Two years ago I arrived in Aberdeen twelve hours after I got off the phone with Matt. I had left the office shortly after my conversation with Lauren, having delegated the most pressing tasks to my team. I took Maggie, my nine-year old giant schnauzer, to the kennel, threw clothes in a bag, and hopped in my car.
It was pitch black when I pulled into the driveway on Thistle Lane. The long days of the summer in northern Alberta, where at the height of summer it never truly gets dark, are a distant memory in the winter, where the sun only shines for a few hours a day. As my headlights flashed over the fresh snow on the front lawn I shivered in the warmth of my car. I had driven straight, only stopping for gas, munchies and the bathroom. My ass hurt from sitting for so long, legs cramped, and sleep gathered at the corner of my eyes, urging me to move from the car to the house. Aside from a light coming from the kitchen window, the house was dark. It was one in the morning and I knew better than to hope that everyone would be asleep.
I opened the front door, it was never locked, no one had a key. I could hear someone shuffling in the kitchen, and walked toward the lighted room, my feet heavy. Katie was standing at the window, a steaming mug in her hands, staring. “Hi, I didn’t expect you to be here,” I said, putting my purse on the island and walking toward Katie.
She turned, eyes rimmed in red, “Didn’t Matt tell you that we are all staying here, to be with your mom?” She set the mug down and walked stiffly toward me, embracing me in a hug.
“Yeah, I think he did. It’s been a long day. Is everyone else in bed?”
“Your mom and the kids are sleeping. The doctor gave her a sedative to help with sleep. I could use one of those right now,” she forced out a laugh.
“And Matt?” I knew that Sarah, her husband Danny and their daughter Ada, wouldn’t be in Aberdeen for another day. They had moved to the United Kingdom three years earlier. Danny was originally from London, and was a partner in a large international law firm there. Sarah worked as a journalist for The Times, and free-lanced for other international papers now and then.
“I don’t know.” Katie replied quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t know where he went. He took off a couple hours ago; I think he just needed some time to himself. It’s been a hard day. He was with your dad at the store when it happened,” Katie said. She took a sip from her steaming mug, “would you like some tea?”
I had talked to Matt three times during my drive to Aberdeen, he had failed to mention this fact at any point. I was exhausted. My head was telling my to go to bed, to talk to Matt in the morning. But there was something else nagging at me, “Katie, is everything else alright?”
“Well your dad just died, Anna, isn’t that enough?”
“More than enough,” I muttered under my breath. “I just, well, the last few weeks, when I talk to Matt, he seems, I don’t know, distant or something.”
Katie’s eyes narrowed to slits, her red curls reflected the lights, and her mouth was set in a thin line, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re probably right,” I wasn’t going to get anything out of her anyway. Katie wasn’t my fan, ever since I cut her shoelaces in grade five. In hindsight, she may have good reason to dislike me, but our battles go so far back, neither one of us knows where it started. Sometimes, I just want to grab her, shake her, and yell, “Are we done? Let’s be grown ups, we can do this!” But that would probably elicit a slap, and my cheeks are rosy enough. “I’m going to see if I can find him,” I said picking up my purse and leaving Katie starring after me.
I had a pretty good idea where Matt was. There was really only one place to drink in Aberdeen, the Aberdeen Hotel. Almost like it’s mandatory, every small town seems to have an old hotel, with rooms you wouldn’t dare step foot in, let alone sleep in. The carpet so old, trapped with the smell of cigarette smoke and sweat. And in each of these hotels is a bar, it’s the main reason that the establishments stay open, the revenue from the locals, and transients alike, is enough to send Rusty Kovach, the proprietor of the Aberdeen Hotel, on month long trips to the Mediterranean destination of his choice each year.
I walked through the door, stomping my feet on the entrance rug to remove the snow, and looked around. It was a large square room, seven slot machines lined along the west wall, all of them occupied by glossy eyed automatons, click, beep, click, beep, with the odd ding, ding, ding, and a red flashing light. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered in the air, even though smoking had been banned more than ten years ago in bars. The bar was dark, with muted lights being absorbed into the red walls and dark brown furniture. There were a few people in the bar, most I didn’t recognize. Sitting at the counter was Matt, a young blonde woman beside him, her hand resting on his shoulder. There was something familiar about her, but I couldn’t be sure. She couldn’t be more than twenty-five, her long blonde hair fell in waves down her back, her breasts perky under a shimmering yellow, cleavage-baring top.
Totally inappropriate for winter if you ask me. Seriously, what is she thinking, she’s going to freeze. I remember when fashion mattered more to me than the cold. Lining up outside bars in the dead of winter, waiting to get in, wearing the most inappropriate five inch heals and no jacket – so I didn’t have to worry about where I left it all night. I was past that stage, and there was no reason for Matt to be hanging out with a girl like that.
In that instant, anger washed over me, what did he think he was doing? There were two highball glasses, and a beer sitting in front of him, his head was hanging low, and the girl was inching closer with every second that passed. And back at the home we had grown up in, his wife was staring out a kitchen window, with three children and a grieving mother sleeping upstairs. The jukebox in the corner was playing Aerosmith and it was easy to slip back to thoughts of high school dances, Scott Puzio’s arms around my waist as we danced, not even room for a breath between us.
No one in the bar even seemed to notice that I had arrived. I walked toward my brother, the blonde looking over her shoulder, frowned at me, as I came up to Matt’s left side. I picked up one of the glasses, amber liquid over ice, sniffed and took a drink. The scotch burned on the way down, “What are you doing here, Matty?”
It took him a second to notice that anyone was talking to him, he turned his head slowly, recognition sparked in his eye, “Annalou! Hi!” He stumbled off his chair and hugged me.
“You should leave now,” I said to the blonde. Ah, so familiar, who is she?
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” She took her hand from Matt and took a sip of her beer.
“Schuyler, go home, I’ll talk to you later,” Matt said. The blonde huffed and stumbled off her bar stool. I watched her walk out the door, silently wishing she would fall on her ass on the ice.
“Schuyler? As in Schuyler Jansen, who I used to babysit?” Now I knew why she was familiar, although the last time I saw her she was probably ten, and not even in a training bra. “What the hell, Matt?” I sat down next to my brother. He looked smaller than the last time I had seen him. Tired. I wanted to punch him and hug him at the same time.
“What? It’s nothing; she works at the hardware store. She was upset about dad, we decided to get a drink.” He downs the last of the liquid in the glass and chases it with a swig of beer. My father owned Emerson Hardware and Building Supplies in Aberdeen. Matt had been working there since high school and continued to help run the store while maintaining his duties as the mayor.
“I didn’t expect to have to find you in a bar, with a girl draped over you, that’s all,” I said.
“Shit, Anna, she wasn’t draped on me. We were reminiscing about dad, it’s been a tough day.”
Matt rarely gave me a reason to doubt him, but my gut was telling me this wasn’t all there was to it. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of him, “Come on, let’s get home. You have a wife who can’t get to sleep, and three kids who are going to be up in a few hours and they need their dad.”
“Yeah, well, we all need our dad…” Matt mumbled. We left the bar and climbed into my car, “I’m not ready to go home yet Annalou.”
“What did you have in mind? It’s freezing out and I’m exhausted,” I said, turning the heat on full blast to mitigate the icy chill.
Matt groaned, pulling the seat-belt across his body and clicking it in, “I don’t know, I just want to chat.”
“Okay, I’ll drive, you chat,” I said. I backed my car into the street and started to drive around this town I had gladly left right after high school.
“Do you ever regret leaving here so soon?” He asked.
“Not even a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, I missed being here with you, and watching Josh grow up, and then the girls come along. And I wish I had been here more to spend time with mom and dad, but no, I don’t regret leaving this place,” I turned toward the school, driving slowly on the snow packed streets.
“I wish we hadn’t stayed.”
“What do you mean?”
“Me and Katie. I just think, I wonder sometimes, how things may have been different. But, there was Josh, and he is awesome, so you know, that’s cool,” Matt slurred. Josh was Katie and Matt’s son. Katie got pregnant in our last semester of high school, it was the first time she had a blemish on her otherwise impeccable standing in Aberdeen. Her parents, who had so many plans for Katie, were furious and kicked her out. Katie and Matt turned to our parents who took them in. They were very supportive of them, and allowed Katie and Matt to stay after Josh was born. Matt worked for dad, and Katie took care of Josh. They finally got married when Josh was two.
“What’s going on Matt?”
“She’s miserable, I’m miserable, the whole damn town is miserable,” he hung his head. Matt, the star of the Aberdeen Arrows hockey team, was slated to go to university on scholarship out of high school. However, when Katie got pregnant, he left the scholarship and dreams of leaving Aberdeen behind, choosing to stay with his high school love and raise their child together. He made the decision look easy, like it was never even a choice, but I know deep down he struggled with the idea of letting go of the opportunity to leave Aberdeen.
“You’re just going through a rough patch. You’re probably both tired, is Erica even sleeping through the night?” Erica was not even a year old, and during previous calls Matt had mentioned that she was the most difficult to get down at night, compared to her relatively easy brother and sister.
“There’s something wrong with Katie, she is impossible to be around, ever since Erica. She is sad all the time, she won’t let me help, she’s always yelling at me. The other day she physically pushed me away.”
“Maybe she has postpartum depression. Has she seen anyone about it?” I asked. I knew nothing about this stuff, but based on my love of medical dramas I felt like I had this diagnosis nailed.
“She won’t talk to me Anna, how am I going to get her talk to anyone else?” Matt’s voice was rising in agitation. I hadn’t seen him like this before, but considering the day he had, and the quantity of alcohol consumed, it wasn’t all that surprising.
“Ok, well, do you want me to talk to her?” I offered, hoping the answer was no.
Matt actually burst out laughing, “You hate Katie, that will never work.”
“I don’t hate her, we just have differences, but I care about her, and I care about the kids. I’ll talk to her if you think it could help.” I pulled the car into the school parking lot, and look at the silhouette of the building in the streetlights. Sometimes, when I’ve lost my mind, I think that it would be great to be back in high school. In my memories there is something about the air, like it smelled different growing up, freer. The music, all staticy and angsty, had lyrics that meant more. The world seemed simpler. But it was tough too, always second-guessing who I really was, unsure which step may knock me down the social ladder. It’s easy to look back on something in the past, romanticizing all that it could have been, when in reality it’s just that, the past. It happened already, and nothing I do can change the way things turned out, I can only focus on what happens next.
“There’s something else,” Matt said.
I looked at him, and he refused to meet my eyes, “what is it?”
“I kissed Schuyler,” Matt mumbles. It takes me a few seconds to decode what he said. And when I do, I feel like punching him in the face.
“You heard me.”
“I did, but I thought maybe I was having an aneurism or something. What the fuck!?” Matt, my always perfect, always thoughtful brother, had done something that was completely inconceivable in my mind. “Please tell me that was all you did.”
“Yes, I swear. I don’t know what to do, I really like her.”
“You really like her? You really LIKE HER! Are you kidding me right now?” It’s a good thing I was parked because I might have ran my car into a tree just to try to knock some sense into him. “I don’t even know what to say to you right now. I can’t deal with this right now, Matt. I can’t. Dad died less than twenty-four hours ago and you’re telling me your making-out with some blonde, fresh out of high school. What is this a mid life crisis? Seriously!?”
“She’s twenty-six, and I’m not perfect Anna,” Matt said.
“Well ain’t that the understatement of the night. Look, we aren’t done talking about this, but I can’t even believe you right now. I can’t. I need to go get some sleep, because, maybe, just maybe, if there is a god, I will wake up and this will all be a nightmare. You won’t be a philandering ass hole, and dad will still be alive. Barring that, I’m going to have some shit to say to you tomorrow, but it can wait until then,” I pulled out of the parking lot and drove toward the house.
“Anna, I’m sorry, I just, Katie was being so distant. It was like she didn’t want me anymore,” Matt pleaded.
“It’s not me you need to apologize to. If she’s not OK you get her some help. You find out what is going on, and you support her. You don’t cheat on her. Dammit. I never thought I would take Katie’s side over yours Matt, but this is beyond…” I was speechless. Out of words. What the hell was he thinking? Matt wasn’t in the business of disappointing people. All of my hopes for true love were tied up in these two. Sure me and Katie had issues, but I was long over the fact that she married my brother. I was so over this day, this day where my world got turned upside down, and then trampled.
“I’m not philandering. Shit, Anna, calm down. It was just a kiss. And I knew right away that I had to stop it there.”
“Fuck,” it was really the only way to describe how I felt in that moment.