It had been a pretty good day before the voicemail. Tara had been productive at work. Nothing bad, nor overly good, had happened, and now she was home. The kind of day that was as mundane, and as joyful, as a warm breeze in your hair. Besides having to deal with the occasional detail of a bankruptcy and a divorce, life was fine.
After nine years, a few of them happy, she and Rich had called it quits. Actually, she had moved out. For a couple months, she had quietly moved things into a little storage unit across town, planning for the day it got bad enough or she got brave enough to just leave. Rich's drinking had made the last three and a half years or so excruciating. She had tried everything; screaming and yelling, crying and begging, supporting and caring.
She had managed to get him into counselling a couple times and there was a helpful psychologist at the hospital. Helpful to her perhaps more than to Rich, but help anyway. Rich had been in the emergency room in medical danger from the booze several times that summer. The hospital didn't do rehab, but they would keep him for a week or so to dry him out. While Rich was there he had people to talk to and things to think about. Each time, what first seemed like a new beginning quickly dissolved into the same old hell.
Tara had moved out three months ago. Rich had racked up tens of thousands of dollars of medical bills, even after insurance. The last three years had been enough, she wasn't going to take care of the co-pays too. She had talked Rich into doing a bankruptcy before a divorce. She knew that he had gone along with the former to possibly prevent the latter, but lawyers abounded in her life. The bankruptcy had just gone through and the divorce was coming next.
Then this morning, the voicemail. By lunchtime, she had gotten brave enough to listen. Rich had simply asked her to call. He sounded healthy, if that was possible to determine in the span of a short message. He had even been sober when he called. It was just that she dreaded returning the call. Hopefully it was just some detail about the divorce that wasn't quite complete. She couldn't imagine what he wanted or why he hadn't elaborated. Rich had simply said, "Hey, Tara. Rich. Could you call me when you get a chance?"
Tara could almost detect a false optimism in Rich's voice. It hung on her phone like fresh paint on a dirty wall. She hoped he was just healthy enough to purposely try and sound positive. Still, a little echo of something else hung on in the silent moment before he had hung up the line.
She'd been home more than an hour. After the grocery store, she had laid out all the ingredients for supper on the counter, but hadn't begun to prepare anything. Twice she had hit the button, lighting the little screen, but both times she just stared and let the the phone go dark again. The thick paste of dread on her fingers prevented them dialing. The thought of talking to Rich gave her stomach a sticky, acrid feeling. Nevertheless, like tearing off a band-aid, on the third try, she dialed in a rush as soon as the screen lit, just to get it over with.
Rich had moved back in with his family. His parents and two brothers, none of them were particularly healthy or well adjusted themselves. They were not equipped to help the prodigal Rich. Tara worried that his drinking would just continue unabated. Rich's father answered the phone.
"Hang on I'll get him." The father had said.
The abandoned handset collected the familiar sounds of her soon-to-be-ex in-laws' house. There was a rustle in the kitchen; that would be Mom. A television was on, that would be brother Geoff. Dad's boots clomped across the dining room floor and Tara heard him call upstairs to Rich.
The rhythm of Rich's ambling gait approached. The phone would be laying on the desk in what used to be the dining room. There wasn't room for a table any longer, just two desks and a bench. The house was so small, especially now with five people living in it. Tara heard a scratchy fumbling as Rich picked up the phone.
Tara couldn't speak. Rich was more than obviously drunk. His dad hadn't even warned her. Had it become so normal in the tiny house that it hadn't occurred to him to mention? She stood in her own kitchen, not able to decide whether to throw the phone against a wall or collapse on the linoleum and cry.
She took a jerking breath, fighting against the weighty dread. In his stupor, Rich held the phone too close to his face. Tara sensed the heat of his stale breath against her cheek. He was miles away but she could smell the whiskey, and his dirty teeth. With a strained hollow gurgle, he drug air down his torpid throat. His alcohol addled breath thrummed against moist curtains of saliva in his sickeningly drunk mouth.
"Tara," he repeated. "Are you sure you want to go through with this divorce thing?"
He had practiced the line for days, she was sure. Rather than a dramatic flourish, however, the words had come out like junior high theater - one part Broadway come on, three parts primal fear. Her brain could not catch up to the audacity of his drunk question. The phone line went silent as an ancient temple. A lone pebble skittered from the cave wall of her soul and ticked randomly down a bottomless crevasse. Anger, confusion, even loneliness, ached in her throat as if she had swallowed a glowing coal.
"Yes," she finally said. "Yes, Rich, this is something that I have to do . . . for me. For my own survival."
Just then she heard a faint puffing whoosh as the pilot light of her heart re-lit. There was a little spread of warmth inside her chest and she hung up the phone. Her own life had begun again.