Back when she was married, Stella used to watch Ray get dressed and pretend she was asleep. Not on ordinary mornings; on ordinary mornings they were both in a rush, her more than him most often, swallowing coffee before it could cool and licking at her burnt lips all the way to work. But when he pulled the night shifts, he set his alarm for one AM and wrapped it in a washcloth so it wouldn't wake her up, over on the other side of the bed. It always did wake her up, but she never told him because she liked how it worked.
The muffled beeping, soft and birdy, would prod her out of sleep. She'd mutter and squirm, rolling over towards his side as he stumbled out of it. With her eyes half open, she'd watch the process. He started out half-asleep--more than half. Ninety percent asleep, maybe, just enough brain awake to poke him hard and get him on his feet. Stumbling across the floor to the dresser, he'd come down with heavy, thudding footsteps, his legs stiff at the knee. The undershirt came off, if he was wearing one, if it wasn't summer, and then he got dressed. Stella was absolutely fascinated every time his fingers attacked the buttons on the crisp linen. At the top button he'd slip and lose it and swear so quietly she only knew it was swearing by the tone. By the bottom few, though, his hands moved quickly. Every morning he learned all over again.
She'd never told him about those mornings. She wouldn't have known what to say. 'I like watching you yawn, the way you jam your wrists against your eyes. How you stumble into your pants. How you're so quiet for me.' Ray was silent often but never quiet. If he was moving he was noisy. Except on the night shift mornings, when he wanted more than anything not to wake her up. She kept it up for a long time after the regular mornings turned bad. He wrapped the clock in a washcloth, right up to the end.
Three weeks after moving out, Ray made his last trip back to the house to pick up the final box of his stuff. He'd already taken the stereo, the CDs that were his, the Swedish armchair in the corner of the bedroom--Stella had paid for that chair, like she'd paid for most of the furniture and nice things, but she never sat in it and was happy to give it up--all the obvious items. This box had in it two shirts that had gotten lost in the laundry room, a paperback he'd never got around to finishing, the old-fashioned wooden wall clock that refused to match anything in Stella's clean and modern furniture catalogs, and a handful of other leftover pieces of his life as her husband. Ray held the box and thought that it was like she was shedding him, sweeping up the stray hairs of her marriage from every corner of her life.
He stood there in the front room and he was alone in the house. He still had his key--she hadn't changed the locks--and every night for the last three weeks he'd thought about driving over and letting himself in, just sitting down in the kitchen to wait for her. He knew that when he did that, she would finally lock him out, and each night he decided to wait until it got worse, until he had to go or he would die. Now here he was but she was gone, trusting him to take the box from the front room and walk back out one last time.
He set it back down on the table and went down the hall, into the bedroom. It looked almost like a motel room, unfamiliar after his long absence. She'd made the bed with new sheets, dark blueberry with satin hems folded primly over the pillows. Ray breathed out hard. It hit him like a punch in the gut, the sudden need to pull back the sheets and crawl inside. All he wanted to do was bury his face in the dark blue fabric and stay there. He could barely breathe with wanting to do it.
As he crossed to her dresser and pulled open the drawer he knew it was wrong but he couldn't stop. He shoved his hands into the neat folded layers, feeling elastic and underwires, cotton and silk. He thought, if I saw me like this, I'd arrest me.
The one he pulled out was the color of a red wine stain. He remembered her wearing it in the morning while she poured coffee grounds into the machine. The hooks felt as comfortable and familiar to his fingers as his gun. He put the bra in the box and took it home with him.
She called the next night, her voice tight and furious. "I can't believe you."
"I can't believe you did this. You're crazy."
"Probably, yeah--I'm real sorry. I just wasn't thinking." He traced his finger along the gentle curve made by the wire, feeling out the tense strength beneath the fabric.
"I'm changing the locks," she said. He heard the question in it. All of a sudden he needed to get off the phone or he was going to cry, and he hadn't done that yet, not through this whole sick mess.
"I'll send it back--"
"No, keep it. Just--keep it." He heard her draw in breath to say something else, and waited. She hung up.
He hooked the clasps together, one by one. Then the bra lay on his lap, empty, looking up at him. He didn't know what else to do with it.