The third time Maggie left her husband, she took the dog, but not the cat. She was back in four days with the fury tamped down in her gut and the guilt still a metronome in her head. Simon had sorted every shelf in the apartment while she was gone and put every knife from the kitchen in a Tupperware container in the freezer.
“I knew you’d be back.”
She had not told anyone she was going, so the failure to stay gone did not chime with criticism through her network of family and friends. In truth, the last few years she had avoided saying much of anything to them because she knew how they waited for her to “come to her senses.” Her mother sent rosary cards and pictures of St. Jude, Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes, which didn’t make much sense to Maggie; if she was really hopeless, why bother? But her devoutly Catholic mother praying for a daughter to divorce her husband of nine years was not exactly in line with Maggie’s childhood memories of her mother’s doctrine, so perhaps looking for sense was not the point.
The cat dishes, normally squatting beside the dog dishes on a corner of the linoleum near the kitchen table, were gone.
“Where’d Betsy’s dishes go?” The duffel bag she had packed on Thursday night still hung off her shoulder while she dug in it looking for the dog’s things.
“Out,” Simon said, his head deep in the pantry where he was finding the makings of dinner to celebrate her return. She suspected he had thrown most of their food away, as he often did during a cleaning binge. Once he had emptied her entire underwear drawer while she was at work because he had found threads loose on a pair of her panties and one bra with a broken underwire.
“As in outside?” They lived on the third floor of a Victorian in a neighborhood of Boston that had once been respectable. Outside was a small weedy lawn and a rocky cliff that ended with a long drop to the expressway.
“She took off on me, but she’ll be back now that you’re home.” He stood up and faced her, shaking a full box of gluten free shells and smiling with all his teeth showing an expression that emphasized the pudginess of his cheeks. The medicine kept all emotions away from his eyes, and she had come to appreciate that flatness like it was a calm lake on which her days might float without capsizing. The pasta had to be acknowledged and the cat forgotten if the evening had any chance of continuing.
The metal dishes clunked to the floor and Paul Revere, their Collie Lab mix, trotted to her side. She patted his head and lowered her bag, before getting him water. The porcelain of the sink gleamed at her when she turned on the faucet. As water filled the bowl, her wrist began to ache with fatigue, and then the dish slipped from her grasp and clattered into the sink.
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” Simon screamed. He was beside her, pushing her out of the way as he reached beneath the sink for the paper towels and began mopping up the water, most of which had gone down the drain.
“Betsy doesn’t go outside,” she said as she left the kitchen and his obsessive wiping. He would be well over an hour searching for every drop. After locking her bedroom door behind her, she fell across her quilt in a dead man’s float, her face buried where the rich, flowered scent of their fabric softener entered her nose. He had washed all her bedding, a project deep down the list of things to do. It had only been four days, so if all the shelves and the bedding in both their bedrooms had been taken care of, he had probably not slept. Their apartment from the outside must have been a brilliant lantern through the hours of night, throbbing with his music and ablaze with light while his frantic cleaning made him a blurred silhouette whenever he passed by a window. She had pulled into their driveway under these conditions before, when all the other houses on the street had settled themselves to a normal dark.
With a sigh she pushed herself off the top of the bed and swung to sitting cross-legged. From her bag she pulled her computer and the folders for work. It was so simple to fall into the numbers and details on screen, to let herself get lost in the straight columns of her job. Eventually she moved to personal emails, since she had avoided them while she was away. Skimming quickly, she checked a box for deletion beside all the Groupons and Travelocity messages, the credit card options and weekend sales. Within minutes she had reduced the unopened list to six emails, two from her college alumni association about an upcoming gathering at a Bruins game, one a happy hour invitation from a work acquaintance that she had already missed and three from her sister-in-law, Carol who was a high school guidance counselor and tried to be Maggie’s counselor, sending constant advice and articles about living with mental illness. Simon hated hockey. She clicked the delete box for the first email, but paused with her mouse positioned at the second.
During her four days away, she had chosen restaurants to eat in without considering the cleanliness of the silverware or running a check on recent health code violations. In a small town in the Berkshires she had simply walked into a café and ordered macaroni and cheese that came loaded with lobster and a touch of cayenne pepper. Seafood, dairy, spice without thought or consequence, without guilt or judgement. Each time she had left Simon, she imagined she would stay away, but after a few days, it felt more like a brief vacation that relaxed her enough to go back for another round of medicine, doctor visits, tracking symptoms and research on the internet. Her job required only occasional visits to the office or coffee with potential clients as she showed them their website options and explained her marketing strategies. This left her hours of time to be with Simon or think of reasons to be away from him. It was an exhausting charade. She moved to the next email without deleting the second hockey game notification. Immediately a video began to play and the folksy, fake voice of Dr. Phil spilled out of her speakers. Her sister-in-law was at it again.
She stared at the video without meaning to see it, her finger poised to close it, but hearing instead, “I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to be with someone who makes them feel worse.” He patted the woman’s knee as he handed her a handkerchief from his pocket. “You need to ask yourself if you feel better when he’s around or when he’s gone. I’ll let Casey think about that while we go to break, and then I’ll come back and put some verbs in my sentences to let you all know what I think she ought to do.”
Maggie watched the video three more times, never reaching the verbs in the sentences, but hearing the simplicity of feeling better. Railroad Street Café, the name of the restaurant where she had eaten and after the macaroni and cheese, an apple crisp with cinnamon ice cream. Simon could only eat or look at vanilla or chocolate—plain without any chunks or different colors and only if he had remembered his probiotics and lactose pills. Usually she just skipped dessert in the interest of certainty and peace. When had time with Simon made her feel better?
Paul Revere scratched at the door and she climbed off the bed to let him in. He curled on the carpet with three turns of his body and she laughed, not for the first time, about the irony of acceptable, obsessive dog rituals. Something white stuck out of his collar as he lay in a tucked-up ball.
Dearest Maggie: I am sorry about the water, about so many things. Please come down and eat.
She knew dinner would be on the table, maybe with candles because he considered the details that made her smile. He meant to make her happy; she could never doubt that. And yet, she could imagine as well the six shakes of salt across his food and the tense moments while he tried to put the shaker back in exact line with its mate on the table. There could be no eating while he adjusted, so often their food was cold before the ceramic turtle shakers were back in their spots. Someone who makes you feel better. Could there be a day when coming home was something to look forward to?
Moving down the hallways, she paused to read the noises. He was muttering, but not loudly, and a cupboard door closed without banging. There was a rattle like a pan shifting off the stove and then the familiar pull of the refrigerator door. His back was to her as he placed a bowl on the table, so when he turned and saw her, his body jerked in a startle response. Then he smiled quickly.
“You came down.” He took her by the elbow and guided her to her seat. A whispery, challenging voice in her head suggested she try to sit in the chair across from Simon instead of beside him on the right where she always sat, but she ignored it and let him settle her at the table. The bowl was filled with pasta and a brown sauce that looked like gravy, but was probably mostly soy, one of the flavors he trusted. Water was better for digestion without ice; she took a sip, missing the smack of cold she had enjoyed the last few days. The salt and pepper shakers were not on the table, perhaps a change he was navigating. Reaching over her shoulder, Simon placed a platter of meat, thin slices, also covered in the brown sauce, next to the pasta.
“A little grace?” He reached for her hand and she flinched when the hot smooth fingers grasped hers. For some reason the blessing before the meal had stayed with him from childhood, even though like Maggie, he had abandoned all other pieces of religion.
When he finished giving thanks and released her hand, he began spooning food onto her plate, counting the noodles as they fell. He stopped at twenty-seven and looked at her, his eyes still empty as a moonlit lake, then his hand shook and he dumped what was left on the spoon in one quick motion.
“I’m sorry,” he said, beginning to spoon meat onto her plate.
“I know.” It would have been the moment she consoled him; all of their relationship she had made these habits ok by smiling her way through them, allowing them because they weren’t really so bad. It had become impossible to get a read on normal, to find the surface of the water from the dark, cloying space below. But glimpses came through. Each weekend away made the time with Simon unfamiliar at first, unwanted even as she settled herself to tread across the water of his illness once again.
“What’s the meat?” she asked, her knife just beginning its first slice.
“Try it first.”
She paused with her fork speared into the flesh. Something in his voice, an edge she had not ever heard. On his plate the meat sat to the side, not touching the noodles as always, and she moved her gaze from his fork, just capturing some noodles, to his face, a gaze waiting for her.
“Sort of.” In his shrug she thought she sensed him poised on an edge. Something was at stake here, and he didn’t want her to know. As she lifted the bite toward her mouth she kept her eyes on him. Did he lean in? Anticipate? It came to her in a rush, making her throw the fork on the table and leap up.
“What’re you talking about?”
She was raving now, an image of Simon at the sink with the skinned body of their beautiful cat Betsy Ross firmly in her mind. He had finally tipped in the direction her family continually warned her about. It explained so much, the knives, the water in the sink, the effort to set the table differently. She ran to her room and snatched the computer bag from the floor, stuffing her laptop in and pausing at her dresser to stow a few other pairs of underwear. It didn’t matter really what she brought. She could buy new things; she just needed to get out. He was in the doorway when she turned to leave.
“Maggie?” He wasn’t blocking her exactly, not that she couldn’t push him away if she needed to. His lack of physical strength had always been part of his appeal, his need to be cared for, his body so unlike her father’s.
“Get out of the way Simon.”
“What are you doing?”
“You just got back.”
“You just served me our dead cat for dinner.” She shouldered past him and he folded against the doorframe, barely letting her touch him.
“That’s what you think? After all these years you could think that?” His voice, though soft, cut into her ears as she moved away. She slowed, then straightened and turned, realizing both what he had said and the impossibly helpless voice, so Simon, so frustrating, but also so true. He didn’t lie to her, and she had learned to cling to his honesty as the best thing between them. Leaving was the right decision, but looking at him, wounded and struggling, she couldn’t be sure. He finished sinking to the floor as she watched. When he looked up at her, tears had formed in the corners of his eyes.
She had to lean toward him when he spoke this time, his lips barely moving. “We are worse than I ever thought. I’m worse. You should go. Nothing can fix this if you think I would really do something to Betsy.”
It almost worked. Pushing her away for her own good had brought her back more times than she could count. Without thinking she took a step back down the hall toward him, felt herself pulled into his orbit and the words that would sooth him, the apology and acknowledgement of her misunderstanding. As if from outside her body she could picture how she would be sitting in just moments, his head cradled in her lap as they each outdid one another with concessions and relief. He would need her there, so utterly and without question. His gratitude felt always like the greatest prize at the fair, the jackpot and for a few hours, maybe even a few days if she was lucky, they would tiptoe around together, careful not to stir up any dust or emotion, any conversation or desire to upset their happiness. But then another voice pushed into her mind. “Do you feel better?” It was Dr. Phil and the verbs she had never actually heard. Stop was a verb and so was leave. No was not a verb, but she said it anyway, not shouting, but firm as her voice carried to the crumpled figure of her husband in the hallway.
“Not anymore,” she added. Whistling to the dog, she picked up speed as she entered the kitchen, stuffed her keys in her pocket and let the fresh water in the bowl spill all over the linoleum as she lifted it from the floor and dumped it in the sink. She could stop for a sandwich and a new bag of dogfood at the grocery store. The beach was only a few hours away, Cape Cod and the feel of sand between her toes. Driving out of their neighborhood and out into traffic, out into the world where all the dangerous, anti-Simon things lived, she let her shoulders relax, her hands grip the wheel with instinct and pleasure. This was where she suddenly wanted to be, the only place she could be. Her phone rang, syncing through the car speakers. Simon’s number appeared in the console.
“What do you say boy? Wanna go to the beach?” The dog turned his face from the window and then curled himself up on the front seat. Maggie gave the car some gas and then slid a finger to the “end” button, disconnecting the call.
Beth Konkoski is a writer and high school English teacher living in Northern Virginia. Her work has been published in literary magazines such as: Story, Mid-American Review, The Baltimore Review and 10. Her work has been nominated for a Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize and a personal essay of hers was a finalist in the Norman Mailer Creative Non-fiction Contest for Teachers in 2014.