8 am, Wednesday, and Chris waited for his mother. If only there was some way to stop her. Just because she had borne him nine long months, gotten up to him in the middle of the night in the years directly after, suffered his tantrums in the years after that, sent him off to school with a fresh packed lunch each and every day, saw to him as a teenager with his sullen silences and raging hormones, and helped him get a job and out into the world, she thought she could still intrude.
Every morning, at 8:05 on the dot, she would ascend to his room. He could hear her now, her heels clicking across the parquet floor in the living room toward the stairs. She started to climb: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. It was as though he was sixteen years old again.
She entered his room and pulled back the curtains, ‘Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day!’ It didn’t matter if it was cloudy outside and any minute might rain.
‘I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way!’
According to the internet, people who sang were happier, healthier and lived longer.
She stopped to ask him, ‘Are you going to work today?’
Oh god, happier, healthier and living longer, that would be his mother, Chris thought. And during all that time when she was living longer, he would have to answer questions like this. He pulled the duvet up over his head. Of course he wasn’t going to work; he no longer had a job. Provoking him was her favourite pastime, it always had been. It was her way of staying in control, even if he was fully grown.
Her pulling back the curtains and seeing it about to pour made him think about the trip to stay with his parents after they had agreed to take him in. It had rained all the way, but still he stopped at the town where he had grown up. It was his little ritual; every time he made the journey to his parent’s place, once or twice a year, he would take a break there. This time he visited the old church where he had gone to mass and served as an altar boy. On previous trips he had stopped at the pool, his old house, his school, the river, his Dad’s old Doctor’s office, which was now a cafe.
The church was at the other end of town, up on the hill. It was larger and more imposing back then. Walking in he was drawn to the stations of the cross. He had prayed beneath them, imagining Jesus’s suffering. There was still something special about them, but only now did he realise they were made out of plastic but meant to look like marble and wood. He wanted to share a pic or two on Instagram, but the fake plastic didn’t come out well on the camera on his phone. He also couldn’t figure out how to caption it. It would be too obvious saying something like, ‘I used to pray under these but just realised it’s all fake.’
His mother had encouraged his faith, and for him to become an altar boy. She had told him it was the right thing to do. She had coached him on how he was supposed to approach the altar, how quickly he should walk in and out of the sacristy, how he should face people but not directly look at them as they filed forward to take the holy sacrament. She had been proud of him then, smiling softly at his white robes, and his hair neatly parted down one side. He wondered what his mother thought of his hair now it was shaved. She hadn’t said anything since he arrived last Friday. She was waiting for her moment.
His mother left the room. Should he get up? He would but for the pain in his side. It came back last week. Was it worse because of the long drive and sitting so long? He’d made appointments with his doctor but cancelled every time as the discomfort intensified. He would only go if he thought it was getting better; he definitely wouldn’t if it was worse. When it was in his mid-left stomach region under his ribcage it was bad. Google said it might have something to do with the cartilage in his ribs, his pancreas, his spleen, his kidney or stomach. He didn’t want it to be his stomach, that worried him. He wished it would go back down to his left hip, where it felt more structural than internal.
He also didn’t want to get up because downstairs his parents were in mid-conversation about him. He couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying but it was easy to detect the worried, almost angry tone they used when they discussed him. The general pattern was his mother bringing up issues about him, but retreating as his father got increasingly annoyed and abrupt with her until he lashed out. Chris was sure he was about to do that; Chris could hear his voice rising, his pitch becoming punitive and puerile. Stress brought their relationship into sharp relief, which his mother would bear as best she could. Chris imagined her blushing, apologising, pushing her hair behind her ears, backtracking from anything she had said to make him angry, agreeing with him if only to make him stop.
Maybe his mother had said Chris had slept with his light on again. This was sure to disappoint and worry his father. According to a study on the web, almost 50% of adults admitted to sleeping with the lights on, and almost a quarter to checking for monsters under the bed before going to sleep. She would never tell his father this no matter how many times Chris tried to convince her it was normal.
Chris tried to persuade his wife of the same thing, that one in two people slept with the lights on. That’s ridiculous, she scoffed, first because it was a waste of money, and second, because it was just plain silly—‘as if there are monsters under the bed’, she had said, once getting down on her hands and knees, mocking him, like she might actually check—and, third, it was hard to sleep, and sleep was important, everyone knew that.
He thought she wanted the lights off because she didn’t want him to see her. Women wore make-up and nice clothes either to camouflage themselves, or to seduce. He had read it online. 44% of women believed that if they showed off their natural, untouched selves they wouldn’t be able to accomplish either of these things. For her it was definitely about concealment.
The first excuse he gave his wife: he was bored. This was a common thing for people in the West, and there were usually eight causes (monotony in the mind, lack of flow, need for novelty, paying attention, and so on). What’s more, men were more prone to this than women.
She pushed him on this. Well, he said, he had done lots of things that were supposed to annoy people, like momentarily standing motionless in the doors of trams, trains and lifts, asking deeply personal questions of strangers, walking slowly in front of pedestrians on footpaths, and talking loudly on his phone close to others in public places, but it wasn’t the same. What else was there to explain?
8 am, Friday, and Chris waited for his mother. If only there was some way to stop her.
She loved coming into his room, she always had. She would come in, like she was there to wake him up, but she always had an ulterior motive. She would enter, look over everything, see what she could poke her nose into. She had been doing this for as long as he could remember.
8:05, and Chris heard her heels click across the parquet floor. She started to climb: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. Chris had anticipated this, not like when he was fourteen and she burst in on him sleeping with the evidence of him masturbating from the night before (a magazine, a sock and Vaseline) on display. If only they’d had the internet back then; he wouldn’t have needed the magazine and he would have been able to tell her, ‘Masturbation isn’t unhealthy or bad for you at all,’ which was one of the first things to come up if you searched ‘is wanking bad for you?’
She was singing her favourite morning song again: ‘Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day!’
At least today it was sunny.
‘I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way!’
She finished singing, ‘Getting out of bed today?’
‘Your Dad and I were thinking that you might like to go to Church over the weekend,’ she said.
Chris had wondered how long before she got to this. Church was the saviour. All he needed to do was walk through the doors, cross himself with holy water, say amen and bow to everything the priest said, take the holy sacrament, talk and be friendly with all the Catholics before and after mass, and repent. Everything would be sweet as.
He loved how his mother said this too: his Dad and her were thinking. Sure they were thinking, more like praying, beseeching God their prodigal son would turn his life around.
He told them the latest statistics. One in three marriages in Australia ended in divorce, and the average time for people to separate after a wedding was four years. Chris and Catherine had surpassed that by seven years, which was a long time, given how Catherine was. He also told them, this year, his marriage break up was one of over 46,000, and apart from Sally and Keenan there were over 40,000 other kids, Australia-wide, involved in divorces. He thought it might have a consoling effect on them.
His mother cried, something he had not seen her do since Sally was born. His father simply said, ‘Just because everyone jumps off the cliff, doesn’t mean you have to.’ His dad had been saying this for years, but on this occasion there was none of his, I know best and you should listen to me attitude, which he usually laced such a speech with. There was only a sense of, we expected more of you. His mouth was set firm, his eyes downcast, and his hands expressionless and spent. Chris felt like his dad, in a manner reminiscent of Pontius Pilate, was washing his hands of him.
Chris had expected more too. Now that the sun was out, he could see the backyards of the neighbours with their blue sparkling pools, green manicured lawns, and red, pink, blue, yellow, orange and purple flowers. He remembered taking pictures of them, not to post online or share with his friends. He had taken them to remind himself where he had come from, when he moved out and bought his own place. He had stumbled on these shots the day Catherine punched and swatted the air, yelling at him, her face reddening and eyes widening as the consequences of what he had done sunk in.
He wondered how long his parents would let him stay. The internet said parents of people going through divorce should remain neutral and not get involved but there was no chance of that. It was Catherine he was married to. They liked her more than they did him, and had always thought she was so good for him.
The second excuse he gave his wife: lots of other men did it, so it was normal, wasn’t it? He had read an article about an older man who was DM-ing a young journalism intern, which ended with him sending her dick pics and asking if she wanted to take a ride with him.
Like the young woman said in the article, men usually explained away such behaviour by saying it was only a joke. Why couldn’t he use the same reason?
8 am, Monday, and Chris waited for his mother. If only there was some way to stop her.
Even when he was an adult, even when he had explicitly said for her not to come into his room, she still did.
8:05, and her heels clicked across the parquet floor. She started to climb: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. He remembered her busting in on him and Catherine the first night she stayed over. Chris warned Catherine, but she thought he was kidding. His mother probably expected to find them naked, or in the middle of something she would never condone outside the sacred covenant of marriage.
Again, she sang as she entered: ‘Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day!’
Another sunny day.
‘I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way!’ Her voice cracked as she stopped singing.
‘Will you come down today? We’d like to talk to you.’
This was code for, we want another chance to convince you to reconcile with Catherine.
‘Maybe,’ Chris said, ‘but can I ask you a question first?’
‘Okay,’ she said.
‘When Dad was unfaithful, like all those times he fucked around on you, did you ever think of leaving him?’
She inhaled sharply, a flush ran across her face and she turned on her heel and left. Chris knew this would happen. He had just broken, according to the net, two of the three rules of confrontation. Was it necessary? Was it kind? He didn’t care; they were doing the same to him.
Chris looked at himself in the mirror, which was the middle panel in the big cupboard at the foot of his bed. He had a smirk on his face. Catherine hated him doing this and had mocked him for it. It was very weird and unsettling, she said, but it was the only mirror he looked good in.
He looked around his room at all his old posters on the walls. They were from his adolescence: The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Radiohead, AD/DC, Manchester United, and an F/A-18. The fighter jet was the biggest and still stood at the head of his bed. One of the ends now hung down with a ball of Blu Tack still in place on the wall. Catherine had scorned this too, saying, ‘why do boys always aspire to such loser-ish things?’
She could bring him down with one sentence. It wasn’t that he wanted to be a fighter pilot, but it annoyed him she thought he did. He had bought the poster when he was twelve, and kept it up on the wall because sometimes he liked to remember himself when he was a lot simpler, childish, when he was scared of things, like girls for example, or when he was small, and the world was a mystery.
The last excuse he gave his wife: when people do bad things, they don’t ask themselves can they get away with it but rather, can they do it without feeling bad. He didn’t feel bad, he didn’t. Why should he?