RED ONION BLUES
Ingrid Banwell (Macquarie University, Australia)
Sarah stands at the kitchen bench and peels a red onion. Upstairs, in the rumpus room, she hears her husband and three boys laugh and cheer. They’re on the PlayStation again.
The cat jumps from the sofa, prowls back and forth in front of the French doors and growls. Something’s in the garden. Sarah puts down the onion, walks up to the glass and peers outside. It’s too dark and all she can see are tree shadows shifting in the wind. When she pulls away, she sees herself reflected in the window. The glass flatters her, polishes away all the wrinkles and smooths the bags under her eyes. A much younger woman filled with life and hope and desire gazes back.
It all comes to her then, harsh and clear. She’s that ghost in the glass wanting a life she can’t have. A wraith clinging to an illusion.
Again, she peers past her reflection and deep into the darkness. At the back of the garden, she thinks she glimpses a shape move through the shadows. The red onion waiting on the bench hovers in the reflection – a bright orb just below her heart.
Up above, Peter – her husband – and the children, engrossed in their digital world, roar with laughter.
In that moment, Sarah re-lives the day fifteen years ago when the illusion vaporised.
Sarah’s fingers shake as she clips open the gate and drops the lock back into place, the clack too loud against the black blanket of suburban silence. Her heartbeat pounds against her temples. For a moment, she forgets to breathe. As she edges past the carport and down the side of the house, a twig from an overhanging tree snags her ponytail and pulls out a strand of hair. Her stiletto heel catches on a stone and her ankle twists. The shock pushes the breath out of her lungs and brings a rush of regret. She shouldn’t be here. Richard would be furious.
She ducks past the rectangles of light spilling from the windows. Too late now. Besides, she’s planned this for weeks. She bought this black cashmere sweater just for the occasion. She’s wearing her best black pants – the ones with just the right amount of stretch. She scrambles through the shrubbery and stops under the canopy of the giant fig tree at the back of his garden. It’s quiet, apart from the swish of her Italian leather jacket and the intermittent clatter from her dangly silver earrings.
For a few seconds she can’t bring herself to look towards his house into the blaze of yellow light and the figure moving through its depths. Instead, she looks up at the heavens and takes a deep breath. Please, Sarah prays, let her be ugly.
Her eyes drop from the sky studded with stars towards the woman moving through the yellow light inside. Sarah feels her dinner tumble in her stomach. The woman in the kitchen wears a business suit, an apron string carelessly tied across her back. She’s bending to pull something from the fridge. Rosalind – Richard’s wife – turns. Outside, a breeze slips a knife blade of cold across Sarah’s neck. She glimpses her competition and gasps. It’s a face not unlike hers – generous full lips and wide-set eyes framed by light brown hair. Older of course. Softer. Bigger bags under her eyes. Practical looking. A mother and wife. But not homey, as he has described her. No. Rosalind looks good. Attractive. Kind. A painful cramp crosses Sarah’s jaw and she pushes away the hard lump growing in her throat.
Another figure steps into the room. Her heart riots. It’s him. Richard. He’s rolling up his sleeves. He’s taken off his tie and undone the top buttons of his shirt. Longing surges through her as she recalls him in the hotel, fucking her into oblivion during his lunch break.
Richard smiles, says something to Rosalind and she hands him a red onion. Just as he pulls out a knife and chopping board, a small boy in a blue and white school uniform bursts into the room, a book in his hands. He thrusts the book in between his father’s nose and the onion. Richard smiles, abandons the onion, and guides the boy to a sofa. They huddle over the book together, father talking and pointing, son nodding. Then, Richard says something to his wife, smiles and waves his hand helplessly at the onion. Warmly, Rosalind smiles back, picks up the abandoned red onion and begins to peel it.
Outside in the night, unable to bear the scene any longer, Sarah looks up at the slim crescent of moon. Her insides feel unhinged and bruised. The sky looks different, the night even blacker. She thinks of the tiny part of Richard’s life she occupies and the volume of things she has given him – all her thoughts, all her heart, all her hope. She feels as though a valve in her heart has been forced open. She wants what that woman has. She wants that abundant pasture of Richard’s life with all its routine, responsibility and possibility. Sarah fumes at the tight boundaries Richard has drawn around their relationship. Coils of resentment twist through her. Once every three weeks in a hotel room. She feels robbed. Abandoned. Alone.
A girl of about five hurtles into the room. She’s carrying a bundle of grey fur and she’s followed by another boy, slightly older, wielding a plastic sword. Her heart quivers. They’re not the snot-nosed demons she’s imagined. No. Just nice looking, spirited children. The grey bundle tumbles from the girl’s arms and rushes towards the window. A pair of yellow eyes peer into the garden. They stare right at her. The cat begins to pace back and forth, flashing its white fangs in her direction. She can faintly hear its territorial yowl. The little girl looks at the cat, points into the darkness and the whole family stops and stares out the window. Richard gets up, walks to the window and stares outside, his hands on his hips. Sarah curls into a tight ball and crouches deeper in the shadows. She knows Richard can’t see her, but he looks right at her. It’s a fierce glare that thrills and terrifies her. She doesn’t know this side of him; a man protecting his family. She only knows the drooling, enthusiastic puppy of a man who brings her gifts and spends stolen half hours in a hotel room with her.
Right then, Richard reaches up and yanks the curtains across the French doors. The darkness closes around her as Sarah unfolds among the roots of the fig tree. The night suddenly seems colder; but it’s a chill no black cashmere and Italian leather can keep out. Her mind twists and froths in a maelstrom of bitterness. That happy family in there is a mirage. That man who pulled the curtains is a liar and a cheat. That woman in the kitchen is living an illusion. Sarah’s blood turns cold and her jaw stiffens. No. She will no longer be corralled into the tight pen of their affair. She has a right to more. And that woman in that kitchen, peeling that onion, has a right to the truth.
She turns away from the curtains drawn around the stage of Richard’s marriage and scrambles back through the shrubs.
Passing behind the carport where his Lexus glints in the street lights, Sarah briefly considers scratching it with one of the silver charm bracelets Richard gave her, but instead, she steps towards the front veranda, flexing her doorbell finger. Her heart jolts as she hears a peal of childish laughter on the other side of the door. Her insides splinter into slivers of shame, despair and desire.
Images flood through her. Richard furious. Children shocked. Rosalind horrified, shaking her head, refusing to believe this glamorously dressed woman on the doorstep is her husband’s mistress.
Above in the trees, a night bird calls into the wintery darkness and far away, another call replies.
When the automatic porch light goes on, Sarah shrinks from the glare in fright, scuttles out the gate and darts into the street’s shadows. A branch grabs her earring and pulls painfully on her ear. There’s moisture on her neck. It’s not blood, but tears.
Leaning against Richard’s sandstone wall, staring at a patch of freshly mown grass spot-lit by a street light, Sarah trembles. Her insides warp as she considers how she’s not playing her role in this stage of love. Once upon a time, she knew exactly what she was getting herself into when she hooked up with the married Richard. This affair was never going to have a fairy tale ending. Her heart heavy with the weight of reality, Sarah takes a fortifying breath and steps back into the lonely gravity of night. It’s time to let Richard go.
Sarah stares past that ghost of her younger self and into the darkness. Six months after she stopped replying to Richard’s messages, she met Peter and, twenty months later, married him. Over the years of their marriage, there were happy times, sad times, hard times; the usual threads woven into the tapestry of love. She thinks how she has earned this life. Worked hard to get here. She thinks of her three lively, demanding boys. She thinks of Peter who often works late and turns away from her at night. She thinks of the quiet relief she feels when he says he’s tired. She has told herself this is a new stage in their marriage. A more mature stage. A more accepting and respectful stage.
She sees the shape of things now. Behind her, in that reflection, Sarah sees her kitchen and family room, the warm, honey light, the mirage she wants to hold on to. It may be an illusion, but this is her life and she loves it. She tugs down the blinds, turns away from that trick of the light and prays the doorbell won’t ring.
Ingrid Banwell is a New Zealand born artist and writer now living in Sydney. She is currently studying for a Master of Creative Writing at Macquarie University. Ingrid holds a Master’s degree with First Class Honours in painting from the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, New Zealand and her artwork hangs in homes and offices around the world. Her three-dimensional work is also featured in several key publications on New Zealand art. Thanks to travel-hungry genes, she has lived in Mexico City, Vienna, London and New York.
On the writing side, Ingrid has been published in Cosmos Online, Andromeda Spaceways and the Writing NSW Magazine as well as numerous other online publications. In 2015, she self-published The Infidel’s Garden, a historical romance novel set in medieval Europe. Her art and writing are also featured on her website.