I waited, holding my breath at the mail slot. I thought I would hear the crunch of Stefan’s gait up the gravel driveway, my cheek on the cold metal, a muddy finger or two pushing the rusty mail slot towards the room. He didn’t come back then. He wouldn’t come back then.
My sister, Lydia called me yesterday. I told her that I really did not want to talk about it. No, not really. Not ever. I didn’t want to tell her. But she acted like she already knew what happened.
I preferred my fantasy. You know, like when someone tells you to go out with this guy, and before you even know him, you imagine wine and farmer’s market trips together, camping, and canning vegetables, laughter over the simple things. In reality, Stefan was a friend of my friend who warned me he had recently lost his wife to cancer.
I had been Stefan’s first date since his wife died, and even though I knew he had something so heavy, I pretended not to know and hoped he wouldn’t bring it up. I hadn’t even gotten to the part in my meal where I could stop acting like a fourteen-year-old, when he told me about her and how he was nervous. But then I acted like I didn’t know, or I tried to act like this news - this awful heart-wrenching news, was just news to me like I didn’t know - which seemed so phony.
I am sure he could tell because he was wise. I was sure he was at least seven years older than me. Maybe he didn’t notice. He seemed bored with me and my immature chatter. I drank that first glass of wine so quickly and ordered another. He kept looking at his watch.
That was the only time I went out with that man. I don’t even remember his name. I couldn’t fill the shoes of someone’s loss. But then again, I tried.
This was a lie of course. This was the other story I told myself when I was out of love. When Stefan ignored me, or when he attacked me, or when he just couldn’t leave me alone, I pretended he didn’t exist.
Our marriage was, at first, exactly as I wanted it. I moved easily into Roberta’s shoes. We wore the same size, and even though I sensed her watching me all the time, she could not any longer actually wear the shoes. She could haunt me though.
Every time Stefan came home, he sized me up. When we first got married, my hair was too short. He wouldn’t touch me until it came down past my shoulders. I couldn’t stand it. It was a stringy mess that I wore in a bun. He insisted I take it down, and he measured it. He actually used a tape measure. It took six months for my hair to be an appropriate length. Then we made love. He held my hand in public. Or rather he grabbed my hand tightly. He cuffed my head and sometimes put his hand on the back of my neck, pushing gently, but still pushing me along.
I saw Roberta in the reflection when I went to wind the grandfather clock. God, I hated those chimes, but he insisted on every 15 minutes. Every 15 minutes marked that many fewer minutes we had to be together. I had to make sure the chimes were accurate or else suffer. I saw Roberta twice there in the glass, long dark hair, deep-set eyes, pleading with me behind my watery reflection. If it wasn’t enough that he made sure I was doing it right!
I told Lydia, “I don’t want to tell you or talk about it ever!” Except she already knew. Did I tell her? What did I tell her? What did she say?
“It wasn’t cancer,” she had said once.
Another time, I called her, and my hair dripped slippery beads through the hallway. I knew she could hear my gasping, even though I said barely a word. That was after he tried to drown me. I knew he was in charge after that. I knew before the day at the pond. But that day it solidified.
Now I waited through the midnight chimes and nothing came. Half-dreaming, I thought I heard the sound of the screen door being pulled and Stefan’s hand through the mail slot. I slid to the cool tiles until I felt sleep overtake me and I woke to a slam on the back porch.
It must have been three or four - the time when the dew hasn’t settled. I shined my flashlight into the mist off the back porch. The light reflected itself so I couldn’t see where the sound came from.
Then, like oncoming traffic in the rain, I began to see a slow shimmer appear from the east field, walking towards me or rather gliding because I couldn’t see legs. I couldn’t see, but I sensed it or felt it. Then I heard the slam again, against the back porch - it was off the side of the house now, on the wrap-around deck. I squinted back at the rolling mist, but I still couldn’t make out a figure.
I turned off the flashlight, hoping to find relief in my pounding heart. A dog’s barking from up the road bounced off the pond, and I felt sudden gratitude for the company, for the morning that would be here soon.
I turned back towards the house and realized I had left the sliding glass door open. I was also barefoot. I would have to refinish the deck. Splinters from dry wood poked at my toes, and I suddenly knew I had let it in. Or I felt completely awake to the fact that I wasn’t alone. The dog barked again and then another one, the hound I recognized, Leonard from up the way. The dawn was approaching, but the sky was muddled and mostly gray.
I felt a chill from the damp air and I decided not to go back into the house just yet. More silence. I realized then that the chimes did not ring. The clock needed winding again. I was so used to it, that I almost didn’t notice. Maybe that was my mistake, but I decided that I was finished with that clock. I was going to live without that incessant noise. That incessant announcement. Time would go by either way.
I closed the door and pulled on my barn boots and set out to check for eggs. The graininess of the landscape was beginning to settle and soon I would see my chickens. I felt along the deck railing for my egg basket. It had fallen off the hook and lay soggy in the grass. The day felt off, and I tried for my regular routine which would calm my nerves. Usually, my cat would come to greet me this time in the morning, but he was off somewhere. I would have to shoo him away anyway to feed the chickens.
I would have to tell Lydia eventually. Even if she already knew, she did not know the whole story, and I knew that no one, not one person, knew the whole story. I am not sure I even understood it all, but I surely knew more than anyone else. If I didn’t call her back soon, well, I knew where that would lead. People didn’t let questions stay unanswered, so they would begin to fill in the blanks. They would fill in the blanks with the worst kind of details - the worst sort of imagination that other people would agree to. I would have to call her back.
My sister did not understand my choice of life. She lived in a downtown loft and ate dinner out every night. I am not even sure she had ever invited me there. But halfway across the country - it didn’t matter. What happened out here tended to stay out here. Except it didn’t. I must have let it slip at some point. People can sense misery even if they don’t know the details. Lydia never even saw my broken tooth. She didn’t know my ripped clothing still lay in a heap in the laundry room.
The chickens were still nesting, and I could tell it was a timeless night. Like sitting on a bench all night outside the train station that time the sun went down very late, and we missed the last train. And so, no hotels would take us and so there we sat, pocket knives in hand. I was ready, even then. On those sorts of nights, the sun never seemed to rise.
It was too quiet at the chicken coop. Too quiet. Even for sleeping birds. I unlatched their pen and cooed, “Hey Maple. Maple. Shiny?” I knew the birds were not there. There were no feathers or chicken blood - some dogs got loose out here a couple of years ago and made a mess of my chickens, so I had installed a chicken wire fencing, with a roof and everything. Maple and Shiny were gone. I turned towards the house, looming darkness - why had I not brought the flashlight out here? Where was the cat?
Back on the porch, I began to sing, “Pumpkin, here kitty, kitty. Pumpkin?” No matter, that little tabby had run off, and come to think of it, he hadn’t eaten his breakfast. I tapped the edge of his food dish with the toe of my boot, the slide of the ceramic on wood was too loud for the stillness of the night, and I looked behind me to see if any neighbors were around.
The slamming. It happened again. I couldn’t bring myself to check that side of the deck. There was no way Stefan could have scratched his way out. I was alone.
My reflection in the sliding glass door reminded me that I was not eating either. Me and Pumpkin, too disinterested in food today or yesterday or tonight or whatever time.
I touched the scar on my neck, my pulse, thick with anxiety, making the thin purple line rise to its original scab. The wound reversed itself. A slow trickle dripped through my fingers onto the deck. That is when I saw it. I had let Stefan in, and his scolding eyes burned me through the sliding glass.
He checked his watch.
by Samantha Lazar 2021
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