t’s still morning. At least that’s what I tell myself.
Light seeps into the corners of my eyes like the edges of an old photograph. Wind buffets my face like waves. My eyes drift open and like a polaroid the world slowly materializes in front of me; shapes and colours creep in from hot white light until I’m presented with the hypnotic cadence of a ceiling fan. The blades spin round and round, running from one another only to just end up back where they started; perpetually running from an inescapable conclusion. I turn my head and to my surprise Daphne’s not fast asleep beside me. In fact, she’s not in bed at all which was odd because she usually slept in on Saturdays.
A bottle of her favorite wine rests haphazardly on the edge of her nightstand bringing me back to the night before. Summers were meant for late nights and long naps she would always say, her lips stained red with her favorite wine, legs crossed and shimmering in the firelight. She’d always find my gaze through the flames, embers dotting her eyes like the night sky. And then she’d smile before drawing one more sip and returning to the revelry around her. That was usually when I quietly excused myself for the night leaving her to gossip and mingle with the other friends enjoying the evening. While summer may be for late nights, I always found if they went too late and her lips got too red we’d end the night with a fight and it was better to resign to the living room and fall asleep on the couch to reruns of old TV. She was always cheerful after the cicadas started singing and morning gave way to early afternoon. But it was not early afternoon. My watch tells me it’s only eight. I call out her name and wait. Straining my ears, awaiting reply; or perhaps just the cold response of running water from a hot shower down the hall. Neither comes to me and for a moment I run through the events of the night before.
James and Rashi had come over, as well as our neighbor Terrence. The two of them we’d known since college; Terrence just since we moved in last fall but he always had interesting things to say. He was old enough you didn’t even bother asking his age anymore. The one time I had he just responded with ‘since time’ and looked at me with a twinkle in his eye before going back to tending his garden. Crinkled brown skin pulled tight every time he smiled which was often. He’d been in the same barbershop quartet for almost twenty five years before the other three started succumbing to the effects of disease and time. But he’d still croon for us around the campfire as best he could. The drunker he got you’d see him dancing between the harmonies clumsily trying to give you the full effect but it would just end in fits of laughter from all of us including him; especially when he went for the high notes, his baritone vocals barking at registers unknown.
I check my phone for any messages and there’s a missed call from James. I tap it to call him back but after two rings it goes to voicemail. I shoot him a message before flipping over to my conversation with Daphne. Where you at? I type. A quick call sends me straight to voicemail. Probably best to check with Terrence first anyways and see if she was still up when he had gone off to bed. He was usually up earlier than both of us so if she had gone somewhere he might even know where that was.
My body groans and my stomach does a flip when I roll out of bed and take my first few steps towards the hall. A hollow clank spooks me where my foot’s knocked over another bottle of empty wine; she must have had a later night than I thought. I never knew what she saw in the stuff. Hot, sweet breath, red teeth and a gut ache the next morning was all it ever did for me. I’d usually have a sip just to see if it had gotten any better since the last time but it never satisfied any deep desire within like it did for her. Just a cough or a wince followed by my tongue feeling dry and fuzzy. Apparently, that was a good thing.
“Daphne?” I call out again. More central in the house now, she’s bound to hear me if she’s around. The bathroom door’s shut but the shower’s off. I push it open. Assess myself in the mirror briefly. Dishevelled hair. Wet eyes and somehow my single sip from the night before still managed to cling to my teeth. I futilely run my tongue along them before wetting a toothbrush and tackling it head on. Everything about this felt so utterly familiar. It wasn’t just Friday nights that she drank, was it? No, it was most nights. A bad habit turned into a mundane routine. I spit in the sink. Old toothpaste is stuck like glue in clumps around the basin. I splash water around it but it needs a full scrubbing. A quick glance around the bathroom reveals similar neglect. I can’t remember the last time we had done a weekly clean of the place. To be honest, she was usually the one leading the charge, but the chart of chores that used to be stuck to our fridge door had been replaced by liquor store flyers for a while now. Specials, new arrivals, old faithfuls.
I make my way down the hall to the kitchen, ignore the cluster of dishes sitting in the sink and head through to the front foyer and slip on a pair of runners. Out of habit I reach out for the hook that holds the car keys and grasp nothing but air. Weird. Not that the keys would be gone, but that both sets of keys are missing – mine and hers. Sure enough, the car’s not parked in the driveway. She must have taken both keys by mistake, right? After last night she was probably still half in the bag, or just crawling out of it when she headed off to wherever she was going. The brick column that climbs halfway up the corner of our house is crumbling, bits of sediment and a few larger chunks are strewn around it; a sign of the times. Part of being able to afford a home anymore was foregoing the usual due diligence like inspections and simply taking what you could get. This wasn’t the only part of our home slowly falling apart. The entire place was breaking at the seams like an aging suit; the kind you see men digging out of their closets for a funeral despite being a few inches wider than when they first bought it.
Terrence’s flowers are opening up beautifully along the stone path to his front door. A bumblebee wobbles and waves around a particularly colorful patch of petals, slowly lining up a sloppy landing and collapsing on a leaf like a shipwrecked sailor. Protect the bees! She’d yelled sloppily a few weeks back. They’re all we friggin got. Something she’d read in one of her magazines. The next day she’d come home from the farmer’s market with ten jars of organic honey. The kind that crystallized and you had to spread like peanut butter. Each jar was a different varietal. This one has hibiscus while this one is lavender and wildflower. The relation to her wines was not lost on me but this seemed healthier and for a naive moment, I thought maybe she’d found a new hobby. It only took until the next evening to realize I was mistaken.
My knock on his door spooks a nearby sparrow who chirps indignantly and launches off his perch to a more peaceful end of the yard. I can hear Terrence shuffling around inside before his voice comes booming through the door.
“What you want?”
“Terrence, it’s me, open up.”
“No, I think I’m good, son.”
“Why? Are you naked?”
I let out a chuckle hoping to break the confusing tension coming through the door but he doesn’t even respond. Terrence would open his door for his worst enemy if he knew he was hungry. Something wasn’t adding up. A dark thought that maybe more than just Terrence lay beyond that door struck a dark chord in my mind and sent my fist knocking again.
“Come on now, open up. I need to talk to you about Daphne! Have you seen her?”
“Son. I’m afraid if you don’t leave now I’ll have to call the cops. I just can’t do this today.”
His words send me a step back. Who did he think he was? Call the cops on me?
“Terrence quit playing around! Just open up. I’m really starting to get worried about her.”
And I was. As much as things had waned since we moved. As much as I hated the drinking. And the fighting. And the interrupted sleep. The endless hobbies that cluttered the corners of our home. I still loved her. The truth was, it kept me safe. Safe from trying new things on my own. I lived vicariously through her various passions, tasting honey like it was scotch or finding vintage frames at second hand stores to house her latest finger painting. There was something beautiful about dating this flawed tapestry of a woman; for all her flaws, she kept me warm at night.
I can hear a heavy sigh even through the door. A deadbolt knocking back. The door swings half open and Terrence’s swollen face fills the frame. The purple marbling on his cheekbone pushes the thought of Daphne out of my mind for a brief moment.
“Terrence, what happened?”
He sucks air in through tight teeth and shakes his head.
“I liked you, son. I liked Daphne more, but I really did like you too.”
“Now you listen well and you listen good. I feel for you. I do. It was a tragedy – to all of us. But you have to straighten yourself up. You gone too far this time.”
“You’re saying I did this to you?”
“You and your drinkin’.”
No. I shake my head. He’s old. Old and confused.
“I went to bed last night before all of you Terrence, you know that.”
“All of us? All of who?”
“You. You – and James…and Rashi.”
He grimaces. I can see him shift his body more behind the door, bracing it.
“Son. I don’t know what you think happened last night but ain’t none of us over at your place. You came over here hollering about Daphne and when I opened my door you demanded to know where she was just like you is now. I don’t got the answers you need son, only God has those, but you got to find a way to let go.”
“Let go? Of what?”
“Of her son. She’s gone. Two weeks now you’ve been coming around here. Your teeth been red for weeks. I can’t carry on like this.”
“You’re wrong. She’s just gone off somewhere this morning. Probably grabbing coffee for us right now.”
“Your car was impounded five days ago after you crashed into the corner of your own damn house. Lucky those bricks held like they did. Only reason you ain’t in jail is ‘cause you didn’t damage nothing but your own.”
My head’s spinning like a carousel. I keep spotting different images spinning around me, flashes of time. Memories that feel like lies. My black suit I hadn’t worn since college gripping me like a wetsuit, bursting at its seams; the one I wore when my dad died all those years back. But this funeral wasn’t for him, was it? My friend James pulling me tight telling me everything was going to be alright. Sitting on my front stoop with Terrence, sharing a bottle of rootbeer one of his nephews had made from scratch. He was wearing a suit too and singing some sad song that cut up your insides and made your heart weep.
I look down at my feet. At my hand, bruised in its own right. Then lift stinging eyes back up to Terrence.
“You know how, son. And you keep doing like you are, you’ll find her soon enough.”
I stand there. My body frozen in shock. My brain scrambling to rewrite my memories. My eyes turning wine into water. All I can say is –
“Me too, son.”
He nods at me. Eats his bottom lip.
“Please don’t come over here again.”
The door shuts firmly in front of me and I hear him shuffling off. Finding my way back to my own front door is a blurry mess. Feeling for the ground like I might fall in quicksand with one misplaced step. I collapse at the foot of my bed and a glint of light catches my eye. Dozens of bottles litter the floor beneath my mattress. Her favorite wine; but emptied by another’s hand. My breath is hot on my face as it’s pressed up against the floorboards. In that moment I can smell myself. Taste the fermented sugars that have settled between my teeth like dirt under your fingernails.
I drag the blanket off my bed and curl up right there in a pool of tears. How many days had I ended like this? How many times had my mind betrayed me? Ripping open the scars and leaving me paralyzed with nothing but my thoughts to haunt me.
I shut my eyes tight and wander back. To her smile. And her eyes. The effortless way she moved around a room, her dress dancing behind her as if her own voracity for life seeped into its very fibres. The way she said my name even when she was angry. I pull the blankets tighter around me and shut out everything but her. Refusing to let reality bring me back to the present. To a time without her, as all time from here on would be. It wasn’t enough, all those moments. Stacked up against a lifetime without her. I pray for the morning. A morning where she hadn’t yet been taken from me. I reach for another bottle and let it dull my senses and eventually I do fall back asleep.
The sound of the cicadas wakes me eventually. Moonlight drifts in casting shadows of dancing leaves on the far wall and I’m left wondering what I’m doing laying on the floor. The bed’s empty; Daphne must have run off somewhere. Perhaps another liquor store run. I close my eyes again. Five more minutes won’t kill me.
It’s still morning after all.
At least that’s what I tell myself.