Standing up close to the kitchen window with my coffee, I can just see my husband. I can hear the scrape of his shovel, too. It's the same sound that woke me and brought me downstairs in my dressing gown, already guessing the source. He'd cleared the snow from the front path and started on the driveway that connects the garage to the lane. On this not yet light winter's morning, the brick red of his woolen hat is a beacon. It calls to mind a Flemish painting though I'm unsure of the artist: sombre landscape, leafless trees, dark figures skating on a lake, somewhere in the middle of it all a little boy and on his head, astonishing in the gloom, a bright red hat.
When I first confirmed my suspicion, saw that it was him, I thought I should go out and tell him to stop. But perhaps I'm not the sort of woman who objects to such things, or not enough to head out into the cold with my own shovel. The kitchen window has no curtain; the house is set back and the lane gets little traffic. To begin with I felt exposed, though I hadn't turned on the light, aware that he might look up from his work and see me. But when he moved to clear the driveway I grew bolder. I came to stand here at the window, in the warm, with my coffee mug, watching my husband work.
He's a fast worker, an energetic man even in his late forties. I don't have to leave for over an hour; he'll be done shoveling long before. And then? Will he just climb back into his car and drive away? Or knock on the door and ask for breakfast? In half an hour James will be up for school. I picture him trotting down, sleepy-eyed in his pyjamas, to find his father eating toast at the kitchen table. And squealing with delight, racing to him, up onto his lap.
Sure enough the driveway is soon clear. My husband stows the shovel in the boot of his car, parked on the side of the lane, but he doesn't drive away. Instead he brushes himself down and turns and heads back towards the house, and I know that it was always going to be this way. He has never believed in virtue as its own reward. If I am quick, perhaps, I can step back out of sight, but then perhaps he has glimpsed me already and, besides, it would be ridiculous. It is brighter out but not yet full daylight. He smiles at me as he comes up the path, moving not to the door but to the window.
We are face to face then, me in the still sleeping house, him in the raw early morning, with only the window and a bed of winter roses between us. A strange meeting, it seems hardly real. His face is flushed from the cold and exertion, but the skin has a papery look as if he hasn't slept. A long moment passes. I sip the last cold coffee from my mug. With a minstrel's flourish he sweeps off his unlikely red hat, tipping sideways at the same time into a low bow and throwing up his other arm, the gloved palm outspread: Ta-dah! This is my husband, a man who likes to do things with a fanfare: spontaneous, comical, romantic. Still bowing low and with hat doffed, left arm outstretched as though drawing back a curtain on his snow-clearing effort, he cracks a smile.
In spite of myself, I smile back. Over the lip of my empty mug, cradled in both hands against my chin, I mouth the words, Thank you.
He stands then and mouths a word back, or perhaps he says—it's hard to tell through the glass—Coffee?
My head shakes once.
He pouts. He steps from foot to foot, rubbing his hands to show me how cold it is out there. He's put his hat back on and I think he's ready to head off, but again he surprises me. Stepping closer to the window, he breathes, misting the glass, then stands back to write with his index finger. It doesn't occur to him to write back to front, but the word is clear enough: Please!
I feel myself weakening then. I think he can see it too. He is confident, sure of his charm, sure that whatever he wants will not be denied. Only he does not leave it there: him with his red cheeks and hat, me with my empty mug, wavering. Instead, dropping to his knees in the snow, he lifts and clasps his hands in supplication.
It is one gesture too many. In some corridor of my heart a door closes. And I know—I have realised this before, but today it feels clearer—that if I let him in, if I agree to have him back, it will always be like this. Never enough. My husband is adept at gestures—in the course of our 20-year marriage he almost never cooked, but when he did: an elaborate feast—and I must beware gestures. They are not the whole truth, not always spontaneous either. They can be calculated to placate, to win forgiveness and praise. They can sweep you away.
I shake my head and this time it's no reflex action. I speak the word, too, and let him read the resolution on my face.
For a moment he is inclined to sulk, but he drops it. He shrugs, a gesture that says, Your loss, and then turns to trot back up the path in his Wellington boots. His steps as he goes are almost jaunty.
Not enough, I say to his retreating back. Not enough to the bricks of the front path, although it's not true entirely because there were times of course. At times it was enough, enough for the moment, and I do still love him for those moments, but not the in-between times. And those are the times that count in the long run, not the special occasions but the every day. Mine was, is, an inconstant husband—not unfaithful, that perhaps would have been easier—--but not a man you could rely on day to day. Full-grown and capable, with thinning hair and a face from which all traces of youth have been erased, but still after all a boy.
I remain at the window until he starts the car, and even then I stay. As he drives away more snow has already begun to fall. First flurries and then more persistent. Inside ten minutes the bricks of the front path have been effaced, re-clothed in white. His bootprints, for some reason, are the last to vanish.
My arms are numb. I lower the mug and set it down on the windowsill. I feel like I've been standing for hours at this window, like a maiden in a fairytale. But now the spell is broken. As I turn from the window I hear James's footsteps padding down the stairs.
We eat breakfast together and I make no mention of his father's visit. Outside, it is broad daylight now and the snow is falling more heavily still. James wonders if he has to go to school and I tell him yes. First, though, he can help me clear the driveway.
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