I was looking over my older stuff this afternoon, because sometimes I procrastinate that way since it makes me feel vaguely productive, and I came across a story I'd originally written in 1997. I realized while I was reading it that it fit the theme really well--or at least the repetition aspect of 'once more with feeling', which was how I had been planning on interpreting the theme anyway.
I ended up taking out an entire dream/fantasy sequence thing that I was sure worked brilliantly when I was (Christ, how old was I in 1997? twenty-five, yeah. Though come to think of it I'm sure I actually wrote that when I was twenty, because I was at McMaster and not the University of Toronto).
So, I thought the dream sequence thing worked brilliantly when I was twenty, but realized when I was reading it again that it actually comes out of nowhere for an unfortunate WTF? aspect. So I aced it, which might not make the story any more clear or less opaquely subtle (hey, I was young, at university and living in Canada at that point; I doubt my stuff could have been more Canadian unless I was writing autobiographical pieces about a world war).
Anyway, this I suppose is as good a place as any to admit that I've been more-or-less obsessed with (fictional! metaphorical!) drowning since I was twenty, at least. This might actually be the first example of that. As far as I'm concerned the title relates directly to the story, but then again I'm an opaquely subtle Canadian. It might just be confusing as hell.
And here is the obligatory link to brigits_flame.
He's late again, and she is wondering why she continues to stay up to wait for him. It's been dark for hours, she has better things to do.
They live together in an apartment near the university. It is an old place, not very well-kept by the landlord. The other evening she found a cockroach dying in the refrigerator; she is constantly having to deal with such things. From where she is now, sitting in the livingroom with the afghan around her legs, she has an excellent view of the kitchen and the dishes in the sink waiting to be cleaned. That is his job, of course, but she knows that she will be the one to do it and accepts this as she accepts all his other shortcomings: he doesn't pick up after himself much, he doesn't always listen to her, he stays out too late.
She sighs and picks up the book again, but leaves it unopened on her legs, looking at the front. A History of Modern Warfare: from Korea to The Gulf. There is a soldier on the cover, in sharp black and white, like he was cut into the background. There is some kind of large gun slung across his shoulders. The soldier is trying to smile. He looks maybe seventeen.
She drops the book back down to the floor, somehow disgusted at the forced casualness of the soldier's pose, the way the buildings lurk in the background. She has barely managed to read half of it. She looks at her watch: 11:45, then pulls her palm down over her face, massages the bridge of her nose. She would like to be sleeping, but he isn't back yet. He would keep her awake anyway, he has never learned how to be quiet.
The cat is on the couch back, purring in soft thrums just above her right shoulder. She pets it gently, not wanting to wake it up, and it leans comfortably into her touch. That pleases her, but her smile fades the instant she turns towards the windows. They are clouded with dust, but with the darkness outside they reflect her face with almost perfect clarity. There are streaks of rain on the glass, illuminated by the faint, suffused brilliance of a street light. She can hear traffic. His leather school jacket is still over the back of the wide brown chair where he left it yesterday. If he's not wearing his woolen coat he'll probably catch cold. She looks at her watch again. 11:51.
By 12:15 she is standing at the window, wondering if he is coming up the street and she just can't see him. She considers turning off the lights, to let her see better. The cat has woken, and is now playing with something in the kitchen. She can hear it skitter across the floor.
The apartment feels too big. She doesn't like it. She turns away from the window, not wanting to have her back to the room. Never sit with your back to a door. She read that somewhere, one of his science-fiction books. It's Wednesday, and he's probably out drinking. In fact she's certain that's what he's doing; that's the only reason he ever goes out. She can't remember if she heard the car start up when he left that evening, and finding out whether he took it will mean either a furtive search for the keys or an excursion outside. She wants to do neither.
If he is drunk, and he drives home, she'll leave him. They've already had a fight about that. He insisted he was sober enough and she screamed at him until he relented. He sat in the passenger seat in blood-red silence until they got home. Later he actually cried, saying over and over again how terrible he was to her, how he didn't deserve her. His tears had smelled like whatever it was he'd been drinking. He had been terribly pale and she had made him sleep on his stomach, to make certain he wouldn't vomit in his sleep and drown.
She thinks about him dead sometimes. Like she hadn't bothered to turn him over and he had actually drowned himself during the night. She would wake up and feel him cold beside her, he would be as pale as milk, his mouth open and still smelling of alcohol. Maybe his hands would be clenched. she has no idea how people look when they drown. He would probably look just like he was sleeping, except nothing would move and she would never be able to wake him.
She imagines herself walking calmly out of the room, down the stairs and calling the police, though there would be no emergency since there would be nothing they could do anymore. But you have to call the police. Deaths have to be reported.
She would cry after that, she thinks. She imagines the phone slipping through her fingers, crashing to the wooden table-top. She would sink to the floor and sob, shaking. Or maybe not. Maybe she would be distant and calm until after the funeral. She doesn't know how she would react. She has never known anyone who died.
She imagines that he could be dead at this very instant, maybe he tried to drive home again and smashed into a guardrail, or drove the wrong way down a highway. Anything is possible. She wouldn't hear about it until the police called her, asking her to identify or claim the body or whatever it is they do. They might not call her, of course, so he would just be missing until she heard about the crash on the news.
She draws the curtains and goes back to sit on the couch. The book is still on the floor. The soldier glares up at her with his white face, looking somehow both resigned and accusing. She turns the book over. The cat walks into the room to see what she is doing, and she picks it up and puts it on her lap. She lies back and closes her eyes, wanting to sleep but knowing she won't while she's waiting for the doorbell to ring.
She only knows she fell asleep when the doorbell screams at her. It takes her a moment to fully realize where she is. She gently dislodges the cat and pulls herself slowly to her feet. She shuffles to the door, yawning. The door unlocks and she has to move away quickly so he doesn't hit her as he is half leaning on it. He is as pale as milk, except for a dark bruise like a stain under one eye.
To his credit he doesn't try to kiss her, but instead lays his arms heavily on her shoulders, leaning his head towards hers, as if trying to share some conspiracy.
"I'm fucked up. I am so fucked up." He says in a barely decipherable slur. His hair is glistening wet and he has apparently left his coat at home. His arms feel like blocks of ice. His entire being reeks of vodka and beer. At one time she had found the wheat smell of it pleasant. "I didn't take the car," he continues, as she tries to lead him into the apartment. He seems content not to move. "Christ, I'm so fucked. I didn't take the car."
"That's good," she says. "I'm glad you didn't. Come on, you're freezing. Let me dry you off." He pulls away from her suddenly, knocking himself off-balance so that he falls back against the door. It shuts with a slam.
"No. I'm fine. 'S'okay." He steadies himself and shuffles towards the centre of the room, trying to pull his sweater off over his head. She goes to help him but he walks past her. He trips and slips to his knees beside the couch, with his sweater still halfway over his head. He leans against the couch and she can hear the loud groaning sound as it slides away from his weight.
She manages to help him get the sweater off finally. His body is clammy and marble-white underneath it. She can see the blue veins, like wires under his skin. He falls against her with the force of her pulling, so that when the sweater is at last off him his head is resting against her abdomen. He giggles, reaching blindly towards her hips, but she steps back and his arms drop ape-like to the floor. He stops moving, his head down.
"Come on," she says. "Get up."
He nods but makes no move to do so. Sighing, she turns away and puts the sweater right-side out. There is blood on the sleeve. Her eyes drop to her right hip. There is blood on that, too.
"What did you do to yourself?" She drops the sweater onto the couch and grabs at his left arm, pulling until he's forced to stand. There is a cut on his hand, just under the palm, not too deep but bleeding freely. Her heart squeezes with a sudden jab of panic.
"What?" he asks. He stares at his hand stupidly, blinking.
"Your hand," she says, angry. "Your eye. What happened? Did you get into a fight?"
He laughs. "Yeah," he says, "No. I don't know. I guess so. Maybe..." He leans against her: "Did I ever tell you how beautiful you are?"
"Come on," she says. "We need to get upstairs. I have to clean that."
He shakes his head violently, almost losing his balance again. "No. I'll do it. No prob." He lurches past her, yanking his arm out of her grip when she tries to support him.
She stays where she is, hearing the beats of his halting progress upstairs. She starts breathing again when she doesn't hear the crash that would mean he's fallen.
He's knocked the toothpaste tube and her hair brush onto the bathroom floor by the time she arrives, but has managed to turn on the cold water and is holding his damaged hand under it. The blood continues to pool from the wound, swelling then washing away with the stream. When he pulls it out the bleeding has lessened, and he allows her to wrap gauze around it and hold the bandage in place with a band-aid.
"You must be tired," she says.
He nods, heavy-eyed. "Yeah."
He hits the door-frame as they enter the bedroom, but refuses to take her hand to cross the floor to the low bed. He lies down slowly, rolling onto his back and flinging an arm over his eyes.
"I just need sleep," he mumbles. "I'll be fine."
He makes no protest as she takes off his shoes and socks; they are all soaking. His jeans are equally wet, but she knows she won't be able to get them off him without his help. She hopes they'll dry as he sleeps.
She goes back to the doorway and turns off the light, then stands looking at him, the shadows his arm makes on the wall behind him in the light from the hallway behind her. She watches carefully, making sure his breathing is deep and even. She has done this enough times that she knows exactly when he falls asleep. She doesn't have to wait long.
Then she gently rolls him over, making sure not to wake him. She ends by tucking his hand under the side of his face, making sure there's a proper tilt to his head. This way if he vomits in his sleep it will run out of his mouth instead of flowing back into his lungs.
When she is satisfied that he's safe she goes out to the hallway and turns out the light. She makes her way back lightly into the room and undresses, finding her nightgown by feel. Then she eases down onto the bed and pulls up the comforter. She moves in close beside him, to keep him warm.