He knew it was a mistake the moment it was over. He always did. Rob had never developed the gift of foresight. Victoria’s departure—the latest addition to a long series of arguably self-induced misfortunes—seemed carry with it a vinegary sense of finality. He scratched at the dry stubble on his face and stared down the length of his stained, half-deflated air mattress toward an empty container of Cheez-Its resting on its side against the yellowed baseboard.
"Well," he told the cardboard box sourly, "at least I still have you."
With an effort that felt monumental, like a breathless surge upward to break the surface of a cold lake, he rose to his feet. Nausea hit him immediately. He only needed to take a few frantic strides across the cramped apartment to make sure his vomit landed in the toilet instead of on the flat, desert-beige carpet.
"Ugh," Rob muttered to himself, spitting weakly into the bowl. "If I could only feel like one kind of crap at a time, that would be great."
He missed the days when, instead of waking up hung over in a gloomy, roach-infested apartment, he would rouse to the soft clatter of plates and the crisp sizzle of his mother's breakfast. The sounds would always hit first, but the aromas of the sliced fruits and the French toast and the warm bacon would follow closely behind with comforting reliability.
The best mornings were on snow days. Not only would little Robby awaken to an idyllic winter vista beyond his bedroom window and the added thrill of a day without school, but the snugness of the home was somehow amplified by the presence of harsher conditions outside. His mother's homemaking skills always seemed to kick into overdrive on those days, and all the fresh cookies and steaming mugs of hot chocolate and thick blankets and Disney movies would envelop the physical walls of the house in an insular cocoon of protective serenity. On snow days, Robby was convinced there could be no higher level of contentment.
Now, though, Rob struggled to consider the possibility of a lower level of discontentment. Waking up alone and starving to spit phlegm into a brown-ringed toilet bowl was never going to be a nostalgic memory. Another surge of nausea swirled in his stomach as his eyes fell upon the week-old condom resting on the lip of the small garbage can beside the bathtub. When he vomited a second time, it was accompanied by a wave of equally unpleasant regret.
His tragically short-lived experience with Victoria had been a twenty-first century whirlwind romance complete with Tinder meetups and Snapchat nudes. At the time, it had felt like his generation’s version of a fairy tale—but it had all been over within two months. Rob had been unbelievably lucky to find her and unbelievably blindsided when she’d grown bored with him. Not that the boredom was necessarily due to her personality defects—admittedly, Rob had been useless when it came to pleasing her. He genuinely wanted to, but he could never think of any ways to solidify the relationship beyond its inchoate phase of sexual adventure. And his crucial mistake had been pretending that he knew what he was doing instead of admitting his ineptitude and discussing her expectations. The moment she’d ended things, he had understood his strategic deficiencies with debilitating clarity. He knew it was a mistake the moment it was over. He always did.
Even as a child, he’d known. The concept of shrewd hindsight had introduced itself to him one wintry morning during his youth. He'd awoken to the sounds and scents of his mother at work in the kitchen. The bright glow through the blinds unmistakably indicated large quantities of snow, and he leapt up to proclaim his excitement only to exclaim his anguish when his head slammed into the underside of his brother's half of the bunk bed. He knew it was a mistake as soon as it was over. He always did.
Not that such knowledge had ever been useful to him.
Little Robby hadn't allowed his minor cranial trauma to derail his day of celebration, however. There were some tears, of course, but then his mother was at his side and there were hugs and kisses and extraneous bandages and soft words. And then it was on to pancakes and chocolate chips and strawberries.
The mere thought of pancakes made Rob's stomach heave again. He stifled the reflex, stood on weak knees, ran his hand under the tap, and slurped from his palm.
He stared at his own haggard reflection in the cloudy mirror. "Take. A shower.”
The water sprayed feebly from the shower head. It wasn’t hot, but it was better than it had felt in weeks. It was interesting to him—and perhaps reassuring, in some imperceptibly significant way—that, despite how much his life had transformed in the preceding year, certain things were still unchanged. He’d experienced a long period of airless loneliness, which had been followed sharply by its extreme opposite during his brief time with Victoria, only to return to his previous state of isolation with symmetrical abruptness. His sense of self had also undergone some drastic shifts during the year and his behavior had started to become more unpredictable. Though he’d once been a pious fixture in the local pews, Rob hadn’t ventured inside a church or said a prayer or cracked open a book of scripture in twelve months. His personal identity seemed trapped in a state of helpless flux. The rules by which he governed his own actions were mutable and transient. But at least certain rituals such as bathing himself had remained constant throughout his increasingly tumultuous existence.
That was nice, he reflected. At least there was—somewhere deep beneath the wisps of smoldering fury and the dying tendrils of discarded dogma—some kind of essential foundation to his conduct. Maybe he could build on that.
He snickered as he stepped out of the tub and groped for a threadbare towel. “Sure, I don’t know what I believe anymore or who I am or what I want, but my moral stance on showering is rock solid, so I’ll start there.”
He had wrapped his towel around his waist and shuffled back out into the bedroom to search the floor for a reasonably unstained t-shirt when he heard fragments of muffled conversation through the thin walls and a gentle rapping at his door. He crept as quietly as possible up to the peephole and peered out. With one eye occluded and his vision distorted by the curved circle of glass, he managed to glimpse two starkly clean-cut young men in white shirts and ties.
The black nametags on their chests were a dead giveaway. These were missionaries—these were Rob’s past life. He had been one of them just a few years before, spreading the message of Mormonism with a huge grin on his face and a huge weight in his heart. Now he just had the weight—but at least he could admit as much to himself these days.
He wondered who had given the missionaries his address this time. His mother? His brother? Maybe one of his old missionary companions? He considered that these two particular men may have merely been visiting every unit in the building and were oblivious to the fact that they were knocking on the door of a former believer, but he knew that coincidences were a rarity in Mormonism. He watched silently as the two men taped a short note to the chipped surface of the door just below the peephole and left, ignoring every other apartment on their way to the stairs. As he’d suspected, this had been a targeted visit.
As he tossed his towel aside and pulled on some mostly clean underwear, a crumpled pair of jeans, and a relatively odorless t-shirt, Rob felt his stomach gurgle. He was feeling a little better and he realized he probably needed to eat something soon. He wished his mother were around to whip up one of her legendary breakfasts.
Little Robby, by contrast, had never worried about procuring his next meal—it had always been provided for him before he had the chance to experience true hunger. That snow day, he had wolfed down extra helpings of pancakes with gusto before joining his brother’s pleas to play outside. Always attentive and arguably overprotective, his mother had agreed—on the condition of bundling them up in layer upon layer of warm clothing. Shortly thereafter, wrapped in so much thermal apparel that he could hardly force his arms to stay against his sides, Robby had flung open the front door and rushed out into the yard.
He’d known it was a mistake as soon as he’d done it. He always did.
The temperature must have fluctuated during the previous night’s blizzard. The foot and a half of snow had been topped with a thick sheen of ice, which reflected the late morning sun with dazzling brilliance. The excessive brightness had hurt Robby’s eyes at first, but he wasn’t about to let a little natural light ruin his day of jubilation. Squinting against the sun’s hostility, he had bounded forward, enjoying the peculiar way the crust of the snow collapsed only slightly beneath his weight at first. Then, with the more energy he’d stomped, the lower his feet had sunk until the surface had risen just past his knees. The ice had also obscured and smoothed the topography of the yard, and he’d tripped a few times because his feet had slipped into unseen nuances of the terrain. More than once, the painful impacts on his knees and his ankles had provided him with that same shrewd hindsight immediately following a misstep. Regardless of the increased difficulties of movement, however, Robby had been enthralled by the magical new landscape around him.
His less adventurous younger brother had whined about the sun immediately and their mother had welcomed him back inside. But Robby had been determined to enjoy his unscheduled vacation to the fullest. Hours later, he’d built a small army of snowmen, half of which he’d demolished with some carefully directed maneuvers on his sled.
Rob wondered sometimes if destruction had always been one of his talents. Looking back on recent events, it was difficult to deny that he possessed a certain knack for it. He’d tugged on a nagging string at the sleeve of his faith until he’d unraveled the whole thing. He’d presented his skepticism to his family in a way that may have skewed more toward belligerence than he’d realized—until, of course, the big conversations were over and he’d understood what a mistake he’d made. It had set off a chain reaction and he’d watched in harrowed impotence as his relationship with each member of his family had deteriorated. In his aimless, boundless frustration, he’d torpedoed his career, his finances, and numerous friendships. He’d somehow managed to torpedo his whole damn life. Fifteen years ago, it had just been a few snowmen. How had his capacity for destruction escalated so drastically?
He poured some slightly soured milk over his off-brand Mini-Wheats. “I am going to destroy you,” he explained to his breakfast. “But rest assured, your sacrifice serves a purpose.”
As he crunched on the stale cereal, he pondered the day that he’d plowed through the line of snowmen at the base of the hill in his back yard. After a few hours in the snow, his vision had grown blurry. His eyes had begun to ache. He’d eventually staggered toward the house, hysterical and bawling, completely convinced that he was going blind. His mother had been there, as always, welcoming him back into the warm, safe cocoon, giving him hugs and reassurances and extra marshmallows in his cocoa.
He hadn’t gone blind, of course. It had hurt like hell, but he hadn’t gone blind. Robby had later learned that what he’d experienced was called snow blindness. After too much time outside, his eyes had been damaged by all the sunlight reflecting off the glistening surface of the ice. Perhaps if he’d been less eager to enjoy himself and more inclined to return to the safety of his mother’s home….
But what he hadn’t realized in his throes of juvenile panic is that the effects on his vision were temporary. The pain would subside and the darkness would be dispelled. Similarly, the ice would melt and the outdoors would once again be safe. But for months afterward, on every bright cloudless day, regardless of whether there was snow on the ground, little Robby had remained wary of playing outside. On the rare occasion that he had ventured out, he’d done so with the utmost caution.
“Caution,” Rob chuckled wryly to himself as he left his bowl atop a pile of moldering dishes in the sink. “Remember caution?”
It was clear to him—in retrospect, as usual—that many of his choices in the past year had been reckless. He’d started to act on what felt like impulse because he’d had to discard the instincts he’d built over his two decades of religious indoctrination. The internal resources he’d once used to maneuver through life had been revealed to be tainted, and he supposed—again only in retrospect—that he’d thrown the baby out with the bathwater and left himself without any kind of reliable decision-making process. It was snow blindness.
It was like stumbling around on a winter afternoon with blurring eyesight. He’d had no visual cues to help him navigate his way back to the house, but it wasn’t until his vision had become severely limited that he’d realized how much he relied upon optical stimuli. His crisis was essentially the same now as he wandered through his life without moral cues and without philosophical stimuli. It was terribly frightening to have something so fundamental and so taken for granted so concussively wrenched away from him, and he couldn’t avoid rushing about clumsily in a blind panic.
But the fear, he realized, had made him bolder the second time around. As a child, he’d wailed and sobbed and hyperventilated until his mother had soothed his worries away and had assured him that everything would be all right. But this time, he was barreling on into the jungles of uncertainty, thrashing away with heroic myopia in the hopes of finding a way through. Rob was every bit as frightened as he’d been that day in the snow, but surviving the fear once had taught him that being too blind to see his path didn’t mean the path wasn’t there—he just had to feel around in the dark for a while until he found it.
“I’ve been feeling around in the metaphorical dark for so long, it’s no wonder I’ve stubbed my metaphorical toes a few times,” he quipped somberly.
Victoria was a stubbed toe, a misstep, a faceplant in a snowbank—not Victoria herself, of course, but his amateurish attempt at a successful courtship with her. That had all been a natural consequence of sightless navigation. Despite how devastated he was to have lost her so quickly and with such thunderous irrevocability, Rob tried to keep in mind that he hadn’t been in the best headspace to have forged a lasting, healthy relationship. He wasn’t necessarily to blame for his failure. Perhaps, strictly speaking, it hadn’t even been a mistake.
Back in his dingy bathroom staring himself in the mirror while he ran his toothbrush under the tepid tap water, he took in a long breath. This was just the transition period, he reminded himself. It was the healing period. His vision would come back eventually.
“It hurts like hell,” he told his reflection. “But once it heals, it comes back.”
He brushed aggressively, as though the scraping of plaque and tartar from his teeth could set in motion the scouring of doubt and disquiet from his soul. He spat contemptuously into the sink to complete the symbolic purging. Gazing at the thin trails of blood swirling toward the drain, he was about to admit that brushing so hard had been a mistake—but maybe it hadn’t. Maybe the initial impression that something was a mistake wasn’t always a reliable indicator of whether it actually was. Maybe it was less about hindsight and foresight and more about experience and perspective. After all, the more he’d tripped in the snow, the more he’d gained a feel for the contours of the ground hidden beneath his feet.
He spat into the sink once more and watched the spray from the faucet slowly dissolve the vivid crimson until it became a faint pink around the mouth of the drain. He’d known he’d brushed his teeth too hard the moment it was over. But the cleansing was necessary and now that the neglected buildup of plaque was gone he would not be shredding his gums like that again.
“Wisdom from a toothbrush,” he sighed. “Better than no wisdom at all, I guess.”
Taking his keys and his wallet from their hastily-assigned resting places on the carpet beside his air mattress, Rob headed for his front door, pausing with his fingers curled around the handle. He was about to go out and learn to stumble around some more even though his snow blindness hadn’t entirely healed yet. This was something little Robby never could have done. Robby hadn’t learned to face the world. But Rob, at least, felt up to the task. He wasn’t going to run back to the house. He was going to venture forward into the magical new landscape.
The agony was temporary. The disorientation was temporary. But the more he could get used to fumbling around in the murkier moments of his existence, the better he’d be able to keep stride in the right direction once his vision began to grow sharper. Rob twisted the handle and stepped outside, squinting defiantly against the glaring sunlight.
“Well,” he smirked, “Here goes nothing.”