She could see the little fingerprints in the dust, she could feel the curtains rustling in his frantic wake…
…the tiny patter of his footsteps, echoing in his bedroom upstairs…
She startled from her reverie, and her eyes rolled into focus. Her husband Eric stood staring at her, his soulful green eyes poured with naked concern and masked fear. He could not meet her gaze, so he stared at the taut muscles of her neck.
"Are you alright, Anne?"
Slowly, she licked her lips and blinked at him--a tremendous effort. "Yes," she said at last. Her voice was thin, but lithe and strong, like a reed. "I'm fine."
Though unconvinced. He sighed, chewing his bottom lip.
Anne knew that gesture well--he was worried. But then, he was always worried. With all the biting and sucking he had done in the past nine months, she was surprised that he had a bottom lip at all anymore. Eric was a stable, dependable man, a good man, but he was entirely transparent. To him, Anne was nothing less than an enigma. Whatever had become of their relationship – of their marriage?
He sighed again. To Anne, the soft euphony of her husband's breath was like the sound of a bow dragged across the strings of a violin: an unbearable noise that set her teeth to grinding.
"Goodness, it's so hot in here, Anne," Eric observed awkwardly, his voice merely scratching the surface of the impenetrable silence. He tugged at his collar. "Why did you close the windows?"
He sauntered over to the window, raising his hands to thrust open the curtains.
"No!" she cried out suddenly, her voice fragile and shaking like a bird's broken wing. "Leave them be."
He turned around to look at her. Her voice softened. "Please. I need them closed. It helps me…think, concentrate… It helps me…understand. Please, Eric."
Eric could not tear his gaze away from her, though the desire to was powerful. The sight of his wife nauseated him: collapsed onto the chair like a broken doll, her face drained of colour, her dress hanging from her painfully thin body. Where was that woman he once loved? The graceful, elegant, yet sensitive and cheerful woman he had come to cherish and marry.
"Okay, Anne." He spoke in a dangerously saccharine tone--dangerous because his phoniness could launch her into another of her episodes.
Her eyes slid to the floor, to the smooth, enveloping carpet. Sweet muteness, collecting and engulfing the sound, the atmosphere. Collecting and engulfing. It could swallow her whole, embrace her, flood her into the soft silence of cloth, tear into her whole being. She would forsake Eric and the memory of his face. The face that buried itself in her lank hair each night. The face that pressed against hers in the throes of lovemaking. The face that turned away from her--whether in love or fear or sorrow or pity, she could not know.
Eric longed for her to return to him, his plea constantly at the back of his tongue, but he resisted. Wherever she was, he believed that she was beyond him. He could feel her within him, like a heart palpitation, yet she was so remote that he could barely see her silhouette on the horizon. But he always felt her--acutely, unbearably, beautifully.
The parlour was excruciatingly hot. Eric ran a trembling hand through his thick, dark hair, already doused with perspiration. The air was so heavy; he believed that if he lit a match, it would set the very air aflame. He wanted to thrust open the windows. But Anne must be handled delicately lest she break, like a dried flower. Thus, he endured.
As he toyed with his wedding ring, a realization dawned upon him. He had married a complete cipher. He loved her, but he did not know who she was. He thought he knew her once, but not anymore. The ring on his finger was an ominous trap, tainted with finality--a twisted reminder of an unlived vocation. He scolded himself for entertaining such a thought. It was cruel to fabricate such lies, he told himself. But he knew that it was far more cruel to reveal the truth to himself.
Together, husband and wife passed the moments like hours. They survived the fathomless silence, neither daring to steal a glance at the other. It was like the hours awaiting an execution: too brief for the reprieve to arrive and too slow for the guillotine to descend.
Suddenly, Anne jolted from her dazed, almost deathly position in the chair. She felt something inside, a strange, unnameable desire to do something. Was this the sensation of being alive again? Whatever it was, this feeling was inescapable. It tantalized her, caressing her with abominable force, taunting her sweetly. She rose from the chair swiftly.
Eric lifted his head from his hands, awakened from his swirling thoughts by Anne's sudden movement. She looked more alive than he had seen her in nine months. Puzzled, he watched her expectantly and apprehensively, like the audience of a trapeze artist.
Within her brewed a storm of operatic momentum. It was like a burst of lightning setting her body ablaze, like a roll of thunder rattling her bones, like the anticipation before a rainstorm racing through her veins.
"I..." She cleared her throat, her voice straining to reach a higher volume than it had in months. "I want to play the piano, Eric."
"That sounds wonderful, Anne," he said. He tried to suppress the excitement, the hope that this was a possible breakthrough, he thought, as he watched as Anne slowly padded to the piano. She slid onto the bench gracefully; even though she had not touched the piano since he could not remember when, it was no more than a reflex for her to return it. She was, after all, a consummate pianist. Clinging to the edge of his seat, the toxic heat of the air forgotten, Eric awaited the arrival of her music.
Anne’s hands danced above the piano keys like a spider. Black like the night and white like bone. How she had missed the piano's simplistic perfection! She channelled the thunder and lightning emanating from her fingertips into the piano keys as she played with utter nakedness -- without thought of musical notes, or harmony, or melody, or lyrics.. She played with the sorrow that devoured her daily.
Then there was silence as her fingers stopped.
The piano's song had granted her a temporary reprieve. But now, the absence returned to receive its due. She opened her mouth to speak, but she could not. Exhaling a shallow sob, she spoke, her voice was broken, like the toys of her dead child. "Shawn…"
At that instant, she felt a warm pressure on her shoulders as her husband knelt beside her and whispered gently, lovingly. “He’s gone. There’s nothing we can do but to move on...”
Anne reacted rapidly, seething with anger. “How can you say that when all you ever did was work? Work! Work! Work! You don’t know what I’m feeling!.”
Eric squeezed his eyes shut, but the tears escaped anyway. They brimmed with the fear, the rage, the uncertainty, the shattered hope that he had been nursing since Shawn's death.
"I miss him too, Anne" he finally said, his voice frail. I miss rubbing my hand in his fuzzy hair, playing with him in the sandbox in the backyard and his laughter… But I can't do this anymore. Can’t there be something more for us, Anne? Can’t you let me in so we can find something more together? You have me... Doesn’t that count for something?”
Anne's iron gaze and marble face softened, and a soft, swift pang reverberated in her heart. A sudden tenderness, senseless and very foreign to them both, overwhelmed them as she gently embraced him.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe there can be something more...”
Her smile was anaemic and unsure, but glazed with brilliance and hope sang and thrilled within Eric. As their embrace tightened, the heat broke upon their bodies like waves--crashing and renewing.
Marriage – such a fragile thing, yet so bittersweet. But that eternal bond between the two parties that coexists in love through trial and triumph can bring a person through many trying times.