She’s in bed by the time he gets home, not asleep but in the dark with only the bedside lamp on, playing something on her phone. She’s closed everything up after her, lights out in the rest of the flat, a maze of furniture shadows for him to find his way through in the near-blackness.
It’s late, maybe just coming on midnight, and Jon is exhausted. He’d stayed late doing catch-up paperwork and then missed his train, ended up walking home through a cold drizzle, and of course he hadn’t had his umbrella with him, is spotted with freezing damp all around his collar where his coat couldn’t protect him.
He tosses the coat over the arm of the sofa, glances toward the bedroom with the one light on. Georgie, her face obscured by the light of her phone, propped up on pillows underneath the hanging tapestry they’d found at a charity shop a year or so ago. Some cheap mass-produced mandala thing, but they’d needed wall décor and figured it was worth the pound fifty. A few years ago, it might have made more sense, taste-wise, given how many drugs they were doing, how many long, into-the-wee-hours conversations about the universe and what it all meant. They’d been those kinds of people once, stupid overgrown kids, him and Georgie. It’s different now.
She doesn’t look up from her phone when he passes by the doorway to the bathroom. He sees her eyes roving across the screen, big and dark and LED-lit. He showers quick, just long enough to get the chill out of his bones and dry off properly. His hair is getting long. He snags one of her elastics off the countertop and ties it back, off his neck.
“Hey,” she says, finally, when he comes in, in a fresh T-shirt and boxer briefs and clean socks, but she still doesn’t look up. “You’re back late.”
“Work,” he says. He waits for her to ask about it, but she doesn’t—just rearranges her legs beneath the duvet, sniffs. The color of the light on her face shifts slightly. He could leave it there, climb into bed next to her and drop off in silence like he does most nights now. That’d be the easy route. He fishes in his bag for his own phone and charger cable. “You? Busy day, or.”
Georgie makes a noncommittal noise. “Not really. Just studying.”
He doesn’t want to think about studying, or the specter of schoolwork at all. It’s hard enough balancing a job that pays enough to make rent and keeping on top of uni work. In a few moments of wild fantasy lately he’s thought about what would happen if he dropped it all, quit schooling altogether, but he knows he won’t ever do it, even if he’s miserable—he’s not brave enough. It’s something Georgie might do, he thinks, but never him. And besides, she’d scold him. Tell him he was wasting his potential, his smarts and ambition. Which is true, but it rankles to hear it from her, somehow. Feels patronizing.
Jon plugs in his phone, sets it on the nightstand to charge overnight. Miserable, he thinks, his mind catching on the word and turning it over. He pulls back the corner of the duvet and Georgie shifts to the left slightly to make room for him. The headboard creaks when she leans her weight back against it; the yellow light of the lamp and the blue light of her phone cast fighting shadows on her soft pretty face. He’s going to have to tell her about it soon, he thinks. About being miserable.
He pulls one of the decorative pillows and drops it on the floor, scoots and shuffles and rearranges himself until he’s under the covers. He sleeps cold, which has always annoyed Georgie; he needs a hundred blankets and to curl up tight underneath them, eventually seeking out her body heat in his sleep by instinct. In the morning he usually wakes up with his face pressed against the warm back of her neck, a leg thrown over hers. She used to call him all kinds of names—affectionately, of course. Names of things that stick. This one’s a starfish, she’d said once, at a friend’s place, a birthday party or something, and he’d thought it was kind of sweet, even if she was making fun of him. She never used to mind it. He isn’t sure whether or not she minds it now, but he has woken up once or twice in the middle of the night in the last few months, feeling her gently peeling his limbs off of her, settling him back into his own space. He’s tried not to be hurt about it.
It’s been like that. He isn’t sure when it started or why, really. He lies there next to her, still tapping softly on her phone, looking up at the ceiling. Her program had gotten really tough really quickly, back in January. She’d lost her job. Jon had had to find a way to pay the rent while she looked for another one. He isn’t sure how hard she actually looked, was never bold enough to ask. It’s been months since then. He knows she went to see a counselor once or twice. He got on meds in April but stopped them in June, meds for anxiety, but it was never clear whether or not they worked. A bad year, they’d told themselves, until they stopped saying that, too, and started saying less in general. Bad year. Bad luck. Bad fights.
“Georgie?” he says, still looking at the ceiling.
“Mm-hmm,” she says, absently, in a sing-song voice.
He has to tell her. It’s not a good time, like this, right before they’re supposed to be getting to sleep, getting ready for the next day and the day after that, and the weekend, whatever the weekend is worth. He wonders what she has planned for tomorrow. He thinks about going to work, to the bland fluorescent office with no windows, the clerical position he hates, but needs, to keep a roof over their head. Just until she finishes out the year or gets another job. Just until things get better, they keep saying. He isn’t sure what better means for them anymore; he’s certainly not contributing to it.
As a kid he developed a habit, for when he needed to tell his grandmother something but knew it would make her angry, a sort of way to force himself to spit it out and face the consequences, even when he was scared. Count down from ten mentally and say it at one. Just say it. Get it over with. Ten seconds of prep time and then go. Waiting never makes it any easier, any better.
Ten, nine, eight, seven. She’s still bathed in the light from her phone, her soft features picked out in its light. Six, five, four, three. Fuck him. His hands start to feel tingly. Two, one, fuck it.
“You know last week when—some people from the office went for drinks and I went with.”
He fixes his eyes on the ceiling, already cringing inwardly. Get it over with, he thinks.
“I—I kind of slept with someone. After.”
In his peripheral vision, after a few seconds, the light from the phone disappears.
Jon imagines her, flipping through a mental litany of flash cards, every possible response she could have to what he’s said. Scrolling through them like a Rolodex. Idly, past the beating of his heart, he wonders which one she’ll pick. If she’s even considered this scenario. Maybe she’ll scream at him. Maybe she’ll ask who. Ask for details. When, where. How long. As if any of that really matters.
“Why?” she says, after a little while.
Her voice is calm. Maybe a little tired, with a little of that gravel in it. She’s very still next to him. She’s looking up at the ceiling now, too.
(They stargazed once, at a friend’s bonfire out in the country. They hadn’t meant to end up stargazing; they’d just ended up too drunk to get up from their backs in the grass and she’d started pointing them out. Not constellations—just individual stars, the brightest ones.)
“I don’t know,” he says, which is the truth.
He fidgets through his mind for the reason, past the haze of the last week of work, these last few months of smog and dreary existence. He feels an overwhelming urge to shake his hands out, as if shaking off water. Leftover adrenaline, he thinks. Amazing how quickly it surges and then goes away, once you’ve said what you were afraid of saying. He turns his head on the pillow, not fully—just enough to see her silhouetted against the nightstand lamp, not looking at him. He swallows.
“I think I wanted to hurt you.”
They’d had a nasty row, that morning, before he’d gone to work. It had gotten so off track that he can’t even remember what had set them off, now. It doesn’t take a lot anymore. He knows he’s—a lot, when he loses his temper, and Georgie is easily his equal for shouting, slamming things, pointing fingers, going off on bloody-minded tangents. He remembers yanking the door shut loudly behind him, her still shouting after him all the way down the hall. It had been someone’s birthday at work, someone everyone liked or at least didn’t hate, and he hadn’t wanted to go home to her just then, so he’d gone along, even though he didn’t know or particularly like any of them, just to shut his brain off for a while, just to mellow himself out before he faced her again, and the guy three desks down from him had come on to him, and not that he had done that kind of thing regularly before he met her and especially not since, but.
“Did it work?” he asks, softly.
She’s silent for a while. He thinks he can feel her thinking. Scanning the ceiling. Rifling through the litany again.
“No,” she says eventually, kind of thoughtfully. “I’m just kind of—disappointed, I guess. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
He turns his head back on the pillow, looking up at the ceiling with her.
“Yeah,” he says. “I didn’t either.”
It’s so quiet in their bedroom. Georgie doesn’t like analog clocks, doesn’t like the ticking; Jon hadn’t turned on the standing fan before he got into bed, either. He listens hard for any noise from the street outside, but there isn’t any; they’re secluded enough that nothing really reaches up here. He can hear her breathing, though. Tries to read it. It’s slow and steady. He doesn’t think it’s missed a beat since he opened his mouth. Which is comforting, kind of. Doesn’t make him feel any less like an asshole. But comforting.
“Who with?” she says. He thinks he detects a mild, actual curiosity.
“Oh.” He sighs, runs a hand over his face. “Um. Guy I work with.”
He can’t see her raise her eyebrows, but he hears it in her voice. “Oh.” She pauses. Turns her head toward him; he can hear her hair against the pillow. “Was it any good?”
Jon laughs, mirthlessly. Massages the space between his eyebrows with the pads of his fingers. The shame doesn’t feel like he’d imagined, he thinks. It’s not hot and fluttery, the kind he’d experienced so often as a kid, coming home with disappointing grades or a split lip from a bully to the kind but pitying expressions of his grandmother. It’s duller, flatter. Rests somewhere low in his spine. He imagines it solidifying, like grey concrete. “No,” he says. “Was pretty bad, honestly.”
“So not worth it.”
“No. Not worth it.”
They lapse back into silence again.
When was the last time they had sex, he wonders. It’s hard to remember. Infrequent to begin with, given that his mood and his libido were never very good at staying consistent, even before things got bad this year. He remembers a few false starts, maybe. But he’s felt cold lately, and she’s felt cold, shrinking from one another’s touch. He hadn’t really wanted sex, he thinks, that night at the pub. Had just wanted to get on her nerves, do something that would upset her the way she upset him. What an ugly thing to do to a person, he thinks. But he’s felt pretty ugly for a long time now.
“When was it that we had that big fight and I left for the weekend,” Georgie says, surprising him, her tone conversational, if a little soft, a little awkward. “August?”
“Something like that.”
“When I stayed with Julie.”
“I remember.” He pauses, turns to look at her. “Did you—”
“Almost,” she says. She twists her lip in thought, still scrutinizing the ceiling overhead. “I definitely—I mean I won’t say I didn’t think about it. I was mad at you. I fell asleep before it went anywhere, but. I wanted to.”
He remembers that fight, what that had been about, at least at first. He’d taken the Admiral to have an infection looked at and left his phone at home, had missed about a dozen frantic phone calls from her, each more tearful and upset than the last, a dozen increasingly angry voicemails waiting for him when he’d finally returned with the cat’s prescription. She’d laid into him about how he was her cat and she was worried sick, had botched an oral presentation completely because of the stress, made out like she was going to fail the class which he knew was horseshit and told her so, and she’d packed up the Admiral in his carrier with all his medicine and stormed out. He hadn’t seen her again until the following week, when the Admiral was feeling better and when the sight of him in Jon’s arms had softened her a little bit. But it had still rankled, just like every other fight. Every spat building on one another like bricks in a lousy pyramid, hanging over their heads, ready to collapse and bury them at any moment.
He wonders for a moment if he feels hurt, to hear this. He nudges around inside his heart but can’t find any wounds, any gaps. It’s strange. But he isn’t surprised.
“We’ve been over for a while, haven’t we,” Georgie says softly, into the dimness.
Jon exhales, slowly.
They just hadn’t talked about it, really. They’d stopped talking. That was the problem, along with every other problem. It had stopped feeling like anything. Had begun to seem like a chore to exist in the same space with one another, sharing food and friends, talking about the mundane things, caring about one another’s lives, dealing with one another’s breakdowns and stresses and bad days and bad moods. They’d just gone quiet, he thinks. This is the longest conversation they’ve had in a month, and it’s their breakup.
“I’m sorry,” he says, picking at the hem on the duvet. The thread is loose. He balls it up between his fingers.
He can’t tell if she believes him, or if he even believes himself. Or if it matters at all.
“Yeah,” she says. “Okay.”
Ten, fifteen more minutes they lie there in silence. It’s warm underneath the duvet with her. He’s always liked her heat and her weight on the mattress, a nice divot for him to dip into. He’s liked falling asleep in the smell of her hair, waking up with his cheek smushed against her shoulder. He hasn’t had that in a long time. He’s going to miss it, he thinks, when he gets to the point of missing her, which he’s certain he will. He cares about her, really. She cares about him too. He’s known her long enough to know that. She’s a good person, Georgie. A fundamentally decent person who cares about people, even when they try to hurt her. Even when she tries to hurt them back.
“I’ll sleep on the couch,” he says eventually, and she doesn’t tell him not to. She watches him sit up, gather his blankets from under the duvet to carry into the cold living room. She hands him his pillow, smoothes her hand over the warm spot he’s left on the sheets.
“Goodnight,” she says, as he’s slipping out through the door.
“Goodnight,” he says. He can’t remember the last time they wished each other goodnight.
He thinks about it, while he sets up the sofa to sleep on. Pillow against one arm, blankets spread out on the cushion. In here the only light is the streetlamp outside, filtered through the blinds. They never got around to putting curtains up in here. Georgie had liked the sunset view over the building across the way.
He thinks he feels okay. Maybe that’ll change tomorrow, or the next day, when she starts looking for a new place, starts packing up her things to move out. But right now he feels okay. He’s glad that he told her. He’s glad that they talked about it. Made themselves clear for once. He’ll help her, of course, help her move. Maybe they’ll talk more—with the burden of everything lifted, maybe they can make some sense of where things went sour. Closure. Maybe somewhere down the line they can even be friendly again. He’d like that, he thinks. He feels okay about that.
The light goes out in the bedroom as he’s wriggling under the blankets, laying his head down on the cool pillow, facing the dark of the flat. He closes his eyes. Counts down from ten, toward the void of sleep, the warmth of his breath on the blankets. Not her warmth, but it’ll be okay, he thinks. He’ll learn to live with his own.