The Quiet Season

"What kind of quiet is this? I don’t know what kind of quiet. It’s just…quiet. Does everything I do now have to mean something else?”

Heidi is frustrated, but not angry. Her brow furrows with both emotions, but with the latter she purses her lips and starts breathing through her nose, exhaling nostril sighs in threes like ellipses, buying time to form a well-reasoned argument. When she finally speaks out of anger, her tone is always deliberate, controlled. Her tone rises now. This is how I can tell she’s frustrated.

“I’m sorry.” The words taste bitter on my tongue.

“I just want some time alone,” she says. Then she un-furrows her brow by forcing a smile. She knows I’ll recognize the artificial smile for what it is – another sort of punctuation mark. A period.

I turn and walk out of the bedroom and down the hall, pausing just long enough outside the bathroom door to look at myself in the mirror. It’s not one of my good days.

When I get to the kitchen, I fully intend to open the refrigerator and stare inside for a long moment, sure to be confounded by how it’s possible to have every food ever made and still find none of it appealing. Instead, I keep walking, pushing through the kitchen door and into the cool autumn night.

I’m not hungry. And yet I’m starving. Heidi would roll her eyes if I started in on the “starving but I can’t eat” monologue again. But just because I say it more than once doesn’t mean it is any less true the fifteenth time.

Under the street lamp, I see the lowest-reaching branches of a towering maple tree. The leaves are neon yellow and I hope for a moment it’s a trick of the light, that they’re actually still summer green and the beach vacation is ahead of us and full of promise instead of behind us and stained by questions.

A dog barks.

Not the big black Newfoundland three houses down, but the little caramel-colored dog on the opposite side of the street. I don’t know what breed it is. A Pomeranian? I do know how much I hate his yelping voice. It sounds like nervous chatter, like uncertainty. Like panic. Not so, the jowly rumble of the Newfie. That’s a regal voice. A confident voice.

I wonder how Heidi hears my voice.

At the end of the cul-de-sac I stop. I turn around and look down the long, empty street toward my house. Our house. But no longer a home. Not since we got back from the beach.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” she had begun. We were side by side on matching deck chairs under a billion stars. I said nothing for the longest time, hoping she might remember the permanence of words and swallow them instead. As if anticipating my desperate prayer for a sea-change miracle, God underlined the perfect night sky with the most brilliant shooting star.

“Did you see that?”

She wasn’t looking at the sky.

The yippy dog barks again.

“Churchill! Come!”

Churchill. I wonder if dogs understand irony. Churchill yips again and is ushered inside.

I start walking back to the house. When I come alongside the Newfie’s yard, he is waiting there, his giant body pressed up against the cedar privacy fence, bowing it outward. I can hear his panting breath. He barks a low, soft hello. We are old friends.

“Hey,” I say. The sound of my voice surprises me. It is the fragile voice of a man who is about to cry. I collapse onto the sidewalk, pull my knees to my chest, lean back against the fence.

I didn’t want to love him, she had said. And then, an unexpected kindness – silence. She didn’t complain about how hard it had been living with a husband who’d lost his sense of direction, who’d forgotten how to laugh. She didn’t describe how she and her co-worker had gradually become best friends, then reluctant lovers, then unrepentant ones.

Not then, anyway.

I would drag that out of her later, in the first hour of our drive home. The next seven hours would be filled with a toxic stillness and then, quiet resignation.

I glance down the street again, look at the house we were slowly converting from someone else’s dream into our own. The swing on the front porch is blowing gently in the breeze. It was the first thing we fixed after we bought the house.

We finished it just in time to catch an early winter meteor shower. We bundled ourselves in blankets and made seventeen wishes on seventeen falling stars. One was a wish for forever.

Heidi is a silhouette in the living room window. She peeks out through the curtain, but she won’t see me. I am hidden in shadows. She begins pacing. Lifts something to her ear. Her cell phone. Instinctively, I reach for my own and wait.

It doesn’t ring.

A leaf falls in front of me, interrupting the whisper of wind with a fingernails-on-chalkboard scrape across the sidewalk.

The Newfie barks a velvet word of comfort. He knows. His breath puffs through a knothole. I want to wrap my arms around that dog. I need something to hold onto.

But there is a fence between us.
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