Copyright is held by the author.
One. Two. Three. Four. Two navy blues, one dark grey with light grey stripes and a dark brown. David folded each pair neatly and placed them on the bed next to two black pairs. They were in a straight line. And there it was, peeking out from under the two pairs of black. A lone dark grey sock. Oddly naked. David bent down and looked under the bed. He walked over to his closet, opened the door and put his hand in the sock drawer. But the other sock remained stubbornly lost. David felt a twinge of something that disappeared before it could solidify. Probably to keep the sock company. He forced a laugh and walked back to the bed. Slow easy steps. One in front of the other. He gathered up the folded pairs and retraced his steps, ignoring the vibrating phone on his side-table. That brought the missed calls count to three.
It took him much longer than usual to sort through the rest of his clothes. He wondered why he bothered when he would have to pack it all in a suitcase in a week. The missed calls count was now five and there were also three Whatsapp messages, but David couldn’t bring himself to answer. It killed him to do this to Audrey. Audrey with her hazel-brown eyes and warm smile.
He realized this was the third time he’d attempted to read the same line. Today, he couldn’t even go past the first article of The Financial Times. In another misguided attempt to distract himself, he picked up a sheaf of papers from the side-table under his phone. His eyes scanned the numbers, searched for patterns and his shoulders automatically relaxed for a brief second before he remembered that he wouldn’t be expected to complete the proposal. His boss had already handed over all his projects to a colleague.
This time, he picked up on the third ring.
“Where the hell have you been?”
Even angry, there was something comforting about Audrey’s voice, like being bundled up in a soft, toasty duvet on a cold, windy night.
“I know, I know, I’m really sorry. I was caught up with work and my phone was on silent. Was just about to call you back. I’m really sorry.”
To his ears, it sounded guilty more than anything else.
“Do you have any idea how worried I was?”
This time he actually meant it. And she must have sensed it. He could sense her nerves settling down. She never could stay mad at anyone for long. But he was going to really test that forgiving nature. David could already feel a stress headache coming on.
“I miss you.” He really meant it too.
“I miss you too.”
David heard a small smile in her voice and imagined her eyes slightly turning up at the corners.
“Only a few more weeks till I see you again. Though I’m enjoying not having to share my double-bed.”
Audrey laughed. It was a happy, clear sound that cut through David. Not telling her was the same if not worse than an outright lie. He started to say something when she spoke again, her voice softer, almost tip-toeing, “Has Greg said anything at all about the promotion?”
“No, not yet.” He hoped she couldn’t hear the slight quaver in his reply.
“I’m sure you’ll hear something soon.” She paused for a second and her voice softened even more. “David, you’re good at what you do. They will have seen that. And even if they don’t . . .”
She trailed off but the silence was like a hug. David almost told her then, but there was also a flash of irritation. This was part of the reason why he hadn’t told her yet, she didn’t understand. But Nicole would. It was barely a whisper in his mind.
David was in a seat just to the side of the curved surface of the bar, a perfect position to see people walk through the main door. There was a spiral wooden staircase in the middle of the room. From his seat, it appeared to be the only thing holding up the ceiling. The dinner crowd was just starting to drift in. To his left, his reflection stared back at him — his hair almost black with messy edges that never behaved, a blurry face, the right cheek more hollowed out than the other. It was weirdly distorted through the bottles and glasses on the shelves. His mind absent-mindedly counted 15 on the first shelf. Most of the labels were turned the other way so he couldn’t read them. David turned his head towards the main door. For the fifth time that night, he was faced with an empty doorway. His dark brown eyes narrowed slightly as if intense focus could magically make her appear.
And there she was. Wavy, glossy dark brown hair that curled just above her small, but perfectly formed breasts. She hadn’t changed much, though there was a new softness in the previously sharp angles of her face. Maybe it was the light, but she actually looked a little vulnerable. David ignored the faint warning he felt as she stepped into the amber-yellow puddle thrown by the small lights above the bar, the feeling that he should get up and leave while she still hadn’t seen him. He shifted slightly in his seat and turned his head towards the wall, deeper into the shadows. But Nicole was already walking over. Her smile was almost shy, her mouth turned up a bit at the corners, her big round blue eyes quickly looking away. She leant over the counter on her way over.
“A gin and tonic, please. Make it strong.” The confidence in her voice hadn’t changed a bit. Her stilettos crushed the empty groundnut shells left on the floor by a previous customer. She slid on to the stool next to him, scraping one heel against the wood of the bar. David reflexively winced. His head was already throbbing.
“This is a nice place, isn’t it? The rooms are even better.”
There was a half-teasing expression in her eyes. Her hand lightly rested on his knee. She wasn’t wearing her ring. David felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. One. Two. Three. There it was again, that spontaneous twinge that he felt like swatting away. It lingered for a moment longer than the last time. Four. Five. Six. He counted 10 before his phone went still.
He hadn’t changed much. But there was something different in the way he moved; it didn’t seem as much effort anymore. Nicole quietly tucked away that thought. Every tiny detail helped. David still hadn’t said a word, resolutely nursing his Scotch. She shifted on her stool. It made a tiny, creaking sound as it swiveled, bringing her in closer proximity to him.
He looked up, a silent acknowledgement. She quickly weighed up her options. Nicole had hoped that she wouldn’t have to bring up this question at all. But things almost never went according to plan and she wanted to have the upper hand. “How’s Audrey?”
Nicole could tell that it had caught him off-guard; his hand gripped his glass. He seemed to take a split-second to prepare a response. She could tell. She waited.
“How do you know?”
“You’re not the only one with stalking abilities.”
She had meant for it to be flirty. But for some reason, it seemed to anger David.
“Looking up the status of a Whatsapp contact you already have isn’t stalking.” He could barely control his irritation.
Nicole smiled inwardly. He’d read it as she hoped he would. But she was still surprised at his message asking to meet tonight. Nicole hadn’t known what to expect, so this was safer. At least she could cross the courtyard and go back to her room at the end of the night, whatever happened.
“I’m sorry,” she said, then paused. “I’m still in touch with Leanne. I saw that photo she posted on Facebook, of the three of you.”
She thought she saw his shoulders relax a little. But his voice was still sharp. “Audrey’s fine.”
“Have you told her about me?”
Nicole wanted to see how far she could push him.
“I don’t need her permission to meet an old friend.”
This time, the curtness was unmistakable.
“Old friend?” She let the rest of that question ask itself. When David didn’t respond immediately, she tilted her head and tried again. “I like that.”
David’s face had relaxed a little. Nicole smiled at him, putting all her feelings into it. Always knowing when to stop, when to pull back.
For the first time that night, Nicole held David’s gaze. She was genuine but she also knew that he didn’t expect her to say anything. “I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you so much.”
He looked appropriately surprised. “Me too.”
She could also detect a hint of relief in his voice now.
“I’ve thought about you more than I’d like to admit, Nicole.”
It was her turn to be taken aback. Her hand briefly rested on his. She had to be careful not to overdo it.
He suddenly took his phone out of his pocket, gave the screen a quick look and pressed cut. He put it back into his pocket before looking at her again. She raised one eyebrow.
“Yeah, it’s just work. Nothing important.”
She didn’t miss the slight tremor in his voice. “We may have the same phone but you’ve got a lot to learn about lying.” Nicole knew she was taking a risk, but when was the last time she’d backed down from a challenge?
“Like you lied about missing me before?”
There it was again. That edge in his voice. She had no experience of dealing with it. She took another risk. “David, what’s this really about?”
Her voice was low, and she hoped comforting. His shoulders slumped. He straightened them and looked at her. His dark brown eyes were tired, rimmed with a faint red. How come she hadn’t noticed that?
“I quit.” His voice grew firmer as he continued. “I was supposed to be getting promoted today. A promotion that would take me back home . . . to Audrey. It was the only reason I agreed to move here for three months.” He shook his head, as if to shrug off a bad dream.
“What happened?” She was careful to remain neutral. David had never liked sympathy.
“What does it matter? I’ve been trying to figure this out for the past week and every time, I’m back in the same damn place. I messed up.”
“What does Audrey think of all this?” The moment the question escaped her, Nicole knew that the conversation was now out of her control.
Audrey. Audrey with her big heart and tiny frame. The way she fit into his life like she’d always been a part of it. The way her apartment had felt so familiar when he’d picked her up for their first date almost a year ago. He wanted to know what Audrey thought. He’d been dying to tell her, but just couldn’t. David couldn’t bring himself to tell Nicole what his silence had already confirmed. So he tried a different tack. “Would you have told Sean?”
Was it guilt that momentarily clouded her face? He couldn’t be sure because her eyes were hard when she spoke: “I think the person you love deserves to know you’re without a job.”
The intensity startled him.
“I wouldn’t want to be Audrey right now, that’s for sure.” Nicole’s gaze was steady.
This time he knew that he wasn’t imagining the contempt in her voice. David was about to reply when she spoke again: “Boyfriend’s without a job, is lying to her and meeting up with me behind her back. You always were quite the catch.”
Nicole’s voice was suddenly playful again, flirty even, but the underlying edge was what hurt. Wasn’t this what he wanted? He waited for the gaping hole, craved its release. His arms tensed, bracing for the inevitable impact. But there was only silence, hopeless and naked. He filled it with the only thing left in him at that moment, the only thing he could summon.
“Wanting to be with me makes you the bigger loser.” The extent of the bitterness was unnerving, but he knew that if he moved even an inch, he would lose all the courage and anger. He already felt it fading. He continued, “I wouldn’t want to be Sean either, stuck with such a lying, manipulative bitch. At least I can get away from you.”
Nicole had always been the one with a sharper tongue. Some of it had obviously rubbed off on him. He couldn’t have predicted what she said next, “I’ve left Sean.”
Why do you even care what happened? Wasn’t that your only wish for a long time?
“This and that.” Nicole was now staring at the paper leaves hanging across the ceiling. David absently followed her gaze. They looked sturdy yet delicate, with fine lines branching out on each surface. His mind automatically started to count, his eyes blurring with the effort of straining as he moved from one end to the other.
“I know it sounds cliché, but I’d stopped loving him.”
David knew that Nicole didn’t want a response, so he stayed silent. He suddenly realized that the chatter of the people around him had increased to that of a lively dinner and post-dinner crowd. There were still a few tourist couples, settled in their ways, content to simply be. The Long Bar was the perfect place to do that. There was an elderly couple sitting right across from them. The wife caught David looking over. He gave a small, polite smile before taking a sip of his drink.
“Are you two waiting on a table as well?”
She seemed nice, friendly. It was Nicole who answered first.
“We were just about to leave actually.”
Her smile was the one she reserved for others. It showed a side of her that David had seen less and less of. He was aware of an inner protective mechanism that he hadn’t even known existed. But at the same time, he was also beyond the point of caring. Nothing would matter after tonight. Whatever Audrey said, there would be no going back. She would just have to accept that. He motioned to the bartender for their cheque.
The walk down the stairs and across the courtyard was a blur. Neither of them wanted to spoil the silence that almost seemed comforting by now. Once in her room, time slowed down. David leant in to kiss her, hoping to forget, to silence the voice in his head that was counting the number of chances he had to walk away tonight. His lips lingered on hers, his hand moving from her hair to her waist. He didn’t pull away. One. Two. Three. Then there was only her and the Dior perfume he’d once loved.
“I really have missed you.” Nicole lay on her side, curled perfectly under his shoulder. She could hear his heartbeat. “Even if you are an unemployed idiot who folds socks when he’s stressed. Do you still do that?” Her voice was playful.
“Are you disappointed in me, Nicole?” David turned his head to his right and looked at her.
“For quitting or cheating?” She was feeling surprisingly unperturbed. The David she knew was still there.
“Could you be serious for one minute, Nicole?”
“It’s very hard when you’re giving me that puppy-dog look. Which, by the way, looks absolutely ridiculous.” She giggled. David sighed and rolled his eyes at her. “David, nobody’s perfect. Things happen.”
“Some are less perfect than others.” It was almost a whisper, an afterthought.
“What is this, Animal Farm?” Nicole was trying hard to remain serious but couldn’t help a laugh. “What do you want me to do, yell at you? Tell you what a horrible person you are?”
She laughed again, before she felt David pulling away. Nicole sat up suddenly, propped up on an elbow. Some of the things from earlier that night made a bit more sense now. “Wait, is that what this is about? . . . David?”
“No.” The answer was too fast. David’s eyes met hers briefly and turned away.
“You’re just using me to feel sorry for yourself.” Now it was her turn to whisper, as if to herself. Her eyes welled up before she could control herself. Nicole bit her lip. That was one thing she wouldn’t do. Not here. Not now.
David’s silence was making things worse. One or two times he made as if to say something or put his arm around her, but seemed to change his mind.
“Forget what I said before, David, you’re a jerk. A jerk for quitting your job, a jerk for lying about it to your girlfriend who I assume you love, and an even bigger jerk for . . .”
Nicole threw a cushion at David’s head, unable to go on. All her sense of control was gone, forgotten, hastily tossed away like a forgotten wrapper.
“Will you let me explain?” His voice was low. Without waiting for her approval, he continued in the same low voice, “I’m sorry. I . . . Everything’s just been so confusing this past week. I . . . I messed up, Nicole. I messed up. I let Audrey down.”
His voice was almost a whisper now. Despite herself, Nicole asked, “How is that letting her down? You’ll find a new job, won’t be the first person in the world to do so. Look, I don’t know her, but I think it’s unfair that you’re not giving her the chance to stand by you.”
Nicole’s voice broke on the final sentence. She blinked furiously, a futile attempt once David spoke, “I like this Nicole a lot.” His tone was wistful. It settled in all around them, waiting, watching, hoping.
David splashed some water on his face. His eyes looked bleary, resigned. He wondered what Nicole was thinking, what she was doing on the other side of the bathroom door. They both needed a few minutes alone. He closed his eyes. When he finally looked up and grabbed the towel at the side, the eyes staring back at him weren’t any different. But he felt that twinge again, and this time he couldn’t ignore it. He was way past that, they were way past that. “Why did you never call?”
He was back in the room, but careful to sit at the other end of the bed.
David could see that she was still thinking about what he’d said earlier, wondering what that meant. Whether it did in fact, mean anything at all. He knew she’d heard him the first time. David repeated the question.
“I meant to call, but found a reason not to every single time. And then, after the first five times, it just didn’t seem right.” She paused. “But I did miss you. I’ve missed you every single day since.” There was an almost pleading look in her eyes that he’d never seen before.
“I’m really sorry. I . . . Tonight was all a mistake.” David knew that he was hurting her, just like he was going to hurt Audrey when she found out. But he couldn’t stop.
“So that’s all I am to you? A mistake?” Nicole wasn’t even attempting to control the tremble in her voice. He had never seen her like this. David suddenly felt completely out of his depth.
“Nicole, it’s not like . . . you know that.” He trailed off, hoping the silence would hold the answers.
“Know what, Dave? Know that you came tonight only to distract yourself from your problems? Know that you’ve just used me? I thought you cared and I thought I knew you, but I guess I was wrong about that too.”
It was the use of Dave more than the anger and hurt in her voice that rattled him. Dave. He remembered Seville, their first weekend away. He had extended their stay by a few days because she couldn’t bear to leave just yet. Missing work and getting an earful from his boss hadn’t fazed him. David had refused to accept that Nicole just wanted to avoid Sean’s family, who never really liked her. Dave.
“What about you, huh? You’ve been making me feel bad about everything, like you’re some sort of saint.” David continued, “You are the one who never called. You are the one who never returned any of my emails or calls or messages. And you just expect things to be completely normal after nearly two years?”
“Like you never made me feel bad about Sean when we were together? Stop being such a bloody hypocrite, David. Weren’t you the one who wanted to see me tonight?”
They were both glaring at each other by now.
“Maybe I just wanted to convince myself that I always went after the wrong girl.” It slipped out before he could stop it, before he could take it back.
Nicole’s eyes widened and then narrowed. “If Audrey is so perfect, why are you here with me?”
The silence lingered for a few seconds before sinking into the very pit of David’s stomach. His phone buzzed against the duvet and he picked it up and read the message before realizing that it wasn’t his. Nicole must’ve realized it at the same time because she went very pale.
“What’s this? … Nicole, what the hell is this?”
That was the first time he saw fear in her eyes. A vulnerability that left behind a dull ache. His head throbbed with renewed intensity. One. Two. Three. It took Nicole five more seconds to speak, “It’s not what you think. I . . . the divorce papers won’t be ready for a week more. I am going to sign them. You have to believe me.”
“Do you really expect me to believe anything you say? I’m so stupid for even thinking that I could trust you.”
“David, please. I never lied. I have left Sean. Please . . .” She seemed to have realised that Dave would’ve angered him even more.
“If that’s true, why the hell is he texting you about groceries and asking you when your flight is?”
Nicole wouldn’t meet his eyes. “He wanted to try and work things out. But I said no. I want out. I don’t want to be with him. I —”
I want to be with you. A few years ago, David would’ve given anything to hear her say that, even imply it. Lily and Melanie. He had never told Nicole that he’d thought of what they could name their daughters. That they would have a Labrador, move further away from the city where he could teach the girls how to do a step-over and dribble a ball.
“I don’t want to hear about how much you’ve missed me or whether you love me, Nicole. I want the truth! I want you to admit that I’ve been a distraction for an unhappy marriage. I just want to hear it from you, so I can get over you once and for all. I think I deserve that much.”
His voice was strangely calm though it was all he could do not to shake.
“I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry.” She started to cry,. “I’m so sorry, I never meant to . . . I’m so sorry, Dave.” This last one seemed to have slipped out despite her best efforts. But he felt so far away from it all. “You don’t have to believe me, but I do care, I have missed you.” There was a brief pause, “I may not have shown it but I’ve always loved you.” She sighed. “Maybe we just bring out the worst in each other.”
David felt that twinge again. He hadn’t shown how he felt either. But this time it was guilt. They had both made mistakes, were still making mistakes. What was the point of going around in circles?
“I’m sorry, Nicole.”
Somehow it seemed to say everything that the two of them were afraid to admit.
There are 206 bones in the human body. By the time he was 12, David had broken about five of them. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Please hear me out, Audrey. Audrey was asleep on the other side of the world, without any inkling of the voicemails that lay in wait for her. I want to be better. I know that I can try. You deserve better. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
As a kid, he lay awake for hours, counting whatever he could think of. Sometimes he fell into the same rhythm as the thumps in the next room. The dull thud of the headboard banging against the thin wall that separated his parents’ room from his. Sometimes the muffled shouts and yells and sounds of breaking glass. His mother’s antique vase must’ve shattered into a thousand little pieces. David usually fell asleep at around 300. But tonight, alone in the room his company had put him up in, he counted all the way up to a thousand and contemplated starting again. The silence was making it hard to breathe.
Three-hundred and eight-five days since he first met Audrey. Ninety-two days to her birthday. That was when he’d been planning the big surprise for. David sat up and opened the drawer on his side-table. It sat snug in the faded velvet, as sparkly and vintage as the time his grandmother had it made for her wedding. She had been the only one he’d told, the first one he would’ve called last week if she hadn’t suddenly passed away a month ago. David lay down on his back, his left arm behind his head and started to count the ways in which he was going to try to make it up to Audrey. One. Two. Three. A hundred. He’d been lying to her, lying to himself, denying what he really deserved. But she had to believe him. She just had to. Even as he closed his eyes, David could smell the fast dissipating smell of Dior.