Sitting in silence, I watch as the wax rises up and engulfs the flame. ‘Bloody candles.’ I go to take another uncomfortable sip of my drink but quickly realise my pint glass is empty. I fail to remember how many drinks I've had, I also fail to care. Carmen has yet to take a bite of her meal, simply pushing the food about on the plate, the mackerel fillet now stone cold. I ordered her usual glass of prosecco; it rests on the table untouched. Peering around at the other couples, I find myself desperate to see at least one other person in as much hell as me. Some couples are laughing merrily, rejoicing in each other’s company, others are simply gazing into each other’s eyes, appreciating the romantic ambience of the restaurant. Carmen and I are staring at an unlit candle in near silence. It had been Carmen’s idea to come here, I’d agreed in the vain hope that it might help fix things between us. But it was just a meal, not a miracle.
Raising my hand, I click twice. This yields no response.
‘Tony,’ Carmen pipes up, ‘you’re being rude.’ A piercing whistle escapes my lips, shocking the waiter and momentarily disrupting the loving couples, causing a forgotten smile to creep across my lips. The waiter shuffles over, a tall man with a ridiculous moustache.
‘Can I get you anything else this evening sir?’
‘I’ll have another Stella.’ My eyes wander over to meet Carmen’s disapproving gaze. ‘What? I'm drinking for two now.’
Neither Carmen nor the waiter laugh, I've pushed it too far. ‘Sorry,’ I mumble. An exaggerated yawn comes from Carmen.
‘Can we please just go? I'm feeling tired,’ already throwing her napkin onto the table. I shrug my shoulders.
‘Yeah, I guess so.’
A different waiter comes over with the bill. I open up my wallet and place a £50 note down before retiring to the men’s room. I know Carmen will add to the tip, her way of saying sorry for my behaviour. Sorry being a word heard all too often as of late.
The car journey is spent in silence; I've gotten used to this now. Carmen puts the radio on but I instantly turn it off. As I sit next to her in the passenger seat, I let my eyes close and wish for my brain to take me somewhere else. The car swerves slightly, waking me up. I probably shouldn't have let Carmen drive, not in her condition. Shuffling about in my seat, I struggle to retrieve the packet of cigarettes wedged in my back pocket. After a great deal of effort, I manage to grasp them and press down on my lighter. No flame emerges. I try again. I get just enough fire to light the cigarette. I take a heavy drag.
‘Could you please put that out?’
Another heavy drag, the smoke filling up my lungs. Carmen winds down her window in an effort to expel the cloud of smoke that is engulfing the two of us. The thicker the fumes grow, the less Carmen can see. ‘Look, I don’t care what those things are doing to your body but there’s more than one person in this car, in case you’ve forgotten.’
I throw the cigarette out of the window and stare right at her. ‘Happy now?’
The key rattles about in the lock as I open the front door. I trip over the cardboard IKEA box that has been casually left on the ground. I had told Carmen to keep the boxes for when we return everything. I found her throwing away the receipts last night. I remember our trip to the shop to buy all the furniture, it was only a few months back but it feels like a lifetime ago now. She’d been so happy, spending more money than we’d budgeted for, saying it deserved only the best. I’d tried to give it my best. I honestly had.
‘What’s wrong?’ Carmen asks.
I've been staring at the box for some time now.
‘Nothing... it’s nothing.’
She gives me a suspicious look.
‘If you’re not too hung-over tomorrow, you might want to think about putting some of that stuff together. We don’t have much time you know.’
Dismantled flat pack furniture lay on the floor, the bars of the crib resembling that of a cell.
‘Yeah, yeah. You’re right,’ I reply.
Carmen sits down on the settee, my duvet next to her. She looks so small and timid, like a lost child. I couldn't help but feel guilty.
‘I'm sorry.’ Carmen turns to look at me.
‘About tonight? Well so you should be.’ I shake my head.
‘No, not about tonight.’
We make love. I perform as though it’s my sexual début; clumsy and unsure whilst Carmen just lies there in silence – a far cry from our previous nights of passion. We are playing our parts, going out for meals, having sex, occasionally saying we love one another. To an outside observer they would never know. They would never know that seeing her like this kills me inside. I stand up naked and make my way to the door.
‘Good night,’ she calls after me.
The only response I can bear to give is the sound of heavy footsteps as I make my way down the stairs.
The house is silent, Carmen must still be asleep. I can still love her when she’s asleep. With her eyes closed, it’s like the past has never happened and the future is no concern of ours. With her eyes closed, we can be happy again. When she’s awake, I can’t understand her. The doctor had warned me about this, they said it was not just her body that was going through this ordeal but her mind too. It’s strange; there is almost an ugly beauty in the reality she has fashioned for herself. Giving herself creative license to repaint life, creating splendour where there should be pain. The only problem being that I'm still stuck in this life, I still have to cope with this reality. Cradling the memory of what once was but will now never be.
Banging noises sound from upstairs; she must be awake. I make my way into the kitchen to make us breakfast. Carmen’s phone is resting on the kitchen counter; I stare at it intently before picking it up. I don’t know what I hope to achieve by looking at it, maybe a better insight into what’s going on in her head. I could check who she’s been calling, what she’s been saying; my thumbs rest delicately on the keys.
‘Morning.’ Carmen enters the room. I throw the phone back down, praying she hasn't noticed.
‘Morning,’ I beam back, my enthusiastic tone making her suspicious.
I want to reply ‘everything’. ‘Nothing,’ I say, placing a bowl in front of her as she takes a seat at the table. She looks so small. My mouth feels dry as I go to speak. ‘You know, I was thinking why don’t we go on a trip?’
Carmen stares at the cereal in front of her. ‘I guess I have got quite a bit of time off work. I’d suggest visiting the family but I imagine they’ll all be wanting to come here soon enough,’ Carmen replies, cupping her belly.
My pained expression cannot be hidden.
‘I was thinking a bit further than that, like Spain or Italy or something. Let’s just get away, just get away from everything.’
Carmen stares at me. ‘Tony, why are you saying this?’ Her eyes glaze over. ‘You know I can’t fly. Not now. Not with everything.’
I can feel cereal getting lodged to the side of my throat as I painfully swallow.
‘Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.’
But that’s not true I know exactly what I was thinking.
If we could just get away maybe things would be different. We wouldn't have to think about what had happened, we could start to move on. ‘Anyway, hurry up with that.’ I nod towards the breakfast on the table in front of her, the spoon still clean. ‘We’ve got this doctor’s appointment in an hour.’
‘I know, I know,’ she says, rubbing her belly and smiling.
‘It’s important,’ I bluntly respond.
Strolling along the street we walk hand in hand, our marital disguise. I sometimes wonder what people think when they see us together. If they’re momentarily tricked into thinking we are a loving couple, that we’re living the dream, that we aren't hiding something.
‘Carmen! Tony!’ my train of thought is interrupted. I turn round to see Melanie, dressed head- to- toe in a matching baby pink ‘Juicy Couture’ tracksuit, despite the fact she’s never done a moment’s exercise in her life.
‘Oh my God, Melanie!’ A fake smile plastered across Carmen’s face. ‘It’s so good to see you.’ It’s really not. Melanie was one of those awful women who calls herself a housewife despite the fact she has three maids and no children. Melanie’s brown, leathery arms cradle my neck as she brings me in for a hug.
‘Hi Melanie,’ this is all I can muster. We used to live next to her and her husband but it wasn't long before she traded him in for a richer model.
‘Gosh, I can’t even remember the last time I saw you guys, it’s been forever.’ Her fake enthusiasm is repulsive.
‘Well you know, obviously we've had a lot of stuff going on,’ says Carmen.
I see Melanie’s expression change instantly.
'Oh my God. I'm so sorry, I’d completely forgotten,’ her eyes momentarily flicker to my wife’s stomach. ‘How are you doing sweetie?’
Melanie’s concern is about as real as the gleaming veneers that keep threatening to blind me.
‘Fine,’ I suddenly interject, ‘we’re doing just fine thank you.’ I see Melanie’s brain trying to process this, calculating the best way to pretend she’s a caring human being when in reality she’s just trying to extract as much gossip from us as possible for her next cocktail party. Caviar served with a helping of my marital crises.
‘Yeah, yeah, well that’s good to know. I mean, obviously I've heard things but it’s great to hear that you two are pulling through.’
This is excruciating. I look at my watch, despite the fact the hands haven’t moved in years, hoping she’ll pick up on this social cue. She doesn’t. Carmen takes hold of my hand, maybe to stop my unnecessary clock watching or perhaps to show just how unified we are.
Or at least pretend to be.
‘We’re doing great, just can’t wait finally to get to see our little bundle of joy.’ Despite the sheer amount of Botox that has been injected into Melanie’s head, I can still make out the puzzled expression that her face. Her eyes move over to me.
‘Your bundle of joy?’
I feel nauseous. I want her to shut up.
‘Yes, Melanie, mine and Carmen’s bundle of joy.’ The lie burns my tongue and I can feel my wedding ring digging in as Carmen grips my hand even tighter. Melanie looks flustered, unaccustomed to not knowing what to say.
‘Ah, yes, well. It’s just I thought that... you know, never mind, people are always getting their facts wrong, or I'm probably thinking of someone else, yes I’m sure that’s it. Any way sweetheart, it was lovely to see you both but I’m meeting Darrel for sushi so I must dash. Tah,tah.’ And with that she’d spun round in the opposite direction, leaving only the overwhelming scent of expensive perfume that had been a bit too liberally applied.
‘Let’s go home,’ I mumble to Carmen who seems oblivious to what has just occurred.
‘But what about the doctor’s appointment? You said yourself that it was important we go.’
‘Another time. We’ll go another time.’
I hear the same beeping from the microwave as I do every night. Replacing what was once the call of Carmen’s loving voice, presenting me with a home cooked meal. Now it’s just indistinguishable brown mush served up in a plastic carton. I sit in front of the TV. Not really watching, just letting the noise of it fill the awkward space that has taken residence between me and Carmen. There are still cards on the mantel piece, a collection of papers covered in crosses or photographs of lilies. I hadn’t wanted to put them up but I somehow felt obligated, as though it would be a waste to just throw things away. We’d received so many when we broke the news to our family and friends; it helped me to see them. Carmen just ignored them, she was good at that.
‘Did you make me any food?’ she snapped. It was getting late, her meds tended to start wearing off around this time and she became irritable.
‘No sorry, I didn’t think you wanted any.’ This happened every night, she’d demand I make her food then she’d just let it go cold, saying it made her feel sick.
‘Of course I want food. Why would I not want food? You know Tony you’ve been acting really weird lately.’ I have to bite my tongue. ‘I’ve got to do everything for myself, do the washing, make my own dinner. Is it not enough that I’m carrying your child!?’
A wave of emotion overcame me. ‘You are not carrying my child!’ I throw my plate to the ground and storm out of the room, slamming the door behind me.
I sit in our bedroom on the floor, not really sure what to do next, angry with myself for what I’d said to Carmen, despite its truth. For some reason I decide to open Carmen’s wardrobe. Colourful garments hang gently down. Each item a memory of how life used to be. Dresses from when we used to go dancing, pencil skirts she’d worn to the office, her wedding dress covered in a sheet of plastic to protect it. I wish life too came with a sheet of protective plastic. These clothes now unworn. Carmen says they don’t fit her anymore. On the floor is the shoe box. I know what’s in here but still I can’t help but gaze inside, a sadistic pleasure. I take a peak, then mustering up more courage, take the lid entirely off. A small photograph of our wedding, a necklace of rosary beads, then the sonogram picture. It crushes me to see it. A black and white image of what could have been.
Tony!’ Panicked cries make their way up the stairs, ‘Tony, the baby’s coming,’ Carmen says, entering the room, her tired eyes looking drawn and her skeletal frame mocking her.
Olivia Smith is an aspiring writer in her final year at Salford University, studying English and creative writing. English has been a passion of hers since a very young age and she aspires to be a published writer one day.