And now back to our regularly scheduled angst. :) (though I will do more fluff and perhaps some smut later)
Butterfly paintings. That’s what they were all supposed to be, those paintings her art tutor had allowed her to indulge in as a child. Even forty-five years later, even lying in the chilled darkness of her marriage bed, she saw the pictures she’d made on thick paper, spreading paint in the center, and folding it, pressing it hard under her soft, smooth hands. She remembered how she’d peeled the paper slowly apart and admired the symmetry of the paint. Butterflies, they were supposed to be. Butterflies, their wings mirroring one another on either side of the crease. But she never saw butterflies in the paint. Never.
And tonight, she no longer wondered why.
Those pressed pieces of art were much like life, weren’t they? They were much like marriage, relationships, love. They weren’t like butterflies at all - though love often began crawling and slow, then voracious for more and more of the other, before at last blooming into flight, it seemed to never end there. The butterfly never seemed to last. Instead, she realized, it leapt across the crease of the paper, and whittled down again to a stump of feeling, inching along the ground.
How did they come to this? How, after everything they’d shared, they’d made, had they come back again…waning to the slivers of their first year again, Robert distant, and she desperate to make him happy? How?
A darker part of her mind, a part that was eager to snuff out the last bit of light left, wondered if he’d wanted to stay in his dressing room tonight? It had been a week since the fire, but Edith’s room was not yet ready. Perhaps he wanted to sleep apart, but Edith was lying in his small bed instead. It could’ve been true, she realized. Robert wasn’t pleased with her, though she wasn’t sure why. Miss Bunting certainly hadn’t made anything better, and then Mr Bricker ruffled Robert’s nerves, though she couldn’t think how.
She laid still in the dark, and her mind creased and unfolded those butterflies again. They were all so thick and happy in the center, so thin and spotty near the edge. Were they going back to that? Were they going back to that distance? Back to that curt conversation? Going back to Cora being the only one in love?
And she was. She was still in love with him.
She listened, then, for his sounds beside her. She listened to his shallow breathing, his occasional rough pull of air through his nose. She felt the shifting of his feet beneath her covers, and she realized…he was still awake.
They’d just been lying here, together, awake.
Cora swallowed, and then inexplicably, felt terribly, terribly guilty.
When was the last time she’d touched him? When was the last time she’d kissed him? It’d been weeks, she realized. Weeks. They’d intended to before the fire a week ago, but then…
Cora let her head fall toward him, toward where he slept with his back to her, and she watched in the dim light of dying embers the rise and fall of his shoulder. There was no sleeping rhythm in it yet, and so, she turned slowly toward him, and curled into the warmth of his back.
Her nose nestled first between his shoulder blades, and she smelled his familiar woody scent, the smell conjuring up thousands of memories of him that altogether choked her before she stretched her throat up, her lips finding the back of his neck.
And she pressed them there.
He didn’t respond immediately, and so she kissed him again, his cotton shoulder, and she ran her hand along his arm, finding his hand beneath the duvet. She held it, and she tried to ignore the way his did not grasp hers in return.
But he did roll to his back to meet her. After two, three more soft kisses to the nape of his neck, he did turn, and she moved partially atop of him, kissing his jaw, his chin.
She waited for him, then, she waited for his hand to find her upper arm, and to hold it, but it did not. So she moved on, to his mouth, and she kissed it, once, twice, waiting again for him, for the small lift of his chin, then the deep breath he’d release. But his chin remained still, his breath remained measured, and it felt like a stumble. It felt as if he’d missed some part of a well choreographed dance, as if he misstepped his lead in their own private waltz, and it made the space between her lungs heavy and it ached.
But instead of retreating, she kissed him harder, a glimmer of light still left in her mind. And he kissed her back, she felt. He did. Softly, quietly, but he kissed her, and so…she only moved further.
She let her hand trail down his shirt, and it easily slid into the waist band of his pajamas. Her fingers searched him out as she kissed his lips, crawling toward him, and she pulled his shaft into her hand, and held it.
But then, his hand caught her wrist, stilling her, and he moved his mouth away from her lips.
A panic seized up in her breast, but she only blinked down at him, her brow furrowed.
“Not tonight, Cora.”
Her shoulders slumped of their own accord, as if they were asking him why, and as if he had heard them, he answered.
“I’m tired. And then, of course, Edith.”
He nodded to the dividing door, and Cora frowned. And then nodded, too.
She let go of him, she slid her hand from his pants, and then she moved away from him, letting him roll back onto his left side, away from her.
And she, in turn, rolled onto her back, realizing with some alarm, that she was angry.
Her face was on fire, practically in flames. He had considered Edith, then. And he had been awake. But he’d not wanted to…and why not? She fought the urge to roll away from him as well, but then she didn’t want to appear angry, though she was.
Oh! Why did she ever do that? Why did she act so forward when he clearly had been prepared to rest? And, slowly, the fire she felt was no longer anger. It was embarrassment. But then, why on earth should there be any embarrassment? And then hot confusion. And next was fear of tumbling back across the crease of their time, of their love. She wanted to be the butterfly, not the splotches of accidental paint, smeared against their mirrored selves.
Cora pushed out a hard breath, letting clean air enter her - new air, air that had not been moments before.
The light in her mind flared up with a sputter. They’d be fine. Their life together was not a mirror image of itself, there was no symmetrical line drawn in the height of their happiness. There was no crease that they had crossed over. They’d be fine.
She let her eyes roam her room, their room, then, finding signs of he truth. His housecoat draped over that chair, the painting he loved so much hanging over the chest of drawers, the picture of their daughter still on her bedside table - they’d survived that, didn’t they?
And then…her eyes found a flicker of dying firelight in her vanity’s mirror, and she looked.
She saw them, Robert curled far away from her, clinging to the far side of the bed, and she…she clinging to the other, more space between them than what they inhabited collectively.
And Cora felt the prick behind her nose, and the burn in her eyes.
Butterfly paintings. And creases. And perhaps love, after all, was really just a mirror of itself. Perhaps…perhaps…but, God, she prayed she was wrong.