FICTION: Up To You by S. D. Jones

They stood in the shade of a Morton Bay Fig. The blade-like roots of the tree swept around their feet, creating for a secluded space at the edge of the party. She was touching him, gently brushing her fingers along the sensitive skin on the underside of his forearm. She pulled her straight blonde hair across the pale line of her cheekbone and tucked it behind her ear. Her right hand swept her shirt down across her hips.

Jude’s jaw clenched. He knew those movements, knew what they meant. Cassie was flirting with another man. She wanted that stranger, wanted to feel his skin against hers.

Jude forced himself to stop thinking, to stop watching. He looked up over their heads, past the milling groups to the bright white figures of the men playing cricket in the oval beyond the white picket fence. There was a crack and the flash of a bright red ball as it curved across the blue sky. He lost sight of it, could only see the men running across the green grass. There was a fresh smell in the air; it was the smell of eucalyptus and dew, of perfume and coffee, and of meat and onions grilling on the barbecue. He felt the sun burning on his face. There was an emptiness inside of him, as if he was disconnected from his senses. He could see and smell and feel it all but he wasn’t able to appreciate any of it. He knew he felt jealous. He had no right to be jealous but damn it if he wasn’t jealous anyway.

‘Here mate, take this.’

It was John, handing him a beer. Jude held it, feeling the coolness of it against his hands as he watched the remnants of water from the ice-box drip along the underside of his hand. He looked over at his friend. John’s face was open and honest; he seemed perfectly content in a way that Jude couldn’t begin to comprehend. Jude turned and they both looked out over the green grass of the park, at their friends drenched in sun and laughter. Jude felt the impulse to tell his friend everything, then, to admit to the storm that fought itself inside his chest, that writhed and swung within him; to grab his friend and shake him, to say: ‘Look! Look at what is happening! Can’t you see it I’m losing her!’ He wanted to shout and rage and fight and run. Instead he stood in the sunshine while his world dissolved into itself.

‘What’s the matter?’

Jude shook his head. The moment had passed.

‘No. Nothing. Nothing. Don’t worry about it,’ he said.

‘If you say so.’

‘Beautiful day.’

They took sips of beer and relaxed, knowing that soon their time would be called upon for a thousand little chores; for barbecuing and playing with the kids, for shifting tables and organising beer runs, but for now they had the day free to watch their friends and relations in silence.

‘What are you two so serious about?’

Jude turned at the sound of his wife’s voice. She looked harried but still managed to smile at them both. She was a small intelligent woman, with dark hazel eyes and sharp features. Jude looked down at the bundle she was carrying and found himself looking into the face of their son. He took the child and held him up to his face. Wide-set blue eyes glared up at his from a fleshy, egg-white face.

‘Hey, how’s things?’ John asked.

‘All’s for the best,’ Amy said. She took a small tissue to wipe at the white liquid which was bubbling from the corner of Thomas’s mouth.

‘Hold him properly will you,’ she said to Jude and smiled — a wide, white-toothed grin that shone brilliantly against her skin — before walking down the slope towards a group of women who had gathered around fold-out table, heavy under the weight of food and drinks. On the way down she stopped by the tree where Cassie and the stranger stood. She gave Cassie a kiss and shook the man’s hand.

Jude couldn’t stop himself.

‘Who’s the bloke with Cassie?’

‘Just some guy from her work,’ John said, ‘he’s new in town. French I think. Seems nice enough.’

French. And John just standing there like everything was fine, it made Jude want to scream. With an accent too, probably. Jude wanted to be able to say something. He wanted to warn John, to make him wake up to the danger of it.

‘You’re not worried about her spending so much time with a French man? You hear things about them,’ Jude said, and he forced himself to smile. He wanted John to worry, to fret, to feel a little of what he himself was experiencing.

‘I don’t worry. Not with Cassie. She’s not the type.’

They’d been alone together in his apartment, when it started, sitting on the couch in front of the old TV. They were drinking, but they’d always been drinking before the baby came, usually the four of them, Jude and Amy, John and Cassie; old friends and now neighbours too. But that day it was just the two of them. John and Amy were both at work. Jude hadn’t been working, he’d just been sitting on the couch with an unopened book. Cassie knocked on the door, walked in and set herself next to him. Jude grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge. Neither of them said anything at first, they just drank — ignoring the fact that they were alone, that it was the middle of the day, that neither of their partners knew that they were together. It didn’t seem to matter; they were comfortable there on the fold-out couch in that little room with it’s peeling paint and water-stained walls. The room darkened as the evening came in but neither of them felt the need to turn on the overhead light. Cassie put down her bottle on the wood floor next to her naked feet.

‘Well?’ She’d asked. He looked into her sharp blue eyes and saw the danger there.

‘Well what?’

‘Are you going to kiss me?’

And then he knew that there was nothing else in the world he wanted to do more. So he kissed her. He lent forward and kissed her, felt the softness of her lips; he let himself fall into her, allowed her to take control of him, allowed her to tear him into a thousand pieces and re-build him again into someone other, someone completely different and yet infinitely better. Then she got up and had turned on some music. Bruce Springsteen. He stood and turned her to him and they danced, holding onto each other desperately until a time where they were no longer dancing but had fallen into each other and were back on the couch.

Down in town the circuit’s full with switchblade lovers, so fast so shiny so sharp -’

He pushed himself into her, felt her hips push up into his.There was an urgency to their movements, they were starving, choking, clawing at each other for relief.

I got on it last night and my shirt got caught And they kept me spinning, babe, didn’t think I’d ever get off -’

He thought about his wife at the end, pictured her face, wondered at what her reaction would be, and then thought of her silent, unspeaking, angry. He finished, pulling Cassie’s face to his and burying himself in her hair.

Sandy, that waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me, I spoke with her last night, she said she won’t set herself on fire for me anymore -’

Afterwards they moved away from each other. He got up to pour two glasses of whisky. She put her red plaid shirt back on. Bruce kept singing. There didn’t seem much to say. He said it anyway.

‘That was wrong.’

‘Do you feel guilty?’

‘I guess. No. I don’t know. Things haven’t been great – ‘

‘I don’t want to know.’

‘Okay.’

‘I’m serious I don’t want to know.’

‘Alright.’

Jude took another drink, then he pulled Cassie’s legs up over his. They sat for a while without speaking, in the darkness of the gloaming, trying not to feel the oppressive weight of reality as it pushed in around them. The ghosts of Amy and John sat in the room, on their normal seats; they drank and grimaced at Jude. He tried not to think of the bed in the other room, still unmade from the previous night.

‘So now what?’ He asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘What happens now?’

‘Whatever. John’ll be back soon. I’ll head home.’

‘When will I see you?’

‘We’ve got dinner tomorrow. We’ll meet you guys at the pub.’

‘But when will I see you like this?’

‘I don’t know. Tomorrow. Never. It’s up to you.’

‘You don’t care?’

‘I care. It’s just up to you. We can meet.’ She got up slowly, displaying her pale body to him, ‘I’ll be naked if that’s what you want. Or clothed if not. It’s up to you.’ She reached for her pants then sat back down. Her lower back arched as she pulled the fabric up over her hips.

Looking back, he knew that he should have said something. He should have begged her to take her clothes off, to stay a little longer with him, but instead he said nothing. He was scared of being discovered, of what Amy would say.

The door closed behind Cassie, leaving Jude sitting in the near-dark. After a while he got up, turned on the light, and poured himself another drink. He tried to think, to feel something, but he couldn’t. He sat in his underwear and listened to Springsteen.

When Amy came back Jude was getting out of the shower. He kissed her when she told him she loved him. She got a beer out of the fridge and watched him as he dressed. She took a sip and then handed the beer to him. After a while they called for pizza. Amy went to bed. Jude stayed sitting on the couch; he turned off the TV and waited.

They saw each other regularly after that. Always at odd times, when Amy and John were at work or busy somewhere else. Once they had sex in the bathroom of a bar where the four of them were drinking. He’d followed her in and pushed her up against a cubicle wall. She’d torn his shirt at the neckline. A thin, grey haired older woman shook her head as they left the bathroom.

‘You shouldn’t,’ she said.

‘Fuck off.’

Cassie sat back down at the table and Jude went to get more drinks.

‘I’m pregnant,’ Amy said.

She told him one evening when they were alone. He’d been reading on the couch. She stood in front of him, her arms by her side. He sat in silence, looking up at her. Her eyes shone; there was no crack there. Then he stood, brought her into his arms and held her tightly.

‘Okay.’

‘I want to have it.’

‘Okay. I’m happy. I really am.’ He didn’t know what else to say.

That night he stayed awake and stared at the cracked ceiling above their bed.

He looked into Cassie’s blue eyes, then looked away again. They were having coffee.

‘Congratulations.’

‘You heard.’

‘Of course.’

Cassie watched through the window as a couple out on the street walk by.

‘So I think this has to end.’

‘If you say so,’ she said.

That had been it. No protest. Nothing really. As he walked home, Jude thought that there had always been a distance between them. There’d been a distance between him and Amy too. He felt nothing but distance, all the time. He resolved that it wouldn’t be that way with his child. No distance there. No. Still, it hurt. It hurt a little. He thought of stopping at the for a beer, but instead walked back home, thinking he’d get some work done. He wondered where Cassie was.

She was standing with the Frenchman and John was leading him down to introduce them.

‘Jude this is Philip.’

Jude shook the outstretched hand.

‘Nice to meet you.’

‘And you.’

‘Cassie has told me a lot about you.’

When Amy was still pregnant, and feeling horrible about it — sick to his stomach with it—- Jude called her. They met for a drink at the bar where they’d fucked in the toilets. She was waiting for him outside against the brown-tiled wall, under the bar’s unlit neon sign. Her hair was pinned up; Jude couldn’t see her eyes behind her dark sunglasses. Her lips pulled out into a tight smile when she saw him. They hugged and Jude felt awkward, a child pretending at being grown. A crack addict in a white baseball cap pushed past them, eyes stuck not the pavement.

‘Should we go in?’ he asked.

‘Up to you,’ Cassie said.

He followed her to a table next to the window. The addict was shuffling past outside. He stopped to pick up the nub of cigarette from the sidewalk and placed it into his mouth.

‘So what’s up?’

That was it. What could he say?

‘I just wanted to see you.’

‘Okay.’

‘Want a drink?’

‘I’ll have a water.’

‘Just water?’

‘Yea.’

‘Okay.’ He got up and went to the bar. He got her water and a beer for himself.

‘I’ve invited John, he’ll join us after work.’

Jude paused.

‘Sure. Good. How is he?’

‘He’s good. I think he misses you.’

‘Right.’

Jude wondered whether he should touch her hand; it was lying there on the table. Her nails were manicured a soft white colour. He moved his arm and then pulled it back. Had he ever held her hand? He couldn’t remember. He thought that he had, he thought that they had been close, even intimate. Now he wasn’t sure.

‘You didn’t tell me what you wanted to talk about.’

‘I just wanted to see you.’

‘You said that already.’

‘Right.’

He took a long sip of his beer. There didn’t seem to be anything he could say. He felt foolish, weak. But there was nothing he could do. Maybe it had always been that way. After a while John showed up. He hugged Jude and kissed Cassie on the lips. He had a beer and afterwards they left. Jude told them it was fine; he had another drink.

Philip did have an accent. They stood, half facing each other. Jude tried to think of something to say. He made a point of pronouncing the name in its anglicised version, not making any effort to mimic the soft, flowing way the others said it — practically swallowing the Phil and stressing the high ip.

‘So what have you heard about me?’

‘Just that you are a nice guy. Un bon mec.’

‘Right-o,’ Jude said, looking away.‘You want a beer?’

‘No, thank you. I do not drink.’

‘Right.’ Silence.

‘Cassie is a nice girl.’

‘Yes. We have fun, at work.’

‘A good girl.’

‘I know. Why are you saying this?’

‘No reason.’

Jude fell silent once again. He couldn’t help but think of Cassie, couldn’t help but watch her quick movements as she spoke to John and Amy. She had given herself to him. He knew that much at least. It had nearly destroyed him to know that their connection was constrained, that it could never last. And here was the proof that anything they might have had had truly ended, here in the figure of this stranger. But Jude still needed her, needed her deep in his bones, needed her so badly — so heroin-junky-much — that he couldn’t think about Philip, Amy, John or even Thomas but only her, Cassie; her face, her body, her taste, and the relief that her touch brought.

He made an excuse and went to sit with his son. Thomas was sleeping on a blanket in the shade, his legs splayed out from his small body. A friend of Amy’s moved away when she saw him. He held onto his son’s foot, felt how small and delicate it was.

Cassie sat down next to him. He could smell her perfume, it smelled of lavender and something else that he couldn’t quite place. Bergamot maybe. Down the hill John and Philip passed a rugby ball back and forth. He moved his hand to his son’s warm belly.

‘You look tired,’ she said.

‘Yeah.’

‘What are you feeling?’

‘Was there ever anything there?’

‘There?’

‘Between us. Was there ever anything there?’

Cassie turned to him. Her expression was intent, she was taking the time to think.

‘There was something.’

‘But it couldn’t last.’

‘I guess so. But it was up to you’

‘And with Philip?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Right.’

He took another drink and contemplated a future which reached forward into the infinite, narrowing further and further until it no longer held scope or meaning. The cricket match had ended and the players in white walked off the oval; their chatter was loud against the stillness of the park. He turned to Cassie and for a moment he nearly had it, he nearly understood what their relationship had really been. Then it was lost, dissipated into the soft-smelling evening air. Amy sat down next to them and brought Thomas up into her arms. The three of them watched as the sun set, bright and orange over the eucalyptus trees. John came over and crouched down, placing his hand on Cassie’s shoulder. Philip was still, holding the rugby ball, watching the departing cricketers. Jude wanted to say something else. But he didn’t know what. There was nothing left to say.

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S. D. Jones

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S. D. Jones is a Swiss/Australian writer currently living in France. He has recently completed a MSt in Creative Writing at Cambridge University and is working on his first novel. Examples of his work can be found at here at STORGY Magazine (see Fish), Typishly, Short Fiction Break, and at The Esthetic Apostle.

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