by Steph Liberatore | How soon is too soon to panic?


Your husband doesn’t come home right away after he’s dropped your daughter off at school. Normally, he’s back in ten minutes, in time for you to dress and make lunch for your son before he takes him to day care, too.

But this time, he’s not back. And his phone rings from behind your couch cushions when you call to check on him.

As you look out the window for the car—he took yours, an automatic, today—you see it’s started to snow since he left, just as the weathermen predicted. And it’s coming down hard.

Maybe he stopped at the drive-through, you think, and got himself breakfast on the way home. He often does this after he takes your daughter to school. But even a stop like that doesn’t take forty minutes, which is how long he’s been gone now.

As your call goes to voicemail, you think of the phone call your mother made to your father sixteen years ago, when he didn’t come home like he was supposed to. That one went unanswered, too.

You try not to think about that, or about the clonazepam in your purse for occasions like this, as you make your son’s sandwich—two pieces of turkey on one slice of bread, cut in half—but the thoughts keep coming. You picture your husband skidding through an intersection on the snow-wet roads, his car T-boned by another. For some reason, you’re sure he dropped your daughter off at school, and it’s just him in the car on his way home when he gets hit.

But no one can call to tell you that because he doesn’t have his phone with him, where you’re clearly listed as his emergency contact.

You panic and call your little brother, who’s twenty-seven and living just two miles down the road. You tell him you may need him to bring his car over so you can get your son to day care—you can’t drive your husband’s stick shift, parked out front—and maybe search the roads for your husband, too, you say, trying to keep your voice even. You tell him you’ll call again in twenty minutes if your husband doesn’t show.

Your brother seems unconcerned. Cool and collected, as usual.

But you, your heart races and your neck muscles clench as you remember the day sixteen years ago when somebody finally answered the phone.

They came to tell you at work that they’d found your father’s body below the mulberry tree he was trimming under a power line at your distant summer house. That he’d likely been lying there, dead, for two days before they found him. While you and the rest of your family went about your lives at home.

You crouch next to your son, who watches through the storm door as the snow falls, and hold on to him to steady yourself. You think about calling your brother back—maybe you should start looking for your husband now—but you can’t because you’re frozen in place, clutching your son and watching the snow drift down and cover the front lawn.

Then, as you stand to slide your coat over your pajamas, ready to call your brother back, your car pulls up out front. Your husband comes up the walkway with a grocery bag in his hand: the makings of a soup he wants to cook for dinner.

You brace yourself to open the door to him, to the cold and snow outside.

But instead of pushing it open, you freeze in the in-between—in that moment when he’s in front of you but not yet inside—wanting to keep him there: always visible, always solid.

Always in your line of vision.

Steph Liberatore’s essays have appeared in River Teeth, Sweet: A Literary ConfectionCream City ReviewInside Higher Ed, and elsewhere, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She teaches writing at George Mason University and is the founding editor of In Short: A Journal of Flash Nonfiction. When Steph isn’t writing or editing or chasing after her two young kids, she’s working on her first book, an investigative memoir. Find her online at stephliberatore.com.

This essay first appeared in Sweet: A Literary Confection (Volume 15, 2022). 

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