It was 3 am. No alarms were set, no previous plan of action in motion. Elizabeth just sat up in bed and thought “This is as a good a time as any” and dropped her bare feet to the cold wood floor.
She stuffed a backpack full of the essentials. Careful and quiet, she tiptoed to the room next door. She went in and scooped a sleeping 6-year-old Samantha from her bed. Sammy would be tired and confused when she woke up in the car and realized they had left, but Elizabeth’s only mission now was to get out of the house before anyone woke up. She carried her backpack and Samantha down the stairs, careful to avoid the loud creaking 3rd step from the bottom of the staircase. She had learned long ago that this step can undo hours of baby sleep training if not avoided.
Once Sammy was tucked warmly in the backseat of the car, Elizabeth reversed out of the driveway, careful not to turn on her headlights until she was far enough down the long suburban street that no one would notice it was her car. Once she was out of the neighborhood and on her way to the highway she gulped in a huge sigh of relief. She was free for the first time in a while. For just a moment, she enjoyed the floating feeling of not knowing yet which direction she would drive. She glimpsed back on all of the years she had daydreamed of this moment and almost laughed at the simplicity of it. “I just got up one morning and left “she imagined herself explaining to a group of friends later. They would lean in with curiosity, shake their heads in disapproval and shock and eventually applaud her for her strength and bravery to carry on.
Elizabeth allowed herself a moment of this daydream before reality set in. Where would they go? How long could she afford aimless gas, food and hotel rooms? What would she tell Sammy? She only had an hour, if that, to come up with at least an explanation of what they were doing. She hadn’t thought past the urge to leave. Now she was second guessing herself.
She pulled off to the side of the road. There was still a little darkness left, she had just a moment to pause and think before anyone would notice them gone. She got out of the car and lit a cigarette. The smell of the smoke brought up a memory from 3 years back.
Elizabeth was sitting next to her husband Eddie on the couch. She had just put Sammy to bed upstairs for the night and was tired from the day. Eddie lit a cigarette, Elizabeth asked him to at least go outside and smoke if he insisted on smoking. Eddie looked her right in the eyes as he a took a long deep inhale of his cigarette and then without saying a word he slowly blew the smoke into Elizabeth’s face. Then he flicked the cigarette at her face. Elizabeth didn’t flinch, the small burn she felt rising on her cheek was nothing compared to what might come next. After a long minute, she walked out of the room. She checked on Sammy 3 times before going to her own room and pretending to be asleep for the night. She cried quietly into her pillow, careful to tilt her head in such way that the salt water bypassed the burn. The next morning, she picked up her old smoking habit.
Elizabeth shuttered as this memory passed. Everything is so clear in retrospect, a collection of individual memories strung together into one past is so easy to diagnose later. She felt guilty for not seeing the urgency of the situation, yet when life happens event to event with just enough time to pass to convince yourself everything is going to be ok, it’s easy to swallow chaos as normalcy. She stubbed out her cigarette, got back behind the wheel of the car and decided they would go west. She needed to get to an ocean as soon as possible. To Sammy, this would be explained away as an impromptu early birthday trip. There would be as much ice cream and arcade games as Elizabeth’s bank account would allow her.
As the sun rose and the car began to warm to a temperature requiring the noisy roll down of windows, Sammy began to stir in the back seat. Elizabeth wished she had fixed the AC before this early morning flee. “Mommy, where are we? Where are we going? Do I have to go to school today?” “Shit” Thought Elizabeth, the school will be calling the house soon to report Sammy’s absence. “We are going on a little surprise trip. I can’t tell you where to yet, but you are going to love it!” “Mommy, I’m hungry.”
Elizabeth realized that she was red eyed and also starving. She pulled off to the first exit with the flashing food sign. They entered a small diner with stainless steel everything and free coffee refills. It was the perfect place for their first meal of freedom. Sammy ordered chocolate chip pancakes and colored neatly in the lines of her kid’s menu. Elizabeth stared out the window of the diner, surprised that Sammy was not berating her with questions as to why they were in the middle of nowhere on a Wednesday morning.
Elizabeth touched the skin under her left eye. Just enough scar tissue left over from the stiches to feel but not enough to notice unless you were looking for it. Which she was, every time she looked in the mirror. It was a constant reminder of the long night in the ER, the explaining over and over again to nurses and doctors that yes of course it was an accident. Yes of course she just walked into a cabinet in the dark kitchen. Yes of course she was a little drunk so yes of course it was her fault entirely. She knew the staff did not believe her. She knew they were waiting for Eddie to leave her side long enough to hear the real story, but the opportunity never presented itself. He was right by her side, the entire time.
Full and caffeinated, they headed back on the road. The windows were down, the music was blaring (Sammy was currently fascinated with the Mama’s and the Papa’s, which Elizabeth happened to have on cassette tape in one of the few cars left with a tape deck) Things almost seemed normal. They drove for the rest of the day and into the evening. Elizabeth finally gave in to her exhaustion and pulled into a motel. The paint on the walls was crumbling and there was a musky smell to the room, but there was hot water, a cartoon channel and it was cheap.
Elizabeth spent the night twisting and turning. She jumped between hazy replays of heavy memories and dreams all night. Right as she would fall back into sleep, a memory would jolt her back into the dark hotel room. The sound of the front door slamming shut at 2 am. 3-year-old Sammy hiding in the corner as her father ripped the shelves out of the fridge door. The smell of smoke circulating through the air vents. Small pieces to a complicated puzzle.
The next day, they continued West. Sammy was surprisingly happy and lacked questions. It wasn’t until noon on the second day of driving that Sammy quietly said “I miss daddy” “I know sweetie, we all do” Elizabeth replied. Hoping her daughter believed her, partly because it was a lie and partly because it was true. Didn’t they all miss him? He was once so handsome and charming and full of life. He was once the life of the party.
“I need to make a quick phone call” Elizabeth noticed one of the only phone booths still left in the country off to the side of the gas station. Elizabeth had intentionally left her cellphone behind, unsure of who could access the GPS signal on it. Sammy became weepy in the background. The weight of their departure clearly setting in to the 6-year old’s mind. “Who are you talking to? Is it Grandma? I miss Grandma! Mommy I want to go home” Elizabeth tried to console Sammy while waiting for the call to go through. “Hello… Hey it’s me. Yea. Yea we are ok. Yea, I know. I didn’t mean to scare you. I know. Yes. Yes, we will be back soon…. I don’t know yet. Yes, we will try. I don’t know if I can, but I will try. O.k. I just wanted you to know we were o.k. I have to go now”
“Sammy, we will be heading home soon. But first, we are going to the ocean.” Elizabeth pointed to a sign that said, “Seaside OR 45 Miles”
Elizabeth and Sammy drove in to the little town of Seaside as the sun was setting. Elizabeth splurged on a nice room at a hotel with a pool and room service. Knowing this would be one of the last nights before their return home, she decided that her and Sammy would pay no mind to the money they spent.
They swam until the security guard came by to remind them that the pool was now closed for the evening. They ordered macaroni and cheese and Crème Brule from room service. They stayed up late watching a movie and slept in until 9:30 the next morning.
They spent the first half of the morning collecting sea shells on the beach and letting the tide tease its way up their knees. The water was so cold, neither one of them went in any further. That afternoon, they played in the arcade for hours gathering tickets to collect prizes clearly last restocked in the late 1980’s.
Their skin was salty and sunburnt when they drove out of town. Driving East, Elizabeth felt refreshed. She knew she would need to drive all night if she was going to make it back home by Saturday.
The Saturday she had secretly hoped for in the worst moments. The Saturday she had once glamorized but was now dreading. This was the Saturday she felt she had manifested by all of those hateful thoughts, the lack of compassion and nurture to change her husband’s behavior. If only she had been more patient, more understanding of his struggles, this Saturday would just be a normal Saturday.
But it was not. This Saturday was the day Sammy would attend her father’s funeral. It was the Saturday that Elizabeth would suppress her anger and fear for her publicly loving and charming husband and mourn his death.
Elizabeth tried to ignore the replaying image of his death in her mind, but she could not make it stop. The night he died they had met some of Eddie’s co-workers for dinner and drinks. It was just last week, yet she had replayed it so many times it felt like years ago, if not a scene from a movie she had just engrained into her memory as her own.
Elizabeth had been tired. She did not want to make small talk with people she barely knew for the sake of her husband’s reputation. Yet, there she was sitting at a table with nearly strangers, carrying on in conversation as if she was delighted.
All of sudden there was a commotion coming from the women’s bathroom. The sound of a female crying out for help. Eddie jumped from the table and went running in to the bathroom. There was shuffling and shouting and confusion. It all happened so fast and yet it replayed in Elizabeth’s mind in slow motion, like a car accident.
Eddie and another man both laid motionless on the bathroom floor. Blood pooled beneath Eddie’s head, a clear indication that he would not be getting up. The other man’s face was bleeding, his features unrecognizable. There was a woman crouching in the corner, sobbing. Eddie was declared dead by the paramedics who responded to the call. The other man was eventually pronounced dead hours later at the hospital.
Once the woman calmed down she explained that a man had followed her into the bathroom, was trying to assault her when another man came in and tried to rescue her. The two men fought for a moment, but the attacker smacked Eddie’s head against the tile wall hard enough to crack his skull open.
So, there you have it. Eddie died as a Martyr to chivalry. The Irony of it all was enough to make Elizabeth want to laugh. Saturday would be a day to remember a man who sacrificed his life to protect a woman from harm. Her husband would forever be missed and remembered as this man. Even the people who had an indication of who he really was would choose the hero narrative to ease the grief of his loss.
Elizabeth carried the weight truth. The ocean air may have been a brief reprieve from reality but in the end, she was the only one who would really know Eddie for who he was.
They pulled into the driveway at 1 am on Saturday morning. Once the engine was turned off, Elizabeth sat motionless for a few minutes. Sammy still asleep in the back seat, Elizabeth debated if she should put the car in reverse and continue driving. These thoughts were interrupted with the front door opening. Elizabeth’s mother was out the front door, across the lawn and at the car door before she could think on it any longer.
“Come on in Elizabeth, you had us worried sick. Where the hell did you go? Everyone was so worried! Are you O.K.?”
And with that, Elizabeth and Sammy shuffled back into the house. The house that her and Eddie bought when she pregnant with the Sammy. The house with the creaky 3rdstep. The house with a living room that smelled like lingering Cigarette smoke. The house where they would frame the photo of her hero husband.