by Gina Troisi
“I think we should separate,” Maggie tells Sam. In the living room, her tank top reveals her muscular arms, her shoulders still golden from their getaway to Key West last month. “I’m sorry,” she says, her cheeks flushed. “It’s the only thing to do. The only answer.” She blinks, pausing in between words, her voice uneven, as if she has lost the strength to articulate the way she’s rehearsed.
Sam fixes his eyes on the fire he started when he arrived home from work; the yellow flame from one log catching the next, the reds and oranges blazing. Beyond the bay window, thick snowflakes drop against blue dusk. He focuses on the mantle above the flames, Pete’s senior photo taken five months ago, just before the accident, his smile wide, his shirt a blue collared button down Maggie had insisted on buying for both him and Sam the week before. Another picture: the three of them sitting in the sand, shoulders scrunched together, a family photo taken at a beach house on Cape Cod two summers ago.
“Don’t I get a say?” He looks back at Maggie. His feet and legs are warm, the heat rising up through his torso. His sweater feels too small, his breathing constricted, his throat tight. Maggie turns her gaze from the floor and stares through him. He sinks back into the sofa as if suctioned to it, his palms sweaty, bottle of beer slipping from his hand. Dread: he knows it well. He’d known it as a child of the seventies, when his mother, after a bout with depression, had landed in the psych ward to receive electric shock treatments that were “sure to cure her.” He’d known it the day of the Boston Marathon bombing three years ago, when his best friend Malcolm was running, and the TV flashed with the news of people getting blasted at the finish line. And he’d known it when Maggie woke him in the middle of the night, screaming that Pete had been in an accident, her words jumbled, half entering his dreams, bits of sentences like car and crash and Thomas and Pete; it had been surreal—someone else’s wife in agony over someone else’s kid, his sleep jarred by the words: We have to go. Now.
But, with Maggie, he’d thought things had gotten better, especially since their recent trip to Key West. Yes, their lives were irreparably different since losing Pete, but eventually, after weeks and months of being shattered and inconsolable, they’d been back in bed together a handful of times, taken the time to go to dinner, splurged on filets and fifteen dollar shots of tequila; they’d been trying to get to know one another again. Having been ripped open by loss, they’d broken into unchartered territory, waded through the kind of terrain that brings you closer in unexpected ways, the way soldiers on battlegrounds must feel; they return home, and the usual moments of pouring coffee from the pot, or getting into the shower are accompanied by a mutual understanding of a void that runs so deep, most people seldom come to grips with it.
Still, there were instances that had him on edge. Like her new habit of spending Sundays—a day she and Sam had always saved for one another (and Pete)—with her cousins or friends, running off to brunches or dinners, pecking Sam on the cheek on her way out the door. And there was the day Sam arrived home from work after his usual pit stop at Daniel’s for happy hour with the guys, when he’d found Maggie upstairs, sitting on the checkered comforter in Pete’s room, the pillow tucked neatly under the spread. He sat down next to her on the twin bed, grazing her skin with his fingers, glancing at the posters of Tom Brady on the walls, the video game controllers on the floor where Pete had left them, an unopened can of Rockstar on the dresser. He wrapped his hand around her thigh. “What are you doing up here?”
“Just resting,” Maggie said, her face morphing into a frown, dark circles underneath her eyes. “I’m so tired.”
“I know, hon.” He leaned toward her and touched her hair, the top of her head. Maggie stretched her neck to each side, her joints making a cracking sound. “I need you to tell me the truth about something.” She looked at him with intent, her green eyes swallowing him. “Do you think I did this to him? Made him run wild because I was so overprotective?”
“Of course not. This was beyond your, beyond anyone’s control.”
It was time to tell her all of it. To unburden himself of the weight he’d been lugging around for months, since his son’s body turned up in a mess of autumn leaves, the car flipped onto its side—since sirens and blue lights transitioned into long, unbearable winter days.
“I felt like I couldn’t help myself sometimes. And now look.” Maggie turns her palms upward, toward shelves lined with trophies, the room’s black ceiling covered with stickers shaped like moons and stars and planets. Pete had placed the stickers there when he was in junior high. When he had first called Sam and Maggie into the dark room to show them the glowing solar system, it seemed magnificent, a domain out of a storybook, but now in the light of day, the stickers looked cheap, peeling and cracked, like shreds of something that used to hold a hint of possibility, its potential now fully out of reach.
“Maybe we should start thinking about what to do, Maggie. Maybe Thomas would want some of this…stuff.” He’d known it was the wrong thing to say as soon as he said it.
Maggie, her eyes watering, looked down at his hand as if it were a stray animal clutching her skin. She peeled it from her thigh, flung it onto his lap. “Are you keeping track, Sam? Are you counting the days?” Her voice sailed through the room, its volume foreign, the high pitch escaping from her small body. In that moment, her top lip trembling, she became unrecognizable to him.
“I was only trying to help, Maggie. To move forward. I’m sorry. It was a stupid thought.” Sam’s throat sank into his stomach. What he really wanted to say he was sorry for was the secret he’d been keeping for months, the one he was afraid would prevent him from ever moving on. The one where he failed to mention that a week before the crash, he’d found bottles in Pete’s car—empty cans of beer and nips of gin, a bag of pot in the glove box—for his handling the situation by saying: “We won’t tell your mother. But you better get your act together.” He’d gone to work that day as if it were like all the others, put on his hard hat and let the bucket lift him up into the wind, concentrated on fixing the power lines.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. But it was too late to take any of it back.
“You’re trying to help? I can’t believe you,” Maggie said. “Just leave me alone. Please.” Her voice lowered, each syllable like a jab to Sam’s gut. She kicked off her crocs and climbed into bed, pulling the sheets and comforter up to her neck, her body cocooned in Pete’s covers, her hair sprawled across his pillow like a broken hearted school girl’s, and closed her eyes.
The living room steadies itself, Maggie’s words lingering: I think we should separate. Sam focuses on the brick of the fireplace, the yellow of the tulips on the mantle. He had held an idealistic hope that Key West would repair their rift, dissolve their regrets, but this year, the first after Pete’s accident, has been different than any that have come before, and they stumbled through New Year’s into the dead of winter like two blind soldiers trying not to take or let one another down.
“Where do you expect me to go?” He looks into their cozy kitchen with the booth and café style table and place settings for three. He looks at Maggie, with her brunette hair in waves that cascade onto her chest, the crook of her collarbone, where it meets her slender neck, a neck he has buried his face in for so many nights that have culminated into months and years, her hands in the pockets of her jeans, waiting.
“I’m sure you can stay with Malcolm. At least for now.”
For now. Sam knows what a separation means—the time when couples fool themselves into thinking that they have both wanted this, that they might not eventually end up divorced, and even if they do, they will still share dinners and change one another’s tires, and stand side-by-side cheering for their children at games. But what does Maggie need him for anyway? She has her job at the hospital, her friends at the gym, her trips to Phoenix to visit her sister and brother-in-law; she is surrounded by people who, despite his trying, seem to offer her a type of solace she can no longer find in Sam. Their life together is compiled of memories that can never be recaptured, fragments tracing back to all they have lost. No, Sam decides. She doesn’t need him at all.
When he gets to Daniel’s Tavern, Sam is surprised to find Dick still there, although all the other afternoon regulars have gone. Jamie is wiping the bar while the two of them chat. Her long red braid falls to one side. It’s almost seven. Most days, Sam finishes a job by quarter past three, heads back to the office where he scrubs his hands and changes his boots, and drives straight here. By then, Tommy is done with his phone calls to the Japanese IT department, Dave has finished his plowing or golf lessons for the day, and Dick is out of chemo with his Miller Lite in hand. Sam kicks back a few pops before his self-imposed shut off time at five. Then he’s out the door and headed home to Maggie.
Daniel’s is filled with dining couples raising glasses and biting into rolls smothered with butter. Sam plops himself onto a stool at the corner of the L-shaped bar and searches his pocket for the napkin wrapped around a single cigarette. “Hey there, Sammy.” Dick squints, surprised to see him. “You’re back.” Sam scans the plate in front of Dick, the white bread dripping with mayonnaise, the pickle spear and fries. He’s using a foam sleeve to keep his bottle of beer extra cold, his own personal koozie that says Why limit happy to just one hour?
Jamie stands behind the bar. “What are you having, Sam? A Jack?” She must see the puffiness of his lids, the swelling around his bloodshot eyes.
“Just a Bud please, young lady.”
Jamie opens the cooler and reaches her hand in, twists the bottle cap, places the beer in front of him.
“What’d Maggie go out?” Dick asks.
Sam sips the fizzy brew; he swallows in large gulps. “How’s dinner? Tuna again?” Dick wears a short-sleeved t-shirt despite the bitter cold outside, the snow falling. As he lifts the sandwich to his mouth, Sam sees the chafe on his forearm, the red raised bumps. Patches of dandruff spread across his skin.
Dick laughs, and points to a spot on the inside of his arm, to the vein where they inject the needle for his treatments. “Yeah, I figure there isn’t enough poison running through my bloodstream. Thought I’d have myself a mercury sandwich, too. Want some fries?”
Sam shakes his head. “How’s treatment going?”
“Not too bad. It’s mostly sitting there that gets to me. Too much time to think. And no windows.” From the other guys, Sam has heard that Dick is in good hands—that the chairs recline, and the nurses are pleasant, giving out popsicles and speaking in sweet voices as they come in and out. That you can bring friends, family, whoever you want.
In the corner of the restaurant, a local musician is set up on the small stage. He strums on his guitar, breaking into Tom Petty’s “Yer So Bad,” a song Sam knows all the words to. Jamie, who is in law school, chills a martini glass, shaking the vodka, straining the booze from the ice. She can’t be more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and she has that hopefulness that borders on innocence, but at the same time she is grown up, knows what she wants, and how to get it. He remembers Maggie at that age, the way, despite her heartbreak as they tried again and again to conceive Pete, she strived to maintain the belief that he’d arrive. When he finally did, when she held him and fed him and sang to him, it was as if that glimmer of faith that had been fighting to get to the surface became a meteor that flashed against dark sky. But not me baby, I’ve got you to save me, the singer continues.
Back then, they’d shared all the details of their lives. Sam read ER stories written by nurses so he could understand more about her work days, stole lilacs, her favorite flowers, from people’s yards in spring, surprising her after walks around the neighborhood. He had paid attention. He told her small lies, but they were always inconsequential, unlike the secret he was harboring now. He kept things from her in order to protect her, like when she was pregnant, and they’d bought and began fixing up their house; he’d wanted to begin painting, so he made a list of supplies they didn’t actually need in order to keep her driving around, away from the fumes. He’d minimize the number of cigarettes he was smoking, hiding cartons and packs to alleviate her worry. But this last secret, this omission of truth had its own, unimaginable repercussions—like a quick skid past a stop sign, he’d turned a corner and changed lives and hearts in an instant. Best thing I ever had/In a world gone mad.
He finishes his beer and pushes the bottle toward Jamie. She chucks it, and places another Bud in front of him without asking. He shoots the shit, listens to Dick’s story about his son out in California, who just landed himself a promotion at his advertising agency. When they’ve bantered about their hope that the upcoming storm is the last for the year, and Dick has agreed to show him some golf pointers when the weather turns, they sit in silence. Dick drinks the last of his beer. “This should be my last one, but then, I never have been too good at depriving myself.”
“I hear ya.” Sam slides his hand into his pocket, fingers the smooth paper of the cigarette. He had quit for six months before the guilt began biting away at his insides, threatening to overtake him. Didn’t even give in back in October, when Pete died. Now, he’s been indulging in one or two a day, smoking one in the morning on his way to work, the other at night. “Look, I know I’ve been saying this for a while, Dick, but I do want to go with you one of these times. To the hospital. No reason I can’t take a personal day.”
“One more please, Jame, and my tab,” Dick calls to Jamie. He turns to Sam. “No, no Sam, you gotta work. No need to babysit me in that sterile room. You know I don’t believe in that ‘misery loves company’ bullshit. I’m fine, bud. Just a little bored, that’s all.” Dick takes a swig from the fresh beer.
Sam stares at the pile of coasters in front of him, the taps that pour local beers into fancy, fat glasses, the ketchup bottles like miniature soldiers. He realizes he’s thought only of himself—his pain more prominent than anyone else’s, hoping Maggie will look at him the way she did so many years back, her smile spreading out to the corners of her eyes, nudging him when she heard something funny, playfully hitting his behind when he stood on a ladder or did work around the house. Since the accident, he’s been hanging on like a hiker dangling from the top of a mountain, about to lose everything, but without saying a goddamn word.
Are you keeping track, Sam? Counting the days? How could Maggie accuse him of this? He still smelled the scent of Pete in that room, the sweat of his gym shorts mixed with cologne; he guessed this was part of what Maggie coveted, of what she didn’t want to dissipate, but it wasn’t comforting for him the way he imagined it was for her. It was just the opposite—a potent reminder of their devastation, of the fact that their son was never coming home again. These remnants of Pete seemed to interrogate him about the kind of father he’d been—if he’d been too hard in ways, or too silent, believing Pete would find his own way—that Sam couldn’t possibly teach him any lesson he wouldn’t end up learning on his own. That room and all Pete’s possessions served as a reminder of his own mistake, an unforgivable act far beyond the mistakes he imagined he’d make during his lifetime. If he could no longer have Pete in the flesh, his son with his light laugh and easy smile, his irritating habit of clearing his throat, then he sure didn’t want his ghost.
Sam wants to press his forehead against the surface of the bar, smoke ten cigarettes, scream until the whole place goes silent. “I should’ve been there already, Dick. That’s the truth.” His voice, too loud, jars him, the words whirling by as if spoken by a stranger.
He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out crumpled bills, unfolds them on top of the bar. “Relax buddy.” Dick gives the back of his neck a squeeze. “I got this.” Dick places two crisp twenty dollar bills in front of Sam. Sam looks at Dick who’s looking at Jamie who’s looking back at Sam. “Put Sam’s on mine please, hon.” He turns toward Sam: “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. Just a bad day. I didn’t mean to get so riled up.”
“How’s Maggie holding up? She still nice and tan?”
“Yeah. Yeah, she is,” he says, forcing a half smile.
“Don’t sweat it, Sammy, please. You shouldn’t be feeling bad about anything right now. God knows you’ve been through enough.”
Sam wakes up on the couch, his mouth dry, his throat scratchy, the sour taste of bile burning his gums. His tongue feels swollen. He remembers snippets of what he suspects happened: Jamie taking his keys, Dick dropping him off in the driveway. He guesses he stumbled into the house, landed on the furniture and passed out, since he’s still fully dressed. He peels himself up from the sofa, his head pounding into the base of his neck, otherwise stiff except for the pulse of worry. He goes into the kitchen, peers out the front curtains at the empty driveway. Maggie’s already gone, and he fumbles to find his cell phone. He has three texts from Maggie, and one from Dick.
I really am sorry; I hope you’re okay; Extra eggs on the stove if you want some.
Hope you got some rest, Sammy. Let me know if you need a ride to your car.
Sam sits on the doorstep and looks toward the water, at the condos by the docks constructed from old corn and flour mills, the streets lined with gift shops, the stench of fish processing plants mixed with the toasty smell of new breweries. It’s Wednesday, Maggie’s day off. She’s downtown playing racquetball at the gym. As much as he hopes to leave before she gets home, he’d also like to see her before he goes. One last glimpse of her, of the shape of her mouth before he tells her. He remembers an interview he once heard where a psychologist explained the repercussions of betrayals in marriages. The expert insisted that confessing to your loved one is the more selfish thing to do, that the guilty partner confesses to make himself feel better, rather than the other person. And Sam knows that once she finds out, she might never forgive him—might never send him a kind text, or laugh at one of his jokes, or pull him close to her again. But all he can picture is Maggie shuffling across the brightly lit court in her headband, smacking the ball against the glass with force, watching it ricochet from the corners and ceiling, still blaming herself.
He knows that in all the ways he misses his son—their playing softball in the backyard and laughing at comedy skits on TV, their woofing down dinners and high fiving one another at Patriots passes—he will never be able to enter Maggie’s pain, to crawl and sift around in it, to let it thrash and cradle and remake him. He’ll never know what it is like to grow a body inside of his own, to mesh cells and share blood, and breath, and to release the life into the world with the notion of certainty that it will survive far after he is gone.
It has started to snow again. He reaches into his pocket, and finds a pack of Marlboros. The box itself is crumpled, but the cigarettes are intact, and he moves the pack underneath his nose, takes a whiff of tobacco. He exhales, his eyes following his breath through the cold air, and pulls one from the pack. The driveway has been plowed, but he can see footprints in the white dusty pavement. Sam brings the cigarette to his lips and lights it, shielding it from the wind. The wet flakes on his eyelashes drip down, the cold a relief. He looks at his watch: eight-thirty. If he starts out soon, he’ll be able to make it there before she heads into the locker room, or out for coffee.
When he’s finished smoking, he begins shoveling the walkway, his scarf flung behind him as he heaves the snow toward the lawn, sweat running down his back. He digs into the white powder, letting it spray into his face as he scoops. When he’s finished, he slings his duffel bag over his shoulder and makes his way down the driveway, his hood covering his head, walking into white.
Gina Troisi holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program. Her debut memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, won First Place for the 2021 Royal Dragonfly Book Award for Memoir, and received a 2021 Silver Medal for the Readers’ Favorite Awards. Her stories and essays have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, Fugue, Under the Sun, and others. Her pieces have been recognized as finalists in multiple contests, including the 2020 Iron Horse Literary Review Trifecta Award in Fiction, American Literary Review’s Nonfiction Contest, 2018, the 2018 New Letters Publication Award in Fiction, and others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020.