The spring morning smelled of dank earth. Dense clouds, thick and rolling, hung heavy on the horizon. A few leftover drops from last night’s shower ran in rivulets down the drain where she could hear the water surging beneath the city.
She couldn’t cry anymore.
Her throat burned like tears, but the rain that fell from bloated clouds could not fall from empty eyes. Her cheek still ached from his back-handed blow. She traced shaky fingers across the swell. At least her injury came from his open hand and not his fist this time, or a belt like last Memorial Day when Patty from down the road found her sprawled on the tile, beaten bloody.
A door creaking open and shutting softly raised the hair on the back of her neck. Heavy, wing-tipped footsteps echoed down the hall and he appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, shaking drops off his overcoat. Holding two dozen long-stemmed red roses.
Twelve more than last time.
“Babe." He cleared his throat. "Will you forgive me?”
His request resonated loudly in the room, like pots and pans on her eardrums.
But she would. She always did.
His face made her dizzy –his hangdog look. He wasn’t sorry. She pressed her fingers against her eyes and ached for gin. Anything.
“Are you okay?” He moved to steady her when she swayed on her feet. The inaccuracy of his concern and unwanted touch snapped her back to reality. With a valiant effort, she yanked her arm from his grasp and turned away. Felt herself go hallow. She heard his sharp intake of breath. Behind her, his tension seethed.
Fear tingled up over her hairline and she apologized. She murmured something about being tired, glancing up the stairs toward her bedroom. She heard his ragged breath behind her—the barely controlled rage.
His apology was hoarse. Forced. “Baby. I am sorry. You have to believe me. This will never happen again.”
She stared at her feet.
"I know I get a little out of control. I need to change things. I know that. Will you look at me?”
She started counting. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…
He slammed his fist into the wall near her head.
Flinching, she gave in. Turned to face him. He took her face in his hands. Her gaze drifted to the clock near the stairs.
“Why do you bait me when you know…” he ended the sentence with compressed lips. Then dropped his hands.
“Look. I'm sorry. I know it's not your fault." He shook his head.
"I have to leave. I’ve got that work thing—if I could skip it I would—but when I get back, I’ll fix it, Jen. I'll fix it. I promise you.”
His fervent face swam in front of her eyes.
“Okay,” she whispered and backed away from him. “I’m going to bed.”
“Are you sure you're all right?"
"Right as rain." She laughed lightly, but her voice sounded strange. She drifted away from him, slipping up the curved staircase.
"Put the roses in some water or they'll die.”
* * * * *
He flew out to Chicago that night, straight from work. This trip would give him time to think about his marriage. He knew he'd made mistakes. He knew he needed to change. She did too, he thought, then silenced himself. Obviously her mistakes were smaller than his.
The sun dipped low in the sky as he jammed his hands deep into his pockets and stared out the window over Michigan Avenue. Below, people scurried past. A man placed his hand on a woman's back as they trotted across the street to make the light. The last ray of sun felt warm as he lifted his face to the amber horizon. It glowed gold, then the softest pink.
Unbidden, the image of his infant son's flushed face crept into his mind. That little nose. The tiny stubs of eyelashes. The pink in his cheeks the seconds before he'd gone limp in his wife's arms. His skin had been so soft. Impossibly soft. Like feathers. And when he'd felt that small pulse at his son's throat shudder, then give way...well then. His eyes pricked at the memory. He remembered his wife's shoulders. How they'd looked so fragile, so tiny, as she'd cradled the baby and keened in agony. He'd tried to help, bumbling his massive hands into all the wrong things and eventually staggering out of the room so he didn't explode into a million pieces.
They'd never been right since. He'd never been right since.
He clenched a fist and vowed right then to make the necessary changes. He'd never lay a hand on her again. It wasn't her fault. He had to believe that. He'd join AA. Quit drinking for good. Love her like he did in the beginning. He couldn't bring him back—no one could—but he could fix this.
Flight 242 from Chicago brought him back home to another rainy spring evening. Excited with the wide open field of possibilities shining like liquid sunshine before him, he slung his briefcase over his head and hurried through the downpour to his car. He slid wet onto the leather of the driver’s seat and was revving the engine when his cell phone buzzed in his breast pocket.
It was Patty from down the road.
They’d found her face down in a bathtub full of rose petals. The police weren't saying much, but the housekeeper said her bottle of Valium was empty.
A terrible waste. An inexplicable tragedy, Patty bleated into his ear.
She said it wasn't his fault.
His eyes held the truth as he stared numbly at the wiper blades slicking the water evenly away from the blur of his windshield. He gripped the steering wheel—wet from the rain—and hung his head.
Outside, the wind howled.