Driving on the Lake
[Originally published in a different form in South Dakota Review, Fall 2001.]
Every girl Carlos ever dated had a sweet tooth. Once, a girl broke up with him because she had gained ten pounds in the time they had been together. He was hurt by this—struck deeply—even though he did not care for her very much. He had noticed her gaining the weight, watched the softening of her chin, her gentle fleshing out. He felt an illicit triumph at the sight of it, the way he had changed her body. Then she went home for Thanksgiving and her mother made comments. When she came back, she was angry at him and ashamed of herself. Months later, he saw her on a subway platform, holding hands with someone and he could not fail to notice that she was thinner—thinner even than when he had first met her.
Carlos was a pastry chef. He felt like he prepared breakfast for half of Inwood: cinnamon rolls, donuts, muffins, sticky buns and Danish. It made him proud. He liked to watch people wipe the crumbs from the corners of their mouths, lick the frosting from their fingers and suck the sweetness from their mustaches. He knew no satisfaction like opening the oven doors and seeing the transformation of his batters and doughs—not even the satisfaction he felt opening a girl’s legs for the first time.
On his days off, he went to college campuses, to Fordham and Columbia, sometimes riding the train all the way down to N.Y.U. It wasn’t regret that brought him to these places, it was the girls. He liked to watch them, with their expensive hair and their perfect faces, getting into SUVs with out-of-state plate. He liked to eavesdrop on their conversations in cafeterias and bars, conversations about a life he thought he did not want. Through the years, he had many student girlfriends, mostly white undergraduates who had no mind to make something lasting with him. He was their dalliance, their exotic experiment. They liked his brown skin, his strong baker’s arms and the pastries he fed them. They liked him until the novelty wore off and the weight came on.
After the girl had come back from Thanksgiving and broken up with him, he scorned the colleges for a time, staying uptown. A few months later, he met someone at a party in Washington Heights. She was tall, slim, Asian. Her arms were muscled like branches. She was looking at a pie on the table. “Did you make this?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “You want to try some?”
“No, what I really want is some coffee.”
Food was his only means of seduction, so he searched the cupboards and made her coffee. She told him she didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, which astonished him. He’d never met a girl who didn’t like dessert.
Her name was Anna. Carlos watched her drink the coffee, questioning her as he did so. She was a graduate student in geography. It seemed he would never escape these university girls. She was different, though. Where the others had been dismissive of their academic lives, Anna spoke of her studies passionately, her talk a rush of rivers, glaciers and the hidden forces of the earth.
“I’m going to Cornell in the fall,” she said. “To study the Finger Lakes.”
“Cornell,” he said. “Where’s that?”
He had learned to bake by watching his mother. She made pies, flans and cupcakes for family gatherings, her dark fingers floured white on the dowels of the rolling pins, the heat and the smell from the oven filling their little apartment. In time, he mastered her repertoire and expanded it, adding éclairs, turnovers, strudel and even croissants, teaching himself from second-hand books how to bake bread and fancy pastry.
From her, he’d also learned his ambitions. The life he imagined for himself was a variation on his parents’ lives. Eventually, he would meet a Dominican girl, find an apartment in the Heights, spend his summers watching ballgames in Inwood Park. Once a year, they’d board a plane to Santo Domingo to see la familia. Eventually there would be children. There was nothing deficient in such a life, he thought, but being with Anna made him wonder.
They saw each other regularly. She sublet a studio in Morningside Heights and he went to the apartment with his little white boxes which lay unopened on the table as they made love. Afterwards, they sat up in bed and talked like creatures from different planets who’d finally discovering intelligent life.
She laughed when he said he’d never been west of the Mississippi. She had grown up in San Francisco, Denver and Olympia, cities as exotic to him as Singapore, Damascus and Warsaw, as exotic as her fine Chinese features. She had gone to Berkeley, now Columbia, next Cornell. Places were like clothes for her, easily changed. He was intoxicated by the idea of it and for the first time he questioned the life he’d always imagined for himself. When she invited him to come north with her, Carlos said yes with barely a thought.
It was a mistake.
He felt at odds with Ithaca right away. It was too remote, too rarefied, too white. He missed the Heights and the huge spectrum of people he had served. He missed New York. A whole city of students and professors was too much for him to bear. He tried to imitate Anna’s ease, the effortless way she left her past behind and made new friends, but he failed. Things always seemed to happen for her just the way she wanted. At first, this made her attractive, but Carlos began to resent it now. One night, washing a knife in their apartment, he thought of stabbing her, the blade cutting through her skin like the crust of a pie. This moment of insanity lasted less than a breath, but it frightened him. He went to bed without mentioning it to her, but he knew then that they would not last. By Halloween, she was involved with somebody up at the university. A month later, she was gone, leaving him alone to ponder his options.
Contrary to his own expectations—and those of his family—he did not leave. They were waiting for him to come running home as soon as it got cold, but he had already created a life of sorts for himself. He had a job at the Cayuga Bakery, making fancy pastry. One morning, in the midst of his breakup with Anna, he set off early for work to escape her. At a stop sign, a woman crossed in front of him and waved. He recognized her, a regular customer. He waved back, and for the first time, he did not feel like a stranger in the town. In the end, that was what convinced him to stay, the wave of a hand.
Winter came. He had never seen anything like it: snow every day, the windows an inch thick with ice, drifts piled up everywhere. One night he was driving near the lake in the old beater he’d bought from his Tio Modesto. He was looking for the town dump. Somehow, he took a wrong turn and drove through a grove of trees into Stewart Park. Violently, the car crunched over something—it sounded like a huge pothole—and then he was out in the open, no trees, just the hills in the distance and the stars in the sky and he realized that he was driving on the lake. For some time, the car skidded out of control, fishtailing on the frozen surface before he finally turned it around and headed for shore, his throat pounding with fear.
The next morning, the car would not start. A Triple A driver came and hitched it to the back of his truck. As they drove towards the dealership along Route 13, a panoramic view of the lake came into sight. Carlos looked back towards Stewart Park and saw the shelf of ice extending from the shore like a giant fin. He wondered how far he had gone out, how close he had come to falling through the ice and sinking to his death in the frigid black water.
At the dealership, the mechanic told him he wouldn’t be able to look at the car until the next day. “Seems like nobody’s car wanted to start this morning.” Carlos nodded and wandered away from the garage into the showroom where the display models were parked, gleaming under the thick neon light. He approached a green sedan and bent to read the information posted in its window. The price of the car was almost exactly his year’s salary. He tried to imagine how much pastry you could buy with that much money. It would fill the showroom. Row upon row of cake boxes stacked to the ceiling.
“That one’s a better deal.”
Carlos looked up and saw a young woman standing at the far end of the showroom. She was pointing at a small four-wheel drive vehicle. She had red hair and freckles, set off by a cream-colored sweatshirt. Everything about her made him think of strawberries.
“My car’s being fixed,” said Carlos.
“Bet you need a ride, then,” she said, holding up a set of keys.
In the dealership’s Courtesy Shuttle, she drove them away from the highway towards the darkened back roads of Cayuga Heights. It was a route Carlos had heard about, but had never been able to navigate.
“Are you a student?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m a pastry chef, at the Cayuga Bakery.”
She was transformed by the news. “Oh my God, I love that place. I practically lived there when I was in high school.”
“You grew up around here?”
“My dad owns the dealership,” she said. “I just got out of college, so he gave me a job.” She gestured at the van’s dashboard.
They were driving along gently curving roads, past trees and large homes set back from the road. Carlos looked out at the houses where the rich of Ithaca lived and he guessed she had grown up in one of them. He looked at her again. She was pretty. There was a privileged softness to her; she reminded him of the coeds he had fattened with his pastry. Pinned to her sweatshirt was a name: Christine.
“Here you are,” she said, bringing the van to a stop in front of his apartment.
“Thanks,” said Carlos, opening the door and stepping out.
“Maybe I’ll drop in on you at the bakery sometime,” she said.
“Sure,” said Carlos. “Whatever you like—on the house.”
The next day at work, one of the women who served at the counter came back and said there was someone who wanted to see him.
Carlos looked up from his worktable. Through the door to the front of the bakery, he could see the car dealer’s daughter. She waved at him.
He slid a tray of pies into the oven and put a timer in his pocket and went out to meet her, wiping his dough-encrusted hands on his apron. “Hi. How are you?”
“Good,” she said. “I thought I’d take you up on your offer. She was better dressed than she had been the day before, wearing black woolen slacks, a burgundy turtleneck and an expensive-looking black ski jacket. She seemed older, too, than the recent college graduate who had driven him home the previous night.
She chose a large éclair. Carlos poured two cups of coffee and sat with her at one of the tables along the window, the timer ticking away in the pocket of his apron.
“I’ve been thinking about this all day,” she said. She at the pastry rapidly, in huge mouthfuls, the cream oozing out the back onto the tips of her fingers. It was gone before Carlos had even put his cup to his lip
“God,” she said. “That was so good.”
“You want another one?”
She blushed, her pale, freckled face turning the color of meat. “I better not.” She looked sidelong at the pastry case.
“Veng,” said Carlos. He retrieved another éclair.
“Mmmmmmm. You’re incredible.” She licked the cream from her fingers. “So what’s going on with your car?”
“They think it’ll be ready tomorrow afternoon.”
“I could pick you up,” she said, smiling.
The following afternoon, she was eating a cupcake when he came out from the back at the end of his shift. He felt self-conscious approaching her. He had worked hard that day and the bakery smell, a sour musk of sweat and flour, clung heavily to him.
She had other concerns. In the van, she blurted out: “I hope you don’t think I’m a big pig for the way I eat.”
Carlos was shocked. “No,” he said. “The reason I’m a pastry chef is to make people happy.”
She sighed with relief. “Most people wouldn’t understand. For me, eating those things is like being loved. It’s the best thing there is.”
“I’ve been told that before,” he said. “Besides, I’m Dominican. We don’t like skinny girls.”
This made her smile.
As he got out of the car at the dealership, Carlos gave her a box. “This is for you,” he said. “It’s a mocha cheesecake. Maybe you can have it after dinner with your family tonight.”
Her reaction was ecstatic. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you!” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
The bill for the repairs was much more than he had anticipated. The mechanic explained what was wrong with the car, but Carlos didn’t understand a word of it. He gave the man his credit card.
“So the car is fine now?”
The mechanic hesitated as he typed digits into the credit card terminal. “Well, it’s an old car. You can’t say anything for sure with an old car like that. I wouldn’t throw away the Triple A number if I were you.”
He went home for Christmas and was staggered by how crowded and loud the city was. How ugly. He couldn’t wait to get back to Ithaca. January was a slow time at the bakery. His hours were reduced. The days went murkily by. Every night it seemed to snow: two inches, five inches, seven inches. The plows came down the street in the early morning and woke him before the alarm went off—just as the garbage trucks had done in New York. He lay in bed and watched the thick flakes fall in cones under the streetlights.
Christine called him. She wondered if he wanted to come up to the house. He had been thinking about her, tempting himself, wondering. He said yes.
She picked him up in the Courtesy Shuttle and they drove up the hill to Collegetown and Cayuga Heights.
“How was the cake?” Carlos asked.
“Everybody loved it,” she said. “I hope you don’t think I’m bad, but I ate most of it myself.” She giggled. “And then I went and bought another one the other day.” She was wearing black jeans and a shearling coat. She seemed a little older every time he saw her. She was wearing makeup. He noticed lines on her face. Perhaps they were merely accented by the light of the setting sun.
The house was a large wooden structure with Tudor details, lots of chimneys and an expansive snow-covered lawn. Christine parked in the driveway and led him in through the back door.
She gave him a tour of the grand rooms downstairs, the massive kitchen, the living room with three sofas and the den with the flat-screen TV. They sat on the overstuffed couch in the den and she turned on the television. A music video came on, women in leather costumes dancing in a warehouse. Christine turned down the volume and Carlos asked her where she had gone to college.
“Oh!” she said, as if surprised. “Columbia.”
“I’m from New York, you know,” he said.
“Oh, let’s not talk about New York,” she said. She turned her eyes down melodramatically. When she looked up at him again, it was as if another person had inhabited her body. “I don’t really want to talk at all,” she said and leaned forward to kiss him.
He reached out and accepted her body with his arms, feeling the softness beneath her clothes as they kissed. “Mmmm,” she said. “You taste almost as good as your cakes.” They kissed again and this time Carlos reached under her sweater. With some difficulty, he unhooked her bra and ran his hands across her breasts, rising the nipples. She laughed and pushed him away. “Not yet,” she said. And then she stood up. “Follow me.”
She took his hand and led him upstairs to her room. It was a catastrophe. There were clothes everywhere: expensive clothes, designer names he had seen in magazines; bags of clothes piled up against the open door to the walk-in closet. On the walls were photographs of gorgeous women—Marilyn Monroe, Princess Grace, Princess Diana, jewelry models, shampoo models. The bed was unmade, a rumple of pillows and blankets. Sitting on the exposed sheets was a pastry box, with its lid open and a three-quarters-eaten cheesecake inside. Christine sat on the bed while Carlos continued taking in the spectacle of the room.
“Carlos?” she said, plaintively.
“I have a favor to ask.”
“I want you to feed me.”
This was something he had never done with a girl and he wondered how that was possible.
“I want you to feed me the rest of this cake,” she said.
“Is there anyone else home?” he asked.
“All right.” He sat beside her on the bed. “Where’s the fork.”
“There isn’t one. You’ll have to use your hands.”
He tore a piece of the cake and held it towards her mouth with his thumb and forefinger. It was stale and brittle, though the center was still soft.
She leaned forward and opened her mouth, taking in his fingers to the knuckle. “Mmmm. That is so good. More please.”
Carlos fed her the remains of the cake, becoming aroused as he did so. She licked his finger tips as he withdrew them from her mouth each time. But when he had the last piece in his hand, she took it from him. “Here,” she said. “Let me feed you.”
“No thanks,” said Carlos. “You can have it.”
“No!” she shouted and tried to force the cake into his mouth, smearing it against his cheek.
“Diablo!” said Carlos.
“Wait, wait,” she said. “I’ll lick it off.” Then she was on top of him, pushing him into the mattress with surprisingly strong arms, her tongue against his cheek, licking the cheesecake from his skin.
“What’s going on here?”
It was a man’s voice and it caused Christine to stop pushing him into the mattress. She sat up. ‘Hi Daddy,” she said.
Carlos sat up too, wiping his face with the back of his hand as Christine climbed off him. The man who had spoken was standing near the bed with his hands folded across his chest. He was tall, with wavy white hair and pink skin, his face in a deep frown. Carlos began to edge away from him, but the man merely turned to his daughter and said, “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
Christine’s father drove Carlos home through the winding, snowy lanes of Cayuga Heights, talking as he drove.
“She was looking forward to seeing you all week. I’m sorry if she seems… well, a little excitable. I’m sure you had no idea what you were getting into when you agreed to go on a date with my daughter.” He looked over at Carlos and wrinkled his mouth, not quite a smile.
“She’d usually very well behaved when she’s in public,” he went on. “But at home, it’s hard to tell. She has a good heart and means well. She really is a good person. All she requires is a little… patience. Yes, patience. Over the years she’s met all sorts of unpleasant men through that damned shuttle. I’ve thought of giving her another job; I just don’t know what to do with her sometimes,” He looked again at Carlos. “I can see you’re a decent sort. You’re different—I mean that in a good way. I can see you’ll treat her well. She’s my only child and I do try to look after her—no matter how unpredictable she can be.”
They stopped outside of Carlos’s apartment. Christine’s father reached into his coat and brought out a card. He wrote something on the back and handed it to Carlos. “The next time you need some work done on your car, just show them this. It’ll be on me.”
The following evening as Carlos walked out of work, Christine drove up in the Courtesy Shuttle. She rolled down the window and smiled at him. “I was hoping I could see you tonight,” she said.
Carlos looked at her, hesitating. He’d spent all day thinking about her, thinking about what her father had said, going back and forth. He wasn’t sure what to do. The whole thing seemed risky.
“Please.” Her voice was calm. “I’m sorry if I surprised you yesterday. I just want to apologize. It’s important for me to apologize. I like you so much. You’re really sweet. Please?”
“All right,” said Carlos. “But I’ll drive.”
She parked the Shuttle in the bakery lot and they both got into Carlos’s car. She was wearing a form-fitting white ski suit with furred boots and Carlos couldn’t help staring at her legs as she got in.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked.
“Have you ever been to Lucifer Falls?”
“No,” he said.
“It’s peaceful there. We can talk.”
They drove out of town into rolling farm country. Along a secondary road there was an entrance to a state park. “Up here,” she said, directing him.
The night was clear and cold, a waxing moon turning the snow-covered fields silvery. Carlos parked in the gravelly lot and left the engine on for the heat.
“Did you really go to Columbia?” he asked.
She nodded. “For a while, but I had some problems…I transferred to Cortland and did much better there.” She waited for him to say something. When he didn’t, she said, “Do you think less of me, knowing that?”
He shook his head. “No. I never even went to college.”
She opened the door, letting the icy wind into the car. “Come on, let’s go over and look at the falls.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I’m not going to jump or anything!” she laughed. “It’s just so beautiful over there.” She smiled and tilted her head back, beckoning him.
“All right.” He shut off the engine and opened the door to the cold and the roar of the falls. They walked to the fenced-in precipice and looked down on the frozen milkstream at the bottom of the gorge where the spay had turned to powder on the rocks.
“This is another place I used to come a lot in high school,” she said.
He was already too cold to talk. All he could think about was going back to the car, going home, getting away from here.
“I lied about just getting out of college, too,” she said. “I’m almost thirty. That means I’m probably older than you. I’m almost thirty and I’m still living with my mom and dad. If I’m not careful, I’m going to end up being an old maid. That’s what my mom always says, that I’m going to be an old maid. Do you think you might be interested in seeing an old maid some more?” She paused. “I can be good, I promise.”
First the cold and now this. It was too much for him. “I can’t,” he said, looking down at the frozen water, wondering how thick it was, how much weight it would bear.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I have a girlfriend,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “You never mentioned her.” The look of devastation on her face was unlike anything he had ever seen.
“She’s been away,” he said. “She’s coming back tomorrow.”
“You cold have told me,” she said. ‘I would have understood. Someone as nice as you should have a girlfriend. Now I feel like a real fool. I’m really a fool, aren’t I?” she was looking at him, the breath coming softly from her nose.
“You’re not a fool,” he said. “I’m a fool. Not you.”
They sat in silence for a time and then she started to weep, a gentle trickle of tears shining her freckled cheeks.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s cold.”
He tried to take her arm, but she pushed him away. They crunched and stomped they separate routes back to the car.
One they were inside, she said, “I want to go home.”
Carlos turned the key in the ignition. The dashboard lights pulsed and the starter cleared its throat, but the satisfying rush and pump of the engine did not come.
“Take me home!” she said.
He waited a moment and tried again, but the engine would not start. They sat there, side-by-side, watching their breath turn to ice on the windshield. “Please take me home,” she said.
At last the car started. She sobbed gently as he drove, now and then muttering something he could not understand. At first he drove quickly, to get the journey over with, but the closer he came to the town, the slower he went. He found himself dreading what was coming, the being alone again. Maybe he had made a mistake. He looked over at her, reached across to touch her, but she shrugged him off. Finally, someone in the car behind them honked and goaded him on. He pulled into the bakery lot and she got out without looking back, slamming the door and running across the icy parking lot in her tight white ski suit. She climbed into the Courtesy Shuttle and drove away.
Carlos sat in his parked car with the engine running. Across the lot, the bakery’s front windows were darkened, but the side door was open and he saw one of the bread bakers standing in the doorway smoking a cigarette, welcoming the other bakers as they arrived for the night shift. The bread baker shook hands with each of them, smiling and exchanging a few words before letting them pass into the warm, buttery light of the bakery’s interior. After the last of the night shift workers had gone in, the bread baker peered out at the parking lot, trying to see who it was in the parked car. Carlos waved, but the bread baker gave no sign that he had seen him. He threw his cigarette butt into the snow and, with a shiver, withdrew into the bakery, closing the door behind him.
The next morning, Carlos did not want to get out of bed. A frozen rain was falling, drumming the windowpanes like the fingers of an impatient customer. The thought of scraping ice from his car was almost too much for him to bear. What was he doing here? Why wasn’t he back in Washington Heights, taking the subway to work?
He dressed, putting on his coat and gloves, preparing to do battle with the windshield. Outside, the frozen drops of water fell on him heavily, like coins. The car was worse than he had feared: it was entirely glazed with ice. He was about to begin scraping when he heard two blats of a horn. Idling at the curb nearby was a car, the exhaust smoke rising up through the rain and a dim green luminance emanating from the interior. Carlos stood there, with the scraper raised, looking at the idling car. The horn sounded again. He lowered the scraper and approached. As he drew nearer, the passenger side window slipped down revealing Christine’s father. “How’d you like a ride to work?” he asked, cheerfully.
Carlos stood in disbelief. He was ready to refuse, but one glance back at his own car quickly changed his mind. He tossed the scraper into the snow.
“Come on,” said the father amiably. “I was on my way to the dealership and I thought you might need a ride. It’s a terrible morning, isn’t it?”
“Thanks,” said Carlos, getting in. It was not the same car in which he’d been driven home a few nights earlier. It was newer, better—a car made for winter. It felt solid, heavy. Carlos pushed his body into the heated front seat, almost snuggling against the leather. “Damn, this is a nice car,” he said.
“It’s next year’s model. I’m just trying it out for a couple of weeks.”
The father eased the car into the frozen, rutted street. The ride was smooth, the icy snow crumpling softly beneath them with the sound of popping air.
“So tell me,” said the father. “Do you really have a girlfriend?” He looked at Carlos with concern.
“No,” said Carlos. “I did, but not any more.”
“I didn’t think so,” said the father. “That’s what I told Christine last night when she came home crying. ‘He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He’s just afraid.’ You were just afraid, weren’t you, Carlos?
“I guess so.” The admission came with surprising ease.
“Of course you were. That’s why you’re just the person my daughter needs. The rest of those jerks weren’t afraid at all. They just went ahead and drank her up like the free coffee in the waiting room.” The father stopped talking for a moment as he maneuvered around a marooned car.
“Listen, just give her another chance. That’s all I’m asking. She’s a sweet girl. She could make the right guy really happy and I think you’re the right guy. Just one date. Try her out. Go out and have some fun with her, get a feel for what it might be like. If you don’t want to go out with her after that, well, I’ll respect that. I won’t ask you again.”
Already, they were pulling into the bakery parking lot. Carlos looked at him. The man was not smiling. His face was blank, as if it didn’t matter to him what Carlos might say.
Two nights later, Christine drove him towards the skating rink near the high school. She had been quiet since picking him up, not making eye contact and Carlos guessed that she was also there because of a sales pitch from her father. Her silence was unsettling at first, but Carlos soon relished the opportunity to observe her without talking. She was dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt worn over a white turtleneck, as if to say, this doesn’t really matter to me. Her hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail revealing the sizable diamond studs in her ears. She wore little makeup aside from the cherry lipstick that was always on her mouth. As she drove, she bit her bottom lip, sowing lines into her forehead. In that silence she was lovely and Carlos was glad he had accepted the father’s offer.
At the rink, they rented and laced their skates with minimal conversation. Standing up, she said to him, “You do know how to skate, don’t you?”
“Not really,” said Carlos. “Dominicans aren’t very good at winter sports.”
She frowned, almost a pout. “I’m sorry. Maybe we should have done something else.”
“No,” said Carlos. “This is fine.”
The rink was crowded with children and their parents and the occasional knot of laughing teenagers. Carlos waited for an opening and eased himself onto the ice like an old man getting into a swimming pool. He let go of the wall and moved his skates forward in choppy strokes.
He had lost Christine. He looked back towards the exit to see if she had left and then he saw her gliding toward him around the curve of ice, smiling, her face flushed. With a swivel of her hips and a scrape of her blades, she turned and began skating backwards in front of him.
“Come on, slowpoke.” She took him by the hands. Carlos pitched forward and landed on his knees.
“Whoops-a-daisy!” She was laughing, helping him as he tried to get up, his skates gaining no purchase on the ice. He fell backwards and lay there, the cold seeping through his jeans.
“You said, ‘Whoops-a-daisy.’”
“So?” Christine was laughing at him. She crouched and helped him up, skating behind him with her hands on his hips. “Just keep your skates straight and I’ll do the work.”
“I’ve only ever heard old ladies say ‘whoops-a-daisy,’” said Carlos, sliding across the ice, nervous but stable.”
“Maybe I’m old at heart,” said Christine. “Now put pressure on your right skate,” she said. They arced around the curve into the straightaway on the other side. In a moment, they had completed a circuit of the rink. Christine glided in front of him, once again skating backwards and pulling him gently forward by his hands.
“You’re good at this,” said Carlos.
“I used to be a whole lot better. I was second in the Finger Lake championships when I was twelve.” He watched as she propelled herself across the ice, the muscles of one leg tensing, then the other. She pulled him forward with apparent ease, checking behind now and then, but mostly looking at him as if waiting for him to confess something.
After several laps like this, she said, “You’re on your own now!” and let go. He staggered at first but regained his balance and continued forward as if trying to slide on an unwaxed floor in his socks.
Meanwhile, Christine lapped him twice and headed for center ice where she performed a series of spins Carlos had only ever seen on television. They were slower and less crisply executed, but impressive nonetheless, her ponytail horizontal as she whirled in place, her figure changing shape as her arms rose, thinning, to a point. Then she was out of it, down on one knee, sliding to a stop with her arms outstretched, breathing hard.
They drove to the Cayuga Bakery where she insisted on eating something he had made that day. Carlos steered her away from the Napoleons which had been a disappointment, selecting slices of the fruit tart instead.
“There’s marzipan in this, isn’t there?” she asked after the first bite.
“Oh, God. I love marzipan.”
Carlos watched with satisfaction as she ate. “Can you tell me some more about what happened in New York?” he said.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “I got so excited about everything that I ruined it all. That’s the way I am when something is important to me. I get so excited that I can’t sleep. Weeks before I even left for New York, I had stopped sleeping. I’d lie there in bed and just think about the life that was ahead of me. By the time I got to Columbia, I was exhausted. Then I got sick and missed a bunch of classes and all the parties where you were supposed to meet everyone. When I finally recovered, the other students started to make fun of me because I was so giddy about everything. I mean everything. I used to jump up and down every time I saw the street signs on Broadway. Can you imagine? They’d see me there on the corner of 112th Street dancing in front of the street sign because I couldn’t believe that I was in New York.
Carlos wanted to tell her that he had grown up a block from Broadway in Washington Heights and he had never thought twice about it, a grimy, crowded commercial strip full of rotisserie chicken restaurants and bodegas. He wanted to say something, but he was too busy noticing that she had only eaten half of her tart. Telling the story had distracted her from it. When she noticed where he was looking, she said, “Oh,” and polished off the remainder with two quick strokes of her fork.
“You know,” she said, still chewing. “I’m still the same way now. That’s why I was so crazy the first time I brought you up to the house. I just couldn’t believe you were there! It was just too much for me.”
They continued to talk until the bakery closed and she drove him home. It was still early, not even nine. He was eager to invite her up, to take her clothes off, to put his hands on her again. He kissed her in the car, kissed her again and was about to suggest she come in when she said, “I guess that means you want to do this again some time?”
And so they started dating. They went to the movies, to bars and restaurants. They went bowling and ice skating and hiked to the frozen shelves of water and white-powdered rock that had been Buttermilk and Lucifer Falls. They threw snowballs at each other, ice cubes, popcorn, pieces of pie. Carlos was invited over for dinner and met her mother who was just like her daughter, a force of ebullience. He cooked for her, slept with her, kissed her kneecaps. He kissed her fingers and breasts and hips and shoulders all the time, trying to kiss the extra pounds he was adding to her. He could not get enough of her flesh. To him it tasted like cream—rich and always on the verge of going bad. It was so easy, all of it and he wondered how she had changed. For weeks he wondered until he realized that it was not her.
In March, when he and Christine had been together almost two months, the father gave Carlos a car. It was a second-hand trade-in, but it was almost new. The engine was clean, the interior polished and vacuumed. It started with one twist of the key and hummed comfortingly. Sitting there, at the wheel of the idling car, with Christine’s father smiling beside him, he knew what it meant. It was more than just a car. This was his life he was sitting in.
The weather was turning. Several days in a row, the temperature had risen above freezing. The roads were clear now and the snow eroded on the lawns, streaked with dirt. Late one night, Carlos drove his old car down to Stewart Park. He found the road he had been on early in the winter and followed it. This time, he could see the low cement barrier where the road terminated. He drove over it, across the mushy snow, to the edge of the lake. Perhaps he was actually on the lake; it was impossible to tell. In any case, he was in the open. He pulled the emergency brake, but left the engine running and stepped out of the car. He reached in and set a brick against the accelerator, heard the engine rev. Then he released the brake. The car hopped and shuddered slowly forward, the driver’s door slamming shut as it picked up speed. He could see a stretch of frozen lake illuminated by the headlamps, the red taillights getting smaller and smaller. He watched the car go away from him, waiting for the sound the ice would make when it finally gave way.