Chapter 2 - 'Lexie's Village - A New Kind Of Family'

Time seemed suspended as I lay on the couch, mentally fighting a losing battle. One thing was clear in my haze of misery – I had no intention of taking the high road. Despite my feeble inner voice attempting to convince me otherwise, I entered a negative spiral. I wanted to wallow. I wanted to blame someone else, even if just for a moment. I gave in, diving headfirst down a rabbit hole, where the memory of Shaun, not the Mad Hatter, stood waiting to greet me. 

*** 

Shaun was an American businessman I met in 2002, when I was thirty‑four. He was a chain‑smoking Chicago self-made entrepreneur with a mobile phone permanently attached to his skull. 

I was set up for a date with Shaun by a good friend, Jodi, and her husband, Bryan. I trusted their judgement implicitly. Shaun had seen me at their wedding several months prior and, even though he’d been there with his then‑girlfriend, he asked the happy couple about me. Our first meeting was interesting. I hated that he smoked. As an asthmatic, I despise the habit both philosophically and physically. But, despite his addiction, he was incredibly funny, successful and possessed a particular brand of ‘cool’.

I’ve never been cool. I’m the first to admit that I’m far too honest and open, holding very little mystery and allure as a result. But Shaun seemed to like my quirkiness, my ambition and my independence. I fascinated him and he enthralled me but the timing was lousy. I was two‑thirds of the way through a three‑and‑a‑half‑year stint living and working in Chicago, and the pull to return to Australia was growing stronger by the day.

Up until then, I had been heavily preoccupied with my professional life. I had transferred from the Sydney office, where I had been the National Marketing Manager for a year, to fill in for the Global Marketing Manager while she took maternity leave. Following a six‑month secondment, my manager asked me to stay in Chicago and join their consulting division; a new challenge that I threw myself into with vigour. 

But it was time to right what I felt was an imbalance. I wanted to settle down and start a family. My main concern about staying in Chicago was that I would end up connecting with a man who tied me there for good. Just one winter in the Windy City was enough for any sane Australian to call it quits and I was about to endure my third. I had my youngest sister, Mands, and her American then‑boyfriend, now‑husband, Chris, living nearby (Chris was finishing up his MBA in Chicago) but I knew they’d leave very soon for a warmer climate, most likely somewhere in Los Angeles. Despite having some family in the US, I couldn’t deny the pull of returning home. 

Just as I was thinking about my future, I was somewhat serendipitously made redundant from my IT consulting role. The dot.com bubble had burst a couple of years prior and I was on a sponsored visa, meaning I could no longer work in the US. It seemed like a powerful sign that I should head home to Australia, but I was still seeing Shaun and we’d become semi‑serious. We certainly weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to each other. We decided to try and keep up a long‑distance relationship, with me mostly flying back and forth between Sydney and Chicago to see if we could make our relationship work. 

We did this for the remainder of the year and seemed to be getting close to making it work. In many ways, I enjoyed effectively living in two cities, Sydney and Chicago. This way, I could avoid the North American winters altogether and feel connected to both my roots and my partner.

We decided I’d make one last trip to Chicago. Living together for several months over the summer would give us the necessary time to cement our connection, if it was meant to be. As I hurried excitedly to the Chicago O’Hare Airport baggage claim area, I saw Shaun standing in the distance, close to the terminal exit doors, talking on his mobile phone. He looked up and barely nodded his head before turning away to keep talking. I threw up my hands and dragged my two heavy bags off the turnstile, loaded them onto a trolley and pushed it over to Shaun. I stood beside him, disappointedly waiting for something beyond basic acknowledgement. I’d flown more than thirty hours to see him, but his phone call was clearly more important to him than my arrival.

We drove back to his apartment in the inner city. I was still mentally reeling from his lousy greeting. It was a frosty start and it only got worse from there. In the days that followed, I grew more and more suspicious of his oddly detached and sometimes downright cold behaviour. I tried to reassure myself that he was simply consumed by his new business.

Despite my misgivings, I made a conscious decision to give our relationship and Shaun’s growing business all my effort. I worked hard in his home office, sorting out mountains of paperwork, helping him with several projects and running endless errands for supplies. About three weeks in, we were finally making some progress in our relationship. I could see his demeanour warming as he realised what an asset I was as a partner. I was good for him. I offered balance and stability in the maelstrom of his life. We worked hard – Shaun at establishing his company and me at supporting his venture.

One sunny afternoon, as we sat on a make-shift bench at one of Shaun’s project sites enjoying fresh sandwiches I’d made, he put his arm around me and smiled. We sat in contented silence for a long time. Everything was falling into place. Once we’d polished off our lunch, I headed back to the home office to go through a pile of mail.

It was opening his phone bill that brought my warm, fuzzy feeling to a screeching halt.

What immediately caught my attention was the length of the bill – close to forty pages. Despite his endless business calls, it didn’t make sense. I photocopied the pages and wielded myself with a ruler and highlighter to mark up every call that occurred after 10 pm. A pattern of five numbers emerged. These numbers had been regularly called in the month I’d been back, including one on the night of my birthday when Shaun had left me to talk on the balcony for over an hour. At the time, I thought it was nothing more than a work call, but now my suspicion was piqued.

Shaun wouldn’t be home for another hour, so I decided to call one of the numbers. I justified it by thinking it was the only way I was going to get straight answers. After just a few rings, a woman answered. I took a deep breath to compose myself. ‘Hi, um … My name is Natalie and I’m Shaun’s girlfriend. I’m sorry to bother you but I’m just going through his phone bill and saw your number come up quite regularly. I hope you don’t mind me asking you about the nature of your relationship with him?’

My query was met by silence, during which it crossed my mind that my paranoia may be unfounded. But I persisted. ‘Look, I’m not going to get angry about anything you say. I just want to know the truth. I just really need to know. I don’t want to be with a man who’s cheating on me.’

‘Hi Natalie. I know who you are.’

I gathered myself. ‘Hi. Sorry, what’s your name?’

‘It’s Jenny. I’ve met you once briefly and Shaun has told me about you. I’ll be honest with you, yes, we’ve been sleeping together for over a year, on and off. I know he’s an asshole, but I just can’t help myself. I just keep saying yes.’ 

Her honesty was jolting. ‘Oh wow. Thank you for letting me know. I can tell you I’m absolutely done with him, as of this moment. You should know that there are four more numbers I’m about to call. You’re probably not the only other woman’, I admitted to her.

‘I’m not surprised. He has no morals, what can I say …’, was her response.

It baffled me that she was fully aware of Shaun’s true nature but still willing to share a bed with him. Ultimately, I wasn’t mad at Jenny. I appreciated her candour and, if anything, I felt sympathetic towards her. 

Another woman answered my next call and swiftly admitted that she and Shaun were ‘just fuck buddies’.

I don’t know why that wasn’t enough information for me. I persisted in dialling the other suspicious numbers. The next in line were the digits he’d dialled on the night of my birthday. It turned out to be a woman from Miami he’d met on a cruise while I had been back in Sydney. In fact, I’d seen pictures of her on Shaun’s mobile phone and believed Shaun’s explanation that she was just a friend, and with a boyfriend at that. This time, it didn’t take long for me to feel really angry with her response, or lack thereof. She refused to tell me anything, simply stating that I needed to speak to Shaun. I knew then that this was a more serious relationship, possibly an emotional one. This was far harder to face than a ‘fuck buddy’. 

I didn’t bother calling the final two numbers. The testimonies of three women were more than enough for me. I went online and immediately booked a single, one‑way ticket home and packed my bags. I took Shaun’s good car and drove to Jodi and Bryan’s. Rather than leaving a note, I simply left the highlighted phone bill in plain sight on the kitchen table. 

I parked at a meter outside Jodi and Bryan’s apartment block and didn’t bother to put any money in.

I had five full days to wait until my flight back home. Jodi and Bryan had graciously offered me a guest bedroom. My mind was overwhelmed by the enormous task ahead of me. As much as I wanted to run, I was stuck in logistical limbo, shell‑shocked to paralysis by my discovery. I started to organise my belongings into the only suitcase I had. 

That night, I imagined Shaun returning home in his pick‑up truck after a long work day to find an empty apartment, all signs of me and his good car gone and just a thick, highlighted phone bill the only clue to what transpired. 

Despite the scenario that greeted him, he didn’t call me that night. He waited until the next afternoon to call, probably wanting to prolong facing me with the truth of his infidelity. Seeing his caller ID on the screen, I picked up, but I didn’t say a word. I needed him to speak first.

‘Nat, where’s my car? Where are you?’ 

‘Your car is outside Jodi and Bryan’s place. I’m staying with them’. 

‘I want it back. You had no right to take it. You need to get it back to me now’.

 

His tone was sharp and defensive, like a petulant school boy who’d been caught red‑handed. I thought about how much crankier he was going to be when he saw how many parking tickets had piled up on his windscreen. It may have been petty on my part, but I reassured myself that it was the least of what he deserved.

‘You can come and pick it up yourself. I’ll leave the keys with the doorman.’ His anger had caught me off guard and I forced my response to sound calmer than I felt. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst.

He ignored my response. ‘Nat, all your stuff has gone. What’s going on? You’ve just left without a word?’

‘Shaun, you have no right to speak to me this way’, my voice betraying me as it trembled. 

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’.

‘Really? You’re going to plead “not guilty”? I’ve called all the women on your phone bill. Jenny was particularly forthcoming. You’re an absolute shit! I’m done. I’m booked on a flight home this Saturday’.

Shaun hung up angrily. I cried myself to sleep that night, yearning for home and my family.

Over the following days, Shaun and I endured several phone calls and a face‑to‑face meeting. I wanted to make sense of his monumental betrayal. He eventually accepted responsibility and apologised for his actions. He even admitted that he’d never once been faithful to a girlfriend, which at least made me feel like it was more his deep‑seated issue than something I had (or hadn’t) done. Despite our reluctant truce, I was not changing my mind. There was no way I would ever trust him ever again and he knew it. 

In a moment of weakness while feeling overwhelmed on the afternoon before the flight, I called Shaun, crying. ‘I can’t fit all my stuff in the suitcase. I need help. My plane leaves tomorrow and I can’t manage any of this. Can you please come and help me? You owe me this at least.’.

Shaun came to my aide, bringing boxes, tape and some additional stuff I’d left behind at his place. He packed everything up and promised to send the boxes from the post office the very next day. 

He also came back the next morning to take me to the airport. I was in better emotional shape by then, not only keen to get home but to finally be out of the holding pattern I’d been in with this guy for the last two years. As we drove, I spoke about the things I would do when I got home – go for a long walk on the beach, catch up with friends. All of a sudden, he pulled over to the side of a busy multi‑lane highway and burst into tears. It had finally hit him. I was leaving him and we were over. It was confronting to see a grown man break down and cry so openly. I found myself putting a hand on his shoulder to comfort him. I was still in shock and quite numb, but I’d processed everything enough to know that I didn’t want this man anymore. I just wanted home. 

***

I was just shy of thirty‑six when I made it back to Australia, and this time it was for good. Having lived in Sydney for many years prior to my time in Chicago, it was relatively easy to find an apartment and, with a little more effort, I landed a senior brand role at a Coca‑Cola Amatil company, back in my chosen field of marketing. Mending my bruised heart and moving forward emotionally was a slower trudge. Not only was I reeling from Shaun’s extreme infidelity, I had also realised that I’d wasted two of my precious, and rapidly diminishing, fertile years on him. I was becoming really concerned about my age and the prospect of finding someone to build a family with. My body clock was ticking louder and louder with each day that passed.

Despite my sense of biological urgency, it took nearly a year before I felt open to finding a new partner. That’s when I met Joe, a tall and charming Australian‑born European in his late thirties. I was smitten from the start. We dated for just under a year before he suggested moving in with me and my flatmate, a lovely woman who was happy about the reduced rental deal I offered in exchange for Joe’s cohabitation.

Tidy, helpful and a fantastic cook, Joe was a terrific partner. I would regularly come home to just‑poured glasses of wine and the smell of delicious, home‑cooked feasts. He had an incredible sense of humour, sending me into fits of laughter regularly over our evening meals.

After only a few months of living together, he proposed to me with a stunning diamond ring. I said ‘yes’, albeit with a little reservation. It was all happening so fast; but, with my body clock ticking louder and louder, it also seemed to make sense. We soon started planning an extravagant wedding, while at the same time commencing the hunt for our perfect home. We wanted something in a great area with enough rooms to suit our future family.

I embarked on the search with a limited price bracket since I already had a mortgage on a small investment property in a coastal town an hour’s drive north of Sydney. But Joe assured me he could afford a far bigger loan. He’d sell his property and enlist the help of his father, who he said owned several residential and commercial properties outside of Sydney. With our combined income, his father’s backing and access to a good banker, we could afford a palatial home with ocean views. I was reluctant, but he was so convincing that it wasn’t long before we found an amazing house in the eastern beach suburb of Coogee. We put in an offer to the real estate agent, it was accepted and I was suddenly transferring my hard‑earned savings to Joe to go towards the deposit. We agreed that I would also pay all the current rent, daily bills, wedding and holiday costs while Joe managed the Coogee mortgage payments entirely. Our settlement was timed perfectly for our return from our upcoming European holiday, which included a stay with his relatives.

The trip was an expensive and luxurious hiatus – almost like a honeymoon before the wedding. I felt closer than ever to Joe, combining forces for joint adventures and experiencing new levels of intimacy that came from meeting his extended family. I had felt welcomed into their home.

As our vacation came to a close, I grew excited about moving into our new home and starting our new life together. But instead, as soon as the aircraft’s nose wheel touched down in Sydney, Joe’s mood began to change.

He left me standing at the airport taxi rank with all of our luggage while he called his father. He returned agitated, saying that his father had received a postcard, addressed to me, from an ex‑partner of mine. Prior to the trip, we had forwarded our mail to Joe’s parent’s house until our return and until we settled into our new home.

The so-called ‘ex‑partner’ was an acquaintance I’d met through a mutual friend in Chicago, years before I met Joe. He had just started studying at the University of Chicago, where I was completing my Master of Commerce degree. He’d asked me to meet up with him as he was interested in finding out more about the school. I obliged and joined him for casual beers a couple of times, but backed off when I realised he wanted more, which he’d hinted at in several emails. I let him know I wasn’t interested and eventually he stopped emailing me. I never heard from him again, until now.

Joe was visibly upset as we got into the taxi. He instructed the taxi driver to take us to a hotel on the outskirts of the city instead of home. Before I could object to the destination change, he turned to look at me in disgust. ‘I need time to think about what you’ve done to me and what that means for us. I don’t want to move into our new house with this hanging over us.’

I denied any wrongdoing, but it fell on deaf ears. He waved his hand at me as if to dismiss whatever was coming out of my mouth. I turned to face the front of the cab, my mind reeling at the curve ball I’d just been thrown. 

We pulled up to a non‑descript hotel and checked in with my credit card. We rode the elevator in silence. As he closed the door to our room, the arguing began. Joe berated me and called me a liar. He was furious about the ‘ex’ and the postcard, insisting that there must have been a relationship between us.

My attempts to make him see reason and logic failed and my frustration grew, giving way to anger and, finally, despair. A long night of arguing ensued, but we reached no resolution. After a tiny amount of exhausted sleep, I silently retreated to the bathroom, hoping a shower would wake me up from this nightmare. When I emerged, Joe stood in front of me with a wad of cash. He handed me the money (to pay for the hotel) before moving closer, virtually standing over me.

‘Nat, I want the ring back’, he demanded.

Clutching the hotel towel around myself, I put the cash down on the bed next to me and, with shaking hands, awkwardly pulled the ring off my finger. As soon as I placed it in his outstretched hand he said, ‘You need to go home to your parents and wait for me. I need time to think. I’m sickened by what you’ve done’. This formed the sum total of his explanation before he abruptly left the hotel room.

I sat on the bed for a long time, unable to move. I felt tears run down my face. I tried to wipe them away, but they came back faster and harder. I had no clue what had just happened. Eventually, the shock wore off a little and I dressed, packed and caught a taxi to Sydney’s Central Station. The fifteen‑minute trip gave me enough time to call my parents to tell them a little of what had happened, and to arrange for them to pick me up when I arrived in Lake Macquarie, their home town, a two‑hour train ride away.

Two days after Joe gave me my marching orders, I had still not heard from him. Sick of waiting for him to call and unable to answer many of my concerned parent’s questions, I tried calling his mobile. Joe would not return my messages. Eventually, I rang him at his work. But the somewhat confused receptionist told me that no one with his name had ever worked there. Befuddled, I rang his previous employer and found out that he’d left their employ just prior to meeting me. He’d been lying about his job. He’d been unemployed for the entire time I’d known him. 

With further investigative phone calls, the pieces began to come together. I started to see a very concerning pattern. After calling the realtor who had shown us the property on several occasions, I discovered that Joe had pocketed the deposit money I’d given him for ‘our house’ in Coogee. Joe had never made an offer on the property, let alone purchased it. When I reviewed my bank statements, I also realised he’d been quietly slipping my ATM card out of my wallet and withdrawing money without my permission, including the cash he gave me for our final hotel stay. Even the postcard from the ‘ex’ was a fake. It turned out Joe had hacked my personal email account months earlier and read through old emails. He’d found the thread where the guy in Chicago had asked me out and used that as a reason to break up with me. To top it off, the engagement ring he used to propose to me had been reported stolen and the police had a warrant out for both of our arrests.

The revelations just kept coming. I was reeling once again. Joe had conned me out of nearly all my life’s savings. The further I investigated, the faster I realised there was no time to waste. But before I could worry about my lost money, I had to plead my case to the police and have myself removed from the arrest warrant.

I called Joe and left a message revealing what I had found out. I wanted him to know that I finally knew the truth. He called back a few minutes later, his voice calm and smooth. He was clearly in charm mode. ‘Nat! How are you? I’ve been thinking about you constantly. I’ve missed you.’

‘I know everything Joe. You haven’t worked for over a year. You stole the engagement ring. You stole from me. How could you do this?’

‘I wanted you to have the ring you deserved. I love you’

‘You love me? What you’ve done is not love. I’m going to the police. I want all the money you’ve taken from me back, Joe’. My voice grew more enraged as I listed his offences.

‘Calm down. You’ll get your money, but not if you go to the police. I have friends that will make sure you don’t get to the station, Nat’.

‘What did you just say?’ I began to sob as I realised the man I had planned to marry had just threatened me. 

I abruptly hung up and turned to Dad who’d been listening to the call in the background.

‘Dad, we have to go the police right now. Joe just threatened me’. I couldn’t believe that these words were coming out of my mouth. I felt like I was starring in a bad midday soap opera. Dad grabbed his keys and turned to Mum saying, ‘Heather, we’ll be back in a bit.’

The station was virtually empty when Dad and I walked in, but it wasn’t long before we were ushered in to meet with an officer who took my statement and filed the paperwork to press charges against Joe. He said a detective would be assigned to the case and would be in contact with me shortly. Since Joe had threatened my life, the officer suggested that I take out an AVO against him immediately. 

We returned home late that afternoon. Before sitting down to a quiet meal, we updated Mum on what had transpired. I could only pick at my plate before I had to excuse myself to go to my room. I laid down and put my head on my pillow, sobbing myself into a restless sleep. Visions of how Joe was going to kill me kept swirling through my head.

I awoke late the next day and forced myself to get up and deal with the things within my control. Firstly, I needed to scrape back as much of the lost money as I could. I began by calling and cancelling our elaborate, and mostly non‑refundable, wedding plans. Some vendors took pity on me and refunded some, or all, of the deposit.

As the days progressed and the full extent of Joe’s con unravelled, a wake of emotional and financial destruction set in, each day delivering new and even uglier facts about Joe and his betrayal. I was barely eating or sleeping and my parents were beside themselves as to how to help me while I was in such a distressed emotional state. Their shattered daughter was suddenly living with them again, her thirty‑eighth birthday just around the corner. I’d also just resigned from my role as a National Marketing Manager at Coca‑Cola Amatil in total humiliation – how could I face an office full of staff who had only weeks earlier given me the most wonderful send‑off for our travel adventure, and the best wishes for my subsequent marriage? I couldn’t believe that I’d gone and done it again – trusted a man with my future and lost so much, including what were, most likely, my last two fertile years. I was facing the awful truth about my life – I had virtually nothing to show for it. No husband, no home and perhaps no chance of having a family.

I was so angry with Joe, and even angrier at myself for having allowed it all to happen. For weeks, I put together as much evidence of his treachery as I could, forensically obsessing over bank statements, fake property papers, emails, letters and text messages. Mum transcribed them all for me and I handed the resulting dossier over to my lawyers and the detective. My one saving grace was having the charges dropped against me for the stolen ring.

Mum and Dad decided that I needed help and felt therapy might be the only way. Dad found a psychologist and healer who was a thirty‑minute rural drive away. I sat in the passenger seat feeling broken and hopeless while Dad drove. I’d hit my rock bottom and I was convinced that I was far beyond the point of therapy. But then again, what was the alternative?

The psychologist, Gina, was a softly spoken and supremely relaxed brunette in her mid‑forties. Her treatment room was annexed to her house and had its own sliding external door. It looked out upon tall trees, the gentle sounds of nature softening the space. I hauled myself into the cosy treatment room and took it all in. Despite my physical comfort, I bit my lip, fought back the swell of tears behind my eyes and muttered to myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’

I was jolted out of my despondency by the sudden pound of feathered flesh onto thick glass, accompanied by an extremely irate, and somewhat pained, squawking. A native Australian raven had catapulted directly into the room’s sliding glass door. I’m not especially mystical, but ravens have been an oft‑repeated symbol in my life, appearing at pivotal moments. This one appeared to communicate the message, ‘Yes. Go ahead on this one.’ I interpreted the crash as a clear signal for me to give therapy a shot. And so I stayed and began rebuilding my life. 

Gina and I worked together for several ninety‑minute sessions each week. She embodied the perfect balance of clinical psychology and more expansive healing techniques. She had extensive knowledge of processes to help me harness and use my own energy to heal myself. We did a great deal with visualisation and using energy and light. At first, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at these ideas, but before long I was focusing in on my own energy. What colour was it? What shape was it? Gina pushed me to open up and let anger and pain out. She taught me how to direct healing, white light – visualising it slowly winding around my broken heart, tending to and mending my grief.

Over the next few months of treatment, I stayed at Lake Macquarie, living with my folks. Their house was perched on a point with nature reserves surrounding it. I had become accustomed to the sounds of kookaburras laughing from the trees and swooping down to eat morsels of meat out of my hand. I’d spent so much healing time on the balcony, watching the sailing boats lazily float by. Despite my therapeutic surroundings and the embrace of my loving family, the Christmas holidays were coming up and I was feeling lonely and uninterested in celebrating anything. I was leaving 2005 a shell of my former self. Beyond my family, I had no sense of personal identity. I felt invisible. My aching was highlighted when my nieces, nephews and married sisters surrounded me.

It was a few days into our festive family get‑together when I remembered the art supplies I’d picked up in town earlier that week. In anticipation of needing some distance from the family, I had decided to start painting again. It was getting lost in the thick, heavy, art and architecture books that had inspired my first feelings of wanderlust many years before. So one particularly miserable afternoon, I set up my painting gear on the balcony overlooking the lake and I began. With every stroke of the thick, sumptuous oil paint on the canvas, I felt more and more empowered. I was in control, at least of that artwork. I felt I could create, design and build whatever I wanted from my compliant materials.

I threw myself into that first piece. I felt guided by my subconscious, working in a trance‑like state while a fiery creative energy moved through me, moving through perhaps everything I’d experienced. The imagery was strong: swirling red, amber and orange fire that gathered force as it hurled itself towards the sea. The sea, realising the impending battle, remained a serene, calm turquoise blue. It knew it would win, eventually. Over the days that followed, my family recognised the value of my refreshed art therapy and let me be, reminding me only to eat and shower. When I finally completed the piece, I named it Lake Macquarie Fire. To this day, it has pride of place above Mum and Dad’s lounge room mantelpiece.

After that first canvas, I dove headfirst into a second and then a third. There was no stopping me. Before I knew it, the holidays were over and several weeks had passed by with relative peace. It was time for me to take a step towards getting back on track. Time to stand on my own two feet again. I needed to face Sydney and start rebuilding my life yet again. A close girlfriend of mine, Janine, had taken pity on me and recently offered me a vacant spare bedroom in her rented apartment. It was located in a large block of apartments in Pyrmont, a suburb with a curious vibe of deep cultural history, and now a social melting pot of various cultures and walks of life. Even better, it was only a short walk across a footbridge to the hustle and bustle of the centre of Sydney.

I settled in within a week of accepting her offer, furnishing my small room frugally and bringing only the bare necessities: my bed, a side table and a lamp. I left the rest of my furniture in the storage unit I had set up as the debacle with Joe had unfolded. I didn’t need a lot, and this was temporary accommodation. I only planned on staying a month or two.

The first few weeks were a big adjustment. There were still a number of loose ends to tie up concerning Joe. I had started the process of suing his parents, as I was unable to track him down to sue him directly. I also suspected that his parents had helped him flee the country. As they had taken financial responsibility for him when they sent me a cheque for AUD$4,000 (to cover the cost of the deposit on the stolen engagement ring), they had rendered themselves legally liable for all he had taken from me.

I eventually settled with Joe’s parents, receiving a cheque for AUD$20,000, a far cry from the total amount that Joe had stolen. Over AUD$10,000 then went straight back to my lawyers, but at least it gave me some closure.

When the detective on my case checked in with me two months later to let me know they’d made no progress in either locating or charging Joe, she asked whether I wanted to continue with the charges or drop them. I thought about all the energy I was wasting in trying to punish him. It had been vital for a time, but was no longer healthy or productive. I chose to drop the charges and move on. Karma could take over from the state police.

Despite that final letting go, I was still finding it difficult to go out and socialise. My confidence was shot and I didn’t trust myself to not break down crying after one martini, so I mostly stayed at home, cooking meals and painting on the tiny balcony off the lounge room. Janine didn’t seem to mind. She worked long days and was happy to come home to good food and low‑key company. After dinner, she’d stretch out on the couch and I’d sprawl out flat on my back on the floor to try and ease the back pain that kept creeping up on me. We’d binge watch TV series, particularly Gilmore Girls and House, which allowed her to unwind after long work days and me to momentarily forget my predicament. I wanted to avoid the romantic and criminal genres and Janine was happy to oblige.

After five unemployed months, the pressures of monthly rent and the day‑to‑day costs of living in Sydney, plus my regular trips to the art store for paint and canvases, I realised I was going to have to start looking for work. I didn’t feel ready to take on a full‑time role yet, so I started looking online for a temporary gig, quickly landing a six‑month role as a senior brand manager for a liquor distributor in North Ryde.

With a new job to navigate and new people to meet, I felt I could wear a mask of sorts. I didn’t have to let any of them know my past. I could start fresh. This helped make it easier to return to work. It was a tough daily commute by car for my back (which was steadily getting worse), forty‑five minutes each way, but this was offset by the company I’d joined being highly social. Before I knew it, I’d been signed up for the touch football and Chinese rowboat teams. I was also participating in the crazy fancy dress events held regularly on Friday afternoons, when the liquor and antics flowed.

Although these new interactions were keeping me busy, they could not fade the aftermath of Joe and the emotional carnage still embedded in me. My paintbrush and my ongoing therapy were still required to dislodge that gunk.

The moment I got home each evening, I set up my easel on the balcony. I painted for entire weekends, sometimes long into the darkness of night. An industrial strength night‑light allowed me to paint well into the early hours. 

Yet I often fantasised about thrusting a syringe full of anaesthetic directly into my lower spine. All the painting in the world couldn’t help my lower back, which had been gradually becoming more painful and problematic over the years. It was a deep, throbbing, constant pain. Somehow, I needed to get relief.

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