Dear Abbi, I’m so very proud of the woman you have become. It seems like only yesterday I was dropping you off at kindergarten.
“Are you listening to this?” Carolyn whispered in his ear.
“They’re talking about tuition payments and room and board and estimates for books.”
Hank nodded. “I know. They went over it when Abbi and I visited. Didn’t you read any of the brochures I gave you?”
“I’ve been busy,” Carolyn said.
“Don’t’ worry,” he said. “We’re all good. We’ve been saving.”
Take advantage of this time in your life! Try new things and meet new people. Figure out who you want to be. Trust yourself—and take care of yourself! Always be and do your best and never let anyone or anything stand in your way. I’ll always be there for you.
Let the adventure begin!
An hour later, he placed the folded letter on his daughter’s dorm room desk. He’d printed Abbi’s name on the outside, drawing a little crooked heart as the dot for the ‘i’.
“I think I’m all set,” Abbi said. “Thanks so much, Dad.”
They hugged and walked out into the crowded hallway. Carolyn stood looking out a window near the stairs.
“Mom’s having a hard time with this,” Hank said.
Abbi shrugged. “She seems the same as always to me.”
“We’re both excited for you.”
A half hour into the drive home, Hank began to deflate. It didn’t help that Carolyn was so quiet.
“So, what are we going to do now?” he asked, trying to cheer them both. “It’s just us again—like a second honeymoon.”
“Well...” Carolyn paused and stretched her neck oddly as if trying to work out a sore muscle. “I know I’m not going to hand over thousands of dollars of my hard-earned money to that college.”
Hank’s vision narrowed, blurring at the edges. He watched the dotted lines on the road disappear in front of the SUV like tiny arrows hitting him in the chest over and over again.
“It’s our money,” he said.
“Keep the money we’ve saved,” Carolyn said. “I’m not paying another dime.”
He took a deep breath. “This is our daughter’s college—her future!”
“Our daughter?” Carolyn said. “She’s like a mini-Hank!”
He licked his lips. “I didn’t realize you felt so left out.”
He changed lanes to accelerate past a semi. Carolyn looked up at the driver in the cab and he yanked the car back into the right lane.
“I gave you those brochures! You knew she was accepted. We’ve been planning for months!”
“Look,” Carolyn said. “I get that this is a shock for you. But I can’t go on just...existing, you know?”
“This isn’t only about paying for Abbi’s college, is it?”
“No, it isn’t. It’s about ending this lie of a suburban-perfect life.”
Hank tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. “I’m stopping. I need to get something to drink.”
They sat in a tense silence until the next travel plaza appeared.
Carolyn stayed in the car. He got out and walked inside.
The tap water was icy cold. He splashed a few drops on his face. “Get ahold of yourself,” he said to his reflection.
A sudden throbbing pulsed at his temples. The painful pounding of a drummer trapped inside his head. He reached into his jacket pocket for the bottle of prescription pain meds he’d brought it just in case he overdid it during Abbi’s move-in. He took two with a handful of water.
They got back on the road and the drive went on and on and on.
God, let us get back home. I’ll take the dog out and start dinner. Karen from next door will stop by to see how things went. She’ll mention that Gary is home. We’ll end up inviting them over. We’ll open some wine. Everyone will laugh.
“Look, this isn’t spur of the moment. I’ve been struggling a long time. I finally realized I’d got caught up in a life I thought I was supposed to have and forgot who I really was.”
“But things’ll be different now,” he said. “It’s back to the two of us! We can do whatever we want!”
“And what do you want?” she asked.
Carolyn laughed. “Okay—well, I know what I want—I want to take that promotion and move to the West Coast.”
“California? We’ll be leaving everyone and everything we know! We’ll be a six-hour flight from Abbi!”
“You’re not going anywhere, Hank. I’m leaving. You’re staying.”
The narrowed vision returned. “Why do want to throw all this away?”
“Throw all what away? This is your life, not mine. I’m leaving today. I’ll come back and pack up my things when you’re at work.”
At home, she left him sitting in the SUV in the garage, went inside and came out with a suitcase and the keys to the other car—the sedan, her car. Without saying a word, she got in and left.
Hank wasn’t sure how long he sat there. Why am I not crying? I must be in shock. He put a hand to his forehead. His fingers were like ice and his head throbbed hotly.
Abbi. I’ve got to tell Abbi.
“Dad? Miss me already? I’ve only got a minute—we’re headed to karaoke at the student union.”
“That sounds like fun,” he said. He could hear the tears now.
“Are you alright, Dad? You sound funny...”
“I’m alright...Abbi, honey, I don’t know how to tell you this, but...”
And just like that, the dam burst. The pain. The hurt. He hunched over in the car and the sobs tore at his chest. It felt as if his heart was clawing up his esophagus, trying to escape.
“Dad? Dad, you’ve got to stop.”
“It’s okay, Dad...it’s you and Mom, isn’t it?”
“Did she call you?”
“No, she didn’t call. I just know how things have been and figured she’d finally left.”
Hank sat up straight. “What do you mean—how things have been?”
“You know what I mean, Dad.”
“No, I don’t!”
“She’d checked out. Not interested in you or me. All that working out and trips to L.A.”
“I work out, too. It doesn’t mean I want to end my marriage.”
“I know this must be really hard right now, but it will get better.”
“I don’t want to get over this, Abbi!”
“Dad, you’ve taught me to be my own person and that I don’t need anyone else to be happy.”
Is that what I taught you? He felt sick.
“Look, I’ve got to go.”
“I love you, Abs.”
“I love you more. Bye, Dad.”
Exhausted, empty, he dropped his cellphone on the seat and leaned back. The hammering headache grew stronger and stronger. He pulled out the bottle of pills.
And considered it.
It was an almost-full bottle. In addition to the two pills he’d taken at the rest stop, he’d only taken a couple for his knee. Karen had encouraged her to refill the prescription anyway, ‘You never know when you might need a painkiller, friend.’
I need a big glass of water.
He dragged heavy legs up the stairs and opened the door into the house. Cinnamon’s barking and whining echoed in the semi-darkness.
He went to the crate and let her out. Because the blinds were drawn on the sliding glass door, he knew Karen had been over and let the dog out at least once. Still, that could have been hours ago.
He slid open the door and let the dog run out into the yard.
As he waited, the perfect neatness of the updated kitchen and granite countertops closed in around him. The scent of half-rotten apple hung in the air. Dammit, he’d just checked those yesterday.
Leaving the back door open, he picked up the fruit bowl and turned toward the breakfast nook, planning to sit down and check the apples again. But the Pottery Barn-esque table, partially set and casually ready for a meal for two seemed to mock him.
Cinnamon barreled back inside. The tiny ball of fur slid across the hardwood floor in her eagerness to get to him, ending up on her back, halfway across the room.
A laugh escaped Hank’s lips.
It surprised him. And the world shifted again.
He put down the basket, filled up a glass of water, and took a long drink. Then he picked up Cinnamon and went into the family room and turned on the television, leaving the bottle of pills on the kitchen counter.