He was afraid to leave her alone.
As Anita lay on what had once been their bed, Dominic sat in an uncomfortable folding chair beside her, slightly disturbed by the lack of things he used to take for granted–the expected rise and fall of her stomach that accompanied inhalation and exhalation, the fluttering beneath her closed eyelids when she used to dream, and a million other tiny indications that even though she was asleep, she would eventually wake up.
She was posed in almost the exact fashion as she had been the previous Saturday. Streams of reddish-brown hair flowed from her head, down alongside her shoulders and onto the comforter. Her arms were placed across her chest, one hand overlapping the other. Though the undertakers had tried their best, they were unable to adjust the restless look on her face. Anita appeared in death almost every way as she had for the twenty-six years of her life.
Dominic leaned over and pressed his cheek to hers. There wasn’t much of a scent, but traces of something sulfurous lingered. The questions came rapid-fire to his mind, but he was afraid to ponder any of them too long.
Am I dreaming?
Will you ever talk to me?
Will you leave again?
It had only been a week-and-a-half since she had come to lay down in this very bedroom for what Dominic believed would be the very last time. He had come home from work to an empty pill bottle tilted over on the nightstand and a newly-formed crack running through his core. It felt like an entire year had passed since then, both emotionally and physically. Dominic had avoided mirrors since, but he was sure that if he looked into one, he wouldn’t recognize himself. Unshaven black whiskers made his neck itch. His nose had adjusted, yet he knew he stank to high heaven. It didn’t matter. The newly returned Anita hadn’t seemed to mind, either.
How she came to stand at his front door earlier in the afternoon, Dominic wasn’t sure. He also wasn’t sure he cared. The drapes had been drawn on all the windows since Saturday. Several visitors had knocked on his door over the past few days. Dominic normally waited ten minutes before opening it, just enough time for them to have gone away and leave behind a plastic-wrapped plate of cookies or a flavorless casserole. Always, there was an accompanying condolence card.
But today, it was her. As soon as he’d opened the door, she had stepped forward and he let her by as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Now here they were in their bedroom again.
Dominic slumped into his chair and tilted his head back to work the kinks out of his neck. A swirling pattern of rainbow lights danced across the ceiling–red, green, and blue stars shot out of a cheap plug-in light machine that he had chivalrously won for Anita at the Hilton County fair two years ago. She hadn’t wanted to go, but he’d somehow convinced her. It had only taken him a couple of years and she had a mostly miserable time, but she seemed to take a liking to the machine afterward.
Mudvayne’s All That You Are played quietly on a tiny CD player. It was her favorite song. Dominic often found her musical tastes a little depressing, but it was hers, and therefore it lost some of its glumness.
He wasn’t sure what he’d gain from any of the lights or music. He supposed, hoped, really, that it would generate a memory or a reaction. Get her talking to him. But Anita seemed as introspective now as she had always been. She hadn’t said a word since coming home.
The night gave way to sun at some point. The only indication was a small stream of light poking through a centimeter-sized gap in the curtains. Dominic sat and silently pondered what his wife’s return meant for the rest of own life.
“I can’t come in today.”
“I understand, sir. Yes, I know the policy.”
“You do what you have to do, sir.”
Dominic hung up the phone and turned to see Anita standing in front of the dining room table, staring out into the living room. He tried to figure out what she was looking at. He grabbed her hand and when she didn’t seem to resist, led her in gently.
“What is it, Nita?”
Saying her name out loud didn’t feel as strange as he thought it should.
Her eyes were unfocused, directed at an empty white wall, but she came to a stop in front of their loveseat. It was covered in an illustrated pattern of a country ranch, replete with chickens and horses and woodpost fencing. Dominic’s parents had given it to them as a wedding present and though Anita hated it as she’d hated most of his things, Dominic had somehow convinced her to keep it in the living room. It wasn’t as if they ever had much company over anyway.
“Do you want to sit?”
There was no response. Not even the slightest twitch. Her hair was slightly kinked from where she had been laying on it.
He tried to get her to sit, but her body was impossibly stiff.
Dominic whispered, “Nita, please, I don’t know what–”
There was a knock at the front door. Dominic held his breath, triple-checking that the curtains were still closed and that there was no way for someone to peek inside. At the top of the door was a thick, yellow stained glass cutout in the shape of a half-circle through which he saw the profile of a woman’s hair.
Anita slowly turned around and walked towards the hall. Dominic’s pulse quickened.
There was another series of knocks and he thought he heard a muffled ‘Hello.’
Dominic started to follow Anita, urging her on mentally. Come on, come on.
The two of them were almost in the hallway when he suddenly heard a click. He looked back and saw the deadbolt turn to the left.
Dominic made a decision and was forced to watch Anita continue her slow march to the bedroom. A draft of cool air swept in, fresh and not altogether unwelcome, as the door cracked open and sunlight pushed against the dark shadows of the entryway tiles.
He was frozen between the hallway and the front room. The visitor’s head appeared slowly through the opening of the door. Her blond hair was tied up in a bun and she wore a thin heather-gray sweater.
“Oh!” she said, narrowing her eyes in the dimness. “You’re home.” Even though Dominic sensed an effort, she didn’t sound entirely surprised. The smile on her face seemed genuine enough, though.
“Uh. Yeah. Hi, Barbara.” He tried not to appear nervous, flitting his vision back and forth toward the bedroom’s threshold that Anita had almost entered.
Barbara was their neighbor of three years and single mom to a seven-year-old boy named Jacob. Though they’d lived next to each other for only a short period of time, Dominic and Anita had known Barbara since junior high. Barbara ran with a more popular crowd than Anita, though that was an understatement. Anita’s crowd consisted of Dominic and herself. She’d never been one to make friends easily and Dominic had taken it upon himself to ensure she always had someone to talk to, even though Dominic found it easy to fit in with nearly every clique in their small town.
Anita was a different story. Most people stayed away from her. Dominic had been questioned more times than he could count as to what he saw in her, but he could never explain it to anyone’s satisfaction. Maybe not even to himself, other than to say that he felt it his life’s mission to make her happy since he had first seen her sitting alone, sullen-faced and scooping dirt into her palms in their kindergarten sandbox, watching it run back through her fingers again.
The door swung open slowly. Bundled in her hands was a foil-covered pyrex tray. “I was going to leave this on the porch, but….I didn’t want any animals getting to it….and I had a key….”
Dom’s face remained blank.
“Remember?” she continued. “You gave it to me for emergencies….um….I saw your car outside, but I wasn’t sure….I’m sorry if this is a bad time.”
She stepped in to extend the tray to Dominic. He moved quickly to meet her.
“Thanks,” he said, taking the tray.
“I didn’t mean to barge in,” Barbara said. “It’s just….your car hasn’t moved for a couple of days.” She tilted her head towards the covered windows. “The curtains have been closed….”
He felt moisture began to form under his arms as he tried to form a barrier between the front room and the hallway. He stared at her dumbly, capable of recruiting only a minuscule amount of brain power to process what she was saying.
“Chicken enchiladas,” she said suddenly.
She nodded at the dish in his hands. “My mom’s recipe.” He began to really see her now that she was closer–light-green eyeshadow, a thin layer of foundation on her cheeks, and pale pink lipstick. She smelled like a field of flowers. Dominic was quickly reminded that both he and the whole house must be giving off a terrible odor and he backed up slightly, but Barbara gave no indication that it bothered her.
“Pretty sure she got it off a can, but they’re good.”
“I’ll go ahead and put it on the dining room table.” She made a move to grab the dish.
“No!” he exclaimed, pulling away and feeling like a fool. She shrank back.
“No, please,” he continued more quietly. “Thank you. You’re too kind. I’ll take care of it.” Dominic rushed to the dining room table. The glass bottom clacked against the wood as he practically threw down the dish and almost skipped back to Barbara. He breathed a little easier seeing the hallway empty.
Just stay in the bedroom, Nita.
He bounced nervously on his heels. Now, Dominic and Barbara stood facing each other in silence.
“It’s really dark in here,” Barbara said. “Are you coming down with something? I haven’t seen you since Saturday.”
“I’m….I’m fine,” Dominic stuttered. “I’m just….taking some time off from work.”
Barbara nodded gently. “Look, I know you’ve been dealing with a lot. I appreciate that you invited me to the funeral.”
Dominic wanted her to leave so badly, but he was a victim of his nature–always wanting to be the nice guy, even if he was uncomfortable. She was only trying to be cordial and he didn’t want to be rude.
She suddenly straightened up and walked into the living room. “I’m going to turn on some lights. Don’t want to fall. Then I’d have to sue you for all your worth.”
Dominic wasn’t sure how to respond to her unexpected movement and statement.
“A joke,” she said.
“Oh,” Dominic replied. “Huh.”
With the flick of a switch, two lamps sprang to life and Dominic realized just how long he’d been cooped up in gloom. He squinted to see Barabara pick up one of the tiny pillows from the loveseat, sit down, and place it in her lap. She analyzed the country-life pattern like it had been hanging in the Louvre.
“Have I ever mentioned how cute this is?” she asked. “Reminds me of my grandparents.”
She looked up at Dominic and patted the open seat.
His eyes darted back to the open bedroom door. Still nothing. Every second he acted like he was building bombs in his bedroom would be another second that increased the chance of Barbara learning that the impossible had happened. He was unsure of what to do now. Everything had happened so quickly and he needed time to figure things out, so he rubbed the murk from his eyes, and put on his best smile as he took a seat.
She fiddled with the pillow, flipping it around in her hands. “Jacob has been asking about you,” she said. “He misses his play buddy.”
“Yeah?” Dominic lit up momentarily, and just as quickly, felt bad about the whole situation. The week had been a blur and some of those knocks on the door had probably been Jacob. He was a nice kid, but a bit of loner like Anita had been. He didn’t have many friends, so Dom would throw around a football or skate with him a couple times a week.
“Tell him I’m sorry. I promise I’ll hang out with him soon. I just….”
Barbara looked at him with calm, but expectant eyes.
Dominic cleared his throat. “So how have you been?”
“Fine,” Barbara replied. “I’ve been fine. Work is work.” She looked down at her watch. “I have to head to the cafe in an hour.”
“Oh, I don’t want to keep you. I’m sure–”
“But I’ve got time to catch up,” she said. She looked around the room. Her eyes settled on a pair of unframed photos propped on the bookshelves surrounding the TV. She stood without warning and walked up to them. “Wow, I don’t remember those. Granted, I don’t remember the last time I was in your living room.” Their eyes met briefly. “Around the 4th of July, I think? You had a couple of us neighbors over.”
Dominic remembered the 4th very well. It was one of the few times of year that he begged and pleaded with Anita to take a chance and socialize a little. She might even have fun, he had told her. Of course, she didn’t. While he was entertaining, she always found something to do–cleaning dishes, putting away laundry, or trimming the trees outside that were nearly stubs already.
Dominic said nothing, only watching Barbara as she stood with her back to him. She was wearing a tight pair of blue jeans. They revealed that she was still as slim as she’d been in high school and his eyes fell to the curve of her hips as she leaned forward to observe the pictures. Dominic felt suddenly flush. He jumped to his feet and walked toward her, afraid to look toward the bedroom.
“They’re new,” Dominic said. “I just put them up the other day.” Barbara grabbed a photo of a grinning Dominic, his arm wrapped around a slouching Anita. They were standing outside of The Dark House, a small venue in Lincoln where they watched Anita’s favorite bands play several times a year. Her arms were hanging down and she appeared to be looking at something unseen beyond the camera. “She loves live music.”
“Loves?” Barbara looked up at him and asked.
Dominic’s throat grew constricted. “Er, loved.”
Barbara leaned in and put a hand on his shoulder. He shook involuntarily at her touch. Sweat began to form again on his brow. He put the photo back in its place.
“I don’t have many photos of her. She wasn’t a big fan of cameras,” he said with a half-smile.
“You two always seemed the odd couple to me,” Barbara said. “I wished I had gotten to know her better. She was always….introverted, wasn’t she? The tortured artist type?” Her teeth dug into her lips after she spoke.
Dominic wasn’t sure how to respond. Anita was just down the hall. Surely she could hear every word they were saying.
“Oh my God. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean….”
“No, no, it’s okay. She wasn’t exactly a social butterfly.” Dominic didn’t feel bad saying that. Anita would have been the first to admit it.
Barbara inhaled deeply. Her hand slid from Dominic’s shoulder to his arm. Her touch was sending shockwaves through his bare skin.
“I’m just going to be blunt, Dom. What did you see in her?”
That question. He may have heard it as many times in his life as he had ‘good morning.’ His answer now wasn’t any different than it had been the myriad times he’d been asked.
“No one knows her like I do,” he said. His voice rose. “No one ever gave her a chance but me. Yeah, she was in her own head a lot, but that didn’t mean she didn’t deserve love like anyone else.”
“Did you feel sorry for her?”
Dominic had come to expect people to leave it alone after he’d spoken his piece, but Barbara wasn’t letting it go. Fine. If she wanted blunt, he would be blunt.
“It’s complicated,” he said. He sat back down on the couch and stared at the open bedroom door. He felt the couch shift as Baraba sat beside him.
“Did you ever feel like you had a mission in life? Like a direction you had to head toward and if you tried to go the other way, it just felt wrong?”
“Sure,” she replied. “But sometimes we can run right into a ditch. What about you? Were you happy?”
“Of course!” he said.
Barbara remained silent. Her eyes felt like a vacuum sucking hidden truths out of him along with thin layers of resentment that had built up over the years. “Being happy doesn’t mean everything is always great a hundred percent of the time. Besides, if it’s always about you, isn’t that just being selfish?”
“Yeah,” she said, “but you’ve never been one to make it all about you. You deserve some happiness too.”
It was a lot for Dominic to dwell on. Warm breath flowed in and out of his mouth as he gaped at Barbara.
“I don’t doubt that you loved her, Dom. But were you in love with her?”
Nuance. Dominic tried to avoid it because it just made things worse. Who could really say what love was or should be?
Anita was sad, Dominic tried to make her happy. That was their pattern. Their balance. That was who they were. If he were to act differently now, to believe that his sacrifices for Anita had maybe been in excess, it would be too much to take. Too large of a change, too quickly.
“I can’t,” Dominic said. He could feel his eyes beginning to well up with tears. He cleared his throat and straightened his back.
Barbara put a hand on his leg. “Can’t what?”
His whole head was shaking trying to contain the emotions churning through him like a maelstrom.
“Everything.” He turned toward the bedroom without thinking. Standing in the doorway was Anita’s silhouette. Dominic suddenly didn’t seem to care if she was seen or what she may be thinking. His eyes penetrated her looming figure. “She needs me,” he almost whispered.
“She’s gone, Dom.” Barbara’s hand squeezed his thigh and she leaned in closer. The floral scent of her perfume struck him again.
“I failed her,” he said.
“No,” Barbara said with a sternness that shook him. With her other hand, she directed his chin back toward her. “You did not fail her. You did more than anyone could possibly have done for her. You are not obligated, do you understand?”
He fought to turn back to the hallway. He could feel Anita’s presence growing closer.
“Do you understand?” Barbara repeated.
Dominic blinked hard. Again, he tried to look into the hall. With a surprising amount of force, Barbara grabbed his face with both hands and planted her lips on his.
Her fingernails dug into Dominic’s face. He felt too tired, too weak to resist. And then he didn’t want to. The feeling of her moist lips was such a novel feeling. He found himself fighting back thoughts of Anita. Memories of nights where she had been more depressed than normal and rejected his overtures, saying that she didn’t deserve his love. He had told her that wasn’t true, but they had never been able to bridge that gap.
He felt awkward, yet his hands found their way around Barbara’s back as he hugged her tightly. Tears transferred from his cheeks to hers.
She pulled back and rested her forehead on his. Dominic closed his eyes, sensing Anita standing behind him. He didn’t want to look. He wished now that she would just go away, but he still felt he owed her something. He turned, looked up and opened his eyes.
Dominic’s heart nearly stopped pumping. Anita was indeed standing before them both, looking directly at him, but there was something wrong with her face.
Barbara’s voice sounded so far away. Dominic stood and came face-to-face with his dead wife. Her eyes were no longer lifeless and unfocused, but instead met his. Wrinkles formed at their edges. As soon as Dominic comprehended the strange vision of a smiling Anita, she turned away from him and ambled to the front door.
He felt a pair of arms reach across his chest, holding him securely from behind. Barbara’s head fell across the back of his right shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
Dominic’s hands fell over hers.