Friday had marked the end of many things—literally gone up in smoke; I’d seen it myself: the flames licking out through broken glass as everything I owned, letters, photographs, memories, became ash. I imagined that ash floating upwards, like the letter in Mary Poppins. But my memories wouldn’t be finding their way to anyone who could help. My feet curled on the cold floor as, behind me, Chris shifted on the bed. “Time?” he said, face against the pillow. I pretended not to hear him and rubbed the sleeve of his dressing gown, one of the only things I had to wear, against the window. The grime on the windowpane looked too much like smoke.
Chris was making stretching noises, then came the soft feather flump of the coverlet falling to the floor. In just a few steps he was behind me, arms slipping around my waist and mouth by my ear. A warm kiss to the lobe, then, “Oops, sorry, morning breath,” and he was gone. My ear was colder where his mouth had touched. I turned away from the window, the dirty jumble of red brick buildings, as I heard the water rolling in the kettle.
Chris was sitting at the small island in the tiny kitchen of his miniscule apartment. He looked up and smiled as I approached and lowered myself onto the other chair. Aside from the bed, this was the only place to sit. It was fine when I was an occasional visitor — we usually went to my place. I concentrated on biting my lip, hard.
“So, I’m off today.” Chris slid a mug across the tabletop to me. He’d made it exactly right (milk first, Earl Grey) but I thought of all my memory mugs, the dust of fine family china now mixed with the detritus of the building’s collapse. Welcome to Ontario, this mug read in flashy colours. But when I took a sip, I couldn’t help but release a tiny sigh of relief.
“I thought maybe we could go shopping, start replacing some things for you,” Chris continued, his voice scratchy and deep as it always was in the mornings, and I realised that I hadn’t responded. Hadn’t said a word to him yet this morning. My hands tightened on the hot mug. Replacing things. He may have picked up on this: “I just mean — clothes and things. I know I can’t fix the important stuff.” He placed his hand over mine; he barely had to extend his arm over the small island.
I looked up at him then: the stubble across his jawline, the steam from his coffee swirling up into his thick brown locks. I was dimly aware of how patient he’d been. For four days, he hadn’t expected a thing of me. I felt something that may have been shame flutter behind my breastbone, and instead I clenched my mug tighter, spat out, “If you want me out, I can get a hotel.” I desperately grasped onto my conjured spite.
He withdrew his hand. “That’s not—”
“If you want to go out, that’s fine. I’ll try to make other arrangements.” I was on my feet, not wanting to acknowledge that this was unwarranted. The anger was a relief from the despair and emptiness, which I continued tucking tighter inside myself.
“OK, you know what, Jules—” He had gotten up from his seat and was angrily pulling on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He stopped, pinched his nose and exhaled deeply. When he looked up again he was visibly calmer, though there was still an edge to his voice. “I’m going to go out for a bit,” he said. Every word sounded deliberate. “Just — be here when I get back. OK?”
And he was out the door. I felt a tiny part of me waiver and I shoved that aside. “He doesn’t actually want me here,” I thought, dumping the rest of my tea into the sink. Flecks splattered across the countertop as I slammed the mug down. “He just doesn’t want to be the bad guy.”
I tore off his robe and threw that to the ground, but underneath I had on one of his shirts. I pulled that off, too, and twisted it between my hands. “He’s wanted out for months,” I thought, wrenching on the fabric, pushing away the little voice that asked me, “Really? That’s all on him?” I briefly thought of all the nights I’d chosen to stay home, saying I was too tired to hang out, choosing to get extra work done instead. And he had never put up a fight when I turned down his invites. “We’re moving in different directions,” I’d written. In a journal that no longer existed.
“He’s bored, too.” I threw the shirt to the ground. “With me more out of routine than care.” I paced in small half-moons around the bed, which took up most of the room. I was cold underneath my flush of anger, now only in a sports bra and underwear, but I stopped at the window, pressed my forearms against the chill glass. Below, on the sidewalk, a small dog was frozen with fear at a nearby flock of pigeons, tiny feet planted in terror as its owner soothed and cajoled. This of all things made me start crying, and then I reminded myself I was angry. I knew the window was jammed, but I grabbed the handle, suddenly desperate for a cold shock of fresh air, and wrenched it, shook it until it snapped off in my hands.
I was still staring at it when the door opened. Chris was carrying several bags of groceries, which he placed carefully onto the counter before turning to face me. “Ok,” he said. “What the fuck.” He lowered his gaze to my hands, then glanced to the window, at the broken stub of the handle, and raised his eyebrows. “Seriously. What is going on with you? Is this all about the fire? I’m trying hard not to take any of this personally, but—”
“You don’t have to do this,” I spat.
“Do what? What do you mean?”
“Take me in, pretend to care! You haven’t cared in months, admit it, now you just feel guilty, or obliged—” The handle was digging into my palm but all I could think was that everything in my life felt out of control and I clutched it tighter.
“I haven’t cared? You’re the one who never wants to hang out anymore.” He threw his jacket down on top of the bags of groceries. One tipped over and several grapefruits fell out and rolled across the floor towards me. It registered faintly in my head that Chris didn’t even like grapefruits, only I did.
“Well, maybe if hanging out was more than just … sitting around and …”
“Come on,” he said. “All you want to do is work. You don’t want to include me in—”
I didn’t want to listen to any of this, consider whether any of it made sense. I reached down and picked up the grapefruit that had bumped against my toes, had a moment where I almost threw it at Chris, then threw it as hard as I could at the wall above the bed. The rind split, pink juice splattering the wall, the bedsheets. I was crying, hard. I reached down for another and Chris was across the room in a moment, grabbing my hand.
“You don’t care,” I said again, crying, hating myself for crying. He took the broken handle from my other hand and dropped that on the floor. He took me by the shoulders, not hard enough to hurt, and at his firm hold a tiny, hidden part of me relaxed inside, even as a new wave of angry tears came.
“How can you possibly think that? How do you think it’s been for me, having you pull further and further away?”
“Well you haven’t done anything about it,” I spat out. I knew this was violently unfair, and I didn’t care. I felt all the loss of the last few days, clouding me, choking me.
“Oh yeah,” he said, finally angry. “I haven’t done anything. I certainly haven’t taken you in, supported you, tried to comfort you in the wake of a disaster.”
“Just admit that you’re bored with me, ok?”
He raised his eyebrows and paused for a second, searching my face. “Is that it? You’re bored with me?”
I didn’t know what to say to this reversal. I made a choking noise and tried to reach down for another grapefruit to throw, but he tightened his grip, then slid his other hand up my neck, fingers in my hair, until he was cupping the back of my head. He took a step closer, and I found I couldn’t look away.
Everything about him was so familiar — the green in the centres of his brown eyes, the deceptively soft lower lip, the calluses on his palms and fingers — but I felt like I hadn’t been this close to him in months. I could feel the heat from his cheeks on my own face, smell the rich scent of coffee still lingering in his hair. I felt something inside my belly lurch, something deep.
“Are you bored?” he whispered.
He let go of my arm to run his other hand up my neck, his thumb along my jawline. Even though he no longer had me in a tight grip, I didn’t move away. His thumb was barely touching my lip. “Do you want to leave?”
I just stared at him. Without thinking, I shook my head. He took a step back, towards the bed, leading me with his hand gently on my jaw. Another step back. “Prove it,” he said, his voice so low I felt it there, low in my belly, and the two of us fell backwards onto the bed.
“He slid my bra up and off, his palms hot on my ribs and along my arms.”
Beneath me were all his familiar angles, but each place we made contact burned. He slid my bra up and off, his palms hot on my ribs and along my arms. He didn’t even look at my breasts; he kept his eyes fixed on my face as he flipped us over, guided my own hands underneath his shirt, which I pulled over his head. My hips lifted, involuntarily, seeking contact, and he placed one hand on my hipbone, forcing my pelvis down. I arched my back instead, and, without moving his eyes from my face, he took his free hand and ran his thumb along the bottom curve of my breast. He licked his lips, watched me watch him, but still didn’t kiss me. I made a small noise of desperation as his fingers traveled from my hip bone to my inner thigh, then back again, keeping my pelvis firmly in place. Everything else had fallen from my mind except this moment, and waiting for his next move.
He lowered his face towards mine, then brushed his lips to my ear. My body erupted in goosebumps at the heat of his breath. “Perhaps you’d like to stay after all?”