“Now I can’t even sleep! I mean, even when I try…I-I’m so terrified that the moment I start to drift off a chill runs down my spine and I’m wide awake, shaking and crying. And then the tears…I just keep crying until I’m so damn dehydrated I’m sick to my stomach. So even though I’m fucking exhausted, that…that d-damn knot in my belly makes it impossible to lie down and I jus…”
Her hands flew up as she scanned the rest of the circle. The eyes staring back seemed empty or narrowed. Her tongue fell limp. She gave up, slouching forward, letting her chest fall heavy into a sigh.
“Are you…” the hesitating query came from a particularly suspicious set of scrutinizing eyes. At least the woman had the decency to pause with a wry smile, throwing in her subject’s name for good measure, “Sarah. Are you saying…”
Oh, but that decency expired almost as fast as it came into existence. There was one last attempt, in the form of a meager millisecond smile, then off came the mask. Raised brow, pursed lips, and a glare that seemed to squeeze her eyes up from underneath. Sarah didn’t have the energy to roll her eyes, she just had to grit her teeth, sit, and bare it.
“Does your husband have a problem in real life…or is that just in your dreams?”
– – –
Blood was rushing to the front of her face, setting her cheeks ablaze, and for some reason that’s what she felt most. Not the throbbing as her brain bashed itself against the inside of her skull, trying to break free of its confines before her body died and took her conscious with it. Not the stabs of pain as her neck muscles were forced to jab up into her jaw, having no where else to go. Not even the feeling of the sides of her throat, scraping together as Tom’s thick callused hands clamped down.
She couldn’t feel her fingers but they managed to hold the bottle. She could feel her arms. It felt as if they were moving through the slushy water just an inch below the surface of a frozen lake – the cold water slowing her down as it filled her flesh with pins and needles. But up rose the bottle, like Tom was controlling it by the very magic of his words, words that helped to stabilize her as the nozzle neared her lips.
“In the mouth.”
Thanks Tom. Sarah might’ve forgotten.
She got it to her lips. Somehow, despite the two large hands wrapped around her throat stretching her chin away from her collar bones, she got the bottle into her mouth. Red wine poured into her and slammed against the back of her throat. Then she tried to swallow.
She choked. Despite slowly suffocating, she had enough air left to paint her husband scarlet. He staggered away from her and she gasped for air but she didn’t take her eyes of him.
It wasn’t just the wine making Tom’s face red. No, his face was now flushed harder than hers. But even as she saw his hands ball into fists, even as she reflexively continued to take big gasping gulps of air, she couldn’t help but start to laugh.
That laughter was stopped short as Tom retook her neck as his hilt. This time not to choke – at least not yet. He kept one hand free. The hand on her neck was there to position her, holding her still, the other was there to inflict pain. She had, after all, made a mess, but before that hand came to exact discipline, she was determined to get out her quip.
“You know I hate red wine.”
In the real world, Tom’s fist slamming into her face would’ve knocked her out cold, but this wasn’t the real world. This was a dream. Instead, that punch yanked her wide awake. It brought her back to reality, were Tom would never hurt her.
– – –
“My husband would never hurt me.” Sarah was practically growling.
The offender gulped, retreating with hands up and palms out.
“But the drinking.” A softer member of the circle chimed in, “The drinking problem, that’s not just in your dreams too, is it?”
“I don’t know.” Sarah admitted.
The previous offender dove right back in, “You don’t know?”
“Maya.” The Therapist snapped.
Maya sighed through her teeth, flaring her nostrils as she cocked her head to the side and waited for the next ridiculous utterance to leave the lips of the lady looking back at her.
Sarah explained, “He had a problem.”
“And you’re worried he might’ve relapsed?” The Therapist asked.
The Therapist spoke slowly. She bore a faint smile, a smile that was only strong enough to assure Sarah that she wasn’t frowning. This should’ve comforted her – it worked for most of the others gathered in the circle – but it didn’t. The smile didn’t just say, “I care.” It also said, “I know.” And that’s what bothered Sarah because Sarah was pretty damn sure the Therapist did not know.
The Therapist asked, “Have you asked him?”
“I could…” Sarah stalled with a shaky sigh, debating whether or not to open up more. She gave in with a shrug, “I’m scared too. He’s been gone – for a week now. He drives. He’s a trucker-”
“Maya!” The bit of fire that jumped in the Therapist’s eyes was the first comforting thing Sarah had seen out of her, “Apologize.”
“I’m sorry,” Maya shook her head at herself in a surprising display of believable sincerity, “this is not the place…” she met Sarah’s eyes, “That was fucked.”
“I know…” Sarah said with a tone that washed some of the shame off Maya’s face, “I know this is crazy, too. I mean…” Correcting her posture, Sarah grinned and winked at Maya as she splayed her fingers to gesture first to her face then her the rest of her body, exclaiming, “How am I married to a trucker.”
There were giggles and a little puff of air out the nostrils of both Maya and the Therapist as the tension – at least, some of it – dissolved.
“He’s a real trucker too.” Sarah chuckled, “Netted hat, wife beaters-”
“No pun intended.” Maya inserted.
Sarah gave Maya a snort for that one then kept on, “-sweats and gym shorts. Never saw him in a polo. Shit, the closest thing to a button up I think he’s worn was a flannel – ‘cept for when his mom died. That man went out and bought – not rented – he bought a suit that must’ve cost as much as the funeral.”
“Sounds like a good guy.” The Therapist said.
“Yea, but good guys only go so far. I told him he better rent for our wedding. Save the money for the honeymoon.” Sarah laughed.
“What’d he say?” The Therapist asked.
This time, Sarah actually laughed. Short and quick, but it was a real , “Hah!” Then the answer, “He pleaded and pleaded until I said, ‘you spend more than a $100 on our – on your wedding suit…’ then I got so flustered I was literally trembling and the words just burst out of me, ‘over my dead body!’. Then he goes off smiling at me so I just know a joke is about to fart out of his smartass mouth. He says, get this, ‘Cool, so I can get one for your funeral?’”
“Was this before or after he stopped drinking?” Maya retorted.
“Fuck off.” Sarah smiled.
Quiet settled in for a moment. Maya ultimately broke it, surprising everyone by honing back in, “You really should ask him.”
“I know we always say they have to want it themselves,” A man spoke up, shifting from one cheek to the other in his chair. The poor piece of furniture’s wobbly metal legs emitted a short squeal of discomfort, a sentiment the man shared, “b-but some people need an outside reason. My husband didn’t quit until he knew I wanted him to, maybe-”
“He didn’t quit for me.” Sarah clarified, “He didn’t even know I wanted him to! I mean, he quit for me, but for himself for me.”
“Oh Lord…” Maya rolled her eyes.
The Therapist gave her a warning with a glare, but the glare did little more than “No!” does to a toddler.
“Can we drink at these?” Maya cut across the circle with a smirk.
“You think you’re funny.” The Therapist retorted.
Maya shrugged, “Why do you think my husband drinks?”
The kind, quiet woman from before saved Maya by resuming the interrogation, “Why’d he quit?”
– – –
She woke up like a diver out of air breaking the surface of the sea. The sheets and comforter spilled off the bed like a crashing ocean wave and she rose up behind it, bounding off the mattress. Her feet were underneath her before her brain started to see. Her head spun and her knees buckled, at which time Tom would’ve normally leapt up, hurdled his side of the bed, and dove to catch her but instead she slammed to the floor. The minor concussion did not help the spinning.
There was a clinking downstairs, a clinking she knew all too well. Three ice cubes splashed into three-shots worth of vodka. Soon there’d be the quarter-second long trickle, the sound of what hardly qualified as a splash. When Tom was home, the OJ in the fridge lasted longer than the vodka in the freezer.
The noise might’ve annoyed her had her disoriented first instinct not been that Tom was gone. That she’d forgotten what morning it was and that he’d already left off for another long haul. Instead, it relieved her. She needed to see his face. To feel his arms, his tight but gentle squeeze as they wrapped around her waist. To remember that, in the real world, Tom was a dream rather than a nightmare.
She hurried out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and into the kitchen. He heard her coming and spun to toast her approach. Setting his drink down, he stepped into her embrace. They squeezed their bare bodies together and lingered in silence for a moment.
“Peaches?” He said, loosening his grip.
“Mhn.” She stiffened. Her smile died and her brow furled. She immediately let go to grab his forearms and re-administer the previous hold. Her body relaxed again. Then – and only then – did she ask, “Mhm?”
“Peaches…I uh…” He fumbled for a bit before finding it, “I got something to say.”
Her relaxation paused. This was the part when most partners would let go and take a step back to get a good look at the face of the one saying, “I got Something to say.” but somehow Sarah knew this wasn’t that sort of Something. Even though Tom was obviously stressing over said something, this was a something that would be good. Difficult – maybe – but good. Her moment of anxiety passed like a breeze and her body relaxed once more.
“I think I gotta stop drinking.”
Sarah let go and took a step back to take a good look at Tom’s face.
Well, she tried to, but Tom wouldn’t let her go. He let her lean back, though. He wanted her to see his face, but he couldn’t let her go. He needed her support. He felt like his legs might fall out from under him as the next couple words tumbled off his lips. He looked away. Cleared his throat with a nod. Then met her gaze and got back to it.
“I can’t remember things.” He said, “You’ll tell me all these stories about our late night shenanigans and…man, half the time I can’t remember any of it. And…” he sighed. This wasn’t a stalling-sigh. This was a real sigh. An expression of sadness. An expulsion of unused oxygen, offered as a sacrifice to the universe as if such might grant forgiveness for past transgressions. He continued, “On those long drives, I don’t have much else to do but think about you, Peaches. I mean, I got things I can listen to, folks to call, you to call but you’re at work all day and…those drives used to be so nice when I could just sit and revel in all the shit we got up to while I was home. I could just dig through my memories and remember things I’d forgot…used to. Now it seems like everything I forgot never happened. Half my new memories I just steal from the stories you tell me – like it wasn’t even really me there, but someone else.”
He paused. Now this was a stalling pause. He was fishing for her opinion – more specifically: for her approval – hoping his silence would bait her thoughts like a fish. When after a moment it still hadn’t produced results, Tom dropped his rod and gave in.
“You’re being awfully quiet there, Peaches.”
“I love you.” Sarah said, pressing her cheek into his chest and smiling up at him, “And I wouldn’t mind you remembering a little more, either.”
“Alright then.” Tom gave an abrupt nod. He let go of Sarah with one arm and grabbed his screwdriver, raising it for a toast, “That’s it. I’m quitting.”
Sarah scoffed as he took a swig, “That’s it, huh?”
Tom shrugged hard and high, like a boy grinning at his mom with his hand in the cookie jar.
“We gotta finish the handle first!” He winked, closing the freezer door with a slam.
– – –
“After he quit, the nightmares stopped.”
“And you never told him he hurt you?” The Therapist asked.
“He didn’t hurt me.” Sarah said.
The words weren’t even really hers. It was reflexive. Almost mechanical. Even as the words came out her mouth and entered her ears, she couldn’t stop them. They came out again, but this time they hit her in the belly like a bag of bricks-
-knocked the air right out of her. Her head began to spin, her vision began to cloud, and the voices of those in the circle around her blurred into a hum drum garble of sounds as if her ears were under water.
She was absent for the rest of the meeting. She sat like a ghost, not really lost in her mind, but not really thinking either. She was just hurting. Almost like there was a splinter she’d refused to remove, choosing instead to wait for her body to push the intruder out – but her body never did. It just kept hurting. Then, just before the scab had healed, the wound got caught and the scab was torn off. The universe was giving her another chance. After all this time, now was her chance to remove the splinter she should’ve removed so long ago.
Tom was coming home tonight.
“Call me if you need me.” The Therapist said, “Any time, I don’t care.”
They were standing outside the community center. On the steps. Maya came up behind the Therapist. The Therapist whirled around on her as if she was about to assault Maya but Maya’s confidence quelled the Therapist’s suspicion. Maya strode forward and clasped Sarah on the shoulder, handing her a receipt with a phone number scrawled sloppily on the back.
“Babe…” Maya stared hard, Sarah wondered for a moment if she was about to cry. A lump of her own began to bud in her throat, but luckily Maya continued before Sarah could set off the waterworks, “If it turns out you’re wrong and he’s still sober, think he could DD for us? Next time my husband drags me to the bar?”
The Therapist instantly regretted refraining from assaulting Maya, but Sarah laughed nonetheless. She promised to call both women, made a bit of polite small talk with the kind woman and nervous man, then hurried off to her car.
She couldn’t help but feel like she was getting into a hearse rather than a Honda.
– – –
She hadn’t spoken with him since the nightmares had started back. They hadn’t exchanged so much as a text. Not even a like on a social media post. This was odd. Not so much for Sarah, but for Tom? Very odd. Tom typically had ten or so unread messages waiting for Sarah when she woke up. Often a few voicemails or Snapchats to go along with them too, but now there was nothing. Not even a single individual post. No pictures of sunsets on the road. No political commentary on Twitter. Nothing. Sure, she had ghosted him, but she hadn’t expected to get the same in return. She couldn’t help but suspect his silence came from a sense of guilt.
She waited in the kitchen, facing the front door. That’s where she always waited. That way he could fling open the door and see her beaming back at him. He would step just far enough inside that she could pounce on him and risk tumbling them both out the doorway. She forced herself to wear the smile, even though he’d know it was fake. Every time she washed the trail of tear marks from her face, another bead of salt and water would blaze a new trail down her cheeks, ruining her disguise. It felt like she stood there forever, but when it was over it felt like it’d gone by in a blink.
She heard him outside. His truck pulled up and parked quietly. The car door opened and closed. His heavy footsteps thudded over to the door. There was his silhouette, striped by the blinds, looming beneath the porch lights. His voice was muffled but Sarah was listening so hard she could hear it clearly.
Her mouth opened but there was nothing there for her to speak. She was suddenly freezing. She felt hypothermic and she knew the only thing that could save her was on the other side of that door, but she couldn’t move.
She wanted to cry out to him, but her lungs were empty. So empty she felt the urge to look down to make sure they were still there. But she couldn’t. She was paralyzed. She couldn’t take her eyes off his shape, she couldn’t even blink.
He opened the door slowly.
The moment she saw him, she fell to her knees. He did too. But he didn’t see her. He was looking right past her. At nothing.
“Tom!” She was finally able to gasp. She crawled forwards as if weighed down, as if coated in hardening concrete, “Tom!” But he seemed so far away, like the floor was expanding and the kitchen walls were scooting back, widening the space between them. Every inch closer she crawled, a foot further away he became.
“I’m sorry…” He was crying, staring blindly beyond her, shuddering like the earth was quaking beneath him, “I’m so sorry…for all those nights I can’t remember…”
“Baby, it’s okay!”
She was on her belly, clawing herself forwards. The kitchen tile decomposed into a gurgling mush. It was quicksand. She was being sucked backwards, backwards and down, down towards what she didn’t know but it made her struggle all the harder.
“I haven’t touched a drop.” He continued, “I almost did. Tonight, I came close. But I didn’t, baby. I didn’t, Peaches. And I won’t ever. Never again. I wish-”
He crashed violently forward. His fists came slamming down on the tile with such force it was a wonder the flooring didn’t shatter. With his knuckles still boring into the ground, he continued to speak.
“I wish I’d said as much in person.” Tears fell ever so often. Each drop seemed to stabilize the quagmire between them more and more, “I wish…I wish I’d said sorry, that’s what I meant to say…I could see the hurt in your eyes every time I couldn’t remember. I knew it was there. I knew it was there and I never…” He reared up, rocking back to sit on his heels. He was looking forwards again – looking past her, “I changed…but I never gave you the privilege of an apology and now I can’t. You’re gone. Swept out from under me.”
She froze. She stiffened up. She took a good long look at him. His eyes were wild but clear. His face pale, not flushed. His breath was clean, so clean she could taste it. Pine trees. And he was oddly clean cut. His hair was parted and greased down. There was no scruff on his chin. This was strange. Had he ever once shaved since she’d known him?
Sure, he had for his mother’s funeral but-
He was wearing a new suit.
He murmured it. It wasn’t to her. It was to the ether.
She lunged for him. Her eyes were so wide they might never close again. She shot forward. Her arms were spread, her face set to smash into his chest like a cannon ball, but she shot right through. Like he was a ghost, but he wasn’t the ghost.
“Tom!” She screamed.
She tumbled out the kitchen doorway and she would’ve rolled on down the porch steps had a gentle embrace not stopped her. It was the Therapist. And despite sparing her a couple scrapes and bruises, her presence only served to shake Sarah further. Her muscles tensed as the breakers in her brain twitched between fight and flight but then her eyes got caught on the Therapist’s steady gaze. There was that smile – the smile Sarah had doubted. The smile that was neither condescending nor comforting, merely knowing. Knowing the awful truth it now drove home.
The Therapist nodded to the front door, saying, “Go to him.”
Sarah turned from her and got back onto her knees. The kitchen was now shrinking – sort of. The walls were evaporating into blackness. The floor was rushing back to its original size, but in doing so it left a wake of absent darkness. Tom’s prone form was being pulled towards her as the rest of time and space disappeared around them. There was a bit of fear on the fringes of her mind but it was countered by relief – she and Tom were moving closer. While the world disappeared out from underneath them, the lovers remained and came closer and closer together. As she crawled back through the doorway, nothing but darkness supported her. She was half submerged in the dusky murk but not a single shadow fell on her Tom. Soon she knelt before him once more.
“What am I gonna do without you?” He murmured.
She reached a hand up to caress his face. She could feel him, though she knew he couldn’t feel her. She wanted to speak but why? He couldn’t hear.
She saw the Therapist standing behind them, a blur in the background. Initially it infuriated her, but then again it wasn’t the Therapist’s fault. But then again, who the fuck did she think she was?! But then again, considering the situation, she likely was there for a reason.
Sarah didn’t turn away from his face, but she asked the Therapist.
“Will he be okay?”
“He’ll move on, though, right?!”
“Move on?” the Therapist scoffed, “I thought you knew this man?”
Her tongue dried up as Tom began to stir.
“He’ll live a full life,” The Therapist said, “because he won’t forget you.”
Sarah got up with him. He passed through the kitchen. His stride was long and slow. His shoulders were stooped and yet his chest upright. It looked like he’d been propped up by a skewer, one stuck fast in his heart, and it wouldn’t let him down, no matter how much he wished it would. His brow was furled. Wrinkles shot across his forehead like ripples, only to freeze in place as more began to appear. The clean shave was quickly lost. Stubble came and was outgrown in seconds. Dark hairs turned gray and curled out with others to form a beard. As the beard grew, the grayness spread up his sideburns to his scalp.
The Therapist’s voice was a distant echo, “He’ll wear that suit every Sunday and he’ll wait.”
His muscles began to thin, the suit fit him a bit less. Except for around the belly, a little pudge pushed out where there had been nothing before. That helped keep his pants from sagging, though he had to add a new notch to his belt. He had made it to the stairs. The steps took him a while but he had plenty of time. Holding tight to the railing, he made his way up.
“He’ll eat peaches upon peaches, and rack up quite the tab at the dentist, but the bars will have long since forgotten his name.”
As he neared the top of the stairs he hesitated: Sarah was waiting up there. She could see herself, her reflection, in his eyes. She’d aged as well. Her locks were now silver. Her lips a tad thinner. The edges of her eyes were wrinkled, but she couldn’t tell if it was crow’s feet or if it was the broad smile pushing her cheeks up to make her squint. Her shoulders were a bit stooped, just like his. It was almost like looking into a mirror, but as he looked up at her, Sarah could’ve sworn – for the first time since she’d left – that he was looking right at her.
Tears were beginning to bud on the brims of her eyelids and as her smile grew ever broader, they threatened to spill the tears right down her cheeks. She held them in, but this didn’t help. It only served to blind her.
“I’m sorry,” Tom continued, “I spent that nice honeymoon money on my suit, but I think…”
He looked around, though he couldn’t see much either. Though Sarah’s floodgates held, Tom’s had long since spilled over. In the end, he wiped his face with the back of his hand and faced Sarah again with a lopsided smirk.
“…I think we can take one for free, here?”
“Mhm.” It was half sigh, half chuckle.
Sarah flicked her tears away then stepped forward to tend to Tom’s. Then she cupped his jaw and winked the last bit of tears out of her right eye with a smirk, “And you know, here you can get away with a drink.”
“Nah, I don’t want a drink.” Tom smirked back, “I don’t even want to taste water.”
The smirk was growing and Sarah knew where it was headed. She’d seen that smile many times before – though not since she’d left. It always started with Tom trying to stop it – Sarah could feel his jaw muscles clench – but the grin burst free in his eyes and spread across his face. She felt it slip through her fingertips and send a wave of chills running down her arms to rack her body, knocking her off her guard for just long enough to postpone an eyeroll until after he got out whatever dumb quip had popped into his head:
“I came here for peaches.”