Harold woke up an hour early the next morning, feeling an unfamiliar sense of calm. He looked at Margaret, still curled up with her knees nearly touching her chest, clutching her pillow even though she was asleep a full two feet away from him. The rampant urgency that always seemed to permeate their relationship seemed dormant as he watched her form undulate with the slow breath of sleep.
The image of Maia with her umbrella came into view of his mind’s eye.
He studied the memory of her looking at him through the window as if he were standing back from a painting in a museum. Solace was there, and a promise of some kind. But he knew the promise to be empty. What he really saw was a reminder of what he should have had with the woman he had married and nightly shared a bed. Hadn’t she once been the woman under the umbrella?
He frowned because he couldn’t remember them doing anything like that, but he did remember their courtship, the nights soaked in promise and allure. But it was different walking with Maia, as he recalled the electricity between them when their shoulders had touched, how she had smelled like vanilla and lanolin and leather, how she had made his world stop so that nothing existed beyond the pool of light that she stood in when she opened her car door.
Margaret was supposed to make his world stop that way.
Even though she didn’t, he remembered the days when Margaret’s touch made his heart race. The glistening spark from those days should have still been there, not forgotten like an old box of photographs left on the curb.
Taking care not to wake Margaret, he pulled on sweats and a T-shirt and padded downstairs. Entering the living room, he discovered Amelia watching TV and eating a bowl of cereal. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in her pajamas, she looked at him and beamed.
“Hello pumpkin. What are you up to there?”
“Watching cartoons before mommy wakes up.”
“I hear that.” He sat down next to her and started to say something more when he cringed at the sound of the upstairs bedroom door slamming. He looked at Amelia with mock fear. “Uh oh. We’re busted.”
“I think it’s you this time,” she said.
She stood up and scampered into the kitchen to dispose of her cereal bowl and then wandered back into the living room. He pondered his daughter for a moment, his morning already sullied by the recognition that their fighting had become a tangible part of her life.
“Because of last night?”
“Yeah.” Amelia sat down next to him and started tugging at tufts of carpet.
“Because of the yelling?”
She balled up a small bit of carpet in her palm. “Because you left.”
“Oh.” He studied her for a moment as she concentrated on pulling up more carpet. He held his arms out. “Come here cupcake”
Amelia scooted towards him and climbed into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her, his heart swelling when he felt her warm cheek against his chest. He stroked her back, then pushed her back so he could see her face staring up at him.
“That’s not going to happen anymore,” he said
Harold smiled at the simplicity of his daughter’s question. She just moved from one point to the next, not thinking of all the things that could get in the way. He wished he could see it that way – just one simple step and then on to the next.
But he didn’t want to lie to her.
“I’m going to try real hard, okay?”
“You better.” She snuggled into his chest and her next words came out muffled. “I don’t like it when you’re gone at night.”
Harold put his hand on top of her head and let his remorse settle into his gut like a lead weight. He deserved that. He didn’t resent it. Amelia was the one soul in the entire world that didn’t deserve any sadness or pain and it tore him apart knowing he had brought them both to her. He took in a long breath and smelled the milk and the pajamas and her sweet breath seeping through his T-shirt to warm his chest. He vowed to himself that he would think of this moment whenever he found himself against the wall, unable to think of what to say to his wife as she yelled and stomped. Or when his mind wandered to impossible dreams of women with umbrellas.
Margaret stormed into the living room and folded her arms across her chest. “Where were you last night?”
With Amelia still snuggling against his chest, he asked, “Can we do this later?”
“Amelia, go upstairs,” Margaret said.
His daughter squeezed him and then scurried away. Watching Amelia scamper out of the living room, Harold stood up and faced his wife.
“I went driving.”
“You were gone longer than usual. Amelia was scared. And so was I.” She cocked her head with a wicked smile. “Where did you go?”
“I didn’t go anywhere. I drove.”
“At 25 miles an hour?”
Harold felt a shiver run through him. “Did you check the odometer?”
“Every time, Harold. So, where did you go?”
He let out a sigh, knowing he had to choose between telling the truth – which she would never understand, or telling a lie, which he was tired of doing. Instead, he stepped towards her, wrapped one arm around her waist and placed his hand behind her head. She tried to pull back, but he clutched her hair and held her in place. She started to say something when he planted his mouth on hers, kissing her deeply, they way he had during the passion-soaked days of their courtship.
She pushed at his arms with her fists and he could feel, more than hear, her muffled protests as he kissed her even harder.
She jerked her head to the side and he could see her cheek reddening with anger. She pulled her hand back and started to swing at him, but he caught her arm and twisted her wrist just enough to see a flash of pain in her expression.
“Jesus, Margaret, can’t a man even kiss his own wife?”
“That wasn’t a kiss, that was an assault.”
He rolled his eyes, let go of her arm and stepped back. Shrugging, he asked, “What do you want from me? If I disagree with anything, you yell at me. If I fall asleep too fast, you tell me I’m distant. If I show you passion, you call me a rapist.”
She worked her mouth, trying to think of something to say when he realized that for the first time in probably years, he actually had her on the defensive.
“No, seriously,” he said, raising his voice, “Tell me what I’m supposed to do here. Who do you want me to be?”
Rubbing her wrist, she asked, “Who do I want you to be?”
“Yeah. Here’s your big chance to tell me. I’m listening.”
“Are you? Do you remember how?”
He felt a spike of resentment rising up in him, a pacing beast bearing teeth and yearning to lash out. He forced himself to ignore it, but the beast was relentless, like an itch just beneath the skin that won’t yield to a scratch. He grit his teeth and forced himself to talk at a normal volume, even if his voice came out strained from the beast gnashing its teeth.
“I want you to be a responsible husband and father. That’s all. Can you do that much?”
“Well, gee whiz, I get up five days a week, sometimes six, and go to work and manage to bring home a paycheck every two weeks to pay for all this so you don’t have to worry about anything except what you’re going to yell about next.”
“For Christ’s sake, Harold, if that were enough, nobody would ever get divorced.” She flapped her arms, some great exasperated bird.
“Well, tell me, then.”
“Sacrifice, Harold. Sacrifice. Do you remember the altar? It doesn’t stop just because you get bored.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Mary Kay. I’m talking about Mary Kay.”
Harold scoffed, immediately knowing he had made a strategic error.
“Don’t you dare,” she said. “I was on my way to the largest store front in the state. In the state Harold. Do you know that means?”
He stood there, not knowing what to say because he didn’t know what it meant.
“It means I had a viable business that could have brought home as much as you, if not more.”
“Really?” he asked. He hoped she heard the sincerity in his voice. This was news to him but he couldn’t think of any reason why she would lie about such a thing.
She took a few breaths. Her voice calmed. “Yes, really. Don’t you remember how much time I was putting into it?”
“I remember the house parties where I had to hide upstairs- ” He put his hand out “- not that I’m complaining about that. You just needed a man-free space so everyone would be comfortable.”
“Yes. And the late nights running the books. And the parties at more homes than I can remember.”
“Wait. I always thought those were social. Just an excuse to get together with the girls.”
“No. It was work, Harold. A real business.”
They stared at each other for a moment. His mind raced as he tried to think back and remember it all in the context of what she was telling him. He had always seen her as a socialite, and it hadn’t bothered him really, but now that he looked around the house, he realized all the extras she had bought with money from what he considered to be a hobby cost a lot more than he remembered. Their entire sofa ensemble. The carpet that Amelia had been thrashing. The living room curtains, the TV. The solid oak dining set. Surveying it all, he realized he had never acknowledged any of it. He had never complimented her on any of it. He had never even said thank you.
“But I chose to give that up,” she said.
His mouth fell open as he put the pieces together. “After Amelia was born,” he said softly. “I thought you liked being a mother.” He cringed, because those weren’t the right words. “I mean -“
“I do,” she said. “I love it more than anything, and I don’t need to have a thriving business. I have Amelia. That was my decision.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” he said. “We could have worked something out.”
“No, that’s not my point. I was happy to choose. I don’t like doing anything half-ass. You know that. So I chose being a mom – so I could do it well, the way I want to do it.”
The words seemed foreign to him because he was still trying to imagine what she had done to make her Mary Kay consultancy a real business, not just a hobby. Where he had once imagined her drinking wine and laughing with her friends, he now tried to imagine her stooped over paperwork and calendars, planning her days and weeks of real work, figuring out what inventory to have on hand, what items to let her customers order instead. Just trying to imagine the difference between items that her customers would gleefully write out a check for and those that wouldn’t survive the moment of impulse as Margaret smiled and crisply delineated the benefits of something that was just expensive enough not to survive the light of reconsideration – it made his head hurt. And then he remembered the many nights when she drank wine and seemed distant. He always took it as her disinterest in him. But now he wondered – was she just tired?
“Do you miss it?” he asked.
Her voice was eerily calm. “Yes.”
“So, since you gave up something important, you expect me to do the same.”
Harold thought about that for a moment. It didn’t seem fair that he should be forced to sacrifice something just because she had decided to give up her business to raise their daughter. He felt trapped by a decision that he didn’t understand because he wasn’t even invited to help make it.
“I guess I just don’t know what I’m supposed to sacrifice,” he said.
“Are you willing to work on that?”
She nodded, but he could tell she didn’t believe him, didn’t quite trust him. She stuck her chin out and asked, “So, where did you go last night?”
“I went to the office.”
“The office? Really?” Her eyes looked away for a moment and then came back to him. “Why would you do that? I thought you had gone off to some bar.”
Harold looked into his wife’s eyes, and sensed her stumbling through a quiet place where they didn’t fight, a place that she hadn’t known for a long time, not quite sure how to handle it.
“I was looking for something.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What?”
She stepped over to a copper stand next to the door, hoisted out a thick-handled black umbrella neatly wrapped with a snap tie and offered it to him.
“All you had to do was come home.”
He took the umbrella, fumbling with it like some foreign appendage and watched her walk away. After she disappeared around a corner, he looked at the umbrella in his hands and all he could think was how it was the wrong color. How it was too heavy. How it was too big. How two people could have easily fit underneath its canopy without their shoulders ever touching.
©2021 Michael J Lawrence