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The Loneliest Place

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It has grown late, but neither Martin nor Vanessa are feeling like going to sleep. After the massive fight they had in the back of Interpol’s truck, over the course of which Vanessa had taken all her anger out on him, they stopped talking to each other. They are now sitting at the far ends of the tiny bed in their cell, backs turned towards each other, just silently contemplating. At first, Martin tries to make himself nod off, so he could get some rest and a little break from the throbbing pain in his freshly stitched-up leg. However, sleep simply seems unwilling to take him at the moment, so he finds himself stuck in a never-ending replay of the argument with his wife. And to his honest surprise, he finds that he is not even angry at her, despite all the humiliating names Vanessa had called him, despite her taking out all her frustration on him and in the end even slapping him across the face, leaving a neat, rose hand print. Should he not be furious with her? Disappointed that she would insult him and even physically assault him? /She’s right… I’m a pathetic little mama’s boy…/ A little voice in his head whispers, and he is tempted to turn around and look at his wife. He tries to imagine her, sitting there, slightly hunched over. He just wants to turn around and reach for her, make sure she is okay, alive and breathing, and that the painkillers are doing their job. His hands fidget and his fingers twitch nervously. He tries to focus and listen for Vanessa’s breathing. But all he can hear is the loud, steady beat of his heart. ‘Okay, calm down, she would drop to the floor if her body went limp. You would’ve heard that. Maybe she’s just not sleeping and breathing softly. She’s okay. She has to be, doesn’t she? You lost more blood than her, and they tended to her, too. Her wound is stitched up and bandaged and she’s okay.’

He forces his thoughts to return to the argument in the truck. Coming to think of it, he actually finds it had been relieving. In a certain, twisted way, it had been incredibly liberating to just let out all that pent-up rage and frustration. And for some reason, he now feels closer to her than he has in years. Maybe that really was what they needed? One big, terrible fight, just so all the dirt and splinters could exit that festering wound eating up their marriage, so it could finally start to heal? He wants to turn around again, face her, ask her whether she thought the same. Maybe she just needed him to fight back for once? Maybe she wanted to see that there was still passion in his heart? Passion that is all for her? ‘But I did show her I cared, didn’t I? I cooked for her and let her have all the things she wanted, did that not count at all? Surely, she would have told me if there was something else she wanted. She’s never been one to just place subtle hints… I couldn’t have missed it, could I? She seemed okay with how things were. Sure, life is certainly more boring without sex, but…’ This one stings badly in his heart. He swallows and reminds himself, that there was nothing to be done, and that there were worse fates than erectile dysfunction. He could be paralyzed, or comatose, or he could have multiple sclerosis. /Or feel lonely and isolated in your own marriage?/, the little voice suggests. Martin swallows again and rubs his eyes and cheeks. He attempts to somehow block out the little voice, but finds himself unable to ignore what follows next. /You were so embarrassed, and so consumed by your self-pitying that you just shoved away Vanessa, who was trying so hard to comfort you and make you feel better./ ‘I know!’ he mentally shouts at himself.

It’s true. She had tried so many things, suggested travelling or other activities to take his mind off things for a while. She had been so gentle, so caring, always trying to cheer him up or put him in the mood for just a movie and snuggling. On one occasion, she even told him she had asked her gynaecologist to change the sort of pill she was taking, such as to slightly dampen her sex drive, so things could be good between them and he wouldn’t have to feel so bad about it. She would snuggle up to him at night, when he couldn’t sleep, softly whispering that it wasn’t his fault and that it didn’t make him a lesser man or a worse spouse and that there were tons of other things they could do together. She would try to treat it like a normal thing, read up on it, suggest different forms of treatment, ask him how she could make him comfortable, or whether it would be okay to try something different in order to maybe make his manhood play along again. So many options, and the one he had chosen was to turn away at night, sleep in long pyjamas, refuse to acknowledge her efforts and shove her away whenever she would try to have cuddles or any other physical contact really. He specifically recalls lying in bed one night, facing the wall, when he could hear her asking in a profoundly confused tone “Are you mad at me? Is there a reason we’re so far apart?” and just ignored her, pretending to be fast asleep.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the bed, Vanessa is going through something quite similar, trying to find something that will let her hold onto her relationship with Martin. She is tired, her leg feels warm and there’s a weird sense of internal pressure around the suture, but her mind is reeling, playing back little snippets from earlier, beautifully showcasing how atrociously nasty she was to him. ‘He had it coming,’ she tries to tell herself. She feels betrayed. Betrayed, and miserable, and so very alone. He is merely a few feet away, but he feels unreachable. ‘He could’ve just told me. All I ever wanted was just for him to open up again and talk to me. I mean, yes, of course, I haven’t been completely honest with him either, and yes, I maybe should’ve told him I couldn’t have children instead of pretending I didn’t want children and buying placebo contraceptives behind his back. Maybe he would’ve even understood that I couldn’t help it. But then again, looking at it now, it seems he doesn’t want me anymore anyway. He’s always hiding in the kitchen, and talks to me as if I was a toddler. He should’ve known that belittling me and ignoring me and rejecting me wouldn’t make things between us better. Was I asking too much, when I just wanted the occasional cuddle, or just holding hands, just letting me be close? It’s not like I pressured him into anything? It would have made such a difference if he’d just told me why he didn’t want to snuggle, instead of shoving me away and giving me the silent treatment.’ Behind her back, she can hear her husband shuffle on the edge of the mattress. ‘I mean, how dare he? First, he goes telling his stupid, bitchy mother about our private problems, as if it were the normal thing to do, just because I tend to get a bit louder when we fight. Instead of coming to me and talking to me about it, he runs to Mummy. And then he has the nerve to expect me to trust him! He didn’t even notice that I found out at some point! I just can’t believe he would forward our private conversations to that old hag. And then I have to sit there and listen as she tells him to just break up with me. She never liked me, she saw me stealing her baby. Only her baby was in his late fucking twenties! And I even tried to be nice to her. But no, I’m a bad, bad influence on Baby Martin and even at our wedding she had the nerve to tell everybody about how I was going to ruin the family. And instead of standing up to her, he just keeps telling me that that’s just how she is. I wish you knew, Martin, that I felt really lonely at our wedding. I wanted to just vanish. She even badmouthed about me in front of my family and friends. Everybody just smiled and simply wrote her off as the weird, clingy mother of my husband. But it hurt. It felt like you didn’t love me enough to defend me in front of your mother.’

Vanessa feels the angry heat in her cheeks fade away, as tears well up in her eyes. She wishes she could simply snuggle up to him now, apologise for calling him names and targeting everything at exactly the spots she knows hurt him most, and then just be okay again. ‘I really loved you, Martin. And I still do. You’re the love of my life. And I miss you. I miss snuggling and kissing and the good times we had. I wish we could go back to when everything was okay. It’s lonely without you, I want you back. I want us to be a couple again, why don’t you see that? I just wanted you to see that we’re both angry and frustrated and that we both think it’s so unfair that your dysfunction has taken away all that intimacy and closeness we had. Because all you ever do is ignore it and pretend that there’s no problem whatsoever and that marriage without touching is okay. It’s not! It’s tearing us apart because I. Fucking. Need. You. I feel so far away from you, it wouldn’t even make a difference if you lived on the other side of the world. I just want to have my husband back. I want to feel you and touch you and kiss you and be intimate with you. We can’t have sex? Fine. But unless your arms fall off, there’s no excuse for not hugging me once in a while, or holding my hand, and as long as you have a body, we can just be comfortable together. Like it used to be, when things were okay.’ She slumps forward a bit, closing her eyes for a short moment of rest and wiping the tears off her cheeks. She realised only now that she’s been holding her breath, so she slowly exhales, careful, quietly, in case Martin is sleeping. Her mind now conjures up a few nicer memories; of him, surprise-hugging her when she got home one day, proceeding to just take her roughly right there on the floor in the hallway; being awoken at night by a smiling, heavily breathing Martin, smelling like the essence of sex, aroused, musky, manly; him, sneaking up on her while she was making dinner (something that has become quite rare, as he spends most of his time alone in the kitchen now), racking up her skirts or pulling down her trousers, panties included, and either just fucking her from behind, or hoisting her up on the sideboard and giving her insides a slow, intense massage, kissing her neck and whispering all sorts of naughty little secrets into her ear until he’d feel her squirm against his chest, her sobs of pleasure only slightly muffled by the fabric of his shirt.

Only now she feels how much she’s really missing that. Surely, she can always give herself relief if she feels the need to. But it isn’t Martin. He is missing in every single aspect of her life these days.
For her, it had been love at first sight. She had always thought, she’d have a tall husband, just to highlight how tiny she was, but once she met Martin, none of that mattered anymore. There was just this one man, the epitome of funny, charming, attractive, intelligent and simply irresistible. They first met at a particularly boring forum (ironically) titled ‘The Ethics of Archaeology: Why no find should ever be kept or hidden away’, or rather the dinner after.
She had kept to a few colleagues she already knew before, conversation with complete strangers always ended up being painfully awkward, especially since she was never one to politely hold back on her opinions. Initially, she got a good look of Martin’s back, thinking something along the lines of ‘That’s quite a big suit for a small man like that.’
She had probably been staring just a little too much, because one of her colleagues poked her and laughed, asking whether she was looking for a conversation that was more ‘on her level’. Ha. Ha. However, Martin had probably heard that stupid joke and decided to turn around. Warm, brown eyes, soft, shiny hair, a boyish smile, and perfect little dimples. Vanessa was completely dumbstruck and spellbound. He smiled charmingly, and introduced himself, jokingly adding that he was still looking for recruits for his dwarf army. In hindsight, she thinks, he felt it, too; that irresistible, tremendous attraction between them. He kept looking right into her eyes, maybe he saw something he liked. He was just a lot better at playing over it. Somehow, Vanessa managed to break free from her stupor and sheepishly replied ‘Count me in’.
They got on like a house on fire. It felt like they had finally found everything they’d ever searched for in each other. She thought he was incredibly funny and interesting, he didn’t do that typically academic ‘I’ll just speak for 30 minutes without including a single grain of actual content’ waffle; the way he talked to her was so honest and meaningful, he treated her so respectfully and seemed to know exactly which topics she would enjoy discussing with him. It felt as if they’d known each other for decades. As the evening progressed, they even shared a few private details, such as Martin admitting that most of the time, women’s interest in him stopped at his acne scars, to which Vanessa simply replied ‘Well they can go date douchebags then, more Martin for me’, slapping her hands over her mouth the second that sentence had left her lips. But Martin just chuckled and took her hands from her face, remarking ‘So this is the tiny, loud woman you mentioned?’ They ended up spending the entire evening no further than ten inches apart and before bidding each other goodbye, they exchanged their private phone numbers. Martin later told her that on his way home, he just couldn’t stop thinking about her eyes and that she had been the most stunning, interesting, fascinating woman he had ever met.

But despite that amazing start, Vanessa is currently feeling like she is slowly losing the pieces of her crumbling marriage. And while she wouldn’t admit it, it scares her. Martin and she had grown so far apart since his erectile dysfunction had brought their formerly so profoundly fulfilling sex life to an abrupt halt. And not only their sex life; it took away all the intimacy and shortly after, all physical contact. At the beginning, she thought that her husband maybe just needed a while to come to terms with his problem, so she let him have his peace and quiet. But when vital assets started to disappear out of their life, she realised there might be a bigger problem at hand. It started, when he didn’t allow deep kisses anymore, after a while completely denying her any kisses. She was worried, of course. ‘Is it me? Have I let myself go? Maybe he doesn’t find me attractive anymore? Maybe he doesn’t want me anymore?’ Those thoughts were painful, and they still are. She knows that she has grown older and that there are lines now where there used to be none. But she tries to stay fit and healthy and pleasant on the eye for him, and hopes that he notices. In the end, however, she can’t quite help feeling less pretty without Martin telling her she is. Before his condition, things weren’t perfect; but it had been good.

Martin can hear Vanessa sniffle softly, and for the first time in many years, he feels completely helpless and has no idea what to do or why exactly she’s crying. It almost feels like when she came to him at their wedding and told him that his mother was badmouthing about her in front of everybody. He just didn’t know what to do. He really wanted to, but he just couldn’t take his wife’s side in front of Mother. So he just told her there was nothing to be done about it. ‘Never could and still can’t,’ he thinks sadly. He turns around to face Vanessa now. She is hunched over her lap and visibly shaking. He just stays like this and looks at her for a few moments, before finally pulling himself together and scooting a bit closer to her. “Vanessa, are you cold?” A faint smile twitches on his lips, he feels a tiny bit proud that he knows not to ask whether she’s crying. She is too proud to admit things like that. She nods slowly, quietly whispering “I’d ask you to warm me, but you don’t touch me anymore…” Her voice sounds so broken, it causes a sharp pang in his heart. Deciding it would be best not to say anything, he just shuffles closer until there’s just the corner of the bed between them. He takes off his vest and puts it over his wife’s shoulders, letting his hands linger there. “I know it’s not much. But I’m not cold and I’m still wearing more than you are,” he gently whispers. As he was hoping, Vanessa takes the hint and shuffles back a bit after a few moments, turning slightly so he can pull her closer.

They end up in a crooked, slightly uncomfortable position, but Vanessa’s back is firmly pressed into his chest by his embrace. “Thank you…,” she murmurs softly, relaxing visibly now and he notices that she is not shaking as badly anymore. She grasps one of his hands. It’s warm; so much warmer than her own ones, and he’s not resisting or pulling away; it’s just too inviting and it’s been far too long, so she cautiously snuggles her cheek into his palm. Martin smiles softly, even though he can feel that her face is still wet with tears. He places his free hand right over her solar plexus and holds her just firmly enough to warm her belly and give her some comfort. Vanessa’s breathing is a lot deeper, calmer and considerably more audible now. She takes a breath, trying to find words to apologise for the way she treated him today, but he pulls her even closer, rests his head in the crook of her neck and just whispers “Shh. I know. And I’m sorry, too.” Her heart skips several beats, but she doesn’t speak up. His hand is making soothing little circles on her belly and she’s starting to feel warm inside. He shifts slightly and notices that she is practically sitting in his lap. She does, too, and smiles faintly, but he doesn’t tense up or move. Maybe he sees now that there’s no need to be ashamed in front of her. And now the hand her face is snuggled into is also moving, caressing her cheek before pulling off her hijab. She turns her head and tries to look at him, but Martin gives her his hand back, before burying his face deep in her long curls. His breath is warm and comes in long, even intervals. Contently, she just snuggles her cheek back into his hand and closes her eyes. They stay like this for quite a while. At some point, she can hear the cell door open, but neither of them cares enough to break their soothing, much-needed embrace.
Vanessa can feel her husband smile against her neck. She feels sleepy, it’s taking a lot of effort now to just sit still and focus on caressing his hand. Martin’s movements are growing slower and more languid, too. “I didn’t realise how much I needed this until just now…,” he murmurs, his voice thick with sleep. She smiles. “I did… I missed you…” He doesn’t reply. He thinks he has just gotten a glimpse of what he’s been doing to their relationship. And he’s sorry. But Vanessa knows. She always knows. It’s like she has a sixth sense for understanding him. So instead of apologising, he slowly lies on his back, taking her with him. They both shift a little, looking for a comfortable position on the narrow mattress. They end up with Vanessa on her side, resting her head and her hands on his chest, and Martin on his back, one arm placed protectively around her, lazily stroking her, while the other hand is firmly holding one of hers, entwining fingers with her. It’s warm, cosy and pleasantly intimate like this. Vanessa’s other hand is stroking his chest, playing lazily with the buttons before sneaking under the fabric to feel his skin and perhaps enjoying some more of his warmth. His hand slowly wanders down her side, resting on her hip. Her hand is resting flat on his chest now, she is probably exhausted and in desperate need of some sleep. He gently kisses Vanessa’s forehead. All it takes now is to close his eyes and imagine they’re still at home, in their large, comfy bed, snuggled up together under one bedsheet. He can almost smell it now.

His wife’s breathing is deep and even now and he tries to remember the time when he last heard that sound.
It was always so difficult to find sleep when she wasn’t close and he couldn’t hear her.
Maybe it’s the same for her.