By Hannah Lee, 2011
Hugh gasped into consciousness. His hands instinctively raced across his chest to the warm caves of his armpits and his thick chin tucked itself into the warm blonde curls of his chest. It was only when the cold fear of his nightmare finally faded, that he let out a deflating sigh and gave himself another ten minutes to play dead.
In postponing a badly needed shower, Hugh’s nostrils drank in the familiar scent of his oily morning hair and the ghosts of twenty-five cigarettes from the night before. The nicotine patches, the gum, the coffee, the cheap fast food and nail biting just weren’t enough to replace a packet of smooth Marlboros. After five days of pushing his limits, Hugh resorted to a lot of cologne, arm flapping, open windows and secret smoking hours in which his wife and children weren’t present. The memory of his twin daughters looking up at him in their matching pajamas shot him in the head. “Very naughty Daddy! Smoking makes you die!” they had said in unison. It was the most bizarre thing Hugh had seen in his life. And rather than feeling adoration for his daughters and their concern for his black lungs, he felt nothing but a strange macabre fear of them. When they had gone to bed, he had lit up a cigarette and laughed out loud for no reason.
In fact, from the moment he first laid eyes on their writhing fleshy bodies, squealing like stuck pigs in their mother’s blood, he had felt that fear. It twisted his intestines and drew all feeling from his head, as though someone had suctioned his brains into his big toes. Of course, nine months ago he’d shown so much joy and excitement when Lisa showed him her positive pregnancy test. He’d used words like “wonderful” and “happy” to describe the prospect of a baby but what he really wanted was to just be a part of that exclusive club of fathers his friends had become, receive attention from his parents, and prove that he was ready to grow up. But after nine months of raising this fantasy, his wife gave birth to a reality so monstrous that Hugh stayed well away from it. He buried himself in his work, spent more time with his co-workers and knocked back a few glasses of Scotch before chasing his daughters around the TV room for a kiss.
The effort taken to say the name made Hugh exhausted. He waited for his wife to reply with a small grunt or even an annoyed shuffle in the sheets beside him. But Lisa did neither of these things because she was standing in their kitchen, angrily scrambling eggs and waiting for Hugh to walk in through the door with foul breath and another excuse for coming home so late. Hugh simply thought she was ignoring him, and the silence made the familiar taste of anger sting.
Why did she always have to make him feel like a child? Even if he had been smoking behind her back for the past few months, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t tried to quit. Smoking was just who he was. None of his colleagues seemed to have trouble at home in regards to their nasty habits of drinking and smoking so why did he have to get shit for it? Hugh suddenly felt a strong consuming desire to pummel his fists into the pillow and kick his legs wildly in the empty bed. He felt like thrashing his entire body like an epileptic fit. But he remained absolutely still, just thinking about it.
When his anger lifted, Hugh placed a hand under his pillow and brought his legs up into the cold regions of the bed so that he resembled a lopsided question mark. He remained in this position for a while trying to go back to sleep, but a queer sadness rested unsettlingly in his chest like indigestion in his heart. Strangely, Hugh couldn’t define what the feeling was. There was no word in his mental vocabulary that could describe it because it was a very particular type of sadness that differed from his general bouts of childish mood swings. Like a doctor, Hugh tried to diagnose himself.
It was all of these things and yet, none of them.
Chloe awoke to this very feeling. She too couldn’t define it, but it was nevertheless a feeling she was familiar with. As she awoke from a dream she couldn’t remember, Chloe felt the sadness emerging from the numb layers of tiredness that tied her to the bed. She felt like a patient in a hospital with no visitors, an old woman who hadn’t gotten out of bed for years, a zombie that was just awakening in a deserted graveyard.
Feeling weak enough to be invisible, Chloe dug a finger into the crusty mascara-filled crevices of her eyes and forced the gunk out with tiny circular motions. She didn’t want to get up. She didn’t want to go to school. And even if it was the weekend, she just wanted to remain in bed until dinnertime. She didn’t even want to talk to her friends as they would undoubtedly ask about the night before, feigning concern to weed out dirty gossip or an amusing story.
At the thought of her friends, Chloe immediately began embellishing on the events of the night before, decorating the story with exaggeration and dotting it here and there with funny moments that never actually happened. This was a force of habit. And as she imagined the story, dressed fashionably with small lies, Chloe let a dry smile crawl across her freckled face as she started convincing herself of the fairy-tale events. But while she enjoyed having her friends cling to every word she said, Chloe also caught herself in moments of sudden unease, caginess and shame after each lie. She hated this feeling as much as she loved the highs of lying.
Chloe scooped up a handful of blanket and tucked it under her pimply chin, wondering if this morning’s blues had stemmed from the guilt of her tall tales. Or perhaps the feeling was just a crushing hangover from being drunk on too much excitement last night. Perhaps her conscience was waist deep in consequences, not enjoying the guilty pool of irresponsibility and idiocy she had displayed in her drunken state.
Last night, Chloe had felt like an adult. She had felt as though she was finally pressing her fingers against the perimeter of the world her two older sisters belonged to – the world of long-term boyfriends, English majors and university parties. She had fallen asleep feeling like an adult, but found herself waking up to being a child, a kid, a mama’s brat. She was the child who, after experimenting with her mother’s lipstick and trying on shoes too big for her feet, must quickly destroy the evidence of such silliness with a Kleenex and a speedy return to the playpen where she belonged.
Chloe turned over in her bed, and the warmth of it suddenly felt putrid like a tepid nook in which bacteria multiplies. A sickening, dulled sense of panic consumed her fragile fourteen year old frame and in a therapy session she would later have with her counselor, Chloe would describe her feelings about this moment by pointing to the color grey. She was not alone in the bed – a stretch of hard skin loomed before her like a map of sunspot destinations and wrinkled roads. His back was large and menacing despite how gentle the ups and downs of his deep breathing were – in, out, in, and out, in, hold, and out. Chloe knew that this was her chance to pick up her strewn clothes, littered all over the motel’s cheap maroon carpeted floor, and leave the man with no face. She could run to a quiet place, double-over and soothe her panic with words her mother would say if she weren’t such a bitch. But she didn’t get out of the bed and run away. The curious and drama-hungry half of her mind clung to the sheets with stubborn claws and her eyes centered on a single mole on the man’s back. She felt she could remain in this position for hours.
Hugh, on the other hand, had no desire to stay or prolong this painful reality when he finally opened his eyes and saw the half open door of the motel bathroom. Realizing he was not in his own home, his own bed or with his wife, memories of the night before came running in from the yellow-brown tiles and thin towels that hung limply from a rusty rack. And a squeeze of rum even jerked back up into his throat with a touch of bile, as though to add extra flavor to the nasty awakening. Mistakes don’t become learning curves when you’re forty. They become permanent records that confuse you of how old you really are. With pinches of panic and dread splintered into the hypersensitive shades of his heart, Hugh turned his bulky body around to face Chloe.
She looked up at him with tired old eyes. And he looked down on her with the eyes of a frightened child.