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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Close to You, Part II

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Click here for Part I.

Oysters on the half shell were a mutual obsession of ours, and according to my concert pianist, the best in the world were served at Catalina's in Sydney. We made a date night of it, dressing up and everything.

The menu was incredible. The combinations of toppings, both usual and exotic, were sublime. Yet over this perfect meal we sat in strained, almost complete, silence -- me, wondering how I should've been different to make him happy; him, possibly wondering what he was doing with a jobless, gigless, mediocre unknown singer with no connections and no prospects.

We finished our meal, and he paid -- like he did for everything. It always made me uncomfortable, but as he reminded me, "You paid for the flight to get here." And true, this time I did purchase the tickets, but he'd paid for everything even before this visit.

Aussie men treat women differently than American men do. There's something special in a culture that originated in a time period that had a severe gender imbalance, where the men far outnumbered the women. It seems a woman is treated as if she could've chosen to spend her time with anyone, and the man pays to thank her for choosing him. The logic seems to be: why would a woman choose to be with a man who didn't act as if her time had value? I liked it, but I still wasn't accustomed to it.

We stood up and walked arm in arm along the pier, enjoying the clear night sky before driving home, both lost in our own thoughts. I was anxious about going back to his place. When we'd left his apartment, I was finally able to breathe fresh air without mold spores, and the pain in my throat and chest started clearing up (read about that allergy here). I absolutely didn't want to relapse, and I gradually worked up the courage to bring it to his attention.


"Yes darling?"

I gulped. "I'm so sorry, but I think I've been having an allergic reaction to your apartment."

He raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"I know I'm hypersensitive to mold, and maybe a normal person would be fine," I tread carefully, not wanting him to think I'd judged his lifestyle habits. "But I noticed quite a lot of mold growth."

"Maybe that explains why you were up all night coughing!" he interjected. "Allergic reactions seem to get much worse at night. At least mine do."

"They do...?" I queried. Having allergies was still very new to me.

"Yes. We'll give you some Benadryl at home, and visit the pharmacy in the morning for some nasal spray."

"Thank you!" his sympathy was relieving. "But...would you mind if I cleaned it?"

He paused for a moment. I knew he was meticulous about people touching his things. He often described himself as neurotic, and this was one of the ways his neuroses manifested.

"Sure," he said with uncertainty.

"I'll buy any supplies you don't have and do it while you're working."

"Naw, I'll help darling,"

"No, it's ok. You'll be in charge, but I'll do the work since this is my weird problem."

We went home. He shared his allergy meds, and we unceremoniously went to sleep -- the oysters having no aphrodisiac effect this time.

I slept better than I had been, thanks to the medicine. But my concert pianist woke me early.

"Come on, I want you to come to the gym with me," he insisted.

"What would I do there?" I mumbled.

"I want you to meet my personal trainer, he's a hoot."

So I rallied, but I hadn't packed any workout clothes. I hoped against hope that I wasn't expected to join in. I hate weight lifting. It makes me look way too butch, in mere minutes. I was so groggy. Jet lag and antihistamines and a failing relationship -- oh my! I donned a sun dress and grabbed my bag.

I followed my Aussie outside, and as I headed for the car, he said, "I usually walk, darling."

Oh God, how far?

"It's not long, maybe twenty minutes," he reassured me.

He established a manic pace, as if this was the first leg of his workout, not a relaxing meander before getting his ass whooped by a meathead. We stopped at a pharmacy as promised for my last few treatments, then hit the sidewalk again at a breakneck power walk, arriving at the gym with both our heart rates well over 140.

We were greeted by the quintessential American assumption of the male Aussie stereotype: blond, tan, ripped, with a strong Northern Territory accent.

"I'm James," he stuck his bear paw out for a handshake, and gripped my hand, tiny by comparison, firmly.

"This is Jessika, visiting from the states," my pianist said, with a twinge of disappointed pride.

"Nice to meet you -- would you care to join us?" James offered.

"Oh, no thank you. I didn't even pack clothes that would be good for this," I looked down, not wanting to see if there was a disappointed look on my man's face.

James swept my man straight into a workout of Olympian magnitude. Not that I doubted the intensity, but my man was moaning and groaning louder than anyone else in that room, like he were having a night of bad sex with a dom he didn't ever want to hook up with again. Very over-dramatic.

Why am I here? I wondered. There was nowhere to sit except on a bench outside the front door. I was so out of place. Was I supposed to be impressed? Had he envisioned me joining in on the weight lifting all along? I could've slept more, bought cleaning supplies, and had coffee ready for us when he got home, if he hadn't insisted I come.

"AARRRRRRRGGGGHHH!" deafened the whole establishment.

I peeked around the doorway, and there my pianist was, pinned on his back on the ground, underneath James's full weight, pressing my man's pretzeled legs against his chest. The whole gym stared at the spectacle.

I suppressed a giggle. Oh baby -- the strongest human I've ever encountered, yet as flexible as a pencil.

At least that put a smile on my face.

I walked to the convenience store solo that afternoon. My pianist opted to stay behind, so I experienced the culture shock of being a "Yank" shopping for cleaning supplies abroad -- a different selection of products I'd never heard of, that functioned in different ways. Paper towels -- why would you need more than one roll? Aussies generally clean with rags. Why won't any of these bottles guarantee the mold would be killed?!

I did what I could, threw in an air freshening candle for good luck, and hiked back. I scrubbed everything. The crown molding, the blinds, the shower stall, the surface of the hutch, the shelves holding books, the walls, the TV. Everything yielded a black paste -- no wonder I was dying. And I'd still only gotten a fraction of it.

His phone rang: it was a realtor, as he'd been looking into upgrading from his small two-bedroom, one bath, apartment. There was a new property on the market, who's owner had just passed away, and he wanted to go see it.

We bundled up against the chilly night air and sped over. On the third floor with no elevator, we toured an elegant unit decked out in old-lady pink. The layout was spacious, and the windows would let in tons of light. I would enjoy that -- however, he might not.

At one point, he and the realtor asked me what I thought of the property. As if I had the right to an opinion. I liked it, but I'd never given being a property owner much thought. Beggars, as I'd perceived myself, can't be choosers, and almost any place without mold would suit me. If I could be so lucky as to marry this man and be the woman that lived here... I couldn't bear the thought of getting my hopes up, since the visit hadn't been going well. But deep down, it's all my heart wanted. I wrestled with whether I deserved such a dream, since I'd lost my job (read about that here) that was supposed to make financially contributing to our life together possible. Now I had nothing to offer, and the void left by the future that had recently been stripped from me was hollowing my chest. Since I first set foot off North America, I'd wanted to be an ex-pat. Falling in love with my concert pianist had only been icing on that cake. But suddenly being unemployed from my internationally traveling gig caused that dream, and all the others, to vanish.

"...they're asking $1.2 million," the realtor and my pianist had evidently continued talking while I'd been drowning in my downward spiral of depression.

"Ah," my pianist nodded thoughtfully. "Thank you."

$1.2 million!!! my mind screamed. I know this is Sydney, but how did I ever attract a man who can afford something like this? No wonder he doesn't want me anymore. I still have earning potential, but right now I'm not worth SHIT.

We went back home. Upon crossing the threshold, he said, "Wow, it smells fantastic in here! I was skeptical about you cleaning but it's so nice!"

"I'm still not finished," I watched as he stroked the surface of his antique China cabinet with approval.

"It'll only help the resale value of the apartment! Thank you, darling," and he gave me a kiss.

We were on our way to the grocery store when he got a call from his manager, informing him he'd been booked to perform his favorite piano concerto: the Brahms No. 1. He'd never formally learned it before, so he was over-the-moon excited, and wanted to share the news with his mum. He put her on speaker and gushed.

"Oh sweetheart, that's gorgeous!" she cooed in the smoothest of New South Wales accents.

He told her I was there with him -- imagine, the parents of Australia's most prestigious concert pianist, knowing enough about me to tease him in a good natured fashion. We exchanged pleasantries. It flattered me, yet I wondered if she'd heard the visit wasn't going so well. Had I done anything wrong that he'd told her about? Or were all these wacky vibes just from Pristiq withdrawal?

He was still on the phone as we walked into the store.

Cherries! My guilty pleasure. I darted into the produce.

"Darling!" he whispered harshly after me. "Wait!" His free hand flapped towards another doorway.

I didn't understand the gesture.

"I'll pay, don't worry!" I retorted.

He sighed, rolled his eyes, and swayed impatiently while I scooped myself a bag.

"Pay there," he pointed.

"OK..." I was confused. Don't we have more items to buy, like all of the rest of dinner?

When I got back, he had hung up. Evidently the excitement of his upcoming concerto had worn off, as his shoulders were clenched and his jaw was squared.

Is he upset with me? Did I mess up that badly?

"What were you planning on making?" he asked tersely.

"How about a stir fry?"

We walked through the doorway he'd gestured at moments ago -- it was another grocery store entirely. Evidently the one at the entrance was a more expensive, organics store. This one was more economical.

Oh. That's what he was trying to say.

"What goes in a stir fry?" he wondered apathetically.

"I dunno...I could do beef, broccoli, onion, garlic, soy you have rice?"

As I listed off ingredients, he grabbed produce and tossed it into his basket.

"No bags?" I asked. Doesn't that make it difficult for the cashier? I wondered.

"I never get them -- it's bad for the environment," he said, defensive as if he were afraid I'd judged him.

"Oh -- cool."

Inconvenient, but valid, I thought. Yeah...I think I could live that way.

I glanced at the purchase in my hands, and realized my fruit was in such a bag, that he'd subsequently need to figure out how to dispose of when I finished my cherries. Yet another layer to add to how I've irritated him.

I watched the cashier react to his bag-free veggies. It evidently didn't cause much upset.

Then home we went.

He got another phone call regarding the concerto, and I set about preparing dinner. I love to cook on occasion, and living on the ship, I never could, so I was out of practice. I hoped the meal would be OK, and that it was food he'd enjoy eating. He certainly hadn't offered much feedback while I was deciding what to make. I would do my best.

Utensils, cutting boards, and pots lay over his counter tops in disarray -- covered in mold. I scrubbed and sanitized before I could begin.

He was still on the phone.

I chopped broccoli and onions, sliced steak, and heated oil over the stove.

Still he talked. Surely he'd be done by the time the food was.

I browned the beef then sautéed the veggies with it. The rice finished. The broccoli was a vibrant neon green -- exactly at its best.

I popped my head into his bedroom and mouthed, "Food's ready."

"Sorry," he mouthed back, and held up his index finger.

I turned the burner down to low, and paced the floor.

Thirty minutes later he strode into the kitchen. My stir fry was brown mush with little florets sprinkled throughout. How embarrassing.

It tasted like crap.

Click for Part III.

Click for Part IV.

Click for Part V.

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