That damn storm door. Always catching on – what? Nothing. Air maybe. The door itself. But never closing all the way. A damn nuisance, good for nothing but frustration.
Over a year that she’d lived in the house, with grand plans to replace the storm door. And that sticky sliding door in the back of the house. The one that doesn’t lock, so it’s got two security bars to keep it closed. Never mind the fact that it was almost 3 months into living there before she discovered the faulty lock. And the popcorn ceiling she swore she’d take down as soon as she could afford to pay someone to do it for her. That messy project was NOT something she’d take on herself. But the doors, she’d sworn she’d do them as soon as she got settled into the house. A couple weeks, tops. Especially once he moved in. He made it seem easy. Little fixes he’d have done in no time. But who defines the timeline of “no time”? His ADHD brain probably perceived time differently than her Type A, impatient brain. But a year? How has the time flown by?
She yanked the storm door latched with a frustrated huff. It was loud enough to elicit an annoyed groan from her dog on the couch. “Oh, I’m sorry, King, did I disturb you?” she asked, voice bubbling with hot sarcasm. This was one of her days. The kind of days where everything that she’d ignored for the last week suddenly feels like too much: the dirt on the floor that reappeared despite frequent vacuuming, the laundry that she washed and dried but never folded, the nose prints along the windows in the living room where King perched to watch the neighborhood carry out their lives, and the fact that she let him name their dog King. King let out a sigh as he sprawled his back legs out on the couch and settled back into his nap.
“You know what? I’m fixing the door. Right now” she exclaimed to King, to herself, to the empty house. She started up the stairs in determined triumph, the energy of imagined relief from that damn door fueling her. She pulled the attic stairs down to her and made the chilly ascent into the dark, damp, poorly insulated space. It was surprisingly cold for the second week of February.
The attic was its own problem: disorganized, poorly lit, full of the things she’d held onto for God knows what reason from various apartments until she settled into this house, and there were the boxes of his stuff. The stuff she’d put up here two months prior, that she knew she’d hold onto forever but couldn’t bear to see daily.
“Ah, here we go.” She located the toolbox she’d been searching for, her toolbox, not his. His tools were too sophisticated for her. Why did he need all those tools, anyway? He’d talked about them like a prized possession, but left them untouched and collecting dust, more like a trophy than anything useful. She half-smiled to herself, thinking about his grand plans that never quite came into fruition, but that were always discussed with the excitement of a new business plan being presented to potential investors. She shook her head in annoyance that she even thought that way - about business and investors- and knew that was all because of him.
She had the toolbox in one hand and another steadying hand on the attic ladder. She hated this part, lugging bulky items down from the attic now that she lived alone. She started down the steps with an arrogant determination, desperate to prove to herself that she could handle these little tasks alone. She was halfway down when she realized she left the attic light on. With a roll of her eyes, she climbed back up a step and propped the toolbox on her knee while she reached for the long cord. With a tug, the light clicked off and she resumed her descent. The toolbox started to slip, and she abandoned her grip on the ladder to reach for the toolbox - to no avail. Both she and the toolbox crashed to the floor below her with a loud thud, followed by the spilling of nails and tools onto the floor around her.
The only thing hurt was her pride. In these moods, even a stubbed toe was enough to ruin her day. Why was everything so damn hard sometimes?
She heard the pit-pat land of King jumping off the couch, and the click-clack of his lazy trot to the bottom of the stairs. He looked up at her for a moment, and then stretched his front legs out with a disinterested yawn. He trotted back to his throne on the couch.
“Thanks for checking on me, King. Really saved the day, didn’t ya?” She asked him rhetorically. She needed something to be annoyed at besides herself, and King’s apathy was a good outlet. She looked around and saw the scattered toolbox supplies and let out a sigh. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Another thing she'd gotten from him. “Just breathe, baby,” he always used to say to her when she got frustrated or overwhelmed. Always her voice of reason. Always calm when she was erratic.
She sat up and started grouping the supplies together: nails in one pile, tools in another, screws of different sizes from various assemblies of furniture or hardware making their own little mountain of a pile. Why did these things always happen to her? He never dropped shit or got overwhelmed with the tasks that lay ahead. She knelt beside the almost-empty toolbox and started to place the tools back inside when she saw an envelope sitting against the inside of the plastic box. She pulled it out, annoyed that she’d left trash behind after a previous project and laid it outside the box.
When she flipped the envelope over, she was surprised to find her name written on the outside. It had the familiar rushed slant of his writing. Small letters, not necessarily messy, definitely legible, but obviously written quickly. Her heart raced and her palms sweated. She had seen her name written a million times, and seen his handwriting countless times before, but finding her name written by him, now? It was enough to take her breath away.
She settled her back against the wall, still sitting on the floor beside the toolbox. She took another deep breath to settle the warm uneasiness she felt spreading in her stomach. “Just breathe, baby”. She opened the letter with clammy fingers and felt the burning in her lungs that made her realize she’d been holding her breath in nervous anticipation.
She unfolded the letter and found comfort in his familiar scrawl on the page. Her name again, at the top of the letter. Her name, written by him. She looked at the top right of the page, but of course he hadn’t written a date. Dates were her thing, not his. She let out a little exasperated scoff with a roll of her eyes. Of course, why would anything about him be different now? She took a grounding breath, and began to read the words he’d written to her.
I guess if you found this letter, you’re frustrated with the toolbox, working on some project I never finished for you. I would say I’m sorry, but I know you’re not really mad at me. You never are, and that’s one of the reasons I love you so much. But I do regret not getting the house into better shape for you while I could.
What project is it that you’re taking on? The back door? Or fixing that wobbly chair in the kitchen? Or did you buy a new piece of furniture you’re putting together? I wish I was there to help. Even though, of course, you don’t need it. You never let me wonder if you were independent. I guess that’s why I don’t worry about how you’ll carry on when I’m gone. You were independent before me, while I was with you, and you’ll be that way after I go.
You know I’ve never been much for grand, romantic gestures. You know my biggest pleasures in life are the simplest. I wish I had been better about expressing my gratitude for you and the life we built together. For the love you give me and the little things you do every day to show me how much I meant to you.
I won’t ramble on about the unsaid things we already know and feel for each other. But I do want to remind you of one thing: take a breath, baby. You work so hard, and nothing you do is ever up to your own standards. I wish you could see yourself and the things you’ve accomplished from my view.
Your heart is so full of love, and I am so lucky to be the recipient of your deepest affection for all these years. But I fear that you forget to grace yourself with the love you so easily give to everyone else around you. You never get mad at me for taking my sweet time with things and going at my own pace, so maybe you need to consider that for yourself, too.
Why don’t you leave the toolbox for a while, huh? Those unfinished projects that have sat around for months… well, they won’t mind another day or two. Is it sunny outside? Is King laying in his sunlit spot on the couch (his throne, as you call it), right now? Maybe take a lesson from me and old King and go sit with him for a while, enjoy the sunshine.
I wish we’d done that more while we had the time. Just sat and enjoyed each other’s presence, basking in our love for each other and the little life we’ve built together. Those are the most magical days I’ve ever experienced, and I am so glad I had them with you.
Take a breath, baby, and relax a little.
All my love, always,
She looked at the letter without seeing for who knows how long. The tears in her eyes welled but didn’t fall. She hadn’t cried in almost a month - it felt like there was nothing left inside to cry out. But these tears were different: peaceful, nostalgic, grateful. She felt as if her mind and her body weren’t connected, as if she had to consciously tell her legs to stand her up, her torso to stay upright, her hand to grasp the banister, and each to foot step, step, step, down the stairs. She moved slowly, in a daze, grasping the letter to her chest with her free hand.
King was laying in his sunny throne, convulsing with whatever animated dream he was having. She and him used to sit and quietly snicker at the dog and make guesses as to what he was dreaming about: that neighborhood cat he liked to chase when they took him on walks, or swimming in the stream by their house and trying to catch the minnows in his mouth.
She sat next to King on the couch and he groaned awake, apparently upset that she abruptly interrupted his dream. She looked at him with a softness she hadn’t felt in months and put her hand on his favorite spot behind his ears and gave it a good scratch. He settled his head on her lap and dozed back into a light slumber.
The sun shone through the window and landed on her and King, illuminating the room around them. She took a deep breath and surveyed the room: the plants that were still green despite the long winter, the fireplace that hadn’t been used since he'd been gone, the dog hair and leaf particles that were scattered on the floor.
She took another deep breath and closed her eyes while the sun melted the tension she’d been carrying from her shoulders. She felt her chest rise, bringing in warmth and peace and a little melancholy. Her chest fell slowly, releasing a small piece of the darkness she’d been silently carrying for months.
She sat here with King on his throne, feeling the warmth of the sun radiating into her, creating the first bit of joy she’d felt since he'd been gone. “Take a breath, baby”, she heard like he was right there with them, on their sunny spot on the couch. She and King both took a deep inhale together, and let out some of their pain with a deep sigh, basking in the love around them.