My head hangs down as I lean forward, white-knuckling the edge of the bathroom sink. I feel my stomach twist and turn, and I grimace, struggling to hold my breakfast down.
I lift my head and open my eyes. I look rough. My eyes are dark pits in my skull, my mouth a crooked red slash across the bottom of my face. When I blink, my eyelids are like sandpaper, the grit scraping the surface of my eyeballs.
I close my eyes and drop my head.
When I open my eyes again I stagger, the sink somehow escaping my grip, and I stand on the rocky shore of an unknown lake in the middle of the night. The stars spill across the sky, and I know why it’s called the Milky Way.
The air is so still around me, but I see the trees on the other side of the lake wave their branches in a slight breeze. The breeze ripples the surface of the water and makes its way to me, riffling the hair that lies across my forehead. It’s cool and clean and crisp, and I breathe it in greedily.
I turn to my right, and the moon hangs full in the sky.
I blink, and I’m standing in front of the mirror again, away from the sink. The urge to sit in the bathtub and slit my wrists is gone, for now, and the smell of that nighttime breeze still fills my nostrils with hope.
I pulled up to the cabin in my Jeep and cut off the engine, heaving a sigh of relief and just sitting a moment, taking in the familiar view of the log walls and blue lake and sky. Finally I got out and set to work hiding my tracks. I didn’t need any nosy parkers following my trail to the lake and interrupting my peaceful grief here.
I pulled a few things out of the boathouse before parking the Jeep inside and covering its shiny redness with a moldy blue tarp I’d found in a corner. Then I spent the next couple hours scuffing out my tire tracks for at least three hundred yards from the cabin. By the time I was done, I was covered in loose forest dirt and pine needles up to mid-thigh, and I’d wiped my hands and arms across my face so many times my skin felt tight with grime and cracked when I grimaced.
I wanted nothing more than to collapse into bed and sleep for a couple days, but once I got inside the cabin, leaving my crusty boots at the door outside and my crusty jeans at the door inside, the memories came flooding back to me, and I was wide awake and somehow refreshed.
The last painting my family owned done by my grandfather still hung on the wall in the living area, and his ashes still rested in an urn on the rough-hewn mantel above the fireplace. Even though he’d been gone since I was a child, and I’d spent more years here without him than with him, this was still his place, and stepping inside was like stepping into his warm embrace one last time.
The couch was covered in a sheet of clear plastic, but I could see the same old heavy blue-jean quilt lying over the back, waiting to warm me when it got cold again. Next to it, my dad’s worn armchair, wooden arms dark and shiny with decades of body oils. The rug my mom found in a thrift store and declared “just perfect” for our vacation getaway, our home away from home.
It was all perfect, and exactly how I remembered it. I walked further in, stripping my shirt over my head, careful to keep the dust and twigs inside the cloth, and froze when I reached the kitchen.
There was the yellowing Amana fridge, and held onto its face with alphabet magnets, a crayoned landscape made by yours truly at nine years old. The years had given me fresh eyes although the picture felt deeply familiar, and I saw my own potential as a stranger might have. Pride swelled briefly in my chest before I remembered that part of my life was put forever behind me with the loss of my wife.
I crumpled into a chair at the dining room table and cried for what felt like forever. I came here because she never had, because this was the one place that I thought I could live for a while without seeing her face every time I blinked, but I was wrong. I couldn’t breathe without seeing her face. She was my whole world, and now she was gone.
I cried myself to sleep at that table, and when I woke up I was in so much pain I could hardly stand. My joints creaked audibly, and my shoulders protested my efforts to put my arms down at my sides from where they had pillowed my head throughout the night. My back screamed in agony at my hours of poor, stiff posture.
I refused to turn the generator on, so I knew the water would be ice cold, but I stepped into the shower still in my bra and panties. I turned the knob, and the water was so cold I tried to scream and couldn’t. I knew hot would have been better for my sore muscles, but the massage of the pounding drops was better than nothing, and my skin grew numb after a few moments.
I got out when my teeth started to chatter, and, unable to face the bedroom alone, unable to face any bedroom alone just yet, I pulled the plastic from the couch and wrapped myself in the blue-jean quilt before collapsing onto the worn cushions. I shivered for a long time before dropping off into a slightly more restful sleep than I’d gotten at the table.
When I woke I was warmer, even though my short hair and the underwear I’d slept and showered in was still damp. I realized that I hadn’t brought my bag in from the Jeep, and so had no fresh clothing to put on. I slipped on a pair of the clogs that we’d always kept by the front door for running out to fetch more firewood and went to the boathouse in my undies. My family owned this land for miles, so I knew I didn’t have any neighbors across the lake to ogle my nakedness.
I flipped the tarp out of the way and pulled my duffel from the backseat. The tears threatened again, and I quickly covered her Jeep back up. God, I missed her so much. The pain in my chest felt like nothing could ever make it go away, like it was something I would live with for the rest of my lonely life. I smoothed the tarp over the back windshield and headed for the cabin, my right hand fisted against my chest to keep the pain from bursting out of my body.
I dropped my bag on the table just inside the door and considered how lucky I was that the bathroom was the first door down the hall, that I wouldn’t even have to pass my or my parents’ bedrooms just yet. I kicked the clogs off, nudging them back into their rightful place to the other side of the door, grabbed my bag, and returned to the couch.
I let my wet underthings slap the carpet beneath my feet as I stripped down, and I dressed myself in the first full set of clothes I pulled from my bag. Luckily enough, it was a tshirt and a pair of sweatpants. My hand rested on a pair of wool socks, but I decided against them, shoving them back, deep into my duffel. I slid the bag to the floor and curled up on the couch again, beneath the heavy comforting weight of the quilt. My mother would never know that I left wet clothes on her precious thrifted rug.
I knew it wasn’t good for me to sleep so much, but right then, I didn’t have anything but sleep to help my state of mind. I succumbed again, a willing victim of sleep.
This time I didn’t dream of her.
Gloria traced the rough texture of the bricks, the abrasive particles of sand and grit catching the tender skin of her fingertips. A concavity caught her attention, and she paused, cocking her head in curiosity. She scratched at the small hole, widening it, and flakes of mortar tumbled to the ground at her feet, littering her shoelaces with their crystalline dandruff.
She reached the bottom quickly enough, and lost interest when nothing of note appeared. She continued on her way, meandering back and forth across the sidewalk, never stepping on a crack for fear of breaking her mother’s back.
Cedric leaned against the street sign catty-corner to Gloria’s wandering dance, and he watched her with bright eyes. Such a girl would likely have some interesting stories to tell, he thought. His mind made up, he crossed the street, Gloria in his crosshairs.
Gloria froze, her sneaker toe millimeters from a large insect blundering its way across her path. She squatted and squinted at the poor thing–a beetle, she judged. She reached out a hand to touch it, and like that, it spread its wings and disappeared into the bright blue sky without a trace. Gloria smiled broadly, unperturbed that her plans had been so swiftly shattered by such an insignificant creature.
She stood back up and prepared to continue on her way, but a man blocked her.
Cedric knew that with his fighter’s build, he could bed intimidating, but he had spent years perfecting his kindly and disarming smile. He used that smile on Gloria, to an unexpected effect.
“And that’s how your mother and I met, kids.”
Since I haven’t been writing lately, I’ve been painting instead. Including three entries in a neat little book we picked up at the DMA, 104 Things to Paint. Its pages are all divvied up with neat little subjects like falling from the sky, french fries and ketchup, and arrows.
She sat in the straight-backed chair, curled around her busywork like a cat rabbit-kicking a toy. A steady skrit-skrit-skrit came from beneath her fingernails as they picked at the dried acrylic paint in the dozen paintwells of her palette. Every now and then she pulled her hand away with a ragged string of paint, a gleam of success in her eyes and a slight smile on her naked face. She knew the palette would come clean with little effort if she were to wash it with clean water while the paint was still wet, but that didn’t offer the same sense of fulfillment that picking did.