He brought the boys over. It was Sunday evening and they had been in the park. The boys, identical five year old twins, had red cheeks and noses and when I put my hand on their heads as they passed me in the doorway, their hair was cold. I shut the door against the chill eddying into the hallway.
It had been one of those dark, Dublin, autumn days, where the sun came in fits and starts from behind racing clouds. I stayed inside all day, getting ready for them.
The boys dragged off their parkas, scarves and sneakers. Above their heads, their father, Dave, kissed me on the mouth and murmured “Hi” with a growing smile, before bending to help one of the boys. It was Jonathan with his arm in plaster.
Dave glanced up at me. “One of those weeks,” he said, while Jonathan winced and whined.
“He fell off the monkey bar at school,” Chris said.
The boys leaned beside each other against the wall. Their blonde hair fell across their foreheads. Dave was watching them with the weariness that came at the end of his week of having them, but then it probably set into the marrow of his bones from the day they were born. And the light muted, my stomach sunk: he hadn’t told me about Jonathan.
“Did you break your arm?” I asked Jonathan and he nodded.
“No Jonathan. It’s badly sprained,” said Dave.
“It must have hurt,” I said.
All three of them looked at me.
“It really did hurt,” Jonathan said.
“He had to go to hospital,” said Chris, “we all did. Can we watch television?”
The boys ran into the living room. It was dark in there, but they automatically found the remote control and collapsed on the sofa. Dave followed me down the hallway and smacked my bottom hard. And I had overdone it, strutting around my own house in tight jeans, heeled boots and a sparkly top that slid weightless over my shoulders. I glanced back at him and smiled as if he had made my day, which in truth he had. He was relaxed in a plaid shirt, old jeans and socks, after kicking off his muddy boots at the door. He was still taller than me, lean and towering behind me, with a conspiratorial smile as if I had done something. I heard him push a hand across his beard: it was the sound of scheming.
In the kitchen, Dave pushed me against the wall and kissed me deeply. His nose was cold from the outdoors, but his mouth was warm. I fell into him. I had been waiting for this all week. He pulled my hair out of its ponytail. He was hard against me and I pressed him away, muttering, “the boys” because they were only in the living room. He groaned and moved to grab me. I was already out of reach.
“You’re so very fucking fetching,” he said.
I smiled. “I know.”
“I can’t wear pyjamas and slippers all week.”
He was still grinning and he must have thought I was joking.
Dave poured himself a large glass from the bottle of white on the bench which I had opened just before they arrived. I knew he would need it. He took a long sip, then sighed, relieved.
“You didn’t tell me about Jonathan,” I said.
He kept hold of his glass and something glimmered. It might have been in his eyes or a tightening of his mouth, and it read, so is this what’s going to happen now?
“I’m not going to call you every time something happens with the boys.”
I pulled the chicken from the oven and added the par boiled potatoes to the sizzling roasting pan. The chicken was pallid, only starting to colour. Its plucked skin showed the fine marks left by its feathers, reminding me of the bird that it once was. And I wondered how many Sunday night roasts were required before I got a phone call about a bad sprain.
I went to the fridge for the vegetables and felt Dave’s eyes on me, appraisingly. He probably had us on the kitchen table in a state of half undress, or at least me, as he dissected me with his clever fingers.
I topped and tailed the beans. He leaned against the bench beside me.
“I hate the weeks that you have the boys. For me, I hate it,” I said.
“I know,” Dave said, and I heard the edge in his voice - he didn’t want to talk about this.
“Not for everything, but for bad sprains and breakages, will you call me?”
There was a beat before he said, “Okay. Yes. I will.”
And maybe he had done his own calculations and worked out that this was the least he could do. He put his glass down and slid his arm around my waist. We kissed and it started short, but grew and grew. We had only been together for four months, clearly.
“If it weren’t for the boys,” he muttered.
He said that a lot. After he dropped the boys off with their mother, Lisa, he would come back here. There was such promise as he walked up the front path, his bag slung over his shoulder and his week’s worth of suits hanging from his hand. He would have a focussed expression, so that I knew he was already in this house and we were doing things to each other. And sometimes I thought that perhaps I was nothing more than a welcome distraction in the weeks that he didn’t have the boys, because they were his idols after all.
We first met at our local pub: it was almost empty at nine o’clock on a weekday night. I was at the bar, waiting for a friend. Dave said he was too, although he admitted later that he was having a drink after a fight with Lisa. And I knew that he wasn’t meeting anyone else when he bought me a drink and shifted one bar stool closer. His warm, dark blonde hair and pale grey eyes: I thought he couldn’t have been available, and he wasn’t as it turned out.
I called my friend to say that I couldn’t make it and I left the pub with him.
When we got to his car, I saw the two children’s seats in the backseat and I didn’t say anything, neither of us did, and for me that is one of the most morally culpable moments in all of this.
Dave drove us to a motel ten minutes away and we didn’t touch or speak, but my mind was whirling with instructions: telling him to stop the car and go home to his kids, telling myself to get out of the car, get a taxi home and kiss my husband. I didn’t do any of those things. His hands on the steering wheel were the most beautiful hands I had ever seen.
We only just made it inside the motel room when he took me into his arms and kissed me. He held me so hard against him that I felt the room key in his hand digging into my ribs, as if he were trying to use the key there. When he pulled away momentarily, he said my name, low. We didn’t even get our clothes off.
The second time, he turned on the light. It was bright and florescent. He pulled my clothes away and drew me on top of him. I buried into him, shying away from the blizzard of light. He licked my skin and perhaps that I tasted different to his wife was enough. But when I took him inside me and pushed myself up to sitting, I saw what looked like conversion in his eyes and my heart thudded as if it was going to leap from my chest.
There was no counting after that. It was just urgent, aching and a bit mad.
When I woke it was in the first grey of dawn. He was already awake and he smiled at me, slowly, his hand holding my hair.
After dinner, they got ready to go to Lisa’s house. Dave took Jonathan to the bathroom to help him, given his sprained arm. I sat on the sofa beside Chris. He rested his head back, looking up to me. His hair the colour of caramel and honey was Dave’s and I assumed his brown eyes were from Lisa. He smiled and it lit his whole face. He had only started to smile at me in the last month, because heavens knew what had been attributed to me, perhaps all of it: the two homes he had now, so that when he woke of a morning for a second he didn’t know where he was.
It was a wonder sitting beside someone who had only been on this earth for five years. His young gaze and little square teeth made me yearn. I wanted to hug the small barrel of his chest against me. I wanted him to always be five years old, but even as I watched him he was growing. I felt a profound, physical desire to create from my own body a child, but I didn’t know if I ever would, and I didn’t know if this feeling would go away.
I reached over and kissed his hair. I broke the spell.
He bounded off the sofa and ran from the room.
“Can we go to Mum’s now?” he called down the hallway, to anyone it seemed.
I had been married before and I knew the deep, unthinking pleasure of taking a person for granted. My ex-husband, Adam, and I went through all the motions. It didn’t start that way, but that was the way it ended. I said, “I love you”, and it was said to me, as a thread through “goodbye”. It came with me getting out of the car at the kerb, the engine still running, kissing him on the lips with my bag already in my grasp, and “don’t forget the dog/the bank/calling your sister”. It wasn’t something I waited on.
Adam’s stories, I knew all of them, even the words he used and his emphases. Our thirteen year relationship was chronicled by changes in his hair until finally he shaved his head each morning and looked older than he was. Cynicism, glacial and insidious, settled into him.
I walked around the house in three day old clothes and I did it knowing it didn’t make a bit of difference what I looked like. And maybe that’s where it all started to unravel: realising that no matter what I did, it didn’t make any difference at all.
“You don’t have to wear make up for me,” Dave said, flossing his teeth, watching me in the mirror as I swept the cotton ball wet with chemicals over my eyelids.
The mess left on the cotton ball was a beautiful, expensive mixture of mauve and gold glitter, black mascara and eyeliner: all of it Christian Dior and all of it gone. How to tell him that this was the least of what I did for him? But I smiled at him in the mirror and said, “Okay”.
This was not a scene of domesticity, not proper domesticity, this sharing the bathroom before bed. We had already been to bed. It was midnight and we were about to go back there. I had bought new bed linen that cost a fortune, but it was better spent on that than clothes.
I knew this phase would have to end. At times, I wished it was soon. To speak with him for a long time, and really get to the bottom of things with him, that is what I wanted. Maybe he would cry. Maybe he would tell me what woke him at 4am and didn’t let him sleep again.
“You don’t need make up. You’re so beautiful,” he said, dropping the floss into the bin.
My reflection, now without make up, showed me gaunt, pale, with purple shadows deep in the recesses of my eye sockets.
“I don’t believe you.”
He turned me around and kissed me with his cold, toothpaste tasting mouth. He held my face the way he knew I liked it, and he was more dangerous now than he had ever been. When it came to all of this, he knew me inside out. He slid up under my nightie, up under my skin and my breath caught in my throat. I could have fainted. I could have wept. He walked me backwards from the bathroom to the bed, our mouths joined, his fingers inside me, and I wished I had not let myself get into this situation, dependent on another person, again.
One week turned into another week, an on week into an off week. I felt as if I was living one week out of two, and I was probably not the only one.
I thought about what happened when the boys arrived at Lisa’s house. Did they sigh with relief when they stepped back into their home? Where their mother was? Did they tell her everything that happened that week? I imagined them wild, uncontrolled, excited as they tore down the hallway, because they were finally home, at least for a little while.
Dave phoned me one afternoon in the week that he had the boys. It was so unexpected. I asked him what was wrong.
He laughed. “I thought you might like to come over for dinner tonight.”
“But you have the boys.”
“So, you need to spend time with the boys. That’s what you say.”
There was a pause before he said, “From your tone it sounds like I say it over and over.”
“Yes. It is. Over and over.”
“Well, I want to spend tonight with the three people that I love.”
And I would like to have seen his face when he said that.
“You know that’s the first time you’ve said that you love me, albeit in a roundabout way.”
There was a pause before he said, “Fuck. Fiona. I’m sorry.”
But he couldn’t be as sorry as I was. I thought of when he was last here, we were in bed and he pushed his hand over my navel and said, “You can tell you haven’t had any children.” In that moment I felt sad for Lisa because she was damned if she had the boys and damned if she hadn’t. And I felt sad for me, because I had placed myself in the same position.
I went to Dave’s flat that evening. He had made spaghetti bolognese for the boys. The spaghetti whipped around as they ate, smearing their faces with tomato and meat. They grinned up at me. They were giggling about something that neither Dave nor I understood but it had them in hysterics. He handed me a glass of wine. “Spag bol. It’s their favourite,” he said, over their laughter that was adorable and childish. I thought baked chicken was their favourite, which was why I had been making it every second Sunday night when he brought them around: all of those poor, baked chickens. I felt foolish, making the wrong meal again and again.
We sat at the table with the boys. For his and my dinner, Dave unwrapped parcels of food that he bought from an expensive delicatessen after work. The food was all quite grown up, nothing like the homely meals we shared at my house, and maybe my effort was sometimes just too much - for both of us. He ate an olive, distracted, miles away.
And I thought it must kill him a little, that we did this, all of it.
The boys ate dolmades after their dinner, swiping at their mouths with their oily hands. Dave laughed at their messy faces and it struck me that perhaps everything I needed was at this table. But when he cleaned their faces with kitchen paper, the gaze of the boys on him turned deep in my gut: the immense, unconditional love of a child.
Dave moved to refill my glass, but I held up my hand.
“Don’t. I won’t be able to drive home.”
“What’s going on? This is your time with the boys.”
He leaned against the table next to where I was sitting.
“You’re right. You should be part of all of this.”
He took my hand in his and held it to his mouth, his cheek.
“Move in,” he said. “Please.”
His voice was plaintive and I wondered if he could hear that too.
I pulled up out the front of our old house. Adam was mowing the lawn. When he saw me he switched off the mower. We hadn’t seen each other since I moved out three months earlier. He seemed concerned, as if I was about to tell him that someone had died, so he said,
“What’s up?” which was fair enough.
“I just need your signature.”
“That sounds ominous.”
I gave Adam the form and a pen. His hand was flecked with cut grass. He looked at the form, blindly.
“I need your signature to donate our embryos to science,” I said.
His chest rose and fell and I felt his inhale and exhale as if they were mine: those chances that we made together that were never going to be enough. He signed his erratic signature which should have told me something a long time ago.
“And I’m moving in with Dave.”
He nodded and handed me the form and pen.
“Good luck, sweetheart,” he said.
He walked back to the mower, his shoulders stooped, defeated. And I knew that this was probably the last time that I would see him.
Melissa Goode's work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, Griffith Review, The Fiction Desk, Crannóg, New World Writing, Cleaver Magazine, Gravel, and Jellyfish Reviewamong others. She has been a featured writer in Bang! One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company, Jungle. She lives in Australia.