Fresh Paint: a short story

It was over.

In the pre-dawn darkness, alone with her thoughts, she let the knowledge settle over her soul. Into her bones. And she wondered, not for the first time, how it came to be that two people who had once loved one another so fiercely could become little more than strangers passing in the night. Maybe they’d never really known each other at all. Perhaps they’d lived in that Lover’s Illusion of Fate and Destiny for so long, they’d begun to believe its authenticity, to have faith in its fairy-tale ending. When in reality, a lover’s vision sees only what it wants to see and nothing more. Truth can remain hidden for decades. Lovers know only what they wish to know. See only what they wish to see.

And he couldn’t see her.

He couldn’t see how hard she had tried to be exactly what he wanted, how she had struggled to make him happy, to give him everything he insisted mattered most. She’d sacrificed her own desires until it hurt. But still, he felt no loyalty towards her, no sense of allegiance. He mocked her to others. Belittled her behind closed doors. Made her feel so small, so dense, it was as though the carbon inside her body had turned to diamond. It cut away at her heart until there was almost nothing left.

They used to argue passionately—yelling, screaming, boldly accusing—until they ran out of steam, and then they’d come together feverishly, the weight of their bodies crushing any doubt, confident that they belonged to only each other. But she didn’t want him to touch her anymore. In fact, she was grateful for the nights when he fell asleep early and didn’t ask. There were more and more of those nights recently.

She lit a cigarette, and stared beyond the frosted window to a house across the street. Red and green Christmas lights blinked on-and-off. On-and-off. In the quiet glow of early-morning, she took off her armour, once and for all, and made the decision not to fight anymore.

*

“I want a divorce,” she said.

Plain and straight, no sharp edges, no harsh undertones. Just like that. And she knew instantly that it was true. Oh, sure, she’d said it in not-so-many words before. Maybe even exactly those words. But this time was different. This time, she meant it.

“I want a divorce, David,” she repeated. In case he hadn’t heard her clearly. Or at all. She could recall countless occasions in the past when he’d tuned her out.

He sat on the couch in front of her, and stared blankly at the TV screen, feigning ignorance while he watched a hockey game. He didn’t look over. Didn’t so much as cast a glance in her direction. He refused to meet her eyes, or acknowledge in any way that she had, in fact, spoken out loud. To him.

In the old days, it wouldn’t have mattered. She’d have sighed, stomped down the hall in a huff, and things would’ve eventually cooled off. Gone back to normal. But something inside her had changed over the past few months. She no longer craved the cold comfort that accompanied the conscious decision to sweep everything under the rug. She no longer found peace in pretending to be happy when she wasn’t; there was no satisfaction in trying to make nice with someone who refused to reciprocate. In the end, she was faced with one decision: stay and die a slow, painful death of the soul—or make a change.

Not really a choice at all. It was time to start over, that much was certain, although it had taken her some time to come to that realization. A lifetime of running away had taught her to be sure before she left—one hundred percent positive—convinced there was no other way. And she was. It was ridiculous to think she’d wasted five years on this relationship. It seemed silly to call it a marriage, really, when the term itself implied two elements entwining and melding to become greater than either individually—their relationship had been anything but that.

Instead of discussion, there were demands. Instead of understanding, there was condescension. Instead of quality time, there was time in front of the TV, eyes ahead, no conversation. Instead of honesty and truth-telling, there was manipulation. Betrayal. A deep-rooted lack of trust—from both sides—that pervaded everything. There was no “talking it out and working it through.” They were on separate teams, fighting opposing battles, for entirely different reasons. It was exhausting.

“I’m going to start looking for an apartment tomorrow, David. I don’t really see the point in waiting anymore. We both know nothing’s going to change.” She cleared her throat. “David, are you even listening to me?” He stared straight ahead.

Looking around at the accumulation of years, she imagined cardboard boxes with permanent marker labels, all lined up in a row by the door. Suitcases filled with clothes, toys, and other things you just can’t live without. She pictured the kitchen appliances all boxed up, hidden behind packing tape, ready to go. She could almost smell the fresh paint on her new apartment walls, and felt a rush of sheer excitement knowing the future would unwrap itself like Christmas morning, one box at a time. Freedom. That’s what fresh paint smelled like.

The images faded. She sighed and shifted her weight, extremely conscious of the fact he had yet to reply. A scorching heat rose up from her belly, climbed her esophagus, and threatened to choke her. “David?”

Silence. The lights from the television flickered in his eyes—nothing more. She turned on her heels and slowly walked away, down the long hall, past the children, sound asleep, and into her small office. She closed the door. She sat down—hard—in the black leather chair, put her head in her hands and cried, a good long cry, until she could cry no more.

*

“I told him. Last night.”

“You did? Oh, wow. What did he say?”

“What do you think he said, Erica? This is David we’re talking about, remember? Nothing—he said absolutely nothing. Not a word. He just sat there, watching his stupid game, and acted like he didn’t give a shit.”

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry—”

“Whatever. It’s for the best, right? If he’d made an issue of it, or put up a fight, I’m not sure I could’ve handled it. I just— I don’t know. I guess I’m still in shock.”

“Are you gonna be okay? Want me to swing by and pick you up? We could go for a drive, grab a coffee or something?”

“No. Thanks, though. I think I’m just gonna go to bed now. I’m beat. Fucking exhausted, actually, and I need to look for an apartment in the morning. I don’t want the kids to have to switch schools, so I need to find something decent nearby.”

“Well, call if you need me, ‘kay? We’ve been friends since the first day of grade four, when you took care of Jessie DiFranco for me, remember? I still owe you for that one!” Erica laughed. “I’m not gonna let you go through this alone, hon. Call me anytime. Okay?”

*

“I’m leaving in ten days, David,” she said. “I signed a lease this morning.”

His eyes never left the screen. Not once. No chance in hell was he going to let her see his surprise. Fuck that—his goddamned shock.

She was leaving? Fuck her.

“You can have the kids three nights a week, all right? Friday or Saturday, and two others, you decide. I’m willing to be flexible. They’ll take their cue from us, so if we’re okay, they’ll be…”

Was she still talking?

“…okay, too. David, are you even listening to me?”

Silence. The TV light flickered in the background. It was hard to concentrate with his heart pounding in his chest, but he had no choice—a man had his pride. Eyes straight ahead. It was only after he heard the office door quietly click closed behind her that he let himself breathe. She wouldn’t really leave—would she?

Not a chance.

*

Stacked boxes. Dismantled furniture. Suitcases stuffed with clothes and toys and books—all those things you just can’t live without. A lone toothbrush by the sink, forgotten. Floors mopped. Oven cleaned. Keys in hand. Ready to go.

She stands in the doorway of the half-empty bedroom they’ve shared for five years. A ghost of the room it once was, she thinks. And then, How fucking poetic. It sleeps silently as she gathers the few items remaining: a novel, her backpack, one pink Barbie doll shoe, and a stray seashell kicked into a corner. Just like me. She sits on the edge of the bed, staring out the window at the uncertain horizon, and sighs.

David’s footsteps echo down the hall, announcing his approach. “Hey, what’re you doin’? You okay?” he asks, gently. Ready to talk, at long last.

Slowly, she turns to respond, but thinks better of it. Fading sunlight flickers in her eyes. He goes to her, puts his hand on her arm. She flinches at his touch. No contact. No reply. No regret. She shakes her head, and walks to the door, her backpack slung over one shoulder. She doesn’t look back.

“I love you,” he calls to her retreating form. Expecting her to turn around—even in this, the eleventh hour—to change her mind. But she can’t. Or she won’t. Or a bit of both, perhaps.

*

“So, how do you feel?” Erica asks.

“I dunno. Not too sure yet. Good, I think. Surprisingly hopeful. Peaceful.”

She looks around at she says these words, and knows they’re true. Furniture is lined haphazardly against walls. Permanent marker labels—bathroom, bedroom1, bedroom2, kitchen, living room, dining room, office—boldly declare destinations on boxes, stacked three-deep in each corner of every room. Suitcases of various sizes fall open, contents spilling out all over gleaming hardwood floors. But she feels a sense of calm among the chaos.

“Want me to come over for a while? I can bring a bottle of wine, some pizza, and help you unpack that mess, if you want?”

“Sure, that’d be great, if you’re up for it. The kids are at their dad’s ‘til tomorrow night, and I probably won’t sleep much tonight anyhow,” she replies. “Too excited!”

“On my way, hon. See you in ten,” Erica says, and hangs up.

Phone still in hand, she leans on the kitchen counter and smiles. Takes a look around. The scent of Lysol and Windex tickle her nose. And fresh paint—a new start. Freedom.

*

In the small hours, between dusk and dawn, when the world is silent and still, she sits on the sofa and stares out the window at the snow-covered street below. Content. Despite the shattered illusions that lay in shards at her feet. And she considers, for the very first time, that she’s never really known herself at all. It’s time. Perhaps there is such a thing as a fairy-tale ending. Maybe it just looks a little different than expected.

She smokes a cigarette, and watches the lights in the building across the street go off, one-by-one. One-by-one. In the hazy blue twilight, once and for all, she makes the choice to live her life, unarmed.

It has begun.

*

*Originally published in Bareback Magazine’s March 2014 issue*

(online and available in print here)

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