We Were Burning the Whole Time
I wake to screaming and the television shows a woman being attacked by a shark. Her screams pierce through me. The water is depthless, blue. Why doesn’t someone save her? In the next instant, why didn’t he wake me? I rise, stiff, from the couch and switch off the television.
In our bedroom, Adam lies on his back, hands behind his head. I feel him awake.
I push at the ache in my neck. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I fucking tried.”
In the dark, I can hardly make out his face. He sighs and the length of it, the weariness, it sounds like God-almighty-I-am-so-fucking-exhausted-of-us. I sit on the side of the bed and think I am at extreme risk.
His hand falls on my back. “Meg,” he says, so quietly, but I do not turn around.
His hand moves down my spine, sweeping slowly downward, at the rate of a drop of water sliding down glass.
Adam arrives home from work while I watch the world implode on the evening news.
“I can’t bear it anymore,” I say.
I wave at the television. “This fucking catastrophe.”
He leaves and I hear him in the kitchen, snapping open a beer, and another. The bottle tops scuttle, ricochet and clatter in the sink. He returns, hands me a beer, and sits beside me. In Sendai, Japan, people try to run from a tsunami. We drink. His hip, hard, alive, is joined to mine.
He drags me to the floor. He spreads me out on the rug with his hands, his feet, spreading me down and laying me out. Jesus.
At the school where I work, I teach the children about the measure of things — earthquake (Richter scale), tornado (EF scale), cancer (Stages 1 to 5), hospital triage (Emergency Severity Index), chilli (Scoville scale). The children are eight years of age and every one of them pays attention as if for the first time in their lives they are being treated like adults.
I don’t tell them that women and men can be measured in different ways. If measured in inches, there are three measures for women and one for men.
Other measures — number of complaints from parents (three), number of warnings remaining until I am out of a job (two).
In the bar at the end of our street, Adam buys a shot and a beer for him and, for me, a gin and tonic with lemon in a tall glass. I cannot stop smiling.
“What’s funny?” he says.
“Nothing. It’s just this. Us. It’s good.”
We do not talk about this enough — how vital it is to have someone who knows your favorite drink, who pats your hip gently three times in bed and you know to roll over onto your hands and knees.
The children run wild through the playground. I am caught in their vortex. They are spinning, screaming, squealing. It is 8 a.m. When does this end? The energy, the mindlessness, the sheer fucking joy.
I can still be childlike, but without levity. I can be as immature as the smallest child raging, unable to articulate a thought, throwing everything onto the floor.
“Calm the fuck down,” he says to the child, to me, throwing missiles.
I want to ask him How could you ever want a child in this world? With me?
I teach the children the song about the mother duck and her five little ducks disappearing, one by one. Mother Duck said quack, quack, quack, quack, but only two little ducks came back. The children are appalled, insulted.
“I know you’re too old for this. Just humour me,” I say.
They sing, rolling their eyes, dragging on the words, like the teenagers they will be any second now.
I make sure we get to the last line when all the little ducks come back.
We go to the mall late Thursday night. Adam needs a new laptop. I need a birthday present for my dad. We sit in the food court under terrible, fluorescent yellow light. In this blizzard, his Singapore noodles are greasy, pallid. I eat a burger, imagining every bite landing on my hips in neat, fatty clumps. I stop eating and drink my Diet Coke.
Beside us, a family eats KFC. There is so much food. They have everything — chicken pieces, wedges, coleslaw, even the potato and gravy and biscuits. Adam eats his noodles and keeps glancing over at them. The father laughs at something one of the children says and the father’s delight — it makes me close my eyes.
We walk past Babies “R” Us and Adam says, “I was thinking—”
“Another year,” I say.
He squeezes my hand tight. “Meg. You said that last year. Do you mean 365 days?”
“A year is a year.”
“That’s what I used to think,” he says.
He leans over and bites the top of my ear so hard that I wince. He used to kiss and lick me there.
During the night, I wake and he is asleep beside me. I almost put my hand on him and wake him. It takes everything to lie there, propped on my elbow, head in my hand, to only watch and not touch. How to tell him? I want you all to myself. His bones would be pure white — some thick and heavy, others thin, tapering down to nothing. How can he not hear it? Me, unravelling beside him.
A documentary on comets shows their blazing tails, all fire and rock, hurtling towards earth, burning.
“Why do we even go outside?” I say.
“It won’t make any difference if we are inside the house,” he says.
I laugh. It is the laugh that comes with terror, terror at the thought, terror that I was not terrified before this.
I hold on to it now — it won’t make any difference whether we are inside the house or not. It didn’t matter. Even today, I listen for it — his step on the stair. I do.
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, WhiskeyPaper, Split Lip Magazine, FRiGG, Forge Literary Magazine, and matchbook, among others. Her story “It falls” (Jellyfish Review) was recently chosen by Aimee Bender for Best Small Fictions 2018 (Braddock Avenue Books). She lives in Australia. You can find her here: http://www.melissagoode.com and at twitter.com/melgoodewriter.