ReadingRoom

Short story: Psycho Ex, by Airini Beautrais

"The psycho ex. The stalker. That is not who I am. I am simply a person who loves you, loves you deeply": a love story by Whanganui writer Airini Beautrais.

I am going for a run. I pull on my leopard-print tights, my black sports bra, my hot pink singlet, zip up my hot pink jacket. Shoes, a little worn and in need of replacing. Which footwear manufacturer is the least evil nowadays? I lock my back door, slip the key into the little pocket on the side of my hip. It presses into my skin like a secret.

I am not going up, or anywhere near, Mount Victoria.

So I head up the hill away from the stretch of shops, because uphill is where trees are. I’ll maybe turn right at Coromandel Street, go through the town belt around the back of the zoo, check up on the baboons. They always seem so happy in the early evenings. They eat grass and murmur to each other: wurg, wurg. There’s the alpha male with his harem of females from just post-pubertal to peri-menopausal. There are the young males watching for an opportunity. Then there’s the old guy, used-to-be alpha, sitting off to the side with just one loyal mate left, running her fingers through the few remaining hairs on his head looking for lice. I reckon she was his first love, and the one who’s stuck by him. I believe in love. That’s what I’d see if I ran that way. I pass the bus stop, and the traffic’s busy, so I don’t cross the road. I head up Alexandra Road instead of Coromandel Street. I can run over to Hataitai and still not technically be going to Mount Victoria.

The path takes me through the trees. I watch my leopard legs flashing over the grass, the dead brown pine needles. I imagine myself as a leopard, running through a forest, powerful, unafraid. You always said I was too colourful. You complained about my purple stonewash jeans so much I gave them to the op shop. Then we broke up. I wish I’d kept the jeans. I’m nearing the lookout now, the weird triangular sculptures. The trees open up, give way to sky. The sky’s turning pinkish. You can’t beat Wellington, even on a bad day. But Wellington may beat you.

I’m dropping down from the lookout, re-entering the forest. Like entering a bedroom. But I’m single. Yep. All the single ladies. Waving my hands in the air halfway between freedom and desperation. The hill gets steep here, I have to brace my knees. I’m keeping myself alive, I tell myself. My joints, my tendons, my muscles, my heart. The heart is a muscle that never stops twitching. I’m going down the concrete steps, and I’m on your street. But I’ll pretend I’m not, I won’t look at your house. The psycho ex. The stalker. That is not who I am. I am simply a person who loves you, loves you deeply. I have never felt this way about any other man, ever. I feel like Wanda Jackson, down down down into the funnel of love. The thing about love is that it isn’t insane. Love is the purest, sanest thing any of us will ever feel.

A light’s on in your lounge, and there’s her head, in the big picture window. She’s on the couch, reading or something. Checking her Twitter. No face visible, just her golden head. Your golden girl. You married her after about five minutes, but it still makes perfect sense to me, that she was the one you’d been looking for all along. She’s naturally blonde with enormous boobs. I have no boobs, like literally an AA cup. It’s useful for running – I don’t even really need a bra. I just wear one because I feel like that’s what one ought to do. No boobs, and I always hoped you were an arse man, because my arse is alright, running is good for the gluteus, but I always knew deep down you were a boob man. When we were fucking I used to imagine myself as someone else, a big-boobed woman. Probably younger than I am, with fantastic melons that had sprouted out of my chest and not yet felt the effects of gravity. The way they’d bounce. The way they’d fly, wildly, as you hammered me like crazy from behind. The way they’d rock as I rode you. Whenever I came, I came to myself. I hadn’t been me, and then I was again. It was like you had never actually fucked me.

Your street is also steep. I cross the side roads – whoever thought of laying out a square grid on the side of a mountain? I get down to Kent Terrace, pant at the lights. Back up around the Basin, past the seedy pubs on Adelaide road, the hospital where I was born. Get home, my one-bedroom flat, see my work piled up on the kitchen table. You’ll be having dinner sitting opposite her, talking about your respective days. I’ll be eating with work. I turn on the shower, hear the drops hit the steel tray, peel away my sweaty clothes. When I see steam rising, I step in. I have the water so hot it almost cooks me. Saltiness is running down my face. I scream at the showerhead like it’s a cruel god.

*

I am going for a run. I am not going up, or anywhere near, Mount Victoria. I say this to myself every evening, like a spell against . . . what? How more cursed could I be? I’m already fucked. I go for runs, I take the meds that mean I can’t even wank. Love is the only medicine. Love, and seawater. If it’s true you’re married now, and it is, all I can do, all I can do, is find someone new. The best way to get over a guy is to get under the next one. But, under? Does it have to be under? Can’t it be, I don’t know, sideways?

The neighbour’s cat watches me as I stretch my quads, my hamstrings. ‘I know, I’m nuts,’ I say to her. She squints and looks away. Cats know everything. They look into your face like you’re the simplest mess. I don’t have a cat. A single woman, without even a cat. It’s really just me. I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I should get out more. I should, I don’t know, join a club or something. Or take up a martial art.

But which martial art? Which one would best enable me to kick your bastard arse? Which one would have me prepared, knowing exactly which direction the next blow would come from? My heart’s been broken, over and over. I really thought you wouldn’t. I thought I was old enough now that this would be it. Like, enough smashing myself up against brick walls. Enough flogging dead horses. Look at the lights of the capital slowly blinking on, a whole fucking city of dead horses. There ought to be a martial art for the emotions. How to fight with just your heart.

This evening I see her walking around the lounge. She’s tall, a little heftier than I am. Top-heavy, like she could topple forward. Bounce back up on her big rubber boobs. She’s arranging something – well, why wouldn’t she, it’s her house, after all. It was your house, that house I spent so many nights in, in your room with the tapestry wall hangings, rocking in your arms like a small boat on a gentle sea. I know every washbasin in that house, every inch of carpet, every shelf, each room’s wallpaper. She’ll be changing things around. She’ll have replaced your old brown Temuka with whatever crockery she’s into. Wedding presents. I wasn’t invited, but a friend was cruel enough to show me some video footage. It was all so strange, her in white, you in a suit, when all you ever wore was corduroy pants and a hippy shirt. Why did you do this? Things had got shit at work, I went to India for two months and meditated and ate fruit, we agreed to go on a break. And back from the break, you’d got engaged. She was a Trump refugee. She predicted the outcome of the election long before anyone else. When he won she was out of there like a flash. Married you to stay in New Zealand. That was her, but why did you do that? Were you mad at me for leaving? You know I meant to come back. Did you marry her to piss me off?

Do you still love me? I still love you.

Love is the purest, sanest thing any of us will ever feel. Love is not crazy, not manipulative, not needy. It just gives and gives, like a dripping tap. Like a broken tap the water’s gushing out of. Where can I get a plumber for the emotions? Who can stop up this awful wastage?

I wasn’t going to slow down. But it’s getting dark, she won’t see me. I just want to sit for a while, to be close. You don’t have a fence, just a ngaio hedge. The leaves contain a natural insect repellent. There was that time, I can’t remember which time, or where, but somewhere near Nelson, I think, we camped in a ngaio grove, and you rubbed leaves onto your skin to keep the sandflies at bay. We ate rice and lentils for dinner and porridge with soymilk for breakfast. The tent was a small and joyful room where we made love over and over, our sounds travelling around the mostly empty campground. It was just before Christmas. Which year was that?

The dead leaves crackle under my butt. I’ll pretend I’ve dropped something. I don’t wear a Fitbit, but say my Fitbit has fallen off. I know they’re designed not to. I’ve worn it out though. I am really, really fit. I crawl on my hands and knees, feel sticks pressing through my tights (galaxies today), and get to the other side of the hedge. I look up to the warm light pooling around the lounge window. I think I can smell Nag Champa incense, but maybe it’s just my imagination. I think I can smell chai.

Suddenly it’s all her, all five foot eleven of her, taking up the whole window frame, her face sort of glowing. She’s seen something moving. She’s seen me! I’m over the gate. I was good at hurdles. I hear the front door click, hear her accented "Hey!" Does she know it’s me? Does she even know I exist? Did you even tell her, when you married her, that you’d left a relationship of five years to be with her? Five fucking years. Yes, fucking.

I don’t turn around. I keep sprinting ahead. I’ve never gone this fast downhill, and I’m scared I’ll go flying, land and flay myself on the tarmac. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

*

I am going for a run. I am not going up, or anywhere near, Mount Victoria. I put on my mermaid tights, my royal blue merino singlet, my brilliant aqua jacket. I am a sea creature dancing in the ocean of the twilight. I am a bird of paradise, twirling through the trees. Why is it that with birds, it’s the males who are beautiful? Why do men expect women to be beautiful, when they can have pot bellies, hair in their ears, turn up to a party in their trackies. The care I’d take co ordinating everything, wanting every day to be lovely. To be manicured, to smell good, to never let a long black hair grow out of a mole, to never fart. My mother with her dry dyed hair, with her grim mouth, with her crack-filling foundation. I don’t want that to be the story. I met you and I thought we could start at the very beginning. Back before the apple. All the stories, fixed. Romeo and Juliet but not dead.

But you killed it as casually as one might an ant.

I’m at the lookout, with the wind beating my head. Clouds moving in faster than clouds ought to. Wellington beats me. The whole awful place. Fuck this place, this city that’s broken my heart over and over. I’ll go back to India, travel up through Nepal, find God in the mountains. I’ll go to Australia, pick pineapples or something, instead of staying here in my one-bedder with my proper job. My proper, awful life. Now there’s no you, no settling down and starting a family, what is the goddamn point of pushing paper, having a reliable paycheck. Life is unreliable. If only there were emotional paychecks, if only fortnightly the heart could be topped up. Here you are heart, another two weeks of bliss.

I can do a longer run tonight, cut down to Balaena Bay, go around the waterfront towards Kilbirnie. It’ll get dark before I’m done, but I’ll stick to the footpaths, keep out of the town belt with its gnarled tracks. Who would even care if my throat was slit? How many days would it take people to work out I was missing, I might have died, before strips of me were unearthed by someone’s curious dog?

So I come out of the trees, and I’m tired, and your street’s the quickest. She’s suspicious since last night. I can’t risk it again. Lights are on, there’s no one in the window, maybe she’s in the kitchen, or the bathroom. You might be home or you might be working late. If I could get round the side of the house without anyone seeing I could check for your bicycle. I could just know if you were there or not, I could stand on the footpath pretending to be catching my breath, as if breath was what I was chasing all that time, and I could breathe in the night air that held the closeness of you in it. Close to your neighbour’s fence the ngaios are shaded. I have dropped an earring. I am creeping. Creepy. This is creepy of me, it isn’t normal, it isn’t sensible, it isn’t done. People at work would not do this. Most people would not do this. There’s a crackle of windblown junk mail under my hand. I’m through the hedge. I’m on the path down the side of your house, the familiar concrete pavers surrounded by loose pebbles, the familiar slightly-peeling weatherboards. Old house, old town, old hopes, old dreams, I can’t stomach it.

The back door clicks open, there are footsteps. Someone taking the recycling out. I’m a possum in the headlights, the security-lit path with the next-door neighbour’s fence on one side and the wall of your house on the other, both unscalable. I hear her voice saying "Hey Tom, there’s someone here again." I hear your voice answering from inside the house. I hear her say the word "police." Fuck. I do the dumbest thing. I run down the path, past the lean-to where you keep your bike and a few garden tools, jump your currant bushes, scramble over the wall at the end of your section to the back neighbour’s section. The neighbour’s curtains are drawn. Oh, God. My heart is going to pop. If I can get out of here, out on to the next street over. But there’s a movement behind me, someone’s coming over the wall, I hear the scrambling of limbs. I run like a dumb rabbit, darting whichever way to elude its pursuing fox. Where is the way to the street? I leap another fence, crash through bushes, Parkour over a garage, I can’t find a way out of all these twilit yards. These houses are so close together. I hear a dog barking. Oh, God. I fall, and there’s mud, and I’m bruised, and I’m crying. I am sitting on a heap of something. There’s the faint smell of rotted orange rind. I crawl forwards in the growing dark, all my body shaking, sobs unable to be stopped. My dog, I’ll say I’m looking for my dog. I make it to the front of a house where there’s a low wall topped with a picket fence. I climb it crying, get a picket point right in my mermaid cunt. I sit down on the footpath sobbing and shaking some more. I feel a hand on my shoulder, feel the warmth of a body settle down beside me. I couldn’t shake you off.

"Come here," you say to me. "Come here." And you pull me close to you, and hold me in my aqua iridescence, in my compost stink. You don’t ask me what I’m doing, you don’t tell me off. You knew all along it was me, all those times. You were waiting for the chance to catch me at it. I don’t need to explain myself. I’m sobbing against your chest, and you’re holding me close, soothing me, stroking my back, my hair. We’re sitting on the footpath in Mount Victoria, a street over from yours. I hear traffic but I don’t make out the shapes of people or cars through my tears. My eyes are walled up. What I am thinking is, you and I are like those baboons, the old man baboon and the old woman baboon. No matter how many wives you have, I’ll always be your first wife, and the one who never stops loving you. You’ve never held me tighter. I have nothing for you. I have nothing to say to you. You say nothing to me. When you have finished holding me, I will get up and walk away.

Next week's short story is "Children Underfoot" by Porirua writer Danny Bultitude.

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