The Light We Lost (Page 20)

“So did Liz say which is better?” I asked.

Kate shook her head as she unclasped the bikini top. “She said it depends on who you are. On what you want. She said that hearth-fire relationships bore her after a while. That she prefers wildfires, but that she’s starting to think she might want something in between. Oh, I think that’s what the bonfire was—where the relationship is always on the verge of being all-consuming but doesn’t quite go that far. She said she hasn’t had any of those but wants to find one.”

“Can you tame a wildfire or grow a hearth fire?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Kate said, stepping out of the bikini bottom. “Liz said she hasn’t had any luck transforming a relationship from one to the other. But, I mean, if you extend the metaphor, firefighters can tame wildfires, so maybe people can, too. I guess the question is if you can tame them without putting them out completely.”

I handed Kate another bikini, wondering if I should look for a bonfire too. If I should experience all of the different kinds of relationships before I decided which one I wanted.

“The thing I worry about,” Kate said, “is what if you give up a wonderful hearth fire to try out a bonfire, and discover that it’s not what you wanted after all. And then you lost the hearth fire.”

“Are you talking about you and Tom now?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“I guess it’s complicated,” I said. “And that bikini top gives you side boob.”

Kate looked down. “Oh, that’s terrible,” she said, pulling the halter straps over her head. “I think you have to do a kind of risk analysis in a relationship. How happy you are factored in with whether losing that happiness is worth potentially finding more of it with someone else. I don’t know if I’m willing to take that risk. Like, what’s the threshold? If I’m eighty-five percent happy with Tom, do I risk it for the possibility of being ninety-five percent happy with someone else? And what’s the maximum happiness you can achieve with someone? I don’t think it’s a hundred percent.”

“No, definitely not a hundred percent,” I said. “Nothing’s ever perfect.” I wondered what my happiness percentage had been with you. And what it was with Darren.

And then I wondered how you or Darren would answer that question—about your happiness percentage with me. What do you think? Was our percentage the same back then? Were we eighty percent happy? Eighty-five percent? I have a feeling I was happier than you, because you were the one who left, who wanted to go. Even if you didn’t think about it in those same terms, clearly you were willing to take that risk—to see if you would be happier without me in your life, pursuing the career that you wanted.

Did it work? Even for a little while?

I know it didn’t in the end.

xxxix

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Sometimes a year feels like an eternity, broken up into tiny capsules of time. Each chunk is so monumental that it seems like its own lifetime within a life. That was my 2004. There was the chunk of time we were living together, the chunk of time after we broke up, the chunk of time after I met Darren. That year had three discrete sections to it. But the twelve months after Darren and I met felt like one solid unit. It almost came as a surprise when Darren said one Saturday, the minute I walked in his door after meeting Julia for brunch, “So, our anniversary is in two weeks. Were you thinking about doing anything in particular?”

I had the urge to double-check the calendar on my BlackBerry, but I knew he was right. He wouldn’t ever forget a date. Besides, the summer was ending, and that was when we met last year—the end of the saddest summer I’d ever had.

“Is that a Montauk weekend for us?” I asked, grabbing myself a glass of water. He’d put in the bids for our weekends and was in charge of keeping track of when we went out to the house.

“But of course,” he replied.

I should’ve known better. He’d probably had the date marked when he gave in our requests.

“Maybe a clambake dinner?” I said, as I added ice to my cup. “At that fancy place on the docks? You know, where it’s mostly grown-ups and everybody gets dressed up?”

Darren crossed the kitchen to kiss me. “We’re grown-ups,” he said.

I laughed. “You know what I mean.”

He kissed me on the nose this time. “I think that sounds great. I had one other thought, too,” he said. “And it’s about gifts.”

I wondered if he was going to talk about an engagement ring. Sabrina had gotten engaged the month before—mostly because she’d gotten pregnant—but still, the idea of it seemed nice. Satisfying, like finding the right piece of a jigsaw puzzle, one you’d been hunting for for a long time and never would have to hunt for again. Not right then, but one day.

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“What about gifts?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I was thinking about our bucket lists, and on mine it says ‘rescue a pet,’ and on yours it says ‘own a dog.’ And I’ve been thinking about doing this for years, so . . . I have a surprise for you. I know it’s a little early, but once I thought of the idea, I couldn’t wait another minute!”

He walked toward his bedroom door, which was uncharacteristically closed, went inside, and came out with a small, wriggling, white, furry bundle in his arms. The bundle barked. A puppy. There was a puppy in his arms. I froze.

“Look what I got you!” he said. “I figured she could live at my place, and then maybe one day you’ll come live with me and the dog.”

“A dog?” I said. “You got me a dog?” I was stunned.

“I’m hoping you’ll share her with me,” Darren said. “That she can be our dog.”

He handed me the puppy, and I automatically took her. She licked my neck and chin and nose.

“She was the sweetest dog at the whole North Shore Animal League,” he said. “I met every single one.”

I looked at the dog and she barked a hello. I said hello right back and she smiled a big doggy grin.

Here was the thing: The idea of getting me a dog was thoughtful, in a very Darren way. But what he didn’t realize about me then, and still doesn’t understand, is that I wanted to meet all the dogs at the North Shore Animal League. I wanted to be part of the decision about which dog to get—or even whether we got a dog. I think he thinks there’s something gallant about presenting these grand gestures to me fait accompli, but it’s just . . . it feels . . . infantilizing. Or . . . patronizing. Like my opinions aren’t worthy of his consideration. You’d never do something like that.

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“I wish I’d met every single one of them,” I told Darren. “This is a great gift, but . . . I feel like I missed the fun part.”

He looked confused, eyebrow askew. “The fun part is now! When we get to have a dog!”

I sighed. “I know . . . but it would’ve been nice if we chose a dog together. So it was our dog. One that we both agreed on. I want us to be partners, Darren.”

“Lucy,” he said, closing the space between us. “Of course we’re partners. I just wanted to surprise you with something special. Aren’t I allowed to surprise my beautiful girlfriend with an amazing present every once in a while?”

Once he said that, I didn’t know how to respond. Because in that context, it sounded like I was being silly. I couldn’t tell him never to surprise me, that he wasn’t allowed. And how could I fight with someone who’d just done this incredible thing, who had just gotten me a dog?

The dog tried to lick inside my nostril, like she was hoping to get me to laugh. Maybe she understood.

“Of course you’re allowed,” I said, finally. “So did she come with a name?”

“They found her without any identification,” Darren said. “One of the workers there started calling her Annie, because of her curly hair, but I was thinking we could lengthen that.”

“Angel?” I asked.

“Anniversary!” he said.

And then I did laugh. Because that was an absolutely absurd name for a dog, but also somehow perfect. And she really was a perfect dog—loving and smart and not yappy at all. She wasn’t an engagement ring, thank goodness, but sharing responsibility for another living being seemed like a pretty solid commitment. Once I said yes to Annie, I could see how it would be easy to say yes to other things down the line.

xl

I always figured there were two kinds of people in the world—some who loved giving gifts and others who loved receiving them. I’ve always loved getting gifts, and still do. But the second Christmas I spent with Darren I realized that I loved giving gifts as well.

We were supposed to go with Darren’s family to Colorado that Christmas. I’d met them before—the youngest of his three older sisters first, along with her husband. Then the other two sisters with their husbands and kids. Then his parents. Then various permutations and combinations of them at different events. But this was the first holiday I’d be spending with his family, and the first time I’d be confronted with all of them at once. They were nice individually, especially his dad, who was quiet—the eye of the hurricane that was the Maxwell clan—but I was a little worried about what it would be like to spend so much time with them, and about how much I’d miss my own family.

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