It’s a Thursday when it happens. I won’t say a Thursday like any other, as there hasn’t been such a thing as an ordinary Thursday — or any ordinary day — since the accident. There have been good days and bad days, days when the pain has been intense and days when it has lessened, not in a linear way like you might imagine, but ebbing and flowing like a river.
This is a bad pain day, so when I hear the doorbell ring, I ignore it. But when the key scrapes in the lock, I smile. It must be Rosie.
Rosie, my friend and neighbour, has been my rock ever since the accident. I wait to hear her familiar call of, “Yoo hoo, I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?” but it doesn’t come. Instead I hear the heavy tread of footsteps on the stairs and I shrink back, my heart pounding. Then I hear John’s voice calling me, and it’s an echo from the past.
I shake my head. I must be imagining it. But then I turn to look and there he is, framed in the doorway to my bedroom — our bedroom — and it feels so familiar and yet so very wrong.
The accident came out of nowhere. It was a grey and frosty morning; I was driving alone when a car ploughed into the side of mine. I don’t remember the impact. I don’t remember much about the journey at all. But even now I experience a sense of panic whenever I pass that junction, the horror of the moment coded into some primitive part of my brain.
Everything hurt when I woke up. Everything above the waist, that is. My arms, my back, even my lungs. But worse, much worse, was the fact that I couldn’t feel my legs at all.
I tried to move but my body refused to obey. Even my head felt like stone, weighted down onto the pillow. A machine was beeping to my left, keeping a steady rhythm. I started to tremble. My right eye was swollen closed, the vision in my left blurry through the tears that welled and refused to fall.
“John?” I said. “John?” My voice was little more than a croak, but still, I expected some reply, to feel his hand on mine, to see his face appear in the space above mine. But none of that came.
“John?” I said again, but still he didn’t answer.
I lay alone, counting to 100, over and over, waiting for him to appear until finally, exhausted, I drifted off into sleep.
When I awoke, a nurse was bustling around me, her pencil scratching against a clipboard.
“Oh!” she said when her eyes met mine. “Welcome back.”
“My husband?” I said, my voice catching in my throat.
“Shh, shh,” she said.
“Your husband?” She busied herself checking the tubes and lines that connected me to the machine. “I’m not sure where he is.” She patted me on the arm, sending a shock of pain up through my shoulder. “You just rest.”
She didn’t reply.
Even then, I couldn’t have imagined that he wouldn’t be coming at all.
It was Rosie who told me he’d gone. “I’m sorry,” she said. We both knew it wasn’t enough.
I cried then, great sobs and gulps that racked me with physical pain to match the anguish of his abandonment.
I half expected when I got home, there would be a note, a letter, something to explain his disappearance. If there was, I never found it.
As time went on, I came to accept that I might never hear from him again, and I never did. Until now.
Hello? Is that the best he can manage?
I stare at him. His dark hair is flecked with grey. His eyes look tired, his skin pale. I wonder where he’s been for the past six months. I want him to hold me. I want him to kiss me. I want to pound my fists against his chest. I want to make him feel the pain I’ve had to live with since he left.
“What are you doing here?” I say.
He frowns. “You’re looking…”
I cross my arms and tip my head on one side, glancing over at my walking frame. I wince as a spike of pain shoots up my spine, but John doesn’t notice. He studies his feet, shifting his weight from one to the other.
“I’m…” He shakes his head. ”I didn’t mean…”
”You didn’t mean to walk out when I needed you most?”
His head shoots up, the hurt clear in his eyes. ”That’s not-”
”Fair?” I challenge him.
He sighs. ”I’m sorry Lou. I didn’t know what to do.”
”So, you thought the best option was to leave?”
He shrugs, leaning against the doorframe, twiddling his wedding ring between finger and thumb. I glance at my bare ring finger, and wonder whether he’s noticed, but when I look back up, he’s staring at the ceiling. He sighs. ”I couldn’t cope, seeing you like that.”
”You couldn’t cope?”
Again, he shakes his head. ”I’m sorry,” he says finally. He takes a deep breath and I try to read his expression, but he looks as bewildered as I feel. ”Can we…?”
”Can we what?”
”I love you, Lou.”
He loves me.
He left me.
Why is he back? Why is he doing this to me? Do I even know him? Can I ever trust him?
I put a hand on my forehead and hug the other arm around me.
“I can’t do this,” I say. “I think you should go.”
It’s only later that I allow myself to cry. The tears come in waves, hot, furious tears at first, followed by calmer, sorrowful ones. I know I did what I had to do.
”And he just walked right into your bedroom?”
”Wow.” Rosie puffs out her cheeks. ”Well, good for you,” she says, ”sending him packing.”
I let out a bitter laugh I barely recognise as my own.
”So, what now?” she says.
”Now I carry on.”
She nods and I smile. She seems to accept that as a possibility. I know what she thinks; I’ve learnt to walk again, so learning to live without John should be the easy part. She’s wrong.
”Do you think you’ve seen the last of him?”
I shrug. “It depends what story he’s telling himself,” I say. “But yeah, I think so.” I pick a piece of lint from my jeans, anything to avoid meeting her eye. ”He can tell himself he tried. It was my decision to send him away. That’s got to be enough to soothe his conscience.”
”You think that’s all it was?”
”I don’t know. I guess.”
”Well, good riddance,” she says. ”You’re better off without him.”
I smile and nod, my face a mask.
He’s gone. And now there is nothing for it but to wait and see. I’ve coped without him so far. Hard as it seems, I know the days will come and go, and if I have to face them alone, that’s just what I will do.
And if he does come back? I suppress the thought. I’ve learnt something over the last six months. Take things one step at a time.
I am stronger now than I have ever been.