Two years. One month. Twenty-six days.
Without my sweet angel.
I shudder at the thought of not being anywhere near him this holiday season. Guilt and despair are stirring up in the pit of my stomach while I fight the sudden tears. My clammy fingers struggle with the handles of the luggage as I pull it out from the trunk of my light blue Prius, the farewell present from Owen, soon to be my ex-husband on paper. In reality, he hasn’t been one for over two years.
My eyes scan the long covered in a thick layer of red and yellow leaves driveway of Rayna’s lake house. The unwanted memories instantly begin flooding my brain, sending me into a sudden state of terror. I hate every happy moment that happened in this place during the course of my hurricane of a marriage.
This was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have agreed to my best friend’s holiday housesitting arrangement. Rayna could have hired someone a little less unstable. Instead, she and her husband offered their Tahoe residence to me for three months while they are gone to Europe.
I’m not sure how much time exactly I spend in front of their cabin, just staring, but what I do know is that eventually my fingers and my toes stop feeling the cold. My body is numb, my head is throbbing. I’m two seconds shy of turning around, walking back to my car, and heading to L.A.
Panic is taking over my world.
I’m not ready for this. I’m not ready to let go of the past full of tears, sleepless nights, endless tests, and hospital visits. A sadistic part of me knew Owen and I would never see River growing up, or joining the basketball team, or graduating high school, or even going to college. The strange gut feeling that our sweet angel was only given to us for a short period of time always stained the hope I had. River was both - a punishment and a blessing.
He was diagnosed with congenital leukemia just two days after his birth.
The painful memories, crawling back into my head, cause for my chest to stiffen. I readjust the grasp of the luggage handle, take a deep breath, ignoring the pressure in my ribcage and shuffle my feet toward the front door of the cabin.
Life doesn’t end at twenty-six, does it?
For some, it ends at four.
My frozen fingers are fishing for the key Rayna dropped off last week, right before he and her husband left for Paris. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I pull out the metal object I’ve been looking for what seems like forever and stick it into the slot under the doorknob.
The soft smell of vanilla and pumpkin fill up my lungs the moment I step inside. Not much had changed since the last time Owen and I were here. Clay, Rayna’s husband was still a newbie at his law firm, barely getting by. Most of the earnings came from my best friend, who on top of everything was a trust-fund baby, spoilt rotten by her grandparents since the day she’d been born. I envied her sometimes for having everything figured out. After ten years, she still knows what exactly she wants and what she is doing. Unlike me.
My eyes take in the warm homey interior of the open-concept cabin my best friend lent me until the end of February. Everything looks just like it did years back. Vintage furniture, lots of carpets, artwork, crafts, plenty of windows overlooking the lake.
The glazing blue surface almost takes my breath away, but the lingering hint of a feeling lasts only a fraction of a second. Not enough to get me out of the darkness that’s been surrounding me for the past two years, one month, and twenty-six days.
I slowly let the luggage go and walk across the living room into the kitchen.
I stop in front of the fridge and pull the door open. The realization that I haven’t eaten anything since five in the morning hit me when my eyes register a pack of turkey and a can of V8 juice. My phone goes off right about the time I raid the cabinets in search of bread.
“How was the drive?” Rayna’s cheerful voice rings in my ears as I carefully set a plate with two slices of turkey in front of me on the kitchen island.
“Long. Is there any food in here?”
What time is it even in Paris right now?
“I didn’t want to leave any to rot until you got there, Hazel. I didn’t ask you to stay because I need a cleaning lady. By the way, her name is Ester, and she comes every Friday. She has her own key. So please don’t freak out when you see her. She is really sweet and she’ll cook Mexican food for you if you ask nicely.”
“It is Friday,” I mumble, not sure why I even know. Everything has been a blur since the day River died. In my head, there are only numbers, not days of the week. “Is this turkey any good?”
“Oh, God.” Rayna shrieks. “Don’t eat that! It’s been there forever.”
I blink at the plate a few times, bring it closer to my nose, sniff the slices and toss them into a trashcan by the sink while my girlfriend goes on with her chatter. Ten minutes into the conversation, and I already speak intermediate French.
“You have no idea how beautiful this city is...So much history.”
“Yes. That’s what they say.” I nod, grabbing a can of V8 from the fridge. How come they don’t have any food in this house? Not even a pack of chips.
Rayna pauses for a second. “I’m sorry...I don’t mean to rub it in, hon.” Her tone drops from excited to sad in a less than a second.
“You are not. I’m fine. I like what you’ve done with the place.” My attempt at making a joke.
“Yes. Your grandparents would be pissed if you two tried to renovate.”
“I know.” She stifles a giggle. “Besides, I like the old feel and the authenticity. I’m never remodeling.”
“Hey...You know you can call me anytime, hon. Even if it’s three in the morning.”
“Your time or my time?” I try my hand at being funny again. Something I promised myself I would attempt this year, but so it’s a fail.
“I said anytime.”
I sigh loudly, my mind working overtime as I make my way to the couch, my stomach is still gurgling. I can’t wait to down that V8, but having a phone conversation with my best friend and eat at the same time sounds like cheating. I need to express my gratitude properly, not just slurp it between the gulps of tomato juice. “Thank you for letting me stay here, Rayna. It means a lot.”
“It’s no problem...You can stay for as long as you need. Not just until we’re back. Until you figure everything out...with Owen.” Her voice quivers. “You know we barely spend time there. Besides, Clay will be busy in L.A.”
The doom of my divorce is suddenly hitting me hard, fast, and repeatedly. I don’t really like to talk about it, not even with Rayna, but the shadow of my marriage has been slowly suffocating me from the inside for over two years. Why drag us both down to hell if at least one of us can make it? If not me, then maybe Owen. We have to move on, just not together. Part of that moving on is also separating from each other, entangling our lives, severing all the ties. Because there is no point. We don’t do anything together anymore, we don’t have dinners, we don’t watch TV, we don’t even talk. Truth to be told I wasn’t surprised at all when he brought up the divorce. It’s been so long Owen showed any affection that I forgot what it feels like to be hugged, kissed, or simply touched.
Not that I need any of it. Not that I need anything after River’s death.
Sometimes, it scares me to even think about it, let alone say this word out loud, but the more days I’ve been adding to my life-after-River calendar, the more I’ve been accepting the fact that my angel died and he is never coming back.
“Hazel?” Rayna’s voice pulls me back into the real world.
“Sorry...Did you say something?”
“I just wanted to see...” she stammers. “I just wanted to see what’s going on with you and Owen. Is it final?”
“I haven’t signed the papers yet,” I say quietly, staring at the can of tomato juice sitting on the coffee table. My stomach is probably at the stage where it’s starting to slowly digest its own flesh because I can feel the physical pain from the stinging somewhere below my ribs. I wonder why I’m suddenly hungry after two years of not having the need to eat. Must be the eight hours spent behind the wheel of my Prius.
“I see,” Rayna whispers into the phone. “Look.” Her voice goes back to normal. “Look, why don’t you do what I told you to do? Relax, take a bath, do some shopping, go get a haircut and manicure. See, how you feel. You need to get out and do stuff, stuff women your age do, Hazel. I know it’s hard. I can’t even imagine how much you’re hurting. But you need a change. You need to do something differently. Please, do it for me.”
When she is done convincing me that a trip to the mall and a manicure are going to help me forget about the death of my four-year-old baby boy, she throws a few more cheers and ends the call. I am grateful for having a friend like Rayna, I am grateful she takes the time to check on me. But I just can’t get over the fact that she no longer understands me. That bond we had since high school was broken the day I lost River.
After I finish the tomato juice, I take off my coat and my boots, grab my luggage, and roll it to the guestroom, the one Owen and I used to crash at when we came down here to get away from the city and visit Rayna. Part of me wants to turn around and run like a scared little girl, away from the happy memories, but I don’t really feel like moving into the master bedroom. Sleeping in the same bed my best friend and her husband are having occasional sex makes me uncomfortable. I don’t even know if the cleaning lady changed the sheets when she was here today in the morning. So, that’s a no.
I unzip my luggage, take out a few essentials, and walk to the bathroom. Now I have no doubt, someone tidied the place up prior my arrival. The sink, the tub, and the shower doors are spotless. A few pumpkin scented candles are set on the shelves, no layers of dust waiting for me, no green spots of mold. I feel relieved. At least there is no immediate need to clean the room. I peek into the cabinets and pull out a few bottles of body lotion, shampoo, and a conditioner. No food, but definitely everything else to indulge myself with a hot bath. Rayna’s advice doesn’t sound so bad.
While slowly undressing, I trying my best not to look at my reflection in the mirror above the sink. My eyes keep wandering off to the shelves and colored tiles until they can’t fight it anymore. And there I see her, standing in front of me, a woman who used to be fun and pretty. Right now, she is someone I don’t really know. She’s lost weight and color in her face. Her once beautiful golden locks look like a faded dried-up mop. No wonder her husband wants a divorce.
I draw a deep breath, grab a hairbrush, and run it through the tangled strands.
By the time there’s no more self-criticism left in me, the bathtub is full. I carefully lower my body into the water, trying not to splash anything on the floor, snatch one of the bottles I set aside and read the label. The nice flowery scent of the content hits my nostrils the moment I pop the lid open. That should do it. Smells decent, I think, pouring a good amount of liquid into the tub.
After a few minutes of absent staring at the vintage décor and the candles, my eyelids start getting heavy. The clouds of hot steam lull me to sleep, and at some point, my mind simply shuts down. When I’m back to my senses, my head is rested against the ceramic walls of the tub with the lukewarm water almost reaching my mouth. Makes me wonder how much time it would take for someone to discover my body if I were to drown while taking a nap.
My guess it’s way past nine because the house is cold and it’s dark out. The drive exhausted me. Sadly, when I walk over to the bedroom, the digital clock on my phone shows only ten after seven, which means I was out for a couple of hours at most.
The more I sleep, the less time I spend torturing myself, thinking about River, thinking about what he would look like today, what he would be wearing, eating for dinner, asking for Christmas. God, I hate being awake and sober.
The second, more thorough kitchen raid, leaves me with one bottle of Corona. Not enough to drown my torment.
Frustrated and thirsty, I stomp back to the guest bedroom, rummage through my things, find a pair of skinny jeans and a sweater, and dress up. Common sense somehow beams through the clouds, surrounding my mind, when I’m at the door. Rayna’s words won’t leave me alone. Does she really think a haircut and a manicure will turn me into a different person?
Huffing and puffing, I walk back to the bedroom, go through my stuff again and pull out my tiny bag with cosmetics. The one I haven’t opened in ages.
After applying the eyeliner, the light brown eyeshadow, and a layer of mascara, I give my reflection a critical look. This zombie, glaring at me from the mirror, is actually turning out alright. I fish for a blow dryer and a hair straightener on the shelves, wet my hair, that became a tangled mess again while I was asleep, and give it a little bit of volume, curling the tips slightly.
Enough, I think, studying my face. A manicure can wait. I’m just going to grab a drink. Who cares how I look?
Doing one last spin in front of the mirror, I take a deep shaky breath and head out.
Somehow, I feel lighter on my way to the car. I feel like a woman, with all this mascara and eyeliner on my face and my hair done. I haven’t felt like this in a long time. Maybe Rayna is right. Maybe I need to start doing different things, getting out and shopping.
I guess that’s what I’m doing tonight – shopping for a good shot of tequila.