A flash of memory, from seven years ago. February, 2004. From the first apartment I moved into after separating from Josie. The kids were only eleven and six at the time. But I wonder, have I done a good job of preparing them for the deep cold outside during the time that's passed?
Somewhere outside, I can hear a drunk boy arguing, then burst into tears. Men are so unattractive when they cry.
His words are muted. Instinctively, I turn the lights out in the apartment and move close to the picture window to hear more. I've always been nosy like that.
But it's no use. I move the curtain back a sliver and look outside into the cold, dispassionate evening, searching for this infrared pocket of heat.
I can hear two or three muted voices, but can't make out what they're saying. I hear the boy trying to speak, but then his words grow even more indistinct, becoming sobs, low, guttural sobs, and then even those start to fade.
There’s the sound of a car starting up, then pulling away.
I lie on the bed in my apartment, cross-legged, my computer in front of me. From the other room, Ashes is snoring loudly, Tiger is squirming in his sleep.
And then, another sound, coming from my hallway. A woman’s voice, clearly on the brink. I lift myself up from my bed and quickly shuffle into the living room toward the door.
Her voice becomes more distinct. She sounds as though she’s in her thirties, most likely not too old, but old enough to no longer have that youthful blush. Clearly intoxicated. There’s another voice, a masculine one, but I can’t make out his words.
I hear hers, however. “I don’t care anymore! I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care anymore.” She’s crying, too, and her sobs flow like the tide, like breathing in, breathing out.
Something falls to the floor, smashes. A plate? “I’m dying I’m dying I don’t care. What do you want?”
The masculine voice, indecipherable, a low sonorous growl. But she doesn’t give him much of a chance.
“Shut up. I want to be with my kids. They’re my kids and I want you to shut up. You have no clue what kids are about, so just shut up. You, shut up.”
“You know what? I don’t even care. Kill me, kill the kids. You feel so freakin’ proud about it, go ahead and do it, just do it, just do it, okay? Dad would be so proud to know you were a fucking asshole.”
Low tones start to say something. Mumble mumble mumble.
“...all those other jackasses...I haven’t BEEN with ANY OTHER jackasses! I haven’t had sex since...since...see, I can’t remember. I can’t even remember. I don’t care. I don’t. I’m too tired. So murder my kids! Go ahead! Just...”
She starts to sob, hysterically, and there’s that rhythm again, that breathing in, breathing out.
They talk. I can’t hear their words, although wish I could. I imagine them sitting there, probably on the staircase. I wonder whether they’re close together. Is he holding her? Is he leaning against the side of the wall, keeping his distance? Is he threatening her?
I think of my ex-wife, Josie. Thank God we avoided this. Thank God it never ever went there.
Her voice rises in volume. “I never want to be involved with anyone EVER I never did anything to anyone ever...I don’t fucking WANT to TRY anymore I FUCKING HATE YOU ALL, fucking kill me, just kill me don’t ever fucking threaten my kids, you fuck I hate you I hate you I hate you...”
A noisy stumble up a flight of stairs. Her sobs start to fade away. Silence.
Then, more stumbles. Her voice, again. It sounds as if she’s alone. Talking to herself, close to my door, mumbling about this apartment and she’s not crazy and this is not the way she is. Then, she moves away.
Ashley snores grow a little louder, taking me out of the trance I’ve been in. The kids. Have they been taking this in? No, they haven’t; they’re fast asleep.
There’s a knock. Downstairs. Not on my door.
(But what if it had been my door? What would I have done?)
A click as the neighbor downstairs opens up. He's a gentle man. Brown hair, slight squat, thick glasses. I think he’s disabled. I hear him talking to her, whoever she is.
Then her voice, a hysterical stream. “I don’t think he’s a murderer. I don’t know where my car is, I don’t know where he is. I'm just tired, tired of all this. You must think I'm crazy, I’m really not crazy, I don’t usually get like this. I don’t think he’s a murderer, I really don’t, I just don’t know, but I don’t know where my car is and…”
”Relax. Keep it down.”
I hear that, distinctly, but then the words start to fade. Slowly, I move over to the couch where Ashes is sleeping, sit down next to her. I place a hand against her cheek, feel the warmth of her skin. Brush one of her wet sweaty curls away from her face. Her snoring is steady, even. Peaceful.
I glance over at the door, the door that separates us from it. It, exactly. The cold outside world I want so badly to protect my kids from. I won’t always be able to, though.
Not forever, at least. It will never be enough to simply lock a door or pull back a curtain. That only keeps the real world at bay for a while.
Downstairs, a door clicks shut. The cold outside retreats.
For now, that is. Only for now.