Published in Page Seventeen, Issue 5.
Tom stood, hand on the doorhandle, and took a deep breath.
Music was coming from inside; “Better be home soon” by Crowded House. She must be there. She was there. Thank god. His toolbox slipped from his grasp forgotten, as he bolted across the living room floor to the couch where she lay. To the rest of the world, it would appear she was just sleeping.
He leant close to her face, smelling her breath. Whiskey. “Danielle…Dani!” he repeated. She stirred, made a noise, but didn’t wake. Pulling himself onto the couch beside her, he slid his arm under her shoulders and hugged her fragile body. Relief. He stroked her hair. Her once luxurious waves of honeyed chocolate now lay matted and split like burnt straw. He kissed her dry, cracked lips, never wanting to let her go.
The music stopped, clicked over, and the same song started up again. Where to from here?
The last time they’d fought like this, she’d disappeared and he’d spent the whole night driving to pubs, showing her photo to anyone in the hopes they’d seen her. He’d eventually found her the next afternoon, slumped over a bar stool, a middle aged dero plying her with vodka shots. After that, they’d had almost a month without an episode. Then the drinking started again. Only one or two at first.
Tom cradled her in his arms. Her once toned skin and muscles shrivelled. He surveyed their lounge room, the sleek black furniture they’d picked out together, the photographs of the two of them laughing, hugging and kissing. The cabinet that had previously housed his late grandfather’s priceless port collection and now stood empty. He could leave, that’s if he could leave.
He laid her back down on the couch. Straightening her leg, his hand cupped her calf. It lay small, flaccid and pale in his large palm. An image flashed of a short black suit skirt, rising high up her tanned thigh as she stood on tip toe to reach a glass. Back then she’d only ever have two glasses of wine – couldn’t be hung-over and miss her morning aerobics. Weekends had been a different matter. But then, she worked so hard during the week and she deserved to let her hair down. Tom always nursed her when she got messy. After all, it was the only thing she really needed him for. Then.
Back when they’d met and fallen in love, he wondered, ‘Why me?’ A plumber, a pleb. Men made bee lines for her at bars. She was a fantasy girl, the sort his footy mates lied about sleeping with to bolster their egos. She’d modelled to pay her way through uni. Lingerie catalogues mostly. She already owned her own place, had a high paying executive bank career and more friends than names he could remember. It was all gone now of course.
So, what did she really need him for?
When he’d ask she’d say “Sshhhh silly!” with a kiss to his lip, then to his forehead and eyelids. “Sshhhh,” as she’d pulled his grease covered work shirt over his head. “You don’t see what I see,” as she kissed his chest. Feathering her lips and fingertips over his stomach, he dissolved at the pleasure of her touch.
After an early attempt at unbuttoning her blouse had resulted in black marks he worried about getting grease and dirt on her suits, on her princess skin. “You do it,” he’d said and so she sat him down and made him watch as, with sensual slowness, she unbuttoned and discarded her blouse and skirt. Her stockings she removed by degrees. Stepping back, she turned a full circle, showing off her lithe, lingerie clad body.
Tom beheld her in awe, all thoughts of his worth forgotten. She came closer, made him look without touching, until he couldn’t stand it anymore. Then she smiled, task accomplished, and fell into his arms. Tom couldn’t imagine being any happier at those moments.
Checking she wasn’t going to roll off the couch, Tom went into the kitchen. His back against the wall, he leant forward, bracing his hands on his knees and tried to think. She’d wake up and want to keep drinking. She hated the vomiting, the headaches and cold sweats that always followed her benders. Drinking more alcohol kept them at bay. For a while. But he was determined; this was it. This was it. It had to be.
Tom ransacked every cupboard searching for that elusive stash. Any unrecognised bottles he opened and sniffed. Last time he’d discovered her emergency alcohol supply concealed in a detergent bottle. The time before that, an empty bottle of shampoo. He found nothing, then proceeded to the bedroom. Her suitcase lay half open on their bed, its guts spilling onto the doona and floor. He began rummaging through mounds of dishevelled clothing. Searching. His fist collided with cold hard glass. A bottle of vodka, three quarters full, cocooned in her jeans.
When Danielle woke it was dark. Tom’s large frame perched on the edge of the couch, his head in one hand, vodka in the other. He’d been sitting there for the last hour, thinking. If he asked her where she’d been, would she tell him the truth? Did he even want to know? Was it enough that she’d simply come back?
He thought back to when her drinking had stopped being a weekend thing and turned into week long benders. It had been ten months ago, after she’d lost their baby.
When she’d told him about the pregnancy, instead of joy, he felt something close to mistrust. She needed attention, male attention, to feel good about herself. He knew that. He’d let most of it go, she was flirty by nature, it meant nothing. She loved him. But that time at the work Christmas party; the fact she was wasted and didn’t remember trying to bed his mate couldn’t be removed from his memory. How many other times had there been when he hadn’t been there to stop her?
‘Am I the father?’ he had said then hated himself for asking. It was after that her drinking escalated. An escape from life, from him. His gut knotted every time he thought about it. Was this the way you treated someone you love? Someone you cherish.
Holding the bottle of vodka out to her he said ‘Do you want it?’ She pulled herself into a half sitting position, rubbed her eyes, said nothing. Tom put the bottle down on the coffee table in front of her. ‘It’s there if you want it.’
Danielle pushed her hair out of her face, reached for the bottle and planted it in her lap. She traced a cracked fingernail around the rim, caressing it’s frigid walls. ‘It takes it all away you know. Takes everything that I hate about myself away and gives me this world where nothing matters.’
He stared at the bottle. ‘But it takes you away from me too.’
She was silent, studying the distance between them. ‘I know.’
‘If you want to stop, we’ll do it together,” he mumbled.
She started to cry. ‘I don’t know why, after how I’ve been…how can you still love me?’
Tom rocked her .‘Shhh silly, you don’t see what I see’. He kissed the top of her head, pressing her to his chest and felt the wet through his shirt. ‘You’re my girl, we’ve just gotta get you better.’ He pulled out a hanky and wiped her face.
Danielle turned back to the bottle. She was silent for a second, then pulled herself up from Tom’s lap, shuffled into the kitchen and poured it down the drain.
Tom came up behind her and circled his arms around her waist. ‘Proud of you, Baby.’
She turned to hold his gaze, then leant the whole of her weight against him.
It was nearly dawn when the withdrawals began in earnest. By eight thirty, the sheets were dark with sweat. She’d vomited so many times that she was no longer bothering to go to the toilet. Nothing left to come up. She’d sit in bed and convulse, her shoulders heaving. Tom sponged her face, tried to get water into her. The last time she’d been like this, he’d taken her to hospital. ‘Good thing too,’ they’d said, ‘alcoholic seizures were next.’
He couldn’t do that again. This time he couldn’t trust her recovery to anyone else.
‘Be back soon,’ he said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
‘Don’t leave me,’ she whispered.
‘Not leaving you, Baby. Just going to get some medicine. Same stuff they gave you at the hospital. It’ll help you sleep.’ He took both her hands in his, and noticed that his were still black from work. He should wash them. Should probably even change his clothes before fronting up to any doctor. But that would take time.
‘You’re so very good to me, Thomas,’ she said squeezing his hands. ‘I know I can do this as long as I’ve got you.’
He leant forward and held his lips soft against hers. At the bedroom door he turned to look back at her. She was smiling. His own face broke into a grin. He shoved his toolbox out of the way, grabbed both sets of house keys and left, locking the door from the outside. He wouldn’t be long. But still…
‘Just not sleeping doc…haven’t slept in four nights now,’ he said to the overworked clinic doctor when explaining the necessity for valium. It wasn’t as if he was lying. The doctor took in his dirty rumpled clothes, his blood shot eyes and promptly wrote him a script.
Unable to stand still, Tom paced aisles of pharmacy brand shampoos, razors and bandages. After what seemed an eternity, his name was called. Handing over money for the medication, something blue glinting in his periphery caught his attention. A mock sapphire encrusted guardian angel pin. Tom thought how closely the colour of the fake jewel matched Danielle’s eyes.
Driving home, he began to relax. A picture of Dani, healthy and happy, formed in his mind. He turned up the car radio. ‘Better be home soon’ was playing and he began to hum along to the tune. He imagined they were at the beach. She was wearing the black bikini he’d bought her last summer. Lying in the warm sand beside her, the glint from her ring dazzled him momentarily. He looked down at his own left hand to a thick, gold wedding band. Married. For the first time in days, no months, he felt real hope and something like happiness.
He pulled into the car port. Their front door stood ajar, the lock smashed, tools littering the ground. His now battered steel toolbox lay just inside, centimeters from where he’d left it. Panicked, he flew through the kitchen and lounge room to the bedroom. She was there. Thank god. To the rest of the world it would appear she was just sleeping.
The empty bottle of vodka by her side was the only give away.