It’s the same every year. Michael looks over the mosaic of children’s heads, clutching a bag or a packed lunch, and meets Lisa’s eyes. He nods and Lisa reciprocates. It’s a gesture of acknowledgement for their shared past; no more, no less. Michael leaves on Jenny’s arm, tight-throated from waving his children goodbye, and barely thinks of Lisa until the next time. It’s the same every year.
Until the year that it isn’t.
Michael’s happy. Of course he is. Well, if not entirely happy, than at least he’s contented. He loves his children and Jenny’s his best friend and if he sometimes wonders whether there’s more out there, then he keeps it to himself. Life is easy and comfortable and some days he wants to jump in his car and just drive and drive and drive until he’s finally able to breathe.
This year, Lisa farewells her son alone. Michael’s nod is looser as he turns to laugh at a joke he didn’t hear. When the bus leaves, he presses crisp notes into Jenny’s hand. “You’ve been saying you need new clothes,” he says. “Why don’t you make a day of it?”
Jenny’s eyes ask a different question to the one that’s spoken. “You’re not joining me?”
“You’ll have more fun if I don’t.”
She nods. “See you tonight.”
Lisa is older and her copper hair is greying, but the angles of her face are unchanged. “Michael,” she says, and her tone is light, so light. Too light.
Michael shakes the hand he’s offered. Lisa’s fingers are cool, but her grip is fierce. “Alex?”
“Abroad.” Lisa pauses. “Indefinitely.”
“I’m sorry,” Michael says.
But he isn’t.
Michael sits in a too-large room, surrounded by portraits with staring eyes. “Why am I here?” he asks.
Lisa shrugs. “I don’t know.”
When they kiss, Lisa’s hand curves around the back of Michael’s neck and her lips are soft and cold. They don’t speak. Touch mirrors touch and Michael fists a hand in Lisa’s hair, feeling anger and sorrow and understanding and a hot, hot tongue that slides around him and over him until he’s gasping and bucking and calling Lisa’s name.
It seems strange that it took this long.
Michael’s sure that decades must have passed since he last felt something real. “There are nights,” he says, “when I wake up and don’t know who I am. The room is dark and Jenny’s there beside me, but it’s like I’m an empty skin with all the meat sucked out.”
“Life’s like that,” says Lisa.
“But does it have to be?”
Lisa’s eyes are guarded, but her shadows are grey.
It’s the same every time. They fuck; they talk; they don’t reminisce. Lisa is ephemeral and infuriating but she gazes at Michael – the real Michael – and doesn’t turn away. Michael hates her for it and loves her for it and writhes beneath the mark of Lisa’s lips. At sundown, he leaves. He buys flowers for Jenny and stares at a single page of the newspaper until she ushers him to bed. It’s the same every time.
Until the time that it isn’t.
“I left her. It’s over.”
“I’m sorry,” Lisa says.
But she isn’t.
Tara Calaby is a classicist and educator from rural Australia. She studied writing and editing at RMIT in Melbourne and her short piece, “Deconstruction” is due to be published in the Idol Meanderings anthology later this year.
To comment on this story, visit Fiction365′s Facebook page.