She’d been standing in this exact spot that last night when Ethan came home late from work.
Hadn’t heard the front door close.
Hadn’t heard his footsteps.
She’d been scrubbing a skillet when she felt his hands encircle her waist, his breath on the back of her neck.
She keeps scrubbing, says, “Seven o’clock, eight. That’s late. It’s ten thirty, Ethan. I don’t even know what to call this.”
“How’s our little man?”
“Fell asleep in the living room, waiting to show you his trophy.”
She hates how just the presence of his hands on her body can disarm her anger in a millisecond. She’s felt a blinding attraction to him from the first time she spotted him across the bar in Tini Bigs. Unfair advantage.
“I have to fly to Boise first thing in the morning,” he says into her ear.
“His birthday’s Saturday, Ethan. He turns six only once in his life.”
“I know. And I hate it. But I have to go.”
“You know what it’s gonna do to him, you not being here? How many times he’s going to ask me why you aren’t—”
“I get it, Theresa, all right? You think this hurts you more than it hurts me?”
She pushes his hands off her hips and turns around to face him.
Asks, “Does this new assignment have anything to do with trying to find her?”
“I’m not gonna do this right now, Theresa. I have to be up in five hours to catch my flight. I haven’t even packed.”
He gets halfway out of the kitchen before stopping and turning back around.
For a moment, they just hold each other’s stare, the breakfast table between them and on it the plate of cold food that will be the last meal Ethan eats under this roof.
“You know,” he says, “it’s over. We’ve moved on. But you don’t act like anything has—”
“I’m just tired of it, Ethan.”
“You work, and you work, and you work, and what’s left for us? The dregs.”
He doesn’t respond, but she can see the muscles in his jaw quiver.
Even this late at night, after a fifteen-hour day, he looks amazing, standing under the track lighting in that black suit she never gets tired of seeing him wear.
Already, her anger is ebbing.
A part of her needing to go to him, to be with him.
He has such a hold on her.
Some kind of magic in it.
She comes to him across the kitchen, and he wraps his arms around her, buries his nose in her hair. He does this often, trying as of late to recapture that first-encounter smell—some mix of perfume and conditioner and core essence that once made his heart trip over itself. But it’s either changed now, been lost, or become such an integral part of him that he can no longer detect the scent, which, when he could, always carried him back to those first days. More defining even than her short blonde hair and green eyes. A feeling of newness. A fresh turn. Like a sharp October afternoon and the sky blue and bright and the Cascades and Olympics holding fresh snow and the trees in the city just beginning to turn.
He embraces her.
The sting and the shame of all he’s put her through are still raw. He can’t say for certain, but he suspects that if she’d done the same to him, he’d already be gone. Marvels at her love for him. Her loyalty. So far beyond anything he deserves, it only intensifies the shame.
“I’m gonna go look in on him,” Ethan whispers.
“When I come back down, you’ll sit with me while I eat?”
He drapes his coat over the banister, slips out of his black shoes, and pads up the stairs, skipping over the squeaky fifth step.
There are no bad floorboards the rest of the way, and soon he’s standing in the threshold of the bedroom, easing the door open until a splinter of light has carved through the space between the door and the jamb.
For Ben’s fifth birthday, they painted the walls to reflect space: Blackness. Stars. The swirl of distant galaxies. Planets. The occasional deep-space satellite or rocket. An astronaut drifting.
His son sleeps in a tangle of blankets, a small trophy clutched in his hands—a golden, plastic boy kicking a soccer ball.
Ethan moves quietly across the floor, dodging stray LEGO pieces and Hot Wheels.
Crouches down beside the bed.
His eyes have adjusted to the darkness just well enough to draw out the details of Benjamin’s face.
They’re shut, but he has his mother’s almond eyes.
There is a tactile ache, kneeling here in the dark by the bed of his soon-to-be-six-year-old son in the wake of another day he’s missed completely.
His boy is the most perfect and beautiful thing he’s ever laid eyes on, and he feels, acutely, the inexorable passing of a thousand moments with this little person who will be a man sooner than he can possibly imagine.
He touches Ben’s cheek with the back of his hand.
Leans forward, kisses the boy’s forehead.
Brushes a wisp of hair back behind his ear.
“I’m so proud of you,” he whispers. “You can’t even imagine.”
Last year, the morning of the day he died in a nursing home, wasted from age and pneumonia, his father asked Ethan in a raspy voice, “You spend time with your son?”
“Much as I can,” he’d answered, but his father had caught the lie in his eyes.
“It’ll be your loss, Ethan. Day’ll come, when he’s grown and it’s too late, that you’d give a kingdom to go back and spend a single hour with your son as a boy. To hold him. Read a book to him. Throw a ball with a person in whose eyes you can do no wrong. He doesn’t see your failings yet. He looks at you with pure love and it won’t last, so you revel in it while it’s here.”
Ethan thinks often of that conversation, mostly when he’s lying awake in bed at night and everyone else is asleep, and his life screaming past at the speed of light—the weight of bills and the future and his prior failings and all these moments he’s missing—all the lost joy—perched like a boulder on his chest.
“Can you hear me? Ethan?”
Sometimes he feels like he can’t breathe.
Sometimes his thoughts come so fast he has to find one perfect memory.
Cling to it.
A life raft.
“Ethan, I want you to grab hold of my voice and let it bring you to the surface of consciousness.”