We were living in a house that was only half finished. There was a large, open-plan lounge with a deck overlooking the garden, but the underneath part of the house was just framing. The architect's plan promised five bedrooms - a family home - but so far there were only two.
My husband, myself and my daughter lived in this house. My daughter was four, and people kept asking when we were going to have another child. It seemed an unbelievably tactless question, and sometimes, afterwards, I'd weep because of it. The doctor had suggested a laparoscopy, but I'd heard that occasionally a bubble of air could escape into the body and you could die; thinking back, maybe it was just a myth, but at the time I was terrified of that random bubble of air.
My husband and I first met when I'd just come back from overseas and was looking for a flat. I sat on a two-seater couch, and his large dog jumped up beside me. It was the dog's sofa, apparently. We slept together one weekend, when the other flatties were away, and things went from there. I got pregnant quickly. Accidentally-on-purpose, or so it seemd with hindsight. I was yearning for meaning in my life. We got married when my daughter was a year old. It was something my husband wanted to do. Meanwhile, we had moved to this house in a nice suburb and started doing renovations. I wanted to have several children – my own family was so small – but somehow it never eventuated.
So we carried on, my husband, myself and my daughter, and I tried to think myself lucky.
Then one afternoon the phone rang and it was my husband's best friend, David. Could he come round? My daughter was at kindy, so I was alone. I made him a cup of coffee and he sat on the two-seater while I sat opposite him. He had a gingery complexion, and although he was in his 30s, he never seemed to be in a relationship of any sort. My mother thought he was gay.
David talked. It was something to do with the flat he was sharing with a woman; some kind of dispute. Suddenly he started crying. God, how often did you see a man weep? Embarrassed, I got around the outsize coffee table and patted his knee, and I said the first thing that came into my head. 'But of course you must come and stay with us.'
My husband was furious, in a buried kind of way. 'What does he have to stay with us for? He could get another flat. What was the problem, anyway?'
'He was crying,' I protested. 'He's your friend.'
'Well, we can always say we're going to finish the renovations. Get rid of him that way.'
It was decided David could set up his bed downstairs in the unframed part of the house where I usually just hung the washing. It had a concrete floor, and a set of primed French doors that opened onto the unmade garden. It was coming into summer, so he'd be all right down there.
My daughter liked having David in the house; he was good with kids and animals. The cat would sleep on him for hours. My husband was content because he was paying rent. It was nice for me to have some extra company at dinner, instead of the yawning length of the table and all those empty placemats. And he was quiet enough. The only irritating thing was the honking way he blew his nose. My daughter and I would have a secret giggle when we heard that honk coming up through the polished floorboards. And I had to take care on the weekends that he was decent before I went downstairs to hang out the washing.
Other people, though, seemed to find the set-up strange. 'Is it like a menage a trois,' said one friend, only half-joking. It made me feel like I was living in a village. Some Catholic little place in the Irish countryside, instead of cosmopolitan Auckland.
Otherwise, everything was pottering along fine, really.
We left David in charge of the house, and drove south for a holiday witih my husband's sister at a rented house in Waikanae. We argued in the car, sotto voce, on the way down the island. My daughter was in a booster seat. I couldn't believe we were arguing in front of her; it was the kin of thing that might traumatise a kid. I can't even remember what we were arguing about. It was a summer's day and the car windows were both down and for some reason my blue raffia sunhat was on my lap; perhsp we were going to stop soon. My husband got so furious, he grabbed the hat and hurled it out the open window.
I went very still. Tears ran down my face, but I didn't wipe them away. I didn't want to move or make a sound, because of my daughter and the way she might be scarred by for parent's arguments. In my mind I saw the hat flying away on the wind and landing in a ditch.
My daughter started whining.
'All right,' said my husband, 'we're stopping soon. Just be quiet now.'
And in fact we were coming into Taupo. We pulled up in front of the lake and my husband got out of the car and started shepherding our daughter over to a refrigerated cart underneath a striped umbrella. I watched my husband dig out his wallet and pay for the ice cream. The strip of white pumice beach was busy with people sunbathing and fooling around in the water. The water was a chipped blue. Further out a guy was on a windsurfer, its pink sail jerking abou tin the wind and the guy leaning in and making sharp turns. It make me think of the windsurfers in the Beijing Olympics out in an enormous murky bay.
I wiped my face and decided I would leave my husband. I would just walk. Get a flat, take my daughter, and fend for myself. Women did it all the time. It wasn't the end of the world.
At Waikanae we played Happy Families. The first thing my sister-in-law did was pour large glasses of chardonnay. It was only four o'clock, but I was ready for a drink. Our daughter ran up and down the stairs between the kitchen and the basement room where we would be sleeping. I tried to imagine what my husband and I would do on that futon mattress. We weren't looking at each other, and I kept thinking about my lovely sunhat. Bu the time I went to bed, I didn't care about anything. Some time during the night my husband put his hand on my hip and said he would buy me a new sunhat.
How did we end up so far apart? I felt so restless I could scream.
I tried to remember our wedding. The night before I had walked along our city street and pulled lengths of flowering jasmine out of the fence on the corner. That was my bouquet. My mother helped sew my wedding outfit: a floral skirt, and a blouse made from off-white lawn. I word the pink patent-leather shoes my husband had bought me before he became my husband. I loked back at that earlier time with nostalgia. Getting married had changed everything. It seemed to take away a certain lightness we'd once had that I hadn't fully appreciated.
Our friends, a recently-married couple, gave us wedding gifts – a sunhat each. For sunny days, they smiled. My husband's was a Panama; mine was blue raffia with plaited silk around the brim.
At Waikanae we walked along the dirty sand of the beach, our daughter running ahead, and my bare feet left imprints that were etched with fine lines. Was I that old? Time seemed to be rapidly slipping away from me. I thought again about leaving my husband, and what I would do; but the image just wouldn't gel. Besides, I told myself, it was only a hat.
Back in the city, things went on as normal, except we had David now in our lives.
I had a job on Saturdays around that time in an art gallery. All day I'd sit behind the long modern desk and field any questions and answer the phone if it rang. If somebody stood in front of a picture for more than a few seconds then I'd strike up a quiet conversation. Several small paintings had been sold in this way and my boss was thinking she'd like me to work more than just the Saturday. I seemed to have a kind of knack.
The latest exhibition was a series of abstract studies, decorative, in the shape of crescent moons. Paint, in gradients of blue, was splashed across the canvas surface; some pieces had also been drizzled with gold. The artist had recently been written up in Art New Zealand for the first time, so although there was a buzz, the paintings were still affordable.
My husband, who had come to the opening, talked about buying one, but we had a crippling mortgage to defend.
The Saturday following the opening was especially quiet. Not a soul had been in all day. It was raining, and I stood in the open doorway of the gallery, arms folded tight across my chest, and watched the slanting rain turn the asphalt midnight blue.
Then, out of the rain, a man in a black raincoat came running. One moment it was just the rain, the next there was a man. I stood aside as he shook off his wet coat like a dog, spraying droplets all over the place. 'Hello there,' he grinned. It was the artist. 'Couldn't help myself. I had to come and have another look.' It was, after all, his first solo exhibition.
'Please, go ahead,' I said, returning to my desk.
It was odd, watching him and knowing he was the artist, as he moved from painting to painting, leaning forward at times to study a detail, then stepping back, hand to chin, head on one side. He had a shock of dark hair that kept falling over his forehead; he brushed it back, like a reflex, so that I noticed his hands. He had solid hands, like a builder. His name was Adam and I thought he might be in his late 20s.
'You've sold one,' he said, looking pleased.
Though he'd need to sell more than one, I thought, if my boss was going to keep him on. There was a spare chair next to mine, and he sat down and stretched out his legs, admiring the room. I didn't know what to do with him, so I offered him a coffee. As I was pushing down the plunger, somebody came into the gallery. A man in a suit, one of our regular clients. I counted to twenty, poured two cups of coffee, put one in front of the artist, then I walked over to the client. Yes, I said, the paintings are very well executed. So you saw the piece in Art New Zealand? Yes, he is up-and-coming. The best thing, I realised later, was that the artist held himself back while I walked the client around the paintings, talking gently the whole time, pitching my voice to the right level of knowledge and admiration; apparently, this was the knack I had.
At the right moment, I paused and said, 'You know, we have the artist right here -'
The client was pleased-surprised. And the artist did a faint double-take, as if hearing his name spoken across a crowded room. He got up, brushing back his hair, and walked over to join us. I left them alone at that point: as in a delicately-executed dance, it was my turn to withdraw.
After the sale and the client had left, it was time for me to close up. The artist, standing at the door looking out at the rain, said, 'You were very good. Thanks.' He wasn't at all like the kind of artist my boss usually represented; perhaps it was just that he was still fairly young and untainted by success.
He asked me out for a drink, to celebrate, and because I couldn't always face going back to cook dinner for my little family and watch the television news, and frankly, because of the way he looked at me, as if he really saw me, I said yes.
Next Saturday, around closing time, he turned up again. When I made coffee, in the little kitchen at the back of the gallery, he pressed himself against me. The pressure was soft, almost tentative, as if he was asking a question, and the odd thing was that instead of being upset and indignant, I felt myself responding to that pressure. I leaned my head back against his chest, so he put his hands on my hips and pressed his lips against my neck.
A few days later, while my daughter was at kindy, I went to his flat. He had a large studio room above a shop. There was just this room, and it contained his whole life: a bench and sink where a kettle stood, a mattress in one corner, canvases on the floor, a table covered in desecrated tubes of paint. The toilet was out on the landing.
It was the kissing, I think, that really got me. After you've been married for a few years, there isn't so much kissing. Sometimes, when I really felt like kissing, my husband would turn his head aside. He couldn't take too much of it; as if the kissing threatened to fill him up with the kinds of feelings he just couldn't cope with. Whereas, I liked how you could lose yourself in a kiss. It reminded me of being a teenager and sitting in a boy's car, kissing and kissing until you nearly dissolved.
So we lay on his mattress, naked in the remains of the afternoon, and kissed.
Back home, everything went on like normal. Except, once or twice, I'd glance up to find David's gingery eyes gazing at me. It was a thoughtful, enquiring look, as if he too would like to pose a question of me. Did these men in my life think I knew all the answers? When really, I hardly knew a thing. My life was like an ink outline on a sheet of paper that begged to be coloured in. Only my husband, sunk into the concerns of his own routine, seemed oblivious. I didn't realise until later that it was his way of coping with the tactless questions, the low sperm count and the bubble of air that could potentially kill. Yet I had the feeling it would take only a sideways step and we could be back the way we used to be.
We had got so used to David by this stage that it came as a surprise when he said he'd found a flat; a house he was going to share with two other guys. You see, my mother whispered when she heard, I told you so.
The day he shifted out, I waited by the front door, feeling brittle and counting again the days since my last period was due, as David lugged out his suitcase. The sun seemed to shine down in rectangles, and the street was abnormally quiet. I was reminded of the armed offenders squad call-out that had happened a few months back in our street. I'd just turned back to the house from the letterbox, with the mail, when I saw a man in black holding a gun lying in our neighbour's front garden. His look said: Just go back inside and don't make a sound.
I looked up the street now, into the expectant distance, as if something like that was about to happen. The day seemed to hold a lot of potential.
David put the suitcase in his car then came back to stand awkwardly on the bricks. He thanked me - for everything - then looked at me intently and asked if I'd be all right.
'Of course,' I said, pretending I didn't know what he was talking about. Adam ghosted between us; Adam who was already moving into history.
David sighed. 'Okay,' he said, then folded me into a hug.
'Keep in touch,' I said.