*Features adult language and themes.*
Breakfast had been perfect.
It annoyed her that Jon had some niche recipes that she couldn’t hope to out-do. She cooked most of their meals, simply because she didn’t work as many hours as him but Jon was the better cook. He was domestically superior to her in almost every way but the emphasis was always on her to do the chores. Jon did his part but that didn’t stop Evie resenting the fact that their roles should be reversed. She should have been the breadwinner.
Her eyes played over the destroyed breakfast tray. The empty tea stained cups, her plate with a smear of sugary residue, one perfect red rose and a small envelope. She picked it up and slipped her hand beneath the flap ripping the top edge. The card was black with a sparkly red heart on the front. The message inside read: ‘To my darling Evie, you make my life better in every way. I love you more than any words could possibly say, all my love today and forever, Jon. P.S. I’ve got a little surprise for you, it’s in the living room. X’
Evie smiled to herself and rolled her eyes.
He does it every year. All I’ve heard from him for the last week is how Valentine’s day is the worst holiday in the year. How it just pressures people into spending money to prove their love, then he goes and does this.
They had agreed that they wouldn’t buy each other any gifts. For the last few years Evie had simply given Jon a card to mark the day. Jon had always given her some sort of gift, even though they couldn’t afford any extravagances.
Is it really an extravagance to go out somewhere for a meal, or buy your husband a book? It really shouldn’t be.
Evie got out of bed and took the breakfast tray to the kitchen, she was careful to be quiet as she went into the living room. Robbie’s toys from the previous evening were still strewn across the floor and the curtains were drawn keeping out the morning’s weak light with ease. She pealed them back letting the sun in and noticed her easel covered by a cloth. On the floor in front of it was a small box wrapped in heart patterned paper and a red bow. Evie knelt on the floor and unwrapped it where it laid as though she was afraid of what might be inside. She ripped away strips of paper to reveal a wooden box. She knew what was inside before she opened it.
She had mixed feelings of happiness and annoyance as she lifted the lid to see the fresh tubes of oil paints.
Why does a generous gift feel like a wicked jibe?
Another red envelope was laid inside the box. Taking the note from the envelope she read: ‘The Salthouse Hotel, 7.30pm. Art will never eclipse the artist. X’
Evie only noticed the tear when it touched her lip.
She hastily brushed her cheek, spreading the dampness across her face and onto her hand. She shook her head as though trying to clear it and stood up again leaving the present where it was but taking the card with her.
Evie moved silently back through the flat to the bedroom, pausing by Robbie’s door. There wasn’t any movement from him yet, but he’d be awake soon.
The bedroom was dark, the sun never really reached it until late afternoon. She didn’t bother putting the light on. The darkness was comforting. It hid the room’s many imperfections. Sitting down on the bed she reached underneath. She knew what she was looking for would be where she left it. Her hand found the familiar shape and feel of a wooden box. She lifted it to her lap. The box was made of a dark wood that had a strong stripy grain, a pattern was carved along the edges making it rough yet pretty. She opened it to find a jumble of paper and small objects. Evie liked to keep things that had memories attached to them.
At the bottom was a slip of green paper. The writing on it was a little faded but could still be easily read. By rights the paper should have been attached to a tree sculpture many years ago, but Evie hadn’t been able to let it go.
On one side of the paper it read: ‘Please read before attaching.’ Evie turned it over, she noticed that little rips had begun to form along the fold lines. She felt tears come to her eyes again. She couldn’t tell if she was crying from happiness or sadness. She didn’t bother reading what was on the back of the paper, she knew the words: ‘I mean this as a compliment, you are a talented artist, Evie Heath, but any piece you create will never eclipse the beauty you already have. Jon Talbot.’ He’d made a point to write down his phone number too. Evie realised she knew the number by heart as well, even though Jon’s contact details had changed three or four times since then.
Evie didn’t know how long she sat in the dark on the bed holding that piece of paper without reading it. She heard Robbie stirring in the next room and it broke the spell. She placed the Valentine’s note in the box and put it back where she found it.
* * *
Appreciation Log: Today it’s easy. I think it’s the first day since I started doing this that something obvious has presented itself to me. I find that a little sad.
Jon got me gifts for Valentine’s Day. It was very sweet of him. He bought me a new set of paints to work with. They are beautiful, exactly what I would have got for myself if I had the money.
It also looks as though he’s booked a table at an expensive restaurant. I guess the word ‘expensive’ is relative for most people. Most of the time we can class KFC as expensive. Which makes the place Jon has booked look like he’s won the lottery.
* * *
Evie stopped writing and looked up, frowning. She knew precisely what she wanted to write next but was unsure if she wanted to commit it to the page. She looked over to the magazine that was open next to her on the couch. It was the February HTBH article. She had studied it at length already.
Robbie was squealing to himself as he played with a toy car on the floor stopping suddenly whenever adverts appeared on the TV.
It’s the strangest thing. It’s as though he’s mesmerised by the TV as soon as the adverts come on. It’s like there’s some subliminal message hidden in there somewhere to try and hook toddlers into consumerism. Then again, it keeps him quiet.
Evie went back to her diary.
* * *
Self-Esteem/Love/Purpose & Meaning: I know there’s something up with me. It’s been dawning on me slowly since I started reading the HTBH series. I don’t think or react like ‘normal’ people. Whatever that means.
My self-esteem is at rock bottom. How do I know this? I just re-read what I wrote above about appreciating the gifts Jon gave me. Everything I wrote is sincere. I’m really glad he bought me something to show his affection. However, all the while I have this little part of my brain working away trying to think of reasons why he’d bother.
That part of my brain recruits the bits next to it, soon all my thought is bent on trying to figure out why my husband has given me a present. Maybe he’s compensating for something he’s done wrong? What could that be? It’s obviously something I don’t know about. I wonder if he’s having an affair. Or perhaps he’s just having fleeting thoughts of infidelity that he’s guilty about?
Once I get past that wave of paranoia and convince myself that I’m being silly (though I never fully convince myself of this), I move onto wondering about other motives for his supposed kindness.
I wonder if he bought me paints to mock me? I think he got them for me to make fun of the fact that I haven’t been able to complete a painting since Robbie was born.
It is my last thought that gives me hope, a thin strand of reason that all my doubts hang from; that he simply bought me a gift out of generosity. He wants to support me. He wants me to paint because he believes it makes me happy.
Surely that should be the only thought I have? The only reaction to receiving a gift from someone that loves me.
It would seem, I am my own worst enemy. I don’t know how to stop being this way. I can’t figure out why I do it to myself.
After all of this I settle down and begin to worry about the money my husband has spent on me. The paint’s aren’t cheap and the meal will be expensive. I worry where he got the money from, how he saved it, or if he’s got himself into trouble to fund it. No matter what I do I don’t seem able to enjoy the fact that he gave me a gift.
I will worry all evening as I try to enjoy the meal. My mind will plague me with questions that I’ll want to ask him. Each question will have to remain unspoken through fear that I will ruin the gift he’s trying to give me.
From reading HTBH it is obvious that I am a pessimist. I go through life doubting and questioning everything that comes along. I look for the negative aspects of the most positive experiences. I’m the sort of person that would win the lottery then complain that I don’t enjoy champagne.
I’m not sure if I can change my negative attitude.
I’ve been thinking hard about why I’m like this. I think it’s a defence mechanism. I’ve had some horrible things happen to me in my life. I’m a lot better off than most of the people on earth, but that reasoning never helps me. My life is the main priority, because I’m trapped in it. I’m trapped in my head, my body. Who else should I care about more? My problems, no matter how trivial they might seem to others are of the utmost importance to me, because they are mine.
I guess I began to act this way after the death of my parents. They died in a car accident when I was in my late teens. I was young enough to feel like an orphan, but old enough that I had to stand on my own two feet. I had no other family to turn to.
Ever since, I have lived my life risk assessing every moment. Trying to predict the worst case scenario and mentally preparing myself for it, just in case it happens.
Oddly, there is never any relief when the worst doesn’t happen. I simply move onto the next potential disaster and dig in for it.
When I found Jon I thought my worries would calm, I had a shoulder to lean on, someone to share my worries with. But that didn’t work out the way I thought it would. He listens, and he tries to allay my fears, but I simply don’t take any notice. I dismiss the comfort he offers me and make my defences stronger.
I often catch him looking at me. I know he’s trying to figure out what I’m thinking about, read my mind, discover my worries. All he wants to do is make me happy. I’m not equipped to let him.
He used to ask me all the time. “What are you thinking?” It’s a horrible question. I could never answer him honestly, it would have scared him.
“Nothing in particular,” I would say. Or on occasion I might try to say something funny or random to make him smile.
“In a 100 years do you think Ikea furniture will be considered antique? Will the aesthetic merits of a Billy Bookcase be discussed on a TV show followed by an outrageous valuation?” Jon had laughed at that one. I like it when he laughs.
The way I am has coloured how I deal with Jon. I’m not sure if I leave myself open to him, I don’t share myself with him completely and that’s down to my own insecurities and fears. If he knew the real whirling, swirling vortex of craziness that resides in my head, he’d run a mile. I love him too much to lose him like that. He is all the family I have in the world and I can’t afford to risk losing him.
Lately, Jon has become the main focus of my fears. Instead of letting him comfort me I’ve managed to turn him into the biggest potential disaster I might have to face. Because I care about him so much, I find myself preparing for the day that I lose him. I’ve thought of many way it could happen. A sudden accident, like my parents. I wonder if he’ll get bored and discard me. I often worry that he’ll cheat on me. I have no real grounds for these thoughts, no solid suggestions or actions to base my suspicions on, but I have thought out each scenario so I’m ready for the day it happens. So the shock and grief it causes will not destroy me.
My love for Jon is my biggest joy and greatest burden.
I can’t bring myself to write down the things I worry about concerning Robbie. Some painful thoughts are best left alone.
I can’t tell if I show them enough affection. I hope they know how much I care. I wish I could tell them what I put myself through to prove my love to them.
That’s the price I have to pay to live my life the way I do.
I still don’t know how I can change. How I can improve.
Perhaps it’s easier to consider my beliefs. I might be able to make a positive start there.
I’ve always believed there is a God. There is something greater than us that set everything in motion, that watches us as a species and protects us from things we know nothing about, dangers that are beyond our comprehension.
I wouldn’t say I prescribe to any specific organised religion. I’m not Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. They all have their merits and pitfalls. They all have contradictions and inconsistencies, but they all agree that there is a power in the universe that is greater than the human race. There is something more than we can see. There is something beyond the lives that we lead.
In my life I have found comfort in my beliefs. My faith was shaken when my parents died, I’ll happily admit it. I questioned why an all powerful deity would take them away from me, but it was the wrong question to ask. I simply had to accept that it had happened and find comfort in the thought that they were somewhere better and that I would meet them again when my time came.
I think I’ve lost that feeling of security over the last few years. I’ve let my fear and doubt take over.
Through harsh experience I know how fragile and fleeting life can be. I know that we only have a brief 70 or 80 years of life to enjoy, if we are especially blessed.
I’ve wasted the last few years worrying about life instead of living it. I should try to use the gift my parents gave me. I need to enjoy the time I have.
I realise as I write these words that they are precisely that. Just words. I will re-read them often. This will be the ‘self-talk’ I use to try and change my attitude.
I believe that when I die I will go to a better place, I’ll meet all of the people that I’ve loved and lost again. I believe, no matter what happens my existence will have a happy ending. It’s guaranteed.
I don’t have to make myself suffer up until then. I already deserve it. I deserve to be happy.
* * *
It had taken Evie all afternoon to get ready. She realised she didn’t own any nice clothes.
She decided to call Zoe and ask for help. They were about the same size, but Zoe was 4 or 5 years younger than her. She doubted if Zoe would have anything appropriate to the occasion or that she’d be comfortable in.
Evie packed Robbie into his pushchair and collected all of the accoutrements that went with taking him away from home into a bag and rushed out the door to catch Zoe before she went out.
The day didn’t seem keen on getting any brighter. Everything was very still and quiet, as though the world was holding its breath for something big to happen. She crossed the bridge, passing a homeless man who was muttering to himself. Evie did her best to ignore him.
She got to Zoe’s flat in record time. She had used the pushchair as a weapon a few times to cut through the crowds in the town centre.
“Hi, Evie.” Zoe opened the door. She bent down to Robbie’s level. “Hello, handsome.” She turned and beckoned them in with a casual wave.
Zoe’s flat looked immaculate in a desolate sort of way. Everything about it screamed freedom. There were clothes discarded about the place, crockery over every surface. CD’s and DVD’s scattered around out of their cases, yet it all looked right. The flat fit Zoe perfectly.
“Sorry about the mess. Haven’t been bothered to clean for a while,” said Zoe without a hint of embarrassment.
“Don’t worry. It’s more orderly than my place most of the time.”
“Yeah, but you have a husband and toddler as an excuse.”
Zoe had already picked out a few dresses and hanged them on the curtain pole in her living room. Evie was taken aback by them. They were beautiful. She would never have thought Zoe would wear them.
Zoe picked up on Evie’s surprise. “I know they don’t seem very ‘me,’ but they were my evening dresses for proms and things toward the end of college. I’ve only worn them once or twice. I don’t really get an excuse now.”
The first dress was red, long and flowing. It felt smooth and Evie knew it would cling to her hips when she tried it on. She wasn’t keen on red because it would clash with her hair, but the shape of it would have been perfect.
The second gown was black with a glimmery chiffon cover that flowed over it and spilled down the front and back. “I think I’ll try that one on.”
“That’s the one I was going to suggest.”
Zoe played with Robbie while Evie tried on the dress in the bedroom. The room was just as messy as the rest of the flat, but at the same time it seemed so inviting and cosy. Zoe had a huge pile of books by her bed, one was left open, face down as if she had only just stopped reading. She couldn’t help noticing a huge vibrator on her bedside table, next to a plethora of condoms and a wide selection of lubes.
Evie wasn’t embarrassed by any of it, just as Zoe obviously wasn’t, but she did find herself becoming envious. Everything in the place seemed to hint that Zoe could do whatever she wanted, when she wanted. There were no ties or obligations. This was a place where Zoe slept, ate, had quality time to herself and, evidently, had a vast amount of sex.
Evie slipped into the dress, forced the zip up a little and went into the other room for Zoe’s opinion.
Evie wasn’t sure. It felt a little tight around her middle and a little loose around her boobs. The back was cut quite low too, her long red hair tumbled down and tickled between her shoulders. It was an odd sensation.
A new feeling.
* * *
The food had been amazing. Unlike anything she had tasted before. Evie had always been open to trying new foods but rarely got the opportunity.
The restaurant itself was seductive. Exposed brick walls set against dark modern paneling. The tables were arranged around a sleek central bar and the windows looked out on the masts and curled sails of the marina. At night the lights outside bobbed and danced making it look like fire-flies were fluttering in the distance. They were sat at a table for two in the middle of a packed restaurant, but felt entirely secluded. It was just them.
Each time she took a mouthful of food a low moan would escape her throat and her eyes would roll upwards. Jon seemed to take more pleasure in watching her eat than his own meal.
The wine had also helped to keep the evening going and it certainly lubricated Evie’s enjoyment.
Over the first course (Rabbit terrine for Jon, Sea Bass bruschetta for Evie) she had questioned and cajoled Jon over the expense of the gifts he’d given her.
“Don’t worry about any of that, Sweetheart. It’s all taken care of. There’s nothing to worry about. I just want you to enjoy tonight. It’s not often I get to spoil you a bit. I’d like to do it more often, as much as you deserve, but this’ll have to do for now,” He’d replied.
Evie refused to let it drop until he gave her a specific explanation of where he got the cash from.
Jon held his hands up. “OK, OK. I’ve got a little extra money from my promotion. It’s not loads, but if I’m careful for the next few months it’s enough for an extravagant meal tonight.” He raised his eyebrows as though questioning if that would satisfy her curiosity.
It did. In fact it soothed Evie’s mind to know that the evening would be paid over a number of months. Jon hadn’t got a bundle of cash from anywhere, it wasn’t a guilt reflex. The gift had been sensibly planned and provisioned for. It was all very logical and Jon-like.
The mains were served (Beef carpaccio for Jon, Venison Bourguignon for Evie) as Jon asked her if she liked her other gift.
“They’re perfect, Honey. Exactly what I would have got for myself. Thank you.”
“I’m glad. I know how much your art means to you. It makes you happy.”
It used to. When I was good at it. “Yes, It does make me happy. Frustrated most of the time, but occasionally happy.” Evie forced herself to smile.
Jon then went on to talk at length about his work, his promotion in particular and all of his new responsibilities. He put a lot of emphasis on the new perks and benefits he would get once his training was finished.
I wonder if it’s all supposed to impress me? Jon isn’t like that. He’s not trying to lord it over me. I know that for sure. It isn’t him. He’s just excited. In fact he’s trying to show how it all benefits us, not just him.
Why do I feel bad that he’s found a little success for himself? Is it because I’m jealous?
Finally the desserts came out (A selection of cheeses for Jon, a panna cotta for Evie) and the wine kept flowing.
Evie had drunk almost an entire bottle to herself. Jon kept filling her glass and her hand had a mind of its own as it kept darting out to grasp it. She felt a cosy buzz as the alcohol worked its magic through her bloodstream. There was a fuzziness around the edge of her vision and her brain seemed to be on a split second delay when she moved her eyes or began to speak. It made her smile.
“Jon, I’m very sorry that I didn’t get you anything.”
He reached across the table and held her hands. Their wedding rings clicked together in a pleasing way. “I told you. It doesn’t matter. This meal is as much a gift to myself as it is for you.” He paused and looked at her for a moment. “Anyway, the way you look in that dress is a better present than anything you could have bought for me.”
Evie looked down at herself. As the evening went on, and the wine flowed she’d gained a little more confidence in her appearance. Suddenly the dress felt as though it fit her snuggly in all the places she wanted it to. She liked the feeling of her hair on her exposed skin and she loved the hungry look in her husband’s eyes when he looked at her.
“You know, I’ve been reading that Kurt Sampson Column,” said Evie.
“Uh-huh. You pass it along and I take a look, too.”
“It’s been making me think quite hard about things. Important things, I think.”
Jon looked suddenly alert. “Go on.”
“I’ve realised that I don’t share my thoughts and feelings with you a lot. I never really share myself with you completely. I’m going to try and do more. What do you think?”
“That sounds good to me. You know I’m here to listen to anything you want to share with me.”
“I’ve also discovered that I’m a pessimist.”
“You think so?”
“Absolutely. I try my hardest to find negativity in the happiest of situations. I can’t stop myself.
Whereas, you. You my dear husband, are an eternal optimist. You must be, you married me.” Evie was suddenly aware that she had lost control over the volume of her voice, and she was starting to slur her ‘esses.’ She paused. ”Tell me truthfully, what do you think of this ‘How to be Happy’ column,” said Evie in a more controlled manner.
Jon arched his eyebrows, making his forehead crease into wavy lines of flesh. “Truthfully? I think it’s a load of crap. I don’t want to hurt your feelings if you put stock in it. Personally for me, I don’t find any of it helpful. Plus I don’t understand why it’s called ‘self-help?’ If you’re reading a load of advice from someone else aren’t they helping you? Why should you get all the credit?” Jon noticed that Evie was looking a little deflated. “On the other hand, Sweetheart. If you find something in it that you can relate to, and you find helpful, then fantastic.
“I’ve always been a very simple man with very simple needs. Happiness comes very easily to me. I have a beautiful wife…” Jon squeezed her hand. “… A wonderful son and I’m able to provide for my family…” He grimaced a little. “Just about.
“The whole point of my life is to be happy, and make the people I love happy in turn. For me, that’s it.”
Evie looked at her husband carefully. She studied him.
It’s so simple for you Jon. Happiness isn’t that easy for everyone. She felt a sudden surge of anger and jealousy.
Jon was looking back at her, his expression posed the question before he had a chance to voice it.
“What are you thinking?”
The question threw Evie for a second, her rage was replaced with a surge of surprise. “You haven’t asked me that for years.”
“You said you wanted to share more. I stopped asking because you always closed yourself off.”
“You’re sure you want to know? You’re sure you’re ready for an insight into my head?”
It’s time to do it. It’s time to open up. If he loves you the way he says he’ll be strong enough to handle it. You deserve some support. He can help lighten the load. Ask the question you’ve wanted to ask him for years.
The restaurant suddenly seemed quiet. The world was silent for a split second. Evie was aware that she had been drinking, but in that moment a spike of sobriety pricked her. She was completely aware of what she was going to say and had no compulsion to stop it. She felt relieved when she knew the words would tumble out of her mouth and there was no turning back.
“Have you ever thought about having an affair or leaving me?”
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