Kimberle Maro

The red light hung there, swinging on the makeshift pole, staring at him like the red beady eyes of some creature. All he wanted was to get to work, the only sanctuary he could find in his life, which was almost as makeshift as the pole
that held the only thing stopping him from escaping fast enough. The construction was only supposed to last a year, and he knew they were well past their deadline because the couple’s therapy he had every Tuesday after work was supposed to have lasted a single year, too. Slowly, he felt all the miserable thoughts in his mind catching up with him, all the dreams he had had, all the opportunities he had lost, all the expectations that were never fulfilled.
Finally! He shifted the Audi—which was now classified as “another unnecessary toy that could have been money towards a new addition to the home”—into first, second, third, and escaped across the threshold between hell and a more inviting version of it.
He walked into his job, one most aspiring businessmen would kill to have—but not him. His worst fear in life was ending up in a corporate-level career, one he had not fairly climbed the rungs to reach, and a life that was controlled by his father-in-law. But if he wanted to support his family at the mere age of 28, he had to walk through the doors of an alternative hell to escape the one back home.
“Good morning, John,” said the sweet voice of his receptionist, Judy. He tried hard not to enjoy her voice, as it made him feel guilty. But he found much pleasure in talking to her. Her voice was like an escape to an uncharted island, where he daydreamed of getting lost.
“I finished alphabetizing the merger forms for you. Can I just place them on your desk, here?” He nodded but lacked the nerve to say a single word to her. She was the one person he knew he’d always have control over, and he liked that: superiority. What most men have in the work place, in their group of friends, or within the household, he lacked. So as with every encounter with Judy, he acted like the tightly-wound colonel of a small brigade, a “Patton.”
As she placed the mergers at the corner of his desk, he watched how she bent over slightly, how her hair fell and covered the side of her face, how the loose part of her dress grazed the pen holder. Then he watched as she caught sight of a new picture on his desk. She was always so interested in his pictures, most of which were of his family. This one, however, was new. Meredith had gotten it for his birthday, a photo of her and their two children in the Outerbanks last Christmas at the in-laws’ beach retreat.
“Your wife is gorgeous,” she said, the likely comment of a receptionist who would do anything to kiss up to the man who controlled her life . . . well at least the financial part. “Sarah and Tommy are getting so big. You must be proud.”
“No” he muttered under his breath. Then he blushed, for he was sure she heard, which she had. He thought to save his indecency as he smiled at her quizzical expression, taking a moment to admire the way her nose wrinkled and the freckles on the sides of her nose disappeared.
“I’ve never been so proud to have such a beautiful family,” he said with a smile, which seemed to assure Judy enough to return to her desk and continue alphabetizing his merger forms and answering his calls. But he was not happy, and he hated lying, to himself or anyone else for that matter. He swiveled in his big black corporate chair and took the picture in his hand and tried hard to accept the people in it. If only he could force himself to like what he saw. But he didn’t, so he placed the picture back, but this time facing away from him.
5:00 p.m.
The three digits on the clock he most despised seeing. He reluctantly filled his briefcase with files from his desk and Judy’s merger forms, and prepped himself for the drive back to hell. As he neared the construction light on this end of the site, where the two lanes narrowed to one, he could feel the tie around his neck squeezing tighter and tighter. It started to feel less like a tie and more like a boa constrictor slowly cutting off his air supply. At the same time, he enjoyed the sensation of being suffocated, one way he knew he could escape the oncoming hell for good. He grabbed the snake and loosened its grip, and felt the beads of sweat dripping down his neck. Ironic, he thought. It’s not even hot out.
The light always seemed to turn quickly when he was going in the direction he wished not to be traveling. Crossing the threshold was the hardest part, but now that he was safely across the “River Styx” he could manage to drive the rest of the way. He drove as slowly as possible up the paved driveway which led to the most beautiful house on Mulberry. If only people knew how much he suffered inside. As he walked through the front door he could hear the screaming of his two children as they played out back, the pungent smell of fresh salmon tapenade and duck rillettes filling the house.
“Is that you honey!?” Meredith yelled from the kitchen.
No, it’s the milkman, he thought, who else would it be?
For a second he thought about whether she might be expecting another man to walk through the front door, or ever had another man walk through, one she’d entertain, in all forms of the word, and send him on his way before the loving husband got home. But he was not a loving husband, and the thought of another man sleeping with his wife, oddly enough, didn’t faze him. In fact he almost wished that another man would take his place and relieve him of the horrid duties as the husband and father he no longer wanted to be.
“Yes, it’s me. What’s for dinner?”
“Duck rillettes and salmon tapenade.” He knew that. But if he hadn’t filled his quota of useless questions to ask the wife as if he really cared, the remainder of his day would feel incomplete. “Mmmm,” he said unenthusiastically.
“What? You don’t feel like salmon?”
“I’d rather pizza,” He said brazenly, knowing full well the very answer would anger her. But he didn’t care. She tried so hard to be the perfect housewife, and it made him sick.
“Well then, go get a tray of pizza! I don’t care,” she said in a huff-puff, then stomped off to round up the spawn so they could all feast off the queen bee’s hellish dinner.
He changed quickly and raced to the car. Again he found himself waiting at the red light. 10, 9, 8 . . . if only counting backwards out loud could in some alternate universe change the color of the light. But it hadn’t, and he knew it never would, so there he waited. He entered the deep recesses of his mind back to when he and Meredith were in college, how he skipped classes just so they could sneak away for the day. He had never been so in love. She was so beautiful, so smart, and he knew he’d never stop loving her. An evening that had seemed to last an entire lifetime flashed in in his head, the night he and Meredith would finally consummate their love. Only now did he regret it. Only now did he regret not finishing school to work. Only now did he regret how he had gotten her pregnant. He knew then and there that it was no longer love that bound them, but a responsibility that committed them to each other until death.
He shifted the Audi, the one thing that he loved, because it symbolized escape, and the one thing she hated, because it meant money lost. Not that they needed any. Daddy was very good to his little girl.
He picked up the pizza, drove back home, and went upstairs to eat it on his side of the bed and watch old movies. He could hear them talking downstairs and it was making him mad, so he turned up the TV, louder, louder, until finally their voices were completely droned out. The pizza dripped hot grease on his bare leg, a sure stain had it fallen to the sheets below. Then, a malicious smile replaced the forlorn frown of his face. She hates stains. He picked up the pizza, high above his head, and held it over her side of the bed. He watched as the grease dripped, a single drop that splattered into a blob on her Egyptian cotton pillow. He turned back to the movie and smiled, something he hadn’t done in a very long time.
10:00 p.m.
He sat up, still staring at the empty TV screen which Meredith had forced him to turn off. She lay there sleeping soundly. Only then could he find it in his heart to enjoy her company and go back to what made him love her those many years ago.
What if I left? What if I just grabbed my bags and left? Quit my job. No! Let them guess what happened. Forgot I ever had a family, and just left?
The thought was so tempting. He chuckled on the inside thinking of his father-in-law’s face when he found out. He practically lost it when he saw his controlling wife bent over the goodbye letter. No, no letter. Not even a voicemail on the phone. He would just leave, no trace, no farewell, and run away with some unknown woman. No, Judy. He would run away with Judy, and they’d escape to an uncharted island far, far away.
That was it. He crawled out of bed, threw together a bag or two, and left them at the front door. He went back upstairs and sat at the edge of the bed by Meredith. He had tried to love her. Before that he had tried to be truthful about not loving her. No amount of counseling could change how he felt. He kissed her head and softly whispered, “I’m sorry I couldn’t love you.”
He walked into the kid’s room. Their heavy breathing was muffled by the hum of the humidifier in the corner of the room. He kissed Sarah first. He knew she was a big girl. She never really cried, and he knew she would be able to cope with him leaving. At least he tried to convince himself of that.
The hair on his neck stood stiff. Tommy must have woken up! Oh lord, how was he going to get out of this one?
“Daddy? What are you doing?” Tommy asked with half-shut eyes.
“I’m just saying goodnight.” He walked over to Tommy, laid him back down, kissed his forehead, and stared at a younger version of himself. “I’m just saying goodnight,” he repeated. He felt tugging at his heart. He found it hardest to leave them, so innocent. It wasn’t their fault he was unhappy or that they were part of his unhappy life. But he couldn’t find the strength to stay. Tommy turned over, and he walked out of the room, forcing himself to not look back. In fact, he didn’t look back, not until he was forced to face the house in his rear view mirror as he made his way down Mulberry, driving at the slowest speed he had ever driven on that road.
He could see the red eyes in the distance as he neared the mangled bridge. He’d have to wait yet again at the most critical moment of his life, a moment that took years building up to, the one moment that had gone through so much scrutiny in his head, but never his heart. He drove ever so slowly towards the red light, questioning the very choice he had just made.
Am I really going to do this? This isn't me! Why is this so easy for me?

How simple it was to make it as far as he did without remorse bothered him more than leaving did. But as he neared stopping and turning around, for the very first time without pause, the light turned green.