Vacuum

 

His desk was empty. The hole he left sucked the air out of my 4th period senior English. There had been a jubilant pep rally on Friday and on Saturday morning he blew his brains out.

I gave all of myself on that Monday. I made a husk of myself so that my students could cry in safety. So that they wouldn’t feel alone as he did. At the end of the day, I closed my classroom door and lay on the cold tile floor.

I stared terrified at the drawer that held his classroom journal. I gave it to another teacher to hold onto. I couldn’t take it screaming at me from inside the filing cabinet.

The grief counselor for the county came by. She butchered her session with my class. “Does anyone want to share any memories of him? No? Is it because he was so quiet that you don’t really have any memories of him?”

Later a student came up to me. “We didn’t want to talk to her. We don’t know her. Of course we have memories of him.”

I heard a story about a mom that was mad about her kid’s class schedule and she screamed at the administrator that we cared more about a dead senior than her daughter.

I watched his mother thank people for coming to her son’s funeral. In her ultimate, bottomless grief, she was trying to make sure we felt valued. I was nauseous and thought of my own daughter. Would I be able to emerge from that darkness or would I let it take me, like black waves in a wine-dark sea?

I watch my quiet, middle-of-the-road students. The ones who just want to be left alone, not in the spotlight, just-let-me-do-my-work-and-leave kids. Do they know I love them? That on day one they became my adopted children? That I care more about making them whole humans than teaching them proper comma placement?

I have no idea what happened to his journal.

The Day He Left

Money was disappearing. We were already feeling the effects of him leaving his full-time job to wait tables over third shift. There would be a myriad of excuses as to why the money was low. It was dead that night he would say. It was always dead that night. But he would walk in the next morning with breakfast as if that made everything better. Some mornings he was later than others. He wouldn’t pick up his phone. I alternated between worry that was born of a raging codependency and complete apathy, hoping that maybe he was dead and my troubles would be over. When he walked in one morning, wearing giant earrings that looked like a ram’s horn wedged in his ear holes, I just stared.

“Hey.” He acted like nothing was different.

“Where did you get those?”. Not even a greeting from me, just diving right in, which would lead to a fight.

“A customer gave them to me for a tip. Pretty sweet, huh?”

He lumbered up the stairs into the grey hallway and into the bedroom. I had Rhiannon in my arms and I followed, knowing that I was poking the bear, knowing he would be pissed.

“Why didn’t they just give you money?”

He shrugged his shoulders as he pulled off his pants, chained wallet pulling them to the floor.

“I don’t know,” he replied, “he just had these.”

“Who was it?” I pestered.

“A dude I know from the restaurant, okay?”

I paused only for a second.

“The money would have been better.”

“I’ll get some more tonight.”

“You’re off tonight.”

“I took a shift.”

I sighed. Loudly. I knew I was pushing it and as terrified as I was to do that, he had to know that he was responsible, too, that he had to pull his weight.

“We need money, not idiotic earrings and tattoos.”

“FUCK OFF!” His anger echoed in the cathedral ceiling and reverberated around the room. It was a shotgun blast, a crack of thunder.

His head collapsed back on the pillow. I had reflexively put my hand over my baby’s ears to somehow shield her from the anger of her father. She was blissfully unaware but I  had been punched in the gut. I left the room, letting him sleep.

All day I sat in the recliner watching bad tv, mostly Criss Angel and thought about the fact that if something happened to my husband, I would be free, maybe to marry some dark magician like Criss. Then I immediately felt bad about even entertaining the thought. It never occured to me that there was any alternative than being in this marriage. I was stuck with this man who was going to ruin us financially, as he had before. Stuck with secrets and lies.

As late afternoon approached, I heard him moving around upstairs. I tensed knowing that I would have to face him. He eventually came and sat on the bottom of the stairs, facing me in the recliner as I sat stony, not peeling my eyes away from the television.

“You want to talk?”

I wanted to talk, but as always when there was a confrontation with him, I found myself physically unable to speak. My mouth was frozen shut and my mind was blank. In later years, I have wondered if my body knew something that I didn’t, that it was protecting me from some evil that I was refusing to see with my conscious mind. An amulet against a monster. Now it was his turn to sigh loudly.

“Alright, fine.”

He put on his jacket, even though it was July, grabbed his keys, and walked out the door. I don’t know how, but I sensed that something was off. I grabbed Rhiannon by the hand and led her out to the little stoop out front. He was backing his truck out of the driveway in the golden light, heavy music blaring, cigarette already lit in his hand. He put it in drive and as he pulled away, his eyes never left us until he descended down the hill and out of sight.

“Wave bye to Daddy, Rhiannon.”

Deep down I knew he was never coming back.

 

As the evening wore on, I found myself pacing. I was a caged animal, completely imprisoned by marriage, desperately unhappy and terrified to lose him. I wandered upstairs, sat on the bed and looked along the wall on his side of the room. Stuff was piled up in a line and wedged underneath some books and shirts was the duffel bag that he had brought back from the time we were separated. I stared at that duffel. I needed answers.

There were a few items inside: deodorant, comb, underwear, and even though I knew better, I picked up a notebook that was hiding in the depths.

“…try to pretend and play the good son-in-law but I can’t anymore…”

“… how does she even believe these stories…”

“…living a lie…”

Everything stopped–time, my breath, my heart. I grabbed my phone and frantically started dialing him.  No answer. No answer. No answer. I left my two year old in front of the tv downstairs and went out to the back deck and chain smoked while I tried to get ahold of him. My fingers shook so that the smoke wavered in zigzags in the air. One cigarette. Two cigarettes. Three. Four.

“What.”

“I’ve been calling you for the past hour, what do you mean what?”

“I’m at a friend’s house.”

“You were supposed to be going to work early.”

“Sorry, didn’t realize I was supposed to tell you my every move. I’m hanging out with friends before work.”

“I found your notebook. What is this shit? Living a lie? You need to come home.”

“I’m not coming home.”

“Come. Home.”

“I’m not coming home.”

Tears, mine.

“Goddamit, come home.”

Click.

 

He was with his people. The fellow outcasts who no doubt had people who missed them like I missed my husband. They were content to wait tables and be strung out and pierce their bodies to feel something besides their internal pain. They were stealing him from me. I was abandoned.

 

The next several months were a blur. I took his beloved Grateful Dead shirt that he had been wearing on our first date and made a bonfire in the side yard and burned it. The shirt sent black smoke into the air and I had to go grab the hose to put it out before someone called the fire department. I piled his personal belongings in trash bags and together with an old work buddy we pulled up at his restaurant and threw everything in the back of his truck. The exit goes right by the open air dining room and my very Christian friend pulled herself out of my side window and flung a middle finger in his direction as we peeled out. I would call him and he would ignore me and I ended up on the floor in a pile of clothes, crying so hard that I thought my blood pressure would send me into a stroke. Lying there I knew I was hitting the bottom.

But I couldn’t escape. I had our little girl and was teaching high school full-time. I couldn’t lose myself in drink or drugs. At night, I would lie in the dark, and watch the moon rise over the hill behind our house. A pressure on my chest, palpable, pinned me to the bare mattress. Alone in the dark with my fears and my broken mind, I began to understand why someone would entertain ending it. But I never would. Daytime was no better. The sunlight was too harsh; it offered no hiding space.

He was off finding himself and living life on his own awful terms while I had to be the responsible one. I fought against being a mom, though I loved my daughter more than life itself. I started looking for ways to escape teaching. I wanted to live for me instead of giving everything to everyone else. There was nothing ahead of me.

But thankfully, the universe had other plans. One day, out of nowhere, my friend Jeff sent me a text.

What are you doing this Friday? Wanna help me write a film?

And with those words, a former lover saved my life that day.