Wednesday Write-In #32

This week’s prompt words are:

cardboard cut-out  ::  exhale  ::  brittle  ::  gleam  ::  acrid



The Perfect Family

Your acrid breath wakes me. Once upon a time, it would have been your gentle, giggling kiss, but I can’t remember the last time you touched me out of anything other than duty or, at best, simple kindness. I watch your face, frowning even in sleep, for a few moments. When you exhale, it sounds like a sigh.

‘Hey,’ I whisper, nudging you gently. ‘Come on. It’s time.’ Your frown deepens and your eyes start to move, rolling back and forth behind your taut, yellowish lids.

‘Wmff?’ You lick your lips and your eyes flick open for a split second. ‘What time is it?’ Your voice is early-morning hoarse.

‘Going for seven,’ I answer. ‘We need to move if we’re to make it.’ You roll away from me and scrub at your face with your fingers, worn thin. Your wedding band catches the light, gleaming as brightly now as it ever did. As it ever will.

‘Right,’ you say, flinging off your covers. ‘Thanks.’

‘Yup,’ I reply, my skin puckering in the sudden gush of cold air. ‘Turn on the heating, will you?’

‘Really?’ you say, pulling your hair into a rough bun. ‘We’ll be gone within the hour. It’s hardly worth the effort, is it?’ You turn away and start to rub some sort of cream into your face.

I warm up in the shower instead. I’m as quick as I can be, but by the time I come out you’ve already gone downstairs. I hear the clink of crockery as you finish your breakfast.

It’s a brittle sort of day, snow-clouds sitting low on the horizon, needles in every breath. By the time we reach the motorway conditions improve a bit. The road is warmed with traffic and dotted with grit. We make better time.

‘Strange weather, isn’t it?’ I say, squinting at the sky. You neither look up nor answer me.

‘We need to take Exit Four,’ you announce, tapping on your phone. ‘There’s been an accident on the old road, and it’s closed to traffic.’ I thank you, but you just busy yourself checking email. I can hear the soft bleep every time a new message comes in. Each one demands your full attention, and I don’t dare to put on the radio for fear I might disturb you. After a few minutes, a sharp pain in my shoulder starts to impact on my concentration, and I relax my grip on the steering wheel as much as I can. But it’s never enough.

A man in a high-visibility vest guides us to the appropriate car park once we arrive. His face is almost entirely muffled with a scarf and hat, and he jogs on the spot to keep from freezing solid. It’s still snowing, and the wind is blowing the flakes into soft drifts. I drive slowly, keeping my eyes peeled for a space.

‘There,’ you say, tapping my arm gently. I feel it like a spider’s bite, warm and aching, radiating through my flesh. ‘Take care – it’s slippery.’

‘I’m fine,’ I mutter, nudging the car in beside its gleaming neighbour. A new BMW. Don’t hit it. You hold your breath until we’re parked, and I’m not sure what’s in the look you shoot me as I switch off the engine. It’s not pride, it’s not relief. It’s not gratefulness. That’s all I know.

We slide up through the campus, toward the Conferring Centre. Gaily painted signs direct our every step, and before too long we’re stamping off the snow in the vestibule, trying to make ourselves presentable. I hold the door for you as we follow the crowds into the Centre, up a corridor with a long mirror to our right.

‘There he is,’ I say, quickening my pace. ‘He’s in his robes already.’ As if he hears my voice, my son turns towards us. Tall, beautiful like you. I feel a throb in my chest as I look at him. I smile, and call his name. I see him looking at us, first at his mother and then at me; he raises his hand to wave, and then lets it drop to his side again. His grin fades, and from here I can feel his heart breaking. He shakes his head gently and turns back to his friends.

‘What have you told him?’ you hiss. ‘I thought we were saying nothing until his big day was over!’ You grab my arm and we stop, people milling past us. Joyful reunions are going on all around, and the room is filled with happiness and pride. Reflections flicker in the mirror behind you and I raise my eyes to look at us.

We are a cardboard cut-out, a painting. We are an anatomical diagram. The Husband. The Wife. The Perfect Family. Arrows point to our notable features. Our faces are blank with formaldehyde. We are fooling nobody.

‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Just one more day.’

As we walk towards our boy, you slide your hand into mine. I’m not sure if you’re urging me on, or holding me back.

15 thoughts on “Wednesday Write-In #32

  1. Elaine Peters

    A very poignant snapshot of the end of a marriage, and I love all your descriptions, eg ‘needles in every breath’. I didn’t know which was which at the beginning, until the hair went into a bun (and I think she would have had a shower!). Beautiful.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Elaine – I’m glad you enjoyed the descriptions. I see what you mean about it being more likely that she’d have had the shower, but it just seemed to work better for me the way it is. It says more to me about her character and frame of mind if she ‘makes do’ with cleaning her face. But thank you for your comment, and I really appreciate that you took the time to read the story. 🙂

  2. aanderand

    The perfect musical accompaniment would be Amanda Palmer’s, ‘The Bed Song’. I like the way you ended it, are they going forward or not, that is always the question at the end of a relationship.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Ha! Yes, actually, it would! I’m still in recovery after watching the video for ‘Bed Song’. I think I wept for about a week. It wasn’t consciously on my mind when I wrote this, but I think I’ll go and play it now. Thanks, Rand. 🙂

  3. Sam E.A.B. Russell (@thequietscribe)

    You create such convincing realism that I forget that I’m reading.

    The pacing here is deftly handled. There’s a slowness to the narrative which gives space for everything without making it feel baggy. I’m especially drawn to how this pace is mirrored in the characters themselves, the differences in how they move through their lives, together but apart at the same time. It gives a deeper sense of how one lingers and one is desperate to move on, something that you touch upon in the last line.

    You’ve given an accurate portrayal of the the facade throughout but it feels like an incomplete picture. Of course, you don’t need a full-on description of how they appear as the perfect family – that would make it too heavy and binary – but if you were to draw this idea of perfection out, how would you do it?

    Where would it sit within the text? What would be the indicators and how would you make them stand out without them being commonplace?

    Your imagery is subtle and fitting for the situation. The idea of a road being warmed by traffic is so comforting, and the spider bite is delicate enough to convey everything without actually having to say it.

    What I love most is how everything is reported through the narrator. I like not being able to know a character through anyone else other than the MC. It’s unreliable and as close to life as you can get. The fact that the MC could have entirely the wrong idea about everything is so tempting. Again, it’s another demonstration of how you manage the internal lives of those you write.

    Nice work SJ. I’m fat becoming a fan…

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Aw! Sam, thanks so much. Your comments are always so thoughtful and considered, not to mention helpful.

      I’m *really* chuffed that you like my work. I admire yours, too – I’m already a fan. 🙂

  4. Emmaleene Leahy

    I really like your use of the second person narration, it really emphasises the intimacy, feels like we are reading a love letter or final farewell letter, something private between the couple at the end of the relationship. I like the way he points out all of the things that he does for his wife that she doesn’t even notice. The narrator’s tone, when he talks about his wife, is so tender that it evokes an emtional response in the reader. You did a very skillful job of depicting the distance between the couple but also the fact that the narrator doesn’t seem to accept it. The ambiguity at the end does a great job of emphasising his sense of hope/denial.
    It’s funny how we both wrote about similar characters in similar sitautions!
    Really enjoyed this well done.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      😀 Isn’t it funny? I think your Joan character is a bit more upset than the wife in my story though. Probably for good reason. 🙂

      Thanks for your lovely feedback. I hope you found mine helpful, too.

  5. Brinda

    Hi SJ — enjoyed this piece, loved the deftness, the pace, descriptions. Interesting that you chose the husband’s POV and I think you did him justice. Particularly telling lines for me: ‘It was not pride, it was not relief, it was not gratefulness. That’s all I know.’ You show us a world of bewildered hurt in those few words.


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