The Lilacs on the Mantelpiece
The summer had given way autumn prematurely, the fruit souring on the branch beneath the unforgiving rain and the flowers withering beneath the weight of the cold. Not that you’d have known so in the concrete grate of tarmac and the taste of oil that ran in the city veins.
Yes. Here, there were two seasons, the hot season with the burning skin and the sharp gravel, and the cold wet rain that filled the city and drummed against your bones until you ached. Impossibly warm, then impossibly cold. Much, Hannah mused, like her marriage.
The suddenness of it all was what the most painful to her. The ring had barely warmed against her finger before she found herself pulling it from herself in a fit of saccharine anger at the irony of it all. He had rolled his eyes, bored and silent by her performance, turning back to his papers. He was tired of her. A nuisance, a nuisance that unfortunately become stuck to his rent, bills and evenings. The first wife lingered in the painting by the lilacs on the mantelpiece, watching her, smiling with an aristocratic glee. “Must you stand there like that?” he had stated dryly, not bothering to look up. “It’s really very tiresome.”
“Oh, you’ve noticed that I’m here, then.” she said bitterly, suddenly aware of having too many limbs, too much space, too wide a shadow. He didn’t flinch at her comments, having played this game too many times before.
“Why don’t you go read a book. Go out for dinner. See a show.” He turned the page, watching the stream of numbers between a thumb. “Go make friends. That’s what girls your age do, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t marry you to go out on my own every night.” she snapped, slumping against the wall. They had been married for little under two months. They had been so in love at first, moving into the apartment and laughing beneath unravelling yards of roses blooming in the wallpaper. “Come to bed,” she said miserably, unkeen to confess her anger. “Please John. Come to bed.”
“I’m working, Hannah.”
“No, you’re not. You’re reading the paper.”
“Some of us, my dear, have to know something about the world going on around us.”
She felt foolish, reprimanded. She wanted to cry at him, not for the first time that week, burst into tears and weep on the floor for him to speak to her, engage with her, want her, as much as she wanted the gentle man she had married that spring. He wrote about her aptly, truthfully, in the letters he kept locked in the bureau. Hysterical little fool. What was his thinking?
There was no point begging him, not now. He was gone from her, nothing going to turn him back to her, nothing going to change the hard resentment in his lip, his eye, his tongue. All of this would have been bearable if he hadn’t pushed her away so easily. Two hours had been all it took to change him. She too learnt he was the kind of man who never forgave. The blossoms fell, and she meant nothing, dry and decaying on the floor as he towered on up over her.
“Go to bed. You’re working yourself up again.”
It was the tone her father had used years ago, when she stood at the top of the stairs in her dressing gown and screamed at him to let her stay up. Of course, there was something even less appealing about the same anger from a twenty seven-year-old woman.
“You loved me once, remember?”
“Go to bed. I’m not having this ridiculous conversation.”
“You’re my husband, aren’t you? Say you loved me then, if you ever did.”
“Hannah,” he repeated, colder than stone, “Go to bed please.”
She turned in the doorway, kicking off her shoes in the way he hated that scuffed the wooden flooring. He looked up at her, closer than ever to giving her the power she needed to make him fly off the handle. She grinned, hard with hate and love in her eyes, spinning on her heel down the hallway. He sighed, rubbing his temple. What had he ever seen in her? Youth was naivety, beauty was inexperience. Now, he had inherited a tempestuous child masquerading as his equal.
He looked up at the woman smiling in oil paint out of the lilacs, flawless, calm, quiet. Evie. He felt her ghost around him, lingering in negronis and cigar smoke, thick books Hannah was too impatient to understand and french records that span grating against the needle late into the night. “Fine,” he whispered to her, and no one. “I was wrong. I made a mistake, my dear.” The wide black eyes stared out at him, warm in the neon light. “Go ahead, if that’s what you want.” He drank down the glass, heavily. Hannah was sobbing into the bedsheets, hoping he could hear. Hear and feel something. Anything.
“You have my blessing, Evie. You won.”
There was a moment where the blue electric light flickered, like a moth brushing against the bulb. Then silence. Just the hum of the refrigerator, the drum of the fan against the air. Jonathan stood up, folding the paper under his arm and walking to the bedroom. The painting of the woman seemed to be smiling less now. In fact, in the dark, she looked almost like she had been crying.