He goes to take a swig of beer, but the bottle’s empty.
“Fuck,” he mutters to no one but himself.
He’s freezing, his coat buried somewhere in the pile on Robbie’s bed, but he can’t bring himself to go back inside for a jacket or a drink. Can’t bear the tide of turning heads, the smoke filling their eyes, doesn’t want the weight of their attention. And he can see the irony in that, he really can. Right now he’d give anything for one of Muriel’s little pink umbrellas, but he’s run out, so he sinks down onto the freezing metal steps, tells himself he’s happy, tells himself that this is what he wanted.
He sets the empty bottle beside a pot that used to be home to a plant. Right now it holds only a small mountain of cigarette stubs.
Sometimes Henry wishes he smoked, just for the excuse to get some air.
He tried once or twice, but he couldn’t get over the taste of tar, the stale smell it left on his clothes. He had this one aunt growing up who smoked until her nails went yellow and her skin cracked like old leather, until every cough sounded like she had loose change rattling in her chest. Every time he took a drag, he thought of her, and felt ill, and he didn’t know if it was the memory or the taste, only knew it wasn’t worth it.
There was pot, of course, but pot was something you were supposed to share with other people, not sneak away to smoke alone, and anyway, it always made him hungry and sad. Or really, sadder. It didn’t iron out any of the wrinkles in his brain, after too many hits just made them into spirals, thoughts turning in and in and in on themselves forever.
He has this vivid memory of getting stoned senior year, he and Bea and Robbie lying in a tangle of limbs on the Columbia quad at three in the morning, high as kites and staring up at the sky. And even though they had to squint to make out any stars, and it might have just been their eyes struggling for purchase on the black expanse, Bea and Robbie went on and on about how big it all was, how wonderful, how calm it made them feel to be so small, and Henry didn’t say anything because he was too busy holding his breath to keep from screaming.
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
Bea is leaning out the window. She swings her leg over the sill, and joins him out on the step, hissing when her leggings meet the cold metal. They sit in silence for a few moments. Henry stares out over the buildings. The clouds are low, the lights of Times Square shining up against them.
“Robbie’s in love with me,” he says.
“Robbie’s always been in love with you,” says Bea.
“But that’s the thing,” he says, shaking his head. “He wasn’t in love with who I was, not really. He was in love with who I could have been. He wanted me to change, and I didn’t, and—”
“Why should you change?” She turns to look at him, the frost swirling across her vision. “You’re perfect, just the way you are.”
“And what is that?” he asks. “What am I?”
He’s been afraid to ask, afraid to know the meaning of the shine in her eyes, what she sees when she looks at him. Even now, he wishes he could take it back. But Bea just smiles and says, “You’re my best friend, Henry.”
His chest loosens, just a little. Because that’s real.
But then she keeps going.
“You’re sweet, and sensitive, and an amazing listener.”
And that last part makes his stomach drop, because Henry’s never been a good listener. He’s lost count of the number of fights they’ve gotten in because he wasn’t paying attention.
“You’re always there when I need you,” she goes on, and his chest aches, because he knows he hasn’t been, and this isn’t like all the other lies, this isn’t washboard abs, or a chiseled jaw or a deep voice, this isn’t witty charm, or the son you’ve always wanted, or the brother you miss, this isn’t any of the thousand things other people see when they look at him, things out of his control.
“I wish you saw yourself the way I see you.”
What Bea sees is a good friend.
And Henry has no excuse for not already being one.
He puts his head in his hands, presses his palms against his eyes until he sees stars, and wonders if he can fix this, just this, if he can become the version of Henry that Bea sees, if it will make the frost in her eyes go away again, if she, at least, will see him clearly.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers into the space between his knees and chest.
He feels her run her fingers through his hair. “For what?”
And what is he supposed to say?
Henry lets out a shuddering breath, and looks up. “If you could have anything,” he says, “what would you ask for?”
“That depends,” she says. “What’s the cost?”
“How do you know there’s a cost?”
“There’s always give and take.”
“Okay,” says Henry, “if you sold your soul for one thing, what would it be?”
Bea chews her lip. “Happiness.”
“What is that?” he asks. “I mean, is it just feeling happy for no reason? Or is it making other people happy? Is it being happy with your job, or your life, or—”
Bea laughs. “You always overthink things, Henry.” She looks out over the fire escape. “I don’t know, I guess I just mean I’d want to be happy with myself. Satisfied. What about you?”
He thinks of lying, doesn’t. “I think I’d want to be loved.”
Bea looks at him, then, eyes swirling with frost, and even through the mist, she looks suddenly, immeasurably sad. “You can’t make people love you, Hen. If it’s not a choice, it isn’t real.”
Henry’s mouth goes dry.
She’s right. Of course she’s right.
And he’s an idiot, trapped in a world where nothing’s real.
Bea knocks her shoulder against his. “Come back in,” she says. “Find someone to kiss before midnight. It’s good luck.”
She rises, waiting, but Henry can’t bring himself to stand.
“It’s okay,” he says. “You go.”
And he knows it’s the deal he’s made, knows it’s what she sees and not what he is—but he’s still relieved when Bea sits back down, and leans against him, a best friend staying with him in the dark. And soon the music dims, and the voices rise, and Henry can hear the countdown at their back.
Ten, nine, eight.
Seven, six, five.
What has he done?
Four, three, two.
It’s going too fast.
The air fills with whistles and cheers and wishes and Bea presses her lips against his, a moment of warmth against the cold. Just like that, the year is gone, the clocks reset, a three replaced by a four, and Henry knows that he has made a terrible mistake.
He has asked the wrong god for the wrong thing, and now he is enough because he is nothing. He is perfect, because he isn’t there.
“It’s going to be a good year,” says Bea. “I can feel it.” She sighs a plume of fog into the air between them. “Fuck, it’s freezing.” She stands, rubbing her hands. “Let’s go in.”
“You go ahead,” he says, “I’ll be there soon.”