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THE LAST EXHALE

3

Brandon Carter

I’m lying in bed.

            The sound of water dripping from a recently shut off shower draws my attention to the woman I married nearly a decade ago.

            I watch her through the cracked bathroom door. Her movements are calculated, methodical. So matter-of-fact. She gathers drenched jet-black coils, squeezes as much water out as she can, smooths them into a ponytail with her hands. Braids up twelve inches of frizz, wraps it around itself until it can’t wrap anymore. Forms a knot at the back of her head. 

            My warm feet find their way from under the covers and hit a cold floor. I wince at the change in temperature as I move to the space to join the love of my life.

            I wrap my arms around her waist, lips touch her naked shoulder. I whisper, “Morning, love.”

            She moves away from my embrace. 

I turn on the faucet, rinse my mouth out with water, then reach for my toothbrush. My eyes watch my wife through the mirror as she brushes down resistant frizz. She sees me looking at her, but deliberately keeps her eyes from making contact. I swish water and toothpaste around in my mouth while debating if I should tell her about our reservations for the night. Maybe things will be different.

            She grabs her body oil, heads into the room. Leaves me in this space alone. Reminds me of how I’ve been feeling in this marriage as of late. Every morning I awake with the hope things will be different. And every morning, I’m hit with the reality that nothing has changed. 

            I put my mental anguish on hold while I hop in the shower. Step under the water headfirst, let the hotness beat against my bald head until I feel my scalp burn.   

            Rene’s shadow reenters the bathroom before she does. Her presence makes the water feel Antarctic. 

I can’t take this anymore. The shower door swings open. I find myself standing on the outside, dripping wet, standing in front of my wife. “What’s happened to you? What’s happened to us?”

            Still avoiding eye contact, she looks down at the bath rug.

            “Enough with the silence, Rene.”

            Her stance is defiant, eyes on mine. 

            More silence.

            We stand.

            We stare.

            “Nothing, Rene? You have nothing to say?”

            Her eyes travel down from mine, give their attention to the area below my chest. She blinks, walks out of the bathroom with not so much as one word, but her look of disgust tells me everything.

            All of a sudden, I become self-conscious. Grab a towel, wrap it around my expanding waistline. I follow behind her. “It’s my weight, isn’t it? I’ve gained a few pounds, I get it. But that doesn’t deserve this.”

            Rene’s lips part, a heavy sigh thrusts out. “Don’t put words in my mouth, Brandon.” She shakes her head and walks down the stairs to the kitchen. 

            My footsteps continue to mirror hers. “You haven’t said much at all lately, so I fill in the blanks where I see fit.”

            She walks over to the sink, looks back at me, stares at me while she rinses out a glass. A lot is written across her face, but I can’t read anything. Can’t break the code. Need Robert Langdon to come in and read her like he did The Da Vinci Code.

            “Tell me something, Rene. Tell me my breath stinks. Tell me I’ve gained weight. Tell me you’re no longer happy. Just tell me something.” 

            She just stands there, looks through me.

Inside the refrigerator is her lunch. I pull out the container of Caesar salad with garlic shrimp on top I made for her last night. Put it in her bag. Do that to gather my thoughts before I lose it and say some things to my wife I’ll never be able to take back. I push her packed lunch to the side and stare at her. “What happened to us, Rene?”

            Lips I haven’t kissed for too long to remember tell me, “Nothing.”

            Her response isn’t enough for me. “Do you still love me?” If she says yes, I’ll fight to make this marriage work. If she says no, I’ll give her hell. Either way, I have work to do.

            She grabs her lunch, says, “Thank you,” and heads for the garage. 

            Still wrapped in nothing but a towel, I watch her get in the car. She lets her eyes dance with mine long enough for me to see a glimpse of light behind them, a hint of a twinkle. It gives me hope for the future.

            For now, my questioning is sufficed. 

~ ~ ~

            The security alarm chirps signaling I’m no longer home alone. Keys hit the countertop with a deafening thud. 

            “How was your day?” My warm lips try to give life to hers.

            She takes off her shoes, carries them upstairs with her. Not in the house a good two minutes and her silence has already spoiled the atmosphere.

            “Your bath water should still be warm. I’ll get your wine,” I yell up after her.

            Sometimes, I wonder who’s the wife in this marriage. Running bath water, fixing lunch, sending out holiday cards, doing the grocery shopping, washing clothes, changing the linen, paying the bills. The list goes on and includes working a full-time job. It hasn’t always been like this. Three out of nine years of marriage is long enough, though.

            Not only is the bathroom door closed, it’s locked. 

            I lightly tap on the door, put my ear against it.

            Nothing.

            I tap again.

            “I’ll be out in a minute,” she says in an exasperated tone.

            “You don’t want your wine?”

            “Said I’ll be out in a minute.”

            Throwing the glass of red wine against the door is very tempting. Very. I take it back downstairs and pour it down the drain instead.           

While I wait on her to come back down, I go ahead and empty out her lunch bag. Put the dishes in the sink. According to the clock on the microwave, we have less than an hour to make our reservations. Doubt we’ll make it. Wish I hadn’t made them after all. No need in trying to prove my love and devotion to the woman whose finger I put a ring on and stood before God and pledged forever to.

            She comes into the kitchen wearing a robe with frayed edges and a hole underneath the arm. An obvious romance killer. Her deep-set brown eyes search for her nightly drink. 

            I tell her, “Poured it out.”

            “Told you I was coming right out.” She reaches up and grabs another glass from the cabinet, pulls the bottle from the fridge and pours her own drink. Takes a sip with closed eyes.  “How was your day?” She shows a little interest in my life.

            “Could’ve been better.”

            Time keeps ticking. No time for small talk. I go ahead and tell her about the reservations.  I already know she’s not going to want to go, her stiff shoulders tell me so.

            “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

            I shake my head. “Oh, no. Don’t try that. You know I’ve been trying to talk to you all day to no avail.”

            “You still could’ve said something.” She takes a smooth sip of her wine, displays her level of control. 

            Obviously, I’m the only one losing my cool at the moment. “Okay, you want to play that game.” I rub a hand across my forehead, wipe away the beads of sweat that have formed in this cold room. “Plus, I wanted to surprise you. But you’re too detached— Hell, I don’t know what you’re detached from. Me? This marriage? Life? I just don’t know anymore.”    

She drinks the rest of her wine. “I’m going to bed.”

            I grab her by the arm when she passes me. “See, this is what I’m talking about. We’re falling apart here and you’re going to bed?”

            Rene slides her arm from my grasp, moves a few feet away.

            I raise my hands in apology. “Didn’t mean to do that.” I’ve got to get myself together.  Mentally and physically, I’ve got to get control.

“What do you want from me?” Her arms folded.

            Wait, was that a hint of emotion in her voice? Maybe all hope is not lost. Maybe she can still feel my love for her. 

            “I want my wife.” I move close to her, pull her close to me. Feel her slowly thawing in my embrace. Doesn’t last longer than a second before she turns back into ice. 

            She pulls away, heads back upstairs. 

            That’s it. I’ve had enough. Every time I think she’s relenting, she shuts me right back out.  I grab my keys off the countertop. “Happy Anniversary,” I yell and slam the door behind me.

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