I paid a lot of money to a woman who cleared things up for me. Kelsey, a counsellor. Kelsey said: “You’re misreading his gestures.”
“Oh?” I asked. “How so?”
“You’re thinking that when Toby gets home and he empties the dishwasher, that that’s some small sign he still loves you.”
I didn’t say anything. Our counselling session ended quickly after that and I stepped out of her chilly white terrace onto a footpath scorched by the midday sun. I lumbered towards the relentless blue gold sparkle of the harbour. Theoretically, Sydney Harbour’s beauty should have lifted my spirits. Instead, it was an admonishment. How can you not be dazzled by me? It screamed. What’s wrong with you?
We met two years after Toby left his wife. Enough time, I figured. Clear space, head and heart wounds at least partially healed. Our first date? The Paddington Lawn Bowls Club, the stomping ground of competitive geriatrics, desperate, it seemed, to be rid of us so that they could continue their game. Toby glowed as he brought me a plate of soggy fries, dried out fish and crushed pumpkin from the clubhouse buffet.
Despite the lawn bowls, I said yes to a second date.
My counsellor: You’re afraid to ask for too much.
Toby later confirmed it had been a test. My ex was money-obsessed, he said. She’d have walked out if I’d taken her to lawn bowls.
That was summer. By autumn, Toby had moved his things into my apartment and taken half the wardrobe. But when he returned from work each day he loitered in the den, sat square in front of his iMac.
“Hello,” I called. “You still working?”
I stuck my head around the corner. There he was, typing madly onto a Skype chat screen. He nodded, glancing only at my feet, then returned to the chat window.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
Later: “You looked at my phone,” Toby said.
He waved it at me as proof of my misdemeanours.
“No,” I said, having expected to confront, not be confronted.
In my head I had all the words at the ready: You’re flirting with her. What are you doing? Are you getting back with her?
He got in first: “How fucking insecure can you be?”
“We’re so done,” he said. He pocketed the phone and blustered off into the night.
My counsellor: Do you think you’re being insecure?
After our fourth date Toby said: let’s move in.
We were drinking jalapeño margaritas. I giggled, no! I liked my apartment, finally, after all the mess of Simon, by then long gone. I’d found my own tiny palace, an apartment six stories up, surrounded by the music and chatting and the footsteps of others, of 5am garbage trucks and dragging chairs and polite nods in the lift. All glass and stainless steel, softened by throw rugs. Magazine perfection.
I was happy alone. Did I want to go change that now?
He told me: I love you.
The jalapeño juice had taken hold but I was listening. Always for those three words.
A week after the phone crime, Toby said: “I’m leaving.”
“But I need to get a place,” he continued. “So I’m going to stay here till then.”
I said nothing.
“I’ll sleep on the couch,” he said and took his phone with him into the bathroom.
If mum was still alive, I’d have called her. Instead, I called Sarah, my oldest friend still willing to answer her phone at 10pm. Just leave him, she said. Move out. Sarah had a lot of money. You don’t have to be with someone. You don’t have to go from person to person. She was getting through. Then, same as always: You’re afraid to be alone. Sarah was nine years married, and never alone, so I said Thanks hon, and hung up.
Then I called and left a message for Kelsey again, who makes buckets of money from other motherless women just like me.
After that, Toby still emptied the dishwasher every night and filled the fridge with the Malbec and macarons and camembert we’d bought when we were first together — treats that had made the apartment, and us, feel like home.
It scratched open hope.
About three weeks into the texting, the ex told Toby she wouldn’t have him back.
I read it on his phone as he slept on the couch.
He got up the next morning and made us avocado and runny eggs and coffee.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I love you.”
My counsellor: What do you want to get out of this?
We went to see The Shape of Water that night, all made up. I wore my shimmery pleated black skirt and the silver shirt he adored.
We walked into that cinema like all the other couples. Together.
He held my hand tight on the armrest between us till I pulled it away. Had his palm always been so sweaty?
Bathroom, I mouthed to him before muttering “Sorry, excuse me, sorry,” to the other cinema-goers and bumping against their knees towards the exit.
I switched my phone off as I sat in the back seat of the taxi and stretched my stockinged legs out and rolled my slinky sleeves up to my elbows.
“Good movie?” the driver asked.
“Can’t really say.”
“Kind of,” I said.
“You just left me at the movies?” Toby yelled.
He jimmied at the lock with his key.
I’d left his drivers’ licence in the fruit bowl. My only oversight. I slipped it to him under the front door.
“What the fuck?”
He tried again to shove his key in the lock — installed only an hour earlier by the emergency locksmith — and failed.
“Goodnight,” I called, my fingertip poised on the light switch.
EC Sorenson has recently published work in X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Tiny Molecules, Litro USA, Tiny Essays, Monkey Bicycle and has fiction forthcoming at Emerge Literary Journal. She lives in Australia.