I was raised to believe in a lot of things.
Bad vibes, past lives and regressions, the relevance of complimentary auras in lasting friendships. In our house, the flu was warded off with honey and turmeric, nausea with peppermint tea; moods were blamed on the positions of Mercury and Saturn. I’d trace my birth chart with my fingers and practice my reading through planets and aspects and signs.
Our rooms were littered with crystals. Rose quartz for a rough day and to spark in the fire; amethyst for sleep and good dreams; selenite for healing and agate for exams. Every full moon, Mum would gather them, one by one, into a silk-lined box. She’d place them on the front door landing where the moonlight hit, to charge them, and I’d spend the night praying that none of my friends would pass by too early in the morning.
But that was a long time ago, and childhood beliefs have a way of fragmenting, turning into issues of communication and antidepressants and patchy relationship histories until one day you open your eyes and you’re back where you started.
A potluck housewarming in Aro Valley—and all that implies. Everything that suburb lacks in available sunlight, it more than makes up for in mid-thirties-to-forties parents with barefoot children and a hippie-lite fashion sense that belies their incomes. Another event I didn’t say I was attending solely because of Jason, although the truth of that had started tautening between us a little. When we first got together, he didn’t go to parties like this. We got together because he didn’t go to parties like this.
The deck looked out over the valley, the night lit by fairy lights and old school ambient psy.
‘I don’t eat anything with a mother,’ a woman beside me was saying, unasked. ‘If it was born of a mother I don’t eat it.’
And I bet you think that counts as a personality trait, I thought. An endearing quirk.
‘I honestly like that,’ I said. ‘I respect that. It’s good to have a clear boundary.’
‘My family are all carnivores.’
‘How do you feel about fish?’
‘They have a farm down in Southland. My family, not the fish. I used to name the calves to make them feel guilty.’ She took a drag of her roll-up. ‘I still eat fish. Fish know what they did.’
There was no wind at all. The clouds from my vape hung in the air.
‘I’m Haley,’ the woman said.
‘Neil.’ I made my name sound friendly, pulled a happy to meet you smile to my face.
She blinked at me. ‘So when did you come into Marianne’s fold?’
I’d always prided myself on being persuasive, gregarious, having the knack of making strangers feel comfortable and welcomed. Perhaps knack is the word. When you get the knack of a game the controls become easy. I’d find myself doing a quick sweep of the buttons available when I met someone new (❑ = laugh, △ = relate, o = attract, x = conspire, etc), and once I’d figured out the lay of the land, so to speak—the right order at the right speed, in the right quantity—I could more or less always get them on my side pretty quick.
Not that night, though. At the mention of Marianne Kell, my throat squeezed shut.
Two kids reeled past, the boy catching my elbow with his shoulder and drenching my hand in Shiraz. He realised what he’d done and apologised, his shoulders scrunched and eyes wide, his toes pink in the cool air.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said to him, and, ‘Excuse me a minute,’ to the fish-hater. Squeezed past the people who always insist on congregating at entrances, gave the living room a quick sweep for Jason and not seeing him. This was one of those parties where there’s no such thing as recognition—none of the faces seemed familiar, none entirely like strangers. Even Bronwyn (whose house it was) had always fallen into that uncanny valley of stranger/acquaintance. She was my husband’s friend, I was her friend’s husband, and I had the sense that she was as unwilling to broaden that as I was.
I glanced at the bookshelf at the back of the room. Lots of Eckhart Tolle and Paolo Coelho. Books with wide, imperative titles—HEAL YOUR LIFE and FIND YOUR TRUTH, that sort of thing. Three were Marianne Kell’s. I recognised those from home.
The kitchen was a terrarium of herbs in handmade pots, and full of sighs and exclamations.
‘She’s helped me so much,’ a girl was saying. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Totally,’ her friends exhaled.
I washed my hand at the sink. Dried it on a tea towel that smelled faintly of pesto.
‘I was in a bad place and she pulled me out. I bought one of her paintings, you know? Supernova Self.’
‘I have that one,’ one of the men said, and then offered sagely, ‘It’s helped me a great deal,’
It’s just a gathering, Jason had assured me. Not a Marianne thing. There’ll be tonnes of other people there. Heaps. It’ll be fun.
‘I just love its energy. It’s like… an expression of gratitude.’
I topped up my glass from a stranger’s bottle.
It’ll be fun.
Jason, calling too loudly over the synthesised bass lines. He was standing by the cheese plant in the corner, with Bronwyn and a woman I didn’t recognise. I pulled my lips into an elastic smile as I crossed to them.
‘Welcome home, Brynn,’ I said, and Bronwyn made the sign of a faux-crucifix. One of those little performances that happen between two people who don’t want to let on how little time they have for each other. She was an architect whose dreads were threaded with purple, and if I didn’t exactly blame her for Jason’s new thing, I wasn’t stupid enough to believe it’d have happened without her. I think she saw me as a stick-in-the-mud, a phoney. A barrier to Jase’s full potential. I called her Brynn because only her friends did and I could tell it annoyed her.
The woman with them was young, possibly younger than me and definitely younger than Bronwyn or Jase’s mid-forties. Face not beautiful but cute, shrewd glint in her eye, clever curve of the mouth. Far too proficient with make-up and style to be at this party.
‘Neil, here’s someone you gotta meet.’ And he did that Jason thing, waving enthusiastically between the two of us without giving any kind of introduction at all.
‘Neil Armitage,’ I said, because she already knew my first name and I got a sense of clout from her, and extended my palm. ‘The better half.’
I saw her eyes flick from me to Jase, noting the difference in our ages but not remarking on it, and she shook my hand.
‘Laura.’ The name with her movie star American accent hit a lightswitch in my mind. ‘Laura Reyes.’
‘The artist?’ I said. ‘I’ve heard of you. You’re very good.’
She widened her eyes jokingly at that, but it was playfulness layered in boredom. I changed tack.
‘Obviously that business with Esteban Salvador has taken a bit of a turn—’ I kept my voice very serious, ‘—if you’ve had to piss off to New Zealand eleven thousand miles away.’
Jason made one of his sounds and Bronwyn raised her eyebrows at him (This is what I mean, Starman), but Laura did exactly what I knew she would do.
‘It’s less than nine thousand miles, actually,’ she said, as serious as me, ‘so it’s really not so bad.’
And then she laughed and slapped my shoulder with the fingertips of one hand and I thought with surprise, I like you. Jason pulled me into a one-armed hug, dug his thumbnail into my tricep. Dickhead, that thumbnail seemed to say, but it said it with love.
We talked briefly, as a group, Bronwyn too enthralled with having someone more-or-less famous at her shindig to throw any jibes at me, Jason just happy to see me getting along with someone at one of these things. She was here on an international residency with Te Whare Hēra, to make shit as she put it. Grew up in California but had an Aussie passport through her mum, so she didn’t have to fuck around with visas. It gave me pause when she mentioned that Haley (the fish-hater) was a friend of a friend, but her eyes flicked to mine for a moment and I saw a touch of tired sarcasm that sold me on her all the more.
Later they started a drumming circle in the living room. Jason always had far more enthusiasm than rhythm, but he kept up a solid boom-tap-boom on a djembe. I watched him for a while from the balcony. Eyes closed and grinning.
Laura was sitting on a chair in the corner, two fingers absent-mindedly tapping her knee with the beat.
Why are you here? I wanted to ask her, but didn’t let it touch my face. Why are you here with all these morons?
I wasn’t sure then if I meant her or me.