“The hurricane didn’t come,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “Happy birthday.”
“I’ve aged out of birthdays,” she said.
“That’s what I mean. I’m not 16, or 18 or 21. It’s not like I’m getting something new I can do today.”
“In three years you can rent a car.” He looked at his watch. “We should go for that walk if you want to beat the rain.”
“Sure,” she said, her voice a little too melancholy to be casual.
The hurricane was supposed to come, but it didn’t. The forecasters out of Boston and Manchester had upped their predictions and upped them again — it was going to be heavy, torrential, unheard of for New England, Biblical. The school’d sent out an email about contingency plans for a flash flood. At the drug store the day before, the line had stretched far from the cashier, past the office supplies and antacids, and all the way back to the freezer case. Jess knew as much because she’d gone to the drug store to buy booze and mixers. That night, as dark fell and gusts began to creak on the window frame, she drank a couple of Hurricanes in her room, alone. She was in a listless mood, and when she was listless she tended to be a literalist.
And then, while Jess was turning 22 in her rum-soaked sleep, the storm lost a lot of steam and ended up tracking south to Jersey, flinging a few quick showers north to arrive in New Hampshire in midmorning. She woke up, without a hangover but feeling a ricketiness, a solemn creaking in her tired frame, to another October day in the mid-70s, another day of muggy air and haze on the mountains from the fires up north and dust clouds rising from students’ feet on campus trails.
Robin wanted to take her on a birthday hike to a mountaintop nearby. He hiked. He was from Maine, five foot six, built out of proportion like a Gothic sculpture, a senior like Jess. The two of them had started going out the spring before. They’d met on a blind date a friend who played folk guitar had set up. On the side, Robin taught piano lessons at the town’s elementary school. Jess’ dingy apartment was across the road from the school, and sometimes in the afternoons she could hear unsteady scales floating up the brickwork to her window.
“I’m mad it didn’t come,” Jess said as they left town.
“You don’t sound that mad.”
“I am.” He was right: she was speaking quietly, but she wasn’t mad, exactly. “You know what my parents got me for my birthday?”
“You opened it early?”
“A waterproof case for my camera.”
“Think about the shots I could’ve taken today, if it’d come.”
“You hate shit like that,” Robin said. He took a swig from his water bottle.
“Shit like what?”
“Nature-photography shit. You had a whole thing about it a few weeks ago. Your words: that’s the kind of stuff you post on Facebook if you’re a high school sophomore who got a camera for Christmas.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
The town was small, and the trailhead was right on the outskirts. The woods started abruptly. It wasn’t like Chicago, where Jess was from, where you’d go through fields of wheat and corn for miles, then hit another exurb. The woods smelled dusty, like the rest of the world did then. There were no owls on the branches, no red eyes glowing in the dark of shadow. The trees stood too far apart from each other, Jess thought; they left no mystery, no life.
“How’s it feel to be 22?” Robin asked.
“I’ve gotta ask.”
“Not great,” Jess said, looking at her shoes.
“Sorry. It’s just, I hate birthdays. They’re times when you’re supposed to feel happy, and you feel guilty if you don’t.”
“That’s not an explanation.”
He paused. “What’s wrong right now?”
“I dunno. It’s stupid. Really stupid.”
“Please tell me.”
“A few days ago, I was in class, right, and I realized that I hadn’t been paying any attention to what the professor’d said for the last 20 minutes. I’d just been staring at the clock. I’d been counting every second, literally every second. They were going by so slow, too. And my heart was in it. I cared so much about each second passing, almost like it was actually hurting me every moment longer I had to be in class. I’d look up at the clock and I’d see that there were still 15 more minutes and it’d just feel brutal.” She laughed a bitter laugh. “You know what I did when I got home?”
“What’d you do?”
“I sat on my bed and refreshed my email for an hour, then I went to dinner, then I went back to my room and I looked at the ceiling for another hour, then I went to bed. And I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how, fuck, it’s October already.” She coughed. The dying summer dust hurt her lungs. “I mean, how did I get here?”
“Hm,” Robin said, and then he was quiet for a while. He was the kind of person who always knew when to ask what was wrong, but who never quite knew what he was supposed to say once he’d actually heard the problem.
“Fuck, we’ve been here for three years,” Jess said.
“I should be different by now.”
“Better. Someone new. Everyone else is.”
“I don’t think I am,” Robin said.
“Of course you are. Think about freshman year. You’re stronger now. You’re successful.”
“And you’re not?”
“Not like you. I’m the same person I was last year, five years ago, way back in middle school. I mean, I feel the same. I know everyone does, but I’m just know I’m stuck. I’ve spent a few hundred thousand dollars in loans, got some middling grades. I’ll get a decent job, or bounce around for a while. I’m past the time when I could’ve been something. I passed it a long time ago. Freshman year, maybe. I was too scared, or I was too lazy, or both. I had my shot, I never took it, I’ll never have it again, and there’s nothing beautiful in that.”
“How long’ve you been feeling this way?”
They walked on. The woods began to thin. The air was no clearer up here, but there was an ozone scent, magnifying the trees and soil. Jess snagged her flannel on a pine branch, and five or six birds flew from the tree in jet-fighter poses, corkscrewing past each other into the heavy-hanging sky. As the trees began to thin and become reedier, Robin tensed.
“What?” Jess asked.
“I felt a drop.”
“Dammit. Thought it wasn’t supposed to come until 11.”
“You’re the one who wanted the hurricane to come.” Robin smiled.
“You’re joking, but I really did.”
“You’re saying that a lot today.”
“Okay. I mean, I guess I just wanted to see what would happen around here. I wanted to see the whole place, campus and the mountains and the river, in the wind, and I was gonna be an idiot. I was gonna stand outside. I wanted to feel myself big and small at once, to feel slicing rain and pain and rattling, to feel like there was something above, something beyond, something great and wonderful.”
“You wanted a power wash.”
“I’m not kidding.”
They entered the clearing. It was small, not nearly grand, a meadow with a view of town, the parched remains of wildflowers in the middle. An old road ran through it, the pavement flaking from temperature change. Across the road there was a church that looked abandoned. The sign out front promised a sermon about the financial crash. Robin fiddled with his watchband. The rain came drop by drop at first, then fell almost in earnest, neither mist nor downpour nor shower, just steady and still and light and slightly cold on their dusty skin.
“It’s not supposed to last too long, is it?” Jess asked.
“Nah,” Robin said. “Wanna hide out in there?” He pointed to the church.
“It’s so cliched,” Jess said sincerely.
“Jesus. C’mon,” Robin said.
The church was unlocked. It’d been stripped bare. There were nails and the ragged remains of nails in pairs of parallel lines where the pews had been. The stained-glass windows had been removed and beneath where they had been the floor was warped into rolling waves by years of water and wind. The place smelled like Jess’ grandparents’ house, fresh and slightly damp and aging but not yet old. The rain clattered lightly on the roof. Jess and Robin sat on the floor, leaning against what had been the pulpit. They ate the sandwiches Robin had packed and drank some water.
“I think it’s passing,” Jess said to Robin.
“The sadness. I’m feeling better now.”
“Good.” He took a bite. “I know how you’ve been feeling.”
“Yeah. I know what it feels like, how you’ve been describing it. Like you need something beautiful and dramatic, some chiaroscuro moment, that’ll tell you exactly who you’re gonna be, and how you’re gonna be important and new and beautiful.”
“It doesn’t come. I don’t believe in hurricanes. Or I don’t believe that they ever hit when you need them to. But it’s okay, I think. You want some water?”
Jess drank some water, and then Robin drank some.
“It’s been half an hour,” Jess said. “How much longer do you think it’s going to go on?”
“I’ve got no idea,” Robin said.
They sat together. The rain broke the heat and it was cold and humid, but Robin had an extra jacket and they were warm. Water came in through the stained-glass openings and ran in rivulets to pool in the middle of the floor. They walked to the window and looked out a while. A mist had fallen, and from the church there was no town beneath, no cupolas or university towers spiraling or stretching, no elementary school, no pianos, no scales, no windowsills with near-full bottles of rum on them.
The light was dim but enough to see each other, and the air was clean and shot through with old timber. It wasn’t the hurricane, but it was enough.
Contact Micah Osler at email@example.com .