We quit waiting and sit down to eat. Usually I try to soften the stark reality of your empty chair by removing your place setting, but not this time. This time I leave it as a testament to your repeated absence from our lives. I try to start a normal conversation with the kids. But there is an edginess, a sharp crackle of anger and hurt in my voice, and they aren’t risking it. They both respond to my questions in single-syllable, monotone answers. Finally I give up and we pretend to eat, in silence.
For some reason tonight I see clearly how our problems are affecting my relationship with our children. This emotional turmoil has gone on for too long. It’s beginning to spill over onto the kids. I don’t know how I’ve let this happen, but I know it’s got to stop. As I move the food around on my plate it hits me, like ice-cold sweet tea on a bad tooth; you are not the problem. I am the problem.
As this truth seeps from my brain down through my body, I am awash in guilt and nausea. No one at this table is hungry, so I let the kids leave the table without demanding the usual one-last-bite routine. I straighten up the kitchen, and put your clean plate and silverware away while I try to reclaim some sort of peace of mind. But as I turn off the light I notice your empty glass, forgotten, still sitting at the head of the table. In it I see the emptiness of our marriage, and the pain washes over me again.
I sit down to watch TV, but can’t concentrate on anything except my hurt and anger. It’s a scalding, hard knot that sits in the center of my chest, and it’s hard to breathe around. I’m not sure with whom I’m angrier, you or me. How many times have you promised to quit doing this? How many times have I believed you? You’re always sorry. Every time is always the last time. Yet here I sit, alone again. My mind picks at all the past scenes that are wedged in my memory like shards of broken glass. I ponder which repetitious excuse you’ll offer me this time. I close my eyes, and they all begin to run through my head.
“A guy from the office needed to talk, so we stopped to have a beer. He’s having some problems at home. He’s married to a real bitch. Man, baby, I am so glad I have you. At least you understand me.” This excuse has always stopped me in my tracks. I never wanted you to see me as a bitch. I truly believed you appreciated my understanding, that you cared more for me than your friends cared for their wives. Now I see the truth.
Or maybe tonight it will be, “I had that important meeting, remember? I know I told you about it. You never pay any attention to me, and then you get mad about stuff. You are so unreasonable.” That’s another good one. You come in late from out doing who knows what, and I’m upset. But you manage to make it my fault. I have always been too willing to accept the blame, even if it meant accepting your lies.
Then of course, there’s your old standby. “The boss needed me to finish that order. I didn’t have any choice; he’d fire me if I didn’t. I have to support this family, don’t I?” The idea that your family has always been a burden to you is something I have readily accepted for years, and you’ve used my insecurity to your advantage for much too long.
Excuses have always worked for you. Lies have worked even better. But now I see clearly that they only worked because I let them. Even when I knew in my heart you were lying to me, I pretended to believe you. The truth is, I have lied to myself as much as you have ever lied to me.
As the shadows lengthen against the wall, the clock ticks off the passing seconds. I watch the streetlight blink on and know you won’t be coming home tonight. I know there won’t be any excuses; we both know there are none. You will show up tomorrow with peace offerings and empty promises. I will let you hold me. I will listen to your promises. I will pretend that whatever you were doing wasn’t about us. I will forgive you, but I will never forget. I have done this repeatedly through our years together not because I believe you love me, but because I am afraid. I am afraid of fighting this world alone, of raising two children on my own. Tonight I am sick to death of the taste of fear. It seems that tonight I have arrived at a crossroads, one that I’ve watched in the distance for a long time. I haven’t shed one tear this evening, and I don’t think I will. I don’t know why tonight is different, why the truth seems so clear to me now. Every time I pass through the kitchen and see your empty glass, the knot in my chest grows a little larger, a little harder, a little colder. I think it might be my heart.
With their baths over, Jesse, Aaron, and I sit around the kitchen table having milk and animal crackers. Your empty glass sits with us. Jesse leans her head back against my chest, looks up at me from her perch on my knees and whispers, “Daddy’s not coming home again tonight, is he?” The sight of her solemn brown eyes, her tiny, bow-shaped mouth with cookie crumbs clinging to the corners, shatters the last shred of any illusion I may have been clinging to.
With those words the truth floods my body like ice water, and the hard, growing knot in my chest turns to stone. This time is different. This time you are not coming home. No matter what you may think, or where you may be, or what you may be doing, you are not coming home, not ever again. I am finished.
I stare at the three of us reflected in your empty glass, and finally face the truth. As I watch our distorted reflections I realize we are better off without you. You are nothing but a painful distraction, a source of unnecessary drama in our lives. I can raise these children better alone. I don’t answer Jesse. It’s an answer too large for bedtime. Instead, I kiss her nose and send her to look for a story for us to read, just the three of us.
With the kids in bed, I sit at the kitchen table with pen, paper, and your empty glass. My to-do list for tomorrow lengthens. First I will move the money out of the joint account, and then call an attorney. I will have a locksmith change the locks, while I bag up your clothes and pack for an extended stay at Mom’s. On my way out of town I will drop your clothes off at your office, and my resume off at the printer’s. The kids will enjoy being at the farm for a week or so. You’ll never think to look for us there. I have never let anyone else know about your escapades. I was always too embarrassed, always too willing to accept the blame for your lack of love and respect for this little family. When you finally track us down there you will know that this time it’s really over.
As I cap the pen the doorbell rings, and my stomach tightens with anxious dread. Did you lose your key? It’s past midnight! I would have bet money that you wouldn’t dare come dragging in now and risk waking the kids. You always call me from work the next day, and we both pretend that you slept in your office.
I feel the panic lift into my chest. I’m not sure I can handle an argument tonight. The light glistens off your empty glass and catches my attention. It reminds me that this time is different. This time it’s my call. This time it really is over. If I have no other choice but to fight my way out of here, then so be it. I stare into your empty glass for one long moment, and pray for God to help me; to give me whatever strength I need to end this misery now. As I open the door I take a deep breath, and brace myself behind the cold, hard, stone that sits in the center of my chest.
There’s a policeman standing on the porch. He steps inside and asks me to sit down, but I refuse. Standing gives me the illusion that I am in control, that I am strong. I hear him say the words “Accident…” “Embankment,” “Instant…” “Help…” “Call someone…” “Funeral home…” I can only shake my head to all of them. I don’t understand them anyway.
I watch the patrol car’s tail lights disappear around the corner. Then I return to the kitchen table and your empty glass. I pick up my pen and start a new list.
The funeral is over. The visitors and flowers are all gone. All the food has been frozen or given away. The kids are back in school. Your empty glass still sits alone at the head of the table. At first everyone left it there to humor me. They believed your empty glass was a symbol I was holding onto, a symbol of your place in our lives. They believed it was helping me get over my loss. They were right. But on day three, the day of your funeral, my attachment to your empty glass began to draw attention. Our families began to think it strange, even morbid. I noticed clusters of worried friends and family huddled around corners, having whispered conversations. But in the end no one cared enough to pursue it. They just wanted to go home to their own lives. So your empty glass remains at the head of the table.
Today marks two weeks since you missed dinner. Today I moved your empty glass to the living room mantle where I can see it whenever I need to. The sunlight streaming through the window shines through it, casting pink and golden orbs against the wall. I breathe in these orbs of color. I breathe in, I breathe out, one breath at a time.
Your empty glass is the concrete barrier between my sanity and insanity. I can see the hot, swirling pit of endless pain in the distance, and it overwhelms me. I keep myself pulled up tight inside, constantly on guard, holding myself at a measured distance from that seething pit. I brace myself behind the cold, hard, stone that sits in the center of my chest, and wait. I know if I give in I will drown. Yet, like a gnat to a full glass, I am drawn toward the pain. The fact is, whenever I let the finality of the loss of you crawl through my brain it knocks the air from my lungs. I have to keep breathing for the children. So I watch your empty glass. I breathe in, I breathe out, and I let your empty glass remind me of the truth.
Gone is gone, and it was my choice first.
BiosLyn Westbrook lives in the woods in West Virginia with her husband. She spends her free time gardening, feeding the birds, reading, and attempting to write. Her winters are spent in Florida chasing sunrises and sunsets with her camera.
Marilyn Whitehorse describes her layered life: "In the topside world, I teach academic writing to people who are learning English at Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu, Hawaii. In the river that flows beneath I am a writer, photographer, and collage artist."