At that point things had been rough for a couple of months and I would’ve done anything to ease the tension. I set an alarm for half an hour earlier than usual. I thought if I had some breakfast going when Cathy got up she’d have to see that I cared.
After all, cooking wasn’t the easiest thing to do in our house. Both of us hated dishes so the kitchen was always a mess. There were pots and pans stacked on the counters and plates in the sink. Some still had clumps of food stuck to them. I even had to rinse out a bowl to use. Somehow there were a couple of clean forks and knives in the drawer. I got some eggs from the fridge and went to work scrambling the yolks.
While I was tossing in some vanilla and cinnamon I heard this noise on the window. It was this chit-chit-chit sound. Real fast-like. It was freezing rain. By the looks of the street that ran out front of the house it’d been going awhile. The stoplight was shining off a layer of ice. A car drove by real slow before locking up and fishtailing. It spun almost halfway around before the driver got it corrected and went on his way.
From the other room I heard Cathy’s alarm go off. She groaned and shuffled into the shower. That week hadn’t been good to her. We were both finishing up school, her studying and me teaching, but she was in the thick of it and the stress had really started wearing on her.
The thing about Cathy and me was that whenever one of us got to feeling pressure, things started falling apart. The worse it got the more we picked at each other. An argument here, an argument there, until eventually we’d just have a knock-down drag-out and stop talking for a couple of days.
I remember this one time when the both of us had had some kind of trouble at work and the bills were piling up. We got to making smart comments and butting heads. It built up and built up and something ridiculous sent us over the edge. Something to do with me changing channels on the television and she was up and cussing me out and telling me she had a good mind to cut me.
Cut me? I said. What the hell’re you talking about?
She got right in my face and started chewing on her bottom lip. It was what she did when she got real upset. James, she said. I’ve had enough of your shit. You hear me?
There was a look on her face I’d never seen before.
All right, I said. All right.
She said, I mean it. I’ve never meant anything more in my life.
I know, I said.
Okay, she said. All right.
That night I couldn’t sleep for anything. I just kept tossing and turning. All I could think about was what she’d said.
Hey, I said, shaking her awake. Hey, hon.
What? I’m sleeping.
Hey, I said. You know earlier?
What about it? she said.
What you said about wanting to cut me?
About wanting to cut me?
You meant that? You really meant that?
Cathy took a deep breath and messed with her pillow. Yeah, she said. I did. If I’d had something to do it, she said, I would’ve.
That woke me up. Not just that night either. I mean, it really stayed with me. How could it not? Anytime we fought after that, if it got heated or whatever, I’d think about what she’d said and start apologizing real fast, saying I’m sorry and trying to hold her close. You can’t deal with that, after all. You can’t be looking over your shoulder and sleeping with an eye open every night.
So that’s what we were up against, all that stuff piling up and the two of us nearing something awful and permanent. And there I was dipping some slices of bread in the egg and putting them in a pan on the burner. French toast was her favorite and I was hoping she’d see I was trying and maybe we’d get things back on track.
Cathy walked into the kitchen, dressed in a sweater and jeans and drying her hair with a towel. “Making breakfast?” she said.
“Trying,” I said, and grabbed a spatula to turn the toast. It was getting some good coloring on it.
“Today’s gonna be a rough one,” she said.
I said, “I bet” and turned on the coffeemaker.
“Is it snowing out?” she said, straining to look out the window behind me.
“Freezing rain. Looks real slick.”
“That’s just what I need,” she said. “I mean, I really want to go and flunk this class and break my arm on the way out.”
I laughed and checked the toast. It was just about done so I sprinkled some more cinnamon on top and turned the burner down.
“I had awful dreams last night,” she said. She had that towel in her hands. She was squeezing it and balling it up before she let go and it fell to the floor. “I mean, they were terrible.”
“Huh,” I said. I got the toast out of the pan onto one of the few clean plates. From the cabinet I grabbed a bottle of syrup and carried all of it over to the table and laid it out for her.
“Did you hear me?” she said. “Did you hear what I said or do you not care about my dreams?”
I said “What?” and poured a couple cups of coffee.
“You never ask about my dreams,” she said. “I don’t think you give a damn what I dream about.”
“Sure I do,” I said. I handed her a cup and a fork and knife. “Eat,” I said. “Eat and tell me about these dreams.”
“You don’t want to hear about ‘em. It’s fine. It’s no big deal. You don’t have to worry about what I’m dreaming.”
I said “Honey” and smiled. “I want you to eat and tell me everything you dreamed about last night.”
“You don’t have to say that,” she said. “I know you’re being nice and it’s appreciated. I really appreciate it. You need to know that.”
“I mean it,” I said.
“All right,” she said. She sliced into the toast and drug it through a puddle of syrup. “You don’t have to listen if you don’t want to.” She took a bite and smiled. “This is real good. Really good.”
“All right,” I said. “Now, what about this dream?”
“Well,” she said. “It was one of those where it feels like real life. Like you’re really there and you don’t know any better. You ever have those?”
“Sometimes,” I said. The freezing rain was starting to really come down outside.
“Anyway, it was one of those. It was so real to me. I can’t get over that, how real it was. I could smell it and feel it. Everything.”
“Okay,” I said. I was listening but still watching the sleet. It’d picked up to the point where you could hardly see anything for it.
Cathy said, “Are you listening?”
“Sure,” I said. “I was looking at the sleet. That’s all. Please, keep talking.”
Cathy sighed and took another bite of her toast. “So I was in my old high school and I knew there was this test I had to take, but I couldn’t remember where the room was. For the life of me I couldn’t remember.”
I said “Wow.”
“Yeah, exactly. You said it. You really said it. And I went to get a schedule out of my locker, but I didn’t know the combination.”
“What’d you do?” I said.
“I went from door to door but I never found the room. I got so upset I started crying. I could feel the tears rolling down my face. I could really feel them.”
I finished my coffee and rinsed it out. Then I scrubbed the pan I’d used. “Is that it?” I said.
“No,” she said. “That’s not it. That’s not even close to it. If that was it I would’ve said that was it. I got all the way home and none of the lights would work. I kept flipping the switch but it didn’t matter. I was in the dark and it was the scariest thing ever. It didn’t feel like home. It didn’t feel safe.”
I said, “Huh.”
“Then, all of a sudden, they all came on. Every light in the house. And do you know what I saw?”
“What’s that?” I said. “What’d you see?”
She set her fork down on the plate. Her eyes narrowed the way they do whenever I’ve done something to really piss her off. “You,” she said. “I saw you sitting in your chair. You were there the whole time.”
I didn’t know what to say so I kept scrubbing.
“I asked you why you didn’t help me and you didn’t say anything. Nothing.”
When I finished with the pan I turned around to say something, but I couldn’t. Cathy was sitting there at the table with her plate of half-eaten toast in front of her. She looked like she was about to cry, just like she did in that dream, but what really got me, what really got my attention, was the knife in her hand. She was gripping it for all she was worth. Gripping it so hard her knuckles went white.
“Why would you do that?” she said. “Why would you just sit there and not say anything?”
I thought about it a second. I mean, I really stood there awhile and wondered why I might’ve done something like that. I thought about it and looked at that knife in her hand. I said I didn’t know.
Cathy didn’t really say anything after that. She put her knife and fork and dish in the sink with my cup and the pan and all the other dishes and went into the other room to get her shoes and coat. I watched her tie her laces and button her buttons. She stole one last look in a mirror on the wall and went outside to get the car ready.
I stood at the sink and washed our dishes. When I got done with those I started in on the ones that’d been there awhile. From where I was standing I could see Cathy scraping and beating ice off the car. It was so thick she had to hit it with the butt of the scraper. Her hair kept falling down in her face and then she’d have to stop, take a breath, and tuck it back behind her ears, only to have it fall all over again. It took her awhile to clean the windshield, but she got through. When she finished she got in and backed down the drive.
When I was done with the dishes it was about time to take off, so I got my coat and gloves and shut off all the lights. The sun hadn’t started coming up yet and it was so dark in there I could hardly see to get to the door. I tripped over the couch and a pile of clothes. Outside I breathed the cold into my lungs. I had about a half a mile walk to the school and needed to get used to it. I stepped out onto the drive and tried to find my footing on the ice. It was everywhere, on the houses, the power lines, the street signs. A layer of it coated everything. It was even on the trees, and when the wind blew through them the limbs and branches groaned. They groaned and cried until they were just about ready to break.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jared Yates Sexton lives in Indiana and teaches writing at Ball State University. He is a contributing editor at BULL and his short story collection, Just Listen, was recently a finalist for the New American Fiction Prize.