Dan proposed to me the evening of his mother’s funeral. After saying goodbye to the last of our friends at the end of the wake, he grabbed a half-consumed bottle of wine and led me to the back of his parents’ yard, down by the compost bin and dying vegetable garden, where we squatted beside some monstrous broccolis gone to seed and shared lukewarm swigs. Dan exhaled for the first time in months, then he turned to me and said he couldn’t have survived all this without me and that he thought we should get married. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I like that idea.’ We might have been discussing what to order for dinner. For me, that was more romantic and meaningful than any kind of grand proposal, the kind that more than once I’d seen take place in our local park, the guy on one knee, the woman covering her face with her hands while visibly sobbing, a photographer hovering nearby, hired to capture the whole thing. Choosing to marry Dan was an easy decision, but that doesn’t mean it was a light decision. We’d already decided to be together – the conversation by the vegetable garden was only a formality.

Being with Dan was a different and better kind of freedom. For a long time that had been it, and I couldn’t imagine feeling any other way or wanting anything else.

Now that I’d finished washing and stacking the dinner dishes, I gave myself time to change my mind about seeing Jason. I was already dressed in my running shorts and T-shirt. I’d put on fresh underwear. I’d got this far into leaving when I felt myself pulled back – the person I wanted to be here, and the person I needed to be with Jason, in a battle with each other.

While I was in the kitchen, Dan and Finn were playing in the living room with a booklet of reusable stickers. There were different backdrops and Finn was moving the stickers around from scene to scene so that an astronaut was flying next to a beehive in a tree next to a stingray under a toadstool next to a smiling shark. I couldn’t see this exactly, but I knew from the last time Finn and I had played with it, and from what Dan was saying.

‘Is the spaceship in the water? Is it swimming? With the brown bear? And the lobster?’

As I dried my hands, I stood in the doorway and watched them. Finn was trying to say ‘lobster’. He was making a good go of it. I thought then, as I’d thought many times before, I hope he never loses that willingness to keep trying for something, even as he fails, to keep trying. Of course he would lose it. At some point, maybe when he hit puberty, maybe later, he would turn in on himself and become some degrees of embarrassed and ashamed and fearful, as we all do. And a man who didn’t or couldn’t feel those things wasn’t the man I wanted him to be anyway. Though which degrees of these things were the right degrees?

The narrator mentioned an old affair. In the shadow of his regret the man described sex with the woman who wasn’t his wife as being just arms and legs, as being not worth a damn.”

I was so tired. The lack of sleep, the rollercoaster of events since the day before – it descended on me. I thought how easy it would be to go upstairs, take off my clothes, shower, put on my pyjamas, and come back downstairs and join my family. All I had to do was lift my feet and begin walking in the right direction.

‘Can you make claws like the lobster?’ Dan said.

Finn was getting there.

‘Like this,’ Dan said. He made a snapping movement with his hands and waited for Finn to mirror him. ‘That’s right, well done.’

Dan and I were both readers. We never made each other mixtapes; we gave each other stories. Recently, he had showed me a short story by Barry Hannah, in which the narrator mentioned an old affair. In the shadow of his regret the man described sex with the woman who wasn’t his wife as being just arms and legs, as being not worth a damn. When I’d finished reading, I’d looked at Dan and he’d repeated that part of the story about the arms and legs with a finality that made me think with a certainty I’d always had in a way, but here it was with literary emphasis, that Dan would never cheat on me.

Now Dan made a face. He leaned closer to Finn. ‘Bud, did you do poos?’

Finn didn’t reply. He kept playing with his stickers.

‘Bud, did you?’ Dan said.

‘Finn, sweetie,’ I said, ‘did you do poos?’

Without looking up, Finn quietly answered in a puddle of sound: ‘Pooos.’

I don’t know what it means that this was the thing I walked towards, and not the thing that made me walk away and out the front door and into Jason’s arms.

‘I’ll do it,’ I said.

Without thinking about it again, I edged off my trainers and walked across the living room to where Finn and Dan were sitting. ‘Let’s go upstairs, sweetie.’

Finn looked at me with such a deep melancholy. He knew he had to leave his stickers now, and that once we went upstairs the order of the night would shift, and we would begin the slow winding down to bedtime.

‘Do you want me to carry you?’ I said.

He stretched out his arms towards me, my almost two-year-old who was tall for his age, broad-shouldered and heavy. He had been able to walk up the stairs on his own since not long after his first birthday, but he still liked to be carried too.

‘Cuddles?’ he said. That lovely round word arrived like all the others, on the back of that tumbling, frothing wave, though it was no less meaningful for it.

I bent down, heaved him up. As I did, I felt a familiar twinge in my lower back. A sharp pain that was a reminder of my place here. I held Finn on my hip. He clung to me with all four limbs, fast like a koala. In that way, as we’d done hundreds, maybe thousands of times before, we climbed the stairs together.

from Arms & Legs (Gallic Books, £12.99)

Chloe Lane was born in Auckland and has lived in Australia and the USA. She earned her MFA in Fiction from the University of Florida in 2017, and was the recipient of the 2022 Todd New Writer’s Bursary and a 2021 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow. Her debut novel The Swimmers was longlisted for the Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Awards. She also has a MA from the International Institute of Modern Letters and a BFA from Elam School of Fine Arts. She was the founding publisher and editor at Hue+Cry Press, and occasionally writes about art for various publications. She lives and teaches in Gainesville, Florida. Arms & Legs is published by Gallic Books in paperback and eBook.
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Author photo by Victoria Palombit

Read our interview with Chloe about The Swimmers