His hand slithers across her flat abdomen and stops on her left hip. She only lets it stay there for a second or two before she swats it away, but it’s enough for sweat to break out on both their skins. She grabs a corner of the sheet and wipes her hip.
“What?” Gary demands.
“Nothing. It’s too hot.”
When he turns so that she can only see his face in profile, she realizes that she prefers to see him like that. That way his features are vaguer, features that could belong to any man, not necessarily her husband.
They came here for a vacation and for her to recover. That hasn’t been said out loud, of course, but she knows it’s what Gary’s thinking. A few days away from home, a change of scenery, a massage or two, sex stimulated by the humid heat. It will help her get better, forget, find new hope for the future.
Yesterday he tried to convince her to go out to the pool. She already packed her straw hat and beach bag with sunscreen, sun glasses and a light read. But she never made it through the lounge. She ended back here in their room. Miffed, Gary went to take a swim by himself, but soon despaired because of the screaming kids and the crowd.
They went to the bar then, it was still early in the afternoon, but the booze suited her better than the sun and the half-naked bodies around the pool. They missed dinner and breakfast this morning, sating a different kind of hunger. Like trying to fill one’s stomach with promises of steak and French fries instead of the real thing, she thinks. It only triggered the instinctual salivating, but not much more. No matter how he caresses her, how he tries to reach that void inside her body, she still feels empty, sucked dry, bitter.
“Why are you so cranky all of a sudden?” he grumbles and turns away from her. He lies sprawled on his stomach, his arms under the pillow. His body is not athletic; apart from his shins and forearms his skin is painfully white. There’s a slight gleam of the beginning of baldness at the top of his head. She’s not certain whether he was better-looking when they married, or her opinion of him just changed over the past six years.
“I’m not cranky, it’s just hot.” She disentangles her legs from the sticky sheet and walks to the window. The air conditioning has broken down sometime during the night. She can’t bring herself to call the reception and inform them.
She squints when the sun reflected from the window stabs her in her eyes. She hears the chatter, laughter and the shouting of the kids wafting up from the pool below. She sees a boy jump from the springboard right in front of his sister so he splashes her with water. She yells at him and swims to the edge to seek refuge with their mother. A baby wails while a young redhead is consoling it in the shade behind the fake palm trees. A mother, trying to read a paperback, lies on one of the loungers but her eyes glance at her kids in the pool every few minutes, disturbing her concentration.
She’s startled by the light snoring coming from the bed. The room is so small she could touch him from where she is standing by the window. But she doesn’t want to. Lately, she can barely bring herself to let him touch her. He thinks it’s because of the miscarriage, that she needs time. She knows time is meaningless.
No doubt the sex they’ve had for the past several hours will make him think she’s back to her old self.
She reaches for her purse in search of a cigarette pack. She pulls out her phone. Two messages and seven unanswered calls from Leon, her boss. He told her he really regretted everything, but that she needed to pull herself together or he would have to let her go.
She lights a cigarette and takes a deep drag, closing her eyes. The heat has now entered her too. She needs it, she feels she would otherwise freeze to death from the ice spreading from her belly outwards, to her organs, up to her heart and further out to her extremities.
He snores again and mumbles in his sleep. Watching his naked, pasty body, she feels bile rise in her throat. What are they doing here? No, what is she doing here? She should leave. She should, but she can’t move from the spot nor open her mouth to speak. She feels like she’s been silent for so long she doesn’t even remember proper words anymore. There are a lot of things she doesn’t remember clearly anymore. Like the misty air of her hometown in her loose hair that she hasn’t felt since she was fifteen, the cold slithering of a blindworm across her ten-year-old instep (although feeling Gary’s flaccid penis on her thigh felt somewhat similar), the sinking feeling when she recognized her mother’s explosive silence that was bound to lead to shouting at her for something she did or didn’t do, the bubbly excitement low in her belly when Tony Novak pushed his warm hand up her skirt in their shed while their parents ate barbecue sausages and egg salad just yards away. She recognizes the images, but they feel like she borrowed them from someone else’s bookshelf.
Earlier, when Gary was grunting above her, his face screwed into a grimace not unlike that of terrible regret, all she felt was nakedness. Nakedness of her soul, as if it surfaced from her depths and now sizzled on her feverish exposed skin for everyone to see. Like finding yourself without clothes in a public place with everyone staring at you. Only it’s worse, because it’s her soul that is naked. She has nothing to cover it up with.
She drags from the cigarette again. Gary stirs and rolls onto his back, squinting up at her.
“We’ll choke from the smoke in here,” he complains.
When she doesn’t respond nor look at him, he begins to get up. She observes his reflection in the window as he stands up, stretches his arms above his head so that his belly wobbles like an overhang above the precipice of his genitals and walks to the tiny bathroom.
“I’ll shower before lunch,” he says without looking at her.
She ignores him and her eyes refocus on the people below. The noise is now louder, more people came out to the pool. Everyone down there is something, a kid or a parent, but she can’t be either.
The smoke sticks in her windpipe and she can’t inhale. She beats her chest with the heel of her palm. The air wheezes slightly as it plunges into her lungs again. She does that sometimes, forgets to breathe.
She hears the shower being turned on and the slight squeak of his foot on ceramics when he steps into the bath tub. She wishes he’d simply vanish in there.
She stubs the cigarette on the window sill, then walks to the bed. In the trash can by the nightstand she sees the used condoms and they remind her of the fruitlessness of Gary and her having sex. Of how pointless it is when there’s nothing to come out of it. It’s not Gary’s fault, she knows, but she hates him nonetheless. He disgusts her, his colorless, greedy body pounding into her. She skims her hands over her inner thighs as if to wipe the ghost of his touch away and she sees a bruise starting to form on her hip. His fingerprint, a plum-like purple stain. Her only fruit.
She folds into a fetal position on the damp sheets, hugging her knees with her arms. The only real hug she’s known for a long while. The air is hot, but her skin breaks out in goosebumps.
She thinks of her mother. Of the cold body she held in her arms, awkwardly, when she last saw her. She thinks of how she felt relived when the casket was lowered into the hole, thinking there would be one less guilty feeling to bear when she would never find the time to visit her. No more sobbing sounds on the other end of the line when she called to tell her that she can’t visit when her mother lay in a hospital bed with a broken hip.
She’s not a daughter anymore.
Then she thinks of her lover. Of his dark scent under the sheets in the mornings when her husband thought she was on business trips. Of how he pulled her to him wordlessly and made love to her, every time like it was the last time. (In fact, they had sex only twenty-seven times and a half if she counts that one time Gary called to tell her that her mom fell down a flight of stairs and broke her hip.) She thinks of how she loved to wake up like that and how morning sex was suddenly, for the first time in her life, better than black coffee. Her entire body was awake, every skin cell felt, every atom of oxygen burst in her bloodstream con brio. His body fit like a puzzle piece, the concave of his abdomen slid over her rounded belly, his narrow hips squeezed by her longing thighs, his face, sweaty, flushed, pressed in the hollow of her neck while his gasping breath sang the most feverish melodies into her ear.
Their relationship was so intense it was heartbreaking. Nothing existed outside of it. She could have sex with Gary and not remember it after a few hours, but when she nibbled on her lover’s ear, the taste remained with her for days.
She thinks of the two thin blue lines, one in a round window, the other in a square. Staring at them felt like she was faced with a difficult IQ test question, trying to figure out which shape came next in the sequence. She knew it was a small, delicate shape, just grain-sized at first, a blob of tissue and nerves growing into fingers and genitals and eyelids.
But she can’t be a mother. She didn’t pass the test. Oh, no, she failed just before results were due. She was so ready for it all, she had read so many books on babies and upbringing, psychology treatises on the damage a controlling parent can inflict on their children, the dangers of watching too many reality shows and computer games. She was ready for the twenty years ahead of her and her pumpkin.
Three months later she is having sex with a husband she doesn’t love anymore and who cried over the loss of a baby that wasn’t his. Their tiny room without air conditioning smells of cigarette smoke and sperm. She smells of abandon and misery, the smell that has stuck to her ever since Leon returned to his wife and kids.
The bathroom door opens and hits the desk behind it. Gary swears, then bows down to pick up his clothes. She doesn’t look at him as he dresses himself.
“Hey, are you all right?” he asks from the foot of the bed.
Her eyes refocus on him, but she doesn’t respond.
The phone starts ringing again.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” he asks.
She doesn’t react, just pulls the sheet over her naked body and tucks it beneath her chin.
Gary mumbles something and pulls up the zipper of his pants. He leaves the shirt out so it hides his flabby belly. The hotel shampoo smells strange on his hair.
When he looks at the display on her phone he tells her that it’s her boss calling again.
“He’s probably calling to fire me.” If he doesn’t fire her, she’ll quit.
“Shouldn’t you answer it, then?”
“Aren’t you feeling well?”
The gentleness in his words sounds mournful. She realizes he knows this isn’t a new beginning, but the end instead. She thinks relationships are like railway tracks. You can run parallel to someone but you never quite manage to connect. Even if you stare at the tracks in the distance and you see the point where they merge into a single line, it’s just an illusion. Relationships look like that from afar, illusions that are exposed from up close.
“Sorry,” she manages.
He turns to her, looks at her body huddled under the sheet soiled with his sperm.
“I’ll just sleep for a bit,” she whispers.
“Can I bring you something to eat?”
It occurs to her that the only way to connect the two railroad tracks is to lie across them and wait for the train to come out of the tunnel.
She shakes her head no, but before he closes the door, she croaks out, “Maybe coffee. Black.”
Brigita Orel has had her stories and poems published in Rose & Thorn, Cantaraville, Autumn Sky Poetry, Islet, and other print and online magazines and collections. In 2010, she was nominated for The Pushcart Prize. She studied writing at Swinburne, Australia, and she lives and creates in Slovenia. Her blog: http://bsoulflowers.blogspot.com.