After being kicked out by her husband, Colleen moves in with her newlywed best friend Rhonda and has a ringside view of her relationship with Brent; by Bruce Costello.
After my husband kicked me out, Rhonda offered me a room till I found my feet. I was pretty low at the time. Rhonda had married Brent only a few months before and they'd moved into a two-bedroom house in a friendly, crime-free neighbourhood.
I was reluctant to take up the offer, thinking that newlyweds needed time to themselves, so I stayed in a hotel for a few weeks while I looked for an apartment. But there were so many available, I couldn't make up my mind. To be honest, I'm not very good with decisions, as my husband often used to remind me, in his usual sarcastic way. In the end, Rhonda positively insisted I stay with them.
Rhonda and I were like chalk and cheese, but it didn't seem to matter. She was laid back, anything for a laugh, try this, try that, full of ideas, just wanting to have fun and be happy. She lived life on centre stage and I was more of an audience person, so we meshed in well.
Brent was a mathematics lecturer, one of those fortunate people who manage to make a career out of a hobby. Rhonda said he had a better mind than hers and a more grounded personality.
'He's the string to my kite,' she used to laugh. Back then, she was always laughing.
I'd only met Brent a few times and thought he was rather odd, but quickly warmed to him after I moved in because, like Rhonda, he was understanding about the way my marriage ended.
'Colleen,' he said to me one night, tapping me on the arm. 'There's no need for you to feel guilty. What you did was pure logic. When a person's well has dried up and they're dying of thirst, it's only logical to start drinking from another well, if there's one on offer.'
I appreciated that kind of reasoning.
For the first few months, it was pleasant boarding with Rhonda and Brent. I had a lovely bedroom that caught the late afternoon sun and looked out over the city onto farmland and distant mountains. We shared the household chores and cooking. At mealtimes, we had lively discussions and there was lots of laughter. It felt like the happy family I'd always wished for.
Rhonda and Brent never raised voices at each other, and when they disagreed about anything, it was all very civil.
If, for instance, Rhonda said 'There's this new restaurant called 'Pierre's Place" that everybody's raving about. Shall we try it tonight?' Brent would look thoughtful and say 'Hmmm. I tell you what. Let's have a special meal at home together. That way we know exactly what we're eating, which is better for our health, and we save the money. After all, why spend a heap of dough on food that ends up down the toilet next day?'
Or if a new movie came to town that Rhonda was dying to see, he'd say, 'It'd make more sense to wait till it comes out on DVD and then we can all watch it together at home, without having to go into town. You know what the parking's like!'
If Rhonda disagreed, he would politely refute what she said with a serious look and in the end Rhonda would concede with a smile.
'He's so logical,' she said to me once. 'It's hard to disagree. Anyway, he redeems himself in so many other ways,' and she flashed that look we both understood, and giggled.
Shortly after that, when Rhonda was about to leave for a rehearsal at the amateur drama society, Brent sidled up to her and slid his arm around her waist.
'You spend so much time and energy on acting,' he said, 'and for what? An ungrateful audience that within a week will have forgotten your name! You could stay home and do some dressing up and acting for me.' He grinned.
Rhonda pushed his arm away. 'Stay at home! Stay at home! That's all I ever get from you! Hasn't it entered your so-called logical head that I need creative people in my life, fun people I can enjoy myself with, not some jumped up little godlet trampling on all my dreams!'
She slammed the door and left for rehearsal. I heard her little car take off with a roar and prayed she'd calm down behind the wheel.
That evening Brent told me he found Rhonda bloody hard-going because she always makes emotional decisions then invents reasons to justify them and claims they're common sense.
He was sulky for weeks until Rhonda apologised for her 'inappropriate display of anger' and resigned from the drama society she'd belonged to for years.
Harmony reigned again in the household. Then Rod Stewart came to town.
'Doesn't make logical sense to me,' said Brent. 'You've got all his CDs and the best Bose sound system available. Why pay good money to watch the old man prancing about on stage and not be able to hear him anyway with all the screaming?'
But Rhonda stuck to her guns, tried to explain why she wanted to go, then with a look on her face that shocked me, she screamed: 'Shut the fuck up about your fucking logic. I fucking want to go because I want to fucking go!' Then she burst into tears and sobbed until Brent gave in, and agreed to go with her.
After the show, when they returned to their car, parked some distance from the venue, they found it had been vandalised. Two doors and the bonnet scored deeply with something sharp.
Rhonda told me in tears the next day how Brett had blamed her.
'I never wanted to go to Rod Stewart in the first place,' he'd yelled at her on the crowded footpath. 'It was your decision and I was stupid enough to go along with it. Now look at the car. I warned you about the parking! You manipulated me into this. You're a bloody control freak!'
Things began to get very tense around the dinner table, which affected me badly, almost the way it did when my parents used to argue when I was a kid, before Dad died. It really knocked me about and made me feel insecure. And I saw Rhonda getting quieter and quieter, as if the zing had gone out of her.
'He's worn me down, Colleen,' she said, one night when Brent was taking a shower. 'I've just given up. I know I should stick up for myself, but when I do, he gets into such moods, and I end up feeling like crap. I come from a loving family with parents who communicated well and sorted out their differences peacefully. It's all I know.'
I'd always envied Rhonda for her happy family upbringing, so different to mine. Her parents had retired recently and gone off on an eighty day cruise around the world.
'I've never had to deal with conflict,' she went on to say, 'and I hate what it does to me, leaves me exhausted, and I need to conserve my energy to cope with the little monsters I've got in my class this year.'
She seemed to shrink into herself, and stopped coming up with ideas for going out.
Brent, on the other hand, perked up and began to spend most of his time on the computer, sitting back and smiling as he read what he'd written on some long-winded topic like mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers for Maths In Our Time journal.
After a few months, I decided I should strike out on my own, and set up my own nest. I looked at some properties, but none of them appealed. What if I settled into a place and a motorbike gang moved next door? Or it was too hard to heat in the winter, or the landlord turned out to be a proper nasty? And how would I furnish a flat, more decisions, what furniture to buy, kitchenware? I'd have to start out from scratch. The thought of it gave me migraines.
I kept looking at places and found one I liked, but when it came to signing up, I just couldn't commit myself. Meanwhile, things settled down with Rhonda and Brent. Rhonda appeared to resign herself to the way things were, Brent was nice to her in his way, and it seemed like they'd reached a kind of working truce.
Brent's life revolved more and more around his work, but looking back, I think he used it as an escape, a way to hide from life. It was a prison he'd locked himself in and thrown away the key.
Brent and I were alike, actually. Both of us struggled with life and neither of us could make decisions. He could never find what he called a primary reason to do anything in the face of what he saw as overwhelming reasons not to. Basically, he thought himself to a standstill.
Me, I was just scared. Whenever I had to make a decision, I could make a list of pros and cons as well as the next woman, but when it came time to actually decide, I'd tense up, get pains like period cramp, my head would ache, I'd feel confused and panicky, and end up paralysed by my own indecision. It was fear, blatant fear. Terror! Of what? Getting it wrong? Not being able to cope with the consequences? Getting into trouble... who with? Being punished... who by? The authorities? What authorities? Mother and Father? They'd been dead for years.
I think my issue was about being wrong and being found out. And not just about being wrong, but being shamed! The sort of feeling you have in a dream when you're walking along a busy footpath and suddenly realise you're nude from the waist down, and everybody's laughing at you. You want the ground to open up and swallow you.
Brent and I developed a funny kind of relationship. I felt a real closeness with him. It was sort of like we knew each other's faults and still accepted each other. There was a cosiness in it. Maybe he was the nearest thing I'd ever had to a brother.
Or perhaps I saw him as a father figure. He was only about ten years older, but he acted quite fatherly towards me, always caring enough to listen and offer advice.
I'd never got over the death of my father. He overdosed on tricyclic antidepressants when I was thirteen. I found him when I came home from school one day. He looked like he was just asleep for a second, and kind of peaceful, but he was dead. After that, I had no one to protect me from my mother, but I don't want to think about her.
Anyway, getting back to Brent, I think we were actually very fond of each other, though I knew he was a queer fish and when I saw the effect he had on Rhonda, I came close at times to hating the man.
As his relationship with Rhonda worsened, I think he turned to me for a degree of emotional closeness.
For the record, I want to make it clear that he never came on to me and there was no physical contact, apart from an occasional reassuring touch, when he could see I was feeling down.
And again, for the record, I should state that I never made any moves towards Brent. He was my best friend's husband above all, and as I said before, he felt rather like a brother or a father.
As time passed, Rhonda became more and more withdrawn from him.
'I just don't understand how he makes no effort to understand me,' she confided. 'It's like he's never loved me at all. I look into his eyes and see nothing. I can't carry on wanting what I know I'll never get from him.'
She began complaining that she wasn't coping with the stress of her teaching job, and found the Principal was unsympathetic.
'I've got it at work and at home. There's no escape,' Rhonda said.
She stopped caring about her make-up, and looked pale, which highlighted the dark shadows under her eyes. Her face grew thinner as if she were aging before my eyes.
I could tell Brent was shocked by the changes, too. He told me he was racked by guilt, said he felt like a lead blanket, slowly crushing the life out of her. He confessed to me how much he loved Rhonda and hated what he called his own oppressive negativity and indecisiveness. I was surprised at his insight.
'I can't change who I am. God knows I've tried,' he told me. 'She'd be happier without me. To tell you the truth, Colleen, some days I wish I was dead.'
I told him not to be so silly and laughed it off, but inside I was frightened, because ever since I was a kid I'd had the idea that words have magical powers.
I loved Rhonda and couldn't bear seeing what was happening to her. But then she started to withdraw from me, too, and stopped confiding in me, which upset me a great deal. I felt like I was losing her. I didn't know how much more grief I could take.
One night, when Brent was away speaking at a conference, Rhonda opened a bottle of sherry and we both got stuck into it, sitting in front of the open fire.
She opened up about how she was really feeling. 'I'd been going out with Brent for years and knew what he was like when I agreed to marry him. Marriage isn't about finding perfection, is it? It's about accepting imperfections! I should've made allowances for him, should've accepted how he was instead of acting hurt and flying into rages that he couldn't handle.' Her voice rose. 'You can't change another person. It's like marrying someone with brown eyes and then kicking up a fuss because they're not blue!'
'Not that sort of change,' I said, putting my arm around her. 'It's more about fine tuning, making small changes for the sake of the relationship.'
'It's too late for that. It's all gone too far,' she cried. 'And the worst of it is, deep down I still love him!'
We finished off the bottle of sherry huddled up together as the fire died down.
The months ticked by and things got worse. I suggested to Rhonda and Brent that they try counselling, but neither would agree, nor would either of them consider separation.
They grew further apart and seldom spoke to each other. Brent looked miserable all the time, rarely shaved and seldom left his study. Rhonda sat in front of the TV in the evenings with her eyes closed, eating chocolates. She started taking frequent sick days from work and told me she was close to losing her job, but didn't care. She stopped doing housework, even cooking, and I took over preparing the meals, not that I minded - it was something normal I could do.
The situation began to really wear me down. I felt powerless, like I did when I was a kid before Dad died, with Mum and Dad always fighting.
I had trouble sleeping and would cry over the silliest things. I couldn't concentrate at work, yawned all day and was hardly able to function. On at least two occasions, while dispensing medicine to customers, I came very close to making serious errors, one of which would've had fatal consequences.
The situation couldn't go on. The worst part for me was watching two people that I loved destroying each other. I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness that seethed inside me. I began biting my fingernails, and grinding my teeth in my sleep.
I knew something had to change. But what could I do?
After another sleepless night, I made a decision, one I was determined not to back out of.
It was coming up to the anniversary of my father's death, always a hard time for me. For the occasion, I would prepare a special meal of spicy vindaloo curry, Dad's favourite dish, with an additional ingredient that I would bring home from work, carefully measured for three people.