It arrives in a long, plain box, spattered with raindrops.
‘Are you going to open it?’
‘Later,’ Thom says. ‘Let’s enjoy lunch.’
‘Don’t you want to see it?’
‘I’d rather spend time with you.’
That means: I’ll open it when you’re not here.
Last week, he said, ‘If we’d had a son, I would have let him play with dolls.’
‘What sort of dolls?’
‘Whatever he wanted to have. Rag dolls, baby dolls, Barbies. I never understood why I couldn’t have dolls. I wasn’t even allowed to play with my sisters’ dolls. I used to watch my sisters choosing their clothes and styling their hair. I wanted to do that too.’
‘What happened if you tried?’
‘My sisters complained and my parents backed them up. “Those aren’t for you.”’
‘Did you ask why?’
‘Of course. They just deflected: “Look at all the great toys you’ve got, you’ve got a whole train set! You’ve got your knights’ castle – those are dolls, right?” But the knights were just moulded plastic. You couldn’t even move their legs. My parents considered themselves very open-minded and liberal. They wouldn’t actually say that boys who played with dolls were girly. There was just an atmosphere.’
‘They thought it would make you gay.’
‘Something like that.’
‘I wasn’t allowed to have Barbies,’ I said. ‘The original Barbie-type doll was like a sex toy – did you know that? A joke toy for men at stag parties. Something to hang in your car. That’s why the body’s so distorted.’
‘Yes, you’ve said that before.’
‘Seriously, when they turned it into a children’s toy, all they changed was the clothes.’
‘So, what’s your point? That my sisters shouldn’t have had Barbies?’
‘Just… there’s no point.’
‘Right,’ Thom said.
We were sitting in a coffee shop after a session with the marriage counsellor, during which all the usual things happened. I cried. Thom held my hand and sympathised. We talked it through and agreed that communication and compromise were the keys to a good relationship. We talked about how natural it was for men and women to have different levels of interest in sex at our age. The counsellor said there were many ways to acknowledge the situation and find a solution that would preserve our strong, long-lasting marriage. We promised to accept our differences and try to see things from the other person’s point of view. The counsellor said: ‘We’ve had a real breakthrough today.’
In the coffee shop, Thom looked into my eyes and patted me on the arm. He said, ‘Are you alright?’
‘Yes, I’m fine.’
‘I thought we made some progress today.’
‘I know it’s hard for you to talk about how you feel,’ Thom said, ‘but it’s so important. I’m really proud of you for trying. And I’m confident we can find a way through this.’
I wanted to say: you used to know what I was feeling. And maybe you still know. Maybe you just don’t care.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s absolutely fine for consenting adults to use toys and dress up and have threesomes and make videos and do whatever else. I have no problem with other people doing those things.
In the session, I said: ‘If you wanted that sort of wife, why did you marry me?’
‘We were so young,’ Thom said. ‘I had no idea what I wanted. Neither did you.’
‘It’s brain plasticity. All of us are changing and growing all the time,’ the counsellor said.
It’s just as well that I never remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery store, because now I’ve got lots of plastic ones.
‘I thought you liked that top,’ Thom said. ‘Why are you recycling it?’
He calls it recycling when I take things to the charity shop. I suppose it’s a kind of recycling.
‘I guess I just need a change.’
‘That’s a good idea,’ he said. ‘Clear out that wardrobe. Buy something you’ll really feel good wearing. You should spend more money on clothes. Honestly, I mean that.’
‘I like my clothes. They’re comfortable. I think they look nice on me.’
‘I didn’t mean it as a criticism,’ Thom said. ‘I only made a comment because you were bagging up recycling.’
‘And I wanted to be supportive. I think you’re doing the right thing.’
I tied up the bags and took them out to my car.
We met in college in the seventies. I was studying maths and he was an engineer. In the daytime, we went to classes, like the well-brought up children we still essentially were. At night, we trampled on our inhibitions, trying out pot, sex, alcohol, protest, and heart-stopping music. I loved his lanky body, tawny hair, and psychedelic T-shirts. Most of all, I loved his sharp engineer’s mind, always mapping out practical solutions to everyday problems. In class, I felt inhibited and shy; I struggled to find the right words. With Thom, I never had to struggle. Somehow, he always understood me.
According to our counsellor, sex in marriage rarely lasts. At first, it was gone in an out-of-the-room sort of way, not absolutely dead. Thom is still a handsome man. He’s lost a lot of hair and he’s older and heavier, but I don’t care about that. I hardly notice that. He buys himself expensive skin and hair products now, and chooses his clothes carefully. I think he might still be attracted to me if I wanted to do the same. And I could still be attracted to him if.
That’s why we went to marriage counselling.
In front of the counsellor, we practiced saying what we respected and admired about each other. I told Thom that I admired him for being optimistic, open-minded, hardworking, and capable. I told him that he would have been a good father, if we’d had children. Thom said that he admired my intuition. ‘You come across as shy,’ he said, ‘but you’re actually quite confident. You make decisions fast and hardly ever change your mind. I’ve always admired that. Also, you would have been a great mum.’ We got watery eyes and smiled at each other. It was a genuine moment of recognition.
‘Here’s the nub,’ the counsellor said. ‘You’ve been married a long time and you’ve been through a lot. I know it was difficult not being able to have children, but you got through it together. That says a lot about the underlying strength of your marriage. Infertility pulls so many couples apart. You have a big network of friends and a beautiful home. You have money saved up for a comfortable retirement. Really, you have so much to look forward to. And, most importantly, you both want to save your marriage.’
In the coffee shop, Thom said, ‘Why are you crying?’
‘I thought I’d be OK, but I’m not. I’m just… I mean, it’s just…’
‘I see. Would you rather I left you – and had a relationship with someone else?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.’
The counsellor said: ‘A mismatched sex drive is extremely common in middle-aged couples. Many women aren’t that interested in sex after the menopause. And many men find that disappointing. The difference in your case is that Thom really wants to save what you have together. I have to be honest – I don’t see many couples in your situation where the husband is willing to promise that he’ll never have an affair.’
I felt ganged up on. I wondered if a woman counsellor would say the same things. Later, I tied up some more bags. The car boot was getting full.
‘Odd shape,’ the delivery man said.
‘Computer equipment,’ Thom said.
It’s coffin-like, propped in the hallway, casting a long shadow across the polished encaustic tiles.
‘Sometimes I think you hate technology,’ Thom said.
‘Why would I hate technology? I use a computer and a phone!’
‘I mean state-of-the-art technology. Those are just updated versions of old things. A computer is just a modern typewriter. A phone is just a phone. Cutting-edge technology is different – it opens up new possibilities.’
‘Not while I’m in the house,’ I said.
‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘I think that’s better too. So let’s talk about how we can manage that. You don’t have to work from home every day. All you really need is wi-fi and somewhere to plug in your laptop. Would you like to use my office at the weekends? Or how about the pool? The restaurant’s nice and quiet in the morning. You could have a swim, have brunch with a friend. Maybe work outside the house a couple of times a week.’
‘A couple of times a week!’
‘Or once a week? That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me,’ Thom said.
Reasonable. I don’t even know what that word means anymore.
‘I think we should agree on major purchases,’ I said.
‘Why? We’ve got plenty of money. We’re not being irresponsible. We don’t have children or parents to support. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t spend money on ourselves.’
‘But I wouldn’t do that. I would never do that. If I wanted to buy something really big, I would talk to you about it. I’d want us to agree.’
‘Why? Because I earn more than you do?’
‘No! Because we’re a couple. We should agree on things in principle.’
‘Do you think that being a couple means we have to agree on every topic and do everything together all the time? Because I would find that claustrophobic. I think you would too.’
He is always so reasonable. I get exhausted trying to argue.
‘Look,’ Thom said. ‘I don’t care who earns more. Money is something we share. And you have every right to spend money on yourself without needing my approval. Why don’t you buy yourself something you’ve always wanted? Something big and special.’
‘Right. Big and special.’
‘Don’t just repeat what I say.’
‘I’ll tell you what I want,’ I said. ‘I want you to cancel that delivery.’
Thom sighed. ‘Let’s not go through the whole thing again. You know that’s not what I meant.’
‘Are you going open it?’
‘Later,’ he says. ‘Let’s enjoy lunch.’
‘Don’t you want to see it?’
‘I’d rather spend time with you.’
‘I’m not that hungry,’ I say. ‘I was just going out, actually.’
I lift up the bags to show him.
Thom says: ‘Why are you recycling the teapot?’
‘What difference does it make? You don’t use it.’
‘No, but you do. I thought you really liked that teapot.’
‘We all need a change sometimes,’ I say.
‘Enjoy yourself,’ he says. ‘Have a break, go shopping. Do something for yourself. Something fun.’
‘Anything! Whatever you think would make you happy. I honestly think that’s our problem,’ Thom says. ‘We just haven’t given ourselves enough space as individuals.’
‘I can’t argue any more,’ I say. ‘I’m just so tired of arguing.’
‘We don’t have to argue,’ Thom says. ‘Why do we have to argue? Let’s just enjoy our lives.’
I keep remembering the way it used to be. The way I used to feel about him. I’m struggling for the right words, standing in the hallway with my plastic bags. But I can’t find the connection. There aren’t any real words left. Words that mean what they mean.
I say: ‘Will you open it when I’m gone?’
‘In the hallway?’
‘I might,’ Thom says. ‘I can’t honestly see why it matters.’
He’s telling the truth: he can’t see why it matters.
I know what it does and what it looks like because I found the receipt and searched for it online. It’s high-end, absolutely state of the art. It talks to you and processes your responses, ‘learning’, in the way that machines learn, exactly how you behave and what you want. The machine way of learning sees through masks and pretences. Machines don’t care what you aspire to be – they just track and analyse what you actually do. As soon as you turn the thing on, it starts talking to you and turning your responses into data, so that next time around it can say: ‘I know what you like. Do you want to do what we did before, or try something new?’ Thom’s new machine is the most expensive and sophisticated model there is. It’s a technological breakthrough – a real top-of-the line product.
‘You’re imagining something cheap and tacky,’ Thom said. ‘I understand that. The sexual aids you’ve seen before have all been cheap and tacky. This is very different – it’s basically a computer. That’s the important thing to remember. It’s just a computer, not a person. I would never be unfaithful to you.’
‘Look,’ he says, ‘we have a problem that lots of older couples face and this is just a sensible solution. Many people can’t afford to take this route. That’s one reason why so many men my age have mid-life crises and buy sports cars or humiliate themselves with younger women.’
I would have been fine with a sports car. The thing in the box is moulded out of soft silicone with a heating element inside that makes it feel warm and natural to the touch. The anus, vagina, and lining of the mouth are all removable for washing. You can customise the standard model. I don’t know which ethnicity or head design he picked, or whether he went for F or G cups. I don’t ever want to know.
Everything is still in the hallway. Both of us and the box. Thom is trying not to look impatient. Trying not to rush me out the door, so that he can pry open the cardboard.
‘I guess I should go,’ I say.
For an instant, there’s a flicker across his forehead, like he still understands what I really mean. It passes, though.
‘Have fun!’ he says.
I hurry to my car to escape the rain. Everything I still love is in the boot, packed in plastic bags. I don’t know where I’m going.
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