About this story: Many of my short stories explore themes including mental illness, loss, trauma, abuse, death – sudden death, uncertain death, slow death, suicide – and the nature of our relationship with these events when they occur in our lives. This story is one of them.
It’s 3am and I’m awake. Stiff with tension, breathing heavily, hands shaking, I’m thinking about it again, running through it over and over in my mind. It’s a nightly occurrence, this need to torture myself with the guilt, the what ifs, the if onlys. Still. It’s nothing less than I deserve.
We were going out that morning to meet with friends. A rare treat since having kids. I was excited, looking forward to the opportunity for adult conversation and being able to relinquish some responsibility – or at least share the responsibility for looking after Cody. Alex was coming too, also a rare event. I saw it as a chance for him to bond with his son, take a break from working, be a dad for a while.
Alex and Beck and Cody. It was a kind of family game we’d thought was cute: A, B, C. I loved Alex passionately. I was so lucky to have him. Everyone said so. Kind, generous, good looking. He was a great dad, when he gave himself the time. He was also a great worrier and workaholic. He felt the weight of the responsibility of providing for us, for his family, acutely. He didn’t want to let us down, wanted to make sure we always had enough, never wanted for anything. The only thing we wanted for was his time and attention. He was hardly ever there. And even when he was there, he wasn’t. Not really. There always seemed to be something more important to command his attention or make him fret. I wanted him to spend more time with us both, to have the chance to see how wonderful it was to be with Cody. What a wonderful thing Cody was. No that’s wrong. Cody was not a thing. How wonderful Cody was.
I had to wake Cody that morning; he slept later than usual. He looked so beautiful asleep, like a carving of a child. Ethereal, unreal. Sometimes I just stood in his room and watched him sleep, listened to him breathe. I often wondered if he was really mine, what I’d done to deserve such a treasure. But I didn’t appreciate his beauty that morning. I was annoyed he was still sleeping because I didn’t want to be late. Didn’t want to miss out on a moment with our friends.
He was grizzly because I woke him, stubbornly refusing to hurry up and dress, eat breakfast, get ready to go. By the time we left, I was irritable and annoyed with him. He demanded to be able to take his goldfish. A completely unreasonable request which he refused to be reasonable about. But then, he was only 3. Heavily pregnant with his sister (D – Deb? Dani?), I gave up arguing and made Alex pack the blasted goldfish into a plastic bag, filled with water and air, tied securely to avoid disaster.
Disaster avoidance. That’s what we were aiming for. Ironic really. We were trying to keep the goldfish safe. We focused on the wrong potential disaster. Easy to say in hindsight. If only we’d seen it coming…. Oh here they come. The what ifs. The if onlys. The endless attempts to weave a different story, to create a different ending. But there’s no point in going down that path. I can’t change the ending now. It took a shrink to get that through to me.
I try some of the exercises she’s given me. Breathe slowly and deeply, concentrate on the breath, on slowing down the heart rate. But my head keeps overruling my heart, speeding it up again, forcing my breath to become shallow and laboured. I try the Stop! Change strategy. It’s so difficult to haul my mind away from those well worn torturous trackways. You’d think I’d want to get off those paths, forge new, more pleasant ones. But still I can’t let go or move on. I know where that phrase comes from now, stuck in a rut.
It was a lovely place for a picnic. A green park with a kids playground on the harbour. Safe beach for kids, shallow, no waves. The playground wasn’t fenced but the beach was, to keep out the sharks. Such a beautiful sunny day. Kids were running from the playground to the beach, jumping in the water, running back dripping and laughing, spinning around on the twirly toys or swinging as high as they could on the swings. They looked like they were having so much fun. I smiled, thinking about how much fun Cody would have playing while we chatted. I wasn’t worried about the beach; Cody could swim ok and besides, if he wanted to swim, Alex would keep an eye on him.
But he didn’t want to play, at least not without me. He was still grizzly and wanted to cling to me. He didn’t want me to sit and chat with our friends. He wanted me to play with him, demanded my undivided attention. I can see his little face so clearly, all screwed up, tears streaming down his face as he clutched his goldfish bag to his chest, tugging on my hand and trying to drag me away from my friends, over to the playground. Alex was chatting with the men around the BBQ, beer in hand. It was never Alex Cody clung to or demanded attention from. I envied him that freedom. After a while, I gave up trying to chat and took Cody over to the playground.
I pushed him and the goldfish on the swing, smiling at his belly laughter. When he tired of that, I helped him ‘teach’ his goldfish how to climb a tree. Be careful, I said. Hold onto her tight. You don’t want her to fall or for her bag to break. No, he’d agreed thoughtfully. She can’t live without her water. He was hungry then, and we went back to our friends for a snack. I was secretly relieved; this was a chance to resume those longed for adult conversations.
But it didn’t last long. I want to take Goldie swimming, he said. With you mummy. No, I said. If you take Goldie swimming here, you’ll never see her again. She’ll be gone. I told him I wanted to stay and chat with the other adults for a while, that it was my turn. I told him he could go play by himself or with the other kids. He shook his head, bottom lip trembling. I introduced him to our friends kids, hoping he’d go play with them. But he hid behind me and refused to talk to them. Why don’t you ask daddy to play with you? No, you, he said. He kept insisting he wanted to take Goldie swimming – he thought she’d love to swim in such a big bowl – getting more and more upset with my refusals to let him or to go with him.
I could feel my frustration rising again. I decided to be firm. It would be good for him to learn that sometimes he has to give other people a turn. That it’s not always about him. Isn’t that what they say? Firm boundaries. Simple rules. Kids like that. My mother was always telling me I was too soft on him, that he had me wrapped around my little finger, that I need to say no more often or I would turn him into a spoilt brat. I wish now I’d never listened to her. But it doesn’t do any good to wish does it? They say, if you wish hard enough anything can happen. Wishes are supposed to be comforting. Something to give you hope. But that’s a lie. Wishes are empty promises, false hopes. They make you believe you can get something unattainable.
He wandered off after I’d set the rules for him, scuffing the ground with his toes sadly. I’d made him leave Goldie with me, just in case. I didn’t want him to take her swimming on his own. All I wanted was some time with other adults, the chance to chat and catch up with friends. I just wanted him to go and play and enjoy himself and let me enjoy myself too. For a little while. But it’s very hard to reason with a 3 year old. In Cody’s eyes, I didn’t want to play with him anymore. I wanted to spend time with these other people and not him. For all I know, he could have thought I meant forever. Never again. He didn’t understand what a little while meant. But I know what never again feels like.
I kept an eye on him as I chatted. He sulked for a while, then got interested in what some other kids were doing. He seemed happy, spinning and climbing and digging in the sandpit. I started to relax, to check in less with where he was and what he was up to, got more engrossed in my conversations. I saw Alex go over and chat with him, pick him up and take him down to the beach. A few minutes later, Alex came over and asked me for Goldie. Why? I asked. He shrugged. Cody wants to take her swimming with him. I already told him he can’t, I said. Alex looked at me. Why not, he said. Can’t hurt to float the bag in the water. How is it that men make these things seem so simple? Harmless? I sighed and handed the goldfish over.
Stop there. People say there are moments in life, points in time that are markers. Pivotal moments. The sort of time stop you will remember for the rest of your life because they have such an impact, good or bad. That was the pivotal moment. The moment everything changed. I should never have given him that stupid bloody goldfish. I can see it now, the slightly sheepish, slightly bemused expression on Alex’s face, as though I was being silly about something that wasn’t that big a deal. I can’t let myself continue down this deeply rutted path. I need to stop now, change course. Think about something else. I don’t want to think about what came next. And yet I can’t not. I can’t think about anything else. It’s all consuming. I want to think about it but I don’t want the ending to always be the same. But it’s always the same. That’s what I can’t bear.
I know there’s no point trying any of the shrinks’ exercises now. I’m past the point of no return. There’s no getting off this path now. He’s no longer here. This is the only way I have to bring him back.
Alex and Cody and Goldie came back when lunch was ready. We ate and laughed and talked. Cody ate a sausage sandwich, then ran back to play. He was much happier, less clingy. He seemed satisfied now that Goldie had had a ‘swim’. I was amused by that, by how right Alex had been. It hadn’t been a big deal after all. It was so nice to catch up with friends. I was enjoying myself and the conversations immensely. Alex was chatting with his friends over by the playground – the men were keeping an eye on the kids. He hadn’t looked at his phone or checked Twitter for quite a while, a good sign that he was actually relaxed.
A little later, Cody ran up and asked me something. I was in the middle of a robust art discussion, something I was very passionate about. I didn’t take much notice of what he’d asked, I was just glad he wasn’t grizzling. I said yes to whatever it was and he ran off happily.
It wasn’t until sometime later, when Alex came and asked me where Cody was that I realised Goldie was missing. Wasn’t he in the playground with you, I asked, a slight edge of panic to my voice. No, I thought he came to find you, he said. I tried to remember, then, what Cody had asked me when I’d last seen him. It seemed like years ago now. He said something about going swimming with you, I thought. Didn’t he come back and get you? We both looked at each other. I saw the fear on Alex’s face and wondered if I looked the same. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I felt as though I couldn’t move.
I feel that way now, lying rigidly in bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark, reliving this moment like it was yesterday. My heart palpitates, my mouth is so dry I can’t swallow. Even then, before I knew the ending, I was too scared to find it out. I didn’t want to know. But I had to know. Where was Cody?
Who knows what goes through the mind of a 3 year old? Perhaps he thought Goldie wouldn’t go very far from him if he let her out of her bag for a swim. Maybe he wanted to swim with her. Maybe he thought that if he swam with her, she would give him magical powers that would make him into a fish, so he could swim under the water just like her, and breathe water rather than air. He wouldn’t have understood why a goldfish would die in salt water, or even that she wasn’t swimming, that it was the currents pulling her body away from him, out into the deeper water. It was Alex who found his body, so tiny and small, in waist deep water in the corner of the fenced off beach pool, bumping against the steel posts. Close enough together to keep sharks out, and to stop the drowned bodies of small children from getting through. Small comfort.
I’m crying now, shaking all over, trying not to bawl, not to wake up the whole house. I only remember moments from the rest of that day and the weeks that followed. I know I collapsed. Went into labour. There was an ambulance. Police. Doctors. Questions. Lots of questions. I thought I was going to die. Wanted to die. I couldn’t die. What about the baby? At least save the child, even if the mother dies. A coffin. So small. Did the baby die? But then I’d remember: it was Cody who died. It all gets muddled in my mind, the order things happened.
After that, nothing was the same. I found it hard to love our daughter. I felt like all my love had gone with Cody. That I needed to pour everything I had into him, into the memory of him, to hold on to him and keep him with me. In some deluded part of my mind, I thought maybe that would bring him back. I could not believe he was gone. Would not accept it. I had no strength, no courage, no room for bravery. Neither of us did, especially for each other. But we did at least still have each other. That’s something to be thankful for, right? my shrink had said. I’m not sure it was though. Not really. We tried to be brave, tried to hold on to us, to what was left of our family.
Alex took the easy way out. He never forgave himself. Or me. I found him on a day that was perfectly ordinary one minute and perfectly shattering the next. Well as ordinary as any day was then, in the aftermath. It was just a day at least, which had held no clue that it might be any different to any of the other endless blank days. But I couldn’t reach him, couldn’t get through to him. No one could. He couldn’t even look me in the eye, couldn’t bear to be around me, to hold our baby daughter. He was terrified of her, of himself with me. It’s a terrible thing to lose trust in someone, but when that someone is you, it’s an impossible thing to live with. I should know. I live it everyday.
He was hanging from the balcony, his belt around his throat. He looked so undignified, so ugly. Like a carcass in an abattoir. This is not how I want to remember him but such images stick in the mind. I was so angry with him, then. But what I’ve never worked out is whether I was angry because he’d left me to deal with all this shit on my own, the selfish bastard, or because he’d managed to do what I couldn’t bring myself to do. He’d made good his escape from this relentless grief, the inability to live with yourself and the internal torture. I’m not angry any more, all these years later. But I still miss him. I miss them both so much.
The sun is starting to come up now. There’ll be no more sleep for me tonight. Today is Daniella’s 10th birthday. She’s all I have left, my reason for living. I have to be brave for her. Put on my happy face. She never met her brother, doesn’t remember her father, my first family. They exist only for her as stories, wisps at the edges of her existence, reasons for her mothers’ sadness. An abstraction she can’t quite grasp.
I look down at Lisa. There is no man in my life now; we’re an all female family. It’s less distressing for me that way. She’s awake, watching me. She smiles up at me sleepily. Have you been awake long, she asks. The usual, I say. She doesn’t say anything, just reaches over and squeezes my hand. I smile at her, my lovely lover. She puts up with so much and never complains, never judges. I don’t deserve her, but I’m grateful to her, really I am.
© Bea Pierce, 2014