November 14th was the day I truly lost everything. That is one of the few days between then and now that I can recall with any true distinction. Most everything else is a pretty vivid blur, like driving on the autobahn in a snowstorm. You just hold on tight and hope you don’t hit anything. When you’re in that slide you don’t see anything else, at least I didn’t. I sit here in this bus shelter and there’s nothing coming my way. Of course it’s 3 in the morning on a Sunday and nothing is running, except my mind.
I had a good life up until that fateful afternoon. I had a beautiful family, a nice home that I worked for 13 years to purchase, and a job I didn’t hate. I made enough money to support my family and myself in a comfortable lifestyle, plus my wife convinced me to try something I had always wanted to try. I took an acting class. It became a great outlet for me, a stress reliever for my week, if you will.
I was doing fine, great even, until she walked into my classroom. Yes, I say my classroom. I was going to own that class. This was the perfect outlet for my obnoxious, wisecracking ass. I wanted to do well. It was my first time in college and I was going to show everyone and myself something spectacular. Well…to everyone that knew me… it was spectacular. I had never believed that I was capable of the atrocities I committed over the next year. Life turns on a dime and I always felt that I could handle anything that life threw my way. I adopted the lifestyle that I purported to be fully against my grain. I showed everyone alright.
First day of class of my very 1st class my 1st time in college, and Sarah walked in. I’ll be honest…she wasn’t stunning. I could tell she was a parent and around my age. That was the only impression I received. I came to learn so much more than I should’ve ever known, especially about myself. She used to teach piano. Why did I carry that thought away? I guess sitting in a bus shelter at 3 a.m. in October your mind tends to wander.
She was tiny, shorter than me and had the most raven black hair I had ever seen. I could lose my hands and eyes in that hair for hours. I came to learn that she took good care of herself and was in wonderful condition for a woman of 36. There was not an unnecessary ounce of fat on her body, trim, lithe, and tiny, a virtuoso in bed. It was uncanny. I did things to her that would make a prostitute blush, and she wanted everything I did to her. I ate up our time together like an alcoholic on the upslope of a bender. There was no rhyme or reason to what we did. It was wherever and whenever. We both had lives outside the little lascivious world we created. It was pure sexual acrobatics. There was nothing we didn’t try. We were the Kama Sutra only in Pop-Up. Until one day in January I did something really stupid. I fell in love.
After I crested that hill it was all over for me, I could see nothing. She…love…life, I don’t know what it was but it hit me like a jackknifed Peterbilt and I just hung on tight and kept going straight. I did my best to ignore it for the first couple of months but it got to the point when my destiny was not my own. I was caught in the tempest of her arms. And her arms kept me sane.
We were paired together early on for a scene in our acting class and we had fun. I felt expressive and creative. We met together every weekend for a couple of hours to rehearse and practice our scene. We created back stories and developed the characters and become good acquaintances. All through that we were fine. Nothing was amiss…nothing was untoward between us. Everything was kosher as a pickle as they say. It was that fateful afternoon in Wayside Deli that we bumped into each other. The deli was crowded like always on a Friday lunch. I was standing behind her in line and didn’t even recognize it. Her hair was the same; the slip of neck visible just above her collar was there. She was pretty in a mature, wise way. You could tell she was an older woman but there was a vitality that radiated from her that caused everyone around her to dawdle within her presence. It sure worked its magic on me.
Anyway, I was next in line when she went to the counter to place her order and I recognized her voice. Standing in line behind her for 10 minutes, and I hadn’t put 2 and 2 together. Hearing her voice broke me from my reverie. I gazed at her as she placed her order. She had a Veggie Melt with a side of fries and a Root Beer, for here. As I listened to her place her order I acknowledged the way her stretch pants hugged the curves of her legs. There was no distinguishing panty line which sent my mind a thousand different directions. Never before had I noticed how her left ear stuck out a smidge farther than the other and I realized I wanted to lick the nape of her neck. This was the first time we had met outside of class for a non class reason. She turned to walk to the register and I called her name.
“Hey Sarah.” She looked startled that someone knew her name and glanced my way looking right past me. She didn’t see me until I repeated her name, only this time I threw a little disappointment into my voice. “Sarahhhh.” She gave one of those head swivels and finally realized who was calling out to her. She rolled her eyes and walked over to me with the most gorgeous smile I had ever known, and I knew it was just for me.
We started to chat before the order taker realized that I had no idea I was next in line and called me. “Hey Buddy…you want some food or you just enjoying the view?”
I smiled at Sarah and felt like a dumbass in high school again. I directed my comment to the fat guy behind the counter but kept my eyes within hers, “Yes, actually. I am enjoying the view.” I winked at Sarah as I said this and I believe she blushed. Not much mind you, but a little bit. Enough for me to realize that a little color in her cheeks utterly changed how she looked in my eyes. It was one of the sexiest moments in my life. It soon became my goal to make those cheeks as bright and shining as possible. We agreed to eat lunch together and as I placed my order and my mental wheels lost their grip and my mind started to slide.
The next hour was insubstantial in conversation but heavy on my mind and I caught myself watching everything she did. I covertly watched her sprinkle little pinches of salt on her sandwich after she sprinkled a dash into her palm. I became aware of how her throat bobbed as she swallowed and how her eyes lit up true when she spoke of her children. The way her lips wrapped around the straw, but most of all I noticed how she enjoyed my company. She thanked me for sitting with her and we went on trivially about not getting enough time for ourselves with family and all that. We walked to her car as she commented on how little of my food I ate. I almost told her that roast beef on rye was not what I was hungry for but like the good husband I kept my mouth shut.
We stood at the driver side door of her Lexus and I clasped my hands behind my back pinching the webbing between my thumb and forefinger to stop myself from dragging her into my arms. I wondered if her tongue would taste as smooth as it looked when it dipped across her lips. Instead I made some comment about making this a regular thing as she lived nearby and I worked not too far from here and even stumbled on offering to treat next week. We parted ways that afternoon with her having had an interesting lunch break and I walked away galvanized. It was November 14th.
I had blown off one meeting that day, so I sat through my next one doing nothing but replaying every second of our lunch. I recalled how she had a dollop of mayonnaise on her chin and I wanted to kiss it off but instead I just tapped my chin and nodded her way. I had never wanted to be a napkin before. I don’t remember if I said anything or heard anything from that meeting, but I do remember that lunch down to the last detail.
The rest of the week was an Olympic downhill skiing event with a blind man in the lead. The only thing that was different was at 10 a.m. the following Friday I called Sarah. I had her cell phone number and left her a message. I felt like the racetrack at the Kentucky Derby until she called me back an hour later agreeing to lunch with me. This time we met at a sushi place nearby. I convinced her to try some things she never before had placed in her mouth. She liked the wasabi as much as I did and we turned it into a contest to see how much more wasabi one of us could eat than the other, the only bit of luck I had over the next 11 months. Our eyes were tearing at the heat on our tongues by the end of lunch. We had a blast and there was no where else I wanted to be. I pinched my fingers again as we parted ways and all the way back to the office I kept telling myself that this was stupid. I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I shouldn’t be having a crush on a woman I barely knew. I was 33, much too old for a crush. I had too much going right in my life to do something like this. But wait. What was I doing? Absolutely nothing, that’s what. I was having lunch with a friend. No biggie…lunch once a week is no big thing. I ate lunch everyday, only on this Friday and last Friday I was eating with a friend. And one of those times, it was completely out of the blue, like a fender-bender. We bumped into each other, that is it. I could live with that and I did until our 9th lunch date.
She felt bad that I had paid for all our lunches except for the 1st one so she invited me to her place for lunch. Sounded great…a home made lunch. Home made lunch I thought to myself…what the hell is that. Lunch is lunch. It’s not like I’m taking her out to dinner. After I read back the directions to her place and replaced the phone in its cradle I had the strangest thought. I was glad that I had shaved that morning.
I left my cubicle at 11:15 and strode out of the building. The drive to her place was quick. I arrived at 11:28. I told myself over and over again that this was nothing. We’re just having lunch. Still no big thing. Never has been, just hanging out for an hour or so and having lunch. I hadn’t even bought condoms or told my wife. There was no way I would be stupid enough to try something, not in her own home where she sleeps with her husband and teaches her children not to cheat on their math tests. She’s a better person than that and so am I. But as I walked to her front door I still refused to admit to myself that I was going to try to cut into that lane if the chance presented itself. I even ignored the fact that I left my cell phone in my car.
She fixed a light lunch for us. She made shrimp salad without celery, she remembered that I hate celery, on a bed of romaine lettuce with cottage cheese and Deli Rye Triscuits. There was even a bottle of Chardonnay chilling in an ice bucket. We ate lunch in the florida room in the back of her home. The glass walls and ceiling captured the sunlight of that January morning and warmed us to each other. We were sitting on this soft couch with our lunch plates arrayed on the table in front of us. The ice bucket held the empty bottle of wine and we both had our shoes off with our legs curled underneath us.
We faced each other and sipped our wine chatting inconsequentially. It was a bright beautiful day and my eyes never left her. The sunlight reflected through the glass and entwined itself in her hair showing off the deep, dark, almost purple highlights. Her green eyes were flecked with gold and her lashes were their most full when she turned her eyes away from me and her cheeks flushed with laughter. Our arms here splayed on the back of the sofa, parallel to each others. She leaned forward as she twisted around to put her wine glass on the end table. She turned back to me just as I placed my glass on the table next to our plates. We were inches apart and I inhaled the chardonnay from her breath. I placed my hand on her knee and she blushed slightly when, after a second she placed her hand upon mine. It was the touch of a feather, her cool fingers on mine. I leaned forward requesting her permission and she in turn edged her lips in answer. Her eyes fluttered closed as my lips touched hers. I tasted her fear which drowned quickly in her passion.
Our lips demanded more of each other. She drifted her hand up my arm and cupped the back of my neck. Her fingers sent icicles careening down my spine. My hand found itself on the small of her back as she uncurled her legs from beneath her like a snake and draped them over mine. I supported her flexible body as she slid from a sitting position and we sprawled lengthwise next to each other. Her hands clasped together at my neck and pulled me deeper into our embrace. We held each other, our bodies touching at every point possible. My tongue pressed against her lips and they parted with an intake of my breath. Our tongues met and coupled …rolling around each other like lion cubs at play. Our flesh was one mass searching for ways to become closer. We were lost within each other. Her arms were encircled around my neck and I had a hand in her hair. My other arm drifted down her back to her waist where I found the opening between her sweater and the bare flesh of her back. I pushed my hand up her back inside her sweater. The warmth of her body was liquid and roses. Her skin was hot and moist beneath my hand. She lifted her back as I pulled her sweater up. As my hand crept up her spine I encountered no resistance in either spirit or underclothing. She stretched her arms up straight as I removed her sweater over her head breaking our kiss. She tilted her head as the neck of her sweater crawled across her face. She crisscrossed her arms over her breasts and looked at me as I dropped her sweater in a ball on the floor. I ran my hand up her arm and swept her soft dark hair from her face. The side of my thumb wafted down her cheek wiping away a single tear. I cupped the back of her head and pressed my face into her hair inhaling the indefinable scent of her. We trembled in each others arms.
I sprawled on the broken couch beneath my carport and watched the grass grow beneath what would some day become a beautiful apple tree. I rolled a pencil back and forth, the crossword puzzle forgotten on my lap and my ice water sweated dream like on the little glass end table on my left. The street was empty but I could hear the buzzing drone of traffic in the distance. The sky, which I could view over the houses across the street, was puffing away on the few clouds that wisped through the morning. It was days like this that reminded me why life was worth living. And for the first time in months I didn’t even want a drink. Sunlight without a hangover covers a whole new spectrum. A good start to the day and nothing was going to ruin today. Nothing that was until I remembered I wasn’t alone. Her voice carried through the screen door and found my ear. “Jack? Honey? You awake out there?”
I croaked back an answer that resembled a yes and heard her snicker. I took a drink of my water and wiped my hand across my forehead to let the breeze play across my flesh which sent a delicious shiver through me. Her belly broke through the shadow behind the screen before the rest of her could even be discerned. Her breasts, swollen and ripe followed. Sunlight then dappled the highlights in her long hair as it rested over her shoulders and down her chest. Her face peeked at me through the screen, mottled and pleasant in shadow. “Do you need some more water?”
My response was less frogged than before and I caught her teeth in a smile. She refused to join me beneath the carport and disappeared in a wisp of shade. I smiled my response and wandered my sight back over the street. My eyes drifted back to my crossword and I wondered why I even bothered with these. Oh well, a good excuse as any to sit outside on a day like this.
My eyes wandered the empty spaces on the crossword puzzle when she screamed my name. The paper flew across the concrete and the book I was using as a pad under the paper landed with a thwack as I jumped, and the pencil landed point first in the webbing between the first two toes of my right foot. I ouched and stumbled on one foot trying to dislodge the pencil from the other one all the while biting back a curse. No cursing I reminded myself. Cursing is the eloquence of a drunk. I yanked the pencil from my flesh and threw back a “What?” to my wife.
“Now Jack. It’s time.” I heard her voice crack with a strange sense of unsurety; rare coming from my wife but there it was. She appeared again, hidden in the screen. “It’s time now Jack!” Her voice inched up in pitch.
I gaped at her before it dawned on me what the hell she was talking about. I took a quick step to the door appeasing her to calm down and we’ll be fine. She opened the screen door for me as my foot came down on the book that lay on the concrete. The fast weight of my step forced the book to slide behind me, pitching me face first into the door. Another thwack reverberated through the carport as my forehead stopped the door from opening any further. I went down to one knee and shook the eloquence from my thoughts.
I limped into the house and followed my mental checklist. I locked the back door, slipped on my shoes; the pain wasn’t on the list; grabbed her bag by the front door, kissed the dog and tried not to push my wife out the house.
I was glad I had started backing the car into the driveway. She grimaced as I tossed her bag into the backseat and did my ungainly best to assist her into the front seat. After I buckled her seatbelt I cupped her chin in my hand and held her eyes. She smiled at me as she wrapped her hands around her belly. I kissed her and shut her door. I gimped around the car and pulled my keys from my pocket as I got into the drivers side and started the engine. I counted to five. I put on my seatbelt, put the car in gear, put one hand on her belly and started out the driveway.
“Jack, wait.” She curved her head up to me. “I just have to pee.” I braked the car and swallowed my eloquence.
The heat was oppressive. Dead heart August is terrible around here. With a strong enough air conditioner it can become tolerable. However, in my shit bucket it doesn’t happen. I have to crank all the windows down and turn the heat on full blast to prevent the car from over-heating. Anyways…it was about 6 PM on Tuesday and I was picking up my wife from work. Downtown DC is bad enough but it took me 15 minutes to travel one block to the front of her building and I was stuck behind a metro bus the whole time. Yum, heat and exhaust make for a lovely aroma. I guess I didn’t smell too good by that time either but that’s beside the point. So I get up there and I’m expecting her to be pissed; waiting in the heat. But I can tell by the look on her face that she’s unhappy, but not pissed. That’s a relief but wait until she’s in the car and feels the defog going full blast and that’ll change. So I pull up to her…she could’ve walked the 10 steps to the car but noooo, she had to wait until I stopped in front of her. So she gets in the car and just looks at me, and then at the temperature gauge on the dashboard…back at me and then proceeds to put on her seatbelt.
“Hi.” I stammer through the sweat trickling off my forehead. She doesn’t say anything, just looks straight ahead. Now normally I’d take this par for the course with my woman, but I get the feeling that something isn’t right. Experience? Maybe just intuition? Nope! It’s always something with my woman, the mother of my children and matron of my hatred. Don’t ask me which came first, I don’t remember.
“Hi.” I say again. She turns her head and looks at me this time and I see the wrinkles around her eyes are deeper than I recall. When she hangs her head and looks into her lap I remember why I never look at her anymore. I shrug on the inside and look forward and creep up Wisconsin Ave. Inch by inch I catch up to the metro bus and resume my position sucking on its tail wind. It’s the safest lane as you always know what’s in front of you; nothing but the ass end and a whole lot of hot air.
Anyway, she clears her throat and leans toward the window and the crow’s feet around her eyes stretch as her face tightens. Her hands are folded stiff in her lap and sweat is pooling under her arms. With traffic not moving I can watch the wet “V” under her arms lengthen down her sides.
She suddenly spoke to me but the mumbling of traffic through the window causes me to lean toward her and speak back. I try to keep the surprise out of my voice. “What was that? I missed it?”
She looks at me and her eyes are the coolest thing in the car. After a deep breath to swallow her irritation she explains to me, “I’m leaving.”
I hope to pick up speed soon. All I can do is look at her as we’re still sitting behind the bus. I smile at her. “Would you like me to pull over first or just change lanes?” I laugh at my own joke and how her eyes darken. Even after all these years I can still surprise her. But she stopped laughing years ago, at my jokes anyway.
“I’m serious Jack.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that this time.” I see her put one hand on the dashboard like we were careening down a mountain road, but the only thing we’re in danger of is a building falling on us and crushing us in this tin can; bet the heater would still be running if it did.
I look around the bus and see traffic breaking up as we near Bradley Blvd. I gun the engine and hook around the bus, tires squealing and horns squawking, the engine groaning as the last of its energy is sucked through the fuel injector. I see her swerve in the seat. Surprised her again.
I remember when we got this car. Almost new it was, and only 3 years ago. The car was strong then. Only 30,000 miles on it. Good tires, A/C even worked. But we’re rough on our vehicles. This is the 3rd one in our marriage. At least we outlived the cars. Well, two thirds of them anyway.
I watch the temperature gauge needle climb a smidge as I pass the bus and cut hard in front of it, the body roll swaying her into the door which swung her hard gaze back at me. She hadn’t learned how to shoot needles from her eyes yet but I’m sure she was working on it. The tires squeal a blue streak when I jet into a sharp right turn onto Bradley Blvd. Never before had traffic opened up before me like it did now. I weaved into the oncoming lane to pass some granny in her Buick and kept on going.
Green light…I gun the pained engine again and shoot onto Connecticut Ave jamming the wheel left and actually fishtailing the ass end of my little Cavalier wagon. Wide open spaces all the way to East-West Hwy. Couldn’t believe it…this had never happened. This was awesome. Open road and still ¾ of a tank of fuel. Ain’t died yet and I’m not behind a bus anymore. As I floor the remainder of the gas pedal I stole a look at her and she was staring at me, cutting her eyes into my flesh. I saw the cross light at East-West Hwy turn yellow, so I coax some more speed from my wheezing engine. I look into her eyes as I shoot through the light. It turns green as I cross under it. There was a new look in her eyes. I don’t quite know what it is but I am beginning to wonder. Her eyes flicker to the road and back to me. I ignore her and look straight ahead. Peripherally, I see how fast the trees are zinging by. I chance a look at the speedometer and it is just crowning 75.
I quit drinking coffee about 3 months ago but as I passed the Starbucks on my left I was overcome with a craving for a Venti COD with no room; “double cupped please”. Ohhh, what I could do with that scalding cup of joe right now. There was a flat space on the dash that it would set down perfectly and of course if we happened to hit a bump, that coffee might just fly off the dash and land right on her lap. If it was set far enough back it might just hit her in the chest, and you know those lids are rarely placed on there tightly. Boy, I could go for a swallow of joe right now.
Anyway, the tires kept contact with the pavement as we crested the hill just before Jones Bridge Rd, (where did everyone go?), I saw a metro bus…another of those modern cattle trucks. Packed like beef into a metal box…what a way to travel. The ass end of that flashed in the wavering heat and I glimpsed something new. I looked back to her as we started the downhill slope to the beltway and bumped up over 80. She had one hand wrapped knuckle deep on the door handle and the other hand flat on the dash where the airbag would deploy… if we had one. I smiled at her and she could smell it. She ripped her eyes from the road and the bus as its ass approached at close to 85 miles per hour. I’m not quite sure what she said to me as her voice was smothered by the squeal of tires as I slammed the wheel to the right and yanked up on the handbrake.
I killed the idling engine and felt the gusting winds rock the car on its springs. The deep clouds in the darkened sky raced as fast as my heartbeat. I cranked the window down a notch and lit a cigarette with a shaking hand. The smoke from my heavy exhale was pulled through the crack of the window as another gust swayed the naked branches of the cherry tree in my front yard. The blinds were drawn in the front windows and light peeked around the edges, warm and inviting. I could see no outlines through the blinds but I knew they were there, they always had been. I watched the darkened bedroom windows on the second story for the same thing while the sound of the wind overpowered the ticking of my engine and the thundering of my heart. I waited for another yowling gust before I choked out a sob. I grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and rocked my body back and forth, trying to discharge the vinegary taste of fear that squeezed my insides and left me shivering. I laid the hand with the cigarette, burned half to ash, on the dashboard above the steering wheel and rested my forehead against the back of my other hand still clenched tight on the wheel. Long dead tear ducts dripped moisture down my cheeks and my neck muscles bunched, hunching my shoulders which heaved in the dark.
I dropped the cigarette butt out the window and grasped the wheel again. I shook myself back and forth hoping to rattle away the lump in my chest, hoping to find an easy way to do this. Nothing was forthcoming.
I leaned back and lit another cigarette and let the smoke curl around my head. I inhaled deep, with a wheeze, and held it, letting my eyes drift through the smoke over the trappings in the family car. The grocery bag hung around the gear shift on the floor filled with dead mail and empty juice boxes and other sundries. Stains on the upholstery from soda splashes and ketchup drippings dotted the car. Coloring books and a transparent plastic box filled with broken crayons with missing wrappers covered the backseat.
My eyes fell on the scribbling on the dashboard on the passenger side, over the airbag. My son had scribbled “I Love You” in his meandering scratch about a year ago. I had never cleaned it off.
I don’t know what I could’ve used to clean it off either. God I’m useless without her. She was away that weekend trying to make amends with her sister… It didn’t happen. The only family she has left is me and the kids. How can I take that away from her? How can I take that away from the kids? Hell…how can I take that away from me?
I shook my head and popped the butt out the window. I dried my wet face with a napkin and removed the key from the ignition. I had to force myself to open the door. The wind ripped the door from my hand and the door groaned on its hinge as it slammed to a stop. I stepped from the car and stumbled my way around the door. I had to put my weight behind it to close it against the wind. Without the door in front of me the wind propelled me backward. I turned around and tried to stay upright as nature howled in my ears and whipped my jacket around me like a small cape. When the gust died I stumbled backward before I caught my footing. I looked ahead of me and saw my sidewalk to my front steps. It resembled a bed of burning coals and each step to the house drove a flaming needle deeper into the pit of my stomach. I promised Sarah that I would tell my wife. Tell her that I wanted a divorce. Tell her that I didn’t love her any longer, that I didn’t want her anymore.
I made a promise to love her forever and stay with her forever and I was about to take that away from her. I made a promise. A promise I have to break…that I had broken.
I stood on the middle step leading to the stoop and watched a puff of wind stir the dead leaves in the little plot of dirt that held the remnants of summer flowers. They swirled and tripped around the stalks of now dead iris and then lay silent in the dirt.
My hand reached for the chipped handle of the screen door and stopped halfway there. The frame of the screen was broken in the lower right hand corner and needed to be replaced. I should do that before I go. My hand fell to my side as I stared at the screen door. It’s broken and I should fix it. I should fix the whole screen door too. A new handle…I want to replace the locks as well. You have to jiggle the key before it will even allow you to unlock the door, but I never got around to fixing that either.
I turned around and sat on the top step. The smoldering fire of my mind splayed across the steps and lit a cigarette. Between gusts of wind, I could hear murmurings behind the door which led into my kitchen. My daughter laughed at something, probably her brother doing something stupid with his milk as my wife finalized the preparations for dinner. I pulled out my cell phone and stood. I scrolled through my phone book as I walked back to my car. Inside the car I hit the send button and listened to the number ring once then a second time before she answered.
I stuttered out, “Sarah…it’s me.”
“No. Not yet.” I answered.
“Have you told Jeff yet?” I asked.
“No? Good!” I replied. “I can’t do it Sarah. I can’t see you anymore!”
“Sarah…please listen to—“
She cut me off so I tried again, “I won’t—“
“Goodbye Sarah. I’m sorry” I flipped my phone closed and like the way it snapped close on its hinge.
I looked through the windshield again to the light that slipped around the edges of the blinds and saw a face peeking between the blinds behind fingers holding the slats of the blinds open. I smiled and waved to my wife. She smiled back at me.
She opened the door for me as I got to the top step. I smelled her spaghetti and hugged her, burying my face in the familiar vanilla scent of her neck. My kids rushed me with a cry of daddy at the same time and I held both of them in one arm and my wife in the other. Pepper, my dog trotted up and nosed his way into the group. I scratched his big skull and enjoyed the softness of his fur just behind his ears.
My wife cupped my chin and looked at me. “You were out there quite awhile. I was about to send Rachel out to get you, everything okay?”
I nodded and put my hand on the small of her back as she then maneuvered her way around the kids and Pepper to finish getting dinner on the table. “Yeah…I just had a small problem I had to figure out. It’s all good now.”
She smiled at me and looked in my eyes for a moment. “Okay.” There was a bite of doubt in her voice but she just blew me a kiss. “Take your kids and go wash up. When you get out you can take the garlic bread from the oven.” She went back to scooping out her spaghetti onto our plates.
“I can’t wait.” I smiled and clapped my hands together. I turned my cell phone off on the way to the bathroom with my son pretending he was the wind and howling like a beagle.
Dinner was finished and the kids were washing the dishes and giggling while flicking dishwater at each other. The TV was on with the volume turned low. The wife and I were sitting on the couch in the living room, chatting about nothing and holding hands when the phone rang. She answered it. I watched through the sliding glass door into the backyard where wind was kicking crunchy leaves into whirlwinds of browns and reds. She clenched my hand so her nails dug into the back of my hand and then dropped it. I jerked my head in her direction and looked at her. She pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it like dead rat found in the bathtub. All the color was gone from her face and her eyes had never been more green. The incessant double buzzing of a backwards dial tone bit through the silence in the room.
“Jack” She squeaked out, coughed and called my name again. “Who’s Sarah?”
My world narrows to a pinhole as all other sounds suffocate under the din of answers playing in my head. The handset hangs in her stark white grip like a dying animal that just tried to bite her and I watch the veins pulse in her fingertips.
My wife asks me again, “Jack! Who is Sarah?” I hear a bite of impatience enter her tone and her eyes widen.
I still feel the tips of her nails burrowing into the flesh of my hand that she had dropped after she answered the phone. My tongue works in the back of my throat to work up some saliva. My mouth feels like sun-baked road kill. A thousand options of ‘no idea’ and ‘I’m so sorry’ and it’s over already’ plummet through my mind. When I don’t answer right away her eyes fall and she looks like a crystal glass of milk teetering off the edge of a table. Every muscle in her face just sort of vibrates and melts, the phone drops to her lap followed by her hand and the fading late summer tan drains from her face. Ashen whiteness like the remains of a cold campfire smothers the color in her face. A buffet of wind clatters loose twigs against the house and brings the moment back into focus.
I yell to the kitchen for the kids to go on up to bed hating the adolescent cracking of my voice. The kids enter the living room and I twist my neck in a rusty pivot ripping my eyes from my wife and tell them again. They are unable to see their mother over the high-back of the couch. They oblige and run upstairs after I tell them they can watch a movie in the spare bedroom. They giggle over their good fortune on their way up the stairs. I turn my head back to face my wife in time to catch her palm full on my cheek. The snap of her hand on my face shoots icicles through my ears. My head swivels and my body plunges into the back of the couch. Behind the pain and stars comes a burst of anger that she had struck me. I look back into the raging furnace of her eyes. Her color is back and blotches of vivid red rouge her high cheekbones and her ears are bright crimson. I watch the muscles of her neck as they stand out sharply. She slaps me again.
“You bastard!” Her lips curl inward as she hisses those words to me.
My anger curdles in the face of her displeasure and flitters away quicker than it appeared. I can do nothing else but put my hand up in defense. I swallow the sharp chewed aspirin taste of blood. I bob my mouth to speak and feel the loose slab of flesh inside my cheek scuff against my teeth. I dry swallow once more and shovel words out of my throat, “Its over.”
Her eyes open wider and stare at me. “Do you think that matters to me? Do you really think I give a shit whether or not you’re still fucking her?” I wince as her voice edges up a notch.
I nudge my head toward the stairs and mutter, “The kids…” Regret swallows my tongue as soon as I utter the words.
Her other hand connects with my other cheek with enough force to catch my tongue between my teeth, sounding like a tambourine inside my head and knocking me to the floor. She hunches over me, dropping her head between her shoulders and scolds me. “Don’t you dare to use my kids as a pawn!”
I watch as her face turns a deeper shade of red and the color crawls through the upside down ‘v’ planted on the bridge of her nose. The flashing bolts of her eyes bore into mine and I smell the garlic on her breath from dinner. I drop my eyes and swallow the blood welling in my mouth.
She steps over me as I lay on the floor. Minutes pass as I hear the neck of a bottle clatter against a glass and the bottle settle clumsily on the counter. I hear it again interspersed with the muffled sounds of ‘Finding Nemo’ and the giggle of my children from upstairs.
I suck at the break inside my cheek and flinch. I roll to my knees and stand up wondering what to say; what could I say, what should I say? Even if I should say anything at all as I wander to the kitchen. I round the corner and see her standing beneath the dim light above the stove. The blinds were still drawn over the windows and I can hear the wind whine through the cherry tree in our front yard. She turns her face from my direction and looks to the stove as I stand in the doorway to the kitchen. The faucet from the bathroom behind me drips into the sink with its methodical plinks.
She tips another shot of the ‘Wild Turkey Rare Breed’ we keep for special occasions into the glass with less clatter than before. I tread behind her and pull a glass from the cabinet. The cabinet door squeaks on its hinge as I ease the door closed. I tense, half expecting an elbow to the ribs. I move to the other side of the sink and reach across the vast space between us to pour myself a shot from the same bottle. The sting of the liquor in my mouth is the slightest of the evening and I grimace at the deliciousness of it. She pours another shot and sets the glass bottle on the counter with the slightest bump. All I can look at is the counter and my half full shot glass. I finish the shot and inhale sharply as the liquid splashes through the gash inside my mouth. My mind reels and I hear the distinct plop of her tear as it lands in her shot glass. A discreet sob escapes her and I squeeze my eyes shut. I listen to her turn from me and walk to the kitchen table. The distinct shred of a napkin from the napkin holder hounds me as I know she is dabbing her eyes with it. She exhales and dumps the shot glass to the table.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were unhappy?” Her voice is weepy and tears through the hunch of my shoulders.
With a trembling hand I pour myself another ounce and ask myself that same question. I whisper the first response that comes into my head. “Because I didn’t even know I was that unhappy until a few months ago, and at that point I had no idea how to tell you.”
I can feel her looking at me, can feel her eyes burning into the back of my skull. The slight whimper in her voice betrays her emotion as she asks me. “She…the woman on the phone…sa…said that you’ve been together for almost a year. Is that true?”
I nod my head.
She hiccups. “When did you first get involved? How long have you been together?”
“January.” Is all I can spit out.
She does the math in her head and gasps privately when she realizes this is October. Her chuff is followed by a sob that she has trouble controlling.
Again I don’t know what to say to her. I want to scream at her ‘I’m sorry.’ but that feels cheap and inadequate. I feel wetness behind my eyes and blink it away. I can hear the tears rolling down her cheeks and feel them collect at her jaw line and wish I could wipe them away. I just keep my back to her and knock back another shot.
Her chair scrapes across the floor and I turn to see her rise. Her hair hangs over her face and her shoulders wobble as she suppresses a sob. She walks past me and I stumble back a step feeling the counter bite into the small of my back. My eyes flutter but I keep them on hers as she passes me. I keep my hands at my side when all I want to do is reach out to her and take her in my arms. But that would cheapen her as I just want to stop the tears. I can’t help myself any longer and I plead with her. “Wait.” She stops in the living room and I see her cringe at the sound of my voice. My dog peeks around the newel post at the bottom of the stairs before lumbering across the room to bump her legs. Her shoulders slump as her head drops and she unclenches one hand to scratch Pepper behind his ears. I watch her collapse into a puddle on the carpet and Pepper lies next to her. She sobs silently as she wraps her arms around his neck burying her head in his scruff. Pepper swivels his big head to look at me with his soulful chocolate eyes and chuffs at me before he nuzzles my wife.
Time stretches as I stare at my heartbroken wife. I slink back into the kitchen. She eventually goes upstairs.
It’s a couple of hours later when I hear her steps on the stairs again and they awaken me from a doze. The bottle sits before me, emptier than I recall. A half of a shot remains in my glass and my mouth is stuffed with sawdust. She appears in the doorway of the kitchen like an apparition. Blankness surrounds her and is embedded in her voice when she speaks. “You need to leave. Now.”
I want some liquid in my mouth but the only thing nearby is the bottle so I finish my glass. It doesn’t even burn anymore. I say nothing with my mouth and hope that she sees that I still love her. All I do is nod. She slips from the doorway as quietly as she appeared and I hear the springs on the couch as she sits.
I compel myself to stand. Every step feels barefoot on broken glass but before I know it I’m in my room stuffing a few things into a bag. My head is clear but my stomach clenches and twists. I turn to the bathroom and make it to the toilet as the burning ratchets up my throat. The splash in the toilet is loud and covers my sob. Empty, I force myself to stand and take a swig of Listerine to swish the taste from my mouth.
I set my bag at the top of the stairs and look in on my babies. They sleep without a care; legs entwined in the covers and tousled hair. I whisper I’m sorry to each of them with a kiss and trudge downstairs, my bag feeling like a barbell tied to my balls.
She looks at me as I stand there at the bottom of the steps and I see a single tear escape her eye. I open my mouth to speak and she turns her head from me. Her silence cancels my voice and I step outside to the lapping October wind.
A sales pitch for laundry detergent captured my sleep and stuffed it away for another 18 hours. I opened my eyes and wished I hadn’t. I could hear little else save the blood rushing to fill my eyeballs creating a montage of red valleys across the yellow tinted whites of my eyes. My arm searched the other side of the bed only to find it empty…still, it was just another dream. I ventured a second look around my one room home and remembered why I wanted to keep my eyes closed. Nothing much greeted me…the 6ft. dresser with one drawer left and half folded clothes strewn across and inside stared at me from under the radio alarm clock. The face of the clock threw a sickly green hue through the glass of water sitting in front of it.
His voice stretched from the radio down my throat and twisted my esophagus reminding me it was time to get up and face another day with Jesus at my side. I’d change the station but the tuner was broken in a hangover attack on the snooze button, which also died a valiant death in that struggle. Plus I’d never hear that incessant buzzing that everyone else abhors. What I wouldn’t give to awaken to that relentless noise, anything to replace the nasal whine on the radio.
My bed was the center point of my room. I set it against the wall opposite from the bathroom door. Both bed and bathroom door sat at exactly the middle points between the mottling institutional green walls. There was one other door on a third wall, it led outside, but I didn’t like to think about that.
I put my feet on the cold concrete floor which was my true alarm clock. My eyes popped open as I yanked my feet up and fell back on the bed. I once tried to jump to the bathroom door but landed far short with a twisted ankle and bruised butt bone, so now I tortured myself with bare feet on concrete and trudged to the bathroom. The mahogany bar with 3 duct-taped bar stools stood next to my bathroom and served as my mail table, kitchen, and vanity. The rust pocked neon Zima light tacked to the wall over my bar covered a hole in the wall that went straight through the brick with a perfect roundness and it served as my mirror. I grabbed the box of baking soda and a toothbrush from the vanity and turned on the shower, turned it all the way to hot and let it run so the rust washed out of the pipes and prayed for some hot water. I picked up a liter of water next to the toilet and poured a splash on my toothbrush and then stuck the brush in the box of baking soda to get a healthy scoop and proceeded to brush my teeth. The bubbly acrid taste was like chewing on undercooked pancakes. I allowed myself 2 swallows of rinse water. I stripped off my underwear; they weren’t good enough for another day so I tossed them behind the toilet. After relieving myself I stuck my hand under the volley of shower water but my neighbors had beaten me to all the hot again. I gritted my sourdough teeth and jumped under the water.
The stall had no curtain so I had to point the shower head to the inside wall of the shower. It became a dance to keep under the water and out of it at the same time as well as keep the water from escaping the inside of the stall. I was done in 3 minutes, gotta love a buzz cut, but my time was slipping…I had to improve. I yanked an extra large t-shirt off of a hook and dried myself. I poured a healthy helping of bleach around the bottom of the stall and stored the bleach back behind the toilet.
Dressed in a pair of jeans and a camouflage t-shirt and clean underwear I searched the bar for breakfast. I found a left over english muffin and ate it after scrapping off the green spots into a neat little pile on the bar. Before I left I had to remember to dispose of them.
I gnawed on my raw muffin and wondered about her. It’s about 6:30 so she would be out of the shower and downstairs talking with our oldest and packing her lunch. I wonder if she thinks about me…in a good way anymore? It doesn’t matter anymore.
I looked about for something to wash away the doughy patch under my tongue and considered the bottle of bleach behind the toilet. I crawled on my knees around the bed and stuck my cheek next to the concrete, peering under the bed. A flash in the dark caught my eye and I reached for it. My hand clasped the neck of a bottle and something scurried across my knuckles as I awoke it from its own slumber. The top was off and the bottle upended between my lips and I swallowed. It was a dark liquid…the name doesn’t even matter anymore, only the price. I belched and reached in my pocket for my cigarettes. I found two left and lit one with a lighter I found in the park the night before. I stared at the door as I walked around the bed and sat down facing the door and watched a chip of the grey paint flutter to the ground. A sick green that might have matched my walls peeked from underneath the grey. Smoke the color of my floor wafted about my head and blurred my vision of the door. I took another slug and stared at my feet. I wanted to crawl back into bed and bury my body under the covers. The bottle balanced on my knee and the cigarette built up its ash. I jumped at a knock on my door, the ash flying to the floor and the brown liquid sloshing in the bottle. I inhaled a deep drag from my cigarette and wondered if I’d imagined it when another knock sounded, more persistent this time. I dropped the butt to the floor and crushed it under my bare heel. I took a step to the door when the person knocked again. A second step and I was there. I brought the bottle to my chest and opened the door.
Her hand was raised, ready to pound on the door with the bottom of her fist when I opened the door. I startled her. She dropped her hand and her eyes saw the bottle. She turned her eyes back to mine and I couldn’t tell what was in them. Her cheekbones were bright and I almost smiled. I wanted to. She raised her hand and touched the side of my face, stroking my bristly cheek. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of her. It overpowered the smell of the liquor and I felt the sunlight blast from behind her and cover my face and then I smiled. She pulled the bottle from my grip which I reluctantly let go. I opened my eyes in time to see her upend the bottle in her own mouth. A small sip followed by a grimace as it burned. She shook her head and smiled at me.
“I miss you Jack.”
I felt a tear bubble in the corner of my eye and I wanted to pull her into my arms. I opened my mouth to speak but she shushed me with a finger and put the bottle back in my hand. It slipped from my grasp. I reached for it. The sound of the bottle exploding on the concrete was a gunshot and I jerked myself backwards from a crouch shielding my eyes with my forearm. I fell back on the bed and smelled a wisp of smoke. Something’s burning. I looked to my right and saw the smoldering cigarette on my blanket. I looked around to find her and nothing was there. The door was shut and my feet were wet. I sat up and looked around again. I called for her, “Shannon”. But I was still alone.