Brainchildren (Part I)
Alone, in a bed that didn’t belong to him. The door creaked. A stranger walked in. His smile was frozen, yellow eyes shining in the dark, his nose resembled that of a witch; long and crooked. Joe tried to scream, but his voice didn’t obey. He looked away from the stranger’s shimmering eyes to his hands. They were talons. The massive claws held on tightly to a strange-looking blue pillow. Joe struggled to move his legs; he needed to escape. But he was paralysed. The stranger’s grin widened into a demonic smile with enormous sharp teeth.
The pillow was approaching and Joe was still immobilised. He tried to scream, but it was in vain. The stranger moved closer, the pillow covered Joe’s nose and mouth…
Joe woke suddenly, gasping for air. He’d fallen asleep on the sofa, the TV on. He shook the nightmare away. The cat, Cinnamon, had taken advantage of his distraction and climbed on his lap. Joe jumped up; the cat fell standing up and ran away. On the other side of the long mirror at the bottom of the stairs his reflection copied him. Cursing the cat, Joe observed his body with a dispassionate stare. His once bright green eyes had turned muddy. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair; the hairline had retreated and the blonde was turning white. He frowned at the mirror. His body had always been skinny. Somehow, no matter how much he tried to put on weight, his belly was the only part of his body that obeyed. Joe pinched each side with his fingers, and shook it up and down. It jiggled. Scowling, Joe looked at his watch. Ten-thirty. He shot two pills of paracetamol to the back of his throat, filled the cat’s plate with biscuits and dragged himself upstairs.
Amelia was curled on her side, back turned on him. Joe knew she was awake. They’d been married so long he knew the signs. She was probably upset at something. He wondered if he should ask. But he didn’t. Instead, he stripped down to his boxers, and opened the drawer of his dresser. Ignoring the neatly folded pyjamas, he picked an old t-shirt, put it on and climbed into bed. Amelia sighed. Joe sighed back. As soon as his head touched the pillow, he was asleep.
The next day, Joe woke up at lunch time. He threw his old robe over his improvised pyjamas, stumbled down the stairs and entered the kitchen. He sniffed the air. Salmon. Amelia was arranging potatoes in a serving bowl. Cinnamon, meowed around her. Amelia’s long black hair was tied in a lustrous bun and she wore a black velvet dress falling down to her knees. She looked stunning; but Joe forgot to notice.
“Is that salmon?” Joe asked.
“Good morning! And yes,” Amelia replied.
Amelia made fish once a week. It was often salmon. Joe hated it, but he’d never told her that. “Great,” he said.
Amelia glanced at him and turned her attention back to the potatoes:
“Are you going to change for lunch?”
Joe looked down at the boxers paired with the grey Snooker t-shirt he’d won years ago and the robe, resting on his shoulders. Amelia hated it. She’d given him so many others over the years, hoping they’d replace the mouldy, food-stained robe. It never worked. Joe fumbled with the hole in the pocket.
“No, I’m good,” he mumbled.
Joe sat at the table as Jessica walked in. She was eighteen and resembled Joe in looks as much as she mirrored her mother in personality.
“Mum, can I go to Olivia’s tonight?”
“What for?” Joe asked.
The two women looked at him.
“To hang out, what else?” Jessica responded.
“Of course, darling. Dad and I are going to the cinema, we’ll drop you off.” Amelia carried the salmon to the table.
“We are?” Joe questioned, watching his wife drop a chop of tin-foil-wrapped salmon on his plate. His nose wrinkled.
“I’ve been wanting to see The Wedding Bride. It’s on at the De Brouckère. I bought tickets,” said Amelia.
“Where does this Olivia live?” he asked.
Jessica lifted her eyebrows: for years Olivia had been Jessica’s best friend. Joe had dropped her off at Olivia’s a thousand times. He never remembered.
“Woluwé. By the school.”
At 7 o’clock, Joe drove Jessica to Olivia’s and headed to the cinema with his wife. Amelia placed her hand on the armrest the moment the commercials started. Joe was focused on the French-dubbed Nespresso advert featuring George Clooney. The film started. Joe wasn’t paying attention: the film was a sequence of clichés he could have narrated without having watched. He felt bored and uncomfortable. He was wondering which way to avoid traffic later when he heard sniffs from Amelia’s side. He looked at the giant screen, at the scene set in Paris, then glanced back at his wife.
“It’s like our story… Don’t you think?” She wiped a tear.
Joe didn’t answer. The truth was, he couldn’t remember. He knew they’d gone to Paris on their honeymoon. But his brain was vacant of details, let alone emotions. Amelia, however, not only sobbed but also hogged the armrest the entire time. It made him uneasy. He had no place to rest his elbow and his hands were sweaty. Every time Joe cleaned his palms on his jeans, Amelia leaned more towards him. The romance ended with the main couple kissing on the Love Lock Bridge. The credits hadn’t started rolling yet and Joe was on his feet. Amelia frowned.
During the drive home, Amelia pursed her lips, crossed her arms and sulked. Joe was confused. He’d driven Jessica to her friend’s, gone to the cinema and sat through what was possibly the worst chick-flick of the century. Nothing he did made his wife happy.
“Can I ask why you’re sulking?”
Joe didn’t understand what he’d done wrong. Amelia had a list. She spoke of his lack of compassion and warmth, his poor listening skills and distraction. She claimed he took her for granted, along with Jessica.
Joe half-listened to all of Amelia’s arguments, drifting in and out. After many years of marriage, he’d learnt to tune her voice out. Tapping his fingers on the wheel as he drove he scanned the city lights distractedly.
“I mean, did you notice my hand on the armrest?” she asked.
“I was trying to get you to hold it…” Amelia hid her face in her hands.
Joe pulled up by the house. They walked in solemnly, ignoring Cinnamon snoozing on the sofa. Joe turned to Amelia and rested his hand on her shoulder:
“This is silly!” He forced a smile, “I’m sorry, okay? Let’s forget about it!”
Amelia didn’t say anything. Joe went into the kitchen and helped himself to some water. He breathed a sigh of relief: it would blow over. If he didn’t put up a fight, the argument would die and everything would return to normal. He strolled back to the living room. Amelia was standing on the Turkish rug.
“You don’t mean it,” she said.
“That apology. You don’t mean it. You don’t mean anything you say anymore.” She sounded resentful. “You’ve changed. You don’t like cheap romances anymore; you don’t remember anything we did together. You don’t remember Paris! I’ve been trying to remind you…”
“Is that why we went on that dinner date?”
“Which one?” Her nostrils widened, “You mean the one on Friday? When you claimed I was moody and should go for dinner…”
Amelia did a dramatic pause, hands in the air, her palms turned to Joe:
“... With Valerie!”
She let her hands fall, slapping her hips.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“You should be the person I talk to! You don’t see me… Last night you knew I was awake. Did you worry something was wrong? Did you ask?”
“No, I didn’t…” He looked at his feet. If only life was scripted, he'd know what to say. Amelia turned her back on him. Joe’s hands were sweaty and he felt his cheeks warm. He considered leaving. The crosswords awaited him on the nightstand. She’d sulk but by the next day there would be no sign of the fight. He’d started turning around when she spoke:
“I’m not happy. I haven’t been happy in a while. Believe me, I tried. Not just for us, for Jessica too. But now she’s leaving and I don’t think I can keep trying on my own…” She turned to Joe, holding a half-empty glass of water. Her rounded lips trembled. Her eyes filled with tears and she mouthed an inaudible “I’m sorry”.
The Monday after The Fight, Amelia had the conversation about the divorce with Jessica. Joe found nothing useful to say, so he distractedly rubbed his hands together under the table. Amelia covered everything in two minutes. Her speech sounded rehearsed and Jessica acted as if she’d been the audience for which Amelia had practiced.
On Tuesday, Joe dropped Jessica at university and, before nightfall, his wife packed a suitcase and left. Joe watched this happen like a dream; shocked with the turn his life had taken but utterly powerless. He wondered about the house on his own, observing all the objects he’d never touched, collected throughout a lifetime of marriage. It didn’t take long for Joe to realise he didn’t know where anything was. Or how to do chores by himself. It was as if his routine had started to crack and he couldn’t keep it together without Amelia and Jessica at either side.
Amelia came by to pack the following day. He watched her bringing in flat cardboard boxes, putting them up and neatly packing her things. He carried them to her car, like a zombie, not sure what he was doing. He called the school and made up an excuse to get out of work: he wanted to be in whenever Amelia came over to pack.
Despite how much she cried in those packing sessions, she didn’t change her mind. Joe kept overthinking what to say and ended up not saying anything. He thought he could mention the jar from their honeymoon. Then he realised that could give her the impression all he cared about were material belongings. He then considered asking how she was. But seeing as she kept packing and crying, letting Joe hold her, then quickly returning to packing and crying (this time refusing to let him hold her), it seemed there wasn’t any other way she could express her feelings. There were many things he could say, but they all seemed to have a possible backfire and he wasn’t willing to risk it.
After her third day of packing, Amelia left the spare boxes and closed the front door. Kraainem had never felt so silent. Joe was invaded by a sudden sadness born from the loneliness he no longer knew how to feel. He took out his phone. Stephen Adams was the first name on his contact list and he didn’t need to look any further.
“Hey. Heard about it. Sucks. Bar?” One of the things Joe liked about Stephen was how he expressed himself with few words.
At 9 o’clock, he sat at Stephen’s favourite cigar bar, staring at the black and white photos of Miles Davies and Louis Armstrong on the walls. Stephen arrived a few minutes later, settled in on the leather lounge chairs and ordered two Montecristo number 2 and two whiskies (“On me”). Joe observed his best friend. He had fancied Amelia before Joe, back at university: he would have been a better husband. Perhaps he would have made her happy. But Stephen was already making Valerie happy.
“So?” Stephen asked.
Joe narrated the events of the week. Stephen nodded, puffing on his cigar.
“Truth is,” Stephen said, hidden behind a curtain of smoke, “you should have done something. Too late now. You know Amelia calls Valerie, right?”
“It doesn’t sound good from what I’ve heard. You know Amelia: takes a lot to change her mind. Want to know what I think?”
“Shoot,” Joe replied, taking a sip of whisky.
“Give it up.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. I mean, it was a good few years, but things change… Time to admit defeat, my friend. The world,” he waved his hand around, “is your oyster.”
“What about Jessica?”
“She’s a big girl, she’ll be fine! I reckon she’d rather see you happy apart than miserable together.” He pointed his cigar at Joe. “Believe me.”
“Damn you, children of divorce,” Joe muttered under his breath.
They sat in silence, puffing and sipping. Joe rubbed his sweaty hands on his jeans occasionally, thinking of how happy he could have been if he’d managed to keep his family together. Maybe he’d be at home with them, sitting on the sofa watching TV, instead of here. The bar was frequented by men like them, lonely, middle-aged, most of them on business trips, relaxing after meetings. The dim lighting and jazz music attracted this particular clientele. The cigars and alcohol convinced them to stay.
Joe was lost contemplating how much his life had changed when Lou Rawls’s deep voice on the speakers interrupted his train of thought. Stephen was humming along, but Joe had never properly listened, though he recognized it. He took in the lyrics for the first time:
“I should have been smarter,
I could have used my head,
And we still be together somehow.
If I coulda, woulda, shoulda,
And it’s always too late
I'm saying it now,”
Joe froze, listening to the voice that understood him so well. The song had been written for him. Stephen didn’t notice Joe’s attention had shifted and chimed in with advice:
“ I reckon you should change glasses. They make you old,” he said casually. Joe caressed the rim of the horn glasses he’d worn for decades.
“I don’t think so…” His eyes were focused on the speaker.
“You’re a good looking man, but if you’re back on the market, you should tr-“
“I’m not ‘back on the market’.” Joe rubbed his palms on his jeans again.
“Joe,” said Stephen, and leaned forward, “you have to look to the future, man. Amelia’s the past. She’s the ex-wife!”
“Not yet,” Joe said, smiling.
“There comes a time in everyone’s life when they make that statement:
"If I would have just…",
"Or could have just…",
Or the bottom line is "I should have just…",
And you always wind up on the outside looking in.”
That was exactly the way Joe felt. On the outside, looking in. Lou Rawls had given him insight: use your head, be smarter. He needed to be the man Amelia used to love.
“That’s it!” His brain overflowed with excitement.
“I knew you’d get it,” Stephen said, patting Joe’s shoulder. “One more?” Stephen clicked his fingers at the waiter.
“No, I can’t,” Joe stood as the waiter arrived at the table. “My coat, please.” The young man rushed off and promptly returned, pinning Joe’s overcoat between his thumb and index. Joe slid his arms into it as Stephen examined him in confusion.
“Why? It’s not even eleven,” he noted.
“I think I have an idea.”
Joe left the bar in a hurry. The air outside was so cold his lungs froze with the first breath. He turned to the right and started walking towards the De Brouckère metro station. His mind was racing: he now had a much more positive view of the future. He wasn’t divorced yet; he could still charm his way back into Amelia’s heart. The thought of this made him tap-dance on the sidewalk. He hadn’t felt this excited in a long time.
Joe descended the escalator, deep in thought. The first time he’d taken Amelia on a date, they went to Le Perroquet, a small pitta restaurant by the Place du Sablon. He remembered how she’d considered her choice carefully, how she’d tried all four of the sauces brought to the table, how she’d coyly asked for a bite of his pitta as an excuse to touch his hand. She was funny and interesting and Joe had felt guilty he’d ‘stolen’ her from Stephen. Still she made him feel more confident and happy than anyone ever had.
If he took her there, she’d remember, surely? He just needed to adjust his attitude. Smiling to himself, he entered the metro to Stockel and sat down. His hands were still wet and it was getting worse. He inspected them carefully. It was cold, how could he sweat this much?
Turning his attention to the poster with the metro lines, he observed the pink line he was travelling. The train approached Merode. Amelia and himself had walked to the Cinquantenaire Park, in Merode, after that lunch. If he scheduled a meeting there, he could tell her he was willing to change, he loved her, and would do anything to win her back. Yes! He liked the sound of that!
He glanced at his hands again. Sweat gathered in droplets on his fingertips. As the train continued its journey, Joe looked back and forth between the growing droplets and the stops. The drops – one on each pinky – had grown to the size of marbles. They had a semi-flexible consistency that reminded Joe of the contact lenses Amelia used to beg him to wear. In retrospect, Stephen might have had a point: changing glasses could be a good idea.
Joe stuffed his hands in his pockets and ran out when the metro stopped at Kraainem. By the time he arrived home, the bubbles had grown to the size of goblets. He rushed into the house and washed his hands at the kitchen sink. The bubbles were attached to his skin; they didn’t pop or wash away. Joe felt nervous: for all he knew, they could be poisonous! This was the sort of thing his wife would know how to deal with. He tried everything that occurred to him, but nothing cleaned them off. He tried breaking, popping and stabbing them with the sushi knife, but it slid in and out like butter without leaving a scratch. They kept growing. Joe sat on the sofa, next to Cinnamon, his heartbeat echoing in his ears.
“What do you reckon? Maybe they’ll fall when they get heavy?” Joe waved his hands in front of Cinnamon’s snout, his voice breaking with panic. Cinnamon gave them a sniff and tucked his face into his belly again.
“You don’t care. I bet you’d care if it was Jessica,” he said resentfully. Joe then noticed he was jealous of a cat. Could he go mad if he failed in getting Amelia back? He’d been married for so long he didn’t know how to be single. He was so lonely that Cinnamon had become comforting to have around.
Joe had always disliked Cinnamon. Though it was him who bought the orange cat, he’d never gotten attached. Cinnamon was a birthday present for Jessica. She was mad for it. But Joe couldn’t bring himself to like the arrogant snout, the pompous trotting and those scary yellow eyes. He turned his attention to the growing bubbles on his fingertips.
They were now the size of bowls, but they weren’t getting any heavier or falling. Yet, the area where they were attached to the skin was growing smaller. Joe watched them detach, almost at the same time, and float to the ground. He kneeled to see them land on the carpet. He reached out. The sticky, flexible wall had lost its wet contact lens consistency and adopted a dry, hard exterior instead. Joe lifted it and held it up against the light. It had a foggy core, as if a cloud had taken shelter in the centre. Dropping it gently on the carpet, he rolled the bubble away. The friction against the carpet wouldn’t let it travel far, but it definitely rolled.
Cinnamon snoozed on the softest side of the sofa, emitting a noise Jessica called ‘purring’. Joe had always thought snoring was a more appropriate term, but he’d wisely kept that to himself. Looking between the strange bubbles and the sleeping cat he felt alone and completely clueless. But he needed to start somewhere.
Picking up the bubble, Joe considered breaking it. Maybe he could access the fog inside. From the depths of his brain, something told him not to. Instead, he pressed it lightly against his forehead. Before he could understand what was happening, a scenario flashed before Joe’s closed eyes: Amelia sat across from him at the table they’d gotten on their first date, outside, at Le Perroquet. The street was filled with weekend movement. He could smell the pitta bread in the breeze and see the brightly coloured stained glass shaped like a parrot on the window beside them. Joe heard his own voice, echoing softly, begging Amelia for forgiveness. He felt Amelia’s presence, smiling serenely across the table, reaching her hand out to him. When their fingers interlocked, he saw her wedding ring, forever on, like his.
As abruptly as it started, the scenario ended. Panting, Joe looked around at his cold house. It was hard to believe what he’d experienced. The bubbles were much more interesting than Joe had expected. He carefully considered the details he’d seen in the daydream. Even though the atmosphere seemed as close to their first date as possible, the rest of the image wasn’t. The wedding ring gave it away. It was the future. Maybe the spheres told him his fate! Could he be psychic? A wave of adrenaline and energy washed over him.