On the first night, they sat at the kitchen table and talked about their pasts. The lodger said, ‘This story you tell about you and your husband, it’s not good. It sounds like a good life, but it’s a boring story.’
Clare didn’t know what to make of this. She’d told her story just how it had happened, with a beginning, middle and, unfortunately, an end.
‘Especially the way he died,’ said the lodger, ‘so peacefully, so painlessly—nobody wants to hear about that.
Clare was a little offended—she’d always thought her story had unfolded like a classic.
‘My story, for instance, would make an epic,’ he continued. ‘A psychological drama, with a bit of violence here and there, some romance at the start which turns to heartbreak, and further heartbreak brought about by death. A grip-ping story, indeed—a shitty life, though.’ Clare listened to the lodger’s tale. He’d been married twice, divorced once, and was a widower. His second wife was a teacher like him. They used to argue into the late hours of the night, about Hemingway versus Faulkner, about unions and flat tax, about who should pay the telephone bill, about what to watch on television. Sometimes the arguments would get personal, and one would threaten to leave the other. In the morning, though, they’d go on as if such threats had never been made, without any apologies.
Once they’d argued about getting the car washed. The lodger wanted his wife to go to the Suds N Shine that afternoon, but she decided to wait until the next day to take it to a cheaper place on the other side of town.
‘She always did that,’ he said, ‘found a way to make a simple task extreme-ly complicated for the sake of a couple of dollars.’ But they wouldn’t get the chance to argue about that one again. The next day, as his wife drove to the car wash, a Cadillac ran a red light and smashed her car into a lamppost. Her car looked like an hourglass, the centre caved in on both sides, her body crushed like sand.
He said, ‘She must have known she was going to die, but she made a real effort to speak. I could barely look at her, lying in the hospital bed, hooked up to ten different machines, her face purple and red. She told me, ‘I should have listened to you about the car wash.’ It was like a whisper, her voice gravely, but I knew what it meant, she was letting me win, and I started to cry. I wept like a baby while she stopped breathing.’
Clare was touched by this story. It was so different from hers. With John, things had been so simple. They rarely argued—neither was too passionate about his or her point. They had no kids, but they’d never needed any. They were content with the way things were, just the two of them. Keeping a good house, having a potluck with friends now and again, booking a two- week hol-iday through a travel agent once a year—this is what occupied their time, and they’d enjoyed themselves.
‘We had a good life,’ she told the lodger. She looked at him and smiled. She felt sorry for him, an overweight and balding man who had suffered such tragedy in his life.
Then he smiled back. ‘I don’t understand, Clare,’ he said, ‘why is it that you say we had a good life? Your life hasn’t ended yet.’
Clare wasn’t expecting this. She shrugged, ‘Well, that is the way you think when you’ve been in a good marriage for a long time. I think of myself as a part of a union, not as a woman on my own.’
‘But, Clare,’ he said, ‘you are a woman on your own now.’ The lodger wore thick round glasses that made his eyes appear to bulge. Now he removed them and folded them onto the table. Without the glasses, his eyes hardened into dark stones, and the skin under them glistened like rising dough. Clare didn’t like looking at this. She didn’t like what he was saying. She looked at her watch and saw it was time for bed.
‘If you’ll excuse me,’ she explained, standing, ‘I must get to bed now. I’ll have breakfast ready for you in the morning.’ The lodger didn’t say anything, just nodded. She went upstairs.
Clare dreaded the night time, for it was in her bedroom that she felt her loneliness the most. She expected John to be there. She expected to smell his aftershave mingling with his musk, to see his trousers thrown over the chair in the corner, his long body tucked in under the sheets as he read a magazine. When she slid under the covers, she checked for his reflection in the full-length mirror at the foot of the bed. She’d always peeked at him, reading his magazine. She’d liked watching him secretly, the movements he made with his eyebrows, the twitching of his feet under the blanket, the things she saw in him that he didn’t know about himself. Sometimes she’d peeked at the two of them in the mirror while making love, although she’d always regretted this vision—his large form working like a piston underneath the blanket. The mir-ror could not capture the tenderness and comfort in their love-making.
Now she saw only herself in that mirror, her slippered feet dangling off the edge, her greying hair crumpled, her wrinkled arms like flaps of stretched and dried leather. Since John died, she’d spent more time studying herself in the mirror than she’d done since she was a teenager. She’d look, and she’d pretend she was talking to John. That she was standing opposite him, and he was the one looking back at her. She’d try to act exactly as she would have if he were still alive, going so far as to nod and smile, or say something back to his imagi-nary question. But she could only talk to him for so long in the mirror before it brought on a terrible attack of loneliness. At some point, she’d remember she was just looking at herself, talking to herself, like a madwoman, and she’d watch her face twist into uncontrollable sobs.
Sometimes she wished the story of her life could have ended with her hus-band’s death. That was a happy story, with a happy ending, as much as death could be happy. She had told the story to the lodger, as she had told it to oth-ers, just as she remembered it—about the cancer, about how they only discov-ered it three months before he died, which meant he didn’t have to suffer through years of painful treatment. She told about how he hadn’t been scared of dying, and about how they’d had very practical conversations about the way he wanted it to go. And it had all gone pretty much according to plan, so much so that when the heart monitor sounded the flatline, Clare didn’t cry or think it was anything shocking. She just kept on sitting with him as the nurses came in, as they removed all of the tubes, as they wrote down things on note-pads, as they covered his face with a sheet, until they rolled him away. It was only when she arrived home later that evening that she felt it. She stood in the doorway of their house for nearly twenty minutes, her heart racing, afraid to even take off her coat. They hadn’t discussed this part. What she would do when she returned home. What she would cook for dinner, for herself. What time she would go to bed. What time she would wake up. What she would do every day after that.
She didn’t tell this part of the story to anybody. She stopped at the flat line.
The next morning, she found the lodger sitting at the kitchen table, his beer belly stretching through a polo shirt, squeezed in under the edge of the table. He wasn’t reading a newspaper or doing a crossword; he was simply sitting and waiting. There was no ‘Good morning, Clare, did you sleep well?’ or any-thing ordinary like that. He started with a personal question, staring at her through his round glasses as though she was one of his students.
‘Did you dream about John last night?’ he asked.
She stopped in the middle of the kitchen. Her face turned red. Then she forced a laugh, and turned on the coffee maker.
‘I don’t remember my dreams, usually,’ she said. ‘Do you take milk and sugar?’
Now he removed his glasses. In the aftermath of sleep the sagging skin around his eyes seemed crusty, like bread dough left out in the open air for too long. He said, ‘You must dream about him, Clare. He was your soul mate, right?’
She kept her back to him and listened to the percolator spit and sputter. She took out some eggs and bacon to make breakfast.
‘Overeasy, sunny-side up, or scrambled?’ she asked.
‘How did John like them?’ he said.
She coughed a little. Cleared her throat. ‘I don’t remember.’
The lodger sighed. ‘Tsk, tsk, Clare, I think you’re holding back.’
She looked at him, expecting to see a smile, something to indicate that he was joking. But his lips were pursed, his head hanging low, his dark eyes still turned down.
‘Well, that’s right,’ she said, ‘he liked them scrambled.’ It was a lie. John had liked them poached.
But the lodger nodded, satisfied. ‘I don’t eat breakfast, anyhow,’ he said. ‘Just coffee for me.’
Clare usually ate a small bowl of cornflakes in the morning, but today she made herself three scrambled eggs, two slices of bacon, and four wedges of toast. It kept her busy. The lodger sipped his coffee. Clare felt like she was being watched, even though the lodger wasn’t looking her way. He was star-ing at the wall.
Finally he stood up, put on his glasses, washed his mug, and left the room. Clare heard his footsteps thudding up the stairs and his bedroom door close. She breathed heavily and realised she hadn’t exhaled in several minutes.
It was the same at dinner. He came down at six o’clock.
‘Clare, I was just wondering why you didn’t fall ill and die within months of John’s passing. Isn’t that what perfect couples usually do?’ He crammed himself into a kitchen chair again and stared at her with his thick glasses.
She was peeling potatoes. ‘Oh, hello, did you settle in alright?’ she asked. He smiled. ‘Don’t you worry about me. I’m settling fine. But what about it,
Clare, do you think you should have died, too?’
She began peeling quickly. ‘Oh, I don’t like to think about that, you know. Everyone goes at their own time.’
A potato dropped out of her hand and rolled across the kitchen floor. The lodger followed it with his eyes and watched her pick it up.
‘I used to think that, too,’ he said. ‘That there’s someone watching over us, that we go when God picks us. But that’s just superstition. It wasn’t my wife’s time to go. That was the act of an asshole in a Cadillac, not God.’
Clare reached for another potato and realised she’d peeled half of the bag. She began chopping.
‘That’s very sad,’ she said. ‘Do you like mashed potatoes?’
He snorted quietly. ‘You don’t have to cook for me. I’ll make my own dinner.’
Clare looked at the tall pot filled with five pounds of potatoes. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I see.’
He stood up then and removed a frozen dinner from the freezer. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ he said, ‘this is what I usually eat.’
She smiled at him and shook her head. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘it’s your home, too.’
She had bought a twin pack of lamb chops, like she’d used to do with John, when she used to cook for two. She’d just broil one for herself, then. The lodger turned on the oven and put his frozen dinner inside. Clare wondered how he’d gotten so fat, eating tiny meals like that. She’d put a jug of water on the table for dinner, but he poured himself a glass of milk and sat down.
‘You see, Clare,’ he continued, ‘a good story needs conflict, suspense. Fairytales end with happily ever after because there’s nothing left to say when it’s happily ever after. But it’s not the same in real life. In real life you just want to take it easy, get along with people, avoid conflict at all costs, and you want your only experience of suspense to be waiting to board the plane for your two-week holiday.’
Clare wished the potatoes would start boiling so she that could start on the lamb. Anything to keep busy.
The lodger kept on talking. ‘But as far as I can see, you’re not really living unless you’ve got a good story. Do you see the problem? Doing the house-work, cooking the dinner, pretending that nothing bad ever happens. Some people call that a good life. But what I think is that, actually, most people are afraid of life. That’s why we read books, of course. To get a sense of the sus-pense and adventure that other people have, so that we don’t have to seek it ourselves.’
Clare said, just to be polite, ‘Yes, I suppose that’s true.’
He removed the plastic tray from the oven and opened drawers until he found the silverware. At least he kept his glasses on while he ate. Clare felt more at ease with his glasses on.
By the time the lodger finished his meal, rinsed out the plastic tray for recy-cling, and washed his silverware, Clare was just sitting down to eat. He left the room, and Clare ate her lamb chop quickly, listening to the steady buzzing of the kitchen lights.
The next morning was very much the same. She came down and found him sitting in silence at the table. She almost got out the words ‘Good morning’ but then he started: ‘Now, Clare, did you cry yourself to sleep last night, thinking about John? Do you miss him that much?’
She carried on walking right past him, to the coffee maker. But he’d already made the coffee. She grabbed a mug and poured herself a cup. It was too strong and thick as molasses. She drank it standing up at the counter.
‘Come on, now,’ he said, ‘death is not that easy to get over. I know when my wife died, I cried every night before going to bed and every morning before I had breakfast. For years. I couldn’t help myself. The only thing for it, I discovered, was coffee. Something about the caffeine, it changes the hormones in the bloodstream. What do you think?’
Clare sipped her coffee and shrugged. She didn’t want to have this conver-sation. She didn’t want to talk about crying. She didn’t want to talk about any of the things the lodger wanted her to talk about. But he was like a house guest. And a house guest is never wrong.
‘Well, I know I’m never any good to anybody until I’ve had my coffee,’ she said.
He shook his head now and removed the glasses. She felt her stomach twist from one glance at his black, stony eyes peering out from that bed of mushy, uncooked skin. She tried to keep her gaze averted, watching the steam rise over her coffee.
‘Clare, Clare, Clare,’ he said, ‘one of these days, probably sooner than you think, you’re going to open up to me. You can’t just hold everything inside all of the time. It just doesn’t work that way.’
Clare tightened her grip on the mug and forced a smile. She glanced in his direction just long enough to give the appearance of listening. Then she took a long gulp of the coffee. As soon as she finished it, she could leave.
The lodger put his glasses back on and poured himself another cup of cof-fee. ‘Not making breakfast this morning?’ he asked.
Clare shook her head. She suddenly wondered for a moment what it must be like to wear such thick glasses. How much could he see when he took them off? Was everything a jumbled blur?
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘are you hungry?’
The lodger smiled. ‘No, I don’t eat breakfast, remember? But I know you’re probably looking for something to do. Some domestic ritual to keep you busy.’ She downed the rest of the horrible coffee and put her mug in the sink. Without looking at him, she said, ‘Speaking of keeping busy, excuse me,’ She escaped into her bedroom and made the bed, fluffed the pillows, dusted the furniture. And she talked to the mirror until she cried.
She’d imagined a different scenario with a lodger. She’d imagined someone wanting to be looked after. She’d imagined spending a lot of time cooking and cleaning up after him. But this lodger only wanted to talk, to pry. He wanted to do his own laundry, and he fixed his own meals. He said that his wife, the one that died, had insisted on the housework being 50-50. It was one of the things they’d argued about. So he had gotten used to it, and couldn’t help but clear the table, found it natural to take out the garbage, and didn’t want her folding his clothes. And the life of a widower had further reinforced his independence. He even said that, if he had the chance to say some last words to his wife, he’d tell her she was right about splitting the housework.
At the end of the first week, Clare found him sitting at the kitchen table at dinner time, as usual. He was just finishing the last forkful of a plastic tray that she thought was probably Chicken Teriyaki. Just upon seeing him, she could feel her blood pressure rise, her body growing hot. She knew he’d say something offensive, and intrusive. She knew, at some point, he’d take off his glasses and nauseate her.
And so he started, ‘I was just wondering why you’re always wanting to cook me meals and clean up after me, like a domestic slave. Is that how it was with John?’
She couldn’t bear it anymore, the way his words hung in the air until she answered, even though he wouldn’t accept any answer she gave. She’d tried blocking him out with distraction, but no matter how vigorously she scrubbed a pot or how intently she stirred a soup, his words scratched through to the surface of her mind, like fingernails clawing their way out of a grave.
‘Clare, it’s obvious to me that you never get to have any fun. All this cook-ing and cleaning, like you’re some kind of robot. It’s an addiction, you see. This is what my wife never wanted to become. You are the exact kind of woman she didn’t want to be.’
His words dug into her skull as she prepared to roast a chicken. She pulled the bird out of the fridge and slapped it on the counter while he went on talking.
‘My wife and I, we had our problems, as I’ve told you. But it was real, Clare, it was a real life. Okay, we argued, but there was passion in it. When she died, I felt it like a knife in my own chest. I didn’t just carry on washing dishes and folding sheets.’
Clare pulled out the guts. It felt good. She rubbed her hand inside the cavity, felt the ribs billowed out, the slick raw meat, the hard strip of breast bone.
‘You must express your grief somehow. You can’t be the heartless robot you pretend to be. It’s just not believable. If it was in a book, I wouldn’t believe it.’
She shoved a clove of garlic and a chopped onion into the cavity. It would need to roast for a couple of hours. She said, ‘Speaking of books, are you reading anything now?’
‘As a matter of fact, I am. I’m always reading something. But this book you probably wouldn’t like. It’s full of heartbreak and sadness. Not the kind of thing you want to know about.’
She felt the familiar urge to run up the stairs, to talk to John in the mirror, to get away from these questions and accusations. But she couldn’t bear the mirror, the bedroom, the tears. She was tired of just running away. She decid-ed to polish the furniture.
She shook some polishing oil onto an old rag and carried it to the long oak table in the living room. John used to put up his feet on this table. The cush-ions on the sofa still bore the dent of his body. Clare wiped the table in long stripes and saw her silhouette take form in the shine. She could see her shoulders working up and down and something glinting in the glare. It was her own eyes, focused and intent over the table. She stopped polishing and stared at her reflection. In the oak her eyes were dark marbles, like the lodg-er’s.
Then she looked up and saw him standing in the doorway, watching her. He had taken his glasses off, but when Clare looked at him now, she was not revolted. His eyes were a reflection. The fumes of polish wafted over her and she stared back at him for a while, at herself looking as tiny as a pea in his gaze.
‘I was just wondering, Clare,’ said the lodger, his voice was quieter, hesi-tant, ‘why you found life so unbearable that you had to take in a miserable man like me.’ Out of the context of the kitchen, the lodger’s question was filled with loneliness. Clare remembered how she’d thought of him on the first day, with pity.
She said, ‘My life is not unbearable.’
‘But you are alone,’ he said, and his body seemed to reach out without moving. ‘And I am miserable.’
She wanted to get out of the living room, but he was standing in the door. She wanted to run up the stairs, pull the mirror down off the wall, and lay it down next to her in the bed. She wanted to smash it. She felt tears burning in her eyes, and she tried to hold them back, but something had to come out.
The lodger took a step towards her. Without thinking, she threw the rag at him. It flapped open and landed squarely over his mouth, as though it knew exactly where she’d wanted it to go. She started to laugh.
‘That’s what you deserve!’ she yelled. She couldn’t stop laughing. While the lodger stood there, stone still, she yanked the polishing rag off his face and slapped it on top of his head. ‘You are a horrible, horrible man! You’re rude!’ She wadded the rag into her hand and rubbed his bald head as though to polish it. ‘You’re nosy! I can’t believe you persuaded two different women to marry you!’ She kept on laughing, polishing, and realised that tears were streaming down her face. She didn’t care. ‘It’s no wonder you’ve ended up alone!’ she yelled. Then she pulled away.
The lodger’s eyes were closed. He’d taken the torrent of abuse without a flinch. Now he looked at her. He said, with a steady voice, ‘Don’t forget that you’re alone, too, Princess.’
She lost control and started weeping. She threw the rag on the table, bur-ied her face in her hands, kneeled on the floor and bawled.
The lodger put a hand on her head. ‘Don’t you see,’ he said, ‘this is what life is really about. Suffering. Pain. It happens to us all, whether we deserve it or not. This is your good story, Clare, right here in this room.’
She looked up at him now. He wasn’t looking down at her. His gaze was off to the side somewhere, unfocused. Like a blind man’s. Suddenly she swung up her arms and knocked him in the middle of his thick belly.
‘Bastard!’ she yelled. She stood up now and slapped his face. ‘Pretentious bugger!’ She slapped him again. She started hitting him on the chest, with palms, with fists, uncontrollably. Finally, he grabbed hold of her wrists and twisted one arm around her back to stop her.
She was wheezing, dripping with sweat. She pulled loose from his grip, straightened her posture, and walked slowly into the kitchen. The chicken needed to be basted.
She felt a tingling all over her that she hadn’t felt in years. It was like the rush she used to get after a swim in the ocean. When had she last done that? Was it with John? She couldn’t remember—it was the tingling that dominat-ed her memory.
The lodger followed her and sat down at the table. He poured himself a glass of water from the jug on the table and gulped it down. He said, ‘Marie called me a bugger once.’
He stayed with her in the kitchen until the dinner was ready. She put the chicken out on the table with a salad, and he asked for a plate. They ate in silence. When they were finished, she cleared the table and washed all the dishes while he sat on the couch in the living room, his feet up on the oak table. When all of the tidying up was done, she went up to bed and caught herself in the mirror. Strands of hair trailing from her bun, her face flushed and oiled with sweat, it was the lodger who she imagined was looking back.