“He sees me and then tips the last of the cup into the sink”: when things go to the dogs, by Jill Varani

The dishes are piled carefully around the sink like swimmers at the beach. A stained fork dipping a toe, a slime crusted knife surfing the edge. A plate enjoying the last rays of sun through the window.

But Morris has not said anything about the dishes. They sunbathe, unmentioned, as if we were embarrassed by their presence. Like an accusation, half nude, too fat for words.

Before bed, I scrape the plates of food and set the stack into the sink. Then I see the first troop of ants, charting their territory. I see black gunge growing in the armpits beneath the sink knobs, the crumbs around the feet of the toaster. I see tomorrow stacked on top of today like a plate in the sink.

When Morris slides into bed later – he always comes in a few hours after me – he is careful not to rock the bed. He’s not a big man. He’s pale, freckled, and often tense. He sneaks into the room, lighting the way through the mess of our clothes with his phone. He slips off his pants and gently eases himself into the blankets. He doesn’t come close to touching me. Sometimes, when we didn’t know each other so well, but we still thought we were in love, I would reach for him. I spooned him, or I stroked his back. In the dark I couldn’t see the scars where his father had burned him with the ends of his cigarettes when Morris was a child. But I could feel them, the way his skin puckered around each round dot like a tiny kiss. He was so small, curled up like that. Then he’d turn around. Kiss me back with thin, dry lips. He kissed like a person tasting wine. Like he might swish it around and then spit it back out.

Tonight, Morris surprises me. I feel him turn toward me. His breath on my hair. A hand lightly touching my shoulder.

Morris whispers, “Are you cheating on me?”

I want to see his face, but I don’t want to turn around to look. Instead I stare at the bedside table, the hulking shadow of the chair next to it. His hand is still lightly touching my shoulder, as if he has frozen.

“Of all the things you could ask,” I say.

In the morning, the wet layer on the dishes has hardened into an opaque chalky crust. The ants have colonised the place. Sipping coffee, Morris watches them, as if supervising.

He sees me and then tips the last of the cup into the sink, over the stack of dishes so that the brown liquid rains down around the rims of the plates. “Have a good day,” he says to the ants.

When he’s gone, I slip the ring off my finger and set it in a patch of light on the windowsill. I soak a cloth in water so hot it burns my hands, and I wipe the line of ants into the sink.

I expect that Morris will find the ring eventually. He’ll see it sitting there, just behind the stack of plates. The chipped edge of stone, like a broken seashell glinting in the sand.

Jill Varani’s story appears in the anthology Best of Auckland by various writers (Writers Café, $28)

* The short story series at ReadingRoom appears with the support of Creative New Zealand*

Jill Varani is an Auckland-based writer and mum of two boys. She won the 2019 Sunday Star Times Short Story Award, and has been published in the Best of Auckland anthology.

Leave a comment