They don’t tell you about the silence. It’s the one thing you don’t see in the movies. The couples are always fighting. They are always screaming or crying, throwing their hands up in there, scrunching their faces up into horror masks. Glasses smash against walls.
But it’s really the silence.
It’s a house that it is too quiet. There are two people and it is silent. All the time.
It gets to the point where you’re afraid to make a sound. You place things down gently. You hide in rooms that now belong to you. You don’t go into her rooms. You time your movements around not having to run into her in the hallway.
When I need to piss I sit down on the toilet and aim my urine at the porcelain side. It’s quiet that way. I don’t flush. That way she won’t know.
When we are home at the same time I lay on the spare bed in the spare room and I stare at the ceiling. I know the ceiling with an intimacy that is unimaginable.
I guess she does the same thing. I guess she stares at something of her own. Her own ceiling maybe.
It’s like living with a ghost or becoming a ghost or both things at the same time. I guess it doesn’t matter.
It’s silent and the silence is thick and heavy and you can’t get away from it.
She’s in the other room. She’s in the other room and she’s hating me.
This is what it’s like right before it dies, I think.
This is what it’s like just as that last, long breath is being forced out of a tired chest.
"I see that there’s a need here to address the question of why, of what it is that impels me and so many of the writers around me to create stories even in the face of the worlds general indifference…Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art - the making of stories - is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again. There is an elemental power in a good short story, an awakening to something new and unexpected, whether it’s encountered on the page or from the lips of an actor in a darkened theatre where the words stand naked and take you all the way back to the first voice that ever resonated inside you."
— T.C. Boyle (2013)
Just before my wife gets home from work I hide beneath the spare bed in the spare room and wait in the dark. When I hear the front door opening and her footsteps in the hall I clutch at the carpet with my fingers and press my body into the floor.
Sometimes I think that, if I had the willpower, I’d be able to force myself through the cement and pipes, into the earth and find a place to rest there.
When she begins to call my name my heart beats faster. When she is calling me, when my name is echoing through the house, bouncing off the walls, I am praying to disappear. I am wishing to vanish. For an alien ship to suddenly appear above my house, all bright lights, and for it take me away from here.
Matt, she says, Matt?
Sometimes I fall asleep like that, clutching the carpet, praying for nonexistence.
It’s hard to explain, really. It’s hard to pinpoint.
It’s not something you can just sit down and work out, figure out where it went wrong, and then figure out how to fix things. You can’t bring it back or breathe life back into it. It’s gone now. It evaporated when you weren’t watching.
And now it’s hard to recall. Hard to bring it back into focus. It’s like – maybe it didn’t happen at all, maybe it wasn’t that way in the first place.
You have to work with me, she says, you have to try.
And I’m nodding my head and I’m nodding my head and there is this stupid grin on my face and my head is moving up and down. My head is attached to my neck and it’s bobbing away like crazy.
This can’t happen, she says.
But it has happened. She knows it, feels it in her bones. It’s there. It’s in the way she sits there staring at her fork for three whole minutes when we are having dinner. It’s in the way, when she talks to me, her eyes can’t hold onto my face for longer than a second or two. She is always looking to either side of my face, above or below it. She doesn’t want to lock on.
I make agreeable noises. I shrug and huff and blow air through my nostrils.
Why won’t you say anything, she says, why won’t you fucking say anything?
What’s to say, I ask her and she runs screaming from the room as though she has seen something, a blood splattered murderer, right here in the kitchen.
Part of me wants to go to her. Wants to sit down on the bed beside her and reach out with my hands and lay them on her. Part of me wants to put my forehead against her skin, to feel it burning there. But these things are locked up inside of me and if I take deep swallows of air, if I look up into the kitchen light, let it burn my eyes, I will bury it all. I will drive it all away.
Because I know if I go to her it will be a game. A role I am playing. Like everything else around here, there will be a script, and I will read it in all the right ways. My voice will contain the right amount of emotion. My tears will feel real. My touch will have the appearance of warmth. And for a while I will actually believe that there is forgiveness in the world.
She is talking and there tears and snot and makeup all mixed up on her face and she appears like a blur to me. Face like a smudged thumbprint. She is holding herself and her fingers are digging into her own skin.
And I am dreaming of the stars. Of other planets. I am dreaming of a cool sleek capsule tunnelling through the atmosphere towards unknown frontiers. I am dreaming of metal, cold to the touch. A place far from here. Somewhere untouched by dirty hands. Unscarred. Pure.
I am dreaming of ash rising up towards the sky. A tsunami of fucking dust rising up and rushing across the face of the earth. I am dreaming of buildings snatched up in the hands of angry gods. Little people falling. Sprinkling the earth like seeds. Arms waving. Mouths open air rushing in, filling their heads. I am dreaming of fire. Scorching. Blood flowing up from the gutters and washing everything away.
When my eyes wink open I do not know what I will see. I have no idea what will appear before me.
It happens so much you just switch it off, she said.
She was ninety three years old and he was standing over her in the bed, using the electronic control to raise her to his level. He’d asked her how she had hurt her hand in the time since he had last seen her, four days ago. She didn’t know.
After cleaning and dressing her, he fed her breakfast and held the sipper cup to her lips until she told him she’d had enough.
Thanks for helping me, she told him.
It’s okay, he said and then moved on to the next one.
Throughout the day it kept coming back to him – it happens so much you just switch it off, she said. She’d been talking about getting old, falling over, hurting yourself, not bothering to think about it anymore, not keeping track. But it felt like something more.
It felt like she’d explained something for him.
When had he stopped taking note, when he had begun to take it for granted, this feeling, when had it become just the way he was?
The wounded animal.
There was this memory that had been coming to him lately. His father crying. His father in tears, arms around him. I’m sorry, he said. I love you, he said.
And it bothered him that for days he’d been thinking of this memory and he’d been filled with this warm sadness. He had this one memory of his father that he could call good and it seemed to fix everything that had come and gone.
He thought – well at least there was that, at least there was that one time.
Then one night he was driving home from work and remembered something else. It was a dream he’d had a few years back. He’d woken with tears on his face, because of a dream where his father had loved him.
He remembered it well now. It was not long before his father was in the hospital and cancer was literally growing out of him, some kind of oozing fungus, and he’d dreamt that he was a teenager and his father was holding him.
It was a nice dream to have. But it was just a dream. And for a week he’d gone around thinking that it was something real. A memory that belonged to him. When it wasn’t anything at all
The realization hollowed him out and he got drunk and nothing could shake the feeling that he’d had some trick pulled on him. That he’d been played as a fool. A dream, he thought, a stupid fucking dream.
For a while he drove around the streets near his house. He didn’t want to go home. He wasn’t sure if she would be home or not, whether she would yell at him or throw things or what would happen really. And he didn’t want to face her with this hollowed out feeling in his sternum.
He’d been holding this one good thing close to him, pulling it tight against him, and now it was gone, and he didn’t know if he could take much more. Not of anything.
The bruises on his stomach, where she had kicked at him in a rage, were turning yellow now and he could feel them beneath his clothes. Stigmata. A marked person.
He drove by the house and saw the lights on. Every light in the house. Blazing out onto the front lawn. A lighthouse, he thought, warning him away. Here be dragons, he thought. For second, he closed his eyes. He held his breath. He could feel the road moving beneath him.
Something is happening, he thought. Something is about to happen.
I woke to the sound of her voice. She was somewhere in the hotel room, moving from room to room, chanting. Another language.
The air conditioning was up so high the skin on my face felt tight against my skull. A well fitted mask.
Outside the wind beat against the glass windows and the glass shook and I wondered how this had happened. How we had come to be here. How we had reached this point.
What had brought us here?
There was always a tremor in her voice. Always the way she bit her lip as though trying to keep something contained. Always the feeling that I was about to be hurt in some way.
I was always scared of her.
Scared she had stopped loving me. That I had driven her away just through my existence. That each breath I took was like a hurricane blowing her away from me.
There was a way she looked at me now. Something that hid just beneath her skin. Scales lurking there. A cold thing, half dead, hating.
You did this to me, she always seemed to be saying.
And I was always looking for a way to please her. To bring something back to her, that she had lost, and that maybe I had taken. I was always ready to fall before her, begging her, wanting her touch. Just once more.
To see her once more. The way it was before the darkness swept down and poisoned her, poisoned everything around us. The air wet with it. Dripping with poison spores. Each breath a step closer to nothing.
Always my heart caught in my throat. A throb behind my right eye. A feeling in my chest like something huge and slippery has taken hold of my innards and begun to squeeze. Always the terror, the stark raving mad terror that I have failed in every way. Always the no going back. Always the dream where her eyes are all black and her teeth are sharpened down spear heads, dripping blood. Always the night her smile caught me for the first time. Always the way I let her down. The ways I drove something, a wedge, a cold sacrificial knife, between us. Always the air freezing. Always the wind and the glass shaking. Always the sense that something is ending. That everything is coming apart at the seams. That this is never going to end.
That it will go on forever. Unending. A river of nothing rushing towards the horizon.
There is a disease here. Something in my head. A worm, maybe, chewing me up from the inside.
I’m afraid today. The world might be ending, I think. There seems to be something about the day, a wrongness I can’t quite put my finger on. Any minute now smoke will start rising in the distance, a thick haze over the city.
I won’t have the strength to welcome it.
I might beg. I might fall to my knees and ask someone to save me. A saviour. Someone holy. I might say - forgive me, forgive me, forgive.
And I will not be forgiven. I will not be saved. There will be smoke on the horizon and buildings will begin to crumble. The earth will quake and I will quake with it.
I will heave and an ocean of sadness will stream from my mouth. A disgusting mist.
There will be no absolution and no peace.
I will reach out for her in the night and there will be nothing there. Only a sense that I am paying for something.
For a long time I’d experienced a sense that I was disintegrating. That little parts of my body were breaking way and floating up into the atmosphere.
I wondered how long it would be before I was gone altogether. Before I became so insubstantial that I simply drifted upwards, untethered, and the wind finished the job, scattering me.
Sometimes, when my wife looked at me there was this expression of confusion that she had, this look of – who is that? And I knew that she saw it too, the way I was disappearing, drifting off. More and more she slept in the spare room with our son snuggled into her breasts and when I came stumbling through the bedroom door I would just fall face first onto the mattress and let blackness swallow me.
I don’t understand it, she said, I don’t understand what is happening with you.
I shrugged. Shook my head. Glared at her with swollen, red eyes.
I slammed doors. I pulled at my hair.
I wept in the toilet, pants around my ankles, my face in my hands, fingers pressing deep into my skin.
I tried to remember something good. A good time. How it felt to be happy.
But the happiness was gone and I doubted its existence in the first place.
I wondered how a life came to be this way. A long stretch of emptiness with not much in between. Who came up with this shit, I wondered, who’s to blame?
I had a notion that something was waiting for me. Down the next turn I’d find what I was looking for. An early exit. The tires sliding on loose gravel. The headlights swerving. On my back, the sky a million miles away, bearing down me. The stars, accusing eyes.
Not long after I left my wife and son and drove eight hours to stand on a beach I’d played on as a boy, I woke with the certainty that everything in the world was coming to an end. It was one of those hangovers that leave you sweating beneath the sheets, teeth chattering, eyes ready to pop from your skull.
It was still night time and I could hear traffic passing the motel where I’d taken up residence and I was sure that if I pulled the curtains back something terrifying would be revealed. I didn’t know what exactly, but nothing could get me out of the bed. Nothing could make me look.
From time to time I’d fallen into the kind of sleep that lasts only a minute or so and then your awake, jerking up from the mattress, sure that you’re falling.
I knew that dawn would be coming soon. The sun would rise and I would know that my fears were unfounded. But this knowledge did not make me feel any better and I hid myself beneath the blanket and waited for the end.
I can’t tell you what I expected to happen the first time I held my son. If I expected to be overwhelmed with the kind of intense emotion you see in the movie – the father cradling the new born to his chest and crying. That kind of thing.
But all there was an overwhelming sense that I was holding on to something that didn’t belong to me. Something that did not come from me. Shared nothing of what I was.
His little pink face, screwed up and screaming, was unrecognizable to me.
I knew I would never love him.
I knew he would never belong to me.
There were these dreams where an angry figure stood in shadowed doorways, ready to charge, all rage and venom. I’d wake and my son would be crying in the back room and heard my wife whispering loving words and all I could do was barely contain a shudder.
It’d been a week since I’d packed up the car and crushed my phone against the wall in a public toilet with giant dicks drawn on the lime green walls. I felt like I had made a decision that could not be taken back. I’d committed to a new course in life.
At night I drank beer by the open window and listened to the ocean across the road.
I worried about the kind of man I was. I worried that I was not the kind of man I’d aimed to be. That I was actually someone else altogether.
I remembered how, as a boy, I’d been certain that my father hadn’t loved me. It was a fear that followed me well into my early teens, until it suddenly became something that I didn’t think about anymore. It was something that I accepted.
One of those things you knew deep in your heart and realize that there’s nothing you can do about. An unchangeable thing. Made out of stone.
I thought about it now. That lonely feeling.
I remembered it and tried to convince myself that that was why I was here. That I was sparing my son some of what my life had been. But I was only trying to give honour to an act that had no honour about it and never would.
The truth was clear to me. Had always been, really.
I’d never had anything of worth to give to someone else. I could try and summon it up, but after a while it was exhausting and I knew there was nothing there and never would be. A fundamental flaw in my character. An essential part I was lacking.
And each time I looked at my son or heard him cry or anything it was that flaw I felt. The knowledge of who I was would come back to me and I couldn’t bear it anymore.
At night the ocean is a soundtrack and I remember how as boy I ran across the sand and the sun hot on my tanned skin. I remember my father striding out of the waves, sea water running down his body, the way he looked then, stunning in the sun.
My mother’s sad eyes hidden behind wide brimmed hat and dark glasses.
Sarah told him that everything would be all right. Sarah told him it would be fine. She said this pill will make you happy. This pill will make up for all the things you lost.
She actually said that.
Or something like that. He couldn’t remember it properly now.
She was beautiful though. That much was true. In the pictures he had of her, draped over furniture, draped over him, skinny and white, she was beautiful. She smiled like most girls wanted to smile. All life.
With pictures you could make up stories. You could place them one after another and forget the real time line. You could put smile after smile and forget all the rest of it.
You could forget her bleeding thighs and arms the way she screamed at you. You could just hold that picture of her smiling and say – Sarah had the most beautiful smile.
And that would be true.
Because Sarah had the most beautiful smile. When they said someone lit up the room they were talking about Sarah. She lit up a room. An inferno. She burnt people around her. She had so many scars they were contagious.
He loved her.
I loved her.
Who is going to take this away from me? Who is going to remove this from me?
She was standing there. She was there for a moment.
And when he took her body from the tub he held her for a long time. The water was cold already. The pink water drenched him. And he shivered. His shivers might have healed her. In another world that might have worked.
He carried her to the bed and laid her down. He cleaned her. He cleaned her as though he were a murderer cleaning a victim. He called the paramedics and he held a purple hand.
It was summer. The room was cold. He pressed his face against her stomach.
He imagined he could push the warmth from his body into hers. He imagined that life was interchangeable.
He waited. There was something in the air. A hesitation. She was about to say something. Tell him something. He could feel her nerves vibrating.
She’d once told him he was great. He was the best thing ever. The best guy she’d ever met. Everything she wanted.
But the way she looked at him now – he’d made some big mistakes. He’d failed. He’d let her down in every way possible.
The way she’d looked at him then. The way she’d tasted. It was so sour now.
You couldn’t go back, he realised that now. It was too late. For anything. She’d said he was great.
She used to say he was great.
There was this one night, at the bar, people dancing, the way she moved against him. The way he watched her move against that guy. The way it made him feel. The way he decided to be hard. So hard she wouldn’t crack him.
She wouldn’t make him shake. Not now. Not ever, baby.
It almost killed him. The stone face.
Why can’t you love me, she said.
He wanted to tell her he stopped a long time back, in that bar, that place, Waylon on the jukebox. Her face against his chest.
You were never there, she said.
You were never available, she said.
You gave up, she said.
He didn’t know how blue he’d get, how sad he’d become, how lost in it he’d become. How the bullshit would take him over. How he would look at her and feel like vomiting. Heart in mouth. The dream of something good coming up in his lungs.
Her heart throttled him.
He remembered. Driving home. The expectation. That feeling you were supposed to get coming to the door. The joy. The way you were supposed to feel . The way you were supposed to love her.
And you open the door. The ways you failed. The ways you let her down. The crimes you committed. Just being alive. Just having that look on your face.
The person you were. A joke. A nothing person.
I won’t let you down, he’d told her.
I won’t, he said.
And he remembered the feel of it, her breath in his hair, that desperate feeling, that love, the greatness, the big man in town, the only one. The everything.