Beth told herself she would wait until the sun came up, but it came up too quickly. She resolved to wait until the first bird chirped, and then until the third, and then until the sixteenth. By the time she got out of bed that morning, she had lost count – the chirping had turned into an unmelodious song that pecked inside her skull.
Jeff was lying on his back. His chest was fluffy, a field of black curly hairs that refused to conform to any sort of uniform direction. They rose and fell with every deep breath and fluttered a fraction with exhalation. His face was soft, wrinkled from his fifty-two years of life, but surprisingly not hardened. It seemed to have hardly changed at all, from the first time Beth had met him five years ago.
They had met at a book launch. The point of these events, besides celebrating the lucky bastard who had been published, was to mingle and network, but Beth had always found herself too awkward to step away from the small circle of friends she attended with. She did not trust writers, since her first husband had used his “art” as an excuse to serially cheat on her. Beth was a writer herself, but not a serious one – she’d published only a few short stories in her time and found her work as a secretary in an art gallery all consuming. Jeff had been just as cynical, having ended up a bartender when he had always dreamed of owning his own restaurant. He had served Beth her third glass of wine, after she’d already downed as much of the free stuff as she could manage, and they had initially bonded over how the end of the Celtic Tiger had ruined their dreams and drinking into oblivion was the only logical way to dull that ache. That night she had slept with him, a clumsy but passionate affair, and his gourmet version of scrambled eggs had won her over the next morning. Two months later, she’d packed in her studio apartment in Drumcondra in exchange for his even smaller but more expensive one in Ranelagh.
Jeff’s eyelashes were long, like a giraffe’s – it was one of the first things she’d noticed about him. That morning his eyelid’s twitched involuntarily as the light began to filter through the curtains, announcing a new day obnoxiously. Beth considered tightening them, pulling them over one another, she hated to see a new day rising, but she needed Jeff to wake up. She needed to look into those eyes, the ones she’d lost herself in so many times, and try to lose herself again.
There was a photo of Mikey on the drawers. He was three then, looking like a miniature version of Jeff, tiny teeth, all gums, tongue flailing out like a Labrador’s. Beth had memorised every inch of this photograph, to the blue bike sitting lopsided in the background, to the laces that were undone on Mikey’s right shoe, to the sunrise red and orange Calippo in his hand, staining his fingers and running like blood down his arm. Beth remembered how sticky he had been afterwards – she’d bathed him the second they got home from the park and found she couldn’t get the stickiness of her own hands for hours.
She waited until the sun was glaring over Jeff’s face, and then she climbed on top of him. He jolted beneath her and did not receive her first few kisses with enthusiasm. He quickly caught up with what was happening though, as Beth could tell by the firmness through his boxers. He didn’t question it, though he must’ve been wondering what had spurred this on, both anxious and excited. They hadn’t had sex in four months. Jeff sometimes spooned her at night – she didn’t mind this, she liked to feel anchored by something – but the second she felt his arousal, she would pull away, curling up, shrinking down and inwards, trying to hide from the man sharing her bed.
The sex was good – it was long and slow. There was a level of comfort and familiarity and even that clumsiness of their first time. They were just those two people in his studio apartment again, relieving their anger and pain. Beth had become so irrevocably wrapped up in raising Mikey in recent years, that Jeff became an afterthought, and she almost got a fright when Mikey yelled “Daddy,” as though she had conceived him all on her own.
When it was over, they didn’t part right away, as they once would have. Beth lay on top of him, her face prickled by the chest hair. The energy drained away, and in no time, it felt like nothing had happened at all. The vibrations running up and down her legs slowed and then stilled completely.
Jeff had proposed five months into the relationship, which seemed too long to Beth at the time. She was expecting within a year and after an entirely uncomplicated pregnancy, a miracle given she was what they called a geriatric mother, Mikey was born, screaming an ear-splitting scream, and any love Beth had ever had, for any man, if still bound up somewhere in her chest, had gone right into this child, and she no longer had any to spare. She pretended at first, but then she stopped. Motherhood was tiring enough.
Beth lay on top of Jeff, telling herself she would wait until the alarm went off, and then when it did, until the snooze alarm went off. They didn’t say a word to one another; their cries of climax seemed independent of one another’s actions. Beth had waited, afterwards, when the last of the pulsating waves seeped from her body, for the warmth, for the need to hold on. For the playful begging for a few more minutes, before they had to shower, and make food, and get on with their days. She waited for the ballooning emptiness to fill, with sustenance, with longing, with nostalgia.
The alarm went off a third time, having snoozed for eighteen minutes. Jeff, ever the peace-maker, lifted Beth off his chest, and took her face in his hands but she did not feel found. She did not love this man anymore, and she believed he knew it. The allowance of love she used to have had died when her son had, and his father was just as expendable now as one of Mikey’s old toy cars, or woolly jumpers – entirely without purpose with no Mikey around to need them. She resented her son for the briefest of moments, then herself, and then Jeff, for putting her in this position to begin with. This was a cycle that happened every day and it fatigued her.
Beth left the room without dressing, and barely registered the boxes on the landing, the creaking stairs, the discolouring on the walls where pictures used to hang. She had to open a box for a mug, and seriously considered breaking it after so she didn’t have to clean it. She boiled the kettle four times, each time believing she’d left it a second too long to cool, and the curling steam from the cup was unable to convince Beth otherwise. She cut a few slices of bread, but none were exactly right, and she threw one after the other into the compost bin until the whole loaf was in there, in misshapen slices. She’d nicked her finger on the knife, but the plasters were packed, so it bled onto the counter, then dripped on the newly washed floors.
Beth took a sip of coffee, the liquid scalding her already burnt gums. She stood with her eyes closed, relishing the intensity of the skin ripping off inside her mouth, and then she drank some more, before heading into the living room, that sat bare of furniture. The day was beginning outside – it seemed to happen in fast forward. Beth stood looking out the window for several moments, and a few stopped and stared, either because they knew she had gone a bit mad or because her breasts were something to look at. One woman tapped on the glass furiously, like Beth was a dolphin that needed to perform a trick. She ignored her, admiring how the sun was lighting up the SOLD sign, bringing out the red and blue, and the white block letters.
That first night with Jeff she had felt like she was being seen. He had looked at all of her, and felt every inch, and afterwards she thought there was nothing that could change this. Beth took another sip of coffee, and tried to feel what she had felt then, but all she could feel was the stinging of another piece of flesh being torn away, strip by strip. People eventually stopped looking in the window, into her empty house, where her life had become invisible, and one day she would too.