by Kate Vine
It was the other night, while I was scrubbing the make-up from my face – he said:
‘Do you know Maggie hasn’t told Alfie yet? About the job offer?’
Maggie was one of his friends who he liked to think was my friend too. I shrugged, watching him in the mirror. He had an arm behind his head, his eyes on the ceiling.
‘Don’t you think that’s terrible?’
I turned around, one side of my face glistening red and damp.
‘Why?’ I said. ‘She’ll tell him when she’s ready.’
He scoffed. ‘And until then?’ he said, shifting onto his side. ‘Until then, she’s just keeping it from him. It’s basically lying.’
I turned back to the mirror.
‘They’ll be alright,’ I said. My eye seemed to shrink as I slid the liner from my lid.
‘I hope so,’ he said. ‘I just feel bad for them. It’s one of the things I love about being married. We tell each other everything.’
I didn’t look at him as I got up from the dresser. His face would be happy and clean and unhampered. He goes to sleep thinking of a calm sea that has never known a storm.
He didn’t know about my box.
I call it: the box of things I’d rather my husband didn’t know.
On our fourth date, he invited me over to his flat. God, it was hygienic. The bookshelves gleamed with polish, the kitchen tiles smooth beneath my feet. He was getting impatient, I could tell by the way his fingers reached for me at strange moments. As I went to put the kettle on. As I scrolled through the TV channels. He was tense, sweat meandering at his temples. I’ll admit I liked drawing it out. Teasing him slowly and without feeling.
The sex was quick and perfunctory. Afterwards we ate lasagne he’d made from scratch. The cheese sauce was like slime he’d squeezed from a sea slug, but for the second time that night, I smiled and I groaned and he believed in my satisfaction.
You see, we had this cat called Penny. He’d never wanted a pet, but she started coming by our back door most nights and he would give her old scraps of chicken and a bit of tuna from the tin. She would cry for him and eventually he scooped her up and brought her inside to the study where she fell asleep on his desk.
Penny never left his side. I would lean over his shoulder while he pushed inside of me and she would be sat at the foot of the bed, her eyes condescending and wilful. She slept on his chest and I would curl up beside them, missing the hands that now smoothed her fur. My eyelids would flicker as her purrs grew loud.
When we moved house, he said;
‘We have to keep her inside for a week. Make sure she feels at home.’
How long until I will? I almost asked. The new place was dark and measured. But he wanted to live closer to work.
He came home one night and I told him Penny had gone. He looked at me with wide eyes.
‘She must have snuck out,’ I said. ‘Cats are clever that way. I’m sure she’ll come back.’
‘Of course she will,’ he said, with neither conviction nor forgiveness. He went out to look for her. I slipped into his study and gently closed the window.
- Good enough
There are times I don’t feel good enough for him. He is clever and able to take things from the jumble and line them up in simple sequences. Sometimes he has to explain things to me, sometimes more than once. I fall asleep in documentaries but he’ll stay up late into the night, pen and paper in hand, whispering to my leaden body that it has changed the way he thinks. He sits in coffee shops with books and newspapers; I am the one that serves the coffee.
I met Matthew when I was a student. He was a teaching assistant with stubble and an uneven smile. We liked him more than the professor and they both knew it. For a while old Professor Hamilton would try and laugh with us too, but it came out tough as overcooked meat. In the end he left Matthew to it.
We went to the park some days after class. We’d walk, and the leaves would fall in the wind. Despite his loose sweaters I could tell his body was sleek. He had the lines of a bird mid-flight, swooping down over the water.
I wanted him in ways I didn’t know I could. I would press my hands against the front of his stomach and feel his skin burn my fingers. We went to the art-house cinema in town and slid our fingers together and I remember thinking; Oh, I understand now.
I told him I loved him and he told me he was moving away. We would keep in touch, he said, as if that were all I needed. Now I only see him on my computer screen when I scroll down his profile and compare myself to the woman curled into his shoulder. She is thinner than me.
- My mother
I don’t actually like my mother. Her skin’s the colour of ham and her lips are too moist. I have tried to introduce her to who I have become but she doesn’t understand; she just makes cups of tea and tells stories about when I was a child. How I stole a pack of Haribo hearts on Valentine’s Day and then cried with guilt when I handed them to her.
He loves that story. He thinks my mother is a hearty woman who has seen me right. He doesn’t drink tea but he drinks it at her house. One time, I tried to explain that my mother doesn’t know who I am, but he thinks he is doing me a favour by loving her. And I let him think that.
- Good enough – part 2
There are times I don’t think he’s good enough for me. I keep his house clean, I make his breakfast, I swallow if he really wants me to. I do Pilates in the living room on Sundays even though it hurts my arm muscles and makes me dream of cheese. This make-up I apply so carefully each day; it’s so he can enjoy me, so he can feel like a man who has a beautiful wife.
Yet sometimes he sighs when I say what I think.
“I look at him and nothing else and I can feel roots holding me in place. I am not frightened anymore.”
- Once, I nearly left him
The café where I work, they wouldn’t let me have time off to go to Majorca. It was busy summer season and we were already low on staff. Lola was having a baby. I was happy for her, I swear.
He grew red and obstinate.
‘You told them it was important?’ he said.
‘I told them it was for a holiday.’
‘What exactly did Rick say?’
‘He said I could take some time in September.’
He was really stuck on these July dates. He’d found a last minute deal and he was proud of himself.
‘We can go later on,’ I said. ‘It’ll be less busy then anyway.’
He threaded his fingers through his hair. He’d grown it long. I think he imagined he looked mysterious.
‘Well, you know what? Fuck Rick. Let’s just book it anyway.’ I laughed but he didn’t.
‘I’d lose my job.’
‘So?’ he said.
‘I like my job.’
‘You’re a 28-year-old waitress,’ he said. ‘Don’t you think you should set your sights a bit higher?’
I took a step backwards.
‘I enjoy it,’ I said. ‘And the pay’s good.’
‘Come on,’ he said, gesturing around at the kitchen. It was new, there were not yet fingerprints on the stainless steel doorknobs. ‘It’s not like you really contribute.’
He booted up his laptop. His expression was placid, but he tapped at the keyboard much harder than usual.
‘Don’t you dare book that holiday,’ I said.
‘I’m not losing out because of some stupid café,’ he said. “‘t’s time you started doing something useful.’
Though I could see his hands in front of me, it felt like he had reached beneath my skin, pressed his nails to my bones and started to scrape. I took my bag from the breakfast table and left the house.
If I’d gone somewhere good I might never have come back. But I went to my mother’s.
8. Some nights
Some nights I wake up and I am frightened. I think I am in my childhood bedroom with the tree outside the window, casting crooked shadows across my duvet cover. I think I have grown old and there is no more time to make myself feel worthy. I think I am cold and unloved.
I see the lampshade first, the one we bought in M&S that time we went to the high street and picked out things for the new house. Then I see the books piled beside my bed that he fetched me from the university library. He’s embarrassed to take out novels but he does it anyway. I see the photograph of us taken in Sydney, when he promised my sunburn would turn to tan. I turn over and I see him.
His body is warm. I like how I could recognise him from the moles on his back, so many times I have lain like this, watching him breathe in and out. I look at him and nothing else and I can feel roots holding me in place. I am not frightened anymore.
I got into bed beside him. He reached out to hold my hand, which was sweet only I needed both to turn out the light. He didn’t seem to mind. He loved it when the day was done and he could lie back and be still. I felt him squeeze my fingers. I squeezed back.
‘What else do you love about being married?’ I said.
He exhaled, long and loud.
‘I used to spend a lot of time worrying about the future,’ he said, finally. ‘I don’t really do that anymore.’
‘Not really,’ he said. He turned his head onto one side. ‘You give me so many other things to worry about.’
I kicked him and felt my toenail catch his skin. He winced but continued to laugh. I broke free and turned off the lamp.
He could ask me things, I thought, as his breathing turned to snores. I could get something out of the box and show it to him. But he never will. He doesn’t know it exists.
But then, I thought, as the moonlight caught the hairs on the back of his neck.
maybe he has a box too.
Kate Vine | @Kate_ElizabethV
Kate Vine lives in Norwich where she is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA). She is currently working on her first novel about women and the places their minds take them. She’s a member of the Peasant Writers Group and tweets @Kate_ElizabethV.