Warm droplets of water gently wash the icy chill of winter from my arms. My cheeks and jaw relax with the soothing pleasure, but my nose remains an icicle. Blue paint swirls around my feet and runs towards the drain. It’s frigid, dark nights like this when I miss my husband the most. I can still picture his face for a moment before it fades to black.
A knock on the door causes me to jump and almost lose my balance on the copper tiled shower floor. It’s seven thirty in the evening, and I live in an isolated home along the shore. My neighbors left with the summer sun. I don’t have friends, nor family who would be visiting. Another knock. I twist the handle to stop the water as my mind flips through potential scenarios. The police with an emergency? An unusually bold salesman with no sense of boundaries? A killer? Do killers ever knock because that did feel like the most likely option?
I twist a towel up in my hair and wrap another around my body. I can’t answer the door in towels, but I don’t mind making the person wait. If I take too long, they might simply give up. I glance out the window looking for a car in the driveway, but I don’t see one. There are no missed calls or messages on my cell phone. I quickly dry myself, and pull on a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I comb my long, wet hair into a ponytail and head for the door.
I pass the easel with my portrait, and wonder if using so much blue is too cliché. Too Picasso. A dash of red could be nice. The portrait is supposed to be therapeutic after all. It’s important to showcase all the emotions. My depression is swaddled in a toasty blanket of anger.
Before opening the door, I pause. Should I have a weapon? With a shrug, I backtrack to the kitchen and grab a steak knife from the wooden block. I slide it into my pocket, even though that seems a little dangerous.
When I finally answer the door, I suspect whoever might have been there will no longer remain. The stranger’s teeth chatter, and his dyed blonde hair sticks to his face. It’s raining outside. I hadn’t noticed since it’s too gentle to make noise. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and his hands are jammed into the pockets of his black jeans. I’d guess he was a man of similar age to me, but there’s something childlike in his eyes.
“You must be freezing. Come in.” I wave my hand, gesturing him in.
He slowly steps forward, his brown eyes lock on mine. “I’m sorry…so sorry to bother you.”
“Let me get you a blanket or something. It’s freezing out there.”
I grab a flannel throw from off the back of the couch, and notice my own blue eyes following me from the portrait. Knowing I’ve created this trompe-l’oeil satisfies me, but they lack any life. Which is realistic, yet sad all the same.
The boy…man is rubbing his arms with his hands, so I wrap the blanket around his shoulders. “You’re going to get yourself sick. What are you doing out there? And just in a t-shirt?”
“My car broke down. My phone is dead. This was the closest place that was open.” There’s a vulnerability trembling in his voice, that puts me at ease.
“You’re soaked. I’ll get you some dry clothes and we can put those in the dryer for a bit.”
“Oh, uh…thanks. Could I use your phone, maybe?”
“I’ll get the landline.”
Why would someone be driving through here? There’s nothing going on for miles. I pull a box out of the closet that holds some of my husband’s clothes. Getting rid of his stuff would be the smart thing to do, but something stops me every time. I dig through them to find the perfect outfit and pick up the cordless phone on my way back.
“Thank you so much. This is all so nice.”
When he smiles, the lump of hardened rock that my heart has become cracks and a vibrant ray of life peeks through.
“Where are you coming from?”
“A gig with my band. I got a bit lost.” He rolls his eyes like this is typical behavior of his.
“Are they still in the car?”
“Nah, we separated. Sort of had a fight. I’m hoping they’ll come get me though.”
“You must be hungry. I’ll get you some food.”
“Oh, I couldn’t–”
“I want to. Really. It gets a bit lonely out here. Kind of nice having someone around.”
“I bet. Aren’t you married or anything?” He asks while examining the clothes.
“My husband died.” A current of rage rips through my body as a memory of his death plays in my mind. He said such awful things about me that day.
“Oh, wow. I’m so sorry.”
“He was leaving one way or another.” I shrug and walk to the kitchen. While I scan the shelves for ideas of what to make, I can hear his voice from the other room.
“He drowned in the ocean. Tragic accident.” I offer this bit of information with the hope he’ll forget about what I initially said.
“What about eggs, bacon, and toast?”
“Oh, sure.” He sounds excited.
I smile and pull the supplies from their drawers. I make the best omelets. “He wasn’t the brightest guy. Got a bit too drunk and went for a swim in a rip current. It’s important to never underestimate the ocean.”
He walks into the kitchen wearing the light blue hooded sweatshirt and jeans of my former husband. Honestly, they look better on him. In the last couple years of his life, my husband had let himself go a bit. According to him, he was embracing his dad bod in preparation for our family. I wipe the tears off my face and crack eggs into a bowl.
“I’m sorry for your loss. That sounds tough.” He leans his head against the kitchen doorway, watching me cook.
Why hasn’t he called anyone? He doesn’t even have the phone in his hands.
“Do you want tea or coffee?”
“Coffee would be great. Probably gonna be a long night.” He grins and the radiance of it blinds my thoughts to the lack of phone calls being made. I have a feeling he is the lead singer of his band.
While I whisk the eggs, he sits at the table. Hair falls over his eyes and I feel an urge to brush it back for him. The wrist flicks of my whisking get faster. Does he have a mom who is worried about where he is? Maybe a girlfriend?
“This is a nice house,” he says. There's a bouncy energy to his voice now.
“I guess you’re lucky I’m even here. It’s just a vacation home really. I decided to extend the vacation. Figured I could use a longer break.”
“For sure. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot.”
The bacon sizzles and my mouth waters from the aroma.
“I noticed your painting.” He adds.
“Yeah, I’ve always loved painting but it’s been a while since I have. I’m getting back into it.” I flip the omelet. The bacon grease snaps at me.
“I like it. It’s a self portrait, right?”
“It’s promising you can tell.”
He laughs and it's a pleasant sound. “It’s really good. Though, can I ask a weird question?”
“I love weird questions.”
“Well you look really…fit. I don’t understand why your self portrait is sort of…fat?”
“The stomach looks huge and…I’m sorry. It looks so real. I…I don’t know what I’m saying.”
I freeze in place with the spatula hovering above the pan. I drop it, let it clatter on the hardwood and walk into the living room. Fear tingles down my spine. The portrait looks pregnant. I shake my head hoping it’ll look normal when I stop. It looks the same. Also, the picture looks happy. Too happy. I shove the easel and it thuds against the hardwood floor.
“Everything okay?” He asks from the kitchen.
“Yup.” I pick up his wet clothes to toss in the dryer and hear another clunk. At my feet rests a black handgun. I pick it up, examining every detail. Why does he have a gun? He rocks out on stage with a gun tucked in his pants? Maybe that’s not unheard of these days. I delicately place the gun in my pocket. He won’t need it while he’s here.
When I was younger, my grandma told me never to open the door for a stranger. Sometimes people pretend to be innocent, until they get inside your house and it’s easier to rob you. Did he have bad intentions? If so, why would he leave the gun behind with the wet clothes?
I step in the kitchen and his eyes meet mine. There’s something wholesome in them. He’s a scared boy. Probably needs protection. He’s safe with me now. I’d never harm him, because he’s a nice boy. Not like my husband. Sometimes I had good instincts about these things. Besides, if he does decide to underestimate me, he’ll be the one regretting it.
I arrange everything on his plate just so and hand it to him.
“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings or–”
“Don’t be. You’re right. Weird mistake. I’ll fix it.” I place a cup of coffee in front of him.
“Hey, if you don’t mind me asking, what did you mean about your husband leaving one way or another?”
I sit across the table from him and put my hands over my face. An exhaustion aches my muscles. With a deep breath, I look at him again. Noticing a slight tremble in his hands, I feel confident in my assessment. “He fell in love with someone else.”
Someone more fertile. A woman capable of giving him what I couldn’t. Though it doesn’t quite make sense. I wanted a child more than anything, but he always seemed indifferent. While an undertow of grief sucked me into impenetrable darkness, my husband confirmed the worthlessness I felt. He left me to be fish food or maybe even just another clump of waste. Didn’t I still have options left?
“Oh,” he says and fills his mouth with the omelet.
“Did you call the band?”
“This is amazing.” He points his fork at the remainder of the omelet. I can tell by the way he closes his eyes a moment to savor it, he is telling me the truth.
Pride and affection surge through me in waves.
He sighs and taps his fingers against the table. “Well, maybe this is kind of crazy thinking. I don’t want to be too much. You said it was lonely here and it’s a bit late. Maybe you could bring me to town in the morning? My band…well, they’re not very nice guys. I’d prefer if they didn’t have to get involved.”
“You don’t have someone else? A parent or girlfriend or –”
“We tour all around. I don’t know anyone near here, no. If it’s a problem, I’ll call.”
“You can stay.” I pour myself a cup of coffee. “Do you like painting? Maybe we can paint together.”
“I’ve never really tried.”
“I can teach you.”
“You’re really nice. Too nice.” He pushes away from the food and shakes his head. “I really don’t deserve it. I’m a bad man.”
I shrug. “People can change.”
“You don’t even want to ask why I’d say that?” His eyes beg me to, but I think I have an idea of it. I feel the gun in my pocket. There's a reason he has it.
“Your car isn’t broken down is it?”
He shakes his head. "They dropped me off down the road. They won't come unless I call them."
“I think we all go through times that make us a little desperate. Don’t identify yourself with the worst thing you’ve ever done. I don’t.”
He nods slowly and keeps eating. Since he doesn’t ask what I mean by that, I assume we have an understanding. He needs help and I need purpose.
Things are quiet between us for a few moments. His steady chewing sounds are peaceful. While I sit, I think of my self portrait and decide I’m going to start over. This time, I’m using more pink and white, and leaving out blue. It reminds me too much of being underwater. I don’t feel tethered there with my husband anymore. Not like I did before. It’s time to let him rest peacefully anchored to the ocean floor with his new family. Hopefully they've made for a delicious fish feast, and aren't simply waste.