Simon Henderson

The Briarpatch

Simon Henderson

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Julia dropped her knife and fork onto the side plate, drawing an intended hush in the restaurant. She widened her eyes, opened her mouth in an O for outrage then pushed out her chair and launched herself onto stilettoed feet. 

        “That’s it Connor. And believe me, this time, I’m finished,” she said, thrusting her napkin at me. “You are a pig.”

        Of course I didn’t believe her, but I did wince—there was tenderloin of pork on the menu, wrapped in double-smoked bacon no less, but what the hell did Julia care? She swivelled on her heels and performed a catwalk past captivated tables to the coatrack, where she struck a pose until the dithering concierge, dazzled by the spectacle, unhooked her faux-fur jacket and pulled back the door for her. Like a pantomime audience, the diners turned on me with looks of disapproval. How pathetically exploitable we are by the histrionics of beautiful women—I would have been ashamed of my erection, had the greater shame she intended to inflict not been so precisely administered. Playing to the crowd, I raised my eyebrows to the heavens, and showed the world below my palms, as if to say what can one do? It was a futile gesture doomed to strike a bum note but then, what could one do? Sympathy had a binary logic, and in this equation, I was always the zero.

        They were not, of course, privy to Julia’s revelation, only moments earlier, that I was to become a father—news that she’d delivered warmly and with an affectionate smile. But then, her mood so often turned on a dime. She expected me to follow her, to atone for my minor transgression of good manners that she’d alchemized in an instant into mortal sin, so instead, I would let her wait in the car and suck on her ecig until the self-righteousness ebbed away, appeased by the skippety beats of whatever electronica du jour she was currently into. 


        I looked up to see a waiter stooped over the table balancing two hot plates, unsure of committing the stuffed veal chop in fig vinsanto sauce to Julia’s vacated place setting.  He grimaced as the juices pooled dangerously in the dip of the plates.

        “Go on,” I said. “Set them down before you drop them all the place.”

        He laid them down with relief then scurried away, slapping his hands on the swinging doors that admitted him to the kitchen.

        I spooned the Barolo reduction over my fillet mignon and willed myself to eat it, but the whiff of melting gorgonzola drove a final nail into my appetite. Dining alone is a joyless experience at the best of times, but when your solitude had been so publicly enforced, it is a chore. Thankfully, the opposite is true of drinking. I filled my glass with the Château Berliquet 2003, bent my lips to the rim, and supped at it loudly. It was pleasingly rich, heavy on liquorice and coffee, but still it left a bitter aftertaste for I’d selected the bottle solely for its vintage, to commemorate our unofficial 13th anniversary. I’d moved to Brooklyn from Belfast that summer before starting my L.LM degree at Columbia. A couple of weeks later, the lights went out across the city. During the first carnivalesque evening of that great northeastern blackout, our eyes met in the queue outside a Southern BBQ joint on lower Flatbush Avenue, which was giving away pulled-pork sandwiches before the August heat spoiled the meat. She was a painter, she’d said, then apologised—I’m still tipsy, my first exhibition debuted in Williamsburg last night. I was tipsy myself but had no such excuse—I’ve been drinking all day in that brew pub on the corner of Carroll Street, I’d said. Oh my God I live right around the corner from that place, she’d answered, clasping my arm. In less than a month, we were living there together.

        I felt like getting drunk now, too, or perhaps was halfway there. Several diners persevered to look down their noses at me, a jury of pious eyeballs scrutinizing my every tic and twitch, admitting them in their minds as evidence of guilt. I took another gratuitous gulp for them, letting the wine dribble from the corners of my mouth like a penny-dreadful vampyre, habeas corpus repealed! It was hardly the first time I had been abandoned to them, nor to the pitying discomfort of a waiter delivering Julia’s plate in absentia. If she could take a few deep breaths before reacting, it might spare us both the drama. But if only the lame could stand, they would see how they could walk.

        I checked my iPhone and saw that a half hour had passed, a half an hour without a messaged threat to drive off and leave me at the restaurant, or sarcastically hoping that I was enjoying myself. I typed ‘coming now’ and hit SEND and waited for the responding-bubble to appear and when it didn’t I hit CALL. When it rang out I opened Find My Friends, the locator app we’d agreed to employ as a relationship tool. The GPS took a few seconds to fix her location. When it did, I watched her blue orb as it crossed the Brooklyn Bridge.

        “What—a—fuck—ing—.” I slapped a palm on the table, tinkling cutlery and ushering another hush. I pushed my plate away and thumbed-open Uber but before hitting REQUEST, I had a sudden dawning—I had a vial of cocaine in my blazer’s breast pocket. When Julia had texted me at the office to say she would be abstaining from alcohol and insist on driving into Manhattan I feared the worst, oblivious of the news she was planning to break tonight, so I arranged a drop-off from Tibetan Tony, hoping cocaine would keep her mood from plunging. I immediately made for the bathroom, locked myself in a cubicle, dropped my trousers, sat down, unscrewed the cap, and spooned two heaps of it up each nostril. I emitted an electrified sigh. My erection re-energized. I leaned back to admire it but after a few prefatory tugs decided to conserve my efforts. I overpaid the bill, bid my adieus and invited the warm arousing breeze of the Manhattan night to have its wicked way with me.

        We dined regularly at Valbella but otherwise I couldn’t stomach the trendy overkill of the Meatpacking District so I escaped down West 13th Street and followed 9th Avenue onto Greenwich, delving deeper into the West Village. Abandoned, left to perambulate the New York streets, I tried to think about a future of fatherhood and organic co-parenting but only the effort of imagining such a future was tangible. I knew I was supposed to concede and follow my expectant wife home but that was just the point—the literal distance between us now was premeditated solely to appraise my response. But it was the duty of a wronged party to mitigate its damages; capitulating to the rules of her game tonight would worsen the mood, I decided, not lighten it. I would let the clear air of a new morning take care of itself. Tonight, there was only pavement, laid flat out in front of me, passing under and by me, and I was bounding upon it, brimming and resolute. I imagined a mugger stepping out of the shadows, and I pitied the fool. Somewhere around here, I remembered, was a jazz club I’d gotten drunk in about a year ago. I hoped now for the luck to stumble upon it again, or upon the French lawyer I’d met there, a pristine 52-year-old who’d eyed me at the bar before leading me by the tie to an outrageous glass tower over on Charles Street, 14 stories up, to an apartment with ceiling-to-floor windows. Sunk back into a lounge chair, she parted her legs as behind her, the lacklustre glow of Hoboken fringed the black void of the Hudson. The view was stunning. She’d asked if I could guess the purchase price of the property and when I shook my head, she counted to five on elegant fingers then silently mouthed “million” before curling all but one finger back into a fist, to beckon me with. I sucked in a plume of night air and whistled at the memory, but that jazz club eluded me. I stopped at Highlands Scottish pub and knocked back several whiskies before a heavy-breasted blonde with a deep, libidinous voice asked if the stool beside me was free to occupy then sat down without waiting for an answer.

        “You look pensive,” she said, pensively. When I didn’t immediately respond she added: “you know, like, ‘deep in thought’.”

        “Whiskey has a way of furrowing the brow.”  I held up my glass to show her.

        “Ah! You’re Irish! Well even the fields in Ireland are furrowed by whiskey,” she laughed, tapping a smooth bare calf against mine. “Anyway, I’m kidding, Irish. I’m Barbara. People call me Barb.”

        She held out her hand and I took it and we lingered over the greeting.

        “I’m Connor,” I said. “People call me Connor.”

        Barb slapped me hard on the knee and laughed again. Barb laughed a lot in fact and slapped my knee just as often, and every time she leaned over her folded knee to pat my own she exposed the heft of her breasts, making it difficult to suppress an erection. Barb, ominously, was originally from Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford not far from Julia’s family home. But she was a good decade older, I reasoned, so they were unlikely to know each other socially—though Yankee family trees do tend to converge along one branch or another. I should have excused myself there and then but like I said, I was in no real hurry to return home.

        “So Connor, what do you do?”

        “Lawyer,” I answered, hearing myself sigh. She nodded enthusiastically and her interest, real or feigned, emboldened me. “I deal in bankruptcy, distressed credit, corporate restructurings—the kind of thing that kills conversations. So let me guess—you’re an actress.”

        “Oh he’s an Irish charmer!” She said, lurching forward with another laugh, this time leaving her hand on my knee. “But I wouldn’t be a very successful actress if you had to guess now would I? You aren’t a million miles off though. Coordinator for Paramount Pictures.” Her fingers made air-quotes around the word coordinator. “Basically, I’m the one in charge of the guest list.” She raised her eyebrows to imply opportunities were a-begging.

        “You live in the city?” I asked, thinking about seizing one.

        “Back and forth, here and L.A. When I’m here it’s the Upper West Side.” She waved a hand and rolled her eyes as though pre-empting derision. “My parents’ place but they don’t bother with New York much these days. What about you?”

        “Brooklyn,” I said and watched her eyes look instinctively toward my left hand resting on the bar and my wedding ring, which seemed to emit crepuscular rays of glaring gold light. She looked back to me and stifled a grin.

        “Of course you live in Brooklyn. So tell me—are you a good Irish Catholic boy with a doting Catholic housewife and a litter of obedient pups?” Her fingers softly pinched my thigh and she arched an eyebrow. “Or have you fallen far from the tree?”

        “No pups. Not even a cat.”

        “Snap!” She said, then she snapped her fingers and ordered us two more drinks.

        As I answered her predictable questions about Ireland my mind drifted and I thought about the painting Julia had done of a tumbled-down cottage in a briarpatch outside of Armagh. She had painted it during our first trip there together, going off on her own one morning to set up her easel on the damp grass. Sitting on an upturned lemonade crate, she passed an entire day depicting the ruin in oils and the canvas hung now in the living room of our apartment. We’d swore we’d return some day to buy the land and rebuild the cottage, imagining it as an ancestral retreat for our kids to visit during summers. Then, when the likelihood of having a family dwindled, we re-conceived of the place as a whimsy AirBnB project—but who the fuck wants to holiday in a swatch of Armagh scrubland?

        Barb went to the bathroom and I checked my phone again. I expected her resolve to falter and, playing the ingenue, to demand an explanation as to why I hadn’t followed her home like a lap dog. On the Find a Friend app her tracker still wobbled over our apartment in Bushwick. She would likely be fixating upon my own blue beacon on the map—a pixelated singularity around which her mass of anger would be swirling. At least she wouldn’t be drinking. When we first moved into Colony 1209, the “new frontier” development was real estate for the hip and upwardly mobile. But it soon dawned on us that we were the tail-end of the tail-end of the building’s Millennial demographic. For all her whingeing about the residential hipsters, she seemed very much at home among them a few weeks ago, when I came home from work and found her up on the rooftop common area sharing a spliff and drinking craft beers with a trio of bespectacled, fashionably hirsute fuckers who’d made a triangle around her. We had long been contemplating a move, to a condo across Brooklyn in Mapleton, or maybe even into the city—it’s not like we couldn’t afford it—and if the incident with the Young Urban Creatives hadn’t quite sealed the deal, a baby most certainly would.

        As Barb and her breasts bounced back across the bar, I imagined Julia lying in bed in the dark with her face a chiaroscuro portrait illuminated by the light of her phone. I felt a flutter of guilt. But then I reasoned with myself—she had driven away, not me. She had planned on delivering the good news but had driven the car to the restaurant just so that she could drive away in it, giving with one hand what she had already prepared to take with the other. And what had I done to provoke her? Three words: Whose is it? That’s all I had said when she announced she was pregnant. Insensitive, perhaps, but not sticks and stones—hardly an act of violence. A joke, really. If she’d given me the chance, I would have told her as much, though, if she could ever be honest with herself, she’d admit there was nothing outrageous about the thought having crossed my mind. How many other nights had she been up there on the roof rubbing shoulders when I wasn’t home? And after years of trying for a child, all of a sudden, just when we aren’t trying very hard at all, we have a miraculous conception? The more that I thought about it, a pithy if ill-advised stab at humour may have skewered a hidden truth.

        As Barb sat down and reclaimed my knee, I revealed the neat little vial I had pincered between my thumb and forefinger.

        “What would you say to a few lines?”

        “Of what—poetry?” She acted all ingenuous then leaned forward with another grin: “My place?”

        In the backseat of a yellow cab, with customary disregard for discretion, we snorted from the scoop then rushed upon and about each other, flush with abandon, until finally disengaging for the sake of air and decency. Barb phewed and palmed locks of hair away from her cheeks. I met the eyes of the young Middle Eastern driver in the rearview mirror, who might well have driven 20 blocks without looking ahead of him. I grinned and winked but his stare remained impassive, wholly unimpressed, before it returned again to the road.

        Barb popped open a purse and re-applied lipstick. Her breasts heaved with deep excited breaths. It was almost midnight. The cab’s suspension seemed too tensile, bumping us up and down along the 9A. My stomach lurched. I looked out the window. The reflection of my face watched me as the city passed by in the wrong direction. In my mind, I became an icy blue orb transecting a vector map of Manhattan on a little glowing screen back in Brooklyn. We turned onto W 96th Street. Barb pulled her cheeks away from her nostrils and snorted long and loudly, dredging for coke. She glared at me, fucked, smiling, and with her tongue traced the length of her upper-lip. The cab jolted as the lights of the car in front turned red. Inside I felt dropped from a height. We turned left onto Broadway.

        “Getting closer,” Barb said.

        Getting further away, I thought.

        She craned her neck and pressed her face to the glass to study something across the street and pointed in the same upward direction.

        “My buddies just bought that townhouse,” she said absently, causing a misty patch of condensation to form on her window. “Do you see it? The second one from the end, with the pair of triple box-wood topiaries in the doorway? They’re fake of course but quite grand, don’t you think?”

        I turned to feign a look out of the cab’s back window and mumbled “oh yeah. Nice.” She sat back in her seat and exhaled, as though dreamily envious of those potted plants, or peeved at my unwillingness to wallow in her appreciation of them.

        “Ethan and Ames,” she went on. “Always makes me think of Adam and Eve though they’re sweet and innocent as lambs. House cost a fortune but they just sold their startup for a not-so-small fortune. Infant Terrible it’s called—hipster apparel for kids, newborns to kindergarten. Eight figures—I’m not even joking, you can look it up!” And on and on, at her frenetic stimulant-induced pace. “What a world, eh? A real charming couple though and what an adorable little boy—you’ve probably seen him, he’s been on billboards since before he was out of diapers.”

        I must have let out an audible groan because she straightened up and put a hand over her opened mouth.

        “Oops?” she giggled through splayed fingers, suddenly giddy. “Talk about a buzz killer! You know I forgot you’re even married already, though I guess that makes two of us—I’m kidding!” She primed her hand to slap my knee but drew it back—”I’m still kidding!”

        With the cab purring outside of her place, Barb demurred—”really?”—then ruefully agreed it was indeed for the best if I didn’t come up. She hugged me tightly on the sidewalk and as we embraced, her hand found my still-hard penis and squeezed it. “For good luck.’ she said with a wink. She kissed me on the lips then turned and skipped up the steps waving an adios with the back of her hand. “See ya!”

        Somewhere and somehow, I drifted off on the drive home to Brooklyn and was woken by the driver’s knuckles rapping on the fiberglass partition. “We are here Mr.” I nudged a $50 and some singles onto the plate but caught his still-withering stare in the rearview mirror and angered by it, I flicked the bills with my fingertips, grinning as he cursed me “takool zep ala hamada!” and scrambled to collect them as they fell.

        I forgot to even notice if our Cabriolet was parked never mind to check whether Julia had remembered to lock it. My heart thumped in my mouth as I ascended the stairwell and despite my best efforts, I fumbled like a drunk with the key in the lock before entering into a dark and quiet apartment. I hoped she had fallen asleep. More likely, she was lying awake scrutinizing my movements to determine the extent of my insobriety, which she would appraise with huffy exaggeration in the morning. I opened the fridge and popped the lid of a Brooklyn Brown Ale bottle with the battery end of my e-cig and it ricocheted off the ceiling then came to a rest with an amplified tinkle on the tiles. I paused in the darkness waiting for a response but none came. I took a gulp and sat down on the leather sofa and stilly counter-studied the overworked sound of her silence.

        It was not even 1 a.m. yet. Not so late, I reasoned—we had both been guilty of pushing night into dawn after past blowouts, but when the gust of tonight’s had died down, I had collected myself in the face of temptation and taken myself home. It had been an overreaction to drive off and leave me at the restaurant but I understood why she had done it. Now that I was home, she would understand why I had overreacted in turn. That was the give and take of it. If I undressed now and went into the bedroom and put my arms around her, my embrace would eventually thaw her chill and in the morning, a new day would herald a new era. But then again. I wondered about the hormones. And given the unique situation, on this occasion treading extra-lightly might be prudent. I pictured myself as a suited and booted de-miner plotting a careful course through a clay-red tuber field in some war-ravaged territory, as wiry sunbaked farmers leaned on hoes and grinned with anticipation from behind a perimeter. Morning would come irrespective, I thought. Best was to let her rest.

        For want of anything better to do, I emptied the remnants of the little brown bottle onto the purlicue of my left hand, bore it aloft, then snuffed the rickle away. Immediately my consciousness clarified. I thought of Barb’s friends. What were their names? Something ridiculous—Adam and Eve, only innocent, she’d said. But it was hardly wholesome parenting to dress your baby like Jared Leto and pimp him out on billboards all over Manhattan? They’d probably named him Gulliver, or Waldo. My boy (I sensed it!) would grow up the way a child should: the toddler would not be accessorised. He would have a real name, one that carried the weight of ancestry, of a homeland. Patrick—no, Padraig. Padraig Dillon. I closed my eyes and imagined myself standing in the doorway of the cottage in Armagh, which would be renovated or rebuilt. Julia was across the field standing on her crate with a hand raised to visor the flare of backlit cloud, unable to see me under the dazzling brightness. Between us, Padraig was at play, his golden hair aflame as he dribbled an O’Neil’s football too-big for his boots amid a cluster of gorse tufts. A city the size of New York was no place for child to grow up, I decided—without roots, amid billboards of other people’s children dictating how they should and shouldn’t look. With the money they would make on the apartment, they could buy a mansion—or a large house with grounds, in the right part of Ireland of course. Somewhere along a rail link so he could commute to a lucrative job in Dublin’s busy financial sector. Julia could stay at home and paint until her heart was content while cultivating an artistic sensibility in our son. Oh I was high as a kite and now that it had finally sunk in I was filled with pure unconditional love for my family.

        “Julia,” I shout-whispered, barely able to contain myself. “Jooo lee ah.” 

        I sounded a bit drunk to my own ears so I thumbed text into my iPhone, short but sweet. “Love you xxx.” The magic-wand message tone sounded a sparkle in the bedroom. I waited, listened, felt my insides turn over incomprehensibly and my heart galumph, sent another. “Hello? Are you awake? xxx.” Again the tone tinkled and I listened for the creak of the bed frame, the complaints of the mattress suffering under her shifting weight, the ruffle of the duvet as she turned away onto a cold shoulder. I decided it had been a bad idea to text. I went to the fridge and got another beer, removing the cap as quietly as I could. I sunk back smiling in the sofa’s black leather and watched the first light of dawn ease past me through the blinds. I saw a future before me until, in the gloaming light, I saw what was really in front of me and it was the very image of absence. The wall where the painting of our crumbling cottage had hung was now unadorned and glowed violet like a giant blank canvas. A bubble of anxiety rose from the pit of me as I pictured her unhanging it. Perhaps she had a new one to hang in its place, or had she entertained similar fantasies to my own and moved it into our bedroom to bring it closer to reality?


        I strained to hear a sound in the fuzz of silence while inside reigned confusion, anger, an indomitable paternal instinct and then a sudden surge of lust. This had been a night for a mutual celebration, not fits of pique for Christsakes. How could she lie there and resolutely ignore me with my baby inside of her? I strode to the bedroom door and pushed it ajar but even as I reached for the lights I could see by the smoothness of the quilt that the bed was made, that she was not lying in it. 

        When the light illuminated the room, it had been emptied of her. The vanity table had been cleared of the beautifying oils, creams and glosses that usually littered it; the rows of her tightly pressed records had been ripped from the shelves like pages out of a giant hardback book; a half-dozen paintings were now indistinct imprints of what had once hung there, like an abandoned art gallery. I thought of her up on the roof under the pawing hands and eager mouths of the three hipster stooges, I saw her with every man her eyes had ever lingered on in a vision of oily naked limbs writhing in a fast-cut pornographic montage that sucked the centre out of me then exploded it and I buckled onto my knees and violently disgorged a viscera of meat and Bordeaux onto the wooly white mat at the bedside.

        Just as I drew air, the slap-in-the-face chime of unread messages sounded. Her iPhone illuminated on the plant stand by the window, where yesterday the mustardy smelling Peperomia had stood with its heart-shaped leaves. Placed beside the phone was a digital pregnancy test, a thermometer-like instrument with its little grey screen displaying its positive binary value: Pregnant, it read. Under the phone there was a note. On it, Julia’s carefully decorative handwriting. Just three words. That was all. 

        It is mine 

Simon Henderson

Simon Henderson is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Queen's University Belfast. He is a former associate editor at the Cambodia Daily newspaper in Phnom Penh, with stories in @Vice and fiction recently appearing in the Lost River Review. Not so recently, he was shortlisted for a Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and the Brian Moore Short Story Award.