(Desiderium has been previously published by Pure Slush Books in October 2021, in a print anthology of short stories.)
I once had a coat like that, all bold and yellow in color, with designer black buttons and a hat that matched always tilted to the side. You’d thought the color quite daring, but I wasn’t afraid of people looking at us.
Do you see that young woman over there, with the stroller? Her yellow coat is more of a rain-mac, only functional and waterproof; it has no style like my tailored canary ensemble had. I can see why she wears it though, so I forgive her; for the small child running across the wet grass can see her stand out in a crowd, too.
I watch the flock of mothers crowing and squawking from the sidelines, their young charges charging up the climbing apparatus and down again; not that there is truly any danger. Everything’s built with so much health and safety in mind. The child I would have had — were things different back then, as they are different now — he or she would have always been dressed to the nines and learned good manners, as well as how to run on grass and suffer a scuffed knee with grace. For I’m sure falling off a metal climbing frame in the sixties would’ve been just as normal for my child as it is for that one over there, plopping to his bottom on the well-designed soft-sprung floor.
I would have called her Mary or Winnie, I think; maybe John for a boy. Well, we would’ve decided together of course. Women who love women are often of the same mind on these things — we have the same mind — which is beneficial for decision making, isn’t it.
I unfold the tinfoil-wrapped sandwich on my lap, already cut into fours, and pinch the fingers of my gloves off, one by one, to lay them aside on the bench. Geese and goslings snap their attention my way on the off chance of crumbs.
Not that they will garner any such spoils from me.
Though in a moment of weakness, I do tear off a spare morsel and offer it to our dog, because I still make a second sandwich for you, which is silly of me. I still know just how you liked it. Crusts off, and a smearing of Dijon with the ham. Now the dog has a taste for it too, which is good, because I never really warmed to mustard. But you know that.
We had a cheeseboard the evening Jo and Marilyn came over, do you remember? You had insisted on red wine and port, because that’s what is right and proper to drink with crackers and pickle, and your pungent French mustard.
The mother in the yellow mac has brought a Tupperware of snacks for her child too, which she cranks open to gleeful response. Biscuits and vegetable sticks, a wise choice. Nothing that drips, squashes, and stains. She probably has marks on her carpet at home from such spills — a most enduring reminder of motherhood — for baby food always seems to be orange and simply designed to stain! Especially when dropped in blobs onto cream carpet-tile.
But, alas. Only red wine remains on our floor, no matter how many times I got down on my knees and scrubbed it with bicarbonate of soda. I admit, I’m now rather glad it never came out, for it makes me smile when I see it. Remembering those nights incognito behind closed curtains, we’d pretended to be four friends instead of two couples, just in case anyone knocked on our door wondering about the loud music. It seems strange to think on, now.
But we lived our lies and stocked our empty nest — that never had a chance to be filled — with odds and ends and soft furnishings instead of family portraits and finger paintings. Our lucky little dog is the sole profiteer for my misdirected mothering these days; it’s still lingering in me. You’d disapprove of how podgy his belly has grown, but, well I just can’t help it.
I should count myself as lucky for having had our lives together at all. But I do wish you’d clung on a few more years, to see their acceptance. We might’ve held hands in the park, or kissed over a relaxing picnic sandwich.
Trust you to dip out of the party early.
I have an egg sandwich and some cheese left, though I shall probably give those to the dog along with the rest of your sandwich, because I don’t like food going to waste.
Oh look, the boy spilled his vegetable sticks all over the grass; too healthy perhaps. He’s jumping in excitement from the stroller and running toward someone the mother in the yellow mac seems very happy to see. His resemblance to the young boy is striking. She blushes, the pair kiss, and all is well.
Your side of the bench is empty.
I would’ve liked to proffer my cheek to you right now; such warming affection going on over there is making me rather jealous. But there we go. May as well pack up and go home, before it starts to rain.
Olive couldn’t wake her.
She even asked her lover if she’d like an iced tea, despite how the night air pricked her bare skin and heckled her arm hairs erect, but iced tea was Zoey’s favorite any time of day.
“Honey, tea or no tea?” Olive prompted a second time as she tied her robe. The silk wasn’t warming, but it looked sexy, so she kept it for the appeal. She crunched her toes into the sheepskin underfoot and waited, but the artificial glow of Zoey’s green irises didn’t blink back at her. The brunette slumbered lifelessly in her bed.
It was then that Olive’s eyes were drawn to the alarm clock on her nightstand. The numbers glowed a guilty twelve-oh-three.
Oh. She’d not realized they’d passed the midnight mark. Olive sighed and muttered a defeated, “Right. Guess not then.”
Zoey was re-charging.
Why did two hours feel so long without her? Olive poured her own tall glass with ice, ice with iced tea? Zoey would usually laugh, but make the drink for Olive anyway. Not that she had a choice. Personalized Alternate Companions were pliant like that.
Olive leant against the counter and sipped her tea, a barren, empty silence engulfing the house now she was alone. Except for —
Tick. She watched the second hand’s shunting wobble. Each twitch marked time on Olive’s two-hour sentence, with its vapid, accusing sound.
Tock. It disrupted her stillness and penetrated the deepest corners of Olive’s mind. But its insult could as well be her parents’ or friends’ spiteful words; the pain was the same.
She’s not real, you know.
“Yes, yes thank-you,” Olive grumbled at the clock.
She’d set Zoey’s charging time this way for a reason: so she’d sleep through it. But occasionally, like tonight, Olive would wake and find herself at an utter loss of what to do when alone.
So she stretched her legs long under the covers, plumped the pillows, and benched a book on her thighs deciding to keep herself busy until Zoey’s smile greeted her at two am. Then she’d be able to rest. With Zoey’s arm draped lazily and cinematically over her hips. With Zoey pressing fluttering kisses to her shoulder and hushing any nightmares away. With Zoey patterning delicate figures on her skin like binary, so Olive relaxed enough to let her eyes close.
Or Morse code.
Zoey had learned that lately; she liked tapping sweet nothings on Olive’s sternum and making her guess what they meant. Olive splayed her book open, cranked the spine and wondered where she’d gotten it from. Maybe it was Zoey’s coding.
Binary, she could appreciate. But Morse?
Yes, network updates happened time to time, and there was an odd sense of responsibility in being forced to decide what Zoey should and shouldn’t know of the world. Accept this data packet? The screen would glow. Olive struggled with it. Too often, her finger hovered before tapping confirm.
It’s not that she wanted to hold Zoey back, just that she wanted to keep her, well…Zoey, and not some generic personality upgrade.
“Are you actually going to read that?” Zoey hummed and tried to pinch the novel from Olive’s fingers.
“Oh hey, you’re back—“ Olive abandoned the book to draw her lover into a kiss. There are those beautiful eyes again.
“Back? Back from where?”
Olive’s chest tightened. “Forget it.” She tucked a lock of Zoey’s hair behind her ear. “I’m just tired.”
“I’m not surprised, it’s the middle of the night,” Zoey smirked, before a twinge of concern pinched in the corners of her eyes. “Something on your mind?”
“No, just…” Olive shook her head, blonde waves rippling. “Hold me?” She fought the pillows flat and shimmied down, then felt the rounds of Zoey’s bare breasts press into her back. The slide of Zoey’s leg between hers when she tugged herself close. “Whatever you need,” Zoey murmured, and kissed the round of Olive’s shoulder, just as she was meant to. “I’m here, okay? I love you.”
“Love you too.”
Olive sighed as she felt the ghosting strokes of Zoey’s latex blend fingertips begin their rhythm on her temple. “I’m sorry, I know it’s silly…”
“Sshhh, Just relax.” Zoey maintained the metronome-like touches, tap-tap, tap-tap, two-fingers and a thumb in a rectangle of six. Olive tried to commit the pattern memory, discern its meaning. She assumed a significance behind the repetitive mechanical movements, though probably betrayed herself by believing it.
You’re a fool, falling for one of those things.
“I was being romantic. Its—“
“Morse code, I know.” Olive huffed through the dark. If she turned, she’d be lost. Zoey’s eyes were so beautiful. Olive could gaze at the colored lineations for hours and Zoey could never understand her awe.
“Huh? No it’s braille, silly.”
“Braille?” Olive frowned.
“When I was a kid, my mother used to do it. Had insomnia all my life, haven't I.” Zoey chuckled sweetly. “You get used to it.”
She really needed to send a system report.
Olive would smile at her lover’s phrasing; ‘all my life’ she’d said. But it hurt too much. So she tucked her arm under their shared pillow and rolled over to face her.
“Don’t you ever wonder why you need so little sleep?” Olive murmured, pushing her lover for an understanding she was systematically unable to compute.
“That’s insomnia for you. It’s a bitch. There is no why.”
“Yes, but two hours? The same two hours, every night? Don’t you think that’s…strange?” Olive kept circling back to the same, painful truth.
She’s not real.
“Honestly? Midnight to two am must just be my circadian rhythm or whatever, right?” Zoey pecked a kiss on Olive’s nose, and tucked the duvet around them. “Now rest, okay? I’m here, honey. I’ll always be here.”
Olive stared at the glowing flecks of green visible in Zoey’s eyes, even in the dim of their bedroom, and smiled. “Yes, I suppose you will.”