It wasn't that he found it. He'd known where it was for years, hidden beneath piles of attic treasure. He'd put it there himself. No, it was his decision to climb the ladder, find it, hold it. That was was the thing. That was what he said when his wife got home. Hold this for a few minutes. She was upset. Get that away from me! And he'd stood, it seemed like hours, wondering why he couldn't let it go.
He didn't know why he had finally decided to exhume the thing, but it was done. Dinner was a bland, vast silence. After dinner was no better. He listened to her night time sounds. Water running. Tooth brush bristles. Still, he sat in the living room. He couldn't put it down.
There are some things that hurt so badly that they transcend pain. They are too big to process. Then, there are the small triumphs. The occasional true victory. All these things spice up the routine. And without the spice, things get simple. Simple is not always good. Sometimes it is merely simple.
He turned it in his hands, and his mind went blank. The room was now near-dark. His wife was snoring softly. Shadows flitted around corners. He had that uncomfortable feeling that things were darting right in front of his face. That he was missing them, whatever they were.
He stood and looked out the window, turning it slowly. Feeling the scuffed edges. His focus shifted between the street and his reflection. The street was quiet, festooned with old fast food bags and cigarette butts. He was him. Thin. Everything was thin. Thin hair, thin arms ... his face was painfully thin. It wasn't his fault. Food didn't taste the same as it used to.
He was lonely ... lonely in a way that he could not explain, even to her. He was lonely at parties, with his friends, in his wife's embrace. He knew it. He tried to fix it. Internal monologue that was so loud he was sure everyone could hear: She's your wife! She loves you. She's holding you. You're supposed to feel comfort! You're supposed to feel fucking something!
He played his role. Sometimes, he caught himself chuckling at jokes he hadn't heard. He agreed with everything that was said to him because the words took too long. They could never catch up with his pre-emptive self-loathing. So, he nodded. Right. Right. Certainly. Yes, yes. Never understanding.
It was time to sleep. He knew that. He had to work in the morning. But he could work tired, bleary-eyed, sometimes fatigue made the day go faster. Sometimes it didn't matter. Most of the time it didn't matter.
He couldn't even walk down the street. Strangers' innocent glances became assaults, insinuations, sly winks, looks of pity. Don't look at me! You don't know. Let me explain it to you so this will all make sense. So you will suck that look of sadness back inside your face. There was no point in explaining something he himself did not understand. He knew that.
When the phone rang, he jumped. Finally. He had known ... there was a reason that he'd gone spelunking in the attic. He reached for the phone with shaking hands. He knew that the person on the other end of the line would make it all sensible again. His hello wavered slightly, a gut-shot deer trembling before the fall. Is Michael there? A woman's voice. He didn't know what to say. He said nothing. Hello? Hello? I'm sorry, I must have the wrong number.
The phone clicked to the dial tone and still he stared at it, gripped it with all his might. Wrong number? Wrong fucking number? You were supposed to explain. The phone never rings and tonight of all nights ... damn. Damn, damn, damn.
He wondered what a "man" would have done with all this. That was drilled so far into his brain. His father, long dead. Broken leg? Be a man. Broken heart? Be a man. Failure, ache, longing, pain? Be a fucking man, Nancy! But he wasn't a man. Not the kind of man his father had wanted him to be. He was a man, perhaps, in gender only. Or, as he had long suspected, his father had merely simplified the rule book. He'd taken a different approach. He had never told his son to be a man and, perhaps, it would have made a difference. He had his doubts.
The phone was still ringing in his ears as he slowly scanned the apartment. Everything was bright, crisp, defined. Even through the haze of half-light. It wasn't right. Was he drunk? He hadn't had a drink in years. What was it? A stroke? A hallucination? He blinked hard, letting his eyes rest in the closed position. When he opened them again, the room was back to normal. The pounding in his chest settled to a trot.
He realized that he was still holding it. Where would he put it? The mantle? The dining room table? He scouted places of honor inside small, dark rooms ... places where it could finally rest ... his hands began to shake again, and he was afraid he would drop it. And with the fear came the knowledge of his folly. It had been in the attic for a reason.
He climbed the fold-down ladder carefully, one hand on the rungs. He pulled the ball-chain, and angry light fell on boxes of Christmas decorations. His fishing gear. Her sewing machine. Piles of clothes and mystery. Things they hadn't touched in years. With a wavering confusion, he put it back where he'd found it. He walked slowly down the ladder and then to the garage where he grabbed his hammer and four long nails. The pounding sound woke his wife. He did not know this.
He brushed his teeth and washed his face. The harsh light of the bathroom made him feel silly, romantic, foolish, ashamed, angry. He turned the light off and pissed in the dark.
He climbed into the bed. He had never understood why the bed had to be so high. It was something he used to give her grief about: the high bed, the fancy pillows that they weren't allowed to actually use - he had stopped hassling her years ago. She wanted a tall bed with fancy pillows. A bed that always looked 'bed and breakfast' sharp. Maybe it was the one thing she could control. He didn't fault her for it. He did not try to make her feel small.
She was asleep on her side. He thought so, at least. He curled around the back of her, his arm draped across her hip. He felt her move slightly, an adjustment that, somehow, made for a closer fit. Did you put it away? He didn't have to answer. What were you hammering? There was no need to answer that one either. He knew she knew.
He kissed her gently on the back of her neck. He held her close until her breathing was slow and regular, plodding. He held her while she dreamt, sometimes lashing out with her arms ... sleep fighting. He held her until the sun wiggled through the curtain. The curtain that matched the pillows.
She woke, but she did not move. And neither did he. They stayed together. What else was there to do, really? Just hold on and hope that holding on is enough. They did not go to work that day. They did not speak. The words had been spoken a million times before. He thought about the attic door. The nails smartly embedded in the old, dry wood. He wondered how long he would be able to keep his promise. The one he'd broken so many times. Let bygones be bygones. He didn't know if it was possible, but he would try.