A rich coffee aroma overpowers me as I push the door open and step into the café. I order a hazelnut latte, the exact thing I ordered every morning when I lived in this artsy city called Melbourne. The velvety, sweet taste is like an old friend that brings me comfort as I sit at an empty table.
I patiently wait for the young lady named Kylie. She emailed me her photo so I would recognise her when she arrives. In it she has a short coiffed hairstyle that fits in well with her job at a stylish women’s magazine.
Across the crowded café, I notice one young woman sitting alone, staring out the window towards the bleak rainy sky as she sips her cappuccino. Something about her soulful eyes reminds me of who I was before Tom broke my heart.
A voice interrupts my thoughts. “Hi, it’s Holly, right?” I look up and see the sharply dressed, raven-haired Kylie.
I stand and shake her hand. “Yes, it’s Holly. Nice to meet you.”
She hangs her coat on the back of the chair across from mine before sitting. “Thank you so much for meeting with me. Your friend, Jen, has told me so much about you.”
I flinch at the thought of being talked about. I enjoy my anonymity, keeping the world away from my deepest thoughts.
“She is a good friend, but I’m not sure what she’s told you.”
“Well, like I said on the phone, we’re doing a series of articles on unique love stories. We’ve been looking for things that maybe give others hope that they too can overcome adverse situations.”
How I wish it were that simple.
Wrapping my fingers around my mug, I frown. “I’m not sure if my story is suitable or not?”
“From what Jen said, which was only the basic gist of things, it sounds like your story is exactly what we want.”
“I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this. I like the thought of giving hope to others, but what I’m going to tell you could have ramifications if told the wrong way, so I can only do this if it’s anonymous.”
“Don’t worry. I agree not to reveal certain information and I have brought a non-disclosure agreement to help put your mind at ease.” Kylie hands me the document full of obtuse words for my so-called protection. She points her manicured finger on the numerous lines I must initial, date and sign.
Seeing her nails makes me think of the days where I would run through this demanding city, trying to fit in a manicure or pedicure amongst appointments, parties, or just trying to make my ex-husband happy. So much action, going place to place, but ironically, I wonder if I actually got anywhere when I lived here.
Amused, after initialling and signing multiple pages as though my life depended on it, I mention, “We’re so legal in this world, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, it’s amazing how much my magazine pays for its legal team.” She picks up the document and puts it back into a folder. “Well, now that’s done, where should we begin?” After pausing, she suggests, “How about we start with your first love?”
I take a sip of the caffeine therapy resting in my cup, letting it warm my insides as I think back to a time that feels like a lifetime ago. “Tom was my first love. We met in America while he was working in the ski fields of Colorado. I fell for him the moment I set eyes on him. I mean, who wouldn’t fall for a lean, long-haired surfer guy with the sexiest accent I had ever heard? We had a holiday romance and threw ourselves at each other because we didn’t know if we would ever see each other again.”
“What did you like most about Tom?”
“Tom seemed exciting, carefree and willing to make his own rules. I thought he was different from the boys I grew up with. You see, I grew up in Texas where people live by an old-fashioned code of gentility, manners and expectations set by generations before.” I pause, thinking about how describing this might come across as snobbish.
Noticing my hesitation, Kylie asks, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I just don’t want to sound pretentious when talking about the life I left behind. I’ve changed so much since that time.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll try to write the beginning of your story in the best light possible. So, you were saying you lived by a code and expectations?”
I look down at the cup resting in my hands. “My life was stifling, full of debutante pageantry and country club parties. No time to do what I wanted to do, but all the time to do what society wanted. So, for me to experience a man that was willing to do his own thing was out of the ordinary, almost dangerous. I was also at an age where I enjoyed upsetting my parents by doing the opposite of what they wanted. So, as you can imagine, my parents were happy when it was time for our holiday to end and I went home heartbroken. But much to their chagrin, Tom and I stayed in touch. Over the coming months when we exchanged emails, and it turned out he was actually more normal than I thought.”
“What do you mean by normal?”
“Well, I think we all have a different definition of what is normal and my scale of normal has changed all throughout my life. But at that point in time, normal was that Tom came from a suitable family and had lofty goals for himself. Looking back now, he wasn’t much different from other boys I had dated, but the mystery of him being a foreigner made him more exciting. This blonde snowboarder was just comfortably outside of what I would consider a safe choice to date.”
“You said he was from a suitable family and had goals?”
“Tom was middle class but aware he was going to have to make it on his own, as there wasn’t a pile of cash that he was going to inherit. This may be one reason my family did not approve of him. My father would have looked down on Tom as not having enough to take care of me in the manner I was accustomed to.” I stop to take a sip of my coffee as Kylie furiously scribbles down notes.
She looks up as I continue to speak. “Not everyone is seduced by material things. I didn’t know it then, but I eventually learned that I could be happy with far less than I ever imagined. Love is sometimes really all you need.”
“So, when did you and Tom see each other again?”
“It took me some time, but I finally convinced my parents to let me do a foreign exchange program where I could attend Monash University for a year. I honestly knew nothing about Australia before coming over here.”
Kylie smiles as she sips her cappuccino, “A bit of culture shock, you reckon?”
“Totally. I came over with a bunch of luggage and no clue. Tom met me at the airport and helped me get settled into the apartment I had rented. He took me out and introduced me to his friends, and I settled right in. I thrived on the sense of independence that came with being somewhere new, far away from my parents.”
Kylie looks up from her notes with a smile. “I can only imagine. I bet your life before and after was like chalk and cheese.”
“Australia was so different from the world I left. Where I went to university in the States, there were certain standards that felt normal to me. But once I arrived in Australia, I learned that these standards were conservative and overwrought with expectations. I was shocked on my first day of classes when students arrived in their pyjamas, Ugg boots and messy hair. You would never do that at the university I went to in Texas.”
Kylie laughs and shakes her head. “Did you ever feel homesick?”
“Not at all. I instantly fell in love with this place.”
“After you moved here, was Tom the same exciting person you thought he was when you met?”
“He was more fun than I remembered. So much fun, in fact, that I transferred out here to finish my degree. Those years were carefree and easy, just as they should be when you’re that age. Tom and I became more than just boyfriend-girlfriend, we were best friends. We laughed our way through life, enjoying every moment and each other. It wasn’t until the few years after we graduated that Tom was seduced by the thrill and power of the corporate world.”
Kylie looks up from her notepad. “So, he changed a lot when he started working?”
“He did, but I was oblivious to his evolving obsession with success and money. I was so in love, his charm blinded me. While he was being seduced by the corporate world, I was being seduced by this illusion he was selling me of the life he wanted for us.”
“What life was that?”
“One full of comfort. You know, a big house, fancy cars and a never-ending calendar of social events. Basically, the life I grew up in, but with an Australian twist. He was always telling me what he planned to buy us or trips he wanted to take me on. It was always something that would happen on some mythical future date.”
Kylie stops writing on her notepad and studies my expression. “He was giving you hope about a date that would never come.”
“Exactly.” I sip from my mug, letting the coffee mull in my mouth while I consider the life I once had. “Illusions can be dangerous. It’s easy to fall deep into them and before you know it, you’re swept so far from reality that you don’t know how to save yourself.”
Pushing a loose strand of hair back in place, Kylie asks, “What saved you?”
“It’s not a question of what saved me, it’s a question of who.”