Four a.m. Like clockwork, she's up. She stands alone in the kitchen, waiting for the water in the kettle to roll, catching it before it screams. He is sleeping, lightlyalways lightly. She parts the paper filter cone and pierces a wooden skewer through it, resting it on top of the warped mug he had made for her years ago. Filling the paper with dark, ground coffee, she wonders to herself. She wonders how it came to this as she pulls a hidden pack of Camels from behind the Kitchen Aid mixer. All these hours, all these days, all these yearshow it all came down to nothing.
The hint of hiss from the boil awakens her. It snaps her back into pouring the water, slowly, slowly over the fine, peaty grounds. It's fragrant and earthy and as she waits for the water to become coffee she decides to make the choice, right here, right now. If the grounds are left smooth against the filter, she stays. If they make ridges or rings, she goes.
She's been waking up at four in the morning for weeks now. No reason, no alarm clock, nothing rousing her but her suddenly open eyes and a pounding in her chest that the damaging jolt from caffeine and tobacco seems to cure like some kind of anti-de-fibulator. Last night she went to bed after midnight. After locking herself in the bathroompretending to be having a long soak in the tub, pretending to be busy until he went to bedshe ran the water, swished her feet around in it while perching on the edge of the large basin and burying her head in the towel still damp from morning, wetting it further still, silently sobbing and praying to God to tell her what to do. Praying to God to take some of the burden of it all away. Lying face down on the cold tile and pleading for the answer, arms wrapped tight around her middle. The answer never came.
She thinks she hears him, maybe in the bathroom, so she throws the cigarettes and the mug with the still steeping grounds into the wastebasket. She can retrieve it later, or maybe she won't, and she knows the answer won't come today either.
The toilet flushes and footsteps lead back to the bedroom, pausing at the door.
"Hey, you up?" he calls.
"Just taking some aspirin. Go back to sleep."
She doesn't want him to know she's been up every morning calming a wrenching heart with nicotine. She doesn't want him to know that she just doesn't love him anymore, that all the once bright colors of a life can suddenly mix together into a puddle of gray and leave you invoking the council of coffee grounds to tell you what to do. How do you just tell someone, after twenty-seven years, after three kids, two dogs and one finally paid-off mortgage "I don't love you anymore."
She recovers the cigarettes, tips the now drained grounds out of the mug and rinses it out. Not wanting to chance the sound of water boiling to start him wondering, she forgets about the coffee and slips out the sliding glass door onto the patio, sits on the stone steps and lights the next to last cigarette in the pack. She doesn't think she's a smokershe only picked up the habit weeks beforebut for now it feels right. She draws the smoke deep and holds it in, then lets it escape slowly, the grayness of it finding its way into the dark, like the fifty years that had already passed behind her, gone forever, dissipated into the air.
She thinks of her children, the youngest in college now, all oblivious to the cloud that has formed over the happy home they left behind. It was never terrible. It just was. A mother is too busy to dwell on her happiness until she's left to face it.
Twenty-seven years have passed through the land she looks out on. Him, leaving that driveway everyday to work hard to afford it all. Him, so dependent on her, thinking he existed for her, satisfied, content to subsist through and see his end there. How could she think to abandon him? She couldn't. She tried to ignore it. She tried to put her fingers in her ears each and every time the truth was whispered to her. It started screaming. It started clenching her around the throat and cutting off her breath.
He had abandoned her, many years before. Not a physical abandonment, but he forgot about her very soul. He criticized her more often than not and philandered a bit. She forgave him over the years. She knew he wasn't made of the same stuff she was. Forgiveness wasn't so difficult, but forgetting was not so easy. It was part of her on a cellular level. That was the beginning of those whispers, those longings and loneliness. Just a seed at first. Seeds have a tendency to take root when consistently watered.
She snubs out the first cigarette and lights the last one. It's windy, and warm, and a glowing ash flies up into her eye and stings. Far in the distance she sees the first hint of sunrise. It rises slow and lazy on these August mornings. She has watched its languid birth every morning for weeks. She feels her heart sink. He will be up early to drive to the gas station and get the Sunday paper. He'll read the classifieds and then pile the unread stories near the fireplace to burn when winter comes. She used to retrieve them and scour through them after breakfast was made and the kitchen was clean. Sundays, weekends in general, now leave her wishing for Monday when he would return to work. As soon as he leaves for the paper, she'll say she's had a headache all night, and sleep the rest of the weekend away. Recently, he wonders why she sleeps so much. Tired of waiting for her, he has taken up golf.
The sun is visible now. She decides to go inside and get into her daughter's empty bed before he wakes up. She can say she didn't want to disturb him. She'll sleep until he leaves for golf and then she'll make coffee. If the grounds are left smooth against the filter, she stays. If they make ridges or rings, she goes.