The snow in the headlights reminds Trace of Space Invaders. Rick’s dad had owned one of the old arcade cabinets, restored to good working order and kept in the living room; they were allowed to play it as long as they didn’t mash the buttons too hard or kick the machine when they lost. Trace wonders how many hours they wasted on that game, from grade school when they first became friends to whenever Trace was last in Rick’s dad’s house, which would have been twelve or thirteen years ago, after college but before his own folks moved to Florida. If you gathered up all that time, if you could somehow un-spend it, how much of it would there be? Though if you’re going to start asking that kind of question, why stop—or for that matter start—with some old game? They hadn’t even been the kind of boys who were into video games, mostly they hung out and did whatever. It was only that one, its hypnotic monotony and vital crudeness, plus the fact that it was always already there, lit up and cycling through its demo. Trace remembers the bulky cabinet and the gaudy artwork adorning it as much as he does the game itself: the black creature in silhouette striding forward across the craters and dunes of the base moon, white star pocks on the iris blue of outer space. The joystick’s bulb and the shooter-button’s concave dip. Nowadays you could probably download the game for a couple of bucks: three clicks and four minutes later it’s in your pocket, in your hand. Trace can’t remember now, if he ever knew, whether the bug-like sprites shuffling left and right were the actual aliens or their ships.
When Rick’s father died, and the mountain house became Rick’s officially, he’d talked about bringing the game out here, setting it up in the living room or the den. Instead he sold it and used the money to buy a ring for Sharon, who in time came to throw it into the lake that the house sits above. They were out kayaking and she laid her oar across her thighs and worked the ring off her finger. She set it on her cocked thumb like it was a coin she meant to flip. The ring winked up into the hot blue day and then it winked back lakeward. The way Rick tells it, he watched her through smudged polarized sunglasses that were like squinting through ginger ale, and knew that he’d been found out. The ring plurped into the water and that was that.
Trace and Rick have spent many New Year’s Eves here at the mountain house, often enough that it feels right to say that they do this every year, though that hasn’t been true for years. When they can, they’ll come up for a week, friends and girlfriends in tow (wife, when there was a wife) or else just the two of them in the winter or the summer. Trace lives in Pittsburgh, but flew to New Hampshire from O’Hare. Something came up at the Chicago office and he had to change his plans and go, deciding, at the last minute, to stay for the little New Year’s party management threw. This decision was made largely on account of a woman named Monica Tottenham, who danced with him at the party which they held at the office, and even kissed him at midnight, but ultimately would not be persuaded into coming back to his hotel with him; not even for what he promised would be nothing more than a last drink in the lounge.
He had a last drink in the lounge alone, a bitter floral digestif he ordered by accident, under the misimpression that it was a kind of scotch. It arrived in what looked like a cut-glass eggcup, a little chalice of tar, and he sat there and drank it because it had cost sixteen dollars and this was his life. “This is my life,” he said, loudly, determined to hear himself over the aggregate squawk of the revelers. An older man with a port-wine stain on his forehead and an untucked white shirt beneath a robin’s-egg blazer sat down next to Trace and hit on him while he drank. This inspired a sudden and unlikely solidarity with Monica Tottenham. Yes, from the unique vantage of this bar stool, his mouth a licorice slick and this old man in his airspace, he could imagine being aligned with her and against himself. His phone buzzed in his pocket. It was Monica Tottenham, apparently hiding in her bedroom closet, wearing a lacy blue bra, one cup of which she’d pulled aside. Her other hand was holding the phone. She stood in front of a row of gray suits, presumably belonging to the sick husband who, she’d said, she had to get home to look after. Trace had taken this for an exit line, but here were the suits and here was Monica Tottenham, asking if he’d be back to Chicago in the spring. He had been wrong to turn on himself, and that was comforting, though it came at the cost of his revelation. He had thought himself arrived at some venue of essential understanding about women, or this woman, or himself, or the way that people were, but it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true.
The drunk man with the port-wine stain saw what Trace was looking at on his phone. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, dismissively, then got up and wove through the lobby, toward the revolving door, headed outside for a cigarette, Trace figured—or maybe this wasn’t his hotel.
This year Rick has brought his new girlfriend and her sister to the mountain house for New Year’s. He and Trace are staying until the 10th, and the girls will stay some but probably not all of that time; they drove up separately, in their own car, and will see how the week goes, how they feel. Rick drove the hour to Manchester to pick up Trace. The flight was delayed for weather and that’s why they’re driving home through the snow in the dark, instead of in time to watch the sun set over the frozen lake, as Trace had hoped to do. Well, there’s always tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and so on for a week. The headlights find the house, white and all lit up inside, as Rick eases the car around the last curve and into the drive.
“Hi, I’m Joy,” Rick’s girlfriend says to Trace when she greets them at the door. She gives him a hug, her cheek hot against his. She smells like ChapStick and gin. He puckers his lips into the down by her ear, but by the time he makes the kiss noise she’s taken a step back. She’s wearing green velveteen pants and a wraparound gray cape with arm holes.
“How’s things on the home front?” Rick asks her, unlacing his boots.
“Gin and tonic,” Joy says. “Sissy was going to make a cake but she got drunk and had to nap on the couch. But she already made the chocolate icing. She said to wake her up whenever.”
“There is no whenever,” Rick says. “I mean, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Let me show you your room,” Joy says to Trace.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rick says. “Trace has been coming here longer than you have. He lost his cherry on that couch to Krista Daulerio when we were fifteen and you were still playing with dolls.”
“Don’t be gross,” Joy says. “I’m offering hospitality. I mean, am I the lady of the house or what?” Rick is giving this question more consideration than it would seem to warrant. Trace stands there in his soaked-through loafers watching his oldest friend in his unlaced boots do some kind of secret math. It is good to see Rick, he thinks. It is good to get away.
“The lady of the house could make some drinks and we’d be grateful,” Rick says, finally.
“That’s the first thing I said,” Joy says. “I mean, wasn’t that the very first thing?”