He always worked away from home, following construction projects along the transcontinental railroad. They realized, early on, that eliminating the sentimentality from their marriage made the separations less painful. Upon every homecoming she directed him to parts of the house that needed fixing before sending him to play with the children. She would delay their bedtime, dreading her first moments of intimacy with him. His touch would be a shock to her body, until something in her broke and made her desperate for it. At the end she would picture him with other women, another woman who perhaps loved him more than she did.
Habitually he sent her a telegram announcing his date of return, so that she was never left waiting. Then there was a day that he was expected, but he didn’t come home, and she did not know how to find him. For two days she was unable to swallow and ate nothing. She kept pressing on her throat to dislodge the pain. When he finally arrived, weary and haunted, he explained the railroad strike but she knew he had experienced something profound this time. Later, while he held their youngest son she caught him staring at her.
“Do you want me to take him?”
After a long pause he said no. As she prepared dinner she imagined his confession; he was leaving this imitation of a marriage. He had the look of a man consumed by desire, hungry and achingly in love, but for his part he said nothing to hurt her. That night, refusing to slip off her so she could curl up on her side to feign sleep, he held her down and asked her to look at him.
“One day we’ll wish for it back,” he said. “All the time we’ve lost.”
Her tears burned the skin of her cheeks. She tasted the salt on his lips.
“I love you,” he said. “Tell me you love me.”
But she couldn’t speak. She sobbed and started to choke, until he had no choice but to get up and bring her a glass of water. She drank quickly, gasping for air when she was finished. Then she fell into him and rested her forehead against his neck. He told her all he ever wanted was to stay with her.
Hours into the night he still held her, his breathing deep and resonant. When she woke up in the darkness she warmed her lips on his skin and promised him a strong pot of coffee and a farmer’s breakfast. For once she didn’t make herself think of his departure. Only of breakfast and coffee and feeding her husband.
Her rising children demanded her attention but she was ever aware of his movements. She heard the faucet running and the wooden handle of his shaving brush tapping the rim of the cup. Maybe she heard him call out first, before the crack of his skull against the floor. She ran to him and lifted his heavy head onto her lap. “I’m here,” she said. “I’m right here.” She slipped her hand under his shirt and felt his heart race and seize. “I know you want to stay,” she cried. She did believe it. He would have stayed this time.
Chaiti Sen lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and stepson. Her work has appeared most recently in New England Review. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Hunter College, City University of New York.