A frustrated breath burst from his wife causing Brad to look up from his computer. ‘What?’
Elle was glaring at her phone, her current emotions clear in her expression. ‘Why can’t they just take no for an answer?’
He didn’t bother to respond, knowing she wouldn’t need prompting.
‘I mean just because I work with them doesn’t mean I want to go out with them. I’ve been to a few work functions, isn’t that enough?’
‘You’d think so,’ he agreed. Brad knew it was just her own issues she was blowing off steam about, she didn’t really need him to do anything.
When Elle glanced back over at her husband, his focus was back on the screen. She swallowed a sigh. Him and his fecking computer. Getting him to pay any attention to her was damn near impossible. Irritated she typed back the same reply she’d already given in person, ‘Sorry, working.’ Why could people not understand that she liked not being involved with things. People exhausted her. Hell she only caught up with a few friends erratically and then only after an internal battle, and they were people she genuinely liked. Not to mention they were people who understood her. They knew she was more comfortable at home in her hammock with a good book than out partying, no matter where the party was. She detested small talk and was the walking definition of JOMO, screw FOMO.
Her phone beeped again ‘You can drop in after work for a while.’
This time she did sigh as she typed back ‘Early start next day.’ Hitting send she looked back over to Brad, his attention half on the television and half on what ever screen he had open on his computer.
Elle really needed a hug, or better yet one of Brad’s wonderfully gentle kisses that made her go weak at the knees. Damned if she was going to make that move though. It had been so long since they’d been intimate she knew she’d only want more if she got a little, then when he, damn his fucked up anxiety, didn’t want anything further, she’d get more frustrated than she was now.
Great, with that foremost in her mind Elle was certain to get almost no sleep and she had to be up by five. Sometimes it seemed life was so unfair. No marriage was perfect, but she could deal with the other bumps in the road better if lack of sex wasn’t one of them.
She felt the negative thoughts begin to close in, the lump building in her throat and hot tears welling behind her eyes. ‘Maybe he doesn’t want to be with me any more,’ her brain whispered. ‘Maybe I’m just not attractive enough.’
Blinking furiously to stop the tears falling she thought back, ‘Fuck you depression, I will ride you out and beat you again.’ Breathing in deeply she steeled her will to drag herself through the thick quicksand feeling of the grey. Abstractly she wondered why people referred to it as the blues, when really grey to black seemed a far more appropriate colour scheme for this abysmal misery. Elle hated the feeling of everything closing in on her, but she knew she would get through it as she had many times before. For now though her inner dialogue was suffocatingly bleak, and she struggled to not let it sweep her away.
Brad was accutely aware of every little move his wife made. Inwardly he cringed as she walked off into the bedroom. She was on the edge of a depressive funk. They both experienced them, the signs were easy enough to recognise. Despite what she may think, he hadn’t missed the look in her eye. The one that said she wanted to jump his bones, but she’d done nothing about it. Sadly that was becoming the norm. The worst thing about his anxiety was how it had affected his sex drive. He just didn’t seem to want it, which wasn’t at all how it was supposed to be. If someone wasn’t interested in sex wasn’t it supposed to be the woman?
Putting his computer aside he followed Elle into the bedroom, knowing it was what she wanted. He found her face down, diagonally across the bed. Stretching out next to her he reached over to pull her close. She tensed in his arms.
‘I’m sorry,’ her voice cracked. ‘Please don’t, I simply can’t handle the rejection tonight.’
A lump rose in his throat and his heart missed a beat. She wriggled out from under his arm.
‘I know you love me, but right now I don’t feel as though you do, or that you find me attractive anymore and my ego can’t take that because I want you so much.’
He could hear the tears in her voice.
‘I’ll get over it,’ she said quietly, ‘and I’ll be fine tomorrow.’
At a loss for the right words, Brad pushed off the bed, and left shutting the door behind himself.
The problem was he knew she wouldn’t be alright tomorrow. Not really. She would say she was and just get on with things like she always did. Elle was truly amazing that way. She just pushed on with doing whatever she needed to do, never really allowing herself to relinquish that tight grip on control. Maybe that was it. Anxiety be damned, he may not be able to give her what she wanted right now, but he thought he knew what it was she actually needed. Closing down the open web pages so he wouldn’t get distracted, he opened a fresh search page and typed in what he was looking for.
Elle looked down at the piece of paper in her hand. Re-read it. Re-read it again. A small smile tugged at her mouth. Looking up into the pale blue eyes that had held her heart and her secrets for so long, she felt her emotions begin to churn. ‘The girls,’ she said, barely above a whisper around the lump that had become stuck in her throat.
His hand reached out, his calloused fingertips gently travelling down her jawline. ‘My mother arrives tonight.’ Tilting her face slightly higher, his lips touched hers with a feather light touch.
A small sigh escaped her and a couple of the tears she’d been holding back slipped out, clinging to her eyelashes. She watched as his expression clouded over and he backed away half a step.
‘Have I done the wrong thing again?’
Her hand trapped his on her face before he could pull further away. She needed to keep the skin to skin contact. ‘No,’ she shook her head slightly, ‘it’s perfect.’ Something inside her loosened and the rest of the tears found their release. Her hand let go of his, but the contact remained. His thumb brushed away the salty water from her cheek before he pulled her in close. Her head rested on his chest and his arms tightened around her shoulders. Seconds ticked away as they stood there as one and everything felt balanced and right. She listened to his heartbeat, and he to the steady rhythm of her breathing.
Eventually Elle pulled back a little and Brad let go.
Swiping at the last of her tears, the laugh came out more like a choke, ‘This is silly,’ she said. The back of her hand collecting the snot so it didn’t drip from her nose.
‘What is?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know why I’m crying.’
He smiled, ‘Really? You cry at everything.’
A small laugh joined the smile that spread slowly across her face. Her eyes remained sad. ‘Oh hun, this is a lovely idea but…’
He held a finger to her lips cutting off whatever she was about to say next. It was something he never did and it surprised her a little.
‘No, there will be no ifs, ands or buts. No excuses of any kind. You need this. We need this.’
Elle thought for a moment. A week away, just the two of them in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. No kids, no chores, nothing to do but whatever took her fancy on the day. It wasn’t something she’d really thought about, well not seriously anyway. Sure she’d joked about it, about just leaving the world for a little while, but truthfully she hadn’t been sure he had been listening. Certainly hadn’t thought it was a real option.
On the drive Elle had felt herself transition from tightly wound and guilt ridden to embracing the situation when she understood it was too late to change it. A simple thing, some might think, but not so much for her. Elle’s mind was always busy, there was always something to do, or something to think about doing. On her worst days situations past and things yet to happen consumed her mind, some worry and some just over thinking.
Along the way the car playlist had faded into the back ground and the couple began talking. At first it was creative ideas to break up the tediousness of the long straight stretches of road that made up any decent road trip in Australia. Then Brad steered the conversation to dreams and hopes for the future, some bucket list things and other ideas many would consider to be in the realm of fantasy. The simple conversation stripped away another layer of Elle’s defences. It was like those trips they had made years ago when their marriage was younger and shinier.
Brad turned them up a gravel road almost hidden by the forest edging right up to the roadside. Unexpectedly the road widened, opening up to a large rectangular building constructed from glass and wood.
‘Stay here,’ he instructed as he jumped from the car almost before the tyres had finally settled to a stop on the ball bearing gravel.
Watching his back as he ventured into this structure, Elle shook her head, still wondering at what had caused him to do this. She hadn’t had the courage to ask. She knew she would have to eventually, but every time she drew close to it, her mind started to play it’s dirty game with her, so she quickly let it go, not willing to look at those possibilities.
Even as she struggled to change her internal dialogue, the tears again began to build. Elle wanted to rage at her emotions. She wished there was a way to cut them off, even if for a little while. Swallowing the rising tide of feelings, she was grateful for the sunglasses covering her eyes as Brad approached the car.
He dropped a key into the centre console and started the engine again. He took them behind the main building, before turning down a second branching road.
The deeper they got into the forest the cooler and darker it became. The trees grew bigger here, reaching higher to the sky. It all gave a feeling of the two of them being the only ones for miles around. Logically she knew this wasn’t the case, there had been several cars parked at the main lodge. The isolation should have been comforting, but with her mind muttering at her, she wasn’t sure it was.
The car finally stopped in front of a quaint and cosy looking cabin. Elle got the bags out of the car whilst Brad unlocked the front door. Stopping just outside of the threshold she took a moment to breathe in the fresh, crisp country air. It smelt like trees, water and green, that is if colour could have a smell.
Brad held the door open for her and she walked in. The cabin was, to Elle’s mind, perfect. The front door opened onto an open plan living and kitchen area. Off to the left was a bedroom, with a door that lead through to the bathroom. The appointments were luxurious. The wooden floors gleamed, the stone benchtops perfectly complimented the wooden cabinetry. The two and a half seat couch oppostite the wall mounted big screen television was just soft enough to be comfortable and firm enough that you didn’t sink into it. The bed with its surprising dark blue sheets and covers was the same.
The best part for Elle was the verandah out the back, overlooking the river. It ran the whole length of the cabin and to her absolute delight not only were there chairs and a table out there, there was also a hammock. She had no idea how Brad had pulled that off. Standing out there, leaning on the railing, she watched the water tumble over rocks. It was as if this whole tiny corner of the world had been put together with her in mind. Breathing it all in, she felt something more in her shift as another layer of defenses fell away.
The sliding door behind her opened and the spicy scent of Kraken rum flittered past her nostrils. She heard the click as the glasses were put down on the table. Elle found herself unable to move as she was certain this was about to become the moment she’d been dreading. Brad’s arms wrapped around her. She wanted nothing more than to melt back into them like she used to, instead her fears had her tensing. Feeling him sigh she felt her heart breaking a little more. It had been so easy between them once.
Gently he pulled her hands from the railing and her turned her around. Digging deep within she forced herself to meet his eyes. She saw a sadness in them that hammered at her control. Dread began to fill her.
The shadows in her eyes didn’t make things easy, the negative push of anxious thoughts became more of a pounding in Brad’s mind and his chest tightened. ‘Baby,’ he said. ‘You have to let it go. Let all of it go.’
Without thinking she blinked furiously and shook her head.
‘You have to,’ he said.
‘I can’t,’ she replied.
He lead her to the seat, and once seated he pushed the tumbler into her hand.
Elle took a bigger mouthful than she’d planned to, almost choking on the strongly mixed drink. Putting the glass back down, she felt her hand trembling. ‘I can’t,’ she repeated.
Brad sighed. Words weren’t his thing. Talking about emotions wasn’t his thing. He just didn’t know how to be truly open about them. She was good with words, but words weren’t what made her feel loved. Pushing passed his nerves, he knew this conversation needed to happen now, right at the beginning of this week. Putting it off just wasn’t an option, not if they were going to find a way past the distance anxiety and depression had put between them. They both suffered and both dealt with it their own ways, the problem was it was pushing them apart.
He’d noticed a change recenty. She’d stopped flirting with him. Not completely, but the cheeky comments and lustful staring had become less. He hadn’t realised how much he’d miss it until it was gone. She had also started asking him not to touch her, which hurt more than anything else because he knew she was a tactile person.
Not for a minute did he believe she was having an affair, she was too loyal for that. Deep down he knew it was a reaction to his lack of physical attention. Not for the first time he cursed the anxiety that had caused his withdrawal. The chest pains, the shortness of breath, the undefined worry, fear of not being good enough, that was all hard enough to deal with, but they’d managed. For a while now he’d known his lack of intimacy with her had taken the biggest toll, but she’d never pulled away before, like she’d recently started to do.
Staring at the man she’d promised her life to, Elle was sure he loved her, he told her every day. The problem was words weren’t enough. The years of being teased when she was younger had left their mark on the deepest part of her. You’d think it should have nothing to do with her relationships now but no, there were cracks and fissures within that were filled with uncertainty and unworthiness. Her mind was a messed up place to be at times. She knew on one hand with absolute certainty that neither of them wanted anyone else in their lives, but on the other hand the distance between them felt insurmountable.
Brad tried to steady his pounding heart, this moment left like it was his last best chance to salvage their marriage.
‘Elle, you do so much for us, for the kids, for me. I know these last couple of years have been particulary tough, your work and my anxiety. Right now though, you need to just stop. You can’t fix work, so forget about it. The girls are with Mum, so don’t worry about them, I bribed them, told them we’d take them on a holiday soon.’
Elle snorted, ‘You know we’d already planned that, just hadn’t told them.’
Brad shrugged, the smile he could start to see was the only encouragement he needed. ‘Elle, I adore you, and I know you’ve told me you can’t fight for us anymore and the truth is I don’t know how to do that, not like you do. I know you need a break though. A proper one, just for you. I also know you feel guilty doing this for yourself and you shouldn’t. Here and now you are answerable to no one. There is a day spa at the main lodge that you will go to at least once. Other than that the schedule is yours to make. You’re amazing and I wish I could give you more, but right now you need to stop thinking about everything else and let it all go, and if I need to go for that to happen then that is what I’ll do.’
Elle looked up startled. ‘Leave me?’
Brad didn’t understand her confusion, ‘What? No of course I don’t want to leave you.’ Now he started to worry. ‘Do you want me to? I mean for good.’ Fear tinted his tone.
Tears glittered in her eyes and for a couple of missed heartbeats, Brad wasn’t sure he could breathe.
‘Why would I want that?’ she asked ‘I love you and can’t imagine my life without you.’
Brad was able to breathe again, he hadn’t realised just how much he feared her leaving him until he heard her say it out loud.
Elle stood, took his hand and pulled him to his feet. Leading him over to the railing overlooking the tripping river, she reached up and held his face. ‘I was worried that you were doing this because you wanted to leave me.’
‘Never,’ he said.
‘I adore you,’ she continued. ‘And yes I miss you, the younger, hornier you, but deep down I know there isn’t a lot you can do about that. I want no-one else.’ Waving her arm to encompass the cabin and the river she said, ‘This is the perfect gift. Who else would know to give me this. A place of gorgeous solitude. I know we can find our way back together, please stay.’
Releasing his face she started to turn, but he caught her. Pulling her close his lips touched hers. When he let her go she sighed, her knees almost buckling and a dreamy half smile on her face. Feeling a deep desire stir inside Brad kissed her again, this time more deeply, before grabbing her hand and leading her indoors.