At first, it felt like a laugh on the cusp of erupting but which never arrived. Unlike a sneeze that won’t come out or being robbed of a deep yawn, this feeling was strangely satisfying, its payoff rooted in the not letting go rather than the release. And then one day, like a burp that couldn’t be swallowed or muted behind a cupped palm, their love belched and was gone.
This took her by surprise. She knew about fizzling love, knew what it looks like to wake up one day and roll over and wonder how things got this way, have no idea where it went wrong but knowing today, from now on, you need to be apart. And, she was well acquainted with love that crescendoed with shouting and crying and make-up fucks before petering into the silent treatment and an awkward division of possessions in the middle of the kitchen floor, a moat of scavenged boxes and crumpled newspapers ringing the cups and plates and those last moments of shared space.
But this time, the moment it ended for her heart felt like marking a journey in pins on a map, precise little jabs plotting a course from feeling this was the only thing she ever needed to feel again to feeling nothing at all. First there was this, then this, then that, then the end. And the end was the sunscreen.
They had taken holidays — short excursions and long weekends and over-nighters that tested their ability to “travel together” and proved they did so quite well, each trip ticking off a box on the list that confirmed compatibility. If this were a ladies’ magazine, they would be passing the true love quiz with flying colours. In a locker room, dudes would be nodding “right on” and dealing highfives. In short, this love affair was on. That is, until the first time they hit the beach to bask under a tropical sun.
No fool and highly conscious of her mid-winter Canadian skin, she applied sunscreen like a sauce garnished with a bikini, paying special attention to notoriously overlooked tender spots. The folds of her ears, the pudgy place that wasn’t quite armpit and wasn’t yet breast, the trough in the small of her back between bikini bottom and bum crack where her suit gaped to admit a few millimetres of unexpected rays. In 2008, only a fool would take a chance on red-hot sunburn and as sexy as a nice brown tan might be, she knew not to go for it on day one.
Stepping from the bathroom freshly slathered in SPF 45, she waggled her pedicure and shook her bum, and made a coy joke about scooping sand from her two-piece suit later on. Tossed the tube of sun protection onto the bed (“I’ve got my own”, he said), shrugged into a loose t-shirt and hoisted her beach satchel over her shoulder, checked for bottled water, added a second book. Asked whether he was ready for non-stop gorgeous warm relaxation. Looked up and felt her heart sink like a balloon harnessed to a stone.
His skin, chalky blue with sunblock, glowed like skim milk as he spun before the mirror, his face crumpled from the exertion of seeking missed spots. Like patching the frosting on a particularly delicate cake, he noted then daubed at crumbs of exposed flesh, black leg hair matted in whorls, thick white worms of unabsorbed lotion gathering in places where his body folded and bent and moved with the anxiety of stepping into the sun. In that moment, in that hotel room, on the first day of that week away together, she was struck by the dark side of a romantic get-away, the sight of herself, and of him, as very old, very tired, very quiet people with nothing left to say. By a vignette of dinners to come, passed silently across the table and paid for in the currency of small-talk and commentary about average days; agonising rather than comfortable silence, and the spectre of having not laid a hand on one another in too long to mark using ordinary time.
“I am a terrible person,” she thought, “a terrible, terrible person. But, we will never have sex with each other again.”
And, like that, she pushed the final pin into the map of their time together, and together they headed to the beach, single but for the talking part.