Such tenderness, Lizzie thinks, as Nick’s arm slithers around her before the day begins. She lets his palm rest against her belly, the scent of his overworked deodorant thick in the air, stagnant morning breath hot against her neck. Every part of him presses up hard against her, but she doesn’t let herself feel any depth in it. She knows his body finds hers in sleep out of habit more than anything else.
Coming to, Nick pulls his arm free, discarding her along with the doona. He throws a leg over the side of the bed, his foot landing heavy on the carpet. He doesn’t bother to look back and she knows it’s on purpose. Her palms tingle with the hurt of it, remembering how he would once lie in until he was running late, just to hold her. He pulls his feet through the legs of his jeans, making no effort to keep his belt buckle from clanking against the metal of his fly. Quiet and gentle are subtle kindnesses she no longer deserves.
She grips the sheet to her chest and grabs a jumper off the end of the bed. Her appointment isn’t until twelve, but she gets up too, reaches for an old pair of his socks and places them on the pile with the other washing. He pulls them out, puts them on.
‘Call you later,’ he says under his breath before slipping out of the room.
Lizzie sits back on the bed and stares at the ink-blue mark in the carpet, the way it reaches out underneath the bed like a ripple. She waits until she hears the front door close before tracing her toe around the perimeter of the stain, stopping where it disappears into the bed’s shadow.
In the bathroom, she draws the shower door back. It clatters on its bearings, one pane coming free from the other two. It broke months ago, but they’ve found a way to live with it, lifting the panel up off the tracking each morning, guiding the panes back on themselves. When Nick’s in a rush he forgets and leaves the broken pane hanging from the top railing like a loose milk tooth.
Lizzie steps into the shower. Her eye catches a line of mould in the grout. She picks at a piece of it, tries to focus on just one row in the graph of green and black that engulfs her. When they first moved in, the grout had been so white. Now it’s a cancer that’s too far gone to do anything about.
After a few seconds, Lizzie cuts the cold. The water mix is all hot but still comes out lukewarm—Nick’s leftovers. The fan clinks away overhead and Lizzie wonders if the black stuff coming out of it is the bad kind of mould that blocks your lungs, the kind that makes Nick’s asthma bad. She repeats to herself the word—mould, mould, mould—so she’ll remember to look it up later. She keeps saying it, out loud now, letting the water run into her mouth, and then presses her palms into her eyes until it feels good, until she can feel the pressure lift behind her lids. As a kid, she used to close her eyes in the shower and spin until she didn’t know which way was out.
She looks at her feet now. The shower floor is littered with empty shampoo and conditioner bottles that skitter across the tiles, making low hollow sounds beneath the rain. She tilts her head back and wonders whether you can drown under running water.
Lizzie dries herself in front of the mirror, picks up more of Nick’s clothes from the floor, runs the tap around the sink to rinse away the remnants of his morning shave. She waits too long before covering up and the hairs on her arms reach out, the tips of her fingers purple. She pauses in front of the mirror and looks at the shapes of herself reflected back.
‘Hello,’ she says.
She tries again, this time makes her voice gentle, traces the deep blue veins that lasso her tummy two, three times, making her fingers slow and reverent. But there’s no feeling. Or not what she thinks it should be.
On the towel rack she finds a pair of jeans, still imprinted with her yesterday legs. They haven’t reached past her hips for two weeks, so she takes one of Nick’s jumpers off the floor, stretches it over the top of her pants. It’s the same one he gave her to walk home in one night when they first started up. She’d taken a photo of herself in just the jumper, her bare thighs creeping into its hem, and sent it to him to show she’d arrived safely. He’d already fallen asleep.
These were the things she explained away from the start. Him letting her walk home alone after their dates, the videos he keeps hidden on his desktop, the way he smashed those wineglasses at her friend’s birthday picnic when she forgot the forks. She tracks the translucent stretch marks that form intricate webs across her breasts, charting the different routes, the way they turn at subtle angles and merge into each other. No one else saw the way Nick came home and folded into her arms, or how he wrapped her up in their bed on cold mornings. The skin around her belly pulls tight, and she thinks about the two of them back then when she could make herself small for him.
Lizzie catches the tram to the supermarket; the gearbox is stuffed and only Nick knows how to fiddle with it when it jams. She sits next to a woman circled by shopping bags. Close up, she can see blue eye shadow rivered in the creases of her eyelids and wiry hairs crowning her chin.
Lizzie gets up from the seat to let the lady out. She drops her bag.
‘No, not that,’ the lady says. She bends to pick up Lizzie’s bag, a sigh coming out of her as she does. ‘I just… I wanted to ask you.’
Lizzie’s guts twist.
‘D’ya know my cousin is Tom Cruise?’ The lady reaches into her bag, rummages among lipsticks and bruised apples. She pulls out an A4 piece of paper. It has grease stains in the corners, the ink smudged in places.
Lizzie can feel the rest of the tram’s eyes on her, but takes her seat again. She watches them angle their bodies away as the woman hands over the paper.
‘Your cousin?’ says Lizzie, admiring a crude collage of Tom Cruise headshots.
‘It’s sad about him and Nicole. I still get to see the kids, though, when I visit.’
Lizzie nods, passes the paper back.
‘I’m not a Scientologist, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ The woman tucks the paper back into her bag and pulls out another. ‘We’re still very close. He comes to see me, wanted me to go to one of his parties, didn’t he?’ She passes a new piece of paper to Lizzie.
It’s another image of Tom Cruise, this time on a red carpet.
‘He’s very handsome,’ she says, aware of others listening.
‘Look, I’m not on drugs, that’s what you’ve got to see.’ The woman leans into Lizzie’s shoulder so Lizzie can smell her cat-piss breath. ‘But people will believe what they want to believe.’
Lizzie pulls away and smiles, wonders whether you can stop pity pooling in your eyes; whether the person can see it anyway. The woman takes Lizzie’s hand in her own, entwines her nicotine-stained fingers in Lizzie’s pale purple ones. They travel like that for the next five stops.
At the supermarket, Lizzie buys Nick’s special soap bars that cost three times as much as her no-name ones. She makes up the difference by buying the home-brand maternity pads that go pilly and come unstuck. This is her penance.
Nick started talking budgets in her twelfth week. It didn’t stop him buying his food-court lunches every day, coming home smelling of MSG. It was after she’d gotten sick. After the doctor said she’d have to give up her shifts at the deli. It was too much time on her feet, he said. At work, they made her a cake of soft cheeses she couldn’t eat, tied balloons to the stainless-steel benches, and hired a girl with a green woollen coat and blunt fringe. On her last day, Nick messaged and said he had work drinks. He didn’t tell her when he was coming home and she knew she couldn’t ask. One salary. He kept repeating it like it was something she’d forgotten.
That night the cat meowed at the front door until Nick stumbled in at two, the soles of his shoes thudding around the house before he found his way to bed. Lizzie lay very still, blood squealing around her veins. Winter had just set in and the cotton sheets were like ice above and beneath her. It didn’t take long for Nick’s hands to find her skin, clammy and greedy fingers at the elastic around her waist.
Lizzie waits at the clinic across from the supermarket for an hour. In the waiting room, a man holds a baby in his lap, takes its hand and points to a woman signing forms at reception. She joins them and puts her face up close to the baby’s, and the man nestles his nose against the little girl’s cheek.
There’s a midday movie on the television overhead. Perms and shoulder pads and summer teen love. Lizzie watches Nick’s name appear and then disappear on the phone in her lap. He’s on lunch. She knows he won’t call again until five o’clock. Lizzie cups her belly and eases herself off the chair, tells the nurse at reception she can’t wait any longer.
The key in the lock echoes down the long corridor. Lizzie opens the front door slowly and squeezes past the cat, careful not to let her escape. The plastic shopping bags bruise her sides as she walks down the corridor towards the kitchen. She places the bags by the fridge and takes out the milk and the shrink-wrapped chicken fillet she’ll cook for Nick later. The cat noses the rest of the bags, pawing at each item and stepping back like they might attack. Lizzie fills the kettle, then picks up the plastic bag from the chemist and carries it to the bathroom.
The fan clinks overhead as she wipes the dust from the bathtub with some toilet paper, runs the water, watching the rest of the debris circle the drain. Lizzie removes the tubing and bulb syringe from the bag. The plastic coil is curled up tight against itself and Lizzie fingers the bends to encourage it out of its shape. It smells like glue, the same kind she used to peel off her fingers like old skin at the end of a school day.
In the kitchen, the kettle rocks on its base, building until it flicks off. Lizzie pours the water into a bowl, and when the steam clears she mixes in the soap, following the instructions she copied off the internet.
The hot water has recovered since the morning. Lizzie sinks into the scalding tub, her tummy and swollen breasts bobbing above the water level. The cat meows on the other side of the door, scratching at the wooden frame. Lizzie dips her ears below the surface and hears two heartbeats, frantic and steady, tries to find an even beat between the two.
The water from the syringe is warm inside her. She places a hand on her belly and feels the heat fill and swirl, the rush of the wave inside right there on her skin. Above, the black in the fan leaks out.
She closes her eyes and smells the metallic rust of herself filling the tub, thinks about that fillet thawing in the sink. How she’ll season it just right for him.