A Man of Few Words
I wait for Cliff on the landing outside the apartment, his apartment, the spring air thick with the greasy smell of the bacon that is his dinner sizzling on the stove. His baby kicks against the inside of my ribs, making me gasp sometimes. I hear the bass throb of the engine before I see the rusted arrogance of his car pull into the lot. The apartment where I sleep and keep my clothes and clean and cook is his; his money pays the bills. But he has no claim on the stairs. They belong to the entire building, and I have nowhere else to meet him where I can look him in his narrow, angry eyes, not intimidated by his large rough body or his name on the lease.
I wait for him on the landing, and he glares at me as he climbs heavily, his chest working and his face red over his grease-spattered uniform shirt. “There a reason you’re standing in the middle of the stairs?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “To tell you goodbye. I’m leaving.”
He looks at me with a dullness that is less stupid than incredulous at what he perceives as the world’s constant betrayals of him. I used to ache at that sense of betrayal, used to believe I could ease the pain he carried on his slouched shoulders and in his hawk’s eyes. That was when we were young, of course, so long ago it seems like a dream, when I hadn’t tasted a cigarette or a shot of whiskey or a man’s tongue pushing against the inside of my mouth. He introduced me to all of those things, saved me from the awful isolation and obscurity of those who fall between the cracks in high school. And in return I guess I believed I could save him from the world, or from himself; I thought I could stave off the hell that lurked behind his silences and his eyes.
I see now what I saved him for: this moment on the stairs with the smell of bacon wafting on the breeze and my feet swollen from carrying his child and my eyes puffy with crying, this moment on the stairs when realization breaks slowly across Cliff’s face.
“I’m leaving you,” I say again. “For good. But you’ll be okay; your dinner’s on the stove.”
I had to tell him out here. I know too well the rage that constantly surges through Cliff, the rage I used to mistake for pain. Inside his apartment with his furniture and his clothes and his food, I would only choke the words back into my throat as I have too many times before. But I’ve discovered that words are solid, and if you swallow them long enough they build up in your throat and start to strangle you. And it’s not only me being strangled now but the baby squirming inside me, too, and Cliff’s anger released on my body has cost me one baby already.
Would I still have fallen in love with him if I’d been able to see this denouement? If I could have looked across time to this third-floor apartment with wooden stairs that are icy in winter and splintery in summer, to the roaches who share my food, to the beast of a man who grunts and heaves in our bed on nights when there’s no money left for him to gamble or drink away? If I’d known that loving him would cost me college and a journalism career, a house and every other dream I’d ever had, even the child who altered those dreams by forcing me into this marriage?
Cliff says nothing. Cliff is a man of few words.
He stands aside, and as I pass him on the way down I smell the stale odor of his breath and the sickly tang of his sweat. My suitcase already is at my mother’s house; I have only to walk to the bus stop now. My fingers on the railing quiver.
Then Cliff’s hand pushes against the small of my back and I teeter for a moment before gravity claims my weighted body and I crash down the stairs. I think as I fall of Scarlett O’Hara tumbling down the flight in her magnificent front hallway, think of how even her soft red carpet could not save her baby from the angles and corners. I feel a vague relief that I will not after all have this child either.
I remember the day I knew I loved him, the day he came into English class fifteen minutes late and smuggled a bottle of Jack Daniels around the back row while the teacher was copying vocabulary words onto the blackboard. “Try it, Katie,” he said, and I did, and maybe it was the way his eyes glowed with fierce intensity when he looked at me that made me love him, or maybe it was his half-amused, half-woeful expression when the teacher handed him a detention slip for tardiness. Falling in love felt so wild and wonderful and out of control, so exhilarating, a cruel parody of this fall down hard stairs to the certainty of the cracked concrete sidewalk.
As I crumple on that unyielding ground, my last realization is that the tone of the bacon smell has changed, and Cliff’s dinner is burning.
Monique Bos earned a master’s degree in literature from the Pennsylvania State University. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines, and she has taught college writing courses. A longtime resident of Savannah, Georgia, she is in the process of relocating to Seattle.