You Are the Beat of My Heart, and the Pauses Between
He lay awake in the bed, holding her and stroking her long, auburn hair. He turned his face against her scalp, and took a long, deep breath. Oh! How he loved the smell of her hair! He gently rubbed his cheek along her head, feeling the silky-soft locks of his wife against his shaved face. He had always loved holding her like this, listening to her breath, feeling her life force flow through his arms, chest, and into the center of his being. He loved it even more now, as it was the only time she would let him touch her. Not much she could do to stop him unconscious!
As he lay there, holding the love of his life, a deep pang of regret washed over him. He remembered how she had looked at him when they first were married, with a mixture of worship and passion, which he never could understand what he had done to deserve it. Now, she never looked at him, loving or otherwise.
She woke and turned away from him, slipping out of his arms and leaving him feeling cold and alone. He watched her breathing return to a slow, steady rhythm and knew she’d fallen back asleep. He gently slid over and curved his body against her back, nuzzling the back of her neck, and breathing in her scent once more. A tear welled in the rim of his bright, blue eye, raced over his sharp cheekbone and fell onto his arm. He desperately longed for the way things were before he’d screwed it all up.
She woke with a start and pulled away from him once more, this time to sit up. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and shuffled her feet. He knew without looking that she was using her toes to search in the dark for her slippers. God! How he loved her feet! She was the only person he’d ever known who could pick things up with her toes… pens, pencils, toys, anything... He thought about how she painfully pinched him with those strong digits when he’d hold her down and tickle her, or how she would almost purr when he’d rub and tickle her feet. None of which she’d let him do now.
He sat on the bed and watched her move about the bedroom, doing her usual morning things, taking her vitamins and fish oil, her anti-depressants and anxiety medication. He watched her close the bathroom door and do all the things she did to prepare for the day. His mind drifted to another time in this room with her. When he hadn’t been so kind; hadn’t been so loving. He’d stood at the end of the bed, cursing at her and accusing her of cheating, knowing it wasn’t true even as he said it. Why had he said it? She was in tears and terrified as he yelled and threatened to leave her, and for what?
He watched her exit the bathroom and get dressed. He smiled, bitterly, as she put on her DILIGAF shirt. He had wanted it, but she bought it for herself. He’d been angry with her for being so selfish, now he thought about how she’d given him everything he’d ever wanted, except that shirt. Another tear escaped his sad eye, and leapt off the cliff of his cheek like the one before as he realized he had been the selfish one all along. Now it was too late to fix it. It was over, and he knew it.
He followed her to the kitchen to make the coffee. He knew before she even started that she’d fill the cats’ food bowl, then the dogs’. When she turned to make the coffee, he knew that the first pot of water would be poured in the cats’ bowl, the second into the dogs’, and then the third would go into the coffee maker. It had always been her way to take care of everyone else first, before seeing to her own needs, and it was the first thing he’d fallen in love with. He watched as she carefully leveled the scoops of coffee, and then counted each aloud as she poured them into the basket. He knew after she turned on the pot, she would go to the fridge and retrieve her cup of yogurt, that she would eat most of, and then share the remainder with Shadow, her favorite cat. It had been her routine, every morning, since they’d been together.
He took a chair across from her at the table as she sat with her coffee and journal. THAT was new. He didn’t remember when that had become part of her morning, but it was the only way he was able to know how she felt now. Before, she’d always talked to him, told him every thought and feeling she’d had. It had been a little annoying and uncomfortable in the beginning, especially when she’d hold him down and make him talk, instead of running away from a discussion. But, after a few months, he’d gotten used to it, and after a couple years, he’d grown to love her for it. He missed her talking to him now, and hated that he had to read her thoughts as she wrote them down in that damn book. He use to argue with her as she wrote, like the time she wrote about their fight over the twenty dollars.
That day, he’d asked her for money and thought she’d have no problem giving it to him, after all, he’d just handed her thirty dollars a few days before. She was out of yogurt and salad then, and the holiday foods had torn up her stomach. He’d cared enough about her needs; wouldn’t she do the same for him? But, no, she refused to give it to him. She didn’t care that he was hurting, which angered him. Even when she texted him, asking him if he wanted a sub sandwich, he snapped at her. Then she had the nerve to text back that SHE was upset? What did she have to be mad about? He was the one in pain.
All that day, he grew angrier and angrier, waiting for her to come home. She was avoiding him and he knew it, which made him even more irate. When she finally DID come home, she handed him thirty dollars’ worth of cigarettes, and got on the phone to his mom for an hour. That bitch had the money, she just didn’t want to give it to him, and then she ignored him by talking to the OTHER bitch of his life.
When she finally got off the phone, he was hot. He told her it wasn’t right for her to take his money last week, and then refuse him this week. He watched her face flush, and knew she was upset, but she stayed calm. She told him she’d bought him the cigarettes, which was an equal amount. She was right, and he knew it, but that’s not what he NEEDED at that moment. He yelled that he was always helping out, giving half of his money every week, and he’d given her CASH to get her food. Cigarettes were not CASH, so it WASN’T the same thing.
He watched her face, saw her jaw clench and her eyes flash. He knew she was angry. “GOOD!” He thought. “So am I!” But she grabbed her coat and hat and headed for the door. That really pissed him off. She was going to walk out on him? Hell NO! He hurried around her and stood in her way. “Can’t we talk?” He’d said. She loved to talk. She always wanted him to talk. He knew she’d take the bait. Then she’d give him the money for sure.
And she did, but not in a way he was expecting. She handed him a rolled up twenty stuffed inside her wedding ring, and told him to choose between her and that twenty. That sneaky, manipulative bitch gave him no way out. Enraged, he threw the money and ring back at her, yelled he didn’t want it, and punched a hole in the wall as he walked away. He turned back in time to see her ram her head into the same spot he’d punched, making an even bigger hole. She then ran past him, full bore into the wall on the other side of the room, stumbled backwards, and then ran into it again.
He grabbed her, pushed her to the floor and screamed, “Quit it!” What the Hell was wrong with her? Why did she put him through this, when all she had to do was give him the twenty dollars he’d asked for? Somewhere in the conversation that followed, he told her he hated his mom, his dad, his brother and sister, and his life, at which point the light went out of her eyes as she added, “Then you hate me, too.” He had cut her to the soul when he’d said that, and none of it had been true, but all she had to do was give him the damn money.
In her journal, she wrote about that fight. She wrote that she had reacted to his behavior, rather than rising above it. That had made him angry as he read it, because she’d started the fight by not giving him the money! She wrote she didn’t believe him when he later told her she had promised to pay him back, and he knew she was right. It had been a lie, but the only way he could finally pry the money from her, and even then she had thrown all her money at him and told him to take it all. But then she turned around and came back, picked up a twenty, and said, “I need to buy some razor blades.”
She was a cutter, and it made him angry when she’d do it. When she’d done it after their first fight, he swore to her he’d leave her if she ever did it again. He never did. He didn’t leave her after she cut herself in jail with her first wedding ring after popping out the setting. He didn’t leave her when she’d head-butted a tree and split her scalp to the bone. The blood had run down her face and all over her new butterfly shirt, which had scared him enough to call the cops. The whole street had been blocked with six city patrol cars, one sheriff’s, and two ambulances. They had grilled him and her, separately, asking over and over if he’d hit her. He didn’t leave her when she stabbed her side with a knife from the butcher block. He said he’d leave, but he knew he would never leave her.
He sat across from her now, watched her close her journal and pick up her coffee cup. His heart broke with the love he felt for her, and, though he knew he shouldn’t, he laid his hand down on top of hers. She recoiled instantly, drawing back her hand and rubbing it with the other, as if to wipe off his cooties. His stomach sank, and a third tear made the long journey down his thin cheek and stuck in the red and brown hair of his goatee. He stared down at the table, stinging from her rejection, as she rose from the table, carrying her coffee as she left the kitchen.
He remained, staring out the window for a long time. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but he knew it had to be at least a couple hours by the position of the sun. It hadn’t seemed that long, but now it was noon, or later. As he sat there, he remembered another time at that table. A Thanksgiving a few years earlier, with all three girls, his wife and him sitting around a feast. There wasn’t enough room on the table for all the food and she kept getting up, refilling plates and glasses, tending to everyone’s needs. She was always caring for others, and she had been the only woman who had cared for him.
His own mother had been a drunk. She had told him several times when he was a boy that she hated him and wished he’d never been born. When she’d get tired of being a mom, she’d send him to live with his father, also a drinker. He’d never known love, never known stability, until he met her. She had loved him, unconditionally, and they had lived in the same house since before they were married. It was home. SHE was home. She was his heart.
He walked through the house to the living room, where he stood, looking at their family portrait. The family he had always wanted. His daughters… step-daughters, yes, but his daughters, all the same… his wife and him, standing together and smiling, a moment caught forever, that could never be taken away.
Behind him, he heard her walk past and sit on the couch. It had been his couch before they married, and had stayed his couch, but in his “man cave,” the basement, until the ratty sofa she and the girls had inherited from her mother had to finally be tossed out. She had cried that day, and he had held her. She’d lost her mom to cancer just months before, and every time something of her mom’s got broke or had to be thrown away, to her it was as if her mom died again. He had envied her relationship with her mother, even if it had been dysfunctional. He loved her more for that, too, because she understood him and his own dysfunctional family.
Now, she sat on what had been his couch alone, and now was their couch. He lowered himself onto the seat next to her, and leaned into her. She sat up straight, like a rod had suddenly been inserted into her spine, and turned to look at him. Her chocolate-brown eyes seemed to see him for a moment, but then dulled as she looked through him. He knew she’d seen him, no matter how hard she tried to ignore him. He knew she heard him, smelled him, felt him. She could try to pretend he wasn’t there all she wanted, but he knew she knew he was there. He was determined to get her attention, so he threw his arms around her and held her tight, pouring out all his love into her heart.
She wept. His wife wept heaving sighs, as the tears fell from her round cheeks and soaked her shirt. She wept like a small child as the spit and snot ran down to join her tears. She wept, and still he held tight to her, determined to make her feel his love. And as he held her, he heard a familiar voice of love.
“Bubby,” the voice said, with a hint of disapprobation, reminding him of a time when he was four and she had caught him taking his little brother’s cookies. “You are hurting her, Bubby. You have to come with me now.” The voice was full of light and love, and he knew who it was, before he even looked up.
It was his grandmother, his favorite grandmother, and the only other woman who had loved him as much as his wife did. But… how? She had died not long after he’d met his wife. Knowing the thought in his mind, she sighed, “Bubby… Remember what happened…”
As she spoke, he was no longer in their living room, holding his wife. He was sitting in Denny’s living room, on the couch next to Denny, with a lumpy-shaped Spud sitting in the overstuffed chair across from them. He’d been to the doctor that day, and had gotten his pills. He and Denny had spent the afternoon doing one after another, and when his wife came home, she knew he was high right away. She could always tell, and he loved and hated that about her. He was trying to act straight, but every nerve in his body was doing a happy dance, and he couldn’t help but be happy with them. He had hugged her, and played in her hair, and then licked her nose, all things he’d done before. But she had pulled away, and had looked at him with disappointment.
She knew he’d been to the doctor that day, and knew why he was acting that way. She walked away from him, and kept walking without turning back. Even when he called out, “I love you!” She didn’t respond. She was pissed. He knew she was pissed, but he didn’t give a shit. He felt fantastic. Fuck her.
Now he sat on Denny’s couch, laughing at the butt-ugly Spud, while they passed around a liter of whipped-cream vodka. They’d all known each other since grade school, and always gave each other a hard time. Now, it was Spud’s turn in the barrel. Denny and he were making cracks about Spud’s old lady who, as Denny put it, “was a lil bit o’ ever’body’s ol’ lady.”
Normally, Spud took it all in fun. “Ha, ha… very funny, fuckers,” would be his reply. But this time Spud was angry because Denny and Bubby had snorted all the pills before he got there, and were now drinking his vodka. When Spud’s old lady came into the room, she slid between Bubby and the coffee table. Bubby took his lighter and ran it along her thong, exposed above the back of her pants, then laughed that he was going to take her back to Denny’s bedroom and show her what a real man could do.
Spud heaved his 6’2”, 320 lbs body out of the chair, and charged across the room, kicking the table out of the way. Bubby was on his feet before Spud got to him, and handed his glasses to Denny, who was laughing at his featherweight friend preparing to fight a crazy Goliath. Bubby’s raised his fists, threw a right hook, then a left punch… then felt a sharp ache in his left side.
The blood stain was spreading, growing bigger and bigger on the grey school sweatshirt his wife had given him while she was in college. He had loved that shirt and the matching pants, and had worn them nearly every day since she gave it to him. Now it seemed all wrong, the grey was being overtaken by a dark, creeping entity. The handle of the knife was barely visible; Spud had plunged it deep, past the hilt.
Bubby looked up, into his cousin’s doughy, pock-marked face. Spud’s beady eyes glared back with hatred as he bared his teeth in a sneer that was more a snarl. Bubby stared down as the entity overtook him and the floor rushed up to his face. He was barely aware of Denny’s assault on Spud; he would never know Denny later spent nine years in Wabash Valley for breaking three of Spud’s facial bones, putting him in a coma, and causing partial paralysis. Bubby would never know that Spud would meet Karma at the end of a shiv in Michigan City for stealing his celly’s meth. Bubby stood by Denny’s door and watched the grey crumpled body lay on the floor. The cerulean carpet under the body had white roses evenly dispersed throughout the design, and the song from Alice in Wonderland came to Bubby’s mind, “We’re painting the roses red, painting the roses red!”
As he observed the scene in Denny’s living room, everything faded away and he was back on the couch, holding his weeping wife, and suddenly realizing why she didn’t talk to him. Now he understood why she didn’t look at him. It wasn’t because she didn’t love him, or that it was over. It was because he was dead. He suddenly knew why she now wept. She wept because she loved him still, and she felt him, smelled him; knew he was there.
“Bubby, you have to come with me. You are hurting her by staying.” His grandma gently and lovingly urged him. “You cannot stay here with her. You must come with me.”
Bubby looked at his grandma, then back at his wife. What was she talking about? Leave his wife? He could never leave her! He loved her too much to do that. And now he knew she loved him, too. “No, Grandma. I can’t leave. I love her too much to let her go.” He sat beside his wife, his hand resting on her back as she cried less and less.
The light around his grandmother dimmed; she knew he would not come. She began to retreat back into the light, but reassured him, “I’ll be back tomorrow to bring you with me, just as I did yesterday. And I will be here every day until you finally come home.”
He laid his head on her shoulder, the love for his wife overflowing his eyes, as a final tear for the day crept over his bottom lid and slowly ran off his cheek and onto her shirt, mixing with her own tears. “I am home, Grandma.”
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