There’s something to be said for the blank hours of the night.
The blank hours that trickle lazily into the morning, dissolving crumbs of time like instant coffee. Brittle brown grinds becoming soupy and black under the swoosh of steaming water. Stephen stirred his cup noiselessly in the kitchen, careful not to clink his spoon on the porcelain.
The ping of a pin hitting the floor had the ferocity to wake Cheryl as of late.
He slouched in the kitchen swaying on the frigid tiles, half leaning on the counter, half hoping his knees would just give out. It was dark save for the streetlight wiggling its thin yellow fingers in between the shutter blades. Stephen inhaled the night slowly.
His coffee mug – the white one, the one that actually stood out amongst the colourful hoard of Cheryl’s uniquely mismatched coffee cups – seemed so small on the counter. He felt its unannounced agony, vibrations that thrummed through him with every bitter sip. From the cupboard the cup roused him from his false slumber, shook him from the nightmares he dreamt while he was awake. The smooth porcelain supportive of his restless, motionless insomnia with promises of temporary warmth and the brief blessing of wakefulness.
Stephen drank poorly brewed Nescafe, draining the cup and tuning out the imagined sound of Cheryl’s twangy, bird-like laughter. It hung in the air of the kitchen mockingly, followed him back into the living room as he sat on the couch that used to belong to his parents. He was reminded of college which seemed so easy and harmless now, thought of the deep cigarette burn in the center cushion of the couch. If he pushed his hand between the pillows there were probably still kernels of popcorn from movie nights with Cheryl. There’d be wine stains on the undersides of the cushions because it was cheaper just to flip them than to dry-clean them at this point. Inexplicable smears of bodily fluids, his from fistfights with old roommates, Cheryl’s after hours of fighting had subsided and a white flag had been flown.
Stephen slid off the couch, his feet first slipping across the scratched hardwood, the knobs of his knees and soon his butt. He laid flat on his back on the floor, the panels long since gone cold in the dark. With weak human eyes not meant for the night he stared at the ceiling fan; his eyelids played pranks where they would dip dramatically, taunting him with a sleep that was always just out of reach. Insomnia was a sick thing that sapped at your eyeballs and gnawed at the back of your neck, jagged little teeth prickling you into consciousness even while it pushed your eyelids down.
He laid there, loose curls of black hair splayed like a crooked halo around his head, grey eyes half-heartedly drooped until he heard her.
She woke with the quietness of a mouse, eight years had Stephen trained to hear every whispered pitter-pat of her bare feet. Stephen was petrified all in an instant, his eyes squelched shut as he prayed through clenched teeth that she wouldn’t see him lying there between the coffee table and the couch. His breath came in sharp hisses through flaring nostrils. Stephen could feel his heart thud-thud against the floor beneath him, it raced desperately and sweat clung to his unshaved chin as Cheryl crept down the hall.
He listened as she wisped into the kitchen, heard her open the cupboard, restart the coffee-maker. Stephen placed his palms flat on the floor, trying to push himself through the wood. If ever someone told him he would be so afraid of Cheryl years ago – he would have laughed. God let me fall through – not today, please not today.
“What are you doing?”
Stephen withheld his response. Breathing in deeply and folding his arms anxiously over his face. He was so tired, so weary from the fighting, from the screaming. Cheryl blew silently back into the kitchen, a sheet on wind as she flickered about the house. “Is this what we are now? Look at what this is doing to us Cheryl.” Stephen whispered to his arms, his voice hoarse and trembling.
Immediately she was there, as though she had filtered like a wraith through the walls. “What?” She hissed. Stephen lapped at cracked lips as he reluctantly rolled onto his stomach, pushing himself up onto his knees. It was unavoidable, like they had been repeating the same day every day for the past three years and no matter how hard he tried Stephen could never find the words that would make her understand.
The room had become so small. There was such pain and devastation splashed on the walls, the paint should have been peeling, the ceiling should have been caving in on them, the floor ripped open like a gaping black mouth of jagged wooden teeth. The plague should have been gnawing their universe raw, should have made them sick with darkness, skin crackling and bubbling-up with it. It was an unseen and unspoken hatred, poured roughly across the floor and splashed up and down the hallways, hot and coughed up like blood. It destroyed everything until they were broken, until there was nothing left to breathe.
“To us?” She spoke like a dragon, a thin and dying dragon forcibly wheezing out her last flaming words. She was tortured, she was inhuman. Her hair could drift up into the air like a pool of ink on water and she would lift off the floor and hover there, dead and demonic. Cheryl’s shoulders showed through her skin, her collarbones persistently pressed outward as her flesh shrunk around them. Her cheeks looked hollow as the bones became more and more prominent. “To us?!” She repeated, fiercer this time – she could lunge at him and spew volcanic rage.
Stephen grasped his face in his hands. He wanted to weep, to choke on the sobs that wrenched up from within him. They were stuck like this, they would never be let go from this endless loop of the same day.
He looked at her with glossy grey eyes. Cheryl’s hair spilled down over her like a brunette river, thick ringlets that were almost consuming her at this point, she had become so small. But somehow she was still in there – the artsy girl from college, the beer pong champion. Stephen could see it only when the sun would warm her ocher skin, catch on the dark of her enormous mane. Cheryl’s freckles spattered all over her from the tip of her nose to the dip of her bellybutton. Her green eyes flashed like almond shaped gemstones as she glared at him and he remembered her as a hurricane of pure passion – such terror she could be.
Cheryl deceptively wore one of his white t-shirts, grey and subtly stained now from being worn and washed so often. She wore it not because she loved him anymore, not because it was her favorite shirt anymore, but because it was so much larger than she it wondrously hid the skeletal creature beneath the material. She was wasted away under there and it disgusted and horrified them both. She wanted to be this thing, this being of bone and death, everything inside Cheryl had become rotten with pestilence so she declared her self-loathing on the outside.
Stephen fearfully sprung to his clumsy feet as she came at him. He staggered back when she slapped him. The clap rang out in the living room, each finger had gouged into his face in one abrupt swing. Shaggy black hair flew about his eyes, head winging to the left. She was screaming at him, words flying before they could even be correctly sounded out.
“Is this what you wanted?”
He spoke but she heard not a word. She was a whirlwind of stubbornness and suffering, cutting into everything with her resounding voice. He wanted to cry out too, so desperately, he wanted to cry. Stephen snatched out large hands and seized her with a violence not reserved for humans.
“How can you hate me so much?”
Cheryl’s fists flung against him, knuckles snapping against his chest, his shoulders. He shook her wickedly, her teensy frame whipping back and forth in his grasp until he shook with furious tears. Stephen had become so hardened, he sweat cold bullets of nervousness and unknown strength.
When he did release her Cheryl fell back onto the couch. Stephen’s arms continued their aggressive jerking despite their emptiness, he wrung the air without breathing. She laid there, head tossed back on the cushions so that her hair flew out about her figure. Cheryl’s chest heaved, bare beneath the thin t-shirt, her eyes wide as saucers. He would fill her next – horribly, hatefully, unable to catch his breath for the hysteria of his tears – fill her with him so that for the millionth time Cheryl’s womb would know the gravity of his anger before all else. Cheryl would be satisfied, she’d get up and finish her coffee alone in the kitchen. Stephen would sprint crazily into the garage to bash in the windows of the Honda he’d already broken, before throwing up.
It would start up again as soon as he went inside, she would tear into him and he would tear into her, rip his t-shirt to shreds. During the week the neighbors might ask about all the commotion and he might lie and say he beat her so that they would take him away. It was all better than all the terrible, guilt driven thrusting on the old sofa from his parents.
“Thrusting” now because even “sex” was too kind for what they did.
Stephen sat in the driver’s side of the Honda as he inhaled shakily, needy as he sucked on a cigarette. It had been three months since the last time they tried. It was a miserable evening, he would hesitantly come home from work – weak and afraid of Cheryl even as he took her against the wall. It was in vain. A week later there’d be some science term sputtered by some idiot doctor over the telephone, telling them that adoption was still an option.
Stephen took another drag off of his cigarette, pressing his forehead into the curve of the chipped steering wheel. There was something to be said for the sick jokes played on men by gods. In-vitro fertilization. Surrogates. Adoption. Things that were sweet gestures but either too expensive, too unfair or too fucked up. Cheryl wanted it this way, she wanted to do it all, wanted it all to be theirs. It was madness – all of it. He was so far down the rabbit hole he could practically taste the madness.
Stephen took his long fingers softly through his chaotic hair, pulling the black strands out of his face. His eyes were swollen and glassy, he felt the churning within his stomach and wrestled back the streaming beads of salted tears as they smeared a trail though his coarse facial hair.
There were enough Clearblue tests scrambled throughout the garbage to string together a necklace, or lace up one grand Christmas tree. He laughed at himself quietly in the dank shadow of the garage. There used to be so much wonder in it, in the beautiful space before “making love” became “sex”. The wee hours of the morning and the wee hours of the evening, absolute naked perfection.
Three months since the last time they tried, but only six weeks since the last time he and Cheryl had shared the same bed. It was nervous habit, an anxiety trigger that made him slither his fingers down to his home between her legs but it was always there. The sticky current of death disguised in a crimson spill. He’d woken up in it, in the heat of it, ruining the bed sheets and his clothes, clinging to the lengths of Cheryl’s hair. Been wrenched out of his sleep by her petrified shrieks – Cheryl became a banshee in the wake of these instances, an ethereal figure bursting with pain and gushing lumpy strings of genetic goo that proved they gave a shit about each other.
“Jesus Christ.” Stephen blew out on a curl of purple-grey smoke.
There’s something to be said for the cheap games of life. The questions thrust at you, endless games of chance, answers obscured by riddles or false doorways that bring you back to the same square you were running from.
Stephen sat back in the car seat. The ancient chair knew his frame well, the worn material stunk of smoke, the toxic scent thick and coagulated at the back of his throat while he inhaled deeply for more. Somewhere down within, despite everything, under everything….Cheryl was still human. Stephen gave a sideways glance at the door leading to inside. He wanted to go in and talk, sit down the way normal people did and lie to her about the options they had.
He blew a silvery cloud at the shattered driver’s window, watching as it struck the shards of glass soundlessly and curled inward before softly rolling into the car seats. They had tried so many times. Stephen was exhausted. His skin crawled with the sleepy alertness of fear, the kind that rippled his skin with icy goose-bumps, he was a child in the night terrified of closing his eyes but desperate for a moment of rest.
Stephen’s black hair hung in his face as he pulled at the crisping paper between his lips. He huddled himself: hunched shoulders, crooked neck. Stephen had become a bird, the boney kind that looked as though it were being slurped back in on itself – a black hole in its chest as it gobbled about uselessly.
He could leave her.
A bushy eyebrow cocked at that idea. He could leave Cheryl. His barren wasteland, the sheathe he slithered into when he was rusted and frail. How many times could he grate himself against her, how many more times could he wake up on the same morning? Stephen bumped out the nub of his cigarette on the dash of his car, burnt tobacco and bits of glass scattering everywhere. He imagined the red sea on his hands, the syrupy scarlet spools webbed between his fingers and smeared across his palms.
His babies. His and Cheryl’s. There was a happy morbidity in that disturbing fantasy. Their crimson ocean of boys and girls, filling their bed, dripping down Cheryl’s legs at the shopping mall, stains on her underwear when he did laundry.
Light poured into the garage. Stephen’s hooded eyes drearily took in the familiar figure in the doorway.