Fiction: Jeremy’s Winter by Katie White

Katie White is completing her graduate studies in Art History at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. There, she focuses on photography, beauty and the grotesque. She prefers writing fiction and has ambitions toward a novel. In her free time, Katie worries that she’s losing her looks and perhaps drinks too much. She can be found breaking spines in bookstores throughout the city. One day, the world. Her piece is from Anamesa Spring 2012:

Jeremy’s Winter

Katie White

Sweetheart,” he said, “You’re going to have to calm down.” It was Jeremy, with his familiar blonde hair and serious, sonorous voice.  She had called him, tremulously repeating an address. Still, Tess was surprised to see him, here in another man’s lawn. Jeremy hovered by the sidewalk, digging his hands deep into the pockets of his threadbare jeans as though he might find some explanation there. Tess didn’t remember what she’d said on the phone. That it was over, certainly. That she needed to get out of there. Before she got into some real trouble, or that she already had. Tess crunched her toes on the dried lawn that belonged to the man she was leaving. She blinked tearlessly into the Los Angeles morning sunshine and tried to look Jeremy in the eye.

Jeremy’s red car was idling in the middle of the road with the driver’s side door ajar. Bach was rising from the radio. Bach adapted to any situation, Jeremy had told her, what felt a zillion years ago but wasn’t. Now he was here to get her. Today: many years later and three thousand miles from home. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

When she was 16 and he was 18, and they were lying on the beach in the middle of the blackest summer night Jeremy told her, “When you need me, I’ll always come.” That night was seven years ago almost, and this summer was hotter and hazier and more confused. Jeremy had not kept his promise, not always or exactly. Promises like his existed in renewal. Each day, one day at a time, she had half-heartedly accepted. He was here at 25, looking worn about the eyes. A little battlescarred. Both of them, compromised.

“Jeremy,” she said looking toward the ground, by way of explanation. Tess was standing barefoot in a pile of glass. She had been stamping on a shattered picture frame thrown hard against the dirt. On her thigh was the thin arch of a gash, the shape of a sickle. Bright blood gullied and dripped down her inseam. She had smashed the frame across her leg. Smash the world to pieces. Smash myself to pieces, she had decided. Break all the grains of glass and sand to nothing but nothing and start again. Begin empty. It was a tantrum, simply put. He knew the unbecoming girlishness of her antics and that she couldn’t give them up.

Jeremy examined her at a safe distance. It had been a few months since he had seen her last. Tess was thinner again, and her green eyes wild in a stricken way that reminded him of sharpened pencil points. Milky sunlight streamed fell on her hair and face. The morning was beautiful. Tess’s dingy black T-shirt had the sleeves cut off and it was plain to see she was braless. When she raised her hands as though in surrender, Jeremy recognized the small swell and weight of her girl-like chest and felt unhappy.

She was by nature burdened, but if his memory did not betray him, she had once been joyful, too.   When she would scribble on his hands in black and blue ink “Property of Tess.” As she hummed the melodies of DeBussy and Schubert prancing about the kitchen after school, drinking Diet Coke, she was bound to pirouette at any given second and send her school skirt whirling briefly around her waist. In horror movies, how she would jolt, disturbing the popcorn, to grab him tightly by the hand then laugh right out loud. Yes it was fair to say, she had been happy in her way. Her happiness was a fragile thing and it should have been protected.

When Jeremy played Chopin for her on the Steinway in his parents’ living room, her eyes would get a tight and brittle look, as if she were crumbling beneath the weight of an unseen world. In her AP English Lit notebook, he had found her first name with his last written over and over again in cursive and in print. Yes. Some delicately sketched hearts surrounded Jeremy + Tess Forever.

He watched her now both diminished and condensed. Typically, it seemed to Jeremy, she was more luminous in her fury. The chaos fed her. Light glittered off the broken glass below her like a strange lake and she hovered as a match lit over the crystal world. Jeremy watched the scarlet of her blood cresting down the impermeable whiteness of her thigh. It fluttered his heart. Another old, familiar detail. Then he cast a furtive glance behind her to the house, belonging to some asshole kid he’d never met, and loosed a sigh of some small relief.

“Oh Tess,” he said and clenched his hands into short-lived fists. Jeremy wanted to grab her, to hide her in some high bright tower, put her heart in a suit of armor. This boy, though, this betrayer whose yard Jeremy was standing inhe knew Tess loved this one and that love was something, as it was hers and hard to come by.

She never loved anyone. Maybe not even him. Not in the fully tragic mode she here employed with her faraway eyes, her heart murmurs, her gasps and withering frame. Jeremy had felt the sparkles coming off her syllables as she described him to him, this Jake or James or John. It made him sick to hear her so stupidly, plainly, ordinarily in love. Whoever he was, whatever he was, Jeremy had told her: “You can’t leave a man like that alone.” But then again no one could tell her anything.

Tess would find out for herself, and when she did there was no return, or renewal or resurrection or hope. The only thing left in her box was sweet, hypnotic destruction. The betrayer called her “Diana” and Jeremy “Artemis” and her father “The Eye of Ra” and her grandmother “the screaming banshee.” In her raging, Tess was capable of unusual, blind cruelty, to which she felt entitled and never regretted.  She was, as they say, out for blood. On the warpath. Hell hath no fury, and so on. Jeremy knew. She had kicked him in the face once, at the high angle of his left cheekbone, fracturing it. She, age 19, had found him, age 21, overdosed on his bedroom floor. Perocets, valium. It was his usual cocktail.

She had just come out of the shower, slippery as a seal. Her foot was wet and bare and pruned. She saw him and thought at once, “How dare you.” Tess had put on exactly one shoe, the right one, to kick him squarely in the face. This hadn’t been the first overdose, but it was the end of her caring and she kicked him in the face with the fury of an exclamation point on the end of their affair. She had never apologized and would sometimes run her finger over the scar from the stitches and smile, satisfied. He deserved it, he knew. She told him.

How she and he had come from his bedroom floor to the lawn her failed lover was a wonder of world. The inexplicable way they had held tight to each other. From coast to coast. They had lost much in between.

Jeremy took a deep breath and surveyed the damage. The porch door was open and the house was darkly churchlike behind her. A black cat was in the yard, preening. No smoke, no flames, no blood on the ground that wasn’t hers. “You lucky bastard, ”Jeremy muttered pulling his boyish, flaxen locks behind his ears, straightening his lanky muscles tall.

He had got there right in time. Jeremy raised his hand, long and elegant, in a gesture of peace as though he were Jesus or Buddha and stepped one foot closer to her. “Sweetheart,” he said, “Stay calm. Come here.”

By 10:36 am, Tess was back in bed. A digital clock at Jeremy’s bedside blazed the number like a taunt. On a normal day, she might have just been waking up, but here she was, with a broken heart in the morning. A glass of water and a bottle of sleeping pills rested next to the alarm clock. Jeremy opened the bottle and she opened her mouth in reflex as though about to receive communion.   When Tess swallowed she could feel the pills work their way down her throat. She took the vial from his hands, and shook the honey-hued bottle. She listened to the pills. A funny jangle resonated, like a maraca. Nothing like a fly caught in amber, she thought. “Up to your old tricks again?” Tess whispered to the pills, more than to Jeremy.

Jeremy’s haunted gray eyes drifted, hunting for something in the darkness of his own room. There was nothing to see but the slight, shimmering crest of light peering in from the space between the closed drapes. “It’s like we’re on the inside of a cracked bell,” he said, “Or under a frozen lake.”

Tess’ breath was steady and rhythmic and deep. She was mostly lost to dreams. Jeremy watched the quivers over her shivering limbs, like an electric current.

“Why is it so cold?” Tess murmured, breathlessly, absently. Jeremy shook his head. He didn’t know, and he pulled another blanket over her. Jeremy lay there on top of the sheets, staring at the ceiling. It’s a new ice age, he thought, and he when he thought the words, Tess shook as though her blood were turning thick and cold. Then Jeremy reached across the languid mound of her form to the side table. He picked up the bottle of pills again and put one then two pills into his palm. He set the bottle back in its place.

She had given him more than his fair chance. That was nothing he could argue. What seemed a lifetime ago, but wasn’t, he spotted her across the beach. She was 16, the rookie lifeguard. He had heard someone say a new girl was coming to work their rounds. He’d assumed she’d be a bubbly idiot or a bitch or, hopefully, some sort of devil-may-dare, screwed-up slut. He assumed, in his cavalier but kind way, that he’d fuck this unknown girl by the end of the summer—which, in the end, he wasn’t wrong about. But when he saw Tess across the beach, sitting outside the lifeguard shack, reading a book the size of the Bible, with her huge, smart eyes cutting over everyone, he saw the world blur outwards. A great brush had pulled the edges of reality’s oils, and there she was sitting with her wild black hair pulled back, her neck craned high and her long, pale legs crossed. She was reading something Russian- The Brothers Karamazov – in the middle of that languid summer. She was serious, a very serious girl. She was still and the world was swirling, a point for which he hadn’t known he’d been searching. She was the center.

When at the end of the summer, at the end of the party he’d thrown when his parents had gone to Maine for a week, when at the end of the night, she said yes, she’d stayno one would notice she was gone—he brought her to his parents’ bed and they unraveled each other quite naturally. When it was all said and done, he’d be lying to himself if he said he hadn’t hoped this aching for her would subside, that she’d be another notch in the bedpost, and that he could get on with it. But, when it was all said and done, there she washer skin still dewy, her lips sealed and her feral eyes staring at the ceiling, and what he felt was more than aching. He felt a door open onto a much larger landscape, to a vast interminable valley in his heart. He lay there not knowing what to do. He started to talk, but quickly it became clear she wasn’t interested. He blurted out, unbelievably, “I want to marry you.” She smiled and pulled her book out of her purse, which was thrown haplessly next to the bed. She flicked on the side lamp and began to read. She stopped suddenly, and closing her book asked, “Do you ever imagine snow in the summertime?” and then she giggled, really like a girl, like a child, in a way that he had never heard from her and made him nervous.

That next morning, so many years ago, Jeremy awoke to the early cool and the sound of a taxi tapping its horn in front of his house. He stumbled to the window naked and watched Tess as she got into the car. She looked up at the big old house with tired, discerning eyes. He wanted to wave to her then but she did not look to the window and he felt stifled. Tess didn’t exactly look happy, he thought, more worried. Her folks, he thought. Maybe she was fucked, he laughed to himself. He turned to tumble back to slumber, and pulled back the ivory sheets of his parents’ bed when his eyes caught on a dark pattern of splotches. He ran his hand over the spot instinctively and felt wetness on his fingertips.  Jeremy brought his hand to his nostrils and smelled the bitter iron of blood.

Perplexed and half asleep, he hobbled to the master bathroom to wash his hands and in the garbage pail beside the sink he saw something pink covered by a crazed tower of toilet tissue. It was a pair of pink bloodstained panties. With black triangles, size small. Oh, he thought, with realization. Oh. For no reason he could understand wholly in that moment, Jeremy started crying at the bathroom sink and he felt an unbelievable heat crawl up his back and neck and face. He knew that this feeling was love.

Many days in the years after, he pained himself over her. How he’d fucked her up and fucked her over. His magnificent and many ways. Tess in her pink prom dress sprawled across the parking lot sobbing, her tights shredded, knees bleeding and him as good as gone. Yes, and snorting coke off a shattered mirror as he held her by the downy hair at the nape of her neck. She whispered, “I don’t know,” and tensed.  He said, “Do it. I wanna see you feel good,” and pushed her hard. He woke to find a tremulous trail of darkened blood crusted from her nose to her chapped lips and dripped down in the patterns of the cosmos on her the crumpled white shirt of her high school uniform. The way she washed the blood away without a word. How he missed her life: her graduation, birthdays, New Year’s Eves. Her brother’s funeral. Her crying. Hating himself for loving the way she looked when she cried.

The submerged aching that reverberated in him as he witnessed how she became humiliated when he entered any room. His spectacle. The wreck of the 4th of July: him high, her standing too close to David, his best fucking friend, leaning slightly into his warm shoulder. Shivering nervously against him with a look in her eyes. Tess dismissed it, “What do you know? You’re strung out. Like always.” How she stopped looking, checking, reacting, and was no longer disappointed that he had disappointed. Then she kicked him in the face and brought him to the hospital. When people called her looking for him, she clipped, “I don’t keep track of junkies.” How she studied all the time and had things to do. She wore new clothes. There were burn marks on her body as he disrobed her on rainy nights when her father was drinking and she explained that she needed to get out of the house. One day Jeremy saw her lying on the campus green, laughing, kicking her feet high in the air. She was not there to see him. Jeremy walked the other away, pushing against the woven fibers of his beating heart. Hating her.

But it was Tess standing in the parking lot to collect him when he got out of rehab. She was drinking Diet Coke and leaning loosely against her dead brother’s car. She said, “Welcome home.” The radio played Dvořák. Nobody cried.

Now Jeremy saw plainly how it had been, how she had come looking for him as a wound to an arrow. How they needed each other to hurt and be hurt.  Once Jeremy had made it to the ninth step and came asking for forgiveness. Tess smiled inscrutable like an icon of the Virgin, and said, “At least it was you.”

Here he was beside her again, older but young, as strong and as weak as he’d ever been and wholly unable to steer her from pain. All he could do was watch her sleep after she cried, and come when she called for him. There she was, asleep on his bed, a small torch, a small fire, the last light in his frozen world. A flame in the perpetual arctic of his winter. Jeremy looked at the bottle of pills. He picked up the glass of water. He plucked out an ice cube with his index finger and placed it on her back, in the place her shirt had pulled up while she was sleeping. The ice cube slid around before it glided to a rest at the small of her back. A tiny, intimate lake began to form.

“I can feel it,” she said, not entirely awake or entirely asleep. Her hair was spread across her face, blinding her.

“What is it?” he said, moving the hair back from her eyes, which were still closed.

“It’s melting. I’m melting it,” she said. Tess opened her eyes, spreading her long lashes like wings, and the green of her eyes was a threnody for the freezing sea. She turned over, dripping the water from the ice onto the bed. She stretched across to the side table, attempting to turn the clock towards her. She had been asleep for hours, she knew. She was still asleep, really, and as she reached—to turn the clock, to learn the time—she managed to pull out the plug and when she stretched to put it back in the socket, she knocked over the vial of pills and they scattered like snowflakes on a lawn. “Jeremy,” she said, “Come help me, please,” and he stretched over the bed to plug in the clock and he felt a familiar heat echo out across his limbs as he watched the water glistening down her back. For the first time, in a very long time, Jeremy didn’t worry about the pills spread across the floor. For the first time, in a very long time, he remembered what it was to melt. He remembered the feel of fire and saw that he was water.

Maybe it was not too late. He plugged in the clock. The time was 00:00.