Before he drains the pan, instantly rendered incapable of seeing anything because of the vapour that rises from the sink like a fine mist, he opens the kitchen window, pauses between the counter and the stove. He hears a car approaching at walking pace and shortly afterwards the door opening. No, not Nava, Nava always stopped for a moment at the end of their cul-de-sac, some way before the small carpark, wound down the windows on both sides and listened, through the pounding beat of a radio hit, to see if the children were playing outside. Then she waited for the boys to spot her and run shrieking up to the red Fiat, which, lights on and FUNX on maximum, was blocking the road and didn’t drive on until at least one of the twins climbed in and, grasping the steering wheel, perching on his mother’s lap, parked the car. He’s heard it so many times that he can picture the scene right up until the final image: as the twins skip to the house, hand in hand, the grouch from across the road asks Nava if she didn’t hear him blowing his horn and, as if she’s home again, he hears Nava’s voice now, always with that hint of a laugh in it, which people who didn’t know her interpreted as haughtiness, finally, finally he hears Nava herself: ‘Your horn? Oh yes, of course.’
Holding her stomach in, she squeezes the black tights over the soft thickness of her thighs with a little sparrow hop and, briefly allowing herself to be distracted from her activity, she looks up, the spruce-green of her eyes for that brief moment just a fraction brighter, a fraction warmer because of the turban of the red towel on her head; she tugs up the tights over the stretchmarks on her belly, as spongy as dough – sometimes she turns out of sight in the angle between door and frame, but she always reappears, as though she knows he’s watching.
Mobile clasped between cheek and shoulder, she nodded at him. When he looked, he saw the cat running along the fence, not thrown off balance by the paternal bass tones of Nava’s colleague or by Nava’s laugh, which was also ringing around the room: ‘Just ask me – and watch me fly!’ Only then did he see the little greenfinch in its mouth, unmoving, except for when the wind stroked its feathers. ‘You have to keep her inside,’ a friend had said years ago.
She closes her eyes, puts her hands behind her neck, turns her head to one side, spreads her untannable legs, moves the black hem of her swimsuit a bit to the side, he ducks as she looks up absent-mindedly, then he crouches, laundry basket still in his hands, his nose on the bottom edge of the attic window facing the garden – the twins, the countless times he’s seen her lunch left on the table after she’d dashed out of the house for a meeting that was about to begin, the daily training with the Kayla app: there’s barely anything left of her breasts. She turns onto her stomach, arms, legs wide; the two half-moons of her buttocks have freed themselves from her swimsuit, he tenderly counts the birthmarks on her thighs – there are seven of them. Still seven.
He raises one finger when the barman brusquely grabs the tap, is about to say ‘no, an ice tea,’ but then nods ‘go ahead,’ squeezes his way to the dancefloor, ‘Tell me does she want you’ sing dozens of hip-swaying women and the deep-low dissonance of just one man; he makes a hollow between his broad shoulder and tattooed upper arm, and he winks: ‘Come on then,’ he doesn’t need to say anything, or to place his free hand on a back to lead a hesitant body, Nava is already there, rubbing up against him like a tomcat, shameless, looking neither timidly nor hastily in the direction of the man who is in urgent need of another beer.
On his stomach on the rug, searching among the cushions and behind them, in every crevice of the sofa and now groping around beneath it for the damned remote control. Max and Ben are dancing to music that skims across his trembling body with the volume of a low-flying jet. The glass in the windows creaks in the frames, the floor groans from the boys’ jumping. Max shouts above the lisping, frenzied rap that he wants crisps, Ben yells that he’s knocked his Fristi over. Quickly, he reaches back under the sofa, feels something, something that isn’t hard, but wet and sticky. There’s brown sludge sticking to his rapidly withdrawn hand. Audible only to himself, he says: ‘Max, I know where it went, that apple you dropped the other day.’
In the garden, Nava suddenly rose from her lounger; a fine mesh of lines on her legs, tiny craters, no bigger than a pip, in her oval buttocks – long before he knew for certain that he loved her, it was her orange-peel skin, the unfashionably broad hips and ample behind; without his realising the reason at the time, it was precisely those supposed imperfections that kept him coming back to her bed full of Tweety toys and made him put up with the mouthy cleaning lady in the leopard-skin onesie at breakfast and the three brothers who never let him out of their sight. After seven weeks, she took his hand and whispered in his ear: ‘You will be careful, won’t you?’ Max screams that he wants Doritos ‘nooow.’
Before he straightens the duvet, he estimates on her side where in the hollow in the mattress she… he breathes in the scent from the bottom sheet until… something between sweet and salty, a taste he has no word for, even after twenty years – everything feels very close now, she turned onto her side, pushed her pelvis hard against his, took his hand straight to where she was already warm; his caresses followed the rhythm she gave him with her breath, a little faster, a little tighter, she tensed, stretched, flinched, was still. When she disappeared to the bathroom, he smelled the line of moisture that lingered for a moment on the sheet, sniffed again; more sweet than salty.