PRIVATE QUARTERS • by Bonnie Walker

The clothes on their backs, a few hundred-thousand air miles on the brink of expiration, thirty-eight dollars in assorted bills, and a brown paper bag filled with quarters.  That was the sum total of what they had left.  That and their memories.  It was all pretty much worthless as far as she was concerned.  She had been wearing the same outfit now for the past three days.  It was beginning to reek, and she couldn’t even use the quarters to do laundry because they belonged to Edward’s state quarter collection.  He’d been gathering them up ever since Delaware rolled off the assembly line in 1999, and, only last week, he had shouted in triumph when the cashier at the 7-11 gave him an Oklahoma with his change.

She pictured herself at the bathroom sink rinsing out her one set of underwear and then hanging it over the shower rod to dry.  She hadn’t done that since she was in graduate school and living off student loans, and she hadn’t expected to do it ever again.  Should she offer to hand wash Edward’s underwear while she was at it?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps it was time her husband finally learned that laundry was a more complicated process than the detergent commercials on television let on.  At the thought of Edward shifting for himself for once, she twisted her lips in a wry smile. But she had to be practical.  She had real fears he would break the plumbing and flood her mother-in-law’s house if he so much as turned a faucet without supervision.

Edward’s daily life was filled with more disasters than a Charlton Heston movie.  Car crashes, bankruptcies, broken bones.  The fire that destroyed their apartment and everything they owned was only the latest catastrophe.  And, here they were, staying for the time being with Edward’s mother, who despised her so intensely she feared she would be executed on the spot if she dared ask to borrow clean underwear.

To Edward, this most recent tragedy was merely an adventure, a game of “how will we manage this time?”  It was as though they were camping, and he was working on his scout merit badge in survival skills.  She suspected he had never had so much fun as he was having right now.  He was delightedly plotting their next move, which, no doubt, would involve another hare-brained business scheme doomed to failure.

Side by side, they had watched the flames consume their home.  Edward had made no effort to disguise his fascination with the flames — with the way they leaped and growled and fought with one another like little tigers.  She instantly recognized the signs of wonder in his face — the wide eyes, the slack jaw — and she had barely managed to suppress the urge to beat him to the ground with her fists.  She could have done it, too, if she’d really wanted to, reduced him to a whimpering heap of bruised flesh and watery snot.

When she began bemoaning the loss of her books, her jewelry, their wedding photos, the antique quilt her great-grandmother gave her, Edward had put his arm around her and cheerfully remarked that they still had their memories.  As he comforted her, the reflection of the fire turned his brown eyes a warm orange, and she could tell he was sincere.  He had memories, good ones, and that was good enough for him.

She could remember good times with Edward, and she knew she must have been happy then, but when she reviewed the memories in her mind, they played like old silent movies faded from exposure to the elements.  She thought memories must be similar to light bulbs, full of radiance at first but reduced to dull, dead things that simply took up space once their energy had been exhausted.  Why were the memories enough to sustain Edward but not enough for her?  Maybe she had left hers on too long, and they had just worn out.

So she was left with the air miles and the $38.  The $38 would cover a cab ride to the airport, and the air miles would get her a ticket back to New York.  The prospect of admitting defeat, of going home to her own mother’s “I told you so’s,” galled her.  But at least she would have a change of underwear.

The airline’s online reservation page was open on the computer monitor in her mother-in-law’s den.  All she had to do was click on the “Redeem Miles Now” button and then call the cab company.  She could leave now while Edward and his mother slept.  No tears, no goodbyes, no pleas for her to give it one more try.

A sound, or the shadow of a sound, distracted her.  A snuffling passed through the paper-thin walls like steam.  Probably Edward snoring.  Yes, this very minute, Edward was sleeping peacefully in the next room. He always slept peacefully. Sleep was one of Edward’s special talents.

She remembered the expression of glee on Edward’s face as he turned the Oklahoma quarter over and over in his palm.  She acknowledged, as she had done a thousand times before, that Edward was so caught up in the childish enjoyment of his everyday disasters that he had no idea how unhappy she had become.  She pictured him waking in the morning to find she wasn’t there, his hand continuing to grope beneath the sheets, seeking the reassuring solidity of her body, long after his brain had already concluded that she had left him.

She shut the computer down.  She was tired, too tired for a night at the airport.  In the bedroom, a pillow had been readied for her, blank and white and clean, and, next to her husband, a warm, blanketed space waited to take her in its embrace. There was no need to hurry. In the morning, nothing would have changed. It would all still be waiting for her. She could make this decision tomorrow.

Bonnie Walker writes in New York, USA.

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