“And I hate that picture too.”
He turned to look at the new target of her ire.
“Lake Hintersee? But why? It’s beautiful.”
“That lake was beautiful but that picture is just like you. It’s boring and empty. Your eye gets drawn to the dead centre. Dead, empty and soulless.”
With that, she turned and picked up her coat.
“I’ll be back while you’re at work to collect my stuff.”
James stared at the closed door for what felt like an eternity. Hand trembling, he reached for the back of the chair before slowly lowering himself down onto it.
His eyes followed the trail of destruction; the spilt milk jug, the overturned plate and the smashed coffee cup on the ground. He gazed at the coffee splash on the wall and was surprised at how much it looked like a dwarf playing the saxophone.
He remembered the day he’d met Brigid. He was lying on the grass outside the university library having a study break while his friends pointed out shapes in the clouds.
“It’s a midget playing the saxophone.”
“It’s not a midget, it’s a dwarf. The head is out of proportion to the body.”
James lifted his head. The lilting Irish accent belonged to a girl he didn’t recognise. She was running her fingers through her short blonde hair as she earnestly defended vertically challenged mineworkers' rights. She paused when she saw James smiling at her.
“Well, I don’t see what you’re laughing at.”
James apologised and offered to buy her a drink to apologise. They'd kissed on the walk back home to the student halls and James had ended up spending the night with her.
They’d never officially dated. They just seemed to spend most of their free time together. After graduation, it seemed natural to move in together to save on the rent. When she came home with James for Christmas, they were referred to as Brigid and James. His mother and sister loved her and thought she was the bee’s knees. Ever since, Brigid had talked to his mother more than he did anytime she phoned.
When she’d stood in the kitchen, ashen-faced, holding a pregnancy test and calling him “Daddy,” he’d felt the ground open up. The surge of relief he felt when she’d laughed and told him it was just a covid test was quickly replaced by feelings of anger.
Brigid knew he didn’t want to be a dad. She’d called him Captain Condom because of his obsession with being safe. That she could play on that fear for a cheap joke made him question if he really loved her.
He lay on the sofa and stared at the picture of Lake Hintersee. He’d bought it for Brigid for her last birthday. They had stopped and picnicked by the lake on their way from Munich to Salzberg one time when he had visited Brigid whilst she was doing an Erasmus exchange in Austria. James had felt so proud of himself for finding it. Brigid, however, hadn’t been as awestruck as he’d expected. In fact, she’d looked quite disappointed, as if she’d been expecting something else.
Now, as he tried to imagine life without her, he found that he couldn’t. It wasn’t that he loved her and couldn’t bear to be without her, it was just that he knew the grief he’d get from his mother and sisters if he finished with her. He was pretty sure they liked her more than they liked him.
Plus, it was so easy to stay with her. She was able to run the house, make sure the bills were paid, bought the shopping and even decided what they were eating. He did his fair share of the cooking but she did all the housekeeping. She even organised their savings plan as they saved for a mortgage.
Without noticing it, without even agreeing to it, they’d fallen into a relationship and James realised, whether he wanted a relationship or not, he was too much of a coward to try to get out of it.
The living room door opened and Brigid came in, carrying two mugs.
She placed the mugs of coffee on the table, then slid a chocolate biscuit across to him.
He smiled and picked up the biscuit.
“I’m sorry too.”
He’d never imagined amongst his fantasies of leaving Brigid that it would be Brigid who would leave him. True, he’d been busy. The years seem to have flown by. Work was hectic. He was doing his best, plugging away, vying for promotion. He just wanted to get some money together, feel financially secure, and finally be in a position to commit to marriage and children.
He’d tried to explain this to Brigid. Tried to make her see why he was working so hard. So he’d be able to spend time with her and be able to commit to her but her face just darkened.
“Did you not think after almost six years, that maybe we were committed?”
He shrugged and muttered, “I dunno. I never know what you want. It’s all about you, never about me.”
And then James did what James did best in those moments. He opened his mouth to change feet.
“It’d be nice if you’d give me a blow job now and again, rather than the sex always being about you. Commitment’s a two-way street, you know.”
It was at that point that he had to duck as the coffee mug flew past his head and crashed into the wall, creating the saxophone-playing dwarf pareidolia.
He sat and stared at the picture of Lake Hinterbee. He’d thought he’d been so original buying that picture. But then he’d seen it as a motivational picture meme on Facebook. Brigid was right, he realised. It was empty and soulless. Nothing but a reflection of an empty sky on an empty lake. A great mass of nothingness. The final realisation came too late, as always. That’s all he was without her.