The Freedom Clause
New Year’s Day. Dominic wakes up and his hangover greets him immediately. His back sticks to the sheets, coated in a sheen of sweat. His breaths are soft and shallow. With closed eyes, his hand skims blindly along the bedside table, landing on a familiar shape. But there are no texts, no interesting emails to read. He opens and closes Twitter, followed by Instagram and, in a fleeting fit of boredom, LinkedIn. It’s noon, and he feels a familiar twinge of guilt. Daphne has been up for hours. He hears the spin of a laundry cycle nearing completion. Dirty plates scrubbed clean. The kettle’s high and angry whistle. His wife’s productivity puts his own to shame. He should help, Dominic thinks, swinging his legs off the bed. He reaches for a discarded sweatshirt, navy and hooded, and pulls it over his head. Opening the door, the scent of lunch wafts toward him. His stomach rumbles happily.
“Daph-ne,” he calls out, aiming for singsongy, but his voice is a low croak.
He finds her leaning over the kitchen counter in a faded white top, denim jeans that hug her curves. She doesn’t see him. Humming along to Spotify, clutching a pen delicately in her right hand, she’s absorbed in her notepad. Dog-eared and tattered, it contains recipes she’s crafted over the years, annotated with painstaking precision. Her damp hair hangs in loose curls. Small beads of water drip down her back. She looks fresh and energetic, the opposite of him. The kitchen surfaces gleam and sparkle, the heavy scent of synthetic lemon and lavender hangs in the air. He feels clammy and parched and gross but he can’t help himself; he hugs her from behind, pecking her neck with small kisses and breathing in her scent, a mix of honeysuckle and citrus. His hands glide over her hips, and lower, toward her thighs. He nuzzles his nose and lips into the back of her neck in what he hopes is a seductive manner.
“Morning, sunshine!” He attempts a sexy drawl, but it’s a hoarse bellow.
“God, you scared me!” she shrieks, swatting him away.
“You look great,” he murmurs into her ear, softer this time, and he tries again, his hand hovering lightly against her hip.
She elbows him in the ribs. “I’m busy here, get off!”
So much for trying to start the new year on a spicy note, he thinks, shoulders sagging in defeat. Embarrassed by his pathetic seduction attempt, he switches topic.
“Grilled cheese?” he asks, snaking a hand past her.
She slaps his wrist affectionately. “Not yet. Here, take some of this.”
She places something in his hand. A bottle of Nurofen.”You’re the best,” he sighs. “And you made coffee.”
“With frothy milk!” She beams proudly.
“Wow,” he says, leaning back against the kitchen counter, arms folded over his chest. “You used a present from The Parents already!”
The Parents: Nigel and Plumb, neither of whom treat their daughter well, and his dad and Sadie. Dominic’s mum passed away a few years ago and the less said about that, he thinks, reaching past Daphne for a mug, the better.
“Is the milk frother our favorite Christmas gift this year?” he asks.
“Let’s think about this,” Daphne responds, tilting her head to one side. “My parents got their least favorite child a teeny-tiny cashmere sweater, which could be a genuine mistake . . . or a vague insinuation to lose weight?”
Daphne couldn’t get the sweater over her head, it was that tiny. It was a ridiculous move from her parents, especially given her body is amazing, she just doesn’t believe it. He once told her she looked like she belonged in a different century. It was meant to be a compliment, he pictured Vermeer painting her portrait, immortalizing her features. Her response: back when women were allowed to be bigger. Why did her mind go there? He wasn’t talking about the proportions of her hips and calves (all perfect); but his wife sees herself as unattractive. And maybe he’s to blame? Maybe he hasn’t done enough to make up for the years she was torn down, her confidence shredded? They laughed about the sweater on Christmas Day but he noticed the hurt in her eyes. He catches it again now as she laughs it off.
“I think it’s kitchen gadgets for the win,” Daphne adds, flashing him a smile.
She’s talking about his dad and Sadie, the practical gifts they send, arriving promptly in the third week of December each year, without fail.
“Right,” he snorts, “because nothing says sorry-I-abandoned-you-for-six-years-before-taking-a-detached-interest-in-you-again like: the instant pot!”
“Or the compost caddy!” she chimes in, referring to a few years ago.
“Or the water filtration pitcher!”
Daphne tilts her head back and laughs. She has a lovely laugh, honeyed and layered and playful. His life’s goal is to make her laugh often.
“At least those gifts don’t come with a mean subliminal message,” Daphne points out.
True, there’s no hidden agenda with his dad. Occasionally an email floats in linking to something obscure: Thought this might interest you. Most recently, it was an article about the decline of trout in the North Sea. Dominic was mystified. It’s still contact, he told himself, it’s still a sign he cares. Whereas Daphne’s parents are a special case of brutal.
“There’s nothing subliminal about that doll-sized sweater, crumb cake. That was plain vicious,” he says, pouring himself coffee, adding frothy milk and popping two Nurofen. It occurs to him that he hasn’t lifted a finger. “Can I . . . help?” he asks feebly.
“Brush your teeth,” she responds immediately. “Your breath smells like rotting weasels.”
“How many of these weasels?” he asks, burying his face in her neck, exhaling heavily.
She laughs softly and twists away. Leaning over her notebook, she scribbles more notes in the margins, no doubt brainstorming another recipe. He places his chin on her shoulder, looking at what she’s working on.
“Stop distracting me,” she murmurs in a monotone.
“My head feels extremely heavy right now. I need a place to rest it,” he admits. “So, last night was fun.”
She stops scribbling.
“Do you even remember getting home?”
He hears the smile in her voice. Having drunk too much, he can’t answer this.
“We got a cab?” he begins hopefully.
“No cabs.” She turns, fixing her gaze on him. Her eyes are bright green, playful. “We ran home but you worried it looked like you were chasing me so you yelled ‘We’re happily married, I promise’ to anyone we passed.”
This sounds vaguely familiar, and exactly the kind of thing he’d do.
“Ah.” He grimaces. “Glad my neuroses rarely surface when I drink.”
“It was cute,” she murmurs. “And an absolute miracle you didn’t trip and fall flat on this adorable nose of yours.”
She stands on her tiptoes and kisses it.
“This crooked thing?” he asks quietly.
But she doesn’t answer. She’s back in turbo mode, pulling a small covered saucepan from the oven, lifting lids, stirring the soup, flipping a slice of bread with a spatula. He loves watching her, the way she has it all under control, but finally Daphne offers him a withering look.
“You’re like a dog waiting for its walk. Go on, I’ll bring these out when they’re done.”
He laughs, holds his hands up in mock surrender, and retreats to the living room. His laptop sits across the room, staring at him in open judgment. He should use the free day to make progress on writing but he doesn’t have the energy. Instead, he turns on the TV. The first channel he lands on is a nature documentary. The lion is the king of the jungle, he is the king of beasts, he is the king of copulation. The narrator’s deep voice booms around the small living room. The lions mate every fifteen to thirty minutes. Up to 100 times a day while the lioness is in heat.
What must that be like, Dominic wonders, recalling his unsuccessful attempt to turn Daphne on in the kitchen. She barely even noticed. When was the last time his touch made her want to drop everything and rip his clothes off? Remembering her comment about his breath, his face puckers in disappointment. There is nothing sexual about a weasel. He hears Daphne’s phone going in the distance. Someone is trying to FaceTime her. Their flat is tiny, the kitchen and living room separated by a doorless archway that makes it almost impossible to have a private conversation. Daphne picks up.
“Par! Happy New Year, love! Wait . . . what’s wrong?”