For Semisoma & Kirbopher
Joey's father cracked open another bottle of cranberry juice, admiring the pink halo effect as sunbeams stroked its surface. There was a moment of familiarity as he placed it to his lips and drank. In the his mind, thirst was a vicious creature that became agitated if it didn't get the attention it required - and staring out into that bleak, endless ocean made it very agitated indeed.
Kids seemed to like it though. They were playing somewhere around the rim of the more delicate waves. Had she been standing, Serenity would have been up to her waist in saltwater; whereas Joey, striding through the stuff, was starting waves of his own as water sprayed vibrantly off his knees and made a mess of his reflection. He was carrying her in his arms, shouting happily about nothing in particular, while his sister laughed at damn near every word he said. Watching them play like that, it almost seemed a shame to destroy what little joy remained between them.
A voice from beside him, the deckchair spoke: "So once you sign those documents, it'll be over. Well, as far as you and I are concerned. There will be a few more legal obligations, I'm sure. Commitments you'll be bound to keep. Which should be quite an achievement for you. But as far as I'm concerned…" The deckchair breathed. "When you write your name on that last scrap of paper, I'm out of your life. For good. And so is she."
Joey's father looked up. The bright yellow umbrella - almost golden - shielded half his vision from the sky overhead, the rest of it filled blue with the occasional black-tailed gull gliding in odd circles. He clung to the bottle as if to steady himself, as the world became so vast and dizzying all at once. He hated when she talked about the divorce. It was enough that he had to constantly think about it. Enough that it clung to his nightmares and still pulled at him when he awoke from even the calmest sleep. But to hear it? That wasn't called for. He never asked for that. He never even brought it up. Why should she talk about it? Why here? Why now?
"I'm trying to enjoy this," he sipped at the cranberry juice, though he could have meant any number of things. He could have meant the sun, even though he'd been complaining about how bright it was the whole time. Even had to apply his own damn lotion, which he had totally screwed up, of course. Serenity had giggled at him, and he recalled feeling something horrible swell within his gut. Later he would remember it as Joey who had laughed at him, and Joey would go to school with another hidden bruise the next day. "At least let me keep that much. My ability to enjoy stuff."
There were things he still enjoyed about this. He still enjoyed looking at her from time to time. Serenity. She was beautiful. Even if she did remind him of his wife. But it was a good memory. A memory of things before they turned sour. Serenity was born into their relationship at the breaking point. It was as though they'd climbed to the top of a mountain, plucked that gorgeous little girl out of the sky, and then careened down the other side with no concern for their own safety, and nothing but jagged, hateful rocks waiting below. She represented the apex of their love for each other. What everything had been built to support. And now the support was collapsing, and she was being taken away. But even so, he liked to look at her.
He liked the small moments of affection they each showed him, even if he'd done nothing to earn them. At this stage, he'd expected all the love to have dried up. But it was still there, even in the waning months of their tenuous relationship. You had to search for it, but when you caught a glimpse - yeah, he liked that. When he'd stay out all night gambling, and come home with Massive Debt written across his forehead, the arguments would begin. They would continue on into wee hours. But when it came time to end it and turn in for the night, she would still squeeze his hand softly as she had always done. That told him there was still something there. He hadn't ruined everything. It never occurred to him that she might be doing it out of habit, or perhaps from sheer pity. He just recognised it as the gesture that had once cemented his feelings for her. He vaguely remembered saying on some distant evening that he could never sleep unless his hand had met hers. That even the smallest parts of him cried out to embrace her. Now it was just a practised move. But one he enjoyed nevertheless. He found it cute. And since they never made love anymore, it was as close as he was going to get.
More than anything, he enjoyed the pretence. He turned askance at his wife, her legs spread out in front of her as she allowed her body to drink in the sun. Taking the bottle, he held it before his face and stared at her through it, creating an illusion that she was floating in some viscous red lake. Then he tilted the bottle, and her entire body appeared to be covered in the stuff. Like he was drowning her in it. Yeah, he liked the pretence a lot.
He liked pretending that it still meant something when he said he loved her, and pretending that he didn't notice when she never had the courtesy to return the gesture. He liked pretending that he saw it whenever someone told him Joey had his eyes - there was nothing in that boy that resembled him. He liked pretending that this divorce wasn't happening. She didn't, but then that just made him enjoy it all the more. He liked pretending that the gambling wasn't a problem. That he could quit anytime if he wanted to. After all, at least he was trying to get some money - isn't that what she was always nagging him about? Money? He liked pretending that he'd ever loved her half as much as he loved that little girl out there, skipping across the sand as Joey chased after her.
Now he'll always be chasing her, he mused.
Oh, and he liked pretending that he wasn't drinking anymore. He had become an expert at that part. On the evenings when he didn't wander out into the city and all of its delightful hazards, he sat at home and watched baseball with a glass of soda and a cigarette. Except usually what was in the glass would be laced with something else. He'd get drunk a lot, but a few breath mints or alcohol-free breath spray (har-de-har) could stop her from smelling it on him. And if it made him angry or even violent, he could blame it on their imminent divorce. It was, after all, killing him on the inside. Depressing him to the point of suicide. She had to sympathise with that. Losing her? The very thought made him frantic. She would cry out to him, not from anger or fear, but from desperation - for him to see sense. But in his drunken state, he could no more do that than he could physically hurt Serenity. So he'd come down on her like a ton of bricks, and no matter how many times she accused him of being under the influence, she hadn't a leg to stand on. So to speak.
Yeah, he liked the pretence.
Liked it so much he even deceived himself sometimes.
He took another swig of cranberry juice, only to find the bottle had run dry. Tossing it into the sand - where it became planted upside-down, like some bizarre glass cactus in a miniature desert - he reached down to grab another from the bucket between the deckchairs. Somewhere across the beach, a distant voice sang. It was Joey. The two kids were building sandcastles together.
"The tide comes in, the tide goes out," Joey's voice irritated him as the sun scalded his temples. "Don't matter if you scream or shout, sooner or later the tide goes out!"
Some kind of child's nursery rhyme maybe. Probably something he picked up in school.
Joey's father pierced open yet another bottle and watched them build together. And sooner or later, the tide would go out. But right now, it was coming in. And all of this - the beach, the deckchairs, the discarded bottle, the sandcastles - it would all be obliterated. Gradually. Painfully. If you came back tomorrow, you wouldn't even know they had been there. The ocean would just drink it all away.
He drank some more.
Sooner or later, the tide goes out.