In the Middle of Winter
During the party, Charlene sat firmly planted in front of the television. It was old, a box TV with antennas sprouting from the top, but she was too enthralled by the pictures on the screen to care.
The snow, the cold, the crowd, the buzz. It was what Charlene wished for every year but life in Sedona rarely allowed. Each time as the ball glimmered and began to fall, Charlene could feel her stomach leap. It was this feeling that drew her back to the spot in front of the TV year after year.
She cozied into her place on the stiff, dark green, carpeted floor. Uncle Harrison was sprawled in the stained orange corduroy recliner to her left. “Y’ know,” he started, waving his bottle of Busch Light around in the air as he talked, “They say watchin’ too much TV melts your brain.” He belched. “And sittin’ that close makes it melt even faster.” Charlene brushed off the comments with an eye roll she’d learned from her sister. Besides, he said that every time he came over.
“Charlene,” her mother called from upstairs, “would you come ‘ere an’ gimme a hand?”
Charlene reluctantly peeled herself from the spot in front of the TV with a groan. Uncle Harrison chuckled as she passed his chair. “So does beer,” she quipped as she ran up the stairs.
As she walked into the kitchen, she was immediately reminded of why she tried to remain in the basement—even dealing with Uncle Harrison was better than the chaos of the upstairs. All the cousins and neighbors were over, and it was far too much going on for Charlene’s liking. Music blared loudly in the background. Harvey, tail wagging, sat patiently in the middle of the kitchen, waiting for food scraps or any other mess he could lap up. Ann and Wallace argued over whether or not they locked the door to their apartment before they left—their spats were a regular occurrence that they hardly spared any poor stranger from. Jennie, Jo, Rick, and Jimmy sat at the table playing cards, tossing empty bottles and cans into a paper bag in the corner. They talked too loud and spit flew as they spoke. She knew, later in the night when the lights had that glow around them, and you could see yourself in the reflection of every window, that their eyes would start to get that lazy look as the crashing of bottles in the pile got louder. Charlene’s mother listened to Aunt Carole gab, occasionally shouting at someone in her way and shooing them with a flick of her hand, while she made her neighborhood-famous butterscotch bread pudding. When people asked her for the secret, she’d always say, “Half the whiskey in the sauce, half for you.” They usually laughed until they decided they couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.
“Charley, would ya hand me that?” her mother asked, motioning hurriedly to the glass pan on the counter just out of her reach. Charlene grabbed the pan and handed it to her, eying Aunt Carole’s idle hand. The other wielded a cigarette like she had been born with it stuck between her fingers.
Aunt Carole was a lifelong smoker and she sounded like it too. “Don’t be like me,” she’d rasp with the cigarette wagging between her lips. “A pack a day since fifteen doesn’t do good things for those circles under your eyes.” Charlene was thirteen, but she’d already developed a complex about her under-eye bags.
“All right, Charley, I got too many bodies in here, I either need ya to help me out or go find somethin’ to occupy yourself with. I think some of the neighbor boys are out in the back, shootin’ off roman candles, why don’t you go play with them?”
“I don’t want to play with them, they’re annoying.”
“Just you wait, one of those boys is gonna catch your eye someday, and you won’t be saying they’re so annoying then.”
Charlene sighed loudly and rolled her eyes. She couldn’t imagine any of them catching her eye and she certainly couldn’t imagine ever thinking they weren’t annoying.
“Alright, if you don’t wanna go out and play with them, then your other option is to stay in here and help me. It’s about time you learned to cook anyway. You know, I started learnin’ from my mom when I was about your age.” She smiled.
“No thanks,” Charlene muttered. “Have you seen Dianne?”
The brief smile morphed back into stress and irritation. “Oh, I don’t know, Charley, I think last I saw she was off somewhere with Emily. I remember when I was her age, me and my friends would wander around and blather all day long. Why don’t you just go look for her?”
Charlene huffed and wandered outside. The December desert air was significantly easier than the stuffiness of the kitchen. It pricked her skin through her thin cotton t-shirt and seeped in through the holes in her hand-me-down jeans. The just-setting sun painted everything a deep orange as the sky began to fade to indigo. Scraggly shrubs and skeleton bushes dotted her backyard, and just beyond the fence she could see the stacks of red rocks against the blue horizon.
But none of that excited Charlene. Charlene wished for the crisp, otherworldly magic of a New York City New Year’s Eve. She wanted to be bundled in a thick wool coat and mittens, scarf wrapped snugly round her neck, huddled in a crowd, and dusted with snowflakes while that big beautiful glass ball shimmered as it fell.
“Hey, what are you doing out here?” one of the boys, Teddy, the oldest of the neighbor boys, interrupted. “Shouldn’t you be helping your mom in the kitchen?” The horde giggled.
Teddy was the alpha of the pack, but he wasn’t the biggest. He was tall, but pretty skinny. All the girls in the neighborhood said he was the most handsome. Charlene never really saw it though. All she saw was his sneering grin and the shifty look behind his eyes like he was much too proud of the joke he’d just thought of.
“Do you know where Dianne is?” Charlene asked tiredly. She had long ago run out of patience for their jokes and jeers.
“No, why would I know? She’s your sister. She’s probably with Emily, they’re always together gossiping.” He glanced around at the other boys for approval.
“‘Oh, I have cramps!’” one of the other boys mocked in agreement. That sent the whole lot of them up into echoing cackles.
Charlene rolled her eyes and went back inside to hide in the basement again. The basement was cooler than upstairs, quieter; it was just her and Uncle Harrison. The wood paneled walls and dark green carpet made it feel a little bit like her own forest hideaway.
“Hey, Charley, grab me another one, will ya?” He swung the bottle back and forth like a pendulum.
“Sure,” she shrugged reluctantly, and quickly ran back up the stairs to the kitchen. She slid past the group playing cards to get to the blue and white cooler in the corner, conveniently next to the pile of empty cans and bottles. Opening the lid, she fished her hand into the ice, letting it rest there in the cold until her fingers started to ache. She liked the slippery coarseness of the ice cubes as she combed her hands through, the cold leaving her hands raw and tingly. She pulled out another Busch Light and ran down to return it to her uncle.
“Thank you, Charlene,” he said, as he kicked back further into the recliner and let out a groan, reaching his hands behind his head. Leaning back like that, Uncle Harrison was positioned just perfectly so that she could see all the hairs up his nose and the brown-gray whiskers on the underside of his chin that he’d neglected to trim along with the others.
“Hey, Uncle Harrison, have you seen Dianne?”
“She an’ Emily were down here a while ago for somethin’, but I haven’t seen ‘er since. Then they went back upstairs. Have you checked her room?”
“She says it’s off-limits.”
“Well, I say that means all the more reason to go for it,” he winked and twisted off the metal cap of his beer. It clinked as he dropped it into the pile in the cup holder.
Charlene went back up the stairs, taking care to avoid the kitchen, and down the hall to where Dianne’s room was. From outside, she could only hear muffled noises—nothing she could make sense of. Carefully, Charlene twisted the crystal doorknob and opened the door just enough so one eye could peer inside.
Inside, stood Dianne—tall, tan, long brown hair—with Emily, blonde and slim. Close together, they stood just in front of the bed, holding each other, connected, body to body, chest to chest, waist to waist. Dianne’s hands caressed Emily’s cheek softly. Emily smiled and leaned in toward her lips. Something stirred inside Charlene; she didn’t know what. Dianne’s frame relaxed into the kiss. She ran her hands through Emily’s silky, blonde hair and down her back, resting on the pockets of her jeans. Emily pulled her closer. Their movements became more and more eager. Charlene knew she didn’t belong there, but she couldn’t get herself to move. She had a feeling like butterflies in her stomach, something bubbling, churning. Dianne and Emily’s hands began to roam, each bend and curve fitting perfectly under their palms; thigh, hip, breast, tongue on neck, their kisses grew hungrier, and suddenly, Dianne stopped and withdrew her lips from Emily’s.
“Is everything okay?” Emily asked, her hand still cradled the back of Dianne’s neck. Dianne paused for a second, her face flushed with hesitation. She raised her eyes to meet Emily’s, and began to cry.
Charlene pulled away from the door and shut it as carefully as she’d opened it. As the clock struck midnight, she stood there in the dark in the hallway outside Dianne’s room, silently. Her heart fluttered—it felt like it pulsed twice with each contraction. Deep in her gut that feeling persisted; she could feel it rumbling and tumultuous. Outside the window across the hall, she could see everyone in the yard cheering, laughing, and playing with kazoos and confetti. She walked outside to join them; her mother handed her a sparkler and she traced golden loops and figures in the dry night air.
Charlene sat nestled into the sofa, flipping through channels absentmindedly on her flat screen. Sleep began to lay on her heavily, weighing down her eyelids and dropping her head to a bob. As her head fell, she startled herself awake. Glancing up at her surroundings, Charlene gathered herself and stood up to shut off the TV. She turned off the lights in the living room and stumbled into bed, almost in a trance. In the cool darkness, a gruff, low grumble emitted from the large angular figure laying next her. She rolled over in the opposite direction and pulled the comforter up to her chin. As she fell asleep, images of golden loops and spirals flickered through her mind.