“I don’t believe you,” he said. “You’re calm. You’re calculating your next move … I can see it in your eyes.”
“What?” I asked. I felt my eyes scrunch at their lids, felt my brow knit together into the one wrinkle on my face, off-center between my eyebrows by a fraction of an inch.
He used to smile at me when he saw that wrinkle appear, run his finger along it gently. Now, years later, looking into his whiskey reddened face, I understood why he loved that wrinkle. The subtle line showed my first signs of anger. It was his clue that he was getting to me.
“I can’t trust you when you’re calm,” he continued. I felt my wrinkle deepen. “Why won’ cha you call me an asshole, a bastard? Why won’ cha yell at me no more?” he said, “I’d respect that more than this calm, manipulative thing you’ve been doin’ to me lately.”
He grabbed his drink from my desk. I smelled the sourness of the whiskey as he pulled the glass toward his pinched mouth. He took a sip, looked into his half-empty glass with narrowed eyes, and then finally relaxed his face enough to gulp the rest.
I felt the wrinkle disappear, my face relaxed as if I were his mirror image. Calm for an instant. But then his knuckles whitened on the glass and he brought it down fast, stopping it an inch above the surface of my desk. My hand gripped the computer mouse tighter than a second before. He concentrated on his hand and banged the glass to the desk three times, seeming to need the punctuation of sound. I squeezed the mouse three times harder and felt my ribs clench together in my chest.
My eyes were wide as he slowly unfocused from the offending glass and settled his greener-than-sober eyes on me. “What’s that look for? What’s wrong with you?” he whispered, emphasizing the “wrong”.
We looked at each other for a long silent second, me wide open and scared and him white-knuckled and angry. Was he angry because I was frightened? Was he mad because I wasn’t angry?
It would be wise to choose anger. Smart to give him what he wanted. My mind shot five minutes into the future and I saw myself yelling and crying, shouting horrible things I didn’t mean to placate him. I foresaw his muscles relax, envisioned him turning away toward the kitchen. He would be saying, “You’re fucking irrational. I can’t talk to you,” with a sneer on his lips.
I would hear the ice banging into his glass, then hear the Coke fizz briefly before the Jim Beam silenced the fuss.
What he wanted was an excuse to keep drinking.
Spinning out of the vision, looking into his eyes, I realized I was stuck in a tight corner, my only exit through him. If I stood from my seat, I would have to lean into his space. Would he allow me to stand? I decided he wouldn’t.
I blinked my eyes, then pinched my lids together tightly for a moment. Opening them, I saw that he was leaning in closer to me, bending at his waist and eyeing me curiously. I felt like an unknown type of animal the hunter must study before killing. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Tryin’ to figger out what you’re gonna do,” he said, tilting his head a little and slowly pushing his chin toward my face until he managed to look down at me even though our noses were aligned. I felt his breath on my cheek.Smelled the residual stench of alcohol mixed with sweat as if it were my own. Familiar. Threatening. Vile.
I didn’t move. I thought of how a deer froze in the road as if its stillness guaranteed immunity from the car barreling down on it. The car always won. I saw my carcass in a ditch.
I snapped back in my chair. He startled. I rose up from under him and escaped the corner. I didn’t go far, turning to face him as quickly as I could from a new position near the freedom of the kitchen and its exterior door. Six feet of air stood between him and me, and my purse was three feet beyond him on the table by the front door. Could I exit the kitchen and then round to the front door, re-enter the house to grab my purse and get to the car before he could stop me? I considered his slowed and drunken state, but I doubted my ability to execute the plan. I imagined that once I was out of the house he would lock the doors, and I would be outside in my socks and the cold dark rain.
Or worse, he would chase me outside to subdue me. I would run, but he would tackle me. I would fight, but he would win. What did it mean to win? What did he want from me?
“What do you want from me?” I yelled, knowing he wanted me to yell. “You are scaring the hell out of me!”
He slowly stood erect, a delayed reaction that bought time for his voice to switch to a croon. “You’re scared? Come on, Woman. Have I ever hurt you before?” he said, corners of his lips lifting upward while the centers stayed straight. He slightly lowered his head like you do when you peer at your naughty child over the top of your glasses. I expected him to tsk and shake his head in disappointment.
He may have forgotten holding my face over the lit stove burner and using my neck to swing my head into the wall, but I hadn’t. Five years had passed between that night and this, but I remembered it clearly.
I put my hand to my mouth partly remembering the heat and partly in shame. Why hadn’t I left him then? Why was I still here?
He took a slushy step toward me and I heard the sole of his Ridge Desert Storm boot slide barely over the surface of the wooden floor. At 1 a.m. he was still wearing his uniform and boots. That meant his knife was still attached to his belt, in its case, positioned horizontally not vertically.
I took a step backward, purposefully staring into his eyes so I wouldn’t glance at the knife.
He wore the knife horizontally so he could pull the 5-inch blade from his side with a smooth backward motion before giving a powerful forward thrust. He’d shown me the move, proudly, not long ago. The knife was too long to be regulation, but he’d said “Some of us get to carry what we want,” and I hadn’t doubted him. He was a stellar soldier.
“Why do ya gotta be so different from me, Woman? Why d’ya havta challenge me all the time?” He took another but steadier step my way. My thighs tightened into coiled springs. He subtly rounded his back. My torso twisted slightly facilitating my right arm’s creeping motion toward my own imaginary weapon. I was gonna take my knife and twist it into something raw.
“I only want you to respect me,” he said. His glassy eyes filled with tears. “Why can’t ya respect yur husband, Woman? Why?” He moved toward me, the toe of his boot rubbing the floor somehow wrong. He stumbled and then fell to his knees, putting his hands to his face, shamed. He sobbed. I felt the tension drain from my body. I couldn’t run.
I dropped to my knees and pulled his head to my breast. My eyes welled up with tears and we cried together for a while. He cried until he passed out on my lap and I let him sleep there while my legs grew numb.
I sobbed my goodbyes to the sleeping soldier. He seemed innocent like this, on my lap, in my arms. I smoothed his thick dark hair. I wondered if he would wake to mimic my broken heart, to express grief in the same way I now mourned, realizing we would never grow old together, never see our children, and never once touch one another, ever again.
It was a comforting thought, thinking he may weep for me.
I gently placed his head on the golden wood floor then straightened my legs to get the blood flowing. I uncased the knife at his side, and carried it with me to our bedroom. Packing, I would stare at the knife at times, reminding myself why I was leaving. It would be easier to pretend he hadn’t wanted to stab me, that I had imagined the whole thing. I wanted to crawl into the bed and sleep away the pain. Instead, I packed.
On this side of daybreak, I stepped over the soldier on the floor. I laid his knife on the table by the front door, took up my purse, and drove away.