The lock clicked at nine. The sun set against the clustered houses, suburbs of the city, houses lined shoulder to shoulder. Mary entered light-footed; her insides buzzed as her skin hit the air of their shared dwelling. A cold whoosh. A shock.
Behind her the broken screen door smacked.
Tad jolted from the couch as her car crushed at the gravel driveway. He watched the blue blur pass the windows. In its wake he straightened up the room, uprighting pillows. He slicked back his hair.
He bolted toward the kitchen when the door banged. She stood framed in the doorway. Her hair curled and twisted along her slender face. Only a day apart but he’d waited for her return. He felt compelled to move toward her and scoop her into his arms, yet the awkwardness of the space stopped him: the square of the kitchen enclosed them, each facing the other across an unforgiving diagonal.
“Hi,” Tad’s voice hung in the air. Mary adjusted her balance and pushed strands of hair behind her ear.
Silver flashed from her earring in the light and jarred Tad’s memory. Pain in her unforgiving eyes hit him, an uppercut. He broke the distance to embrace her. He hugged her harder than her body language indicated she wanted. His face sunk into her hair, and he inhaled the lavender scent before he let out a brief sob. The wetness crept unto a few strands of hair and clung to his face. When it’s easy he loves her without reservation. He’ll apologize and she’ll allow it. When it’s complicated – when the alter ego of addiction consumes his body – he builds barriers against her.
The 1800s Tudor home lurked on the corner under sheltering Oaks. Stylistic yet antiquated details had charmed the newlyweds to purchase the home a year ago: push-button light switches, curving floor planks, and a lack of modern updates (locks, windows, et al).
They shared a nest-like space in the upstairs room. Windows faced west toward Belfast Street.
“Mary, these are your friends, your co-workers. I mean, I know the couple well enough, but I hate dressing up for these things. Do you even know where my dress clothes are?” Tad’s body slumped in bed. The hand-me-down TV flashed from channel to channel at his command.
Mary’s body wedged in the small closet. A scratch of wire hanger on rod reverberated into the room. She flung a shirt and pants onto the bed. An array of ties followed and collapsed on and around the lump of Tad’s body.
She sauntered out in a pair of heels testing her ankles. Four months pregnant, only a bump to show, but the new weight of baby strained her balance. She frowned, tore them off and tossed them into the growing pile of ‘No’s’.
His attention alternated between the TV and her. He watched a few minutes of a college football game, the sound of helmets thrashing against each other, then switched to the news. A description of a man, age seventy, all white attire, orthopedic shoes and his name, William, flashed onto the screen. He had wandered out of the dementia wing from a local nursing home. Tad’s voice carried over the newscaster who pleaded area residents for help.
“Hey, babe? Will you get me a beer?”
Mary answered with stern eyes, a glare she’d refined especially for him. She always joked to his friends about his awkwardness, his introverted personality. Unless he has four beers, she’d laugh, and then he doesn’t shut up. In college he socialized because everyone else was; in adulthood he saw no reason to leave the house now that he had Mary. “Tad, I’m pregnant. Grab it yourself. I’m showering – here are your clothes,” she swung her arms over the bed, “Be ready in an hour.”
Her bare feet pattered on the wood floor leaving Tad amongst the strewn clothing. He fingered a tie then pushed away from the bed. The bedding tore up and tossed ties and shirts to the dust-bunnied floor.
The Love of a Wedding
At five, a tasteful wine. Tad and Mary mingled among guests. The tall ceilings opened the room; evening’s hues flushed the walls pink and orange. Black suits, an array of ties, clattering heels on the floor and a myriad of colorful dresses: a mosaic of wedding.
“I didn’t know this was black tie,” he hissed into her ear. She blushed and said excuse me to her co-worker. She escorted him to the sidelines of the party hoping for invisibility.
“I look like a fucking moron. I don’t even have a tie. Geoff Crystal has a tie and he’s a fucking hippie.” By seven, he had murdered five ‘tasteful wines’. The whites of his eyes shifted into pink – his own sun setting within his mind, turning to black, to darkness, to a haunted night.
Against the harshness of his voice, hers was a timid squeak: “I told you in the car…you look fine.”
Tad scowled at the crowd – their ties and suit coats swelled his anger and discomfort. “Did you read the invite? I never even saw the invite. Did the invite say ‘Black tie’?”
It had. She remembered reading through the ornate stationery: invite, reception card, direction card, registry card.
“Fucking right you read the invite, Mary.”
Her eyes followed him from their unfinished argument as he stomped his ‘too informal’ shoes back to the bar. The eyes of her friend – a peer named Andi who had supported Mary through their other fights – met hers apologetically, and the two navigated toward each other. They moved toward the guest book where images of a betrothed couple decorated the table. A picture of the two in high school, both with plastered smiles, posed in Homecoming attire. A picture of the two in Argentina where they lived and taught the year after college. Mary formed a picture of her own unhappiness in contrast with these pictures. She hated herself for comparing the relationships, and she hated herself for self-wallowing.
“We’re at the same table, so you know, just ignore him. I heard Nick is coming tonight, do you remember him? He left shortly after we met in orientation – some kind of emergency – but apparently he’s in good with the bride. I always suspected he liked you, though.” Mary considered this distant person and laughed away her friend’s comments. “I’m only kidding,” Andi softened, “I know you love Tad – he means well, he really does – but at least distract yourself enough to have a good time tonight, okay?”
Rows of narrow windows draped light over the guest book. Mary followed the beams up and out – autumnal hues splashed over the city. Her eyes fixed on a blur of white on a bench, a figure of age who rested with a solemn expression draped on his face. He peered blanklessly through the windows and at guests who sauntered in front of the hall. She turned toward her friend, “I heard there’s a man missing from a nursing home – ” but glancing through the window again, saw only the draped trees, the blank bench, the wanton leaves.
“We should go sit for dinner. They’re corralling us like cattle into the dining room. Let’s go. C’mon.” Tad’s voice careened the conversation. The girlish mood dissipated as they followed Tad toward the grand staircase. Pink shame hovered vibrant on Mary’s cheeks.
When I’m Without You
The thickness of night hung heavy in the air. Mary tiptoed along the staircase, avoiding certain culprits of creakiness. The living room smelled like stale beer, the smell emanating from Tad and permeating the room. She ducked away from his line of vision even though she knew he was passed out. Her nervous system jolted like a trickster skeleton at a haunted house. She shivered and grabbed at her oversized purse where she had shoved clothes and a toothbrush. She stole from the house.
A mother’s drive to protect begins the moment the pink positive appears on the pregnancy test. Life changes. Choices alter. Habits adapt. Mary hadn’t asked Tad to give her a baby; Tad had asked her. He had listed reason after reason: think of a baby, swaddled, its loving eyes adoring you; think of a kid, learning, relying on us to navigate the world; think of a family, the three of us, a picture of happiness.
Spring gave way to summer and she relented. Refreshing bouts of warm summer air streamed into their room and they made love and they invited another human into their world. The orgasms subsided, their bodies settled, and they relished in futuristic daydreams.
Now Mary, tears bubbling in her eyes, steering the car through tight curves, cursed that memory of optimism masking deceit. She had trusted Tad – the sober version of him who loved her. The version who surprised her with dinner, framed her favorite art, and massaged her feet at night. But now she felt betrayed. How had she fallen prey to such an archaic trap? And how would she raise a baby in such a horrible world full of manipulating people like Tad? And could she do it alone?
Lost in Wedding Music
The music cut from fast song to slow song. Tad stepped on a pair of toes and flopped backward into a stranger. He watched his feet with precision in order to escape the dance floor; a guideline echoed from an announcer somewhere in his head, ‘Right foot forward, now left, one in front of the other, yes, you can do it, a few more steps, hooray! We did it, we did it…no more dancers, no more…’
A cackle interrupted his attention. Tad jerked his eyes from feet to faces where he found Mary and Nick laughing violently, he assumed, at his expense. Without a word of warning he lunged an arm at her. His thumb dug into the sharp bone of her elbow as he jerked her away from the joke.
“That hurts,” she whispered into his ear avoiding attention of onlookers.
“Whure you talkin’ ‘bout me? Laughin’ at me cause I don’t have a tie?” His eyes warbled out of place. He punctuated his phrases with spittle. His body swayed. In the following moments Mary tried to steady Tad and Tad tried to unsteady Mary. He couldn’t follow her words. He blamed her for ruining their evening, for laughing at him and for throwing him into a party without the proper attire. Mary walked away without warning, but it took him a couple of minutes to recognize he was alone mumbling in a dark corridor. Other guests eyed him – round white circles in a black tunnel. A kaleidoscope of shapes shifted in and out of view.
Tad stumbled into the ballroom, the music vibrating his chest. He bumped down the grand staircase hanging heavily on the railing. The dining booth, empty and without judgment, received him.
Mary returned to Nick’s side. Condolences of sympathy lurked within his eyes but she swatted away the unstated sentiments. “It’s nothing,” she uttered even though a palpable sorrow batted at her nervous system. It swatted and stung but she buried the emotions and carried on with this forgotten friend.
‘Till Death Do Us Part
The trees drooped and obstructed the streetlights. The headlights from the car penetrated the road alerting the driver of potholes or other hazards. Mary drove with one hand on the wheel and one hand on her stomach, caressing her unborn cradled within the womb. The argument, at first only simmering during the cocktail hour, had begun to boil after the dinner. By the time the reception music hit, their argument was no longer self-contained to their own cooking-pot.
Mary marched from the building leaving Tad to search the room with his lopsided vision. Hard spikes of rain fell upon her. She stood stubbornly, head up toward the menacing storm, and willed herself to vanish – to simply wash away with the rain and into the nearby drain which swallowed the gushing water.
“Excuse me, do you work here? Are you one of the teachers here?” The white figure from the TV talked against the storm. Fat droplets of water clung to his fuzzy beard of straggling hair. She grabbed his hand and, without explanation, led him to her car. He sat quiet and still. Windshield wipers bated noisily – a harsh whoosh he followed with his eyes. She wondered about who this person was before today. Before nursing homes and cruel life and altering decisions. She transferred his age and cast it to her own. His white hair became hers. His forgotten life became hers. She lived out her years, Tad’s years and her child’s years driving from Sunview Nursing Home. Then her mind’s eye thrust her back in time to their wedding day: the guests, the flowers, the vows. They had each written their own, promises of tomorrow, reassurances of the right words for each right and wrong time to come. Apologies laid out for unwalked in mistakes. But each time she remembered their wedding, her white gown and yellow roses paled against his urgent plea, ‘I give you my life to keep’.
Threats of tears tugged at her, but she swallowed and shook her head and continued home.
At Belfast, the staircase shifted under her feet; the floor boards moaned. She felt the house moving, but not in her direction. She reached the bedroom where the floor tilted as a boat in water. Their shared Queen lay before her – she jumped in and wound the covers around her head. She held her breath. She had left Tad at the party but knew someone would return him here to where he belonged. She drove the lost man to the nursing home, his family huddled in wait, thankful to have him back.
Now her body stirred with adrenaline and ‘what if’ scenarios. She glanced at the clock in between mashed eyes. The digital numbers screamed and rotated the minutes. She shut her eyes against its noise and breathed in, breathed out, a Lamaze activity, until she felt at peace.
But then the brass knob of their bedroom door hammered against the ancient wall.
“Whut’re you doin’,” the words slurred like a cocktail mix, the ice banging against glass.
Could she feign sleep?
“I shaid,” in the vacated space of words his feet pounded the boards, “I shaid whut’re you doin’!” He hovered above her and swayed in the stagnant air while his words remained unanswered.
Under the covers Mary felt a loss of oxygen. She attempted to consume all available air without issuing a sound. The length of her hair covered half of her face like bondage, like duct tape over her mouth.
He snatched the duvet cover; her vulnerable skin trembled within his blurred vision. Her eyes snapped closed.
“Oh, you’re asheep. Shhh. Quiet for the wittle baby.” He wiped his mouth with thumb and pointer at each side. Then in a fluid motion he brought his hand from his own head unto hers. His fingers wrapped within the tendrils and he yanked.
A child-like yelp escaped her throat. Within the startled moment her eyes met his: dead, thick with film, he looked beyond her.
Even though the trees had begun to shed, their leaves piled in pockets around the city, the humidity from the recent storm hung like late summer. This moment immobilized in the air. Dense. Thick. Pleading.
Drunk and incoherent, Tad convinced himself Mary had done him wrong. She had lied about the black tie. She had lied about the joke with Nick. She had embarrassed him all evening. She was a lying, manipulative cunt.
“What? What are you saying?” Mary’s face contorted. Her mind bumbled on broken memories. Words attempted to tumble from his mouth but were caught in cotton balls. She threw her hands up to his arm and held fast.
“Shut up! Jhust shtop.” He jerked her head again despite the grip she placed on him; she collapsed from the bed onto the floor.
“Tad…Tad…the baby…” Her words fumbled from a dry cry. She shut her eyes against a languid pain throbbing in her hip from the fall. The sharp sting under his pull penetrated her skull. She hadn’t felt his release but heard his heavy steps echo against the white walls of the hallway. She followed the sound until an explosion of thuds and thumps erupted as his body flogged the stairs.
Mary sat in shock. She dragged her knees toward her chest, barricading her baby from the world.
Their vows returned like a cadence. This version of Tad – hard exterior, drinking problem, temper – isn’t who she married. Remember him, remember him, she told herself.
Moonlight crept through the blinds – slanted strands of light tattooed her body. A black shade, a yellow shade. She stared mesmerized at the hues and listened for him to collect himself at the base of the landing. She pictured him there as a robot – an automaton. Remember him, the version who isn’t here, the one I love. Remember him.
Standing at the base of the stairs, Tad’s mind worked forward only – the moments before in the bedroom were already lost. The wedding, a distant memory. Out of habit his body turned toward the fridge. A harsh clack ricocheted in the late-night kitchen as he opened a beer, where the fluorescent lighting contrasted against the steel slick of night.
The room turned under the final minutes of the day. Upstairs Mary climbed into bed. Downstairs Tad collapsed on the couch.
Katie Strine tolerates life through literature and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her family – husband, son and dog – who accompany her on oddball adventures. Her work has been published in The Writing Disorder, The Wayne Literary Review and Visitant. Stay in touch via LinkedIn and Facebook, @ktstrine