Hi Open Book Readers,
I want to share one of the short stories from For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known.
The book is divided into sections: Meeting, Falling In, Falling Out, Friendship and Resolution.
This story appears in the Falling Out Section.
If I had to describe it, I would say it's about social expectation versus reality, and also, why people decide to stay.
It's also about consent, and guilt, and how unclear the line between the two can sometimes appear.
I was inspired both by a real life story that broke my heart, and by Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho, which I had recently read when I was writing the first draft. What I found so interesting (and also, so disturbing) about American Psycho was how seamlessly very violent acts were written into an otherwise very shiny and precisely described surface narrative. I think that's exactly what is so insidious about this kind of thing- it always seems to happen in a way that's so surprising that even the victim questions what really happened.
There's a great line in Roald Dahl's classic children's book Matilda, that stuck with me from the time I read it as a kid: "Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it... Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable."
The title comes from an observation I heard years ago from a friend who was describing what he believed (at the time) to be the peak of satisfaction in a relationship. I had to grab a pen to write down the phrase.
It was so great to work on this with my amazing editor, Sandra Kasturi.
Reprinted with permission from Tightrope Books.
The Moment Before You Want More Happiness
I was at my husband’s office Christmas party two weeks ago, knocking back candy cane cocktails and eggnog martinis, hovering between being comfortably toasted and falling-on-my-face drunk.
One of the interns, Alyssa, I think, asked if she could take a picture of my husband and me. She had wild, curly hair piled on the top of her head like tumbleweeds and this big gooey smile, the kind usually reserved for watching baby pandas at the zoo.
Fraser was standing behind me, half holding me up with his arm wrapped around my waist.
Alyssa was about nineteen and looked at us with this mix of envy and awe. She told us we were really cute together, and I thanked her and told her we were about a month away from our anniversary.
“Two years,” I told her when she asked.
I watched her eyes trail Fraser as he turned away to talk to one of his colleagues’ husbands. Alyssa’s eyes lingered for a little too long on his ass. Women checked him out every day. It was always weird to think about how easily Fraser could replace me if he wanted to. I tried to push the thought out of my head.
Alyssa leaned in close and asked me what it was like to be married.
“It’s really great,” I said, “to have someone who’s always there.”
As if on cue, Fraser turned around to look at me.
“Was your wedding day, like, the best day of your life?” she asked me.
I thought about it.
Fraser proposed to me three days after a blow-up. Things had been building up and we’d been fighting then freezing each other out. We slept as far apart as we could on opposite ends of the bed.
When Fraser and I met he was actually married to someone else. He was working out on the rowing machine next to my treadmill at the gym. I got off after a twenty-minute run and stretched. He offered to show me how to use some free weights to get more muscle definition.
It turned out he was a software engineer. He and his business partner were in the process of selling one of his programs to a huge Japanese company. He was cute, and he seemed like a good guy. We talked and flirted. Somehow, I just knew that I could trust him. He offered to give me a ride home, and since it turned out that we lived in the same building, he invited me over.
“It’s so weird to have a girl I’m attracted to here,” he said. “It’s weird to even be attracted to someone else.”
I smiled. He told me that he met his wife when they were eighteen, in their first year of university. They got married two years later, near the lake, with all their family and friends, which seemed really romantic, he said. When they were students, it all worked, but as soon as he graduated, he started working full time, and she didn’t.
“She used to be so energetic and outgoing,” he said, “and then all of a sudden, I got this great job and she was happy to sit on the couch all day watching TV.”
He paid off both of their student debts and became increasingly resentful. A year and a half ago, he said, she found out that she was pregnant. She told him she was on the pill, but he found two full boxes in the bathroom drawer and realized that she’d stopped taking them.
“I wish she’d just been honest,” he said and sighed.
I nodded. “That is very deceptive of her,” I said.
“I always wanted to be a father,” he added, his eyes melting as he showed me some framed photos of his daughter. Her name was Mariel and she was beautiful. It was clear from his expression and tone how much he loved her. I’d known I wanted to be a mom since I was about eight. My parents had told me the year before that I was adopted, and that my real parents lived in Scotland. I knew that I wanted to have kids one day, and that no matter what, I would never give them up.
Fraser’s wife was staying with her family up north for a few weeks, trying to re-evaluate their marriage. He knew that he wasn’t interested in trying to salvage it anymore.
“I haven’t been with her in more than a year,” he said. “I’m trying not to feel guilty about it anymore.”
I shrugged. I could see that she was gone now. I didn’t really care, as long as it was really over.
“Everything about her changed, her personality, even her looks,” he continued. “She used to be so kind, and all of a sudden she was yelling all the time. She became so insecure and needy.”
He paused. “She gained close to a hundred pounds because of post-partum depression.”
“Wow,” I said. I’d never had a baby, but it seemed like a lot. “She must look like a different person.”
“Yup. She used to have a body type similar to you. I mean,” he paused and checked me out, “not as beautiful obviously. But similar. I used to find her attractive but all of a sudden, she had three rolls of back fat. It was like watching Bambi turn into a bull.”
I stifled a giggle. There was something so grotesque about it that it was funny. I liked how straight-talking he was. People were always telling me that I sized them up harshly. I kind of liked that we were the same.
He stopped. “I’m sorry to lay all of this on you like this. You don’t even know me.”
I patted his back. “I like your honesty,” I said. “And I’m happy that you feel like you can be yourself.”
He smiled and squeezed my hand. “I knew you were special from the second I saw you,” he said.
It sounded like such a line, but I hoped that it was actually true.
“I had a good feeling about you too,” I said, and he reached over and kissed me. We started making out, and he got more and more aggressive. He grabbed the collar of my shirt so hard that it ripped a little. He bit my neck so hard he left teeth marks.
I’d never been so turned on in my life. We didn’t sleep together the first night, but I fantasized about it for days.
When we got together, it was by far the best sex I’d ever had in my life. He finally left her about two months after that. After three months we moved in together. It took another two years for their divorce to finalize. We talked about getting married and having our own kids, but it took another four years for him to ask me to marry him.
Mariel lives with us three days a week and every other weekend. Fraser wanted me to bond with her, and in the beginning, a lot of our dates involved babysitting. We dressed her in her winter coat and took her to the park. We poured her apple juice and fed her goldfish crackers and watched Sesame Street with her. Every outing in the first six months felt like a test to make sure that I could be a good stepmom. Luckily, I fell in love with her right away. She has eyes the colour of hazelnuts. When she giggles, she throws her head back, her belly jiggles, and her eyes narrow into tiny setting suns. Sometimes people tell us that we look alike. When people I hardly know, at work or at the gym, refer to her as my daughter, I don’t correct them. Fraser likes it that we seem like a normal family.
We had a destination wedding in Puerto Vallarta. The sand was the colour of yeast just before you mix it into batter. It was as soft as confectioner’s sugar under my heels. I couldn’t stop twirling, flipping my skirt up like a flapper, grinning like an idiot. It was finally happening. We were finally going to stop feeling like an affair and start feeling like a legitimate couple.
My dress was a shiny white satin slip. Fraser wore a white linen shirt, jeans, and a straw cowboy hat. My wedding band had a small diamond. Fraser always said that he loved my small hands. He said that he took Mariel with him, and she helped to choose it. She wore a white lace dress and threw rose petals as she walked down the aisle.
We had a Catholic ceremony done by a guy named Carlos who kept saying his b’s like v’s.
“Vethany,” he called me.
“I’m berry excited,” I said at one point, giggling, but he didn’t get it.
We had grilled mahi mahi drizzled with lime and chili flakes, and red snapper tacos with salsa and guacamole at our reception. I talked Fraser out of having a wedding cake, since I knew I’d be spending the rest of the week in a bikini. We had pieces of seventy-five percent dark chocolate with tiny slivers of chili peppers in it.
My parents spent the whole meal complaining that there was nothing for them to eat, then getting drunk on a fifty-year-old bottle of Chilean wine. My mom spent the next day barfing into the plastic fern on the balcony of her two-star hotel. Fraser offered to put them up at our more expensive hotel, but my dad refused on principle.
“We’ve got the ocean view, Bethie,” he said, “and our hotel’s gotta a better blackjack table than yours in our casino.”
I glanced at Alyssa, watched her eyeball other couples, and I wanted to hug her. I liked being friends with single people. I had single girlfriends from work over a while ago, and we sat around smoking weed, me and Fraser and them, listening to Green Day in our room. Our bed seated five or six, easily.
Fraser was perfect when they were around, sweet but not too demonstrative so that they didn’t feel left out. People were always telling us what a chilled-out couple we were, how easy it was to be around us without feeling like a third wheel.
They always asked Fraser if he had any friends for them. They asked me how we met, and I could see the envy in their eyes, which I loved. It made me feel even luckier to have him. A guy everyone wanted, or lots of women wouldn’t mind, was mine. I loved hearing how smart they thought he was or even that they thought he was cute.
It could also be hard when people assumed we were a perfect couple.
It’s hard to explain problems that are physical.
In the first few months, the sex was unbelievable. It felt like it was part of the game—he’d spank my ass until it was raw and cherry red or slap me across my face while I was on top of him, and I could trust him to be rough with me, but stop before it actually went too far.
It felt delicious and dizzying to have that kind of secret—to be the kind of couple who seemed mild but were completely unrestrained, who seemed responsible and professional, but were savages underneath. Once I scratched his back so hard that his blood trickled down my fingernails and into my palms.
Sometimes he called me a slut or a dirty whore when we were having sex, and it was all still part of the fun. I liked it when he blindfolded me and tied me up. I liked the element of surprise. I didn’t mind it when he dripped hot candle wax onto the fleshy pink of my stomach. And when he dripped it lower, near my crotch, and my skin blistered, I didn’t flinch.
I wanted him to know that I was tough.
I didn’t like it when he put his hands around my neck and squeezed one night when I refused to put on the blindfold. I didn’t like it when he called me a dumb bitch for struggling to get up and trying to walk out and leave him, naked from the waist down.
I didn’t like it when he reminded me that I was nothing without him, that I owed him for taking care of me and that I wouldn’t have the same life or be the same person without him.
I didn’t like it when he scraped my breasts and mangled the back of my thighs the next night with the wire from his fishing rod after he was done riding me from behind. I was tied to the bed, on my knees, facing the wall, and after he came, he told me he had more for me. He dug the hook into the back of my left knee and I had a limp for three days after.
When my leg healed, I moved back in with my parents, believe it or not. I couldn’t tell my mom why. She was always so impressed with him, and I didn’t think she’d believe me anyway. Fraser’s the kind of guy who makes a show out of catching spiders when he finds them in the house and putting them outside instead of killing them. Plus he’s sophisticated and successful. My dad might not know who Etro or Paul Smith were, but he could tell Fraser’s shirts were expensive.
Fraser sent me roses every day for two weeks. He sent me poems and cards. One day four guys in red-and-white striped suits showed up to sing an a cappella version of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven.”
I still didn’t really want to talk to him. He came over one day and talked to my mom for two hours in the kitchen. She came into my room, urging me to talk to him. In her hands was a red velvet box with a two-carat diamond ring inside.
I felt like an insect who’d been caught in a spider’s web for long enough to know that I was about to be eaten.
I left with him, and we spent almost forty-eight hours locked in our apartment, mostly in our room, just talking things out. We only left when one of us needed the bathroom, and a couple of times Fraser went out on the balcony to have a cigarette. I don’t remember eating anything at all.
“I realized,” he said, “that I just can’t live without you. You’re my everything, Bethany.”
It wasn’t a perfect scene from a romantic comedy. I find that if you actually get one of those gallop-off-into-the-sunset sorts of moments, those are the kind of things you can’t usually trust. When I look back on it, I don’t dislike the way it happened. Something about it felt genuine.
Alyssa looked at me, still waiting for an answer. I thought about a TV show I saw the other day at the gym, you know the one, about the advertising executive who’s all charming and debonair. I watch it sometimes because something about him reminds me of Fraser. There’s something irresistible about him.
Anyway, on the episode I saw, he said something like, “True happiness is the moment when you’re satisfied, the moment before you want more happiness.”
I thought about our wedding day, so full of raw hope and possibility, and I told her that it was the best day of my life, definitely, and I smiled big before I turned away. I also made sure to tell her she could hang out with us anytime, and that I was sure she’d meet someone great soon.
I thought about asking Fraser if he’d consider looking into one of those all-inclusive package deals to the Caribbean. We could use a change of scenery for a week.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she has lived in Ra’anana, Israel, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets (Tightrope Books, 2010) was praised by the Globe and Mail, the Chronicle Herald, and the Cape Town Times. It was also named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories) in 2011, and was published in South Africa (Modjaji Books, 2011). Danila has guest-edited the National Post’s “The Afterword,” and her short stories have appeared in Broken Pencil Magazine, Douglas Glover’s Numero Cinq Magazine, Joyland and more. Her first novel, the critically acclaimed Too Much on the Inside was published by Quattro Books in June 2015. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers in the correspondence program in 2017. She is currently working on her second novel and a new collection of short stories.