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His wife had stormed out, leaving him and their child. He did his best to take care of the three-year-old, wiping food that smeared around his mouth and buttoning up his jacket before they went outside. The boy was golden-haired like his father and smiled easily. “I love you,” he said when he pressed the boy to him. They went grocery shopping and to the park together. He pushed the boy on the swing, one-handed, watched the birds scatter and take flight when the boy ran towards them. The boy cried before going to sleep. “Mama,” the boy said. “I want mama.”
They’d moved from the city. The house smelled of dogs even though they’d never had any. Its windows were low. His wife had convinced him to leave his apartment, the one before her, the one he’d held onto as he cycled through roommates. He’d never wanted to give up the location, rent control, light that streamed through the windows. When the baby was newly born she told him, “I don’t want to lug the stroller up three flights of stairs. He needs fresh air. He can’t fall asleep with all these city noises.” He was too tired to argue. She found the town house and they signed the lease the next day.
He rubbed his hand against his cheek and called his childhood friend who was in town, visiting. She picked up on the second ring. He hid the sound of his cracking voice with sips of leftover beer. His friend was a photographer. She’d married another artist, an illustrator, whom he’d made little effort to meet. She told him her wife was tender and funny. Though money was tight, their days together were easeful.
“How are you?” she said. Her voice on the line was far away.
“He cries for his mom,” he told her.
She heard what he didn’t say, We’re not okay.
He said, “It takes hours for him to go to sleep.”
She heard, I’m just holding on.
When he asked her how she was, she told him about the friends she’d seen since she flew in.
“It’s been good to catch up,” she said.
She didn’t say, It’s strange to be here after so long, but I’m making the best of it.
“I’m worried about the boy,” he said.
“I’ll come over tomorrow,” she told him.
The boy ran to her when she opened the door, then back to his toy truck. Dirty dishes filled the sink and covered the countertops. The floor needed sweeping.
“I know, it’s a mess,” he said.
His arm swung out behind him as he spoke. He was wearing warm-up pants and a grey T-shirt. They hugged. He smelled of dried sweat and something sweet and crisp, like magnolias. When they pulled away, her hair fell around her face and she tucked it behind her ear in a familiar gesture.
“It’s gonna be alright,” she said.
He jerked his head ever so slightly backwards. She took off her jacket and hung it from one of the hooks in the hall. Brushing aside some clothes on the couch, he handed her a can of sparkling water. It was cold from the fridge.
When they were younger, she’d never imagined he’d leave the city. In sophomore year of high school, he’d told her he’d be a firefighter. After senior year, he went straight into academy. It took him six to get through, but he did, watching most of his friends drop out. He worked at a station in a city district, he’d told her, which was overburdened with people overdosing on the streets. But he liked making quick and critical decisions, the adrenaline and rush of it. Helping.
She left the can unopened. He sat down in a chair across from her and put his hands on his face. They covered his eyes.
“I don’t know what to do,” he told her. His voice was dry. “I don’t know if she’s coming back. I’ve had to take so many days off work, I’m – we’re dipping into savings. I’m so tired.”
The boy rolled the truck across the floor, to her feet. She said the boy’s name and he looked up at her. She smiled and suggested they leave, take the boy to the park.
“We’ll swing,” she said.
“Yes, we’ll swing,” said the boy.
They strolled down the sidewalk, the boy between them, each holding one of his hands. When they left the park, they could see their breath. She stayed through the evening. He hired a babysitter.
“Let’s get a drink,” he said.
They walked to the bar at the corner and ordered two beers. Once seated, she slipped off her jacket. He watched her out of the corner of his eye.
“Do you want her back?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It’s terrible,” he said. “I mean – I’m over it. I don’t have the energy to try again. I don’t even know if we like each other. We fight all the time.”
She watched two guys playing darts, beer in one hand, darts in the other. When they made a good throw, they clinked their bottles.
“She doesn’t like that I work night shifts or that I’m gone days at a time.”
One of the guys threw, missing the target by inches.
“Don’t give it up,” she said.
He hadn’t realised he didn’t want his wife until he said it out loud. He wanted to disappear into his seat.
Later that evening, when they hugged goodbye she told him, “I love you.”
They soaked in the missing words: like a sister, I’m here for you.
“I know,” he said.
She drove away.
He opened the door of the house, paid the babysitter, and heated up some leftovers. Tomorrow, I’ll do the laundry and clean the house, he thought, as if to reassure her. He imagined her answer, Yeah, right. He smiled. Yeah, that’s just what she’d say.