The sun would rise soon. Marie Soledad could tell because, at this early hour, the hint of morning sunlight contrasted with the still present nighttime. It seemed to create an effect of further darkening in sky. She took another sip of her steaming coffee, the warmth almost burning her throat as it slid down into her stomach. The chill from the window slipped through her nightshirt into her chest, and she shivered.
She was waiting—had been waiting—over three hours for her husband to come home. If it had been like before, she would have gotten into the car herself to search for him in the untimely hours of the morning. She would have dragged him back by his unsteady legs, and hushed him into bed before the children awoke. They were still young, and she wasn’t sure if they really understood the extent of the brokenness in their house. Although sometimes there was a hint here and there, an anxiety that the whole household shared, she could never fully ascertain if they saw the widening canyons between their parents. The house itself held its breath, as if its inhabitants were already broken bones, and with one bad gasp, the entire house would crumble. She would have to wake the children soon enough. What if he wasn’t back by then?
The door slammed, and disturbed her uneasy silence.
“You’re home,” she whispered from the kitchen with some hesitance. She heard his steps come up behind her. She knew them so well. They were heavy, and like she had guessed, with a hint of unsteadiness to them. Her neck stiffened; she could feel his breathing behind her.
“You shouldn’t have stayed up all night waiting for me. I was obviously going to come home,” he said. His voice on the defensive.
Taking a deep breath, Marie Soledad contemplated turning around and facing him. It bothered her even more now that he was so tall. It was easy for him to stand over her. To look down at her with his strange disgust.
With an expert spin of her wheelchair, she rotated to face him. “I didn’t stay up. I mean—I fell asleep—but then I woke up early when I realized you never came back to bed. I was worried.” She tried to keep her tone even. She was exhausted, and not looking for another fight.
“I told you I was going out.”
“So what are you saying exactly?”
“I wish you had felt the need to call me, or at least to text me, so that I could know that you were okay,” she tried to steady her voice, to even it out until none of her emotions leaked out. “You left before even putting the children to sleep,” she paused there, hearing her hurt slip into her voice.
He sighed in annoyance and turned away from her. With one hand in the air, he brushed away her words and her worry, as if he was swatting an annoying fly. Marie Soledad experienced the sting of his dismissal deep in her chest. It hurt more than anything because he used to take her words seriously. They used to mean something to him, even when they hurt him, especially when they hurt him. His hand reached into the fridge, and he pulled out a beer.
“At this hour?” The words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them. He cracked the bottle cap against the counter, a rough, aggressive sound.
“Yes,” he responded defiantly. “Am I your prisoner now? I already have to do everything for you, and I’m not allowed a drink?”
This time, she felt no shock. She had sensed this sentiment of his for a few months now. After the disbelief and the pain had left his system, this was all that was left. Resentment. His resentment over her condition, and the fact that now he could never escape.
Marie Soledad knew what he was thinking. That he was stuck in this marriage, because what type of sick son of a bitch would he be if he left her? She knew he had contemplated leaving her every time she was out of the house. He would sit at the edge of their bed, staring at the catheter tubes and the hospital shit littered around their room, and no doubt, he would have remembered the times she couldn’t hold her bladder, and peed the bed like their youngest child. He would think, “She’s not here right now, I might as well…” But then he’d stop himself when he saw a stray toy on the floor, because it always came down to his children. They were his handicap, and they prevented him from walking away, the same way Marie Soledad would never walk again. Sometimes, she could see how the thought of their searching and panicked faces made him sick with claustrophobia, and yet he loved them. He loved them with the same reverential passion she felt for them, and that prevented him from leaving her. How could he miss any part of their lives? Camila was learning to ride a bike with him. Matias wanted to race toy cars together. Whenever he came home from work, their little feet would slip over the floor as they ran into his arms. Camila’s nose kisses. Matias’s funny expressions. He was as much a prisoner of theirs, as he surely felt he was of Marie. They were all intermixed, their shared bloodlines binding them together in inexplicable ties.
“I just wanted you to tell me. I’m worried about you,” Marie Soledad spoke slowly. Finally, he turned to acknowledge her from across the room.
“That’s all you ever do. You just go around the house moping and worrying. I have to do everything around here,” he said in a huff, sitting down and looking away from her, wearied at the kitchen table. She tried moving forward towards him, remembering with a sharp sting how she used to hug him from behind at that same chair. Back when his troubles were not exclusively about her, but about his work, about money. Marie Soledad would lean over him, and kiss his hair with her smiling lips, and he would lean back into her, his shoulders relaxing into her chest. She had lost her smile. Ever since that runaway car sent her flying towards the asphalt during her routine morning run, her lips would lift in a faint attempt, and then fall. Now, the loneliness consumed them both from separate sides of their shared kitchen.
He put his head in his hands, and she knew then that he regretted his harsh words. They had been together long enough to read each other’s bodies. Back before the accident, she thought that this was a positive quality in their relationship. But now, when he studied her fragmented body, he only saw a shadow of the sensuous and adventurous woman from before. He read the scars, the unfeeling limbs, the catheters and adult diapers that she now had to use. It made her feel ugly. It made her feel broken.
Marie Soledad gazed down at herself. It had been a long time since she had felt secure in her own skin, especially her bottom half, disconnected from her control. After her accident, it had taken her a long time to learn how to do everything again. She had to start over, learning from scratch the way she had taught Camila and Matias to walk. Repetition and repeated mistakes. Everything from dressing, to reaching for the top shelves in her closet still required at least a little help. She wanted that elusive self-sufficiency that her doctors had told her about with fake cheery smiles. Yet here she was, struggling even after all these months of trying. Yesterday, Matias spilled his soup, and it took her over twenty minutes to wipe it all up, maneuvering through their too-small kitchen. At an early hour like this, she could finally admit that she was tired of trying. Most of all, she was tired of trying to stay positive for her sleeping children, especially when her marriage had become a series of tossed grenades. She could feel it in her heart, the way he was repelled by her, and she spent every day waiting for the next explosion.
“Have I ever told you the history of my name?” Marie Soledad asked with a start, disturbing his own thoughts, and bringing him back into the present. She had said each word with precaution, careful to formulate the thoughts that she had been contemplating for weeks with precision.
He looked up at the odd question. She could tell he had been expecting a fight or at least tears to come from her. She could see him thinking it over, searching for a trick. All of this exhausted her, and made her feel even more alone. When they first got married, her mother warned her that their fights would only grow with their years together. A fight was never solely about what angered them at that moment, but all the other fights in their combined history, stacked one on top of the other to come out in a screaming match every single time. How exhausting.
“My mother wanted to pick a name with a double meaning. Soledad normally means Alone. This always struck me as a bad omen, a gloomy sign over the rest of my life, and I hated it. But then my mother told me the other meaning. Can you guess?”
He shook his head. Despite his misgivings, now he was curious. He turned his body towards her, contemplating the beer bottle in front of him, and she could see him wondering, how had he not known something so basic about his wife?
“Marie Sol. Your old nickname for me. Don’t you find it curious that Sol means Sun? Or that Edad means Age? The Age of the Sun. It’s as if lasting light hides itself in the worst sort of word. A word that most people fear.”
His eyes had turned to the window, where the sun was finally appearing over the horizon, as watercolor designs started to cross the sky. Dawn. That special time of the day that most people ignore, or rather take for granted, because sunset gets all the excitement and attention. Dawn. A time coveted to catch the last seconds of sleep. Dawn. A time insomniacs recognize as preciously theirs. Dawn. A time right before children awake. He thought in silence for a long time about his wife’s words. She let him think them over. His lips stiffened, and his eyes stopped blinking. Then, his eyebrows tightened as the realization hit him little by little. He shook his head once. Then twice more after a pause.
“I know what you’re trying to say, and I’m not going to fall for it,” he answered flatly. He couldn’t look away from her now. His eyes concentrating on the details of her face for the first time that morning. Marie Soledad felt self-conscious then, imaging how he saw her. She had wrinkles now, more than she ever cared for, and her hair no longer had that flourishing thickness from their early years together, when they used to go dancing. She remembered nights when her strands of auburn hair would stick to her lipstick, her laugh ringing in his ears. She pushed that memory away.
“What exactly am I trying to say?”
“You’re saying that I should leave you, aren’t you?”
For a moment neither one of them said anything else, gauging the effects of those words hanging in the air. Words that were so acid that they stung their eyes.
Nevertheless, she still said, “You aren’t happy with me. I don’t want you to stay with me just because of our children. The children are young enough, and if we do this correctly, we could make this work with the least amount of bloodshed. I can do this alone.”
She was giving him an out, with a full concession, a retreat, a white flag, and a transfer of power. Her words should have elated him, she had given him exactly what he wanted, but they only filled him with a terrible tightening in the pit of his stomach. Marie Soledad was surprised by the clear pain that flashed across his face.
She wheeled herself up to his knees, and her eyes were fierce and fixed as they looked up at him. He had known her for a long time, and he could see the sacrifice settling on her own shoulders. Marie Soledad had never been the type of person to allow her life to pass her by. Before her accident—and now there was always a before and an after—she had always been on top of the house, on top of the children, on top of her job, on top of his well-being, on the top of their world. He had thought she lost her resourcefulness the second she came back from the hospital, and sunk into her deep depression. Lying on her bed, she had stared out the window, hoping to fly far far away from her burdensome body and the cries of her two needy children. For weeks, Marie Soledad had given up on cleaning after her kids, or even looking after herself. Her hair had grown stringy, her face had become pale, her voice had lost its rhythm. Only recently, when he began to really drink, did she realize that life kept moving, and it was her responsibility to catch up. Even now, she could feel her old resourcefulness still returning.
On the kitchen counter, there was a picture of the four of them sitting on top of her hospital bed the day she was released home. A trace of her mouth was raised, but her eyes were vacant. Even surrounded by the bouquets of flowers and the GET WELL! balloons, she looked empty in the picture. Marie Soledad studied her husband’s expression, trying to guess how he actually felt when they took that picture, but she only got a sense of the general anxiety everyone had been feeling at the time. Maybe what she saw on his face was a deep determination to make their situation work, although it was apparent now that his determination had eroded in the previous months. At what point had he given up? They both knew he hadn’t really tried to make their marriage work.
Looking into his familiar brown eyes, she remembered their years together. The most striking moments coming back in a quick succession. Hearing his whispering voice in her ear as they swayed to her Latin music on their first date. The time she was so angry with him that she couldn’t even bear to touch him. Her excitement, as he kneeled down with a ring for her finger. The screaming match they had when she forgot their anniversary because of her work. The comfort of his heartbeat as she slept naked on his chest, their chests rising up and down together. The day his mother died, and how she had stood outside the room for hours even though she knew his mother didn’t like her. The moment she held their first baby, the miracle they had made together, feeling his awe and terror echo hers. Calling him from the ambulance in shock, hoping he’d get there as quickly as possible. Wishing for more time.
“No,” he spoke after their long silence. “I don’t want a divorce.” His tone was firm and set, but strained at every word. Even at this moment of revelation, she knew he was sacrificing his chance to be free of her.
“You aren’t happy. You shouldn’t have to stay with me to be a good parent. I can do this alone, and you can do this alone. Maybe that will feel less lonely for both of us. Because it’s clear that we don’t work anymore. Everything feels… broken,” Marie Soledad whispered the words because they hurt too much to say in the conversational voice that she had tried before. She couldn’t even say “divorce” out loud. She wasn’t sure if she believed her own words. She blinked back the tears in her eyes, and took a deep breath to calm her heartbeat.
He sighed, shook his head twice, and then the words were rushing out of him. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve been terrible. I don’t know what else to say. I just don’t want a divorce. We can make us work.” He reached for her cold hands, and held them in his warm ones with a squeeze. She was surprised at the tenderness of his gesture. It had been a long time since he touched her with such delicate kindness. But she felt herself recoil against him, as if he had carved out the cracks in their marriage until they were canyons, and then expected her to cross them with one leap of faith.
She wanted to believe his words, but then she remembered the recent drinking, and the long nights away from their bed. The bottles that had been thrown against the wall in anger, and she remembered her fear. She pulled back her hands from his. “You can’t act this way again, if you decide to stay. This pattern isn’t healthy.”
“I know,” he said, the words tense as they came out. “I’ve been angry. I don’t even think it’s at you anymore. I just wish there was something—anything really—that could change things back to how they were before.”
“You wish you could go back in time?” She motioned down at herself in her wheelchair, her puppet-like legs under a blanket, and remembered when he used to run his hands over her legs, the light touch of the tips of his caressing fingers. Now, she felt nothing down there, not even his flinching aversion.
“Do you remember when my mother died?” he asked then. She nodded, surprised that his thoughts had traveled down this avenue. “She used to tell me to think twice about marrying you; right up until her dying breath. She said that you were over-controlling and too independent—”
“Yes,” Marie Soledad remembered. “Your mother never liked me because she never understood the type of woman I was. She was surprised that I’d want to stay at my job after we had children. She didn’t think a woman should work after she got pregnant.”
“The funny thing is that I married you for that very reason. You were so driven. You had so much life in you, and you did everything you set your mind to do.”
“I’ve changed,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I used to think I was invincible. My body used to be me, not the part of me that stopped working.”
He tried to speak, but there was nothing for him to say. Instead, his hand found its way into hers again, and this time, even though there was some hesitance from her behalf, she didn’t pull away.
They could hear the rustling of the children in their beds, and the beeping of the two alarm clocks down the hall. Then they blinked at the sudden sunlight streaming in through their kitchen window, signaling that officially a new day had begun.
“Want to get them ready?” Lucas asked, stashing away the full bottle of beer back in the fridge, and gesturing to the back of their house. There was still the canyon between them, but he no longer felt the need to cut it open any further. For now, Marie Sol could feel a tentative truce forming between them. There was something there in his expression, a remembrance of a time when he would look at her as if she was the most beautiful woman, even though she never was. She saw his regret now, his inability to stop loving her despite everything that had happened.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Marie Soledad responded, almost visibly changing her attitude, trying to push behind her all their words said in past frustration and anger, the strange gap that she could still feel between them. It wasn’t gone, though she was doing her best to ignore it for now. There was a moment of awkwardness as they made their way down the hallway, but then their familiarity took over. Their expert hands worked together picking outfits and packing school lunches, hearing about Matias’s dreams, and Camila’s wish to ride her bicycle today at the park. They attuned into a past rhythm with minor adjustments here and there for Marie Sol. But at least they were working together, which was easier than doing it all alone, and the warm sunlight that morning helped ease them into another effort, and another day.