LESS THAN

Everything looks the same. The clock ticks mechanically above the fire place and not one piece of furniture rearranged. The expensive damask curtains frame the windows perfectly, the glass chandelier catches the light.
He stands opposite me, hands in his trouser pockets. My husband. My Jack.
“There’s someone else.”
I look into his eyes, pools of pity but his mouth is set in a thin line. I stand by the bench in the kitchen, using a hand to steady me. His shoulders sag and he waits. Waits for his wife to say something. What should I say? “Oh, well done!” or “That’s okay, we’ve had a good run. Pop your key on the hall table on your way out.” Should I be stoical, understanding or kind? Or scream and shout and threaten to kill him with a household object.
The dining table; breakfast things, dirty and abandoned. Red ceramics with green and blue floral designs, congealed egg yolk would be hard to shift. We had eaten our eggs and sipped our coffee as man and wife only this morning. Before. We had sex, good sex as it happens, in our bed on Tuesday. Before. Last Saturday we went to Bunnings together. Holding hands, choosing colour palettes for doing up the spare bedroom. Before.
“Her name is Rose. I’m moving into her flat.”
Did his foot just kick my guts? Was it a blade he pushed to the hilt into my chest? I hurt. I hurt and I missed my line. My chance to be righteous. Or forgiving. If I had said the right words then maybe the idea of Rose would have clouded over, become opaque, ceased to exist. Too late now, no words of mine will take her back, into the past like a vanishing point. Pfft. No more. And his qualifier, his,“it meant nothing” or, “I made a terrible mistake. It only happened the once.”
No. Rose is the one. It had to be Rose, not Belinda or Mary. Sensible names with sensible shoes. Girls to go to the bar with. Rose. Fragrant and delicate, sensual in sheets. I can see her beauty reclining, beckoning to Jack with soft white fingers. Jack and Rose. Did I know this Rose, the woman who had greedily nibbled at my life? All the sex making her hungry. Was she a character from a book or a film? A Bond girl no doubt. The femme fatale slinking up to Jack in the back of a speed boat.
Five years ago, a boat on a lake, this one has oars. A different story, mine. No Rose in my story, only a Jack. Jack and me, Spring on the lake. Cool breezes gently play on the surface of deep water. The sun bright, soft and coaxing but not yet warming. Jack gave me his coat, wrapped it around my body as an antidote to chill. I hoped I looked tiny folded in pure new wool. I sat back and smiled. Jack put down the oars, pale skin, eyes as black as his hair, his wonderful thick wavy hair.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height.” He tugged a burgundy coloured box from his trouser pocket. Opened the lid and the jewels of light glistening on the lake had competition. A small diamond and the opening lines of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. And then “Marry me, Kate.”
His mother’s garden, adorned with lilies, not the funereal type. Chilled cucumber soup and salmon with salsa verde. Classical musicians pick their strings where we promise to love forever. Intertwine our lives and possessions. Fuse, weave and braid, two lives becoming one.
Dressed in what seems an acre of duchess silk, cream not white, white is so stark against the skin. Jack in a handmade suit, thick black hair like Byron. The photos show our faces gleaming with hope. The sun shines and the children dance. The loveliest day, everyone said so. Nearly everyone. My mother tries too hard in too-bright turquoise and many accessories. Jack’s mother isn’t trying hard enough. She has one of her heads. The fathers; mine apologetic, his surly.
Was this where the rot began? At the edges like a mould eating its way in, soiling and destroying.
We share Christmas’s and birthdays. We have rituals. Making love on the crumpled wrapping paper once the presents are opened. A good bottle of champagne with our festive breakfast. On birthdays we eat out. Sometimes just us and sometimes with friends. The Olive Tree, Saffron Sky and Jo’s Place around the corner. The waiters, who know us, expect us. “Where have you been? We’ve missed you.”
I still have my friends from before Jack. Not so many, all I need is our cosy marriage. I love it, it feels certain. I have something to come home to.
“Have I met her?” I look for clues in his face. He shakes his head, his lips still grim. My eyes look towards the door where I know he will head as soon as is polite. The suitcase with his coat flung across the top waits for him. Had it been there as we ate our married breakfast? With the orange hemp napkins his sister bought back from Bali on our laps as we sipped our coffee from wedding present china. How do you severe one life into two? Is it split down the middle? Does one get more back than the other? Do the bits shrink to their original shape, like lycra in the wash, or perhaps signs of dismembering gapes like open wounds?
I didn’t know Rose but I knew he had packed. I didn’t know of their secret trysts, their kisses and more. It’s the more I cannot think of. Jack and Rose had known it all. They knew this was coming when I had not.
“How long?” My voice trembles like it has Parkinson’s disease.
“Since Christmas.”
Through the New Years party with fireworks at friends, Valentines Day and Easter at his folks. A secret life for Jack and Rose, quick urgent meetings and lots of sex. Now he will leave me to winter alone. Cold, with no one to cook for, to make cocoa for and surely no sex. No one there at the end of the day or first thing in the morning when the light shines through curtains we picked. In different orbits where once we were one star.
He walked to the door, hung his coat over one arm and took his suitcase with a free hand. Silent he shrugged, looked culpable and left.
I wasn’t brave, I didn’t try to be. I lay on our sofa, the one we bought in Richmond, too big to go through the front door. We had to carry it, trying not to giggle, up the steps to the deck and through the French doors. Amused at how silly we had been, not to have measured it in the showroom. I lay on that sofa, the one we had sweated and laughed over, finally cooing over as if it were a large elaborate child. I covered myself with an old scratchy blanket and watched television around the clock. My freelance work dwindles. I eat toasted cheese sandwiches until I am fat.
I watch soap operas, chat shows and the usual junk. The news in Italian, the weather in Greek and movies with sub-titles. Does it stop the internal movie; the one starring Jack and Rose? From playing in my head with no title or plot. They go to restaurants and walk along the beach. Not talking, just holding hands and taking in every particle of each other. Those early days when every piece of your lover seems a miracle created only for you.
I cry a lot and hurt a lot, this grief for my husband who isn’t dead. Does she know he likes his shoulders rubbed without having to ask? Or how he loves Salvador Dali and the sound of a Celtic harp? Does she know we planned children called Henry and Alice? Phantom children with no hope of being born. What hurts more? What could have been or what had been? Tragic country and western songs spool between my ears.
The endless misery months, but they belong to me in a place where so much has been stolen. No word from Jack, just a monthly amount paid for our house. Guilt money. But any money is good while I sit indoors getting bigger and more morose.
One day, a Friday, between the Italian news and the weather in Europe, a reprieve sticks its small head over the deck seeking attention. The air feels different, not fetid or chilled but bright, soft and coaxing. The breath of resurgence blows through my house.
I throw back my squalid blanket sending old crusts to the floor. I turn off the telly, run to the shower, and while I don’t sing, the sad songs have stopped. I dress in jeans and orange jersey and leave the house, with my key in my pocket.
I start slowly after months of stillness when my muscles seized with sorrow. As I eat up the metres of concrete my body shakes its cloak of apathy free. I start to feel separate; separate from my sedentary self but as I go on I feel separate from my wifely self too. The thoughts forming are mine. Perhaps I have choices after all. I can travel to faraway places; places fragrant with aromas peculiar to each one. Food and spices, smells that drift in warm air. Or I could visit my parents without Jack sneaking looks at his watch, tapping his right foot on the floorboards, when he wanted to go, when he’d had enough. They would be sad we had split but so grateful I had come. I could stay overnight, Jack never would. Sleep in my old bedroom kept the same since my teens.
The house doesn’t have to stay mine, I could downsize or live out of a suitcase with friends or overseas, using the Italian I’d picked up over the winter, Greek too. Who says television isn’t educational. Venice, Lake Como or Rome. Athens, Hydra or Cos. My mind is brimful of plans and dreams.
The path ends by the river. I stand by the willow on the bank of a familiar place. I would have loved it if things had stayed the same. I would have been happy married and sharing. But with sharing there is always one that gives more and one who profits from that. It seemed a fair trade for someone like Jack, from someone like me. The river flows constantly, flowing fast as if late. I stand still and let all around me move. The river, leaves on the trees, birds skittish, people walking by.
I’d always thought of myself as less than. Not quite hitting the spot. My father who apologised before entering a room, as if he were sorry for taking up space, and my mother who tried so hard to keep up. Aided by Jack I had ridiculed them but I was the same, giving too much, making up for my shortfall. I resolve, by this river where I had swum and fished with the husband who left, to change. To be me and to hell with it. His leaving had seemed my fault for being less than, perhaps it was Jack who lacked after all.

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GIRL INTERRUPTED

Remember those deep friendships with other girls. The ones you had growing up? A friendship that began by an intense dislike of another girl at school perhaps. Or envy of their hair, their long legs, their ease with other people. Startled by their rudeness, the sneering way they chewed gum.

You grew close and hung out on weekends. Stalked older boys or pretended to be cooler than you were in front of younger girls. Perhaps you got into trouble together. Smoking menthol cigarettes and drinking warm cider. Hiding from her older brother.

Scout hut discos. Dancing as if you had volts of electricity running through you. Finding your role models. Blondie, Madonna, Siouxie Sioux.

Once you left school you would plan to attend the same colleges, universities. The two of you would end up sharing a place with a girl called Ruth to make the rent. You’d try not to poison each other with your cooking experiments. You’d have crappy boyfriends who were always at the pub. But you had each other, a rousing cry, while you drank down a tooth mug full of Stones ginger wine. You wouldn’t date anyone who didn’t love your friend, your chum, your partner in crime.

I was reading an article in the newspaper about friends this morning. How important they are. Growing up together, never losing touch. Your friend. The coolest person you ever met. And I have that. I’m very lucky. I moved to a different county, a different city, finally moving to the other side of the planet. But she’s still there. In my heart, in my head, top of my facebook friends.

But as I read about the authors experience growing up with a great gal pal I was aware that things were different for me. I’m not asking for sympathy. I certainly don’t want you to feel sorry for me. Heaven forbid.

When I was 14, not long after I met my girlfriend, my family moved away. I was pulled away from my dearest friend. And life was never quite the same. While I had girlfriends at my new school, not many I must admit, I was always third wheel in some other friendship. I was ‘Ruth’. (Apologies to any Ruth’s reading but I had to pick a name). I still got presents back from family holidays and phone calls. But I wasn’t the first on the list. I was the ‘Sarah was busy, I was wondering if you might like to’… hang around the streets talking nonsense, try and get in the local pub where some spunky bloke hung out.

I’m still in touch with my friends, even the ones where I was third wheel. I mean, I live on the other side of the planet but facebook is good. It’s really good. After school I stayed on while Thelma and Louise left. Thelma lived overseas for a while. And Louise (oh how glamorous!) started seeing a much older man.

I needed my friend. My other-county friend. We still liked the same music, wore similar clothes. I didn’t look for another female substitute. I found a male one. A series of them. Beautiful, black leather jacketed, motorbike-riding young men. I had fun doing things I probably shouldn’t have done but there was no pouring over the tiny details over and over again. No swapping clothes (although I did wear my first love’s jeans to school, covered in motorbike oil). No giggled confessions.

There followed a number of relationships, lots of being thrown around on the back of a bike. Rock festivals, Easter camping trips in the snow. A wedding. A divorce. 20 years of being one of the boys.

It wasn’t until I had children that I started being one of the girls again. I was married for the second time, very happily. But I’d missed my rites of girly passage. I’d never played Rizzo to anyone’s Frenchy. I wasn’t even Sandra Dee. No regrets. It’s my story and I’m quite happy with it.

I have two sons who are my stars and moon. But if I’d had a daughter I would tell her to cherish her girlfriends, keep them close. Never let them go. While you’re trying to work out whether he’s a good guy or whether you should run, your girlfriend will be able to tell you straight. Immediately. Just by looking at him. It would have saved a lot of time.