A man and his wife site at an old wooden bar, hidden carefully away under blankets of farmland. They speak softly at first.
“Is the car pulled around back?” She knows it is, but asking is to her what smoking is to him. Habitual. Deadly.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, “why don’t you just ride with me?”
“Not here,” she snaps in a sharply whittled whisper, then softly again, “not with the kids.” His hand tenses around his bottle, his knuckles matching the bubbly white foam.
“They’re young, even if anything happened, they wouldn’t know,” he pauses, taking a large, confident sip of his beer, “besides it’s not like I’m not careful. Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you, I just don’t understand you. Why can’t you just talk to your-”
He cuts her off, his voice low. Dangerous, “You think I haven’t tried, Jesus Christ Annie, you act like I don’t have any horses in this race.”
She looks down awkwardly at her shoes. They’re obviously worn, with once white laces now a murky brown. She only wears them around him, but suddenly she feels the urge to hide them under her footrest. I understand it’s hard for you, but it’s been 7 years. It’s not like you don’t know where they live.”
His eyes widen, his face grows red, “that’s real f***ing easy for you to say.”
He’s right. She knows it. She breathes heavily, urging herself to count the way their counselor suggested.
Across the bar, there’s a cheer. A crowd is circling around the TV, watching some game that has damn near all of Michigan glued to their screens.
She waves her hand at the bartender, choosing thirst over politeness. “Corona, no lime.” He notices that she forgot to say please. Her manners usually hold her tongue at gunpoint, but lately it seems she forgets more than remembers. When they first started dating, he had to beg her to not say it after every other word. It was cute. It was something he loved about her.
He smiles faintly; it’s funny the things you can notice. She smiles back at him, finally locking eyes again. For a moment, she considers dropping it. Considers grabbing his hand and pulling him to the TV; considers drinking him in instead of another beer.
Something inside her can’t let it go, though, even after all this time. Thinking of his car in the back lot, befriending rural dumpsters, of five-hour car rides alone with the kids, of Corey waiting around for a letter, a phone call, an anything from him.
Before the kids she was confused; she was without the knowledge of these sorts of things. But now, she’s angry. No, furious. More than anything else though, she is terrified.
“I just don’t know why you can’t consider it.” His smile falls instantly. Cheers echo from across the room, but to her, it wasn’t nearly as deafening as his silence. She tried to meet his eyes, but they were locked onto the falling leaves swirling outside the window.
There was a time when she would have found the sight beautiful. There was a time with him that everything else seemed ugly in comparison. They watch quietly for a moment. She wonders if he too feels sad when a leaf hits the ground and doesn’t get swept back up again.
After a while, he returns, sighing as he stared down into his drink. “You know what he thinks of me. What she tells him. This would only prove her right.”
“I’m sure he loves you, Tim.” She contemplates putting a hand on his shoulder, but shivers at the thought of contact.
“You don’t know that. Especially not after all of this mess,” he motions to the back exit. To the car, hidden from street view.
“Why do you keep coming back here, then? If you’re not going to accept the offer or reach out him, why come back? We could all drive together without worrying about getting pulled over. Without worrying about our kids having to see their father put into the back of a squad car because we can’t afford to keep paying them.”
She made sense. He knew it. But yet he found himself shaking his head with every word she said. “He’s my blood, Ann. I can’t just give up on him like this.”
“He’s not your anything, Tim, not when you treat him like this. He’s a person, dammit,” she looked up at him, her anger flaring when she saw him unfazed. So she hits him where it hurts, “It’s not like you make any effort, if anything he deserves him way more than you do.”
He shifts in his seat, trying to keep his anger tied down. “It’s harder than that and you-”
“What’s hard about it? Huh? You tell me! Because if I were you-”
“If I were you I would fight my f***ing ass off for him. To show that I deserve him. Or I would take the offer. Regardless I wouldn’t be sitting here with my head up my ass moping around doing nothing about anything. And I certainly wouldn’t be playing hide n seek with the police because I can’t care enough to even pay my-” She stops, her veins still decorating her neck like long, intricate jewelry.
The bar is silent.
Her face flushes with embarrassment as his eyes glass over with an emotion she’s never seen in him. Slowly the bar refills with noise. The power of her unyielding gaze on him proves too much. He looks down at his wedding ring, twirling it around until the skin beneath it ached.
Quietly, with immense vulnerability, he speaks, “If I take their offer, I lose any last chances I could have with him.” The pain of this crashes down on her as it would anyone in such a stage of life. She can never fully fill his shoes, she never wants to, but she also knows that if she did, her footsteps would be much larger.
“If you don’t take it, and keep living the way you do, he loses any chances he has left for closure. For peace. You can take their offer and stop hiding from him, from the police, from our children. Or you can turn it down and actually try to fight for him, but I can’t sit here and watch the in-between anymore. I can’t watch you take away Corey’s happiness to save your own pride.” She pauses, her throat getting squeezed tightly by impending tears.
“Tim, I’m scared. For him, for the kids, for everyone; I’m scared.”
He places his hand on top of hers, their eyes both filling with tears. He nods and abruptly stands, grabbing his coat and keys. “He’s not mine. He hasn’t been for years. Hell, I can’t even afford the idea of him anymore.”
He walks towards the back door. “I’ll be back in time to tuck the kids in. I’ll be back for them.”
As she watches him leave, she knows that tonight a large part of his heart is going to be ripped away from him. She also knows that the threads that are holding it in are weak; she takes comfort in the fact that it will be quick and painless. That the new man it will reside in will use it right. Will treat Corey right.
She orders another beer and realizes that among the myriad of emotions running through her brain that fear is nowhere to be found. It’ll be nice to finally park the cars out front. It’ll be nice, she decides, staring once again out the window, to find the beauty in fallen leaves.