THE SKY BEYOND THE PERSPEX
Separation Checklist. Draft One.
“His’n Hers” once had an adorable quality of shared intimacy. Towels draped lovingly over bathroom radiators, fluffy robes in boutique hotels, ornately embroidered with the third person personal pronouns in such a way that made both feel uniquely special and part of something whole.
In the end, those bloody towels betrayed us. The fucking embroidery emblematic of the mutual disgust with which we now regard each other. My fluffy towels darkened and soiled; too much fake tan and careless drying of streaking mascara. His, permanently crumpled, damp, lying at his side of the bed where he leaves them.
If the separation ever comes, His’ n Hers will not be so easy to establish. His John Denver, her Annie Lennox. His bodhran, her guitar. His Hitchens, her Fitzgerald. His credit card, her debt? His daughter, her son?
Anti-spasmodic medicines control my irritable bowel, I eat slowly to stop food sticking in my gullet. I wake at night, pressing my fist against my sternum. I crack a white pill loudly from its thin plastic casing, into my palm, pop it in my mouth and swallow hard.
Back home, neither of us makes any effort to clean the streaks of grease clouding the kitchen window. The toilet does not flush properly and no-one phones a plumber.
Before a dog dies, they say it slows down to an imperceptible rate. Its bowels loosen, its digestive system expunges any unwanted food from its stomach, it stops recognising those it once loved; a mercy killing becomes the only alternative. Our marriage is the same.
Shit is talked, verbal and emotional diarrhoea weakens to a point of numbness. Shoulders relax, no longer hunching to protect the heart and chest from advances that never come. Bodies lie mangled at separate sides of a king sized bed. A final resting place.
When I came in from the waves today, Mike was lying on the mat, face down, with a towel over his head.
“Give me a minute Jenny.”
“What? Are you ok?”
“Give me a minute, I can’t breathe.”
He sat up,
‘There is so much noise, all around.”
“It’s all right honey, it’s fine. Kids go and get some more water.”
“I could choke.”
His knuckles were white, his nails dug deep into his palms. I touched his forehead and he shrugged me off.
“Did you sleep with him?”
My legs crumpled.
“Did you Jenny, did you sleep with him?”
“No I didn’t.”
I didn’t need to ask who. The conversation we had on my 34th birthday, 3 weeks ago is fresh and acrid. A “drunken amnesty” we called it at the time.
“So birthday girl, what’s been happening? Any stories for me?”
I was nervous, knowing these mock games never end in sport.
“Stories? You know all my stories?”
“Do I? You’re looking great these days.”
He ruffled my hair.
“If that’s a compliment, I’ll take it.”
“You are still one of my favourite people.”
I laughed, stunned by the frank truth of what he had said. He continued,
“Do you ever wonder how it could have turned out differently? If we’d just shagged when we were 19, got it out of our system and moved on.”
I laughed with complete relief.
“Absolutely, every day.”
“Everyday? Steady on there wifey.”
“Do you think about other people?” I asked.
“Now I do.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We sat with our legs entwined, his hand on my thigh.
“I speak to Rachel sometimes on Facebook.”
“Rachel? From uni? Bet you she was pleased.”
“I know, she has a son now.”
“I’d get that.”
“Robert and I went to cinema while you were skiing.”
“Nothing has happened¦”
“Just a brief good night kiss.”
“A good night kiss with nowhere to go but home.”
Flashbacks of Robert’s smoky headiness still invade everything. His taste as he tugged on my lower lip with his teeth never leaves me. Memories of his tongue, his face, his back disrupt every moment. The way he put his arm around my shoulder as we walked to the car. He pulled me close and my stomach groaned. Insatiable desire. It hasn’t gone away. Mike’s hands leave me cold, his body does not crave me and we are locked in nothing more than an act of civic duty.
I have had thirteen years of vaginal imprisonment, I need lovers, I need love. On a daily basis, I rest my pen, an imaginary pistol in my mouth and see my brain explode all over the back of my chair. Living with Mike does this to me. I am critical, I need an emergency room, intubated, shocked to the core, rescued, taken away. I need to escape, run and never look back. I can’t leave my kids. I will take them with me, we could manage in a lockdown for a few weeks. If I have a breakdown of some kind, people will be more lenient when this marriage fails. Life is fucking misery. Medicate me, quick.
We are done.
There is no such thing as an amicable break up. It’s fucking painful and isolating. It’s agony, no beauty lies therein. If we were amicable we would still be together. We would have made it work. I don’t miss his face or his body in my bed, but I grieve. I grieve for what I thought I had. I grieve for the loss of hope that Mr and Mrs Michael and Jennifer Franklin could have been great. He had an interview last week, I tried to be nice,
“Do your best Mike.”
His eyes hardened,
“I mean, all the best.”
“They’ll take me as they find me.”
I had been given my orders to sell our family caravan. Three miles along the New Line, to a quiet sales yard,
“Jenny, drop off the van, take the money.”
Thirteen thousand pounds of Bailey, single axle caravan, decimated to a meagre six and a half thousand over a a seven year marriage. Our enchanted investment reduced to a depreciating financial asset on a solicitor’s spreadsheet. Others fight over children and pets, we spared our kids that trauma, thus the van became the pivot of our war.
The New Line is one of my favourite roads. It weaves past glassy dams, where fishermen sit for days. Tall trees stretch above, reaching like lovers in need of a delicate touch from opposite sides of the road. Early May, the van hulked behind my Freelander, swaying at corners and slowing me down. In the rear window, a fireball rested low in the sky, warming the cool waters of Belfast Lough. I heard my voice,
“I cant believe he let me go.”
I replayed the conversation a thousandth time; stop lying to yourself Jenny. The August twilight outside our window had streamed ugly ribbons of pink into the room. I shut the blinds and lay doubled over, struggling to breathe. Around the room, sat pictures of us in wetsuits, smiling in waves. The Great Pretenders, dead eyed, both of us, wanting to love the couple who stared back through the lens. Instead we were numbed, no hatred, no love, just running on empty. He began,
“Jenny, we have two options.”
I stared at the wall.
“We speak to a professional, or I leave.”
And with that, a wail broke free and I spoke,
“I am done, no more talking, no more effort. You leave. I’m sorry.”
And with that, it was over. He let me go. The relief was immediate. We cried for hours, fucked badly one last time and fell asleep.
I drove further along the road, imagining the conversation waiting for me at the yard with the salesman,
“Oh so, you’re going through with the sale then Jen?”
“Yes, for sure.”
“Good times though?”
“Yeah, for sure.”
“You’re looking for a new model?”
“No, just a quick sale.”
And then it hit me. This was wrong. Utterly wrong. This was my van and my chance to do what I wanted. As I approached the yard, I slowed the engine, took one look at the rows of camper-vans, touring caravans and statics, pressed my foot to floor and drove. I drove to the coast and climbed into the van. I lay on the cushions, staring at the sky, exactly where it had always been, just above my head. Heavy clouds rolled by and waves crashed against the cliffs.
“Jenny, where are you?”
“What? Did you get the money?”
“It’s not for sale”
“Jenny, we’ve been through this.”
“You’ve been through it.”
“It’s not yours to keep.”
“Have you got three grand?”
“To buy you out?”
“That’s how this works.”
“I’m glad you explained it.”
“Somethings just aren’t worth the effort Jen. Give it up.”
“Not a chance,” and with that I hung up and did the maths.
Yesterday I sat on the dunes, watching the ocean, imagining the eighth anniversary that never was. No pretence, no chest pain, just a quiet, residual disappointment. Barefoot, my shoulders burning in the sun, I watched our kids jump waves. Had Mike and I been together, we would have struggled to buy a card, knowing they were filled with truths for other people’s marriages.
People ask me do I tow the van myself? I am embarrassed by their own small mindedness. I have always navigated roundabouts and reversed into tight spaces. I am as proficient as any functioning male. This van is my coastal cottage, with the help of my financial adviser, I was always going to make this work.
Mike is due to visit us tomorrow, to spend a few gentle hours. He will cook our favourite chilli steaks and read bedtime stories. He will stay with friends along the road and perhaps in the morning after, he will return again and join us for a ramble through the dunes.
Tonight however, I lie alone. Beyond the perspex lies all I’ll ever need.
Hayley Ray is completing her MA in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast.
Hayley has been teaching English Literature for the past 13 years and is currently working on her first novel.