It’s the coffee mug that does it.
As last straws go, it’s not the most subtle, but it’s also about the least of them. The mug itself is nothing special. It’s white, with a flat base, and blue serif letters in a perfectly inoffensive font that wrap around one side and read: “World’s greatest fiancé.”
Patrick stares at it while his father clears away the breakfast things and his mother talks about … well, something. He can’t really hear her for the rushing in his ears.
It’s weird that the mug has turned up here, really. The last place he saw it was at his place—his and Rachel’s place, really, back when it was his and Rachel’s. In fact, it might have been present that morning, the one where he had finally told her the truth, that he was suffocating and he didn’t know why, that he was terrified and he wasn’t sure of what, and that whenever he looked at his future he knew, with a certainty that he hadn’t felt in years, about anything, that he didn’t want it.
He’d framed it a little less bluntly than that. Tried to, anyway. It’s not you, it’s me. Something in that vein. He knew it was true, too, or he wouldn’t have spent the last decade or so (on and off) hating himself for not feeling like the luckiest guy in the world. Rachel was, well, Rachel. His first kiss, his first girlfriend, his best friend. She was kind and witty and beautiful and clever. He loved her. He just didn’t … wasn’t … couldn’t …
He’d tried to explain it to her, but it had all come out tangled and messy, and anyway, she was far from stupid—she’d known he hadn’t been happy, hadn’t been “himself” for a while now. She had said as much. He wishes he was as confident that he would recognise himself if it ever showed up. He’s tried on more than one occasion to pinpoint the last time he felt like himself, but he just ends up feeling more lost.
It hadn’t seemed right to stay there anymore, so he’d done the Right Thing and come back home. Which brings him to now, sitting at his parents’ kitchen table, staring at a mug he hated from the get, bearing a label he knows he’s never really deserved—least of all now. He’ll have to get another mug. A different label. “World’s worst ex-fiancé.” Or “Biggest idiot in Ontario.” Or “Patrick Brewer: holiday downer.”
That last one feels especially apt. In a few days the family will gather around ridiculous amounts of food prepared by people who promised not to bring anything, cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and neighbours and friends. His chest feels heavy, already exhausted just at the thought of all the explanations he’s going to have to give, all the different instances of the same conversation he’s going to have to navigate with a self-effacing smile while people offer their unasked-for advice, their consolations, their opinions. Yes, I broke it off. Ha ha, yes, again. No, for real this time. Yes, I’ve said that before, but this time I have the panic attack to back it up.
With this prospect stretching before him, Patrick buries his face in his hands and groans softly. As he drags his head back up, he catches his parents looking at him, their familiar, loving faces expressing tentative concern. He hitches up one side of his mouth in what he thinks might be a vain attempt to reassure them. He hadn’t been able to find any more answers for them than he had for Rachel, after all.
He shakes himself and stands, bringing the offending coffee mug to the sink. He can sense them behind him, conducting a wordless conversation in that way they do, that shorthand they’ve perfected over years of knowing each other as well as anyone can know anyone else.
That, he thinks. I want that.
It’s never been clearer that what he had with Rachel … wasn’t that.
“Think I’ll go for a run.”
Both parents turn their surprise on him.
“Again?” His mom is smiling, but the worry is still there. He hates that it’s there. “Didn’t you go running this morning?”
“I won’t go far,” he says, dodging the question. “Just around the block.”
His dad squeezes his shoulder briefly. “Don’t forget you’re helping with dinner.”
Patrick manages a proper grin at that. “Chicken ala Clint, I remember. I’ll bring my spatula game.”
He ducks upstairs for a quick change, grabbing his jogging clothes from the floor near the hamper (because it had only been this morning). Minutes later, he’s in the hallway looking for his Jays hat when he hears his mom’s voice drifting out from the kitchen.
“… might be best just to cancel.”
Patrick turns his cap over in his hands, exhaling slowly.
“We could ask Jude and Sonny to host instead. Minimal fuss, but it gets him an out if he wants it.”
He shouldn’t be surprised that they’ve been thinking along the same lines. Part of him wants to go in there and just hug them. Instead, he crams his cap on backwards and heads out, but not before he hears one more thing.
“If that’s what he wants …”
The air is cold and the ground hard. It’s not exactly pleasant conditions for running, but physical exertion seems to distract him long enough to prevent his thoughts from getting tangled up in his head. And so he runs. Past houses and gardens he knows almost as well as his own, barely concentrating on his route, propelled more by muscle memory than intention. He keeps running until the streets are no longer familiar, and only then, lungs and legs burning, does he stop to breathe.
It feels like the first time in months that he’s been able to do so.
He needs to get out of town.
As soon as he has the thought, he feels his shoulders sink in relief. If only he could. Just slip out of town, get some distance from everything with Rachel, find some space to figure things out, and just … breathe. There’s a pull in his gut. It’s new.
He turns and heads back.
The television is on and Marcy and Clint are, per holiday tradition, watching the Blackadder Christmas Carol. Patrick, however, is in his room, on his laptop. It’s nothing scandalous (not with his parents in the house, Jesus) but he doesn’t want them to know what he’s thinking about until he’s got a plan. He’s looked at hotels in Toronto, in Niagara, even New York, but at this time of year there’s not a lot of choice, and anything on offer comes with a “special holiday price” that doesn’t quite feel in the spirit of the holiday. There are a few private rooms available on Airbnb but the thought of having to hide away from a different family while they celebrate Christmas is not appealing. He’s about to widen his search parameters when a link on a site advertising “off the beaten path” last-minute accommodation options catches his eye.
It’s not a typical house-for-hire situation. It’s a house swap. He almost clicks the back button—even if he could convince his parents to let someone stay in his old room, it wouldn’t really qualify as a fair swap—when he remembers: he has an apartment in Toronto. Rachel has moved out. It’s a nice size and it’s in a good location. He’s taken all of the things that are important to him, so there’s nothing in it worth stealing except the TV. The only reason it’s still there is because it’s screwed to the wall and he couldn’t be bothered. He figures if someone feels that strongly about taking it then they’re welcome to it. (Also, it’s insured.)
He selects Toronto from the “swap with” menu.
The first decent-looking place is actually in Thunder Bay, and he hurriedly scrolls past it. A couple of options in Vancouver look okay—he’s trying to remember how much flights there cost when a photo of a cottage catches his eye. It’s set back from the road, with stone walls and red shutters, lit up and welcoming. It looks quiet, and the photos inside depict a cosy lounge, a somewhat dated but serviceable kitchen, a comfortable-looking bed and … it has a fireplace.
Patrick taps his fingers lightly on the laptop’s palm rest and chews his lip. It’s a crazy idea. Letting a stranger stay in his place, living in theirs … But it’s about five hours’ drive away, which seems manageable. And there’s something about the cottage, quiet and still, nestled amongst a well-kept garden in a town neither he nor anybody he knows has ever heard of … there’s that pull in his gut again.
Before he can process the odds of the owner also looking for an eleventh-hour escape over the Christmas season, he clicks on the message icon and types out a quick note.
I know it’s a long shot, but I was wondering if your cottage is still available for a house swap over Christmas? I’m just looking for a week or so. I’m clean and quiet and honestly kind of desperate not to be around people I know this year. I have an apartment in Toronto, and I’m not above sweetening the deal with a bottle of something.
PS—is the fireplace working? I think I’m going to need a fireplace. I’ve got a lot of marshmallows.
He leans back, satisfied. After a beat he heads downstairs to join his parents, and spends the rest of the evening trying not to run back up to check for responses.
By the time he actually lets himself turn in for the night, it’s late, but it’s still only been a few hours. He toys with waiting until morning, but that doesn’t last long. When he opens the account, he has a message.
I guess we’d better put this down to a Christmas miracle, because I’ve been looking for a place in Toronto so I don’t have to stay with my cousin over Christmas. I would say you’re doing me a huge favour, but I kind of want that bottle of something you’re offering, so instead I’m going to act like it’s the other way around.
I took over this cottage from an aunt, and she used to let it out whenever she wanted to go slightly further afield than Elmdale. I’ve attached a copy of her agreement details.
PS—the fireplace can accommodate all your marshmallow needs. If you can manage not to burn the place down, I’d appreciate it.
PPS—the town is a million miles from anywhere, so you’re almost guaranteed not to run into anyone you know. It’s our biggest selling point.
Patrick leans back on his bed, smiling. This time it’s genuine, even if it’s just for himself.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving me at Christmas.”
David Rose is stretched out on Stevie’s bed, staring at the ceiling while she packs. And yes, technically, he’s supposed to be helping, but he also, technically … doesn’t care.
“I can’t believe you’re complaining. Thought you were Jewish.”
He twists his head into an uncomfortable position so he can raise a haughty eyebrow at Stevie.
“I’m a delightful half-half situation, thank you so much. And you’re leaving me to fend for myself with those halves, one of whom is planning on throwing what is bound to be a really sad Christmas party in our motel room.”
Stevie just smirks. “Trust me, I’m not exactly itching to spend the holiday with family members.” She throws up her hands, which are gripping two mismatched socks. “Who gets married over Christmas anyway?”
It’s David’s turn to smirk as he turns back to face the ceiling. He’s going to miss her cynicism over the next week. He’s considered asking to come along, in fact, because he’s not above inserting himself into situations where he’s not exactly invited. But Alexis and his parents have been slightly clingy lately, and his dad is really getting into this party idea and … okay, he’s a little curious to see what a stripped-down Christmas with his family might entail. He blames his lack of anything better to do for the vague feeling of familial regard that seems to have settled over him.
Added to which, he and Stevie are about six months along from the point where their friendship stopped being weird after the whole friends-with-benefits thing, so maybe it’s best not to risk making it weird again by fifth-wheeling on her vacation.
“Are they, like, Christmas people?” He grimaces.
“Oh god,” Stevie groans. “I bet they are. They’re probably going to play carols at the reception. Remind me why I said I’d go to this thing?”
David shrugs. He’s still not sure. “At least your accommodation is free. I mean, so some axe-murderer comes to burn down your aunt’s cottage—at least you’ll be enjoying Toronto during the holidays.”
“Axe-murderers don’t burn down buildings,” she deadpans, not even looking up from her packing. “You’re thinking of arsonists. Most this guy will do is chop people up and hide them in the walls.”
David glares. “And thank you for the nightmare I’ll be having later.” As Stevie gets up to grab her things from the bathroom, his phone pings. He sighs.
“Again?” Stevie walks back out with a raised eyebrow.
He checks his phone but very carefully doesn’t open the message from Sebastien. It’s the fifth time he’s messaged him in two weeks, which is officially a better ratio than when they were actually dating. Reminders like that are why David hasn’t answered any of his texts.
“What is it this time? ‘I miss you and I swear I’m gonna change’?”
David smirks, impressed. “Nothing so eloquent.” It’s been almost two years since he last saw Sebastian, but still there’s a depressing predictability to the content of the messages: no apologies, no actual acknowledgement of wrongdoing, just professions of missing “us” (ugh) and lots of wank (for want of a better word) about the season being ripe for “convergence” and “unexpected beauty” (actually, it’s the perfect word), and the odd, barely disguised invitation for sex (ugh, again). David has no clue what has sparked this sudden interest in getting in touch, but knowing Sebastien it’s nothing good, and probably full of self-interest.
“So what, he’s looking for a holiday booty call?” Stevie holds up two dresses, and David chooses the black one—it’s classier, and shows off more of her cleavage. As she puts the rejected dress away, she cocks an eyebrow and a smirk. “Might not be the worst thing.”
David rolls his eyes. And, look, she’s not entirely wrong. Right now he’d really appreciate some sex—anything to make him feel a little less … lonely, even if it’s only an hour or two. The trouble is …
“It’s Sebastien. It’s always the worst thing.” He has to keep telling himself this, has to remind himself of the bad parts, because otherwise he’s afraid he’ll give in. And though he didn’t see it until after the fact, he knows how miserable he got, especially at the end.
“So tell him to fuck off,” Stevie suggests, not unreasonably.
“It’ll just encourage him.” It’s true. He’s always liked knowing he’s gotten under David’s skin, sees it as a challenge. “Safest just to ignore him. Is that my Saint Laurent?” Like it could be hers.
She hesitates only slightly before folding it (correctly and carefully, he’s relieved to see) into her suitcase. “We had a deal.”
Ah yes, she can borrow his things whenever she wants. Granted, she doesn’t take advantage as much as he feared she might, but it still sends a shiver of concern through him to think about her wearing his beautiful, expensive, limited-edition things around … people.
“I bet they’re going to make the wedding party dress up as elves or something.”
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Stevie’s head come up fast. “What?”
David props himself up on his elbows. “You’re a bridesmaid, right? Have you seen what you’re wearing yet?” Stevie turns a satisfying shade of pale.
He keeps his grin as hidden as he can, which is not very. “Did they ask for your hat size?”
Her eyes go even wider. “Oh my god. Are they going to do that? Why would anyone do that?”
“I don’t know, they’re your carny family!”
It takes him a while to talk her down. Especially because he spends a few minutes suggesting other costume ideas. His favourite is the look on her face when he points out that there are the same number of bridesmaids as there are reindeer.