When it was all over, the last thing she expected to feel was embarrassed. Perhaps she could have felt something else had the suitcase not fallen at exactly that angle, causing her to hit the floor in exactly that way, hitching up her polyester night slip—just enough.
He had placed all her woollen blankets on top of her cupboard the morning after an unusually balmy spring night when, out of the blue, she had not felt cold in bed. Now, lying there dead, a pool of blood by the side of her head and one of her daughter’s Lego figures sticking into her right shoulder blade, she remembers the conversation. She had been pairing socks. The two enormous blankets were neatly folded at the foot of her side of their freshly made bed.
I don’t know where to begin this story, she had said while considering the possibilities of partners among the pile of black socks.
You just need to start writing and not worry about it. It’s like exercise, sometimes even the best runners don’t feel like running until they begin.
As he spoke he took both blankets up in his arms and placed them on top of the cupboard, pushing the heavy suitcase that was already up there to the side. In the background the muffled sound of their daughter’s Saturday afternoon TV time intensified then fell away.
What are you doing? Don’t do that! she scowled. He was fully stretched and repositioning the suitcase on top of the blankets. He had been a boxer but had the grace of a ballerina. How she loved those arms.
They need to be kept out of the way. There’s crap everywhere.
But I can’t reach them, she said as she moved around him and placed the pairs of socks in one of the drawers, purposefully brushing and bumping against him. And besides, if I grab at them that suitcase will come down on me. As she said this she demonstrated by jumping up and tugging on one of the woollen corners. He quickly reached up and held it all in place.
You see what I mean? she said as she whacked his Levi’s arse with one of the partnerless socks.
Well, there’s nowhere else for this stuff to go. Are you sure you want this suitcase?
It’s full of her baby clothes. I’m not getting rid of it.
All right. If you get cold just tell me and I’ll get the blankets down for you. It’s too cluttered in here. I’m going nuts.
But you won’t get them for me in the middle of the night when I get cold. I can see it all now. You always say these things but you never do! And she took the next full laundry basket and dumped another load onto the bed.
That’s not true. I do things for you all the time.
He joined her at the bed and began to pluck loose handkerchiefs from the pile while she pulled out the towels and rolled them into sausages to be stacked in the hallway cupboard.
They were quiet for a moment—sorting, folding, rolling. The cat had come to the window and squinted at them through the glass. It was difficult to tell if her look was contemptuous or affectionate.
He broke the quiet first. I have no idea where all this laundry comes from. It can’t be all ours. It just can’t be.
Well it is. And bloody hell! I’m 36! I think I should be able to have the room arranged in such a way that I do not have to ask for assistance to get my own fucking blankets down.
Too cluttered. Just ask me if you’re cold.
You’ve never understood.
I want to make love to you.
• • •
He drinks a four-cup pot of green tea just before bed and never needs to piss. Although he’s had the occasional accident. It’s usually as he dreams he’s in the ocean swimming, exploring some deep lagoon. He’ll dream he’s gently gliding through a warm pool in the cool dark, where a shot of sunlight slices through from above. He always wakes just as the warm piss turns cold and itchy all over.
Flying dreams are much safer. As a boy, he had waited patiently all day just to fly at night. The day was only ever about waiting to fly at night. When they met during their final year of high school he was all muscle and cool. There wasn’t much he could offer her though, so he asked if she’d like to fly. One night he took her by the hand and as they drifted off to sleep she took off for the first time. It was magic and in return for this gift she had promised to love him forever.
But I’ll never marry you, she had said in the morning when she came downstairs in his mother’s dressing gown.
I’ll never marry you either and I’ll always love my sister more.
Yes, she said, agreeing with what seemed a perfectly reasonable declaration, I think I’ll always love my sister more too.
And he drank the most enormous cup of strong black coffee she had ever seen. Until one day it began to give him a stomach ache, so he stopped. Just like that.
How do you stop just like that? she had asked a few days later when they were in his kitchen, she sitting up on the bench, him right beside her chopping onions. He was making her his mother’s spaghetti bolognaise. The tight little muscle that pumps the elbow was flexing as he worked the knife through the tight layers of onion flesh.
What do you mean? he said, stopping a moment and gesturing with the knife for her to elaborate.
The coffee. Every day so much, then nothing. I can’t stop anything just like that. I can’t stop. Full stop.
But it gave me tummy pains.
I know. But how do you stop?
She delivered her questions more as contemplations. All the while she gently gripped his arm that held the onion firm to the wooden board. She rested her head on the crook of his elbow, concentrating on his movements as he sliced and chopped. He enjoyed working against the gentle weight of her as she breathed him in. His skin was soft and warm and smelt delicious. Her eyes welled with tears but she told herself it was the onions.
You just do. You just stop.
I don’t understand, she said, her voice trailing off and her head still resting on his arm as she looked out the window, catching something in the distance.
Now, years later yet still grappling with the same questions, she can see that her blood is starting to seep into the floor. The pool is moving its way towards the centre of the room. The slow flow of the blood makes the uneven floor seem so obvious. It’s dirtier too than she had realised. Grit and bits everywhere. Barbie’s head is alone and part of a larger tumbleweed under the bed. Her mother’s camphorwood box does not look so beautiful now. A corner of the quilt she began for her daughter three years ago but never finished is poking out from the shut lid. Even the paint job on the windows that she had been so proud of looks amateur. The bottom of the curtains she made and considered one of her finest projects looks shabby, uneven and dusty. No wonder he has such dreadful allergies. Her embarrassment is turning to shame as she recollects the hideous quasi-aggressive arguments. If only she could have held it in.
Can’t you understand that this issue with the blankets is at the heart of the problem in so many ways? she looked over to him as she spoke. He was right there, but she couldn’t reach him.
What are you talking about? This is ridiculous. He’d had enough but she wasn’t letting it go and he knew it. The heart of the problem, who talks like that anyway, he thought.
I cannot ask you to get the blankets for me in the middle of the night. You’re not my dad and I’m not a kid. Don’t you get this?
Oh for fuck sake.
I’m going to hurt you. She dealt out the same threat each time, delivered as a joke but also not as a joke. It made him nervous and excited at the same time.
You already are.
She kicked him swift at the shin and he immediately buckled.
And there’ll be more of that if you don’t start to listen. Now get those blankets down.
Rubbing his shin and cursing her under his breath he could not back down: Too cluttered. I’ll get them down for you if you get cold.
She picked up the knife and from a few feet away held it up and squinted deep into him. She put the knife down and turned to leave the room as he rushed after her, digging his face into the back of her neck.
You’re so warm. I love you so fucking much.
Move my blankets.
Can we make love?
• • •
They had shared a happy life together. But then again, if you pan out far enough, everyone seems happy. She was never quite content and she worried about everything. It was a disease.
She had put the success of their relationship down to the fact that they still washed the dishes together each night, listening to music, occasionally fighting and laughing. He’d become a suburban banker but had a scientist’s heart and when he read about a study that had proved laughing each day made you live longer, he insisted she make him laugh regularly. And she did. She had been the funniest person he had ever known.
And he had made her laugh too, but he never had to try. All his quirks. The extraordinary blast of piss after he woke in the morning—passed with the force of a fire hydrant. And he’d blow his nose with the same enthusiasm, sitting on the edge of the bed before he left for work. She’d even chuckle at the smell of his shit rising from the toilet when she finally got up to walk their daughter to school. Anything toxic he expelled with great gusto.
Got to get rid of the stuff. Healthy body, healthy mind. And he was right.
I wish I could be like that, she had said over and over again.
He slept well at night. He never felt depressed and he always looked so good. She, on the other hand, held onto it all. Tight. There were mornings when she could not move. She’d spent too much time curled into a ball and unable to locate, to pinpoint the source of the sadness.
I’m going foetal, she’d quietly warn him.
Please don’t, he’d protest. But she’d grab the bottle anyway and as long as she wasn’t smoking, he felt he should let it go. In the morning she would mourn not having spent the time reading—sharing the most arresting sentences with him while he filed his nails next to her on their corduroy couch that had once belonged to her grandmother.
You’re going to have to save me from myself, she would say.
I can’t, he would reply.
• • •
Looking down at herself now—the mess of the house, the unevenness of it all—she is suspended in the very horror in which she has spent so much of her life. This apartment is her headspace and it would remain. There is clutter and crap everywhere. To think that she had soothed herself all those nights, the brick lodged deep in her stomach—holding herself in tight for fear of the heaviness tearing a great hole through her, with the belief that death would ease it all. She had even imagined, during one of her quasi-suicidal thoughts, a euphoric relief flowing through her as the blood pissed out of her veins. All the dark hours held in, all the pressure, finally released. It had been a great comfort to know that death would lift the unbearable weight of life.
Yet death is here and there is nothing she can do to pull down her polyester night slip—just enough. The only feeling she can relate this newfound uselessness to is the epidural she had been subjected to when she had that little operation so many years ago. Except this time it is her whole body, not just her legs. She looks down at herself one last time, watching the rigor mortis seize her, trapping all that tension in there forever. Death has left her overexposed and there is nothing she can do about it now. She is to remain a fool, even in death.
All she wants is to smell the top of her daughter’s head. The gorgeousness, the richness, the innocence—that smell. And to run her hands through his hair, her fingers working secret voluptuous shapes into his skull. She’d find all the valleys, hollows and caves and he’d tell her please don’t stop it feels so, so good and those words would fill her with so much happiness she’d overflow. And life would rush.
But it is to end here, on the floor, the blood now thoroughly soaking through along its slow flow to the centre. That ridiculous look on her face, with her legs splayed and everything on show. The disastrous crooked smile at the meeting of her thighs. Testament to the bloodied mangled mess that is life and birth and death. She pans out and takes a good look at their ground-floor apartment. The most gorgeous rose has bloomed just outside her daughter’s window. How she would love just to cut it and place it in her favourite little vase on the table for the two of them. He had always loved a cut flower.
From the outside she can see her study door that opens onto the street. The windows are dusty but through the gap in the curtains she can see the last sentence of the story she was working on. It’s all wrong and while she now knows what it needs to be, there’s nothing she can do to rewrite the words.