Games We Play, by Julia Bernhardtz

This week, she’s out of love. She doesn’t want to make the coffee, arrange the newspapers in the right order, to squeeze the oranges. This week, she feels no connection to the person sitting opposite of her, though she tries her best not to show it. Every forced smile, the little kisses they share in doorways and across the table; she leans in for them, initiates them, but does not truly want them. She worries (no need for a stronger word) that she no longer loves him. However, she has learned not to trust her feelings.

She longs desperately to be alone in this house. It never happens. She has no reason to be in the outside world. She has some money, but spends it on nothing. She has some nice clothes she could go out wearing, but where to? He doesn’t leave the house much. He’s productive anyway. He likes spending time with her. She does like (make that love) to spend time with him too. It’s petty really, she thinks, these feelings she has of being, not necessarily trapped, but locked in, though with access to the key. It’s petty, because she’s not. Perhaps she is only trying to complicate the trivial things in life because she believes herself to be complicated; she cannot feel what everyone feels, cannot go through what everyone else at some point also goes through. She needs to have another reason, a higher reason, one that might just mean something more.

She is ashamed of wanting solitude. She knows this does not make sense but nevertheless, she feels like she would somehow be betraying him, their love, if she so much as whispered about this.

She lifts her gaze from the newspaper to the window behind James’ head (bent-down, one hand absent-mindedly stirring his cup of coffee, his eyes rapidly moving across the page. A pang of recognition, but no, this week she is supposed to believe she is not feeling any affection). Their neighbours, though that implies some sort of relationship; she has never spoken a word to them and does not even know their names, have as per usual opened all the windows, even the balcony doors which gives you a direct view of their kitchen where they are presently eating breakfast. They seem to be completely absorbed in their own world, but sometimes she wonders if they do this not so much for her benefit, but know that she is watching and do not mind. Maybe they are the kind of couple that fight in the morning but because of her, they refrain from it. The husband does not throw away his bland tea untouched, the wife doesn’t launch into a tirade about her doing all the housework. She started watching them years ago, when she got so ill. Propped up on pillows in her chair, James helped her to the kitchen every day where she would look at them for hours. Towards the end of her recovery, she got bolder and pulled away the curtains from her window completely; she had some vague feeling that, when she was healthy again, this habit of hers would somehow be illicit. Her sickness made it justifiable. But now it is three years later. The wife is pregnant and, she believes, hoping that this child will be a boy. She has always had the idea that the wife does not much like her daughters, and she seems like the kind of woman who would have a problem with them simply because they are girls. Is that self-abasing in some way, she wonders. She turns her head and looks around the room. This is her house. This is the only place where ownership means something and indeed, the only place she dares to claim it. She gets up, goes to the kitchen counter and washes her cup, and then the dishes left-over from yesterday. That had been a nice evening but then that was Sunday, and this week she’s all out of love. She isn’t used to being consistent. Her only consistency is changing her mind frequently. She puts the last bowl away, dries her hands and turns to James: “I am going for a drive.” It’s so strange to speak. She can feel it in her throat right now; as if she is unused to it, hasn’t really done it before, though she spoke not fifteen minutes ago (”Coffee?”). Maybe it was the words. She is suggesting something, actually doing something and it isn’t even nine in the morning yet. This sort of ambition hasn’t been seen in her all summer. This determination. It is different.

James looks up and says “Okay, Jane.” He doesn’t seem the least bit surprised.

She likes stories where nothing happens. She is thinking about this while she is driving, drifting really, aimlessly, because her car journey doesn’t interest her. James always pesters her about her reading the wrong books, always written by women, where the biggest revelation might only be that the protagonist bought the wrong flowers. He does not see that buying the wrong flowers means so much more than a suicide. If this was a book and she was driving in the mountains and the story was James’s, she would drive off a cliff. He likes finality. In her book, the woman in the car would just contemplate suicide, the freedom that comes with giving up control over the car and let it take her wherever it wanted. Then she would go home, and she would do the laundry. Jane would never do something final. She lets things meander on, and fails not to think too much about it. She is at her happiest when she does not think. To think is to lose hope.

She is suddenly overtaken by a lorry, and her thoughts halt. She is never nervous while driving, but normally cautious. After the lorry has passed, she swerves and parks at the side of the road. She opens the window, then the entire car door and lets in the breeze. It really is a lovely morning, she thinks. The cars rushing by, the birds chirping, somewhere a distant sound from machines. All she wants is silence, but not from this. From James. Even when he is quiet, he is loud. His silence speaks volumes. But this is something I am making up, she thinks, and she is right. James never means anything by his silences; if he needs to speak, he does so. She always makes too much of his silence, and of his talking. He says something and she hears something else. Once he said “You might be dying.” Quietly, with infinite sadness, kindness. He said it because she denied it vehemently, fiercely. She knew this was not her time; unlike most people, she wants to grow old. She needs to age. She will be so much better when she is old.

Jane sits in the car for two hours. She is counting the cars going by, but loses track around fifty. She knows nothing of cars, not like James, who used to work in a garage before he pursued writing. He writes biographies of important English people. He has also published three novels, none of which has sold very well. The reviews have been a mixed bag (if she is to be kind). He doesn’t understand it. She knows it is because he is not a good writer. She can’t tell him that.

His world scares her. The literary world scares her. The parties they attend, the people they meet, the things discussed. She is panicky days before she has to meet them. Standing next to James, she is trembling. Why? She should love it. She knows about literature, having published a few poetry collections herself, all respected. She has retired now. Most people seem to take that the way she wants them to: that it was because of her falling so ill, and that she hasn’t been up to it since. It wasn’t her illness. Jane stopped writing because one day she decided she had to keep her thoughts to herself. It was the only option available.

When Jane wakes up the watch on her wrist shows that it is past noon.  She doesn’t remember falling asleep. She should get home. Does one really exist during the time one cannot account for? It seems strange to her that someone else could have seen her during the times she is not aware of her own existence.

James is nowhere to be seen; Jane knew this even while still outside, parking the car. She is dramatic, despite her best intentions not to be, and thinks he has left her. She knows that he will not be in the house when she enters it. He might be out buying groceries but he wouldn’t go to the supermarket at this hour. She tries to recall some previously mentioned engagement, but there is none. She decides that he has left her and goes to the armchair to read Virginia Woolf. She rarely reads anything else.

Three hours later and James is still gone. Jane irons the curtains, which she never normally does. She cleans the bathroom. She smokes a cigarette, not hers. Leaning out from the French windows, she sees James coming down the street. She stubs the cigarette out and hides it in an already dying plant. She sprays some perfume in the room and thinks about her past illness.

When he walks through the door, she knows she loves him, deeply and irrevocably. When he goes past her, gently brushing his fingers against her back as he does so, she thinks, This too shall pass. Deep down, Jane has always known that things are simple. They are what they seem. This is just a game she plays.

Julia Bernhardtz was born in 1989. She has previously been published in the magazines Skriva, Populär Poesi and the anthology Varför gråter havssköldpaddan?

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