Tracey Slaughter is the author of story collection deleted scenes for lovers and poetry collection Conventional Weapons. She teaches Creative Writing at Waikato University, edits their online literary journal Mayhem and was the 2014 recipient of the Bridport Prize.
What You Don’t Know
We went to a hotel. You’d earned a deal through work – wife included, not the usual corporate bonus plan. You showed me the brochure, a gatefold of wideangle rooms with models relaxed in them, couples on hourly hire reclined in a mockup of love by the endless pool. We packed simply, didn’t say what we hoped to save by this glossy visit. Why would we need a retreat?
The grounds were so clean the horizon left a chemical aftertaste.
Nothing in the lobby was allowed to wilt and the staff were appareled in seamless neutrals. I felt followed by their 360 degree smiles. The kind of sex expected by the suite didn’t come to us, but we tried, made do. Part way through it didn’t seem workable, our two bodies jointed in the cream rental room, but we kept it up, handled each other to a lowkey habit of come. I couldn’t close my eyes. They were still open when you scuffed my cheek with an afterthought of kiss that felt air-conditioned, got up half-mast to pat yourself down. Then you sat on the edge of the too-beige bed to read me the in-house menu. This is how you save a marriage. The booths for dinner were deodorized as coffins, and globes lit our meal with retro orange.
I was so long gone. We’d left the boys alone in the house, so I thought of him there: drool trickling into the rough brocade of our guest pillows, leaning sideways into our spare bathroom mirror to thumbnail stubble, jaw dissolved in strokes of heavy breath. Mapping our hallway with his palms as he shuffled, blinking, for a predawn piss, the cup of his marl jocks warmed and stiffened (I could smell the cotton, front soured, I could feel the nudge of that half-dozing cock). I’d left the rooms so straight all the angles ached. The whole place was rigged to catch his steps. When I got back I imagined it would be forensic, how I’d trace him, through the spaces I’d primed to catch his prints. All night the nerves between my thighs were shrill under the pastel quilt. If you had woken and rolled to me, the way the man in the brochure did, you would have been surprised I was so wet.
Sometimes it seems he’s in every picture of our son. I can’t turn pages without him recurring, a stowaway, a twin. They are dragracing sleeping bags in silvery bashes up the hall, they are winching themselves from a roped-up pine to somersault the creek. They are small haloes of faces padded in parkas grinning at the spazz of sparklers, their fists zigzagged with burntime. They are crossdressed as chicks for a mufti-day stunt, their tough calves shredding my secondbest pantyhose, my leftover eyeliner glued round their lids. I remember the twitch of his gun-shy lashes as I leaned in. My Revlon reversed around the liquid of his mouth – there was still weetbix at the roots of his teeth. I know he was once a bed-wetter. I know his blood type. I once stood at a school camp holding a clipboard that listed him as a strong swimmer. I once beached him, recovery position, nursed his lips free of a black sand belch. I know the password his family uses in case someone else needs to pick him up from school. Only two years ago I spoke it: he was shaky on the sick-bay bench, grey to the eardrums with shame and chuck. He’d capsized in science, hadn’t been able to scalpel the mouse, tweeze out its listed innards, its tiny paws spread-eagled on the ice tray with pins. He was the same the next year with the sheep’s heart, the aorta’s dark bubble – a sick classmate had put his finger in, wobbled it, gory, puppet-like. That was the end. I shouldered him across the carpark, steered him at my wagon, and gave him the code. He said, ‘I’m too old for that now, Irene.’ My first name, used by his mouth, the first time. ‘I’m way too old for that.’
By the time we reached the hotel I knew that if I didn’t stop, my son would have to slice his childhood album through its ringbound spine. But I didn’t know the safety word.
The couple from the brochure were on the television too. At the hotel, they had their own channel, beaming through a programme of local activities. The words had been removed from their mouths but everything mimed satisfaction, the kind of sleazy bliss that couples project when they’ve fogged their room successfully with eau de fuck and are heading out into the promo-ed landscape they’ve earned. They tampered with each other’s fingers while they ticked off the itinerary sheet. The long-shots tracked them through the complex wearing compatible outfits in a post-coital dusk. The voiceover, listing the highlights of the area, was a tenor croon I recalled from an eighties blind-date show. As a teen I’d had a crush on him, his come-on-downs issued through sponsored teeth, his crowsfeet neon in his faux lifesaving tan.
We’d done the expected. We’d been down, through the anodyne foyer, to order a taxi for our first sightseeing outing. Perhaps it’s optical, the effect the lodge plans on a marriage –grounds to reception, everything looked so maintained and parallel. The staff stood sentry with their eco smiles. The lobby played a soundtrack of ringtones. We sipped something sedative waiting in an alcove for our top-end lift. But the driver in his cockpit wasn’t tipped enough to narrate landmarks where we were headed. His indifference was constant in the rear view, the tariff ticked past subsidized vistas. I could feel you tightening your lips, making a mental note of his substandard service.
There is a hotel for everything. Back in our room your thumbs on my buttons tried out the positions of rehab. You tasted like your appetizer, a marinated kiss, overpriced, that couldn’t hope to fill me up.
When we were out I’d sent the boys a dual postcard, although you’d tutted and told me off (and you were proved right: we did in fact make it home before the mail had a hope). The spiral racks were loaded with mandatory mountains and sheep in lush paddocks: I thought about their dark handfuls of heart under photo-bleached fleece. I chose the adrenaline shots, 3 for $2 – lean tourists in bodycon brights taking leaps into canyons hogtied to elastic. There was no room to write anything quotable. I said something mumsy and practical (check the elements, don’t forget to lock up) and watched the pen weaken where it signed off love. I couldn’t let myself X a kiss: my hand shook and looked too bareknuckled.
We sat outside at a table for a while. We can afford to sit, not talking, in diverse settings of manufactured green. It’s something the advertised couple took frequently, drafts of al fresco quality time. An atrium of groomed leaves latticed the breeze and your cufflinks tapped the marble tabletop. You’d gathered brochures from the tiers in the foyer, and sampled a boutique ale, speculating on a golf course. I thought about overturning another card, inking it with unforgiveable things. I thought about the column of feathers at his navel, the crosshairs broken with inlets of skin, how I’d seen it unzipped, just before we’d departed, and I’d been grounded, stranded in the hall at the chance glimpse, shaking at the cove of a button, the indent of stud, how the roof of my mouth turned liquid, answering it. He’d gotten a fright when he spotted me hovering, then tried to man back up, grin it off. ‘Woah. Jump scare,’ he’d joshed, flustered. And I’d pretended I was sorting out dirties for the wash – such a good carer, always on the lookout. He granted me his top-mum nod. Oh, you know, just part of my job. He stood in his daks and packed my palms with shucked gear that was still warmblooded.
Back in the room your touch proceeded. I said it had been a long day, I didn’t mind, we could take a break. But you had an agenda. You’d made an investment in this suite. It was not sex but a takeover. This is a place where money changes perspective – and you’d paid a premium to love me again.
We switched on the TV so we didn’t hear the sound of our less-than-half-bothered hands on skin. The eighties host guided his models through a spotlit grove for a multi-choice meal. There was the sequel of an intimate sunset they were directed to nuzzle in. So when we were finished there was somewhere else to look.
It was last summer that started it – the sun-flooded lounge flanked with boys. Lowriding boardies, bare brown trunks. The scuffle of limbs on the leather, sweat on the controllers, as they bucked in time to their games. They were fucking up, gunning down everything, laughter so loud it jarred the windows as they watched each other lose. Their hardout thumbs worked the X in a spasm, with dog sounds, and teeth sunk into their lips. They yanked the blinds, pissed off at the setup of light. Our cat flopped in their shade, rolled sluttishly against their shins.
It was the evenness of all the surfaces I was learning to hate. I wiped everything down and re-wiped it. The sink shone its hole at me. The oven offered a clean place to lay my head, racks of silver hygiene. The boys were blowing whole torsos into pixels, loud coronas of meat. When they left, their sweat would be on my couches, spinal, evaporating. I wasn’t even background noise.
But I still made them sandwiches. That’s what mothers do. He wandered to the island wanting more, handed me the warm dark oval of his plate. He said sorry for its brackets of leftover crust. He was sheepish and cheesy, like he was starting to guess his charm. Horizontal, as he leant, there were tiny clefts in his abdomen, the shade of dirty honey, and as he chatted he itched them, slow, with his trigger finger. I laid out a board of white bread. The harness above his velcro had frayed into black fuzz. I fell in love right through my sternum. I could feel it coming like a muscle cramp.
I wrote that, later, on the back of a postcard. On the front a woman had paid to plunge headfirst through miles of terminal sky.
The real couple was down in the aqua plaza that afternoon. The pool slid nowhere in its infinite chemicals and they didn’t look like they’d had a matinee. I’d seen her earlier in the morning spa, where we lay on our designer gurneys being groomed. She’d asked if I’d recognized the muzak chiming: it was the theme from The Young and the Restless. For a while, as attendants paddled us with cream, we’d chatted through our memory of soap names, Brooke and Storm caught in blonde storylines of high-class pain. Now she dithered by the shallow end and the nether line of her suit looked stubbed. She wore her bikini like apologetic underwear. I knew I’d look no different.
You took up a posture that indicated you didn’t want to talk. And I knew better than to fuss on the topic of what the boys might get up to in our absence. You’d never had patience with my neurotic forecasting, my automatic parental fear of the worst case. But I thought of them, prowling our rooms, colliding with heirlooms, bass line cranked to full, hosting a gang of their mates with your hijacked whisky. I hoped they were raising hell. If they’d been here by the vacant lot of the pool they would have been ambushing each other, they’d never be able to resist the leg-sweep, they’d scrag each other into the water with acrobatic thumps. The place would be booming with their mongrel shouts. I hoped back home they were playing up. I imagined bathtubs boozy with ice and oak-cracking battles on our bespoke furniture. Maybe girls. They were due to start fucking the same rough-house way. Back when we’d let them hold an early party, I’d sprung him in torchlight stuck into his first kiss, ramming a girl, whose suck was just as rugged, against our garage door. His hands were frank on her skittish arse and I could hear the tack of their mouths, crude with hunger. I’d thought it was a cheap laugh then, the teenage ruck of it, all traction and moisture. Now I’d do anything to get pulled into such a roughneck kiss.
The woman at the pool’s edge didn’t know where to climb into the architecture of the water, so she wandered back to where her husband was reading, something spiralbound, branded with work. She toyed with the SPF in its complimentary tube, then presented him with her tinted spine, cupping the middle-age nape of her tasteful hairstyle. Everything about the passage of his hands said boredom. With his task dispatched he slapped his palms, one, two, but it wasn’t enough for his documents – he followed up with a serviette, sighing in brisk inconvenienced scrubs.
I remembered taking both boys with us once to one of your conferences – a vast concession, letting our son take a mate, letting kids attend at all. But I’d begged – I was always at odds with the corporate circuit, the women who weren’t wives but operatives. So I dodged the Machiavellian teambuilding and cocktails, and spent my days herding the boys through revolving doors, to hit laser tag or climbing walls, to chug budget burgers. The whole time they were a riot. One night they even staged penalty shots in the hall: you lined us like crims on the couch and issued a red-card threat to ship us home. Right to the end they’d gone on causing havoc. They’d coveted the cellophaned loot of the room, banked their pockets at checkout time, edged past the desk in goofy eight year old stealth, their cargo pants crammed with crinkly contraband, stupid earl grey and useless slugs of gel. And then I thought of how, before we left for this trip, you’d ushered them into our son’s bedroom, pointed out the precautionary condoms you’d stocked up in his undies drawer, no questions asked, just patting the foiled squares with an informative nod. I thought of the brief you’d given them, brisk and man to man, a summary of what you expected in our absence, basic standards, an airtight, don’t-cross-me look. Then you’d grappled them both close for a second, laughed the ultimatum off. I watched the stamp of your trust on his shoulderblade, tousling his teeshirt with its delta of sweat. How I envied the ease, the gruff allowance of that touch – your hand, permitted, deep on his trapezius, resting there in benign massage. And then all I wanted was to lie back down in our room with its made-to-measure blackness, formulating how I’d undress him, how his spine could bump like the links of a rosary through my open mouth.
Once I lived in a scody villa flat and I knew how to fuck. I fucked at shin level on a legless grey bed we’d tag-teamed home from the Salvation Army, a scuffle of flatmates humping its bulge uphill, tripping on its padded satin scallops. I fucked boys I’d blundered into at parties, long brainless snogs to the boom of the right indie tunes – A side LPs, B side boys, that’s who I was in those days. I comfort-fucked the relay of boys who hunched on our front step mooning over my flatmate, a D-cup princess who was always out exercising her right to be cruel and untouchable and blonde. I perfected the art of the consolation fuck, no-repeat, string-free, cooperative and warm, a fuck like a glum favour – after six dates (her average for dumping them), I would simply leave the door to my room ajar. I learned from them that I was middling, I learned to observe my limits, stick to them – on the perimeter of student raves I learned to spot my match in boys, to love the meek, to love their sinews and band tees and hair-parts and ill-fitting elbows and bleak smirks as they waited on the outskirts of the cool throng for a cue that wouldn’t come. I knew my level – I knew I was strictly temp – but irrelevance just made it easier: the mattress was stippled with earlier lives and somehow smelt like waiting rooms, and it was a cinch to climb on it naked and give a performance, limber, animal, more than a little bit stoned. Because it wouldn’t last, because I wouldn’t take, I clowned and choreographed. I was a more than passable lay – I just got demoted when they opened their eyes. But I didn’t really mind. I got used to them sloping the walls on their furtive predawn exits, used to their fumbled bashful sounds as they tried to regain their clothes. I didn’t mind not counting. So I could not comprehend what to do, when I woke with you – and you had stayed. Mid-morning, even though my face was floodlit, its special effects smudged off on the pillow, you stayed and stared down, companionably, at my plain shape. I feigned a yawn, lay there in stalemate. You looked resolved and leaned down to give me a steady focused kiss. I remember turning inside out with gratefulness. You breathed a hangover into my mouth that has lasted an obligated lifetime.
You liked to spend time with the handbills, get our next day’s itinerary mapped. Ruminative and topped up with supper, you muttered off to a nap on the beige king bed. I lifted the swipe card and padded barefoot to the foyer. I took the postcards you’d tried to prohibit and wrote the last one in the minimal lobby. My printing no longer looked sane, but I handed them across the counter for the next day’s post. I don’t think we’d been married for long before I started to think about it: checking into a hotel room and leaving a sign out saying: DISTURB.
The hotel didn’t have everything. Bad weather wasn’t in any of the brochures, and on our fourth luxury night when a cold front came in there wasn’t a library. The woman at reception didn’t look pleased when I inquired, but led me to a cubicle with a few colour-coordinated spines. Most were new-age business manuals, that blend of pop-psych and quasi-spiritual capitalism you’ve always liked, seven stations of guaranteed prosperity. The rest were titled in blousy metallics, heroines swooning on mutinous decks, with windswept men brooding over their décolletage. The kind of books I was brought up wanking over, rigid on my teenage bedspread cast up on one hand, fingertips working along to swashbuckling detail. I’d always plundered myself to pure fantasy. I sat in the cubby and laughed until staff came to check on me.
When I got back to our room you’d given up and powered down the lights. My memory of the floor plan was useless and it had been therapy to unplug the clock. I went for the bathroom but couldn’t get it spotlit. The door buckled on its frosted slide and made sounds of big dollars coming unwelded. By the time I lit the three way mirror I was faced with seven of me. They moved in pieces either side of my twin, a triplicate of jawbones and elbows. I leaned and crawled to see what he would see. I knew of course that she’d never have the courage, that cornered woman, to take off her clothes. Why would she take out her four lax breasts, their nipples inexact and low, why would she think he’d run the pouch of her downgraded abdomen with his tongue. What could he see in us but give and hang, the skintone of longterm apathy. I talked sense but that didn’t stop her. Into the fork of her slackened thighs she still wanted to misplace his mouth. I watched her laughter wet five faces, shake a trio of wasted obliques. Only two of us could look each other in the eye, equilateral, sobbing with jazz hands. I tried to choke her, but the cistern just fizzed discreetly, in sanitary eddies. She swore, almost, on the body of our son that she would stop. She almost meant it.
We were paired in the ark of the restaurant when I asked you what aftershave you wore. All through that last meal, with its tinted tease of meats pinned onto panoramic plates, I’d leaned into the scent and felt accused. You completed your mouthful of eye fillet before you proffered the name – Swagger – and you kept your glance on your cutlery, edging it surgically through the silky steak. The brand of that woody spray-on vapor with its low notes of diesel and twist of coarse spice was not news to me. I’d been gulping it for weeks. I’d lifted a can he’d let slip from his gymbag, coveted it in the quiet of the laundry, running its cylinder for dents, thumbing the nozzle, and huffing its cutprice spurt of sex. It was the reek that would be patterned on his ribcage, primed with saltwater and resins and glands and scrum and I snorted it, like I’d upend the last blue slurp of his Powerade when tidying up, hoping a shiver of saliva survived in that last chug. I was gone, and I can’t begin to say how far gone. There’s no point telling you now. You severed the fibres of your next course and reported the model of his cheapo smell – such a dumb bombastic word – and I thought it was your way of issuing a warning. So subtle: gaze still averted, you separated strands of morsel and savoured. You didn’t reproach, or gnash. The blood under my hips ran cold. I said I wanted to leave the table. But you’d prepaid for the degustation so we stayed for another unpalatable hour, supping from dish after ugly signature dish.
The scale of my wrong made me fear that our plane home would be struck from the horizon. The kindergarten God I still half-believed in was the kind who smote and did not joke. But then I recovered – I dreamed of his suited lats sobbing at our burial service. Still, for a long time in flight I found the “Domestic Safety Instructions” in my hand – the line-drawn couple, transplanted from the hotel, braced in their storyboards for a modest oblivion.
When we pulled into our driveway nothing was strange except for a spasm of birds, a sudden pixilation of wings twitching up from the verge away from our grille. I’d not seen them before: more thinboned than sparrows with yellow belly feathers. They wouldn’t flit clear of the car, kept highdiving back to spritz the grass between our oncoming wheels. Inside, we learned where they’d surfaced from: the cat had clearly started dying, though she was doing it quietly, showing her tiny incisors in a soundless bleat. The boys weren’t to blame: she hadn’t been eating, though her plastic plate showed they’d tried to tempt her with steak. It sat there in dried grey snippets. She wouldn’t be cradled. She looked bored with her own pain.
The boys were on kill cam, the lounge rewired, as much sun as they could get hotboxed out. They couldn’t drop out of the gameplay to update us, so they barked details while they slaughtered, in league, long-range. You pulled the blinds on their gutted heaps of hologram but they went on gunning their way, giving one-word answers, spluttering in graphic slalom. I expected you to object, to order them to shut it down, get his gear packed into the car. But you didn’t intervene, went to the bedroom and unzipped your suitcase, stowed your possessions back in their appointed place. I stood in the doorway for a while and blinked at the vigilance of your refolding.
They had ploughed through the provisions we’d left them so we ordered a pizza. We made them unplug and sit to the table, stretching their slices from the pepperoni disc. They leaned their heads back and lowered the meatlover’s into their smiles, the topping slithering in. Grease drizzled onto his teeshirt and you didn’t meet my eyes. I couldn’t offer to drive him home. I waited for you to clear your throat, pick up the keys. But you did nothing I anticipated. And I went on believing that this was my punishment, this cold, methodical divergence from the norm. I believed it when I got out of bed at 4am, to try to find our ailing cat, queasy with guilt that I hadn’t soothed her more, hadn’t petted her down on some soft cardboard deathbed, tried answering her stricken miniature yawns. I believed it when I went to the garage and you were by the freezer in the kiss that I wanted, driving him back on the hood of the whiteware with a shiver I could not remember seeing. I watched you handle the curls at his nape to lever his skull, slide your palm under drawcord. I watched him freeze, like he was posed in another of our family photos, waiting for the flash. What you don’t know can hurt you.
For the next few days I let you clear the mail.