She ashes her cigarette, burned down just short of the filter, into the dirt next to her feet. She says tomorrow I quit smoking and she leans sideways against a white pillar, pressing her weight against it and playing with the loose splinters at the porch’s edge. I say Anne, you said that yesterday. She smiles a tight kind of smile and looks down at the embers as they suffocate in the cold. I try to smile too.
The morning sun is somewhere behind the clouds. Over the bare hedges at the end of the yard the ocean stretches out forever, far enough to meet the sky. I think I can hear a plane, faintly screaming, over the waves. She says it’s terribly pretty here. The wind is coming off the water in salty breaths. Anne gathers her coat with one hand and her pack of Camels with the other. She tries to light one more.
I say Anne and she says why did we come. I say we were invited and she says that’s not what I mean. I say the party wasn’t all that bad. This is a lie, though. The party was very bad. It went on long into the night, family men in wingchairs talking weather patterns and state politics while sweating liquor. Anne, fingering the stem of her champagne glass and talking to my aunt, glancing sidelong at her own reflection in the bay windows. The anecdotes with endings lost from memory. Laughter still bouncing down the hall after Anne and I had turned in.
Anne’s cupping her hand around her mouth against the wind, still fumbling with her lighter. She takes a long drag and says happy new year, smoke floating away from her face. She’s looking at the ocean. It’s starting to snow, with flurries just dense enough to cover the horizon with a thin layer of gauze.
I step off the porch and say hell is other people. She says I’m other people. I say hell is most other people. She says, her eyes filling with something, sure.
The snow has been coming down hard enough that the yard, its grass brown and yellow and cropped close to the ground, is dusted white. She gets up and walks ahead of me to the yard’s edge. I follow, watching my shoes press footprints into the snow. The wind has gotten stronger, and beyond the hedges lining the yard the water is rising into small waves, frothing at their peaks and crashing into the sea wall below. She’s bracing her cigarette arm against her body and her mouth twitches, trying to wrap itself around the words she wants to say.
I say what’s the matter. She asks will we be any different. I say I don’t know what you mean. She says would we roll our eyes at the people we will be in thirty years. I look back at the house. Two stories, with charcoal siding fringed with ice. The windows on the second floor still have their blinds drawn tight. It’s early, I think, but the alcohol must also cost more with age. I say we should wait until we leave to talk about this. She drops her second cigarette and steps on it.
Anne looks at me and then past me. She points behind me to the shoreline, the hills sliding into the ocean. The wind is starting to carry snow along their slope. The horizon has advanced closer to the shoreline, the air densely white and kinetic. She looks at me, ready to say something more but we walk back to the porch.
Through the screen door I see mugs on the oak table in the dining room, steam rising slowly from each. I hold the door open for Anne, and feeling begins to return to my face in the room’s warmth. Anne scrapes her shoes against the doormat.
My aunt steps through the door from the kitchen, carrying one more mug. My aunt says good morning. I say it’s starting to snow pretty hard. My aunt says yes and I know you two were planning on staying for lunch but driving conditions may be bad by then. She says the roads won’t be plowed until night, and if you stay for lunch it may keep you here until tomorrow. You could leave now to beat the weather, otherwise you’re welcome to stay another night.
As my nose thaws, I become sensitive to the soft smells of coffee and black tea and frying meat. Bacon grease is popping in the next room. Above our heads the ceiling groans under the weight of my uncle’s rising from bed. Somewhere a toilet seat slams down. My aunt is busying herself with straightening the mugs on the table, placing them slightly to the left of each of the seats. I look at Anne and she at me. Anne says yes, we would love to stay.