So, here I am. Standing in this familiar hallway with a suitcase in each hand, wondering if I should be here at all.
Turn around and leave again?
After all the everything we’ve had together, doing that to him. Too much. But this wallpaper, so faded, and dirty, and with this cheap carpet flowing through the whole complex like water. A colour that’s supposedly called ‘baked clay’. Or once was. My thoughts fray.
But I’ve already rung the doorbell, and already those are his footsteps coming to answer it, and the door handle turning.
He looks… exactly like always; and yet that exact similarity has a strangeness about it. These months have stripped away the familiarity, enlarging the faults and perfections in equal measure. His eyes that have these green flecks – amidst almond-hazel – that have always been there, but today strike me as being coloured emerald. The creases in his brow, the same clustered around the corners of his eyes. And he looks so uncertain.
The panic: because what if this really is all that there’s left to say? It could be. The amount of saying that was done six months ago could fill an encyclopaedia set. The sheer excess of pointless words, all leading in the wrong direction, the words that brought us to the point where this can even be a thing.
“Come in,” he says, “I’ll take your bags.”
“I’ve started dinner.”
“You don’t have to. I’m going to be…” living here again…? Why do I find it hard to make the words come into my mouth? That is what this is. It is what I’m doing. And we do regret the separation and there is still love between us.
“I should get you a glass of wine.”
“Oh, God yes.”
At least we can laugh. Still have that. Hold onto it. Build on it. I remember that I’m still standing there in the doorway and so I make myself step over the threshold and back into the apartment – back into the life – I used to have.
We’ve agreed. This is going to be a new start. And that means no recriminations, no bringing up the past. That we don’t dwell on the searing days that brought us to an end. We don’t mention his name. Or hers. We don’t talk about that night.
Which is why there’s so little to talk about.
Because he, she, that night, are what occupy my mind. They’re all I can think about. Are we crazy to think we can wipe the slate clean and move on as if our time apart didn’t happen?
He pours me the wine. He says: “I can help you unpack.”
He asks me: “How’s work?”
“Good. What about you, any luck?”
Trying to remember: carping on about that is one of the things that lead us away from each other. He’s trying, isn’t he? It’s not easy these days. I sip the wine, shuffling topics in my head: what’s safe? What’s… ordinary? What sounds as if we’re just chatting at the end of the day like any normal four-years-married couple? I can only come up with: “The place looks nice.”
“I’m getting better,” he sits down on the chair opposite – not quite daring the couch beside me – tries to slouch, but can’t quite pull it off. He drinks a few generous sips from his own wine glass.
Oh God, it’s not working. It won’t work out.
He says: “I got a guy in to do the windows. I think he did a good job.”
“Yes. And that rug…?”
“New. I picked it up at a second-hand store. Twenty dollars.”
“I thought about other things… I didn’t know if you’d… or if it’d matter…”
I force down the panic. “What things?”
“Like painting the cupboard doors in the kitchen. Green maybe. And replacing that old lino. Maybe with tiles.”
“I’d have been okay with that.”
“You still can be.”
“I thought red. Maybe with some black. It’d go with the shade of green I had in my head.”
“Tiles are okay.”
“I replaced that clock, over there by the TV, the one that never kept time…”
I’ve noted that walking in. And I’ve been flooded with the memories, with all the corny old familiarity of what this place has been to me over the six years I lived here. How it went from being his place to our place, back to his place again, and now…? I should feel as if I’ve come home, but that’s not what I feel like. There’s something alien underneath the familiar, and I don’t feel at home at all.
“Well…” He stretches his arms out, fingers laced, such as he’s always done when he’s nervous or thinking.
“What’s dinner?” I ask.
“Roast. Um… pork, with apple sauce, and beans, and… and potatoes, peas, gravy.”
“That’s actual yum, it’s not sarcastic?”
I feel the tug of a smile. “It’s not sarcastic.”
“Fuck, I’m scared,” he says. “My hands are practically shaking. Is that what you feel like?”
He’s eyes are saying, please say yes, and I’m not sure what to make of that. “Terrified,” is the correct answer anyway. That is what I feel about this.
“I didn’t know it’d be this hard.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have expected it to be easy.”
“We were, once, though. It was easy.”
I want that back too. I’m here for that. It’s those days that’ve drawn me over here, with my stuff, with my blue dress on, with my hair twisted up on top of my head. Because the thing we had – that same thing we lost – it was something out of a movie, it was full of this idyllic perfectness that I’m now so shit-scared we might have lost for good.
“People say we’re crazy, you know.”
“Oh, I know.”
“That we can’t turn back the clock.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Look, I don’t know if they’re right or not. This is so experimental. And you look so awkward – and so pretty, by the way. I will understand if you change your mind.”
Yet. And I can’t stomp the thought out quickly enough: what are they all going to say if we get back together, move back in, and then it all falls down around us, just like last time? They’re going to laugh and gossip and tut, and go quiet when we enter a room, that’s what. Sympathy and derision – differing only in the ratio, depending on who it is. That’s what I’m thinking about, here, in this well-known room, with him right there. About what people are going to think.
“I’d better check on dinner,” he says.
“I’ll get some more wine, if you want.”
He’s learnt to cook. It’s such an uncharitable way to look at this. Because I don’t think he ever couldn’t cook, it was always just a lack of interest. Coming home after work to find the dinner unstarted, no savoury smells or subtle warmth radiating out of the kitchen. And not okay to complain, because that’s reminding him of his unemployment: I work all day and come home to have to do all the work around here too. All the times I had those words bottled up in my head, but sure that saying them out loud would be cruel and vexatious, that it would be both a cliché and a cheap shot. So, saying nothing, taking out my frustration in the viciousness with which I chopped the potatoes.
This seems a long way from that.
So maybe that’s the point.
“Is there going to be dessert?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Sorry, I’m not making fun.”
“You’ve never seen me make dessert before.”
I admit that. Cautiously. Aware of the eggshells underfoot.
“I meant what I said. I’m going to change. Like we talked about.”
I dare it: “Not too much though.”
He raises a glass to that.
I’m here. In this house. Tentatively calling it home again. Just hold onto that, stay calm, wait for it to get easier.
Though we eat.
Though we laugh a little. And we manage to chat about a few random friends, and some things we’ve seen on TV. About politics. And local news. But its not the way it was. We’re trying too hard. And the desperation creeps in around the edges. This hint at proof of what we can’t recapture, what we can’t resurrect, that too late is too late. And if so, what are we doing here, doing this, dragging it out like this?
“Ready for it?”
I look up from an empty plate.
It’s a pudding of sorts. He carries it in in the baking dish. It smells of plums and cinnamon. Maybe ginger. I raise my eyebrows.
“Made from scratch. I swear.”
“What is it?”
“Spicy Plum Pudding.”
“Is that from…”
“… that recipe book of yours.”
“That she gave to you.”
“In the gross over-optimism that I’d have time to bake.”
“Well, I” he lays it down on the table, “do have the time.”
A dangerous moment. One of our flashpoints. He with all the time. Me with none. A pattern we could fall into again so easily. “It smells good,” I say.
“Well the proof is in the pudding.”
“Have you been planning that one all night?”
“Seemed funny in my head.”
“Let’s taste the proof.”
It is good. Not perfect. A little over-sweetened, a little less… I don’t know… fluffy, than it could be. But a good effort. Good with ice cream.
He says: “We can watch TV y’know. We can be normal.”
I find I can hardly pay attention. I’m watching the screen, but the corner of my eye is all him. I’m trying to see in his face what he’s thinking. How is this going for him? And all the while, there it is, looming over us, up the stairs and right on top of us. The bed.
Because sooner or later…
It’s going to feel weird.
And if it feels too weird for passion, and if it seems too forced… And we get in there under the covers and there’s nothing…?
Overthinking it. Overthinking it.
“You want coffee?”
“Sure.” And : “Maybe you should put some more wine in it.” The joke falls pancake-flat. I fight to keep my fingers still.
“Ick. But there’s a few decent liqueurs in the liquor cabinet over there.”
“We can’t drink our way through the rest of our lives together.”
He shrugs. Is he less sensitive than he would once have been? “Well, we can tonight. Go easy on ourselves.”
He’s right. This is the wrong time to hold ourselves to account. I shouldn’t be thinking: just get this over with. As if somehow, tomorrow, all will be well, we’ll just fall back into our accustomed routine, only better.
A loud noise through the wall makes us both jump.
“…. You stinking, lousy sack of crap! You always do this to me-“
“Me? I do it? You stupid little bimbo…”
“…. Don’t you go calling me…”
“…. I’ll call you what I…”
“… just you watch your mouth…”
“… your mouth that needs the watching not mine, you worthless…”
So, the Coopers are still fighting then. Another full volume argument, which thin walls give us a front row seat to. The sounds of stomping and slamming. The permanent thought that would run through my head: why do these people even stay together? At least me and John, at our worst, we were never like that.
Do they like it maybe? Their freaky fetish. Because each to his own…
John looks at me. “Welcome home,” he says.
I feel my moment. It’s all instinct. But it is the right time. I stand up and reach for his hand, I stop his beginnings of speech with just the look in my eyes. This. Like the early days. I take his hand firmly, smiling like the girl – the nine-years-younger girl – who smiled at him once, and lead him upstairs.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work