Gerard O’Brien: Love Languages

Dec 2023 | Short story

I’ve already been in the kitchen for about twenty minutes, putting together a meal for us. I’m tossing a garden salad of midsummer vegetables and leafy greens, and dressing it up with an expensive virgin oil, a lemon from my sister’s tree, salt and pepper to taste, and a dash of Dijon, when I hear Babs fossicking about in the lounge and the TV coming on. I’ve been defrosting a couple of steaks on the kitchen counter all day, and I’ve tenderised the rump by hand, massaging in a marinade of red-wine vinegar and garlic.

I go out to say hi, keen to ask about her day, hoping to get a bit of conversation going. It’s hot in the apartment, even with the door onto the deck swung wide open. I find her reclining on the couch as she is wont to do. I don’t blame her –she works hard all day in the office, wrangling a headset and battling a keyboard. When she comes home, she likes to enjoy a beer, put her feet up, catch the news if she can.

The weatherman is just getting ready to trace his finger across an imaginary map of scorching summer temperatures and extreme fire risks. I want to ask her to pop the barbecue on while I finish things up in the kitchen and get everything in order for an on-time evening meal. It’s a gas barbie. Warms up quick. Safe as houses.

“Oh, hello,” I say with a hint of feigned surprise as I walk through the adjoining door.

Babs already has her beer open, condensation running through her fingers, sandals off, feet crossed at the ankles stretched onto the arm rest, and her free hand fidgeting in the red ramekin of candied nuts left over from the big batch we’d prepped together in early December.

“Hey, love,” she says, but doesn’t break gaze with the weatherman. There’s a ripple of definition in her upper arm as she extends the ramekin towards me. “Nut?”

I keep my eye on her hand, pink with warmth. The way the ramekin floats there, it’s almost magic that could crash down at any moment. She doesn’t know, it’s the second ramekin this week. Her matching set of six, down to three. Flimsy damn thing went and broke while I was doing my rounds, tidying up and wiping down. Nuts and ceramic shards went flying all over the place.

“No, thanks.” I don’t want to spoil my appetite, and I’m really keen to crack into the barbie. I smile. A really big smile. Like, I might have exaggerated it. I just want her to know that me turning down the nuts is in no way a denunciation of her family recipe. Honestly, they’re tasty. We’d smeared them with sugar and spices and spread them out on every oven tray we owned in our cramped kitchen. “We’ll be getting through them until next Christmas,” I’d said, but that didn’t stop her from doubling the recipe. We made tidy packages of them in clear cellophane, tied with red and gold ribbon that Babs meticulously curled with the edge of a scissor blade. One bundle for every person she’s ever known. But the three-litre Tupperware is still two-thirds full.

“How was your day?” I say.

She can’t have seen my smile, because she holds up her hand, then points at the TV as she leans back into the worn blue fabric of the armrest. “I just want to catch the weather.” She seems amicable enough.

This is part of her wind-down. I know that. This is what she likes. But I’ve been home since four. Alone. Besides, I have an early start and I’m keen to get the dinner eaten and away on schedule. A quick clean-up together, and perhaps, if I time everything right, or if we open that bottle of red we’ve been saving, perhaps we might be able to rustle up some excitement under the thin sheet in the mezzanine bedroom. I shouldn’t push it. I do know that.

“I’ve got a couple of steaks for tea,” I say.

She keeps looking at the man on the screen in his tie-less shirt, collar open over the top of his sports jacket. She loves his posh accent and exaggerated arm movements. His body is angled partly towards the camera, partly towards the prompter we can’t see. His hands are tracing the shape of the islands and he’s saying, “… record temperatures for February expected across the entire motu—”

“Would you mind firing up the barbecue for me, babe? I’ve given it a clean already.”

She just lies there, the sheen of the day’s heat glistening on her bare ankles, and she doesn’t say anything at all.

“I’ve got some steaks for tea,” I say again, in case she hasn’t actually heard me. “And I’m making a nice salad too. If you can do the steak, I’ll chuck a few potatoes on to boil.”

“I just want to catch the end of this, then I’m all yours.”

“Okay, babe. Busy day today?”

But the only voice that comes back is the weatherman saying, “… and now on to the main centres. Another gorgeous beach day.”

I wait.

I wait for a decent amount of time. He’s already dawdled through Christchurch and Dunedin when I say, “I don’t like it when you ignore me.” We’ve spoken about using clear communication.

“Sorry, love. I’ll flick it off in a bit, once he’s done Tāmaki.”

I could tell her right now what the forecast is going to be. She knows she can get it twenty-four-seven on her phone. But she’s back at it. Prioritising this pompous nob over me. We did the Love Language survey. Way back. I can’t remember what hers were exactly. But I got top marks on Quality Time. And Acts of Service. That’s my jam.

“I’ve been home since four,” I say.

“Yeah, and I just got in.” She’s holding her hands up for a moment, but she’s still staring at the TV. “I need to wind down for a bit.”

“You didn’t even come give me a hug,” I say.

“Yeah, sorry. Actually, I called out. Figured you were on the loo or something.”

“I’ve been in the kitchen.”

“Can we talk about it in a moment? He’s about to do Auckland.”

What’s the reasonable thing to do in this situation? Here I am, striving to whip up something tasty so we can sit down together. Spend that time we’ve been missing. Have a chat. Got a lot to get off my chest too. Margo has been giving me grief again. Think it might be time to hand in my notice. And what has Babs done to help? I just need to get it out. What a day.

I take a breath. I nod. And I smile. That’s the thing to do. I head to the little bar fridge with the chipped-yellow paintjob by the door. “Want another beer?”

“Sure – thanks, love.”

I grab two beers in designer bottles, the dark brown glass with wrinkles like reptilian skin catching moisture from the muggy room.

Babs shifts her feet and I sit on the couch beside her. The weatherman is still there on the telly, waving his arm around and enunciating each syllable like he’s better than everyone else.

I’m not paying attention to him. I look out at our little rooftop deck where we have a few wooden chairs and space for a two-burner. Northwest facing. It gets great evening sun this time of year. I take a long swig of my beer and study Babs. She’s smiling, absorbed in highs and lows and barometric pressure bands swooping up and down the country. I take a big patient breath. “How do you fancy your potatoes done?”

“Do we have any kumara?”

“No,” I say, and it comes out more aggressive than I mean it. I accidentally accent it with slamming my bottle on the coffee table. I am not expecting it to bloody-well explode. But it does. And Bab’s squeal is sharp, and she recoils, shrinking into her corner of the couch.

Then the bitter smell of hops is mixing with fruity yeast accents and filling the air. There’s a stab of pain in my hand. I drop the shattered bottle, an unavoidable reflex, and see the matchstick-sized slither of glass wedged in my palm.

“Damn it all!” I yell. Not at Babs. More into the room, and more at the beer that is pouring over the table and onto the peeling polish of the wide floorboards, mixing with the stream of blood that’s dribbling from my cut. I look at Babs who is looking at the floor and I run to the kitchen for a tea towel, dripping a trail behind me.

I’ve already been in the kitchen for a good while when Babs calls out, “Are you okay, love?” Now it’s my turn to ignore her – just for a moment – I’m focusing on wrapping a tea towel around my hand. It’s a minor cut. These things always look worse than they are.

We meet in the door between the kitchen and lounge as I am rushing back out to mop the beer on the table with another fresh towel.

“I’ve got it,” she says, and nods at the burgundy cloth from the bar fridge that she’s already used to absorb most of the mess. She puts her hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t you sit down and I can take a look at that?”

I really do love that about Babs. The way she can suddenly turn things around. She’s smiling at me, and stroking my shoulder, which usually soothes me when I’ve had one of my long days.

Not today. It’s too bloody hot, and her fingers make my skin feel clammy.

“Can’t,” I say, as I push her hand away with my good one. “I’ve got to go to the supermarket right now and get some kumara. You can sit here and finish watching your damn show.” I stab my finger in the direction of the TV, but it’s already been flicked off.

I can’t manage another smile.

“Potatoes are fine,” she says.

But if it’s kumara she wants then that’s what I’ll deliver, and I have my car keys and I head to the door to get a golden out-of-season kilo for an overpriced seven-ninety-nine.

I’m feeling hungry but calm by the time I return from the supermarket. I’ve got the bag of kumara and a dozen chilled beers and the bleeding seems to have stopped.

Babs’s car is suspiciously missing from our tandem carpark on the asphalt that surrounds our building. Another night in Jenny’s spare room, no doubt.

And that is that, and I’ve gone ahead and eaten half the steak and a delicious kumara mash. So quick and so easy.

The dishes are all done, and I’m on the bed with the sheet pulled up to my naked waist, the way men are always shown on TV post-coitus. But there’s no one to roll towards lovingly or to turn away from disgruntled. It’s only me, sweating by myself, wondering what Babs ended up doing about dinner.


Wellington writer Gerard O’Brien has worked as a professional DJ, IT consultant, photography assistant, business owner, personal trainer and volunteer in the Solomon Islands. He’s now turned his enthusiasm to writing and brings his sense of humour and varied life experience to his work. He holds a Master of Arts (Creative Writing) (2021) from Victoria University’s (Te Herenga Waka) IIML and tutors part-time at NorthTec Te Pūkenga.

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