When James, Amy’s mysterious childhood friend, moves away, she thinks she’ll never see him again. Years pass, then suddenly he’s back, and Amy finds herself thrust into a new place, unguarded and naive. Soon trapped in a labyrinth of pain and secrets, bound by love, loyalty and hidden shame, only a fragile new friendship can offer Amy hope.
I wonder how you’re doing, how business is. If you opened that second shop you talked about.
I have been working, from home, actually. Somehow I managed to start a home business, making cupcakes, cakes and pastries for special occasions. I stumbled up on it by accident, just by doing a favor for a colleague of James’. It has taken off from there. I get 2-3 clients a week, and the money is actually decent. This weekend I’m catering someone’s 16th birthday party and I’m doing all the food, in addition to a cupcake bar and a sweet sixteen cake. I’ll make more from this one party than I made at the museum in two weeks. I’m still kind of astounded that people think my food is that good. I’ve been putting some money away, just a little here and there. Not enough to be noticed. I’m not sure why.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mt. Eden. It was always one of my favorite places to go when I lived in Auckland. I liked to go on Sunday mornings and have breakfast, watching the sun come up. Once I’d finished eating I’d walk over and stare down into the crater for a while, just thinking. James always told me that only tourists hang out at Mt. Eden. But it brought me peace. For me, it was kind of a magical place. For some reason lately whenever I think about Mt. Eden all I can think about is throwing myself down the hill. Just taking off at a run and hurling myself as hard as I can. Isn’t that ridiculous?
Most everything going through my head these days ridiculous, actually. I’m probably losing my mind. When it gets really bad I remember the haka. That always makes me smile. I know it’s not for me, but it makes me feel strong.
Some days, like today, I feel better. Sometimes I feel hopeful. I’m proud of what I’m accomplishing, though I’m aware that it can all fall apart at any moment. I’m just riding the wave until it does.
I miss you. I miss you. I miss you. I thought my feelings for you would die down once I was away, after some time had passed. I thought the memory would fade, but if anything, it has only gotten stronger, more bright. Whenever I’m down and focusing on the terrible in my life, I think of you, and I am glad again. Have you ever read “The Great Gatsby?” I’m Jay – tortured, stuck in time, on a loop. You’re my green light at the end of the dock, my dark-skinned, male version of Daisy Buchanan – my beacon of hope in the darkness. I imagine if you ever read my letters to you, you would be horrified and run screaming for the hills. A fucked up girl with a fucked up marriage, dreaming of you from afar.
Did you know we were married? It was his idea. I have a husband. I’m a wife. And nobody knows. It’s all part of the game. How stupid I am.
I hear James coming up the walk. Ta for now.
Time passed, but I don’t remember much. It was as though I only retained the highlight reel. Bits and pieces remained, but so much of my every day just faded into nothingness as life carried on in the blustery city of Wellington. I stayed steadfast on the track, wearing my ill-fitting conductor hat, trying to stay the course without incident. But the track was bumpier than ever, and I didn’t know which direction I was traveling in.
Later that afternoon, the afternoon of the drying rack incident, I discovered that he’d gotten chewed out for a mistake he’d made at the firm. He didn’t elaborate, and I never asked him. Honestly, I didn’t care. He hadn’t bothered to apologize, and had barely even explained his behavior towards me. He’d just said, as we walked to dinner (he’d still made me get dressed to accompany him out for food) that he’d had a bad day and there was a mistake made and the whole thing hadn’t really been his fault, it had totally been blown out of proportion, and I needed to work harder to know when he was stressed and not act insensitive to his needs.
Whatever high he had been on, whatever had been great about his internship before had suddenly changed, shifted, and now he loathed it. I could only assume that his careful facade had cracked and that the people he worked with had had a taste of what he could really be like, and now he was out of favor. But truthfully, I had no idea. He went to work every day with a scowl on his face, and came home frenzied and angry most days. But he did not talk about it, and dodged my every attempt to ask. I often caught him talking to himself in a crazed, wild sort of way. I had learned a careful tiptoe routine to stay out of his sights most of the time, but it wasn’t without the occasional slip up.
He had started to threaten suicide, on nights that were especially bad. Usually after inflicting whatever physical punishment he’d deemed appropriate for me, he’d have a winding down time, in which he’d start to wax poetic about his life, how he worked so hard, how nobody appreciated or understood him, how unfair it all was, how he wanted to just die. He threatened it, and waited for me to beg him. It was an orchestrated routine in which I was required to take careful steps to assure him that I wanted him around, that I cared about his life. Deep down, I wasn’t sure I did, at least not in the way that he wanted me to. I didn’t even care that much about my own life anymore, much less his.
One night, after being in Wellington for a few months, I walked in to find that he had downed half a bottle of tequila, and was three sheets to the wind. I had never seen him so drunk before. He was sitting in his office chair, doing the usual spin-dance routine he did, but no music was playing. He was just circling round, and round, and round, his head resting on the back of the chair, his arms curled around the back of it. His eyes regarded me dully as I walked into the room. He stuck his foot out, stopping the chair from swiveling. I was surprised he didn’t throw up.
“Where’ve you been?” He slurred.
I had been out dropping off a batch of cupcakes I’d been hired to make for a wedding shower. They had turned out beautifully, and the bride had been so happy with them she’d invited me to stay for her shower and have a drink. I had done so, despite not really feeling comfortable, simply to be able to stay away from the house for a while. I saw that James had made good use of the time away from me.
“I had to drop off an order, remember? The wedding shower cupcakes? I made a couple of extra ones…left them for you on the counter.”
“Ate ’em.” He made a face. His speech was incredibly slurred. “Good flavor but too much bloody glitter.”
I smiled a little, trepidatiously. “Well, you know. That’s what the customer likes. All the flourishes and decorations and that. It’s edible glitter.”
He snorted, changing the subject. “I’ve been thinking.”
Oh, great. I didn’t know if I had the energy for this right now. It never came to anything good. Still, I gave him a nonchalant, mildly interested look. “What about?”
It was the first time I’d heard him actually acknowledge that we were married in almost a year. Sometimes I almost forgot that we were married myself. “What about it?”
“Maybe it’s time we tell people.”
I looked at him, waiting. I knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t ever decide such a thing – no, this was a trap of some kind. There was something else behind it. It was simply a matter of waiting for it. “Why?”
“Don’t you want to?” He cocked his head at me, waiting for my answer.
I thought carefully for a moment, then finally, said, “Things are fine the way they are. I don’t have any complaints. But if you want to tell people, I have no objection.” There. That was about as non-committal and cautious as I could get, without knowing why he was asking.
“Well,” he said, spinning around in the chair a few more times, “Seems to me that I’m just a kept man. I’m useless at my internship, apparently. It doesn’t pay anything. I’m in debt up to my eyeballs. And my woman is paying all our bills by making glittery cupcakes. Isn’t that absurd?” He laughed, a deep belly laugh, but there was no joy in it. “I couldn’t be more of a joke if I tried.”
I shook my head. “That isn’t true at all, James. You’re working towards a really prestigious career, and you’ve had a lot of success. You’re too hard on yourself.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that I can’t pay my own bills, I have to rely on you and your baking hobby to get by.”
“It isn’t a hobby. It’s my job now. I make a decent living at it, don’t I?”
He swayed a little in the chair. For a moment it looked as though he might actually fall off. “That’s my bloody point, woman. Don’t you listen? You barely try and you’ve made it. Baking cupcakes. It’s so stupid it’s laughable, and yet here we are.”
My brows furrowed. “You don’t think my job is respectable? Do you not want me to bake?”
“You could turn tricks on the corner and I wouldn’t care. What I mind is that I’m living off you.”
“But why?” I was confused. “It’s never bothered you before.”
“It’s always bothered me.” He stood up on very unsteady legs, walking over to the shelf where he kept the tequila bottle. I grimaced as he opened it and took a gulp. The last thing he needed was more. “I hate that you are essentially taking care of me. I’m the man here, I invited you to live here. I should be taking care of things. I hate having to rely on someone else to take care of it all. I can’t trust you to keep the bills paid, I can’t trust you not to make foolish expenditures. It’s too unpredictable.”
“When have I never given you reason to doubt that I’m responsible?” I felt hurt, and angry. “And what does any of this have to do with telling people we’re married?”
“That’s not the point. You don’t pay attention! You’re not listening to what I’m saying!” He pointed an accusatory finger at me. “I’ve explained it all very clearly.”
“I am listening. I get it. You’re saying that I emasculate you. Right?”
He sneered at me, fumbling to put the cap back on the bottle. “Fuck you. Don’t throw two dollar words at me.”
I threw up my hands. I didn’t know the right answer, and I doubt he did himself. It seemed to me that he was just feeling insecure about my recent success, and felt like demeaning me a little to make himself feel better. He was starting a fight just to elevate himself. He felt like blaming me for what he perceived as failures. He was being childish because I, a woman, was able to pay all the bills. He felt inadequate. Well, no shit. I knew the first moment he lay his hands on me back in Auckland that insecurity drove him. It didn’t take a top-level scientist to figure that out. It was psychology 101. What all of that had to do with telling people about our marriage I didn’t know. Instead of saying all that, and voicing my frustration, I just sighed.
“Oh, am I exhausting you, Amy?” He staggered over to me. He stunk, as though he’d poured the whole bottle of tequila over his head. “Are you just too precious to have a serious conversation with your husband about anything real?”
“I think you could use some sleep.” I gave him a stern look, as stern as I dared. “You’d feel a lot better if you had a rest.”
“No, I’d feel a lot better if I could just fuck off and die.”
I stifled a laugh. I’d probably feel better, too, I thought before I could stop myself. I composed myself though, and managed to look sympathetic. “I’m sure you feel pretty rough right now. I understand. But look, you’re just feeling this way because-”
“Don’t patronize me!” He leaned up against the wall. He could barely stand. “I’m serious…I want to die. I don’t want to live anymore. I’m a bad person. I don’t bring good things to anybody. You hate me. I don’t want to go on.”
“James, don’t say that.” I was mustering up all the good will and motivation I had to try and talk him out of it, but I honestly was beginning to not care. Let him bloody off himself. I was dangerously close to not giving a shit. Still, I knew that I had to at least try and talk him down.
“You don’t care if I live or die.” He cradled his head in his arms, still leaning up against the wall, and made a sound that was half a snort and half a cry. Jesus, he was drunk. It made me feel a little drunk just looking at him. “If I killed myself you would be sitting pretty. No more tyrant to chase you around the house, and you’d have my life insurance money. It’s better than what I can offer you right now.”
I knew damn well not to say a word in response to that. I pretended as though I hadn’t heard. “Come on, James. Let’s go to bed. I’ll get you a glass of water and we’ll go lie down. We can talk more in there.”
“I’m not coming to bed. I’m going to kill myself.”
“James. You are not going to kill yourself. You have far too much to live for. We’ll find a solution to this. We’ll fix things. We can talk about it, and I can help. Let’s just get into bed-”
“Stop telling me to go to bed like I’m a child!” He stood up, his legs almost giving way. He glared at me, but his eyes weren’t even focusing on me. He was so gone I was surprised he hadn’t passed out cold into a heap on the floor by now. He was actually drooling.
I didn’t know what to do, but I did know I wasn’t going to stand there and argue with him, or wait for him to strike out against me. I pasted on a calm, compassionate smile. “I’m just going to change into some pajamas, and get you a glass of water. I’ll be right back, ok?”
He nodded, not really hearing me. I hoped that by the time I got back with his water he’d have passed out, or at least have calmed down a little and be willing to lie down. I took a little longer getting dressed than I had to, then stopped by the bathroom to brush my teeth, wash my face and pull back my hair. I went into the kitchen and grabbed him a glass of cold water and another one of the leftover cupcakes.
Despite my apathy about his idle threats and attention-getting behavior, I was a little bit heartened that he was at least talking to me about some of the things he was feeling. I had assumed that he occasionally acted out in anger because he didn’t feel our arrangements were even. I’d wondered if he had any kind of guilt or inadequate feelings about the fact that I supported us, and had for a while. Apparently he did, and I felt a little better knowing it. It did not condone the way he treated me, though, not at all. If anything it made it worse, to know that deep down he did feel guilty for not contributing, and yet he still hurt me all the time. It didn’t make much sense, but then, most things James did were nonsensical. I had given up trying to understand him a long time ago, and perhaps that was part of the problem, too. It was hard not to blame myself – I often wondered what I could have done differently, said differently, approached differently, to have made him into something other than what he was, which most of the time was a monster. It made me sad that James seemed to be burying himself deeper and deeper below this alter-ego, this abusive, hysterical being that I did not understand or love. There was a real thinking, feeling person in there somewhere, the person I’d known and liked as a child, the boy I’d had a crush on as a teenager. But I saw him few and far between now. He was fading fast, and giving way to someone else entirely. Someone who terrified me.
When I finally returned to the living room, he wasn’t there. “James?” I walked over and flicked on the porch light, peering outside. He wasn’t out there. He must have gone into the spare bedroom to crash on the floor. I walked into the room, turning on that light. Nowhere to be seen. How odd. I called his name again, and got no answer. Just as I was turning to leave the room, I saw that the closet light was on. Feeling unsettled, I walked over and threw open the door.
He had hung himself from one of his work belts, a brown one with little copper colored studs that he liked to wear. I had bought it for him as a Christmas present, and had been pleasantly surprised to see that he had actually been fond of it. He had his back to me as he dangled there, hanging stupidly, and I just stared for a moment, disbelieving. He was so tall that he couldn’t really hang from the pole properly; his legs were kind of curled under him at the knee, and his hands were crossed in front of him in an odd position. It didn’t look right to me.
Still, I felt panicked. He threatened suicide fairly frequently these days, especially if drinking was involved, but he’d never taken it this far. I knew instinctively that it was a manipulation, all for my benefit. I didn’t know how to react. This went beyond manipulative and abusive – it was alarming. Did I call the police? And risk whatever punishment he would have in store for me after they came? Did I try to coax him out of the closet, risking his wrath? Did I ignore it, pretend I hadn’t seen him, and wait for him to tire of this? That didn’t seem like a very good idea. If he was willing to go this far, to simulate suicide just for attention, there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do, in my opinion. I couldn’t ignore it, anyway, even if I wanted to. And then there was the very real risk of him really hurting himself. He was so drunk. He could pass out like that and actually die. Or suffer some other minor injury. No, I had to help him. Even if he was manipulating me and this was all a trick, I couldn’t just do nothing.
“James,” I said gently, standing off to the side of him, clear from him should he decide to get up suddenly. “I know you can hear me. This is dangerous. I need you to get up and come out of there. I understand that you’re upset, but you could get hurt.”
Silence. He hung there, playing dead. I could see his back moving up and down, though, so clearly he was breathing. And I was pretty sure he wasn’t asleep.
“James, please come out of there.”
I stood there for anther few seconds, debating.
“If you don’t get up and come out of there I’m going to be forced to call 111.” Nothing. “I know you don’t want the police involved. Can’t we talk about this?”
He apparently had no intention of responding to me at all. I had no idea what it was he wanted from me. He probably didn’t, either. Well, it wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t going to wail and pull my hair and clutch at him and beg for him to come out through my tears. I would not give him that, not this time. I walked soundlessly out to the living room and grabbed the cordless phone, my hands shaking. I came back, and he was still in the same position, though I could see that he’d adjusted his right leg and was now bearing weight on it, instead of having it curled under him. So he had become uncomfortable. Good. That meant he might tire of this charade and get up soon.
“Are you ready to stop this now?” I tried to keep the irritation and fear out of my voice, but it was hard. He had hung himself from a belt in the damn closet, for gods sake – how do you come back from that? How do you continue on with your evening, with your week, with your life, after doing something like that? I was out of my element, and I had reached my threshold. Enough was enough. “James, this is really scary. This is not normal. I think you need some serious professional help. I don’t know what you expect from me, what scenario you are hoping will come of this. It can’t end well. Just get up and come out of there.”
I knew he would take my words as an insult more than genuine concern, but I was running out of options. If he didn’t get up soon I was going to have to call the police. I had no other choice. He was hanging there in our closet, after all. What else could I do? Still, a small, tiny sliver of me was tempted to just leave him there. After all, he had hurt me so many times, had shown so little regard for my own well-being or feelings so often over the past year and a half. Why did he think he deserved my support and help? He just assumed I would be here to coax him out – it was all a carefully constructed plan to garner my sympathy and my undivided attention. It was fun and games, carefully devised by a cruel, mentally unstable man. I hated him right then; I really did. And yet, it was not in my nature to just abandon him and walk out the door, though it was tempting. I would have had time to throw on my shoes, grab the phone and take off before he had gotten back on his feet and removed the belt. He wouldn’t be able to catch up with me. I could phone the police and escape from him and be safe and sound before he had a chance to get off the porch, probably. I could free myself from him right now. My salvation lay in what I decided to do in the next few moments.
I stared at him, thinking. Well. Could I do it? I stared at his back, clad in the usual worn, navy blue thermal sweater he wore all the time these days. His long, curly brown hair was in tangles along his shoulders – he hadn’t had a haircut in a long time. I was surprised the upscale, high-profile firm he was interning for allowed it. He usually wore it back in a ponytail, I knew. Tonight it was in tangles, and I didn’t think he had brushed it in a while. The tendrils were light brown, curling against his shirt. For a brief moment. I had a flash of what he must have looked like as a small child, with those tender, sweet little curls, a rosebud mouth, and those deep, pained eyes. I felt my heart fill with sympathy, and tried to stop myself, but it was too late. I felt sorry for him. He was just hanging there, elaborately pretending to be dead. I couldn’t help but feel pity. I did not condone this behavior, in fact it disgusted me – waves of revulsion were pulsing through me. I was nauseated as I stood there, looking at him. But I did pity him. This wasn’t normal, this didn’t exist in the usual range of human emotions. He was sick – disturbed. I could no longer ignore it. I knew what I had to do.
“James,” I said, my voice shaky. I hit the “on” button on the phone. “I’m calling the police now. I don’t have any other choice. I can’t let you do this to yourself.”
I pushed the “1” button. Then again. Just as I poised my finger to press it for a third time, he stood up. He fumbled with the belt, clumsily trying to remove it from his neck. His back was still to me, so he couldn’t see the shuddering waves of fear and loathing that went through me. He shook his head, frustrated, his tangled curls whipping around his shoulders.
I turned off the phone, and threw it on the bed. I didn’t want him to see it still in my hand when he turned around. It would be much worse if he did.
He turned to me, his eyes watery and dazed. He flung the belt across the room, and staggered on his still unsteady feet. I grabbed the glass of water from the table and handed it to him, wordlessly. He took one look at it and knocked it out of my hand, hard. I watched it fly across the room. It hit the wall and shattered, water splashing everywhere.
He glowered at me with bloodshot eyes. “I hate you,” he said matter of factly, stepping past me and out the door. “I hate your fucking guts. I wish you would kill yourself. Stay the hell away from me tonight if you know what’s good for you.”
I haven’t left the flat in over a month. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I can’t seem to face going outside into the world. Every time the phone rings I pretend I don’t hear it. I don’t even want to answer. I keep the curtains drawn tightly. I don’t answer the door for visitors. The other day some Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking and I hid in the bedroom closet until I was sure they were off the porch. The only time I leave is to drop off cupcake orders or to buy supplies. People call with their orders but they have to leave a voicemail, because I don’t ever answer the phone. I can’t bear to be caught off guard. I have to take down their numbers and call them back. When I go out, I wear a scarf or hat over my head, and my baggiest sweaters and jackets. I walk with my head down so people don’t notice me and I don’t notice them. Most of the time I’m alone. Luckily James doesn’t ask me to go out anymore. He is even more in his own world than I am these days. We make a fine pair.
When he’s at home he’s despondent, and quickly angered, as usual. I try not to bother him, if I can help it. He goes out a lot at night, and I think he may have met someone he likes, maybe a client from the firm or a colleague. I really don’t care. As long as he leaves me alone. I just make my cupcakes and remain as invisible as I can. It’s not hard to do. I feel invisible. I feel like I’m fading away piece by piece, and soon I won’t even exist anymore. I find that comforting.
I have lost so much weight, I’m withering away. I don’t have an appetite anymore. I never feel hungry. I live off of coffee. I remember being a kid and watching my Aunt Lyddie chain smoking while drinking cup after cup of coffee. There was always a hot pink stain on her cup from her lipstick. A perfect pouty kiss on every coffee cup in her house. She had a green glass ashtray that was always full of butts. She would empty it out dutifully several times a day, but she filled it up just as fast. I would consider taking up smoking, if cigarettes weren’t so expensive here.
I have been in New Zealand for a little over a year and a half now, and I can barely believe I came from anywhere else. There are two Amy’s – the American Amy, the child Amy. The one that came here fresh from college, fully in puppy love, to start a new adventure. She died somewhere in the beginning, right after she got here. She’s gone. The only Amy that exists now is the hollowed out shell of an Amy, the one stuck in limbo, who came from no place and is going no place. The Amy that tries to take up the smallest space possible, who shrinks a little more every day. The Amy whose light has dimmed to the point where she can’t see anything in front of her anymore.
I can’t even manage to be sad now.
And yet still, I’m the dutiful wife, the dutiful woman.
I miss you. Or I think I do. Maybe I just miss the idea of you, the thought of you. I almost don’t think you’re real. I don’t know what is and what isn’t anymore. And I’m so tired. I sleep all the time but I never stop being tired.
After James’ suicide threat and the incidents that followed, I had begged him for days to please seek help. I had even gone so far as to write down a few numbers of crisis hotlines and therapists in the area. I had given him the list, gently telling him that I was worried about him, and that I was doing this because I cared. He had responded by ripping up the list and literally spitting in my face. I had wiped the spittle off of my cheek and walked out of the room, determined to try again in a few days.
The day after that, he had come home and casually told me that the firm had a new client they were representing, a woman who was divorcing her husband of 20 years. She alleged that he had been physically abusing her for most of those years, and she had described her ordeal in detail. He told me this casually, while picking at the lint on his sweater, occasionally looking up to see what I would say. I said nothing, which was my normal response to his provocations. He told me that the firm was going to go after the guy, and try to get as much for the woman in alimony and property as they could, because she had earned it, as far as they were concerned. “Do you agree?” He had asked me, looking at me thoughtfully.
I shrugged, and resumed stirring the batter. That particular night I had been making chocolate fudge cupcakes with dulce de leche and ganache, for a quilting circle.
“Well, the firm is going out of their way to be respectful of her, and to follow proper protocol.” He went on. “They’ve assigned one of our interns to her, a girl who is particularly interested in domestic violence cases. She has been giving her all these pamphlets and helpful information.” He walked over to me, handing me a slip of paper. “I had a thought that you might be in need of some resources yourself.” He dipped a finger in my batter, and I grimaced. He licked it off, slowly, his face lighting up in an evil sort of smile. Wearily, I sat down my metal bowl and opened the pamphlet.
“ARE YOU BEING ABUSED?” The italic font asked me plainly. There was a drawing of a woman on the front, with long flowing hair. It was just a few strokes, the drawing. The woman was in profile, and appeared to be pregnant. The shape of her body along with her flowing hair formed a perfect koru. Chills raced up my spine. The inside of the flier was full of information, all about the cycle of violence, the different types of intimate partner abuse, how to tell if you are in an abusive relationship, and other helpful information. At the bottom, in smaller italic print, it gave several numbers, addresses and websites to contact if you needed to seek help or talk to someone confidentially about your abuse.
I looked up at James, my face expressionless. He nudged my shoulder, gently, a small, triumphant smile still on his face.
“Since you’re so concerned about my health, and have been so invested in finding me resources, I thought I would pay you the same kindness.” He gestured at the pamphlet. “I really hope you’ll call one of those numbers and get the help you need, Amy.”
I picked up my bowl and resumed stirring the batter, not looking at him. As he left the room, he said, “That was delicious.”