Silence and distance and lies…

This is from my book The Unfallen. In essence, it is the countermelody to Loving Cathleen, below. I really like these two people, and I really like to let them talk. This is the furthest remove from high-action genre fiction, but this is everything that I think is important in art, real relevance to real life.

They walked up Boylston Street to Tremont, then up Tremont toward the center of the city. He stopped in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, right at the top of the Commons. He said, “I was married there. It seems like such a long time ago…”

“A very Catholic wedding, I imagine.”

He smiled. “Very Catholic. It didn’t matter to me and it did to her, so that’s where we were married.” They had turned into Downtown Crossing, heading down the cobbled mall to Washington Street. “You should ask me about my marriage.”

“Should I?”

“I think you should. I’m a demonstrated loser at romance, after all. I should think that would be grounds for concern.”

“I’m in no position to throw stones, I think. But suppose I were to ask you. Wouldn’t you simply tell me it was all her fault?”

“That’s the point. It wasn’t. When two cars crash, maybe it’s one driver’s fault. But when a crash takes years to work out, both of the people involved are volunteers, and both of them are responsible.”

“How awfully big of you to bear some of the blame.”

He shrugged. “We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”

“I do. But I think I need to eat. I’m afraid you’ve stripped me of my reserves. Among other things.” She grabbed his hand and led him down the Washington Street mall. She stopped in front of a small restaurant. “Is this all right? It’s just soups and salads, but everything’s fresher than tomorrow.”

“You’re a cheap date, Gwen.”

She smiled wickedly. “And… accessible. If properly seduced.”

When they had ordered he continued, and they talked all through the meal. “I told you tonight how much I love your soul. I never once said anything like that to Nicole. Never. I told her I loved her and I thought I did, but I never thought to define and understand that love. And the truth is, a lot of the time I didn’t even say, ‘I love you.’ Just, ‘Love you,’ a verb and an object without a subject. It wasn’t an embrace, it was a dismissal. ‘Love you. ‘Bye.'”

“Aren’t you being rather hard on yourself?”

“Do you want to know the real trouble, Gwen? Because you’ve put your finger right on it. I’m not being too hard on myself now, I was too easy on myself then. This is so stupid, and yet it hovers around everywhere like a cloud of gnats. I would hate it if anything ugly came between Hunter and I. I’d do anything to avoid that. I would hate it if Xander got the idea that my affection for him has limits, that my interest in what he says is faked. We’ve had our rough spots, Xander and I, and both of us have worked hard to get past them, because our relationship is so important.

“But — boom! — this is marriage to a fault. Keep the sex coming. Keep the meals coming. Try not to spend too much. And get out of my light. It was never that bad, but there was a hint of that from the very beginning. And that’s just the expression. The reality is so much worse. Not only am I not going to do the work it takes to maintain this relationship, I am deliberately, adamantly, even philosophically opposed to doing with my wife what I would never hesitate to do with Xander or Hunter or anyone else. I refuse to repair this relationship or even acknowledge its decay because it is — at least nominally — the most important one in my life.”

She traced a circle on the tabletop with her finger. “But that’s a two-way street, isn’t it?”

“I suppose. If not directly then in some reciprocal way. But all I’m talking about is what I did — which mainly consisted of what I didn’t do. I promised to tell you about distance. On the surface, distance means just that, physical distance, mothertongue for, ‘I don’t want to be near you.’ There was a lot of that, none of it conscious. I never stayed by her side at parties, for instance. I made her keep my pace when we walked, and I walked ahead of her if she couldn’t. I never sat next to her at a restaurant table, and if I could arrange it, I’d sit at the opposite corner. I never wanted to do anything with her, and if there was something we could or should do together, I’d make excuses to do it alone, or stick her with doing it alone, or just do it pre-emptively, fait accompli. If I were paying attention, of course I would say, ‘Wow, Devin, you’re married to someone you don’t want near you.’ But the problem is the only way to stay married to someone you don’t want near you is to forbid yourself to pay attention.

“And there are other kinds of distance. Mothertongue doesn’t parse, so if you want to establish a distance between yourself and someone who loves you, pretend to attempt to parse mothertongue expressions into fathertongue. They won’t make sense, because mothertongue is about feeling not sense, touching not talking. But you’re one up, and smugly, too. And your spouse is one down.”

“I don’t think I’m understanding you.”

“Okay. I’m working in my office at home and Nicole comes upstairs with a slice of pie for me. I go one up by saying, ‘I didn’t ask for any pie.’ She says, ‘But I thought you might want some.’ I reply, ‘If I had wanted some, I could have gotten it for myself.’ She goes back downstairs with the pie, hurt, hurt for having her very nice mothertongue overture spurned as nonsense in fathertongue.”

“But if you really didn’t want the pie… What should you have done?”

“It’s not about pie. It’s about love. She’s all alone in the kitchen and I’m physically distant in my office and she wonders at some level of consciousness, ‘How can I show him that I love him?’ And here comes the piece of pie, not food but a symbol of her love for me, a small expression but by no means a meaningless one. If I had loved her, or if I had been willing to let her love me, what I would have done is set the slice of pie on my desk. Then I would have thanked her and kissed her and maybe squeezed her on the rump and told her I had a little slice of something for her later on. I would have answered mothertongue in mothertongue instead of seeking distance in fathertongue.”

Gwen said nothing. She was poking around in her salad and scowling.

“Silence is another good way of distancing yourself from your spouse. There’s so much you can’t talk about, because, if you do, the marriage will be wrecked. So you don’t talk about it, you don’t even dare think about it. And she wants to talk all the time, but she only wants to talk beside the point, between the points, never to the point. I guess it’s for the same reason. We say that men are alienated from their feelings and the implication is that there’s some sort of evil alienator lurking about. But the truth of the matter is simply this: Men are not permitted to quit.

“Not permitted by whom? By the culture, by their friends and family, by their spouses, by themselves. If a married woman decides her job isn’t fulfilling enough, she stays home and freelances for a while. If a married man gets an inkling his work is making him unhappy — he slams the door on that thought right now. Especially if he’s a father. If he has a suspicion he married the wrong woman — slam that door, too. If he has a little wisp of a fantasy that he’d like to chuck it all and run off to Tahiti like Gaugain — slam! He has feelings. No human being is without emotion. But he fears a vast host of his emotions, first because he is in a trap he won’t permit himself to escape, and second because his cultural role effectively forbids him to escape.

“Now put this poor guy in the middle of one of those horrible, ‘Honey, what’s wrong?,’ conversations. What’s he going to say? ‘I wanted to fly and I’m stuck as a desk pilot. I wanted to see the world and all I see is the taillights of the car in front of me, that and your big butt, bigger every day. I wanted to do something with my life and all I do is run around in circles like a dog chained to a stake.’ Does he say that?”

She smiled wryly and that was answer enough.

“No. He says, ‘Everything’s fine, honey. Everything’s just fine. Love you. ‘Bye.'” Devin laughed. It was a hard and bitter laugh. “She knows it’s not fine and she’s got to keep picking at it. He won’t admit it’s not fine and he’s got to keep running from it. And every truth he withholds comes back as an enormous lie — grousing over nothing, outraged criticisms of trivia, sarcasm and cynicism and geysers of black bile. All a dog can do is pull at that chain, after all, pull at the chain and bark out empty little threats.”

He had a slice of quiche but he hadn’t touched it. He pushed it away from him and said, “Silence and distance and lies are all you need to destroy any marriage. Physical violence and emotional abuse are bombs and guns, obvious weapons of destruction. But silence and distance and lies are like a corrosive gas. In time, everything is destroyed. You start out with love and a deep and — you hope — abiding passion. Your beloved is closer to you than your closest friend, dearer than your dearest relative. And when the corrosion is complete, you despise that person completely, and you can’t even bear to look at her.”

Gwen pushed her salad bowl away. “Why? Why would you do that?” She asked the question, but she was very much afraid she knew the answer.

He smiled, and it was a smile uncontaminated by even the smallest hint of happiness. “I used to think it was something like spite. You forbid yourself to say yes to something you could want and should want and may never be able to replace — you forbid yourself to say yes in order to hang on to the power to say no. It’s not just independence, a state of not being owned or enslaved or whatever. It’s a spiteful little betrayal of your own vows and commitments. I see stuff like that all the time, not just in marriage but everywhere, and I thought it was the same thing.”

“But now…?”

He shrugged. “Now I don’t know. I think maybe you can’t make those vows and commitments with anyone except the right person.” Her hand was on the table and he laid his atop it and squeezed. “If you make those kinds of promises with the wrong person, you’ve compromised yourself and you’ve compromised the relationship and chaos ensues. I don’t think it’s a necessary consequence that you have to break your promises, but you have to find a way, one way or another, to divert energy from a circuit that can’t bear it. If you can’t, it has to blow.”

She snuck her hand out from under his then laced her fingers between his. “And with the right person…?”

“Are you teasing me? Do you know how many things I’ve told you that I’ve never told anyone? How many little things I do with you in my mind? There aren’t any vows or commitments between us, but that doesn’t matter at all. I’m more tightly bound to you than if we were lashed together with chains. I’m not enslaved to you. I’m not in your thrall. I’m a volunteer, baby, utterly yours and entirely uncompromised.”

She was playing with her unused butter knife, spinning it on the surface of the table. “…Aren’t you confessing rather a lot?”

“What if I am? It’s the truth. I never felt anything like this for Nicole, but I never told her what I did feel. That was wrong. I don’t want to be wrong anymore.”

“…But what if the feelings aren’t… reciprocated?”

He smiled, and it was a smile uncontaminated by even the smallest hint of unhappiness. “What if they’re not? I can’t do anything about that, can I? I can’t even control my own feelings, much less yours. But even so, it doesn’t matter. My loving you doesn’t have anything to do with your loving me. Hunter was months old before he could do anything but soak up love and give nothing back. But I loved him so much it made me ache. I ache much worse for you, Gwen, and it doesn’t matter very much what you do about that. What matters is you. What matters is that you are…”

“You’re trying to make me cry again, aren’t you?”

His eyes were grave, more grave than she’d ever seen them, more grave than she’d ever seen anyone’s eyes. “I never want to hurt you, Gwen. I never want to disappoint you. I never want to let you down.”

His voice broke at the end and she knew he was on the brink of crying himself. Their hands were still laced together on the table and she laid her other hand atop them and squeezed both together. She said, “Let’s get out of here before we both make a scene.”

They meandered slowly along the outdoor mall looking at the Christmas lights and displays. It was late enough that Washington Street was almost deserted and Gwen felt very much alone with her man. She could go that far, anyway — her man. They stood for a long time looking at the Christmas pageantry in the windows of Jordan Marsh. He stood behind her with his arms around her belly and she remembered standing with him that way on the platform of the subway station at Harvard Square. Tonight she could see his eyes reflected in the plate glass window and they were alive with delight at the ingenuity of the spectacle. And they were burning with his love for her. She looked at her own eyes in the window, looked for some sign of fear or confusion or despair or loneliness or doubt. But all she could see was contentment, a deep and enduring peace that began in his embrace and infused her whole being. She scowled at herself, for what she wasn’t sure. Then she smiled at herself, mockingly. Then she pulled his arms still more tightly around her and laid her head against his chest and closed her eyes entirely.

This entry was posted in Splendor. Bookmark the permalink.