“There’s nothing really wrong with you.” Jack paused. “In fact, when we started going out, I thought you were really something. I’d never thought I’d have a girl like you.” He looked right into Brenda’s eyes. “But now I’ve found someone better.”
She knew then that she’d been sleeping with the devil. She was devastated, so the moment Jack was out the door she called Julia who was her best friend, and asked her over. The only trouble was that Julia was not terribly empathic so Brenda needed to emphasise the magnitude of the evil in Jack’s parting words. “Someone better. It’s such a cruel insult. It’s the most horrible thing anyone could say.”
Julia wanted to argue the toss on whether it was the most horrible thing, but she knew that would make Brenda cry. Brenda had a delicate prettiness, but when she cried it disappeared into red blotches. and her nose started running which Brenda knew would make her even less sympathetic than usual.
“People say terrible things when they’re breaking up because breaking up is a form of insanity. It should be in the DSM,” said Brenda. Brenda often gave the same impression of having a personality like a tough wire haired terrier. She had a terrier look about her too.
“I was polite and civilised to him.”
“Being polite and civilised is almost as bad as saying you’ve found someone better. It’s pretending to be a good person. In a breakup situation, you’re probably being a right bitch at the same time.”
“You think I’m a bitch?”
Julia thought that Brenda’s politeness often had a nasty edge, but when she looked at Brenda’s blotchy face she realised this was not the time for home truths. “No, but it’s not normal to be polite to someone who’s just dropped you.” Brenda wiped her eyes. “At least Jack was honest,” added Julia.
“So you think he has found someone better?”
Julia was tempted to say that clearly there were better people in the world than Brenda and that Jack may have found one of them, although she thought this unlikely given that Jack was a complete dropkick. Julia knew she wasn’t particularly sensitive and Brenda was and that this difference made for a difficult friendship. She made soothing noises about the quality of Brenda as a person, then put her arm around her. “Okay honey, someone better was a seriously crap thing to say. But people say those things and then it’s over.”
Julia had never believed that Jack’s and Brenda’s relationship was a match made in heaven. Brenda had started bitching about Jack about two minutes after she’d allegedly fallen in love with him. And they argued all the time. Brenda said they argued because they couldn’t bear being apart. She decided they should move in together so they’d stop arguing. Julia knew this was pure, self-delusional bullshit, soon proved by the fact that Jack and Brenda continued to fight constantly. It was always just a break-up in progress. Brenda was emotionally needy, Jack was financially needy. Brenda wouldn’t provide the excitement and glam someone like Jack wanted. And Jack was a selfish bastard. Just short of a year later, it had finished.
Now the breakup with its centre piece of someone better came up every time Brenda talked to anyone, especially Julia. Julia told herself people needed to vent after a breakup and she’d “be there” for Brenda. She hated the phrase “being there”, nor was she keen on the actual “being there”. But she was giving it her best shot, having coffee with Brenda for the third time in a week.
The someone better statement had become the axis around which Brenda’s life revolved. Everything came back to that, she couldn’t shake it. (Maybe she just didn’t want to, Julia thought.) When she’d broken up with boyfriends before, she’d been angry or heartbroken, but this someone better did her head in completely even though she remembered thinking that she could get someone better than Jack. But she had only ever thought it; she hadn’t done anything or said anything to Jack. That would have been just too cruel.
“He said it to you, so why couldn’t you say it to him?” asked Julia. “You should have told him you wanted someone better than the seriously crappy person he is. Why not?”
“Because…” Brenda was stuck for a moment. “I didn’t want to hurt him.”
Julia sighed. “Take off your angel wings.”
Brenda toyed with her latte and looked at the faded generic Italian scene painted on the café wall.
“I did want to hurt him,” she said bravely. “But not that badly…”
“Just stick the knife in a little?”
“No!” Brenda flared up. “Anyway he already had someone better. It would have sounded lame – as if I’d just thought it up.”
“That’s true.” Julia thought that was enough caring and sharing for the day and she signalled the waiter for the bill.
Brenda continued to find it impossible to talk about anything else and because they worked together, it was Julia she talked to. She remained red-eyed, droopy and unattractive, so Julia put it to her as kindly as she could (not exactly 10 out of 10 kindness) that she should buck up, otherwise she would never find anyone at all, let alone someone better.
So the following week Brenda got a new haircut and tried not to talk about Jack so much. But it was there, always inside of her, in her head – and she kept going over and over the parting scene with Jack. She edited it and crafted it like a movie, partly so she could eventually present it to Julia with all its pathos and pain, but mostly so she’d feel better. She kept emerging as the someone better in her new version but she knew at some level that the reality had been much uglier. She tried to shove these ugly bits into her subconscious but they popped up again and again. In that final argument with him, she could never make herself appear squeaky clean and super sweet. The best she could do was make her rage and bitchiness seemed eminently reasonable. She decided she had been telling Jack how it really was and that was doing him a favour.
The argument had been about the way he was folding the washing. She’d been standing next to him, showing him how it should be folded, then re-folding everything (with a sigh), while he totally ignored her.
“I’m only asking you to do this so I won’t need to iron my uniforms,” she had said. “I don’t have much time and because you’re way behind with your share of the rent, I can’t afford to get them done at the laundry.” She’d smiled at him encouragingly.
Then, out of the blue, he announced he’d had it, he was sick of her, sick of fighting, sick of this stupid apartment. And she kept saying what needed to be said – politely – until he said “I’m leaving you,” which started her crying. He said he’d take the cat. She stopped crying and said that the cat had always lived in the flat and it would be ‘inhuman’ to deny the cat its basic sense of security. He’d laughed nastily and said, “Keep your human cat then.” Then he had coldly made his statement about someone better which left her shaking with rage and humiliation. In the movie script in her head she changed the rage to grief.
The morning after the breakup she realised she didn’t like the cat at all. It had slept on her head all night and it bit her feet when she got up.
“That cat is an impediment to you getting someone better,” said Julia. “A cat sleeping on your head is not what someone better seeks in a lover. Have you thought of finding him a home?” From the way Julia said this Brenda knew she meant “home” in its darkest sense.
Jack’s packing up had been so fraught that he left half his stuff. He emailed Brenda that he wanted to come and pick the rest up.
She emailed that he should let her know when he was coming so they could sort out the CDs.
He emailed that he didn’t care about the CDs as Jess had a much bigger and better selection. Then she knew that the someone better was called Jess and she spent a couple of days weighing up whether Jess was a better name than Brenda. She decided that Jess was actually a rather butch name and Jess being so butch made her feel a little better. She explained this to Julia and Julia shook her head in a way that indicated Brenda was crazy.
Jack emailed that he’d come round Friday night to collect his stuff because he knew she worked late shift on Fridays. She emailed to please be sure to leave the key. Then she rang the hospital and said she couldn’t possibly work the late shift on Friday. She got an oversize shopping bag on Thursday and threw all his stuff into it, including a pair of wet underpants he had put on the shower rail. Actually, they had only been wet when he left them there. They had dried in the time he’d been gone, so she wet them again – thoroughly – plus another couple of pairs and put them on top of his books, which wasn’t so good for the books. She was crying and she was aware that it was make him feel bad type of crying, which was pointless because he wasn’t there.
She got herself together and started tossing his clothes in on top of the wet underpants. She decided to keep the shirt of his that she liked to wear – after all, she’d bought it. Then she remembered she hadn’t bought it, but she decided to keep it anyway. She had bought him a mustard coloured one which he said he couldn’t possibly wear because mustard didn’t suit him and anyway, at art school, everyone wore black. God! she thought, he was actually art student, aged 27! How retarded was that? She put the bag near the front door with the standard lamp with the severely pleated art deco shade that he had bought for her. She loved it, but giving it back would show him she wasn’t pining for him and that she may have found someone better. She dithered a little because it was the only thing he ever given her that she liked, so it had sentimental value. Except how could it have sentimental value given he’d said the someone better thing? She put it on top of the bag.
She rang Julia and told her about the wet underpants. She admitted that it did feel kind of good.
Julia told her bad deeds lifted the spirits and suggested that Brenda cut the sleeves off all his shirts.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Brenda piously.
Brenda spent Friday lunchtime at work doing her make-up. She went for pale and minimal. She wanted her hair in casual but attractive disarray but it turned out as ordinary disarray which failed to signal either her pain or that she was someone better. She went back to the ward hoping to leave work a little early, but at the last moment an emergency caesarean came in so she was running late getting home. She puffed up the stairs to the flat to find Jack was already there. She knew her red-faced and sweaty look was not a someone better look, nor did it signal that her soul was suffering.
“I’m off,” he said. “Here’s your key. Jess is waiting.” He didn’t take the lamp with the severely pleated art deco shade.
She peeked out the window to catch a glimpse of Jess. All she saw was a flash of blonde hair – clearly dyed – but she heard their voices, happy and laughing – probably at her. Once they drove off, she went into the bedroom and lay on the unmade bed and cried. The cat sat on her head as she thought of all the things she had done for Jack. She thought maybe she’d loved him too much and maybe that had driven him away. She sensed this was making a very unrealistic film in her head, but it felt good that she became both its victim and a heroine who was someone better.
She had helped him finish art school. Her salary had kept them comfortable while he was doing industrial ceramics and she suggested he apply for the course for making tooth implants. She’d actually admired the crappy teeth he brought home! So if he re-paid her by getting involved with some tart, she was well out of it. She really had thought he was a better human being.
There were all the other things she’d done for him. He wasn’t terribly keen on making dental implants because he had dreams of being a real artist. She encouraged him to do sculpture on weekends and then helped him organise an exhibition. She had known his stuff was no good and the exhibition was a failure. He never even thanked her for the work she’d put in. He was totally self-centred.
She and Julia were having brunch on Sunday morning – lovely unhealthy chocolate croissants and too many cups of coffee. They sat out on the balcony so the cat wouldn’t bite their feet. Brenda didn’t tell Julia any of the bad stuff about herself that sometimes bubbled to the surface when she was re-writing her head movie. She knew Julia’s tolerance was limited so she just reminded Julia how she’d nearly failed that midwifery exam because she’d been so busy helping Jack with his exhibition. Julia seemed unimpressed.
“I was at Harry’s party last night,” Julia told her. “Jack was there.”
“Oh no.” Brenda’s eyes filled with tears.
Harry had always invited her and Jack to his parties. She had worked with Harry at the hospital. He and Jack played squash together – her suggestion – but Harry had been her friend first. Now, he’d taken Jack’s side. It made her sick to the stomach wondering which of their friends would choose him and which ones would choose her. Harry! It shook her confidence.
“Harry said to give you his love.”
Go fuck yourself Harry, she thought. But of course she would never say that.
“Anyway, blow me down, Jack walks in cool as a cucumber, trailing the blonde. He does the Oh hi Julia, this is my girl Jessica. Jessica darling, this is my friend Julia.
So he’s claiming Julia as his friend too, thought Brenda. And he’s calling Jess Jessica – probably to make her seem less butch. She looked at Julia and felt a momentary panic, but of course Julia would not desert her. Except, maybe, for someone better? Someone like Jessica?
“What’s she like?”
“Actually, she’s nice.” She saw Brenda’s face fall. “Of course, I don’t know how deep it goes. A dentist, that’s how they met – the teeth. She’s reasonably attractive.”
“God, I’m reasonably attractive, but she’s blonde which automatically puts her ahead in the looks department. Plus she’s a dentist and I’m only a nurse.”
“What’s with the “only a nurse”? We deliver babies, save lives. She just pokes around in people’s mouths which is totally superficial. Yep, she’s totally superficial.”
Julia felt she should be properly supportive because perhaps if she was Brenda might stop all the nonsense about Jack and Jessica and get over the someone better crap. She couldn’t stand much more of it.
Brenda started crying. “It can’t go on like this forever.”
“No it can’t,” said Julia grimly.
Early Monday mornings Brenda and Julia ran. They ran the seven kilometres round the Bay. They ran in silence, at the same pace. For Brenda, it was absolutely the best way to begin the week. They started in the hospital grounds which were beautiful, then jogged past the rowing club where crews were busy launching the boats, then round by the road where they could see the kayakers breaking the smooth surface of the water, and finally up the hill to the coffee shop in Balmain where they both ordered latte in a mug. The run was Brenda’s meditation, the spiritual bit of her life. It was when she felt closest to Julia. But the coffee was for gossip and now, the gossip was all about someone better.
With uncharacteristic tenderness, Julia took Brenda’s hand.
“Brenda, you are my closest friend and believe me, with a personality like mine, friends aren’t a dime a dozen.”
“Thank you.” Brenda meant it from the bottom of her heart. “You let me talk about Jack and that’s so important.”
“No,” said Julia. “It isn’t important. It’s actually really boring and you’ve got to stop. I woke up this morning and I didn’t even want to come out for a run. I just thought, bloody Brenda, bloody Jack. Time you got over it darling.” She withdrew her hand and Brenda’s eyes filled with tears, but she sat up straight and looked at Julia sorrowfully.
“I am so, so sorry. I didn’t know you found me so boring. I didn’t understand how hard this has been for you.”
Passive aggressive, Julia thought. Don’t tangle with her. She got up, paid and left – her latte untouched.
That was when Brenda began stalking Jack and Jess, although she called it research. First, she looked up Jess on LinkedIn. Brenda connected with her using her hospital email, so it looked as if it was a professional contact. In the photo on her page Jessica looked much prettier than Julia had given her to understand. In fact, she was gorgeous. No wonder she called herself Jessica rather than Jess. And her qualifications went way beyond a basic dentistry degree and she was president of a professional association. She worked with disadvantaged children, she’d studied in the United States and had been in Alaska with the Inuit. Jessica shone from the page as someone better. Someone better felt like a cancer that was killing Brenda.
She went onto Facebook where she was still friends with Jack. Not real friends, he’d just neglected to unfriend her. He had lots of photos of him and Jessica on his page and none of the time when he was with her. He had a job in some prestigious prosthetic institution which Jessica had probably secured for him, given he had a history of sponging off women. Well, Jess/Jessica would probably work that out pretty quickly, hard bitch she was, and then she and Jack would be history. And it wasn’t as if Brenda wanted him back.
She sent a friend request to Jessica on Facebook and was accepted. Jessica already had 300 friends so she was obviously accepted anyone just to make herself look popular. Brenda sent a message to that effect and was promptly unfriended. Jack unfriended her too.
She didn’t care, she didn’t stop. She started ringing the surgery where Jessica worked and leaving weird messages.
She rang their home number, then hung up when one of them answered, until one night Jack said, “Fuck off Brenda, we know it’s you. Haven’t you heard of caller ID?” She had, but she’d forgotten. She called a few more times from public phones to prove it hadn’t all been her, but then she gave up, defeated.
She called Harry when she was drunk and begged him not to drop her as his friend. She suggested that Jack was a poor choice of squash partner. Harry was coolly polite.
She sat outside their house in her car after she came off nightshift. Once she stayed there all night until they went to work in the morning. She felt that maybe her research wasn’t working out and that everything was closing in on her, so she rang Julia and said she needed her and please not to hang up, even though this was about the someone better thing, but she really didn’t feel so good. Julia had thought maybe she’d been a bit tough on Brenda (and she was a little short of friends) so they agreed to meet for coffee. Brenda told Julia about stalking Jack and Jessica although she called it “balancing the scales”.
“I’ve run out of things to do. They changed their mobile numbers and they know it’s me, which sort of defeats the point.”
“There is no point. You need to see someone. You’ve gone crazy.”
Brenda resisted getting tearful in front of Julia, but she did feel just a little crazy.
“Maternity has a social worker, not just for patients, but nurses too. They sent round a notice that she’ll assess anybody who has work related stress or depression and if you do, you get 10 free sessions. There’s a scale that goes 1 to 20 and I bet you’ll be right up there.”
Brenda was reluctant to admit her craziness to Julia, or even stress or depression. “It’s not depression. It’s the someone better stuff.”
“You say the someone better stuff as if it’s like a car accident or a broken leg. But it’s a problem in your head.”
“It’s not work related. I wouldn’t be eligible.”
“What about me sitting outside their apartment? The research?”
“Don’t mention that.”
Brenda scored 20 out of 20 on the assessment. Julia was right that there was something wrong. But the social worker was so brisk, so sensible and upbeat that Brenda knew she wouldn’t understand the power of Jack’s someone better remark. And anyway, it wasn’t work related.
“Find someone else you can see,” said Julia. “Believe me, you need to.” And this wasn’t just for Brenda’s sake, but for her own. It was driving her crazy being back to having coffee with Brenda. They rarely talked about someone better, but Julia could feel it, it was like having another person there. Considering she wasn’t even sensitive, she knew this meant it was really bad.
The hospital rostered Brenda on nightshift which was the classic way of getting rid of nurses they didn’t like. She let the flat get grubby and the cat slept on her head. She didn’t care and she didn’t fold her laundry.
Julia rang her. “There’s a counselling service up the road from your place. They look a bit hippy dippy, but the woman next door went there and it sounds like they’re really good for crazy people like you. Mind you, she’s still a bit crazy.”
Brenda didn’t like the way Julia had talked about her or about the woman next door, but knew she needed something so she went and looked at Holistic Mind and Body Counselling. It was in a terrace house of the sort she liked and she stood there, reading the sign at the front.
Anders Vasiliev was the chief practitioner and there was a pink heart painted round his name. She knew she might be prejudiced, but his Russian name and the pink heart made him seem a little dodgy. There was a long list headed “Practitioner modalities” which included the usual Balmain favourites – Counselling – relationships, drug and alcohol, grief and loss, reiki, Korean massage, acupuncture, astrology guidance, psychic/spiritualist readings, animal healing, weight loss, aromatherapy, past lives, hypnotherapy. Brenda immediately thought weight loss might be a good start for her because she’d been eating junk food and her uniforms were getting tight. Weight loss was neutral. It wasn’t for crazy people. She opened the gate. The front door had a large rainbow sign saying the truth will set you free. Anders’ had signed his own name underneath it, as if he had thought it up. But there was something about the quotation and as she looked at it, she knew she really didn’t need to lose weight. That wasn’t the problem. She went in and made an appointment for counselling.
Anders was a seriously relaxed guy. He wasn’t brisk and from the state of his desk it was clear he wasn’t over-organised. He had a sweet soft face and she felt he was okay.
She told him almost everything, to least everything in her head movie which now flowed smoothly and lightly along the path of pathos and grief.
“And?” he said.
She hadn’t told him about the someone better insult which she knew was the crux of this. But she felt she couldn’t tell him because she was scared that he’d think Jack was right, especially if she showed him Jessica’s picture which she’d downloaded from her website and had in her handbag. Instead, she told him about the stalking. She said it was worrying her because it really wasn’t like her. But then she remembered that The truth will set you free and told him about someone better.
“That was certainly nasty. It obviously made you feel bad.” There was an upward inflection at the end of each of his sentences, so she couldn’t be sure he wasn’t asking a question. But he didn’t wait for her answer. “We’re all equal, he said. “People used not to believe that which meant they had slaves and oppressed women, other races and religions. And they still do actually, but at least we’ve got the right idea these days.” He pointed to another rainbow sign on the wall – All men are created equal. “People say they believe that, but they don’t. And of course it should include women. And children. And at least the primates, but maybe some other animals too. But my point is that we’re always thinking people are better or worse than us. You know, we’re ranking ourselves. I went to study in Tibet for a year, but I got a parasite so I only lasted four months. That’s karma isn’t it? Even so, I came out of it really knowing we’re equal. It doesn’t make you better if you’re beautiful or really intelligent. They are just characteristics you happen to possess. That’s where your boyfriend was so so wrong.”
“What do I do?” said Brenda. She was sceptical again. “Do I have to go to Tibet too?”
“If you like, but you can try meditating at home.” He smiled. “Do you know how to meditate?’
“Good enough. I want you to think about all this, let it flow through you. Think about all the people you know, let them float past. Then think of all the millions of people in the world as if they’re grains of sand. Grains of sand, all individual, but still just grains of sand. Different but equal.”
Somehow, it did help. She thought about Jack and Jessica and Julia and her mother and her father and the people at work as grains of sand, different, but in a fundamental sense the same. She got warm feelings, not about Jack and Jessica, but at least about herself.
The next week she told Anders about her head movie because it had changed. One night when she’d been meditating on the grains of sand she had felt the movie in her head unravel and replay itself quite differently.
“Our last fight was about folding the washing – I was trying to show him how to do it, patronising him, I guess, and I accidently tore one of his shirts. No, I did it on purpose. I wanted to tear his face off really. I apologised for tearing the shirt but it was “Oh so, so sorry, I’ve torn your shirt, just when you’d just learnt to fold it right.” It was poison, nicely disguised. No, not nicely disguised, actually not disguised at all. The bad bits of her and Jack were rising up in her now, but in a good way, in a magnificent roll of malice and spite, of hatred and cruelty. She wasn’t scared of someone better. “You know what I said to him when his exhibition failed?” Her words tumbled out. She couldn’t wait to tell Anders. She was almost shouting. “I was so happy when he didn’t sell a single piece. And almost no-one came! So I said sculpting was a lovely interest for him even if he wasn’t any good. And I loved packing his wet underpants and wrecking his books. I made him feel bad a lot of the time we lived together. I made him grovel by pretend crying. He was a self-centred shit and I thought, I thought….I’m not sure.”
“You thought you were the better person,” Anders said.
“I did,” she said.
“We’re equal, aren’t we? Different, but equal.”
She could feel the difference in herself as she walked out. Anders had put up another rainbow poster “Free at last” which he’d attributed to himself rather than to Martin Luther King Jnr. Brenda didn’t care. She felt free at last. She knew that Jack’s insult meant nothing. It wasn’t true. There was no-one better. It felt like special, secret knowledge only she had. All men are created equal. Yin and yang. She knew it, she understood it.
With a certain satisfaction, she reflected that Jack certainly didn’t know there wasn’t someone better. And Jess or Jessica or whoever she was wouldn’t have a clue either. Brenda felt just a little superior.