IT WAS A night in at Maree’s place, which she found strange, as it was Brad who had recently purchased a new TV. Maree sat in one corner of the couch, knees up to her chest. Brad was on the other side, upright, a glass of scotch resting on the couch arm. Maree had not been to Brad’s place in quite some time. Maybe it was because she didn’t have a car anymore, or her sister didn’t want her driving. But Maree didn’t mind the train and she’d told Brad this.
Maree shuffled to the middle of the couch and Brad sipped his scotch.
‘Come to bed,’ Maree said. She put her fingertips under his belt.
‘You don’t want to watch this?’ he asked, not taking his eyes off the TV.
Maree reached further under his jeans.
‘I’m invested now,’ said Brad.
‘You really want to watch this and not come to bed with your wife?’ said Maree, smiling in his ear.
Brad pulled her hand out from his pants and drained the scotch, chewing on the flakes of ice.
‘Fine. I’m going to bed,’ said Maree.
‘Don’t be mad.’
‘I’m not mad.
‘Don’t be mad. I drove all this way.’
‘I’m not mad. I’m tired. You’ll be in, in a bit?’
‘I’ll sleep on the couch. You know I snore when I’ve had a few,’ said Brad, waving the empty glass.
Maree got up from the couch and kissed Brad on the forehead. She wanted him to know she wasn’t mad. Maree wiped down the bench, broke up the pizza boxes and binned them. She put the scotch in the drinks cabinet, noticing how full it still was. She looked at the man on the couch. She hoped he wouldn’t be too uncomfortable in the night. Maree walked to the bedroom and, not wanting to turn on a light, felt her way through the darkness.
BRAD GOT A call from Kate on the drive from Maree’s place to work. Maree’s blinds were cheap, so the sun had woken him. He’d made a coffee and cleaned up after himself, making sure there was no trace that he’d spent the night.
‘You went over again?’ asked Kate.
‘She called. Late,’ said Brad. He wanted to defuse the situation quickly. He knew Kate just wanted what was best for everyone.
‘Jesus Christ. You can’t give in to her. You have to remind her.’
‘It’s hard to do over the phone. She’s doesn’t believe me. All it does is get her in a tizz.’
The line goes quiet, so quiet that Brad thought she might’ve hung up.
‘I really don’t understand,’ Kate continued. ‘I don’t, Brad. I’m the one always with her. Some days she thinks I’m Mum. Other days she doesn’t know who I am at all. But she seems to have no problem knowing who you are. I mean, fuck, you’ve been divorced for twelve years. I really don’t get it.’
Kate cried into the phone. She often cried without warning. It always made Brad uncomfortable, how she could yell, scream and be so angry with him one minute, and fall apart the next.
‘I’ve got to go to work,’ said Brad.
‘Call me first next time,’ said Kate, pulling herself together. ‘I’ll take care of it.’
BRAD WAS ON his hands and knees, scrubbing the headstone with an old wire brush. He cleaned the grime off and brushed it onto the wet grass. The first thing Maree noticed was how he struggled to pull himself up, putting all his weight on his father’s headstone.
Maree placed Brad’s arm over her shoulder.
‘What’re you doing here?’ he said, pulling back slightly, surprised at first.
‘It’s the twelfth, Brad? What do you think I’m doing here?’
Maree looked at him, put off by his words. He was saying such strange things of late.
‘Does Kate know you’re here?’
There. Another strange thing.
‘What has she got to do with anything?’
Brad paused, looked down at his father’s headstone, then back at Maree.
‘Nothing. You’re right. Thanks for coming,’ he said.
Maree stared at the headstone. She had trouble remembering most nights, but she remembered that one. The phone ringing hadn’t woken her, but Brad’s voice had. He spoke in such a matter-of-fact manner that at first Maree had cursed the person who’d called at this hour. But then it became clear what it was regarding. First, Brad had requested explicit details of how it happened, then he wanted to know the next steps and what was required of him. Maree gave him some time before she put on her nightgown and went into the kitchen.
‘He was a good man,’ said Maree, turning her gaze from the headstone to Brad’s cheek. Brad murmured in agreement. ‘He was good to your mother,’ she said.
‘Yes. I do. I think he was good to your mother like you’re good to me.’
‘You think I’m good to you?’
Maree pulled him closer, somewhat irritated that he was ruining the moment. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said.
Brad held Maree, and she held him back, right up until the moment he felt her go rigid in his arms. He could feel her, moving through time, back to the present.
BRAD ATE SPAGHETTI bolognese he’d made from scratch and watched the news. He had learned to cook for his father when he found out what the home was giving him. Maree called just as the weather lady came on.
‘Where are you?’ she asked, not doing well at supressing the stress in her voice.
‘I’m home,’ said Brad.
‘No, you’re not. I’m home. You’re not here.’ Brad could hear her footsteps, shuffling up and down her little apartment, her breath heavy. He surprised himself sometimes, how slow he was at catching on, even after all these months.
‘Sorry. Sorry. I’ve been held up at work. I don’t think I’ll be home till late,’ said Brad.
‘Oh. That’s no good. I had something to give you.’
‘Maybe you can just tell me what it is.’
‘That would ruin the surprise.’
‘Go on. It’ll help me get through these next few hours.’
Brad could hear the shuffling of sheets, the closing and opening of cupboards.
‘I can’t seem to remember where I put it. I’m not sure where it is. Oh shit. Where did I put it. I can’t remember what it looked like. I wrapped it you see. Wrapped it nicely too. And now–’
‘I can’t remember where I–’
He could hear her slamming cupboards, shuffling things on the coffee table, opening the sliding door onto the patio, forgetting to breathe.
‘I know it’s here.’
‘It’s okay, Maree. We’ll look for it when I get home. You can give it to me then.’
‘Maybe call your sister? I won’t be home till late. Maybe she can keep you company.’
‘No, I don’t want to bother her.’
‘I’m sure she won’t mind. I’ll call her for you.’
‘No, it’s okay. I’ll do it.’
‘I can do it Maree. It’s not a problem.’
Brad called Kate and suggested bringing some dinner around. Brad had plenty leftovers if she wanted to swing by.
‘She won’t eat it. She’s vegetarian these days. Well, some days. I just play it safe and assume she’s vegetarian,’ said Kate.
Maree had first gone vegetarian in the months before their divorce. Brad didn’t argue, instead learning to cook with ingredients he’d never used before, like lentils and quinoa. Brad preferred red meat and fish, but he didn’t put up a fight. Even during a time that can be so precarious for couples, there was never much arguing. It all remained relatively amicable. There was never that one big fight where they both kept saying things they couldn’t take back and those things got louder and nastier to the point where they felt sick when they separated. There was just a quiet which grew with each passing day, right up until it was the biggest thing in the room.
MAREE SAT DOWN at the table by the window and tapped her foot against the scuffed timber floor, watching people order their coffees. She gave each of them names, then tried to remember them all and when she couldn’t, she gave them new names. It was only when Brad came through the door that Maree stopped naming the strangers.
‘I thought you might be here,’ he said, out of breath.
‘Where else would I be on a Friday morning? Better question is: where have you been?’
Brad thought on this for half a minute.
‘You’re right. I’m sorry. Of course, Friday morning. How could I forget,’ said Brad. Maree complained about the women at her work, about how she still hadn’t gotten an invite to Friday drinks. She knew she would crack the circle soon. She knew she just had to stay positive, to keep asking about their dim-witted husbands and brats, and soon they would let her in. Brad didn’t have much to say about his week. Brad always said he could do with a raise. But Maree didn’t know why he was stressed about money. As far as she could tell, they were comfortable.
THEY MADE PLANS for the weekend. Maree had suggested a trip to the coast. They would take the bikes and ride along the foreshore. The weather was supposed to be terrible, but when had that ever stopped them before? Brad had smiled and said that sounded wonderful, before excusing himself. Maree was crying when he returned.
‘I’m sorry. I’m not supposed to be here. You’re not supposed to be here,’ she said.
‘It’s okay. It’s not a problem,’ Brad said, hushing her gentle sobs.
‘I’m sorry, Brad. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.’
‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’
Maree took a moment, pinching the bridge of her nose. She dabbed at her eyes with a coffee-stained napkin.
‘Okay. Okay. The last time. I promise. I should go. Kate will be panicking,’ she said, not making eye contact.
‘I’ve called her already. I’ve told her I found you. That everything is okay and that you’re okay and everyone’s just fine.’
‘I should let you go. I’ve probably ruined your whole day.’
‘That’s okay. I’m in no rush. I ordered a muffin. Banana and choc-chip.’
‘God. I’ve really fucked things up. It was easy before this,’ said Maree. ‘It was all so easy. Everything about us was easy. It was easy dating you, easy falling in love with you, easy being with you. Even divorcing you was easy. God, why was it all so easy?’
Brad shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t have an answer for that, even though he knew it was true. All the small, fleeting relationships Brad had been in since the divorce had never been as simple as what he had with Maree. Maybe there was a lesson in that. But Brad never felt any regret either. Like Maree said, it had all been easy: falling in love, falling out of love.
‘I don’t know about that,’ said Brad. ‘I tell you what I do know. The other day I was thinking about that Christmas we spent with your parents. Do you remember? We flew up to visit your parents for Christmas. You remember.’
Maree shook her head.
‘You don’t remember? You were sick on the flight home. Your sister came with us.’
‘I don’t remember, Brad,’ said Maree.
‘Okay. That doesn’t matter. I remember. On Christmas Eve, your mother said we were going to a Christmas Mass. I laughed when she said that. I honestly thought she was joking. I mean, you never told me you were raised Catholic. We got married on a beach for crying out loud. Why didn’t you ever bring it up? Anyways, it doesn’t matter. Either way, I know I offended your mother. She didn’t speak to me for the rest of the night.’
The barista called Brad’s name. His banana and chocolate muffin waited on the counter, steam rising from its top. Brad raised his hand, but he didn’t get up just yet.
‘Anyway, you met your parents and I at the church. You and Kate were late. That was it. You were late because you’d been out drinking with some old school friends. You snuck in at the back, you and your sister, in the pew behind us. The priest is up there, going on about Jesus’s birth, mangers, three wise men, all that. But you and Kate are in the back row, laughing your ass off at what only God knows. You were trying to hold it in, but something had obviously given you the giggles. I didn’t even realise you were pissed until you started snorting. People turned to stare. Your mother had this big grin on her face, but you could tell she was mortified. In front of all your old neighbours and high school friends, you were both trying to hold it in, but you couldn’t.’
The barista called Brad’s name again. But Brad just waved, not looking up.
‘I remember thinking how much I loved that sound. The sound of you trying to hold in that laughter. The giggling, the snorting. I felt very in love with you then. I felt proud that the snorting woman in the back of the church was my wife.’
‘No, I don’t remember that,’ said Maree. ‘I wish I could remember that.’
‘It’s okay. I won’t forgot it.’
The barista called Brad’s name again and he went to get his banana and chocolate muffin.
When he turned, he saw Maree, pinching the bridge of her nose, eyes closed. Her other hand made a fist, clenched, white-knuckled. She was mumbling something to herself. When Brad got close, he could make out Maree repeating the same story he just told, about Christmas Eve mass, over and over again to no one but herself.
MAREE OPENED HER eyes. Brad sat, picking at the top of his muffin, pulling out choc-chips. He had been watching her. He looked away when she opened her eyes, but he was slow. She had caught him looking.
Maree closed her eyes again. She leaned back in the leather cushion, feeling for the beating heart in her chest, for the pulsing floorboards which were, for now, familiar. She pictured the café, where she and her husband had met every Friday morning before work. She thought about cupping her ears to try and keep it all in but thought that might make her look quite insane. Maree knew that when she opened her eyes, Brad, her ex-husband, would be there, eating his muffin. She knew that. She could count on that. She could hear his voice, calling to her. His hand was on her clenched fist, gently squeezing. She realised some time had passed, that it was time to open her eyes again.