It smelled of cinnamon, baked apples, and pine. People I vaguely knew carried trays with food, china, or candles, and slipped presents under the tree after winking conspiratorially at me. There were hushed voices, laughter, and giggling. Visiting Andreas' family in Germany over the holidays had been one of my better ideas.
Comfortably settled on the big red and green checkered couch, I enjoyed a mug of hot Glühwein, glad to be inside again, after our trip to the Christmas market. Thinking about it, I had never liked the cold and loathed winter, but since last February, I hated it even more.
Being in this lovely, warm house with the huge Christmas tree decorated with hundreds of tiny lights, white and silver feathered birds, stars, and glitter balls, suddenly didn't help anymore against the inner cold that crept up on me with the memories.
I was on the subway, the hood of my jacket still drawn over my head against the nasty weather, mentally going through the list for the big dinner I had planned, when I heard Peter's distinctive laughter. I would have recognized it anywhere, those deep rumbling chortles that always made me feel warm inside. Surprised, I looked back over my shoulder and saw him talking animatedly to a woman I didn't know. It was too early for him to be on this train. Then I smiled. He wanted to surprise me and be home early before he had to go on that business trip tomorrow.
I gathered the cloth bags filled with groceries from the floor between my feet, ready to join them, when Peter lifted his hand, stroked the woman's hair, and leaned in for a kiss.
At that moment, everything faded out of my sight except his lips moving over hers, parting them, slipping his tongue between them.
I watched them, frozen in place, the handles of the bags wrapped so tightly around my fingers that I couldn't feel them anymore.
Strangely, I could hear Peter's voice ringing clearly over the chatter of the other passengers.
"Bye, baby. See you tomorrow. Try to be on time this time. I don’t want us to miss our flight."
Outside, he turned around and waved at her one last time before he pushed his way through the crowd. I would have lost sight of him quickly, had he not been wearing his bright blue scarf I had given him for Christmas. I had wanted some color for him; he always wore black, and the blue matched his eyes so perfectly. It was because of the scarf, I could follow him with my gaze halfway to the stairs, until the train left the station—my station.
I tried to come up with a plausible explanation for what I saw: a friendly peck, a dare, it hadn't been Peter, it was too early for him to be out of the office anyway... when I heard a smug voice.
"Well, well, well, how very cliché. Peter Shaw fucks Kat the intern." A woman had got up from her seat and went over to Peter's friend, smiling like the cat who got the canary.
"Vera! I didn't know you were on this train!" Kat exclaimed in a too high voice.
"I have a dentist appointment today and left earlier,” Vera said, pleased with herself. Then she leaned in conspiratorially. “So, tell me, how long has this been going on?"
"I-I, what..." The other woman looked around anxiously, before her shoulders sagged. "Since our annual holiday party."
"I can't believe you never told me. I thought we were friends.” Vera mock-pouted. Then she wrinkled her nose. “Peter Shaw! You know that man is a player? He changes his bed warmers weekly, leaves broken hearts left and right."
Kat waved dismissively. “He already told me this. Fake news, spread by rejects."
Vera scoffed. "And you believe him? I'm sure he says this to all his fuckees."
"Yeah? But will he introduce them to his parents too?”
“He’s going to introduce you to his parents?”
“On the weekend, after the negotiations for the Wendel /Hennessey merger. They live in the same city apparently."
"Wow, Kat! I heard he'll become partner soon, and if that fails, his father owns a big law firm himself.” Vera hugged Kat enthusiastically. “I'm green with jealousy." Her phony smile was easy to see through.
I looked at the grocery bags. Ingredients for a special dinner to celebrate our one-year anniversary.
In the end, I stayed on the subway for hours, staring out of the window until my eyes watered and someone held a tissue in my face.
"Young man, is everything all right?"
I turned to my left, for the first time becoming aware of the older lady sitting beside me.
"Huh?" I gazed at her with blurry eyes, croaking, "Yes, yes of course…."
"I think not; you're crying," she pointed out with a concerned look.
Only then I noticed that she was right; my whole face was wet. Embarrassed, I took the tissue and dried my face.
"'s all right. Do you need help? Can I get you something else?" Seeing the tissue was crumpled and soggy by now, she passed me another one.
"No, no thank you. It's OK. Everything’s OK," I lied.
"If you think so. I have to get off at the next station.” Then she handed me the rest of the package. “Just in case.” She squeezed my arm. “Good luck, young man."
"Tristan, the name's Tristan." I didn't know why I told her that.
"Oh. All right, good luck Tristan. It's a nice name. It means 'warrior', and 'the sad one'. Today you’re the latter, but never forget the first." She patted my shoulder, and then she was gone.
I didn't go home that night. After riding the subway for a long time, I finally called a friend from my study group. I knew his flat mate had an externship in another city. After hearing what happened, he immediately invited me to stay with him for a while.
Talking to Peter was the last thing I wanted to do, but not going home without an explanation would have been childish. I called Peter and told him I had to study with Gerry the whole night because of an upcoming exam. I could tell he was disappointed. He reminded me of the business trip he had to go on the next day, and that he would be gone for a week. After a pause, he asked me to come over early in the morning before he had to leave for the airport so we could say goodbye. Of course, I told him no, the exam would start early, and I didn’t want to risk being late. Normally, I would have rushed home to make love to him the whole night, to wipe away the disappointment and hurt I could hear in his voice. But I knew it was probably more the fact that he had to order take-out, sleep alone, and pack his stuff himself instead of me doing it for him. So, I wished him good luck for his negotiations; he thanked me and then hung up. He never mentioned our anniversary. I think he'd forgotten all about it.
The next day, when I was sure he had to be gone, I went over to our apartment. Relieved to find it empty, I started packing my things. It wasn't much. My clothes fit in two suitcases, and for my other stuff, mostly books, I only needed seven medium sized cardboard boxes. Gerry helped me carry my stuff down to his car. Then I wrote a short note for Peter:
I wish you all the luck.
I swallowed all the accusations and rants that had been clogging my head, realizing it was senseless.
I called Prof. Brunelli the same day. He had tried to convince me to work with his group of scientists many times. Even though his field of research would have been much more interesting and challenging than the boring drug study I was working on, I would have never left Peter. A problem I didn't have anymore.
The professor managed the entire bureaucratic stuff in record time. I could change universities the next semester. He even organized a new flat mate for me. Only one week later, I lived in a new city, in a new apartment, and worked for a new university.
My new flat mate, Andreas, is a nice guy. He comes from Germany, and even invited me to go home for Christmas with him this year, so I wouldn't be alone over the holidays.
And that's why I'm currently sitting in his parents’ living room, sipping warm Glühwein and eating freshly baked, still warm cinnamon cookies with chocolate chips. Tonight, will be the big family dinner, and then we'll open the presents because that's how they do it in his family.
And tomorrow Andreas, some of his friends, and I, will drive to a cottage in the Alps for New Year's. There will be lots of snow for skiing and snowboarding. Yippi-ya-ye. Thank God Andreas’ pal Lars is like me; we like snow only from the inside of a warm comfy house with a sauna, a Jacuzzi, and a fireplace.
It's New Year's Eve. I'm waiting in the foyer for the others to get ready for the big party when I spot a public phone. I don't know why, but before I know it, I'm dialing Peter's number. A female voice answers the phone.
My heart sinks, and my first impulse is to hang up. But I need to know, I just need to know….
"Hi, this is Tristan. Is Peter in?"
"Yes, one moment. I'll get him for you. Tristan it was, right?"
I can hear what sounds like high heels clicking on the hardwood floor. Then I hear Peter calling my name disbelievingly, and finally somebody comes back to the phone.
"Tristan?" Peter asks almost hesitantly.
"Yeah it's me. Hello, Peter. How are you? Is your life going on as planned?"
"You're calling me after what, ten months, and after you left me with a fucking cryptic note, only to ask me if my life is going as planned? Are you fucking serious?"
"Yes, I am fucking serious. When you kissed your colleague slash intern good-bye on the subway, I tried to come up with a believable explanation for you sticking your tongue into some woman’s mouth. Then said woman bragged to another colleague, Vera I believe, you, the firm’s most famous player were finally caught, because you were going to introduce her to your parents on the weekend after your shared business trip. I became fucking serious instantly. Were your parents really super busy when they visited the city? Or was there no time to meet them because you were ashamed of our relationship?"
"I was on the same subway in February. I was a bit late because I was grocery shopping for our one-year anniversary dinner."
"Oh my God, Tristan… That's why you left. You never even tried to talk to me."
"What was there left to talk about? You went with her on that trip. The hotel was where your parents live."
"I tried to reach you when I came home, but nobody knew where you were, or at least nobody wanted to tell me."
"Yeah, I changed my phone number and email address. Whatever. You got what you wanted then?"
"Yes… tonight is our engagement party."
"Oh…Good luck for your future then. That's all the closure I needed to be able to finally move on. A merry belated Christmas and a happy New Year. Good bye Peter."
Thank you for reading! Reactions are always welcome as well comments, either here or in the Promoted Author thread.
@Valkyrie for your expertly editing and thoughtful beta-reading.