Hard Knots


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Hard Knots

Jules hugs herself. She tries to relax and push but she wants to be back in bed. The house is freezing because they’ve left the windows open to air out the smell of paint. She tries to be patient. The sharp wake-up call of haemorrhoids isn’t appealing. Using her foot, she drags over a pair of tracksuit pants that Blair has left on the bathroom floor. They feel refrigerated, but she slips them on up over her thighs and folds the long ends around her feet. She feels tight and bloated.

Blair knocks on the door.

‘Are you in there, Jules?’

‘Yes. Go away,’ she says, distraught. She wishes their toilet and bathroom were separate.

‘I want a shower! Speed it up,’ he says.

‘Go away,’ she says again. She hears him laugh.

She doesn’t think it’s going to happen. It just doesn’t make sense. She’s eaten all those mandarins in the last few days. She should be full of fibre. Maybe it’s a pregnancy thing. Her bowel has just given up halfway through its job. The shit is literally half out. She gives one last hard push, her face straining. She’ll probably look the same way in labour. She tries to push with a neutral face.

It could be performance anxiety. Part of her is saying, Just get it done. She should try to be patient. It’s already halfway out, that’s a good sign. She takes a deep breath and traces figure eights on her belly. She pulls at a stray black hair on her thigh. Her patience falters. Blair is waiting for her to come out.

She’s disappointed. Is her body utterly against her? It must be the chops she ate last night. Otherwise there’s been a lot of pastry over the past few days. It could be the pastry. She wraps her hand in toilet paper and feels behind her to break it off. The rest she pulls back in.

She stands, heaviness around her coccyx. She pulls up Blair’s tracksuit pants then washes her hands and dries them thoroughly with a rough towel. One of her cuticles bleeds.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Blair asks as she opens the door. He’s leaning against the hallway wall, picking at something caught in the hair on his stomach. Jules ignores him and walks back to their bedroom to climb under the doona.

She closes her eyes, feeling worse than when she woke up, and decides not to go with Blair to his mother’s. She waits until she can hear the shower running and opens her eyes again. She lies on her back and pulls her knees up, either side of her little bulge, and tries to yoga her bowel into motion.

Looking at the ceiling above her, she notices a subtle cloud in the paint. The early light through their blinds illuminates the slight ripples. She hadn’t noticed them before. She wonders if it’s water damage that’s been painted over, or some other kind of damage and a bad re-plaster. It runs in a line from the light in the centre of the ceiling, directly above her head, to the architrave. She rocks on her spine and imagines the ceiling caving in. She lets go of her knees and feels a burn in her glutes. She imagines the roof cavity filled with water, the ceiling cracking and opening, and being covered in dirty roof water and insulation.

She gets out of bed and pulls on Blair’s Ugg Boots. She puts on one of his hoodies, too, and leaves the room, smelling Blair in the weighty clothes. She puts on the kettle before moving around the house to push down all the windows. The hidden weights rattle. Jules sniffs. She doesn’t know if the lounge room is empty of the paint smell or if she’s now used to it. She turns on the kitchen and lounge room lights, as if they will add warmth.

Blair is getting ready, banging drawers and cupboards. Jules pours herself a coffee and turns on the radio. She doesn’t add milk like she normally does. It might lower the coffee’s potency.

She starts unstacking the dishwasher, doing squats instead of leaning down, hoping the movement will get things moving. She drinks half the coffee before she goes and takes her laptop off the couch and brings it into the kitchen. She Googles coffee pregnant at the bench. While the page loads she makes a bowl of All-Bran. Google tells her coffee is safe as long as she doesn’t ‘overdo it.’

Blair walks in dressed and ready. Jules can smell his anti-dandruff shampoo. He wears his fleecy work jumper with a high-vis, fluoro-orange strip around the middle. He has shaved off a week’s worth of stubble, probably for his mother, but he still has a rough look that he can’t get rid of.

‘Can you get some lemons from your Mum’s?’ Jules asks.

She eats a mouthful of All-Bran and then pushes the bowl aside in disgust. She takes a mandarin from the fruit bowl and pierces it with her thumbnail.

‘Ask her yourself. Come on. Get out of the smell,’ Blair says.

She gives him a look that means no way. Blair is going to help his dad lay a deck and she doesn’t want to be stuck in her parents-in-law’s toilet making her mother-in-law worry about her.

‘Will you be home for lunch?’ she asks. He comes up to where she’s perched on the stool and lays a hand lightly on the back of her neck.

‘What’s wrong with you, huh?’

Jules hesitates. She’s just survived months of nausea and is sick of sharing her bodily weaknesses with him. It’s only four more months before their house will be filled with the baby’s shit and vomit. She expects that will nauseate him enough, along with her complaints about cracks in her nipples while pumping milk from her breast.

She says, ‘I’m fine,’ even though it makes her feel like an actor who says ‘no’ during improvisation. Blair smirks and rolls his eyes. He opens the freezer and takes out four slices of bread for the toaster.

Jules goes back to peeling the mandarin and some juice squirts into her left eye. She takes a moment to recover, pushing her knuckles into her eye. When Blair’s toast is done, she listens to him scrape Vegemite across the top.

‘Come and look at the wall,’ she says. Blair follows her into the lounge room where they’ve painted three different whites on the wall: Fair Bianca, White on White and Peplum Quarter.

‘Good,’ he says. Jules gives him a sideways look. He takes a bite of his toast.

‘Yes, but is there one you prefer?’ she asks. She looks down and picks pith off a mandarin segment.

‘Honestly. I can’t tell the difference,’ he says, crossing his arms.

There’s a dot of dried blood on the side of his face where he’s nicked himself with his razor.

‘But they are different,’ she says. ‘Blair, we’re going to do the whole house, it’s a big decision.’

‘I can’t see how you can pick one from the other,’ he says.

‘You are so annoying!’ She grabs his bicep. He remains stiff. She doesn’t know how he is, once again, repeating the ‘white is white’ argument. There are subtle differences. The tester pots should have solved it, surely.

‘You pick,’ he says. ‘I’m off. I’ll be back for lunch.’

He gives her a smile and stuffs the rest of the toast into his mouth so all he can do is shrug at her.

‘Can you go to the pharmacy on your way home and get me some Metamucil?’ she asks.

Blair looks reluctant and swallows.

‘Am I going to know what to get?’

‘I’ll text you a picture of the empty container.’

She turns back to the wall and Blair takes his keys off the coffee table.

He leaves and Jules goes back into the kitchen to take another sip of her black coffee. It’s cold. She wants a new one, with milk, but in case that’s ‘overdoing it’ she sits instead. She tries to justify her self-prescribed cure and Googles coffee remedy constipation natural. She scrolls through the search results and clicks on random sites. She navigates through endless pages of colon cleansers and IBS cartoons. The humour of it slowly gives way to a budding fear of colon disease just as she comes across a blog with the instructions for a coffee enema.

It’s eye opening.

Jules wishes all the reading about poo would trigger her bowel, like a dripping tap or a contagious yawn. How can someone perform a coffee enema alone? She imagines being stuck, lying on her side and soiling herself on an old towel on the cold bathroom floor. Waves and waves of shit. She imagines calling out to Blair for help.

Jules closes the Google window and exhales a laugh. She sits with her head in her hands and rubs her eyes. Then she decides to go back into the bathroom and have a sit.

After only a minute or two, she wipes herself furiously even though there’s no reason to.

While she undresses for the shower, she looks at her belly in the mirror. Blair calls it her beer gut. Her bikini line needs a tidy so she takes Blair’s trimmer out of the drawer. She sits on the edge of the bath facing in, preparing to trim, and wonders: How do women go to the toilet with an infant? Do they bring the baby monitor into the bathroom? Do they bring the baby? She imagines sitting on the loo with a monitor screaming at her mid-poo. That’s one way to get post-natal depression.

She brushes coarse hairs towards the plughole with her foot then picks the remaining ones out of the blade.

Her neck feels stiff. It won’t be long before she’ll need a mirror to trim. She puts the trimmer on the bench and opens the bottom drawer to get out her old yellow hand mirror. She associates the mirror with a nagging desire to examine herself and usually resists taking it out. The mirror, with its tacky rhinestone handle, has been around since she was in primary school. The glass needs a wipe.

After a while she makes the shower hot and gets under to defrost.

In the shower Jules decides that if she eats more it might push everything down. Push everything down and out.

She finishes her shower and rubs herself vigorously with the towel so the drops of water have no time to cool on her skin. As she wraps her hair in the towel she feels pain, like a pimple, in one of her ears. She feels a lump but she can’t seem to scratch it off. Sticking her nail into it just hurts more. She can’t see it in the bathroom mirror. She takes the hand mirror and angles it but she still can’t see it. She shoves the mirror back into the bottom drawer.

Her ear throbs while she blow-dries her hair, even though she hasn’t touched the lump again. Maybe it’s a new mole she shouldn’t have gone poking at.

In the bedroom she dresses quickly, her choices limited. She pulls Blair’s big jumper over her outfit to protect it from getting messy while she bakes. She turns on the oven to preheat and decides to make more coffee, with milk this time.

There isn’t milk in the fridge, though. She’s used the last of it on her All-Bran. She takes a sip of the black coffee. She definitely wants milk.

She looks into her All-Bran bowl. The All-Bran is mush beneath the white surface. She doesn’t want the day to defeat her so she takes a tablespoon and dips it into the shallow layer of milk.

It looks clear enough. How bad could a little bit of cereal make her coffee taste? It’s all in the breakfast-family. She spoons the milk into her coffee. It still looks strong, so she keeps taking milk from the bowl until the coffee becomes a more regular brown. There are a few floaties but she’s determined they won’t get her down.

Sitting on the stool at the bench with her coffee, she opens her laptop to look up recipes online. Her nephew, Jamie, wants something chocolate so she searches for an easy brownie recipe. She takes a sip of coffee. There’s definitely the taste of All-Bran in there. She ignores it and clicks on Best Ever Brownies. She reads over the recipe and thinks briefly it’s simple enough to double.

She stubbornly takes another sip of coffee. It’s no good. She goes to the refrigerator for butter and weighs out enough for a double batch, leaving it to soften in the bowl.

After she checks there is flour, sugar and cocoa in the pantry, she goes into the lounge room to take photos of the three panels of white on their wall. She takes a combination of photos using her iPhone, with the lights on and off, and curtains open and closed. She e-mails the photos to her sister-in-law, hoping the intrusion doesn’t piss off Nat while she’s preparing for Jamie’s birthday party. It’s worth the risk, anyway. Jules wants to have something to talk with Nat about, because they usually run out fast enough.

Jules settles on the couch to read House and Garden but she can’t concentrate. She goes back into the kitchen to start the brownies and swipes the mouse pad to wake the laptop from its sleep. She opens a new tab and Googles: Tearing during child birth.

She measures out the brown sugar and turns the mixer on to cream it with the butter. She’s spilt brown sugar on the bench, so with one hand she wipes the sugar into the other and flicks it into the sink. She can feel the granules stuck in the creases of her palm. She looks back at her computer and tabs to the recipe. She busies herself measuring out the ingredients. She drinks a tall glass of water and changes the radio station. After all the dry ingredients are mixed in she pours the mixture into a baking tray then slides it into the oven.

Her mother calls. Jules answers on the first ring.

She tells her Mum about the whites. Her Mum says it’s better that Blair doesn’t have an opinion and that Jules should choose the white that has warm tones because the lounge room faces southwest.

‘Didn’t I already tell you that, darling?’ her mother asks.

Jules changes the subject.

‘Mum, what did you do when I was a baby and you needed to go to the toilet?’

‘Well, I don’t remember,’ she says.

‘Or when you took a shower? Where was I when you took a shower?’

‘I don’t know, Jules. I guess I would have just taken you in there with me. I must have. You really were a crier.’

‘Right,’ Jules says, envisioning herself nude and in the shower, wiggling her hips in an attempt to distract her baby from crying.

‘Well, I think it was for the best,’ her mother says, now defending what she has just claimed not to remember, as if Jules is judging her.

Jules sighs.

‘Otherwise you could have developed one of those attachment disorders. That’s what they were all going on about in the eighties. Now you have controlled crying, which is a bit easier, I have to say.’

‘I think the brownies are burning,’ Jules says, wanting to both hang up and stay on the phone. Her mother ignores the comment. Jules hooks the phone between her shoulder and her ear and takes the brownies out to cool. She eats a handful of beetroot chips while her mother talks about how Jules can get free paint from the local council to cover graffiti. Jules half listens and wipes some crumbs onto the floor. She brushes them into the corner of the kitchen with her foot. They cling to her sock.

She’s trying to shake a thought from her mind.

‘Mum. Do you think my scar will split open during delivery?’ Jules asks.

Her mother is silent.

‘I just want to know.’ Jules knows there’s no way to make this comfortable for her mother. But who else can she ask?

‘Darling, how did you get this idea in your head?’

‘Scars from previous births usually split open,’ Jules says, knowing that’s probably irrelevant and that the scar is far older.

‘If you’re going to split open, you’ll split open,’ her mother says impatiently. ‘It’s not worth tying yourself up in knots. What happened on those damn monkey bars won’t bear on anything. What you don’t want to do is tell the doctors you might tear, because sometimes if they think you’re going to tear they’ll just cut you themselves. Sideways. It’s meant to be better but I’ve heard it isn’t. Make sure Blair knows that, if you still don’t want me at the birth. Someone has to be looking out for you. Someone needs to pour warm water over you. That’s what saved me. I had an excellent midwife. They’re all barbarians in the public system.’

Jules gets off the phone, leans against the bench and finishes the chips. She remembers crouching down after the fall, unable to move because of the pain. When she’d finally risen, she’d slid four fingers between the buttons of her school dress. Her underpants were warm and wet, and her fingers came out bright red with blood. Embarrassed, she’d formed her hand into a fist. At first, the nurse in sickbay thought Jules had her period. Jules remembers a large pad, spare Mickey Mouse knickers, and then lying with her legs open for an awkward inspection because the blood kept coming and coming. At the hospital, she was taken aside and questioned. She remembers straightening out her slap-band watch, slapping it on, taking it off and repeating that until the questions were over.

Jules starts cutting the brownies into squares for the platter. She hears Blair arrive home.

‘I like Antique White USA,’ he calls from the entrance hall.

‘What?’ Jules calls back, a wave of nausea coming over her.

‘That’s what Mum’s got on the wall at their place. I like it. There. There’s my opinion,’ he says, coming into the kitchen.

Everybody with the Antique USA,’ Jules says to herself, and keeps cutting the brownies.

‘Smells good in here,’ Blair says.

‘Antique White USA isn’t white enough,’ Jules barks at him, her voice breaking.

Blair takes a box of BBQ Shapes from the pantry.

Jules looks at the brownies. ‘They don’t look right,’ she says. They seem too wet, as if they aren’t cooked, but the brownie at the edge of the tray is burnt. Blair looks over her shoulder at the brownies she’s cut.

‘How much oil is in them? Look at the paper!’ Blair says. The baking paper looks soaked and shiny. Jules frowns at the tray.

‘Go away,’ she says.

‘Hey, woah,’ he says and grabs her jaw. ‘What’s going on here? I think your gums are bleeding.’

Jules shuts her mouth stubbornly. Blair’s hand feels clammy, holding firmly onto her cheeks.

‘Open, vampire,’ he says. She opens her mouth and reluctantly bares her teeth. ‘So weird,’ Blair says, looking at her eyes now.

Jules closes her mouth.

‘Beetroot chips! Mystery solved,’ he says, and flicks the packet.

Jules smiles, her mouth still closed, and fills a glass of water at the sink. Blair laughs. He breaks off a chunk of brownie and eats it.

‘Bit rich,’ he comments.

Jules swallows a mouthful of water. She lets out a frustrated moan. ‘Shit!’

‘What?’ Blair asks.

‘I doubled the butter and I didn’t double anything else,’ she says. She groans again.

Blair takes another bite and then frowns mid-chew. He leans against the bench and swallows. He looks down at the chunk left in his fingers.

‘Don’t,’ she says. ‘You’ll have a heart attack.’

She takes a plastic bag out of the pantry and empties the tray into it. She brings the bag to him so he can drop the piece of brownie in.

‘Mum wants to know what time we’ll be over at Nat’s,’ Blair says, still leaning and watching her. He opens the Shapes. Jules looks down into the plastic bag and starts to sob. She doesn’t want to cry but she can’t help herself. Blair sighs, puts the box of Shapes on the bench and pulls her in for a hug.

Jules can’t help but imagine the shit that’s sitting dormant inside her. What is it doing to her? Blair chews the shapes.

And she screwed up the simplest recipe. What’s more, she has to come up with another contribution for Jamie’s birthday. She has to bring something amazing and act like it’s nothing. She wants to hand the tray of home-cooked food to Nat and do The Shrug, just like Nat does to her. To finally be initiated into Nat’s good-mother universe.

‘You’re fine,’ Blair says. He pats her on the spine while reaching for the Shapes. He puts another handful in his mouth while he still has a hold of her.

Jules has noticed that over the past few months Blair has found her crying more and more amusing. He’s amused like it’s a joke. As if a crying pregnant wife is something to enjoy. He’s amused like someone who isn’t worried. He just doesn’t seem worried. She wonders if this makes him smarter than her or an idiot. Does the baby know how underprepared they are? She breaks away from the hug to tell Blair he is an idiot.

Before she can say it he asks, ‘What’s wrong with you?’

‘I’m fine,’ Jules says and sniffs. She takes a tissue from the box above the fridge. ‘I’m just really constipated.’ She lets out a mixture of a sob and a laugh.

‘Just go and have a sit on the toilet,’ Blair says.

‘Did you get the Metamucil?’

‘You never sent the picture,’ he says matter-of-factly. Jules knows he simply forgot about her. She inhales, her mouth in a tight line, and her shoulders rise.

‘Just relax,’ Blair says, and tries to push her shoulders down.

‘I can’t relax,’ Jules snaps and steps away. It’s not as simple as that.

His jaw clenches.

‘The bathroom is freezing. And my ear hurts and there’s no milk left.’

‘Okay,’ Blair says and shows her both his palms like a negotiator would a terrorist.

‘Leave that,’ he says, indicating the bag of bad brownies she still has in her hand. She slowly lowers the bag next to the bin.

‘Stay here,’ he adds.

She stands in the kitchen wondering where he went. Her eyes are hot from tears. Feeling utterly defeated, she goes to the sink and runs cold water over her fingers then dabs her eyelids.

‘You’ve worked yourself up about it you idiot,’ he says, coming back into the room. ‘I’ve put the little electric heater in the bathroom. You just need to relax Jules.’

‘Yep,’ Jules says. But she doesn’t move.

‘What’s wrong with your ear?’

‘I don’t know. Something,’ Jules says. She’s holding a tissue to her nose. He comes over and takes her head, turning it so he can see. He leans in.

‘That is something,’ he says. He pulls at her ear so he can see. ‘You’ve got a little blackhead going on in there. It’s all red.’

She makes a noise and tries to move away. He still has hold of her ear.

‘No,’ he says. ‘I’ll get it. I can get it.’

She stands still while he sticks his fingers into her ear. It hurts, but for only a moment.

‘Got it. Have a look at that!’ he shows her the blackhead on the end of his fingernail. ‘That’s bloody gross, Jules,’ he adds and starts laughing at her.

She gives him a dirty look.

‘Go on,’ he says and gestures to the bathroom.

Jules walks down the hallway for round three.

The bathroom is warming up and Jules is glad she’s escaped the lounge room with its shades of white, and the kitchen with its potent fumes of buttery brownies. The heater hums as she sits. She puts her hand under Blair’s jumper and holds herself.

She imagines other ways to escape – suddenly – just pack up and leave. But she knows she can’t. She can’t move somewhere new and just be whoever she wants to be. She thinks about the gap between the skirting board and the floorboards in the baby room. She wonders about a draft there. Blair could fix that, but he hasn’t put the crib together and she’s scared to push it. She wonders about him. She thinks about hospital visits and parts of her body that she can’t see. If she breaks, she breaks, she decides. Then she decides not to think anymore.

Instead, she visualises the bathroom freshly painted. Stark white. The interior of the house, white and blinding. She visualises the cracks filled and the discoloration covered in clean white paint. Fair Bianca.

After some time her muscles contract and she shudders. She is suddenly hot. She leans down to switch the heater off. As she does, it is finally out in one great painful burst. She can feel herself ripping as it happens. Her thigh twitches involuntarily. She wipes herself carefully, feeling the lump and then looks into the loo. It’s a familiar brutal scene, stained with blood, fresh and red. The shit below the surface, invisible.

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