By Alison McBain
The snooze button offers Michael five more minutes to lie dreaming, but the reality of morning tarnishes the illusions of sleep. He sees Caroline, as she was, behind his closed eyes. But he opens his eyes to nothing. Knees pop and complain as he gets to his feet--the fascinating slow motion of seeing himself age. When did the dance beat of youth flip channels to a monotone middle age? He didn’t notice when it happened, and his memory provides only a disjointed leap from juvenile exploits to this unreal decline.
He remembers the merry-go-round of part-time jobs and evenings with his college chums, drinking beer and watching the Mets crush the F-ing Red Sox. It wasn’t long after he met Caroline that those late nights of "I" became days of "we" and "us." He felt an inexplicable need to acquire organizer trays for drawers, window curtains and throw pillows.
He doesn’t think she told him to do these things. She’d never said, in so many words. They just…seemed to happen.
But she'd been happy. He knew she'd been.
His eyes linger on the storm-tossed bed and dusty nightstands. He can hear an echo in these familiar items cluttering the room. For the first time in years, he looks at them, truly looks at them, and they become strange and new again. The familiarity, the echo of memory, fades away until it resolves into a repetition of silence. A reversal, a lack of words, after everything has been said.
The woman he loved--the woman who changed him--the woman who’s gone away.
Caroline lingers at the window, thinking about the clichéd promise of spring and renewal. Her toast is forgotten, only the sharp odor as it burns recalling her to this moment. Her stomach rumbles as she hesitates before the clock, but there isn’t time to fix the mistake.
After a tepid shower--no hot water again--she puts on her public face and looks at the woman in the mirror. It was decades ago when that woman fell in love, but those years have drifted into gray hair, sagging flesh and the silence of a childless home. Even with paint and artifice, the face in the mirror has eyes filled with wasted time.
The only surprise is the hurt at the center of it still. How he was not there for her, was not, when things became "for worse." The grief after each miscarriage, decades of pain a knife through the body of their marriage, until all the blood drained away. Maybe she’ll always have some lingering ache, such as an amputee with a severed limb.
The separation between Michael and her is irreversible--an amputation that has lasted years. The pain lingers, a hard knot at her side. But she cannot change the fact that the man she fell in love with has disappeared. And he’s not coming back.
The next day, Michael can't find his car keys after breakfast. He looks at the clock as he lifts sofa cushions in the living room and rifles through trays of misplaced items in the desk--pencil stubs, rubber bands, receipts. Prayer-like, he kneels before the unmade bed before dropping to his hands and knees, only to find dust bunnies hiding underneath. After thirty minutes, a triumphant shout: the keys in yesterday's pants.
The search makes him late. But what's the hurry? Work is an eight-hour day in a box with the laughable compensation that he’s wasted the best years of his life, unenjoyed. He has a retirement portfolio--and a failed marriage. He fantasizes about sitting on the balcony in his terrycloth robe and flipping idly through the pages of the morning paper.
Briefly, Caroline flits into the picture--the mornings they once spent together with wake-up kisses and eating breakfast kitty-corner at the kitchen table, talking leisurely of days to come, the names of their children, their plans. When the future was too far away to stop them.
It is hard for him to comprehend that there are more years behind him than ahead. Caroline would never recognize him without the ambition of a career driving him. The Michael she knew wouldn’t ever consider being late. He’d never shown her that other side, the man he’d been before he acquired all that he thought a wife would want.
The picture trembles, insubstantial and unreal. Her image fades away. Only he remains, sitting alone in a dream built for two.
The drive to work fills the car with the hum of Caroline's thoughts, but the void of silence rings like an alarm clock. She wishes that she knew how to go back in time, to a point before everything fell apart. That she knew how to solve the failure of her marriage.
No wonder Michael has always been focused on his career, Caroline thinks as the car stops and she gets out. A job like his is about fixing problems. Is there any sort of a real fix after a relationship breaks?
The next morning, the alarm shuts off with a soft touch. In the sudden quiet, he listens.
Caroline sits up. Her eyes focus on the far side of the bed. He can feel the vacuum of silence waiting to be filled, but the weight of years, of loss, of things said too often and too loud and too hard, presses him back into the mattress. His eyelids tremble with the effort to remain closed.
The bed creaks as she rises. Michael opens his eyes as he hears the sound of her feet walking away from him, once again.