You Deserve Better
Tears in the back garden while I’m hanging out the washing and embarrassment, much, when the old guy next door sees me. No time to hide.
“You alright, Mae?”
I swipe a hand across my eyes and sniff. “Yeah. I’m fine. I’ve split up with my boyfriend.” I peg out the last skirt and will him to go back indoors. He doesn’t. Instead he leans his wrists on the top of the fence, hands dangling over as he squints at me against the sun.
His eyes are very blue. “You dump him?”
I nod. Don’t trust myself to speak. Then swallow and force the words out. “Cliché. He cheated.”
He looks at me for a moment. “You deserve better.”
I wave his comment away. Attempt a smile and making my excuses I pick up the now empty basket and go indoors.
Can’t imagine ever finding someone to share my life with. Tinder sucks. Two married men, three guys who wanted a quick root and the latest, my piece de resistance, a foot fetishist. Sighing I switch my phone off and go to check the mail. Nothing for me. One in there for Mark, the old guy next door. Again. I walk along to his drive and put it in his letterbox. The front door opens, and he comes out. He looks a little rumpled, silver-streaked dark hair standing up as if he’s just run his hands through it.
“Another one?” he calls out, a little chuckle in his voice.
I nod and smile. “Yeah, what is wrong with Australia Post?”
He walks down, feet bare and takes a key from his jeans pocket to unlock the box. “Thanks for dropping it round.” His eyes narrow as he looks at me. “You alright, Mae?”
And so, I tell him about the guy who leaned across in the movie theatre. First date. And said to me, ‘will you put your foot in my lap?’ I roll my eyes to show it didn’t really bother me. Even though it had.
He whistles. Shakes his head. “You deserve better, Mae,” he said.
I smile. “Sure, I know.” I back up, giving a waist high wave. “Enjoy your day.”
A stalker. Worst kind of compliment. I’ve blocked him on my phone, but he ‘Likes’ me on Facebook. Tweets me from @Tigerseye. Whispers, “I’ll always be with you,” as he passes me on the bus. I get chills when I see him at the shopping centre. Nausea, when he smiles at me in my local coffee shop. It’s getting hard to leave the house and my back garden is becoming a haven. Spring is giving way to summer and the temperatures are rising. It’s Saturday, but because my groceries are now being delivered, I’m in the pool doing some aquarobic exercises. Mark pops up at the fence.
“Hi Mae. Do you have a minute?” Lean, cut frame in a loose white shirt, open at the neck. The cap protecting his head against the sun has flattened his hair out of sight.
I’m in my bikini and feel vulnerable. But it’s the old guy and he’s cool. “Can you give me a minute, come to the front door?”
He nods. “I’ll be there in five.” He disappears from view.
I climb out of the pool and grab a towel, heading for the shade of the back deck to dry off. I grab a sarong and tie it round my waist. Dump my sun-glasses on the table. Give my hair a superficial rub but it’s okay, the heat will dry it in no time.
A knock at the front door and I move through the house to answer it. Throw the door open in welcome. And then panic. The stalker. Fear clogs my throat and I stare. I can’t catch my breath and take a step back without thinking. He takes this as an invitation. Steps over the threshold, grinning broadly.
“Hi Mae,” he says.
I’m still hanging onto the door. And although he’s in my personal space, I don’t give way. But it’s claustrophobic. “What do you want?” I ask him. My voice sounds creaky.
“I want to ask you out but you’re not taking my calls,” he says.
I close my eyes. “That’s because I don’t want to talk to you or go out with you,” I tell him. “If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll call the police.” My breath comes in short gasps. Heart racing.
“Aww, come on, Mae, just give me a chance,” he says and quickly drops a leather cord, like a noose, over my head. It has a brown and gold stone threaded onto it. “Tiger’s eye. So I’ll always be with you,” he adds.
“She said, she’s not interested.” The voice comes from behind Stalker. And weirdest thing, Stalker seems to lift off the floor for a second before being propelled back out onto the garden path. Mark’s hand on his collar. He’s strong. For an old guy.
“And don’t come back,” he snarls as Stalker stumbles backwards, shock scribbled all over his face. Before he can answer, Mark has come inside and slammed the door against him. Shutting out the problem.
I grab the cord from around my neck and throw it on the floor, in a panicky walked-into-a-sticky-spider-web, kind of way. A fine tremor runs through me, from my feet all the way to the top of my head. It recedes. Then starts again and repeats on a loop. Mark takes my elbow and guides me back through my house. When he lets go, I can still feel the imprint of his fingers on my skin.
“You alright, Mae?” he asks, as he shows me to a chair on the back deck. I can smell back-burning, the wood smoke hanging in the air.
“I’m okay,” I tell him, my voice stronger now. “Thank you for what you did,” I add. “It’s been …” I pause while I think of how to describe the insidious impotence that has been paralysing me. “…difficult.”
“Let me get you a drink. Whatcha got?” He hovers, radiating concern. I notice his stubble has more silver in it than his hair. Funny, despite this, he doesn’t look that old up close.
“Sparkling water in the fridge, please,” I say. On. Off. On. The tremor continues to loop.
“What’s been going on?” he asks as he pours the water into two glasses and sits down with me. Pushes one glass across the table, eyebrows raised as he waits for me my reply.
And I tell him. About the stalking. The self-imposed incarceration in my home. The fear. Even the on-line grocery shopping, which has been the one good thing to come out of this, if I’m honest.
He’s quiet, apart from a grunt. He looks as if he’s thinking about what I’ve told him. The tremors are less intense. I think they’re passing.
He throws back his water and leans across the table, cradling the empty glass in his hands. He pauses for a long beat. “You deserve better, Mae.”
I look at him curiously. “So you keep saying, but how do you know that?”
His lips clamp together as he looks at me, blue eyes framed with long dark eyelashes. My gaze drops to his mouth and I notice he has a cleft chin. I’ve not spotted it before. But then I’ve never really looked at him. Not properly. I look back up to his eyes and see he’s closed them for a moment. He opens them again and we stare at each other.
He clears his throat. “How can you not deserve better? Think about it. If you don’t believe you deserve better than a cheat, a foot fetishist, or a stalker then what does that say about how you see yourself?”
He has a point. But then, why can’t I find anyone? I ask him this as we sit here. I don’t understand the spasm that crosses his face.
He draws a deep breath. “You will. Eventually. Look I think I’ll go.”
I’m taken by surprise. “But, you didn’t tell me what you wanted,” I say in protest.
“Aah, well funnily enough, it was about your stalker. I was going to talk to you about the fact that I’d seen this guy hanging around a lot and I was worried. I was going to warn you. He won’t be back now though.”
I’m reassured by this but don’t understand how he can be so certain. “How do you know?”
He runs a hand around the back of his neck as he stands. “I know guys. He’s a coward, he won’t be back, trust me.”
I take him at his word, after all, by my track record it’s pretty obvious I can’t be trusted to ‘know guys’. “Thank you,” I say.
Summer storm. Worst for a long time and I stand at the window, gazing at the havoc nature is wreaking on the neighbourhood. Small branches snap off the eucalyptus and fly past the window. The rain so heavy, it’s like fog. Crash of thunder directly overhead. Lightning spearing the night sky. It’s like a competition between two super forces up there. It’s exhilarating.
A movement to the left, a slim figure bent against the weather, running for the street, long blonde hair flying behind. Shouts, and then Mark, running to the car where she is leaping behind the wheel. He gets there as the car squeals away. Throws his hands up, drenched, then turns and jogs back up his drive. I lose sight of him, but another crash suggests the door has been slammed shut.
I don’t know what to do and pace. What did I just see? Can’t be good, whatever. I look at the rain. It’s not letting up but feeling compelled, I pull on my rain coat. Not over-thinking it, I hurry outside and head next door.
Seconds later, after knocking, I realise he might think she’s come back. Dither for a moment. Should I go? Just thinking of retreat when the door is flung open. Thunderous expression matching the weather.
I swallow. “Are you okay, Mark?”
He grimaces and steps back in silent invitation. I follow and drip all over his floor. Looking up at him I realise, for the first time, that he’s tall.
“My ex-wife,” he says. “Came around to scream at me because she thinks I’ve got a new woman.”
I process this. Then realise he’s waiting for a response. “Um, so, do you?”
A spark of amusement in his eyes. “Is it any of her business?” he asks.
I feel my face warm up and shrug. “No, ‘course not.”
“Wanna come in for a minute?” adding, “let me hang your coat.”
Coat dealt with, I follow him through to the kitchen. Surprised it’s not messy. I sit down.
“Does she come around often?”
Then he tells me about his controlling ex-wife. How she never trusted him. How she spied on him, tracked his phone, accused him of infidelity with nauseating frequency.
I nod as he talks.
How he stayed away more and more, unintentionally fuelling her paranoia. How there was nothing, he could ever, ever do to stop the ugly deterioration of their marriage
I stare at him. She sounds awful. “So why were you chasing her, just then?”
He frowns. “She shouldn’t have driven off in this storm. I was trying to convince her to wait until it passes.”
Obvs. I’m such an idiot. “It looks as if the worst is over,” I attempt to reassure.
We sit quietly for a moment. Then I take a breath. “You deserve better, Mark.”
His head snaps up and our eyes meet. His lips twitch and I smile.
“Touche,” he says.
“Will you tell your new person about this? Your new, you know lady friend? Er woman, about this?” Just shoot me now.
He shakes his head. “Mae—”
I lean forward. “Yes?”
“—be,” he finishes, and I feel like an idiot.
“Well, I’d better go.” I push back from the table. Matter-of-fact tones. Brisk, things-to-do voice. “Glad you’re okay.”
He looks startled at my sudden decision. “Er, thanks for coming over, Mae.” He walks me to the door.
I nod as I drag my coat back on. I’m cranky. Itchy, like I want to climb out of my skin.
“See ya,” I wave and walk fast even though the rain has eased up.
Twenty-five. Mile-stone birthday. A few friends around for drinks, food, music and a swim. Girls in strappy sandals and flirty dresses. Guys pulling on bottles of beer, indulging in mutual piss-taking. Summer is reluctant to leave, and the cicadas are still singing, not yet aware their time is nearly over. The short dusk ushers in darkening skies. The pool is abandoned in favour of sitting around listening to music.
Subtle flirting is taking place. My bestie and a recently single guy she’s liked for ages. I wonder if they’ll hook up. I hope they do, they deserve some happiness. My own attempts at romance have ground to a halt. Ever since …well, the storm.
My eyes drift to next door. Frequently. Bestie notices. Asks me if the old guy still lives there. A surge of something, irritation? defensiveness? sweeps through me. He’s not that old, I frown, probably only about forty. Her eyebrows lift, and I smile, sheepish. She asks why I didn’t invite him. I have no answer to this and shift in my chair. It’s not too late, she says and grins as she watches me over the rim of her glass. Don’t be ridiculous, I tell her and the conversation slides in another direction.
I haven’t seen him for ages. I wonder if I should put a piece of my mail in his letterbox.
The weather is cooling. It’s a relief after such a long summer. And I’m still single. Not even looking.
Mark has been away. I’ve been collecting his mail for him. The house has been locked up for a few weeks but now the lights are on, cheering up the dark. Odd how lonely it’s been. I think I can hear music floating from his place. I should go and welcome him home. Any good neighbour would do that. Any friend would do that. Sharp intake, as the realisation we’re friends takes me unawares.
I check myself out in the mirror. Hair, tick. Make-up, tick. Best jeans, tick. Fave top, tick. Lace boots up, then hesitate. Not sure what I’m going to say. I sit down on my lounge with a bump. Groan and put my head in my hands. Why is this such a big deal? I can’t work out when the ‘old guy’ became Mark. Or when Mark became the attractive guy next door.
A knock startles. Has me leaping to my feet in consternation. I hurry to answer the door, hoping it’s Mark. Nervous it’s Mark.
It’s Mark. “Hi!” I say, all cheery and nonchalant as I drink him in. Tall, dark and handsome. Go figure.
“You’re home,” I add. I can do inane like the best of them.
He smiles. “Hi Mae. Just got back and thought I’d drop round. How are you?”
“Good, yeah,” I nod. Quite a bit. “Er, come in.”
He does. Follows me through to the lounge. “Do you fancy a drink? Wine?” I ask.
“I’d like that,” he says as he sits down on the couch. “Are you sure I’m not imposing?”
Imposing. Not a word any of my friends would use. I like it.
“Of course not. I’m looking forward to hearing about your trip. Back in a minute.”
In the kitchen, I take a minute to breathe deeply, butterflies colliding with one another in my stomach. I’m feeling shy. I’m so ridiculous. Carry the wine in one hand, glasses in the other and rejoin him in the sitting room.
Pour him a drink and sit with him on the couch. “So, tell me about Queensland.”
And he does. All about the Daintree and the crocodiles. Cane toad races in the pub, and the warm sea. It sounds magical. I’ve never been that far up.
“Any holiday romances?” I ask, taking a couldn’t-care-less tone.
His gaze captures mine, his face serious. “No.”
I’m relieved and take a sip. But when I remember the night of the storm, the relief drains away. I can’t help myself. I have to ask. “Did you ever tell your ex-wife about the woman?”
He frowns. “Woman?” then his brow clears, and he shakes his head, smiling. “No.”
I want to know more but I’m afraid to ask. He sips his wine, keeps his eyes on me. I squirm a little under the scrutiny. Stomach flips.
“What about you? You seeing anyone?” His tone is lighter, like he already knows the answer.
I pull a face. “Nah. Giving it a rest for a while. Too many disasters.”
His lips twitch at this and puts his wine down. When he turns to me, it’s his mouth I notice first. The lips are perfect, I decide. My gaze tracks up until it collides with his. He’s taking the same inventory of me.
“We deserve better,” I quip, heart galloping at his intense expression.
He smiles. A full, life-is-good sort of smile. It lights up his face. Mega wattage of attractiveness. Fleeting sympathy for the ex-wife.
“Perhaps, we deserve one another,” he says softly and leans in. Pulls me close.
Breath catches. A thrill corkscrews through me.
The kiss sizzles on my lips, and my whole world contracts to the circle of his arms, his scratchy stubble, the warmth of his mouth. It’s an enchanted space and I want to stay forever, and I think, oh god, I know, this is right, know, as every nerve-ending vibrates at his touch, that we’ve found something special. Something unexpected.
We’ve found the joy of being each other’s ‘better’.