The house was quiet. No screaming, no yelling, no crying. No happy noises from the kitchen of dishes being washed, no chugging sound of a washing machine running. Nothing. I listened to the emptiness, hoping to hear tires on the driveway, the door opening and the insistent babble of a child. I heard the furnace come on. Somewhere outside, a dog barked. The sun was making irregular patterns on the floor. I could hear my pulse in my ears.
I was standing inside the front door. I had begged her right after it happened, pleaded and implored her to give me another chance, apologized and groveled, my voice drowned out by wailing, my daughter's high screech alongside my wife's bitter, harsh expletives. But she left anyway, grabbing Jen and taking the car. She's probably headed to her father's house, where she'll cry and complain while he half listens and threatens me. She'll be back. "She always comes back," I told myself.
There was a framed picture on the wall inside the door. It had a gold frame, and it showed the three of us, posed and uncomfortable, in front of one of those phony portrait backdrops. I had a fake, grim smile, my wife looking brilliant and blonde, and Jennifer captured in a rare quiet moment, pigtails at rest and a genuine, warm grin. I remembered that day- the humidity, the sweat and the waiting, the swallowed comments and buried feelings. My scalp prickled with the memory.
It had started in the morning. I assumed Jen was still asleep in her room, when my wife sat down beside me. I wasn't really listening to her, half listening to the torrent of sports news from the TV. I had turned it on mindlessly, just wanting to stare at something for a minute before the day began.
"Honey?," Ashley said warily.
I looked at her blonde hair, flopping carelessly around her eyes. She looked tired. We hadn't been sleeping well, taking turns soothing Jen as she battled what seemed like her fifth cold this month.
"Mmm?," I said. I hoped it wasn't anything major. I wanted more than anything else to just nap in front of the TV before heading out to work. Again. On the screen, a truck was struggling to make it to the top of a muddy hillside.
"I'm pregnant." It sounded unreal, like I hadn't heard her right. But what rhymes with "pregnant"?
"Yeah." She was looking down at the unvacuumed carpet, ground in Fritos and spilled juice giving it odd swatches of color. I snatched the remote and turned the TV off.
"But you were..," I began.
"I know," she cut in, abrasive and cutting. "I can't explain it. But I am. I tested this morning to be sure. It's definite."
"How could... ", I started to ask. I felt nauseous, panicky. We were scrambling just to cover the bills now. How could we possibly afford another kid?
"I don't know, OK? I don't know!", she said, her voice rising. "Jesus, I knew you were going to be like this," she spit out, struggling to her feet.
I put my hand on her arm, trying to stop her, leaning in. "Wait, let's...,"
"Don't TOUCH me!," she said. She jerked her arm up, the back of her hand smacking my cheek as she tried to fend me off. I felt the stone from her ring nick my skin. I reacted without thinking, moving before I was aware of it. Or that's what I tell myself. I felt like all my gauges were pinned, like on a car that was overheating. I saw red, and I felt a bottomless rage.
I punched her, plain and simple, a short, quick, crisp right hand that landed hard on her cheek, connecting perfectly. I had fought people before, and I knew the feeling. It was smooth, almost elegant, like the subtle click when you hit a golf ball squarely. She went down, the momentum turning her onto her face. She wound up on all fours, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs. I didn't do anything for a second, before the screaming started. For a second, I couldn't figure out what had happened, why she was down there and why I was standing over her like that famous picture of Ali.
She got up screaming, pushing past me and down the hall. I followed meekly, trying to explain, to apologize, to make it right, but every word was cut off with a snarled curse. Jennifer was standing there as she walked by, a pout on her tiny face. I didn't know how much she saw, and I didn't want to know.
"Why you do that, Daddy?," she asked, and then followed her mother down the hall, beginning her own flood of tears. I didn't know how to answer that.
She threw clothes, toys and a few other supplies into bags, finally scooping up Jen and, still wailing, walking out, slamming the front door behind her, leaving me with the silent house. I had to be at work in a couple of hours, leaving me just enough time to shower and get to the bus stop. The sun was making bars of reflected light on the wall, and one of the bars covered my wife's face on the picture in front of me.
I took the picture off of its hook on the wall. I thought about smashing it, hurling it down at my feet, feeling the atavistic power and childish satisfaction of breaking something. I immediately rejected that, picturing one of Jen's tiny, chubby little feet finding a sliver of glass I had missed, and the howling of her pain and my guilt. I thought about moving it, putting it into a drawer or throwing it away, but I knew Ashley too well. Moving the picture would have symbolic value to her, some deep statement about the nature of our relationship and how much I cared about my family.
Things always had meanings that I didn't understand, like when you're reading a book in high school and the teacher tells you that the sign by the side of the road with the glasses on it symbolizes God's judgement of man, and you think, OK, maybe, or maybe it's just a sign by the road? Doing anything to the picture would only cause a fight somewhere down the line, I decided. "Assuming she comes back," my brain said. I hung it carefully back where it was.
For the IndieInk Writing
Challenge this week, Sarah Cass challenged me with "I was always so angry. Now they're gone and I have no way to make things right," and I challenged Dianewith "I'm dying to see you."