It's his smile that kills me. One glimpse of it and I'm lost again.
My sister doesn't understand. I'll call her when I can't take it anymore, she'll come pick me up and bring me back. But I can't help thinking he'll change. Believing that one day I'll return to find him himself again.
That's why I keep going back. I love him. I take care of him; take care of Ginger, our puppy. He bought me Ginger in his happier days. Before his dad died and his world blew apart around him.
Before he turned to his bottle.
"It's just today," he used to tell me as he stumbles out of bed, reaching for the flask he filled the night before as I slept. "Just today."
But it's never just a day. It's a day with a day with a day. And I can't reach him. By the time we've finished breakfast, he stops looking at me. Pushes me away as I leave for work. I hope for his good days. The days I come home to find a light on, him standing hopelessly by the fridge. He gives me a sad smile as I walk in, looking at me as if for the first time. Those are the nights we eat together, silently.
Most nights the house is dark. I fumble a dinner together, watching his get cold. Listening to the murmurs of his repressed tears, only to be gone angrily before I can get close to him.
His good days are getting further and further away. It's only the memory of the smile of the boy I fell in love with that keeps me going.
The nights are the worst. Waiting for him to come to bed as the night slides by. Knowing that it's been the longest stretch ever since his last good day, and he probably will fall asleep in his chair like he's been doing. Feeling my hope draining out of me by the minute, by the day. I break down, call my sister. She always answers, always wakes up for my 2 a.m. despondent phone calls.
She mentions a new word. Separation. I stare out the car window, nearly too numb to let the meaning of that word sink into me. I shake my head, slowly. I still love him. It won't do.
My sister finds ways to keep me away from home longer every time she comes for me. She always needs volunteers at her shelter, begs me to help her. I can't refuse. I know she wants me to see the battered women, wants me to realize I could be there. But I'll never be them. He never hurts me, barely even touches me unless it's an accident. He's not mean. Not intentionally.
I spend more than two weeks with my sister before feeling the uncontrollable ache inside, telling me I need to go home. It's longer than I've ever stayed away. But all I can think about is him.
She drops me off to a dark house, frowning as she backs down the driveway. Ginger bounds out to me and I'm hoping she hasn't been outside the whole time.
The house is silent as I walk in, fearing I might not be able to help him, thinking that maybe my sister was right.
Then I see him. Huddled over the kitchen table, head cradled in his hands. I stop in the doorway, staring at him. He looks up, sensing me. I'm ready for the sad smile and the turn away, but it doesn't happen. Instead, all I see are his eyes, red rimmed but clear. We stare at each other, unable to tear ourselves away. I take a step closer, and when he doesn't flinch, another. I'm nearly at the table when he speaks to me for the first time in months.
"I thought you'd left. I thought you'd left for good this time. When you didn't come back- I thought you were gone. Forever."
I stood frozen, captivated by his hoarse voice. Neither of us noticed when Ginger climbed into his lap, nuzzling his chin.
The word hung in the air, pressing down on both of us in so many ways. I couldn't move.
"If my father was ashamed of me before, he wouldn't have been any more impressed with me like this."
He stood, cutting the distance between us, standing as if uncertain to move any closer.
"I- I love you. You should have so much more than this."
I stopped breathing as he said this stepping forward, disbelieving.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, then I suddenly found myself in his arms, holding him tightly not able to let go. Forcing myself to breathe.
"I'm sorry," he whispered again, again and again, finding the pulse of our heartbeats. Matching each breath in, each breath out.
Steady. Or finding its way back to as steady as could be.