The hot breath of two AM ghosts over my stomach. There is a drop of sweat on point in every pore, an army ready to advance over my skin’s desert in the dark. His pillow burns with once-familiar absence. Next door, he snores. It’s all happening again.
He used heat as an excuse. Too hot to lie together, side by side in the same small room when the air itself feels like lead. But he’s started writing again too: his scribbles and odd notes scattered all over the study floor. A whole year since he wrote a poem.
He bought me flowers yesterday. They wilted in the heat. I don’t know why he thinks that they help. At times like these we never argue. Or rather, he won’t, no matter how hard I try. When it’s just the two of us, we argue. Plate-smashingly, frantically, orgiastically argue. I have his full attention then, and I love it. No matter how much he shouts I know I’m all he’s got in those times. No poetry, no mistress.
I must lie still. It’s hard not to panic in heat like this, hard not to feel trapped, claustrophobic in your own lungs and body. Stillness is the only way to fight it. Passive resistance. If I move it will get worse. If I move the bed will creak and I might wake him.
There was heat like this in Greece, on our honeymoon: August, almost too hot to bear. I sat in the shade, motionless, prisoner to the heat. He loved it. At night there was air conditioning and the stone floor soothed my toes. Cold sheets and skin chill to the touch. He didn’t like that.
Imagine the sensation of being cold. It’s almost impossible. Was that a minute draught? A cool kiss, gone too soon. I feel like arching my back, pushing myself closer to the height of the window and that precious caress. Too late. It’s gone and movement will just make me hotter. No, don’t think about it, or the hot blood will rush to the surface. Does my whole body blush in the dark?
I wonder who she is. He’s only just met her, I think. He’s still at the first full flood of inspiration, words pouring out from him, all the words he’s been storing up inside for the last year suddenly released, in a tsunami of verse, that sweeps away everything else.
He hasn’t written a poem for me since the day we married. The poem he read on our wedding day was one he’d written right at the start, before we’d even spoken. He showed me the sheaf of poems the night we first slept together, seducing me with the weight of his devotion. We made love among a sea of paper, lines lapping at our skin, stanzas breaking over us in waves. He called me goddess, muse. I thought he was a genius. I thought he was in love.
He needs the tension. Can’t write without passionate desire clouding his vision and sending him priapic into his study to write it out. Once they succumb he has a month before slow ennui sets in and his pen begins to choke. He edits for a while, rehashing dreams of ecstasy. Then there’s a manuscript and he ends it. Comes back to me, dull daily desire. Comes back to this bed.
He must have met her at that lecture he gave last week. No – must have already seen her, known she’d be there, because I wasn’t allowed to come. He doesn’t speak to them at first. He manipulates them via the PR girl into being where he’ll be. The lazy version of stalking. He can’t meet them too soon. He needs the desperation of the time when they don’t know he exists –at least don’t know he specifically exists, rather than his poetry.
For him seduction is a matter of finding the key, unravelling you with conversation and the undivided attention of those eyes. He has unusually large pupils, slightly dilated always, so women always think he fancies them. There’s nothing so attractive to a woman as devotion.
My legs prickle. It’s the hairs trying to break back through the surface. I could let them grow, if it weren’t for the heat. The betrayed wife’s comfort: hairy legs. He doesn’t like it. I tried it before, not the first time, not then when we’d just returned from Greece and were setting up the future of our lives together. No, it was the second time, when the hope that it was an isolated occurrence withered in the face of evidence. It was when I recognised the pattern that I gave in.
He didn’t even shout at me, when I was puffy and destroyed by my own desperation. He merely looked at me.
That second one didn’t last long. He doesn’t conceal his affairs. And if I know he doesn’t love me enough to stay faithful at least I know he doesn’t love them either. It’s about unlocking the poetry. It’s about the moment of release.
I wonder if he feels like this: like I do with this closed-in tyranny of the weather compressing me. If the words swell inside him, straining his skin past the point of comfort. Something’s got to give. Life can’t go on like this. Perhaps he lies rigid and awake when we sleep in the same bed, kept awake by the fear that he has done his last great thing. Perhaps when I’m sleeping, he’s the one staring at the ceiling and wondering how his life came to this.
There’s a rain drop. A single drop of water falling heavy on the conservatory roof, like a promise. There’s another, and another, until the sky is wide open. The sound is deafening. I turn to face the window, to drink in the air that the downpour brings with it. To wallow in it. I can breathe. The wind has changed.
V.F. Elliott is a writer and academic. She has been both a tight-head prop and a Viking re-enactor. Her poetry has been published in the Mays Anthology, the Oxford Magazine and the Scottish Poetry Review. She made her first short sale, aged 16, to Brownie magazine.