Black Ice

by Karen Gsteiger

Harrison caught Olivia's eye for a moment, and he could plainly see that, in regards to him and him alone, someone had truly turned out the lights. There was an icy dullness in the center of her pupils when she regarded him, and if you could travel inside, you could wander a long, long way before you found the kernel of intense dislike at the center.

Well, thank God that's over, he thought to himself with a sense of profound relief. He was seized for a second with regret, but he steeled himself, and the feeling passed. He had met 1,000 women just like Olivia in his life, and he knew that they could make a religion out of a man for thousands of years as long as he occasionally showed them the slightest gesture of kindness. So for the past few months, Harrison had performed small and casual acts of cruelty--a dismissive remark here, an unreturned phone call there, laughter when an expression of sympathy would have been more appropriate--until Olivia's eyes were opened, and she realized the utter vanity of her love. He knew that she didn't have it in her to loathe herself, so she began to loathe him instead. She was also too prideful to admit her misguided affection, so she would never speak aloud her feelings of disgust and would always remain civil in the presence of mutual friends. Everything was as it should be.

Harrison was a handsome young man, and he had the sort of personality that people could easily project upon. He did not enjoy these entanglements with the silently and painfully devoted because he knew that 98 percent of the time, they had invented an imaginary character for him that had so very little in common with the actual Harrison. The dreamy looks of love these women shot him when they thought no one was looking proved to be embarrassing to him, and half the time they were thwarting him from getting closer to those he was actually interested in. Olivia was, in the eyes of everyone, a very silly woman, but she was also well loved, which meant that he could never get past introductory pleasantries with someone like Cara because Cara had mentally assigned him to be Olivia's future partner.

Not that he cared overmuch for Cara. He found her attractive, if frustrating, but at times he wondered whether this entire circle of friends was nearing its natural expiration date. Or maybe the circle would violently implode when, as was inevitable, they would find out about him and Debbie. Which would be ridiculous, as he and Debbie were engaging in the least sentimental affair of his entire life, but that's the way these people operated--with the emotional maturity of a high school drama club. He was horrified at the manner in which he found himself getting sucked into their plots and intrigues.

But then, Holly had always had a penchant for the dramatic, the petulant, the eccentric, the childish, and it had never seemed to bother him. But that was five years ago, in a messy dorm room that often felt silent and intense when she was there while his neighbors were blasting their music and punching walls for no good reason and pranking each other with loud guffaws in the hallway outside. And that was a different girl--with long black hair that shed everywhere (he had found some loose strands three months ago while sorting through his old linens) and jade-colored eyes. And that vanilla-scented lotion--she practically bathed in the stuff. He thought he had smelled that particular brand recently while trapped in an elevator with a large group of people, and he wasn't sure whether to swoon or retch.

Harrison sensed that he would never love anyone like that ever again, and that idea made him feel strangely grateful. He had given her too much; she would have greedily devoured it all if he had let her, and she still would have dumped him in the end anyway. Before she left for Paris, she had given back his t-shirts, his CDs, the silly toys and trinkets he had given her as spontaneous gifts, and other possessions of her own that had merely reminded her of him because she wanted to make a point. That part of him he had given her, though--the best part of him, at that time--well, she kept that as a souvenir, and then she disappeared.

And now he sat uncomfortably at the end of a large booth in a bar that was all deafening background noise and stale cigarette smoke, his left hip smashed most uncomfortably against Michael's, his right ass cheek hanging in the air, not supported by any part of the seat, watching Cara desperately try to find some common ground between her friends and the ridiculous middle-aged cop she had brought along as a date.

Michael and Tonia and Olivia and Amal and Debbie and Harrison regarded this officer (Mark, Harrison believed he was called, although he wasn't sure he had heard properly) with raised eyebrows and polite smiles. Olivia was trying to engage him, asking him question after question, most of which he responded to with a wary "yes" or "no," as if he were a prisoner of war. Once he had ascertained that everyone in their group was considerably younger and in no way connected to law enforcement, he seemed to have decided to simply endure their presence, waiting patiently until that point in the evening when he could get laid. It appeared to Harrison that Cara and Mark had established some sort of routine, but this was the first Harrison had heard of him. At one point, Mark started fiddling with his cell phone, provoking a disapproving tch! sound from Tonia. Tonia opened her mouth to speak but censored herself when Cara shot her a pleading look. In the face of this blatant disrespect, the group telepathically and unanimously decided to ignore him for the rest of the evening, and the mood lightened considerably afterwards.

Donald had spent most of the evening wandering back and forth from the bar--typical. But Harrison was also grateful that there was one less person to cram into the booth. They were like survivors of a shipwreck, huddled on a makeshift raft. Harrison reflected for a moment on actually being on a makeshift raft with these people and what would happen when supplies started to dwindle. He realized that he would probably be one of the first tossed overboard by consensus. Tonia might half-heartedly make some remarks in his defense, but he knew that her loyalties would ultimately lie with Michael, which was hardly unexpected, despite Michael's roving eye.

Harrison returned to the present and found everyone looking at him. Olivia, it seemed, had asked him some sort of question. "Huh?" he asked.

"Never mind," she replied with a sigh.

It was one of those endless evenings at their bar of choice, and two hours in, Harrison found himself checking his watch every twenty minutes, then every fifteen minutes, then every ten minutes...he could hardly wait until the moment everyone started hugging their goodbyes, but he didn't want to appear old and lame or be accused of breaking up an enjoyable outing. And he wouldn't have minded a moment alone with Cara, which appeared increasingly unlikely.

But the gods must have been smiling on Harrison that night because just as his senses were being dulled by the alcohol and the pleasantries, there were whispers that Cara, who had at some point disappeared from the group, was arguing with her date near the restrooms. Harrison sat up straight and alert, feeling as though he'd just had a hit of caffeine, when Officer Mark stormed wordlessly past the group and walked out the door. Olivia was dispatched to perform some reconnaissance and eventually returned with the report that Cara was weeping in one of the stalls in the women's restroom. Olivia did not have much in the way of details, but apparently Cara had taken her escort to task for his indifferent attitude towards her friends, and he had not responded well to her dressing-down. Olivia speculated that the tears were merely for show and that Cara would return to her normal, upbeat self as soon as she repaired her eye makeup.

Harrison spied an opening and excused himself, feeling very conspicuous as his ears burned. Luckily, as he approached the men's room, Cara was just emerging from the women's. Her eyes were red, but she looked composed.

"Hey," he greeted her.

"Hey," she replied.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Oh...yeah..." she said, looking as though she were mentally cataloguing the ways in which she'd like to murder Olivia. "Mark and I just had a little...I'm sorry he was being so pissy to everyone tonight. I don't know what his..."

She looked genuinely embarrassed and pained, so Harrison quickly interjected, "Hey, it's no big deal."

"Did he...leave?" she asked.

"Yeah, it looks like he did."

"Oh, shit. He was my ride home."

"I can give you a ride home..." he offered.

"Are you sure? I don't want you to go out of your..." Cara ritualistically objected.

"It's no problem," he assured her.

"Cool, thanks," she replied. And with that, they returned to the group, and they all telepathically and unanimously decided to forget that any unpleasantness had occurred at all.

* * *

Since he had never been to her apartment before, Harrison had forgotten that Cara lived on practically the other side of the city. But he hardly noticed, as the car was finally heating up, and she was more animated than she had been all evening. She was switching back and forth between radio stations, unsatisfied until she heard Queen and then turned the volume up to deafening levels.

"Oh come on, Harry, sing along! Please, please, please? WEEEEE are the CHAM..oh come on! You know you know the words! And WEEEEE'LLL keep on FIGHTING..."

No one before had been allowed to call him "Harry." And no one since Holly had attempted to actively involve him in gleeful silliness or insouciant immaturity. Everyone else he had ever known had been content to let him watch cooly from the sidelines, afraid to involve him in their private jokes or hand him the karaoke microphone.

"C'mon, Harry! WEEEE are the CHAMPIONS, WEEEEEEEEE ARE THE CHAMPIONS, no TIME for LOSERS, cause WE are the CHAMPIONS..." Cara belted.

"of the world..." Harrison added in a low, off-key voice.

"Atta boy!" Cara laughed.

The song ended, and there was a lull in conversation. But a good kind of lull. Harrison and Cara occupied their own little worlds for a moment, both smiling, until Cara remembered that he needed direction to find her place.

"Oh, turn right here...okay, now I'm just halfway down the block on the left-hand side...oh shit."

"What?" Harrison asked.

"His car is here. What the fuck?"


"Yeah," Cara replied with a groan.


"Don't worry, he's not some kind of psycho abuser. He probably just wants to fight some more," she explained and then added in a lower voice, "Like I even fucking care. I'm so done with him."

"Uh, do you want to go somewhere else?"

Cara looked surprised. "No. I mean, I just need to tell him to go home, and he'll go home. It's okay." Harrison looked unconvinced, and Cara smiled, "Seriously. It's okay."

"Well, I'm coming with you," he declared grimly.

"Oh, no, really, you don't have to do that. I'm not scared of him or anything. You just go your merry way," she chirped. As she opened the door to step out of the car, she briefly touched his right arm. "Thanks for the're a lifesaver."

"Uh huh," Harrison responded distractedly. He did not pull away as she walked towards Mark's car on the other side of the street. She stood in front of the open driver's side window for a few moments, and her breath was visible in the bitterly cold night; it briefly rose towards the few white and glittering stars that one could see in the Chicago sky and disappeared. She turned to walk away, and Harrison felt himself exhale for the first time in a minute, but then he saw Mark step out of the car to follow her. They stood in front of her building, their lips moving more rapidly and their body language becoming more agitated. Harrison turned down the car radio and opened his window in an attempt to hear what they were saying. When he heard a shrill "Oh, go fuck yourself!", Harrison immediately experienced an adrenaline rush. Oh, that's it, he thought to himself, turning off his car's ignition and striding purposefully towards the pair.

Cara and Mark looked at him with shocked expressions on their faces, and Harrison began walking more quickly. He heard Mark exclaim, "What the fuck is he...?" and then Harrison trod on a dark patch of ice. He briefly lost his footing, waving his arms wildly in the air in an attempt to save himself and then fell hard on his front, his head bouncing briefly on the sidewalk.

A few moments later, Mark was helping Harrison to stand up. The wind had been knocked out of him, and his interior monologue was a torrent of fuck, fuck, fuck, shit, fuck.

"You okay?" Mark asked with some amusement.

"Yeah," Harrison replied, flushed and furious. He touched his hand to his forehead and winced.

Cara then started fluttering around him. "Ohmigod, are you okay? Are you sure you're all right? Your you need some ice? You're sure you're okay?"

"So, what, did you think I was going to start beating on her or something?" Mark asked, the left corner of his mouth turned upward.

Harrison merely glared at him in reply.

Cara rolled her eyes. "All right, Mark, isn't it about time you headed home to the wife and kids?"

"Fine. Fuck this," Mark declared as he made his exit. A few moments later, he was driving away but paused momentarily to throw something out of the driver's side window, which landed in a small mound of dirty snow by the curb.

"What was that?" Harrison asked.

"Oh, I think that was some CD I lent to him," Cara explained with a sigh. "I hope he put it back in the case first. Hey..." she began.


"Would you mind not telling the others about what I said...about him being married and all? It's over now, anyway."

"Yeah. I mean, I don't's none of my business."

"I know it's wrong and everything--believe me. But you know how things just kind of happen?"

Debbie's face flashed in front of Harrison's eyes for a moment, and he replied, "Yeah. Yeah, I do."

* * *

Harrison felt a tight, angry knot forming just above his left eyebrow. He grabbed a washcloth and opened the freezer door to reach for an ice cube tray. As he pulled the tray out, a letter hit the floor. Not just any letter--THE letter. The last letter. Because it pained him to think of the night's embarrassment, he was almost glad to have found it.

Holly was a letter writer. She wrote letters to him when she was cheerful, when she was cranky, when she was visiting her parents in California, when she was sitting two feet away from him. She had this little quirk...she liked to make happy, passionate letters physically warm. She'd often run over them quickly with a hot iron or would toss them in the microwave for 30 seconds. Angry, broken-hearted letters were put in the freezer for hours sometimes before they were handed to him in silence.

The last letter, written in response to Harrison's ill-advised, drunken, begging missive while she was nearing the end of her year-long study abroad program, contained more hateful sentiments than he supposed would have fit on a single page. She did everything short of coating the paper in poison. The worst part about it was that every word she threw at him was nothing but the starkest truth. Anyone that you truly love can see your flaws, and she enumerated them with a brutality that he didn't realize was in her. Harrison read through it again and again, til he had memorized the entire manifesto. The words floated in front of his eyes during lectures or when walking to and from class. When he listened to music, the lyrics were replaced by her taunts and rejections. He once tore the letter into pieces in a drunken rage, only to spend the rest of the night taping it back together and replacing it in its envelope. He thought it was going to make him lose his mind for a time, and even his friends, in whom he did not often confide regarding matters of the heart, started to worry. Tonia, who knew about the existence of the letter, advised him to burn it. But he couldn't burn it because it wasn't that sort of letter. Burying it in Antarctica was the only fitting solution, and since he had never found time for that, he kept it in his freezer instead.

And now, his head throbbing, Harrison picked the letter up from the floor and tentatively walked towards the garbage can. He stood in front of the open garbage can for a moment before turning around and throwing the letter back in the freezer. He finished creating his little ice pack and tried to forget that he had even seen it again. He yearned for something uncomplicated--not even sex, really--but just someone to sit next to him on the couch and watch TV. Someone who would wash the dishes while he would dry. Perhaps it wouldn't be the most passionate relationship in the world, just more stable and civilized and considerate. Harrison started to create in his mind's eye banal domestic scenes and cast Cara in the role of gentle, devoted spouse. For a second, he even imagined himself sitting in a church, wearing a dress shirt and tie in the middle of summer, watching Cara sing in the choir and trying to restrain squirming toddlers on his lap, feeling just as bored as they. But he'd do it, and gladly, if it meant an end to loneliness and a freezer that contained only pints of ice cream and frozen pizzas.