I wake about 10am. Jess has already left, in keeping with the normal routine of her lifestyle of which I’m aware our family depends. The flow of my day consists of the usual splattering of paint, interspersed with scrubbing and bleaching. I hope with each whiff of cleaning product and acrylic paint our problems can be kept at bay like the advance of a determined yet bettered army at the gates of an impenetrable fortress of steel and stone. Though perhaps the chemicals are producing in me some kind of delirious, drug-induced optimism. The same phone-call and the same, possibly paranoid, assumptions of ulterior motives ensues in the afternoon. This time, over steak as it’s a Friday evening, another . . . discussion, rudely interrupted, as an unwelcome change of pace, with a man’s cologne of which I’m unfamiliar and not a subscriber to. Childish lyrics emanating from the unseen television take on an offensive tone in my mind, when mixed with the pungent odour stinging my nostrils and heart.
‘That’s an interesting perfume you’re wearing, Jess,’ I remark casual of tone, and dagger of eyes.
‘I don’t wear perfume.’
‘I know. . . .’
Another tense, dinner-time pause is endured. The only sound is of two-pairs of knives and forks scratching at gilt-edged, porcelain dinner plates. Strangely, the lounge room’s music ceases for a moment then returns at a higher volume. I examine my nails: the red paint simply won’t leave, regardless of how hard I scrub or for how long my hands are immersed in dish-washing-water. Like an errant, unshakable thought the stain remains, partially concealed, below my cloudy appendages. Similar to the blank pages at the end of a novel, devoid of any ostensible function but still there; curious things, finger-nails. ‘I may need to pry them off,’ I ruminate to myself.
‘Well I’m finished,’ she begins, attempting an easy exit. ‘Thank you for dinner, Peter.’ After arranging her cutlery neatly and with ettiquette on the plate, she rises and turns toward the stair-well. In her wake, I rise as well, throwing my implements loudly onto the table, causing Jess to pause in her journey to the stairs.
I stride at her back in a fit of anger and shout in increasingly violent tones: ‘Whose, cologne, CAN, I, SMELL!?’
She turns, her face flushed red with barely contained anger, ‘I’m surrounded by cologned men all day Peter! The boss put me under a great deal of pressure today; through my phone, my email and in person!’
‘You’re lying!’ I yell and raise my right arm from the left of my waist and, in one movement I can recognise as sickening but not stop, strike her across the face with the back of my hand. The sound of the impact is a thunderclap and my hand comes to a stop in the air to her left. Immediately breaking into tearful convulsions, she flees my wrath in ascendance of the stairs and slams the bedroom door, locking it behind her. I witness her flight in the peripherals of my vision. The red paint commands my predominant attention, more shocking and scarlet-blood-red than I previously noticed. A whimper to my left; I turn and see Maddie standing under the arch between the dining and lounge-rooms, and her cheeks are stained with tears. She shuffles dejectedly past me while sniffing back emotion and follows her mother’s path up the stair-well with an anguished-bawl only silenced by the close of her bedroom door. My heart breaks and I wish the pain in my hand was more profound; more physically consequential. I crash onto the couch and fall asleep with only self-pitiful tears for comfort.
The diminishing sound of a car’s engine reaches me on the back patio, from the generally quiet street. ‘She’s home early,’ I realise, prying myself from the canvas with gleeful surprise. Almost breaking into a run, I journey to the front door, open it and am surprised to see a black-BMW, rather than her green Toyota Camry. The car is sleek and intimidating, like a jaguar ready to soundlessly pounce and tear out its victim’s jugular. Jess exits the car gracefully and turns in order to mutter something inaudible to the mysterious driver within. The jaguar removes itself from its offensive position in my vision with an equally irritating screeching of tyres and she walks up the stairs toward me, her tight mini-skirt shifting from leg to leg with each step as if enjoying some kind of erotic ride. ‘Hi hon,’ I begin tentatively, noticing the purple bruise around the right corner of her cherry lips. ‘How was your day?’
‘Hi Peter,’ she returns evasively, then slides past me through the doorway, maintaining the greatest possible physical distance between us.
‘Who was that?’ I query as she reaches the foot of the stairs, unsuccessfully hiding a jealous tone. My only answer is the sound of ancient, creaking steps.
She huddles in one corner of the bedroom like a frightened mouse, with a fresh bruise already appearing below her right eye. My head swims in a cocktail of anger, denial and regret at what I had once more done. The moment seems to drag for eternity as I stand at the foot of the bed, breathing heavily while gazing first at her shivering, leg-hugging form in the corner, then my bunched right-fist.
‘Where’s Maddie?’ I ask at a dinner of sausages and bread, with cheese as a rare treat; I can’t even taste it.
‘At my mother’s,’ she replies curtly without glancing up, as if speaking to a ghost.
I glance at the chandelier’s sharp crystals playing with the dim light and realise that, if it were to fall, I would throw myself under it.
‘Where are you going?’ I ask as she packs, feeling like a man overboard watching his ship disappearing over the horizon through the gloom of maturing dusk.
‘I don’t know,’ she mutters distantly while busying herself with clothes and toiletries.
‘I’m keeping Maddie,’ I selfishly state.
‘You can have her,’ she begins after a momentary pause. ‘Good luck bringing her up on paint, canvas and physical abuse.’
I’m startled no end by her response. She continues moving articles of clothing from the well lacquered, mahogany chest of drawers to her duffel bag.
‘I’m keeping the house,’ I say, becoming obstinate.
‘It’s all yours,’ comes another muttered group of syllables which anger me through their calm, arrogant-tone. ‘I’ll concede that you’re a talented painter, Peter, but you couldn’t pay the mortgage on this place if you painted day and night and your revenue tripled.’
At those words she finishes packing, zips up the bag with a flourish both triumphant and melancholy, stands up while holding its strap in her hand and eyes me intensely; accusingly. As she begins to walk past me through the bedroom door, for the final time, I bunch my fist in a physical manifestation of rage and she notices.
‘Oh please hit me again, Peter, that’ll put things right,’ she says and cocking her head condescendingly at me. I relinquish the tension in my fist with all the ease of resisting the scratching of an itch. She leaves the room, descends the stairs and I follow like a neutered dog which has dug up some prized roses. Indeed, I haven’t simply dug up some flowers; I’ve managed to destroy the entire garden.
‘When are you coming back?’ I shout through the front-doorway as she hastily departs the property. No discernable answer reaches my ears and I slam the door hard enough to shake its frame. I simply stand there for a moment, with feelings of denial, anger and loss engaging in a free-for-all, bare-knuckle fight inside my head, before slamming my fist into the hard-wood door with sufficient force to shatter my knuckles and break the skin. I examine my hand; small red-rivers ooze out of the fissures in my skin and drip from my hand to settle in the cracks in the floor-boards.