Sarah Francoise shares an extract from her new book, Stories We Tell Ourselves.
When mumbled in your sleep, invincible can sound a lot like invisible. And so it was that, on the night of Thursday to Friday, Nick didn’t know for sure how he made Lois feel. The next morning he woke up before her and made oatmeal, sweetening it when he knew she liked it salty.
They had eaten out last night, got drunkish, and watched Brief Encounter in a slumberous heap. Nick hoped the warmth would turn into sex, but the warmth just turned into sleep, as it often did.
After Nick left for work, Lois scraped the rest of her oatmeal into the compost bin and took a shower. The bathroom was cold from the inexorable two-inch gap between the window and the sill. The plastic hinges on the window had snapped two summers ago, and now it had to be kept at this height to ensure it didn’t pop out of its grooves and kill someone down on Guernsey Street. Nick had cordoned off the window with duct tape and stuck a note to it that read: ‘Do not attempt to open this window: it is broken, like the healthcare system.’ He’d have written ‘marriage’, thought Lois, had the broken window not preceded the affair.
Lois opened her mouth under the shower head and let it fill up with hot water. The water dribbled out of her mouth and gathered at her feet, catching up to her ankles because of a clogged drain. She looked at her watch. She wondered if the Historian was having a shower, too. If their two run-offs were combining underground at this very moment, and if that was the closest thing to a reunion they would ever know. In two days, she would take a bath in her parents’ house. Her parents’ tub was deep, and never had a scum ring. Their bathroom window functioned, and came with a view of the French Alps. The two nearest mountains tumbled down to the lake and made a rocky valance that framed all the other peaks in the distance. She wondered whether the tiles were up around the tub, or if there was still a border of concrete, gouged to hold stones that might be heavy and Italian and would likely never materialise.
As she rubbed the moisturiser into her face and down her neck, and into the back of her hands, and down her legs that got scaly in the winter, she thought of her mother’s beauty products, lined up on the windowsill and in soft woven baskets that slid perfectly inside drawers. Joan compensated for Frank’s architectural impasses with finishes she plucked from the pages of Elle Decoration and Architectural Digest. She poured cans of sealant onto crumbling concrete floors, hid ceiling wires inside paper lampshade decoys, and painted the plywood matte white. The downstairs toilet was a library for her collection of magazines about beautiful, safe, finished homes – homes that existed to be enjoyed, not negotiated.
Lois was looking forward to being in the thick of that familiar balance – somewhere between her father’s dreams of an impossible reality and Joan’s dreamy magazine realism. Soon. Soon she would be home, using her mother’s anti-wrinkle cream combined with a periwinkle night cream, reversing time on a nanoscale. At the end of the holiday her mother would send her home with half a pot of face cream and an open tube or two of something with a rare and pricey fragrance, like quince or milkweed. They would last into the spring, along with the illusion that she was the kind of woman who, like Joan, filed away her moisturisers into categories.
Three dollar bills fell onto the mat when Lois opened the front door. Coffee money: one of Nick’s romantic deeds. She never knew when to expect coffee money. Nick’s perfect grasp of timing was what made his demonstrations so unpredictable. He came home with just-because flowers, and caught her off guard with his needs. ‘Write me a mash note today,’ he’d text her, ‘or I’ll go out drinking all night, and piss in the sink.’
She picked up the money and walked out into the eighth consecutive snow day.
Frank and Joan’s marriage is in trouble. Having spent three decades navigating the trials and tribulations of enduring love and parenthood in their unfinished house in the French alps, Joan’s frustrations with her inattentive husband have reached breaking point. Frank, retreating ever further into his obscure hobbies, is distracted by an epistolary affair with his long-lost German girlfriend. Things are getting tense. But it’s Christmas, and the couple are preparing to welcome home their three far-flung children.
The children, though, are faring little better in love themselves. Maya, a gender expert mother-of-two, is considering leaving her family and running off with a woman; Wim is considering leaving his girlfriend; and Lois, who spends her time turning war documentaries into love poems, is facing a change of heart.
Sarah Françoise is a French-British writer and translator currently living in Brooklyn, NYC. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, BoneBouquet, Hobart and Poor Claudia.