Fiction by Chantel Sandbach
The Space Between
He feels it most when he is home. They sit down to dinner and the space takes up an entire chair between them. He reaches for the butter in the middle of the table and he can feel the space leaning forward to try and get in the way. He tries setting it differently, keeping the condiments and dishes all on one side, but even after he took out the extra chair, it somehow managed to slide itself in between their own. She doesn’t add ketchup or salt or pepper to her food anymore, so that she doesn’t have to reach into that space.
He suggested that they try eating in the living room, in front of the TV. Perhaps in a different room they could eat more comfortably, or at least it would keep them from looking at the obvious space at the table. They tried. They found a series that someone recommended on Netflix and pulled the coffee table closer to the couch and sat down to eat. The space followed them into the living room, crossed in front of the TV and slid itself in between them. It wasn’t a big couch and didn’t accommodate them and the space well. He could feel it poking into his ribs and leaning against his thigh.
It was there in the mornings, standing next to him while he brushed his teeth. The bathroom was hot and steamy from the shower but the space next to him remained sharp and cold, making him shiver. He used to take longer in the shower, partly to relax and partly to wait, because sometimes, she’d come into the bathroom, silently take her clothes off and slip into the stall with him. He remembers the taste of her mouth, wet with the water from shower head, and her slippery hands. The space keeps her from coming into the shower now. It holds the bathroom door closed.
She feels the space often when she is out. It stands in the cart while she shops and doesn’t reach for anything, and doesn’t ask for anything and doesn’t need anything. It makes no sound, but points out the other carts, the ones without the space. She feels it as she passes the park, the library, the doctor’s office. She notices it when she unbuckles her seatbelt and leaves the car, without even a momentary pause. The space doesn’t need to be unbuckled; it just slides silently from the backseat. It’s there on her morning run, dancing down the sidewalk. It presses against her in elevators, and in taxis. It comes to work with her, and it makes her co-workers hesitate to talk to her, unsure of what to say. More and more often, she can’t stand to be out, and starts ordering groceries online to be delivered to the house. She stops running in the morning and she takes too many sick days.
Sometimes being out isn’t the problem, either, though. She thinks that sometimes it is worse when they are at home, together. That solidifies the space and makes it colder — bolder. Its angles and planes grow harder and sharper and she can feel it, no matter where she is in the room, or what she is doing.
She tries to do things so she can feel something other than the space. She pinches herself. Scratches and cuts herself, on her inner thighs, where he can’t see. Where no one sees. She hasn’t been naked in front of him in a long time. The space doesn’t let her feel desire. It doesn’t let her want him anymore.
It’s different for him, though. He feels desire, but when he is with her, the space gets in the way. It is a jealous space and doesn’t want them to find each other. So he goes to work and spends his lunch hour lost in a co-worker—a stranger who never knew the boy that the space replaced. Release is quick, impersonal and short-lived, because while the space doesn’t interfere, it waits for him at home.
They went to a counsellor and when she asked them what the problem was, and when it had started, they both felt the space solidify between them, choking off their words. How could they explain the space, without telling her about him? How could they say it all started four years ago with a heartbeat on a sonogram? Because that’s where it had really started. So they don’t tell her. They leave the session with therapeutic homework and ‘his and hers’ prescriptions. She fills hers and doesn’t take it, hoarding it just in case. He doesn’t fill his, preferring to drink—sometimes the drink keeps it at arm’s length and other times it causes the space to climb into his lap, leaning against his heart.
Eventually, living together with the space becomes unbearable, like reliving that same wretched day, over and over again. They decide that the only solution is more space between them, and the bitter irony does not escape their notice. They separate. He moves to a motel and she stays in the house. They soon find that the space shares time with them equally; a terrible custody arrangement that neither could have fathomed, and that she feels, utterly and unequivocally, responsible for.
But he misses her, and she him. They don’t know how to live apart and they don’t know how to live together, with the space. She wants to beg forgiveness, and he wants to absolve her but when they speak on the phone, they can often hear the space in the background, in the pauses of their conversation. As loud, and as there, as ever.
Finally, one day, she is lost. She feels the space has grown too large and too tall and its edges are too hard. Taller, bigger, and older than he ever was. Older than he’ll ever get to be. She feels that most just after the first anniversary of the day he died. She left him in the yard, only for a second, to grab the ringing portable phone. She didn’t know that he knew how to open the latch on the gate at only three years old. She didn’t know, she didn’t watch; she didn’t, couldn’t, save him from the truck that barrelled down the road at that worst possible moment. She didn’t reach him in time, and when she gathered him into her arms she already knew it was too late. She felt his little body tremble the very moment he was replaced by the mother-fucking, soul crushing, heart-ripping, graceless, goddamn, space. And today, she can no longer stand living with it. It is too much. She has tried to make the space go away with pinching. She has tried to make it go away with scratching. She tried cutting and for a moment, the space seems to recede. But the cutting and the scratching and the pinching are all superficial—it’s not enough. In desperation, she grabs the bottles of pills that she has dutifully refilled each month, and she takes them, swallowing them all until the bottles are empty. And then the space is suddenly, blissfully gone, and she calls him to tell him. But he can’t understand her—her words are jumbled and incoherent. “What, honey?” he pleads into the phone. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers, and the phone falls to the floor.
His heart in his throat, he goes to her, speeding, not signalling, running red lights. The ambulance beats him there and running into the house, he doesn’t feel the space. There are too many bodies and too much noise and too many flashing lights. He is at her side as the paramedics get her stabilized and put her on a stretcher and take her out to the ambulance. The space doesn’t get in the way. It doesn’t join them on the ride and it isn’t waiting at the hospital.
The space isn’t there when the doctor examines her and it isn’t there when he whispers to her that she is ok, and that he loves her. The space doesn’t get in the way of him when he cries, telling her that he will always be with her—that he cannot lose any more and that nothing will come between them again. The space that was the blame that she put on herself, the unfair blame that was never hers in the first place, and the burden of which he always wanted to, but could never take from he—is gone.
She reaches through the space that is no longer there and takes his hand in hers.
Chantel Sandbach still doesn't know what she really wants to write when she grows up, but has had her flash fiction, short fiction and creative non-fiction accepted for publication by The Flexible Persona, The Passed Note, The Same, Who Writes Short Shorts and Ghost Parachute online literary journals.