I hate wallpaper.
I do, I really, really hate it.
At this moment the patchy, sticky strips that cling to the living room walls and shred between my fingers are the reason my life has turned on its head. Every time I pull and ease that paper from the wall, it remains stuck in obstinate patches of resistance. I cuss under my breath before attacking again; this time with more fervour, driven by the need to cleanse and change my outlook.
Strip by strip I pull and tear and sometimes - only sometimes - one beautiful whole strip will peel gracefully from top to bottom. An intact paper record of years of bad decor, layer stuck to layer of florals, stripes and textured prints, leaving a naked section of plain but beautiful wall. Mostly, I sponge and scrape and peel shred by shred and it sticks under my fingernails and peels only when inclined. After several hours the living room wall resembles a patchy, pitted canvas. It looks awful, worse than before I began, but I can see those perfect plain white walls gleaming underneath the mess and know that the potential for a new beginning is waiting.
There is work be done. Today is about fresh starts and a stronger, brighter outlook on the world and my place in it. I will strip the house back, room by room and remove layers of the past. Underneath those flaking layers, my walls are plain, but strong and quite lovely.
It’s barely 6am and the sky is pale, no sun yet but a change in the dark; a lift. I feel it too. As the wallpaper peels and I take my anger out on every gaudy layer and sticky clump, I feel that same lift.
Stripped of Evans love, a calmness and certainty descends, a side of me overshadowed by desire and my need to be loved. Without him I feel plain, bare and revealed. As the darkness lifts, it takes with it something heavy. Standing barefoot in the chaos of torn wallpaper, something fragile gets a royal kick up the wahoo as a wary realisation rises slowly with the sun.
I have been a victim for too long.
Victim to lust, to love, to betrayal, fate and the rest; my life spinning like an old movie reel. Events rushing past the screen frame by frame. There I am in each frame; the damsel in distress, hair pinned in twenties style curls, face pale, lips red, hands clasped to chest, mouth open in an expression of despair: Help me!
Help me! My mother died. Help me! I’m alone. Help me! I’m in love with an obsessive madman. Help me! He cheated. Help me! I’m pregnant. Help me! I’m alone again. Help me! He’s gone.
Each sad, pathetic image of Billie ‘the victim’ flashes by, frame-by-frame. Whilst in the background two small children move in and out of view, trying desperately to get stricken Billie’s attention.
On cue, I hear a thud, followed by little feet running down the corridor, one set followed closely by another. The door is pushed so hard it bangs against the supporting wall. Two small bodies run on solid little legs calling my name: not Billie the victim, but Billie the Mommy - the stronger me I am growing into.
The capable, self-assured, victim-be-damned Billie steps confidently into a ray of sunshine beaming through the glass slider. Knee deep in discarded wallpaper, I stand with my arms out, basking in the light of my new beginning as my babies run toward me, squabbling as to who gets the first hug. The Mommy I want to be answers with a start: I’m done.
No more backseat role for me. No more waiting for the world to deliver me my happy ending. No more wondering what I did wrong and blaming myself for loving two men at the same time.
I hold the words in my hands like virgin snow, precious and new. Perfection in simplicity. Quickly before they melt away, I compress them into a tight, icy ball. As Evie and Sunny barrel toward me, their smiles as bright as the rising light, I throw that icy ball out into the waiting day yelling goodbye in a loud, overly cheery voice.
The twins stop in their tracks as I throw the imaginary bundle of inner baggage to the non-existent breeze. They watch me warily. Unsure if they’re in trouble they wait until I beam my this-is-our-new-beginning smile at them. They relax instantly and sprint as fast as two chubby-legged toddlers can, into my open arms and we cuddle till we can’t anymore.
Later amidst the mess, as I sip my coffee and watch Evie and Sunny race around in the debris of discarded paper that litters the room, I know I can do it. I know that I will love Evan forever. And though part of me will forever grieve for him, and the life he should have had, I know that life is waiting, like a gift. A new life for a stronger, more resilient Billie. A Billie that needs no man to bring out her colour. A Billie that can make it through anything.
It’s another cheesy Oprah moment…but I don’t give a shit. Oprah would be booking me in for a feature interview right now but I’d tell her I’m too busy. I have my kids to look after and a new life to build.
By midday the entire open plan living room/kitchen/dining/hallway has been stripped of wallpaper. Badly I should say, there are stubborn sticky clumps dotted liberally on every wall surface, but I don’t care. The floor is an autumnal display of crunchy paper leaves in a variety of colours and patterns. With pure joy in chaos, the twins, roll, tumble and chase one another in the mess, forgetting to ask about who isn’t here.
“Good God! What’s happened here?” I hear the familiar voice before I see the face. I hadn’t heard the doorbell, absorbed in my cathartic task of disrobing the house.
“Dan!” I barrel toward the slowly opening door as Dan and Virginia’s puzzled expressions come into view. I run at Dan like an All Black in for the tackle, so happy to see him. Forgetting that at this moment neither he, nor Virginia know about my newly found, fabulous self.
His shocked expression is evidence. He expected a more pathetic, crushed and broken version of me. A little like the one that arrived last night, unable to speak too much for fear of an endless flood of tears.
I want to tell him and the darling, reliable Virginia about my breakthrough, about the wallpaper and my decision to lose Billie the victim. But it wouldn’t come out right and it’s the first time I’ve seen them in over six months, so instead I just hug Dan like I might never see him again. After a long enough period for him to readjust his I-love-you-I’m-here-for-you-face he smiles, a little warily and holds me close.
I pull away, lean in, kiss him on both cheeks then move to wide-eyed Virginia, and do the same. She embraces me warmly and holds me tight for a long time. I don’t want her to break my tranquil new found strong-self mantra. I’m praying she doesn’t say: “How are you? We’re just so sorry,” because, although I’m the new Billie, I’m not that strong yet and can deal with wallpaper but not people.
Virginia releases me from the hug then holds me at arms length. “Darling girl, you look fabulous.” I press my fingers to my mouth in a bid not to cry. I know she’s full of shit; I look ten years older. I breathe in deeply before releasing those fingers and hold them to either side of her face then hug her again. I am just so happy to be here, to be home.
After more hugging and catching up I’m forced to explain the chaos. “So, I thought I’d get started on some re-decorating.” I’m holding Dan’s hand and walking him through the mess of shredded wallpaper. He holds Evie and Virginia follows, a little wild-eyed, carrying Sunny. “I think we all need a fresh start so why wait?”
Dan who is looking a little concerned, turns on a supportive smile. “Absolutely, why wait? I say it every day when I’m shaving! Why wait wrinkles? Harbours of forty-something-ness! Bring it on, I’m ready!” His hand is raised to the heavens and I laugh, imagining his conversation with the mirror.
Dan hasn’t a wrinkle of course but I love that he’s pretending for me. I punch him playfully in the arm. “Seriously Dan, I’m going to start painting tomorrow. The whole house.” I throw my arm around theatrically.
“Good girl…and you’re planning to farm these two out for child labour for a few weeks while you paint yourself away to serenity?”
I stop, reflecting on my excited plans and their lack of practicality. “Of course not. I’ll paint while they sleep.”
“Whilst they sleep?” Dan is frowning.
“And, when do you sleep?”
“Oh, I try not to. Dreams aren’t my friend so I stay awake at all costs.”
Virginia frowns too and tilts her head to the side as she rests her eyes on Dan. Sunny is wriggling so he sets him down to race around.
“I hate to say it darling but I have alarm bells illuminating my solar plexus. How about a few quiet weeks to get settled back in. Ginny’s managed to organise the twins into kindergarten. You can relax and have a few hours to yourself and…” he pauses and I take a deep breath knowing what will come next. “Get over things.”
The minute the words are out Dan blushes, looking awkward. So far we haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room.
“Dan.” I take his hands and look up at his handsome face with as much patience as I can muster. “I love that you care about me and how I’m doing, but I’m okay…” I pause, unable to lie. “No, that’s not true, of course I’m not.”
I feel Virginia’s arm drape around my shoulder. “Of course not.”
I have a slight lip wobble but reign it in quickly. “A part of me will never be fine.” I take a breath, asking that stronger, new beginnings Billie to step forward…and she does. “But, there’s another part of me that’s okay. She’s good, and she knows what to do and I’m trying my best to listen to her and follow her lead.”
Dan nods like he gets it and Virginia’s grip tightens on my shoulder.
“And, you just have to understand and not molly coddle me. I’m okay and I’m getting better every day. So if I want to rip the wallpaper off, dye my hair purple and change my name to Buffy, you’re going to say. Hey, good girl, do what you need to. Because, right now, I have to listen to the other Billie… I just have to.” I stop for breath and pull my hands from Dan’s, placing them on my hips for effect.
“I like your hair blonde,” says Virginia.
“Me too” nods Dan. “I can’t help it. I know it’s shallow. I have a thing for blondes.”
I start to laugh. I can tell they’re not sure at first, but soon they can’t help it. They join in and we’re all laughing and it feels so God damned good. It’s the first time I’ve laughed since Iris’s visit when I got a little hysterical and that memory makes me laugh even more. I laugh till my cheeks hurt and Dan pulls me into his chest and holds me tight, and I know all the laughing has somehow turned to crying, but it doesn’t matter. We hold each other and again, again and again I know, I am home.
Three weeks later, I’m still painting. Admittedly, I was a little optimistic, my plan for rejuvenating the house took about three days in my head, but the reality has been weeks.
Evie and Sunny have settled into kindergarten and I was that cliché mother who cried at first drop off despite fantasising about solo time for ages.
The thing is, in my situation you get away with stray tears anytime. I’m coming to realise that people expect it of me. I feel bad smiling publically; it’s not in the etiquette of recently widowed woman. This is a little challenging considering my newly found strong woman approach to life. I want to smile in the face of adversity, and everyone keeps looking at me like I should be wearing black, have my hair in a bun and pray to my rosary on the hour. I don’t know how to be a widow; I don’t want to be one. Widow sounds like a spidery old Sicilian granny. It’s not me. So, I have decided to flounce convention and do my very best to smile at all costs. To be bright and breezy even when I feel like crying. Soon people will move on and maybe eventually forget that my husband jumped off a cliff.
The flippantly worded thought drops me to my knees and paint spatters on the drop sheet below me. “Shit.”
“You okay?” Jed looks down from his position at the top of a ladder. Sadie and Jed have spent a few nights this week here with me, painting, listening to the radio and drinking beer. The company has been nice.
Sadie appears from the corridor. “So cute.” She presses a hand to her chest and points back toward the twins’ bedroom smiling. “Still fast asleep, I was sure they’d wake up with the radio.”
“I can’t believe how much they’ve grown.” Jed shakes his head as his paint brush follows a careful line between ceiling and wall.
I smile. “That’s what they do Jed. You should try getting yourself a few, bet you could train them to make great coffee.” As I glance up at his easy smile, I feel Sadie’s glare from across the room.
“Don’t get any ideas in his head Billie, next thing you know he’ll be advertising for the mother of his kids on the radio.”
I wrinkle my nose in confusion as Jed blushes. “Is there something I’ve missed?” I ask, watching the colour from Jed’s face pass to Sadie’s as he nods in her direction and resumes painting. Sadie, forced to spill the beans, tells me how Jed proposed to her on Dan’s radio show. Before she has a chance to finish the story, there’s a knock on the back window. Dan, is outside armed with what looks like take-away pizza and his best smile. I wipe my hands and open the door.
“Pizza boy’s here. Take a break kids.” The smell of expensive cologne mingles with the odour of wet paint as Dan makes his entrance. He sidesteps the mess making his way to the kitchen where he sets the boxes on the counter and helps himself to a beer from the fridge.
“How is it possible that warm, greasy bread in cardboard can smell so good?” I follow him to the kitchen, stomach grumbling. I have missed too many meals lately, my new identity as DIY diva has been a little absorbed. I dive for the box, extracting the biggest, cheesiest slice possible.
The inequality of fate is displayed carelessly in pizza dimensions. Even in the predictable world of pizza somehow one slice gets the ‘bum share’; the least topping and the smallest measurements. The oily pepperoni and stringy cheese pack a punch, and as I close my eyes and chew slowly, savouring the taste and texture, I deliberately pull myself from another slide into self-pity. I was about to compare my lot in life to the smallest slice in the pizza box for heaven’s sake! When does the pity party stop?
Each bite of cheesy heaven brings me back to my moment. The simple pleasure of tastes and textures, good friends, home, sleeping children, freshly painted walls and the mixing pot of smells that drift around the room: pizza, cologne and paint. It works. It’s a good moment, and it’s the only one I need right now.
“So Dan,” I speak between mouthfuls. “I hear you’ve diversified your role in the community.” Dan looks confused. “Matchmaker, proposal deliverer, that sort of thing? You could become a Justice of the Peace then you could even do the odd wedding on the show.” I smile and lick my lips. “God, that’s good pizza.”
“You’d be St. Cloud’s one stop shop,” smiles Sadie, leaning forward to select a slice. “Just think, locals could pop in for some antibiotics, listen to a debate on local politics, relax to a few good tunes, then, what the hell? Get married! All on the same block downtown.”
Dan grins, tapping a finger on his temple, nodding. “I like it.” He bites carefully into his slice then frowns. “But all that extra responsibility might get in the way of my yoga schedule.”
“Don’t mess with the yoga,” chimes in Jed, happy to steer the conversation away from marriage and radio proposals.
“Anyway,” Dan grabs Jed and knuckle rubs the top of his messy hair. “The pup’s suffered enough, let him be. Love does crazy things to a man.”
We all laugh as Jed nods in agreement, winking at Sadie as though the unexpected proposal was only to be expected. Because, as the town’s wise man Dan says: Love does crazy things to a man.
We’re chatting and eating, sipping beer, faces splattered in paint blemishes, all turned to face the setting sun. Through the sliding doors, out past the deck and down past the rolling lawn and tangled bush, the ocean glints. The sky is burnt orange and colour-washed crimson. Buttery golden light casts low shadows over the garden, past the trees and up to the room where we stand. Gradually we become quiet, taken by the scene and the light that changes as we watch.
Beyond the window four soundless reflections gaze back, seeing through us and beyond. And I look past them, past the comfort of friendship and familiarity of form to the quiet darkness of Jack’s house.
“Where’s Jack?” It’s the first time I’ve said his name aloud in many months. The silence from before lingers, but changes, edged now with apprehension.
Dan breaks the moment. “He went home.”
“Isn’t that home?” I gesture to the dark house realising with regret there are so many conversations I never had with Jack. Might never have with Jack.
“His parents moved out to St Eloise a while back. He went to spend some time with them.”
“Oh.” I’m about to ask a whole bunch of questions; why didn’t he ever tell me about his family? How long will he be away? Is he okay? One question crowds the others out, sounding panicky and scared, but I won’t say it out loud: Will he come back?
Sadie interrupts before I can speak further. “Dan, don’t you dare sneak that last pizza slice. I see what you’re up to.” She slaps Dan’s hand as it hovers over the last lonely slice. “Hand it over.” She taps the kitchen counter with one hand and extends the other toward Dan. “Come on.”
Dan, about to raise the aforementioned slice to his open mouth pauses, giving Jed a Is she always like this? look before handing the pizza over to a grinning Sadie.
“Good boy, I need it more than you. I’ve been painting for hours.”
“Yeah, and I’ve been downward dogging for at least that.”
“All the more reason you’ve just done the right thing.” She beams as she bites down, “Pizza is a big no-no in the world of hot yoga. You should know that. Try sweating those calories out! Stick to carrot sticks.”
Dan tosses his hair theatrically. “I will. Enjoy those cheesy calories when they come to rest on your ass.” He pats Sadie affectionately on the bottom as he passes, heading down the three small steps that lead from the kitchen to the living/dining/everything room.
“Billie, I love your work.” He folds his arms looking carefully around the room, stripped bare and half painted. “I had no idea you had it in you.” He looks around, inspecting my corners and edging, noticing the patches where the wallpaper refused to budge and I painted right over top. He turns critically to meet my gaze, head inclined toward the lumpy wall. I shrug and we both smile. He takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “One day at a time, right?”
Much later when everyone has gone home and I’ve cleaned up the day’s mess and checked the twins, I head outside to the recycling bin, armed with the empty pizza boxes and beer bottles. The night is clear and cooler than normal, the stars bright, and the sounds of crickets and tree frogs buzz and drone lazily. My legs ache and I sit on the edge of the deck for a moment, letting my feet swing and my eyes wander the dark.
St. Cloud is as before. All is as it was - except it’s not.
A momentary flash of light surprises me and my eyes are drawn to Jack’s house. But the light is gone and I wonder if maybe I imagined it. Sitting quietly, eyes trained on his house I see it a minute later, a small flash of light from within. I know the light is probably nothing of concern but decide I should be a good neighbour and check.
My feet are silent on the cool damp grass as I walk the path I have walked a thousand times before. But my footsteps are unsure despite my certainty of direction. I’m not sure why I feel the need to go inside, to see Jacks house and feel the hard wood floors under my feet. But I do, and I decide to trust the instinct that moves me forward in this darkest part of the night.
Standing outside the locked ground floor workroom, a cloak of familiarity wraps my shoulders and I’m comforted, although not sure why. The heavy scent of Agapanthus is all around, unkempt flowers lining the edges of the garden connecting our homes and lives. I stand for a moment at the foot of the steps that lead to the deck, eyes closed, lost in images and scenes from before.
“Where are you?”
I’ve spoken aloud although I didn’t mean to, and as I carefully climb the steps, the question repeats over in my head. Reaching the deck, I walk to the edge and hold firmly on the rail that looks out to sea. I see the view of life from Jack’s eyes and grip the rail, pressing my fingernails into wood till they make indentations that remain.
Through the old French doors, I can see the light is only a flashing answer machine but now that I’m close, holding the cold metal of the door handle, I have to go in. I need to go in.
The spare key, in predictable fashion is under a plant pot on the deck. I slide it into the lock and turn the handle. The door clicks submissively and opens to allow me entry to the man-cave Jack calls home.
In the dark only the outlines of basic furnishing are clear: the futon sofa, woodstove and bookshelf, a guitar in a corner and the radio on the long wooden bench that forms the kitchen. Nothing has changed, and I breathe in the smell of the room till I’m dizzy, then lower myself back onto the sofa. So desperate to know the comfort in his scent, my heavy breathing has made my head spin. I pull a rough woollen blanket around myself and smell him again. Of course this is where the crying starts. How could it not?
I sniffle and sob into the blanket, wondering why the hell I can’t just make things easy and forget. My days are spent trying not to see and smell traces of Evan in my own house and here I am next door, in the dead of night deep breathing for signs of Jack. These feelings I have for him seem so wrong, cruel and disrespectful to Evans memory? Yet they remain, and being here in St Cloud, they gather force day by day.
My new strong woman persona stands at the foot of the sofa, staring me down. Her arms are folded across her chest and she’s shaking her head saying; Really? Is this what you want? Another man to distract you from yourself? Another relationship to lose yourself in? Another man to wait for?
I shrug in response: Maybe.
She’s mad and turns on her heel heading for the door. I have her attention. “Didn’t you tell me to take care of myself and my needs for a change? Maybe Jack might be just what I need. Do you want me to grieve till I have saggy boobs and a face like an old lacy bag?”
This stops her in her tracks, she’s near the door, about to make a dramatic exit. When she turns around she’s morphed from a Straight Sally version of me, to a red-lipsticked, head-scarfed, buxom-bosomed, World War Two gal recruit. Her shirt sleeves are rolled up and she flexes a tattooed bicep at me. She’s got arms like Popeye and in a stage-whisper says; You’re right girl, a good shag is just what you need. Winking saucily, she turns to go. I’m yelling after her and the sound of my voice wakes me from my brief doze on the sofa.
Good God. I rub my eyes and smile. If only feeling better were that easy. The thought makes my cheeks flush; shame and desire in equal measures.
With this in mind I make my way to Jack’s bedroom where sheets of moonlight lie on the unmade bed. I unpack my heart and leave it scattered on crumpled linen, bathed in silver light.
At home I sleep with the rough blanket from his sofa around me. Lying on the floor in the narrow space between the twins beds I drift, lulled by whispered words I think are mine.
He’ll come back, he has to.
A warm glow emanates from the windows of Beaujangles café. Outside darkness rests, the heavy blanket of night uniformly broken by pale streetlight. The slow surrender to dawn is close, the long moment of deepest darkness that exists before the light.
Dan watches Jed inside the café, moving around with rhythm, in time to music he can’t hear. He flips switches, sets down chairs, snapping his fingers with the carefree air of a man without a worry. It’s nice. Dan smiles as he watches his friend, thinking how good it would feel to approach life like just another day on the beach.
Jed’s been living his life’s a beach philosophy as long as Dan’s known him. ‘Some days the surf’s good, and some days it’s not, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.’ He says that line every day like he’s only just come up with it.
Dan likes it, even though he’s heard it too many times. It’s that rolling-with-the-wave’s thing, knowing you can’t control any of it. That’s it, if he could just quit trying to fix the surf, he’d be a happier guy.
Jed is unshaven, his scruffy hair covered by a bandana. He jumps as Dan raps at the window. Rolling his eyes Jed taps his watch before heading to the locked door to let Dan in. It’s a routine, their set piece. Every day of the week Dan arrives at 6am, thirty minutes before opening time. Jed pretends he’s too early, reluctantly lets him in, then begrudgingly makes him a coffee and they chat while the cafe is quiet. It’s the only quiet time either of them will have all day.
“Morning sunshine.” Jed doesn’t wait for Dan to reply, he’s already back behind the counter firing up Monica. “What’s up?”
Dan shrugs, pulling a stool out from the counter. “Do you know you say the same thing every morning?”
“I do?” Jed slides a hot coffee along the sleek wooden countertop to where Dan’s hand waits perfectly positioned to receive it.
“Every morning.” Dan raises the cup and breathes in deeply, savouring the aroma.
“Well?” Jed places a stainless steel jug of hot frothy milk on the counter and grabs another warm cup from the rack on top of Monica.
“Well what?” Dan’s eyes glaze over, the coffee’s good.
“Well…what’s up?” He frowns at Dan who looks like he’s contemplating the meaning of life.
“Apparently, Bette Midler crossed with a bit of Johnny Depp.” He gestures to Jed’s bandana and just-woke-up stubble.
“Thought you loved Bette Midler.” Jed disappears into the kitchen.
“Yeah, well, right now I’d rather have Johnny.”
The oven door bangs and Jed emerges carrying a tray of warm croissants. “Billie seems good.” He doesn’t look up, carefully transferring the warm pastries on to a rack.
“Yeah, she does.” Dan nods watching the croissants warily.
“You want one?” Jed offers, pushing a buttery golden croissant toward him.
“When did I ever eat a croissant for breakfast?”
“Never.” Jed grabs the croissant, takes a huge bite and grins.
“Then why do you ask me every single morning?”
Laughing, Jed stuffs the remainder of the pastry into his mouth. “One day you’ll come over to the dark side.” He wipes his mouth with the back of a hand. “A man shouldn’t have to start the day on juiced spinach.” He disappears back into the kitchen humming some familiar tune.
“I never juice spinach.”
“You’ve got something green in your teeth.”
Dan rolls his eyes, runs his tongue over his teeth and checks his watch. “Where’s Sadie anyway? I could do with some proper conversation.”
Jed bustles through, tea towel draped over his shoulder, cheeks red from the warmth of the oven. “She’ll be in later, got something on this morning.” The phone rings and he answers, receiver cradled between shoulder and ear, he shines latte glasses with a free hand whilst placing an order with a supplier on the line.
By the time the call is finished Dan’s coffee is gone. “I’m off, catch you later.”
“Okay bro, take it easy. I’ll tell Johnny you said hi.”
“Do that.” At the door Dan stops. “Meant to tell you, Jack left a message. He’ll be back in town next week.”
“Did you tell him Billie’s home?”
“Nope. Sounds like he’s got enough going on right now.” Dan shrugs. “He’s bringing Raife home.”
Jed looks up from the list he’s writing. “Shit.” he pauses, taking in the news. “I really thought Raife was done with St. Cloud.”
“Yeah well, he’s a hard guy to read.”
At 9.15 am Sadie breezes through the doors of the doctor’s office, smelling of tiger balm and patchouli. “Good morning, I have an appointment.”
“I’m sure you do,” answers Muriel, Dan’s ancient receptionist who doesn’t look up from her computer screen when she answers (she’s on the Crafts-R-Us website and doesn’t want to be distracted).
“I’m here to see Dan,” Sadie offers.
Muriel waves a hand, shooing her to a plastic seat in the waiting room. “So is everyone darling.” She turns from the screen briefly to take a look at Sadie. “You know much about decoupage?” She sighs at Sadie’s blank expression. “He’ll be right out.”
Sadie nods and sits in a seat beside a gnarled pot plant, a yucca that’s been indoors too long. Its foliage leans heavily against the window where a few lucky stems rest sweatily against the glass. On the table are copies of GQ, Homes & Gardens and Men’s Health, a magazine collection so Dan it makes her smile.
“Okay Muriel. Hit me up, what’s it to be?” Dan breezes in from the corridor at the far side of the waiting room. He wears an open necked linen shirt and crisp khakis.
Muriel jumps, turning to face Dan, a free hand subtly closing the webpage, revealing an illuminated screen of appointments, names and ailments. Painting on a smile she gestures to Sadie, sitting in the corner, framed by the sweaty Yucca plant.
Dan frowns, recovers and steps forward, a palm extended toward her, the other to the corridor where his quiet consultation room waits.
“Sadie.” He inclines his head and smiles as she rises, following him down the corridor. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Dan’s office is bright, white and airy, a calming contrast from the stuffy confines of the waiting room. Out of range of Muriel’s interested gaze, Sadie sags and sinks heavily into the chair across from Dan’s desk.
Professional hat on, Dan doesn’t ask why she didn’t mention she was coming to see him. The Sadie before him barely resembles the pizza-hogging girl from last night at Billie’s. She slouches in the chair across from him, picking a fingernail and chewing her bottom lip. His smile is warm as he settles into his chair behind the long beech wood desk, watching as Sadie does her best not to make eye contact.
“Okay darling, what’s up?”
She jumps to her feet and moves quickly across the room, suddenly interested in Dan’s collection of local art. “This is beautiful.” Standing with her back to him she gazes at a framed photograph; a close up of a leaf bathed with morning dew. The glistening light that emanates from the pale green leaf shimmers and reflects what seems like a thousand smaller images, thousands of tiny leafs shimmering in their own dewy light.
“It’s one of my favourites.” Another long silence. “So, you’re here to plan a heist of my art collection? It’ll be an easy job - most night’s Muriel forgets to lock up anyway.”
Sadie turns to face him, her cheeks flushed. “Sorry, this is awkward.”
“It doesn’t have to be. It’s my job. I’m good at it. Now sit down…” He’s out of his doctor’s swivel chair and across the room in one elegant move. “Here.” He guides Sadie by the shoulders and gently but firmly sits her back down on the chair. Flipping a switch on the electric kettle in the corner he plops a teabag in a pretty china cup, which when brewed, he places gently on the desk in front of her.
“Green tea, take a sip and spit it out.” Sadie frowns, “I mean what’s up…spit out what’s up, not the tea. Good grief it’s going to be one of those days.”
She smiles, visibly relaxing and does as commanded. “Nice tea.” She turns her head quickly to the window. “It’s hot out there.”
“Darling, I see through you. Don’t change the subject. Tell dear old Dr Dan before he calls for Muriel.”
“Oh my God.” Sadie plops down the green tea and raises her palms in mock horror. “Anything but Muriel!”
His expression is gentle. “Sadie, I’m a professional, I’ve seen it all before.”
She flushes red. “No, it’s not that Dan! Oh God…” she covers her hot cheeks with her hands. “I just need a confidential chat. I need some advice and I didn’t know where else to go.”
“I’m all ears.” He leans back in his chair, plops his feet up on the desk and closes his eyes. “Chat away.”
Sadie smiles. “Oh Dan.”
“Say it again, my favourite two words,” his eyes are still closed.
“I’m trying to be serious.”
“Me too. Go ahead, I told you, I’m a pro.”
She breathes in slowly, closing her eyes, hands held carefully in her lap. “So… I can’t marry Jed.”
Dan’s expression remains unchanged, eyes closed, trying to channel little zen. He needs a smooth start to his day, not a counselling session with Jed’s girlfriend on her commitment issues. “Uh huh, I got that part.”
“See the trouble is…” she pauses, hands twisting in her lap. “It’s not the timing, or the mad proposal, and it’s not that I don’t love him either.” She pauses for breath. “I do.”
Dan likes Sadie, she’s a little bossy, but he likes her. She’s honest and warm-hearted and his buddy Jed loves her. But right now he’s getting a little narky. This is not his area. Write to the Problems Page in the Island Times, go talk to a girlfriend, I’m a doctor not an agony aunt. He doesn’t say any of this but tries instead to find his most sympathetic self.
Bringing his feet carefully down from the desk he opens his eyes and turns to face her. He’s about to say; Sadie, I wish I could help but I can’t. I’m Jed’s friend, and he’s a great guy, and you could do much worse, and finding love is pretty damn lucky, and maybe you need to address your hang ups before you lose Jed. But when he looks up she’s crying. Fat, silent tears that spill down her face on to her pale grey Beaujangles t-shirt.
“Hey, talk to me?” His mood has quickly changed from impatient to concerned. The sadness is something bigger than boyfriend issues.
“You see I didn’t want to have to be that girl here. When I came to St. Cloud, I thought I’d just stop a while and move on before it might become an issue. I thought with travelling, people not knowing me from before, I could stop being that other Sadie.” She jabs at a stray tear with the heel of her hand. “Don’t you see Dan? Jed’s screwed it all up for me, and I don’t know what to do without hurting him.”
“Sweetie I’m sorry, but I’m lost, you’ve got to tell me a little more before I…”
Sadie brings a hand up to silence him. “God, it’s a real mess now. Now that he’s got this together forever, you’re my girl, let’s get married thing, he won’t drop it. I thought it might work out at first.” She sniffs heavily, eyes fixed on Dan should he try to interrupt her flow. “If we’d just carried on like before, you know…summer fling, then I could have headed away for a while, come back, it’d be all good. No expectations or big commitments, no one gets hurt.”
Sadie puts her hands over her eyes while Dan watches helplessly, wondering what the hell to do. “I thought you loved him, you two seem so good for each other.”
“I do dumb ass!” The angry outburst causes another flow of hot tears. Dan holds his hands to his heart looking wounded. “I do. I just can’t marry him, I can’t stay with him, because I’m sick.” Dan’s hands drop from the wounded pose. “God, stop with the deer in headlights look would you. I’m not dying, not for a while…at least that’s what the research says.”
“That’s what it says about us all,” Dan replies calmly.
She flashes a small smile then wipes her eyes again. “Yeah, that’s right.” She’s quiet for a moment. “I have CF.” She pauses, watching him. “Cystic Fibrosis.”
“I know what it is.”
“I manage it. I’m okay, but you know the stats - I’m no material for long term anything.”
Dan takes his time before answering, letting this news sink in, following its ripple, quickly assessing the facts, and choosing carefully how to react. “Treatments get more advanced every year, things are changing.”
“I know. I have a specialist back home. I have a stack of meds I eat like candy. I take care of myself, eat well, do my exercises, all the things they tell me too. I do all the right things but still, my life expectancy is thirty-one. Thirty-one years old, you do the math, less than ten years to go.”
“You’re reading the wrong research.” He’s unsure of how much to say, he knows the odds, he understands the condition and now it all makes sense; the tough exterior, the elusiveness, the aversion to commitment.
“Maybe. I hope so, but really, thirty-one, forty-one - whatever - the facts are the same. It’s not fair to commit to Jed.”
“Have you asked him what he thinks?”
“Don’t you think he should know?”
“No. Like I was trying to tell you before, that’s not the Sadie I want to be here. I grew up with it Dan. All my life I’ve had people treat me differently and feel bad for me. That’s why I decided to travel, to pack up my life and move away. I wanted to start again and if I got to the point I had to explain and be that Sadie again I’d pick up, leave and start over.”
Dan listens, leaning back in his chair, watching as she releases her worries into the confines of his office. As she talks a gradual change becomes apparent; a subtle softening. The barriers she’s built to contain her secret have formed a wall around her and its crumbling as she speaks. The borrowed defensiveness bleeds out with her words. With the secret set free she looks tired but softer, surrounded by a quiet peace.
“I made a plan with my specialist; they’d fax my notes to the nearest hospital of any place I stayed for more than a few months. I go away every six months to get all checked out, my prescriptions are faxed and I get my stash of drugs from the hospital pharmacy.” She shrugs. “That’s what I’ve done for the past few years.”
Dan clasps his hands together, bringing his index fingers together in a point. He rests his chin on his fingers while Sadie watches him. He’s about to speak when she jumps in. “And that’s not the worst part. In fact, that part’s okay, it’s what I know. The worst is the way people react, the having to tell, the being different. And the sympathy, God, don’t get me started on the sympathy - it kills me.” She frowns. “Bad choice of words. It’s just, this part is all new and I don’t know what the hell to do.” She looks up at Dan, her expression desperate. “I’ve never done the being in love part.” Another fat tear slides down her cheek.
Dan reaches across the table, hoping she won’t thwack him. He takes her hand and holds it, she lets him. “Sorry, I’m being such a bitch about it.”
“No, no.” Dan grins, squeezing her hand. “I like the bitch, I’m comfortable with her. The crying thing I wasn’t quite ready for, but the bitch? She’s fine.”
She smiles mid-sob, “It’s just, I’m so mad. Before, it was just about me and I could handle that. But now I’ve really messed up. It’s about Jed too. You know him Dan, he won’t cope with this.”
“You might be surprised.”
“He’s a marshmallow.”
“A brainless marshmallow.” Dan shakes his head. “I don’t get how you’ve managed to keep this from him.”
“Oh he’s easy,” she laughs affectionately. “I nap a lot when he’s not around. When I’ve overdone things and I’m coughing I tell him I smoked a lot of pot in my teens.” Dan shakes his head incredulously. “I know.” Sadie blushes. “I’ll never get to heaven.” She shrugs. “At the beginning I didn’t want to hand him all that baggage, then I just couldn’t and now…”
“Well, now I have to, or…”
“Or, I just leave. Let him think I’m a heartless bitch who just didn’t love him.”
“Didn’t you try that before?”
“I know, but this time I’m not doing it for me, I need to do it for him.” She looks up at Dan like he should understand. “So he can get on and find his ‘forever-girl.’
“That stinks of really bad idea.”
“What do you suggest? Last night he asked me again when I was going to back down and say ‘yes’. I know he thinks it’s funny but I know it’s what he really wants. He wants a family, and all of the forever stuff, and the truth is, I can never give him any of that.”
“You don’t know that.”
The office is quiet, the first silence in the flow of emotion and words. Outside the sun shines, the view of the distant ocean sparkles brightly, and a baby cries down the hall in the waiting room. “There are no hard facts, everyone is different, you could have a family, plenty of women with CF do.”
Sadie eyes are on the view outside. “My specialist at home was pretty clear on the facts.” She deepens her voice and her face forms a scowl: “Carrying a baby will significantly reduce your lung capacity Sadie, think very carefully about your future.” Her voice sags at the last few words.
“Do you know for sure if Jed even wants kids?” Dan is still holding her hand.
“No, but I’m pretty sure.”
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.” He sits up straight taking her other hand. “For now, you’re going to keep on being a bitch; all this emotion is too hard for me. I’m going to talk to a few friends and get some real facts before you make any decisions. And…” he stops for breath.
“And you’re going to promise, that after we know the facts, the most recently researched, up to date, real facts…you’re going to talk to Jed and let him be part of whatever decision you’re going to make.” She turns away, eyes lowering, mouth drooping at the edges. “It’s only fair Sadie.”
“Don’t do anything till you speak to me. I’ll call you tomorrow, I promise.” She opens her mouth but its Dan’s turn to interject. “And no, of course I won’t! I’m a professional darling, we already discussed that. This is Dr Dan’s Dome of Silence.” He gestures grandly around the walls of the gleaming office.
“Shit!” Sadie’s gaze has stopped on the wall clock which displays the time: 10.50am.
“Shit!” Dan echoes.
Sadie grabs her bag and envelops Dan in a hug. “Thank you.” He winks in reply and she’s off, racing for the door. “Jed’s going to kill me, I’m an hour late for my shift!” She’s gone in a flash of patchouli.
The buzzer on his desk rings loudly, he presses the intercom button reluctantly. “Muriel, I thought you’d forgotten me.”
Muriel’s tone drips with sarcasm. “How could I dear? Someone comes through the door asking for you every three minutes.”
“Oh, you know how to make a guy feel popular.”
“Only too glad to help. The waiting room is at capacity and you’re running…let me see now… fifty-five minutes late.”
“Right. Well, I just hate to crowd your waiting room Muriel. Send my first happy customer this way.”
Dan rolls his eyes and sinks into his chair with a heavy heart.