Common room. 11:38 am. Rain beats the windows. Justine, Joanna and I work on our theses. Justine is on her laptop, Joanna is curled up at the end of the sofa with a book propped on her knees, twiddling a slender black vape in her free hand.
Justine stops typing, sits back in her chair and puts her finger to her lips.
“Stop me if I’m probing, I’m sorry, I’m just interested.”
“It’s fine,” I say.
Joanna stops twiddling her vape, “Yeah. Go ahead.”
Justine turns to Joanna and points with both hands clasped together.
“So you already slept with someone. A guy.”
Joanna nods, “Yup.”
“And you just met him, where?”
“At a party.”
“Wow,” Justine slowly shakes her head. “Just wow. So cool.”
She turns to me, “And you’re just totally cool with that?”
“Yup, totally,” I say. I feel Joanna watching me.
“And you’re seeing someone else as well?”
“Maybe, we haven’t met yet. Today is our first date.”
“Right, right. Sorry. Oh my god, I’m totally probing.”
“No, no, go ahead. We’re open.”
“Yeah go ahead,” Joanna says, smirking.
Justine beams at me.
“So are there rules? Will this date be just, like, casual, or serious?”
Justine returns to her computer for a moment. Rain lashes the windows.
“And will you tell her about this whole thing?” She draws a flat circle in the air to indicate Joanna and me.
“I guess so. Yeah.”
“Definitely,” Joanna says.
Justine looks at me, smiling broadly.
“Wow. Can I just say, I’m so impressed. You both seem so mature, and together, and relaxed.”
I nod, fold my arms.
“Sex and romance don’t equate to possession.”
Justine alternates slowly shaking her head with slow nodding. “Totally. I completely agree.”
“Don’t get me wrong, though,” I say. “I’ve had to deal with negative emotions, but I’m happier this way. It’s liberating to have it out in the open. So in a way I’m glad that I had to experience the discomfort first, Joanna’s yet to discover how she will react.”
Joanna stares fixedly at her book.
“Wow,” Justine says again. “And Jo, you are totally cool with Fergus going on a date?”
Joanna nods, suppressing a smile. “Yup.”
Justine clasps her hands to her chest. “Fergus, can I just say, I’m so impressed by how cool you’re being. My husband would never agree to something like this. Not in a million years.”
I nod my head, humbly. Justine goes on.
“–And Joanna. If you don’t mind me saying; you’re a fucking babe. You’re beautiful, and hot, and sexy. I feel like it would be such a waste for you to be with only one person. I’m super into it.”
Joanna laughs. My chest feels constricted but I smile and nod. I push back my chair and stand up.
“I’m going to the toilet.”
In the bathroom I lean into the mirror and pull my fringe down over my forehead. Then push it back up. I check my phone: 11:50. A message from Katie-Morag, my date. She’s caught up in the lab, having trouble with some mice. I’m to wait for her text. My anxiety builds. I lift my shirt up and twist my stomach in the downlight. Through the closed door I hear Joanna and Justine laughing. I put my shirt down and walk back in.
“What’s so funny?”
“Don’t worry,” Joanna says, turning back to her book.
“Women stuff,” Justine says.
“Katie-Morag is running late,” I say and sit down at my computer.
“Is she at uni?” Justine asks.
“No, she’s a scientist. She’s developing a Covid vaccine.”
Justine nods, eyebrows raised. “Wow. Amazing.”
Joanna vapes intently. The three of us sit in silence. Justine taps away at the keys on her laptop. Joanna puffs and reads. The rain ceases to a percussive dripping from the eaves. Sunlight gleams on the wet leaves of the cherry tree outside the window. I check the time again: 12:01. Joanna glances up at me then back at her book. I shut my laptop and lean back, stretching my arms above my head.
“I hate waiting. I’m going up now. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” says Joanna.
“Have a great time,” says Justine.
I sit on a damp concrete coffin in the quad and check my phone compulsively. Students walk back and forth in front of me but nobody else sits outside. I zip up my polar fleece. At 12:24 Katie-Morag texts me to say she’s on her way: FYI I’ve got a big mark on my face from my hairnet
I reply that I have toothpaste on my jumper. After a few minutes she emerges from the big glass library doors. I wave and she strides towards me. I stand and walk to her, anxious to close the distance. She’s tall and willowy. Pointy features. I pretend to check my phone for a moment then we greet. Cheek kisses.
“You’re tall,” she says, taking her place on the concrete wall beside me.
“Yes,” I say, straightening up.
She wears large round glasses. Her skin is clinically pale. Across the middle of her forehead is a pink line, as if she’d had a rubber band around her head.
“Most men exaggerate.”
“Do they? That seems like a bad idea.”
“It is. It’s embarrassing for everyone.”
I smile. There’s a short pause. I gesture at the picnic tables to our right.
“I was thinking we could bring our food out here to eat.”
She shields her eyes and looks at the sky.
“I think it’s going to rain.”
A spidery white cloud sweeps across the sun.
“That’s fine, we can eat inside.”
The wind swirls around the quad. I push my hair off my forehead.
“So, what happened with the mice?”
“I was putting them down.”
“How do you do that?”
“We break their necks,” she says.
Right.” I fold my arms.
A student hustles past us clutching his satchel.
“Two hundred or so.”
“Wow. That sounds inefficient.”
“It’s very efficient.”
“I feel like gassing them would be easier.”
She has a tight, clipped way of speaking that reminds me of my grandmother.
“How do you break their necks?”
“Like this.” She arranges her index and middle fingers as if she were holding a cigarette and switches them quickly in a scissor action.
“Yes. Their anaesthetic wore off. That’s why I took so long. They were running around. It was a nightmare.”
She stops, narrows her eyes at me, then looks away.
“Shall we go?”
“Yes,” I say.
We walk diagonally across the windy quad.
“Why do you have to kill them?”
“Because we’re finished with them.”
She looks over at me quickly. “–they would die anyway. And much more unpleasantly.”
“I see. Don’t worry, I’m not fussed about that sort of thing. Do you give them Covid-19?”
“Cool.” I say, smiling. “I find all this very attractive.”
She winces, sarcastically. “How quirky of you.”
I laugh but she doesn’t smile in return. There’s a pause.
“So what do you do?” she asks.
“I’m doing a Masters in Creative Writing, but I used to be a lawyer.”
“Oh yes. What do you write about?”
She waits as I pull open the door of the Hare Krishna place.
“Myself, I suppose. Memories. People I’ve known.”
She has a way of holding her vowels that gives everything she says a taint of irony.
“You must be a very interesting person,” she says, dryly. “My life is so boring. I wouldn’t have anything worth writing about.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“Of course not,” she says. “Why would I be sarcastic?”
“I don’t know.’
She smirks. There’s a long pause as we wander slowly towards the lunch line.
“Have you been here before?” I ask.
We line up behind a hooded man with a longboard and talk idly of distant mutual acquaintances until it’s time to order. There’s only one dish: vegan curry and rice, with an optional salad: a few leaves of mesclun. It’s fifteen dollars all up. I’ve got fifteen dollars and twenty cents in my account.
“I’ll get it,” I say modestly, holding up my hand. She accepts with grace.
All the good seats are taken. We sit by the entryway where the sliding doors open and shut as other patrons come and go. She pulls her cardigan tight around her bony shoulders.
“This looks good,” she says.
She spears a mesclun leaf and pushes it into her shapely mouth. I use my wooden fork to mix the curry, rice and mesclun together on the compostable plate.
“So, what made you swipe right on me?” I ask.
She chews thoughtfully.
“I guess I liked your honesty. Vulnerability is rare on that hell-site. Are you actually depressed?”
“Maybe I was when I wrote it, I’m fine now. I guess I left it because it alliterates with divorced.”
“So you were actually married?”
“Yes. Four years. How about you, ever been married?”
“Do you believe in it?”
“I’m Catholic. So yes.”
I raise my eyebrows.
She looks defensive.
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“No not at all.” I clear my throat. “Just surprising. Given your profession. Aren’t they sort of incompatible?”
“Why would they be incompatible?”
“I don’t know.”
We fall into silence. I fork curry into my mouth.
“Mmm, good curry,” I say.
Katie-Morag doesn’t say anything. She looks around the room and refolds her legs.
“You were telling me,” she says, stabbing another leaf of mesclun. “–about your divorce.”
“Right.” I swallow and put down my cutlery. “Technically I’m not divorced–I’m separated–but I thought that didn’t convey the right sort of finality for Tinder.”
“Oh, so you lied?”
“Strictly, yes. But I felt people would read into it, otherwise. Like I was on the rebound or something.”
“Are you on the rebound?”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s complicated, but I’m definitely not on the rebound.”
“You sound like you have something to hide.”
“I don’t. It’s hard to explain … but my marriage was over much earlier than it was over, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t, please tell me.”
I take a deep breath.
“Well it’s a long story, we were together ten years–“
“I’ve got time,” she says, amused.
And so I tell Katie-Morag the full story of my relationship with my ex-wife, beginning in 2011 leading up to present day. I ramble, telling her of domestic arguments, of attachment styles, and love languages. I periodically glance up at her and see her becoming more and more incredulous. I survey the marriage as if from a great height, as if the emotions were small cars in a landscape far below. I make it out to be very complex, abstract, but I know she thinks that I’m being evasive. Relationship problems are simple. Complexity is always a veil for grubby secrets. I begin to circle towards the topic I’d wanted to avoid.
“OK, look,” I say. “I’m going to be completely honest with you.”
I place my hands down oath-like on the table.
“All this other stuff, these other issues.” I sweep the air aside with my hand. “They’re extraneous.”
She stops eating and sits back in her chair. She watches me with her big glassy eyes. I can’t order my thoughts, so instead fix my eyes on a poster on the wall behind her: weekly Zumba classes.
“The real problem was this pattern of infidelity. I think the first month we were together my wife got drunk and kissed some guy at a bar. And I couldn’t handle it, it burned me up. So I got revenge, did the same.”
“Kissed a man at a bar–“
“No, another woman.”
“So it’s her fault?”
“She started it, yes–but I carried it on. And it escalated, getting worse and worse, until a few years ago, when I was overseas, she slept with an ex-boyfriend. And then this year I moved to Wellington and fell in love with a woman from my MA class. And about a month ago I told my wife about it. And now we’re separated.”
Satisfied, I resume eating. Katie-Morag looks at her watch.
“And what happened with the woman from your class?”
“Well.” I shift in my seat.
“We are sort of still seeing each other, but we are allowed to see other people.”
“So what, you’re like, polyamorous?” She says the word rather loudly. I shush her and look around quickly to see if anyone has heard.
“Don’t say it like that.”
“It’s not polyamory, necessarily, it’s an arrangement.”
She snorts contemptuously.
“Oh, let me guess, you don’t like labels?”
I laugh, embarrassed, and look around again. She purses her lips.
“You should probably put this on your Tinder profile.”
“Yes, I suppose I should.”
I pull in my chair and lean over the table, half-whispering.
“What do you think about polyamory?”
“I think you’re deluded.”
I lean back in my chair and stretch my arms above my head.
“This isn’t going very well, is it?”
She shakes her head.
“No, it isn’t.”
She prods a chickpea around her plate.
“If you ask me, It doesn’t sound like you’ve dealt with any of the toxic behaviour that ended your marriage. What makes you think you’re ready for polyamory?”
“I’m dealing with it. I’m seeing an analyst, actually.”
“And what does your analyst think about it?”
“He doesn’t say what he thinks. He helps me figure things out on my own.”
“I see. So it’s all because of your mother, right, or maybe you haven’t got that far yet.”
“Well actually yeah–“
She lets out a cold laugh.
“That was a joke.”
“I know. But I may have some issues with commitment.”
“Men always blame their mothers for everything.”
“Blame implies fault–it’s more like … causation.”
“Right. It couldn’t be that you’ve made some bad decisions?”
“It’s about insight, rather than blame.”
“There’s no need to belittle me. My wife used to do that. I’m a simple man.”
“Yes. It would seem.”
She toys with her fork, then puts it down again. I look around. Most of the other patrons are sitting alone, wearing headphones or reading.
“Would you like some water?”
“Sure.” She sounds bored.
As I carry the two cups back to the table Katie-Morag stares, eyes unfocussed, at the plate in front of her. Her body trembles slightly. She looks tetchy. I place the cups, take a seat and clap my hands together.
“I feel like we should start over.”
I point between us.
“I feel like there is an interesting chemistry here.”
“Interesting is one word for it.”
“So what do you think, would you be interested in seeing me on a casual basis?”
Katie-Morag furrows her brow.
I slump forward in my seat.
“So, how did it go?” Justine asks, as I walk in.
Joanna looks over. I sit down at my computer and blow the air out through my mouth.
“No good,” I say, shaking my head. “She’s Catholic.”
Next week’s short story is by author Kirsty Gunn.