They sit on the lounge they bought together, curled up in opposite ends while the TV blares. He sounds like the TV, droning on, talking with monotonous fervour about his job, his friends, his bike—and she can’t make herself care. It’s like ads, like prime time, like seeing the same reruns month after month after month, and what was clever and funny once is now mundane. It makes her think of canned laughter and dishes, taking out the garbage and catching buses. Forever, it’s been like this; he talks, she listens, never interrupting, never interjecting, the perfect girlfriend, the perfect listener, perfectly selfless, an empty vessel just waiting to be filled—and he’s never asked about her day, not once.
He pauses for a breath and, carefully, she lifts the jellybean jar from where it has been resting against her tucked-up ankles, out of sight but not out of mind, cool glass pressing against bare skin, ice in a desert storm. She unscrews it with perfect, measured movements, not too quick, not too loud, not wanting to interrupt his train of thought.
He glances over. “Can I have some?”
He hadn’t wanted her to buy them, called them a frivolous waste of money, and as soon as she got them home she felt like he was right; jellybeans had no place in their pantry, nowhere to sit that didn’t highlight their out-of-placeness, garish in the cool dim company of potatoes and garlic, practical tinned tomatoes and stockpiles of penne pasta. He hadn’t wanted her to buy them, but she’d known all along he’d finish most of them, because that’s just how it was, and she’d never interrupted.
“Sure.” She peers down at a jar full of sugar, bright colour and empty calories, flavour that kisses the tongue then vanishes, leaving the mouth cloyed with generic sweetness. Bright colours, like fruit, or hummingbirds, or hope. She chooses a dark brown one speckled with white and twists around, arm extended so she can pop it into his mouth, a sugar pill, a placebo. His tongue brushes her fingertips, bird-like, here-and-then-gone, and she returns her fingers to her lap and rubs them on her skirt.
“Yuck,” he says, screwing up his nose, eyes never leaving the TV. “I hate the coffee ones.”
“Sorry,” she says, and fishes a second bean from the jar, brown, with white speckles. “Another?”
He nods, and stares glazedly at the telly; he has exhausted his supply of conversation topics, and she is unsurprised, because every night they are the same, and they are limited, and they are never hers, like the books kept on display to impress the neighbours or the ornaments that line the hallway. She presses the jellybean against his lips, a tiny act of rebellion, and he takes it without looking, and again she scrubs her fingers on her skirt.
He makes a face and spits out something that was perfect once, but is now half-chewed and mangled, its clear, worthless centre exposed: a shot of glucose, an empty hope, a painted, hollow corpse. “I just said I don’t like the coffee ones,” he snaps, shooting a sideways glare into her temple where it pierces, lodges, and she can almost feel the blood trickling down.
“Sorry!” she says defensively, resisting the need to rub her temple. “I didn’t mean it.” But a thrill stirs inside her stomach. He’ll believe her, of course he will, because she never interrupts—but this time, she meant it, and she hears alarums sound and horses neigh, and the clash of sword on shield.
“Hmph.” He reaches into the jar and scoops out his own handful, multi-coloured like the eggs of a rainbow, then scoffs them down all at once, chewing indiscriminately.
What’s the point? she wonders. Why have different flavours in the first place, if you won’t stop to savour them? She closes her eyes and selects one bean, just one, its sugary surface smooth and slightly sticky. Without opening her eyes, she places it delicately on her tongue, closes her mouth around it like a secret, sucks it close and concentrates. Sharp, sweet but acid, tart—not lemon, but something close. Grapefruit, she decides, and rolls it between her teeth, trying to make the flavour last—but of course, the flavour’s gone and she’s left with that same inevitable, generic sweetness.
She feels the same; just a generic sort of sweet, a hollow-caloried person-shaped lump, valueless, worthless but for fleeting gratification that weighs heavy afterwards on the tongue. Does he feel that way about her? Although she listens, does it satisfy him? After the first flavour of their relationship is gone, is she still enough? She watches as he grabs another handful of jellybeans and sucks them down, swa-llowing them like liquid, concentration on the sitcom never faltering. Yes. He is satisfied with bright colours that smack of hope. Empty nutrients comfort him.
She remembers the man she saw earlier this evening, dark and tall, striding between the rows of the fruit market with confidence like a million-dollar cruiser amidst dinghies. He’d confronted a seller over her bruised nectarines, their blushing skins marred by brown stains of abuse. He’d caressed ripe lady fingers, inhaled sour green mangoes, savoured a dark burgundy grape. Not everyone is satisfied with hollowness, she realises. She is not satisfied.
He shifts beside her, mindless, and she knows that any moment now he will ask for his nightly cup of coffee—supermarket coffee, over-roasted coffee, old and dull and cheap coffee. But she is sick of crappy coffee; it reminds her of days spent under the flickering eye of fluorescent light bulbs, walled in by partitions covered with geometric patterns in sensible colours meant to detract from the fact that really, they are padded. A shiver touches her spine and she stares at the jellybeans, wondering.
And of course, “Coffee?” he says, and she wraps her fingers around the neck of the jar and decides. Generic sweetness is not inevitable. “No,” she says as her heart tries to break open her rib cage, or burst her veins with blood flow. She touches her fingertips to her temple.
He tears himself away from cued laughter and crude humour to give her an incredulous stare. “What do you mean?”
She shakes her head, lips sealed against the weight of what she has said. She can’t repeat it, it’s too heavy, it will break her jaw with its passing—but she has said it once, and maybe once will be enough.
He raises an eyebrow. “Bad day at work?”
And there it is, the very thing she’s been waiting for all these months, the thing she thought she needed to hear—only now, she realises it’s not enough. It’s jellybeans, with the gloss of hope on top hiding emptiness inside, and he, who is satisfied with handfuls of sugar and cheap, dirty coffee, will never be enough. She thinks again of the man in the markets, of sun-ripened strawberries made sweet with heat, of apples crisp and fresh so the juice runs down her chin when she bites into them, and she turns to him with eyes full of tears, with hands full of jellybeans, and a heart full of fruit. “I’m sorry,” she says, and catches his arm before he can turn away, before he can dismiss her words as platitudes. “I can’t stay here,” she whispers, begging him to understand and knowing perfectly well that candy and cost-saving never can. “I’m leaving. I’m sorry,” and she’s not.
While he sits there in stunned silence, she passes him the jellybean jar and stands. “You’ll be fine,” she says, and smiles. “What we have is replaceable.” Gaping, he watches as she walks to the bedroom, where she picks up her blackwood jewellery box that holds the antique necklace she asked her grandma for when she was twelve, empties the single drawer in the dresser that holds all the clothes she’s ever chosen for herself, slips on her favourite shoes and rummages in the depths of the wardrobe for the pale blue fake-crocodile handbag she’d fallen in love with at the county show, the one he hated so much she’d never dared use. It smells of feet and old carpet, pencils and overripe bananas. A smile spreads across her face as she gathers up all the decisions she’s ever made, and carries them to her car. “I’m sorry,” she says as he stands on the porch, still speechless.
But she’s not, and she drives away with the satisfying sweetness of mangoes on her tongue.