The trouble with Nova probably began much earlier but Christmas was a disaster last year, our first that had really gone awry. The subtle winter charms of Shorewood were still there; the conical holiday lights on the lampposts, the edge of the world sense of deserted beaches, the tapering spires of the chapels, the asymmetrical swirl of slanted and winding avenues. A few parks and a cemetery relieved the compression of dwellings just enough to lend the village a hint of the bucolic. Nova liked the University town aura, even if it was thousands of miles from where she was born. Perhaps my refusal to take a trip she wanted, for a dozen unconvincing reasons, pushed her across some tenuous threshold. In any case, there had been some inexpressible slippage between us in the Fall that lent a cumulative effect. As the branches had their stark networks revealed again, there was the feeling that she’d begun drifting, like a boat that come loose and was going out with the tide.
There was an incident at Marsh Harraway’s Christmas party, and if Marsh wasn’t my best friend, we might have been scratched from any further invitations. Nova said we were probably on a few NSTA (never see them again) lists and couldn’t afford another one. She was of the social variety and for her to be cast out from certain gatherings was akin to being marooned on some lunar outpost. The party was an annual affair, known for its intriguing games and odd rituals. One of them involved the selection of the worst gift from the previous season and either smashing it or setting it on fire, whichever was appropriate. It was an honor to initiate the demolition. Last year’s entry was the replica of a fountain which had the illusion of trickling water, but the constant gentle sound had finally driven the Crenshaws to exasperation. Russ Baxter dispatched the innocent object with a couple fierce passes of a ceremonial sledgehammer, catapulting some pieces to the far reaches of the yard.
On the way over, Nova was excited. It was nothing showy but there was that pleasantly nervous edge in her voice and eyes, that special intensity of anticipation I have long struggled to resist. It was what allowed her to soar when life went as planned but left her vulnerable to keen disappointments. She disdained my preference for a more even keel, gentler ups and downs, a lack of expectation of anything too grand. Though I admit occasionally this went too far, veering into the tendency to brace for the worst case scenario, that I sacrificed a certain nearness to the essence of things.