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The alarm jolted Beth awake, and she fumbled to silence its unrelenting shriek before it woke Tom. Unlike her, he didn’t have to get up at 6:30 every morning and would sleep until the last possible moment. He grunted and rolled away from the offending noise while Beth forced herself to throw back the warm blankets. She grimaced as the first shock of chilly air hit her and reached for her fuzzy pink robe. Cinching it tightly around her waist, and slipping her feet into well-worn pink slippers, she navigated her way through the darkness to the kitchen. She flipped on the light above the stove and turned on the coffee-maker. Tom liked to have coffee as soon as he got up. She had never acquired a taste for the stuff.
She stood for a moment, in the muted silence, closed her eyes, and breathed in deeply. This time of day when the house was sleeping was her best time. For five minutes, she could steal a reprieve from reality. In these few, precious moments she could imagine herself in a different life. She’d envision herself as a smart, funny, capable woman who lived alone in a lovely apartment in the city. It would be just her and, perhaps, a cat. She’d wear fashionable clothes and have a cleaning person who’d come in once a week. Sometimes, in her imagining, she worked as a secretary for a successful lawyer; her days filled with the constant ringing of phones and ushering clients into meetings. She wore heels that clacked sharply as she moved with confidence and purpose. Other times, she saw herself as an artist, content to hole up in her studio and create canvases filled with color and life and hope. A smile would play on her lips as she daydreamed, and the lines around her mouth and would soften.
But, too soon, her eyes would have to open, the dreams would dissipate, and she would fall roughly back to earth. Here, in this kitchen, this house, this sameness, was her life – each day stolen away from her by the mindless vacuuming, dusting, laundry, cleaning toilets, and cooking – stuck in this mire of domesticity and irrelevance, for better or worse.
Sighing, she turned and made her way down the stairs to the unfinished basement. God, she hated coming down here. The shadows, dark and musty, lurked like a secret. She walked purposefully to the deep-freeze and threw it open, the sudden brightness making her squint. The well-stocked contents before her were a testament to the excellent provider Tom was for his family. She felt a twinge of guilt for not feeling more grateful.
She stared at the array of packages, neatly wrapped and labeled, and willed herself to make a quick decision. Every morning she came down here and agonized over the choices before her. She didn’t get any joy from cooking and wished Tom would just tell her what to make before he left for work. That would be so much easier and a huge weight off her shoulders. She yearned to be able to order a pizza or Chinese food or go to a fast-food joint once in a while, as a family. Anything to be granted a reprieve from this daily, painful ritual of indecision.
“Stew sounds good,” she thought and reached in to grab the appropriate package. Or did they have stew a few days ago? She couldn’t remember. She hesitated as her hand moved over a chicken. Maybe chicken would be better? Tom loved her fried chicken. She thought about it for a second longer, feeling the fingers of anxiety tickling her throat.
“Wait, there’s some hamburger. Chili might be good. No, chicken would be best.”
Before she could change her mind again, she grabbed the icy bird, slammed down the freezer lid, and hurried up the stairs, relieved to leave the shadows behind her.
She turned on the kitchen light, placed the frozen chicken in the sink to thaw, and went into the bathroom to quickly wash her hands and run a brush through her hair. She noticed as she did every morning, the new lines that dragged her eyes and mouth downward; the grey strands weaved through her hair that seemed to multiply while she slept. She wondered how well that anti-aging face cream advertised on TV worked and imagined how amazing it would feel to go to a hairdresser once in a while, but she shook that thought away. Tom would call her foolish and wasteful and, truthfully, he never complained about her looks. He found fault with many other things, but not that. She knew she was a tad thick in the thighs and a little flabby from lack of physical activity but otherwise, didn’t think she was any worse than most other women her age with kids, a husband, and a house to manage.
She stopped to look in on the boys who were still sleeping soundly. She missed the days when they were small and made her feel important and necessary in their lives. Now, at ten and
twelve, their expanding maleness pushed her away like an outsider in a fraternity. She frowned at the books, papers, and paraphernalia strewn about their rooms and made a mental note to get the mess cleaned up while they were at school. It was easier to clean it herself than nag them to do it.
She had the breakfast preparations well underway when she heard Tom go into the bathroom. 7:30 already? She quickly set the table. Tom expected his breakfast to be on the table when he sat down. She was just dishing up his plate when he came shuffling down the hallway, sniffing and snuffling like an old hound-dog. With the skill of a seasoned waitress, Beth poured his coffee and set his food down before him.
Tom, whose communication skills consisted of a nod, a grunt, or a snort, depending on his mood, merely surveyed the food before him, raised one bushy black eyebrow, and proceeded to feed the gaping hole in his face. Beth mosquitoed around him, making sure his coffee cup and toast plate were topped up. She knew he wouldn’t speak until the last of the oozing egg yolk was mopped up. Tom wasn’t a morning person.
She started frying another batch of bacon for the boys and hand-squeezed some orange juice for them. She placed the peanut butter on the table and reached for the coffee pot just as Tom banged his cup twice on the table, her cue to remove his empty plate. He belched loudly and dragged his shirt sleeve across his mouth to remove any stray crumbs.
“Where’re the toothpicks?” he muttered, sucking noisily through his teeth. Beth silently berated herself for forgetting as she placed the toothpicks in front of him. He barely glanced at her.
“You’d better get those kids movin’,” he said, scraping his chair back and hiking up his pants. “They’ll be late for school.”
She felt a flush of heat creep up her face and wanted to remind him that, in the seven years she’d been getting their sons ready for school, they’d never once been late. Instead, she nodded mutely and hurried off. She found their oldest, Tommy Jr., rummaging through his dresser drawers.
“Where’re my blue socks?” he demanded when he saw her. “I can’t find anything in this mess.”
“Maybe they’re in the laundry,” Beth offered, smiling thinly. “Wear the black ones.”
“I want my blue ones,” he whined. “Don’t you ever wash clothes?”
Beth felt her jaw clench painfully. “Let me see if I can find some,” she said, bending over to look through the muddle he’d made of the drawer.
“Mom!” Her ten-year-old, David yelled from his room down the hall. “I need a new pencil for school.”
“Ok, ok,” she yelled back at him. “I think there’s one in the junk drawer.”
She handed Tommy blue socks she’d discovered at the bottom of his drawer. He yanked them out of her hand without a word and turned away.
When she returned to the kitchen, she saw that Tom had already left for work, the morning newspaper scattered over the table. Beth quickly refolded the paper and put it neatly beside his recliner in the living room. Tom liked to sit and relax after a hard day at work.
“Eggs again?” Tommy complained as he sat down at the table. “Why can’t we ever have somethin’ different?”
Beth blinked and looked momentarily confused. “Different?”
He sighed theatrically and rolled his eyes. “Yea, like how about cereal or something like that?”
Grimacing at his biting tone, Beth shrugged. “Your father wouldn’t eat cereal.”
“So, make him eggs,” Tommy said very slowly as though speaking to a small child. “And give us cereal. How hard is that?” At twelve, Tommy Jr. was quickly developing an attitude that mirrored his father’s.
Beth felt a familiar ache begin to spread behind her eyes. Her neck was as rigid as a block of wood, but she ignored her discomfort, as she always did, and pushed it away. Somehow, she got the kids fed, their lunches made, and found David the pencil he needed. By the time they finally left the house her head was pounding relentlessly. She started to fill the sink with soapy water and went to move the frozen chicken out of the way. She hesitated. Fried chicken didn’t sound like such a good idea anymore.
She turned the water off, picked up the chicken and made her way back down the basement stairs. When she placed the package back in the freezer, she stood there and stared into the bright whiteness as though hypnotized. All the food seemed to be swirling together into one frozen mass. She put both hands to her throbbing head to prevent it from exploding, then grabbed the edge of the freezer and began to sob.
“I don’t know,” she wailed. “I don’t know what to make for supper.”
Tears streamed down her face and dripped off her chin to land on the packages of steaks, chicken, pork chops, and hamburger. She wiped frantically at her wet eyes with the sleeves of her robe, gulping and gasping as she struggled to breathe and, suddenly, her cries morphed into a high-pitched wail of hysterical laughter.
“Let’s see,” she giggled as she grabbed a package of meat. “What do we have here? Ahhh, T-bone steaks. Naah.” She tossed the package onto the concrete floor where it bounced a
couple of times before sliding to rest against the wall. She giggled again and reached back in.
“How about…pork chops? Nope. Don’t think so.” And she flipped the frozen chops over her shoulder. Soon she was reaching in with both hands like a woman run amok at a clearance sale. Frozen packages flew with careless abandon and ended up in every corner of the room.
“Too many choices,” she sang in an odd little voice. “Too many, too many, too many….”
Finally, she stood back startled, as though waking up suddenly in a strange place. She blinked a couple of times before she straightened up and tightened the belt of her robe that had come loose during her frenzy. She smoothed her sweat-dampened bangs back from her forehead and took a deep, calming breath. Glancing into the freezer, she saw one brown package remained. She calmly reached in and scooped it up. Beef Liver.
“Sounds good to me,” she declared as she turned away, humming to herself. She stepped carefully between and around the shambles on the floor. “It’s so nice to have that decision out of the way.”
When the boys arrived home after school, they opened the door to a silent house. Usually, the television would be on, tuned to one of their mom’s afternoon soap operas. Today was different. Dead quiet. Tommy saw the brown package sitting on the kitchen counter in a sticky brown puddle.
“Ah, gross,” he said when he read the label. “Liver? Mom?” he yelled. “Where are you?”
He and David looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders.
“Wonder where she is?” David asked. “She never goes anywhere. She doesn’t have any friends.”
“I dunno,” said Tommy. “But, boy, is dad gonna be pissed when he gets home and supper isn’t ready.” David nodded solemnly in agreement, and they both headed to the living room to play video games.
Tom walked into the house at 5:30, swearing under his breath as he always did about some “so-and-so” at work. He kicked off his work boots and was headed to the fridge when he stopped in the middle of the kitchen and looked around. Where in the hell was that woman? She was always in the kitchen when he got home. All he saw was a lumpy brown package sitting on the counter. He went over for a closer look.
“Liver?” he muttered and then bellowed, “Beth! What’s this shit?” The boys came running in from the other room.
“Where’s your mother?” Tom yelled at them. “What in the Sam-hell is going on here?”
The boys looked at each other helplessly and back to their father. “She wasn’t here when we got home either.” Tommy offered, glancing over at David for support.
“Nope,” agreed his younger brother. “She wasn’t here.”
“Well,” snarled their father. “Just you wait until she gets back.”
He grabbed a beer from the fridge and headed into the living room, turned on the television, and fell back into his favorite chair, muttering about “damn women, and who did they think they were, anyway?”
When Beth hadn’t returned by 7 pm, the boys made themselves peanut butter sandwiches for supper. Tom paced from window to window, muttering, and watching for her so he’d be ready when she walked in. He sent the boys to bed at 9:00, kicked the wall, threw the congealed package of the slimy liver in the garbage, and popped open another beer to quell his hunger.
“Useless woman,” he growled. “I work and slave every day to put food on the table and a roof over her head, and this is the thanks I get. She can’t even have a meal on the table for a man when he gets home. Just wait ‘til she walks through that door. She’ll be sorry.”
The next morning, Tom woke to the sound of the alarm shrieking in his ear. It was 6:30 am.
“Beth!” he yelled. “Where are you? Shut this damned thing off!”
When he realized she wasn’t responding, he threw back the blankets and hauled himself out of bed, the alarm clock still blaring. He headed to the kitchen in his underwear, ready to strike at anything that got in his way. The room was empty. No coffee. No breakfast. No Beth. Still, no Beth. He ran his fingers through his wild hair and shook his head. Then, he slowly turned around and went back down the hallway to figure out how to shut off the damn alarm clock.
The boys clattered downstairs a short time later, and their eyes grew wide at seeing their father sitting at the table in his underwear. “Where’s mom? What’s for breakfast?” they demanded in unison.
Tom dragged his gaze up to his boys who were looking back at him expectantly. He sighed and pushed himself up. “I’m going to get dressed. You’ll have to find yourselves something to eat. I dunno what. Toast? Cereal? Eggs? You’re big boys. You figure it out.”
He started out of the room when Tommy asked, “But, what about our lunch? And supper? What are we going to do, dad? Where’s mom? Where’d she go? Is she coming back?” His voice cracked as he struggled to control his panic.
“Damned if I know, son,” Tom hesitated and slowly shook his head. “All I can say is she must’ve lost her mind. A woman would have to be crazy to leave all this.”
It took about three days before the disgusting, putrid stench of rotting meat forced them to flee the house.
Shortly before I turned 50 in 2009 I’d just become a Grandmother for the first time, was about 20 lbs overweight (mena-pot?) and was feeling a lot of anxiety – I mean, a LOT!. It wasn’t so much a fear of getting older. I actually think there are lots of advantages to aging. BUT I really, really felt like there were things I hadn’t yet accomplished in my life and if I didn’t soon figure out what they were I’d be 60 years old and still in the same spot feeling anxious and unfulfilled. It was like I’d lost my spark. I felt colorless, invisible and irrelevant. I also felt guilty for feeling like that. After all, I had an amazing husband, two wonderful well-adjusted sons, grandchildren, a family business and good friends but I just couldn’t shake that awful ache in the pit of my stomach, that emptiness that made me feel “incomplete” somehow. Then in 2012 my dearest friend, who I was also lucky enough to have as a sister-in-law for over 29 years, died after a 5 year battle with colon cancer. She was just 57 years old. My own mortality suddenly weighed more heavily on me. The days of assuming I had lots of time to do the things I’d always wanted to do were over (Taken from Mary-Lou’s Blog).
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