Frozen Fireworks

Christina Nation

Warm fingertips press into my shoulder. In my periphery, I see Colin perched beside me, on the leather sofa’s narrow arm. How long have I been sitting here, staring at nothing?

The sounds of the surrounding party grate like so many desks being arranged and rearranged on linoleum. Meaningless chatter about the next big part or project. Everyone desperate to seem important, even if they’re not. But I can’t go home. Too quiet. Too much time to think. That’s why I agreed to come in the first place. But it was a stupid decision.

Colin traces a finger down my forearm, then onto the back of my hand. “Your veins stay puffed up, Desi. Just like mine.”

“Thanks. Now I won’t be able to unknow that.” Colin, a long-practiced master at pestering me, knows I hate everything about veins—anything about the circulatory system really. I can’t bear to look at my own wrists, too many bluish lines. I avoid feeling my own pulse or others, pulling away from embraces when the steady drumming grows too clear. Nausea hits if I even think about a blood draw. All that damned searching for my impossible-to-find veins. Nature’s cruel joke. Although, I’ve learned there can be crueler ones.

Warm breath caresses the side of my face, then Colin’s lips are on my cheek, the edge of my lips. I should turn and kiss him full, the way he wants. The way he deserves. Two weeks ago I told him I would give us a chance to see if after all these years as friends we could be the more he’s always wanted. After I said this, his smile stretched so wide I thought it must hurt. His eyes glimmered with what might have been tears, and I immediately wanted to take back my assent. But why? Colin could be good for me. And he actually wants me. Not like his brother, Brett.  

“Want to get out of here?” Colin says, his hand resting on mine, hovering really. “We could go to Chevy’s.” The phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out. The lit screen flashes the caller’s name: Sarah McCullough. Brett’s wife.

Suddenly, the house seems too crowded, the noise a thousand heartbeats pounding in discordant rhythm. I can’t push through the sliding glass door fast enough.

Colin follows me down the landscaped hill, all the way to the yard’s edge, where the twinkling lights spread out below us. I settle onto a manicured swath of grass, just before the drop off, and tuck the filmy fabric of my skirt under folded legs. Colin crouches beside me, knees pointed out at the sprawling Hollywood Hills skyline. “Frozen fireworks,” he says, repeating what he’s heard me announce every time we’ve ever looked down on city lights.

I continue staring out, saying nothing. The city lights no longer seem some magical moment frozen in time. They haven’t for a while, just evidence of overcrowded development. Of the harshness of city living. But maybe I’ve been wrong all these years, grouping the lights as one. Maybe the lights are individual distress signals—each one leading to someone who hopes to be found, or noticed, but probably never will be.

Someone shrieks from inside and I turn back toward the brightly lit house, a turn of the century Moorish Revival-style number my mom would have loved to stage, back when she cared to try at anything. Some guy Colin knows through his agent owns the house, some high-rolling bachelor with nothing better to do than throw parties every Saturday night. And once invited, you’re on the list for good. A perk of Colin’s Hollywood job, the one I’ve teased him about since he sold his first pilot. “As if you could be any more of an LA cliché,” that’s what I say. That I’m proud of him for following his dreams and for his against-the-odds success—that’s what I don’t say.

Or that I envy him. That I wish I would have had the guts to follow my own, instead of trying and failing at teaching—a miserable two year experiment at taking the practical route, at trying to please my dad, who barely acknowledges anything I do.

We last came to this house only a month back, but it seems far longer. The McCullough brothers and I drove to the party together. Just like old times—the three amigos. Colin and I weren’t together then. And I didn’t yet carry Brett’s secrets. Brett’s wife was supposed to come that night too, but there’d been a fight. Something about not enough time spent together.

We ended up in the sloping backyard when the party overflowed out. Even though Sarah wasn’t with us, she was. Brett couldn’t shake his guilt, couldn’t stop wondering if he should have come to the party at all.

“Come on. You’re a hospitalist,” I’d said. “How can she get mad? It’s like being a firefighter or a police officer with the added fun of on-call time.” I talked to him enough at work to know. I’d heard the relentless beeping of the ICU, and Brett’s voice on the morning-after shifts too, when he struggled to string sentences together. His deep voice even more seductive with the rasp of sleeplessness. “Sarah should try not sleeping for 48 hours straight while dealing with matters of life and death. Then she can complain!” I noticed Colin eyeing me with suspicion and forced a smile, hoping to lighten my final comment.

Brett shook his head, his dark eyes uncharacteristically serious. “We haven’t had sex in almost three months. That isn’t normal.”

I flinched, and then remembered Colin was watching. But I didn’t want to think about Brett having sex with Sarah, ever, though I knew they did. At least it didn’t happen often.

Brett groaned. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Without thinking, I reached out and squeezed Brett’s arm. His eyes met mine and all else seemed distant, hazy. “You’ll figure it out,” I said, offering a warm smile of encouragement—an unspoken request. “You’ve never not known what to do. Never.” And that was part of the problem. He had always known how he must view me—the little sister he never had. And when I had asked him to rethink that, he didn’t know how. Or wouldn’t.

Colin let out a cough. I dropped my hand from Brett’s arm, stepping back.

“It’ll get better,” Colin said, as if he knew. As if he knew anything about what maintaining a relationship might take. As if he didn’t have a new girl practically every week.

“What if it doesn’t?”

As I considered how to answer or whether I should answer at all, Colin’s friend appeared and ushered us toward the outdoor bar, then the indoor one, for a second round of drinks. We didn’t talk about Sarah the rest of the night.

Thinking back to that night, I wonder if I should have sensed something about Brett then—an unseen pull of despair. Shouldn’t his own brother have sensed something was off, too? I may have known Brett for over half my life, but Colin’s known him since birth.

I also wonder if Brett tried to kill himself because he thought he had failed—with Sarah, or with me. Brett McCullough never didn’t know and he never failed at anything, so how could he accept otherwise? Like when Sarah asked him to move out.

Colin’s eyes settle on my face. “Wasn’t Brett supposed to come tonight?”  

The way he’s studying me, I can tell Colin thinks his brother’s avoidance of Sarah, of him, even his absence tonight, might have something to do with me—what he imagines happened between his big brother and me before I agreed to give us a chance. Or maybe after, when Colin imagines Brett would have felt rejected. I wish it did. That would be far better than the truth.    

“How would I know?” An indirect lie. A challenge too.

When Colin winces, I want to assure him that it’s not what he thinks. But that it is too. Brett never tried to kiss me after that one time on Jenny’ back patio, ten days before he got married, during a momentary panic. Maybe that kiss would have led to more if Colin hadn’t caught us. But not for any of the reasons I would hope for. Brett will never love me that way. The way Colin does.

“I’m not stupid, Desi.” His feet shift in the grass, moving away from mine.

“I would never say you are.”

“Then don’t act like I haven’t known you long enough to read every expression your face makes.” His dark eyes drift over every feature—my chin, my nose, my cheeks.

I look away. He has known me long enough. He and his brother were my first California friends, our first neighbors when my still-married parents plucked me from the Midwest and dropped our family in LA at the start of fifth grade, setting me on the path of the forever outsider. But I’ve always fit with them—the McCullough boys.

“I know the way your lips bunch when you’re sad,” Colin continues. “The way your finger curves over your lip when you think really hard. The way you blink extra when you’re trying to avoid a hard truth. Like you’ve been doing all night.”

I bite my lip to keep it from visibly trembling. I don’t want to cry. I haven’t yet. Not even when I saw Brett in the hospital—his brown eyes empty pits, his neck veins puffed and purpled in a way that nearly made my stomach upend, his breathing laboured as if he’d been running (and I guess in a way he had). Maybe it would be better if I did cry. But I don’t want to.

"You can talk to me, Desi. About anything.”

His words hang in the air. An invitation.

“I want to go home,” I say. Before he can respond, I’m on my feet, walking as fast as I can without running. After a moment, Colin lumbers after, as I knew he would.

He catches up at the sliding glass door and grabs my hand. “Wait. Please.”

I turn back, a cutting reply on my lips. But when I see his face—his expression fervent in a way that shatters me—I swallow the harsh words, taking in his ruffled hair, the shadowy stubble along his defined jawline, the dark eyes some might call brooding. I see, not for the first time, why many women have spent anxious weeks, months even, trying to mark Colin as theirs. But I see something else there too, a new intensity.

“I don’t know what happened with you and Brett, but I don’t care. I know that we--”

I shake my head, cutting him off. “I can’t do this.”

“But you haven’t even tried.”

His deep voice cracks on the final word, and my eyes burn with the tears I’ve been holding back all week. “I wish I could.”

“But I love you.”  

“I don’t think you even know what that means.”

He drops my hand and staggers back as if I’ve struck him. But it’s for his own good, right? Colin and I could never truly be happy together. I shouldn’t have tried to prove otherwise. I’m too messed up to feel the way he wants me to, and we have too much history. Too much done or not done, or left unsaid.

Colin doesn’t try to stop me as I push into the house. He follows after, but his footsteps sound heavier, slower, behind me, until the drumming pulse of the party drowns them out altogether. As we near the front door his friend materializes, jumping in front of me. The drink he holds unsteadily sloshes onto my sandals.

“Leaving so soon, Colin?” he says, looking past me as if I’m invisible.

I bristle, although I don’t actual want to talk to anyone right now, especially this pretentious douche.

“Gotta take the lady home. You know how it is.” Colin flashes his friend that trademark boyish grin, the one no-one ever seems able to resist. Incredible, how easily he can put it on. He and Brett are both experts at that. One of the many Californiaisms I will never master.

The bachelor gives me a slimy once-over with unfocused eyes, briefly acknowledging my existence, and then nods to Colin in approval. “I get it, man. You gotta do what you gotta do,” he says, the slurred words charged with innuendo.

“Ugh.” I move around him, hurrying for the door. Colin says something more, something I can’t hear. Then his plodding footsteps echo behind me once more.

We remain silent throughout the curving drive down the hill. But as we glide onto flat land, Colin clears his throat. Then, stopped at the first glaring street light, he says, “It’s because of Brett, isn’t it? He’s not here because he doesn’t know what to say to me, now that he’s left Sarah and chosen you.”

I stare at the red light, watching it shift to green.

“That’s why you’ve been blinking all night. What you didn’t want to say. Why you think you can’t be with me.”

I wonder if it would make Colin feel better to know that his brother just tried to kill himself, not screw me. That Brett would never choose me. That I know that now in way I could never accept before. But I don’t want to talk about Brett.

“My coworker’s dog has cancer, had to have a leg removed.”    

Colin stares at me for a moment, then sighs. “I’m sorry about your friend’s dog.”

“Incredible thing about dogs, they can learn to walk on three legs. Run even. It’s crazy!”

“Pretty crazy,” Colin says, his voice a weary monotone.

“But her dog won’t run for long, not with this kind of cancer. Only four to five months. That’s what the vet said, $1500 later, before he--”

The car screeches to a stop, a ways back from the next streetlight, which still burns yellow.

Colin leans over the gear shift between us. “Is this really what we’re going to talk about? Seriously?”

No, I want to scream, as I turn toward the side window. I want to tell Colin that I can be with him (even though I think I can’t). That it’s not Brett standing between us, but my too broken, too damaged heart. The one I can’t stand to hear beat. I want to yell out the pulsing secrets that stand as barriers between us, barriers that shut him out and trap me in.

I want to tell him about what happened with Brett, how he would have died if one of his friends hadn’t stopped in at his new place, the one he rented after his separation from Sarah. How that friend found him hanging from an exposed beam and cut him down moments before it was too late. How even though he doesn’t want to be with me, Brett had the hospital call me, not Sarah or Colin, because, in his words, “I trust you more than anyone else.” I want to tell Colin how I wish I could unsee the bruises circling Brett’s neck. Circles of intention. How the bruises appear fainter each time I visit the hospital, but his eyes still look as hollow as that first day.

The light flashes green and I stare out at a rise of elegant Craftsman-style apartments pressed against newer boxier ones, at a fluttering plastic bag drifting along the gutter, at a billboard boasting supermodel strippers that have likely never graced any Hollywood nightclub. I stare at anywhere but Colin, his searching eyes still drifting over to me as he drives.

I want to say that Sarah’s pregnant. But I promised Brett not to tell anyone about that either. He thinks Colin would tell their dad about all of it, and he’s probably right. But maybe Colin should, because God knows I have no idea how to help. And I haven’t slept a full night since that initial call because what if I get another call and Brett’s dead this time? Would it be part my fault then, because Brett asked me to keep his secret and I did?

“It makes sense, you know,” Colin says.

“What does?” I turn back curious, surveying the sharp profile I know almost as well as my own. The eyes more deep set than Brett’s but the same hickory-brown, the nose longer—a slight ridge in the middle that no one else in his family has.

“Your whole weird thing with veins, and how you can’t check your own pulse. I think your afraid to be fully embodied.”  

“Is that some existential screenwriting crap?”

“You live as if you’re floating above, like you’re watching your life unfold, not fully a participant. So you avoid your pulse or tracking your blood flow because then you would have to accept that it’s real and that you’re here, fully present, for all of it.” He glances over at me, expectant.

I meet his gaze and shrug. “It’s just a stupid phobia, Colin.”

“Maybe that’s what you’re scared of being with me, because I really see you. Is that it? Is it that you know I won’t accept you being half here?”

“I’m not good for you. You know that. I’m too ‘unfeeling.’ Isn’t that the word you used?”

Colin’s dark eyes drift, thinking, then refocus with recognition. “I said that in high school. It didn’t mean anything.” He looks back at the road, but I still feel his piercing awareness of me.

“It was right after we all watched Old Yeller, because you and Brett couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it.”

“It should be a childhood rite of passage. The first real ugly cry. The rip-your-heart-out-of-your chest kind. Every child should suffer through it at least once.”  

“That’s the difference between you and me, one of many. When I watched Old Yeller I didn’t even want to cry. That dog needed to be put down.”

I wait for Colin to respond, to assure me that I’m not cold or messed up. But he just tightens his grip at 10 and 2 and stares ahead. And I look back out the passenger window as we continue into the crush of city lights, desperate beacons flung out from others like me—others who pray that each night will bring rescue or clarity or relief. But it never will.

Christina Nation

Christina is a world traveler who works as a senior adjunct faculty member at California Lutheran University, teaching creative writing and folklore. She has written and published across genres, from poetry to creative nonfiction to academic journal and textbook articles. Much of her poetry and creative prose seeks to capture the simultaneous beauty and pain found in many vital life experiences: death, life, creation, etc.

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