Seven-twenty-nine, it started to rain, and she was home from work. The front door made a slick, swishing sound as it opened, and a click as she stepped inside and closed it behind her. He lay on the couch with his book, scanning the words without reading. He listened to the floppy sound of her purse hitting the carpet, the clump of her shoes being tossed aside. Just around the corner he could see a pair of green Converse laying among a pile of laces and purse strap.
But aside from that, he heard nothing, and it didn’t take long to recognize the missing sounds. Usually by now she’d have called out, “Hello!” She would have been in the hallway already, walking towards him with that pleasant composure that spoke of nothing but her happiness to be home. He would have been kissing her, she would have laughed and asked about his day.
On the days he came home after her, she was quiet like this. Almost a ghost in the apartment, waiting to be called upon so she could come back to life. She liked to be alone, she said. So he gave her time. She enjoyed moments of solitude far too much in his opinion. They had been married almost a year but it was obvious they spent a lot less time together than when they’d been dating. And yet, their moments in each other’s company were as blissful and pleasant as ever—there didn’t seem to be anything missing.
He put down his book abruptly and made his way to the front of the apartment. The bathroom light was on, and the door open. He thought perhaps she was in a coy mood, playing some warped game of hide and seek. And so he approached, hands ready to grab her around the waist, lips smiling in anticipation.
And then, walking towards her, he caught a glimpse of the mirror. He stopped. He was watching her, watching herself. One hand was pulling her hair back behind her ear, twisting it desperately, trying to gain some edgy appearance of one who had just been featured in a tabloid. Her other hand groped inside her jeans pocket, for a bobby pin or Chapstick.
Before he could tackle her, she turned swiftly, appearing quite shocked that he was standing there. “Eric!” she said with a surprised smile. She kissed him briefly. “How was your day?” She walked briskly into the living room, and he stood in the hall, completely dismayed. The look in her eyes had been dangerous, speaking of some long-forgotten vice that was slowly resurfacing.
“My day was good,” he began slowly. He followed her into the living room, finding her already at the computer, eyes searching a document rapidly, hands gently resting on the keyboard. “Did some reading when I got home. How ‘bout you?” He approached carefully, resting his hands on her shoulders. “What’s this, Mel?” The source of her uneasy gaze was most likely whatever it was on the screen—she was enchanted by it.
She hummed, not paying attention. And then, “Something I’ve been writing.” Her voice drifted between caution and floaty mindlessness.
“Can I read it?” he asked, squeezing her shoulder.
“Sure.” She got up and went into the kitchen that adjoined the living room, and put hot water on the stove.
He watched her for a moment—hands gripping the pot handle tighter than usual, taking extra time picking out the right mug—before turning his attention to the computer. He began reading without thinking about it, but it wasn’t long until he realized the significance of the writing, and searched the document madly, scanning the pages. He wasn’t confident that her words were all too serious, but they could be a warning. Was she having relapses of depression? Or writers block? Maybe it was something she’d written years ago and had come back to it for inspiration. Whatever the reason, he needed to discover it, and quickly.
“Done.” He stood from the computer chair and went back to the couch. He kept his face emotionless. There was a reason she’d been writing those things, and she certainly wasn’t going to be calm in her explanation if he got upset first.
“What did you think?” she asked as she sat at the computer. She wrapped her socked feet around the wheels of the chair, thoughtlessly, but he could tell she was nervous.
“It was… interesting.”
“Interesting?” She almost laughed. “I thought we were going to be honest with each other.” She began typing, not catching his gaze.
He was half sprawled on the couch, his legs crossed in front of him on the coffee table, arms stretched across the back. He stared at her with a heavy, unwavering gaze. “Let me ask you something?”
“Alright.” She didn’t look at him, but her smile conveyed just a hint of intrigue.
“Do you love me?”
She flipped her head around, caught off guard. “What?”
The dim light of the room played delightfully on his smirking face. “Do you love me?” The window behind him shuddered as a gust of wind threw sheets of rain against the glass.
“Yes,” she replied evenly, raising an eyebrow at his odd question, and went back to the computer.
“I thought we were going to be honest with each other.” His smile faded. “Honest, Mel. Do you love me?”
She covered her face with her hands suddenly. “Stop it.” She leaned forward, elbows resting on her knees, hands shaking in front of her eyes. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do, Eric, but just stop.”
He rose from the couch and stalked towards her. “Is love so intrusive?”
She flung herself from the desk chair and went into the hall, pulling on her shoes rapidly. “I’m going for a walk.”
“A walk?” he softened slightly, watching her struggle with shoelaces. “It’s pouring out there.” But before he could suggest wearing a jacket, she had gone, slamming the door behind her, leaving him inside with the howling tea pot and the apartment’s walls shuddering in the storm.
After enduring fifteen minutes of earth shattering silence and the maddening rain, she returned. He met her at the door, taking in the sight of the soaked clothing clinging to her shaking frame, the water dripping from her hair, her chin, her freckled nose. She was shivering in a most violent manner, but didn’t say anything. She stared at him, impassive, but there was a fierceness in her stance that caught him off-guard.
“I hope you had a good walk.” He took a large blanket from the hall closet and wrapped it around her tightly, ignoring her skeptical gaze. “You’re soaked,” he said, pulling strings of wet hair from her eyes. “Come sit down. Your tea is in the living room.”
She peeled her shoes off and went to the couch, curling up in one corner.
“Here,” he said, handing her a cup of steaming tea. He sat down facing her, but she wouldn’t look at him. “Sometimes I really don’t understand you.”
“I know.” She held the cup in both hands, staring at the flourishes of steam rising from the brim. And she paused. Sighed. “I forget what you’re like, sometimes.”
“Forget what I’m like?” He stood up, pacing the space between the coffee table and the sofa. “What I’m like?” He stopped, facing her straight on, a look of wild fury in his eyes. “This is what I’m like! I have never been anything else to you! How do you forget?”
“Eric, listen, I—.”
“Is this what you wanted? Isn’t this what you wanted all along?” He grabbed her by the arms, pulling her off the couch, sending tea and cup flying onto the carpet. “Am I really what you wanted?” For a moment he thought that he had seen a hint of fear in her eyes, but her expression gave away nothing. He knew then that his anger had made her defensive. He had let himself go. Once he was upset, there was no way to get her to open up again. From here on out, she would be careful and brutal with her words.
“You’re hurting me,” she said quietly.
He loosened his grip. “We made a promise. Tell me the truth. Is this what you want?” She was getting to him. Her, with that calm gaze, those trembling hands. She could win an argument with a well-placed smile, end a fight with her posture. He didn’t want to lose. He ignored the voice in the back of his mind shrieking that losing meant everything—and tightened his grip once more.
“You’re hurting me,” she said, louder this time.
“I’m hurting you!” he shouted. “Am I? If it hurts, then why don’t you cry for me! Cry like you do at night when you think I’m sleeping!”
She stared stoically at the blank space of wall behind him, not speaking.
He growled with frustration and practically threw her back onto the couch, and began pacing again. He knew he was losing. His aggravation had gotten the better of him, and there was nothing left he could do. He couldn’t frighten her. He couldn’t bribe her. The only thing remaining was talking, and only if she cooperated.
“At least,” he said calmly, facing her, “tell me why.”
She began ringing out her damp hair. “Why what?” The droplets made a soft plop as they hit the blanket, dampening the fabric.
“Why you wrote it, of course!”
She paused. Her hands dropped into her lap.
Here it is, he thought. The moment of truth. We can get this all squared away, clean up the mess.
“Sometimes I wonder… what my life might have been like… elsewhere.” She shrugged. “It’s nothing, really.”
He winced. “Nothing?” He felt his hands turning into fists inside his pockets. “And what do you mean by… elsewhere? I’m not stupid, Mel. Elsewhere isn’t another city. It isn’t your parents’ house.”
“I didn’t say you were stupid,” she said, almost condescendingly.
“I read the story, Mel!” He pointed at the computer accusingly. “Elsewhere isn’t a place! It’s a person! It’s someone else!” He let out a shaky breath, and the pointing hand rested on his forehead. “Elsewhere… is named Ryan… or Keith… or something.”
“Eric, I just wonder. That’s all.” The casual tone of her voice was killing him. That was all? She acted as though it really was nothing, like writing about infidelity was a game. Technically it wasn’t infidelity since in the story he didn’t exist. But it hurt all the same.
It hurt. And that made him start to wonder. He walked slowly back to the couch and slumped into a cushion. “Why don’t you tell me when you’re hurt?” He stared ahead at the wall, shaking under the efforts of the rain. He felt the apartment was weighed down by the waters, that they would be swept away by the storm, disappear into its mayhem.
“There’s a lot of things I don’t tell you,” Mel said softly. She curled up inside the blanket, making herself into a fuzzy lump with a rain-soaked head. “I’ve never lied to you, though.”
Turning towards her, he thought about mentioning lies of omission, but now that he’d calmed down, the voice telling him to lose the fight was much clearer. “But… why wonder then?”
“It’s nothing, Eric,” she said with a shake of her head. “I promise. It doesn’t mean that… I’m thinking about leaving you…. Or that I’m having an affair. Doesn’t it intrigue you?” she caught his gaze. “An extension of yourself. A different life. Don’t you wonder about what events got you this far? Or what mistakes you could have made?”
“Sure I do. But I’m not exactly as emotionally involved as you are when it comes to writing about those things.” He gave her a small smile. “You have to admit that your behavior isn’t normal when you get caught up in the story. How can you tell me it means nothing? How can I believe you love me when you spend so much time writing about loving someone else? When you spend so much time… alone.”
She looked away from him, biting her lip. “I like to be alone.”
“And what about me?”
“I like to be with you, too.”
“But sometimes you wish I wasn’t around.”
She winced. “No. You’re wrong.”
“If it wasn’t true, you’d tell me when you’re hurting. You’d talk to me like you used to.” He put one arm around her, pulling her blanketed form onto his shoulder.
“I do talk to you like I used to.” For a moment, she settled in on his shoulder, resting her head on his collarbone, but it seemed like she was really just preparing to move, for in the next moment she peeled away the blanket, and rose from the couch.
“Mel?” He reached out, brushing her spine, before she quickly stepped away.
She stood with her back to him, rigid. “You have always been the one for me, Eric. I trust you. And I can tell you anything. We are… completely honest with each other. Which is why I am afraid to ask you…”
He sat and watched her, the muscles moving in her back, her hands grasping the air at her sides. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, caught in the trance of his wife. She was opening up to him now, and it wasn’t because he’d forced it out of her. He convinced himself that he had just asked the right questions.
She slowly turned to face him again. He expected to see tears, but he saw nothing. Her face was a calm mask, emotionless. They both glanced at the clock, in unison. It read eight-sixteen. It was an infinite moment, one in which they were timed together in a complex separation. He felt limited by the space between himself and her. It was an impossible distance, something he had not seen or felt before. He had never been this hurt before, or this mystified. He wanted to touch her but knew the contact could set him on fire. Wanted to hurt her but knew he’d win the fight in doing so. He wanted to understand.
Eight-seventeen, a large flash of lightning exploded in the window behind him. On the blank wall behind her he saw the silhouette of the rain-streaked glass, the electric brilliance of the city, the sky raging with the same storm that had wreaked havoc in his home that night. But mostly, he saw her hands, rubbing at her blinded eyes. And as the room darkened with the fading lightning, he thought to himself, Am I hallucinating?
They both took a great breath together as the blinding light subsided and the room returned to its dim tension. She made a noise something akin to sniffling, looking down at her hands, and then as she caught his gaze, she asked, “We made a promise. Tell me the truth. Am I really what you wanted?”
In that brief second, where he was looking in her eyes, he caught a glimpse of—something. There were no reservations in that gaze. He could read a thousand stories in those gray orbs, drown in an ocean, swim in sunlight, find the key to her locked heart. And her nervous blinking told him she knew what he had seen. He was watching her, watching him, watching her, and he saw a glimpse of—clarity.