A Loaf of Bread

A Loaf of Bread

‘I’ll have the one with the sesame seeds,’ I say pointing to the shelves of loaves, lined up like newborns in a maternity ward. The shop is cozy, a cubby-house of crispy sourdough, dark rye and milky coffee.

Amir takes a sheet of translucent tissue paper and picks up a loaf using it as a kind of glove. He is darkly Mediterranean, boyish, Turkish maybe. Amir? Could he be Israeli? He does not hide that he likes me, always overly keen to serve me, to ask me how I am. He has no idea how old I am. Today I’m sure my age shows.

I had maybe three hours sleep last night, woken by the retching sounds that came from the toilet as Jamie spewed up Thai food every hour or so. I had stumbled towards the gagging, then stood there helplessly. It is not easy to mother a nineteen-year old. When she was still mine, I’d have held her hair out of her face, clucked words of comfort, patted her back. She had looked up at me in between retches, ‘Can you please not watch me?’ I’d skulked back to bed. Sleepless for the rest of the night.

Amir puts the loaf in a brown paper bag.

‘Do you need a bag?’ he smiles.

‘No, no plastic, the paper bag is fine.’ I beam back at him and he winks at me. This slight interaction with a man of Middle-Eastern appearance who is in his early thirties is one of those small guilt-free pleasures like finding a $2 coin in the pocket of your jeans, or someone exiting their parking spot just as you pull up.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

I hold the bread against my body, a swaddle of sustenance. It is deliciously warm and the wind on this spring morning is having an autumn memory. The Rabbi’s wife walks by, pushing a pram with one of her innumerable grandchildren, flanked by two pre-schoolers, one with payot and yarmulke, the other with long plaits. We exchange niceties. She motions to the bread I’m holding and asks if the bread at the new shop is any good. I tell her it’s the best, defaulting into unnecessary superlatives as if overcompensating for my failure to ever show my face in her husband’s synagogue. The best? I wince at myself. Am I twelve or what?

She wishes me a Shana Tova. I do the same.

Down on the beach, I cuddle the bread on my baby-holding hip. I always wondered about that – how naturally it felt to hold a child on the left when I am right handed. I remember once reading that Nature designs it that way so women can multi-task, hold the baby while leaving their dominant hand free. It has been nearly fourteen years since that hip was gainfully employed, yet it still remembers. That soft spot. That ache.

I take the long scenic walk home, not rushing as I might have back when having a sick child at home stripped me down to the purpose of my presence, the very bones of my being. When there was nowhere else I could possibly be, no place I was needed more than sitting vigil, making soup, tending the temperature.

I gaze out at the ocean and sigh, before turning back.

I have done my motherly duty. I have brought her bread. From the best shop. When she surfaces from the fever and wretchedness of this bug, there it will be. The fresh bread with the sesame seeds Amir took off the shelf this morning, wink and all. When there is colour back in her cheeks, I will slice it, toast it, boil the kettle and bring her Vegemite toast and weak black tea with honey on a tray in bed. Shrugged from her life as a neurotic nuisance, banished from all tenderness, I can still be her mother.

I bring this warm loaf to my heart. I hug it and sniff it, and close my eyes into its goodness. I carry it enfolded in my embrace all the way home.

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Buoy

Buoy

1

It is four years to the day.

The pillow next to mine whispers this in my ear just before I open my eyes to the careless daylight. I wonder if it is a deficiency – perhaps a leak sprung in me after he died – that in all the time that has passed since we lay together in our… this bed, I haven’t dreamed about him. Not even once.

The pillow is restless for an explanation, as if baffled afresh by his persistent absence. The linen creeps up between my thighs with the easy familiarity of a lover’s hand. I rest my palm on his pillowcase which in all this time I have still not washed. If something of him still lingers there, I can’t bring myself to flush it out with Dynamo’s ultra-penetrating wash. I am certain this is why it still talks to me.

I have never taken his suicide as ingratitude. He always said he knew he’d die young. But the epicurean in me riles at the needless violence of it. Would a dignified overdose have been too much to ask? Blowing your brilliant brains out just five days short of your twenty-eighth birthday was gratuitous, burlesque. Why involve cleaners? Despite all the intimacies we trafficked in this bed, he never once let slip that the course he was charting through the jungle of his silences involved ammunition. He lived as a pacifist. Died as a terrorist. I was duped. Even stupid. To be that close, and not to know.

When you share a bed, you share a world. Those were his words, not mine.

Four years down the line, sex has become a vague intangible notion, like marriage and motherhood, limp affectations other people assume, unoriginal and unfortunate. My dreams, though, are pornographic. There I am hunted by wild men on Harleys, woolly with beard and storm. I am caressed noiselessly by bespectacled librarians with French manicures behind the Politics section. My breasts are groped, suckled on by passing strangers. Old men in beige trousers. Pregnant women verdant with limbs. Young boys twitching with testosterone.

As soon as my head touches my pillow, I become everyone’s whore. The hull of the mattress cradles my bones. The bed springs push up beneath me with memories that pester my skin, ripples of the gasps and shudders we let loose under these covers.

In this bed he had touched me alive. My body sang Gregorian chants. My womb shimmied in my belly, my nipples quoted Shakespeare. My hips grew wings. I fed him my flesh. I thought it would keep him from starving.

But in all those years he’d slept side by side next to me, I hadn’t dreamed at all. My friend Trixie had warned me, ‘be careful – he’s stealing your dreams.’

Rob was a thief – not of the petty kind. But I knew that going in. I had no-one but myself to blame.

After he died, I stopped eating meat.

2

The body needs protein. It is not a whim. It is a practical insistence much like oxygen and water. I am committed to oblige. This is an unspoken understanding between me and my tissues. Without meat, protein becomes a daily pilgrimage and beans offer a degree of deliverance.

Not every deli stocks tofu. Celebrities crooning of the benefits of green tea and the Kabbalah have curbed its status as a culinary idiosyncrasy, but still, tofu isn’t a fling. For one thing, you have to know where to look. And for another, it is entirely anodyne, and surrenders to the flavours of its immersion – soy, sesame, garlic, chili, ginger – without resistance, all too eager to please. Some days I eat it bland. It takes me back to my dreamless state, when Rob seasoned me.

Today, when I arrive at the fridges at the back of the supermarket where they stock ‘slow-moving’ produce, I cannot get to the tofu. There is somewhat of a boy in my way in washed out denims and a white t-shirt, with a lock of black hair wilted over his eyes. He is examining the different types of tofu with the same look of bewildered exile as a father holds his newborn.

‘Excuse me…’ I say, reaching into the fridge and removing Silken Soy.

‘Ummmm,’ he ventures.

I stop and address him with my gaze. It is not clear he is speaking to me.

‘Is …. Is… is this the…. best tofu… ?’ He holds up Greenacres.

‘It depends.’

He looks at me expectantly. I realize he wants me to go on.

‘It depends what you like.’

He nods. ‘I.. uh… don’t know what I like…’

He speaks to the tofu, not to me.

I am encouraged by his ingenuousness to continue. ‘I like this one because it’s mild and silky. But if you prefer it a bit stronger and firmer, then I think the Greenacres is better …’

‘And how do you … eat it?’

‘With my mouth, generally.’

He cannot decide whether I am joking. He wants to smile but all that hesitation gets in the way, and his courtesy weighs him down.

‘Sorry, I…I mean … how do you prepare it? Isn’t it tasteless?’

‘Are you new to tofu?’

He shifts his weight, in an effort to get easy in his body. He comes to some kind of lumbar compromise. I believe he is looking at me through his fringe.

‘I’ve just moved out of home, and I’m cooking for myself for the first time, so… I guess you could say I am new to tofu..’ he gives a small laugh, as if that phrase is enchanting. ‘But I’ve been a vegetarian since I was thirteen.’

‘Why did you give up meat?’ I ask.

He shrugs.

I squeeze the Silken Soy in my hand.

‘I.. uh.. once saw a sheep get knocked over by a car…’ His right fist coils tightly, anemoned in recall.

I release my squeeze on the Silken Soy. ‘You need fresh asparagus,’ I say. ‘You steam the asparagus. Then you toss olive oil and balsamic vinegar over them ..’

He smiles hesitantly. ‘Balzamic?’ he asks.

‘Balsamic,’ I say. ‘You’ve heard of it?’

‘Vinegar?’

‘It’s a dark aged vinegar that’s been reduced and thickened over time in oak or chestnut barrels.’

‘Okay.’

‘Then you dice the tofu and make it into a salad … with some toasted sesame and sunflower seeds….’

‘That sounds … wow …’

‘It’s …very wholesome…’ I say.

‘You know a lot about tofu.’

‘The balsamic’s in Aisle 4, in case you were wondering…’

I am standing paying at the checkout when he bounds up to me.

I stare down at my sandals which need some superglue to fix where the under sole is loose with the indulgence of grief’s neglect. I suddenly feel a little wretched in my tracksuit and ponytail. I haven’t been looked at in so long.

I am aware of his eyes on me, but it isn’t the kind of looking that makes you edgy. It is very soft. As if he is opening and closing all around me, the way flowers do for the sun.

‘Ummm…’ he starts.

I look up at him.

He panics for a second. He fidgets with his right hand on the counter. But he proceeds. There is courage there.

‘Would you … be interested….’

‘Thirty-nine, sixty’ the checkout lady says to me. I hand her a fifty.

‘… um… in initiating a…. virgin to the whole tofu experience… like … would you show me… how to prepare it…’

I inhale. I don’t know men anymore. Rob took that with him too. He clutches the counter. He is bracing for disappointment.

‘Can I just see your eyes…’ I ask.

He lifts his fringe impishly. They are dark and green and delicate. But they don’t flinch in the looking when the hair is out of the way.

I glance at the checkout lady. She looks at me and shrugs. ‘Yeah, why not? He looks like a harmless kid…’

‘I’m twenty-two,’ he says earnestly. ‘I’m not a kid anymore.’

3

His name is Finn (short for Finnegan, but that sounds weak, like ‘whiskers on a chin –igan’ which couldn’t even withstand the wind) and he is an architecture student. Seven years younger than me. Chinese year of the dragon. Perhaps it is the tofu, perhaps it is the Chardonnay, that gives him courage. That night in my kitchen, over a huge salad of asparagus and tofu, I let him talk.

An only child. Mum worshipped him, and thought he was the ‘greatest thing since sliced bread.’ Funny phrase that, he notices, what’s so special about sliced bread or is it meant ironically?

‘Dad left when I was three, so it was just mum and me until I was six. Then she met George. He was an architect which in mum’s eyes was like being a brain surgeon. Things have a way of getting exaggerated, by contrast – my real dad never finished school. The first present George ever bought me was a Lego set. He figured the best way to get to my mum was to make out like I was the special one, the one he was interested in.’

People are like buildings,’ he always said. ‘‘There’s always a doorway, always a way in,’ He was big on doorways. He had this way of filling up space. Charisma, my mother called it. It made me feel stunted. He’d always get a table in a fully booked restaurant, or the window seat in flights. People were always offering him their holiday homes. My mother got rid of everything she owned, even things she and my dad got for their wedding, when George moved in. It’s amazing what a statement like, ‘what does your stuff say about you?’ can do to a person who was perfectly at ease in herself for thirty-five years before it was uttered.’

‘He read me books on Frank Lloyd Wright and Andrea Palladio at bedtime.’

‘He let me sit up front. He liked to drive fast. I was in the car when he did a hit and run on a sheep.’

‘Dragons are supposed to leave a legacy.’

‘George left when I was thirteen. ‘

‘My mother’s back plays up in the winter. I think she’s lonely.’

Four hours pass. Finn asks for the bathroom.

‘Second on the left after the bedroom.’

My eyes follow him down the hall. At my bedroom door, he slows down and turns to look into my room. I wonder what his architect eyes discern in the mess of linen, and whether he reads the unraveled history of my flesh there. The thought of date rape passes through my mind like a stray cat, but it does not stay. I feel indicted by my own torturous conditioning. He’s just a boy.

When he returns, he has moved his fringe away from his eyes. It looks like he has applied some water to keep it in place behind his ear.

‘Can we… can we take a walk..?’

‘A walk?’

‘Along the beachfront?’

He recognizes my distrust of shadows.

‘If you don’t want to, it’s okay…’

I haven’t walked on the beach after dark since the night before Rob died, his wiry arm around my shoulders, holding me firm, with promises of the earth and gravity.

I have replayed that night over and over in my head. I think I nattered on about children someday. He had just kept still, misleading me into a labyrinth of complacency with his quiet. He pointed out Orion. I thought it was an observation. Now I see it was a forwarding address. A destination.

I grab my coat and a hip flask.

‘Let’s go,’ I say.

We walk in an uncontested silence. The seagulls are haggling on the sand. We take turns sipping from the flask. I am dreamless. I don’t know how these things go anymore. Does he try to take my hand? And what then?

But he doesn’t. He keeps his hands deep in his pockets after returning the flask to me. He doesn’t mind sand in his shoes. I take mine off.

We walk all the way to the end of the beach and back. I get my feet wet. He watches me, but he makes no move to join me.

I look for Orion. I can’t make it out. I was never good at joining the dots.

‘What are you looking for?’ he asks me.

‘Anything,’ I say.

He does not press me. My obscurity suffices. I can’t make out whether this is communication or dislocation.

Suddenly, I start to laugh. He watches me laughing.

I laugh ridiculously.

Finn doesn’t push his way into my laugh. And then after a while, my laugh disintegrates and becomes part of the tender night and perhaps Rob is here and perhaps he is not but for now, endlessly in this moment, I feel unstolen from.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

4

He calls me the next day. As if tofu requires a thank you.

The following day he invites me to walk on the pier where the boats nod to one another.

The next to sit in a cathedral to watch the afternoon light bleed through the stained glass windows.

Then a museum, where the conceptual manifests spatially.

I let him dream for me.

He escorts me through artifacts, sculptures, landscapes.

He loves to talk, mostly about composition. I give myself over to this new language, with an abstracted fascination. I watch his mouth move in curlicues of description, the way the ear swoons at the sounds of words in French or Spanish, unrecognizable, but irresistible nonetheless.

In bookshops, we steal ideas from the Architecture and Travel books, enormous photographic books open on our knees as Finn talks in spirals. Could one design a four dimensional building? Why don’t windows frame existing landscapes? Crop circles must be evidence of a divine architecture. I agree mindlessly, question nothing. I learn names of new things. Baroque. Neoclassical. Bauhaus.

He leaves an urgent message on my answering machine about a rainbow he can see from his desk. I teach him how to cook a Moroccan vegetarian curry. We experiment with different curry pastes. We drink cranberry juice with vodka. We lose the vodka, add chili. He watches movies with subtitles with me.

We are amazed each in our own way – he, at how I eat spaghetti one strand at a time; at the design of my furrowed brow before I sneeze; at my irrational disdain for eggplant. I, at the fact that in three months of accumulated intimacies, Finn does not attempt to hold my hand, sneak a kiss or reach for my breasts. I have lost my co-ordinates. In my dreams it is Finn who roams my body. I wake beached in a parched bed, scrawny with hunger.

I start to crave meat again.

I am unsure in my skin, which insists, with depleting adamancy, that he is not gay. Perhaps I am incapable of producing an erection in a heterosexual male who isn’t actually contemplating suicide and therefore does not have the luxury of time on his hands. Trixie tells me to ditch him. ‘You’re wasting your time.’

But I don’t have anywhere else to be.

5

It is now almost four months to the day since we met at the tofu fridge. In a bookshop, I am paging through Life in Tibet.

The strong face of a Tibetan nomad wrapped in a dazzlingly woven blanket smiles from the page, gloriously beckoning. Around his neck he wears a chain of irregular beads and charms. It is a fully told story in one face. I close my eyes. I try to remember Rob’s face and which parts were keeping secrets. I want to ask the Tibetan nomad if the stars at night change with the seasons. And how to keep warm when the snow comes. I wonder how Tibetans speak things of emotional bearing. Or if the language of beads does all the work. Perhaps covering someone with your blanket is a declaration of undying devotion, and words a surfeit of inconsequence.

When I open my eyes Finn is standing next to me. He looks at the photograph I am holding open.

‘Are you crying?’ he asks.

‘Not really,’ I say, wiping my eyes.

‘A hamburger?’ He is incredulous.

‘I’ll go insane if I don’t have one,’ I say. ‘But I don’t expect you….’

‘What?’

‘To hang around.’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

‘The dead sheep? Remember?’

‘All that blood,’ he says.

‘Exactly…’

I am not choosing. But my body is taking charge now.

‘Can I … watch?’

He watches me eat my double hamburger with pineapple and bacon and cheese. The sauce drips down my chin. Finn swallows. He reaches out his hand to my face. He stops before he touches me.

‘It’s okay, I’ve got it,’ I say, dabbing it with a serviette.

Back in my apartment, I am heavy with flesh.

Finn paces carnivorously, his hands deep in his pockets. And then, it is sudden and he is close, so close I can smell the briny trepidation in his breath. He unsheathes his hands and summons mine.

He leads me down the hallway to my bedroom door. He surveys the treacherous estuary of the bed. He drops onto the mattress and reels me in to sit beside him. In his hand, he holds mine like a pansy shell, catastrophically breakable despite faultless care. We are at the edge of something.

I wish I had an amulet to give him to spare him the torture of verbalization.

‘I want to….’ he says, ‘…. to…’

The trembling in his body moves first into my fingers, my palm, my wrist, and up my radius as he labours to cross the rickety bridge of things unspoken.

In the shallows, he gasps for breath with heaving gills.

‘…I’ve never…’

‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘I haven’t in … a lifetime of four years … ‘

I lower my lips to his hand. He closes his eyes and sighs. I move my mouth to his lips and draw in his exhalation.

Beneath my fingers on his chest, his heart drum-rolls. I lead him to the water, and lay him down.

‘I … can’t….’

‘Float,’ I say.

He opens his mouth.

‘You can float.’

Finn clasps his hand on top of mine, a double shield on his heart.

‘I… I…… George…’ he begins. I offer my ears like tightly-laced fishnets, to catch his slippery words which dart out of his mouth, a spew of trussed and mangled innocence, of everything that should have been de-hooked and thrown back to grow into adulthood.

When I strip off my clothes, I do so as a recuperative reconnaissance. The bed opens up for us, a harbour. My breasts welcome him like lighthouses, my limbs enfold him like seaweed. I steer him through the rocks, whispering what I am going to do before I do it. I ask him if it is okay, and wait for his nod. I touch him in all his places, first with my fingers and then with my mouth, that have been snatched from him before he had a chance to discover what felt good and right.

He trembles like sea grass, as his body fights off the memories and they sink, like shipwrecks, deep into the ocean of the bed.

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A Simple Exchange of Niceties

A Simple Exchange of Niceties

Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.

– Wallace Stevens

The first available appointment was for next week only. That was in nine days time. Enough time for hands, brains, eyelids and knee joints to form according to the charts. I took a walk. I needed to sit on a bench somewhere under a tree, have a smoke. I know you’re not supposed to smoke when you’re pregnant, but fuck it, I didn’t ask to be, and in nine days time, it was all going to be scraped out of me anyway, which is a lot worse damage than a cigarette was going to do.

There is only one bench I like to sit on in the park. It’s that one just to the left of the big duck pond. It’s got generous slats, not those awkward stingy ones that protrude into your back and don’t let you forget you’re sitting on public property. I once saw seven black swans there, gliding together, it was like a ballet. It sort of made me cry, I don’t know why. Just that perfect connection, unspoken like that. I like benches. They make you feel as if people matter, you know, ordinary people just like you, who haven’t achieved much in life, despite all your teenage dreams of Paris and art school. Benches like that don’t seem to mind that you’ve never reached your potential or managed to finish anything you’ve ever started. They just sit and wait for you, an invitation that’s never revoked: come sit.

I know it’s stupid to be possessive about things that don’t belong to you, but I like to think of that bench as my bench. Put there especially for me, and only for me. You know when you’re a little kid and everyone else runs ahead, and you feel like you’re going to be left behind? When I get to my bench and it’s empty, it’s as if I’ve been waited for. Like an older cousin who stops and holds out a warm friendly hand, not minding being last together with you.

If I arrive at my bench and there’s someone else already there, I just walk on. It’s not that I don’t like sharing. I’d give anyone the shirt off my back, or the food off my plate. That’s part of my problem. My parole officer said people take advantage of that sort of thing. Makes them think you’re easy. I don’t know. I don’t like to see people go hungry or to have to sleep in bus-shelters, which are the unfriendliest of public spaces.

I just like to be consulted first. You know, it’s a respect thing.

And if I’m already sitting there and someone comes and sits down without even a simple exchange of niceties, like, ‘Do you mind?’ ‘May I?’ ‘Do you want to be left alone?’, well, I think that’s just plain rude.

Once when that old lady shuffled up to my bench, I got all panicky. She reminded me of my Nan who’s been dead for more than ten years, but who had a soft spot for me, always pressed some cash into my hand, and whispered ‘go buy yourself something nice.’

The old lady smiled and sat down beside me, and fiddled with her plastic bag, which had gotten stuck, on her wrist, twisted around and around. It took her a good few minutes to work out which way it was twisted and how to untwist it and remove it. I tried not to care what it was she had in her plastic bag, but I couldn’t help seeing she had a pair of shoes in them. A pair of bright red little girls’ shoes.

And that was it. She snatched my peace from me.

‘It’s a cloudy day,’ she said. I didn’t know whether she was directing it at me, or just like, at the water.

I nodded. When I’m sitting on my bench, I’m generally not in the mood for a small-talk and chit-chat.

I got up soon after that and left her there, with her little red shoes in her plastic bag.

Today of all days, I needed to be alone on my bench. I rounded the corner and saw the bench – unoccupied!

I quickened my pace, though there was no-one else in sight, just to claim it. I lay down on it, taking up the entire bench with my body. I reached into my pocket and took out a cigarette. ‘Smoking may be dangerous in pregnancy.’ I laughed out loud, it was a fucking cigarette that got me into this mess in the first place.

When Damien had approached me at the pool table, and leaned in against me, he said, ‘Got a cigarette on that cute bod of yours?’

Not a great opening line, but I liked the confidence and he cut a fine figure in a pair of Levi’s.

He fucked me from every direction and on every surface in my apartment. I still have bruises in places I can’t see without contorting myself into a Yogic position from which I couldn’t disentangle myself without professional help.

We hadn’t spoken much, so I couldn’t have known he didn’t want kids. Not with a trashy whore like me – his words. As if a kid was on my agenda. I guess I never thought before how those two pink lines kind of make an equal sign to the end of a relationship. ‘Better to know someone thinks you’re a trashy whore sooner rather than later,’ Barbie said. She’s my best friend and I swear the greatest hairdresser which is why I always look good even on a waitress’s salary. She gets me right. I heard her. Better to know. Even if you had feelings for that person. Those feelings get the message not to hang around like a spare wheel, not after trashy and whore have been hurled at you like a double fist in the guts. When just two nights before, he held his strong hands behind your hair and licked you from your throat to your bellybutton in a way that made you think, you know, that maybe he loved you.

‘Do you mind?’

I looked up.

Did it look like I didn’t mind? I was lying down, relaxing on my bench, one hand on my belly, the other holding my cigarette, and she asks me, ‘Do I mind…’ Clue-less, as Barbie would say rolling her eyes.

I swung my legs down and sat up. It made me a bit dizzy.

‘You shouldn’t smoke,’ she said, sitting down.

‘Well thanks for your concern,’ I said. ‘Not like it’s any of your business…’

‘You’re right, it’s none of my business,’ she said. She opened her bag and took out a bottle of mineral water and took a big glug out of it. What is it with people and bottled water? Like there’s something trashy about tap-water.

She was married, or at least she wore what looked like a wedding band on her finger.

She took a book out of her bag and rested it on her knees while she looked out at the lake. ‘When fertility fails’ it was called.

She flicked it open and started to read. She seemed to be very concerned with its contents.

She caught me looking at the title.

‘We’ve just been told we can’t have kids,’ she said to me.

I shrugged. ‘It’s none of my business,’ I said.

‘Right,’ she said.

I sat there next to her inhaling my cigarette. She read eight full pages, actually sixteen, she turned the page eight times. Hell, she could read fast.

I thought maybe I felt something move inside me, but that couldn’t be the case. I was only eight weeks pregnant. They only start to move around 18 or 19 weeks, that’s what that book I paged through at the clinic this morning said. Not that I was interested or anything. It’s just that they make you read these things before you can consent to a termination.

As we sat there, a duck swam past.

‘I don’t want to be an old duck, swimming all on my own…’ she said.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

‘There are worse things than being on your own…’ I said.

‘Like what?’ she asked.

‘Like being with someone who doesn’t love you…’

‘Children always love their parents…’ she said.

‘No they don’t,’ I said.

‘Yes, they do…’

‘They don’t. Believe me. And parents don’t always love their kids….’

‘Yes they do,’ she said.

‘You haven’t met my mother,’ I said flicking off ash which had dropped on my shirt.

‘How can your mother not love you,’ she said. ‘You’re her daughter…’

‘I think she would have exchanged me for a week’s holiday at a three star resort… not that anyone was offering… but if they had….’

‘You’re wrong,’ she said shaking her head.

‘Have it your way,’ I said. I swear people who drink mineral water obviously know something I don’t.

And then, and I didn’t see this coming, or else I would have gotten up and left the bench much sooner, she started to cry.

‘Please don’t cry…’ I said.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I just wanted children so much….’

‘What for? Kids are bad news, they’re a lot of trouble.’

She shook her head, ‘They give meaning to your life…. ‘

‘Think of how much money you’ll save…’

‘We’ve spent our entire life savings on four IVF treatments…’ she kind of snickered. ‘And, you know what, I’d sell every single thing I own, just to be a mother…everything, every heirloom, diamond ring, Persian carpet… all of it… it’s all worthless…’

I thought about what I could do if I owned diamond rings and Persian carpets. Paris here I come….

She seemed pretty sincere about it.

‘It wasn’t meant to be,’ I found myself saying, which really wasn’t me speaking. It was like my Nan just popped out of my mouth.

‘Yes…you’re right,’ she said turning to look at me. ‘It wasn’t meant to be…’ The tears carried on streaming down her face. She closed her book and put it in her bag.

‘I guess I have to get back to work,’ she said. ‘Thank you for listening… I’m so sorry to burden you with my problems,’ she laughed. ‘You must think I’m crazy…’

I shrugged. ‘Hell, sister, I’ve got no certificate in sanity, not so far as I know…’

She got up.

‘Do you come here often?’ she asked.

I didn’t know what to say. I did come there often. But not to talk to strangers.

‘Maybe I’ll see you again…’ she said. ‘ This is my favourite bench in the park.. I always think it’s been put here specially for me, isn’t that silly?’

Look, I’ve never done anything with my life. The shoplifting thing just kind of happened, which led to the three months inside.

Bit of an eye-opener. My mother wouldn’t even put up the $500 bail for me. I guess I understand her point. I’m bad news. I hang around in pubs after work. I’m not going to amount to anything. It’s not like I’m going to find a decent bloke and get married. Barbie says I’m like Ruby Tuesday in that Rolling Stones’ Song. I can’t be chained – unless it’s for sexual purposes, now and then, if you know what I mean.

So I had this thought that it might be a nice gesture. She seemed so bloody keen on kids. So since I’m already pregnant and all that, maybe I’ll just have it, and give it to her. She’d be really appreciative, I can tell. And that way, I can get to go and visit the kid now and then without the hassle of having to bring it up myself. It was the first time I ever thought about co-incidence and fate and all that stuff, you know, where pieces all just fit together.

The next time I came to my bench, I had just come from the ‘half-way’ scan. ‘It’s a little girl,’ the doctor said, which I already knew. She liked the same kind of music as me, really got frenetic when I turned up James Blunt on those little headphones I attached to my stomach. At least she’d have good taste in music.

As I looked at the shadows on that fuzzy screen, I didn’t feel like such a trashy whore anymore.

Though I waited at my bench for an hour, the lady with the book on fertility didn’t come. I wondered what she might call her little girl.

‘Summer,’ I said out loud. ‘That’s a good name for a little girl…’ I thought I might suggest that to her when I handed the baby over. Kind of like a ‘use it, don’t use it, but that’s what I think…’

The time after that, I really needed to sit down and it was a huge relief to put my feet up and feel the sun warming them. I was retaining water in my legs and it was getting harder to fill my shifts at the restaurant without my back hurting. Also it was getting hotter and my belly was as smooth and ripe as watermelon.

Even Barbie revised her opinion about pregnancy being ‘grotesque,’ and I didn’t feel fat, the way I thought I’d feel. And when I told my mother I was pregnant, I guess I didn’t foresee that she’d start crying on the phone. Like from happiness.

‘I’m not keeping it, Ma,’ I told her.

‘Don’t you DARE give my grand-daughter away,’ she said.

I never thought of it like that. It gave me a lump in my throat to think that my mother thought there was anything about me worth keeping.

She went and knitted a pink cardigan with rose-buds on it. I kept it. To give to the lady along with the baby, and the name suggestion, when the time came to hand her over.

And my mother started sending money in the post each month.

I was never tempted, not even once to spend it on myself.

By the time Summer came, it wasn’t so much that I’d changed my mind. But since she was ‘distressed,’ and nearly choked on her umbilical chord that was wrapped around her little neck, and given that my mother was at my side, holding my hand, and crying, I thought I’d just make sure she was alright for a while. When she fell asleep on my chest with her little hand curled under my chin, mum said to me, ‘I remember you lying on my chest like that too and wishing it would never end.’

That’s how come I ended up with her lying on the hospital bed with me, with my head in her lap, while she stroked my hair, whispering ‘beautiful girl’ which was either meant for the baby or for me but it didn’t matter.

I did go back to the bench, with Summer, to look for that lady with the book and the mineral water and the Persian rugs and heirlooms.

I guess if she’d been there, I might have had my one and only chance to give her the baby, and who knows, maybe I would have.

But my bench was empty.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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Unrequited Love

Unrequited Love

The first time my heart was broken, my mother, who’d never read a single self-help book in her life, passed me a tissue, and informed me that no man in the universe was worth one of my tears. I was going to wallow, write tormented poetry and spend six months in my pyjamas. After two days, she parted my curtains, flung open the windows to let in some fresh air and declared, ‘It’s enough now,’ adding various assurances about there being many fish in the sea.

With the equanimity and grace of what is really inescapably now my middle-age, I understand it was love – not cold-heartedness – that drove her insistence on steel reinforcements for the sandcastles of my heart. Being a romantic by nature, I’d probably still be mooching over a lost love were it not for my practical mother who wears sensible shoes and has superlative time management skills.

To love and be loved are the greatest human needs, as deep as hunger, as primary as thirst, as necessary as oxygen. Romantic love is of course the queen of love with delicious promises of gropes beneath the sheets and tingles down under. But there’s also good old platonic love, love-at-first sight, arranged love, the ‘love-that-dares-not-speak-its-name,’ long-distance love, maternal love, and the biggest bitch of them all, unrequited love.

Some of the greatest literature, including the Roman poet Catullus’s poetry lamenting his passion for Lesbia, Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther and Rostand’s French play Cyrano de Bergerac has been inspired by love-unreturned. While it certainly plumbs the darkest depths of emotion, and therefore appeals to artists seeking out extreme experiences, there are few better ways to torture ourselves (other than perhaps with an eating disorder or a relationship with a married man) than engaging in the masochistic torments of unrequited love.

Nothing drains our reservoirs of self-worth and snuffs out the hope that we are, despite the occasional bad hair and acne, worth loving, quite as effectively as falling in love with someone who doesn’t return the favour. Only those with unchecked hubris or Jewish parents can remain steadfast in the conviction that they are lovable in the face of indifference or rejection.

The first time it happened to me, I was nine. No-one warned me you could suffocate from heartache, which I very nearly did when the last episode of Chips was screened. And that was it for me and Erik Estrada. Over at the final credits. I then went through a series of similar unrequited affairs with Christopher Reeve, John Travolta, even Tom Selleck (look, moustaches were in back in the eighties). I was mad about Rod Stewart and planted soppy kisses on a poster of Peter Gallagher from the Idolmaker, all of which got me nowhere.

Then in high school, I was crazy about a boy with a lisp and shaggy hair, convinced he was my soul mate. He in turn had no interest in me whatsoever. I confided in a friend who offered to ‘put a good word in’ for me. I got back from school holidays only to find out that what she ‘put in’ was probably her tongue in his mouth because she and he were going out.

For years, I watched in torment from the sidelines, waiting, certain that someday he would realize that in Taylor Swift’s words, he belonged with me. I remained friendly, cheerful and fun to be around, but it tore me up inside whenever he held her hand. I once saw him kiss her. It felt like a fist to my belly. He never did fall in love with me. The bruise his indifference left on my heart still aches dully, more than twenty-five years later. I realized, back then, with agonizing self-awareness that I just wasn’t pretty enough for him. That was indubitably a low point in my life, and I might have gotten stuck there were it not for a huge spunk of a rugby coach who fell in love with me shortly thereafter, teaching me the important lesson that there are no feelings of inadequacy that cannot be cured with a six-pack and enormous biceps.

I’ve been there. So I’m sympathetic to those suffering the agonies of unrequited love, which induces, as a website on how to cope with it states, ‘low self-esteem, anxiety and mood swings between depression and euphoria,’ making it sound more like a mental disorder than a state of the heart.

James Fenton’s poem ‘Nothing’ spells it out:

…I know that I’ve embarrassed you too long
And I’m ashamed to linger at your door.
Whatever I embark on will be wrong.
Nothing I do will make you love me more.

I cannot work. I cannot read or write.
How can I frame a letter to implore….

…Nothing I give, nothing I do or say,
Nothing I am will make you love me more.

Unrequited love robs us of all the joys of real love – sharing, intimacy, communicating, giving, receiving and forging trust, not to mention the screaming fights and the make-up sex. It is a private obsessive affair, much like an ablution though experience has taught me that it’s probably easier to exact pleasure out of a visit to the ladies room.

So why do people go there in the first place? I suspect that this is a much more interesting question about ourselves, rather than about love, and the answers, I’m convinced, are to be found by looking inwards, not outwards at the object of our affection.

Perhaps it’s precisely the unconsummated nature of unrequited love that makes it so attractive, especially for perfectionists or those terrified by the exposure real intimacy demands. A man I know believes unrequited love is love at its most uncontaminated and pure, remaining forever elusive and tantalizing. Real relationships, he claims, lead to domestic arrangements, hair in the sink, complaints about toilet-seats and uncapped toothpaste tubes. This man is 76 years old and still lives with his mother, so obviously that philosophy is working a treat for him.

 

Your Story - How to write it so others will read it - out now

In this no-excuses book, written for aspiring writers and emerging authors, Joanne Fedler shares her original techniques, frameworks and strategies for life writing to ensure that your story connects with readers and doesn’t bore them to switch to Facebook scrolling.

But for those who want to move from fantasy into an apartment together, the agony far outweighs the ecstasy. Being secretly in love with a friend who doesn’t feel the same way we do or being in love with someone who is emotionally, sexually or physically unavailable is like being stuck at an airport terminal, without ever getting a seat on a plane.

There are, it seems, only two options: wait it out or confess.

Personally, I’m not very good at waiting, and have been known to curse the winter despite the Ecclesiastic assurance that to ‘every thing there is a season.’ Women are socialized into waiting, which is nothing but meekness dressed up in bras and frills. We’re all so terrified to make the first move, as if we were an arachnid and the fella, Miss Muffet. Apparently stating what you want is unladylike, even slutty. I’ve seen too many women wait. For Valentine’s Day cards. For dates. For marriage proposals. I’m all for exercising patience in the right context, but at a certain point waiting becomes less like the seasons and more like concrete. It sets and we find we can’t move. There is ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.’ Waiting is no way to live. We grow pale waiting. Ovaries dry up. Lust becomes moldy. There’s an expiry date on sitting on an egg waiting for it to hatch.

Fear of rejection is paralyzing, only slightly less terrifying than actual rejection itself. But this I know: you can get over rejection. It is easier to move on from a clear NO. The heart has a plasticity. We can fall in love again. Unrequited love keeps us stuck in a place of incomplete regret. We become hooked, sentient, like a fly in a spider’s web, endlessly trapped and only alive enough to feel the pain.

I once told a man I thought he was lovely and sexy hoping he’d say I was lovely and sexy too. He blushed and ran away. A few years later he came back. He’d never stopped thinking about my confession, while I barely remembered it.

Equally, I’ve endured some brave confessions. A friend once shared his sexual fantasies about me in a poem in way too much detail and I really had to decline. The other two were from women. I couldn’t have been more alarmed discovering I’d been the subject of one woman’s obsession for years. YEARS?? I couldn’t believe she’d wasted so much time on me and I assured her I wasn’t worth it, not to mention that I have a heterosexual habit I am rather attached to. She ended up hating me, which is okay. At least she’s moved on.

While we can force people to pay taxes and follow the speed limit, we haven’t yet worked out how to force people to love us, which is probably just as well. Bribery and manipulation are passion-killers. Pity isn’t the emotion we want to induce in a lover. Threatening suicide isn’t a turn-on. Being a creep, as Jack Jordan, Uma Thurman’s ‘stalker’ found out, won’t get you the girl. He sent her a card stating, ‘My hands should be on your body at all times,’ and she called the police.

Stalkers and bunny boilers believe they’re ‘in love’ with the person they’ve objectified and put on a pedestal, creating an impossible distance of emotional geography real intimacy cannot negotiate. Unrequited love may be many things – projection, obsession, lust, addiction, but is it love? Perhaps it is an apparition of love, but its teaching is one about self-love.

It is no crime for someone not to love us back. Love cannot be cajoled, commanded or kept. If someone doesn’t get the message that we’re in love with them, there’s a message in it for us.

If love could be expressed in dollars, we might expend our devotion more judiciously. For example, whenever I’m in my local newsagent, I’m tempted to buy a lotto ticket. Twenty million dollars would substantially ease my day to day existence. For starters, I’d hire a cleaner. Over the years, I’ve probably spent the equivalent of an airfare to Europe on lotto tickets. I’ve never won the lotto, not even when the prize is a trifling one million dollars. At some point, I must acknowledge that by saving ten dollars a week in a jar under my bed, I’ll probably get to Paris sooner.

Similarly, if we spent a fraction of the time loving ourselves as we do on someone who doesn’t love us back, we’d be a lot closer to the kind of love that gives back and doesn’t only ache.

A patient once told a doctor, ‘Doctor, when I press my toe, it hurts.’ The doctor replied, ‘Don’t press your toe.’ Which is just what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said: ‘No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’

Unrequited love has a lot to teach us about how to love ourselves. Self-love, you’ll notice, is never unreciprocated.

Published in Vogue, Australia under the title ‘Return to Sender’

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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As writers, we sometimes shirk away from writing about our own particularities because we don’t want to be ‘narcissistic,’ or ‘self-involved.’ It’s a good point. Our internal musings about our childhood, illness, divorce or particular form of heartache may bore and annoy readers unless we learn how to shape our writing for connection with a reader.

How do we do this?

We connect with readers by what I call, the ‘exquisitely personal universal statement.’

What is it?

It’s a deeply personal moment perfectly captured, offered to the reader with a hard-won sense of the meaning we have made of it. The more personal and particular the insight, paradoxically, the more deeply readers connect with it. Humans are suggestible – story evokes emotion in us, which hooks into our own cache of (very different) memories.

When an insight is richly conceived and the work of deep internal labour, as we read it, there’s a kind of recognition, as something deep in our own psyches arches towards it with a ‘yes.’ It’s as if a writer who has gone in deep and stayed down there for long, has returned with an insight we, as readers can hold as our own. It lights up our own dark places.

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

As writers, it’s our job to go as deep as we can. We can only ever take our readers as far as we have gone. The harder we work to get to our own emotional truth, the more that shows up in our writing. Our writing cannot hide our experience – it reveals who we are. Which is why it’s easy to spot cliché and trite platitudes. They’re recycled thoughts, regurgitated ideas. They are limp and loose because they are borrowed. They are not bespoke. They’re one-size-fits-all. Our words should never have that quality. When we write, it is our chance to offer something that is truly our own.

As readers, when we stumble across an exquisitely personal universal statement, we get a gush of oxygen. Poetry is full of them. Poets are in the business of devising these sorts of offerings. For the reader, it’s like sipping nectar and we get a boost in our own sense of what is possible when we come across them – they help us sharpen our own insights and look afresh at our own truths.

This connection is almost energetic, auric. It’s as if the truth in me responds to the truth in you. As writers we should strive to find moments like this – not only because it creates a connection to our readers, but because our work is worthy of such effort:

 

I Want to Write Something so Simply by Mary Oliver

I want to write something
So simply
About love
Or about pain
That even
As you are reading
You feel it
And as you read
You keep feeling it
And though it be my story
It will be common,
Though it be singular
It will be known to you
So that by the end
You will think –
No, you will realise –
That it was all the while
Yourself arranging the words,
That it was all the time
Words that you yourself ,
Out of your own heart
Had been saying.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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