There was just something so seductive about it, the boundaries clearly set by the duration of the journey, the physical space of the car itself. Argued was too strong a word, to be fair. We snarked rather than snarled, you could say. Close to thirty years of marriage gave every argument a recycled feel. Even when the words were different, there was a stale tenor to the thing. As for their methods? Calling her parents? What purpose does it serve to infantilise her, other than to shame her into leaving?
Bourgeois notions: tick. What purpose does it serve: tick.
Honestly, stale or not, it was almost nice. It had been a long time since we had a common enemy. Ro arriving in a temper was precisely the wrong kind of distraction. On we drove, the car cosily sucking in our venom and releasing it through the air vents. The windows made the most of the weak spring sunshine for us and I raised my face up to catch what little there was.
Despite my reminders, Ro had left his sunglasses at home.
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I felt sorry for him, the way his squint amplified his wrinkles. To compensate, I unwrapped his barley sugar sweet before my own. The last trip we took together was several months earlier, when we went to the funeral of some once-was friend of his. In the church, one of his sons walked to the altar carrying the canvas the man had been working on.
It shook Ro badly enough that he pulled into a layby on the way home for a quick tumble in the back seat. That would put meat on her bones. For all we know she just got out of the habit of eating regularly. She loves her work, always has done. She probably got caught up in it and forgot the world around her. Living alone, too, with nobody to check up on her. I found it hard to tell if it was the prospect of Em lost in her version of a creative burst that pleased him, or whether it was the idea that everything could be fixed with a few square meals in her childhood home.
Why the face? This is my fault, too, is it? Because when the muse calls I have to follow her, you know that.
That was it for conversation until we arrived at the warren of roads around the university. At every junction, it seemed, young people moved in great pulsing groups. The student body, literally, as it were.
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A vibration of college students. I tried to imagine Em amongst them, laughing and joking with a group of friends but try as I might she remained stubbornly in the artificial light of her lab. A nervous parker took the last space on the street, lining up and carefully missing several times. At the car park entrance, I fished coins from the cup-holder and handed them to him. He accepted them with poor grace, revving the engine as the barrier lifted to let us in. Who was I fooling? She was the child who stood mute no matter the accusation.
Entire teenage summers were peppered with stand-offs over petty infringements. Yet here I was, hoping that she would throw herself and her explanations at our feet?
Call it optimism. Call it revisionism. Intent was the only difference between a wish and a lie.
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We waited at the door of the student centre, our awkwardness manifesting in the inability to simply stand still. Ro knocked his heel against the wall behind him while my body engaged itself in a thousand little twitches, filling a micro-second at a time. Ro saw her before I did, coming, as she was, from somewhere behind my left shoulder.
Her eyes were bright and lively. I was reminded, suddenly, of the souvenir she brought back from a school tour to Ailwee Cave, a keyring with a dangling skeleton, its limbs gorgeously articulated and ruby-red stones twinkling from the eye sockets. I opened the back door for her, took her bag, stopped just short of buckling her seat belt for her. On that point, at least, we seemed to be in wordless agreement. Em gave the impression of being too tired to talk, and every time I glanced at the wing mirror under the guise of admiring a garden, or a stone wall, or a threadbare donkey in a field, she had the look of someone who was somewhere else.
Away with the fairies, I would have said, the wee folk that had scared her so badly as a child. Some tomfool uncle had told her the old piseogs about changelings, the babies taken by fairies in the night and replaced by identical, bad-tempered versions. For weeks she woke in the mornings with dark rings around her eyes. I blamed nightmares until I fell asleep on the floor outside her room one night and discovered she had set her alarm clock to go off every hour so that she could wake and check she was still herself.
The mirror showed her hands in her lap, silent until now, begin to twist and hide in the folds of her jumper. Did I say already that the journey took hours? Afterwards, I pictured the three of us rigid in our seats, like an old video tape on pause, only the occasional flicker of life between us.
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The distance, the rigidity, left me stiff as a board. My body held its memory for days, an ache in my eyes from cutting them sideways at the mirror, and a drag in my lower back where I twisted sideways in the seat to watch her after she fell asleep. The air itself had a kind of pre-used warmth, the kind you get when you lie face-to-face with someone else. I told myself it was winter boxing us in and went around the house throwing windows open with all the vigour of a Scandinavian.
As a tiny newborn, every atom of every room had been altered by her presence. Now, her routine was once again the pin on which the house turned. There was no time for resentment, we were too busy for all that. Once or twice, granted, the radio caught a slap from the heel of my hand when I turned it on looking for company only to find yet another segment on diet and lifestyle, another version of calories-in, calories-out.
It was early enough in the year that women were still keen to hear that their needs were unseemly. Em came to us with a food and exercise plan that had been carefully calibrated by her doctor.
The instruction manual I had wished for as a new parent. The plan filled in many of the gaps Em herself had failed to explain to us. Breakfast in bed at eight. Shower with the door unlocked. Free time. Lunch, another careful calibration of nutritious atoms. Gentle exercise of no more than fifteen minutes. Family dinner. Social time.
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Dr Coleman, to whom Em had been referred by the university health service, suggested a chart to keep it all together. I went one better and bought a magnetic wipe-board, peeling off the little sticky tabs and placing it on the fridge with a pinch. Em moved like a ghost. Every room I entered gave the impression that she had just left. I lay in bed at night and wondered if I had dreamt her return.
If, perhaps, she had died, something sudden that my mind simply refused to recognise; if, perhaps, I had never had her at all but was a childless fortysomething with too much time on her hands. I stood outside her bedroom door in the dead of night, entertaining the notion of creeping in and reassuring myself by watching her sleep. Always assuming the bird-light bones of her chest and ribcage would move the sheets perceptibly, of course. So passed the nights. Mornings brought the need to poach the perfect egg at seven forty-five on the button, reality riding the coat-tails of that most prosaic and exacting of tasks.
Some sort of funhouse mirror effect that turned me inside out so that I Mary Poppinsed my way around the room, a blithering parody of myself, tweaking and straightening things that were perfectly fine as they were. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I was a sheep, bleating non-stop without ever saying anything of substance. I saved my finest for Sundays, setting the tray with crisp linens and delicate stemware, as if the fatted calf were a foregone conclusion.
Motherhood at its most ostrich-like. Mondays, needless to say, were the acceptable black hole of gloom they were the world over.