David O’Neill

 

Decisions in the Dark Room

 

Click.

 

Click.

 

Click.

 

Turning the page of his book he pretended not to hear her lens. It was trained on him, eagerly gorging on his growing embarrassment. He felt uncomfortable being photographed. It spoke so much of him that he felt it was like robbery. He preferred to keep some things to himself. Powerless now, as he was being digitally tattooed onto a file somewhere inside the body of the camera. All he could do was sit and read. Mindfully ignoring her as she worked. What he was unaware of however, was that she knew he didn’t enjoy being photographed. In the unspoken contract of their love she couldn’t stop herself. He simply could not hide himself. His truth was as vivid as sunlight when viewed through a 35mm lens and she found it near impossible to do anything but succumb to the allure of drawing lines in his sand.

 

Their relationship was one of taking and greed though neither felt used by this. They took from each other what was theirs. What they needed. It made them feel that no other stage of their separate lives had been complete. Documents of their union were now a collage of sympathy and grace. Each point on the graph of their collective existence was developed and haphazardly stuffed into the compartments of each other. Bookmarks. Fridge magnets. Scrap books. Each diligently exploring and revealing a chapter of themselves. All this, told through her photographic narration. Sometimes, if questioned she would say that she couldn’t remember taking the photos. It was only later, looking through the files that she noticed an image. A lithographic sentence that called out to her.

 

He stood up suddenly, aware of, yet apathetic to the fact that this would upset the delicate balance between artist and subject that he had unwillingly allowed to mature. Walking to the kitchen, he pretended not to notice her frustration. Sellotaped to the door of the fridge, in a failed effort to seem unpretentious, he noticed a photograph taken earlier that year. In it his profile tilted south while she rested her chin on the crown of his head. Through a gap in their entwined faces a calm and reflective coastline peered back. Large swathes of empty rolling sand stood between their bodies and the coast line.

 

It had been perfect.

 

It was taken on the morning that followed an exhibition of hers from the previous summer. It was also the first exhibition of hers he had attended as her lover. The pride he had initially felt had dissipated with a crude sense of jealousy. It was a profoundly selfish jealousy at the exposure she was granting to so many sets of eyes. He wanted to hide it from the damage of the world, keep it safe. Keep it for himself. The night had led them to the beach, ready to greet the growing daylight with a half lidded euphoria, filled with an almost abrasive enthusiasm for the coming day, their careers and each other. They made love in the sand moments after the photo had captured their bond. He had held her with a firm tenderness. His hands that morning were on a mission both of exploration and protection. Sitting together later as they watched the shoreline creep elegantly towards their bare feet, he had kissed sand off her exposed shoulder. He longed for the photograph she had taken to offer a glimpse of their love, to provide some sort of proof.He was terrified it would expose a myth.

 

***

 

Time spent with another person has a way of clinging to you. Kisses, insults, misconceptions, they never leave, no matter how forcefully you deny them. They create a Pollock-like collage of feelings. They become categorised subconsciously into little rooms of thought. Some rooms are visited regularly, they let you revel in the warm glow of a memory, to play it out on repeat. You mould your mind into the historical emotions and every moment, flinch or twinge of excitement feels brand new. It is a vicarious form of contentment though. You are never the person that you were before the paint was flicked effortlessly, but permanently onto your canvas.

 

***

 

Taking steps two a time, he reached the top of the staircase and rounded the bannister with a sweep. Pushing the bedroom door harder than he would have liked, an obnoxiously loud smack filled the dead morning air as his sock drawer stood in the way of the swing of the doorframe.

 

She sat bolt upright in the bed. Momentary terror etched on her pillow ravaged face. For the smallest of moments he thought he might laugh at her.  Disorientated and disgruntled, a river of stitching running down the nocturnal map of her cheek. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to push it so hard. Anyway, I’ve gotta run or I will miss this bus. Are you sure you want to come in and meet me later?”

 

“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked. The words tumbled from her with a looseness that is either saved for drunks or the newly awake.The manner in which he had stormed her dreams had clearly left her with a less than stable thought process. Second guessing was currently her first instinct.

 

“Nothing,” he said. “I just mean that you don’t have to come all the way into town just for lunch. I know how you love bus trips.” He smiled encouragingly, trying to defuse the tension he sensed was building and simultaneously apologising for his brutal assault on her dream.

 

“Ah, I’ll see then. Send a text later ok?”

 

“Yeah, ok,” he said as he spun away from her warmth. His words reaching her from behind an already closed door.

 

***

 

As he watched his breath steam up a growing oval on the glass of the bus window, he allowed himself to mentally retreat and relive the previous minutes. This, as usual, led to a repeat of the previous days and weeks. Things hadn’t been great. That was undeniable. The difference between recent events and the almost visceral passion they had enjoyed

previously was weighing heavy on him. Wryly, yet with a small measure of over-exaggeration, he thought that now his relationship could only be comparable to a crumbling empire if that empire had been gathered indiscriminately and clumped together from the remnants of previously failed institutions. However, in times of meditation such as these, he would admit that it was his hand that bore the larger weight. His hand that threatened to capsize an already decidedly unsteady boat. His hand that would send it gurgling south, to lay, beaten and weathered beside his many previous voyages.

 

He did not want to this to be the case. He loved her. Before they had even met, he was in love with her or someone that fitted her profile in any case. All he could do then was to sit patiently and wait until the strict criteria that he had fallen in love with was eventually met. With the veneer of context stripped away, this in essence, was accurate. He had wanted to love a photographer or perhaps, some other type of artist. He wanted to stay up all night talking about books, politics and love. He wanted to love and argue in equal measures of intensity. He wanted someone with opinions and a fringe.  

 

While this was all technically true, it wasn’t fair to either of them. Yes, he had wanted all of those things. They had haunted, teased and enticed him for as long as he could remember. He had longed for a vicarious passion that tumbled across his skin at the hint of her name. Now though, he had it. That was not all he had collected though. In his possession was real, grimy, love. It had crept up on him and it hadn’t come out of a bottle either. It was being tested and while he wanted it to succeed, he just wasn’t sure it could.

 

***

 

After paying for his coffee he threw his coat over a tall stool. Sliding his knees under the table and shaking the newspaper open in a brief display of mechanical elegance. His reflection peered back from the glass as he watched the commuters shuffle past. Intent on beating each other to their position on the starting line of the working day. He threw down the paper in exchange for his phone. He creased his brow to appear serious and thoughtful while aimlessly circling his regular list of websites, unwilling to settle his concentration on any particular one. A perky tone announcing an email caused him to flinch with embarrassment, and with a feeling of bitterness tinged with hope, he swiped it open. A series of photographs taken on a night out with work colleagues a week or so earlier filled the screen. Flicking through each one, carefully considering how he looked, he imagined how other people might comment on his appearance. His hair, his clothes, his teeth.

 

He stopped and enlarged one picture in particular. He was centre left in a group shot. Arms draped nonchalantly around those on either side of him. Clearly this photo was taken late in the evening, the wine bleached lips and teeth of the man to his right was evidence of that. To his left was Sophie, gently teasing the limelight from everyone else in the photograph. Sophie was all neck and arms. She spoke with an impressive confidence on most topics without ever seeming condescending, enthusiastically welcoming opinions and never without company. She was impressively fashionable and good looking while never giving the impression that she valued looks or adhered to the shallowness of fashion. As well as a smile that seemed to imply honesty and beauty, Sophie also possessed an eyebrow that hooked comically when men spoke to her, instantly nullifying their attempts to either reduce or seduce.

 

He cropped the photo so that the two of them remained. Him; smiling enthusiastically, his hand on her waist. Her; beaming and content, leaning slightly into his embrace. They looked like a couple.

 

Another shrill ping woke him from his reverie. He quickly deleted the email with a deft swipe of his fingers as though he had been caught nefariously watching the European television stations that his parents had warned him against.

 

“Give me a call when you get a chance. X”

 

He felt his cheeks fill with an intense rush of blood at the sight of the message and clumsily he tapped the number into his phone.

 

“Well that was quick,” she said. He could tell from the chirpy tone in her voice that their earlier argument had long since left her thoughts. It still hung over his own however, threatening to blow his day completely off course.

 

“Yeah, I was actually just about to call you when I got your text,” he lied.

 

“You liar,” she said. Barely concealing the delight she held on her tongue by making him squirm.

 

“You know me too well, anyway, what’s up?”

 

“Nothing much, I just wanted to say sorry for earlier. You know how cranky I am in the morning.”

 

“Don’t apologise. I shouldn’t have barged in like that. I was in a hurry.”

 

Things were looking up. He could hear a sparkle in her voice and knew that she was still in bed, lazily engulfed by both of their oversized white pillows, allowing the morning sun to inch its way across the bedsheets. Her knees would be tucked high towards her chest as she watched the birds eagerly plunder their newly planted grass seed. She might be smiling at their futility of sowing the seeds in any case. They could never grow anything. Grass, tomatoes, last year’s tulips, a baby. No matter how they tried, nothing ever flourished under their admittedly second rate care and nourishment.

 

“So, do you still want me to come in and meet you for lunch?” she said.

 

“Eh. Maybe.”

 

“Maybe?”

 

“Well, yes, of course I do but can I get back to you about it later? It’s just that I think I might have something important I can’t get out of.”

 

It was a flimsy excuse and he was all too aware of it. The truth was that it didn’t matter how frivolous and enjoyable their current conversation was, a cloud was hanging over him. It had been made worse by his amateur photo editing exercise moments earlier. He did not harbour anything other than respect and a friendly interest in Sophie, her opinions and her eyebrow, but seeing them standing together, glassy eyed and at relaxed angles made him think that he wanted something else. Something comfortable. Something elegant yet strong. Something new. Not with Sophie, no. Crushingly, at that exact moment, not with his girlfriend either.

 

He casually tossed out a non-committal text to rain check on their lunch arrangements at around 11 that morning. Thankfully, he was not lying to her now. He genuinely couldn’t meet her. Work had gotten in the way and somewhat buoyantly he realised that surrounding himself with his employer’s concerns had dampened his own sense of dread. He took some notion of consolation in knowing that he hadn’t cancelled their plans as the opening gambit in the dissolution of their relationship. While not completely off the table, that wasn’t an immediate possibility.

 

As he sat alone in the canteen glumly chasing a dried out salad around the plate with a plastic fork he distracted himself with his phone once more. He stopped scrolling when he landed on a photograph of the two of them together. It was taken at a recent party and while the focus was blurred as though it had been taken through the eyes of the drunken photographer, it was radiatingly clear that the look they were sharing was strong, passionate, immediate.

 

“Pretty,” said Sophie. “Who is she?”

 

“Oh, that’s my girlfriend,” he said. He couldn’t immediately place the voice and spun around emphatically, looking over his shoulder and answering without being fully aware of his conversation partner.

 

“Oh right. Well, she is a keeper by the looks of things. Hang onto that one if you can. Otherwise you will be left scraping the barrel like the rest of us.” Sophie walked back out of the room with a smile and a theatrical wink which was accompanied by a loud and unnecessary clicking noise. The room felt emptier now that she had gone, like a plain left ransacked following a tornado.

 

***

 

Hours later, he lay in the darkness of their bedroom. Thin ghosts of light swept across purposefully placed furniture, acting as rocks upon which he could climb away. Escape was still on his mind. His synapses now twisted and contorted by the chance meeting with Sophie that afternoon. Her smile and self-depreciating comment, dripping with irony, had sent him swirling for the second time that day. Now, in these half-life surroundings he once more felt the icy pull of anxious decay. He recognised it and he knew something had to change. An irrevocable decision needed to be met. Head first. Face first. Mouth first. He needed to start with his mouth. Kisses. Words. Arguments. Apologies. It didn’t matter. It had to spill from him. The way his memory of events spilled across his mind, splashing haphazardly behind his eyes. Burning onto his memory like photographic paper, documenting every direction and decision he had ever made. Forcing him to watch over and over until he felt as though his life was not a series of choices which had been made for him.

 

Except now, no matter what way he chose to act, there was nothing prepared. There was no photographic evidence of a choice vicariously made on his behalf. Regardless of what lay ahead, whatever it was that would push through the earth in their newly planted lawn, he felt helpless. As though he were being pushed into a grotesque movie reel without any direction. Nobody to shout stop. Nobody to write his lines. Nobody to take his photo.

David O'Neill is a writer, poet, and musician from Dublin, Ireland. His writing has been described as work which 'approaches heavy subjects with beauty and gravitas'. He has had works published in The Incubator Journal, Spontaneity Magazine, The Useless Degree Magazine, and The Lonely Crowd website. David has performed at various spoken word events, including Electric Picnic and Spirit of Folk festival. He is currently writing his first novel.

Short Fiction

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