze. What harm could it do? What more harm, anyway?
Kathy smiled at him, and he felt a glimmer of hope--blurred by champagne, perhaps--and then she’d turned to straighten Andrew’s jacket lapel and his heart had skipped a beat.
There, pinned upside-down to his velvet blazer: two diamond flowers, hanging with the blossoms downward. George dug his nails into his palm, leaving a row of crescents in the soft flesh, and let himself fall into memory.
Here is what he remembered, in stark and cold detail, like the first breath of mountain air when you open the front door: Last Christmas, when the others had gone to ski, they had stayed behind--he and Kathy, just the two of them. They’d walked to the pasture, teasing, tossing handfuls of snow, and once they climbed the fence they’d tumbled to the ground. The cold hadn’t mattered. All that mattered was her dark hair spread against cold white powder, her laughing eyes, her hand moving from his forearm to the back of his neck.
Everything had seemed too much that day. The sun too bright, the trees too green. His heart beat heavy in his chest, and the cold air made him feel off balance--or maybe it wasn’t the cold air after all. Because he remained dizzy when they returned to the cabin for cocoa by the fire, Kathy in his arms, the flames glowing orange along the side of her cheek. He’d known deep down that the time was right to give his gift. He’d wrapped the box so carefully with a note saying “I love you.” He meant it.
“Oh, George,” she’d sighed. Inside the box, nestled on top of a bed of tissue paper, sat his grandmother’s diamond brooch. Shaped like two flowers intertwined.
“It makes me think of us,” he said. “Of what we could be.” He pinned it to her blouse with the soaring realization that he’d done it--he’d given his gift, he’d said his truth. The diamonds looked beautiful against the red fabric. And when they kissed, it felt real.
That was the best day of his life. The very next day had been the worst. The very next day, when he came down for breakfast to find Kathy sitting on Andrew’s lap, feeding him bits of bacon.
Andrew. His best friend.
In that moment, he’d lost them both.
Bursts of starshine; panes of light; two flowers intertwined for eternity. George fell back out of memory as he stared at the glittering reminder of his grandmother’s brooch on Andrew’s jacket.
He’d been a fool. He’d been waiting for Kathy to change her mind. Until now, he would have forgiven her in the fraction of a second. Though she’d given away his gift, he’d remained loyal to her in his heart. If she’d leaned in behind the Christmas tree and kissed him, she would fool him again--and he would be a happy fool, which is the saddest fool to be.
He hated how much he still ached for her, how his heart soared when she drew near. He hated that he could not love Tanya, no matter how special she was to him.
And then he realized: He didn’t hate Kathy. He hated himself.
Champagne bubbled at his lips and stung the back of his throat like unspent tears. The liquid pooled sweet on his tongue. He drained the glass.
Their last morning at the cabin, the cold air crackled on the windowpanes. They’d packed their bags, split a hasty pot of coffee, thrown the last of the eggs and milk from the fridge. Bags were thrown over shoulders; arms were thrown around each other. Goodbye for another year. What a lovely trip it had been.
As he walked along the path homeward, surrounded by his friends, George tried a new game. He tried to imagine a story where he was not the protagonist. A story of a woman who lived selfishly, perhaps. Or story of a fearless woman who pursued her desires. Or maybe a story of a woman who existed independently from his own yearning.
There would always last Christmas, and this year, and--he could now admit--there would be a next Christmas, as well. His life would not be forever defined by one day, or even the very next day.
He turned to take a last look at the cabin. From downhill, it looked like a painting--snow dusting the needles of the evergreen, clouds moving white and precise in the cornflower sky.
“George!” At the sound of his voice, his head jerked forward. It was Kathy, waving her mittened hand, beckoning him forward. “Are you coming?”
He jogged towards her, and found that his smile no longer felt false on his lips. He thought of what he’d learned this Christmas--that devotion was not something precious to be given or received, and his heart was not a parcel wrapped beneath a tree. He caught up to her, his breath puffing in the mountain air, and told her the truth. “Merry Christmas,” he said. “And thank you.”