Paul and Ellen said the last goodbyes at the Mathesons’ front door as the kids crunched down the walkway through the snow. Each step broke through the thin frozen layer. The soft powder underneath compressed with a gentle squeak.
Daniel pushed his hands into his pockets and kept his eyes on the slight depression that marked the pathway. Lindsay said, “It’s not gonna be any warmer in the car.”
Daniel said, “Yeah.” Then, after another moment, “They won’t be long.”
Lindsay made a snorty noise that Daniel recognized as one she had learned from their father.
Behind them, Ellen laughed louder than could possibly have been warranted by anything short of a Richard Pryor punch line. She would have said Jack Benny. Daniel made the same snorting noise he had just heard his big sister make.
Lindsay chuckled at the sound, not having recognized it when it came from her own sinuses but knowing it instantly when it came from Daniel’s. She worked the latch with cold fingers and then pulled the car door open. Daniel climbed in, hands-and-kneesing across the pleather bench to the driver’s side. Lindsay took her own seat behind the empty front passenger’s seat. She pulled the door closed with a crunchy slam and they sat together in the cold car waiting.
Daniel blew into his cold hands.
Lindsay fastened her seatbelt.
Beyond the glass, at the far end of the snow-frozen walkway their parents had not yet turned away from the Mathesons.
“I made Gary laugh twice at dinner.”
Lindsay said, “Gary’s a pig.”
Daniel shrugged. “I like him.”
“You like anyone who laughs at your stupid jokes.”
“Not just the stupid ones.”
“Why is he a pig?”
Lindsay shook her head in a way that suggested she thought Daniel was an idiot. “He just sits there chatting with Mom and Dad while Louise brings out dinner, serves everyone, then after dinner, she’s up and clearing the table and he just sits there with Mom and Dad talking about what kind of scotch he likes. And then, and then she picks up his ashtray to empty like she’s some kind of a maid and—did you see?—he slaps her on the ass? And you don’t see why I think he’s a pig?”
“I don’t think she minded it.”
“Any of it. I think she was having a good time.”
Lindsay said nothing, then. Daniel knew she was mad at him now, but he didn’t understand why other than that he had disagreed with her.
Paul and Ellen had gotten halfway down the path now, but they stopped and turned back to shout a last remark at their hosts. The Mathesons laughed and waved them off. They went in and shut the door, closing the light inside. Paul held Ellen’s elbow to steady her as they made their way through the crunching, squeaking snow. He didn’t seem much steadier than she did.
He circled the car to get in the driver’s seat as Ellen slid in on the passenger’s side in front of Lindsay. She pulled the door closed and pulled the shoulder harness across her body, snapping it into its latch. Paul started up the car, turned on the heat and left it in neutral gently pressing and releasing the gas pedal. He waited a full two minutes like that before the temperature gauge started to show a response. Then he put the transmission into drive and pulled away from the curb.
He drove in silence until the car slipped onto Route Twenty-Nine. After another thirty seconds or so, Ellen said, “Gary said I look terrific.”
Paul said, “He’s gotten really heavy.”
“Louise is in great shape.”
“She runs. I see her on campus.”
“Running, you mean?”
“He really has gotten soft.” Then after a moment’s pause, “Still, it was nice to hear that I look terrific.”
“I tell you that.”
“I tell you that all the time.”
“You have to say that. You’re my husband.”
“I have to say that?”
“I had no idea. I was just saying it when I noticed how terrific you look.”
Daniel said, “I like Gary.”
Ellen said, “That’s because he laughs at your jokes.”
Paul said, “You were funny tonight.”
Ellen said, “Paul, don’t encourage.”
The car fishtailed on the ice and in a tense moment Paul focused on the road, turned into the skid and regained control of the car on the dark, empty highway.
Ellen said, “He was really flirting with me, I think.”
Lindsay murmured, “Jesus,” very quietly, her derision a small performance for Daniel. He did not know why she seemed so angry.
Paul said, “Who could blame him? You look terrific.”
Ellen punched Paul in the arm as he drove, not hard, not angrily. “You think it bothers him that you haven’t—you know . . .”
Lindsay said, now loudly enough to be heard from the front seat, “Maybe they don’t obsess about the weight of everyone they encounter.”
Paul said, “I don’t think we obsess.”
Lindsay made the snorting noise.
Ellen said, “Don’t do that, Linds.”
Paul said something then, but the rocking of the car and the slow-spreading warmth had begun to take its toll on Daniel. His forehead rested against the cool glass of the window for a moment and then he changed his position so he could curl up on the wide bench. His head rested on his sister’s lap and she allowed it.
She ran her fingers through his hair and then circled a fingertip gently against his temple.
The conversation from the front seat reached him as sleep muffled murmurs, but the words did not really matter. He had heard them many times before, the discussion as familiar as the smell of laundry detergent, as predictable as the Thursday night television lineup.
He did not fully understand what it meant to obsess. He did not know whether it was something his parents did or not. He knew that weight was what they talked about after visiting people. He knew that they spoke about Lindsay’s weight in a near whisper when she was not in the room.
He fought his way back to the surface for a moment, struggled to remain conscious and said to his sister, “I think you look terrific, Lindsay.”
Lindsay said, “You don’t have to say that, Dan.”
“If you’re not going to sleep, I’m kicking you off my lap.”
So he stopped talking then and allowed the darkness to rise about him like water. In his dreams he was buoyant, floating. Paul and Ellen compared their own appearance to that of their erstwhile hosts as the car rolled up over the seasonal frost heaves, the gentle inclines. At the peak of each rise, the momentum of the vehicle nearly lifted it from the pavement. In those moments, head resting on his older sister’s sharp, dancer’s thigh, the delightful sensation reminded Daniel of Gary’s effortless, friendly laugh as he experienced just a taste of weightlessness.