‘Same,’ she replied, frowning at the menu she was holding at arm’s length
He wasn’t so sure. Judging by the expression on her face he thought she might need glasses. Unbeknownst to him, it wasn’t just her that was in denial. While she might have been struggling to read what was right in front of her, he was finding it harder to focus at a distance. Sometimes he failed to see what was approaching altogether.
The conversation had come about as they had been comparing training injuries. Both of them suffered from weak knees. He could no longer run and she could no longer squat. In regard to the running, he was convinced it was age, not his creeping weight gain. With her he suspected she might be a little ambitious, attempting to squat an unrealistic amount of free weight, but without having the correct form. He’d seen that sort of thing before with women who did weights. His ex-wife had stuck safely to cardio.They were sitting opposite each other at a tiny table in a crowded café on Saturday morning. It had become their habit to go for breakfast after spending the night together. They met every second weekend around his shared custody. He had explained, apologetically, that it was all the time he could commit and was relieved when she said that that suited her quite well. She wasn’t demanding. In fact he found her surprisingly low maintenance, which was a novelty to him in a woman. The other women in his life; his ex-wife and teenage daughter, were nowhere near as easy.
‘I think I’ll go for the ‘Trucker’. Apparently they do an excellent hash,’ he announced.
‘Just poached eggs and a slice of wholemeal, and maybe another coffee for me,’ she said.
‘Your usual,’ he replied.She was always watching her weight. Initially he had encouraged her to relax and enjoy food when they were together and he would lay in her favourite treats from Nosh when she came to stay. But lately he had stopped. He could see she might put on weight easily and quickly go from curvy to dumpy. His ex had been built like a greyhound, running on nothing but wine and anxiety. Not that it was fair to compare them. She smiled at him across the table and reached out her hand. He responded self-consciously. The table next to them was so close he could have rested his cup there without stretching.
As their hands touched his thoughts flicked back to the night before and then to the first night they had slept together. There was no question the sex was great. He had forgotten that sex could be like that. He had felt like a teenager just discovering the pleasure all over again. The waiter approached with coffee, interrupting his thoughts. He looked at the coffee with a professional eye. It was the first time they had been to this café.The area he lived in was surrounded on all sides by a plethora of patisseries and cafés, and he liked to try as many of them as possible, but whenever he asked her where she wanted to go she always suggested returning to the first one they visited – the café with the little courtyard and garden. Their first breakfast. He hadn’t wanted her to go home. He had spent the whole time thinking about going back to bed. He hadn’t felt that kind of passion in his marriage for years. He had enjoyed the food at that café too, but he had a compulsion to keep searching for better. There was always a new place opening.
He dropped her hand to pick up the property section of the weekend paper and folded it back on itself. He started to read the latest article about the astronomical rise in the Auckland property market. The story focused on an ex-state house that went to auction just a block from where they were now sitting.
He hadn’t been looking to date when he met her. It was a LinkedIn connection. Someone had referred her and he had been in need of a person with her skill set. He had never seen anyone with so many recommendations and endorsements, all referencing her ethics and practice. He was worried she might be a bit dry. When they got together to discuss his proposition the conversation immediately turned from business to banter. He couldn’t even remember now who had suggested the drink or the subsequent first date.
They had shared interests around work and a similar sense of humour. His ex hadn’t worked at all and had no interest in the details of his business. The more he talked to this woman the more he liked her. She wasn’t glamorous, more down to earth and practical. He recognised her values. Like him, her partner had left her. She was faithful and the one without blame. They lived in the same city but moved in different social circles. There were shared acquaintances of course. It was all two degrees of separation. She had been born in a suburb close to where they now sat, but she had married into the blue-collar suburbs. She had married into the kind of suburb he had escaped.
They had spent their second night together at her house. She lived in the West in a new subdivision. The house was conventional, large and practical, built from plasterboard. It was twelve years old and she had lived there from new. When her marriage had eventually come to its conclusion she had given up any claim on the business in favour of remaining in the freehold family home. She told him that neither she, nor her ex-husband, had any real interest in real estate. Their focus had always been on plenty of room for family and guests, a yard for the dogs, and enough disposable income for weekends away and a stress-free life. The house had four double bedrooms, a large office, open-plan lounge and kitchen, two bathrooms and a double garage.
Even though the house was one of half a dozen in the street that looked the same, inside it brimmed with personality. He had been surprised when he visited. Her taste in furnishings was eclectic, a mix of modern and old. Traces of the departed family remained in corners and cupboards. There were framed holiday pictures on the stairs and the garage still contained a lifetime of summers. It was so homey it made him a little uncomfortable – the way it still reverberated with the life of her family even though she lived there alone.
It was an unassuming house, especially the kitchen where she had cooked them breakfast in the morning. Cooking was a necessity because there was nowhere to walk to from her house. If you needed anything you really had to get in your car and make an effort. Even then, this was an area free of lattes and Lewis Road. He had sat and watched her move around the kitchen, efficient and confident, plating up a full breakfast in no time at all, like a seasoned pro. As he observed her he noticed that all the kitchen fittings were off the shelf. Her stove was electric. The bench was composite. It was a kitset job, not well fitted – functional, not flash. She told him how much she loved to cook, especially bake and how she missed having people to cook for. Her two were older than his. He sat there imagining the lunch box treats she was describing as she grilled the bacon, scrambled the eggs and added a dash of lemon to the sautéed mushrooms. His ex hadn’t been keen on cooking.
As he left, he stopped to look at the garden. Like him, the woman hated gardening. She said she had wanted to plant natives but they grew too slowly. He didn’t comment but the truth was he didn’t like natives. They never looked right in the suburbs. Instead she had compromised by planting some native flax as well as some popular imports. The yucca’s were huge and now framed the house. She told him that she had selected the yucca as they grew straight up and the tap-root grew straight down. You could take cuttings if they branched, and they were easily transplanted before they got too big. She was happy with her choices. The garden was low maintenance. It suited the house and reflected the residents in the houses around her. He admired her practicality but he thought the garden could be prettier. As he drove away he tried to imagine himself living in a house like that, but he couldn’t. Still, when he returned home to his rental all he could see was what was absent.
He lived in one of the gentrified areas of the inner city. He loved the leafy suburbs with the renovated bungalows and wedding cake villas. This was the kind of area he had dreamed of living in when he was growing up. The colonial past renovated and repaired, restored to face another one hundred years. No house dare be anything but neutral. The streets were planted with aging oaks and the gardens embraced their English heritage. There were camellias, roses and even boxed hedges. Big old trees stretched their branches to provide shady avenues and the streets all had humps to remind drivers to slow down and enjoy the dappled light. Meanwhile their roots dug down and spread wide, and when they eventually pushed back up to the surface, they cracked the pavements and roads in the process. These trees were firmly anchored, clutching the ground that surrounded the Kiwi dream – a full site, wooden floors, a gas hob and marble worktops.
He was renting a bungalow just around the corner from the former family home, as was his ex, while he tried to find a way to get back on the ladder, with only half the equity they had salvaged from their marriage. He talked fondly of his old house and he showed the woman photos. Even he could hear the regret and sense of loss in his voice. She asked him if living so close to his former home was healthy. She wondered if residing so close to the ruins of a relationship and a dream never realised was like trying to stay friends with an ex.
‘Maybe there needs to be a time of separation, a time where you allow yourself to grieve,’ she said. He thought at first that she was being sarcastic, but she wasn’t.
The house had been such a great buy. It was before the boom and he’d had a reasonable deposit to be able to afford the plain bungalow in the mid fives. Once he moved his family in they’d started to renovate. As the children grew so must the house to keep up with the demands. They had borrowed heavily, but he knew that no risk meant no capital gain. The problem was that it wasn’t just a cosmetic renovation – with these old places it never was.
There was the wiring, the floors, the bathrooms, and that was when he discovered the problem with the plumbing. The mighty oak in the front yard had spread its roots far and wide and taken possession of some fundamental piping along the way. The expense of having to protect the tree and repair the pipes had been a nasty shock. This unexpected hitch meant that when it came to the kitchen the budget was already blown.
Of course there was no choice. Everyone knew the kitchen was where the money went. There could be no compromise. Re-mortgaging was not a risk as the property values had started to rise. The kitchen was the heart of the home. What would be the point of everything else? It would all be wasted if it wasn’t fully realised, with a wide screen oven, a hand painted splash-back, imported tiles painted in France, self-closing doors, a walk-in pantry, a butler’s sink, a six burner industrial gas hob, and of course, acres of granite bench tops.
He had shown her the photos of the renovation as they lay in bed together. She had ooohed and ahhhed over the kitchen, gasping when he had revealed the cost of some of the fittings. He allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to have someone like her in a kitchen like that. He could picture her kneading something on the cool granite bench, flour dusting her cheek, and him approaching her from behind. But the reality was that right now he was in a rental and his ex-wife lived a few streets over. The children spent a week with each parent, passing the old family home as they walked between the two rented residences.
He returned to the article about the skyrocketing property values. ‘1.1 million and it’s had nothing done,’ he said. ‘I won’t be happy till I’m back in a place of my own. It’s just going to take some creative accounting.’
‘Won’t that be a huge financial strain?’ she asked. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard a hint of judgement in her tone and he remembered her recent enquiry about how big a part he thought money had played in the collapse of his marriage.
‘I’ll manage,’ he said, slightly defensively. ‘You have to stay on the ladder.’
‘It’s this area,’ she said. ‘It’s just so expensive. Maybe you could look somewhere more reasonable?’
‘It’s the schools. If it wasn’t for the kids…’ he said, trailing off before he finished the sentence.
She raised an eyebrow sceptically. ‘I don’t think the school will exclude them every second week, will it?’
It was true that his ex-wife was still in the area, as were other family members. He knew it wasn’t unheard of for people to lie about their address for zoning.
‘There are other suburbs,’ she continued, ‘a bit further West, where you can still get the style of house you want, close to the children’s schools, and you can get in without having to harvest an organ.’
As she was speaking he realised that he should have seen this coming.
‘Why don’t you look at Avondale,’ she said, admiring the crema on her short black.
He nodded without answering, but inside he felt his heart sink.