What You Always Wanted
Michael Sala (University of Newcastle, Australia)
They were walking along the street in the early evening, after a coffee during which David had talked incessantly while Karen had been staring too often at the gloomy parts of the café that she knew so well, the violin trapped high in a corner, shorn of its strings, the painting with a burn mark at the edge, the other customers carrying on their lives and conversations, some worse some better than hers.
‘We should get something to eat,’ David said.
‘Sure,’ Karen said. ‘Where do you want to go?’
‘Where do I want to go?’
David slowed in his step, gave a chuckle and pushed his hands deep into his pockets, without taking his gaze from his shoes. That was how she’d first seen him, five years ago, slouching into the staffroom, shoulders near his ears, eyes downcast, the new, reluctant employee. Back then, she’d found that whole posture charming.
‘Oh look,’ he said, ‘I’m sure that you have a place in mind.’
‘No, I’m pretty easy.’
He chewed at his bottom lip and stared straight ahead. ‘Come on, you’re never easy. Tell me where you want to go. I was thinking either the Italian place or that Thai joint.’
‘They both sound good.’
‘No darling, you’d have a preference. You always have a preference. What is it?’
‘I really don’t have a preference.’
‘Ah, Karen.’ David swallowed a chuckle. He put a hand in the small of her back, guided her along. ‘Sweet, sweet Karen. Of course you do.’
He dropped his hand, looked away and said something.
‘What?’ she said.
‘What did you say?’
‘I said, whatever you say, sweetheart.’ He shrugged, as if it didn’t matter anymore.
‘I really don’t care where we go,’ she said with a slight edge.
‘It’s not a big deal. You don’t have to get defensive about it. Be honest.’
David looked her up and down and waited. She stayed silent.
He released a slow breath. ‘Okay, let’s play a game. If I wasn’t here, or better still, if it was the last meal you were ever going to have – let’s say you’re on death row, waiting for the electric chair – which would you go for, Italian or Thai?’
‘I don’t know if I’d actually be that hungry.’
‘Now you’re just being difficult. But if you were hungry.’
‘Look, I could go to that Thai Restaurant. Thai definitely seems like a better meal to have before you get electrocuted. I’d have lots of chilli. I always get very relaxed when I’ve had a lot of chilli. That’s probably a good way to go to the chair, right, relaxed?’
‘Yeah.’ David scratched his neck. ‘Well, I feel like pizza.’
‘We should go to the pizza place then.’
He turned and stopped and looked at her and the grin tightened across his face. ‘See, you get that tone in your voice.’
Karen kept a good mental grip on her eyeballs. She didn’t want them rolling at a time like this.
The air punched through his nostrils and his strange grin widened even as the lips grew thinner. ‘You know exactly the tone, the one that says that you’ve already set your mind on what you want to do. Whatever painful path we tread, we’ll end up doing what you want to do anyway. I suppose that I should just go along, right? Give in to you early.’
Karen tried to keep her tone steady and clear. There was no point in trying for light-heartedness – it would come across as false. ‘But I do want to go to the Italian. It’s fine.’
David started walking again but cut her a quick, appraising glance. ‘It’s fine, huh? How generous of you. Your enthusiasm is killing me. You really think I don’t know what’s going on? I’m not one of your ditzy girlfriends, you know. I actually listen to what you say. God. Let’s just go to the Thai restaurant so you don’t stare at me resentfully for the whole night. Happy now?’
‘No. I want to go to the Italian restaurant.’
‘Do you really?’
‘Either way is fine. I mean, it’s great.’ She felt a heat gather in her cheeks, a kind of hopeless, erratic flush of irritation that she couldn’t suppress. She went on, her voice lifting. ‘Either way is great. Happy? I’m sure either restaurant would be the most sensational experience I could ever imagine.’
‘Why the sarcasm?’
‘Sorry, okay. I’m sorry. You don’t know what an arsehole you can be.’
‘That’s your apology? I’m sorry, you’re an arsehole?’
‘I didn’t say that. Okay. I’m sorry for the sarcasm. Maybe I have had a bad day.’
‘You called me an arsehole.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m tired.’
‘Well, yes, you had enough energy to lift your hands and make a song and dance about it.’
‘I wasn’t making… let’s just forget about it.’
‘It’s only food, you know,’ he said.
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
They walked on in silence for a while.
‘We probably just need to eat,’ David said.
‘You’d be happier if we went to the Thai restaurant, admit it.’
Karen burst into laughter. ‘Look. Are you really going to make me beg you for Italian? Do I have to get down on my knees? I’m more than happy to go along with the restaurant you choose.’
‘Oh, bravo! Full points for the passive aggressive tone. Let’s go to the restaurant that David chose. Look, why don’t we just go to the Thai restaurant. It’s okay. I really don’t mind.’ He shook his head and gave another short chuckle, the kind that was well worn. ‘The irony is that I just said that I wanted Italian because I was messing with your head a bit.’
Karen stopped and faced at him, her arms folded across her chest. She wanted to stamp her foot, but she restrained herself, because then she really would look childish and she wasn’t sure if she wasn’t acting like a spoilt child anyway. She counted her breaths. She realised that she wanted to punch him in the face. Just once. She placed one hand in the other and felt the ring that he’d bought for her, just shifted it a little, up and down the finger.
‘This whole conversation is really tiring me out,’ she said. ‘Make a decision. I don’t care anymore.’
‘Ha,’ he exclaimed, adopting the faux tone of a child. ‘Anymore! You don’t care… anymore! When exactly did you stop caring? Is it by any chance when you stopped having your way?’
Karen stared at him hard.
‘That was a joke,’ David said. ‘Where’s your sense of play? God, you’re in an anxious mood tonight. You don’t know how that affects the people around you when you get that way. I’ve been trying to cheer you up, but you won’t have any of it. No, when you’re in a mood, you really stick to it.’
She hesitated, glanced around at other people, walking along the street. No one staring her way, but it always felt like they were.
‘Look,’ she said quietly, ‘I really feel like saying, ‘Fuck you’ right now, David, but I’m not going to because that would be rude.’
‘Well, that’s very insightful of you.’
‘Why do you do this to me?’
‘You know exactly what!’
‘I don’t. Explain it to me.’
‘I’m not going to explain anything to you. Either you get it or you don’t.’
David was silent for a moment.
‘Look honey,’ he said at last in a different tone. ‘I’m sorry. Maybe we’re both in a strange mood.’ He hooked his arm in hers, pulled her along. ‘We’re both hopeless narcissists. Sad but true. We get caught up in these headspaces and feed off each other. It’s no one’s fault, really.’
‘I guess so,’ Karen said.
‘Let’s just have a good time.’
They walked down the street in silence. A couple walked past. The woman glanced at David and then looked again, as if the first glance had surprised her. Karen knew that look. From a distance, once you made it past the slouch, David must look very pleasant, the handsome sweep of his hair, the way that he spoke in that low, self-assured way, the determined glint in his eye. He was a good-looking man. He had a fierce, intelligent expression that made him seem much younger than forty.
They got in the car and began driving. Thankfully, he turned on the radio. Karen leaned against the window with her arms crossed under her breasts. She watched the city slide by and drifted off in her thoughts. They pulled up in front of the Thai restaurant.
‘See,’ David said, turning to her with a grin that stayed briefly then dropped from the side of his face as if it were the edge of the world, ‘we always do what you want to do, in the end.’
Michael Sala has had stories published in a range of publications including HEAT, Best Australian Stories 2009, and the Allen and Unwin Anthology, Brothers and Sisters. He is currently completing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Newcastle.