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Contemporary Fiction

“It’s like this,” Marta said, eyelids sleep-heavy. She leaned against the one intact chair in the dining room, relaxed enough to still seem a little bit drunk. Pratt squinted at her. 

“Like what?”

“Like…” She gestured expansively around them. In the living room, the disco ball was still slowly rotating, the morning light casting a million silver glitters over the stained carpet and upended chairs. Pratt’s eyes snagged on a new splatter just under the psychedelic artwork Marta had brought home last month. She’d said it was innovative. Personally, he thought it looked about as innovative as dog vomit on a canvas. None of their guests had taken it. Maybe next week someone would get up the nerve to steal it. “Like… why do we do this? Y’know? Have people around? Pretend everything’s all right?”

“Everything is all right,” Pratt said with heavy finality. He had a full bin bag in one hand, and now he hoisted it over his shoulder and went out the back door, feeling Marta’s eyes hot on his back as he opened the bin and dumped it in. She had a way of frowning hard enough that he could feel it without looking at her, as if she were boring holes on either side of his spine with a single stare. It was a loud frown.

“You can’t not talk about it,” she said when he came back in and shut the door hard behind him. A gust of cold air blew a precariously balanced bottle to the floor. It would have broken on any other surface, but the carpet was sticky enough that it just laid there. Pratt picked it up with two fingers pinched around the neck. The floor slurped, then relinquished it. 

He could, and would, not talk about it. Marta only pushed about it when she was drunk, after all. Usually, they both left well enough alone. He opened a new bin bag with more force than necessary and went to the low side table, dropping in cups and bottles. “Are you going to help?”

“No,” she said. 

He glanced up at her, then quickly away. One green strap was hanging off her shoulder, the shimmering fabric almost see-through in daylight. Her hair was a birds’ nest. Her mascara was smudged into rings. 

Yet she was still, frustratingly, beautiful. Marta always seemed to fit neatly in her own body, an ever-ready smile on the corners of her lips. To someone like Pratt, who regularly wondered if he had been given a body meant for someone far larger, and more confident, and certainly more attractive, it was as enchanting as it was irritating. 

She hopped up on the table and crossed her ankles, pale legs swinging. “We knew it wouldn’t last. You said it wouldn’t last. You said you wanted to have some fun.”

He did, and he’d had his fun, all six weeks of it. But there was something inevitable about spending all your time with one person, about going to sleep next to them and waking up the next day to their drool on your pillow, and learning what made them smile and what kind of drinks they liked on a night out, and knowing that they would only ever get in a house pool when drunk and fully-clothed out of a misplaced sense of adventure. After a while it starts to feel a lot less like fun and a lot more like love. 

Pratt’s mistake had been in saying it. 

He continued his slow round of the room, picking up the random items of clothing and personal objects, digging out a set of keys from between the sofa cushions and putting them on the table. Marta snatched them up and began to methodically separate key after clinking key from the pink-feathered keychain. 

“I can move out in September,” he said. “One of my university friends is renting a spare room.”

“Jake?”

He nodded uncomfortably. Why, oh why, was all this awkwardness one-way? It hung heavily around him, like his own personal rain-cloud of embarrassment, and never seemed to touch Marta. But then, she hadn’t humiliated herself. She’d been kind about it – said that she was flattered, but she didn’t feel the same way, and that she would like them to keep to their usual ways for what remained of the summer – but it had been a humiliation all right. Even now she was sitting irreverently up on the table, watching him clean. 

“I’ll help you if you tell me why you wanted a summer off,” she said. 

Pratt, on his knees to look under the sofa, sighed. A wrapper blew further under. He stuck his arm under to get it, jamming his shoulder right up against the base. “I wanted to know…” He fished around for the wrapper, buying himself some time. “I wanted to know what it would be like to have a holiday.” 

“Nope,” Marta said. His fingers brushed the edge of the wrapper and pushed it further away. “The real reason. You can take a holiday anytime, anywhere. You asked to spend the summer with me. Partying it up.” She clicked her tongue. Pratt’s arm was aching. “You said you wanted six weeks of going to bed in the morning and waking up in the afternoon. Like I do.”

“Yes, okay…” He groaned as it slid out of reach again and collapsed on to his back, looking up at her. She was just as unimpressed upside-down. “I wanted to know if I was a party person. Or not a party person. Or anyone at all, really.”

“Oh, honey.”

He shook his head. “You’re too damn cool for me, Marta.”

“I’m too damn cool for everyone,” she said, and slipped off the table to lie down beside him on the ugly, sticky carpet and stare at the ugly, cracked ceiling. “You just gotta believe you’re cool, Pratt. That’s your problem. You never believe in anything.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. When he closed his eyes, yellow and green sparks flew. He couldn’t even remember what he drank last night, but he remembered seeing Marta, laughing, spinning in the middle of the living room, middle of the crowd. She always drew a crowd. “You know what you like and don’t like. I like that.”

“I like you,” she said. 

“I like you too.” 

Distantly, the clock upstairs chimed. He counted eleven. For them, it was early. 

“You don’t like me enough.” 

“That’s not fair.” She folded her hands over her stomach, perfectly sedate. 

Pratt swallowed. There was a remnant of last night’s bitterness in the back of his throat. “I know. Sorry.”

So this was it. Six weeks of Marta’s electric smile and eclectic friends. He never thought he’d want more – more languorous afternoons and hot strobing nights, more of her life, more of her. Maybe he had found something to believe in. Maybe he’d found it too late. 

“It’s worst thing about summer romances,” she said affably. “I saw my high school ex at the shops the other day. Neither of us knew what to say. It only lasted a few months, but we were sure we were in love. I mean, it feels like love at the time, but it doesn’t afterwards. You forget, y’know? And then you look at each other and it’s just quiet.”

“Yeah,” he said, even though he didn’t know. He understood what she was telling him, though. “I know.”

She patted his hand. “It’s gonna be okay, Pratt,” she said, and got up, and reached for a bin bag. 

He laid there until he found the words he wanted. The carpet was clinging to his hair. Getting up would be difficult. “It’s not gonna be quiet with us. Afterwards. We know where we are, right?”

“We know where we left each other,” Marta said, shrugging. “I could’ve sat down with my ex and talked for hours, but we wouldn’t’ve gone past where we left each other. Some people are better as memories.”

A fly landed by his ear, buzzing away. Pratt turned his head and watched it, all multi-faceted eyes like a disco ball and glittery party wings. He’d never been particularly good with words. Hadn’t been good at the start of the summer, when Marta had first smiled at him across a packed house, and he still wasn’t now, as she worked patiently around him. But even if he could not articulate it, he could feel it. They were grinding to a halt with each other. There was the loneliness of two people who were all out of things to say to each other. 

He suspected it would hurt later. For now, there was only emptiness. 

The fly buzzed away. Pratt looked at Marta. She looked at him. 

In the silence, neither of them could find anything to say. 

May 12, 2021 09:56

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