Dear Wife

Beth

I hit my blinker and merge onto the Muskogee Turnpike, and for the first time in seven long years, I take a breath. A real, full-body breath that blows up my lungs like a beach ball. So much breath that it burns.

It tastes like freedom.

Four hours on the road, two hundred and eighty-three miles of space between us, and it’s nowhere near enough. I still hear the clink of your keys when you toss them on the table, still tense at the thud of your shoes when you come closer to the kitchen. Still feel the fear slithering, snake-like, just under the surface of my skin.

You have three moods lately: offensive, enraged, or violent. That moment when you come around that corner and I see which one it is always inches bile up my throat. It’s the worst part of my day.

I tell myself, no more. No more tiptoeing around your temper, no more dodging your blows.

Those days, like Arkansas, are in my rearview mirror.

For early afternoon on a Wednesday, the highway is busy, dusty semis rumbling by on both sides, and I hold my hands at ten and two and keep the tires between the lines.

Oklahoma is crisscrossed with turnpikes like this one, four-lane highways dotted with cameras for speeding and toll violations. It’s too soon still for one of them to be clocking every black sedan with Arkansas plates that whizzes by, but I’m also not giving them any reason to. I use my blinkers and hold my speed well under the limit, even though what I’d really like to do is haul ass.

I hit the button for the windows, letting the highway air wash away the smell of you, of home. At sixty-four miles an hour, the wind is brutal, hot and steamy and oppressive. It reeks of pasture and exhaust, of nature and chemicals, none of it pleasant. It whips up a whirlwind in the car, blowing my hair and my clothes and the map on the passenger’s seat, rocking it in the air like a paper plane. I reach down, shimmy out of a shoe and smack it to the seat as a paperweight. You’re serious about holding on to me, which means I need to hold on to that map.

It may be old-school, but at least a map can’t be traced. Not that you’d have already discovered the number for the burner phone charging in the cup holder, but still. Better to not take any chances. I took the phone out of the package but haven’t powered it up—not yet. Not until I get where I’m going. I haven’t made it this far into my new life only to be hauled back into the old one.

So far, this state looks exactly like the one I left behind—fields and farms and endless belts of faded asphalt. Sounds the same, too. Local radio stations offer one of two choices, country music or preachers. I listen to a deep voice glorifying the power of forgiveness, but it’s a subject I can no longer get behind. I toggle up the dial, stopping on a Miranda Lambert anthem that’s much more my speed these days— gunpowder and lead—and give a hard twist to the volume dial.

For the record, I never wanted this. Running away. Leaving everything and everyone behind. I try not to think about all the things I’ll miss, all the faces I’ll miss, even if they won’t miss mine. Part of the planning was putting some space between me and people I love most, not letting them in on the truth. It’s the one thing I can’t blame you for—the way I drove a wedge into those friendships all by myself so you wouldn’t go after them, too. There’s only one person who knows I’m gone, and everyone else... It’ll be days, maybe weeks until they wonder where I am.

You’re smart, so I have to be smarter. Cunning, so I have to be more cunning. Not exactly a skill I possessed when we walked down the aisle all those years ago, when I was so squishy in love. I looked into those eyes of yours and promised till death would we part, and I meant every word. Divorce was never an option—until it was.

But the first time I mentioned the word, you shoved me to the floor, jammed a gun into my mouth and dared me to say it again. Divorce. Divorce divorce divorce divorce. I never said the word out loud again, though I will admit it’s been an awful lot on my mind.

I picture you walking through the door at home, looking for me. I see you going from room to room, hollering and cursing and finally, calling my cell. I see you following its muffled rings into the kitchen, scowling when you realize they’re coming from the cabinet under the sink. I see you wrenching open the doors and dumping out the trash and digging through sludgy coffee grounds and the remains of last night’s stir-fry until you find my old iPhone, and I smile. I smile so damn hard my cheeks try to tear in two.

I wasn’t always this vindictive, but you weren’t always this mean. When we met, you were charming, warming up my car on cold mornings or grilling up the most perfect strip steak for my birthday. You can still be sweet and charming when you want to be. You’re like the cocaine they slip the dogs that patrol the cars at the border; you gave me just enough of what I craved to keep me searching for more. That’s part of what took me so long to leave. The other part was the gun.

So no, I didn’t want to do this, but I did plan for it. Oh, how I planned for this day.

My first day of freedom.

Jeffrey

When I pull into the driveway after four days on the road, I spot three things all at once.

First, the garbage bins are helter-skelter in front of the garage door two days after pickup, rather than where they belong, lined up neatly along the inside right wall. The living room curtains are drawn against the last of the afternoon light, which means they’ve probably been like that since last night, or maybe all the nights I’ve been gone. And despite the low-lying sun, the porch lights are on—correction: one of them is on. The left-side bulb is dead, its glass smoky and dark, making it seem like the people who live here couldn’t be bothered with changing it, which is inaccurate. Only one of us couldn’t be bothered, and her name is Sabine.

I stop. Shake it off. No more complaining—it’s a promise I’ve made to myself. No more fighting. I grab my suitcase from the trunk and head inside.

“Sabine?”

I stand completely still, listening for sounds upstairs. A shower, a hair dryer, music or TV, but there’s nothing. Only silence.

I toss my keys on the table next to a pile of mail three inches thick. “Sabine, you here?” I head farther into the house.

I think back to our phone conversation earlier this morning, trying to recall if she told me she’d be home late. Even on the best days, her schedule is a moving target, and Sabine doesn’t always remember to update our shared calendar.

She’d prattled on for ten endless minutes about the open house she’d just held for her latest listing, some newly constructed monstrosity on the north side of town. She went on and on about the generous millwork and slate-tile roof, the pocket doors and oak plank flooring and a whole bunch of other features I couldn’t give a crap about because I was rushing through the Atlanta airport to make a tight connection, and it’s quite possible that by then I wasn’t really listening. Sabine’s rambling is something I found adorable when we first started dating, but lately sparks an urge to chuck my phone into the Arkansas River, just to cut off one of her eternal, run-on sentences. When I got to my gate and saw my plane was already boarding, I hung up.

I peek out the window into the garage. Sabine’s black Mercedes isn’t there. Looks like I beat her home.

I head into the kitchen, which is a disaster. A pile of dirty dishes crawling up the sink and onto the countertop. A week’s worth of newspapers spread across the table like a card trick. Dead, drooping roses marinating in a vase of murky green water. Sabine knows how much I hate coming home to a dirty kitchen. I pick up this morning’s cereal bowl, where the dregs of her breakfast have fused to the porcelain like nuclear waste, putrefied and solid. I fill it with water at the sink and fume.

The trash bins, the kitchen, not leaving me a note telling me where she is—it’s all punishment for something. Sabine’s passive-aggressive way of telling me she’s still pissed. I don’t even remember what we were arguing about. Something trivial, probably, like all the arguments seem to be these days. Crumbs on the couch, hairs in the drain, who forgot to pick up the dry cleaning or drank the last of the orange juice. Stupid stuff. Shit that shouldn’t matter, but in that hot, quicksilver moment, somehow always does.

I slide my cell phone from my pocket and scroll through our messages, dispatches of a mundane married life.

Did you remember to pay the light bill?
The microwave is on the fritz again.
I’m placing an order for office supplies, need anything?

I land on the last one to me and bingo, it’s the message I’m looking for.

Showing tonight. Be home by 9.

I spend the next half hour righting Sabine’s mess. What doesn’t go into the dishwasher I pitch in the trash, then toss the bags into the garbage bins I line up. And then I haul my suitcase upstairs.

The bed is unmade, Sabine’s side of the closet a pigsty. I try to ignore the chaos she left everywhere: kicked-off shoes and shirts with inside-out sleeves, shoved on lopsided hangers. Nothing like the neat, exacting lines on my side. How difficult is it to put things back where they belong? To line the clothes up by color?

Ten minutes later I’m in shorts and a T-shirt, sneakers pounding up the path in an angry sprint west along the river. The truth is, I am perfectly aware I’m not the easiest person to live with. Sabine has told me more times than I’d care to admit. I can’t help that I like things the way I like them—the cars washed, the house clean, dinner hot and waiting when I get home from work. Sabine is a great cook when she wants to be, when her job isn’t sucking up most of her day, which lately seems like all the time. I can’t remember the last night I came home to one of her home-cooked meals, the ones that take all day to prepare. Once upon a time, she would serve them to me in an apron and nothing else.

I’ve spent a lot of hours thinking about how to bring us back to the way we used to be. Easy. Sexy. Surprising. Before my job dead-ended at a human resources company that sells buggy, overpriced software nobody wants to buy. Before Sabine got her broker’s license, which I used to laugh off as a hobby. Now, on a good month, her salary is more than double mine. I’d tell her to quit, but honestly, we’ve gotten used to the money. It’s like moving into a house with extra closet space—you always use it up.

In our case, the money made us cocky, and we sank far too much of it into our house, a split- level eyesore with too-tiny windows and crumbling siding. The inside was even worse. Cheap paneling and shaggy carpet on the floors, climbing the walls, creeping up the staircase.

“You have got to be shitting me,” I said as she led me through the cramped, musty rooms. It looked like a seventies porn set. It looked like the destitute version of Hugh Hefner would be coming around the corner in his tattered bathrobe any second. No way were we going to live here.

But then she took me to the back porch and I got a load of the view, a sweeping panorama of the Arkansas River. She’d already done the math: a thirty-year mortgage based on the estimated value after a head-to-toe renovation, an amount that made my eyes bulge. We bought it on the spot.

So now we’re proud owners of a beautiful Craftsman-style bungalow on the river, even though as children of Pine Bluff, a working-class town wedged between farms and factories, we should have known better. The house is on the wrong side of town, a castle compared to the split-level shacks on either side of the street, and no renovation, no matter how extensive, could change the fact that there aren’t many people in town who can afford to buy the thing. Not that we’ll ever be able to sell. Our house doesn’t just overlook the river, it is on the river, the ropy currents so close they swell up the back steps every time there’s a sudden rain.

But the point is, Sabine’s job, which began as a fun little way to provide some extra income, is now a necessity.

My cell phone buzzes against my hip, and I slow to a stop on the trail. I check the screen, and my gut burns with irritation when I see it’s not Sabine but her sister. I pick up, my breath coming in sharp, sweat-humid puffs.

“Hello, Ingrid.”

My greeting is cool and formal, because my relationship with Ingrid is cool and formal. All those things I admire about my wife—her golden chestnut hair, her thin thighs and tiny waist, the way her skin smells of vanilla and sugar—are glaring deficiencies in her twin. Ingrid is shorter, sturdier, less polished. The wallflower to Sabine’s prom queen. The heifer to her blue- ribbon cow. Ingrid has never resented Sabine for being the prettier sister, but she sure as hell blames the rest of us for noticing.

“I’m trying to reach Sabine,” Ingrid says, her Midwestern twang testy with hurry. “Have you talked to her today?”

A speedboat roars by on the river, and I wait for it to pass.

“I’m fine, Ingrid, thank you. And yes, though it was a quick conversation because I’ve been in Florida all week for a conference. I just got home, and she’s got a showing. Have you tried her cell?”

Ingrid makes a sound low in her throat, the kind of sound that comes right before an eye roll. “Of course I’ve tried her cell, at least a million times. When’s the last time you talked to her?”

“About an hour ago.” The lie is instant and automatic. Ingrid might already know I hung up on her sister this morning and she might not, but one thing is certain: she’s not going to hear it from me. “Sabine said she’d be home by nine, so you might want to try her then. Either way, I’ll make sure to tell her you called.”

And with that I hit End, dial up the music on my headphones to deafening and take off running into the setting sun.

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