I’m not in my bed. As soon as I open my eyes, I realize that this isn’t the way my own ceiling looks. The fan has brown blades rather than white, and the dimensions are all wrong. Of course I know that this means that I am not in the right room and everything else beyond what I see must be wrong, but for the time being, I’d much prefer just looking up and focusing on what I already know. Best not to overwhelm myself with too many details too soon.
“So you’re up.”
I don’t know what I’m expecting when the words reach me. Could it be a buddy who was helpful when we were both perched at the same bar? A concerned bartender who wants to make sure that I don’t pass out face-first and wind up drowning in my own vomit? There are so many possibilities, but I’m really not ready to see a middle-aged woman in her Sunday best, a small hat delicately pinned to her perfectly curled and sprayed hair. Hell, she’s even wearing gloves. She must be wearing perfume because suddenly I feel like I can’t even consider the option of breathing.
I’m not naked, but I’m not wearing my own clothes. Instead I’m strung out in some striped pajama number that’s so embarrassing I don’t think it would even belong on a television sitcom that has canned laughter every minute. Wriggling back under the covers, I draw the blanket up to my chin just so I don’t offend her with my presence. Somehow I think I’ve already managed to do that just fine, but there’s something to be said for saving face by whatever means necessary. “I’m sorry, have we met?” I ask slowly, and it sends off a landmine in my head that’s insisting I need to take it easy or risk rupturing something inside my skull.
“We certainly did last night. Or should I say, this morning,” she adds, her eyes focusing on me with a glare that could probably emasculate a fellow from fifty paces. If I could feel anything but pain, shame would probably be the emotion that would be closest to my present state.
“I’m really not quite sure what it is you should say.”
“Do you really need me to fill in the details for your hazy brain?”
“It would be much appreciated if you did,” I tell her sincerely, even though I’m sure that she couldn’t twist her upper lip to possibly express more disdain than what’s already on offer.
Still, she leans her hip against the doorway and stares daggers into me, adjusting her hat to make it artfully tilted to the right and secured at a slope. “My name, in case you don’t recall our introduction there either, is Angela. That would be Mrs. Pullman to you. I’m part of Karen’s church Group. Your poor, dear, sweet—“
She’s not pleased by the interruption and rolls her eyes to say as much. I try to ignore it, but even that gesture makes my whole face hurt in sympathy. “Yes, church group. Now would you just listen? We were having a lovely night in playing cards when you started banging and hollering at the door, carrying on like there was a fight outside and you had to get in before something happened to you, too. Well, we told Karen that she needed to go in the bedroom just in case there was something actually going on, and then we went out to find you so drunk that we could smell you before we could touch you.
“Well, we couldn’t let you come into the house and upset your poor wife. Honestly, shame on you for coming home in such a state. Why do you do it? Why do you even bother going home at all if all you’re going to do is make her cry and feel ashamed in front of her friends? She hadn’t seen you yet, of course, so we couldn’t let her. She has a problem, Dustin, and that problem is you. So, because we’re her real friends and actually give a thought to what is important to her, we decided to take care of her problem for her.”
“So you brought me here.”
A derisive snort of laughter tells me that I must have said the right thing. She’s not won over to my side, about as far from it as humanly possible, but at least we’re on the same page. “It’s not like you could really put up a fight. We pulled you to your feet and you fell right down again. You were trying to curl the front mat up to use as a pillow. It was downright pathetic. I actually felt sorry for you.” She adjusts the hat again, and I wonder if this is something that she does habitually. Does it always point in the same direction, or does it adopt different degrees through the day according to her mood and who she’s talking to? “Now that I see you, I don’t feel sorry for you. I feel sorry for the woman who fell in love with you before you became a wreck like this. I feel sorry that we couldn’t convince her to avoid marrying you.”
“Now you just wait a minute here.” The anger flushes through my system so quickly that I don’t realize I’m on my feet until I feel dizzy, the red in my vision clearing and giving way to the room spinning. I won’t sit back down though, even though I’m wearing these ridiculous clothes and I’m not in my own surroundings. All I have left is my dignity, and I’m not going to let this woman take it away from me just because last night wasn’t my proudest hour. “You don’t know a damn thing about what exists between me and Karen. You don’t know what our life is together.”
She winces and holds a hand up as though I’m the one giving her a headache rather than the reverse. “While you’re under my roof, Dustin, I would ask that you follow my rules. I ask you not to curse, particularly on the Sabbath. It just sounds ugly and does you no favors. But yes, I do know about you and your history, as you call it. I know that for years, you’ve done nothing but disappoint Karen. You’ve abandoned her, neglected her, and spent all of her money. She had a good life back home, and you just ruined that out of your selfish need to be with her. Why couldn’t you have left her alone? Why couldn’t you have let a good boy give her the life she deserves rather than days and nights spent crying over you because she’s not sure if it would be better for you to turn up in the morning or wind up dead after all?”
There have been few times in my life that my hand has curled into a fist. I try not to be that person because violence has done very little except isolate me from home, but I feel my fingernails start to dig into my palm. I remember advice my father gave me when I was young: don’t tuck your thumb in no matter how natural it feels, because you’ll only wind up breaking it when the impact arrives. Maybe if I’d never known that, I would have learned my lesson after throwing my first punch.
She picks up on it and lets out a jarring, shrill laugh. “What are you going to do, hit me? She never mentioned you laying hands on her, but I wouldn’t put it past you. She’s a sweet thing and would try to hold back enough to make you seem better, but we can see past that.”
That disarms me. “I’ve only ever raised my fists in order to be with Karen, not to put her in any sort of place. I’d appreciate it if you’d take that back.”
“It’s just your word. I don’t have any reason why that should mean anything to me coming from you.”
She probably knows how I told Karen that these church women weren’t any good, and with the way our conversation is going, I don’t feel particularly compelled to change my opinion. “If I could just have my clothes back, Mrs. Angela Pullman, I’ll just be on my way and you can head to your services without me inconveniencing your Sunday further.”
“I’m afraid that I can’t help you out with that.” Her smile is venom, her voice is poison, and her eyes are long, smooth tunnels straight down into the depths of Hell. “They were just the absolute definition of filth, so I had one of my people just toss them into the fireplace. I wasn’t sure that the smell would be tolerable coming from the fire, but a good wood can really change everything. I did save your wallet though. You’ll find it on the nightstand.”
“So you expect me to go home in these hideous things?”
“Considering the state you were in last night, I dare say that it would be less embarrassing to go home in a set of clean, unwrinkled pajamas than banging against the door drunk and leaning against it until you get to fall inside. Besides,” she adds with a sort of indignant snort, “those pajamas were my late husband’s.”
Traditionally, you’re supposed to show compassion or something of the sort to someone who has lost a spouse. It’s just how you indicate that you feel sorry for people who happen to be alone because they had planned to spend the rest of their life with someone. I don’t feel any particularly tenderness for her and don’t think that she wants my sympathy, so I don’t offer it to her. “How did he die?” I ask instead, hoping that it makes her shudder with the moment.
“He was a drunk and walked straight into traffic. It was the happiest day of my life.”
Grabbing my wallet and holding it stupidly in my hand because I don’t have any pockets in these ridiculous pajamas, I shove roughly past the less than hospitable Mrs. Angela Pullman and nearly stagger over the narrow railing on the other side of the hall. That’s the nice thing about nearlys though: we gain enough of them to give life a bit of a twist, but they don’t have to wind up fatal.
I push away from the railing with both hands but then find myself leaning heavily against the banister along the wall a few seconds later, using it to guide me from this horrible house. I have no map, and I’m sure as hell not about to turn around and ask this woman how I can show myself out. I know that the front door must be down, and after some bleary staggering, I’m rewarded with the exit. The knob moves but doesn’t grant access at first, and after a few seconds, I realize that’s because the door is locked. Surely it must be to keep me inside this hellhole since anyone who would be stupid enough to break in for a burglary deserves to spend some quality time with the homeowner.
Inside I was disoriented, my eyes rolling around in a world I didn’t know, but now that I’ve stepped outside, I can see my own house sitting the same as it always has two doors down and just across the street. I suppose that makes us neighbors. How long have we lived so close to one another while occupying different realms entirely?
I manage to get the key into the lock and push myself through the front door, locking up behind me just to prove a point that I too can take these initiatives. Karen doesn’t rush to the door to greet me or make sure that I’m not too injured, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that’s because she’s not home. There’s a certain stillness that settles over a house that has been at rest before you enter it, and I can practically smell the emptiness.
I quickly fill a glass with water and down it, preparing a refill for when I make my way to the medicine cabinet and take care of this headache throbbing with my own pulse. As I turn to head for the stairs, I noticed that there’s a note left on the kitchen table, served up like an ill-conceived breakfast.
I hope that you get home and laugh at how silly I am for leaving this out for you and worrying. You always used to call at least once a day when you were away, even when we weren’t sure where the next nickel would come from. We talked. Do you remember that? Now we’re under the same roof almost all the time, and I feel like I hardly ever see you.
I’m scared for you. Some days I’m even scared of you. I know you were outside last night. We were kids together, and know how every emotion sounds when it’s filtered through your voice. Whatever happened to you, it didn’t sound good. I want to know what happened there, and I hope you can respect me enough as your wife to be able to tell me about it.
I didn’t run away with you because of the boy you were or even the man that I knew you could be. I left home with you because you were the one, the only person who could make walking across broken glass sound like something actually appealing to me. I was madly in love with you, Dustin. It was a volcano. Now things have changed. We’re adults. We wear each other’s rings and have exchanged vows. We aren’t setting out looking for our futures anymore; we’ve found our place. I need that boy and that man to be here with me now. I don’t need you to take care of me, but I do need you to be my husband.
Whatever it is you’ve done, I forgive you. You’ve never done anything to hurt me, but you should know that I hurt regardless. I ache to get through to you and don’t know how. I just can’t be alone like this anymore. I love you eternally, Dustin. Please come back to me.
With all my heart,
PS – You didn’t take your supper last night, so I saved for you what I could. The vegetables wouldn’t keep, but there’s roast beef in the refrigerator. You ought to be able to put together a decent sandwich.
Roast beef. That’s hardly appropriate for a man’s breakfast, and I start to wonder where she is and when she’ll come home. I take the note and crumple it up in my hand, shoving it into my pocket as I go on my mission to find the aspirin. Suddenly this headache has gone from tolerable to overwhelming, and I don’t know how to express that without putting something unnatural into my system. She’ll be home soon, and we can talk about this.
This must be how she feels every day with me.