Ralph walked quickly from his car to the front door, the way he always did. It was a nice spring night, he thought briefly as he shuffled along the sidewalk and brushed against the bush that covered part of the path with its tentacle-like branches. Then he deftly slid the key into the lock and turned the door handle. An array of images and thoughts – the meeting earlier that day and the presentation he had to put together that night and the trip that weekend – ran through his mind as he followed the thin routine, and he felt the thoughts surround him like a sterile but warm cover. And as he swung open the door and saw the familiar tiled hallway and off-white walls and intricately patterned front rug, the cover fell away for the slightest moment, as if hit by a great and sudden wind, but then it quickly returned.
‘It’s pretty quiet,’ he thought for a moment, and he headed to the garden in the backyard to see if Cindy was there. She probably was, he figured. The kids might be too. He shook his head slightly. He didn’t understand it – all the time she spent there with those silly flowers, and the time the kids spent there with her between school and homework and all their other activities – but they were entitled to their hobbies. When Ralph reached the back door and stuck out his head though, he saw the garden was empty, and he laughed softly to himself.
Right, he remembered, the meeting. Cindy wouldn’t be home for a few hours still. The rest of the evening began to come back to him too – Chris with his sleepout, Amelia with her school dance. And suddenly the house felt larger than it had before, and Ralph realized he couldn’t remember the last time he was alone inside it. It was no matter though, and as Ralph thought back to his presentation he saw the house transform, with its green couch and wood-paneled kitchen and elegant paintings and all the rest shrinking and dulling until they were nothing but the office versions of themselves. Then he reached for his phone and checked his email before getting to work. But there was a message from Bob there, and he opened it. “Good news, Ralph. Client doesn’t need that presentation after all. Looks like you’ve got the night off. Enjoy.”
Ralph felt a bit dizzy for a moment. It was an odd, stripped-away kind of dizziness, and it turned deep inside him. Then he closed the email and sat down, and everything was very quiet. He began to wonder if there was another project he could get ahead on – something to fill the emptiness. He thought of the reports he had to meet with Bob about, the reviews with the new associates, the work for the trip north that weekend, but they were all already locked into their own time and place, affixed to that mechanical mosaic schedule he had mastered over the years, so that there was nothing for him now.
It was funny, he thought then – the one night he was free to spend with his family, and there they were, scattered far from him. Not that it was a surprise, of course. They were always doing their own thing. Cindy with her job and her garden and Chris with his soccer and Amelia with her theater. And the kids had their garden time with Cindy, and she’d watch their games and plays, and Ralph would try to catch one when he could too. But still, it was all so scattered. That was just how it was.
Ralph reached for his phone again and opened an article someone had emailed earlier that day. ‘No use in wasting the evening,’ he said to himself as he started reading. But the words didn’t connect like they were supposed to, and eventually he placed down the phone. Then he looked at the walls and windows and everything around him, and he saw them all skew strangely so that the house wasn’t an office anymore. So Ralph looked at the house, at what it was and what it wasn’t, and he felt it sweep off his cover like it would when he first opened the front door after another long day. But this time the cover stayed off much longer, so that he had time to wonder why it wasn’t there.
He stood up restlessly and began to walk, and he listened to his footsteps, weak and tentative on the light-blue rug. And as he walked Ralph tried to envision what Chris and Amelia and Cindy were doing at that moment, tried to ease himself with the thoughts. But it was all very blurry and filled with holes, and the holes were gaping and dark. Then Ralph tried to see Cindy’s garden in his mind, and what flowers were in it and how much they had grown since she planted them. She was always talking about it, he thought sadly, always offering to show it to him. And she always sounded so happy when she did – so happy even though he would usually say he was too busy. And even after he said no her face would remain bright, as if she were covering something too.
So Ralph shuffled to the back door and went outside and looked at the flowers, and they were sickeningly unfamiliar. Then he walked slowly toward them and he felt the cool spring breeze touch him like a very long ago thing, and he sat by the garden and watched it and wondered why it looked so beautiful.