Eight months after my divorce from Dominic, I saw a woman he had led me to believe was dead. Her name was Kayla Kimrey, and she had worked as a cleaner at Dominic’s firm until – so he had told me – she had overdosed on fentanyl sometime towards the end of 2018. I knew nothing else about her life, and if I asked any further questions about the circumstances of her death, then either Dominic didn’t have the answers, or I’ve since forgotten what they were. I am sure I would have said that I was sorry – she couldn’t have been more than thirty-five – and I expect that Dominic probably quoted some statistic off his phone about chemical withdrawal or per-capita prescription volumes or the relative potency of fentanyl to other drugs; nothing about the conversation struck me as peculiar, at any rate, and after it, I scarcely thought of Kayla Kimrey until the day I saw her lining up to board the boat to Doubtful Sound.
She looked oddly younger than when I’d seen her last. Her hair was up in a high ponytail, seeming straighter and blonder than I remembered, and showing off multiple piercings in each ear. Had her ears been pierced like that when she had worked at Marbus? No matter: there was no question in my mind that it was her. She was wearing a hard-shell jacket that was zipped up past her chin, and as she shuffled forward in the queue, she kept ducking her face into her collar and pressing her mouth tight against the windproof panel, extending and then retracting her jaw in a compulsive motion I had seen her make before. I was on board already, standing at the shoreside railing with a mug of milky coffee in my hand, and I had a sudden urge to throw it at her – not to hurt her, not even to provoke her, really; just to do something that no one would be able to predict. I imagined it exploding at her feet, imagined people shrieking, shouting, leaping back, imagined Kayla whipping round in shock and disbelief until she raised her head and noticed me above her, empty-handed, looking down.
Instead, I turned around and shut my eyes and tried to regulate my breathing. I felt a strange exhilaration: a sense of inward precipice, a rush of air. Since my divorce I have discovered that it is very difficult to explain to people that your ex-husband is a pathological narcissist without coming off like a pathological narcissist yourself; but here was proof, concrete proof, at last, that I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t paranoid, or sick, or playing games, that it was him, that he was the liar, that he was the manipulator, that he was the one who’d gaslit me, for years, through deceptions and petty cruelties purposely designed to be so trivial, and so obscure, and so inconsequential to anybody’s happiness but mine, that I would seem hysterical even to perceive them. Like telling me a cleaner at his firm was dead – for no reason, probably, beyond the expectation that I’d repeat the lie at some workplace barbecue in months or years to come, and nobody would have any idea what I was talking about, and I’d appeal to him to back me up, and he would feign bewilderment, assuring me that Kayla Kimrey was very much alive and well, and asking me how much I’d had to drink, and denying any memory of ever mentioning her name to me except in passing, and soon everybody would be laughing nervously, and I’d be feeling every bit the raving lunatic that he was painting me to be, and later we would fight, for hours, over whether he’d embarrassed me or I’d embarrassed him, and he’d be stony cold, and I’d be sobbing, and he’d be saying I had sabotaged his self-esteem, and did I realise how insane I’d sounded and how utterly humiliated he had been, in front of his workmates, in front of his boss, and steadily my confidence would weaken to the point that I’d apologise for contradicting him in public, whereupon he’d tell me that I wasn’t sorry, I was only playing yet another game, drawing attention to his insecurities, making him feel like a child, mocking him, bringing him down, and by now it would be long past midnight, and I’d be visibly exhausted, but he’d refuse to let me go to bed until our disagreement was resolved, which of course it never would be, because he’d lied, because he always lied, because he was a liar, and every time I yawned or closed my eyes he’d pinch my leg and say that I was only acting, that I was only pretending to be tired as a way to hurt him even more, that I was phoney, that I was twisted, that I was pathetic, that I had no backbone, that I sickened him, until finally, maligned, belittled, enervated, trembling mad, I’d snap – which of course was what he’d planned for all along. In fights with Dominic, I was always first to hit below the belt. He knew it, and he counted on it. Whatever nasty things I said or did to him, he could then hold over me forever after, demanding ransom in whatever form of payment that he chose.
But I was in New Zealand to put all of this behind me.
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