It was the wind that woke her, howling through the screens and lashing against the old house mercilessly. The lone tree that graced their backyard scraped across the roof with its gnarled, naked limbs, refusing to relent. Mariah turned to the glowing numbers on the alarm clock. 4:23. Her eyes went to her husband, soundlessly sprawled on the pillow next to her. The stark black ink of a tattoo peeking out from beneath the sheets called forth bygone nights that felt scattered by a wind just as strong as the one raging outside. Her fingers ached to touch it; to trace the curling lines that wrapped around his shoulder blades and ended at the base of his neck. It had been a long time since she had done that and her hands felt the loss. He sighed in his sleep, as if in response, and she could bear the rattling windows no longer.
In the hallway, she leaned toward Connor’s door, listening for sounds of him. When she heard nothing but the wind, she descended the creaky steps to the basement. The room was thick with darkness, with only a tiny window at the far end that let in a splotch of pale moonlight, but she knew her way. She rounded a corner and flipped a light switch to reveal a modest, windowless room. The walls glowed a sunny yellow in the light, Mariah’s attempt to brighten the dank basement space. Her Gibson was waiting for her in the corner, next to the worn brown loveseat that had followed them from house to house like a lost dog. She closed the door and ran her fingers down the fret. The feel of strings on her fingertips awoke something inside her that nothing else could. Not even when Matt used to rouse her from sleep in the mornings with his hands. This was something aching inside, just out of reach, and it was all she could do to chase it down and sing it out loud. Connor’s first winter had been a tough one, before Matt had been promoted to foreman, and he had wanted to sell the guitar. They probably would have gotten a lot for it, but she dug in her heels. It was a gift from her mother, before she passed, and had grown on her like an appendage.
The wind was annoyingly audible as she settled on the edge of the loveseat and slid the strap over her head, sighing at the smooth comfort against her chest. She closed her eyes and began playing the first song that came to mind, a tune she had been humming for weeks. Since Connor had been born, she rarely played, any more. But this melody had been nagging at her and she couldn’t ignore it. It rose inside her, quiet and despondent at first. She picked the notes, almost like a harp, until she came to the chorus. It stretched and pulled itself out into the space, taking shape as it went along. Even while she played the tune that had been consuming her, haunting her even, she felt it was still out of reach. She had tried changing the key, even changing the tempo, but nothing brought it closer to completion.
She flattened her hands against the strings, letting the dissonance of wrong notes ring through the tiny room. The house groaned above her in the wind, shifting its weight to one side and then the other. She wondered how the boys could sleep through all that noise. Even down in the basement, it set her teeth on edge. She closed her eyes again and let the song blot out the creaking house. Her fingers returned to the strings and she let it out again. She had only put a few words to it, worried that if she went any further, it would muddle the already elusive tune. As she played, she hummed a line here and there, disappearing into the song completely. The squeal of the door against its hinges jolted her out of her trance.
“Hey,” Matt said, tugging the hem of his t-shirt down over his torso.
“What are you doing up so early?” she asked, as a warm blush crept across her cheeks.
“Couldn’t sleep. You?”
“You’re playing again?” He nodded toward the guitar in her lap.
He stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, as they both searched the fibers in the carpet for something to say. His downcast face was shaded by mid-November whiskers, halfway through his yearly attempt at a beard. She wished she could morph into something other than herself, too, if only for a month.
“Wind’s really whipping out there,” he said, looking behind him at the tiny window that was splashing hints of dawn in purple and pink on the walls.
“Yeah,” she nodded.
“Can I hear it?”
“The song you were playing.”
She gnawed on the inside of her cheek and finally met his eyes across the room. They used to be like warm honey spilling over into his wide grin. On that chilly November morning, they were solid umber.
“I was just messing around,” she said as she lifted the strap back over her head and replaced the guitar in its stand, feeling his eyes on her the whole time.
“How long are we gonna do this? How long are we gonna pretend?”
“I’m not pretending anything.” She felt the blush return to her cheeks and tried to hide it with her palms.
He crossed the room to the loveseat and knelt down on the floor in front of her. His hands were rough and calloused against her wrists as he pulled her hands away from her face. She could feel his warmth, with only thin cotton between his skin and hers. It would be easy to melt into him, the way she used to. But would there be anything left? Would there be any discernible part of herself that hadn’t been swallowed up in this stitched marriage? He squeezed tighter around her wrists as he searched her eyes, demanding an answer with his own.
Mariah opened her mouth and then closed it again, weighing her words. The emptiness swirled inside her, injecting itself into the space between them. The first line of her song resonated in her head.
( I don’t wanna stay, but I could never leave.)
Matt pulled her into him slowly, as if the answers he sought were there on her lips. Before she could stop them, the tears seeped down her face and fell on their arms.
He pulled away and searched her face, again, as she hastily wiped them away. A faint whining sounded through the vent in the ceiling and she jolted up off the loveseat.
“That’s Connor,” she said, making her way to the door. “The wind probably woke him.”
“I’m trying, you know. Really trying.” His words held her on the bottom step.
“I know,” she said, and started up the stairs.
Outside, the wind howled on, stubborn and unmoved by the sunrise.
It had begun to snow that afternoon. It wasn’t the pretty, fluffy kind that dusted the grass and rooftops. These were heavy, thick flakes that hung in the air before they hit the wet road and disappeared in a mess of dirty runoff. After dropping Connor off at her dad’s, Mariah found herself driving through town just to clear her head. The snow was hypnotizing, streaking past the windows in a thick, white haze. Matt was working on a remodel across town. He said he’d be late that evening, leaving her to guess at the reason. Feeling overwhelmed, she had called her dad and begged for an afternoon off. Something had to give.
“You two having problems again?” he had asked in his polite, I don’t really want to know manner. She had made up some excuse about not feeling well and they both left it at that. He wasn’t one to pry into her personal life, or anyone’s for that matter. Since her mom had passed, she stopped bringing over her dirty laundry.
She saw a sign for a coffee shop tucked away behind a shiny new Walmart and decided some caffeine might dull the ache in between her eyes. It was a place she had visited with her high school friends; off the beaten path enough to be an acceptable hangout for the artsy crowd. She pulled into a spot a few cars down from the door and trudged through the wet snow. Once inside, the aroma of roasting beans pervaded her cold nose, warming it immediately. She noticed the place had been remodeled since she had been there last, allowing for a stage and an extra seating area at the back. There was a small, eclectic group of people in a circle by the stage. Otherwise, the place was empty.
Mariah ordered a large French roast and picked a seat by the counter, where she could watch the group at the back without being too obvious. It looked like some kind of meeting; probably AA, judging by the variety of the group. She recalled the few meetings she had been to with Matt, the last time they had tried to work things out. Though it was only a year ago, it felt like a lifetime.
One woman appeared to separate the rest into pairs before joining her own partner. There was just one person left alone, a guy in a black t-shirt and boots. He leaned back against his Carhartt jacket slung over the chair and watched the others split up. He must have felt her eyes on him, because he turned to face her and smiled when she pretended like she had been looking elsewhere and not staring in his direction. He grabbed the empty mug in front of him and ambled over to the counter for a refill. Mariah tried to disappear into the scarf wrapped around her neck and sipped her hot coffee, feeling his presence just a few feet behind her.
“You here for the meeting?” he asked in a husky voice that carried across the empty space despite how quiet it was.
“Nope. Just here for the coffee,” she replied into her cup.
“Nobody comes here for the coffee. Not since Starbucks came to town. Why don’t you join us?”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I can’t stay, anyway.”
She heard the employee scoot a fresh mug-full across the counter and the man pulled out the chair next to her, scraping it across the tile and cutting through the quiet like nails on a chalkboard. He was taller than her, an occurrence she wasn’t too familiar with, and the sleeves of his t-shirt hugged his biceps. From the quick glances she took before looking away, she saw a pair of striking blue eyes beneath a mess of dark hair that fell in waves over his forehead. He sat down in the chair and studied her, a curious smile playing at the corner of his thin lips.
“You don’t really seem like you’re in a hurry.” His eyes went to her hands on the cup. “You play guitar?”
She shot him an incredulous look and he pointed to her left hand, the fingernails all concisely clipped. Her right, on the other hand, was shaped into nice, long ovals.
“Oh. Yeah, a little.”
“Me too. I’m Jamie,” he said, offering a hand across the table. She shook it warily.
“Mariah,” she replied.
“Why don’t you come on back and play with us?”
Her eyebrows pulled down low over her eyes as she scanned the group again. There were a couple guitars laying in their cases on the stage, but she had thought those belonged to the coffee shop; loaners for whomever they suckered into playing live.
“What kind of meeting is it, anyway?” she asked.
“It’s a support group for meth addicts.”
Her head snapped toward him and she inched backward in her seat. “I’m not-“
“Relax. It’s a songwriters’ group,” he said through a smile that swallowed up his eyes and left thin slivers of blue behind.
She stared into those slivers of blue and felt the beginnings of something stir inside her. They reminded her of staring into the gulf on her senior trip to Mexico, where the water was so blue it looked like an endless mirror of sea reflecting sky. The melody that had been nagging at her emerged, pushing itself past the ache in her head.
(From a restless heart, there’s no reprieve.)
Her song played in her head, shifting with the words that attached themselves to each note. It was falling into place and she clung to it, desperately. Her fingers drummed on the table to the rhythm as the coffee shop disappeared around her. The warm smell of the roasting beans remained, but she was adrift in waves of endless blue.
(We wrapped ourselves in familiarity
But honey, that’s all it’ll ever be
And I think, sometimes
All that’s left of you and me…)
The words were spilling out and she felt the space blur with the wetness in the corners of her eyes.
She blinked and the words were gone, replaced with the heavy snow coasting outside the window. He was watching her with a raised eyebrow, the hint of a grin still holding the corner of his mouth up. Her palm went to her face, an automatic response to the blush she felt heating her skin. She wasn’t sure what it was that inspired the song to finally come forward, only that she would do anything to keep it from disappearing.
“Okay,” she nodded. “I’ll join the group.”
Connor was pushing the pile of peas back and forth on his plate, and had been for twenty minutes. His cheek rested on his knuckles, elbow on the table, as he and Mariah watched the road outside their front window.
“Connor, eat your peas.”
“They taste yucky.”
“Just eat them,” she said, rising from her chair to grab her phone from the counter.
She chewed on the ragged edge of a fingernail while scrolling through her calls. No call from Matt. Her fingers tapped on the counter to the melody churning inside and more lyrics paved a path through the song that had been on her lips and fingertips for weeks. Since it had come pouring out of her at the coffee shop, she had heard it everywhere; in the early morning hours when sleep evaded her or the quiet moments of her day spent waiting. She could feel its arc in the tense hunch of her husband’s shoulders and in the way she drew her knees up against her chest when she sat next to him on the couch. The song gave voice to an ache that had all but drained her.
(All the faces we’ve been before
Even the ones we don’t want anymore)
“When’s Daddy coming home?” Connor asked, bringing her back to the present and sending a pea bouncing off his plate to the floor.
“That’s a good question, buddy,” she replied, glancing out the window, again.
“Maybe he just got lost, like you do sometimes.”
She turned her gaze to his sweet face. He looked so much like his father, or at least the way she remembered Matt in her head- perpetually seventeen. His eyes were deep and round, almost too big for his long face. They could warm her instantly.
“You mean in the car?”
“No, in your head. Daddy says sometimes you get lost in your head and that’s why you forget to say I love you. Maybe he got lost in his head, too, and forgot to come home.”
She crossed the room and knelt down next to his chair, wrapping an arm around his narrow shoulders. “Baby, you know I love you. I would never forget to say that.”
“Not to me, to Daddy. You forget to say it to him.” He continued to push the peas around his plate.
She swallowed, unsure of how to reply. She thought she had hid it from him, smiling through tears and explaining away arguments, but he knew. How much he knew, she couldn’t be sure, but he felt the distance between them just as she did: as the tangible, burdensome thing that it was. Her chest tightened at this revelation. He had been their glue, holding them together even when they were pulling each other apart. She blinked and saw the yellow beam of headlights sweep over the driveway outside.
“Daddy!” Connor shouted, leaping up from the table and sending a few more peas rolling off the edge of the plate.
Matt opened the door and scooped up Connor in a hug. He grinned as he stepped out of his work boots and tossed the squealing boy into the couch pillows.
“Good of you to come home,” she said under her breath as she gathered her phone and keys.
“We finished the remodel today, so a few of the guys and I went out for a drink, to celebrate,” he said, wrestling Connor to the floor.
She froze in the kitchen doorway, analyzing his movements and the grin still spread on his face. “A drink?”
He sighed and met her narrowed eyes. “Yes, Mariah. A drink. One drink.”
She took a deep breath, biting back the words that cut like razors into her tongue. He wasn’t swaying or slurring and there was no trace of a grin on his whiskered face. Maybe he really did only have one.
“I was supposed to go to group tonight.”
“Sorry. I forgot. You can still go, if you want.”
She hesitated, keys in hand.
“Go ahead and sing, Mama. Daddy can stay and play with me,” Connor said. He ran over and hugged her legs, before jumping on Matt’s back and demanding he fly across the floor like a spaceship. He scooted to where she stood in the doorway and let Connor slide off his back to the floor.
“Fine, but he has peas to finish,” she said, pointing to the plate on the table. The music was itching to get out of her tonight. There was no denying it.
Connor scrunched up his face, as if that was the worst thing in the world he could imagine, and Matt mirrored the face back to him. Mariah tossed her phone into her purse and pulled on her coat. She was halfway out the door when she turned around and shouted “I love you” up the steps to Connor’s room. Matt was hanging on the edge of the door, pleading with his eyes but closing the door slowly behind her.
“People do change,” he said, as she eased backwards onto the porch.
She bit the inside of her cheek and watched those round eyes disappear behind the door.
Not us, she thought, huddling into her coat against the chill. Just our circumstances.
“Today’s theme is love.”
Carol, the pseudo-leader of the group, had just finished singing her own love song when Mariah arrived and the group was splitting off into couples and trios. Jamie’s curious blue eyes had followed her all the way from the coffee counter to the edge of the circle, where she laid her guitar down at her feet and plopped into the chair next to his.
“Go ahead and let it all out. You have to show some vulnerability if you want us to believe your heart is overflowing,” Carol said as her eyes roamed over the group and came to rest on Mariah.
“Perfect,” Mariah mumbled, scalding her lips on the hot coffee.
Jamie raised his eyebrows at her as he pulled his black Fender from the case and hugged it to his chest.
“Everything okay?” he asked, his fingers softly strumming across the strings.
“Yeah. Sort of. I don’t know,” she shook her head. Staring into her coffee, she watched the steam dance on the rim of the mug and then disappear. She chewed on an already waning fingernail. “She’s gonna make me share tonight, isn’t she?”
Jamie looked from her to Carol, who was still looking pointedly at Mariah from over her rectangular glasses, and smiled. “Sure is. You ready?”
“I was born ready,” she answered automatically, but her fingers felt frozen and dead, unable to bend around the neck of her guitar.
He was staring her down, unmoved by her sarcasm. “You gonna sing the song you been workin’ on?”
She smiled at the way he dropped a g every now and again, revealing the good ole’ southern boy he tried hard to hide. He couldn’t hide it from his music, though. She had heard the country bleed out of him from the very first notes he played in front of her. You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy. Her mother used to say that about her father, when he was all charm and smiles for her. But that was a long time ago.
“It’s not done yet.”
“And if you have it your way, it’s never gonna be.”
“I just…I don’t know if this is right, for me. The last time I tried singing in front of people, I crumbled. I swore off the whole damn thing.”
“But it came back. You can’t fight it any more than I can. It’s in your bones, Mariah. Right down to your chewed off fingernails.”
She glanced down to her nails and tried to fight off a smile. He was right. She couldn’t keep music out of her life. It was a constant, through pains and pleasures. But could she share it with him? Could she share that piece of her soul with anyone?
“You know what your problem is?”
“If you say commitment, I’m leaving. The therapist didn’t get anywhere with that one, and neither will you.”
He grinned, brushing a thick wave of hair out of his eyes. “You need a man’s touch.”
“On your song. Let me play it with you.”
She looked up from her coffee, straight into the endless blue and felt more lost than ever. Despite the obvious differences in appearance, she saw a lot of Matt in Jamie. Or at least the Matt she used to know; the Matt that gave a sixteen year old girl a direction when she was spinning in circles; the Matt that grabbed hold of her and wouldn’t let go; the Matt that arranged a sweet proposal on his knee, even though she was four months pregnant and preparing for single motherhood. She had wanted to tell him she loved him that day, and every day, thereafter, but she didn’t. And that fear had followed her all the way here, always settling like dust in between them. She was tired, so very tired, and in a lucid moment, with her eyes still fixed on Jamie’s in the dim coffee shop lighting, she reached into her purse and pulled out a small notebook, tossing it into his open hands.
He flipped it open to the spot that was heavily creased in the binding and dove, head first, into the words and notes scribbled on the page. Within minutes, he was playing it, but giving it his own bit of twang. She loved it, instantly, and couldn’t help the awe that swept over her at hearing her own notes being played by someone else’s hands. Her fingers took up the notes, without her asking them to, and what followed was a harmony, more perfect than she could have imagined. They ran through it three times before Carol asked if she was ready to perform. Mariah turned to Jamie and he nodded.
Jamie read from the page while Mariah sang from her heart. He anticipated every dip, every run, every meaningful pause. It felt like they had been playing together all their lives, the way their voices complemented each other. There was no more group sitting in front of her, no more grief paining her; there were only lyrics being sung, and the truth behind them. Mariah closed her eyes for the last verse.
(I can’t push it down, can’t pull it away
You can’t regret words you never say
And I’m sorry for you
And I’m sorry for me
I’m sorry for all the apologies)
There was a second of sharp silence before the clapping grew, loud and appreciative. She opened her eyes and felt her face blushing, but her hands stayed down on her guitar instead of rising to cover it. Jamie leaned over and whispered something into her ear, just barely audible above the applause.
“You’ll never love anybody if you don’t love yourself, first.”
He nodded out past the group to a man leaning against the wall by the door. Even from beneath the bright lights onstage, she could see his eyes in the shade, like warm honey spilling over into a grin.
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