Every time she woke, she felt she had lost something. The confusion was numbing. She would hold her breath, hold her muscles completely still, containing the panic. Then she would remember. It was not so much remembering as realising she had known all along. It was like waking in a bath and realising you were submerged in water. She remembered herself.
But there was still always something missing. A corner puzzle piece, it seemed small and vital. And it would drop slowly, becoming larger and larger as it loomed above her, and then she knew. It was catastrophic. She was not nineteen anymore. She was sleeping in a strange bed. She was a stranger.
A jolt of fear electrifies her; she realises there is someone in the bed beside her. The sunlight streaming from a gap in the curtains plays on the peaks and troughs of his shape under the covers. His body is angled away from her but his head is turned in her direction, his dark curls splaying out on the pillow. The unfamiliar eyelids suddenly fly open and he looks straight at her with unfathomable eyes. She leaps in fright and confusion from the bed.
The past few days, or weeks, are present in her mind but are clouded, foggy. The man in the bed is unfamiliar but she knows she has been sharing this bed with him for some time now. A vacuum of forgotten years yawns behind her. This man fits in somewhere amongst these lost years, like a piece of a long lost jigsaw puzzle extricated from a crack in the couch. For a moment, they look at each other uneasily, she and this man-shaped puzzle piece.
She sits, turning her back on him. A full length mirror mocks her from across the room. She ignores it. She sit on the big white bed and stares at the carpet. She follows its green pattern from swirl to swirl, her eye moving with the shapes across the floor. She tries not to think about this big double bed and what has happened in it, what it means. She tries not to look at the unfamiliar objects. Her things, her objects.
With some reluctance, she begins to look around. She stands up and takes in the room; the green curtains; the floor-to-ceiling built-in wardrobe. She wants to look at the clothes in it, but she is afraid. Instead, she turns and studies the bed again, studiously avoiding meeting her husband’s gaze. Her side is the left side; female objects clutter the bedside table. Nail scissors, moisturiser, a half-used packet of the Pill. The damages foil spaces of the popped pills speak to her of loss. She picks up a lipstick and inspects its garish shade with scientific interest.
A sudden noise startles her; he is rising from the bed and is pacing across the room, pulling open the wardrobe door. He starts to pull on clothes furtively, hiding his naked body from her. Are you late for work? It’s an innocent question, but he stops and stares at her. No, he replies slowly. I work from home.
There is a silence more weighted than the situation seems to call for. They stare at each other like cats, wary and thoughtful. Then he straightens, and leaves the room. The front door slams.
She was as alien to him as he was to her. He would wake some mornings before her and lie awake trying to figure out her profile. The curve of her ear seemed more complicated than he remembered; her shoulders were confusing. Her shorn hair was the only part of her that made any sense. It at least acknowledged the change, the difference.
Unwilling to face the realities of the day, he lies now with his eyes closed. He knows she is awake; he can feel the tension emanating from her taut, still form. He wants to avoid this moment of truth, to wait on the sidelines until she has found some equilibrium or coping mechanism, but his curiosity gets the better of him. He opens his eyes to find her watching him with an expression of fascinated horror on her features.
The panic, the leaping from the bed, is all familiar. This has become a ritual, a routine, a grotesque repetition. She moves visibly back and forth from incomprehension to understanding, and he finds himself hoping, as comprehension settles visibly on her face, that she has remembered him.
It is not that their life had been perfect, before. He watches her now, sitting herself carefully back down on the bed and staring fixedly at the floor, and tries to feel as he had then. Some days she had felt like an extension of himself; almost as though he had invented her perfection. He had once lain entwined with her at night, his face pressed into her thick auburn hair; and the line between me and her blurred and vanished.
But at other times she had been alien, impenetrable. One day, she had come home in the evening with her hair cut short around her ears. He never forgot that day, the sense of loss and bewilderment and the tears he struggled to hold back. And on cloudy, cheerless mornings, he had often found himself thinking that although there was nothing wrong about their relationship, there was nothing right about it either.
He has lost her now. But the suddenness, the whole and complete nature of his loss, is paralysing. To let go might be easy but his fingers are locked tight. He feels as though he is teetering at the edge of a steep drop, clutching to a cliff-edge with his toes. She is looking around the room now, studying the objects on the bedside table. With a sort of careful but detached interest, she picks up a lipstick and studies it with a vacant expression on her face. He feels a sudden but violent urge to wrench it from her hands and fling it away.
The drop yawns below him and suddenly he needs its escape. He pulls on clothes like protective armour, but her voice breaks through it. Are you late for work? The question is like a blow. He looks at her again but cannot find her in her own face. They are strangers pretending intimacy.
He takes a deep breath and jumps.
Published in The Bell, 2012 – UCD English & Literary Society (University College Dublin)