I dreamed the house was on fire. Slivers of red and orange blew in the wind like rain. I opened the window and the fire raged, slashing through couches and bed linens, hanging on doors, and singing my hair. She cried out but she was far away, down the hall that stretched forever. It was the sound of her screams that woke me.
“Hey,” she said, rolling over next to me, talking in her sleep, forgetting now that I was her husband only in name, “Shh.” I draped my arm over her body and nuzzled her neck. Under the down comforter, my legs were soaked in cold sweat. Shadows raced across the room, fleeing from the headlights of trucks driving slowly down the block. She would wear pearls tomorrow. I knew her so well. Pearls and three-inch heels upon which her once athletic figure would wobble.
In the dark, there was a fire. I smelled the smoke like thick, burnt sugar, so heavy it coated my lungs. I shook her but she would not wake. I lifted her, the cotton nightgown high above her waist (so immodest, even in sleep), and carried her down the stairs where the colors crackled and the drapes fell to the wooden floor. Outside, our children waited for us. A voice whispered in my ear. “Let go of me.” I looked down and her eyes were open. “Let go of me.” I was holding a ragged doll with pocked plastic skin. I dropped her and she broke, scattering across the hot floor.
It was a year before she told me. The house was empty then; three children grown and gone. “I’ve met someone,” she said as if I should have known that she was never really out for a walk, never really on the phone with an old friend. My pride too hurt, I did not ask her to stay or explain, for fear she tell me something that I did not want to hear. I raised them alone, she might say. Now that they’re gone, you walk around like your life is over. Sometimes I think you don’t remember the color of my eyes. Hazel, I would have answered. Hazel flecked with green.
She left soon after that, and moved in with the yoga instructor from down the street. When they took walks at night, I saw how he liked to touch the small of her back. Not her back, my back, I would think. It belongs to me.
The children did not know, and two months later, in December, I came home to find her smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table as if she had never left. Thinner, I had thought, she looks so much thinner. And then I remembered that she was not twenty-two anymore, and that the lines of her face and the sharp angles of her features were not new. “The kids are coming home for Christmas. I thought I should be here. I don’t want them to know about me,” she had said with just a small measure of shame. I should be ashamed, I’d wanted to tell her. I should never have let you go.
“Of course,” I said. “Come home.”
“For now,” she said.
“Where is he?”
“With his family,” she answered, “In South Dakota. He’ll be back next week.”
In the dawn, I let Linda sleep. Rocking in my chair that overlooked the road, I watched birds peck at telephone wires and trucks filled with lumber wheeze up the sloping hill. When they were small, we did not let the children ride their sleds near the street, envisioning slick ice and a child dropped to the center of the road while a driver carrying a two-ton load helplessly pumped at his breaks. Once, I caught the eldest smoking pot with his friends by the underpass of the railway tracks. I stopped my car and he stepped inside, saying nothing. He’ll be safe here, I was thinking as I drove him home where his mother waited for us. In these walls, they will always be safe.
They left, one by one. The first to New York. The second to India, where she changed her name to Suparni and called only twice a year. She lived, her mother and I imagined, like a savage; calluses on her dirty bare feet, sipping spicy soup from a hot bowl. The last one married young, and divorced young. And married again. And soon, would divorce again.
They came back last night, and we picked them up, the two of us, at the airport. On the drive, she fiddled with the radio, her eyes too weak to see the numbers on the dial. “Here,” I’d said, switching to the public radio station that she liked. “I missed you,” I told her, leaning in and kissing her cheek. “I missed you too,” only, her words seemed like an accusation.
When we brought the children home, they climbed the stairs, reclaiming their childhood personalities and fighting playfully as they had once done. We ate dinner together, she at one end, myself at the other, our children in between, and played rummy late into the night. But they sensed that the gravity of the house was askew, that even Newton’s Laws could not be taken for granted. Perhaps they only understood that we were getting old.
In a few hours, we would sit together at the table, and eat eggs and drink mimosas, a holiday tradition. Though I could not hear them each slumbering in their rooms, I could feel the thickness of the air, the presence of restive thoughts that rebounded against walls in their dreams. More than Linda, I had always loved the house so full and attentive. With each departure, I had imagined that they were taking away a piece of what I had struggled to build.
In a week, the children would leave, and so would she. Perhaps she would tell them today, after presents had been unwrapped. I don’t live with your father anymore, she might say. They would fuss and stomp like babies and we would console them until they left for New York and India and Buffalo. I would hear from them in letters and phone calls until I saw them again next Christmas.
I sat in my rocker and imagined. There was a fire in the house. Ribbons of flames seared at everything important. Everything of value. Eating memory and emotion and passion until nothing was left. I would go to the foot of the stairs, and collect Linda. Then I would rescue the children, eldest first. There was a fire in the house that only the old who had stayed too long could see. There was a fire in the house, and I sat and waited, collecting no one. Because there was no place I’d rather be.