Hoo boy, I didn’t want to do this today. I started one version in which a stuffed head looked down at a bunch of people at a cocktail party and made comments. It would have been funny had I been in a funny-writing mood. (Narrator: “She was not in a funny-writing mood.”) So I came up with this. Again, don’t know where it came from; just had the idea of a stuffed head being the only thing available to listen to a lonely woman.
“Hello! Anybody in there?”
He was dimly aware she’d been talking for a while. He’d been looking at his phone; Grant had sent over a slew of messages about the account and expected an immediate response. The phrase, “work-life balance” didn’t mean much to Grant. Actually, he didn’t separate work from life. It was all one big blob to him. But even with this pressure, he managed to pull his eyes away from the screen.
Her eyes went sharp and narrow, then relaxed into disappointment. “Did you hear anything I said?” she asked, pulling her hand from his knee and dropping it in her lap. Her other hand played in their sleeping daughter’s fine hair; she lightly pulled the silky strands straight up from her small head then let them float back into place.
“Sure. Sure I did,” he said. He was frantically trying to piece together words he think he might have heard, because he knew what the next question was going to be.
“What did I say?” she said.
“You said the garbage disposal is on the fritz,” he said with some confidence. He knew “garbage” and “fritz” were in there somewhere. “I’ll get it taken care of.”
“No,” she shook her head, “that’s not what I said. But I have to give you credit. You were kind of close. I said I’m sorry I didn’t take care of the garbage cans and that the fridge was on the fritz.” Her hand stopped fidgeting with the girl’s locks. The toddler didn’t stir.
He looked into Brenda’s face. She looked tired, older. But staying at home with a three-year-old all day—every day— would do that to you; he imagined it would make you exhausted in your body, mind, and soul. The limited interactions he had with Evie in the evenings and the weekends were enough for him. Sure, she loved her; he didn’t think he’d ever loved anything more in his whole life. But he was secretly glad that Brenda was the one who had decided to pause a career. Then again, he suspected it wasn’t much of a secret.
Brenda gently moved Evie off of her leg. Evie gave a long, powdery sigh and settled against the stuffed arm of the couch. Brenda leaned forward, cupping her calves and sliding her hands to her feet until her chest rested on her thighs. She let her head hang down; her caramel-colored hair obscured her face.
“Colin,” she said from beneath her hair. “I—“ she stopped.
Colin put his palm on her back, but stole a glance at his phone. Three more emails from Grant had come through. Brenda sat up quickly, and ran both hands through her hair, smoothing it. Colin turned his phone screen-down on the sofa. The gesture didn’t go unnoticed. He rubbed her back.
“What?” he asked. “What’s going on?” Her eyes became glassy and her mouth pressed and worked.
“I can’t,” she said finally.
Colin frowned. “Can’t what?”
She shook her head from side to side. “I can’t. I can’t. I just can’t.” She spread her arms wide to indicate the entirety of her world. “This. It’s not… It’s too…” she trailed off. Colin started to say something, but she continued.
“I know I agreed. I mean, I volunteered. It made sense. But Co, I’m so lonely. I feel like whatever I was before is gone, completely gone. And I know you have to put in the extra time at work,” she nodded at the phone, its body haloed with the glow of incoming messages, “but you’re gone too. And when you’re here, you’re there,” she pointed at the device. “And I have no one to talk to except… except…” she looked around the room until her eyes landed on the ironic buck head mounted over the fireplace. “Except that stuffed head on the wall. That stupid, ridiculous deer head.”