Tuesday, April 13, 2021

A Trace of Red by Clare Adams

 When she opens her eyes in the morning, he’s still there, sprawled next to her, almost tangible. She doesn’t dare to blink, afraid he’ll disappear into the thin air, like so many times before. She always hopes he’ll seep out of her dream and into this alternate reality she creates in her head. And in it, it’s an ordinary Saturday morning, and they have just woken up together. The room is stuffy with remnants of sleep, just like back then, when they shared it every night.

“Hey,” she says, clearing her throat and lifting her head from the pillow, smudged with the makeup she forgot to take off last night.
“Want some coffee?” she adds when he remains silent, his dark eyes scanning her face. She gets up and sits on the edge of the bed, groping with her feet for her slippers.
“You have to let me go,” he says before she shuffles out of the bedroom, her back stiff and straight.
“I dreamed of you again,” she says, looking at her chipped nail polish as if it contains the secret to life. Or death. Or this thing in between. The coffee machine he bought a week before he died softly purrs and the rich aroma floats through the sunlit kitchen. It’s difficult to keep heart-wrenching hope out of her voice. Every time she wakes up next to him, her mind is split between a shaky pretense at normality on one side, and the underlying fear this would be the last time she sees him, on the other.
“So that’s what’s keeping me here,” he says. His voice is indistinct barely audible, just a shadow of the vocal timbre she knows and loves.
“Where would you go, anyway?” she says off-handedly, giving him a slight smile.
He reaches out to her smeared cheek and lets his fingers hover a fraction of an inch above her skin. She's quiet underneath this almost-touch, determined to take what she can. She wishes she could brush his hair away from the wound on his temple, a splotch of red on his pale skin, the last thing his body remembers.
This is the moment I want to live in, she thinks. When she closes her eyes, she sees their life together stretching ahead of them like a shimmering wave they can ride on forever if they just lock their hands and never let go. Stay, she beseeches him in her mind. I want to keep you and hide you from the world and time.
Going out to run errands feels too risky, so she keeps postponing it until it becomes inevitable. What if this is the last time she sees him? What if this is the inevitable full stop at the end of the sentence they have been weaving together ever since they met, the sentence that ended so abruptly? When she closes the door behind her back, she runs down the stairs to prevent herself from going back in to check if he’s still there.
She finds him where she left him when she comes back home with bags loaded with groceries. The way his eyes go wide when he sees his favorite cereal brand, the way he licks his lips as if he could taste it, brings her to tears. She cooks vegetable soup with noodles he loved so much, and he watches her eat, stating that’s enough.
They don’t discuss what happened that night. They don’t discuss what-ifs. What if she hadn’t left him alone that weekend and gone to visit her mother? What if he liked her mother enough to go with her? What if with his best friend hadn’t started a bar crawl with armed thugs? It’s pointless. She knows a harmless accident can turn into a tragedy in a blink of an eye. But sometimes she feels like she died with him that night.
“I can’t imagine a nicer boy,” her mother says. She’s perched on the kitchen chair, sipping her coffee with an absent-minded indifference. Behind her back, he’s frowning. His death didn’t fix their relationship. She sometimes wonders if her mother believes he’s responsible for getting himself killed. “Works in a bank. Recently divorced. His mother and I are in the same book club. He’d be perfect for you.”
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear, he hums to himself, his long face crumpled in a frown.
“Mom. It’s too early. I’m not looking for anyone right now.”
Her mother’s bright lipstick is settled into the creases of her lips.
“I’m just saying. It’s a tragedy, but it’s been a year. He’s gone, darling. He’s not coming back.”
My grief, my rules, she wants to say. Her smile is vague and fails to reassure her mother.
“I hate it when I have to agree with your mother,” he says, looking at her with new determination. She’s always loved his stubborn mouth, but right now, she wishes she could slap him.
“So I should go for the banker guy? Is that what you’re saying? It’s so nice to have your blessing!”
She’s scrubbing off the lipstick stains from the rim of the mug with unnecessary force. The porcelain is old and stained, and she lets it slip out of her hands, hoping it would shatter and break his silence.
“You don’t need my blessing,” says the ghost of his voice.
She turns to look at him, indignant, on the verge of tears.
“I don’t know how to do it.” Her words are sharp, colored by fear. “I don’t know how to be without you. I miss you. I miss us. What’s the point of anything if you’re not there to share it with me?”
There’s so much sadness in his eyes she can’t bear to look at him.
“I’ll always be a shadow in your purest delights and all your scars. You’ll never be free of me, even if you want it; even if you go for that banker guy,” he says, and she chokes on a sob and presses her palm to her quivering lips. “I have no other home now. Just you.”
Hugging him feels like hugging a cloud, and even if her heart trembles with fear and resignation, underneath it all there’s a sliver of hope. He shares her pillow that night, holding her hand until she falls asleep, and even though she can’t feel his touch, she knows he’s there.
When she opens her eyes in the morning, his side of the bed is empty and undisturbed. She runs her fingers over the cold sheets before she gets up and shuffles into the bathroom, yawning and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She’s all alone in the silent apartment and she takes a moment to taste this new state of being unalarmed, unafraid, of being at peace. There’s a faint trace of red on her temple and she touches it lightly. It’s there to remind her that a love larger than life leaves permanent scars, but you love them, too, since they make you who you are. It’s there to remind her he’ll always be with her.

© Clare Adams

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