Rust. Above the loose tailpipe, a crumpled corner of the plumber’s van is rusting. Margo worries from the attic window, if a man cannot maintain his vehicle, could he be a good plumber?
She told Robert to take care of this issue, claiming she had deadlines, backlogs, was already overburdened. Yet, here she is, chewing a hangnail, wondering if she should call Patrick’s Plumbing.
The front door slams and she peers over the windowsill. She is surprised the plumber is a woman. She pauses en route to her van, shakes down a cascade of copper-blonde hair, like some tawdry shampoo commercial, Margo thinks. The plumber neatly sweeps her locks into a chignon and tucks it back under her cap.
Ouch. Margo has drawn blood. She spits a brittle crisp of fingernail into the wastebasket.
Ping. Alex would like to chat.
Margo steps closer to the window to watch as Robert approaches the van. He leans upon it, casually chatting with the plumber. Margo cannot hear their conversation but she can see Robert’s smile. The plumber reappears, arching her back like a cat, thrusting her midriff toward Robert, her apple-round breasts straining at her overalls. She accepts a cup of coffee from Margo’s husband.
Ping. Alex is persistent.
Margo is profoundly annoyed. A vehement self-proclaimed feminist, she is irritated with herself for wondering what this pinup-cum-plumber knows about plumbing.
The front door opens and she hears a feminine voice, throaty, thick with coffee and maybe cigarettes too, a Lauren Bacall in her foyer. Then she hears Robert’s laugh. Earnest, not the cheap “ha” he employs at dinner parties or PTA meetings. Footfalls, two pairs, taking the basement steps.
Margo closes her laptop. She trundles down two flights of stairs. Standing at the top of the basement, she hears easy banter. Wine. Robert is talking about orange wine from Austria. Margo smirks; he’s trying to impress the help but then Lauren Bacall rattles off her three, three, favorite wineries in Austria. An oenophile centerfold plumber.
Margo goes to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and finds the pot empty. Fine, she thinks; I’ll have tea. She puts on the kettle. Ping. Her phone buzzes in her pocket. She is looking at the text from Alex and does not notice Robert enter the room. He clears his clears his throat. They stare awkwardly at each other.
“I’ve just come to make more coffee”, he says.
“Oh, I’ll just have tea”, Margo responds.
“Right. Well, Daphne wants another cup.”
Margo slides her phone into her pocket. Robert stands with two empty coffee cups. The blue cup, the one with a bold black M embossed on it, bears a heavy frost of red lipstick on the rim. Robert looks at his feet but does not take an inch toward the coffee maker.
Lauren Bacall huskily calls Robert’s name from the basement.
The spouses of nine and a half years lock eyes, briefly, briefly… like the last flash of a firefly. There is a multitude of grievances in this house –unperformed chores, broken dishes, unaired complaints, and vicious words that no amount of cleansing could purge from the fabric of their life.
Five years have passed since I wrote this post on Facebook. In that amount of time, I assure you, we have had more trials and tribulations but also joy and wonderment, as the above photo from a few nights ago should indicate. I will let the words I wrote then speak for themselves but I will say this; buckle up and try to enjoy the ride.
I won’t tell you about 18 years of wedded bliss; I don’t have them. I won’t tell you that marriage is easy if you are truly in love. I won’t assure you that Love conquers all. I have fantasized about chucking my life and becoming a waitress in Key West. Marriage sucks the marrow of your bones. It skins you and leaves you under a desert sun. It laughs at your dreams and undermines your hopes.
And then, it awakens your forgotten wishes; it uncovers that part of your soul you thought had been shrouded.
Don’t dream about your wedding; dream about being 50 and waking up next to someone who knows exactly how many teaspoons of sugar you like in your coffee, who knows that you think Hemingway was an asshat. Mostly though just don’t forget to dream and especially remember to share those dreams with the person you love.
In truth, it is not about a broken window. She’ll never fix it. If you ask her about it, she will tell you about Bobby.
If you ask her about it, which I don’t suggest you do, she might start off with a laugh. She might shake her head, maybe hug her midriff. She’ll say it was an accident. If she’s even a little honest with herself, which she probably will not be, she may blush when she tells you he was just horsing around. Don’t interrupt her. She’ll let you know he was a star basketball player. She’ll tell you, without a hint of humility, how he was homecoming king, had a 4.2 GPA, was kind to stray animals and awkward girls. You may think you are not hearing the story of the window; keep quiet, keep quiet.
You’ll hear about how many college acceptances Bobby received -12 – and how he turned down Notre Dame – Notre Dame for God’s sake – to go in state on a full ride. Bobby boy, Bobby brother. You might think that now is the moment you should gently ask again, but what about the window? Don’t.
She will probably turn her back to you, might even excuse herself. Look past all the framed photos of a shining star, a boy forever golden at 21, and you will see that broken window in the garage. You’ll think to yourself that she never did tell you that story, but you’d be wrong.
We gathered all the prescriptions in the house. Robert bought a lockable file cabinet which we put it in our walk-in closet, storing the drugs there. Even veterinary medicine. Tylenol and Advil as well. No guns in the house to fret over. Robert and I don’t drink so we didn’t worry about booze. Alcohol, drugs, would we need to lock Emery in her room? Should we buy a baby monitor? These are the questions you ask yourself after your child tries to commit suicide.
Anyway, we locked up all the medication. We were taking Emery to counseling every other day. Well, honestly, we were all in counseling; it wasn’t just for her. We were all broken. Even Harvey, the cat, could sense the discord. He had never been a snuggly, but those days, every time someone sat down, Harvey jumped onto their lap. It’s true of course; petting a cat greatly reduces anxiety. We watched Emery’s face as Harvey burrowed next to her on the sofa. Each time she stroked his fur, we hoped to see the smile our child used to radiantly bestow so freely. We hoped Harvey’s unconditional love could coax our sweet Em to return to us. Robert and I agreed that if she went back to college, she should get an apartment, one that allowed pets. She couldn’t take Harvey though; I needed him. We would get her a cat of her own.
It didn’t come to that. Emery wouldn’t return to college. We had thought about the obvious vices. We even took away her hair dryer, afraid she might bathe with it. We just never thought about the knives.
It was terrifying. Walking into the kitchen and finding Emery seated at the table, every knife we owned laid out before her. I dropped my coffee, the mug shattering. I remembered thinking I would never drink coffee again, that the taste, the burnt velvet of it, would never be the same.
What happened next though – how could I have ever been prepared? Months of counseling and pleading. All the conversations with her therapist about finding a purpose, developing an interest. The sleepless nights. The mornings Robert and I would wake only to discover we had shared the same hopeless dreams in which we asked ourselves how our bright, engaged girl had dimmed her own light so low.
Emery picked up the paring knife and my child, my only child, my daughter, my life’s work; she looked at me saying, this is the one I will start with. I will peel the apples with this one. I’ve been watching YouTube videos and you need killer knife skills to embark on a culinary career.
That moment. I relive it all the time. At night when I lie next to Robert in bed. Mornings when I drink my coffee, absentmindedly stroking Harvey’s coat. That autumn, as friends plied their cars with secondhand furniture, suitcases, bundling their children off to campuses. Our first visit to New York, when Em became sous chef at Coteau. With each forkful of silken tagliatelle or rich gribiche she makes for us when she visits. That moment when the glint of a steel knife reflected in my daughter’s eyes, and I recognized the flicker of redemption.
A version of this piece appears in Passengers. I am honored they chose to publish this piece. Please visit http://www.passengersjournal.com to hear an excellent reading by the talented John E. Brady.