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Sport 26: Autumn 2001

Sue McCauley — Wanting

page 162

Sue McCauley


Lucia was always wanting.

Rob liked that word, the economy of it. One word, two meanings. And, in Lucia's case, since one sense was certainly applicable the other became equally true. Wanting and Lucia went hand in hand.

Some days Rob wrote secret lists of the things that Lucia had, over the years, needed in order to be happy. Inventories that were never completed because he'd try to be fair and fairness required so many decisions. Where, for instance, did necessity end and want begin? And should he count the small purchases? And, if so, where to draw the line? Was forty dollars an extravagance?

This would, surely, depend on whether the purchase was of any subsequent use or pleasure?

In his judgement, or Lucia's?

Which was the kind of question Rob's counsellor asked him. Rob had found this, initially, very dismaying. Having taken the rather drastic step of finding a counsellor, he was expecting more than someone who asked the very same questions that Rob had for years been asking himself. In fact, if Rob had not been in the habit of asking himself those kind of questions he would have had no reason to seek out a counsellor.

So—in Rob's judgement, or Lucia's? A ridiculous question since for Lucia every unnecessary purchase—amend that to every purchase of a non-essential item—brought at least a moment of pleasure. The very act of exchanging money, or its digital substitute, for the item or service in question made Lucia's saliva thicken, her heart beat faster.

At least that's how Rob imagined she felt. The rush, the high. He'd tried asking Lucia. He wanted to understand, but also it seemed important to have her reflect on her behaviour. The patterns and motivation. Her understanding of these could be the first step towards change.

Except she always got defensive and turned the question around. page 163 What was the matter with Rob? Money was for spending. It was normal to like shopping. Why was Rob so miserly? So small-minded?

Was he? He couldn't entirely dismiss the possibility. ‘Not everyone's like you,’ Lucia would often point out.

But neither was everyone like Lucia. Though Rob had never said so. He hated their arguments descending to that childish level. ‘Not everyone,’ he might have said, if he were her, ‘loses all interest in an acquisition within days of its purchase, their sights already set on something else.’

If he were Lucia he wouldn't even be aware that the statement was grammatically incorrect.

He never remarked on the errors she made. In fact these days he barely noticed them. Grammatical errors were, he'd noticed, normal these days. Just like shopping. People who made an issue of apostrophes or personal pronouns were fuddy-duddies.

Lucia hadn't had Rob's social and educational advantages. He took that into account, even had moments of envy. Lucia was what she was despite her upbringing. Given an underprivileged childhood, Rob's horizontal career path in middle management would have been an achievement.

All the same, he wouldn't have wanted Lucia's genes.

He didn't approve of those kind of thoughts—the wider implications—yet they surfaced whenever he thought of his in-laws. Every one of them driven by irrational needs or unreasonable hopes.

Lucia and her family did not choose their gene pool. It was simply bad luck. They were ill-conceived, so to speak.

Rob can see everyone's point of view. That's why he found a counsellor. To be strictly truthful it was Lucia's idea. That was after she'd bought the rug, every knot tied by the delicate coffee-coloured fingers of a child at the Aravalli Orphanage. There was a sketch of the orphanage on the accompanying leaflet—it looked like a log cabin in the Canadian mountains.

‘See,’ said Lucia, stroking the deep red pile. ‘We've helped them survive.’

‘Rubbish,’ Rob tossed the leaflet aside. ‘They'd be kinds all right, working for slave wages in some hideous backstreet sweatshop.’

page 164

He had no evidence that this was so, but it was only two weeks since the pool extensions had been completed and he was a little tense.

‘What is it with you?’ he chivvied. ‘Buy, buy, buy.’

Lucia shrugged then smiled sweetly. ‘I guess I'm just good at it.’

And Rob had smiled back, though not as sweetly. ‘You ought to be, you've had so much practice.’ At the same time he'd held out his arms for a cuddle.

That way, he told the counsellor, it kept things friendly.

What would Rob have liked to say?

That you couldn't be good or bad at shopping. Bartering, yes, if you lived in that kind of society. But bartering, anyway, would contradict Lucia's absolute belief that the more a thing costs the greater its value. ‘I'm ashamed,’ she'd lie to her friends, ‘at what we paid for it.’ Then wait for them to demand the figure.

Yet Rob knew what Lucia meant when she claimed to be good at shopping. She was saying she had good taste. Those things she selected (for even Lucia couldn't buy all the stock in every shop she entered) were much coveted by her friends. Who also, naturally, had good taste, though not quite as good at Lucia's.

Her friends drooled over Lucia's purchases, Rob suspected, with intent—for they stood a good chance of owning the items at some later date when Lucia needed the space for something newer and better.

By then the whatever-it-was would be chipped or faded or stained or dull from lack of polishing, for Lucia expected possessions to take care of themselves. And, for as long they sat in his home like useless, expensive relations, Rob was too full of resentment to care what befell them. It was only once they'd been cast out that he took an interest; mending, re-upholstering, restoring. His humble Toyota sat in the driveway because his old wooden garage (Lucia's restored MG lived in the new walk-through garage) was full up with furniture, kitchen gadgets and dusty objets d'art. Rob expected that someday their daughter Zoe would find a partner and settle down in a house fully furnished from the contents of his garage. In the meantime, since there was no more room to store them, Lucia's discards got given away. But only after Rob had repaired and revived them.

He liked doing that—taking neglected or damaged things and page 165 giving them another chance. Saving, restoring, improving. What did that tell Rob—his counsellor asked—about himself?

That he was a natural conservationist.

He could tell by her face that this wasn't the answer she was seeking.

She rephrased the question. What did it tell Rob about his relationships? Then she went to her desk and shuffled through some files to give him time to think about it, though Rob had the answer already. It meant, he said, that he wanted his relationship to last.

He knew it wasn't the answer she was angling for, knew what her next words would be.

‘And your…need to improve things?’

Sometimes Rob suspected his counsellor wasn't actually on his side. Whenever he mentioned Lucia in connection with money or shopping (and after all that was the reason, the only reason, why he was here in her office) the woman's eyes would narrow slightly and their focus slide past his shoulder to the window. A male counsellor might be more empathetic. Or possibly not. Besides, how could Rob change midstream without causing offence?

Lucia certainly treated people the way she did possessions. Her desire for him had been, at first, wonderfully obsessional. And though he hadn't since been cast aside or replaced, Rob had become aware that her affection for him was closely related to his uncomplaining acceptance of their growing indebtedness.

Even Zoe, the most wanted baby in the universe, had become, within six months, little more than the reason why they must have a house full of velveteen giraffes, lions and teddy bears and interlocking kauri puzzles and designer mobiles and Pumpkin Patch catalogues and devices in which the baby could swing, rock, bounce, climb, travel or dance should she feel inclined.

Lucia's heart had then set itself on becoming a clothes designer and she enrolled for a three-year course. Not for a moment did Rob think she would last the distance. It was he who got Zoe ready, each morning, for crèche and dropped her off and picked her up and fed her rusks and read her stories and pinned up her drawings. (Unfairly, it was always Mummy that Zoe drew—bird's legs, big hair and a smile that stretched beyond her face.) But Rob was happy doing those things page 166 and, though she got fed up in the last year, Lucia stuck with the course and got her diploma. Which just went to show how wrong Rob could be.

A lesson he hasn't forgotten.

Sometimes, Rob told his counsellor, he thought it was just a matter of projection. His negative thoughts about Lucia had a way of being proved right. Which could be just a matter of his own interpretation. Or it could mean that he had power to influence Lucia's behaviour.

The counsellor gave an encouraging nod; her face said and? But Rob wanted an opinion. Was that possible? he prompted. Projection? Did she think?

His counsellor chewed at the end of her yellow ballpoint to indicate reflection.

‘We see what we want to see,’ she said eventually.

Rob took it that she was referring to him, to his suspect vision. He sat in silence, sulking.

‘You were going to make a list,’ she reminded.

‘I did,’ he said. ‘I forgot to bring it.’ The pros and cons of life with Lucia. He'd started on the cons, which were more easily defined, but they made him depressed

‘So how did you feel about making the list?’

She was always asking how did he feel.

‘A traitor,’ he said. ‘I felt like a traitor. We'd been having a good week. The commission she's got, it meant long hours.’ No time or energy to even think about shopping.

‘It seems she works hard.’

So did Rob work hard, but he knew that wasn't a good thing to say.

‘She does,’ he agreed in a voice of respect. ‘Yes, she works hard.’

For little return. But he'd already made that clear. Deduct her expenses and the net profit was in fact pitiful. Lucia, however, refused to see it that way. Insisted on mistaking turnover for income and thus felt entitled to be extravagant. Rob had done the sums; they'd be better off if Lucia gave up the business—her licence to spend—and stayed at home. Except that boredom triggered her urge to shop.

There was always an except.

page 167

‘If she was an employee…’ He had also said that before. He felt a stab of pity for his counsellor having to listen to words that went round and round like a drill, boring down. Boring.

‘The ironic part is,’ he said, smiling ironically. ‘that in the eyes of my employers Lucia is what we should all be like. In fact the assumption is that we are all like her. Always wanting new, different, more convenient, more stylish…’

Could he assume that his counsellor would, at least in this, be on his side? Vyella open-necked shirt, dark green trousers and jacket, cropped hair. Possibly butch but he'd been resisting that thought as irrelevant. Her lack of resemblance to Lucia had seemed in her favour.

‘Maybe,’ he tailed off limply, ‘that's the way most people are. These days. Maybe it's me who is out of step.’

He was paying the woman. If reassurance was too much to ask at least she could offer a smile.

‘It's like we're symbols of opposing forces.’ Her silence had a way of making him babble. ‘Me and her. Consumption versus conservation. There's something more than debts at stake here.’

‘What are you telling me, Rob?’

He sighed, looked down at his pale hands. ‘I don't know.’

Her rooms were on the first floor. Her window offered a close-up view of thousands—possibly millions—of small heart-shaped leaves. A beech. Or was it a birch?

‘I'd like to live in the bush, away from everything.’ The certainty of it took him by surprise. ‘It could be that it's the world—society—that I don't know how to handle. And Lucia somehow seems to represent that world. Like, she belongs but I don't.’

What a great job to have. Just sitting there. A few words now and then, like a spoon stirring. He'd make this the last time. A total waste of money. Looking back he could see how neatly, how carefully she'd hooked him on their first session.

‘I need her to change,’ he'd said.

She'd smiled gently. Slicing the bait. ‘We can't make someone else change, Rob. We can only change ourselves.’ Another little smile—oh, they were plentiful at the start. ‘Perhaps we could consider the alternatives open to you?’

page 168

As if these weren't already threadbare from consideration.

‘Right.’ He began counting them off on his fingers. ‘I could leave her. But it shouldn't have to come to that. I'd feel…I'd be leaving because of money. No other reason. And that's not me—not how I want to think of myself. On the other hand, if Lucia's problem was an authorised addiction…It is an addiction, surely?’

‘How would that make things different?’

‘I'd know she could change.’

The counsellor gently shook her head and this time the smile was also a prod—I just said…remember?

‘Other alternatives?’ she coaxed.

Rob's fingers closed. ‘There aren't any.’ His voice was harsh in his own ears, yet what he felt was close to jubilation. At last he was seeing clearly; his decision was made. ‘Thank you,’ he said, rising from his chair. ‘You've made me see—’

‘Or,’ she raised her voice to stifle his, ‘you could think about ways of coming to terms with the situation.’

Rob fell back in the chair, astonished. ‘You mean…just accept it?’

‘People do. Many, many partners learn to do just that. In situations not unlike yours.’

Nothing less than a revelation. He'd mulled it over during the months that followed. People agreeing to live in poverty and insecurity, in shame or fear because…Because the alternative was even worse? Surely not. So—because they were simply unable to walk away. They lacked the courage—or cruelty—that the act of leaving demanded. They were the kind of people who were incapable of not looking back.

And he was one of them.

With his counsellor's help he would learn to accept the situation.

‘Would you leave her,’ reasoned the counsellor, ‘if she was disabled in an accident or had a terminal illness?’

‘Things she couldn't help?’

‘Is it really so different?’

Yes, yes, yes. But he'd said nothing.

After a time he thought of another option. He would wait for page 169 Lucia to die. It wouldn't take forever, she was by nature incautious. He would simply cease to remind her about matters of safety. He imagined the funeral, the way that—now the shopping was over and done with—he would speak from the heart about Lucia's loveliness, her sparkle, the shining energy of her.

That must be how they did it, all those long-suffering partners. What his counsellor took for acceptance and equanimity was the easier virtue of patience. A few, perhaps, were even driven to secretly help fate along.

Rob latched onto the concept of projection. Nervously, in idle moments, he would envisage fatal accidents, heart attacks, aneurisms. Nothing prolonged or unnecessarily painful. He was scared it might work, afraid it might not.

It didn't. Out of the blue Lucia announced that she had fallen in love with the young man who came to repair the electrical fittings in her showroom. Her half of the house could go to Zoe, and Rob must keep all their possessions. Lucia wanted a different kind of life. Her young man owned a hut and twenty-five hectares in Huranui. A dirt track and no electricity (which, given his occupation, was a little ironic). A humble dwelling but more than enough for Lucia and her young man to be lyrically happy in.

‘Cheer up,’ Zoe told her father. ‘She'll be back in three months at most.’

‘My chance to escape,’ Rob told the counsellor. ‘I mustn't be there for her to come back to.’

Then they sat in silence.

‘But if I'm not there,’ Rob worried aloud. ‘I won't know whether or not she came back looking.’

‘Do you need to know that?’ The counsellor sounded a little bored.

‘Of course I need to.’ Having spent so much time in the counsellor's company he no longer felt obliged to hide his impatience. ‘In order to understand why.’

‘Why she came back?’

‘No.’ Rob let his head slump and closed his eyes.

‘Why she left you?’

‘No.’ It was a kind of victory, having her do the talking.

page 170

‘So, Rob, what are you hoping to understand?’

Rob took a deep breath. He couldn't believe he was having to spell it out for her. He spoke insultingly slowly. ‘I need to know what it was about me that drove her to shopping.’

His counsellor took no offence. In fact she seemed to expand a little, then clapped her hands.

‘Rob,’ she beamed, ‘I'm proud of you. What you just said—do you know what that means?’

‘I'm not sure,’ he mumbled, confused.

‘It means you're taking full responsibility for your own actions. This is a breakthrough, Rob. How does it make you feel?’

Rob smiled at his counsellor. How could he not? She was pleased with him. Despite his past suspicions, she cared about him, was on his side.

The counsellor smiled back. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘from here on in we are going to make such progress.’