Title: "The Cutting Edge"
Summary: A life that's falling apart is twice as hard to pull together when you don't know if you really want to. A pre-Epilogue tag to 'A Boy and His Horse'; Michael-centric. [inexplicit HET and SLASH]
A/N: The story takes place in a non-specific country; any similarities to actual places and/or persons are purely coincidental.
THE CUTTING EDGE
Michael is twenty-two when his first wisdom tooth starts growing. It begins with dull pain in his lower jaw that ultimately inflames his entire mouth and echoes in his left ear, a constant pulsing discomfort that can be zapped temporarily by taking painkillers – but then it begins anew, driving him mad.
He mistakes it for cavities at first. Even fights off his fear of doctors and visits a dentist, only to be told it's a natural process that can take – surprise! – up to two years.
After the examination, he finds himself standing in the clinic lavatory, smiling maniacally at his reflection in the mirror. His teeth are even and properly whitish, except the very tips seem somehow transparent and there are traces of a yellowish plaque near the gum line. Too much coffee and alcohol, too little dental floss. Or whatever. He has already been told he does the whole dental care thing wrong. Well. As long as they don't fall out…
He opens his mouth wide, cocks his head, trying to fit it up to the sparse lighting. He needs to see the bugger that makes his head buzz all the time.
His gum blisters with slight swelling; aside from that, there are no hints that something ripens treacherously beneath all that tissue. He feels it with the pad of his finger, applies slight pressure, sending a jolt of ache throughout the gum. He laughs curtly.
On the way out, typical clinical smells assault him. He can hear the drill whirring in one of the surgeries, a shrill nightmarish sound, the scourge of everyone's fretful childhood. It sickens him. He buries his nose at the bend of his elbow, taking a deep breath with a taste of cigarette smoke and dry-cleaner's, and flings himself outside through the massive revolving doors. The teeth in his mouth suddenly feel sharp and jagged; he swipes his tongue nervously over them, trying to lick that sensation off, a tiny fountain of ache rising and falling every time he hits the future wisdom tooth.
Wisdom, sure. Who the hell came up with such a ridiculous name?
Michael drives home, clutching the steering wheel in the state of spasmodic vehemence. He is way past the speed limit. The tie feels like a noose around his neck. He tries to loosen it and scrapes his fingers over the knot in vain.
"Bloody fucking hell," he swears under his breath.
There is this irritating, ever-present smell of roses at home. Bouquets everywhere, as if the caterers have plundered the fucking Rose Valley. But even that cannot drown out the sanitary tang of washing detergent that clings to the parquet floors.
Mother is in the living room, slim and athletic, with a pale blonde chignon, and she watches him with apprehensive cornflower blue eyes. There is a reception at the manor today; she wants him to be there – and to behave. He smiles pleasantly and wonders if she understands that there is nothing behind that smile. He will come of course; it's not like he has other plans.
He tears the bloody tie off and tosses it on the floor. Kicks off the shoes. Stretches out on the bed. Tries to read a magazine about cars. It's posh to be fascinated with classy automobiles, it's prestigious to know much about their characteristics and the market. Michael drives quite a presentable model; under different circumstances he could even come to enjoy it, but at every reception, when forced to pick it apart just to embellish himself, he quietly loathes it as he loathes every element of his current lifestyle.
"It's just after 5am somewhere," he murmurs under his breath. Glances at the alarm clock. A quarter to six. In the afternoon. "And if I cut a box in half–," he half-snorts, half-sobs, "that doesn't make things magical. No, it fucking doesn't."
There is no such thing as magic.
He cannot stop staring at her bright-pink eyelids as they flutter rapidly like butterflies. She looks a bit like Lily Allen, small and dark-haired, and he likes her, though he isn't sure he likes anyone these days.
She tells him her name is Col, which means "cabbage" in Spanish. Maybe she's joking. He tells her he hates Spanish. She laughs.
There are strange noises coming from the bedroom in her apartment.
"Never mind," she says as she hands him a glass of some cheap whiskey. "It's the kid."
Michael cranes out his neck, trying to peek behind the half-shut door. "Your brother?"
"Are you married?"
She chuckles. "Do I look married?"
Not really, no. She looks like someone who got knocked up as a teenager and was rendered a single mother because neither abortion, nor adoption were among the options for some questionable, possibly altruistic reason.
She stands on her tiptoes, palms flat against his chest, and plants a chaste kiss in the corner of his mouth.
"Are we gonna fuck or what?"
Her fingernails are painted metallic green. He wonders why she brought him home where the kid is; they could have effectively done the same in some backwater alley.
"Do I have to pay?" he asks, feeling stupid.
She ebbs back, looking angry. The dimples on her cheeks grow deeper.
"Who do you take me for?"
He can hardly answer this question. He doesn't even know who he takes himself for. He takes a step towards her and takes her by the elbows. Pulls her closer. The difference in their height begins to annoy him: she is probably shorter than him by full twenty centimetres. He makes her withdraw to the kitchen table and seats her on it. He positions himself between her legs and kisses her full on the mouth, while his fingers find their way beneath her skirt. He wonders what will happen if the child in the other room wakes up and gets thirsty.
His eyes hurt. He shuts them, and everything she is, is momentarily lost on him. She is reduced to the lilt of soft, throaty moans that match the poetic virus in his system. Fragments of half-forgotten lines dance in his head.
He wanted her because she mentioned she used to be an actress. Some kind of a student theatre. He wondered if she played Juliet or Nina Zarechnaya or any of the quirky, idiosyncratic females that burst from theatre to theatre like a storm wave. He could see her try, but he couldn't imagine her succeed. Whether it was the lack of faith in his imagination, or the lack of faith in her, someone he didn't even know, he couldn't yet decide.
He almost calls her by another name in the end. Hers is short and snappy; it only takes one gasp. He needs something he can stretch, exhale in stale passion mingled with sweet nostalgic sorrow.
She opens her eyes a fraction. She claws at his back – her fingers freeze for a second. She twists her mouth in a semblance of a smile. It makes him feel even queasier than he already does.
"Who was she?" Col asks afterwards. "That Laia girl."
"Just a fuck-buddy."
His directness doesn't seem to sway her.
"You don't do that with fuck-buddies," she reprimands almost affectionately. "You don't moan their names when you come. At least not when you're doing someone else."
"She was real great."
He asks permission to use her bathroom. Opens the tap and scrubs his hands clean under the jet of hot water. Cannot bear the smell, though it's everywhere now. But he wants it off his hands at least.
"Can I see you again?" he asks and adds hastily for fear of her getting the wrong impression: "Not because–. I just–."
"Sure, why not," she agrees matter-of-factly.
There are surveillance cameras all over the house. Father is paranoid. Michael doesn't remember if they have always been there, but he likes making faces at them and swagger in front of them, making them turn each time, because they react to motion.
He has done his community service by smiling at everyone graciously at the reception. He's not hungry, but he is thirsty, so he withdraws into seclusion in one of the empty rooms and teases the ever-vigilant camera by dangling a bottle champagne in front of it. It buzzes and it whirrs and it watches him all the same.
"See how I'm enjoying this life?" Michael drawls. "Exactly the way you wanted me to."
An idea flashes in his mind. He thinks back to one of the waiters, an attractive young brunet who works at the cocktail bar. Michael springs up and goes after him. Pathetic, really.
He fetches him to the room, tearing his clothes off as they go. The guy doesn't seem to mind. Quite the contrary, he seems all too ready. Was it this obvious to him even before it was obvious to Michael?
Michael forces him on his knees and thrusts hard into his mouth, never taking his eyes off the camera. Just the right angle. He could have gone to the blind spot, he knows where it is, but where's the fun in that? "Watch," he mouths angrily.
"I don't understand what you so arduously rebel against," father says to him the next day. Just as Michael predicted, he has seen the surveillance footage. Michael hopes he has seen it in detail.
He does not feel victorious though. There is some gravity about his father's disposition, but nothing remotely akin to the cacophony of emotions that Michael hoped to cause.
"No one is restraining you," father goes on. "You do what you will. Frankly speaking, I am a little weary of your prolonged teenage angst. Time to grow out of it, son."
"I could sell them, you know," Michael says vehemently. "There's a hell of a lot for some yellow papers to pay for."
"You'll hurt yourself more than you'll hurt me. Unless that is what you aim for." The man drops a sugar cube into his coffee and stirs it with an elegant silver teaspoon. The cup is flawless white. Someone once said that coffee and tea are better consumed from white porcelain. "This wasn't part of our agreement, Michael."
"Am I not good enough for you? Then let me the hell go!"
"Where will you go? Back to your theatre? I do believe they have already moved on, and I strongly recommend you to do the same. You enjoy suffering? Fine, then join the Peace Corps or enlist in the army. Just for the love of God, make something of yourself."
"I don't love God," Michael murmurs. "And He doesn't love me."
"Then become a priest."
"Are you telling me to kill myself?" Michael shouts. "Bet you'd love that!"
The man chuckles. His face looks softer in the dim light coming from under the stained-glass lampshade, all the harsh lines of age smoothed by meek half-shadows.
"I would have to pay for your funeral service," he remarks nonchalantly. "Think twice whether or not I would love to see you dead."
A short laugh escapes Michael's lips. At times like these he even somewhat relates to the old man, with his dry, snide sense of humour and his impeccably self-confident outlook. He envies him because he knows for a fact that his father enjoys the life he has built for himself.
"I don't have anything to give you," Michael whispers. Mother and him should try to conceive another child to carry the weight of their hopes and expectations before it's too late.
"I don't need another reminder of your failures, Michael," father says listlessly, causing a surge of hate within Michael again. "You had years away from us and you achieved nothing. You're nothing with or without us, so what's the goddamn difference?"
Despite himself, Michael expects the final threat from him. All it takes is to make a couple of calls; perhaps just one. If he allows his son to wither slowly in this golden cage, he might as well put him in a real prison.
But that would most likely ruin the family in the end. It is one thing to have a faggot for a son; to have a convicted murderer for a son is completely different.
"I hate you," Michael spits, "and everything you stand for."
Sounds like another quote. He can't remember where it is from. Perhaps it's not a real quote, but the words in his mind are all jumbled up.
"Don't be so melodramatic," father says, shaking his head in mild amusement. "Find a job."
He's been to that stupid business school ever since he returned home. He has skipped more classes than it was allowed of course, but it doesn't take him long to reinstate himself.
So he can do business stuff. For a while it even makes him happy, even though he hates it like a clot of day-old porridge stuck in his throat. But he has always enjoyed doing something that he hates. Being miserable is what he, according to his father, truly excels at.
He starts out as a clerk in one of his father's firms. Not because he can't find another job, but because he is lazy to do it. This way, on top of all, the old man will be able to control his career-making advancements – and will hopefully find them to his satisfaction.
"You look like a banker," Col tells him.
"Is it good or bad?"
"What's the suicide rate among bankers?"
She stirs up some applesauce for Tony the kid. He is three and he babbles a lot. He likes Michael, and sometimes, on those rare occasions when he is asleep, Michael likes him back.
"I'm not killing myself over my stupid job."
"I was a waitress," Col says as she sprinkles the mash with sugar powder. "And an actress. And a salesgirl at a souvenir shop. And a fucking kindergarten teacher, though very briefly. And you know what's the secret? I liked all of that. No matter how small the fee was or how stupid my bosses were. You don't do what you don't like, Mike. Humans don't function that way."
"Life does," he objects coldly.
"Not with your opportunities. Life develops the way you want it to."
She disappears briefly into the kid's room. Michael lies back in the arm-chair. Something squeaks underneath him. He pulls an odd-looking rubber hedgehog from the arm-chair and tosses it on the sofa.
"Would you believe me if I told you I'd once helped bury a dead man's body?" Michael asks.
There is silence. Then Col emerges from Tony's room, shuts the door gently and flops on the sofa. Pulls her knees up to her chin. Her jeans are shredded on the knees, and her knees are round and smooth and make him want to cup them with his hands.
"What for?" she asks.
"Because he was dead–."
"I mean: what would you tell me that for?"
He has not slightest idea.
"I think you're so much in love with your past because it's in the past. You like to mourn it."
He snorts. The last thing he needs from her is the same psychoanalytic bullshit that he gets from his father. They don't usually talk about the past, either his, or hers. She never told him how she got landed with Tony; he never mentions his escapade onto the other side of the country or the people he met there.
"I don't know what's given you the idea that you're not supposed to enjoy life," says Col.
Then she crawls up to him over the sofa and perches on the armrest of his arm-chair. She slides her hand into the opening of his shirt and leans in to kiss him. Things are always much simpler when they don't talk.
Michael is twenty-three when a hard, bone-like formation breaks through his gum. At first only a tiny corner peeks through, but it takes his toothache to a whole new level. He often gets running noses because of that. The gum around the new tooth hurts constantly. Sometimes he deliberately presses it to have ache shoot through his entire head.
The tooth climbs out slowly, rising like a tiny white mountain beyond every other tooth.
Mountains. Michael thinks a lot about them. He might visit the Alps one day; father has a cottage in Switzerland. One of these days, he is getting a promotion. Perhaps now father will finally be content.
Michael presses his ear to the receiver and listens to Col singing to Tony.
"The Road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began…"
She has a nice singing voice. Nothing special, but he finds it soothing. He rocks gently in an old chair in the library and fixes his gaze on a tattered volume of The Hobbit. He used to like that as a kid. He thinks that at some point he could have had all those adventures. Maybe not the dragons; that's a bit of an overkill. But traveling? Roads going on and on?
He tells Col about the cottage in Switzerland. He knows so little about her in general, but he never asks her how old she is, what her last name is, whether 'Col' is a real name or a shortening from something like Nicole.
"Whoa, Mikey, hold your horses!"
He flinches, both at the pet name (he hates all kinds of derivatives from 'Michael', but he lets her do it anyway) and the expression. Something twists in his gut. His gaze darts towards an old painting on the wall, depicting a fox hunt. Horses. Riders. Dogs.
"Look," Col murmurs apologetically, "you're a sweetheart, honestly, and I love spending time with you–." He chuckles bitterly. That must be one hell of a stretch. He has always been honest with himself. "And the sex is great." Now that's the true reason! "But…" There's always a 'but'. She sighs, composing herself. "There's Tony to think about–."
"We'll take him with us, of course." He doesn't know where this ardent conviction is coming from. For a second there, he really wants it to happen.
"For the week-end! But what's next? It's just… You're not right for me. We're having fun, all right; but to start something serious? With you? I don't think so, Michael."
He just wants to be happy. Is that so terrible? Right now, it doesn't matter who with. Just happy, loved.
Col's breathing is loud and strained. If she were here, she would most likely stroke his hair affectionately.
He recreates the details of her in his memory. Her cheap bugle beads. Her bright make-up. Her wild, unconditional laughter; she can laugh like an honest-to-God happy person. Her gentle, slightly off-key singing. "Now far ahead the Road has gone, and I must follow, if I can…"
She lives in a small apartment, two bedrooms, a living-room, and a kitchen, all microscopic. Tony will go to school in a few years. He could remind her that he is rich. Not only he is an heir to a huge business empire, but his own salary is quite high these days. The thought of doing that, even considering that disgusts him.
"I'm sorry," Col says. "I've had too much of unkept promises."
"Okay," he resigns.
He hangs up and slowly lowers his hand, protruding buttons of the receiver grazing his cheek. The stout, merry hobbit on the cover of the eponymous book smiles warmly, puffing rings of smoke out of his pipe.
Michael takes the car and drives to the outskirts of the city. He picks up a skinny, moody rent boy, and they fuck in the car. Afterwards, Michael asks about the price. The guy has already told him, but he repeats again, unfazed. Michael reaches for his wallet and hands him a sum twice as big. It takes away some of the guy's haughtiness. He stares at the money in mild bewilderment. The night is foggy. Brisk street lights break through the mist and glide timidly over his face. He looks somewhat cute.
"Well?" Michael prods, hints of irritation creeping into his voice. "Don't you want it?"
"Yeah. No. I mean, I do! But–."
The guy fumbles for words; meanwhile, Michael studies his face, and it strikes him how youthful the rent boy looks. He probably isn't even legal yet.
"You're kinda pretty and, uhm… it was kinda cool, I guess. So why–?"
His worn t-shirt is taut over his bony shoulders. He looks very angular. Michael shakes his head.
The kid hesitates, then snatches the banknotes and shoves them into the pocket of his jeans. He looks like he wants to say something, but changes his mind and pushes the car door open. Michael calls after him when he is half out of the car.
"What's your name?"
He hopes he doesn't get something cheap and banal for an answer, something along the lines of "whatever you want it to be". The thought obviously crosses the kid's mind, but for some reason, he gives the name, real or fake, and leaves.
Michael lights a cigarette and watches the smoke fill the car.
The guy's name is Thomas. Bloody ironic.
Mother reclines on the sofa, watching the flames dance in the fireplace through half-drooped eyelids. The radio streams some quiet classical music. Mother is an accomplished cello-player, but to his knowledge, she hasn't touched her cello for quite a while.
She has no make-up on, and her pale blond hair is loose upon her shoulders. She wears a blue housecoat, which suits her perfectly. Michael lowers himself next to her. They don't often have a lot to talk about, but he likes her when she is in this toned down melancholy mood. She must have been watching Breakfast at Tiffany's earlier, must have drunk some cocoa with marshmallows; the smell is still thick in the air.
Michael places his head on her lap. She ruffles his hair absent-mindedly.
"I know you're hurting," she says quietly. "I just don't know why."
"Why didn't you ever sing to me?"
She takes a slow, deep breath. He can feel the air flow into her body. He asks her to sing. Wants to fall asleep to the sound of her voice and the warmth of her embrace. Wants her to be a mother for once.
"What do you want me to sing?"
He doesn't think too long about it. "That song from The Hobbit. About the road. You read to me when I was a kid."
She strokes his hair. Her ingratiating voice goes discordantly against the music in the background.
"Roads go ever ever on," she hums. He can feel her hand and her knees, but he cannot feel her. Her thoughts must be very far away. "Over rock and under tree…"
He is surprised she remembers the words. She used to come home from her charity balls, dressed in colours and wearing pearls, and she would sit on the edge of his bed and read him bedtime stories. She would read Gulliver, and Robinson Crusoe, and stories about Camelot. He drifted off to sleep bit by bit, rocking on the waves of her voice like a raft in the sea.
"By caves where never sun has shone, by streams that never find the sea…"
He dreams of traveling, but knows he will never again leave his ivory dungeon.
It happens in a bookshop. Tommy once told him, half-jokingly, that all kinds of things happened in bookshops.
It is a cozy store with neatly organized shelves and a doorbell that actually rings every time someone comes in. Michael wanders aimlessly between the bookcases and remembers piles of poetry books in Tommy's apartment, just lying there, gathering dust. But Tommy knew so much, even if he didn't always understand it. He transmitted this disease to Michael who sometimes catches himself speaking lines under his breath.
He bumps accidentally into an enormous person in a down-padded coat, both of them too engrossed in their ruminations to notice each other beforehand. Michael mutters an apology and reaches out to pick up the book the coat dropped due to the collision. It's a small paperback. Michael turns it over; his gaze skips over the front cover. A silhouette of a horse is embedded into it. The title in bold goes:
E • Q • U •
Michael snaps his hand back as if he were scorched. He looks up to find the down-padded coat gone. The book is still on the floor, and he cannot bring himself to take it. A consultant, having appeared out of nowhere, asks him if he is okay. He tells her he feels a little dizzy, nothing that some air can't fix. Anything to make her pick the book up.
He shoves himself out of the door and breathes in convulsively.
"Don't," he whispers, "please don't."
The street is lively at this hour. People flow to and fro like a rivulet, purling, buzzing, splashing. He finds himself staring at their tanned, joyful faces and hating this city. He wants to be someplace older, prouder, like Vienna or Prague, and not have to sell himself for everything like he has to do in this hypocritical kingdom of palm-trees and fancy beaches and glass-and-steel emporiums.
He feels agitated, peering at the crowd, and there he spots her. She maneuvres through the human stream rapidly, and for a moment, as she turns her head a fraction, he has an unobstructed view of her face, and an old photograph flashes in his memory: a pretty girl holding an orange slice to her mouth. "Who is she?" he asks, and a quiet voice answers: "She's gone."
Michael plunges into the crowd. The stream ripples and becomes choppy. He rushes after the girl. It's her, definitely her. Black hair, swarthy skin, slanted eyes. Blue jean windbreaker. Her image sparks chaos in his mind. She could know the way to Tom; or he could deliver her to Tom who had been looking for her all this time. He could just talk to her about Tom, talk to someone who knew something that mattered so greatly to him.
Like a feeble reflection in the deep waters, she gets washed away. Michael darts from one person to another, but there is no sign of the blue windbreaker. And he begins to doubt if it were her at all, Tom's mysterious lady. He stops in the middle of the avenue, and people trickle on each side of him, going about their business unfazed. Perhaps it was not her after all. He'll never know.
Michael is twenty-four when the tooth reaches full maturity. It rises from the deformed creases of the gum and it finally stops aching.
Michael declares to his father that he wants to do something for the company. He wants a promotion. The old man takes the news with suspicion, but within a few weeks Michael receives a commanding position and a project to work on.
For the time being, he is content. He tells himself he enjoys working with his creative team and he likes his new bigger office. Things are going quite well.
He celebrates the clinching of an important deal with his business school peers in a fancy club. He is pretty sure he's finally made the old man proud.
There is a group of girls a few tables away. A dark-haired one catches him looking and suddenly winks at him. She looks native to this posh environment in her designer black dress and a silvery string necklace sprinkled with diamond dust around her neck, but something about her screams, 'Get me out of here!' Michael can relate.
She breaks away from her clique and takes a stool at the stand. She orders a cocktail. Positions herself, giving him a better view of herself: tight breasts, a layer of close-fitting black fabric down to her mid-hip, elegant legs, expensive shoes. It is all painstakingly ritualistic. She flips her hair back, not because it hinders her but to have an excuse to glance back and make sure that Michael is watching. He is. She is served her drink. She strokes the tall leg of the glass absent-mindedly. Her gestures are fluid and inviting.
He excuses himself and makes for the stand, slides down on the stool, leaving one seat between him and her empty to make room for maneuvres. She pretends not to notice. He checks to see what she is having and orders something completely different.
"We're not that much alike then," she chuckles. He wonders briefly if he has interpreted her signals correctly.
"I'm allergic to blends," he remarks half-jokingly. "I need the real deal."
She addresses him a smile that is too sweet to pass for sardonic even if it is meant as one.
"You looked like you really wanted out and could use some help. I have the same problem. But you know how devious friends can be. The only way out is with someone."
"In other words, you're picking me up to bail yourself out?" Michael's brows meet in a sarcastic line. She averts her eyes for a second, then looks straight at him, and he cannot tell if she has feigned her embarrassment. "You do realize what usually follows. Aren't you worried I might hold you to your word?"
Her eyes sparkle. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
They get up. He winds his arm around her waist. Her body fits perfectly against his; they are like two adjacent details of a bigger machine. The night air feels unexpectedly fresh after the alcohol- and perfume-laced inside of the club.
"So," Michael says, "what's the occasion?"
She flashes him her moving catlike grin. "My birthday."
"Happy Birthday!" He reaches over the hedgegrow and plucks a flower from the pot on somebody's window-sill.
She laughs. They talk. It's almost textbook easy.
"Now," she says on the porch of her friends' house, "will you take advantage?"
He thinks about it. He cannot imagine that candy sweetness in bed. It should be different from what he's accustomed to.
"Next time." He winks at her. "That way we'll have something to wait for."
They don't ask each other's names.
"All work and no play, son?" father remarks with amusement. "Soon you'll be turning into your old man."
Michael snorts. Oh, he is quite safe from that, thank you very much.
"I don't suppose you'll be telling me to get a girlfriend next?" he parries.
The old man's thin, harsh lips snake into a smile. Michael stifles a sigh.
They saunter through the fancy-dressed crowd, and for a moment it seems to Michael that all of them are actors in some third-rate performance.
"You remember Harry, don't you?" asks his father, and Michael snaps out of his musings to greet a stocky grey-haired man whose face is remotely recognizable even though Michael cannot quite place it. "My lawyer and my old-time friend."
Ah, yes. He remembers briefly – and he doesn't understand why it should mean anything to him.
Harry gives him a warm smile and says that it is a pleasure. Michael nods, thinking that people should be more exacting about the things they dub pleasurable.
"I'd like you to meet my daughter," says Harry. Oh. That's what it is all about. "Christine."
"We've met, Daddy."
Michael suppresses the urge to shiver. It is the girl from the club in a pale lilac cocktail dress, her hair coiffured in a complex cascade rippling from her crown. She slides her fingers into his hand while he stares numbly at her. Christine. What a banal name.
"As a matter of fact, you have, indeed," Michael's father observes. "You two used to play at Harry's stables as kids whenever we visited."
Michael blinks. He doesn't remember that.
The fathers withdraw, dropping something about the 'budding chemistry'. Michael releases the breath he has been holding and promptly takes another one, feeling like a fish out of the water.
"I guess you could call it fate then," Christine murmurs.
He forces himself to look at her. "Looks like the geezers want us to connect." He draws quotation marks through the air and smiles, shaken.
"We'd better not disappoint them then."
She is easy to talk to. When he talks, she harks to his every word. When he feels like keeping quiet, she falls silent too and watches him with big radiant eyes. He buries himself in work and in her until there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Secretly, he is glad; the only light he expects to see is that of the oncoming train. Wasn't it always like this?
He gets a life. He moves on. He doesn't feel alive at all.
"So who was that pampered hussy I saw you with the other day?" Col asks matter-of-factly.
She is chopping vegetables for Tony. The knife flickers up and down; its smooth rapping resounds like a drumbeat through Michael's head. He says without looking up from the newspaper he is reading:
"Christine. Her father is one of the shareholders now, and Dad's close friend."
"Is that why you've been roping her in?"
"Are you jealous?"
The knife cuts into the breadboard with a loud tap. Col's hand freezes. Her hair is pulled into a bun at the back of her head and her wiry fringe is smoothed back from her forehead. Huge plastic earrings dangle from her earlobes. Suddenly she seems awfully tawdry.
"Should I be?"
Michael stands up and comes closer and kisses the back of her neck, softly.
"Make a scene," he whispers.
"Fuck you, Mikey," she breathes, holding on to her shattered self-control.
She tells him to get out in a cold, toneless voice. She sounds tired, perhaps twice her age. He counts the years they have lost.
She grabs a plate and flings it at him when he is already by the door. He dodges effectively and looks back at her, breath caught in his throat. She whirls around, eyes wide, nostrils flaring, a harpy-like paragon of female histrionics.
"You are such a baby!" she yells. "Please, please just do something with your life already! I'm so sick of your constant misery! Go back and pick up the pieces of what you've ruined. Or go on and marry that stupid bimbo. I don't care! Just get out of my life because I can't deal with it anymore!"
"I wanted to have a life," he whispers helplessly, "with you."
"No! Don't you see? You're just looking for someone to lay all your bloody misery on! I'm not gonna be that person, Michael." Col exhales sharply and breathes in through the nose. After that damp half-sob her voice sounds strangled. "I don't care if you like being unhappy, but you make people around you unhappy. It's like an infectious disease. If I gave a damn, I'd call that Christine girl and warn her about you, but I'm just too tired of your antics."
She snorts. "You need an excuse even for this. You couldn't bring yourself to break up with me properly."
Michael opens the door and steps out. Behind him, Col sobs uncontrollably, trying to choke the sound without much success.
They weren't exactly dating.
Moonlight creeps surreptitiously upon Christine's bare thigh. She presses herself against Michael and kisses him gently. He looks past her and pretends he is with someone else.
"You know what's funny?" she murmurs dreamily. "Our Dads seem to be under the impression that we're going to get married soon."
He tenses. The room is vaguely illuminated with scented candles. Christine is busy nipping at his neck and shoulder with her sweet, gentle mouth. He doesn't think she has noticed his reaction.
"I overheard Mom and Dad discussing wedding plans."
Michael imagines spending his entire life alone with this unbearable sweetness. He feels sick. He has underestimated his father. The old man is almost ready to throw away the key to his golden cage.
Christine pulls away and looks at him doubtfully. Then she laughs and weaves her arms around her neck.
"Oh, Michael, I didn't mean anything by it! I just thought you should know. It is funny, isn't it?"
He looks at her. She is beautiful. She is rich and smart. She is caring, almost sickeningly so. They will be on the covers of all magazines. Already are. He will start hating her with passion before they even walk down the aisle. The future is transparent.
But there is nothing else.
"I don't have a ring," he mutters.
Christine eyes him in confusion.
"Will you be my wife?" he asks simply.
Her face brightens into a slow, joyful smile. As though she hasn't just coerced him into it.
She clamps her lips over his, breathing out, "Yes!" into the kiss. He kisses back reluctantly and pretends to believe that things will become proper from now on.
Michael is twenty-six when the wisdom tooth begins to rot, and he has it pulled out.
January 13 – April 21, 2010
It's just after 5am somewhere… – from 'Poem for a Toothless Lion' by John Dorsey.
The Road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began… – from 'The Lord of the Rings' by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Roads go ever ever on, over rock and under tree… – from 'The Hobbit, or There and Back Again' by J. R. R. Tolkien.