Playing for Keeps by Rachael Grant

‘I don’t love you anymore,’ she says, fingers crossed behind her back.

‘What makes you think I loved you in the first place?’ he replies.

There’s a stand-off, gunslinger style. Mari’s at one end of the sitting room, next to the mantel. Tim’s at the other, filling the space underneath the archway leading into the kitchen. He scrapes his hand through his hair, and Mari wonders if he’s looking for answers amongst the dandruff.

Mari breaks eye contact. She stumbles towards the sofa Tim had found in the January sale. She yanks his grandmother’s throw, drapes it over her shoulders and pulls it up to her chin, burying her nose to seek remnants of his scent. Mari stares at the clock on the wall: quarter to two, long past the hour she should be in bed. Their bed.

God knows how she’ll cope with work the next day. 

‘Did you–?’

‘You really mean–?’

They pause.

The sick serendipity reminds Mari of their time at university, friends teasing them for finishing each other’s sentences, thoughts scarily in sync for a student teacher and a theatre darling who’d just met in the seedy back room of a gay club. Mari had been vivacious, strung up on champagne bubbles her rich roomie’s father had bought for his daughter’s twenty-first. Though she’d never told Tim, and likely never would, Tim could have been anyone and she would have agreed to dance with him. (Go home with him. Go to bed with him. Marry him.)

He’d stalked her for a fortnight, popping up in cheap coffee shops, his smile leering through the steam. Mari’s friends had begged her into going on a date with him just to make him stop.

Love came later for her. (Look how that turned out.)

‘You go first.’ Tim’s mouth is downcast. Mari realises he’s wearing the green t-shirt with the twin masks of comedy and tragedy that she’d bought him one Christmas, now soft through many washes. 

‘No, you.’ Mari stares at Tim across their living room. ‘I insist.’

Mari remembers the day they painted the walls together. She’d agreed to Tim’s choice of turquoise, though she’d wanted red. They’d been working in mostly companionable silence (when Tim wasn’t telling her how to get an even coat). Daytime soaps buzzed on the TV in the background, providing mind-numbing distraction, when suddenly the channel switched to a news anchor, her expression pinched as she announced a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings. Mari had stood by Tim’s side, both in paint-splashed overalls, brushes limp, as they watched the second plane hit in real time, and the world burned.

‘My cousin works there,’ Tim had said, collapsing into a chair.

That night was the first night when Tim had curled around Mari in bed instead of the other way around. She’d held him tight, drawing strength from giving her own comfort. 

Turns out the cousin was thrice removed, lived on the opposite coast, and Tim hadn’t spoken to him since they were kids.

‘It’s not working.’ Tim drags Mari to the present. ‘You know it isn’t. Hasn’t for a while.’

‘It’s not working,’ Mari repeats, voice muffled by the throw. She doesn’t want to make it real, though it’s been her reality for a long time. ‘Or you don’t want to make it work?’

‘That’s not fair!’

Tim flings his words with his entire body. He catches himself before he trips, pushes a hand through his hair, makes the snow fall. ‘That’s not fair,’ he repeats, with the petulance of every five-year-old Mari has taught.

Mari watches Tim pace, stride lengthening with rising agitation, pulling every technique from the acting book. ‘You never wanted me. I know it, you know it. He knows it.’

Tim groans, throws his arms out. ‘Not everything’s about him.’

‘Greg. You can say his name. It’s not like Bloody Mary. He won’t suddenly appear as if summoned.’

Mari resists the urge to turn and look, in case, despite herself, speaking Greg’s name has made him appear. She wouldn’t put it past him. She re-focuses her attention to her lap, picking at a thread unravelling from the throw. Maybe if she pulls it hard enough, she can undo this whole sorry mess.

Greg. Tim’s first love (and probably his last). Greg with the khaki pea coat and scuffed Doc Martens. The man Tim scampered after in their final year of uni, offering to carry Greg’s books. Acting like a puppy dog, complete with lolling tongue and desperate breath. It was a wonder, Mari thought, that Tim hadn’t followed Greg into his Psych 101 lectures and curled up on his lap to learn about Freud. 

‘I haven’t seen Greg since Steve’s wedding,’ Tim says.

The wedding, Mari thinks. Where Tim had vanished for hours under the pretence of catching up with old buddies. He’d turned up drunk in a closet, trousers around his ankles, tongue down Greg’s throat.

She knows Tim’s lying, and watches him deflate. He stops pacing, slides down the wall. He sits cross-legged on the floor, nudging his knuckles at a worn patch of carpet in the gap between his knees. 

‘Shylock peed here at some point. Never wanted that bloody dog.’

Mari counts to ten in her head. ‘Focus on me for once, why don’t you?’

‘Here we go. The old ‘not giving you enough attention’ spiel.’ Tim makes air quotes with his fingers, and Mari tries to resist the urge to slap him.

‘It’s true though. You don’t! You’d rather be playing pool with Archie, even though you hate his guts, than come home to me.’

‘Archie doesn’t nag me about the dishes. Or the garden. Or going to see your Aunt-fucking-Ethel. Christ! She’s got dementia. She doesn’t even know who we are!’

‘She was good to us.’ Mari’s voice rises despite herself. ‘We wouldn’t have this house without her.’

If Mari thinks about it, this disaster was one long chain of events leading back to Aunt Ethel’s monetary gift. Without it, maybe they wouldn’t be here. Without it, maybe she would be without Tim.

Mari curses Aunt Ethel under her breath. 

‘Yeah, well. We won’t have it much longer.’ Tim fiddles with his wedding band, twisting it around his finger. 

‘What does that mean?’ Mari asks, wanting to get to bed, to sleep and pretend this is a bad memory (just like the others).

Tim shrugs, but Mari isn’t going to let him get away with it. 

‘What. Does. That. Mean?’ Mari sits frozen, bracing for the final blow. 

‘I don’t know.’ Tim’s voice is quiet too. Mari wonders if he hopes a breeze will come and blow his words away so he doesn’t have to hold the strings. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Do you love me?’ Mari asks, not unreasonably, she thinks. If only he’d give a straight answer.

(Mind you, it would be the only straight thing about him.)

‘I don’t know. Yes. No. I think so.’

‘What kind of answer is that? Can’t you make up your mind?’

Round and round they go. The proverbial merry-go-round. Mari feels dizzy but she’s not sure she knows how to get off.

Mari looks to the clock. The hands have continued round to 3. 

‘Did you ever really want me?’ Tim looks hopeful.

Mari wonders if this is it. Like the rest of their relationship, this hangs on the edge of the knife she is wielding. If she says yes, will they go back to lasagne on Tuesdays, couples spinning class on Wednesdays, ignoring each other the rest of the week when Tim goes off to meet Greg? And if she says no, if she tells the truth: that she had never really wanted him, that she’d sort-of-kind-of fell into this by accident and ended up in love with the bastard, then maybe she will be free.

Even now, despite everything, she’s not sure she can hurt Tim the way he’s hurt her.

‘I wanted to want you,’ Mari settles for, which she thinks may be worse as far as Tim is concerned.

Tim stares at Mari. She feels exposed. She knows he’s familiar with her lines and curves but now they belong to a stranger. 

Finally, Tim nods, hauls himself to his feet, shaking one leg to get the blood flowing.

‘Thought not.’ Tim scratches at his scalp. ‘Always thought you thought you were too good for me.’

‘That’s an awful lot of thinking.’ Mari laughs. 

Quicker than Mari can blink, quicker than she can uncoil herself from the prison of his grandmother’s throw, Tim crosses the room, pushes her back against the couch.

His weight is heavy, his breath reeking of the garlic bread Greg makes. Tim stares deep into Mari’s eyes, seemingly searching for something she was sure never existed in the first place. 

Mari wonders if she should be scared of Tim like this, but it’s the first time in months he’s caused any reaction in her that isn’t disgust, or the memory of a vague longing. 

Tim smiles, the expression caught on a clown’s lips. He holds it for a moment, then lets the pretence drop.

‘Same time next week?’ he asks, breaking character, and climbs off Mari, reaching for the script on the coffee table. 

Mari nods numbly, Tim’s weight gone, her mind full of scrapbook remnants. She tosses the throw off herself, wanting rid of Tim’s smell. She stands, stretches, trying to shake off the feeling of dread. She leans towards him, reading the play over his shoulder. 

‘I’m surprised you memorised it.’ Tim sounds impressed. ‘Even though you went off-script.’

‘I know my lines by heart.’

Mari scans the next scene, feasts on Tim’s silence. ‘Do you think we will ever get back together?’ she lightly asks.

She can feel Tim tense. She imagines him panning for gold in her words. He moves away, taking his warmth with him, and clears his throat. 

‘Steve and Eleanor’s anniversary party is next week. I was planning on going with Greg, but if you wanted to then–’

‘Tim! For God’s sake. We can go to the same party without it being a problem, can’t we?’

‘Can we? You know what happened at Christmas…’

‘You were winding me up on purpose. Besides, it was my first trimester. It was still raw…’ Mari turns back to the sofa, reaches for the throw. ‘And it was only a vase.’

She sees Tim shaking his head, his finger finding the scar on his neck she’d left behind, like a hickey. ‘Just let me know. I’ve got directors to meet that week so it’s no big deal.’

Mari grunts her response, rubs her bump.

Tim moves towards the door, grabs his coat off the hook. Moments pass.

Mari stares at the long, hard lines of Tim’s back. She wonders when it came to this, the pair of them acting like strangers. She isn’t sure if Tim is using their relationship in his writing as catharsis or out of spite. It’s the only connection they have left, besides the growing baby inside of her. She’d stupidly agreed to rehearse with him when he’d said it was too intimate to show to anyone else yet. Even Greg. What an honour to be asked. She thought maybe it would bring Tim back, but now wonders if she is just a sad, lonely masochist. 

‘There’s nobody else I would rather go through a breakup with than you.’ Tim turns his head just enough so Mari can admire his profile: the equine line of his nose, the eyebrows that almost meet in the middle. She used to pluck them late at night, using her reading light to focus. She can’t imagine Greg doing that. 

‘Goodbye, Tim,’ Mari says.

She closes her eyes, a hand on her stomach as she waits for the inevitable click from the door as Tim leaves, over and over again. 

About The Author

Rachael Grant writes dirty and magical realism. She lives in Cornwall and is currently studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her favourite writers include Carver, Faulkner, Nabokov and Bukowski. She’s interested in psychology, thanatology, the absurd, the strange and the uncanny.

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