A couple (let's call them Couple A) with a maxed-out credit card packs up their personal effects, three bottles of wine, assorted fancy cheeses, a salami, and their son, Timmy, to visit Couple B (why not?) at Couple B's weekend house in the countryside. On the journey from the city, ice needles stab the windshield. The feeling in the car is that the family is outrunning something.
Couple B's country house, an icicle-festooned alpine chalet the size of an airplane hangar, sits on a low hill on the edge of a frozen lake. Before leaving the car, Couple A performs an imperceptible reprogramming of their personalities. Soon, they will hear themselves tell many breezy lies: We love Scrabble! Whenever you want to eat is fine with us! Staying up until 3 a.m. watching Nigerian soap operas sounds fun!
Couple B has two children: Tammy, age seven, and an eighteen-month-old boy (The Baby) who never stops moving unless it's to violently wail as if someone were pulling the limbs from his tiny body. He never sleeps, Couple B claims. Really, never! He just kind of dozes. Couple B, once bitingly witty in an us-against-the-world way, now despise each other, a fact only evident to Couple A when, upon their arrival, Husband B hisses at his wife, Why can't I trust you to simply watch him for fifteen seconds? Him being The Baby, who has bumped his head on a corner of the dining-room table. A fact further evident when Wife B retorts, You watch him then if you don't like how I do it, after which Husband B storms off, then reappears to say, There's no food, Jesus Christ, if we left it up to you we'd all starve, to which Wife B replies, Fat idiots like you will never starve. Couple A begins to make soothing allusions to the assortment of quality cheeses and salami they have brought until The Baby's wailing reaches a fever pitch and Wife B whisks him away with an apologetic smile and a slammed door.
Tammy pulls Timmy into her room. They're stupid, she whispers. Don't listen to them; let's draw on the wall.
Five hours into the visit, Couple A has, if they're honest, never felt better about their own marriage, their crumbling apartment, the public-school education they are providing for their son. The more vicious is Couple B, the more Couple A responds with private affections, affirmations that they have made the correct choice in each other. Long-dormant love hormones begin to fizz between them again as they snowshoe around the property, alongside an unspoken sense of alarm that this is what it takes to get things going.
All is magical for Couple A in their warm envelope of rekindled affection until day two, when in the morning the children are drawn like magnets toward the frozen lake. This will not end well, thinks Wife A, who has read enough literary fiction to know that a frozen lake always spells peril. Timmy, if you go out on the frozen lake, you will probably die, she says calmly. Timmy is five. He can process this.
Mom, you're such a fraidy-cat! he singsongs.
He is so happy here, inside this monument to the wisdom of Husband B's hedge fund.
Give me a hug, Timmy, she says, and swear to me you will stay away from the lake.
I can't promise that, Timmy says, and then he's off to find Tammy.
Hours then pass with the children glued to the television. Couple A reads their books and pages through the vintage magazines scattered across Couple B's coffee table. They enjoy the winter sun beating in through the massive living-room windows, the snow kicking up at intervals in little bursts across the pines. The dramas of nature here are so sublime and intricate that a person can almost forget about mid-five-figure credit-card statements.