I felt like one of those people in the Claritin commercials, you know, before they take the miracle allergy drug that magically brings their world back into focus. My world wouldn’t come back in to focus until after the sun came up, and that occurrence was still several hours away. I lay with my eyes closed, listening to Charlie rummaging around in the closet. But that soon got old, and my focus shifted to the sounds outside. It sounded wet. My brain may have felt foggy, but I could always tell when it had been raining because the cars sounded different. Yes, there were always a few cars zipping down the Avenue, even in the dead of night. I don’t understand it either.
Charlie opened the door to the walk-in closet, which was as big as our entire bedroom, and the warm, yellow light assaulted my eyelids. I slowly opened my eyes, squinting up at him.
“Hey, babe. Sorry to wake you.”
I shrugged my shoulders, closing my eyes again. I still wasn’t all there.
“I’m going now. I’ll see you when I get off.”
I dreaded this time of year. Every summer, for the last five years, Charlie worked construction to earn money for our future. He refused to marry me until he reached some magic number in his savings account, so I thought it might stop after we got married. Ha. I really hated being left alone in the middle of the night, and I especially hated waking up without my husband by my side. It was horrible. I always heard noises.
“I love you,” I said. My throat was dry, but I couldn’t drink water before I was truly awake. It always had a horrible taste as it washed around the germs that had been accumulating in my mouth during sleep.
“I love you too.” He leaned down and kissed me on the forehead.
I heard him in the living room, pulling his bulky jacket from the coat closet. Then he was in the kitchen, taking a swig of orange juice and grabbing a handful of cereal as he rushed out the door. The door to the apartment slammed, the deadbolt slid into place, and I listened to his heavy footsteps as he hurried down the stairs. But then that faded away too, and he was gone.
The cars still sloshed around outside. Where people had to go at four thirty in the morning, I would never know. That kind of stuff always interested me. I just couldn’t imagine where people had to go all day and all night. Why were the freeways always packed with people? Why was the Avenue never deserted? I really wished they would all just go home to their wives and leave me to have a silent, peaceful night’s sleep for once.
I pulled the comforter to my chin, snuggling a little deeper into the warmth. With Charlie gone, it was sometimes a struggle for me to keep warm. I squeezed my eyes shut, held, and released, trying to relax the muscles behind them. This was the part I loathed the most: Trying to fall back asleep, with nothing but the cars outside to protect me.
Then it started happening, like it did every morning after Charlie left. I heard noises. Strange noises. And we didn’t even have an animal that I could blame it on. I kept telling Charlie that we should get a cat, or a puppy. It would really help my paranoia, I told him. But he just laughed, and tossed the suggestion over his shoulder. You don’t need a puppy, he would tell me.
This morning, I heard sirens. My eyes flew open in horror, and my hands gripped the comforter. I just knew Charlie had been killed. He had been run over by one of the cars, speeding down the Avenue, and I would never see him again. Soon, a policeman would come up to our door, hammer on it with his fists until I was able to throw on a bathrobe and talk to him, and then he would tell me that my husband had been killed in a horrible accident. I threw the comforter over my head, trying to stay calm. I would just wait here for the cop . . . I wouldn’t panic until I heard the knock at my door. Praying never helped me in these situations. In my state of half-awakedness, not even a heavenly presence could console me. All I could do was focus on my breathing.
The next thing I knew, sunlight was filtering in through the blinds, and my phone alarm was going off. Unlike most people, I really liked the sound of my alarm. At least during the summer, when it meant that I had made it through morning, alone. I stretched and reached for my phone, giving it a little kiss before I turned off the alarm. I only did crazy things like that when Charlie wasn’t here. After six years of dating, I still felt like I had to hide parts of myself from him.
I said a quick little prayer of gratitude that nothing horrendous had happened during the night, and threw the comforter off me, instantly regretting it. Stupid Charlie. He didn’t like to turn the heat on, and the summer rain had made the temperature drop unnaturally in the apartment. He was paranoid about never having enough money, and I was paying the price.
I jumped out of bed and ran the short distance to the bathroom. I slammed the nozzle thingy as far into the red zone as I could get it, and I silently cursed the cold. That was another thing Charlie didn’t know about me. I really enjoyed a good swear word every now and then. It made me feel just a little bit wicked. I hopped back and forth from foot to foot, trying to stay warm. After a millennium, I stripped off my fuzzy duck pajamas and stuck a hand into the warmish stream of water. Good enough, I decided, and jumped in.
I felt the barely-warm water rush over my skin as I twisted back and forth to get all of me wet, shivering a little. It will heat up soon, I told myself. Please, God, let it heat up soon. Finally, it started to steam.
Charlie thought I was going to die in the shower one day. Like a frog. You know, how people cook frogs by putting them into a cold pot of water, and then gradually heat it to a nice, healthy boil, until the frog is dead? I always wanted my water boiling.
I grabbed my face wash and started scrubbing. I really enjoyed washing my face. I felt like a new person after I shed my greasy, plastered skin, and discovered my raw, shining, natural one. I know I should wash my face at night, but that’s the last thing I want to do when I’m tired and snuggled deep in my warm bed. Plus, I don’t like it when Charlie sees me without makeup. It makes me feel vulnerable, and I know he thinks I’m ugly without it.
Suddenly, I froze. With my eyes squeezed shut to block out the suds, I listened. There it was again. Noises. Coming from inside the apartment. Was Charlie home already? I felt very alert as I peaked around the curtain, looking for invaders.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Hello?” I said louder.
I jumped as my eye caught movement. The bathroom door knob turned slowly.
“Hello,” I whispered again. My knuckles, which gripped the plastic curtain, turned white.
I screamed, twisted around, fell to floor of the bathtub, and balled into an up-right fetal position as Charlie flung the door open and jumped into the bathroom. Holy hell! I thought, rocking back and forth, trying to keep myself from going into shock. “I hate you, Charlie!” I yelled at my knees, arms wrapped tightly around my head. He laughed. “I hate you!”
“Honey, I’m home!” he sang.
“What the hel . . . eck were you thinking?”
Still chuckling, he stripped off his work clothes and climbed over the lip of the tub, into the shower with me. He tried to crouch down to where I sat on the floor, but ended up smashing his left thigh against the wall of the tub, while sinking to his right knee, trying to get close enough to take me in his arms, but not really succeeding. He leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead, which might have been a sweet gesture if I wasn’t so angry at him, not to mention the fact that he was awkwardly crowding me. He was too big, I was too big, and all in all, this little pow-wow we were having on the tub floor just wasn’t comfortable. I wanted him to stop touching me.
“I’m sorry, babe. They sent us home early, because of the rain, and I couldn’t resist.”
I stood up angrily, pushing him away, and grabbed the shampoo. “Resist next time. Jerk.”
“I said I was sorry. You should have seen your face.”
I turned around and glared at him. The stupid grin slid from his face.
“Fine, fine. I’m sorry.”
I turned around again, massaging my scalp clean. “I forgive you,” I said smugly. I liked to make him feel bad for the things he did wrong. That’s probably why our fights always lasted so long. I continued to ignore him as I rinsed the shampoo out of my hair.
“You shouldn’t have the water this hot. All the money from the school year is literally going down the drain.” I could hear a lecture coming on.
Without looking at him, I reached behind me for the conditioner. “I had another panic attack this morning,” I told him, not wanting to be made the bad guy in this conversation.
“What?” His voice was tense.
That’s it? That’s all you have to say about your wife’s fragile brain and acute sense of paranoia? I grabbed the soap and started taking out my frustration on the sleep-grime that covered my body.
“Andrea, look at me.”
Furiously, I scrubbed even harder. I could tell he was angry, because usually he just called me Andy, but he had no right to be mad. He was the one who had screwed up. I was the one who should be upset.
“Look at me!” he said, grabbing my shoulder and spinning me around. He wasn’t that much taller than I was, but he could be very imposing and a little frightening when he was angry.
“What?” I snapped.
“Why do you keep doing this? What do you expect me to do about it, Andrea?”
“Quit calling me Andrea.” I folded my arms across my chest and stared defiantly at him. If he wanted a fight, I would fight. He started it, after all.
“Why?” he asked.
“You have no reason to be upset with me.”
“You always make me feel like it’s my fault!”
“It is your fault! You leave me alone in the morning, and I get so scared! This morning, I thought I heard a crash. Then sirens. And I knew I was going to get a visit from a policeman, or a call from the hospital, telling me that you had died! That wouldn’t have happened if you had been next to me like you’re supposed to be!” I knew that would hurt him. He would feel bad for being mad at me when he heard how worried I had been about him. I looked up into his eyes, waiting for the right reaction, but they didn’t soften at all.
“You know I have to work during the summers, Andy. Otherwise we would starve.”
I rolled my eyes and threw my head back into the water, vigorously ushering the conditioner out of my hair. That’s the problem with Charlie. He grew up poor, and his parents always wondered how they were going to feed their kids, one meal at a time. I had never had that problem. My parents weren’t rich. Actually, they were in a lot of debt, but they used their money to enjoy life. They took us kids to DC, London, Spain . . . I guess Charlie would say they were pretty irresponsible with their money, but I had grown up thinking, if you had it, spend it. And if you didn’t . . . well, they realized that a little debt was worth the happiness!
Besides, Charlie and I had plenty of money. He worked full-time during the school year as a civics teacher at Lawrence High and I worked from home, doing free-lance editing. I didn’t understand why he felt like he needed to work construction over the summer, especially when we could be using those months to go the Disneyland or to explore Europe.
“Andy, we wouldn’t have enough money. You know that, right?” He put his hands on my waist, pulling me closer.
I was too tired to fight anymore, after staying up half the morning worrying, so I surrendered, putting my hands on his biceps. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Good.” His smile was back. “Now move out of the way so I can scrub work off me.”
I squirmed around one more time, to make sure that I was completely soap-free and then squeezed myself between his body and the shower wall, trying to be as skinny as I could. I didn’t want his grimy body to wipe all over me, effectively ruining the last 15 minutes I had spent getting clean. I reached for a towel and pulled it inside with me, far away enough from the stream to keep from getting wet, but not ready to meet the misty, cold, bathroom air until I was sufficiently wrapped in the rough green fabric. I pulled my arms around my body, and put my chin on my fists, which clasped the towel to my shivering self, and waited.
“Hey,” he said.
I looked over at him, his wet hair slicked back handsomely from his forehead. “What?”
“Have I ever told you how beautiful you look without make-up?”
I was taken aback. “What?”
“The only time you don’t wear it is right when you get out of the shower. That’s when you’re the most beautiful.” He turned his back on me, rubbing his hands over his face in the stream of water.
I didn’t know what to say. I just watched him for a minute, and then stepped out into the steamy bathroom, my skin red from the hot water and my cheeks pink from what I had just heard. I felt even more naked than I literally was. It was the kind of naked where he could see me for who I really was, and that scared me. He had told me that before, but I had never believed him. Husbands were supposed to say things like that, but I was starting to get the sense that he was sincere, and that meant it was going to be harder for me to keep hiding things from him. Things he didn’t need to know, like my love for occasional profanity or my fondness of my cellular device.
“Andy, I said no.”
“It’s just a new pair of work pants. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
I was irritated again the next night, as we were getting ready for bed. I didn’t understand why Charlie wouldn’t listen to me. I felt more professional when I dressed up for work, even if my work was at home. He didn’t understand that, which obviously meant it was stupid and irrational. Why didn’t he treat me like his partner?
“I told you, we can’t afford it.” He pulled on his pajama bottoms, much more roughly than necessary.
“We have plenty of money! What’s the pointing of hoarding, saving, and scrimping? We can’t take it with us when we die anyway.”
I watched him from across the bed, anger building as I realized he had no intention of listening to me, yet again. He didn’t treat me like his partner because we weren’t a team. We functioned as two different individuals, fighting for our own best interests, and I would never, ever understand him.
“Holy cow, Andy. Why can’t you understand where I’m coming from?”
I looked at him. His hand was in his hair, and he looked at me, too. My chest started heaving, and I suddenly had a strong desire to pommel something.
“Answer me,” he said.
Then I snapped. I don’t know what happened, but the strain of fighting for so long finally killed my self-control. “You . . . you ass, Charlie! You don’t treat me like I’m your wife at all! I’m just a kid to you. I’m not a kid, Charlie!”
“What did you . . .?”
“Shut up and listen!” I threw my hands above my head and then brought them down to my temples, digging my fingernails into my skull as hard as I could. “I don’t care about money. Hell, let’s be in debt for the rest of our lives! I want to live in a bigger apartment, in a quieter neighborhood . . . it’s one in the morning! Where the hell do all of those people out there have to go at one AM in the freaking morning?”
He blinked at me, his hand sliding from his hair. “Whuh . . . how . . . since when did you start using language like that?” His voice was much quieter now.
I pushed my palms into my eyes. Of course that was the part he had paid attention too. He still wasn’t listening to me. “I want to turn the heater on, at least when it’s cold,” I said.
“That’s why we have . . .”
“And I want you to take me somewhere. I want to travel! I told you that before we even got married. But do you care? No. All you care about is earning, earning, and earning until you die . . . and what will happen to the money then? Nothing. Nothing, Charlie! What’s the point?
“The point is . . .”
“I want my husband back! I want to fall asleep, and I want to wake up, having felt safe the entire night!” I slumped onto the bed, shaking. I knew I had won that time. There was nothing he could say to prove me wrong. I wasn’t wrong. I looked up at his face and was surprised to see anger there instead of repentance.
“I work so hard to keep bread on our table,” he breathed.
I started to feel a little scared. I felt something coming.
“Dang it, Andy! I work my butt off, and all you ever do is complain about how I’m never here for you. What do you want from me? I never do anything right. Why do I even bother trying?” He turned around, stormed into the bathroom, and slammed the door.
I was stunned. We argued all the time, but he had never lost his temper with me like that before.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!” he shouted through the bathroom door.
How dare he take that tone with me? How dare he just walk away like that? I slammed into bed, smacking my head into the pillow, and pulling the comforter over my head. Screw you, you dramatic baby, I thought. I’m going to bed.
I was asleep before I kind of subconsciously felt Charlie slide into bed next to me. I rolled over to lay my head on his chest, but his back was to me. Hurt, I rolled back over, remembering our fight. Then, his alarm went off. He slipped back out of bed, got dressed for work, and was gone, without even saying good-bye. I felt a tear slide down my cheek. I wasn’t sure when I started crying, but I brushed it away angrily and flipped onto my other side. I hope he gets in a real car accident today, I thought.
I anxiously waited for the noises to start again. I wanted something else to throw in his face when he got home, on top of his leaving like that. But something was wrong. There weren’t any noises at all. Even the cars on the Avenue were silent.
Holy crap, I thought. My marriage is in trouble! I knew why the Avenue was empty. Everyone was at home this morning, happily in bed with their wives, with nowhere to go. Charlie had somewhere to go though. He had a place where he could escape from his horrible wife. Why did I do this to myself? To him? I hated the silence. I wanted the cars back. I wanted Charlie to love me again. If the cars returned, it would prove that I could be unselfish. I could live in this dumpy, noisy apartment, just because that’s what Charlie needed me to do. I could handle the mornings alone, because Charlie was a hard-working man, just trying to take care of me. The silence was worse than anything I could have ever imagined, so I started to pray. But I felt nothing but fear. I was utterly alone. Even God had abandoned me, and I deserved it.
I felt cold and scared as I stared at the white wall, listening to nothing.
My phone went off a few minutes later, telling me that I had a new text message. Thank goodness, I thought. I needed something to distract me. Something to break the horrifying calm. I grabbed my phone and sat up, wondering who would be texting me so early in the morning. It was probably Marissa, since it was already eight AM her time, and she had probably been up for at least a few hours already. She was something of an early riser.
It was from Charlie:
Hey babe, I’m outside the apartment. I thought I’d give you a heads up that I’m coming in, since I didn’t want to scare you like last time.
I got up and opened the bedroom door, waiting for him to come inside. Nothing.
Okay, I texted back, slightly confused and a little bit afraid. What was going on?
I heard a faint beep outside, telling me that he was there and had just gotten my text. I hurried to the door.
He pulled his key out of the lock just as I reached it. I flung it open before he even had the chance.
He stood there, eyes wide. “What . . .”
I threw myself at him and hugged him tight. It took a couple of moments for him to respond, but soon his arms wrapped around me so tightly that I couldn’t breathe. But I didn’t want to breathe. I just wanted him to hold me.
Finally, I pulled away. “What are you doing home?”
He pushed me a little farther into the apartment and stepped in after me, closing the door behind him. “Why aren’t you asleep? Let’s go get in bed.”
I tried to examine his face, but it was too dark for me to read what was there. “Alright.”
I crawled back into bed and waited for him. He sat on the edge, unlaced his boots, took off his jacket, and pulled his shirt over his head. This all ended up in a little pile on the floor. I was usually the messy one, not Charlie. Finally, he slid under the covers next to me.
“They let me come home early,” he said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Why?”
“I told them I had to go home, because my wife needed me.”
“Oh.” I looked down at my hands, which were clasped on my stomach.
“I can quit tomorrow. If you really want me to.”
Outside the traffic had started moving again. I sat up, reached for my lamp, and switched it on, turning to look straight at Charlie. He watched me, a slightly worried expression on his face.
“I don’t want you to do that.”
“I hate it when you’re gone, but I know it makes you feel better to work through the summers.”
He nodded and looked up at the ceiling. “It does. We may have plenty of money, but I just get so nervous that it’s all going to drain away some day.”
“I think I understand.” And I was really starting to.
I sat there, watching his chest rise and fall, thinking about what he had just told me. I felt his eyes go to my face, and I looked up at him, not sure what to say. I still didn’t want him to leave me, but I knew I would have to make the sacrifice. So I smiled instead.
He smiled back, reached over to pull me down close, and I cuddled up to him, my head on his chest. I always felt better when I was there.
“Thank you for offering to quit your job for me,” I said.
“Maybe we could get a kitten instead?”
“Hey, Charlie?” I twisted around to look at his face, resting my hand on his chest.
“I’ve been swearing since I was 15.”
He smiled at me. “If I had known that earlier, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to censor myself. Damn.”