The water was scalding, but Ruth hardly noticed. She was focused on the recycling bin in the corner of the kitchen, her hands mechanically and blindly scrubbing.
Peeking out of the overflowing bin were cheap beer cans, flimsy plastic vodka bottles, and spiced rum. Half my pay check, right there, Ruth grumbled. She dumped another stack of dishes into the sink, soapy water slopping over the sides and splashing her shirt. Her hand caught on broken glass, slicing cleanly into her thumb. She swore under her breath and grabbed a dishtowel to wrap her hand.
The screen door banged, and Ruth looked up.
Ed was setting down his toolbox, distractedly trying to slip off his jacket and hang it on the hook. In his other hand was a brown paper bag, which he tucked out of sight when he noticed Ruth watching him.
“Sorry I’m late,” he began, kicking off his work boots. “Just got held up at work.”
“Uh huh,” Ruth said, even though they both knew she didn’t believe him.
“What did you do to your hand?” he asked, striding into the kitchen. He reached for her hand and she jerked it away.
“Nothing,” she said. “Cut myself just now, it’s nothing.”
Without another word, Ed bent to open the cupboard under the sink and brought out the bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Grabbing a clean cloth too, he set both on the kitchen table and sat down. “Sit, please.”
Ruth considered refusing his help, but sat down instead. Ed’s hands were gentle and careful as he unwrapped the bloody tea towel, and while he inspected her wound, she watched him. There were silver streaks in his once jet black hair, and his face was lined and tired. It had been a long time since they’d met, fallen in love, and gotten hitched. Back then, she’d felt uncontrollably giddy when he’d held her hand. Now, it just didn’t feel the same.
Ed removed the cap of the peroxide and sloshed some of it onto the cloth. He didn’t have to say that it would sting. She already knew it would. But he squeezed her other hand as the cut burned to show he was sorry.
When her cut had been cleaned and wrapped, he stood and gently kissed her forehead. Ruth flinched away from his touch, but not because of the intimacy. It was what he had always done after patching up Clara.
He acted like he hadn’t noticed. Instead, he went about putting away the peroxide, draining the sink of water. He fished out the broken pieces of glass methodically and thoroughly, before sweeping them all into the garbage.
“Good as new,” he whispered softly, then went off to their bedroom to change out of his work clothes.
If only it were that easy, Ruth thought.
On her way to the laundry room, Ruth paused outside Clara’s bedroom. Wringing the tea towel in her hands, she gave in to the temptation and opened the door. All of Clara’s things were just as she’d left them. The bed was unmade, the purple tie-dyed bedspread slumped halfway to the floor and exposing polka dot sheets. A fine layer of dust covered the vanity mirror and Clara’s bookshelves, and Ruth made a mental note to herself to dust later. The books were childish titles: Goosebumps and Nancy Drew, along with those horrible Diary of a Wimpy Kid novels.
She felt tears at the back of her eyes, and she tried to shake them away. Ever since holding Clara as a baby, Ruth had envisioned introducing Clara one day to the books that had made her fall in love with reading herself. Now she couldn’t, and Clara’s bookshelf would never hold Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, much less Tolstoy and Sylvia Plath.
As always, she felt her eyes drawn unwillingly to her daughter’s school portraits. They were in a K-12 frame, and she felt a stab of pain every time she saw so many of the bubbles empty. After the funeral - the child sized coffin was so small - she had thrown the frame into the garbage. The impact had cracked the Grade 11 spot. She’d dug it out of the trash the next day and cradled it in her arms, sobbing.
Careful not to disturb anything, Ruth used the wall to ease herself all the way down to the carpet. Resting her head in her hands, she wondered again how it had come to this. Clara’s death. The tiny white coffin. A spray of Gerber daisies, that seemed too festive for a funeral.
Part of the way through the service, she’d recognized the man who’d hit Clara in the crowd. He looked out of place and awkward, sitting in the back pew by himself. Hair a greasy tangle, suit too small. Ruth averted her eyes, and looked at the photograph of Clara at the front of the funeral home.
She had been playing on their sidewalk and took off running after a ball that had gone into the street. Ruth had been inside, changing sheets when it happened. She remembered how startled she was at the banging on the door, how she'd rushed to see what the matter was. His expression told her something was wrong, and she'd ignored his incoherent babbling to instinctively search for her daughter. There she was. Splayed out on the road in front of his car. Time had frozen, then quickened until Ruth’s pulse thundered in her ears.
Pushing the man and his excuses aside, she’d scrambled down the steps to the street, nearly tripping in her haste to get to Clara. She’d dropped down hard, skinning her knees, but without feeling or sensation. Pulling her daughter into her lap, she’d seen at once that it was too late. She’d howled and screamed, rocking her baby back and forth in her arms, until the paramedics had come. A crowd had gathered by then. They had taken care of things, lifting Clara gently from her arms, and somehow she’d gotten through everything that came next.
Arranging the funeral. Giving a statement in the police investigation. Picking a dress to wear. She’d never thought that she would bury her child. The morning of, she’d broken down in a giggling fit, unsure whether to wear the lace black dress or the satin one. What did one wear to their daughter's funeral?
Her sister had given her a Valium and she had floated through the service without any more inappropriate reactions. Without any reactions, in fact. Her face remained bone dry as the coffin was lowered into the ground, and when family and friends had given their condolences, she’d remained blissfully numb.
Her tears came now though, crumpled up on her daughter’s floor.
When Ruth woke, she felt as though she was still dreaming. She was being lifted, Ed’s arms scooping her up. She closed her eyes, trying to return to her dreams. In them, sometimes Clara was still alive. Her cheek nuzzled into Ed’s chambray shirt, worn soft by years of wear. She could smell rum on him.
He carried her like one would a child back to their bed, and covered her with the blanket. The springs squeaked on his side of the bed, and she could tell that he was staring at her. She kept her eyes closed, and her breath deep and even.
“I know you’re mad at me,” he whispered. His voice was tired and lost. “You should be.”
The silence grew between them, and Ruth wondered if that was all he had to say.
“When Clara died,” he said, his voice choked, “I forgot how to live. It was just too hard, Ruth. It was easier to black it all out than to be there, feeling so much pain and grief.”
Selfish. Ruth shot back in her mind. I had to deal with it alone.
“I’m quitting, Ruth.”
Unconsciously, Ruth felt her eyelids flutter.
“Today was my last drink. I’m going to go cold turkey, starting tomorrow. Carlos told me about an AA group, and I’m gonna go to a meeting tomorrow.”
“How do I know you’ll stick with it,” Ruth whispered, so quietly Ed almost didn’t catch it.
“Because I’m doing it for you,” he replied simply. “And … I poured everything down the sink. All the beer, all the harder stuff. It’s gone.”
Ed’s face was serious, and for the first time in over a year, Ruth felt like she could see the man she’d married. She reached out to touch his cheek.
“I’m sorry, Ruth. I’m sorry that I checked out, sorry that I’m a drunk. I’m trying to do better.”
“I know,” Ruth said.
With that, their conversation died into contemplative silence, and Ruth felt her exhaustion catch up to her. As she was drifting off, she felt Ed’s lips kiss her forehead.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”