Fiction · 05/17/2017

Matchsticks

I remove two matches from the sun-bleached cardboard box on my dash and hand one to John. He pauses, a slight display of resistance. But he takes it, just as he always takes what I have to give.

“Shoplifting from Walmart,” I say.

He stares at the match gripped between his fingers. “We should get home.”

“Is that what you’re going with?” I ask, running my match around the steering wheel. “You can do better than that.”

He never wants to win this game of ours anymore.

“We told your mum we’d be back by ten.”

“She doesn’t give a shit what time we’re back.”

He looks at his watch. “Maggie needs to be fed in an hour,” he says, and I can feel how strongly he’s begging for home. But I don’t want to be there right now, with the incessant crying and constant needing.

“I pumped myself dry before we left. She can have a bottle.”

Without another excuse, he sits silent.

I twist in my seat to face him, smooth my plump belly and adjust my immense tits, the tits that barely fit inside my skin-coloured nursing bra. “We haven’t had a night alone since she was born. Don’t I get you going anymore?”

John rubs at his bloodshot eyes, but says nothing. My face burns with shame.

“Star-watching down at the beach,” he says.

I shrug, like it’s a tolerable suggestion, but it’s not. It’s where this all started, in the back of his truck, with the stars, and the music that oozed into the empty places, and the cheap vodka he stole from his dad’s liquor cabinet.

“Ready?” I say.

He nods.

We strike our matches in unison. The smell of sulphur fills the car, the flash of light momentarily blinding me. For a second, I’m standing in my backyard as a young girl with a sparkler, writing my name with the smoke. The flames eat through their wooden shafts, dancing in the breeze that drifts through our windows.

John’s flame gets within a quarter inch of his fingers before he flicks it onto the street outside, giving up once again. Mine licks my thumb before John leans over and blows it out.

“You win,” he says.

The Walmart parking lot is busy for a Thursday night. I pull my hoodie over my mess of hair which smells of breast milk and baby barf.

“You have a lot to lose,” he says, implying I don’t know what I have on the line. That I can’t see our daughter, my future, they way they’re tangled together. I wonder if he wants to be a part of that web. Part of my complicated.

“So do you,” I say, heading toward the cosmetic section.

I used to spend half an hour in front of the mirror every day, lining my eyes, colouring my lips, tidying my brows. Sometimes, I don’t have time to brush my teeth anymore.

The hairs on my neck prick as I slip a tube of bright red lipstick into the back pocket of my jeans, and it feels like every camera in the place is focusing on me. Looking at my sorry life, my sorry state. My heart drums as I walk toward the bathroom, trying to keep my gait slow, trying to keep my steps easy. I sink onto the toilet lid with relief once I’ve locked the stall, trying to ignore the anti-shoplifting poster plastered on the door. The promise of consequence.

My hands shake as I peel the tags from the lipstick, and I tell myself I haven’t lost my edge. That I’ve got this. The shoplifting alarm rings through the store while I’m sitting there, and my stomach drops, wondering if John is the trigger. Wondering if he’s done it on purpose to get away from me. From Maggie. He’s been nervous lately, leaving for work earlier and earlier, whispering on his phone. Looking for a way out.

I shove the lipstick into my pocket, inhaling deeply to calm myself before exiting. A woman stands at the sink with three children. She’s trying to wrangle them into washing their hands, drying their hands, climbing back into the stroller. I wonder how she does it with three, when I can’t do it with one. She gives me a small, tired smile when I turn on the water for her daughter.

“Thanks,” she says.

“No worries,” I say, averting my gaze.

I head for the car, holding my breath as I walk through the security gates. The relief I feel when it doesn’t sound surprises me, like maybe I wanted it to sound. Like maybe I wanted to get busted for being incapable. For barely holding on.

John’s sitting in the passenger seat when I pull open my door. He holds up a rattle, a purple bow tied around its handle. Tears prick at my eyes, and I blink them back. The lipstick in my pocket feels shallow against what he’s chosen to steal.

He pulls the box of matches from the dash and holds one out for me.

“Marry me,” he says.

I stare at him, unable to process what he’s just said.

“You can do better than that,” he says with a smile, waving my match in my face.

“I can’t,” I say, reaching for it, but I’m not sure what I’m referring to — coming up with something better or marrying him.

“You can,” he says.

We strike our matches and he blows mine out. Then we sit and watch his burn all the way to the fingertips.

+++

Jennifer Todhunter is a number nerd, backyard beekeeper, and writer based in Canada. Her stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Flash Fiction Online, (b)OINK, and elsewhere. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.