Dear Wife

Dear Wife by Kimberly Belle


BETH

I hit my blinker and merge onto the Muskogee Turnpike, and for the first time in seven long years, I take a breath. A real, full-body breath that blows up my lungs like a beach ball. So much breath that it burns.

It tastes like freedom.

Four hours on the road, two hundred and eighty-three miles of space between us, and it’s nowhere near enough. I still hear the clink of your keys when you toss them on the table, still tense at the thud of your shoes when you come closer to the kitchen. Still feel the fear slithering, snake-like, just under the surface of my skin.

You have three moods lately: offensive, enraged or violent. That moment when you come around that corner and I see which one it is always inches bile up my throat. It’s the worst part of my day.

I tell myself, no more. No more tiptoeing around your temper, no more dodging your blows.

Those days, like Arkansas, are in my rearview mirror.

For early afternoon on a Wednesday, the highway is busy, dusty semis rumbling by on both sides, and I hold my hands at ten and two and keep the tires between the lines.

Oklahoma is crisscrossed with turnpikes like this one, four-lane highways dotted with cameras for speeding and toll violations. It’s too soon still for one of them to be clocking every black sedan with Arkansas plates that whizzes by, but I’m also not giving them any reason to. I use my blinkers and hold my speed well under the limit, even though what I’d really like to do is haul ass.

I hit the button for the windows, letting the highway air wash away the smell of you, of home. At sixty-four miles an hour, the wind is brutal, hot and steamy and oppressive. It reeks of pasture and exhaust, of nature and chemicals, none of it pleasant. It whips up a whirlwind in the car, blowing my hair and my clothes and the map on the passenger’s seat, rocking it in the air like a paper plane. I reach down, shimmy out of a shoe and smack it to the seat as a paperweight. You’re serious about holding on to me, which means I need to hold on to that map.

It may be old-school, but at least a map can’t be traced. Not that you’d have already discovered the number for the burner phone charging in the cup holder, but still. Better to not take any chances. I took the phone out of the package but haven’t powered it up—not yet. Not until I get where I’m going. I haven’t made it this far into my new life only to be hauled back into the old one.

So far, this state looks exactly like the one I left behind—fields and farms and endless belts of faded asphalt. Sounds the same, too. Local radio stations offer one of two choices, country music or preachers. I listen to a deep voice glorifying the power of forgiveness, but it’s a subject I can no longer get behind. I toggle up the dial, stopping on a Miranda Lambert anthem that’s much more my speed these days—gunpowder and lead—and give a hard twist to the volume dial.

For the record, I never wanted this. Running away. Leaving everything and everyone behind. I try not to think about all the things I’ll miss, all the faces I’ll miss, even if they won’t miss mine. Part of the planning was putting some space between me and people I love most, not letting them in on the truth. It’s the one thing I can’t blame you for—the way I drove a wedge into those friendships all by myself so you wouldn’t go after them, too. There’s only one person who knows I’m gone, and everyone else... It’ll be days, maybe weeks until they wonder where I am.

You’re smart, so I have to be smarter. Cunning, so I have to be more cunning. Not exactly a skill I possessed when we walked down the aisle all those years ago, when I was so squishy in love. I looked into those eyes of yours and promised till death would we part, and I meant every word. Divorce was never an option—until it was.

But the first time I mentioned the word, you shoved me to the floor, jammed a gun into my mouth and dared me to say it again. Divorce. Divorce divorce divorce divorce. I never said the word out loud again, though I will admit it’s been an awful lot on my mind.

I picture you walking through the door at home, looking for me. I see you going from room to room, hollering and cursing and finally, calling my cell. I see you following its muffled rings into the kitchen, scowling when you realize they’re coming from the cabinet under the sink. I see you wrenching open the doors and dumping out the trash and digging through sludgy coffee grounds and the remains of last night’s stir-fry until you find my old iPhone, and I smile. I smile so damn hard my cheeks try to tear in two.

I wasn’t always this vindictive, but you weren’t always this mean. When we met, you were charming, warming up my car on cold mornings or grilling up the most perfect strip steak for my birthday. You can still be sweet and charming when you want to be. You’re like the cocaine they slip the dogs that patrol the cars at the border; you gave me just enough of what I craved to keep me searching for more. That’s part of what took me so long to leave. The other part was the gun.

So no, I didn’t want to do this, but I did plan for it. Oh, how I planned for this day.

My first day of freedom.



JEFFREY

When I pull into the driveway after four days on the road, I spot three things all at once.

First, the garbage bins are helter-skelter in front of the garage door two days after pickup, rather than where they belong, lined up neatly along the inside right wall. The living room curtains are drawn against the last of the afternoon light, which means they’ve probably been like that since last night, or maybe all the nights I’ve been gone. And despite the low-lying sun, the porch lights are on—correction: one of them is on. The left-side bulb is dead, its glass smoky and dark, making it seem like the people who live here couldn’t be bothered with changing it, which is inaccurate. Only one of us couldn’t be bothered, and her name is Sabine.

I stop. Shake it off. No more complaining—it’s a promise I’ve made to myself. No more fighting.

I grab my suitcase from the trunk and head inside.

“Sabine?”

I stand completely still, listening for sounds upstairs. A shower, a hair dryer, music or TV, but there’s nothing. Only silence.

I toss my keys on the table next to a pile of mail three inches thick. “Sabine, you here?” I head farther into the house.

I think back to our phone conversation earlier this morning, trying to recall if she told me she’d be home late. Even on the best days, her schedule is a moving target, and Sabine doesn’t always remember to update our shared calendar.

She’d prattled on for ten endless minutes about the open house she’d just held for her latest listing, some newly constructed monstrosity on the north side of town. She went on and on about the generous millwork and slate-tile roof, the pocket doors and oak-plank flooring and a whole bunch of other features I couldn’t give a crap about because I was rushing through the Atlanta airport to make a tight connection, and it’s quite possible that by then I wasn’t really listening. Sabine’s rambling is something I found adorable when we first started dating, but lately sparks an urge to chuck my phone into the Arkansas River, just to cut off one of her eternal, run-on sentences. When I got to my gate and saw my plane was already boarding, I hung up.

I peek out the window into the garage. Sabine’s black Mercedes isn’t there. Looks like I beat her home.

I head into the kitchen, which is a disaster. A pile of dirty dishes crawling up the sink and onto the countertop. A week’s worth of newspapers spread across the table like a card trick. Dead, drooping roses marinating in a vase of murky green water. Sabine knows how much I hate coming home to a dirty kitchen. I pick up this morning’s cereal bowl, where the dregs of her breakfast have fused to the porcelain like nuclear waste, putrefied and solid. I fill it with water at the sink and fume.

The trash bins, the kitchen, not leaving me a note telling me where she is—it’s all punishment for something. Sabine’s passive-aggressive way of telling me she’s still pissed. I don’t even remember what we were arguing about. Something trivial, probably, like all the arguments seem to be these days. Crumbs on the couch, hairs in the drain, who forgot to pick up the dry cleaning or drank the last of the orange juice. Stupid stuff. Shit that shouldn’t matter, but in that hot, quicksilver moment, somehow always does.

I slide my cell phone from my pocket and scroll through our messages, dispatches of a mundane married life.

Did you remember to pay the light bill?
The microwave is on the fritz again.
I’m placing an order for office supplies, need anything?
I land on the last one to me and bingo, it’s the message I’m looking for.

Showing tonight. Be home by 9.
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